F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 28, 2014)

28 11 2014

The CruiseBefore he was fictionalizing the pursuits of uncommonly dedicated American men, Bennett Miller was chronicling a real one.  His 1998 directorial debut “The Cruise” was actually a documentary, not a narrative film.  But rest assured, the path Miller charts is still every bit as fascinating as his more recent work.

The non-fiction tale is an interesting experiment in subjectivity, as Miller lets the narration flow purely from his only character, Timothy “Speed” Levitch.  “The Cruise” is essentially a 75-minute long spiel of Levitch talking, both in his vocation as a guide on a New York City tour bus and in his personal life.  This uninterrupted biography is my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because of the curiosity such a tightly focused spotlight invites.

Levitch’s knowledge of New York’s history is impeccable, perhaps a bit pedantic at times.  (Fun fact I learned from watching: George Washington took the oath of office to become our first President on Wall Street.  So no wonder our government is so beholden to business interests!)  He is distinct, however, in his remarkable delivery of the wealth of information he possesses.  Levitch does not simply regurgitate facts; he is a poet laureate of the mean streets and a true mythologizer of his city.

But Miller steps down from the double-decker bus and shows who Levitch is behind the bombast.  As it turns out, he has a whole host of resentments that he does not shy away from calling out.  Levitch calls out the family members who did not believe in him and the people who refused to read his screenplay, just to name a few.

“The Cruise” does not force reconciliation of these two sides of Levitch.  Is it possible that a man is both the good-natured jokester who protests workplace uniforms because it will ruin his chance to pick up chicks as well as a bitter misanthrope?  Once again, Miller does not provide the solution to his puzzling protagonist, just all the pieces for personal interpretation.





REVIEW: Foxcatcher

12 11 2014

FoxcatcherTelluride Film Festival

In the opening minutes of “Foxcatcher,” a quietly quotidian montage details the routine of Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz, a wrestler living and training modestly in spite of winning gold at the 1984 Olympic Games.  The sequence concludes with him stepping behind a podium to address a less than captivated audience of elementary school students, and he begins with the line, “I want to talk about America.”

This opening remark appears to be a harbinger portending a film where director Bennett Miller will talk at us about America.  Ramming any sort of message down our throats, however, seems the last thing on Miller’s mind.  The deliberately paced and masterfully moody “Foxcatcher” provides a trove of discussion-worthy material about the dark underbelly of the world’s most powerful nation.  What Miller actually wants is to talk with us about America.

Miller works deftly within the framework of E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s script, which itself feels beholden to no convention or genre. They slowly parse out information on the characters of the film, providing disturbing details and abnormal actions that do not lend themselves to easy explanation. “Foxcatcher” thrives on small moments that do not seem incredibly consequential as they occur, though their cumulative effect is quite the knockout.

The film crafted by Miller is not one of conventional capital-A “Acting.” It’s performance as being, not as much doing. While the talented trifecta of Tatum, Steve Carell, and Mark Ruffalo still has plenty of events to live out, they function best as the shiniest components of a larger tonal machine. Miller expertly employs them to highlight the sinister undercurrents running beneath the eerie, brooding surface of “Foxcatcher.”

His proclivity for cutaways and long-held takes has a tendency to turn the characters into specimens, but such an approach also solicits active examination.  The film’s co-leads, Tatum and Carell, each carry themselves in an unconventional, magnified manner that invites peering past their appearances.  What lurks beneath are truly tormented men, each seeking a symbolic meaning system to bring them fulfillment.

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Oscar Moment: 2013 Pre-Fall Festival Predictions

27 08 2013

Well, folks, the time is here to talk about Oscar season.  The Venice Film Festival kicks off tomorrow, and suddenly it won’t be taboo to talk about what might be competing for the Academy Awards.

Just to show you how much things change over the course of the fall, last year I predicted “The Master” to win Best Picture at this time – and it wound up not being nominated.  I was close for Best Director and Best Actor, though, ranking Ang Lee and Daniel Day-Lewis my #2 pick in their respective categories.  Jennifer Lawrence was not remotely on my radar, but my projected winner Quvenzhané Wallis did manage to get a nomination!  I got the movie right for Best Supporting Actor, but picked Leonardo DiCaprio instead of Christoph Waltz as the “Django Unchained” cast member to hoist the Oscar.  And I, like everyone else, saw Anne Hathaway’s win coming from the moment the first “Les Misérables” trailer hit the web.

So what will surprise us this year?  And what will disappoint?  Here’s my first draft at a year in Oscar forecasting.

Best Picture

  1. American Hustle (trailer)
  2. 12 Years a Slave (trailer)
  3. Foxcatcher
  4. August: Osage County (trailer)
  5. Gravity (trailer)
  6. The Monuments Men (trailer)
  7. Her (trailer)
  8. Inside Llewyn Davis (trailer)
  9. Labor Day
  10. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (trailer)

American HustleThere seems to be no clear frontrunner a la “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” or “War Horse” for 2013.  So I’m just going to gander it’s a dues-paying year.  It seems like David O. Russell, after two straight Best Picture-Best Director nominations for “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” is now on the fast track to win someday.  So why not 2013 with “American Hustle?”  A glitzy period drama that looks to provide action, comedy, and drama looks pretty good on paper to me.

Another film I could see making a charge at the prize is Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave.”  Despite all the talent involved in this film, I think it might still be an underdog given that McQueen’s previous two films have not received a single Oscar nomination.  Then again, Tom Hooper was a relative novice when he directed “The King’s Speech,” and we know how that story ends.

Previous Best Director nominees Bennett Miller (“Foxcatcher”), George Clooney (“The Monuments Men”), Spike Jonze (“Her”), the Coen Brothers (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), and Jason Reitman (“Labor Day”) all look to get in the Best Picture race.  Based on their pedigree alone, I’m predicting nominations for these five films.  All are sight unseen, save “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which I have seen and can attest is the kind of well-made film that will score with the Academy.

I guess I could include Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” in this clump, since the film’s director is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and editor.  But that film gets a Best Picture nomination, in my mind, because it belongs in a class with “Avatar,” “Hugo,” and “Life of Pi” – technical masterpieces directed by renowned talents.

As for “August: Osage County,” that play is so well-written that it would take a first-class hack job for it not to be a Best Picture nominee.  We’re talking a play that will go next to Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in the American dramatic literature canon, people.

And to round out the top 10, I picked Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” I’m not entirely sold on it, but it could make a surprise run for Best Picture.  It could also fizzle with awards voters.  Who knows?  Clearly not I.

Best Director

  1. David O. Russell, “American Hustle”
  2. Bennett Miller, “Foxcatcher”
  3. Steve McQueen, “12 Years A Slave”
  4. Alfonso Cuarón, “Gravity”
  5. Spike Jonze, “Her”

FoxcatcherAs I said, I’m projecting Russell to go all the way in 2013.

Past nominee Bennett Miller could give him a run for his money, although he was overlooked for his work on 2011 Best Picture nominee “Moneyball.”  Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron should score their first Best Director nominations (which is a shame).

And since Spike Jonze scored a lone Best Director nomination for “Being John Malkovich” back in 1999, I don’t think it’s out of the question to see him score a second nomination for his work on “Her.”  It certainly appears to be daring … and the director’s branch showed they were willing to go out on a limb last year with nominees Benh Zeitlin and Michael Haneke.

Best Actor

  1. Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
  2. Joaquin Phoenix, “Her”
  3. Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years A Slave”
  4. Oscar Isaac, “Inside Llewyn Davis”
  5. Robert Redford, “All Is Lost”

McConaugheyBig, baity performances have won out here for the past decade, essentially.  So I’d say the frontrunner has to be Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club.”  His comeback narrative is appealing, and the fact that he lost a ton of weight helps.

That being said, I wouldn’t count out Joaquin Phoenix for “Her.”  If he could get nominated for a polarizing film like “The Master,” perhaps there’s more respect for Phoenix in the Academy than most people recognize.  He’s been nominated three times now, and I think it’s only a matter of time before he wins.

Chiwetel Ejiofor could easily supplant McConaughey as the bait performance to beat here.  A frontrunner will be cemented by the time both films debut at Toronto.

Breakout performer Oscar Isaac ought to score a nod here for “Inside Llewyn Davis.”  I don’t see how he can be overlooked if the movie is a hit with the Academy.

And keep an eye out for Robert Redford here.  He gives an incredible, virtually wordless performance in “All Is Lost” that will not be forgotten.  The Hollywood legend hasn’t been nominated for his acting in over 40 years, and the one Oscar sitting on his mantle is for directing.  Might it be his time in the sun?

Best Actress

  1. Amy Adams, “American Hustle”
  2. Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
  3. Naomi Watts, “Diana”
  4. Kate Winslet, “Labor Day”
  5. Emma Thompson, “Saving Mr. Banks”

Amy AdamsPlease, Academy, make this Amy Adams’ year!  She’s been nominated four times already in Best Supporting Actress.  Now that she’s playing with the big girls in Best Actress, maybe it’s just time to give her the darned trophy already.

Woody Allen hasn’t directed a woman to a leading actress win since Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall” – perhaps Cate Blanchett’s turn in “Blue Jasmine” can break the dry spell?  I think she’s a sure bet for a nomination, but another win is unlikely since Blanchett has won in the past decade.

Or maybe it’s Naomi Watts’ turn after coming up short for last year’s “The Impossible.”  If the Academy loves this two-time nominee, an uncanny performance as Princess Diana would be a good time to give it to her.

Kate Winslet has been nominated for six Oscars and has won one.  So why would the love stop now?  In her first notable screen performance since winning for 2008’s “The Reader,” she could rack up nomination number 7 and be well on her way to becoming the Meryl Streep of her generation.

Speaking of Meryl Streep, I could be making a mistake by not including her here.  She would definitely crack my top 5, but I’m hearing that she’ll be campaigned in supporting.  So for now, that fifth slot goes to Emma Thompson for the breezy “Saving Mr. Banks.”

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Michael Fassbender, “12 Years A Slave”
  2. Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”
  3. Daniel Bruhl, “Rush”
  4. Steve Carell, “Foxcatcher”
  5. Tom Hanks, “Saving Mr. Banks”

FassbenderGo big or go home.  After being snubbed for his incredible work in “Shame,” I predict the Academy will right its wrongs and reward Michael Fassbender with an Oscar for “12 Years A Slave.”  I really hope I’m right.

Bradley Cooper, given the villain role in “American Hustle,” could capitalize on a year of goodwill after a nomination from “Silver Linings Playbook.”  He’s probably a safer pick, but I’m not interested in safe at this point.

After last year’s category was dominated by previous winners, I’m going to predict two more first-time nominees in this category: Daniel Bruhl for “Rush,” whose performance has been touted since Cannes, and Steve Carell for “Foxcatcher,” a darker role for the comedic actor.

And then I’ll predict Tom Hanks as Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks” because that proposition just sounds too good to pass up for Academy voters.

Best Supporting Actress

  1. Oprah Winfrey, “The Butler”
  2. Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”
  3. Octavia Spencer, “Fruitvale Station”
  4. Cameron Diaz, “The Counselor”
  5. Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”

OprahHonestly, this category is such a toss-up at this point, so I’m forced to pick the only person with buzz at the moment: Oprah Winfrey for “The Butler.”  Beyond her, my confidence ends.  If the Weinstein Company had announced what Meryl Streep will be campaigned in, I’d feel confident picking her in whatever category they chose.  Right now, I’m going with supporting.

I thought Octavia Spencer was the best part of “Fruitvale Station,” but her part may be too small or too soon after her win for “The Help.”

Cameron Diaz looks like an intriguing femme fatale in “The Counselor,” but that movie could flop so hardcore that she’s rendered a non-factor this season.  With no festival appearances slated, the film does not appear to be a serious threat for anything.  Diaz has been pretty quiet lately, but let’s not forget she had a string of acclaimed roles from 1998 to 2002 that gave her 4 Golden Globe nominations and 3 SAG Award nominations.

And as for that last slot, I figured I might as well throw in Jennifer Lawrence for “American Hustle.”  Everyone loves J.Law, and I think enough people will like “American Hustle” to give her a victory lap after last year’s win.

Best Original Screenplay

  1. American Hustle
  2. Inside Llewyn Davis
  3. Blue Jasmine
  4. Her
  5. Gravity

Inside Llewyn DavisDavid O. Russell is a two-time writing nominee?  Check for “American Hustle.”

The Coen Brothers are five-time writing nominees with two wins?  Check for “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

Woody Allen has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay a whopping 15 times, and “Blue Jasmine” does not suck.  Check.

Spike Jonze is an acclaimed original figure in Hollywood?  Check for “Her,” but with some reluctance as “The Master” was snubbed last year for the clichéd “Flight.”

Alfonso Cuaron is a two-time writing nominee, but his latest film “Gravity” might be a lot more impressive on the screen than it is on the page.  Perhaps he will wow us once again and make us regret ever doubting him … so I’ll predict “Gravity” to take the final slot here.  But “Black Swan” missed here, so originality isn’t everything in the Best Original Screenplay category.

Best Adapted Screenplay

  1. 12 Years A Slave
  2. Foxcatcher
  3. The Monuments Men
  4. August: Osage County
  5. Before Midnight

It would be foolish of me not to predict a lot of Best Picture nominees here, which traditionally dominate the Best Adapted Screenplay category.  But don’t count out “Before Midnight,” whose predecessor scored a nomination back in 2004 in this category.  The series, and this installment in particular, has gotten a lot of positive press.  I don’t think the writers will forget about this one.

What do you think?  Who is the one to beat in 2013?  Sound off!





REVIEW: Moneyball

10 10 2011

The sports movie is in a rut, I’ll just go ahead and say it.  When movies like “Warrior” receives almost unanimous acclaim and “The Blind Side” can get a Best Picture nomination, the genre is in need of an influx of creativity and ingenuity.  And what better movie to do that than Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball,” a movie that is actually about creativity and ingenuity?

Miller, along with screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, pulls off a feat not unlike that accomplished by Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s: working within the framework of a failing system, they employ clever cinematic maneuvering and ingenuous thinking to create a fantastic societal and self-examination.  Michael Lewis’ non-fiction tome is about putting the brains back in the business of sports; Miller’s film is about one man trying to find his heart again in sports by using math as a means to achieve his long-sought satisfaction.  It may be that “Moneyball” uses sports only as a backdrop for its deeper, probing questions, something that wouldn’t be entirely uncharacteristic of Sorkin, who just last year won an Oscar for using the rise of Facebook in “The Social Network” as a setting for an exploration of modern power, greed, and friendship.

So while sports fans may be disappointed that “Moneyball” is not a sports movie but rather a movie about sports, Hollywood will no doubt continue to spit out run-of-the-mill, color-by-numbers inspirational movies for them.  Everyone else, on the other hand, can marvel at a movie about athletic competition that doesn’t teach us the hackneyed values of the triumph of individual will over adversity.  While glorifying impressive human achievement makes us feel good, Sorkin doesn’t indulge us in such escapism.  In 2011, we must face the fact that we don’t always win, the system may overpower even the most brilliant of ideas, and satisfaction isn’t just a win or a loss away.

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