I’m pretty excited about this year’s Oscars. That’s not because I finally care who wins (there are probably so many factors besides merit which determine that), but more because I’m enjoying watching a lot of the nominated films. Here are some capsule reviews of movies that I’ve discovered as part of cramming for the Oscars. Courtesy of this year’s 10 (count’em, 10!) nominees for Best Picture, this is going to be a bit of a read.
The Hurt Locker
(nominated for Best Picture, Leading Actor, Cinematography, Directing, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Original Screenplay)
There is so much buzz around this film that it was difficult for me not to be underwhelmed. I’m not really a military film buff, and this film focuses on the psychological and emotional stresses endured by a bomb removal team leader and his squad in modern day Iraq. Jeremy Renner plays Sgt. James, who joins the squad after the previous leader is killed in the line of duty. James likes to take risks, but he’s also very good at his job. Unfortunately one day, something causes him to really struggle with the inhumanities that are part of this conflict. While I see how this movie was very well made, I can’t say I enjoyed watching it. Everything seems so realistic that you’d think you were watching a documentary. But in the end, I found the characters difficult to relate to or understand. Maybe that’s part of the message, that we cannot understand what these soldiers are having to endure. (3 out of 5)
Up In The Air
(nominated for Best Picture, Leading Actor, Supporting Actress (x2), Directing, Adapted Screenplay)
George Clooney seems to get away with a lot. The characters he plays usually brim with charisma and easy confidence and Ryan Bingham, a guys who fires people for a living, is no exception. Bingham has spent his adult life on the road and he’s developed an entire lifestyle around lack of attachment. It’s probably what makes him good at his job, but when two new women enter his life, things start to get shaken up. Both main actresses in this movie have also been nominated for Oscars. Vera Farmiga plays Alex Goran, a female version of Bingham who also fetishizes frequent flier miles and enjoys her relationships at arm’s length. A one-night stand leads them to something real that may finally tie them both down. Anna Kendrick (last seen in Twilight: New Moon of all places) plays Natalie Keener, the (appropriately-named) young upstart ivy league grad who plans to revolutionize the industry, at least until Bingham shows her the ropes. This film had some wonderfully subtle performances. While dealing with the sadder side of modern life, Up In The Air was delicately heart-felt without touching the saccharin stuff. (4 out of 5)
(nominated for Best Picture, Leading Actress, Supporting Actress, Directing, Film Editing, Adapted Screenplay)
(I refuse to type the entire title of this film because it seems like a distracting legality.) Anyway, after hearing so many incredible things about this movie, I had to watch it – and it wasn’t easy. That’s not because the movie was bad. In fact, this movie and its performances were superb. Nominee Gabourey Sidibe plays the title character: a withdrawn, teenage girl, pregnant with her second child by her own father. Precious is also coping with a monstrous mother played by fellow nominee Mo’Nique (her performance was amazingly brutal and relentless) who not only doesn’t love her, but abuses her physically, psychologically, and emotionally. When Precious starts to attend an alternative school, she starts to come out of her shell and find her own strength. I confess that despite the lack of schmaltz or sentimentality, there was a moment in this movie (props to Sidibe!) when I was blubbering like a little girl. I think this is a must-see film – at least once. (4.5 out of 5)
(nominated for Best Picture, Leading Actress, Adapted Screenplay)
What a surprise! I’d previously seen nominee Carey Mulligan in Doctor Who (of all places) and knew that she was not only cute, but a naturally confident actress to boot. Here she plays Jenny, a teenager going to a girls’ prep school in 1960s London. Facing pressure from her teachers and parents to get into Oxford, she is only too eager to be swept away by David (a wonderfully charming Peter Sarsgaard). David is an older man who exposes Jenny to a glamourous world of art, jazz, travel, and finery that she’s only fantasized about. However, it’s not merely wealth that has Jenny captivated, but it’s the opening of her eyes to the world (for good and for bad) that’s her true education. I had no expectations on this movie, but I really loved it. I identified in many ways (or at least I remember identifying) with Jenny and how her perception of the world widened as she saw more of it. I also admired how Jenny’s character was not a lilting flower or doe-eyed child, but maintained her strength of will from beginning to end. I highly recommend that people give this movie a chance. (4.5 out of 5)
Julie & Julia
(nominated for Best Leading Actress)
Meryl is amazing! She totally becomes every part she plays (I know. Blah blah blah, right?). I didn’t know anything about Julia Child before watching this movie (besides the basic fact that she was a famous TV chef). So it’s not like I have a real point of reference for Streep’s portrayal of her and her efforts to learn to cook French cuisine and bring the recipes to the contemporary American audience. The movie also showcases Amy Adams (always an excellent actress) as Julie Powell, a blogger who decided to cook her way through Child’s recipes and write about the experience. Both actresses gave heart-warming performances and this was a very easy movie to enjoy. (4 out of 5)
(nominated for Best Documentary Feature)
Though it’s hard to distinguish a movie such as this from its important subject matter, this expose on the slaughter of dolphins in Japan, was impressive more for what happened in the real world than for the movie itself. Ironically, while the movie tells of the commando-style lengths the activist-filmmakers went through to get the secret footage of dolphins being captured and killed in Taiji, Japan, very little of that footage was actually used in the film. The most interesting part of the movie as documentary was probably the dry meetings of the International Whaling Commission where we see how the Japanese contingent manipulated the politics of this organization to protect their controversial industry. (3 out of 5)
The Secret of Kells
(nominated for Best Animated Feature)
The nomination that came out of nowhere, Kells is an Irish production that tells the story of a young orphan living with the monks (the abbott is his uncle) of Kells. One day he meets an old monk who is the guardian both of the sacred Book of Kells and the technique of illuminating manuscripts. Subsequent events send our young orphan beyond the protective walls of the abbey into the surrounding forest on a quest for a mystical gem/lens. Not only is the animation somewhat stylized, the storytelling also follows a more traditional style. Both were based on the original children’s book, and this movie has definitely maintained that bookish feel. While it’s a joy to look at, and some kids may love it, I doubt this movie will capture the attention of most (including this 38-year old reviewer). (3 out of 5)
Best Animated Short
French Roast is a fun yet understated story with a twist. The virtual camera is static and fixed on an uptight older man drinking coffee in a French cafe. When he realizes that he doesn’t have his wallet to pay, events are set in motion which lead to a surprising outcome.
Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty is a retelling of the classic fairy tale from the point of view of the old fairy who cursed Beauty (through the lens of old granny telling her grandchild a bedtime story). The animation is a mix of Pixar-style 3D and two-dimensional cutout-style cartoons. The joy of this one is all in the storytelling.
The Lady and the Reaper follows a typical story formula of one-upmanship that Pixar has used in its own animated shorts. This time, the fight is between the Grim Reaper and a cocky surgeon competing for an old woman’s life. It’s all done in a fun, slapstick manner.
Logorama is a totally unique short which takes an action sequence (cops are pursuing an armed suspect through the LA streets) and replaces everything from the characters and buildings to vehicles and backgrounds, with animated corporate logos and mascots. The cops are played by Michelin Men, and the fugitive is Ronald McDonald himself. The story itself was unfortunately uninteresting. Nevertheless, the artistry in animation is an amazing sight worth viewing.
A Matter of Loaf and Death is another Wallace and Gromit caper, executed with the usual Aardman Studios aplomb. The two main characters run a baking business and when Wallace’s heart starts to flutter for a lady who happens to be a psychopathic serial killer of bakers, it’s up to ol’ Gromit to save his bacon again.
Most of these animated shorts can be seen on YouTube or other web sites.
Now only a few more weeks until we see who takes home the statuettes!