Pre-Oscars 2014

As I’ve done for the past three years, I’m getting self-important (just like the Academy!) and posting an overlong list of my thoughts on the Oscars! This is coming in just under the wire, so I’m not going to waste much time on a preamble. While I did manage to see all of the Best Picture nominees, I missed out on more of the acting awards than I would have liked. Also, apologies for how terribly unpolished this is, I might go back to clean it up later.

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Growing Up Pan and Scan


[NOTE: certain term pairs, like “format” and “aspect ratio” or “pan and scan” and “full screen” may be used interchangeably below. I know there are technical differences between the terms, but I think my meaning is clear.]

Recently, I’ve been doing some research into the history of film formats. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around what formats appeared at what times, what aspect ratios result from what formats, when the term “anamorphic” applies, and exactly what the physical film might look like for some of these formats. There’s an easy to understand (but jam-packed) video about some of this (well, mostly aspect ratio) that I highly recommend.

This research led me to the realization that, as someone born in the mid-80s, I was raised on pan and scan movies. This shouldn’t have come as a shock, but it got me thinking: if most of my original exposure to movies, during my formative years, was on television in a pan and scan or cropped presentation, what effect has that had on my ability to understand film form? Am I irreparably damaged by my inferior native visual language? Am I doomed to be the Salieri who’s passion for the art of film can never equal that of those lucky Mozarts who were “born” into film appreciation through countless hours in actual movie theaters? Or, horror of horrors, is some teenaged movie geek who has never lived without a 16:9 widescreen TV, who has never handled a clunky VHS tape, who has never had to beware of accidentally purchasing the inexplicable “Full Screen Edition” of a DVD, going to be more qualified than I am to understand film simply because of when he or she was born? And the most terrifying implication of all: Is an entire generation unable to truly appreciate film on the proper level due to growing up under the malicious tyranny of pan and scan?!

I don’t suppose it’s as dire as all of that, but it’s worth examining. Continue reading

Pre-Oscars: 2013

Late as usual, everyone, but still in time for the awards.

Last year I had seen a personal record number of nominees prior to the actual award ceremony. This year I didn’t do nearly as well. Unfortunately, because I’ve seen so few nominees, and because of the time crunch, I won’t be able to go nearly as deep with my picks and analysis. Of course, now that I’ve said that, I’ll probably wind up writing another 4000 words.

[Please note that this was written up in about 60 minutes and not edited very well at all. I just wanted to get it out there and then I may try to clean it up a bit when I have the time.]

Odds and Ends

(these are categories where I haven’t seen most of the nominees, or just don’t know how to pick)

  • The sound categories: strangely, I’ve missed 3 of the 6 nominees that show up in these categories (All is Lost, Lone Survivor and Inside Llewyn Davis). I usually wind up seeing all of them even before Oscar season. It’s going to be hard for me to argue against Gravity in the technical categories this year. Showing my ignorance of the categories, I’ll pick Gravity to sweep based solely on that movie knocking me on my ass in 3D IMAX.
  • Original Score: I think I’ll just copy my disclaimer from last year’s piece with a slight numerical modification. Again, I may just be a poor film listener, but I don’t often leave the theater raving about a score. I remember watching this episode of Columbo with my mother when it first aired and I distinctly recall Billy Connolly’s murderous composer saying something along the lines of “audiences only notice a film’s score when it is bad.” While I hesitate to take Columbo as gospel, I think maybe there’s something to that. Also, I’ve only seen 2 nominees, so I’m not going to pick anyone.
  • Original Song: I’ve only heard one and haven’t even listened to the others on their own. I hear this Frozen song is pretty good though.
  • Makeup and Hairstyling: You know what? I haven’t seen Bad Grandpa, but I’m going to throw my hat in the ring for The Lone Ranger. Say what you will, I think there’s a Little Big Man-level good movie somewhere in that 150-minute mess. I don’t know if something was lost or compromised by the overlords at Disney, or what, but there are some genuinely fun moments and some more somber ones as well that the movie can’t quite nail. The tonal incongruity throughout is what kills the film, but if it isn’t undeserving of a nomination, why not consider giving it the award? Dallas Buyers Club will probably win though.
  • Costumes: I genuinely enjoyed the typical Luhrmann flash in The Great Gatsby. That would be my pick out of the three I’ve seen.
  • Docs, Shorts, Foreign Films and Animated Features: In all of these categories, I’ve only seen The Croods. It was actually WAY better than the marketing for the film made me expect. That’s all I can really say.

Best Production Design
Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
Should Win: The Great Gatsby
Why: 12 Years because I think it’s the frontrunner for a lot of awards. Gatsby because, just like costumes, I was entranced by the world the film created. The movie itself isn’t really great, but it pops. Honestly, I think Gatsby is probably last on the list for the Academy.

Best Visual Effects
Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Gravity
Why: Nothing compares, in my mind. If you don’t agree, you probably haven’t seen the film.

Best Film Editing
Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
Should Win: Gravity
Why: This is a really tough one, mostly because this category is so closely tied to whatever film usually wins Best Picture. It’s also tough because I think the best thing about Captain Phillips is the editing, though I also think it drags in the second half. I’ll go with Gravity just because I’m on the bandwagon for that film, but I expect 12 Years might run off with it.

Best Cinematography
Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Gravity
Why: This is my favorite category every year, and it’s often one that’s announced early in the night. I’ve been pushing Lubezki for the last two years and I think it’s finally his time (again, however, he should’ve won for Children of Men, Tree of Life and perhaps The New World). Perennial bridesmaid Roger Deakins is here too, and deservedly so as his work was the best part about Prisoners. Full disclosure, the only other nominee I’ve actually seen is Nebraska, which I also love. I just can’t see anyone toppling Lubezki, who’s work will finally get recognized because the movie was actually popular.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
Should Win: 12 Years a Slave
Why: Unfortunately, I’ve only seen 3 nominees, 12 Years, Captain Phillips and The Wolf of Wall Street. I’m a big Terence Winter fan for what he’s done on The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, but I’m not sure that Wolf is as nuanced as even those TV projects. Does that mean 12 Years is better? I don’t know, but I’ll pick it.

Best Original Screenplay
Will Win: American Hustle
Should Win: Nebraska
Why: The only nominee I haven’t seen is Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, which could well take it because, well, Woody Allen. I’ve chosen American Hustle as a “Will Win” because it’s a screenplay that resulted (indirectly, to be sure) in 4 acting nominations. Of course, that’s a shaky foundation on which to base a prediction, but like I said, I’m doing this quick and dirty. That said, Nebraska really resonated with me (probably as a Midwesterner). I also really liked Her for it’s vision of a not-too-distant, possibly-parallel future. It also raises a lot of interesting and sometimes troubling questions.

Best Supporting Actor
Will Win: Jared Leto
Should Win: Michael Fassbender
Why: Both roles have an “Oscar Bait” feel to them, to varying degrees. I don’t really like the term “Oscar Bait,” as a lot of films are made in hopes of winning attention, recognition and awards, but I like every stereotype, there’s some kernel of truth behind it. I personally like Fassbender better as an actor than Leto, but both men own their roles. I hesitate to say the race is between these two, because I think Leto is the clear frontrunner and I don’t think Fassbender is really that far removed from the rest of the pack, buzz-wise.

Best Supporting Actress
Will Win: Jennifer Lawrence
Should Win: Lupita Nyong’o
Why: Again, I come up short, as the only other nominee I’ve seen is June Squibb, whom I really wasn’t overly impressed by. Lawrence is a golden girl and everyone’s best friend after last year’s win. Not that she isn’t deserving, but I think Nyong’o should get it for a less flashy, more understated performance

Best Actor
Will Win: Matthew McConaughey
Should Win: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Why: I’ve actually seen all of the nominees in this category, which might be the toughest this year. I think McConaughey might be unstoppable at this point, but if anyone could catch him, it’s Ejiofor. I really liked both performances, and it’s hard to decide if one seems more flashy than the other. Just like Best Supporting Actor, I’ll go with Ejiofor’s more subdued work in 12 Years. That said, I’d slap Bruce Dern up there too. I think DiCaprio gave one of his best performances in a role that seemed a stretch for him (in a film I wasn’t crazy about). And Bale? This is the most human and sympathetic I’ve seen him in some time. I bought him almost the whole way through American Hustle.

Best Actress
Will Win: Amy Adams
Should Win: Amy Adams
Why: I really liked Amy Adams, but I can’t really offer any more evidence or comparison as Bullock is the only other nominee I’ve seen. Worth thinking about: I wonder how many female acting nominees, compared to male nominees, come from films that are not in the Best Picture race.

[Post-Oscars Note: When writing this post initially, I accidentally skipped over the category of Best Actress. In my haste to add it in, and and to finish this entire post, I completely forgot that Cate Blanchett was all but a lock for this category. Was I doing this over again, Blanchett would be my “Will Win.” Excuses, excuses, I know.]

Best Director
Will Win: Steve McQueen
Should Win: Alexander Payne
Why: As much as I love Cuaron and Gravity, I don’t think the “rest” of the movie holds up to the technical brilliance (which is a tall order to be sure). I feel like 12 Years is in for a lot of top awards, and I feel that McQueen will win Best Director to go along with a Best Picture award. Not having revisited his work in a while, I’m going to say that Nebraska is my favorite Alexander Payne film since Election. He gets real feeling out of his characters, whether trained actors or people off the street…er, farm.

Best Picture
Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
Should Win: Nebraska
Why: 12 Years ticks off some boxes without feeling like it’s trying too hard. McQueen brings an artist’s sensibility to the film, which sets it apart from a run-of-the-mill prestige film. I’d enjoy seeing Gravity pick this one up too, just because it is sheer escapist spectacle. Again “the rest” is going to drag Gravity down (no pun intended), but when the film is such a marvel, I kind of want to root for it. Still, it’s Nebraska that probably affected me the most out of all the nominees (except Philomena, which I didn’t have time to see). Having grown up in the Midwest, I was seeing the places and people I knew on screen. I wasn’t a small town or farm kid, but I traveled enough and met enough people that I feel like I’ve seen most of these characters at one point or another. The film is gorgeous in black and white (thank goodness Payne got permission for that, though it was shot in color). Also, the film carefully and beautifully hits the perfect pitch when dealing with the way it treats it’s main character. A decline into dementia could’ve been at the forefront of other awards-hungry picture, but that would ring so false here. I don’t have time or space to say much more, but having seen 8 of 9 nominees, Nebraska is my personal pick.

Leaving Philomena off the list for now, here is my ranking of the Best Picture nominees (with the bare minimum of commentary):

8. The Wolf of Wall Street – I need time to process this one. There were certain moments or scenes that soared, but it’s also a very troubling film overall. I’m far from a prude, but I’m kind of mixed on this one.

7. Captain Phillips – I described this one to a friend as “Greengrass does it again.”

6. American Hustle – It didn’t live up the craziness I saw in the trailer, and seemed kind of unfocused, but the performances were mostly great and the period setting was a lot of fun.

5. Dallas Buyers Club – Great performance and in interesting story. I think it might make a decent companion piece to last year’s Documentary nominee How to Survive a Plague.

4. 12 Years a Slave – the cast is superb (Paul Dano excepted, perhaps) and I think it avoids a lot of the prestige trappings that it might have had if someone like Spielberg directed it.

3. Gravity – an amazing leap forward in what a film can do visually. It’s a marvel. I just hate that I can’t always watch it on an IMAX screen.

2. Her – there’s more I should say about this (like where is Phoenix’s nomination?), but, as troubling as some of its implications are, I think it’s the most discussion-worthy film in the bunch.

1. Nebraska – because I loved most of it and my Midwestern roots allow me to forgive a lot of what might not work on the big screen.


No major spoilers here

Having nothing better to do with Beth out of town, I decided to check out Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to his 2010 Best Foreign Language Film-nominated Incendies (which I have not seen). Coincidentally, Prisoners opens on Thanksgiving Day with the families of Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terence Howard and Viloa Davis) celebrating together. The young daughters from each family, Joy and Anna go missing while walking back to the Dover home.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) heads up the investigation. He brings in Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a simple minded guy who lives with his Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo) and drives around in a creepy RV. Because Alex has “the mind of ten-year-old” Loki can’t get anything out of him and suspects that he wouldn’t have had the mental capacity to plan and carry out a kidnapping. Against Keller’s arguments, Loki is forced to release Alex. Keller, even more suspicious of Alex, contemplates doing some interrogating of his own…

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Let me begin by saying, if you haven’t seen Gravity, you should just go out and see it. If you have the opportunity to see it in IMAX 3-D, take it. If not, see it on the biggest screen you can. THEN come back and read this.


I thought about subtitling this post “Murphy’s Law in Space.” That’s really kind of what this movie is. Continue reading

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

golden arm

I caught Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm recently on Turner Classic Movies. It is a film I had often heard about but never took the chance to see. I’m glad I finally did.

SPOILERS ABOUND! (for a 58-year-old film)

After the titles by the always-wonderful Saul Bass (with Oscar-nominated music by Elmer Bernstein), the film opens with Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) being released from prison. A former heroin addict and dealer in illegal card games, Frankie has kicked the habit in prison and has learned to play the drums, a skill he hopes to transform into a career. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get much support from his wife, Zosh (Eleanor Parker) who clings to him desperately. Continue reading

Star Trek Into Darkness

I’ve been looking forward to seeing Star Trek Into Darkness for a while now. Not because I loved the first of JJ Abrams’ Trek movies, not because I’m a big Trek geek (I’m only kind of one), but because it was going to be an IMAX 3-D spectacular that was actually shot with IMAX cameras (for at least 30 minutes anyway, claims wikipedia). Unfortunately, life circumstances required me to wait over a month to see it and a stupid cancellation of the final IMAX 3-D screening near me (to show a sneak preview of White House Down of all things) required me to see it in non-IMAX 2-D. Oh well. It was still pretty good, and thankfully I saw the “first 9 minutes” in actual IMAX 3-D before The Hobbit, so I guess I only missed out on 21 additional minutes.


As the movie opened, I was pleasantly surprised Continue reading

Now You See Me

Beth and I decided to check out a pre-premiere, Thursday night showing of Louis Leterrier’s Now You See Me. It’s the story of four magicians-turned-thieves, called “The Four Horsemen”  (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco) and the FBI agent who is chasing them down (Mark Ruffalo). I think it’s an interesting idea, and I thought the movie looked like it could be fun. Unfortunately, no amount of hocus-pocus could turn this into a good film. Continue reading

Post-Oscars: 2012


Before looking back on last night’s Academy Awards telecast, a few notes:

1. I don’t know about you, but I tend to forget a lot about the substance of most awards shows about a week after I read the last article or hear the last podcast discussing them. Memorable moments always stand out and winners, upsets and surprises are not quickly forgotten, but if you were to ask me to give any more than a vague recollection and a “great/good/okay/bad/awful” rating for any past show, I’d be struggling to come up with much. I have enough trouble remembering what it is I think I want to say about the movies I see and write about here, it seems a waste to spend too much time thinking about the movie awards show and how things compare to previous years. Continue reading

Pre-Oscars: 2012

[As usual, this was written over a period of about a week and is going up last minute. If you’re kind enough to excuse my self-importance and actually read this post, please overlook the mechanical and grammatical errors as well. Also as usual, this is far too long.]

I wrote up a Pre-Oscars post last year and half of it was introduction plus a quarter of it was just a ranked list of Best Picture nominees. This year, I’m going to take a more conventional approach and look at the categories one by one. I’ll do what everyone else always does and give a Will Win/Should Win along with some reasons why. It helps because I already wrote most of this up in an email to a friend. So, apologies to that friend, but you’re going to see a lot of the same here.

I haven’t seen everything this year, though I do think I’ve seen more (prior to the awards) than any other year. Leaving out shorts, docs and foreign films, which are not always easy for average Joe to see, I currently have a record of 102 out of 111 nominations seen. Obviously, you already knock out 37 nominations when you see Lincoln, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook and Argo, but I still think that’s a good record for someone who doesn’t get paid to see movies.

Please keep in mind that this is all opinion, it is all changeable and I am by no means an expert. That said, I think the Oscars are a great way to start debates and discussions about movies. It’s fun to defend or deride the picks made by the Academy, whether the nominees include our favorite movies, or whether all of the wrong films were nominated again. Here we go! Continue reading