The readers of my website who have been following for a long time will know that I have written the occasional film review. In truth, I review a shockingly small percentage of the films that I watch. Part of the reason for this is because I often can’t be bothered, but the main reason is because I don’t want this website to become a movie reviews site, or to become known as one. That may seem strange, but this website is very much my public “face” on the internet, and while I am very much into movies, I don’t strongly identify with being known primarily as a film critic. In truth, I’m not particularly enamored with being known as a speed skater, preferring “mathematician”, “scientist”, or even “photographer”. (I also answer to “shit stirrer”, and “THAT guy”)
Recently though, I’ve been getting back into the business of watching a lot of films. In my youth, I was a very frequent patron of a local video rental store and I have easily seen over a thousand films, most of them very bad. These days, with the advent of the internet and torrenting, it has become increasingly easy to watch whatever films one chooses. I also fly a lot and boredom on long-haul flights combined with increasingly convenient entertainment systems has further increased my movie-watching opportunities. On the subject of technological advances, it has become increasingly cheap and easy to get into the business of making films. That’s right, I’m getting into film making. It has long been on the cards for there to be a TV show or documentary made about the Australian speed skating team, and the extraordinary story of its formation and progress, now punctuated by Sophie Muir’s participation in the Olympic Winter Games.
One of my mini-philosophies on life is that, if you ever want to be good at anything, there are two things that you must do: (1) observe as many examples of people who are good at doing that thing, and their work, and (2) practice as much as possible. I think that is the key to my success at still photography, that I spend a lot of time just looking at really good photos and thinking about them, and also that I just get out there and take a lot of photos (in the last 12 months, I’ve taken well over 60,000 photos).
So, as part of my preparation for constructing the documentary on the Australian Speed Skating team, I’ve assigned myself several bits of homework. First of all, I’ve begun making short videos (the training video, Josh’s introduction, and Sophie’s Pep Talk are examples). Second of all, I’ve been watching all the nominees for this year’s academy award for best picture (and then some). I’m a very opinionated and snobbish movie watcher preferring Lawrence of Arabia over Titanic any day, and one should keep this in mind when reading my reviews about the films and my opinions on their chances at the best picture award. But first, the nominees:
James Cameron’s 3D epic is not a bad film, not at all. It is noteworthy for many reasons: first and foremost, it is in 3D. Unlike other offerings requiring polarizing glasses, the 3D-ness of Avatar was very well done. It wasn’t gimmicky, and after you got over the initial excitement of watching a movie in 3D, you mostly forgot about it and it really just enhanced the medium rather than becoming a distraction. I imagine that the first moviegoers watching films in color back in the 30s had a similar experience. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the future of film although we may not see widespread adoption for quite some time. The commercial success of Avatar, however, is very encouraging as it was undoubtedly a very costly production, and almost certainly recouped its costs.
Once you strip away all the technical wizardry, what are you left with? A well-paced plot with a fairly simple story, wrapped in a handful of deeper questions about the value of modernity, technology, and spiritualism in a post-colonial world. Filled with clichés, it is almost as if Cameron is making a mockery of the genre. “Unobtainium” is the classic MacGuffin and it is only actually seen once in the film’s entire 162 minutes. Visually, many scenes are strongly reminiscent of older Hayao Miyazaki films. The floating islands remind me of Laputa, and the tree of souls and its surrounds look a lot like scenes from Princess Mononoke. The writing and dialogue in general is sound but nothing special. In fact, it reminds me of action films from 15-20 years ago which, back then, would have been considered very bland, but in the context of the current crop of nearly-unwatchable action films (like 2012) which take bad dialogue and writing to whole new levels, it is a breath of fresh air.
The characters are not particularly complex, nor do they really need to be. Stephen Lang’s performance as head of security is quite strong, but is borderline overkill, especially towards the end where the energy of the film escalates and his behavior becomes frenzied. Michelle Rodriguez also played her character well and kept it very “real” in a surreal environment. Sam Worthington’s accent changes annoyingly throughout the film, but his performance was otherwise decent. He certainly didn’t mess it up, but an actor with a greater screen presence may have been able to add more substantially to the role.
Certainly a contender for best cinematography, and best editing, it is not best picture material. It is almost a certainty for best special effects even though it is up against two very strong nominees in Star Trek, as well as District 9 (both blend their special effects into the film more subtly). The academy and I haven’t always agreed though, so Avatar could well win best picture, even though I don’t believe to be good enough to even deserve a nomination.
The Blind Side
This is good old fashioned storytelling in film form. This is a formulaic story about a disadvantaged and talented sporting youth being adopted by a wealthy family. It is based on a true story, and focuses on the human struggle above all else, and that is its strength. The struggle is a mighty one, and the story is real, giving the movie an emotional weight that many sporting movies find difficult to find.
Sandra Bullock plays a very good WASP and carries the narrative of the film. Having only seen one of the other nominees for best actress, it is difficult to say whether she will get the nod, but she takes on the role well and with a maturity that I didn’t expect.
As for best picture, I doubt it will win. There’s just not enough there. If Bullock had pulled out a performance on the level of Jack Nicholson’s in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, then that alone could have pushed this into the hunt. While engaging, it didn’t feel urgent enough. While touching, it just wasn’t moving enough. It is an outside, but highly unlikely contender.
Neill Blomkamp was discovered by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson and he does a stellar job with this edgy and brilliant piece. Curiously, he did not receive a nomination for best director, but his is, in my opinion, the strongest contender for the title this year.
Based very loosely on the infamous district 13 in Johannesburg, this film is ostensibly about a large number of alien refugees who have to be dealt with by a sinister, privatized “Multinational United” corporation. It is a poignant statement about racism, segregation, and privatization. The best thing about it all, is that it doesn’t actually state any of these things to make that statement, instead, relying on the story to reveal those things to us. The character development and transformation of Wikus van der Merwe takes us through this gritty film at a brisk pace from the start all the way through to its conclusion.
It is similar in many ways to the 1988 film Alien Nation, although the situation of the aliens in this case is slightly different, as is the overall motivation behind them. Towards the end of the film, the tone changes slightly and it becomes more of an action shoot-out, which is disappointing. Nevertheless, it remains engaging and riveting throughout, and was a surprise commercial success despite no big-name actors and very little publicity. It is also up for the best screenplay based on previous material (a short film, directed by Blomkamp called Alive in Joburg) and definitely has the quality to win that as well. Being of the Sci-fi genre, it wouldn’t surprise me if it didn’t win best picture, but I certainly hope that it does.
Based on the Lynn Barber memoir, An Education is a coming of age story about Jenny, a young school girl from London’s outer suburbs with aspirations to go to Oxford, set sometime in the early 1960s. She begins seeing Dave, an older man who opens her eyes to the grown-up world. The story is simple enough, and the narrative follows the slow revelation of the life of David and his best friend Danny. Danny’s ditzy girlfriend is sometimes a little too ditzy, almost to the point of being jarring, on hearing that Jenny hadn’t done well on a latin test in school, she remarked “Someone told me that in about 50 years, no-one will speak Latin, probably… not even Latin people”.
Other than that constant comic relief threatening to burst the bubble of disbelief, the characters are textured and believable. Alfred Molina is great as Jenny’s father, and Emma Thompson makes a wonderful albeit brief appearance as the principal of Jenny’s school. Carey Mulligan gives a great performance as the main protagonist and the overall coming together of the elements of writing, editing, acting, and cinematography progresses very well and seamlessly throughout the film.
Though thought-provoking in light of what was to come later (e.g. feminism) and the issues that are dealt with, are carried well by the character development. We are encouraged to sympathize with Jenny, and we are drawn into the story which is engaging and well constructed… that is, until the last 10 minutes or so. For some inexplicable reason the whole film seems to fall apart just towards the end, and feels very weak towards the finish. It feels almost as if the film makers stopped trying, and that is a pity. Until then, An Education is a very strong contender for best picture, but due to the lack of punch in the ending, I’m fairly confident that it won’t emerge victorious. Mulligan though, is an outside chance for best actress.
The Hurt Locker
As war movies go, this one’s pretty good. Following the story of several members of the bomb squad in Iraq, it captures the tension of the life and death situation well. It is technically a superb movie and could well pick up cinematography, editing, sound editing, and sound mixing, all of which it was nominated for. Unfortunately, as a complete film, I feel it falls short just slightly, but director Kathryn Bigelow (best known for Point Break, who is also nominated for best director along with ex-husband James Cameron) should be very happy with the film.
The film is an extended character study of Sgt William James, played by Jeremy Renner (and played very well I might add). A bomb specialist who seems to delight in the high-tension, high-risk situation of having to disarm the myriad of improvised explosives that the Iraqu insurgents dream up. The tension is very well-captured indeed, although I feel that the overall narrative lets the film down in that it is very episodic. The story moves from one set piece to another with only the faintest of segues. Each set piece is, individually at least, a wonderfully constructed piece of work (I especially liked the one where they get pinned down by a sniper for a whole afternoon), but there isn’t enough of a common thread to unite them all.
If, however, you can ignore the lack of narrative “glue” in this film, it is quite enjoyable and very well-paced. It is gritty in the way that the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan, or most of Black Hawk Down is, and cleverly avoids the realm of the political by focusing on an individual story through his tour of duty. I also have a great respect for the movie because it doesn’t fall into common hollywood traps like “you can’t kill a main character”. This film, just like the war, is indiscriminate about who gets knocked off. It may, despite its deficiencies, win best picture, though I doubt it. Much more likely to win the more technical awards, and is a decent chance for best director.
This is also one of my more liked films among the nominees. Quentin Tarantino directs a not-quite-historic period-ish film about Nazi-occupied France during the war. Clearly a talented director (and one of my favorites from a stylistic point of view) Tarantino’s films have always seemed a bit incomplete, or perhaps not-quite well-rounded would be a better way to describe what I’m thinking. In any case, Inglorious Basterds is his first very “Complete” film.
A story told quite simply, it is the characters and their development which drive the plot. Engaging dialogue, and charismatic characters keep the viewer glued to the screen throughout its 158 minutes. Unusual for a big hollywood film, a large portion of this dialogue takes place in French and German and is accompanied by subtitles. If you pay careful attention to the subtitles, you will notice that they occasionally (and intentionally) don’t translate what is being said, for example “oui” in French is sometimes subtitled “oui”. This, along with many other subtle signs throughout the film indicate Tarantino’s propensity to quietly mock the film making establishment.
Christopher Waltz, who playes Colonel Hans Landa (the “Jew Hunter”) gives an exceptional performance (speaking four languages quite fluently during the course of the film), and is rightly nominated for the award for best supporting actor. Overall, I wouldn’t mind seeing this one grab the best picture award, although I have a sneaking suspicion that it won’t. Still, a thoroughly enjoyable film, and enjoyable by a very wide demographic owing to the combination of Tarantino’s stylistic action sequences, as well as the more subtle in-jokes about the film industry peppered throughout.
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
A moving drama about the car-crash life of poverty and teen pregnancy in modern society (with a bit of incest and sexual abuse thrown in for good measure). Precious traces the story of Precious, an illiterate, overweight teen who is pregnant with her second child by her own father. You would struggle to start out worse in life, but this story is more about hope than anything else, and is ultimately uplifting.
Mo’Nique, who plays Precious’ abusive mother, gives an inspired performance and is my pick for best supporting actress. Even Mariah Carey makes an appearance, and thankfully actually does alright in the role of Ms Weiss (she also doesn’t look anything like she normally does, which helps the suspension of disbelief – and disbelief is what you invariably feel when you see her name on a cast list). In fact, the director, Lee Daniels, deserves a lot of credit for keeping this film together, because with subject material like this, it is all too easy to descend into melodrama and cliches. Instead, the film is gritty, real, and quite confronting.
The editing also deserves a mention, although at times it does seem to “try too hard” and overdo things just a little. Although the film doesn’t have any significant dead-moments where the momentum stops carrying, it also sometimes fails to connect with the audience. Perhaps it is my fault for not being culturally sensitive enough, although having occasionally lived briefly in Harlem (where the film is based) I doubt this is the case. A good movie, not a feel-good movie, and also not a best-picture.
A Serious Man
This was very enjoyable to watch. The Coen brothers do awkward, strange comedy very well, and this is no exception. A very cleverly-written piece about a man whose life is slowly disintegrating around him. The narrative flows almost like a piece of classical music, with central themes and recurring elements popping up and being repeated and reinforced as the story develops, giving the viewer a sense of an impending climax.
Larry Gopnik is a physics professor, and he leads a very happy life with a wife and two kids. He doesn’t really “do” anything, and that is one of the central recurring themes. There is also another interesting recurring theme concerning duality and uncertainty. There are many forks in the story which are almost-but-not-quite revealed (and some that are) but this lack of narrative closure doesn’t detract from the plot. In fact, it is used to enhance it.
A very clever film, and perhaps a little too clever for its own good. Many viewers will find the lack of closure in its various sub-plots confusing and ultimately unsatisfying (blame the current environment of brain-dead instant gratification movies like the unwatchable 2012). It should be a leading contender for the best screenplay written directly for screen category, but I doubt it will win best picture. I wouldn’t mind if it did though.
Up is an unusual story about an explorer who sets out to accomplish the unfinished quest of traveling to “paradise falls” which, in many ways is an exact movie-universe replica of Angel Falls in Canaima, Venezuela (which I happen to have visited once). Of course, not everything goes according to plan, and a boy scout of sorts ends up an accidental passenger on this voyage, which takes place in a house suspended by thousands of balloons and propelled by sails (which doesn’t make sense if you know anything about sailing, but whatever).
Many have been raving about Up, calling it the best Pixar film ever. I disagree, feeling that honour still belongs to Wall-e (the first 50 minutes of it anyway). This film is worth it for the first 10 minutes and the last 5, for reasons that I won’t go into because it would spoil the film but anyone who has seen the film should know what I’m talking about. The rest of the film lacks the emotional gravitas that the bookends at the beginning and the end carry. I think part of the reason I didn’t enjoy the film as much as others is because I failed to connect or sympathize in any way with the character of the kid-boy scout who I found distracting and annoying (which is ironic, because as a child, I was very much like that).
That being said, this is not a bad movie at all. It is entertaining, and deals with (albeit at quite a superficial level) weighty issues like old age, parental neglect, and hero worship. Out of all the pixar movies, this is the one I would most categorize as a “kids film” while most of the others are quite mature films dressed up as kids films. I don’t believe Up is a serious contender for best picture, but should win the best animated feature category.
Up in the Air
Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) has the unenviable job of being a man who is hired by other companies to fire people. For this he spends over 300 days of the year on the road, flying from place to place across the US’ extensive air travel network. This film depicts the story of what happens when a “new kid” arrives in the company and changes their practices, effectively grounding him when he is just short of a lifelong goal – a million frequent flyer miles (myself, I am probably just short of 300,000, but those are from much longer, and less frequent trips).
Based on a book, the dialogue is snappy and it is the characters who ultimately bring this story to life. Clooney, along with Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick are all nominated for acting awards and rightly so. Kendrick especially gives a great performance as the young naïve new kid who comes to face the human realities of what it means to actually fire people (apparently she’s in the Twilight series of movies, which seems like a waste of acting talent really). I was not particularly impressed by Clooney’s performance, although his reaction to certain plot twists is very well carried-out. I don’t believe he has a chance in the best actor award being up against the likes of Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) and Morgan Freeman (Invictus).
A fun and very competently executed film. It loses a bit of momentum just towards the end of the second act, but that is mostly to prepare the audience for the third. Kendrick, being very attractive (how else do you get cast for a Twilight movie?) is sometimes distracting in this sense, although it is a welcome reprieve from what is otherwise a very dialogue-driven and cerebral film. I wouldn’t pick it for best picture, but it is a film that I would have no trouble recommending.