Oscar – The morning after…

Well it has come and gone. The 2012 Oscars seemed to get here in a hurry and be done just as quick. As usual for the more recent Oscars, there were few surprises. Most of the “Big 6” went as I predicted and the only real surprises were with the technical awards. But overall it was a fun night. Here’s a few thoughts…

Billy Crystal hosted the 2012 show after the Eddie Murphy debacle (or should I say the Brett Ratner debacle) and he did a solid job. Unlike last year’s odd and sometimes uncomfortable hosting from James Franco and Anne Hathaway, this was more grounded but still quite funny. Crystal used several tried-and-true antics such as the song detailing the Best Picture Nominees and the “What they’re thinking” segment. I found them and several of Crystal’s adaptive one-liners to be very funny. Several of the presenters provided some good laughs including Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, Chris Rock (I was surprised, too), and of course Robert Downey, Jr. Oh, and c’mon Academy! Am I the only one who thinks that Downey, Jr. would be the funniest Oscars host of all time? Sign him up.

“Hugo” ended the night with five Oscars. It was awarded for its technical achievements and it’s hard for me to argue with that. “A Seperation” won for Best Foreign Language film which was followed by a rather unusual acceptance speech from director Asghar Farhadi. “The Descendants” won Best Adapted Screenplay and I was thrilled that “Midnight in Paris” won for Best Original Screenplay. Of course Woody Allen wasn’t there but did we ever expect him to be?

The supporting categories went exactly as expected. Octavia Spencer (The Help) and Christopher Plummer (Beginners) had already been christened the winners well before the ceremony began and that’s exactly how things played out. Spencer gave one of the most genuine and emotional acceptance speeches of the night and Plummer became the oldest Oscar winner ever. It was good seeing Nick Nolte recognized with a nomination even though I’m not sure he knew where he was last night.

Meryl Streep won Best Actress for her performance in “The Iron Lady”. That category had turned into a two person race and I really felt that Viola Davis had a good chance to win. But Streep was awarded for a performance that certainly outweighed the rather mundane and mixed reviewed movie. The Oscar media had tried their best to sell the whole Clooney (“The Descendants”) versus Pitt (“Moneyball”) Best Actor race. But as I expected (and hoped), Jean Dujardin won the Oscar for his wonderful performance in “The Artist”. Working with several more handicaps than the other nominees, Dujardin nailed his performance and deserved the award. His acceptance speech and subsequent dance showed his enthusiasm and I found myself applauding from my recliner.

The night only got better for “The Artist”. Michael Hazanavicius won the Best Director Oscar which is almost always a sign of which film will win Best Picture. Last night was no different. Hazanavicius’ gutsy project won Best Picture and I have no problem with it. While I was personally rooting for “The Tree of Life”, this was a case where the Academy got it right. “The Artist” was a nostalgic but touching film that felt plucked right out of the silent movie era. I loved seeing it win.

So while it was a fairly predictable night, it was a good night. The stars played dress-up and movie fans witnessed new films and new performances added to that Valhalla of motion picture history. I went 5 for 6 in the “Big 6” categories so that speaks to the shows lack of suspense. But there were some genuinely funny moments and some good movies received their due.

“IN A BETTER WORLD” – 4 STARS

“In a Better World” is a Danish film from director Susanne Bier and the surprise Oscar winner for 2010′s Best Foreign Language Film. It’s a provocative and multi-layered picture that delves into such weighty subjects as bullying, divorce, the death of a parent, suicide, and even murder and violence in Sudan. It touches on many of these subjects with care and savvy but this is also where the film seems to lose it’s identity. It’s hard to tell what ”In a Better World” wants to be.

Mikael Persbrandt plays Anton, a Swedish doctor and father of two who has recently separated from his wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm). Anton spends a lot of time away from home working at a refugee camp in Sudan. Here he treats all sorts of injuries, many inflicted by a ruthless local war lord. At home his son Elias (Markus Rygaard)  has been the victim of incessant bullying from a bigger kid at school. Upon witnessing Elias being ridiculed by the bully, a new student named Christian (William Juels Nielsen) intervenes kindling a new friendship with Elias. But Christian has problems of his own. He’s a disturbed and disconnected boy who is still unable to come to terms with his mother’s recent death due to cancer. Christian’s anger grows and grows despite the efforts of his father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen).

As I mentioned, “In a Better World” touches on a lot of themes but the film lacks a main focus. It’s most certainly a movie about bullying. It’s also a movie about the impact losing a parent has on a child and a film about the friendship of two struggling boys. But the word “violence” kept coming back to me. One consistent undercurrent flowing throughout the picture was violence, our propensity towards it, and our reaction to it. Whether it be the more savage and bloody violence that Anton witnessed in Sudan or the subtle and often overlooked violence in our own cozy neighborhoods, “In a Better World” presents it as something internal. The bigger question is how do we deal with it.

There’s a lot in the movie about revenge versus letting go. Anton is a passive man who would rather walk away than cause things to escalate. Christian convinces Elias this is a sign of his father’s weakness. Two different individuals reacting to violence in two very different ways. But such is violence that even Anton and his passivity fall victim to the impulse for vengeance. Everything in the film seems to be used as fuel for this one underlying theme.

While that’s what I took from the film I could be dead wrong. It just lacked the clarity needed to really impress it’s message upon me. But even though it goes into all sorts of difficult but real circumstances, it does so in a responsible and cohesive way. While several things could have used more attention, Bier makes it all flow together in a way that really kept me involved. The solid performances sold me on these characters and I genuinely cared about their situations. It’s also beautifully shot and features some polished camera work and great locations. So even with it’s flaws, I couldn’t take my eyes away from the screen.

“In a Better World” isn’t the perfect film and it surprised a lot of people when it won last year’s Oscar. But this is still a thoughtful and engaging picture that had my attention throughout. It deals with some weighty subjects and does so with sometimes brutal honesty. The performances are rich and pure and even when the script falls short in spots, the actors still manage to elevate the material. “In a Better World” may not have the depth and detail that some are looking for and that’s a valid argument. But I found it to be a moving experience that not only touched me but made me think. There’s a lot of movies out there that can’t accomplish that.

“WAR HORSE” – 3 1/2 STARS

“War Horse” is a Steven Spielberg movie throughout. It’s broad in scope, has huge production value, and soaked in melodrama. Spielberg produced and directed this war time period film and it features beautiful locations and several large-scale action scenes and set pieces. He has made several of these ambitious war pictures before so he’s in familiar territory. But his biggest challenge is taking a horse and making him the main star while keeping the audience engaged for the movie’s two and a half hour running time. “War Horse” does succeed in several areas but it never completely captures or maintains the emotional charge that it aims for.

Based on a 1982 children’s book, “War Horse” follows a very special young colt who is unwisely bought at an auction by a struggling farmer who is supposed to be buying a bigger, stronger plow horse. The farmer’s wife is furious with the purchase but their young son Albert promises to raise and train the horse who he names Joey to eventually plow their hard, rocky farm plot. The family hits even harder times and circumstances arise that sees Joey thrust into the onset of World War I. “War Horse” never stays in the same place very long and becomes a collection of brief short stories about the people Joey encounters including a military officer heading to war, two young brothers reluctantly serving on the German front, and an elderly French farmer and his granddaughter. There are several other scenes featuring other characters but the one constant throughout is Joey.

This storytelling technique works good in the broad sense. Joey is certainly an incredible animal and I couldn’t help but stay interested regardless of the convenience that dictates many of his situations. I particularly enjoyed the story of Joey and the military officer played wonderfully by Tom Hiddleston. Equally good were the scenes with the French Farmer played by the fantastic French actor Niels Arestrup and his young granddaughter Emilie played by the lovely Celine Buckens. These are the films best scenes and I can’t help but wish we could have gotten more from these characters. But as I mentioned, Joey is the real star and I was amazed that Spielberg was able to draw so much character out of his lead. As many as eight different horses played the part of Joey and even though the director uses several instances of emotional manipulation, the horse we get on-screen held my interest throughout.

But there was something missing in the movie. It’s clear what the movie wants to be but I could never get as emotionally invested as I was supposed to be. Some of the tugs at our heart-strings felt a bit artificial and there are several animal movie clichés that the movie fully embraces. It was also rather predictable in some areas and I found myself figuring out things well before they culminated on the screen. As with many Spielberg pictures, subtly isn’t a strong point and his attempts to bring tears feel heavy on delivery but light in effect. And with a movie that is striving to be an emotionally driven family drama, that hurts the film.

Flaws aside, “War Horse” is a very watchable film and even flirts with occasional greatness. As expected, it’s technically sound with some beautiful camera work, fantastic locations, and crisp editing. I loved the shots of the English countryside and the dank, muddy, war-torn areas are perfectly fitting. All the performances are solid and some of the character stories are great. There is a lot of charm and heart in “War Horse” but there are also several cheap and lazy attempts to bring out the tissues. It’s a good movie and one that I would certainly watch again. But I can’t help feel that with a tighter script and a slightly different approach, “War Horse” could have been a serious Oscar contender.

The 2012 Oscar Nominees Announced…

 

The 2012 Academy Award nominations have been announced and, just as expected, there is plenty to talk about. This year’s list features several snubs, several surprises, and several Academy misfires. But then again, isn’t that what we’ve come to expect? And isn’t that just one of the things that makes the Oscar conversation that much better? Here is the list of the nominees for “The Big 5” categories. My prediction (not my personal favorite) will be in bold print but as always, it’s subject to change. There will be a lots of interviews and promotions over the next few weeks but here is how I think things will turn out:

Actress In A Supporting Role

THE NOMINEES:

Bérénice Bejo (The Artist)
Jessica Chastain (The Help)
Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids)
Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs)
Octavia Spencer (The Help)

I know we all like mystery and surprises when it comes to Oscar night but I don’t see there being any here. Octavia Spencer has dominated this category in the pre-Oscar awards shows and I don’t see this as being any different. Of this group I would have a hard time voting against her. I felt Jessica Chastain had the best female supporting performance of the year but it wasn’t for “The Help”. Her work in “The Tree of Life” was better but her very best work was in the underappreciated film “Take Shelter”. That was the best female supporting performance. But for Oscar night, expect it to be Octavia Spencer.

Actor In A Supporting Role

THE NOMINEES:

Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn)
Jonah Hill (Moneyball)
Nick Nolte (Warrior)
Christopher Plummer (Beginners)
Max von Sydow (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close)

I LOVED seeing Nick Nolte get a nod for his work in “Warrior”. It was my favorite male supporting performance of the year and it was the best work Nolte has done in years. Unfortunately Plummer has this category all but locked. Everything has pointed to Plummer and there is nothing about this list of nominees that would make me think otherwise. That being said, I’ll still be rooting for Nolte.

Actress In A Leading Role

THE NOMINEES:

Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs)
Viola Davis (The Help)
Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady)
Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn)

This is one of the most intriguing categories of the night. Meryl Streep has gotten all of the pre-Oscar awards show buzz but don’t count out Viola Davis. Many are trying to hype up the two person race but I think for good reason. Streep may be hurt by the fact that “The Iron Lady” is a very sub par movie and while “The Help” had its flaws, it’s a better picture. My personal favorite performance of the year was from Juliette Binoche for “Certified Copy” but out of this group I would prefer Davis. But my gut tells me Streep is the favorite.

Actor In A Leading Role

THE NOMINEES:

Demián Bichir (A Better Life)
George Clooney (The Descendants)
Jean Dujardin (The Artist)
Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
Brad Pitt (Moneyball)

Once again my personal favorite of the year is left out. I thought Michael Shannon was nothing short of brilliant for “Take Shelter” but there are some really strong performances in this group. I love seeing Bichir nominated but he has no shot. Oldman was fantastic but he has no chance. Brad Pitt gave the second best performance of his career and his second best performance of the year in “Moneyball” but he won’t win. It all comes down to Clooney and Dujardin. While Shannon was my favorite male performance of the year, Dujardin was a close second. Clooney was fantastic even though “The Descendants” wasn’t as polished as many think. Of this group I would love to see Dujardin take home the gold. But I think Clooney carried his movie and has enough charm in Hollywood to win on Oscar night.

Best Picture

THE NOMINEES:

The Artist (Thomas Langmann, Producer)
The Descendants (Jim Burke, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Producers)
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Scott Rudin, Producer)
The Help (Brunson Green, Chris Columbus and Michael Barnathan, Producers)
Hugo (Graham King and Martin Scorsese, Producers)
Midnight in Paris (Letty Aronson and Stephen Tenenbaum, Producers)
Moneyball (Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz and Brad Pitt, Producers)
The Tree of Life (Nominees to be determined)
War Horse (Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, Producers)

My favorite film of 2011 was “The Tree of Life” but “The Artist” was right behind it. Michel Hazanavicius creates a gorgeous film from start to finish and I think it will win on Oscar night. But it’s not a done deal just yet. “The Descendants” is high on many lists and has a good shot at winning. While I loved many of the other movies (specifically “Midnight in Paris”, “Hugo”, “Moneyball”, and of course “The Tree of Life”), this is a two-horse race and at the end of the day I feel “The Artist” will win Best Picture and I’m fine with that.