Friday, 22 February 2013

O Scars 2013

Unless you've been living on the moon (and thus can't tell that this is a very worn-out way to start a text), you'll know that they are handing out the Academy Awards this sunday. Big whoop. But this year, the nominees do have a fair amount of wild cards among them, so I actually have a shred of interest in the whole thing. I might even stay up to watch the dang thing, despite Seth MacFarlane's racism, silly voices and inevitable song number. As ever, the films are what's the most important thing, not the glitz and glamour. So here's a look at how the major nominees are (32% new material).

Director: Michael Haneke

Famed Austrian analyst Michael Haneke surprised audiences worldwide for having such a heartfelt central theme in his latest movie. Haneke is one who usually tends to shy away from all sorts of basic Hollywood schmaltz and basic emotional manipulations. And the end result manages to be a worthy successor to the director's filmography, both done in the auteur's signature, distant style, yet with the sort of unforced emotional resonance that makes for a powerful cinematic experience. At the very least, it is a movie that can be enjoyed on multiple levels. It challenges you to think and analyze, but doesn't force you to. The central theme of love is strong enough as it is.

In the spotlight of the humane film are an elderly couple of wealthy music teachers, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva). They live together in a vast flat in the middle of Paris, where most of the film is also set. But then, their everyday routines and bourgeois cultural consumption  are threatened when Anne has a stroke and her health starts to falter. Georges takes care of his bed-ridden wife as best he can. Their worried daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) comes to visit and suggest that Anne could get better treatment at a hospital. Georges is adamant that she'll be best off in their home, and makes effort to get the very best treatment and care for her as he can.

It seems odd that so few movies dare to deal with the Autumn years of peoples' lives. It is the time when lives may be changes in a flick of a wrist, and may hang by a thread. Watching Amour is utterly devastating and hard, yet infinitely rewarding. One doesn't need flashy melodrama and luscious over-the-topness to tell about us as people. This is as honest and down-to-earth as one can get, never spoon-feeding the viewers with anything.

As is often the case with Haneke, this is less a story, more a study of emotions and situations. The director's characterization is precise and is helped tremendously by the excellent cast. Also faithful to the director's style, he devastates upper-middle-class living, where the keeping up of appearances of a dreadful situation may be the most important thing to do. As precious of his wife is to him, Georges can't stand the thought of humiliating her by allowing just anyone to treat her. All the possessions the rich pair owns eventually turn into empty relics at a tomb. We know from the beginning how the thing will play out, which adds to the hopelessness and emotional punch of the film.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Foreign Film
Will win: Best Actress: Emmanuelle Riva, Best Foreign Film
Should win: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay

Director: Ben Affleck

Argo has grown to be more controversial the more it wins awards. It's a bit too safe a bet for people voting for awards, while very good, it's scarcely about anything. It's Hollywood's very own pat in its own back, shying away from all the political dimensions of the time period it tells about. Nevertheless, no matter how many wrongly won awards it gets, I like it simply because it managed to be one of the year's most exciting films. The super-intense thriller about rescuing American ambassadors from the Ayatollah's Iran in 1980 reaches almost Hitchcock-levels in building up tensions and letting the viewer worry about the outcome. It may be historically poppycock, but it makes for a thrilling ride at the cinemas.

During the Islamic Revolution in 1970's Iran, the US Embassy gets overrun by an angry mob. The diplomats manage to destroy most of the documents about their identities before managing to escape. But the Iranians start to furiously recovering the shredded files. The USA had angered the Iranian people by providing medical care and a sanctuary to the last Iranian Shah, hated by the revolutionaries.

Ben Affleck has grown better and better with each of his directing duties. The film's a fun tribute to the hands-on approach to filmmaking, craftsmanship and B-movies of old. The time when smart-mouthed creative personnel still managed to get a project rolling in Hollywood, without the meddling of slick, money-hunting business executives.

The film does depict iranians as straight-up villains (although it lays the groundwork on why they are so upset of America's policies, what with all the spying). As such, it probably won't do any favors for the already icy relationship between USA and Iran. The more popularity it gains, the more it may hurt in the long run. But Affleck does offer as apolitical approach to the historical subject as is possible in such a real-life situation. The final scenes have little to do with reality, but as a climax to the tension, as well as a tribute to the little-cheesy American blockbusting filmmaking the movie celebrates, it works.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Original Score
Will win: Best Adapted Screenplay; Chris Terrio, Best Film Editing; William Goldenburg, Best Sound Editing; Erik Aadahl, Ethan Van der Ryn
Should win: Best Film Editing.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Director: Benh Zeitlin

Now, for a film I have grown less fond the more attention it has gained, your every-hipster's do-it-yourself catastrophy movie. It's been praised for being a wholly original piece of filmmaking, while in fact it pulls a lot of familiar heartstrings and tells more or less the same story as Terry Gilliam's Tideland. I've been left wondering whether Gilliam's more edgy, cruel and audience-testing provocation was actually the better film. It may have had a handicapped stereotype, but it's a lot more easier to swallow than some of the racial stereotypes on display here.

In a fictional Deep Southern village of Washtub, lives the six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) in a run-down shack. Her mother has long since left so she attempts to bond with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). Unfortunately, Wink has severe mental and heath problems, and isn't too happy about them and is prone to bursts of anger. Hushpuppy has learned to more or less take care of herself, with the help of the other villagers.

Hushpuppy has an active imagination and gets lost inside it from time to time. When a tornado threatens the village, Wink and Hushpuppy rekindle their relationship, but the desperate situation also calls for desperate acts. Hushpuppy also ventures on an adventure to find her mother. The plot bounces here and there, making the point that childhood's innocence and imagination provides a philosophy where drastic situations can turn to magical adventures. Hushpuppy is never alone, and keeps the love she's received on her sleeve to help her along when his father is on a downswing or otherwise things appear to go from bad to worse.

The main problem of the film seems to be that it throws so many things in the air and quickly ties up the knots at the end. For instance, there isn't enough on he community and it's coping by the end, although it seemed like a major element in the beginning. Also the annoying, ever-constant voiceover from Hushpuppy hammers the points home too hard, rather than allowing people make their own minds and conclusions.

The film is visually very inventive, with some amazing sets that look like they've been lying around for years having actually been created from scratch. The overwhelming flood of striking imagery makes the viewer feel like a six-year-old him- or herself, being amazed of the vastness of the world and all the things in it. That's probably why the film had such a strong response. But this in turn also brings with it a sense of helplessness. We can't do anything to hold Hushpuppy's family together, or even to make her act sensibly to grow up to be a proper adult in time.

But nevertheless, for a first-time director, Benh Zeitlin has created an amazingly confident piece of work. It has been helping that the director and the crew form a strong creative collective that have supported each other with their decisions and visions. It's a good enough first step, but now the film is a piece that's easier to appreciate than to truly delve into.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay
Will win: Nada.
Should win: Nada.

Django Unchained
Director: Quentin Tarantino

The latest Tarantino joint offers the usual inter-textual movie references, violent battle scenes and tongue-in-cheek humor. But this time around the auteur at least has a good story and an actual character arc at the core of his moviemaking, rather than just a framework in which to drop dialogue scenes and movie references. Now all his characterizations and reference choices serve the main story, give or take a few gratitious cameos and a few beauty errors.

This is a movie that's more than just the sum of it's parts. The parts vary in quality a bit, but not as considerably as in the director's last few films. It's an angry, bitter and loud song against injustice and for equal opportunites in life for all. It's a hero's journey and while the end may be played mostly for laughs, it is really a bit grim tale on how a fish out of water grows to be a cynical and nihilistic mass murderer. There's, of course, a love story in the centre of it all.

And not just between two bestest buddies.

It would be foolish to think Tarantino's entertaining approach to a subject as grim as slavery would win any favors from the Academy voters, but he's still the black horse I'm betting on in the original screenplay category - simply because the Academy likes to right old wrongs and it's been 18 years since QT won the award from Pulp Fiction. And to add the insult, the auteur had to share the podium with Roger Avary of all people! He's due another statue, even if his script could have used one more polish this time around.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing
Will win: Best Original Screenplay
Should win: Nada.

Les Miserablés
Director: Tom Hooper

Musicals tend to be the sort of black horses in Oscar betting races, but they also tend to win quite often. In the case one doesn't think Argo will take home whatever few awards it's nominated, and Silver Linings Playbook is too weird for the rest, it is quite clear that this will be the major winner come sunday. It is an irresistibly super-melodramatic adaptation of a major Broadway play, epic in proportion, and allowing familiar actors to show some range. Tom Hooper is a major Oscar darling in that he's competent but not offensively ground-breaking in any way, so it's quite surprising to see he's not up for an award for directing, too.

There's a lot of these grumpy close-ups.

Based on Victor Hugo's classic novel, the story tells the story of the ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) being doomed to a life of poverty and misery after being released. But one act of kindness makes him rethink his life, so he breaks his parole and devotes his life to serving God. Years later, he's become a wealthy businessman, employing also the desperate Fantine (Anne Hathaway). Valjean's manager fires her due to she keeping that she has a daughter and to support her does a little moonlighting on the side. Fantine's life is ruined as a consequence, but when Valjean finds out about it, he decides to give away his wealth and freedom to give a better future to Fantine's small daughter Cosette. He goes on the run from the vengeful Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), bent on getting Valjean behind bars again.

The complicated story brings heaps of misery and death to each of its main characters. All are expressed through the power of song. This is a super-emotional story, filled with such melodramatism it should play well with the masses of Academy voters. Even though the film has quite a depressing story, the main themes of love, honesty, passion, sacrifice and strength in the face of hardships that work on most people. The style isn't all consistent with the burlesque/grotesque stylings of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter seeming to belong to a shithouse adaptation of Sweeney Todd instead.

The melodramatism does reach ultimate points at times, and several minor characters are not well-realized enough for the viewer to invest in them too much. The first half in general works much better than the muddled third act. Mostly the cast is superb, however, and one can expect at least Hathaway and probably also Jackman to also pick an award for their troubles. They both are former Oscar hosts after all. And their back now is needin' some scratchin'.

Anne Hathaway will cry either way.
My favorite thing about the film is the super epic opening, picturing a tattered French Tricolour from underwater before rising to the surface to show a massive war ship being pulled to the shore by singing worker-convicts. That's how you open a huge movie!

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Costume Design, Best Song, Best Makeup, Best Soundmixing, Best Production Design
Will win: Best Picture, Best Actor; Hugh Jackman, Best Supporting Actress; Anne Hathaway, Best Costume Design, Best Song, Best Makeup, Best Soundmixing, Best Production Design
Should win: Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, Best Soundmixing, Best Production Design

Life of Pi
Director: Ang Lee

While Ang Lee's novel adaptation isn't one of the best nominees, I'm still quite glad I went to see it in cinema. For whatever it's flaws are in audience-pandering and hokey religious-spiritual messages, it is still visually a quite striking epic. Clear, colorful HD shots of zoo animals, both real and CGI are something most people would like to test their new TV with.

The titular Pi, Piscine Patel (Irrfan Khan), reminisces his life and lost love for a journalist, eventually getting to the most important thing that ever happened to him. When he was young (and played by Shuraj Sharma) he attempted to move from India to the United States with his zoo-owning family. But at a huge storm there was a shipwreck and he as the only human managed to survive to a life boat. But alongside with him on the raft is a collection of various animals. Especially with the man eating tiger Richard Parker, the survival at sea becomes a fight for survival in another way as well.

The animals are, of course symbolic and in case the audience had their own interpretations for them, they are spelled out twice in the end. The story doesn't really make me believe in God as much as it makes me believe there are no point of obviousness Hollywood producers won't feel the need to talk down to. But as said, visually the movie is very nifty, with animals and various faces the sea has from a raging storm to the mirror-clear calmness. There's no reason this won't win an award or two for its visual ideas alone. I'm guessing cinematography and CGI effects are up for the gong at least.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score, Best Original Song
Will win: Best Cinematography; Claudio Miranda, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score; Mychael Danna
Should win: Best Visual Effects

Director: Steven Spielberg

You can't make much more white bread account on racial issues than Steven Spielberg has done here. The movie focuses on the hardships the beloved US president (Daniel Day-Lewis) faced when attempting to pass the law abolishing slavery through the senate. The political climate of a war-torn country divided into two is a sort of parable to the political climate of today where Democrats and Republicans can't seem to agree on just about anything and oppose each other by principle rather than by what's best for the nation.

Good leadership is telling a lot of historical stories and jokes.

This is done by having a story with plenty of historical compromises and focusing more on Lincoln's skills in legislation and political horse-trading than in actually holding the duties of a commander-in-chief during wartime, or his famed speeches or such. Spielberg thinks these are so well-known mattersthat even characters within the story are super-naturally familiar with them. For instance, multiple characters recite the Gettysburg Address from heart to Lincoln a mere day or two after the president has spoken it aloud. The clunky script also has people reciting historical facts to other people that should know them already, as if they had never heard of them before.

"Gee, dad. Remember when you were born in a small log cabin?"
Black characters are of any use to the film only when used to boost some other character's image by showing him keeping them as equals. Towards the end the very few black actors on screen are so light-skinned, and shot in such a light, they might as well be played by white actors.

Most of the actors are still quite good, even though Daniel Day-Lewis can (and probably does) do such a role in his sleep. To create some sort of drama, Spielberg goes through his very basic motions of a too-distant father-son relationship between Lincoln and his son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Much squabble is had whether the young Lincoln can join the army, but without any payoff to the plot strain.

"I'll end this war rather than to see you join it!"
The outspoken, foul-mouthed Tommy Lee Jones brings home the little there is here to enjoy. But as a whole, the film is very cheesy, badly scripted and most of all, is a very boring account about an interesting subject. I hope this will reflect on how few awards it should get.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing
Will win: I hope nothing.
Should win: Nada.

Silver Linings Playbook
Director: David O. Russell

Silver Linings Playbook is an unique film that could have been very cheap but feels earnest enough to be rootable. Starting to watch this, I didn't care for it much at first, as the odd structure, weird characters and emphasis on mental illness aren't that instantly likeable. But as it goes on, the film grows on you, mostly thanks to the lovely Jennifer Lawrence. It's okay to have a crush on her now, isn't it?

At the core this is a romantic comedy that downplays the comedy. Russell revisits some of the themes he studied previously in Fighter. These include a romance giving the key to fix a broken family, and sport being the glue that allows the family find its place within the whole suburban working-class society. I didn't like the film quite as much, because these themes are sidelined to give more room into the growing relationship between Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Cooper is fine, but a bit unworthy protagonist. It's a bit cheap to show you can conquer mental illnesses just by letting go of the past and moving on, and with the powers of love and trust.

But the film's reality feels inhabited and functional, for even the minor roles are cast well enough. Really, only the snooty professional dancers and judges feel like they're Barbie dolls. But the viewpoint of the film is very much on the underdogs. Everyone has been praising Robert De Niro's performance as a loving father prone to explosive or impulsive behavior, and with good cause. For once, he feels like a proper, fleshed-out character in a movie, and not just Bob De Niro popping by to collect another paycheck.

Jacki Weaver is fine too, but didn't leave as lasting an impression. She's subtler.

I would have no problems to see this emerge as the big victor of the evening, but sadly, don't really believe so. It's a bit too quirky, and a bit too un-melodramatic. Russell should win the director's gong for his past works as well, particularly seeing as Argo and Les Mis missed out on director noms entirely. De Niro is a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actor. Not only did he have the best performance of the nominees, I also like to think the Academy would want to push him into doing better-quality movies in general, again.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing
Will win: Best Director: David O. Russell; Best Supporting Actor: Robert De Niro
Should win: Best Supporting Actor

Zero Dark Thirty
Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Perhaps the most devisive Oscar nominee this year, Kathryn Bigelow's account on the War on Terror has been accused of many things, often inaccurately. However, I'm not sure if the final movie reaches the journalistically distant, equal tone Bigelow and Mark Boal claim to have been aiming for in interviews. Nevertheless, it is a gripping thriller. Suspenseful as all hell, and treating it's subject more seriously than the fluffy, more entertaining Argo. This is a movie to challenge you to think.

The main problem many liberal and left-leaning people have with the film is with the torture sequences that occur in the first part of the movie. However, the torture US soldiers are depicted as doing, is neither heroic or glamorous. It's described as disgusting and vile, and it really doesn't get any good answers. The fact that the search for Bin Laden takes even the slightest step forward is, due to the chaotic nature of the information, postponed by years of being insecure whether the intel is reliable or not.

The torture sequence also shows the first moral compromise the lead character (played by Jessica Chastain) is willing to make. First introduced as a viewpoint character, we learn heaps of this career woman in the one scene she refuses any mercy for the tortured prisoner, rather advising him on telling the truth to help himself. But even though her person has these wicked sides, we somewhat root for her. A woman's place in the military is to do everything at least with twice the effort and conviction then the men. She's just following the patterns she sees around her to get ahead, never minding her morale.

The film simplifies a rather large amount of CIA operations, and basically it's a revenge movie since she gets a lot more juice in her hunt once her only female friend and trustee gets killed by bad intel. As with Hurt Locker, the film's finale shows the ultimate unfulfilling nature of violence. Nothing has been solved by the death of Bin Laden and everything our heroine has strived for has been stripped. The dead caused by her hunt can't be brought back to life.

The film would deserve a Sound Editing Oscar simply for the fact that it mostly is a very talkative political thriller, but when there are explosions or helicopters chopping, they are so loud as you can feel them in your gut. However, I'm far from an expert on the subject. I just think that it was kind of a cool feeling in the theatre, for once the big screen acoustic seemed to be utilized.

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing, Best Editing
Will win: Nothing.
Should win: Best Sound Editing

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