Author Archives: thethirdrevelation

Oh Dear: The 89th Academy Awards; or, We All Pee the Same Color

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The Oscars come but once a year.  Who shall, shalln’t, and shouldn’t win that sweet, sweet Oscar gold?   It’s time to put some shrimp on ice, grab a crisp porter ale, and watch the thrills, shills, probably a La La Land medley, and big Jim Kimmel tell us a consoling thing or two about Dan Trimp!  Buckle up your britches, sweet ones!

To the lists!!

(Some spoilers ahead)

Finest Direction, in a Filmic Sense

5. Melly Gibbons

From Metacritic:

TrevorsView  Jan 13, 2017

This is what Spider-Man should have been all this time. Here is what Ben Affleck should have done with Batman. Here is a true hero that outshines anyone wearing a colorful, shiny million dollar suit. In fact, all he has to suit him up and protect him from death is the holy word of God. He won’t even dream of laying either an eye or a finger on a rifle. If today’s superheroes can’t help us through gun control, then this real-life hero of Hacksaw Ridge can.

Gib.  You’ve won the game.  You’re a gibbon now.

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4. Denis Villeneuve

Other than the noisome dead girl plot device there’s nothing too unethical going on here, and I applaud anyone trying out something like a cool sci-fi that thinks about how your language informs your thought processes.  It’s just such a fumble on the narrative logic and character interaction fronts.  Not much feels intuitive.

3. Damien Chazelle

Some good production design and cinematography.  I’m just in the camp that would have preferred some more song and dance. Either that or a more layered story.  And perhaps it was a fool’s errand to expect the pace and specificity that made Whiplash what it was to have been in La La’s DNA.  Still, Simmons’ presence in both films underpins my theory that they take place in the same universe, wherein Simmons is some sort of Two-Face like villain that alternately goes around dumbing down and heightening jazz to its furthest extremes.

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2. Kenneth Lonergan

I agree with everyone who liked the subtle black comedy elements and clever little touches that make Manchester breathe with authenticity.  I also agree that there’s something of a built in ceiling with how closely it hews to its one terrible event informing just about everything with regards to Affleck’s lead role.  But that’s more of a feature than a bug in a project that works at a high level at what it wants to do.

1. Barry Jenkins

There’s always something of a pendulum push-back effect when a critical darling like Moonlight is so characterized by the prominence of its cinematography (that critic’s delight) and a camp decries it as critic bait.  Sometimes they’re right.  When they’re right, it’s often because the film lacks clarity or panders to a fault.  I don’t think either is the case here, this is potent human stuff.  One note: the chair that broke the bully’s back really shatters pro-wrestling style.  We need better chairs, DeVos.

Shall Prevail: Barry Jenkins(!)

The idea seems to be that Moonlight is the only real dark horse to the La La Land Juggernaut, so let’s go out on a limb and say this year they split Director and Picture honors, thus spreading the wealth.  But yeah, probably Chazelle.

 

Most Supportive Man

5. Dev Patel

Very standard role in a very typical awards season biopic, Patel is an ol’ hunk emoting a great deal, just what the doctor ordered.  It’s just a tough film to love.  As with Viola Davis, hard to tell how this ends up in the supporting category.  He’s on screen for almost all of his half of the two hour running time.  And that…probably means they should’ve branched out a little.

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4. Lucas Hedges

I don’t know if the film sets up the role to be all that dynamic, with a lot filmed over his or Affleck’s shoulders, or outside the car as they bicker in the car.  Definitely convinces as a young man right at the center of mourning and puberty, leaves nothing wanted.  Would like to know what position he plays on the hockey team. He seems like a defenceman.

3. Mahershala Ali

Very memorable in a small role, and in a very dialogue-light film, delivers the best lines.  Would like to have seen some more of him, but his absence after the first act is deliberate, any more and Moonlight is a very different film.

2. Jeff Bridges

He’s somewhere on the spectrum of witty disaffection he’s been playing over and over now, and that mode may be wearing a little thin, but I for one am still having fun.  It’s a shame his half of High Water’s narrative is the more rote, but he does sell the pivot from comedian to revenge seeker well.  It’s a shame his story doesn’t seem to quite contribute to the film’s more interesting takeaways at first glance, but then again, the politics of revenge is not a bad way of putting what the film seems to be thinking about.

1. Michael Shannon

A Juggernautish favorite and a true champion in general, Shannon brings his effortless charisma and a Cohen Bros.-ian jolt of dark humor to the project.  He starts off seemingly untrustworthy, dismissive and antagonistic, only to inevitably reveal himself as a fierce knight of pulpy justice.  He’s exceedingly well-cast.  It’s a real shame Nocturnal Animals ends on an ill-advised, reductive twist.

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Shall Prevail: Mahershala Ali

 

Supportive Women in Cinema

5. Nicole Kidman

No complaints, she’s just not given much to do.

4. Octavia Spencer

Hidden Figures has as charismatic a cast as you could ask for.  Taraji Henderson, Janelle Monae and Kevin Costner are all pretty good too. I think this nomination kind of works as one for the entire team.  Teamwork is what it’s about.

3. Michelle Williams

Strong work in a small role, very effectively simulates the process of crying while trying to communicate in words that just want to jumble out at random; the panic and despair as an inevitable parting inevitably arrives.  I think it’s shrewd that we see her so little throughout the film before, makes that moment more powerful.

2. Naomie Harris

Delivers in a big way on the volatility front, including a scene that seems to want to evoke a panic attack on the part of the protagonist, and boy does she make a catalyst.  As Moonlight is set up as to depict the protagonist’s mindspace, she’s not allowed to reveal a ton of unexpected layers.  She’s remote, but she’s supposed to be because that’s how her son feels about her.

1. Viola Davis

Where the film is mostly shot in a minimal way evocative of the stage, which can sometimes leave actors to struggle when they’re not speaking or directly engaged by who is, does a really impressive job communicating without words.  And when she is speaking, look out.  Classically done.

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Shall Prevail: Viola Davis

 

Best Baby Boy

*Viggo Mortensen

Role unseen as of today.  The light of thethirdrevelation’s life reports, however, that’s he’s fine, just doesn’t have much material worth elevating to Oscar gold realms.

4. Ryan Gosling

Not to knock, but one wonders with both him and Stone how the whole project may have resonated differently with lesser known actors as Hollywood unknowns.  Narratively, I never got what turned Stone’s Mia on to Seb given the Debbie Downer routine she receives, short fusing the whole romance.  Whether that’s on the director or the actor is anyone’s guess.

3. Andrew Garfield

For what it’s worth, I did appreciate Garfield in Hacksaw, he certainly exudes what he’s asked to.  Not kidding, Spider-man had to be a good experience to be able to draw from for the hero’s tale.  I would say let’s hope Hollywood gets its ‘based on true events’ obsession out of its system, but that’s probably a pipe dream.

2. Denzel Washington

You can tell he’s spent time playing the character, I can only imagine seeing him live.  Perhaps the biggest feat is his ability to leave you any sympathy for the character despite allowing himself so little in the performance to elicit it.

1. Casey Affleck

He’s seems a little one note but that’s exactly the idea: he’s a man left hiding in a note. He’s a tough onion to peel, yet peel he does.  Tears ensue.  For those new to the actor, do yourself a favor and check out the excellent and little seen The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  Take a wild guess who Affleck plays.

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Shall Prevail: Denzel Washington

Which is also a great choice.

 

Queen of the Castle!

5. Natalie Portman

For someone perhaps under-educated as to the Kennedy family and the finer details surrounding the assassination, Jackie came off at times a touch hollow, perhaps geared toward the expert?  Portman’s shock, seething bitterness and despair register impressively, but I found myself regularly wondering if I was lacking context knowledge to understand layers of meaning behind why she emphasizes or chooses certain turns of phrase just so, leaving the screenplay feeling scattered as often as arch, especially when ruminating on legacy.  As far as simulation, which seems to be our raison d’être, the remake of the 1962 White House tour and production design generally is fairly captivating, though Portman’s approximation of Jackie’s accent and manner feels a little over-played.

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4. Emma Stone

Stone has one of the most expressive faces in Hollywood and it’s certainly on display here.  She’s deceptively great with the audition line readings, easily my favorite part of the film: some seem perfectly fine, some are a just little flat so you can see why casting would pass, and some are delightfully clunky.

3. Meryl Streep Sweet Sheep

I went into Florence Foster Jenkins with little knowledge of the woman or her singing.  The key bit of Streep’s performance is spent caterwauling incredibly badly, and for the uninitiated, it sounds impossibly over the top, and not as singularly hilarious as her audiences seem to find it (she couldn’t have been that bad).  Then, the film ends with a brief snippet of the real Jenkins’ singing and… we really would have been well served with that as a prologue because it turns out she was exactly that bad, and Streep is basically nailing it.

If one can ignore that the film portrays Jenkins as more oblivious than she may have been for effect, I actually enjoyed it.  Before things end with an inevitable melodramatic cudgeling, there’s a lot of razor sharp comic timing, along with a good balance of silly and sweet.  It mostly earns its warmness, and Streep is a treat.  Hugh Grant is also very good, resembling thirdrevelation favorite Patrick McGoohan in feature, regal posture and clipped intonation.

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2. Ruth Negga

Loving may be one of the most underappreciated films of the year, at least, coming from a fan of Juggernautish favorite director Jeff Nichols.  It’s fascinating how motifs from earlier Nichols films–here the paranoia is finally 100% clearly justified–naturally fit this story.  Negga is working with a high degree of difficulty, hitting home completely without the benefit of anything in the way of showcase moments.  She doesn’t need them.

1. Isabelle Huppert

I don’t speak a lick of French and this is a dialogue-heavy film so I’m limited in my appraisal, but even so, Huppert  is mesmerizing while owning the strange core of a Verhoeven project that seems to want to subvert every trope it can imagine and then double back again (maybe fecklessly at times).  None of it works if Huppert doesn’t command both such authentic and variously affected beats.  I’m not sure if any specific light bulb went on for me as far as agency, sex, aging, role playing, or any of the myriad themes at play in Elle, but that seems to be by design, for worse or better.  While I’m not sure how I feel about the film at the end of the day, Huppert is damn engaging.

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Shall Prevail: Emma Stone

 

Finest Picture, for All Mankind

For this section, we’re employing the first annual On Cinema At the Cinema style rating system, for your enjoyment and an enriched context, and so you know what to watch and what to skip.  All are champions of Oscar glory, they were nominated for Best Picture were they not?  It’s a 1 to 5 scale.

9. Lion — Five bags of Popcorn, and maybe an Oscar, I think that’s the idea

The less known about it going in the better, as Weinstein co.’s true-story biopic comes with a ceiling on its dramatic stakes to begin with. Half Calcutta tourist flick about a lost little boy in an incredibly dangerous situation that seems hellbent on always pivoting away from implying real peril as quickly as possible, half gauzy award performance showcase, it at least benefits from not dealing with a major figure and the associated mangling of history (see The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, The King’s Speech, etc).

Like with so many biopics, it’s a shame there isn’t time to characterize anyone much beyond their immediate relation to Brierley’s central conflict. His girlfriend and adoptive family never suggest much of a life beyond, so their incredibly steadfast support feels neither here nor there.  The same lack of context goes for Bierley’s specific conflict—what’s he like when he’s not Googling his birthplace, nuzzling post coitus, or brooding (“We swan about in our privileged lives!!”)?  Does he have a dog?  A little…chow or something?

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8. Hacksaw; or, Dip and a Ridged Chip — Five bags of Popcorn, and maybe a Bible–you forgot yours

Hacksaw Ridge just scans as too silly to gain any dramatic traction, coming off as propaganda, at least to the uninitiated.  I always appreciate a reluctant warrior story and a man sticking to his guns, so to speak.  Desmond Doss’ is a story worth knowing.  But this is rote and perfunctory to a surreal degree, kind of a time capsule from the conservative 50’s.  The stalker romance, the way he forgets his bible (of course he did!) just so.  Such a wonderful backlit boy.  The squad members who really terrorized Dodd reduced to lovable scamps.  The battles are well done in a sense, and the gore is appreciated insofar as, if you’re going to depict war, the more realism the better.  But this is consistently staged as a heart-pumping action flick: the two week campaign condensed into two days, the stormtrooper enemies that can’t hit our hero as he’s portrayed leaping from man to man just yards away, always at the nick of time, the force-fielded edge of the ridge where he keeps doing his pulley thing.  We seem to be closer to playing army guys than a Saving Private Ryan, which earned its melodrama more convincingly through the unflinching-take-on-war idea.  Garfield gives a strong performance for what it’s worth, he certainly exudes what was asked.

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7. Arrival — Five Bags of Popcorn, and maybe a Copy of David Bowie’s 1969 Album David Bowie, Featuring “Space Oddity”

Arrival is definitely to be applauded for the macro message on cooperation, and it tries to get there with some slick sci-fi imagery and the concept of linguistic relativity: the idea that language and thought processes influence one another, which is beautiful and true.  It’s gotten a lot of praise for being smart, and it is in a sense, but a disinterest in character building, along with multiple ticking-time-bomb scenarios there just to inject a sense of stakes that never feel credible, dulls things down.  Like Interstellar, another notably ‘smart’ sci-fi, it seems to want to turn you on to science (great!) but doesn’t trust the audience to follow along without an emotional gut wrenching it doesn’t really need.  If the dead little girl for the sake of pathos doesn’t ruffle you, fair enough, but at least a set up where the alien language grants Adams, maybe, keen foresight, or a new perspective on the situation, rather than full on reverse total recall would be welcome.  Arrival was adapted from a short story “Story of Your Life” and everything likely comes across more smoothly on the page, where I understand the action movie aspects are absent.  Hey,  at least now we know why McConaughey’s hero is himself five years in the future.

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6. Hidden Figures — Five bags of Popcorn, and maybe enough fuel for the delta-V we need for re-entry burn

Four(!) years after Alfonso Cauron’s Gravity taught us to keep our heads down, we have a pro-space movie!  We could have trimmed a scene or two, but a solid ensemble cast and enough attention-capturing lines–“At NASA we all pee the same color”—leaves us in a stable orbit.  At $145m domestic, Hidden Figures was the top grossing film of 2016 that wasn’t a tentpole/franchise or animated sing-fest designed to become one.  Not incidentally, it’s also a standard-bearer for a year that saw a record number of top 100 films with female leads.

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5. La La Land — Five bags of Popcorn, and a big ol’ dumptruck, for all that Oscar gold

One narrative on La La Land is that it’s largely a setup to quite a payoff of an emotional punch at the end, and where you stand will depend on whether that punch gets through to you.  Well, it didn’t, but I’m not a hater.  From production stills and Chazelle’s excellent Whiplash I came in figuring that if nothing else this would have a very specific voice to it, one that may or may not strike a personal chord (and please, no cheap nostalgia) but something clear.  It turns out any nostalgia going on is nicely embedded in the production design and the story’s nothing if not direct.  Any really harsh criticism of Stone and Gosling’s song and dance routines is off base—what do you expect, Danny Kaye?—but for a musical that’s in part a love letter to musicals (right?) it’s a little short on songs.  So we just don’t have many opportunities for “wow” moments, say, on the level of Anne Hathaway’s show stopper from Les Mis or even Channing Tatum’s elaborate dance sequence in Hail, Ceasar! this year.  The romance didn’t do much for me, largely as we’re never really shown why Mia responds to Seb’s rude Debbie Downer in the first place, but I do appreciate the theme of keeping alive the spirit of worthwhile things, and how difficult that is.

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4. Fences– Five bags of Popcorn, and maybe a copy of Blue Oyster Cult’s Agents of Fortune album, featuring “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”

I’m no great student of the stage, but made comment while watching Fences that I hate how critics seem to knock stage to screen adaptations for leaving things stagey, as if it’s a sin in and of itself.  That can be a tool too, guys.  A less inside-out approach could have made some of the monologues sound a bit less like, well, monologues, but a monologue once in a while isn’t so bad. Washington and Davis are both superlative.  The depiction of the disabled brother comes off as a product of the 50’s in more ways than one, though, kind of dated at best and a clunky narrative contrivance at worst.  The arc with the football-playing son is surprisingly moving.

Broadway Opening Night Celebration For "Fences"

 

3. Moonlight — Five bags of Popcorn, and maybe a chrome grill, because I’m honestly still not sure how they work

Probably the best cinematography and command of texture and mood of the set, sometimes bringing Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) to mind without the freaky-cosmic.  Moonlight is effectively restrained in its storytelling, and if the surreal and minimalist tendencies are a little showy, I still found it pretty sumptuous, especially with it’s knack for being quiet.  This is a story about a quiet soul.   It may be limited by the thee part structure, especially where a hell of a lot happens unseen between the second and third act.  Just a bit more connective tissue there may have gone a way toward helping the emotional payoff land, but, then again, the lack of it lends the last sequence a unique sort of mysteriousness.

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2. Manchester by the Sea — Five bags of Popcorn, and maybe a funeral pyre like they used in Medieval times

Putting a ton of pressure on Affleck, Manchester comes off even more singularly about its particular damaged protagonist than Moonlight, which feels like it speaks to more universal feelings and experiences.  Idiosyncrasy is the name of the game here, and Affleck comes through quite impressively, even if the persona he creates is so interior as to be perhaps not as indelible as some of the classic depictions of damaged people.  Your mileage may vary.  As abashfulharvestman pointed out to me, Manchester may be limited by hewing so closely to its “terrible thing fulcrum”; at the least, I’d like to have seen the characters explored from some more inconspicuous life events.  Still, excellent screenplay in its way, and I was torn between Affleck and Washington for best baby boy.

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1. Hell or High Water  — Five bags of Popcorn, and maybe a ticket to Westworld, because I keep having this dream I can’t wake up from and I’m not sure if I did something wrong

OK, in the end, I don’t quite know where to put Hell or High Water.  I’ll say this: it’s always nice to put something at the end of your list that strikes a personal chord, presenting something you noticed that maybe not everyone did.  Since we’ve been making these should-wins, Her struck that chord for me in 2013;  Whiplash, and even Amour almost did, Argo maybe not so much.

The revenge on the Banks angle is admittedly blunt as far as allegory, to start.  And I don’t know if the characters come to life perfectly: Pine is empathetic if not entirely convincing; Foster is exciting but maybe overacting; Bridges is very charming, but that particular mode of his is getting a bit predictable.  But the visceral takeaway for me, and I think it’s entirely purposeful, is the local civilians’ (who I think we’re to understand are also bank victims) universal and immediate eagerness to engage in high-holy ballistics.  To discharge their holy weapons, dispensing justice.  In this otherwise almost oppressively sparse, deserted, sleepy environment, they’ve been itching for it, for that posse. To be sure, this is in response to a bank robbery, with the pointing of loaded guns at people, so there’s a measure of balance here, some justification.  We’re not exactly demonizing.

Who’s being robbed?  Everybody?  So, some are robbing, and some are shooting robbers.  And even the robbers, for all we know, OK, probably, are voting for their banks, and their station, because at the end of the day, violence and mayhem is what we respond to and use.  I need to do a rewatch, but I believe the civilian shoots first in the botched bank job, not the cop or the robber.  The story of the cop partners may not tie into that theme as well as it could, but on the other end, it also ends up being a story about where and why you ought to point your gun.

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Shall Prevail: La La Land


2015 Oscars: If I Get All the Way Out There and I Find that You’ve Been Lying to Me…I’m Going to Find You, and I’m Going to Take More than My Money Back. Is that Alright With You?

Best of all pictures:

  1. The Theory of Everything

What a real sweet treat, and a feat. Science: what a treat. What a timeless story of love, and a privilege to know. Sweet? Check. A treat? Check. This is a film you want to watch with the finest shrimp available to your community. One for the annals, and for the children as well. It made me look at the sky and think, “wow.” The ending kind of reminded me of, if you can remember, how on a VHS tape you would have to rewind it to watch it again, and you could actually watch the film in reverse if you left the TV on–kind of like going back in time. It’s like you were going through time. And sometimes you would pause it in the middle and it would kind of stop flickering between frames and you’d get a picture of a character about to blink and it would almost look like they were winking at you, like they knew you were there; like you were peeling back the veil of the universe to see the unthinkable machinery. It was really scary, kind of like a horror that nobody else would ever see.

  1. American Sniper

Brad the dad Cooper has been on the awards circuit explaining that American Sniper is about the neglect returning vets face. “We looked at hopefully igniting attention about the lack of care that goes to vets. Discussion that has nothing to do with vets or what we did or did not do, every conversation in those terms is moving farther and farther from what our soldiers go through, and the fact that 22 veterans commit suicide each day.” (NYT)

We’ve been swindled, Coop. We’ve been swindled. Swindled like babes left out on the driveway. Left out in the fallow field, for ‘coons to inspect. It was a wholesale job.

Such a film may have depicted:

  • A trip to a VA that has been constantly in a state of outright scandal due to mismanagement, resulting in thousands of veterans being wrongly denied benefits, having benefits delayed unduly, or being put through inordinate amounts of duress to claim them.
  • A spousal or parenting relationship that was affected more deeply and lastingly by tours of duty abroad than Kyle’s, wherein his wife–who is allowed to do nothing, nothing expect nag him for his absence the entire film–resolves the thread with the transcendental showstopper gush, “you are a wonderful husband, and you are a wonderful father.” Full stop.
  • A treatment of Kyle’s murder at the hand of Eddie Routh, a fellow PTSD sufferer and veteran featuring something more than a random demonic glare from said wife towards the actor portraying him, a hasty title card, and a congratulatory funeral montage.
  • A vet having difficulty finding his or her feet on returning to the U.S. in large part due to a lack of an internal or external training program that by and large provides veterans decent odds at gainful, stable employment after their service.

For a more fine-toothed look at the lack of care that goes to vets, see… Starship TroopersVideodrome? Eastwood is credited as director, and is not nominated for best directing ostensibly because the film was developed by Steve Spielberg with Cooper cast in the main role and over six months of principal photography having been shot before Spielberg bowed out due to creative differences. It shows in the tonal oddities. I have to imagine a significant set of spouses and families of veterans cringe at the depiction of Kyle’s wife as a creature whose seemingly only function in the world is to badger? The full reintegration into the family, especially for soldiers seeing extensive combat, deserving of so little screen time? Does Kyle himself depict things so simply in his book? The scene where Kyle successfully flirts with the wife by pointing a gun at her in front of toddlers? Is it possible Eastwood isn’t throwing us a curveball here? At any rate, two coworkers have, to date–unsolicited–imparted to me that American Sniper is in no uncertain terms the best film ever. But where was Tom Cruise? Get Tom Cruise in there.

  1. The Imitation Game

Biopic three: engage. Prestige piece B, 2015. Yet another biopic that would have been exponentially more interesting had it aimed for a remotely balanced portrait of the subject’s life. I was actually somewhat surprised they spared even a single scene directly addressing Turing’s subjection to chemical castration. Instead we focus on the faux romance and a delightful genius complex. “Sometimes it’s the people no one expects anything from who do the things no one expects”.

So. I continue to be a net fan of Cumberbatch, and the genius shtick is perfect for the solid BBC Sherlock series, but here without the implied campiness afforded by the TV format it just comes off as perfunctory. Threads of Turing’s landmark work on computers, minds and identity (do check out Turing’s work, it’s well written and impressively accessible given the ideas he’s working with) are suggested, but never really picked up. There is a much better film to be made of Turing’s work and legacy, too bad it’s not allowed to live here. Weinstein’s “Honor the Man.  Honor the film.” plea for awards recognition is the definition of beyond the pale.

  1. Boyhood

Was initially skeptical of the 12-year timespan, expecting it to be leaned upon overmuch so as to come off as a melodramatic gimmick.  Instead, I was surprised to see the film actually holds out against that pitfall until the last half hour or so. Mostly, things spool out organically, allowing the viewer to supply a lot of subtext; if anything, the passage of time is oddly unremarkable. I found myself appreciating the scene where the protagonist gets his head shaved, as the film had theretofore been using drastic hairstyle changes to accentuate the passage of time to the point where they started to become characters in and of themselves. The film is at its best when it’s comfortable being about ‘familyhood’ beyond ‘boyhood’, with some entertaining moments on that front especially in the early to middle stages. Finally succumbs to needing to explain/justify itself more and more towards the end as later teenage hangout scenes begin to feel wooden; boy begins to ask father “what’s the point of everything”; we begin to see the conversations I suspect parents have with their children in their heads and wish their children would solicit, rather than interactions that really happen. The last scene is a real thud as we’re offered a fuzzy glorification of “moments”: ah, yes, that’s what you’ve been providing us, you miracle of film you; thank you for that, thank you. The best film here tells the story of this boy’s boyhood, instead of flailing at a universal boyhood, particularly the implication that it is a suburban one.

  1. Birdman

Abashfulharvestman and I discussed Birdman at length. 

  1. The Grand Budapest Hotel

I’m not generally a big Anderson fan—his films too often consist of weak or excessively twee stories that seemingly exist as vehicles for the signature, highly specific to the point of high comedy motifs and aesthetics. I haven’t been fully into one since 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums, which was early enough in the catalog that the fashion was fresh. This is a different film than Tenenbaums, attempting more to evoke universal sentiments of guilt, the putting on of airs, and the elasticity of memories, whereas Tenenbaums dove into idiosyncratic characters with very rich and specific inner lives.  The latter may be a more fertile ground for Anderson’s sensibilities, generally, but Fienes as our comedic lead and Tony Revolori as his straight man foil make a very strong central pair, seemingly agents in Anderson’s world rather than affectations of it. The wide supporting cast is hit or miss–Adrien Brody is miscast and Bill Murray’s appearance along with other Anderson-regulars’ cameos are tedious boxes checked. Jude Law, Tilda Swinton and Jeff Goldblum fare much better.

  1. Selma

The only film of the set that got me emotionally choked up. The one biopic that perhaps was jostled from the flaming wreckage of the Doomed Biopic Mothership on atmospheric re-entry. Remarkably little history revision done for the sake of convenience or entertainment (there is some), and the flourishes there tend to constructively elucidate patterns and situations. I’m largely in agreement with Mark Harris’ good piece on it, and with respect to the lack of attention it’s receiving would emphasize simply that 12 Years’ deserving accolades last year have sapped the industry’s puny reserves of focus with respect to ugly pasts, black disenfranchisement especially. This is a year for propaganda, for revision.

I like that Selma tries to bring in lesser-publicized factions of various, often competing, civil rights groups of the time, but the actual logistics of things are rendered a little bit unclear for those of us who aren’t experts. Oyelowo deserved a Best Actor nom over any of Cooper, Cumberbatch, or Redmayne.

  1. Whiplash

This is a real throwback, replete with physical performances, scenery chewing, and the old *setting the table/working hard, hitting adversity hard, redemption* three-act arc. Does an exemplary job at conveying with efficiency, such as showing the protagonists’ background and giving a good sense of his dating life without a single note beyond what’s needed. I think it does at the end of the day traffic in the myth that education through negative reinforcement is effective, especially at mastery levels—or at least that it’s acceptable in the “big leagues”. But there’s so much going on here within the characters that I’m willing to look past that and focus on this as the story of these particular two people. There is some room for the idea that our virtuoso could have flourished without the abuse, the question’s tugged. The one fly in the ointment is that the last scene’s tone is a bit too broadly suggestive of reconciliation–it probably would have been best left more ambiguous, or, to somehow imply the boy’s fulfillment of his own agency transcending the demon teacher. As is, things end on a bit of a shrug. Music itself absolutely a plus. Very strong editing throughout, heightening not just the most dramatic tussles but the lighter moments, too.

Shall win: Birdman

Should win: The Homesman

—————————————-

Best of all Directors:

5. Morten Tyldum — The Imitation Game

Where’s Tom Hooper?  Get Tom Hooper in there!

4. Alejandro Innaritu — Birdman

3. Bennett Miller — Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher‘s tunneled focus and near complete lack of external context to the events depicted at the Foxcatcher farm lend it a lot of its claustrophobic, intense feel. It also becomes a major narrative handicap given how things are framed around the climactic tragedy. The script is actually pretty good and the acting’s there…it’s just glaring how the film seems not to quite capitalize on a great thread about wealth and isolation and megalomania, and how it throttles the world at large.

2. Richard Linklater — Boyhood

A mixed bag. While Foxcatcher needed to widen the scope a bit and speak more to broader things, Boyhood struggles a bit with the opposite problem. Strong work early on gives way more and more to stultifying waves at universal themes that aren’t there and didn’t need to be.

1. Wes Anderson — The Grand Budapest Hotel

We’ll interpret “best directing” this year as the one leading a project that best maximized its potential. Grand Budapest Hotel, despite a relatively complicated plot, displays the most effective control of tone and drama here.

Shall win: Richard Linklater

 

Superlative Actor in a Leadership Role:

5. Benedict Cumberbatch — The Imitation Game

Sometimes you feel like a treat.

4. Eddie Redmayne — The Theory of Everything

Sometimes a treat feels like you.

3. Brad the Swindled — American Treat

Coop really nails the ending of scenes by staring at a point about two o’clock high from the camera. What is he lookin’ at? A tango? A goat? Moral fabric? Patrick Duffy, he could have sworn? Regardless, keep working those baby blues. Practice better gun safety.

2. Steve Carell — Foxcatcher

Wins the Tom Hardy annual Most Fun to Try and Impersonate in Random Situations award. Seriously, though, if you’ve spent any amount of time around a wealth baby that’s been raised in an at least partially self-imposed valley of unreality and witnessed the mysteries that they present, Carell is really doing some good simulation here.

1. Micheal Keaton — Birdman

Last year, on the subject of Actor in a Leadership Role, this blog wrote, “With Daniel Day-Lewis out becoming a stone mason for the next five years, I think folks like Bale, DiCaprio, and Michael Keaton have a real chance to break through.”

Ethics 101.

Shall win: Eddie Redmayne

 

Most Supportive Man:

N/A — Robert Duvall — The Judge (role unseen)

4. Ethan Hawke — Boyhood

3. Edward Norton — Birdman

Kind of disturbing now that I know his role was in many ways, and self-avowedly, Innaritu himself.

2. Mark Ruffalo — Foxcatcher

Really brings into the communication posture lexicon the little t-rex thing wrestlers apparently develop. Exudes brotherly concern at hypercritical levels.

1. J. K. Simmons — Whiplash

The obvious hook is his ability to go over the top, but as with all the great roles it’s the little off-beats and pauses that really bring things to life. Draws out and gives room to a strong performance from co-lead and relative newcomer Miles Teller.

Shall win: J.K. Simmons

 

Queen of the Castle:

5. Felicity Jones — The Theory of Everything

This makes Ms. Jones the first actress to receive a nomination for a role in a Horror film since Ellen Page in Juno (2007). Good show!

4. Reese Witherspoon — Wild

3. Marion Cotillard — Two Days, One Night

2. Julianne Moore — Still Alice

1. Rosamund Pike — Gone Girl

One of the things that doesn’t seem to get discussed about Gone Girl is just the degree to which it really is a vehicle for her performance. Everything else is furniture.

Shall win: Julianne Moore

 

Number 1 Better Half:

N/A Meryl Streep (role unseen)

4. Keira Knightley — The Imitation Game

Pip pip, old boy!

3. Emma Stone — Birdman

I often tell friends they should start making films with the title and simple concept of “Actor A vs. Actor B”. For example, “Michael Shannon vs. Willem Dafoe” or “Tom Cruise vs. Tom Hanks”. We almost got “Nic Cage vs. John Travolta” with Face/Off, but even that strayed a bit from the core man vs. man dialectic. “Emma Stone vs. Jennifer Lawrence” could be good.

2. Patricia Arquette — Boyhood

Such unhappiness!

1. Laura Dern — Wild

Continues to be the most effectively alarming presence in unexpected jump cuts in film today.

Shall win: Patricia Arquette


It Doesn’t End Like This: The 86th Academy Awards

If things fall out as many are predicting, there’ll be much ado about suffering amongst the winners this year. To the lists!

Best Picture:

9. Philomena

Without a Tom Hooper offering, this crop’s prestige (most British, most agreeably middlebrow) film is apparently Philomena. It’s not as irredeemably sappy or disposable as Coogan’s character (a watered down incarnation of his usual dry-witted lout) describes human interest stories…but you still kind of get some of what he’s driving at here.

8. The Wolf of Wall Street

Wolf is very much a drug/drug taking film, smothering any real attempt to delve into real-world unethics, or America, or really any idea in a sustained way.  As far as drug movie black comedies go, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is perhaps a spiritual forebear, a tough act to follow and also adapted from a sort of memoir.  But where Fear and Loathing captures something of movements and eras, this feels more purely snuff.   I have to believe the debauchery is meant to be stimulating or disgusting but it quickly gets tedious, too caricatured and stylized to evoke life, and too unfocused to crystallize as any clear metaphor.

7. Gravity

Holy anti-space exploration, regressive Fundamentalist bents!  Where Her takes a nuanced look at a humanity struggling to find its place in a technological world, Gravity sticks with the standard prescribed apocalypse scenario, with choice Space Odyssey rip-offs for good measure.

Hyep: outer space makes you a star baby.  Really, I was expecting the heart-pounding action, but not all the apocalyptic overtones with the sudden mysterious destruction of seemingly all man-made satellites, including an inexplicably deserted ISS.  If the space apocalypse wasn’t enough to put us in our proper place, we also have our leaky wayward woman rescued and redeemed by the literal patron saint of masculinity (I must admit, a very likable George Clooney as himself).  Yes, let’s do keep our hopes and dreams in the mud, the afterlife, and our better halves.

6. Captain Phillips

I seem to remember from the trailers that this seemed like it was going to be about Captain Phillips bargaining for the crews’ lives with his employers and insurers?  How much money is an American worth: the cargo, that is?  A good documentary about the real life incident exploring the contexts and causes of Somali piracy and maritime commerce law would have been more worthwhile.  Something deeper is hinted at with the opening conversation between Phillips and his wife about how tough kids have it today (ostensibly due to baby boomers such as himself) juxtaposed with Somalis being forced into piracy.  There’s an analogy!  But we get a straight up and somewhat belabored hostage story. I enjoyed Hanks’ Boston accent, and his surveying.   Somehow I kept imagining what Tom Brady would have done in Phillips’ situation.

5. Nebraska

Here’s a deliberate little story that’s meant to transcend the journey depicted, though it seems to work best when it just focuses on what’s unique about its quest, rather than what’s universal.  For any who take offense to what may seem like a gross simplification of Midwesterners, I can say coming from such a family that the television-watching scenes at least are pretty spot on.  Would this film be nearly as talked about if it wasn’t in black and white?  Will Forte is really in his Forte portraying an epic and universally trampled soul, so it’s sweet to see him save the day in the end.

4. Dallas Buyers Club

McConaughey and Leto drive the bus here in a by-the-numbers activism film that gets a bit more right than wrong–theatrically, anyway.  A scene where McConaughey’s character says that he feels like his all-consuming quest to live has ‘gotten in the way of him living’ is apropos wherein a stronger film would have delved a little more into aspects of his personal life.  In reality Woodroof had a daughter and sister who were written out in favor of the Garner and Leto characters, each of which play as cinematic types: Garner as the well-meaning square who won’t commit at first but is eventually won over to the cause, Leto as the charismatic, tragic hard case.  I can also see that writing out Woodroof’s bisexuality is on some spectrum of being like “making Solomon Northup white in order to reach a bigger audience”.  Honestly, my gripe is that the film’s depiction of policy doctors and their FDA masters paints them almost too sympathetically; the prescription writing pill-bot from Elysium still gets the 2013 ‘most accurate portrayal of a medical experience’ award.  While DBC stumbles in oversimplifying and tidying LBGT issues around both Woodroof and the ‘buyer’s clubs’ of the 80s by making Leto’s character a symbol for all, it also resonates in a time where more people than ever are being denied basic medical services under increasingly fatuous rationales.  Any film on the U.S.’s wholly unchecked, monopoly-based medical industry is picking a worthy fish to fry.

3. 12 Years a Slave

Along with Her, 12 Years stands out for transporting cinematography, and gets bonus points for a memorable score, too rare these days.  Above all, I was impressed by how the film portrays its ultra-heavy subject matter with some surprising range.  There’s a sort of lyricism to the best scenes which reminded me of something out of Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent films, where things seem almost overtly scripted, yet somehow all the more true-to-life because of it.  Given the source material there isn’t a problem with keeping this a very micro, personal story, but it’s frustrating how Solomon’s rescue–more or less by happenstance–comes off as incidental: just Brad Pitt happenin’ through.  True, the story is about the utter circumscription of agency, but I have to imagine the resolution could have been framed to resonate more with Solomon’s unique suffering and situation.

2. American Hustle

A film where you can’t help but root for almost everyone at once, benefiting from a trove of talent and recent Academy Award stand-bys.   Bale, Cooper, Adams, and Lawrence have 10 major Oscar noms between them in the last 4 years, a whopping seven as co-stars in Russell films.  They should play off each other quite well by now, and do.  The only thing holding things back a bit is a slight lack of impact… we might expect that in a film about how “everything’s a con” there are going to be big twists along the way, more surprise affiliations, heavy consequences.  If you haven’t seen it yet, go in expecting a high-end comedy with a great cast, not a crime epic.  Best con of all: Louis CK’s interminable ice fishing story.

1. Her

Her is about identity, and how we ascribe it: the personas of people we build in our minds, never the same as how they know themselves. Her. How love happens in the will to navigate the difference.  It’s about the voices we perceive: from people, from letters, from computers, from corporations.  It’s about depression, and unrequited desires to be touched and known, when technology makes so much accessible, anonymous, and long-distance.  It’s about a world where a man makes a living as a writer of poignant, heartfelt letters of love, regret, and sorrow for people who can’t find the words within themselves, yet are ready and willing to purchase them.

Any film attempting a premise like Her‘s runs a dangerous risk of feeling flatly satirical, and it’s possible that for some, a note here or there may feel contrived (does everyone in the future live in a NYC penthouse?)  For me, the clever sets, another irreplaceable performance by Joaquin Phoenix –Jonze supposedly wrote his script with him expressly in mind–and a pretty inspired screenplay overall keep any major plot-point objections at bay.   Things could be said to peter just a bit in the third act, but the resolution to the journey is a satisfying and a fitting one.  After all, no relationship culminates in unequivocal bliss, blessedly few in lasting apocalypse.

Should Win: Her

Much is made on this blog about much being made and fetishized about the apocalyptic lately.  In hopes of jinxing the film by picking it (worked last year when I picked Zero Dark Thirty) let’s again take this exercise to it’s most cynical possible conclusion.

Will win: Gravity

Best Director:

5. Martin Scorsese

I’m generally a fan of Scorsese, but where otherwise strong films sometimes bloat on him (see Gangs of New York, The Departed) this one totally gets away.  I think the at least somewhat warranted outcry that Wolf not only fails to criticize white collar crime but glorifies it comes through in part because excess for its own sake is so valued in our society.  In discerning the excesses depicted as glorifying we’re in part expressing a more general outcry that such behaviors are so valued at all.  See The Hangover and any number of recent films, songs and advertisements pushing the idea that it’s through excess and great irresponsibility that we truly find ourselves, that we truly live.  YOLO.

4. Alfonso Cauron

See above re: aversion to Gravity’s message.

3. Alexander Payne

Nebraska is, in a year of black comedies, a black and white comedy.  Payne serves Nebraska well in telling a story about earlier times and older people without being either pettily dismissive or merely nostalgic.  

2. David O. Russell

Probably his best film in what has become a career worth of very-solid to amazing stuff.  Why aren’t more people talking about him as an all-time great?  My only quibble is that American Hustle finds itself in an odd place where you are expecting something a little more heavy-hitting to go down… it’s at once a credit to the strong drama in what’s otherwise a comedy, and perhaps a bit of a tonal issue.

1. Steve McQueen

McQueen delivers almost all one could hope for out of a film adaptation of 12 Years A Slave and probably then some, though my reservations about the resolution stand.  I give him the slight nod over Russell because I feel Hustle succeeded so much based on the talent of its actors rather than editing, script or cinematography, while 12 Years is more of an all-around project.  We seem to live in a place where actors are given the vast majority of credit for their performances rather than those who direct them; if Hustle wasn’t so packed with sure stars, I’d be more inclined to give credit for putting them in position to shine.

Should win: Spike Jonze

What, Cauron for the fetus shot?!  Let’s rather give Kubrick a posthumous award.  McQueen and Russell both would be worthy picks.

Will win: Steve McQueen

Best Actor:

5. Bruce Dern

Dern renders his addled, Alzheimer’s afflicted man so compellingly it can feel almost impossible to imagine he’s not simply being himself.  All the nominations this year are well deserved, though I think this spot could likely have been filled by Joaquin Phoenix or Robert Redford for All is Lost.

4. Leonardo DiCaprio

DiCaprio is for my money on a very short list of our best and most entertaining actors.  He’s good here, maybe excellent.  He wrings out some memorable sequences, especially in the “Bond villain” yacht scene, which gives him a straight man to play off.  But in most of the film he’s rendered strangely inert, where while he’s usually so effective as the source of electricity in a scene (see last year’s Django Unchained), here he’s more of a conduit in something that’s trying to be the biggest thunderstorm ever recorded.

3. Chiwetel Ejiofor

Don’t think he has much of a chance due to relative anonymity: where McConaughey gets lots of acting points for breaking expectations not only in the type of character he portrays but frankly how far he’s come from vehicles like Sahara, Ejiofor’s equally difficult performance doesn’t afford the same “wow I can’t believe he came and did that” factor.

2. Christian Bale

So fun, and such a delicate performance!  Such a delicate boy that he presents.  With Daniel Day-Lewis out becoming a stone mason for the next five years, I think folks like Bale, DiCaprio, and Michael Keaton have a real chance to break through.

1. Matthew McConaughey

Here’s your prototypical impressive physical transformation, and McConaughey gets lots of points for being a known quantity transformed, someone we’ve seen many times before and can paint as finally reaching his apex and potential.  Of all the nominees, this feels the most like a Best Actor performance, with all the requisite seriousness.

Should and shall win: Matthew McConaughey

 

Best Actress:

5. Judi Dench

Pretty soft-serve stuff.  Philomena lacks anything approaching a real “Oscar scene” through no fault of Dench’s.

4. Sandra Bullock

Given the chauvinistic bent of the film I can’t be impressed by the terror, fragility displayed given the message it’s going toward.  You want a woman fighting existential battles in space?

Redeem that, George.

3. Meryl Streep

If some ding August: Osage County for being merely a ring wherein Streep and Roberts spew baggage at each other, color me very impressed and entertained by Streep here.

2. Amy Adams

Oh, that subtle greatness.  I must point out that American Hustle does not pass the Bechdel Test, as the scene where Lawrence makes out with her has them fighting over Christian Bale.

1. Cate Blanchett

Seemingly a role she’s been playing awhile: rich and eccentric, sometimes with a southern accent.  Overacting?  Of course!  How else does one play a character defined by her overacting?

Should and shall win: Cate Blanchett

If Adams does take it, consider that it may not just be due to anti-Allen sentiment: Blanchett’s Jasmine really shares similarity with her Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator, the role for which she deservedly took Best Actress.  Jasmine features a larger, more demanding, and even more impressive performance, but the similarity between it and an already recognized role only heightens Adam’s case for being “owed.”

 

Best Supporting Actor:

5. Jonah Hill

Hill has the property of somehow making any film or scene he’s in feel like a raunchy comedy, and Wolf is a raunchy comedy.  Somehow I feel I have to qualify that as just a raunchy comedy.

4. Barkhad Abdi

Not allowed nearly as much depth as he should have been.  Really can’t give Captain Phillips credit for any intended audience takeaway other than “Thank Jesus America rescued Tom Hanks from those scary black men.”

3. Bradley Cooper

Keeps getting better, this is his best performance yet.  Does anyone feel sorry for him in the end?  Is he not still Bradley Cooper?

2. Michael Fassbender

Fassbender does an amazing job portraying such rage and hesitancy at once.  His is such a commanding presence that it’s getting to a point where I just don’t buy him in roles where he’s not integrally an authority figure, such as this year’s The Counselor.

1. Jared Leto

It’s ironic that the most typic character of the list here is still arguably the most memorably and most impressively rendered.  Leto’s performance fits too perfectly into what we traditionally consider gold-standard as far as Oscars and acting performances go to lose this.

Should and shall win: Jared Leto

If anything, Leto’s a lock because his role is so much more Important than Cooper’s, and I think the voters have to be aware of a potential trend of giving awards to white actors in films about black issues after Christoff Waltz’s much deserved and surprise win last year.

 

Best Supporting Actress:

5. June Squibb

What a cute button nose!

4. Sally Hawkins

If we give an award to the most likable character, I might give mine to Hawkins, who is sneaky good and very much fits the term ‘supporting’.  Where Blanchett’s character is a modern update of Blanche DuBois in a world where class difference has become even more dizzyingly wide, Hawkins’ Ginger represents a more hopeful update of Stella.   Where Stella is a woman who is true to herself and suffers for it in the end, Ginger is a creature who may not really know where she belongs, but can find it in herself to be happy.

3. Jennifer Lawrence

Fierce again and undeniably commanding, Lawrence takes the award for most acting done, if not best.  She sets a very interesting dynamic in American Hustle where while all the con-artists are so coolly and subtly convincing, Lawrence as the what-you-see-is-what-you-get hellcat is the only one who comes off like she’s consciously putting on a performance.

2. Julia Roberts

Lawrence rules as Hollywood’s female id, imbued with all that carpe diem immediacy it needs now more than ever since we only live once and the apocalypse is so nigh, wrapped in that particularly all-American down-home body America responds to so much (all that is all-american and down-home being so embattled).  Yea, we hearken back to the reign of Julia Roberts, who reflected perhaps simpler needs: the courage to be ourselves, to be heard, to transgress gender roles just a little, as to ever more clearly define them.  Interesting that even still, Roberts continues to play the underdog, the ugly duckling, the misfit.  I seem to have enjoyed August: Osage County more than most, and thought Roberts was spot on.

1.Lupita Nyong’o

Another powerful portrayal of suffering, after Anne Hathaway’s in Les Mis last year.   Nyong’o doesn’t get that much screen time, but very few ladies do.

Should and shall win: Lupita Nyong’o



A corollary to “Behold the 85th Academy Awards”

As abashfulharvestman posted earlier, each of us created a list of our favorite Academy Awards won since 2000 in order to provide insight into what sorts of film and performances we tend to enjoy.  Here are my favorites:

1) There Will Be Blood (2007) Daniel Day-Lewis, Best Actor
2) Spirited Away (2002) Best Animated Feature
3) No Country For Old Men (2007) Best Picture, Coen Bros., Best Director, Coen Bros., Best Adapted Screenplay
4) Lost In Translation (2003) Sofia Coppola, Best Original Screenplay
5) The Dark Knight (2008) Heath Ledger, Best Supporting Actor
6) No Country For Old Men (2007) Javier Bardem, Best Supporting Actor
7) Bowling For Columbine (2002) Best Documentary
8) The Matrix (1999) Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Film Editing, and Best Visual Effects
9) There Will Be Blood (2007) Best Cinematography
10) Chicago (2002) Best Art Direction, Sound Mixing, Costume Design, Film Editing
11) Inglorious Basterds (2009) Christoph Waltz, Best Supporting Actor
12) Capote (2005) Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Best Actor
13) The Aviator (2004) Cate Blanchett, Best Supporting Actress
14) Sweeny Todd (2007) Best Art Direction
15) The Fighter (2010) Christian Bale, Best Supporting Actor
16) The Aviator (2004) Best Art Direction, Editing, Costume Design, Cinematography
17) The Incredibles (2004) Best Animated Feature
18) Milk (2008) Best Original Screenplay
19) Boys Don’t Cry (1999) Hillary Swank, Best Actress
20) Brokeback Mountain (2005) Ang Lee, Best Director
21) An Inconvenient Truth (2006) Best Documentary
22) The Hurt Locker (2008) Katherine Bigelow, Best Director, Best Film Editing
23) Man On Wire (2008) Best Documentary
24) Traffic (2000) Benicio Del Toro, Best Supporting Actor
25) Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) Best Art Direction, Cinematography, Art Design


Behold the 85th Academy Awards; or, “Total, Utter Bullshit”

Best Supporting Actor:

5) Alan Arkin – Argo

Arkin is perfectly up to the task but I’m a bit surprised he’s even nominated here as his role in the film is so small, and he’s not asked to do anything particularly remarkable.  He nails the wisecracking, worldly, “ah-whatta-ya-gonna-do” persona for his character, but he’s ultimately a pretty minor cog in a film that’s a lot more slick (appreciatedly so, mind you) than it is a buffet of classic acting.  Nothing against his performance, but the slot would have been better filled by someone who admirably filled a larger, deeper role, say Javier Bardem for his work in Skyfall or Michael Fassbender in Prometheus.

4) Robert De Niro – Silver Linings Playbook

De Niro—along with the rest of the nominees in this category—has more screen time to work with than Arkin, but his role is similarly more efficient than impressive.  De Niro has been playing gravel-y east-coast patriarchs for what seems like years untold by now, and I just don’t think he’s given anything in particular to stand out in the A-lister ensemble that is Silver Linings Playbook.  For example, as a character with an acute obsessive compulsive disorder one might imagine De Niro would have a show-stopping scene depicting him grappling with it—joyously, gut-wrenchingly,  whatever.  But, any demon he may harbor, like Cooper’s and Lawrence’s, is eschewed and made more-or-less an endearing little idiosyncrasy.

3) Tommy Lee Jones—Lincoln

I enjoyed TLJ here, as I am usually wont to.  He’s essentially playing himself in abrasive mode, really not much different from, say, the curmudgeonly Agent K from Men In Black.  Just with more witty repartee.  No one delivers it quite like Jones does.  But, tasked with being the film’s near-only source of levity, we may have a case here of an actor well-cast more than we do a virtuoso performance.  To compare, this is probably closer to Jack Nicholson playing himself in The Bucket List than it is Nicholson playing himself in A Few Good Men.

2) Christoph Waltz—Django Unchained

The most charismatic of a crop of nominees not lacking for charisma, Waltz follows up his role as a charmingly odd and more-than-slightly-deranged SS Commander in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds with a role as a charmingly odd and more-than-slightly-deranged dentist in Django.  Waltz makes the subtle shift from villain to anti-hero with aplomb, elevating (along with Leo DiCaprio, who also may well have garnered his own Supporting Actor nomination) what could otherwise have been a fairly mixed bag of inspired and clunky elements to a rollicking, jolly experience with a dear friend.

1) Phillip Seymour Hoffman—The Master

Phillip strikes again with a masterful depiction of a clearly deranged, magnetic, repulsive, rapturous, insinuating man.  Whatever it was, The Master arguably served as this year’s foremost canvas for classic acting performances, demanding that its leads supply the feel and texture of a narrative that’s otherwise opaque.  Hoffman delivers a man that is at once larger than life and intimately delicate, commanding and commanded.

Should Win: Phillip Seymour Hoffman

Hoffman and Waltz’s performances were roughly equal in sheer impressiveness.  I’ll give Hoffman the nod because of the range his role demanded.  The fact that Waltz recently won an award in the same category for a similar performance, and for the same director, is also a small factor.

Will Win: Tommy Lee Jones

His character is exactly what I think your stereotypical Academy voter likes to see in his or herself: longer in the tooth than a walrus, sure, but dagnabit those teeth still have bite, and while days may be short, the wit is yet wicked.  Not only that, but Lincoln‘s Thaddeus Stevens is portrayed as progressiveness personified, a trait the Academy would like to be mistaken for.

Best Supporting Actress:

x-Helen Hunt—The Sessions

I did not catch this one, but did view trailers such as here and scenes here.  While the premise of the film is interesting, the trailer, at least, seems to suggest that any drama produced may be bogged down a bit by an acute predilection for inane one-liners regarding the protagonist’s situation.  Who knows?

4. Jacki Weaver—Silver Linings Playbook

Everything that applies to Robert De Niro’s nomination applies here.  Her role is supposed to blend comfortably in the back ground, and it succeeds well in pleasantly doing so, in no small part due to adept comedic timing.

3. Sally Field—Lincoln

A great weakness of Lincoln was its depiction of Mary Todd.  I just don’t think she is allowed to come off with any real nuance; she’s a tortured, torturing, wailing soul, and that’s about that.  Unhappily, the film fetters the magnitude of Field’s performance to just how cloyingly desperate she can come off.  Great performances are measured at least as much by subtlety and nuance as sheer volume of emotion, and whether through scripting or editing, Lincoln just doesn’t make allowances for the former.

1b. Anne Hathaway—Les Miserables

Nailing the emotional peak of a 157 minute film who’s emotional intensity is turned up to 11 for most of the duration, Hathaway’s role is short but climactic.  Too bad it comes just half an hour into the film. Hooper ratchets up the pressure on Hathaway’s rendition of the play’s signature  “I Dreamed a Dream” by filming the entire delivery about a foot from Fantine’s ruined face.  Hathaway absolutely delivers, turning a potentially awkward directorial move into something scintillating.  While Hooper’s decision to eschew the possibilities of cinema in order to attempt some simulation of a live performance fails Les Mis more often than not, Hathaway is so suited to the stage that for a brief, shining moment, it works.

1a. Amy Adams—The Master

A leader along with Hathaway if buzz is any indication, Adams has been widely lauded by critics for her portrayal as the shadowy influence behind Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd.  Undoubtedly she portrays some of The Master’s most subtle and most memorable moments with great aplomb.  Very much unlike Hathaway’s performance, the nature of Adams’ role in The Master makes it tricky to pinpoint a particular moment where she shines through…but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

Should Win: Amy Adams…or Anne Hathaway

I’m hesitating on this, I think in part because The Master was released last summer and Les Mis is so fresh.  Give me either.  I have to believe this is a two actress race; neither Hathaway or Adams is a bad choice.

Will Win: Amy Adams…or Anne Hathaway

I’m thinking Adams has a strong shot based off an uneasy feeling that voters will feel Adams’ portrayal of a secretly domineering, controlling, rigid creature resonates as some sort of study in women.  On the other hand, Hathaway is the more classic go-to.

Best Actor:

X-Denzel Washington—Flight

Along with The Impossible and The Sessions, didn’t catch it.  Apparently nothing classic is here per se; that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a very strong performance.

4. Hugh Jackman—Les Miserables

Not a bad performance by the Aussie playing a Frenchman with a slightly British accent.  He certainly defeats his on-screen nemesis and fellow Aussie Russell  Crowe when it comes to sing-speaking.  I just don’t think he particularly owns the role—no doubt in part because he’s directed to play things pretty safe.  Jackman is asked to be a competent placeholder for Jean Valjean a bit more than he is to make a memorable impression on it.

3. Bradley Cooper—Silver Linings Playbook

I will be the first to admit I have not been a big Cooper fan so far.   In his larger roles he would seem to be cast as a sort of quintessential leading man a-la a George Clooney, or a Brad Pitt…but somehow he would come off as maddeningly bland, crowd sourced, lacking whatever Clooney-ness or Pitt-iness that makes those actors at once archetypal and distinct.  This is the first film where I thought Cooper’s acting acumen shined, finally given a role perhaps just dynamic enough to push him. To be sure, his depiction of a bipolar depressive falls far short of the classic Hollywood mental-illness-depiction, but SLP certainly doesn’t aspire to be One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  It aspires to have Cooper speak a bit rapidly, and be a generally pesky, excitable boy.  This is accomplished.

2. Daniel Day-Lewis—Lincoln

Daniel is legend, and I can begin to see what people are imagining when they hail his performance as an uncanny channeling of the 16th president’s true intonations, register, posture, gait, and so on.  I’m only willing to go down this line of reasoning so far.  The ‘authenticity’ of the performance should not be the final say as to its strength: it cannot be robustly verified, and mimicry is not the epitome of acting greatness.  Instead, notice just how many of Lincoln’s great mannerisms here are Daniel Day-Lewis’ specifically: the way he slowly raises his voice as impatience is stoked, the pauses and hitches in his speech patterns, his little, seemingly unconscious nods of affirmation as he listens to himself speak.  In all, I left this performance ever so slightly disappointed, not so much in the performance itself as the surprisingly listless narrative it occupies.  That said, Day-Lewis remains a joy to behold, and a Best Actor win here will not be remiss.

1. Joaquin Phoenix—The Master

Never have I been so impressed with a performance, and so deeply appalled by the character depicted.  Phoenix creates dialects, intonations, expressions and gestures here that are so alien and yet so cohesive, he’s literally a man possessed.  As noted with Hoffman’s performance, The Master asks its performers to be the story itself.  File Phoenix’s Freddie Quell under stories no one could predict could or should be told.

Should Win: Joaquin Phoenix

By “should win” I mean “had the most impressive and impactful performance of those listed in this category” as Phoenix himself has termed the Oscars as total, utter bullshit.  I tend to agree.

Will Win: Daniel Day-Lewis

I think Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones are this year’s locks.  This is one of the greatest actors ever at the top of his craft, and though he’s been better and in better films, this is just too mainstream, central, and strong a performance to be defeated.

Best Actress:

x-Naomi Watts–The Impossible

Didn’t catch it.  The fact that the end of the trailer is set to U2 disqualifies it in this particular exercise under the citizens against delusions of grandeur act of 2002, colloquially known as “the Bono Act”.

?. Quvenzhane Wallis–Beasts of the Southern Wild

Here the academy throws us its curveball of the year, nominating then 6-year-old Wallis for her role as Hushpuppy.  Was Wallis’ performance every bit as a compelling and transporting as the others on this list?  I say yes.  But this nomination calls into question what we mean when we talk about “acting”, perhaps not necessarily in a bad way.  Wallis’ effectiveness here lies in the sincerity and effortlessness she conveys as she navigates her world with a combination of faith and naiveté we all once had, and have since lost, probably not long after nine years old as Wallis is now.  Wallis displays what any aspiring kindergarten teacher will tell you children her age just have–a certain bursting.  Of energy and wonder and unabashed idiosyncrasy.  Do we build sets around these children, film them, and give them Academy Awards?  How you feel about that will determine where Wallis ranks for you in this silly exercise.

3. Jessica Chastain–Zero Dark Thirty

Zero ends up being a plodding procedural in the end, and Chastain’s role here doesn’t seem like enough to elevate the film overall.  I couldn’t help but view her character as a means to take attention away from the fact that Zero is essentially a gross oversimplification of a process leading up to an important historical event–instead framing it as the story of one strong, driven woman who cuts through red tape to get the job done.  Chastain is left playing a zero-sum game.

2. Jennifer Lawrence–Silver Linings Playbook

Our foremost Hollywood A-list actress in the year our lord 2013.  In 2011, Lawrence broke out with her performance in Winter’s Bone.  How far we’ve come!  I wrote highly of the role, and as time has passed, I think she should have won for Best Actress over Natalie Portman.  Silver Linings Playbook is a different bird, and Lawrence has made the shift from the wary, dogged big sister of WB to the sexy, winning lead SLP casts well.  Likethe rest of the cast, she displays a knack for comedy, and fulfills what the role demands.  That said, a win here would be less a celebration of a Great acting performance as it would be an affirmation of Hollywood’s ability to assemble beautiful people and have them do charming things for us.  Which is no particular fault of Lawrence’s.

1. Emmanuelle Riva–Amour

The synopsis of Amour stating that it is a film about the final days of an elderly couple can’t do it justice: this is a film about people doing little things.  Putting on reading glasses, and putting the case away.  Maneuvering an electric wheelchair for the first time.  Telling anecdotes.  All in specific rooms with specific things on the shelves and tables, all of which Amour allows us to pour over with its many extended still shots.  Along with her co-star Jean-Louis Trintignant, (who isn’t nominated at all, ostensibly because he isn’t also tasked with portraying the gradual loss of physical and mental faculties due to strokes, fair enough) Riva is wonderful to behold in a challenging role.

Should Win: Emmanuelle Riva

This is a difficult category to call, especially with Wallis as a wild-card.

Will Win: Emmanuelle Riva

The Academy has a thing for giving Best Actress to roles where the woman dies.

Best Director:

5. Steven Spielberg–Lincoln

I trust that history will show Lincoln was not one of Spielberg’s best outings.  It will be a bit awkward for all parties if he gets a Best Director for this to go along with his Director awards for the far superior Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

4. David O. Russell–Silver Linings Playbook

Russell’s knack for subtle comedy is well used here, and he allows bankable talent to do what it does well.  Still, while SLP isn’t aiming too high, I think it could have easily portrayed a much, shall we say, fuller depiction of the mental illnesses it appropriates for its narrative while still remaining feel-good and family-friendly.  I haven’t read the book the film is based off of, but I have to believe a deeper story could have been culled.

3.  Benh Zeitlin–Beasts of the Southern Wild

In terms of sheer volume of directing done, Zeitlin would seem to take the cake, as Beasts involved over a year of pre-production in rural communities, and much of the very memorable sets were handmade.  This is a somewhat rare independent film that doesn’t often fall over itself to portray that “indie” vibe, and the local, mostly untrained actors used were deftly captured.

2. Ang Lee–Life of Pi

This is a situation where behind-the-scenes intel is necessary to really judge the director’s true role in a work, of which I have little.  When so much of a film is computer generated, exactly what control does the director have?  Obviously he gives detailed instruction to the engineers who create the imagery of the film just so, there are storyboards and concepts, but at what point must Lee have said, “yes, that’s perfect!” in the same way we must say “that’s what I meant!” when Google guesses what we meant by a search string–partially determining what we feel we meant by what it retrieves? Life of Pi often had cinematic magic to spare.  It also had some clunky moments, especially with some of the dialogue when adult Pi tells his story.

1. Michael Haneke–Amour

Haneke does nothing to re-invent the wheel here, this is a classically filmed and transporting narrative with no end of long, still shots that allow the viewer to populate the narrative with his or her own memories or predispositions.  This is a sort of film that makes even an amateur like myself feel like a film theorist: you can see how and why an angle here and dialogue there works, and knowing how and why doesn’t diminsh the effect.  There are also some good literary convergances here that would reward a second viewing, and even a scary moment that trumps anything most horror movies have to offer.

Should Win: Michael Haneke

Will Win: Ang Lee

Director tends to be awarded based on legacy than most of the other awards, and Haneke has effectively none as none of his previous work has been screened to much fanfare in the US.  I can see the Academy awarding this to any of the five candidates, but I’ll guess that this is where it gives a nod to the new way of doing things and awards Lee for a film that combines box office notoriety with perceived artistry.

Best Picture:

This is an extremely difficult year to handicap best picture. Our floor is generally higher than it was the last two years as most of the nominees were enjoyable enough, and, unless Zero Dark Thirty wins, our Best Picture winner should stand the test of time better than The Artist or The King’s Speech.  As close as they are, I can’t bring myself to fully rank these so the following is a rough weakest to strongest list where entries could easily float up or down a few spots depending on the time of day.

Zero Dark Thirty

Ultimately a plodding procedural we all already know the outcome of, Zero just doesn’t have the chance to shine as The Hurt Locker so admirably did.  THL follows fictional soldiers evocative of real people in situations that work on immediate and metaphorical levels (i.e. literal bomb diffusions).  Zero fictionalizes recent history.  I’m a little surprised this film is taken as rife with so much “tension” as I felt more déjà vu where images and news items less than two years old drive much of the narrative.  The POV night raid at the end was nothing your average Call of Duty player hasn’t been through time and again.  For the record, this is pro-torture insofar as it portrays “enhanced interrogation methods” being critically helpful to Bin Laden’s assassination.  Knowing it would be a public referendum on the topic of torture and the “War on Terror,” I’m surprised Zero avoids even a hint of the complexity of the topic, instead depicting the detainers as ethically ironclad individuals who do everything they do for exactly the right reasons.  A more complex take would have made for a more interesting story, if nothing else.

Les Miserables

After reading advance reviews I went into Les Mis expecting a bit of a train wreck, only to find it awkward at worst, and at times actually endearingly so.  This year’s prestige nominee,  (disappointing that nary a French accent is to be heard; apparently, the French Revolution was a British affair) I can’t imagine this product is going to go down on too many all-time favorite lists beyond the self selected die-hard musical fan.  Hooper’s decision to ignore most of the options afforded by cinema in favor of attempting to simulate a live performance does the film in more often than not.  There are few who will tell you Les Mis is such a gripping work as to be effective without the power of a live performance–or the cinematic flourishes Hooper mostly denies us.  At least we’re dealing with historical fiction this year and not fictional history as in The King’s Speech.

Silver Linings Playbook

A calculatedly safe and agreeable vehicle for an A-list ensemble, SLP doesn’t aim too high, and hits its mark.  While this film is not out to educate the nation about the nature and difficulties associated with the mental illnesses it appropriates to entertain us, it falls a bit short of its responsibility not to actually misinform.  As depicted, Cooper’s bi-polarism, Lawrence’s sexual addiction, and De Niro’s OCD are an array of charming idiosyncracies, neatly managed or resolved.  A better film with a more well-earned feel-good victory could have been made.  I strongly encourage those interested in a fun story about romance, mental illness, and sports fandom to check out Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66.

Lincoln

My most anticipated film of the year falls into an unhappy space between a historical biopic that’s actually historically accurate, and one that has been so adjusted as to make a riveting narrative.  Day-Lewis delivers with what he is given, but the threads of litigation leading up to the 13th amendment and Lincoln’s personal life never really coalesce into anything terribly compelling.  Spielberg seems to do better work when he’s dealing with the present or the future, rather than history.  As with Zero, this film is boosted by being perceived as a clever referendum on the current state of America; particularly, how divided it is.  Left at that, the takeaway is just as superficial and redundant as the mass media reports that constantly stoke and prop up shallow stories of social divide for the sake of ratings.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

This is a film about an off-the-grid community, and a girl with an alcoholic, abusive father, who, in a way, loves her.  I think it succeeds up to a point as a fever-dream about the people of the Bathtub, and there’s much about the film I found very memorable: Hushpuppy’s turns of phrase, the truck bed jerry-rigged into a boat, the way Hushpuppy’s father tells her to “get in the boat” (the boat being a filthy little chest) as their dilapidated trailer floods.  I think some issues it brings up regarding the societies of those people whom what we consider society has turned a blind eye to or left behind are important.  Are the people of the Bathtub in any way ‘free’?  When left to their own devices, they actively and criminally fail the children born into their society.  So are off-the-grid societies inherently unsustainable?  Unethical?  Why or why not?  How do the circumstances of Post-Katrina coastal Louisiana come into play?  Whatever the film was getting at with its end of the world/aurochs theme worked as a way to understand the survival-of-the-fittest mentality of the Bathub which Hushpuppy has been indoctrinated with, but fails as some foggy meta-narrative about coming of age, or perseverance, or whatever may have been intended.

Life of Pi

I saw this in 2d, and something about the film quality or lighting made it seem at times as if I were watching a venerable old VHS tape.  It had a net positive effect.  Overall the Odyssey-esque literary feel of the story goes down nicely, with all the textures of canvas and salt-water and the elements powerfully rendered during Pi’s time at sea.  I personally buy the little metaphysical twist at the end, although the Big Ideas of survivor’s guilt, god, religion, nature, et al. crowd at eachother to the effect that no one of them is articulated clearly, and Pi’s reminisces often come off more waffly than sagacious.  That said, the physical journey is a compelling one, particularly the middle act where big things go down and Pi is first acclimating to his life at sea.

Django Unchained

Tarantino follows up his last semi-historical jaunt in Inglorious Basterds with an even more id suffused and, overall, strong product.  Christoph Waltz is again the lynchpin, along with a great turn by Leo DiCaprio that makes one wonder what took so long for he and Tarantino to get together.  My chief criticism is that, as with IB, by the time the credits roll it seems as if Tarantino has thrown all his ideas at us rather than his best ones; what’s at first stylishly irreverent and rapturously unique starts to get redundant.  Mainly, just how this script got filmed without someone reworking the narrative to end at, or soon after the climactic scene where Waltz and DiCaprio–our strongest characters by far–are killed off, we may never know.  Relatedly, whether with respect to the race and agency issues the film brings up or just basic narrative technique, it’s a bit alarming that Fox’s titular character is ultimately left pretty pedestrian.  The Dark Knight faced a similar issue, where, so absolutely outshown by Ledger’s Joker, Bale’s Batman (our would be protagonist) is left incidental.  I think Django’s moment was supposed to occur during the rapturous bloodshed of the 40 minute coda after the first shootout at the Candyland mansion, but everything after climax #1 is dead on the screen.

Amour

The thoughts on Emmanuelle Riva and Michael Haneke’s nominations characterize the film overall.  It’s not for everyone, and like many good films, one likely needs to be in the proper mood to enjoy it.  I’ve always felt that of all the different ways a film may succeed, one that seems particularly relevent to the Academy Awards–where we enshrine certain films for posterity–is whether it commands multiple viewings.  More than any other film on this list, I’m confident I could re-view Amour and catch new things.

Argo

My chief complaint about most recent action and thriller movies is that they could have been made so much better with just a little trimming, a little focusing.  This is not one of those films.  About as slick and lithe a film as you’ll ever want to see, Argo is…perhaps even too slick as far as a Best Picture award is concerned?  Enjoyable and proficient as it is, not much stands out as particularly memorable or indispensible, no moments I feel compelled to go back and see a second time.  Again we have a film boosted by being perceived as Important because it depicts current cultural climates, with a re-play of the Iran hostage crisis standing in for American unease as we return to a world where outright American intervention in the politics of the Middle East is downplayed after the conclusion of the “War On Terror”, and the region is wracked by revolution in an Arab Spring which America’s influence over remains unclear.

Should Win: Life of Pi, Django Unchained, Amour, or Argo

I’ll have to say any of the bottom four on this list.  Django may have the highest highs, but also the biggest flaws; Amour is well rounded, but not for everyone; Pi is sweet but at times saccharine; Argo is strong, but perhaps a bit disposable to be a Best Picture.

Will Win:

Does the Academy dare choose a second-straight sentimental foreign film that not many saw, and go with Amour?  Does it go with the indie no one saw in Beasts?  Does it go with the “this is where America is today, cleverly” Zero or Lincoln?  The only choices that would shock me would be Les Mis or Django, and to say Les Mis would be a shock considering what Joaquin Phoenix so incisively describes the Awards as, would be a stretch.  In his honor, let’s take this exercise to it’s most cynical possible conclusion:

Zero Dark Thirty


Technological. Intellectual. Physical. Emotional.

If it’s been awhile since you’ve been aboard Prometheus, or if you’ve yet to see this stellar viral, check it out.  The viral is probably more impressive than any sequence in the actual film, and a lot of fun to revisit after having seen it.

Technological.  Intellectual.  Physical.  Emotional.

Pathological.

Critics and auds have pointed out that David shares more than a little of the DNA of any number of artificial boys, foremost the treachery of HAL, and the antagonists of a wide catalog of films depicting AI insurgence, including, of course, Alien.  This isn’t especially remarkable or impressive.  For self-reflexivity, perhaps only the Western and Horror genres rival Sci-Fi, where it’s nearly impossible to break from the motifs, conventions, and by now rather canned discourses first hashed out on screen in landmark works like Alien, Blade Runner, 2001.

One such discourse is invoked by David in the first words of the viral: “What is it about robots…that makes them so robotic?”

Well, for the ones allegedly designed to facilitate human interaction (Terminators and Agents being another, related category), usually:
·         They must abide by certain rules, a la Asimov’s laws.  These laws will be disastrously interpreted by the AI itself and/or will have been secretly tampered with by the manufacturer to facilitate a specific mission.
·         They have limited free will due to above laws, and a tendency to care only or overridingly about functional activities that facilitate their mission.
·         They have increased physical and cognitive prowess relative to humans, though they exhibit blunted affect and have some difficulty exhibiting and empathizing with emotions, and processing humor and figurative language.

Let’s just get something out of the way.  Prometheus is not a good film overall.  Taken in full context, it’s a ponderous, mythology overladen vehicle for questions to be explained in later installments, whence audiences can connect most of the dots, achieve catharsis, complain that it didn’t all mesh up with Alien quite as much as they were led to believe it would, and if they’re die-hard, buy some peripherals that answer gory details.  Yes, Mr. Scott, it’s a prequel, that’s how it was designed, regardless of exactly how you define “prequel,” and you let them do it.  Do you think God will save you because the film industry is risk-averse?

Still, David was remarkable, even inspired.  Fassbender of course deserves most of the credit for a terrific and essential performance, but the filmmakers deserve some credit too.  For all its shortcomings, David, quite miraculously, succeeds as a great character because of Prometheus‘s plot, rather than despite it.  He succeeds because neither Fassbender’s performance nor the film itself precludes him from being an original, compelling departure from the longstanding android archetype and story arc.

The role androids typically fill in mainstream sci-fi cinema is as a site where the laws guiding AI behavior either break down or are revealed to be nefarious, and chaos ensues.  The androids themselves are ethically neither here nor there.  They don’t have a will worth questioning, and the lesson learned time and again is on the hubris of creating beings we can’t control, or want to control for selfish ends.   That was great and exciting and canny when Dick was writing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Clarke was writing 2001 while Kubrick was filming it, but by now it’s just a convention.  It’s been done, and done.   In Alien it still served as a legitimate dramatic development, but even then it was part of a film chiefly remembered for other things.  We haven’t had the whole “hubris, then comeuppance” story arc meaningfully updated in mainstream action-adventure cinema since Jurassic Park swapped out robots for dinosaurs in explication of our then burgeoning genetics industry.  More to the point, we arguably haven’t had a truly unforgettable AI character (that wasn’t obviously trying to kill us from the start) since HAL, and he came to us from a film old enough to posit that we’d have cryostasis and manned deep space travel by 2001.

Fassbender’s performance and Prometheus’s willingness not to explain or assert very much about David’s directives make him something new, and infinitely more compelling.  Physically, reviewers compare him to David Bowie circa Space Oddity, which I certainly see in the suave blonde space man with a bit of a British accent.  I actually saw someone else in him.  If you care to, go back to the viral and listen to how Fassbender enunciates David’s greeting, “Hello.  I’m David.”  Pause him at about 0:32.  Where have we seen those clinical, piercing and unpierceable eyes before?  Can you picture him wearing Hannibal Lecter’s mask?  I saw in David a young Anthony Hopkins, and more than a little Lecter.  While Bowie is known for that cosmic, effortless, sensual vibe, which David certainly has a bit of, he’s also played as calculating, devious, predatory, even supercilious.  Like Lecter, he has a superiority complex, and takes on a female ward–perhaps jealously.  He’s interested in her dreams.  Pathological.  In any case, David’s a very cool combination of mannerisms, and this necessarily flies in the face of the third archetypal aspect listed above: David very much betrays irritation, pleasure, a sense of irony, even joy.  Physical.  Emotional.  He’s a bit understated in his delivery, but that makes him all the more effective.  As far as allusions go, while David is visually and audibly descended from other performances, I love how the film–no doubt aware of connections that can and must be made with other works–has David explicitly model himself after a character of his own choosing.  It’s Peter O’Toole of Lawrence of Arabia that David is interested in alluding to, a film about the past, not the future, and he emulates Lawrence in more ways than his hairstyle.  It’s been awhile since I’ve seen the film, but I selected some quotes from IMDB that are dropped in Prometheus, and others that would suit David astonishingly well.

Quoted by David upon an excursion from the ship:
  Prince Feisal: …. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.

Scene depicted in-film (anticipating Dr. Shaw’s ordeal, and David’s high opinion of her survivability):
William Potter: Ooh! It damn well ‘urts!
T.E. Lawrence: Certainly it hurts.
Officer: What’s the trick then?
T.E. Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

Moments where David could stand in for Lawrence:
T.E. Lawrence: It’s my manner, sir.
General Murray: Your manner?
T.E. Lawrence: Yes. It looks insubordinate, but it isn’t really.

T.E. Lawrence: I killed two people. One was… yesterday? He was just a boy and I led him into quicksand. The other was… well, before Aqaba. I had to execute him with my pistol, and there was something about it that I didn’t like.
General Allenby: That’s to be expected.
T.E. Lawrence: No, something else.
General Allenby: Well, then let it be a lesson.
T.E. Lawrence: No… something else.
General Allenby: What then?
T.E. Lawrence: I enjoyed it.

Jackson Bentley: What attracts you personally to the desert?
T.E. Lawrence: It’s clean.

General Allenby: You acted without orders, you know.
T.E. Lawrence: Shouldn’t officers use their initiative at all times?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                General Allenby: Not really. It’s awfully dangerous.

Prince Feisal: You are an Englishman. Are you not loyal to England?
T.E. Lawrence: To England, and to other things.

David, like Lawrence, finds himself an intermediary between factions with conflicting interests (corporate interests; scientific inquiry; folks who just want to get paid and go home already) and a disastrously untamable “desert” that’s equal parts deathtrap and trove of ancient, powerful relics.  Also like Lawrence, he’s debonair, a bit conceited, eloquent, and pragmatic.  He draws from and exhibits keen interest in a film known perhaps above all for a lot of rather inspired, Shakespearean, comedic wordplay, double-meanings, and subverted expectations–in short, exactly the things robots should struggle to process, much less enjoy.  Unlike many AIs before him, David deals in language games with relish.  “Well, it’s not a traditional fetus”.  In all, it’s a surprisingly nuanced and unexpected spiritual connection between films, and I’m glad Prometheus doesn’t over-explain it.

So David breaks from the third rule of filmed robotics, and part of the second: he’s emotionally adept, charismatic, and he seems to take interest in things seemingly unrelated to any likely hidden mission.  He shoots hoops, watches movies.  The other half of what makes Prometheus refreshing is that it doesn’t assert the other half of the android archetype: it allows for the possibility of David having a free, ethically-interesting will, unhindered by directives.  It leaves his motives unknowable, unpredictable, compelling.  Possibly dynamic.  At no point does David or anyone go over what he is programmed to do or not do.  He seems to display a certain loyalty to Weyland, but there’s little to suggest his actions are existentially ‘bound’; indeed, he’s given the somewhat-out-of-the-blue line (I’m paraphrasing) “doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?”  The one scene that suggests David may have a treacherous pre-determined mission is a very important one, but I’d argue that the scene portrays David as very willful, even whimsical.  Here‘s a clip of it (unfortunately it’s abridged).

After this, David flashes a wry, victorious smile and pours the fateful drink.  Does he know something bad will happen?  Almost certainly, but there’s not a lot to suggest that David knows exactly what will happen, and even if he does, there’s not a lot to suggest that Weyland Industries knew that the crew would be discovering some sort of pathogen which would be worthwhile to infect them with via treacherous android as an experiment.  From what the film gives us, it’s more likely that David was, independently, able to discern from its writing or pictography that the ‘temple’ does contain some sort of pathogen designed to infect a host, and, perhaps he does a little advanced research upon getting a sample back to the ship.  Crucially, and kudos to the film makers for this, there can’t be too many of us for whom David is not the protagonist of this scene (if not the whole film) as far as being the character with whom your sympathies or primary interest lies.  Holloway is something of a cocky, snarky, entitled asshole who looks before he leaps in this film, and in this fateful scene especially he’s a petulant and mean-spirited crybaby.  David betrays more than a touch of irritation at Holloway’s snubs, and when we factor in Holloway’s answer to David’s final question, it’s a bit hard to argue that he isn’t getting what’s coming to him.  Yes, David comes in pre-calculated, and takes advantage of a drunk, but who’s to say that if Holloway doesn’t give the exact answer most validating of David’s intentions, or, if he answers something remotely along the lines of, “well, I certainly wouldn’t do anything astoundingly short-sighted, destructive, or unsustainable.  We humans aren’t that pathetic,” maybe things proceed a bit differently?  Even if David has had this planned long ahead of time, it’s so much more interesting to be allowed to believe that the turns of phrase used here, the ironies established, were mapped out by an interested agent on something of a whim.  And part of you, if not all, wants him to do it.

It’s the sort of delicious moment that doesn’t happen, or at least doesn’t happen as satisfyingly, if David is simply an instrument to someone else’s agenda.  He is a being seemingly not only with a free will and his own designs, but with more latitude than anyone to enforce them due to his capacities and security clearances aboard the ship.  And so he does.  The film allows this to make sense, rather than explaining it away.  Prometheus is not a good film viewed as a conspiracy mystery, and it’s a bad, cynical film as a set of questions with which to sell tickets to future such vehicles.  But as a story about a charismatic android with a bit of a superiority complex (and is it a complex?) who decides to help his “father” get his wish, while doing a nasty experiment on some humans who are hell-bent on getting themselves killed anyway, finally eloping with the survivor of said experiment, whom he seems to truly respect….it’s not too bad at all.  At least David isn’t.  And I do think David endearingly comes to find a measure of unexpected respect in Dr. Shaw, something an android without a will wouldn’t be capable of.

I noticed that in some reviews of Prometheus, critics point out that the technology on Prometheus seems quite a bit more advanced than on the Nostromo or other earlier Alien locales.  In the same vein, you might argue that canonically, it might not make sense for David to be so much more advanced than later androids in his universe.  Perhaps Ridley Scott would say, “well, I said, it’s not technically a prequel….”.  I’d say, if 21st century pre-determined blockbuster cinema has taught us anything, it’s that this sort of dot connecting doesn’t make for inspired drama.  To hell with the mythological cause and effect, already.  Perhaps humanity in this universe later decides to dumb their androids back down.  I think it’s refreshing that Prometheus at least allows for a society that’s ready for characters like David, and I guess I hope they don’t undo it a few years from now, when I probably will pony up to see the sequel if Fassbender’s involved.  David’s the sort of character we need more of.  Call him an unexpected protagonist, or a compelling villain (nearly unheard of in action-adventures like this these days). Thankfully the parallel between humans being disappointed in their makers and David being underwhelmed by his was not spelled out too bluntly or rendered too heavy-handedly.  While the rest of the crew’s disappointment is rendered by much death, bad decision-making, and gnashing of teeth, David takes his all in stride.  He has his assumptions, but he’s open to new ideas, and unlike his makers, he’s learned to enjoy the ride.


Quid Pro Quo–Another Oscar Take

In response to aharvestman’s intrepid undertaking in ranking this year’s Oscar nominees, and because I actually made an effort to see quite a few of the films this year, here is another take.  From an advocate of the devil, if you please.  I only include films or performances from films I did see, so The Social Network, The Kids are Alright, and alas Animal Kingdom (didn’t finish it) do not compute.  No films that were not nominated are included.

Supporting Actress
4. Helena Bonham Carter.  She’s smug and knows what’s best for her stuffy husband.  “Behind every great man….etc., etc.”
3. Amy Adams.   A defiant compatriot for the passive, demure Wahlberg character.  Perhaps not enough a focus of the film to become very nuanced in any particularly interesting way.
2. Melissa Leo. In an Oscar season dominated by films with domineering women (see Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception,  Winter’s Bone,  and perhaps even True Grit) it almost seems like Leo’s fun turn as a dish throwing, passive-aggressive hellspawn of a boxing manager/mother must have gotten an emblematic win.
1. Hailee Steinfeld.  Could just as easily have been nominated for best actress as the protagonist of True Grit, and would have got nearly as much consideration.  Her haggling scene early in the film belongs in the Cohen Bros.’ highlight reel.

Supporting Actor:

5.  Geoffrey Rush.   Probably even more essential to the feel-good glow of the film than Firth, Rush delivers his jokes without incident.  “Plum” really is the perfect word to describe it.   The movie is very much a farce, and for better or worse Rush allows us to take it essentially as such, if we are inclined to.

4.  Jeremy Renner. Yes, the best James Cagney since James Cagney.

3. Honorary nomination to Matt Damon for True Grit.  Surprisingly and delightfully stands toe to toe with Bridges.  Is a more original and memorable piece of ham than Rush.

2. John Hawkes.  In a film where the mode is understatement, Hawkes gives a crucial dose of leering instability and gusto.  Vaguely reminiscent of Robert Carlyle, in a good way (there is no other way).  Displays more character progression and range than the majority of performances nominated I saw this year.

1. Christian Bale.  How great to see this performance after a string of duds including his turns in The Dark Knight and Terminator Salvation.  His star had fallen pretty low in my eyes.  Probably my favorite crack-addicted character ever.

Actor:

4. Colin Firth.  Hey I’m not saying the nomination was some miscarriage of justice by ranking him so low; it was a flat character and I don’t think Firth could have done much more with it.  He acts with a speech impediment, which is the sort of trick people seem to be blown away by (also see weight-gain, weight-loss).  He shouts, and conveys struggle in a safe, family-friendly way.  He’s silly in the speech therapy montages.

3. James Franco.  Makes a film about a guy stuck under a rock watchable enough.  His natural voice, which makes him sound like his mouth must be quite dry, serves him well in this setting, where a dwindling water supply is central.   I wish the film would have had him display more of the mania he does when he interviews himself.

2. Javier Bardem.  Somehow compelling in a heavy-handed travesty-film by the director of other such heavy-handed travesty-films as Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel.  He’s as empathetic and charismatic a cancer-stricken father character as could be hoped for, and should someday win best actor in a far less overwrought movie.

1. Jeff Bridges.  I don’t know why I feel sheepish ranking him here.  He’s utterly delightful, and I wouldn’t at all consider the role a re-hash of Crazy Heart.   He’s about 680% better at acting drunk convincingly than John Wayne was in the original.   It’s not Bridges’ best role, or even his best role in a Cohen Bros. film.  Well, where the other actors on this list did admirably in films and roles with limitations, Bridges takes deft scripting and fulfills its potential.

Best Actress:

2. Jennifer Lawrence.  Her performance goes beyond the drawl and rural colloquialisms—she really does convey the desperation, stubbornness and resolve the role demands.  Makes me wish I had a big sister who taught me how to skin squirrels.  A natural, earnest strong female character.

1. Natalie Portman.   This was not an acting tour de force.  This is a case of pitch-perfect casting.  Portman basically plays a prim, stammering, eternally ruffled, often off-putting character.  This is precisely her range, to me.  This isn’t quite meant as a backhanded compliment—it’s magical when someone happens to fit a role so perfectly, and I did enjoy the film.  While the camera helped take the pressure off her dancing skills, her training clearly paid off and she makes a convincing prima ballerina, which is at least as impressive as Firth’s stutter.  The anorexic frame and plain, symmetrical pretty face are also crucial for a film this meta, and this physical.

Director:

4. Tom Hooper.  The by-the-numbers King’s Speech seems to more or less direct itself and I saw nothing in particular that suggested a theme of unique influence by a certain man.

3. David Russel.  The Fighter will be remembered for an electrifying Bale and perhaps a strong Wahlberg, two actors who would seem to require somewhat minimal direction at this point.  Otherwise the film was actually pretty conventional, even derivative, though enjoyable.   If “best director” really does equate to “most directing done” this film doesn’t seem to rank highly.

2. Darren Aronofsky.  Black Swan is a film crammed (over-crammed?) with stylistic themes and touches and really does come down to style, camerawork, and meticulous movement and scripting that belie a carefully designed machine, or funhouse.  If only it had all had come together a bit more compellingly.

1. The Cohen Bros.  What more can be said?  True Grit is by no means their best, but it’s unmistakably Cohen, and works due to their unmistakable vision and preoccupations.  This seems to have been a film where they said, “let’s just keep it accessible, and see how much fun we can have.”

Best Picture:

T7. Inception.  Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy are top notch as always. To me this film represents a disheartening pinnacle or gold-standard in modern popular cinema.   It is glossy, busy, loud, fashionable, innocuous.  It has a just-intricate-enough plot that is painstakingly telegraphed to avoid any possible confusion.  It has a Penrose staircase.  It poses the concept of epistemological skepticism.  Why?  This seems to be a film which exists precisely to be impressive for… for the sake of being impressive?  I was impressed, or gathered that I was to be impressed by the scale and professionalism of it all.  The long climax of 5 or so scenes going on at once didn’t give me to wonder so much at how Chris Nolan is a master juggler, but made each scene feel less urgent, more pre-determined.  This may be the next step from over-editing due to the audience apparently not being able to abide a shot for more than three seconds, up to not being able to abide a scene for more than three minutes.  Perhaps it could have been Hitchcockian.   But it’s just so tidy and so sheer, and so populist.  I am not anti-blockbuster epic by any means, but yearn for more human, perhaps even flawed epics.

T7 The King’s Speech.  Objections to the historical inaccuracies are well taken, but only focusing on this is perhaps a bit too formalist for me.  The most damning criticism on that front is that making the film accurate by all means would have made it more compelling.  The film was an utter farce—a kind of non-musical sequel to My Fair Lady, only this time it’s the peasant who teaches the gentry.  Sure it, say, mischaracterizes Churchill, but it also casts him as the actor who (wonderfully) played such sniveling, greasy minions as Beadle Bamford from Burton’s Sweeney Todd or Wormtail from the Harry Potter movies.   Where Inception is, to me, a new disheartening gold-standard, this movie is representative of the old disheartening gold-standard.

6.  127 Hours.   I like very much when the protagonist goes cooky for a bit, simultaneously playing a talk-show host; the repentant, sheepish interviewee;  and a guy stuck under a rock.  Also when he muses on the divine purpose and path of the rock.  Other than that there’s not much here other than a guy stuck under a rock, some underwhelming memory trips and a very, very gory sequence.

5. Toy Story 3.  About as watchable a blockbuster film as could be expected from Disney in this day and age.  And a sequel, no less.  Not impressive compared to the original, but it probably couldn’t be.  Has Michael Keaton.

4. The Fighter.  Bale’s performance is perhaps the single best of the year, and nearly everyone is admirable.  The film has a clear sense of humor, dares to be playful, and more or less everyone in it gives an above-average performance.  Solid, if unspectacular outside of Bale.

3.  Black Swan.  This film is very difficult for me to judge, I suppose I had a love-hate relationship with it.  But that’s not something most films manage to evoke.   So silly.  But fertile.  I took it at best as a rather daring allegorical depiction of solipsism (within a particular context) in the spiritual vein of American Psycho, and at worst as a cautionary tale.  I was not given at all to take it as a “psychological thriller” about a girl going crazy, just as American Psycho is not really a psychological thriller.  She is a swan, in a story.  This is a highly structural film that needed its surreal moments to be just a bit more original, its visual and audio motifs a bit more bold, and its dialogue more memorable (hammy is fine).  I laughed out loud, and this is always good.  I think I was meant to laugh.  Tchaikovsky’s music is wonderful, and the movie has license to use it over-dramatically.  I somehow doubt the film holds up well to repeated viewings.

2. Winter’s Bone.  A film that relies heavily on its setting, which is very compellingly depicted as both a hellish rural wasteland and strangely beautiful in an otherworldly way.  Does a wonderful job of evoking dread and suspense during some key scenes without relying on sudden noises or unspeakable travesties that happen for effect, or to lend magnitude (ahem, Biutiful).   When it indulges in an abstract sequence or two, they enhance rather than distract.  The plot successfully walks the fine line between being specific and immediate vs. being universal, allowing one’s own thoughts and memories to populate the film.  I really don’t see a particular anti-people-who-are-poor angle.

1. True Grit.  For some reason I feel odd putting this once again at number one but it was the most fun I had at the movies this year, meeting extremely high expectations.   A worthy addition to a film genre which almost as long as it has existed has been largely a meditation on itself.  Not a great ending.