Posts Tagged ‘Bradley Cooper’

Yes, it’s Sunday February 24 and I’m *just* now publishing my Oscar Picks, roughly 5 hours before the awards broadcasts begin.

I was very tempted to skip the whole exercise this year. It’s beginning to feel like The Oscars is actively daring us to not care anymore, and I believe that in the relatively short future the Academy Awards currency will collapse and it will join broadcast television in cultural irrelevance.

But we’re not *quite* they’re yet, and the Academy relented and put cinematography back into the broadcast categories. Plus, if I’m being honest, I kind of want to see if this whole no-host thing is a train wreck or not.

So maybe I’ll finally quit when they institute that ridiculous “popular film” award. Yikes.

Caveat number 1: I vote with my heart, not my head, which has made me a historically terrible predictor of Oscar success.

Caveat number 2: I always try to see every Best Picture nominee, but I did not end up watching “Green Book” prior to tonight’s broadcast. Take that as you will.

Caveat number 3: For reasons I don’t understand, FiveThirtyEight did not publish their data-based predictions, which I typically rely on for a second opinion.

Best Picture

Conventional wisdom says that the more nominations a film has, the more likely that film is to win Best Picture. And that rule seems like a good measuring stick for the 2019 cohort, with Roma and The Favourite tied with 10 nominations each.

And, as it turns out, those are my personal Top 1 and 2 films of the year, so I’m feeling a little pleased with myself.

But many of the professional forecasters have noted how 2019 is one of the most wide-open Oscar slates in recent memory, with legitimate odds for many, if not most, of the 8 Best Picture films to take a shot at the statuette.

I agree with that sentiment, and will feel a range of excited surprise (BlacKkKlansmen), ambivalence (Black Panther, Green Book) or crushing disappointment (Bohemian Rhapsody) if the other films take the prize, but still feel that this year’s race is either Roma’s or The Favourite’s to lose.

That said, Roma has a political edge to it that, given the circumstances of 2018-2019, could give it enough of an edge in the final count to overcome the forces working against it (more on that in a minute).

Black Panther

BlacKkKlansman

Bohemian Rhapsody

The Favourite — Should win

Green Book

Roma — Will win

A Star Is Born

Vice

Actress in a Leading Role

Two big caveats for this category: I have see neither “The Wife” nor “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” But I’m fairly certain my prediction would be the same even if I had.

I’m on record as *loving* The Favourite, particularly due to its cast. While “Roma” is a Director’s movie, “The Favourite” is an actor’s movie, and Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne is the secret ingredient that makes the whole sauce come together.

Simultaneously egomaniacal and heartbreakingly vulnerable, Colman’s performance is magnetic (Just thinking about her “Look at me! Look at me! HOW DARE YOU!” line makes me shake with laughter) and sets the tone for the rest of the surrealist antics in the film that would crumble under their own weight if not for the film’s steady protagonist.

Yalitza Aparicio, “Roma”

Glenn Close, “The Wife”

Olivia Colman, “The Favourite” — Should win — Will win

Lady Gaga, “A Star Is Born”

Melissa McCarthy, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Actor in a Leading Role

This year’s crop of lead actor nominees is terrible, and I feel like it’s necessary to talk about *how* something comes to be nominated for an Oscar.

While the entire Academy membership votes on the final winners, the various *branches* vote on the nominees. So the directors choose the directors, the writers choose the writers, the actors choose the actors.

That’s a problem, because the acting branch is the Academy’s largest, and they’re prone to certain, well, unfortunate tropes. In short: actors are obsessed with physical transformation and the result is glaringly apparent this year: All but 1 of the nominees are portraying a real-life/historical figure.

So is Bale’s impression of Dick Cheney better than Willem Dafoe’s impression of Vincent Van Gogh? I can tell you one thing for sure, I was much more impressed with Bradley Cooper doing his own vocals than Rami Malek’s lip-syncing performance that was 90 percent prosthetic teeth.

This category, bizarrely, comes down to the old guard vs the new guard, embodied in Viggo Mortensen’s homage to golden-age Oscar bait in “Green Book” versus Malek’s hipster-age feature-length Behind the Music.

I pick the latter, because I’m interested in what an Oscar can do to Malek’s career now that Mr. Robot is wrapping up. The Academy will pick the former.

Christian Bale, Vice

Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born

Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate

Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody — Should (?) win

Viggo Mortensen, Green Book — Will win

Directing

Once again, this comes down to Roma versus The Favourite, and the clear winner is Alfonso Cuarón and his pain-stakingly detailed recreation of Mexico City circa 1970.

Now, when I say “clear winner,” I’m talking about my “should” designation. There’s still quite a bit of industry prejudice toward Netflix, seen as a lesser medium for screening capitol-F films.

That may well doom Cuarón, which would be a shame. I’ve got my quibbles with Netflix, but they made the right call investing in “Roma” and did right by the film, pouring a lot of resources into marketing and, likely, putting a black-and-white film about a Mexican domestic worker in front of more eyeballs than a traditional arthouse release would have.

BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee

Cold War, Paweł Pawlikowski

The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos

Roma, Alfonso Cuarón — Will win, Should win

Vice, Adam McKay

Actress in a Supporting Role

In what is the polar opposite of this year’s Best Actor category, Best Supporting Actress is the spoils of wealth. Every name on this list gave an Oscar-worthy performance (whatever that phrase even means any more) and particularly Regina King, in any other year, would be a breakout for her great work in “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

But in the end, the question isn’t whether The Favourite will win this category, the question is *which* of The Favourite’s two nominees will take home the statue.

Personally, my money is on Rachel Weisz, whose Lady Sarah is cunning, manipulative and dangerous but centered around a consistent core of moral principal that ultimately leaves her susceptible to the guerilla schemes of her competitor, Emma Stone’s Abigail.

Also, Weisz hasn’t won an Oscar since 2006, compared to 2017 for Stone.

Amy Adams, “Vice”

Marina de Tavira, “Roma”

Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Emma Stone, “The Favourite”

Rachel Weisz, “The Favourite” — Should win — Will win

Actor in a Supporting Role

This year’s category of the misfit toys features great performances by great actors, all of whom seem wrong to win the Oscar this year. Every nominee in this categories seems a little off, either because they’re the wrong actor to get the nomination (Adam Driver?) or because they so far been overshadowed on the awards circut by their costars (Mahershala Ali, Sam Rockwell).

I actually like the idea of an out-of-the-box win for either Sam Elliott or Richard E. Grant, which would help spread the gold around a little and recognize some clutch thespians who have been putting in some really good work in relatively thankless roles lately.

So flip a coin on this one, you’ll be in as strong a position as I am.

Mahershala Ali, Green Book — Will win

Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman

Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born — Should win

Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Sam Rockwell, Vice

Best Documentary Feature

And now for a mea culpa: I should have waited until after I saw Mind The Gap before I wrote my Top 10, because it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen. (It’s also currently available on Hulu — hint, hint, nudge, nudge)

This is a strong category this year, and in an alternate reality I could see Free Solo and RBG battling it out for the statute. But if anything other than Mind the Gap wins tonight, I riot.

Free Solo

Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Minding the Gap — Should win — Will win

Of Fathers and Sons

RBG

Animated Feature

Black Panther made history for being the first superhero flick to be nominated for Best Picture. That’s a great milestone, but it’s a *different* superhero that will earn the gold tonight.

Incredibles 2

Isle of Dogs

Mirai

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse — Should win — Will win

Odds and ends

I’m still smitten with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but I’m betting that adapted screenplay is where BlacKkKlansmen gets some much-deserved Oscar love.

Similarly, a lot of cinephile folk were irked that Ethan Hawke was left off the Actor’s list, and imagine that sympathy vote will propel First Reformed in the original screenplay category.

If by some chance Roma doesn’t get Best Picture, than look for it to pick up the best foreign language film award. Otherwise, that statute goes to Cold War.

And finally Best Original Song, which is an all-but-guaranted lock for “Shallow” from A Star Is Born. Watch for Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s live performance during the telecast, something they didn’t even bother to schedule for the also-rans.

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I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve been sitting on this post for no good reason since before 2018 ended. I had seen everything I needed to see (within a reasonable degree of certainty) but couldn’t settle on the final order until, literally, moments ago.

I’m still not certain I got it quite right, and every film in my top five at one point or another held the top spot. So before I doubt myself and reshuffle the deck, yet again, here’s my 10 favorite moves of 2018.

10. Vice

Adam McKay’s film about the modern Republican Party and the rise, and rise, and rise of Dick Cheney has its detractors, many of whom make very good points about the film’s overt distaste for its central subjects and over-reliance on gimmickry. But there’s no denying the power of Christian Bale’s chameleon performance, juxtaposed against the otherwise surrealist take on American political “history” (characters occasionally break the fourth wall or slip into Shakespearean prose to hammer home the narrative’s points about the hollow theatrics of government).

You’re mileage will definitely vary here, but I’m always prone to award points for bending the rules of convention, which “Vice” does from start to finish.

9. A Star is Born

Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut landed with a bang during the summer, and while its status as the “it” movie of 2018 has diminished somewhat against late-arriving contenders, it’s still likely to be one of the movies that people remember even after they stop confusing the dates on their checks (Is that still a thing? Do people still write out checks?).

That’s due in no small part to the raw and dynamic performances by Cooper and Lady Gaga, a killer soundtrack and a confident, observational directing style that feels as if the story on screen is something accidentally, and heartbreakingly, stumbled upon.

8. Hereditary

It’s easy to overlook the skill involved in a good horror film. Lesser entries over-rely on conventions: dark rooms, loud noises and ghastly manifestations that send a chill down the audience’s spine before sending them home with a smile on their face. Then there’s movies like “Hereditary,” which use those tools to burrow under your skin and sit with you for days.

“Hereditary” is packed with shocking, disturbing moment, but the movie doesn’t rely on stunts. There’s a mythology at play, and an examination of grief and familial bonds, all obscured under a deep and bewitching atmosphere of dread.

7. Annihilation

“Annihilation,” the novel by Jeff Vandermeer is, to put it mildly, ambiguous. It conveys mood — and particularly a deepening sense of unease — more than plot, with its characters barely attempting to describe the fantastic and terrifying things they encounter as they venture into…something.

It’s also a great read, and wonderfully adapted for the screen by Alex Garland, whose film combines beautiful and haunting imagery with a more concrete narrative about an expedition of women scientists exploring a phenomenon of likely alien origin located along a rural segment of the Florida coastline.

6. Paddington 2

I never got around to seeing the first Paddington, and I was somewhat confused when I started hearing reports that it’s sequel was the best-reviewed film in Rotten Tomatoes’ history (at the time).

So I took the bait, and I’m here to tell you the hype is real. Paddington 2 is infectiously joyful, a film that gushes sincerity and charm, and combines slapstick humor with thrilling chase sequences and, somehow, everything in between. As the film’s antagonist, Hugh Grant has simply never been better, and a stand-out scene utilizing pop-up book imagery took my breath away. See this movie, now.

5. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

It took a few years, but Netflix finally did it. With “Buster Scruggs” the streaming giant had its first must-see feature film, a collection of six western vignettes by the Coen Brothers.

Frequently funny, often tragic, occasionally disturbing and sometimes all of the above, the Coen’s ballad has a little bit of everything and will leave you wanting more.

4. First Man

I was born into a world where man had already walked the lunar surface, with the tragedies, national rivalries and scientific uncertainties of the space race long since past. As a result, the most compelling aspect of Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic was, for me, the anxiety it conveys as now-historic ambassadors of Planet Earth set off on unproven and spectacularly dangerous missions to test the boundaries of human accomplishment.

The film’s centerpiece is a coup de grâce, as Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his crew make their decent from Lunar orbit and, once landed, step out onto an otherwordly landscape. Chazelle takes it all in, giving the scenes room to breathe without needless interruption or embellishment.

3. BlacKkKlansman

From the “You can’t make this up” file comes “BlacKkKlansman” the mostly-true story of Ron Stallworth, a black Colorado police officer who infiltrated the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Directed and co-written by Spike Lee, the film sizzles with a sharp, darkly-comic energy, aided by the pitch-perfect, odd-couple casting of John David Washington and Adam Driver, as well as a surprisingly effective Topher Grace as KKK grand wizard David Duke.

2. Roma

The term “visionary” is thrown around a little too liberally in film criticism, but in the case of Alfonso Cuaron it applies. Consider the recent run by the director, from “Children of Men” in 2006 to “Gravity” in 2013 and now “Roma,” which was wisely snapped up by Netflix.

Known for his long takes and massive scale, Cuaron painstakingly recreates Mexico City circa 1970 for his meditative profile of an affluent family and their live-in housekeeper/nanny. It’s a movie brimming beyond the edges of the screen with life and detail, following one young woman’s path through a city, and nation, in a state of social and political flux.

1. The Favourite

Director Yorgos Lanthimos has a style all his own, simultaneously enticing and intentionally off-putting, as seen recently in “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” His films are absurd, but with absurdities masked under a veneer of sterile banality that he carefully cracks to expose the bizarre machinations at play.

With “The Favourite,” working off a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, Lanthimos focuses his singular artistic eye on the court of England’s Queen Anne (a superb Olivia Coleman) and the schemes of two women (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz) who battled for the monarch’s trust and affection.

In the world of “The Favourite,” the familiar pomp and circumstance of imperial English decorum are on full display, albeit ratcheted up to farcical heights that, while deliciously anachronistic, convey the petty jealousies and political scheming that carry through to modern society. The result is a period piece unbound by the trappings of history that, through caricature, captures something wholly real, grotesquely bizarre and hilariously relatable.

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To begin with a disclosure: I’ve never seen any of the prior iterations of “A Star is Born.” I was aware that the film, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, was remade from earlier source material, but not the larger contours of the plot.

No matter. At every point the movie feels fresh, and comfortable in itself. It’s so effortlessly adapted to the modern era by first-time director Cooper, and so confidently led by Lady Gaga, that it has almost a fairy tale quality. If the new film is any indication of the previous works, then “A Star is Born” seems like just the kind of story destined to be retold by each new generation.

Cooper and Lady Gaga star as Jack and Ally, respectively. When we meet them, Jack is a world-famous and hard-drinking country musician at the height of his career, while Ally moonlights as a singer struggling to make inroads in the industry. They meet in the kind of starstruck coincidence that feels like it could maybe happen, but only seems to in the movies. Ally is then catapulted into the spotlight, first on tour with Jack and later through her own solo career.

That’s the setup, and it takes some time to get there, helped along by understated performances, light-touch narrative work and a killer soundtrack. But the real muscle of the movie is the implicit: watching how fame and fortune can consume individuals and the people in their orbit; and the way a couple can alternately support and injure each other as they collide throughout their shared lives.

Casting Lady Gaga in her acting debut adds an inspired meta element to Ally’s story of a woman trying to maintain authenticity in the whirlwind of explosive fame. And her pairing with Cooper produces an unexpected chemistry, with the actors easily selling the romance of two flawed individuals who try to, and occasionally succeed at, bringing out the best in each other.

For Cooper, who pulls double duty as star and director, the role is another successful test of his range, building on his dramatic turns in films like “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Sniper.” The central pairing does the heavy lifting, but the movie gets helpful assists from a supporting cast featuring Sam Elliot, Andrew Dice Clay and a refreshingly dramatic Dave Chappelle.

It’s a moving film, that starts quiet and builds to a powerful finish. Several of the attendees at my screening were left in tears, and the end credits were met with an ovation that practically begged for an encore.

Grade: A-

“A Star is Born” opens nationwide on Friday, October 5.

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Every year it gets a little harder to review the fall premieres. The repetition is mind-numbing, like Sisyphus cursed to watch the same tired plotlines roll down the hill of broadcast television ad infinitum.

Just this week, we have the premieres of Blindspot, Minority Report, Limitless and Rosewood, all variations of the crime procedural that pairs a traditional cop with an unconventional partner to solve weekly mysteries.

And there’s a reboot as well, as if attaching the word “Reborn” to Heroes will suddenly make us all forget how terrible the original series became during its four-season run.

Suffice it to say, we’re one week into the season and I’m feeling confidently pessimistic. But we soldier on.

As always, I’ll be reviewing the pilot episodes of each new series on the major broadcast networks (that means NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox). Each episode will be given a letter grade based on its standalone quality, as well as a classification based on what it suggests for the upcoming season.

Together, we’ll make it through this. And if you get depressed just remember, we still have cable and Netflix.

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Minority Report (Fox)

Minority Report, the movie, is great. Minority Report, the television show, is not.

For the uninitiated, MR takes place in a not-too-distant future, where three psychic pre-cognitives or “Pre-Cogs” are used to catch and convict murderers before the crime of murder was actually committed.

The program is ultimately shut down (Spoiler alert for the movie), resulting in the release of the Pre-Cogs to normal civilian life. Enter the TV show, where Dash, Pre-Cog number 3, has returned to Washington, D.C. with an itch to fight crime.

He quickly teems up with an attractive detective, who waxes nostalgic for the pre-crime days, and together they go about checking off the case-of-the-week box while planting seeds from an ominous “Big Picture” looming on the horizon regarding Dash’s twin brother and Agatha, the remaining two Pre-Cogs.

The series’ makes a brave attempt at paying homage to its predecessor, but the cheap CG and prop gadgetry is no match for the dynamic future world that Steven Spielberg created for his film. It’s formulaic and tiresome, especially considering the novel concept and goodwill handed to them by an established franchise.

Grade: C

Grade: Kill and Bury

BLINDSPOT --

Blindspot (NBC)

NBC clearly pumped a lot of money into its newest high-concept cops and robbers thriller, going so far as to shut down Times Square in March so that Jamie Alexander could crawl out of a duffel bag shivering and stark naked save for the freshly-inked tattoos covering her from head to toe. It’s a satisfactory cold open, using carefully placed arms and lens flares to obscure Alexander’s PTC-offending naughty bits, but any hope that Blindspot would be more than the soft-boiled amalgamation of Blacklist and Prison Break immediately evaporate after the credits roll.

The generic FBI agent called in to untangle the mystery is played by Sullivan Stapleton, aka Discount Gerard Butler from 300: Rise of an Empire. He glowers and broods in just the right tones, setting up the obvious romantic subplot with Alexander’s Jane Doe and demonstrating his devil-may-care machismo by tearing an explosive device apart with his bare hands.

After saving the day, the pilot ends with the predictable tease of restored memories for Jane Doe, and the more predictable reveal that she may not be who she seems (Gasp!). But the showrunners apparently spent so much time concocting the tattoo treasure map on Alexander’s objectified body that they forgot to provide us with a reason to care about what happens to her character, or any character for that matter.

Grade: C+
Class: Kill and Bury

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Life in Pieces (CBS)

Think of it as a version of Modern Family, only one that is told as four separate vignettes and isn’t even remotely funny.

The four-part structure is clearly designed to distance LiP from it’s ABC counterpart and it’s a terrible creative choice, giving the various narratives so little breathing time that it feels like a series of long setups to punchlines that don’t land. And without narrative cohesion – an awkward first date, a college visit, childbirth and a  mock funeral – each commercial break ushers in a jarring tonal shift and a change of character and scenery, like a showcase of one-act plays written by high school seniors for their required fine art credit.

And the cast is all over the map, with a rogues gallery of supporting actors from better series thrown into a bowl with an against-type James Brolin and a seemingly lost Collin Hanks. In time the family dynamic could provide some through-lines, but for now Life In Pieces plays like a craven attempt to put a fresh gimmick on old tropes.

Grade: C-
Class: Kill and Bury

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Limitless (CBS)

A funny thing happened while I was watching Limitless. I realized I was actually invested in the plot, so I pushed pause and poured myself a drink so I wouldn’t have to interrupt the flow later.

Unlike most pilots, which collapse under the gravitational pull to save the world in 44 minutes, Limitless was taking its sweet time setting up a story and it was doing so with an unexpected amount of showmanship for a CBS drama.

Like the movie of the same name, Limitless deals with a drug named NZT which grants to its consumers a quasi-superhuman level of brain function. Our protagonist is Bryan Finch, a stunted musician who stumbles upon the drug after reconnecting with an old bandmate while temping at said bandmate’s investment firm.

Limitless was a C+ movie elevated to a B by the star power of Bradley Cooper, he who is all that is man. And in a particular coup for CBS, Cooper drops into Limitless, the TV show, midway through to provide some connective tissue. The moment is handled well, classing up the joint without being too distracting and leaving the door open for future appearances.

All would be well, except the episode ends with an unfortunate suggestion of lesser things to come. Having sorted out most of the complications of the pilot, Bryan is appropriated by the FBI to serve as a super-powered consultant. That likely means a case of the week, in which our hero pops a pill and is gifted with the mental tools necessary to bring down whatever murderer/thief/kidnapper/etc is causing trouble. In other words, that likely means bad television.

Still, there’s enough pieces in place to do something interesting. Here’s hoping CBS doesn’t do what they do best and ruin it.

Grade: B+

Class: Keep an Eye On

150922_TV_ScreamQueens.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2
Scream Queens (Fox)

Scream Queens, the latest from the Ryan Murphy dream machine, is painfully bad. Centered around a college sorority targeted by a Devil-costumed serial killer, Murphy has created a world wholly populated with unlikable characters who simply can’t die quickly enough.

Jamie Lee Curtis seems to be having the most fun, and Abigail Breslin the least, but at some point the novelty of watching Ariana Grande get stabbed in the head while tweeting or Nick Jonas getting his throat slit just aren’t enough to prop up two hours – TWO HOURS! – of inexplicable character motivations and dated references.

Grade: D+

Class: Kill and Bury

KERMIT THE FROG, GONZO THE GREAT

The Muppets (ABC)

ABC’s reboot of The Muppets had the slickest promotional campaign of the fall season, but the actual finished product is chock full of rough edges.

Constructed as a mockumentary, The Muppets sees our felt favorites relegated to backstage status as they grind out a late night talk show hosted by Miss Piggy. That means shoehorning in Sam The Eagle as the network censor and the Sweedish Chef as craft service, and a litany of sexual innuendo and dating subplots replacing the musical numbers we expect from Jim Henson’s creations.

There’s enough charm to earn a second viewing, but The Muppets needs to find its voice quickly if this gamble on an “adult” tone is going to pay off.

Grade: B-

Class: Keep an Eye On

rosewood-fox

Rosewood (Fox)

Morris Chestnut is Beaumont Rosewood, a man who solves crimes because his extremely lucrative private pathology business isn’t fulfilling enough. Or something. I honestly don’t understand what this show is about. It’s like Bones, only male-centric and set in Miami.

Everything about Rosewood feels like it was created by committee, from the ambiguous legality of the title character’s legal consultations to the prominently displayed sexual orientation of his sister-slash-assistant. It’s “hip” and “fun” with a hidden darkness lurking in the past of our smiling sun-kissed protagonist.

Snore.

Grade: C-

Class: Kill and Bury

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Heroes Reborn (NBC)

Resurrecting a series is a tricky web filled with fan expectations and critical skepticism. And when you lost your fans years ago, as the original Heroes did, the job is even harder.

The latest incarnation sees a world in which the existence of super-powered humans, or “Evos,” is public knowledge, resulting in paranoia and fear. A few key faces from the original series return (notably Jack Coleman and his horn-rimmed glasses) but by and large this is the story of a new generation of Heroes.

There’s a big bang to set things in motion before the premiere skips through more characters and plot lines than I can count or keep track of (there’s a masked vigilante, a young teleporter, a guy with a suitcase full of pennies and an angry Zachary Levi). All-in-all its a slick episode promising plenty of disparate plot lines to slowly connect, but it can’t escape the creeping dread that we’ve been here before, with disastrous results.

Grade: B-

Class: Keep an Eye on

150508_2864909_The_Player_Official_Trailer

The Player (NBC)

When the pilot opened with Wesley Snipes overlooking a dead body, then flashing to a foreign diplomat getting a security briefing I thought “Woah, is this a network procedural about a hit man?”

I would watch that show. The Player is not that show, but it is willing to take some unconventional risks, like showing a character death (or did they?) in the cold open that normally would be parceled out as pre-pilot flashbacks, hinting at our hero’s tortured soul.

One part The Fugitive one part Person of Interest and one part Las Vegas, The Player centers on Alex Kane, a former FBI agent turned private security consultant who gets looped into an organization that uses algorithms to predict (and bet on) crime.

The cat and mouse is fun, and the action scenes arrive quickly and frequently. But the pace is mired by occasional bouts of clunky dialogue and a premise that is, to put it mildly, unconventional. For now I’m intrigued, but I’m far from sold.

Grade: B

Class: Keep an Eye on

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AMERICAN-SNIPERThere’s a tricky balancing act at the heart of Clint Eastwood’s ‘American Sniper,’ the Bradley-Cooper starring biopic adapted from a memoir of the same name by Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American military history.

On the one hand, Chris Kyle did his job and did it well, answering the call to defend his country and diving headfirst into conflict along with his fellow soldiers. But on the other hand, war is a dirty business, a last-resort necessary evil to some and an unconscionable waste of human life to others.

It’s that balance where Eastwood shows his earned-expertise as a director, and where ‘American Sniper’ excels while other saccharinely star-spangled films fall into obscurity. It has its moments of fist-pumping American exceptionalism, personified by the fine-tuned precision of our armed forces, but it also bleeds with the hubris of our national identity, an Uncle Sam aggression that leads young men, confident of their invincibility into the lion’s den.

At the heart of Sniper is Chris Kyle (Cooper) a true-Texas patriot prompted into battle by a deep-seeded desire to defend. He commits fully to his training, quickly rising through the ranks of Navy SEAL snipers before going on to serve four tours of duty, during which he earns the moniker “Legend” from his brothers in arms and is credited with at least 160 enemy kills.

And we see many of them, with long swathes of Sniper seen through Kyle gun scope, the cross-hairs passing over men, women and children as Kyle assesses their threat level. It’s an eerie and impactful directorial choice, evoking the visuals of a first-person shooter video game but never losing the heft of human life. With each pull of the trigger, we see a little more weight placed upon Kyle’s mind thanks to the delicately emotional performance of Cooper, who perfectly blends the outward bravado and internal conflict of his character.

It’s a conflict that Kyle isn’t able to simply cast aside when he hangs up his gun. Each time he returns home between tours he’s a slightly more broken man, pulling farther away from his wife (Sienna Miller) and children before rushing back to the familiarity of the battlefield.

Criticisms are already mounting that Eastwood brushed aside some of the uglier aspects of Kyle’s story. But watching ‘American Sniper’ is not the white-washed orgy of patriotism that we’ve seen in recent years. It’s a film that stares down the ugliness of war, point blank at the end of a gun barrel, filled with expertly crafted battle scenes and centered on a terrific performance by Cooper. And in its final frames, forced into a dark place due to real and inescapably tragic events in Chris Kyle’s life, it strikes a tone that is simultaneously hopeful and hopeless.

Grade: A-

*American Sniper opens nationwide on Friday, Jan. 16

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Director David O. Russell has been enjoying an impressive run over the last few years. In 2010 he gave us The Fighter, which saw Christian Bale and Melissa Leo picking up Oscar statuettes and nominations for Amy Adams, his direction and the film itself.

He followed up The Fighter with last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, which not only made everyone stop and say “Wait, Bradley Cooper can act?” but also saw the impressive feat of landing a nomination in each of the 6 major Oscar categories (picture, director, actor, actress, sup. actor, sup. actress) and a win for Jennifer Lawrence, which subsequently led to one of the best acceptance speeches in Oscar history. (I should also point out that SLP was picked number 2 in that year’s Wood’s Stock Top 10).

And now we have American Hustle, which serves as a sort of dream team-up of Russell’s last two projects, uniting SLP’s Cooper and Lawrence (and a scattering of supporting players) with Fighter’s Bale and Adams and a side dish of Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K. It’s a late 70s/early 80s tale of corruption and con men that hooks you in its opening moments by passing from vintage studio title cards to a declaration of “Some of this actually happened” before landing on a bald and potbellied Bale who is laboring to arrange a comb-over that is, in the words of Adam’s character, “elaborate.”

Bale plays hustler Irving Rosenfeld who, along with his partner in crime/mistress Sydney (Adams), shakes down men desperate for a loan on false promises of financial assistance. “My fee is non-refundable,” he tells them, “just like my time.”

After the pair get pinched by an over-zealous and excitable FBI agent (Cooper) they’re given the choice of either doing time or helping take down other scum like themselves. Sydney wants to run, but Irving is held in place by the manipulations of his off-kilter wife (a hypnotizing Lawrence, clearly having the most fun of anyone in the cast) who uses their son as a bargaining chip.

So our Bonnie and Clyde reluctantly agree to help out, but Cooper’s wide-eyed agent has ideas bigger than his reach, and pretty soon the hustle expands to include a few politicians, a wealthy Sheik and a shadowy crew of knuckle-cracking casino mobsters.

American Hustle runs like a folk tale of bad people thriving and failing in the moral ambiguity of days gone by. No single character is completely hero, victim or villain, and throughout the two-hour running time allegiances shift and expectations are twisted.

The individual performances are superb, as Russell once again demonstrates his skill at creating interesting and dynamic ensemble pieces. Bale, as he does, disappears into his role while Adams and Lawrence spar as women simmering under the surface and Cooper rounds out the inner circle as an increasingly unhinged and drunk-with-ambition fed.

And Louis C.K., it should be noted, grounds the film as a jaded and practical superior to Cooper’s Agent Richie DeMaso. After his work in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, the people’s comedian is quickly establishing himself as an ace in the hole for understated supporting players.

In the hands of other directors, American Hustle could have descended into madcap comedy akin to 1986’s Ruthless People (which wouldn’t have necessarily been a bad thing), but Russell manages to carefully balance the tone and stakes so that the character’s actions become increasingly unbelievable while still felling 100 percent natural.

Grade: A-

*American Hustle opens in select theaters on Dec. 13 and nationwide Dec. 20.

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You might not have noticed, but a few interesting things happened with the announcement of the 2013 Academy Award Nominations this morning.

First, the academy all-but-confirmed that ‘Lincoln‘ will be named best picture.

Second, the awards race that remains in the sliver of doubt that Lincoln not take the big prize went from being a head-to-head horse race between the aforementioned Spielberg-directed biopic and Zero Dark Thirty to a David and Goliath match-up between ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Silver Linings Playbook.’

Why?

In failing to nominate Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director, the Academy showed that enough voters are uncomfortable with the Zero’s controversial portrayal of torture to impede its chances at winning the big prize. Likewise the snub of ‘Argo’-director Ben Affleck made the critically-lauded thriller deflate so fast you could practically feel the wind on your face.

But then, from the decimated ashes of its snubbed peers came Silver Linings, emerging majestically like a phoenix. Too much? Hardly!

SLP, my #2 movie of 2012 and little-film-that-could managed to dance its way into all four acting categories, best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay. For a movie without fantasy elements – and therefore not requiring heavy effects editing – that’s pretty much a straight sweep.

So yes, Lincoln, Spielberg and Day-Lewis are now essentially foregone conclusions but SLP is the underdog to root for in those categories and it also stands a fair shot in its remaining nods, particularly (the gorgeous) Jennifer Lawrence for best actress.

Other notables form this morning:

• Thanks to Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild, we now have the Oldest and Youngest women ever nominated for best actress in the same year (Emmanuelle Riva is 85 and Quvenzhané Wallis is 9. NINE!). Also, the Best Actress race is now the one to watch because Silver Lining’s surge, coupled with Zero Dark’s fall and sprinkled with the absence of Meryl Streep makes this, truly, any woman’s game.

• Interestingly, Joaquin Phoenix was nominated for Best Actor despite insulting the awards process mere weeks ago. Voters tend to not appreciate that. Also, his co-star Philip Seymore Hoffmon was nominated for best SUPPORTING actor, when an argument could be made that he is the lead character (the movie is named after him for one thing…or is it?).

• Not surprising, but Hugh Jackman scored a nomination for Les Miz with no such love for Russel Crowe. Same story with Naomi Watts (nominated) and Impossible co-star Ewen McGregor (not nominated).

And my only true complaint of the 2013 nominations:

• Wes Anderson’s magical and amazing Moonrise Kingdom deserves the 9th spot on the Best Picture list instead of Life of Pi. I’m also surprised Django Unchained made the cut.

Here’s the full list of nominees, including the boring stuff no one cares about.

Best Picture
Amour
Argo
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Lincoln
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Best Actor
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Denzel Washington, Flight

Best Actress
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts, The Impossible

Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, The Master
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

Best Director
Michael Haneke, Amour
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Best Original Screenplay
Amour, Michael Haneke
Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino
Flight, John Gatins
Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
Zero Dark Thirty, Mark Boal

Best Adapted Screenplay
Argo, Chris Terrio
Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin,
Life of Pi, David Magee
Lincoln, Tony Kushner
Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell

Best Animated Feature:
Brave
Frankenweenie
ParaNorman
The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Wreck-It Ralph

Best Cinematography
Anna Karenina, Seamus McGarvey
Django Unchained, Robert Richardson
Life of Pi, Claudio Miranda
Lincoln, Janusz Kaminski
Skyfall, Roger Deakins

Best Costume Design
Anna Karenina, Jacqueline Durran
Les Misérables, Paco Delgado
Lincoln, Joanna Johnston
Mirror Mirror, Eiko Ishioka
Snow White and the Huntsman, Colleen Atwood

Best Documentary Feature
5 Broken Cameras
The Gatekeepers
How to Survive a Plague
The Invisible War
Searching for Sugar Man

Best Documentary Short
Inocente
Kings Point
Mondays at Racine
Open Heart
Redemption

Best Film Editing
Argo, William Goldenberg
Life of Pi, Tim Squyres
Lincoln, Michael Kahn
Silver Linings Playbook, Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers
Zero Dark Thirty, Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg

Best Foreign Language Film
Amour, Austria
Kon-Tiki, Norway
No, Chile
A Royal Affair, Denmark
War Witch, Canada

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Hitchcock, Howard Berger, Peter Montagna and Martin Samuel
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Swords King, Rick Findlater and Tami Lane
Les Misérables, Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell

Best Original Score
Anna Karenina, Dario Marianelli
Argo, Alexandre Desplat
Life of Pi, Mychael Danna
Lincoln, John Williams
Skyfall, Thomas Newman

Best Original Song
“Before My Time” from Chasing Ice, music and lyric by J. Ralph
“Everybody Needs A Best Friend” from Ted, music by Walter Murphy; lyric by Seth MacFarlane
“Pi’s Lullaby” from Life of Pi, music by Mychael Danna; lyric by Bombay Jayashri
“Skyfall” from Skyfall, music and lyric by Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth
“Suddenly” from Les Misérables, music by Claude-Michel Schönberg; lyric by Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil

Best Production Design
Anna Karenina, Production Design: Sarah Greenwood; Set Decoration: Katie Spencer
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, production Design: Dan Hennah; Set Decoration: Ra Vincent and Simon Bright
Les Misérables, Production Design: Eve Stewart; Set Decoration: Anna Lynch-Robinson
Life of Pi, Production Design: David Gropman; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
Lincoln, Production Design: Rick Carter; Set Decoration: Jim Erickson

Best Animated Short
Adam and Dog
Fresh Guacamole
Head over Heels
Maggie Simpson in “The Longest Daycare”
Paperman

Best Live Action Short
Asad
Buzkashi Boys
Curfew
Death of a Shadow
Henry

Best Sound Editing
Argo, Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn
Django Unchained, Wylie Stateman
Life of Pi, Eugene Gearty and Philip Stockton
Skyfall, Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers
Zero Dark Thirty, Paul N.J. Ottosson

Best Sound Mixing
Argo, John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Jose Antonio Garcia
Les Misérables, Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson and Simon Hayes
Life of Pi, Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill and Drew Kunin
Lincoln, Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom and Ronald Judkins
Skyfall, Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell and Stuart Wilson

Best Visual Effects
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and R. Christopher White
Life of Pi, Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R. Elliott
The Avengers, Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams and Dan Sudick
Prometheus, Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley and Martin Hill
Snow White and the Huntsman, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Philip Brennan, Neil Corbould and Michael Dawson

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