2014

Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

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Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit
I don’t normally put comments on these posters, but seriously? Your title character is the fourth most important person in your film? Whatever.

The Pitch: We don’t need another hero. Let’s just reboot one of the old ones again.

The Review: We love spy movies, don’t we? From the suave sophistication of James Bond to the amnesiac thrashings of Jason Bourne, we can’t get enough of secrets, lies and organisational subterfuge. For some reason, the adventures of Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst Jack Ryan have never quite caught the imagination of cinema audiences to the same extent: The Hunt For Red October is fondly remembered, but Alec Baldwin was quickly replaced by Harrison Ford, and subsequently nearly a decade passed before the series and the character were rebooted, this time with Ben Affleck. As more than a dozen years have elapsed since The Sum Of All Fears, Paramount clearly felt Ryan was ripe for another reboot and this time Chris Pine’s been enlisted to protect, to serve and to sneak into darkened rooms late at night. Where all of the previous Ryan’s have used Clancy novels as a starting point, this latest Ryan adventure follows that other, more recent movie tradition: the origin story.

Part of the reason for avoiding the rest of Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels is that most of those not yet adapted deal with terrorist attacks leading to Ryan becoming president, ending up at war with Japan and someone flying a plane into the U.S. Capitol building. It’s maybe an uncomfortable irony that Shadow Recruit opens with Ryan studying at the London School Of Economics when 9/11 happens and encourages him to enlist. One major helicopter accident later and Ryan is recovering in hospital, being goaded back to health by student medic Cathy (Kiera Knightley) and visited by, you guessed it, shadowy military type Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) who secretly recruits him into the CIA. Ryan uncovers evidence of dodgy Russian goings-on and is dispatched to Moscow to investigate further, only to come up against the henchmen of businessman Viktor Cheverin (Kenneth Branagh), bent on sending the world into a financial meltdown which will see Russia come out on top.

Branagh both nibbles on the corners of the scenery and directs, but it’s difficult to see any innovation in either. Working from a script by Adam Kozad and David Koepp, Branagh has crafted not so much as a throwback spy thriller but one that’s stuck back, somewhere in the Sixties. While the overarching plot machinations have a distinctly modern twist, with Russian dealings in the economy rather than the arms race of the Cold War, the CIA apparently hasn’t moved on past men being passed documents in darkened cinemas or exchanging looks and guns on poorly lit park benches at night. If you’re looking for an honest to goodness, old fashioned spy thriller, then Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit certainly fits that bill. Sadly, it fits it so well that there’s very little which will surprise you if you’re a fan of the genre, and most of it’s been done better elsewhere.

Take the highlight of the film, which consists of a central stretch where Ryan attempts to invade a building and capture info while the rest of his team work distraction and cover: it’s Mission: Impossible but without the dangling wires and suspense, and it segues into a car chase notable only for the odd decision to threaten a victim with a light bulb. An early bathroom fight recalls the opening of Casino Royale, the car chases have more than a touch of Bourne and the climax feels like a thousand other generic action movies that you’ve seen before (topped off with an explosion that feels cut and paste from a Die Hard sequel, of all things). Chris Pine feels more at home playing blue collar workers and starship captains than he does as a CIA analyst and spy, and it doesn’t help that he has zero chemistry with Keira Knightley either. Kevin Costner is good value, although never gets out of third gear, and Branagh’s strangulated Russian vowels are never less than entertaining, but this is undemanding and generic fare. Maybe it would be best to shake things up with an intercontinental war, for this retro thriller has at best retro thrills.

Why see it at the cinema: The larger set-pieces will benefit from being seen in a cinema, but it’s not massively cinematic. No-one would fault you for waiting for the DVD.

What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate violence, injury detail and one use of strong language. Spying is still, it would seem, a fairly civilised pastime.

My cinema experience: A packed Friday night at the Cambridge Cineworld, and as I was seeing a double bill of this and Lone Survivor I felt the need for sustenance in the form of that classic combo, Diet Coke and Maltesers. Sadly in my desire to get fed I managed to miss the first 30 seconds or so – and end up having to sit almost in the front row – after barely twenty minutes of ads and trailers. Still, you won’t hear me complaining too much.

The Score: 5/10

The Half Dozen Special: Super Bowl Trailers 2014

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On a day somewhat overshadowed by the tragic and untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, once again two American teams played off for the biggest title in American football. Nothing since I slagged off American football last year, or the year before, or the year before that, has changed my opinion on the game: it’s supposed to be sixty minutes of men in excessive padding running at each other and gradually advancing a prolate spheroid made of pigskin one direction or the other over a distance of 110 yards that last night took three hours and twenty two minutes from kick-off to final whistle. More challenging to your sitting muscles than even Blue Is The Warmest Color or The Wolf Of Wall Street, American football is practically the Gone With The Wind of sporting endurance.

What the two hours and twenty-two minutes of not-football do provide is a succession of overpriced and overhyped adverts, including a batch of trailers. There’s a drive in the US to restrict movie trailers to no more than two minutes (typically they run to around two and a half for a full trailer at present), but thanks to the price of advertising they clock in at no more than a minute or so for the Super Bowl, and consequently they have to be rammed to the gills with the most important moments. So let’s see what we’ve learned from this year’s crop.

Transformers: Age Of Extinction

What we learned:

– it’s got giant fighty robots in it again, including my childhood favourite Optimus Prime. I have said previously I’d followed him to Dark Of The Moon and he was now on his own, but we’ll see if my resolve weakens between now and the summer.

– the robots can now turn their heads into giant guns. Hoo-ya!

– You can replace Shia LeBoeuf and Rosie Huntingthingy-Whatsit with Mark Wahlberg and New Generic Blonde, and nobody will really care.

– it’s got robots that look vaguely like dinosaurs, which will be much cooler than robots that look exactly like cars.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

– Apparently the movie will be dialogue free, 60% of it will be in slow motion while another 20% will consist of people turning round while the camera pans in the opposite direction.

– There will be more than one implausible giant flying aircraft carrier at the start of this movie, but there may not be by the end.

– Whoever the Winter Soldier is – oh wait, it’s quite clearly Bucky, are they trying to make this a mystery or not? – he can punch so hard that it makes Steve Rogers wince through his invincible shield.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

– Another silent movie. Since we clearly see people trying to talk, presumably this one will have intertitles.

– Random slo-mo shots of not-electricity are apparently more interesting than much of the film.

– This doesn’t look amazing.

Muppets Most Wanted

– Eighties Robot is back. Yay!

– Five seconds of Ricky Gervais is already testing my endurance.

– They won’t be skimping on the big musical numbers. I look forward to another three months of cheerful earworms.

Pompeii

– It’s basically Gladiator crossed with Dante’s Peak, with less Pierce Brosnan.

– Poor Kit Harrington is going to be typecast in either swords and sandals epics or fantasy (or both) for much of his career.

– It makes no mention of the fact it’s a Paul W.S. Anderson film, just in case you bottle it before the film comes out.

Monuments Men

– It’s got George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Cate Blanchett in, but you need to be told who these people are as they may not be that famous.

– You don’t need to be told who Jean Dujardin is because he’s not that famous. (See also The Wolf Of Wall Street where he’s in it at least as much as named actor Matthew McConaughey.)

– You also need to be told by Matt Damon what the title of the movie is. At least he gets straight to it.

Need For Speed

– It really wants to be a bit like Drive. I will not be that surprised if Aaron Paul turns out to have a giant tarantula on the back of that jacket.

– It’s not a silent movie! There’s at least one line of dialogue.

– Car. Car. Car. Car. Car. Car. Car. Car. Car. Punch. Car. Car. Dialogue. Wrap. Next!

Noah

– Although it’s the untold story – apparently all of the bits that the writer of Genesis didn’t think were important enough – it still has a boat and a flood, so it’s at least in the right area.

– Most of the animals are turning up are more worried about the flood than eating each other, so this is unlikely to get into any of the carnivore / herbivore segregation issues that probably beset the real Noah.

– Apparently Noah has a fiery stick and it’s going to rain fire, so the Bible probably left all of the good bits out.

Draft Day

– After the Matthew McConnaissance, this is the also the year of the Kevin Costback. Or something.

– The guys who do gravelly voices for trailers have had a really lean year.

– Releasing an American football movie in April might not be the best idea ever.

Jaguar British Villains commercial

Somebody get these guys in a movie together.

Philip Seymour Hoffman: In Memoriam

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Philip Seymour Hoffman

I returned home from the village shop this evening to be confronted by Mrs Evangelist. For some reason, I’ve not been seeing my texts recently when they come in, so I’ve missed a request for shopping or to pay the window cleaner. Got back to the house just over an hour ago, to discover she’d been frantically trying to text me again. “Did you get my texts? Have you heard? Philip Seymour Hoffman’s dead.”

This isn’t an attempt to be facetious, or to diminish the memory of possibly the finest actor of our generation, but when my wife couldn’t wait the ten minutes needed for me to get home it shows both how shocking it is to have an actor of such talents cruelly taken away from us at the age of just 46, and that even my wife and her more general knowledge of film is aware of what a rich talent Hoffman represented and means to the likes of film fans like myself.

I’ve been writing this blog for three and a half years now, and in that time this is only the second time that I’ve been moved to write a tribute to an actor who’s just died, the other being Leslie Nielsen. While most losses of actors are deeply saddening, and it feels no time at all since Paul Walker was also killed at a young age – heck, it feels no time since we lost Heath Ledger well before his time – Philip Seymour Hoffman was something else, one of the most versatile talents of our generation and the pain feels so much greater for the knowledge of all of those film opportunities now lost to us forever.

Part of the reason I write tributes so sparingly is the feeling that so many others, often those who knew him personally and had worked with him, have the opportunity to express their feelings through news media and the internet in ways more meaningful and often more profound than I can manage. But just occasionally, someone who’s had such a dramatic effect on my own consumption of film needs to be celebrated.

He won an Oscar for Capote, of course, but he elevated pretty much every film he was ever in. I first came to know him as Twister’s Dusty and Boogie Nights’ Scotty, and he was at home in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson – including Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love and his imperious performance in The Master – as he was in blockbuster like Mission: Impossible 3 and the Hunger Games series. He’s been at the core of some of my favourite films of the past few years, from Mary And Max to Synecdoche, New York and he was always a standout in solid movies such as Doubt and Charlie Wilson’s War. As I’ve started to catch up on films I’ve missed over the years, it’s always a delight when he turns up, and his career spans Almost Famous to The Big Lebowski and Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead to Moneyball. I could carry on listing films for two or three more paragraphs and there isn’t a duff note among any of the performances.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, thank you. You will be greatly missed.

Review: That Awkward Moment

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That Awkward Moment

The Pitch: “What if we did a romantic comedy from, say, the man’s perspective?” “Genius, take the rest of the day off.”

The Review Awkward Moments List:

That awkward moment…

… when you’re a married man two weeks shy of forty going to a Zac Efron movie. On your own.

… when you hear the voiceover at the beginning, and find yourself wondering when Zac Efron’s voice broke.

… when you hear the main conceit of the film (guys trying to stay single to protect their friend whose marriage is on the rocks) and think it’s worryingly thin.

… when there’s a joke about a guy who looks like Morris Chestnut and you think he is Morris Chestnut but you can only remember him from Under Siege 2 and that was a long time ago.

… when you come home and Google Morris Chestnut and realise he was in Kick-Ass 2, which you saw not six months ago.

… when they roll out the Morris Chestnut joke again and no-one laughed the first time.

… when the film resorts to “I thought it was a mint, oh it’s really a Viagra” routines after less than ten minutes.

… when the payoff to the Viagra gag is Zac Efron prostrate and naked on a toilet and you realise you’re really not in the target demographic for this one.

… when the film introduces a comedy background character (played by Josh Pais) who’s one of the most excruciatingly unfunny comedy background characters ever.

… when Zac Efron thinks a woman he’s met in a bar is a prostitute after seeing two books, some money and her boots, despite the fact that a prostitute will generally ask from the money up front.

… when there’s a tiny part of you wondering if I’m speaking from personal experience. (I’m not – it’s just common sense. But thanks anyway.)

… when Zac Efron attempts to explain to the woman (Imogen Poots) that he thought she was a prostitute and she actually talks to him again, ever.

… when the film you’re watching is based on a conceit so thin that the film itself forgets about it for a good half hour and then forces it ever more painfully through in an attempt to justify itself.

… when the film manages to conjure up another background supporting character as bad as the first one.

… when you realise the plot is doing its best to see just how much of an asshole it can turn Zac Efron into and still get the girl at the end of it.

… when you laugh, despite yourself, and so does most everyone else in the cinema, and then you all feel embarrassed because it’s over an hour in and so far nobody laughed much at all and actually it was such a throwaway gag maybe everyone just needed some catharsis.

… when you realise that the black guy’s romance plot (Michael B. Jordan) has been sidelined for a long stretch, and he might just be there to cover as many demographics as possible.

… when a major plot twist relies on three people independently walking into a public toilet with a lock on the door and not one of them using it, and you’re expected to just laugh it off.

… when you realise that Imogen Poots and Mackenzie Davis, and probably Miles Teller, deserve better than this, but hey, at least they got paid.

… when you realise it’s not over and the credits have a succession of outtakes.

… when you realise the rest of the audience aren’t hanging around for the outtakes and probably have more self respect for themselves than you do.

… when you realise that this was a script on the 2010 Black List of the best unproduced Hollywood scripts, getting more votes than The Hunger Games, The Butler, Looper, Oz: The Great And Powerful and Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Why see it at the cinema: … when you realise that you’ve only gone to see it because Imogen Poots is great and pretty and you’re old enough to be her dad and now you feel just a bit dirty. See also Zac Efron if that’s your bag.

What about the rating? … when you realise that this is rated 15 because it contains over fifty uses of the f-word, a scene in a sex shop and a man having a wank with some tanning lotion, and this is supposed to be a romantic comedy.

My cinema experience: … when you realise that you’ve fallen back into old habits and are just seeing a film because you’ve got four hours until the film you’re actually paying to see starts, and that going for a walk would’ve been more productive, and that the only real bonus is that this kept the rowdy teenagers in the audience at Cineworld Cambridge so bored they kept generally quiet.

The Score: 3/10

Oscars Countdown: A Guide To What’s Actually The Best Picture 2013

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It's as if his eyes follow you round the room. Well, his eye dents, anyway.
It’s as if his eyes follow you round the room. Well, his eye dents, anyway.

It’s nearly over. The extended farrago over who’s better than who and the flood of yet more pointless platitudes from the supposedly great and good of Hollywood comes to an end for another year in the early hours of Monday morning UK time, with the 497th Academy Awards (probably). It’s not been a bad year for films, and the awards voters in Hollywood have got a lot more right than wrong this year. Gradually, the large field of contenders has been whittled down to just nine, through a process of expensive advertising and devious marketing, and the times when The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, The Monuments Men, Saving Mr. Banks or The Counselor were being considered seriously for awards greatness – in other words, before people actually saw them – have long since passed, and we’re now firmly at the business end. In just over two days, Hollywood will allow a select band of people to upgrade to “Academy Award Winner” when they’re mentioned in trailers for serious films, while a host of others will have to remain content with “Academy Award Nominee” or, somewhat inexplicably the best he can yet do, “BAFTA Award Nominee / SAG Award Nominee / Independent Spirit Award Winner Paul Dano”.

For the third time in the four years that the blog has been running, I’ve managed to see all of the nominees in all of the big eight categories (picture, director, acting, writing) by the time the awards happen, compared to the two occasions I could claim that before I started blogging. However, this has led me occasionally to be sat in front of a film simply so I could claim a full house on my Oscar bingo card – mainly because I like to feel informed when I criticise the Academy for its poor decision making – but this year my only real regret was seeing The Butler about two days before it seemed to lose all of its awards momentum. At least I got to claim a full house at BAFTA as well, and I could answer the question as to whether Oprah Winfrey deserved a nod ahead of June Squibb. (Answer: no. I’m sure Oprah will be crying herself to sleep on a giant bed made of money and success at my decision.)

The process has, inevitably, thrown up a few films that should have got more love, but were inhibited either by their very nature or by the resistance of their distributors to spend flipping great wodges of cash taking out ten page ads in Variety asking voters to please, please, pretty please remember their film when casting their vote for Best Art Direction or Sound Editing. In a different year, with a slightly different sensibility, or if the Academy actually understood what people in general mean by “Best”, we might have seen Short Term 12 (too indie), Frozen (too animated), Prisoners (it looked too generic from the trailer – it wasn’t), The Great Beauty and The Hunt (too subtitled, even when one stars an actual person famous to Americans in Mads Mikkelsen), Iron Man 3 (too mainstream), The Act Of Killing (documentaries should know their place, apparently), Inside Llewyn Davis (too miserable without being melodromatic) or Before Midnight (too sequel-y). All of them are better than the first three on this list, Before Midnight better than most, but we should at least be grateful the list we do have doesn’t have any real stinkers in it.

So, for the third time in four years, here’s my ordering of the nominees for Best Picture, from least best to most best.

The Least Best Picture is Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club

We should all be duly relieved when something of the quality of Dallas Buyers Club is the least of the nominees in a given year. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to enjoy about Dallas Buyers Club: the performances of both Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey are excellent and I wouldn’t begrudge either the awards they’re nominated for (although they’re not necessarily the best). Details of Ron Woodroff’s real life may have been somewhat sketchy, leading to this being a little more myth-making than accurate reporting, but it’s the kind of story that needs a little myth-making when all’s said and done.

There are three main problems with Dallas Buyers Club. First is the lack of other characters: Jennifer Garner – who, apropos of nothing, looks amazing for 41 and being married to Ben Affleck – only develops into a living, breathing character around the halfway mark, and no-one else gets a look in; the lack of character development for Ron’s fellow club worker Denise, for example, is almost breathtaking. Secondly, it’s a story in need of a better ending, saddled with a feeling of anticlimax. And thirdly, although it has no bearing on the quality of the finished product, there really should be an apostrophe in that title.

Which is not as good as American Hustle

Christian Bale;Amy Adams

American Hustle is the movie equivalent of a decent Chinese takeaway: satisfying and enjoyable while you’re consuming it, but for some reason leaves you unfulfilled not long after. Much of what there is to enjoy is down to the performances, from Bradley Cooper’s tightly wound FBI agent to Christian Bale’s sleazy conman. While Jennifer Lawrence might be a little miscast, it would take a genuine curmudgeon to take too much offence with her stroppy headbanging, but the real highlight is Amy Adams once again twisting any man in a five mile radius round her little finger.

But beyond the quality of the acting, the rest feels as threadbare as Christian Bale’s wig / comb-over combo. There feels little new  about the story or its handful of twists, and David O. Russell’s direction lacks the narrative drive or visual flair of many of his contemporaries. It’s undoubtedly in awards contention thanks to the quality of the performances and the large voting bloc that the actors make up in the Academy, but whether or not that support will carry Hustle to the big prize remains to be seen. It won’t quite be a Crash-level shock if it does, but it will be almost as unjustified.

Which is not as good as Philomena

Philomena

I have to confess that I was checking my watch around an hour into Philomena. It wasn’t for any lack of enjoyment, as Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s script was doing an efficient job of pitching up the cultural differences between Coogan’s journalist Martin Sixsmith and Judi Dench as the titular Catholic mother looking for the son taken from her decades earlier, but it had never quite caught fire. Treading a tricky line between serious issue drama and gentle Brit comedy, it wasn’t so much that it couldn’t decide which to settle on, more that it was content to be a reasonable example of both.

But the power of Philomena comes in the last third, when the true nature of events has unfolded and the gentle events of the first two acts actually work to blind side you to what’s coming. Dench is, unsurprisingly, outstanding but Coogan also proves his dramatic chops and shown that he can be more than just Alan Partridge. It was a good year for Coogan, with Partridge’s big screen foray also being well received, and stranger things have happened than Philomena picking up a screenplay award in the big shakedown.

Which is not as good as Nebraska

Nebraska

Alexander Payne is becoming a reassuring brand of quality, but after the slight dip of The Descendants – hamstrung by too much repetition of scenes of explaining that someone had died – Payne has once again found his groove with a slice of family life in the American Midwest. Pulling in a wide variety of family members, it’s a slightly skewed road trip led by Bruce Dern’s befuddled father insisting that he’s come up trumps in the lottery. While Dern has drawn the lion’s share of the acting plaudits, June Squibb also has an Oscar nomination for her efforts and Will Forte has redeemed himself for a fair chunk of over-the-top comedy performances with his restrained showing.

But it’s not just the director that’s pulled his weight. Bob Nelson’s script feels so in tune with Payne’s sympathies I did a double take when seeing Payne didn’t write it as the end credits scrolled. Phedon Papamichael’s black and white cinematography also avoids cliché and justifies the decision for monochrome shooting, and Nebraska is beautifully paced and allows you to fall in love with its characters despite their flaws. It looks as if nominations are the best that Nebraska can hope for, but against the quality of the opposition, there’s no shame in that.

Which is not as good as Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips

It wouldn’t be the Oscars if there wasn’t a huge and unfair omission from the list, and probably the person most justifiably allowed to bear a grudge – even though he already has two shiny gold man-shaped bookends at home – would be Tom Hanks. Stoic and restrained for the majority, his performance in the denouement is gripping and fearlessly honest, and to not even take a nomination is a shame. Paul Greengrass also does his usual bang-up job with the direction, and if that award wasn’t filled with so many strong contenders he would have also been worth a nomination.

Captain Phillips is taut and compelling in all the ways that Greengrass’s earlier features, from United 93 to the Bourne films, were and that his previous film Green Zone wasn’t, so if nothing else it’s just a relief to see Greengrass back on top form. He’s also pulled some great performances from his Somali novices, and Barkhad Abdi is a standard bearer for that part of the cast. Captain Phillips avoids any feelings of exploitation and gives a balanced view of the story, as is so often the case with Paul Greengrass, but it’s not quite at the level of those earlier classics.

Which is not as good as Her

Her

Observation 1: Joaquim Phoenix and Amy Adams should always make films together, if The Master and Her are the benchmark of the quality of their collaborations. They get a lot more screen time together, and while Scarlett Johansson’s OS is the object of Phoenix’s affections, it’s Adams that gives him a warm, balanced human interaction. Observation 2: Spike Jonze, we’ve missed you. Only one film since Adaptation in 2002, let’s hope that Jonze can find more stories that inspire him, especially as Her shows that the quality of his writing is easily the equal of his directing and feels in tune with his earlier work from other writers.

Observation 3: Even five years ago, it’s difficult to imagine a film like this working as well as it does, but Jonze’s timing is impeccable, our acceptance of technology now enabling us to accept such a concept so readily. Despite being saddled with the most unlikely name in the history of movies and facial hair that verges on comedic, Theodore Twimbly draws in your sympathies and you find yourself rooting for his and Samantha’s relationship to work. Observation 4: What keeps this from true greatness is the slightly fudged ending, which while being brave enough doesn’t quite feel as fully formed as the rest of the film.

Observation 5: Any film that can actually make me start to like Arcade Fire is doing something clearly right.

Which is not as good as The Wolf Of Wall Street

The Wolf Of Wall Street

It’s three hours, Matthew McConaughey is relegated to an extended cameo and it’s been accused of not being sympathetic enough to the victims while its misogyny poorly serves the female characters. Does that stop it being one of Martin Scorcese’s top tier films? Not in my view. The length works in its favour, giving true scope to the true excess that defined Jordan Belfort’s era of ultimate debauchery. It would have been lovely to have more of McConaughey, but there’s enough in the other characters, from DiCaprio’s physical comedy to Johan Hill’s cheesy grin and a whole array of entertaining supporting turns.

The sympathy for the victims is trickier, as we only see one person being sucked into the scheme, but whereas the comparisons to Goodfellas are well founded, that was an indictment of a lifestyle on the fringes of society. The Wolf Of Wall Street is more of a condemnation of the culture that arose, and where the desperate needs of so many allowed them to be so easily exploited by Belfort and his cronies. As for the treatment of female characters, this is a realisation of Belfort’s view, and to attempt to give a politically correct balance to the characters would have undermined the callousness of Belfort’s world. It isn’t quite Goodfellas, but frankly, what is? When Scorcese’s legacy comes to be written, this should deserve a decent paragraph.

Which is not as good as Gravity

GRAVITY

Watching the making of videos for Gravity serves to underline quite what a technical achievement Alfonso Cuaron’s film is. The sheer level of new techniques, melded with established practices pushed to their very limits, creates a cinematic experience unlike any which have gone before and despite the success of space-based epics such as Avatar and 3D improvements like Life Of Pi, Gravity is immersive and impressive in ways that truly haven’t been seen before, and as much as I’m about to rave about 12 Years A Slave in the next section, I can’t help but feel for his breadth of vision and the clarity of his purpose, Cuaron deserves the best director award this year.

The story is painted with broad strokes but deals in metaphor and has slightly alienated some; there are no shortage of character moments, and Sandra Bullock has overcome the technical challenges imposed by the role to deliver a sympathetic study in loneliness. It will be remembered for what’s seen – and to a certain extent, what’s heard, as the music and sound design complement the visuals perfectly – but the quality of the other departments, in both writing and acting, doesn’t in any way let the side down. Gravity is one of a number of films touring cinemas as part of awards season, so if you haven’t seen it on the big screen yet, don’t let the chance pass you by, and make sure to see it in 3D.

The Best Picture Of 2013 is 12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave

I’ve been a fan of Steve McQueen’s cinematic work since his first film, Hunger, and I rated Shame as my film of the year in 2012. You can understand that I then approached 12 Years A Slave with a little trepidation: as McQueen edges ever closer to the mainstream, would his vision be compromised? Could his third film possibly live up to the hype? Such questions seem almost trivial once you’ve seen the film, and McQueen has once again delivered a near perfect blend of his own direction, coupled with an acting masterclass and a script that judges just the right moments to deliver a searing portrayal of life in the slave trade.

I’ve been known to cry in the cinema before, from the heartbreak of the final meal in Of Gods And Men to the tragedy of a life told in montage in Up. It is fair to say that I am in touch with all of my emotions once I’m in the darkened environs of a cinema. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that 12 Years A Slave completely destroyed me. Rather than sobbing, tears just streamed down my face at regular intervals, I had to sit in the car for best part of half an hour while I composed myself afterwards and required a beer at the hotel I was staying at for work afterwards to enable me to sleep.

McQueen’s shot composition is from the man of a mind that grew out of art galleries but is now equally comfortable in cinemas. Here he proves beyond any doubt that he’s equally invested in his characters, portrayed as they are so devastatingly by the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. John Ridley’s script has a wonderful ear for the dialogue of the era, and 12 Years A Slave is supremely dramatic and heartbreaking without ever feeling overwrought. The only misstep might be the inclusion of producer Brad Pitt in a small role, but that’s easily forgivable given the offscreen influence he’s likely to have been able to bring to getting this made. If 12 Years A Slave wins big, then McQueen shouldn’t have any difficulty attracting whoever he wants for his next project.

12 Years A Slave is an aspect of slavery rather than a complete picture, as last year’s Django Unchained and Lincoln also explored different facets. But it exceeds either of those films in its insight into both human suffering and ultimately compassion, tinged with hope as much as it is burdened by suffering and anger. In my view, Steve McQueen has now made the two most compelling films I’ve seen this decade, and I can only hope that Hollywood shares this feeling and duly rewards it tonight.

Previous years:

A Guide To What’s Actually The Best Picture 2012

A Guide To What’s Actually The Best Picture 2010

Oscars Countdown: The Hunt For Recognition

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Rachel couldn't stop laughing at pulling out the unexpected Z, but deep down she was saddened by the shonky quality of my Photoshopping.
Rachel couldn’t stop laughing at pulling out the unexpected Z, but deep down she was saddened by the appallingly shonky quality of my Photoshopping.

At the end of a week when we’ve seen the first major awards handed out and the nominations for the gold shiny bald men unleashed upon an expectant world, it’s a good time to reflect on how well the voters of the various awards bodies have done in providing recognition for the films that deserved it. The Golden Globes and the Oscars represent opposite ends of the spectrum: the Globes voted for by 100 obscure journalists in a ceremony that has taken on an importance inversely proportional to its voting body. While you might knock the Oscars – and I have, repeatedly, during my time writing this blog – everyone wants to put some semblance of order into what’s been released and to reward those who’ve achieved in their fields, and given my plethora of year-end lists each year I’d be a touch hypocritical if I were to dismiss completely the opportunity for others to do likewise.

But the Oscars are the culmination of a season that has become as much of a campaign for votes as any political election, maybe more so given that only around 6,000 people are eligible to vote. Words such as journey, importance and momentum will get bandied about repeatedly over the next six weeks, and every single lesser award ceremony will be pored over by showbiz journalists with nothing better to do than to speculate on the outcome. There have already been casualties – step forward Tom Hanks, this year’s Ben Affleck (and that’s not a sentence I ever thought I’d say) – but while for some it’s too late, for the lucky few the real campaign starts in earnest, with a prize of up to $30 million at the US Box Office alone for those getting the “Oscar bump” of extra recognition through a nomination or a win.

I’ve written before about the main failings of the Oscars: they tend to skew away from the films that sit too close to the mainstream, they generally segregate foreign language films and animation to the margins and they have notoriously short term memories. Partly, the last of those points must be down to the need to get that bump while a film is still in cinemas and not released on DVD, which means a release in the last month of the year gives a distinct edge, but some will also quote the benefits of momentum which is crucially lost if your film was released six months ago. These days, the most prominent campaigns start with films released around the festival season in September / October, that ride a wave of acclaim across Toronto, Venice or London and then are unleashed on the general public just in time to start picking up awards nominations.

Is this year any better, then? Three guesses, but you’ll only need one.

Oscars Countdown The Hunt 1

Listed on the left are this year’s nine Best Picture nominations. The Academy will select anything between five and ten, as long as they achieved at least 5% of the vote (hence only having nine nominations for the past three years). I’ve then also assembled the top ten lists from film sites Letterboxd and the Internet Movie Database, which anyone can vote for, and Metacritic which aggregates critic reviews. (Letterboxd tends to skew more middle class while the IMDb typically has a more mainstream slant, so I’ve included them both for balance.) Three films – 12 Years A Slave, Her and Gravity – manage to appear on all four lists, so logic would suggest that they should be the front runners, yet many are considering this a two horse race between 12 Years and American Hustle. American Hustle appears to have in its favour the fact that it’s secured acting nominations in all four categories for the second David O. Russell film in a row and that it picked up the Golden Globe for best comedy, as well as a handful of critical awards prior to that. It overlooks the fact that the general public haven’t taken to it at all, so it would seem to be this year’s film reliant heavily on the actors that make up a decent chunk of the 6,000 members.

What the Academy voters have then done follows their usual pattern: firstly, no populist films, so no Hobbit or Hunger Games which the general public loved. They’ve also not picked any animations, although that may be fairer this year as while Frozen and The Wind Rises sat just outside the other three lists, none gained enough of a consensus to feel hard done by. Those films released earlier in the year, such as Before Midnight, get just a handful of nominations in smaller categories. But the biggest injustice remains that of the exclusion of foreign films, with The Hunt hit by the double whammy of actually being released in 2012.

Yes, the Oscars continue to be The World Championships Of American And British Film And Occasionally Something Australian Or Foreign If You’re Lucky. But don’t take my work for it on just being this year: here’s the same breakdown for the previous four years, since the Best Picture Oscar expanded from five to ten films, and once again with the comparable lists from Letterboxd, IMDb and Metacritic. I’ve highlighted any films not primarily in English, and it’s just the Academy voters that can’t find a way to embrace films not in English.

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Only once in five years has a film not in English cracked the Best Picture nominations. While the Academy award nominations are in alphabetical order the other lists are in vote order, so the top pick of both the general public and critics in 2011 (A Separation) failed to crack the Oscar nominations. (About Elly also got neglected, and his latest effort The Past didn’t even make the Foreign Language category this year.) In fact, only nine foreign films have ever managed a nomination for the big prize: Grand Illusion (1938), Z (1969), The Emigrants (1972), Cries And Whispers (1973), Il Postino (1995), Life Is Beautiful (1998), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) and Amour (2012). That’s a rate of less than 2% of the nominations over the lifetime of the Oscars, and when you consider that the top film lists on the other sites all have a rate in double figures, it’s Oscars ought to be taking a long, hard look at themselves.

If you’re a film in a non-English language, the odds are stacked against you from the start of even winning the Best Foreign Language award. The qualifying window runs from October to September – the reason we’ve got The Hunt in the Best Foreign Language category this year, and not Blue Is The Warmest Color), and having a three month longer lead time will put a dent in the hopes of the best films, even before you consider the marketing budget needed to compete on a level playing field. If you’re being considered for the award, then first you’ll need to secure your country’s nomination – as each country is only allowed to put forward one film per year – and then you’ll need to make the initial shortlist of nine. From there, a thirty member committee whittles the list down to five by watching the nominees, and then you can vote for the final winner if you’re an Academy member and are willing to see all five of the nominations in a cinema. Good luck to anyone trying to navigate through that process, you’re going to need it.

The only way I can see to end this farce would be to scrap the Foreign Language Oscar completely, and to do away with the October to September window. If foreign language films were allowed to compete on a level playing field, and if they could secure enough backing to get a campaign off the ground, then maybe we’d see more rounded lists. In a parallel universe somewhere, the Academy did this five years ago when they expanded from five films, and the Best Picture nominee lists have looked like this for the past five years (based on the best performers across the current Oscar nominations and the Letterboxd, IMDb and Metacritic lists). I’ll leave it to you to work out whether or not you prefer these lists to the actual nominations; the films in green are in both the actual Oscar list and these, and the mauve are once again the foreign language films. Let me know what you think; for now we can only dream of a world as well rounded as this one.

Oscars Countdown The Hunt 3

The Half Dozen: 6 Most Interesting Looking Trailers For January 2014

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If there’s one thing you can say about 2014, it’s that it follows 2013 in chronological order. If you can say two things, it’s that we’re going to get the normal mix of bloated blockbusters and art house gems. 2014 will see another Tom Cruise action movie, two more Marvel films, another edgy David Fincher literary adaptation, Spike Jonze’s Oscar-botherer with Joaquim Phoenix, Lars Von Trier’s five hour sex epic, Christopher Nolan’s latest epic, the most Wes Anderson-y Wes Anderson film ever, another slice of Iranian life from Asghar Farhadi and big screen outings for Postman Pat, Paddington and Pudsey the dog, among a host of others.

If sequels are your thing, then feel free to choose from the Muppets, Rio, The Amazing Spider-Man, 21 Jump Street, The Purge, How To Train Your Dragon, Transformers, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, The Inbetweeners, The Expendables, Sin City, Paranormal Activity, Nativity, Horrible Bosses, Dumb And Dumber and Night At The Museum. We’ll get the penultimate Hunger Games and the final Hobbit (probably). There’ll be cinematic interpretations of Lego, the Need For Speed franchise, another Godzilla, Disney spin-off Maleficent, Mrs. Brown’s Boys, Hercules and The Equaliser. You can get two X-Men casts for the price of one, and if none of that appeals, then maybe you deserve Untitled Vince Vaughn Movie, due for release in October.

But that’s all to come. Before that we have to navigate January, and the host of Uncle Sam’s leftover awards contenders that make compiling end of year lists so confusing. Here’s my most prominent trailers for the first month of 2013: The Sequel.

Last Vegas

To start with, a trailer that was a phenomenon. Showing before almost every film I’ve seen in the last two months, seemingly crossing almost every demographic line, there’s one inevitable occurrence every time this has screened: almost every one in the cinema chuckles briefly when Morgan Freeman jumps out of the window. Comedy gold.

12 Years A Slave

I saw this on Thursday, and my review will follow in due course. All I’ll say for now is that I was staying in a hotel for work, and I had to sit and have a pint in the hotel bar when I got back in an effort to stop my hand shaking. Steve McQueen has now made three films of outstanding quality that blur the line between art and film, without compromising each other, and for my money there’s no one making films today that have quite the emotional power of McQueen. (Although I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Robert Redford when I heard the name of his film dropped.)

Tim’s Vermeer

The first documentary pick of the year, and it’s one brought to you by magicians Penn and Teller. I never thought I’d ever see Martin Mull and David Hockney in the same trailer, but there you go.

The Wolf Of Wall Street

Picked this film out in my Half Dozen of the year in December as the best trailer for a 2014 film; this is the more recent trailer. If trailers were directly proportional to the length of their films, this should have been about ten minutes. The first Scorcese I ever encountered was Goodfellas, which I fell in love with by reading the screenplay before I even saw the film; I can only hope the favourable comparisons are justified.

Inside Llewyn Davis

If I was making a top ten of working directors, Steve McQueen and Martin Scorsese would likely be in there. The Coen brothers would certainly be in there, and they’re on a hot streak at the moment. But if you had to pick seven films that represented the Coens, would you have picked the seven listed out in the trailer?

I, Frankenstein

If your film hasn’t appeared in the awards nominations, putting a caption up in your trailer saying “This January” is tantamount to saying “Come and see this if you can be bothered” or “Welcome to the cinematic dumping ground”. Maybe, in the fullness of time, the quality of high budget action movies will have risen to the point where they can be shown twelve months of the year. On this evidence, it will be at least 2015.