And the 2014 Oscars Should Go To…

WritingHere we go again. I’ve done a repeat of my project last year and watched nearly every feature-length film in every category, and reviewed them. The only film I have been unable to see is “The Missing Picture,” one of the foreign language films. So for that category, I’m simply going to ignore it, which may or may not skew the result. We’ll see.

My reviews were quick and dirty jobs. If I do this again, I will space them out a little more and give myself more time. I’ve only had at best about 30 minutes to bang each one out, so they didn’t go into great depth which I would have liked to do. Check my “Movie Reviews” section to see my individual reviews for each movie.

And one final reminder that I will be live tweeting the Academy Awards, so follow me now. I’m told that I can be funny when I want to be.

And without further adieu:

Best Picture
My pick: “12 Years a Slave”
What will probably win: “12 Years a Slave”
Why: This was an incredibly powerful and socially important film. Like another “Schindler’s List,” it depicts a dark chapter in U.S. history and doesn’t let us forget. It grips us by the shirt collar and doesn’t let go. Difficult to watch, but important to do so, this was clearly the best film nominated in this category, I’m sure it will take home the gold.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
My pick: Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”)
Who will probably win: Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”)
Why: McConaughey will probably take it because of how he ruined his body and his health to play this role, but that would be overlooking the incredible acting job he did here. He showed major talent to really get into the head of a real life man and portray him in an accessible way that makes him identifiable and at times likeable even if he can be an ass. So, I predict that the Academy and I will be on the same page but for different reasons.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
My pick: Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine”)
Who will probably win: Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine”)
Why: Once again, I predict the Academy and I to be on the same page. Blanchett turned in one of the greatest performances of her career, even if I didn’t like the movie itself that much. It’s easy to see why so much buzz is surrounding her, and she seems to be a shoe-in for this award.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
My pick: Barkhad Abdi (“Captain Phillips”)
Who will probably win: Jared Leto (“Dallas Buyers Club”)
Why: This one is close for me. It’s so easy to see why Jared Leto would win this award, and I would not complain at all if he did, giving an incredibly powerful and touching performance in “Dallas Buyers Club.” But for me, newcomer Barkhad Abdi is just slightly, barely ahead on this one. He was so good, and unexpectedly so, in “Captain Phillips,” playing the perfect unpredictable villain. Sadly, it’s highly unlikely that he will win this award, but I will not complain if Leto takes it.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
My pick: June Squibb (“Nebraska”)
Who will probably win: Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”)
Why: June Squibb was hilarious in “Nebraska” and manages to portray a character that is shocking but is also so endearing that we can’t help but love her. However, Lupita Nyong’o will probably win because of the incredibly strong performance she gives as the abused slave Patsey, a touching and sympathetic role that makes her integral to the film.

Best Achievement in Directing
My pick: Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”)
Who will probably win: Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”)
Why: When McQueen decided to pick up and adapt a relatively unknown account of slave life in the southern plantations, people must have thought he was out of his mind. But what he has given us is an incredibly moving experience that stays with us long after the film is over. From getting the best out of his actors, to incredibly blocked camera shots, and intense drama, Steve McQueen created a superb film that will leave a lasting legacy.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
My pick: “Her”
Who will probably win: “American Hustle”
Why: “American Hustle” has huge buzz surrounding it, even if it really wasn’t that good of a film. But for me, “Her” has the edge for telling such an amazing and insightful story as we examine a pure relationship as it develops and grows while the individual participants grow.

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published
My pick: “12 Years a Slave”
Who will probably win: “12 Years a Slave”
Why: Having been adapted from a book, “12 Years a Slave” tells one of the most compelling stories we see nominated in this category. While there is some buzz surrounding “Before Midnight,” which has a great screenplay even if it’s depressing, “12 Years a Slave” tells the better and more important story.

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year
My pick: “The Wind Rises”
Who will probably win: “Frozen”
Why: I have a pretty low opinion of Hollywood when it comes to how they treat animated films, so I expect a heavy sheep response and for “Frozen” to win. But for me, “The Wind Rises” is hands down the best picture in this category. It’s a beautiful if mildly controversial film, and it is also supposedly Hayao Miyazaki’s final feature-length movie, and it would be wonderful to see him go out on a high note.

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
My pick: “The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza)”
Who will probably win: “The Hunt (Jagten)”
Why: For me, “The Great Beauty,” aside from simply being a beautiful film, is also the most complex one nominated in this category. It makes the audience think, and it also makes us want to see the film more than once to peel back its layers and look deeper. However, “The Hunt” tells a more accessible if intense story, and the film is also more accessible through Netflix at this time. Having a film readily available usually increases the likelihood that it will win.

Best Achievement in Cinematography
My pick: “Gravity”
Who will probably win: “Gravity”
Why: Simply put, “Gravity” has some of the most impressive cinematography in this category this year. From the zero gravity environments, including making the camera feel like it’s floating in zero gravity, to the combination with visual effects and the use of 3D, this film is a feast for the eyes.

Best Achievement in Editing
My pick: “Dallas Buyers Club”
Who will probably win: “American Hustle”
Why: Despite its issues, the editing in “Dallas Buyers Club” is still done very well to tell the story within the confines of the film effectively, even though it peters out near the end. The editing is also good in “American Hustle” and may be the best part of the film, but it doesn’t tell the story we get in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Still this is one award that I would not complain about going to the otherwise mediocre “Hustle.”

Best Achievement in Production Design
My pick: “The Great Gatsby”
Who will probably win: “American Hustle”
Why: Even though I didn’t like the film, “The Great Gatsby” had some amazingly designed sets that showed great imagination. However, “American Hustle” was more contemporary and reflected an era that many seem to be nostalgic for at this time, which likely gives it the edge in this category.

Best Achievement in Costume Design
My pick: “The Invisible Woman”
Who will probably win: “American Hustle”
Why: Like the Production Design category, “The Invisible Woman” was a period piece and required the costuming to go along with it, needing enormous work to bring the Victorian clothing styles to life. Like the Production Design category, “American Hustle” reflects an era many are nostalgic for, especially when it comes to clothing, which again likely gives it the edge.

Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling
My pick: “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa”
Who will probably win: “Dallas Buyers Club”
Why: In “Dallas Buyers Club” makeup was most notably used to transform Jared Leto into Rayon, and as I mentioned in that review, he is almost unrecognizable and yet looks convincing. However, what impressed me the most was “Bad Grandpa” because the makeup not only needed to fool the camera, but it needed to fool people in real life as well, and it did that job amazingly well.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score
My pick: “Gravity”
Who will probably win: “Gravity”
Why: The soundtrack in “Gravity” is simple, and yet it’s compelling. It fits the scenes so well, and it does what it’s supposed to do: it’s noticeable when you need and want to notice it, but it doesn’t pull you out and demand that you notice it over the events onscreen.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song
My pick: Let It Go from “Frozen”
Who will probably win: Let It Go from “Frozen”
Why: While I wasn’t a huge fan of the film, I will admit that Let It Go is a very catchy song that sticks with you. It’s also been marketed so heavily that it’s pretty much another shoe-in for this award.

Best Achievement in Sound Editing
My pick: “Gravity”
Who will probably win: “Gravity”
Why: It wasn’t just the visuals but the sounds that needed to be created that makes the film so immersive. “Gravity” pulled this off very well, especially since it occurs in space and it’s difficult for sound to really travel, making the character of it completely different.

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
My pick: “Gravity”
Who will probably win: “Gravity”
Why: Which brings us to the Sound Mixing. Adding the sound into the movie tracks had to be done with extreme care in “Gravity” in order to keep it believable. Too much would seem out of place in an airless environment. Too little and there’s nothing to hear which would bore the audience. In “Gravity,” the sound team found the perfect mix and edited it into the movie nearly perfectly.

Best Achievement in Visual Effects
My pick: “Gravity”
Who will probably win: “Gravity”
Why: The visual effects were integral in making “Gravity” as good and visually stunning a movie as it was. Without the quality of the visual effects, the illusion of zero gravity would not be as effective and the movie would have fallen apart.

Best Documentary, Feature
My pick: “The Act of Killing”
Who will probably win: “The Square”
Why: “The Act of Killing,” while disturbing, is one of those movie that hits you and then doesn’t take its fist away. It stays with you long after it’s done. However, it may have been too dark and disturbing (and from what I understand, not as widely seen), so the award will likely go to something following more contemporary events like “The Square,” which is also more accessible being available on Netflix.

And if you’re reading this, you’re a monster for making it to the end of this article. Even I couldn’t make it this far. Congratulations!

Movie Review: American Hustle

American HustleTitle: “American Hustle”

Director: David O. Russell

Writers: Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell

Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

If one film has been grossly overrated this year, I’m sorry to say that it’s “American Hustle.” Based loosely on the ABSCAM scandal of the late ’70s and early ’80s, this film follows two con artists played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams as they are forced to set up an elaborate sting operation by the FBI.

The acting is excellent. Christian Bale does a great job and gained 50 pounds for this role, pulling a reverse of what he did in “The Machinist.” I actually worry about him. If he keeps doing this, he’s going to develop some major health problems. Bradley Cooper plays the loose canon FBI agent blackmailing the con artists, and while we kind of like him at first, his character becomes a real ass as the movie progresses. Amy Adams is the other con artist and love interest, and she plays the role impeccably, although I’ve seen her in better roles. Jennifer Lawrence is great as another loose canon, playing Christian Bale’s character’s unpredictable wife.

The directing is great, per David O. Russell’s usual, and he gets some great performances and interesting camera shots that keep you watching the screen. The editing, while seeming a bit off at first, actually turns out great, and becomes an integral part of this film. There’s also some really good ’70s music throughout the movie.

So why the mediocre rating? The film has great acting, great directing, interesting editing, great music,…and yet something went wrong somewhere. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but something about this film didn’t gel. All those great parts of the movie were like beautifully painted puzzle pieces that don’t fit together. They didn’t mesh well, and the movie winds up being far less than the sum of its parts.

I can’t tell you how disappointing this was. After hearing the buzz built up about this movie, and then seeing it, and seeing all of these great aspects to it, to be left at the end of the movie saying, “Meh,” was a real letdown. I’m convince that the buzz was from people who payed attention only to the movie’s individual parts, and failed to see the forest for the trees.

This movie is okay, but that’s really it. While it has some great parts, those parts don’t fit together to create a fully working machine. The film as a whole is rather mediocre, which is a real shame.

“American Hustle” earns 3 out of 5 stars.

Movie Review: Captain Phillips

Captain PhillipsTitle: “Captain Phillips”

Director: Paul Greengrass

Writers: Billy Ray

Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In 2009, the Maersk Alabama, a large cargo ship, was hijacked by Somali pirates while traveling around the Horn of Africa. After getting some money off the ship, they took Captain Richard Phillips hostage aboard the Alabama’s lifeboat, which led to a lengthy stand off with the U.S. military, eventually resulting in his rescue.

Based on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea, “Captain Phillips” is an intense thriller based on the true story of this hijacking. It manages to be suspenseful even though we know the ending already, which seems to be a problem with some films lately.

The acting is done well. Tom Hanks turns in his usually good performance, although his accent, while possibly accurate as I’ve never actually heard the real Richard Phillips speak, gets annoying after a while. The real breakout star of this film is Barkhad Abdi, who plays Abduwali Muse, the leader of the pirates. Wow, where has this guy been hiding? He manages to be authorative, friendly, and creepy all at the same time, as though we think we can tell what he’s thinking but we’re not quite sure. While this might be a bad thing for an actor in other roles, it was spot on here. We’re scared of him because he seems unpredictable, and he makes a great villain. Abdi is destined to become a star if he stays in this industry.

The movie is tightly cut. Having read part of the book, I can tell you that a lot is cut from it for this movie, but a lot needed to be cut. We’re not bogged down with tiny details of ship operations or Phillips’ background, but we don’t need to be. We see what we need to see for the sake of this story and this movie.

If I have any further complaints, it’s that the pace can be uneven. While the film is tightly edited, the film’s pace can alternate between intensity and boring lulls. I don’t expect there to be intense action all the time and I understand the need to give the audience a breather now and then, but sometimes the difference seems too far apart. Fortunately, this isn’t that prevalent a problem and only happens in a couple of instances. The film also starts out kind slow, but if you stick with it, you’ll get your thrill ride.

I understand that there’s been some controversy regarding the accuracy of this film. I’m not going to try to pass judgment on its accuracy, and I’m only trying to examine the merits of this film on its own. Most films based on true events are dramatized fairly heavily, but I will also say that the accusations came out of the New York Post, so…yeah…we might want to take that with a big grain of salt.

“Captain Phillips” is an intense thrill ride that will satisfy with a tight story. If nothing else, it has brought the talent of Barkhad Abdi to public attention, and I look forward to seeing his work in the future.

“Captain Phillips” earns 4 out of 5 stars.

Movie Review: Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers ClubTitle: “Dallas Buyers Club”

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

Writers: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ron Woodroof is a Texas cowboy who has old school views until he is diagnosed with AIDS and given 30 days to live. This is 1985, so treatments were still being sought out at this time. After finding himself unable to get the potentially life-saving drug AZT (although this drug has a number of problems of its own), he crosses the border into Mexico and meets a doctor who can give him access to large amounts of this and other life-saving medications that can improve the lives of AIDS patients but are not available in the U.S. due to a lack of FDA approval. So he begins bringing the drugs over the border and forms the Dallas Buyers Club, where people pay for membership but get the drugs for free, with the idea of skirting prescription drug laws, which doesn’t necessarily work well legally as he finds out.

In what could be considered a potential followup to last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” “Dallas Buyers Club” is based on a true story from this era about how the AIDS epidemic was handled and how large pharmaceutical corporations tried to cash in on ineffective treatments. It’s a story that was touched on the aforementioned documentary but explored in more detail here.

The main things that carries this film is the acting. First, Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof as a bit of an arrogant ass. However, I heard some people who knew the real Ron Woodroof when he was alive and they said that, well, he really was kind of an ass. McConaughey practically ruined his health for this role, dropping 47 pounds and being seen having trouble standing on his own. That takes commitment, even if he’s not the first person to do this. But the sacrifice paid off. McConaughey played the role so well and he looks so different. Secondly, Jared Leto plays the role of Rayon, a transgender woman with AIDS who befriends the homophobic Woodroof. Again, Leto reportedly lost 30 pounds for this role, and under all the makeup, I actually wasn’t sure it was him when I first saw him. He loses himself in the role and makes it incredibly believable.

Story-wise, this film tells a solid story, although at times it’s a little confusing. We’re not always sure how much time is really passing between scenes, which is likely due to some editing trouble. However, when you’re dealing with people who have a limited amount of time left, as well as drug trials and the like, knowing the timing of events is important. The story can occasionally drag, and I didn’t like the way the film ended before an actual resolution was found. It basically ends at one point and we’re told the eventual outcome through a screen card that simply tells us what happened. Kind of a fail there. It was like they didn’t have the budget or desire to keep the story going.

With incredible performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto and a solid true story, “Dallas Buyers Club” is a great film that should be watched to study how one of the great plagues of our time was handled so poorly. However, the film gets bogged down by questionable editing and a poor ending that detract from the film’s overall effect. I still like the film a lot, but with reservations.

“Dallas Buyers Club” earns 4 out of 5 stars.

Movie Review: Gravity

GravityTitle: “Gravity”

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón

Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the interest of full disclosure and to make sure that people fully understand my take on this movie, I need to mention that I saw the 2D version of this film, not the 3D version. I’ll explain in a moment why that’s important.

“Gravity” is a disaster film that follows one person for most of the movie. Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a medical engineer and rookie astronaut sent into space to install a new instrument to a satellite. When a satellite is destroyed, the debris sets off a chain reaction the showers their orbit with high-velocity debris, severely damaging their shuttle and equipment, leaving one person dead, and Ryan and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) stranded. Thus begins a desperate attempt to try to return to Earth safely as everything seems to go wrong.

To start, the cinematography is brilliant. But this is also why I wanted to mention that I didn’t see the 3D version. Right from an opening shot of a loose screw floating towards the screen, it is very obvious that this film is intended to be watched in 3D, but it can be distracting when watching it in 2D. Now, even in 2D, this film is stunning, even dizzying, so I can imagine that motion sickness is a major problem with the 3D film. But it can actually feel like you’re floating in a zero gravity environment with the combination of cinematography and visual effects.

As for the acting, the fact that Sandra Bullock is alone on screen for most of the movie is a difficult task, and one that she takes on and nails amazingly well. It feels like we’re watching a rookie astronaut desperate to get back to Earth. And she’s fantastic. It’s honestly stunning that it’s taken this long for her to get this meaty a role in this strong a film.

Admittedly, it’s not completely perfect, mostly when you look at the technical aspects. There are some odd things, such as the way Sandra Bullock’s hair doesn’t float quite right, or the fact that the space stations would not be orbiting that close together. That’s the science geek in me talking, but I’m sure that someone who knows more about this could nitpick it for you. Also, by the end, the story disasters get a little excessive. In a story where everything that can go wrong does, it can start to get annoying and a little unbelievable, and we want to say, “We get the point already!” Oddly, it was another Sandra Bullock movie, Speed, that had this problem as well.

However, what we get is still an intense film, with great visual effects, cinematography, and incredible acting. This is an awesome achievement. It’s a shame that this film will likely get labeled by some people as “science fiction” rather than “drama.” This is a great film that should be seen by everyone.

I also want to add that, to add a new dimension to this movie, a short film, Aningaaq, has been released and is available to watch online at the link. It depicts the other side of the radio conversation that Ryan Stone has one point during the movie.

“Gravity” earns 4.5 out of 5 stars.