Wednesday, June 3, 2015

And the Oscar goes to… (2015 edition)

movie_and_popcornHere we are again. The annual blog entry with my thoughts on the Best Picture nominations at this year’s Academy Awards!

Please note that, with the exception of seeing The Imitation Game in the theater, I watched all the films on DVD as they became available through the Alameda County Library System, so reviews were written over several months.

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 2015 Academy Awards presentation.

american_sniper_poster AMERICAN SNIPERChris Kyle, is arguably the most famous service man of our generation, and holds the unofficial sniper record for most kills in combat during his four tours of service in Iraq, as well as furthest successful shot.

Bradley Cooper (Nip/Tuck, Hangover series, Silver Linings Playbook) did an amazing job of Kyle as someone with ice water running through their veins (an important trait for a sniper)

Throughout the film, Kyle pretty much kept a cool demeanor no matter what he was doing, except for one brief incident after returning home, which was a pivotal point in the film.

Those who crave war action are richly rewarded, with it’s realistic combat scenes. Not quite to the constant level of Black Hawk Down. But, not a sleeper either. If anything I wish there had been more screen time dealt with Kyle’s life post-Iraq, especially his relationship with fellow veterans.

I applaud filmmaker Clint Eastwood for not actually showing Kyle’s murder at the very end; instead choosing to fade-to-black with words simply stating the fact on the screen. He then used silence during the closing credits, magnifying the solemn nature of that event.

What’s unfortunate is they chose not to mention the death of fellow veteran Chad LIttlefield during the same incident that claimed Kyle. While it doesn’t ruin the film, it absence wasn’t necessary, and it would have added all of 20 seconds to the film.

birdman_ver3_xlgBIRDMANRiggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a veteran actor trying to break into Broadway with an original play, which he’s written, directs, and stars in. Unfortunately, it seems like he runs into roadblock after roadblock, including his biggest handicapped of the public knowing him best for playing a super hero named Birdman.

A varied stable of character actors (Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough) support Keaton in this endeavor. Unfortunately, none of the characters were likeable enough for me. Neither was Keaton’s character for that matter.

At times it was hard to figure what direction the film was taking, especially with the interjection of a gruff voice, which was supposed to be the Birdman character; first as a voice over, and then as a character on the screen.

I will give kudos to filmmaker Alejandro González Linarite (Babel, Biutiful), who decided to use a soundtrack made completely of a drum solo. The staccato injection of drum licks did add a grittiness to the film.

boyhood_xlg BOYHOODBoyhood follows the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a young Texas boy, from youngster to his leaving for college, and the challenges he faces along the way.

While the plot may sound like an ordinary film, Boyhood is not. Filmmaker Richard Linklater (Fast Food Nation, School of Rock) came up with the idea of producing his film over twelve years, so that they could use the same young actors, rather than try and get several actors that may look similar.

While I applaud the outside the box thinking by Linklater, the movie was just so so. I felt like I was along for the ride, with no particular place to go.

Patricia Arquette (Olivia) certainly earned her Best Support Actress nomination, spending quite a bit of screen time setting up things to come.

grand_budapest_hotel_xlg THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTELThere is no greater goal in life than to be the lobby boy at one of the many posh European hotels. At least, that’s the feeling of Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) and his mentor Mr. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes).

We travel along with Mr. Gustave and young Zero as they go about their daily lives, trying to survive military intrigue and those that would conspire to steal the hotel for their very own.

Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom) has another hit on his hands. The pacing is just right to keep the viewer interested, with costume and set design which draws the viewer into the film.

He was also blessed with a huge ensemble cast of some of the best actors in Hollywood and Europe.

imitation_game_ver2 THE IMITATION GAMEOne of the most important events, which led to the Allied victory in World War II, was the British breaking of the “unbreakable” Enigma Code.

The Imitation Game depicts the efforts of a select group of individuals, led by the quirky Alan Touring, and the eventual downfall of Touring, after he was eventually outed for homosexuality in the 1950s.

Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a solid performance as Touring, eliciting feelings both of annoyance and sympathy for the character.

Set and costume design really brought the viewer into the era; especially Christopher, the machine which spins, clacks and pops on its way to solving the unsolvable Nazi code.

selma_xlg SELMASelma takes place during one of the seminal moments in American Race relations, and surrounds the famous march between Selma and Montgomery; a fifty mile stretch across the state of Alabama. The film is wrapped in the horrific brutality, which took place at that time, and which led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. is absolutely stunning. He casts off his British accent, and captures King’s mannerisms to a tee. Yes, his voice is perhaps a tad higher in pitch than King, but, his cadence is spot on.

Unfortunately Oyelowo’s performance is somewhat diminished by the film’s pacing. It starts out with a literal bang. But, then slows to a glacial pace for nearly half the film, when the first march attempt takes place nearly 50 minutes in.

Tom Wilkinson (Shakespeare in Love, Batman Begins, The Kennedys) delivers a rather adversarial performance as LBJ, painting the 36th president as more interested in his legacy than what that legacy actually contained. At time I was like, “wow” while at others it was more like “Hmm?”

The portrayal of Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) seems to blow in the wind. Sometimes he’s the racist that history paints him, while at times there seems to be an underlying spark of the futility of it all.

Interestingly, the theme song by John Legend and Common is only used at the very end. While the rap lyrics would have been misplaced taking place though out, the strong sound might have breathed some sorely needed pep into other places.

theory_of_everything_xlg THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING Some world renowned scientists are not commonly know by people, and stay that way for their entire life. Not so for Stephen Hawking, whose theories have revolutionized the way people think of things.

This film could have done the typical thing and followed Hawkings accomplishments throughout his life. But, they decided to take a different path, which made it more compelling to me.

The Theory of Everything gives us a brief glimpse of Hawking’s life. But, mostly concentrates on the period from just prior to a simple slip and fall brought out a diagnoses of what came to be nicknamed Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

I particularly liked the way ToE concentrated on the human aspect of Hawking. Yes, they mention some of his theories. But, that was just a brief part of the film.

Eddie Redmayne gave a career-defining performance in the lead role. Playing famous people, especially living famous people, can be daunting. Throw in Hawking’s affliction, and it’s enough to challenge even the staunchest veteran actor.

whiplash WHIPLASH – Young Andrew (Miles Teller) has a dream in life. To be not just one of the best drummers, but the best drummer of all time. Standing in his way is instructor Terence Fletcher (played by fellow UM alumni T.K. Simmons. GO GRIZ!!) who seems to be part nurturer and part Marine Corp drill instructor, with little warning of which one is going to show up at any time.

Simmons may have only been the supporting actor. But, he stole the show. It’s a far distance from the Farmer’s Insurance guy, which many people, including Teller, only knew him as.

This one has a twisty-turny plotline that had me saying “WOAH!” several times. Just when I thought things were going one way, the film took me in a totally different direction.

There are a handful of slow times in the film, which just don’t stand up to the other 90%. Fortunately, the music is where it’s at, and you can’t help but watch the screen wondering what’s coming next.

* * *

So what would have been my choice for Best Picture?

The Grand Budapest Hotel

This year’s choice much harder than the last two times I made my choice for Best Picture. Three films really stood out, American Sniper, Whiplash and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The latter won out because of its amazing cast, pacing that constantly moved the story along, the surreal colors in costume and set design, as well as the “feel good” feeling it left me with once the film was over.

As a side note, I don’t normally mention films that were not nominated. But, I can’t write this without mentioning The Judge, with Robert Duvall and and Robert Downey, Jr. It could have beat out any of the other films nominated, included Birdman; which actually won the award.

Previous entries:
And the Oscar Goes to… (2013 edition)
And the Oscar Goes to… (2014 edition)

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