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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