Feb 27, 2014

Quick Reviews: 2014 Best Picture Nominees, Part 2

I thought I was a genius, back in November, when I decided to hold off reviewing some movies in case they were up for Best Picture. That way, I wouldn't have to spend 150 words making jokes about a serious movie that didn't even register with the Academy. 'That'll be future Tableau's problem,' I said, to no one, while laughing and consuming an unhealthy amount of lemon yogurt. And while that strategy did mean that I don't have to review Blue Jasmine or Saving Mr. Banks, it does mean that I have to churn out nine reviews in a fairly short amount of time. So, yeah, I'm pretty mad at myself.

Having already reviewed four of the nine movies up for Best Picture, it's now time to turn to the other five, including the two front-runners for the big win on Sunday. It's about to get EPIC...ally classy and thoughtful up in this b*tch:

The Wolf of Wall Street
"I'm going to snort some cocaine
off of this stripper's butt – satirically"
Story: In Martin Scorsese's black comedy, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) rises as a penny stock stockbroker, starting a corrupt and successful business and living in a world of excess. Jonah Hill, replete with fake teeth and penis, join in on the fun. Quaaludes play an important role.  
Pros: The movie is a lot of fun to watch. It's pretty and full of bright colors. Also, even if the debauchery is difficult to watch, it's still really inventive. Plane orgies! Security-cam peep shows! Pool-party masturbation! Also, some of the acting is really good. Spike Jonze has a nice cameo in the early part of the film as a broker, Joanna Lumley is a delight as a Joanna-Lumley-type, and Cristin Milioti is pretty incredible in a small role as Belfort's first wife.
Cons: There has obviously been a lot of debate about whether the film is demonizing Belfort's exploits, or whether the movie is really an endorsement of his illegal and amoral behavior. Much like the movie that Wolf owes a great debt to, Goodfellas, we're directly in the mind of Belfort, so it's difficult to not be on his side. Also, the crazy exploits of the main characters are seemingly endorsed by everyone – even the homely butler is really an orgy fanatic. By the time Jonah Hill whips out the fakest-looking prosthetic penis ever to grace the silver screen and starts masturbating vigorously at a pool house bought with the broken dreams of thousands of investors, it's not that shocking. If it's satire, it's not artfully done, partially because that sort of thing only really works if the audience is aware of the satire. American Psycho this isn't. This characters are misogynistic, classist, and a tiny bit homophobic, and the film comes off feeling that way as well. You know, for the purpose of satire. Also, it's three hours long and feels longer.
Best Picture Winner: It is not a winner, but it is very shiny.
Film Grade: C+/B-

This is some crazy pirate bullship.
Captain Phillips
Story: Captain Phillips follows a captain as he deals with his ship being boarded by Somali pirates, as well as following a Somali pirate as he boards said ship. Then there's an escape boat and questions about morality and a fun little crying scene!
Pros: This movie is a two-hander between Tom Hanks' Phillips and Barkhad Abdi's Somali pirate Muse. Recent Tom Hanks films have been a bit of a mixed bag. Hanks sort of falls into the category of "intensely delightful off-camera but a little try-hard on screen." You never accuse Hanks of not giving it his all. In Captain Phillips, that's a good thing. Most of the movie rests on his shoulders, so it's really not the time to phone it in, and Hanks delivers in spades. Sure, his quasi-Boston accent is annoying, but he's still really good. Similarly good is Abdi, who has to carry the emotional weight of the movie in the final third.
Cons: Director Paul Greengrass loves shaky cam, and it's the worst, especially when you're already on a boat. Multiple boats, actually, each one smaller than the other, Tiny, cramped, shaky water boats. Fun! Also, the movie is both incredibly expository and full of predictable plot beats. It's a movie where the ending is already pretty obvious, so it would be nice if there were some surprises on the way to the conclusion. Also, the first moments of the film, where Hanks has a conversation with his wife (Catherine Keener) about the dangers of sea travel is inexcusably heavy-handed.
Best Picture Winner: In the ranking of Tom Hanks movies with boats, this is below Joe Versus the Volcano and Cast Away. I mean, both of those are incredible movies with boats, but neither won Best Picture. So, chances are slim.
Film Grade: B-

June Squibb: Keeping it Real
Story: After his addled father (Bruce Dern) possibly wins $1 Million, beleaguered David Grant (Will Forte) takes him on a trip of discovery, stopping in on the Grant ancestral home and hometown along the way.  Bob Odenkirk, as David's brother Ross, and June Squibb, as David's delightfully profane mother, join in on the fun. It's a slow, sweet look at family, the things people do for the ones they love, and the enduring power of regret.
Pros: Alexander Payne is on a roll, with yet another movie that draws humanity out of the most ludicrous of situations. The lottery win is really only the jumping-off point for the film, which is all about family relationships. Will Forte's quiet exasperation is a masterclass in reaction faces. In any other movie, he might be the standout, but, unfortunately for him and fortunately for everyone else, Bruce Dern and June Squibb are incredible (Squibb's performance made it to Number 3 on my list of 2013 moments in film). They exhibit a very lived-in chemistry, providing a look at a marriage that's based on love but filled with years of anger and missed opportunities.
Cons: The movie is very quiet, and occasionally that translates into being very boring. Some of that boredom is intentional, but it's still not easy to get through. I happened to watch the film accompanied by two inebriated people, and I was the only one to make it through the film totally conscious. It is literally a snooze fest.
Best Picture Winner: I love this movie – it's probably my second favorite of the films nominated, but it's not going to win. I can't imagine many geriatric Academy voters will A) be able to get through it in one sitting and B) like the subject matter, which deals a lot with the fact that life is really just an unstoppable death machine.
Film Grade: A

Story: After a blown-up satellite causes a dangerous amount of space debris, astronauts George Clooney and Sandra Bullock (played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) must make a hasty space retreat.  In Alfonso Cuarón's film, time is of the essence, with oxygen running out and satellite chunks headed in all directions. However, there's still time to enjoy how pretty everything is. In space, no one can hear you waste time looking at Earth.
Pros: Almost everything about this movie is a 'pro.' The acting is excellent, especially from Sandy Bulls. As a frightfully inexperienced astronaut dealing with crazy conditions, Bullock acts the hell out of every moment. It's difficult to give emotion to a role when you're stuck in a gigantic spacesuit for the majority of the film, but she does it.  Also, and it can't be said enough, the movie is beautiful. It should win all the awards, just for how amazing everything looks. I know that, in 2 years, we'll all be laughing at how cheap the visuals look (that always seems to be the case with visual effects), but for now it's cutting edge and fantastic. Also, visual effects mean nothing if the director doesn't know what to do with them. Cuarón, thankfully, does.
There she goes. There she goes again.
Cons: It could be a case of having two writers who speak English as a second language, but the dialogue in this movie is terrible. This is especially true in scenes when Clooney and Bullock have long, uninterrupted moments to talk about their past. I don't want to spoil anything, but both of their backstories are bad. In such a visually striking and fluid film, the clunkiness of the words stand out even more.
Best Picture Winner: This movie is basically a horror movie, with dead people popping out of every corner, (helpful) ghosts, and an under-clothed heroine running away from an inescapable enemy. It's got a good chance of winning Best Picture, and it could be great to see a female-lead, sci-fi horror movie win the most prestigious film award of the year.
Film Grade: A-

12 Years a Slave
Story: I'm seriously tired of typing 'based on a true story.' Six of the nine movies up for Best Picture were once real life. And no movie, of the six, is more depressingly real than 12 Years a Slave, the story of Solomon Northup's "non-baker's-dozen" dozen years as a slave. It's in the title. In his journey, Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has a variety of experiences and encounters both incredible cruelty and overwhelming kindness. Mostly cruelty, though.
Pros: Ejiofor is incredible, and he's surrounded by a cracker-jack cast: Paul Giamatti, Taran Killam, Sarah Paulson, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong'o, Alfre Woodard, Garret Dillahunt, etcetera. Nyong'o, as slave (and slave-owner favorite) Patsey, gives an incredibly powerful performance. It's not her movie, so she doesn't get the conclusion to her story that Northup does, but she still gets quite a few emotionally charged moments. Now, if the film was 100% bummer, it would be too difficult to watch. Thankfully, director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley give the film enough moments of hope and light to keep viewers from committing seppuku in the theater. However, as Northup has to hide his brilliance and try to make it as a slave, losing hope that he'll ever be free again, there are still many moments that are incredibly hard to watch. Which, I guess, is the point.
Cons: Even with a few moments of levity, this movie is still basically torture porn. Director McQueen has mentioned that he disagrees with the treatment of slavery in Tarantino's Django Unchained, partially due to the stylized way in which it was presented. With 12 Years, he's kind of done the same thing.
Best Film Winner: This movie is basically a lock for Best Picture, and deservedly so. It's a well-made and acted movie, and, even more than that, it's an important movie. While slavery is no longer really a factor in the US, it's still a problem worldwide. Also, racism and intolerance are still major issues in society today, or so I've heard – I don't really go out much.
Film Grade: A

The Academy Awards are this Sunday, and, though most people just want to see what Cate Blanchett is wearing, it will be exciting to see who wins. A Best Picture winner sets the stage for Hollywood, steering them in a new direction in 2013. If 12 Years a Slave wins, we may see even more historical biopics come to the forefront. If Gravity takes the prize, we may see a revived interest in supposed 'genre' films. And if American Hustle wins, we'll see way more mediocre crap. Good luck to all the nominees!

Oh, and check out Part 1 of my Best Picture reviews here:
Quick Reviews: 2014 Best Picture Nominees – Part 1
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