Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey



Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Rita Ora
Running Time: 125 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The most shocking thing about the hotly anticipated film adaptation of E.L. James' best selling cultural phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey is how shocking it isn't. But is that even really a surprise? Going in, the big question was always going to be how they'd be able to make a mainstream 'R' rated picture out of material begging for an 'NC-17.' Well, director Sam Taylor-Johnson has, and the result is understandably compromised, as it's clear the battle for control wasn't just limited to the two lead characters on screen. This is a story of two movies: A darker, twisted one with interesting ideas struggling to break through and the one we actually get, an almost hilariously inappropriate romantic drama with certain scenes that could easily double as SNL skits. Others, meanwhile, border on being tediously repetitive and boring. And yet there are many moments when the movie actually feels somewhat subversive, possessing this clever sense of humor about itself when it turns the tables before its dud of an ending.

That this is much closer to being a success than you'd think can mostly be attributed to Dakota Johnson, who will deservedly emerge as a huge star off the back of this. But those who remember know it's been a long time coming. Say what you will about the finished product, but it's tough to claim it doesn't have a strong, independent female protagonist at its center. But the whole thing is a perplexing near-miss that leaves you wondering what the result could have been with a little more creative polishing and a less blatant attempt at translating erotic female fantasies into ticket sales. But who am I to say? Their plan apparently worked. 

Washington State University senior Anastasia Steele (Johnson), is a mousy, "girl next door" English lit major filling in for her ill roommate for a college newspaper interview with wealthy, 27-year-old entrepreneur Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) at his Seattle offices. Upon her arrival, the clumsy Ana doesn't appear to make the strongest of first impressions, tripping before being intimidated and overwhelmed by the mysterious, enigmatic Grey. Despite struggling through an extremely uncomfortable batch of questions, he's still understandably charmed by her shyness, intelligence and beauty.

Ana leaves their meeting all hot and bothered, while he's intrigued enough to later track her down the hardware store she works. It just so happens he's looking for some duct tape, cable ties and, of course, rope. We know where this is going even if the virginal Ana doesn't, at least at first. Grey slowly indoctrinates her into his sadomasochistic world, eventually revealing his hidden "Red Room" of BDSM toys and contraptions. Confronted with very real feelings for Mr. Grey and the prospect of a written agreement making her his submissive in more ways than one, Ana attempts to get closer to someone who's idea of caring is (literally) tied up in a vicious cycle of punishment and dominance. As she's discovering, he's got some issues.

The film's biggest strength is that Ana really seems to react to this evolving situation as the mousy, intimidated 21-year-old virgin who walked into his office would. She's at first intrigued, before being turned on, then genuinely scared when she realizes this is much more than she bargained for. A lot of tiny details feel right, like the fact that she has a flip phone or that Christians parents (specifically his mom, played by Marcia Gay Harden) are nice, well adjusted people who really like their son's new girlfriend, since it's hard to believe anyone wouldn't. The cold, sterile production design  also does an effective job conveying Grey's icy, emotionless world, with each clean, empty setting looking as if it could have been ripped from the pages of Architectural Digest.

Where Kelly Marcel's script gets into trouble is when the tone of the film starts suggesting a sweeping romantic fantasy (supported by a soundtrack of snooze worthy cover songs) centered around this guy's deviant, emotionally destructive behavior. Having not read the novel, I'm only guessing this is the aspect of James' entire premise that's most widely mocked, inevitably hampering whoever eventually signed on to write or direct this material. The irony is that the "Red Room" scenes, while getting away with as much as humanly possible under an 'R' rating, pale in comparison to the uncomfortable behavior Grey exhibits with his non-disclosure agreement and binding contract. For all the talk of this being a female fantasy, the film's so loaded with full frontal female nudity that it plays much more to the guys. But given the nature of the story, that kind of makes perfect sense.   

The line between dark and mysterious and creepy and weird is crossed at many points by the borderline stalker Christian Grey. Part of that problem is the casting of a wooden, nondescript Jamie Dornan, whose only identifiable trait is that no one would be able tell him apart from Man of Steel's Henry Cavill. Robotic and emotionless, this could be a faithful interpretation of the character from the novel, but that doesn't help in making it any less boring on screen. The original choice of Sons of Anarchy's Charlie Hunnam would have worked better since he'd be better able to convey that quality necessary to convince anyone to do what he wants. With Dornan in the role I had problems believing this guy could even run a company, as Mr. Grey comes off more like Mr. Bland.

As the "relationship" progresses, the change in Ana's entire demeanor and appearance is gradual, but subtle and entirely realistic. That's all Dakota's performance. If part of this movie's goal was to take her to the next level of stardom, she delivered and then some. You could probably name a long list of actresses who on paper who have been better for the role (and some who were actually considered), but it's doubtful they would have sold the transformation Ana goes through as well, or escaped the film with the audience still on their side. There's no doubt she's the best thing in this.

Supposedly, this film is a huge improvement over the novel, doing away with some goofier elements, like Ana's interior monologue. Forgive me for just taking everyone's word on that and omitting it from my summer reading list. And considering the book was originally conceived as a piece Twilight fan fiction, we could probably guess who's to blame for much of what doesn't work in the adaptation, especially considering rumors the author exerted creative control over every aspect of the production. It's most evident in the disappointing climax (sorry), which feels like a sudden, jarring stop even by cliffhanger standards. Having read the details of one potential alternate ending, be assured it's far superior and would have made viewers heavily contemplate who's in control and what exactly that means. Maybe they just didn't think we could handle it.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Better Call Saul (Season 1)


 

Creators: Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould
Starring: Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, Michael Mando, Michael McKean, Jeremy Shamos, Julie Ann Emery, Kerry Condon, Mel Rodriguez
Original Airdate: 2015

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

                           **Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Contains Plot Spoilers for Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad** 

There's a scene in "Pimento," the penultimate episode of Better Call Saul's premiere season, in which there's a reveal that causes us to rethink everything we thought we knew about these characters up until then. It literally changes the trajectory of the entire series, forcing us to evaluate just how high the ceiling for this show can really get. While it's only a slight stretch to say underachieving public defender Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) enters this devastating conversation as a likeable screw-up, only to exit it as Saul Goodman, he's definitely well on his way. This just speeds up the process.

Better Call Saul Title Card
If "prequel" is a dirty word and the surest sign of oncoming creative bankruptcy, then "spin-off" is an even dirtier one. Combining them both is a recipe for failure, especially when you consider it's a spin-off of arguably the greatest dramatic television series of all-time. And if we're really being honest, few were clamoring for the origin story of Walter White's sleazy, wisecracking "criminal lawyer" Saul Goodman, as entertaining as he was in small doses.

Would this be a half-hour comedy? An hour-long drama? Neither? How much would it resemble Breaking Bad, if at all? Expectations weren't exactly high, and no one quiet knew how to feel about the possibility of that show's sacred universe being tinkered with in any way. And yet somehow, someway the finished product manages to be reminiscent of the show that inspired it while still being nothing like it at all. It sure isn't perfect, nor necessarily as focused or consistent as it needs to be yet, but the potential moving forward is cause for legitimate excitement.

Any fears  this character couldn't carry a show prove to be unfounded, as co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould far surpass expectations to deliver a first season that's not just as good as it could possibly be under challenging circumstances, but better. And it's doubtful anyone thought we'd be talking about Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean being a shoo-ins for an Emmys. In other words, it's mostly all good, man.

Jimmy/Saul's future as Cinnabon manager, "Gene"
In true Breaking Bad form, the series begins with a flash-forward, picking up after the events of that series have concluded. Filmed in stark black-and-white, we see Saul making good on his promise to Walt that he'll be managing a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska. That's exactly where he is, balding, mustachioed and stuck in a humdrum work routine under an assumed identity after Walt's trail of crime forced him out of Albuquerque. His only joy seemingly comes when pouring a drink and watching old Saul Goodman commercials in his recliner, even if the events in this initial season call into question whether he's instead mourning that time, contemplating what could have been.

The series then begins in 2002, before he was Saul and six years prior to when he takes the country's most famous chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin on as his client. He's Jimmy McGill, a struggling public defender in Albuquerque working out of the back of a nail salon while caring for his older brother, Chuck (McKean), a respected attorney who's now been left an emotionally crippled recluse from electromagnetic sensitivity. And Jimmy's battle with Chuck's law partner Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) to cash out his incapacitated brother's share in Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill has put best friend and HHM associate Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) in an impossibly difficult position, compromising her personal and professional loyalties.

Jimmy also manages to get under the skin of courthouse tollbooth attendant Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), with whom he eventually forms an uneasy alliance to take down white collar criminal couple, The Kettlemans (Julie Ann Emery and Jeremy Shamus). Desperate to leave his con artist past behind and earn respectability as a lawyer, Jimmy struggles to to do the right thing, even as outside forces pull him in the other direction, inching him closer to a criminal future as shady attorney Saul Goodman.

One of many visual callbacks to Breaking Bad
Initially, the first few episodes become a game of feeling the series out and counting the call-backs to Breaking Bad, some so covertly placed they almost requires multiple viewings to take in. But if it were just about that, the show wouldn't work, and there is a concern early on it will occur as the show attempts to find its creative footing. The pilot ("Uno") provides an absorbing, if methodically paced introduction to Jimmy and the cast of characters surrounding him, as well as a reminder of just how much we've missed the city of Albuquerque as a setting, as cinematographer Arthur Albert (taking over for BrBa's Michael Slovis) goes to great lengths to make it the show's most prominent character. Many shots visually echo its predecessor like mirror without coming off as a cheap copy since they're often almost equally astounding and fun to compare. 

Between the familiar locations and cold opens that categorized BrBa as a TV institution, it's clear this series will at least be to treading some of that common ground. It's hard not to compare Jimmy's ugly Suzuki Esteem to Walt's Pontiac Aztek or look at the entire Cinnabon flash-forward as the Walter Whitewashing of Saul/Jimmy, complete with cooking segments and a physical appearance that even resembles his depressed, loserish client in that show's pilot episode. Where it deviates sharpest is in tone, mainly because the flashier, more overtly comedic protagonist of this series calls for a different approach from Gilligan and Gould.. At times it more closely resembles FX's darkly comic miniseries Fargo in that the humor's so twisted it's always threatening to spill over into dramatic tragedy.

The least interesting material in this series often involves the heavier crime stuff, like the brief reemergence of BrBa's Tuco Salamanca (guest star Raymond Cruz), whose surprise appearance comes off as little more than fan service. While there's little doubt it's exciting to see him in his pre-meth king days, that's tempered by knowing no matter how intense it gets, no real harm can come to Jimmy on his way toward becoming the flamboyant, scheming Saul. Tuco's appearance is merely the catalyst for introducing him to the criminal world and opening the door for Nacho (Michael Mando), who's clearly being established as a major player. But it's Jimmy McGill's figurative death that this series hinges on, as a clearer picture is painted of how a guy seemingly so committed to getting on the straight and narrow, fell off the morality wagon.

A flashback to Jimmy's con artist past
Jimmy's personal relationships that provide the show's most compelling moments, as well as his desire to shed the "Slippin' Jimmy" con man reputation he cultivated back in Chicago with best friend and partner in crime, Marco (Mel Rodriguez). Or at least that's before big brother rescued him from a potential future behind bars. Chuck, mental illness notwithstanding, is established the successful, straight-laced attorney Jimmy could never be since he's his own worst enemy.

Just as Gilligan utilized masterful cold opens from the past, present and future to convey valuable information and flesh out characters over Breaking Bad's five seasons, the same approach helps establish the dynamics of Jimmy and Chuck's relationship here. And it's a complicated one we think we understand until the wool is pulled over our eyes, causing us to question what we thought was true about their relationship.

We're also forced to rethink how much Odenkirk was capable of as an actor and whether he'd be able to carry an hour-long series requiring him to flex some of the same dramatic muscles Bryan Cranston did, albeit with a bit more comedy thrown in. And while no performer's work (on TV or otherwise) over the past decade compares with Cranston's, just the mere fact Odenkirk's opened up such a conversation in only ten episodes has to be viewed as a promising sign. He took what was previously an effective comedic sidekick and filled him with a depth and complexity that no only stands on its own in this series, but could potentially enrich minor elements of Breaking Bad on subsequent viewings.

Chuck runs for cover in his space blanket.
Comic veteran Michael McKean, even less known as a dramatic actor than Odenkirk, has a surprisingly emotional arc as this control-obsessed man paralyzed by this mysterious condition that strangely seems both out of his hands and of his own making. He has this incredible scene where it's evident just how debilitating this illness is, as a trip out the front door to retrieve the paper in space blanket (Episode 1.4, "Hero") becomes this hilarious and heartbreaking freak show that caused me to simultaneously laugh and cringe with disbelief. In a clever bit of foreshadowing, it also demonstrates just how far Chuck's willing to go to prove Jimmy wrong and fit him into the box in which he always believed he belonged.

At first, Chuck's partner at the firm, Howard Hamlin, seems to be set up as a stock villain, seizing on his vulnerability and screwing Jimmy over at every turn. And watching what appears to be a one-note performance of sleaze from Patrick Fabian, there's no reason to think otherwise. Until there is, and you gain a greater appreciation for just how much he was doing with the character, causing a total reevaluation of his intentions throughout the ten episodes. Similarly, Jimmy's best friend (and maybe more) Kim would seem initially to be another throwaway, but over the course of the season she also gains resonance as the only person who actually believes in and supports his legal ambitions, even going so far as to put her own future at HHM on the line.

The more we get of Rhea Seehorn in the Kim role, the more she excels, and her scenes opposite Odenkirk are some of the most fun and playful of the series, even as she still manages to make the character both the toughest and most vulnerable in the series. Of all the similarities with Breaking Bad, Jimmy and Kim's relationship just might be the biggest, as its hard not to think of the flashback scenes of Walt with Gretchen, and how that damaged relationship served as the inciting incident that eventually led to his dark transformation. Already with more screen time than that sub-plot, you have to believe whatever causes Jimmy to become a "criminal lawyer" will somehow involve Kim.

Mike Ehrmantraut's backstory is explored in "Five-O"
Highly anticipated as it's been, the glimpse into how Jonathan Banks' Mike Ehrmantraut became Saul Goodman's "fixer" and Gus Fring's right hand man is one of the least eventful arcs of the season. To be fair, it's very early, but this is the where you start to see some of the inherent limitations of a prequel. Because Mike was such a specific character viewers got to know so much about on BrBa through his memorably agitated, hangdog facial expressions and violent code of honor, there was a real danger in actually fleshing out his past. A past that didn't need to be conveyed since Banks already did such an exceptional job of it with so few words.

The Mike-centric episode (1.6, "Five-O"), detailing the tragedy he suffered as a cop in Philly that drove him out west is the bleakest, comic-free of the season. It might also be the least interesting since you could easily guess most of what it entails. Thankfully, that doesn't make Banks' powerful performance any less impressive, even if most of its content confirms why Mike is strongest as a supporting character rather than the lead. As a one-off it's fine, but it's still a reminder that the last thing we'd want is a gritty cop prequel series centered on him. Starting off as a court parking attendant harassing (and being harassed by) Jimmy, it takes a little while before he gets out of the booth, but their interplay once he does is predictably satisfying.

The decision to show how Mike evolves from retired cop and ostracized grandfather to career criminal was always a no-brainer, but his biggest draw as a character was always how viewers never had to stop and question why this old man's such a bad ass. Doing that will be tricky, since he was the one Gilligan creation who specifically benefited from a lack of backstory. But it does but into clearer context the protectiveness he showed for Jesse in Breaking Bad, perhaps making those scenes and that relationship resonate stronger on repeated viewings. All this could also make Mike's eventual death at Walt's hands play more tragically if revisited with a better understanding of his past. It's cruelly ironic (and not at all coincidental) that Mike's first big job in this series involves a drug deal with a nerdier, more incompetent version of Walter White. It's little touches like that lift the series and convince us surprises are still possible within the confines of a prequel format.

Slippin' Jimmy in action
Jimmy ends the season (Episode 1.10, "Marco") much closer to becoming Saul Goodman, but maybe not as close as we thought he'd be. No loud ties yet. No inflatable Statue of Liberty or Constitutional wallpaper. But just as the revealingly crude title sequences hint that it's coming, so does the story. But the bigger question just might be who's responsible. Is his brother right? Is this a man who was always incapable of change? His future actions in Breaking Bad suggest Slippin' Jimmy with a law degree is very much a "chimpanzee with a machine gun." But this first season speculates whether it had to be that way and how much of it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, resulting from his insecure, know-it-all brother holding him down. If it were up to Chuck, Jimmy would spend his life in the HHM mail room or at best relegated to continuing to practice elder law.

There's this possibility teased throughout that Jimmy turned over a new leaf and had the potential to be as great and respected a defense attorney, albeit in a far different style than his brother. In court, we see he has the skills, but the big surprise of the season is that his worst enemy doesn't end up being himself, but the one person he always trusted to have his back. We still don't know what happened to Chuck to cause his mental break, even if his actions speak to something deeper and more resentful. There's also a history between Jimmy and Kim that's yet to be fully explored.

The big question is what happens when Gould and Gilligan inch closer to the Breaking Bad timeline. Do they flash a title card on the screen telling us to watch that series and come back? There's also tons of speculation as to when the inevitable Walt and Jesse appearances take place, when Gus Fring enters the picture, and how much  more of Cinnabon manager "Gene" we'll get to see. And it wouldn't take many leaps in logic for Jesse to show up in Nebraska, or for Saul, like Walt, to triumphantly return to Albuquerque to finish business as Jimmy. The possibilities really are endless.


Kim and Jimmy share a smoke
So far, the show's bread has been buttered with Jimmy's dysfunctional relationship with his brother and his bond with Kim, but it's easy to imagine neither lasting since anyone who didn't appear in Breaking Bad is fair game for a "trip to Belize," so to speak. In the meantime, there's more than enough to keep viewers occupied besides the mythology. It's unlikely Better Call Saul reaches even an eighth of the heights of its predecessor just because the stakes can't possibly be what they were on that series. But the best news is that by the season finale, it's hard to argue that it's not already better than most of what's on TV right now.                         

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Interstellar



Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Mackenzie Foy, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace David Oyelowo
Running Time: 169 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Well, at least we can't continue claiming there aren't any fresh, original ideas left in movies. Christopher Nolan's gigantic sci-fi think piece, Interstelllar, is full of them. Whether I could explain them or decipher what they all mean is another issue entirely but no one could leave the film disappointed that it didn't have enough to say. Every time a space-set sci-fi entry is released, inevitable comparisons to the trailblazing 2001: A Space Odyssey are made, whether warranted or not. Here, they are, and not just visually either. With an overreaching ambition that spans across time, space and humanity, Nolan hasn't just swung for the fences, he's run right through them. If someone asked me to explain what exactly occurs in the film's final hour, I'd give it a decent shot, but would likely fail. But it is surprising that many of these scientific facts do hold up to logical scrutiny even when the actual plot's gone too far off the deep end.

At times, you'll be wondering if this has anything to do with science at all or co-screenwriters Christopher and Jonathan Nolan are just making this up as they go along. It turns out they're not, as Caltech physicist Kip Thorne actually consulted on the film and it's at its best when playing in those waters, which is luckily 80 percent of its running time. Faltering only when awash in Spielbergian sentimentality that's partially earned, the whole thing is kind of unprecedented terms of the number of influences it draws from. If Kubrick, Spielberg and Shyamalan raised a cinematic child, it would be called Interstellar, so it's easy to understand how it's garnered such polarizing reactions.  It may take years to calculate or comprehend its creative worth, but any picture aiming this high had little chance at achieving perfection. Instead, it's Nolan's most gloriously imperfect endeavor, and one sure to be discussed and analyzed for a while to come.

In the near-future on a resource-depleted Earth, former military pilot and NASA astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is struggling to run the family farm the midst of a crop blight that's slowly destroying civilization. His 10-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) is not only struggling in school in the wake of her mom's death, but claims her room is being haunted by poltergeists. But these "ghosts" are really unidentifiable intelligence leaving coordinates to a secret NASA facility being overseen by Professor John Brand (Michael Caine).

Brand's discovered a wormhole by Saturn leading to three potentially habitable planets in the galaxy that could offer a chance for humanity's survival. Cooper joins Brand's daughter, biotechnologist Amelia (Anne Hathaway), scientists Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley) and a pair of robots named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) and CASE (voiced by Josh Stewart) aboard the Endurance shuttle in search of a new home. But the clock keeps ticking faster, as Cooper's torn between reuniting with his family on Earth and insuring the future of the human race. 

The opening hour of the film is confounding, with the viewer dropped into this post-apocalyptic wasteland without much of sense of time or location. Nolan trusts us to figure it out  Everything that happens initially becomes clearer by the end, but what a strange trip it is getting there. With depleted resources and the crop crisis, the biggest fear early on is that we're heading into Shyamalan territory. The mention of poltergeists and the appearance of a rogue NASA unit operating as covertly as the CIA, does little to quell those concerns. Fortunately, the explanation of the mission doesn't involve aliens or Twilight Zone twists, but a very real mission more rooted in scientific fact and placed into fantastical fiction. It's when the crew takes off and enters that wormhole that the craziness begins and the story starts to peel its many layers.

Rarely has a space epic been so thoroughly concerned with the passage of time and all the consequences surrounding it.The realization of a massive gravitational time dilation ends up being the foundation on which all the film's most powerful themes rest, with one hour on the surface equivalent to seven years on Earth. It is a "race against time" in the strictest, most literal sense, as each minute Cooper spends investigating could represent a birthday missed or a wedding passed. And the more details we learn of Professor Brand's plan, the less likely Cooper's reunion with his kids seems, especially considering they're now adults his age.

The moment Jessica Chastain takes over for Mackenzie Foy as Murph is emotionally brutal, if not only for the transmissions Cooper sees from home, but the moral quandary the screenplay presents, testing the boundaries of sacrifice and selflessness. It's the ferry boat dilemma from The Dark Knight taken to a cosmic scale with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance. Well suited to their roles, Chastain and Casey Affleck are completely plausible as the adult counterparts of Cooper's kids 23 years later, with Murph still harboring a grudge against her father for abandoning them. When their story of trying to survive on an inhabitable Earth starts to take center stage, Nolan juggles it well with the ongoing space mission, which quickly deteriorates from a potential return home to a race against the clock.

For the first time since 1997's largely underrated Contact, McConaughey finds himself in a giant sci-fi space epic, and while he was clearly the weak there, he's now entering this project as not only an recent Oscar winner, but ten times the actor he used to be. Much more relaxed and confident as a performer compared to his rookie years, he must this time carry the entire load of this movie on his back, appearing in every scene and selling some pretty heady stuff in the third act. He's a farmer, father, pilot and equally adept at playing each and all in a role that actually earns him all those Paul Newman comparisons that have been made over the years.

Anne Hathaway joining McConaughey enables us to watch two of the best at the top of their game, feeding off each other with their characters' differing philosophies toward the missions' ultimate purpose and steps toward fulfilling it. The biggest discussion point isn't whether Hathaway's more believable as an astronaut and scientist than Sandra Bullock was in Gravity (hint: she is), but just how much she manages to do with Brand's eyes and subtle facial expressions. That's why it's disappointing whenever Nolan gives her too much to say about feelings that should be demonstrated rather than discussed. There's a cringe worthy speech she has in the vessel about that would have been unbearable had any actress but Hathaway delivered it. In a way, when given clunky dialogue she proves just how good she is, as this deserves to rank amongst her most rewarding performances.

There's also a third major name uncredited the film whose identity has been concealed in the advertising for mostly valid reasons. It's not a well kept secret, but I was still completely taken aback by the magnitude and importance of the part, which heavily informs the film's themes. Again taking from the Spielberg playbook, it can't be a coincidence that the character is named "Mann" given the nature of the role, which is fleshed out to perfection by the star playing him.

Viewers wouldn't even need to be told that this project forgoes the use of CGI in favor of practical effects and miniatures since it's plainly obvious just watching it. Or maybe I should say it's not obvious at all, since the effects sequences don't call attention to itself like green screen work so often does. If ever there was a case not to use it, Nolan wisely knew it was here, as a hard science fiction tale with big ideas is basically begging for a traditional approach that's the antithesis of what's in theaters now, making it easy to see why he rejected a 3D release. While there were supposedly numerous complaints from those who saw it on the big screen about the sound drowning out dialogue, the only sound-related issue that caught my attention was Hans Zimmer's score, which seemed to be constant in every scene, as rarely a minute passes without it. 

It's questionable whether the ending's a complete success. It is somewhat incomprehensible and gutsy, not to mention the closest mashup of the 2001 "stargate" sequence and the final scenes of A.I. as we're going to get, strangely without cribbing either. There's again probably a bit too much discussion about what Cooper's experiencing to reach the transcendent heights Nolan's aiming for, but we could only hope an eighth of the movies released each year had as much ambition as this picture's final hour. It isn't strictly a survival story set in space, as Gravity was, but a hardcore sci-fi fable hinging on thoughtful ideas  As if it wasn't already apparent, Nolan solidifies his status as a visionary storyteller whose decision to leave the Batman franchise is justified by just how much he has to say outside of it. While many currently rank this effort among his least and most flawed, I'm not entirely sure whether that assessment will stick. Ironically enough, that's something time will have determine.       
       

Monday, March 23, 2015

Wild



Director: Jean-Marc Vallée'
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Keene McRae, Micheal Huisma, Gaby Hoffmann, W. Earl Brown, Kevin Rankin, Brian Van Holt, Cliff DeYoung, Charles Baker, Cathryn de Prumn
Running Time: 115 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Sight unseen, the general consensus going into Jean-Marc Vallée's Wild was that it seemed from its trailers and commercials to be another Into The Wild, but with Reese Witherspoon. And while merging one of my favorite films and actresses into a single project should be a sure bet, the constant comparisons instead made me uneasy. The imposing shadow of Sean Penn's 2007 film looms large enough to wonder how this could possibly step out of it when that similar story carries a power few biographical adaptations possess. Based on Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir, "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail," its author and title give away that Strayed survived her journey, one of the details that separates her from Christopher McCandliss. Another is motivation. While he spontaneously left for the wilderness to escape a society he felt was stifling him, both finding and destroying himself in the process, Strayed's purpose was to escape herself and a tragedy with which she couldn't cope.

Unlike McCandliss, who never had any plans to return, Strayed's trip was always meant to be temporary, designed to give her the fuel to rebuild her life and reach a sort of self actualization. Other than that, their trajectories and the films inspired by them are so remarkably similar you'd think their paths crossed. Journal entries, flashbacks, voiceovers. It should be a screenwriting nightmare, but what worked then works again now. With Witherspoon holding us under her spell with her deepest, most meaningful work since winning the Oscar for Walk The Line, it succeeds on its own terms, somehow proving there is room for both. There are surface similarities, but Wild's style and execution sets it apart from any survival story preceding it.

Four years after the death of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) makes a decision to hike over a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail to cleanse herself of the mess her life's become following that tragedy. Having cheated on her husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski) and spiraled into an addictive pattern of drug abuse and promiscuity, she sees the trek as the only way to find the person her mother said she could someday be. And since drifting away from everyone from her life in Minnesota, including younger brother Leif (Keene McRae) and best friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffmann), it'll have to be done alone, braving the elements, but often aided and kept company by the memorable people she meets along the way. Well prepared and powered almost entirely by pure emotion, Cheryl frequently endangers herself to complete the hike, hoping to arrive on the other side with a renewed sense of clarity and purpose that's been absent since her mother's passing.

Rather than going the more expected route of telling Cheryl's backstory then leading up to the actual hike, the film does both at once, intercutting flashbacks of her life within the chronological depiction of the grueling hike. The danger she encounters often comes from unexpected places and people, even if she's seemingly always alert and well-prepared for what could come her way. Perhaps the biggest difference between this and Into The Wild is that Cheryl's rarely flying by the seat of her pants or falls prone to rash decision-making. And while her journey does come off as spontaneous to an extent, it looks to have been meticulously planned out and researched, which is noteworthy considering this takes place in a pre-internet era.

Watching her struggle with a near 60-pound backpack, it's fair to say she's come overprepared, as she finds out in a memorable scene in which a seasoned hiker helps her lose some worthless supplies to cut weight.  It's just the kind of mistake a really smart, but inexperienced person would make and it's in those small details that Nick Hornsby's script is sharpest. You'd hard-pressed to name another film in this genre where we see exactly what supplies are brought, then have them show up later to advance the plot. It also contains a rare instance of justifiable product placement, dispensing revelatory information about a company doing something great that we wouldn't otherwise have known. It doesn't come off as a cheap plug because it's true and worth hearing about. More importantly, we believe this character would react strongly to it.

As much as this is a battle against the elements and an endurance test for Strayed, her biggest fight is being a woman hiking alone. It's a surprisingly big deal, but not at all for the reasons you'd expect and certainly not because the story is some kind of feminist manifesto or fluffy self-help journey like Eat, Pray, Love.  It's important because there's hardly a scene when we're not sitting on pins and needles fearing she'll be raped or sexually assaulted. It may be a controversial observation to make but it's impossible to deny this underlying (sometimes even blatant) threat exists during just about every leg of her journey. Vallée deserves credit for not brushing it under the rug, often making the viewer uncomfortably squirm with each tension-filled encounter. And it's not that he's implying Cheryl can't take of herself, but the dangers of a woman, or anyone, hiking the PCT alone and relying of the kindness of strangers doesn't come without a certain level of risk that requires the traveler to keep their guard up at all times.

Despite only nine years separating Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon, they're believable as mother and daughter throughout the stages of their characters' lives while also credibly passing for far younger than they actually are. These aren't interchangeable parts that could have been filled by any two actresses that have the chemistry and emotional shorthand they do, which is evident every time (and however briefly) they share the screen together. It's flippant to say any film or performance can really ever "capture" the grueling ordeal or immeasurable loss of losing a parent but these scenes would be brutally raw and uncomfortable watch for anyone.

In an odd way, the role of Cheryl Strayed falls right into Witherspoon's wheelhouse, especially when thinking back to all the tenacious characters she played that demonstrated an almost unfailing resourcefulness and determination. Strayed might be the first widely known hiker to overthink everything, approaching the entire journey overprepared and almost entirely too eager. It's the kind of single-minded dramatic character Reese has unfortunately (pardon the pun) strayed from in recent years, but thankfully revisits in an entirely different and challenging form here.

Those thinking she wouldn't dirty her hands in such a physically and emotionally demanding part is a classic misreading of her strengths, but given the lackluster rom-com projects she's taken over the past few years, you couldn't be blamed. It's fitting that the same director who helped cement Matthew McConaughey's comeback with his Oscar-winning role in Dallas Buyer's Club, succeeds again with Reese, only this time with a film twice as strong. Unlike that, it isn't a one-trick pony worth seeing only for the performances, containing way too much depth and visual splendor to be merely written off anything resembling a conventional biopic.

Dern's brief but impactful presence is both the source of its lightest and darkest moments as she's called upon with sometimes very little dialogue and only passing clips to depict the inner life and philosophy of this free-spirited single mom who isn't without her own flaws. The Oscar-nominated performance is in many ways a smaller-scaled counterpart to Patricia Arquette's winning one in the same category for Boyhood, but with Dern's Bobbi coming across as even more of a carefree hippie feeling her way around being a parent. While the impression will be that Witherspoon's role is a stretch for the actress, it's easy to imagine this character as an extension of Dern's actual personality. And since she delivers so much sincerity with relatively little, this added layer serves to only make her work resonate that much more.

One of my favorite aspects of any film is seeing a vaguely familiar or maybe even completely unknown actor or actress storm in for only a scene or two and just completely nail it, owning the movie in a matter of minutes. Given its narrative structure, Wild lends itself perfectly to such opportunities and doesn't disappoint, with a parade of actors lining up as Cheryl's various hike acquaintances and people from her past and present over the course of just under two hours. There's Kevin Rankin as a fellow hiker, Everclear's Art Alexakis as a tattoo artist and Breaking Bad's "Skinny Pete," Charles Baker, as a potentially dangerous hunter. To give them all away would spoil it, but the amount of cameos and single-scene performances from recognizable (if not necessarily identifiable) faces are seemingly endless. It isn't until Strayed reaches actual civilization in Ashland, Oregon that she really starts to gain perspective on what it all means and we're given as a valuable time marker alerting us of the year this took place. Being completely unfamiliar with the story, I didn't know until that moment.
    
As much as this be talked up as a spiritual journey of redemption, it's as much about failure as anything else since Strayed believes herself to be one as a wife, daughter, friend and sister before taking this adventure. The flashbacks are drenched in tragedy and self-destruction, but the most cathartic scene comes toward the end of the hike, nearly mirroring an equivalently timed breakdown scene that takes place in Into The Wild. It kind of comes out of nowhere, with the culmination of events piling on to hit viewers like a punch to the gut.

Some could have trouble getting into the film's rhythm, as it bucks convention to create a loose, free-flowing narrative in which images and memories flash before us, standing in stark contrast to a strict survival tale that takes us from point A to point B. In a crowded year, Wild went criminally overlooked and underappreciated by those who felt they've seen it before. But it proves to be a thrilling ride that connects on the most basic human level, leaving in its wake a complicated mixture of sadness and triumph.
           

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Dumb and Dumber To



Directors:  Bobby and Peter Farrelly
Starring: Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Laurie Holden, Kathleen Turner, Steve Tom, Rachel Melvin, Rob Riggle
Running Time: 109 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ (out of ★★★★) 

Twenty years is a long time to wait for a sequel. A lot has happened in movies since Dumb and Dumber was released 1994, including one unsuccessful 2003 prequel, Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, which isn't considered canonical (if such a word can even be applied this franchise). Long-delayed sequels are tricky though. Wait just long enough and an nostalgiac appetite builds amongst fans to see what's become of their favorite characters. But wait too long and it can feel as if the window of opportunity closed, the prospects of a sequel carrying decreasing relevance and even less excitement. But at least the pressure's finally off. That's the weird spot the original's directors, The Farrelly Brothers, find themselves in.

This is a sequel that feels like it's happening because it eventually had to. But if that's the case, it still could have been a great comedy that stayed true to the tone and style of the first film, one of the funniest of the 90's. Instead we get an overplotted, gross-out comedy that barely shows flashes of that, but feels mostly like it was written by a committee. The number of credited screenwriters only confirm it, and help explain why this took two decades to get off the ground. Maybe somewhere, there's unreleased footage of  half a dozen writers locked in a room trying to work out the painstaking details of Dumb and Dumber To's plot. Watching that may make for a better viewing experience, considering what does end up on screen curiously lacks so much of what made the original work.

Picking up exactly twenty years after the events of the first film, Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) has been committed to a psychiatric hospital, seemingly unable to talk or function, but frequently visited by his best friend, Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels). But it's all an obvious, but admittedly clever callback to the original, with Lloyd revealing his vegetative state to be a "brilliant" prank he's stretched out over two decades to get one over on Harry. Upon Lloyd's return to civilization, Harry reveals he's in dire need of a kidney and finds out from former flame Fraida Felcher (Kathleen Turner) the existence of a long-lost daughter named Penny Pinchelow (Rachel Melvin) who could be his potential donor. With this info, Harry and Lloyd embark on a road trip to track her down, which eventually takes them to a science convention in El Paso. But her adoptive family have other plans, especially stepmother Adele (Laurie Holden) and her housekeeper/lover Travis (Rob Riggle), who plot to steal her famous scientist husband's billion dollar mystery invention. Needless to say, Harry and Lloyd's presence complicate that.

While it's easy to look at the first film (or any favorite for that matter) through rose-colored nostalgia glasses, it's clear from the very first gag that something's off here, as it takes forever to get to a punchline delivered far smoother in the original. But it's actually the opening half of the film, in which we're reintroduced to Lloyd and Harry, that ends up being the strongest, promising that we might get something at least resembling a worthy, hilarious continuation. There are two moments that sent me howling to the floor with laughter and it's fitting that, like its predecessor, both play as almost effortless throwaways poking fun at the lead characters' stupidity. The first is a joke about an obituary while the other comes later and involves a hearing aid. But that's pretty much the extent of it as so much of the running time is spent trying to unravel an increasingly involved plot that piles on one twist and complication after another. The idea of Harry and Lloyd's presence at a science convention full of tech geeks should present a handful of potentially hilarious scenarios. Unfortunately, they burn out of them about half-way through and the final act becomes a slog to wade through.

As expected, Carrey and Daniels slide back into their roles with relative ease and are far from the problem. Still, something seems to be missing, or more accurately, holding them back. It's impossible to ignore the fact that we now have two fifty and sixty somethings trying to recreate characters they played twenty years ago. The project has been gestating for so long that both have gone from being major stars to needing a comeback to being stars again to to arriving at a point where we couldn't care less either way. Mostly, they do a serviceable job in the face of a "Why are we doing this?" feeling subtly permeating under the surface of every scene. Kathleen Turner is game as Harry's ex, if by "game" means she's again signed on to a comedy where her physical appearance is mocked. As Harry's daughter, Rachel Melvin isn't put in any kind of position to succeed with Penny being portrayed as every bit the airhead as her biological dad, if not more so, and more annoyingly. At first the joke's funny, until the Farrellys start pounding us over the head with it just to make sure we know just how dumb she is.

Carrey's The Majestic co-star Laurie Holden wisely plays her villainous role as straight as possible, ironically invoking a younger Kathleen Turner while Rob Riggle nearly steals the show in dual roles as the sleazy, conniving Travis and his FBI agent twin brother. If nothing else, the film does have relatively strong antagonists who could have been even more entertaining with a focused script. And in a head-scratching move, Bill Murray makes an uncredited, dialogue-free cameo appearance with his face concealed.  Even the briefest glimpse of the actor or his delivery of a single line would have guaranteed a huge reaction so it makes little sense not to advertise or utilize someone of his comedic magnitude in a project that desperately needs it. Jennifer Lawrence's decision to drop out of her supposedly scheduled cameo at the last minute and escape this mess now looks like a brilliant move, even if her presence would have also provided a huge boost. She probably discovered what most audiences will watching this: Fandom has its limits. 

As strange as it seems, the biggest disappointment of all might be the lack of a memorable soundtrack. It's rarely acknowledged but the original had one of the most interesting soundtracks of the decade, serving as a 90's time capsule highlighting many the era's more eclectic alt-rock acts, while also flowing perfectly within the context of the film. Here, Australian electronic band Empire of the Sun provide the music and some other songs show up, but I'd be hard-pressed to recall even one. The look of the film is also decidedly lower budget, lacking the bigger-feeling scope of the first and making it visually indistinguishable from any other comedy you'd catch on VOD.

At times, you can actually sense them holding back with the characters, struggling to go all out within the limiting confines of a PG-13 rating. Strangely, it still could have been worse and Carrey and Daniels are fine in it, but the Farrellys' failure to set this sequel apart from similar efforts that have poorly aped their formula is disconcerting. Either they simply waited too long, or more frighteningly, Dumber Dumber To really is as good as it can be and we've gotten exactly what we deserve. If that's true, then maybe fans really have moved on and it's the filmmakers who need to catch up.          
        

Monday, February 23, 2015

Burning Questions From The 2015 Oscars




Well, here we go again. Let's get on with it. My reaction to the show, in question form.

Didn't the stage setup actually look kind of cool this year with all the Oscar statues?

Were you worried some of them might attack?

NPH didn't waste any time with his "best and whitest" joke did he?

Tough room, huh?

Does Oprah's mere presence guarantee the Oscar host will be in for a rough night?

Shouldn't we ask David Letterman?

Isn't Jack Black looking more and more like late career Orson Welles?

Looking at that stone-faced audience, is it any wonder no one ever wants to host this thing?


Wasn't J.K. Simmons right about calling (NOT texting) your parents?

If he screamed it in character as Terence Fletcher, then would you listen?

Didn't everyone just know The Grand Budapest Hotel would handily clean up in technical categories? 

Need we even ask if the show's rushing or dragging?

Don't you wish Adam Levine would sing just a little higher?

Why not bring out Keira Knightley to join him?

Why not show clips from Begin Again in the background?

Did they really shorten that song or what?

Playing winners off already?

How about NPH's poorly timed wardrobe joke after documentary short co-winner Dana Perry spoke about her son's suicide?

Were Seth MacFarlane, Anne Hathaway and James Franco off somewhere secretly breathing sighs of relief?

Was that proof this telecast can destroy anyone?

Wasn't the "Everything is Awesome" performance awesome?

Could Oprah look any happier receiving her Lego Oscar?


Can you blame her?

Was it the only time she smiled all night?

Where's Tommy Lee Jones when you need him?

Is Glen Campbell's "I'm Not Gonna Miss You" the saddest song ever?  

Was the Birdman spoof funnier a day earlier on the Independent Spirit Awards?

But wasn't Miles Teller on drums a clever touch?

Are you hoping NPH was paid well for this?

Like how they grouped the Best Picture clips together to "save time?"

How many of you were able to accurately predict those two sound categories (and miss most everything else) like I did?

Can The Rock host the show next year?

Did Twitter nearly explode with Joker and Jesus references when Jared Leto came up to present?

Did Patricia Arquette turn that podium into her pulpit or what?

Wouldn't Marlon Brando be proud?


Did you see how excited the "underpaid " Meryl Streep was? 

Wasn't it nice to see someone in the audience excited about SOMETHING?

Does "rushing or dragging" accurately describe the ongoing battle between the winners and orchestra?

Did you notice the crowd was completely emotionless, pissed at NPH, or crying throughout the entire show?

Has a room ever taken itself as seriously?

Wasn't that a classy, simple In Memoriam intro from Streep?

Were you relieved they decided to turn off audience sound down on the death montage this year?

Wait, where was Joan Rivers?!!!

Wasn't Rivers' entire brand synonymous with the Oscars?

Do we really need a musical performance either before, during or after the montage?

Was Whiplash's editing win well deserved or what?

Have I ever been happier to get a category wrong?

Didn't NPH's "for some treason" joke explaining Edward Snowden's absence deserve a bigger laugh?

Or ANY laugh at all from this humorless audience? 

Did the surprise wins for Big Hero 6 and Interstellar ruin everyone's scorecard for the night?


Even if it got twice the time as the other nominated songs, wasn't Common and John Legend's performance of "Glory" the high point of the night?

Glom Gazingo?

Wasn't NPH right about John Travolta's excessive face touching of Idina Menzel?

And as hilariously comfortable as that was to watch, wasn't it a great idea to pair them up to present?

Doesn't he more closely resemble Glom Gazingo than John Travolta at this point?

Can we at least give him credit for being what so few in that audience were...a good sport?

Who better embodies the spirit of The Sound of Music than Lady Gaga?

Were you hoping she'd come out with The Muppets?

Even with the knowledge she's talented, didn't she sing that shockingly well? 

Weren't we too late in the broadcast and too spent to even care?

Did you hear the uncontrollable audience laughter at Julie Andrews saying the name "Lady Gaga?"

How about Terrence Howard getting emotional over introducing The Imitation Game?

Wouldn't it be great if every presenter cared that much?

Eddie Murphy... again?

Were you worried Eddie Murphy would refuse to read the nominees and signal for a commercial break?

Was this show longer than SNL 40?


Did having the new Batman present Best Director give away a Birdman win?

Did Inarritu really just talk about balls and "little pricks" in his acceptance speech?

As disappointing as his loss was, isn't it still great that Michael Keaton's officially
back?

Doesn't Eddie Redmayne's wife look like a cross between Evan Rachel Wood and Saoirse Ronan?

Did that make it even more difficult to root for him against Keaton?

Has anyone (other than Cuba Gooding Jr. and Anne Hathaway) ever looked happier to win an Oscar?

Was he channeling his Jupiter Ascending character for a second there? 

Was Julianne Moore played up to the stage by a theme song from an 80's sitcom?

Is that really Still Alice's score (please say yes)?

If it is, should I see that film immediately?

Will the show close with NPH singing the love theme to Still Alice?

Am I the only one who thought his gag with the predictions was funny?

Was Sean Penn's Best Picture announcement the most offensive since Jack Nicholson uttered the words "And the Oscar goes to...Crash" in 2006?


Is Birdman the strangest film in recent memory (or ever?) to win Best Picture?

Isn't it weird that was the conventional, consensus pick? 

Isn't it even weirder Academy members voted for it because it's about "show business?"

Isn't that kind of the last thing it's about?

Is it the film that can break the Best Picture winner's curse and age well?

Isn't it inevitable NPH will be unfairly blamed for whatever went wrong on the show?

Doesn't this telecast confirm that the problems with the Oscars go far beyond whoever is chosen to host?

Do we even need a host?

How long until those online articles start popping up calling for a complete overhaul of the show?

Aside from Carell, Streep, Cumberbatch, Knightley, Keaton and a few others, can we maybe replace the audience next year?

Will I ever learn to stop tinkering with my predictions right up until the start of the show? 

Friday, February 20, 2015

2015 Oscar Predictions



Whether or not anyone wants to admit it, the Oscars still mean something. In TV, the ultimate goal isn't an Emmy or Golden Globe, but ratings and critical success. In music, the endgame is still album sales rather than winning the Grammy, which is decreasing in value with each passing year. But no matter how ridiculous the awards race gets, the Oscar still hold value as the "be all, end all" of the industry. Films are even made and released for the specific purpose of winning one, sparing us what would be an entire calendar year's worth of blockbuster popcorn franchise movies. Complain as we might about the quality or number of films selected, the snubs, or hurl often groundless accusations at its voters, the Academy still serves an important function. And at the end of the day, I'm grateful for them. While dissecting and criticizing their choices is fun, there's no doubt they serve as a guidepost, highlighting overlooked films the general public may have missed. So that in mind, I'm really looking forward to Sunday night. 

For the first time since doing this, I've seen and reviewed all the nominees for Best Picture. Whether this will hurt or help remains to be seen. What would I like to see win? Without a doubt, Whiplash. No film moved or transported me as much all year, with writer/director Damien Chazelle holding me in the palm of his hands with his technical virtuosity. It was akin to watching a championship fight unfold onscreen between a great pair of adversaries and performers in Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, complete with a shocking climax that cements it as the best nominated picture about musical obsession since Amadeus. Nothing would make me happier than seeing that cast and crew onstage clutching the gold man, but without a director nomination, it's a real long shot. My hope is that this nomination and Simmons' inevitably deserved Supporting Actor win brings this overachieving indie the attention it may not have otherwise gotten.

Instead, it's down to wire between Boyhood and Birdman, with another potential Picture/Director split on the horizon. While last year I managed to accurately predict all but two categories to set a personal record, this will be far tougher and maybe the biggest test yet of my Oscar prognosticating skills. And that's a good thing. You don't want predictability. Below are my calls for all the categories, along with some accompanying analysis for the big races. As usual, I'm reserving the right to make adjustments to these up until the start of the show. 

*Predicted Winners               

*Updated 2/22/15

Best Picture
American Sniper
Birdman
Boyhood
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Selma
The Theory of Everything
Whiplash


*A category so close it even tops last year's horse race between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. With all their baggage, Selma and American Sniper cancel each other out and I wouldn't be disappointed to never hear a word about either again after this. Sniper's box office does make it a threat, but like Selma, it's lack of a director nod hurts its chances. Tied for the most number of nominations, if any movie is sweeping in for an upset it's probably The Grand Budapest Hotel, closely followed by The Imitation Game, which fits the template of past B.P. winners to a tee. And both have director nods, so that helps. The Theory of Everything has no chance, its inclusion only serving the purpose of pushing Redmayne toward a Best Actor win. This leaves Whiplash, which might be the only film here everyone agrees that they love. And it has that all important editing nomination. That's big, but it's still missing that Director nomination. If it were up to me this would take it, but it's not, and it won't.  

Birdman? Boyhood? Birdhood? Boyman? It's come down to this. All recent statistics and precursors point to a Birdman victory, but conventional wisdom says that even if it's a movie that's (kind of) about movies, it's too weird and experimental to take home the big prize. Also, why doesn't it have an editing nomination? That could be a red flag. Boyhood is the type of life-affirming journey the Academy loves to reward, with the added bonus that Linklater accomplished something truly unique and progressive with how it was made. Unfortunately, few saw it and some who did can't get past what they think is merely a "gimmick." Of these two admittedly great films, I prefer Boyhood, which leaves a more lasting impact. But that doesn't mean voters agree. Whichever way they go, it's a win-win.   

Best Director
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood 
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

*A two-man race. We can eliminate Bennett Miller whose Foxcatcher should have been nominated for Best Picture but wasn't. Wes Anderson finally got in, and in voters' minds that'll be enough for now. Nothing about Tyldum's direction of The Imitation Game necessarily stands out enough to push him through, and that's coming from someone who loves the film. Whether you pick Birdman or Boyhood for Picture, it's quite possible the opposite result will occur here. Linklater's more widely liked and feels "due" regardless of the Best Picture result, but Iñárritu's more respected. The biggest snub in this category? Not DuVernay or Eastwood, but Chazelle for Whiplash.

Best Actor
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

*Another two-man race. Cumberbatch actually had a real shot at one time, but he just didn't get out there enough to campaign and now he's fallen way behind. When people think of American Sniper, the first thing that comes to mind isn't Bradley Cooper (as good as he was), but the controversy and how much money it made. Some doubted Carell would even make it in so his nod is reward enough. As much as it pains me to say it, they'll give it to Redmayne over Keaton, continuing the long-running joke of the Academy always rewarding actors for playing real-life figures with disabilities. He's the safer, more universal choice so we know how this ends up. But in a strange way, by honoring him they're actually doing the performance a disservice  In all fairness, I admire Redmayne's work, but boy will it sting seeing one of my favorite actors come all the way back, only to fall just short of an Oscar. Birdman could conceivably win Best Picture while Keaton loses. Here's hoping I'm wrong.   

Best Actress
Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild

*Or as it's better known, "The Julianne Moore Lifetime Achievement Award." Sadly, it's amazing Rosamund Pike even got in given how Gone Girl was snubbed across the board. Felicity Jones was great, but yet again, she's only here to prop up a Redmayne win. I want either Reese Witherspoon or Marion Cotillard to take this and I haven't even seen their films yet, which lets you know much I respect both. But it doesn't matter since Julianne Moore had the statue shipped to her house months ago. It's probably on her mantle right now, engraved and everything. Here the Academy gets to honor another one of their long standing traditions by giving out a "make-up" Oscar for a criminally overdue performer. Moore is a particularly egregious example, as she could have won at least four or five times already for superior work. But no complaints here since there's no denying she deserves it. 
 
Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

*The best performance of the year in my favorite film of the year, and the biggest lock of the night, emerging as the clearest certainty in this category since Heath Ledger won in 2009. There's hardly any sense even discussing the chances of the remaining contenders, of which Duvall stands out as the least likely to pull off an upset. But as great as the work Hawke, Norton and Ruffalo (who I'm thrilled got in) delivered in their respective films, none stand a chance. If you had to pick a spoiler, it would probably be Norton but it's not even a conversation worth having. The unstoppable Simmons has it in the bag, but that won't make it any less satisfying when it happens. That this is such a landslide in an amazingly strong category speaks to just how great his work is.


Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Laura Dern, Wild
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into The Woods

*This is a big opportunity to reward Boyhood since it's still a big question mark just how much it will be honored elsewhere. In a category that's prone to upsets, don't expect one this year. Knightley doesn't really belong here, the requisite Streep nomination is becoming a joke at this point and Dern's inclusion was a welcome surprise. It's Birdman vs. Boyhood again and Arquette's walking away with it. Still, I wouldn't completely count out the far-fetched possibility Emma Stone's name is called, even if it seems a little early in her career for such a win. But if any category's known for that, it's this one. Still, this is Patricia Arquette's to lose and she won't, as most recognize she gave the performance of her life in Boyhood, carrying that film on her shoulders all the way through. Behind Best Actress and Supporting Actor, this is the third surest lock of the night.   

Best Adapted Screenplay
Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
Jason Hall, American Sniper
Graham Moore, The Imitation Game
Anthony McCarten, The Theory of Everything
Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice

*This might be the only category where it could reasonably go to anything, except maybe American Sniper, which rightly or wrongly has become a lightning rod for controversy due to its hedging of facts. Will they go for the screenplay that takes the fewest liberties with a true story or veer off in an entirely different direction by giving it to Inherent Vice or Whiplash? Adapting a Pynchon novel is impossible and given the Academy's penchant for constantly honoring Tarantino in this category, the similarly rebellious and idiosyncratic Anderson seems like the next logical step. All the confusion concerning whether Chazelle's Whiplash script qualifies an adapted or original screenplay could actually help it. Why would they go out of their way to include it (and at Gone Girl's expense no less) unless it stood a good chance? But they'll go for The Imitation Game because it's best received and prestigious entry here and will likely be shut out everywhere else.  

Best Original Screenplay
Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness, The Grand Budapest Hotel 

E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, Foxcatcher
Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr, Armando Bo, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood

*As beloved as Boyhood and Birdman are, both films are perceived as being more improvised than written and the scripts aren't considered highlights of either. They're director and actor showcases that will be recognized as such in those catgories. It's a legitimate thrill that Gilroy's clever, timely Nightcrawler script made it in and in a perfect world it would have a great chance of upsetting. But, alas, it won't. More controversy, this time in the form of Foxcatcher playing fast and loose with facts, will spoil whatever shot it had. Besides its inevitably strong showing in the technical categories, this is where The Grand Budapest Hotel makes its presence known. Wes Anderson, snubbed as he's been in the past, is understandably always a fixture in the writing category. And now that the Academy has fully embraced him for his most warmly received and commercially successful effort yet, he'll be riding to the stage on that “homemade bicycle made of antique tuba parts.”

Best Animated Feature
Big Hero 6
The Boxtrolls
How To Train Your Dragon 2
Song of the Sea
The Tale of Princess Kaguya


Best Documentary Feature
CITIZENFOUR

Last Days In Vietnam
Virunga
Finding Vivian Maier
The Salt of the Earth


Best Original Song
"Everything is Awesome," The Lego Movie
"Glory," Selma
"I’m Not Gonna Miss You," Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
"Lost Stars," Begin Again
"Grateful," Beyond the Lights

Best Film Editing 
American Sniper
Boyhood
The Imitation Game
Whiplash 
The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Cinematography
Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman

Ryszard Lenczewski and Łukasz Żal, Ida
Dick Pope, Mr. Turner
Robert D. Yeoman, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Roger Deakins, Unbroken

Best Costume Design
Colleen Atwood, Into The Woods
Milena Canonero, The Grand Budapest Hotel 
Jacqueline Durran, Mr. Turner
Anna B. Sheppard, Maleficent
Mark Bridges, Inherent Vice

Best Production Design
The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game
Interstellar
Into The Woods
Mr. Turner

Best Animated Short
The Bigger Picture
The Dam Keeper
Feast

Me and My Moulton
A Single Life


Best Live Action Short
Aya
Boogaloo and Graham
The Phone Call

Butter Lamp
Parvaneh


Best Documentary Short
Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Joanna

Our Curse
The Reaper (La Parka)
White Earth


Best Sound Editing
American Sniper

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Interstellar
Birdman
Unbroken


Best Sound Mixing
American Sniper
Birdman
Interstellar
Unbroken
Whiplash

Best Visual Effects
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
Interstellar
X-Men: Days of Future Past

Best Foreign Language Film
Ida (Poland)
Leviathan (Russia)
Tangerines (Estonia)
Timbuktu (Mauritania)
Wild Tales (Argentina)

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Foxcatcher
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy

Best Original Score
Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel 
Alexandre Desplat, The Imitation Game
 Johann Johannsson, The Theory of Everything
 Hans Zimmer, Interstellar
Gary Yershon, Mr. Turner