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Friday, February 28, 2014

American Hustle- By The Numbers

            I realize I never devoted any space to this last year, so for those of you who do not know me personally, allow me to be clear- I did not like Silver Linings Playbook.  At all.  I didn’t think it was bad.  Granted, the Indian Curry Racism Scene upon whom the entire third act is based was blindingly stupid, but for the most part, though bland and far too hammy, it was a fairly harmless movie when all was said and done.  What upset me was seeing it get 8 Oscar nominations over the ground-breaking and revolutionary Cloud Atlas.  THAT got me mad. 

            However, I accepted Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar as an apology for stiffing her for Winter’s Bone, still the girl’s best role to date, and I resolved to move on and not let the negative feelings over the movie’s absurdly overly-positive reception drag me down and spoil a new year of cinema.  In fact, prior to the announcement of the nominations, my biggest worry was the The Butler would manager to get nominations despite being its own special mess.    

            Then came American Hustle.  Once again, I found myself sitting down to watch a David Russell movie with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper that had garnered nearly endless critical praise, and had already beaten out several of my favorite films of the year for a number of major awards.  Once again, I tried to remove the hype from my mind, and just enjoy the film for what it was so as to form my own opinion.   And having now done that, I have come to one conclusion-

            I don’t get it.  I don’t get it AT ALL.  Why?  Why have I now seen two stunningly average and okay movies combine for an incomprehensible 18 Oscar nominations?  Why have Inside Llewyn Davis and Much Ado About Nothing joined Cloud Atlas in the ranks of genuine artistic accomplishments that will have next to no prestigious awards attached to their names?  WHY does everyone love this movie so much?  HOW can this be considered a serious contender for Best Picture?  How can anyone not be frustrated by Jennifer Lawrence’s increasingly questionable career choices?  Just……WHY?  WHYYYYYYYY??????

            Okay, okay, sorry, give me a minute.  Need to breathe.  Okay. 

            The degree to which American Hustle- both the film itself AND its astonishing hype- frustrates, angers, and upsets me is a topic that I could spend hours on.  I will not do that, mostly because I’d rather not speed up the inevitable hair loss on my temple.  Instead, in order for my critique of the movie to be more pointed and focused, I am merely going to list all the categories for which this movie was nominated this year, and will list all the other movies, actors, and actresses, who were far more deserving of a valuable nomination spot.  I will not bother to go into greater detail than that, because I expect this movie to fade every bit as much as Silver Linings will eventually fade, so more effort on my part would just be a waste of my time. 

            Original Screenplay

More deserving film:

Inside Llewyn Davis

            This one is particularly aggravating to me as a writer, because the script, story, and plot of Hustle is a gargled, rambling, utterly incoherent mess.  I’ll give this to Silver Linings, it may have been bland as decades-old margarine, but at least it told a cohesive, tight story.  I never knew what was going on Hustle.  I watched this with my girlfriend, and every 15 minutes we found ourselves asking each other what happened, only to realize neither of us had a clue. 

            I am told they deliberately did a large chuck of the scenes on an ad-hoc, improvised basis, and it shows, because the movie absolutely gives up towards the end, throwing in the kind of stupid, way-out-of-left-field, totally nonsensical plot twist we’ve come to expect from the likes of Shyamalan.  Some have defended this to me by saying that the story isn’t the focus, the characters are.  That’s its own barrel of problems, but we’ll come to that presently.  All I can say to that is, “Okay, so the story and writing isn’t supposed to matter.  SO WHY NOMINATE IT FOR WRITING???”

            Production Design

More deserving films:

Inside Llewyn Davis
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Pacific Rim
To The Wonder
Wolf of Wall Street
Much Ado About Nothing

            I suppose the movie does at least feel like it’s in New Jersey, but given that it was FILMED there it would take an act of stupendous anti-talent that even David Russell doesn’t have to mess that one up.  I can think of nothing about the sets, lighting, or shot composition that deserves even the slightest bit of notice.  Seriously, what is memorable about the sets here?  How do they add to anything?  I do not know.  And I hope I am never capable of knowing. 

            Film Editing

More deserving films:

Wolf of Wall Street
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
To The Wonder
Much Ado About Nothing
            I suppose I should be grateful that, unlike Linings, this one did not get nominated for cinematography, but that doesn’t make the Editing nomination this got any less strange, especially given how the editing in Wolf is one of the key reasons why it’s such an emotional powerhouse, and should have been the one award that it waltzed away with.  Like with the screenplay, the editing of Hustle only serves to make the story even less coherent and its’ characters motivations even less easy to follow. 

            Costume Design

More deserving films:

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Much Ado About Nothing

            This is actually one of the few categories where, yes, I can actually see the reason behind the nomination, because those 70’s area outfits are hilariously outlandish.  But is that really a compliment when the costumes are far, far more interesting that the actual people wearing them?  If I wanted all terribly unneeded style and no substance I’d go to a fashion show.  And The Hobbit had better costumes anyway.  Seriously, why all the Hobbit hate

            Best Directing

More deserving directors:

Joel and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis)
Spike Jonze (Her)
Joss Whedon (Much Ado About Nothing)
Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips)

            Yes, it was a tight year for good directing.  All the more reason for Russell to be nowhere near this list for yet another lackluster job.  All the above films are far better products than Hustle, and are all the distinct works of smart and immensely talented and skilled directors.  Words that I used to use to describe Russell as well, but Lord knows where he’s heading if he can’t discover the same pool of ability that helped him crank out The Fighter

            Best Supporting Actress

More deserving actresses:

Amy Acker (Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing)
Léa Seydoux (Emma, Blue Is The Warmest Color)
Carrey Mulligan (Jean, Inside Llewyn Davis)
Amy Adams (Amy, Her)

            Oh hi Jennifer Lawrence.  Fancy seeing you here.  Again. 

            Look, to a certain extent, I can understand the hype over Jennifer.  Her lack of pretension is really great to see in a profession that usually takes itself waaaaaaay too seriously, and she is genuinely talented.  But guys, come one, we are pushing her to a level of sancitifed glorification that NO public figure, no matter how genuinely nice or skilled, comes down from without at least some scarring.  We need to stop pretending that every word that tumbles out of her mouth is some glorious new prophesy of New Age, Fixing-Everything Feminism.  We need to stop treating her like she’s the perfect answer to every problem with gender representation in Hollywood.  And, above all, we need to STOP praising her and handing her oodles of awards for doing roles that she’s not fit for and cannot pull off at this point in her career.  Other actresses just as talented have worked far harder and far longer just to get one statue.  She has done nothing, thus far, SO incredibly special as to merit earning two in a row before she can legally rent a car. 

            Please, Jennifer, darling, once production of the last Hunger Games movies is over, leave.  Go far away.  Take a two-year hiatus so everyone here can calm the hell down and wipe the froth off their faces.  Then feel free to come back and do whatever you want. 

            Best Supporting Actor

Alexis Denisof (Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing)
Will Forte (Woody, Nebraska)

           You know, this particular nomination, like with costumes, I have no problem with.  Alexis Denisof and Will Forte would have been better choices; Will's turn in a serious role was an immensely pleasant surprise, given that I grew up watching him on SNL.  However, I have to give Cooper credit for succeeding in being the only person on screen who looked like he was having fun with his role.  His character actually came across as a real person, an overly-eager puppy-dog of an FBI agent with a bit of a sadistic streak (and yes, the scene with the curlers did pull a laugh out through my disapproving lips).  Everyone else just looked like they desperately needed more fiber in their diet.  Carry on Bradley.  Carry on. 

            So that’s two nominations now that I’d give this movie.  Congratulations American Hustle, you are officially slightly better than Silver Linings Playbook

            Best Actress

More deserving actresses:

Scarlett Johansson (Samantha, Her)
Adèle Exarchopoulos (Adèle, Blue Is The Warmest Color)
Emma Thompson (P.L. Travers, Saving Mr. Banks)

            Screw everyone who says otherwise, voice-acting IS real acting, and Samantha is one of Scarlett’s best roles to date, and the girl already has a great track record (so why hasn’t she been gift-wrapped an Oscar too, HUH???).  Furthermore, out of all the performances I saw this year, no one gave it their all more than Exarchopoulos did for Blue.  Love it or hate it, the weight she brings to the role is overwhelming to witness.  And do I really need to provide anyone with a reason why Emma Thompson should be on this list?  

            Best Actor

More deserving actors:

Oscar Isaac (Llewyn, Inside Llewyn Davis)
Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips, Captain Phillips)
Robert Redford (The Man, All Is Lost)
Michael B. Jordan (Oscar, Fruitvale Station)
Joaquin Pheonix (Theodore “Best Name Ever” Twombly, Her)

            If you have seen ANY of the movies above, you should be as bewildered as I am that Christian Bale managed to slip into this category.  Yes, his character was amusing, but are we really going to set the bar that low for someone who’s already won an Oscar to get a nomination OVER lesser-known superstars who could use the career boost being nominated provides?  That is a fair argument for keeping Robert Redford and Tom Hanks from the list, but not Isaac or Jordan.  And while Pheonix has been nominated before, his haunting, haunting turn in Her is more than enough of an argument for him to have been the one actor to get a second straight nomination this year. 

            Bale, I love you, but this should not have been an awards year for you. 

            Best Picture

More deserving films:

Inside Llewyn Davis
Much Ado About Nothing
All Is Lost
Fruitvale Station

            American Hustle is an hour shorter than Wolf and Blue, and yet feels like it’s an hour longer than either of those marathons.  And when that happens, there is a problem with your movie.  There are some decent parts, even some great scenes (the best one, rather pathetically, brought by Robert De Niro giving as little effort as a man can possibly bring to a role), but none of them coalesce.  The fault of that lies in its many disparate parts, and the result is that the combination of everything- the writing, acting, directing, shooting, editing, and tone- is so garbled and contradictory that, while the film is certainly a spectacle, it’s not the kind of spectacle I’m comfortable seeing garner award after award after award.  It is not a bad movie.  Sometimes, it succeeds in being good.  But great?  Best of the year?  No.  No no no no no NO.  

            Well, there you have it.  American Hustle should not have been an awards juggernaut, plain and simple, simply because in over half the categories in was nominated in, there were at least 3 or 4 other movies with much better cases for a nomination. 

            Maybe it really is me.  Maybe I just don’t operate on the right wavelength.  But who knows?  Maybe next year’s Russell piece will change my mind.  I can see it now:

            It will be called Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, and Jennifer Lawrence Wash David Russell’s Breakfast Dishes With A Rabid Dog Running Around Barking.  Bradley Cooper will be nominated for Best Actor, Bale for Best Supporting.  Jennifer will merely speak in broken Russian for the entire film, repeating the phrase “Vodka, da?” over and over, and will be nominating for Best Actress AND Best Supporting Actress (her character has bipolar disorder- the other personality will be called Simeona, and she will be a black South African woman with two heads who only speaks in Yiddish rhymes).  The rabid dog will have the only camera for filming strapped to its back the entire time, and will be nominated for Best Cinematography.  The script, consisting of 8 couplets on a single napkin, will get the Adapted Screenplay nomination.  Bradley Cooper will have a subplot wherein he makes a documentary short (which will, in and of itself, be nominated for said award) about his demented mother, whose acid trips will be nominated for Best Short Animated Film.  The Editing Team will consist of 5 apes wielding hammers, who will simply pound the cameras into a pulp.  They will, of course, be nominated too.  In the middle of the film, Bradley will wish a Rollie-Fingers moustache into existence, earning him the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.  And at the very end, instead of a credit role, Jennifer Lawrence will merely open her mouth and emit a series of erratic dubstep beats, and the Oscars for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing will be presented to her on a gilded platter by the Academy president wearing a banana-leaf toga the very next day. 

            And we will laugh, and shout, and sing, and rejoice.  And we shall repeat, over and over and over again, “All hail the Russell.  All hail the Russell.  All hail the Russell.” 

            All hail the Russell.  All hail the Russell.  All hail the Russell. 

            All hail the Russell. 

            All hail the Russell. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The 2014 Academy Awards- My Picks

            Once again, apologies for the lateness of this, but such is life.  It’s finally time for me to go through each individual category of this year’s Academy Awards and offer you my personal pick for each one (excepting the categories for which I did not see anything nominated, and thus cannot fairly choose one).  This year, 56 movies and documentaries (both short and feature-length) were nominated for a total of 24 awards. 

            As with last year, remember that these are not my predictions.  Trying to predict what the Academy will do has proven toxic to my physical well-being.  These are the films that I personally would vote for, were I a member of the voting pool. 

            I won’t do a specific run-down of who really does deserve to be here and who should be here- others have already covered that pretty darn good.  There will, however, be sporadic rants as merited by the category. 

            Alright, that’s it for an intro, since this too will be a long, long post.  Let us begin! 

Writing, Original Screenplay

Nominees: American Hustle (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell), Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen), Dallas Buyers Club (Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack), Her (Spike Jonze), Nebraska (Bob Nelson)

My Vote:  Her (Spike Jonze)

            Nothing on the other films here (American Hustle excepted of course), but the story and dialogue of Her blew me away, so for me, this one should be no competition, especially since it’s one of only two categories where Her (for now at least) stands even a remote chance of winning. 

Writing, Adapted Screenplay

Nominees: The Wolf of Wall Street (Terence Winter), 12 Years A Slave (John Ridley), Philomena (Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope), Captain Phillips (Billy Ray), Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke)

My Vote:  12 Years A Slave (John Ridley)

            12 Years is not without its flaws, but it very effectively adapts a book in a way that captures its essential tone and theme and story, but without romanticizing it to the degree that this movie would have been in lesser hands.  Wolf of Wall Street is also a possible winner, but I’m not picking it here because I feel the movie’s strengths lie more in its editing, cinematography, and acting, and not so much in the writing department. 

Best Visual Effects

Nominees: Gravity (Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, David Shirk, Neil Corbould), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, Eric Reynolds), Ironman 3 (Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash, Dan Sudick), The Lone Ranger (Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams, John Frazier), Star Trek: Into Darkness (Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Ben Grossmann, Burt Dalton)

My Vote:  Gravity (Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, David Shirk, Neil Corbould)

            Really, no contest.  At all.  Smaug was a wondrous visual achievement, easily the coolest-looking dragon yet put to film, but Gravity was a powerful reminder that effects are about far more than just action. 

Best Sound Mixing

Nominees: Captain Phillips (Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith, Chris Munro), Gravity (Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Bernstead, Chris Munro), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Christopher Boyes, Michael Hedges, Michael Semanik, Tony Johnson), Inside Llewyn Davis (Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff, Peter F. Kurland), Lone Survivor (Andy Koyama, Beau Borders, David Brownlow)

My Vote:  Gravity (Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Bernstead, Chris Munro)

            There are cases to be made for each of these movies, but they will not win, and honestly, the use of sound was one of Gravity’s biggest strengths, more important (I’d argue) that its use to special effects.   

Best Sound Editing

Nominees: Lone Survivor (Wylie Stateman), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Brent Burge, Chris Ward), Gravity (Glenn Freemantle), Captain Phillips (Oliver Tarney), All Is Lost (Steve Boeddeker, Richard Hymns)

My Vote:  Gravity (Glenn Freemantle)

            And Gravity gets this one too.  Really, the technical awards will be the least-surprising of the night.    

Short Film, Live Action

Nominees: Aquel No Era Yo (Esteban Crespo), Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Xavier Legrand, Alexandre Gravas), Helium (Anders Walter, Kim Magnusson), Do I Have To Take Care Of Everything? (Selma Vilhunen, Kirsikka Saari), The Voorman Problem (Mark Gill, Baldwin Li)

My Vote:  N/A

            Sadly, I was not able to see a single one of the films on this list, so I cannot cast a vote for it. 

Short Film, Animated

Nominees: Feral (Daniel Sousa, Dan Golden), Get A Horse! (Lauren MacMullan, Dorothy McKim), Mr. Hublot (Laurent Witz, Alexandre Espirages), Possessions (Shuhei Morita), Room On The Broom (Max Lang, Jan Lachaur)

My Vote:  N/A

            Get A Horse! is the only film on this list I was able to see (as it was shown before Frozen), and as such, I can’t in good faith pick a winner here, having nothing to compare it to. 

Best Original Song

Nominees: “Happy” from Despicable Me 2 (Pharrell Williams), “Let It Go” from Frozen (Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez), “The Moon Song” from Her (Karen O and Spike Jonze), “Ordinary Love” from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (U2)

My Vote:  “Let It Go” from Frozen

            I wouldn’t mind seeing “The Moon Song” take this one, but there’s no getting around just how great a powerhouse piece “Let It Go” is, the first not-villain Disney song in years to stay with me for, quite literally, a whole month after first hearing it. 

Best Production Design

Nominees: American Hustle (Judy Becker and Heather Loeffler), Gravity (Andy Nicholson, Rosie Goodwin, and Joanne Woollard), The Great Gatsby (Catherine Martin and Beverly Dunn), Her (K.K. Barrett and Gene Serdena), 12 Years A Slave (Adam Stockhausen and Alice Baker)

My Vote:  Her

            This is a hard pick, because with the obvious exception of American Hustle, I see no reason for any of these nominees to not win.  I’ll go with Her in my ballot though, because it’s unlikely to win anything else, and it deserves to be a multiple winner. 

Best Original Score

Nominees: The Book Thief (John Williams), Gravity (Steven Price), Her (William Butler and Owen Pallet), Philomena (Alexandre Desplat), Saving Mr. Banks (Thomas Newman)

My Vote: Gravity

            Again, no contest, although Her would not be unworthy of winning this one as well.  The swells of Gravity still haunt me, and is one of only two soundtracks from this year I felt compelled to buy. 

Makeup and Hairstyling

Nominees: Dallas Buyer’s Club (Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews), Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (Stephen Prouty), The Lone Ranger (Joel Harlow and Gloria Pasqua-Casny)

My Vote:  Dallas Buyer’s Club

            Amazing.  After last year’s terrible exclusion of Cloud Atlas from this category, I thought this award couldn’t become any more of a joke.  Unfortunately, it seems the academy was determined to prove me dead wrong.  I look at this list, and the only thought that runs screaming through my head is an endless, “WHAT THE HELL????”  Bad Grandpa?  You HAVE to be kidding me.  No Hobbit?  No Gatsby?  Hell, no American Hustle?  Critics have been gorging themselves on Bale’s toupee, I’d actually prefer to see that win all on its own that to have to type two of these titles into an Oscar post. 

            And speaking of Lone Ranger, I have not seen it.  I will never see it.  More importantly, I do not need to ever see it, because it is offensive on a level that boggles the imagination, thus rendering any need for anyone to ever see this movie a moot point. 

            But how can I be that harsh on a movie I’ve never seen, you may ask?  Simple.  Johnny Depp as Tonto.  That is the only reason I need.  And no, that is not unfair, for the exact same reason that Depp playing Solomon Northrup in backface would be wretchedly disgusting and offensive on every conceivable level.  Native Americans have been dealt an even worse historical hand than African-American slaves were, and have been treated by whites just as poorly.  The least we can do- the VERY least we can do- is, when there is a major blockbuster film with a Native American character in it, YOU CAST A F***ING NATIVE AMERICAN FOR THE ROLE.  PERIOD, END OF SENTENCE. 

            So, obviously, there is one- and ONLY one- choice for this award. 

Foreign Language Film

Nominees: The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium), The Great Beauty (Italy), The Hunt (Denmark), The Missing Picture (Cambodia), Omar (Palestine)

My Vote:  Omar

            I still find The Hunt unbearably boring.  Sadly, it’s the only film on this list I’ve actually seen thus far.  However, Omar sounds like my kind of film, so even if I can’t squeeze it in before Oscar Night, I feel confident enough in giving it my vote. 

Film Editing

Nominees: American Hustle (Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alan Baumgarten), Captain Phillips (Christopher Rouse), Dallas Buyer’s Club (John Mac McMurphy, Martin Pensa), Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger), 12 Years A Slave (Joe Walker)

My Vote:  Gravity

            For me, this one’s a toss-up between Gravity and 12 Years, and both are worthy winners.  Gravity will almost certainly take it though.  It's a shame that Wolf isn't nominated here, because otherwise that would be my pick.  

Documentary, Short Subject

Nominees: Cave Digger (Jeffrey Karkoff), Facing Fear (Jason Cohen), Karama Has No Walls (Sara Ishaq), The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life (Malcolm Clarke, Nicholas Reed), Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall (Edgar Barens)

My Vote:  N/A

            See Short Films above. 

Documentary Feature

Nominees: The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Signe Byrge Sorensen), Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling, Lydia Dean Pilcher), Dirty Wars (Richard Rowley, Jeremy Scahill), The Square (Jehane Noujaim, Karim Amer), 20 Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville, Gil Frieson, Caitrin Rogers)

My Vote:  N/A

            And again, see above.  It would be cool to see The Act of Killing win though. 


Nominees: American Hustle (David O. Russell), Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron), Nebraska (Alexander Payne), 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen), The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

My Vote:  Gravity

            This is actually the hardest category for me this year.  Even without the Coen Brothers in the running, it’s tight.  Scorsese, Cuaron, and McQueen are all powerhouse cases for this award.  Alexander Payne did excellent work with Nebraska, but his time to win will come soon enough.  Scorsese has only won once, and has absolutely deserved more Oscar Gold, plus Wolf is his best film in years, so a powerful argument can be made for him to win.  However, he HAS won, and since equally strong cases can be made for Cuaron and McQueen, I’m inclined to vote for one of the younger artists who have not yet gotten the trophy, and Cuaron is a little more established than McQueen.  Like with Payne, I’m confident McQueen, too, will have his Directing Oscar day. 

Costume Design

Nominees: American Hustle (Michael Wilkinson), The Grandmaster (William Chang Suk Ping), The Great Gatsby (Catherine Martin), The Invisible Woman (Michael O’Connor), 12 Years A Slave (Patricia Norris)

My Vote:  12 Years A Slave

            The outlandishness of Hustle and Gatsby may make the films flashier, but there’s an added strength given to a film when the costumes and set designs effectively recreate the world and time period in which they’re set, and 12 Years fully immerses the viewer in the Antebellum South. 


Nominees: The Grandmaster (Philippe Le Sourd), Gravity (Emmanuel Lubezki), Inside Llewyn Davis (Bruno Delbonnel), Nebraska (Phedon Papamichael), Prisoners (Roger A. Deakins)

My Vote:  Inside Llewyn Davis (Bruno Delbonnel)

            Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, Gravity is going to skip away with this one, but I don’t care, because damnit, Inside Llewyn Davis needs to win something, since it fell just shy of being this year’s Cloud Atlas.  Its complete lack of love still stings though especially since I suspect it was knocked out of most categories by the Academy’s heroin-related addiction to David O. Russell’s breakfast plates. 

Animated Feature Film

Nominees: The Croods (Chris Sanders, Kirk DeMicco, Kristine Belson), Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Peter Del Vecho), Despicable Me 2 (Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin, Chris Meledandri), The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki), Ernest & Celestine (Benjamin Renner, Didier Brunner)

My Vote:  The Wind Rises

            I am loathe to extend any recognition to the dismal output from American animation studios this year.  Yes, Frozen was good, but it was not great.  There are timing and pacing issues that make what should be an epic journey feel rather shortchanged, and the soundtrack is only slightly better than Tangled’s terrible, terrible sequence of pop ballads, the effectiveness of “Let It Go” and “Do You Want To Build A Snowman” notwithstanding. 

            I firmly suspect that a not insignificant portion of the praise heaped upon it was influenced by how every other animated movie release in the States last year added up to a big, empty ball of nothing, which made people all the more receptive to Frozen’s genuine charms and far more willing to overlook its glaring flaws.  I don’t agree with those who argue that it’s emotionally damaging to kids (it’s far tamer than most classic Disney fare), and I also disagree with those who argue that it’s an insidious step back for Disney in terms of how it portrays females, but I can’t help but wonder how big it would have been had it been released a year ago, where it would have been in competition with Wreck-It-Ralph and ParaNorman (by the way, OH MY GOD LAIKA HAS A NEW MOVIE COMING OUT THIS YEAR HOLY CRAAAAAAP okay I’m done). 

            Look, Wind Rises is, in all likelihood, Miyazaki’s last film, and he should have gotten an Oscar for Mononoke, which came out before the Best Animated Film Category existed, and since the Academy is often big on “apology” Oscars (see Iron Lady and Jennifer Lawrence’s win last year), why not give Miyazaki one?  He’s earned it in a way few others ever will. 

Best Supporting Actress

Nominees: Blue Jasmine (Sally Hawkins), American Hustle (Jennifer Lawrence), 12 Years A Slave (Lupita Nyong’o) August: Osage County (Julia Roberts), Nebraska (June Squibb)

My Vote:  12 Years A Slave

            I have refrained from going after American Hustle for the most part, because I plan to tackle it in an entirely separate post.  For now, however, because it cannot be stressed enough, let me be clear; Jennifer Lawrence is a wonderfully talented actress, and her humble demeanor and sense of humor about herself make her an excellent role-model-in-the-making.  And she has absolutely no business being nominated for this award.  She had no business being nominated last year, and even less winning the actual award.  She is immensely skilled, but in Hustle, she was desperately and viscerally miscast.  More on this later.  

            Nyong’o is far and away the most deserving nominee for this award.  I can accept Jennifer’s win last year as an apology for passing her over in Winter’s Bone, but this year, she should be able to graciously take back stage for a change.  And hopefully disappear for a year or two once production of the last Hunger Games movies is over, because the girl is dangerously close to over-exposure at the moment. 

Best Supporting Actor

Nominees: Captain Phillips (Barkhad Abdi), American Hustle (Bradley Cooper), 12 Years A Slave (Michael Fassbender), The Wolf of Wall Street (Jonah Hill), Dallas Buyer’s Club (Jared Leto)

My Vote:  Captain Phillips

            Barkhad was a powerful presence as the Somali pirate captain without even trying.  What a great debut performance for the guy.  I sincerely look forward to his next appearance, whenever that happens to be. 

Best Actress

Nominees: American Hustle (Amy Adams), Blue Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), Gravity (Sandra Bullock), Philomena (Judi Dench), August: Osage County (Meryl Streep)

My Vote:  Blue Jasmine

            Sandra Bullock would definitely earn winning this as well, but Blanchett really is in a class all her own this time around.  Addiction is a hard thing to really, truly capture, since only those who’ve fought it can fully understand it, and her ability to bring it to life, in all its complexity, was the glue that bound together Blue Jasmine’s disparate parts.           

Best Actor

Nominees: American Hustle (Christian Bale), Nebraska (Bruce Dern), The Wolf of Wall Street (Leonardo DiCaprio), 12 Years A Slave (Chiwetel Eijiofor), Dallas Buyer’s Club (Matthew McConaughey)

My Vote:  12 Years A Slave

            This is also a hard one, especially since (as a great many have pointed out), DiCaprio is still Oscar-less, despite the formidable filmography he’s put together over the years.  I suspect this role will be the primary inspiration for his eventual “apology” Oscar a decade or so down the line.  And as much as he would be win-worthy in any other year, however, I’d still rather see Eijiofor take this one, mostly because he’s almost as universally unknown outside really dedicated film circles as DiCaprio is known, and this would be a great boost to his career. 

Best Picture

Nominees: Captain Phillips (Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca), American Hustle (Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon), Nebraska (Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa), Philomena (Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan, Tracey Seaward), 12 Years A Slave (Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen, Anthony Katagas), Dallas Buyer’s Club (Robbie Brenner, Rachel Winter), The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joey McFarland, Emma Tillinger Koskoff), Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, David Heyman), Her (Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze, Vincent Landay)

My Vote:  12 Years A Slave

            My pick for Best Picture this year, like my pick of Lincoln last year, is by no means a perfect film.  It fiddles with the historical record a bit to suit its needs, the editing has its odd moments, and Brad Pitt’s Canadian accent is still terrible.  That’s not why it should (or shouldn’t) win.  It should win because it is the most consequential and important film to come out this year.  Gravity was a new technical revolution.  Wolf was a bitter and powerful rebuke of modern financial systems.  Nebraska, Phillips, and Her were emotionally engaging mood pieces.  American Hustle set the bar for the Academy lower than ever before.  None of them are as necessary as 12 Years A Slave, because it is the first movie in….well, ever, really, to tackle the nature of American slavery head-on and without restraint.  It is the Schindler’s List of American history- brutal, terrifying, hard-to-watch, but needed, because without reminders like this to keep our awareness of the evil in humanity intact, we merely condemn ourselves to repeating the same mistakes over and over again. 

            And that’s it!  All my picks for the 2014 Academy Awards.  To sum up, here are the films I think should win, along with the number of awards I think they merit:

Gravity- 6
12 Years A Slave- 5
Her- 2
Blue Jasmine- 1
Captain Phillips- 1
The Wind Rises- 1
Frozen- 1
Inside Llewyn Davis- 1
Dallas Buyer’s Club- 1
Omar- 1

            The Oscar telecast will take place Sunday night, March 2nd, with Ellen Degeneres hosting.  Tune in to hear my screams of agony rippling through the airwaves. 

            Until next time. 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, February 10, 2014

In Memorium- Philip Seymour Hoffman, Justin Carmical, James Avery

                I really wish I didn’t have to write this.  However, although 2014 is still young, we’ve already lost some important people in the world of visual entertainment.  I was initially not going to devote a whole post to this topic after James Avery’s death, but when his passing was quickly followed by those of Justin and Philip, I felt it would be terribly avoidant of me to not say…..well, something, especially since two of these deaths were particularly sudden and tragic. 

                This is not going to be in any particular order.  There is no structure to this.  I’m not informed enough to offer a detailed analysis of the legacies of these individuals, or to provide an overview of their work as a whole.  Like with my tribute to Roger Ebert last year, this post will just be my thoughts on each of these great men.  My words on them won’t be terribly detailed, but they will at least be honest.  I pray that each of them, in their own way, have found rest and peace.  May God bless them and keep them forever. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)

                The role that will always define Hoffman, for me, was his powerful turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in 2013, for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (and for which, in my opinion, should have won).  I know he’s remembered by so many others from The Big Lebowski, and by others for Capote, but since that was the first time I really saw him in a lead role, that is the performance of his that will always be the most iconic for me.  I had already started to get excited about seeing his earlier works and awaiting his next projects when I heard of his passing, and like the loss of any great talent, it’s heartbreaking that he will no longer be around to create more works of great art for us.  Thank you for the inspiration, good sir. 

Justin Carmical, aka JewWario (1971-2014)

                Justin was one of the producers for That Guy With The Glasses that I never really followed on his own.  My only exposure to his style and humor were in his crossovers with others on the site, along with his roles in the anniversary movies Kickassia, Suburban Knights, and To Boldly Flee.  The ones that will always stick out the most to me, however, are his contributions to Suede’s series of reviews of the Pokemon movies (a series which, sadly, may now no longer be continued).  Seeing someone much older than me who could still be so passionately enthusiastic about Pokemon was immensely uplifting for me, and actually inspired my current efforts to revisit my childhood obsession.  Even if Suede and Linkara decide to discontinue the series, those few reviews will remain some of my favorite works on the site, and through those and many others, I know Justin will continue to live on in the hearts of our community.  Thank you, Justin, for contributing to that world. 

James Avery (1945-2013)

                Out of the three deaths being lamented here, this one had the most personal meaning for me.  There was a several year period during high school where NickatNite was, effectively, my entire weekend- I would spend hours each night, sometimes until 2 or 3 in the morning, watching the channel’s reruns of old sitcoms; The Cosby Show, M.A.S.H., Three’s Company, Cheers, That 70’s Show, and, of course, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (along with many others).  And Fresh Prince, along with M.A.S.H. and The Cosby Show, still ranks among my favorite TV shows of all time.  Looking back, I realize that while I was initially drawn to the show for Jeffrey’s wry snarkiness and the raw energy that Will Smith and Alfonso Ribeiro brought to their roles, I was also slowly able to appreciate the more serious and adult (but still hilarious) emotional balance provided by Uncle Phil, who was perfect as both the stern disciplinarian antagonist in some episodes, and as the loving pillar of parental support in others.  Uncle Phil- his rages, his affections, his flaws, and his jokes- were a significant presence in my life during those years, and like all my other favorite roles and characters, will always be a part of me.  Thank you Mr. Avery.  Thank you so, so much for all the laughs, and all the memories. 

                Thank you as well to those of you who read this.  These wonderful people, as flawed and as beautiful as any of us, are gone.  We can’t change that, however much we wish we could.  However, we do have the power to make sure that they and their work will not die, that their contributions to our world live on in our hearts and in the hearts of others.  So let’s keep spinning people.  As we go on creating new art, let’s the time every so often to re-appreciate the old. 

                Until next time. 

-Noah Franc 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

My Top 10 Movies of 2013

            And here we are at last- once again, despite massive delays, it’s time to throw all objectivity aside so that I can gush about the 10 movies of 2013 that I loved the most.  Thus far, I have seen 42 movies from 2013, 32 of which I reviewed for this blog.  Sadly, due to the persistence of an archaic international release schedule, I am still not caught up on all the major Oscar nominees, nor have I had the opportunity to see either Fruitvale Station or The Wind Rises.  As such, it is only right that I start by apologizing for the absence of said films from this list.  Should any of them make enough of an impression to merit a changing of this list (when I am able to see them), it shall be updated post haste.  Click here for my own personal awards post, released last month.  

            In order for a film to qualify for this list, it had to meet one of the following conditions; it had to get either a theatrical release OR a festival premiere in either the US or Germany anytime between January and late December 2013.  This means that movies that premiered at festivals like Nippon, for example, were eligible, even if they never got a theatrical release.  This also means that movies like First Position and Blancanieves, which initially came out in festivals and other countries in 2012, were eligible as well, because both got a theatrical release in Germany in the summer and fall, respectively.  Yeah, those are pretty loose rules, but I decided to do it this way anyway, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to put a third of my list on here. 

            And of course, as always, everything that follows is my opinion, what I think right now as I look back at the long list of films I saw this year.  There are other, equally good (or even better) movies from this year that are not on the list, like Blue Is The Warmest Color, Wadjda or Captain Phillips, not because I didn’t like them, but simply because I personally didn’t love them to the same degree that I did others. 

            Alright, enough dallying, let’s begin. 

Honorable Mentions:

And now, the main list:

10.  Blancanieves  (Pablo Berger)

            All I knew walking in to this one was that it was a silent, black-and-white Spanish version of Sleeping Beauty, and when I walked out, I knew that I’d seen a modern silent masterpiece of a film.  Blancanieves is a wonderful reminder of the visual power of this medium, how simple looks and brief shots, when done right, can convey so much more than any piece of exposition.  I already gave the villainous mistress a shout-out in my Awards post, and while she is the biggest scene stealer, Sofia Oria brings the right amount of sweet innocence to her role to keep things balanced.  It’s a crime this movie isn’t as widely regarded as The Artist

9.  The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

            Wolf of Wall Street, along with 12 Years A Slave, was one of the hardest movies to watch this past year without flinching.  It is an exuberant bundle of energy that manages to never let up for three whole hours, something very, very few filmmakers are able to achieve to any degree of success.  DiCaprio and Hill bring in career-best performances, and it may one day top The Departed as my favorite Scorsese work.  It’s a shame the Oscar ranks are so crowded this year, because while I would still rather see the acting awards go to 12 Years a Slave, DiCaprio’s Oscar is long, long overdue, and I can’t help but wonder if and how he’ll manage to top this one. 

8.  Key of Life (Kenji Uchida)

            What else can I say about Key of Life to get you all to see it?  I laughed more than I did watching any other film this year.  All three of its leads are funny, hapless, adorable, and sympathetic, all at once.  It has Stooges-esque stapstick.  It has hilarious dialogue.  And it left me with that wonderfully warm, fuzzy feeling that so few movies manage to give me. 

7.  Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)

            This year’s Life of Pi/Avatar, Gravity is my kind of big-screen, special-effects spectacle.  Set in space, probably the most philosophical place in the universe, carried by the best performance I’ve ever seen from Sandra Bullock, and achieving an astonishing degree of technical perfection, Gravity was a buckshot of reality to the face of every other major 3D movie of the year (yes, even Pacific Rim), resounding proof that big budgets don’t have to be lavished on repeated action beats.  Its own unique kind of space epic, this movie has me even more pumped for Nolan’s next film, Interstellar, set to come out this year.  No, the projects, aren’t related, except that I assume Interstellar will have to do with space.  Sorry, I’ll stop digressing now.  Gravity.  Loved it.  Favorite soundtrack of the year too. 

6.  L'Écume des Jours (Michel Gondry)

            If I did an award for biggest acid-trip, this movie would have just edged out the boggling visuals of The Congress, because while the insanity of that movie took up a full two-thirds of the running time, L'Écume des Jour never leaves its world of malleable everything.  I could do a whole commentary on the social and cultural undertones present in some of its more interesting scenes.  Also, I’m a big fan of movies that unabashedly shift genre and tone with little warning, which happens several times over the course of the movie, and this movie did that better than any other I saw this year.  Now a film for everyone- it’s in-your-face weirdness will be off-putting for more than a few- but if you are up for it, it’s one hell of a trip. 

5. Her (Spike Jonze)

            This movie deeply affected me, and if I could allow myself any more time in formulating this list, I would quite possible feel compelled to put this movie higher, but this list is over a month late, and I really, really need to get onto my Oscar post as soon as possible.  So for now, it’s getting the number 5 slot, although I may revisit this list in a couple of months once my thoughts have settled (and my Oscar angst has been purged from my veins with fire).    

            That said, even though it was the last film of 2013 I saw prior to compiling this list, few other movies of the year had me feeling so reflective afterwards.  Spike Jonze has only made four feature-length films so far, but all of them have provocative, enriching, and engaging in all the right ways.  Her is a powerful look at the nature of love and relationships, saying far more about the subject than every single Nicholas Sparks book and/or movie put together.  Joaquin Pheonix gives a performance every bit as emotionally powerful as his turn in last year’s The Master (sadly, he was denied another nomination this year because the Academy would apparently rather nominate David Russell’s used spoons than give a piece of the limelight to an actor that actually deserves the gold), and Scarlett Johansson (as only a voice, mind you) gives the best performance of her career.  I wish this had come out earlier enough for me to give it a review.  Ah well.   

4.  12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen)

            Any movie that makes me cry harder than I have EVER cried during the credits has earned a Top 5 spot on a list of mine.  This is the most brutally accurate depiction of slavery ever put to film, but its merits go beyond that.  The acting is as powerful as anything else from this year.  Hans Zimmer, so derided for his liberal usage of tubas in other movies, turns in one of his best efforts to date.  And Steve McQueen has further established himself as a major rising talent.  This should be essential viewing for all juniors and seniors taking American history in the near future.    

3.  Much Ado About Nothing  (Joss Whedon)

            Joss Whedon has given us a perfect example of how to “modernize” Shakespeare- that is, to place it in present times, with modern dress, settings, and speech patterns- without losing the essential nature of the story and characters.  This might very well be my favorite film adaptation of Shakespeare yet made, with all due respect to Kenneth Branagh’s immensely impressive body of work.  It’s cleverly and beautifully shot, and even the ridiculously stupid male leads, who essentially drive a girl to “suicide,” get moments of real sympathy, something I thought impossible after I first read this particular play.  A shame it’s gotten zero love from the awards rounds. 

            On a side note, what a surprisingly good year for black-and-whites.  That just occurred to me, actually. 

2.  Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen)

            Like last year's mental duel between Cloud Atlas and Lincoln, this was a close, close call between my top two.  This is a new favorite of mine from the Coen Brothers, still my favorite set of directors in the business today (excepting Miyazaki).  It’s a surprisingly underplayed tale of mediocrity and frustration, and about the seemingly endless loops our lives often appear to fall into.  Oscar Isaac has given us one hell of a breakout performance, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.  The soundtrack, as much a focus here as it was in O Brother, Where Art Thou, also deserves special mention, and was my second favorite of the year, second only to Gravity

1.  Asura (Keiichi Sato)

                But yeah- despite how much I love Inside Llewyn Davis and Much Ado About Nothing, despite how powerfully effective I found Gravity, Wolf, and 12 Years to be- from the moment I saw this dark, gripping work at Nippon way back in June, a part of me knew I’d already seen my top film of the year.  I mentioned in my review that the movie utilizes a new form of hybrid animation, with backgrounds done in watercolor and characters rendered with CGI, which is fascinatingly well-done, but my love for this movie goes far beyond admiration for its visuals.  There is a tragically beautiful irony that the main character, even more violent and depraved than Belfort or Epps, is forced to confront the evil he’s done not by being punished or hurt himself (his own capacity to endure physical pain seems endless), but by watching the effect it has on the few people he genuinely does care about.  It’s a brutal, stark film, one of the most creative animated works I’ve seen in years, and it is my favorite movie of 2013. 

            And there you have it!  My 10 favorite movies from 2013.  Hope you enjoyed reading, and feel free to leave comments below.  I will be doing Oscar catch-up this month, but I’ll only review any that really leave a big impact on me.  Otherwise, this month will feature my picks for the Oscars, and, sadly, a collective farewell post for several performers we’ve already lost in an incredibly short space of time this year.  But that’s for another day. 

-Noah Franc