OSCAR COUNTDOWN

Only 2 months and 1 day until the next Oscars are awarded on February 22, 2015.

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MISCELLANEOUS

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

photo I have been a casual observer of director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies since the beginning. And, since the beginning, because I had never read any of the J.R.R. Tolkien books and, quite frankly, had very little interest in the genre (fantasy adventure), I had always gone into the movies with only one question needing to be answered: does this movie entertain me? And, for the most part, because of the size, scope and quality of production on the films, the answer was usually yes. But, emotionally, I have to admit I never connected with either the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the current Hobbit trilogy, which is currently seeing its final installment in the theatres: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. And, unfortunately, for me, a casual fan who had trouble connecting to begin with, this last chapter was the hardest to sit through of them all.
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Wild

photo All of us, at one point or another, have wanted to get away from it all—to clear our heads, to escape our lives, maybe even to run away from something we did or said or didn’t do or say. Who hasn’t wanted to push the reset button on their lives at least once? Of all the things that haunt the human brain, perhaps none are as soul-crushing as regret, for as powerful and smart as we humans are, the one thing we cannot and will never be able to do is go back in time. So, sometimes, the desire to run, far and fast, is palpable. But very few of us has ever had the courage or the ability to actually go through with it. To actually take that journey—leaving it all behind, confronting your demons, face-to-face, not knowing where or who you will be when you feel you are finished running—what a rare and exceptionally beautiful story that would be.

Which is exactly what Wild is.

Wild, the new movie from director Jean-Marc Vallee, who directed last year’s Best Picture-Oscar-nominated surprise hit Dallas Buyers Club, is based on the memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed, who is also a co-screenwriter on Wild, along with Nick Hornby. Reese Witherspoon stars as Strayed, who hiked 1,100 miles alone along the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada, after a painful divorce and the sudden death of her mother. It doesn’t give too much away to reveal those points here, because it is clear early on that this character is trying to escape something and the meat, heart and meaning of this movie doesn’t lie in the details of the plot but in—forgive the cheesiness—traveling each step with her on her journey. How this movie manages to avoid falling into sentimental holes and cliché traps is beyond me, which I credit entirely to Hornby and Strayed herself for staying true to the reality of her trek and not being tempted by the opportunities to turn moments into melodrama. Instead, Wild is a straightforward, honest, real and oftentimes brutally insightful film about one woman’s search for personal understanding and redemption. It is powerful, moving, emotional, beautiful, touching, raw and inspiring. If you’ve lost your faith in movies, this one just might bring it back again.

Reese Witherspoon gives the best performance of her career, and that’s saying something, considering how much I adore Election. If she hadn’t won for Walk the Line, I’d think she was a slam-dunk to win the Best Actress Oscar here. She has never been more perfectly cast and she has never been as relatable, as easy to watch, as easy to root for or as believable. She also produced Wild, so this film is truly to her credit, and all the power to her. Laura Dern also deserves a mention for a worthwhile supporting performance because, frankly, Laura Dern never gets enough credit.

There’s no other way to say it: go see Wild.

The Theory of Everything

photo Summer is for the stories of the big muscles, but winter brings out the real superheroes. Alan Turing won World War II (The Imitation Game). Martin Luther King, Jr. brought about the Civil Rights movement (Selma). And Stephen Hawking’s works, including an explanation of the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and black holes, have advanced science and our world. Hawking’s story is told in The Theory of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones and directed by James Marsh. As a bio-pic, it is pretty conventional, and as a movie it is pretty straight-forward, but as a human viewing experience, it is pretty sensational.
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Click below for 86 seconds of happiness:

The Imitation Game

photo If ever there was a story worth telling, it’s Alan Turing’s. His is one of the most heartbreaking, tragic, infuriating, heroic, historic, groundbreaking and profoundly impactful lives that has ever been lived—and yet, most people have never heard of him. That may all change with the new movie The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, who brings Turing to life and compellingly delivers one of the best performances of the year, if not the best.

The Imitation Game tells the story of Turing’s life, with a clear emphasis on the part where he significantly contributed to winning World War II by helping to crack the German Enigma code, which allowed the Allies to intercept and read the messages the Germans were relaying to each other about their bombing runs and attack strategies. But let’s just say Alan Turing was not treated as heroically as he should have been, considering the contribution he made to the war effort—shortening the war by 2 years and saving an estimated 14 million lives. The story of Turing’s life is public knowledge and has been dramatized many times, including the famous play “Breaking the Code,” but I still won’t reveal the details here for those who don’t know them (I don’t want to ruin the movie), but let me just say they are heartbreaking and infuriating.

As for the experience of the movie itself, there is no way to get around the performance of Cumberbatch. It is the movie. He is such a dominating force there is almost no air left for anyone or anything else. It doesn’t help that the movie is such a paint-by-numbers, conventional bio-pic, packed with standard scenes, stock characters and predictable moments played out for dramatic effect. But, through it all, Cumberbatch is so magnetic, it almost doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing or saying. This is just one of those times, as happens quite often, that an incredible performance can make an average film better.

If The Imitation Game and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance can bring a renewed spotlight onto the life and work of Alan Turing, then I have nothing but praise for it and want to encourage everyone to go to the theatre to bask in the brilliant work that Cumberbatch delivers that could very well result in a golden reward come February.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

photo For those of you who have read the Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins or have seen the first two films, you will feel right at home in the world of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, the third in the four part trilogy (yeah, I know) of the massive blockbuster book/movie franchise starring Jennifer Lawrence, of which I am not so ashamed to say I am a huge fan. This installment, however, is more a where-are-they-now/character study than a full-fledged, fleshed out, plot-driven, action-centered movie. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad thing, it’s just…different. Mockingjay – Part 1 clearly is setting the mood, tone, setting, pieces, players, motivations and stakes for the fireworks to come in the big finale—Part 2 (due next year). Or, as many would call it: The Big Cash Grab of 2014. But for those of us who are fully invested in these characters and this world, I didn’t mind spending quality time with them and I certainly don’t mind not being rushed towards the end. Nobody is forcing me to fork over the money for a ticket—if it’s worth it, I’ll spend it. Sure, this one may not have nearly the action we are used to, but it’s got much more time with actors—good actors, I’ll remind you—and it’s a world and characters we know and love. If you’ve come this far, you’ll go a little further and savor every morsel.

And for those of you who haven’t read the Hunger Games books or who haven’t seen the two previous Hunger Games movies, don’t bother seeing The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. You’ll have absolutely no clue what is going on, who anybody is or what anyone is talking about.

Foxcatcher

photo There aren’t too many things more damaging to the human psyche than the abuse of trust, power or love, but what if any or all of those things aren’t even earned? Director Bennett Miller’s (Capote, Moneyball) new film, Foxcatcher, is a searing examination of what can happen when power, trust and love are allowed to be bought and then are not only abused, but perverted, twisted and then maliciously destroyed. Foxcatcher is very similar to Capote and Moneyball, Miller’s other two films, in that it is a deliberate and thoughtful film that takes you deep inside its subject matter, delivering indelible performances in a slow-moving but fascinating film that will go far this awards season, and rightfully so.
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Interstellar

photo A friend who knew I saw Interstellar last night asked me how it was, but before I could say a word, she held up her hand and said, “if you mention Gravity, I’m out.” See, she and I have been having the Gravity debate for a year now, as it was my favorite movie of 2013, and she hated it. So I stopped, looked at her and burst out laughing. I laughed not because there is much similarity at all between Alfonso Cuaron’s blockbuster space disaster movie and Christopher Nolan’s ambitious and highly-anticipated futuristic space travel mindbender epic—besides being set mostly in space. I laughed because if you are looking to escape the word gravity, Interstellar is the wrong movie to see. Yes, gravity, as in the force that keeps us all connected to Earth, as opposed to randomly floating out in space. Gravity is one of many scientific concepts that director Christopher Nolan, along with co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, explores throughout Interstellar, a magnificently mind-blowing adventure through space and time that will make you feel at moments like you are watching Spielberg, at other moments Kubrick, but, in the end, it is Nolan who leaves his unique imprint on this massively idea-driven film that will not only expand your mind, but will expand everything else you have ever known (and didn’t even know you didn’t know).
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Nightcrawler

photo I used to wonder what kind of person watches The Jerry Springer Show. Or buys the National Inquirer. Then I realized that it’s not a far stretch from those gutter-dweller tabloid turds to the so-called mainstream entertainment that surrounds us now, from TMZ to the Kardashians to People magazine to E! television. Even I bask in the red carpet glam every Oscar night. It’s shameful to admit, but these things exist because people watch. A lot of people.

Human nature is a voyeuristic one, a curious one, one that rubbernecks on the freeway when passing an accident, one that gossips about friends, one that wants to know every detail of the lives of the rich and famous, one that longs to feel compassion and sorrow and joy and angst—to feel anything and everything about themselves and others. They say money makes the world go ‘round, but emotion is what makes the spinning matter. But there’s an interesting thing that’s been learned about these emotions in a group setting. The emotion that seems to be the most powerful one of all, more than love, compassion—even happiness—is fear. And guess what? Those wonderful “entertainment” shows we have become addicted to? Yup, they found a way to harness that fear. They just call it something else: news. And the closer to home the fearful news hits, the higher your heartrate goes, and, in turn, the more intense your interest. Interest=ratings. Ratings=money. And the world keeps spinning.
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Birdman

photo Last year at this time, we were talking about Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s virtuoso cinematic achievement which went on to win seven Oscars, including Best Director and Best Visual Effects. Hard to believe, but Cuaron’s countryman Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel, 21 Grams) has now upped the ante. Inarritu’s newest feature, Birdman, is itself an exercise in cinematic wizardry, but of a completely different nature and with vastly different effect. What made you hold your breath in Gravity makes you breathe faster in Birdman.

Birdman will make headlines for being the “comeback” of Michael Keaton, but it should be talked about for so much more. Keaton plays a washed-up actor who was famous for playing a superhero in the movies, but is now trying to revive his career by writing, directing and starring in a play on Broadway. The movie takes place almost entirely backstage at a Broadway theatre and is so incredibly meta your head will spin. Between Michael Keaton actually being a semi-washed up actor who really did play a superhero in his career, to us watching a movie about a play, and then all the actors doing nothing except talking about acting—this movie gets so inside itself so fast it turns itself inside out before you figure out which way is up.

And then you realize that’s exactly the point.
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MY CURRENT SMART PICKS

Top 5 List:

My Five Favorite Bio-Pics:

1. Amadeus (1984)
2. Goodfellas (1990)
3. Sweet Dreams (1985)
4. In the Name of the Father (1993)
5. Schindler's List (1993)

Rental Pick:

The Elephant Man (1980)

Favorite Trailer of the Moment:

The Gambler (red band trailer)

Awesome Movie Montages and Lists: