Tag Archives: Oscars

Academy Chose the Wrong Oscar Doc

There’s nothing wrong with the documentary “20 Feet From Stardom.” The film shouts the praises of the unsung hero of rock ‘n’ roll, the backup singer, showcasing the impressive pipes of big-voiced industry legends, including Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Tata Vega and Lisa Fischer. This fun, upbeat movie, which touches briefly on racial issues, recently won the Oscar for best documentary, probably because it tickled some nostalgic sweet spot in the memories of the aging members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Directed by seasoned documentarian Morgan Neville, “Stardom” is a perfectly decent work of nonfiction film, but it pales in comparison to at least two of the five nominees, “Cutie and the Boxer” and “The Act of Killing.” Though I haven’t had the chance to watch the remaining nominees — “The Square,” about Egyptian revolutionaries, and “Dirty Wars,” which examines the history of America’s “covert” armed conflicts — I suspect it pales in comparison to them as well. (Nevermind that two of the best documentaries of 2013 were completely overlooked by the Academy: “Stories We Tell,” Sarah Polley’s stunning rumination on family, truth and identity, and the damning Sea World expose “Blackfish.”)

“Cutie and the Boxer” and “The Act of Killing” are ten times more compelling, ambitious and important than the entertaining but relatively unprofound “20 Feet From Stardom.” Lucky for us, they also happen to be available for home viewing.

“Cutie” recounts the unusual love story of Ushio Shinohara, an 80-year-old Japanese pop artist known for the “action paintings” he creates using boxing gloves tipped with foam, and his long-suffering wife Noriko, an artist in her own right who lives hidden in his shadow. Playfully and imaginatively directed by Zachary Heinzerling, the film documents the pair’s affectionate yet combative relationship, which raises fascinating questions about art and commerce, love and self-sacrifice and whether it is possible for two artists to live together as equals.

Ushio’s ego may be as outsized as the giant motorcycle sculptures he creates, but it is Noriko  — aka “Cutie” — who emerges as the real star of the film. Arriving in New York City as a young art student, she promptly falls for Ushio and his avant garde ideals, despite a 20-year age difference. Giving up her creative dreams to essentially become an assistant to the mercurial, alcoholic artist, she finds herself pregnant, poor — Ushio is celebrated but his art doesn’t sell — and increasingly embittered.

Later in life, however, she begins to emerge from her husband’s shadow, writing and illustrating a striking graphic novel that tells the story of their marriage, following the exploits of the naked, pigtailed Cutie. Suddenly it seems the genuine talent in the family may have been overlooked. The intriguing saga of a remarkable woman becomes a messy, melancholy but transcendent tale of liberation.

Even more astonishing is “The Act of Killing,” an innovative and deeply disturbing documentary by Texas native Joshua Oppenheimer. The film follows Indonesian death squad leader Anwar Congo and his cohorts as they reenact their past crimes against humanity in the style of Hollywood movies.

Anwar and his swaggering friends presided over a bloody extermination that resulted in the deaths of millions of so-called Communists after the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965. Never called to account for the killings, these unrepentant gangsters proudly recount the influence of American cinema on their self-styled thug-dom, relishing the process of turning their violent acts into a movie, complete with gory special effects, makeup, elaborate sets, dancing girls, torture scenes and one particularly rotund gangster in drag.

As they set about making the film they imagine will cement their place in history, with all the enthusiasm of neighborhood kids putting on a show, Anwar and his fellow mass murderers begin to debate the impact the truth might have on their legacy in a running dialogue that gradually becomes as surreal as the images on screen. Even more unexpectedly, Anwar develops a conscience as he’s confronted with the memory of the hundreds of sadistic slayings he committed in his youth.

A dark and complex exploration of a national history steeped in corruption and self-delusion, “The Act of Killing” becomes a portrait of a man haunted by unforgivable sins. There are no backup singers doo-wopping in the background, just an eyeful of human nature at its very worst.


From Lupita’s Dress to ‘Adele Dazeem,’ Musings on Hollywood’s Big Night

For some of us — I’ll admit, a very small segment of the population — the Oscars are like the Super Bowl. We spend months speculating about the nominations, making sure we’ve seen the films, taking our best shot at who will go home with the gold on the big night. And now that Sunday’s ceremony is over, the trophies handed out, the designer gowns worn, the after-party champagne sipped, there is still a lot to talk about. Here are some thoughts.

1. After establishing herself as a fashion icon throughout the awards season with her simple but bold choices, best supporting actress nominee Lupita Nyong’o unveiled her pièce de résistance at the Academy Awards, creating a sensation in her floaty, pale blue Prada gown. This stunning dress is destined to go down in red carpet history and stood in tasteful and fanciful contrast to some of the night’s more bizarre sartorial moments — Anne Hathaway wearing a chandelier, Liza Minnelli in silk pajamas and Whoopi Goldberg as flapper/geisha/Seinfeld’s puffy shirt/Wicked Witch of the  West.

Nyong’o’s gown couldn’t have been more appropriate for her fairy tale moment when she took the podium to claim the prize for her harrowing work in “12 Years a Slave.” Her acceptance speech was one of the highlights of the evening, heartfelt, brimming with joy and elation.

“It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s,” she said. “And so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance. And for Solomon, thank you for telling her story and your own. … When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”

Moments like these are the reason we watch the Oscars.

2. Was it just me or were there an inordinate amount of awkward Teleprompter related gaffes during this year’s ceremony?

When  it came to reading their lines, so many presenters stumbled — metaphorically, except in the case of Jennifer Lawrence, who continued her tradition of taking a fall while wearing sky-high heels.

Silver screen legends Kim Novak and Sidney Poitier really needed their glasses. Zac Efron botched his scripted patter. Even host Ellen DeGeneres flubbed, calling actor Christoph Waltz “Christopher.” There were so many awkward moments, but none of them quite as hilarious as when John Travolta introduced “Frozen” star Idina Menzel as “Adele Dazeem.”

His error has turned into something of a social media sensation. Slate even concocted this hilarious name generator based on the goof.


All of this makes me wonder. Did anyone actually rehearse before the ceremony?

3. Matthew McConaughey’s win for a role that demanded a transformation of career and body in “Dallas Buyers Club” wasn’t exactly a surprise, but his resulting comments are now the talk of Tinseltown. Many people were delighted by his mention of God, gratitude and family. Others, like me, were baffled by his improvisational style.

In regard to a higher power, McConaughey said, “When you’ve got God, you got a friend. And that friend is you.”

In reference to his dearly departed dad: “To my father who, I know he’s up there right now with a big pot of gumbo. He’s got a lemon meringue pie over there. He’s probably in his underwear. And he’s got a cold can of Miller Lite and he’s dancing right now.”

And then he pretty much shattered his previous humility by declaring himself his own hero. Well, sort of.

“I’m never gonna be my hero. I’m not gonna attain that. I know I’m not, and that’s just fine with me because that keeps me with somebody to keep on chasing.”

It was all only slightly less surreal than his Screen Actors Guild Awards speech, in which he made wacky reference to the planet Neptune, or his remarks at the Golden Globes, which revealed that apparently his wife calls him her “king.”

Whatever your reaction, you have to admit there’s never a dull moment when this guy takes the stage.

4. A spirited Cate Blanchett accepted her trophy for “Blue Jasmine” with the immortal words, “Julia, hashtag suck it!,” referring somewhat cryptically to Julia Roberts.

More memorably, she called out a male dominated Hollywood on the woeful lack of satisfying roles for women, slamming those “who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them, and in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people!”

It needed to be said.

5. After last year’s poorly received performance by host Seth MacFarlane, whose caustic and sometimes offensive schtick rubbed Hollywood the wrong way, the Oscar producers’ pendulum predictably swung to another extreme in the form of the ever likable, always pleasant DeGeneres.

Don’t get me wrong. Hosting for a second time, Ellen was great, cultivating a playful atmosphere with gentle jabs at celebs during her opening monologue. She treated the bejeweled audience to pizza, stole Nyong’o’s lip balm and coaxed Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Bradley Cooper, Meryl Streep and other luminaries into posing for that now famous selfie.

Despite her best efforts, however, this year’s ceremony often felt tedious and tame. There were few surprises when it came to the winners — “Gravity” dominated with seven trophies; “12 Years a Slave” took the best picture prize — and only a handful of moments that resonated with the genuine emotion that keep Oscar viewers coming back for more.

This year’s theme was dedicated to movie heroes, but the ensuing montages were so generic they barely registered. Bette Midler sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” after the traditional In Memoriam segment and received one of several overeager standing ovations, but considering the song is more than 30 years old, it was a strangely stale choice.

Ultimately, the 86th Academy Awards were done in by a stultifyingly conservative aura. Nobody ever got the gold by playing it safe.

Stop Grousing and Go See ‘Gravity’

This year’s Academy Awards race is one of the closest in recent memory with three of the nine films nominated for best picture in a tight heat. Oscar analysts agree that at the conclusion of Sunday’s ceremony, Hollywood’s most coveted prize will be presented to the producers of either “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave” or “American Hustle.”

Entertainment Weekly, in its Oscar predictions issue, forecasts that 19% of the Academy vote will go to “Gravity,” with 18% for “12 Years a Slave” and “American Hustle” with 16% of the ballots. Last month, in a rare occurrence, “Gravity” and “12 Years” tied for the top prize at the Producers Guild Awards. The ceremony is usually a good predictor of Oscar outcomes.

For months, the three front-runners have generated considerable buzz. “Gravity” racked up an impressive $700 million at the global box office. “American Hustle” crossed the $200 million mark and even the harrowing “12 Years” drummed up $100 million in ticket sales. The fact remains, however, that many people have not bothered to head to the theater to see what all the fuss is about.

Of course, this isn’t unusual when it comes to the Oscars, a ceremony that is treated with reverence in Tinseltown but tends to elicit yawns from an indifferent general public. Unless it’s one of the few years in which a major blockbuster is nominated — “Avatar,” for instance, viewed by practically everyone on the planet — it’s common for best picture candidates to languish unseen.

But this time around, the front-runners are worthy of your time and attention. In a year of exceptional films, they are the best Hollywood had to offer — a visually innovative cosmic thriller; a brutally honest historical drama; and a shamelessly entertaining glitter-pile of 1970s glam.

Oddly enough, it is “Gravity” that seems to have encountered the most resistance from a certain segment of filmgoers. I’ve talked to a number of people who stubbornly turn up their noses at Alfonso Cuaron’s space odyssey. Perhaps their reticence stems from the film’s minimalist but epic premise. At first I couldn’t imagine what could possibly be so compelling about watching Sandra Bullock and George Clooney float around in outer space.

Still, the skepticism is baffling, considering what a taut nail-biter of a thriller the film is, not to mention its stunning visual achievements and emotional heft. If you’re lucky enough to find a place where you can still catch an IMAX screening of the movie, it will be one of the most suspenseful, immersive, uplifting and intense cinematic experiences of your life. The film was released Tuesday on Blu-ray, so you can watch it from the comfort of your couch, but you’ll be missing out. If ever a film demanded to be seen on the biggest screen possible — preferably in 3-D with a kick-ass sound system — this is it.

The story of a medical engineer adrift after her space shuttle is torn to shreds, “Gravity” features one of Bullock’s most fragile and moving performances. The film ingeniously registers on two levels – it’s one heck of a popcorn movie ride but it’s also packed with existential symbolism and musings on hope, rebirth and the significance of humanity in a terrifyingly infinite universe. It’s as deep or as shallow as you want it to be.

“American Hustle” is an easier sell. Directed by “Silver Linings Playbook” helmer David O. Russell and reuniting several members of that crowd-pleasing comedy-drama’s cast, “Hustle” is a trashy, over-the-top romp through 1970s sleaze and the most fun many of us had at the movies in 2013.

Nothing about the film is hard to love, from the gloriously kitschy period costumes and art direction, to the go-for-broke acting, to the twisty plot about a pair of con artists embroiled in a government sting operation. Bradley Cooper’s perm and Christian Bale’s comb-over may appear to steal the show, but it is the film’s leading ladies – both nominated for Oscars – who are the real stars. Amy Adams, as a chameleonic temptress looking for love, and Jennifer Lawrence, as an unstable, accident-prone housewife, deliver the most mesmerizing performances of their already accomplished careers.

“12 Years a Slave” is difficult to love, despite the fact that it is quite possibly the most authentic movie of its kind. While other films about America’s dirty, devastating past soft-pedal the indignities of slavery, director Steve McQueen lays them bare in merciless fashion, making for a film that is necessary, yet excruciating. After seeing it, my husband and I were silent the whole way home. There was literally nothing to say in the aftermath of so much shame and sadness.

McQueen specializes in depicting human depravity and desperation — he made a movie titled “Shame,” after all — and “12 Years” is his masterwork. It is brilliantly acted with performances so naked, it’s hard to look them in the eye — Chiwetel Ejiofor as the kidnapped Solomon Northup, Michael Fassbender as a lascivious slave owner and, most searing of all, Lupita Nyong’o as the tormented target of that slave owner’s twisted obsession.

Yes, “12 Years” is painful to watch, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it, even if you only watch it once. The film has profound and indispensable things to say about the insidious nature of racism.

There are great treasures to mine, great revelations to discover in Oscar’s favorite trio and time and opportunity to rectify what you’ve missed, long after the Oscars are over.

Why deprive yourself of greatness?

Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Man in the Beanie

One of my fondest memories of Philip Seymour Hoffman is the night he attended the 2009 Oscars. Like the other men at the ceremony, he was clad in the traditional tuxedo, except that his straw colored hair exploded wildly from beneath a black beanie. Brazenly disheveled, he looked a bit like Steve Zissou or someone who had wandered in off the street, ambushed George Clooney and stolen his suit.

I mean, who attends the Oscars in a beanie?

That is exactly the sort of actor Hoffman was – immune to vanity, deeply committed to melting into character, respected by his peers for his dedication and craft, but existing outside the shallow Hollywood circus that tends to consume more self conscious performers.

Hoffman died of a suspected drug overdose on Feb. 2, but he won’t be remembered for weird tabloid exploits or even for his struggles with addiction. Already, as we mourn his demise, we’re celebrating his work and the fact that when his name popped up in a film’s credits, you knew you were about to see something memorable. Even when the movie wasn’t all that great – “Along Came Polly” comes to mind – Hoffman was never less than electrifying.

Pasty and portly with a sardonic grin and a voice like pebbles rolling around in the surf, Hoffman was the rare character actor who could shoulder the weight of a lead role and make it look easy. After his 1991 debut in an episode of “Law & Order,” the native New Yorker made his name by embracing challenging and eccentric roles on the big screen and the stage.

His early work included small but significant parts in “Scent of a Woman,” “Twister,” “Boogie Nights” and “The Big Lebowski.” He was nominated for an Oscar on four occasions, winning in 2006 for “Capote,” the role that would come to define his career. He was most comfortable inhabiting the skin of lonely misfits (“Synecdoche, New York”), tortured souls (“Doubt”), unapologetic crackpots (“Charlie Wilson’s War”), clever schemers (“Mission: Impossible III,” “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”) and men as passionate as they were stubborn (“Moneyball”).

It’s nearly impossible to condense Hoffman’s sublime repertoire into a Top 5 list, but in honor of this great actor’s life and life’s work, I offer up a handful of the roles I will always look back on with fondness. They’ll remain worthy of repeat viewings for years to come.

 “Magnolia,” 1999: Hoffman first came onto my radar playing the compassionate nurse to Philip Baker Hall’s dying television producer in frequent collaborator Paul Thomas Anderson’s mesmerizing and perplexing magnus opus, a film that famously ends with a plague of frogs. I saw this movie alone in a nearly empty theater in Westwood and sobbed my way through most of it. It boasts a killer ensemble cast, including Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly and Tom Cruise in an eye opening role as a misogynistic motivational speaker, but it is Hoffman’s hushed performance that still haunts me.

“Almost Famous,” 2000: My hands-down favorite of Hoffman’s roles, the character of Lester Bangs is one for the ages. As the acerbic music critic who serves as mentor to Patrick Fugit’s budding rock writer in Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical coming-of-age story, the actor oozes wisdom and cool authority. If Fugit’s wide-eyed William is the heart of Crowe’s love letter to those who eat, breathe and live rock ‘n’ roll, Lester is the soul, mourning the passing of one of music’s great eras. His advice to young William — “Be honest and unmerciful” — delivered with Hoffman’s trademark blend of sarcasm and sadness, should be every journalist’s motto.

 “Capote,” 2005: Taking on the role of Truman Capote was a bold move for Hoffman. Given the “In Cold Blood” author’s distinctive voice and eccentric mannerisms, the part could have easily devolved into caricature. Hoffman’s performance is so layered and so human, he coaxes us into empathizing with this strange little man and the dark and conflicted impulses he wrestles with as he connects with a suspected killer. Shortly after the release of “Capote,” Toby Jones offered his take on the character and did a perfectly decent job, but the film seemed utterly superfluous after Hoffman had so fully inhabited the part.

“Charlie Wilson’s War,” 2007: Hoffman’s gift for milking madcap laughs is on full display in this Aaron Sorkin-scripted political comedy detailing the beginnings of the United States’ ill fated meddling in Afghanistan as the Cold War drew to a close. Playing eternally frustrated CIA chief Gust Avrakotos opposite Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, the actor sports a furry mustache and tinted aviator sunglasses and radiates hilarious intensity as he spouts some of Sorkin’s pithiest monologues. The role earned Hoffman an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

 “The Master,” 2012: Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent film is difficult to watch and many moviegoers found it even more difficult to love. It is, however, an excellent showcase for Hoffman’s unparalleled ability to tap into the charisma and power of ambitious, self deluded men. In the film’s showiest role, would-be disciple Freddie Quell, Joaquin Phoenix nabbed a nomination for the best actor Oscar, relegating his co-star to the supporting category, but Hoffman’s portrayal of a mysterious cult leader, inspired by Scientology creator L. Ron Hubbard, is essential to the film. It’s a towering performance and it reaches its zenith in a scene in which Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd pokes into the dark recesses of Freddie Quell’s personal life in an uncomfortably intimate psychological interrogation. Dodd’s methods may be absolute quakery but the moment reverberates with naked truth.