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War For The Planet Of The Apes

 

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For most of its running time, Matt Reeves’ new entry in the remarkably durable simian franchise is that finest of blockbusters, combining a grand and at times awe-inspiring sweep with a fine eye for detail. An electrifying early sequence tracks soldiers moving through dense undergrowth, while supertext informs the viewer of the previous Rise and Dawn, before the scene erupts into furious and harrowing combat. This macro and micro scale continues throughout the film, as Reeves leaves the viewer in no doubt that this is a war both for the planet and for souls. Key to understanding these inner and outer wars is the phenomenal performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar, his journey echoing that of many a war film protagonist. Serkis’ performance is enhanced by the extraordinary visual effects that suggest you could plunge your hands into the thick fur of Maurice (Karin Konoval), Caesar’s most trusted friend and at some points his conscience. Equally impressive without digital make-up is Woody Harrelson as the terrifying Colonel who commands the military force against the apes, a chilling combination of Apocalypse Now‘s Kilgore and Kurtz who will stop at nothing to achieve his fanatical purpose. The movie echoes Vietnam war films in other ways such as the guerrilla/gorilla tactics of both sides, shifting loyalties and the steady loss of empathy and humanity among humans and apes alike. Indeed, some sequences echo Holocaust dramas, including a seemingly direct nod to Schindler’s List. Some of the echoes are effective but others too on the nose, while the final act is overly drawn out and there is unnecessary comic relief in the character of Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). The film is at its finest when it is unrelentingly grim, DOP Michael Seresin presenting the horrors and suffering of war with a cold, stark beauty. While Reeves carefully elides outright gore, there is no doubt that many characters are killed and just as many suffer agonies both physical and mental, including an early moment that is quite heartbreaking. Yet WFTPOTA also offers moments of great tenderness and compassion, its most moving moments when Reeves uses a subjective camera that has characters staring directly at the audience. It may be a cliché to present eyes as the window to the soul, but nonetheless a great deal is communicated through these bright eyes that convey the soulful struggle and hard fought war for this planet.

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The Zookeeper’s Wife

The-Zookeeper-s-Wife-film

Humanity’s inhumanity is a common feature across many cinematic genres, often contrasted with compassion and sympathy. The Zookeeper’s Wife joins the sub-genre of Holocaust dramas, at times feeling like an odd combination of Schindler’s List and the first act of Life of Pi. Antonina Zabinska (Jessica Chastain) is the eponymous spouse of Dr Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), curators of the Warsaw Zoo before and during the Nazi occupation of Poland, who hide Jews in the zoo’s facilities. The early scenes of the film are the most effective, as director Niki Caro presents the zoo as an idyllic setting and Antonina as an ideal maternal figure both to humans and animals. A bombing sequence is presented from the perspective of the zoo animals: tigers, camels and zebras (among others) panicking and escaping, before being shot by soldiers in genuinely distressing moments. Unfortunately, the film fails to draw effective parallels between cruelty to humans and animals, perhaps limited by the true events upon which the source novel by Diane Ackerman is based. The subsequent concealment of Jews and the network of resistance allows for some tense moments, but antagonist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) is too peripheral to be more than occasionally menacing. The final act of the film also drags and, while there are moving moments such as Antonina comforting a victimised girl with a rabbit, the end result is uneven. The story is remarkable and much of the film is handsomely mounted, but Caro’s handling of it is ultimately unsatisfying.

Some Kind of Film: Perspective on Oscar Nominations Part Two

oscars

Continuing my response to the response to Oscar nominations, it is worth noting that there are certain types of film that are consistently honoured by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This type is determined more by content than anything else. I have seen the accusation that the Academy is more interested in rewarding financial than artistic success. In the case of the current crop of nominees, this is patently nonsense, as the eight films nominated for Best Picture are the lowest earning group of nominees in recent years. The combined box office gross of the eight Best Picture nominees came to $203.1 million before the announcement of the nominees, and there is little time before the ceremony for this to increase significantly (although American Sniper is doing very well). Furthermore, look at the earnings of other films, including nominees in other categories. In an act of remarkable brashness, Paramount submitted one of the year’s highest earners, Transformers: Age of Extinction, for consideration as Best Picture. Shockingly, it was not nominated in that category or indeed any other, but the five films nominated for Best Visual Effects (the category Transformers: Age of Extinction had a chance in) have a combined box office gross of $3.6 billion worldwide. So to say that AMPAS only rewards box office winners is simply untrue.

transformers2

It is typical that the Academy Award for Visual Effects goes to commercially successful films, often along with other post-production categories such as Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. What irritates me about this is the perpetuation of the art/entertainment divide – movies make money and might win an award for their effects; films are “art” and win awards for being “artistic”. It is an utterly nonsensical division that I love to see occasionally challenged, such as when genre films like Avatar (2009) and Inception (2010) are nominated for Best Picture (unsurprisingly, neither won that award although both won Best Visual Effects, as well as Cinematography). There are exceptions that straddle the divide, earn vast box office receipts and pick up multiple awards as well, but these are few and far between. The best example is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), a fantasy blockbuster that won all eleven Oscars for which it was nominated. Although they did not win, other unusual nominees include The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), as well as Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), the occasional animated film such as Toy Story (2010), Up (2009) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), and especially Gravity (2013).

Gravity

Gravity

An interesting comparison can be made between Gravity, which won seven Oscars including Best Director, and Titanic (1997), which tied the record of eleven awards set by Ben-Hur (1959) (a feat later achieved by The Return of the King). Both Gravity and Titanic were commercially successful, and both are disaster movies with very high production values. Yet Titanic was more honoured than Gravity, picking up Best Picture whereas Gravity lost out to 12 Years A Slave. The common factor between 12 Years A Slave and Titanic is the factor that the Academy consistently rewards – history.

Look over these Best Picture winners of the last three decades:

2013 – 12 Years A Slave

2012 – Argo

2011 – The Artist

2010 – The King’s Speech

2009 – The Hurt Locker

2008 – Slumdog Millionaire

2007 – No Country for Old Men

2006 – The Departed

2005 – Crash

2004 – Million Dollar Baby

2003 – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

2002 – Chicago

2001 – A Beautiful Mind

2000 – Gladiator

1999 – American Beauty

1998 – Shakespeare in Love

1997 – Titanic

1996 – The English Patient

1995 – Braveheart

1994 – Forrest Gump

1993 – Schindler’s List

1992 – Unforgiven

1991 – The Silence of the Lambs

1990 – Dances With Wolves

1989 – Driving Miss Daisy

1988 – Rain Man

1987 – The Last Emperor

1986 – Platoon

1985 – Out of Africa

1984 – Amadeus

Only eight (26.6%) of these thirty Best Picture winners have a setting contemporary to the time of their release, whereas twenty-one (70%) have a historical setting, ranging from 18th century Vienna to ancient Rome, 13th century Scotland to various points in the 20th century. Many of the films feature significant historical events, including World War II (four), Vietnam (three), the Middle East (two) and the US Civil Rights Movement (the anomaly is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Ten of these films (33.3%) are based on specific historical events or people, making them “true” stories.

The Academy consistently rewards the depiction of history, both in terms of period setting and significant events. Unsuccessful nominees have the same features – Saving Private Ryan, L. A. Confidential, Quiz Show, The Cider House Rules, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning – demonstrating that a significant proportion of nominees depict historical subjects. One can interpret this historical dimension as adding (in the minds of some) an element of gravitas, a quality that makes the film seem “important”. If we accept that AMPAS is an institution devoted to the development, promotion and cultural significance of motion pictures, then it follows that this institution would reward films that make the effort to engage with significant socio-cultural concerns and events. “History” can be considered a short-hand for this, the Academy honouring films that depict “history” because this subject matter is worthy of reward. Equally, it is rare for a contemporary-set thriller to win Best Picture (only The Silence of the Lambs and The Departed in the last 30 years – Argo and No Country for Old Men have thriller narratives, but both are historical and the former is based on a true story) and unheard of for a science fiction film to win. Gravity came closest and I had hopes for Interstellar this year, but no such luck for Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic. Surprise, surprise though, Interstellar is nominated for Visual Effects.

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This goes back to the art/entertainment divide, a form of cultural elitism that goes far beyond the Academy Awards. The Booker Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for literature rarely (if ever) go to science fiction, fantasy or thriller novels, and there remains the nonsensical view that literature and theatre are “art” and therefore somehow superior to cinema which is “only entertainment”. Interestingly, one of this year’s nominees, Birdman, engages with this elitism through its portrayal of a former movie star struggling for credibility in the face of immense cultural prejudice, including a scene where a theatre critic lambasts the entire practice of Hollywood cinema for being too commercial and giving awards for “cartoons and pornography”. The great irony of AMPAS is that it perpetuates this bizarre double standard within its own medium, for the most part ignoring genre films and those with a contemporary or (God forbid) future setting and consistently rewarding historical dramas of “importance”.

Birdman

Birdman

While I am frustrated by this practice of AMPAS, it would be unfair to entirely blame AMPAS, because the cultural attitudes at work here go far beyond a single institution. But I will blame the Academy members for their general conservatism and reluctance to honour films that differ from the typical pattern. Nominees like Gravity and Avatar, and the extraordinary success of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, are especially gratifying because films like these develop the cinematic medium, creating fantasy worlds and taking audiences to new and exciting places. The challenges and innovations of these films are often expensive and the only way they can pay for themselves is through commercial success, therefore by honouring such films the Academy honours and encourages the development and continuance of cinema itself. That is what I would like to see more of in the future, though I am not optimistic as year on year the Academy instead rewards subject matter rather than innovation, perpetuating an unnecessary cultural elitism.

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“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” Oscar night.

Unexpected Item in Reaction Area Three – Captain Phillips

SPOILERS

I recently posed about Rush, which has a director I like and a genre I don’t, which was a delight, and Prisoners, which belongs to a genre I like, has a director I’d never heard of, and was disappointing. In the case of Captain Phillips, I love the genre as, like Prisoners, it is a thriller, and Paul Greengrass is one of my top ten directors. Captain Phillips exceeded my expectations and is one of my top films of 2013, as it is an incredibly gripping, highly intelligent, well balanced and merciless thriller.

Phillips Poster

Captain Phillips works because all its components support each other perfectly. Tom Hanks as the eponymous captain and Barkhad Abdi as his antagonist Abduwali Muse, leader of the Somali hijackers of the Maersk Alabama, deliver powerhouse performances that I hope will be remembered come awards season. Billy Ray’s script combines compelling personal drama with wider themes of globalisation and the poverty gap, while Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography is tight and intimate to the point of claustrophobia. Greengrass orchestrates these myriad elements into a visceral and enthralling experience, drawing the viewer into the action and allowing us to feel the resolve and hunger of the pirates as well as the desperate fear of the Alabama crew. My hands gripped the arms of my seats all the way through and, while I did not feel queasy, I can understand that some might as the sense of being aboard ship was palatable. One critic said that after seeing the film he wanted a stiff drink – I wanted to lie down.

Strong reactions to films are something I like very much, especially uncomfortable reactions. A major reason we go to the cinema is to have safe thrills – while the sense of danger and exhilaration can be created by the right cinematic experience, we are very seldom in actual danger (accounts of heart attacks and vomiting at The Exorcist, Jaws and Alien notwithstanding). The main reason Prisoners disappointed me was that it did not leave me devastated, while Rush was thoroughly exhilarating. Zero Dark Thirty and Gravity are two films that have left me shaken and stirred this year, and Captain Phillips did the same. But what made Captain Phillips unique, not just for this year but in my entire cinema-going experience (which is extensive), is that I cried. No film had ever before prompted me to shed tears, and this got me thinking about what gets our tear ducts working. 

Weep

 

Lists of tear-jerkers tend to include Casablanca, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Bambi, Dumbo, Old Yeller and It’s A Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s Christmas classic did bring me very close to tears when I finally saw it (at Christmas, obviously), and there are others that cause me to well up such as The Lion King, Twelve Monkeys, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby and, despite repeat viewings, Titanic (mock me all you want, I don’t care). All of these made me well up, so I could feel the tears in my eyes, but they would not flow, would not burst out of my eyes and reduce me to a blubbering wreck. In fairness, I hardly ever cry anyway, not because I’m a super tough macho man (though I am, please don’t hurt me!), but for some unknown reason, tears very rarely flow from me. I often wish they would, but when I feel tears in my eyes, I start willing them to flow, which takes me out of the tear-inducing situation and the damn things dry up.

The way my reaction works highlights the mechanics of tear-jerking cinema. Most reactions to cinema are a result of manipulation, because that is what film does. Anyone who does not like to be manipulated should avoid film, because film manipulates all the time, sometimes in such a way as to make you cry – recently I saw tears at Saving Mr Banks. Steven Spielberg’s films are frequent tear-jerkers, including E.T., Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and Spielberg has openly admitted that his films are manipulative. Schindler’s List, War Horse and, perhaps less obviously, Munich all caused me to well up, because they poured on the agony. Watching a man break under the emotion of what he has failed to do, a horse lie down and die, or a man who has committed terrible acts listen to the innocence embodied in his baby – these are scenes that Spielberg, with help from John Williams, draws out to inflict maximum anguish on the viewer. But once I feel effect of the manipulation, I try to encourage it, which takes me out of the moment and I don’t cry. 

Tom Hanks

This was not the case with Captain Phillips, crucially because the tears I shed were not solely out of anguish, as most weepy scenes are, but also sheer exhaustion. From the point where the hijackers take over the Alabama, there is no let up as they scour the ship, the crew fight back, Phillips is taken hostage, the US navy enters negotiations and eventually stages a rescue. Prior to the rescue, Phillips is brought to the limits of human endurance as the hijackers tie him up and blindfold him, all the while yelling at him and each other. The cacophony, the intensity and the empathy I felt for Phillips were what caused the tears to flow, and they continued in the aftermath when Phillips was brought aboard the USS Bainbridge and treated for shock – I cried out of relief and exhaustion as much as anything else. I have often considered Tom Hanks a rather bland actor, but no longer, as the anguish, rage, frustration, fear and desperation that he displayed in the film’s final act took me into Phillips’ dire position. When he was being treated for shock after being rescued, repeatedly thanking the naval officers, the sense of relief was palatable and deeply moving. I’m not always one to engage with characters, but on this occasion I felt very engaged indeed, possibly needed treatment for shock myself. Like Zero Dark Thirty and Gravity, Captain Phillips left me shaken and stirred, and also moved. I would not have expected a Paul Greengrass film to make me cry, so it was a very rewarding cinema experience. I tend to credit directors for making a film work, and Greengrass is great for delivering visceral, intense work, but hats off to all involved, especially Hanks for performing the most heartbreaking anguish I have seen in a long time.

Captain Phillips trailer launch - video

Top Ten Directors – Part One

If you’ve been reading my blog regularly (ha ha), you may have noticed a pattern emerging: I am an auteurist. I believe in the theory that you can interpret films, and credit their strengths and weaknesses, to the individual(s) credited as ‘director’. It is a highly problematic critical approach, as it sidelines other creative personal such as producers, writers, actors, editors, cinematographers, set designers, and the army of personnel responsible for putting a film together. Industrially, it doesn’t really work. Critically, it provides a useful reading strategy for linking different films together, and even a cursory examination of the films directed by [insert name here] are likely to reveal similarities.

To this end, I’ll be writing a series of posts that discuss my ten favourite directors, and particular films of theirs. I won’t necessarily describe their ‘best’ films, because neither I, nor anyone, is qualified to say what is or is not better than others (although that doesn’t tend to stop people). I will describe my personal favourites of their oeuvre, and also what I think are the best introductions to their work. By introduction, I mean that if you wanted to show someone, perhaps with very limited exposure to cinema, a film that best expressed the work of this particular filmmaker, what would it be?

Spielberg

 

As a starter, I discuss possibly the most accomplished filmmaker there has ever been – Steven Spielberg. I know, I know, the epitome of mainstream Hollywood, very middle-of-the-road, safe, conservative, blockbuster, lowest-common denominator, etc., etc. I disagree, to an extent. Spielberg has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to deliver emotionally and intellectually engaging cinema across a range of genres, working with different writers and actors, always delivering distinctive films within the parameters of commercial Hollywood production. Spielberg is a master manipulator, which is a loaded and problematic term, but need not be seen as negative. Cinema is intrinsically manipulative, and the most effective filmmakers are those who are most skilled at manipulating their viewers. Spielberg is not only a master at this, but open and unashamed about it. If you don’t want to be manipulated, don’t go to the cinema.

Examples of Spielberg’s powers of manipulation pepper his films. The concealment of the shark in Jaws, represented by underwater POV shots, the scream of victims and the eternally ominous score, create a sense of malevolence. The approach of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, such as the concentric ripples in cups of water and the steady stalking of the velociraptors, create nerve-shredding suspense. The precise balance over how much to show in Schindler’s List, some scenes capturing the sheer brutality of the Nazis with unflinching starkness, while others cut away but leave the viewer in no doubt about what took place. The steady passage through the eponymous Terminal, as our protagonist learns of the political shifts in his country on various TVs, literally chasing the changing channels for more information, draws the viewer into his anguish. And, of course, the carefully developed relationship between a little boy and a walking turd from outer space, which has been drawing tears out of viewers for thirty years and is likely to continue. While young Henry Thomas can certainly claim some credit, Spielberg’s careful timing and focus on the details of this relationship give E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial its glowing heart. The film charms and moves in equal measure, such as when Eliot is taken away from the dying E.T. who reaches out and calls to him with heart-wrenching anguish.

ET

E.T. is the best introduction to Spielberg’s oeuvre. It captures the sentiment and emotion, the pain and heartbreak, the humour and humanity of his cinema. It demonstrates Spielberg’s unparalleled ability to capture exquisite moments on camera and assemble them into compelling and dramatic wholes. But I’m a more bloodthirsty individual so it isn’t my favourite. No, I’m not referring to the bloody hell of warfare in Saving Private Ryan or the incredible cruelty of Schindler’s List, nor even the body-chomping of Jaws or the human puree of War of the Worlds. My favourite Spielberg film is Munich.

Munich

Munich contains a great deal and suggests so much more. As a thriller, it is incredibly gripping and psychologically disturbing, partly because Spielberg can deliver suspenseful sequences as good as anyone, and also because it shows the banality and horror of intimate murder. The Israeli athletes are attacked with discordant, bloody clumsiness. An unarmed, naked woman is shot in cold blood and dies slowly and painfully. An attack on a Palestinian safe house by Mossad forces veers between vaguely comical identification and merciless execution. It is an unflinching look at death and killing that pulls no punches, making it more compelling and shocking, in my view, than Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

Politically, Munich has been described as Zionist and as an overly sympathetic view of Palestinian terrorism, but neither of these accusations are fair. Munich presents an extremely balanced view of the conflict, for some viewers, so balanced that the drama is undermined. Perhaps taking a more definite stance might have delivered something more forceful. But I think the balance is key to the drama, because seeing the perspective of the Mossad agents and, in one bravura exchange between Avner (Eric Bana) and Ali (Omar Metwally), that of Palestinians, adds to the film’s impact. We see how the perspectives affect the people on the frontlines of this never-ending escalation of violence, a point underlined in the film’s final, chilling image of the World Trade Center, emphasising the escalation and wide-ranging impact of this conflict.

The film also works as an investigation into the philosophy of revenge. Is revenge justifiable, in any sense? How far do notions of humanity extend when they conflict with political expediency? The Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), expresses an extremely problematic position when she says ‘Every civilisation finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values’. These ‘compromises’ also operate on an individual basis, as the Mossad agents question the validity of what they do and the impact of their mission takes its toll. It takes a toll on the viewer as well, as the film’s unflinching focus on the ugliness of the mission, combined with a sense of hopelessness and a lack of triumph (for all the protestations of ‘celebrating’ from Steve [Daniel Craig]), can leave one drained and exhausted by the time the credits roll.

I would describe my experience of seeing Munich for the first time as traumatising, and on repeat viewings, it remains a very powerful and unsettling watch. One of Spielberg’s least appreciated films, but my favourite and one of his best.

Avner

Awards Predictions Part Five: And the Oscars Will Go To…

85 Oscars

I always get annoyed at this time of year, as everyone, their cat and the cat’s veterinarian insists that they know better than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  The Academy consists of filmmakers, writers, producers, directors, actors, cinematographers, editors, make-up artists, production designers, sound engineers, visual effects artists and so on, yet any random blogger or Facebook poster somehow knows better than they do.  The Academy members have opinions like the rest of us, and are possibly better informed about what counts as “good” cinematography, editing or sound mixing than lay people.  But if they do not, I hardly think my opinion or that of any one else is superior to that of AMPAS.  The awards presented are based on the opinions of the voters, so they are only opinions like any other.  You may disagree, which is fine, but that doesn’t make your opinion better.  I am not so arrogant, so I offer no position on who should win, but on who I believe will win, and why.  On a similar note, here is an example of how an actual Academy member has voted.

Right, rant over.  The critics awards, the Golden Globes, the PGA, the DGA, the BAFTAs and the WGA have come and gone.  On 24th February the 85th Annual Academy Awards take place, so it’s time to get predictions in.  The votes have all been cast so the decisions are made, and results kept under security comparable to that of nuclear missile launch codes.  The presentation of other awards can indicate the way the Oscars will go, so here are my predictions for the 85th Annual Academy Awards.

Picture

Amour: Margaret Ménégoz, Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, Michael Katz

Argo: Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, George Clooney

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Dan Janvey, Josh Penn, Michael Gottwald

Django Unchained: Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin, Pilar Savone

Les Misérables: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh

Life of Pi: Gil Netter, Ang Lee, David Womark

Lincoln: Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy

Silver Linings Playbook: Donna Gigliotti, Bruce Cohen, Jonathan Gordon

Zero Dark Thirty: Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow, Megan Ellison

Prediction – Argo

A month ago I would not have believed it, but if the Oscars follow the other awards, as they usually do, Argo will be the first film to win Best Picture that is not nominated for Achievement in Directing since Driving Miss Daisy in 1989.  Based on its track record, I predict Ben Affleck, George Clooney and Grant Heslov will add to their collection this Sunday.

Of the nine nominees, I have seen seven, and they are all strong films.  Les Misérables is a fine musical, but its strengths seem to mostly derive from the music, its cinematic elements working less effectively.  Django Unchained is a strong story, firmly directed, that takes an interesting approach to screen violence, but is overlong and indulgent.  Silver Linings Playbook and Life of Pi are the lighter films though both deal with serious material.  Silver Linings Playbook presents people with mental illness in a way that is neither indulgent nor patronising, not asking for our sympathy yet generating it anyway, which is impressive.  Life of Pi is a meta-fictional bonanza with extraordinary technical accomplishments, but perhaps a little whimsical for the Academy members’ taste.  Lincoln is an impressive “important” film, that presents its worth themes as a cracking political drama.  Argo is a great comedy thriller, balancing many disparate elements and promoting international co-operation, and it’s based on a true story, which the Academy love.  Zero Dark Thirty is a fantastic thriller that had me clenched in my seat as the events unfolded, which is impressive as the end result was of course known.  Like Argo, ZDT is based on a true story, but a much darker one and the controversy around the film has likely hurt its chances.  It’s a shame that arguments other than cinematic quality influence Academy voters, but on the other hand it demonstrates social awareness, which not a bad thing.

In several ways, Argo fits the bill for a Best Picture winner – positive true story; America gets to be a hero without doing anything nasty; it’s politically correct as the film does not present the Iranian revolution nor Iranians in a negative light; and it pokes fun at Hollywood itself.  A win for Argo will prove that Hollywood does have a sense of humour about itself!

 

Achievement in Directing

Michael Haneke for Amour

Ang Lee for Life of Pi

David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook

Steven Spielberg for Lincoln

Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild

Prediction – Ang Lee

This is the hardest category to predict, because the obvious contender isn’t nominated.  Ben Affleck has won the Golden Globe, the DGA and the BAFTA, and all well deserved.  Unlike his previous directional efforts, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Affleck did not write Argo and it is not about his hometown, so Argo proves that he can handle different material and, with such a range of tones and concerns in Argo, the film is a triumph of direction.  But AMPAS have not nominated him, which means the field is fairly open.  Not completely, however.  Michael Haneke is a long shot, especially as Amour is very likely to win Foreign Language Picture.  First time nominees do occasionally win, so Benh Zeitlin has a chance, but a very small one considering the weight of the other nominees.  David O’Russell has a slightly better chance, since Silver Linings Playbook is a very honoured film, the first film since Reds in 1981 to be nominated for Best Picture, Directing, Screenplay and in all four acting categories.  Furthermore, SLP has superb direction, generating pathos and bathos with excellent balance, judgement and pace.  A win for O’Russell would be well deserved.

However, I think this category comes down to the two previous winners.  Steven Spielberg won Achievement in Directing in 1993 for Schindler’s List and again in 1998 for Saving Private Ryan.  Interestingly, Saving Private Ryan, unlike Schindler’s List, did not win Best Picture.  Similarly, Lincoln is unlikely to win Best Picture, so it could be a repeat performance of 1998.  That said, Spielberg might pull an upset and pick up both a third Directing Oscar, and a Best Picture win as well.  If I had a vote, it would go to Spielberg.

However, I think it more likely that Ang Lee will win a second Oscar.  He previously won in 2005 for Brokeback Mountain, which missed out on Best Picture.  The reason I think he is likely to win over Spielberg is simply that Life of Pi is a more directed film than Lincoln.  Spielberg himself has said that he took a backseat and let his camera record the actors’ performances of Tony Kushner’s script, rather than employ the range of directorial tricks he has developed over an illustrious career.  Life of Pi, however, is a very mobile film, directed to within an inch of its life.  It uses 3D in a remarkable way, creating depth of field and utilising different planes within the frame, and this was clear to me even though I saw it in 2D.  A great assembly of visual effects, both seascape and character, combined with a meta-fictional story about storytelling, which can appeal to all ages, adds up to a film that is a remarkable achievement in directing.  Therefore, I predict that Ang Lee will pick up his second Oscar.

 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Bradley Cooper for Silver Linings Playbook

Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln

Hugh Jackman for Les Misérables

Joaquin Phoenix for The Master

Denzel Washington for Flight

Prediction – Daniel Day-Lewis

No contest really.  If Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t win this after his success at the Golden Globes, the SAG and the BAFTAs, the sound of jaws hitting the floor will drown out the applause for the surprise winner.  If there were a runner-up prize, I’d predict Hugh Jackman.  But let’s be honest, Day-Lewis has this in the bag.

 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty

Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook

Emmanuelle Riva for Amour

Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild

Naomi Watts for The Impossible

Prediction – Emmanuelle Riva

This is another tough one, as the results have been varied.  Both Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain picked up Golden Globes, but the BAFTA went to Emmanuelle Riva.  Chastain also picked up the SAG, which might give her a slight edge as most of the acting members of the Academy are also guild members.  Of the two I’ve seen, I would pick Chastain because of the steady change her character goes through over the course of Zero Dark Thirty, from brittle to steely to drained.  But age could be a factor here.  Riva is the oldest Best Actress nominee in the history of the Academy, and at the age of 85 is unlikely to be nominated again.  And it was only a few years ago that Marion Cotillard won Best Actress for Ma Vie en Rose, so being in a foreign film is no embargo either.  Furthermore, Riva is playing a character suffering from a disability, which the Academy loves (see previous winners Cotillard, Jamie Foxx, Daniel Day-Lewis, Kathy Bates, Anthony Hopkins).  I have not seen Amour, but based on age and type of performance, I predict that Riva will be the recipient of Best Actress this year.  And I certainly hope she does, as February 24th will be her 86th birthday, and there could be no greater gift than that.

 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Alan Arkin for Argo

Robert De Niro for Silver Linings Playbook

Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master

Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln

Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained

Prediction – Christoph Waltz

A two-horse race, but a very fine set of performances from some very fine actors.  Everyone here has at least one award (and De Niro has two), so who is going to add to their collection?  Based on awards already given, Tommy Lee Jones received the SAG award, while the Golden Globe and the BAFTA went to Christoph Waltz.  I predict the Academy will follow suit, and Waltz will be thanking Quentin Tarantino again come Oscar night.

 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams for The Master

Sally Field for Lincoln

Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables

Helen Hunt for The Sessions

Jacki Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook

Prediction – Anne Hathaway

Anne Hathaway has won every award available for her stunning performance in Les Misérables, and there is no reason to suspect that will change at the Oscars.  Hopefully her laryngitis will have cleared up by the time she has to make her speech.

 

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Amour, Michael Haneke

Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino

Flight, John Gatins

Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola

Zero Dark Thirty, Mark Boal

Prediction – Quentin Tarantino

A fistful of impressive screenwriters, and the only non-contender is John Gatins.  Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola have an outside chance, as do Mark Boal and Michael Haneke.  It’d be interesting for Amour to pull off some upsets, but I predict this will go to Tarantino.  Three years ago, Tarantino and Boal competed for this award, and Boal was victorious for The Hurt Locker.  This time, I think QT will get his second award, eighteen years after winning for Pulp Fiction.

 

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

Argo, Chris Terrio

Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin

Life of Pi, David Magee

Lincoln, Tony Kushner

Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell

Prediction – David O’Russell

Benh Zeitlin is doing well, having this nomination as well as various others (shared, obviously).  That said, I think he’ll have to make do with the nomination, as there are some very strong contenders in this category.  Much of Argo’s power comes from its screenplay, which details the complex events without getting bogged down in detail.  Life of Pi was touted as unfilmable, so to have made a screenplay out of it is a feat in itself.  Lincoln has attracted a lot of admiration, but of all the awards Silver Linings Playbook is up for, this is its best chance to win.  David O’Russell has already won the BAFTA, although the WGA went to Chris Terrio.  SLP has many great features, but its screenplay may be its best element, delicate yet harsh, warm and witty but filled with pain and suffering.  It seems unlikely that a film nominated in all the major categories will leave with nothing, so I predict Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, will got to David O’Russell for Silver Linings Playbook.

 

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

Brave, Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman

Frankenweenie, Tim Burton

ParaNorman, Sam Fell, Chris Butler

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, Peter Lord

Wreck-It Ralph, Rich Moore

Prediction – Brave

Pixar’s reign over animation looks set to continue, as Brave picked up the Golden Globe and the BAFTA.  I predict it will receive the Oscar as well.

 

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

Amour (Austria)

War Witch (Canada)

No (Chile)

A Royal Affair (Denmark)

Kon-Tiki (Norway)

Prediction – Amour

Anything can happen, but I expect Amour will get some amour from the Academy.

 

Best Achievement in Cinematography

Anna Karenina, Seamus McGarvey

Django Unchained, Robert Richardson

Life of Pi, Claudio Miranda

Lincoln, Janusz Kaminski

Skyfall, Roger Deakins

Prediction – Life of Pi

Roger Deakins is long overdue an Oscar, and with Skyfall he did something remarkable with digital cinematography.  But in this extremely technical category, I predict the Academy voters will reward the latest advance in 3D cinematography, Life of Pi.  3D may not be the next big thing in cinema, but it is a major development in cinematography and, like Avatar and Hugo in previous years, I anticipate this award going to the major 3D movie, Life of Pi.

 

Best Achievement in Editing

Argo, William Goldenberg

Life of Pi, Tim Squyres

Lincoln, Michael Kahn

Silver Linings Playbook, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers

Zero Dark Thirty, William Goldenberg, Dylan Tichenor

Prediction – Argo

It is a common pattern that the winner of Best Picture also wins Achievement in Editing – note all of these nominees are up for Best Picture as well.  Since Argo is the frontrunner to win Best Picture, I predict it will also win Editing.  Furthermore, much of Argo’s tension and humour is generated by its editing, so it is fitting that it should win this award.

 

Best Achievement in Production Design

Anna Karenina, Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Dan Hennah, Ra Vincent, Simon Bright

Les Misérables, Eve Stewart, Anna Lynch-Robinson

Life of Pi, David Gropman, Anna Pinnock

Lincoln, Rick Carter, Jim Erickson

Prediction – Les Misérables

Tough call, as the production design on all of these is impressive.  Period films often pick up this award, so Lincoln, Les Misérables and Anna Karenina are all possibilities.  It is hard to draw a line between visual effects and production design in Life of Pi, so that is less likely.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has a good chance, as the design of Middle Earth is breathtakingly realized.  It could go many ways, but I predict Les Misérables.

 

Best Achievement in Costume Design

Anna Karenina, Jacqueline Durran

Les Misérables, Paco Delgado

Lincoln, Joanna Johnston

Mirror Mirror: The Untold Adventures of Snow White, Eiko Ishioka

Snow White and the Huntsman, Colleen Atwood

Prediction – Anna Karenina

Another one that often goes to costume dramas, unsurprisingly.  I predict Anna Karenina.

 

Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling

Hitchcock, Howard Berger, Peter Montagna, Martin Samuel

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter King, Rick Findlater, Tami Lane

Les Misérables, Lisa Westcott, Julie Dartnell

Prediction – Les Misérables

Les Misérables pulled off the remarkable feat of making the impossibly gorgeous Anne Hathaway look ugly, so I see it attracting an award here as well.


Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

Anna Karenina, Dario Marianelli

Argo, Alexandre Desplat

Life of Pi, Mychael Danna

Lincoln, John Williams

Skyfall, Thomas Newman

Prediction – Skyfall

I so want Skyfall to win awards that I don’t care what they are.  John Williams’ score for Lincoln is masterful, but I barely remember the music of Argo or Life of Pi.  Thomas Newman has already won a BAFTA, and I predict he will win the Oscar as well.


Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

Chasing Ice, J. Ralph (“Before My Time”)

Les Misérables, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer (“Suddenly”)

Life of Pi, Mychael Danna, Bombay Jayshree (“Pi’s Lullaby”)

Skyfall, Adele, Paul Epworth (“Skyfall”)

Ted, Walter Murphy, Seth MacFarlane (“Everybody Needs a Best Friend”)

Prediction – “Skyfall”

And Original Song should be a no-brainer – Skyfall again.

 

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing

Argo, John T. Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, José Antonio García

Les Misérables, Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson, Simon Hayes

Life of Pi, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hemphill, Drew Kunin

Lincoln, Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom, Ron Judkins

Skyfall, Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell, Stuart Wilson

Prediction – Les Misérables

At the Sound Editors Golden Reel Awards, Life of Pi picked up sound editing, music in a feature film and sound editing, dialogue and ADR in a feature film.  Its chances of picking up awards on Oscar night are pretty good.  That said, Les Misérables picked up the BAFTA, and pulls off the impressive feat of balancing live-recorded singing with the other parts of the soundtrack.  Could go either way, but on the night I pick Les Miserables.

 

Best Achievement in Sound Editing

Argo, Erik Aadahl, Ethan Van der Ryn

Django Unchained, Wylie Stateman

Life of Pi, Eugene Gearty, Philip Stockton

Skyfall, Per Hallberg, Karen M. Baker

Zero Dark Thirty, Paul N.J. Ottosson

Prediction – Life of Pi

I pick Life of Pi for this award.

 

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

Avengers Assemble, Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams, Daniel Sudick

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, R. Christopher White

Life of Pi, Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik De Boer, Donald Elliott

Prometheus, Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley, Martin Hill

Snow White and the Huntsman, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Phil Brennan, Neil Corbould, Michael Dawson

Prediction – Life of Pi

Life of Pi, easily, because it uses its effects in a rich and immersive manner.  Ang Lee’s film has already won other awards for its effects, and I predict it will continue its winning ways.


Best Documentary, Feature

5 Broken Cameras, Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi

The Gatekeepers, Dror Moreh, Philippa Kowarsky, Estelle Fialon

How to Survive a Plague, David France, Howard Gertler

The Invisible War, Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering

Searching for Sugar Man, Malik Bendjelloul, Simon Chinn

Going out on a limb, because it has won some awards already, Searching for Sugar Man.

 

Best Documentary, Short Subject

Inocente, Sean Fine, Andrea Nix

Kings Point, Sari Gilman, Jedd Wider

Mondays at Racine, Cynthia Wade, Robin Honan

Open Heart, Kief Davidson, Cori Shepherd Stern

Redemption Jon Alpert, Matthew O’Neill

No idea.

 

Best Short Film, Animated

Adam and Dog, Minkyu Lee

Fresh Guacamole, PES

Head Over Heels, Timothy Reckart, Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly

Paperman, John Kahrs

The Simpsons: The Longest Daycare, David Silverman

I’d be very pleased if The Simpsons picked up an award, so I’ll speculatively predict that it will.


Best Short Film, Live Action

Asad, Bryan Buckley, Mino Jarjoura

Buzkashi Boys, Sam French, Ariel Nasr

Curfew, Shawn Christensen

Death of a Shadow, Tom Van Avermaet, Ellen De Waele

Henry, Yan England

No idea.

If I’m right, Life of Pi and Les Miserables will be the big winners this year, each potentially winning four awards.  If Ang Lee wins Directing, that will put him in the unenviable position of having won Directing twice, but neither time having his film win Best Picture.  Conceivably, upsets could be pulled and Pi might have a big sweep, collecting Adapted Screenplay and Picture as well, or I might be very wrong and Lincoln sweeps the board, collecting Supporting Actor, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Picture.  I think this unlikely, but then again, this is Hollywood, where, as we all know, nobody knows anything.

Oscars

Frightful Five No 4. “Jaws” (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

I avoided seeing this for the longest time, not out of fear, but because of the damaging representation of sharks.  Then I remembered that Jaws is a film, I know it is a fiction and I will not be turned against sharks by it.  Furthermore, me not seeing it makes no difference to anyone else’s opinion, so I did.  It was a very specific occasion – 30th December 2000, alone in my university room.  I ordered pizza, drank Smirnoff Ice (I think) and enjoyed Spielberg’s mastery of suspense and the cinematic medium.

Spielberg is, for my money, the most accomplished director working in Hollywood, if not the world, today.  Several of his films are regarded as masterpieces, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List and, of course, Jaws.  Specifically, Jaws is a masterpiece of suspense (also used to great effect in Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds), and despite having watched it multiple times, I always find my pulse quickening practically at the same tempo as John Williams’ score.  Certain scenes are especially tense: the two fishermen who get yanked into the sea and are “chased” by a large piece of driftwood; the opening attack on the swimming girl; the attack on a small boy.  Best of all is the night dive, when Hooper inspects a ruined boat underwater and finds a large tooth.  As he inspects the tooth, the music playing, the viewer expects the shark to attack, but instead a decapitated head appears out of the hole in the boat.  I screamed the first time I saw that, and I still scream (perhaps deliberately) in subsequent viewings, even though I know it’s coming.

The fact that my pulse accelerates and I jump and scream, even when I know what is coming, is testament to Jaws’ power.  Once again, the threatening environment is as important in generating fear as the threatening presence.  But whereas in Paranormal Activity the environment is mundane, in Jaws it is an alien and menacing world that can easily kill us.  Most will agree that the shark itself look pretty fake and hardly menacing, but it pales in comparison to the vast, hungry, uncaring sea.  Martin Brody’s (Roy Scheider) fear of drowning makes him our substitute, and the knowledge that, regardless of anything else, it is never completely safe to go into the water.  The film epitomises an intractable adversary through the figure of the shark, presented not so much as an animal as a manifestation of the engulfing sea.  This is a common use of animals as enemies in films – from the lions in The Ghost and the Darkness to the wolves in The Grey, animals do not express their real-world counterparts, but our fear of the wild, the unknown world beyond our own.  The sea is perhaps the best example of this great unknown – an indifferent and all-consuming expanse.  Jaws expresses this fear through its use of suspense and by playing upon our expectations, making it a consistently and repeatedly nerve-wracking experience.