And The 2014 Oscar For Best Picture Goes To....

As my good friend Charles Osgood (I don't really know him, but I feel like I do) says on CBS' Sunday Morning, here's the Academy Awards, by the numbers. Today is February 5. The Academy Awards show is on March 2. I have seen 5 of the 9 nominated films. I have 25 more viewing days to see them all by Oscar night. 

I will review them in the order I viewed them

Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks and featuring Barkhad Abdi and other native Somalis, tells the story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-Flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in 200 years. 

My expectations of the movie were more or less neutral. Upon coming out of the theater, I held it in high regard.  I cared very much about the characters. I knew that the captain was going to make it through, but I did not know how and I knew nothing about the other crew members, if and how they would survive. It speaks well of a movie when you care about these things. 

The other aspect of the film that was most riveting was the portrayal of the so called pirates by this group of previously unknown, non-actors who had been recruitedwell, actually they auditioned for the parts, from a Somali community in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Barkhad Abdi and the others played the parts so well, they were so captivating that you felt like it was really happening, as though it had been videoed. I give the film a B+

Philomena, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan (he also directed the movie), tells the story, based on the book,The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, of a world-weary political journalist (Martin Sixsmith, who wrote the book) who half-halfheartedly decides to pick up the story of a woman's search for her son, who was taken from her decades before, after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent. My only complaint about the movie was the way Philomena was initially portrayed, as if she were in the thralls of early dementia. She appeared somewhat dim witted and lacking nuance in her comprehension of Martin's dialog. As the movie progressed, it became clear that she in fact had a sense of humor and was in complete control of her faculties. 

In any case, the film is filled with feeling, yet not at all sentimental. It is a well told story with excellent performances, perhaps award worthy for "Dame" Dench. I give it a B+

American Hustle, starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Brad Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K. (I would have seen it, if for no other reason than to see him in a movie) was a movie I did not expect to like. Just the 1970's clothes and slick and greasy and tightly curled and combed-over men's hairstyles were enough to turn my stomach. The story is loosely based on the ABSCAM operation, of the late 70's, early 80's, in which the FBI employed con artists to carry out sting operations. I really was not that interested to see this played out.

Well, was I ever surprised to leave this movie thinking it may be the one to win that coveted Oscar. The film far exceeded my expectations. One description I read called it "delicious debauchery" and that just begins to tell the story. 

American Hustle was at one moment so intimate and real, that you felt yourself imposing by watching and then at another, so totally crazy, like zonky crazy, that you can't believe they are doing what they are doing, but they are and you can't take your eyes off the screen. I think every one of the main actors (female and male) is deserving of a prize. We'll see. I give this one an A. 

Nebraska, starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte and June Squibb (not very well known until now) was a movie that I expected to love, after seeing coming attractions and having read and heard several interviews of a few of the actors. I did not love it, quite the opposite. It was for the most part dreary and, dare I say it, boring. It was in Black & White, which often adds a special dimension to a movie, but in this case, I think some color may have added a much needed dimension. 

The 'road trip' scenes were long and tedious. After all, there's just so much one can watch the flat prairie land going by, before finding one's eyes closing. The 'father-son' scenes missed the mark. And the people scenes made Nebraskans look like a bunch of dead-heads (and I don't mean as in The Grateful Dead), at best and less than intelligent, at worst. If they were not sitting immobile faced in front of sport TV, they were trying to beg, borrow or steal the money they thought their otherwise uninteresting relative or friend had supposedly won in a sweepstakes.

In fairness, Bruce Dern played the part of Woody Grant, an aging alcoholic, overly-trusting and mostly catatonic character to a 'T'. However, he'd already played the part in the HBO series, "Big Love". There was one saving grace in the movie. The actress's name is Angela McEwan and she plays the part of Peg Nagy, the owner of the town's small newspaper, who tells Woody's son, Will Forte as David Grant, about the relationship she had had with Woody before he married. She was soft spoken and completely real. She  totally drew me in to her character, though she was only on the screen for a few minutes. I would have liked to have seen more of her. It may have changed my opinion of the movie. I give it a C-.

Her, stars Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and Scarlett Johanson as the voice of the "operating system".  It is about a lonely writer of email letters for special occasions, who develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that is designed to meet his every need, by being programmed with intuition and desire to know and understand it's owner. 

I start this review with a question. Why did the main character, Theodore, wear his trousers high-waisted like a nerd from the 50's? And why did the fly on these pants start all the way up where the belt hoops ought to be, but were not, because there was no belt? OK, I think I may already know the answer or at least an explanation after the fact. I just did a bit of research and found this... "Joaquin Phoenix's high-waisted Her Trousers go on sale. The sci-fi pants worn by the hero of Spike Jonze's Oscar-tipped romance form the centerpiece of a new fashion collection inspired by the film. They are destined to be the legwear of choice for the hipster cineaste in 2014". 

I went into this movie wondering what it was about and more importantly, why? I knew it was directed and written by Spike Jonze (not to be confused with Spike Lee) and I'd done some homework on him before I went to see the movie, Where The Wild Things Are and I became interested in him from that. So, this movie, Her, had Spike Jonze in its favor.

The coming attractions looked, well, silly. And parts of the movie were silly, like when Theodore is running through a courtyard with a huge smile on his face and so happy to be alive because he's finally found his soul-mate, even if she is only virtual! Who doesn't want a significant other who really gets you, who truly likes, even loves you for exactly who you are. We all want that "perfect" someone, though in reality no one is perfect. Samantha (the name Theo's virtual love gives herself) is perfect, well she starts off perfect. 

What I liked about the film was that it made you think about relationship in general. I found myself thinking a lot throughout, like for example, how it's so much easier to know a person via emails and messaging than in person because you can be so smart and witty and you never have to actually smell a person's breath or be annoyed by a stupid expression on their face or...well, you get the idea. Going back to silly, or maybe not so much silly as predictable, the relationship with this gorgeous, sexy voice (a la Johanson) goes the way of (Spoiler Alert!) most relationships with flesh and blood; in that real emotions get in the way, like jealousy and fear and selfishness (is that an emotion?) and feeling abandoned. Amy Adams, who plays Amy, a neighbor and good friend of Theo, is one of the best things about the movie. She is one hell of an actor and it's no surprise that she's in two of the nominated films  and she herself is nominated for actress in a leading role in American Hustle.

I would not say I did not like this movie, as I expected not to, but I also didn't really like it a lot. I give it a C+. 

So, that's the 5 movies I've seen to date. Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, The Wolf of Wall Street and 12 Years a Slave...await me.

Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney is a movie that must be seen at the theater and preferably in -IMAX 3D. It's just that kind of movie. I believe, seen any other way, will lose what makes the movie so totally engrossing. Although it's always nice to keep your eyes peeled on the beautiful George Clooney, it is Sandra Bullock who makes the film amazing, well Bullock and all of the special effects. I loved seeing a space movie where the female astronaut was central and key to the meaning of the movie. It was one of those "I'm lost, but now I'm found" experiences, but this time done in outer space. 

I read a critique criticizing the direction and writing, both done by Alfonso Cuaron, better known for Y Tu Mama Tambien, for making Bullock's character, Ryan, not strong enough, not able enough and not nuanced enough. I might agree with the lacking of nuance in character development overall, but I found myself relating to Bullock's character because she was not a hero astronaut, but she got through it through her own tenacity, which at times seemed limited, but it pulled her through. The camera got so close to her face and it was here in her face, that you could see nuance. I loved her performance in this movie. 

Some may, and have, found fault with the movie, Gravity, but two things are for sure. One is that it has to win for best cinematography. Two is that despite any fault, I did not take  my eyes off of the screen for one second. It was that compelling. I give it a B+. 

Last evening I saw the 7th of the 9 movies nominated for Best Picture of 2013. The movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, was not an easy one for me to watch, but I watched it with absolute attention. It affected me on a visceral level and after the credits, I got up and shouted, “I hated that movie”, much to the embarrassment and chagrin of my movie-mate, Haim. In talking about the film, just after viewing it, I had a hard time thinking of it as merely a movie because I wasn't sure if, to some degree, it wasn't justifying the debauchery that it portrayed.

The film was an adaptation of Jordan Belfort's memoir chronicling his rise and fall on Wall Street and his hard-partying, addiction-fueled personal life, spilling and overflowing into his professional life. If the intent of the movie is to show the “American Dream” on Quaaludes, then it hit its mark. But what bothered me was that though the main character, who is the epitome of greed, lust, drunk on power, money grubbing, conceit and worse, he never really gets his just desserts. Yes, (spoiler alert!) he is ultimately found guilty of money laundering and some other financial misdeeds, but because he agrees to “cooperate” with the feds (who for me were the good guys here) and name names of his former close friends and associates, his punishment is minimal and in the end he still, to some extent, succeeds to succeed. Belfort's lack of comeuppance for his misdeeds, serves to highlight what is wrong with the economic world of America.

Many people will see The Wolf of Wall Street as a thoroughly entertaining movie. It is filled in excess with nudity, sex, profanity and drugs up the yin yang, to such an extent that it loses any shock value it may have had the first or second or third or fourth time around. Maybe that’s the point. 

From the point of view of movie making, I did think Leonardo DiCaprio was extraordinary. His face and body go through so many different permutations, I thought he was a chameleon. Jonah Hill was very good, but his teeth annoyed and distracted me. He reminded me of some other past actor that I couldn't and still can’t place.
Maybe it’s not fair to say, but I hope this film does not win any awards. I give it a C.

 Here's my updated analysis of "Wolf". I just watched the interview of Leonardo DiCaprio by Lee Cowan on CBS Sunday Morning and having learned why and how DiCaprio got the movie made, after 7 years trying, my opinion was altered. “Because the world that we live in seems to be very surreal sometimes," DiCaprio said, "The incessant need for more is a part of our culture, and I see it all around me. And you know, doing this movie we wanted to put that darker nature of humanity up on screen." I see the intention was not to laud the sickening excesses, but to expose it. I maintain that there was an excess of the excess...girls parading around nude and seducing the boorish men, having sexual intercourse on any available surface...point made, taken...move on!!! But, still I up my grade to a B.

I have been knocking my brain about to figure out who Jonah Hill reminded me of with those overstated teeth of his in "Wolf of Wall Street" and it just came to me. Alan King, the comedian and actor who I liked, but he too had that look of a mouth full of newly CAPPED TEETH!

Dallas Buyer's Club is the 8th of the 9 nominated films I have seen. Unfortunately I viewed this one on my TV via Amazon Instant Video. I say unfortunately because I don't think one ever gets the full effect of a movie by viewing it outside of the movie theater. I paused it a few times and I became distracted. But since the Academy Awards is next weekend, I am making exceptions to  my own rule.

My initial reaction to this movie was enough already with America's excess of decadence, enough alcohol abuse, enough drugs and enough illicit sex. I have seen enough degeneracy in the past few months of movie viewing to last me a life time. As the movie progressed, however, I understood why it was nominated for best picture, and Matthew McConaughey for best actor and especially, Jared Leto for best supporting actor. 

The film takes place in 1985 Dallas, where an electrician and hustler, Ron Woodroof (another movie based on the real character), is filled with anger when diagnosed with AIDS (must be a mistake, "I'm not a homosexual"), and works around the system to get the medications he needs, by any means. He eventually starts a "buyers club" to help other AIDS patients get medications not available in the US, while, of course, filling his own pockets. Talk about hard to watch, viewing the good looking actor, Matthew McConaughey as a stick thin sickly looking victim, one must give him credit for his total lack of vanity in playing this role. He plays it beautifully (in the broadest sense of the word). 

If eliciting tears is an indication of greatness, this movie will win for sure. But, then crying is one of my strengths, some might even say easily elicited. Once again America's foibles take center stage, greed, stupidity, lack of compassion and over-bureaucratizing .  This time it is seen in pharmaceutical companies, the medical establishment and the FDA. The movie isn't always easy to watch, but it's easy to see why you should. I give it a B+.

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