Academy Awards 2012 - My Views and Opinions

Ensign Lestat's Film Log, 27/02/12

Wow and wow! After all the anticipation and waiting the Oscars are here! And for the first time (and most likely the only time) I have been able to watch the majority of the nominees in the feature film categories. A day will come when I will be able to report on shorts, animation, documentaries and foreign language films, but that is not yet.

I'd like to give an overview of the main categories with my own opinions on who should win and may win. I couldn't help but notice a great deal of similarities or patterns in the nominations. I will point them out category-wise.

Best Picture: I'm surprised by how many of these films are family/ child friendly or about children. Kids play a part in 4 films (I should count War Horse, but I'm not). Barring Midnight in Paris and The Descendants (this one for language and some situations) all the others can be watched by families, together! This is a real surprise to me. The Oscars are for adults, why are the majority of the films catering to younger audiences - one guess is obviously that that is where the money is at. 
After watching the nominations, I've realised the Academy loves films about films and film-making - I think that shows a general lack of knowledge (or it shows not wanting to know) about the outside world, its situations and issues. I'm not saying tackle big issues, but the little stories of before seem to have disappeared from the nominations list. The Academy is becoming insular, which is also apparent in how often I saw the same faces repeated in the nominated films (this is throughout categories). There are several actors that can lay claim to being part of not one, but two Oscar nominated films.
My last observation is that only The Descendants can be regarded as being set in present day. All the others have huge elements of or from the past. Midnight in Paris is about present day but harks back to the early nineteenth century; the Artist is about the '20s and '30s; War Horse is set during the Great War; Hugo is an alternative past; The Help is also in the '30s and '40s. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Moneyball are both about the early 2000s.

The Artist - This is a silent film. In an era when films often depend on musical and audio cues to keep the audience hooked, this film is rather a brave move by writer/ director Michel Hazanavicius. The story follows successful silent film actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who is ultimately deposed by the talking actors, especially one he himself discovered - Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). What follows is a traditional story arc of fallen angel being given a second chance.
I actually liked this film. I enjoyed it, and found the silent era storytelling very refreshing. From the beginning titles itself I was certain that this film would 'work'. The titles are presented exactly in the style of the '20s and '30s and rendered to look grainy and old. Fantastic work on just that account. The film was also, I understand, shot using the old cameras with a different frame rate, which gives it even more of an authentic feel. Actually, I think that is what I loved about the film, the authenticity. They went the whole hog when making this film - it was as if they were in that era. The only drawback to this type of authenticity is the, at times, over-the-top and exaggerated movements of the actors. It can be a bit disturbing because in the 21st Century, subtlety is the key, but the actors and the audience eventually get used to it, and the movements are just correct after a while.
The two leads have fantastic classical looks that lend to this film very well. Dujardin looks a lot like Gene Kelly actually, which is strange considering the basic storyline is remarkably like 'Singin' in the Rain'. In fact, Valentin's silent film leading lady looks (and acts) almost exactly like Kelly's silent film leading lady in 'Singin''! 
The only things I didn't like, and these are minor things, was, one, Peppy's dance moves - extremely annoying movement! And second, Bejo's overly exaggerated movement when whistling - for some reason whenever she did it it was over-the-top and that was most off-putting. Third, since the actors were speaking dialogue to each other (even though we were not privy to it), I could occasionally read their lips, and I found that from time to time Peppy (I'm not sure why all the demerits surround her) appears to be speaking in contemporary colloquialism. She says, "Hey" and "Okay". They didn't fit with the time-frame.
But all-in-all, as is obvious, this film was fun and entertaining and a breath of fresh air. The two (for me) unknown lead actors transported me to another world. I wish that the rest of the cast had also been unknowns as that would have completely taken me into the silent era. 

Can it win? - I can see the appeal. This is about the golden age of cinema before the rug was pulled out from underneath its feet. Like I said, the Academy loves films about films and film-making, hence this is just up its alley. To add to that it is a successful experiment that can encourage film-makers to try different techniques to tell their tales. The film already has a host of awards under its belt, so it is definitely one of the favourites.

Should it win? - Sure, why not? It was fun and new, yet retaining within it a feeling of nostalgia. It tells a simple tale. What I found interesting - and this I know is probably my personality being projected on to the film's character - was that Peppy Miller came across as an avid and devoted fan, and that may make the film attractive to a lot of viewers.

The Descendants - I've already given my view of this film.

Can it win? - I'm afraid that it almost already has. People have been raving about it since before it was released. I read the one poor review of it (with every intent of basking in some schadenfreude), but that has done little to ebb the unending flow of plaudits for the film and its actors' performances. The Academy is seeing an ageing, wealthy man, living in an exotic place (you mean people live in Hawaii?) and going through several crises at the same time. They're also seeing George Clooney like they've apparently never seen him before, so yes this can definitely win.

Should it win? - Blatant no! I think it is a very poor choice of film for Best Picture. The story, at more than one point, feels contrived, several scenes appear pointless, the acting is hideous and the characters are unoriginal, or worse, not real. Most of the decisions made can be seen coming from a mile away. There is simply nothing spectacular about this film - and I don't mean because it doesn't have X-Wings destroying Death Stars. Nothing stands out in a film that has only one very interesting angle (the angle where the title of the film comes from) in it. Had that angle been the main focus of the film, it would have made more sense, and I think I would have enjoyed it more. 

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - This is the story of a child surviving the death of his father in the 9/11 attacks. The release coincided with the ten-year anniversary of the event. Oscar Schell is the protagonist - a young child who goes on explorations and investigations instigated by his father. A year after his father's death he comes across a key hidden in his father's closet and goes on a search to find the meaning of this key. He could have done what any normal person would have - ask his mother - but in this film we are supposed to understand that the child does not get along with his mother (for no apparent reason) and hence decides to go off on several dangerous expeditions. And this despite him developing several phobias following 9/11.

Can it win? - Judging by the rather rapturous applause that erupted when its nomination for Best Picture was announced, this one may just be some audiences' favourite. It pulls at the American heartstrings, and piles on the sentimentality. Top it all - it is told through the eyes of a child, and that will appeal to many. But this one has only an outside chance, if one at all.

Should it win? - No, not really. There's nothing wrong with this film barring a rather contrived moment at the end. While we all felt the impact of 9/11, not all of us are in the habit of making and re-making films and stories about the event. I don't mean to sound harsh, of course, films should be made about whatever events inspire people, but that doesn't mean everybody will love it.

The Help - This was a surprise. The film is based of Kathryn Stockett's book of the same name. It is a story about unity, especially during a time when the races in America were very segregated. It is a women-centric film - there is one young man in it, I recall, all the other main characters are all women. 

Can it win? - No. This film came from behind to win a nomination, and has not won that many awards (as compared to the first two, anyway). It is a well-made film, no doubt, but in the old format for nominations, I doubt this one would have got in.

Should it win? - Probably not. I watched this only because my Mum had read the book and wanted to see how the film had turned out. Up until the last half hour, I thought it was an excellent film, then the last thirty minutes ruined the film, and I didn't think or care for it much afterwards. Which is a pity, considering how fantastic I thought it was till that moment. Everything is right with this film - but I think it lacks hype and the star quality of 'The Descendants'. Which, again, is a pity.

Hugo - Martin Scorsese's first PG-13 film in decades. I was surprised to see his name attached to this one. A children's film (essentially) in 3D. Seriously? But once I watched it, I realised it was much more than that. This is another film about films/ filmmakers. The cinematography of the Parisian skyline is beautiful and atmospheric. The tale follows another young boy, also surviving after the death of his father, and also involves a key. Hmmm... That is really strange! 
The visual effects of this film are poor (there were far too many times when the effects just looked fake). The young children in the film are a bit annoying (to say the least). What was most frustrating about the film was that it attempted to put too much into its two hours-and a bit film time. I wouldn't have expected a Scorsese film to jump from story to story in his film. Not like him at all - but that's how this one turns out. We follow the boy's adventures, then he meets a girl, then they search and find answers together, then the answer leads to another story (a much more interesting one involving cinema). In the mean time flashbacks of father and son are shown to us, and a security guard's romance is also given importance. This was probably good reading, but as a film, I'm not so sure.

Can it win? - Like I said, the Academy loves films about films. This one is an especially romantic one. The atmosphere and cinematography lend to it a very sentimental feel. The Academy might feel like they owe it to Scorsese, so one never knows.

Should it win? - Oh, I hope it doesn't! It just didn't feel like Scorsese! It jumped too often. The kids were, ooh, ever so slightly frustrating. I've seen 'The Departed', Scorsese's last Best Picture win, this just isn't that good. Too gooey for my liking. 

Midnight in Paris - Woody Allen's most profitable film according to some. Though, I've read, if you take away inflation and rises in ticket prices, this one does fall short of some of his other works in profitability margins. Having said that, this is one of his better films, without a doubt. For one, he's not in it. Scarlet Johanssen is also not in it. So, two points for it already. It's the story of screenwriter Gil, who loves the idea of Paris in the early 1900s, the golden age of writing, according to him, as all the best writers from all over the world converged on this heavenly city. And then one fine night something spectacular happens to him!

Can it win? - No. As X-Men's Iceman would say, this film doesn't stand a snowball's chance of winning. Pity. I just don't think the Academy is all that interested in giving this one an award. 

Should it win? - Hell, yeah! It is the most fun of all these nominees and was the most romantic (for me at least). The pleasures of meeting bygone idols, living and breathing with them, getting to know them, that's what dreams are all about, and this film is up my alley because it makes dreams come true. This film made me realise just what a hopeless romantic I am when it comes to dreams, and successfully made me feel guilty for not doing my own writing.

Moneyball - A film about baseball team Oakland Athletics. Their manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is tired of managing a losing team, that is on the brink of collapse due to several top players joining other (richer) teams. He decides to change the tactics used in selecting players, thereby hiring young analyst, Pete Brandt (Jonah Hill). The film follows their strategies and the consequences of the same.
There are no histrionics in this film. It's much like a business meeting, this film, there's lots of talking around tables - a few political games played by some parties. We see Beane's home situation as well, but that part is unobtrusive, in fact, it feels essential. 
The best part of the film, and I can assume a lot of people will agree with me on this one, are the snippets and recreations of baseball matches. They are exciting, well-shot and well-crafted. Unfortunately, I was no more enlightened about this game, which certainly takes away some of the viewing pleasure (but that is only after the fact, during the film, it is easy to get caught up in what's happening). The acting, subtle as it is, is good enough to keep you in the world of the film. I didn't care for the very last scene of the film, but up until then, I thought it was a fantastic film. I loved it.

Can it win? - Hmmm... Not sure. Considering a recent survey has revealed that the majority of the voting members are Caucasian males over the age of sixty, you'd think this one would be receiving a lot more hype. It also has the great Brad Pitt acting and producing, so I'm not sure. It certainly is a good film, no denying that, but nostalgia seems to be the order of the year, this year. It has an outside chance maybe, but I'm not sure sports films do all that well at the Oscars.

Should it win? - This isn't a favourite of mine, but I have nothing against it. Even though I don't understand Baseball, I love the original game, Cricket, and hence can understand a lot of the background stuff going on. Also the Franchise system has become dominant in cricket ever since the Indian Premier League - I can imagine owners, managers and coaches of IPL teams holding similar conversations, and banging their heads against the wall over similar issues. There is a beautiful line, said by Beane in the film, "How can you not be romantic about Baseball?" Truth is, how can one not be romantic about any sport? On that account this film is a winner, whether it takes home a golden man or not.

The Tree of Life - Terence Mallick's return to the director's chair is a philosophical tale of evolution, family and love. The film is the story of the O' Brien family, the patriarch of which (Brad Pitt again) is a volatile and hard man to please. The mother (Jessica Chastain) is a kind, loving, protective and nurturing creature. Of the three children, the film concentrates almost exclusively on the oldest, Jack (Hunter McCracken), whose older self (Sean Penn) appears to be the source of all the events of the film. 
I view the film as fragmented memories emerging from a fever dream of depression - a depression resulting from loss or the realisation of loss (perhaps even death). I don't know if I've simplified the philosophy of the film, or overthought it. This film is an experience, I've been told, but, barring the images of space and the brief story of evolution, the film was a very coherent whole for me. In fact, I felt like the space and evolution parts were out of place with the rest of the story. 'Tree of Life' has been likened to '2001: A Space Odyssey', and I agree with the comparisons. The visual spectacles of space are reminiscent of the visuals in '2001'. Also, both films have an extended sequence each on the evolution of man. Fascinating. However, '2001''s main story is based in the future, and in space. 'Tree of Life' is the past and the present, but it is on Earth. Which is why I didn't think the other stuff quite worked or fit with the story. But that is my view - perhaps I am making the mistake of making sense of a film that is more about experience than it is about coherent and linear storytelling.

Can it win? - It will be a bold move by the Academy to award this film Best Picture, but one never knows. 

Should it win? - No, I don't think so. Though I confess the children's acting floored me. Since I don't care much for children, I don't really like them in films either (which, as one can imagine, has made this years' Oscar nominees a real chore for me), but the kids in this film are genuine and effortless. But I still think that the different parts of this film do not come together as a common whole, and that is detrimental to the end result.

War Horse - My review for it is here. I have thought about this film a lot, and probably look on it more favourably than I did before. It is slightly better than I originally believed but only by a small margin. This is not Spielberg's best work, not by a long shot. In fact, in a year of five, this film would probably not have made it to the nominations' list. 

Can it win? - This is a film about a horse, where all the others are about humans dealing with loss - of a family member, a career or one's own work. And there have been ample complaints about it being too sentimental.

Should it win? - No. I have already laid out its faults, few though they may be. I believe the story is just too far off from what the Academy is looking for and at. However, I do take umbridge to the accusations of over-sentimentality that have been levied on this film. Obviously those critics hadn't seen 'Extremely Loud' then, they'll swallow their words on sentimentality once they've been put through that one!

Best Male Actor: This category probably had the biggest snubs according to lots of people. Michael Fassbender was the most shocking snub, followed by Leo DiCaprio for 'J. Edgar', and according to many, Ryan Gosling for not one but two roles. 
I have watched four out of five of the performances. Demain Bichir ('A Better Life') is an unlikely choice for winner - no one was expecting him to be nominated (most people's nominees included Fassie B). I haven't been able to get my hands on Bichir's film, and cannot comment on that. The others are Clooney for 'The Descendants', Dujardin for 'The Artist', Brad Pitt for 'Moneyball' and Gary Oldman for 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'. 
My favourite film out of these is 'Tinker Tailor', and I can't believe it hasn't got a Best Picture nom. Oldman is also my personal favourite in this category, and this is because the others either didn't stand out or just weren't that good. Dujardin is good in his film, but I'm not sure about a nomination in this category. It must have been hard to act without speaking, but that required old school acting - is it good? Is it worth an award? I'm just not sure.
Pitt in 'Moneyball' puts on an accent, but he disappears in the film - not in his character, in the film. He just didn't stand out.
And that brings me back to my pet peeve, Clooney's performance in 'The Descendants'. Seriously nothing extraordinary about it. He's the only one who tries to act, but seriously, he was no different from Danny Ocean or even his much reviled Bruce Wayne/ Batman (just a lot grayer). It seems to me the frenzy around his performance is more about him looking like a person than George Clooney, but, maybe I'm the only person who's noticed this, but Clooney's always flaunted his grey hair, and he's been looking jowly for a while now. His character is poorly written, so he hasn't got much to work with to start with. I think, overall, I disliked 'Descendants' so much, that I can't see if Clooney really was the only good thing about it. He wasn't!
So we come back to Oldman. He was subtle in this film, poised, charismatic, economical with his movements (facial or otherwise). But was he fantastic? Better than the rest in this list, for sure. But I think the trouble with this year's male nominees is that none of them really screamed 'Winner' to me.

Best Female Actor: Which is where the females score! Again I've seen four out of five of the nominees. I refused to watch Fincher's 'Dragon Tattoo' film, and I didn't care much for his and Rooney Mara's promotion campaign. Both of them should have been shot for it, but I suppose we shouldn't get violent about these things. I have been informed that Mara has no expression in her eyes, so she should not win. The other contenders are Glenn Close for 'Albert Nobbs', Viola Davis for 'The Help', Michelle Williams for 'My Week with Marilyn' and Meryl Streep for 'The Iron Lady'. 
Before I break down my views, I must point out that this is probably the first year that all the female nominees are actors who went through extraordinary transformations for their roles. Mara shaved her eyebrows, got tattoos and piercings and looks frightful in the film. Both Close and Streep are hidden behind layers of make-up in their roles. Davis is unglamorous as a maid and Michelle Williams dyes her hair platinum blond and adopts the mannerisms of Marilyn Monroe. I am really surprised by this. I'm not sure if I should be impressed that these actors are being lauded despite their star status. 
Now the breakdown - I would never have imagined Viola Davis being a contender. Actually, as I've mentioned, 'The Help' didn't scream Oscars to me at all. She does a good job, but it isn't a standout performance.
Michelle Williams has been much talked about for stepping into the shoes of Marilyn Monroe - she's an icon, and a lot of people consider her to be one of the most beautiful women ever, so those are big shoes to fill. Does she succeed? I wish I could say, yes, but, I can't. She has the mannerisms down pat, but it just seems forced, and she doesn't at any point, disappear into her character. All the while that she was on-screen, I knew I was watching Williams as Monroe, never just Monroe. I suppose I can put some of it down to bias. I don't really like Williams, I think she is a good actor, but she just... doesn't have a very attractive face. Now, I don't expect all actors to be drop dead gorgeous, but they should be presentable. I don't know what it is about her, she makes me want to scream. Having said that, she does do an ample job.
'Albert Nobbs' was a labour of love for Glenn Close. She loved the play and tried hard to get the film made, and finally succeeded last year. I wasn't impressed by the film to start with - I felt it was a victim of the 21st Century. All the surprises and twists were known to the audience, which took away from the film. It wasn't all that well-made either. Nowadays a character talking to herself on-screen just doesn't work. As for Close's performance, all I can say is, she's got a nomination, so she's done something right. But I felt she was weighed down by the burden of her role and the expectation of her performance. The make-up is good, but Close looks surprised during most of the film. 
That is where I feel Streep excels. She disappears behind her make-up and role as Margaret Thatcher. She is effortless; she doesn't let the prosthetic teeth and make-up interfere with her acting. And her voice, it was like listening to the real person. I was all set not to like her in the film, because the trailer didn't really work for me, but seriously, she floored me with her performance - and I will be rooting for her this evening.

Best Supporting Actors: Bit disappointed with both lots actually. I'll start with the males. I haven't seen 'Warrior', so cannot comment on that. Jonah Hill in 'Moneyball' has no expression at all. I think he's got this nomination by dint of it being a 'dramatic' role and Brad Pitt's endless campaigning. I'm not sure about Max von Sydow's nomination for 'Extremely Loud' - another non-speaking role getting a nom. is very surprising. Kenneth Branagh was good as Lawrence Olivier in 'My Week with Marilyn' - a bit iffy in the beginning, and I felt, at times, his accent got a bit mixed up between Olivier's accent and Olivier's accent for the film, but I put it down to Olivier keeping his on-screen accent on even when directing. The most likely winner, hopefully, is Christopher Plummer. Undoubtedly the best and cheeriest thing in 'The Beginners', he is the unlikeliest choice for such a role, but nails it. I'm hoping he wins.
The females. I can't sit through 'Bridesmaids', so no comment on Melissa McCarthy's performance. Comedy usually doesn't do well, but three of the roles are fairly amusing. I don't know why Jessica Chastain's two/ three scenes in 'The Help' have got her a nomination - they're just giving it away now. Octavia Spencer in 'The Help' is a probable winner, I think. She was definitely rather good, but again, when I watched the film, I didn't really see it as an Oscar film. Berenice Bejo in 'The Artist' was not as good Dujardin - she was over-the-top at times, and that was rather disappointing. Lastly, Janet McTeer - I don't know. Seriously, I was watching it wondering if she was good or not, and I just couldn't decide. I'm not sure who will win in this category - I think Spencer is the audience favourite, and I'll prefer her over Chastain any day.

Best Screenplay: Out of the ten nominees, I have not been able to catch 'A Separation', and have ignored 'Bridesmaids'. Of the original screenplays, my favourite is 'Midnight in Paris'. 'Margin Call' has its sole nomination here - I've written about it before. I didn't think it was that good, so am hoping it won't win. The likely winner however is 'The Artist'.
Adapted screenplays - 'The Descendants' is the likely winner, which is annoying, because as I've mentioned, I didn't care for it. I'd love 'Tinker Tailor' to win. 'The Ides of March' was also good - coherent, interesting, with a few interesting twists. I don't think 'Hugo' was successfully adapted to the screen either. However, 'Moneyball' was a very good film, and I'm wondering if it will sneak in a win.

Best Director: I think it's obvious who I'd vote for - Woody Allen. 'Midnight' was a superb film, unique in so many ways. 'Hugo', as I've already mentioned, is not Scorsese's best work. Terence Mallick's film is quite experimental, and not that cohesive, so I'm not entirely sure if it's deserving of a directing award. The likely toss up is going to be between Payne and Hazanavicius. I don't know who will get it, though. I'd prefer 'The Artist' over 'The Descendants' however.

Right, so that's my view of the main categories. Here's hoping it's a good ceremony.


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