Oscar 2014 – Post Script

By D.G. McCabe

Another awards season has wrapped up, with the majority of Grand Canyonscope’s predictions proving correct!  Well, except for Mr. Hublot’s win over Mickey Mouse in the biggest upset of the night (and a couple others, but we were taking underdogs with those picks).

Granted it’s been a couple of days, but I have two quick thoughts on Sunday night’s outcome.

It turned out to be an especially predictable Oscar telecast – as proven by the most buzzworthy moment being not Ellen DeGeneres’ quality hosting performance or any of the award winners.  After all, we knew most of those were coming.  No, the most memorable moment was a semi-washed up actor introducing one of the biggest stars in American theater, Idina Menzel.  She both spells and pronounces her name differently there, Vincent Vega.

I still think there is a strong argument to be made that Gravity will ultimately prove a more influential film that 12 Years a Slave, but it is a silly argument to make.  These are two powerful, artistic films that are successful for very different reasons.  We should count ourselves lucky that these films exist – and hope that the films they inspire are equal to their success.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

Oscar Preview 2014 – Best Director and Best Picture

By D.G. McCabe

Here we go with the last two categories – Best Director and Best Picture.

Best Director

1. Alfonso Cuarón – Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón takes a fairly standard plot and uses innovative shots and an extraordinary setting to create a masterpiece.  The camera work is just one aspect of the skill needed in this one, since handling fewer actors for longer periods can be more difficult than managing many actors over shorter periods.

2. Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave

While Cuarón uses innovative methods to tell a familiar survival story, McQueen uses the established conventions of European cinema to tell a groundbreaking story.  McQueen doesn’t really push the creative envelope as much as Cuarón, and that’s why he will finish a close second.

3. David O. Russell – American Hustle

Russell is quickly establishing himself as the premier actor’s director in Hollywood.  He gets great performances out of his entire cast in American Hustle and, by now, I’m sure a-listers are lining up to work with him.  The construction of the film just isn’t up there with the top two, however.

4. Alexander Payne – Nebraska

Payne is another quickly emerging Hollywood auteur, and Nebraska continues a streak of well-shot, poignant, family dramas.  A solid effort from an up and coming director just doesn’t have the juice to win this year.

5. Martin Scorsese – The Wolf of Wall Street

If Goodfellas (1990), Raging Bull (1980), Taxi Driver (1976), Gangs of New York (2002), and Mean Streets (1973) can’t get Scorsese a Best Director statue, this one certainly won’t either.

Best Picture

Here’s the top of the heap – the category that everyone is looking forward to and debating.  To be honest it’s a two horse race – but what a two horse race!

1. 12 Years a Slave

I had to separate in my mind the movie that I think is going to win from the movie that probably should win.  I don’t want to take anything away from 12 Years a Slave – it is one of the best four or five movies of the last ten years.  So is #2 on this list, however, which I felt was more innovative from a technical standpoint and therefore potentially more influential.  One has to take into consideration who is voting – a great portrayal of historical trauma is going to beat a genre thriller every time in the Academy’s mind.

2. Gravity

12 Years a Slave should be required viewing for anyone who wants to understand American history – and it will win on Sunday night because of that.  Gravity is a more impressive artistic achievement.  Ultimately, both these films will be watched and re-watched for years to come, but Gravity pushes the envelope of technical achievement in the most technically difficult genre – thrillers.  It’s a shame they both can’t win, as they are easily better than many of the best picture winners from recent years.

3. American Hustle

Anyone who thinks American Hustle can win is banking on a concept that the heavyweights will knock each other out.  It has happened before in Oscar history.  Arguably Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson’s greatest performances canceled each other out in 1974, allowing Art Carney to win.  American Hustle has gotten a lot of support from the Acting Branch as its SAG victory suggests.  It won’t happen – American Hustle is a very good movie, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave are great movies.  There’s a clear difference, and the Acting Branch can differentiate between great ensemble performance and great films in general.

4. Dallas Buyer’s Club

Like American Hustle, this one has strong performances.  Like 12 Years a Slave, it deals with historically traumatic social issues.  Unlike either of those movies, it feels disjointed and unfocused at times.

5. Nebraska

Rounding out our “this is all the nominees there should be” segment is Nebraska.  It is hard to argue against including it, but harder to argue that it really has that extra oomph to pull off an upset.

6. Captain Phillips

This one has a lot to commend it for, it is accurate and intense.  The Academy didn’t really like it though, as noted by Tom Hanks being left out of the Best Lead Actor race.

7. Her

This one had the potential for heavyweight status on Oscar night, but something just doesn’t feel right about it.  Great timely concept, check.  Up and coming director, check.  A-list performances, check.  Timely subject matter, check.  Resonated with audiences, meh, not so much.

8. Philomena

I can’t really comment on this film, beyond the fact that it doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy.  It may just another good film that gets nominated because the Academy likes it and we need 9 nominees for some reason.

9. The Wolf of Wall Street

Opening up the field to nine movies virtually guarantees that whatever movie Scorsese makes that year will get nominated.  The Wolf of Wall Street seems a bit too much like a remake of Casino set on Wall Street.  I haven’t seen it, so I can’t confirm that.  Based on mixed reviews and people I know who have seen it though,  I can tell you that if we had 8 nominees, it wouldn’t make the cut.

That’s it for Oscar Preview week!  Enjoy the ceremony on Sunday Night!

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe

Oscar Preview 2014 – Best Actor/Actress

By D.G. McCabe

More acting Oscar fun!  It looks at first glance like a fairly competitive year, until you take a look at the results of award season so far that is…

Best Actor

1. Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyer’s Club

Who thought that McConaughey would be winning every award in sight, well, ever?  If you saw Dallas Buyer’s Club you’d know why.  His portrayal of Ron Woodruff, the AIDS afflicted roughneck and businessman, is at once heart-wrenching and funny.  Barring a major upset, he’s probably a shoe-in.

2. Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave

It’s a kind of a shame that McConaughey is the clear favorite, because in any other year, Ejiofor would win for his role as Solomon Northrup in 12 Years a Slave.  Still, despite McConaughey’s great performance, great performances alone don’t make legendary films.  We’ll be watching Ejiofor for many years for this one, and I don’t know if I can say the same for McConaughey.

3. Christian Bale – American Hustle

If there were an Oscar for miraculous transformations, Bale would win by a touchdown for his turn as Irving Rosenfeld.  Oh wait, there is an Oscar for that, Best Hair and Makeup, and American Hustle wasn’t nominated.  Way to go Academy, way to go.

4. Bruce Dern – Nebraska

I haven’t seen Nebraska, but Dern has been around forever and has a filmography longer than most screenplays.  I’m sure his performance as Woody Grant is great, but there’s just too much competition here to justify the occasional “lifetime achievement Best Actor Oscar” for Dern.

5. Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street

Haven’t seen this one, but it’s a Scorsese movie so I’ll check it out eventually.  Unfortunately Leo’s about to go 0-5, meaning he may have one of those “lifetime achievement Best Actor Oscars” in his future.  To be clear, this is what they gave Al Pacino for “Scent of a Woman” (1992).

Best Actress

1. Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine

Strange how the lead actor categories mirror each other this year.  Cate Blanchett has been winning everything in sight for her role as Jasmine, will probably win the Oscar.  However, Blue Jasmine does not appear to be in the highest pantheon of Woody Allen films based on the reviews I’ve seen.  Odds are will be seeing #2 a lot more in the future.

2. Sandra Bullock – Gravity

I haven’t seen Blue Jasmine, so I don’t understand how Bullock could not win for Gravity.   I guess the actors branch (SAG Awards) are the experts, but her performance as Dr. Ryan Stone is incredible, with an added degree of difficulty.  She was, after all, the only actor on screen most of the movie.

3. Meryl Streep – August: Osage County

I didn’t get a chance to check this one out.  I would never count Streep out, and I hope she gets one more Oscar before she retires (to tie Katherine Hepburn).  But this probably won’t be that year.

4. Judi Dench – Philomena

This is another one I didn’t get a chance to see, but I’ll repeat my above comment.  I hope Dench gets another Oscar, since she certainly deserves one, but once again, not this year.

5. Amy Adams – American Hustle

This nomination surprised me.  Of the ensemble in American Hustle, I found Adams’ performance to be the weakest.  She’s a great actor, that’s a given, but this one just didn’t connect with me as a great lead performance.

More preview tomorrow!

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

Oscar Preview 2014 – Best Supporting Actor/Actress

By D.G. McCabe

Oh the acting categories.  Generally speaking these are considered to be the “glamor” categories, since this is what gives all the glamorous people an excuse to dress so glamorously.  Full disclosure – I haven’t seen all of these movies.  I’ll indicate which movies I’ve seen and which I haven’t.

Best Supporting Actor

1. Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

Saw this one. Jared Leto has been winning everything in sight this awards season, and with good reason.  Television badboy, above average rockstar, guy who is apparently obsessed with Japanese culture – none of this descriptors seem to indicate that Leto could succeed in the role of the tough drag queen, drug addict, and AIDS patient Rayon.  He nails it though, and if he wins on Sunday night, it will be well earned.

2. Michael Fassbinder – 12 Years a Slave

Saw this one.  Fassbinder hasn’t been winning much for this role – a villainous slave master and sexual predator.  In any other year I think he’d be a favorite, as his portrayal of Edwin Epps is monstrous and terrifying, but avoids the kind of mustache twirling that would tempt a lesser actor.

3. Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips

Didn’t see this one.  I can’t comment on Abdi’s performance, since I didn’t see his portrayal of Somali pirate Abduwali Muse.  Academy members love a rags to riches story though, and Abdi is a Somali immigrant from the upper midwest who was working as a limo driver before he was cast as a central character in a Tom Hanks vehicle.  Pretty compelling if you go in for that sort of thing.

4. Bradley Cooper – American Hustle

Saw this one.   Cooper should buy David O. Russell an expensive automobile, because if it weren’t for this and last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” I’m pretty sure he’d be relegated to rom-com/gross out comedy purgatory.   His turn as as the repugnant Richie DeMaso is quite a departure from his usual roles so far in his career.

5. Jonah Hill – The Wolf of Wall Street

Didn’t see this one.  It seems that Hill snuck in right under the wire for an Oscar nomination here.  I haven’t seen The Wolf of Wall Street, and knowing Scorsese’s history as a great manager of actors (maybe the best ever), I’m sure his take as Donnie Azoff is a worthy performance.  My prediction is that we’ll be wishing him better luck next time.

Best Supporting Actress

1. Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle

Saw this one. I know that the Screen Actors Guild disagrees with me, but American Hustle would be an above average period piece if it weren’t for Jennifer Lawrence.  As the dim witted Rosalyn Rosenfeld she adds humor to what could easily have been a fairly humorless and routine tale of deception and the death of the American dream.  I don’t think there have been many actors or actresses her age that could carry a film like that from a supporting role.

2. Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave

Saw this one.  I’ll admit that it’s a bit of a battle royale this category between Lawrence and Nyong’o.  Nyong’o if phenomenal as the abused slave Patsey, and draws the audience into her character’s tortuous life.  12 Years a Slave is a terrifying, night terror of a film, and Nyong’o’s performance is a big part of that.  It really depends on the taste of the Academy members for drama or comedy for this one.

3. Julia Roberts – August: Osage County

Didn’t see this one. Was this an excuse for the Academy to get Julia Roberts to come to their little awards ceremony and sit in the front row?  Maybe, but all the reviews I’ve seen indicate that she nails it as Barbara Weston-Fordham.  There are few actresses that can measure up to Roberts when she’s at the top of her game.

4. June Squibb – Nebraska

Didn’t see this one. Nebraska got some great reviews and seems to be a classic ensemble piece.  June Squibb plays Kate Grant, the wife/mother of the two main characters.  Squibb has had a long career, most of which is on stage.  Given that the Academy’s membership skews older and more classically trained, she could surprise some people.

5. Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine

Didn’t see this one.  The Academy likes performances from independent films – to a point that is.  Woody Allen’s films have been a notable exception – traditionally Oscar gold for actors and actresses of all ages.  I haven’t seen Blue Jasmine, but Sally Hawkins performance as Ginger is the latest in a long line of Allen nominees, including this year’s best Actress favorite, Cate Blanchett.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

The Year in Review – 2013

By D.G. McCabe

Well 2013 is drawing to a close, so let’s talk about who had a good year, a bad year, some predictions, and a couple good-byes.

2013 was a good year to be:

1. The Walt Disney Company

Four of the top eleven highest grossing films of 2013 were released by Disney (Iron Man 3, Monsters University, Thor: The Dark World, Oz: The Great and Powerful).  Add this to the fact that Star Wars Episode 7 production seems to be moving ahead smoothly, and they’re probably feeling pretty great.

2. Robert Downey, Jr.

Iron Man 3 could have moved him to a bigger house, but the next two Avengers movies can move him to his own private continent.  Get ready Antarctica!

3. An Experienced Actress

Take a look at “best actress” nominees for the Golden Globes.  Their average age is just under 50.  This is great news for everyone.

2013 was a bad year to be:

1. An A-List Actor

There was a time even crappy movies featuring Johnny Depp, Harrison Ford, or Will Smith would crush it at the box office.  This year…let’s review:

I guess this is what happens when you: 1) still let M. Night Shyamalan make movies for some reason; 2) dig up properties that haven’t been popular since TV’s emitted that weird buzzing noise; and, 3) try to make films based on thirty year old, niche science fiction novels who’s author can’t cool it with the racist/homophobic rants2. 3D!!!!!!

The late Roger Ebert thought that 3D was a fad, even after Avatar (2009) made the most money ever by basically remaking Dances with Wolves (1990) with weird, blue aliens.  The cancellations of the 3D re-releases of the Star Wars movies and the death of 3D television seem to bear this out.

3. Blockbusters

None other than the inventors of the form, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, are thinking that we might hit “peak blockbuster” in the near future.  The disappointing to terrible returns of After Earth, Ender’s Game, The Lone Ranger, Elysium, Pacific Rim, The Wolverine, The Smurfs 2, White House Down, RIPD, and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters seem to agree with this theory.  Let’s see what happens over the next couple of years.

Not so Bold Predictions:

1. Best Picture Oscar: 12 Years a Slave.  Actual Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave – because even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

2. Will Smith no longer has the ability to make a film profitable just by being in it. I predict that unless he joins a super hero franchise his days of $100 million opening weekends are behind him.

3. The new “giant robots fighting each other” movie will be the #1 film at the box office in 2014.  Thankfully, the role of whiny, annoying, pointless human has been apparently written out of the film, as Shia LaBeouf is not going to be lending his “talents” to this one.  Mark Wahlberg will be in it instead.

Eight Scenes from that Great Alehouse in the Sky:

1. Peter O’Toole – now sharing a drink with Richard Burton in a corner table.

2. Roger Ebert – Sitting nearby, telling them that as good as O’Toole was in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), that’s how bad Burton was in Cleopatra (1963).

3. Annette Funicello – Waiting for open mic night to start.

4. Ray Harryhausen – Figuring out how to make the chairs dance to the cheesy 1960’s surf pop that Ms. Funicello will perform.

5. James Gandolfini – Trying to avoid being typecast in whatever gangster movie James Cagney is bending his ear about.

6. Dennis Farina – Trying to avoid being typecast as a cop in the same movie.

7. Karen Black – Setting up the open mic night, trying to avoid Burton.

8. Paul Walker – Waiting for Steve McQueen to come by so that they can compare notes.

And that’s our 2013 Year in Review! Bring it – 2014!

(c) D.G. McCabe

12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave

Directed by: Steve McQueen, US/UK 2013

12 Years a Slave is a nightmare – a fever dream.  It sends you to a distant past, surrounded by men and women in worn-through garments.  Gradually, images flash by of a family, a kidnapping, torture, and the unique evil that causes men to dominate other men.  Even the lulls in the storm are frothing with menace, as around every corner there is a sadist with a whip or a noose.  Eventually the horror ends, but the images remain.

The film tells a story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African American man who was kidnapped by slavers in 1841 and shipped from the North to Louisiana.  Aside from his memoir, which shares a title with the film, little is known of Northrup.  For over a century, his book was buried in the stacks of abolitionist literature, beneath better known works by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass.  It was re-discovered by scholars in the 1960’s, who verified the accuracy of the story.

That Northrup is a relatively unknown figure in history is important.  While McQueen’s film tracks Northrup’s story, it isn’t designed or structured as a biopic.  The audience isn’t meant to sympathize with Northrup, but to experience American slavery through his eyes and, by doing so, understand a small piece of the horror that millions of American experienced before 1865.

Northrup’s story was an anomaly, and his experience was largely that of an outsider.  Much like Spielberg does in “Schindler’s List” (1994), McQueen uses this to great effect.  The audience, after all, is an outsider too, and can only view the events of 12 Years a Slave through that perspective.  This is especially important when one considers that the institution of slavery has passed from living memory.  We can’t interview the victims, the participants, or the bystanders. All we have are ghosts, like Northrup’s, screaming to us from a distant past.

Take for example McQueen’s depiction of Northrup’s life in Saratoga Springs.  It feels a bit too modern, but McQueen isn’t reaching for historical accuracy, he’s trying to ground Northrup’s experience in our modern sensibilities.  It helps prevent the audience from mentally checking out from the story with a “oh this happened a long time ago.”

Other than the title, McQueen uses flashbacks and repeated scenes to avoid grounding Northrup’s experience in time.  The film is shot in drab earth-tones, like a dream in which your mind tricks you into seeing colors.  The film isn’t nearly as non-linear as  Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961), but is definitely Marienbad-esque in it’s shot selection and tone.  Likewise, Ejiofor’s performance is subtle and observant enough to let these elements carry the film, yet forceful enough to pull the audience along when needed.

Finally, it is one of the few films, like Louis Malle’s “Au Revoir les Enfants,” that conveys helplessness in the face of oppression.  We love stories of resistance, but to the vast majority of the victims of oppressive regimes, resistance means nothing but death.  Stories like “12 Years a Slave” help us recognize evil but also explain how, in the face of evil, many people will look the other way, or worse, go along with it.  Resistance is  necessary to defeat evil, but it isn’t simple or easy when that evil has been allowed to entrench itself in a society.  It is much easier to defeat evil before it has become institutionalized.

You might like 12 Years a Slave if: You want to experience one of the definitive depictions of evil and oppression in cinema.

You might not like 12 Year a Slave if: You’re not prepared for its intensity.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe