January 26, 2015

Blind Spots Series: Wait Until Dark

Audrey Hepburn stars in Wait Until Dark as Suzy, a blind woman facing off with home invaders.

It takes a lot to surprise modern film viewers, especially in the comforts of home theaters. That fact makes the final shock of Wait Until Dark even more impressive. We’re familiar with the “last scare” from horror films that’s become commonplace. The audience relaxes after the villain is defeated, but the baddie returns for one last trick. This trend goes beyond the horror genre; it even happened at the end of Die Hard. What makes this moment different is how grounded the story has been to that point. Roat (Alan Arkin) is a creepy villain, but he doesn’t appear superhuman. When he leaps across the screen at Audrey Hepburn’s Susy Hendrix, it’s entirely unexpected. She brutally stabbed Roat moments earlier, which makes his trampoline-like jump towards Suzy even more unlikely. It’s a comical scene on repeated viewings, but the first instance is brutally effective at the end of such extended suspense.

Our story begins with Lisa (Samantha Jones) smuggling heroin inside a doll into New York City. She works with Roat but makes the strange choice to give the doll to Suzy’s husband Sam (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.). This sets in motion a scenario where Roat hires two of Lisa’s former associates to retrieve the doll. Mike Talman (Richard Crenna) and Carlino (Jack Weston) are small-time hoods and not in the same world as Roat, but money talks. I’ve yet to mention the most significant factor in the entire plot — Suzy is blind. This allows the guys to deceive her and search the place, but she’s hardly a helpless victim. Recently blinded in a car accident, Suzy is still learning how to live without sight. Even so, she begins to catch on that the seemingly friendly men in her apartment may not have good intentions.

The villains linger around the corners of the frame and trap the unknowing Suzy in her home.

Hepburn received a Best Actress nomination for a role that appears simpler than it is; she’s on her own against the invaders. Sam leaves for work early in the movie, and only her 11-year-old neighbor Gloria (Julie Herrod) can help Suzy. Hepburn was a superstar by this point of her career and destined for awards interest. That doesn’t mean the performance fails, however. After a lengthy introduction that sets the stage, we spend the remainder of the movie with Suzy inside the apartment. Hepburn’s screams of frustration might seem overly melodramatic, but she sells the anger pretty well. Her slender frame adds to the sense of danger from the robbers. She seems tiny compared to a guy like Richard Crenna, and the shot composition builds the sense that Suzy’s trapped inside a nightmare. Roat and his guys are toying with her, and she stands in the middle of the frame surrounded by trouble.

Wait Until Dark was adapted from a Frederick Knott play that premiered one year earlier. Its source material on stage is evident with nearly all the action taking place inside Suzy’s apartment. A few scenes happen outside or at Sam’s studio, but the film mostly sticks with one location. This choice allows us to become very familiar with the location, including the parts that would play a key role in the final conflict. Suzy points out the refrigerator early in the story, and it’s no surprise when it comes into play later. The downside of sticking with the apartment is the slow pace during the first hour. The finale is dynamite, but there are times when it feels stretched to get there. It takes Suzy a long time to recognize the signs that something is amiss, and repeat visits from Talman and Carlino halt the narrative momentum.

Director Terence Young is known for directing early Bond films like Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Thunderball. He enjoyed a long career, but Wait Until Dark is one of the few other well-known films in his background. The easy comparison to his work here is Alfred Hitchcock, but Young takes a more direct route. He uses the space well, particularly when characters are standing near Suzy without her knowledge. An early scene with a body in the closet is also a convincing moment because it feels so mundane. Henry Mancini’s score underplays the suspense and saves the volume for the final act. The blaring sound of a car engine after an abrupt cut is one of the most startling moments. The lack of these shocks until the end makes them a lot more convincing. The story plays more like a melodrama until the bloody finale.

Alan Arkin's creepy performance stands out among the supporting players. 

Looking beyond Hepburn’s performance, the other memorable role comes from Arkin as a man who enjoys the chaos. There’s probably an easier way to find the doll than using Talman and Carlino. Roat has no problems with tormenting Suzy and plans to leave no witnesses by the end. I’m familiar with Arkin’s grumpy old man persona, so it’s surprising to see him chewing the scenery as the villain. In the DVD interview, Arkin describes Roat as a guy who takes so many drugs that he’s mellow but living in a haze. He doesn’t really show the darker side until the end when it’s elimination time. Unlike Arkin, Crenna seems far too nice to play a criminal. It’s no surprise that he’s unwilling to take the next steps to find the doll. Talman spends the most time with Suzy and may have feelings for her. That storyline is never developed but seems likely given his final scene.

One reason for Wait Until Dark’s success was the masterful marketing campaign, which claimed that the theater would turn the lights down to the “legal limit” during the final eight minutes. Their brilliant move worked, and it’s easy to see why they focused on the last segment. The moments when Suzy angrily shatters the light bulbs to give herself a chance are superb. Watching this film in a packed theater must have been quite an experience. There’s a reason the play has been adapted frequently over the years; it still packs a punch. I’m curious about a 1998 revival that included Marisa Tomei as Suzy and Quentin Tarantino as Roat. From a glance at the reviews, they were not kind. Tomei is a talented actress, but matching Hepburn would be difficult. She brings ferocity to the part that’s truly unexpected. Hepburn retired afterward and only returned for a few roles, which was a stunning move. It’s hard to argue with ending her tenure as a full-time actress on this note, however. She lifts the material to much greater heights.

January 22, 2015

Miriam Hopkins Blogathon: Design for Living

Miriam Hopkins, Fredric Marsh, and Gary Cooper in Design for Living
Miriam Hopkins owns the screen in Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living

It’s thrilling to see the graceful way Miriam Hopkins glides onto the screen in Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living. She steps aboard a train and observes two sleeping guys on the opposite seat. There’s no hesitation at removing her gloves and making herself comfortable near the unknowing fellows. The glint in Hopkins’ eyes shows us immediately that her Gilda Farrell has the upper hand in this relationship. She charms men easily yet isn’t the typical lady you might expect. It would be too easy to pick one man and enjoy his success. Both Tom Chambers (Fredric March) and George Curtis (Gary Cooper) have potential but need a lot of encouragement. Gilda may complete them, but they aren’t really alive without the other guy. The warm relationship among the men keeps them happy, yet it takes a force like Gilda to push them to next level. Hopkins never hits a false note as she moves from guy to guy and refuses to get cornered.

What’s immediately apparent in Design for Living is the less restrictive view of sex before the crackdown of the Hays Code. Characters talk openly about the topic and don’t skirt around the issue. Even a simple act like Gilda putting her feet on the seat between Tom and George has sexual connotations. Both guys are interested in Gilda, and their first goal isn’t marriage. There’s a freedom to the ways the characters discuss love that avoids the predictable route of typical Hollywood romances. Lubitsch pulled a similar feat with the trio in Trouble in Paradise one year earlier. Statements about getting to “first base” probably wouldn’t bypass the censors by the mid-‘30s. The content never gets too blatant, but the freedom allows Writer Ben Hecht (Notorious) to bring a different type of wit to the dialogue. The story adapts a Noel Coward play but was changed dramatically for the screen version.

Tom and George have ambitions to succeed in various realms of the art world, but nothing comes together before they meet Gilda. They just click with her and have equally big personalities. Like Tom quips after they leave the train, “It's amazing how a few insults can bring people together in three hours.” Gilda falls for both guys and hooks up with each one in subsequent nights. Lubitsch and Hecht avoid bringing melodrama into this situation and keep the banter light despite the love triangle. The “gentleman’s agreement” could work on the surface, but none are so moral to avoid falling prey to temptation. George considers seducing the laundress to get a clean shirt, so they’re hardly prudish individuals. Gilda’s big scene at their apartment is a thrilling display of comic timing. The dust flies each time she lays down on the old furniture, and both guys tail Gilda closely as she strolls around the dilapidated site.

Design for Living, directed by Ernst Lubitsch
This shot shows the way that Gilda is in total control of Tom (Fredric Marsh) and George (Gary Cooper).

Lubitsch uses masterful composition to place Gilda between the two men vying for her affection. They’re like little boys pining for their first love, and she’s in total control. She stands between them while each shows off and revels in knowing that both are enamored. The surprise is the way that we still identify with Gilda and never look at her like a manipulator. She isn’t Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve who enjoys making Henry Fonda look silly. Gilda truly loves each guy, and Hopkins sells her interest in helping both men achieve their dreams. Tom is an unpublished playwright who doesn’t have the business skills to sell his work, and George is an artist with little confidence. Gilda easily succeeds and magically changes their professional fates, but staying platonic will be trickier.

Gilda is quite a forward-thinking woman for 1933, but it’s probably easier in Paris. Of course, the societal pull to settle into a secure relationship is still there. The establishment appears in the form of Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton), her square boss. He also loves Gilda but seems most concerned with making her respectable. His worldview comes in this statement: “Immorality may be fun, but it isn't fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day.” This single line plays multiple roles in the story, including enhancing Tom’s play and revealing Gilda’s dalliances with both guys. It’s one of many clever uses of dialogue that makes this film so enjoyable. Gilda’s choice to marry Plunkett seems odd but shows that she has given in to the forces of the puritan society. It’s clear that this coupling will never last; Gilda is far too self-assured to cave to such a controlling dimwit.

Gary Cooper and Fredric Marsh star in Design for Living
Gary Cooper does'n't make the comedy seem as effortless as Fredric Marsh. 

Design for Living was only my second experience watching Hopkins, who owns the screen even next to heavyweights like Fredric March and Gary Cooper. Her career was still fairly new at this time, yet she moves like a veteran in total command. March feels right as a witty playwright and brings such great energy to Tom. His excitement at reuniting with his old typewriter after years away is pitch-perfect. Tom has a particular joy in walking circles around Plunkett. March’s exuberant reaction when Plunkett utters a line that fits his play makes for great comedy. A tougher sell is Cooper as a tortured artist. He plays well off March and connects with Hopkins, but he can’t match their quick wit. Cooper feels more like a straight arrow than a free-thinking artist. He’s better than I’d expect given his persona, yet he doesn’t work with the same grace as the other leads. His attempts to play drunk are very unconvincing.

I can’t rave enough about the dialogue, which includes too many classic one-liners to mention. Gilda’s comment to George that “unfortunately, I am no gentleman” after Tom departs for London is all we need to know about what’s going to happen. Some lines wouldn’t have escaped the censors, but others might be clever enough to bypass them. Gilda’s assertion of being “more than fond” of each in the beginning carries the sense that she’s gone well beyond friendly chatter. Much has been written about the “Lubitsch touch”, but his skills can’t be understated. He wastes little time with unnecessary exposition and keeps the story moving through a brisk 91 minutes. The plot includes romances, break-ups, and reconciliations, and it's never too much. Skilled actors like Hopkins and March can sell the material with limited content, and Lubitsch employs their talents to deliver a wonderful comedy.

This piece is a contribution to the Miriam Hopkins Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings and A Small Press Life/Font and Frock. Be sure to check out all the other excellent submissions.

January 21, 2015

Investigating Michael Mann: Blackhat

Chris Hemsworth and Wei Tang flee the scene in Blackhat.
Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) and Chen Lien (Wei Tang) run for their lives in Michael Mann's Blackhat.

The long-awaited return of Michael Mann has finally arrived six years after Public Enemies. The question is whether anyone but devoted fans (including this writer) still cares about the 71-year-old filmmaker. Mann has been a pioneer for digital cinema and created a specific look that stands apart from the glossier style of the average modern movie. His films deserve attention, especially from viewers interested in the action genre. Blackhat was hardly a surefire prospect facing off with Oscar contenders in January, but it does feature Thor star Chris Hemsworth. It’s perfect counter programming to more serious winter fare, but audiences mostly stayed away. My Monday screening just included me and an elderly couple, which is low for a first-week release even on a slower night. Was the dismal box-office performance justified?

Critical reactions to Blackhat have been all over the map, and so much of its success depends on your interest in Mann’s work. It conveys his distinctive skills in several incredible sequences that rank among the best action scenes of his career. On the other hand, it’s strangely inconsistent and suffers because of an unconvincing Hemsworth and limited character depth. The challenge in discussing this film is deciding what drives your enjoyment. Are the odd, less-than-stellar moments enough to kill any interest? They didn’t ruin my night. In a world of middle-of-the-road blockbusters, Mann delivers an ambitious tale that piles on the plot and takes real chances visually. During Hollywood’s lower period in January, it’s refreshing to return to Mann’s cool world.

Hemsworth stars as Nick Hathaway, a skilled computer expert serving 13 years in prison for illegal activities. When a mysterious hacker initiates a meltdown in a Chai Wan nuclear plant, Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) enlists his former college roommate for help in exchange for his freedom if the culprit is caught. Dawai and Hathaway wrote the code used for both the nuclear disaster and an artificial spike in soy prices. U.S. Agent Carol Burnett (Viola Davis) joins Dawai and Hathaway to try and bring down this modern menace. Joining the fun is Dawai’s sister Chen Lien (Wei Tang), who predictably falls for Hathaway. The messy operation rushes to prevent the next attack, but the authorities’ primary concern is not the success of the operation.

The highlights of Blackhat are two action sequences that rank among the best of Mann's career.

Pure Adrenaline

Spending too much time discussing plot feels inconsequential, especially once the bullets start flying. Blackhat doesn’t have non-stop action, but the two major set pieces are worth the wait. The first is the frenetic pursuit of the hacker’s number one henchman Kassar (Ritchie Coster, Luck). Stuart Dryburgh’s camera scrambles behind the agents as they rapidly pursue the enemy, and it’s a visceral thrill. The camera shakes dramatically and places us on top of them when all hell breaks loose. The sharp contrast between Kassar’s deliberate moves to set the trap and his opponents’ frantic approach is startling. It’s a brilliantly staged sequence that should be difficult to top this year. Kassar’s men stand in shallow water near stone pillars while agents pursue them from multiple locations. Dwai and the Hong Kong police appear to have a tactical advantage, but it means little against such a formidable adversary. This surely isn’t Kassar’s first shootout.

Equally impressive is the second battle, which begins with an unexpected car explosion. It happens in the dark of night and resembles the best moments from Mann’s Miami Vice. The violence is fast and deadly, and the deafening gunshots make survival appear unlikely. It’s a beautiful scene that makes wonderful use of the Hong Kong night during the battle. The digital photography and up-close perspective create pure thrills that go beyond the gunfire. We experience these moments in a different way than most action scenes because we're right inside the mayhem; they have an intensity beyond the stakes for the characters. Mann sets the stage for this battle with a brief shot of a tracking device much earlier. It’s easy to forget this information as the story moves forward and not recognize the danger. Hathaway and Dwai are making progress, but each step forward leads them closer to disaster.

These scenes have a greater impact because we spend so much time looking at the virtual world. Mann finds a way to keep those moments interesting, however. In the film's opening scene, he presents the nuclear disaster by going inside the computers and following the worm to its destination. The camera zooms into a different universe that most closely resembles the original Tron. Instead of staring at a terminal, we’re experiencing the new world right in front of us. Mann worked with experts to ensure the technical side was accurate, and the hacking material feels authentic. The choice to open the film with an exciting and original look at computers is a clever way to avoid boring exposition.

Chris Hemsworth and Wei Tang in Blackhat, directed by Michael Mann.
The love story and plot details aren't so convincing in this film. 

The Flip Side

The less inspiring side of Blackhat is the inability to develop a convincing narrative around its thrills and striking visuals. In one head-scratching moment, Hathaway and Chen Lien split from the group and conduct their own investigation. Hathaway is under constant surveillance from suspicious U.S. agents and will return to jail if their efforts fail, so letting him run loose seems unlikely. What’s odder is the fact that Burnett and Agent Jessup (Holt McCallany) seem okay with those activities in subsequent scenes. Another moment shows Hathaway strolling up to the room of a key lead with only Dwai accompanying him. After discovering a dead body, Hathaway strolls around the crime scene and uses the guy’s computer. The U.S. agents seem wary of him at first, but that perception switches to total acceptance without much explanation. Some doubts about Hathaway's true motivations would also have improved the tension. He's obviously a good guy from the moment we first meet him.

An even greater challenge comes from the love story between Hathaway and Chen Lien, which begins quickly. Mann gives clues about the romance by showing Hathaway glancing at her body in a taxi, and Chen Lien is impressed when he knocks out three goons. Their sex scene is shot beautifully, yet it’s less impactful because there’s little chemistry between the pair. Hemsworth struggles with awkward dialogue about his time in jail and laughably keeps his shirt open whenever possible. Beyond the obvious physical reasons, we don’t get a clear sense of why she loves him. Wei Tang tries her best to sell the interest, but it diminishes the value of her intelligent character. Her skills are on par with the men, so why make their romance so generic?

Viola Davis as Agent Barrett in Blackhat
Viola Davis brings a lot more to Agent Burnett than what's on the page.

Bureaucratic Failures

A more intriguing aspect is Blackhat’s depiction of government agencies in both the U.S. and China. Despite the potential damage from a cyber attack, they’re more concerned with giving up secrets to the other superpower. The short-sighted thinking makes quite a statement about bureaucracy putting everyone at risk. There’s more concern about politics than the devastation caused by a nuclear meltdown. Burnett and Jessup are soldiers that don’t share their bosses’ methods, but their power is limited. It’s hardly better on the Chinese side, where Dawai receives no support despite a serious lead on the hacker. He expects more given his familial connections, yet creating problems with the U.S. is his government's primary concern. Despite the high stakes, the agents are fighting a battle that means little to their small-minded superiors.

The ultimate revelation of the villain’s next target is surprisingly mundane, despite its impact on economic markets. What makes it fitting and more realistic is the way it differs from the world domination plans you’d see in many Bond films. We're in Quantum of Solace territory with this scheme. A bleak Malaysian mine feels like the perfect place to conduct a crime with so little glamour. It reveals the hacker as a guy with no political or social motivations. When we meet the chilling villain (Yorick van Wageningen), there’s no disfiguring scar or other notable characteristic. He’s a poorly dressed man that few would suspect of being a huge threat to our future.

Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat, directed by Michael Mann
Hemsworth is comfortable during the action scenes, especially the exciting climax.

Taking Charge

Blackhat’s climax is effective with Hathaway working amid thousands of extras at the annual Balinese Nyepi Day parade. He employs a lo-fi approach in a desperate effort to stop the enemy plans. He’s no longer a faceless guy sitting behind a computer screen and wants personal revenge. The scene works because of excellent staging yet not because we’re hoping for Hathaway’s survival. We’ve just met the primary villain, and it’s hard to care too much about him. This lack of a real connection probably explains the mixed reactions from some critics. Hemsworth looks great but doesn’t really click in the part. He’s more believable in the action scenes than selling his computer expertise; one reason is dialogue that doesn’t give him much depth. At one point, he stares in the sky and basically says "gotcha!" to the unseen enemy. The other actors are stellar (especially Davis and Koster) and do a lot with limited characters. They’re engaging in the moment but don’t leave a huge impression.

It’s hard to complain too much about Mann’s return when you consider all that Blackhat has to offer. It’s a striking film and includes creative choices that rank among the most interesting of his career. Its closest companion is Miami Vice, which had a similar murky plot and visual sense. It helped that the familiar title and stars brought a stronger box office, and it wasn’t buried in January. One difference with the new movie is the lack of convincing personal stakes for the lead characters. The final scene delivers less of an impact than it should despite the frenzy that preceded it. Mann sends his characters into the sunset, but it doesn’t stick as a notable finale. He’s created a memorable film that shows he still has plenty to offer. The question is whether audiences are still interested in his vision.

January 19, 2015

Calvary: Keeping the Faith

Brendan Gleeson is riveting as Father James in John Michael McDonagh's Calvary.

Growing up Catholic, I viewed the priests as stoic men that stood on a pedestal far removed from the common parishioners. There were a few exceptions, but most didn’t seem like everyday people. Part of this feeling was due to the ritualistic nature of the Catholic Mass. The priests rarely went off script, and even the sermons didn’t connect too much with normal life. I only viewed a small part of their daily routines, however. The priests certainly spoke with many on a personal level each day. We observe that side of the job from Father James (Brendan Gleeson) in Calvary. He says Mass but spends most of his time just talking to people. There’s remarkable value in a guy who’s just there to listen. James is a good priest trying to help others, but that doesn’t mean he’s perfect and has no doubts. The battle to keep the faith is constant, especially in the face of dour circumstances. 

On the surface, Calvary is the story of a priest dealing with a direct threat on his life during a confession. What’s surprising is how little time is spent on the impending murder; it hangs over every moment yet rarely makes a direct impact. Being told he’ll be dead on Sunday has affected James, obviously. How could it not? Even so, he goes about his daily work and tries to help residents deal with various problems. James listens to them and doesn’t judge, which is rare for anyone. He counsels a teen who’s frustrated with his struggles with girls and wants to join the army. It’s clear from the open way people talk to James that he isn’t your normal priest. He felt the calling after his wife died, so James isn’t a guy who’s never experienced anything. 

The sexual abuse scandals cast a pall over the entire story. 

Hanging over each interaction is the sexual abuse that went unchecked in the Catholic Church for decades. The death threat against James comes from a guy who was abused as a seven-year-old and has never recovered. People use the scandals to take shots at James and try to diminish his value. They know that it strikes a chord because it signifies a flaw in the vocation. James believes his good work is separate from the institution, yet he recognizes it’s hardly a flawless enterprise. He sees the lack of integrity in his counterpart Father Leary (David Wilmot) and lashes out in a drunken fury. James is an alcoholic who’s been sober for a long time, but the stress may be too much to take. When he slips off the wagon, it’s a long fall and reveals anger lurking beneath the surface. 

Brendan Gleeson has an imposing screen presence, and it’s a revelation to see him dial back the intensity. Calvary is his second collaboration with Director John Michael McDonagh; Gleeson also starred in his debut film The Guard. While that effort was more of a black comedy, both share an emphasis on character that suits Gleeson’s style. He deserves more starring roles, and it’s refreshing to see him lead such an intriguing story. The quiet moments where James walks in the gorgeous Irish countryside reveal plenty about his approach. He’s battling demons from his past, and the peaceful time keeps him on track. Gleeson might not seem right to play a priest, but it’s an easy sell given James’ genuine person. He experienced plenty before donning the vestments and brings that experience to his vocation.

Brendan Gleeson and Kelly Reilly are easily believable as father and daughter.

A major difference with James is the fact that he was married and had a daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). Following his wife’s death, he became a priest and drifted apart from Fiona. She returns to town after a failed suicide attempt, and it’s an important time to re-connect. McDonagh’s script avoids melodrama and underplays past difficulties between them. Fiona shares her father’s outspoken style, yet she’s broken and trying to recover. Gleeson and Reilly reveal the quiet bond of family that doesn’t require detailed explanations. James sees Fiona’s wrist and understands her trauma just by looking at her face. Fiona is a bystander to much of the action, but her presence sets the stage for his final decision. Making peace with Fiona ensures that James is ready to face the fate that awaits him.

Calvary feels lighter because of a stellar cast of supporting players that bring nuance to small roles. Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Domhall Gleeson, Marie-Josée Croze, and the great M. Emmet Walsh shine with minimal screen time and create a lived-in environment. A few eccentric characters are less convincing, particularly Owen Sharpe’s Leo and Orla O’Rourke’s Veronica. Even so, each has a brief moment where their character’s bluster is shown to mask other issues. Despite some heavy material, the tone stays light and avoids feeling like a funeral. The final scenes have a Western vibe as James steps onto the beach for the last stand. Gleeson’s face shows complacency that’s been missing until this moment. With the strikingly bleak landscape surrounding James, McDonagh creates a gripping finale. Gleeson delivers one of his best performances, and his convincing presence carries this engaging film. 

January 15, 2015

The World That I See: Reads and Listens (January Edition)

The Oscar nominations were announced this morning, and it’s easy to understand why Twitter exploded with rage. My expectations were low for the awards, but they seemed especially strange this time. The most glaring theme was just how much white males dominated the results. This trend isn’t new, but the lack of any racial diversity in the acting categories was stunning. The nominees do include some remarkable performances, so pointing out the issues shouldn’t diminish their success. It’s also important to remember that the Oscars are chosen by a large group of voters and not by some all-powerful panel of old guys. That said, I’m finding it harder to care than usual, which is saying a lot given my lack of recent interest.

What’s difficult with dismissing the Oscars is recognizing the sway they still have with some filmgoers. They’re considered a stamp of approval for quality rather than the result of a powerful (and expensive) marketing campaign. There are cases where the year’s most engaging films also win Oscars. However, it’s hardly a simple correlation and feels more like chance than real acknowledgement. The discussion of “snubs” implies the idea that there’s a way to signify what the “best” performances are with an objective ranking. While smaller movies will get more attention because of the Oscars, it's mostly just a restrictive competition. Thankfully, there are plenty of exciting 2014 films that I still need to see. I’ll be giving those movies a lot more attention that who’s destined to win awards this year.

Here are some interesting blogs and podcasts that deserve your attention more than the Oscars:

I could fill this post with the excellent pieces about Michael Mann’s films that have appeared this week in advance of tomorrow’s release of Blackhat. Some of my favorites have come from The Dissolve, which is featuring Mann’s signature film Heat at its movie of the week. Scott Tobias does a great job analyzing Mann’s work in “Codes, chaos, and the world of Heat”. He aptly describes how the orderly plans of master criminal Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) are disrupted by chaos outside of his control. The symmetry between the cops and robbers is a consistent theme in Mann’s films, especially this one. Tobias shows the way that McCauley and Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna are connected by their inability to control their personal lives and occupations; it’s a fascinating study.

There were plenty of memorable “best of 2014” posts in recent weeks, and one of my favorites came from Jandy at The Frame. Instead of creating a simple top 10 from this year, she split everything into different categories like “Most Thought-Provoking Films” and “Most Scene-Stealing Side Characters”. Jandy also didn’t stick with 2014 releases and covered anything that she watched last year. Her lists also include gadgets, creepy things, ridiculous plot twists, and my personal favorite — “Most Made Me Want to Fall in Love with Film Again”. Jandy put a lot of work into the choices and descriptions, and it’s a cool resource to gather ideas for your watch list.

Catherine at Cinema Enthusiast also delivered an inventive collection of lists with her year-end post. Her choices stick with 2014 and include a few inspired TV choices alongside the movies. While I may disagree with Catherine about her hate for God Help the Girl, it’s impossible to argue with the depth of her picks. Choosing “everybody” in X-Men: Days of Future Past for the “Why Are You Even Here” award is one of many fun moves. Nearly everyone who writes about movies creates a list, but few are as enjoyable as Catherine’s rankings.

Podcasters also entered the fray and made their fearless choices for the best of 2014. My favorite example was on The Cinephiliacs with guest Keith Uhlich joining host Peter Labuza. Their picks were engaging and original (especially Uhlich’s), and what made them click was how long they spent on each choice. The two-part episode (Part 1, Part 2) covered nearly four hours, and the time allowed them to really dig into films like The Immigrant and Listen Up Philip. It takes intelligence and wit to keep me listening for that long when I haven’t seen a lot of the movies.

I recently joined up with the guys at Battleship Pretension and will be writing home video reviews for them in the future. David and Tyler passed the 400-episode mark late in 2014, which is an incredible feat in the podcast universe. Back in December, they spoke about why they want to be film critics and are so attracted to this realm. I wish that more writers and podcasters took the time to cover this topic, which comes up frequently in my thoughts while I ponder if it’s worth the time and effort.

Glenn Kenny has a real knack for deflating all the bombast that surrounds movie making. Earlier this week, his article for Rogerebert.com entitled “Confessions/Observations of an Awards Season Skeptic, Part One: How I Was Compelled to Stop Worrying and Be Okay with the Golden Globes” was refreshing for its lack of cynicism. Kenny admitted the reasons for why this year's show seemed to work out better (many which I share) and avoided the typical talk of “snubs” or who was “deserving”. His second part today discussed the Oscars and all the indignation about them. Like Kenny entertainingly admits in the end, we may complain loudly about the picks, but we’ll still keep watching. I’ll close with this excerpt from today’s essay:

"“Selma Was Robbed, And Other Unforgivable Oscar Crimes,” reads the headline of one nom roundup that’s popped up in my feed. Nothing succeeds like overstatement, I guess; I’d like to say “can we agree that ‘crimes’ is maybe a bit much, even for headline English?” but I’m afraid a lot of people would sincerely say “no” to that. So instead I’ll ask a question. Or a few questions. Here goes: Who is it that is not to be forgiven? And how, exactly, will this forgiveness be withheld? How about “we” all stop paying attention to meaningless award shows? THAT will teach them, right? Who’s with me?

Ha! I didn’t think so! We’ll take this up again right before, and right after, the damn Oscars.”