Niagara Gazette

February 27, 2014

CALLERI: One sure thing, and a tough best picture race highlight Oscars

Michael Calleri moviecolumn@outlook.com.
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Last August, in this newspaper, I essentially gave the 2014 Academy Award for best actress to Cate Blanchett for her extraordinary performance as the delusional, self-absorbed Jasmine French in Woody Allen’s exceptional “Blue Jasmine.” Nothing has changed my mind. Blanchett will win. In fact, for all intents and purposes, she’s the only sure thing at this year’s 86th annual Oscars.

I had thought Blanchett might have strong competition from French actress Adele Exarchopoulos of “Blue Is The Warmest Color,” but the Academy didn’t nominate her heartbreaking acting, which, while not quite a crime, does indicate that although Oscar voters may love visiting Paris, when it comes to honoring a lesbian high school student character in France, they’d rather run screaming for the hills. The Beverly Hills, of course.

Who received Exarchopoulos’s spot in the list of nominated actresses? Perhaps it was Judi Dench for “Philomena,” a soggy sponge of a misguided movie, which for half of its length plays a serious true subject, the abuse of pregnant Catholic Irish girls by nuns, for laughs. Dench’s performance lacks an essential ingredient, something one would expect from a woman, who, as a teenager, was forced to sell her child: unbridled rage. Dench’s Philomena exhibits no anger. She shows more emotion when she discovers that her Washington, D.C. hotel serves waffles at breakfast. For the record, this delights her.

And possibly, it’s Sandra Bullock instead of Exarchopoulos. Bullock’s performance in the half-good “Gravity” was tantamount to listening to a mouse squeak. Who said “in outer space, no one can hear you scream?”

The other women in the best actress category are Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, both of whom I enjoy watching in movies. I wrote that Streep’s caustic matriarch of a dysfunctional family kept “August: Osage County” from complete tedium, and I praised Adams along with her exuberant co-stars in “American Hustle.” However, on Academy Award night, go with the deserving Blanchett and start your Oscar pool off right.

“12 Years A Slave” was thought to be a shoe-in for the best picture Oscar, although not by me, but along came “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” “American Hustle” and “Gravity” to upend everything. They are all nominees and their presence on the list of nine motion pictures makes this a very difficult competition.

One problem I have with “12 Years A Slave” is that director Steve McQueen, a man in love with sadomasochistic interpretations of human behavior, forgot what his movie was about. He turned it into a series of tableaus about abject cruelty and let the emotional underpinnings of his story slide. Michael Fassbender’s plantation owner became more important than the title slave, Solomon Northup.

Martin Scorsese’s fiercely alive “The Wolf Of Wall Street” is three hours of juiced-up cinematic energy, with an outstanding performance by Leonardo DiCaprio as a corrupt, amoral financial advisor. Rarely, has a movie this long felt so short.

“American Hustle” is a frisky comic romp about a con game, and “Gravity” has an opening 20-minute catastrophic incident in outer space that is truly masterful filmmaking. The problem is that there’s still a little more than an hour to go, and the movie becomes labored.

Technically, “Gravity” is solid on every front, which will be borne out on Oscar night, but thematically, not much happens. The surprising thing is that “Gravity” is now the frontrunner for the Oscar, which is why the category is so difficult to call. I don’t think it’s earned that position.

The other five nominees are: “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Her,” “Nebraska,” and “Philomena,” none of which has a real chance, but all of which could be a spoiler. Missing from the list is the great “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Its omission is made more confounding because there can be 10 nominees in this category.

If I were an Academy voter, I would choose “The Wolf Of Wall Street.” However, over my strong objection, “Gravity” will be the choice of the members.

There was a time in the land of hype and honey when Chiwetel Ejiofor was the front-runner for best actor. I said he would be nominated in my review of “12 Years A Slave.” His momentum has slowed considerably. Ejiofor has had to deal with Matthew McConaughey’s obnoxious, fast talking, good ol’ boy from “Dallas Buyers Club,” the same annoying, smarmy performance he’s been giving in movies his entire life, except that in this film, he’s much thinner. I’m not a fan of the picture because I reject its presenting the early stages of the AIDS epidemic as an antic caper comedy, and I question its facile take on the Federal government’s role.

Best actor nominee Leonardo DiCaprio gives a bravura comic performance in “The Wolf Of Wall Street.” Christian Bale’s nomination for “American Hustle” is an honorable inclusion and Bruce Dern winning for “Nebraska,” would be the feather in the cap of a wonderful career. He’s the sentimental favorite.

I would vote for DiCaprio. The Academy will select McConaughey.

Regarding the supporting actress category, I wrote that Lupita Nyong’o’s searing performance in “12 Years A Slave” was Oscar material. Jennifer Lawrence (“American Hustle”) has some momentum, and I like Sally Hawkins for “Blue Jasmine” and June Squibb for “Nebraska.” Nyong’o has my vote, and she will win. For supporting actor, Jared Leto, as the transgendered Rayon in “Dallas Buyers Club,” has all the momentum, and he’ll win, although I would vote for Bradley Cooper for “American Hustle.” I didn’t see anything in Leto’s performance that I haven’t seen from other actors playing the same type of character.

For directing, Scorsese gets my vote, but Alfonso Cuaron will win for “Gravity.” Alexander Payne (“Nebraska”), David O. Russell (“American Hustle”) and McQueen should be honored to be nominated.

I would vote for Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” for original screenplay, but the quirky “Her” by Spike Jonze will win. Regarding the adapted screenplay winner, I would vote for Terence Winter’s work for “The Wolf Of Wall Street.” I don’t think its adult language will prove too rough for the Academy, which will select it as well.

I’ve seen three of the five foreign language entries: “The Great Beauty” (Italy), which is my choice, “The Hunt” (Denmark) and “Omar” (Palestine). The Academy will choose director Paolo Sorrentino’s outstanding Italian picture.

I’ve also seen three of the feature documentary nominees: “20 Feet From Stardom,” which is my choice, “Dirty Wars” and “The Square.” However, the buzz in Hollywood is that “The Act Of Killing” will win.

Here are the winners after the presenters say “the Oscar goes to” in the other categories. Film Editing: “Gravity,” Cinematography: “Gravity,” Production Design: “The Great Gatsby,” Costume Design: “American Hustle,” Makeup And Hairstyling: “Dallas Buyers Club,” Visual Effects: “Gravity,” Sound Editing: “Gravity,” Sound Mixing: “Gravity,” Original Score: “Gravity,” Original Song: “Let It Go” from “Frozen,” Animated Feature: “Frozen,” Animated Short: “Get A Horse!,” Documentary Short: “The Lady In Number 6,” and Live Action Short: “That Wasn’t Me.”

The Oscars will air live from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood this Sunday night, starting at 8 p.m. on ABC. Ellen DeGeneres is the host.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@outlook.com.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@outlook.com.