27 February 2014

Oscars 2014


Well, it's that time of the year again, and for once, in a long, long, time, I have watched all the movies that are nominated for Best Picture, which incidentally include nominees for all the other main categories. Those outside the Big 9 include Cate Blanchett for Best Actress for Blue Jasmine, and Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively for August: Osage County.

In retrospect, my personal favourite movie of 2013 (as based on release date in America) was All Is Lost. Other favourites include 12 Years A Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis, GravityBlue Jasmine, Frances Ha (I watched it on the plane, but did not review it) and The Conjuring.

Like last year, below I give my predictions on who should win and who will win for this year's Academy Awards for the big 8 categories and my own personal favourites of Best Cinematography and Best Score (nothing interesting in the Animated Feature). Winners will be updated in red.

Best Picture
12 Years A Slave
American Hustle
Captain Philips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
The Wolf of Wall Street

Who Should Win: 12 Years A Slave
Who Will Win: 12 Years A Slave

Of all the nominees, 12 Years A Slave is the one that has the grandeur and sweep on top of its stellar cast, director and screenplay. An important message also definitely booster its chances. The dark house will surely be American Hustle who has even more star-power and American goodwill towards its director and stars.

Best Director
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave
Martin Scorcese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Who Should Win: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Who Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Just that jaw-dropping, astounding opening tracking scene itself is more than enough to secure Cuaron his little bald man.

Best Actor
Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Chwitel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Who Should Win: Chwitel Ejiofor
Who Will Win: Matthew McConaughey

Robert Redford was robbed of his nomination, and if was nominated, he would have most likely given McConaughey a run for his money. Unfortunately for Ejiofor who I think gave a more powerful performance, the McConnaissance is too strong.

Best Actress
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Who Should Win: Cate Blanchett
Who Will Win: Cate Blanchett

A slam dunk for Cate Blanchett since mid 2013. She has always been the one to beat, and sadly her closest competitor would be Amy Adams, with Judi Dench a distant third, and Bullock and Streep not really deserving their noms. The only thing to hurt Blanchett will be that awful letter from Woody Allen's daughter, Dylan Farrow.

Best Supporting Actor
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Philips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Who Should Win: Jared Leto or Michael Fassbender
Who Will Win: Jared Leto

Jared Leto definitely deserves a win more than his co-star Matthew McConaughey. Besides one of the more showy role amongst the nominees, Leto gave an honestly touching and emotionally raw performance. Fassbender has an outside chance for his complex portrayal of what could be a stock villain.

Best Supporting Actress
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years A Slave
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska

Who Should Win: Lupita Nyong'o
Who Will Win: Jennifer Lawrence  Lupita Nyong'o

Both Lawrence and Nyong'o gave the best performance of all these outstanding actresses. In my heart, I really think Lupita Nyong'o should win for her heartbreaking role, however, Lawrence gave one of her best performances in years (much better than the one in Silver Linings Playbook that nabbed her her last Oscar) and J-Law is definitely riding a much bigger wave of popularity than newbie Nyong'o. This is one category that I would like to be wrong. (edited 3 Mar 2014: glad I was wrong! Go Lupita!)

Best Writing - Original Screenplay
American Hustle, Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen
Dallas Buyers Club, Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack
Her Spike Jonze
Nebraska, Bob Nelson

Who Should Win: Spike Jonze
Who Will Win: Spike Jonze

Her is pure originality. The concept may not be original but to pen that idea into a screenplay and have it so intimately and successfully translated to the big screen is an accolade by itself. Although American Hustle might sneak in here as a consolation prize to losing out Best Picture.

Best Writing - Adapted Screenplay
Before Midnight, Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke
Captain Philips, Billy Ray
Philomena, Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
12 Years A Slave, John Ridley
The Wolf of Wall Street, Terence Winter

Who Should Win: John Ridley
Who Will Win: John Ridley

Ridley screenplay for 12 Years A Slave managed to find the heart and emotional core of Solomon's journey within the time frame of the movie. The narrative pace of the story was kept constant with sufficient tension to keep the viewer reeled in. Before Midnight may steal a consolation here as a combination of the trilogy.

Best Cinematography
The Grandmaster 一代宗师, Phillipe Le Sourd
Gravity, Emmanuel Lubezski
Inside Llewyn Davis, Bruno Delbonnel
Nebraska, Phedon Papamichael
Prisoners, Roger Deakins

Who Should Win: Any of the above.
Who Will Win: Emmanuel Lubezski

Any of the above nominees deserve to win. They all have moments of absolutely stunning cinematography. The Grandmaster winning it will be a great boost for Wong Kar Wai, but Lubezski will most likely nab the price for the technical difficulty in filming Gravity itself.

Best Original Score
The Book Thief, John Williams
Gravity, Steven Price
Her, William Butler and Owen Pallett
Philomena, Alexandre Desplat
Saving Mr Banks, Thomas Newman

Who Should Win: -
Who Will Win: The Book Thief, John Williams  GravitySteven Price

I have only watched 3 of the 5 movies nominated here, and of these 3 I would think that Gravity's score was the best. However, they are matched against perennial titans Williams and Newman, and I have heard good things about Williams' score for The Book Thief. My vote would go to Williams just because he gave us, in my opinion, a rocking, fantastic, awesome soundtrack for Man of Steel.

Miscellaneous thoughts of other categories

Best Animated Feature: Frozen should be winning this award but a win for Miyazaki's last movie The Wind Rises would be awesome.

Best Song: Definitely Frozen's "Let It Go" with Her's "The Moon Song" in second place.

Best Foreign Language Film: The Hunt was really good! Too bad The Grandmaster  did not make it past the long list.

Best Production Design: The Great Gatsby has the most sumptuous set although Her's production design was also very well done.

Best Costume Design: The Great Gatsby might nail this too, although Amy Adams wardrobe in American Hustle was practically its own character. The Grandmaster gorgeous cheongsams should get some love and respect too, but perhaps not in the Western world.

Best Visual Effects: Smaug wins hands down, Gravity is more a directorial/filming feat rather than visual effect supremacy.


23 February 2014

The Monuments Men


A monumental (heh! Couldn't help it) failure. Despite having a fascinating slice of history as its basis, and lots of star wattages, this George Clooney directed comedy-drama is a poorly written history textbook coming alive. A meandering, barely coherent mess, strung along by a weak - thinner than paper - excuse for a plot/narrative, a bare iota, or even less, of characterisation and unbalanced, bordering on schizophrenia, directing. I have never felt like walking out of a cinema in a long time. Not to say there were not any bright sparks, but they were too brief and far in between, mainly courtesy of Bill Murray and Bob Balaban.

I applaud Clooney for attempting to present this really intriguing piece of history to the general public in a comedic manner, however, his balancing between the dramatic moments and the lighthearted comedy was just totally off. Bordering on jarring and inappropriate. The tonal shifts were abrupt with drama vying with comedy for the spotlight. Thankfully, he had casted comedic geniuses in the roles which really helped sell the comedy, and it was also Murray which gave the one and only heartfelt scene. There were also too many plot holes, empty spaces between scenes - scenes just do not connect.

The stars were mostly paired off throughout the movie, and some pairing worked and some just did not. As mentioned Murray and Balaban were the clear scene-stealers; John Goodman and Jean Dujardin had some sparks, but their scenes were severely short-changed; Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett had no chemistry at all; Blanchett's French demeanour and her French accent were too distracting (over-acting on purpose as directed, or just a bad french accent?); Clooney is really not that great an actor, period.

Even the score, by the ever-reliable Alexandre Desplat was as schizophrenic as the directing. And that resulted in a fairly distracting score. Although the main theme, as heard over the end credits, was fabulous and distinctively Desplat, as it peppered throughout the film, it just sounded disjointed amidst its sounds of hope, wonder, adventure and discovery.

I have not not liked a movie in a long time, and unfortunately, nothing really did work here. The 120 minutes run time sure did not help. There were so many moments that I felt like just walking out of there, but each time something will spark on screen (usually by Murray) and I would wish that this will somehow get better. I did learn more about this bit of history.

21 February 2014

All Is Lost


This is what happens when studios do not market/campaign for their movie. All Is Lost is a far and away one of the best, or even the best, movie of this season, and its main - and only - star, Robert Redford is in a class of his own, easily trumping over any of the Best Actor nominees this year. Riveting, exciting, tense, harrowing, humbling and undeniably intense, the simple plot belies a tightly complex character study.

J.C. Chandor wrote and directed this gem and it is an amazing example of a complex character study. With barely any dialogue, we are given an immensely exciting movie with a character with whom we know anything about, but just based on his actions (and reactions), we can come to slowly understand him. We can guess his background, his motivations and his drive. However all these are just speculations and endless possibilities are abound. But instead of being frustrated by the lack of clarity, it is to Chandor's credit that he was able to weave a fascinating story out of such a simple idea.

The real star of the show is Redford. Well, he is the only star. But what a performance. A tour de force performance over 100 minutes where less words were spoken then minutes passed, but with each grunt, each purposeful action, each emotive reaction, Redford has us in a spell. We are enraptured by this man and his adventure; we are perplexed by him and his reasons for being; we are worried for his safety and rooting endlessly for him to survive. This is not a simple role to play. The amount of backstory that he, and Chandor, had to create for "Our Man" must be staggering, and then to put all that backstory into character without any context and yet translating it to the audience...mindblowing! There has not been such a rich character in a such a minimalistic movie in a long time.

Kudos also goes out to the Sound Mixers and Sound Editors, their job here was crucial. And of course praise to Alex Ebert for the score. In a movie, such as this, the score is itself another character, and Ebert's score gave it life.

20 February 2014

Philomena


This sentimental movie led by a quietly dignified Judi Dench and penned by co-star Steve Coogan is quintessentially British in nature: dry humour, emotional but not gut-wrenching, and so very proper throughout. It tugs at the heart strings but does not emotionally manipulate like most Hollywood fare.

Stephen Frears adopted a rather documentary-style approach to the story which, for better or worse, puts the audience firmly in their seats and never really part of the events. This style was useful in the flashback scenes. Visually Frears gave the past and present two distinct looks, with the past appearing more grainy like a faded film (memory), but as we join Dench and Coogan in the present, there is some disconnect between us and them as he continues with the documentary-style presentation.

If it was not for Dench's quietly powerful and intimately heartfelt portrayal, a lot of the film's moments would not have struck the emotional chord of the audience. Her eyes and her subtle expressions adds layers and dimensions to the simple old, Irish lady that she appeared to be. The fear, the rage, the despair, the joy and the relief that might have gone through Philomena's mind were all palpable to us through Dench. If not for Cate Blanchett, Dench might have a chance for the Oscar (against Amy Adams). 

Steve Coogan the actor was par per excellence opposite the indomitable Dench. But he was not really given much to do other than being pompous, arrogant and indignant. Although he did do all that with aplomb. 

However, as one of the film's writer - together with John Pope - Coogan may have overdid on some of the quippisms. Too much humour was drawn out of the old country lady in the new modern city schtick. There were also some scenes that were purely extraneous and could have been better integrated although that is as much Frears' fault. Coogan and Pope's screenplay may also have needed a bit more characterisation on Dench's Philomena to justify the ending. Tough fight for them against 12 Years A Slave for Best Adapted Screenplay. 

Michelle Fairley aka Catelyn Stark was on too briefly, but - boy! - did she look fierce or what?

Alexandre Desplat gave us a wonderful score. He has been missed this awards season. His music was hopeful and alive, but yet never overtly dramatic to drown out Dench. Reminds me of his work on The Golden Compass. Pity I do not think this is his best work and so I doubt he will bring home the Oscar this year. 

13 February 2014

I'm So Excited (Los Amantes Pasajeros)


Pedro Almodóvar's newest movie is an extremely frothy and highly campy comedy that is essentially an anthology of stories tied together with the thinnest and flimsiest plot. Don't expect it to be like Almodóvar's previous brilliant work like Volver, Todo Sobre Mi Madre, Hable Con Ella and the most recent La Piel Que Habito, and it can be quite enjoyable. Embrace the silliness, frothiness and bawdiness (MDA's words), and it's not too bad a way to spend 90 minutes.

The poster basically says it all. The tone of the movie is set from the opening introduction and credits. There are some definite laugh out loud moments, a lot of sniggering and snark, and quite a number of eye-rolling, but critically, nothing really stood out. The plot as aforementioned is thin to the point of invisibility; the acting is camp not high art. There were some innovative directing and some attempt at depth (exploring certain themes). It seemed that Almodóvar had an idea - a situation - and tried to run with it for 90 minutes. Although making it a comedy was a much more refreshing idea than another tense situational drama, but in the end, the only consistency throughout is that Love, irregardless, triumphs all. So actually, not too bad a V-day movie to watch.

Here's a link to the hilarious, implausible, total-out-of-left-field, homage to the show's (English) title: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5izcGzirZHQ

12 February 2014

Nebraska


A simply complex, darkly comedic fable by Alexander Payne that is much better than his last movie, The Descendants, mainly because it is so much less self-obsessed and self-smug, but also has a much tighter story-telling and generally better acting. It deserves all the nominations that is has gotten.

Having the film shot in black and white is a very smart choice by Payne. Without colour differentiation, there is no distraction from the story, the acting and the cinematography. But of course, with such a technique all the other aspects must be excellent. Thankfully, with a script written not by Payne but by Bob Nelson, we have a script that is simple in its complexity exploring the paradoxical, and often silent, relationship between father and son, and also illuminating the harsh truth about Greed. And in between all that, there is still space and time for smart, witty, and drily deadpanned moments to liven things up.

Luckily Payne, as a director, is also much better here, with a tidy storytelling finesse and smart camera choices to not only bring out the comedy in certain moments, but also the tenderness and fragility in others. However, sometimes he goes a bit overboard with the cheesiness. But one pet peeve here is the over abundance of in-your-face product placement. So much so that it was rather distracting at times.

3 standout performances here. Bruce Dern is brilliant here in his subtlety. The 2013 Cannes' Film Festival Best Actor winner has the charms and screen magnetism that George Clooney only dreams he has, and his eyes are amazing in its ability to convey emotions. Here is an actor that knows that good acting does not require you to be loud and dramatic/drastic (looking at you here Matthew McConaughey), but it is the simple, quietness that is the most challenging. Like Emmanuelle Riva in Armour, his brilliance will surely be overlooked on Oscar night. Although if trumped by Chwitel Eijofor for 12 Years A Slave it would not be a snub.

Then we have June Squibb, who gets the best lines of the show. Her tough as nail performances belay a gentle affection and allows us to question the relationship that she has with her husband.

Lastly, Will Forte as the wide-eyed lost-son. Forte plays the straight man here and yet with his un-assuming character we come to believe him and understand why he does the things he do. As an audience surrogate he was very effective because we believe this man can exist.

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael did a great job here. Filming in black and white is very challenging and yet he balanced the tone, the lighting, the contrast superbly throughout with gorgeous framings of landscapes and wide-angled shots.

Mark Orton did the music for the movie, and he gave the film a very folksy-sounding country score which was appropriate for the tone of the movie, but also aurally it was like the movie: simple but complex.

2 February 2014

Robocop


Disclaimer: I remembered watching the original 1987 movie and loving it, and even now although I cannot really recall the plot points, I still remember certain scenes and how in awe I was with it back then. 

A rote, mediocre crime thriller that failed to live up to the pedigree of the 1987 Paul Verhoeven classic, but it is not for without (some of) its cast trying their best.

Unfortunately, the biggest problem with sci-fi remakes/reboots such as this and Total Recall, just updating and modernising the tech/science is not enough. The original films captured the zeitgeist of their time; but now, with a saturation of sci-fi in the media, this concept just feels old and tired. On television, we have Almost Human that pairs human detectives with cyborgs; we have Intelligence that sees a man connected to the internet and "cyber renders"; we had movies like Tron, The Matrix Trilogy, I, Robot, and Her which ranges from popcorn blockbusters to the thinking man sci-fi; we have books by Isaac Asimov, Neal Stephenson and William Gibson ("Neuromancer"); the rise of cyberpunk; the mainstream acceptance of anime.

As such, without anything new or original, the old concept of putting a man into a robot will still feel old and unexciting. So when the rote, predictable A-B-C plot fails (at times thee screenplay by Joshua Zetumer is just plain contrived and lazy when it comes to resolving tension/issues) what else can capture an audience attention? There are no eye-popping CGI or robotics (Transformers has got that down pat), and even the shock-reveal of what's under the robotics is really not that amazing after seeing a dragon come to live in The Hobbit: TDOS. The directing by Jose Padilha was so-so with too much showy "made-for-3D" moments, effects heavy, and messy when they are not CGI rendered, action scenes.

Then that leaves us with the acting. Joel Kinnaman resumes his The Killing brooding persona and he did his best with just his face for most of the times. although his chemistry with Abbie Cornish was lacking. Cornish, on her part, was rather convincing as the distraught wife although a pity they did not explore their relationship more (now, that would have made the film more differentiated). Gary Oldman gave his role a degree of gravitas and added a humane complexity to his scientific mind. Michael Keaton just chews his scenery and not in a good way; Jennifer Ehle was just sleepwalking through her way. Samuel L Jackson was just extraneous and someone up there really just want him to cuss and swear (Jackson is just becoming a walking caricature).

Lastly, not sure if it was meant to be satirical or literal, but there were clear undertones of the film-makers' (producers, director, writer) politics and thoughts on the Sino-US relationship (especially when the film was not even filmed in China), and even their views on the war in Iraq/Afghanistan. And to the final scene, this is my reply: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTjMqda19wk 

Stephen King's Doctor Sleep

This was unexpectedly good. It was not Oscar-winning good, but it was a thoroughly entertaining horror-thriller. Kudos to writer/director...