Catching up with Movies and the Oscars

by Sandra Olmsted

The Academy Award nominations will be announced on Thursday Jan. 10 (today) , and there are still some films which deserve a bit more than mention.  Although Lincoln is touted as likely to sweep the nominations, The Impossible, Les Misérables, Django Unchained, and Promised Land are some other films which opened in the last weeks that might get an Oscar nod or two.

The Impossible  Despite the fact that the real Belon family who experienced these true events was Spanish and the characters are British, director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez captures the emotional realism of the Belon family who were literally swept away by the December 26 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Maria (Naomi Watts), a doctor, and Henry (Ewan McGregor), British businessman, and their three sons, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) are happily spending their Christmas holidays at a Thai beach resort when the disaster strikes. The story initially follows Maria as she is swept away from and propels back towards Lucas in the swirling mass of the 98 foot high tsunami.

Eventually, they find dry ground and a hospital, but Maria knows she has sustained devastating injuries from which she may not recover. Unwilling to let Lucas watch her die, she sends him to help others in the overwhelmed hospital. Meanwhile, Henry, Thomas, and Simon have also survived, but Henry is torn between caring for his small sons and searching for his beloved wife and eldest son. Aid is slow in coming; communication is almost nonexistent; hard choices must be made, and miracles are few and far between.

The Oscars nods will likely include Felix Berges and his team’s visual effects.  The stunning recreation for the tsunami required seamless integration of  Thailand sets, a Spain liquid tank, several thousand gallons of water, and sweeping scenes of large-scale destruction with horrific sights and sounds of Maria’s POV as of being repeatedly pulled beneath the swirling, raging waters, the spinning debris and bodies, and mud. Other Oscar nods should include Bayona’s lean, powerful direction, Sanchez’s equally lean and powerful script, Fernando Velazquez’s surging, swirling score, and Watts’ performance; possible noms may come for Holland’s portrayal of Lucas, Oscar Faura’s cinematography, and Elena Ruiz and Bernat Vilapana’s editing. Rated PG-13 for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity. 103 minutes. English and Thai dialogue and subtitles.

Les Misérables  Director Tom Hooper brings the Schönberg-Boublil-Kretzmer musical version Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel about social inequality, injustice, and redemption beautifully to the big screen without losing the feel of musical theater. The score remains magnificent and propels the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), an ex-con, and Javert (Russell Crowe), a former prison guard, who spends decades pursuing Valjean. Having served 19 years for stealing bread, Valjean illegally sheds his convict stigma and redeems himself by contributing as a kindly factor owner and socially conscience small town mayor.

Javert showing up as the new police inspector coincides with Valjean’s foreman mistreating and firing Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who turns to prostitution to pay the Thénardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen) to raise her daughter Cosette. Eventually, Valjean must confess who he is and rescue Cosette from the dishonest, thieving, and amusing disgusting Thénardiers, who are the comic relief. Even with Javert fixated on catching him, Valjean succeeds again and raises Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) to be a generous young woman, who then falls in love with Marius (Redmayne), a wealthy young man embroiled in idealistic revolution.

Thénardiers’ daughter, Eponine (Samantha Barks), is also a revolutionary and is also in love with Marius. Despite the soap-opera-esque plot, Les Misérables is well worth seeing because the story is told in a magnificent way through the songs which each characters sings in place of the dialogue usually used in screen adaptations of musicals. The vocals are uniformly strong, except for Crowe’s, but he makes up for it with acting talent. Hathaway, whose role is small, again shows what a great talent and performer she is. Jackman, who has considerable stage experience, also show that he has the range to carry this dramatic musical. A Universal release, Les Misérables is rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements and runs 157 minutes.

Django Unchained  Writer director Quentin Tarantino channels classic and spaghetti Westerns, a German legend, American slavery, and blaxploitation films for a delightful mix tape of plot twists, typical Tarantino bloodbaths, and revisionist history. Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) a German immigrant posing aa dentist while working as a bounty hunter, needs a slave who can recognize former overseers who are criminals. Although opposed to slavery, King takes advantage of it while traveling in the American South by posing as the owner of Django (Jamie Foxx), the slave who can identify the overseers. While the men become friends and King also trains Django to be a skilled bounty hunter, there is one more job they must do before they part company. Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) has been sold separately from Django to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the cruel owner of Candyland plantation.

Just as Siegfield rescued his beloved from a terrible dragon, Djago vows to save Broomhilda, and King assists. The script is straightforward, but lacks logic in how King and Django suddenly decide that a direct approach will not work for purchasing Broomhilda when a direct approach has worked every time before. The film has moments of pure fun, such as Django’s choice of a neon blue Little Lord Fauntleroy suit before he changes to a real cowboy’s wardrobe. But the film also has plenty of Tarantino’s signature gore and brilliantly red blood, which are accentuated by the otherwise muted tones of J. Michael Riva’s production design.

DiCaprio steals the show as a smooth-talking, elegant young gentleman and Samuel L. Jackson as Old Stephen, a slave who runs Candyland for his master, is riveting and, although in few scenes, steals them all. Acting nods are likely for Waltz, DiCaprio, and Jackson, but unfortunately, the Django character lacks some extra dimensions which may mean no nom for Foxx.  Because Riva died during filming, there maybe a nod for his production design, and Robert Richardson’s cinematography.

Django Unchained, a Weinstein Co./Sony Pictures Entertainment release, rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity and runs 165 minutes.

Promised Land  Director Gus Van Sant and screenwriters John Krasinski and Matt Damon adapt Dave Eggers’s story of Global Crosspower Solutions, a $9-billion energy corporation, its salesman, Steve Butler (Damon), and an economically-distressed farming community. Butler, a farm boy turned corporate over achiever, and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), come to McKinley, PA to buy up the rights to natural gas under the struggling town. While Sue is a divorced mom just doing her job, Steve really believes he is offering the community a way to save the farming life by fracking the natural gas out of the soil using pressurized water laced with chemicals. The local science teacher, Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) calls for a community vote because he knows that the science is flawed and that obscene amounts of money will destroy the community. Then, Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a farm boy turn environmentalist, shows up competing with Steve for the attentions of Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), the beautiful school teacher, and claiming fracking poisoned the water on his family farm.

Because Damon’s Steve truly believes in what he is doing, the conflict is more his coming to terms with whether he is on the right side or not than between the characters, which are underdeveloped and a waste of such talent. Promised Land, a Focus Features and Danny Elfman’s inspiring score, both of which are Oscar worth. 106 min; rated R for language.


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