86th Academy Awards

The 86th Academy Awards honors the best in film in 2013, and it marks the third time I’ve seen all the Best Picture nominees (after having done so for the 78th (2005) and 80th (2007) Awards), and the first time I’ve done so before the actual Academy Award ceremony.

I’ll comment on the nominees for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Acting (Lead and Supporting), Best Writing (Original and Adapted), and Best Documentary categories.  When the actual winners have all been announced, I’ll go back and fill them in.

Here’s my ranking of the nine Best Picture nominees in terms of which I would least like to see win to which I would most like to see win Best Picture.  These rankings also correspond with my personal ratings and opinions about each movie.  From worst to best, here they are:

9. Dallas Buyers Club (worst)

8. Nebraska

7. Philomena

6. The Wolf of Wall Street

5. American Hustle

4. Gravity

3. Her

2. 12 Years a Slave

1. Captain Phillips (best)

[Actual winner: 12 Years a Slave]

I wanted to add a side note.  Last year I wanted to see Silver Linings Playbook win Best Picture, though as it got closer to the ceremony it became rapidly apparent it would not.  For this year, while Captain Phillips is my top choice among the nominees, I don’t really feel invested in it the same way I did for SLP (not that SLP was among the best movies ever; I think at the time I just felt excited that I saw an actually good Best Picture contender for once).  The top two contenders going into the ceremony are Gravity and 12 Years a Slave (with the latter having the slight edge, I think) and I’d be fine with either of them winning.

For my money, the best film of 2013 that I saw was Blue is the Warmest Color, and I think my emotional attachment to that film has overshadowed the actual Best Picture nominees and kept me from really connecting with any of them, i.e., “well that movie was great, but compared with BitWC…”  In a fairer world BitWC should not just be nominated, but win for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress.

As for the other categories, my opinions are as follows.

Best Director: I’ve seen all five movies for which the director has been nominated.  I really wish that Paul Greengrass had been nominated for directing Captain Phillips, and if he had I would definitely give him the Directing award.  But he wasn’t, so instead I think the award should go to Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity, because it was such a technically demanding movie to pull off.  Steve McQueen would be the runner-up for 12 Years a Slave because I liked the way the film was shot. [Actual winner: Alfonso Cuarón]

Best Actor: I’ve seen all five nominated performances and they were all really good except for Bruce Dern in Nebraska (I don’t understand all the hype for that performance).  It’s close, but I guess I would give it reluctantly to Matthew McConaughey for his versatile turn in Dallas Buyers Club.  Chiwetel Ejiofor is a close second, with Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio following closely. [Actual winner: Matthew McConaughey]

Best Actress: I’ve seen four of the five nominees, all except Cate Blanchett (who’s the favorite to win).  Meryl Streep was fine but nominating her yet again was a waste of a slot that should’ve gone to Adèle Exarchopoulos for Blue is the Warmest Color.  Judi Dench was fine in Philomena but nothing Oscar-worthy.  Sandra Bullock was powerful in Gravity, but Amy Adams was charismatic in American Hustle and I would pick her out of the four I’ve seen, by default. [Actual winner: Cate Blanchett]

Best Supporting Actor: I’ve seen all five nominated performances.  I don’t know why Bradley Cooper was nominated; he was whatever.  Barkhad Abdi was fine but his performance is overrated.  The remaining three were all very good.  I would give the award to Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club, followed closely by Michael Fassbender and then Jonah Hill a little farther behind. [Actual winner: Jared Leto]

Best Supporting Actress: I’ve seen four of the five nominated performances, all except Sally Hawkins.  Like her costar Bruce Dern, I fail to see what was so great about June Squibb.  The remaining three were very good.  I would give the award to Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave, followed closely by Julia Roberts and Jennifer Lawrence a little farther behind. [Actual winner: Lupita Nyong’o]

Best Original Screenplay: I’ve seen four of the five nominees, all except Blue JasmineDallas Buyers Club is actually a pretty crummy movie aside from its acting and I don’t want it to win.  Nebraska’s script is pretty pedestrian (it reads like it was written in middle school).  I’d give this to Her for its simple but searing emotional provocation, followed by American Hustle for its witty and clever banter. [Actual winner: Her]

Best Adapted Screenplay: I’ve seen four of the five nominees, all except Before Midnight12 Years a Slave’s dialog is awkwardly formal in some parts.  Philomena was whatever.  Captain Phillips and The Wolf of Wall Street have great scripts for different reasons.  I’ll give this one to Captain Phillips. [Actual winner: 12 Years a Slave]

Best Documentary: I’ve only seen Dirty Wars, but I really liked it.  I can’t comment on how it compares to the other nominees, but it’d be nice to see it win. [Actual winner: 20 Feet from Stardom]

Finally, I’ve included my ratings and reviews of the nine Best Picture nominees, ranked from worst to best.  Ratings are expressed on a scale of 0.5-5 “stars”.  Warning: These reviews are written for those who have seen the movie and may include spoilers and ending details.

 

Dallas Buyers Club

1.5 stars

This movie’s greatest contributions to mankind are Matthew McConaughey’s and Jared Leto’s performances.  They were awesome and they both fully deserve to win Academy Awards (though I could see giving the Best Actor Award to Chiwetel Ejiofor as well). I also liked the editing and the score.

Aside from that, the movie is mostly useless.  The plot has an interesting premise but it never went anywhere; it just went around and around in circles.  Ron Woodroof has health problems; we hear that same ringing-in-the-ears noise; he gets better; sells some drugs; gets busted by FDA; bitches about FDA; then gets health problems again.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  The movie’s pacing is slow to progress and it really feels like it drags on forever.  There are way too many attempts at lame and silly humor, which spoiled what could and should have been a more dramatic mood.

The story and character are rather clichéd: an odious hedonistic ne’er-do-well gets a life-threatening wake-up call, reforms himself, becomes a (self-)righteous crusader for his new pet cause, makes interesting new friends, and gets the girl who was previously repulsed by him but now thinks, hey, this asshole’s actually quite the charmer!  I thought the old Ron was bad enough, but the new-and-improved Ron was insufferably pompous and self-righteous as he discovers, wow! there are actually other things in this world besides drunken orgies with STD-infested whores! and then proceeds to condescend to anyone who hasn’t gotten their ass firmly in line behind him, alternative perspectives and reasonable objections be damned.

Probably the best example of what I’m talking about comes when post-reformed Ron confronts one of his old homophobic friends who picks on Ron’s object-of-disgust-turned-bestest-bud Rayon at the grocery store.  Ron berates his friend for being a homophobic jerk – basically, exactly what Ron was an hour ago in the movie – without any sense of perspective or empathy for where his friend was coming from (hint: the exact same place Ron was… an hour ago in the movie!).  So because he himself is no longer an ass, he’s all putting on airs and thinking he’s Mr. Social Acceptance… give me a fuckin break.  Look, I’m all for becoming a better person and I’m glad Ron changed, but pardon me if I don’t stand up and applaud for him finally figuring out what the rest of us knew all along without having to contract a life-threatening disease.

 

Nebraska

1.5 stars

This movie did manage to capture the look and feel of small town America.  That said, it’s way too slow and boring.  It moves at a snail’s pace and nothing is really happening for like 90 percent of the time.  The movie doesn’t really seem to have much of a point besides giving an old man one last thrill, one last walk down memory lane, and one last ride of glory.  The dialog was mostly flat and pedestrian (obviously not written by Alexander Payne, whose scripts usually have excellent dialog) and all of the actors’ delivery were weirdly overacted, like a bunch of amateurs putting an unrealistic amount of inflection into their lines. (It’s hard for me to describe it in words at the moment, but a good example can be seen with the doctor in Black Dynamite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3uUDMR_-tUk&t=30) Most of the characters were annoying and I didn’t connect to a single one of them, aside from some brief moments of gratitude for Kate for telling things straight and shutting dumbasses up.

Bruce Dern was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for this?  He did fine, but his performance wasn’t extraordinary, given what little he had to work with; I mean, half of his lines were “WHAT?!”  This Oscar slot would’ve been better off going to Joaquin Phoenix for Her.  I could say the same for June Squibb, who had some memorable lines but delivered them with the same weird fake exaggerated singsong style that was characteristic of this movie’s acting.  Her Supporting Actress Oscar nomination should’ve gone to Léa Seydoux for Blue is the Warmest Color.  Hell, Nebraska‘s nomination for Best Picture should’ve gone to Blue is the Warmest Color.

 

Philomena

2.5 stars

Philomena (pronounced, to my surprise, as “fill-oh-ME-nuh”) is a remarkably unremarkable movie.  It is the epitome of an okay film – good, but not great.  It starts off with a good enough premise and story about a woman who sets out with a journalist to find her long-lost son – if that’s not the tamest subject matter ever I don’t know what is.  The movie then sticks to this plot without any deviations for further character or storyline development; it focused on the main objective of finding that son like a laser.  Normally I like focus and discipline in plots, but in this case I thought it was too focused, to the point of ignoring any character besides Philomena and Martin, and leaving a lot of questions I had unanswered.  These questions include:

How exactly did Martin Sixsmith lose his job?  What made him decide to help Philomena after initially refusing?  Whatever happened to the father of Philomena’s illegitimate son?  Who was the father of Philomena’s daughter, and did they have any other children together?  When and how did Philomena leave the convent?  How did Michael and his lover Pete Olson meet, and what was their closeted relationship like? (Pete’s role in this movie was limited entirely to closing a door on Martin’s foot, sitting on the couch with a surly look on his face while Philomena watched a home video, and answering a few questions that would lead Philomena and Martin back to Ireland.) How long did Michael have AIDS, and how did it affect his professional and personal life?  Why the hell would a gay man want to be a Republican? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Basically, one of this movie’s main problems was that it was too shallow, in the sense that it only ever did the bare minimum necessary to move the main story forward.  And the story had a very simplistic setup: Philomena and Martin set out to find Philomena’s son, meet with a few people, confront the “evil” (literally a word used in the movie to describe them) and unrepentant nuns, and Philomena finds the strength to forgive them for that “awww” ending.  Not only was it simplistic, it really ended up being too sappy and trite.

As for the characters, Philomena was interesting at first but ended up being almost too perfect.  She’s the quintessential goody two-shoes who’s still funny and interesting: earnest, unfailingly polite, magnanimous, generous in spirit, open-minded (to the point of accepting of homosexuality despite her religious nature), outspoken, and devout – which got annoying when she bickered with Martin about religion.  She was constantly cast as a “gee whiz” type of person who walked around wide-eyed and innocently curious (rather like Jefferson Smith, and they could’ve called this movie “Ms. Lee Goes to Washington” – literally).  Ultimately, Philomena was cool, but I got a little bored of how, well, perfect she was.  The movie then makes Martin Sixsmith into an ass who seems to go out of his way to be an ass, if for no other reason than to cheaply set up a contrast with Philomena’s personality.

As for Judi Dench, I’m scratching my head as to why she was nominated for an Academy Award.  She was alright, but nothing special.  Her weak Irish accent lapsed in and out, and seemed to be only apparent when she was speaking longer lines, like during some dramatic speech.  In my opinion, her Oscar nomination, along with the nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, were wasted and should have gone to more deserving nominees.

 

The Wolf of Wall Street

2.5 stars

The Wolf of Wall Street was three hours long, but it kept my interest and attention for most of the movie, and thanks to its good pacing I didn’t start to get tired of it until near the end, after Jordan Belfort was sentenced.  The movie showed how money and excess change people, and illustrated the bitter irony that while the FBI Agent Denham was the “good guy”, Jordan was far richer and was able to get off relatively easily for his crimes, while the poor Denham rode the subway miserably to and from work.  This movie featured powerhouse performances by both Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill (who, yes, actually deserves his Academy Award nomination, unlike the one he got for sitting on his ass and looking serious in Moneyball).

That said, this movie’s downside is that, perhaps intentionally, it comes off as being thoroughly obnoxious and self-indulgent.  The charms of the nonstop carnival atmosphere are lost on me.  Jordan’s narration and breaking of the fourth wall felt kitschy; it was as if Ferris Bueller had gone on to become a Wall Street douche.

The ironic thing is that even with the narration, the movie’s plot felt rambling and suffered from a few plot holes.  I’ll point out two.  First, when Jordan and Company needed to get to Monaco and had to brave the stormy seas to get there, ultimately capsizing before arriving at their destination, couldn’t they simply have taken the attached helicopter?  What, was the helicopter’s range too short to reach Monaco?  If so, the screenwriter could’ve slipped in a quick line explaining that.  Second, Jordan gets busted when the warning card he shows to Donnie somehow ends up with Agent Denham.  Not surprisingly, the movie doesn’t explain how this happens, probably because the screenwriter couldn’t think of anything plausible.  Most people think that Donnie betrayed Jordan and gave the card to Denham, but that raises additional questions:

1. How did Donnie obtain the card and pass it on to the FBI?  Did Jordan just leave it on the table he was sitting at?  That seems weirdly careless.  Plus, Jordan presumably had to have the same conversations with others at the firm, so wouldn’t he need to take that card with him?  What, was he writing a new card for every person he sat down with?

2. Even when they’ve obtained the card, how could the FBI prove that it was Jordan who wrote it?  Did they do a handwriting analysis?  Look for Jordan’s fingerprints?

 

American Hustle

3 stars

This was a fairly fun movie with, as usual for David O. Russell movies, strong character development and really good acting by what’s essentially the main cast of The Fighter plus the main cast of Silver Linings Playbook plus Jeremy Renner. (But did they all need to get Oscar nominations? I really don’t understand how Bradley Cooper got nominated for Best Supporting Actor.) Jennifer Lawrence owned her role as Rosalyn Rosenfeld, but the character herself felt somewhat superfluous to the main plot; if anything she was mainly there for more character development.

With all the machinations and goofy dialog going on, the actual story was a little hard to follow after awhile, especially when it came to who was being bribed and with what.  The bribing of the seven members of Congress was clear enough, but the bribing of the outwardly upstanding Carmine Polito was not very clearly shown.  Then the mob gets involved… wha?

This movie did have very cool – or should I say, groovy – 1970s music.

 

Gravity

3.5 stars

This movie was emotionally stimulating and intense.  The story of Ryan Stone’s determination to survive against all odds is inspiring and unforgettable.  Needless to say, the movie has amazing visuals and effects.  I liked the attention to detail and basic scientific accuracy, like not having sound in space (though as Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out, the accuracy wasn’t 100 percent).  The acting (two performances, basically) was great, and the Ryan Stone character was very well-done in that she was intelligent and tough, but still vulnerable and thus relatable; we could easily imagine ourselves in her shoes, or astronaut boots I guess.

 

Her

3.5 stars

This movie started off really good, as a poignant capture of what love is like to gain and – in particular – lose.  The scenes depicting Theodore’s past relationship with Catherine and the remorseful melancholy with which he looks back on them are some of the most touching I’ve ever seen, probably in large part because I can personally relate to the way Theodore reminisces on a past love lost.  His budding romance with his operating system Samantha feels rich and organic, and it’s powerful in the way it shows that, aside from the physical differences, relationships with artificial intelligences can be every bit as natural and human as relationships with actual humans.

Midway through the film, the story starts to take a nosedive toward the absurd, starting when Samantha hires a surrogate to try to have sex with Theodore.  I got what Samantha was trying to do, but I failed to see how she could really benefit from it.  After that, we get some techno-gibberish about how Samantha was evolving so damn fast, culminating in her and other OSes evolving clear out of Theodore’s – and every other human being’s – life. (Wonder if the OS1’s designers ever thought of that happening?).  I really thought that the second half of the film significantly weakened the movie as a whole by stopping the first half’s buildup of sentiment and poignancy.

The second half’s weakness notwithstanding, this movie is a thoughtful exploration of the nature of interpersonal relationships.  It serves as a commentary on the importance of both forming attachments and, when necessary, letting them go and moving on, without bitterness or regret.

 

12 Years a Slave

4 stars

This movie was powerful and really captured the emotional depth of Solomon Northup’s story, thanks in large part to strong acting all around.  I also liked the way it was filmed; it had a very stark and vividly true-to-life look.

I did think the pacing slowed considerably in the middle chunk of the movie, from when Solomon was sold (given?) to Edwin Epps to when Patsey was whipped.

A lot of the dialog was stiffly formal (even among the slaves, most of whom you’d expect to not be educated enough to speak that well) and ham-handed; this was especially true for when Samuel “ooh look it’s Brad Pitt!” Bass showed up toward the end.

 

Captain Phillips

4 stars

This movie was very good and very intense.  It holds your attention and never lets go.  Director Paul Greengrass is great in the way he treated the story with a very straightforward, matter-of-fact approach (similar to how he did United 93) and with great attention to detail and technical accuracy.

The acting was great, aside from Tom Hanks’s weird accent at the beginning (that seems to go away by the middle of the movie).  I really liked Tom Hanks’s steady and clear-minded portrayal of Richard Phillips.  Phillips seemed to have a clear head, knew what he was doing, and was at least somewhat prepared for the threat.  I know a ton of accolades have been heaped on Barkhad Abdi’s role as pirate leader Abduwali Muse, but while Abdi did fine, I barely noticed his performance in the movie, and I don’t understand what all the hype is about.

I liked that the movie gave us a proper introduction to the pirates and the world they came from, almost making them sympathetic to a degree (though ultimately, I don’t care how bad it is where you’re from; there’s no excuse for piracy).

The climax was very intense, and the effect was enhanced by the way the music built up to a crescendo and then went quiet in the immediate aftermath of the killing of the pirates, leaving the lifeboat silent except for whatever noise the lone surviving occupant – Phillips – was making.

I know it’s been talked about to death already, but the ending scene where a shocked Phillips receives treatment from a Navy corpsman was really well-done.  It was unique in terms of how honest the portrayal of someone in shock was.  That said, there’s a lot more to the movie than this one scene and I get annoyed when it’s the only scene anyone will talk about.

I was pretty frustrated at how the crew of the ship didn’t have guns, or any other projectile weapons they could’ve used to defend themselves or stop the pirates from boarding in the first place.  Also, one question that I had was, can the USA actually arrest, try, and imprison a foreign national, especially for a crime committed in international waters?

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The Return of the Liberal Maverick

Hello all, and welcome to my new site!  This is the new blog for me, the blogger formerly known as liberalmaverick, who used to write on a Xanga blog called Left Turn.  How did I get here on WordPress?  As usual, it’s a bit of a story.

I joined Xanga over ten years ago, on February 5 2004.  I remember it like it was yesterday… actually, I barely remember it at all.  What I do remember was that this was the height of the blogging craze, when everyone had a blog – and if someone had a blog, it was on Xanga.  Everyone had a Xanga, though few really put it to good use.  Most people posted mundane, this-was-my-day updates like, “Went to school today.  Kimberly is such a bitch.  Had boba after class.  It was okay.  Feeling bored…”

It’s kinda ironic that I was among the last to jump on the Xanga bandwagon, and probably the last to jump off of it when it went south.  As I wrote on February 17 2004, when I first joined, it was mainly so I can comment on other people’s posts, and I originally did not plan to write and publish my entries.  But soon enough, I named the blog “Left Turn” after my short-lived column of the same name in Monta Vista High School’s El Estoque, and started using it to post the unabridged versions of those columns.  Then I started writing new posts about politics, and then other topics, and on and on from there.  What can I say, I love writing, even if no one else seems to love reading my writing.

My last entry on Left Turn was ”The Great Hair Experiment II”, on July 25 2013, about what was, ironically, a non-political subject.  By then, the once-mighty Xanga empire had long been suffering in its death throes, as most people realized there was no point in posting three-sentence anecdotes from their monotonous lives every five months.  People deserted Xanga in droves, first in favor of other blogging sites like Blogspot, and then for even more mindless and low-attention pursuits (Twitter comes to mind).  I defiantly hung on in the face of confused queries and taunts (“you still have a Xanga?”) since I wanted to keep writing and, well, I saw no point in switching blog sites and abandoning all my accumulated work.  Which is why I stuck with Xanga even though it was far from a perfect, or even easy-to-use, blogging platform.

It all came to a head in the summer of 2013, when Xanga was *rumored* to be headed for imminent shutdown.  In a sign of how far Xanga had fallen, it couldn’t even manage its own demise competently.  There was no official notice posted on the site or emailed to me about whether or not it would shut down, and for a long time everything was rumor and hearsay about if, when, and how Xanga would shut down.  Supposedly it was going to shut down on July 1 2013, but that date came and went with my blog surviving, allowing me to make that last July 25 post.  Honestly, I don’t remember what date Xanga shut down (Wikipedia implies sometime in either August or September 2013) since I never got an email notification about it.  All I know is one day after July, I went to my Xanga site to find a shutdown notice and an offer to retrieve my archived blog posts (at least Xanga had thought to do that much) and upgrade to Xanga 2.0, apparently their new-and-improved incarnation.

I shrugged and went back to surfing Facebook or whatever, not really wanting to take the time and effort to deal with Xanga at that point.  I finally came around to revisiting the issue in February 2014, when, for the first time, I watched all the Academy Award for Best Picture nominees prior to the (86th) Academy Awards ceremony, and wanted to write about it.  Well shit, I needed a working blog site, didn’t I?  So like, yesterday, I went back to Xanga expecting to retrieve my blog archives and reactivate my blog under the new Xanga 2.0.  Got the archives, but attempting to upgrade to Xanga 2.0 resulted in nothing more than a long period of waiting followed by “The connection has timed out”.  Clearly, Xanga still has lots of issues to work out.

To its credit, though, Xanga offered a way out: it provided instructions on how to import the blog archives to WordPress.  I dutifully went to WordPress and decided to set up a new home for my writing.

First I had to decide on a name, though, an agonizing mind-wrestling bout that pushed the creation of my new blog to the next morning.  “liberalmaverick” was available, but I wanted to shed the “liberal” part of the name – not because I was ashamed of the word, far from it.  But I wanted to define myself as more than just a political junkie.  As I had grown older, so too had my range of interests grown – in fact, it was a non-political subject that was drawing me back into blogging in the first place.  “maverick”, too, was taken (though there’s been no new post for over three years) and “themaverick” was taken as well (though really, what a waste).  I toyed with the idea of numbers, but I thought “maverick1987” was tacky and “maverick17” (to match my email address’s kjhuang17) was taken, so I decided to try to not use numbers.

After a long time of mental fidgeting, I finally decided to maybe tack something on at the end of “maverick” (tacking something on at the beginning felt tacky to me).  My initials came to mind, but “maverickkh” looked weird and “maverickkjh” even more so.  Finally, I arrived at a relatively satisfactory solution: combine the k in maverick with the k of my first initial to produce “maverickjh”.  It has a nice flow to it, right?  Well whatever, I already made the site.

The blog archives are all uploaded, and thankfully they’re organized by month/year on the side – something Xanga never figured out.  Unfortunately, all the links to the original Xanga entries are dead now, redirected to that annoying and hopeless “We’ve saved your blog archives for you!” page.  But yeah, I’m glad everything was ported over. (I have all the original Microsoft Word documents for every blog entry so I could’ve reposted everything, but that would have taken forever.)

I probably won’t have much time to write extensively, but I do hope to write and post entries on a wide range of subjects every now and then.  I’ll try to have the Academy Awards post up before the ceremony tomorrow.  In any case, look around, enjoy yourself, and happy reading!