“The Boy Next Door” is terrible, but it isn’t delightfully terrible enough. An R-rated erotic thriller starring Jennifer Lopez as a sexy high school English teacher being stalked by a hunk half her age should wallow in its over-the-top premise. And it does, eventually — but the insane climax of Rob Cohen’s film only makes you wish the rest of it were as much fun. My RogerEbert.com review.
Al Pacino dials it down and does some of his best work in a long time as a veteran actor struggling to regain his former glory. If that premise sounds a lot like “Birdman,” well, yes — that is an unfortunate coincidence. But Pacino’s performance is the strongest element in Barry Levinson’s frustratingly inconsistent film. My mixed RogerEbert.com review.
First of all, I’m not sure why I care so much. I said this to my husband this morning after the Academy Award nominations came out and I was thoroughly worked up over how terrible they were. I’m not sure why any of us care so much, actually. Maybe it’s because we see movies to get lost in them and end up becoming emotionally invested in them. Maybe it’s just fun to make predictions and be right. In theory, it should be satisfying enough to see a film and be dazzled or touched or provoked or whatever. It should be about the art, not the congratulatory hardware.
Still, here we are on Hollywood’s Biggest Morning, waking up at 5:30 a.m. Pacific time, analyzing and agonizing over what went wrong and what went right. I have a few thoughts but then must dash off to write a review of “The Wedding Ringer.” We still have January releases to contend with, after all.
SELMA: It scored a well-deserved best picture nomination and one for Common and John Legend’s original song, “Glory.” But that is not nearly enough for this powerful, beautifully acted and passionately made picture. Ava DuVernay belongs in that best-director category — and she would have made history as the first female filmmaker of color. And it’s unfathomable that David Oyelowo didn’t get a best-actor nomination for his searing and sensitive portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He tore that role up but he also found the quiet humanity in this iconic figure. I’d like to think the paltry number of nominations had more to do with a late release date and a lack of screeners than an institutional racism and sexism within this extremely white, extremely male voting body. But it doesn’t look good. Maybe this will inspire more folks to go see it, though.
THE LEGO MOVIE: The biggest stunner of all and the one that made the Unikitty in me want to explode with rage. Heading into this morning, “The Lego Movie” looked like the favorite to WIN the Oscar for best animated feature. It didn’t even receive a nomination. Nothing about this makes sense. How is it possible that this gorgeous, detailed, lively, funny, crowd-pleasing and affirming film isn’t one of the five best animated features of the year? Was it just too different aesthetically — too edgy, too innovative? Did the brief mix of live action at the end throw people off? It did earn a nomination for best original song, though: the now-ironically titled “Everything Is Awesome.”
LIFE ITSELF: Steve James’ look at the life and last days of Roger Ebert, based on Ebert’s autobiography of the same name, seemed like a shoo-in for the documentary feature category. It’s resonated with audiences worldwide, earned rave reviews and drew strong ratings when it aired earlier this month on CNN. It’s a well-made and intimate look at a man who has influenced so many of us, one who remains a revered and adored figure among anyone who loves film. So not seeing “Life Itself” listed among the five nominees was indeed a shocker. But interestingly, “Finding Vivian Maier,” co-directed by Gene Siskel’s nephew, Charlie, did receive a best-documentary nomination. The rivalry remains strong in the afterlife.
BEST ACTOR: As I mentioned earlier, Oyelowo should be in this race.So should Jake Gyllenhaal, doing the best work of his life as a supremely creepy TV news videographer in “Nightcrawler.” Instead, we get Bradley Cooper, who is admittedly very good in “American Sniper” and earns his third consecutive nomination following “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle.” We also get Steve Carell, who was chilling in a rare dramatic turn as John DuPont in “Foxcatcher,” a movie that was too chilly as a whole. (Carell’s nose also got nominated in the hair and makeup category.) It was an extremely tight year. There are a good dozen actors who belonged in this race. The other three who did make it — Michael Keaton in “Birdman,” Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything” and Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game” — have been major players all along.
SPEAKING OF “FOXCATCHER:” The film’s director, Bennett Miller, surprisingly received a nomination this morning. I’ve enjoyed his previous films — “Capote” and “Moneyball” — but this one just felt too emotionally detached, even though it’s based on a dramatic, real-life story. Miller takes the spot Clint Eastwood earned at the Directors Guild nominations for “American Sniper”; otherwise, the Oscars and the DGAs are aligned, as they so often are. And as usual, they are all men: Besides Miller, there’s Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Birdman”), Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”), Wes Anderson (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”).
AND SPEAKING OF MEN: They’re the subjects of all eight of this year’s best-picture nominees: “American Sniper,” “Birdman,” “Boyhood,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Imitation Game,” “Selma,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Whiplash.” And all but one of those, “Selma,” are about white men.
AND SPEAKING OF WHITE PEOPLE IN GENERAL: Every single acting nominee is white. All 20 of them across all four categories. There hasn’t been this complete lack of diversity since 1998. Way to shake things up, Academy.
I’M SORRY, WHAT WAS THAT?: “Interstellar” earned nominations for both its sound mixing and editing? I couldn’t hear what you were saying, the music was too loud. (The overpowering score earned Hans Zimmer yet another Oscar nomination, by the way.)
AND YET, “IDA”: The subtly powerful Polish drama “Ida” from director and co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski was a lock for the foreign-language category. I was pleased to see it make it in there, but it also received a surprising nomination for its exquisite black-and-white cinematography from Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal. Every single frame is a work of art. This is my favorite nomination of the day. But! They’ll probably lose to Emmanuel Lubezki for his daredevil work on “Birdman.” This means my hero, Roger Deakins, also will lose once again — for the 12th time — for his dramatic work on “Unbroken,” which is the best part of the whole film.
AND “FEAST”: The adorable little movie that plays before “Big Hero 6″ got a much-deserved nomination for best animated short. “Feast” does so much in such a small amount of time — which is appropriate given that its subject, a Boston terrier, is the kind of dog who thinks he’s much bigger than he really is. Now, maybe I’m a tad biased because we are the proud human companions of a Boston terrier ourselves, but this movie was a complete charmer. It also left me with tears streaming down my face and my 5-year-old son in my lap wondering what the hell was wrong with me. Go find it.
DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS: And finally, after all this bitching, I’m going to end on a positive by noting that this was a great day for Texas filmmakers. Linklater and Anderson — both born in Houston, with Linklater remaining a major force in Austin — scored their first best-picture and best-director nominations. This is sort of mind-boggling given that they’ve established themselves as such important, singular voices over the past couple decades. So maybe there’s some reason to celebrate, after all — with a Shiner Bock, even.
One of the most powerful aspects of Jonathan Glazer’s gorgeous and daring “Under the Skin” is its score from British singer-songwriter and producer Mica Levi: a haunting mix of strings, percussion and flute that’s sometimes unsettling, sometimes dreamlike and always original. It keeps you on edge from the very beginning, and it beautifully accompanies the transformation that Scarlett Johansson’s character undergoes.
Last night at the newly reopened Regent Theater in Downtown Los Angeles, I had the great pleasure of rewatching the film with Levi conducting a 25-piece orchestra which performed the score before a sold-out audience. The century-old theater, which was home to grindhouse fare and porn in the 1970s, has been restored to its former glory, and it provided an intimate and appropriately dramatic setting for such a bold film.
In case you haven’t seen “Under the Skin” — and you really should, since it’s one of 2014′s best — Johansson stars as a sexy, otherworldly being who prowls the streets of Scotland in a minivan seeking lonely, single men to fulfill her nefarious purposes. It’s challenging and intentionally ambiguous but also just exquisite in its imagery, visual effects and sound design.
Watching it again with Levi at the helm, I noticed several different elements I didn’t catch completely upon initial viewing. When I first saw the movie, it blew me away from both a technical and a narrative perspective. And Johansson’s performance truly wowed me: It’s probably the best work of her long and eclectic career because it requires her to be both seductive and elusive, often within the blink of an eye.
This time, there was a heightened buzz in the room with such gifted musicians performing this awesome and avant-garde score right in front of us. The staccato of the violas sizzled even more, and the steady drum that’s the heartbeat of Johansson’s hunt provided an even more unbearable feeling of suspense. But I also felt more aware of her arc — possible spoilers ahead — as she goes from cold and driven predator to uncertain and emotional prey. Glazer establishes subtle parallels: the way she walks backward as she lures various men into her lair, and then later follows a man who’s walking backward as he leads her down a narrow, scary staircase. His camera tracks men walking down the street, lingering as it sizes them up, but regards the women who walk by with indifference.
I also noticed the first contacts with humanity that touched her even earlier — the blood on her hand from a street vendor’s rose precedes her encounter with the kindhearted, facially disfigured man who earns her reprieve. And the terror she experiences once she opens herself up to mortal sensations felt even more chilling this time around. It felt immediate and intense, and I’m certain that had everything to do with hearing the climactic section of the score played live.
It was also just extremely cool to see Levi do her thing so calmly, so commandingly, before a packed house. She’s only 28 years old and this is her first film score — she’s probably best known as Micachu of the experimental pop band The Shapes — which makes her the rare woman composing music for movies today. Think about it: When you consider the most prominent and acclaimed composers in film history, names like Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat and Danny Elfman come to mind. All men.
Levi is blazing a trail both musically and just through her sheer presence. She also happens to be the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s winner of the best music score award, tying with Jonny Greenwood for his work on “Inherent Vice.” I’d say we chose pretty well — and I can’t wait to see (and hear) what she does next.
Greetings from Banff, Alberta, where I’ve been skiing all week with my family in the stunning Canadian Rockies. My L.A. kid had never even seen snow in person, much less skied on it, prior to this trip. He’s having a blast — we all are — but naturally, the dramatic scenery got me thinking about movies, as most things do. (Thankfully, we’ve avoided “Force Majeure”-style, avalanche-as-metaphor antics during our vacation.)
So here’s a list of five great movies in which snow is a crucial factor. Bundle up and let’s go …
“Doctor Zhivago” (1965): David Lean’s Oscar-winning epic, set during the Russian Revolution, features Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in a seriously dramatic love affair with some seriously dramatic costumes. So. Much. Fur. Plus, you have 3 1/2 hours to kill, right?
“The Shining” (1980): It doesn’t snow for the entirety of Stanley Kubrick’s Stephen King adaptation, but the icy, frigid backdrop of the labyrinth chase makes the film’s climax especially haunting. Just try to un-see the look on Jack Nicholson’s face here.
“For Your Eyes Only” (1981): Perhaps THE greatest James Bond chase scene ever. Nothing this stressful (or athletic) has happened to us during our vacation, but Chris just mentioned to me that every time we go skiing, he gets the iconic Bond theme song stuck in his head at least once a run.
“Fargo” (1996): The snow is so essential to “Fargo,” it almost feels like a character itself. The unforgiving bleakness of the surroundings sets a pervasive tone, and it provides a striking backdrop for the film’s violent, bloody moments. Easily one of my favorites from the Coen brothers.
“A Simple Plan” (1998): As in “Fargo,” the snow heightens the sense of dread and isolation in Sam Raimi’s great (and greatly underappreciated) crime thriller. If you found a giant bag of cash in the dead of winter near a plane crash in middle-of-nowhere Minnesota, wouldn’t you keep it, too?
UPDATE, Jan. 3: A frequent visitor to my Facebook page, Shannon Nutt, astutely points out that I completely spaced “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980). Because, Hoth. This is embarrassing as the parent of a “Star Wars”-obsessed child, so I’m going to break my own rules here and add a sixth movie to the list, with my thanks to Shannon for the great pick. Enjoy.