Monday, June 23, 2014

Captain Phillips (2013)

Barkhad Abdi Captain Phillips
Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips. Photo Courtesy Sony Pictures

6 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Motion Picture of the Year - Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, and Michael De Luca
Nomination: Best Performance By an Actor in a Supporting Role - Barkhad Abdi
Nomination: Best Achievement in Film Editing - Christopher Rouse
Nomination: Best Achievement in Sound Editing - Oliver Tarney
Nomination: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing - Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith, and Chris Munro
Nomination: Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay - Billy Ray

I expected to hate Captain Phillips.

I'm not sure why this was the case.  There might not be a working actor with a better "lifetime batting average" than Tom Hanks (though Larry Crowne was bad enough to impugn his credibility for awhile), Paul Greengrass is a talented director with a strong individual voice, and the true story of Captain Richard Phillips is the stuff of which great suspense films are made.  Maybe it was the bland title of the film, the long running time, or my reluctance to sit through any film in which a non-New Englander attempts to perform the accent.  If nothing else, the name Billy Ray on the screenplay should have been enough to give me faith in the film, as Ray wrote and directed two of my favorite political suspense films of the past few decades, Breach and Shattered Glass.  While my concern about the film's running time was well founded, the filmmaking team behind Captain Phillips more than assuaged the rest of my films, and Captain Phillips was one of the films of 2013 that I most enjoyed.

Captain Phillips is really two films.  The first is the story of the takeover of the Maersk Alabama by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his team of Somali pirates and the response of Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his crew.  This section takes up approximately half of the running time, and Ray's script beautifully and methodically reveals the characters through the rising action.  Lesser screenwriters write two kinds of scenes: scenes that move the plot forward and scenes that develop characters.  Like the best writers, nearly every scene in Ray's screenplay does both.  Christopher Rouse's editing is superb in these scenes, and the first half of the film flies by with Rouse's editing and Greengrass's sharp direction.

The second half of the film begins (minor spoiler alert to follow) once the attempt to trade the captive Muse for Phillips is botched, resulting the pirates escaping with Phillips as their hostage onto a lifeboat. Though there are some wonderful moments of suspense and emotional drama in these scenes, the film loses its momentum.  The suspense of these scenes is not nearly as intense as in the first half of the film.  The script shifts its focus from the relationship between Muse and Phillips to a greater focus on "Will Captain Phillips survive or not?"  Because Captain Phillips is based a true story and Phillips was prominent in the news after the highjacking, the suspense of the film evaporates.  Hanks, however, is brilliant in these scenes, portraying deep vulnerability even as he performs the bravest of acts.  His final scene of the film is one of the great moments of a legendary acting career, and in another year might have been enough to secure him his sixth Academy Award nomination.

The revelation of the film is Barkhad Abdi, appearing in his first film after previously working in mobile phone sales and limousine driving.  Abdi is an untrained actor, but I never would have guessed this if not for the fact that it was mentioned a thousand times in the month before the Academy Awards.  Abdi walks with a natural swagger that belies his slight frame, yet also shows a vulnerability similar to that of Hanks.  This is the type of role that is probably going to be career-defining rather than career-making, but Abdi is brimming with talent and will hopefully continue to find opportunities to develop as an actor.

Phillips and Muse are two men who have very few choices available to them to support themselves and their loved ones, and though the film never forgives the acts of piracy and violence, it does successfully provide context to the actions of the pirates that elevate them from stock villains to developed characters.  This allows them to be fully realized foils to Phillips, and the interactions between the men provide just as much suspense as the film's most action-oriented scenes.

Captain Phillips didn't have much of a chance in the technical categories, with Gravity dominating the below-the-line awards.  I can't argue with the voting of the Academy.  Captain Phillips was the second or third best in each of the six categories for which it was nominated, but wasn't the best in any category.  Rouse's editing work is the one possible exception to this, but it's hard to argue with the absolutely brilliant editing work by Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger for Gravity.

If you can ignore the bland title and the occasionally suspect accent voiced by Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips is a wonderful and memorable film well deserving of the six Oscar nominations it received.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

Jo Lawry, Judith Hill, and Lisa Fischer from 20 Feet from Stardom
Photo Courtesy

1 Nomination, 1 Win

Win: Best Documentary, Features

It has long been a truism that if you are having difficulty picking the winner of either the Best Documentary Feature or Best Documentary Short Subject in your Oscar pool, choose the film that deals with the subject of the Holocaust or AIDS.  Rather than judging the film that best documents its subject, the Academy has a tendency to reward the film that tackles the most serious subject.

For this reason, it has been surprising that the Academy has bestowed its Best Documentary Feature award to crowd-pleasing documentaries about musicians for the past two years, first to Searching for Sugar Man and then to 20 Feet From Stardom.  While I thought that Searching for Sugar Man was an enjoyable but underwhelming documentary and that the Oscar should have gone to David France's How to Survive a Plague, 20 Feet From Stardom is an absolutely wonderful documentary that is much deeper and it first appears to be.

20 Feet from Stardom Poster
Photo Courtesy of
Director Morgan Neville, a veteran of documentaries on the subject of music (he has made documentaries about Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, and Stax Records), both follows the current lives and documents the long careers of several of the most notable backup singers in the history of popular music, including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Taga Vega, and several others.  These women, though largely unknown to the majority of music lovers, have played essential roles in some of the most significant records ever made, with perhaps the best example being Merry Clayton's searing vocals on "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones.  Neville documents how these women came to become unknown legends of the music industry, the significant challenges they faced as they grew older and the music industry evolved, and celebrates their accomplishments.

But while the film at first seems to be merely an attempt to rectify the lack of attention these women have received by celebrating their contributions to music on film, Morgan Neville uses this story to explore the idea of how our dreams evolve as we get older, and how we either adapt or fail to respond to the unexpected directions our lives takes us.  None of the women profiled in this film set out to be backup singers, and each did so only to support themselves while they continued to seek their own stardom.  As the title suggests, these women stood a mere twenty feet from the stars they sang behind, but so much more separated them than physical distance.  For whatever reason, these women never became the superstars that they believed they would become, and it certainly wasn't due to a lack of talent, as they were more talented than many of the stars they supported.  As Sting explains in the film, to become a star requires more than just talent and hard work, and there is some essence that these women just did not have.

As their own attempts at stardom faltered, some of the women were able to accept this about themselves and were content to be great backup singers, while others could never give up on their dream of becoming true stars.  Few people achieve exactly what they dreamed they would when they were young, and we all to some degree accept unexpected roles for ourselves and must decide how we will respond.  While few of us achieve our exact dreams, few get even 20 feet from these dreams, and what these women accomplished and the legacies they made for themselves are truly incredible.

20 Feet from Stardom is a celebration of the amazing careers of these women, even if these careers are far different from what they dreamed of for themselves.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Interview with Academy Award Nominee Jeffrey Karoff, Director of CaveDigger

Jeffrey Karoff, Director of CaveDigger, in a Ra cave
Jeffrey Karoff, Academy Award nominated director of CaveDigger

Of all of the Academy Award nominated films I watched last year, none surprised me more than Jeffrey Karoff's CaveDigger, nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject.  Prior to watching the film, I was unaware that the art of cavedigging even existed, let alone that there was a practitioner capable of such awe-inspring beauty as what the film's protagonist Ra produces.  Karoff's film is unlike anything I have seen before, and I give it my highest possible recommendation.  CaveDigger can be viewed on Amazon, Vimeo, and iTunes.  Links to all three formats are available here.

Jeffrey Karoff was generous enough to speak with me about CaveDigger and his experience as an Academy Award nominee.  

First, can you briefly tell me a little bit about CaveDigger, how you found out about Ra's work, and why you decided to tell this story?

I met two of the principal characters in the film, Shel and Liz, during the time they'd commissioned a Paulette cave and while Liz was battling cancer. The cave in progress was astonishing and its sheer visual, visceral impact made it seem ripe subject matter for film. But even after I launched into the filmmaking I wasn't sure what story I was telling beyond the glory of Ra's work. It wasn't until I was well into the process that I stumbled upon a recurring theme that included Shel and Liz's consternation with Ra's process, and an age-old artist/patron conflict.

At what point after you started screening CaveDigger did you start to realize that an Academy Award nomination was a real possibility? 

Ra in his cave, from Oscar nominee CaveDigger

Never. I was entering a lot of festivals and completing the Academy qualifications was really a continuation of that festival-entry process.  I knew that CaveDigger was the kind of serious subject matter that the Academy might appreciate, so it wasn't entirely a Hail Mary, but I didn't actually think it would be nominated. But there was a turning point that led me to submit the film: At my very first screening to an invited audience, another filmmaker, Alex Rotaru, told me I should shorten CaveDigger from 47 mins to under 40 and submit it to the Academy as a short because, he said, "...the Academy eats this stuff up." I thought he was smoking crack, and I had no intention of going back into the edit bay after so many months of labor to get it finished. Weeks later, Sandra Ruch, a consultant who was helping me navigate the festival terrain, again suggested I shorten the film to allow it to compete as a short in all festivals. That was the push I needed, and I did so. Shortening the film, obviously, was a terrific idea.

How did you find out you had been nominated for an Oscar?  What was your reaction?

I had a colleague who was at the Academy on the day. She'd told me that she would text me the second she found out, 'yes' or 'no'. The phone buzzed -- my wife looked at the text and broke into tears of joy. I shot it all on my iPhone. It was a stunning day.

Did you attend the pre-Oscar ceremony luncheon for all of the nominees?  This luncheon famously mixes up people from all of the categories at the various tables.  Who did you dine with?  Any good stories from the luncheon?

Just about every nominee, in every category and including me, was at that luncheon. I sat at a table with Jeff Pope, one of the writers from Philomena, and right next to Bradley Cooper, who was kind and funny and interested in my film. He told me a great story about living with his mother, a version of which I heard a few days later on Ellen.

Were you particularly starstruck by anyone at the Oscars?  What was it like to walk the red carpet? 

I'm not starstruck. But I am an admirer and appreciator of talent. I was able to thank personally, for what I consider gifts, Scorsese, Amy Adams, and Roger Deakins. And Bradley Cooper, whose performance in American Hustle was outstanding. I approached all these people at the luncheon, which was more intimate and presented an easy environment in which to interact.

Other than your own film, if you were an Academy member, which of the films in your category would you have voted for?

My favorite was Edgar Barens' Prison Terminal. Important subject matter, sensitively handled. Our culture has a 'throw away the key' mentality about prisoners. Edgar's film humanized even capital criminals. I found the genuine affection amongst the men deeply moving.

What does it mean to you to have the title "Academy Award Nominee" for the rest of your life?

It's not bad. Really not bad.

What's next for you?  Are you working on any films?

I have a couple of doc projects swirling, but for the moment I'm at my day job, directing commercials and fundraising films. I just finished a mini doc for Robin Hood Foundation, a NYC-based philanthropic organization, about New York's immigrant population. They showed it at their annual fundraiser and brought in about $60mil that night.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Man Who Skied Down Everest (1975)

1 Win, 1 Nomination

Win: Best Documentary, Features - F.R. Crawley, James Hager, and Dale Hartleben

The Man Who Skied Down Everest features one of the most heart-stopping and terrifying sequences I have ever seen on film, in which a man skis 6,600 feet down the tallest mountain on the planet in just two minutes and twenty seconds before falling 1,320 feet and finally arresting his fall just 250 feet from a deadly crevasse.  Unfortunately, that sequence doesn't come for more than an hour into the film, and the first hour isn't terribly compelling despite truly horrendous circumstances that should have led to a far more interesting narrative.

Directors Bruce Nyznik and Lawrence Schiller documented Japan's Yuichiro Miura's incredible effort not only to ski down Mount Everest, but first to ascend it, no small task.  Climbing Mount Everest is a slow and deliberate process in which climbers must methodically climb the mountain, stopping frequently along the way in order to acclimate to the altitude.  This process is depicted in painstaking detail, but because the film doesn't allow the audience to get to know the people on the expedition in a meaningful way, the periods of inactivity grind the film to a dragging pace.  The narrator, Douglas Rain (who should sound familiar to those who have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which he voiced HAL), tells the audience of the dangers and hardships, but this is an example of the pitfall of telling rather than showing.

The 1970 Japan Everest Expedition of which Yuichiro Miura was a part was an ambitious effort to ascend the mountain the mountain's southwest face in addition to Miura's ski, and resulted in one of the worst tragedies in the mountain's history.  Eight Sherpa climbers died in an avalanche during the ascent, and this horrendous event, the reaction of the Sherpa community that followed, and their resolve to carry on are emotional and touching.

Perhaps a more apt title for the film would have been The Man Who Slowly and Methodically Climbed Up Everest and Also Skied Down.  Any successful effort to climb Mount Everest is an exciting event worthy of documenting, but several more recent films have captured this far more successfully than The Man Who Skied Down Everest.  The footage of Miura's descent down the mountain is shocking and jawdropping, but seems almost beside the point after the rest of the film.  Still, the film is worth watching for this sequence alone, and any mountain climbing geek like myself will enjoy The Man Who Skied Down Everest.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Cutie and the Boxer (2013)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Documentary, Features - Zachary Heinzerling and Lydia Dean Pilcher

Cutie and the Boxer Poster
Photo Courtesy
I've watched a lot of documentaries following the stories of artists, and they almost always follow the same arc: a forgotten or unfairly overlooked artist is on the brink of a new exhibition that will finally earn him or her the recognition he or she has been unfairly denied.  I was previously unaware of Ushio Shinohara's work, and expected that I would spend the 82 minute running time learning that Mr. Shinohara had been unfairly ignored by the art world, but that the film would resolve nicely with a warm critical reception for the octogenarian artist.

Motorcycle Van Gogh by Ushio Shinohara
Photo Courtesy
Cutie and the Boxer did indeed start with a look at the struggles of Ushio Shinohara and end with an exhibition of his work, but there is a whole lot more to this film than the usual narrative.  Widespread acclaim has escaped Shinohara, but it is as much due to his own failings as it is the fickle nature of the art world.  Shinohara put his art above everything in his life, except perhaps alcohol.  His artistic talent has subsumed everything around him, including the considerable talent of his wife Noriko who has sacrificed her own ambitions because of her belief in Ushio's gifts.  Just as the art world is beginning to pay due recognition to Ushio's talents, Noriko dives into her own art, creating work found to be worth exhibiting by the art cognoscenti, but deemed inferior by Ushio.  Noriko loves Ushio and views it as her role to help him to make his work, and even as her anger grows at his dismissal of her talents, she still cannot fully confront Ushio.  Whether this is out of habit, her own insecurity, or her desire to protect Ushio is not clear, but director Zachary Heinzerling offers a remarkably compelling view of a marriage made of equal parts love and admiration.

Ushio Shinohara and Noriko Shinohara
Photo Courtesy
Ushio Shinohara has an active and vibrant method of making art that gave the film the second part of its title, a method that perfectly lends itself to film.  Instead of watching a painter slowly and deliberately consider a canvas, we watch a small, elderly man violently and joyfully punching a canvas covered in paint.  Ed Harris had a similar benefit in his film Pollock, but while Jackson Pollock was deliberate as to where he dropped his ink, Shinohara paints like a jazz musician, relying instead on his momentary instincts.  Yet even with the visual nature of the painting scenes, Heinzerling wisely minimized the number of scenes of Shinohara painting/boxing, instead focusing more on his and Noriko's reactions to their successes and failures, and their attempts to survive both.

Cutie and the Boxer is neither a traditional massive crowdpleaser nor a depressing record of a social injustice, and thus the film had little chance to receive the Best Documentary Oscar, an award that went to 20 Feet From Stardom.  Yet it is likely the most original and personal of the documentaries nominated in its year, and both a crowdpleaser and a record of social injustice in its own unique way.


Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Lone Ranger (2013)

2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling - Joel Harlow and Gloria Pasqua Casny
Nomination: Best Achievement in Visual Effects - Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams, and John Frazier

Calvin and Hobbes comic strip

One of the challenges of the Every Oscar Ever project is that my expectations are almost always high at the start of a film.  If the Academy admired the film enough to bestow upon it one or more nominations, then I expect it will be a good film.  Thus, unless a film is truly outstanding, I often find the films I watch for this project falling short of my heightened expectations.

This was never going to be the problem with The Lone Ranger.  The film received withering reviews from critics, earning a 30% score on Rotten Tomatoes, with Rolling Stone's Peter Travers perhaps saying it best: "Your expectations of how bad The Lone Ranger is can't trump the reality."  The fact that the Academy recognized the film in two technical categories did little to raise my expectations for the film, and I turned it on with trepidation.

Well the critics did me a huge favor and made my life a lot easier, because my low expectations allowed me to enjoy The Lone Ranger far more than I could have imagined.  Yes, the framing device was unnecessary and killed the film's pacing; yes, Armie Hammer demonstrated a complete lack of charisma and is fighting several weight classes below his co-star Johnny Depp; and yes, its hard to determine whether the plot or the characters is less developed.  But because I expected every one of these things to be the case in advance of watching the film, I found myself able to accept the film's many limitations and enjoy the few things the film does well, namely the two things the film was recognized by the Academy for.

The visual effects by Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams, and John Frazier are pretty spectacular, and the train crashes, a long and proud Hollywood tradition, are the best I have ever seen.  Like Iron Man 3, which I recently reviewed, the film had no chance against the brilliant Gravity despite its wonderful effects, but they are definitely worth seeing.  Similarly, the makeup and hairstyling work by Joel Harlow and Gloria Pasqua Casny is notable.  The makeup used for Johnny Depp as Tonto was promoted by the studio, but it is the makeup of the old Tonto that is truly impressive.  While the visual effects team had no chance against the Oscar powerhouse that was Gravity, The Lone Ranger was nominated against Academy favorite Dallas Buyers Club and the far less auspicious Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa.  Harlow and Casny's work was impressive, but not especially breakthrough or unusual, and I am not terribly surprised that it lost out to Robin Mathews and Adruitha Lee's work for Dallas Buyers Club.

I can't recommend The Lone Ranger, as it really isn't a good movie and is a poor adaptation of a wonderful character.  Still, if you take Calvin's advice and expect the complete disaster described by the majority of critics, you might just enjoy yourself.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Ieri, Oggi, Domani (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow) (1963)

1 Nomination, 1 Win

Win: Best Foreign Language Film - Italy

Had the producers of Ieri, Oggi, Domani - known in the English speaking world as Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow - released the film as three separate shorts instead of one compilation film, perhaps they could have earned three Oscar nominations in the Best Short Subject Live Action Subjects category, shutting out the competition and guaranteeing themselves an Academy Award.  But even by taking the more conventional route and earning a nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category in a particularly competitive year, Ieri, Oggi, Domani was able to beat out the beloved The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to earn Italy the Academy Award.

Ieri, Oggi, Domani, directed by the legendary Vittorio De Sica and co-starring the equally legendary Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, is a compilation of three short films loosely tied together by the theme of women (each portrayed by Loren) who survive using the tool of sexuality.  Di Sica made his wisest choice in deciding that if anyone could convincingly portray three different sides of a woman's sexuality, it was Loren, perhaps the sexiest actress in the history of film.  My exposure to Loren's work is embarrassingly low, and before this film was limited to Man of La Mancha, and, I hate to admit, Grumpier Old Men.  Though Loren's beauty was obvious, I never understood what the fuss was about, thinking of her as a mediocre actress who relied on her looks.  I now understand just how wrong I was.  Much like Penelope Cruz, Loren is just fine as an actress when working in English, but when working in her native language she is inspired.  Whether playing the "woman next door" Adelina of the first segment, the cold yet glamorous Anna of the second, or the overtly sexual Mara of the third, Loren masterfully and entirely convincingly fills each roll.

A film like Ieri, Oggi, in which the same actors must play different roles, is a particularly challenging effort.  Even many of the best actors are just minor variations of themselves in each of these films, but in the month between their releases we fail to recognize how similar the performances are.  But when two actors are forced to play three different roles with only short title sequences separating the efforts, the performers need to push themselves to make sure that the characters don't bleed together.  As great as Mastroianni is, he can't match Loren in the energy she brings to each of the three roles.  Despite the fact that each character is, in essence, just a different interpretation of the same model, Loren has created three wildly different characters.

The first and third segments of Ieri, Oggi, Domani are lighthearted comedies, amusing but with little real originality, and the second segment is a melodrama of simple beauty.  The film would be largely forgettable, but Loren's verve-filled performance steals the show and singlehandedly won Italy the Oscar.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Iron Man 3 (2013)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Achievement in Visual Effects - Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash, and Daniel Sudick

Iron Man 3 Poster
Photo courtesy Marvel Studios
In nearly every superhero film of the past two decades, the filmmakers have struggled with the scenes of the hero's alter-ego.  Without the crutch of action-filled set pieces, most filmmakers have been unable to make the scenes that drive the plot and characters even remotely watchable.  The first two films in the Iron Man franchise were just the opposite, with the scenes of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark sizzling with witty banter and humor while the big action scenes fell flat.  After the departure of director Jon Favreau from the franchise, Marvel Studios turned to Shane Black, the master of action-comedy screenplays, to direct and co-write the third film in the series.  Though Black doesn't quite match the two previous films in the quality of the non-action scenes or in the screenplay itself, Iron Man 3's action sequences are such an improvement over the first two efforts that it is more than worth the sacrifice.

When I saw the first Iron Man movie, I proclaimed that it was certainly the best superhero film since Tim Burton's first Batman film, and possibly since the first Superman film.  Though the action scenes were not great, Robert Downey Jr. was so perfectly cast as Tony Stark that all they had to do was give him a decent script and a competent director and the Tony Stark scenes would have worked.  Instead of mere competence, they paired Downey with Jon Favreau, a director with a few clunkers under his belt, but one who at his best is capable of smart, funny, and irreverent films.  Unlike the excruciating Daredevil (2003) or the first X-Men trilogy, Iron Man never took itself too seriously.  Downey's Stark never bemoaned his powers like Tobey Maguire in the Spider-Man films; he embraced them and had fun with them, and as a result Iron Man was fun as well.

Less than three months after the release of Iron Man, The Dark Knight was released, and there was no doubt in my mind (or most others' minds) that we had a new greatest superhero film, and other superhero efforts sought to follow the dark brooding style of the film.  The sequel to Iron Man still maintained much of its humor and verve, but did appear to pick up some of the moodiness of The Dark Knight.  Downey was still his wonderful, wisecracking self, but Iron Man 2 was a forgettable experience.

Shane Black and co-writer Drew Pearce went back to the basics for Iron Man 3.  The storyline is simpler and cleaner than the muddled mess of Iron Man 2's script, and Downey spends much of the film outside of his hero uniform, a decision that would send most studios into convulsions.  The decision was a good one, leaving Downey to be Downey.  When Downey does get into his suit, Black shows off some very strong action sequences.  Action scenes are always a challenge in the Iron Man films, since the hero's face can't be seen unless the shot is inside his mask; thus, the filmmaker must always choose between showing action with zero emotion, or showing emotion with zero action.  Black and editors Peter S. Elliot and Jeffrey Ford get the mix just about perfect. 

Of course, the action scenes in a film like Iron Man 3 would be nothing without visual effects, and Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash, and Daniel Sudick earned their paychecks with their Oscar nominated effort.  There's nothing we haven't seen before, and the effects can't compare with the game-changing effects of Gravity, but the Iron Man 3 did a tremendous job and the nomination was well deserved.

Read my previous preview of Iron Man 2.