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ARCHIVE REVIEWS OF THE 2014 OSCAR AWARD WINNERS

THE 2014 OSCARS was so toned down and visually unspectacular, it might as well be called The Oscars Unplugged...

Hosted by a very safe choice, Ellen DeGeneres, especially after Seth McFarland shocked audiences last year, she was actually witty and even risque at times... at least during the monologue. The most surprising moment was when she basically said... if 12 YEARS A SLAVE doesn't win, "you're all racists."

Meanwhile, sporadic bits where Ellen walks through the crowd, ordering pizza or taking cell phone "selfies" was a bit awkward and not very funny, but she carried it through confidently with her background as a standup comedienne, and the fact she's done this before.

Jim Carrey does Bruce Dern
The personal favorite highlights was Bill Murray, providing the award for Best Cinematography, saying at the last minute that he forgot one nominee, that being the late Harold Ramis for "CADDYSHACK, GHOSTBUSTERS and GROUNDHOG DAY."

Another was Jim Carrey speaking to NEBRASKA nominated Bruce Dern with a hilarious imitation of Dern in his edgy 70's heyday. "Can't keep a good man down, can you son?"

And the memorial was touching but somewhat rushed, showing cloudy images of deceased actors and directors ranging from Hal Needham Peter O'Toole to Paul Walker to Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Here is a list of films that are part of the big winners including BEST PICTURE, BEST DIRECTOR, BEST ACTOR AND ACTRESS, BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR AND ACTRESS, BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY, BEST ANIMATED FEATURE and BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY.
title: 12 YEARS A SLAVE year: 2013 cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender rating: **1/2
BEST PICTURE AND SUPPORTING ACTRESS Actually, the best thing about 12 YEARS A SLAVE is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free man from New York who was abducted and sold into slavery... With limitless potential, the African American actor deserves this starring role. The worst thing is he’s mostly stuck providing stock reactions to other characters, ranging from beaten slaves to formidable slavers.

Director Steve McQueen (who should add a middle initial to separate him from the legendary actor) might have been influenced by Spielberg’s holocaust epic SCHINDLER’S LIST… There is already a score of comparisons between both films. What’s missing in 12 YEARS are the reasons and/or motivations for showing the atrocities other than being a true story about the infamous Antebellum South.

In LIST, Ralph Fiennes's Goeth commits random acts of unfathomable violence that are not only examples of Nazi rule, but cause the protagonists to counterbalance in a mental game of cat and mouse. All Northup’s left to do is witness the maniacal madness of Michael Fassbender’s sexually-driven plantation owner after surviving over-the-top henchman played by Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti. One good scene has Solomon outsmarting a bullying overseer, coming up with a more useful idea that winds up benefiting the plantation owner. But this is too soon followed by a prolonged and torturous beating that keeps the story dragging within an exploitative and limited storyline.

While it's ultimately moving and historically significant, and Ejiofor does have moments to rise above the increasing and unceasing torment, Solomon Northup's plight feels more like a single prolonged experience with various characters and locations than a multi-layered biopic for the audience to get completely lost in, making those grueling YEARS seem more like days.
title: BLUE JASMINE year: 2013 cast: Cate Blanchette, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin rating: ***
BEST ACTRESS Anyone who's seen Woody Allen’s science-fiction comedy SLEEPER will know he’s a fan of, or completely aware of, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE... But the scene where Woody Allen, Diane Keaton and John Beck imitate the DESIRE cast around a dinner table, set in the middle of a forest, isn’t exactly meant to be serious.

So forty years later, Allen revamps the classic film based on a Tennessee Williams play, with Blanche Dubois now channeled by Cate Blanchett as Jasmine, who, as we begin, rambles to perfect strangers and has to live in a low-rent apartment with her sister (both were adopted), Ginger.

Sally Hawkins is the Kim Hunter earthy girl saddled with two Marlon Brando types: a surprisingly serious (and dramatically competent) Andrew Dice Clay as Augie, Sally’s unlucky husband in the backstory and Bobby Cannavale as her blunt boyfriend in the present time, where most of the story takes place.

The flashbacks center on a high-class Jasmine, married to Alec Baldwin’s Hal, a multi-millionaire who, as told in the present story, turned out to be a womanizing thief. In this now-reality Jasmine has no money: popping pills with endless martinis, she must “lower” herself to exist among common human beings.

Blanchett does a good job as the main/title character, although during her sporadic self-mumbling breakdowns, the tone of the film, an entertaining drama with funny moments, feels awkward and stagy.

The best scenes have Jasmine trying to survive as a normal person, working menial jobs with the subliminal goal of finding a decent male companion. Although Allen provides a woman so oblivious, it’s difficult to tell if she’s someone to partially root for or completely pity. And a lot of the characters, including Sally and her swarthy companions, often seem like clichés, constantly repeating how much they do or don't have in the bank.

On a more grounded level is Peter Sarsgaard’s Dwight, the Karl Malden too-good-to-be-true nice guy, providing a beacon light for Jasmine but with a price… And that price is what BLUE JASMINE ultimately strives for…

With a performance more reminiscent of Gena Rowlands in A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE and/or Sally Kirkland in ANNA than the wonderfully overboard Vivian Leigh role, perhaps this could have made a much better underdog story than a class-based morality tale... Or maybe Cate Blanchett’s character deserved more of an arc than a treadmill, and the "kindness of strangers" wouldn't have hurt.
title: DALLAS BUYER'S CLUB year: 2013 cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto rating: *** 
BEST ACTOR AND SUPPORTING ACTOR Ron Woodruff, played by a shockingly thinned-down Matthew McConaughey, is a homophobic, rodeo riding, womanizing, boozing, drug-addict electrician, showing his true colors before receiving the diagnoses that he contracted HIV.

While playing cards with his red neck buddies, Ron’s heard griping about actor Rock Hudson, the first AIDS related death to put the fatal disease on the map. Here we learn, in a somewhat forced manner, what kind of person he is… or was. But THE DALLAS BUYERS CLUB truly succeeds at taking a trip to the mid-eighties, when AIDS was only linked to homosexuality.

Woodruff, basically given a thirty-day death sentence, goes from a bitter addict in denial to a maverick businessman forced to cope with the disease, selling a “cocktail” of vitamins and other drugs, acquired in Mexico, which were healthier and more successful than the government sponsored AZT.

On the forefront is Woodruff’s gritty, determined persona, initially street-dealing and eventually getting patients legitimately signed up for a program (the “Buyers Club”) to receive more helpful medication.

Too bad the film never fully discusses what transactions were legal or illegal at the time,  painting the DEA as a one-note villain as Woodruff becomes somewhat over-glorified, without having too many obstacles, blunting both his roguish intensity and the needed suspense of a story centered on taking big risks, worldwide. Meanwhile the friendship between Ron and his sympathetic doctor, played by Jennifer Garner, provides an essential bittersweet friendship (a non-romantic romance) remaining bland and peripheral.

Oscar buzz is already being thrown in McConaughey’s direction, but the dark horse candidate is Jared Leto’s cross-dressing Rayon, becoming Woodruff’s business partner, confidant and, ultimately, his gateway to understanding the lifestyle he once abhorred. In a sense, Rayon is liken to Tom Hanks’ character in PHILADELPHIA while Woodruff, surly and narrow-minded like Denzel Washington’s lawyer, eventually grows enlightened.
title: FROZEN year: 2013 voices: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff rating: ***1/2
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE The hills are alive… with the sound of… bland pop songs with corny lyrics describing what could easily be spoken, sung by characters who aren’t very interesting…

Well that’s what the casual viewer might think, at first, about FROZEN, a computer animated Disney musical about two sisters, one that happens to be an Ice Queen… Anyone not familiar with their chilly powers can revisit the first NARNIA film…

Although this particular snowy witch is good, deep down, only she can’t control her spells. Especially when her more normal, naïve sibling is old enough to not only engage the first guy she meets, but on the same day she meets him. That's when an extremely angry Elsa morphs the kingdom of Arendelle into eternal winter.

The adventure improves once the adventure actually begins. After an overlong, somewhat ponderous prologue, Anna, our tomboy black sheep heroine, journeys to find Elsa, holed up in a giant ice castle atop a mountain far enough away for a worthy trek… Here’s where the characters worth developing are introduced…

Having kept her charming fiancé at home, Anna is teamed with clumsy, sweet, subliminal love interest Kristoff who, with his pet reindeer Sven, interact like a frolicking version of Princess Leia, Han Solo and Chewbacca. But the scene-stealing comic relief is Josh Gad’s neurotic snowman Olaf, providing genuine laughs while bringing the group closer together.

There’s an exciting homage to KING KONG when Anna and Kristoff confront a formidable ice monster, summoned by Elsa, who yearns to remain a tortured, brooding recluse… Meanwhile, Anna’s slowly dying from her sister’s curse and only an act of true love can save her.

This perfectly melodramatic do-or-die element is both heartfelt and suspenseful, making FROZEN an above-average kid’s movie that… despite the irritatingly uncatchy songs and a cliché money-hungry villain (albeit he's surpassed by an unexpected, more sinister foe)… is a thoroughly fun ride to keep adults equally engaged.
title: GRAVITY year: 2013 cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris rating: ***
BEST DIRECTOR AND CINEMATOGRAPHY Being already 2013, it seems the critics praising GRAVITY as not only the best film of the year, but the greatest science-fiction movie of all time, desperately want something to finally surpass that famous odyssey of 2001. The comparison is mentioned in just about every review, and why not…

Both are epic-quality, beautifully filmed, visual ballets, and each has an astronaut flying helplessly into outer space. Only Gary Lockwood’s Frank Poole isn’t as lucky… that’s right, lucky… as Doctor Ryan Stone, who, played by Sandra Bullock, is such a timid and whiny novice you’ll wonder why she’s out there at all.

Thankfully, Ryan has a big brother type in the form of a confident George Clooney. His rambling Matt Kowalski seems like a hotshot pilot telling stories, until debris from a Russian Satellite sends Ryan adrift into space, and right up the orbital creek…

Here’s where Matt’s wry sarcasm morphs into a soulful, comforting tone not unlike a doctor’s voice during those few moments after anesthesia sets in. Both make a nice team, and perhaps the most intriguing part has the duo floating toward a Russian Satellite for safety, that is, until the next round of anticipated debris will return: malicious as hungry sharks in a stranded-at-sea adventure.

While capably taut, suspenseful and satisfying, GRAVITY feels more like an IMAX real-time roller coaster than a fleshed-out story, and yet it is character-driven, somewhat…

Bullock plays a likable, vulnerable heroine but the special-effects, making the audience feel like they, too, are stranded above the glimmering Earth, is really what your 3D ticket pays for.
title: HER year: 2013 cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams rating: **
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY Back when THE TWILIGHT ZONE episode TO AGNES WITH LOVE showed antisocial, lust-burdened geek Wally Cox falling hard for his female-voiced computer, it probably seemed pretty bizarre since office-sized computers weren’t exactly a commodity...

Skip to the early eighties with the obscure movie ELECTRIC DREAMS: since PC's had barely taken off, it was downright extraordinary that a talking computer would behave in a humanly if diabolical fashion...

But the last twenty years with Internet chat rooms, social networks, dating websites and the navigating Siri herself, having a physically benign relationship via machine isn’t entirely farfetched. And in the near-future world, brought to life by writer/director Spike Jonze, it’s an all too normal occurrence.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a lonely writer working at a job perfectly suited for quirky arthouse fare: writing actual letters for other people by speaking into a computer. But things happen after Theodore gets home. Brooding through a divorce, he downloads a brand new operating system, OS1, which includes the girl of his dreams, Samantha, a computer taking care of just about every task, voiced by a soothingly silky-toned Scarlett Johansson.

The setup is intriguing. Theodore and Samantha get to know each other as he ventures outside and, with a camera in his phone and hearing her voice from an earpiece, she can view the real world: from outdoor malls to beaches to the wilderness, Samantha experiences life while not only saying the right things things but singing and composing music to fit each location and mood.

An intriguing premise is hindered by the relationship seeming way too normal – to Theodore and just about everyone else. Since he admits outright to having a personal relationship with an OS, there’s no mystery or guilt involved with such a unique concept. Not only that but Phoenix, no stranger to intense/bizarre characters, isn’t given a chance to shine in his usual askew light. And the sappy, downright embarrassing scenes where Theodore and Samantha confess their mutual adoration is like overhearing a smitten couple whispering sweet nothings, making the audience a third wheel… which ultimately goes flat.

Perhaps if, like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, Samantha got real dirty we’d have a relationship worth the experience. FATAL ATTRACTION goes viral would beat this searing hipster flick with more naval-gazing theme than plotline. Although there is one particular "baby alien" on Theodore's virtual realty game console that, like the sassy, foul-mouthed teddy bear TED, would have made a much more unpredictable, entertaining sidekick.
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