Monthly Archives: January 2014

Oscar Watch: Nominee Winners and Losers.


The Oscar nominations were announced last week, with the Academy Award telecast set for Sunday, March 2. Many of the nominations were somewhat easy to predict, but there were still some notable surprises.

Winners: Gravity, American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave. With a cumulative total of 29 nominations, these three films – a sci-fi epic, a ’70s-era crime-and-punishment masterpiece and a searing historical drama – lived up to their reputations as the cream of the 2013 crop.

Loser: Inside Llewyn Davis. I’m not surprised that Davis didn’t emerge as a front-runner this year – the Coen brothers’ portrait of a 1960s folk singer, though expertly made, was simply too resolutely bleak to endear itself to filmgoers. But to only earn two nominations, in Cinematography and Sound Mixing? Not even a Best Song nod? Ever since Fargo, Joel and Ethan Coen have been well respected by Academy voters, but something about this film really turned them off. Better luck next time.

Losers: Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks. The stars of Saving Mr. Banks were each considered front-runners in the Oscar derby – she for her portrayal of author P.L. Travers in the Disney biopic Banks, he for that film as well as a towering performance in Captain Phillips. Smart money had Hanks collecting a nomination (and perhaps even the award) for Phillips, which featured some of the best acting of his career. Bizarrely, he received no nominations, while one name that appears instead in the Best Actor nomination roster seems a bit off…

Winner: The Wolf of Wall Street. Here’s that name: Leonardo Di Caprio. The Academy’s love for Martin Scorsese is well established by now, but their love must be blind to have anointed the director’s latest with Best Picture, Director, Actor and Supporting Actor nominations. Wolf is OK as far as it goes, and it has a certain manic energy that carries it along. But it’s fully an hour longer than it needed to be, and the performances from Di Caprio and Jonah Hill are hammy, unsophisticated stuff. As a hypersaturated time-capsule indictment of ’80s vulgar excess, it works reasonably well; as a film unto itself, it’s hardly Oscar worthy. And yet, there it is.

Winner: Bad Grandpa. The spinoff of the Jackass franchise put Johnny Knoxville in full-body makeup to play the title character – and picked up a nomination in the Best Makeup category for its trouble. Now the film will forever be known as “the Oscar-nominated Bad Grandpa.” It’s a weird world we live in.

Losers: Enough Said and Frances Ha. Small films always run the risk of being overlooked come Oscar time, and these two finely crafted indies – despite making it onto a bundle of critics’ year-end 10-best lists – were released too early in the year and faced too much stiff competition from bigger films from deep-pocketed studios. The one place you could usually expect to see projects like these recognized is in the Original Screenplay category, but even there the competition was too stiff this year.

Incidentally, if you’re looking to catch up with the Best Picture nominees, here’s how to see any you’ve missed:

  • 12 Years a Slave: On DVD March 4.
  • American Hustle: Still in theaters.
  • Captain Phillips: Out on DVD and Blu-Ray this week.
  • Dallas Buyers Club: Still in a few theaters; on DVD Feb. 4.
  • Gravity: On DVD Feb. 25.
  • Her: Still in theaters.
  • Nebraska: Still in theaters; on DVD Feb. 25.
  • Philomena: Still in theaters; on DVD March 4.
  • The Wolf of Wall Street: Still in theaters.

And who will actually win? Well, that’s a story for another day. Stay tuned.

(IMAGE: 12 Years a Slave. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight films.)

Take Five: Joaquin Phoenix.

walk the line

I meant to include this in my column last week to go along with , but switched for technical reasons to a Scarlett Johansson story instead. But waste not, want not…

From his child-actor days when he was best known as Leaf (and as the younger brother of the late River Phoenix), Joaquin Phoenix has blazed an unusual career trail for himself. Prior to Her, here are the actor’s best performances:

To Die For (1995): The actor stood out in his first “grown-up” role, a supporting turn as a high schooler seduced into murder by Nicole Kidman’s sexually rapacious small-town siren.

Gladiator (2000): Phoenix earned his first Oscar nomination as Commodus, the venal Roman emperor who craved the love of his people – and hated Maximus (Russell Crowe), the military hero who had that love.

Buffalo Soldiers (2001): In this little-seen war satire, Phoenix played against type as a cynical opportunist who turns an Army career into a lucrative black-market empire. The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival just days before the Sept. 11 attacks of that year, and its anti-military themes subsequently kept it from a wide release.

Walk the Line (2005): Joaquin roared as Johnny Cash – with sublime support from Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash – in one of the best musician biopics ever made.

The Master (2012): Paul T. Anderson’s indie epic polarized audiences, but critics raved over Phoenix’s turn as an aimless World War II veteran who is drawn into a quasi-religious cult led by a charismatic Philip Seymour Hoffman.

(IMAGE: Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox.)

“Her,” Reviewed: A.I., A Love Story.


In Spike Jonze’s Her, Theodore and Samantha experience all the thrills, discoveries and distractions of a new romance. They stay up all night talking. They giggle at each other’s corny jokes. He can’t stop thinking about Samantha – at work, during his commute, when talking with friends – and smiling.

It’s all a proper portrait of a relationship in its early stages, except for one tiny detail. Samantha is the disembodied voice of Theodore’s computer operating system, an artificial-intelligence (AI) upgrade that comes with an unexpected feature: the ability to fall in love, and to inspire that feeling from its human “owner” in return.

This kind of oddball what-if scenario is familiar territory for Jonze, the occasional auteur whose three prior films – Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are – each explored defiantly fantastic circumstances. The common thread in these movies is their creator’s determination to consider the full implications of his imagined worlds, and Her is no exception. This thoughtful, nuanced romance is also a knowing exploration of our culture’s obsessive connection with technology. It’s funny and melancholy by turns, and an understated late-season gem.

The film opens in an unspecified near future, as a glum Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is moping through life after his wife has left him. He’s a professional ghostwriter of other people’s intimate messages (for a company called, so we can tell he’s not the only member of this sci-fi society who’s most comfortable with some distance between him and other human beings.

Then he upgrades his computer software, and everything changes – sort of. A routine series of user-profile questions results in the creation of Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and suddenly Theodore has a constant companion in his Bluetooth earpiece: a frank, flirty, funny and undeniably sultry personality whose only flaw seems to be the lack of a body. Their relationship moves quickly from just friends to much more, but it’s made clear that Theodore isn’t experiencing a one-sided illusion. Rather, Samantha’s AI origins have created a true independent soul capable of keeping up one half of an admittedly offbeat couple.

Her is anchored by a remarkable performance by Phoenix as Theodore, a sad fellow prone to long walks while aching for something to fill the hole left by his estranged partner (played in flashbacks by Rooney Mara). He’s utterly convincing in a role that requires him to effectively talk to himself on screen for long stretches, while still showing us the gradual opening of his heart to Samantha. And while the casting of Johansson could be thought of as something of a cheat – it’s hard not to visualize the bombshell actress when we hear Samantha’s voice, thereby lessening the weirdness of Theodore’s situation – she fully commits to her role, giving Samantha a complex emotional range that enriches the film.

From the eye-catching visual designs to the fundamental path of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, every aspect of Her bears the painstaking care and attention to detail that distinguishes Jonze’s resume. See this movie with someone you love – preferably a human someone, but that’s up to you.

(IMAGE: Joaquin Phoenix in Her. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Oscar Watch: “It’s an honor just to be nominated…”


This year’s Academy Award nominations will be announced tomorrow morning – and after all the stress of a legitimately competitive awards season, it turns out that a lot of the likely contenders are pretty clear after all. Here are my predictions:

Best Picture

  • 12 Years a Slave
  • American Hustle
  • Captain Phillips
  • Gravity
  • Her
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Nebraska

Dark Horse: The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese movies are always popular with the Academy, but this one’s focus on sex, drugs and profanity (as opposed to violence, which is often perversely OK with Hollywood) might find a cooler reception with voters.

Best Director

  • Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
  • Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
  • David O. Russell, American Hustle
  • Spike Jonze, Her
  • Alexander Payne, Nebraska

Dark Horses: Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street; Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips. The Best Picture field opened up a few years back to accommodate more than five nominees, but there are still only five slots for directors. Greengrass might not make it in.

Best Actress

  • Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
  • Amy Adams, American Hustle
  • Sandra Bullock, Gravity
  • Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
  • Judi Dench, Philomena

Dark Horse: Meryl Streep, August: Osage County. Tepid reviews for this film lead me to speculate that Meryl might sit this year out.

Best Actor

  • Bruce Dern, Nebraska
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
  • Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
  • Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
  • Robert Redford, All is Lost

Dark Horse: Leonardo Di Caprio, The Wolf of Wall Street. He just won the Golden Globe, which makes me wonder if there’s more support for his performance than for his film.

Best Supporting Actor

  • Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
  • Daniel Bruhl, Rush
  • Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
  • Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
  • Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Dark Horse: Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street. He’s been nominated before (for Moneyball), but there’s heavy competition in this category. A longshot at best.

Best Original Screenplay

  • American Hustle
  • Blue Jasmine
  • Her
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Nebraska

Dark Horse: Enough Said. Again, a longshot. The five picks feel pretty solid here.

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • 12 Years a Slave
  • August: Osage County
  • Before Midnight
  • Captain Phillips
  • The Wolf of Wall Street

Dark Horse: Philomena. This and August could switch places, if the Academy doesn’t decide to throw a bone to Meryl’s film.

Best Documentary Feature

  • 20 Feet from Stardom
  • The Act of Killing
  • Blackfish
  • Cutie and the Boxer
  • Stories We Tell

Dark Horse: Dirty Wars. Political docs often do well at the Oscars, but Killing is already almost guaranteed a slot, and it’s a very competitive category this year. 

How did I do? We’ll find out tomorrow…

“Inside Llewyn Davis,” Reviewed: Portrait of the Artist as a Couch-Hopper.

inside llewyn davis 1

Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis (Rated R) is a downer – a rich, glorious downer, dripping with authenticity and boasting a killer soundtrack. It’s a hardscrabble story of a folk singer whose best days are behind him (and those days weren’t that great to begin with), and a make-or-break week that could change everything … or not. It’s 1961, and Llewyn (Oscar Isaac, the doomed ex-con husband in Drive) is trying to get his career to spark by banging his flinty personality against every hard surface he can find. His plight is like that of Dustin Hoffman’s chronically unemployed actor in Tootsie (1982), the professional who uses dedication to his craft as a justification for being a major pain to everyone he meets. “No one will work with you – you’re too much trouble,” Hoffman’s agent told him, but Llewyn’s manager Mel (the late character actor Jerry Grayson) is less direct; he won’t even give his struggling client a few bucks for back album sales.

In the meantime, Llewyn bounces from one friend’s couch to the next while trying to get paying gigs on a stage or in a studio. There’s work out there, but it always seems to be snatched up first by performers like Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan), the clean-cut married singer-songwriters whose songs inspire. Llewyn’s oeuvre, by contrast, is more emotionally wrenching: Since the suicide of his performing partner Mike, he’s moved from melodic uplift to darker, powerful songs with titles like “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” (T. Bone Burnett, who worked as musical director on the Coens’ O Brother Where Art Thou?, is an MVP here as well.)

Isaac is a revelation as Llewyn, giving us a barely sympathetic lead character with the rough-hewn anti-charm that normally stays on the periphery of a film’s narrative. A less imaginative movie might focus more on Jim and Jean’s marriage – it’s not like there isn’t a story there, what with Jean’s self-hating habit of falling into bed with Llewyn and then yelling at him for it afterward. Instead we’re given a tour of the dark underside of folk music, at a time when the genre was in profound shift from the spirituals of the ’40s and ’50s to the activist anthems of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Llewyn’s passion is for music, not politics, which means his entire self-worth rests on fleeting moments like hitting the right note in a performance, or the question of whether he’ll convince a Chicago promoter (F. Murray Abraham) that there’s money to be made in his sound.

The music of Inside Llewyn Davis is worth the price of admission all by itself, but in tone and execution this is a very different animal from O Brother. That film took its characters under a playful arm, and suffused most scenes with a buttery light that just made you feel good. But Llewyn and his onscreen cohorts are alone in the world, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel has brought a gray pallor to the film’s look that matches the story’s tone and the cold, wet winter in which its set. Hey, I told you it was a downer – it’s just a downer worth looking up.

(IMAGE: Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis. Photo courtesy of CBS Films.)