The Critical List – 3 Movies that Got Shafted by the Academy (and 2 1/2 That Should Have)

I don’t generally get too upset about the Oscar nominations. It’s an industry award, so it’s more about film people recognizing their peers than it is about the absolute best of the year. There are also a limited number of slots in each category (something I wish they’d change for everything, like they did for Best Picture). It’s inevitable that some of the best films and performances will get left out, and 2013 is no exception. So, let’s just say I’m annoyed on behalf of these movies.

What Got Robbed:

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At least give the cat some love…

1. Inside Llewyn Davis – This is the most egregious omission, since it was considered a contender by many observers. The Coen Brothers’ portrait of a folk musician navigating the early ’60s New York scene wasn’t exactly a crowd-pleaser. In fact, it turned off some viewers, mainly because it’s a comedy that doesn’t always seem like one, and its lead character (Oscar Isaac) is kind of a dick. But Isaac is terrific in the role, the music (including a few original songs) is great, and the script is witty and complex. But all it got were nods for cinematography and sound mixing. WTF, Academy?

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Could you do this at 77? I couldn’t do it NOW.

2. All Is Lost – In any other year, Robert Redford would have a Best Actor nod locked up. His performance as a sailor stranded alone in the Indian Ocean is the very definition of “tour de force” – especially since he’s 77 years old and hasn’t been in front of the camera in years. It’s also a one-man show with very little dialogue, and a masterpiece of directing (by J.C. Chandor) and editing (by Pete Beaudreau).  All it got from the Oscars was a sound editing nom.

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Look at how cute they are!

3. Enough Said – Nicole Holofcener’s sweet, funny romance may have descended into sitcom tropes, but it still delighted me (and many others).  Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini are a surprisingly, genuinely adorable couple, and Holofcener’s script is full of smart observations about the challenges of love, especially after a certain age.  And what did it get for being this awesome?  Zippo, that’s what.

What Robbed Them:

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One of the quieter moments

 

1. August: Osage County – This adaptation of Tracy Letts’ play is shrill, oppressive, and melodramatic – and that’s in its better moments. The fact that Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts got acting nominations just proves that Streep will get nominated for everything she does (it’s the law), and Roberts can always count on accolades for playing against type. Those slots should have gone to actresses who weren’t directed to swallow the scenery whole.

EXCLUSIVE: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto film scenes together for The Dallas Buyers Club in New Orleans.

Both reasons to watch this movie

2. Dallas Buyers Club – In this case the acting nods are justified, although Matthew McConaughey is still playing a variation on his usual persona (just a very effective one). But the movie itself is muddled and heavy-handed, and would not have been on anyone’s radar without McConaughey and Jared Leto.

 

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Only if they give awards for bad hair

 

1/2. American Hustle – I really liked David O. Russell’s fictionalization of the ABSCAM scandal.  It’s a fun movie with first-rate performances by the appropriately-recognized Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. It’s hardly Russell’s best work, however, and Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper aren’t in top form either. It deserves nominations, just not so many of them.

Rome: Day 2 – Lots of Angels, No Demons, One Irritating Restaurateur

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This qualifies as “new”

Thursday was orientation day, which involved a fairly quick bus trip. It was crowded, but efficient, which turned out to be true of the Rome’s entire public transportation system.

Our stop was in front of Santa Maria in Vallicella, also known as the Chiesa Nuova, or “New Church.” It dates from the late 1500s, but it was built on the site of an earlier church, hence the nickname. In Europe, time is measured in centuries, not years.

We walked through some of those famously narrow, angled streets until our destination, the Chiostro del Bramante, was in sight. We had 45 minutes to kill, so we accepted the offer of a table at a nice little pizzeria. Every sidewalk in Rome has these small restaurants, where employees stand outside and try (usually in several languages) to get you to eat at their establishments. This particular one was run by an older man whose family had owned the place for ages. We thought, “Real Italian pizza, why not?” and took a seat. We ordered and gladly accepted the free wine. Then we waited…..and waited.  Half an hour.

Meanwhile, our Untours liaison, Mary, happened to walk by on her way to the Chiostro. She informed the proprietor that we had a meeting to get to, which he seemed to take as an offense. It did finally light a fire under the staff, who brought us our food with barely five minutes to spare. The owner tried to make it seem like slow service was a typical Italian thing, but our experience at every other restaurant on our trip proved otherwise.017

There were four other people in this Untours group – a couple in their 60s who are longtime world travelers, and a pair of older women from California.  And by “older,” I mean one of them was 91, and the other wasn’t much younger.  They travel together a lot, and every time Mom and I started to complain about being tired after a day of sightseeing, we reminded ourselves of our extreme relative youth and shut up.IMAG0694

Next came a short walk to the Castel Sant’Angelo. A pedestrian bridge across the Tiber, lined with angel statues, leads to a building that epitomizes Rome’s “layer cake” history. It was built as a tomb for the Emperor Hadrian, and years of looting have exposed the detailed brick work and other engineering feats. Over the centuries, it also served as a fortress, a prison, and a hideout for the Pope during attacks on the city.

That last use led to some spectacular artwork, especially on the ceilings. I don026‘t know what it was about Renaissance artists and ceilings, but if you ever go into a building in Rome, look up.  040It’s totally worth the neck strain.

 

We wound down with some free food and wine (everyone has a glass of wine handy in this country). When we emerged from the cafeteria, we saw the the sunset from the Castel’s balcony. It had been overcast and 034drizzly all day, so this vision was a lovely way to cap off our first real sojourn into la Città Eterna.

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More pics after the jump (click any photo to see the large version)

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“August: Osage County” – Review

august-osage-county-posterDirector: John Wells
Writer: Tracy Letts; based on his play
Cast: Meryl Streep as Violet Weston, Julia Roberts as Barbara Weston, Julianne Nicholson as Ivy Weston, Juliette Lewis as Karen Weston, Ewan McGregor as Bill, Chris Cooper as Charles, Margo Martindale as Mattie Fae, Benedict Cumberbatch as “Little Charles”, Dermot Mulroney as Steve, Abigail Breslin as Jean, Misty Upham as Johnna, Sam Shepard as Beverly Weston
Rated R
Running time: 2 hours
IMDB page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1322269

Plot: When writer Beverly Weston disappears, his family gathers at the home he shared with his volatile wife, Violet, in rural Oklahoma.

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I haven’t seen Tracy Letts’ play of August: Osage County, but the fact that it won a Pulitzer indicates that it’s probably pretty good. Given the source material, the skills of director John Wells, and the ridiculously awesome cast, it’s hard to figure out why this film adaptation is so godawful.

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Rome: Day 1 – OHMYGODWEACTUALLYDIDIT!

I know this is a movie blog, but there was no other good place to post this, so enjoy! (We did make a stop at CineCittá on Day 5, so it counts. Sort of.)

Really

Really

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Read the Movie – “Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter (2012)

In 1962, a lovely, mysterious actress appears in the tiny Italian seaside town of Porto ruinsVergogna, and the young proprietor of the local inn, Pasquale Tursi, immediately falls in love. He can’t begin to imagine the tangle of Hollywood gossip and glamour that’s about to surround his dreary world. All he knows is that this woman, Dee Moray, needs him, and he needs her.

What follows is a gorgeous romance that follows its characters through decades of good times, bad decisions, and the constant, wistful sense of “what might have been.” Besides Dee and Pasquale, Jess Walter follows studio executives, an aspiring screenwriter, and a young man who may be the offspring of a famous (and famously debauched) movie star.

Walter has a writing style that could be described as very literary, full of dense sentences and observations, not to mention constant jumps in time and place. Beautiful Ruins is the kind of book you read carefully, not casually, because you will miss something important if you’re too distracted. Those important things aren’t always plot points, either – sometimes, Walter’s insights are so piercing, they overwhelm any concerns about narrative. This is one of the best books I’ve read in years, and it left me emotionally satisfied in a way that few works of fiction can.

Read It If You Like: Old-school Hollywood scandal; studio machinations; melancholy romance; Italy.

Would It Make a Good Movie?: Only if someone could untangle the complicated storyline and multiple character arcs. It’s almost unfilmable, which may not be a bad thing. Some books just don’t lend themselves.

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” – Review

Originally published in The Kansas City Star
December 24th, 2013

Mandela-Long-Walk-to-Freedom-2013-Movie-Poster-2CHARISMATIC STARS MAKE MANDELA MEMORABLE

  • 3 out of 4 stars

Like many biographical films, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom plays like a “greatest hits” package of its subject’s life events. Starting with the tribal ritual that ushers Nelson Mandela into manhood and ending with his late-in-life emergence as a world leader, director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn GirlThe First Grader) condenses a lot of material into 2 hours and 20 minutes. Some of the film is shallow and rushed, but when it stops to take a breath, it offers a context for the news stories that have come in the wake of Mandela’s recent death.

Idris Elba is appropriately charismatic in the lead role, especially in early scenes showing his rise within the African National Congress. Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson (Les Miserables) don’t offer much explanation for Mandela’s political evolution — he starts out as a hotshot lawyer, then rather abruptly realizes that working within the apartheid system is ineffective.

The film is equally cursory when dealing with Mandela’s personal life, skimming over a failed first marriage and introducing his famous second wife, Winnie (Naomie Harris), so quickly, it seems as if they meet and marry in just a few days.

Once Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom arrives in the early 1960s, Chadwick finally taps the brakes, if only out of necessity. When the ANC begins a violent fight against the South African government, Mandela and several associates are sentenced to life imprisonment
on the brutal Robben Island. There’s no way to rush through events when your protagonist is marking time in a cell, so the film takes a more thoughtful and deliberate approach from this point.

It matches Mandela’s own transformation, as he becomes less confrontational yet, ironically, more powerful. Chadwick cuts away from the prison to show the dissolution of South Africa during this time, as the conflict between whites and blacks — and among blacks themselves — tips the country toward civil war. Winnie takes on a much greater role, as she is continually abused by the authorities and tries to become a leader in her own right.

The roots of the Mandelas’ eventual separation are explored sensitively, illustrating how her immersion in the hate-filled outside world sends Winnie on a radically different ideological path from the one her husband is traveling. Elba and Harris both give fierce, energetic
performances, garnering audience sympathy without watering down the human foibles of the icons they’re playing. Elba has to act underneath some bad makeup as Mandela ages, and Harris bears little resemblance to Winnie, but they still command every scene, even when they’re off screen (which isn’t often).

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom would have been a brilliant miniseries. As a feature film, it simply can’t have the depth that such an important story deserves. It is, however, a worthy and inspiring addition to the long list of Mandela tributes. Rated PG-13Loey Lockerby

KCFCC Award Winners

The Kansas City Film Critics Circle gave out its 47th Annual Loutzenhiser Awards on Sunday, December 15th.  Go here for the full list of winners.

DVD Reviews – “Planes” & “The Wolverine”

At KC Active this month:

www.kcactive.com/aande/videodvd/1213_dvd/index.html

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” – Review

Me = One Happy Geek!

http://www.kansascity.com/2013/12/12/4686696/desolation-of-smaug-bigger-thrills.html

Hey, Look! I’m Quotable!

I did an interview with Jen Chaney for The Dissolve, about critics’ awards. I just got one quote, but it’s good publicity for the KC critics.

http://thedissolve.com/features/exposition/307-how-much-impact-do-critics-awards-have/

“Philomena” – Review

My latest in The Star

http://www.kansascity.com/2013/11/26/4649523/philomena-a-story-of-desperation.html

New Feature – Read the Movie

Occasionally, I read books that deal with movies or movie-related themes, and I think “Gee, other people might want to know about these!” So, this page will feature information and brief reviews of books of special interest to aficionados of cinema.

First up, Marisha Pessl’s Night Film.

Read the Movie – “Night Film” by Marisha Pessl (2013)

nightfilm1When the daughter of cult filmmaker Stanislas Cordova commits suicide, journalist Scott McGrath is certain there’s more to the story. Disgraced after making unproven accusations against Cordova years ago, Scott is determined to uncover the “truth” about this mysterious character, whose films are so disturbing, they literally change the lives of those who view them.

Cordova is sort of a cross between David Lynch, Lars Von Trier and Michael Haneke, and his fans give new meaning to the word “fanatic.” As he investigates, Scott is pulled deeper and deeper into a world that messes with his sanity, and Pessl uses faux newsclippings and film stills to provide a spooky backdrop throughout (get the print version, not the e-book).

Night Film isn’t give-you-nightmares scary, but it is plenty creepy, a neo-Gothic mystery that may or may not have supernatural elements. Pessl is cagey about that last point, dragging the story out to a vague conclusion that I’m still not entirely sold on. Up until that point, reading Night Film is a harrowing, ultimately cathartic, experience, not unlike Cordova’s movies are reputed to be.

Read It If You Like: Freaky cult filmmakers, freaky cult fans, heavy atmosphere, partial resolutions.

Would It Make a Good Movie?: Absolutely. Some Cordova-like director should get on that.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” – Review

http://www.kansascity.com/2013/11/21/4637059/the-hunger-games-catching-fire.html

Central Standard Friday – 10/11/13

I review Gravity, Prisoners, Enough Said, Don Jon & Inequality for All

http://kcur.org/post/movie-critics-changing-fall-movie-season

DVD Reviews – “World War Z” & “The East”

http://kcactive.com/aande/videodvd/1013dvd/index.html

“Don Jon” – Review

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s triple-threat debut:

http://www.kansascity.com/2013/09/26/4507517/don-jon-the-humor-and-pain-of.html

“Getaway” – Review

Originally published in The Kansas City Star
August 30th, 2013

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CARS ARE STARS
In this formulaic chase thriller, the actors are just along for the ride

  • 2 out of 4 stars

Getaway would make a great video game. It’s basically a 90-minute version of the “crash mode” from Burnout, which awards points to players for causing vehicular mayhem. Instead of points, former pro driver Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke) is awarded the chance to keep his kidnapped wife alive.

Yes, it’s another movie about a man spurred to action by a threat to his woman, who cries and simpers prettily while being held hostage by a mysterious villain. Her captor knows that Brent once had a promising career, and he engaged in some shady activities when that career ended. So, he orders Brent to steal a tricked-out Shelby Super Snake Mustang and start smashing up the streets of Sofia, Bulgaria, in a seemingly random series of missions. When an unnamed teenager (Selena Gomez) jumps in-to the car, she becomes both a hostage and an accomplice (and a lure for audiences who think Hawke is “old”).

The kid has her reasons for being there, but they’re as senseless and convoluted as every other Getaway plot point. Even video game designers come up with better story lines than this. Director Courtney Solomon (An American Haunting) and writers Sean Finegan and Gregg Maxwell Parker stop occasionally to explain what’s happening, which serves only to make you wish they hadn’t. There’s car crashing to do, after all, and that’s the one thing this movie does well. Solomon avoids computerized effects, using multiple cameras (including several mounted on the cars) to capture some truly spectacular stunt driving.

Getaway rarely stops moving, and it always goes at top speed, just like its star. Obviously, that star is the Mustang, not Hawke, who does nothing but yell and drive. He and Gomez give adequate performances, but their characters have less personality than their sweet ride. Besides, they know what kind of movie they’re in. Like the audience, they just buckle up and enjoy the mayhem. Rated PG-13Loey Lockerby

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” – Review

Original published in the Kansas City Star
August 16th, 2013

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THE BUTLER DID IT
Forest Whitaker leads a star-studded cast in a moving look back at the struggle for civil rights

  • 3 out of 4 stars

In many ways, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is similar to its title character, Cecil Gaines. It looks like a bland awards-bait drama, the kind of movie everyone admires but no one loves. Similarly, Cecil makes his living by blending into the background, maintaining an air of deferential respectability. But he is a thoughtful, complicated man, and the film he anchors has similar unexpected depths.

Forest Whitaker stars as Cecil, a fictionalized version of longtime presidential butler Eugene Allen. Escaping a horrific Southern childhood, he makes his way to Washington, D.C., where his service skills land him a position in the Eisenhower White House. He stays on, through six more presidents and countless historical events, always following the advice of his first employer (Vanessa Redgrave): “The room should feel empty when you’re in it.”

That doesn’t sit well with Cecil’s oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who rejects his father’s belief that a black man who works hard within the status quo can ever gain equality. Louis joins the Freedom Riders and later the Black Panthers, instigating a familial rift that mirrors the countless real-world debates over when, where and how people should advocate for their rights. Neither side gets off easy in Danny Strong’s script, and the conflicts that erupt have a cringe-inducing authenticity (a kitchen-table argument about Sidney Poitier is truly something to behold).

There’s a lot more going on, as Cecil deals with the pressures of his job while worrying about the kids and his alcoholic wife (Oprah Winfrey, reminding us that she’s a terrific actress). A parade of famous faces appears as White House denizens, some more convincing than others. James Marsden and Minka Kelly are well-cast as the Kennedys, but you never forget that you’re watching Robin Williams instead of Dwight Eisenhower, or John Cusack instead of Richard Nixon. All the actors are good — it’s just distracting to play “spot the celebrity” every 15 minutes. The Butler benefits greatly from Whitaker’s subtle, grounded performance, which seems to bring every other cast member down-to-earth, including big stars playing historical icons.

Cecil seems to be in the room for every major race-related discussion in the Oval Office, nearly matching Louis’ tendency to be on the front lines of the civil rights movement (he’s close by during the murders of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X). There are several such convenient Forrest Gump-like coincidences, with plot developments pushing each other along like carefully arranged dominoes.

Daniels has a penchant for melodrama as well as predictability (see his Oscar-nominated Precious), and he struggles to balance this with the complexity of his subject matter. He succeeds by looking squarely at America’s racial history, providing a provocative history lesson cloaked in the white-gloved prestige of Oscar season. Rated PG-13. – Loey Lockerby

“Planes” – Review

Disney-Planes-Movie-PosterDirector: Klay Hall
Writer: Jeffrey M. Howard
Voice Cast: Dane Cook as Dusty Crophopper, Stacy Keach as Skipper, Brad Garrett as Chug, Teri Hatcher as Dottie, Roger Craig Smith as Ripslinger, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Rochelle, Carlos Alazraqui as El Chupacabra, Priyanka Chopra as Ishani, John Cleese as Bulldog
Rated PG
Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes
IMDB page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1691917/
Plot: Lowly crop duster Dusty dreams of flying in an around-the-world race, and enlists a retired fighter plane to help him prepare.
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I can just imagine the pitch meeting for Planes.  “You know how Cars is nobody’s favorite Pixar movie?  Let’s make another one just like it, but with airplanes and less famous actors!”  Dane Cook’s Dusty Crophopper isn’t nearly as arrogant as Owen Wilson’s Lightning McQueen (maybe it’s the difference in star power), he still follows the template of oh-so-many cartoon heroes before him. In fact, all the characters are pretty much interchangeable – with previous variations and with each other.

Despite its flaws, Cars engaged in the inventive world-building that has always made Pixar’s efforts such a joy to watch.  Even Cars 2 continued that thrilling visual style, as muddled and overblown as it was in every other respect.  Planes doesn’t bother making the effort, except to give eyes and voices to every vehicle. The animation is only impressive when it’s moving, especially in the POV aerial shots, which will make you want to get a pilot’s license.  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend paying extra for the 3D, but those scenes are damned impressive in the format.

As far as the plot goes, Planes is the movie Cars 2 should have been.  It has an admirable efficiency, sticking to the race storyline with few distractions.  That doesn’t make up for the lack of imagination, but it does make the blandness go by a little faster.