Oscar Primer 2014: Black and White Blues

During the lead up to this year’s Oscar’s on March 2nd I will be covering a lot of the nominees for the upcoming Academy Awards. This will not be your usual Oscar primer, but in fact more of a “catching up to speed” series. I will be dissecting a major film (a best picture nominee) and one or two smaller films in each installment. I will be going over what the nominees are, and what chances it stands to win. In the last installment HERE I covered “The Wolf of Wall Street”, “August: Osage County” and “20 Feet from Stardom”. This time I will be talking about “Nebraska”, “The Square” and “Iron Man 3”.

“Nebraska” was directed by Alexander Payne, produced by Blue Lake Media Fund and was released on November 22nd. The film has six nominations.

–        Best Picture- Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa

–        Best Director- Alexander Payne

–        Best Actor- Bruce Dern

–        Best Supporting Actress- June Squibb

–        Best Original Screenplay- Bob Nelson

–        Best Cinematography- Phedon Papmichael

“Nebraska” tells the story of Woody Grant, an elderly alcoholic who believes he has won one million dollars as apart of a magazine subscription scam. Woody believes whole-heartedly that he has won despite his wife and children mocking him for thinking so. It seems his brain has turned off the rest of the world except this seemingly silly piece of mail that he focuses all of his attention on. This follows the trend of Payne’s ‘comedies’ that hurt far more than they make you laugh. After directing (the should have been Best Picture winner) “The Descendants”, “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” he has mastered the painful laughs. From thinking that Woody is just a kook, to slowly revealing that drinking was more important than being a dad, to learning he was unable to say no when someone asks for help makes him a deeply flawed yet always interesting character. This follows the trend of recent black and white films to get huge acclaim. While at first it might seem like a novelty, it helps the story. Woody isn’t a black and white guy, he is a bit of both so to only view him as such would be a misdeed to yourself and miss the point of the movie. While the film had five nominations at the Golden Globes, including Best Picture Comedy or Musical, it left empty handed. This will be a film that ages really well and may be considered a future classic but is so far behind the other contenders it isn’t even considered a dark horse or longshot for both Best Picture and Best Director.

Bruce Dern was a forgotten almost star but in recent years he seems to have been heralded the underrated actor he always had been. His recent turns in “Big Love” and “Monster” have showcased his incredible talent, and it seems like “Nebraska” was the role made for him. At times you wonder if he is faking his potential Alzheimer’s so people will leave him alone, but other times you can see his eyes go cloudy and his mind wander away from him. If you ever have been around someone you care about growing old and they slowly are becoming a different person you can see Dern nailed the part. Who Woody was as a person was mostly revealed by other characters when he is not in the scene, but once you know the details everything about him makes sense. For example, you find out he cheated on his wife and almost left her before their second son was born about three quarters of the way through the film, the way he interacts with his wife in the beginning all make sense. While this is Matthew McConaughey’s award to lose, there is talk that it might go to an oft-overlooked performer like Dern or Leonardo DiCaprio, so don’t count him out yet.

For the first few scenes June Squibb’s character, Kate Grant, is in I found her grating and annoying. Why was she yelling at Woody all the time? Couldn’t she see that Woody wasn’t just being kooky, but that something was up? As the film went along and she was re-introduced she fit the role as a busy body perfectly. When Woody was put back in the hospital at the end she appears utterly nervous for her husband, and even though she calls him a big idiot, she still kisses him goodbye. She has the charm of a misunderstood Grandmother, and I mean that in a very nice way. While she got nominations for other awards groups she is more of a filler in this category as she is too far down the list to be a threat to win.

If you have ever been to a large family function where you either don’t know most of the people in attendance or haven’t seen them for a long while, you can relate to the family scenes. This is awkward small talk done right. “Didn’t you use to have a Chevy?” “I never had a Chevy, I had a Buick” “That was it. They don’t make them like they used too. They never stopped running. Do you still have it?” “No, it stopped running”.  The painful script about losing your mind, relearning who your family is and what you would do with a million bucks, hits in all the right places. The script isn’t very showy; there are no big fights (only pathetic ones) so it will most likely be over shadowed by “her” and “American Hustle”.

The cinematography will stand out right away since it is shot in black and white. Unfortunately I don’t think it stands out for any other reason. When you shoot in black and white, you don’t need to worry about colour palettes. An emphasis on light and every other aspect of filming needs to be the highest focal point. Nothing new or original is done with the lighting, especially since you have the ability to play with shadows much more. There are no fancy tracking shots or extended walking and taking shots.  The focus was on the story, not the filming, which is fine but I am confused as to why it got this nomination. Either way it is “Gravity’s” award to lose.

“The Square” was directed by Jehane Noujaim, was distributed by Netflix and released on October 25th. The film has one nomination.

–        Best Documentary Feature- Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer

Rarely do you get to see a film that completely changes the medium of the way stories are told quite like “The Square”. The film is about the Egyptian protests that occurred during the Arab Spring in 2011 that eventually brought down the dictatorship lead by Hosni Mubarek. Chronicling political events is nothing new, but this revolution was different because the protestors were using social media like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to get the world’s attention. This film was shot in the middle of all the protests and shows the reasons why people would gather in Tahir Square to demand change. You see firsthand the mobilization of the different political factions, what life is like in a protest camp and what their life if like outside of it too. You see a young man wrap his head in a scarf when visiting his worrisome mother because he doesn’t want her to know he was beaten up by the military. The crew gets interviews from the Muslim Brotherhood members, a group who would eventually win the “presidency” by ways of making deals with the military. Watching this film it makes you want to run into the streets join your fellow citizens to make changes in your government. It truly is an inspiring film. This film won Best Feature Documentary at the Director’s Guild Awards and considered one of the best films in the group to win. Sometimes it is hard to predict who will win this award, as it may go to a crowd pleaser but it may also go to the hardest hitting or most original. I wouldn’t be surprised if it won, I also wouldn’t be surprised if it lost too.

“Iron Man 3” was directed by Shane Black, produced by Marvel Studios and released on May 3rd. The film has one nomination.

–        Best Visual Effects- Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash and Daniel Sudick

While the plot of “Iron Man 3” is an interesting breakdown of failure and lies, it really isn’t important when talking about the film’s nomination. Watch Tony Stark blow stuff up real good, is the reason why this superhero movie is being discussed. One of the more impressive special effects involves the plot point of ‘Extremis’, a rejuvenating serum that can be deadly if injected into the wrong person, by ways of causing them to become an internal firebomb. If the substance is controlled they basically become a human dragon, if the recipient of the serum is unable to harness the power they will explode and melt everything around them. The people who harness it have an effect of what James Cameron did in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” where the T-1000 was melted into molten steel and was able to rebuild himself into a shimmering replica. The Extremis users would look turn red and their skin would crack and become almost scaly, all while maintaining human form.

The final fight had dozens of Iron Man suits flying around fighting all the henchmen with explosions and fire blasting. The film was a nonstop CGI fest, unfortunately there is a Best Picture nominee in the group, “Gravity”, which stands the best chance of winning. Outside of “Gravity” it is anyone’s game with “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” being the next most likely to claim the prize.

About author

Music Editor at Live in Limbo and Host of Contra Zoom podcast. Dakota is a graduate of Humber College's Acting for Film and Television. He now specializes in knowing all random trivia. He writes about music, sports and film. Dakota's life goal is visit all baseball stadiums, he's at 7.