Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Guide to Best Actor 2013

With only 3 more sleeps until Oscar night, it seems I really need to finish my analysis of the acting categories. Here's a look at Best Actor.

This year's Best Actor race seemed to have received more talk about the big stars that didn't make the cut: Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips and Robert Redford in the one-man show of All is Lost, than about the ones that did. Still not sure how Hanks didn't make the final 5, particularly with an amazing scene that everyone mentions as some of his best work ever. Living legend Redford (who has only ever received one acting nomination, for The Sting) just never got the traction with his film that early buzz indicated. And although general censuses seems to agree that McConaughey will take home the gold Sunday, there seems to be a case for any of the other actors winning...except Bale. That's just not happening.

* * *

Christian Bale American Hustle

Age: 40
Previous Oscar Nominations: Bale won Best Supporting Actor the last team he teamed up with David O. Russell in The Fighter (2010)
The Role: Irving Rosenfeld, a con artist in the 1970s that is somewhat based on the real-life Melvin Weinberg and his involvement with Abscam. "He wasn't necessarily in good shape and he had this comb over that was rather...elaborate."
Why He's Here: For the longest time it seemed that the Academy was ignoring Bale. Despite great performances in American Psycho, Rescue Dawn, and all the insane amount of weight he lost in The Machinist (do NOT goggle those pictures. You will have nightmares), it just wasn't enough to receive the Academy's attention. He finally won with his first nomination and it looks like Oscar's love of David O. Russell has found its way over to Bale as well. His nomination was the biggest surprise of the 5 guys here, but it looks like his tricks of gaining and losing weight (this time gaining and herniating a disc in the process) are finally getting noticed. He also sports one of the absolute worst hairstyles in all of cinema. Which translates to praise for a lack of vanity. But, for all the physical transformation, there's not much that seems believable with the character nor Bale playing him. The accent is shaky and I just kept thinking, if they wanted a fat, bald guy why not just have cast a fat, bald guy?

Bruce Dern Nebraska

Age: 77
Previous Oscar Nominations: Dern was previously nominated once before for Best Supporting Actor in Coming Home (1978)
The Role: Dern plays Woody Grant, a man that thinks he's won a million dollars and goes on a road-trip to Nebraska with his son (Will Forte) to retrieve it. He enjoys long walks along the highway and is prone to losing his teeth along railroad tracks.
Why He's Here: God bless, Bruce Dern. I hated your movie, sir, but I'm somehow alright with this nomination because you seem like a generally nice person that is completely honored to receive it. But, make no mistake about it–Dern wanted it and he campaigned hard. Hitting every news outlet and film festival (early buzz started when he won Best Actor for the film at Cannes) and playing up the fact that he's been a great character actor for so long but never had that breakthrough role that would have made him a star like his friend Jack Nicholson, Dern charmed his way onto voter's ballots. Dern, who is known for more wild, crazy-eyed characters is pretty subdued in Nebraska. He's a man of few words and usually that word is, Huh? I can't say that I'm necessarily impressed with his work in the film which is so subdued that it borders on comatose, but there's a world-weariness to the performance that seems authentic.

Leonardo DiCaprio The Wolf of Wall Street

Age: 39
Previous Oscar Nominations: This is the fourth acting nomination for DiCaprio. He was previously nominated for Supporting Actor for What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) and Best Actor in The Aviator (2004) and Blood Diamond (2006). He has yet to win. He's also nominated this year as one of the producers on Wolf of Wall Street
The Role: The real-life Wall Street broker Jordan Belfort who created the firm Stratton Oakmont and was arrested for money laundering and securities fraud. He also had a taste for the finer things in life: hookers, blow, and Quaaludes. A lot of Quaaludes.
Why He's Here: Leo just seems like one of those people that will win an Oscar one day. I'm just not completely convinced that this is that time. After winning the Golden Globe for Best a Musical or Comedy, which isn't really what the Academy goes for, it seemed the internet was filled with "Could Leo Win?" pieces. The film definitely has its haters that take issue with the way Jordan gets away with his crimes and how it glamorizes his hedonist lifestyle. But the film never intends to be a morality tale, but presents a story without judgement. Whatever your issues with the tone of the film (or the length), there's no denying that DiCaprio is having the time of his life in it. He's never been more exciting on film and seems to throw himself into the role with abandon. After self-serious work in films like Revolutionary Road and J.Edgar (ugh), it's a pleasant change to see this side of DiCaprio. After winning at the Golden Globes, he joked that he never thought he'd win an award for comedy, but his comedic skills were on full display in the film. Particularly the scene in which he is so hopped up on so many Quaaludes that even trying to get to his car is a laborious effort. It was one of my favorite moments in film of the past year and if his efforts result in a win Oscar night, I wouldn't complain.

Chiwetel Ejiofor 12 Years a Slave

Age: 36
Previous Oscar Nominations: This is his first nomination
The Role: The British Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free man in New York that was kidnapped and sold into slavery in rural Louisiana in the 1840's. Northup wrote about his true story for the book published in 1868 that the film is based on, which will soon be be taught in schools.
Why He's Here: It seemed for the longest time that Ejiofor was always just on the verge of a bigger break. He's been one of those actors that the media hypes as the next big thing, but the films he was in (although, great) never really panned out in making him a star. But his skills as an actor have never been in question. He has 5 Golden Globe Nominations, an Olivier award for his performance in Othello in the West End, and was honored with the OBE (Order of the British Empire) by the Queen for services to the arts. With his work in 12 Years a Slave, it seems that audiences (and the Academy) have finally caught up with him. And his performance in the film (which recently won him a BAFTA award) is perhaps the crowning achievement in a long line of accomplishments. So much happens surrounding Northup that Ejiofor knows that just being present and engaged is almost enough. But within his face is written the struggle and endurance and, despite it all, the hope that his nightmare will end. He is a powerful presence on screen, but the key to his survival is bringing a calm to that inner tempest while still allowing us as an audience to see the fire burn in his eyes.

Matthew McConaughey Dallas Buyers Club

Age: 44
Previous Oscar Nominations: Can you believe this is his first nomination? None for Failure to Launch? (But, seriously, he should've been nominated for Magic Mike.)
The Role: As the homophobic, HIV positive Ron Woodroof, McConaughey lost 40 pounds to play the real-life man. Woodroof sought non-FDA approved HIV medications and sold them to other people suffering from the disease in the 1980's.
Why He's Here: One word: McConaissance. The man once known for his golden bod (let's not forget the naked bongo drum playing) and the go-to leading man for every formulaic romantic comedy is now being taken seriously as an actor. After winning the Golden Globe, SAG, and countless other awards, he is also the frontrunner to win an Oscar. Over the past years, it seems that McConaughey has actively sought out roles and films that challenge or excite him. This year alone, in addition to his Oscar-nominated role, he received praise in Mud and The Wolf of Wall Street, showing that he really is stepping up his game as a respected actor. And his turn in Dallas Buyers Club is the sort of role that attracts the Academy's attention. In the film, the sight of such a gaunt McConaughey is almost too shocking to watch. His commitment to the role in full display in his weight lose. But, the film never really connected for me and as good as it is to see McConaughey challenge himself, the performance never really astonishes in the way his physical appearance does.

Will Win: Alright, alright, alright. It's McConaughey for the win
Should Win: That one is tougher to call. I would say Ejiofor or DiCaprio

Monday, February 24, 2014

Blind Spot: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

[This post is apart of Ryan McNeil's Blind Spot Series at The Matinee. On the last Tuesday of ever month you watch and write about a movie that is considered important in the cinema lexicon, but that you've somehow missed along the way.]

I've never been much of a political person. I mean, I try to keep informed about what's happening (Obama's the...President, right?), but it all boils done to the simple fact that there's a lot of problems that need to be solved and no one really seems to have plausible solutions. Even when it seems there's hope for change, it never seems to turn out the way people envision it. There's too many hands guiding decisions and bigger forces behind it all. It seems foolish to think that one person can really make a difference–despite what we've been taught by feel-good movies. That may be a cynical or defeatist way at looking at things, but it's also the main reason why I've never really felt compelled to watch politically set films. Perhaps that's why I've waited so long to watch that Frank Capra classic about one moral man trying to make a change in government, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

You may think after that paragraph that I was already determined to be weary of Capra's starry-eyed optimistic approach to the political system in which a single man, in fact, does make a difference in a corrupt political system. But that's where you'd be wrong. That's because you can never underestimate the aw-shucks charm of a young Jimmy Stewart. A man so steadfast in his goodness that any form of cynicism just can't hold up against his stammering wholesomeness. It's like trying to be angry at a puppy. The man is a beacon of truth in this cruel world. And even if I never found the proceedings of the film to be totally plausible (this is a film that has small children driving cars, so I don't think believability is necessarily what it was going for), I found it to be nothing less than highly entertaining and, dare I say, even inspirational.

The film opens with the governor of an unnamed state in the Western part of the United States (so as to remain an Everytown, USA. Like Springfield on The Simpsons) trying to find a replacement for a recently deceased senator. There's a lot of back and forth between whom should be selected. The film's villain, and the man clearly running the show (the sinisterly named, James Jim Taylor. He's seen fire and he's seen rain), wants an appointed lackey that the public won't go for. The film almost lost me with all its political talk so early on (I told you, I really don't like politics), but then a dinner scene involving kids talking like adults completely won me over. The kids think that the man that would be perfect for the job is the head of a Boy Scout-esque group called the Boy Rangers, Jefferson Smith. Wouldn't you just know that Jimmy Stewart, a grown-up boy scout himself, would be playing that part. And I don't wanna give it all away, but Mr. Smith goes to Washington.

Once our titular character arrives in our nation's capitol he does what anyone would do on their first day of work– skip it and go see the sites! But, it's really because he's so inspired by the capital dome and just needs to see the Lincoln memorial. Right. Now. And there we're treated to a sappy, soft-lit scene in which a small child reads  the Gettysburg address aloud, while Smith looks on in awe. The scene is a little heavy-handed, but Capra has never been a director to shy away from sentimentality. You just have to go with it.

Luckily, the film is saved by drowning in saccharine by the appearance of Smith's secretary. A no-nonesense woman that goes by her last name, Saunders, and has what Ed Asner hated so much about Mary Tyler Moore, spunk. She's been there, done that and seen it all before. Needless to say, she's fabulous. And played by the kewpie-doll-after-a-bender voiced actress, Jean Arthur. I've never seen Jean Arthur in anything before, but after watching this film, I want to explore her entire filmography and binge on Jean Arthur films the way people do House of Cards. She's so perfect with her comic timing, line delivery, and chemistry with her co-stars (not just Stewart, whom she manages to bring some sex appeal to, but also her reporter friend, Diz, played by Scarlett O'Hara's father). 

Thanks to Saunders help in drafting it, Smith proposes a bill to Congress that would set up a national camp so that boys of every walk of life can come together and learn about nature or something. Seriously, that's his first order of business. A giant camping trip. Unfortunately for Smith, the land that he wants to set up as his healing campground has been earmarked by Jim Taylor for a money-making dam. And his fellow Senator, a man that knew his father and once said that the lost causes are the only one's worth fighting for, turns out to betray Smith, framing him for fraud and forcing him to give up his position.

That's when we get to the scene that if anyone knows anything about this film (or if you had to study US government in high school), this is what you'll know...Filibuster! Plus, that's really just a fun word to say. This is where Jimmy Stewart gets to shine in all his Jimmy Stewart-ness and stand up to the man! Saying things like, "I wouldn't give two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn't have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and little looking out for the other fella, too." Well, how do you argue with that. 

At the time of its release the censors were concerned that the movie-going public would be scandalized how the film implies that the government is corruptible. Now us modern viewers take that view for granted, seeing the corruptibility not as an exception, but the norm. Seeing one man fighting for what's right and winning against the higher powers seems to be the stuff of fiction. But as long as cinema is filled with people like Jimmy Stewart's Jefferson Smith, there's hope that truth and justice will not just be fiction. I said before that it seems hopeless that one man could make a difference, but after spending over two hours with Mr. Smith it really does seem like anything is possible. After all, he made me almost care about politics.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Guide to Best Supporting Actress 2013

My look at the acting races before Oscar night continues with the Supporting Actresses.

Any category that includes Oprah and the vocal stylings of Scarlett Johansson as the voice of a computer as potential nominees is gonna be one with surprises. Although neither of those nominations managed to materialize, it was certainly one of the more interesting categories to watch develop this year. If Oprah had received a nom for Lee Daniels' The Butler, she would have been only the 3rd black actress to have 2 acting nominations. The others are Whoopi Goldberg and Viola Davis. Johansson has yet to be recognized by the Academy. (What are they waiting for?) But of the 5 women nominated, this year's race comes down to only two: JLaw vs. Lupita. 

* * *

Sally Hawkins Blue Jasmine

Age: 37
Previous Oscar Nominations: Despite just missing out in what was certainly the 6th place slot in 2008 for Happy Go Lucky (for which she tearfully won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy), this is Hawkins first nomination
The Role: Ginger, the well-meaning, lower-class, adopted sister of Cate Blanchett's neurotic Jasmine. She never met a feather-adorned poncho she didn't love.
Why She's Here: When Jasmine debuted this summer, it seemed that the only thing people could talk about was how amazing Cate Blanchett was in it. She dominates the film. But luckily the earlier release allowed people to re-watch, look at more than Blanchett's acting tsunami and remember that Hawkins as her supportive, put-upon sister was equally as good. The role is definitely not as flashy as Blanchett's, but her Ginger is the emotional heart of the film. Hawkins is great with what she's given. I just wish there had been a few more sisterly bonding scenes between the two, so that we understood a little more of their dynamic. She also gets saddled with a subplot involving an affair that leads to nowhere. But the overall love of the film and the fact that she missed out on a previous nomination is why she heard her name called on the morning of nominations. 

Jennifer Lawrence American Hustle

Age: 23 and the youngest actor of either gender to score 3 Oscar nominations
Previous Oscar Nominations: Best Actress Winter's Bone (2010) and she won Best Actress last year for Silver Linings Playbook
The Role: The unhappy housewife of con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale). Rosalyn Rosenfeld enjoys sweet and sour smelling nail polish, sing-a-longs to Paul McCartney songs, and distrusts science ovens for stealing food's nutrients.
Why She's Here: I don't know if you've heard, but people really seem to love that Jennifer Lawrence. After last year's Oscar win in which she walked each red carpet saying whatever thought came into her head, the internets officially named her their new BFF. And it sure didn't hurt that she also stars in the wildly popular Hunger Games films. So, it only makes sense that she finds herself with another nomination for her scene-stealing work in American Hustle. She is certainly a jolt of energy whenever she's on screen in the film, setting scenes on fire-literally. But, as enjoyable as she is to watch, I always felt like I was watching a high school production where teenagers make-belive at playing adults. She's entirely too young for the part of a middle aged housewife (When did she have that kid? When she was 12?) and nothing about the performance seems authentic or believable. Having won the Golden Globe and BAFTA for this role, she's definitely a threat to win. But having just won last year, it seems a little too soon to reward her again.

Lupita Nyong'o 12 Years a Slave

Age: She turns 31 the day before the Oscar ceremony. Is an Oscar her belated birthday present?
Previous Oscar Nominations: This is her film debut
The Role: Patsey, the prized slave and object of her owner's affection (Michael Fassbender). She is met with scorn by his jealous wife (Sarah Paulson) and gains the friendship of Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Why She's Here: No one knew her name when she was cast in this film during her senior year of Yale Drama School, but after her breathtaking performance and whirlwind rise to fame, thanks to her stunning red carpet fashions, we all know her name now. Lupita Nyong'o has emerged as the breakout star of 2013 and even if she doesn't come out victorious on Oscar night (she must!), it's just the start of what will hopefully be a long and successful film career. As Patsey, Nyong'o is heartbreaking. She plays a woman that has never known freedom of any sort her entire life. Her spirit is so broken down that in one scene she even begs Solomon to have mercy on her and take her own life–She doesn't have the strength to do it herself. After Solomon gains back his freedom, she has found a place within our hearts that one can't help but think what will become of Patsey now. After wins from critics and SAG, hopefully Nyong'o's own fate is met with a Best Supporting Actress win.

Julia Roberts August: Osage County

Age: 46
Previous Oscar Nominations: This is Roberts' fourth nomination. She has been nominated previously in this category for Steel Magnolias (1989) and twice for Best Actress: Pretty Woman (1990) and her Oscar winning role as Erin Brockovich (2000)
The Role: Roberts plays Barbara Fordham, the eldest daughter of the Weston family (headed by acid-tongued matriarch Violet, played by Meryl Streep). Barbara returns to her childhood home after the disappearance and death of her father.
Why She's Here: Despite mixed reviews, Roberts found herself with lots of "best in show" notices for her turn in this family (melo)drama. Roberts does solid work in the film, even if the film itself does come off as little more than a flat television movie. She's also given the film's most memorable quote as she barks at Meryl Streep's Violet to, "Eat the fish, bitch!" But she is clearly a lead in the film (she may even have more screen time than Meryl Streep) and doesn't belong in this category, taking the slot from one of her many co-stars, including Margo Martindale in role that won a Tony award on Broadway. In years to come, I feel not only will this role be the hardest to recall of Roberts' nominations, but also the most forgettable of this year's lineup.

June Squibb Nebraska

Age: 84 If she wins she would be the oldest winner in this category, but that ain't gonna happen
Previous Oscar Nominations: First nomination
The Role: The sassy, foul-mouthed, Kate Grant, wife to would-be millionaire Woody (Bruce Dern). She makes her husband's life a living hell by insulting him at every chance ("You dumb cluck").
Why She's Here: This has to be my least favorite nomination in this category, but I get why she's here. Squibb is comic relief in the film and you can never underestimate the appeal of a cussing old lady. The role is a shrew of a woman. Everything that she spews out of her mouth is negative. She is unrelenting in her hatred of everyone and everything. Even the scene where she "defends" Woody from his relatives is just an attack on them. Not coming to his defense at all, she only redirects the anger. I couldn't stand the time I had to spend with this miserable woman.

Who Will Win: I'm giving the edge to Lupita Nyong'o
Who Should Win: Nyong'o - without a doubt

Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Guide to Best Supporting Actor 2013

In anticipation of the Oscars on Sunday, March 2, I'll be taking a closer look at the 4 acting categories throughout the month.

Campaigning in this category got off to an interesting start with the early-release ads touting James Franco's turn in Spring Breakers asking voters to Consider This Shit. Another name in the running came about in sad way. After the sudden death of beloved Soprano's star James Gandolfini in the summer, popular opinion was that his work in Enough Said would make him a sentimental favorite with voters. But when the nominations were announced, neither were on the list and the only real surprise was that Jonah Hill managed to make the fifth slot over Daniel Brühl's lead turn in Rush (he seemed poised for a nom after scoring nominations from both the Golden Globes and SAG). The 5 names that emerged are a mix of Oscar first-timers and couple of guys looking for their first win after previous nominations. But one name seems to have emerged as the clear favorite to win– I just never thought that person would be the man forever to be known as Jordan Catalano. Here are the Best Supporting Actor Nominees for 2013.

* * *

Barkhad Abdi Captain Phillips

Age: 28
Previous Oscar Nominations: Film debut
The Role: Abduwali Muse, a Somalian pirate that hijacks the cargo ship that Tom Hanks' Captain Phillips is the commander of
Why He's Here: It seems almost everything written about the Somalian-born Abdi seems to focus on his life before winning the part of Muse at an open-call audition. At the age of 14, he moved to Minnesota and previously worked as a limo driver before holding his own on-screen alongside Oscar winner, Tom Hanks. And while his backstory is the sort of Cinderella-story that Oscar buzz thrives on, his powerful performance of a man just wanting something better in life is the real reason for the nomination. The newcomer is commanding in his early scenes ("Look at me. I'm the captain now.") and equally as heartbreaking as the film progresses, where his story is given just as much weight as Phillips'. Abdi has since moved to LA and is now working with an agent to see how far he can take a career as an actor, but it seems it may be hard to top this cinematic introduction.

Bradley Cooper American Hustle

Age: 39
Previous Oscar Nominations: A nominee last year for Best Actor Silver Linings Playbook 
The Role: Cooper plays Richie DiMaso a hothead FBI agent that teams up with a couple of cons to bring down corrupt politicians
Why He's Here: I have to admit that I'm not quite understanding the newfound love of Bradley Cooper as "serious actor". His performance in last year's David O' Russell film seemed like a manic, one-note Ben Stiller impression. And his work in this film just seems like a reprise of that performance, but with a home perm. I can never get past the fact that it feels like he's trying to make every moment and line as funny and intense as possible without regard to the story or situation at hand. But clearly I'm in the minority as he's now a back-to-back nominee and a member of the Hollywood A-List.

Michael Fassbender 12 Years a Slave

Age: 36
Previous Oscar Nominations: Despite Oscar-worthy performances in previous films (including 2011's Shame) this is his first nomination
The Role: A sadistic, religious-spouting slave owner in 1840's Louisiana named Edwin Epps
Why He's Here: After campaigning hard a couple years ago for an Oscar nomination that never came to be for Shame, Fassbender said that this year he would not be going about it in the same way stating "It's just a grind and I'm not a politician. I'm an actor." Luckily the work speaks for itself and he was able to land his first nomination for his third collaboration with director Steve McQueen. As Epps, Fassbender plays a conflicted man. He truly believes it is his god-given right to own slaves but his general love of his slave Patsy (Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong'o) is at odds with how he feels about himself and what he's been taught. This category has always looked favorably on villainous performances and Fassbender is menacing and malicious, but the performance is far from a stock character as we see the complexity of what makes the monster.

Jonah Hill The Wolf of Wall Street

Age: 30
Previous Oscar Nominations: Hill was previously nominated in this category for his work in 2011's Moneyball
The Role: As Donnie Azoff, Hill plays the right-hand man of Leonardo DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort, a scamming, hard-partyting financial worker on Wall Street
Why He's Here: Who would have guessed that the star of gross-out comedies Superbad and Knocked Up would be an Oscar nominee, let alone a two-time nominee now? But here we are as Hill makes his second bid to score the ultimate acting prize. Despite some strong critical disdain for the film (saying that the film glamorizes the wicked-ways of its characters), it was none the less a hit with the Academy where it received 5 nominations. And Hill gives the kind of showy performance that's hard to ignore. It isn't long before he's introduced that he's already smoking crack. That's only the beginning of a performance that includes swallowing a live goldfish and, perhaps his most talked about scene, at a pool party where he, um, pleasures himself in front of everyone. After admitting on Howard Stern that he only received $60,000 for playing Donnie, he said that he would have done anything to appear in a Martin Scorsese film and judging from the end result, that certainly seems the case.

Jared Leto Dallas Buyer's Club

Age: 42
Previous Oscar Nominations: First nom
The Role: Rayon, a transgendered, drug-addicted, HIV-positive patient that teams up with Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) to sell non-FDA approved medications.
Why He's Here: Having already scored wins from the Golden Globes, SAG, and countless critics awards, it seems safe to say that Leto has this award wrapped up. After some early controversy that his acceptance speech at the Globes was too jokey and didn't pay enough tribute to those that died from AIDS, he seems to be going out of his way now giving the same speech each time, dedicating the win to "the Rayon's of the world". But you can tell that he was definitely honored to play the character. And much has been said about the actor's return to film after a 6 year hiatus and how he lost 30 pounds, waxed his entire body (including his eyebrows), and stayed in character for the duration of filming. In addition to the physical transformation he went through to play the character, Leto is not afraid to chart the emotional journey of Rayon as well–particularly in the scene where Rayon dresses in a suit to see her estranged father. Leto has said that he has no immediate plans to act again (he seems to be concentrating on his music career in the band 30 Seconds To Mars), but even if he never does, we'll at least have his compelling work in this film.

Who Will Win: Jared Leto
Who Should Win: Michael Fassbender, but I'm okay with Leto