Skyfall * * * 1/2

Genre: Action Thriller

Director: Sam Mendes

Writers: John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade

Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Berenice Marlohe, Albert Finney

Running Length: 143 minutes

Synopsis: In Skyfall, Bond’s (Daniel Craig) loyalty to M (Judi Dench) is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.

Review: This was the Bond film that almost never came to be – given MGM’s financial woes, production was suspended on Skyfall for a year, but thankfully things turned around and the film managed to be released in time for Bond’s 50th anniversary. This fact alone is due cause for celebration, because after the somewhat disappointing Quantum of Solace, Skyfall is a return to form for the franchise, and immediately ranks amongst the best Bond films (though still falling slightly short of the seminal Casino Royale). Perhaps it’s the sensibilities of a director like Sam Mendes, or that Daniel Craig, Judi Dench and Javier Bardem is possibly the best combination of Bond, M and Bond villain in the franchise’s 50-year history, but everything just falls into place beautifully, resulting in not just a great Bond film, but an excellent action thriller as a whole.

The film opens with a huge bang, with an excellent chase sequence that sets the tone of the film action-wise. Seguing into a classic Bond credit sequence with a theme song (sung by Adele) that is definitely the best in recent years, Skyfall makes no pretense about its intentions – this is meant to be a throwback to the best years of the Bond franchise, and it does so with great aplomb.
Great action sequences are almost a given nowadays, and Skyfall more than delivers in this aspect. What Sam Mendes brings is an added dimension to Skyfall, an emotional engagement that is rare in the franchise. Daniel Craig masterfully peels back the layers of Bond cool, and displays a scarred vulnerability that makes Bond more three-dimensional and accessible than ever before. This iteration of Bond can be hurt physically and emotionally, and it’s not hard to see the parallel between Craig’s James Bond and Christopher Bale’s Batman. Javier Bardem plays the fey yet menacing antagonist Silva, and although Bardem puts forth a most impressive performance, Craig never feels like he’s being outdone or overshadowed.

However, the most memorable performance in the film has to go to what must be the oldest “Bond girl” ever – Judi Dench’s M is a pivotal character in the movie and her role in Skyfall outweighs her previous six outings combined. From the grittier moments to the most introspective portions of the film, Dame Judi Dench doesn’t ever falter, and much like Daniel Craig, she has become the most iconic M in the franchise’s history. Bond films are not known for thespian quality, but since the Casino Royale reboot this has been turned on its head.

Skyfall boasts incredible visuals, and is a very handsome film from start to end – kudos to Roger Deakins, who may just get a nod at the Academy Awards for the fine work he’s put in here. In particular, the skyscraper scene set in Shanghai really ups the game, presenting an action sequence in a breathtakingly new light (both literally and figuratively). Thomas Newman, Mendes’ longtime collaborator, merges old and new together in his scoring of the film, and that familiar guitar riff makes an undeniable impression multiple times in the show (as compared to the two previous films scored by David Arnold, which pretty much eschewed the classic theme from a majority of the proceedings).

It’s hard to innovate in a film franchise which has been around for half a century, but that’s exactly what Mendes and crew have managed to achieve. It’s an interesting dichotomy – on the one hand James Bond has been further updated for modern times, yet it’s the callback to the classic Bond that makes the movie stand out.  The only more tangible flaw that Skyfall has is the need for a tighter edit, yet even this doesn’t really detract significantly from the cinematic spectacle that the rest of the film is.
Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)


The Dark Knight Rises * * * *

Genre: Action

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, based on characters written by Bob Kane

Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Running Length: 165 minutes

Synopsis: It’s been eight years since the events that unfolded in The Dark Knight, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is now a shadow of his former self, broken both physically and emotionally, casting himself into self-seclusion. An encounter with the sexy cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) jolts him out of his stupor, and with a new villain Bane (Tom Hardy) in Gotham City threatening the city’s survival, Bruce has to decide whether to become the caped crusader again. He is aided by his trusty butler Alfred (Michael Caine), Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), his right-hand man at Wayne Enterprises, and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). Several other characters also enter the fray, including police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as well as Wayne Enterprises board member and potential love interest of Bruce Wayne, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).

Review: All good things have to come to an end, and after 7 long years, the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s game-changing Batman trilogy has finally arrived. The Dark Knight is a very tough act to follow, and whilst The Dark Knight Rises does not manage to reach the same heights that its predecessor attained, the film is about as good a sendoff to the series as one would hope to get.  

Let’s get the downsides out of the way first: there’s a slight sense of overreach when it comes to The Dark Knight Rises, as though there really isn’t enough time (even in a movie that runs close to 3 hours long) to cover every aspect of the complex narrative web that Christopher and his brother Jonathan have weaved. There are just a touch too many characters involved in the proceedings, to the point where it does seem that some of these characters have been given short shrift – even Batman himself doesn’t take centerstage all that often, despite this being a movie that ostensibly revolves around him.

Yet, these are merely minor quibbles in the grander scheme of things, and The Dark Knight Rises satisfies in ways that few superhero movies can hope to do. Things are never simple in Nolan’s cinematic universes, and in the realm of his Dark Knight, the characters carry far greater emotional weight than one would expect for a superhero movie, and the universally excellent performances (except perhaps for a blander than usual Marion Cotillard) help to give multi-dimensionality. Combined, this means much greater audience investment into the outcomes of these characters, which is never a bad thing.

The Dark Knight Rises also focuses on something that is usually left by the wayside for a superhero movie – it reminds us that beneath the mask, Batman is a normal human being. From the walking stick that Bruce Wayne now depends on, to Alfred’s questioning his intentions for returning as Batman, the caped crusader’s physical vulnerability is underscored repeatedly.

Christian Bale continues to give a superlative performance as Bruce Wayne and Batman, and despite the significant female presence in the movie (Anne Hathaway is particularly memorable as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, although it’s very different from Michelle Pfeiffer’s campy Catwoman), the best emotional sequences arise from interactions between Wayne and his butler Alfred. Christian Bale and Michael Caine will quite possibly be the best iterations of these two characters ever, much like how the late Heath Ledger has completely overshadowed any other actor that have been (or will become) the Joker. Tom Hardy’s Bane is menacing and yet charismatic, though his performance is somewhat hampered by the large mask that he wears. An additional caveat: the distortion of Bane’s voice does makes some of his dialogue almost unintelligible.

The Dark Knight Rises is equally accomplished on the technical front. This is an incredibly good looking film, benefiting from Wally Pfister’s excellent cinematography and Nolan’s masterful framing of shots. Over an hour of footage has been shot on IMAX film, and the movie is best appreciated on an IMAX screen. Nolan is known for avoiding CGI whenever possible, and there’s an organic feel to the movie (which is entirely shot on film as well) which is hard to find in any action movie these days. Hans Zimmer’s score also forms an integral part of the movie, punctuating the action sequences with percussion heavy cues, but also judiciously using silence and dialing back on the pomposity whenever needed.

Without giving anything away, let’s just say that Nolan has given as much closure to his trilogy as possible, but has still left the door slightly open for the studio’s benefit. The denouement of The Dark Knight Rises isn’t as ambiguous as Inception, but this is without a doubt a “thinking man’s superhero movie”, requiring a consistent engagement of the mind. It’s a change of pace from most summer action films, but the film remains thrilling and engrossing throughout, despite its extended running time.

Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight have largely missed out on Oscar action, barring Heath Ledger’s posthumous Supporting Actor win. Hopefully the Academy will belatedly recognize the greatness of this genre-bending trilogy, and we’ll see a more representative list of nominations for what is undoubtedly the best superhero movie to be released this year.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)


Ice Age 4: Continental Drift * * 1/2

Genre: Animation

Directors: Steve Martino, Michael Thurmeier

Writers: Michael Berg, Jason Fuchs

Voice Cast: Ray Romano, Denis Leary, John Leguizamo, Queen Latifa, Peter Dinklage, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, Wanda Sykes

Running Length: 85 minutes

Synopsis: The trio from the previous Ice Age movies returns – Manny the wooly mammoth, Diego the sabretooth tiger, and Sid the sloth – embark upon their greatest adventure after cataclysm sets an entire continent adrift. Separated from the rest of the herd, they use an iceberg as a makeshift ship, which launches them on an epic seafaring quest. Manny and the gang are challenged like never before to become heroes and do the impossible, as they encounter exotic sea creatures, explore a brave new world, and battle ruthless pirates. And Scrat’s reunion with his cursed nut catapults him to places no prehistoric squirrel has gone before.

Review: There really isn’t much reason for this movie to exist, and it shows – although Ice Age 4: Continental Drift is superficially entertaining with a plethora of funny and cute animals, the plot is virtually nonexistent and the social message feels tacked on. It has been a decade since the first Ice Age, and yet the franchise does not seem to have improved with time, with a large part of the film feeling like nothing more than a rehash.

The entire concept that Ice Age 4 revolves around also feels like an uneasy marriage – having the main characters duke it out on a newly formed ocean on “ships” made from icebergs feels almost too human for a bunch of creatures in the Ice Age. The additional subplot involving Manny the wooly mammoth’s rebellious teenaged daughter is even more uninteresting, and the way it plays out and resolves itself is very perfunctory.  

Credit to be given where it’s due though, Ice Age 4 looks great (like almost every computer animated film these days), and the usage of 3D is rather impressive, especially for younger audiences. Scrat, the iconic squirrel chasing after his acorn, is still as entertaining as ever, providing much needed diversion from the clunky main plots. Many of the new characters are actually more interesting than the original Ice Age gang, with the most memorable being Sid the sloth’s grandmother, wonderfully realized by Wanda Sykes.

Special mention must be given, however, to the best part of the show, which actually occurs before the start of Ice Age 4. Do not miss out on the excellent short film The Longest Daycare, starring Maggie of The Simpsons – the four and a half minute short is brilliant, packing more creativity, wit and heart than the entire movie that follows. For Simpsons fans like me, this short film alone is worth the price of admission.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter * * 1/2

Genre: Action

Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Writer: Seth Grahame-Smith, based on his novel of the same name

Cast: Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas, Jimmi Simpson

Running Length: 105 minutes

Synopsis: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter explores the secret life of one of the U.S.’s greatest presidents, and the untold story that shaped that country. Producer Tim Burton and director Timur Bekmambetov reimagine Lincoln as one of history’s greatest hunters of the undead.

Review: Given the names of the visionaries that are backing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, it’s truly a surprise that the end result is such a middling movie. It’s almost as though producer Tim Burton and director Timur Bekmambetov (Daywatch, Wanted) couldn’t make up their mind whether the subject matter functions better as a satire or a straight up horror/action film, and the eventual execution, whilst perfectly serviceable, lacks the qualities to be memorable in any way.

One would assume that with a concept of turning the president of the USA into a vampire hunter, the film would be quite “out there”, but the tone is far more serious than it should be. The first half of the movie is the better half, with the “origins story” of how Abraham Lincoln becomes an axe-wielding vampire slayer, but once the narrative moves toward marrying fact (Abraham Lincoln: President) and fiction (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), it starts to falter.

It doesn’t help that the vampire hunter premise already feels tired after the first two reels, and becomes multiple variations on the same (old) theme. The acting is pretty much mediocre throughout, with Benjamin Walker being the biggest offender – he has absolutely no charisma as Abe, and when the film ages him with somewhat dodgy makeup, it becomes even harder to look past his subpar acting chops.

With Bekmambetov helming the camera, it’s almost a given that the visuals will be impressive, and for the most part they are (although the 3D implementation feels half-baked). In fact, if not for the great action set-piece near the end, involving a train heist, hand to hand combat and a burning bridge, the second half of the movie would have been pretty much a downer.  This becomes one of the few redeeming points of the movie – but whether it’s enough to justify the price of entry would depend on one’s threshold for the chaff that makes up the remainder of the film.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


The Vow * * 1/2

Genre: Drama

Director: Michael Sucsy

Writers: Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein, Michael Sucsy

Cast: Channing Tatum, Rachel McAdams, Jessica Lange, Sam Neill

Running Length: 105 minutes

Synopsis: A car accident puts Paige (McAdams) in a coma, and when she wakes up with severe memory loss, her husband Leo (Tatum) works to win her heart again.

Review: Despite a “based on true events” premise, The Vow is about as rote a romantic drama as it gets. In fact, it almost seems Nicholas Sparks had a hand in it, even though that’s not actually the case. This is a movie squarely targeted at the women, and its box office success in the US is testament to the power of this demographic. Unwilling husbands and boyfriends will no doubt be dragged to the cinema to catch this, and while it won’t be an entirely moot outing, it’s hard to imagine any (straight) men getting into this movie.   

The best thing about The Vow is Rachel McAdams, who puts forth a great performance despite the limiting material here. There is, however, little real chemistry between her and Channing Tatum, and as a result their tortured romance post-trauma never comes across as being quite believable. Channing Tatum is obviously here as a pretty face and body, and although he tries hard to emote (with uneven results), Tatum would be most remembered for his multiple bare-bodied scenes here, including one where he shows off his bubble butt. Jessica Lange and Sam Neill seem to be downgrading their career trajectories by appearing in a film like this one, but at least Lange gets one good scene out of the movie, essentially out-acting every other cast member in those few minutes.

The Vow isn’t afraid to come across as being a cheesy melodrama, and it embraces both aspects with aplomb. In its own way, that’s a charming thing to do and The Vow works well as a date movie. Unfortunately, those looking to vesting more emotion into the movie may find themselves somewhat disappointed – very little is done with the premise of the movie, and eventually the script writes itself into a corner with no way out. The Vow avoids some of the expected clichés – no second bump on the head to magically restore Paige’s memory, for example – but the scribes add nothing in to replace the void. There’s no pat denouement apart from an end title card detailing the outcome of the real life couple, but at least Michael Sucsy has managed to resist injecting forced tragedy into the tale, unlike how a Nicholas Sparks novel/movie would have panned out.      

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


Wrath of the Titans * * 1/2

Genre: Action

Director: Jonathan Liebesman

Writers: Dan Mazeau, David Johnson, Greg Berlanti

Cast: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Rosamund Pike, Edgar Ramirez, Bill Nighy, Danny Huston

Running Length: 100 minutes

Synopsis: A decade after his heroic defeat of the monstrous Kraken, Perseus (Sam Worthington) – the demigod son of Zeus (Liam Neeson) – is attempting to live a quieter life as a village fisherman and the sole parent to his 10-year old son, Helius. Meanwhile, a struggle for supremacy rages between the gods and the Titans. Dangerously weakened by humanity's lack of devotion, the gods are losing control of the imprisoned Titans and their ferocious leader, Kronos, father of the long-ruling brothers Zeus, Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and Poseidon. Perseus cannot ignore his true calling when Hades, along with Zeus' godly son, Ares (Edgar Ramírez), switch loyalty and make a deal with Kronos to capture Zeus. The Titans' strength grows stronger as Zeus' remaining godly powers are siphoned…

Review: Few films in recent memory have benefitted from lowered expectations like Wrath of the Titans has – after all, its predecessor was a pretty terrible mess, from the clunky dialogue to the awful tacked on “3D” (the most 3D aspect being the Mandarin subtitles), and it really wouldn’t take much to improve upon that travesty of a remake. This time round, the story comes with much less baggage, and despite another post production 3D conversion, looks far better than the first film. That’s not to say that Wrath of the Titans is a masterpiece, but at least it’s much less painful to sit through, with a number of decent action set pieces, and the injection of much-need levity into the proceedings. It also helps to view this film on as large a screen as possible (IMAX 3D being the most ideal), as it amplifies the cinematic experience and makes the film’s flaws more tolerable.

And there’s no shortage of things to pick on in Wrath of the Titans, if one is inclined to do so. The dialogue is painfully clunky, with characters often delivering dialogue solely for exposition’s sake, and the script borders on incoherence very often. The production team does seem to be aware of that, and occasionally poke fun at themselves (at one point, one character tells another to “avoid the big speech”), which makes it a little more tolerable. There’s also a lot of soap opera going on for an action movie, and these exclusively male, uncomfortably melodramatic scenes really weigh down the narrative.

Still, the film largely looks good, and the action sequences are quite impressively choreographed, with the most memorable not being the climactic showdown, but rather a “smaller” scene involving a number of Cyclops and the lead characters. Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes bring higher quality acting and gravitas to the table, while an almost unrecognizable Bill Nighy steals the show with his high energy portrayal of Hephaestus. Action junkies should still leave the cinema feeling sated, but here’s hoping that if there’s a third film in the franchise, that it would be a higher quality production all round.   

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


Oscar Predictions: 2012

A confession – it’s been an insanely busy year at work, and it has impacted both my ability to watch and write about movies. This year, I’m going into the awards day without having seen a fair number of contenders, so this time round it’s more guesswork than personal preference. It’s also another year of a “first”, because this is the first year both free to air and basic cable channels aren’t televising the awards live (blasphemy!), but I have had the good fortune of being able to score an invite to the GV Oscars viewing party thanks to my client. I have also decided this year to stop predicting the documentary and short film categories since they are blind guesses. Let’s see how I will fare this year:
Best Motion Picture of the Year

The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

Should win: Hugo
Prediction: The Artist

Perhaps because I am a cinephile, but a film like Hugo really appeals to the inner film geek, and it’s a master’s tribute to another master, which the industry may pick up on. However, The Artist is an equally good film and has garnered so many awards in the awards season that a win here is probably unstoppable. My personal favourite amongst all the titles here is Hugo, which is simply as magical as film can get.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Demián Bichir, A Better Life
George Clooney, The Descendants
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Should win: Jean Dujardin
Prediction: Jean Dujardin

Few actors have to go through an entire film without saying anything, and Jean Dujardin’s silent film performance is a testament to great acting. Although the other actors all do pretty well, it’s hard to imagine Dujardin being upstaged at this point.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn

Should win: Meryl Streep
Prediction: Viola Davis

I personally thought Meryl Streep was amazing as Margaret Thatcher, but I think her hopes of clinching yet another Oscar would be dashed by Viola Davis because The Help was simply a bigger movie. It would be a waste to have Streep lose yet again after her multiple nominations though.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Should win: Christopher Plummer
Prediction: Christopher Plummer

The age bracket for the winner in this category should be quite high, as I feel the strongest contenders would be Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow. Max von Sydow is a bit handicapped (no pun intended) by the fact that he’s also playing a non-speaking character, and Jean Dujardin already has that aspect locked down.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Bérénice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer, The Help

Should win: Bérénice Bejo
Prediction: Octavia Spencer

I think every actor (including the dog) in The Artist are great actors, but Bérénice Bejo is likely to lose out to Octavia Spencer (who was also quite good in The Help) based on pre-Oscar wins and indicators.

Best Achievement in Directing

The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius
The Descendants, Alexander Payne
Hugo, Martin Scorsese
Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen
The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick

Should win: Martin Scorsese
Prediction: Michel Hazanavicius

Personally I think Martin Scorsese did a brilliant, amazing job in Hugo that outranks The Artist, but how do I go against the near perfect barometer of the Director’s Guild of America Award, which granted it to Michel Hazanavicius?

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

The Artist, Written by Michel Hazanavicius
Bridesmaids, Written by Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig
Margin Call, Written by J.C. Chandor
Midnight in Paris, Written by Woody Allen
A Separation, Written by Asghar Farhadi

Should win: Midnight in Paris
Prediction: The Artist

I liked Margin Call a lot but it’s a really small movie, and although I think Allen did a great job with Midnight in Paris, the Academy would likely reward The Artist for being “retro-revolutionary” as a silent film.

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

The Descendants, Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Hugo, Screenplay by John Logan
The Ides of March, Screenplay by George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon
Moneyball, Screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin.  Story by Stan Chervin
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Screenplay by Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan

Should win: Hugo
Prediction: Hugo

It’s a pretty even playing field for this category, and I am split between predicting The Descendants (a film which may be given this award as a consolation prize for not winning anything else) and Hugo. I felt that Hugo was a more involving film, however, hence the choice for the win here.

Best Achievement in Cinematography

The Artist, Guillaume Schiffman
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Jeff Cronenweth
Hugo, Robert Richardson
The Tree of Life, Emmanuel Lubezki
War Horse, Janusz Kaminski

Prediction: Janusz Kaminski

All 5 films featured great cinematography is so it’s quite a toss up for me. I am inclined to go with Janusz Kaminski because his work on War Horse was simply astounding.

Best Achievement in Editing

The Artist, Anne-Sophie Bion and Michel Hazanavicius
The Descendants, Kevin Tent
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall
Hugo, Thelma Schoonmaker
Moneyball, Christopher Tellefs

Prediction: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I honestly have no preference either way in this category, but The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo did boast tight editing which made the story seemed a little more immediate that its Swedish forefather.  

Best Achievement in Art Direction

The Artist, Laurence Bennett (Production Design); Robert Gould (Set Decoration)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Stuart Craig (Production Design); Stephenie McMillan (Set Decoration)
Hugo, Dante Ferretti (Production Design); Francesca Lo Schiavo (Set Decoration)
Midnight in Paris, Anne Seibel (Production Design); Hélène Dubreuil (Set Decoration)
War Horse, Rick Carter (Production Design); Lee Sandales (Set Decoration)

Prediction: Hugo

They would be insane to not award this to Hugo – if it wins nothing else it surely has to clinch the nod in this category.

Best Achievement in Costume Design

Anonymous, Lisy Christl
The Artist, Mark Bridges
Hugo, Sandy Powell
Jane Eyre, Michael O'Connor
W.E., Arianne Phillips

Prediction: The Artist

I think the period films always stand a better chance in this category, but The Artist has the advantage of being more high profile than a film like Jane Eyre.

Best Achievement in Makeup

Albert Nobbs, Martial Corneville, Lynn Johnston and Matthew W. Mungle
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Nick Dudman, Amanda Knight and Lisa Tomblin
The Iron Lady, Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland

Prediction: The Iron Lady

Albert Nobbs featured makeup just a smidgen better than that of J. Edgar, and since I felt that The Iron Lady’s makeup trumped both films it’s an easy choice for me here.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

The Adventures of Tintin, John Williams
The Artist, Ludovic Bource
Hugo, Howard Shore
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Alberto Iglesias
War Horse, John Williams

Prediction: Hugo

I don’t think John Williams will suffer a split vote despite having two nominations here since Tintin has been almost totally snubbed, but my personal preference for scoring is still Howard Shore’s work in Hugo.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

"Man or Muppet" from THE MUPPETS, Music and Lyric by Bret McKenzie
“Real in Rio” from RIO, Music by Sergio Mendes and Carlinhos Brown; Lyric by Siedah Garrett

Prediction: Real in Rio

Two songs only? Seriously? I’m not a fan of either but I am guessing Sergio Mendes adds some cred to the Rio contender. I love The Muppets as a whole but was really unimpressed by the song.

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce and Bo Persson
Hugo, Tom Fleischman and John Midgley
Moneyball, Deb Adair, Ron Bochar, David Giammarco and Ed Novick
Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush and Peter J. Devlin
War Horse, Gary Rydstrom, Andy Nelson, Tom Johnson and Stuart Wilson

Prediction: War Horse

I hardly get these technical awards right, but I am guessing that Transformers will win more for visual spectacle than sound. I was quite impressed by the quieter moments in War Horse, hence my vote for it.

Best Achievement in Sound Editing

Drive, Lon Bender and Victor Ray Ennis
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Ren Klyce
Hugo, Philip Stockton and Eugene Gearty
Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl
War Horse, Richard Hymns and Gary Rydstrom

Prediction: War Horse

Same reason as my prediction in Sound Mixing, but honestly I have no preference either way.

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Tim Burke, David Vickery, Greg Butler and John Richardson
Hugo, Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossmann and Alex Henning
Real Steel, Erik Nash, John Rosengrant, Dan Taylor and Swen Gillberg
Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, R. Christopher White and Daniel Barrett
Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Scott Farrar, Scott Benza, Matthew Butler and John Frazier.

Prediction: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

I feel it’s a toss up between Hugo and Transformers, but for pure visual spectacle Transformers will definitely win out over Hugo’s more subtle visual effects. So it’s really just a matter of how the Academy votes. 

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

A Cat in Paris
Chico & Rita
Kung Fu Panda 2
Puss in Boots

Prediction: A Cat in Paris

Such a weak category this year, and if memory serves correctly, the only year since this award started that Pixar was not nominated. I don’t like any of the Hollywood productions nominated here (not for an Oscar, anyway), so I am going with A Cat in Paris. Interesting how many films nominated this year have something to do with France or Paris. Honestly I felt that The Adventures of Tintin should have been nominated here and would have won my vote above the rest.

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

Belgium, "Bullhead"
Canada, "Monsieur Lazhar"
Iran, "A Separation"
Israel, "Footnote"
Poland, "In Darkness"

Prediction: A Separation


Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Genre: Action

Directors: Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor

Writers: Scott M. Gimple, Seth Hoffman, David S. Goyer

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Ciaran Hinds, Johnny Whitworth, Fergus Riordan, Idris Elba

Running Length: 95 minutes

Synopsis: Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) – still struggling with his curse as the devil's bounty hunter – is hiding out in a remote part of Eastern Europe when he is recruited by a secret sect of the church to save a young boy (Fergus Riordan) from the devil (Ciaran Hinds). At first, Johnny is reluctant to embrace the power of the Ghost Rider, but it is the only way to protect the boy – and possibly rid himself of his curse forever.

Review: It’s probably a sequel that not many people had expected – after all, the original Ghost Rider movie in 2007 wasn’t exactly a trailblazer, even though it did score a pretty healthy box office taking. This time round, the cheesy humour that was so prevalent in the first film is toned down (although there is an absolutely brilliant joke about Twinkies), and the directorial duo behind the Crank franchise seems a little out of their depth when putting together larger-scale action set pieces that aren’t as organic as those found in Crank. 

The acting in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is simply rather uninspired, and even Nicolas Cage doesn’t tap that frequently into his “mad side”, a departure from the first Ghost Rider movie. However, Cage has always been an intense actor, and even though the audience will only get it in small doses it’s still an indication of what Cage is capable of. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast do not do as well, and many seem to be sleepwalking through the whole film.

Many audience members choose to watch a superhero movie to be visually dazzled by the CG and the action sequences, and in both aspects Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance falls a little short. Some of the CG is impressive but quality is rather uneven, and the addition of 3D feels mostly superfluous. The action sequences are also a little subpar, and doesn’t really impress excepting a handful of scenes. The climactic showdown turns out to be just a little anticlimactic, although it is preceded by a nicely choreographed car chase.   

The superhero movie genre has been transformed since films like Batman Begins came onto the scene, and whilst Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance would have been a perfectly serviceable genre film in the past, it quite simply will not be good enough when compared to the other superhero films that are set to be released this year.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


J. Edgar * * *

Genre: Drama

Director: Clint Eastwood

Writer: Dustin Lance Black

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench

Running Length: 137 minutes

Synopsis: J. Edgar explores the public and private life of one of the most powerful, controversial and enigmatic figures of the 20th century. As the face of law enforcement in America for almost fifty years, J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) was feared and admired, reviled and revered. But behind closed doors, he held secrets that would have destroyed his image, his career and his life.

Review: J. Edgar is not one of Clint Eastwood’s strongest works, despite an excellent lead performance and a number of compelling scenes. Perhaps this is due partially to Dustin Lance Black’s script, which seems reluctant to delve deeper into J. Edgar’s psyche, choosing instead to present a rather superficial view of the man. There are lengthy scenes in the film which are very low key, and this is likely to lead to an emotional disconnect with the audience members.

The narrative structure of J. Edgar is, surprisingly, rather clunky, although it depends on the usual flashback and flashback-within-flashback shorthand. Although brownie points should be given for tackling a story that spans 7 decades, the segue between “present” and “past” is sometimes rather clumsily done. What is also extremely jarring is the subpar makeup, and the worst offender is that of Armie Hammer, who looks like he’s two hundred years old under a layer of overdone speckled makeup that truly detracts from audience immersion.    

The only actor to rise above the makeup is Leonardo DiCaprio, who puts forth a career-best performance as J. Edgar, perfectly portraying every aspect of the man. He disappears into the role, which is an essential part of any successful biographical depiction. It’s certainly an Oscar-worthy performance, but DiCaprio is unfortunately snubbed in this year’s nominations. Unsurprisingly, the only other actor that impresses is Judi Dench (mercifully not drowned under makeup) in her small handful of scenes – the scene where she utters the chilling “I would rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son” is certainly one of the most emotionally impactful.  

What the script doesn’t shy away from is J. Edgar’s sexuality, and this is possibly one of the most overt depictions of J Edgar’s asexuality/homosexuality. Although it takes a while to get to J Edgar’s proclivities, when it does get there, the film is enlivened to such a great extent that his sexuality becomes the film’s focus. Not that there’s anything wrong in that, and this does make parts of the film somewhat akin to a tender love story (particularly the denouement), but given that plenty of J. Edgar’s life and career have been left out of the movie despite its length, one can’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed by the time the end credits roll.     

Rating: *** (out of four stars)


Chronicle * * *

Genre: Science Fiction

Director: Josh Trank

Writers: Max Landis & Josh Trank

Cast: Ashley Hinshaw, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Dane Dehaan, Michael Kelly

Running Length: 84 minutes

Synopsis: Three high school friends gain superpowers after making an incredible discovery. Soon, though, they find their lives spinning out of control and their bond tested as they embrace their darker sides.

Review: It’s not easy to be a fan of found footage movies – with the sickness-inducing camera shake and always flimsy excuses for the protagonists having a camera with them at all times, there are plenty of audience members who will not miss found footage movies if they all disappear overnight. However, Chronicle is a breath of relatively fresh air in this limited sub-genre, applying the found footage concept to the superhero movie, and the result is a very compelling piece of slightly flawed filmmaking.

Chronicle is basically an 84-minute answer to the question “what if you had superpowers?”, and it starts off lighthearted enough, with the three teenagers playing harmless pranks and messing with each other. The teens’ powers ramp up exponentially, the film quickly takes on a far darker edge, with Trank and Landis crafting a story with a number of surprising twists and turns despite what seems to be at first a very predictable film.   

One of the reasons why Chronicle works so well is in its casting – all three teenagers are charismatic in their own way, and the audience will definitely feel a connection to the trio. It may or may not be a compliment to their thespian skills to say that their portrayals of teenagers seem to come very close to real life. Of the three, Dane Dehaan is the most impressive, a Leonardo DiCaprio lookalike that plays Andrew, the most troubled teen of the trio. Trank also smartly chose to “document” some of the domestic issues that plague Andrew, which allows an insight into his backstory and fleshes out the character more than most similar films are able to.   

That’s not to say Chronicle is a perfect film – it requires a near-total suspension of disbelief, and eventually the film writes itself into a corner that it doesn’t really successfully extricate itself out of. Most glaringly, a short scene after the climactic showdown totally messes up the found footage conceit, and feels so out of place with the rest of the film Josh Trank should have simply edited it out of the movie entirely.

It’s not the only time that the film “cheats” a little, however, another example being replacing shakycam footage with steadier scenes by telling the audience that Andrew “holds” the camera with a telekinetic virtual tripod (to be honest, I am actually thankful for this). There are other sequences which do not fit into the film’s internal logic, but the movie is absorbing enough for audience members to overlook such lapses.

Made on the cheap with a budget of “only” US$15 million, the CG effects are a little hit and miss. Generally though, the effects are impressive enough, and despite the slightly chaotic end sequence, is a pretty thrilling film that doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s definitely not a film for everyone, but given the right mindset (and a good resistance to motion sickness), Chronicle ranks as one of the first great surprises of 2012.  

Rating: *** (out of four stars)