Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Judge (2014)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Robert Duvall

Robert Downey Jr. Photo and Robert Duvall Photo in The Judge Movie 2014
Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Portraying difficult, overbearing fathers is right in Robert Duvall's wheelhouse, just as playing cocky and charming jerks with underlying hearts of gold is what Robert Downey, Jr. was born to do.  When you partner two of the best actors of their respective generations in roles perfectly suited for them with strong chemistry between the two performers, you have the recipe for a winning film.  The most important remaining ingredient is a strong script; unfortunately, this ingredient is - while not missing - certainly not at the level needed to match the talents of those bringing it to life.

Many have described The Judge as Oscar bait, and it's not hard to see why.  Both leads had the type of showy roles that tend to attract the notice of the Academy, with Duvall in a particularly strong position to gain a nomination.  The Academy loves nominating aging legends in the Supporting Actor category, and Duvall playing a dying older man accused of a crime certainly fits the bill.  But his performance is much more than a mere attempt to win his second Academy Award (he previously won for 1983's Tender Mercies).  Duvall is known for an actor especially adept at the loud, showy moments, and he has a few of these on display here.  But what often fails to get noticed is Duvall's absolute genius for holding back, for showing the briefest beginning of a big moment before repressing it.  We are almost certain we know what he is thinking, but we are never sure.  Duvall has never abandoned this tendency, and it is what has allowed him to continue to turn in some of his best work at an age at which most actors are trading in on their personas.

The Judge tries to be several kinds of film, and succeeds perhaps 80% in each of these efforts.  It has elements of a strong family drama weighed down by too many superfluous plot threads (adultery, a developmental disorder), a murder mystery that succeeds in ambiguity but failed in making me care about what actually happened, a sympathetic and unflinching look at aging that abandons the subject just as it hits its bravest moment, and a story of a fish-out-of-water in one's hometown whose fish acclimates all too quickly to create much drama.  There's a strong storyline in there somewhere deep down, but there are too many digressions and false starts to sustain any momentum in the telling.

But there is a benefit to all of these extraneous themes, and that is the multiple showcases it gives to a cast of gifted actors.  Aside from the headliners, Vera Farmiga adds some verve to the usually uninspiring role of the first love who stayed behind, Vincent D'Onofrio gives his best non-television performance in years, Jeremy Strong wisely underplays a role that is unnecessary but saved through Strong's performance, and Billy Bob Thornton - the new king of cameos - is one of the only actors who could be credibly cast as a lawyer capable of going toe-to-toe with Downey.

Adult melodramas like The Judge were common in the 1990s, but have all but disappeared in recent years as studios have marshaled their resources more and more toward potential tent-pole films.  The best of these films were almost always the result of a singular filmmaker's vision.  The Judge demonstrates all of the indicators of a story with multiple visions told by committee with no single person at the helm, and indeed the script was handed off to multiple screenwriters before director David Dobkin took the final pass.  Ultimately, the film falls short due to a lack of cohesiveness, and though this is partly covered by strong performances all around, it results in a film that feels bloated and confused.

On a related note, I am quite proud of myself for avoiding any review cliches related to "judgment."

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Ida (2013)

2 Nominations, Wins TBD

Nomination: Best Foreign Language Film of the Year - Pawel Pawlikowski
Nomination: Best Achievement in Cinematography - Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski

Compared to the lush, showy cinematography of its fellow nominees (Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Mr. Turner, and Unbroken), it's not immediately clear why Ida was nominated in the category.  The film's stark black-and-white cinematography is far from the visual wonderland that is The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Yet the film's seeming visual simplicity belies a depth that is remarkable, much as the film's simple plot belies a depth of character and emotion that makes it one of the very best films of the year.

Ida reminded me a great deal of The White Ribbon, the Michael Haneke film from a few years ago that was also nominated in the foreign language and cinematography categories.  Both films were nominated not in spite of but because of their deceptively simple black-and-white cinematography.  Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski's black-and-white cinematography is as beautiful as I've ever seen.  The pair don't rely on shadows to create visual interest, a common strategy with black-and-white films, but instead create stunning depth of field and beautifully simple lighting.

Most noticeably, the camerawork makes star Agata Trzebuchowska literally glow, with her eyes as big as dinner plates.  Trzebuchowska turns in a terrific understated performance, but it's hard to overstate how much the cinematography enhances her performance.  Trzebuchowska emotes with the only slightest of facial movements, so small that they would be lost in most cinematographers' gazes. Aside from the sheer beauty of the cinematography, it is absolutely essential to conveying the emotions of the lead, and thus the film is unimaginable without it.

Everything about Ida is understated, from the quiet performances to the simple story.  There is no single thing about the film that makes it great; it is truly larger than the sum of its parts.  Ida is a truly lovely film, and will stay with me far longer than many of the films that attempted to make a bigger and more lasting statement.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The 5 Biggest Surprises of the Oscar Nominations

Most who watch the Oscars find their greatest pleasure in judging the outfits worn by the stars, grading the monologue, or joking about the length of the ceremony.  I've always found my greatest pleasure in decrying the snubs and questionable nominations by the Academy.  I was not disappointed this year, as the Academy made several moves that I (nor most others) did not expect. 

Here are the five biggest surprises of this morning's Oscar nominations.

1. Bradley Cooper's Best Actor Nomination
Steve Carell, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Keaton, and Eddie Redmayne were virtual locks for nominations, with only the fifth spot up for grabs.  Conventional wisdom had the fifth nomination going to Jake Gyllenhaal, who was nominated for his role in Nightcrawler by both the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes, or Timothy Spall for his work in Mr. Turner.  If not one of these two, most Oscar watchers would have guessed David Oyelowo might be able to sneak in for his portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Cooper was barely talked about, yet he managed to sneak in his third consecutive acting nomination, in addition to an additional nomination for producing American Sniper.

2.  The LEGO Movie shut out from Best Animated Feature Film
The LEGO Movie has a 96% Tomatometer score at Rotten Tomatoes and grossed more than $250 million, and was seen by many as the clear favorite to take home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film.  Yet the film failed to receive even a nomination in the category, receiving its sole nomination in the Best Song category.  Two little known films received nominations instead (Song of the Sea and The Tale of Princess Kaguya), common practice for the Academy, but virtually no one saw The LEGO Movie getting shut out.

3. Amy Adams and Jennifer Aniston left out
After her win in the Musical or Comedy category at the Golden Globes for her role in Big Eyes, Adams's hope for her first Oscar were revived.  After the Screen Actors Guild left her off of the ballot in favor of Jennifer Aniston for her work in Cake, her nomination chances were far less certain, but it seemed that one of the two would battle for the nomination.  Instead, both were left off the ballot in favor of Marion Cotillard.  Notably, none of the Golden Globe Musical or Comedy actress nominees were nominated for Oscars, and only Michael Keaton of the Musical or Comedy actor nominees earned an Oscar nod.

4. Whiplash's Big Day
J.K. Simmons is the favorite for the Oscar in the Best Supporting Actor category, but it seemed unlikely that Whiplash would get other attention from the Academy.  Instead, the film received five nominations, including the Big Kahuna nomination for Best Picture.  The film has taken home just over $6 million, but this attention from the Academy should help it find a much larger audience.

5. Gillian Flynn Shut Out
Gillian Flynn's adaptation of her own novel Gone Girl was much lauded, with her smart pruning adding suspense to the already impossibly suspenseful story.  The film had the potential to be nominated for its screenplay, cinematography, and leading lady, but only Rosamund Pike was nominated for her star making performance.  The Imitation Game was a lock for a nomination after receiving nominations from the Golden Globes and the Writers Guild Awards, and The Theory of Everything seemed to be a likely candidate as well.  Whiplash was nominated by the WGA in the Original Screenplay category, so its nomination wasn't a huge surprise, and American Sniper seemed like a possibility after its WGA nomination.  Few saw Paul Thomas Anderson having much of a chance for Inherent Vice, especially after it failed to be nominated for either a Golden Globe or a WGA Award (Gone Girl was nominated for both films).  Yet Anderson heard his name called and Flynn did not, much to the dismay of the book's legion of fans.

And the least surprising nomination...

Roger Deakins for Best Cinematography for Unbroken
This is his 12th nomination and third in three years, and it's getting to the point where it's hard to imagine an Oscar ceremony without a Roger Deakins nomination.  Perhaps our greatest living cinematographer, Deakins has yet to take home an Oscar, and it seems unlikely that this will be his year.