Oscar Primer 2014: Space Race

Over the course of the next six weeks I will be covering a lot of the nominees for the upcoming Academy Awards. This will not be your usual Oscar primer, but in fact more of a “catching up to speed” series. I will be dissecting a major film (a best picture nominee) and one or two smaller films in each installment. I will be going over what the nominees are, and what chances it stands to win. This will not be a place for me to post my definitive predications as with so much politicking and week-to-week changes in “momentum” it would be tough to make such claims. There is no rhyme or reason for the films I am picking to cover other than the fact that I have viewed them. Without further ado, I present the first entry in this series where I will be musing on Gravity and The Great Gatsby.

Gravity directed by Alfonso Cuaron and distributed by Warner Bros., was released on October 4th 2013. The film has a total of ten nominations including Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Director. Below is what the all of the nominations are.

–       Best Picture- Alfonso Cuaron and David Heyman

–       Best Actress in a Leading Role- Sandra Bullock

–       Best Director- Alfonso Cuaron

–       Best Cinematography- Emmaniel Libezki

–       Best Film Editing- Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger

–       Best Original Score- Steven Price

–       Best Production Design- Andy Nicholson (Production Designer), Rosie Goodwin and Joanne Woollard (Set Decorators)

–       Best Visual Effects- Timothy Webster, Chris Lawrence, David Shirk and Neil Corbould

–       Best Sound Editing- Glenn Freemantle

–       Best Sound Mixing- Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead and Chris Munro

For the sake of succinctness I will discuss Best Director and Best Picture at the same time since Alfonso Cuaron was clearly the mastermind behind this movie. In the past he has helmed “Children of Men”, one of the most haunting recent post apocalyptic films, and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”, which is widely hailed as the best “film” of the series as he was able to keep the movie as dark as the book is. With “Gravity” he has created a world that is not in this world at all. On a trip to make repairs to the Hubble Telescope, we are shown the astronauts floating around in their suits. When they are showing Sandra Bullocks character inside a space station she is weightless. Everyday objects aimlessly rotate and float on by. This isn’t the first movie set in space, but the realness you feel, the total immersion felt by the audience is the work of a master director. There were rumors that Cuaron spent two years of figuring out how to shoot the film and that on the first day if it wasn’t working out, he would have scrapped the whole film. That is a crazy amount of courage and dedication to know that if you can’t make something perfect, don’t even bother. While the film was also nominated for Best Drama at the Golden Globes along with Best British Film and Best Film at the BAFTA’s it seems like the film is a bit of a long shot to win Best Picture against what is routinely called “Oscar bait”, considering the early front runners seem to be films dealing with touchy subject matter (slavery and AIDS) or period dramas (four of the films take place in the 80’s or earlier). While the Best Picture doesn’t always win a screenplay award, only The Sound Of Music and Titanic went on to win Best Picture without a screenplay nomination, so that is a tough hill to overcome. That means voters like the look and feel of the film, but don’t care for the plot or dialogue very much. Since Cuaron literally invented new ways to shoot “in space” he is a front-runner for Best Director. He also has all the corresponding nominations for other awards too (Golden Globe, BAFTA and DGA) which bears well for him. Normally the movie that wins Best Picture also wins Best Director but you have to look only to last year where “Argo” winning Best Picture and Ang Lee winning Best Director for “Life of Pi”.

Sandra Bullock’s performance of Dr. Ryan Stone was more about breathing and internalizing her fear. When comparing her performance to something more showy like suffering from a disease or a disability, or lots of shouting and crying, she seems less likely to be rewarded. She started out as a woman who was unsure why she was in space, to trying to survive an assault of space debris. She was re-birthed and wanted to get back to Earth to appreciate love of life. Bullock was our surrogate to feeling fear and the desire to keep living when things where flying out of the screen (assuming you watched the film in 3D of course!). While she is up against some serious heavy weights in the Best Actress category, having won in the past for her role in “The Blind Side”, it shows that the Academy likes her. She is considered a dark horse, but with a strong performance and a well-liked personality don’t count her out yet.

Visual Effects and Cinematography worked so closely together, they have to be counted as the same. The film was shot with just the actor’s faces, and then their bodies and “world” were digitally created. The camera never stops moving, slowly floating up and down and side to side, to give the effect of zero gravity. The special effects work because the scenes were lit properly. There wasn’t a moment when the debris or the ship looked fake. Both work was top notch and should be a major threat to win their respective awards.

The fact that all seven categories on the technical side list Gravity in the group shows how well respected it is. To go back to Cinematography comes Editing, the first 13-minutes have an uncut take. The astronauts performing a space walk up to when the debris first hits their position. No cuts, just uninterrupted world building. The film is only 90-minutes but it feels like a white-knuckle roller coaster ride that lasts five hours. There is never a dull moment and a huge part of editing is pace, and this film moves very quickly, while simultaneously slowly torturing us.

Sometimes less is more, sometimes when an intimate scene occurs you don’t need a lot of sound or music. You know the old horror movie quote, “In space no one can hear you scream”? Well it is not just because no one is up there, but also because sound doesn’t travel. During intense scenes of debris collisions the only thing you can hear is Bullock breathing. No scary music, no cracks and no explosions. When music is needed, your heart beats faster and you clench your hands tight, a sign of a masterful suspense movie.  During other times, like after a scary moment, the music turns serene to allow you to reflect on the moment and how life is precious.

Production Design and Decoration is the act of building a set and making it inhabit the world of the characters. While the sets were minimal since most of the film was CGI, the interiors of the space station looked fantastic. So much so that the Chinese Government wants to build a space station like the one Stone visits. After seeing all the videos of Commander Chris Hadfield in space over the past few years, people understand what living in space looks like and Gravity replicated it to a tee (including hiding a bottle of vodka from the Russian astronauts).

With ten nominations it will certainly be a player in all the awards since so many branches of the Academy enjoyed the work, but will it be enough to take down front-runners in key categories?

The Great Gatsby was directed by Baz Luhrmann and distributed by Warner Bros.; it was released way back on May 10th 2013. The film has only two nominations.

–       Best Costume Design- Catherine Martin

–       Best Production Design- Catherin Martin (Production Designer) and Beverly Dunn (Set Decorator)

Since the film takes place in the Roaring 20’s, the cast had to be outfit with period appreciate pieces. Jay Gatsby wore dashing tuxedos for dinner parties and linen suits for leisure. The ladies wore flapper style dresses. Lots of silk, lace, chiffon and embellishments consisting of beads, fringe and sequins were added to the costumes. Large party scenes had hundreds of extras, all wearing appropriate outfits. The old money rich Tom Buchanan wore polo outfits and simple tuxes. The middle class and lower people wore appropriately corresponding styles of dress. Nick Carraway’s outfits slowing got nicer and nicer as the film progressed.

You need to look no further than the party scenes to release how this is such a visual film. It is food for your eyes. Everything is black and gold and shines brightly. The colour palettes accurately reflect the themes of the scenes. Pools with women swimming, big bands roaring, confetti flying everywhere was just the beginning! Gatsby’s house is the definition of opulence to the point of being over board. Everything was superficial and nothing had value outside of the price tag.

Frankly I am shocked to see that this film did not nab nominations for Hair and Makeup, as having all the ladies with pixie bobs or massive curls and all the gentleman with slicked back looks. Since both nominations are for categories where the more style involved the better, I wouldn’t be surprised if they came out with at least one win, but since the film wasn’t well received by critics, I also wouldn’t be surprised if it gets shut out.

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