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

Sunday, February 23, 2014


Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino, David Calder, Natalie Dormer
Running Time: 122 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Fear is a pro athlete's worst enemy. Once it enters the equation trouble usually follows. But it's only when you've realized it's there that it's really over. There's a great scene in Ron Howard's Formula One motor racing drama, Rush, depicting that. Austrian driver Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) tells his new wife that he'll be a worse driver now because he's happy and has something to lose. It's the defining moment of the film because it's that little sliver of doubt creeping in that every competitor fights against. Niki's nemesis, Englishman James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) rarely has such thoughts, or when he does, quickly dismisses them by vomiting before the race. The movie is about their rivalry during the 1976 season that saw Lauda being pulled from a flaming Ferrari while Hunt fought to accumulate enough points to catch up and take his crown. And neither is particularly likable, to the point that your opinion on who the bigger jerk is may waver from scene to scene.

There's nothing in screenwriter Peter Morgan's script that shamelessly tugs at the heartstrings or depicts either driver as a hero. In fact, an argument can be made that the opposite stance is being taken with a thoughtful, sometimes cutthroat examination of why these guys would risk their lives and how that adrenaline rush of cheating death can become as addictive as a drug. It isn't your typical sports drama and doesn't end like one either, taking the cliche of that last "Big Race" and flipping it on its head. The stance it takes is gutsy and it's because of that lack of manipulation that viewers will come away with more respect for these two than they would if their story were given the typical Hollywoodization. Based on a true story, it feels like it actually is one, taking a straightforward, biographical approach without playing any games. That this comes from the writer/director team behind Frost/Nixon strangely makes sense, as it's also about two unlikely rivals thrown together by circumstance and history. One of the most sumptuously shot films of the year, it plays like a great, feature-length 30 for 30 on steroids.

The film begins 8 years prior to that legendary 1976 season as the two drivers couldn't possibly have more contrasting personalities, philosophies and attitudes both on and off the track. Hunt is a womanizing, hard partying rock star-like racer who lives for the rush while Lauda is a cold, calculating technician and expert strategist out there to get the job done. They detest one another almost immediately, with each representing what the other can't stand about the sport. We see how they eventually became heated rivals, with an arrogant Lauda buying his way into competition but still fighting for the respect he feels is owed to him while the freewheeling James Hunt is already racking up victories. Soon, the tide turns with James playing catch up and struggling to find a team that will take him because of his reckless behavior. Their feud rages on, exchanging victories and losses until it becomes less about being world champion than beating the other, regardless of the toll it takes on their personal lives and marriages. At least until the German Grand Prix, which ends up being the race that changes everything.

What's captured so well by Ron Howard is how two athletes at the apex of their profession can simultaneously hate and respect each other. The one thing no one wishes on a fellow competitor under any circumstances happens to Niki Lauda, with the fiery crash itself playing as a nightmare that's almost impossible to watch, as a burning inferno engulfs him for a good minute. A minute that may as well be an eternity for him. How he survived a crash like that at all (in 1976 no less) is astonishing in itself, but what unfolds in its aftermath can't be spoiled other than to say it drastically changes their rivalry and relationship in completely unexpected ways. Even the circumstances leading up to the crash are so odd I'm not even sure I'd believe it if it wasn't based on a true story.

Much acclaim has rightfully gone to Daniel Brühl for his portrayal of the stubborn, almost pathologically mechanical Lauda and what's great about the performance is how it doesn't give us some cookie-cutter sports hero who overcame the odds or shy away from diving into the uglier, obsessive aspects of his personality. Hemsworth deserves more credit than he's getting as Hunt because while it's unquestionably an example of perfect casting (think Thor in a race car), he never plays the guy as a brainless lug. As crazy as Hunt was, he manages to do something that borders on being subtle and sympathetic, especially as the film wears on. Both men have their inner demons and its scripted and edited to put them on equal footing, playing as kind of a dual biopic that short changes neither athlete.

As Hunt's wife Suzy, Olivia Wilde isn't given a whole lot to do, but even that strangely makes sense given the driver's lifestyle and penchant for collecting women as hood ornaments. But in her few scenes, the retro looking Wilde definitely makes an impact, as she usually does. The idea that he would get married as some kind of misguided attempt at normalcy and stability is interesting. Hunt was who he was and even she acknowledges that trying to change that is a lost cause.  Lauda's relationship with his wife Marlene (a really great Alexandra Maria Lara) is justifiably given more emphasis since it's pushed to the limit through tragedy. Their relationship ultimately becomes the centerpiece of the picture and deserves to be because it's handled in a realistic manner that doesn't insult the viewer's intelligence or extol false messages of hope and perseverance. It earns its stripes by simply being honest from the moment the two meet to when Lauda is fighting for his life in the hospital.

Both men are confronted with the question of whether this is worth their lives and while it should seem obvious how dangerous a sport this is, this is a film that really shows it, with the camera taking you into the car to feel the terror and exhilaration. Oscar winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle shooting it in this hazy, vintage style befitting the story, action and time period, giving it a look that resembles nothing else Ron Howard's ever made. Hans Zimmer's score might not soar to the spectacularly over-the-top heights of his synth-heavy composition for Days of Thunder, but this isn't that kind of movie, despite the shared subject matter. It's unlikely anyone would confuse the two films on any other grounds either, and as much as I love Thunder, it's tough to defend it on grounds other than as a cheesy, guilty pleasure that's very much of its time. This feels more timeless, and with little guilt attached to enjoying it, regardless of whether or not you're familiar with the sport. Nothing is too "inside," as its effectiveness comes in setting a universal story within the racing world.  

As a deadly serious examination of the sport that still somehow finds room for some subtle humor in the rivalry, Morgan's script takes giant creative liberties with the drivers' real life relationship (they were actually good friends),  but those choices are defensible in bringing to the surface greater truths about their differing approaches to the sport and their lives. The film bravely posits that it isn't a coincidence which one of these men survived, with Hunt clearly subscribing to the Neil Young philosophy that it's better to burn out than fade away. The highest compliment to Rush is when we're eventually shown actual footage of Hunt and Lauda I still thought I was watching a dramatization. It's the kind of authenticity every sports film strives for, but so very rarely achieves.                               

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Blue Jasmine

Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tammy Blanchard, Max Casella
Running Time: 98 min.
Rating:  PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

It's somewhat ironic that Woody Allen's most tolerable film in years centers around an intolerable character. At least to the other characters. But to us she's compelling and even at points captivating. Observing the actions of the title character in Blue Jasmine is comparable to watching a train wreck. That's a change of pace since the most toxic element in any Woody Allen film is usually him, whether he's in front of the camera or not. He hasn't made what could be considered a truly great film in decades despite turning out one feature a year like clockwork. Sometimes it feels like he's making them just to make them and keep working even if he doesn't have anything important to say. More frustratingly, it's not like any of these films are awful, as that might be some indication he's really going for it. Instead, most have been mediocre or even occasionally forgettable.

Aside from a powerhouse lead performance of alarming proportions, it's tough to say Blue Jasmine necessarily breaks the Woody mold but it's definitely stronger and more interesting than Whatever Works, To Rome With Love and the overpraised Midnight in Paris. Coming from someone who far prefers him tackling drama, there's more than enough drama to spare here, while still offering a spattering of laughs, most of which are dark and uncomfortable. He's good at this stuff and should do character studies more often, even if this can't exactly be considered an "original screenplay" in any way, shape or form. There are direct sequels and remakes that have less in common with their source than this script does with Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Luckily, it was probably due for an update anyway, so at least it's given a good one.      

Rich socialite Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett) has recently fallen on hard times, as her former husband, New York financier Hal Francis (Alec Baldwin) was sent to prison for fraud, forcing her to move to San Francisco to stay with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Through flashbacks, we're given important glimpses of Jasmine's marriage to Hal and her relationship with Ginger and then husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), both of whom she looked down on at the time as lower class degenerates. Year later, Jasmine's attitude remains mostly the same even as Ginger has since moved on with a mechanic named Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Battling her own history of mental illness and emotional instability, Jasmine wastes little time popping pills, drinking heavily, mocking her sister's lifestyle choices and insulting her friends. But the true horror comes when she actually has to go out and get a real job. It isn't until she meets and falls for wealthy, widowed diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) that she's given a fresh chance at happiness.

Complex in both conception and execution, the title character is the reason it all works. Part protagonist, part antagonist, Jasmine could have easily been written or performed as a cliche of upper class entitlement, or worse yet, a crazed sociopath. And while there will undoubtedly still be those who think she qualifies as both, Blanchett brings a lot more to it than that, despite it being the type of performance that couldn't be classified as subtle. Being sickened by Jasmine's actions is a given, but the actress forces us into believing she might actually have potential as a human being if she weren't so self-absorbed and superficial. That both she and Ginger were adopted is an important detail since they're so different no one would possibly believe they're sisters otherwise, which is an underlying (if not overlying) source of tension in their relationship. It's clear from their interactions Jasmine was always the favorite growing up and it's even more plainly obvious Ginger is only her sister when she needs something. And yet, frustratingly, Jasmine's observations that her sister is wasting her life and potential are spot on. She pretty much is.

Hawkins portrays an often clueless and naive woman who's settling in every aspect of her life, especially when it comes to romance. It's rare having a supporting character (especially a familiar type like the put upon sister) that's as well developed as the lead and Hawkins deserves much of that credit. Torn between the hot-tempered Chili and a guy named Al (Louis C.K.) who she meets at a party and carries on an affair, both alternately straddle the line between caring, sensitive guys and total losers. The truth probably resides somewhere in between, but the exuberant Cannavale is one of the best things in this and the thrill of seeing Louis C.K. in a Woody Allen movie, even in such a small dose, doesn't disappoint. It also really gets the mind racing about how great it would be if Louie were given the same opportunity as Larry David to carry his own Allen vehicle.

There have been raves for Andrew Dice Clay's performance and while he is surprisingly solid in a small, but pivotal role, I can't help but think much of that praise stems from the shock of not only seeing the controversial comic in a quality film, but managing to hold his own. Still, it's a casting masterstroke as Augie's very existence in the story serves as set-up for a huge, climactic scene in the third act where Jasmine's past indiscretions catch up with her. Baldwin's sleazy as ever as her lying, philandering, Madoff-like ex-husband, but it's Blanchett doing most of the work, devouring scenes left and right.

As heinous as Jasmine seems, the actress does seem to work up a considerable amount of empathy for her given her situation isn't one that naturally elicits much (if any) sympathy at all. By society's standards, she was on top of the world and used to living a certain lifestyle so it only makes sense she would break when it all comes crashing down. Her foray into the working world as a receptionist for an overexcited dentist (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) reveals almost as much about the character as it does Allen himself, who's been justifiably accused of being out of touch with the rest of society (an office without computers?) It's also interesting how the San Francisco setting feels and looks no different than the director's detours overseas to Paris or Rome. This shares the basic feel of every other recent Woody movie, but it's darker in tone and centered around a performance leagues ahead of what we're used to in his usual outings.

When we eventually learn the exact circumstances of her former husband's downfall, there's even more to talk about and Blanchett's work somehow seems even more intricate in retrospect. The worst thing that could happen to her is being teased with a shot at reclaiming the wealth and privilege she originally relished and still yearns for. For all her deception and shame to try to cover up her previous life, we still see how Sarsgaard's wealthy diplomat would fall for her class, beauty and sophistication, even as she unintentionally works as hard as possible to sabotage herself. She's the kind of person whose compliments even seem like backhanded insults.

It's difficult not to respect Allen for refusing to compromise by letting the character arrive at some sudden self-realization that would feel false for someone as emotionally unstable as she. Everything is particularly twisted and unpleasant, which comes as a relief from a director not exactly known for his risk taking in recent years. While there's nothing particularly surprising about Blue Jasmine aside from that and Blanchett's barn burning turn, it marks the first time in a while there are actually issues to contemplate and discuss coming out of a Woody Allen picture.                  

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Captain Phillips

Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Catherine Keener, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey
Running Time: 134 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Imagine my surprise when I'm almost halfway through Captain Phillips and the realization dawns on me that I'm not even close to the final thirty minutes everyone's talking about and the suspense has already reached unbearable, pulse-pounding levels. And this is knowing what's going to happen. Or so we think. We actually know very little aside from the fact that in 2009 Captain Richard Phillips and his crew were hijacked in the Indian Ocean by Somalian pirates, he was taken hostage, and lived to write about it. That book is the basis for this film, vividly brought to life by Paul Greengrass (United 93). How much of what ends up on screen resembles the actual incident will tiredly be the subject for much debate, but that has little to do with the finished product, which is nearly a masterpiece.

We've been through this before with Zero Dark Thirty, when intelligent discussion devolved into political mudslinging as its detractors attempted to make the filmmakers and audiences somehow feel guilty about the U.S. capturing and killing Osama bin Laden. I'm all for empathy and understanding, but is anyone else more than a little disturbed that this film's worth is being judged on how compassionately the Somalian pirates are portrayed? The same Somalian pirates who hijacked an American cargo ship and took its captain hostage at gunpoint. Greengrass going the extra mile to try to depict them as something more than one-dimensional monsters is probably giving them better treatment than they deserve based on their actions. If anything, those involved in the making of this picture should be commended for managing to invest the story with this much humanity without sacrificing any of the true event's intensity. But the big question is: How on Earth was Tom Hanks not nominated for this?

From the opening scene, Hanks plays Boston native Richard Phillips, captain of the MV Maersk Alabama container ship, as a born leader. That leadership will be severely tested when four armed pirates led by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) take control of the ship off the coast of Somalia and he has to take whatever measures necessary to protect his crew and make them feel like they're in control, while still somehow maintaining a certain degree of control himself. What plays out is not only a severe culture clash, with the pirates' motivations remaining vague, even sometimes to them. To say their plan wasn't well thought out doesn't even begin to cover it, but despite the sloppy execution (or rather because of it) the ordeal seems that much more dangerous for the Americans. These Somalians may not know what they're doing, how to do it, and fail to grasp the magnitude of what they're attempting to pull off, but at least they have unpredictability and intimidation on their side. Also in their favor is that Phillips' crew is unarmed and must rely only on ship hoses as weaponry, deeming their numbers advantage useless.

Even, for a brief time, when it seems the defending crew is in control, they're really not. That's when a crucial decision from Phillips turns this into a gripping single location thriller with his life on the line, as well as the pride of pirates who demand to be taken seriously and refuse to be made fools of by America. Since Phillips is played by Hanks, a national treasure and maybe the single most likable performer we have, it isn't difficult to be on pins and needles worrying about the character's safety regardless of our knowledge of events. But Hanks (adopting a New England accent), never plays on that connection, instead offering up a harrowing depiction of a very scared man trying to do his best under dire circumstances and struggling to keep it together. At many points he has to use social engineering to guide the actions of his captors without them knowing, all while the U.S. Navy is poised and ready to intervene. As the situation escalates and Phillips' life is put in greater danger by the minute, their presence becomes more prominent. The Navy has a plan. Even backup plans. The pirates are only running on instinct.

In what's ultimately a battle of wills between the two captains who couldn't be more different in both values and background, both must still find a way to communicate so they can get out of this what they want. For Phillips, it's survival. For Muse, it's money and respect. Out of necessity, the relationship that develops between the two is an adversarial one, but also fraught with tension as each tries to manipulate the other to gain the upper hand. Phillips is successful simply because he's so much smarter, which is through no fault of Muse's own. And that's really where the culture clash in Billy Ray's Oscar nominated screenplay comes into play, as Muse and his crew are too prideful to truly grasp how much of a disadvantage they're at as the situation escalates past the point of no return. 

Barkhad Abdi has never acted a day in his life before this film, but you see why he'd be cast on sheer presence alone. While he may not look like a physical threat, there's an aura of danger surrounding him and Abdi conveys it without losing sight of the real person underneath, in his own way struggling for survival just as Phillips is. He's so believable and scary opposite his scenes with Hanks that it's almost easy to overlook his fellow pirates, played by Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed  and Mahat M. Ali, who contribute just as much at times. Especially Abdirahman, who plays the hotheaded Bilal as an uncontrollable monster prone to  terrifying fits of rage. He's the one that can't be manipulated, operating purely on bitterness and hatred. But even he has moments where we glimpse beneath the surface to sense the real deep seeded source of that frustration. Ironically, we know the least about Phillips, aside from a brief scene at the beginning with he and his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) that neither adds or detracts from the proceedings. Everything we learn about this man's character is uncovered through the life and death situation he finds himself in. As for all the shaky cam, it didn't bother me one bit, as I was too engulfed in the events unfolding in front of me to even consider the technique used to deliver it. It's like you're right there.

Yes, the United States military and Captain Phillips are depicted as heroes in this situation because that's exactly what they were. It's one of the few things we know as fact, and also happens to work as a compelling dramatization on film. If the roles were reversed, and Americans were the initial aggressors, the same would hold true. One of the movie's greatest strengths is that it does make you consider that scenario and put the instigators actions into context. But Greengrass has no obligation to portray them "sympathetically," regardless of their history or background, of which only a documentary should be expected to thoroughly explore. All bets were off when they boarded that ship armed and ready to commit violence.

What it also shares with Zero Dark Thirty (besides providing a dramatic recreation of incredibly recent history) is a final scene that just ripped me apart. It's the very definition of "sticking the landing," going a step further to explore the aftermath with an indescribable few minutes that features the best acting of Tom Hanks' career and highlights the potential benefits of casting a trained military professional if the role warrants it. But it's really everything leading up to that scene that makes it pack the well-earned, emotional punch it does. "Based on a true story" is often a dreaded tagline but Captain Phillips isn't merely a visual retelling of an important, almost unbelievable event. It's an experience that challenges the viewer debate and consider the thoughts, feelings and motivations of everyone involved in it.

Sunday, February 9, 2014



Director:  Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette
Running Time: 153 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Prisoners is one of those thrillers where you can't really reveal anything. The plot is so full of twists and turns that even a basic description risks revealing too much. It's common knowledge that when children are abducted the chances of finding them greatly decreases with each passing minute. This film is about what happens during those passing minutes to the victims' families, the detective assigned to the case and the primary suspect. Having him in custody is merely the start of this strange, twisted journey that doesn't qualify as the run-of-the-mill mainstream suspense thriller or police procedural it was advertised as. Some will claim it does, and that director Denis Villeneuve, writer Aaron Guzikowski and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins are just doing a really good job hiding it. And if they are, more power to them. But I'd argue Prisoners does bend quite a few rules, keeping you on the edge of your seat for two and a half hours without a clue what could happen from one minute to the next. And yet it never overstays its welcome since those involved seem to know exactly what they're doing, as an overwhelming sense of competence engulfs the project, making it impossible to not be swept along for the ride. 

When Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his family attend Thanksgiving dinner with their neighbors, the Birches, both families' young daughters, Anna and Joy, go out for a walk. They don't return. The only clue is an old RV parked on the street belonging to a mentally disabled young man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who has an IQ of a ten-year-old and lives with his aunt, Holly (Melissa Leo). He's clearly the prime suspect, but when the detective in charge of the case, David Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), brings him in for questioning, it's discovered they don't have nearly enough to hold him. That's when an enraged Dover decides to take the law into his own hands and deal with Alex himself. Things start to get ugly as Loki suddenly has three equally difficult jobs in finding the abductor, locating the girls and managing an out of control Dover, who's hell bent on finding his daughter his way, without the authorities' help. With hardly any support from his superiors, Loki must piece together a series of bizarre clues and evidence, just as another suspect emerges who's somehow even creepier than Alex. Minutes turn to hours and then to days, and with that comes the increased chance this will turn from an abduction case to a murder investigation, and the search will soon be for bodies.

What's atypical here is that the main suspect's guilt is in legitimate doubt for nearly entire length of the picture, to the point that your suspicion of Alex literally wavers from one scene to the next. At first, Dover seems like an irrational hothead so worked up by his daughter's abduction that he's willing to go after the only person who emerges as a believable suspect. While that's at least partially true, he discovers a few pieces of seemingly irrefutable evidence that causes him to (somewhat justifiably) fly off the deep end at the news of his release from custody. Dover may not be an easy character to like, but he's an easier one to root for because it's impossible not to feel for a father put in that situation. If nothing else, you have to respect his consistency even when his methods are flawed. And there's also the very real possibility he's right and that the police squandered the one lead they had..Jackman's an actor known for his natural charm and charisma but it's completely buried here to the point of invisibility. In its place is the pure anger and intensity of a man who will stop at nothing to find his daughter, no matter how much his vigilantism is frowned upon by his overmedicated wife Grace (Maria Bello) and Joy's parents, Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). You've never seen Jackman like this as the role is a complete 180 from most of what he's tackled before, challenging our perceptions of what we thought him capable of in a leading role.

Gyllenhaal is in full Zodiac mode as Detective Loki, with the key exception being that he's playing as actual cop this time around and the character has a much harder, experienced edge to him. It definitely deserves its place in the "Glylenhaal of Fame" of performances right alongside his work in Zodiac, Donnie Darko and Source Code. Loki's definitely the hero of the story, rarely misstepping in the face of seemingly impossible odds and tangled webs of circumstantial clues. Just as we doubt Alex's involvement, of equal doubt is whether this detective can even crack the case. While much of that uncertainty comes from the twisty plot, credit should also be extended to Paul Dano's unnerving performance as Alex, which fluctuates so wildly between pure creepiness and an almost childlike innocence that we begin to seriously second guess our understanding of the character's motivations. Has he really been falsely accused or is this a superbly calculated performance within a performance? An almost entirely mute Dano never tips his hand too far in either direction with Alex's behavior, all while spending three quarters of the film under physical assault and abuse.

Cold and calculating in both tone and execution, this almost feels like a more mainstream B-side to David Fincher's Zodiac or Se7en. This is especially noticeable in the rain-drenched, darkened setting, which Roger Deakins lights to make as much of a character as any of the actual characters inhabiting it. What starts as a relatively simple case evolves into something increasingly complex and morally ambiguous. That the title "prisoners" could reasonably refer to any number of characters speaks to the script's ingenuity. But more importantly, the the movie speaks to every parent's worst nightmare in capturing the horror of a child abduction in middle class suburbia. Then it goes ten steps further, concluding with a chilling, unshakeable final shot befitting the strongest thriller of the year. Endings are always tough, but this one absolutely nails it, combing just the right mixture of ambiguity and closure. The only worry in revisiting the film is that the revelations are so surprising you'd wonder how multiple viewings could impact the appreciation of how well it narratively holds together. Luckily though, despite carrying a lot of plot, Prisoners gets all the other small, important details right that most thrillers of recent years haven't even bothered with.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)

"Success isn’t what makes you happy. It really isn’t. Success is doing what makes you happy and doing good work and hopefully having a fruitful life. If I’ve felt like I’ve done good work, that makes me happy. The success part of it is all gravy."
- Philip Seymour Hoffman

Ask anyone and they'll be able to tell you the first Philip Seymour Hoffman movie they saw. And chances are they probably didn't even know he was in it at the time. That was his greatest gift as an actor. The ability to completely disappear into a role. Calling an actor a "chameleon" seems almost commonplace, but here's a guy who actually was. Versatile enough to go from playing Truman Capote in Capote (for which he won an Academy Award) to Oakland A's manager Art Howe in Moneyball. From one role to the next, supporting or lead, he often mixed it up so much that at times he would almost seem physically unrecognizable. At first we knew the face but couldn't place the name. He was "that guy." But even then we knew he was great, and frequently even better than the material in which he would appear. That changed in the late 90's with Happiness, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Boogie Nights and The Big Lebowski and then there was no turning back. 

With some actors it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes them unique but that was never the case with Hoffman, whose talent lay in making you feel that every character he played could have easily been one of us. No matter how extreme it never felt extreme or unreal. He didn't look like your typical actor and didn't perform like one, slipping so thoroughly under the skin of his characters that alternating between leading man and invaluable supporting player seemed only natural. I first really took notice of him as rock critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, where he took a mythic figure we've mostly only heard and read about and humanized him as the film's moral compass with only a handful of scenes. It was one of the first of many outsized roles he'd take on, playing characters with an unquenchable anger and intensity. 

Watching him as volatile "Mattress Man" Dean Trumbell in Punch-Drunk Love  almost scary and he just storms through Charlie Wilson's War, blowing everyone else off the screen as maverick CIA agent Gust Avrakotos to earn his second Oscar nomination. If there's any movie of his that feels like it needs a revisiting it's that one. But beneath the blustery exterior of those characters there was always a vulnerability that would be put to good use when he was called upon to play more introspective roles, like a socially awkward teacher helplessly infatuated with his student in Spike Lee's post-9/11 meditation 25th Hour. Playing a schlub hiding under a Yankees cap, it might be his most muted, captivating everyman performance. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, he completely stole 2009's Pirate Radio (AKA The Boat That Rocked) as crazy DJ "The Count," upholding the Hoffman tradition of infusing a utility player with a greater sense of importance and humanity than was likely intended. 

If everyone remembers the first Hoffman film they saw then they'll also remember the first titles that sprang to mind at the news of his passing. For me, it was his two most challenging. Synecdoche, New York and The Master, both of which still await the respect and revaluation they so richly deserve from both critics and audiences. The former's themes of mortality now seem especially eerie and prophetic, begging the question of whether it will get easier or more difficult to rewatch because of it. With the latter he gives us his latest and greatest creation in charismatic, egomaniacal religious leader Lancaster Dodd, navigating the choppy waters of a messy, controversial subject to dig for something deeper and more powerful than anyone anticipated.  

Recently, when beginning to look back and draft top ten lists of my favorite films of recent years it was hardly surprising to discover Hoffman was all over it, nor was it a revelation to notice how many movies of his I own and frequently return to. The biggest compliment is that the collection was completely unintentional. He was just that good and that prolific. Nearly everything he made holds up and does so because of him. Few could argue his commitment to his craft, whether on screen, on stage or even behind the camera. We knew this last week and we still know now. No reevaluation of his legacy is necessary. We lost the best actor of his generation at the top of his game. It doesn't matter how he died. It matters he's no longer here. For movie fans it's an immeasurable loss as we're left with a giant void that future PSH performances could have filled. But he's also left us and future fans  a brilliant filmography to appreciate and analyze for decades to come.