LAST LOOKS, FINAL CHECKS: POTENTIAL OSCAR UPSETS

Well, tomorrow they’re not gonna matter more than a hill o’beans except to the winners, but it’s Oscar Day, so some final thoughts are due.

Every year, the punditry (of which I am part) gets noisier, more crowded, but also – I guess because of the first two – more accurate. The Oscars are losing their surprising quality. When I was a kid, I could cross my fingers ‘till they ached hoping that Raiders of the Lost Ark was going to win Best Picture; these days, by the time I’ve read the blogs, heard the radio spots, and checked the bookie’s odds, I know what is likely to pan out (and it wasn’t going to be Raiders). I have put my money where my mouth is before (by laying bets), and I’ve won. I decided to stop doing that because it took a little of the fun out of it for me.

But there are still, always, thankfully, some surprises. So here are a few concepts of what might happen. In other words, some possible upsets.

surprised-little-boy1GRAVITY WINS BEST PICTURE

The money’s all on 12 Years a Slave to take the Producer’s prize at the end of the night, and Alfonso Cuarón is as much of a lock as has ever been for Best Director. But everyone I speak to says something along the lines of, “Look, I loved 12 Years A Slave, but for me, the best picture of the year was Gravity.” Some of these people vote. A lot of the voters, I suspect, feel this way. All those sneaky votes for Gravity may just end up in… a win for Gravity.

LEONARDO DiCAPRIO WINS BEST ACTOR

All the money’s on Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club, he deserves it, he’s won all the others, and he’ll almost certainly win it. But DiCaprio has been campaigning like no-one has ever campaigned before, particularly “behind closed doors” – ie, through his Top of the World contacts and status in Hollywood. He wants this award more than anyone in this race wants an award. He bought the rights to Wolf of Wall Street, he went through all sorts of financing hell to get it made (over seven or so years) and it’s become an astronomical financial success and a huge favourite with audiences despite lacklustre reviews. Leo’s the Last Man Standing in Hollywood, the only performer left who can open a picture, guaranteed (Will Smith having fallen to the mat with After Earth, big time). If Leo has said to enough people, on closed lines and in private rooms, “vote for me this one time, and I owe you one”… then, in a huge upset, he may just, bizarrely, win an Oscar tonight.surprise

SANDRA BULLOCK WINS BEST ACTRESS

Even more unlikely, Bullock leapfrogs Amy Adams to then push Cate Blanchett off the podium to take home that weirdest of concepts: an acting gong for Gravity. She hasn’t won anything leading up to the Oscars and Blanchett has had her face stamped with “Oscar Winner” since Blue Jasmine hit the screens months ago. But Gravity only works if the (essentially only) character works, she owned it, and by now everyone knows what a new-fangled method of performance was involved to actually play the role, stitched up like a cyborg in all sorts of contraptions all day, being hurled around and imagining… everything. It’s old-school versus new school, Blanchett essentially giving a performance that smacks of theatre training. If Bullock hadn’t won for The Blind Side a couple years back, I’d consider her a lock. But she did, kind of unfortunately.

gabby-sidibe-laura-linney-big-c-surprise-04THE WIND RISES WINS BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Every bookie in the world would shoot themselves if this happened, as Frozen is already considered The Greatest Animated Film Ever, a true cultural phenomenon, the saviour of all the teenage (and younger) girls in the world; it’s already been green-lit as a Broadway musical, a “Sing-A-Long” version is already playing in theatres, and the DVD will probably outsell the light bulb. But Hayao Miyazaki has stated that The Wind Rises will be his last feature film, it’s made for adults, it quietly takes the concept of animated feature films into new areas, and Hayao Miyazaki has stated it’s his last film. If Picasso was offering his last painting against a still-productive Warhol’s Soup Cans, which would you vote for? It’s that kind of choice.GomerSurprise-271x322

20 FEET FROM STARDOM WINS BEST FEATURE DOCUMENTARY

If this slight, feel-good peek at what is undoubtedly a fun and deserving subject wins over the ground-breaking, bold, challenging and completely original brain-f**k The Act of Killing, it may come as no surprise to anyone who prefers slight, feel-good movies about celebrity to bold, challenging mind-f**ks about mass political slaughter.

HER WINS ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

There’s a lot of love for Spike Jonze’s Her, but not a lot of room to give it any awards. Here’s a spot; it would take a statue away from David O. Russell for American Hustle (isn’t that fun to say?) but in the last couple of weeks, not everyone is saying they liked that script nearly as much as the performances it inspired.

surprise-01ANYONE WINS BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

Dallas Buyers Club reportedly had a hair and makeup budget of $250, which was used to make sure that McConaughey and Jared Leto were always at the right stage of their HIV+ effects. This was really tricky, as the film had an independent film’s shooting schedule – that is, short and out of sequence. Although the actors lost weight, their characters still had to be leaner, and “sicker”, some days more than others. It’s really subtle work, the kind that doesn’t normally even get nominated here (see The Wolfman for the kind of film that wins the Oscar). Bad Grandpa’s makeup is astonishing, and really should win, as the whole film is predicated on that makeup being so good as to fool “civilians” (while they’re surreptitiously filmed) into believing Johnny Knoxville is 86. The thing going against it is that it’s a prank movie called Bad Grandpa. And The Lone Ranger just seems to be here as some sick joke. What’s missing is American Hustle, which used hair and makeup as an essential metaphor for its themes of artifice, illusion and trickery.

Nothing To Be Afraid Of

The Wolf of Wall Street ***1/2 (out of five)

454You get a lot of movie for your sixteen bucks with The Wolf of Wall Street. But you’d have a better time if you got less movie. It’s two hours and fifty-nine minutes, which sounds like director Martin Scorcese said to Paramount, “You don’t want a three hour movie? I haven’t given you a three hour movie!”

Actually, he probably would have said it a lot more colorfully. Wolf drops the F-bomb 506 times, making it the most fucked fictional feature film in history (the documentary Fuck uses it 857 times). There are some scenes where the use of the word almost seems banal, as though the writer (Terence Winter) was being lazy, but, in truth, this is a movie about banal people.

The worst is the main one, based-on-real-life Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), and this is the movie’s burden: for three hours (“Two hours and fifty-nine fucking minutes!”) we have to watch a movie about a royal prick. Greedy, self-obsessed, nihilistic asshole Belfort has almost no redeeming features, and, as played well by DiCaprio, that’s a bitter pill to have to suck on for such a long time.

wolf-of-wall-street-poster-poster-2033087940The movie is so similar in structure and style to GoodFellas that it’s fair to wonder if Winter stuck the script of that movie into Final Draft and then changed the words. A young ambitious man of limited means finds his niche, rises to dizzying heights while breaking the law, has his downfall… and squeals like a fuckin’ pig. Scorcese has themes, tropes, tricks, milieus and every other fancy type of cinematic self-referential tic, but he’s never so blatantly repeated himself as he does here – and unfortunately he does it with far less precision than with GoodFellas. Stylistic elements are haphazardly placed. Like GoodFellas, there is lots of voiced narration, but unlike in GoodFellas, it’s not funny, ironic or clever. Halfway through, Belfort turns and speaks directly to camera, but that’s an hour and a fuckin’ half through the movie, which is a weird time to introduce such a conceit. Some of the scenes seem deliberately improvised and are cut with the haphazard style of The League and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where the dialogue suddenly lurches to a new topic as though to skip over a dead patch of improv. And many of the scenes of debauched excess – such as a flight with hookers and drugs – are ludicrously (and unrealistically) over the top.

Robbie: The Next Huge Thing
Robbie: The Next Huge Thing

All this makes thematic sense – the film is about excess – but it’s too much. In particular, Scorcese gives DiCaprio too much, as though (and this could actually be the truth) he said to him, “Leo, I’m 71, you’ve done five films for me, I’m gonna get you that fuckin’ Oscar.” There are three Leo-centric scenes – two speeches and one silent piece of physical comedy – that go on soooooo long, so ludicrously, painfully, obviously too-long long, that you can feel the whole audience being aware of it: “Isn’t this scene bonkers fucking long?”

The staggering bloat aside, there are some hysterically funny scenes, some absolutely killer dialogue, endless great performances (starting with Jonah Hill, cruising through instant star Margot Robbie, and climaxing with Matthew McConaughey, who opens the movie with what is essentially a comic monologue that is, in retrospect, the best part of the whole film) and, of course, Scorcese-level craftsmanship throughout. It’s a very hard movie to love, but it’s an easy enough movie to enjoy, especially knowing that, at any time, you can go for a piss and not miss anything important… there will be plenty more movie for you when you get back.

What Would Oliver Stone Have Done?

J. EDGAR *** (out of five)

Clint Eastwood’s new film J. Edgar is another in a long line of attempts to capture some of the insanity that was J. Edgar Hoover. The best before this one was The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, from 1977, directed by the irascible Larry Cohen and starring Broderick Crawford as Hoover. What made that film so fun was its salaciousness: claiming to be based on the secret files of J. Edgar Hoover that “escaped the shredder” upon his death, the film implicates Hoover in the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, amongst a cavalcade of other misuses of his long-held office. J. Edgar Hoover was not a pretty man, and that film did not paint a pretty picture of him.

The new film, surprisingly, goes in a different direction, and I guess it’s a direction that I wasn’t so fond of traveling. It feels like, along the way of researching Hoover and trying to figure out what made him tick, Eastwood and his titular star Leonardo DiCaprio decided that the man had a soul. Like Oliver Stone’s weirdly polite W, J. Edgar seems to bend over backwards to find nice things to say about someone whom the world has generally agreed was a despicable person.

Like all of Eastwood’s period pictures, it’s extremely handsome in its production design, proceeds at a stately pace, and features an unbelievably authentic-feeling supporting cast: wherever Eastwood finds his “unknowns”, they always seem to have absolutely stepped out of the era in which his movies are set. The age makeup is fantastic on DiCaprio. But on Naomi Watts, as his career secretary Helen, and Armie Hammer, as his career right-hand man and lover… well, that’s a different story. Watts’ makeup, when she’s meant to be her oldest, simply doesn’t look real. Hammer’s is a step up from that. The first time we see his character Clyde Tolson at his eldest is a shock: his age makeup is so extreme that it’s a little laughable. Clyde has had a stroke, and I guess, historically, he aged a lot more – and a lot worse – than Hoover. Even if Hammer’s makeup is slavishly true to this, it doesn’t help the movie: every time he’s onscreen as his eldest self, he looks silly.

 

 

 

 

 

This is a shame because Hammer, and Clyde, are the most interesting thing about the movie. Why anyone could be in love with Hoover is anyone’s guess, and the movie disappointingly doesn’t attempt to examine that question in the slightest, but at least it recognizes Clyde Tolson’s existence, and his place in Hoover’s life. Indeed, unlike the 1977 film, which was an Oliver Stoneish exposé of political office, J. Edgar is a love story. The fact that one of the lovers is someone you wouldn’t want at your dinner table means that the film is handsome, well crafted, well acted, but, ultimately, not nearly as involving as it might have been. Frankly, I really wish Eastwood had put the boot in – but I guess that’s just not his style.