Friday, October 25, 2013

Early Bird Oscar Predictions

Welly well well, the Oscars may still be several months away, but that's no reason to not get ahead of the curve, and announce your Oscar nomination predictions.  So, without further ado (other than the poster image of American Hustle, that is), here are my early bird Oscar nomination predictions.  Have at 'em.  Oh, and I have listed them in order of probability within each category.  

Best Picture
1. American Hustle
2. 12 Years a Slave
3. Gravity
4. Captain Phillips
5. The Wolf of Wall Street
6. Inside Llewyn Davis
7. Lee Daniels' The Butler
8. Nebraska
9. Before Midnight
10. Fruitvale Station

Wild Cards: Her and/or Blue is the Warmest Color

The first four are pretty much locks right now, and that doesn't look likely to change.  It's after that, that things get a bit tricky.  For awhile, it looked as if Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street was going to be pushed back until 2014, but a Christmas Day release has recently been put on the books, so in it goes.  Then again, Scorsese rushed to get the film done in time, so that may hurt the film, even if it is from a master director.  For now though, I'm including it.  I am also including another maybe film, in the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis.  It is a small film, but these guys are popular, so in it goes.  Then you have The Butler and Nebraska, and if Oscar is going deep again this year (the rules state anywhere between five and ten nominees in this category - and please don't get me started on the stupidity of such a rule), these two could easily pop in there.  After this, it gets really tricky.  No one else is actually predicting the two films I placed in the last two (possible) spots, instead predicting films like Saving Mr. Banks or August: Osage County or Rush or All is Lost (any of which are very reasonable, and probably more probable guesses), but I'm putting these two critical faves on my list anyway.   Then ya got my two wild card choices.  Probably very wild (especially the 3 hour French lesbian drama that was recently laughed at during an Academy member screening) but stranger things have happened at the Oscars.  Any other possibilities?  Other than those I mention just above (especially All is Lost or Saving Mr. Banks), I suppose either Blue Jasmine or Dallas Buyers Club could sneak in if given enough critics awards leverage, but still somewhat doubtful - at least this early in the game.

Best Director
1. Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity
2. Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave
3. David O. Russell for American Hustle
4. Paul Greengrass for Captain Phillips
5. Martin Scorsese for The Wolf of Wall Street

The 6th (or 7th) Man Award: Joel & Ethan Coen for Inside Llewyn Davis

Wild Card: Spike Jonze for Her

Just like with BP, the top four seem to be locks here (I think that, no matter which film takes BP, Cuaron is still winning this award), leaving just the fifth spot open for debate.  Granted, I may be overselling Scorsese this year (I actually undersold him in my predictions two years ago, when I did not see the love for Hugo that would be coming), especially with the supposed rush job the director did in post production, but then again, he is Martin Fucking Scorsese, so that alone could pop him in here.  But, in case the film does tank (or at least partially so), the Brothers Coen could easily sneak in there instead of him.  But still, wouldn't it be fun to hear Spike Jonze' name announced on that Tuesday morning?  Too quirky?  Maybe.  Maybe. Other possibilities include Lee Daniels for the rather egotistically named Lee Daniels' The Butler, J.C Chandor for All is Lost, and Alexander Payne for Nebraska.  We could also see Fruitvale Station's Ryan Coogler in there if Harvey Weinstein has his way.  Woody Allen or Richard Linklater are probably asking too much.  Then again, my two faves of the year (Park Chan-wook for Stoker and Wong Kar-wai for The Grandmaster) is probably really asking to much.

Best Actor
1. Robert Redford in All is Lost
2. Chiwetel Ojiofor in 12 Years a Slave
3. Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club
4. Bruce Dern in Nebraska
5. Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips

5a. Forrest Whitaker in Lee Daniels' The Butler
5b. Christian Bale in American Hustle
5c. Joaquin Phoenix in Her
5d. Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Wild Card: James Gandolfini in Enough Said

This category looks pretty much tied up for these five actors, but if there is any slip in there (Tom Hanks has been awarded enough, McConaughey still doesn't get the respect he deserves, Nebraska doesn't get any awards traction), then any one of our illustrious other number fives could surprise.  As for Gandolfini, if this were a less competitive year in this category, of if the role had some more meat on it, a posthumous nod would be his, but it probably ain't a-gonna happen this year.  Then again, they could pull (somewhat) category fraud, and bill him as supporting (see below).  The only other nominee I think might stand a chance is Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station, but there's going to have to be a lot of precursor buzz around the kid.  In the end though, barring a complete American Hustle sweep (and therefore, a nod for Bale), I think I may be 5 for 5 on this one, unless the love for Hanks goes fully into his supporting chances (see below) and one of the 5a thru d's sneak in.  As for the Oscar itself, I think this might just be Redford's year. A supposedly tour de force performance from a living Hollywood legend near the (maybe) end of his career, who has never won an acting Oscar before. Yeah.  Oh wait, that pretty much describes Bruce Dern this year as well.  Hmmm?

Best Actress
1. Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine
2. Sandra Bullock in Gravity
3. Judi Dench in Philomena
4. Meryl Streep in August: Osage County
5. Amy Adams in American Hustle

The 6th (Wo)Man Award: Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks

Wild Card: Julie Delpy in Before Midnight
Wilder Card: Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha
Wildest Card: Adele Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Color

The top four feel like locks to me.  Dench and Streep will most likely get nominated here (again!) but this is a battle between Cate and Sandra.  No one else need apply.  As for the fifth spot, it seems like a two way race between Adams and Thompson.  If Hustle goes big (and it probably will) it will be Adams (in an atypical grittier role, and in the lead spot instead of her usual supporting role), if not, then Thompson.  On a sidenote, if it is Thompson as the fifth nominee, this will be the second year in a row with a category made up entirely of past Oscar winners.  As for the wild cards, probably not a chance without some precursory love.  Any others, you ask?  Maybe Kate Winslet in Labor Day or perhaps Julia Roberts as Streep's co-star, if the inevitable bait-and-switch category fraud marketing of her co-lead role in the Supporting category, doesn't pan out (see below).  But what of Naomi Watts, you ask?  Earlier in the year, I had predicted (along with many fellow pundits) Watts inevitable nomination for playing Princess Diana.  As of this writing (the film has opened in the UK, but not in the US yet) the film has a 5% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Doesn't exactly instill confidence in a Best Actress nomination, now does it?  Of course these are mostly from UK critics, and they will probably be harder on a film about one of their beloveds, but I don't see that percentage getting significantly higher come its US release.

Best Supporting Actor
1. Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave
2. Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club
3. Tom Hanks in Saving Mr. Banks
4. Matthew McConaughey in Mud or The Wolf of Wall Street
5. Daniel Brühl in Rush

The 6th Man Award: John Goodman in Inside Llewyen Davis

Wild Card: Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips

Have We Mentioned: James Gandolfini in Enough Said

At first it looked like this could be Fassbender's year (Oscar loves an evil sonofabitch, and that is just what Fassbender plays here), but as time goes on, it looks like this could very well be someone else's year.  There could be an Oscar in the near future for the  former Jordan Catalano (what, no My So-Called Life fans here?), aka Jared Leto, going transgender and tragic. Whatever the case, these two actors are locks.  After that, everything is up in the air. If Hanks and McConaughey are nominated here, we could see only the second time in Oscar history (the first being 1993 and Holly Hunter and Emma Thompson) where there were two double nominees.  Since this seems to be the most open category this year, we could see almost anyone take a nod here.  I am going with the Rush co-star (again, category fraud perhaps) but Goodman, though it is a very small role, could see his long overdue first nomination if the Coen Brothers film hits big. He has co-starred in the last two BP winners, after all - not that that really means anything here.  We could also maybe see the late James Gandolfini here if they decide to go that route.  A big surprise though would be the Captain Phillips' pirate, Barkhad Abdi sneaks in.  Well, considering I am sort of predicting the possibility, it shouldn't come as that much of a surprise.  Other possibilities include Jeremy Renner and Bradley Cooper from American Hustle (they could cancel each other out though), Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street, and, in what could be a huge surprise, ex-SNLer Will Forte in Nebraska.  

Supporting Actress
1. Oprah Winfrey in Lee Daniels' The Butler
2. Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave
3. Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine
4. Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle
5. Octavia Spencer in Fruitvale Station

The 6th (Wo)Man Award: Julia Roberts in August: Osage County

Wild Card: June Squibb in Nebraska

Winfrey and the mostly unknown Nyong'o are virtual locks, while Hawkins is close to one (Woody Allen and Supporting Actress has a long and prosperous history), and Oscar loves Lawrence enough to probably make her one as well (especially if Hustle is one of the big Oscar nomination morning successes), which leaves that ever popular fifth spot a race between, essentially three ladies. Spencer (obviously) is my choice right now (c'mon, she plays a Martyred mom) but if Nebraska hits kinda big (as in a BP nod), Squibb could sneak in.  Then ya got poor Julia Roberts.  Her role opposite Streep is essentially the co-lead, but Oscar is notoriously bad when it comes to same sex co-leads - one, for some reason or another, must go supporting, and in this case, it is Julia.  Basically, what is the most likely outcome, is Roberts falling somewhere in between the two categories and ending up without a nod for anything. I suppose we could see Sarah Paulson up for 12 Years a Slave, but only if the film hits big and people like Spencer and Squibb are overlooked.

Best Original Screenplay
1. American Hustle
2. Inside Llewyn Davis
3. Nebraska
4. Her
5. Blue Jasmine

Wild Card: Mud

Best Adapted Screenplay
1. 12 Years a Slave
2. Captain Phillips
3. Philomena
4. Before Midnight
5. Blue is the Warmest Color

Wild Card: Short Term 12

The top three in each category seem like sure things, but after that, anything could really happen here (there are questions on which category some of these films will end up in).  And let's not forget those wild cards.  This is a category where they could seriously happen.  Other possibles for Original are: Saving Mr. Banks, Lee Daniels' The Butler, Frances Ha, Dallas Buyers ClubFruitvale Station, and Gravity, but only if they go gaga for the film.  Others for Adapted are: August: Osage County, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Spectacular Now.  So there ya go. 

Well, that's about it for now.  I'll let the other categories wait for my final Oscar predictions in January (though I'm sure the 3D spectacle, Gravity, will be up for most of the tech awards, just as Life of Pi did last year).  All-in-all, I think American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, Captain Philips, and Gravity are the films destined to lead the nominations, and maybe The Wolf of Wall Street, if that pans out.  We'll see you in January for the Oscar nominations.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Film Review: Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity

I am not one to lightheartedly recommend seeing a movie in 3D, when a perfectly fine 2D version is available just one screen over, but every now and again, it is something I am prone to do.  I did it with Scorsese's Hugo a couple of years back, and I did it with Life of Pi last year, and now here I am doing it for the new film from Mexican New Waver Alfonso Cuaron.  Gravity, seen in the proper 3D, is a gripping tale of an orbital space disaster that has Sandra Bullock floating around the ultra harsh environs of outer space. Seen in this venue, the film is quite exhilarating, and it had this critic on the literal edge of his seat. Seriously, I really was on the edge of my theater seat in many parts of this film.  Whether this veritable visual palpitation follows through to the film's eventual DVD and BD release, and therefore on a smaller home scale, is up in the air - though it is definitely leaning toward, not so much - which makes the old adage, "it's better to see something in a movie theater than at home" all so more true in this particular case.

Be that as it may, Gravity, up on that big screen (and in 3D, don't forget), is a remarkable looking film that keeps one's eyes glued to the projected images.  The story, of a pair of stranded astronauts (the aforementioned Bullock along with George Clooney), trying to make their way from their wrecked shuttle to an orbiting space station (or two), all the while trying not to, ya know, die a horrible death in outer space, is a story fraught with the possibilities of cliche after cliche, and even though such things do pop up now and again, the vastness, the epic visual background (my often agonized enemy, the dreaded CGI, has never looked this good) of Cuaron's film, make up for any storyline blips or bleeps.  Perhaps Gravity never delves into the inner depths of something like Cuaron's masterfully subversive Children of Men, or his brilliantly erotic Y Tu Mamá También, but the look and feel of the film, along with Bullock's rock solid performance (an easy Oscar nod should be coming her way in a few months), make this film one of those current must see type of cinematic events - especially since its impact will surely never transfer over to the small screen.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Film Review: Kimberly Peirce's Carrie

A good remake, huh?  Okay, it can happen once and a while.  Right?  Perhaps.  A good remake (oxymoron perhaps?) must tread that fine line between being faithful to the original while also giving us something fresh and (ironically perhaps?) new.  In essence, Kimberly Peirce's remake of Brian De Palma's 1976 horror classic, which in turn was, of course, an adaptation of Stephen King's iconic first novel, does the first part well.  She may not imbue the film with the almost satiric visual prose that De Palma did, nor does her film have the visceral urgency of the original (De Palma's film is more stylistic, of course), but the director does give her version enough of a chilling realism vibe, to make it more than merely passable as inevitable homage.  But as for the second half of our aforementioned fine line treading, Peirce falls woefully short of the proverbially intended goal line.  Nowhere inside this basically faithful remake, is there even an ounce of freshness.  Peirce seems to bring nothing to the table, or screen, in the way of a fresh outlook on the story.  Sure we get the necessary updates (poor Carrie White's surprise menstruation fiasco goes viral on Youtube) but otherwise, unlike those few fresh remakes we get now and again (Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead and Soderbergh's Ocean films come immediately to this critic's mind) this film is given no real reason to even exist.  Harsh I know, but all too true.

Peirce (coincidentally, to give a bit of a shout out, the director was born just a few months after me in the same town from where I hail), who is only now getting around to her third film, after her spectacular 1999 debut Boys Don't Cry, and her rather lackluster 2008 film, Stop-Loss, handles the chores of remake helmsman well, using intriguing camera angles and imposing, though perhaps a bit too obvious, religious imagery, throughout her film, but as I have said already (hounded about actually), the director gives nothing fresh to the story.  Some have claimed this to be a more faithful adaptation of King's novel than De Palma's film (I've never read the book, so I cannot weigh in on that), but the film seems to follow De Palma's original pretty well (so much so that I keep complaining about nothing new being brought to bare here), so it really can't be that much more faithful. But really, De Palma is one of those directors you either love or hate, and for those of us who love the guy, it is hard to imagine anyone doing something better than he.  Well, except for Hitchcock, but that's a whole other story. So that leaves the performances, and how they fare up to the somewhat unfair, but completely inevitable comparisons to the original.

Sissy Spacek was an unearthly Carrie White, something akin to a living ghost, a beautiful young woman, but not in the so-called typical way, while Chloë Grace Moretz, a stunning girl herself, though more classically pretty (apparently more like how the character is described by King), gives Carrie an almost typical teen angst vibe - albeit a typical ten from hell kinda angst.  Moretz, who at sixteen is more age appropriate for the role (Spacek was a full decade older when she played the seventeen year old high school senior), does a fine job with the character (she is given more depth than De Palma allowed in his auteur take on the book), but let's face it, Carrie isn't the real horror of this horror show.  No siree, the real terror here is Carrie's mother-from-hell, Margaret White.  In De Palma's film, Piper Laurie gave one of the most chilling performances in the genre's long history, and here, Julianne Moore nearly equals such a feat.  The actress brings forth a vibrant, dangerous, and quite freakin' scary as hell demeanor to the role, and pulls it of with a stunning array of subtly and chutzpah.  

As for the rest of the cast, other than Judy Greer's fine take on the Betty Buckley role of good samaritan gym teacher, they are pieced together by a bunch of look-a-like pretty boys and girls with no real depth or soul amongst them. Not that Amy Irving and Nancy Allen, as good girl and bad girl respectively, were ever considered at the top of their fields, but both handed in fun performances in the original.  Hell, one of 'em even went onto marry, and later divorce, the director (the other did the same with Steven Spielberg, but another day for that tale).  And let's not forget John Travolta as Allens' ne'er-do-well boy toy.  We get none of that in the remake.  So yeah, Moretz and Moore do commendable jobs in their iconic shoe-filling, and Peirce does do some good work with her retelling of De Palma's adaptation of King's original source material, and overall, it is a passable remake, sort of something in the realm of Gus Van Sant's inexplicable and quite unnecessary near shot-for-shot Psycho remake, but without anything new being brought to the damn thing (hell, even the Footloose remake from a few years back had some balls to its retooling, so why not here!?), there is really no reason for the film to even exist, no matter how well the leads play their parts.   Then again, such a thing can be said about 98% of the remakes around today.  My suggestion?  Go out and get yourself a copy of De Palma's 1976 classic (there is a lovely Bluray on the market), and watch that instead.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Film Review: Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Don Jon

There are oh so obvious allusions to the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, all throughout this film, but one could also look at Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut as something akin to Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas.  Just replace the mob and drugs of Scorsese's iconic 1990 film with the sex and porn of Don Jon. Now I am not trying to make some outrageous claim like Don Jon is as great a film as Goodfellas.  Sure, JGL's film is enjoyable (more enjoyable than I expected it to be) if not a bit "on the nose" as far as human dramadies go, but it sure ain't in the same realm as Scorsese's modern classic, but still, there are things here that remind one of Scorsese's film.  Perhaps nothing but superficial stuff (circumstantial evidence at best officer), but stuff nonetheless.  The relatively constant voiceover, the straight on shots, the abrupt endings to certain scenes or shots, the Italian family atmosphere all smell of Scorsese 101.  Granted, they are not done here to the expertise of the master, but when perpetrated by the nubile youthful exuberance of the aforementioned Mr. Gordon-Levitt, these things can have a fun effect to them.  But enough of the good, what of the bad, and perhaps even the ugly?

Early on in the film, Gordon-Levitt's Jon Martello, aka the titular Don Jon (he's got a way with the ladies), talks about the superiority of internet porn over the typical Hollywood romantic comedy, which is an ironic thing because the writer/director/star has made what is basically, a typical romantic comedy.  Well, at least for the most part.  There is a third act twist (though twist is probably overstating it) that gives one a somewhat refreshing atypical romcom feeling.  Well, okay, the so-called twist really isn't that surprising, but it's at least something.  Sure, Gordon-Levitt does a fine job in his self-created role (the actor does possess a certain charm), and even Scarlett Johansson gives what she can (she is basically just eye candy with a semi-faltering Jersey accent after all), and Julianne Moore gives the film some quirk and even some depth (albeit unsurprising depth), and we get a wife-beater-wearing Tony Danza to boot (and I mean that very sincerely, and not ironically at all), but overall the film falters mainly for its utter disdain for the out-of-the-ordinary. It certainly does seem like perhaps it wants to venture outside the safe insular world of the Hollywood (or Indie) romcom, but is just scared to take those dangerous steps.

We shouldn't be surprised to see someone like Gordon-Levitt in such a safe film.  He has done so many films that have had the potential to go somewhere different and out of the ordinary but chose safe and dry instead.  Films such as Looper, (500) Days of Summer, The Lookout, even Inception and The Dark Knight Rises were all films that thought they were going over the edge, but pulled themselves back before anything really intriguing happened.  Gordon-Levitt had no creative say in those films (with the possible exception of (500) Days of Summer) but here he is nothing but sole creator, and still he takes the safe road more traveled.   Like I said, there are some enjoyable things in here (there is more god than bad, but only slightly), and some pretty nifty potential (the porn storyline should give it at least some over the edge stuff), and it is a shame that the young first time director didn't do more with said potential.  Perhaps something grittier but still charming.  Perhaps something like the aforementioned Saturday Night Fever, which one must assume was the biggest influence on Don Jon.  Oh well, perhaps next time JGL will dig a bit deeper.  But still, it could have been much worse.  How's that for some back door praise?

Monday, October 7, 2013

Film Review: Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster

Every year, I post a most anticipated films list here on my site.  Back in 2011, the film that topped that list was Wong Kar-wai's much anticipated Kung-Fu epic, The Grandmaster.  But alas, 'twas not to be, as was the case with the Asian auteur's masterpiece, In the Mood for Love, its follow-up, 2046, and his American debut, My Blueberry Nights, Wong went about his typical forever post production, editing rituals, and we did not see a release in 2011.  Okay, so we moved on to 2012, and once again, at the top of that aforementioned most anticipated films list, sat WKW's The Grandmaster, now even with a teaser poster available to the world at large, but alas, once again, the film never made it into theaters, and once again, I would feel the necessity to move the film forward, as it were, to the following year's list.

So, cut to January 2013, and that oft-cited most anticipated films list, and guess what?  Yep, that's right, for the third year in a row, Wong Kar-wai's wouldbe new masterpiece sat atop that damn list.  But this year, things would be different, I just knew that had to be true.  And yes, after releases in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, and an international debut at February's Berlin Film Festival, The Grandmaster was finally (finally!) poised for an American release, and then, in August, the great city of New York finally (finally!!) had itself a brand new Wong Kar-wai film.  Granted, it took it a few more weeks to wind its way to other parts of the country, though as of the writing of this review, the film still has not seen a truly wide release (and has yet to play in my hometown of Harrisburg, Pa), but yes, the film, so long in the waiting, and so so long in the anticipation, was finally (FINALLY!!!) here dammit.  Granted, it is being released in the US with 20+ minutes edited out of the foreign cut, so perhaps we still need to wait for the director's cut.  Dammit, I'm sick and tired of waiting.  But I digress.

I suppose now you expect me to critique its merits and/or flaws, huh?  Give you a what's up on the film as a whole.  Basically, now you expect me to do my job, eh?  Jonas Mekas, the crazed purveyor of underground cinema, once said that it was not his job to tell you what a film was about, but instead to get excited by it, and show you that excitement.  I suppose I take that as my motto of sorts (so much so that the actual quote is proudly displayed on my website) and therefore will go no further with a description than letting you know that the film is about the great Kung-Fu master, Ip Man, the man who would eventually come to train Bruce Lee, and his life and times over several tumultuous decades of Chinese history.  I could get excited though.  That I could very easily do.   And even though nothing I could say would be any surprise to anyone who knows and loves Wong Kar-wai and his cinema (or for that matter, knows my tastes in film), excited I shall get.

I could tell you how Wong, along with his DP Philippe la Sourd (in his first real challenge as cinematographer) and his long time production designer/editor, William Chang (pretty much every WKW film can be seen on his list of credentials) have made the film flow with the most subtly rich and luscious manner of visual narrative succulence.  I could rave about the central performance of another long-time WKW collaborator, Tony Leung, and how he once again brings a Wong character to heartbreaking life on the big screen.  I could go on and on about the overall look and feel of the film - a film that only plays at its martial arts roots, but a film that is truly a tragedy on a surprisingly intimately epic scale (yeah!) - or how Wong's use of slow motion and the way raindrops beat off of Ip Man's hat in the opening fight scene, are enough to bring chills to any cinephile worth his salt.  I could rant and rave all night long about the merits of this gorgeous film, and even though it is not Wong at his best (In the Mood for Love will always weigh the heaviest in this critic's soul), and there is still that aforementioned director's cut to be on the lookout for, this would not be a difficult thing to do.  I will instead, leave it at this: whatever you do, see this film.  End of review.