film

Review: Fast & Furious 7

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Fast & Furious 7

The Pitch: I didn’t think there was any way I could top the stupidity of my Fast & Furious 6 review. Well…

The Limerick Review (BOOM! In your face, stupidity):

There once was a man named Rob Cohen
Who got this film / car series goin'
He directed the first,
With his camera immersed
In car's exhausts, constantly flowin'.

Next, sequels; but Diesel was missing,
Then Walker too his role dismissing,
As the quality waned
We were less entertained
And critics were ranting and hissing.

But Justin Lin then had a great thought:
The cast from the first film were all sought
For more thieving car stunts,
Once more with Vin's deep grunts
For his girl died (or so he had thought).

The fifth film showed yet more evolving,
The casting door still was revolving,
With the stars back en bloc
They then added The Rock,
So cheesy but oddly involving.

The sixth sorted out continuity,
But its plotting was lacking acuity.
Yet the post-credits scene
Kept the audience keen:
Add The Stath? Oh what great ingenuity!

Wait! The promise of bald Jason's madness
Was tempered with deep real-life sadness
For Walker died too young;
His virtues were then sung.
The films had no choice but to digress.

The Paul Walker issue's a distraction
For he'd only filmed half his action.
His brothers helped out 
And CG's pixel clout
Gave once again narrative traction.

A year late comes this sixth film sequel,
The Stath now arriving to wreak hell
Avenging Luke Evans
(Near sent to the heavens);
Can only be tracked by Kurt Russell.

(The adding of Kurt ain't for nuthin':
The man behind this film's MacGuffin. 
By hiring Snake Plissken
There's less of a risk in
Him fading away to a has-been.)

Our gang tours the world with Stath chasing,
With barely a mention of racing
But cars are the main tools
With which they make big fools
Of logic, and physics debasing.

The main draw's the film's whack set-pieces
Whose grasp on the real world decreases
With cars in the sky
In the blink of an eye;
Admit it, the script's mostly faeces.

You may think it of me quite petty
To complain of amnesiac Letty;
There's now so much plot 
In these films, I forgot!
The story's more strands than spaghetti.

The emotional core's based on family;
A shame that side's handled so hammily.
Yet wide demographics
Like flashy car graphics - 
Thank casting spread wide geographically.

There's so many stars, some neglected:
The Rock's presence barely detected.
We lost Han Seoul-Oh
And Gisele (Gal Gadot)... 
Wait, that t's pronounced. (Rhyme rejected.)

Not even two deaths have helped thin out
The bloated cast list; yet they win out.
They might just enchant ya
With their cheeky banter
And car stunts which might get your grin out.

This time Lin has gone, Wan's arriving,
Saw's James this time wrangling the driving.
This director-for-hire
Doesn't raise standards higher
His style from the genre deriving.

His one fetish greater than fast cars
Is his lens outlining each girl's arse
As each one that's hot
Wanders into his shot
Their bottoms are making them film stars.

Overall, Fast 7's not realistic
Its scenery's quite chauvinistic
But if you like a laugh
You could do worse by half
Than the year's big box office statistic.

Why see it at the cinema:

If you like fast cars and loose women,
Then don't hesitate, drop your linen,
Get straight down to the flicks
For big stunts and hot chicks.
(If you miss it you'll be forgiven.)

What about the rating? 

The BBFC gave a 12A
You'll find out at this link what they say.
They gave it for swearing
And violence; They're caring
About all film viewers. (Not child's play.)

My cinema experience:

A Stevenage Cineworld threesome,
(For which I will not give a reason)
I also saw two more.
The others that I saw
Weren't bad either, despite no Liam Neeson.
They did have Russ Crowe and Ben Stiller,
With this film to their sandwich: filler.
The Water Diviner
Was slightly less finer
And While We're Young wasn't a killer.

The Score: 7/10

The Half Dozen: 6 Most Interesting Looking Trailers For April 2015

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April’s here, and thankfully the first of the month has been and gone without me falling for too many April Fool jokes. I would like to say I didn’t fall for any, but I am sweet and naive and I cannot tell a lie. That said, if anyone does want to assemble a fake trailer for something for next year, it would be greatly appreciated, as I need anything I can to hook me into the barrage of trailers I’m faced with every month.

I do try to watch as many trailers as possible, but with 65 films scheduled for release in UK cinemas in some form this month and 64 less Movie Evangelists to watch all those trailers, some pruning has to take place before I even fire up the YouTube. This month I took in a total of 28 trailers, and in each one I’m looking for the hook, that indefinable quality which will keep the trailer in my mind once I’ve watched so many that I’m struggling to remember my own name.

So this month, I present my half dozen trailers (plus a buy one, get one free special) with what made the film stand out before I watched the trailer, and then the hook which helped this make the list once I’d seen the respective promo. Not a fast (and furious) car, an Action Keanu or a horde of Avengers in sight, but I’m sure they’ll all be good too.

The Indian-Produced Mexican Film: Broken Horses

Vidhu Vinod Chopra, director of India’s biggest ever box office sensation 3 Idiots as well as a number of critically acclaimed Hindi films, has turned his hand to something completely different, a Western set on the Mexican-US border. Most of the promotional material online is from the Indian wing of Fox’s distribution, and it’s taken some unexpected angles.

You had me at: Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. James Cameron. But of course.

Broken Horses is on limited release from Friday 10th April.

The Not Quite Best Foreign Language Oscar Nominee: Force Majeure

The Oscars are a curious beast, and few awards are more curious than Best Foreign Language Film. Putting aside the fact that four of this year’s nominees that I’ve seen (Ida, Leviathan, Wild Tales, Timbuktu) are a country mile better than half of the actual Best Picture nominations (The Imitation Game, American Sniper, Birdman, The Theory Of Everything), you have to jump through a remarkable number of hoops even to get into the top five.

First, each country must choose one and only film and submit it, leaving the likes of Goodbye To Language and We Are The Best! falling short. The 83 films submitted then get reviewed by a committee who narrow it down to nine, and who this year ruled out Two Days, One Night, Mommy, Winter Sleep and Norte, The End Of History. (Funnily enough, they’re all better than the four Best Pictures nominees I listed as well.) And then, for reasons best known to themselves, they publish the list of nine a week before the full nominations before then cutting it down to five a week later. This year Corn Island, Accused, The Liberator and Force Majeure were the four to face last minute heartbreak.

I dream of a day when awards ceremonies just give prizes to the best films, rather than performing their current bizarre language segregation, but I also know it’s just a dream.

You had me at: Avalanche!

Force Majeure will be in art house cinemas and online at Curzon Home Cinema from Friday 10th April.

The Danish Western Set In Patagonia: Jauja

It’s got Viggo Mortensen and a brief synopsis which reads: “A father and daughter journey from Denmark to an unknown desert that exists in a realm beyond the confines of civilization.” If you’re not sold on that, maybe we shouldn’t be friends any more. No, wait, come back, only kidding! Of course we can watch Transformers again. (Sigh.)

You had me at: You’ve rounded the corners! Just like an old-timey photograph. Crazy.

Jauja is on limited release from Friday 10th April. 

Buy One, Get One Free Special On Danish Westerns: The Salvation

Quite often I’ll make a snap judgement on whether or not a film’s worth a watch based on the quality of its cast. Aside from the Casino Royale reunion of Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green you’ve also got Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jonathan Pryce and the bloke who was Beorn in The Hobbit. That would do me even before…

You had me at: Eric Cantona. I know he’s been in films before, and I’m a Liverpool supporter so shouldn’t like him, but come on, he gets his name in the credits!

The Salvation is on limited release from Friday 17th April.

The Ryan Gosling Film You Wondered If You’d Ever See In A Cinema: Lost River

Another amazing cast list (Saiorse Ronan, Ben Mendelsohn, Christina Hendricks, Eva Mendes, the geeky bloke from Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.), but the big name here was always going to be the director. Sadly Ryan Gosling’s behind-the-camera debut has picked up poor to middling reviews, but most of them claim it to be at least an interesting failure.

You had me at: So that’s what you were keeping under the fez, Doctor. (Yes, I will watch anything with a former Doctor Who in it, what of it?)

Lost River is on limited release from Friday 10th April.

The Thickest Accent In The World Competition: Child 44

Oh, so it’s who’s got the best cast time, is it? Well, I see your Mads Mikkelsen and your Saoirse Ronan and I raise you Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Charles Dance, Vincent Cassel, Jason Clarke, Tara Fitzgerald and Paddy Considine! I believe that’s a full house.

You had me at: The last time I think I heard Russian accents that thick was probably in Muppets Most Wanted.

Child 44 is on general release from Friday 17th April.

In Any Other Month This Would Seem Strange: A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence

If you want me to be all “ooh, Iron Man fighting the Hulk, and lots of other giant fighty robots”, then you’ve come to the wrong place. This trilogy capper from the man that brought you Songs From The Second Floor and You, The Living is what’s getting me most excited come the end of the month. If you’ve never seen either of those films, then go and rectify that now.

You had me at: IN THE NAME OF SANITY, WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO THAT MONKEY?!?!

A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence is probably the only thing you’ll find in cinemas that isn’t Avengers 2 from Friday 24th April.

Review: Chappie

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Chappie

The Pitch: Number 22… is alive! Your move, creeps.

The Review: The cinema of my childhood was defined by two very different film watching experiences. That’s if you can call it cinema, as the demise of picture palaces in my home town saw me watch most of my films on the technological wonder that was VHS. Some of that was made up of the typical family fare that was a staple of popular cinema in the Eighties, from The Karate Kid to Flight Of The Navigator and The Goonies to Short Circuit. As the decade drew to a close I was allowed by my very liberal mother to take in some of the action greats of the decade before I’d reached the 18 rating recommended, such as Aliens and Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and Robocop. I suspect, although he’s half a decade younger than me and from the other end of the world, that Neill Blomkamp may have had a similarly formative childhood, given that his latest film appears to be an attempt to splice together those two genres by combining the family friendly robot education of Short Circuit with the corporate satire and blood-letting of Robocop.

Normally I’d suggest it’s fairly reductive and not particularly helpful to boil a film down to such obvious constituent components, but Blomkamp seems to be going out of his way to remind us of the heritage of his film. While it’s thrust into the same milieu as his breakout film District 9 with the South African slums providing a stark backdrop, there’s more than a little feeling of Old Detroit about the wasteland hideout of the gangsters who take in Chappie and try to give him an unsuitable education. Even the ED-209 style robots that form the bulkier competition in the security robot industry have the voice of old Tinhead himself, Peter Weller. On the flipslide, Chappie (Sharlton Copley) is a South African accent and a set of wheels away from being Johnny Five and while the film’s conceit of what would happen if you dropped a learning robot into the wrong environment feels original, the patchwork from which it’s been composed verges on over-familiar.

But you want original? How about making two of your lead characters a South African rap duo Die Antwoord who are friends and fans of the director with no real acting experience? As security droid Chappie falls under the influence of Yolandi and Ninja, he’s torn by the basic morality given to him by his creator (Dev Patel, yet another example of a single genius creating artificial intelligence in film making you wonder why we even bother to have corporations, but I digress). At the same time, the audience is torn by wondering if casting two non-actors as the two main human leads in your film is brave or foolish, and it’s probably a bit of both. Ninja and fellow cohort Yankie (actual actor Jose Pablo Cantillo) feel like stock villains, but Yolandi adds some maternal instinct and warmth and the gangster trio are certainly quirky for this kind of film, if not always particularly appealing. Adding to that off-kilter feeling is the fact that Die Antwood’s music is playing regularly in the background – although complemented well by the hard work that Hans Zimmer’s score does to integrate it – and what you’re left with is a whole bunch of oddness to offset the familiarity.

I wouldn’t say that there was much else original about Chappie – the other prominent humans (Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver) are stock characters and for a long stretch, the story doesn’t progress in any surprising directions. There’s a weak grasp of science, some of the dialogue – especially most of what Weaver is lumbered with for exposition and pretty much anything Patel says – is corny and unbelievable and Blomkamp applies many of District 9’s worst flaws, such as reality TV overlays that he promptly forgets about, without being able to capture its most redeeming features. The film makes a genuine attempt to combine the sweetness and naivety of Short Circuit with the satirical violence and grunge of Robocop, and not for one minute does it ever look like working. It’s only in the last half hour or so when the warmth begins to shine through that Chappie feels like a worthwhile exercise, and even then there’s as much to be at best bemused by as there is to love. Chappie is eccentric, oddly sweet and unlike the work of any other big-budget film maker you’ll see today, and for that we should be grateful, but District 9 is feeling more and more a one-off than the start of a solid career and Blomkamp will have to do more to convince that he’s not headed for a career residing at the bottom of the bargain DVD bin at your local supermarket.

Why see it at the cinema: Blomkamp does make good use of his frame and films his action well, even if there’s probably less of it than in either of his previous films. If South African rap-rave soundtracks are your thing, then hearing them on a top quality cinema sound set-up is also not to be sniffed at. (Based on this evidence, I can take them or leave them.)

What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language and bloody violence. There is one stand out moment of violence at the end which feels almost incongruous against some of what’s come before, although it would have felt right at home in Paul Verhoeven’s original Robocop. I’d buy that for a dollar.

My cinema experience: Saw this at on a weekday evening at The Light cinema in Cambridge. The joys of the film playing on a large screen at The Light are that I get a seat in the middle of a row with enough legroom to sit comfortably: if you change anything as part of your takeover of the cinema, The Light owners, please keep that legroom, it’s invaluable for lanky so-and-sos such as myself.

About two thirds of the way into the film, I became distracted when someone in the row in front had seemingly become bored of the film and took his phone out to check Facebook. In my book if you’re that unengaged by what you’re watching there’s just one think you need to do: leave. On politely asking the gentleman if he would turn off his phone, I got sworn at for my trouble. I’m sorry, whoever you are, that you felt personally affronted by me asking you to turn off a four inch square torch that you were shining in the middle of a darkened room which immediately took me out of my own viewing experience, but if you believe it’s OK to sit and check your social media during a film then can I politely ask you don’t watch the same films as me in future?

The Score: 6/10

Review: Still Alice

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Still Alice

The Pitch: Moore is less.

The Review: I often have conversations with people regarding my love of horror films, and if any genre is divisive in whether or not people wish to be part of the audience then it would be that one. People ask me why I love horror movies, and some of it is that feeling of safe risk: deep down we know that there isn’t a finger-clawed maniac haunting our dreams or a giant in a hockey mask waiting round the corner to chop us into tiny pieces. What I do find more uncomfortable is that within the real world, the true horror that is the simple passage of time, as each of us inexorably presses forward to a point when we will simply cease to be. For me, the greatest fear in that is the possibility of losing one’s sense of self on the downward march towards infirmity, and conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s represent the pinnacle of that fear, the risk that we may become slowly and painfully unable to function and in the process become an increasing burden on friends and family.

The story of Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) brings that fear into sharp focus, as we experience life through her eyes from the point when her memory starts to fail her in the subtlest of ways to such time as her mental faculties have become completely withdrawn. Howland is a linguistics professor and so already has a keener insight than most into the inner workings of the mind, but when hers begins to fail at a young enough age for the doctors to invoke the words “early onset” even she seems unprepared for the effects that her mind’s disintegration will have on her, her husband (Alec Baldwin) and her grown-up children (Kristin Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish). While trying to maintain a quality of life as best she can, Howland also puts into place plans to attempt to control her destiny once rational thought has begun to elude her, but the uncertainty of her illness has a greater effect than even she can foresee.

This feels a very personal film for writer / director pair Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, even before you consider that Glatzer’s life was ended while the Best Actress Oscar was barely on Julianne Moore’s mantlepiece. Glatzer succumbed to another debilitating condition in the form of ALS or motor neurone disease which he endured during the production of the film. Whether despite this or because of it, Still Alice for the large part steers clear of mawkishness and sentimentality, and it as its best when allowing you to absorb the impact of Howland’s disintegration in more subtle ways. Many scenes initially feel edited together strangely, but you soon come to realise that we are witnessing the story through Howland’s eyes and these lapses become symptomatic of her condition. Even so, the film wouldn’t retain the power it does without Moore’s devastating performance at its heart, one which deserves all of its recent accolades and which is the dramatic core of the film to a huge extent. All of Moore’s previous Oscar nominations came over a decade ago and while I think it would be unfair to call this film a renaissance for her career, it’s still a timely reminder that she remains one of the best actresses of her generation and the film would probably have sunk without trace without her. Even so, one grandstanding speech late on feels slightly at odds with everything else happening.

Consequently, as Moore’s character loses her grip on normal functioning so the story slightly loses its grip on many of the other narrative threads weaving out from her story. The best of these subplots concern Moore’s relationship with her younger daughter, and Kristin Stewart gets a chance us to remind us of her range after all those years of blankly wandering through Twilight and Snow White films. Sadly few of the other supporting characters get a look in, and both husband Baldwin and elder daughter Bosworth’s stories feel critically underdeveloped, not least when it’s revealed that Bosworth has tested positive for the same hereditary condition as her mother. I can’t speak from personal experience for how well the film actually captures the family experience of suffering through Alzheimer’s but it certainly doesn’t feel false. However the lack of histrionics doesn’t always serve the film’s best interests and you may find yourself frustrated that the family’s trauma becomes largely sidelined in favour of Moore’s story. If a film such as this helps to raise awareness of the horrible reality faced by people blighted by such afflictions then so much the better, but it’s Julianne Moore and her alone which really bring Still Alice to life and make it worth your time.

Why see it at the cinema: Seeing the film on a big screen helps you to allow the film to capture your full attention; consequently the rug pulls when you realise time is passing and you’ve become unaware feel all the more powerful.

What about the rating? Rated 12A for infrequent strong language and moderate sex references.

My cinema experience: I’d originally planned to see White God at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse on a Friday evening, but some unanticipated roadworks put half an hour on my journey. Thankfully the helpfulness of the staff when I arrived at the cinema late managed to sort out a replacement film, so I saw Still Alice in its place.

The end of the film took a few people by surprise, so there was more than a certain amount of chatter in the foyer afterwards. As a people watcher I love to grab snippets of this as people walk past, and the general consensus seems to be that this is Moore’s film. Can’t disagree with that.

The Score: 7/10

Oscars Countdown: A Guide To What’s Actually Best Picture 2014

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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.
Yet another excuse to roll out my dodgy Oscarz Photoshopping. I canz do lolz.

It’s that time again. The carpet is reddened, the bald heads are polished, the seat fillers are preparing to do their thing and the finest fashion houses on the West Coast are delighting at the sound of cash tills ringing or whatever noise 21st century cash registers actually make. Awards season reaches a climax on Sunday with the somethingth annual Academy Awards (the number’s not important, look it up if you’re really bothered, it’s eighty-something, they’re all basically the same anyway). There’s more reason than most this year to actually watch the awards, because Doogie Howser M.D. / Barney Stinson himself, Neil Patrick Harris, is hosting and I think it’s fair to say if he does it to the standard of the other awards shows he’s hosted, it should be a job for life if he wants it. Not convinced? Then try watching his opening number for the 2013 Tony Awards. If the opening to the Oscars is half as good as this, it’ll be the best thing to happen to the ceremony in years.

But it’s not just an excuse to have some song and dance and to see quite how poorly John Travolta can pronounce somebody’s name. (Am I the only one hoping he gets Best Foreign Language Film to present this year?) There are also some awards to be given out, and one film will get to stand alongside the other eighty-ish greatest films of all time already accorded the honour of Best Picture, including Crash, Chicago, The Greatest Show On Earth, Driving Miss Daisy and Titanic. Yep, I don’t even need to tell you that this awards ceremony is to justice and fairness what John Travolta is to public speaking, you already know it, but that doesn’t stop us all from some harmless speculation on who’s going to fare the best come the early hours of Monday morning.

I do wonder if the choice of host is in some way to compensate for what’s a fairly middling selection of films this year. At the end of the post you can see a breakdown of all of my ratings for films nominated for Best Picture since the award increased from five films, but even those at the top end of the chart aren’t the most inspiring films ever made. I weep just a tiny bit that the likes of Mr. Turner, Nightcrawler, Calvary, Under The Skin, Foxcatcher, Inherent Vice and Gone Girl haven’t picked up more recognition, but I won’t claim to be the slightest bit surprised. Equally inevitably, I can say that the three Foreign Language film nominations that I have seen – Ida, Leviathan and Timbuktu – are all comfortably better than at least half of the Best Picture nominations this year.

So as Oscar and his chums will get the final decisions wrong as inevitably as Transformers and Alvin And The Chipmunks sequels will continue to be inflicted upon us because we keep paying to watch the damn things, I’ve managed to see all eight Best Picture nominations so once again present For Your Consideration: the only ranking that really matters, my own view on the films that could walk off with the big one from least best to best. (Disclaimer: as far as I know, all of the Oscars are the same size, it’s just a figure of speech.)

The Least Best Picture Is The Imitation Game

Oh dear. The Imitation Game feels like it occupied a screen in my local cinemas for ever, but I fear they may have been the only one as Morten Tyldum’s film actually took slightly less money than Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie in the UK last year. Rapturous public acclaim from those who have seen it can only indicate that many of those people don’t actually watch many films, for there’s only really two good things about The Imitation Game. Those two things are named Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley and both deserve the nominations in this year’s acting categories they’ve won themselves, although the fact that neither is likely to actually scoop the award is also a fair assessment.

Where to start with the problems, then? First off is the direction, which is flat, lifeless and rarely does anything above pointing a camera in the direction of the nearest stationary actor. Then there’s the script, which botches almost every aspect of Turing’s life and is a structural mess. Most of the remaining background characters are well-acted but one dimensional cyphers, Turing is made out to be somewhere between a sympathiser to the opposition and a traitor (which is all swept under the carpet late on anyway) and the title cards over the final shot are so condescending as to be deeply insulting to anyone with an IQ more than their shoe size.

But it’s the general contempt for its audience that rankles most about this year’s Weinstein Company vehicle for awards success. I’ve visited Bletchley Park and the National Museum Of Computing, and it’s a deeply enthralling place that’s awash with momentous history. Here it’s reduced to man builds magic box, man turns on magic box, magic box works, the end, which is a narrative non-event of the highest order. Good performances will only go so far, and good luck to The Imitation Game for fleecing the British public of over $20 million, but this is a desperately average film at best and a Turing travesty at worst.

Which Is Not As Good As American Sniper

American Sniper

Speaking of contempt for your audience, there’s nothing like showing you simply don’t give a stuff about the quality of your end product when one of the most discussed facets of your film is the incredibly fake baby that’s unconvincingly passed around to comedic effect in the second half of the film. It’s an insult to just about everyone when you can’t even be bothered to put that right, but sadly it’s also indicative of the slightly sloppy notes creeping into Clint Eastwood’s last few films.

There’s a problem with what American Sniper is, which is an unbalanced, flag waving action movie. That’s set the American box office alight but box office success and critical quality make poor bedfellows. There’s also a problem with what it isn’t, which is true to Chris Kyle’s story if the book is any judge; the film gives Bradley Cooper moral uncertainty and a sense of self-righteousness that aren’t exactly a reflection of Kyle’s own telling of his story, and you can’t help but feel that the more interesting film – and the one which the Eastwood of ten years ago might actually have made – would be one which steers closer to Kyle’s own public record of his motivations and experiences.

I would also like to go on record as being mystified that Bradley Cooper has been nominated for Best Actor or Supporting Actor three years in a row, which puts him in an exclusive club along with Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, William Hurt and Russell Crowe. I’m sure he’s a lovely bloke (and he’s also impressively bilingual), but not one of his three nominations has really been in the best of the year. Sorry Bradley.

Which Is Not As Good As Birdman

Birdman

Hopefully I made my feelings about Birdman pretty clear with my review. I understand that many people enjoyed this but I can’t help but feel it’s been rewarded for technical achievement rather than artistic endeavour. Actually, maybe that’s the way forward – a combination of two sets of scores, one for technical and one for artistic, in the same way as ice dancing. It couldn’t be any more convoluted than the current voting process.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Birdman, and I love almost everyone associated with it, but even thinking about it now, six weeks after having seen it, leaves me feeling slightly exhausted. I will be a grumpy Gus if this picks up the big award, but I have a horrible feeling it might because it’s packed full of Actors with a capital A and we’ve seen much worse Actors films (*cough* Crash *cough*) walk off with the main award in the past.

Which Is Not As Good As The Theory Of Everything

The Theory Of Everything

The Imitation Game and The Theory Of Everything have a lot in common: they’re two British films that have two high-flying British actors in significant roles, where the man has a role which features a requirement for an increasing level of acting tics and mannerisms. Both the lead actor and actress in each case have picked up an Oscar nomination of their own and both films were nominated for both best British film and best film at the BAFTAs. And in both cases, the two main performances are by some distance the two best things about the film.

The Theory Of Everything isn’t by any stretch of the imagination as frustratingly poor as The Imitation Game, but neither is it up to the standard of director James Marsh’s previous work, including Project Nim, Man On Wire and the excellent and overlooked Shadow Dancer. It’s a pretty standard narrative set in a chocolate box Cambridge that doesn’t pan out in the way that you expect such stories to – although many going in will already know the outcome – but it’s told in a conventional, straightforward fashion and it’s both showy and understated in a rather conflicted manner.

Then there’s rather a significant step-up in quality…

Which is Nowhere Near As Good As Selma

I don’t believe that the acting has been overlooked in Selma for reasons of race or colour, but I do believe that the nominated actors all have the attention-grabbing, theatrical roles that normally get nominated and it becomes that much harder for those whose work is less clip-worthy to nudge their way into the nominations. Selma has been all but excluded from the final breakdown. You have to go all the way back to Decision Before Dawn in 1951 to find a film with a Best Picture nomination and only one other nomination in a minor category, and that really doesn’t reflect well on the Academy’s voters who had plenty of opportunities to recognise the work done here.

There have been a few reports that the tension between LBJ and Dr. King have been overplayed, but this would hardly be the first film to adjust the truth slightly for narrative purposes (yes, that is a reference to you, The Imitation Game), but there’s still enough well placed fact here to pack the punch that the story needs to. From a gut wrenching opening explosion to scenes of focused tension when the gathered masses attempt to march out from Selma, director Ava DuVernay has a strong handle on the material and isn’t afraid to shock a little to get your attention. The song over the closing credits makes a contemporary reference to what’s happened in Ferguson over the past year and it serves as a direct reminder that the issues here haven’t gone away in the intervening fifty years; in fact, Selma could scarcely have been released at a more relevant time.

I do hope this will give career impetus to David Oyelowo, in a film littered with top draw performances from British actors such as Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth. Maybe the moral of the story is that if you’re a British, you need to be putting on an accent as posh as Keira Knightley’s plummy Imitation Game Brit-warble, rather than flawlessly mimicking the accents from across the Atlantic.

Which Is Not As Good As Boyhood

Boyhood

Yes, other films have watched children grow up, but never over the course of a single film to such remarkable effect as Richard Linklater’s latest towering achievement in direction: one that will, if there’s a shred of natural justice left in this overly glamorous farrago, see him pick up an award for direction that his career has long since justified. The Before trilogy may have inadvertently charted the evolution of a relationship over a quarter of a lifetime, but Boyhood is a timelapse on adolescence quite unlike anything that’s ever been attempted before.

And we shouldn’t just applaud the fact that twelve years is an insanely long time period over which to be producing a film, with no guarantee that the end product would have ended up even useful (or that the actors would have made it to the end of the process they started). Having to pick someone at the age of six and to hope he’ll still be interesting in a dozen years is an unenviable task, but Linklater gets round this somewhat by using Ellar Coltrane as the prism through which to examine the transition from childhood to adulthood, rather than the focal point.

Absolutely greater than the sum of its parts, the lead actors are all still magnificent – and Hawke and Arquette would probably both have one in a slightly quieter year, although Arquette hopefully still will – but the real power of Boyhood is in absorbing it, ideally in a single sitting, and allowing the repetition and the rhythms to wash over you.

Which Is Not As Good As Whiplash

Whiplash-7567.cr2

I’ve seen a few reviews which take issue with a number of aspects of Whiplash. They can be broken down into two main categories: firstly, that the events of Whiplash are somewhat lacking in realism. Your average hospital drama does a fairly appalling job at accurately portraying the finer points of medicine, so I don’t believe we should get too hung up on the mechanics of music school. However, this also applies to some of the story structure (one character being explicitly and repeatedly told not to do something at all costs, before doing that in less than thirty seconds in a manner that’s then never explained or referred to again). While I can see where that’s coming from, I believe that Whiplash – almost perversely for a film based around jazz drumming – operates at the level of an opera, with two main characters going to extraordinary lengths to win the approval of their audience and their peers and as such, any plot manoeuvres are best not dwelt on for too long.

The other criticism, and one which carries a little more weight, is the idea that Whiplash is at best ignoring the perils of bullying, and at worst justifying that as a means to an end for artistic greatness, almost as if genius cannot be attained without suffering. I have a different take: J.K. Simmons’ Terence is modelling Miles Teller’s Andrew into his own image, even if he’s not doing so intentionally, and this is a classic power struggle, a battle for dominance between two alpha males at the cost of their very souls, and neither can reflect on their actions with any sense of pride by the end.

In between theatrical plot twists and enhanced egos there lies Whiplash, a film oozing confidence and doing a much better job of its jazz drumming soundtrack than Birdman managed to. For the first two-thirds it’s a compelling character study, but then as the plot moves up a tempo or two we reach a breathtaking climax that had my heart almost beating out of my chest. Whiplash is darkly enticing, thrilling without the promise of evolution or redemption and it does so with a jazz soundtrack that might even win a few converts. If nothing else, it elevates J.K. Simmons to the level of recognition he’s long since deserved.

The Best Picture Of 2014 Is The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

There’s probably around a dozen or so directors who, if marooned on a desert island, I would be content if nothing else but the products of their career’s labours washed up beside me. (Ideally a giant TV to plug in next to the palm tree would be nice). While Wes Anderson continues to make films that flirt with the deep sadness of the human condition but yet in which every single element is lovingly crafted, his last pair of films – this and Moonrise Kingdom – have been not only as good as anything else in his career, but are as deep, meaningful and hysterically enjoyable as anything else being made anywhere today.

If you want to know which film brought me more pleasure than any other last year, then look no further. But The Grand Budapest Hotel ups the ante by setting itself across four eras, each of which comes shot in its own typically relevant and period friendly aspect ratio and which emphasise the evaporation of time that comes to the best of us before we can even come to terms with it. Anderson might just have perfected the formula he’s been honing since Bottle Rocket and before.

The cast is astonishing, even those in barely a couple of scenes able to walk off with entire films elsewhere, but the pairing of Anderson with Ralph Fiennes is a masterstroke that I hope history will look back on and regard with greater significance. (Admittedly I only placed Fiennes eleventh on my performances of the year last year, but I think I was maybe being a tad harsh.) You can see why Anderson migrated entirely to stop-motion for The Fantastic Mr Fox for his films have a love, a care and an attention to detail that’s rarely seen outside the world of physical animation. It’s that unbelievable attention to detail and the total delight of the script, the direction and the performances that cause me to rate this film top of the Oscar pile for 2015. Expect the Academy voters to have totally ignored me.

And finally, as promised, my rankings out of 10 for all the Best Picture nominees in the six years since the category expanded. Sorry I’ve missed five of them, but I still think that’s a pretty good record. It doers hopefully show that this isn’t a great year, but I will keep my fingers crossed that one or two decent films  will pick up something before the Oscars are over for another year.

Best Picture Rankings

Previous years:

A Guide To What’s Actually The Best Picture 2013

A Guide To What’s Actually The Best Picture 2012

A Guide To What’s Actually The Best Picture 2010

Oscars Countdown: The Oscar Scorecard Of Discontent 2015

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It’s Oscar night, and that means two things:

1. I’m going to bed because I’ve got better things to do than stay up until 5 a.m. watching an awards show when I will most likely bitch about the result.

2. If you’re reading this then you may actually be watching the ceremony. Good luck to you.

Having noticed a sudden spike in traffic of 100% today to my blog, mainly composed of people searching for the search terms “Oscar” and “scorecard”, although well done to the one person who arrived here by searching for “reese witherspoon can’t act” and, more bizarrely, the two people who both searched for “composition of air 3d pie chart”. Just for you two:

If you don't get this joke, Google "Moon Safari".
If you don’t get this joke, Google “Moon Safari”.

For the rest of you, here’s my completed scorecard for this year with my usual categories:

Oscar Scorecard 2015

And here’s a blank one for you to fill in while you wait for Neil Patrick Harris to shuffle along:

Oscar Scorecard Blank

Whatever you’re doing tonight, have fun!

Review: Fifty Shades Of Grey

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Fifty Shades Of Grey

The Pitch: OK then. Gainsboro, silver, spanish, dim, Davy’s, platinum, ash, charcoal, battleship, cool, cadet, glaucous, slate, puce, rose quartz, cinerous, metallic, taupe, er… light, medium, dark… er… have I already said battleship? Is it too late to call it Twenty Shades Of Grey instead?

The Review: You might be asking yourself, when the book sold more copies in the UK than all seven Harry Potter novels put together and when the trailer has been watched by more people worldwide than either the Avengers sequel or Star Wars revival trailers, should I go to see the new film version of Fifty Shades Of Grey? Apparently you’re one of the ten people in existence who hasn’t actually read the book (I am also one of those ten, although I’ve now read enough of it online in constructing this review to want to poke the rusty end of an old coathanger in through my ear to swirl my brain around for a bit in the hope that I’ll forget), so may I present this convenient fifty step guide to your potential cinema experience. You and I both know you’ve already decided if you’re going or not, but it wouldn’t hurt to read this first.

1. There’s a genre of fiction that has had vast chunks of words devoted to it since the birth of the internet, and it features characters from existing works of fiction having highly sexual encounters. This could be anything from Harry Potter to (seriously) The LEGO Movie.

2. One such work was called Masters Of The Universe and it was based on the Twilight series. Yes, the one with the sulky vampires and randy werewolves. As far as I am aware, it didn’t feature any actual Masters Of The Universe characters such as He-Man, Skeletor, Man-At-Arms or Fisto, although I imagine he’d have fit right in.

3. It was written under the pen name of Snowqueens Icedragon. Opinion is divided online as to whether that user name featured an apostrophe or not, given that the standard of the other writing in the story wouldn’t be an indication.

4. It was later then withdrawn and republished as three novels called Fifty Shades Of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, the last of which doesn’t even make sense as a title.

5. Despite seemingly being read by almost as many people as The Bible, the book has been correctly condemned for featuring some of the most horrific mangling of the English language ever to see print. Here’s some examples.

6. “I feel the colour in my cheeks rising again. I must be the colour of The Communist Manifesto.” The book apparently features an incessant amount of Ana (Dakota Johnson in the film) expressing her inner goddess; thankfully – or disappointingly for lovers of excruciatingly bad dialogue – none of this makes it to the film.

7. “The orange juice tastes divine. It’s thirst-quenching and refreshing.” The film does feature orange juice and medication with accompanying signs saying “Eat me” and “Drink me”, suggesting this is some form of sadistic remake of Alice In Wonderland.

8. “My very small inner goddess sways in a gentle victorious samba.” Dakota Johnson does get to show off her dance moves at one point, a rare moment when someone – anyone – actually seems to be enjoying themselves.

9. “Now I know what all the fuss is about. Two orgasms… coming apart at the seams, like the spin cycle on a washing machine, wow.” Apart from a singular lack of understanding about basic home appliance mechanics, this is something else that doesn’t make it into the film: there isn’t a single orgasm, leaving the film feeling like some form of neutered foreplay manual.

10. “I’m all deer/headlights, moth/flame, bird/snake … and he knows exactly what he’s doing to me.” I think we also know what E.L. James is doing to the English language, and it’s probably more painful than anything Christian’s ever come up with.

11. “Why is anyone the way they are? That’s kind of hard to answer. Why do some people like cheese and other people hate it? Do you like cheese?” A question you would do well to ask yourself before buying a ticket.

12. I think you get the idea. So the makers of the film hired Kelly Marcel (writer of Saving Mr. Banks and, er, Debbie Does Dallas, The Musical) and had a script polish reportedly performed by Patrick Marber (Closer, The Day Today) and Mark Bomback (Die Hard 4.0, The Wolverine). They have between them hidden or excised much of the most embarrassing dialogue, but in its place have failed to find any worthwhile or interesting dialogue.

13. They also hired Sam Taylor-Johnson, who is married to the bloke from Godzilla who ends up always being in the right place at the wrong time. Insert your own joke.

14. The next decision made was to excise some of the novel’s ickier concepts, such as the infamous tampon scene. According to Taylor-Johnson, they never even discussed this being in the film. (Really? Not actually a discussion? You all just telepathically knew which bits you wanted and which you didn’t?)

15. The film opens with Ana visiting the offices of Christian Grey (the third extraordinarily rich, oddball philanthropist I’ve seen in the fifteen films I’ve seen this year, and I’ve not even seen Tony Stark in a film yet. What are the odds?).

16. Ana is an English major who is apparently incapable of coming up with ten minutes’ worth of questions for a well-known entrepreneur, and also so smitten with a man she’s barely met that she’s incapable of making value judgements on questions written down in front of her.

17. When she enters Christian’s office, she also stumbles and falls to her knees, a clumsy and obvious piece of symbolism that still made it through the value judgement of at least three separate writers.

18. Although she believes the interview has gone badly, Christian later appears unexpectedly in the hardware store where Ana works around 200 miles away. She in no way finds this suspicious, stalker-like behaviour.

19. Ana later gets drunk on a night out and drunk dials Christian, who then appears at the bar she’s drinking at as if he’s in some way omnipresent. He then repeatedly shows up at places where she is without any knowledge of her whereabouts, suggesting either that he’s abusing his telecommunications business on an industrial scale or worse options that are barely worth contemplating. At no point does Ana raise more than the mildest of objections to this conduct.

20. This is also around the time that Ana’s friend José (Victor Rasuk) makes a clumsy, aggressive pass at her while drunk. This, along with José, is then also completely forgotten about. They should have tried to get Taylor Lautner to play this (he of the equivalent Twilight role) just for a laugh.

21. Christian performs gentlemanly acts such as holding Ana’s hair back while she vomits and pulling her out of the road so she avoids being run over by cyclists. Did I mention he’s also a billionaire? While Jamie Dorman as Christian does stern and brooding about as well as anyone could, it’s unfortunate that he appears to have confused the words concentration and constipation but has largely the same facial expression for both.

22. Once Christian has won over Ana’s inital trust with acts of basic decency and snogging her in a lift, he then takes up to the roof and shows her his massive chopper. This is not only a useful euphemism for a helicopter, but also allows me to reference the fact that this is the only chopper on display here: Fifty Shades takes the default Hollywood position of full-frontal nudity for the woman and either topless only or two shots of buttocks for the man. This, yet again, makes me feel slightly more ashamed to be a man, but slightly less ashamed than usual when the writer and director are both women.

23. Christian then asks Ana to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which is a standard business practice for confidentiality but a thoroughly non-standard practice for a man who appears seemingly at random wherever you are, demanding your attention.

24. Christian explains to Ana that he’s not looking for a romantic relationship, and also mentions at various points that he wants to avoid physical contact, before he divests her of her virginity. Mixed messages there, fella.

25. Christian is visited by his mother (Marcia Gay Harden), who appears to be playing against type by being lovely, apart from the fact that one of her friends used Christian as a submissive for six years. The film occasionally throws chunks of exposition at the wall like overcooked spaghetti in the hope that enough of it will stick to explain Christian’s behaviour, under the assumption that Christian’s behaviour needs explicit explanation.

26. Ana is given a free laptop to research more of the sexual practices Christian is looking for Ana to be subjected to, at which point she types “submissive” into a search engine and comes back with some fairly timid fetish photography that is still more extreme than most of what’s made it into the sex scenes. Was I the only person wondering if she had Safe Search turned on or off?

27. Christian and Ana then have a business dinner where they discuss the contract Christian is looking to commit Ana to, where she has various practices removed from the contract but also reveals that not only has her Googling yet to reveal to her what butt plugs are, but that she has a singular lack of imagination for an English major.

28. The scene with the signing of the contract (in which they don’t actually sign the contract), along with much of the first half of the film, is accompanied by a jaunty Danny Elfman score which suggests that this is really a light-hearted comedy of manners.

29. When jaunty Elfman isn’t playing in the background, the soundtrack is littered with heavily sexualised versions of popular tunes and mixes modern artists such as The Weeknd, Sia, Ellie Goulding and Beyoncé with older names such as The Rolling Stones and Annie Lennox. It is by far the best thing about the film and will sell by the absolute bucketload. Clearly the lessons of Dirty Dancing and Pretty Woman haven’t been completely forgotten.

30. Speaking of Pretty Woman, this whole film is essentially a grimmer version of Pretty Woman, as rich man uses money, power and influence to obtain a woman he’s fallen for having barely known her, except instead of love overcoming the evils of prostitution this is just a grim exploration of a misunderstanding of how BDSM works.

31. The other obvious touchstone for the film is 9 1/2 Weeks, in that Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke famously emptied the contents of the fridge over each other and explored some fairly graphic sexual practices, and here Christian ties up Ana’s wrists and rubs an ice cube over her. If that sounds like a backwards step, let’s not forget that 9 1/2 weeks encouraged mass walkouts at the cinema and scraped together a cult following on DVD; Fifty Shades had a midnight opening with the same level of box office as the last Transformers and Spider-Man films.

32. There are other reminders and references to films with two or three shades of similarity. That starts with Dakota Johnson, daughter of Melanie Griffith – and delivering much the same breathy intensity as her mum did in Working Girl, another film about attempting to win the heart of a wealthy but aloof businessman who she’s sleeping with regularly – and granddaughter of Tippi Hedren, which means you really would think she would be more generally wary of dubious male behaviour.

33. It’s also reinforced by Jennifer Ehle, and while the closest she’s ever been to rampant depictions of sexuality was Colin Firth clambering moistly out of a lake, the film makers have attempted to reimagine Fifty Shades as a story of feminine empowerment. There is, of course, more female empowerment on display in a novel written over two hundred years ago than anything here.

34. So what is Fifty Shades about? Well, it’s not about abuse if you believe the film makers, because Ana enters into the arrangement voluntarily, other than Christian stalking her over a several hundred mile area, invading her privacy at regular intervals and nagging her until she caves into his requests at every opportunity that he gets, in a manner that feels eerily reminiscent of Bart and Lisa Simpson and their efforts to be taken to Mount Splashmore.

35. Then there’s the claims that it’s misunderstood the nature and practices of BDSM (bondage / discipline, dominance / submission, sadism / masochism – yes I know that’s technically BDDSSM but I don’t make the rules). I’m not an expert in this, but most of the articles from people who are would seem to suggest that Fifty Shades is more just about an extravagant control freak exercising his will than it is any kind of attempt to analyse or understand the more extreme side of safe sexual practice.

36. While it isn’t about abuse directly, there are strong themes of control, with Ana and Christian engaged in a mental power struggle, each attempting to assert their own control over the other. This, in the first half especially, is where the film manages to rise above its source material and for a while seems in danger of actually having something interesting to say.

37. But what neither the film, nor its makers, seem to grasp is that abuse is a control mechanism, and Christian’s control mechanisms are all teetering so close to abuse that there’s really little value to be had from arguing any difference. The fact that Ana has been manoeuvred into this situation  just makes it all the more distasteful that those involved with the production would then attempt to recast this as an empowering romance.

38. So what we’re left with is the twenty-first century equivalent of a romantic comedy with most of the romance and all of the comedy surgically extracted, and where we’re then left with two hours of waiting for the next attempt at titillation.

39. Now we’ve come full circle: the real purpose of the genre of the fanfiction from which this sprung, and of pretty much any erotic fiction ever written for that matter, is to stimulate sexual excitement in the reader. Typically that would be the female reader, as men generally seem to be more content with some pictures or a video if the Internet as a whole is anything to judge by. (I hate sweeping generalisations but I think there’s some truth in that one.)

40. This is then where the film must be judged: if any attempts at social discourse have failed, is it at least sexy? Initially yes, despite Johnson and Dornan having less chemistry than a ten year old’s first box of test tubes and random chemicals, Taylor-Johnson does manage to make the most of Ana and Christian’s first couple of sexual encounters.

41. Sadly then, with nowhere else left to go, the remaining encounters follow the pattern of the rest of the film in leaking away the tension and also evoking little sympathy for anyone involved (especially the actors, who are either being well paid or should have known better).

42. As well as being about the sex, works of fiction from this to Working Girl and Pretty Woman are an escapist fantasy, the thought of submitting to a powerful man (even with the occasional scene of empowerment) being a consistent theme within the genre, but there would be more to be gained from exploring Ana’s conflicted feelings than Fifty Shades the film ever seems keen on.

43. What you’re left with is an odd combination of the exact structure of the novel with the trashy pleasure of the appalling writing sanitised completely out of the script and the sex scenes avoiding male nudity, orgasms and anything else that might generate controversy. The fact that the French gave this a 12 rating isn’t as controversial as you might think.

44. Given that so many films over the past couple of years, from Blue Is The Warmest Colour to Nymphomaniac and Stranger By The Lake, have used sex to explore facets of character so much more successfully, the fact that most of those have barely been seen by anyone and that this has a bigger target audience than bread is all the more depressing.

45. The only person likely to come out of this with their dignity intact is oddly the person who spends most of the film having it stripped away. Dakota Johnson does what she can with the role and, after tiny roles in the likes of 21 Jump Street, she may actually defy the odds and go onto a successful career from this, even if it is remakes of Marilyn Monroe films and Working Girl 2: The Daughter That Oughta.

46. Well actually… when I said the best / worst dialogue didn’t make it into the film, there are a few examples. If you hear anyone in real life using Christian’s catchphrase of “Laters, baby” you have my permission to give them an entirely non-BDSM slap. (Disclaimer: please don’t slap anyone on my say so.)

47. There is no escaping the fact that, at over two hours, the film feels too long. I would love to try to make a joke about length at this point but it’s just become too hard.

48. And that just leaves us with the three likely reactions most audiences will experience at the end of the film, which were certainly felt vocally by the group I saw the film with. Firstly when the credits roll: “is that it?”

49. Secondly: “9 1/2 Weeks was better.”

50. Thirdly, about thirty seconds into the credits: “Rita Ora’s in this?!?!” Now you can play the exciting game of Spot The Ora to pass the time.

Why see it at the cinema: If, rather than discreetly reading graphic descriptions of sexual activity in the privacy of your own home, you’d prefer to sit in a room with several hundred other people gawping at a half-naked man and a fully naked woman not quite having sex at occasional intervals, then knock yourself out. But don’t come crying to me afterwards.

What about the rating? Rated 18 for strong sex. A description that caused two people sat behind me in the cinema to proclaim “ooh, strong sex” in a manner reminiscent of Frankie Howerd. Titter ye not, missus.

So let’s be clear about this: the marketing suggests that the film features about twenty minutes of sex across a two hour run time, which suggests a very generous description of when the sex actually starts; possibly when the two characters enter a room within minutes of each other. If you are coming for the sex (if you’ll pardon the expression), then you may be better advised to wait for the DVD so you can fast forward the boring bits.

My cinema experience: Seen at the Abbeygate in Bury St Edmunds with an early morning (but very full) audience that is likely to be the norm for weeks to come. Good luck finding something – anything – else to watch. At least the cinema only detained us with fifteen minutes of ads and trailers up front.

The Score: 5/10