Oscar Watch: Captain Phillips

In this series, I look at the major Oscar nominated films and their chances of taking home gold. It is more an analysis of the Awards than it is the film’s quality, though some commentary on that is also included. Enjoy! 

More than other major Oscar nominees, Captain Phillips is a film that reveals both the pleasant surprises and the follies of a typical awards season. With six nominations, it is, by all accounts, a great movie.


Despite Tom Hanks’ snub, Captain Phillips is still a richly deserving Oscar nominee in other categories.

Which is why the film’s nomination for Best Picture is a pleasant surprise. Director Paul Greengrass has been a box office draw thanks to the Jason Bourne films (he directed parts two and three of the trilogy), but I don’t think he gets enough credit for the way he has changed the way Hollywood approaches the Blockbuster action film. Coming from the world of documentaries, his cinema verite, handheld shaky-cam style both inspired and enraged a new generation of filmmakers and audiences. Shaky-cam is now one of the most overused tropes in action filmmaking. When it’s down poorly, it’s unwatchable. But, when it’s done well, it’s nothing less than exhilarating.

Enter Captain Phillips, which capitalizes on Greengrass’ strengths as an artist while ironing out most of his occasionally rough edges. There’s still a lot of shaky-cam, but here it actually helps to convey the nauseous rocking of a ship on the ocean. Combine that with claustrophobic ship hallways and bunkers, and you’ve got a potentially queasy experience. Shaky-cam may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s done well enough here to justify why it put Greengrass on the map in the first place.

Some might say Greengrass was snubbed for a Best Director nomination, but the real snub goes obviously to Tom Hanks. Despite an already tight acting race, his non-nomination still came as a bit of a shock to many. His role as Rich Phillips, the captain of a freight ship overtaken by Somali pirates is nothing short of revelatory. It’s telling that such a veteran actor can still surprise us by playing a very ordinary real-life person. Hanks hardly looks like a movie star here, and that’s why he’s so good. Most people say the true powerhouse acting comes in the film’s later third, but that doesn’t disqualify what comes before as truly brilliant.

Speaking of brilliant, can we talk about Barkhad Abdi, nominated for Best Supporting Actor? The native Somalian non-actor came out of nowhere to stun as the cunning Pirate captain Muse. I’d love to see him win, not only because he’s brilliant, but because it’s so refreshing to see a truly humble man taking in sudden fame and glamor from the perspective of a wide-eyed outsider. He may be considered and underdog, but his performance, as well as his real-life humility, speak volumes.

How often is editing that makes a film harder to watch a good thing? Christopher Rouse, a frequent Greengrass collaborator nominated in past years for The Bourne Ultimatum and United 93 pulls it off with aplomb. The queasy claustrophobia of his can’t-look-away quick cutting provides Captain Phillips with much of its energy and personality. It’s hard to argue against the other nominees (particularly American Hustle), but I’m happy to see Rouse recognized once again.

Billy Ray’s adapted screenplay will lose to John Ridley’s 12 Years a Slave, but, again, I’m glad to see it nominated, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for such a visually focused production to seem alive on the page.

Captain Phillips was one of the best films of the year, and it is getting more Oscar recognition that I thought it would. Most people might be focusing on Hanks’ snub, but I’d rather celebrate the strengths the film was deservedly recognized for rather than dwell on what it missed out on. In the end, as always, the work speaks for itself.


Oscar Watch: Nebraska



Nebraska is probably too smart to win many Oscars, but I hope its original screenplay is at least recognized.

In this series, I look at the major Oscar nominated films and their chances of taking home gold. It is more an analysis of the Awards than it is the film’s quality, though some commentary on that is also included. Enjoy! 

Nebraska is the little engine that could of this year’s awards race. And it’s a brilliant film to boot. Soulfully nostalgic and achingly sad all at once, it’s the best Oscar-nominated movie you haven’t seen. That needs to be rectified.

Director Alexander Payne is no stranger to Oscar. His unique slice-of-American life outlook has resulted in Oscar gold for films Sideways (Best Original Screenplay) and The Descendants (Best Adapted Screenplay) as well as nominations for the likes of George Clooney and Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt).

For Nebraska, Payne returns to his home state for the story of an elderly man (Bruce Dern) who thinks he’s won $1 million and, whether its true or not, decides to travel from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize, at any cost. Eventually he ropes his two adult sons (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk) into the adventure, as well as his saucy wife (June Squibb) and, eventually, his whole extended family.

There’s nothing not to like about Nebraska—from its sensuous black and white cinematography to its witty script and pitch-perfect acting. It’s the kind of movie that doesn’t seem to expect accolades, but is glad to get them when they come. It’s not an “Oscar bait” movie in any way, and that is so very refreshing.

Much of the credit goes to Bob Nelson’s original screenplay, which deserves to win in its category (close second goes to American Hustle). His balance between humor and tragedy is so fine it’s almost infuriating. Phedon Pamamichael’s cinematography is also wisely recognized (though it will lose to Gravity). The B&W photography gives the empty Midwestern landscapes more character, and is not in any way distracting or preening.

Dern is brilliant, but it’s June Squibb who’s the true revelation here. Seeing such good actors getting their time in the spotlight after so long is a treat. She’s far from a frontrunner, but, at 84, she would be the oldest to win the Best Supporting Actress prize, and the Academy does love to break barriers when they’re deserved. This one is.

Payne’s sensitive and very personal direction netted him a well-deserved directing nod, but it’s tough to vote against the richly deserving Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity. Still, I wouldn’t be disappointed if Payne pulled an upset. Same goes for Nebraska’s Best Picture nod.

Whatever its Oscar fate, Nebraska is, at the very least, destined to become a cult classic of some sort. It’s a potent, lasting reminder that our family is not the one we choose, but simply the one we’re given. We must make due; for better or worse. 

Oscar Watch: Dallas Buyers Club

In this series, I look at the major Oscar nominated films and their chances of taking home gold. It is more an analysis of the Awards than it is the film’s quality, though some commentary on that is also included. Enjoy! 

Dallas Buyers Club is one of those films whose Oscar buzz seems to be focused in one specific place. In this case, acting. And that’s where the focus should be. The film, while historically important in its treatment of the birth of the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s, is also a bit messy.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. The film has a strange, pulsating energy, which is an odd thing to say about a story involving a man dying of AIDS. The real-life journey of Texas electrician Ron Woodruff to first cure himself and, later on, others, of the deadly disease while fighting with the medical establishment to procure funding for an FDA-approved cure is an often bleak one, but there’s an almost irrational strain of hope that runs through these characters and their mission.


The awards conversation for Dallas is where it should be: the acting.

The movie is tonally inconsistent, and often prefers grit over polish, which makes its Best Picture nomination curious over more accomplished works such as Saving Mr. Banks, Before Midnight and the overlooked Prisoners. The film probably got a boost from its subject matter, neither a first nor last for the Academy.

All complaints about the overall film dissipate when we witness two of the most astonishing performances in recent film history. As Woodruff, Matthew McConaughey reaches that terrifying critical mass of method acting; I was concerned for Woodruff and his gaunt physical deterioration, but I was also afraid for McConaughey.  He just doesn’t look good. It recalls Christian Bale’s performances in The Fighter and The Machinist, where actor and character blend so perfectly you fear for the actor’s safety. I’ve been a fan of McConaughey for years, but this feels like the first time he’s truly transformed himself. All we see is Woodruff, exuding confidence one minute but sobbing in his car the next.

Equally jaw-dropping is Jared Leto’s supporting performance as Rayon, an AIDS-infected, drug-addicted man in the process of becoming a woman who breaks down the homophobic Woodruff’s defenses and helps him run his unauthorized drug business. A scene where a desperate Rayon dresses in a suit, puts his hair up and walks into his disapproving father’s office asking for money is one of the more heartbreaking acting moments in recent memory.

Leto and McConaughey are the front-runners to win Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor and, while those categories are stacked, it’s hard to bet against them.

The film’s makeup and hair styling is destined for Oscar gold, adding weight to Leto’s and McConaughey’s often startling physical transformations. The film is up for Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s Best Original Screenplay, but it’s hard to see the sometimes-sterile dialogue competing against the crackling intensity of Her, Nebraska, Blue Jasmine or American Hustle.

But, the shortcomings of Dallas Buyers Club do nothing to diminish the two beyond brilliant performances at its center, performances that should be celebrated.

Oscar Watch: The Wolf of Wall Street

In this series, I look at the major Oscar nominated films and their chances of taking home gold. It is more an analysis of the Awards than it is the film’s quality, though some commentary on that is also included. Enjoy!

And now for something completely different. The Wolf of Wall Street is essentially director Martin Scorsese’s version of a frat-boy comedy. That should tell you whether you’d enjoy the film, or whether it should win Oscars.

It’s a solid accomplishment, but easily the most polarizing movie among the bunch. I think audiences (and critics) are only willing to go so far with a patently unlikable protagonist. And, clocking in at three hours, Wolf tests the limits of good taste and patience.

I’ve heard multiple tales of walk-outs after about the first hour or so, not necessarily due to the movie’s excessive vulgarity (though that is likely a factor) but because of the fact that paying audience thought they had seen all the movie had to offer.


Wolf’s comedic elements likely make it a breath of fresh air for Academy voters, but that alone does not deem it worthy of taking home gold.

That assertion is mostly correct. Which is why it’s strange to see the movie nominated in prestigious categories such as Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Terrence Winter’s script is certainly one of the most vulgar, over-the-top pieces to ever be nominated in a writing category. It’s so lowbrow, it’s actually shocking to see it competing against screenplays such as Before Midnight and 12 Years a Slave.

And yet, maybe that’s the point. After all, maybe Oscar voters can only take so much dour, earnest drama. Wolf’s nominations are like an adrenaline shot to the competition. And the film can be quite funny. Or maybe it’s Scorsese’s name that brought the film higher in the minds of voters, which made it seem much more important than it actually is.

Not that a movie has to be “important” to win Oscars, but I can’t help but feel the Academy is slumming it. There is an obvious exception, and that is Leonardo DiCaprio’s nomination for Best Actor. It’s the very definition of a stacked category, one where multiple “favorites” will be vying for the prize. But I’m throwing my chips in for the long-suffering DiCaprio, who has never won despite multiple nominations. I don’t think he’ll ever do better than his livewire, completely off-the-wall performance as Jordan Belfort in Wolf, so why not just give it to him now?

Jonah Hill’s Supporting Actor nomination seems a bit of a joke compared to the competition, but, given the film’s length, he probably gets more screen time than the other nominees (and is thus more “supporting,” technically speaking). Still, shouldn’t the fact that we get to see his (prosthetic) penis earn some sort of disqualification?

My intention is not to simply complain about the film, which I did not hate, but to simply wonder at the Academy’s standards. When considering Best Picture nominees, I’d have a hard time believing that The Wolf of Wall Street is better than the magnificent Before Midnight, or even an overlooked gem like Mud. Yet, grossing more than $100 million, Wolf is one of the more popular Oscar contenders. Sadly, “popularity contest” is a term we hear combined with “Oscar” much too often.

Oscar Watch: Gravity

In this series, I look at the major Oscar nominated films and their chances of taking home gold. It is more an analysis of the Awards than it is the film’s quality, though some commentary on that is also included. Enjoy!

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity soared higher than most expected, and is now widely considered the greatest blockbuster-style entertainment in a decade. As such, expect the film, which is nominated for 10 Academy Awards, to see plenty of gold come Oscar night.


Gravity is destined to sweep Oscar’s technical categories, but could sneak in and take home Oscar’s top prize.

The last truly great crowd-pleasing blockbuster, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, took home a whopping 11 Oscars in 2003, including Best Picture, a first for a fantasy film. Gravity certainly could sweep this year’s awards ceremony, but I’m predicting a performance similar to last year’s Life of Pi.

Pi had some early Best Picture buzz, but ended up losing out to Argo, 2012’s prestigious historical drama. Thus continued the trend of the technically audacious crowd-pleaser losing out to the prestige picture (see: The Artist vs. Hugo, The Hurt Locker vs. Avatar, etc.). Still, Pi took home 4 awards, including Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Score and Best Director for Ang Lee.

That Best Director win is particularly important, as Gravity looks poised to repeat not only a technical sweep, but also a Best Director win. Cuaron won at the Golden Globes, and has been seen as the frontrunner ever since. Not only is he richly deserving, but he would also be the first Latino filmmaker to win the award, and the Academy likes breaking historical barriers such as race.

The film is a shoo-in for the sound and visual effects categories, but the other big question is Sandra Bullock lead performance. As Ryan Stone, a woman whose lost-in-space adventure reveals some deeper anxieties about loss of faith and the ability to go on in a world that seems cold and indifferent to our existence, she provided an expertly emotional and physical performance that she’s never come close to before. Bullock did win an Oscar for her role in The Blind Side, and this role is much better. But, the acting categories are particularly stacked this year, and she has to go up against frontrunner Cate Blanchett and hot star Amy Adams. Many other years, I think Bullock’s award will be a given.

But Gravity will likely lose the night’s big prize to this year’s prestige picture, 12 Years a Slave, and Ann Thompson at Indie wire explains why.

“I argue that the reason that 12 Years a Slave will prevail over all countervailing trends is that the Academy thinks about how they want to be represented to the world. It’s not just what movie they like best. It’s what movie they want to like best.”

Nonetheless, Gravity remains a richly rewarding experience that deserves any and every award it scoops up. 

50 Years Later: The legacy of The Beatles

I’m convinced there’s only one way to spell the word beatle. Microsoft Word is telling me it’s wrong, but how could it be? There’s only one way that word can be used, and it’s to describe the band that changed the way we communicate.

Fifty years ago, on Feb. 9, 1964, the British pop band The Beatles came to America for the first time when they played on The Ed Sullivan Show. It’s impossible to overstate what that moment would mean to the history of popular western music.

On Sunday, CBS aired a stunning tribute to the band called The Night That Changed America: A Grammy salute to The Beatles. A variety of pop stars, from Stevie Wonder to Ed Sheeran to Imagine Dragons, played their own interpretations of classic Beatles songs. But one of the most striking moments for me was when Dave Grohl, of Nirvana and The Foo Fighters, said, “Without The Beatles, I wouldn’t be a musician.” Some day, I imagine, the next generation of musicians will be saying the same thing about Dave Grohl.

I can safely say, as a music fan, without The Beatles, I wouldn’t be a music lover. I play the trumpet, and the musical influences that have shaped my ear are too myriad to print here. But I’ve never forgotten that my eclectic tastes point back to one source.

This poster of Abbey Road, my favorite Beatles album, will forever occupy prime real estate on my poster-covered wall.

This poster of Abbey Road, my favorite Beatles album, will forever occupy prime real estate on my poster-covered wall.

I have to thank my dad for introducing me to The Beatles (among many other of my all-time favorites), but, unlike many older fans, I don’t remember hearing them for the first time. In my world, they have always existed; they have always been timeless. I can’t remember having not heard nearly any of their songs. This speaks so directly to the group’s widespread influence, that a typical ‘90s kid is as familiar with their body of work as someone who experienced their music afresh while growing up.

But why is the music of The Beatles still seem so new, so enduring? What makes them stand out over their contemporaries? The radio station 100.3 The Sound played an amazing set of the “top 50 Beatles songs of all time” on Sunday (as voted by listeners). A DJ on the station said that “The Beatles introduced art to popular songwriting.” Now, there had certainly been popular rock n’ roll artists before The Beatles: Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, etc. But art as The Sound used it is, I think, more akin to appreciating a favorite painting in a gallery.

Popular music had made us feel before, but not like this. A song like Let it Be or A Day in the Life cause us to feel not just an emotion, but the entire spectrum of human feeling and experience. Never before had rock allowed us to feel hope and despair and outrage and love, often at the same time.

In an interview with David Letterman on that CBS special, Ringo Starr said that the reason he thought The Beatles were so successful because they could play anything; they were never confined to one genre. And, looking through the Lennon-McCartney songbook, it’s easy to agree. The Sound’s top 50 songs include aching love ballads (And I Love Her, If I Fell, Yesterday), nonsensical flights of fancy (I am the Walrus, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds) and epic, transcendent odysseys (Strawberry Fields Forever, Golden Slumbers Medley).

While everyone has their personal favorite Beatles songs (Hey Jude was number one on this countdown), it’s tough to argue that any particular “style” of song is superior to another. It seems to be a matter of preference. In other words, The Beatles have something for everyone.

During the countdown, I noticed that many of the Fab Four’s most haunting songs involve looking (often focused on the lover’s gaze). Think of I Want You (She’s so Heavy), You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, I Saw Her Standing There, Something and Eleanor Rigby. Isn’t that appropriate for a band that has changed so much about the way we see?

Speaking of seeing, we’ve never seen anything like The Beatles—never has a “popular” band so expertly mixed politics and pop culture, rage and romance, coolness and controversy—and we never will again. I don’t think we want to.