Friday, February 21, 2014

CAN GRAVITY RISE ABOVE AT THE OSCARS?

Original caricature of "Oscar's Year in Movies 2014" by Jeff York (copyright 2014)
The Academy Awards are Sunday, March 2nd, and everyone and their brother are making Oscar predictions. Thus, The Establishing Shot will put itself out there once again. What’s difficult about this year, and equally exciting too, is that this year is chock full of many unknowns. It’s probably the hardest Oscars to predict in at least a decade. Nonetheless, I will give it my soothsaying best.

I believe that the key to predicting the Oscars is thinking more with your brain and not your heart. The films you love may not be the ones the Academy goes for. So study what’s won previous awards, listen to the trends being espoused on social media, read what the trades and the movie pundits have to say, and pray to Harvey Weinstein for guidance. (Okay, maybe not that last one, but the man does know how to net Oscars for his productions!) Take your personal preferences out of it and you might just win the Oscar pool at your office.

But big questions pop up throughout the ballot, so it’s tricky predicting this year. And there’s no cagier category to call than the very top one. GRAVITY, 12 YEARS A SLAVE and AMERICAN HUSTLE could all be named the winner when that final envelope is opened. Not knowing for sure will make this show one that is filled with truly palpable tension. And there are real contests amongst many other categories too, including Best Supporting Actress, Best Editing, Best Costumes and both screenplay categories. Some are simply too close to call. But I shall try.

Here then, are my most educated guesses. But this year, I have a sneaking suspicion that my ballot could go crashing down in flames.


BEST PICTURE - GRAVITY

I’m not thinking with my heart, even though GRAVITY was my pick as best film of the year. My head says so because it took the DGA, shared top prize at the PGA, and dominated BAFTA (though it lost Best Picture there to 12 YEARS A SLAVE, its major rival and co-winner at the PGA). Factor in that the SAG actors gave AMERICAN HUSTLE their top prize, and that the acting branch is the largest block of voters in the Academy, and you’ve got a three-way toss-up. Still, I think GRAVITY might have the most momentum going into these past weeks, so I’m predicting that it will prevail. 

BEST DIRECTOR – ALFONSO CUARON 

The GRAVITY director should be one of the easiest predictions of the night as he’s won so many directing prizes already for the 2013 movie year. (That helps the Best Picture chances of GRAVITY considerably.) Cuaron’s feat was a truly stunning piece of technical expertise, edge-of-your-seat thrills, and a profoundly moving, spiritual journey. His may be the most deserved Oscar of the night.


BEST ACTOR –MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY 

McConaughey won at the Golden Globe and SAG for his indelible performance in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and he’s got big momentum. You know what else helps? He was outstanding in other 2013 films this year like MUD and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. And have you seen HBO’s TRUE DETECTIVE series? McConaughey should make room on his mantel for an Oscar and an Emmy this year.


BEST ACTRESS – CATE BLANCHETT 

Will the Woody Allen controversy stop her inevitability? I don’t think so. Nor should it. Amy Adams is due, what with five Oscar nominations in just eight years, but I don’t think she can best Cate in BLUE JASMINE this year.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – JARED LETO 

His moving performance in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB has been racking up victories at practically every award show, so the Oscar should be the inevitable capper.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – LUPITA NYONG’O 

It’s a two-woman race between the haunting Nyong’o in 12 YEARS A SLAVE and Jennifer Lawrence who comedically blew the doors off her supporting part in AMERICAN HUSTLE. Lawrence just won an Oscar last year, and that could lessen her chances here. Still, everyone loves her and she’s the hottest talent in Hollywood right now. I’m going with Nyong’o, but it will be a photo finish.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY – AMERICAN HUSTLE

David O. Russell won’t win director, but I think the Academy will reward him here (along with co-screenwriter Eric Warren Singer). If not them, it will likely be Spike Jonze for HER, but I think Russell’s witty work will sway all the actors who want to work with him on his next film.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY – 12 YEARS A SLAVE

PHILOMENA won at BAFTA, but John Ridley’s script has the higher profile here in the States. Still, this is likely the best chance that a Harvey Weinstein film has to win an Oscar this year and his movies have prevailed so many times before. 

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM – THE GREAT BEAUTY

Italy’s entry has been taking this category in most of the awards this season, so it makes logical sense to assume it will best the other nominees. Expect the Oscar voters to exclaim, “è il più bravo della classe.” (That means best in class.)


BEST ANIMATED FEATURE – FROZEN

Can Oscar deny the almost billion dollar worldwide box office of this new Disney classic? Hell has a better chance of freezing over.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY - GRAVITY

GRAVITY made every audience member believe that they were up there with Sandra Bullock floating in space. Enough said, no?

BEST EDITING – CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

Sometimes this award goes hand-in-hand with Best Picture. Sometimes, the film with the most obvious editing wins. Not for nothing did thrillers THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO steal Oscar gold from Best Picture contenders in 2007 and 2011. Thus, I’m predicting CAPTAIN PHILLIPS to just edge past GRAVITY here. It’s another Paul Greengrass film, like Bourne, and this one had incredible crackerjack cutting that made it one of the year’s tautest thrillers.


BEST ORIGINAL SCORE – GRAVITY

This is a terrific category this year, with five worthy and varied nominees. Still, I think GRAVITY has the edge here due to the importance of its sound and dramatic underscore in building the suspense of the film.

SOUND EDITING – GRAVITY

The year’s biggest moneymaker also has the most technical prowess. And most Academy members aren’t sophisticated sound engineers, so they’ll pick the one where sound (or lack there of) was the most crucial to the story.

SOUND MIXING – GRAVITY

Guess what? Those sophisticated sound engineers will likely vote for GRAVITY in both these categories too.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG – LET IT GO (FROZEN)

U2 for MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM would normally be the favorite in a category such as this that often honors big name rock stars. But the song from FROZEN is the cornerstone of a phenomenon so big it’s packing ‘em in every weekend for a special cinematic sing-along. Thus, Bono’s chances will be put on ice.


BEST VISUAL EFFECTS – GRAVITY

The surest bet of the night.

BEST MAKE-UP & HAIR DESIGN – DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

This movie will have a very good Oscar night with three big wins. And Melanie Deforrest and Kat Percy apparently did their work for the micro-budgeted film with a paltry $250. Heck, that doesn’t even cover a day’s bottled water on most sets.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN – THE GREAT GATSBY

Again, more often than not, the Academy votes for the most noticeable work: the film with obvious editing, the film with the prettiest sets, etc. Thus, I think THE GREAT GATSBY will prevail here as its production design filled every frame with shimmering eye candy.


BEST COSTUME DESIGN – THE GREAT GATSBY

If I were voting, I’d pick AMERICAN HUSTLE. But it wouldn’t be my brain that singled out Amy Adams’ plunging necklines. (Ahem!) Voters usually end up choosing the film with the most period costumes in this category. Thus, THE GREAT GATSBY will win here too.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE – 20 FEET FROM STARDOM

The award should go to THE ART OF KILLING, but every Academy member gets to vote on the category this year, unlike only select panels in the past. Therefore I see a more accessible and likable entry taking the prize here.  


BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT – THE LADY IN NUMBER 6

THE LADY IN NUMBER 6 is an incredibly rich and inspiring story about survival, music and memory. I think this one might be a sure thing too.

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT - HELIUM

I’ve actually seen all five of the Live Action Shorts nominated this year. Usually, the more moving ones prevail. This year, that would be Denmark’s HELIUM, a tearjerker about a dying little boy and the male nurse who tries to help comfort him in his last days.


BEST ANIMATED SHORT – GET A HORSE!

I loved all five nominated films here this year and will applaud whichever one wins. I believe that GET A HORSE, Disney’s entry mixing old school Mickey Mouse with Pixar-esque CGI, will trump the four others.


 The fact that GRAVITY will likely win the most Oscars helps its Best Picture chances as well. Still, despite a few locks, this year’s ceremony could go a number of ways in almost every category. Now, if Ellen Degeneres can just wash the bad taste of Seth MacFarlane from our palates, this could be the best Oscar telecast in ages.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

JUST IN TIME FOR VALENTINE'S: UNSPEAKABLE HORRORS DONE IN THE NAME OF LOVE

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and if you'd like to make your significant other’s heart race a little faster, why not try introducing a little horror into this February 14th? A scary movie will do the trick, and there are some frighteners that are positively romantic in their own dark, twisted way. As the horror movie critic for the Examiner online (http://exm.nr/1j0CKdm), let me count the ways.


THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)

One of the greatest horror romances of all time is director James Whale’s sequel to FRANKENSTEIN. The lonely monster (Boris Karloff) wants a mate, so the egomaniacal Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) ‘plays God’ one more time. Elsa Lanchester essayed the bride who’s none too happy with her newly betrothed. This classic Universal feature remains one of cinema’s best dissertations on loneliness and is sure to draw your loved one closer to you during the final credits.


THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

One of Vincent Price’s late career hits was his turn as a vengeful doctor out to knock off those responsible for letting his beloved bride die on the operating table. He kills them, one by one, in ways that ape the 10 plagues of Egypt in the Old Testament. Bats, rats, frogs, locusts and more are his deadly weapons in this British camp classic that shows the lengths one fiend will go to demonstrate his undying love. In the sequel DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN, he actually revives her corpse (http://imdb.to/1j0sNfW), which gratefully made their romantic dinner conversations less one-sided.


THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)

There have been many cinematic versions of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA but if you’re looking for one that truly rocks, this rock opera by Brian De Palma is just the ticket. The phantom here is a disfigured rock prodigy (William Finley) who falls for an ambitious singer (Jessica Harper) while a villainous rock impresario steals his music. The score is by Paul Williams, who pulls double duty as this comic horror film’s villain. This dizzying phantasm satirizes everything from Lon Chaney to Dr. Caligari to The Who’s TOMMY. It’s trippy, hilarious, and at times, quite frightening.


THE FLY (1986)

Not only is David Cronenberg’s film one of the best horror films of the 80’s, it contains a Jeff Goldblum performance that is one of the genre’s all-time greatest. Here, he’s a scientist who’s developed a transporter that will make him famous, but all he wants is the love of a good woman (Geena Davis). When he throws romantic caution to the wind to prove himself to her, he transports himself, and an errant fly, and their DNA melds. It turns him into a hideous man-beast, one that earns her love, but alas, their happiness is soon to be swatted away.


LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008)

This Swedish film may be the best horror movie released in the last decade or so (http://exm.nr/1oi1Nwp), and it certainly proved that children could be as strong of romantic protagonists as any adult characters. Oskar, a bullied 12-year-old boy (Kare Hedebrant), befriends his new neighbor Eli (Lina Leandersson), a young girl who happens to be a vampire. There relationship builds into one of great love, commitment, and yes, horrific murder. It’s one of the most disturbing horror films ever, yet also, one of the most beautiful. This is a must-see any day, especially on Valentine’s.


Those are five frighteners worth finding on Netflix, Redbox, Amazon Instant Video (http://amzn.to/1jv0Dxa), or wherever you rent or stream. So this year, bag the chocolates and go for something that will really get your lover’s blood pumping. Try a little horror, and see if you aren’t soon holding onto each other for dear life!

Friday, February 7, 2014

A HORRIBLE WEEK FOR HOLLYWOOD

As if it wasn’t bad enough that Philip Seymour Hoffman unexpectedly and tragically died from a heroin drug overdose, this week also saw the resurrection of the Woody Allen molestation stories. Add the sad story about Kristin Scott Thomas announcing her retirement due to the dearth of roles for mature women, and you’ve got one horrible week for Hollywood. Can the Oscars get here fast enough to provide some positive vibes?


The Oscars don’t air until March 2nd this year, and I suspect between now and then there will be more coverage of these three stories that paint a tragic portrait of Hollywood. We’re all waiting to find out more about Hoffman’s autopsy but obviously he was a man struggling with addiction. There are no easy answers to the how and the why of his demons but suffice it to say we have lost one of our greatest actors, not just of this generation, but of any one.

Hoffman was only 46, but he leaves behind a legacy of great film work that would be the envy of any actor receiving the AFI’s Life Achievement Award in their seventies or eighties.  His sterling resume includes THE BIG LEBOWSKI, BOOGIE NIGHTS, HAPPINESS,  THE TALENTED MR.  RIPLEY, COLD MOUNTAIN, ALMOST FAMOUS, MAGNOLIA, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOUR DEAD, MONEYBALL and THE IDES OF MARCH. 

He was great whether playing a lead or a supporting player, and his work elevated even pulp like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III and THE HUNGER GAMES series. He received dozens and dozens of awards, and snagged Oscar nominations for his supporting work in DOUBT, CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR and THE MASTER. And he won Best Actor for his nuanced portrayal of Truman Capote in the screen biopic CAPOTE.

You’d think he would have found enough solace in such things, but his battles with drugs would suggest that it wasn’t enough. As for movie fans, we will now have to find solace in his short but brilliant career. At least we can revisit his triumphs over and over again on DVD or streaming video.


Then, just as Cate Blanchett was polishing her Oscar speech for Best Actress in BLUE JASMINE, the issue of whether or not Woody Allen molested his adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow at age seven resurfaced. And now the family feud is even more intense and public due to social media and the blogosphere. Dylan, her stepbrother Ronan and mom Mia Farrow are on the one side, while Woody has the support of Dylan’s brother Moses. It’s an exceedingly ugly story and hasn’t ever really gone away since seeing the light of day in 1992. And somehow Allen's Cecil B. DeMille Award for Lifetime Achievement at December’s Golden Globe presentation stirred it all up again.

Will we ever find out the truth of exactly what happened in the family? Likely not. The case has been investigated before and the most conclusive thing that came out of seemed to be the conclusion by the head doctor of the police-appointed medical team that Dylan's story of molestation may have been planted in her head by furious mom Mia. She was rightfully livid, you'll recall, when Woody started a secret sexual relationship with her adoptive daughter Soon-Yi. (Allen and Soon-Yi married in 1997, five years after the scandal broke, and they've been together for over 20 years now.)

The case is horrendous, no matter whom you believe. There may very well be a lot of fire there because God knows there’s been enough smoke around Allen’s pursuit of what his heart wants. Still, does that make him someone whose films should now be vilified? Should Cate Blanchett pay for whatever his sins may or may not be?  


Personally, I think it would be wrong to hold Allen’s personal life against Blanchett or BLUE JASMINE, or any of his artistic achievements. I’m on record here thinking Allen is the world’s greatest living filmmaker as he writes and directs a movie almost annually (http://bit.ly/1kX5rKA). Acts in them too. And his work is stellar. And many artists are troubled and their peccadilloes shouldn't or don't disqualify their creative achievements. And since the absolute truth of the Allen/Farrow home life cannot be known to any other than those intimately involved, it’s all the more unfair to hold such matters against the work. 

Still, as we head into the Oscar season’s final weeks, this ugly and vicious fight has now started to taint his filmmaking reputation once again. And now it’s coloring the Academy Award hopes of BLUE JASMINE. His dramedy is also up for Best Supporting Actress Sally Hawkins, as well as Best Original Screenplay by Woody Allen, but is not favored to win either of those categories. Blanchett is, however. Will it be enough to impede her inevitability? We shall see.

The odd thing to me is how the whole molestation question didn’t come up in 2011 when Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS was even more heralded. That comedy was a nominee for the top prize of Best Picture, as well as Best Director, Best Art Direction and Best Screenplay. Allen went on to win his fourth Oscar for penning that script, proving that the Academy doesn’t necessarily hold questionable private lives against professional lives. Nonetheless, here we are two years later, and the renewed scandal is rocking the movie world again. The ironic thing is that the Golden Globe award  that started it all this time was one that Allen didn’t bother to show up to collect. He's always shied away from such honors. 


And then there is the final leg of the ugly Hollywood stool this week as accomplished British actress Kristin Scott Thomas (THE ENGLISH PATIENT, FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL) has decided to hang it all up because she’s tired of battling for the few movie roles for actresses of her age. She told the Guardian newspaper, “I just suddenly thought, I cannot cope with another film. I realized I’ve done the thing I know how to do so many times in different languages, and I just suddenly thought I can’t do it any more. I’m bored by it. So I’m stopping.”

She moved to France over a decade ago and was finding work there, but now at 53, there are few roles for women her age. Even in Europe. Sure, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock find work, but few others of similar stature can truly say the same. Interestingly, the studios wanted writer/director Alfonso Cuaron to change the lead role in GRAVITY to a male character. Thankfully, he won his argument that it must be a female character, and Sandra Bullock of course, aced the part and is now up for Best Actress against Blanchett. 

The movie industry obviously should be much more inclusive of women, of any age, but in a year when the Academy only found room for one African-American story amongst its nine Oscar-nominated Best Pictures, old school thinking still rules. (12 YEARS A SLAVE made the list, but alas, the much-heralded FRUITVALE STATION and THE BUTLER did not.)

Hollywood is an extremely tough town, one known for chewing 'em up and spitting 'em out. Still, these three tragic stories made for  an exceptionally depressing week, even by dark Tinsel Town story standards. Geez, I sure hope the new Lego movie provides a few laughs. I hear it's delightful.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

THIS YEAR'S OSCAR ANIMATED SHORTS ARE LITTLE WORKS OF ART

There are five terrific Academy Award contenders for this year’s Best Animated Short. Lucky for movie fans, they opened together on screens in major markets this weekend. You can catch these artistic shorts on the big screen now through February 6, or wait until they’re available on VOD February 25. Either way, you owe yourself the pleasures of these little treasures.

If you still think cartoons are just for kids, check out this selection. Some are good for the whole family, sure, but others have more of an adult edge to them like the dramatic FERAL (http://bit.ly/1ad0QBG). And if you think that the Pixar CGI look is the only game in town, you should feast on the vast array of styles used to illustrate this year’s animated shorts.


GET A HORSE

Mickey and Minnie Mouse are enjoying a hayride with their friends when Peg Leg Pete shows up in his automobile to ruin their day. This Disney gem mixes Walt’s early black and white style with modern CGI in a fast-moving six minutes that breaks the fourth wall and then some. If you saw FROZEN, you’ve already seen this short that preceded it. It’s the favorite to win the Oscar gold due to its pedigree, as well as its remarkable entertainment value.


MR. HUBLOT

The arrival of a robot pet turns the world of the isolated Mr. Hublot upside down in this delightful, futuristic yarn that is dialogue-free (http://bit.ly/LmIKkO). This eccentric piece is funny and rather moving too, and filmmakers Lauren Witz and Alexandre Espigares may win for this eccentric jewel.


FERAL

Writer/director Daniel Souza is behind this aforementioned cartoon with a mature sensibility. His story concerns a wild boy found by a hunter who tries to introduce him into civilization. The 2-D animation style here is exquisitely rendered with a minimalist style that perfectly suits this moody dissertation on the subject of nature vs. nurture.


POSSESSIONS

Shuhei Morita animates a bold tale about a Japanese man seeking shelter from a storm who happens upon a strange cottage where ghostly spirits inhabit the objects inside. It’s a beautifully rendered fever dream that may be unlike any cartoon fantasy you’ve ever seen.


ROOM ON THE BROOM

My personal favorite is this adaptation of the Julia Donaldson/Axel Sheffler children’s book (http://bit.ly/1biDxos). It’s been given a spiffy CGI look by British animators Max Lang and Jan Lachauer. A witch turns out to be too generous of spirit as she invites a lonely dog, bird and frog to join her cat for a ride on her broom. Its characters are voiced by the likes of Gillian Anderson, Rob Brydon, and Sally Hawkins. And the droll Simon Pegg provides the veddy British narration.


The Oscar is probably Disney’s to lose, but all five of these are so impressive, I won’t be disappointed whichever one is called at the Academy Awards ceremony come March 2. So make a point to see them now in the theater, or in a month on VOD. I think you'll find that your enthusiasm for them is equally as animated.

THIS YEAR'S OSCAR-NOMINATED LIVE ACTION SHORTS ARE LITTLE GEMS

For the last few years, the Oscar-nominated animated shorts and live action shorts have gotten a wide release, and this year is no exception. They opened nationwide in major markets Friday, January 31, and will soon be available even wider (http://bit.ly/1dV5E9V). On February 25, they’ll be available on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and VOD through your local cable providers. They may be short, but they’re long on entertainment.

This year’s live action shorts include everything from an English prison inmate who thinks he’s God, to a French woman fleeing her abusive husband. And while this year’s five are not quite up to the standards of last year’s very dramatic batch (http://exm.nr/1gBTw5t), they do run the gamut, even including one that is a slapstick farce. Here are the five that made the Academy’s shortlist:


HELIUM (Denmark)
A new hospital janitor becomes emotionally involved with a dying young boy and creates an elaborate story to help him prepare for death. This 23-minute tearjerker has a magical quality as the fantasy sequences help the child understand death in terms that aren’t as terrifying.


THE VOORMAN PROBLEM (UK)
A sarcastic prison inmate (Tom Hollander from IN THE LOOP) claims to be God so a mild-mannered prison psychiatrist (Martin Freeman, who can do mild-mannered in his sleep) interviews him in this droll 13-minute black comedy. It’s good but this one could’ve been longer. The banter between these two expert comic actors is so sharp that it will likely leave you wanting more.


JUST BEFORE LOSING EVERYTHING (France)
My favorite of the live action shorts is this tense thriller about a supermarket employee trying to flee her abusive husband with the help of her alarmed co-workers. In a deft and economical 30 minutes, it creates more tension than most thrillers given three times the screen time. And star Lea Drucker gives a nervous, yet courageous portrayal of the woman organizing her escape with her children.


THAT WASN'T ME (Spain)
Two Spanish aid workers are taken prisoner by rebel forces in Africa. The thrust of this war tale is that the forces are mostly village children coerced into brandishing weapons of death to prove their manhood. It’s unsettling with its issues of child exploitation, rape and yes, brutal murder. Still, in just 24 minutes, it makes for riveting cinema.


DO I HAVE TO TAKE CARE OF EVERYTHING? (Finland)
A family panics after oversleeping on the day of a friend’s wedding and their attempt to get ready for the big day turns into a slapstick farce. Even with a running time of only 7 minutes, this one could use a lighter touch. Still, despite its heavy-handed jokiness, it does deliver some good laughs.


It’s hard to predict which one the Academy will favor but I wouldn’t be surprised if HELIUM takes the Oscar gold. It stands out from the others with its unique sweetness and that difference has proved to be a deciding factor in the past, like at the 2011 Academy Awards ceremony when the adorable GOD OF LIVE bested more complex works (http://bit.ly/1jY7cIC). But you can decide for yourself which short is tops as these are in theaters through the week. Then they arrive in various VOD formats the week before the Oscars, and that’s the long and short of it.