Take 2: UMR’s Guide to 2014 Oscars

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The 2014 Academy Awards Show is this Sunday, March 2. In preparation for this year's Oscars, UMR Movie Reviewer Kenny Dickson offered his thoughts on this year's 2014 Best Picture Awards:

American Hustle

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Based loosely on ABSCAM, the late 1970’s- early ‘80’s FBI public corruption sting operation “American Hustle” follows director David O Russell’s penchant for gritty period piece “dramedies”(Silver Linings Playbook”, “The Fighter,” and “I Heart Huckabees.”)  As with Russell’s earlier films, “American Hustle” features a powerful ensemble cast fueled by dynamic characters, frenetic pacing, and strong dialogue.  Such gravitas directing, acting and writing is necessary as the film pulls back the curtain on what is presented as a foundational element of American public service, hustling. Specifically the film questions the efficacy of using hustlers to in turn hustle public officials who are, or might become, susceptible to corruption and bribery.  The means and motives of all parties involved, law breakers, law makers, and law enforcers, are found wanting and cut of the same stock.  Everyone seems to hustle and is involved in some sort of racket. Everyone it seems looks out for themselves, especially those in public service whose job is to look out for the well-being of others. Watching the film, one can hear Jesus’s admonishing his disciples that leaders are called to serve not be served.

“American Hustlers” has the rare opportunity to sweep the major awards, best picture, director, (David Russell) actor (Christian Bale), actress (Amy Adams), supporting actor (Bradley Cooper) and actress (Jennifer Lawrence).

Captain Phillips  

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In “Captain Phillips” Tom Hanks again takes on the challenge of playing a real person and in a real life drama.  While not as well-known as the Apollo 13 aborted lunar mission, the events surrounding the pirating of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship in 2009 are recent enough to be remembered by most of the viewers.  Maintaining suspense and viewer interest when the outcome of the story is known is a difficult challenge for any film-maker.  Director Paul Greengrass is not afraid of this challenge as he as directed two other films detailing famous or infamous historical events, “Bloody Sunday” about the 1972 shooting of Irish activists by British Soldiers, and “Flight 93” the detailed account the high jacking of United 93, as well as the other 3 hijacking’s  on 9/11.

As with “Bloody Sunday” and “Flight 93,” “Captain Phillips” quickly establishes and maintains the tension of the Maersk Alabama takeover and carries it through the cat and mouse games played between captor and captive, and eventually captor and captor, until the very dramatic resolution.  Maintaining such tension and bringing it to a peak at just the right moment is not the easiest film needle to thread and Greengrass is becoming a skilled tactician.   In his film debut Somalia native Barkhad Abdi receives a nomination for best supporting actor for his performance as Muse, the lead pirate who finds keeping control, of the ship and his crew, is much harder than taking control. Although questions were later raised regarding his actions leading up to and during the hijacking, Captain Smith is portrayed by Hanks as a captain who takes seriously the responsibility of his ship and the safety of his crew.  This includes his willingness to offer himself as a hostage so his crew can be released.

Her

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Set in 2025 “Her” is the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) as he is struggles to come to grips with an impending divorce from his wife and childhood sweetheart, Catherine (Rooney Mara). Theodore is unable to escape his grief because of his profession, a professional love letter writer who is hired by others who don’t have the time or desire to express their own feelings to their loved ones.  Where his clients have the relationship but not the desire or ability to express their feelings, Theodore has the feelings and abilities but not the relationship. Seeking a distraction from his growing despair, Theodore purchases a new artificial intelligence operating system that is programmed to learn and evolve.  Given a female identity by Theodore the OS chooses Samantha for her name. Voiced by Scarlett Johansen, Samantha and Theodore have chemistry together. After finding ways via a digital camera and other technology to share almost all of his life experiences with his operating system, including those outside the walls of his apartment, Theodore and Samantha quickly develop a relationship. For a while both Theodore and Samantha are able to give each other what the other needs. For Samantha, Theodore offers knowledge of, access to, and experience with human emotions. For Theodore, Samantha offers companionship and acceptance for who he is.  For a time all is well.

Initially, writer / director Spike Jonze offers an intriguing look into the nature of relationships, what traits are necessary to constitute a relationship, touch, location, or even biology? Also while the Operating Systems are described as having artificial intelligence, they also have what we might describe as “artificial emotions.”  This description is questionable as the humans are the ones who more often than not exhibit emotions that are artificial whereas the computers are more genuine in the emotions they display. Just as these questions are being played out, Jonze opens another door in the film’s plot which lets allows the focus and interest to dissipate resulting in a film that could have been more than it was.

Dallas Buyers Club

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“Dallas Buyers Club,” starring Matthew McConaughey, is a biopic film about Ron Woodroof, a Dallas electrician, part time rodeo cowboy, and fulltime homophobic who is diagnosed with AIDS in 1986 and given 30 days to live. After receiving this apparent life sentence, Ron takes his health care into his own hands to acquire AZT, then the only AIDS medication approved for human trials in the United States. Following a life threatening reaction to the toxic medication Ron seeks alternative treatments in Mexico, and, after responding to the unconventional medications, becomes a self-taught authority in international AIDS treatment options and an outgoing AIDS activist. The film effectively captures the stigma and discrimination that were the fear fueled, social side-effect of AIDS in the early 1980’s. Because so little was initially understood, and as it was seen by many as a “Gay Disease” and for some emblematic of God’s punitive judgment against homosexuals, patients in the early days of the epidemic faced discrimination in treatment options, as well as where they could live and work.

“Dallas Buyers Club” is about the power of purpose and transformation, and offers insight into living out Jesus’s “Sermon on the Mount.” Though Ron is not, nor ever becomes pure in heart, he does hunger and thirst for righteousness, and he is filled. Ron is salt who finds his taste in the service of others. He is a light that shines in advocating for those without a voice, and he refuses to hide even before judgmental friends. Ron discovers the fecklessness of storing earthly, physical treasures that can be stolen, or confiscated. In so letting go of the treasures of earth; wealth, envy, and hate, Ron Woodroof discovers the true treasure that is a healing heart.

Matthew McConaughey offers a powerful performance as the colorfully complex Ron Woodroof. Jared Leto supports the film in an equally powerful and performance as the Ron’s transgendered friend, coworker, and fellow aids patient Rayon.  Both actors are nominated for Oscars and are favored to win in their categories.

12 Years A Slave 

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“12 Years a Slave” is the rare film that transcends viewing and takes the audience to the experiential level. As with other transcending films, in telling the true story of Solomon Northrup, (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a free black American who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, “12 Years a Slave” penetrates the macro level of knowledge or believed understanding of the institution and takes the viewer to the micro level of experiencing life as a slave. As “Saving Private Ryan” offered viewers a minute sense of combat, and “Schindler’s List” fostered the slightest sense of the holocaust, “12 Years a Slave” exposes the viewer to the experience of being a slave and having absolutely no rights or control over their lives. This experiential element is accomplished in director Steve McQueen’s liberal use of extended close-ups. McQueen allows the camera to linger, often silently, on those offering and receiving the brutal treatment that was a cornerstone of slavery. This directorial decision not only gives voice to the hate of the abusers, and pain, fear, and hopelessness of those enslaved, but transfers these feelings to the viewer.

“12 Years a slave” also addresses the power of scripture and faith. As depicted in the film scripture can be used to establish faith that fosters hope even when all seems hopeless or it can be misused to justify hate, as well as terrorize and tyrannize victims into submission. One of the film’s more powerful moments is when the slaves of Edwin Epps sing over the grave of a fellow slave whose death was the direct result of abuse and neglect by Epps. That these persons can maintain and indeed proclaim their faith while living a hellacious life that, through proof texting by their vicious owner, they are told is ordained by God, is a living testimony to the power of faith and that the Light that is Christ truly shines through even the thickest darkness.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is nominated for best actor, Michael Fassbender is nominated for best supporting actor, Lupita Nyong’o is nominated for best supporting actress, and Steve McQueen is nominated for best director.

Nebraska

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Remaining in the genre (Road Film) that he is more than comfortable with and successful in, best director nominee Alexander Payne (“About Schmidt” “Sideways” “The Descendants”) directs another film that tells the story of personal and familial dysfunction overcome via a journey.  Nominated for best actor, Bruce Dern stars as Woody Grant, a retired mechanic who believes he has won one million Dollars after receiving a notice from a magazine sales company. Following repeated escapes and attempts to walk from Billings Montana to Lincoln Nebraska to collect his fortune Woody convinces his son (Will Forte) to drive him the 900 miles.  Along the way they decide to stop in his hometown of Hawthorne Nebraska where word gets out that he is a millionaire and he quickly finds out how many friends he has and how friendly his brother’s family suddenly can be. Woody’s other son and wife travel to Nebraska for an impromptu family reunion. As with most such cinematic family gatherings characters and viewers learn many personal and family secrets, many told by Woody’s colorfully unfiltered wife Kate (best supporting actress nominee June Squibb.)

Alexander Payne chose to shoot the film in black and white which is ironic as few things in family dynamics, complicated by cognitive impairment and decline are black and white. For viewers used to watching films in color, black in white can serve to focus ones attention and see the film’s setting, story, and characters in a different way.  The same thing can occur when strained relationships are confined together when travelling.  In “Nebraska,” family secrets are revealed while personalities and behaviors are better understood.  The Grant family also comes together to defend the honor and restore to a degree the reputation of Woody whom most of his hometown had misunderstood for over 60 years.

 Philomena

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“Philomena” is a film about love, loss, determination, courage, faith and forgiveness. Based on the 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixthsmith, “Philomena” tells the true story of Philomena Lee an Irish Catholic woman who in the 1950’s was forced to give up her son after he was born out of wedlock. The film is set in 2005 and through flashbacks tells the story of how Philomena and other unwed, teen mothers cast off from families because of their pregnancy found room and board for themselves and their children, but at a price. The mothers had to sign over all parental rights to the children and work, essentially, as indentured servants in the abbey while their “debt” was paid off. In return, their children were raised and schooled at the abbey by nuns, and put up for adoption to mostly American families. Judy Dench offers a masterfully nuanced performance of the seemingly silly, yet ultimately strong Philomena and is nominated for best actress.

Theologically the film demonstrates the power and difficulty of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not easy. Forgiveness is not logical. But, forgiveness allows life to grow and flourish even in the midst of, or after, great pain and sorrow. Forgiveness limits the damage done by tragedy of circumstance or cruelty of others by prohibiting the all-consuming nature anger can have on those wounded in or by life. Translated from Greek, philomena means friend or lover of strength. Philomena Lee, both the person and character, fully live up to this definition.

The Wolf of Wall Street

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Martin Scorsese is nominated for best director for his depiction of infamous Wall Street trader Jordan Belfort (Leo DeCaprio.) As in the Scorsese tradition, (“Good Fellows” “Casino”) “The Wolf of Wall Street” offers a view behind the curtain of an industry and its accompanying lifestyle. One word sums up that view, “excess.”  Following in the tradition of his earlier films “The Wolf” is narrated by the leading character. Additionally, everything in the film is loud, excessive, and a shock to the senses, including DeCaprio in his best actor nominated performance. Jonah Hill received a nomination for best supporting actor as Jordan Belfort’s younger partner / protégé Donnie Azoff.

As often is often the case with Wall Street bubbles, success, wealth, and power come quick and easy to Belfort.  Blessed with a quick mind and magnetic personality, one that magnetizes clients even over the phone, the Wolf makes a fortune in penny stocks and other shady dealings until he attracts the attention of the FBI and SEC.  Eventually, the walls of Wall Street collapse upon Belfort and he risks losing everything.

Jordan Belfort, as depicted in the film, did not intend to go to Wall Street to break the law and live an unimaginably lavish lifestyle.  But, when necessity dictated, he did what he had to do to survive and found he could actually thrive.  As such Belfort’s life arc follows many in that he began to believe his hype as well as his sense of entitlement and before he recognized it, he was in over his head.  Such is usually the case of sin.

The Wolf of Wall Street is more comedic than most of Scorsese’s films and is also significantly farther over the top in terms of language and sexuality.

Gravity   

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As with “12 Days a Slave,” “Gravity” is a much an experience as it is a film.  Using the latest technology and painstaking effort best director nominee and frontrunner Alfonso Cuarón takes the viewer into space.  In one of the better uses of 3D technology and sound effects the viewer feels they are at one time, freely floating in space during a spacewalk, and a short time later, locked in a life and death struggle as a debris field of destroyed satellites whizzes by destroying everything in its path.  Best actress nominee Sandra Bullock plays rookie astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone while George Clooney plays Matt Kowalski, commander of the Space Shuttle Explorer which is on a mission to repair the Hubble telescope.

The film quickly becomes a fight for survival after Dr. Ryan is left floating in space, her shuttle destroyed. It is hard to imagine anyone more isolated and lonely. In space there is no rescue, but fortunately, at least in Cuarón’s understanding of space, there may be lifeboats in the form of the International Space Station as well as a Chinese Station. Ryan’s struggle to survive in space and find her way back home mirrors her struggle to overcome a personal tragedy and find her way back to the home of some sense of normalcy, and back to feeling rather than numbness. At times in the film the odds of the former are greater than those of the latter. In the midst of her personal loss before her mission, Ryan was floating through the debris field that was her life in the void that is grief. Though she at times questions her desire to live, in the fight to stay alive she finds her strength and her desire to return to life as she knew it before her grief, a life grounded by purpose and feeling.

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Who gives a rip about the Oscars? Haven’t watched for years and did not watch this time. The best male actor and best supporting female actress, however, as I understand, left a sense of dignity with their responses………………… The country is way to occupied with holiywood–Father/Son/Holy Spirit weeps……………………………………………

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