Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Academy Awards - Look at the Bright Side

Let's face it - the Academy Awards ceremony, despite all its glitz and celebrity watching has become a pretty boring event for some time now. One of the reasons is that there are rarely any surprises in store when it comes to opening the envelopes and announcing the winners.

So the best advice I can give for making it through the broadcast - yes, I'll watch, though each year I tell myself not to - is to embrace the winners and enjoy some possible new trends. For example, it's pretty obvious that Alfonso Cuaron will win Best Director for his stunning work on Gravity (even though this is not his best film - that distinction goes to Children of Men); having won the Golden Globe and Directors' Guild Award, the Academy will certainly follow suit. So no surprise there, but at least we can look on this as a tribute to the filmmakers of Mexico, where some of the world's most dynamic cinema has emerged over the past decade. Of course, Gravity has nothing to do with Mexico, but perhaps the idea of a Mexican film director winning an Oscar will bring more attention to that country's film industry and even inspire some Mexican filmmakers to follow their dream, so that's a wonderful thing.

Likewise, Lupita Nyong'o appears to be a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actress; deservedly so, as her performance was heartbreaking. So perhaps her award will spur on other African performers to pursue a career (interestingly, although she is of Kenyan descent, she was born in Mexico City; quite a year for Mexico in the Oscars!).

Will this finally be the year that Alexandre Desplat wins an Oscar?

It seems to me there are only a few major awards (I'm not counting short subjects or documentaries here) where there is even a glimmer of suspense as to who will win. One of those is for Best Original Score. Here are the nominees:

The Book Thief - John Williams
Gravity - Steven Price
Her - William Butler and Owen Pallett
Philomena - Alexandre Desplat
Saving Mr. Banks - Thomas Newman

My analysis is that only one of these scores has no chance of winning and that's Williams' work for The Book Thief. This is a bit ironic, as Williams is, of course, the dean of film composers and one of the craft's greatest artists. But he won't win this year for two main reasons: first, very few people saw this film and for those that did, it was received poorly and secondly, everyone thinks of Williams as Steven Spielberg's composer - he's not about to win an Oscar late in his career for one of his minor works for another director.

Price has a chance for his score for Gravity, if only for the fact that this film will be one of the big winners on Oscar night; that often translates to an award. So it's possible, especially as this score is hard to miss - translation, it's a LOUD score, one that irked me and ruined a few memorable scenes. The Academy has screwed up so often in this category over the years (think of Jerry Goldsmith and Alex North and two other composers I'm about to mention) and you realize that excellence as far as a musical score often has little to do with awards; if a score is noticed (and it's difficult to miss this score), that's a major factor. So it's definitely possible for Price to win, but I think the Academy will look elsewhere.

So that leaves three scores and I think their composers all have very good chances to pick up their first Academy Award. For Her, Butler and Pallett composed a minimalist score that is very pretty and proper for the wistful, romantic tone of this film. I liked the score, especially as it did not call attention to itself, but as this is not a particularly "musical" film, I think the Academy will not give this score the award.

So interestingly, the Oscar comes down to two veteran composers, both of whom have been nominated on several occasions. The first is Desplat, who I believe is the finest film composer working today on a regular basis - I say regular basis, as 82-year old John Williams is understandably cutting down on his work schedule. Desplat, who has been nominated for six Oscars, has never won; this despite impressive scores for films such as The King's Speech, The Queen and Argo (for which he was Oscar-nominated) along with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and Zero:Dark Thirty; these last two, absolutely brilliant scores, which were somehow not nominated.

Desplat reminds one of the Golden Age of Hollywood film scores, with lush strings and full orchestral accompaniment, a la great composers such as Franz Waxman, Alex North, Miklos Rosza, Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams. Yet one reason he hasn't won is that this type of score hasn't been recognized by the Academy as of late; think of the Oscar going to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for their electronic pulsations for 2010's The Social Network. So perhaps the Academy, in an effort to be more "hip" has decided to shy away from traditionalism for this category.

Yet, Desplat has another nomination and I think he may finally win, as his score for Philomena, is a beautiful piece of work, a sensitive score that brilliantly communicates the emotional tone of this film. It would be a bit ironic if he did finally win an Oscar for this score, as it is a quiet, subdued piece of work, unlike the grand scores he's composed in the past. It's quite possible that the voters did not notice this score (as opposed to the music in Gravity), so they could deny Desplat again.

That leaves Thomas Newman for his score for Saving Mr. Banks. Newman is from a family of Oscar-wining composers; his father Alfred won nine Oscars, while his cousin Randy has won two Academy Awards. Newman has been nominated eleven times without winning; a few of his nominations include his memorable scores for The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty and WALL-E.

His score for Saving Mr. Banks is a gem, as he composed some of the loveliest melodies in his career. Especially memorable are his themes for Travers Goff as well as for the closing titles. This would be a well-deserved win for Mr. Newman.

Yet I just don't see him winning for two reasons. First, his score probably will be lost among all the songs from Mary Poppins in this film. Secondly, the recent controversy about Walt Disney will turn off some voters, so once again, I believe Newman will be denied.

So the Oscar will finally go to Alexandre Desplat and I will be thrilled! (By the way, why wasn't Alex Ebert nominated for his haunting score for All is Lost?)

I believe the only other major category where there is some doubt over the winner is for Best Original Screenplay. I'd love to see Bob Nelson (Nebraska) or Spike Jonze (Her) win; the former for his offbeat, charming script that features a lot of priceless small, everyday moments, the latter for his wildly imaginative script about a man falling in love with his operating system. Then there's the excellent script of Dallas Buyer's Club by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack and of course, let's not forget that Woody Allen is up for his screenplay for Blue Jasmine; he's an Academy favorite and he's won for this category before.

But I think the award will go to Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell for American Hustle for several reasons. It is an excellent screenplay, beautifully organized with numerous memorable characters. He's also an Academy favorite, as several of his films (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) have won Oscars. Also, this film is nominated for 10 Oscars this year, so you'd have to believe that the voters will not shut out this work, as most of the other nominees for this film will likely not hear their name called that evening as a winner.

So American Hustle will win the Best Original Screenplay in a close vote - this is almost always one of the most competitive categories with excellent nominations - but I'd vote for Spike Jonze for Her.

By the way, for the major categories (the part with very few, if any surprises):

Best Actor  - Matthew McConaughey - Dallas Buyers' Club (great performance from an actor just starting to realize his potential. He should receive the biggest ovation of the evening).

Best Actress  - Kate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine - I'm hoping for an upset here and will be cheering for Judi Dench in Philomena, but after a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors' Guild award, Blanchett will capture the Oscar.

Best Supporting Actor - Jared Leto - Dallas Buyers' Club - Another great performance and another wonderful ovation when his name is read.

Best Supporting Actress - Lupita Nyong'o - 12 Years a Slave  - discussed above. Just great work on her part.

Best Picture - 12 Years a Slave

Finally, a note about Best Cinematography, which will undoubtedly be awarded to Emmanuel Lubezki for Gravity. There would be more than a touch of irony in this award, one that has eluded the cinematographer on five other occasions. He will finally be recognized here for his work in a film that displays his lighting as well as technical prowess; in my opinion however, this is not his most beautiful-looking film in terms of pure visuals - that would be Tree of Life (directed by Terence Malick). However, this is a visually stunning film on many levels as well as being a very popular work with audiences and critics alike, so Lubeszki will finally win an Oscar. By the way, he was born in Mexico City - what a years for Mexican-born filmmakers!

Of course, this means that once again, Roger Deakins will not win an Academy Award; assuming this happens, this will be the 11th nomination for Deakins without an award. He is clearly one of the two greatest working directors of photography that have not won an Oscar; the other being Emmanuel Lubezki. This year, Deakins is up for the film Prisoners and his moody, nighttime photography - especially during a manic drive to the hospital in the pouring rain by one of the movie's principal characters - is brilliant. But few people saw the film and, well, he's up against Lubezki for the award. Wait til' next year, Roger (maybe). By the way, Deakins, who's turned in remarkable work on such films as The Shawshank Redemption, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (a textbook in cinematography and one of the most beautiful looking films of all time, in my opinion) as well as several films for the Coen Brothers, including O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn't There and No Country for Old Men has won several other awards in his career, the most prominent being the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers, the highest honor for a director of photography.

As far as the other nominees, I'd vote for either Phedon Papamicheal for his amazing black and white photography of Nebraska or Bruno Delbonnel for Inside Llewyn Davis. I think both of these films are more in line with great cinematography and I'd be happy to see either man win. But it will be Lubezki's time for an award and it's certainly overdue.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Things I Loved in Cinema -2013

In my last post, I listed my top films for 2013. Now, a look back at a number of performances, lines of dialogue and other things I loved about last year at the cinema.

Lead Performances- There were many first-rate performances, but none as captivating as Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club. McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a heterosexual man who became infected with the HIV virus in the 1990s and fought the government at every turn to bring in medication for his condition. McConaughey is the center of this film and we root for him, despite the fact that his character is a pretty mean S.O.B. How nice to see McConaughey take on serious roles over the past few years; we all knew he had great charisma, so it's a rewarding experience to see him deliver a rousing performance.

Another great acting turn was delivered by Chiwitel Ejiofor, as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave; the actor brings a fierce, but quiet determination to the role. He's simply perfect.

Judi Dench was nothing short of brilliant as the title character in Philomena, the true story of an Irish woman who had her young son taken from her some fifty years in the past. Dench is so honest and so moving in this film in a manner that befits her simple character. She has had such a wonderful career and this role is a defining one.

Bravo also to Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) and Bruce Dern (Nebraska); the former being the best thing (along with Jonah Hill) in this mess of a film and the latter giving a moving performance that is the highlight of a long career. A lesser actor could have really brought out the pathos in the role of Woody Grant, but Dern does a marvelous job realizing the strength and pride of his character.

One has to note the performance of Robert Redford in All is Lost as one of the three or four best from last year; this was a physically demanding role for the actor and he was up to it at every moment. Certainly his rugged image helped lend emotion to this role, but Redford turned this into a performance of minute detail; here was a man who was going through a life and death crisis, yet he kept to the work at hand.

Finally, a tip of the cap to Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) - is she ever less than excellent? (She was unfairly passed over for an Academy Award nomination) and Oscar Isaac for his natural performance as the title character in Inside Llewyn Davis. Without a strong performance from the lead, this film wouldn't have worked, despite the beautiful direction from the Coen Brothers. Isaac is definitely an actor to watch.

Supporting Performances - One need look no further than 12 Years a Slave to find two of the strongest supporting performances from last year. Lupita Nyong'o was heartbreaking as a slave who had to endure a much worse fate than her fellow captives. Michael Fassbender was unforgettable as the plantation owner who treated his slaves in a most degrading manner. In a role that could have been identified by emoting, Fassbender was a model of restraint.

Jared Leto gave the most sublime supporting performance of the year in Dallas Buyers Club, a quiet contrast to the explosiveness of Matthew McConaughey's lead. Leto's character, Rayon, a cross-dressing AIDS patient, may look pathetic, but Leto gives us a complex individual with quiet pride and a stubbornness to continue his fight. If he does win the Oscar, as expected, it will be most deserved.

Another film with two beautiful supporting performances was Nebraska; the two actors were June Squibb, as Kate (wife of Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern) and Will Forte as David (Woody's son). Squibb has perfect comedic timing - she's hilarious - and Forte gives an empathetic and natural performance, playing off Dern's slightly crazed ways. Great acting is often about listening and Forte listens beautifully in this film; it's a shame he wasn't nominated for an Oscar.

Other notable supporting performances included Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street - such energy and humor he brought to the role!), Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner (American Hustle), Colin Farrell (a gem of a performance in Saving Mr. Banks) and of course, John Goodman (Inside Llewyn Davis - when will the Academy notice the brilliant work of this man?).

Cinematography - Alfonso Cuaron and his director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki continue to amaze; first it was 2006's Children of Men and now it's the mind-blowing sequences of Gravity (exactly how did they achieve the P.O.V. shot from within Sandra Bullock's space helmet?). These two continue to forge new paths visually; if nothing else, Gravity is the most remarkable visual achievement in many years and takes cinema to a new level.

Other marvelous achievements in cinematography in 2013 included Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis); Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska - he actually shot grain to help achieve a more realistic black and white film look); Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave- shot with film, not digitally - haunting images, many shot just before sundown); John Schwartzman (Saving Mr. Banks); Hoyte van Hoytema (Her); Barry Ackroyd (Captain Phillips), Roger Deakins (Prisoners) and Frank DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini (All is Lost).

Sequences - Just about any sequence from Nebraska featuring both Bruce Dern and Will Forte, especially the one at the railroad tracks where they search for Dern's teeth.

The impromptu dance between Amy Adams and Christian Bale at the dry cleaners in American Hustle.

The remarkable opening shot (10-11 minutes) of Gravity.

The final confrontation at the convent in Philomena.

Chiwitel Ejiofor trying to write a letter with the pigment from a blackberry in 12 Years a Slave.

The "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank" sequence, beautifully edited, from Saving Mr. Banks.

The "breakup" sequence on the steps in Her.

The opening sequence of Inside Llewyn Davis, in which Oscar Isaac performs "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me." The photography and direction immediately put the viewer into the mood and the times of the early 1960s folk movement.

Dialogue - A few of the best lines of the year:

"Everybody at the bottom crosses paths eventually in a pool of desperation and you're waiting for them." - Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), American Hustle

"I always wanted a brand new truck." - Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), Nebraska

"Do you mind if I look through your hard drive?" - the voice of Samantha, the operating system (Scarlett Johansson), Her

"Why would I do such work? Why would I kill people? I didn't have to. One word from me and they're all dead." - Ibrahim Sinik as himself in The Art of Killing

"Now you'll stay there until you learn the art of subtlety." - P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) speaking to a large stuffed Mickey Mouse doll she has just put in the corner of her hotel room.