Oscar Hopefuls – 2012

So, the film awards season draws near again, kicked off in earnest by the (hopefully) irreverent Ricky Gervais taking the mick out of various celebrities as he hosts the Golden Globes for the third and apparently final time, and ending with the grand dame of them all, the Oscars. As ever, it’s been a funny year for seeing what is on the radar, and what isn’t. The excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Drive haven’t had much of a showing so far, while the mediocre-looking The Descendants has attracted what seems like an undue amount of attention. Indeed, it’s been a year where slight films have prospered, with Woody Allen’s pleasant but unexceptional Midnight In Paris being lauded to the skies, apparently on the grounds it’s better than anything he’s done in years. Well, at least it isn’t Match Point or Cassandra’s Dream.

Anyway I’ve now seen a few of the more obvious hopefuls, and have a few thoughts on each:

The Artist

Apparently the current frontrunner at the Oscars, Michel Hazanavicius’ charming film has attracted much attention because it’s both in black and white, and silent. (Purists might note that it’s also filmed in academy ratio of 1.33:1.) I’d hesitate to call it the epoch-defining classic that some have called it, but it’s undeniably extremely compelling. It retreads the time-honoured story of A Star Is Born, with the difference that the fading actor George Valentin (played, in a star-making turn, by Jean Dujardin) is a thoroughly decent and honourable sort, and that the up-and-coming star, Peppy Miller (the equally charming  Bérénice Bejo) wants nothing more than to do right by the object of her affection. It isn’t as deliriously feelgood as the reviews might suggest, with an air of gentle melancholy being the pervading atmosphere, but it’s a lovely tribute to the good ol’ days of Hollywood, helped by indelible supporting performances by John Goodman (as a cigar-chewing studio head) and James Cromwell (as Dujardin’s loyal chauffeur). And, of course, the dog (Uggy) is excellent.

Girl With A Dragon Tattoo

Early reports indicated that uber-producer Scott Rudin and David Fincher wanted to set up a new franchise with their American (although, crucially, not Americanized) adaptation of Steig Larsson’s best-selling trilogy, but that this franchise would be defiantly R-rated and adult, containing all the charming details that the books are known for, not least anal rape, incest and serial killing. This has been borne out, perhaps rather too well, given the film’s as-yet uncertain box office performance. Its main draw is the astonishing performance by Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, the presumably autistic computer hacker who is recruited by disgraced journalist Michael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to help solve an age-old murder on a Swedish island. Mara, playing down her usual good looks, is appealingly vulnerable at the same time as being tough, and is helped by Fincher’s muscular direction, incorporating his usual touches of jet-black humour; a serial killer, preparing to dispatch his victim, puts on Enya’s ‘Orinoco Flow’ as mood music. Only a rather superfluous globetrotting last act spoils it, but the strengths until then (including a nicely judged performance by Christopher Plummer as the patriarch of a truly rotten family and the stunning credits sequence) are considerable.

War Horse

Or, Spielberg makes a British film. Based on both Michael Morpugo’s novel and, more obviously, the National’s ever-running show, it showcases most of his strengths and most of his weaknesses, often at the same time. As ever with Spielberg, the casting (Cumberbatch, Hiddleston, Mullan, Niels Arestrup) is impeccable, the production values superb and the action scenes brilliantly choreographed and executed. Unfortunately, by choosing to make literal what both the book and play treated at least partly metaphorically, there’s a certain clunkiness, not least in the first act, which plods almost as much as the rejected shire horse that the titular thoroughbred Joey is bought instead of. As he forms a bond with his young owner (Jeremy Irvine, less impressive than some young Spielberg stars), and the wicked landlord (David Thewlis) schemes to evict the family from their cottage, you wonder why on earth the director bothered. As it goes into more episodic territory with the arrival of WWI, it offers tremendous set-pieces and indelible cameos, even as it serves up unlikely plot developments and all the sentiment you’d expect from a collaboration with Richard Curtis. Still very worth seeing, mind.



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