Oscars 2014: My full list of predictions


At my old job, I always enjoyed putting together an Oscar pool, and giving some of the many odd freebies I’d received throughout the year as prizes. I won’t be doing that this year, but I’m posting my picks anyway, dammit. Wish me luck.


Best Picture

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club





12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street


Best Actor in a Leading Role

Christian Bale (American Hustle)

Bruce Dern (Nebraska)

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)

Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)


Best Actress in a Leading Role

Amy Adams (American Hustle)

Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

Sandra Bullock (Gravity)

Judi Dench (Philomena)

Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)


Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)

Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)

Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)

Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)


Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)

Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)

Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)

Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)

June Squibb (Nebraska)


Best Animated Feature

The Croods (Chris Sanders, Kirk DeMicco, Kristine Belson)

Despicable Me 2 (Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin, Chris Meledandri)

Ernest & Celestine (Benjamin Renner, Didier Brunner)

Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Peter Del Vecho)

The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki)


Best Cinematography

The Grandmaster (Philippe Le Sourd)

Gravity (Emmanuel Lubezki)

Inside Llewyn Davis (Bruno Delbonnel)

Nebraska (Phedon Papamichael)

Prisoners (Roger A. Deakins)


Best Costume Design

American Hustle (Michael Wilkinson)

The Grandmaster (William Chang Suk Ping)

The Great Gatsby (Catherine Martin)

The Invisible Woman (Michael O’Connor)

12 Years a Slave (Patricia Norris)


Best Directing

American Hustle (David O. Russell)

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)

Nebraska (Alexander Payne)

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)


Best Documentary Feature

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Signe Byrge Sørensen)

Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling, Lydia Dean Pilcher)

Dirty Wars (Richard Rowley, Jeremy Scahill)

The Square (Jehane Noujaim, Karim Amer)

20 Feet from Stardom (Nominees to be determined)


Best Documentary Short

CaveDigger (Jeffrey Karoff)

Facing Fear (Jason Cohen)

Karama Has No Walls (Sara Ishaq)

The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life (Malcolm Clarke, Nicholas Reed)

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall (Edgar Barens)


Best Film Editing

American Hustle (Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alan Baumgarten)

Captain Phillips (Christopher Rouse)

Dallas Buyers Club (John Mac McMurphy, Martin Pensa)

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger)

12 Years a Slave (Joe Walker)


Best Foreign Language Film

The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)

The Great Beauty (Italy)

The Hunt (Denmark)

The Missing Picture (Cambodia)

Omar (Palestine)


Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Dallas Buyers Club (Adruitha Lee, Robin Mathews)

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (Stephen Prouty)

The Lone Ranger (Joel Harlow, Gloria Pasqua-Casny)


Best Original Score

The Book Thief (John Williams)

Gravity (Steven Price)

Her (William Butler, Owen Pallett)

Philomena (Alexandre Desplat)

Saving Mr. Banks (Thomas Newman)


Best Original Song

Happy (Despicable Me 2)

Let It Go (Frozen)

The Moon Song (Her)

Ordinary Love (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)


Best Production Design

American Hustle (Judy Becker, Heather Loeffler)

Gravity (Andy Nicholson, Rosie Goodwin, Joanne Woollard)

The Great Gatsby (Catherine Martin, Beverley Dunn)

Her (K.K. Barrett, Gene Serdena)

12 Years a Slave (Adam Stockhausen, Alice Baker)


Best Animated Short Film

Feral (Daniel Sousa, Dan Golden)

Get a Horse! (Lauren MacMullan, Dorothy McKim)

Mr. Hublot (Laurent Witz, Alexandre Espigares)

Possessions (Shuhei Morita)

Room on the Broom (Max Lang, Jan Lachauer)


Best Live Action Short Film

Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me) (Esteban Crespo)

Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything) (Xavier Legrand, Alexandre Gavras)

Helium (Anders Walter, Kim Magnusson)

Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?) (Selma Vilhunen, Kirsikka Saari)

The Voorman Problem (Mark Gill, Baldwin Li)


Best Sound Editing

All Is Lost (Steve Boeddeker, Richard Hymns)

Captain Phillips (Oliver Tarney)

Gravity (Glenn Freemantle)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Brent Burge, Chris Ward)

Lone Survivor (Wylie Stateman)


Best Sound Mixing

Captain Phillips (Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith, Chris Munro)

Gravity (Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, Chris Munro)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Christopher Boyes, Michael Hedges, Michael Semanick, Tony Johnson)

Inside Llewyn Davis (Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff, Peter F. Kurland)

Lone Survivor (Andy Koyama, Beau Borders, David Brownlow)


Best Visual Effects

Gravity (Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk, Neil Corbould)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, Eric Reynolds)

Iron Man 3 (Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash, Dan Sudick)

The Lone Ranger (Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams, John Frazier)

Star Trek Into Darkness (Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Ben Grossmann, Burt Dalton)


Best Adapted Screenplay

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke)

Captain Phillips (Billy Ray)

Philomena (Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope)

12 Years a Slave (John Ridley)

The Wolf of Wall Street (Terence Winter)


Best Original Screenplay

American Hustle (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell)

Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)

Dallas Buyers Club (Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack)

Her (Spike Jonze)

Nebraska (Bob Nelson)

Sneak Preview: Spree picks the 2014 Oscar winners — Part 2


On Monday, I posted my acting predictions. Now, let’s move on to screenplay, director, and picture following on Wednesday.


Best Adapted Screenplay

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke)

Captain Phillips (Billy Ray)

Philomena (Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope)

12 Years a Slave (John Ridley)

The Wolf of Wall Street (Terence Winter)

Now things are heating up. The screenplay categories are so stacked that just about anyone COULD win. That’s rare, honestly. Take Adapted Screenplay. Before Midnight was one of the most critically acclaimed smaller-scale films of the year. Captain Phillips was taut, tight, and tough. Philomena was adorable, and moving. 12 Years a Slave was shattering. And even those who had issues regarding The Wolf of Wall Street would likely salute its script. But I think we can cut Midnight and Philomena (sorry, Steve Coogan) from the likely-winners list. Too “small.” I have a disappointing feeling Wolf is going to get completely ignored this year, and the only way I could see it winning here is if—OMG—it sweeps the biggies. I just don’t see that happening. So that brings us to 12 Years a Slave and Captain Phillips. And even though I found the film fine, but unmemorable, Phillips is an intriguing pick. I think John Ridley’s script for 12 Years was marvelous, but I’m not sure folks praising the film are giving it enough attention. So I am saying Billy Ray wins in a bit of an upset for a script that at the very least is constructed with real intelligence. Not my choice. But I think it wins.

Chris’s pick: Captain Phillips (Billy Ray)


Best Original Screenplay

American Hustle (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell)

Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)

Dallas Buyers Club (Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack)

Her (Spike Jonze)

Nebraska (Bob Nelson)

Damn! Another stunner of a category. Woody .. is not winning. And I don’t think that has anything to do with outside difficulties. Nebraska is, I think, seen more as Payne’s triumph than Nelson’s. The script for Dallas Buyers Club is one of its weakest elements, I think. So right away we’re down to two: Her and American Hustle. The Academy would love to award Spike Jonze, and feel as if it is doing something bold. And my goodness, it would be! The winner, I believe, will be American Hustle. Many have joked about the film’s script, but it is colorful and fun, and also awards David O. Russell, who has been close to an Oscar with his previous two films. I have had a theory for some time that Hustle could surprise us this year … Even if it does not, I think it wins this category.

Chris’s pick: American Hustle (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell)


Best Director

American Hustle (David O. Russell)

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)

Nebraska (Alexander Payne)

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

It is tricky, of course, to predict a different winner for Best Director and Best Picture. Most years see a sweep. But not all years — recall Soderbergh’s win for Traffic in the year of Gladiator, for example. I think this year’s Oscars will end in a similar fashion, with different winners for Director and Picture. But of the two, Director is the no-contest: Alfonso Cuarón takes this, and takes it easily. And despite my relatively mixed feelings regarding Gravity—it’s a good film, and a fantastic cinematic experience, but wildly overrated—I can certainly buy the argument that Cuarón is the year’s finest filmmaker. He crafted a giant, creative, complex monster of a film that was a critically acclaimed blockbuster. OF COURSE he’ll win.

Chris’s pick: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)


Best Picture

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club





12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

And so it ends, with an interesting group of nine films. Captain Phillips, Philomena, Her, and Nebraska won by being nominated; they stand no chance. If you had asked me a few months ago, I would have called Dallas Buyers Club a serious contender, but as time has passed its status as actors’ film has cemented. And so we come to American Hustle, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, and The Wolf of Wall Street. I think Wolf was the best film of the year, but it ain’t winning here. 12 Years a Slave is a stunner that still makes me shake—it might win. But I just don’t see it having the widespread support a film on a “difficult” subject like slavery needs. Gravity might win, too. It’s a hit, and a big one, and made people go to the movies. But for some time now, I have had a feeling that American Hustle hits voters just right. It’s fun. It’s light. It plays well at the theater or at home. It has a killer cast and a director on fire. And it could have been made at any point in the last three or four decades. It is timeless in an unthreatening way. I loved it, and I think the Academy does, too.

Chris’s pick: American Hustle

Sneak Preview: Spree picks the 2014 Oscar winners — Part I


Each year, my old Buffalo Spree colleagues Jared Mobarak (like me, Jared is a former Spree employee) and Bill Altreuter (a longtime Spree freelancer) make Oscar picks, and have a blast doing so. Our picks for 2014 will be running this week on BuffaloSpree.com, but here is a little sneak preview of my selections and through process. Today we’ll take a look at the acting prizes, with screenplay, director, and picture following on Wednesday. On Friday, I will post my complete list of predictions in all categories.


Best Actor

Bruce Dern, Nebraska

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave

Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

Christian Bale, American Hustle

Let’s be honest. Four of the five nominees are deserving, and four of the five have a semi-legitimate shot. (Sorry, Christian Bale.) The most deserving of the five, honestly, are DiCaprio and Ejiofor. After seeing 12 Years at TIFF, I truly thought it would be Ejiofor’s to lose, but that’s highly unlikely. The winner should, then, be DiCaprio, who literally owns the screen in Wolf, giving the most searing, king-of-the-world performance of his career. He has never won, and Wolf is his finest hour. But … I don’t think his first win happens this year. Dern is wonderful in Nebraska, but this is likely a case of the nomination being the victory, and recognition of a unique career. (See also: Richard Farnsworth.) The obvious choice, then, is Matthew McConaughey. And who can truly be upset about that? He has been on fire for the last several years, he’s likable, he gives a great speech, he’s McConaugheyyyyyyyyy. He will win, and that’s fine. Honestly, I’d give it to him for True Detective if I could.

Chris’s pick: Matthew McConaughey


Best Actress

Amy Adams, American Hustle

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Judi Dench, Philomena

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

The consensus, of course, is that Best Actress is Cate Blanchett’s to lose. In Blue Jasmine, she gives the finest performance an actress has ever given in a Woody Allen film. OH. Right. Woody Allen … Is it possible the reemergence of sexual abuse accusations could cost Blanchett the Oscar? Yes, absolutely. Of course, it also seems wildly inappropriate to even think about something as frivolous as the Oscars when questions of sexual abuse are on the table. In any event, I think Blanchett still takes it. She is well-liked and very respected, and in my eyes, her only real competitor here is Amy Adams. Bullock, Dench, and Streep are all very good. (Admittedly, I still have not seen August, but it’s Meryl Streep—I hear she’s an actress of some note.) But Amy Adams is an intriguing alternate choice. She gives the finest performance in Hustle, and it comes after a string of past performance that garnered Oscar noms (Doubt, The Master, The Fighter). She could take it. But she won’t, not this time.

Chris’s pick: Cate Blanchett


Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips

Bradley Cooper, American Hustle

Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street

Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave

Sigh. Maybe I was wrong about surprises. It sure seems that way, especially when looking at Best Supporting Actor. Abdi, Cooper, and Hill are great actors and fascinating individuals, but they have no shot. Fassbender should have been nominated—and won—for Shame, and if there was a runner-up prize, he’d take it. But let’s be honest. Jared Leto will win. He gives a subtle, memorable performance in Dallas Buyers Club, he is attractive and smart, and he wins in a landslide.

Chris’s pick: Jared Leto


Best Supporting Actress

Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

June Squibb, Nebraska

Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine

Okay, now we’re getting interesting. Supporting Actress is a category in which anyone could win, although I would say Julia Roberts and Sally Hawkins are highly unlikely to do so. Therefore, it comes down to Lawrence, Squibb, and Nyong’o. Sadly, I think Squibb faces the same problems Dern does (lifetime achievement, nomination is the victory). Jennifer Lawrence is the most well-liked young star in Hollywood, but it feels like she won yesterday. That leaves Lupita Nyong’o, who is simply stunning in 12 Years. Her Patsy is the film’s most memorable character, the actress’s backstory is fascinating, and quite honestly, she deserves it. This is a rare instance in which the deserving party wins.

Chris’s pick: Lupita Nyong’o

Review: “Lego Movie” builds on fun premise


A February 1 screening of The Lego Movie was a milestone for me: It was the first time I brought my three-year-old son to a movie I was reviewing. And it went … pretty well. WE made it through the whole thing, which admittedly was a bit much for a viewer that young. But since seeing it, he cannot stop talking about it. And I have talked about it quite a bit, too. Here is my 3 ½ star review from the Buffalo News.

In a 1998 episode of “The Simpsons,” forever-10-year-old Bart was spellbound by a television show seemingly created by the Gods of Product Placement: “The Mattel and Mars Bar Quick Energy Chocobot Hour.” It was a gloriously astute parody of the kind of boardroom-crafted “entertainment” that all too often bludgeons children into submission.

You would be forgiven for thinking an animated film called “The LEGO Movie” would be just as cynical a corporate creation, but you would be incorrect. For “LEGO” is an unadulterated pleasure, a colorful, fast-moving treat for all ages. This bold, original film has a wildly clever script with a message of creativity that should resonate with even the most hardened viewers.

Helmed and written by “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and “21 Jump Street” directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, “The LEGO Movie,” opening Friday, takes place in an alternative world that is visually familiar to anyone who ever attempted construction with the ubiquitous interlocking blocks.

It can reasonably be claimed that LEGOs foster creativity, but the universe of this film is the opposite – one gripped by cheerful conformity. No one adheres to the formula of endless instruction and orderly work/play more than Emmet, a big-hearted, adorable LEGO figure.

Emmet is voiced by one of the most likable young actors in filmdom, Chris Pratt. The “Parks and Recreation” regular gave fine performances in films including “Moneyball” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” but “LEGO” is the first movie to fully make use of his essential sweetness. His Emmet, a construction worker, is happy, friendly and utterly ordinary.

The masses, Emmet included, are enraptured by the secretly tyrannical Lord Business, voiced by a perfectly cast Will Ferrell, and cannot get enough of the one song played endlessly for their enjoyment, “Everything is Awesome.” (Canadian duo Tegan and Sara collaborated with Andy Samberg’s Lonely Island gang on this deliriously catchy tune; it’s like an audio Pixie Stick.)

But Emmet’s life is suddenly turned upside down when he meets the mysterious Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a cool customer who believes Emmet could be the Special, a Neo-like “Master Builder” who just might lead a rebellion against Lord Business.

Soon, she is introducing the Special to the Gandalf-y wizard Vitruvius (a game Morgan Freeman) and the other Master Builders, as well as her boyfriend Batman — yes, Batman, voiced with devilish pomposity by Will Arnett (“Arrested Development”). Other “famous” characters include Superman, Abraham Lincoln, and, of course, Shaquille O’Neal.

All are quickly suspicious of Emmet’s Special-status … with good reason. To keep Lord Business from gluing the world together (just go with it), Emmet and his new friends will have to discover what they are each capable of.

If the plot sounds a little bit overdone, it is, and that’s OK. In the context of the whirling dervish that is “The LEGO Movie,” it feels just right. So does “Everything is Awesome,” a song you will be singing for days, like it or not.

“LEGO Movie” is not flawless. The film’s pace lags a bit in the midsection, and the ending is drawn-out to an exhausting degree. At 100 minutes, it’s a good 10 to 15 minutes too long. However, the many pleasures of “LEGO” more than make up for these issues.

The cast is a major part of the fun. Liam Neeson stands out as Bad Cop/Good Cop, Lord Business’s chief enforcer. The “Taken” star sounds as if it’s the most fun he’s had on screen in years.

What really makes “The LEGO Movie” stand out, though, is the script from Lord and Miller. As the film speeds along, it becomes more than just bright kids’ fare. It’s also an insightful embrace of the joys of play.

The world of “LEGO” is, in fact, just the kind of wild, wooly, winkingly silly place a child might dream up on a daily basis.

Long live TOY!


I want to give props to Buffalo Rising for writing about something very cool that I had not heard about yet: the documentary Long Live TOY— Defending Children’s Theatre in the Nickel City. This is a feature length look at the fight to support Buffalo’s culturals, focusing specifically on Theatre of Youth (TOY).

Here is a description from the film’s website:

LONG LIVE TOY, Defending Children’s Theatre in the Nickel City profiles the world of a children’s theater company located in the third poorest city in the USA. Follow the TOY Company in Buffalo, NY as they forge through their 40th season in the face of unforeseen local funding cuts to the arts.

Best of all, you can stream the entire film on the site. I urge you to watch it, and keep in mind how lucky we are to have cultural entities like Theatre of Youth in Buffalo.

PLASMA brings performances, lectures, and screenings to UB


One of the things I loved about working at Buffalo Spree was discovering cool events happening in and around WNY. I don’t work at Spree any longer (although I am a freelancer), but having this site still allows me to occasionally promote interesting events at Hallwalls, Squeaky Wheel, etc.

Here is one: The University at Buffalo’s Department of Media Study has launched a new speakers series called PLASMA — Performances, Lectures, and Screenings in Media Art. It “explores the newest developments of media art,” and features a great lineup. As a DMS graduate, I love seeing news like this.

All events are free, and take place at 6:30 p.m. in the Center for the Arts, room 112. I spent a LOT of time in room 112.

The first event, on February 10, featured multi-media performance artist Cynthia Hopkins. Here is a run-down of what’s come, starting with today:

FEBRUARY 17: Jay Sanders (curator for the Whitney museum)

MARCH 3: Tony Cokes:  (video and multi-media artist)

MARCH 31: Tony Oursler (video and multimedia artist)

APRIL 7: Katherine Behar (New York-based interdisciplinary artist)

APRIL 21  Alessandra Renzi (interdisciplinary artist)

Review: Oscar-nominated short films, animated and live, worth seeing


I was thrilled to have the opportunity to review this year’s Oscar-nominated animated and live-action short films for the Buffalo News. I don’t often get to see them, and while my review was mixed — three stars for the animated, two-and-a-half for the live action — they are all worth seeing, and pondering.

Walt Disney may have missed out on an Oscar nomination for the surprisingly ignored “Saving Mr. Banks” – err, Tom Hanks, I mean – but Mickey Mouse did not. In fact, Mickey’s latest cartoon, “Get a Horse!,” which runs before the smash hit “Frozen,” is the likely winner in the animated short film category.

“Get a Horse!,” a clever, surprisingly bold film that is best described as old-school Disney (think “Steamboat Willie”-era) meets “The Purple Rose of Cairo” in the era of 3-D, is easily the most high-profile entry. However, all of the films in the animated short category, as well as the live action short and documentary short subject categories, are worth watching before Oscar night. (The documentary collection is not showing here.)

This week, Magnolia Pictures is releasing “The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014” at theaters across the country. Dipson’s Market Arcade and Eastern Hills Mall cinemas are each showing “Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animation” (110 total minutes) and “Oscar-Nominated Shorts: Live Action” (108 total minutes). It’s a wonderfully rare opportunity to experience these creations on the big screen.

Animation is generally the most anticipated of the shorts categories. While “Get a Horse!” is perhaps the most memorable, my favorite of the bunch is “Mr. Hublot,” from directors Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares.

“Hublot” is an offbeat treat – equal parts steam-punk and Wallace and Gromit – about a strange little man and the robot dog who turns his life upside down. The design aesthetic is marvelous and overcomes the rather predictable plot. There is clearly a dash of Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot with this one, hence the title.

“Possessions” is unmemorable anime, but nicely atmospheric. “Feral” is the strikingly animated tale that tackles the feral-boy-found-in-the-woods trope. (The last two, especially, are not suitable for young children; do not assume these shorts are kid-friendly simply because one of them stars Mickey Mouse.)

Next to Mickey, “Room on the Broom” offers the most notable starpower, with a voice cast that includes one of this year’s Oscar nominees, Sally Hawkins (“Blue Jasmine”), along with Simon Pegg, Gillian Anderson and comedian Rob Brydon. It’s not what I would call Oscar-worthy, but this “Shrek”-y short about a witch and her cat is certainly enjoyable.

The live action short film nominees are a bit less successful. “Helium” is the manipulative story of a dying child’s mental escape to a fantastic land, “Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)” is a grim effort about an aid worker and a young African soldier, and the exasperated mother of “Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)” is sweet, but nothing more.

“The Voorman Problem” is predictable but fun fare in which “Sherlock” star Martin Freeman, aka Bilbo Baggins, plays a psychiatrist tasked with attempting to help a man (Tom Hollander) who believes he’s God. Alexandre Gavras, the son of “Z” Oscar-winner Costa-Gavras, co-directed the tense domestic abuse story “Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just before Losing Everything),” and I’d call it the finest live action short.

(One shocker is that “Gravity” co-writer Jonás Cuarón’s “Aningaaq,” perhaps the year’s most notable live action short, was not among the nominees. This is the companion to “Gravity” directed by Alfonso Cuarón’s son centered around the voice on the other end of Sandra Bullock’s distress call – an Inuit fisherman.)

Like most years, these nominated shorts are a mixed bag. But they also serve as a reminder that even among Hollywood’s overblown blockbusters and Oscar bait, very interesting films occasionally come in very small packages. I guarantee you’ll get more from these than from “I, Frankenstein.”

Squeaky Wheel to screen “A Field in England”


One of the most mesmerizing, scary, truly unsettling moments onscreen in 2013 occurs in Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England. Taking place during the English Civil War, it centers around a not-so-merry group of deserters — including O’Neill (Michael Smiley) and the alchemist Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) — on a strange quest. The scene I refer to is summarized by reviewer Patrick Townsend like so:

The film uses this basis of a plot to create an atmosphere full of dread and uncertainty that is made with individual moments such as tableaus which are often used at the start of a scene, not as an introduction but to create a sense of unease. Another example is a scene in which O’Neill brings Whitehead into his tent and we then hear Whitehead’s horrifying screams (Shearsmith’s time in The League of Gentlemen serves him well here as he can pull off a really good scream).  Then once the screaming stops, Whitehead leaves the tent, attached to a rope, in a very long slow motion shot that was, for me, one of the most unnerving shots I have seen in a very long time. The most amazing thing about this is that while many modern horrors try to use gore and jump shots to try to scare their audience, Wheatley achieves this great sense of unease simply showing somebody grinning and letting the audience use their imaginations to work out how he came to such a state.

It is no exaggeration to say it is quite unlike anything you’ve seen before. Bravo to Squeaky Wheel for presenting the film to Buffalo audiences at 7 p.m. on February 20. (I saw it at TIFF 2013.)

The Squeaky lineup also includes Maidentrip tonight (February 12), Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis on February 26, Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story on March 26, and Tropicalia on April 30.

The week in Buffalo cinema: “Seconds” at Hallwalls


John Frankenheimer’s Seconds is “one of those movies.” In other words, it is a cult classic that, if you’re lucky, you happen upon, and then cannot get out of your head. It is a strange, disturbing, downright eerie film that feels both ahead of its time (it came out in 1965) and also wonderfully dated.

Rock Hudson stars in the film, which is nicely summarized by the Criterion Collection folks; it was released by Criterion last summer:

Rock Hudson is a revelation in this sinister, science-fiction-inflected dispatch from the fractured 1960s. Seconds, directed by John Frankenheimer, concerns a middle-aged banker who, dissatisfied with his suburban existence, elects to undergo a strange and elaborate procedure that will grant him a new life. Starting over in America, however, is not as easy as it sounds. This paranoiac symphony of canted camera angles (courtesy of famed cinematographer James Wong Howe), fragmented editing, and layered sound design is a remarkably risk-taking Hollywood film that ranks high on the list of its legendary director’s achievements.

The crisp black and white photography should look especially cool at Hallwalls, which is screening the film at 7 p.m. tomorrow (February 11) as part of curator John Massier’s “Long Nights, Bright Paranoia” series. It kicked off last week with 1953’s Invaders From Mars, and follows up Seconds with Alex Proyas’s underrated Dark City and Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View.

What a fantastic series of films — and a nice way of brightening up the ugly February cinema calendar.

Review: Unrelenting “Lone Survivor” is a tough war film to watch

Lone Survivor

Despite some solid pre-release buzz, I did not expect Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor to be a winter box office smash, and that seemed even less likely to me after seeing it. I was way off. I reviewed it for the Buffalo News, and stand by my two-star verdict. It might be a hit, but that does not make it a great film.

The most moving chapter of director Peter Berg’s based-on-a-true-story Afghanistan war drama “Lone Survivor,” opening Friday, does not include stars Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch or Ben Foster.

It is instead a five-minute-or-so collection of real video and images of Navy SEAL(s) in training that is kinetic, compelling and moving. We watch as they are plunged into water relentlessly and speak of the bond they share with their “brothers.”

This footage is unique and memorable – far more so than the nearly two hours that follow. Berg (director of “Hancock” and “Battleship”) and company try hard, but despite some of the most violent, relentless close-range combat in recent cinema, that opening is never topped.

“Lone Survivor” is based on the book by Marcus Luttrell, a Navy SEAL played by Wahlberg. He was as the title indicates – and this is hardly a spoiler – the only SEAL to survive a failed 2005 mission in Afghanistan.

As the film opens, Luttrell and his brothers – Kitsch plays Mike Murphy, Hirsch is Danny Dietz, and Foster is Matthew Axelson – await the order to hunt Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. Among them, Murphy is clearly the legend of the group.

Soon, the mission begins in nicely subdued fashion. The four find their target, sit and wait. But when a goat herder and two younger Afghanis stumble upon them, the mission is quickly compromised.

The most interesting moments between the four main characters happen here, as they debate what to do next. It’s a fascinating sequence, in which they are forced to face serious questions in a matter of minutes: Should they kill the trio? Release them? Tie them up, and get out as fast as possible?

It serves as a reminder of how difficult it must be to make possibly life-altering decisions without warning.

A decision is made, and from this point forward, it’s a different film – in essence, it becomes the most unrelentingly bullet-heavy military drama since “Black Hawk Down.”

It is no exaggeration to say that once the first shots are fired, they rarely stop over the next hour, bludgeoning the viewer to such a degree that it is difficult to leave the theater feeling anything other than mental exhaustion.

Was that Berg’s point? Perhaps. He is clearly attempting to thrust the viewer straight into the action, to make us experience the violence and terror that these four brave soldiers endured.

But we can’t experience it, really. Unlike those early photos and videos, we are watching Berg’s re-creation, and he cannot resist directorial tropes that only serve to highlight that disconnect between the real and the unreal. It is hard not to wonder how accurate the film is, especially considering its final stretch, in which villagers take on the Taliban to save Luttrell’s life. But even with those questions, the lengthy fighting and the ending is often gripping, and occasionally shot with real verve and creativity.

Berg knows how to craft an action sequence – one in particular, involving a helicopter rescue attempt, is a stunner. This is certainly a stronger work than the awful “Battleship,” but the early buzz pegging it as an Oscar sleeper was wrong. It’s no war classic.

Script-wise, none of the main characters are particularly well-developed; each gets a tidbit of background only, generally involving their significant others back home. Still, Wahlberg, Kitsch and Foster, especially, do fine work.

Wahlberg continues to make mostly solid choices that maximize his everyman appeal and penchant for dopey humor. Here, however, he is surprisingly overshadowed by co-star Kitsch, who gives a simple, effective performance. Eric Bana also is solid as a commanding officer faced with increasingly tough decisions.

“Tough” is a word that describes the film well, actually. “Lone Survivor” certainly works as a tribute to the men who died on that mountain. But it is not a great film – merely a “tough” one.