Friday February 20, 2015

-Exit Ellen DeGeneres-enter Doogie Howser.  Neil Patrick Harris' entertainment pedigree/qualifications as an actor, writer, producer, director, magician, comedian and singer appears to make him a natural to host Hollywood's annual pat-on-the-back.  Named by "Time Magazine" as among the 100 most influential people in 2010, Harris certainly brings experience to the show having hosted Broadway's Tony Awards in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013 and The Primetime Emmy Awards in 2009 and 2013.  Will he be the latest in what is lately becoming a long line of non-consecutive Oscar hosts?  Stay tuned . . .

- Here's my take on what I consider the two biggest nominating snubs of the year:
 (1)  How The Lego Movie wasn't nominated for Best Picture is beyond me.  But not being nominated for Best Animated Feature is beyond absurd!  I would love for someone to explain how the academy overlooked nominating one of the most original creative films since Pixar animators first began using a computer.  A total head-shaker.
 (2)  The brouhaha over the lack of African-American nominees in general and Selma in particular.  If you ask me, I thought the Academy got it absolutely right with the latter.  For me, despite the importance of its message and historical significance, the film, on its own merits, was a one-note stilted exercise that continually pounded its agenda like a migraine headache.  If anything David Oyelowo, as Martin Luther King, should have garnered a Best Actor nod; but nominating the film as BP would have been totally off base and unworthy-even despite the swirling controversy involving the politics of Lyndon Johnson as portrayed in the movie.  

- Surprise:  Meryl Streep gets nominated for the 19th time-now seven noms ahead of Jack Nicholson  with 12.  However, Streep fans, don't get your hopes up this year.  Although she gave her usual excellent competent performance as a witch in Into The Woods (I can hardly wait for Harris' barbs directed at her this Sunday), Meryl doesn't stand a chance of winning in this category (see below).

- It is starting to appear that a new category needs to be added to the list of 24:  Greatest Cinematographer Never To Win An Oscar.  Once again, long-time nominee Roger Deakins (DP for the Coen Brothers and Sam Mendes) is in the running for Angelina Jolie's forgettable critical flop, Unbroken.  However, his chances of finally walking away with the statuette are slim and none.  This is his 12th nomination as he continues to add to his dubious record of the most ever for a non-winner in this category.  Look for a life-time achievement segment in the not too distant future.

- Bradley Cooper is on a roll.  His amazing performance in American Sniper is his third nomination in three years.  If he is nominated next year, he ties Marlon Brando for the most consecutive.  The only question is whether he wins before Deakins.  My bet is on Bradley.

- The great song writer Diane Warren is trying to win for the first time despite 6 previous nominations.  However, her song "Grateful" from Beyond the Lights, IMHO, has no chance of winning (see below).

- The Foreign Language category welcomes two films for the first time from Estonia and Mauritania.

- There were no repeat 2014 winners nominated this year.

-Finally:  In last year's prediction column, I wrote that the magazine "Slate" named Meryl Streep as the most thanked person in the last dozen years as a result of a survey they conducted.  Now, the website vocativ.com claims they have studied all 1,396 Oscar speeches and tabulated who was thanked the most in Oscar history.  The winner:  Stephen Spielberg.  Here are the top 6:
  1. Steven Spielberg (thanked 42 times)
  2. Harvey Weinstein (thanked 34 times)
  3. James Cameron (thanked 28 times)
  4. George Lucas (thanked 23 times)
  5. Peter Jackson (thanked 22 times)
  6. God (thanked 19 times)

The envelope, please . . . 

What will win:  Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
What should winBirdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Upset possibility:   The Theory of Everything
For me, Birdman is the clear winner on so many levels. (To see why, click here to read my review).  The fact that the academy loves and identifies with films about tortured actors, it would seem that alone would give it a leg up on the competition when it came down to voting time.  When the nominations were announced last month, the early winner in the clubhouse was Boyhood.   Although I admire its bold concept of using the same cast over 12 years of filming (interesting fact:  the film was shot in a total of 39 days!) the film meandered, lacked focus and included an amateurish performance by Ellar Coltrane in the lead .  Other than the fascination of watching humans age 12 years over the course of its LONG 165 minutes, it failed to sustain my interest and I ended up feeling like I aged 12 years in the process.  An intriguing upset possibility is American Sniper.  In its favor is its enormous box office opening in January and the start of the trial of Chris Kyle's killer in Texas which is currently grabbing national headlines.  Also, Clint Eastwood has long been an Academy fav.  The crowd-pleasing and extremely competent The Theory of Everything, or even The Imitation Game, also could upset.  However, I feel it is a little unsettling for biopics to be considered for Best Picture-no matter how well done.  To me, a totally original film gets the nod and Birdman completely fits the bill. 

(FOR THE RECORD:  here are the eight nominated films I rated from best to least: 
(1)  Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
(2)  The Theory of Everything
(3)  The Imitation Game
(4)  The Grand Budapest Hotel
(5)  American Sniper
(6)  Boyhood
(7)  Whiplash
(8)  Selma
        The Lego Movie  (I would have placed this fifth on this list and removed Selma.)
        Guardians of the Galaxy (I would have placed this one ahead of both Whiplash and Selma)

Who will win:  Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman)
Who should win:  Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman)
Upset possibility:  Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
Anyone who has been reading my blog knows the Best Picture is ALWAYS directed by the Best Director.  However, Hollywood might be totally enamored in the enormous undertaking of not only making a film over twelve years but to have the incredible luck of losing none of the cast members.  But does it deserve special recognition and acknowledgment?  Boyhood failed to impress this reviewer as previously stated.  Therefore, I don't feel Linklater deserves the Oscar based merely on effort or gimmick.  Merit has to be part of the equation.  Iñárritu, on the other hand had directed a multi-layered work that is not only timeless, it will be dissected by film students for generations to come. 

Who will win:  Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Who should win:  Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Upset possibility:  Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)
This is one of the closest races of the night.  Redmayne was absolutely brilliant totally embodying the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.  Hawking himself commented that he felt that, at times, he was watching himself on the screen.  That being said, Keaton gets the award for creating a non-fiction character all his own.  His acting range as Riggan, the tortured washed-up actor attempting a comeback on Broadway, is among the best I've ever seen on the screen.  And the voting Academy would love to finally acknowledge and award a long career to one of their favorites.  The British actor, Eddie Redmayne, is young and will have more than ample opportunity to reach the podium. 

Who will win:  Julienne Moore (Still Alice)
Who should win:  Julienne Moore  (Still Alice)
(Extreme) Upset possibility:  Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)
The virtual lock of the night.  Moore will finally win her first Oscar.  However, I loved the English Actress Rosamund Pike as the nefarious Amy Dunne in the best-selling novel adaptation.  There hasn't been a knockout surprise/shocker in a major category for years - so maybe this will be it.  But I doubt it. 
Who will win:  J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)
Who should win:  J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)
(Extreme) Upset possibility:  Edward Norton (Birdman)
Another virtual lock.  As the sadistic music teacher in Whiplash, Simmons is so terrifying and unnerving he effectively removed any possible joy I might have taken from watching the film.  Known mainly for portraying quiet likeable characters, he goes completely against type in this role.  However, I thought Norton might upset as a narcissistic actor attempting to sabotage Keaton's comeback.  It would fall under the knockout surprise/shocker if he does.

Who will win:  Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Who should win: Emma Stone (Birdman)
Upset possibility:  (None)
The Academy is going to have to award Boyhood somehow, and this is the easiest way to do it.  Arquette dedicated 12 years of her life to Linklater's project and the likeable actress appears to be in line for her first Oscar.  Personally, I thought her acting was unremarkable, while Emma Stone, Michael Keaton's petulant daughter, is unforgettable in every scene she appears.  However, Arquette is the overwhelming favorite and should win easily.

What will win:  How to Train Your Dragon 2
What should win: The Lego Movie (Not nominated)
Upset possibility:  Big Hero 6
If How to Train Your Dragon 2 wins, it will be the first animated sequel to win since Toy Story 3 in 2010.  However, none in this category is close to being as deserving as the snubbed Lego film.

What will win:  Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
What should win:  Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Upset possibility:  The Grand Budapest Hotel
The word on the street is that this could go to Boyhood.  Personally, I thought its script was one of the weakest aspects of the film and I would be shocked if it won.  I wouldn't be surprised if a nod to Wes Anderson's lively screenplay for The Grand Budapest Hotel was awarded.  However, the ingenious script by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo is what ultimately makes Birdman tick and truly unforgettable.

What will winWhiplash
What should winThe Theory of Everything
Upset possibility:  The Imitation Game
Admittedly, this is one of the toughest categories to predict.  The fury of Damien Chazelle's script based on his experiences in the Princeton High School Studio Band probably pushes Whiplash to the forefront as the favorite.  However, the winning crowd-pleasing screenplay by Anthony McCarten for The Theory of Everything, adapted from Jane Hawking's memoir, produced words that lyrically flowed as exquisitely as the visuals.  I wouldn't be surprised, though, if Graham Moore's intelligent script for The Imitation Game edged out these two nominees.

What will winCitizenFour
What should winVirunga
Upset possibility:  Finding Vivian Maier
CitizenFour is gathering the most consistent buzz.  However, for my money, the beautiful but heartbreaking doc about the plight to save the gorillas in The Congo's Virunga National Park amidst the civil war conflict currently being waged, was the best documentary I screened in 2014.

What will winBirdman
What should winBirdman
(Extreme) Upset possibility:  The Grand Budapest Hotel
Emmanuel Lubezki will be accepting his second Oscar in a row (he won last year for Gravity) and is even more deserving this time around.  His incredibly lengthy tracking shots in one glorious take are a true cinematic marvel in a film that will be considered a classic for years to come.  Although Robert Yeoman's camera work in The Grand Budapest Hotel might have won in any other year, it was his misfortune to share a nomination with Lubezki who should easily win. 

What will win:  "Everything is Awesome" from The Lego Movie
What should win:  "Everything is Awesome" from The Lego Movie
Upset possibility:  "Glory" from Selma
The Academy members will be throwing this proverbial bone to The Lego Movie to give any recognition it can to one of the best films not nominated for a major award.  And, you will be humming this winning song long after the lights come up.  Perhaps being released way back in February 2014 hurt Lego's overall nomination chances.  Whatever the reason, it is almost unconscionable in this reviewer's humble opinion.  If you haven't seen this movie, run, don't walk, to your nearest Netflix outlet and see it!!

Stop back for my post-AA report next week.

"TIMBUKTU" - ***1/2 (97 minutes)

 February 7, 2015
Anyone who watches the news on a regular basis almost daily sees the images of horror and outrage as radical Islamic rule overtakes people whose culture and customs reach back into centuries.  Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako puts a human face on these minutes long newscasts as he takes you into the milieu of one of these societies who are faced with conforming to the invading jihadists' demands (including banning music, soccer, and smoking) - or suffer the consequences including flogging and even death.

Sissako's inspiration was the 2012 Islamic takeover of Timbuktu and other parts of northern Mali.  Various subplots are included but the main focus is on a cow herding family.  Kidane, his wife Satima and 12-year-old daughter Toya live in a tent on the outskirts of Timbuktu.  Their mundane existence seems to be mostly unaffected by the radical demands in nearby Timbuktu - that is, until an unexpected tragedy results from a neighbor dispute and the resulting justice which will be imposed by the ruling jihadists.

Interspersed with this drama are scenes of various defiant confrontations between the new fundamentalist rulers and the townspeople trying desperately to maintain their customs, dignity and self-respect.  Sissako necessarily includes images of punishment but, thankfully, tones down the outrageous violence which, in the final analysis, is more effective without being sensationalistic. 

There are several breathtaking scenes of contrasting beauty offered by cinematographer Sofiane El Fani.  (One in particular is a long shot of Kidane wadding through a river after a violent confrontation with his neighbor).  The occasional music by Amine Bouhafa includes traditional Malian melodies as well as more Western influences and is effectively placed in the action.
Overall, the film is a quiet but profound meditation on the continuous domination and injustice that, unfortunately, is much too prevalent on the planet.
The film, one of five nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar category, opened on a limited basis on January 28th, and in the D.C. area on February 13.

UPCOMING FRIDAY:  My annual Academy Awards Thoughts/Predictions commentary.
 (l to r) Satima (Toulu Kiki), Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) and
Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed) relax in their open tent home
in the desert outside of Timbuktu

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING - ***1/2 (123 minutes)

Thursday November 20, 2014
The biopic is a genre that has a long and generally successful cinematic history.  The most challenging projects involve subjects currently among the living as inevitable comparisons will be made and scrutinized.  I am quite pleased to report that first-time narrative director James Marsh (whose superb Man On Wire deservedly won the 2008 Best Documentary Academy Award, and his terrific 2011 documentary Project Nim was the recipient of numerous accolades) has successfully transferred to the screen the love story between the brilliant English theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, and his first wife, Jane Wilde.  Their marriage lasted 25 years and produced 3 children.
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten, has scripted an intelligent touching rendition of their life together that began while both were attending the University of Cambridge in the early 60's.  Based on Jane's memoir “Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen,” we first meet Stephen just prior to his knowledge that he had contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) - better known as Lou Gehrig's disease - a revelation that came just after he began courting the medieval Spanish poetry student.  Told he has two years to live, he is determined to end the relationship - to the chagrin of Jane who is determined to continue their affair no matter the dire predictions of Stephen's health. 

Eddie Redmayne (Les Misérables) will be a serious contender for Best Actor.  Redmayne gives a bravura performance that demands extreme physicality and expressiveness.   His Hawking is so chilling and exact that the physicist commented in an Email to the director and screenwriter that he felt he was watching himself.  And, his approval of the script resulted in allowing the filmmakers to use his mechanized voice after a tracheotomy was performed in 1985.   Jane is played by the always dependable Felicity Jones (Like Crazy) whose acting is subtle and less ostentatious - but equally impressive.  The brilliant Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (who also composed the haunting score for Foxcatcher) has added a sweeping score that is both memorable and melodic without  overwhelming the visuals. 
There are minor problems.  Mainly, the toning down of Hawking's documented difficult nature, and the script's over simplification of Hawking's attempt to produce an explanation for the universe and time and space.  That being said, The Theory of Everything is more a love story than a formal pronouncement of quantum physics (for that I recommend Christopher Nolan's Interstellar which employed Hawking's colleague Kip Thorne to help explain black holes and space-time singularities). 

Marsh is able to transform a potentially depressing story of a brilliant genius who overcame physical and emotional limitations into a crowd-pleasing love story that will definitely have you leaving the theater feeling uplifted and positive.

UPCOMING NEXT WEEK:  Review of "Timbuktu" (Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Language Film) and my annual Academy Awards Thoughts/Predictions column to be posted Friday, February 20th
Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and
Jane (Felicity Jones) pose on
their wedding day