This year saw a number of Oscar contenders fizzle, sometimes before they even got a wide release. Audiences had either very little or no interest, and the films slipped away. Jay Roach’s Trumbo made less than eight million, Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs topped out under eighteen, Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest made $43 million, while Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice made less than three million. In another year (or decade) these could have been Best Picture contenders, if not winners. So let’s break it down.
The Film: Trumbo
Is it any good?: Not really. Bryan Cranston is an adequate Dalton Trumbo, in this life story of the writer. The film starts with Trumbo as one of the highest paid writers in Hollywood and working with big star Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), but is also someone who believes in the common man, and whose ideology is near communistic, even though he delights in the high life. When the red scare amps up – heightened by people like Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) – he’s convicted and sent to jail alongside his non-friend Arlen Hird (Louis CK). When Trumbo gets out of jail he finds ways to work, but only anonymously, until he’s finally able to break through.
If there was a good movie to be made out of this material, it’s not this film, which walks through the blacklist like a prestige picture without weight. This isn’t the first time this material has been covered by Hollywood (in films like The Front and in Guilty by Suspicion), and like those films, the academy didn’t fall for it. Trumbo ends up a winner in the film and never seems that down, and so – other than the jail time – his biggest suffering comes from working really hard and maybe getting addicted to pills (this comes up but is never dwelled on), and annoying his family. You’re better off listening to the You Must Remember This podcast by Karina Longworth, which is currently covering the blacklist in much better detail.
Oscar Nominations: One, for Cranston. No wins.
How’s it look and sound?: Great. The film presented with a digital copy, while the film is widescreen (1.85:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio.
Are the extras interesting?: Not really. There’s “Who is Trumbo?” (4 min.) and “Bryan Cranston becomes Trumbo” (2 min.), both of which are paper-thin, and loaded with clips from the movie, with brief comments from the cast and director.
The Film: Steve Jobs
Is it any good?: Yes. Actually, it’s really good. If this film had connected with audiences, this would be either a real contender or front runner. Perhaps because people are sick of Jobs, and don’t want to see a film that is about the cult of Apple, or perhaps because the marketing couldn’t get across what makes this a special film, it tanked. I skipped it theatrically, even after hearing raves because it just looked like Oscar bait. It turns out that it’s Aaron Sorkin’s best script for the big screen, and features great performances across the board.
Fictionalized in structure, the film shows Jobs (Michael Fassbender) right before three product launches for the Mac, for his NeXT computer, and for the iMac. In all three cases he deals with the same people: his assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) – who wants Jobs to give credit to those who came before – techie Andy Hertzfeld (Stuhlbarg), Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) – the woman who gave birth to his child and who he supports but pretends isn’t his – John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) – the man who ran Apple and then took it away from Jobs – and his daughter Lisa (played by Makenzie Moss at five, Ripley Sobo at nine and Perla Haney-Jardine at 19, and yes, that’s the Bride’s daughter from Kill Bill all grown up). The film shows how Jobs failed at Apple, only to engineer his return, and the triumphant launch of the iMac, which revolutionized computing.
What’s amazing about the film is how it contextualizes so much recent history, and suggests that Jobs was fourteen years too early with the launch of the Macintosh. The film shows how he saw the future, and how those phones we all have now came from his inspiration. Sorkin can write for geniuses, and this cast can play them. It’s a great work, with the three act structure brilliantly executed by Danny Boyle, who did career best work. It’s a triumph that deserved better.
Oscar Nominations: Two, for Fassbender and Winslet. Neither won.
How’s it look and sound?: Wonderful. The film presented with a DVD and digital copy, while the film is widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio.
Are the extras interesting?: Yes. There are two commentaries, one by Boyle, who walks through his shooting process, and the decision to film in 16mm, 35mm and in digital to separate the chapters, and his working process, which here involved a weird shooting schedule that allowed for rehearsal periods between each section, and then there’s a commentary with Aaron Sorkin and editor Elliot Graham. Sorkin has little interest in talking about his craft, so he spends the track grilling Graham on what it’s like to edit in general, and how he came into the business. Sorkin is genuinely curious, so he gets great details out of Graham. There’s also a making of that is also broken into three pieces (45 min.) that gets everyone to talk about the making of the film. This is a film that should be discovered on home video.
The Film: Pawn Sacrifice
Is it any good?: Not really. It’s not terrible, but director Ed Zwick made an Ed Zwick film. Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) was a chess prodigy who and an enfant terrible as he made a lot of demands because he saw that the Russians, as led by Boris Spassky (Liev Schrieber), had a stronghold on the international championships. Fischer is courted by lawyer Paul Marshall (Stuhlbarg, yes again) and gets into the world championship, which – due to the cold war – became an international phenomenon as it pitted America versus Russia. But, as is noticed by Fischer’s second Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), Bobby is losing his mind.
This is another cradle to the grave bio-pic that manages to make chess interesting enough to watch, but even if you don’t know how the match finally went down, it’s a lot of building to the inevitable. That the chess sequences work as well as they do says something to Zwick’s skill (and I’m excited he’s directing Jack Reacher 2), but this is thin Oscar Bait.
Oscar Nominations: None.
How’s it look and sound?: Fine. The film presented with a digital copy, while the film is widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio.
Are the extras interesting?: Nope. There’s one featurette “Bobby Fischer, The Cold War and the Match of the Century” (3 min.) that works as an extended trailer, with some comments from the cast and crew.
Is Michael Stulhbarg in everything?: Maybe, but that’s a good thing.
The Film: Everest
Is it any good?: Not my tempo. Climbing Mount Everest became something of a tourist attraction as some climbers figured out how they could get experienced but not master hikers up and down the peak more effectively than ever. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) is the leader of one of these tours, and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) leads another. Hall has a pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) and seems the more sensible of the two. They get a bunch of these tourists (including John Hawkes and Josh Brolin) together, only for tragedy to befall many of those who tried.
There are moments in Ridley Scott’s The Martian when Matt Damon’s character thinks he might die, but realizes the journey is worth it. He is pushing mankind forward as an explorer. People who climb Everest may feel the same way. I do not. And so the perilous journey is one that cinematically – if it can’t give that same sense of doing the impossible – is about heights (it is a 3D movie) and watching people die. That can be fun in the disaster movie context, but this is based on a true story, so who lives and dies is less schematically enjoyable. There is tragedy to this, and it’s easy to see how this could have been a modern version of Titanic, or something like that, but it’s hard for me to care about mostly rich people who did something dangerous that killed them.
Oscar Nominations: None.
How’s it look and sound?: Amazing. The film presented with a DVD and digital copy, while the film is widescreen (2.35:1) and in Dolby Atmos and TrueHD 7.1 in both a 2D and 3D presentation. The film is better in 3D as this sort of immersion – even if it can be vertigo inducing – is what the film’s about.
Are the Extras interesting?: Marginally, though I’ve already expressed my reservations about the film. There are four short featurettes: “Race to the Summit: The Making of Everest” (11 min.) “Learning to Climb” (5 min.) ”A Mountain of Work” (5 min.) and “Aspiring to Authenticity: The Real Story” (7 min.). These gets the primary cast, which doesn’t include Michael Stuhlbarg, to talk about the making of the movie, and the challenges of respecting the real people, and you’ve heard these things before. Somewhat better is the commentary track by director Baltasar Kormákur, who is happy to discuss the making of the movie, the cast and the challenges that went in to faking Everest.