Oscars 2015: As the dust settles

So that’s the Oscars done for another year. Were they everything you expected? Did the actors and films you’d hope get recognition actually get it? And, more importantly, does it all even matter?

In answer to the last question, probably not, but industry acclaim is often (but not always) indicative of a job well done. And who wouldn’t want a big shiny award for their efforts?

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This year it seems Grand Budapest Hotel cleaned up (production design, best score, costume design, makeup and hair). As did Birdman (picture, director, original screenplay, cinematography) and Whiplash (supporting actor, film editing, sound mixing).

Eddie Redmayne took Best Actor for The Theory of Everything and Julianne Moore Best Actress for Still Alice.

So, were these all worthy winners? Were any overlooked or snubbed?

Yes, yes and yes.

There’s always going to be unhappy people come awards season, but I think Birdman perhaps did a little too well – although it does seem typical Oscar material. Last year my film of the year was Nightcrawler, which got barely a look-in, although it got a nomination for Original Screenplay and it would have been nice to see it beat Birdman, but this was a tough category and all entries there were outstanding ones.

Talking of tough categories, Best Actress was apparently a shoo-in for Julianne Moore for Still Alice. I’ve not seen the film yet but it sounds very ‘Oscar worthy’ in terms of the material and her performance. Literally all of the other nominees could have won in my book, they all were fantastic (Rosumund Pike – Gone Girl, Reese Witherspoon – Wild, Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything, Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night).

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I’m pleased Redmayne took Best Actor. His performance was truly astonishing and a thoroughly affecting one as Stephen Hawking, edging out Keaton’s washed up actor trying to reinvent his career in Birdman. And out of a category with five nominated, two were Brits (the other being Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game) which was pleasing to see.

Given the experimental nature of Boyhood or the electric performances in Whiplash it would have been nice to see either take Best Picture, but losing out to Birdman is something I can grudgingly accept with a ‘well played, sir’.

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Best Supporting Actress went to Patricia Arquette for Boyhood. Now I haven’t seen the film but I’d have really liked to see Kiera Knightley take this category for her underrated performance in The Imitation Game, or perhaps Laura Dern for her tender one in Wild.

I could go on and on, but let’s stop there. To sum up, not a bad list of winners. Not too many surprises or upsets. There’s some I would have preferred to win over others, but I’m not too cut up about it all.

What was your reaction to this year’s winners and losers?

Oh, and a final note, The Lego Movie should have won for Best Original Song. In that respect, everything is not awesome.

Until next year.

On my mind… Penelope Cruz

Born in Madrid in 1974, Penelope Cruz Sanchez made her acting debut aged 16, before receiving critical acclaim for her role in Jamon Jamon the following year in 1992.

Since then her career has gone from strength to strength. She’s the first Spanish actress to receive an Academy Award (the second ever to be nominated), and the first to receive a star on the Hollywood walk of fame.

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She’s also a bit of a force of nature. Think about her performances, each one immediately hooks you in. Screen presence, allure, seductive sex appeal… All that stuff.

In terms of her performances I consider my favourites, it’s a mixed bunch. There is a theme, though, and her work is defined by a level of intensity, conflict and inner fire. Simply put, she compels you to watch her.

Open Your Eyes (1997)
One of her first major roles. One which saw her receive critical acclaim for a film praised for its intelligence and complexity. It got the inevitable Hollywood remake, with Cruz reprising her role as the seductive Sofia.

Blow (2001)
Critically this film didn’t do that well. Cruz, too, suffered the wrath of the critics, receiving a Golden Raspberry Award for her performance. Perhaps a bit of a harsh assessment. Still, it led to bigger and better things.

Vanilla Sky (2001)
Reprising her role from Open Your Eyes, Cruz gave a solid, if unspectacular performance in this remake. Overall, the film perhaps suffered from being even more confusing than the original, thus dividing people’s opinions.

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Volver (2006)
A high point in her career, particularly in terms of working with acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. This film drew together many complex themes, all of which Cruz and Almodovar weaved together elegantly.

Elegy (2008)
A restrained, mature and utterly heartbreaking performance in this tale which had Cruz as the on/off cancer suffering girlfriend of Ben Kingsley’s misogynistic Professor. A surprise of a film and worth a watch if you get the chance.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
My pick of the bunch. A beautiful film and a hypnotic, wild performance from Penelope, opposite a cast that were far too sexy for their own good. This one won her an Academy Award (the first Spanish actress in history to achieve this).

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So what’s next for Penelope?

Well, rumours keep surfacing of her involvement in the next Bond film  – Sam Mendes’ follow up to Skyfall – as the new Bond girl. She’s also recently written, directed – and starred in – the latest Agent Provocateur advert. Nothing to do with film, but Bond girls are glamorous, sexy and exotic. And if this ad isn’t that, then I don’t know what is.

Either way, it’s nice to have Cruz maintain her presence on screen. whether it’s adverts or films or – dare I say it – TV shows. Here’s to whatever comes next in the world of Penelope.

Katniss and a mockingjay: the revolution will be televised

Hunger-games-catching-fire-lawrence_katniss‘Katniss Everdeen, the girl on fire.’ The same could be said of Jennifer Lawrence these days. Following her award winning performance last year, she’s got some exciting things lined up to hit the screen soon. American Hustle, reuniting her with Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell, is out in December which, from the trailer, looks to be a right sexy treat. It’s covered in my recent trailer blog, along with some other ones worth a look. She’s also part of the jaw-dropping cast of X-Men: Days of Future Past, comfortably slotting herself into another juggernaut of a franchise.

Then there’s The Hunger Games. One thing that struck me about the middle slot of this trilogy is just how bleak and desolate it feels. I suppose, given the three act structure of a film (setup, conflict, resolution) and extrapolating that over a three film arc (or four film arc, as the conclusion will be a two-parter), Josh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games Catching Fire, a reviewthe second one will always be rife with conflict and see the antagonist flex his or her muscles to gain the upper hand. Think Empire Strikes Back and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

On that note, and given the fact most of the audience will have seen the first one, this feel films tougher and more emotionally affecting than the first. Indeed, many of the characters have matured and grown wise to what life is like under this oppressive regime; off and on love interest Peeta and Katniss’s sister Primrose are typical examples. The latter calmly taking a needle from her mother’s shaking hands to sedate someone after a savage beating.

And talking of beatings, this film has them aplenty (mostly administered by soldiers looking like a cross between storm troopers and extras from a Daft Punk video).Hunger Games Catching Fire5-20131105-172 Austrian director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I am Legend, Water for Elephants) doesn’t let up; there’s precious little in the way of light moments to lift the mood. At times I questioned the 12A certificate (there were a lot of kids in the audience at my screening). However there was minimal cause for concern, in the event of a violent act the director would invariably cut away at the last moment, something no doubt advised by the studio to make the broader kid-friendly certificate. A tactic to save kids’ sensibilities perhaps, but still psychologically affects us adults, as we can fill in the gaps.

This is only really an observation though. Lawrence has taken the reins of this franchise in able fashion, proving he can handle action, drama and quieter character moments equally well. He’s also avoided directorial flair for the most part, letting the cast grow in their roles. jennifer-Lawrence-on-fire-in-New-Hunger-Games-Catching-Fire-Trailer-3As you’d expect, the focus is by and large firmly kept on Lawrence’s Katniss – we see everything from her point of view. And rightly so, she’s not only the catalyst and linchpin for the entire story, but also a tough female protagonist, something of which we’ve not seen on the big screen in a long time.

Hence perhaps why Jennifer Lawrence is fast becoming a favourite of tinseltown. In years past Hollywood has taken Oscar winners and tried to turn them into action/superheroes and failed (Hallie Berry, Catwoman; Charlize Theron, Aeon Flux; hell even Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider to an extent), perhaps lack of success was down to poor script, a weak director, sub-standard supporting cast… Who knows.

ID_D37_14785.dngNow, however, it feels right. Lawrence feels right. Maybe the industry has just finally got its act together. I’ve been a fan of hers since Winter’s Bone and, for me, she’s not put a foot wrong (please Jennifer, stay away from run-of-the-mill rom-coms!). And with Francis Lawrence directing the concluding two-parter of this tale, it looks to be in most competent hands. President Snow, watch your back… And your front. In fact, just watch out. Katniss is coming, she’s mad as hell and she just won’t take it anymore.

Natalie Portman’s top 5 performances

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natalie portmanThis piece slightly follows on from my recent post on how Hayden Christensen ruined Star Wars. After writing I began to think about the other actors in those films, particularly Natalie Portman and how highly I rate her work.

Other than Leon in 1994, her first major role as an adult actress was Star Wars. She was cast in 1997 – just 3 years after Leon – with the first film out in 1999. That said, I didn’t really become a fan until 2004 and her indie phase.

Her appeal for me is that – in terms of actresses that combine brains and beauty and mix up Hollywood blockbusters with cool, little indie films – she’s one of the best. Let’s look at what I consider to be her best performances.

  1. Black Swan (2010)
    This obviously has to make the top spot. Portman won an Academy award as Best Actress for her role as Nina – perhaps drawing on earlier experience playing characters in Closer and V for Vendetta – she gave a mesmerising, unsettling and yet captivating performance which firmly pushed her into the A list.
  2. natalie portmanLeon (1994)
    What can we say about her performance in this one? Holding her own against big names; Jean Reno, Gary Oldman etc. Without her performance here we may never have had Hanna – a super cool film with Saoirse Ronan. Also, Gareth Evans – Director of critically-acclaimed film The Raid – cited Leon as a major influence.
  3. Garden State (2004)
    I loved her in this – so sweet and vulnerable, yet bubbly and optimistic. A perfect contrast to Zach Braff’s dour character. It’s roles like this that cemented her in my mind as one of my favourite actresses. The ultimate girl-next-door who listens to The Shins and makes you love life!
  4. natalie portmanV for Vendetta (2005)
    She got a hard time for her accent in this – swinging from super posh to cor blimey Dick Van Dyke. However she gave the character – Evey – a perfect mix of strength and vulnerability. Plus how many actresses do you know that would shave their head for a role and end up looking more beautiful?
  5. Closer (2004)
    Released the same year as Garden State and a brave breakaway from her relatively wooden turn in Star Wars (I blame Lucas, he’s known for giving actors little direction or getting much out of them). Here she uses her brilliant mix of vulnerability and sexuality to full effect – although the scene where Jude Law’s character breaks up with her is heartbreaking – how could he? It’s like kicking a puppy, she’s so lovely.

So there’s my list, what do you think? Any missing that you feel should have made the cut?

What’s next for our Natalie?
In terms of future projects, she’s in Terence Malick’s Knight of Cups which is in pre-production. Although he’s known for editing out big actors, so who knows if she’ll appear much in the finished film. Let’s hope so. She currently filming Thor: The Dark World, plus a few rumoured films for 2014.

I’ll leave you with her audition tape from Leon. Worth watching more than once, there’s subtle expressions she gives you might miss first time round. She displays a sharp wit, sassy nature, intelligence and maturity – no wonder she got the part.

Brilliance of Brad Pitt: his top 10 best performances

fight club brad pittFor this post I’d like to discuss the career and my chosen favourite roles of Mr William Bradley Pitt. But where are some of his recent critically acclaimed films you may ask? Well, I can only list films I’ve seen and I have yet to see Tree of Life, Moneyball and Babel, so cannot include them. From what I’ve heard, they’d probably make my list. Alas, not this time.

  1. Tyler Durden, Fight Club (1999)
    Mesmerising scenes, endlessly quotable dialogue. Became a cult hit largely due to Pitt’s character and performance. Raw, edgy, masculine and totally cool.
  2. Detective David Mills, Se7en (1995)
    Here he convinced as a young, headstrong detective. The conflicting emotions portrayed in the climactic scene were astounding.
  3. Lt. Aldo Raine, Inglourious Basterds (2009)
    Perfectly cast as the leader of the Basterds, with some great comic moments. His Italian scene was a classic.
  4. John Smith, Mr and Mrs Smith (2005)
    Take two of the most attractive and charismatic stars in the world, throw in assassination, action and zinging one liners and what do you get? Pure chemistry.
  5. Louis du point du lac, Interview with the Vampire (1994)
    Beautiful and distant with deep, melancholic eyes, Pitt played Louis the conflicted vampire perfectly. Watch his revenge scene.
  6. Jeffrey Goines, Twelve Monkeys (1995)
    Twitchy, edgy, mischievous and full of mayhem. He was nominated for an Academy Award and won a Golden Globe for his performance in one of Terry Gilliam’s best films.
  7. Jesse James, The Assassination of Jesse James (2007)
    This film divided critics. It’s beautifully shot with a strong, understated performance from Pitt. He gives James a melancholic weariness, which is both troubling and beautiful. The assassination scene will stay with you.
  8. Mickey O’Neil, Snatch (2000)
    With an accent that was impossible to understand, Pitt’s take on the hard-fighting pikey gypsy was truly memorable. Switching effortlessly from wisecracking to intense, unwavering aggression.
  9. Floyd, True Romance (1993)
    A year before – what I consider – his breakout role in Interview with the Vampire, he appeared as a stoner providing comic relief in this Tarantino scripted, Tony Scott directed film. Don’t con-den-sen-in me man!
  10. Jerry Welbach, The Mexican (2001)
    Hapless, romantic, but well-meaning. Pitt gives Jerry a warmth and charm so you root for him throughout. An underrated performance.

In terms of characters, a mixed bunch. For me, Pitt is at his best when combining comedy and intensity. With the exception of Se7en, Interview with the Vampire and Jesse James, the rest of my list are – to a degree – comically driven characters. Or at least, that’s how he played them.

I think what defines a lot of his performances is charisma. Magnetism, sex appeal, the ability to hold the screen – whatever you want to call it, all the best have it. Take his scenes in True Romance as an example. Genius.