And the Oscar goes to…Flux’s Best Picture nominee round-up

Amour

Georges ( Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuele Riva), a married couple in their eighties, face the greatest test of their lifelong love when Anne begins to display symptoms of dementia. After a few solemn credits, Amour begins as it does not mean to continue: with a battering ram crashing through a door.

For all its emotional weight and hard-hitting subject-matter, this is not a film which lays on heavy sentimentality, or beats its audience to death with dramatics and posturing. Instead, Amour allows itself into a viewer’s head politely through the back door, closing the door behind itself and locking it, so that it may never leave.

George and Anna are a typical ageing couple, reliant on each other in a comfortable symbiosis, ambling through their final years with music, concerts, friendly neighbours and boiled eggs. When Anna begins to gradually descend into poor health (heralded by a hair-raising episode), there is no quibble or qualm from George in becoming her manservant, her home-help, and a lot more as the film progresses.

Though the subject of the film may turn some prospective viewers, this is primarily not a film about illness, but as the title suggests: “Amour.” The unwavering affection of George, old and slightly grumpy, is the medicine to his wife’s deteriorating condition. Unfortunately, this medicine is relatively weak in comparison to the huge struggles which face her.

The indignities which begin to rumble in the door as Anne succumbs to her dementia are all the more tough to watch when her fall from grace is considered within the context of her life. This poised and graceful musician gradually fades before our eyes. The most painful part is not watching, but observing as faithful George bears witness to it.
Eammanuele Riva embraces a fiendishly difficult role and wrestles it to the ground, making her surely a certainty for the Best Actress Oscar. Never once is her performance cliché or over-pronounced, she is nuanced, subtle and utterly heart-breaking as the woman who has her life slowly stolen from her. Equally impressive is as her husband George, and it is these two characters and their love for one another which is the motor of the film. Only once do we leave the apartment, bringing the nightmare of this disease down on top us, smothering us in a claustrophobic huddle of long lingering shots – director Haneke allows the action to play out and breathe within the frame of the camera, but no further shall we go.

The lack of instrumental music and the focus on our two protagonists serve to make this film a short and sharp smack to the face, unpleasant and unadorned. But this is a monumentally important piece, daring the audience to think of love not just as a passionate kiss at dusk, but also as the continuing embrace long after the sun has set.

BEST BIT: The one moment when George loses patience, probably the best piece of drama across the nominees.
WORST BIT: You will cry.
AWARDS: Best Actress, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Original Screenplay.

Silver Linings Playbook (dir. David O. Russell)

With Silver Linings Playbook, we get a film that utterly charms its audience from the beginning. Beginning with Pat (Cooper) arriving home from a mental institution, we’re immediately immersed in the tone of the film, which is unusual to say the least, but by no means unpleasant.

It’s difficult to place a genre on Silver Linings Playbook, and one can’t help but wonder if director David O. Russell knows the answer himself. Meandering from melodrama, to Judd Apatow comedy, to High School Musical schmaltz, I personally found myself adjusting my expectations from scene to scene. Was I supposed to laugh at that scene? Is he being serious there? Can Chris Tucker be any more annoying?

Having said that, this is a film that has a lot going for it, and certainly deserves its place in the Oscar nomination playbook. Its best asset is its tight, smart script, which only begins to unravel towards the final act.

Outshining her co-stars is Jennifer Lawrence, who follows up a stellar performance in Winter’s Bone to surely claim the Oscar denied her first time around. She is dry, and as the emotionally fragile Tiffany, she is the highlight of the film. This is generally a strong cast, with Bradley Cooper genuinely impressing as the delusional Pat, who obsesses over his estranged girlfriend (a storyline which Russell seems to toss out at the finale). Cooper now has a chance to show off his considerable acting chops, and is a pleasure to watch. Robert De Niro almost makes up for Fockering up his career, but it’s hard to see him nabbing the Best Supporting gong from his competition.

Silver Linings Playbook could be described as quirky, feel-good, thought-provoking, but in truth it’s more than these quite clichéd phrases. This is a film which deals with, above all else, family.

All in all, this is a strong, smart film which owes a hell of a lot to its cast. A strained and Mighty Ducks-esque finale mars its overall enjoyability, but by in large this is a film which may well tell you a bit more about yourself, and about your family.

BEST BIT: Jennifer Lawrence’s turn as an emotionally repressed, yet extremely expressive young woman.
WORST: The last ten minutes. Spoiler: it’s bad.
AWARDS: Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and watch out for Bradley Cooper for Best Actor, if he can derail the Day Lewis train.

Les Miserables (dir. Tom Hooper)

First off, let’s be clear: I was disappointed by the film adaptation of Les Miserables. Of course, I probably could have told you that before I saw it. Les Mis is my favourite musical of all time (can recite all the words, just throwing it out there), but it seemed inevitable that hamstrung by the restraints of a cinema screen, Les Mis would miss the mark which it’s stage version hits every time. And it did.

I wanted to love it. It is, as the trailers growled at us, an epic story of love, hope and belief. But no matter how lofty and worthy your subject matter is (as Lincoln showed us), it don’t mean a thing if it ‘aint got that swing.

Is it unfair to compare Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Jean Valjean with Colm Wilkinson? Russell Crowe with Philip Quast as Javert? Eddie Redmayne facing down Michael Ball (well, we did have Nick bleedin’ Jonas). Perhaps it is, but this film is up for an Oscar, and dammit it had better be good!

Is it good? Of course it is, it’s Les Miserables. But was this the right medium for it?

It’s not like musicals and cinema don‘t go together, this has been proven by the golden age of cinema in the 40s and 50s, when a film lost serious credit if it didn’t have at least high-kicking chorus line. Mammoths of the genre like West Side Story, Cabaret and The Sound of Music demonstrate to us the beauty of a well-written musical on screen, where the two medium click with each other and soar like a well-sung harmony. But in Les Mis, at times one feels like the camera is getting in the way.

I would advise readers who have never heard the musical to take a minute now to listen to a few tracks, but I know it will take over your life the minute the first song begins and you’ll never read this to the end. So stay put for now, and just postpone the epiphany for a moment.

Tom Hooper, who has a somewhat thin CV (tip of the cap for the Oscar though Tom), was an odd choice for this film, with producer Mackintosh selecting him over more obvious and musically-savvy choices. The result is a lavish production, but one which struggles to take off the ground, thundering clumsily along the ground with a few odd moments of flight, much like an obese chicken.

The rare moments of airborne glory are spectacular, however. Anne Hathaway plays, as GAA fans would say, “a blinder”, with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” surely securing her the Oscar. Hooper fixes the camera on her for one continuous shot, and lets her do what she does best. This is a wise decision, stripping the song back to most key elements, but as he attempts to do the same with Eponine’s show-stopper, “On My Own”, the old phrase comes to mind: “a magician should never repeat his tricks.” If only Anne could stay longer, for as soon as she passes on, a much scarier character lumbers into the room, both literally and metaphorically.

Russell Crowe is bad. And not in a “bad-ass” sort of way, as Javert should be. He is just bad. If fans of the musical wanted a real reason to hate this film, Hooper and Mackintosh have handed it to them on a plate. From his very first scene, Crowe’s strained and wandering warbling completely deflates the exhilaration and dread of every one of Javert’s songs. The fans deserve better, the material deserves better, and his fellow cast-members deserve better. For Mackintosh, this casting choice makes Jonas look like Alfie Boe.

Happily, the rest of the cast all pull off their characters with aplomb, special mentions to Eddie Redmayne’s gorgeous voice (and freckles). Amanda Seyfried is also excellent, no doubt happy to shrug off the dungarees of Mamma Mia. The Thenardiers are also genuinely funny, with Helena Bonham Carter doing what she does best, a generally vacant look with dark eyes and frazzled hair.

And so we arrive at the centre of the piece, the role which many actors have wrestled with, to varying degrees of success. Happily, with his portrayal of Jean Valjean, Hugh Jackman places himself neatly among the best of the Valjeans. This role is a titanic role, and one upon which the entire film precariously balances. Jackman has the pipes, he has the rugged masculinity, and in my opinion, he has the Oscar.

All in all, this is a contradiction of a film. While the music is great and the script is epic, the clumsy hands of an inexperienced director and a star-struck casting manager have dented its credibility, and ultimate enjoyability. If it has little else, it has the score of the most beautiful musical ever written.

One can’t help but feel the greasy hands of the money-men on Les Miserables, a mix-up of values which seem to make this production rather industrial, with less entertainment value. As Valjean reminds his fore-man: “This is a factory, not a circus.”

BEST: Anne Hathway giving us the dream we dreamt of.
WORST: Russell Crowe, the butcher of Boubil.
AWARDS: Best Actor for Jackman, Best Supporting Actress for Hathway, Best Freckles in a Supporting Role.

Nick Sheridan

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