Oscar Watch: The United States vs. Billie Holiday

As the latecomers for awards consideration are getting their industry screenings, the Oscar picture is becoming a bit more clear for several contenders. In the case of The United States vs. Billie Holiday (hitting Hulu on February 26), the verdict is not encouraging. The biopic of singer Billie Holiday has yet to have its official review embargo lifted, but word of mouth indicates many think this is a misfire.

The pic comes from director Lee Daniels, whose 2009 effort Precious picked up six Academy nominations and victories in Supporting Actress for Mo’Nique and its Adapted Screenplay. Based on early buzz, the only performer with any shot of recognition is Andra Day in the title role for Best Actress. The supporting cast that includes Natasha Lyonne, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph appear to be non-factors.

As I have discussed on the blog previously, Best Actress is a crowded field with four likely slots filled: Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman), Frances McDormand (Nomadland), and Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman). The fifth spot does appear up for grabs and some pundits have lauded Day’s work as a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing experience. However, I find it more plausible that the Academy could go for anyone from Zendaya (Malcolm & Marie) to Michelle Pfeiffer (French Exit) to Sophia Loren (The Life Ahead), to name just three. Last week, I had Day in the mix at #5. Expect her to drop when I release my new estimates this Thursday.

Down the line races such as Production and Costume Design (and perhaps Makeup and Hairstyling) could be possibilities here, but I have a hunch Holiday could also be blanked come nomination morning. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

Oscar Watch: Concrete Cowboy

Unique and formulaic are two terms mentioned in the descriptions for Concrete Cowboy, which has screened at the Toronto Film Festival. The drama marks the directorial debut of Ricky Staub. It casts Caleb McLaughlin of Stranger Things fame as a troubled teen sent to live with his father (Idris Elba), who’s part of a group of urban cowboys outside of Philadelphia. This is based on the Greg Neri novel Ghetto Cowboy. Costars include Lorraine Toussaint (who’s said to be a highlight), Jharrel Jerome (Emmy winner for HBO’s lauded When They See Us), and Method Man.

Some early reviews are very positive while others say it’s a familiar tale in an unfamiliar setting. Concrete is seeking U.S. distribution at the festival and it should have no trouble finding it. Finding awards chatter is another story as this doesn’t immediately jump out as a major contender. Stranger things have happened, but I don’t foresee it being much of a factor with Academy voters. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

Oscar History: 2009

It’s been a little while, but this evening on the blog – we continue with my ongoing series of Oscar History posts and we’ve arrived at 2009. That year’s Academy Awards are notable for a couple of reasons. First, this was the year where the decision was made to expand the list of Best Picture nominees from five to ten. It’s likely not an accident that this occurred just one year after 2008’s commercial and critical smash The Dark Knight failed to make the five pic cut. This was the Academy’s way of including more commercially successful ventures. After all, there’s a direct correlation between hit pictures being nominated and the ratings of the telecast itself. Secondly, the real battle of nominated entries came down between the efforts of a couple that was married and divorced – James Cameron for his smash hit Avatar (which demolished all box office records) and ex wife Kathryn Bigelow for her war drama The Hurt Locker.

It would be Bigelow who would come out on top as The Hurt Locker would take Best Picture over her ex-husband’s blockbuster. The other eight nominated features: The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, and Up in the Air. The success of Hurt Locker would relegate Avatar to winning only the tech categories.

Up would mark the first animated flick nomination (and first and only Pixar one) since 1991’s Beauty and the Beast and it hasn’t happened since. Basterds would mark Quentin Tarantino’s second pic nod after Pulp Fiction fifteen years prior.

As for movies that might have made my personal cut, I advocate for Steven Soderbergh’s underrated and hilarious The Informant! And if the Academy wanted to include high profile pictures, why not consider the acclaimed Star Trek reboot or comedy smash of the year The Hangover? I’m also a big fan of Zack Snyder’s graphic novel adaptation of Watchmen.

Bigelow would go onto make history by becoming the first female Best Director winner in Oscar history over Cameron, Lee Daniels (Precious), Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), and Tarantino. I may have found room for Neill Blomkamp’s impressive work in District 9.

Beloved actor Jeff Bridges would score his first Best Actor win for Crazy Heart, beating out George Clooney (Up in the Air), Colin Firth (A Single Man), Morgan Freeman (Invictus), and Jeremy Renner (Hurt Locker). Firth would go onto win the prize the following year for The King’s Speech. Once again, my Informant! love would have meant an inclusion for Matt Damon’s terrific work in it.

Sandra Bullock would receive her first ever nomination and a win for her hit football drama The Blind Side. Other nominees: Helen Mirren (The Last Station), Carey Mulligan (An Education), Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), and Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia). Two names I would’ve considered: Alison Lohman’s great scared crapless work in Sam Raimi’s horror tale Drag Me to Hell and Zooey Deschanel in the rom com (500) Days of Summer.

Quentin Tarantino’s knack of finding the perfect actor in the perfect role landed an at the time unknown Christoph Waltz a win in Supporting Actor for Inglourious Basterds. Other nominees were Matt Damon for Invictus, Woody Harrelson for The Messenger, Christopher Plummer in The Last Station, and Stanley Tucci for The Lovely Bones. As I’ve mentioned in these posts before, the Academy usually ignores comedies and this race would have given them an excellent opportunity to nominate Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover. Also, I may have included Jackie Earle Haley for his work in Watchmen.

Mo’Nique would win Supporting Actress in Precious over previous year’s winner Penelope Cruz (Nine), Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick (both nominated for Up in the Air), and Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart). I would have given consideration to either Melanie Laurent or Diane Kruger for their roles in Basterds.

And that’s 2009 for you, my friends! I’ll get to 2010 at same point in the future…

Lee Daniels’ The Butler Movie Review

Lee Daniels’ The Butler has moments of genuine power and insight dealing with our nation’s civil rights history over the past near century. Spanning over 80 years in time, The Butler takes us from the picture’s central character working in the cotton fields of Georgia as a young boy to sitting in the White House as an old man waiting to meet with the first African-American President of the United States. In between those times, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) becomes quite familiar with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, working as a butler from the Eisenhower administration through the Reagan administration.

The film is loosely based on true events and The Butler shifts its time between Cecil’s work experience and family life. For the work portion, we get a journey through several decades of political history from desegregation to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to Vietnam to the South African apartheid movement. In many cases, these events coincide with Cecil’s family as his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) gets very politically involved in civil rights issues. The irony is not lost on the audience – his father works in the center of the  U.S. government but has an occupation where being seen and not heard is the rule. Oprah Winfrey is Cecil’s wife Gloria, a well-rounded character full of imperfections but also an enduring devotion to her husband.

The Butler is really centralized on the complicated relationship between Cecil and David. It is their dynamic that provide the picture’s best moments, as well as several between Cecil and Gloria. When screenwriter Danny Strong focuses his concentration on their storylines, the film is effective and often emotionally satisfying.

It’s the scenes in the White House that often fall far short of satisfying. For starters, director Daniels’ decision to cast recognizable actors as the Presidents backfires. Much of this is due to casting. We have Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Live Schrieber as LBJ, John Cusack as Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Reagan. None of them make much of an impression and most aren’t given enough screen time to make one anyway. Their casting serves as a distraction more than anything else and we feel like we’re watching the actor, not the POTUS character they’re playing. The same cannot be said for Winfrey, who is outstanding. She reminds us that she probably would’ve had a great movie career over the last couple of decades if not for that whole building a billion dollar multimedia empire thing.

Even with casting quibbles set aside, where The Butler sometimes fails is in its journey through history that could often be described as “cliffs notes”. There simply isn’t the proper time to give these important political issues any real fleshing out. Some of these scenes showing the struggle of the civil rights movement, especially those involving Louis, are powerful. And we do get involved with the characters of Gaines family and we can thank some excellent acting from Whitaker, Winfrey, and Oyelowo a lot for that.

The Butler‘s finest moments are mixed with a lot of disappointing ones, including some unfortunate casting choices and its uneven and too episodic screenplay. It’s the writing of the Gaines family in several scenes and the first-rate performances of the actors playing them that helps out a lot.

*** (out of four)

2014 Oscar Predictions: Todd’s Picks for Early January

And we’re off with my next to last round of Oscar predictions before they’re announced on Thursday, January 16th. The plan is to do my final predictions, most likely either on Sunday the 12th or Monday the 13th. These new picks reflect changes in four of the six top categories. Let’s get to it shall we?


I’ve stayed consistent with predicting that nine movies will get nominated. The change here is that I’m including Dallas Buyer’s Club for the first time as I believe it’s gotten enough precursor momentum to get in. That means I had to take something out and Saving Mr. Banks has been dropped. As I see it, the race is still a battle between 12 Years a Slave and Gravity for the win with American Hustle as a possible spoiler.


American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyer’s Club



Inside Llewyn Davis


12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street


One change here: I believe the polarizing reaction to The Wolf of Wall Street might leave Martin Scorsese out in this competitive category. So he’s out and Spike Jonze, riding a wave of momentum for Her, is in. Like Picture, this race should come down to Slave‘s Steve McQueen and Gravity‘s Alfonso Cuaron for the victory with yet again Hustle‘s Russell as possible spoiler.


Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Spike Jonze, Her

Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

Alexander Payne, Nebraska

David O. Russell, American Hustle


This is seriously such a loaded category. In any other year, I’d be predicting Christian Bale in American Hustle, Forest Whitaker in Lee Daniels’ The Butler or Joaquin Phoenix in Her. None of them make the cut. Conventional wisdom is that this is a six man race and only five make the cut. Last round of predictions, I had Tom Hanks’ work in Captain Phillips left out, but now he’s back in. This came down to a decision between whether to leave out Leonardo DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street or Robert Redford in All is Lost. For the first time in my predictions, it’s Redford that I’ve got drawing the short straw. I believe Chiwetel Ejiofor, Bruce Dern, or Matthew McConaughey could win.


Bruce Dern, Nebraska

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave

Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips

Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyer’s Club


Prediction wise, this category has remained the most stable and I have no changes this round either. As for who will win, Cate Blanchett is emerging as the clear favorite though Sandra Bullock has a shot.


Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Judi Dench, Philomena

Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks


This is likely the most unpredictable category that is capable of producing a surprise and my new picks reflect that. Jared Leto is the frontrunner to win and Michael Fassbender appears a lock for nomination. After that, all bets are off. I’m taking out Jonah Hill for The Wolf of Wall Street and Tom Hanks for Saving Mr. Banks. I’m keeping in my Bradley Cooper for American Hustle prediction. Additions to my list: Daniel Bruhl, who’s picked up momentum for his role in Rush. As for the fifth slot, it could have been Hanks, Hill, the late James Gandolfini in Enough Said, Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips, or Harrison Ford in 42. Like I said, I believe a real surprise nomination could surface here and that’s why I’m picking former SNL alum Will Forte in Nebraska.


Daniel Bruhl, Rush

Bradley Cooper, American Hustle

Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave

Will Forte, Nebraska

Jared Leto, Dallas Buyer’s Club


Like the lead actress race, I’ve got no changes to report here either. This should still come down to Lupita Nyong’o and Jennifer Lawrence for the win.


Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

June Squibb, Nebraska

Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels’ The Butler

I’ll be back with last round of nomination picks soon enough!

This Day in Movie History: December 24

On this day in Movie History, otherwise known as Christmas Eve – Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman tied the knot 23 years ago in 1990. Their union resulted in three motion pictures where the couple worked with the late Tony Scott (Days of Thunder), Ron Howard (Far and Away), and, of course, Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut). The marriage would last until 2001. Cruise would go onto other high-profile relationships and Kidman would marry Keith Urban and win an Oscar for 2002’s The Hours (something her ex-husband has yet to do).

43 years ago today marked the debut of Disney’s animated The Aristocats, which is notable for being the last studio pic that Mr. Disney approved himself, prior to his 1966 death.

As for celebrity birthdays, we have Stephanie Meyer, author of the “Twilight” series that turned into a highly successful film franchise that ended just last year. We also have director Lee Daniels, who  broke out of the gate with 2009’s Oscar nominated Precious and had a hit this year with Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

As for the daily Six Degrees of Separation between birthday folks –

Stephanie Meyer wrote the Twilight series starring Kristen Stewart

Kristen Stewart was with Forest Whitaker in Panic Room

Forest Whitaker was the star of Lee Daniels’ The Butler

And there you have it – Christmas Eve in Movie History!