BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: The Wolf of Wall Street

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The Wolf of Wall Street
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Terrence Winter (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and Kyle Chandler

One of the biggest bright spots in this year’s Oscar nominations is the amount of prestige bestowed on a three-hour spectacle of almost non-stop vulgarity.  I have a pretty good feeling that Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is nominated simply because of the pedigree of talent involved.  It is almost as polarizing (and misunderstood) as Shutter Island, which probably would have been nominated had it been released during awards season.

Scorsese, whether or not he likes it, is an Oscar mainstay now, and would likely have to tank in an almost unfathomable way to not get attention from the voters.  The Wolf of Wall Street looks kind of like an Oscar film on the surface, but it’s also everything that they typically dislike:

It’s a comedy.  It’s a black comedy.  It’s not self-serious.  It’s three hours and not about World War II or ancient history.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Dallas Buyers Club

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Dallas Buyers Club
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by: Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner and Denis O’Hare

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto play polar opposites brought together by the horrors of AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club, an unsettling message movie that doesn’t want to admit it’s a message movie.

As the unsparing homophobe Ron Woodroof, McConaughey takes his natural on-screen charm to a demented new register here.  First seen at the center of a sweaty threesome at a rodeo, it’s not long before he’s slinging the word “faggot” in a locker room with his pals.  It’s also only a matter of minutes before he’s sitting in a hospital, being told that his T-cell count is so low he has 30 days to live.  When his doctor asks him if he’s had gay sex, he goes into a fit of rage.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Captain Phillips

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Captain Phillips
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Billy Ray (screenplay), Richard Phillips (book)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman and Faysal Ahmed

The final scenes in Captain Phillips are some of the most disturbing and haunting of the year.  They also somewhat erase the good guy/bad guy mentality and replace it with raw humanity. (Spoiler ahead) They involve Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) screaming his head off while covered in the blood of recently-killed Somali pirates who were holding him hostage.  It is a raw portrayal of trauma, and it resonates more than anything else in this taut if mostly unsubstantial movie.

Like Gravity, Paul Greengrass’ latest film operates on the built-in history audiences have with its Hollywood star.  Hanks doesn’t disappear into the title character as much as he uses his image to enhance the terror of the situation.  It’s the actor we are meant to see struggle with a pirate raid on his cargo ship while traveling off the African coast.  Those last scenes in particular are crucial reminders of that.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Argo

Argo

Argo
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Chris Terrio (screenplay), Joshuah Bearman (article)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin and John Goodman

I think Argo is going to win Best Picture, if the studios play their marketing cards smartly and don’t push too hard before the end of the year.  This isn’t because it’s the best movie of the year, but it’s the kind of movie that Academy voters can agree on.  It’s very suspenseful, it has a good ensemble cast decked out in ’70s hair and it’s in part about Hollywood helping rescue hostages in Iran.

Ben Affleck has been steadily building up his directing chops in his previous features Gone Baby Gone and The Town, and in leaving contemporary Boston behind here he has created his most assured movie yet.  Argo is consistently engaging, from its washed out ’70s look to its fluid, precisely orchestrated camera movements.  The first 20 minutes, where the U.S. embassy in Iran is stormed by protesters, are brilliantly conceived.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Django Unchained

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Django Unchained
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino (screenplay)
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kerry Washington

Django, like the ‘D’ at the beginning of his name, is silent.  This is no small feat, given that he is the main character in a Quentin Tarantino movie, and should be stopping to yak at any given opportunity, preferably before a burst of ultra-violence.

Of course there is plenty of bloodshed in Django Unchained, so much in fact that it paints a white plantation red, mostly with the blood of its owner and his employees.  It is Tarantino’s second historical revenge fantasy in a row, following the revisionist WWII epic Inglourious Basterds.  Here, though, he crucially refuses to revise the horrors of American slavery, and depicts them in ways that are startling and horrific.  The blood from the shootouts may be gratuitous and expressionistic, but it’s the beating, dog mauling and whipping that feel brutally real even if the movie they are in is often highly stylized.

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REVIEW: My Week With Marilyn

My Week With Marilyn
Directed by: Simon Curtis
Written by: Adrian Hodges (screenplay), Colin Clark (books)
Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench

The most poignant moment in My Week With Marilyn comes and goes so quickly that the viewer will soon be sedated back into the confines of its unchallenging, riskless story.  Ms. Monroe (Michelle Williams), gliding down a staircase clutching her flavor of the week (Eddie Redmayne), turns to him as she sees a crowd forming and says, “Shall I be her?”

“Her” of course is the Marilyn Monroe that burned into the screen and the collective imagination of the world in the mid-20th century; the suit of armor that a deeply insecure, troubled woman named Norma Jean donned to deal with that fame.  My Week With Marilyn is sadly less concerned with moments like these than it is in ultimately keeping that shroud of secrecy over Monroe.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Directed by: Stephen Daldry
Written by: Eric Roth (screenplay), Jonathan Safran Foer (book)
Starring: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and Max von Sydow

The opening image of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is of a man falling to his death, with papers behind him that fade into the title; its closing image is of a boy swinging upward on a swing, triumphant.  It freezes on this image, asking the audience to pause and share in that triumph.  This is hard to do for many reasons, but mostly because that man who was falling to his death wasn’t doing so because he wanted to.  He is falling from the Twin Towers, and it is Septermber 11th, as the movie and its director, Stephen Daldry, will remind you of several times.

Oskar (Thomas Horn), the troubled boy at the film’s center, torments himself endlessly with the messages his father (Tom Hanks) left on their answering machine while he was trapped in the World Trade Center on what Oskar calls “The Worst Day.”  After finally working up the courage to enter his father’s room, he searches the top shelf, knocking over a blue vase in the process.  Inside that vase is a key whose mysteries occupy the remainder of the narrative.

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