Nominations, the Year That Was and Inside Llewyn Davis

poster, Oscar Isaac, Coen Brothers, movie, Inside Llewyn Davis

After much procrastination and just plain laziness, I’ve gotten my predictions for and thoughts on this year’s Oscar nominations in just under the wire.  If you’re wondering why I’m bothering at this late hour, let’s just say my OCD won’t let me let an awards season go by without sharing my opinions with the world…whether they like it or not.

Just a warning, to paraphrase Davis Guggenheim, this might get long.

I’ve decided that this post will encompass the Academy Award nominations, my “best of 2013” list and my thoughts on the Coen Brothers’ stylish urban folktale,  Inside Llewyn Davis.  While that sounds like an ambitious undertaking, given the snail-like pace at which I get these things finished, one post seemed to make more sense, especially since the three topics overlap like a cinematic Venn diagram.

With a pitch-perfect cast and the Coens at the top of their game, weaving the whole narrative with an absolutely breathtaking soundtrack produced by T-Bone Burnett, Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t need to be flashy to be fascinating and powerful. However, its deceptively simple and subtle storytelling was snubbed by the Academy Awards. If the nomination itself is an honor, then no film has been more snubbed than this one.  For every category that I predict who will win, who should win etc.,  just know that there is an unwritten SHOULD BE IN THE RACE: Inside Llewyn Davis.

The Coens’ black comedy  was inspired by the life of folk singer Dave Van Ronk, and stars Oscar Isaac as a skilled, but self-destructive singer, who has the bad luck to be merely a decent folk singer in a Greenwich Village scene that is about to explode with the  arrival of Bob Dylan. He makes a mess of his life except when he’s onstage singing old folk and blues tunes.  Isaac carries the movie. Typically for the Coens, the film is dark and occasionally mean, but it also has heart. All it earned were Sound Mixing and a Cinematography nominations. While well earned, this thoughtful little film deserved more.

And yet I really shouldn’t have been surprised that it was excluded from the big categories like Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Picture. The Academy, while they are fans of the Coen Brothers in general, (7 of 14 directorial efforts have landed major nominations in the last couple of decades), they also prefer  flashier fare. And since they’d already recognized Philomena and Nebraska, there really wasn’t room on their plate for Inside Llewyn Davis. Just my humble opinion.

Of course that’s the down side of having such a great year at the movies:  the inevitable
disappointments in terms of any awards nominations and particularly Oscar nominations. There wasn’t enough room for  everybody. (Especially since they still haven’t changed the other categories to match the “up to” ten Best Picture slots.)

American Hustle, which is not on my “best of” list,  earned nominations for four of its “stars”, including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. (What, no Jeremy Renner? For my money Renner’s pol with a heart of gold deserved a nod much more than Cooper’s aggressively eager Jr G-man.  It also earned nominations for original screenplay, direction and Best Picture.  I loved The Fighter. I loved Silver Linings Playbook. I did not love American Hustle. I liked it. But there were a lot of movies that I liked in 2013, none of which deserved awards attention.

For the record, my favorite movies of 2013 – in no particular order  (some of which I may revisit if they aren’t yet on DVD) – 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, Olympus Has Fallen, Labor Day, Now You See Me, Rush, The World’s End, The Place Beyond the Pines, Mud, Trance, Welcome to the Punch, Fruitvale Station and Bullet to the Head (don’t judge).

As for David O. Russell’s dramedy (it’s a comedy only in the Greek sense – all is not lost at the end. Or in the Adam Sandler  you’re only laughing because it’s sad-sense), simply saying “aaaaand GO!” is not directing, it’s letting your actors run amok. Standing back to watch the fireworks is not directing either. Knowing which takes to keep in order to assemble a semi-cohesive movie is the task of the editor, but we all know that’s ½ of a director’s job as well. Okay, so we’ll give him that.  That Russell has managed for the third time to corral as talented and versatile a group, yet again, is his true talent. As Bradley Cooper said from the stage while accepting the Best Ensemble SAG award, “he’s an actor’s director”.   Seriously, if he’s back in awards contention a year after Silver Linings Playbook, that means he had to sign Lawrence and Cooper before SLP hit it big. So he does know talent.

But when did we start to think of him as being in the same league with Martin Scorsese? “It’s a David O. Russell movie…it MUST be good. Let’s nominate it.”

His peers are still skeptical. Despite the love heaped on Silver Linings Playbook last year – a much more worthy film than American Hustle – the Directors Guild recognized Ben Affleck for Argo. The Academy, though they’d snubbed Affleck, chose Ang Lee.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Russell’s films. I’m just against anyone being nominated in any category just because it’s customary.

Pundits and prognosticators complain when one film or actor/actress etc is a shoe-in, so far out front of the pack that the opening of the envelope is a mere formality. They also complain when the preliminary awards shows (sort of like the semi-finals or the playoffs) are all over the map and we go into the Oscars without knowing exactly what’s going to happen. That’s the case with this year’s crop of nominees.   There are a few races that have what would seem to be a “front runner”, but in each instance, a case can be made for why another film or actor/actress etc will go home with the gold.

A lot of the hubbub following the nominations announcements had to do with the names not read. The Coen Brothers  Inside Llewyn Davis and it’s star Oscar Isaac were not the only big surprises.

No Oprah Winfrey for The Butler? She hasn’t been nominated  since 1985’s The Color Purple. Winfrey was at one point  seen as a frontrunner for  best supporting actress. But there’s a reason everything considered to have awards potential is released at the end of the year:  the Academy has a notoriously short memory and probably forgot about The Butler. The film and its star Forest Whitaker were  also left off, despite a strong showing at the Screen Actors Guild nominations.

No Emma  Thompson for  Saving Mr. Banks?  Everyone loves Emma Thompson! She’s
the only person to have ever won Oscars for both writing  (1995’s Sense and Sensibility) and acting (1992’s Howards End.) Considering that Saving Mr. Banks was obvious Oscar-bait about the man himself that’s a bit of a black eye for Disney (ABC’s parent company – the network which airs the Oscars) Oh well.

No Robert Redford in All Is Lost?!  Back in September,  Redford was a frontrunner for a nomination and was even predicted to win by quite a few critics. It would have been his first ever acting Oscar (he’s only
been nominated once for 1973’s The Sting.) and this movie is a one man show.  Apparently  it didn’t do so well in the translation to DVD which is how most Academy voters saw it. (Imagine if that were true of Gravity? We’d be looking at a very different race.)

No Tom  Hanks in Captain Phillips?! What the what? Yes, he’s won twice, but he hasn’t even been nominated in 13 years and most people expected him to be nominated for Saving Mr. Banks if not Captain Phillips. He was certainly deserving for the latter.

And no posthumous nomination for James Gandolfini . Now that is really odd.

Daniel Bruhl was recognized by  both the Golden Globes and the SAGs for Rush. If that film had done better box office, the Academy might have made room for him. Joaquin Phoenix carried Her, but sorry, the best actor  race was too crowded.

Michael B. Jordan and Fruitvale Station were  the indie breakouts of the year with backing from the Harvey Weinstein, but all I can think is that  its summer release date probably hurt its chances.
Some of the above I’m not convinced should have been nominated any more than most of those that were. We’re merely surprised that the above bold-faced names weren’t nominated because we expect that they will be. They are considered “Academy voter friendly”. Or rather they had been. “The Academy” is trying to change its image, to become younger and  hipper. At least Leonardo DiCaprio, who is long overdue, was recognized for his gutsy performance in  The Wolf of Wall Street (but he’s knocking on 40’s door, no matter how boyish he looks.)

The nominations, with my prediction for who WILL win and my choice for who SHOULD ** win

BEST DIRECTOR

David O. Russell

Alfonso Cuarón

Alexander Payne

Steve McQueen ** (because Best Pictures don’t direct themselves)  who assembled a truly amazing cast who gave truly astonishing performances. A lot has been made of the fact that David O’Russell directed four of his actors to nominations, when to my mind he was, for the most part, rewarded for gathering the same pretty people together yet again.  If there had been a leading actress in 12 Years a Slave, I have no doubt McQueen would have equaled Russell’s feat. Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender were (rightly) recognized, but from Benedict Cumberbatch to Paul Dano to Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard and Sarah Paulson, everyone gave brilliant performances. That SAG gave it’s Ensemble Award to American Hustle over 12 Years is a travesty.  JMHO.

Martin Scorsese

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Sally Hawkins- I would be “okay” with it, if she squeaked out a win.

Jennifer Lawrence – I won’t say I’m “over” JLaw, but she’s already beginning to achieve Judi Dench status at the ripe old age of 23 and this is not the role for which she wants to become ubiquitous

Lupita Nyong’o  ** – the best performance in this category. That is all.

Julia Roberts – see Judi Dench

June Squibb – can we stop giving nominations just for longevity?

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Barkhad Abdi – his first movie! The nomination is the honor

Bradley Cooper – like Lawrence, it’s the 2nd year in a row BCoop has been nominated for a David O. Russell film. But hair does not a performance make. Take a stand.

Michael Fassbender ** – best performance in this category. That is all

Jonah Hill – I have to admit I enjoyed him in Wolf of Wall Street and for the first time did not “see” Jonah Hill.

Jared Leto  – It does not take anything away from Leto for me to say that I thought Fassbender was better. Leto’s Rayon was more than just the weight loss and the wig. It was a beautiful performance. And let’s face it, beautiful goes down better . Being the delicate, perfectly made-up face of the AIDS crisis goes down a lot better than the face of pure, institutional evil. Even if that face belongs to Fassbender.

BEST ACTRESS

Amy Adams – nominated for American Hustle (as Best Actress, though given GG for Supporting) but also appears in another flick nom for Best Pic – Her.  If she won, I would perfectly okay with it. This is her fifth
nomination and she’s  the only non-winner in the category , but if Adams manages to upset Blanchett, however, it will be because of Woody Allen.

Cate Blanchett **

Sandra Bullock – she’s better in Gravity than she was in the film for which she actually won her Oscar. That’s what happens when you get it for the wrong reasons.

Judi Dench – made a movie – automatic nomination (Although that’s too simplistic. She was wonderful in Philomena)

Meryl Streep – see Judi Dench

BEST ACTOR

Christian Bale (see Judi Dench) – I’m a huge Bale fan and I think he’s another actor that is very easy to take for granted. His  in American Hustle was indelible, but his nomination was a surprise and it’s not his year. He can’t win for gaining weight  when they’re going to give it to Matthew McConaughey for losing weight.
Bruce Dern- The venerable Bruce Dern was wonderful in Nebraska. He’s a great actor whose career has largely been unsung because he’s such a great actor. But this is supposed to be about a particular performance in a particular film. (I’m going to keep saying that.)
Leonardo DiCaprio – I respect Leo. He is a brilliant actor, he’s intelligent and he uses his fame for good. He also, despite appearances to the contrary, tries to keep his private life private. Being one of the biggest movie stars on the planet makes this difficult, of course. While he’s obviously a serial model-dater and his current girlfriend is not even old enough to legally get into the clubs she and the rest of the supermodel herd frequent, I don’t find him nearly as distasteful as I do Bradley Cooper. He and DiCaprio are about the same age and so are their girlfriends. The difference is that Leo never went on record as saying that someone of Jennifer Lawrence’s age (with whom he’s made three movies – Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and the soon to be released Serena – which actually filmed before American Hustle) was too young for him.  Lawrence is two years older than “Suki” Waterhouse- but I digress.  Leo deserves this nomination and a lot of people are saying he may upset. He was in 2 movies this year  that he carried. He is very deserving of a win. This is his fourth nomination, but he’s been snubbed more often.  (Titanic, Catch Me if You Can, The Departed, Revolutionary Road, Shutter Island, Inception,  J. Edgar and  Django Unchained – you can’t watch any of them to this day and not believe he was worthy of recognition.)  How’d he manage one this  year? He actually campaigned a little. Or did you think there was another reason he showed up on Saturday Night Live when Jonah Hill was host?

Matthew McConaughey  – I love Matty. I think I’ve made that clear. He was in about 6 movies in the last 18 months and was phenomenal in all of them. We are in the midst of “the McConaisance” – a term that became trite the instant it was picked up by People magazine. It didn’t take an Oscar nomination for a lot of us to notice that McConaughey is having a hell of a much-deserved ride. He carved this career resurgence out with his bare hands.  Dallas Buyers Club is the capper on an incredible string of performances. But if the Oscar is supposed to recognize one single achievement in one single film, then hands down it must go to Chiwetel Ejiofor. No other single performance by a male actor in any film that I saw in the past year even comes close.

Chiwetel Ejiofor **–  My reactions to his  performance as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave have already been documented. Best performance. That is all.  No, that’s not all. I have to rant about this one for what is possibly the final time. Ejiofor didn’t just fall out of the sky, he’s got a long list of credits to his name as well, so even if we were celebrating “body of work”…  He just never had to overcome anything like Fools Gold or Failure to Launch. But if we’re giving awards for career achievement, take a look at Kinky Boots, Red Belt or Dirty Pretty Things. Hell, his first movie was Amistad, the star of which was Matthew McConaughey.

Months ago, I mentioned the possibility that this year could see more than one black Best Actor nominee. I knew it was a long shot, but in a year where there were at least five performances by black actors  that were worthy of recognition, only one has managed to actually make it to the playoffs. Where are Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), Isaiah Washington (Blue Caprice) or even Forest Whitaker (Lee Daniel’s The Butler)? Chiwetel Ejiofor is apparently carrying the flag for his race. That he truly did give the best performance of the year, makes it all the more insulting that they keep giving the prizes to the middle-aged white guy.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

American Hustle – does not deserve a nomination for original screenplay when the four nominated actors have gone on record as saying that Russell allowed them to ad lib most of their scenes/lines.

Blue Jasmine – not a snowball’s chance in hell

Dallas Buyers Club

Her**Call this the Quentin Tarantino Award.  Her is a truly original film and one that the Academy will want to recognize in some way.

Nebraska– could spoil

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Before Midnight – could squeak out a win if the Academy wants to recognize the beautiful trilogy of which this film is the third and final part.

Captain Phillips

Philomena – could also squeak out a win. Steve Coogan won the BAFTA and they Academy may want to recognize the movie.

12 Years a Slave ** the film is driven by John Ridley’s strong, powerful script (culled from Solomon Northup’s moving memoir).  JMHO, but a win in this category will signal the Best Picture win.

Wolf of Wall Street – too many fucks

BEST FOREIGN FILM

The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium) – could upset

The Grand Beauty (Italy)

The Hunt (Denmark) **  – and no, it’s not just because of Mads Mikkelsen.  It’s a well-written, wonderfully acted film about perception, truth, lies and loneliness

The Missing Picture (Cambodia)

Omar (Palestine)

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

The Croods

Despicable Me 2

Ernest & Celestine

Frozen

The Wind Rises **

BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN CINEMATOGRAPHY
The Grandmaster –  Philippe Le Sourd

Gravity ** – Emmanuel Lubezki

Inside Llewyn Davis – Bruno Delbonnel

Nebraska – Phedon Papamichael

Prisoners – Roger A. Deakins (A travesty that Deakins – the MOST nominated cinematographer still working – has never won. He won’t this year either.)

BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN PRODUCTION DESIGN

American Hustle – Production Design: Judy Becker; Set Decoration: Heather Loeffler

Gravity –  Production Design: Andy Nicholson; Set Decoration: Rosie Goodwin and Joanne Woollard

The Great Gatsby **– Production Design: Catherine Martin; Set Decoration: Beverley Dunn

Her – Production Design: K.K. Barrett; Set Decoration: Gene Serdena

12 Years a Slave – Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Set Decoration: Alice Baker

BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN COSTUME DESIGN

American Hustle – Michael Wilkinson

The Grandmaster – William Chang Suk Ping

The Great Gatsby **– Catherine Martin

The Invisible Woman – Michael O’Connor

12 Years a Slave – Patricia Norris

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

The Act of Killing

Cutie and the Boxer

Dirty Wars

The Square

20 Feet From Stardom** Since Sarah Polley’s The Stories We Tell didn’t get a nomination

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT

CaveDigger

Facing Fear

Karama Has No Walls

The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life **

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN FILM EDITING

American Hustle ** Because Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten took a bunch of disjointed scenes and turned them into a movie

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Gravityconventional wisdom used to hold that one didn’t win Best Picture without winning Best Editing. I think that will not be the case this year. And actually, I’m okay with giving Gravity all of the technical awards.

12 Years a Slave

ACHIEVEMENT IN MAKEUP

Dallas Buyers Club
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
The Lone Ranger

Only three nominees and no 12 Years a Slave ** (If you’ve seen it, you’d know why but maybe those stripes are considered a special effect and not makeup.)

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

The Book Thief – John Williams
Gravity **– Steven Price  (Apparently the score blew everyone away at the Academy Awards Nominees Concert)  I’d have preferred Hans Zimmer win for 12 Years a Slave but, oddly, it’s not on this list.
Her  – William Butler and Owen Pallett

Philomena – Alexandre Desplat
Saving Mr. Banks – Thomas Newman
BEST ORIGINAL SONG

Alone, Yet Not Alone

Happy **

Let It Go

The Moon Song **

Ordinary Love **

I’m conflicted. But it’s obvious I prefer most of them over what will most likely win.  I’m still pissed that ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ from Inside Llewyn Davis didn’t qualify (since it wasn’t original to the film. Pfft)

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM

Feral

Get a Horse!

Mr. Hublot

Possessions

Room on the Broom **

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM

Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)

Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just before Losing Everything)

Helium

Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)

The Voorman Problem  **

ACHIEVEMENT IN SOUND EDITING
All Is Lost

Captain Phillips

Gravity **

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Lone Survivor

ACHIEVEMENT IN SOUND MIXING

Captain Phillips

Gravity

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Inside Llewyn Davis ** – would be lovely if a movie about music won a sound award, but it won’t

Lone Survivor

ACHIEVEMENT IN VISUAL EFFECTS
Gravity **

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Iron Man 3

The Lone Ranger

Star Trek Into Darkness

BEST PICTURE

American Hustle– if voters  are too squeamish or timid to reward  a very intense film, they may opt for the cartoon-like antics of the pretty people cavorting in fashions that were hip when most of the voting body was too.

Captain Phillips – fully deserves the nod. You can read why I think so, here.

Dallas Buyers Club – despite two wonderful performances at its core, it’s only a so-so movie. Yes it will jerk the tears and it’s a story worth telling, but why is the first important AIDS movie since Philadelphia all about the (screamingly) straight white dude?

Her

Nebraska

Philomena – a perfect little gem of a movie. Loved every second of it. Its nomination was a happy surprise and The Weinstein Company’s only horse in the race. But no one should ever count out Harvey.  Ever.

The Wolf of Wall Street – not Scorsese’s best, but that’s still head and shoulders above most. It’s a movie that took some rumination to fully appreciate and merits a second viewing. Just don’t see it with your parents.

Gravity  – though technically brilliant is nearly as cold, in my opinion, as the space in which it takes place.  Oscar voters will need an emotional hook on which to hang their votes.

12 Years a Slave ** – Great films don’t have to be enjoyable to watch, and 12 Years A Slave is probably the best example of this that I can think of. It was my favorite film of 2013 not because it was fun or I had a good time watching it, but because it is, pure and simply, outstanding.   Yes, it is a brutal film. It realistically and unflinchingly depicts the lynching, whipping and rape that was emblematic of American institutional slavery, but it is the psychological toll, so clearly visible in Chiwitel Ejiofor’s eyes that is the core of the film. I’ve delved into my thoughts on the movie much more deeply here, but in a year with almost an embarrassment of riches in terms of awards-worthy fare, if we’re leaving politics of all sorts aside, it was the best of the best.

12 Years a Slave, movie, poster, Steve McQueen, Chiwitel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o

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My Thoughts on the Beauty and Brutality of 12 Years a Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

poster via imdb

The first time I saw Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave was during a press screening that was also attended by students from local colleges, as well as hoi polloi like me who got passes through a screening service. At the end of the film was a Q & A with the director of the Boston Museum of African American History, Beverly Morgan-Welch, and the presenter of “City Line”, a local television show that focuses on urban issues, Karen Holmes Ward. Even as my popcorn was forgotten, as my heart was in my mouth, my hands trying to stifle the sobs, I was still very aware of the audience around me, wondering what they were thinking and feeling. That viewing was all about the historical context, despite the fact that I was an emotional wreck afterward.

The movie is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Unlike James Franco, however, who seems to want to set himself up as a learned and worldly carbuncle on the butt of 21st century popular culture, I was not, am not, “beguiled” by this movie. I certainly don’t understand how anyone could see it two nights in a row. I needed a large span of time between viewings in order to thoroughly and properly process what I’d seen.

The second time, I wasn’t watching the film in anticipation of seeing one of the most talked about movies of the year, one I had been waiting for since filming began. I went back again to find out if I’d have the same visceral reaction to the brutality or whether the fact that I knew when and how it would be meted out had in any way inured my senses to it.

No, it did not. In some ways, I was even more affected by it.

There are not words to adequately describe how utterly despicable the practice of human beings purchasing, possessing, owning other human beings as if they were ‘things’, truly is. We haven’t coined the words because our minds won’t let us consciously descend far enough into darkness to fully comprehend it. In much the same way that mere words cannot convey the true horror of the Holocaust, or the genocides still being perpetrated in various parts of the world as I type this, because man’s inhumanity to man is, ultimately, incomprehensible.

It is for this reason that watching 12 Years a Slave, only Steve McQueen’s third feature film,  is an  emotional experience akin to watching Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, made all the more authentic and terrible because it is told not from the perspective of the benevolent white savior, but from that of the enslaved.

It is fact that McQueen has never made a film that was easy to sit through. You’ll probably never see his name on the poster of a film with the tag line “The Feel Good Movie of the Year!”, but unlike Shame, or even Hunger (which was also based on a true story, but one with a very different outcome), 12 Years a Slave manages to rise above the unrelenting misery it depicts to become a testimonial to the ability of a single unyielding man, not only to “survive”, but to “live”.

12 Years a Slave is the second film in two years about that American abomination that was slavery, a subject that has been largely ignored by cinema. Like Quentin Tarantino’s nearly as brilliant Django Unchained, it is agonizing and heart­breaking; a gut-twisting experience to watch. But unlike Django, the brutality is realistic, not exaggerated to, at times, comic levels. There is no intentional humor in 12 Years…. If there is any laughter at all, it is the scattered, nervous, incredulous tittering of those who don’t yet know how to believe, let alone process, what they’re seeing in front of them.

The story certainly sounds like something that sprang from a writer’s fevered imagination. Despite what we know about American History, how can it be true that a free man was kidnapped, forced into slavery and kept in captivity for twelve years without anyone believing his tale or doing all that they could to help?  This is not the time, nor place, for a political discussion of the state of race relations in this country, but your experience of this film is no doubt tinted by your experience of the world as you know it now. (Isn’t what happened to Solomon Northup really only a few steps removed from what happened to Oscar Grant III in 2008, as depicted in  Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station?)

That these things described above did happen, is the singular experience at the heart of McQueen’s film. What makes the film particularly impressive is not that it provides historical parameters for a dimension of slavery that most of us were unaware of, but that it does so by the weaving together of the smallest of details that made up Northup’s life in captivity. Each scene feels frighteningly immediate, as though it weren’t filtered through time, but exists in the present moment. This film is not only one of the best of the year, certainly, in my humble opinion, the most important, but it is  probably one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. For all of the harshness, the brutality, and the violence, it is also beautifully made.

McQueen comes from the art world and has a painter’s eye for staging and the framing of images, without resorting to flashy visual tricks. Thinking about the opening scene, we are thrust into the lush cane fields of Louisiana. We can see the thick, humid air as a group of black men, slaves, labor in the stifling heat. We don’t know any of them but we get an immediate feel for time, place and circumstance. We next see Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) attempting to use crushed berries for ink. It’s out of context and yet gives context to things we’ve only read about in history books.  McQueen then moves back in time to Northup’s nearly idyllic life pre-ordeal. How can this be the same man?

What follows is two hours chronicling nearly unimaginable suffering. Along the way, Solomon Northup, now called by the slave name, Platt, encounters nearly every facet of the experience of slaves in the pre-Civil War South. We learned from our history classes that families were torn apart, sold separately with no regard for mothers and their children. McQueen shows us what that would have felt like. I learned that it was possible for a former slave to live as the wife of her former owner. Alfre Woodard is brilliant as one such woman, existing in her own delusional bubble, blissfully ignoring the plight of those still in bondage.

Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) represents the extreme in his sadistic cruelty, nearly matched by his equally cruel wife, played by a truly scary Sarah Paulson. But there are degrees of racism. Benedict Cumberbatch as Platt’s first owner, the benevolent William Ford, gives him a violin and allows him to keep the money he earns from playing it. Does his relative kindness alleviate complicity? Ford knows and Platt knows he knows, that Platt is not just any slave, yet he does nothing to help him, for fear of losing his financial investment.

The philosophical depiction of slavery aside, what really sets McQueen’s film apart is that he refuses to flinch when it comes to depicting the violence. We cannot be kept at arms length when he pulls us in so close, whether it’s the sight of flesh and blood literally flying off of a back during an excrutiating and protracted whipping scene or watching Platt struggle to stay on his toes for hours trying to relieve some of the tension of the noose around his neck as plantation life carries on all around him.

When Solomon finally does return to his family, every day of those twelve years is worn into his face. The pain haunts his eyes. All he can think to say to them is to apologize for his long absence.   (What is amazing to me is that he is somehow able to articulate not only to them but to the rest of the world, with his book, what happened during those years.)

I have not yet seen All is Lost or even The Wolf of Wall Street, but I am, of course aware that Robert Redford has given another singular performance and of course there is talk that Leonardo DiCaprio will inevitably be nominated for yet another role in a Martin Scorsese film. I have seen Captain Phillips and I have given my opinion on Tom Hanks’ performance. I have seen the magnificent Dallas Buyers Club and oh, how I wish it had been released in another year so that Matthew McConaughey could be recognized for his towering performance.  (My thoughts on McConaughey’s talents are known to readers of this blog, but that is for another discussion.)  I adore Idris Elba and his Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is mesmerizing, but the movie itself is not entirely worthy of his efforts (nor Madiba’s legacy). I have seen Fruitvale Station and as good as I think Michael B. Jordan is, as deserving I believe him to be of a nomination, no performance has or could possibly come close to the one given by Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave.

When was the last time an actor reduced you to near-wracking sobs by doing nothing? There is a scene with no sound but the wind rustling lightly through the trees and the tall grass. Ejiofor stands still, his eyes barely moving, the camera close on his face, as the last shreds of any hopefulness seep away, replaced by the despair he’d fought for so long to keep at bay. My heart breaks again thinking about it weeks later.

Lupita Nyong’o, who played Patsey, has described 12 Years A Slave as an “emotionally taxing” acting experience. If I can say that I imagine it would be, I would also say that hers is an understatement.

Nyong’o, who made her feature debut with this film (!) has been earning across the board accolades and making the chat show rounds. (At this point she’s considered one of the few virtual locks for an Academy Award nomination.)  She told “The View”, that going to “that emotional place was so hard it was really important for me to continually remind myself that I was not Patsey after all”.

Patsey suffers abuse of every possible kind at the hands of Michael Fassbender’s plantation owner Edwin Epps.  Fassbender’s character embodies such bred-in-the-bone evil, so institutional, so palatine, as to let Epps be sanguine about his monstrosity. He treats Patsey as he does not only because she is his property, but because he loves her. And yet his other slaves might as well be furniture. Witness the casual way he leans on their heads, as if they were not living, breathing human beings.

Fassbender does something that very few actors can— he makes us believe at all times while he is on screen that anything could happen (the first time and yes, even the second time I saw the film). Every scene in which Epps appears is fraught with so much tension that we do not trust that Patsey or Northup will live through it; this despite the fact that we know that this is a true story, with a known conclusion. Fassbender has said that Epps took a physical toll on him. He even reportedly passed out after a particularly brutal scene. We may assume that an actor leaves it all on screen, but I don’t see how any thinking, feeling individual could not be affected by what was required of them, at least in this case.

That it has taken me this long to get this post finished is the reason I will never be able to do this for a living, although if the ability to crank these things out was all that stood between me and sleeping on the sidewalk, I suppose I could learn. This post was started, with thoughts rambling around my head after the first viewing, continued after the second, and has been ruminated upon ever since.   It has taken me so long that while it was widely assumed that this movie would be a major player come awards season, now that that special time of year is actually upon us, we’re beginning to get confirmation.

The entire film is packed with so much talent in even the smallest of roles, it’s obvious that they just wanted to be a part of this movie. They certainly didn’t do it for the money. I’d go so far as to say anyone could have played Bass, the role played by Brad Pitt (looking like he escaped from Amish Country), but Pitt’s name helped to get the movie made, both as a producer and on the marquee. All of that aside, the three actors mentioned here, are by far the soul of the movie and deserving of the attention they are getting.

If no one involved made the movie for the money, they didn’t do it for awards either. That said, awards speculation has been so rampant, since the film’s first festival screenings, that if I were Steve McQueen or any actor, producer or even an executive in any way associated with this film, I’d have been waiting for the other shoe to drop and the inevitable backlash to begin.  It was recently announced that 12 Years a Slave led all films with seven nominations for the 2014 Film Independent Spirit Awards, including best feature, director and actors Ejiofor (lead), Nyong’o (supporting) and Fassbender (supporting). As I said, when I first starting working on this post I would have assumed that there could be no doubt that these nominations would be only the beginning. After the odd choices made by the crazy quilt of critics association awards that were announced this past weekend, some of which seemed to be going out of their way to praise anything other than this film, I’m no longer sure of anything.

While we have yet to hear from The Producers, Directors and Writers Guilds, the Screen Actor’s Guild (noms for Actor, Supporting Actor & Actress and Best Ensemble Cast – their equivalent of Best Picture) and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the same 3 actor nominations as well as director, adapted screenplay, score and Best Picture – Drama – basically everything it was eligible for) have restored a bit of my faith that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will do the right thing..

Trick or Treat: Trailer or Spoiler Big Deluxe Halloween Edition

Mindscape, movie, poster, Mark Strong, Taissa Farmiga, Jorge Dorado

 

There’s a bumper crop of new films headed for your multiplex. Luckily I’m here to help you separate the wheat from the chaff with brand new trailers for a handful of those films.  Since it is Halloween, I’ve chosen four with lots of candy supernatural, spooky or fantastic overtones. Okay, so The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t actually have any of those, but it has Leonardo DiCaprio directed by Martin Scorsese (which means it could conceivably be fantastic). I just thought the title looked good with the other three. Sue me.

Okay, so that was a trick, now for some treats: We’ll start with the first English language trailer for the supernatural thriller, Mindscape, about a man with the ability to enter peoples’ minds and memories (see? Spooky!),  who takes on the case of a brilliant, yet troubled sixteen-year-old girl. Is she a victim…or a sociopath? Dun dun dun…

Produced and “presented” by Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, Unknown), Mindscape marks the feature directorial debut of Jorge Dorado, for which he has assembled a pretty impressive cast. It includes the smoldering Mark Strong (in a leading role, huzzah!) as John, and Taissa Farmiga (“American Horror Story”) as Anna,  with Brian Cox, Indira Varma (“Rome”, “Luther”), Noah Taylor and Saskia Reeves.

Walk this way and have a look at the trailer:

See? Candy. Finely chiseled rock candy…

Admittedly, I’m an easy sell, since this promises to have, ounce per ounce, more Mark Strong than anything else on his big screen resume, but I think the film itself has enormous potential.  It’s being compared to Inception, and it turns out mind-bending thrillers with ambiguous endings are popular if done right. On the other hand, Inception is undoubtedly the gold-standard of the genre and if Mindscape doesn’t get good “word-of-mouth”, that comparison might spell disaster. (Much the way that being compared to “Breaking Bad” did that other Mark Strong-starring project, AMC’s “Low Winter Sun”, no favors either.)

We don’t have any domestic release information yet, but since they’ve bothered to put out an English trailer, I’d say they’ll be forthcoming. Warner Brothers has the rights both domestically and overseas. They’ll open it in Dorado’s native Spain first (fitting of course. It premiered at the Sitges Film Festival as well) on 31st January 2014.  That tells me that since it won’t be opening cold in the dread January doldrums in this country, the WB must have some faith in it.

This first trailer sets up the story in only bold strokes. My interest is piqued, but I don’t feel like I’ve seen the whole movie in two and a half minutes, which, as you know, I consider to be a very good thing,  We’ll see how much we’re given next time, but for now, they’re doing it right.

Moving on to long, tall British Curley Whirley candy

Richard Armitage, Thorin Oakenshield, The Hobbit, movie, still

via imdb

The second in a trilogy of films adapting the enduringly popular masterpiece The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug continues the adventure of the title character Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he journeys with the Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and thirteen Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) on an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor.

I still don’t understand why the “Lord of the Rings Trilogy” got only one movie per book and “The Hobbit” is one book with three movies. I hope it’s because Peter Jackson knows that the world just doesn’t want to part company forever with the hobbits, elves, dwarves, dragons, trolls and wizards that we all know and love, and not so they can fleece us of our hard earned cash. It’s the dreamer in me.  I’m certainly not immune to the draw and I am eagerly awaiting this installment.

While this is the first full-length trailer for The Desolation of Smaug, there has been a version of this kicking around since late summer. We’re all familiar with Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth and with this bit of carefully curated footage, we’re immersed in it once more. The first of the Hobbit series may not have been as warmly greeted as the LOTR trilogy, after all there were all sorts of plot lines going off in a lot of directions (the better to justify three movies), and it was a setup for the next two, but this middle segment looks to pack in a lot more action, as well as getting to some of those portents of events yet to come that we’ve been expecting, since this is still and all a prequel to what we’ve already got committed to memory.

Bilbo lies to Gandalf about his discovery of the One Ring, and for his part, he warns about the rise of Sauron’s forces. Orlando Bloom returns as Legolas and apparently has a love interest, Evangeline Lilly‘s Tauriel is an entirely new character created by screenwriter (and the world’s foremost Tolkien expert) Philippa Boyens “to bring feminine energy {to the film}… completely within the spirit of Tolkien”. We also see the Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) as they seek help from their arch enemies, the Elves and their king Thranduil (Lee Pace).

The main event, of course is Bilbo’s first encounter with Smaug,  the dragon who has taken over the Lonely Mountain.

“”Well thief, where are you? Come now, don’t be shy. Step into the light,”

Was that what you imagined Tolkien’s  villainous dragon would sound like? It’s exactly what I imagined. Benedict Cumberbatch nailed it, in my humble opinion, and that for me was the burning question that Peter Jackson had to answer here. Is it a spoiler? Hell no. It’s an enticement, exactly what a good trailer should do. Since this is essentially Smaug’s movie,  and Smaug, a dragon, is going to be entirely CGI, we have to be hooked by the visuals and the sound of his voice.  It seems to me that we can also trust  that the rest of the story he’s wrapped in will be the spectacular visual and visceral experience we’ve come to expect from Jackson.

A batch of new tv spots have recently popped up as well – online, even if they’re not yet saturating the television. I’m especially fond of this one:

“I have the only right.”

Richard Armitage has another one of those great British voices that I could just listen to read the phone book or the back of a soup can. I’m glad he’s getting some exposure, even if he is pretty much unrecognizable.

As luck would have it, five new international posters were released today as well. They feature Bilbo, Gandalf, Elves Legolas, Tauriel and Thranduil, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and Dwarves Kili (Aidan Turner), Fili (Dean O’Gorman) and Thorin. More treats! You can check them out below.

X-Men:Days of Future Past, Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy, Charles Xavier, poster, movie

via imdb

Discussing the trailer for X-Men: Days of Future Past is, for me, the perfect Michael Fassbender interlude, between having written about the intensity of his performance in The Counselor, and preparing to write about the infinitely more intense performance he gives in 12 Years a Slave. Although quite frankly, there isn’t nearly enough German Irish Crème candy in this trailer.

What there is a lot of, is the older Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and the younger (James McAvoy) and as hoped, the twain shall meet. This trailer has been picked over with the proverbial fine toothed comb (more like tweezers) by those more familiar with X-Men lore than I, but even the eyes of this philistine caught a lot that was familiar, including Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine (hell after 7 movies, if you don’t know Wolverine, why are still reading this?), Halle Berry’s Storm, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Rogue (Anna Paquin) all from first series and Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, and Nicholas Hoult as Beast from X-Men: First Class. Mercifully, there was no January Jones as Emma Frost. I saw a lot of new characters that look intriguing, like Bishop (Omar Sy), Sunspot (Adan Canto), Blink (Fan Bing Bing), and Warpath (Booboo Stewart), but about which I don’t have a clue. Then there’s villain Bolivar Trask played by Peter Dinklage, whose casting had the fanboys foaming at their mouths from the moment it was leaked online.

The ultimate X-Men ensemble fights a war for the survival of the species across two time periods in X-Men: Days of Future Past. The characters from the original X-Men film trilogy join forces with their younger selves from X-Men: First Class in an epic battle that must change the past – to save our future.

The focus in this first trailer is clearly Professor X, but since I’m still not sure what exactly the plot is, other than it will feature “an epic battle that must change the past – to save our future”, which obviously means the two Xs have to work together to avoid some catastrophe (and I really don’t want to think too long on the science or the whole space/time continuum thing), I’d say that’s the mark of a good trailer.  I’m already looking ahead to the next one, thinking that it will give us the Magneto we (or just I) crave.

I do know that the storyline for X-Men: Days of Future Passed comes from the similarly titled comic-book? graphic novel? by Chris Claremont and John Byrne.  XMDoFP will also see the return of director Bryan Singer (After XMFC director Matthew Vaughn passed), who created the series by hasn’t directed an installment since 2003’s X2. The bad news is that it was written by hit-or-miss Simon Kinburg who wrote Mr & Mrs Smith and 2009’s Sherlock Holmes, but was also responsible for This Means War and X-Men: The Last Stand, generally considered to be the worst in the series.  Luckily, Kinburg worked from Matthew Vaughn’s story. (If Vaughn had been allowed to go with his initial idea, to make XMDoFP a direct sequel to XMFC, which would have included things like Magneto being responsible for the Kennedy assassination, he would have directed as well.) Keep your digits, paws and flippers crossed for this one.

If you want more, MTV has the trailer with Bryan Singer’s commentary. X-Men: Days of Future Passed is currently scheduled for US release May 23, 2014.

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort, Martin Scorsese, movie

via imdb

So what’s Leonardo DiCaprio? I don’t know. Given how long I’ve had a crush on him and how good he continues to be, how about an Everlasting Gobstopper? No? What’ve you got?

The Wolf of Wall Street, directed by Martin Scorsese, chronicles the true story of Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street wizard living large in early 90’s Manhattan. The flick charts Belfort’s (played by Scorsese muse DiCaprio)  involvement with crime, corruption, an expensive drug habit and the Feds, bumps on the way down from Park Avenue all the way to Taft Federal Correctional Institution, where he spent four years for securities fraud and money laundering (and with his cell-mate Tommy Chong). The penny stock “boiler room” he operated served as the inspiration for the the 2000 film The Boiler Room which starred Ben Affleck, Vin Diesel and Giovanni Ribisi. The Wolf of Wall Street costars Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey (who has been in the most incredible streak of incredibly good movies, giving incredible performances in all of them), Jon Bernthal (who knew zombies could be so could for one’s career? Then again, just ask Zack Snyder about that one), Jon Favreau, Kyle Chandler, Shea Whigham, Joanna Lumley, Rob Reiner and Jean Dujardin.

That trailer is actually the second one released. Does it give anything away? Yes, but in this case, the particulars are known. We’re not looking for surprises. We’re looking to experience the schadenfreude that comes from watching the “haves” get caught with their hands in the cookie jar and get punished for it. Warner Brothers knows that with this cast and this director, they need only make sure they bang the drum loudly enough throughout middle America, and it will make piles of money. Hence the new trailer.

Scorsese, one of the producers of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”, turned to that show’s creator and head writer (Terrence Winter) for his screenplay. I think we can expect The Wolf of Wall Street to be howlingly good. My description may be lame, but c’mon, it’s already been added to the Oscar “most likely to be nominated” list in the Best Actor, Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay categories. They may think of a new category for Jonah Hill’s teeth.

The Wolf of Wall Street, it has finally been confirmed, will come out on Christmas Day here in the US. Santa is giving movie goers a lot of choices that day, including Labor Day with Kate Winslet, Ben Stiller‘s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and pure-bred Oscar bait, August: Osage County, to name but a few. So any adult who gives their money to Justin Bieber (who also has a movie opening that day) instead of well made adult fare like this, deserves a lump of coal.

That’s it for this installment. Four trailers done right. Happy Halloween boys and ghouls!

A Question for Kevin Spacey, Along with Some Thoughts on Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips, Tom Hanks, movie, poster, Paul Greengrass, true story

via imdb

Dear Mr. Spacey,

Let me start by saying you and your producing partner at Trigger Street, Dana Brunetti, have made a fine film, a very fine film. Captain Phillips is inarguably one of the best of the year.  Tom Hanks gives such an emotional, gut-twisting, and realistic performance, that he will undoubtedly receive another well-earned Oscar nomination. (He won’t win of course. He can’t win. Not this year. If the Academy gives it to the middle-aged white guy this year of all years, there will be blood in the streets. But I digress.)

The movie follows the titular sea captain of the US container ship, Maersk Alabama, starting in the non-seafaring state of Vermont, where he bids farewell to his wife (played by the always terrific Catherine Keener in her one and only scene). There is something about their conversation in the car that is at once comfortable and mundane, and yet we feel the twinge of fear and dread that she probably always feels as he departs on one of these trips. We’d feel it even if we didn’t know what was about to happen, because she feels it. The next thing we know, we’re onboard the huge vessel as it prepares to leave the port of Oman, where it is immediately clear that Phillips himself is worried about the possibility of attack from pirates, especially in the face of his crew’s apparent lax attitude and the ship’s inadequate security measures. (People are screaming themselves hoarse to protect the rights of US citizens to own an assault rifle, but these guys, aboard an American ship aren’t allowed to have guns?)

As we come to find out, it’s not paranoia. There have been numerous recent attacks in the same waters Captain Phillips is about to navigate. And soon enough, his fears are realized as two small skiffs full of gangly young Somalis, hurling insults at each other, make a beeline for his boat. (Speaking of insults, I found it interesting that they call each other “Skinny”. I thought that was a term UN Peacekeepers used to identify, possibly to denigrate, the Somali natives, as they did in Black Hawk Down. Of course they’re skinny, a lot of them are starving. But it could stem from their natural body type, with a tendency to be tall, lean and rangy. I don’t know which came first or who picked it up from whom.)  We’re given a short scene on the beach as crews are chosen for this mission, where it’s made clear just how cutthroat the pirate business is (and it is frequently referred to as “just business” throughout the film) and that there isn’t really any honor among thieves. What is also immediately apparent is that there aren’t a lot of alternatives for these young men (and boys). This is also reiterated in a later scene, to great effect, by the pirate leader Muse (played by Barkhad Abdi in his first film).

Director Paul Greengrass, working from a script by Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) in turn based on Phillips’ own memoir, has shaped his film into a tale of two captains, Phillips and Muse. Phillips is shown as stern, humorless and a taskmaster. (The real Phillips is apparently considered something of a tyrant by his actual crew, but this is a movie.) Muse might not be much back on land, but once he boards the Alabama, the oppressed becomes the oppressor. (And Abdi is brilliant. There is nothing cliché or one-note about his performance in which he compels us to understand why he feels he has no choice, every step of the way, even when it appears he’s being given an “out” at several junctures.)

About half –way through the film goes from the expansiveness of the open sea and the massive ship, to the tiny and claustrophobic confines of an escape boat, ratcheting up the tension to an almost unbearable degree. The passage of time is marked by a sunset or cutaway to the encroaching US Navy vessel in pursuit, so we know how long those people have been crammed into that tiny space. The hand-held camera work is very effective here. It’s literally “in your face”. The fear and desperation of the occupants is palpable. (I kept thinking about how bad it must have smelled in that cramped space.)

Tom Hanks is as strong as the embattled captain facing extraordinary circumstances, playing the kind of decent, hard-working, long-suffering everyman,  as we have come to expect him to be. This is both an asset and a detriment. He is Tom Hanks the way that Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise. He can never quite disappear any longer into any role. We feel we know him as a person, as much as we know him as an actor, and all of the tools of his trade. As Captain Phillips, Hanks does seem like an able seaman, running a tight ship, maintaining discipline and trying to keep his crew safe, but it is the scenes where he and Abdi go head to head that really crackle.

But Hanks, as good as he is at giving us clues as to what Phillips is thinking, often with just flicks of his eyes, is spectacular in his final scene. It is for this scene alone that he will almost certainly garner that Oscar nomination. It is something we have never seen from Hanks and it will shake you.

There are a lot of stories of survival winging their way to your multiplex this fall and winter, all gearing up for the big awards season push. A lot of them are real life to reel life as well. (Such is the case of Hanks other would-be awards contender, Saving Mr. Banks, although it’s not a survival tale.) Captain Phillips probably isn’t an automatic best picture contender like some of the others (including Gravity and 12 Years a Slave), but it’s a thrilling two plus hours at the movies.

I do, however, have a small bone to pick with you, Mr. Spacey, and all of the other producers. After having seen the film at a 5:30pm showing on opening night, having taken the profound and often frightening journey with my fellow movie-goers in a darkened theater, twisting my napkins to shreds,  my pulse pounding in my ears as I watched the fate of the titular Captain and his captors play out in vivid Technicolor in front of me…all the while listening to the woman a few rows back trying to silence her small child, I have to ask,“Why wasn’t your film rated “R”?

Do you really believe that the intense and harrowing emotional and sometimes physical torture that Tom Hanks endured is appropriate for children? Is it appropriate for them to watch terrified people with guns to their heads in fear for their lives? “But it was rated PG-13,” you might well respond. “It’s up to the parents (or guardians) to make decisions about what is appropriate for their individual child. ”  Ah, but there’s the rub!

Any movie not rated “R” is fair game and open season. Yes, a designation of PG-13 should tell a parent (or responsible adult) that they need to use caution, that there might be imagery that a young child shouldn’t see. (Just as there are now ratings on television programs that should provide guidance.)  But there will always be those parents who think a movie ticket is cheaper than a babysitter and so bring the kid along. There are also older teens who will bring younger children with them as well. It’s not as if employees of a theater have anything to say about it. “They can do that with an “R” as well”, you counter. “It’s hard enough to get them to enforce an “R” rating.” That’s very true. But it might, actually SHOULD give more of them pause. An”R” rating is a much clearer line in the sand.

In the audience with which I saw your movie was at least one small child.  I have two issues with this, the first being that the subject matter is inappropriate. Now, on paper, one could describe your movie as having no inappropriate language and minimal violence and no onscreen bloodshed. (I’ll leave it at that, lest I spoil anything.) But even though that argument would be merely splitting hairs,  that in and of itself, as concerns that kid is not my problem. If the kid gets nightmares and keeps that parent up all night, too bad and it’s their own fault. The second issue, however, is that there is little or nothing in this movie to hold the attention of a six or seven year old. What do six or seven year olds do when they are bored? They make sure everyone knows it.  While that might not directly be your problem, it was mine. And I bought a full priced ticket. I was on the verge, on at least two occasions, of getting up and asking for my money back. As it is, I’ll want to see it again so that I can concentrate fully.

Was that your dastardly plan all along? That I buy not one ticket, but two?  Too bad. I’ll probably wait for cable.

Captain Phillips with Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Max Martini, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez, David Warshofsky, directed by Paul Greengrass from a screenplay by Billy Ray, based on the book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty, is in US theaters now.

NOTE: I thought I had posted this over a week ago (It was saved in drafts – D’oh!). In case anyone has forgotten (or never heard about) the actual incident depicted in the movie Captain Phillips, which took place in 2009,   as I post this today, I’ve just gotten an email containing a breaking news report of an incident involving the kidnapping of Americans by pirates off the coast of Nigeria. Apparently the threat is still very real.

Get to Know the Frontrunner: More Very Early Oscar Talk‏‏

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave, movie

image via The Wrap

Back in July I made a prediction that, on the face of it, should be no big deal, but in our skewed reality, is: that there would be at least two black actors nominated for Best Actor Academy Awards this year (and neither of them named Denzel).

There could be a third if Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is any good. I have no doubt Idris Elba will be, but the movie will have to kill for him to get any buzz. Then there’s Isaiah Washington in Blue Caprice. It’s possible his name could be in the mix as well. Given that there are only five slots to fill, that may be pushing it. “When, oh when, are they going to match the number of acting and directing categories to the number of Best Picture nominees?! It makes no sense! If we have 10 BP’s then we should have 10 Best Director nominees, if we have 8 BP’s, we should have 8 BD’s etc, etc.” *shakes fist in general direction of AMPAS*  Okay, rant over.

All of this preamble aside, let us get to the point. Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station, despite the fact that his performance as Oscar Grant III is undoubtedly worthy,  cannot be considered a a sure bet for a nomination, by any stretch. Unless Focus Features mounts a campaign for him, possibly including a WIDE rerelease of the film, Jordan might not have enough momentum. It is only September after all, and his movie, while technically “still playing” in a handful of places, has come and gone from cinemas some time ago. (It wasn’t in that many to start with.)

The other actor that I mentioned, Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, after just two triumphant festival appearances, is now being considered a lock for a nomination. Some are going so far as to already call him the “frontrunner”.

So the name Chiwetel Ejiorfor is about to become ubiquitous and before the end of the year we’re all going to learn to pronounce it. (It’s not that hard: Chew-eh-tell Edge-ee-oh-for. In my head I call him “Chewy”. That’s awfully familiar, and he might not like it, I realize.)

And now that you have a face to the name, you can stop saying “Who?” You already know who he is. He’s been making movies, really good movies, for the last fifteen years, beginning with Amistad directed by Steven Spielberg in 1997. in addition to a thriving career in British theater, for which he’s already been awarded an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire), he’s been nominated thrice for a Golden Globe (“Tsunami: The Aftermath”, Kinky Boots and “Endgame”) twice for a British Independent Film Award (Dirty Pretty Things, Kinky Boots), and once for an Independent Spirit Award (Talk to Me), as well as a Screen Actors Guild Award. This last as part of the ensemble cast of Sir Ridley Scott’s American Gangster with that guy called Denzel and Russell Crowe.

Aside from the roles that have garnered awards attention, there has been just general acclaim for his roles in Four Brothers, Serenity, Inside Man, Children of Men, Red Belt, Salt, and lest we forget, Love, Actually. (Yes, that was him.)  So, an Oscar nomination should really be next, in the grand scheme of things.

If you need more, there’s another film that debuted last week in Toronto and also coming out this year, Half of a Yellow Sun, a drama set during the Nigerian Civil War in the late 1960s- early 1970’s “that brings together the lives of four people during the struggle to establish an independent republic” in which Ejiofor plays Odenigbo, a radical academic and Thandie Newton plays Olanna, his independent-minded sophisticate girlfriend. Half of a Yellow Sun will also be part of the lineup for the BFI London Film Festival next month.

Speaking of London, Playing on your televisions around the same time that 12 Years a Slave is released to theaters will be the BBC miniseries picked up for American audiences by Starz, “Dancing on the Edge”. Ejiofor stars as Louis Lester, the leader of a “black jazz band {that} becomes entangled in the aristocratic world of 1930s London as they seek fame and fortune.” It sports a cast that includes Matthew Goode, John Goodman, Anthony Head, Jenna Louise Coleman and the late great British comedian Mel Smith. It looks all kinds of terrific, in my humble opinion. Take a look at the trailer:

Probably the only other guaranteed nomination in this category is Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyer’s Club. Hell, that was practically inscribed in granite the first time anyone saw a picture of Matty whittled away to nothing. Now reports are coming out of Telluride and TIFF that, yes, he is just that good (though the movie itself is uneven.)

Again, I haven’t seen either of these movies yet. I’m basing my assumptions solely on the trailers, word of mouth from people who have seen the films and some understanding of how these things usually work.

If McConaughey has, in fact, delivered a bravura performance, he has too many other factors going for him not to earn at least a nomination. The accounts I’m reading say he is brilliant in the film (even if he is supposedly overshadowed at times by his supporting costar Jared Leto.). I’ve already talked a lot about the fact that he’s in the middle of an amazing career transformation and resurgence, which Academy voters will want to acknowledge. In fact, there has already been awards buzz for another McConaughey performance this year, the title role in Jeff Nichols‘ Mud. (It is quite possible that McConaughey will be up against another member of the 12 Years a Slave cast for Supporting Actor nods: Michael Fassbender.)

In Dallas Buyer’s Club, McConaughey plays a real life hero, another nugget of pure Academy gold, and then the icing on the cake, to mix my metaphors, he went through that drastic physical transformation, dropping an unhealthy amount of weight to look the part of an AIDS patient wasting away. The Academy is a sucker anytime a gorgeous actor or actor is willing to “ugly themselves up” for a role (eg: Russell Crowe in The Insider, Nicole Kidman in The Hours, Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables, Kate Winslet in The Reader). They get an almost automatic nod. Then again, maybe it’s so liberating that they give fantastic performances. Certainly those I’ve mentioned are worthy.

So that’s Jordan, Ejiofor, and McConaughey. Benedict Cumberbatch could get a slot for The Fifth Estate, and one will surely go to Tom Hanks for Captain Philips, just because…Tom Hanks. (What’s odd is that at this juncture, no one is talking about Forest Whitaker for The Butler, or rather, they’ve stopped talking about him, but that could change, too.)

This is really reading the tea leaves here, but I can feel in my bones that it’s going to come down to Ejiofor and McConaughey. This almost me somewhat sad for Matty. Doesn’t it usually happen that there’s one actor, who gives a fantastic performance to be sure, but of whom everyone says “It’s their year”, and are rewarded almost as much for toughing it out and beating the odds, being a “nice guy”, as much as for a single film? While all of that can surely be said of McConaughey, I’m looking at you Sandra Bullock – as well as you Jeff Bridges. Remember Colin Firth, who was so good and so deserving for A Single Man in 2010? Bridges swooped in and scooped his award because he made himself relevant again by single-handedly saving a slight little movie (Crazy Heart) from going straight to dvd and reminding Academy voters of his body of work and the fact that he’d never won. I’m not suggesting that Dallas Buyers Club is in the same category as Crazy Heart, but will the award go to Matty for similar reasons? (Or will it go to Bruce Dern? He’s winning raves for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska – including Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival – and he hasn’t been nominated since 1978 for Coming Home.)

Ah, but here comes the spoiler; someone who needs to be, should be, recognized for the performance of a lifetime in a once-in-a-lifetime film. How could the role of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave be anything but? Chiwetel Ejiofor knew it the moment he read the script and wasn’t sure he was prepared to take on such a life-changer (in terms of the character he’d have to inhabit as well as the notoriety it would bring). If the actor wasn’t up to the task, the movie would collapse around him and by all of the accounts coming out of just two film festivals, that is certainly not the case. The mere five minutes in this featurette would seem to bear that out as well:

Okay enough of the blind prognostications. I’ve put my crystal ball away until I’ve actually had a chance to see these films and the performances in question, at least for today and as far as the Best Actor category is concerned.. Given that most of us plebes still have months yet to wait, there’s a lot more speculation to be done.

*At least no one will have to contend with Colin Firth again this year (playing another real person, this one with crippling PTSD). The Weinstein Company has just picked up Railway Man, but contrary to earlier rumblings, won’t release it until 2014.  Harvey’s on fire up there in the Great White North. He’s successfully pocketed this one along with two more for next year: Can a Song Save Your Life from Once director John Carney starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo as well as The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, the three hour/two part romantic drama with Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, both of whom will probably figure into next year’s speculations.

Trailer or Spoiler: The Counselor with Michael Fassbender – UK Edition

MichaelFassbender, movie, The Counselor

courtesy 20th Century Fox via imdb

The latest and greatest – the international – trailer for Sir Ridley Scott’s The Counselor has just hit. We looked at the domestic version a couple of weeks ago.  This one packs about 30 seconds more footage, as well as recutting what we’ve already seen. We get a lot of information here, not to mention a better idea of why Fassbender is already being touted as a probable Oscar nominee.

As thrilled as I am to see more of this, I have to ask yet again, “How much is too much?” Has the entire game been given away? Who are the producers aiming for with this trailer? Who could they possibly be trying to reel in, that isn’t already impressed with the combination of Fassbender, Bardem, Cruz, Diaz, and Pitt all directed by Sir Ridley Scott from an original script by Cormac McCarthy?

As we know, Michael Fassbender stars as a lawyer who gets in over his head when he enters the drug trade. While this new trailer, the longest one yet,  does go deeper into the plot with a decided emphasis on character, and definitely amping up the drama, is it possible that the producers are hoping to entice fans attracted to less high-brow fare than films with this pedigree, say Jason Statham flicks like Parker or The Transporter, or perhaps The Fast and Furious franchise? I’m not suggesting that there is anything inherently wrong with those movies and certainly not with liking them, but I’m always curious about what motivates some of the marketing decisions behind a film, and this trailer looks to have been cut with an eye toward the fans of those films.

Have a look:

trailer courtesy 20th Century Fox UK via YouTube

So this time around we get more sexy times with Fassbender and Penelope Cruz. “Life is being in bed with you,” Fassbender whispers. “Everything else is just waiting.”   (The female demographic is a lock.)

Speaking of sexy, we have what appears to be a deliciously sinister Cameron Diaz,  (in what may be her best role ever in years as “Malkina”) whose character seems to enjoy playing mind games (among other things). Love the tatts.

Cut to Bardem and his wacky hair and we’re back in the action.

“You are the world you have created, and when you cease to exist, this world that you have created, will also cease to exist,”  drug kingpin Reiner warns The Counselor.

Whoa…philosophy. Not for long though.

Enter Westray, played by Brad Pitt (and his bad hair). Is he aiding and abetting or is he scamming our good Counselor? (The Counselor, by the way, is both the film’s title and Fassbender’s only moniker).

Even if we hadn’t been told, it’s obvious from the quick cut of him breaking down and the shots of an obviously freaked Cruz, that Fassbender is indeed “in way over his head” and things are going to get really ugly.

But the question still remains, does this give too much away? Almost all of the questions I asked in my last post, have been answered. Now, as indicated above, I’m extremely eager to see what Sir Ridley has in store for us, but I am a guaranteed butt in the seat.  I’m one of those they had with the cast, director and script. Period.  And although each new bit revealed is a tantalizing treat, I don’t want to see the whole thing BEFORE I buy my ticket. No matter how much I think I know, I want to watch it all unfold, in the dark, with my vat o’popcorn.

It is a shame that it appears, in order to lure those ticket buyers that they’re still working on, that producers feel that they will have to spell it all out with placards and hand puppets.  But that’s JMHO and I can always just refuse to watch the next trailer. (Yeah, right.)

The Counselor also stars Dean Norris, Rosie Perez, John Leguizamo, Natalie Dormer, and Goran Visnjic.  It opens on October 25th in the US and 15th November in the UK.

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OH! And in other Fassy news: how cool is it that Marion Cotillard will be playing Lady Macbeth opposite Michael Fassbender?  I wonder if James McAvoy (an actual Scot) is pissed. He did just end a run in the play in London’s West End, after all.  So we have The Scottish play starring a German/Irishman and a French woman, directed by Aussie  Justin Kurzel (The Snowtown Murders) from a screenplay cowritten by actor/director Todd Louiso (of Jerry Maguire fame), an American.  And yet, I’m ever hopeful.

Danny Ocean’s Grandfather Fights the Nazis

Matt Damon, George Clooney, movie, The Monuments Men

courtesy 20th Century Fox via USA Today

Way back in January 2012, Oscar nominee George Clooney, then enjoying the hoopla surrounding his performance in The Descendants, announced that his next film behind the camera would be based on the true story of a group of “soldiers” (really architects, art historians, museum curators, etc.) tasked with protecting priceless art treasures from the ravages of war and from Hitler’s grand plan to wipe out the culture of the Jewish people.  (“This sounds promising!”)

As soon as the project announcement was made, casting rumors began to circulate. Daniel Craig and Bill Murray were the first names to surface. (Craig didn’t stay, but Murray can be seen in the trailer). Cate Blanchett, with whom Clooney worked on The Good German, came next .  After that, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville all added their names to the dotted line. The last “get” was Matt Damon, who replaced Craig.  I’m sure that took some real heavy duty arm-twisting on Clooney’s part.

Based on the book “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” by Robert Edsel, the screenplay is by Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov.  The cinematography is by Phedon Papamichael who shot The Descendents and The Ides of March. The score is by gifted and prolific Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat, but Clooney’s imprimatur alone put high expectations on this movie before a single frame was lensed.

Filming began on March 6, 2013.

On March 11, I saw the first mention of the film in the same sentence as “Oscar contenders for 2014”.

In April, Sony showed some early footage at CinemaCon in Las Vegas.

Here we are in August and by now nearly everyone capable of making an awards contenders list for the upcoming season has The Monuments Men firmly entrenched in nearly every possible category including actor, director, and screenplay.  This is gonna be big! HUGE!  (Despite the fact that it’s not traveling to Venice or Toronto – or even, as of this writing, New York – for a festival).

So now we have the first trailer. I’m not quite sure what to make of it. What’s the tone Clooney’s going for? Where’s the gravitas?  I wasn’t looking for another Schindler’s List, but I wasn’t  expecting Ocean’s Eleven Takes on the Nazis. Have a look:

Is it me?The delivery of the dialogue implies one thing, the song playing under the trailer implies another (more in keeping with the subject matter).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I won’t see it, because I will. There’s too much here that promises to be a good time at the movies. Clooney being Clooney is very entertaining. When he teams up with his friends, like Matt Damon, they have great fun and it translates to the screen.  This is a very impressive cast and the opportunity to see them work together, again is too good to miss.  I guess I was just expecting “more”. More what exactly I can’t quite say yet. And why isn’t simply a “good time at the movies” enough anymore?

Then again, this is only the first trailer. Perhaps my questions will be answered before the very awards season conscious December US release date.

In a race against time, a crew of art historians and museum curators unite to recover renowned works of art stolen by Nazis before Hitler destroys them.

The Monuments Men costars a lot of fine European character actors like Diarmaid Murtagh (Vikings, Starz Camelot) and opens on December 18 in the US but not until January for the rest of the world, including the UK on the 9th.

Just my humble opinions. Feel free to put me in my place in the comments. In the meantime, check out the images courtesy USA Today: