Sunday, April 13, 2014

Mad Men (Season 6)

Creator: Matthew Weiner
Starring: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, John Slattery, Christina Hendricks, January Jones, Jessica Paré, Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer, Kiernan Shipka, Kevin Rahm, Christopher Stanley, Jay R. Ferguson, Ben Feldman, Robert Morse, James Wolk, Linda Cardellini, Harry Hamlin
Original Airdate: 2013

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

A while back there was this wild rumor circulating that Mad Men would conclude in the present day. It came from an interview conducted with showrunner Matt Weiner, who eventually clarified himself, even as the notion was dismissed by many as simply too far-fetched and preposterous to be true. The initial reasoning was that if this is a series about where we've come from and where we're going,  it's only fair we eventually find out where we've ended up. That's an interesting way to look at it, offset only by the improbability of an alcoholic, chain smoking Don Draper living to see the iphone and the fact that the series hasn't had a time jump much greater than even a year. But it's only in this sixth season that you could actually start to envision such a scenario. If not that, then perhaps something as equally mystifying or insane. Weiner wrote for The Sopranos and we all know how that ended so maybe it's time to prepare ourselves. All signposts point to the show hurling toward one of those polarizing conclusions and that's kind of exciting. And given how the series specializes in long term, novelistic storytelling, the groundwork for something like that would have been mapped out since the pilot.

A vacationing Don reads Dante's "Inferno" (Ep. 6.1, "The Doorway, Part I")
When I first started watching Mad Men I struggled to make it past the first season, finding it too slow and complaining nothing ever "happens." But a lot was happening. I just couldn't see it yet. The show's a slow burn. Slow enough that it's only now that we're fully reaping the rewards, knowing what the characters are thinking and feeling and being able to relate it to previous events. That's why it's so perplexing some have expressed displeasure with quite possibly its greatest season. And how could it not be? It's 1968. Putting these characters in that tumultuous year with the culture at a turning point is like capturing lightning in a bottle and Weiner wasn't likely to drop the ball. Many of our favorites are rapidly approaching (if not already at) middle age and time's speeding them by, leaving them as holdovers of an earlier era.

Slick ad man Don Draper's inner battle with his true identity of Dick Whitman (symbolically illustrated on the season's promotional poster) reaches a fever pitch, potentially claiming its most helpless victim yet: His own daughter. This might mark the first season we feel genuine sympathy for Dick, realizing that the true extent of his upbringing insured he'd never have a chance at becoming "Don Draper" for real. He had to adopt that persona, playing it to perfection up to this point. But now the cracks are showing. It's caught up with him, with the only glimmer of hope being that he now may finally be realizing it.

1968 finds not only Don (Jon Hamm), but the now two-floor ad agency of SCDP, at a crossroads. With Vietnam raging and the counterculture movement in full swing, all the characters are having difficulty adjusting to the times, both at the office and in the their personal lives, with the line between the two as invisible as ever. Everyone seems engaged in behavior that's cyclical, calling back to the first few seasons enough to make you wonder if any of them are truly capable of any kind of change or growth. Much how Don's affairs eroded and eventually destroyed his marriage with Betty (January Jones), the two-hour premiere ("The Doorway Parts I and II") reveals he's similarly grown tired of second wife Megan (Jessica Paré), just as her career as a soap actress is taking off.

Guest star Linda Cardellini as Sylvia Rosen
The timing of these marital issues isn't a coincidence since Don immediately loses interest in any woman he can't control, with the emotional abuse even extending to new mistress Sylvia Rosen ( Emmy-nominated guest star Linda Cardellini), the terms and conditions of their affair firmly in his grasp. Flashbacks to a young Dick Whitman growing up in a whorehouse set the stage for his toxic adult relationships with the opposite sex, viewing them as property, fit to discard whenever he's through. Not exactly the strongest foundation on which to build a life as a devoted husband and father, yet it's a lie he's still obsessively clinging to.

The scariest thing about Don's actions this season is how he can so casually compartmentalize the facets of his life to absolve himself the guilt of sleeping with his friend's wife. It's a new low, even for him. Don's cheated before, but never this brazenly, and certainly not without considering the ramifications that could eventually come from it. It's almost like he's testing fate and daring anyone to catch him. The days of Don walking into a room and winning over every man and woman in it with his confident swagger are slowly drawing to a close. And while he still shows flashes of brilliance, some of his pitches to clients now border on embarrassing, emblematic of a man who's given up lying to himself and others.

Don's legendary first season Kodak Carousel pitch (itself a beautiful pile of lies) has never seemed further away, as he's now centering a campaign for Sheraton Hawaii Resorts around death, discussing the politics of Vietnam over dinner with Chevy executives and sabotaging a Hershey account. This season truly is his "jumping-off point" and in season full of latent symbolism and conspiracy theories it's hard not to think that this Sheraton pitch about a man shedding his suit and disappearing gives only more credence to the wildest and most ambitious prediction yet regarding Don's final destination in the series. His reading of Dante's Inferno on the beach in the premiere suggests he's stuck in his own nine circles of hell, repeating previous sins like infidelity, while senselessly hoping for different results.

Roger mourns the death of...his shoe shine guy
Also trying to claw out of his own personal hell is Roger Sterling (John Slattery), who's been going through the motions for a while at work and discovering last season's mind opening LSD trip has done little to clean up the mess that's his life. As if coming to terms with his mother's death (and his shoe shiner) wasn't enough, he's essentially being blackmailed by his own daughter and son-in-law so he can see his grandson. Worse yet, Joan (Christina Hendricks) cuts him off from their love child, justifiably worried about his track record of sticking around. Slattery (who also directs standout episodes, "Man With a Plan" and a Tale of Two Cities") is, as usual, gold as Sterling, providing great comic relief while conveying the underlying tragedy of a character still refusing to grow up as he enters the Burt Cooper stage of his career, while wrestling with his own mortality. Roger's been phoning it in for a while now at work but there are points during the season where he actually seems rejuvenated and motivated to get new business, at least compared to Don, who's the laziest he's ever been.

Despite her promotion to partner last season, Joan is still viewed by her colleagues as somewhat of a joke, a partner in title only and treated as little more than a glorified secretary. Some of this is her fault for sleeping her way to the top, but more of it lies at the feet of the firm and the times. What choice did she have other than to offer herself up to the fat, sweaty Jaguar executive?  It's sad, but true, and Hendricks has always been skilled at depicting the fire inside Joan. The desire to be wanted yet respected, though this season her desires heavily tilt toward the latter. Trying to make major strides in being taken seriously for her intellect rather than her body, she finds an unexpected ally in former nemesis Peggy (Elisabeth Moss).

Having jumped ship to rival firm Cutler, Gleason and Chaough last season, a major merger ("For Immediate Release") drags Peggy back into the fold, while also introducing a dynamic new character who completely changes the game. Just when Peggy thinks she's done with Don, she's pulled back in and shoved right in the middle of a power struggle between her old boss and a new one, Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) of Cutler, Gleason and Chaough. Ted joins an increasingly short list of characters who can actually be considered a good guy, though less of one as the season progresses. Whereas Don never appreciated Peggy (or refused to show it), Ted appreciates her a little too much, to the point that it's clouding his judgment in both business and personal matters. Joining him is partner Jim Cutler, magnificently underplayed by guest star Harry Hamlin as a bizarro version of Roger, only far sleazier.

Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) reading copy
Peggy's emergence as the new Don has been in the works for a while, but this is the season where it starts to come to fruition, as she earns both the fear and respect of her employees. And now she's doing it under a boss who's actually promoting and fostering her creativity. It's common knowledge how good Elisabeth Moss is in the role, but this season Weiner gives her better material to work with than maybe any other previous season barring the first two. James Spader lookalike Rahm makes an Emmy-worthy debut as Ted, perhaps the only formidable adversary Don's had in the office precisely because of his polar opposite personality and management style. They rarely seem like partners at all, each trying to one up the other at every turn, their competition for accounts causing a war within the newly christened Sterling Cooper and Partners, just as a real one is ripping the country apart.  

If Peggy is evolving into the female version of Don Draper, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) has always been the poor man's version of Dick Whitman. Unlike Don, when trying tries to wear a smooth, confident mask to hide his insecurities he comes off as a bumbling fool. In some ways his actions seem slimier and more pitiful because he's just so bad at it, using everything and everyone to get his way and rarely succeeding. Throughout the series he's raped a maid, serial cheated on his wife, tried to pick up an underage girl at driver's ed and taken a mistress who forgets who he is after electroshock therapy treatments. That all this pales in comparison to the hijinx he finds himself in this season speaks volumes. It also speaks for Karthesiser's pitifully comical performance that we still somehow feel sorry for him, emerging in these 13 episodes as something other than a Don wannabe.

Having finally attained what he thought would be the perfect life with a wife, baby, and home in Westchester, he's slowly come to the realization that none of that is him at all. The now balding Pete just wants to look and feel important and those are all just a means to an end. But unlike Don, he can't even successfully fake it as his savvy wife Trudy (Alison Brie) sees right through him  Having already torpedoed his marriage and rapidly losing traction at work, Weiner throws Pete into what's easily his funniest storyline since the show's inception involving his mother and a bizarre feud with the show's best new character. Pete finally meets his manipulative match, but the opponent carries an advantage he never will: Charm and likability.

"How are you?"
No one knows quite what to make of brown-nosing accounts man Bob Benson (James Wolk), but trying to find out exactly who he is and his motivations turn into one of the season's biggest mysteries and fodder for even more conspiracy theories. Since it seems impossible anyone could be so nice on this series without some kind of ulterior motive, red flags go up the second he arrives. As the clingy office climber, Wolk's performance is pitch perfect in how it's just disingenuous enough to generate intrigue that something's seriously off with this guy. FBI agent investigating Don? Time traveler? Murderer? The speculation is endless, despite this not even being that kind of a show. When we do eventually find out some major information on him, it still doesn't explain all of his bizarre behavior or begin to scratch the surface of what he's about. That Weiner has yet to do that is very good news heading into the final stretch, as the directions the character can go seem endless. Or it could all mean nothing. This series is famous for making us guess which.

More than perhaps any other previous season, historical events play an indispensable role in shaping the characters who are active participants in the social upheaval of the times rather than spectators on the sidelines. Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, civil rights and the counterculture movement are all front and center in 1968 and it never feels as though the series is checking boxes, instead integrating them into the character's lives and showing how the changing landscape is affecting everyone. New York City is changing as well, entering an era of crime it won't fully recover from until the 90's. And as usual, it's also the impressively accurate retro production and costume design, and the music choices that seem as important to the series as its characters. With the 60's ranking as arguably the strongest decade for music in American history, there's much to draw from as we get Janis Joplin, The Monkees, and Joni Mitchell among others, along with some key integration of pop culture with that year's popular film, the Planet of the Apes playing a small, but crucial role.

Target practice with Stan Rizzo (Ep. 6.8, "The Crash")
In what should rank as one the finest episodes, "The Crash," takes full advantage of the craziness of the time, as a "Dr. Feelgood" like physician injects the entire creative staff with a powerful stimulant on the eve of a major Chevy pitch. The result is an episode that unconventionally toys with time, contains much dark humor and results in new personal revelations for a sick and exhausted Don.  There's also a downright scary event involving daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) and her little brother that works on a number of different levels.  It also maximizes colorful supporting characters like bearded stoner Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson), nerdy head of TV Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) and neurotic free-thinker Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman).

Ironically, it's the extremely likable, sometimes author Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) who not only makes the biggest impression in the episode, but takes the most amount of abuse (physical and otherwise) throughout the season for his role in the Chevy account. He joins Ted, Megan and Betty's politician husband Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley) as the only somewhat moral and responsible characters, with the latter stepping up to assume the responsibilities of husband and father that Don skirted. That Betty now emerges as the preferable parent--physically and emotionally returning to early season one form not long after an eye-opening visit to Greenwich Village in the premiere-- is a testament to just how far Don is falling and failing as a dad.

Betty, even at worst, has at least tried to give their kids a stable home, but this season Don may have permanently traumatized one of them in much the same way he was in that whorehouse growing up. It's nearly impossible to discuss the season without referencing the major event that occurs toward the end of it ("Favors"). It's here where everything Sally thought she knew about her dad is torn to shreds in one moment and Don's cyclical behavior throughout this season is given the ultimate payoff. In this moment is possibly the best acting the somehow still Emmy-less Jon Hamm has ever done on the show, staggering aimlessly through Don's penthouse lobby in a wordless panic, the character legitimately shaken for the first time. Mr. Cool finally has no idea what to do.

Sally makes a shocking discovery (Ep. 6.11, "Favors")
Since it hasn't been front and center on the series until now, it's been easy to overlook just how messed up Sally's life could potentially turn out having parents like this. If Weiner's end game is to bridge the gap between our past and present, she's the only character capable of doing it, observing these people's actions through the same shocked, impressionable eyes we've had since the show's pilot. She's also sharper than so many of the dysfunctional adults she's surrounded by, offering up one-liners and words of wisdom that make them look immature by comparison.

Sally's stay at a boarding school where she uses her friendship with the infamous Glen (Marten Weiner) to manipulate a pair of mean girls ("The Quality of Mercy") shows just how far she's come. Finally seeing her father for what he really is, it'll be fascinating to see what happens as Sally enters her rebellious teen phase, of which we've already gotten a preview. And how fortunate they've been to have an actress as good as Shipka playing her and not just reaching, but far exceeding, the lofty expectations of a constantly changing part. A good case can be made that Sally's the series' true protagonist, and when we do reach that highly anticipated final scene, it's a safe bet she'll be in it. Let's just hope she's not shaking a snow globe.

If there's a rockbottom, Don hits it at the end of this season, having seemingly lost everything. Or has he? The season finale ("In Care Of") shows a man who may have finally shed the skin of Don Draper, possibly ready to accept his past as Dick Whitman, if not fully integrate him into his current life. But we've teases of that before, only to have him slip back into his selfish, emotionally destructive ways. The idea of Don starting a new life with Megan in California is exactly what it first came to him as: A dream. While the agency briefly returns to California for business this season, Don's desire to escape to the west coast reaches as far back as the Season 2 classic, "The Jet Set," when he crashed at the pad of some wild bohemians. What he really wants to do is run away, not with Megan, but from her, since he can never return her feelings with the baggage he's carrying. There's also concern just how long she'll be around, as many have speculated that the Sharon Tate t-shirt she wore in Ep. 6.9 "The Better Half" marks her for death. I wouldn't be quite so sure, but as we know, even wardrobe details on this show are rarely unintentional.

Megan Draper wearing Sharon Tate's iconic t-shirt
A public breakdown and a sacrifice he makes for a co-worker suggests that while Don may be too late to salvage his own mess, he can help someone else from repeating his mistakes. This is the season everything comes full circle and Weiner throws all his cards on the table. Proof comes in the last image, which is strong and enduring enough to double as the series closer. But somehow there's more, and it feels like there should be. Contrary to popular belief, Mad Men is a much better now than when it started because we've gone through so much with the characters that we've reached kind of a shorthand with them, knowing their motivations before even they realize it, yet shocked by their actions just the same. The show isn't only about Don Draper anymore. It's grown bigger than that, with the complete picture coming into sharper focus with each passing episode.                       

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Spectacular Now, Fruitvale Station

The Spectactular Now  
Director: James Ponsoldt 
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler
Running Time: 95 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

High school coming-of-age movies have fallen a considerable height from the glory days of John Hughes, where teens were treated as three-dimensional people viewers of any age could root for and care about. A brief description of The Spectacular Now would easily fool anyone into thinking it's joining the scrap pile. Bad boy meets good girl and she has to redeem him. But director James Ponsoldt and (500) Days of Summer screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber flip that premise on its head, delivering a smart, sensitive drama that doesn't pander to its audience while insightfully observing real life problems without so much as a hint of manipulation or contrivance. Every decision feels carefully considered and real, with so much of that resting on the standout performances of the two leads, who are provided the opportunity to play flawed, likable characters we want to see happy, independent of whether they end up together or not.

Miles Teller is popular, but unambitious high school senior Sutter Keely, whose life consists of an endless stream of drinking and partying, with little thought given to his future. In a rare touch for the genre, Sutter's drinking doesn't look fun in the least, depicted as a serious problem that's unraveling his life. He's basically a teenage alcoholic. His equally popular girlfriend (Brie Larson) dumps him and it's gotten to the point that even his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) can't put up with it anymore.
After a late-night partying binge he wakes up on the lawn of classmate Aimee Finnicky (Shailene Woodley), a pretty but socially invisible "girl next door" who reads manga and has a paper route. They start seeing each other. Sort of. That their relationship can't easily be classified because of how different they are is one of the film's biggest strengths and what follows is complicated, but in a real life, messy kind of way.

Upon Sutter realizing it's no joke he's actually falling hard for this girl, his thoughts shift to him not being deserving of her and there's this intriguing mystery that develops involving Sutter's long-absent dad, eventually played by a brilliant Kyle Chandler, It's a supporting performance so perfectly calibrated it really has to be seen to be believed in how it subverts and challenges expectations of not only the character and story, but the actor playing him. Even seemingly minor players like Sutter's boss, Dan (Bob Odenkirk) are so richly drawn in their brief appearances you can imagine a film focusing on them would be just as rewarding. As Sutter's older sister Holly, Mary Elizabeth Winstead conveys that there's more to her than originally thought, the character's snobby demeanor merely her way of dealing with the emotional pain of their upbringing.    

Ponsoldt knows not to try too hard and at a turning point where everything could have flown off the rails, he resists the temptation, choosing instead to get even more honest. That it takes place in a small "Anywhere, U.S.A" town in an unidentifiable era brings a universality to the story, allowing it to exist in a timeless vaccum. No one will be laughing at the music and clothing choices years down the line like most other high school movies. What will be most remembered is how Teller and Woodley take character types we've seen before and make them feel completely fresh, him with offbeat goofy charm and her with a realness and authenticity on screen that never feels like acting. And just watch what she does in that killer final scene. She's too good to be toiling away in YA franchises, even if this was ironically enough adapted from a young adult novel. Let's just pretend the giant check she's cashing for Divergent is really for this.

Fruitvale Station
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
Running Time: 85 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Despite certain misgivings about the film itself, none of them affect my feelings about Michael B. Jordan's performance as Oscar Grant, the young man shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police at Oakland's Fruitvale Station on New Year's 2009. If anything, I wish that first-time writer/director Ryan Coogler's effort had the subtly and nuance of Jordan's performance, which sets a high bar the film can't quite reach. There's no doubt Oscar Grant was far from perfect. He was only human. And there's also little doubt what happened on that train platform was an avoidable tragedy with more than enough blame to go around, along with some unfortunate coincidences and bad luck. To say the transit cops handled the situation poorly would be a gross understatement, but it's hard not to feel Coogler's trying to unnecessarily stack the deck. The facts tell the story, yet he insists on going beyond that, to the point that by the film's finish it almost feels like we've gotten a public service announcement instead.

The film follows the last day of the 22-year-old Californian's life before being fatally shot on that train platform, circumventing the rocky relationship he has with Sophina (Melonie Diaz, really strong), his girlfriend and mother of their infant daughter, and his own mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer). It paints a picture of an ex-con trying to do right and get on the straight and narrow for his family. For all we know much of it may have gone down as depicted. But certain details feel too convenient, with Coogler going so far out of his way to avoid portraying his subject as a saint that he ends up doing exactly that.

There's a scene early on in which Oscar tries to save a dying dog hit by a car. Besides the incident being drenched in heavy-handed symbolism and blatant foreshadowing, I could have done without animal cruelty (real or simulated) to show us Oscar's a good guy trying to turn his life around. And just to level things out we also get a scene where he threatens his boss. No one thinks this young man "deserved" what eventually happens so it's perplexing being lectured on his morality with what feels like contrived situations. Maybe they happened. Maybe not. But it rings false in the context of this film.

When we finally get to that train platform is when things start to feel real. How the situation escalates to the point it does is so fascinating and disturbing that you almost wish the whole picture had covered this section if it wasn't so difficult to watch. Coogler's clearly a skilled director, making excellent use of shaky cam to give us a found footage feel and show various points of view from different witnesses. Certain details from earlier pay off in surprising ways, creating a storm of events that tragically converge at the station. It's when we're being shown what happened in the last half hour minus any editorializing that the movie earns its emotional response.

Anyone who's seen Friday Night Lights knows just how good an actor Michael B. Jordan is and so much of that natural charisma and quiet intensity is on display here. We care about Oscar because of his performance, one that too often has to battle to overcome the script's flaws. It's a problem when a film is based on true events and you can't believe much of what happened even it it's completely true. The last shot reveals the film's true intentions. And that's the roadblock when tackling a controversial real life issue. Judgments and intentions are best checked at the door.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Veronica Mars (2014)

Director: Rob Thomas
Starring: Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Krysten Ritter, Ryan Hansen, Francis Capra, Percy Daggs III,
Chris Lowell, Tina Majorino, Enrico Colantoni, Gaby Hoffman, Jerry O' Connell, Martin Starr, Ken Marino, Max Greenfield, Amanda Noret, James Franco
Running Time: 107 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Following the announcement that beloved cult series Veronica Mars would be kickstarted into a feature film to simultaneously be released on VOD and into theaters, I was surprised just how much more interested I was in the controversial crowdfunding issue than actually seeing it return in any form. But after considering it, that indifference makes perfect sense. The first season of Rob Thomas' Veronica Mars is unquestionably flawless, deserving of its standing amongst the most creatively realized single season television dramas of the past decade. It took the unremarkable premise of a high school private eye and turned it into something that transcended the genre with its writing, tone and execution. Arriving at a time when serialized, self-contained storytelling wasn't popular and shows didn't revolve around strong female protagonists, telling one story throughout a season or even an entire series was unheard of. After turning loyal watchers into "fans" and forcing casual viewers to catch up later through word-of-mouth or social media, a cult was born.

In 2004 delivering one season of TV at such high quality was an anomaly. Not anymore. In fact, many showrunners have now done it multiple times, slightly diminishing Thomas' accomplishment, even if he got there first. A second solid season aired followed by a third that deserves to be forgotten and mostly is. But that first season is still magnificent and represents the best kind of episodic storytelling the medium has to offer. That's why it's so disappointing that network brass and even many fans insisted on turning the show into something it wasn't, failing to realize the gift they were given. They wanted it to be The Gilmore Girls or 90210 and the CW network responded by attempting it, causing the show to limp to the finish line in a far lesser state than it started. For further proof look no further than the fact that re-runs started regularly airing on SoapNet of all places.

With its legacy somewhat tarnished and that magical first season in the rearview mirror, trepidation toward this project is understandable. Worse yet, it exists to provide "fan service," which is partially responsible for unraveling the show to begin with.  Freed from the constraints of network television, this is a big test for Thomas, as we finally find it whether he was a single season wonder or it was outside factors that caused the series' eventual downfall. So with that in mind, how did he do?

Picking up nine years after the events of the third season, Veronica (Kristen Bell) has left her hometown of Neptune, California, graduated law school and moved to New York City, where she's in a relationship with college boyfriend "Piz" (Chris Lowell). While awaiting an offer from prestigious law firm Truman-Mann, she's contacted by her ex Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who's been serving in the Navy and is under investigation for the murder of his girlfriend Carrie Bishop, a former Neptune High classmate who went on to find fame as troubled pop star "Bonnie DeVille." Veronica agrees to fly back to Neptune under the condition of helping him and his still obnoxiously hilarious best friend Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen) find an attorney to build a believable defense.

 With her ten-year class reunion approaching and the case becoming more complicated, Veronica's soon drawn back in to the chaotic life she thought she left behind, much to the chagrin of her former sheriff father Keith (Enrico Colantoni). He's running Mars Investigations while sickened by the corruption overrunning Neptune under sleazy Sheriff Dan Lamb (Jerry O'Connell). With the help of old friends Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and "Mac" (Tina Majorino), Veronica has to find Carrie's murderer and exonerate Logan, all while coming to terms with the past and figuring out what it means for her future. 

The movie answers one of its biggest questions right away in how much background Thomas intends to give the uninitiated, with a brief, narrated prologue that's quick and painless, yet doesn't waste the time of diehards who know every detail of the mythology. Archival footage marks the extent of Amanda Seyfried's role, as we find out how Thomas handles the absence of the series biggest star. Since her character's long dead, the passing acknowledgment of Lilly Kane seems to be a pretty easy solution. With a nine-year gap to be accounted for, it was the right move to keep the Veronica voice-over (which the series eventually fazed it out) since it's as good a device as any to catch viewers up to speed provided it isn't abused. Thankfully, it isn't.

Clever choices are also made with the opening titles and theme song, which I won't spoil. But what's surreal is just seeing the characters ten years later, but in the context of a feature film. It took some adjusting to since it does look and feel different with the sheen of a higher end production, yet still strangely the same. Visually speaking, it's the best VM has ever looked on a technical level with Thomas and director of photography Ben Kutchins capturing the color palette of the series' early days, as well as Neptune's noirish atmosphere.

The tease that age has mellowed Veronica and she's left her rebellious streak behind to settle down with Piz and start a legal career is short-lived. It isn't long before she's back home making quips and trading one-liners with her dad, the writing still as quick and snappy as before, and Bell's delivery of it just as perfect. She slides back into this character like riding a bike with the actress clearly relishing the rare chance to step back into the role she was born to play. In that respect, it's almost as if no time passed at all. What's interesting about the murder set-up is how it transforms Veronica back into the outsider she once was when the show began, bringing everything full circle. All fans can at least agree that the father-daughter relationship between Keith and Veronica is the most missed aspect of the show and Thomas definitely doesn't disappoint in following through with the full implications of that reunion.

Veronica's reconnection with Logan is admirably treated with a restraint I wasn't expecting considering my biggest concern was that relationship taking over the picture, much like it eventually did the series. If one thing can be pointed at as creatively torpedoing the show, it's that. Unsurprisingly, there's one scene involving this I could have done without, but at least it's built up to well and handled painlessly. Until Veronica joins a monastery, I'll just have to accept to the fact that the depiction of their relationship is a necessary evil, but one hardly as integral to the show's initial success as many believe. Dohring actually gives a really interesting performance here, doing away with some of the more milquetoast elements of Logan that emerged pre-cancellation while reintroducing the darker, angrier aspects of the character. We know he probably didn't commit the crime, but Dohring thankfully doesn't play it like that. While few will be happy to see Piz again but his presence does make story sense and Chris Lowell, who's done okay for himself since, is a much better actor now than then.           

What's most surprising is how serious everything is treated while still somehow retaining much of the fun. In a PG-13 rated film we're treated to swearing, bar fights and shootouts that wouldn't have been possible during the series' run due to budget constraints and network interference. And the class warfare aspect of Neptune is not only emphasized but kind of enhanced with a legitimate sense of danger looming. There's a feeling that the first time our favorite characters could actually be hurt, or perhaps worse.

The nine-year layoff for the characters is a blessing in disguise, as their aging assures the series can longer be pigeonholed into a genre it never quite belonged. It's also a slight detriment, since part of the original thrill came from a story of such epic scope revolving around high schoolers. Supporting players Wallace, Mac and Dick are given much more to do here than they were in all of the show's third season and help move along the plot rather than merely stop in for appearances sake. The big surprise in that regard is Weevil (Francis Capra) who's given a subplot that's almost downright shocking, playing on the character's shady past in a clever way.

Unexpectedly, the film is filled to the brim with cameos, one of the more notable coming from James Franco, who probably jumped at the chance to appear considering how he seems to have his hands in everything in pop culture. Bigger roles go to Gaby Hoffman as an obsessed Carrie Bishop impersonator who could also be a key witness/suspect in her murder and hugely successful show alum, Krysten Ritter, returning as Veronica's frenemy Gia Goodman. The part is expanded accordingly to capitalize on her presence, reminding us how we underestimated the actress' versatility the first go around.

My personal favorite recurring character, goofy private investigator Vinnie Van Lowe (Ken Marino!) also makes a comeback, integrated briefly into the case. And yes, Max Greenfield does show up as Deputy Leo. It's hard to think of any big names left out whose absence damage the film, with maybe the exception of the original Carrie Bishop, Leighton Meester. The murder plot was probably conceived with the actress in mind so her unavailability is a blow, as it's easy to imagine she could have brought a lot more to it now. Jessica Chastain or Aaron Paul returning just isn't realistic but boy would that have been a shock had either appeared.

There is some clunkiness to the central mystery, but what really does work is how the film incorporates modern technology and social media into the investigation of the crime. This is technology that didn't exist (at least to this extent) during the show's run, so it's only fitting for a series that was always slightly ahead of the curve to now be able to pull the trigger on it. Thomas and crew delivered as promised, wrapping the show's and its title character's return into a thematic package about the battle between holding on and letting go.

The idea that Keith wants better life for his daughter than one in Neptune and is downright disappointed and angry at the possibility she'd consider throwing it away really resonates. In fact, it resonates in a way the series hadn't at the end of its run. It does surprisingly look and feel like authentic Veronica Mars and there's far less of a drop-off in the quality of writing than you'd expect. It's really as good as it could have possibly been, at many points recalling the mood and tone of the first and second seasons rather than the far lesser one that succeeded them. And although it's been called it, this doesn't merely come off as a reunion show with Thomas attempting to do more than reassemble the cast and call it a day.

None of the events or characters feel jammed in and it's unnecessary for us to adjust our expectations for who is and isn't there like we did for Netflix's revival of Arrested Development. It's unfair to compare such wildly different reboots (in separate mediums nonetheless) but it's really the closest thing to this situation we've got, proving how creatively risky bringing back defunct properties can be. While a solid effort, even diehards couldn't claim that fourth season holds a candle to the previous three, or even slightly resembles the show it was.

The waters should have been even choppier for VM, but unlike AD, its saving grace is that it went out struggling with some unfinished business. And since the show's quality fluctuated and it didn't deliver three perfect seasons like that series did, expectations are lower. It also has to deliver one powerful extended episode instead of an entire season, with the catch being that it has to look and feel cinematic, which it does. Add to that the pressure of the mainstream paying attention because of this untested funding and distribution model. Casual eyes have never really been on this series before and even if it is made to appeal primarily to fans, there has to be some entry point for everyone else. Or does there?

Whether this film appeals to those who haven't seen the show doesn't really even matter. When you consider how much work it took to resurrect this and the circumstances under which it eventually happened, the movie's potential success is dependent on the fan base being just large enough to eliminate risk for Warner Bros. This is being sold as a product with preexisting loyalty and familiarity so casual viewers just won't have the same long-term investment in the characters. But that doesn't mean someone who's never seen an episode wouldn't enjoy it. It just means they'd likely enjoy it on an entirely different level. As a smart mystery thriller.

As much potential as there is for this saga to continue or for the series to undergo a full-blown resurrection, ending it here would also be fine. Rob Thomas and this cast should never have to beg for money or hustle this hard because Warner Bros. won't financially support the series. The studio couldn't even manage to follow through on their basic publicity and marketing obligations. But regardless of those issues, there's no denying the Kickstarter approach works best for a property exactly like this. It wasn't about making Veronica Mars "happen" since that ship sailed a while ago, but rather giving the series the victory lap it deserves. And they delivered, making this trip back to Neptune one worth taking.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

American Hustle

Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Shea Whigham 
Running Time: 138 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

My immediate reaction after the final credits rolled on American Hustle was that it was a "fun time." But I can't help but think whether that response would been different had I not known the film received ten Oscar nominations, including all four acting categories and Best Picture. Almost needless to say, expectations were pretty high for what ends up being the weakest film in David O. Russell's comeback trilogy, which includes The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. While much more of a mixed bag than either, what's most surprising is how light and fluffy it is. It's basically an all-out comedic farce that's more entertaining than expected, but also far less substantial. It's loosely based on a real FBI Abscam sting operation in the 1970's but it isn't a biographical drama of any sort and certainly won't be mistaken for Argo anytime soon. The script almost seems to be making a complete mockery of the story which hardly matters since the real draw here is the acting, with costuming and (sometimes overbearing) soundtrack choices trailing not too far behind. With a less talented director and cast it's easy to imagine this being a disaster. Actually, it's still kind of a disaster. Just a really wild and fun one.

It's 1978 when con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party in New Jersey and the two embark on a personal and professional relationship in which Sydney (posing as English aristocrat "Lady Edith Greensly") start running loan scam. When their latest mark turns out to be undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), they're recruited by him to help with four stings in exchange for their release. But Sydney has other plans, getting romantically close to Richie to manipulate him as a jealous Irving stands on the sidelines. How much of this plan and her feelings morph into reality is a question that hovers in the air up until the end. Richie's biggest sting involves entrapping Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who's attempting to raise funds to revitalize gambling in Atlantic City. This sets in motion a convoluted plot involving a fake Arab sheikh, a secret wire transfer and the mob. But Irving's most dangerous problem is his stay-at- home wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a certifiable loose cannon who's no dummy. She knows something's up, and that knowledge could tear this operation and their family apart.

Remember that scene in The Wolf of Wall Street when Jordan Belfort turns to the camera and tells us he did a lot of illegal stuff but won't waste time boring us with the details? That's American Hustle in a nutshell. If there were a pop quiz on all the double crosses, fake-outs or even just the basic mechanics of the plot, it's an exam many wouldn't pass. And yet Russell manages to make it completely beside the point, instead focusing on the interplay between these wild characters, each seemingly crazier than the next. Clearly, the major plotline has less to do with Abscam than the love triangle involving Irving, Sydney and Richie, even if there are points where we doubt it can be considered a love triangle since the characters are all playing each other. The whole movie functions as one giant scam with everyone wearing masks at various points.

The two best performances come belong to the women, with Adams showing a side of herself as an actress we've never quite seen before, turning in her most intense work since The Fighter. Tough, but emotionally damaged goods, Sydney knows she's battling for more than to just stay out of jail by pulling off this scam. She wants prominence in Irving's life, ahead of his wife and son and is willing to use the hapless Agent DiMaso to do it. If some people are smarter than they look, Richie DiMaso is definitely not one of those people, falling for Sydney's hustle (and cleavage baring attire) hook, line, and sinker. He's also somehow target a legitimately honest politician and all-around great guy for his sting. In fact, Renner makes Carmine so selfless and likable in what should be the sleaziest of roles, that it's  impossible for the audience not to resent DiMaso for deceiving him. But Cooper gives him this helplessly pathetic quality of a man struggling to move up the bureau ladder and win a woman he thinks he's in love with, but really doesn't know at all. His hapless superior (played hilariously by Louis C.K.) is literally the only character who is worse off or commands less respect.

Holding the whole film (and his hairpiece) together is Bale, the real brains behind the operation, which isn't saying much. With a hideous wardrobe and a huge gut, few would be able to recognize the actor, and when they do, even fewer would believe he was capable of being this funny. So misguided and self-absorbed, Irving destroys the one relationship he has that means anything to him: His friendship with Carmine. It's possibly the only scam he's ever felt guilty about.  He spends most of the movie in a complete panic, as would anyone married to Jennifer Lawrence's Roselyn, the only character not at all like the rest.

On paper, Lawrence again seems completely miscast in a role meant for an older actress, only to respond by stealing the movie with a performance that starts as fully comedic before moving into some darker territory by the last act. In a picture where it's tough to take anything or anyone seriously, she uses limited screen time to turn what could easily have been a one joke character into a real force deserving of audience sympathy. That's a tight rope to walk and while all the hype and praise surrounding Lawrence has been exhausting, she proves again with her work that it's deserved. Her intense sing-a-long to Wings' "Live and Let Die" is a particular standout. Unfortunately, an uncredited Robert DeNiro turns in a comedic cameo as--you guessed it--a mobster. Ugh.  He also appears at just the point where the film starts getting a little overstuffed, making his shoehorned arrival feel especially unnecessary.

While it's clear Russell has a love for the period and certain details are deadly accurate, there's rarely any doubt he enjoys laughing at it also. As do we. If he was going for a Scorsese vibe, what transpires on screen often comes across as a comedic spoof of that. Call it "Scorsese Lite." Was that intentional? Does it even matter? All I know is that the whole thing is a lot funnier than most would have you believe. About halfway through you just forget everything and revel in the zany antics of these characters and enjoyable performances. If the developments were treated more seriously it might have been a better movie, but I'm not sure it would have been nearly as entertaining or interesting. This is about watching talented actors at the top of their game successfully disappearing into their crazy roles. Even the characters seem to forget about their own story on occasion. American Hustle might be all over the place, but it's most successful when not taking itself too seriously and functioning as a bizarre character study. Luckily, that's most of the time.    

Sunday, March 9, 2014

All Is Lost

Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Robert Redford
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It's practically impossible to watch All is Lost without feeling the urge to compare it to Gravity. Both are survival stories that see their protagonist forced to fend for themselves in a battle against the elements and a race against time. But there are also key differences, the least of which being the setting or gender of the main character. While Gravity tells us everything we need to know about Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone and more than a few things we didn't, this film's everyman (known simply in the credits as "our man") is just that. He's never given a name and we know next to nothing of his backstory. At the risk of trouncing one film to prop up another, I couldn't help but wonder why writer/director J.C. Chandor's approach to similar material seems so much more effective. But the reason is abundantly clear the second we see Robert Redford's aging visage on screen. He'll be doing all the work. Any backstory or superflulous details will have to be projected onto the story by imaginative viewers observing his actions. What he doesn't say is where the story's power lies, testing that screenwriting theory that often the best scripts have the most amount of white space on the page.

The picture is as sparse and bare bones as it gets. At least Bullock had some company for a little while. This is Redford vs. The Sea. But don't dare call him the film's "star," as doing so implies we're getting a movie star turn that again exploits the actor's charisma, charm, or personality. This is instead the systematic deconstruction of all that, displacing the boyishly handsome "Sundance Kid" persona he's been most identified with over the years with a broken down old man. In this film Redford looks every last day of his 77 years and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, as this time he answers the call, addressing the most popular career criticism leveled against him. That he doesn't take any risks. His response is a performance that's stripped, not only of all words, but all vanity. 

We join the adventure mid-crisis as Redford's anonymous seaman is lost somewhere in the Indian Ocean and awakens to discover his boat has collided with a shipping container, which has ripped a hole in the hull. And that's just the start of his troubles, as he's lost all navigational and communication systems and has little success patching up the damaged ship. Much of his time is spent putting band-aids on problems, both literally and figuratively, and contending with elements, such as a monster storm that tests his and the ship's capacity for survival. As the days wear on and the possibility of rescue seems less and less likely, the presumably inexperienced protagonist must rely on his own ingenuity to fight the ravages of nature as time takes its toll, physically and emotionally wearing him down.

To say that Redford "holds the screen" or "carries" this would be the cinematic understatement of the year. There's literally no one else in it, and aside from an opening narration and one screamed expletive, there are no spoken lines. What's so impressive is how he manages to do so much with that, both through his facial expressions and the character's exacting calculations in coming up with ideas to prolong survival. We can see and sense the wheels turning inside his head and are capable of determining a great deal about him as a person with no information dispensed to us at all. The best aspect of the performance are all the things he hints that are never revealed. It's not necessary to have a scene showing how he got out there or shoehorn flashbacks because Redford makes you imagine them. You can picture the stubborn man leaving on this trip thinking he has everything under control when in actuality the situation couldn't be further out of his hands. We can assume his boat, the "Virginia Jean" is named after a loved one. Wife? Daughter? Granddaughter? Whatever that relationship is, we're given tiny clues it's been strained before he set sail. We know nothing because Chandor knows whatever we cook up in our heads will be more powerful than simply being told about it. He trusts us, but importantly, trusts Redford to fill in those blanks.

For the most part, "our man" seems unemotional and confident, at least until things get very bad, and even then, he does a rather impressive job keeping it together. Still, it wouldn't take an experienced sailor to notice he doesn't know what he's doing, much like Gravity's Dr. Stone. But the key difference lies in the fact that while Bullock's character is equally incompetent, she's unwisely portrayed as an emotional mess, highlighting the film's weakness for spelling things out in big, bold letters. Redford's character makes some dumb decisions, but he never comes off looking like a fool because it stems from this false pride and ego we can't ever really get a handle on. That's a very subtle choice, and a lot more intriguing than a tacked on backstory involving a deceased child intended to trigger audience sympathy. That decision ultimately cements this as more a story about humanity and survival than visual effects and technical wonder (which Gravity does provide in truckloads). The technical achievements are primarily in sound,  joining Redford in co-piloting a picture with no dialogue, but plenty of noises that make you feel as if you're on the boat with this man fighting for his life. The score (provided by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' Alex Ebert) does the rest of that work and it's haunting, used in just the right doses.

It's hard not to view the Academy's snub of Redford as disgraceful and potentially one of the rare oversights where they'll actually look back in regret. So much of the film's narrative and central character is intertwined with the actor's personal  history and career that you can't help but draw a comparison to Mickey Rourke's nominated role in The Wrestler. An older actor thought to be past his prime fighting to survive and battling back, reminding us why he was so respected to begin. That this film came Chandor, the director of 2011's Margin Call is particularly ironic when you consider how talky and dialogue-driven that film was. This has an ending that will undoubtedly infuriate some who prefer pat conclusions that fail to ask anything of its audience. Even if he whole survival story card has been admittedly overplayed of late with Life of Pi, Gravity and Captain Phillips all causing audience fatigue with the genre, this is too well executed to ignore. The best survival stories are always about more than just survival. By choosing to say nothing, All is Lost ends up saying much more than most movies with supposedly greater ambitions.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Burning Questions from the 2014 Academy Awards

Does it speak to my interest in this year's telecast that I didn't bother watching any of the red carpet show?

Even just to laugh at it?

Wait, Jennifer Lawrence fell...again?

Wasn't it a relief not to open the show with a tiresome musical number?

After getting too many of them in recent years, wasn't the absence of musical numbers entirely a relief?

How long before people start complaining they want Seth MacFarlane back?

Is anyone ever going to cut the Oscar host a break?

Isn't it really a thankless job?

How about that Liza Minnelli joke?

Wasn't Jennifer Lawrence a great sport?

Aren't her facial reactions great?

Wasn't the Jonah Hill joke funny?
Didn't Ellen do a good job of keeping the monologue short and sweet?

Don't you wish the rest of the show moved as rapidly?

All things considered, didn't she open this pretty well?

Would you have guessed his win would be the first of many, many appearances Jared Leto would make throughout the night?

How about Pharrell's hat?

Was it really wise of me to assume the Academy would give makeup to a film titled, "Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa?"

Could Harrison Ford come off any grumpier and bored if he tried?

Wouldn't JGL and Emma Watson make a good on-screen couple?

Wait... Kim Novak?!

Does it look like maybe she's had a little work done?

When she came out with McConaughey did you think she was the Yellow King?

Does Gravity insure that everyone will at least correctly predict every technical category?

Why does it look weird seeing U2 performing at the Oscars?

But isn't it nice having actual performances of the nominated songs again?

Does anyone miss dopey musical numbers that would have taken its place?

Did you notice Jared Leto inviting himself into the selfie?

Did you catch Liza Minnelli trying and failing to squeeze in?

Was it just not her night?

Don't we love her anyway since she's Lucille Austero?

Given her recurring vertigo, would she have been a better choice to present with Kim Novak?

Does someone saying they're going to make something the most "retweeted ever" just make you not want to reweet it?

Am I contributing to that epidemic by reposting it above?

Was there really any doubt which photo I'd use?

Does Kevin Spacey win the Oscar for Best photobomb?

Shouldn't he host the show next Frank Underwood?

Michael B. Jordan and Kristen B. Ell?

Can you believe Christoph Waltz is already a two-time Supporting Actor winner?

For the same role?

Was Lupita Nyong'o's acceptance speech on of the few memorably emotional ones in recent years?

Was seeing all these stars deciding on pizza funnier than it had any right being?

Didn't Ellen really commit to that entire bit in an admirable way?

Do we now know the only thing that makes Harrison Ford smile?

Did the whole pizza bit work because it actually looked like everyone was having fun at this event for a change?

Did you see how into it Martin Scorsese was?

Were you as hungry for pizza as I was?

Was Bill Murray's shout-out to Harold Ramis the most moving moment of the night or what?

Isn't is amazing that even here Murray can still shock and delight us?

How do we live in a world where neither of those guys have won an Oscar?

Does anything say The Wizard The Oz more than a performance from Pink?

What's with this whole "heroes" theme?

Should the In Memoriam segment be renamed the "What obscure person was left out so everyone can complain on Twitter" award?

Wasn't it heartbreaking seeing Roger Ebert, James Gandolfini, Harold Ramis and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the montage?

Wasn't Sarah Jones' passing handled strangely, with a message telling us to just go to the web site?

Shouldn't they get credit for at least doing something on such short notice?

When Bette Midler came out did the heroes theme only then start to make a bit more sense?

Did I ever tell you you're my hero?

That you're everything I wish I could be?


Is everyone who went out on a limb to pick Her for Original Screenplay feeling pretty good?

Doesn't Cuaron come off as a great guy?

Did anyone really think Cate Blanchett wouldn't thank Woody Allen?

Do people who think she shouldn't need to get some perspective that we're honoring the work?

Is McConaughey the only Best Actor winner with his own legitimate catchphrase?

Isn't that kind of cool?

Is Will Smith the only Razzie winner to have presented Best Picture the following day?

Didn't the pacing of the show kind of hit a snag in the last hour and a half?

What does it say when keeping it under four hours is an accomplishment?

12 Years an Oscar telecast?

Am I in shock I missed only two categories the entire night?

Am I glad I adjusted my predictions before the show?

Can you believe how many wins Gravity had without taking Best Picture?

Did American Hustle really just get completely shut out?

Despite being hit or miss at times, is Ellen the first host in a while to actually earn a return invite?

Doesn't it seem like we have the same complaints and discussions about the Oscars every year?

Given this year's crop of films, is the 7 percent rise in viewership proof this show was as entertaining as it could have possibly been?

Friday, February 28, 2014

2014 Oscar Predictions


That I only realized a few days ago that the Academy Awards were this Sunday can't be a great sign, either for my attentiveness or the nominated films, which just haven't filled me with the same level of enthusiasm as last year's crop of contenders. And moviegoers unfortunately seem to be agreeing, as the majority of the films have seen far less of a box office bump than expected. It seems like just yesterday everyone was furiously debating Zero Dark Thirty, arguing whether Argo was a worthy Best Picture winner and speculating at Jennifer Lawrence's chances of taking home Best Actress. For me, there's been little of that excitement surrounding this year's race and I've even been a bit let down by some of the more popular nominees.

The good news is that this race is the most unpredictable it's been in a while, with the eventual Best Picture winner hardly set in stone, even as we head down the final stretch.  But as much as we all like to complain that our favorites are left out, these are some great films here, and we should be thankful that the Academy (for all the criticism they receive) do shine a much needed spotlight on quality work. As for the actual show, I just hope it isn't a slog and we're in for some real surprises. Having not yet seen all the nominees, I'm mostly dispensing with the "should win" in favor of attempting to get inside the mind of an Oscar voter (as scary as that seems) and predicting what will.  Below are those predictions, along with some accompanying analysis for the major categories.

*Predicted Winners

*Updated 3/2/14

“12 Years a Slave”
“American Hustle”
“Captain Phillips”
“Dallas Buyers Club”
“The Wolf of Wall Street”

*American Hustle feels like it's out of the game, having peaked too early and lacking the necessary substance to take home the big prize. With Nebraska and Dallas Buyers Club, their nominations are reward enough, while "Philomania" definitely won't be runnin' wild on Oscar night. The overpraised Her just isn't the type of movie that wins Best Picture. The Wolf of Wall Street completely deserves it but is too polarizing and Captain Phillips is unfortunately most voters' second or third choice. This leaves two contenders that each face some obstacles. 12 Years a Slave covers a topic that might be too difficult for (primarily white, older) voters to stomach and Gravity is an effects-driven 3D movie that doesn't hold up as well at home. What's promising for its chances is that while the film's set set in space, it isn't science fiction, nor does it contain a single idea worthy of discussion afterwards. Sadly, this makes it an ideal winner.

When in doubt, the Oscars always go for the safest, least offensive choice. In theory, the uplifting Gravity should take it. But something's stopping me from picking it. I just can't see the Academy choosing a big budget, high-grossing, 3D space movie as Best Picture. There's just not enough depth to it. 12 Years is important, epic and historical and we know from past years that's a "can't miss" proposition for voters. They can feel good about themselves rewarding it, while Gravity picks up all the technical awards and Cuaron wins for Director.

David O. Russell, “American Hustle”
Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity”
Alexander Payne, “Nebraska”
Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”
Martin Scorsese, “The Wolf of Wall Street”

*Cuaron's going to win this and I'm not so sure how I feel about that considering his direction of Bullock actually prevented the actress from giving a performance that would've insured her a second Oscar. Also, with these types of effects driven vehicles, we're never sure how much of its success can be attributed to the visual effects team. In this case, it's likely a lot. But no other director here (aside from maybe McQueen) stands much of a chance. David O. Russell's day is coming. Just not yet. The Best Picture and Director categories "usually" match but I'm thinking this will be one of those strange years we have a split. The situation definitely call for it. 

Christian Bale, “American Hustle”
Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”

*Alright, alright, alright. For McConaughey, this Oscar will be as much a reward for The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike, Bernie, Killer Joe, The Paperboy, Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street and that little show he has on HBO as it is for Dallas Buyers Club. He's essentially getting a career achievement award for three years worth of work in which he resuscitated a career clinging to life support. Few would argue he deserves it. So does Leo, but McConaughey's riding all the momentum now. He can put this Oscar on a mantle where it'll await company from the Emmy he'll  receive for True Detective, which most will be watching instead of this telecast.

Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”
Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”
Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”
Jonah Hill, “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”

*This one should be wide open, but it isn't. In a perfect world, Jonah Hill would win, but most voters probably think a second nomination is reward enough for now. No biggie. In a couple of years he'll probably be nominated for his role as suspected 1996 Olympic park bomber Richard Jewell (in a movie I've been patiently waiting 18 long years for someone to make). So there's that to look forward to. But this one belongs to Leto, who's playing a transgender with AIDS. With a part like that, does it even matter how the performance was? There's also a built-in comeback story, with the actor/musician having not made a film in 6 years. He'll win easily.

Amy Adams, “American Hustle”
Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”
Judi Dench, “Philomena”
Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”

*Even more of a lock than Best Actor. It's Cate Blanchett's to lose, regardless of whatever Woody Allen did or didn't do twenty years ago. Bullock won too recently. Streep's mandatory inclusion for anything is starting to become the Academy's longest running joke at this point. Dench is actually a bigger threat than people think, while 5 (!) time nominee Amy Adams is probably Blanchett's stiffest competition. She won't win though. Blanchett's performance is just too strong. That they're rewarding an excellent actress who deserves recognition is just icing on the cake. This outcome was a foregone conclusion months ago.

Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”
June Squibb, “Nebraska”
Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”
Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”

*In a category famous for upsets, this is the night's closest race. Any of these women can win (well, except Julia Roberts). It's really between J-Law and Nyong'o and it's very, very close. On one hand, I can't see them giving Lawrence an Oscar two years in a row. Then again, it's Jennifer Lawrence. But you'd figure this is as good a category as any to reward 12 Years, while also endorsing a promising newcomer. I'm going with Nyong'o but using a pencil. I could easily change my mind before the show.

“American Hustle” – Written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
“Blue Jasmine” – Written by Woody Allen
“Her” – Written by Spike Jonze
“Nebraska” – Written by Bob Nelson
“Dallas Buyers Club” – Written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack

* I guess we'll leave the debate as to whether Blue Jasmine should even qualify as an original screenplay for another time. This is very close between American Hustle and Her, with the latter having an edge since Jonze's script is ultimately what that film's best remembered for. With Hustle, it's more the performances. I'm not even that big a fan of Her but will have to admit the screenplay is incredibly inventive and intelligent. If it deserves to win anything, it's this.

“Before Midnight” – Written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
“Captain Phillips” – Screenplay by Billy Ray
“Philomena” – Screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
“12 Years a Slave” – Screenplay by John Ridley
“The Wolf of Wall Street” – Screenplay by Terence Winter

*This and Best Editing are the categories Captain Phillips really has a chance at. But once again you can file a potential 12 Years victory here under "it has to get something else," if it also wins Best Picture.  Similarly, Adapted Screenplay seems like a worthy consolation prize should the film fall short in the bigger categories.

“The Grandmaster” Phillipe Le Sourd
“Gravity” Emmanuel Lubezki
“Inside Llewyn Davis” Bruno Delbonnel
“Nebraska” Phedon Papamichael
“Prisoners” Roger A. Deakins

*This seems as good a time as any for the Academy to create some kind of separate category for effects driven films. Of course, the big joke is that we already have that category. It's called "Best Visual Effects." I'm just not sure how comfortable I am having the great Roger Deakins lose for the 11th time to a movie mostly shot on sound stages against a green screen while other deserving contenders like Spring Breakers, Rush and The Bling Ring are left out altogether. It just seems more like technology than cinematography. I'm fine with them honoring it. Just not here. Which means Lubezski will probably win.

“Alone Yet Not Alone” from “Alone Yet Not Alone”
Music by Bruce Broughton; Lyric by Dennis Spiegel
“Happy” from “Despicable Me 2”
Music and Lyric by Pharrell Williams
“Let It Go” from “Frozen”
Music and Lyric by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
“The Moon Song” from “Her”
Music by Karen O; Lyric by Karen O and Spike Jonze
“Ordinary Love” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”
Music by Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen; Lyric by Paul Hewson

*Now that everyone has heard Pharrell's "Happy" and knows how good it is, it's kind of unbelievable voters would even consider giving this to anything else. But that's the Academy for you. Frozen's probably winning, even if I hope I'm wrong. It also wouldn't surprise me if U2 pulls this off given the prestige factor. This and the Documentary category are the only instances where I can honestly say the Academy infuriates me by consistently failing to nominate the best contenders and making head-scratching decisions on an annual basis. Luckily, the original songs are actually being performed on the show this year. I just wish (with the exception of "Happy") that they were better.

“The Croods”
“Despicable Me 2”
“Ernest and Celestine”
“The Wind Rises”

Michael Wilkinson, “American Hustle”
William Chang Suk Ping, “The Grandmaster”
Catherine Martin, “The Great Gatsby”
Michael O’Connor, “The Invisible Woman”
Patricia Norris, “12 Years a Slave”

“The Act of Killing”Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sørensen
“Cutie and the Boxer” Zachary Heinzerling and Lydia Dean Pilcher
“Dirty Wars” Richard Rowley and Jeremy Scahill
“The Square” Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer
“20 Feet from Stardom” Nominees to be determined

“CaveDigger” Jeffrey Karoff
“Facing Fear” Jason Cohen
“Karama Has No Walls” Sara Ishaq
“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed
“Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall” Edgar Barens

“American Hustle” Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten
“Captain Phillips” Christopher Rouse
“Dallas Buyers Club” John Mac McMurphy and Martin Pensa
“Gravity” Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Sanger
“12 Years a Slave” Joe Walker

“The Broken Circle Breakdown,” Belgium
“The Great Beauty,” Italy
“The Hunt,” Denmark
“The Missing Picture,” Cambodia
“Omar,” Palestine

“Dallas Buyers Club” Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews
“Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” Stephen Prouty
“The Lone Ranger” Joel Harlow and Gloria Pasqua-Casny

John Williams, “The Book Thief”
Steven Price, “Gravity”
William Butler and Owen Pallett, “Her”
Alexandre Desplat, “Philomena”
Thomas Newman, “Saving Mr. Banks”

“American Hustle”
Production Design: Judy Becker; Set Decoration: Heather Loeffler
Production Design: Andy Nicholson; Set Decoration: Rosie Goodwin and Joanne Woollard
“The Great Gatsby”
Production Design: Catherine Martin; Set Decoration: Beverley Dunn
Production Design: K.K. Barrett; Set Decoration: Gene Serdena
“12 Years a Slave”
Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Set Decoration: Alice Baker

“Feral” Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden
“Get a Horse!” Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim
“Mr. Hublot” Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares
“Possessions” Shuhei Morita
“Room on the Broom” Max Lang and Jan Lachauer

“Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)” Esteban Crespo
“Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just before Losing Everything)” Xavier Legrand and Alexandre Gavras
“Helium” Anders Walter and Kim Magnusson
“Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)” Selma Vilhunen and Kirsikka Saari
“The Voorman Problem” Mark Gill and Baldwin Li

“All Is Lost” Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns
“Captain Phillips” Oliver Tarney
“Gravity” Glenn Freemantle
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” Brent Burge
“Lone Survivor” Wylie Stateman

“Captain Phillips” Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith and Chris Munro
“Gravity” Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead and Chris Munro
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” Christopher Boyes, Michael Hedges, Michael Semanick and Tony Johnson
“Inside Llewyn Davis” Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff and Peter F. Kurland
“Lone Survivor” Andy Koyama, Beau Borders and David Brownlow

“Gravity” Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk and Neil Corbould
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and Eric Reynolds
“Iron Man 3” Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash and Dan Sudick
“The Lone Ranger” Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams and John Frazier
“Star Trek Into Darkness” Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Ben Grossmann and Burt Dalton