2014 in Review: Unsung Movie Performances

All too often, film criticism falls victim to what I call the “Oscar Eyes” phenomenon, prioritizing showy performances and actors who make noticeable physical commitments to their characters over work that’s subtle but no less critical to a movie’s effectiveness. Below, here’s my attempt to look beyond the performances likely to be up for awards. These performances are on the margins of Oscar consideration for several reasons: either they’re in movies that rarely attract awards attention, or they’ve been overshadowed by performances with more obvious “award-bait” moments. They’re worthy of recognition nonetheless.

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“Guardians of the Galaxy”: Space Jam

Guardians

Guardians of the Galaxy is a movie in which a talking raccoon is friends with a talking tree, Andy Dwyer is buff and Dave Bautista demonstrates deft comedic timing. It’s a superhero movie with heroes who aren’t particularly super or heroic. It’s a space opera in an era when that sort of movie has been increasingly marginalized, though Star Wars Episode VII: The Never-Ending Hype Machine will reverse that trend next year. And it’s a Marvel movie that rarely feels weighted down by its obligation to feed the Avengers beast.

In simpler terms: Guardians of the Galaxy is an unlikely triumph.

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Oscars 2014: Back Down to Earth

Ellen

I already spent 35 minutes pontificating about last night’s Oscars on a special instant-reaction edition of The M&M Report. Nonetheless, I’ve still got a few more thoughts on last night’s show to offer. How did Ellen succeed where so many other hosts have failed? Why did Idina Menzel stumble when we all expected her to soar? Why are the Oscars relevant to discussing movies? My answers to these questions and more below.

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The M&M Report, Episode 22: Wrong Side of the Tracks

House of Cards

Listen to Episode 22 of The M&M Report here.

This week on The M&M Report, Devin and I welcomed a very special guest: self-described “House of Cards enthusiast” Leah Doolittle. Leah and Devin kicked off the podcast with an in-depth discussion of the best and worst of season 2, from the twist in the premiere to the shockers later.

After Devin and Leah’s discussion, I offered my thoughts (okay, a rant) on the subject of pop-culture shaming in the first installment of Mark Occasionally Doesn’t Like Things. Why is it acceptable for people to tell me that I have to watch House of Cards just because they watch it and think it’s cool? It’s not.

Finally, Devin and I offered some brief thoughts on Jimmy Fallon‘s first week as host of The Tonight Show. So far, Jay hasn’t breathed a word in dissent, but there’s still time.

Next week, we’ll be doing something special. Instead of doing another preview of the Oscars and then talking about the show a week later, when you’ll have already forgotten about it, Devin and I will press “Record” immediately after the telecast ends on Sunday night, and you can listen to it by Monday morning. We’ll talk best and worst moments, biggest surprises and much more.

Until next time…thanks for listening!

Click through for the time breakdown.

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“American Hustle”: The Roaring 70s

American Hustle

Perhaps the biggest pleasure of the enormously pleasurable American Hustle is watching four of the finest living movie stars sink their teeth into meaty roles and have more fun than you’re ever likely to have. Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence make up the movie’s central quartet of lovable conmen and conmen wannabes, each apparently engaging in a contest to see which one can generate the most onscreen sparks. Anchored by this magnificent quartet, director David O. Russell’s follow-up to last year’s Oscar winning romance Silver Linings Playbook is overlong, narratively confounding, tonally precarious and utterly exhilarating.

Though the story is inspired by the FBI’s utterly insane Abscam sting, which claimed four senators and one representative in the late 1970s, an amusing introductory title card makes Russell’s intentions quite clear. “Some of this actually happened,” the card reads, absolving the movie of any pesky adherence to historical fact. The movie revels in this freedom. It’s not a documentary, nor does it pretend to be. Rather, as scripted by Russell and Eric Singer, it’s an exploration of four characters searching for their own identities even as they assume others.

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