Penultimate Oscars update

Ok guys I guess you may be getting bored with the (seemingly) endless updates concerning the Oscars but I am coming to the end I swear. There will be one more after this – which combines the last few films and obviously a whole bunch of comments on the results of the 84th Academy Awards. And then it will be back to trying to work my way through 1001 Movie You Must Watch Before You Die I promise!

Kung Fu Panda 2

Director: Jennifer Yuh

Like so many animated features Kung Fu Panda 2 uses big name actors to voice the characters. And what a stellar cast it is, with actors like Lucy Liu, Seth Rogan, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan and Gary Oldman playing supporting roles to Jack Black’s Po. With Jack Black at the helm I expected it to be funnier than it was. Having said that I still found it funnier than Puss In Boots (Chris Miller).

Seth Rogan does the typical Seth Rogan act, just without the obscenities, which people either seem to love or hate. I think his voice lends itself well to animated characters. And in some ways Jack Black does the same. We get a typical Jack Black performance in an animated panda suit. He is the funniest character in the film but for me the laughs were few and far between. Gary Oldman plays the adversary spectacularly – a power-hungry albino peacock. Shen’s story reminds me of Herod just without Po in the role of Jesus. his demise is foretold to come at the hand of a panda so he orders every panda in China killed.

I quite like that the film approaches the idea of adoption and Po’s reaction to the news. I love the baby Po!!

The animation is of a high quality and actually has two very different styles. The bulk of the film is quite realistic – well as realistic as animals wearing human clothes can be. The second style of animation has a more hand-drawn feel to it which creates a softer and more dream-like quality, fitting as the style is utilized during flashback scenes.

Not the worst animated film I have ever seen but certainly no where near the best one I have seen either. It’s main selling point for me is the cast of some really big Hollywood A-Listers but even then they didn’t really live up to my expectations.

Rango

Director: Gore Verbinski

Having now seen 4 out of the 5 films nominated in the Best Animated Feature category this is definitely my stand out winner!! Unlike Puss In Boots (Chris Miller, 2011) and Kung Fu Panda 2 (Jennifer Yuh) which are meant to be funny and just weren’t I actually laughed a lot at Rango.

Johnny Depp is recognizable as the eponymous lizard and is hilarious. His voice lends itself well to animation and highlights his comedic talent. The townsfolk are a wonderfully rendered bizarre mix of animals, all pretty grotesque, with hick sensibilities.

It may be a film aimed at children but it is funny and clever enough to keep adults entertained as well. It’s adult humor isn’t the base or crude humor you sometimes find in family films which I ave to say I find refreshing. The film is packed with genre specific elements. From the costumes and it is very obviously rooted in the Western genre. However there are also elements of film noir and even  nod to war films with an ariel attack set to a redneck version of ‘Rise of the Valkyrie” – made famous by Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) – which is one of the most memorable moments of the film for me.

I would not only watch Rango again but also recommend it to anyone regardless of if they had children or not as it is brilliant. And that isn’t something I can say about some of the other nominees in this category.

Beginners

Director: Mike Mills

You can tell immediately that this is an independent film rather than a massive Hollywood produced film. The film is led by the narrative of Oliver (Ewan McGregor) often spoken right over the top of the images. There is a lovely slow pace to the film. The first five minutes cover the back story of the film very quickly but succinctly in a series of vignettes and photo montages. And then the film is peppered with flashbacks, or rather remembrances, and again that works. Sound is used more sparingly … many of the scenes are quiet except for diegetic sound, or have music playing over scenes removed of all other sound. It forces you to experience the moment rather than think, even subconsciously, about everything else that is happening in the background.

I think my favourite relationship is between Oliver and his father’s dog, Arthur, but then this could be because I have recently got a puppy and now totally understand talking to your dog. And the dog is so adorable, even more so than the dog in The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011) I think that Arthur is actually a key character in the film as you see Oliver connecting to the dog while he goes through his grieving process.

Ewan McGregor is once again brilliant, despite the pretty dodgy American accent. He just can’t escape entirely from his Scottish accent. The relationship between Oliver and his dad Hal, who comes out at the age of 75, is beautiful. It is told with such delicacy which I guess is due to the fact that it is inspired by Mills real life. There is a sweetness to it, in the discovery of so many new things about your life, and the start of new romances and loves. The news of Hal’s illness is depicted through disassociated images of coins in patterns, a visual representation of how your mind shuts off when receiving bad news. Christopher Plummer plays Hal wonderfully, fully embracing everything around him and enjoying every minute of his new life and love with a quiet dignity.

It’s a sweet light-hearted film about love that avoids all the somewhat tired clichés attached to portraying romance in films, and I really enjoyed it. I found it refreshing with a hopeful outlook on life.

 The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Director: Steven Spielberg

While Tintin was enjoyable I think it fell foul of trying to have too many narratives running at the same time. The script was written by 3 different writers (all very talented!) and you can tell – the story has quite a disparate feel to it. The performance capture (or mo-cap) is a change from the norm but not the first time its been used. The mo-cap adds a deeper level to the animation as it means the performance is directly driven by the actors’ performance, both physically and verbally.

Jamie Bell brings Tintin to life admirably. Thomson and Thompson the bumbling police detectives, voiced by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, are surprisingly unfunny. Also their story seems to be a sideline to the search for the secret of the unicorn, the main narrative. Andy Serkis – the industry’s go-to guy for any motion-capture character – is probably the strongest human performance for me as Captain Haddock, the drunken washed up sea Captain. But then you would expect that as he is the cast member most experienced in filming in mo-cap. It must have been quite novel for him to play a human for once rather than an ape. He provides many of the comic moments in the film. Snowy, despite having the fewest facial movements die to being a dog, actually gives one of the most expressive and emotional performances in the film.

The film is well-directed, though you would expect nothing less of Spielberg, despite the problems with the narrative. I know it’s nominated in the Music category and yet I actually can’t remember what the music was like which doesn’t really bode very well now does it?

Margin Call

Director: J. C. Chandor

Wow what a cast Margin Call has! You have well established names like Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore alongside some of the most talented rising actors like Penn Badgley, Zachary Quinto and Simon Baker. It’s an incredibly talented cast and each and every actor gives a very strong performance.

The film charts the events taking place in the very early days of our current financial climate. The film is compact, taking place over just 24 hours, largely within the office complex of a large financial investment company. There are brief sojourns to outside locations – the vets, a strip club, Eric Dale’s (Stanley Tucci) house – but the majority of the action takes place in conference rooms, board rooms and offices, during the early hours of the morning.

It would be all too easy to portray the bankers/financial workers as the villains of the piece with no redeeming qualities and J. C. Chandor does a good job of presenting a fairly balanced film, deftly directing an ensemble cast. Sure there are the archetypal bankers who come across as cold and heartless with no concerns for how their actions will affect people just as long s they don’t lose any money. But then there are equally characters who are gob-smacked at the situation and the treatment of people by the ‘fat cats’ at the head of the company. Some characters like Spacey’s Sam and Quinto’s Peter (who ultimately discovers the full extent of the problem and calculates the devastating fallout) seem to question their involvement, actions and conscience, and as such are more likable than the cooler and the more callous characters of John Tuld and Jared Cohen (played by Jeremy Irons and Simon Baker respectively).

Due to the nature of the film it is very dialogue heavy but it doesn’t get bogged down in jargon and actually moves at quite a pace. I know almost nothing about the financial sector and yet I followed … and more importantly enjoyed … Margin Call. I think this is a cleverly written and directed film about a controversial topic that actually manages to portray a balanced view of events in out very recent history. Chandor allows the viewer to make up their own mind in response to the character’s actions and reactions to the ensuing crisis.

A Better Life

Director: Chris Weitz

Good little film that follows the lives of a Mexican father and son living in America. A Better Life is a bilingual film with sections in Spanish, which I have to confess kind of passed me by. Demian Bichir as the father, Carlos, gives an excellent performance switching quickly and effortlessly between Spanish and English. The story following Carlos is very much centered on the things he wants for his son, Luis (Jose Julian) – in short ‘a better life’. Luis’ story displays Hispanic gang culture and the violence that goes along with that type of lifestyle. Both Carlos and Luis are linked by their shared aspiration – both of them want better things, although Carlos wants better things for his son rather than himself.

The two narrative threads have their own distinctive style. Carlos is more rhythmic and slower paced often accompanied by more traditional Hispanic music. Luis on the other hand has a faster pace with more modern music and just generally feels harsher. The father/son dynamic is typically that of a teenage boy and his dad … the son wants more freedom while the father still wants to be involved. It has an awkward feel to their relationship, like they don’t really know each other anymore. The two worlds begin to collide when an event forces Carlos and Luis to venture into gang territory – it also creates a kind of truce between the two of them. It is a fairly slow-moving narrative that at times is a celebration of the culture and heritage. Luis seems ashamed of his heritage, doesn’t even really speak Spanish.  He is the archetypal mad at the world and everyone in it teenager. The character of Carlos effectively balances Luis out in that he is calm, considerate with a sense of honor and an aversion to violence.

Music and sound are utilized well with clear musical cues to the escalation of tension. I particularly like the way the music echoes the sound of a heartbeat during the pivotal moment. Their eventual reconciliation is moving yet at the same time bitter-sweet due to the circumstances.

The Iron Lady

Director: Phyllida Lloyd

I was born late into the Thatcher era ad therefore don’t really remember much. However that doesn’t mean I’m not aware of everything that went on during her tenure as Prime Minister. It would be interesting to hear what a non-British person’s take on the film was, as they wouldn’t necessarily get all the references or the emotions attached to the events portrayed.

The costumes are delightful and close in keeping with may of the outfits Thatcher actually wore. There is a heavy presence of the colour blue, especially in the costumes, which subtly reminds you that she was a staunch member of the Conservative party. Meryl Streep is incredible as Thatcher and thanks to the wonders of make-up she actually looks very like her. She deftly portrays Maggie at various stages throughout her life, with a heavy focus on her political career of course, and provides a kind of insight into the lengths Thatcher went to in order to change and garner respect from her fellow politicians. Alexandra Roach does a stellar job as the young Margaret Thatcher and manages to make her performance similar to Meryl Streep’s creating a cohesive character.

The choice to spend the majority of the film in flashback sequences is an interesting one and probably the best decision. The format gives Lloyd the freedom to select the key moments within a decade long political career rather than trudge through everything that occurred during her time as Prime Minister. Archive footage is slotted nicely into filmed set pieces which gives the film some sense of authenticity. I particularly liked the section concerning the decision to go to war in the Falklands.

Jim Broadbent plays Dennis well, appearing in the background as a strong and silent presence. Having said that the majority of the scenes with Broadbent in could be upsetting to watch due to Thatcher’s Alzheimer’s. It reduces a woman who was once powerful enough to run our entire country to an elderly sick lady. Indeed I found the moment when she is watching herself on television and says “I don’t recognize myself” quite upsetting – it must be awful to not know who you are. It does also raise the question as to whether it was right to make a film about Maggie Thatcher while she is still living.

The film is a rather sympathetic view of Thatcher, possibly thanks to the beauty of hindsight, which displays, but doesn’t comment on, many of the controversial decisions made during her term a Prime Minister. I wonder if my take on the film is different because I am a woman watching a film about an iconic woman directed by a woman. You can say what you like about Maggie Thatcher but you have to admit that she had to have had some serious guts to take on the job she did – not only that but hold the position for two consecutive terms – and I have to say I kind of admire her for that (despite not agreeing with many of her political decisions!)

The Ides of March

Director: George Clooney

Clooney and Gosling are a brilliant pairing and I will say once again that it is a huge shame that Ryan Gosling has not picked up any nominations.

Politics always provides good story opportunities and this is no exception. It’s not a great publicity piece for politicians or political campaigns by any stretch of the imagination. However it does reinforce all the images and ideas people have about politics like the unfaithful politician who spouts off about family being the most important thing to them. And yet somehow Clooney still manages to be a likable character as said politician, which is probably a testament to both his acting and writing abilities.

The screenplay is one of the best in the Best Screenplay category with the right balance of heavy dialogue and pregnant pauses. It works well with Gosling as he is one of those actors who has a commanding screen presence even when he is silent. My personal favourite for Best Screenplay would be between Ides of March and Margin Call however I have this niggling feeling that The Artist is going to walk away with the Oscar, as much as I don’t want it to.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti are equally unsavory as the campaign managers of opposing politicians. The film is actually fairly sordid what with adultery, unwanted pregnancy, suicide and of course blackmail, but Clooney presents them in such a way that you kind of just accept them as they happen. Gosling’s transformation from a slightly naive and idealistic campaign member to an extremely savvy politico is pretty subtle but it works. In a way every one of the male characters demonstrate the old adage that power corrupts but I think it is most evident in Ryan Gosling’s Stephen who goes from truly believing in Morris’ (Clooney) campaign to moving his way up the ladder through blackmail.

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Another Oscars update

War Horse

Director: Steven Speilberg

Now I love the play and have read the book as well. Initially I had reservations about a film adaptation but I went to the cinema with an open mind. I came out having enjoyed the film but saying, “well it wasn’t as good as the play” and a desire to go and see the play again.

While there are some scenes or sequences that have really benefitted the move to the big screen – Joey’s epic run through No Man’s Land is the stand out moment of the whole film for me – it just doesn’t have the magic that the play does. So much of that magic comes from the outstanding puppetry and the fact that the puppeteers make the horses so lifelike and I think you automatically lose some of that by using a real horse.

And just as there are elements that flourished on the big screen there are equally elements that suffered from being on the big screen. Mainly the relationships between the characters. And especially the central key relationship between Albert and Joey. It felt as though not enough time was dedicated to their relationship which resulted in not really understanding just how extraordinarily  strong their bond is without some prior knowledge of the story. There were characters and scenes added into the film which do not exist in the play and equally there were characters left out from the play. Admittedly these only have any sort of relevance if you have seen the play as well.

Tom Hiddleston again makes a brief but shining performance as Captain Nicholls (and should really have won the BAFTA Rising Star award!) as does Benedict Cumberbatch, another exceptionally talented rising actor. Jeremy Irvine did an alright job as Albert but i didn’t really connect with him in the way that I should have. It was lovely to see Michael Morpurgo in a cameo role though not everyone will realize it is him.

John Williams does a very good job with the soundtrack managing to create something new for the film that still has ties to the music of the play. Indeed there are moments when the music was so close to that in the play that I was questioning whether it actually was. And I was overjoyed to hear The Scarlet and the Blue.

Like I say the film is good in its own right and yet it has nothing on the play. It would be interesting to know what people think of the film if they have not previously seen the play.

Real Steel

Director: Shawn Levy

The second robots hitting robots film nominated in the Visual Effects category, so you can’t help but compare it to the Transformers film. Set in the near future it transposes robots into a Fight Club situation complete with a seedy underground scene. There’s some schmaltz while father and son do some reconnecting and bonding but ultimately it’s about robots beating the crap out of other robots.

Hugh Jackman gives a solid performance as the no good father, Charlie, a down on his luck ex-boxer promoter with a gambling habit. His performance is a very physical one, especially once he starts teaching Atom to box, and he does it very convincingly. Dakota Goyo as Charlie’s 11-year-old son, Max, is actually pretty good. And that’s high praise coming from me as I often detest boy actors and yet this wasn’t the case in Real Steel. Goyo manages to play a young boy left with the father who abandoned him with the right amount of anger and hope that he will be able to have a relationship with his dad.

Atom is a great robot – solid rather than flashy with a rather enigmatic smile. The visual effects are strong and have more of a grounding in the real world. The robots in the underground fight scene are gritty, dented, broken, beat up and worn compared to the robots in the Robot Boxing League who are flashy, shiny and high-tech. The league robots are the ones that have more in common with the Autobots in the Transformers films.

I enjoyed Real Steel. It didn’t try to be anything more than what it is – a father son relationship set to the background of fighting robots. I found it to be a heartwarming story that made me smile with stunning visual effects.

The Artist

Director: Michel Hazanavicius

I said when the nominations were announced that there was an incredible amount of hype surrounding this film and it had the potential to win a number of awards. And it has already, picking up numerous BAFTAS including the big 3 of Best Actor, Director and Picture.

The music is outstanding but then it has to be as it is the driving force of the narrative in an otherwise silent film. The costumes are divine though I just adore the fashion from the 1920s. I find it extremely glamorous. There is a much more physical comedy to the performances as obviously verbal comedy doesn’t come across in a silent film, however it isn’t slap stick. The moments of heightened sound in George’s nightmare lend a surreal edge to it and actually make me think of radio plays.

Jean Dujardin as George gives a solid performance and charts the downward slide of a star unwilling to embrace the advent of new technology well although I’m not sure the performance is Oscar worthy, especially when put alongside the other nominees this year. He has the sort of charm and style of the stars of yesteryear like Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant. He also reminds me a bit of Gene Kelly with his twinkley smile and his dancing. The dog is adorable! Berenice Bejo is beautiful as the rising young star Peppy Miller. Her story and George’s are polar opposites. She has a meteoric rise to fame and yet at the same time there is a sadness to her, especially when she is with George. Both Peppy and George’s stories are cautionary tales about fame. Peppy’s shows that fame cannot buy you happiness while George’s shows that fame and wealth are fleeting and you shouldn’t take anything for granted.

I can’t see what all the fuss is about really. In actual fact I see it as a step back in film production as it doesn’t utilize all the tools available to it. I can understand how some people would argue that The Artist is a return to a purer form of filmmaking but I disagree. There was obviously a reason why silent films have not endured in the same way as ‘talkies’ have. I do see why people have been raving about it as The Artist is a film unlike any other being made at this time but I don’t think that it is really all that special. It’s not a film I would watch multiple times. I find the dialogue cut-aways irritating and not nearly consistent enough. I would prefer subtitles despite them not being in keeping with the style of the film. And I really dislike the fact that there is dialogue in the final 5 minutes. It’s almost as if it doesn’t have faith in its own identity as a silent film.

Oscars Update 2

Puss In Boots

Director: Chris Miller

Dreamworks doesn’t seem to have the same magic touch as Pixar does although 2 of the films nominated in the Best Animated Feature category are produced by Dreamworks. Previously I have found that while Shrek (2001, Andrew Adamson) was funny the subsequent films just weren’t. And I found that to be the case with Puss In Boots as well. It just wasn’t funny – I didn’t laugh once or even really smile at all.

The concept is a bit stretched and I don’t think that the character of Puss is strong enough to carry an entire feature length film by himself. Turning classic nursery rhymes characters, such as Humpty Dumpty and Jack and Jill, into criminals is a novel idea but one that destroys characters from my childhood. I also really didn’t get the combination of humans and nursery rhyme characters – it just kept the fact it was a film in the forefront of my mind; I was unable to suspend my disbelief which in my eyes is the sign of an unsuccessful film.

Let’s hope that the other films in the Best Animated Feature categories have more to offer than Puss In Boots did.

Drive

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

First of all – how is Ryan Gosling not nominated this season?! He is incredible in both Drive and The Ides of March (George Clooney) … and quite easy on the eyes too!

Ryan Gosling plays the strong silent type really well and is almost monosyllabic. Gosling allows the action to take place around him, almost like the calm eye of the storm, while he watches and absorbs. Seems part machine in is precise and somewhat detached approach to life – reinforced by the choice of songs for the soundtrack. Also reinforced by his lack of name – throughout the film he is known only as the Driver, and indeed thats how he is credited on imdb. Driver has a trademark style with the driving gloves, which he makes cool, and the gold scorpion jacket. Carey Mulligan gives another beautiful performance (fast becoming the best young actress working right now.) Carey is the perfect partner to Gosling … equally comfortable and powerful while saying very little, preferring to embrace the moment rather than filling it with idle chatter.

One of the creators said “it’s both a family drama and a revenge story at the same time.” There is that feeling yet it manages to form a complete narrative rather than separate ones. Winding Refn is not afraid to have moments of silence – he embraces them. The tone of the film varies. The moments between Carey’s Irene and Gosling have a slow, sensuous and quiet presence while the revenge elements have a high-energy and face pace to them in keeping with Gosling’s professional driving style. It takes the time to show the slow development of a blossoming relationship thrown into turmoil by the return of the no good husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac)

The sound in the film plays a big role especially as there is much less dialogue than in some movies which creates quite an intense film. The sound becomes much more distorted and unnatural in the latter half of the film once the trouble begins. The latter half of the film brings the criminal undertone much more to the fore, beginning with a job gone wrong. It has a much rawer, visceral energy to it … and a massive increase in the violence. There is a cold efficiency in Gosling’s actions despite a barely concealed rage just under the surface.

I really enjoyed Drive and think BAFTA had it right when they nominated it for Best Picture. In fact I think it is a much worthier contender for Best Picture than something like Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen) and yet it is only nominated in the Sound Editing category at this years Oscars. It should have received many more nominations in my opinion. And that brings me nicely onto …

Midnight In Paris

Director: Woody Allen

I really didn’t enjoy Midnight In Paris at all. The art direction is a worthy nomination as the look of the film is actually quite beautiful and manages to juggle 3 different time periods effortlessly. Then again it is set in Paris which is a nostalgically romantic city  of beauty anyway.

Owen Wilson, as Gil, does the typical Owen Wilson thing of being overly enthusiastic and fast talking which you either love or you hate. I personally hate it and therefore find his performance repetitive no matter what the role. Rachel McAdams’ Inez is bitchy and shallow – the archetypal spoilt little rich kid – in a relationship with someone she doesn’t understand or really see. Tom Hiddleston makes a brief appearance as F. Scott Fitzgerald and is one of the stand out performances of the film. Though I can’t decide if it’s due to him being amazing or the rest of the cast being rather lack lustre. Either way he is one of the few things I like about Midnight In Paris.

I found the script to be convoluted and at times hard to follow. This was mainly due to the fact that unless you have a solid grasp of history – and especially Paris in the 1920s – than many of the references will pass you by. I mean I knew many of the big names that Gil encounters, like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Cole Porter but not enough about them to get all the little points about their characters. Indeed I knew more about Lautrec and Degas in the 3rd period towards the end of the film. You sometimes lose track of all the different characters at times as well with more and more iconic artists being thrown into the mix.

I think that there were much better films nominated in other categories, let alone created in the last year than Midnight In Paris. I cannot really see what it is that justifies its Best Picture nomination other than the fact that it is directed by Woody Allen (also nominated for Best Director). If that is the case I can’t help but feel that the film has been put forward purely on the reputation of Woody Allen rather than on its own merit as an individual film.

Oscars Update

In the last few days I have managed to watch more of the films nominated in this years Oscars so I thought I would update my views on the nominations.

Hugo

Director: Martin Scorsese

The sets are incredible with a labyrinthine feel to them. They just look so much fun to play in. The red, white and blue colour motif runs throughout the film in sets, costumes and lighting. The film has rich layers of sound and a very French feeling to the soundtrack. The same section of music is played at numerous points in the film. I have to say that they are all very English Parisians!

The fire that kills Jude Law (who incidentally is only in the film for about 15 minutes tops) is not one of the most believable special effects I have seen in recent years – could be due to watching a 3D movie in 2D but then it shouldn’t really have made any difference. In fact a number of the special effects are suspect (the clockwork mouse springs to mind).

Sacha Baron Cohen is very funny as the bumbling station inspector with a jumped up sense of importance. Solid performances from the entire cast although some well-known names underused, such as Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths and Frances De la Tour.

The bookshop is exquisite but then I am a book lover and can easily see myself spending days exploring it. The automaton is beautiful – the level of detail that went into the clockwork is incredible. The archive footage of very early films really appeals to me as a film graduate and intercuts nicely with the narrative. However the references in the second half of the film, like to Melies and the Lumiere brothers may be lost to any one without any knowledge of the history of film. Indeed I was talking to my mum about those elements of the film and she confessed that I had lost her when I mentioned Melies and La Voyage dans la Lune. I enjoyed the film but I wasn’t blown away by it.

Bridesmaids

Director: Paul Feig

I have to confess that while I enjoyed Bridesmaids immensely I didn’t find it as laugh-out-loud funny as I was expecting it to be. By far the funniest character is Melissa McCarthy’s Megan and the Oscar nomination is well deserved. She is delightfully crude while at the same time being the sweet, caring and understanding presence needed within the film – the only one who realizes that Annie (Kristen Wiig) is having a really hard time and goes out of her way to help her.

Transformers: Dark Side Of The Moon

Director: Michael Bay

Once again the special effects were absolutely excellent – you totally believe that the Autobots and Decepticons are real despite it being a ridiculous premise (I love the Transformers films but you have to agree it really is). The sound editing and mixing is flawless and continues the unique sound from the previous Transformers films.

You can say what you like about Michael Bay (and Dr K does loudly and often!) but I like the Transformers movies. They don’t attempt to be anything other than what they are (which is robots hitting each other) in sublime detail with a surprisingly emotional centre and an excellent cast capably led by Shia LaBeouf (who is a brilliant young actor in my opinion!)

Moneyball

Director: Bennett Miller

Mark Kermode says “It’s a baseball film that isn’t about baseball” and I agree with him. You actually see very little baseball being played as it is more about trying to overcome the problem of money while trying to change the minds and attitudes of men very much set in their ways. It’s an interesting film that has been shot well.

Brad Pitt gives a quiet but powerful performance as Billy Beane, the general manager taking a risk to try to improve is team and in doing so helping a number of players, perhaps floundering in their careers, along the way. I’m not a Jonah Hill fan but I really enjoyed watching him in this film. He gives  very straight and thoughtful performance with little humour but it works. And it’s a brilliant partnership between Pitt and Hill.  I still think it is Clooney’s year however good Pitt’s performance is.

The Help

Director: Tate Taylor

So far my stand out film in the running for Best Picture. Emma Stone is spectacular as passionate Skeeter and should really have been nominated. I like to think that I would be one of the people who would stand up for what they believe in no matter what the climate and therefore connected strongly with Skeeter. Many of the women come off badly thanks in large part to their views, attitudes and treatment of ‘the help’, although their characters are demonstrative of the time the film is set. Viola Davies’ Aibileen is the heart of the film and the driving force behind it and not just because she narrates the film. Her performance is striking and emotional and her Best Actress nomination is well deserved.

I have said before that I’m not entirely sure any film should be allowed multiple nominations in a category and in some ways I still think that. I will say that both the performances by Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain, as Minny and Celia respectively, are both extremely strong. Minny is the perfect foil for Aibileen and forms a dynamic team with her, providing some hilarious moments. And her relationship with the naive  Celia is rewarding to watch.

The costumes and sets are divine and so very much part of their time. Its a heartwarming film that made me smile, even while crying at the rather emotional ending, and it’s definitely one I will be recommending to others.

I still have a fair few films to watch before the Oscars so expect some more updates in the next few days.

The Exorcist

Director: William Friedkin

1973

I remember watching The Exorcist for the first time on my 15th birthday party – the night it first aired on terrestrial television in the UK – with a group of my girlfriends and just being terrified! However just a few short hours later we were all peacefully asleep so it couldn’t have been as scary as we thought … either that or there was safety in numbers.

“After a lengthy prologue that is nearly incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t read the book, the first half of the film develops the essential character relationships and establishes the crisis situation.” (Steven Jay Schneider, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, 570) The first 30 minutes basically set the scene for the film but are pretty tame without anything sinister  happening. The normality of Regan and her relationship with her mother makes the change all the more powerful. In this half hour of the film we also see the disillusionment of the young priest, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) , who questions his faith. Indeed it is 20 minutes into the film before we have any mention of anything disturbing, which comes with the appearance of the Ouija board and the mention of the mysterious Captain Howdy.

Linda Blair’s Regan is the picture of innocence with wide eyes, a ready smile and the slightly chubby face of a child. This makes the transformation during her possession all the more dramatic. The make up is excellent. As are the special effects, especially when you take into consideration the fact that the film was made in the early 70s. Ellen Burstyn plays what it must feel like to be terrified of your own daughter spectacularly. The relationship between Father Karras and Regan is oddly companionable. He talks to her with an ease though this may be because he is a psychiatrist.

The dramatic lighting used throughout gives it the classic horror feel. There is a jump in the story when Regan is undergoing tests in the hospital. The change in her behaviour does not seem to necessitate the testing as there has only been one mention of her bed shaking at this point. Father Merrin’s (Max von Sydow) arrival on a misty night is now one of the most widely recognized images in cinema history.

There is an air of expectation when I watch this film but I wonder if that is because the story is now so iconic that you already know what is going to happen and you are just waiting for it. I find it more disturbing than jump out of your seat scary. Super quick flashes (barely more than a couple of frames) of a demonic face make you question what you are seeing. Many of the possession scenes are brutal – especially the scene with the crucifix. The spider walk down the stairs is one of the most disturbing images in horror cinema.

“The film not only gave rise to a slew of lesser-quality sequels, imitations, and variants on the possession theme, it also made the child with malevolent powers a dominant motif in horror cinema.” (Steven Jay Schneider, 1001 Movie You Must See Before You Die, 571) The fact that Regan is only a child makes this film far more disturbing than if the possessed was an adult. You have to wonder what the performance took out of Blair and how it affected her once the film wrapped. Indeed the horror films that have scared me the most have all had at their core a “child with malevolent powers.” Though I have to say that Japanese cinema has cornered the market on terrifying horror movie kids. The Exorcist as been parodied a number of times. The parody used in Scary Movie (2000) reduces the effect of the original, but takes something that is iconically horror and uses it as a form of shorthand, so the audience knows what’s coming next.

For all that Tubular Bells is now synonymous with The Exorcist it is hardly used in the film, playing very briefly 15 minutes into the film, creating the feeling that something is not quite right, and during the end credits. It is worth mentioning that Tubular Bells was a massive hit in its own right at the time and therefore has a different resonance with different generations. Indeed my parents associate Tubular Bells with its artist, Mike Okenfield, while I automatically associate it with The Exorcist.

This is one of the best horror films in my eyes and I recommend it to everyone – though I have yet to persuade my sister to watch it.

The Jungle Book

Director: Wolfgang Reitherman

1967

I am an Assistant Cub Scout leader and as such watch The Jungle Book at least once a year! However it is not one of my favourite Disney animated films.

“Although it’s a slight story and the animation is unexceptional, the characterization and score give the picture distinction.” (Tom Charity, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, 477) The characters are indeed brilliant and do remain with you. my personal favourites are the ‘fab four’ vultures and Kaa, ooh and the elephants! I love the elements with their military stylings. I find Mowgli fairly insipid and his laugh is just downright annoying. Shere Khan really is quite menacing and of course thoroughly English (as all good baddies are!). Baloo is the fun uncle, someone who doesn’t put much stock in rules and consequences preferring just to go from one moment to the next.

“The last animated feature to be overseen by Walt Disney himself, The Jungle Book was the first to use stars for the voice talent.” (477) While may will see Phil Harris as Baloo and Sterling Holloway as Kaa I actually associate them more with Little John and Sir Hiss, respectively, from Disney’s Robin Hood.

You can always tell if someone has had the pleasure of watching The Jungle Book if they launch into the ‘I dunno’ vulture sketch when asked what they want to do. You cannot help but sing along with the songs, especially ‘Bare Necessities’ and “I Wanna Be Like You’.

The animators have got the perfect balance of human and animal characteristics. I mean the monkeys especially have enough monkey-isms that you can’t forget what they really are. I love the artwork of the jungle and various locations along their journey … it all has a sumptuous and alive feel to it. The beauty of Disney’s animated features is that they work for all ages, which I don’t think translates as well to the new computer animated Disney films. I loved them as a child and continue to love them as I grow up. And I will most definitely pass them on to the younger generations ensuring their legacy lives on.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Director: Guillermo del Toro

2006

So this is the first foreign language film I am blogging about (though by no means the first foreign language film I have watched) and I have to say that I think I prefer French … or even German … language films. Probably because I know those languages a bit so find that I don’t have to concentrate on the subtitles with the same intensity as I had to when watching Pan’s Labyrinth.

“In perhaps his most mature picture, the director manages to bring the two strands together, creating a film that is both eerie and built around effects technology.” (Andy Willis, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, 915) Pan’s Labyrinth is indeed built around effects technology and eerie. While del Toro has perfectly captured the dual nature of fairy tales … beautiful but at the same time frightening and often deadly … the effects do not always blend seamlessly into the real action thereby drawing your attention.

Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) sees the world differently (due to being the reincarnation of the underworld’s princess from the tale at the start of the film) which enables her to venture into the other realm. She takes all the strangeness in her stride but then this could be because she is a child and therefore more willing to believe in the supernatural.

The creatures from the underworld are beautiful but creepy with a slight sense of wrongness about them. The whole film is very stylized and therefore instantly recognizably as a Guillermo del Toro film. I especially like the recurring imagery of a ram’s head which is symbolic of the faun Ofelia interacts with. The most iconic image is also one of the most grotesque moments of the film. 

I can see similarities to the Harry Potter films particularly in the use of a mandrake root and the way information appears in the book – reminiscent of how the Marauders’ Map displays its content. I can also see why del Toro was attached to direct The Hobbit (on a side note I am extremely glad that Peter Jackson is once again at the helm!!) as there is a similarity between the landscapes of The Lord of the Rings and Pan’s Labyrinth. The Underworld has an elvish quality to it, despite being underground. There is a simple natural beauty and elegance to everything. The attention to detail is brilliant – you get the feeling that there is so much more to what you are seeing. The soundtrack is wonderfully eerie and again I can see, or rather hear, the similarity to Howard Shore’s score for The Lord of the Rings.

The fantastical elements never quite gel with the real world elements which make it feel almost as if there are two separate stories taking place. I don’t really see how the Captain’s (Sergi Lopez) story is essential to the plot although It does demonstrate the cruelty of the real world. Indeed Andy Wallis says “but for all its startling beauty and the strength of its performances, the film remains somewhat unsatisfactory as the allegorical elements of the story fail to full gel the reality and fantasy elements, with the result that Pan’s Labyrinth remains two outstanding halves rather than one spectacular whole.” The real world brutality is quite graphic and del Toro definitely does not sy away from some gory scenes – the Captain doing his own stitches on his face comes to mind here! The blood on Ofelia at the end is so bright that it’s almost unnatural but then I guess that’s in keeping with the rest of the film. I like the circularity del Toro has used – one of the opening images is the same as one of the closing images.

What it all boils down to is a quest, with tasks you must complete along the way in order to prove your worthiness (the bread and butter of fantasy narratives) which is just what Ofelia does. Her reward for her sacrifice is to return to the Underworld and live a happy life.

I enjoyed Pan’s Labyrinth and while it was stunning I was expecting there to be more fantasy then there actually was.