Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Tales From the Crypt: Season Three, Part Two

Easel Kill Ya: Tim Roth plays a struggling artist who accidentally causes the death of his neighbor and is inspired to recreate the incident on his canvas. Egged on by a rich, creepy art collector (William Atherton), he begins to look for more…inspiration. The lead character is underdeveloped even by Tales from the Crypt standards, but this episode has a nice moody feel and an interesting theme of our human fascination with death and darkness. B

Undertaking Palor: At the time, this probably seemed like an average episode, but now it looks tremendously influential if you have followed the horror genre in recent years. A group of teenage horror fans sneaks into a morgue only to discover that the immensely creepy mortician (John Glover, the voice of The Riddler in Batman: The Animated Series) is involved in a twisted plot to increase business. An early scene of the man going about his work in surprising detail while opera plays in the background may have inspired the notoriously revolting short film Aftermath. Like “Television Terror” in Season 2, this episode also was an early and even more ambitious innovator of the found footage style, shifting between multiple cameras during the final scene. The characterization of the kids themselves places this episode squarely in the early 90s, dating the show in a way most other episodes don’t, but there’s still an engaging Stephen King-esque camaraderie among them. B+

Mournin’ Mess: Steven Weber plays a down on his luck journalist who, like many real-life journalists, works full-time but doesn’t make enough to pay his rent. Shortly after covering a routine story about a civic organization designed to provide proper burials for the homeless, he gets a tip that there is more to the cause than meets the eye. It’s mostly unremarkable up until the nightmarish ending, which features outstanding makeup and set direction while playing on primal fears. B-

Split Second: The next two episodes are the first that I’ve seen based on a comic I’ve already read. That number should increase thanks to the great collection of EC comics I got for Christmas. It’s interesting to have the additional insight into the adaptation and this one is quite good. A newly-married owner of a timber company (Brion James), totally oblivious to the antics of his predatory wife (Michelle Johnson), develops a bad habit of subjecting his employees to violent fits of jealousy. They’re not going to put up with it forever. Modern audiences may find the gender politics in this episode to be offensive, but then again, nobody of any gender ever really comes off well in Tales From The Crypt. Directed by Russell Mulcahy (Highlander), it faithfully hits all the beats of the original story while fleshing out the camaraderie between the loggers. The changes to the ending are revealing – the original comic ends right before the gory payoff would begin, encouraging readers to imagine it. The show, of course, delivers it in all its blood-soaked glory. B+

Deadline: Crypt MVP Walter Hill is back, so we know this episode will be in a different class. At this point, it’s not breaking new ground to tell the story of another alcoholic, desperate reporter, although it does make me grateful I got out of journalism. Hill gets a great performance out of Richard Jordan as the lead – he’s manic, self-centered and yet strangely sympathetic as the writer whose determination to find a sensational story ultimately corrupts him. The script actually softens the edges of the characters from the original comic, which makes the grim finale all the more tragic. A-

Spoiled: The series returns to the topic of infidelity yet again for this ridiculously campy episode, which fakes the audience out with a soap opera introduction but maintains the arch tone in its story of a neglected housewife (Faye Grant) who has an affair with the cable repairman (Anthony LaPaglia). Everyone loves to make fun of soap operas, but I’ve seen a few episodes of them and they aren’t nearly as over the top as the saucy repartee in this episode. Even the Cryptkeeper wouldn’t risk puns like these. If you’re twelve years old, you might find this hilarious, otherwise it gets old quick. The twist ending, however, is actually pretty funny. C

Yellow: In addition to horror and noir drama, EC also turned out a great deal of war stories during its run and one of the most famous was “Yellow,” a story about the conflict between a hardened general and his gentle son. This comic gets the deluxe treatment as a forty minute episode of the show with Robert Zemeckis directing. It doesn’t take its wartime setting quite as seriously as you might think, but perhaps they thought it would hard to do a traditional war story just after the Cryptkeeper used the phrase “ready, maim, fire!” What does lend this episode some serious weight, however, is the casting of screen legend Kirk Douglas. Aside from just giving an outstanding performance, his presence draws comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, another tale of how pride gets people needlessly killed in times of war. His real life son, Eric Douglas (Michael must have been busy), plays the general’s son, who just doesn’t have the stomach for combat but was drafted anyway because that’s what happened in World War I. With Lance Henriksen and Dan Akroyd in supporting roles, the acting here is on a whole different level from what we’ve seen on the show. The adaptation is also very smart, expanding the story by dramatizing the incident that happened off-screen in the original comic. Most importantly, it does justice to the story’s shocking, unforgettable ending. Easily one of the show’s finest moments. A

That wraps up Season 3. I'd say Season 2 was marginally better, but good times were had by all. Onward we go!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Oscars 2014 Educated Guesses

Last year, I wrote this from the hospital. I had some intense dreams during that time, but one stood out. The night before the 2013 Academy Awards, I dreamed Christoph Waltz won Best Supporting Actor. However, I had already predicted Tommy Lee Jones and didn't think much of it. That evening, Waltz did indeed win. I'm not sure what was more memorable, that moment of realization when I remembered my dream...or the painful awkwardness when an old woman working at the hospital emptied the trash in our room while Seth MacFarlane sang loudly about boobs. Anyway, I stand by these predictions for the moment, but they are subject to change in the event of another random prophetic dream. With that established, let's get to it.

Best Animated Feature
The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Ernest and Celestine
The Wind Rises

Who Will Win: The beautifully animated crowdpleaser Frozen is the clear front-runner here. The Croods is by-the-numbers stuff from Dreamworks, not as good as How To Train Your Dragon but not as bad as Shark Tale. Despicable Me 2 would win if the category were Most Ubiquitous In-Your-Face Marketing, but it's not. As for the hand-drawn features, Ernest and Celestine is an obscure Belgian film, the kind of oddity that's become standard in this category, but there's no way enough people saw it for a victory. The only one that poses a threat to Frozen is The Wind Rises, the supposedly final film from anime legend Hayao Miyazaki, who pulled off one of my all-time favorite upsets in 2002 when Spirited Away took home the gold. However, that film had a larger release and I don't see it happening for him this time. Frozen is the most successful Disney film in a long time and the song "Let It Go" has become huge in a way not seen since the days of Alan Menken (should be an easy win in the Original Song category).

My Choice: Miyazaki, not just for The Wind Rises but for his entire magnificent career. I'm not sure if it really is his last film, since he announced his retirement after both Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away and then thankfully kept at it, but he's getting old and I'm not sure anyone will be able to step into the void he will leave behind in the world of animation.

Best Documentary Feature
The Act of Killing
Cutie and the Boxer
Dirty Wars
The Square
20 Feet From Stardom

Who Will Win: Two of the contenders here are fighting for the prize, representing the battle of "serious" vs. "light-hearted" that has defined this category in the last few years. On Team Uplifting is Cutie and the Boxer, which is probably too eccentric to shore up votes, and 20 Feet From Stardom, a tribute to back-up singers that looks to have the best shot at the win. On Team Serious, Dirty Wars is worthy subject matter, but there's too much focus on the journalist Jeremy Scahill. If you're going to be onscreen all the time in a documentary like this, it helps to have a sense of humor like Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore. In Scahill's case, it just looks like blatant self-aggrandizement and Dirty Wars often feels like it is more interested in him than in the war crimes that he's investigating. The Square, about the Egyptian revolution, had a tiny theatrical presence before Netflix picked it up and screened it exclusively on their site. It's an unprecedented situation as far as the Oscars go, so I'll be curious to see what impact that has, if any.

That leaves The Act of Killing, an unconventional but devastating look at the 1960s genocide in Indonesia, as the other film with a real chance to win. It's easily the most critically acclaimed of the bunch (if you haven't seen my list, I'm also a huge fan). However, it is not an easy watch - complex, challenging and sometimes even nauseating as the filmmakers reveal the extent to which propaganda and corruption have blinded the perpetrators to their own crimes. If the voters go with which movie made them feel the best as they left the theater, 20 Feet From Stardom will win handily.

My Choice: As usual, this category is just as notable for what didn't get nominated as what did. No Leviathan, no Stories We Tell, not even Blackfish, which was the documentary seen by the most people this year. But even if those films were all competing, I'd still be firmly behind The Act of Killing. People literally risked their lives to get that film made and it continues to haunt me months after seeing it.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke for Before Midnight
Billy Ray for Captain Phillips
Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope for Philomena
John Ridley for Twelve Years A Slave
Terence Winter for The Wolf of Wall Street

Who Will Win: John Ridley, who adapted the memoirs of the real Solomon Northrup and has brought huge attention to a hugely important American story. The Best Picture race is unbearably close, so the voters will make sure Twelve Years A Slave goes home with something and this is it's best chance for a win.

My Choice: Twelve Years A Slave is an impressive film for many reasons, one of which is that it rarely feels like it was even written, more like it's just the past unfolding right before your eyes. However, the writing was clearly taken very seriously and I invite everyone to check out this excellent essay by Wesley Morris about what makes it so different from other films that have taken on this subject matter.

Best Original Screenplay
Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell for American Hustle
Woody Allen for Blue Jasmine
Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack for Dallas Buyers Club
Spike Jonze for Her
Bob Nelson for Nebraska

Who Will Win: This is fairly close, but I can tell you who won't win - Woody Allen. The round of awards he received for Blue Jasmine, including a tribute at the Golden Globes, has thrust his revolting personal life back into the spotlight. Most of the time, the Academy Awards don't really care about that stuff as long as they like your work (see Exhibit B - Roman Polanski), but the collective wail of outrage if Allen won yet another Oscar would be enough to knock the Earth off its axis. Among the other contenders, the screenplays for American Hustle or Dallas Buyers Club could win, but this category tends to go a little highbrow and I think Spike Jonze is going to squeak ahead. The trailers for Her, about the romantic relationship between a man and his phone's artificial intelligence, were not flattering but the movie itself takes the gimmick premise seriously and has true speculative science-fiction virtues to offset its hipsterity (Is that a word? I'm gonna declare it a word).

My Choice: Bob Nelson. Nebraska's dark comedy masked some quietly powerful observations about modern America, specifically the despair felt by older people who know that their children won't do as well as they did...and yet it also made a case for the importance of figuring out what you really need, rather than what society says defines success.

Best Supporting Actress
Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o in Twelve Years A Slave
Julia Roberts in August: Osage County
June Squibb in Nebraska

Who Will Win: This is a close two-way competition between Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong'o. As anyone with an internet connection knows, Lawrence is a highly popular actress with a charming public persona. She just won Best Actress last year for Silver Linings Playbook, her previous collaboration with David O. Russell and Bradley Cooper. Two years in a row, Tom Hanks style? Seems like overkill. The victory would make a much bigger difference for Nyong'o, a newcomer who has gotten a lot of new fans thanks to endearing appearances on talk shows this Oscar season. Her scenes are some of the most wrenching in Twelve Years A Slave and I suspect she'll have a new golden accessory to show for it.

My Choice: You would have to be a real pill not to be happy for Nyong'o if she pulls it off, but I think my choice would be June Squibb. She had most of the funniest lines in Nebraska, including an epic scene where she defends her husband and son from toxic family members.

Best Supporting Actor
Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper in American Hustle
Michael Fassbender in 12 Years A Slave
Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club

Who Will Win: Leto. Easiest call of the night. He's been a steamroller in the "playoff" awards, and it's the kind of showy, tear-jerking performance the Oscars love.

My Choice: Barkhad Abdi, the Somali-born actor who was working as a limo driver in Minnesota before he auditioned for Captain Phillips as was cast as pirate captain Abduwali Muse. How can anyone resist that story? But even without that, his sensitive performance was absolutely essential to the success of Captain Phillips. There's been a disturbing recent trend of movies re-creating American military operations with fetishistic attention to detail (e.g. Zero Dark Thirty, Lone Survivor) and with little thought to other perspectives. There are moments in Captain Phillips that lean dangerously close to that, but Abdi never lets you forget the humanity of the Somali pirates and the miserable global economy that drove them to these acts in the first place.

Best Actress
Amy Adams in American Hustle
Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock in Gravity
Judi Dench in Philomena
Meryl Streep in August: Osage County

Who Will Win: Cate Blanchett has been cleaning up in the playoffs. Voters won't punish her for Woody Allen's conduct. If anyone upsets, it will probably be Amy Adams, who has racked up four nominations in eight years but has yet to win.

My Choice: This category seems lazy. It's like there are only a dozen actresses who are ever considered and the same names keep showing up every year. The fact that three-time winner and all-time nomination champ Meryl Streep, amazing as she is, is basically guaranteed a spot every year even for movies nobody likes is a little ridiculous. There are a LOT of under-appreciated actresses who did great work this year, the first one that comes to mind for me is Brie Larson in Short Term 12. Out of this group, I suppose I'm rooting for Adams just cause she's the only one here who hasn't already won.

Best Actor
Christian Bale in American Hustle
Bruce Dern in Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor in Twelve Years A Slave
Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

Who Will Win: This is a formidable category and it looks like McConaughey will be the winner. It wasn't that long ago that he was known mostly for taking his shirt off in terrible romantic comedies. But he's branched out and given a series of impressive performances, including this portrayal of the late Ron Woodroof, a classic larger-than-life Texan with more than a little bigotry in his worldview who becomes an unlikely crusader for the rights of AIDS victims when he catches the illness himself. So far the "McConnaisance" has been well-rewarded on the awards circuit. However, the others have big pockets of support too. Ejiofor was an early front-runner and could be lifted by a rising tide of wins for Twelve Years A Slave. DiCaprio has been nominated many times without a win. His time will come, but I think he might be pretty old when it finally does. Speaking of old, the last time Bruce Dern was nominated was in 1978, when McConaughey was nine years old. His career is widely admired and if anyone upsets, it will likely be him...but an upset doesn't seem likely.

My Choice: In the fall of 2003, I spent a semester abroad in London. One night, my British cinema class went to a screening of Dirty Pretty Things, which featured an unknown actor named Chiwetel Ejiofor as an immigrant doctor who was working as a hotel clerk in the UK and trying to get home to his family. The movie was fantastic, Ejiofor blew everyone away and it was one of the great movie theater experiences of my life. Since then, I've rooted for him to find mainstream success but he's been ill-served by Hollywood and didn't have too many other memorable roles under his belt. When I first saw 12 Years A Slave, I thought "how could he possibly not win?" I guess McConaughey's Texan accent is just too charming. In all serious, McConaughey did give a great performance but I know who I'm rooting for.

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity
Steve McQueen for Twelve Years A Slave
Alexander Payne for Nebraska
David O. Russell for American Hustle
Martin Scorsese for The Wolf of Wall Street

Who Will Win: Last year, the whole controversy about Ben Affleck's exclusion turned this category into chaos. This year, we're back to normal. Alfonso Cuaron has won most of the preliminary directing awards, including the telltale Director's Guild of America trophy. More than the other movies represented here, Gravity is foremost a director's film. It was unbelievably ambitious and he handled it perfectly.

My Choice: Cuaron, alongside Guillermo Del Toro, Alejandro Gonzales-Inarritu and others, represents a new wave of visionary Mexican filmmakers who have yet to get the recognition they deserve. The verisimilitude he achieved in Gravity is just astounding - digital effects can often conjure up locations that look a little too perfect, too obviously removed from the world we know, but his depiction of outer space was never unconvincing.

Best Picture
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Twelve Years A Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

Who Will Win: It's been three years since the Academy changed the rules for this category, allowing for anywhere between five to ten movies each year depending on the amount of enthusiasm for individual films displayed in the convoluted preferential ballots. So far, there have been nine nominees each time for whatever reason. With that many, it's easy to pick off a few. The Wolf of Wall Street is too polarizing, although I think its reputation will rise in time. Dallas Buyers Club and Nebraska are both seen primarily as a showcase for actors. Her is way too strange to get a majority of the vote. Philomena was one of the last nominees to hit theaters and is just smaller-scale than most of the competition. Captain Phillips doesn't have many nominations outside of this, indicating a less than ideal amount of support among Academy members.

So that brings us down to the three heavy hitters and this is where it gets tough. American Hustle made a big wave when it first came out and has 10 nominations, including one in all four acting categories, which indicates massive support. However, I find it hard to believe it will win because it has absolutely no gravitas whatsoever. It's supposedly about the FBI Abscam scandal of the 1970s, but it doesn't have anything in particular to say about that incident...or anything else for that matter. It's been amusing to watch critics try to ascribe meaning to it ("It's about how we all con each other!" Uh yeah...sure) because they don't feel comfortable admitting that they just had a great time watching a team of top-notch actors chew the scenery with 70s clothes and hairstyles. And it is indeed a fun movie for that reason, but Best Picture? That's a bit much.

Normally, the Producers Guild award is a reliable oracle for this category but it's no help this year. For the first time in its history, there was a tie...between Twelve Years A Slave and Gravity. That's a nice indicator of just how excruciatingly close it will be this year. Twelve Years looks the most like a classic winner and while it is emotionally exhausting, I think most of the people who finished it will be moved enough to put it just over the top. However, there are a lot of reasons Gravity could win instead - it will likely dominate the technical awards (and all those people get a vote for Best Picture), the Academy has a tendency to pair the Best Picture and Director winners together, and it leaves you with a feeling of triumph as opposed to somber reflection. But in the end, it's still science-fiction (albeit not terribly fantastical) and the Oscars have long held a bias against this genre. So I think the outstanding craftsmanship, emotional impact and social importance of Twelve Years A Slave will give it a narrow victory...but honestly, I wish I could just pick both and say "one of these two." I know, that's cheating.

My Choice: My opinion of the nominees goes something like this: Gravity > Twelve Years A Slave > Nebraska > The Wolf of Wall Street > Philomena > Dallas Buyers Club > Captain Phillips > Her > American Hustle. However, I often don't see the Best Picture Oscar as that simple. The historical value given to a film by this award is nothing to take lightly, even if there are plenty of embarrassing past winners we could make fun of. With that in mind, I think a victory for Twelve Years A Slave is an important message to send, a rebuke to Gone With the Wind (Best Picture of 1939) and other older films that made life on a plantation look like one big family gathering. Honestly, Fruitvale Station would have been an even better choice and I actually liked that more than any of the nominees, so best of both worlds. Unfortunately, that won't happen and I probably shouldn't repeat my rant on that subject. I loved Gravity, but its technical innovations and epic suspense have already guaranteed it a place in film history. We'll see how it plays out tomorrow night, it's a 50-50 shot.