Oscar nominations – Not a year for subtle performances

The internet has been abuzz about the high profile snubs in the acting categories of this year’s Academy Award nominations. What a cruel, unforgiving world the entertainment industry is! The use of the word ‘snub’ itself indicates some sort of malicious intent with undertones of politics and favoritism. Well, all of that is most likely true. The voting dynamics of the Oscars are no different from that of any vote-based competition (including national elections) – those who spend the most money or effort in marketing themselves are the ones who are most likely to be top of mind or to win. For every high profile film which garners nominations for acting or directing or script-writing, there are twice or thrice as many films which featured equally praise-worthy performances, but just weren’t marketed sufficiently among the Academy’s voting fraternity. Already Robert Redford has spoken about how his highly praised, but little-seen film All is Lost hardly received any sort of marketing and distribution support from its distributor. On the other hand, when completely unknown films have won in the past, observers and pundits have complained that the winners aren’t representative of ‘real world audiences’.

All things considered, I felt that this year’s nominations for Best Actor generally favored brash, over-the-top performances above subtle ones. Hence, the nods for Christian Bale (American Hustle) and Leo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) over more nuanced performances by Robert Redford (All is Lost) or Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips) or Forrest Whitaker (The Butler) or even Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhall (both in Prisoners). I haven’t watched American Hustle yet; Mr. Bale is a fine actor and in all likelihood he has turned in yet another superlative performance, but he probably also benefited from the overall marketing behind the film among Academy voters. Mr. DiCaprio surely has received this nomination as a compensation for being ‘snubbed’ in the past, as much as for the quality of his acting in The Wolf of Wall Street. On the other hand, Robert Redford had to carry an entire film with no other actors, with practically no dialogue and with a fair bit of physical effort (for a 77 year old), which he does with amazing grace. I always knew that Tom Hanks would find it tough to win this year with so many other outstanding performances, but I certainly expected him to get nominated. Captain Phillips played out like a documentary – therefore giving Hanks little opportunity for over-the-top histrionics as in the case of Hustle or Wolf – and he did so by completely immersing himself in the character. As I had mentioned in an earlier post, just the 5 minute medical room scene at the end should have been good enough to get him a nomination. Nevertheless, I was genuinely happy to see Mr. Hanks well and truly back in the game with 2 solid roles this year in Captain Phillips and Saving Mr. Banks – both commercial and critical successes. For the past few years, he has either focused on TV and film production duties or appeared in overtly commercial fare like The Da Vinci Code or in duds like Charlie Wilson’s War and Larry Crowne (which he directed himself) or in well-made movies that could not find an audience (Cloud Atlas and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close). Just goes to show that even an actor as talented and with as good taste as Tom Hanks can’t always get it right.

I do think that Chiwetel Ejiofor and Matthew McConaughey fully deserve their nominations. Both of them delivered compelling and moving performances (in 12 Years a Slave and Dallas Buyers Club respectively) which effectively carried their films. I first noticed Ejiofor playing a drag queen in a British comedy-drama called Kinky Boots (which went on to become a Tony Award winning musical on Broadway). Since then, he has been a very reliable supporting actor in various mainstream Hollywood films. It will be interesting to see where he takes his career from here onwards. Meanwhile, Matthew McConaughey has moved in the opposite direction, leaving behind those crass romantic comedies for meatier roles in indie films in the past couple of years. In Dallas Buyers Club, he effortlessly inhabits the character of Ron Woodroof in a true story about a man who set up an illegal ‘medical club’ in the ‘80s to provide HIV patients with non-FDA approved drugs imported from other countries. The sort of weight loss that he went through to play this role qualifies as surefire ‘Oscar bait’ (Quite likely that Christian Bale’s nomination also was partly on account of his transformation into the overweight balding con artist Irving Rosenfeld). I think the winner in this category will be either Ejiofor or McConaughey.

On the women’s side, there are fewer surprises. Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock have long been favored to win for their extraordinary performances in Blue Jasmine and Gravity respectively. I myself am struggling to choose between the two. Dame Judi Dench’s nomination comes on the back of an intense marketing campaign by Harvey Weinstein for Philomena in the past few weeks. Can’t say till I’ve seen the movie if it’s a deserving nomination or just because of the marketing. Meryl Streep’s presence in the nominee list (for August: Osage County) was a foregone conclusion I suppose, as she has been nominated for almost every film she has acted in for the past few years…and deservedly so, I feel. She is a great example of someone who is both talented and a consummate professional. The only weak candidate is Amy Adams; many observers feel that slot should have been given to Emma Thompson for her entertaining performance as author P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks.

Similarly, there has been a lot of talk about Oprah Winfrey not receiving a nomination for Best Supporting Actress in The Butler. I certainly think it was a Oscar-worthy performance. Here again, it is tough to say whose slot she should have taken. Lupita Nyong’o is perhaps the frontrunner in this category for her heartbreaking performance in 12 Years a Slave. Sally Hawkins was good in Blue Jasmine, but not Oscar winning material. I can’t comment on the other nominees as I haven’t watched August: Osage County (Julia Roberts) or Nebraska (June Squibb –who is that?) or American Hustle (Hollywood’s critical and commercial darling – Jennifer Lawrence…and she’s just 23 years old, my God!).

For Best Actor in a Supporting Role, I think Jared Leto stands a very good chance for Dallas Buyers Club (another case of an incredible physical transformation). Michael Fassbender gets his first Oscar nomination for playing the crazy plantation owner Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave…it was just 4 years ago that he came to prominence with his short but impactful role as Lt. Archie Hicoks in Quentin Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds. He is now one of the most sought after actors in Hollywood – equally at ease playing comic book villains, androids, 19th century plantation owners or corrupt lawyers.

All told, this has been one of the strongest acting fields in recent years and it promises to be an interesting few weeks of speculation and debate leading up to the Oscar night on March 2nd.


Three new scifi novels to mark the new year

It’s been a good week. I’ve been on a reading spree. Since November, I had been working my way through a couple of non-fiction books which are informative and interesting, but not particularly fast moving – Neal Peart’s motorbike travelogue Ghost Rider and John Man’s well-researched exploration of The Great Wall of China. I decided to give myself a New Year present and go for some ‘pulp’ science fiction, with the proviso that for every piece of pulp I read, I would have to finish 30-40 pages of the pending non-fiction books. So far, the arrangement is working well and I think I will finish Ghost Rider and The Great Wall in a couple of weeks, while also finishing off half a dozen page-turners in the bargain!

So, let me quickly talk about 3 enjoyable ‘pulp scifi’ novels which marked the switch from 2013 to 2014.

George Mann’s The Osiris Ritual – I fell in love with steampunk after I read Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s classic graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 1 in 2004. Earlier, in 2001, I had read perhaps the best steampunk novel of all – Perdido Street Station by China Mieville – but considering that it wasn’t even set on Earth, I didn’t think of it as strictly steampunk at the time. The sub-genre has really picked up steam (yes, I had to say it!) over the past few years leading to a plethora of standalone titles and book series. In 2012, I read George Mann’s The Affinity Bridge which was the first in a series of detective novels styled as ‘The Newbury & Hobbes Investigations’. It featured Sir Maurice Newbury – a special agent who works for the Crown – and his plucky female assistant Miss Veronica Hobbes. It was immensely entertaining and I recently decided to read the sequel titled The Osiris Ritual. These books feature all the usual steampunk tropes – airships, motorcars and automatons all powered by steam – and a few unexpected elements – cyborgs, precognition and references to a plague that brings back people from the dead (no use of the ‘z-word’ though). It’s impossible to write a novel like this without paying homage to Sherlock Holmes. In this case, Sir Maurice’s addiction to opium is both his Achilles’ heel and the source of his deductive leaps. But other than that, this is a very original and satisfying story. With 4 books already in print and 2 more to come, plus several short stories available as free downloads, I am really looking forward to immersing myself in this world. Mr. Mann has also written a couple of spin-off novels set in the America in the 1920’s.

Eric Brown’s The Serene Invasion – I came across Eric Brown’s name many years ago, when our library in Chennai (Eloor) bought a copy of his second novel Engineman. At that time, I was not particularly keen to risk trying out an author I had not heard about, so I gave it a miss. Very recently though, I read a brief preview of an upcoming steampunk novel set in India during the British Raj, written by…yes, Eric Brown. The novel is called Jani and the Greater Game and will come out in autumn of 2014. It looked promising and I realized that Eric Brown has become quite an acclaimed scifi author in the past decade. Looking for something of his that I could read right away, I picked up The Serene Invasion. We’ve all read or watched countless iterations of the alien invasion story – War of the Worlds, Independence Day or V and Falling Skies on TV. These stories are quite predictable – evil alien force invades earth with vastly superior weapons; humans are initially overwhelmed but armed with creativity and never-say-die spirit, we strike back and reclaim our planet. Well, The Serene Invasion is completely different. The aliens take over the planet using non-violence…imposing it on us through some sort of tampering with quantum physics which makes it impossible for humans to complete a violent act. There purpose is not subjugation, but uplift…much to the joy and relief of most humans who are sick and tired of terrorism and urban crime, but obviously leaving terrorists and various other power brokers very unhappy. The story follows a group of people from different nations whose lives are interconnected by the invasion. Over a period of 30 years the protagonists work with their new ‘masters’ to uplift the human species, using new technologies and expanding across the solar system. Of course, there has to be some dramatic tension and this is brought about through some forces who are working to disrupt the plans of the Serene and their human allies. I thought it was brave of Mr. Brown not to actually show the aliens at any point throughout the course of the story. All the interactions with humans take place through their representatives – artificial but sentient humanoid entities. The first 30-40 pages of the book really hooked me and are perhaps the best written part of the novel.

R.M. Meluch’s The Myriad: Tour of the Merrimack #1 – This novel falls under the sub-genre of military scifi, which I had never been particularly interested in. The Myriad (the first book in the Tour of the Merrimack series) tells the story of the space battleship USS Merrimack (a namesake of the famous ironclad warship from the US Civil War) captained by Admiral David Farragut. There is nothing very original about the novel and its characters. Many reviewers have compared the tone to that of the original Star Trek series. Of course Admiral Farragut is more Jean-Luc Picard than Capt. Kirk, but certainly the Intelligence Officer Augustus is very reminiscent of Mr. Spock. The Marines on board talk and act very much like the ones in James Cameron’s Aliens…all bluster and bravado, but endearing all the same. And that’s where Ms. Meluch really hits the bull’s eye. Derivative the setting may be, but she writes her characters well, warts and all…and gets the reader rooting for each one of them. It’s like watching a soap opera – there are all the standard stereotypes – the passionate and noble, yet fallible leaders, the dumb and uncultured, yet brave soldiers, the medic with the heart of gold. The technology in the story is an interesting mix of ‘unexplainably advanced’ and ‘19th century basic’: ships can travel at 200-250 times light speed and people can teleport, but on the other hand the battleship has manually loading projectile cannon (in addition to particle beam weapons) and the military officers carry swords! As the story begins, the Merrimack is hunting for a vicious semi-sentient alien race called The Hive which has attacked and eaten human settlements across the galaxy. In the course of this search, it comes across an undiscovered alien civilization leading to a complicated ‘first contact’ situation. The action comes thick and fast and there are interesting twists and turns in the plot. I read somewhere that the other 4 books in the series struggle to maintain the same level of quality and freshness…I am not surprised, this is a pretty high standard to keep up.

I’m now left with a happy predicament. Follow-up reads: more steampunk with Hobbes and Nebury, or more military scifi with the Merrimack, or more Eric Brown with the Helix novels or try out a new author Gary Gibson, who’s got 4 novels published in a series called The Shoal Sequence.