Saturday, 3 March 2012

March Musings - Oscar review, Game Group in crisis and Micro Reviews...

This week’s blog article is going to be a slightly more scattershot approach than usual, purveying recent happenings in the world of cinema and videogames, and throwing my own opinions and perspectives into the mix.


So this Sunday saw the biggest night in Hollywood arrive with it’s usual mix of glitz, glamour and scandal, and before scrutinising the merits of whom was awarded what, I have to begin by admitting to finding it one of the most enjoyable Oscar ceremonies of recent years. I’ve been tuning in to the ceremony annually for some time now, and completely ignoring the merit and quality of the films nominated and whether it could be considered a ‘strong’ year for film or not, the ceremonies themselves as presentations and spectacles have fluctuated in quality, sometimes dramatically. From the somewhat pompous and over-indulgent love-fest of 2009’s ceremony where previous winners each gave heartfelt monologues on why each nominee was the greatest thing since photoshop, through to last years almost painfully incongruent pairing of James Franco and Anne Hathaway as hosts (he with the enthusiasm and spark of a comatose sloth and her with more pep than a cheerleader on speed), there’s usually plenty to nitpick at or downright lambast over each years ceremony. 
This year, however, there was very little to complain about - similar technical or ‘minor’ awards were often grouped together helping the presentation to move at a brisk pace (for the Oscars at least), practically every presenter had their own skit or comedic take on their duties (top honours going unsurprisingly to regular show-stealer Will Ferrell) and host Billy Crystal was a safe but ever-welcome choice bringing perhaps a dash less energy than usual but nonetheless his trademark wit and usual repertoire of genuinely entertaining oscar conventions (including his characteristic opening song and ‘what they are thinking’ segments). The few deviations the ceremony made were either customary (such as the ‘In memoriam’ montage) or surprisingly entertaining, with particular credit going to Christopher Guest and company for their inspired sketch on a fictional focus group from an early screening of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ who went on to critique and suggestion the removal of some of the most beloved components of the classic musical. It was fresh, genuinely funny, perfectly executed, and most importantly, thoroughly unexpected - a neat reminder that if the Academy really want to draw in the viewers and put on a great show then they shouldn’t be afraid to branch out to the experts rather than attempting to second-guess what may be seen as hip or popular.
In regards to the actual awards themselves, it was something of a mixed bag. I, for one, was thrilled that Meryl Streep managed to nab her third (and long overdue) Academy Award. Many people hate even considering such a notion as an individual being ‘due’, instead feeling merit and worth should be judged solely on that year/project’s individual performance, but let’s be realistic, this is the Oscars, and you just can’t escape the fact that it’s not always the best performance that bags an actor in particular their little gold man (see for instance Kate Winslet in The Reader, Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, Morgan Freeman in Million Dollar Baby). Meryl, as the most nominated thespian in Oscar history, had not been given one in almost 30 years, and the breadth and quality of the output she has given in that period has been astounding. Adaptation, Doubt and arguably Julie and Julia were probably more deserving performances to nab her that third statuette, but now she has it I’m genuinely pleased for her. No doubt her supporters will still be vying for future wins - she needs to be at least on par with four-time winner Katharine Hepburn, you know!
It was, as expected, a strong night for The Artist, though perhaps not quite to the extent some people expected. Sure, it won the main awards it was expected to (Best Picture, Best Director, and an entertaining Best Actor win for a joyous Jean Dujardin), which is all that really matters, but in the early stages of the evening it was beginning to look like Hugo could have seriously poised itself to spoil everyone’s predictions and nab some of the bigger awards.
For the excitement and tension that Hugo’s earlier victories generated, nonetheless it was at a considerable cost - it meant a number of the technical Oscars given out on the evening were extremely dubious and, in one or two places, went to an altogether undeserving winner. Everyone expected Scorsese’s 3D family adventure to nab the likes of Art Direction, for instance, but when it went on to rob Best Visual Effects from The Rise of the Planet of the Apes and in particular Best Cinematography from The Tree of Life then  things began to look askew. I particularly feel for Emmanuel Lubezki, one of the finest and most accomplished cinematographers working today who has yet to be awarded with a Cinematography Oscar despite 5 nominations. His work in 2005’s Children of Men has already gone down as one of the most stunning achievements in his field in modern cinema, yet at least it’s Oscar loss went to the near-equally stunning Pan’s Labyrinth. Nothing can excuse this years Tree of Life loss to Hugo other than sentimentality and bias towards the respective films, which is a tremendous shame as it does undermine the credibility of the Academy’s technical acknowledgements. We live in a world where two of the greatest cinematographers of our time - Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki - are without Oscars, but the likes of Three Six Mafia do.... does not compute.

A similar technical oddity occured with the awarding of Best Editing to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. In what was genuinely the biggest surprise of the evening, Fincher’s remake picked up an award which traditionally ties with Best Picture, or, at the very least, is awarded to one of the nominees in that particular field. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was generally considered the outsider for this fact alone, as it had failed to secure a Best Picture nod. Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, the recipients of the award, looked genuinely as bemused as everyone else, to the extent that they had no speech prepared or practiced. So why and how did this win happen? The duo may still be clinging on to goodwill from last years excellent The Social Network which they also won for, and they are undoubtedly superb editors. However, it seems that in this case the most conspicuous and showy editing in the category pulled through to victory - The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the most dependent on and deliberate with its cutting, so the more poetic and whimsical work in The Artist or even Hugo were overlooked, leaving the more showy display of Tattoo to pull off quite the surprise. There is also of course the possibility that those who expected it to pick up a Best Picture nomination and were irritated at it’s absence opted to give it the award they most felt it deserved and stood a chance at winning.
All hail my most ferociously uninventive headline skills! 
Well this week has seen the Game Group company (who own retail stores GAME and Gamestation) face another blow as concerned distributors have pulled their support of the stores by refusing to submit stock of major titles including the latest Mario Party title and, more damagingly, Mass Effect 3 - a game sure to be one of the years biggest sellers. The rocky road Game Group are on is certainly set to become more turbulent as the latest developments have cost them an additional 5% share loss, only months after announcing a colossal nose dive share drop over over 90% in 2011. 
As the situation currently stands it seems all EA and Nintendo distributed titles will not be stocked by either GAME or Gamestation for the foreseeable future - apparently these major distribution companies are concerned over the nose diving finances of the group and are concerned that should the worst happen and the organisation goes into liquidation they won’t recoup any profit on stock supplied to them.

It’s a lamentable situation - whilst high street stores are facing increasing competition from the online marketplace, particularly true of the games industry where downloadable gaming and pre-owned sales are more abundant than practically every other medium - it’s hard not to envisage this is a loss-loss situation for all involved. It’s surely unavoidable that the sales of a major title such as Mass Effect 3 will be affected by it not being available in two of the most popular and plentiful videogame retail chains in the country. As a major release with a sizeable budget for a videogame and huge expectations from the gaming community, it would be a tremendous shame to have it underperform through no fault of the game or its production team themselves. It would be akin to Odeon and Showcase cinemas being unable to screen a film and a major Hollywood release suffering from poor box office as a consequence. 

So surely it seems as though everyone is losing out on this move - certainly Game Group will see a notable profits loss from not having such an anticipated title, whilst EA will surely lose significant sales as a direct result also. Meanwhile customers who rely on their local store will lose any existing pre-orders and those unaware of the situation will find themselves unable to purchase on release day when they find their store no longer stocking the title. 
It’s difficult to see how Game Group are going to claw themselves out of these financial dire straits - it’s the kind of slippery descent that has claimed countless high street companies in the past few years (including major chains such as Woolworths) and with these latest developments it is looking like an insurmountable feat to get the group back on it’s feet. With rumours that Gamestop are looking to acquire the groups Europe and UK enterprise (though they have no wish to purchase any of the Australian presence and outlets) a buy-out may be the only option remaining for what was once regarded as the countries de-facto, go-to videogames high street chain.
I’m going to finish this article with a couple of quick micro reviews of some titles I have watched in the past week.

Reviewed: Blu-Ray Home Release
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu
Year: 2003
Starring: Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts, Melissa Leo

In many ways the most focused of Gonzalez-Inarritu’s ‘death trilogy’, 21 Grams is a supremely effective drama centering around the lives of three individuals whose lives become intertwined following a tragic accident. If all that sounds similar to the directors previous outing Amores Perros (and on paper it does) then sway any fears of it being a simple remake or re-imagining of that movie, for where Amores Perros was more episodic and disjointed, focusing on each of its three characters in somewhat exclusive vignettes, 21 Grams constantly dips in and out between its three leads, and their stories are intertwined far more directly and personally.

Whilst it lacks the scope and confidence of  pace of some of Gonzalez-Inarritu’s other work, the stunning cast bring an electric, time-shifting screenplay to life with across-the-board superlative performances, coupled with some inventive directing, masterful cutting and the usual gritty yet perfectly-pitched cinematography from long-time collaborator Rodrigo Prieto. Unapologetically bleak, deeply human and expertly executed, this is (melo?)drama in its rawest, most captivating form.
(A)musings rating - * * * * *

Reviewed: Blu-Ray Home Release (UK Version)
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Year: 2011
Starring:  Saoirse Ronan, Olivia Colman, Mark Strong, Tom Holland

Another charming, beautifully animated addition to the Studio Ghibli collection, Arrietty is the latest in a recent trend of adaptations by the Japanese animation house (see the likes of Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo and Tales from Earthsea). Whilst not directed by Ghibli poster-boy Hayao Miyazaki, his influence and presence can be felt throughout this charming, delicate tale based on the story of the ‘The Borrowers’ by Mary Norton, unsurprising seeing as he acted as both writer and producer on the project. 

Whilst the film never reaches (or even aims for) the epic drama of Princess Mononoke, the fantastical whimsy and invention of Spirited Away or the impact and devastation of Grave of the Fireflies, it is still a thoroughly enjoyable and refreshingly unconventional take on the tale of a secret family of ‘little people’ as they are frequently referred to, including the titular young girl Arrietty, who befriends a sick, lonely young boy from the house whose floorboards they reside under. 

The UK voice cast do a perfectly passable job dealing with the challenges of dubbing Japanese dialect (which animates to the much faster and wordier phonetics of the Japanese language), but as usual viewing the original Japanese audio with subtitles makes for a more complete and immersive experience. Whilst the story feels a trifle inconsequential and incomplete (a deliberate tradition by Miyazaki who believes no film should ever feel entirely complete but rather concluding at the next stage or challenge in the protagonists lives), the execution and animation is frequently stunning, with the high-definition Blu-Ray release in particular helping to make Arrietty an audio and visual delight well worth experiencing.
(A)musings rating - * * * * 
Until next week, adieu!
Kyle :)

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