Monday, January 13, 2014

I Love Awards Season!

My first entry for 2014 is dedicated to the major award contenders for the upcoming Oscar race.

And before I begin, a big thank you to various Internet users for making it possible for those of us outside the U.S. to catch many of these wonderful films long before they make it to Singapore. And uncut - that's the best! :)

Captain Phillips was first on the list ( p.s. the order is determined only by the movie's online availability ), and truly lives up to all the rave reviews I've read. I'm familiar with director Paul Greengrass' work, but am an even bigger fan of star Tom Hanks, whose career I've closely followed since I was a kid ( Splash, The Money Pit, Joe vs The Volcano and Big, all the way through Forrest Gump, Philadelphia, Sleepless In Seattle and You've Got Mail, to Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, the Toy Story trilogy, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons ).

Although I didn't think he fully deserved his previous 2 Oscar wins ( for Forrest Gump and Philadelphia ), his performance in Captain Phillips is definitely a career best. It is, of course, easy to root for a man whose likability factor is off the charts, but Captain Phillips is also a nail-biting thriller with tense dramatic moments. 15 minutes into the film, the action grabs you by the balls and never lets up until the credits roll. The fact that it's based on an amazing true story adds further to the adrenaline rush. ( But let's not forget John Powell's pounding soundtrack, which I recognized immediately. :))

12 Years A Slave was the 3rd movie I saw ( I've left #2 to the last because it's my favourite - more later ).

Also a recipient of high praise, directed by Steve McQueen and featuring his good pal, Michael Fassbender ( both also worked together on Hunger and Shame ), I had VERY high expectations early on.

Unfortunately, for some strange reason, I failed to be moved despite the harrowing material ( slavery ) and violence ( major flogging ). For a better recent example, Django Unchained packs a bigger punch. And where persecution / oppression is concerned, nothing beats Schindler's List.

Also, comparing 12 Years with McQueen and Fassbender's previous collaboration, Shame, the latter is much much more affecting ( trust me, I'm shocked ). If you really think about it, both focus on men who're trapped in terrible situations ( i.e. slavery and sex addiction ), but Shame does a far better job in conveying the character's desperation and pain.

Another grouse I have about 12 Years is the lack of solid connections between the actors ( as stellar a cast as you could wish for ). Good performances abound ( Fassbender's, however, soars ) but feel isolated from one another. A major irritation, but oh well, that's just me.

Next is Dallas Buyers Club, starring Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.

I'll leave you to read the synopsis online. Yes, Matthew lost almost 50 pounds for the role, and Jared steals every scene he's in as a transgendered woman ( he's in his 40s but has flawless skin, and looks absolutely gorgeous as a female :)).

This isn't an easy film to sit through - slow-paced, set in a redneck town, populated with flawed and sickly characters who say and do disgusting things - but the 2 leads make it worth every second. Matthew burst onto the Hollywood scene in A Time To Kill almost 20 years ago, before proceeding to act in an endless string of romantic comedies ( to his credit, they're actually very good ). But in recent years, he's truly blossomed, taking on sleazy, villainous parts and knocking them out of the park.

There's a standout scene in Dallas Buyers Club which I hope you'll look out for. Without giving too much away, it involves a supermarket and an awkward encounter between Matthew, Jared and a homophobic acquaintance whose rude behaviour incurs Matt's wrath. How he handles the scumbag, and how Jared reacts, is amazing to watch. I love it. :)

The Book Thief is considered an underdog this awards season. Glowing reviews, yes. Major award nominations, no.

Still, it touched me far more deeply than 12 Years A Slave ( apologies for making it my punching bag ). Set during WWII, it traces the tragic life of Liesel as she weathers one hardship after another.

I don't recommend watching this if you're tired. The film moves at a leisurely, subdued pace, but offers so many treasures when you pay close attention. Clocking in at 130 minutes, it takes its own sweet time with plot and character development, yet never bores. While there's a slight dip near the mid-point, a series of events quickly lifts everything up a few notches, and my tear ducts started shifting into high gear.

It's important to understand that while the story is set during the Holocaust, the lessons it teaches extend far beyond that. Anyone who's ever suffered, or knows someone who's in pain, or offered a helping hand to those in need, will find something to love in this movie.

Next is Blue Jasmine, directed by Woody Allen, starring the ethereal beauty and acting powerhouse, Cate Blanchett.

I've been a fan of Blanchett's since Elizabeth, and agree with most who predict she's a shoo-in for the Best Actress Oscar this year. Her portrayal of a rich socialite whose perfect life crumbles after her husband's indiscretions is a masterclass for all thespians. Yes, Jasmine is somewhat unhinged and positively vile at times, yet Blanchett's expertly nuanced turn succeeds in winning your sympathy, even when she spews venomous criticisms and lies without compunction.

Allen - whose work I only began to appreciate after the most excellent Match Point - has written a wonderful script and infuses the movie with a light touch. He probably didn't have to do much to elicit fine performances from his lovely cast ( Peter Sarsgaard is charming as always, and looks more delicious than ever :)), but has edited the scenes in a way that conveys just enough without drowning in melodrama.

Now, on to my favourite so far - American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell.

My relationship with Russell has been rocky. I enjoyed The Fighter, but HATED Silver Linings Playbook ( even more so when Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar for I-still-have-no-idea-what ). Anyway, that's all in the past now that I've seen American Hustle. It is FREAKING INCREDIBLE.

Being nominated for a Best Picture Oscar is a sure thing. Maybe for Best Director and a couple of acting categories as well. Winning is a long shot, but since I don't always agree with the final results, so far this is my personal choice for Best Picture.

Revolving around 2 con artists who're forced to work for an ambitious, conniving FBI agent, the plot sounds straightforward enough, but the end-product is far from simple. The group dynamics change at blinding speeds, with twists that hit you when you least expect them.

The performances are nothing short of fantastic. Whether it's due to perfect casting or actors at the top of their games - or both - is anybody's guess. I can't remember the last time I saw a movie with such a large and accomplished cast, and found everyone equally terrific.

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence ( who also acted together in Silver Linings Playbook ) are tonnes better here. If they're not nominated for Oscars again, something is seriously wrong with the Academy.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams also deserve recognition. The former is practically unrecognizable with a giant paunch and thinning hair ( fake, thank goodness! ), while the latter scorches the screen with her sexy confidence, slinky attire and sizzling scenes with Bale and Cooper.

What I enjoy most about Hustle is how every character has at least 2 completely opposite facets, one of which always pops up when you least expect it.

An AMAZING film. I can't stop raving about it!

I have a few other award frontrunners on my to-watch list, but Inside Llewyn Davis is right at the top. Haven't acquired it just yet, but hope to do so soon.

Oscar Isaac, who plays the title character, has been winning lots of fans with his performance, but I already spotted him ( singing, guitar and all ) in Won't Back Down. He played a music teacher, and the scene that literally made me sit up involved a music lesson where he strummed a ukulele and sang a little ditty with the high school kids.

Later on, I also realized he was in The Bourne Legacy, in a short but memorable sequence with Jeremy Renner.
( And he was King John in Robin Hood with Russell Crowe. Time to watch it again. :))

I'm also a fan of the directors of Inside Llewyn Davis - Joel and Ethan Coen. The first Coen brothers film I ever saw was Raising Arizona, and I've been a fan ever since. I'll be sure to review ILD as soon as I see it.

In the meantime, I have to be contented with its beautiful folk-themed soundtrack, on which Isaac sings multiple songs, often with just a guitar. The Death Of Queen Jane has me spellbound. Wow... :)

My best wishes go to Dana Brunetti and Kevin Spacey, producers of Captain Phillips, for today's Golden Globes ceremony. And thank you, Mr. Brunetti, for favouriting my tweet! :D

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