Sunday, March 2, 2014

Joe vs. The 2014 Best Picture Nominees (Round 2)

Only seven more hours to go, folks! Let's keep up that enthusiasm!

It would hardly be a Best Picture Showcase if I didn't have to drive slowly and anxiously in a snowstorm at least once. I don't know what it is exactly, but I've been attending the AMC movie theater chain's annual marathon of Best Picture nominees for six years now, and the stressful pattern keeps repeating itself. Sometimes, it's on the way there. Other times, it's on the way back. On extremely unlucky days, it's both. Maybe the Academy Awards anger the gods or something. And now that the number of nominees has almost doubled and the event takes two days to finish, the odds against me are stacking up.

This year, I was fortunate enough to avoid the snow until the end of the second day. But it was still no fun to have to dig out my car late Saturday, then crawl home at an average speed of 15 mph on streets where there weren't as yet any good ruts to follow. I guess I had been oblivious to what was happening outside yesterday because I was cozy and warm in the hermetically-sealed environment of the ritzy Northbrook Court shopping center. When I wasn't watching hour after hour of award-nominated entertainment, I was dazedly staggering around the wood-and-marble-bedecked corridors of the mega mall, schlepping past Louis Vuitton, Cartier, and Burberry outlets, trying to clear the cobwebs out of my brain.

Let me say that I'm not a great believer in movie marathons. In fact, I think they're a pretty crummy and unfair way to see films. The analogy I always make -- and I'll do it again -- is to eating contests, which are to cuisine what events like the Best Picture Showcase are to cinema. Movies like these, which tend to be serious and on the longish side, suffer a bit when they're stacked one on top of the other. Some of the same basic themes (AIDS, racism, the elderly) and even some of the same actors (Amy Adams, Matthew McConaughey) start to reappear, which may make the audience feel like they've seen the same basic movie two or three times. Still, I plan to keep doing the BPS for the foreseeable future, since it's an efficient way to catch up on a lot of flicks I missed.

And speaking of those, let's get to 'em, eh?


Bruce Dern hits the road in search of a million dollars in Nebraska.

Director: Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, The Descendants)

Based on a true story: Nope. This is an original script by Bob Nelson, a writer whose most prominent credit before this was the sketch comedy series Almost Live!

These things are bad, m'kay: Getting old; losing your mental faculties; greed; old rivalries; getting shot down in the Korean War; PTSD; direct mail schemes that prey on the elderly; the economic decline of small Midwestern towns; nursing homes.

My take: Not long ago, the TV series American Dad did a quite-funny and perceptive episode called "Independent Movie" that parodied the conventions and tropes of "indie" films. What's especially notable for this discussion is that the episode was structured as a "road movie," an idiom that indie writers and directors have returned to again and again.

Alexander Payne's Nebraska is yet another example of the durable form, and it makes a good companion piece to last week's Philomena, as both films concern oft-exasperated middle-aged men chaperoning their oft-stubborn elders through improbable, long-shot quests. While Judy Dench traveled from the UK to the US in search of her long lost son, Bruce Dern wants to travel from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim a lottery prize he thinks he's won.

There are significant differences, though. Dench's character, while slightly dotty, was still very much in command of her faculties. Dern, however, is a shell-shocked, delusional Korean War vet who only seems vaguely aware of his surroundings most of the time. In last week's movie, Steve Coogan was a snarky, sarcastic journalist who accompanied Dench so that he could turn her experiences into a story and, thus, possibly salvage his own career. In Nebraska, Will Forte is Dern's sad sack son, who agrees to accompany his aging dad on what he knows is a hopeless journey, partly to humor the old man in what might be his final days and partly to spend time with the father he never really got to know.

In the true spirit of indie films, Dench and Dern are neither wholly successful nor wholly unsuccessful in their missions. They don't actually get what they went looking for, but they do get some redemption and satisfaction along the way.

Nebraska is quite an enjoyable, if slightly contrived, movie with touching, vulnerable performances by Bruce Dern and Will Forte and a crackerjack supporting cast, including Stacy Keach as Dern's conniving, blustery ex-partner and Payne veteran June Squibb (who played Jack Nicholson's wife in About Schmidt) as Dern's long-suffering wife, an undeniable force of nature who is not the least bit shy about expressing her opinions. Fans of Mr. Show and Breaking Bad will also be glad to see Bob Odenkirk as Forte's successful news anchor brother.

Some critics have quibbled with Payne's portrayal of small town folks as ignorant, money-hungry rubes, but I would say that Nebraska presents a wide range of characterizations, both positive and negative and everywhere along the spectrum. Not everyone in this movie behaves like Will Forte's bumbling criminal cousins. Pay attention, for instance, to the sweet-natured newspaper editor who has a poignant personal history with Dern. Besides, seemingly more than any major director in Hollywood today, Alexander Payne truly captures the texture of everyday life outside of the major cities. He pays more attention than anyone to how people really dress and what people's houses really look like, both inside and out. There's a definite "lived-in" quality of his movies I truly cherish. And, without spoiling one of the movie's best speeches, I can say that Nebraska has changed the way I look at Mount Rushmore forever. 

My grade: B+


Tom Hanks is relieved of his captain's duties by Somali pirates in Captain Phillips.

Director: Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Bourne Supremacy, United 93)

Based on a true story: Yep. But you knew that.

These things are bad, m'kay: Somali pirates; the terrible economic conditions that must exist in Somalia; walking through broken glass; being kidnapped; (maybe) American imperialism.

My take: It's no surprise to learn that this movie was directed by the same man at the helm of two of the Jason Bourne movies. It's a taut action thriller with lots of quick cuts and music that ramps up the tension. You probably already know the broad outlines of the story: Somali pirates hijack an American cargo ship and take its captain hostage, leading to a tense standoff with the US military. Really, the basics were all I knew going in to this thing.

I kind of expected this movie to be one of those queasy, uneasy "fly on the wall" experiences in which the viewer is made to feel like he or she is living this nightmare along with Tom Hanks and experiences the kidnapping from his perspective. But Captain Phillips isn't really like that. For one thing, it moves very quickly and doesn't really prolong the agony of any one situation for a long time. Hanks says goodbye to his wife (Catherine Keener, largely wasted -- and not in the fun way) and gets on the ship, and just a few minutes later, we get one of those scenes in which the approach of a mysterious enemy is monitored on a beeping radar screen. (Fun fact, according to Roger Ebert's Bigger Little Movie Glossary: "Radar screens don't beep. Not now, not ever.")

From there, it's boom, boom, boom. The pirates are on the ship. Boom. They've taken Hanks hostage. Boom. They're on a lifeboat now. Boom. The Navy shows up. What can I say about a movie like this? It's not really the kind of thing I'd go see on my own, but it's fine for what it is. Weirdly, and I don't know if this was intentional, Tom Hanks' character was not that appealing or ingratiating. The actor speaks with an affected, pseudo-JFK-type accent and has kind of a haughty, cold manner. But, still, he's the guy from Big and Forrest Gump and Philadelphia, so we're predisposed to like him.

The script labors to humanize Phillips while emphasizing the alien "otherness" of the Somali pirates, but the movie's most compelling character ends up being Muse, the leader of the hijackers, played by the almost-skeletal Barkhad Abdirahman, who sarcastically nicknames Phillips "Irish." The most effective moments in Captain Phillips occur when the movie slows the hell down and allows for real-time interaction between Hanks and Abdirahman. I wish director Greengrass had included more of that in the finished film.

My grade: B


Joaquin Phoenix starts dating his computer's operating system in Her.

Director: Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are)

Based on a true story: Nope. This was based on an original screenplay by director Spike Jonze.

These things are bad, m'kay: Loneliness; divorce; becoming too reliant on technology; withdrawing from society and the company of real human beings.

My take: Earlier, we discussed the tropes of indie movies as they appeared in Nebraska. They appear again in Her, whose main character, played by Joaquin Phoenix (who looks eerily like a combination of Johnny Galecki and Groucho Marx in this movie) is another dreamy, sad dude like Will Forte's character in the Alex Payne movie. Judging by their respective apartments, though, Phoenix's writer is in a much higher tax bracket than Forte's speaker salesman. But they're both going through rough times in the romance department. In Nebraska, Forte has just broken up with his longtime, live-in girlfriend (Missy Doty), while in Her, Phoenix is dragging his feet in divorce proceedings with his soon-to-be-ex-wife (Rooney Mara).

While Payne's movie sends Forte on a road trip, Jonze's sci-fi flick gives Phoenix a Manic Pixie Dream Girl of sorts in the form of "Samantha" (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), a computer operating system that possesses its own evolving consciousness. For decades, sci-fi filmmakers have been debating the ethics of creating machines who can think and feel like human beings. Generally, from HAL-9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey to David in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, it seems like a really bad idea. I mean, can you imagine being cooped up inside a smartphone in Joaquin Phoenix's shirt pocket? That doesn't sound like fun. No wonder Samantha soon outgrows her limited, humdrum life, answering her owner's e-mails and such.

Her plays like an indie romantic spin on Kubrick's 2001. What if, instead of working together on a space station, astronaut David Bowman and the HAL-9000 computer were involved in a complicated romantic relationship on Earth? Kubrick, though, wouldn't likely have made a movie as self-consciously pretty as Her, which often looks like it was based on a glossy full-color catalog full of furniture, clothes, and technology I could never afford. In fact, aesthetically, the picture-perfect Her is the opposite of the grainy, workaday B&W mundanity of Nebraska. While Spike Jonze has commissioned a soundtrack by Arcade Fire, for instance, Alex Payne takes his characters to a steakhouse where lumpy patrons croon "Time After Time" and "In the Ghetto" at the karaoke machine.

Anyway, I was torn between thinking that Her was a moving, highly original parable about the role of technology in our lives and suspecting that it was twee, precious hipster bullshit about a whiny, over-privileged creep who doesn't know how good he has it.

My grade: B+


Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale, and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle

Director: David O. Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, Three Kings)

Based on a true story: The film begins with the caption, "Some of This Actually Happened," which is a good, accurate start. There really was an Abscam in the 1970s, and some of the characters in this film do have real-life counterparts. Most of the Best Picture nominees are based on true stories, and they've all been dogged to one degree or another by complaints that they take great liberties with the facts. Why this still surprises anyone is a mystery to me. Spoiler: movies are fake.

These things are bad, m'kay: Taking bribes; lying to friends; using a child as leverage in a marriage; government agents becoming drunk with power and abusing their authority.

My take: On American Hustle's IMDb trivia page is a little nugget of information that, to me, says it all about this film. "According to Christian Bale," reports the IMDb, "much of the movie was improvised. So, during the shooting of the film he noted to David O. Russell, 'You realize that this is going to change the plot greatly down track.' To which the director replied, 'Christian, I hate plots. I am all about characters, that's it.'"

There have been grumblings, both by critics and viewers, that the plot of American Hustle doesn't really coagulate and that the script clumsily employs a lot of obviously Goodfellas-inspired narration to hold itself together. I'm here to tell you that none of that bothered me in the least. I think the naysayers and complainers are really missing the point. What David O. Russell has done here is to assemble a cast with some of the best actors working today and then to give them lots of situations in which they can interact in interesting and entertaining ways. Who gives a rat's ass if it makes any sense? This is about watching actors act.

From an emotional rather than an intellectual standpoint, I very much responded to the way this movie looked and sounded: the sets, the costumes, the cinematography, the music (which ranges from Duke Ellington to Elton John), etc. I'd liken Russell's efforts to those of a jeweler, taking his gems (the actors) and putting them in the best possible setting. American Hustle doesn't really have much of a lesson to teach us all, other than offering us a series of vignettes that demonstrate the eternal folly of the human condition.

Russell's own assessment of his movie is uncannily accurate. American Hustle doesn't really care about its plot but is very concerned with its assortment of colorful characters: politicians, G-men, impostors, and swindlers, all trying to get over on each other. My recommendation is to lighten up and just enjoy this.

My grade: A-


Sandra Bullock is adrift and abandoned in the pitiless reaches of space in Gravity.

Director: Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)

Based on a true story: Uh, nope. The director wrote this with his son, Jonas.

These things are bad, m'kay: Killer floating debris; extreme isolation, namely being stranded in outer space with very limited supplies of oxygen; watching your coworkers die right in front of you; the feeling that your life isn't all it should have been.

My take: I have already reviewed Gravity, so I will refer you to my previous article about the film. The gist of it is that Cuaron has made a movie that, first and foremost, sets a new benchmark in special effects, though I hate to think of his poor actors dangling from harnesses in front of a green screen somewhere. Visually, Gravity is a pure triumph. Other directors will now have to play catch-up to Cuaron.

Storywise? Well, let me say this about that. This is a very intimate, modest movie that tells a small, human story against an overwhelmingly huge backdrop. The script is hokey and melodramatic, but a career-best Sandra Bullock does everything in her power to sell it and make it seem believable. I'm not surprised that, of the nine films, this one is by far the most financially successful. I have no idea how it will hold up over the years, but I don't regret having seen it.

My grade: B+

All in all, not a bad crop of films for the Best Picture Showcase. I think 12 Years a Slave will probably win for Best Picture, though the movies I personally enjoyed most were The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, Her, and Nebraska. See you next year, Oscar.


  1. After all that, did you watch the actual telecast? This was my first year skipping it entirely since the mid-'00s. Reading about it this morning, it doesn't seem like I missed much.

    1. Weird synchronicity. Skipped it entirely, too, for the first time in years. Had to get up at 5:00am today, so I wasn't going to let myself start watching a 4-hour TV show. It's on my DVR. Wonder if I'll ever watch it.

  2. I ended the year having just seen Gravity and 12 Years, both of which I liked quite a bit. I'm excited to eventually watch Her and Nebraska. I actually got to the point where I just figured I didn't have to see American Hustle (I still haven't seen Silver Linings Playbook, and while I love I Heart Huckabees, I was totally soured on The Fighter) but your review has me rethinking that.

    1. I don't know that you "need" to watch the other 7 movies... or, really, any movie. Ever. I don't believe in the concept of need as it applies to movies. People need to eat and sleep. Movies are optional. All of them. (Yes, even THAT one.) That's what I love about them -- the fact that they don't serve an immediate practical purpose but satisfy some other, less tangible desire within us. Movies can give us extraordinary things to see and hear. I am less convinced of their ability to teach or send a message. Maybe that's why I'm seemingly the only person on earth not terribly enthused about 12 Years. It's impressive and admirable, but it doesn't scratch any particular itch for me. I think its central message -- that slavery is bad -- is one that everyone already knows. Or at least most everybody. Anyone not clear on that point: (a) probably won't see the movie in the first place, or (b) won't undergo an awakening because of this film. So 12 Years is preaching to the choir about the least-controversial possible message. I found a lot of it stagy and stentorian (particularly the scenes with Brad Pitt's character), and the music was altogether too heavy and obvious for me. Watching it felt like being in school for a very fancy all-school assembly. American Hustle is more about watching interesting people interact in interesting ways against an interesting backdrop. That's something I look for in a lot of movies. It's what I like about Ingmar Bergman, for instance. In Bergman, we get to watch how people behave toward one another in all kinds of situations. And there's usually something heightened and stylized about how it's presented, but there's something recognizable there, too. It feels weird to compare David O. Russell and Ingmar Bergman, but there you are. Scorsese, too, I like because of the opportunities he gives us to watch people as they live their lives. Altman is another. I could go on.