Let's have a brief break from the crime fiction and take stock of another form of entertainment close to my heart.
It's film awards season! Everybody who has ever been near a movie set is about to hand out some statuettes in anticipation of the Academy Awards on March 2. And because my son now works at a movie theater (although anyone who has contacts in the film business and needs someone with a degree in that area--who works cheap--need not hesitate to get in touch), I've seen a good number of the contenders this year.
So simply because my opinion is worth roughly the same as yours, let me offer a few on this year's more lauded films. SPOILER ALERT: None of them exactly knocked me for a loop.
In no particular order:
12 Years a Slave: You have to figure this is a very strong candidate for many awards. It has the benefits of being based on a true story, dealing with perhaps the most hurtful period in American history and doing so quite well. And it has many British people speaking with American accents. It's a harrowing film with excellent performances by just about all the actors--the only false notes struck by Brad Pitt as the angelic white guy--and it portrays slavery in America in ways that have rarely, if ever, be seen on a screen before. In short, I'll give the last words to my son Josh, who said, "I think it was really good and I never want to see it again."
All is Lost: Robert Redford, playing... somebody... is stuck on a yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean when his craft is hit by a cargo carrier and starts to sink, just before a horrific storm hits. With virtually no dialogue and no other actors, it's Redford's show, and a major surprise that no Oscar nomination followed. Problem with the film, which is technically brilliant: You don't know who this guy is, you don't know what the hell he's doing in the middle of the Indian Ocean by himself, and you don't even know his name, so you don't really get emotionally involved. It's all about pulling it off, not really about involving the audience.
Gravity: "All Is Lost" in space, with Sandra Bullock. A little more talking, and one other actor on screen (George Clooney) for a while. We know more about Bullock's character, and that helps. It's technically amazing, but the story is, at best, slight, and there are points at which it stretches credulity. Google "Neil DeGrasse Tyson" and "Gravity" (or click here, but there are SPOILERS) and you'll see what I mean. Nice to look at. I don't remember much of it.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: The Ben Stiller version of the Danny Kaye version of James Thurber's very slight short story, which means there's almost no Thurber in it at all. It's cute, although not so closely fetched, and after a while you wonder why this Walter Mitty is doing all the wacky stuff he's doing. The daydreaming stuff becomes secondary. Someday someone should make a real movie out of Thurber material. Nobody's done it yet.
Inside Llewyn Davis: The Coen Brothers take on the folk music scene in the early 1960s. Again, wonderful performances, especially by Oscar Isaac as the title character. But that character is so completely involved with himself and unconnected from everyone he encounters (including a cat) that it's hard to care. More music probably would have helped.
Her: A guy in the not-very-distant future falls in love with his operating system. Just to make it more believable to an audience, the OS is given the voice of Scarlett Johanssen. It moves along in that strange mode from writer/director Spike Jonze for a while, then takes a complete left turn two-thirds of the way through that comes out of nowhere. And we're supposed to care whether this "relationship" survives, but we actually don't very much.
Captain Phillips: Tom Hanks, in another notable Oscar snub, was probably brushing off his tuxedo months before the nominations came out just to be as surprised as everyone else. Here, in another based-on-a-true-story film, he plays the captain of a cargo ship taken over by Somali pirates. He's very good, the completely new-to-acting Somalis who play the pirates are even better, and the movie is sort of tense despite our knowing in advance how it's going to end up.
Saving Mr. Banks: Here comes Mr. Hanks again. This time Tom is playing Walt Disney trying to get P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson, who ALSO didn't get nominated!) to sell him the rights to Mary Poppins despite her being a giant pain in the butt. We find out why she's like that in far-too-numerous flashbacks to her Australian childhood. You never for a second believe Tom is Walt Disney--he's Tom Hanks--and despite the protestations that this is not a sanitized version, it's a sanitized version. That would be okay, except there's not that much suspense about what's going to happen, and the drama is almost all in dialogue.
American Hustle: Oh, boy, a movie about corruption in New Jersey, and just to make my home state look even worse, it's the late 70s. A VERY loosely adapted version of the Abscam operation run in NJ--and other states--in the 70s and 80s, here we get a bloated Christian Bale (and we get to see the Batman connection, because he looks just like Adam West) joining with Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence to scam the mayor of Camden about something going on in Atlantic City, which is not in Camden (and we can see with a sign outside the mayor's office window that the filmmakers think Camden is in Essex County, which is only about two hours away) and... after a while it's hard to remember. Entertaining enough, but all this hoopla is odd.
Nebraska: Bruce Dern (in a film that sometimes seems to be starring his nose hair) plays the inevitable befuddled old guy that a 77-year-old actor will be offered, and does it well. But the idea that this movie--about, um, a befuddled old guy who thinks he's won a million dollars because he's received a mail scam for magazine subscriptions and travels to Lincoln, Nebraska with his son (Will Forte)--is about Dern's character and not Forte's is silly. Forte is on screen much more often and it's his story that's being told. But everybody wants Dern to get an award. This one goes on too long, is in black and white for absolutely no reason, and is sometimes amusing.
The Wolf of Wall Street: There is no chance I would ever go see this movie. It's not bad enough that guys like this destroyed the economy, screwed regular people worldwide, and got off with a slap on the wrist? Now I should pay money (some of which will go to the actual person who did these things) to see them do it? I think not.
P.S. Pitchers and catchers report in 18 days.