Oscar Checklist – Part 6: Maybe They’re Born With It

We’ve come to the rare category that I hadn’t seen anything from, Best Make-up. The reason for this is two-fold, 2/3 of the nominees weren’t in wide release ’til recently, and one is a widely panned blockbuster from last January (when I was busy catching up on last years nominees).

The Way Back – Nominated for Best Make-up

Director Peter Weir doesn’t make bad movies, and The Way Back is his first film in 7 years. The film is epic in scope and ambition. I can’t believe what is on screen was put together for only 30 million dollars. Weir makes every cent count and crafts an engrossing story of survival. The film hasn’t done too well at the box office, which is a shame for many reasons. The most important being that a gifted filmmaker like Weir should be allowed to continue making the kind of movies they don’t really make anymore. The success of True Grit will guarantee more westerns, Black Swan more crazy director driven thrillers, and The Social Network more dramas where characters actually talk. But Weir is making big, grand, and bold adult adventures. Epics. Films that might not reach the grand Lawrence of Arabia, but are trying their hardest to come close.

The plot is uncomplicated, however the journey is anything but. Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Polish POW, is hell-bent on escaping from a Siberian gulag during WWII. He and several others, including an American (Ed Harris), and a Russian criminal (Colin Farrell) make a run for it after enduring the harshness of the camp and its mines. Once free, they have little choice but to head for the Indian border, some 4000 miles away. They have little food, less water, and must travel on foot. The trip is an imposing endurance test that includes the bitter Siberian winter, the dry Gobi dessert, and a little mountain range called the Himalayas.

Not everyone will make it. Wit and will will be thoroughly tested along the way. The film’s brilliance is in the fact that Weir doesn’t overstuff his story. The journey is hard enough and dramatic enough that it need not be cluttered up with ancillary obstacles. Over the course of the expedition we get to know these desperate souls, each with their own unassuming past. As they bond, we become more and more invested in their survival.

All of this comes to vivid life through gorgeous cinematography. Jaw dropping vistas are majestically presented, but the film also perfectly scales down for important character moments. The make-up is some of the year’s best. Whether it’s frost-scathed faces, sun-blistered cheeks, or unsettling swollen feet, the make-up is always believable. There isn’t a single superfluous scene, and it is always outstanding. The acting is just as exceptional. I’ve never really been impressed by Sturgess before, but he is very strong here. Harris is a master, as always, and Farrell more than pulls off the unscrupulous Russian thug. Saoirse Ronan also continues to make good on her promise seen in earlier performances, and the rest of the lesser known cast turns in wonderful work.

The final scene goes for emotion instead of grandeur, which is fine but not entirely to my liking. The story is also a tad predictable, but that is mostly due to the classic kind of storytelling being employed. It is not really a problem when the journey is as engrossing as this one is. That such an immense film is considered small or “indie,” I will never understand, but that should not prevent you from being enthralled.

Grade: B+

The Wolfman – Nominated for Best Make-up

It turns out I was right in skipping this turd of a movie. I’ve never seen the original Wolfman, but I’m willing to bet it’s better than this waste of space. I guess I should mention that I watched the longer cut of the movie, but I imagine the 17 extra minutes did little to ruin what was already a disaster.

Okay, so plot, plot, hmmm… Lawrence Talbot’s (Benicio Del Toro) brother goes missing on the moors in Olde England. His brother’s fiancée, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), implores Lawrence to help her find him. He decides to help, but his motivation is never made clear. In the course of his amateur investigation, he discovers a werewolf is stalking the land… mainly when he’s bitten by the monster. His dad is an over-the-top Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) and his mother was some kind of gypsy whore, but she’s dead now.

None of this is told with any subtly or intrigue. Scenes are limp and poorly paced. The acting never finds the right tone. Should they be serious and play it straight, or camp it up a bit… come on, it’s only a monster flick… I don’t know and apparently, neither did anyone making this movie.

I’m sure you know that Lawrence turns into the Wolfman and discovers *SPOILER ALERT* that his father is a howler as well. Big shock. I mean, I had no idea that was coming, seeing how paternal Sir Talbot was acting the whole time. So, what we’re left with is time to kill until father and son can square off. What to do… what to do? How about a tacked on romance with your dead brother’s girl? Okay, now what?

The movie drags and drags, until the big face-off, which is beyond ridiculous. “Thrilling” is not the first word that comes to mind. “Dull,” perhaps? And of course, Sir Talbot’s motivation is murky and unintelligible when finally explained. When you have a whole scene dedicated to illuminating the villain’s motive, you’d expect to understand what’s going on, but not in this movie.

The lone upside is the extreme violence and gore. Thankfully, the filmmakers didn’t neuter the bloodshed and the film has plenty of gruesome deaths. It’s not nearly enough to save the picture from the trash heap, but at least they gave me something. The make-up work is the same standard you’d expect from Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London, Ed Wood) but it’s nothing game-changing. I think knowing there are computer tricks aiding the effects takes a little something away from the accomplishment. I’m not going to complain about the nomination, because it’s not like there was a ton of amazing make-up work this year. However, I will complain all day long about this much maligned misstep of a movie.

Grade: F

Barney’s Version – Nominated for Best Make-up

This is a recent Golden Globe winner for Best Actor (in a comedy or musical). And despite the solid work from the cast, it has no clue what story it’s trying to tell. The movie shifts from contemporary period piece to murder mystery to rom-com to some kind of Canadian-Jewish Terms of Endearment, all without any rhyme or reason. I don’t need anyone to hold my hand or provide a laugh-track, but there were numerous times that I had no idea what I was meant to be feeling. Is this funny? Is it touching? I never really knew and I had to put up with over 2 hours of this confusion.

The movie is the story of one Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti). He is a lonely and grumpy old man. We jump to the start of his first marriage, in Rome, in the 70’s. The decade makes sense, but no explanation is given for the place. Why Rome, and why are these people his friends? No answer is ever given. But alas, we are here and this schlubby Canadian-Jew with no artistic skill of his own is hanging with the cool art kids. Barney has knocked up a woman (Rachelle Lefevre) during a one night stand, so he decides to do right by and marry her. This doesn’t go so well and before we know it we’re back in maple leaf territory, where Barney is working as a hack soap opera producer. He finds himself a rich, spoiled brat to marry (Minnie Driver) and within minutes of speaking his vows falls instantly in love with a random wedding guest (Rosamund Pike).

It all sounds like silly fun, but it never really is. The film shifts back and forth in time so we can witness how young Barney becomes old Barney, but with little arc. He seems to always be dissatisfied, even when everything is perfect and he has a life he doesn’t very well deserve. There’s also the murder mystery I mentioned. For most of the first part of the movie it seems like the strange disappearance of his best friend (Scott Speedman) will be a major factor in the story. Instead it’s more of a speed bump. The rom-com plot of a guy quickly having three marriages is never romantic or funny. The mystery stuff feels completely out-of-place and then the movie settles into the story of one marriage and growing old.

A good deal of time is spent with Barney’s dad (Dustin Hoffman), which is okay since Hoffman hasn’t been this good in years. But this is where the Terms-like stuff happens, complete with disease, death, and lots of Kleenex (if you still care by this point).

Whatever the film is trying to say, I don’t know, and it is saying it poorly. Giamatti is good, as always. Pike is luminous in a thankless role. The time shifts do give ample attention to the fine make-up work. The film doesn’t tell you what year it is, you just know by how old the characters look and the reason we can tell is the fantastic aging make-up. Really some of the better aging I’ve seen in some time.

I wouldn’t consider the movie a total waste. It is way too long, and all over the place, but the performances are good and the film is watchable. It wants to be more profound than it is, but it will have to settle as passable background entertainment.

Grade: C-

Has anyone else bothered with this category? Anyone want to step up and defend Wolfman’s shorter cut? No, okay moving on. Oscar coverage will be in full force this week.

2 responses to “Oscar Checklist – Part 6: Maybe They’re Born With It

  1. Pingback: The Trouble with Quibbles: 2011 Oscars | Shooting the Script

  2. Pingback: Oscar Checklist – Part 8: Salute Your Shorts | Shooting the Script

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