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Weary Pilgrim – Silver Screen Edition, Take One

There are about 6,000 members of the Motion Picture Academy, all of whom have opinions but very few of whom have any kind of long-term memory. For this reason, the studios all hold their very best pictures until the end of the year, assuming that none of the members of the Academy can remember what planet they were on last spring, never mind what movies they watched.

There are about 6,000 members of the Motion Picture Academy, all of whom have opinions but very few of whom have any kind of long-term memory. For this reason, the studios all hold their very best pictures until the end of the year, assuming that none of the members of the Academy can remember what planet they were on last spring, never mind what movies they watched.

Therefore, things get a little jumbled up right about now — so much so that some films get a so-called Academy release, meaning they play for one week inside the calendar year in both L.A. and New York and then get a wider release in early January.

In case you’re pondering how to squander what’s left of your last paycheck on a film or two at the local Talkie, I would like to wade in on this year’s race — in other words, here’s my two cents on what’s worth seeing:

“Philomena”: my personal fave. Judi Dench basically shows the rest of the industry what effortless acting looks like while recounting the true story of a woman of later age determined to find out what happened to the toddler son taken from her at the Irish convent in which she was placed decades ago. This is a story about suffering, kindness and, above all else, dignity. It actually has a plot, some curious twists and a resolution that leaves you feeling grateful for having a family, not being raised in a convent,and, most of all, for going to the movies.

“Nebraska”: Bruce Dern is the odds-on favorite for Best Actor. This is a quiet story of an elderly man who talks his son into what is probably a wild-goose chase to redeem a winning lottery ticket. Along the way, they drop into the father’s home town and revisit some memories, hooking up with the mother of the family, an actress named June Squibb. She begins the film as a minor and forgettable character and turns the second half into a major triumph of Mother-as-Hero. If I tell you it is shot in black-and-white, is that the kiss of death? Kinda like subtitles? Well, don’t let it be — everything about it works. Keep your eye on the air compressor.

“Lone Survivor”: This doesn’t go into wide release until the 10th, which is good, because you’ll want to get in shape for this one. Peter Berg, who was the guiding hand of the terrific TV series “Friday Night Lights,” directs Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch and Ben Foster in the best action drama in many years. Don’t bother with popcorn — bring a plasma bag. It kind of makes you forget that Afghanistan is a bloody waste of wonderful American lives while it makes you happy to pay your taxes; this is the best recruiting film ever made. It is profoundly moving while being completely enthralling. A true surprise.

“Secret Life of Walter Mitty”: I expected to hate it, but I liked it. Probably because I expected to hate it. It’s a small film about a fantasist lost in his imagination who then experiences actual fantastic events. In other words, it’s silly. But pleasant — great score, too.

“Captain Phillips”: Based on a true story about the sea captain from Vermont (how is that possible? Did he learn on Lake Bomaseen?) who is captured by and then rescued from pirates. Deviates from fact a lot, but a terrific thrill ride, and Tom Hanks makes an excellent victim. Paul Greenglass, the director, started with a great Irish film called “Bloody Sunday” and then honed his chops in two of the “Bourne” movies — he could make a minuet exciting.

“Gravity”: A few years ago, Alfonso Cuaron directed a movie called “Children of Men” — one of the greatest thrillers ever made. He follows that one with this film about a couple of astronauts marooned in outer space. Whether or not you’re a fan of Sandra Bullock, you will gasp and duck at every film trick employed in this so-called CGI (computer graphics) thriller. I loved it, but I realize that some people saw little difference between watching this film and getting mugged in an alley.

“American Hustle”: David O. Russell, the director, once got into a fistfight with his lead actor at the time, George Clooney, on the set of the film “Three Kings.” Apparently charm school paid off, because now everybody wants to work with the guy. He took the merest hints of the ’70s Abscam sting, where the FBI videotaped a bunch of politicians accepting bribes, and talked a ton of talent into donning really cheesy costumes from the ’70s and then swaggering and yelling their way through two hours of con-you-con-me plot developments. It’s a fun ride, but you won’t remember it 10 minutes after you walk out of the theater.

“August: Osage County”: Oh, boy...Let me find just the right words for my reaction to this one...OK, I got it...It sucked. A family reunion of a whole bunch of people you never want to meet. The single greatest waste of acting talent (with the exception of Chris Cooper, the only member of the cast you ever want to have a beer with) since “Hollywood Squares.” I mean it: Give 10 bucks to the Salvation Army and paint the bathroom — you’ll thank me some day.

“Twelve Years a Slave”: This is the odds-on favorite to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and I didn’t much care for it. True, it’s an unremitting exercise in showing us how dreadful slavery was, but if you made a fairly frank picture of, say, the Holocaust, it would only really be good if someone like Steven Spielberg directed it. If you made a film about the sinking of a really fancy ocean liner, you would need the vision of someone like James Cameron to make a great film out of an otherwise average film. Steve McQueen (no, really, that’s this guy’s name — he’s English) isn’t that director, so to me it kind of looks like “Roots 3.”

“Her”: There is something called a “high-concept film,” which can be described in a simple sentence, for example, “Someone steals Clint Eastwood’s car, and he wants it back.” “Her” is this type of film: “A kind of schmaltzy, quiet guy in a futuristic world falls in love with a female computer-generated character.” She talks to him, understands him and continues to flower as his lover–on-the-other-end-of-the-phone. Heartbreak dead ahead? This is a pretty fascinating film, but you might see where it is headed about halfway through, and then why not paint the bathroom?

“The Butler”: Another “high-concept film,” but set in the past rather than the future. A young African-American man lands a job as a butler in the White House, and we follow him through several cameos of leading white actors playing past presidents, from John Cusack as Nixon to Robin Williams as Eisenhower and so on, as we see the Civil Rights movement played out in the lives of his family. Forrest Whitaker will get nominated as Best Actor but not win, and the same might be said for Oprah Winfrey as his wife. All in all, a better film than “Twelve Years a Slave,” but less likely to be voted Best Picture.

“Frozen”: Disney cranks up the digital animation machine with a story based on a Hans Christian Anderson tale. Now right there I want to thank somebody — who said there aren’t any new ideas? I betcha the signature song, “Let it Go,” wins Best Song, probably because it actually IS the best song. About halfway through, a character named Olaf, voiced by Josh Gadd of the “Book of Mormon,” shows up, and it’s worth the wait — the single funniest character in animation since Shrek’s donkey. Fun for the whole family, and there’s a hidden subplot about handsome men deceiving gullible girls that might be the greatest morality lesson since Frank Capra taught us about friendship in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“Dallas Buyer’s Club”: Matthew McConaughey got tired of living the life as just another rich hunk leading actor (who wouldn’t?) and decided to get serious, first with a small excellent movie called “Mud” that no one saw and then with this sober portrait of a heterosexual man who gets AIDS in the years before the perfection of the AIDS cocktail. If you think this isn’t going to be much fun, you’re right. Jared Leto will probably win Best Supporting Actor for his incredible performance as a transgendered friend. It’s an excellent film, but this won’t be the year that it wins any other awards, if only because Tom Hanks stole this thunder in “Philadelphia,” and by the way, he’s still a better actor than Matthew McConaughey.

“Rush”: This film about the 1976 rivalry between two race car drivers sounds like something only guys would like after the third beer, but it was one of the best films of the year. Ron Howard is a terrific director, and this is a film about people, not cars. Catch it before it disappears around the bend.

“Wolf of Wall Street”: I didn’t see this one about the excesses of Financial Trading Jerks leading up to the Big Bust. You know why? Almost nobody likes it. Two of my friends walked out. There is a concerted effort by Leo DeCaprio to disarm the mounting criticism over the depiction of women in this film. It’s kind of like my reason for not going to watch films about drunks: I can go into the nearest Bucket of Blood and, for the same 10 bucks, see the same film AND get a beer. I know lots of jerks — they should pay ME $10 to spend two hours with them. No thanks.

So the Academy Award nominations will be announced Jan. 16. We are a nation whose primary export is rapidly becoming entertainment. I don’t know if that’s good or bad — I guess it pretty much depends on how good the entertainment is. Check out these films and let me know what you think.


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