Friday, August 8, 2014

2014 at the Trylon Microcinema - Half Year Review!

Guest post by Ian Lueck, a good friend of Movie Matrimony and a regular patron of the Trylon Microcinema, the best little theater that could in the Twin Cities.

Hi, Ian Lueck again!  Dave and Chelsea have graciously allowed me to use this lonely blog space once again for another review round-up of movies I’ve watched at The Trylon and The Heights theaters.  This post will consist of roughly the first half of 2014.  There was a period when I wasn’t going to either theater very much, but lately I’ve been making up for that (“Just when I think I’m out, they PULL ME BACK IN!”).  There was a lot of great programming and interesting viewing to be had, so without further ado, here are my thoughts on what I’ve watched so far:

A stronger, non-singing musical moment.
Animal Crackers (1930):  A hilarious Marx Brothers movie, ostensibly about a stolen painting at an estate party, is really about letting the Marx Bros. work their comedy magic in a series of sketches and one-liners.  Definitely funny, even if the plot is weak.  One minor nitpick?  The lyrics in the various songs are hard to decipher, due to this being from 1930 when the sound quality wasn’t as good.  Luckily, the songs are a small part of the movie.

Baby Face (1933):  A genius gimmick that Take-Up Productions
devised during February and March 2014 was showing pre-code films at The Heights.  For those that don’t know, this is referring to the Hays Code, a pre-cursor to the MPAA, which prevented films from getting TOO racy or violent.  So this run of films was meant to show what Hollywood films were like before its widespread adoption in 1934.  Of course, it goes without saying that the execution of the subject matter in these films is positively tame compared to today, but if you watch these movies in the context of when they were made, it’s fascinating what the Hays Code cracked down on.  For instance, the topic of sex outside of marriage was frowned upon, which is pretty much the entire plot point to “Baby Face”.  A young woman, Lily, played by Barbara Stanwyck, is stuck in a dead-end job for her father until he’s killed in an explosion.  She decides to use this opportunity to move to the city and make a name for herself, and she finds that the easiest way to climb the corporate ladder is to, um, be easy.  It’s difficult to make this subject matter funny, but somehow they found a way.  Speaking of funny:  When I saw this in theater, a few in the audience cheered when Stanwyck’s name first appeared in the opening credits, and hissed when one of the antagonist’s names appeared.  It felt like what I assume seeing a movie in the ‘30s was, when hissing was more common.

Eraserhead (1977):  In an unnamed, sparsely populated city, a tall-haired, stoic man learns that his distraught girlfriend is pregnant; the resulting baby is incredibly premature and doesn’t even look human.  What follows is the man slowly being driven insane by the crying freak of nature.

I’ll admit: When I first finished this movie, I hated it. Thought it was unpleasant garbage. My philosophy was, a movie should entertain me, and this didn’t; it felt more like something to be endured, not enjoyed. Part of that was due to the gross deformed baby, but also the musique concrete (that is, environmental noises) which took the place of a traditional soundtrack and got overbearing (read: LOUD) at times.

Also features an all-time movie hairdo.
Upon further reflection, though, I can see its merits. The lighting is excellent throughout. David Lynch really knew how to create mood and atmosphere, even in this early part of his career. There were also small bits of comedy in here which I appreciated; anyone who’s seen a Lynch film will know he creates quirky characters, and nowhere is this more true than the dinner scene towards the beginning, where the main character has an uncomfortable meal with the eccentric, unhinged family of the woman he’s dating.

But perhaps the biggest appreciation came from its meaning. This is one of those films where it can be interpreted numerous ways. The same can be said for art. Doesn’t that, by definition, make this movie art? And shouldn’t it be recognized for that, even if one doesn’t particularly enjoy it? I think so. Some have theorized that the movie takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, possibly one ravaged by a nuclear war: Hence the decrepit buildings, the lack of many people, the unstable characters, and the mutated offspring. However, I think to me, the movie makes most sense as a nightmare being had by the main character. Not only does the movie have the “feel” of a dream in its shortage of dialog, unorthodox pacing, surreal mood swings of most every character, abrupt cutting, and the main character seemingly dying and coming back to life in the next scene, but the themes in the movie are pretty obvious adult fears. I think most every parent-to-be has worries that their child will be born disfigured (as was certainly the case here), or that their spouse will abandon them to take care of the child alone, or that someone will seduce them into being unfaithful to their spouse (as was the case with the neighbor across the hall), or that they will be driven so mad as to commit infanticide. And that’s not even mentioning the unrealistically small living quarters where a parent couldn’t even go to another room to escape their child’s incessant crying. Heck, there are even little observations about married life that people new to the experience get frustrated with, like hogging the covers. And the movie fades to white at the end, perhaps symbolizing the person waking up.

Don’t get me wrong, this movie still isn’t really for me, and I have no desire to re-watch it anytime soon. But sometimes you just have to step back and think about it some more instead of going for a gut reaction, and that was the case with Eraserhead.

French Connection, The (1971):  This classic crime drama/action movie put Gene Hackman on the map, and it’s no wonder:  He gives a typically intense performance in his role as no-nonsense detective Popeye Doyle, trying to crack a French drug smuggling ring in New York.  Of course, the highlights that everyone always brings up are a couple chase sequences, one in the subway (which is surprisingly funny in all the “hopping on and off the train before the doors close” psych-outs that the pursuer and criminal perform) and another involving Doyle chasing a light rail in a car from below, that prove you don’t need special effects to make an engaging action scene.  If anything, I can appreciate it more, because you know the actors were actually driving on a real street with non-actors, not transplanted in front of a green screen.

But enough of that; let’s talk about the ending.  (spoilers ahead!)  The night I saw the movie, a lot of
audience members were audibly surprised how abrupt the ending was, and one was even dissatisfied.  For those who haven’t seen it:  The movie ends right in the middle of Popeye searching for a drug dealer in an abandoned building, a gunshot goes off, and suddenly we get “where are they now?” info on the criminals, most of whom got off scot-free or had their sentences reduced.  Now I’d be lying if I said the ending wasn’t unsatisfying from the perspective of “the good guy catches the crooks”.  But I think a nice neat little ending where Popeye succeeds would undermine the gritty realism that the movie presents.  In real life, criminals DO get away with things (sad, but true), whether it be legal loopholes or plea bargains or insufficient evidence or easily-swayed juries.  It’s a downer, but it’s honest.

French Connection II, The (1975):  ...And then we come to the sequel, which has good intentions but mostly falls flat.  This movie relocates Popeye to France, where he’s determined to find one of the criminals that got away in the first movie.  I don’t have a problem with the change of locale; that’s actually something I approve of, since it would’ve been very easy to do a rehash of the first movie, and it’s neat to see Popeye be a fish-out-of-water where it’s even less likely he can find his man in this alien landscape.  My problem is, the movie doesn’t even come close to providing the fast-paced thrills of the first movie.  We get a very brief foot chase towards the beginning, a shootout at the docks which ends in a flood, and a final foot chase where Popeye chases the villain, who’s on a cable car (and later, a boat).  That’s it.  It’s quite a letdown.  But worse yet, there’s an incredibly lengthy sequence in the middle of the movie where a kidnapped Popeye is forced by the villains in becoming addicted to heroin, and goes cold turkey with the help of his French cop partner.  It showcases withdrawal symptoms quite well (though it’s not exactly entertaining), but the problem is, the story grinds to a halt throughout all this.  By the time he finally has overcome his cravings (which takes a good half hour!), I didn’t care anymore and just wanted the movie to be over.  And oddly, when it finally does, it’s incredibly abrupt, unsatisfying, and confusing (how in the world did Popeye catch up to the villain?  They never really explain it!).

The movie has some good moments, mostly Popeye butting heads with his French partner and just trying to understand people, but overall this was a disappointing sequel.

I’m No Angel (1933):  This pre-code Mae West film gets off to a slightly slow start, but soon I was smiling widely at her infinite amount of sultry one-liners.  I find it interesting that The Heights showed two movies in a row where the focus was on a woman sleeping her way to the top.  Or at least, that was the suggestion; there’s an amusing trial sequence towards the end of “I’m No Angel” where West’s character refutes how much of a female stud she is.  But unlike “Baby Face”, this one doesn’t veer into dramatic territory in the last act, and it looks more consistent because of it.  (and yes, this is the film where West says her infamous “Come up and see me” line)

Jerk, The (1979):  Comedian Steve Martin plays the titular character named Navin, a white guy brought up by a black family in the poor, backwater south, who one day decides to pursue the American Dream and leaves home, hopping from one job to another (gas station attendant, carny).  Along the way, he falls in love and even manages to strike it rich with an invention he inadvertently created, but then blows it all.  I guess my biggest problem with the movie is that the title is a misnomer; “jerk” would imply that Navin is a rude, mean, pompous, arrogant individual, but in reality he’s just a clueless hillbilly who stumbles through adult life with a naïve optimism, even when things are going incredibly badly for him.  How is that a jerk again?  I suppose you could argue he becomes a jerk when he gets wealthy, but even that’s debatable.  Really, the guy just doesn’t know how to act, and that’s the whole joke of the movie.  Sometimes the joke works, sometimes it doesn’t.  I did laugh heartily quite a few times during “The Jerk”, but part of me felt the movie could’ve been stronger, and I suspect it’s because Steve Martin plays the character more as an over-the-top caricature, someone who’s virtually impossible to identify with.  As a result, I always felt at arm’s length with the material.  Still, I laughed enough that I felt it was worth my time to see.  Best part of the movie?  The ending, where the family that adopted Navin also strike it rich, and say they’re going to buy a bigger house.  Cut to a slightly less crappy looking, only marginally bigger shack.

Alec Guiness, in all eight of his roles.  Respect.
Kind Hearts & Coronets (1949):  The last of the “Alec Guinness series" at the Trylon, this is a dark comedy about a Duke, Louis Mazzini, who wants to murder a whole line of people (all played by Guinness, years before Eddie Murphy would do the same in The Nutty Professor) in order to attain the throne and its riches.  The highlight in this one is the narration, where Mazzini calmly and wittily describes his process, in a rare instance of “rooting” for a bad guy while still disapproving of what he’s doing.  And the wide variety of roles Guinness plays, combined with the wide variety of methods in which Mazzini kills them, gives the movie a lot of variety.  However, any suspense of whether Mazzini got away with or not is diminished by the story being told in flashback when he's in prison and about to be executed (to be fair, there's a twist after the flashbacks wrap up, but the movie doesn't end any differently than if that twist hadn't been there).  Also, there are few BIG laughs in the movie, more chuckles than anything.  Dave loves the movie, and considers it one of his favorite comedies, despite agreeing that it isn’t wall-to-wall laughs.  This raises a question:  Is a “best comedy” measured in quantity of laughs, or in its overall tone and ideas it raises?  For instance, I like “Dr. Strangelove” for its satire, but in terms of jokes, it’s definitely not my favorite comedy by any means.  Same here; it was worth seeing but I didn’t like it quite as much as Dave.

Ladykillers, The (1955):  A gang of five thieves (including Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom, and Peter Sellers) con their way into renting an old lady’s room, then pull off a heist.  However, they’re caught red handed by the old lady, and they try to decide what to do about the woman who knows too much.

Reviewing the original Ladykillers objectively is difficult because inevitably, comparisons will be made with its 2004 remake by the Coen Brothers.  Both versions have their merits, but if I had to pick a favorite (and I know I’m in the minority on this), I have to pick the remake.  I just found the characters more distinct and funny, the southern music was better, the heist was more ingenious, and there are certain elements which the original lacked (such as the old woman being influenced by her deceased husband’s stern portrait).  However, the original has some things that the 2004 movie lacks, too, such as the cramped England house, which is a more distinct setting than the typical southern house in the remake.  The “I’ve called the cops and they’ll be here any minute” line gives the movie a more urgent feel, and I like how the crooks tried to get the old lady to feel like she was an accomplice so she wouldn’t turn them in.  Talk about temptation!

My verdict?  See both movies and decide for yourself.  As both movies take different executions on the same basic story, you don’t feel like you’re wasting your time by watching the same thing twice (hello, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho!).

Lavender Hill Mob (1951):  A heist movie starring Alec Guinness.  As with a lot of heist movies, things get off to a slow start but pick up really quickly once the scheme starts.  And like any good heist movie, things go wrong with the well-laid plan and that makes things interesting.  My favorite part during said sequence is when two of the crooks are tailing a group of grade-school girls, who have unknowingly purchased Eiffel Tower miniatures that are, in reality, made of gold that the crooks are trying to smuggle.  At one point, the girls get on a cruise ship, and two of the crooks have tons of difficulty getting on the ship, as they have to purchase a ticket, then get their passports stamped, then go through baggage inspection, then go through customs, all while trying to do it as fast as possible.  That’s great farce.  I also enjoyed the ending, a great "reversal of expectations" gag.

Pretty much sums up the movie.
Leprechaun IV: In Space (1996):  Yes, I’m aware this movie is bad.  Yes, I’m aware that there are probably much better movies I could be watching instead of this.  But you know what?  I had a jolly good time at this “horror” comedy.  I say horror in quotes because there is literally nothing in this movie that comes across as scary.  I mean come on, our villain is a short, green-suited leprechaun who speaks in Irish jargon and pines for his “pot o’ gold”.  How can you not love the little guy, even when he’s picking off the spaceship crewmates one-by-one, a la Alien?  Besides him, my other favorite character in here is the leader of the group of space marines, a guy in a robotic Zamboni suit who arbitrarily speaks with a German accent (and thus, combined with his short temper when barking commands, is vaguely Nazi-ish).  Like “Jack Frost”, this was quite the guilty pleasure.  Heck, even the creator of Trash Film Debauchery was surprised how many people showed up for this movie.

Our Man in Havana (1959):  James Wormold, a mild-mannered British vacuum salesman living in Cuba (played by Alec Guinness) is brought into the British secret service, and is told to recruit more agents.  However, he send them fictitious info, including passing off an ordinary vacuum cleaner as a secret weapon, one of the movie’s funniest moments.  This fibbing gets Wormold in hot water when some enemies are intent on killing him, despite that he obviously poses no threat.  There's a classic banquet scene where they play the old "switcheroo" with drinks and food, tense and funny at the same time.  A good movie with well-done Cuban atmosphere and a plot which subverts certain expectations of the genre.

So much running.
Run Lola Run (1998):  An exciting, fast-paced vehicle where the titular character desperately tries to get enough money for her boyfriend to pay back his boss, in less than half an hour.  Talk about pressure.  What separates this movie from a standard “race against time” plot is how the movie “resets” twice, to show how differently the same scenario went if Lola made other choices.  We even see how inconsequential background characters’ lives are altered by the slightest changes in execution of this twenty minutes, shown in rapid-fire, “blink and you’ll miss it” fashion.  So which “version” is the real one?  More importantly, does it really matter?  If you’re going into this expecting to see one true ending, you’re missing the point.  This isn’t really a movie in the traditional sense, but a narrative experiment to show how slight variances can produce vastly different results.  Some have even likened the movie to a video game, since Lola has three lives and each scenario gets a little better as the player learns more each time, and I can definitely agree with that.

Tunes of Glory (1960):  Saw this one with my parents, their first time at the Trylon.  It was somewhat misleading advertising to put this in with the other Alec Guinness comedy films, because this isn't really a comedy at all.  It's more of a “power struggle” movie at a Scottish boot camp during World War II.  That is, two opposing commanders, one played by Alec Guinness as more of a light-hearted “one of the boys”, and another who is taking over his unit and is more of a by-the-book hard-ass, butting heads over how best to run the troop.  Things get more interesting when Guinness slugs a man who happens to be an officer, and the new commander becomes unpopular for going forward with a court martial.  Despite being an outlier in that film series, Tunes of Glory is engaging because you have sympathy for both Guinness (who's losing the group that he's grown with) and the new leader who doesn't quite fit in.  And without spoiling anything, the ending is genuinely moving.

Wizard of Oz, The (1939):  The Heights gave a 75th anniversary screening of the movie (with a good quality print at that), which packed the house.  Literally, I didn’t see any empty seats.  That always warms my heart to see old movies can still draw crowds, even though this one has the upper hand of being really famous.  Interestingly, while I had seen The Wizard of Oz as a child, it was never a movie I watched over and over.  So seeing it as an adult was, for all means and purposes, my “first time”.  Luckily, it was a good movie, tightly told and full of memorable musical numbers and characters.  I would estimate that at least 2/3 of the moments in the film have been parodied or referenced in some fashion, meaning that if you watch it today, it’s one meme after another (and that’s a good thing in this case).  Only one nagging problem:  They never did resolve the subplot where Miss Gulch wanted to put down Toto.  So when Dorothy wakes up from the dream, isn’t Toto still destined to be taken away from her again?  Is this really a downer ending in disguise?  Other than that, it was a good movie but the experience of seeing such an old movie with a large crowd was the real highlight.
Now, grab some friends and head over to the Trylon!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Oscars Preview Finale - Our 2013 Top Tens!

Chels and I have written ad nauseam on this year’s films, so we decided that for our top tens, we could keep things to Twitter length.  That’s right, here are our respective top ten films, with our explanations all under 144 characters.  As a bonus, we also included our favorite films we viewed in 2013, but that were produced in a prior year.  NOW, we are ready for the Oscars.  We hope you are, too.

Dave’s Top Ten of 2013

10. All is Lost – J.C. Chandor
A raw display of man vs. nature that taps into our most basic survival instincts. Thematically simple, but visceral and truly affecting.

9. Stories We Tell – Sarah Polley
A candid family portrait that is honest, funny, insightful, and ingenious. Sarah Polley establishes herself as a unique cinematic voice.

8. Nebraska – Alexander Payne
Payne's opus and lament of small-town American family life; a bittersweet, quirky, and poignant depiction of senility, purpose, and aging.

7. 12 Years a Slave – Steve McQueen
An unflinching and intensely involving glimpse into the chief injustice of American history; directed with resolve and acted with sincerity.

6. The Wolf of Wall Street – Martin Scorsese
Frenzied and manic, this cautionary epic of sensory excess succeeds through both titillation and nauseation. Daring work from all involved.

5. Frances Ha – Noah Baumbach
A perceptive and convicting study of adult adolescence; captures American delusions of grandeur and exceptionalism as felt by my generation.

4. Upstream Color – Shane Carruth
Sci-Fi for grown-ups, this engaging mystery plumbs the human psyche, speaking through montage as purely cinematic as anything you could see.

3. Before Midnight – Richard Linklater
Relationships are hard work, and this beautiful film shows how this inevitable, frustrating work is vital to bring true humility and growth.

2. Her – Spike Jonze
Prophetic and deeply emotional, Her is both a lament of modern disconnect and an instructive recognition of our need for human connection.

1. Inside Lleywn Davis – Joel and Ethan Coen
Addresses life's biggest questions in periphery, where they dwell most often. Smartly explores grief's paralysis with compassion and care.

Best Non-2013 Film Consumed in 2013: The Up Series, by Michael Apted
I have never seen films as thoughtful, living, or absorbing as Michael Apted's masterful cinematic experiment with his Up films – a series of documentaries that revisits in reflective interviews a group of fourteen individuals every seven years from the age of 7 to what is now 56.  I truly felt that I knew these people more intimately that I know many of my friends in reality – documentary has a way of doing this by asking questions we rarely have opportunities or courage to ask in reality.  The films examine purpose, faith, class, gender, family, professional pursuits, and the very fragmented nature of documentary filmmaking itself with humility, patience, and an unmistakable passion for finding what it means to be human.  They are living documents also, as Apted’s focus seems to change over time.  With age, he becomes less concerned with questions of class politics and more concerned with questions of meaning and personal worth.  In this way, the films not only examine human life explicitly, but implicitly through their changing structure and focus.  As a whole, they are a masterpiece of the finest order and their place in film history should be accorded high status.

Chelsea's Top Ten of 2013

10.  The Act of Killing – Joshua Oppenheimer
A look at Indonesia's awful past and corrupt present.  Maybe the most important film of 2013 - unflinching and chilling. Watch the credits.

9.  Before Midnight – Richard Linklater
Long term relationships are work and this chapter turns the romanticism of the first two films on its head. Honest and raw fights included.

8.  Frances Ha – Noah Baumbach
Painfully and poignantly follows a lost millenial who struggles in career, romance, and friendship.  Gerwig is not to be missed.

7.  The Wolf of Wall Street – Martin Scorsese
Scorsese continues to push buttons in this overwhelming and exhausting experience that indicts excess. DiCaprio gives his career best.

6.  Inside Llewyn Davis – Joel and Ethan Coen
Masterfully scripted and shot, this film allows us to sit in melancholy while also listening to the melodies abounding. Plus, OUTER SPACE!

5.  Upstream Color – Shane Carruth
The pieces all fit together in Shane Carruth's visionary puzzle.  Worms, pigs, and soundscapes help examine the essence of identity.

4.  12 Years a Slave – Steve McQueen
McQueen examines this remarkable man who experiences the whole of our nation's atrocious past; allows us to star unblinking at the horror.

3.  Nebraska – Alexander Payne
Payne appears to have grown up in my family once again as he poignantly and lovingly deals with aging, dignity, and relationships.

2.  Short Term 12 – Destin Daniel Cretton
A young caregiver at a group home also deals with her own distressing past. What could have been trite is honest and penetrates the heart.

1.  Her – Spike Jonze
Jonze pulls together each element: performances, music and cinematography to elevate this fatidic script to a deeply felt and resonant film.

Best Non-2013 Film I saw in 2013: Holy Motors by Leo Carax
To be fair, I didn’t watch a ton of classic film this year.  I did, however, probably ponder Holy Motors and the themes it presents on a near-daily basis.  It’s fabulous.  Read our previous blog.  And see the movie.  Seriously.  I know that I’m inflating your expectations, but if I don’t, you probably won't watch it.  It’s on Netflix.

*Intriguing 2013 Movies We Didn’t Have a Chance to See (Ordered Alphabetically):
20 Feet from Stardom, A Band Called Death, A Hijacking, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Anchorman 2, At Berkeley, Berberian Sound Studio, Beyond the Hills, Blue Caprice, Broken Circle Breakdown, Dirty Wars, Don Jon, Europa Report, First Cousin Once Removed, Frozen, Go For Sisters, God Loves Uganda, In a World…, In the House, It’s a Disaster, Labor Day, Like Someone In Love, Lone Survivor, Museum Hours, No, Only God Forgives, Out of the Furnace, Pain and Gain, Pieta, Saving Mr. Banks, Something in the Air, Stoker, Sun Don’t Shine, The Angel’s Share, The Counselor, The Great Beauty, The Heat, The Past, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Selfish Giant, The Wind Rises, Wadjda, War Witch, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

Friday, February 28, 2014

Oscars Preview - Part Five!

And welcome to our final preview for the Academy Awards!  We will be releasing our 2013 Top Ten Lists on Sunday, but below are our predictions for the two biggest awards - Best Director and Best Picture.  We are so excited for the ceremony Sunday evening - we can't wait to see the gowns, the musical numbers, the tributes, and the winners.  

Best Director

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


Should Win: Martin Scorsese
This was a tough one for me, as each nominee is an auteur working at the top of their form with strong vision and a unique aesthetic bent.  In this way, it is probably stupid to say one is better than the other, but heck, it’s the Oscars and that is what we are here for, so I decided to go with the filmmaker who displayed the most overall stylistic ambition.  That would be our old friend Marty, whose visual flair encapsulates Wolf’s audacious plot movements and is a voice equal to that of screenwriter Terence Winter.  Indeed, what makes this film most interesting is that Scorsese comments on the script by way of sharp visual cues, camera movement, and soundtrack.  To put it another way, Scorsese’s voice is as strong as that of Winters or Jordan Belfort in the film, and this makes the film all the more engrossing and interesting.  A close second here for me is McQueen, whose voice as a filmmaker is perceptive, compassionate, and patient – a far cry from Scorsese’s brashness, but equally as distinctive and impressive. 

Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the year we see the first directing Oscar for a Hispanic filmmaker.  It seems that all the momentum is in Cuaron’s favor, and that understandable with the popularity of his film.  It is also not undeserved – Gravity is a technical marvel that represents what is likely the most complex directorial undertaking of the bunch.  The camera essentially never stops moving and Cuaron knows exactly when and how to insert close-ups – the only reason I don’t put it at the top of my list is that the film does not seem to present as strong an authorial voice.  Indeed, the only other filmmaker in the bunch that doesn’t is…

Weakest Nominee: David O. Russell
… Who essentially rips off his fellow nominee Scorsese.  Now, don’t get me wrong, there are comic touches and a sense of spontaneity that are clearly Russellian, but these feel like riffs on ground Scorsese has already treaded.  In a field with filmmakers who have all created distinctive works that emphasize their unique strengths as filmmakers, the fact that Russell’s work seems derivative makes him stand out.

Best Non-Nominee: Joel and Ethan Coen for Inside Llewyn Davis
There are no more assured and meticulous filmmakers working today than the Coen brothers. With Davis, every word, angle, and glance builds upon each other to communicate deeper meaning than what is on paper, and in this, the inimitable genius of their filmmaking is found.  While some would argue a more improvised aesthetic would fit the story of a hurting and drifting musician best, this film proves that by exploring aimlessness seriously and carefully, one can gain great insight into a universal human desire for connection and meaning. The film is void of sentimentality, but nevertheless elicits strong emotion and compassion – a cinematic feat only achieved by the true artists of cinema.  What impacted me most was that there is a sense that the Coens not only wished to communicate with their audience, but that they also ached to comfort the protagonist they had created.  To do this without being stylistically intrusive or saccharine shows just how great their talents are.


Should Win: Steve McQueen
Over and over, it sounds as though you are going to tune in Sunday and discover this was my favorite film of the year.  Spoilers: it’s not, and there are quite a few films ahead of it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see how meticulously crafted and beautifully directed it is.  McQueen has really proven that he has a strong vision and is a true auteur, and it would be nice to see that rewarded in Hollywood.  Other director I had a hard time choosing McQueen over: Alexander Payne, whose personal vision is always deeply resonant for me.

Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron
And good for him, seriously.  It is a very well-directed film that required enormous effort on his part. 

Weakest Nominee: David O. Russell
David already said it well above, I see no need to repeat the obvious!  However, I do want to point out that Russell does manage to get fantastic performances from his actors, of course that’s probably pretty easy when you cast some of the best actors working today.  I would be happy for each director except Russell.

Best Non-Nominee: Spike Jonze for Her
Spike Jonze just manages to pull everything together to have one fantastic, unified picture of the future.  It’s a phenomenal film and absolutely everything works, from the score, to the production design, to the cinematography, to the performances.  And it was Jonze who was able to pull each of these elements into one great film.  Kudos.

Best Picture


The Nominees:
American Hustle: Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison, and Jonathan Gordon, Producers
Captain Phillips: Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca, Producers
Dallas Buyers Club: Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter, Producers
Gravity: Alfonso Cuarón and David Heyman, Producers
Her: Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze and Vincent Landay, Producers
Nebraska: Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, Producers
Philomena: Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan and Tracey Seaward, Producers
12 Years a Slave: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen and Anthony Katagas, Producers
The Wolf of Wall Street: Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joey McFarland and Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Producers

Should Win: Her
This is the most insightful and important film of the year, and honestly, the fact that it is nominated at all is encouraging.  This film is impeccably crafted and deeply convicting, but also captures the uncomfortable reality of increasing discord in contemporary social life as a result of technology.  What makes this film so great is that while it displays a real cultural problem we must address, it never feels preachy and always maintains a deep connection with the passions and motivations of its lonely protagonist.  It is a heartbreaking work, and one that poignantly points its audience to the importance of true, sincere human relationships.

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
The other possibility here is Gravity, which has the popularity vote in its favor.  Yet, the Academygenerally loves historical films and this film has won many other awards to date, so I think it pulls out a victory here as well.  And it would be well-deserved if it did.

Weakest Nominee: Dallas Buyers Club
When the nominees were announced, I had to do a double take on this one.  Not a bad film, just a middling one that is mostly out of place with the bunch.  The film’s only true strength is in its performances, but with the script and visuals being noticeably weaker, it shouldn’t be here.

Best Non-Nominee: Inside Llewyn Davis
See above for more on why I love this film, but I should mention that I was shocked with the lack
of Oscar love for this masterwork.  Not only are the Coens generally very well received with the Academy, but this represents what could be their best film yet.


The Academy missed out on this nomination for Song.
Reading through the nominees, it really has been a strong year, and overall, the Academy has done a fine job of recognizing many of the excellent films on offer.  David, I agree with you on every single thing you said above.  And although Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t at the top of my list of favorite non-nominees, it is probably the most perfect film that wasn’t nominated for Oscar, and the biggest surprise – the Academy usually loves the Coens!  It really is extraordinarily well done, and extremely tight.  For personal favorite non-nominee, that would be Short Term 12, which captured my heart this year.  For a debut feature, it’s pretty impressive stuff, and approaches a messy subject with an honest, humble heart.

Also, let me point out that the Best Picture race is really tight, the tightest in a few years.  And Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, or American Hustle could all very well walk away with the prize.  Of those three, I definitely want to see a 12 Years a Slave win.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Oscars Preview - Part Four!

We are now less than a week from Oscar Sunday – get pumped.

Today, we roll on with our Oscars preview with a discussion of the races for lead performances.  This year has been insanely good for lead performances, both male and female.  We both think that the nominations could have looked completely different this year and still have been great.  Can you imagine, for example, a group of male nominations for Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), Robert Redford (All is Lost), Joaquin Phoenix (Her), and Mads Mikkelsen (The Hunt)?  Or female nominations for Adele Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color), Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha), Brie Larson (Short Term 12), Julie Delpy (Before Midnight), and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said) (Chelsea: And let's not leave out Olivia Wilde in Drinking Buddies)?  Hard to argue those nominations wouldn’t be just as worthy (especially on the female side).

Best Actor

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


Should Win: Leonardo DiCaprio
This is an all-in performance for the ages.  As with the script, DiCaprio’s performance presents someone so driven by his ego that they do not stop to recognize or process their flaws.  This role simply looks exhausting, and DiCaprio never lets his energy flag in the least.  It would be easy to say this kind of performance lacks nuance, but I actually found it most impressive that he ads grades of emotion while playing it all turned up to 11.  This is a high-impact performance, but it certainly isn’t one note.  Better yet, it isn’t a performance that seemed to be reaching for an Oscar.  No one would play someone as off-putting as Jordan Belfort to get awards recognition.  Coupled with the fact he has yet to take home his own Oscar, this all makes me want him to win even more.

Will Win: Matthew McConaughey
But alas, this does not seem to be in the cards.  Momentum for McConaughey has picked up since his win at the Golden Globes, and it seems inevitable he will take home the little gold man.  To be fair, his turn as Ron Woodruff is more than an Academy-rousing physical transformation, and is actually very solid and daring.  Yet, while there isn’t a whole lot bad I can say about his performance, I found nearly every other performance in this category more impressive.  Really, all but…

Weakest Nominee: Christian Bale
As with the other roles from American Hustle, Bale’s performance lacks the range of his fellow nominees.  This is actually a really enjoyable performance, but while Bale captures comedic panic and frustration really well, he simply isn’t given enough character depth here to warrant this nod.  This is especially true when you consider the quantity of great lead performances this year, for example…

Best Non-Nominee: Joaquin Phoenix in Her
On the one hand, it is a shame Phoenix doesn’t play along with the Hollywood publicity game, for if he did, he would probably get an Oscar nod for pretty much everything.  On the other hand, it is nice to see someone working for the love of his craft rather than accolades.  Phoenix occupies nearly all the screen-time inHer and is solely entrusted with communicating much of the emotional depth in Spike Jonze’s script.  He succeeds by relaying an impressive range of emotion, from grief, to excitement, to disappointment, to confusion, to guilt, to contentment, to self-loathing, to… You get the idea – this film is an emotional rollercoaster, and Phoenix never feels anything but believable.  This is especially impressive considering the plot involves mainly interaction with an off-screen voice.


Because I literally agree with every single thing you said above in this category, let me take this opportunity to give praise to some very worthwhile nominees:  Bruce Dern and Chiwetel Ejiofor.  If either of these fantastic men (or DiCaprio) take home the gold on Oscar night, color me exceptionally pleased.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Ejiofor was considered a favorite on Oscar night early on in awards season, but has since sadly fallen out of favor.  He’s fantastic in this role, and he carries the whole film on his back, gracing nearly every frame with his portrait of a dignified yet broken man who was illegally sold into slavery.  His eyes do so much of the work as Solomon Northrup, conveying anger, sadness, relief, horror, and more, all with a level of nuance that is rarely appreciated.  When he gives in and sings a spiritual, you can feel the weight of the breath in.  Even in the opening scene, you can see the conflict and sadness and defeat running through his face.  Remarkable, beautiful work.

Bruce Dern in Nebraska
There is something about the male leads of Payne films that just do me in.  They remind me so
much of my family, in both good and bad ways, and Dern’s Woody is no exception.  Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant with a level of fragility and nuance that allows someone that could easily have become a caricature to breathe and live.  It truly feels as though Dern inhabits his role – every tick, every move feels honest and real.  He has no trouble getting ugly or showing the senility, while still managing to maintain Woody’s humanity.  And that’s no small feat for a role in which a prideful old man stubbornly refuses to believe the people around him when they are telling him the truth.  Again, fantastic work from a veteran actor who has rarely seen the spotlight.  I would love to explore more of his filmography, largely due to his great presence in this lovely film.

Also, I'm going to give a little P.S. and mention that we watched The Hunt last night, and we were completely bowled over by Mads Mikkelson's performance.  He plays a man wrongly accused of pedophilia in a small town who is quickly turned on by his friends and family.  He plays all the right notes here, managing to convey a range of emotions - confusion, frustration, anger, fear, and deep sadness that the people he loves would so easily believe him to be a monster.  It's a fantastic performance that carries the film.  If Joaquin Phoenix was nominated in Bale's spot, Mikkelson would would have occupied my Best Non-Nominee slot.

Best Actress

The Nominees:
Amy Adams in American Hustle
Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock in Gravity
Judi Dench in Philomena
Meryl Streep in August: Osage County


Should Win: Cate Blanchett
I always appreciate when actresses play ugly.  I don’t necessarily mean something like Charlize Theron in Monster, where there is a stark physical transformation, but rather when performances delve deep into the ugliness of the human psyche (Chelsea: like Charlize Theron in Young Adult).  Blanchett’s performance captures the ugliness of vanity and pride, as well as an uglier desire to think others less valuable.  Her performance captures perfectly the confusion of having your pride shattered in a country where appearances are king, and her portrayal of a desperate grasping to the past is eminently believable.  As an actress who is known for her elegance, this is pretty daring, impressive stuff.

Will Win: Cate Blanchett
There is some talk about how this film’s association with director Woody Allen and recent accusations against him will harm Blanchett’s chances, but I think the Academy will follow suit with the rest of the awards season and reward Blanchett.  This is particularly true because none of the other performances have garnered nearly as much acclaim.

Weakest Nominee: Meryl Streep
Streep’s Violet Weston is essentially a comic book villain, pure evil along the lines of Lex Luthor or The Penguin.  This is largely due to the script, and bless her heart, Streep goes full tilt with the performance, providing someone so ugly and spiteful there is little more to explore.  She capture mannerisms and her accent well, but there was more depth in Star Trek’s Khan this year than in this character.  Not her fault, but also not all that impressive in the end.

Best Non-Nominee: Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha
Greta Gerwig’s portrayal of prolonged adolescence and professional confusion will resonate with any millennial – us who were told we were special and could be anything we wanted with enough determination.  This film is not an angry response to this lie, but rather a bittersweet meditation on the emotional response to realizing this lie.  As such, it relies heavily on Gerwig’s captivating performance to communicate its themes.  With her turn as Frances, Gerwig captures both a playful optimism and a stubborn resentment of reality, while also building a genuine portrait of an awkward and flawed, but fun and likeable person.  This is not a character battling huge dramatic problems, but rather is someone battling the problems of identity and meaning we all face at some point in our lives.  With both charisma and subtlety, Gerwig epitomizes the film’s messy and insightful themes – what more could you ask for?


Once again, you make this super difficult for me.  I agree with your should and will win and weakest nominee, although I have one caveat that it’s possible that Amy Adams pulls the win here, largely because she’s the only nominee who has not yet won an Oscar, her body of work is impressive, and because of the controversy currently surrounding Woody Allen.  In addition, I don’t think Bullock is particularly impressive.  Yes, it’s probably the best performance of her career, but  it’s not the same level as Blanchett, Adams, or Dench.  Although, I have heard that the physical preparation of this role was grueling, and for that, I applaud her.

Best Non-Nominee: Brie Larson in Short Term 12
Up-and-comer Larson shows the world she can carry the weight of a film on her back.  It’s a mostly quiet, very nuance portrait of a young woman who works with troubled teens, and also seems to have a troubling past of her own.  She nails the aspects of her role that show her working – it absolutely makes sense that the kids would love and respect her.  Additionally, she gorgeously and subtley plays her life outside the group home – her relationship with her long-term boyfriend, her interplay with family, and a lot of murky water.  It’s a strong and subtle performance, and I cannot recommend this film highly enough.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Oscars Preview - Part Three!

Today, we continue our Oscars preview with a discussion of the races for supporting performances. These awards go to the best acting performances in roles other than lead characters.  Check back tomorrow for the lead performance category.

Best Supporting Actor

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


Should Win: Michael Fassbender
It would be easy to play this role as a straight up villain – heck, he is even kind of written that way.  What I respect about Fassbender’s turn as the vicious slave owner Edwin Epps is that he ads an element of confused frustration and existential anger to the role that a lesser actor wouldn’t think to realize.  Fassbender plays Epps not as a hateful man driven by a faulty ideology, but as a prideful man violently attempting to project the reality of his flaws on his slaves.  It is not so much that this character becomes sympathetic, but that he becomes believable, which is perhaps its most sobering aspect.

Will Win: Jared Leto
Leto will win for a few reasons – one, he is very good in this role, two, the Academy loves actor transformations, and three, he plays a character many Academy voters wish to give a louder voice.  What is odd about all this is that while Leto does provide believable emotion to the role, I never got the sense that his portrayal of the transgender martyr Rayon was anything more than a broad stereotype meant to draw out sympathy.  When you take a step back, the writers of this film didn’t give the character enough nuance for any actor to really add much depth.  So, while Leto dutifully and boldly provides an all-in performance, it is kind of a one-note act from beginning to end, and unlike Fassbender, he doesn’t really add much to the role that wasn’t already in the script.

Weakest Nominee: Barkhad Abdi
The Academy loves to reward performances that are surprisingly good:  “Man, for a 5-year old, she was incredible,” or in this case, “You had to admit, for a non-actor, he was really good!”  And I do admit this – he was really good for a non-actor.  I’m just not so sure awards, or even nominations, should be given due to relative merit rather than true merit.  Actors work a long time to refine their craft, and I would say that hard work should be rewarded first.  What sucks is that Abdi is a resident of my home Twin Cities, which is pretty cool, so part of me wants to just be quiet and enjoy this nomination.  Also, Abdi is not a stereotypical-looking actor, so if he continues acting, will likely be relegated to fringe character types for the remainder of his life.  In other words, he will likely not have the opportunity to prove his true merit as an actor, no matter how hard he works to refine his skills in the years to come.

Best Non-Nominee: Jake Gyllenhaal in Prisoners
There are literally thousands of movies with this character – a skilled and professional policeman
investigating a mystery abduction, tasked with both keeping victims calm and digging for the truth.  It is a role Gyllenhaal could have easily phoned in, and no one would have said much else about it good or bad.  The script for this film is well crafted, so the film overall would likely not disappoint anyway.  What is great about Gyllenhaal’s performance, though, is that he adds tics and fidgets to his character that communicate his policing profession simultaneously propels and annoys him.  In other words, while he understands the importance of his position, he also wishes someone else could take on this burden for him.  This subtlety adds volumes to the film, and makes every interaction deeper and more interesting.  In other words, Gyllenhaal does what all great performances do – he elevates the material.


Should Win: Michael Fassbender
This is an astonishing performance in a film filled to the brim with them.  Fassbender is excellent in nearly everything he does, but when he works with McQueen, he manages to elevate already great material.  The work he does as Epps is entirely menacing, frightening, and a look into our dark past.

Will Win: Jared Leto
Like David said, Leto is very good, but this role doesn’t offer him much to do outside of being a heartbreaking portrait into the life of a traditionally marginalized person.  He serves as the main bridge between the lead character and the new culture in which he now must enter, and in that way, is the main reason the lead learns to soften and care about those surrounding him.

Weakest Nominee:  Barkhad Abdi
I agree.  I think he’s really very good, and he was plucked out of obscurity here in Minneapolis, but he doesn’t reach the level of the performers he shares this category with.  Still, considering he is a non-actor, it’s extraordinarily impressive.

Best Non-Nominee:
Because we agreed again on the above three categories, I would like to use this space to highlight two additional male supporting performances that I thought were particularly excellent.

James Franco in Spring Breakers
The film itself is exhausting, graphic, brutal, and disturbing, and Franco embodies the spirit of the film with his performance as Alien, a rapper/drug dealer who bails the four main characters out of jail and shows them a life of “spring break forever”.  Franco is balls-to-the-wall crazy in the role, making himself ugly, unlikeable, and yet charismatic and magnetic.  So many of his scenes inhabit an off-putting, deranged quality, and it’s simply amazing that Franco just went for it, plain and simple. This could be one that continues to be talked about for a long time.

Keith Stanfield in Short Term 12
Never before seen outside of his role in the short on which this film is based, Stanfield absolutely breaks your heart as a troubled teenager who lives in the titular group home, but is nearing a birthday that will remove him from this place.  With his tough exterior and caring heart, Marcus could have been a bland, cliché character in other hands, but he shows us early on in a one-on-one interaction with a supervisor, that this character is bigger than the cliché.  It’s a wrenching, human performance, and his character is the only one this year that made me cry real tears.  I’m looking forward to watching his career progress.

Best Supporting Actress

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


Should Win: Lupita Nyong’o
Give her all the awards!
With the character of Patsey, Nyong’o gives us a deeply tragic figure.  As a sexually abused slave seeking meaning in the affections of her master, this character is already heartbreaking, but by playing this character as equally naïve and jaded, Nyong’o captures how existential confusion can lead to dreadful fear and frustrated defeat.  Patsey is a woman who is child-like because she is forced to be so, and Nyong’o does not simply play this character as angry or childish, but as deeply conflicted and lost.  It is not that she simply wants to reap the rewards of pleasing her owner, but that she simultaneously hates him and hates herself for this impulse.  Compared to the other more broadly drawn characters in this category, Patsey is by far the most compelling and fully drawn.

Will Win: Lupita Nyong’o
The other possibility here is Jennifer Lawrence, mainly because she has become Hollywood’s darling and won the Golden Globe.  And while Lawrence gives a thoroughly enjoyable caricature of dim-wittedness in American Hustle, it is ultimately a glorified sketch comedy character.  Luckily, Nyong’o won the SAG and several other major awards for her performance, so I think she will also win here.

Weakest Nominee: Julia Roberts
The thing about this performance is that it simply isn’t that memorable or interesting.  While Roberts certainly isn’t bad, and hits high emotional notes in a believable way, the role really only allows her to explore three emotions – annoyance, anger, and stubborn pride.  In a year with so many great performances, three emotions ain’t enough to justify a nomination.

Best Non-Nominee: Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now
For my money, this is the best supporting performance of the year.  Perhaps the reason many overlooked it is because Woodley portrays a teenager as teenagers actually are. While watching her, I kept thinking that I have met hundreds of girls like Aimee in my life.  Most portrayals of high school characters that get awards recognition provide unusually charismatic, disturbed, or intelligent youth, but here, Woodley’s Aimee is meek, shy, and unsure of herself – like most of us once were.  A full range of emotions is on display here, but they are guarded and come out in subtle, hesitant glances rather than grand displays.  Her performance captures an aching desire for acceptance and a flawed façade of confidence common to American adolescence while still communicating a deeper desire for connection and love, and as her character is decidedly normal, her portrayal of Aimee’s loss of innocence and idealism is particularly resonant.


Should Win: Lupita Nyong’o
She is heartbreaking

in this role.  She is absolute perfection in every frame she inhabits.  Beautiful, brilliant work.  I don’t know what else to say but she should absolutely win everything she can for her work here.

Will Win: Jennifer Lawrence
Look, she’s the best thing in American Hustle.  Funny, brash, naïve, and Lawrence shows us again why she’s America’s sweetheart, but she isn’t as good as Nyong’o, and she herself has apparently all but said she wants Nyong’o to get this award.

Weakest Nominee: Julia Roberts
I think you’re a little too hard on her above, and I think she shows a few more than three emotions (depression, some semblance of caring).  But you’re probably right that this is the weakest of the five.  Squibb, also, is good, but shows less range in her performance than the others and even the rest of the actors in Nebraska.

Best Non-Nominee: 

I feel like a broken record.  We once again agree totally in the above three categories, so I’m going to talk about the many fantastic female supporting performances in Her.  First, Rooney Mara, who plays lead character Theodore’s estranged wife.  She’s only in a few scenes, but managers to communicate the depth of love and the private moments inherent in a long-term relationship like a marriage.  She also beautifully captures the now broken relationship that they have.  Second, Amy Adams, who plays
Theodore’s best friend.  Each of her scenes is understated, but she manages to inject a lot of depth into this role that could have easily been quite slight.  Adams does a lot of subtle, nuanced work here, and it’s admirable.  Finally, Scarlett Johanssan, who voices the operating system that Theodore falls in love with.  She’s simply fabulous here, her crackly, smoldering voice lending a personality to a body-less computer.  She captures all the nuances and differences between herself and Theodore well, and the incredibly emotional film finds heart in the computer, thanks to her excellent performance here. The film itself is fabulous, emotional, and has three lovely, small performances from some great actresses working today.