Thursday, February 27, 2014

Oscar Forecast: “Gravity” with a Likely Chance of “Slave”

UPDATE: The Oscars are over. And it's just bizarre to think that one of the most unpredictable Oscars turned into one of the most predicable ever. There just weren't ANY upsets. I got 21 out of 24 correct, only missing out on Best Picture, Editing, and Animated Shore. Ahh best picture to 12 Years a Slave. I was never all that confident in my pick for Gravity winning the top prize. But with it predicted to win a whole slew of prizes it was hard not to also pick it for the top spot. "Slave" walked away with 3 wins including supporting actress and adapted screenplay. Gravity received 7 making it the second most winning non-Best Picture winner, just behind "Cabaret"'s 8 wins in 1972. Overall it was a great show and Ellen was a great host again. Her epic selfie and pizza stunt will certainly go down in history as some of the more memorable recent Oscar moments.

This is the closest Best Picture race in all the years I’ve been watching the Academy Awards. It's enough to give someone, who cares about this sort of stuff heart palpitations. For the first time since I’ve been making official predictions I’m legitimately not sure of what’s going to win. What exactly makes it so unpredictable is the biggest question of all. “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” couldn’t be more different cinematically and yet they’re both audacious in concept and execution. On paper, “12 Years a Slave” feels like the typical “Oscar bait.” It’s an emotional drama based on a true historic event, slavery, (a subject matter that has yet to claim the top prize). And yet it’s brutally honest in its horrific depictions, something that’s not exactly appealing to many people. You could easily compare it to something like “Schindler’s List” but there are way more Jewish people in the Academy than African Americans. Not that something like that should really matter but it’s true. On the other hand, there aren’t many astronauts in the Academy either. “Gravity” is a thrilling space drama, the more “fun” of the two frontrunners, that many have classified as “sci-fi” and something of that genre has also yet to win the top prize. It’s a big, loud exciting film that demands to be seen on a large screen. It’s really the ultimate cinematic experience and rewards viewers who like their movies larger than life, and yet for all the “largeness” of it, it’s a simple and intimate film. It doesn’t have the “importance” factor and, unusual for a Best Picture frontrunner, only features one actor for much of its runtime and lots of silence. The modest story couldn’t even manage a Screenplay nomination too. There are things working against both films. And no one really knows for sure what’s going to happen. It didn’t’ help that both films tied (unprecedented) for the PGA award. It must be important to note that no film has won Best Picture without at least being nominated at the SAG awards for Best Cast since “Braveheart,” which was an award as elusive as ever for a film featuring only two characters. If “Gravity” begins winning award after award on Sunday it’ll most likely look unstoppable. Of course you could say the same thing about the year “Hugo” dominated; it won all the technical stuff and failed to go all the way, but it was never in the conversation anyway. Could anything really beat “The Artist” that year? The important thing to note is that can anything beat “12 Years a Slave” or “Gravity?” I doubt it. It’s still boggling my mind not knowing which film to ultimately select but like Sandra Bullock’s character says in Gravity, “either way, it’ll be one hell of a ride.”

Best Picture
Who Will Win: “Gravity.” I seriously have no clue. My gut is telling me to go with “12 Years a Slave.” It will probably win actually. And to be honest I’m not predicting “Gravity” because it’s my favorite… I’m picking it because the Academy rarely splits the Directing and Best Picture prize and they’re usually unpredictable. So if I were to predict “Slave” I’d have to predict Steve McQueen which feels foolish. Besides can “Slave” really only win Best Picture and only 1 or 2 more awards while “Gravity” is practically guaranteed at least 6 or 7 awards? Seems silly to bet against it in all honesty.
Who Should Win: “Gravity.” My favorite film the year hands down. It’s a cinematic masterpiece. It’s the ultimate movie-going experience. It’s thrilling, beautiful, emotionally satisfying. It’s everything you want in a movie.  I just can’t get enough.
Should Have Been Nominated: Blue Jasmine

Best Director
Will Win: Alfonso Cuarón, “Gravity.” I’m pretty confident here as most people are. Cuarón has crafted a truly special and unique cinematic masterpiece. And he has the DGA award to boot. A win for anyone else would be a legitimate upset.
Should Win: Alfonso Cuarón, “Gravity.” What a truly remarkable film. I’d vote for him 10 times if I could.
Should Have Been Nominated: Spike Jonze, “Her”

Best Actor
Will Win: Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club.” Alright alright alright, indeed. McConaughey has been a strong force in the pre-Oscar awards and there’s no real reason to think he can’t go all the way…. Except that, this a disturbingly strong year for male lead performances, and with the exception of maybe Christian Bale any of these could actually win here. A lot of people are behind DiCaprio, and with good reason because he’s amazing as well, but how many voters truly loved “The Wolf of Wall Street?” Ejiofor is a possibly spoiler if “12 Years a Slave” ends up being a surprise sweeper. If he were to win, the film would definitely win Best Picture. But my money is still on McConaughey. Just barely.
Should Win: Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club.” Oh man why make me choose between McConaughey and DiCaprio. They are both simply amazing in career best performances. The edge is definitely to McConaughey who you never really expect to be this amazing. I wouldn’t be upset to see Leo take the stage, as he’s long overdue and rewarding him here wouldn’t at all feel like a “make up” win
Should Have Been Nominated: Tom Hanks, “Captain Phillips”

Best Actress
Will Win: Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine.” Logic would say Amy Adams would be the frontrunner since she’s the only one nominated here who hasn’t already won, but Blanchett has been an unstoppable force all season long and nothing can derail her now (not even a controversial smear campaign against Woody Allen and his film).
Should Win: Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine.” She was absolutely brilliant in this film and it’s nice to see her being recognized for a performance that isn’t simply an impersonation ala “The Aviator.”
Should Have Been Nominated: Emma Thompson, “Saving Mr. Banks”

Best Supporting Actor
Will Win: Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club.” I’m not sure who would win if Leto didn’t take this. He, like Cate Blanchette are to the two save acting bets of the evening. The best part is that he truly deserves it as he’s the heart and soul of the fantastic “Dallas Buyers Club.”
Should Win: Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club.” I absolutely loved this film and thought Jared Leto was phenomenal.
Should Have Been Nominated: Daniel Brühl, “Rush”

Best Supporting Actress
Will Win: Lupita Nyong'o, “12 Years a Slave.” This will be the category to watch. I honestly don’t believe that “12 Years a Slave” can win Best Picture without scoring here as well. Could it honestly win Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay and not take this too? But there’s the Jennifer Lawrence factor. Everyone loves her and she’s the scene-stealer of American Hustle and with four nominations it’s got win one of them right? And there’s the fact that SHE JUST WON LAST YEAR. Lupita has the edge, but barely.
Should Win: Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle.” Jennifer Lawrence was easily my favorite part of “American Hustle” an otherwise sprawling, slightly too long and mildly perplexing film that I didn’t absolutely love but really wanted to. 
Should Have Been Nominated: Scarlett Johansson, “Her”

Best Adapted Screenplay 
Will Win: “12 Years a Slave.” Here is where things matter. “12 Years a Slave” is easily the frontrunner here and if it misses, there’s no way in hell it’s taking the top prize. If it does miss expect a win from either “Philomena” or even “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Heck, even “Captain Phillips” surprised and won the WGA award.

Best Original Screenplay
Will Win: “Her.” I’m very conflicted on this one. It’s a neck and neck race between this and “American Hustle.” The latter could easily, and actually probably will, win this but the Academy is known for rewarding offbeat truly original works in this category so “Her,” also a Best Picture nominee, would be no exception. Although, the prospects of finally being able to reward David O. Russell may be too strong to ignore. Flip a coin, really.

Best Animated Feature Film
Will Win: “Frozen.” The first of two assured wins for “Frozen.” I honestly can’t imagine something else winning, though “The Wind Rises” and “The Croods” has its fans. It must be noted that, shockingly, Disney Animation has yet to prevail in this category.

Best Cinematography
Will Win: “Gravity.” One of the surefire victories for “Gravity.” The Academy has no doubt been kind to films shot in 3D or with significant use of computer animation. How long before this category gets split into Best Traditional Cinematography and Best CG Cinematography?

Best Costume Design
Will Win: “The Great Gatsby.” Like with Production Design, I wonder if people even really like this movie enough to vote for it. It’s the most obvious nominee, though there’s actually a British costume drama in play (The Invisible Woman) which isn’t a widely seen or known film. I could easily the flashy 70s garb of “American Hustle” taking this though it feels a bit too modern to go all the way as this category is notorious for rewarding films set way, way in the past.

Best Documentary - Feature
Will Win: “20 Feet From Stardom.” Another real toss-up. The controversial “The Act of Killing” has dominated most of the early awards, but I’m wondering if the harsh subject matter will turn voters off (not to mention the subtitles). The heartfelt doc about backup singers “20 Feet from Stardom,” although ultimately a bit lightweight, is the feel-good film of the otherwise gloomy bunch of nominees.

Best Documentary - Short Subject
Will Win: “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life.” It’s about a Holocaust survivor. Enough said.

Best Film Editing
Will Win: “Captain Phillips.” This is one to watch. If “12 Years a Save” is supposedly going to win Best Picture, it’s gotta win at least one tech award and it’s hard to think "Gravity" will win most of them and then not just go all the way. But “Gravity” is known for some very long takes, which doesn’t exactly highlight the film’s otherwise tight editing. “Captain Phillips,” however, is an editing showcase. It’s a prestigious “action film” and best picture nominee helmed by the guy whose films “United 93” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” were nominated here, the later actually winning.

Best Foreign Language Film
Will Win: “The Great Beauty” (Italy). This one really is a toss-up. Academy members are no longer required to attend screenings of all five films before voting so it’s possible the most “popular” film could take it… of course, determining which one that is exactly is tough. “The Great Beauty” won the Golden Globe which helps and Italy has a particularly strong track record in this category.

Best Makeup & Hairstyling
Will Win:
Dallas Buyers Club.” I think Academy members would just feel embarrassed voting for “The Lone Ranger” or “Bad Grandpa” however deserving they would actually be. It’s hard to bet against Best Picture nominees in these tech categories.
Best Original Score
Will Win: “Gravity.” The music branch is notorious for nominating the same people whether they’ve won before (ahem, John Williams) or not (ahem, Thomas Newman). The overall Academy has a strong track record for rewarding first timers in this category and there’s no reason to think they won’t do the same this year for Steven Price’s powerful, electronic “Gravity” score.

Best Original Song
Will Win: Let it Go, “Frozen.” Disney once dominated this category. The last time a non-Pixar Disney film won was for 1999’s “Tarzan.” And they’re back in the saddle again with this delightful and powerful song that is sung in a pivotal point in the Animated Feature frontrunner “Frozen.” I’d genuinely be surprised if anything else won.

Best Production Design
Will Win: “The Great Gatsby.” I’m concerned the lukewarm reception of “The Great Gatsby” will hurt its chances but it’s definitely the flashiest of the nominees. They could easily give it to a film they simply liked better like “American Hustle” or “12 Years a Slave.” I’d love to see “Gravity” take this one, if it does it could be an early indication that a “Gravity” sweep is coming.

Best Short Film – Animated
Will Win:
“Get a Horse!” Disney broke it’s 45 year long losing streak last year with its win for the phenomenal “Paperman.” This delightful, if slight, short gets a leg up because not only does it star Mickey Mouse and a clever mix of CGI and traditional animation, but it was attached to Animated Feature frontrunner “Frozen.”

Best Short Film – Live Action
Will Win:
Helium. To quote Ms. Bullock again, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe…”

Best Sound Editing
Will Win: “Gravity.” Remember that random tie between "Skyfall" and "Zero Dark Thirty" last year? Wow crazy stuff. Action films and war films do amazing well in this category so I could easily see something like "Lone Survivor" or even "Captain Phillips" triumphing. But “Gravity” is such a unique and celebrated film it’s definitely the frontrunner.

Best Sound Mixing
Will Win: “Gravity.” The sound design of “Gravity” is such an amazing accomplishment it should easily triumph here. It’s possible the musically charged “Inside Llewyn Davis” or the gunfire heavy “Long Survivor” could upset but don’t bet on it.

Best Visual Effects
Will Win: “Gravity.” Easily the safest pick of the evening. If anything else wins, I’ll gladly eat my own feces.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Man of Steel: “RoboCop” is a Another Decent if Forgettable Remake

Another week another remake (There were in fact three 80s remakes this past weekend – About Last Night, Endless Love, and Robocop – if you’re keeping track). This new version will not likely win over many fans of the original Paul Verhoeven 1987 sci-fi hit; if any them even show up that is. RoboCop does everything it’s supposed to do: be a fun, sci-fi action movie. Nothing more, nothing less. If what it was supposed to do was please every fan of the original film, they would have just scraped the thing in the first place. Is there anything worse in the world to a Millennial or Generation X-er than a remake of a cult 80s film?

“RoboCop” attempts to have a little bit more depth and character than its 80s predecessor. In the year 2028 the corporation Omni Corp has begun producing weaponized robots sent overseas to replace human soldiers. The company’s CEO Raymond Sellars(played by Michael Keaton) wants to create a law enforcement human robot hybrid with  scientist Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman). Apparently Detroit is a grimy, crime ridden city in the future. Who would of thought? Enter tragically half-blown up police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) who, with permission from his wife, they volunteer him to create a human-robot police officer cyborg. He has all his personality… until issues prevent him from having full use of his moral personality.

Yeah it’s true, this thing takes a while to really get going. In fact, while I struggled to find much to like about the beginning of the film, it began to grow on me and it delivers a solid middle act, until Joshua Zetumer's screenplay becomes rather generic by the end. While the original film, a movie I’m not even the biggest fan of, feels more like an 80s superhero comic film with plenty of ultraviolence, this new version, directed by José Padilha, feels like a generic action film designed to wow you with plenty of CGI effects and endless bloodless shootouts.

I recently rewatched the 1987 film and while it’s pretty severely dated it’s certainly a product of its time: the Regan era. While yes it was a sci-fi action spectacle it was sort of a biting satire that appealed to people on the left as well as people on the right. The new film makes the cardinal sin most remakes these days do wrong: taking itself way too seriously. Is it possible for a film to have too much story and character development? It’s possible if it’s not quite done well enough. The film gives more focus on Alex’s family life. Sure it makes us care about him more than we ever did in the original film, but Kinnaman, even if he’s decent in the role, feels too generic. Though Peter Weller as the original RoboCop definitely wasn’t winning any awards either. And for the record, where is the tough female cop character played previously by Nancy Allen?

To be honest I feel as indifferent to this new version of RoboCop as I am about the biting satire of corruption in the original film. You can’t deny the visceral style of Verhoeven’s film that is replaced here by standard sci-fi action filmmaking we see released week after week. It doesn’t have anything really new to say and does it all with a straight face. Is it entertaining? Sure. But it doesn’t quite do much to stand out from the crowd. You could certainly do a lot worse.  It’s not quite RoboFlop, but it’s not quite RoboCop.  GRADE: B-

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Hip to be Square: Everything is Awesome Including “The Lego Movie”

To think Pixar once had the clever animated film market completely cornered and yet now we have Warner Bros' “The Lego Movie.” It’s a super fun twist on everything you thought you knew about how a product could be used to make full-length motion picture entertainment. Much like the absolutely clever videogame tribute “Wreck-It Ralph” and Pixar’s influential hit “Toy Story,” Warner Bros’ “The Lego Movie” is an absolutely fun and clever take on a genre whose original ideas had seemingly flown the coop (even Pixar seems stranded in sequel-land). Yes it’s a film based on the immensely popular Lego playsets, but it’s more than a full length commercial. It’s a delightful and witty film (with stunning computer animation) that is just as entertaining for adults as it is for kids. And it has a surprisingly poignant and affecting message.

What could a movie about inanimate building blocks possible be about? The film is set in a fictional Lego universe that is controlled by en evil ruler known as Lord Business (Will Ferrell). Magical wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) talks of a prophecy in which a “Special” will be able to defeat President Business who intends on destroying Lego humanity with an evil device called a “kragle.” Enter mild mannered construction worker Emmett (Chris Pratt) who happily goes about his day in the George Orwellian society in which Lord Business is the dictator. He meets a woman named WyldStyle (Elizabeth Banks) who mistakes him for the “Special” setting the story into motion.

 It’s a pretty basic setup for what will become a terrifically clever on the classic “Chosen One” storyline. It’s the fascinating world and lovable characters that co-writers and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have given us that really sets this animated adventure apart from other films of this type. They employ a colorful, shiny plastic world in an almost stop-motion animated sort of way. It’s really the ingenious script that really works here though. Along with co-writers Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman, Lord and Miller have crafted a superbly funny satire of everything from taking a knock at commercialism, corporate America, and pop culture. Take for instance the TV show everyone in this world is obsessed with: “Where are My Pants?” It might just be too on the nose actually.

Emmett and Wyldstyle are eventually joined by other colorful characters including Lego Batman, voiced wonderfully by Will Arnett. It’s with these supporting characters that the film really shines. Warner Bros has gone above and beyond to cram in as many amusing character cameos as possible, including Lego versions of Wonder Woman, Gandalf, Abraham Lincoln, and even some friends from a galaxy far, far away. Other familiar voices include It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day, Community’s Alison Brie, and Jonah Hill as a stalker version of the Green Lantern who just won’t leave Channing Tatum’s Superman alone.

There hasn’t necessarily been a shortage of great animated films lately, but the market has become oversaturated so as more of these CGI animated films arrive in theaters it’s harder to find ones that really stand out. “The Lego Movie” is that movie. It’s such a wonderful send-up of all types of films. It’s a movie fan’s dream come true. Seeing the film feels like the first time you saw “Toy Story” or “Shrek.” You knew it was something special. The filmmakers have made a film that’s way smarter, funnier, and wittier than it ever needed to be. Though I’d expect nothing less from the same guys who gave us the pleasingly irreverent spoof “21 Jump Street.” Everything is awesome, indeed.  GRADE: A