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There is a certain level of enjoyment you are guaranteed when signing on for a movie that boasts a cast of George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray. And that's the precise level of enjoyment you'll get from The Monuments Men — that bare minimum smirk factor inherent the idea that your favorite stars are getting to play together. In FDR-era army helmets, no less. But what we also get from the film is an aura of smug self-confidence from project captain Clooney, who seems all too ready to take for granted that we're perfectly satisfied peering into his backyard clubhouse.
So assured is the director/co-writer that we're happy to be in on the game that there doesn't seem to be any effort taken to refine the product for the benefit of a viewing audience. An introductory speech from art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) sets up the premise straight away: the Nazis are stealing and destroying all of Europe's paintings and sculptures, and by gum we need to stop them! The concept doesn't complicate from there, save for a batting back and forth of the throughline question about whether the preservation of these pieces is "really worth it." Stokes rallies his own Ocean's Seven on a fine arts rescue mission, instigating an old fashioned go-get-'em-boys montage where we learn everything we need to know about the band mates in question: Damon has a wife, Goodman has gumption, Murray doesn't smile, Bob Balaban is uppity, and Jean Dujardin is French.
The closest thing to a character in The Monuments Men comes in the form of Hugh Bonneville, a recovering alcoholic whose motivation to take on the dangerous mission is planted in a festering desire to absolve himself of a lifetime of f**king up. When we're away from Bonneville, the weight disspears, as does most of the joy. Without identifiable characters, even master funnymen like Goodman, Murray, and Balaban don't have much to offer... especially since the movie's jokes feel like first draft placeholders born on a tired night.
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But wait a minute, is this even supposed to be a comedy? After all, it's about World War II. And no matter what Alexandre Desplat's impossibly merry score would have you believe (coupled with The Lego Movie, this opening weekend might be responsible for more musical jubilance than any other since the days of "Make 'Em Laugh!"), warfare, genocide, and desecration of international culture all make for some pretty heavy material. But The Monuments Men's drama is just as fatigued as its humor, clumsily piecing together a collection of mini missions wherein the stakes, somehow, never seem to jump. We're dragged through military bases, battered towns, and salt mines by Clooney and the gang — occasionally jumping over to France to watch Damon work his least effective magic in years on an uptight Cate Blanchett, who holds the key to the scruffy American's mission but doesn't quite trust him... until, for no apparent reason, she suddenly does. We never feel like any of these people matter, not even to each other, so we never really feel like their adventures do.
The Monuments Men doesn't have much of a challenge ahead of it. Its heroes are movie stars, its bad guys are Nazis, and its message is one that nobody's going to refute: art is important — a maxim it pounds home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, through countless scenes of men staring in awe at the works of Michelangelo and Rembrandt. And in this easy endeavor, Clooney decides to coast. How could it possibly go wrong? Just grab hold of the fellas, toss 'em in the trenches, and let the laughs and danger write themselves. "This is what they came to see," Monuments Men insists. "Just us guys havin' a ball." But we never feel in on the game, and it isn't one that looks like that much fun anyhow.
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Another weekend, another awards show, and another chance to predict the outcome of the Oscar race. This time, however, a wrench was thrown into the works when three different films took home the Best Picture title from two different academies, both of whom are considered to be excellent indicators of the Oscar race. On Saturday, the SAG Awards awarded American Hustle with Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. Traditionally, the film that wins the top prize at the SAGs takes home Best Picture on Oscar night — although in recent years, their choices have not always lined up perfectly with the Academy. But before anyone had the chance to officially declare American Hustle to be the new front runner, the Producers Guild Awards hit back on Sunday, when they declared the Best Picture of the year to be a tie between 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. And just like that, the Oscar race was once again, anyone's game.
However, over the course of awards season, its become clear that the final fight for the Best Picture Oscar will come down to those three films. Last week, we aimed to predict which film had the best shot at the award based on title alone. But now, we're moving onto more substantial matters. We've seen that flashy performances entertain SAG-AFTRA, while emotional impact carries more weight with the Producers Guild, but what about the Academy? We've decided that the best way to find out is to look back at the history of the awards, and compare the previous winners to the current front runners in order to determine which one will best appeal to the Academy's sensibilities.
You can also head over to BBC America to check out this fantastic infographic that predicts the Best Picture winner!
GENRE All three films are completely different in terms of genre and tone, but which one has the edge when it comes to the Oscars? - American Hustle, Crime and Comedy: 8 crime dramas have won Best Picture over the course of the Oscars' history: In the Heat of the Night, Midnight Cowboy, On the Waterfront, The French Connection, The Godfather, The Sting, The Godather II, and The Departed. In addition, 7 comedies have take home the top prize, including It Happened One Night, You Can't Take It With You, The Apartment, Tom Jones, The Sting, Annie Hall, and The Artist.- Gravity, Sci-Fi and Thriller: No sci-fi films have ever actually won Best Picture, although 6 of them have been nominated over the past 86 years. However, 4 thrillers have won: Rebecca, Silence of the Lambs, and No Country for Old Men, and Argo.- 12 Years a Slave, Historical Drama: The Academy Awards have a long history of rewarding dramas, including 26 histories: All Quiet on the Western Front, Cimarron, Cavalcade, Mutiny on the Bounty, Life of Emile Zola, Gone With the Wind, Hamlet, Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Tom Jones, A Man for All Seasons, Oliver!, Patton, The Sting, Chariots of Fire, Amadeus, Out of Africa, The Last Emperor, Dances With Wolves, Schindler's List, Braveheart, The English Patient, Titanic, Shakespeare in Love, Gladiator, The King's Speech, The Artist, and Argo.
SUBJECT MATTERIt's not just dramatic films that tend to win over the Academy; often, there are certain topics or subjects that they tend to prefer over others. - American Hustle, Crime: As stated above, 8 films dealing with crimes, swindlers and hustlers have won Best Picture. - Gravity, Survival: The Academy has proven that they enjoy stories of survival, even against all odds, and have crowned 5 suvivalist films Best Picture: On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Oliver!, Schindler's List, and No Country for Old Men.- 12 Years a Slave, Overcoming Adversity and Race Relations: Stories of adversity have always done well at the Oscars, with 11 films winning the top prize: Mutiny on the Bounty, The Life of Emile Zola, Gentleman's Agreement, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Rocky, Gandhi, Schindler's List, Gladiator, Million Dollar Baby, Slumdog Millionaire, and The King's Speech.Another 5 films that deal with race relations in America in a major way have won Best Picture, including Gone With the Wind, In the Heat of the Night, Gandhi, Driving Miss Daisy, and Crash.
ACTING NOMINATIONSIt's always a good sign for a film when they mange to get nominated in the four acting categories, but does a "Big Four" nomination guarantee a win? - American Hustle, 4 Nominations: American Hustle took home the most Oscar nominations, including one each in the four acting categories. In the past, 8 films that received four acting nominations have taken home Best Picture: Mrs. Miniver, From Here to Eternity, Gone With the Wind, Gentlemen's Agreement, The Godfather, Rocky, Kramer Vs. Kramer, and Chicago. - Gravity, 1 Nomination: Despite Gravity tying for the most Oscar nods this year, Sandra Bullock is the lone acting nominee. However, plenty of Best Picture winners have only had one nominated performance in the past - 15 of them, to be exact: The Broadway Melody, Cavalcade, The Great Ziegfeld, The Lost Weekend, In the Heat of the Night, Patton, The Sting, Chariots of Fire, Ghandi, Out of Africa, Rain Man, Crash, The Departed, No Country For Old Men, and The Hurt Locker.- 12 Years a Slave, 3 Nominations: This year, Chiwitel Ejiofor is up for Best Actor, while Lupita Nyong'o and Michael Fassbender are nominated in the supporting categories. Three has proven the magic number for 17 previous winners: Mutiny on the Bounty, Rebecca, Going My Way, All the King's Men, Marty, The Apartment, My Fair Lady, Midnight Cowboy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Deer Hunter, Ordinary People, Driving Miss Daisy, Dances With Wolves, The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, Million Dollar Baby, and The King's Speech.
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LOCATIONSometimes, the Oscars have the same philosophy as real estate, and it's all about location, location, location. But what's the most beneficial place to set your film?- American Hustle, New York: The film is in good company, with 14 Best picture winners taking place in the Big Apple: The Broadway Melody, The Great Ziegfeld, The Lost Weekend, Going My Way, All About Eve, On the Waterfront, Marty, The Apartment, West Side Story, Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, The Godfather, Annie Hall, and Kramer Vs. Kramer. - Gravity, Space: No film set in outer space has ever won the Oscar for Best Picture. - 12 Years a Slave, The American South: South of the Mason-Dixon line is a popular setting for movies, and 5 of those were lucky enough to be awarded Best Picture: Gone With the Wind, In the Heat of the Night, Driving Miss Daisy, Forrest Gump, and No Country For Old Men.
TIME PERIODEverybody knows that the Academy loves a period piece more than anything else... or do they? - American Hustle, 1970s: For this category, we looked at films that were made in 1980 or later, but set in the 1970s, as American Hustle is. It may have narrowed down the field some, but there are still 3 winners: Platoon, Forrest Gump, and last year's Best Picture winner, Argo. - Gravity, Modern Day: There have been a great deal of Oscar-winning films that, like Gravity, were set in the same time period as the film's release. In fact, this has been the case for a grand total of 31 Best Picture winners: Grand Hotel, It Happened One Night, You Can't Take it With You, Going My Way, The Lost Weekend, The Best Years of Our Lives, Gentleman's Agreement, All The King's Men, All About Eve, An American in Paris, On the Waterfront, Marty, The Apartment, West Side Story, In the Heat of the Night, Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Rocky, Annie Hall, Kramer Vs. Kramer, Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment, Rain Man, Silence of the Lambs, American Beauty, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country For Old Men, and The Hurt Locker.- 12 Years A Slave, 1800s: Between the reign of Queen Victoria, the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the ninettenth century has provided the inspiration for 8 winners: Cimarron, Gone With the Wind, Around the World in 80 Days, Tom Jones, Oliver!, Amadeus, Dances With Wolves, and Unforgiven.
RUNTIME- Both American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave have the distinct advantage in this category, with runtimes of 138 and 134 minutes, respectively. If one of them wins, they would join 24 other films whose runtime has been between 121 and 140 minutes. For the most part, the Academy ends to favor movies around this length, although the award usually tends to go to the longest film nominated, which could spell trouble for these two front runners (fellow nominee The Wolf of Wall Street beats them both at 179 minutes).- Gravity is the shortest film in the running for Best Picture at only 91 minutes long. However, that doesn't mean it has no chance of winning, as 4 films with runtimes between 81 and 100 minutes have won the top prize in the past: Marty, Annie Hall, Sunrise, and Driving Miss Daisy.
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DIRECTORSAll three directors have achieved or are set to achieve milestones if they take home the Best Director award. What kind of influence will that have on the Best Picture race?- American Hustle, David O. Russell: This is Russell's second nomination, but its also the first time in the history of the Oscars that a director has earned all four acting nominations two years in a row (after last year's Silver Linings Playbook). That kind of star power could sway the votes in his favor, as he's proven twice now that he can deliver excellent performances from big name actors. - Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron: After winning the Golden Globe, Cuaron seems to be the front runner for the Best Director race; if he wins Best Director, that could be a good sign for the film as a whole. In the last 86 years, 62 films have won both the Best Director and Best Picture award, proving, on a whole, that the two tend to go hand in hand. Plus, if he wins, he will be the first Spanish director to win an Academy Award. - 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen: Like Cuaron, McQueen is a first-time nominee, and if he wins, he would be the first black man to win the Best Director prize. That kind of history-making impact could help sway the Academy, and thus, ensure a Best Picture win for 12 Years a Slave.
Your Best Bet: Based on the winners of the past, it looks like 12 Years a Slave has the best chance of winning on Oscar night, with an ideal runtime, the best amount of acting nominations, and both a genre and subject matter that the Academy tends to enjoy rewarding. Of course, since anything can happen once the awards are tallied, there's still a chance one of the other films can sneak in and win. But for now, we'd reccommend you go for 12 Years a Slave when it comes time to fill out your Oscar ballot.
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Lone Survivor isn't a film for the faint of heart. It's a film that beats you down and only lets you up for a few precious moments before the credits roll, but that emotional throttling is what helps make the film such a powerful experience.
Peter Berg's Lone Survivor tells the story of Operation Red Wings, primarily focusing on a group of four Navy SEALs who are sent to the mountains of Afganistan to capture or kill a member of the Taliban. The plan goes wrong, and the team has to fight for their lives to escape the enemy-infested area. The film does a marvelous job of ratcheting up the tension before collapsing into its main action sequence, one that is as thrilling as it is unsettling. The long sequence brings forth memories of the infamous D-Day opening of Saving Private Ryan, except this film's fire-fight stretches out the violence like a medieval torture device. The langourous scene is, at times, hard to sit through. Each moment slips by in coiled tension. It's undoubtedly uncomfortable, and the film makes a point to never make the violence fun or enticing. The action isn't consequence-free, and every bullet fired carries weight, making the scenes brutal and unrelenting because of it. The film takes on the aura of a horror movie that wants you to feel every second that ticks by, and director Berg makes sure that a pressing hopelessness starts to weigh on the viewer just as it does on the soldiers.
Mark Wahlberg is plenty capable as Marcus Lutrell, a member of the SEAL unit that is sent on the mission. The supporting cast plays its parts admirably by believably infusing a diverse set of personalities and values into the soldiers, while still keeping them in tune with the same military culture that governs much of their thoughts and actions. There's a great scene where a difficult decision has to be made, and the viewer gets to see the different directions to which some of the character's moral compasses are tuned. Sometimes the right thing can mean different things to different people when the risk of death is on the table. The real standout in the cast is Ben Foster, whose SO2 Matthew Alexson swirls with barely contained fury. He is darkly intense and has electric screen presence that really starts to manifest when the bullets star flying and things become dire.
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For all the good will that the film builds up in its first and second act, the final third of the film hits some snags as history demands that the story take itself to a different location, sacrificing some of the tension that it has built up. In the last 30 minutes of the film, there are some odd tonal choices that don't gel with the tension brimming in the first half. A comedic scene involving a language barrier stands out in particular.
The movie makes a point to steer clear of any political judgment, and it doesn't try to lay blame for the botched mission on any one head. And while the film never outwardly states and opinion on the conflicts that America found itself embroiled in during this time period, the searing brutality depicted in the movie highlight that no one should be subjected to the pain that these men were faced with. Made abundantly clear is the soldiers' willingness to drop everything and serve their country the best way they know how. Lone Survivor tries to honor the soldier, but not glorify war.
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Lone Survivor is at its best when it makes you feel the worst. It gives soldiers their due reverence by showcasing the true terror of the battlefield, and while the film does start to sag a bit in its third act, it's still more than worth the experience in order understand the consequences of war, and its toll on the people in the trenches.
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When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.