Sunday, March 30, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

movie review: in the picture

Dallas Buyers Club ****

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Tagline: Dare to live.

Matthew McConaughey’s transformation from rom-com heartthrob to ‘serious actor’ has been nothing short of phenomenal. The 44-year-old has mounted a career resurgence that has been both surprising and impressive, and has astutely capped his comeback with an Oscar-winning performance in the remarkable Dallas Buyers Club.

Set in the 1980s and inspired by true events, the movie follows the story of Texan electrician Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), who spends his time chasing women and hustling people at the rodeo. But after he is diagnosed with AIDS and given an estimated 30 days left to live – a prognosis he initially refuses to accept – Ron loses his friends, his job, and his home. Desperate not to lose his life, he tries to seek treatment, only to realize not much help is available.

In the hopes that he can benefit from a trial drug, AZT, which is still being tested and is not widely available, he bribes a hospital worker to acquire the pills, but despite its use, his health deteriorates. He is eventually led to a hospital in Mexico, where a doctor who has lost his license prescribes him alternative medication that improves his health. Ron sees this as a business opportunity, and starts smuggled these unapproved drugs into the United States and selling them to other AIDS patients who are unable to get what they need through the medical system.

Assisting him in this venture is Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender AIDS patient whom the homophobic Ron is initially antagonistic towards but then reluctantly teams up with and eventually befriends and grows to respect. Together they set up the Dallas Buyers Club, which becomes extremely popular despite being targeted by the FDA for dispensing unapproved drugs.

A poignant portrayal of struggling with a fatal disease and a less-than-helpful system as well as the lack of acceptance and tolerance for the patients, the movie makes good use of all its elements and puts them together skilfully. The shades of grey that have been written into the script help make the characters seem more real. Ron, for instance, isn’t a saint, and the writers haven’t tried to pass him off as one. He is selfish and rowdy but also impassioned and charismatic, which is why his journey from homophobia to compassion is all the more powerful.

It also helps, of course, that he is being portrayed masterfully by McConaughey, and it’s not just his much talked about weight loss and physical transformation but also his dramatic flair in the role that has won him so much acclaim. Matching (and perhaps even outshining) him is the amazing Jared Leto. Rayon is not an easy role to pull off, but he does so with tenderness and grace, and keeps his character’s humanity intact without slipping into cliché and caricature. And despite the fact that his character isn’t based on a real person, Leto’s Rayon is powerful and complex, and perhaps the most touching and memorable element of the movie.

Also of note is the performance by Griffin Dunne as the unlicensed American doctor in Mexico. And although Jennifer Garner’s Eve Saks, the doctor who catches Ron’s eye, is perhaps a little too generic, the actress performs well in the role.

As with most Hollywood biographical dramas, Dallas Buyers Club’s focus isn’t on factual accuracy and it isn’t exactly an unimpeachable portrayal of reality. But it’s the film’s moving tale combined with the performances of its main actors that make the movie so affecting. Plus the occasional sardonic humor keeps the proceedings from getting too dry. Stirring and inspiring, Dallas Buyers Club is well-crafted and proficiently executed, and powered by two strong acting performances that are poignant, memorable, and, perhaps most importantly, heartbreakingly human.

- Sameen Amer 

Instep, The News on Sunday - 30th March, 2014 *

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

movie review: in the picture

Inside Llewyn Davis ***3/4

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake, F. Murray Abraham, Stark Sands, and Adam Driver
Written and directed by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Inspired by the memoirs of singer Dave Van Ronk, the Coen brothers delve into the folk music scene of early ’60s Greenwich Village in their latest film Inside Llewyn Davis, the story of a struggling folk singer, marred by a series of misfortunes mostly of his own making.

We meet Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) at The Gaslight Cafe in 1961, as he gives an earnest rendition of a traditional folk song to a small but captivated audience. Formerly part of a promising folk duo, he is down to performing on his own after losing his musical partner. But things aren’t going quite as well as he would have hoped. No one’s buying his album; he has no money and no place to live; and his bad luck and bad attitude affect everyone – human or feline – who crosses his path.

He shuffles from couch to couch, staying with friends and acquaintances, including the folk duo and couple Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), but then we find out that he has slept with Jean behind Jim’s back. He lodges at his older friends, the Gorfeins’ (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett) place, then loses their cat. He is rude to his sister (Jeanine Serralles), dismissive of everyone who is just “existing”, and when he gets the occasional chance at redemption, he doesn’t stops to take it. In short, he is, as Jean puts it, “like King Midas’ idiot brother”.

So yes, the film’s central character isn’t a very nice person and the viewer isn’t given many reasons to root for him. But while we may not end up with a favourable opinion of Llewyn Davis, he is still an interesting protagonist. As he struggles through his messy life with no triumph in sight, his melancholic existence makes for a contemplative yarn, and the Coen brothers play well with this kind of darkness, augmenting it occasionally with their standard whimsy. But much like its protagonist, the film is perhaps a tad too self-absorbed; it doesn’t always have a sense of purpose or follow a concrete course, and its pieces don’t necessarily fit seamlessly.

Its cast is one of the movie’s strengths. Most of the supporting actors don’t have big roles, but they all play them well. Carey Mulligan is fierce as the scathed Jean. The ever dependable John Goodman is predictably awesome in the role of the junkie jazzman that Llewyn meets on a journey, despite the fact that his character eventually feels like a passing distraction on a random detour. But ultimately it is Oscar Isaac who is in charge of the whole film, so it’s fortunate that he very perfectly embodies the scruffy folk musician, both as an actor and a singer.

Despite the fact that he is deemed to be good but not great, Llewyn’s music makes for a compelling listen. The soundtrack sees the Coen brothers once again work with T-Bone Burnett (who previously collaborated with them on the Grammy award winning O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and who went on to win an Oscar for his work on Crazy Heart), and comprises primarily of the cast’s rendition of traditional folk songs, mostly performed and recorded live. The selection is heavily influenced by Dave Van Ronk’s work and fits well with the setting.

Overall, Inside Llewyn Davis takes us back in time through the story of a character who might not deserve our sympathy (and is perhaps more subverted than necessary) but makes for a compelling case study. Visually, the film is skilfully crafted, and very evocative of the era it is set in, with the cinematography bringing the harsh New York winter to life. And it isn’t a surprise that the setting feels authentic, since most of the songs and venues are real, and many of the characters are inspired by real people; being familiar with the era and its music will add more context to the proceedings. Because of its loose structure, the movie might be trying for those who like a clear, direct, well defined, and fast paced approach, and the protagonist might leave some viewers weary. But those who enjoy the Coens’ brand of storytelling and are interested in folk music are likely to find this character’s odyssey intriguing.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 23rd March, 2014 *

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Monuments Men

movie review: in the picture

The Monuments Men **1/2

Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett
Directed by: George Clooney
Screenplay by: George Clooney and Grant Heslov
Tagline: It was the greatest art heist in history

Among the many havocs wrecked by war is the destruction of culturally significant artefacts that hold historical value for a land, its people, and the world at large. It is the saviours of these pieces of art and architecture that are the subject of George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, The Monuments Men.

Based on a slice of history that was captured by Robert M. Edsel in his book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, the film assembles a cast that includes some of Hollywood’s most dependable names to bring this fascinating tale to life. It’s a remarkable story that seems perfect for the big screen, and it has a great cast. Which is precisely why it’s so surprising that the film is such a drag.

It’s the spring of 1944, and as World War II ravages through Europe, some of the “greatest historical achievements known to man” lie in its dangerous path. The Nazis have plundered art collections, looting and hiding painting and sculptures, many of which are intended to end up in Adolf Hitler’s planned Führermuseum. To counter their efforts, a group of middle aged art experts, including artists, historians, and architects, are pulled together and sent to the war zone in order to track down and identify the great works, then rescue them, and return them to their rightful owners.

To play the roles of these art connoisseurs (most of which are loosely based on real people), the filmmakers have recruited an amazing set of actors that includes the likes of Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Matt Damon, with George Clooney himself in the lead and Cate Blanchett portraying a Parisian curator with knowledge of the whereabouts of the missing pieces. But instead of writing three dimensional characters, Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov have chosen to rely on the actors and their inherent goodwill to breathe life into these roles. The attempts at character development are few and feeble, and we don’t really get to see these individuals as anything other than the actors portraying them.

As the men are split into groups and sent off on separate missions (robbing us of the chance of seeing them together for a huge chunk of the movie), the film starts to get increasingly haphazard. Occasionally it seems like a collage of scattered, disconnected scenes erratically put together, lacking the kind of focus and polish you would expect from the personnel associated with it.

Amidst its blend of war, heist, comedy, and drama, The Monuments Men never finds a consistent tone, nor manages to achieve the right mix between its constructs, and eventually comes off as uneven and patchy. The movie lacks the tension, urgency, and suspense that should fuel its unusual adventure; its attempts at comedy simply don’t work; and its triumphs and tragedies have little dramatic impact. It’s a film about art, yet art is the very thing it lacks, both in its execution and more literally in its visuals. Clooney’s repeated sermonizing about how art is “the very foundation of modern society” could perhaps have been more convincingly illustrated if more light was shed on the priceless artefacts at the film’s heart.the-monuments-men-image06

The tragedy here is that The Monuments Men could have been a really good movie; it definitely had all the necessary pieces, but it’s in putting those pieces together properly that Clooney has faltered. The film simply isn’t well constructed. Both the movie and its occupants lack personality. It is a fascinating story, presented in an erratic fashion with an odd aversion to specifics, and it attempts to make the case that art is worth dying for without focusing on the art itself. To its credit, the movie does seem well intentioned and earnest, and treats its subject matter with reverence (and it is very likely to inspire you to search for more works on the same topic), but it is ultimately let down by its uneven tone and a subpar script. Yet The Monuments Men still remains watchable, thanks largely to its excellent cast and intriguing story, even though both the story and the cast deserve better.

- Sameen Amer 

Instep, The News on Sunday - 16th March, 2014 *

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

And the dishonour goes to...

awards fever

While the award season celebrates some of the best achievements in filmmaking, there is also room to acknowledge some of the worst, and that's exactly what the Golden Raspberry Awards aim to do, handing out statues for the least impressive movies and acting jobs of the year.

The 34th edition of the Razzies was held one day before the Oscars. The night's big winners? Movie 43 and After Earth!

The star-studded sketch comedy anthology Movie 43, which has been labelled as one of the worst films ever made, was deemed the Worst Picture of 2013, beating nominees Grown Ups 2, The Lone Ranger, A Madea Christmas, and After Earth to claim the title. Populated by an ensemble cast that includes the likes to Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman, Naomi Watts, Richard Gere, Anna Faris, Emma Stone, Elizabeth Banks, Halle Berry, Uma Thurman, and Gerard Butler, Movie 43 plays as a sequence of different skits, featuring unrelated, tasteless scenarios. The 13 people who directed the film together won the Worst Director award, while its entire roster of 19 writers shared the Worst Screenplay prize.

The acting categories were dominated by the Smith family for their critically panned vanity project After Earth, often viewed as Will Smith's attempt to boost his son Jaden's movie career. The sci-fi action adventure was directed by M. Night Shyamalan and follows the story of a father and son trying to survive after crash landing on a ravaged Earth. The film won the Smiths three Razzies: Worst Actor for Jaden Smith, Worst Supporting Actor for Will Smith, and Worst Screen Combo for the collective duo.

Tyler Perry was named the Worst Actress for donning the persona of Madea in A Madea Christmas, while socialite Kim Kardashian was declared the Worst Supporting Actress for her role in Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor. And Worst Picture nominee The Lone Ranger finished first in the Worst Prequel, Remake, Rip-off, or Sequel category.

Adam Sandler's Grown Ups 2 had led the nominations with a total of nine appearance in eight of the nine categories, but failed to take home any of the gold spray-painted trophies.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 5th March, 2014 *

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Oscar couldn’t defy Gravity, and other non-surprises on Hollywood’s biggest night

awards fever

Hollywood's finest gathered to celebrate the achievements in filmmaking for the 86th Academy Awards on Sunday night, honouring some of the best work of last year. Now that the awards have been handed out and the winners announced, let's take a look at how the night's proceedings went…

The host and ceremony

Ellen DeGeneres returned as the host for a second time (having previously helming the ceremony in 2007) as the organizers opted to go with a safe choice after last year's proceedings, hosted by Seth MacFarlane, drew criticism for being overly raunchy.

In contrast to 2013, the show was gentle and affable, and the ceremony went along smoothly without any significant hitches. Ellen was her usual charming self, even when her material wasn't at its strongest. She used her fun, amiable approach during her light-hearted banter with the A-list audience, while ordering pizzas (and asking Harvey Weinstein to foot the bill) and taking star-studded selfies.

The latter may perhaps go down as the most memorable antic of the ceremony. In an attempt to break the record for the most retweeted photograph in history, the comedian orchestrated a selfie, eventually taken by Bradley Cooper, that featured a roster of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lawrence, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Kevin Spacey, and Cooper himself. The record was smashed within an hour of the picture being posted on Twitter, although the commotion momentarily broke the social networking website in the process.

The event also featured musical performances by Best Song nominees Pharrell Williams (who gave a standout rendition of 'Happy' and even inspired Lupita Nyong'o, Meryl Streep, and Amy Adams to dance along), Karen O (accompanied by Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig), U2, and Idina Menzel (who was erroneously introduced as “Adele Dazeem” by John Travolta), as well as Pink, who sang 'Over the Rainbow' to honour The Wizard of Oz, and Bette Midler, who crooned 'Wind Beneath My Wings' following the In Memoriam tribute.

The awards

As for the winner, the only surprise of the night was that there were no surprises. As expected, the night belonged to 12 Years a Slave (3 wins), Gravity (7 wins), and Dallas Buyers Club (3 wins).

“Possibility number one: 12 Years a Slave wins best picture. Possibility number two: you're all racists," Ellen quipped as she got the ceremony underway. And sure enough, the heart-wrenching historical drama was crowned the Best Picture of the year, taking home the biggest prize of the night, with director Steve McQueen dedicating the award to “all the people who have endured slavery and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today”. Based on Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir about his harrowing ordeal, the film also won the Best Adapted Screenplay award, while Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o was chosen as the Best Supporting Actress for her depiction of an oppressed slave owned by a ruthless master.

Space thriller Gravity was the biggest winner of the ceremony with 7 wins, many of them for technical achievements. The film took the trophies for Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Film Editing, Visual Effects, Cinematography, and Original Score. Its biggest win came with the Best Director honour, when Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, a first time nominee in this category, won the accolade for helming the ambitious project that is being lauded as a technical marvel.

The actors' categories were dominated by the gentlemen of the terrific Dallas Buyers Club, with Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto picking up the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor awards respectively. Both actors had received acclaim for their physical transformation and for creating convincing portraits of two complex characters. The movie also snagged the Best Makeup and Hairstyling award.

Australian actress Cate Blanchett accepted the Best Actress honour to a standing ovation, winning the award for her role in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, and gave a shout to the gifted actresses who shared her category, while paying tribute to movies featuring strong women in the lead.

Animated movie Frozen and Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of The Great Gatsby also bagged multiple wins, with two accolades each. The Disney musical won the studio its first Best Animated Feature Film trophy, and also took the Best Original Song gong for Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez's empowering 'Let It Go', while Gatsby finished atop the Best Production Design and Best Costume Design lists for its period pieces.

Elsewhere, Spike Jonze won the Original Screenplay nod for Her. Italy's The Great Beauty was chosen as the Best Foreign Language Film. 20 Feet from Stardom and The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life were selected as the Best Documentary Feature and Best Documentary Short. And the Live Action Short Film and Animated Short Film awards went to Helium and Mr. Hublot respectively.

American Hustle, David O. Russell's crime dramedy that had the highest number of nominations along with Gravity, notably went home empty-handed.

All in all, it was an enjoyable night, as the winners were crowned and records broken. And the nominees were even fed! What more can you ask for?

- Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 4th March, 2014 *

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Crystal gaze: Last-minute Oscar predictions

awards fever

After all has been said and done, Sameen Amer takes one final shot at guessing who will bag those golden statuettes tonight...

Some view them as a showcase of talent and a chance to acknowledge artistic achievements; others see them as a parade of wealth and an exercise in mutual back-patting. But no one can deny the fact that award shows can garner massive media and public attention, shining a spotlight on the nominees and winners, and revving up business for important pieces of work. None of them generate more interest than the Oscars, the most prestigious acting and film-making accolades that come by once a year and have movie buffs around the globe transfixed. And yes, it’s precisely that time of the year again.
It will be an evening of glitz and glamour as the Hollywood elite converge at the Dolby Theatre today for the 86th Academy Awards. The delightful Ellen DeGeneres will be in charge of the ceremony, hosting the show for the second time, as the golden statues are handed out for some of the most impressive work of 2013. Here’s a look at the main categories and how the night’s major races are shaping up…

Best Picture
Nominees: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, and The Wolf of Wall Street
If you want proof that 2013 was an impressive year in films, then simply look at the list of the Best Picture nominees and the depth and variety they offer. And if you need still more proof, then just think of the omissions. How did All Is Lost not make the cut? Why was there no love for Inside Llewyn Davis? And whatever became of The Butler?
As for the movies that did get a nomination, six of these nine flicks have something in common: they’re based on real people and actual events. It is no secret that the Academy loves movies based on real life, and like always, this time around reality has helped shape many of these tales of surviving in difficult situations (12 Years a Slave and Captain Phillips), searching for answers (Philomena and Dallas Buyers Club), and corruption and fraud (American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street), all of which have been inspired by true stories. Rounding up the Best Picture list is the inventive love story Her, the lost in space drama Gravity, and the tender black and white comedic gem Nebraska, all worthy contenders.
While guessing which one will emerge victorious is an attempt at predicting the unpredictable, both 12 Years a Slave and Gravity are going into the Oscar race with the most momentum and are likely to battle it out for the night’s biggest award. Based on how well it has done during the award season so far, 12 Years seems like the favourite in this category, and quite deservedly so – its shocking story, strong acting, and skilful execution have won this affecting albeit difficult historical epic many accolades, and it won’t come as a surprise if it takes home the coveted trophy.

Best Director
Nominees: David O. Russell (American Hustle), Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), Alexander Payne (Nebraska), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), and Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Even though David O. Russell’s crime dramedy has been shown much love in the nominations, and despite the fact that Martin Scorsese is, well, Martin Scorsese, neither of them are expected to win the gold in this category tonight. In fact, it is the frontrunners of the Best Picture award that map onto the frontrunners of the Best Director accolade, making it a race between two first-time nominees. The technical wizardry of Alfonso Cuarón in Gravity goes up against the poignant storytelling of Steve McQueen in 12 Years a Slave for the Best Director prize, with Cuarón having an edge for his dexterous execution of the hard-to-film space drama and for intricately bringing its setting to cinematic life, while leaving us wondering how it was done.

Best Actor
Nominees: Christian Bale (American Hustle), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), and Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Five strong performers vie for the Best Actor award, making it a very close race for the Oscar in this category. Dazzling us with their acting skills, we have Christian Bale as a conman forced to set up a sting operation in American Hustle; Bruce Dern as the dementia-struck father in Nebraska; Leonardo DiCaprio as the shady New York stockbroker in The Wolf of Wall Street; Chiwetel Ejiofor as the free man kidnapped and sold into slavery in 12 Years a Slave; and Matthew McConaughey as the AIDS patient struggling with his disease as well as the medical system in Dallas Buyers Club.
While Chiwetel Ejiofor’s role and performance are powerful enough to potentially win him the gong, and even though the Academy may feel like they pretty much owe Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar at this point, the most deserving performer here is Matthew McConaughey for his turn in the brilliant Dallas Buyers Club, both for his physical transformation and for bringing the complex character so convincingly to life.

Best Actress
Nominees: Amy Adams (American Hustle), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Judi Dench (Philomena), and Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)
Amy Adams’ turn as a con artist, Cate Blanchett’s take on a troubled socialite, Sandra Bullock’s struggle for survival as a stranded astronaut, Judi Dench’s search for a lost son, and Meryl Streep’s spin on an unravelling matriarch have earned these five talented ladies a place among the Best Actress candidates. And while all five roles were handles expertly, it’s time for Cate Blanchett to ready her acceptance speech and make room on her shelf for another trophy; she is the clear favourite in this category for what is being termed one of her best performances to date.
Amy Adams could potentially cause an upset here, what with this being her fifth Oscar nomination without a single win so far. But this award really is Blanchett’s to lose. The hoopla around Woody Allen’s personal life can’t diminish her contribution to Blue Jasmine, as her unsettling performance is the driving force behind the movie.
Also, no matter who wins, keep an eye on all of their outfits; the night is sure to generate pages upon pages of “She wore WHAT?! Shoot the stylist!” fodder in entertainment magazines.

Best Supporting Actor
Nominees: Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), Bradley Cooper (American Hustle), Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), and Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Between Bakhad Abdi’s Somali pirate, Bradley Cooper’s curly haired FBI agent, Michael Fassbender’s ruthless slave owner, Jonah Hill’s sleazy sidekick, and Jared Leto’s transgender AIDS patient, there is one actor whose performance very prominently stands out: Jared Leto.
Sure newcomer Bakhad Abdi and the incredible Michael Fassbender will give him a run for his money, but the Oscar belongs to the Dallas Buyers Club actor. In his most prominent role since Requiem for a Dream, Leto wows with his moving take on a complex character, giving one of the most memorable portraits of the year. His performance is so convincing that it doesn’t even look like he’s acting. Who knew the Thirty Seconds to Mars front-man was this good an actor?

Best Supporting Actress
Nominees: Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), Julia Roberts (August: Osage County), and June Squibb (Nebraska)
Jennifer Lawrence’s firecracker of a performance in American Hustle, Sally Hawkins take on a complicated role in Blue Jasmine, Julia Roberts’ much-hyped part in the melodrama that was August: Osage County, and the lovely June Squibb’s acerbic character in Nebraska have earned these impressive actresses a place on this list.
Last year’s Best Actress pick Jennifer Lawrence was probably the most entertaining element of American Hustle and could take this category, but based on the combination of a substantive role coupled with a gutsy performance, none can compete with newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, the most deserving in this category. She had the toughest role and she did it justice, gripping us with her heart-wrenching portrayal of downtrodden slave Patsy.

Best Animated Feature
Nominees: The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Ernest & Celestine, Frozen, and The Wind Rises
It’s sad to see that Pixar, the once mighty animation powerhouse that has not only dominated this category during the last decade but also helped make it relevant and significant with its amusing, inventive features, hasn’t even managed to get a nomination this year. The five nominees for 2014 – The Croods (a pre-historic family’s journey into an unfamiliar world), Despicable Me 2 (the return of Gru, as he is recruited by the Anti-Villain League), Ernest & Celestine (the story of an unlikely friendship between a bear and a mouse), The Wind Rises (Japanese historical drama about Jiro Horikoshi who designed WWII fighter planes), and Frozen (fairytale musical about a princess who tries to find her sister who has inadvertently frozen their kingdom) – have all garnered a positive reception, which is why it is hard to say with certainty which one will be picked as the winner.
The two most likely contenders are The Wind Rises, retired animation legend Hayao Miyazaki’s last film, particularly if the Academy wants to honour the director for his contribution to the field, and of course everyone’s favourite Frozen, Disney’s highest grossing animation ever, with its touching tale of sisterhood and loneliness, and a refreshing look at true love. If Frozen does bag the honour, it will (surprisingly) be the first such victory for Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Best Original Song
Nominees: ‘Happy’ from Despicable Me 2, ‘Let It Go’ from Frozen, ‘The Moon Song’ from Her, and ‘Ordinary Love’ from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
The category that highlights how intrinsic music can be to movies has ended up being the centre of controversy this year, after the nomination of the track ‘Alone, Yet Not Alone’ (the title song from Alone Yet Not Alone) was revoked when it was deemed that the song’s co-writer Bruce Broughton had improperly contacted Academy members for support.
The remaining singles – Pharrell William’s funky ‘Happy’, the rousing Idina Menzel-belted ‘Let It Go’, Yeah Yeah Yeah’s front-woman Karen O’s soulful ‘The Moon Song’, and U2′s touching Nelson Mandela tribute ‘Ordinary Love’ – are now left to vie for the golden man (and U2, Idina Menzel, Karen O, and Pharrell Williams are set to perform their respective tracks during the ceremony).
All four songs are well made and well used, and anyone could take this award. Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s ‘Let It Go’ has an advantage going in for being part of the universally loved animated film and is the favourite based on the trophies it has already collected, but it won’t be shocking if the well-liked U2 single or the beautiful ‘The Moon Song’ snag the accolade.

Other categories
Gravity and American Hustle are tied for the most nominations with ten mentions apiece, and are also the likely potential recipients in some of the other categories. Gravity has a shot at taking the Visual Effects as well as Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Cinematography, and Film Editing awards, while American Hustle could take the Costume Design trophy with its flashy ’70s ensembles, although Her (also a frontrunner for the Best Original Screenplay) and The Great Gatsby also have a chance to win here.
Italy’s The Great Beauty, an aging socialite’s look at Rome, is riding high on the back of its recent Golden Globe win and is expected to finish atop the Best Foreign Language Film list (even though many are rooting for Belgium’s The Broken Circle Breakdown). And the Documentary Feature candidates see a battle between top contenders The Act of Killing (an offbeat look at the mass-killings in Indonesia) and 20 Feet From Stardom (an uplifting crowd-pleaser about back-up singers).

Here’s hoping the night will let talent triumph over politics, and give us winners that will stand the test of time and continue to shine long after the award show glitz has faded.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 2nd March, 2014 *

Back to home ground

album review

Even after more than a decade, the Take That front-man Gary Barlow releases a more-of-the-same album, making fans wish that he added a little something extra to his signature sound…

Artist: Gary Barlow
Album: Since I Saw You Last

After the release and subsequent failure of Gary Barlow’s second album Twelve Months, Eleven Days in 1999, it would have taken a very gifted soothsayer to predict how much things would change by the singer’s third solo release. Fifteen years ago, he was struggling with his post-Take That career (which had started promisingly with the successful Open Road in 1997), straining under Robbie Williams’ shadow, and recouping after parting ways with his record company. A decade and a half later, he has not only spearheaded Take That’s very successful renaissance, made up with Robbie, occupied a seat at The X Factor UK judging table for three series, organized Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Concert, and been appointed as an OBE for his services to music and charity, but has also established himself as one of the most successful British songwriters of all time.

So it is at a career high that Gary Barlow has released his third solo full length album, Since I Saw You Last, a set of 12 tracks, all written or co-written by the singer himself. A few high profile contributors are on hand to shape some of the songs, and you can hear their influence on the tracks that they have helped create. Album opener ‘Requiem’ has been co-penned by Robbie, and its cheeky lyrics bear his trademark snark; the song could easily have been at home on a Take That album. Tim Rice-Oxley has helped write ‘Jump’, an uplifting song about taking a risk that is reminiscent of Keane’s sound. And Elton John has contributed vocals to the lively ‘Face to Face’, which ends up sounding like an Elton John song featuring Gary Barlow instead of the other way round.

Elsewhere, the folk pop of first single ‘Let Me Go’ is pleasant enough despite the fact that this sound has already been made tiresome by Mumford and co. The banjo also returns later in the album on ‘This House’. The intimate piano ballad ‘Dying Inside’ sees the singer exude emotions. And the jaunty ‘Small Town Girls’ sounds pretty as long as you don’t start dissecting the lyrics, which just seem oddly condescending.gary-barlow-since-I-saw-you

Since I Saw You Last has some lovely tunes, warm sentiments, and the occasional amusing lyric, but it doesn’t really stray too far from Gary’s established brand of competent, mainstream pop. The ballads, though clearly heartfelt, are sometimes too bland and middle of the road, and overall the record doesn’t really display a sense of adventure. Perhaps Gary is playing it too safe here and making a simple, inoffensive album instead of trying something different and less commercial. And it’s hard not to miss the absence of the other Take That members, who could have helped add more flavor to the set and make it more interesting.

On the whole, Since I Saw You Last is a solid pop album that features some well crafted songs that his core fan base are very likely to enjoy, but it isn’t expansive or exceptional enough to widen his fan base or win over his detractors.

- Sameen Amer

The News on Sunday - 2nd March, 2014 *