Oscar Schmoscar 2013

Each year I write this post for two reasons: 1) to show how much I don’t really care about the nominees (not really true) and 2) do quickie reviews of the nominated movies that I haven’t already reviewed separately. Back when there were fewer Best Picture noms, I tried to watch all of them by Oscar time so at least I would have someone to root for. Now there are just so many nominees from so many different movies, I often find that I have no time or inclination to catch up with all the major ones. Nevertheless, here are a few more that I’ve watched that have not received my particular brand of commentary until now.

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Les Miserables

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, Best Original Song, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing

I don’t think many were surprised that Les Miserables received so many nominations. A beloved dramatic musical, based on a classic piece of literature, featuring an all-star cast, with an Oscar-winning director (Tom Hooper, who won in 2011 for directing The King’s Speech) seems like pure Oscar-bait. Nevertheless, that didn’t mean it could escape my expectations as a huge fan of the original musical. Part of the challenge for Hooper would be how to pull off the musical performances while trying to keep the movie from being too stagey or cheesy — that’s always the challenge of movie-musicals. Too often the scenes are shot so far off, in order to capture the spectacle and grandeur of a scene, that we don’t get a close enough view of the performers singing. On stage we feel the immediacy of the performances because they’re live in front of us, but in a movie if we can’t see them sing we lose that dramatic connection and what’s the point? I’ve been told that Hooper wanted to capture the authenticity of the live performance by having the actors not pre-record their audio but sing it in the scene. That can be a challenge for the actors, but it seems to have made the performances a lot more dramatic. Hugh Jackman really got to show his chops as main character Jean Valjean (a prisoner who spends his life on the run when he breaks his parole and later takes care of a young orphan). His singing is able to carry the same kind of emotional weight that a spoken performance would have. That’s even more so for Ann Hathaway’s performance as Fantine (the mother of the orphan Cosette and former factory worker turned prostitute), and especially her gut-wrenching rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream” that was so raw and sad that I’m not sure I’d want to watch it again — and that’s part of the problem.

I don’t think anyone who did not already love these songs before would have been won over by hearing them in this movie. I couldn’t believe how quietly the orchestration was mixed in to already more-subdued vocal performances (I seriously question that nomination for Best Sound Mixing). Whenever one of the solos would start, you could hear the people in the audience clearing their throats or shuffling in their seats, without any music to drown them out. I found that unnervingly distracting. Also, perhaps Hooper didn’t want to use the music as a dramatic crutch, because there are certain moments that a fan comes to expect where the orchestration is supposed to swell and the singer hits a note that “stirs the soul”. A few times in this movie, that note was much quieter in favour of providing a more intimate feeling or a clearer understanding of what’s being said by the lyrics. Complaints aside, the movie version has a lot to recommend it. I loved seeing the scope of the story (the realism made it more obvious how terrible the conditions of the poor actually were, and how small a rebellion the events of this movie really depicted) played out against a backdrop of actual buildings and other magnificent sets and scenery. Also, it was much easier to understand what was happening (though again that made some of the conceits of the musical a bit harder to swallow). Other notable performances include Russell Crowe being mediocre (acting not bad, singing was “meh”) as the pursuing officer Javert, and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the always-clever, sneaky inn-keeper Thenardier and his wife. All in all, it was an adequate movie, but because it doesn’t fully satisfy as a dramatic film or a movie-musical, I don’t think it deserves to be Best Picture (4 out of 5).

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Moonrise Kingdom

Nominated for Best Original Screenplay

This movie made plenty of 2012 top ten lists and that will always be a huge surprise for me. While I’ll admit that the quirky story of two kids in love who sneak away from their families (and scout troops) in order to be together, causing a local panic and several search parties, is cute and a little bit fun, I don’t understand the unadulterated praise for this movie. Director Wes Anderson has a very distinct style that comes across in the dialogue and the way all the characters seem to be in a slightly off-kilter reality from our own. (All the actors — including Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton — seem like they are trying very hard to keep a straight face.) Add to that the 1960s styling and this movie has got charm to spare. Since this movie is also relatively static, I can see how it’s really the script that carries a lot of the weight. To that end, I guess this is not a bad nomination for Original Screenplay. Overall, however, I give it only a 3.5 out of 5

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Beasts of the Southern Wild

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay

I confess that I was originally drawn to this movie by the title alone (I still think that is a fabulous title regardless of what the movie is about), but then I started to hear how this too was one of the most acclaimed movies of the year and I started to wonder what all the hype was about. Sadly it also did not live up for me. Quvenzhane Wallis got her Oscar nomination for playing Hushpuppy, the precocious young daughter of a gruff father who together try to live day-to-day in the stormy, flood-drenched part of southern Louisiana. This might be a movie about Hurricane Katrina, but it’s mostly about this young child and her father. Without doubt, Wallis’s performance was impressive, but it reminded me of Anna Paquin’s Oscar-winning performance in The Piano, where a young girl is lauded for acting like a young girl. I have never been a good judge of acting performances, and I’m not sure I really understand this one (the movie is odd and a little surreal). I would be amazed if this movie won for Best Picture, but Wallis might have a chance at her early Oscar. (3.5 out of 5)

Best Animated Feature nominees

I may not have watched all the Best Picture nominees, but at least this year I have seen all the Best Animated Feature films (the same was not true of last year when the ballot contained a couple of foreign animated movies). I am a big animation fan, so this won’t be surprising, but what is sadly surprising to me is that there is no clear winner in my mind (not even in a year with a Pixar nominee!). I enjoyed Brave (see here for my full review) but it was not Pixar’s best effort and is not a shoo-in in my books.

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Pirates! Band of Misfits

Aardman Studios has never been one of the big animation studios, though it’s always been the king of the smaller ones and it seems that most of its feature projects tend to get Oscar nominations. In the case of Pirates! I’m not sure it’s really that well-deserved. The movie about a second-rate pirate captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) trying to rebuild his reputation and hitching his star to a dodo bird is good, silly fun to say the least, and the animation is as good as any other Aardman production (which is to say top-notch stop-motion) but the movie was still just a lot of nudge-nudge wink-wink humour and the overall story seems chaotic and hard to really care about. (3.5 out of 5)

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Wreck-It Ralph

I was so certain that this movie was going to be the Pixar movie that Brave did not turn out to be (even though it’s not made by Pixar). That is to say, like The Incredibles, I thought they were going to take a genre (in this case video-games rather than super-heroes) and create a world full of fun characters (many of them being the actual characters from video games) to tell a fresh, original story that plays with the genre. Unfortunately, I found Wreck-It Ralph to be a bit disjointed, telling the story of Ralph trying to become a hero rather than the villain he was always playing in his own Donkey-Kong style game, but also the story of Vanellope, an adorable little girl who races in a candy-themed video game. I was incredibly disappointed that the characters that were borrowed from actual games had only brief, passing cameos at most and once we got into the main story only the new characters created for this movie actually played any significant role. John C. Reilly did a wonderful job as the lovable lug of a main character, and Sarah Silverman was sweeter than saccharin as the spunky Vanellope. Unfortunately, I felt that this movie was too much of a bait-and-switch, exchanging a clever video-game satire for another girly-kids animated adventure about self-worth. (3.5 out of 5)

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Frankenweenie and ParaNorman

While Hollywood always seems to come out with movies in pairs, I was surprised that one of this year’s pairs is a set of stop-motion animated movies about young, unpopular boys who cross the line between life and death. Frankenweenie has the amazing pedigree of director Tim Burton at the helm (after his previous macabre, animated masterpieces such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride). Loosely based on the Mary Shelley characters of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his creature, in this story, a modern-day young Victor grieves the loss of this faithful dog Sparky until he realizes that he can be brought back to life with lightning (and all kinds of other meaningless scientific doohickeys). The movie is charming with many satirical horror movie references, and tries to achieve some matinee-movie magic by being filmed in black-and-white. Thankfully this movie is more creature-feature than melancholic elegy as Victor’s “friends” get carried away and pretty soon the town is amok with reanimated little monsters. I found this movie to be a lot of fun and clearly a labour of love for Burton and the animators, but it felt a bit too much like an homage and not enough like a fresh new story in the way that ParaNorman achieved a little better. In that movie, Kodi Smit-McPhee (you may remember him as the quiet boy who befriended a vampire in Let Me In) voices Norman, a young kid with spiky hair who also sees dead people. This makes him misunderstood by his family and unpopular with the other kids (including an oafish bully unfortunately named Alvin). Before long, Norman learns that his curse/gift is part of his destiny and intended to allow him to stop a witch’s curse on the town which will cause the dead to rise again. He forms an 80s-style rag-tag band of teenagers with his sister, his new buddy Neil, Neil’s brother Mitch, and Alvin the bully in order to save the town from the curse. A few predictable things happen, but many more unpredictable things happen as well. While I enjoyed both these movies immensely, I do not recommend them for young kids (as they are both horror-movie-themed and a little scary), but I do recommend ParaNorman (4.5 out of 5) over Frankenweenie (4 out of 5) for kids and adults old enough to enjoy them.

I usually get to review animated shorts, but I didn’t have the time to hunt for them this year. Also, I’m going to try to watch Argo when it comes out on video in a couple of weeks to add to my list of viewed Best Picture nominees (hopefully before the Oscars), and I’m planning to finish watching the Foreign Film nominee from Canada, War Witch. Maybe I’ll even update this post with a few more comments.

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