Movies

Movie Highlights: 2014 Awards Season

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Trying to catch up on Oscar-quality films?  Here are some of the highlights of several movies nominated for awards in various categories.  Better yet, you still have a chance to see them at the theaters in the next few weeks!

“Gravity”

Lost in space. Never before has it felt so terrifyingly realistic. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock, “The Lake House“), a medical engineer on her first mission, is in the process of installing a scanning device. There’s news that clouds of debris are brewing and heading at breakneck speed.  Alone and adrift, she’s low on oxygen and fuel, nauseous and dizzy, desperate and scared to death. She must let go of the past, find the will to survive, make the right trajectory to the space station and find a way back home. The destruction of the space station in the vast vacuum of space is eye-popping. The countdown toward earth in the end is one of the most distressing scenes. A visual masterpiece, there’s a claustrophobic feel and realism to the scenes. When every second counts, every gasp and grasp, every jerk and hit could mean a chance for life or death. The 3-D is fully utilized, from sprays of flying debris to specks of floating tears or fires. The sound design goes for maximum impact, alternating between piercingly earthshaking and eerily quiet. A singular survival tale in space, “Gravity” is an experience that marvels and mesmerizes. It’s probably the closest you’ll ever be to being in space in this lifetime.  Check out the full review and trailer here.

***

“Captain Phillips”

A day that starts like any other… ends with a story of a lifetime. “Captain Phillips” is a ripped-from-the headlines story of a U.S. cargo ship getting hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009, the first in 200 years. The opening scenes offer a glimpse of the harsh life on the shores of impoverished Somalia and a normal American life. Tom Hanks (“Cloud Atlas”) is Richard Phillips, a family man from Vermont and commanding officer of Maerks Alabama. Soon he and his officers find themselves surrounded by four armed Somali pirates. Hanks shows one of the most outstanding acting displays during what could be the last stretch of Phillips’ life. Your stomach will be tied in knots and you’ll eventually exhale along with him. Abdi, an amateur actor, holds his own. His Muse’s nickname may be “Skinny,” but he doesn’t skimp on threats, even when he realizes he’s running out of time and options.  The nighttime standoff and sea rescue mission are grippingly well-orchestrated, a testament to the finest filmmaking. The cool coordination, negotiation and precise execution conducted by the rescuers contrast with the chaos and confusion inside the compact confinement of the lifeboat with Phillips and the pirates. The tension, underscored by a pulse-pounding soundtrack, skyrockets to an unbelievable level in the last third of the film. A riveting, real-life thriller.  Check out the full review and trailer here.

***

 “Saving Mr. Banks”

There’s a story behind every film. Who knew the makings of “Mary Poppins” was such a long rollercoaster ride? For 20 years, author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) has rebuffed Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks, “Captain Phillips”) efforts to make her beloved novel into a movie. Travers has a certain level of disdain for all-things Disney, which she views solely as a moneymaking empire. She insists on recording every session and proceeds to nitpick every single detail of the way the characters are portrayed, lyrics of music, colors of the set designs or costumes. As the present story unfolds, the film flashes back into Travers’ tragic childhood in the Australian outback. There are heart-wrenching events that no child should experience. Eventually Disney realizes that even all the courting  will yield no result. The characters in “Mary Poppins” are dear and personal to Travers; they’re like a family. During a heartfelt conversation, Disney shares a a childhood story. He relates to and sees where Travers is coming from. The moment that he ‘gets it’ it is his unwavering commitment that finally compels her to willingly hand over the rights. The moral of the story rings true. Don’t let the past dictate the present. If life disappoints, move forward. Life is meant to be lived, with new memories.  Absorbing and affecting, “Saving Mr. Banks” is a wonderful film for the ages. Check out the full review and trailer here.

***

 “American Hustle”

Christian Bale (“The Dark Knight Rises”) and Amy Adams (“Man of Steel”), Bradley Cooper (“Limitless”)and Jennifer Lawrence (“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”) unite their talents in “American Hustle”, a screwball ’70’s crime caper dramedy. Bale is Irving Rosenfeld, a con man, hitting it off at first sight with a seductive grifter, Sydney Prosser (Adams). Irving is married to loose-lipped and wildly opinionated Rosalyn (Lawrence). Irving and Sydney get caught by an unruly FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Cooper). Richie plans to lure politicians to accept bribes and catch them in the act. The trap is set, which includes another FBI agent posing as an Arab Sheik looking to make an investment (inspired by the real Abscam sting in 1978). Entrapped is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner “The Bourne Legacy”), Mayor of Trenton, New Jersey. The stakes are raised to a dicey level when Jersey’s powerbrokers and mafia get involved. Carmine turns out to be pure in his intention to create new jobs for his people. He even considers Irving a friend. Irving develops a conscience, at the same time, he and Sydney must hold up their end of the bargain with the FBI. The plot starts off as simple, but alliances shift and a double-cross occurs. You think you know how it ends, yet it manages to churn out a twist. It’s a treat to be in on the flimflam or figure out what the swindle is or how the main characters would pull off the scheme. The con is on. Enjoy the game!  Check out the full review and trailer here.

***

“The Wolf of Wall Street”

A fifth collaboration between director Martin Scorsese (“The Departed,” “Shutter Island,” “Hugo”)and Leonardo DiCaprio (“Catch Me If You Can,” “Inception,” “J. Edgar“), “The Wolf of Wall Street” is based on a true story of the rise and fall of a hedonistic stockbroker in the 1980’s and ’90’s, Jordan Belfort. Belfort pulls together a bunch of hometown boys and operates his own company out of a garage. The misfits can sell. As the company expands exponentially, Belfort and team are living high, large and loose, even as the SEC and FBI come sniffing. Life is a never-ending party of debauchery. The boys become drunken with greed, swimming with cash, drowning in drugs and addicted to prostitutes. Eventually, sordid deeds are catching up with Belfort. None of the characters are likeable. Their actions are beyond reckless and abhorrent. Their language is profanity-laced at every turn. But the execution, script  and acting are sensationally top-shelf. Scorsese directs it with revelry. Terence Winter (screenwriter) writes it with unbridled enthusiasm. DiCaprio lives it up like the king of the world and swaggers into a staggering performance. It’s deplorable, hysterical and  phenomenal. The abyss of excess takes entertaining to the extreme. “The Wolf of Wall Street” spirals with sins and sizzles with exuberance. Check out the full review and trailer here.

***

 “Her”

This movie tells the tale of a man falling in love and having a relationship with his operating system. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a letter-writer for hire. He writes letters for a living, for those who aren’t capable or willing to write them to their loved ones. A lonely soul, he pours his heart into and loves vicariously through these letters. One day he sees a commercial for an artificial intelligence, an operating system (OS) with “consciousness,” and he decides to get one. Meet Samantha (voiceover by Scarlett Johansson, “The Avengers,” “Iron Man 2”). A machine with a hyper-level of awareness, Samantha is intuitive and perceptive. She grows and matures, and continues to adapt based on what she experiences with Theodore.  Theodore and Samantha talk about anything and everything. They share intimacy, just like a real couple does, with the obvious limitation of Samantha having no physical body. The relationship, as weird as it sounds, is surprisingly organic. But a relationship with an OS is not without challenges either, especially when the OS starts taking on human characteristics, yet its non-human capabilities continue to evolve rapidly. Conceptually unusual with the sci-fi element, “Her” is a story about humans’ fundamental need to connect and love. Bizarre and beautiful, it works. Check out the full review and trailer here.

Copyright (c) 2014. Nathalia Aryani.

Nathalia Aryani is a film columnist and has a movie blog, The MovieMaven (http://sdmoviemaven.blogspot.com). Twitter: http://twitter.com/the_moviemaven. She can be reached at indotransserv@gmail.com.

"Nathalia Aryani is a film columnist and has a movie blog, The MovieMaven (sdmoviemaven.blogspot.com). Twitter: @the_moviemaven. She can be reached at indotransserv@gmail.com."

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