Looking Back at Oscar, #86

As I complete each year in review, I want to write something a little longer for the films that are up for the big five (Picture + acting) at each Oscar ceremony. It’s also an excuse to write some negative criticism. So without further ado, let’s take a look back at the 2013 Academy Awards, where the following films made appearances in those categories:

12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
August: Osage County
Blue Jasmine
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
Wolf of Wall Street

For my full length reviews of the following films, click here to see my Top 20 of the year post:
12 Years a Slave
Blue Jasmine
Gravity
Nebraska
Wolf of Wall Street

Now for the rest!

American Hustle
138 minutes of the most unpleasant kind of mugging, American Hustle is a movie filled with David O. Russell, that most overrated of directors, trying to write the sort of movie that will be quoted and referenced endlessly a la Goodfellas and (hopefully) failing. Everything feels like The Scene! You probably know what I mean, but if you don’t, let’s use The Godfather as an example because it’s going for the type of audience who quotes both the actual masterworks of or anything that came out recently from Scorsese or Tarantino like the gospel: the horse head scene! The wedding scene! The “Luca sleeps with the fishes” scene! Except Russell’s attempts at humor mine the well of other films so frequently that it all starts to feel like an inferior Best Movies Ever clip show reel that unironically worships Saturday Night Fever as a masterwork, with Christian Bale and an especially awful Bradley Cooper playing the exact kind of loud talking street smart funny gangster hustler crook you’ve seen in so many other 1970s pictures with better hair and makeup. Amy Adams gives the closest thing to a good performance in the film, as it occasionally feels like a loving homage on her end to the marginalized loud-talking women of gangster films, but her role is ultimately a damp squib, sidelined by the boys club giving preachy Epic Speeches for two goddamn hours while the women get the same roles that Russell has written for every woman since his last great film in I Heart Huckabees, back when he wasn’t trying to capture Scorsese’s soul in a bottle. As for Jennifer Lawrence, if you thought she over-acted in the endgame of Silver Linings Playbook, it’s nothing compared to this. Her Rosalyn would probably be one of the best things about the film if she hadn’t been nominated for the Oscar and I could appreciate it for what a mess it is (let’s talk about how this movie is a permanent stain on some of the actual masterpieces that showed up in all four acting categories at the Oscars), for she cracks upon the scenery and devours it whole, like an oyster, complete with all the REPRESSED HORNINESS of a REPRESSED HOUSEWIFE who has just taken an aphrodisiac. And the music! Has there ever been a more generically pleasant soundtrack? ‘Generically pleasant” is high praise for any aspect of American Hustle indeed.

August: Osage County
A curious piece of Oscarbait, particularly since it feels so calibrated towards the awards themselves rather than for the joy of adapting the play for the sake of it. Since the movie wanted to be Oscar fodder and received the bland haul of two nominations, well, let’s deconstruct just that (skipping some categories for obvious reasons):

Best Picture/Director/Adapted Screenplay: No, absolutely not in all three categories. John Wells’ direction is just awful, with scenes like Meryl Streep having a breakdown edited so that music is playing and you can barely hear her. I suppose he deserves props for doing a good job with some of the cast, but certainly nowhere near the massive trophy haul that the hilarious FYC campaigns demanded. The screenplay actually does work well on the whole, with most of Letts’ casually cutting dialogue left alone, but in the context of the direction it comes across as fairly flat, even though there’s no denying the actors do try, universally, some more successfully than others.

Any tech nominations: nope. The cinematography is bland and makes everything look like the sort of yellow that appears in movies with the orange/teal color correction, the editing is a cross cutting mess in the indoor scenes with multiple parties, the production design is unremarkable. I actually liked the makeup but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.

And finally the acting. No one really does badly except Juliette Lewis and her bizarrely keening voice, but so many of these performances are absolute nothings. Julia Roberts is actually one of the weakest as far as those who get decent parts to play, perpetually showing self-awareness that her character is an awful person and unfortunately getting saddled with the most irredeemable lines, like “YOU DON’T WANT TO BREAK SHIT WITH ME, MOTHERFUCKER!” Meryl, on the other hand, gives a performance that I’d probably rank fairly reasonably well among her Oscar-nominated work. It’s only on my longlist for the year’s best and would never come close to my Top 5, but her gleeful smirk as she tosses her fish and her casual radiation of hatred for everyone in the vicinity is some good stuff. Props for throwing her whole body into it when she wears those sunglasses half the time. Shame no one else involved in the making of August: Osage County (except Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale) was capable of doing that.

Captain Phillips
A Hijacking, which tackled the same subject matter, was focused on what we normally don’t see in the movie adaptation in a scenario like this. Captain Phillips is more interested in what we do see, and often. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does put some extra pressure on the film to feel special. Needless to say, I don’t think it was. I am happy that Paul Greengrass got some mainstream attention as a name after so much great work, even if he couldn’t pull out Director (the film got nominated in all the wrong places if it had to be an Oscar nominee at all, so thankfully it went home empty handed). But this only continues the downward streak he supposedly got into with Green Zone (didn’t see it)-actually, that is harsher than it sounds, for this isn’t all that bad, merely lacking in a certain bite. Having said that, Tom Hanks gives a very strong performance here in the best performance Greengrass has ever directed (unless you count United 93, which I don’t think I could simply because of the nature of it all), with his final scenes landing hard-it’s a realistic crumpling of a man who has resisted it for far too long, and all the “blank male protagonist” work he did in the first few acts comes to an ending. While the universal acclaim for Barkhad Abdi befuddles me a bit, he’s credible enough as both a human being and a threat. Certain parts of Captain Phillips really are that good, with the opening hijack being a perfectly calibrated thrill ride and the aforementioned ending being a successful way of allowing the more invested members of the audience to finally breathe. I’d say that’s a sign of the movie being fairly effective in the earlier stages-and it is! It is fairly easy to empathize with both the terrorists who have few options and the victims of their piracy, but ultimately all Captain Phillips is to me is a fairly pleasant amusement park ride, one which has momentum issues and is not interesting enough in how it looks at the politics of the situation to overcome the fact that the very story itself is inherently unsuited to an action thriller when the outcome is known. It’s all very cursory, very middlebrow in its aims. Perhaps when I am in the mood for something that goes down easily I shall revisit this one, but for now, it’s an easy swallow.

Dallas Buyers Club
You get one of these every year. Yes, Dallas Buyers Club is your token Oscarbait movie that nobody likes but is relying on good acting! There’s always one per season. “Filled with tepid uninspired direction and a weak script, but the performances are great! Give this actor the Oscar in the appropriate category and nothing else!” Sadly, the Academy gave this movie more than that, which is harsher than it sounds as I actually do think certain aspects of Dallas Buyers Club beyond the performances are well done enough. Jean-Marc Vallee goes back and forth in his direction of anything other than actors, and in this case it’s firmly in the middling category. The lack of artificial lighting works, with all the scenes feeling like they’re lit differently. The script, which has an extremely inconsistent portrayal of the drug AZT, is not, with everyone except maybe Jared Leto’s transwoman Rayon being a caricature. Leto is the film’s savior at more points than is healthy, with Rayon’s drawling of “lone star” and sweet sugar covering up a depressed core resulting in a performance that won the Oscar in a fairly satisfying result (weak year for the category). While I’m willing to believe Leto could’ve turned in a performance like this on his own merits, I do think Vallee is the main reason why Matthew McConaughey won an Oscar that would be more deserved in a weaker lineup. He’s still excellent, taking a role that occasionally gets into screeching homophobe territory and giving him layers of humanity and internal conflict, with the struggle of trying to be a decent person present even before his AIDS diagnosis. Only Jennifer Garner is present enough to have an opinion on her performance of the remaining actors, and she’s uninspiring as she has been in every film she’s ever done save Juno. I also have mixed feelings towards the film’s soundtrack, which is fairly rote stuff, but I do think this is the sort of movie that benefits from a safe selection of music choices, for no one in this movie is hip and that is a mood conveyed a little too well. While Dallas Buyers Club is ultimately a film with too much Texas sleaze and not enough Southern hooker’s heart of gold, the seeds of competency are scattered throughout. although it would take another feature watered by Reese Witherspoon and Cheryl Strayed for them to bloom.

Her
I realize that saying this among certain people is tantamount to spitting on a corpse, but I don’t care. I dislike Her! Not red hatred, not yellow indifference-an orange irritation. It is a mediocrity! Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system and incurred the wrath of many, it’s time to explain it. Firstly, I am tolerant of all kinds of mood, but Her’s twee sensibilities are like a whinnying, out of control pack of polka dotted unicorns. I actually do admire the film’s world building to an extent, but when you insist on shooting it as a utopia where the closest thing to an evil is a woman who wants to be choked with a dead cat in a truly inspired piece of fetish play, my hackles will go up eventually. I also really do not like how the film cuts to black with Arcade Fire playing…more than once, or the fact that the whole Theodore/Samantha relationship is very explicitly stated over and over again to be a metaphor for the nature of online relationships as a whole. However, these are all mostly a symptom of my far bigger problem with the film, in that it’s injected with a view of women that I do not like. I’m willing to pardon some of these as being part of Theodore’s mindset, for he is very clearly not a saint, and props to Spike Jonze for that. But I can only go so far when the movie does not hold Theodore’s feet to the fire at all, and some of the casual Nice Guy misogyny in Her is very real. I’d be much more willing to forgive this if it got the same treatment as certain dumb action movies where no one takes them seriously, but this movie has been praised as deeply romantic. Samantha is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and that is okay up to a point, for it definitely fits into the film’s themes, although her saying “I want you inside me” is more than a little bit revolting. More exhausting is Theodore’s relationships with actual women, a collection of stock archetypes (we never learn the blind date’s name and of course she’s a bitch) who are used as an excuse for Joaquin Phoenix to talk about his feelings. Why is a movie that describes a sensitive male character as “part man and part woman” deemed so romantic? Despite all this, I don’t even think Her is the second worst BP nominee of this year. Depressing.

Philomena
Philomena continues a long, embarrassing trend within the Academy: that of acknowledging Judi Dench’s least interesting performances. It’s far more egregious here because of the movie landing a Best Picture nomination off the back of her Best Actress buzz and the expanded lineup. She’s capable of greatness, no doubt (Notes on a Scandal!), but this is the sort of movie that requires nothing more of Dench than to play a very, VERY wide range of roles. This is because the character of Ms. Lee feels like every old lady you’ve ever seen on film in a crowd pleaser stuffed into one. She goes from sassy old broad, to depressed, to senile. I can’t say Dench is particularly impressive at all of them, either, for the simple reason that she strikes me as a naturally sharp woman who isn’t well-suited for playing the type of comic relief who gives endorsements for the plots of Tyler Perry movies. It’s all too cutesy for her, or for anyone really. She’s surrounded by a bunch of performers who are weirdly hammy in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on, with Steve Coogan standing out as the most offensive simply because of his screentime rather than anything exceptionally awful (he comes across as knowing that he’s going to like Philomena eventually though), but the people who play the Catholic Church workers clearly aren’t too fond of actual nuns. I did like Michelle Fairley as Mr. Sixsmith’s boss, however. All of this is focused on the acting within Philomena without talking about the film itself, and the movie’s message is simple: “weren’t the Magdalene laundries awful?” And yes, they were terrible and they continue a long history of the Catholic Church performing institutionalized violence and getting away with it, but there is no depth to these explorations. Far better films, such as The Magdalene Sisters, have been made on this exact same topic. The direction matches the writing in how standard it all is, with flashbacks that don’t fit with the rest of the story at all in how bleak they are. Philomena is a censoring of sorts, with nothing to say about things like institutional cruelty or hell, even about the reveals that Ms. Lee’s son was a gay Republican during the Reagan days. It’s simply a pleasant enough piece of blandness for some people (assuming the humor works for you, and it didn’t for me) with no wit or consistent characterization.

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