REVIEW: Her

2 10 2014

Writer/director Spike Jonze’s “Her” is an uncommonly thoughtful film, one that is lightyears ahead of what we can really even fathom.  Most works tackling the topics of technology and humanity are set in distant futures, yet they never seem to escape the mire of our present times.

“Her,” on the other hand, dares to imagine a world only tenuously related to our own.  Jonze’s vision is hardly disconnected from contemporary concerns, though.  It just requires us to adjust our frame of reference to imagine issues we may not have even contemplated.  As a result, Jonze is able to urge us to see the world differently – a very worthwhile way to wield the power of cinema.

In his unspecified future Los Angeles, Joaquin Phoenix’s socially isolated Theodore Twombly finds romantic companionship not in another human being, but rather in his OS, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).  The soothing sultriness of her voice allays our concerns about intelligent computers, so we’re never worried about her turning into HAL from “2001.”  Instead, we can focus on the very unique insights their relationship yields about intimacy and emotional mediation.

All that we think we know is up for reconsideration in “Her,” even the very nature of love.  In the hands of many directors, this kind of existential revelation might leave us feeling depressed or hopeless.  But Jonze, with a respect for artificial intelligence and an optimism for the future that feels quite groundbreaking, deposits us at a higher ground of understanding that almost overrides any emotional response.

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Oscar Moment: Final 2013 Predictions! (Part 2)

15 01 2014

Last night, I had a very stressful dream that involved me missing the official announcement of the Academy Award nominations.  I then scrambled all day to try and watch a video of the presentation to no avail.  So needless to say, I am very ready to find out who’s really in the running for this year’s Oscars!  Now, it’s time to reveal my predictions for the top categories.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

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

_DSC2097.tifThis may be the most stacked that the original category has been in a long, long time.  Usually, it’s adapted that is an embarrassment of riches and original that has a dearth of contenders. Not so much in 2013.

“American Hustle,” being at the forefront of the Oscar race, is probably the one to beat here.  “Her,” however, could steal it in the end.  Jonze’s incredibly original work took the Golden Globe, and it will likely find fans in the writers’ branch.  Then again, they didn’t embrace “The Master” last year … the moment you think you have the Academy pegged, they change.

“Nebraska” seems highly likely as well.  Even though the script was not written by Alexander Payne himself, the 2-time winner of Best Adapted Screenplay, the film still has his fingerprints all over it.  A nomination would still be likely even if the film wasn’t in Best Picture contention.

Blue JasmineAfter there, the race could go a number of ways.  I’m thinking writers’ branch stalwart Woody Allen will show up here for “Blue Jasmine.”  It’s one of his more acclaimed films in years, and Blanchett’s front-runner status in Best Actress has kept the film’s profile high.  Only twice has Allen’s script missed a nomination here when the movie features an Oscar-nominated performance.  He’s been nominated a whopping 15 times, so betting against him seems foolish.

“Dallas Buyers Club” is riding high off praise for its performances and may sail to a Best Picture nomination.  Even without a nod in the top category, I could see it popping up here, like last year when “Flight” displaced “The Master.”  (If you can’t tell, I’m still slightly bitter.)

There’s always a chance for a really left-field choice here, so who knows what could land a nomination?  Could it be Jeff Nichols’ “Mud?”  Nicole Holofcener’s “Enough Said?”  Oscar contenders likely to be on the outside looking in such as “Saving Mr. Banks,” “Fruitvale Station,” “The Butler,” or maybe even … Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity?”

I’m leaning towards the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” another fantastic showcase of their talents and potentially one of the few chances the film has at recognition.  Though it’s been absent from the guilds, the Coens have always had fans in the Academy.  The writers branch has nominated their work five times, and residual respect ought to bring them through.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

  1. 12 Years a Slave
  2. Captain Phillips
  3. Philomena
  4. Before Midnight
  5. The Wolf of Wall Street

Before MidnightBest Picture nominees generally tend to dominate the field in Adapted, so “12 Years a Slave,” “Captain Phillips,” and “Philomena” have pretty much already punched their ticket.

The category usually recognizes a few more unique adaptations, like a “Borat,” “Children of Men,” or “In the Loop.”  This year, I think that slot goes to “Before Midnight.”  The previous installment in the most unlikely trilogy also received a nomination in Best Adapted Screenplay, and there’s no reason why I don’t think its sequel will repeat.  It’s debatable how “adapted” the story really is as it takes its basis from pre-existing characters, but that won’t work against it.  The unique collaboration between director Richard Linklater and actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke is worth rewarding in and of itself too for its uniqueness.

As for the last spot, I think “The Wolf of Wall Street” takes it even if the film misses out on a Best Picture nomination.  The only other competition is “August: Osage County,” which has proved divisive and controversial.  It’s also more of an actors’ movie, which works against the film when only writers determine its chances at a nomination here.

BEST DIRECTOR

  1. Alfonso Cuarón, “Gravity”
  2. Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”
  3. David O. Russell, “American Hustle”
  4. Paul Greengrass, “Captain Phillips”
  5. Spike Jonze, “Her”

GravityLast year, the director’s branch threw everyone for a curve by excluding two former winners (Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper) and omitting the director of the eventual Best Picture winner (Ben Affleck) to include a first-time filmmaker (Benh Zeitlin) and a director working in a foreign language (Michael Haneke).  I don’t think Best Director will have quite as many surprise this year, though.

Alfonso Cuarón seems likely for a nomination, if not the win at this point.  His “Gravity” is an undeniable testament to the skill and expertise of his direction.  Even if the Academy doesn’t want to give their top prize to a science-fiction movie, Cuarón could still take home this prize.  The man has been nominated as an editor and a writer previously, so respect runs deep through the organization.

Steve McQueen and David O. Russell, directors of the respective Best Picture shoo-ins “12 Years a Slave” and “American Hustle,” should also be safe.  Russell even managed a nomination in Best Director last year for “Silver Linings Playbook” despite being snubbed by the DGA.  He got the guild’s support this year, so he’s definitely a force to be reckoned with.

Paul Greengrass scored a lone Best Director nomination back in 2006 for “United 93” (perhaps the film would have been nominated in a field of more than 5) and seems likely to score another nod with “Captain Phillips.”  His steady direction is crucial to the film’s success, and though it’s out of the hunt for a win, I’d be shocked to see it passed over given the respect for Greengrass and the film.

ScorseseAs for the fifth and final spot in the category, the directors branch could nominate Alexander Payne for “Nebraska,” whose work was recognized by the Golden Globes.  Or they could give DGA nominee Martin Scorsese his first Best Director nomination since finally winning in 2006 for “The Departed.”  I really can’t tell which of these wildly different pieces will strike a chord with the eclectic directors.  My sense is that Payne, twice nominated here for “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” is more likely than Scorsese as “The Wolf of Wall Street” definitely has its detractors.

I’m inclined to think, though, that the directors will opt to give the final spot to Spike Jonze for “Her.”  It’s a film that represents a clear directorial vision and creation.  The movie is quirky and may not play well across the board to the Academy, but I think it should resonate with the directors.  They gave him a Best Director nomination back in 1999 for his directorial debut “Being John Malkovich,” so there’s no reason to think he shouldn’t be feted again.

BEST PICTURE

  1. American Hustle
  2. 12 Years a Slave
  3. Gravity
  4. Captain Phillips
  5. Nebraska
  6. Her
  7. Dallas Buyers Club
  8. The Wolf of Wall Street
  9. Philomena
  10. Inside Llewyn Davis

NebraskaWell, here, we are.  My final Best Picture predictions.  It’s down to “American Hustle” vs. “12 Years a Slave” vs. “Gravity” for the win; everybody else should just be happy to put “__ Oscar nominations including BEST PICTURE” on their DVD case.  I think “American Hustle” has the edge at the moment, but the upcoming guilds should provide a clearer picture of who is really on top.  After all, it’s those people whose opinions line up most with Academy voters.

“Captain Phillips” and “Nebraska” are also pretty much shoo-ins, collecting pretty much every major nomination necessary to secure a spot here.  (“Nebraska” missed with the DGA, but that’s not the end of the world in an expanded field.)  Again, neither looks like a threat to win here.

Aside from those five, however, it’s anyone’s guess as to how those other spots play out.  Several films have popped up with a blip on the radar, such as “The Butler” (SAG), “August: Osage County” (SAG), “Blue Jasmine” (PGA), “Fruitvale Station” (AFI), and “Rush” (HFPA).  Of these, I think only “Blue Jasmine” has the chance to surprise.  The Producers Guild is a significant voting body, and their nod of support should not be taken lightly.  But “Blue Jasmine” has been so quiet on the circuit otherwise compared to “Midnight in Paris.”  Woody Allen’s respect in the Academy is deep, too, so there’s always an outside chance for one of his movies.

For SAG ensemble nominees “The Butler” and “August: Osage County,” I don’t think their critical shortcomings can be overcome with this nomination.  While the actors may be the biggest component of the Academy, we’ve learned they are not large enough to power otherwise poorly-received films to Best Picture nominations in the era of the expanded field.  SAG ensemble nominees Nine” and “The Best Exotic Margiold Hotel” both faltered in their quest to be recognized in the industry’s top category, and the two aforementioned 2013 nominees will likely fare the same.

“Fruitvale Station” and “Rush” just never really caught fire in awards season, and I doubt that either can gin up the passion to gain the requisite votes for a nomination.

PhilomenaThat leaves us with several repeat offenders.  “Her” was a Golden Globe, BFCA, PGA, WGA, and AFI nominee.  Thought its quirkiness and boldness might not find favor with all Academy voters, it definitely has enough passionate supporters to at least gain a nomination.

“Dallas Buyers Club” was nominated for SAG ensemble along with BFCA, PGA, and WGA nominations.  The film seems to have a broad enough base of support, but there’s always a chance that the supporters aren’t very fervent.  I think it ought to be fine, though.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is very controversial, as I’ve said nearly any time I’ve written about it, but the film seems to have hit its stride just when it counts.  Though it missed entirely with SAG, it’s been nominated by the DGA, PGA, WGA, BFCA, and HFPA.  I think all that support means a nomination is extremely likely, but anything could happen.

I think the Academy might end up with just those eight, which would be a shame given how incredible this year has been for film.  But if they nominate nine, I think “Philomena” would take the next spot.  It’s a sentimental crowd-pleaser right up the Academy’s alley, and it’s British.  There’s a sizable contingency of industry professionals from across the pond that vote for the Oscars, and they’ve been a crucial voting bloc that can often make a contender.  “Philomena” has wide support from BAFTA, HFPA, PGA, and WGA, which I expect means it has the capability of scoring a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars.

Inside Llewyn DavisAnd if they were to nominate ten, the smart money would probably be on PGA, BFCA, and AFI nominee “Saving Mr. Banks.”  The fact that it was not nominated by the Golden Globes and SAG, though, strikes me as odd.  Tom Hanks’ lack of traction in Best Supporting Actor, too, seems a sign of the film’s weakness.  “Philomena” seems to have the market cornered on the heartwarming movie of the year.  Maybe the industry is done with the self-congratulatory streak that powered “The Artist” and “Argo” to Best Picture wins.

Even though it was shockingly snubbed by the PGA and WGA, “Inside Llewyn Davis” was directed by the Coen Brothers.  Their status as Academy darlings simply cannot be understated, particularly after their wins in 2007 for “No Country for Old Men.”  In 2009, their “A Serious Man” managed to sneak into the Best Picture category with relatively little heat.  The next year, their “True Grit” wound up with a whopping 10 nominations, and the Coens displaced Christopher Nolan in Best Director.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” hasn’t been completely dead on the circuit, picking up nominations from HFPA, BFCA, and AFI.  It’s definitely a long shot, but don’t write the film off.  I think if any movie stands poised to stealthily crack the field, it’s this one.

Check back tomorrow morning when the nominees are announced to see how I did in predicting them, along with further commentary on the announcement!





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!