Friday, April 18, 2014

"Oculus"



 2 / 5 

Oculus, the story of a sinister mirror, has the makings of a decent Twilight Zone episode, but is expanded to unsustainable length and padded with unremarkable, unhelpful filler.  Although it's not as bad as the teenage boys in front of us seemed to think ("Whoever wrote that movie," said one, "is an asshole"), it never fulfills the impressive potential it shows in its first third.

The movie gets off to an intriguing start, as 21-year-old Tim is released from a mental hospital for apparently killing his father 10 years earlier.  His older sister doesn't harbor any grudges -- in fact, she doesn't blame him for the murder; to her, the real culprit is the mirror that used to hang in the father's office and now has been purchased at auction.  Conveniently, she works at the auction house, and arranges to take possession of the mirror.

Here, Oculus sets up an intriguing proposition.  The movie offers itself as less of a straightforward horror story and more of a psychological thriller.  Kaylie, played by the poised and confident Karen Gillan, has researched the history of the mirror and come to the conclusion that it's no coincidence ghoulish, ghastly things have happened to whomever owns it.

The mirror has a mind of its own, and wreaks havoc on the minds of those in its presence.  Plants and animals who come too close begin to die, and so does the reason and sanity of anyone who spends too much time near it.

For a while, Oculus ratchets up the tension and de-emphasizes the gore and "jump scare" moments that fill most horror movies.  Kaylie has put together an elaborate experiment to prove that the mirror, not her brother (and not her father), caused the crimes a decade earlier.  Yet as she and her brother watch, very weird things begin to happen.

The weird stuff is fun.  Director Mike Flanagan messes around nicely with time and perception, and Oculus looks like it might deliver as a more accessible version of, say, Cube or Pi.

Then it loses its nerve.  The kids' handsome parents (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane) move quickly into Jack Torrance territory while stringy-haired ghosts pour from the mirror, and the story loses track of where it is and what it's trying to do -- the movie becomes not about the mirror but about psycho parents attacking their kids, and they chase each other around their quiet suburban home in ways we've seen too many times before, blood dripping and eyes bulging.

At 30 minutes, the story might have sustained itself on intrigue alone; at 104 minutes, there's nowhere for it to go, and the "is-it-real-or-is-it-in-their-minds" trick starts feeling like the final, disastrous season of Lost, when the writers threw anything they could up on screen to distract from the fact that they had lost sight of the story.

The lead actors, Gillan and Brenton Thwaites, certainly try hard, and do much more than scream and hide.  They're committed, sincere performers, and their honesty is at times enough to forgive some of the bigger mistakes.  They're sufficiently freaked out by what they're seeing, or not seeing, but even Gillan can scream, "It isn't real!  It's not actually happening" so many times before it grows old.

Then there's that final 10 minutes, which recalls playwright Anton Chekov's famous axiom about the gun that needs to go off is brought vividly to life.  In this case, the gun probably shouldn't have been there in the first place -- not that it doesn't go off.  It does, all right, just exactly as you imagined it would, leading Oculus to a conclusion that is preposterously unsatisfying.

There's this, though: The mirror at the center of the story clearly works.  Why else would a smart, engaging, intriguing movie become so dull, listless and predictable?  Something sucked the life out of it.

I hope that mirror is happy now.

Viewed April 18, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

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Monday, April 7, 2014

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier"


 3 / 5 

With Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Marvel movies take a step into territory previously reserved for James Bond, a distrustful and downbeat world of global politics, but with the comic-book sheen that this film series has down pat.

Possibly, I simply prefer the earlier incarnation of Captain America, the only Marvel super hero presented so far on film who didn't buy or invent his way into heroics.  Joe Johnston's 2011 film Captain America: The First Avenger gave us a World War II hero who wore the colors of the American flag and spoke in such gee-whiz good-guy tones that brought a smile to your face.

That film ended the way it had to -- not because the story dictated it, but because the Marvel Film Strategy required it: Captain America had to be dragged into the 21st century so he could join the other Avengers in a bombastic mega-hit that ended, you may recall, with the gleeful destruction of New York City.  That film rubbed me the wrong way, but I was clearly in the minority.  Few others took umbrage at seeing Manhattan reduced to rubble, so it stands to reason that in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the same thing happens to Washington, D.C.

There aren't many films with as high a faceless, merciless body count as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film targeted at 10-year-old boys that I'd seriously think twice about letting a 10-year-old boy see.  The Marvel films straddle an increasingly uncomfortable line between reality and fiction: When Nick Fury, the head of security agency S.H.I.E.L.D. refers to "New York" in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he's not talking about 9/11, but a few shots later as Captain America descend in a glass elevator and out the window, he's got a clear view of the Watergate complex.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier exists in our world, but does not want to acknowledge that.

It combines elements of a 1970s political thriller with a very modern, CGI-fueled blockbuster, and the result is often entertaining, often murky, and created with exactly the kind of anonymous polish that have become a signature of these films.  They are slick machines, existing to please the greatest number of people possible, rather than create a compelling style all their own.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier does try to mix things up a little bit by staging its action scenes in the chaotic handheld mode that has come to signify gritty reality.  It was not a surprise at all to learn that  the film was directed by two brothers, Anthony and Joe Russo, and I would wager one of them took on the more dialogue- and plot-focused scenes while the other concentrated on action, because the movie sometimes feels like two separate films mixed together.

The plot-driven elements are well-done and well-acted, especially by Chris Evans (it is, after all, a pretty thankless role) and Scarlett Johansson.  I was generally entertained by the movie's slick, assured gloss that's not unlike the political-paranoia thrillers of the 1970s.  There's this one small problem, though: This isn't a political thriller, it's a comic-book movie.  The intrigue and deception that should drive the movie seem too pat: There will be a betrayal, but it will turn out not to be an actual betrayal, and the person we imagine is protecting the hero will be revealed as someone who has been working against him the whole time.  Considering that the target audience for Captain America: The Winter Soldier has almost certainly never seen The Parallax View, The Manchurian Candidate or All the President's Men, perhaps it will feel new and fresh to them.

It does say quite a lot that moviegoers are willing to let a super hero movie drift into political territory (it even alludes to WikiLeaks at one point), perhaps because it's so much easier to imagine that the world's very real problems could be solved by a super hero or three.  Maybe that's why the movie is both graphically, sometimes disturbingly real (just think about how many people lose their lives during some of those chases) and also cartoonishly silly.

Toward the end of the movie, three massive warcraft drift into the sky from their secret hiding place below the Potomac River.  These multi-trillion-dollar technological doomsday machines have been created by an evil organization called HYDRA, which is bent on world domination, and even though they are hovering above the capital, people are going about their daily lives, the President walks around the White House, and apparently news doesn't travel nearly as fast as it does in the real world.

What's required here is a willing suspension of disbelief.  I was on board when one of the characters (known to comic book fans, no doubt, but here given nary a line of introduction) sprouts metal wings and begins to fly.  I was on board when Captain America and Black Widow stumble across exactly the place they're looking for at just the right time.  I was on board when the Winter Soldier reveals himself to be none other than -- well, if you don't know, you clearly haven't read anything about this film; I'm not a particularly zealous Marvel fan and even I knew that revelation long before taking my seat in the theater.

But I drew the line at the silliness that machines capable of killing millions of people were taking aim and no one noticed.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier wants to have it both ways, to be a comic-book movie set against a backdrop of real-world politics, and that's where it makes its biggest mistake, because we know no Democratic Congressional committee would ever have allowed these craft to be built, and no defense contractor ever could have gotten them finished.

Maybe next time, Captain America will dispense with fighting HYDRA and instead pay a visit to Capitol Hill.  Seeing him go up against John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi and the tea party would make a tremendously entertaining movie -- that's one I'd like to see.

Viewed April 7, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

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Saturday, April 5, 2014

"Bad Words"



 3.5 / 5 

Popular as it was, the humor inside TV series like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm never grabbed me.  It was sharply drawn, but also sharp-edged, and while it may have captured the angry, exasperated parts of our psyche, it never went deeper and revealed the anger and exasperation itself.

Bad Words threatens to be the cinematic equivalent of those hotbeds of hostile humor.  It's the story of Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old man who seems to have no qualms about exploiting a loophole in a national spelling bee.

The rules state that only people who have not completed eighth grade are allowed to participate.  Guy, it turns out, dropped out of school and never got his junior-high diploma.  Now, he makes his living proofreading manufacturer warranties, and he has become determined to be a contestant in the spelling bee -- and he's not going to let anyone, parent or child, stop him.

That's the set-up, and it's where one of the sardonic satires -- like Bateman's own Arrested Development -- might have stopped.  Ha-ha, here's a grown man sitting among little kids, telling them what he thinks of their linguistic achievements using words that only disappointed 40-year-old men know.

Oh, that's funny all right, especially when Guy meets one of his competitors, a loquacious 10-year-old named Chaitanya Chopra, played with wide-eyed, open-faced optimism by Rohand Chan.  Never work with dogs and children, the saying goes, but what keeps Chan from completely stealing the show is that Bateman and the script by Andrew Dodge never once treat Chan as a joke.  The joke is Guy's attitude toward the kid, but in every other way the little boy is Guy's equal.

Still, it all begs the question of why a grown-up would want to upstage a bunch of kids, and do so with such foul-mouthed, utterly inappropriate scorn.  And that's where Bad Words moves from being funny to being tremendously satisfying.

For most of its brief running time, Bad Words plays the setup like a mystery.  Rather than shying away from what could be going through Guy's head, the story pairs him with a reporter (Kathryn Hahn) who has an awkwardly sexualized crush on Guy.  When they're not having dysfunctional sex, they're sparring over Guy's tight-lipped secrecy about his ambition.

No one can figure the guy out, not the reporter, not the head of the spelling bee (a perfectly imperious Allison Janney), not the other parents, who go ballistic whenever they see Guy.  Chaitanya doesn't try to figure it out, he just sees in Guy the possibility of an age-inappropriate friendship, which is all he wants.

But no one's motivation is quite what it appears to be in Bad Words, and even as the man and the boy make a tenuous connection, there's something unnerving about it, which is exactly what the movie wants us to feel.  We don't want to see this happy little soul get crushed, and since we're not quite sure what's pushing Guy to do what he does, we're not sure anything that's happening is safe.

It is, however, funny.  Bad Words can be wildly over the top -- Guy doesn't see the kids as competition as much as obstacles standing in his path, ones that need to be picked off quickly and with as little hassle as possible.

When Bad Words finally makes its inner logic clear, director Bateman -- who also brings the film an impressive and unexpected visual style -- doesn't let it become mawkish or sentimental.  This isn't a film about finding your heart or seeking long-delayed redemption, so it keeps the laughs coming at a nice pace.  But it is a story that has some genuine drama behind it, and an actual emotional payoff.  Bad Words understands that good people can do the wrong things for the right reasons, and iffy people can do really terrible things for less-than-stellar reasons.  But there are reasons.

Bad Words finds them, presents them, and then doesn't try to preach about it.  In doing so, it introduces a couple of great screen characters in Chaitanya and Guy who are original, memorable creations.  Twenty years after Seinfeld started a trend toward heartless sarcasm that continues to this day, Bad Words is a sharp reminder that mean-spirited jokes can be funny when comics perform them -- but they're even funnier when they spring from an emotional truth, even the warped and slightly illogical truth of a man determined to beat kids at their own game.

Viewed April 5, 2014 -- Laemmle NoHo

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"Noah"



 2 / 5 

Putting aside for a moment the issue of the giant rock monsters (you may think I'm kidding about this, but I'm not), Darren Aronofsky's Noah is one crazy movie.

On one hand, it's a gigantic narrative mess.  I say this with sudden and overwhelming awareness that I have never written a movie, I have only watched them, and I have relatively little first-hand experience of what it takes to assemble a $125-million epic.  It has to take a lot of talent, and a lot of guts, and Aronofsky clearly has both.  But, boy, what is this Noah?

The wacky, mostly incoherent epic doesn't skip a beat getting off to a head-scratching start.  Following some more-or-less by-the-book on-screen titles that set us firmly in the time of Genesis, we learn that after God -- sorry, The Creator -- made humans, they started slaughtering each other, so down to Earth came the Watchers.  Yes, the Watchers.

Wait, aren't we going to see a movie about the guy who built the ark and put all the animals on it?

It's natural to get a little antsy at this point, which is 10 or 15 seconds into Noah.  It's like walking into a Broadway theater to see a musical and getting the Sylvester Stallone-John Travolta vehicle Satan's Alley, instead, which was full of garish, gold-plated gyrations and seemed to be a lot of things, but a musical wasn't one of them.  Sorry, I digress.  Noah leaves a lot of time for digressing.

A couple of minutes later, we're watching strange scaly dog-slash-dragon-type hybrid mammals crossing a rocky desert while marauding brigands kill Noah's father in front of his eyes, and you'll be forgiven if you think you accidentally wandered into the next Star Wars movie, filled with floridly conceived mythologies and mystical substances like the glowing rocks that are coveted by the bad guys in Noah.

About this time, whether you've studied the Bible or merely flipped through it, you may be trying to get a handle on exactly which part of Genesis mentions the fact that stars glowed mysteriously in the daylight way back then.

In other parts of Noah, we get a pretty awesome recreation of the Big Bang that gives Cosmos a run for its money (though I'm guessing Cosmos cost considerably less), and we're treated to the once-in-a-lifetime sight of Russell Crowe, Jenny from The Rocketeer, a pouting male model, an angry-but-horny teenager, and Hermione Granger standing on the deck of an unexpectedly rectangular-shaped ark, all wearing the same kind of stunned look that was a staple of Steven Spielberg films back in the 1980s.

One of the things that stun them is the way their ark has been built -- not, as the Bible indicates, by the sheer will of the old man named Noah, but by the aforementioned giant rock creatures, who are angels who got trapped in mud.  (Yup, trapped in mud.)  These are really tall, really powerful creatures and their presence makes you wonder if someone didn't get their Bible and their Tolkien mixed up in the research room while writing the script.

Later on in the movie, the evil king Tubal-Cain, who represents all the atheistic, selfish greed and violence that exists in this relatively small world, manages to stowaway on the ark, which is filled with who-knows-how-many-hundreds of elephants, horses, lions, bears, spiders, snakes, birds, raccoons, field mice, hoot owls, storks, ravens, dogs, cats, lemurs, chimpanzees, gorillas, remember, every type of creature … all of whom, conveniently enough, respond exactly the same way to a set of herbs that, when burned, put them into a nice, deep, sound sleep.  The sleep lasts exactly as long as it needs to, and that also keeps the CG budget in check, because moving creatures cost a lot more to animate than sleeping creatures.  For nine months (we know it's nine months -- please don't ask how, you'll figure that one out as soon as you see lovely Hermion-- er, Emma Watson's face) Tubal-Cain lays low, but on the last day, everything goes to pot, and near the climax of Noah, there are at least three full-on fight scenes happening in that ship.

There are a lot of spectacular action scenes in Noah, make no doubt.  If you came to Noah to see how the three-chapter story in the Bible might have made it to the screen, you've come to the wrong place, because this is far, far from a literal adaptation of that short story.  The Bible doesn't give much to go on in its several hundred scant words about Noah and his ark.

I have absolutely no doubt that Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel studied the Bible with enormous intensity.  They understand variations and interpretations of the Bible most of us don't even know exists.  Noah must have been an exhaustively researched film, and I believe Aronofsky made it because he wants to say something.

I'm just not clear on what that something is.  There is one stirring and visually clever moment where Noah talks about man's proclivity to murder man, and we see shadow images not just of Old Testament deaths, but flash cuts that show us soldiers dressed in Civil War uniforms, in World War I attire, in World War II and Korea garb.  It lasts about three seconds, and it's the only time Aronofsky attempts to relate his film to larger world issues.  It's a good moment, but lost in a sea (no pun) of half-formed ideas.

There are no characters in the traditional sense, no concept of what motivates or moves these people.  There's little dialogue worth remembering or quoting, there are few (some, but few) dramatic scenarios that prove memorable in any way.  The humans, pretty as they all are, become overwhelmed by the sheer CG spectacle of the thing.

But, really, digital effects could have been used to create an even more visually exciting presentation about Noah's Ark for your local science center.  Maybe Crowe could have narrated.  It would have been a visually impressive 20-minute IMAX spectacle, and it wouldn't have contained the uncomfortable mom-sister-son-father sex triangles you can't help stop thinking about.  Noah's made it clear that there are going to be just five people left on the face of the earth.  Everyone else is dead.  The Creator wanted it that way.  So, if humans are to multiply, it's all gotta start … where, exactly?  Noah knows many people will think that way, so it just avoids the issue altogether.

Crowe is decent as Noah, though he doesn't get much to do except spout the orders that apparently have come from an (unspeaking) Creator and insist that his family follow his orders.  Curiously, the film does find a few seconds to get him to sing.  And this is probably the only time you'll ever see Noah both sing and threaten newborn children with murder(you've gotta see the film if you want to know more), and one big problem Noah has is that it never, ever manages to make the singing, Creator-hearing, obsessive-compulsive, possible child-murderer version of Noah into a sympathetic figure.  You wish someone would shove him off the boat and then get on with the whole wake-the-animals-and-repopulate business, and Noah really never gives one good reason why they don't.

Noah is a giggle-inducing, head-slapping mess that nonetheless does often look beautiful and majestic.  And it's never, ever boring. I'll give it that.  It may be convoluted, bizarre and frequently non-sensical, but it's not boring.

As Bible study, Noah likely fails on every possible level.  (Noah wants to begin again on the new land, free from violence, but within the first five minutes of landing there are no fewer than four attempted murders.  Not a great start, I gotta tell ya, Mr. Noah.)  It is beyond credibility that anyone could be inspired by this movie to be a more faithful Christian or be a better person according to the Bible's entreaties.  It's just a big-budget action epic.

As movies go, it fails -- but does so so spectacularly it's really worth seeing.  You'll learn more about armored dogs, rock monsters, glowing rocks and the proper use of certain herbs to induce sleep in elephants than you ever imagined might be possible.

So, let's be fair, on some levels, Noah is a massive success: It is the most gloriously crazy, wacky, bizarre big-studio spectacle you are likely to see for a very long time.  Appreciate it while you can.  Especially the talking, glowing rock monsters.  I think I liked those more than I care to admit.

(P.S. I saw this in a Dolby Atmos theater.  Dolby Atmos certainly made it … loud.)

Viewed April 1, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

"The Grand Budapest Hotel"


 3.5 / 5 

I've got to be honest: Wes Anderson films aren't really my thing.  While I've been able to admire the stylized, controlled ironically highbrow humor of some of his movies, most of them have left me disappointed that I'm missing out on some great joke.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is every bit as calculated and droll, smugly confident, intellectually superior and visually calculated as his other films, but it's far less emotionally aloof.  Yes, the characters all speak in an arch, stylized way, as if narrating bits of their favorite novels to each other rather than actually engaging in meaningful ways -- but in The Grand Budapest Hotel that conceit is less off-putting than before and even works in the film's favor.

The movie is as light, frothy and dangerously close to falling apart as one of the sumptuous dessert creations that figure so prominently in its story.  Whimsically visual stimulation has always been one of Anderson's strong points, but in The Grand Budapest Hotel he adds an unexpected ingredient to its creation: emotion.  Real emotion.  Carefully considered emotion.  It's not overbearing, some might not even notice it, but within the last few minutes of The Grand Budapest Hotel, I had a thought that had never once occurred to me while watching one of Anderson's previous films: I'd like to see it again.

I'd like to go back and savor the many nuances I missed the first time around because my eye and my mind were so distracted by the film's overwhelming visual flair and by its breakneck speed.  The Grand Budapest Hotel reminded me at times of an Ernst Lubitsch or Howard Hawks comedy, the kinds that move so fast they careen from one scene to the next with a logic that seems more coincidental than planned.  Those movies still feel fresh 80 years after they were made because they feel lighter and freer than other films of their time, and despite the careful, downright intricate, staging of The Grand Budapest Hotel, it shares that quality.

The movie begins with a curious opening scene in which a girl visits a shrine of sorts, covered with hotel keys.  From here, The Grand Budapest Hotel travels back and forth in time, seemingly at random, finally settling down (mostly) to tell of a gloriously pink leviathan of a mountainside hotel, the kind they truly don't make anymore.  By the 1980s, it's become a much different place, taken over by a communist state and turned into a barely inhabited, bleak-looking place.  But when it was in its prime -- oh!  There never was such a place!

And there never was such a man as its concierge, M. Gustave, the randy, perfumed, fey little lothario who dedicates his life to the operation.  He's the sort of man who believes the vision and success of the hotel is a direct result of his own passion and dedication.  For all of his ridiculous quirks (including bedding all of the wealthy septua- and octogenarian widows who frequent the hotel -- his explanation for preferring their sexual company is hilarious), M. Gustave is the kind of man the world needs more of today, and Anderson clearly admires him: He has ambition but he has morals; he epitomizes the grandeur of the hotel and of the time.

Zero (Tony Revolori) is the hotel's teenage lobby boy, who quickly becomes M. Gustave's personal valet, learning the value and supreme importance of discretion and service.

Gustave's latest eighty-something lover, though, dies a suspicious death and leaves a priceless painting to M. Gustave, inciting the wrath of her violent, vengeful family.  Most of the movie is a loopy chase to keep the bad guys away from the painting, but there's much, much more than that.

It would be impossible to convey most of the plot: There is downhill skiing, a sled on a ski-jump, a prison breakout, a Nazi-style invasion of Central Europe, an auspicious meeting in a thermal bath, a girl with a birthmark that looks like Mexico … none of it makes sense in the moment or afterward, yet it all works perfectly well together.  Anderson doesn't linger over formalities like maintaining narrative sense.  What matters here is the kinetic movement and the commitment of the actors.  On those counts, The Grand Budapest Hotel never falters.

It's a living cartoon: zany, non-sensical, genuinely funny and bizarre -- and then comes the unexpected grace note: True, genuine emotion.  Anderson makes it clear that the movie is really a wistful tribute to the kind of day that has long gone by (if it ever really existed), when men wore tuxedoes to hotels, when women wore furs and hats and stood up straight, when glamour came not from being famous or even having money, but from having elegance and charm.  The Grand Budapest Hotel is a love note to the kind of beauty and grace that simply don't exist anymore, and the last few shots bring this all home beautifully -- along with a quite unexpected last touch to remind us that, above all, this is a story, a story that may or may not have happened … but that we'd like to believe did.

We all harbor notions that the time we're living in is graceless, inelegant, loud, brash, disconnected and changing too fast.  That was as true in 1914 as it is in 2014 -- there comes a point at which the past needs to cede the thing of youth and allow the future to come barging in, crass and incomplete and very often inconsiderate of all that came before.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a fast, fun, funny, charming, silly, borderline bizarre, stylized, visually inspired memento that captures a past filled with beauty, grace, charm and just as much insanity as we have today.  I loved the last shots, which serve as reminders of how much we long for the times we've only read about.

In a fast, goofy way, The Grand Budapest Hotel takes some of the best of those times and captures them in time.  If you're not an Anderson fan, you may still not get it, but even if that's you, give The Grand Budapest Hotel a try; it's the closest he's come to bringing his perspective of the world to the screen in a way others can really understand -- it's a warped perspective, perhaps, but also a loving, gentle and ultimately quite lovely one.

Viewed March 15, 2014 - ArcLight Hollywood 

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Saturday, March 1, 2014

Oscar Guesses


Come back in 24 hours to see how I've fared.

Here's how I did.  Out of 24 categories, I predicted 19 correctly -- a not-too-shabby 79% accuracy rate.

(For what it's worth, I'm traditionally not particularly good at this, because I let my preferences and personal favorites get in the way.)

Best Picture
Gravity 12 Years a Slave

Best Director
Alfonso CuarĂ³n, Gravity

Best Actor
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Supporting Actor
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyer's Club

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave

Best Original Screenplay
Her

Best Adapted Screenplay
12 Years a Slave

Best Animated Feature Film
Frozen

Best Foreign Film
The Great Beauty (Italy)

Best Original Song
"Let It Go" from Frozen

Best Original Score
Steven Price, Gravity

Best Costume Design
American Hustle The Great Gatsby

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Dallas Buyers Club

Best Sound Editing
Gravity

Best Sound Mixing
Gravity

Best Cinematography
Gravity

Best Production Design
The Great Gatsby

Best Film Editing*
Gravity

Best Visual Effects
Gravity

Best Documentary Feature
20 Feet from Stardom

Best Documentary Short Subject
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life

Best Short Film (Animated)
Get a Horse! Mr. Hublot

Best Short Film (Live Action)
Helium

*Isn't it time they change the name of this category, since there's virtually no editing of film happening anymore?

Friday, February 28, 2014

Catching Up: "12 Years a Slave"


 4.5 / 5 

Is 12 Years a Slave a great movie?  Yes.

It has the unfortunate reputation of a film that's either too difficult to sit through for its subject matter or its inherent violence.  It has been given the too-polished air of an elitist, liberal-minded art film that is "good for you" but not necessarily a good movie.

I'm guilty of falling into the trap of believing those things.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences hasn't made it easy to be engrossed in the Oscars by allowing up to 10 films to be nominated as Best Picture -- most Americans don't see half that number of movies in a theater each year.  But 12 Years a Slave deserves to be one of them.

It's not "deserving" in the sense of being an emotionally wrenching view of a long, shameful chapter of American history.  It's not "deserving" because it's a prestige film with big-name actors being noble.  It's deserving because it's a mesmerizing story told wonderfully, a movie that uses the language of cinema in ways I thought filmmakers had forgotten.

Director Steve McQueen knows when to keep his camera, his actors and his story still -- and when to get them moving.  He grasps the beauty of the film's Southern U.S. settings, and the painful irony of such an ugly story taking place in such beautiful locations.

The experience of slavery can't possibly be told in a single film.  No movie could capture the pain and anguish that human beings experienced while being treated as property, being abused and tortured, being spat upon and lashed, being denied humanity.

12 Years a Slave doesn't pretend to be the definitive film about slavery, abolition or the Civil War.  It tells instead a specific story.  And while that was exactly the problem I had with Steven Spielberg's Lincoln -- it was just too laser focused on one moment in time -- 12 Years a Slave benefits greatly from its focus on one man's experience.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northrup, a real man whose astonishing story begins when he is duped  by slave traders and kidnapped from his New York home.  Ejiofor creates a rich, fully realized character, brings us into Northrup's mind and emotional turmoil.  If the mark of a truly great performance is that you forget you're watching an actor you've seen dozens of times in other roles, Ejiofor doesn't simply hit the mark -- he amazes.

Other actors, especially Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, a slave Northrup meets on a large plantation owned by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), known for his reputation as a "n---er breaker."  Fassbender, though engrossing, has less of a rounded character to play: His plantation owner is just a bad, bad guy.  He's been nominated for an Oscar for his performance, but is less nuanced in his role than either Benedict Cumberbatch (as Northrup's original owner) and Brad Pitt (as a Canadian who opposes slavery) -- but in general, the plantation owners and white men are of substantially less interest to McQueen, screenwriter John Ridley and the film itself, which is as it should be.

This isn't a story about a black man rescued by white guys.  It's a story about how a human being survives the unsurvivable, about how intelligence, hope and a resolute refusal to give in to despair can save the soul.  Its meaning goes beyond slavery -- but for those of us who were primarily raised on Gone With the Wind, Song of the South, Roots and The Color Purple, the unflinching presentation of slavery that McQueen provides is indeed eye-opening.

But, again, the film isn't meant to be a simple damnation of slavery -- it's meant to be a damnation of anyone who would deny basic rights to other human beings, and a damnation of an America that allowed such suffering.  12 Years a Slave only briefly addresses abolitionism, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War and the end of slavery -- and never directly addresses lingering, festering discrimination and anti-black views that still exist in many parts of the country.

But it doesn't need to -- and, besides, it does something better: It makes viewers reflect on what they might already know, it drives an interest in learning more about what happened after the plot of 12 Years a Slave ends, it rends the heart and expands the mind.

It also keeps the audience entirely engrossed throughout -- this is a story that propels itself along effortlessly, beautifully, masterfully.  McQueen is a rare director, one who composes a scene within the frame of the camera, rather than covering shots with dozens of angles and hoping to edit all the shots together to make sense.  12 Years a Slave is a gloriously traditional film in that way -- one that's been criticized for being "slow" because of it.  But it's not; it's perfectly paced, requiring the attention of viewers and their work to look at the entire screen and examine what's happening in a shot -- like a multi-layered novel, McQueen expects you to do a little work … but even if you don't, it's still a fine, fine film.

As one character says, "It's an amazing story, and I mean that in no good way."  But I do.  It's an amazing story.  It's engrossing, it's compelling, it's infuriating and nerve-wracking, it's shocking and yet still, in its way, beautiful.  12 Years a Slave certainly is one of the best movies of the year, not because it "deserves" to be honored, but just because, well, it is.  12 Years a Slave is indeed one of the great movies of 2013.

Viewed Feb. 28, 2014 -- On DVD