Friday, February 28, 2014

Final Oscar Predictions (Including "Analysis" and Personal Choices!)

I guess it should be said that I am historically bad at choosing the Oscars, because I too often pick with my heart as opposed to what logic and precedent seem to be pointing toward. That being said, a good percentage of the fun comes from the prognostication, the deliberating and the predicting. So, alas, here are my choices for all 24 categories, including partial "analysis" (*giggles*) for the major categories and my own personal choices. So let's start with the Big Seven:

Best Director
Nominees: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity; Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave; Alexander Payne, Nebraska; David O. Russell, American Hustle; Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

The inclusion of Payne and Scorsese are exceptional choices and outside of J.C. Chandor (All is Lost), I cannot complain too loudly about omissions as this ballot would not look too much differently from mine. Scorsese is a living legend behind a film that many are calling his best in decades, but Wolf of Wall Street has been greatly polarizing and the strong force behind this movie's success in awards season comes from enthusiasm for its main star (more on that later) and less to do with Scorsese's filmmaking. Payne's films are always phenomenally crafted and Nebraska is one of his best, but the film still holds the dubious title of being the "lowest grossing Best Picture nominee" - I think he's happy just to be around. Which leads to the three directors behind the three most-nominated films. David O. Russell is beloved by the actor's branch and has been riding a lot of awards traction with his last three films - but his style is defined by controlled messiness and his notorious reputation make him seem like a rabid filmmaking personality which puts him just behind the next two nominees, I think. Cuaron and McQueen are both nominated for work that is awards-worthy, and both made films that are top-to-bottom illustrations of their pointed visions. Yet, their visual styles could not be any more different, with Cuaron exploring the limits of visual stylization and McQueen rubbing up against you with his aggressive formalism. Either choice would be correct, but I think Cuaron's style is easier to notice which gives him an edge.

Prediction: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Personal Pick: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

Click Here to See The Rest of the Predix

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Monuments Men (**)

Directed by George Clooney

George Clooney's directorial efforts come pre-packaged with ideas and statements, with thought-provoking ideals meant to help the human race improve. Perhaps the one exception is his first film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but that was from a Charlie Kaufman screenplay and was so preoccupied with the thin line between sexual deviancy and obsessive violence that Clooney's direction had a little bit of trouble keeping up. Good Night, and Good Luck earned him a Best Director nomination and was probably the closest he ever came to truly embodying his idealistic morales, but most of the power in that film came from the brilliant, all-consuming performance from David Strathairn who played Edward Murrow with the perfect balance of celebrity mimicry and metaphor mouthpiece. He's only really made one bad film, and that was 2011's Ides of March which seemed a lot more outraged about political corruption than its audience did. And yet, his films never seem to feel as important as it seems he wants them to be. The Monuments Men is another installment in that tradition.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Gloria (***1/2)

Directed by Sebastian Lelio


A performance like Paulina Garcia's in Gloria is difficult to appreciate properly. On the surface, it seems dictated by its physicality and carnality, which is why more sexually explicit storytelling doesn't translate as successfully in American cinema. It's been thirteen years since Halle Berry won an Oscar for Monster's Ball and still people only think about the sex scenes when they're forced to recall that performance. Sex scenes aren't at the core of Gloria the way they were with Monster's Ball, and Gloria treats its sexual elements more frivolously, without all of the therapeutic subtext. Garcia's work here is just as bold as Berry's was in 2001, but she's not the same star nor does she possess the same movie star beauty. Garcia doesn't have to depend upon the sex scenes to elevate her character, even though they do so all the same. Garcia's work here is similar to the terrific work Julia Louis-Dreyfuss did in last year's Enough Said, which also dealt with an upper-middle-aged woman dealing with complications of being single and dating at an advanced age. But Enough Said was made by the great Nicole Holofcener, an expert at extracting great work from veteran actresses. Gloria is made by Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio, who may prove to have a similar ability down the road.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Lego Movie (***)

Directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller


The two directors behind this year's first legitimate box office blockbuster (no shade on Ride Along, I just think that movie was a much bigger surprise then people expected it to be) have proven adapt at making incredibly witty features out of very shallow source material. In 2009, they created a surprisingly charming film out of the very short children's book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and in 2012 they had an even bigger success when they totally remade 21 Jump Street from scratch and made that year's best comedy. They weigh their scripts with as many jokes as possible - I wouldn't be surprised if laughs-per-minute (LPM) was an actual stat that they tried to keep track of in writing sessions - and their humor is sprinkled with that cynical irony that's all the rage these days. I think that kind of humor works terrifically for the R-rated 21 Jump Street (and their upcoming sequel, 22 Jump Street), but does it work in a children's film? They pulled it off with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and with their latest film, The Lego Movie, they're out to prove that it wasn't just an aberration.

The Great Beauty (***1/2)

La Grande Bellezza
Written and Directed by Paolo Sorrentino


The Great Beauty has Federico Fellini's fingerprints all over it. The specter of Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini's most famous acting collaborator, haunts all of its images. And yet, Paolo Sorrentino's latest film feels so incredibly fresh and crisp. It's both a love letter to Fellini, the most beloved of all Italian filmmakers, and announcement of the country's new crop of directors. It spends nearly its entire 142 minutes in a delicate balancing act between homage and grandstanding - the film's trying to preen and also stay humble. The film takes place in Rome, one of the world's most famous and beautiful cities, and like Fellini, Sorrentino loves exploiting its lavish landscapes and astonishing architecture, but is not above prodding the city for its religious hypocrisy and materialistic culture. The film opens with a deafening club scene, everyone who's on the floor is dancing because it's too loud to talk. The lights are bright and a variety of colors, the clothes are extravagant. In the middle of it all is our protagonist, an active participant in the festivities.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)

I can remember the exact moment that I came to recognize Philip Seymour Hoffman as an actor. It was some time in 2001 and I was home from school with some kind of sickness - or maybe it was just the summertime, that detail of the story isn't what's important. What IS important is that we had the Encore movie channel in our home as part of our basic cable set-up. This was a channel that showed movies, unedited and without commercial interruption, all day, yet for some reason wasn't considered premium cable and I could watch it in my room whenever I wanted. And on this specific day, when I was home sick from school, they played a 2000 film written and directed by David Mamet called State and Main. The film is charming in that Mamet kind of way, loaded with harsh, witty dialogue and chock filled with film stars (including William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker and Julia Stiles). It was a Hollywood satire about a movie shoot that comes and disrupts a quiet, humble lighthouse town. The film is filled with characters that both represent Hollywood corruption and others that showcase small town morality. Yet, there was one character named Joseph Turner White, arguably the story's moral center. He's a playwright who wrote the play the film is based on and is currently writing the screenplay for the adaptation. He's coming from the purity of theatre and slowing becoming corrupted by the image bias of cinema. Joseph Turner White was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman with stunning grace and subtlety, and keeps the loopy State and Main in check, making this occasionally forgettable film one of Mamet's more hidden gems. It was hard for me not to recognize his name after that.

What happened soon afterward is that I realized that I had actually seen Hoffman several times before and hadn't noticed. He was in Twister? And Scent of a Woman? He was the guy playing Lester Bangs in Almost Famous? This anecdote seems to be similar to many others' experience with Hoffman. He was a pretty legendary "that guy" for two decades, with average moviegoers remembering his bloated, shouting basketball scenes in Along Came Polly more than his haunting work in Synecdoche, New York or The Master. Hoffman was never a movie star, but he was very capable of outshining most of film's greatest stars. Along Came Polly would probably be a largely forgotten romantic comedy starring Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston if it weren't for Hoffman's deceptively tragic, boisterously funny supporting performance as Stiller's disgusting, egotistical best friend. And this was the kind of magic he brought to all his roles, most of which didn't come equipped with the levity that Polly did. Hollywood never quite knew what to do with him, often utilizing him as the loud, hefty sidekick, as in Charlie Wilson's War and The Ides of March - the former earned him one of his four Academy Award nominations. It's telling that three of his four nominations came in the supporting category. Even in 2012's The Master, the Oscars didn't see him as the lead, even though he very obviously shares that burden with Joaquin Phoenix. The idea of him being a leading man never really sit well with anybody except those who watched all of his movies.

His one Oscar win came for Capote where he played Truman Capote during the arduous process of writing his masterpiece In Cold Blood. It was incredible work and a worthy win (though it should be said that that year also had Heath Ledger's performance in Brokeback Mountain which would have also been very worthy), yet celebrity mimicry only touches the surface of Hoffman's power. It's the kind of performance that's easy to notice because of the effeminate voice and transformative hair & make-up, but all of the subtleties of his work are there as well. He knew how to use the wacky voice and move past just simple impression, finding the tragedy behind the physically small, yet larger-than-life personailty. This was the image of a literary giant's disintegration, and the film's director, Bennett Miller, knew that the best way to accomplish this was to put full faith in Hoffman and his ability. When he won the Golden Globe just a few weeks before winning the Oscar, he stated that he knew that this was the greatest role that he'd gotten in his career. I always remembered that. Hoffman knew that with film acting it's getting the role that's half the battle. Hoffman knew how to maximize his choices better than most actors of his generation. Like most phenomenal acting talents, it seems amazing that he was able to factor himself in with so many great films and filmmakers. Magnolia, The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Savages, all incredibly different films with amazing voices, and Hoffman's performances in those films are so strikingly different and brilliant that it's hard to believe they all come from the same performer.

Hoffman's death is incredibly tragic, considering his age, talent and circumstance. The fact that he was apparently a heroin addict brings unseen moral complications to his story, and the fact that this addiction is what killed him feels especially unfair. We don't know the details of his life, though it seems shocking that he was only 46 years old. In public circles, his greasy hair often looked matted and grey as opposed to just reddish blonde (which was its actual color), and his gruffy beard always gave him a Santa Claus-ian look like he was well over 50. Hoffman never looked very healthy, and as his career blossomed and he became a larger figure within Hollywood, his appearance actually got worse. The success of him and Paul Giamatti as actors seemed to signal a shift in what a successful actor had to be like (or rather, had to look like). Hoffman's orb-like gut and jowly scowl was very much a part of his screen presence, and he knew how to wield his unorthodox body to his advantage. A lot of horror was kicked up over the graphic love scenes between him and Marisa Tomei in Sidney Lumet's Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, but Hoffman knew the power that image of his naked body would produce. Devil Knows You're Dead was one of Hoffman's loudest, more carnal performances and was a terrific representation of what he could do when the shackles were really taken off. It's not a great film, and it's far from Hoffman's best work, but it's a wonderful snapshot of one of the many characters Hoffman could easily slide himself into.

While Hoffman was never a great star, it would've been nearly impossible to be a movie lover born in the 80's or early 90's and not know who he was, even if you weren't a fan. He was just in too many important movies, working with too many influential directors. For me, his career feels fused to the work of Paul Thomas Anderson (my favorite filmmaker), of which he's appeared in all but one of his films - There Will Be Blood being the only film in which he does not appear. Anderson has coaxed some tremendous work from a number of great actors, but Hoffman seemed the most dedicated of his crew. It was never a relationship on par with Scorsese/DeNiro or Burton/Depp, because Anderson never made Hoffman a true focus in any of his films, but Hoffman was able to move in and out of PTA's numerous films in a variety of different characters. His heartbreaking portrayal of the simple sound man Scotty J. in Boogie Nights, or the blustering con man/mattress salesman in Punch-Drunk Love. His tender hospice nurse, Phil Parma, lost within the labyrinth of characters that is Magnolia stands out brilliantly for its full heart in a movie filled with selfish people. Their collaboration reached its crescendo with 2012's The Master, with its two-headed lead performance from Hoffman and Phoenix. Hoffman's quietly sinister performance perfectly foils Phoenix's brash sadism within the movie. The Master may be the greatest acting Hoffman has ever done, and the fact that Hoffman and Anderson will never collaborate again makes me immensely sad.

Hoffman had the ability of Daniel Day-Lewis, and if you consider the image bias implicit not only in the movies but in society as a whole, the mountains that Hoffman had to climb were much, much higher. Hoffman never seemed satisfied with one particular kind of role, he could ham it up in melodrama (as he did in his roles in Cold Mountain), he could achieve true comedy (like in Polly and The Invention of Lying) but all of his performance seemed invested in darkness, and his saddest performances always felt incredibly lived in. His closest doppleganger is Dustin Hoffman, another chameleonic performer who adored changing it up with each performance. Like, P.S. Hoffman, Dustin did not let his unorthodox appearance effect his rise toward movie stardom. P.S. Hoffman was never as famous as Dustin Hoffman, but like Dustin he embodied such an astonishingly varied number of different characters. And also like Dustin, it never seemed like Philip Seymour Hoffman was ever bad in anything. Performances like his in Flawless or The 25th Hour would be touchstones on many actors' filmographies, but for Hoffman they are just one of many, a commonplace representation of his roles. The Big Lebowski, Happiness, Love Liza. The list goes on and on. Based on pure quantity, his career is an impressive achievement, but to deliver the level of work to each role that he did seems unthinkable. When people die, it's easy to overreact with praise, but with Philip Seymour Hoffman, it almost feels like he's being properly appreciated for the first time. He was amongst the greatest actors of his generation, if not THE greatest. My list of personal favorites is too long to mention, but his work in The Master, MagnoliaSynecdoche, New York and The Savages will always hold special places for me. Not since Heath Ledger has the death of an actor felt so tragic, and yet, at least with Hoffman's filmography there is so much more, an incredibly vast collection at the time of death, and we will always have all these incredible films - and incredible performances - to look back on.