Oscars 2014 – What missed out

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With the Oscars taking place later tonight, I look at the films that have been overlooked by the Academy.

Monsters University
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Okay, it wasn’t the best picture Pixar has come up with over the years. It wasn’t even the best Monsters film they’ve produced. That said, they did find space for The Croods in the nomination pool, which was fine but could you really say it was better than MU? If Pixar had released The Croods, there would have been mass derision. Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises is a hot tip to take the prize this year, but I can’t comment until it gets a UK release.

Rush
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I feel like this film has suffered because it wasn’t released in the typical awards season. It didn’t play by the book. It came out back in September 2013 and performed well at the box office without an Academy recommendation. Bruhl and Hemsley were both outstanding, not just as eerily accurate take-offs but as flawless acting performances in their own right. The recreation of the classic races was spot on from Howard and the story was as exhilarating as the action. In my eyes, it could have easily come in as the 10th film on the best film list. To not even get an appreciative nod for best makeup (Bruhl’s scarring was critical and spot on) or visual effects (though admittedly this was a strong category this year) is surprising.

Inside Llewyn Davis
It’s the Coen brothers latest release and they usually get nominated, right? Not this year. Whilst it’s a strong year for nominations in the Best Picture category, it should have received a nod for best song. In fact, whole soundtrack could have been considered. It received one for best sound mixing, which is a bit of a throwaway category overall. At least it was appreciated on some level.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
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Okay, I don’t agree that this film should have been nominated for best film or best acting or anything else. However, the song “Atlas” by Coldplay is easily one of the best original songs in what was admittedly a poor year for soundtracks. It’s a shame they had a song on the list that was later disqualified, especially one as awful as “Alone, Yet Not Alone” by Bruce Broughton and Dennis Spiegel. There was also space for the bland “Ordinary Love” by U2. Neither of these should have made it and they would have made room for “Atlas” and, well, anything from Inside Llewyn Davis or Her.

Saving Mr Banks
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One of the biggest and most talked about shocks was the lack of a nomination for Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks. It’s frustrating to see Meryl Streep nominated for the 18th time for a role that she will never win the top prize for when Thompson could have been a front runner for.

Nymph()maniac
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I would have loved it if the Academy could have found it in themselves to nominate Uma Thurman’s fantastic supporting performance in Lars Von Trier’s latest film. It blew me away and really stood out in what was otherwise a pretty bland film. That said, it may not have qualified this year so we may have to wait another year before we see if this – and indeed Christian Slater’s excellent performance – was overlooked.

Elsewhere
Tom Hanks missed out twice for Saving Mr Banks and Captain Phillips, the latter being the biggest shock as it is probably his best performance for over a decade. Whoever thought the cinematography in 12 Years A Slave wasn’t worth noting must have been on drugs. Nothing for Robert Redford’s performance in All Is Lost was also a big surprise, though I’m not convinced Redford lost any sleep over it. The Butler was a massive omission but maybe a little too much like a typical Oscar nominee.

The Book Thief (Brian Percival, 2014)

I’m a massive fan of foreign films. If a small film from an unknown director or studio outside of the US or UK has reached cinemas in the UK then it’s a pretty good indicator that it’s a film has something special about it. I managed to get hold of some preview tickets for this film and felt pretty excited at the start when the subtitles started and I thought “Thankfully, they’ve got it right”.

Then Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush started talking and that’s where it all fell apart.

Why oh why would you pull in two hugely successful English actors and have them put on hammy German accents whilst speaking English, when Germany is full of excellent actors who would surely have been desperate for a big role in such a widely released film. I’m sure Christopher Waltz, Diane Kruger and Daniel Bruhl aren’t the only ones available. I have never ever understood why studios refrain from subtitles in this situation. Most people watching aren’t so stupid they can’t follow it. Heck, we English-speakers might even learn a language or two in the process. Please please please stop ruining films with this approach. If you want to see how to get it right then just watch the first ten minutes of Inglourious Basterds.

That said, the story is told well and there’s a fantastic performance from both the leads: 13-year-old Sophie Nelisse starring as book-obsessed Liesel, and her friend Rudy played by Nico Liersch (hurray a German!). I enjoyed it once I got past the annoying language distraction. It’s visually pretty if a little dull and soft. The John Williams score is beautifully emotive (as you’d expect from one of the greatest film composers of all time).

I’m sad that it didn’t quite hit the mark for me and I wonder whether I would have enjoyed it more if they had gone with a more realistic approach to the dialogue.

The Book Thief is released in UK cinemas on 26th February 2014.

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2014)

Before I start I must confess I’m a huge Coen brothers fan. So much so that I recently went on a day-long course at Broadway Cinema (which was excellent by the way). I look forward to every Coen brothers release and when it’s coupled with a Palme d’Or win then you know you’re in for an entertaining two hours.

The looping storyline concerns the struggling titular character, a performing artist in New York’s Greenwich village, as he tries to make ends meet and regain the popularity he once had with his former singing partner Mike Timlin (who has since committed suicide). It is packed full of astonishing musical performances, not least from Oscar Isaac (previously famed for the King to Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood, though set to become quite well known when he stars in the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII). Joining him are Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan as the main stars of the film, though they are definitely in supporting roles. There are also cameos from heaps of great actors, my favourite being the highly comical contribution from John Goodman.

Llewyn Davis Singing

The soundtrack is clearly the driving force behind the storyline. One of the greatest achievements the Coens manage is to allow our attention to be fully dedicated to the music. It’s never a case of starting a song and cutting away to a montage or separate conversation whilst the song goes through the motions of a second verse or middle 8. It is clear they are truly passionate about the music that drives the story and in almost every case the song is uninterrupted from start to finish. It could well be the greatest Coen Brothers soundtrack yet, and if you’ve heard the O Brother Where Art Thou? OST then you know what a compliment that is.

If you’re looking for something to lift your mood, steer clear. Indeed, if you are a struggling artist yourself, you might also want to give it a wide berth unless you are just interested solely in excellent musicianship. With someone this talented struggling to make ends meet and not showing any sign of getting anywhere with his music, you might leave convinced to never pick the guitar up again. If you can put all that aside and simply appreciate the (perhaps surprisingly) excellent musicianship captured so perfectly here then you’re bound to be a happy viewer.

This film is not going to go down as one of the great Coen Brothers films. It just doesn’t have the indescribable magic of, say, The Big Lebowski or Fargo. It is by no means a terrible film, but I just don’t think it has the widespread appeal of some of their other releases. It’s well worth checking out, though I recommend you give it your full attention.

Inside Llewyn Davis is out now in UK cinemas.

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2014)

12 Years A Slave is a unique film in many ways. Most of the cast are complete unknowns. The budget was very low ($20m USD). There isn’t a massive push to advertise it anywhere, with very few trailers being seen at the cinema and on TV (I do the former quite regularly and I think I’ve seen one). Despite this, it has seemingly grown popular through word of mouth. This is something that’s very difficult to achieve when most of its momentum has come before the release date.

The pattern is similar to that of Shawshank Redemption, though at the time that film really didn’t start well at the box office. It became a sleeper hit and enjoyed success many months after the initial release, thanks to continued praise from critics and several awards nominations and wins.

Indeed, Shawshank’s Dufresne isn’t wholly unlike Northup, the main character in 12 Years. Both are imprisoned against their will for entirely the wrong reasons and are determined to see that justice is realised somehow. It is the kind of story that keeps you captivated and as time goes on you become more and more engrossed in the fact that these people should get the happy ending they deserve.

Steve McQueen is a very clever director. With his background in the visual arts (he won the Turner Prize in 1999), he adds an artistic flair to every shot he takes. Much like his debut Hunger, almost every shot could be framed and put on the wall to enjoy in its own right. The cinematography is just that good. Equally, he doesn’t shy away from allowing the camera to linger on our characters as they encounter struggles. One shot in particular sticks in your mind, when Soloman is partially hung in his first plantation and having to stand on the tips of his toes to draw the smallest of breaths. A less confident director would have cut away several times to show other subplots developing, sporadically cutting back to show he is still in pain. McQueen’s choice to stay with him is an example of how bold he is prepared to be and it is one of the most striking parts of the film.

I got confused by some of the sound editing. Several times there was an active choice to allow clashes between the score and the natural sounds of the scene, and most of the time it didn’t really work. The choice was obviously made to let the clash signify discomfort, and was occasionally exacerbated by bleeding audio into the following shots or scene, and in one particular scene, where Eliza was uncontrollably crying, it was overly confusing and distracted me from what I was supposed to be watching.

That aside, it is rightly being considered to sweep the board at this year’s Oscars. I don’t think it will, because there are too many very strong contenders with no outright frontrunner. If it gets none, there will of course be uproar. However, the same could also be said of Gravity, Dallas Buyers’ Club, Captain Phillips, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wallstreet. The list goes on. It is a tough year to pick a winner in each and every category. The deliberation forced on the Academy panel is a sign of what a fantastic year it has been to be a fan of cinema.

12 Years a Slave in out in UK cinemas now.

Starred Up (David Mackenzie, 2014)

Screened in competition for Best British Film at the BFI London Film Festival 2013, Starred Up was a film I knew very little about but had high expectations for, and it didn’t disappoint.

We are introduced to the lead character Eric Love, portrayed by Jack O’Connell (Skins, This is England), who has been “starred up” from a young offenders’ institution to a jail for adults for excessive violence. As the story develops, we go on a personal journey with him as he struggles to deal with the fact he is no longer the king pin in his new home.

Helping him on his journey is prison therapist Oliver, played brilliantly by Rupert Friend (Homeland). He builds up a close relationship with both him and several fellow inmates also going through the therapy sessions. It is in these sessions that we begin to learn a different side to our protagonist, one that he hides from everyone else he comes into contact with in the prison.

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The twist in the tale lies in the fact Eric’s father is also incarcerated in the same jail, and this is where his struggle lies. He is finally able to spend time with his father, but cannot cope with the fact that in spite of all the larger inmates and all the guards, the one person who has control over him is the one that he blames for being in prison in the first place. It is this dynamic that really allows O’Connell to flex his acting muscles, and show he can play much more than the jack-the-lad tough guy. As an actor, he has a serious amount of talent on offer and at such a young age must feel like the world is his to take on.

Much of the praise for the successes the film enjoys must go to screenwriter Jonathan Asser. Asser won the LFF Best British Newcomer award for this film, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s an authentic and intelligent script that draws on his own personal experiences and it ensures that what could have been a run-of-the-mill prison drama becomes much more than that – a study of an individual’s struggle against authority and personal responsibility.

Starred Up is released in UK cinemas on 21st March 2014.

See a clip of the film here or the trailer here.<br />
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The 7:39 (John Alexander, 2014)

Sometimes you watch a show on TV with no prior knowledge of the content, with no preconception of what is coming. Usually when you do this, you’re left disappointed and quickly switch over or find yourself checking your phone at decreasing intervals. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a gem, a diamond in the rough. So it was with the gripping BBC two-part romantic drama The 7:39.

Starring David Morrissey (The Walking Dead) and Sheradin Smith (Legally Blonde), with supporting roles from Sean Maguire (Eastenders) and Olivia Colman (Tyrannosaur), the story tells the chance development of an affair between Carl (Morrissey) and Sally (Smith), who catch the same eponymous commuter train. Both unknowingly in a rut in their life at home and at work, they quickly find an unlikely spark between each other and grow closer through the increasingly precious time they spend together en route to work.

Carl has a lot more to lose. He is married with two teenage children and has an exceptionally supportive wife (Colman), but yet he is the driving course behind the forbidden relationship. Sally is engaged to her overprotective fiancé Ryan – brilliantly portrayed by Maguire – who is hellbent on arranging the perfect wedding and seemingly attempting to smother every aspect of Sally’s life, though only out of love and devotion.

It is a sign of excellent writing by David Nicholls (One Day, Starter For 10), matched by perfect performances by the highly talented cast, that we quickly find ourselves rooting for Carl and Sally. Seeing them play out this despicable action, knowing they’re on a collision course to devastate everything they know and love, I was surprised that when the chance arose I was on the edge of my seat willing them on to go for it. It is a deed we hope we would never be subjected to by a loved on – or even worse commit ourselves – yet the reasoning is portrayed fully without ever needing to be spelled out. Of course, the subject matter has divided audiences, but that is the sign of a powerful work of art.

It is wonderful that there is such high quality drama being produced in the UK and that there is an outlet for the all-British cast to excel on prime-time television. It could easily have had a successful cinematic release and wouldn’t have looked out of place on the big screen. Hopefully it is the first of many more of its ilk.

The 7:39 is available to watch for free on iPlayer and Sky On Demand until 14th January 2014 and is released on DVD on 10th February 2014.

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