Movies, Oscar Race

Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Timothy Spall: British Biopic Stars Own Best Actor Race

No Comments 06 October 2014

Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

It’s the British invasion of the Oscar race. It’s only October and three British actors – Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Timothy Spall – are already dominating the Best Actor race. And each of them comes carrying a biopic on his shoulders: The Imitation Game about mathematician Alan Turing for Cumberbatch, The Theory of Everything about cosmologist Stephen Hawking for Redmayne and Mr. Turner, a drama about the master landscape painter aka J.M.W. Turner stars Spall.

Biopics have always been one of Oscar’s favorite genres: Consider A Beautiful Mind, Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, Walk the Line, The Last King of Scotland and Milk. It may have been The King’s Speech that inspired this outpouring of veddy veddy English movie, but while the current crop is similar in genre, they are not the birds of one feather. The actors may play real-life public figures, but their approaches to their characters couldn’t be more different.

[RELATED: Lost Benedict Cumberbatch Drama Surfaces in Russia]

Redmayne, 32, fresh off awards buzz for his singing romantic hero in Les Miserables, takes on the brilliant yet physically challenged Hawking. He told Yahoo Movies that he believes biopics appeal to actors and audiences because of “the cult of celebrity…We see images of people like Hawking, or Turing, or Turner, and yet, because we are all human, we’re aware that it can’t be as simple as it looks on the surface. Biopics reveal what grounds these stellar individuals as human beings rather than just as achievers.”

In The Theory of Everything, Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking begins at Cambridge – also the actor’s alma mater — before illness sets in. On campus, Hawking romances the pretty scholar (Felicity Jones) who will become his wife. But very shortly, Hawking’s fingers have trouble grasping a pencil, he trips over his own feet – and it is one long spiral from cane to wheelchair as ALS changes the course of his life. Despite this, he still authors the bestseller The Brief History of Time. This performance could easily be compared to the one that won Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar for My Left Foot in 1990.

[RELATED: Eddie Redmayne Talks About Meeting Stephen Hawking and Why the Role Terrified Him]

Cumberbatch, 38, gives a complex emotional performance, where the intellectual’s scars are largely internal. The actor expresses every glimmer of feeling in his blue-green eyes, delivering brilliant line readings from a sharp script. He slayed me. The Emmy-winner best known for playing the TV’s sociopathic Sherlock Holmes takes on a figure less known in America than Hawkings, in a story with a less traditional arc.

Alan Turing, a brilliant and difficult puzzle-solver and Cambridge academic cracked the German Enigma code, playing a major part in defeating the Nazis in WWII. A homosexual, his greatest personal tragedy occurred in 1952 when Her Majesty’s government arrested him for the crime of gross indecency. Turing accepted chemical castration to avoid prison, only to commit suicide one year later. The bitter irony here is that his genius preserved democracy, but his own society failed him less than a decade later.

[RELATED: 'Mr. Turner' Paints a Mesmerizing Portrait of an Obsessive Artist]

And then along comes Spall, 57, the classically trained character actor best known for playing Wormtail in the Harry Potter saga. (He also played Winston Churchill in The King’s Speech.) He brilliantly carries this Mike Leigh directed biopic of the Victorian landscape painter J.M.W.Turner. Spall has already won a Best Actor award at Cannes for his portrayal, an almost comic conglomeration of grunts, mutters, and grumbles roughly translated into English. While his Turner is far from eloquent or emotionally accessible – much less likeable – he is deeply human. Spall shows us a brilliant artist who creates transcendent work, even if his life is a patchwork of bullying and carnal urges and, now and then, genuine affection. Working in Leigh’s signature style, there is a feeling of improvisation to Spall’s performance, a looseness and spontaneity, as if the paint has hardly dried before they move on to the next scene.

God save her, the English monarch plays a role in all three features: Queen Victoria turns up at one of Turner’s art exhibitions only to fling insults at his canvases, Queen Elizabeth bestows an OBE on Hawking at the end of The Theory of Everything and, in 2013, she posthumously pardoned Turing from all charges of indecency.

Cumberbatch who, following rapturous reviews, will now be launched by The Weinstein Company on a Best Actor campaign, confided to Yahoo Movies: “The thing I’m interested in is that the buzz creates and generates an audience…I want a lot of people to understand Turing. Any attention that encourages people to get to know, understand and marvel and thank Alan Turing — at that whole strand of his all-too-brief life — is justification enough.”

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Celebrity, Movies, Oscar Race

Toronto Critic’s Pick: Benedict Cumberbatch Bristles with Brilliance in ‘The Imitation Game’

Comments Off 05 October 2014

Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

Taking its place among those handsome biopics the British do so well, The Imitation Game tells the fascinating (and ultimately tragic) story of mathematician Alan Turing. A day after the UK enters the Second World War, the Cambridge-educated Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives at Bletchley Park, a top-secret center for breaking military codes used by the Germans — and is soon put to work on cracking a heretofore impenetrable code called Enigma. As presented by director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters), the mercurial Turing is impatient with social conventions and the accepted chain of command. And he is harboring his own risky secret: he prefers bedding boys to girls, resisting even the charms of Joan Clarke, a particularly fetching fellow code-breaker (played by Keira Knightley).

Cumberbatch, as you might expect, bristles with brilliance in the role – and should be considered an Oscar frontrunner. We’ve seen him as Sherlock Holmes, so we never doubt that he packs more brainpower than anyone else on the Enigma-busting team. But, unlike the emotionally cold sleuth, Turing is a real-life historical figure, sensitive and troubled. He feels deeply and passionately for his life’s work, and tears often flood his eyes, a repressed stammer forcing itself on his lips. The performance bears so many shades of varying emotion, on the surface and deep below, that it is nothing short of miraculous.

Among Turing’s many challenges, so vividly embodied by Cumberbatch, is one of identity: who he is, must remain an enigma. The mathematician and crossword-puzzle fanatic cannot make public his proclivities, no more than he can share who he fully is: A genius of visionary foresight into the still-embryonic field of artificial intelligence, and one of the pioneers behind the development of the modern computer.

While ultimately breaking Enigma, and turning the tide of the war in the Allies favor, Turing did not survive to enjoy the ascendance of democracy in his post-war life. In 1952, the police charged him with gross indecency after he acknowledged that he was in homosexual relationship. A judge imposed a sentence of chemical castration. He committed suicide a year later.

Some may know Alan Turing from the play turned TV film Breaking the Code, starring Derek Jacobi, or the movie Codebreaker or even the recent musical, A Man from the Future,composed by two members of the Pet Shop Boys. Yet, with cult-star Cumberbatch in the lead, the Turing triumph and tragedy will reach a much wider audience. Hopefully the film’s message of hard-won tolerance, and the sacrifices made by lesser-known martyrs to the cause, will bolster the continued struggle for equality for all.

The Imitation Game opens in theaters on Nov. 21

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Criticism, Movies, Oscar Race

St. Petersburg Diary: It’s Too Early to Start Narrowing the Oscar race

No Comments 01 October 2014

Stolen Kisses: Anne Dorval and Antoine-Olivier Pilon in Xavier Dolan's Momm;

Stolen Kisses: Anne Dorval and Antoine-Olivier Pilon in Xavier Dolan’s ‘Mommy’

It was a crisp night in St. Petersburg as the city’s First International Media Forum had its gala opening with Xavier Dolan’s explosive mother-son drama, Mommy. The Cannes jury prize winner relates the tumultuous relationship between a sexy widow (Anne Dorval) and her troubled teen (Antoine-Olivier Dolan). Seeing it for the second time among a festive chattering audience at the city’s Old Stock Exchange that couldn’t quite sit still, I was taken again by the movie’s emotional power — it’s both freshly contemporary and Bergmanesque. I wept. Again.

Recently, while talking to Jessica Chastain about Bergman’s muse, Liv Ulmmann and Chastain’s Miss Julie director. Jessica described Ullmann as having no bones. In other words, she was all feeling, open to every possible emotion dark or light — which doesn’t make her fearless only brave. This echoed for me while watching Mommy, because the performances are so volatile and yet grounded in the real world. Both Dorval and Pilon change minute to minute, dancing to raging, hope to despair, violent to tender. You have to be extremely open to embrace this kind of movie. It’s scenes from a mother-son relationship that we haven’t seen before.

The magnitude of the performances reminded me of the single principal I have to live by this early in the Oscar race: before Thanksgiving is a time to expand contenders, to seek out those performances and movies that may not be obvious candidates but that deliver Oscar power. Let’s not ghettoize Mommy as a Best Foreign Language Film contender even if it is Canada’s selection; let’s bring those brilliant performances forward.

While my Gold Derby colleague Pete Hammond argues persuasively that the Best Actor race should be expanded from five to ten, I think we should be looking even farther afield than Michael Keaton, Eddie Redmayne or Benedict Cumberbatch. Let’s throw Pilon in the mix. From mugging at the mirror in an homage to Home Alone to dancing seductively with his Mum and a middle-aged neighbor to exploding in intimate violence, this is a performance to watch and register.

And, in a year where Best Actress is looking a little thin, we’re calling on Quebec-native Dorval to join the fringe French speakers — Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night) and Juliette Binoche (Clouds of Sils Maria, which is also playing in St. Petersburg as well as the New York Film Festival) — to power into awards season playing thoroughly modern women of the world beyond Hollywood.

Pilon power.

Pilon power.

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Movies, Oscar Race

On the Oscar Trailer: ‘The Homesman’

No Comments 31 July 2014

Tommy Lee Jones has directed a Western so profound that you may need to see it twice. While he plays a claim jumper that makes beef jerky look soft, the movie really focuses on Hilary Swank’s frontier spinster and the fate of women in the West. It’s more feminist than Kelly Reichardt’s poky Meek’s Cutoff, and definitely more about real women than Clint Eastwood’s hooker-heavy Unforgiven. We are so far away from telling all the stores of women in the West — and this is a great one. Also, Jones has learned a few things since his brilliant and trying Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada: keep the movie at two hours and give it a pronounceable title.

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Movies, Oscar Race

50 Years After Sidney Poitier, ’12 Years a Slave’ Makes Its Own Oscar History

No Comments 07 March 2014

Resounding applause. A humble speech name-checking the requisite agent, filmmaker, studio executive, and the Academy. “For all of them, all I can say is a very special thank you.” And in that rather unremarkable way, history was made as Sidney Poitier broke through and won Best Actor for “Lilies of the Field” at the 1964 Academy Awards.

Fifty years after that watershed moment, Sunday’s historic Best Picture win for “12 Years a Slave” was remarkable in that same unremarkable, quietly dignified way. A film about the singular journey of a black man — directed by a black man and starring a mostly black cast (both Best Picture firsts) — simply fulfilled its promise as a Very Important Film, The Oscar Favorite. “12 Years” was pegged as the top Academy Award contender from its debut at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, and it was a position the film never shook in a year hailed by the Washington Post as “a flat-out, stone-cold, hands-down spectacular year in movies,” a year that saw the makeup of the Motion Picture Academy become younger and more colorful.

[Related: Oscars: The Night's Big Winners]

With each win along the road to the Academy Awards, “12 Years a Slave” delivered.

And while “12 Years” did not score the most trophies Sunday, it took home the big prize as Steve McQueen, who also directed, and fellow producer Brad Pitt (winning his first career Oscar), were among those collecting the statuettes for Best Picture. Its other wins included Best Adapted Screenplay for John Ridley and Best Supporting Actress for astonishing newcomer Lupita Nyong’o.

The in-your-face, disturbing drama recounts the true story of Solomon Northup, an American freeman kidnapped and sold into the most brutal bondage in the antebellum South. Difficult subject matter that no doubt turned off some filmgoers just as it turned off some Academy voters (a few of whom went public in the days before the ceremony admitting they couldn’t bring themselves to watch).

The film grossed about $130 million worldwide, considerably less than “Gravity’s” $700 million-plus haul. But McQueen’s film embodies the kind of highbrow material that allowed the Academy to pat itself on the back. This is a film already deemed “impactful” enough to become part of the standard high school curriculum.

[Related: Complete List of 2014 Oscar Winners]

As much as the industry appreciates the bottom line, its members like to use the Oscars to serve the public, in this case bringing a relatively little-known chapter in American racial history to a much broader audience.

Fox Searchlight picked up on this sentiment, reflected in the distributor’s recent marketing campaign and its simple two-word tagline: “It’s Time.” Time for what? For a tough look at the Peculiar Institution, and a movie that puts the African-American experience front and center. And it didn’t hurt that the film had Pitt as producer, co-star and cheerleader-in-chief. As he told a Toronto audience: “If I never get to be in a film again, this is it for me.”

Back at the Princess of Wales Theater in Toronto at the Canadian premiere, McQueen closed out the night, saying: “There are actors and there are artists. These are artists: surprising, thrilling, dangerous and brave.” Clearly the Academy agreed… and followed the script to the end.

“Two things could happen tonight,” host Ellen DeGeneres quipped at the top of the show. “’12 Years a Slave’ could win Best Picture. Or you are all racists.”

Poitier arrived onstage Sunday to a thunderous ovation, accompanying Angelina Jolie to present the award for Best Director. It underscored a legacy that extends not just to “12 Years a Slave’s” Best Picture win, Nyong’o’s triumph in her first feature, and the nomination for Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role. Somali native Barkhad Abdi got a nomination for Best Supporting Actor in “Captain Phillips.” Add to that the principal players in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Fruitvale Station,” “42,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” and “Blue Caprice,” and it has been a strong year for people of color at the movies. The Academy acknowledged it needed to diversify its membership and inducted a new class accordingly.

[Related: 2014 Oscars Red Carpet Arrivals]

That said, outspoken actor Isaiah Washington is among those not ready to declare a complete racial victory just yet. “Killers and slaves, butlers and maids: it sounds like it’s going to be a great Oscar night for people,” Washington, who played a serial killer based on Beltway Sniper John Allen Muhammad in “Blue Caprice,” and did not see any Oscar attention despite a fine performance, told Yahoo earlier this season.

While “12 Years” took home the big prize, another filmed shared the limelight. “Gravity” scored the most awards, led by Best Director for Alfonso Cuarón, and represented a major moment for the much-maligned science-fiction genre.

“2001.” “Star Wars.” “Close Encounters.” “Alien.” “ET.” “Avatar.” Dinged by sci-fi’s reputation as low-brow — a relic of its roots as B-movie 1950s popcorn fare — not one of those films, despite near-unanimous critical acclaim and mainstream success, was deemed significant enough to earn the kind of Oscars that validate a genre.

After Sunday, however, sci-fi matters.

Like “12 Years,” Gravity exploded on the scene in Toronto, as Cuarón’s thriller about an ill-fated space mission starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, took hold of the public imagination, soared and never fell back to Earth.

With a 97 percent fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes and fueled by mind-blowing 3-D visual effects, “Gravity” has been a success by any measure, with a leading seven wins on Sunday, including Cinematography, Film Editing, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing. Cuarón, who also shared the film-editing award, became the first Mexican filmmaker to win Best Director.

While “12 Years” and “Gravity” cashed in their early momentum with a clutch of gold on Sunday, “American Hustle,” the third member of what had been a three-horse race, fizzled in the home stretch.

Only a year after his “Silver Linings Playbook” was nominated then largely ignored, David O. Russell’s flashy period caper earned a whopping 10 nominations, with A-list stars Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, and Bradley Cooper gaining nominations in each of the acting categories. But at the end of the night, “Hustle” came up empty.

Notably, “American Hustle” premiered later in the season, well after Toronto. It entered the fray after frontrunners had already established themselves. And not only did it fail to make up for lost time, it was also bested by another early entry: “Dallas Buyers Club.” The moving drama about an unlikely AIDS activist rode outstanding performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto dominated the male acting awards, along with a third statuette for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.

[Related: Things You Didn't See at the Oscars]

In addition to “American Hustle,” high-quality films “Nebraska,” “Philomena,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the latest flashy collaboration between Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, were also shut out.

In the end, 2013 was a vibrant and competitive year, where movies in space and earthbound, comic and tragic, arty and action-packed competed. The Best Actress category reflected a rise in strong roles for mature women, while the battle for the Best Actor was so competitive that many deserving performances (Tom Hanks, Robert Redford, Oscar Isaac, James Gandolfini) didn’t even sniff a nomination.

Even President Obama joined the discussion at the national water cooler, hosting a series of screenings at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

To quote Poitier from 50 years ago, 2013’s year in cinema deserves “a very special thank you”: movies still matter — and are essential to the American dialog about who we are now, and how we define ourselves in the future. We have the capacity to both reach for the sky in the future, and face down our darkest demons in the past.

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