Thursday, August 14, 2014

And the Oscar goes to… (2014 edition)

movie_and_popcornLast November I wrote a blog entry with mini-reviews for the 2013 Oscar Awards.

It was an interesting exercise, so I decided to do it again.

I watched as DVDs became available through the Alameda County Library System so reviews were written over a couple months, not immediately back-to-back.

Comments are based on personal preferences, and don't take into account popularity at the box office.

So without further ado here are my thoughts on this year's Best Picture Nominations for the 2014 Academy Awards presentation.

american_hustle_posterAMERICAN HUSTLEAmerican Hustle is a visit to the recent past where hair styles were bigger, clothes were gaudy and music was still psychedelic.

Throughout watching the film I had to keep asking myself exactly who was conning whom? Just when you thought things were going one way, it took a left turn and went another.

Character development was intricate, with the main ones having many layers like an onion. I never really felt sorry for any of them. But, it was like a train wreck coming on, you wanted to keep watching.

The strongest character was probably Sydney (Amy Adams). Vulnerable at times, she knew how to control men when she needed to and it was intriguing watching her spin her web.

It's easy to see how American Hustle garnered Oscar nominations in all the Big Five categories, plus five others.

Though the screenplay is clearly fictional, it really works because it liberally borrows from actual events; the ABSCAM scandal.

captain_phillips_posterCAPTAIN PHILLIPSCaptain Phillips takes us on the five day piracy epic of the MV Maersk Alabama cargo ship in November 2009.

Tom Hanks portrays Capt. Richard Phillips, the commander of the ill-fated cargo vessel. His demeanor was pretty much an even keel all the way through as if he was trying to diffuse the situation as best he could.

Producers took a gamble in casting four native Somali expats, who never acted before. This could have been disastrous. But, they carried it off very well. Being naturally gaunt, and looking like they were constantly hopped up on qat, and their characters were more interesting than Hanks'.

dallas_buyers_club_posterDALLAS BUYERS CLUB – In the early days of the AIDS crisis, people scrambled to find anything that might help to put off the inevitable.

Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) was a blue color worker and part-time bull rider who contracts AIDS through unprotected sex.

We follow Woodruff as he turned a quick buck scheme into something that prolonged lives and his transformation from borderline homophobe to civil activist.

Yet another amazing acting job by McConaughey, proving he's one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood.

I appreciated that director Jean-Marc Vallée chose not to stereotype the Dallas transvestite community, and explore their human side in supporting characters, such as Rayon (Jared Leto).

gravity_posterGRAVITY Nothing is peaceful than floating 600km above the surface of the Earth in the vacuum of space.

One minute Mission Specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is fixing a problematic satellite taking in the view; the next she's whirling out of control after a close encounter with space junk demolishes the space shuttle.

George Clooney and Bullock received equal billing in promos for Gravity. But, make no mistake; this was Bullock's film. Clooney's screen time was minimal at best.

An interesting tactic used was to constantly keep the camera moving for most of the film. This movement, even so slight, added to the ultra-realistic effects, gave me feeling as if this was actually shot in outer space.

After several minutes of Bullock hyperventilating and tumbling through space I began to wonder if that was all we were going to see. Fortunately, they moved the plot along in different ways.

They packed about three hours of events into the film's 93 minute running time, so we were kept on the edge of our seat for most of it.

her_posterHER A guy breaks up with his live-in girlfriend, and then relies on his computer's rather unique operating system for companionship.

Her is probably the strangest of this year's Best Picture nominees.

It's effectively a total of two hours-worth of conversations between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson); the body-less voice of his computer's operating system.

Phoenix sure has come along way since his 1986 debut in SpaceCamp, and Theodore must've been his hardest role yet because he had to effectively talk to the air as if he's interacting with a real person that's not visible.

Johansson had the luxury of showing up to a sound booth to record her lines and it wouldn't surprise me if she never set foot on the set.

Though the pacing of the film was slow most of the time, my biggest problem was the extreme foul language used when it just wasn't necessary. This included Writer/Director Spike Jonze in a cameo where his character excels at swearing and flipping the viewer off.

nebraska_posterNEBRASKA Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) won $1,000,000! At least that's what Woody thinks, and despite his failing health he's willing to walk a thousand miles to collect; much to the consternation of his immediate family.

Woody's son David (Will Forte) finally relents to drive his father the 850 miles to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect what's due him.

Along the way they visit Hawthorne, where Woody grew up, and where it seems like nothing has changed.

Nebraska is one of those films absolutely loved by  film festival goers, which I could never really get into.

It's thankfully short, yet it seems to drag on as if it were twice as long. Compounding that problem was the choice to film it in black and white.

Director Alexander Payne chose to use B&W because he always wanted to shoot a film in that medium, and because he felt this movie should be done that way.

To me, the choice didn't add anything which a grainy effect wouldn't have to a color film. Supposedly, they also produced a color version. But, that was never released. It would be interesting to compare the two some day.

On a positive side, the give and take between Dern and Forte was great, and kept me from dozing off.

Anybody who has had a grandparent who religiously pestered them to fill out PCH sweepstakes forms year after year will sympathize with David as he tries to dissuade his father every chance he gets before finally throwing his hands up in defeat.

philomena_posterPHILOMENA Philomena has kept a deep secret for 50 years. So deep, that she hadn't even shared it with her daughter.

Her daughter, after learning of her older brother, connects mom up with former BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith, who accompanies her on her real life journey to be reunited with her son, forcefully given up for adoption so long ago.

This film was an absolute gem. It's 97 minute running time is packed with detail that moves the story along, keeping the viewer's interest.

Judi Dench, best known to American audiences as M, in the James Bond franchise, was absolutely astounding. What's particular fascinating are the scenes where there is no dialog and her facial expressions were enough for the moment.

Steve Coogan took a step out of his comedic comfort zone to play a very serious Sixsmith. Not only was Coogan the lead actor. But, he also had his hands in writing the screenplay and film production.

wolf_of_wall_street_posterTHE WOLF OF WALL STREETJordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) had an amazing gift at being able to sell things.

Unfortunately, while working on Wall Street, he met a smooth talking mentor who showed him how to not take no for an answer.

After his firm was dissolved in the 1987 stock market crash, he took a job in the relatively unregulated penny stock world, building a fortune in a short time, and bringing him under the microscope of the FBI.

This film starts out like a race horse firing out of the gate. It tries to hook your attention with lots of flash and dash like one of those 1980s investment infomercials.

Unfortunately, it doesn't keep that pace and there are some dead times where you begin to lose interest. Frankly, it's just too long, with a running time of three hours.

The ensemble of supporting actors brings variety to the screen. But, this film is all about Belfort, and when DiCaprio is off his mark, it fails.

twelve_years_a_slave_poster12 YEARS A SLAVE As a Free Man of Color in the North, Solomon Northup stood out amongst his fellow residents of Hebron, New York.

In 1841 he was introduced to two men who were interested in hiring him for his skills with the violin.

However, Northup soon woke up in a foggy state, his fancy suit replaced by the chains of a slave.

12 Years A Slave follows his tribulations while living as a slave in the southern plantation system, and his eventually freedom and reunification with his family.

This film was both wonderful and horrific at the same time. Wonderful in that it's beautifully photographed and meticulously written. Horrific in that some of the attention to details might cause most people to become sick to their stomachs.

It's a fact that slaves were whipped. This has been shown many times before in movies. But, the makeup effects portrayed the results of whipping at a level I've never seen before in a movie.

Another issue some might have is the usage of the N word. I know of several people who refused to see the movie because it was used at all. Had they watched it, they would have probably left the theater within the first 20 minutes.

Screenwriter John Ridley wrote a script which seemed like a compilation of several vignettes, rather than one single story. At times it switched from one to the next rather abruptly.

* * *

So what would have been my choice for Best Picture?


A real gem. Acting was not over the top, and melded kept us interested with several twists and turns along the way.

While some events may have been enhanced by creative license, it was done to move the plot along. This was probably the closest to what really happened compared to the other films based on real life events.

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