A Little Chaos

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A Little Chaos is an acutely observed and exquisitely judged costume drama, that takes time and care to create the extravagance of France in 1682 while also critiquing the absurdities of its rigid class structure. Co-writer and director Alan Rickman also plays the supporting role as King Louis XIV, while the central performance comes from Kate Winslet as Sabine De Barra, a landscape gardener selected by André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) to contribute a little chaos to the construction of the new gardens at Versailles. Winslet is on typically fine form, conveying Sabine’s resolve as well as her evident suffering. Careful use of flashbacks hint at Sabine’s past, the audience learning more as André does. André has his own problems, both with his loveless marriage and with the absurd prospect of creating the gardens in the first place. Yet while the film highlights this absurdity and the general nonsense of the French court’s conventions, it never feels mean-spirited or cruel. The tone is more affectionate than acerbic, allowing the viewer to feel a part of the world on screen rather than taking a cynical distance. The film’s triumph is its placement, using the development of the gardens at Versailles as a backdrop for dramas both personal and political. While a costume drama about landscape gardening in 17th century France may not sound like the most dramatic material, the film is both charming and engaging, and in places quite moving. At times ornate, at others (literally) rough and muddy, this is a garden well worth strolling through.

Cinderella

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A well-known story poses the challenge of how to tell it in a way that is fresh and engaging. The further challenge of a fairy tale is how to make it relevant. Director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz complete these challenges admirably with Cinderella, an unapologetically traditional and gloriously romantic reinvention of the classic tale that pays homage to Disney’s animated feature while also creating an identity all of its own. The essential elements of the story are present: the cruel stepmother and stepsisters, the fairy godmother and pumpkin coach, the ball and the glass slippers, as are the more specifically Disney elements including Cinderella’s (Lily James) animal friends and the famous “Bibbity-bobbity-boo”, brought to charming life by the Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham-Carter). Branagh handles these elements brilliantly, especially the magical transformation scene and the glorious ball sequence. Where this live action version really shines though, is in its expansion of the story. Cinderella’s stepsisters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera) are not ugly but vain, stupid and spiteful, while her stepmother (Cate Blanchett) is beautifully nuanced – not simply cruel but bitter and more than a little desperate. Similarly, Prince Kit (Richard Madden) and his royal contemporaries are far more than the ciphers one might expect, concerned with tensions between tradition and progressiveness as well as their own political agendas. The Prince and Cinderella share far more than simply seeing each other at the ball, drawing closer as they discover they have a surprising amount in common. Meanwhile, the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård) emerges as more of a villain than the Stepmother, who is almost as much a victim as Cinderella. Nor is Cinderella passive and simpering, guided as she is by the principles of courage and kindness. Even at her lowest ebb, she offers forgiveness and generosity at every turn and, similarly, the film’s sweeping joy is its own form of magic, enrapturing the viewer with gorgeous production design, ravishing costumes, a splendid score and fluid editing and cinematography. Only the stoniest of hearts could fail to be bewitched by Cinderella, a reminder of the romance and hope that fairy tales and movies alike can inspire.

Insurgent

Insurgent

Insurgent posed high expectations because I enjoyed Divergent very much, finding the dystopia as metaphor for teenage isolation compelling and effective. Unfortunately, Insurgent falls apart in its expansion of the central premise into a wider society facing a growing insurrection. Inevitable comparisons with The Hunger Games highlight the problems with the Divergent series. In The Hunger Games, the titular games are only a part of the wider oppressive society, and through them the narrative moves into a broader tale of rebellion. In the Divergent series, the conceit of a faction society based on personality types (Dauntless, Erudite, Candour, Amity, Abnegation) sustains a single film that is concerned with one young woman finding her place in the world, but proves too flimsy for a second film with a broader tale of rebellion. Shailene Woodley remains a very engaging screen presence and the presence of Kate Winslet, Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer in non-gender specific roles, make the film interesting from a gender perspective. But in spite of some competent action sequences, Insurgent lacks enough dramatic material to sustain its running length.

Big Hero 6

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Due to various pressures, my recent posting has not been as frequent as it was previously, for which I apologise to anyone who noticed. But that doesn’t mean I’ve been shirking in my viewing, so here is my review of Disney’s winner of the Best Animated Feature Oscar, Big Hero 6. I went into Big Hero 6 with both high expectations and trepidation. Any film that receives high praise from critics, audiences and the Academy has a lot to live up to, and I was sceptical that BH6 would satisfy me. I am delighted to report that not only did the film succeed in living up to expectations but it surpassed them, providing laughs, thrills, lumps in the throat and punch-the-air delight in equal measure. Boasting some dazzling animation and the most adorable movie robot since Wall-E, Big Hero 6 demonstrates once again that Disney Animation knows its stuff and continues to push the envelope it helped develop many years ago. 2015 is proving to be the Year of the Robot, with Big Hero 6 joining Chappie and Ex Machina, while Avengers: Age of Ultron and Terminator Genesys are forthcoming. Thus far, the robots are reigning rather respectably.

Still Alice

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It is somewhat surprising that the only awards Still Alice has attracted are for Best Actress. Julianne Moore won the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, the Screen Actors Guild and her long-overdue Oscar for her performance as Dr Alice Howland, a linguistics professor who develops Early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Moore’s awards are well-deserved, but it is a disservice to the film to only credit her, as Still Alice is a deeply moving portrayal of a life ravaged by disease. Nominations for Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing and even Directing or Picture would not have been amiss. Indeed, in many ways it is more impressive than a more-lauded film (at least in terms of nominations) of the recent awards season, The Theory of Everything.

87th Annual Academy Awards - Press Room

Cynically, one could argue that The Theory of Everything attracted greater attention because it focuses on a man dealing with a debilitating condition rather than a woman. Equally cynically although less accusingly, perhaps The Theory of Everything got more attention because its subject is a real person, whereas Still Alice is a fictional story adapted from the novel by Lisa Genova. Regardless of the reasons of the award-givers (which need to be considered in context), for my money Still Alice avoids the problems that I identified in The Theory of Everything. Not least among these is the attention to academia, as the scientific discoveries of Stephen Hawking are little more than background in The Theory of Everything. In Still Alice, the academic environment adds to the sense of loss, as Alice’s deteriorating mind is something she previously developed and which has helped to define her. What do we become when we lose crucial parts of our identity? This is one of the questions that Still Alice explores in detail.

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What is most impressive about the film is writer-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland cinematic rendering of the protagonist’s experience. Early in the film, there is a wonderful sequence where Alice goes running and suddenly becomes disorientated. The image loses focus, expressing her confusion and fear, while the camera pans around her so that we also feel disorientated. Later, Alice becomes lost in her own home, the camera remaining with her as she searches in vain for the bathroom she not only knows must be there, but that she knows she should remember. Sequences like this run the risk of being simplistic or even cruel, but Glatzer and Westmoreland avoid this pitfall by never slipping into mawkishness. Nor are there moments of histrionic melodrama, as restraint is a great strength throughout the film. It is telling that the most moving scene (for me at least) is not one of the more flashy sequences but when Alice delivers a speech to an Alzheimer’s support organisation. For much of this scene, the camera rests on her face, Alice’s brittle voice simultaneously expressing her fear and her resolve. This expression continues throughout the film, ensuring that we are not alienated from Alice’s struggle. The film is a bold and affecting portrayal of a life falling apart, all the more heartbreaking because we are there every step of the way.

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Jupiter Ascending

 

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The latest sci-fi spectacular from the Wachowskis is one of the few original blockbusters of recent years. It has a troubled history, having been pushed back from its original release date of July 2014 to the studios’ dumping ground of the following February. It is an overblown smorgasbord of plots and plotting, dazzling spaceships and alien technology, weird creatures both humanoid and otherwise, high camp performances and heady themes about one’s place in the universe, duty and loyalty, consumerist greed, immigrant status and gender relations. It combines elements of Star Wars, Stargate, Flash Gordon, The Fifth Element, Soylent Green, Brazil (complete with a cameo from Terry Gilliam) and probably others, yet manages to maintain a distinct identity of its own. It is narratively unwieldy, conceptually confused and rather a lot of fun.

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Overall, Jupiter Ascending is a case of more being less. The film would have benefitted from being more streamlined and having a less complex fictional world, as this would reduce the need for lengthy exposition and plot-necessary kidnappings. Equally, it could have been an hour longer, allowing more time to display and explore the power structures and political infrastructure. And it would have been fascinating as the first instalment of a franchise, focused on a specific event that would have wider ramifications. The film’s financial failure makes this extremely unlikely (although never say never, this is Hollywood after all), but Jupiter Ascending remains an entertaining and remarkable noble failure.

Predictions and Preferences: Perspective on Oscar Nominations Part Three

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The sharp-eyed among you, and possibly the impatient, may have noticed that my previous posts on the Oscars neglected to give any verdict on the actual nominees for this year’s Academy Awards. Now that I’ve actually seen more of them, that will be rectified, just in time too. What I am NOT going to do, however, is declare that I know better than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and that they should obviously have nominated Pride over American Sniper, or that Michael Keaton should win because he is clearly so much better than Eddie Redmayne, and that if Julianne Moore doesn’t win it will be a travesty, etc. I hate it when individuals insist that their own singular opinions are more valid than the democratically voted Academy nominees and winners. You may disagree with the results of these votes, but that does not make you right, better or superior. I therefore offer my prediction of what I believe will win and what I would vote for if I were a member of AMPAS. If I have not seen enough of the nominees, I offer no opinion.

Picture

best-pic_3166072kAmerican Sniper

Birdman

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Selma

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

Based purely on content, the films most likely to win Best Picture are The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. The former is a true story about an important figure of the twentieth century, largely set during World War II. The latter is a true story about an important figure of the twentieth century who overcame great adversity. The adversity is significant here – The Theory of Everything presents Stephen Hawking’s story as one of triumph and the power of love, whereas The Imitation Game balances triumph with tragedy, as Alan Turing may have cracked the Enigma Code but submitted to chemical castration before committing suicide (according to the film). It is a sad fact that the Academy’s conservatism is likely to block The Imitation Game from Best Picture, as it is a film focused upon a homosexual. While such films have previously been nominated, such as Brokeback Mountain, Capote (both 2005) and The Kids are All Right (2010), they are yet to win Best Picture.

American Sniper shares elements with 2009’s Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker with its attention to the minutiae of combat, and has the added bonus of being a true story. Selma is also a true story, about major events in American history and one of the most significant activists of the 20th century. Both these films have generated controversy, American Sniper for its (according to some) pro-war presentation of the Iraq conflict and Selma for the Academy’s failure to nominate Ava DuVernay for Best Director or David Oyelowo for Best Actor. The Academy rarely rewards controversial films, and it is a sad truth that “black” films are also seldom rewarded, 12 Years A Slave being the first “black film” to win Best Picture.

Of the fictional tales, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a long shot as comedies very rarely win; Whiplash speaks to an artistic sensibility that chimes with the Academy’s love for triumphing over adversity. The admiration for Richard Linklater’s twelve-year labour of love has continued since the Golden Globes and shows no signs of abating. While I was more impressed by Birdman’s visually thrilling attack on contemporary culture, I predict that the Academy will go for the American charm that Boyhood valorises.

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Predicted winner: Boyhood

Preferred winner: Birdman

Director

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman

Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

Richard Linklater’s extraordinary commitment to Boyhood’s twelve-year production is reason enough for the Academy to reward him. Furthermore, he is a well-established and respected figure in Hollywood (and apparently Ethan Hawke’s best mate) whose films have captivated many over the years. It seems to be his time. However, Alejandro González Iñárritu picked up the Directors’ Guild of America award, which is frequently followed by the Oscar, so it is a very close race. I preferred Iñárritu’s swift, relentless and visceral direction of Birdman, which is a sharp contrast to Linklater’s more fluid, blink-and-you’ll-miss-that-we’ve-jumped-forward-three-years approach. I still think Linklater will win, but I would be over the moon if this award went to Iñárritu.

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Predicted winner: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Preferred winner: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman

Actor

Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

Michael Keaton, Birdman

Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Physical transformation and playing a historical figure are what the Academy love, and Eddie Redmayne has already picked up multiple awards. While the Academy also loves a comeback like that of Michael Keaton, such performances don’t always win (see John Travolta for Pulp Fiction and Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler). I would love Keaton to win, not least because he is never likely to do a better performance, but I think it unlikely.

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Predicted winner: Eddie Redmayne

Preferred winner: Michael Keaton

Actress

Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night

Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

Reese Witherspoon, Wild

I have only seen two of these nominees, Rosamund Pike and Felicity Jones. I enjoyed both films and consider Jones to be the best thing in The Theory of Everything, but of the two I would pick Pike. However, it looks like this will be the year of five-time nominee Julianne Moore. I wish her well, and look forward to seeing Still Alice.

NExfzWhlijhrAB_1_bPredicted winner: Julianne Moore

Supporting Actor

Robert Duvall, The Judge

Ethan Hawke, Boyhood

Edward Norton, Birdman

Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher

J. K. Simmons, Whiplash

Aside from Robert Duvall, I have seen all of these and they are a great bunch (film fans in search of great acting should check out Best Supporting Actor nominees). J K. Simmons has picked up all the awards so far, and will almost certainly pick up the Oscar too. While I was less than enamoured with Whiplash as a whole, I have no problem with his performance.

Whiplash-Jk-Simmons-14Predicted and preferred winner: J. K. Simmons

Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Laura Dern, Wild

Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game

Emma Stone, Birdman

Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

I was impressed by Patricia Arquette, Keira Knightley and Emma Stone, and am somewhat bemused that Meryl Streep has yet another nomination to add to her collection (I have seen neither Into the Woods nor Wild). As Arquette has won everything so far, there is no reason to suspect she will not continue. And I pick her too, not least because she reminds me of my own mother.

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Predicted and preferred winner: Patricia Arquette

Best Original Screenplay

Birdman

Boyhood

Foxcatcher

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Nightcrawler

I’ve seen all of these other than Nightcrawler, and with Writers Guild Awards as well as a BAFTA, the witty and wacky script of The Grand Budapest Hotel is a safe bet. But as in the Best Picture category, I prefer the scathing, mad energy of Birdman.

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Predicted winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Preferred winner: Birdman

Best Adapted Screenplay

American Sniper

The Imitation Game

Inherent Vice

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

A mixed bag here, one based on a novel, three on biographies and one on a short film. The battle here is between the Writers’ Guild Award winner The Imitation Game and the BAFTA-winning The Theory of Everything. I like both films and it could go either way, but on the night I believe the Academy will follow the practice of the guild. I’m OK with that.

THE IMITATION GAMEPredicted and preferred winner: The Imitation Game

Animated Feature Film

Big Hero 6

The Boxtrolls

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Song of the Sea

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

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Predicted winner: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (the only nominee I’ve seen as well)

Foreign Language Film

Ida

Leviathan

Tangerines

Timbuktu

Wild Tales

Predicted winner: Leviathan (complete guess)

Documentary, Feature

Citizenfour

Finding Vivian Maier

Last Days in Vietnam

The Salt of the Earth

Virunga

What will win: Virunga (not seen any, so a complete guess)

Original Score

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Interstellar

Mr. Turner

The Theory of Everything

I’ve seen all of these but confess I barely remember the scores from all but one, and as a huge fan of Hans Zimmer in general and his score for Interstellar especially, I would like him to win. But Alexandre Desplat is receiving his seventh and eighth nominations simultaneously, and I think it is his time. For which film? Since Desplat picked up the BAFTA for The Grand Budapest Hotel, this seems likely. But then again, Jóhann Jóhannsson won the Golden Globe for his score for The Theory of Everything, so this race has a far from obvious winner.

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Predicted winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Preferred winner: Interstellar

Film Editing

American Sniper

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Whiplash

There’s a simple reason Birdman will not win Best Picture, which is that it is not nominated for Editing. Historically speaking, Editing and Picture frequently go together, at least in terms of nominations. If Best Director and Original Screenplay were certain to go to Boyhood, I would predict differently. But as Birdman could pick up Director and The Grand Budapest Hotel is more likely for Screenplay, as a Best Picture winner Boyhood will also pick up Editing. That said, I found the more intricate cutting of The Imitation Game to be more involving and absorbing.

Predicted winner: Boyhood

Preferred winner: The Imitation Game

Visual Effects

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Guardians of the Galaxy

Interstellar

X-Men: Days of Future Past

What could be known as the blockbuster award, this is the one bone that is regularly thrown to the box office champions, where artists and technicians make wildly popular cinematic marvels, for films that are consistently ignored for other awards. I imagine Interstellar’s spacescapes will be rewarded here, but personally I was even more taken by the extraordinary performance capture and digital rendering of ape armies.

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Predicted winner: Interstellar

Preferred winner: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Sound Editing

American Sniper

Birdman

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Interstellar

Unbroken

War films typically make great use of sound, and American Sniper is no exception. But the brilliant interchanges of sound and silence in Interstellar might just snag it, if I have my way.

Predicted winner: American Sniper

Preferred winner: Interstellar

Sound Mixing

American Sniper

Birdman

Interstellar

Unbroken

Whiplash

Again, I was captivated by the sound of Interstellar, but I cannot help but be impressed by Whiplash’s soundscape of music, voices and more indistinct noises.

Predicted winner: Whiplash

Preferred winner: Interstellar

Production Design

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Interstellar

Into the Woods

Mr. Turner

The Grand Budapest Hotel is an exquisitely designed film and it seems unlikely that the Academy members will ignore this.

Predicted and preferred winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Cinematography

Birdman

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ida

Mr. Turner

Unbroken

An astonishing level of artistic and technical brilliance is performed by Emmanuel Lubezki in Birdman, making this award a sure thing.

birdman-still-bafta-nominations-michaelkeaton-edwardnortonPredicted and preferred winner: Birdman

Makeup and Hairstyling

Foxcatcher

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Guardians of the Galaxy

The makeup and hairstyling of The Grand Budapest Hotel is a work of art in itself, and is exactly the type of work that tends to win this award.

Predicted and preferred winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Costume Design

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Inherent Vice

Into the Woods

Maleficent

Mr. Turner

Much the same as Makeup and Hairstyling.

Predicted and preferred winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

 

In the other categories, I do not know enough to guess.

Documentary – Short Subject

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1

Joanna

Our Curse

The Reaper (La Parka)

White Earth

No idea.

Live Action Short Film

Aya

Boogaloo and Graham

Butter Lamp (La Lampe au beurre de yak)

Parvaneh

The Phone Call

No idea.

Animated Short Film

The Bigger Picture

The Dam Keeper

Feast

Me and My Moulton

A Single Life

No idea.

Original Song

“Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie

“Glory” from Selma

“Grateful” from Beyond the Lights

“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me

“Lost Stars” from Begin Again

No idea.

Check back soon for my reactions to the winners and the show as a whole! I predict it will be legen – wait for it – DARY!

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