Oscar Schmoscar 2014

This year, I wasn’t sure that I’d have an “Oscar Schmoscar” post as I had hardly seen any of the major nominees. I don’t know why this year seemed to be the year of “individuals going through incredibly difficult ordeals”. From being adrift in space, to being held hostage by pirates, to being abducted and sold into slavery, none of those stories seemed to be something I’d enjoy for two hours. So, I kept putting off watching these movies (even Gravity, which kind of piqued my interest, being the sci-fi geek that I am). In the end, I’m glad I did watch them, not only because I have something to cheer for on Oscar night, but also because I’ve always felt that one of the goals of storytelling (especially filmmaking) should be to give the viewers a vicarious experience that they would not likely face in their own lives. It opens our mental universes up to all kinds of experiences. For that achievement, most of these nominees are winners already in my book.

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Gravity

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects

It’s almost easier to list out the categories that Gravity was not nominated for this year. I have to say, I am especially gratified that the Academy is honouring a science fiction film (but I guess it might be because part of its big achievement is how unlike “fiction” it really is). Sandra Bullock does a pretty good job playing a loner scientist/astronaut who ends up largely alone when an accident kills the rest of the crew and destroys the space shuttle. If you didn’t already know, don’t get me wrong that this is a futuristic crew complete with jet-packs and laser pistols. The triumph of director Alfonso Cuaron and the rest of the film making team is that this is so realistic and contemporary a story that you can practically feel the carbon-dioxide building up in your own 2014 lungs as Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone tries to get herself to safety between orbiting space stations. I like this film for all those sound and editing awards because it is an awesome achievement what was done here. Granted, I have no actual baseline to compare what it might actually feel like to be adrift in space, but this movie feels viscerally real. The visuals of everything from a shuttle or space station being pummelled by fast-moving fragments flying through space, to the little drops of water suspended weightlessly like jewels in midair all add to the “right there with you” quality of the film. Gravity should definitely win for visual effects. I am assuming that most of the movie was done with visual effects, but I really couldn’t tell you where they begin or end. While any solo performance in a movie of this kind is going to be an achievement, I don’t know that Bullock deserves the Oscar here (though I haven’t really seen the other nominees either). Nevertheless, I guess she deserves a lot of credit for giving most of her performance through a space helmet. (4 out of 5)

gatsbylily

The Great Gatsby

Nominated for Best Production Design, Best Costume Design

As great as it was for flamboyant director Baz Luhrmann to make a return to the screen, it’s not a big surprise that the only nominations for The Great Gatsby are for design categories. As usual, there is a whole lot of visual flair to Luhrmann’s reinvention/adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald literary classic. Bringing back Leonardo DiCaprio, Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet lead, as the titular self-made big-spender was a savvy choice as DiCaprio gave us the perfect debonair, twinkle-eyed charm with a slight dusting of obsessive, red-faced mania. Archetypal ingenue Carey Mulligan is also well-cast as Daisy Buchanan, the object of Gatsby’s romantic quest. But the cherry on top is Tobey Maguire again playing to type as the naive narrator Nick Carraway, caught in the middle of all the glitz and drama. I don’t know the original story (nor the 1974 Robert Redford, Mia Farrow film version) so I don’t know if Luhrmann has taken any liberties with it (as he might in the interest of his romantic, melodramatic style). The film is set in the 20s, when enigmatic, rich, man-about-town Jay Gatsby was known to throw lavish, spectacular parties regularly for all the elite of New York. His neighbour Carraway is a young bonds trader who stumbles into the middle of a love triangle (more of a pentagon, actually), between Gatsby, Daisy, Daisy’s husband Tom (and his mistress Myrtle and her husband George). It’s all very sordid and tragic, but it looks great. I kind of feel like Luhrmann chose to adapt Gatsby solely because of the opportunity it gave him to stage these gigantic, opulent parties full of fountains and singers and sparkle wherever you turn. It’s kind of like the Moulin Rouge on no-fixed-budget. As you can imagine, the costumes from the 20s (well, the one-percenter costumes, anyway) look fabulous and both the men and women are always dressed impeccably in Luhrmann’s world (even in the slums!). As much as I enjoy the kind of back-of-hand-to-forehead storytelling in this movie, I can easily see how it didn’t make the cut for any of the other Oscar categories, but I’m really pulling for it to win these two. (4 out of 5)

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12 Years a Slave

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Adapted Screenplay

12 Years a Slave was another movie that got rave reviews on the festival circuit and wide release, but the synopsis (a 19h century free black man is kidnapped and sold into slavery) was so clearly going to be unpleasant that I didn’t really know why I might put myself through enduring it. However, Best Actor nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor always gives a great performance (I know him from Serenity and Kinky Boots, but I see that he’s also done many more sombre roles) and he was excellent as the main character, Solomon Northup. Unfortunately, I really struggled to enjoy and admire this film. Tragic as the story was, and as unjust as Northup (and other slaves’) experience was, it didn’t feel to me as if a new story was being told. Not only had I heard this story in some form or other (maybe it wasn’t a free man who became a slave by kidnapping, but since no one chooses to be a slave, it’s all kidnapping to some degree) and the southern white characters were so horrific and broad. Once I saw Paul Dano on screen as one of the overseers, I knew exactly how he was going to be petty, spiteful, and take violent revenge on Solomon for some kind of perceived insult — totally called it. Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson gave strong performances as slave owners, Mr. and Mrs. Epps, but take away the fancy frocks and antebellum setting and they were like two psychos. When they were arguing (Mrs. Epps threw a heavy crystal decanter right in the face of one of the slaves), I felt like I was watching some kind of tightly-wound horror movie. I realize that the message that slavery is a monstrous injustice never gets old, and that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, but I don’t feel like this film proved that another film needed to be made about pre-Civil War slavery. When I look at all the nominations this movie has received, I am not sure that I would give any of them to this film. (4 out of 5)

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Captain Phillips

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Adapted Screenplay

If it weren’t for the Best Picture nom, I probably wouldn’t have seen this movie. The idea of watching a realistic depiction of how a commercial freighter captain survived the boarding of his ship by Somali pirates was not something that sounded like fun. However, I am supremely sad that director Paul Greengrass did not get a nom because I think he did an amazing job. This movie was gripping (i.e. my hands were gripping the armrest the whole time) and emotionally riveting. (That makes me want to go back and watch Greengrass’s United 93, which I also avoided similarly not wanting to live through such a harrowing experience on screen as the 9/11 flight hijacking.) Similar to Gravity, this movie can quickly be summarized by its premise and adding the words “real life” in there somewhere. I’ve watched many Die-Hard-esque action movies with similar situations where bad guys board a ship and take the captain hostage, but while I kept kind of waiting for Tom Hanks’s Captain Richard Phillips to lock and load, or take down the pirates with his bare hands, I also knew that wasn’t going to happen. This movie was based in the real world — in fact, it’s based on the account of the real Captain Phillips himself. That was never more felt than when the pirates are approaching the ship and Phillips orders them to turn on their big weapon — the hoses. I thought they were going to be like water cannons that the crew would fire at the pirates, knocking them into the cold ocean. Instead, they were more like fountains off the side of the ship, spraying in all directions as a deterrent to being boarded. Despite how underwhelmed I was at the hoses, at the same time I was extremely engaged as one of the crew struggled to reattach one of the hoses that had gone off target, allowing an opening for the pirates to attach a ladder to the side of the ship. Tom Hanks’s performance was so average it was amazing. Hanks has made a career out of playing the Everyman, regardless of the crazy situation Everyman finds himself in. I give him great credit for making me ask myself constantly throughout this movie, “Oh man, what would I do if I had been in his situation?”. Where that was most true was at the end of the movie when Phillips is safe and breaks down a little from the emotional strain that sneaks up on him, I was also having a very emotional reaction to that moment (which is incredibly wimpy, I know, since I was neither held hostage by pirates nor acting as if I had). For giving me that little episode alone, I think Hanks deserves the Oscar. As for Barkhad Abdi’s nomination for supporting actor (as Muse, the Somali pirate “captain”), I don’t know what to say. It’s hard to judge a person’s performance with so few words but so much yelling (it seems all the Somalis do is yell). If it means anything, I totally saw him as a Somali pirate, one walking a very thin line. I would love if this movie won for Best Picture, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see. (4.5 out of 5)

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One thought on “Oscar Schmoscar 2014”

  1. Comment about Muse from Captain Philips made me laugh. Tom Hanks did a good job although I don’t think he was particularly taxed in this role (unlike his all time best performance in Big).

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