movies

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

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

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2015 is a year that I fear for having to hunt harder than ever for the true gems of cinema amid the overly scripted neon morass of increasingly formulaic blockbusters that will clog up cinemas of all sizes more than ever before this year. With major film shunting themselves into next year to avoid the crush, it’ll be harder than ever for the smaller films to find sufficient two hour slots in cinemas to be seen before they must disappear, and I fear for quality getting trampled in the rush.

However, we shouldn’t be too disheartened: if January is anything to go by, quality film making is far from a thing of the past, it’s just going to have to work a teensy bit harder to be seen this year than ever before. Based on my first look at the two minute promos for January – for I do try to watch trailers for every single film being released before settling on six each month – then 2015 should at least be a good year for the art form of the trailer, and it’s good to see those involved in promotion stepping up their game to get behind films looking to wrestle their way into cinemas near you.

Here for the first time this year are the six trailers that, for better or worse, caught my eye this month.

National Gallery

As a regular in London for the cinema, and particularly my frequent visits to Leicester Square, I am often conscious that I overlook some of London’s greater treasures in favour of more time at the cinema. Thankfully, documentarian Frederick Wiseman has come up with a way for me to do both. Just a shame that I couldn’t make a preview screening offered in the gallery itself, as watching a film about a place being showing as a film in the place is just delightfully perverse.

National Gallery is on limited release from 9th January.

American Sniper

Normally trailers are just a compilation of often spoiler filled clips from the film, but American Sniper has taken a different route. You might call this a clip rather than a trailer if you were being pedantic – and if you were, I’d of course applaud you – but it would seem to encapsulate enough about the film to help your decision on whether or not to buy a ticket without having to see another second of footage.

American Sniper is on wide release from 16th January. 

Whiplash

You wait ages for a film with massive amounts of drumming and then two come along at once. I hope my Birdman fatigue, some of which related to the incessant jazz drum score which underpinned the film and occasionally broke through the fourth wall, doesn’t diminish my enjoyment this time. I also hope that Miles Teller can redeem himself a little, for despite being one of the better things in last year’s That Awkward Moment, it was still one of 2014’s lowlights for me. The only way is up.

Whiplash is on wide release from 16th January. 

Beyond Clueless

When I started blogging, I tried to read as many other blogs as I could, and three in particular became regular reading. As well as Your Turn Heather and The Incredible Suit, Charlie Lyne’s Ultra Culture became required reading for his style, forthrightness and absolute willingness to pursue his own particular predilections, such as his fondness for the film Eurotrip. He’s now channelled his broader fascination with teen movies into a documentary and the trailer is as distinctive as the voice of his blog (seemingly now retired, at least for the time being, as he’s crossed over into film making).

Beyond Clueless is touring the country before its release on 23rd January.

No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers

One of the first things I did this year was to book tickets to see one of my two favourite bands play their most iconic album in full, with the Manic Street Preachers playing The Holy Bible at Cardiff Castle. (Oddly, One Direction are playing at the Millennium Stadium the same night, so Cardiff will be a strange place to be that weekend.) I’ve not only booked my hotel as well as my ticket, but true to form I’ve already checked the release schedule for that weekend, so I may also sample Insidious Chapter 3, Spy or Electric Boogaloo while I’m down, having last been to the cinema in Cardiff nineteen years ago as a student.

No Manifesto will receive some limited cinema screenings from January 30th before being released on DVD in February.

Pelo Malo (Bad Hair)

This is my list of interesting trailers. This trailer looked interesting. Sadly my waffle about it isn’t turning out that way, but you can’t win them all. Look, a puppy! *points in the other direction* *runs away*

Pelo Malo is released in most of the UK on 30th January and in Scotland on 6th February, presumably to give Scotland chance to get over Burns Night the week before or something.

Oscars Countdown: The British Are Going (Mad)

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The nominations for the BAFTA film awards have been announced this morning, and once again those compiling the nominations have between them managed to prove at best case that two good performances are all you need to make a good film, and and worst that the British film is simply a pandering lapdog still craving the attention and validation of America rather than attempting to stand on its own two feet. The nominations in particular for Best British film have left me so irked that I’m currently sat in the cafeteria at Stonehenge trying to get this off my chest, having toured one of the world’s great heritage sites full of 5,000 year old monuments and I’m left to wonder if these stones could talk, would they come up with a more contemporary, relevant and worthy set of picks. Each year I publish a handful of posts in the run-up to the Oscars in an effort to remind myself that awards are meaningless and just because they don’t reflect my own opinion, it shouldn’t ruin my day when they’re announced.

But wow, this year takes the biscuit in a category already renowned for encouraging the receipt of flour-based baked goods. In the time since I started blogging, an era during which the BAFTA film awards have moved to a pre-Oscar slot in a desperate attempt to secure an influx of Hollywood glitterati and so seem pointlessly relevant, the following films have been the “Best” British Film:

– In 2011 The King’s Speech beat out Another Year and Four Lions
– In 2012 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy overcame Shame, Senna and We Need To Talk About Kevin
– In 2013 Skyfall came out on top of Anna Karenina and Les Misérables
– Last year, Gravity beat The Selfish Giant and Philomena

The awards twelve months ago embodied everything wrong with the dual main categories: no-one in their right mind would have considered Gravity a British film, with it beating not only a stunning piece of work from deserving British director Clio Barnard but also arguably a better awards season type film in Philomena. But the Best Film was 12 Years A Slave, and this wasn’t even nominated for Best British Film despite a sufficient qualifying connection, a British director and two outstanding lead performances from British actors.

So what’s gotten me so riled up this year, that’s possibly even worse than last year’s farrago? Part of the problem stems from what’s actually been an outstanding year for British film, in which we are so spoiled for choice that you could fill British film two or three times over with quality picks. What the voters of BAFTA have come up with for Best British film is:

’71
The Imitation Game
Paddington
Pride
The Theory Of Everything
Under The Skin

That’s not a bad list, and there are a couple of excellent films on it. The first problem is that those films are Paddington and Under The Skin, and the two films from that list that have made it to the Best Film overall list are certainly the two least interesting and arguably the two worst: The Imitation Game and The Theory Of Everything.

The Imitation Game is a real frustration as its only two positives are the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch – a man now so all powerful he can get a lead role in an animation about penguins despite being demonstrably unable to say penguins – and Keira Knightley. Other than that it’s a film that fudges its issues and has barely the merest pretence of drama, an Emperor’s New Clothes of acting mannerisms with a narrative that does poor service to both the war effort and Turing himself; no mean feat when it actually overplays his war contribution in many ways.

I enjoyed The Theory Of Everything, but again it’s a film that survives on the performances of its two leads and precious little else. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are both exceptional, but the rest of the film is placid to a fault and it’s a chocolate box Cambridge that explains science politely and tries its hardest not to cause offence at any other time. It’s not a patch on director James Marsh’s last two films, Man On Wire and Shadow Dancer. I still believe that Under The Skin will be being discussed in ten years’ time; I find it hard to believe that too many people will remember The Theory Of a Everything in ten weeks.

But not only have the two films most likely to find the common denominator even though they’re not very good made the Best Film, I would argue that there are at least another ten films more worthy of a place on the Best British Film list for last year. In descending order of greatness, they are:

Mr Turner
Calvary
The Double
Next Goal Wins
Starred Up
Kajaki: The True Story
Lilting
The Possibilities Are Endless
Belle
Northern Soul
(And possibly an eleventh: I haven’t seen The Testament Of Youth as it’s not out yet.)

I can accept that you may believe not all of these ten films or the four in the Best British Film category are better than The Imitation Game or The Theory Of Everything, but if you can sit there with a straight face and tell me that none of them are – for that is the implication of the BAFTA nominations – then can I politely suggest that you don’t watch enough films. Anything on that list of fourteen which didn’t make the Best Film list above would be an ideal way of starting to put that right.

But before I go, I must also mention the most egregious omission from the nominations. As I’ve indicated, Mr Turner didn’t make it into the nominations, but Mike Leigh has at least picked up awards for various categories in the past for Secrets And Lies and Vera Drake. However, the snub handed out to what to me was the performance of the year by Timothy Spall has left me incredulous. There truly is no justice at awards time, but that probably won’t stop me getting my knickers in a twist when the Oscar nominations come out. Joy of joys.

Review: Birdman

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or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)
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The Pitch: What We Talk About When We Talk About Films With Dominating Technical Conceits Released In The Middle Of Awards Season.

The Review: Alejandro González Iñárritu was the first Mexican director to be nominated for an Oscar, but his back catalogue of films have a more serious reputation than those of his contemporaries Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo Del Toro, the latter winning over the geek crowd with his highly detailed fantasies and the former becoming increasingly renowned for his long single takes in films such as Children Of Men and last year’s Gravity which saw an opening of seventeen minutes and you wonder if this left Iñárritu challenged to determine if it would be possible to construct an entire film in such a manner with modern technical wizardry just as applicable to the grounded, real world as it is to space, perhaps even more so if you restrict the movements of your characters to a single location, in this case a theatre where Michael Keaton’s tortured former superhero actor Riggan Thompson, star of the now defunct Birdman trilogy, is attempting an act of self-redemption with the production of a Broadway play in which his direction and acting are becoming unbalanced by his alter ego whispering provocatively in his ear even while his producer and lawyer friend (Zack Galifianakis) does his best to keep the sinking ship afloat, his daughter (Emma Stone) attempts to be an assistant while sorting out her own addiction issues and the last minute replacement (Edward Norton) brings a Method madness which complicates his role and threatens to derail the production before it gets to opening night after a series of previews which we see unfolding over the course of several days, possibly even weeks, as we and the characters roam the inner hallways, the stage, the roof and occasionally the streets of the theatre while the script by a team of writers including Iñárritu attempts to understand the conflict between acting and the nature of celebrity and how much one can be compromised by the other but the arguments feel dated and the pot-shots at the real life actors name checked in the early scenes feel cheap and unearned, Riggan’s silent partner of the gravelly Batman voice and seeming telekinetic ability proving further distractions and potentially exploring interesting ideas but like a hyperactive child attempting maths problems it never sits still for long enough to allow you to consider the solution, the tangents to the subplots involving Norton’s rooftop conversations with Stone and scenes with Riggan’s performer girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and his leading lady (Naomi Watts) offering some of the best character moments but sucking the momentum from the overall narrative which has the surface feeling of a stage play but in both its internal conceit and the overall effect lacks the natural vocabulary of either stage play or film, the first forty minutes in particular being a succession of scenes which are staged without any variation in tone or pitch and which become plagued by the fourth wall breaking jazz drum score from Antonio Sanchez which initially drives tension but increasingly becomes an irritant as the whole language of film is gradually dispensed with in a way that many have regarded as a supreme technical achievement – and it is – but never manages to rise above being anything more than that, and if by now you’re thinking that my attempt to write this entire review in a single sentence is even more of a a cheap trick than the one I’m calling attention to, then that’s exactly my point: as the play unfolds over two hours without the normal breaths and pauses that standard filming or cutting provides it became for me as punishing to watch as I presume reading this review has become for you and for that I genuinely apologise, if you haven’t given up already but then you wouldn’t been reading this part anyway so ignore me, and anyway you get the benefit of punctuation and the best the film can do to shake things up is a disappointingly brief but vibrant scene where Birdman is brought thrillingly to life, because the narcissistic fabrication that Iñárritu has fashioned so exhausted me with its constant demands to observe every element of the foreground and background and its inability to resolve any of its subplots to any degree of satisfaction that its only joy comes from within the moment, rather than by being able to appreciate the film as a complete work and maybe this another one of those cases like Magic Eye paintings where everyone who can do them thinks they’re brilliant but people like me who see differently find it commendable that so many others enjoy it but personally can’t help but be incredibly frustrated by the whole experience, and while many of those isolated moments are enjoyable, often filmed in long, technically demanding takes which undersell the efforts the actors would have invested in them, the end never justifies the means and the final irony being that half of the best moments are in the trailer but they’re actually more gratifying when taken out of context than assembled into an overwhelming stream of consciousness that hopefully means that now we’ve seen this once, in service of a story that’s less successful at skewering celebrity culture and acting than TV series such as The Larry Sanders Show were twenty years ago and one which also strives for magical realism but ends up confounding itself like a magic trick without a prestige, Iñárritu might stop attempting to one-up his fellow Mexicans and learn how to subvert standard narrative conventions as effectively as he did in his early films rather that in this award-baiting torture that is rightly earning plaudits for a Keaton renaissance and for strong work from the rest of the cast but which sadly doesn’t merit the remainder of the praise being heaped upon it.

Why see it at the cinema? If you want to play Spot The Joins, then you stand the best chance of doing that in the cinema. And good luck to you. Since pretty much every aspect of the production is ramped up to 11, you may as well do that with your viewing experience as well.

What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language, sex references. If it’s come to the point where fourteen year olds can’t be allowed to hear two grown adults laying in bed and talking about having sex, which is what the BBFC extended classification info would seem to suggest, then maybe we should all give up and go home.

My cinema experience: The first of what I expect to be dozens of uses of my Cineworld Unlimited card, on this occasion at their Cambridge branch. Just a shame that I’d already paid to see it a week earlier at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton before a clogged up motorway and a broken down train on the Central Line scuppered my plans.

The Score: 6/10

Review Of 2014: The Top 40 Movies Of 2014

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Few notes here. If you want to cut straight to the list then skip to the jump.

Here we are again. After dissecting the year from every angle I could think of, my biggest ever review of the year comes to an end with my fifth annual top 40 films of the year. A reminder if you’ve not yet got around to reading any of my previous top 40s (links at the bottom if you’ve got the stamina after this one), but I do top 40s for two reasons: as a reminder of the excitement of listening to the chart countdown at Christmas when I was but a wee nipper, and because I see enough films in a year that anything in the top 40 is a recommendation as I have scored it 8/10 or higher. This year, only the top six were worthy of the full 10/10, the joint lowest since I started this blog.

First up, the rest of the usual stats. This year, I saw 180 films for the first time in a cinema this year, of which 28 were re-releases or festival films not released for the first time this year. Total pedants such as myself would probably be keen to know that I count Nymphomaniac as two films for these purposes. I also saw Back To The Future in a cinema, which is not only an old film but I also saw it in 2010 on its last re-release. That leaves 152 brand spanking new’uns I saw in the cinema, and this year I set a new record of also seeing 15 new releases at home, for a grand total of 167 films. Consequently, what you see here is about the top quartile of what I’ve watched in 2014. (I also used Netflix to watch the first twenty minutes or so of another half a dozen, including Bastards and Venus In Fur, but as none of them suggested they’d crack this list on a brief viewing I will watch them to completion at my leisure in 2015.)

I agonised this year about whether or not to go for a top 50 rather than a top 40, given that I’d seen more films at around the four star mark than ever before. But, a tradition is a tradition, and so just for the record the unlucky ten to lose out, in alphabetical order, were ’71, Alleluia, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ilo Ilo, Kajaki: The True Story, Lilting, Omar, The Guest, Timbuktu and Tim’s Vermeer. I would still recommend any of these if you’ve not seen them, and hopefully if you’ve liked one or more of these then that should suggest it’s worth exploring my top 40 in more detail.

As always, despite seeing 167 films there were plenty I would have seen had the opportunity presented itself. At the top of that list would be The Overnighters, A Touch Of Sin, Obvious Child, Tony Benn: Will And Testament, Tom At The Farm, The Rocket, In Bloom, Still The Enemy Within and Goodbye To Language. For a full list of what I’d like to have seen if time and money had allowed, you’ll find one here. You might be expecting to see Citizenfour, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Leviathan, The Wind Rises, Pride, Two Days One Night, What We Do In The Shadows, Interstellar or Only Lovers Left Alive, and while I loved them all in part or in whole, just not quite enough to crack my top 50, and I’ll happily go into more detail on any omissions in the comments.

Finally in pre(r)amble I’d like to just add some thank yous. Thank you to both Toby and Bums On Seats and also to Rosy, Edd, Jim and the gang at Take One for allowing me to take part in what you’ve done this year, and hopefully you’ll have me back again. To the host of people who’ve stopped and chatted who I run into regularly, many of whom I listed at the end of the Cambridge Film Festival, thank you for making my year in darkened rooms that much more social. Finally, I’d like to say a big thank you to the staff of every single cinema that I attended in seeing those 180 films, as I’ve not had a truly bad experience in any of them this year. In no particular order, that includes the Abbeygate Cinema, the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, Saffron Screen, Cinema City in Norwich, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the BFI Southbank, the Prince Charles Cinema, the Curzon Soho, Vue cinemas in Cambridge and the West End, and last but by no means least, Cineworlds in Cambridge, Bury St. Edmunds, Huntingdon, Ipswich, Stevenage, St. Helens and Didsbury, as I pump my Unlimited Premium card for every last ounce of value.

Here then are the 40 that made the cut, my favourites of the year. Click on the link in the title to discover what I wrote earlier in the year on any films where I did. I hope if you’ve not managed to catch all of these that something tempts your fancy in what follows. Bear in mind that this list is the same as every other list you’ve read in the past month: a matter of opinion, not fact, so don’t tell me I’m wrong – there is no such thing, it’s all just a bit of fun and not to be taken too seriously – but do try to suggest films I might have missed.

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Review Of 2014: Man And Woman Of The Year 2014

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So for the past five years on this blog I’ve published a year end review, trying to take in as many positives of the previous twelve months as possible. For the last four of those five years, I’ve produced a run-down of what I considered the most memorable performances, but in an attempt to produce as balances an end of year review as possible, I’ve realised that one area normally overlooked by awards is those people who’ve made a consistent contribution to their craft over a number of films. So to try to redress the balance somewhat, I’m instituting two new awards this year, in the form of the Man and Woman Of The Year. I’ve gone with an actor and an actress this year for the main awards, but one of my honourable mentions in the male category isn’t an actor, and I’ll try to be open to all possibilities if this becomes a thing.

Given the enormous outpouring of bile after The Times newspaper somewhat controversially chose Nigel Farage as their Man Of The Year (and that’s a man that could be the member of Parliament for my home town by this time next year; God help us all), I realise I could be on a hiding to nothing, but you have to try these things at least once. Please bear in mind that these might be saints, or they might get their kicks shooting puppies in the park, but this is not a judgement on them as people, merely a recognition for their overall contribution to films I’ve seen in 2014. So in that spirit, please be upstanding – and be gentle – with my Man and Woman Of The Year.

Man Of The Year 2014 is Jack O’Connell

Jack O'Connell

It seems almost impossible that Jack O’Connell is only 24, as it feels like he’s been around for ever. Fittingly for someone born in Derby he made his debut in a film from another East Midlands stalwart, appearing in Shane Meadows’ This Is England as Pukey Nicholls. But the first role I can really remember him grabbing my attention in was the horror thriller which also starred Michael Fassbender and Kelly Reilly, Eden Lake in 2008. He takes what could be a rather clichéd role as the film’s eventual villain and manages menacing without ever feeling forced, and his eventual triumph is as compelling as it is repulsive. It then felt like he might get stuck in a rut of stock British thugs and bad guys, also appearing in the Michael Caine starrer Harry Brown as a gang member and appearing in 2012’s Tower Block with Sheridan Smith as another local estate thug, but that was another role where he had to play totally unsympathetic yet ultimately comes out on top.

After building up a solid body of stage and TV work, it feels like 2014 is the year he’s finally come into his own in film. His first major role of the year was in the British prison drama Starred Up, a tense and brutal affair that traded heavily on O’Connell’s ability to do distant but remain charismatic. Eric Love is a walking explosion of pent up rage waiting to happen, but an unexpected reunion in prison with his father gives O’Connell a huge amount to explore. This was his first real lead film role and he’s magnetic for the entire run-time in this unflinching look at life on the inside.

He also then took the lead role in one of the year’s most underrated and underseen films, the Yann Demange thriller ’71 set in the troubles in Northern Ireland. Here, although he’s got top billing once again it’s the supporting cast that get to deliver much of the theatrics, and O’Connell’s requirement is to be calm and level headed after he’s separated from his unit on the wrong side of the lines. Demange maintains tension throughout, and it’s to O’Connell’s credit that you care about his plight despite being little to go on in terms of backstory.

As a sign of things to come, O’Connell also appeared as Calisto in the bigger budget 300: Rise Of An Empire, but it’s at the end of the year where he’s really begun to make a name for himself in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken. Somehow, despite having a script with contributions from the Coen brothers and cinematography from Roger Deakins, Jolie has crafted something which renders a remarkable story somewhat ordinary, and it would have been a complete washout had it not been for O’Connell’s performance. As the stocky Italian-American Olympic runner who ends up in a Japanese POW camp, O’Connell proves he’s got what it takes to be an (admittedly unconventional) leading man, but he also delivers the film’s only real emotional beats in the last half hour.

Frankly, anyone who can get Angelina Jolie to deliver that classic East Midlands greeting of “ay up, me duck” in public deserves some form of recognition, but O’Connell looks to be a star in the making and 2014 is very much the year he’s arrived in earnest.

Man Of The Year Honourable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Godzilla, The Monuments Men, The Imitation Game, Unbroken)

Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave, Frank, X-Men: Days Of Future Past)

Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf Of Wall Street, Interstellar)

Ben Mendelsohn (Starred Up, Exodus: Gods And Kings, Black Sea)

Woman Of The Year 2014 is Scarlett Johansson

Scarlett Johnasson

I’ve always been very much someone who could take it or leave it as far as Scarlett Johansson’s concerned. She came into my cinematic consciousness from an unconventional angle, with that infamous opening shot of Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation in 2002. She’d been around for a while before that, both on TV and most notably in Ghost World from the previous year, but in the years that followed her success with roles was at best mixed. Despite working with the likes of Woody Allen (Match Point), Christopher Nolan (The Prestige) and, ahem, Michael Bay (The Island), her brushes with the acting awards categories had started to recede into the distance – as well as Match Point and Lost In Translation, she received Golden Globe nominations for A Love Song For Bobby Long and The Girl With The Pearl Earring, but all were prior to 2006 – and it’s only really been this year that she’s reminded people of just how good an actress she is.

Sure, she’s been appearing in Marvel films as Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow since 2008’s Iron Man 2, but it was only in this year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier that she truly came into the role, appearing both an effective foil for Chris Evans’ previously uptight Captain American and also being able to stand her ground in the drama stakes, rather than being lost in the mêlée of The Avengers. She also proved she’s still got her action movie chops with the uneven Lucy from Luc Besson, yet for all the film’s issues believing in Johansson as a super-brained genius wasn’t one of them. And she proved that she’s got charisma to spare with a brief appearance in Jon Favreau’s food lovers’ delight Chef.

But of her two biggest successes this year, she wasn’t even on screen for one of them. Playing the voice of an AI in Her, she has a remarkable and totally convincing chemistry with her co-star Joaquim Phoenix, despite the two never being on screen together. Samantha Morton was originally cast in the role, but it was only when Steven Soderbergh was brought in to help manage the film down from a two and a half hour first cut that writer / director Spike Jonze began to realise that what he’d created with Morton didn’t work; spending four months working with Johansson provided what was missing for the role, and so a proportion of the film’s success has to be credited to her for coming in at that late stage and still making it work.

If that performance was memorable, it still wasn’t her best work of 2014; that came in Jonathan Glazer’s mindworm Under The Skin. Portraying a cold and distant alien might not seem like much of an acting challenge, but almost everything Johansson does in the film grabs your attention in the right way. Driving round Glasgow in a black wig with an English accent, she became unrecognisable to the real men she was picking up, and her performance is free of clutter or mannerisms and perfectly captures how an extraterrestrial visitor might struggle to comprehend the vagaries of our very human existence.

I’ve never been Johansson’s biggest fan, but her string of consistent, high quality performances this year has put me down firmly as a fan. Here’s hoping she can now find the roles to carry that momentum forward.

Woman Of The Year Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Amy Adams (American Hustle, Her, Big Eyes)

Keira Knightley (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Begin Again, Say When, The Imitation Game)

Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Serena, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1)

Mia Wasikowska (Only Lovers Left Alive, Tracks, The Double, Maps To The Stars)

Review Of 2014: Top 10 Old Films Of 2014

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When it comes to the time for end of year lists, there’s always contention and debate around exactly what should qualify for a list. Some people see films in London or at festivals which may not then get a release until the following year for those mere mortals watching films in the provinces like myself. I was on the verge of having to debate whether or not to include Birdman in this year’s list, but the decision was taken out of my hands at the weekend by horrendous traffic on the M11 and the Central line having ground to a complete halt. That’ll teach me to try to get into London anytime after Christmas.

What I did manage to see when I got there was the Back To The Future trilogy. It’s the first time I’d seen the sequels in the cinema, but I’d seen the original on its last reissue a couple of years ago. This year I’ve managed to see more classic films than ever before, as well as discovering a few unheralded gems. Attempting to put together a top ten list on a critic basis for these kind of films is fairly pointless – while most people are trying to catch the good films of the current year, there’s just too much that makes it back into cinemas to be able to claim to have seen all of the quality of older films – but I thought as a one off this list would highlight just what it’s possible to see in cinemas these days if you’re willing to look beyond current releases.

I’ve managed to watch a total of 28 films this year in cinemas that were released before 2011, from restored 3D classics like House Of Wax and Inferno to classic films with children such as Wrony and The White Balloon. I’ve continued to fill in my Hitchcock back catalogue with To Catch A Thief and seen historical curios such as Sexmission and Nekromantik. If you don’t already, I strongly suggest in 2015 you open yourself up to the possibilities of just what cinemas are showing these days, and here’s my ten favourites from days gone by. I had never seen any of these films in a single sitting before watching them in a cinema this year.

10. Ghost In The Shell

Seen at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse on re-release

Ghost In The Shell

What I learned: So that’s where the Wachowski brothers got most of their ideas! I’ve never really seen much anime, another area of film that I need to explore in greater detail in years to come.

9. Mad Max 2

Seen as part of the Mad Max double bill playing at Picturehouse cinemas

Mad Max 2

What I learned: That Mel Gibson’s probably better when he’s not saying much, Lethal Weapon films notwithstanding.

8. Down By Law

Seen at the Cambridge Film Festival ahead of a limited re-release

Down By Law

What I learned: That once upon a time, it was possible to enjoy Roberto Begnini in films without any baggage, and that Jim Jarmusch’s films from back in the day did both brooding and entertaining just as well as their modern counterparts (such as this year’s Only Lovers Left Alive).

7. Some Like It Hot

Seen as part of the classic Sundays season at Picturehouse cinemas

Some Like It Hot

What I learned: That I’d clearly left it far too long before seeing my first Billy Wilder film; I have another four sat on DVD at home waiting for me to get chance to watch them.

6. The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari

Seen in restored form on re-release at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse

The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari

What I learned: That silent horror movies that are nearly a hundred years old can still retain a huge amount of power, especially if seen in a darkened cinema late on a Sunday night.

5. Bicycle Thieves

Seen as part of the classic Sundays season at Picturehouse cinemas

Bicycle Thieves

What I learned: Rome is one of my favourite cities that I’ve ever visited, and it’s still just as special even when it’s the setting for a post-war tragedy.

4. Play Time

Seen at the BFI Southbank ahead of a limited nationwide re-release

Play Time

What I learned: that it’s worth keeping an eye on what’s showing in London, as this was well worth a trip down. I could have walked back in and watched this again straight away thanks to the sheer level of detail that Jacques Tati crammed into every frame.

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey

Re-released as part of the BFI’s Sci-Fi: Days Of Fear And Wonder season

2001

What I learned: that this is a film you need to see on the big screen. I’d tried half a dozen times as a student and never gotten into it, but had no such issues when able to appreciate its full majesty in the cinema.

2. M

Seen at the Cambridge Film Festival prior to a limited re-release

M

What I learned: That Peter Lorre’s face might just be one of my favourite things in all of cinema.

1. Jules Et Jim

Seen on re-release at the Abbeygate Cinema in Bury St. Edmunds

Jules Et Jim

What I learned: That, through the films of the likes of Scorsese, Tarantino and Wes Anderson, I’ve been a huge fan of the French New Wave for years. This sows the seeds of so much that I’ve loved in the cinema, and it was all I could do not to sit and giggle with glee at Truffaut’s technique and verve. Even the deeply nihilistic ending was right up my street.

Previous “winners”:

2013: The General

2012: Lawrence Of Arabia

2011: Funny Games (original)

2010: The Shop Around The Corner

Review Of 2014: The Top 30 Scenes Of 2014

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Sometimes a film isn’t about the combination of script, director, actors, special effects and the host of other contributions, sometimes it’s about the alchemy of a particular moment that lives long in your memory. Other times it’s just about a cheap fart gag or a stupid dance. Either way, no Movie Evangelist Review Of The Year would be complete without me attempting to pick out the 30 best scenes of the year from a collection of legal and illegal clips made available via YouTube, then getting frustrated when I can’t find the clip I had in mind and discovering that half the ones I did find have disappeared within a couple of months. (When I put my top trailers together last week, one of them had been taken down before I even managed to publish the post. Grr.)

Yes, no review of the year of mine would be complete without this, except my review of 2010 because the first time I did this was in 2011. If I had done a list in 2010, the number one would either have been a bunch of monks having dinner (Of Gods And Men) or the audacious stadium chase where the camera seemingly zooms in from somewhere in the next country (The Secret In Their Eyes). Or possibly the end of Toy Story 3. Or Mary And Max. But now we’ll never know. Anyway, that’s the beauty of variety of these lists.

So after having been back to my countdowns of 2011 to 2013, and then reinstated all the clips that have disappeared since this time last year – this year a total of thirteen clips had disappeared from the last three years – I’ve now been through and assembled thirty of my favourite moments from this year’s finest.

WARNING: Viewer discretion advised. This blog post would be rated at least a 15 if I had to submit it to the BBFC, for several instances of strong language, strong violence, bloody injury detail, and dangerous bears. Well, dangerously cute bears, anyway.

30. Manakamana – Two old ladies eating ice cream

The latest film from the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard is really more of an art installation than it is a film – hence nine walkouts when I saw it in Cambridge – but if you allow yourself to be taken over by its precise rhythms there are many pleasures to be had. It consists of a series of cable car rides on a trip to and from a temple, and by the time you’ve seen half a dozen you have a rough idea of the duration. Watching two women attempt to finish their ice creams before they reach their destination becomes a surprising study in tension.

29. Starred Up – Cell invasion

The British prison drama has energy and anger to burn, and there’s no better example than this scene where Jack O’Connell greases up then arms himself ready for trouble.

28. Muppets Most Wanted – I’ll get you what you want

None of the songs in this sequel quite match the original, but this one probably comes closest. Not sure whether my favourite rhyming pair is second pillow / armadillo or diamond ring / thingy-thing.

27. Edge Of Tomorrow – Truck and roll

Edge Of Tomorrow, or Live. Die. Repeat. Or Groundhog Cruise, or whatever it’s calling itself now, had a lot of fun killing Tom Cruise, and this was as much fun as any of the deaths.

26. Lilting – Awkward introductions

You would think having to have almost every scene in the film translated would be a barrier to the drama, but as this early scene proves, it can actually add to the tension and layers of meaning.

25. Mood Indigo – The pianocktail

Very little this year – with the exception of The Grand Budapest Hotel – brought me as much joy from a single film as Mood Indigo, and I would see a pianocktail as being a fine addition to any room or deranged fantasy film.

24. Alleluia – Kitchen sink opera

Just the trailer here for Alleluia, the latest from Fabrice Du Welz, but this means the scene in the kitchen where Lola Dueñas breaks into song will remain resolutely unspoiled for when you see the film.

23. The Grandmaster – Platform altercation

Wong Kar Wei’s much delayed film had problems in the Weinstein-produced version I saw, and I’m not sure that the original cut would have fixed them, but the experience was worth it for scenes such as these.

22. What We Do In The Shadows – Werewolves not swearwolves

It’s all the little moments – like throwing the stick – that still make me think I may have harshly judged WWDITS when I reviewed it earlier in the year.

21. Kajaki: A True Story – Bomb dispersal

The trailer here gives you a flavour of the film, but most of the last hour or so is an exercise in ratcheting tension that had me gripping chunks out of the armrests. Thanks to a dedicated distribution deal with Vue, this wasn’t as widely seen as it might have been, but the scene where one character is leaping blindly across a valley of landmines was as nerve-shredding as anything seen this year.

20. The Babadook – Bedtime stories

So, you start reading a terrifying bedtime story book – at what point would you have stopped reading? Before this? Yeah, me too, probably.

19. 22 Jump Street – Who’s the daddy?

A collection here of the finest scenes, all featuring Ice Cube, from this summer’s meta-sequel that provided a lot of the year’s biggest laughs.

18. Fury – Sherman vs. German

This making of discusses the highlight of the film, a sequence where a German Tiger tank takes on four American tanks and comes off resolutely best.

17. Godzilla – HALO goodbye

You might recognise the music from this sequence if you saw the re-release of 2001 earlier this year, or if indeed you’re a fan of Lygeti’s Requiem (source of the music in question).

16. Blue Ruin – Headshot

Yep, so I didn’t see this coming when I saw it in the cinema. A film full of small, surprising moments and less conventional choices.

15. ’71 – Kicking off

The second appearance of a Jack O’Connell film in this year’s countdown, and the best moments in the film are when O’Connell is separated from the rest of his unit and forced to go on the run. For some reason this film was criminally underseen this year.

14. Night Moves – Dam busters

Couldn’t quite find the scene I wanted, which is the attempt by Jesse Eisenberg, Peter Saarsgard and Dakota Fanning to blow up a hydro-electric dam in a manner that goes about as smoothly as sandpaper covered in splinters. But this scene also shows how the lack of forward planning and Saarsgard’s laissez-faire attitude undermine the plan from the start.

13. The Guest – Brother from another mother

So this scene is when The Guest kicks into a higher gear, as Dan Stevens shows just how to deal with bullies. For my mother if she’s reading, a bonus scene with Dan Stevens. Apparently Downton hasn’t been the same since he was killed off. Can’t think why.

12. Stranger By The Lake – Ready for drowning

This making of discusses the pivotal scene at the heart of the film, which sees a crucial plot development take place in the far distance with the character watching unable to do anything except sit and be horrified.

11. Inside Llewyn Davis – Opening number

Many of these end of year lists feature Please Mr. Kennedy as their scene of choice, but I was hooked when Oscar Isaac was allowed to sing this in full. Despite not being a musical, having every song at its full length worked very much in the film’s favour.

10. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes – Tank whirl

Sadly the full clip showing the tank POV shot as the apes attack the human settlement isn’t on YouTube yet that I can find, so instead watch the Honest Trailer, which has bits of it it, but also made me feel ridiculous about even liking the film. They usually do that.

9. Under The Skin – Surface tension

A film that I originally rated 8/10 and thought would be lucky to break my top 40 this year. Then I couldn’t stop thinking about scenes like this for months.

8. Guardians Of The Galaxy – Prison break

Marvel’s blockbusters may have only been mildly revolutionary – although as it turns out Captain America: The Winter Soldier probably saved Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. from an early grave – but in terms of entertainment value, the raccoon and the tree are hard to beat.

7. The LEGO Movie – SPACESHIP!!!!

Hey, at least I didn’t play you the year’s biggest earworm, Everything Is Awesome. ‘Cos you’re thinking about it already, and I’ve only said the title, haven’t I? Anyway, this is how excited I got when I played with LEGO when I was seven. And also last week with my niece. For five hours. Awesome.

Oh, and that thing about not playing the earworm? I lied, sorry.

6. The Skeleton Twins – Starship troupers

This clip not only captures the special bond between brother and sister that persists well after childhood (it would likely be something from the original Now That’s What I Call Music album for my sister and I), but also the frustration that sometimes you have to just scream into a pillow. I might go sale shopping for some more pillows while I think about it.

5. Paddington – Meet and greet

Spending four years at university, trekking from east Kent to Bath every six weeks or so by train, meant that I spent more hours than I’d care to mention on those platforms. Yet now, I aspire to the middle class lifestyle that this short clip clearly represents. The Lost And Found sign over Paddington’s head is a delight.

4. X-Men: Days Of Future Past – Hi yo (Quick)silver

Remember, of course, that filming this at 200 frames per second means they actually had to do everything really quickly. Nice to see Bryan Singer back on the X-Men films.

3. The Raid 2: Car chase fight

This is just part of a longer sequence, but when you watch it, pay close attention to the part around the 4:23 mark. If you can’t work out how on earth they achieved that camera move, the solution in this video is both simpler and more amazing than you realise.

2. 12 Years A Slave – Hanging in the balance

From the year’s most uncomfortable film, a scene I still can’t watch without grasping at my own throat. Or soul, for that matter.

1. The Wolf Of Wall Street – Higher than an eagle

It’s maybe no surprise to see Martin Scorsese still at the height of his powers after forty years in film making, but Leonardo DiCaprio has continued to mature thanks to his partnership with Marty over the last ten of those. This clip has everything: visual style and trickery from Scorsese, the most hilariously inappropriate voiceover I can remember, and Leo showing a gift for physical comedy that probably no-one expected. Let’s hope the pair can continue to find projects to work on together if they’re as good as this.

Previous years:

The Top 30 Scenes Of 2013 – WINNER: Iron Man Three, the Mandarin reveal

The Top 30 Scenes Of 2012 – WINNER: The Muppets, Man Or Muppet

The Top 30 Scenes Of 2011 – WINNER: Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, Burj Khalifa