Talking Movies

September 9, 2018

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part IX

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

“No, that doesn’t track”

We now know Wes Anderson’s next film will be live-action and set in post-WWII France, immediately post-war apparently. So perhaps taking cues from Les Enfants de Paradis, Jean Cocteau and Jour de Fete rather than the 50s of Clouzot, Bresson and early New Wave. Insofar as Wes Anderson takes cues from anyone… Any excitement I might have that he’s tackling a specific culture and time is tempered by the knowledge that it will be put thru the wringer until it comes out a Wes Anderson movie. A topic of conversation arises with Paul Fennessy every time there’s a new Wes Anderson – just how much of a straitjacket his trademarks have become. One of our favourite flights of fancy finds Wes and Jason Schwartzman or Roman Coppola or Owen Wilson seated at a diner in Austin; furiously scribbling dialogue and scene ideas in yellow legal pads, and beaming at each other happily, until a shadow crosses Wes’ face, and he asks in horror and disappointment, “But wait, can we do that as a tracking shot or a series of whip-pans?” Because if not, well, there’s no place for it in the cathedral of conventions that Wes Anderson has imprisoned himself within.

Photo: Matt Kennedy

“I can’t help if it I’m popular”

Well now, that didn’t take long. Less than a month after I derided it here, the Oscars abruptly threw engines into full reverse on their wonderfully patronising idea of giving out a new token Oscar for Best ‘Popular’ Movie. It was a bold move to keep the plebeians happy and watching the bloated ceremony honouring films nobody saw. I would wager cold hard cash the decision to ‘suspend’ the new award followed almost instantly on Chadwick Boseman scotching the notion he would be happy to see Black Panther dismissed with a token gong so transparently created merely to commend his all-conquering movie without commending it. He wanted, quite rightly, to be nominated, and seriously, for the Best Picture Oscar; like previous Oscar-winning crowd pleasers The Sting, Forrest Gump, and Rocky. Right now Black Panther has made 700,059,566 dollars at the North American Box Office.  Let us be cruel and note that the combined totals of every Best Picture Oscar winner this decade; The King’s Speech (135,453,143), The Artist (44,671,682), Argo (136,025,503), 12 Years a Slave (56,671,993), Birdman (42,340,598), Spotlight (45,055,776), Moonlight (27,854,932), The Shape of Water (63,859,435); come to just 551,933,062 dollars. That is why fewer and fewer people watch the obscurantist Oscars.

The means defeat the ends

Watching Ken Burns’ incredible documentary The Vietnam War last year it was hard not to think that when someone proclaims ‘the ends justify the means’ any means thus justified actually work against the proclaimed ends.  The brutal means employed in Vietnam actually strengthened the Vietcong and thus worked against the ends of keeping South Vietnam out of their hands.  And, in a disconcerting swoop to utter banality, the shamelessness of the cash-grab of The Hobbit trilogy meant grabbing shamefully little cash. Despite featuring the same writing/producing staff as the Lord of the Rings , (with the regrettable addition of Guillermo Del Toro), Peter Jackson as director, and Andrew Lesnie as cinematographer, the first two Hobbit films (I’ve avoided the last) were nothing like it. They were shot like Janusz Kaminski had left the supernova on in the soundstage, and the greenscreen room, and the digital FX studio, bedevilled by awful acting, unintentionally funny make-up and CGI make-up work, and muddled in nearly every imaginable respect of scripting and directing, with even promising sequences descending into over the top gibberish repeatedly, and this is before we even gripe that the slim volume of Tolkien being made into three films was, as Bilbo once said, like butter spread over too much bread. They were entirely lacking the magic of the Lord of the Rings mostly because of a bewildering lack of reality. Well, not that bewildering after all. The reason that unwelcome CGI was so omnipresent was because the forced perspective practical trickery of set design used to such great effect in the Lord of the Rings would not work for 3-D. So Ian McKellen got to interact with, essentially, named coconuts on sticks, until he started crying; and wailing ‘This is not why I became an actor’. Why abandon forced perspective for 3-D? Because they had to be in 3-D to make as much money as possible! But, because this made them look so awful, on top of the sheer greed of making a trilogy from a small book, people like me, who saw every Lord of the Rings film in the cinema at least twice, and then bought them on home release, in both versions, didn’t go to the cinema to suffer this misbegotten trilogy. Indeed after slogging to the end of the DVD of the second Hobbit film, with its inane love triangle and CGI Smaug whose scale was never clear during his scenes with Bilbo, and which ended with a slap in the face to the audience by leaving his attack till the next movie, I vowed never to watch the third.  And it seems many people felt as I did. The Hobbit’s takings were 1,000m, 958m, and 956m. As opposed to the Lord of the Rings’s takings of 871.5m, 926m, and 1,100m. Note how more people flocked to the Lord of the Rings film by film, while people backed away from The Hobbit. Note also that The Hobbit’s numbers are swelled by inflated 3-D ticket prices, and a decade of inflation. Well, that backfired spectacularly. The ends (making mucho money) justified the means (making awful-looking films, and too many of them, badly). And, the ends, of making mucho money, were defeated by the means employed, an unexpected trilogy of CGI in 3-D.

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March 4, 2018

Why shouldn’t Fast & Furious 8 win the Best Picture Oscar?

The obvious answer is because it wasn’t nominated, but there’s an awful lot to be said about that obvious fact.

George Bernard Shaw once complained, after hearing one too many twits at dinner parties dismissing Wilde as facile, that he seemed to be the only man in London who could not sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will. Fast & Furious 8 would, Vin Diesel promised, star Dame Helen Mirren and win the Oscar for Best Picture. It achieved one of those impossible missions. And probably the one more worth achieving. Can one say that Fast & Furious 8 was not nominated for Best Picture because it was facile? Surely not, because, like Wilde, if it was really that easy then every studio would be able to make their own Fast & Furious at will, and they cannot. This film saga has liberated itself from realism, probability, physics, logic, and continuity in a manner that defines gleefulness. The only people who can save the world are petrol-heads, people escaping explosions or jumping off bridges or falling cars can always land just where someone is driving to pick them, cars can fly between and through and then between skyscrapers, and again cars can fly between and through and then between skyscrapers, the State is welcomed into the family after murdering one of the family because of insinuations that he has a forgiveness-worthy back story. This is glee incarnate.

And glee does not win Oscars.  Fast & Furious 8 was not nominated for Best Picture for the same reason that The Dark Knight was nominated on the understanding that nobody was to actually vote for it. One of my regular theatre cohorts dropped the Freudian slip/zinger “The Dark Knight is great but obviously it wouldn’t the Oscar” when discussing Fast 8 and the Oscars. Think about that, a film is great, but obviously it can’t win the Oscar. Why? Well, because it’s just, um, too popular… A mantra here at Talking Movies is that is what good ought be popular, and what is popular ought be good. That would ring alien to Oscar voters, and that’s not my opinion, it’s an empirically observable trend.

Consider the 1980s. Here are the films that topped the North American Box Office and the films that were awarded Best Picture year by year:

1980 The Empire Strikes Back

1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark

1982 E.T.

1983 Return of the Jedi

1984 Beverly Hills Cop

1985 Back to the Future

1986 Top Gun

1987 Three Men and a Baby

1988 Rain Man

1989 Batman

 

1980 Ordinary People

1981 Chariots of Fire

1982 Gandhi

1983 Terms of Endearment

1984 Amadeus

1985 Out of Africa

1986 Platoon

1987 The Last Emperor

1988 Rain Man

1989 Driving Miss Daisy

Only Rain Man won both the commercial and Oscar stakes, but some of the others were damn close. Ordinary People was 11th, Chariots of Fire 7th, Gandhi 12th, Terms of Endearment 2nd, Amadeus 12th, Out of Africa 5th, Platoon 3rd, The Last Emperor 25th, and Driving Miss Daisy 8th at the North American box office in their year of release.

Consider the 1990s, when two films topped the North American box office and were crowned with a Best Picture Oscar on their lap of honour.

1990 Home Alone

1991 Terminator 2

1992 Aladdin

1993 Jurassic Park

1994 Forrest Gump

1995 Toy Story

1996 Independence Day

1997 Titanic

1998 Saving Private Ryan

1999 The Phantom Menace

 

1990 Dances with Wolves

1991 The Silence of the Lambs

1992 Unforgiven

1993 Schindler’s List

1994 Forrest Gump

1995 Braveheart

1996 The English Patient

1997 Titanic

1998 Shakespeare in Love

1999 American Beauty

Oscars were still going to reasonably popular films. Dances with Wolves was 3rd, The Silence of the Lambs 4th, Unforgiven 11th, Schindler’s List 11th, Braveheart 18th, The English Patient 19th, Shakespeare in Love 18th, and American Beauty 13th at the North American box office in their year of release. But the Weinstein campaign that successfully prevented the seminal, serious, and popular Saving Private Ryan from taking the Oscar in favour of their slight but aggressively campaigned for confection bode ill.

Consider the 2000s, and you’ll see the people’s choices at the North American box office getting worryingly and increasingly ever further from the Oscar’s choices.

2000 How the Grinch Stole Christmas

2001 Harry Potter 1

2002 Spider-Man

2003 The Return of the King

2004 Shrek 2

2005 Revenge of the Sith

2006 Pirates of the Caribbean 2

2007 Spider-Man 3

2008 The Dark Knight

2009 Avatar

 

2000 Gladiator

2001 A Beautiful Mind

2002 Chicago

2003 The Return of the King

2004 Million Dollar Baby

2005 Crash

2006 The Departed

2007 No Country for Old Men

2008 Slumdog Millionaire

2009 The Hurt Locker

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The Oscars now start to veer sharply away from reality… Gladiator was 4th, A Beautiful Mind 11th, Chicago 10th, Million Dollar Baby 24th, Crash 49th, The Departed 15th, No Country for Old Men 36th, Slumdog Millionaire 16th, and The Hurt Locker 116th at the North American box office in their year of release. Where The Last Emperor at 25 had been an outlier in the 1980s when all other 9 films placed 12 or higher, now we find Million Dollar Baby at 24, and then beyond it Crash, No Country for Old Men, and The Hurt Locker. Where in the 1990s only 4 films placed lower than 12, now only 4 films placed 12 or higher – something is definitely up.

Consider the 2010s, a decade in which the Oscars have for eight years ostentatiously disdained the North American box office.

2010 Toy Story 3

2011 Harry Potter 7

2012 The Avengers

2013 Catching Fire

2014 American Sniper

2015 The Force Awakens

2016 Rogue One

2017 The Last Jedi

 

2010 The King’s Speech

2011 The Artist

2012 Argo

2013 12 Years a Slave

2014 Birdman

2015 Spotlight

2016 Moonlight

2017 The Shape of Water (?)

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Oh dear… The King’s Speech was 18th, The Artist 71st, Argo 22nd, 12 Years a Slave 62nd, Birdman 78th, Spotlight 62nd, Moonlight 92nd, and (sic) The Shape of Water 46th at the North American box office in their year of release. Remember the good old days in the 1980s when The Last Emperor at 25 had been an outlier as all the other films were placed 12 or higher? Remember the 1990s when only 4 films placed lower than 12? Or the 2000s when 4 films placed 12 or higher? Now only 1 film out of 8 has even broken into the top 20, and 5 films out of 8 couldn’t even crack the top 50.

What is good ought be popular, and what is popular ought be good, clearly has no currency as a mantra for the Oscar voters.

Bret Easton Ellis on his Podcast has persuasively trashed the Oscars from their inception as a ruse to pretend that the Hollywood studios were interested in art not money by parading a social conscience and worthy/boring movies for public notice. Talking Movies some years ago argued the Oscars were out of step, with many awards effectively do-overs, such as James Stewart winning Best Actor for The Philadelphia Story not Mr Smith Goes to Washington. But the Ellis verdict doesn’t sit with the notion in this piece that films which top the North American box office were crowned with a Best Picture Oscar on their lap of honour. Boxofficemojo.com only has detailed figures going back to 1980, the less documented Filmsite.org has errors that render it unreliable, so we’re forced to Wikipedia to allow us tentatively examine if there is a basis for saying that the biggest film of a year once customarily won the biggest Oscar prize, not just occasionally.

1930 Tom Sawyer

1931 Frankenstein

1932 Shanghai Express

1933 Cavalcade

1934 Viva Villa!

1935 Mutiny on the Bounty

1936 Modern Times

1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

1938 Alexander’s Ragtime Band

1939 Gone with the Wind

 

1930 All Quiet on the Western Front

1931 Cimarron

1932 Grand Hotel

1933 Cavalcade

1934 It Happened One Night

1935 Mutiny on the Bounty

1936 The Great Ziegfeld

1937 The Life of Emile Zola

1938 You Can’t Take It with You

1939 Gone with the Wind

 

 

1940 Rebecca

1941 Sergeant York

1942 Mrs Miniver

1943 For Whom the Bell Tolls

1944 Going My Way

1945 The Bells of St Mary’s

1946 Song of the South

1947 Unconquered

1948 The Red Shoes

1949 Samson and Delilah

 

1940 Rebecca

1941 How Green Was My Valley

1942 Mrs Miniver

1943 Casablanca

1944 Going My Way

1945 The Lost Weekend

1946 The Best Years of Our Lives

1947 Gentlemen’s Agreement

1948 Hamlet

1949 All the King’s Men

 

1950 King Solomon’s Mines

1951 Quo Vadis

1952 The Greatest Show on Earth

1953 The Robe

1954 Rear Window

1955 Cinerama Holiday

1956 The Ten Commandments

1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai

1958 South Pacific

1959 Ben-Hur

 

1950 All About Eve

1951 An American in Paris

1952 The Greatest Show on Earth

1953 From Here to Eternity

1954 On the Waterfront

1955 Marty

1956 Around the World in 80 Days

1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai

1958 Gigi

1959 Ben-Hur

 

1960 Spartacus

1961 West Side Story

1962 Lawrence of Arabia

1963 Cleopatra

1964 My Fair Lady

1965 The Sound of Music

1966 The Bible

1967 The Graduate

1968 2001: Space Odyssey

1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

 

1960 The Apartment

1961 West Side Story

1962 Lawrence of Arabia

1963 Tom Jones

1964 My Fair Lady

1965 The Sound of Music

1966 A Man for All Seasons

1967 In the Heat of the Night

1968 Oliver!

1969 Midnight Cowboy

1970 Love Story

1971 Fiddler on the Roof

1972 The Godfather

1973 The Sting

1974 Blazing Saddles

1975 Jaws

1976 Rocky

1977 Star Wars

1978 Grease

1979 Kramer vs. Kramer

 

1970 Patton

1971 The French Connection

1972 The Godfather

1973 The Sting

1974 The Godfather: Part II

1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

1976 Rocky

1977 Annie Hall

1978 The Deer Hunter

1979 Kramer vs. Kramer

Now then, while there are a lot of boring/worthy films crowding out crowd-pleasers in those years, my impression wasn’t entirely unfounded. In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s the Best Picture Oscar went to the North American box office champion a regulation 3 times per decade. In the 1960s and 1970s that rose to a regulation 4 times per decade. And then from 1980 to 2018 reverse all engines: instead of 4 times per decade, it has happened 4 times in 4 decades. Something has changed… The Dark Knight would probably have picked up the Best Picture Oscar had it been a film of the 1960s or 1970s, been as great as it was, and been as popular as it was. Unfortunately it arrived a truly obscurantist time for the Oscars, as the very next year the Oscars suckered viewers by nominating Avatar, a genuinely phenomenally popular film, and then awarding the Oscar to The Hurt Locker, which set a new record for unpopularity; being the 116th most popular film at the North American box office in the year of its release. You have to go to the second page of the 2009 statistics on Boxofficemojo.com to find it.

What seemed a deliberate slap in the face to the audience set up this current decade’s obstinate obscurantism and has reaped the appropriate result, fewer and fewer people watching. Now, one shouldn’t automatically equate popularity with artistic merit, but I can’t see that Fast & Furious 8’s glee is completely alien to 1963’s Oscar-winner Tom Jones, nor can I see that its crowd-pleasing is markedly different to 1976’s Oscar-winner Rocky. If it is well-crafted and pleases so many people globally why is it treated like the damn plague? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to announce that the winner at the North American box office would automatically be given the Best Picture Oscar? Or that the nominees for Best Picture would simply be the top 10 films at the box office? Instead the Oscars wring their hands: Why is nobody watching? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the presenters not young and hip enough? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the presenters too young and hip? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the nominations not diverse enough? (Nobody saw the movies) Yes! We must make the voters more diverse to produce more diverse nominations, that will make people watch, yes? (No, nobody saw the movies)

The Oscars have tied themselves into knots responding to vitriolic campaigns about their supposed racism lest, in the pompous Guardian terminology, they become increasingly insular and irrelevant if they ignore these sorts of institutional biases. And yet, even just going with the rigorously documented last 4 decades, the Oscars have already demonstrably become insular and irrelevant over these recent decades by becoming like a snooty waiter who when asked what’s good on the menu, laughs and says “Well, we have some fine fare for ourselves in the kitchen, but that’s not for the likes of you, eat the slop you’re given”, and clearly have no intention doing anything about that. It’s almost comical after the viewing figures turn out poorly every year to see them scrabble for any and all solutions except the actual, obvious one: nominate popular films, and not just for show, to win, like in the 1970s.

It might concentrate a few minds in Hollywood to automatically give the Oscar to the box office winners, because if you don’t value your stock in trade, and thereby show your contempt for your audience, how exactly do you expect the audience to feel about that – it’s pretty remarkable to expect them to tune in in their billions to watch you slap yourself on the back for movies nobody saw because in large part nobody wanted or would want to see them. It might also make global blockbusters a bit better to have people not simply start shooting with a shoddy script because they know all they need is CGI visuals when this is going to sell mostly in foreign language markets. The decline of the North American box office in its importance to Hollywood is fodder for a whole series of posts, but re-attaching the Oscars to domestic popularity might work on ego if pride is not enough to get people to stand over their work for the masses.

Fast & Furious 9 needs to win the Best Picture Oscar as a grand apology for the ridiculous conduct of the Oscars for many, many years. Make it happen, Hollywood.

January 27, 2015

Top Performances of 2014

As the traditional complement to the Top 10 Films, here are the Top Performances of 2014. The refusal to isolate single winners is deliberate; regard the highlighted names as top of the class, the runners up being right behind them, with also placed just behind them. They’re all superb performances.

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Best Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette (Boyhood) Arquette’s character grows older but not wiser, instead we see her becomingly increasingly brittle as even she realises that she’s sensible about everything except her romantic choices.

Carrie Coon (Gone Girl) Forming a great double act with Ben Affleck, Coon broke out from theatre with a glorious turn as his twin sister– the foulmouthed and spiky voice of reason.

Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) Lawrence was perhaps too young for the part, but she played it with such comic panache that her sporadic appearances energised an overlong film.

Runners Up:

Maggie Gyllenhaal (Frank) Gyllenhaal was pitch-perfect as scary obscurantist Clara, with wonderful nuance in the slow reveal of how such off-kilter music bonds her and Frank’s damaged and isolated psyches.

Mackenzie Foy (Interstellar) Foy was bright, furious, and resentful, and blew Jessica Chastain off the screen as the younger iteration of their character, the indomitable Murph.

Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave) Paulson’s casual brutality towards slaves was deeply shocking, but her horror at being replaced sexually by a slave subtly underscored her menace.

Also Placed:

Amber Heard (3 Days to Kill) Parodying her hyper-sexualised persona (The Informers) Heard, in leathers and wigs, flirted with burlesque girls and sexualised both driving fast and injecting medicine.

Joey King (Wish I Was Here) Pitted against Zach Braff’s glibly sarcastic agnosticism the sincerity of King’s adherence to Jewish faith, language, and cultural identity blew him off the screen.

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Best Supporting Actor

Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) His character’s drugs spiral, even as his friendship with Ron becomes beautiful, was extremely moving, with his fierce commitment extending to deliberately ravaging his appearance.

Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) His vicious bible-thumping alcoholic was terrifying, but also complex; slaves are either sub-human or masters are guilty, and Epps is self-destructing from mercilessly exploiting his slaves.

Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) Hawke physically filled out in a career-best performance of serious comedy as deadbeat dad whose rebelliousness was an affectation thrown off for mellow acquiescence with the world.

Runners Up:

Andrew Scott (The Stag, Locke) Scott was their sole highlight: his Locke vocal performance exuded excitability and exasperation, while Davin was a man fatally wounded by romantic rejection being tortured some more by his ex-girlfriend.

Killian Scott (Calvary, ’71) His Calvary misfit Milo was dementedly funny in rambling frustration, and he so transformed into ruthless IRA leader Quinn that he seemed not only older and tougher, but almost taller.

Zac Efron (Bad Neighbours) Efron’s previous subversions of his image were nothing next to this jackpot: his squeaky clean looks have never been put to such diabolical and hilarious use.

James Corden (Begin Again) Corden not only frequently gave the impression that he was ad-libbing great comedy moments, but also that he was improvising Knightley into unscripted corpsing bonhomie.

Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) Bautista took what could have been a tiresome running gag and instead by dedicated deadpan made utter literalness to the point of insanity infinitely unexpected and hysterical.

Also Placed:

Adam Driver (What If, Tracks) Sparring against Mackenzie Davis and Daniel Radcliffe in What If he was highly amusing and occasionally sagacious, and was both funny and adorably awkward in Tracks.

Gene Jones (The Sacrament) He was patently playing Jim Jones, and turned the charisma up to 11 for a TV interview that was so mesmerising it explained Father’s cult of personality.

Mandy Patinkin (Wish I Was Here) Patinkin brought deep humanity and biting humour to his wise, religious father disappointed by his glib, agnostic son but delighted by his bright, devout granddaughter.

Tyler Perry (Gone Girl) The man can actually act! And as celebrity defence attorney Tanner Bolt he transformed the oily character from the novel by bringing palpable warmth to the part.

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Best Actress

Keira Knightley (Begin Again) Knightley sang rather well, but not only did she carry a tune she also carried the movie with a return of her old confidence. Maybe all that’s needed to restore the old swagger is James Corden ad-libbing her into improvising so she forgets her stage-fright.

Mackenzie Davis (We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, What If) Her What If wild child was oddly reminiscent of Katy Perry, albeit interpolated with Daisy Buchanan, and was strikingly different from her reserved bookworm subtly using her wits to escape a noir nightmare in We Gotta.

Runners Up:

Rose Byrne (Bad Neighbours) It’s always a joy when Byrne gets to use her native Australian accent, and she swaggered with such foul-mouthed comedic assurance that at times Seth Rogen became her foil as the sensible one in their marriage.

Agyness Deyn (Electricity) Deyn was a commanding presence. She grabbed with both hands this defiant character, who wears short dresses and fluorescent jacket; drawing the eye to a body covered in cuts; and had no vanity in showing these effects of seizures.

Also Placed:

Juno Temple (Magic Magic) Temple reprised some elements of her naïf in Killer Joe, though thankfully she was less over-exposed here, and made her character’s steady descent into insomniac madness chillingly plausible.

Matthew-McConaughey-Reveals-How-He-Lost-23kg-For-His-Role-In-Dallas-Buyers-Club-1

Best Actor

Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) McConaughey’s physical commitment to the role was jaw-dropping, initially rake-thin before then wasting away before your eyes to harrowing effect. Initially unsympathetic, he patiently revealed the hidden softer side which engaged Dr Eve, and beautifully developed an unlikely and most affecting friendship with Rayon.

Runners Up:

Daniel Radcliffe (What If) Radcliffe is sensational as the hero who’s crippled romantically by his traumatised desire to act ethically. A Young Doctor’s Notebook served notice of his comedy chops, but combining uncomprehending deadpan and dramatic sharpness this was a comic role of unexpected substance.

Mark Ruffalo (Begin Again) It’s hard to imagine anyone else, save 1973 Elliot Gould, pulling off this role quite as well. The Ruffalo exudes immense shambolic charm, shuffling about in scruffy clothes, doing permit-free guerrilla location live music recording that would make Werner Herzog proud.

Dan Stevens (The Guest) The Guest is a high-risk gamble that would fail spectacularly if its leading man was not on fire. Luckily for all concerned Stevens burns a hole in the screen with a Tom Hiddleston as Loki level performance – playing scenes tongue-in-cheek serious as the charismatic helpful stranger.

Also Placed:

Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) Affleck as an actor too often contentedly coasts, and (even when gifted zingers as in Argo) acts as a still centre. But, with Fincher pushing him with endless takes, he was fantastic as the hapless everyman; who we root for despite his flaws.

Pal Sverre Hagen (Kon-Tiki, In Order of Disappearance) The imposing Norwegian perfectly captured old-fashioned grit, naive enthusiasm, and quiet heroism as Thor Heyerdahl, and then played crime-lord The Count as an epically self-pitying vegan equally stressed by divorced parenting with his ex-wife, and a nasty turf war with Serbian mobsters.

February 27, 2014

Mugged by Gravity

I’ve watched with increasing bewilderment and growing horror as Gravity has started to outshine 12 Years a Slave at the endless bacchanalias of awards season.

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I saw Gravity in 3-D, you see, and I didn’t want to see Gravity at all… I regard Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter instalment as the most soulful of the trilogy, but I find it hard to think of Children of Men as anything other than a film concerned with its own shooting style above all else. Gravity, as a ‘groundbreaking 3-D spectacle’, seemed bound to ramp up that element of his work to the obliteration of emotional depth. But I knew that if I skipped Gravity in cinemas, and then said it wasn’t very good, after watching it on a 2-D small screen, I’d be hopped on by a certain type of critic for not having seen it in 3-D, and therefore not being entitled to deliver any valid judgement on it. If you were told there was a great play on in the West End, and you said you’d catch it when it came to the Grand Canal Theatre, only to be told that no, it wouldn’t be great then, you had to see it in the original West End production to get its true greatness – you’d have to reply that it couldn’t be a great play then, merely a great originating cast perhaps, but not something that you should get excited about as a play on a historical level of epic greatness. And yet, isn’t that exactly what the reception of Gravity is all about? If you don’t see it in cinemas, you miss the ‘groundbreaking 3-D spectacle’. But realistically most people, over the course of Gravity’s lifetime of being seen, will not see it as it was intended to be seen – for an exorbitant ticket price in a cinema. And if it doesn’t stand up outside of that original format, then it doesn’t stand up at all.

And it doesn’t stand up… I am mystified by the critical valorisation of what is a profoundly empty FX film. It’s as if a portion of Sunshine were taken by itself and blown into a full movie, but with poorer actors – Sandra Bullock is not the world’s most expressive actress if you’re casting for a one-woman show. Her presence highlights that Gravity, despite the critical cachet of its director, is really not that far removed from Roland Emmerich’s most cornball moments. Bullock with luck that would break Vegas survives two catastrophic space disasters, self-generates an improbable House epiphany, and manages to cling to a vessel as it begins re-entry, after she, without any ill effects, opened the door to the space station with an explosive rush that should have either catapulted her into space or broken her wrist. And the script is not salvaged by its visualisation: the sequence inside the space station possess a ghastly unreality as everything around Bullock looks CGI, while the 3-D only truly impresses when it cheats – Cuaron throws splintering pieces of space station at the camera and all over the world audiences jump, because those splinters literally appear from nowhere instead of arriving from an observable flight-path. And needless to say Gravity does not, as has been claimed, replicate in its direction a camera free-floating in space. The camera always artfully ends up at just the right place to observe big moments, rather than weightlessly freewheeling through another badly timed glimpse of the cosmos.

Children of Men had a large degree of practical difficulty in its trademark long-takes of action sequences, even with the helpful aid of CGI compositing of separate shots together. But the idea that Gravity deserves laudatory and exceptional praise for its camerawork, and its 13 minute unbroken opening shot in particular, is nothing other than praise for a veritable vestigial limb of critical reactions to film-making. What exactly are we meant to be praising? Long takes were a hallmark of greatness because they were practically difficult to pull off and therefore a sign of audacity, ambition, and tremendous determination by directors like Welles, Hitchcock, and Godard who achieved them. Spielberg pulled off a wildly OTT action sequence in Tintin, in one long take, but even as you watched it, nodding your head at its ‘ingenuity’, you realised its meaninglessness – there was no difficulty to be overcome: an animated character was not about to forget his lines, neither was an animated background about to suffer an annoying change of lighting from a passing cloud. Cuaron can spend all day shooting the same long-take green-screen sequence without ever reloading film, why should he be given a medal for doing what’s now easy?

I’m annoyed by Gravity, because I feel I was mugged for my money, purely to have the sort of empty experience I feared it would be – but empty in 3-D.

January 9, 2014

12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen directs his first feature without Michael Fassbender in the lead, and the result is a more straightforward but very powerful film depicting slavery.

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Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a prosperous man in upstate New York, much in demand at local dances for his skills as a violinist. He is also a free black man in the politically divided America of 1841, but after a trip to Washington DC providing music for a circus-owner (Scoot McNairy) he wakes up to find himself in chains about to be transported to New Orleans to be sold to whatever Louisiana plantation owner buys him. Viciously whipped for protesting his free status he is further brutalised by slave-trader Freeman (Paul Giamatti) for not adopting his slave name of Platt, but he is bought by humane plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who recognises his intelligence. However, conflict with vicious overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano) leads to Solomon being handed over to drunken and maniacal plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), where Solomon finds himself embroiled in the struggle between Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson) and Epps’ slave mistress Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o)…

12 Years a Slave is a remarkable film in which McQueen brings his distinctive visual aesthetic to bear on Three Kings scribe John Ridley’s adaptation of Northup’s shocking memoirs. The casual brutality of the slavers towards their victims is shocking, and McQueen’s camera is as unflinching as always in observing it, from the fixed-position long-take that observes Solomon’s first beating, to the already infamous and almost unbearable climactic long-take with a camera roving around Epps, Solomon and Patsey during a prolonged vindictive whipping. If Hunger was almost an installation about bodies in decay, andShame about bodies in motion, this is about bodies in torment. A decanter of whiskey is casually thrown into a slave’s face, a wound is ripped open with a scratch of nails, runaways are lynched besides Solomon, and Solomon himself is left hanging from a tight noose for hours while most of his fellow slaves strategically ignore his plight. This lacks a sequence where the mundane becomes transcendent, probably because of the subject; the closest we get is fire dying away at night with Solomon’s hopes.

The way McQueen’s camera silently observes the slaves being treated like livestock is more condemnatory than any polemical dialogue. Ridley’s script inserts a subtext into certain scenes about the insecurities and fears of the slave-owners, hidden behind their racist bluster, which makes even Fassbender’s vicious bible-thumping alcoholic more complicated than he first appears. Teabits sings about killing runaways to the new slaves, but is terrified of being shown up as an engineer by a slave. Epps’ wife is horrified at being replaced sexually by a slave, while Freeman breaks up a family because the daughter’s father was a master and this white blood increases her sexual desirability and price. Garret Dillahunt’s fallen overseer notes that masters must convince themselves the slaves are not human or repress their guilt. Ford tries to be good in this system, while Epps exploits it mercilessly and perhaps self-destructively. Regrettably amidst this intellectual subtlety Hans Zimmer’s key motif is instantly recognisable from his Inception score…

Steve McQueen is due a disaster, but so far he is proving to be something very rare –a film director who only makes masterpieces.

5/5

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