business news in context, analysis with attitude

I told you a couple of weeks ago that I had four movies among the major Oscar-nominated films to see, and I'm happy to report that I've knocked off three of them.

12 Years A Slave is an enormous achievement - a movie so raw, so beautifully acted, written and directed that I felt I was watching a completely original piece of work.

It tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free African American living and working in upstate New York with his wife and children, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (a British actor of enormous talent, known for everything from playing "Othello" onstage to being the bad guy in Serenity onscreen), Northup manages to maintain his dignity while understandably falling into varying levels of despair - he has gone from being an accomplished musician and free man to being a piece of property without rights or options. It is incredibly hard to watch at varying points, in part because of the base and repellent cruelty that it portrays, but also because it shows a time in our history that is impossible to reconcile with our vision of ourselves.

Extraordinarily well acted, sensitively directed by British director Steve McQueen, and based by screenwriter John Ridley on the book "12 Years A Slave," written by Northup in 1853, this is a movie that is hard to watch, about a time that is difficult to understand, and, ultimately, unforgettable.

It makes "Roots," a major work when it came out, look like "Mr. Rogers."

I finally caught up with Blue Jasmine, the 2013 Woody Allen movie that was his version of "A Streetcar Named Desire," and that earned Oscar nominations for Cate Blanchett as Best Actress and Sally Hawkins as Best Supporting Actress. I know that this film has gotten a lot of positive notices, especially for its performances, but I must confess that I don't know what all the fuss is all about. Whatever charms Blue Jasmine has were completely lost on me.

It is, on the surface, an interesting premise, with Alec Baldwin as a Bernie Madoff type who is all cool, silky reassurance. But when he's found out and sent to prison, his wife, Jasmine, slowly sees her life's illusions fall away, and she finds solace in vodka, Xanax and, eventually, madness. The problem is that there are hardly any lines in the movie that sound like they would be uttered by actual human beings, and I found the performances - even by Blanchett, who makes her unraveling painful to watch - unable to get past the over-the-top script. Everybody is "acting," and while the film is supposed to be stylized, it just doesn't work. Even the casting, usually an Allen specialty, seems off-key; characters who are supposed to be from San Francisco seem like they hail from Brooklyn, and Allen never seems to appreciate San Francisco the same way he's always appreciated New York and, in recent films like the wonderful Midnight in Paris and Match Point, Paris and London.

And now, I'm going to write a sentence I never, ever thought I'd write. I thought the single best performance in the movie, with the single most truthful moment, was by Andrew Dice Clay.

Clay plays the ex-husband of Jasmine's sister, who lost all of his money when he invested with Baldwin's character. He has a short scene, toward the end of the movie, that is utterly, nakedly painful, without any of the artifice of the other characters. And the shame of it is, the moment seems completely out of place.

This is not something I would say about many movies, but I loathed Blue Jasmine.

Her is a fascinating piece of work, set in a near-future Los Angeles, at a time when technology has become even more pervasive than it is today. The Spike Jonze written-and-directed movie casts Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly, a nebbish who makes a living hand-writing letters for people …. except, of course, he doesn't actually write them, but rather dictates them to a computer, which converts them to hand-written text. He's lonely, having recently separated from his wife, and he fills the hole in his life by falling in love with his computer's operating system.

Now, that's not quite as bizarre as it sounds. The movie takes great pains to explain that the OS has virtual intelligence, able to learn and exhibit human characteristics. And it's even less strange since the voice of the OS is that of Scarlett Johansen, who brings an impressive fully formed sexual huskiness to a part that she recorded in an audio studio. Her OS, named Samantha, is fun, inquisitive, playful, smart and seemingly the girl of his dreams, especially as, over time, she becomes increasingly sentient. Except of course, he can't touch her and she can't touch him. In many ways, it seems like the perfect 21st century romance.

There are all sort of directions that Her could've gone, but what I found most impressive about it was the movie's ability to keep me off balance. It could've been a treatise on society's depersonalization and isolation, but instead I left the theater wondering about the similarities and differences between love and intimacy, and about acts of love that have nothing to do with sex. I liked Her, but more importantly, it has kept me thinking about its premise and implications. That's a good thing.

In case you're interested, the fourth movie I need to see is Dallas Buyers Club, which I'll catch up with one of these days. There's only one major Oscar nominee that I have absolutely no interest in seeing - August: Osage County, which, in the commercials and clips I've seen, seems preposterous, contrived and over-acted. Maybe I'll catch it on TV at some point, but not anytime soon.

That's it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.

KC's View: