On empathy, Ebert, and the movies

The late Roger Ebert. Someone I never knew.

The late Roger Ebert. Someone I never knew.

I have a scar on my left hand, a little below the knuckle of my index finger. It’s a small spot only noticeable for being paler than all the pale surrounding it. I have thoroughly no idea how I came to have it. What I do know is that, either by some damage to my nervous system or an associated sense memory with the now-forgotten cause of the scar, it has a tendency to flair up, as if being lightly stabbed, during moments of emotional anguish. What makes it really strange is that it never happens during moments of my emotional trauma (no matter how bad), but only when I hear about those of others. Tell me a story of real woe from your life, make me feel it, and it’ll sting like a knife being slowly drilled into my hand. Better yet, show me a tragic movie that hits me like the loss of a loved one and I’ll be crying with pain before I’m crying from upset.

I have for some time and with little poetry referred to it as my “empathy scar”. Actually it’s come in quite useful at times; there have been occasions when watching films that I’ve been so engrossed in them that I am only made aware of how deeply the film is affecting me when I feel a tingling in my joint. A recent (and shamefully first) viewing of E.T. gave me an unexpected jab. Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp (1956) felt like a cigarette was being stubbed out on my hand. I should have a list of films that have triggered this reaction noted somewhere, but sadly, foolishly, I don’t.

I was left thinking about my empathy scar this evening after watching Life Itself, the Steve James documentary about the life and career of Roger Ebert. At the film’s start, Ebert is quoted: “…for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” It’s not something I’d ever contemplated before – the concept of the “empathy machine” – but I see it now as informing so much of my own passion for the cinema. Many of the films that have touched me the most deeply have communicated feelings I could understand but could never have voiced; whether they be subtle gestures or moments of screen-shaking pain.

Roger Ebert meant nothing to me. I did not grow up with his criticism; I watched British critics on the television and read Michael Dwyer and Donald Clarke in The Irish Times. My only familiarity with Ebert was a skit lampooning him in an episode of the cartoon series Animaniacs, which while not unfunny went for the veritable jugular in terms of jokes about his weight. When he became sick I was mostly unaware of it, and only later lightly followed his Twitter feed. The few times I attempted to engage him there were lost to the aether, although the only one I recall was my arguing against Say Anything…, a film he championed and I openly detest, so it is probably for the best we were never only acquainted over a disagreement. When he died I had little reaction of shock or upset beyond general disappointment that a film fan had died from the complications of a terrible illness. But I knew many people who cared a great deal for him and his writing, and it brought me no small deal of sadness seeing them so hurt.

I’ll steer clear of writing a full review of Life Itself. It’s problematic; bloated in segments and scattered in theme. But it’s deeply earnest, if not completely honest, and when it discusses the merits of film criticism and the competitive but symbiotic working relationship he had with Gene Siskel it taps into some very powerful ideas. Near the film’s close Ebert’s widow Chaz reflects on his death, and perhaps it is the length of time she (and we; the film is long) have had to prepare for and adjust to his passing, but she is in a stage of acceptance in the grieving process that, for want of any other term, is undramatic. It is not the emotional payload the film needs. That comes in the form of extracts from Ebert’s final blog entry, ‘A Leave of Presence’, one of the few works of his I remember reading when it came out. As the echoes of his final send off “I’ll see you at the movies” play over a montage of his life and the outpouring of grief that followed it, while my eyes were watching and studying a movie, a sparkling of discomfort in my had told me I was feeling a loss too, or at least deeply appreciating that of so many others. If it takes an affecting movie and a malfunctioning hand to remind me that I can feel, what of it? It’s surely better than feeling nothing at all.

If nothing else, Ebert made me want to write again after a long absence. There are few feelings better than that.

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How to Train Your Dragon 2 – How I trained your mother

Wingin' it: Toothless and his pet human Hiccup

Wingin’ it: Toothless and his pet human Hiccup

Back in 2011 How to Train Your Dragon was cruelly robbed at the Academy Awards of the animation Oscar by the wonderfully sweet but gimmick-laden Toy Story 3, and Hollywood animation has yet to recover from it. (Actually Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist was better than the both of them, but that’s an argument for another time.) With sublime character design, rich humour and a character-driven plot most “grown-up” films should be envious of, Dragon become one of 2010’s biggest runaway hits following a rocky opening that generated sensational word-of-mouth.

Jump forward a few years, two seasons of the spin-off TV series and a number of stocking-filler direct-to-DVD shorts and the dragons of Berk return to the big screen for another adventure. Five years after uniting his Viking kindred with their reptilian enemy, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), now a young man, is eager to evade the responsibilities of assuming the title of chieftain from his now doting father Stoic the Vast (Gerard Butler), preferring to explore an expanding world on the back of his jet-black familiar Toothless.

When he and his lady friend Astrid (America Ferrera) encounter a gang of pirates who capture and sell dragons, Hiccup becomes aware of a villain named Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who is amassing an army of enslaved dragons. Rallying his friends to confront this new threat, Hiccup finds an unlikely ally in his long-lost mother, who was thought dead but is found to be a dragon-rider herself. Part Jane Goodall, part Shaka Zulu, Valka is the source of much of How to Train Your Dragon 2’s problems. Awkwardly forced into the story and failing utterly to excuse her absence (living on an island that in movie time appears to be barely an hour’s flight from Berk), Valka is a frustrating character whose story is ripped straight from The Simpsons episode ‘Mother Simpson’. Star-power helps naught, as Cate Blanchett voices the character with a garbled accent that sounds like Veronica Guerin with a mouth full of Australian haggis.

Glide of the Valkyrie: Hiccup's mother Valka is introduced in the sequel

Glide of the Valkyrie: Hiccup’s mother Valka is introduced in the sequel

The rest of the voicecast fare better. Jay Baruchel remains an iconic performer as Hiccup, capturing a wide range of emotions with his stalling nearly-a-man voice. Butler excels also, and continues to find brilliant support in Craig Fergusson as Stoic’s no2 Gobber. Ferrera is sidelined, disappointing after such a strong role in the first film, but the comic love triangle between Vikings Snotlout, Fishlegs and Ruffnut (Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Kristen Wiig respectively) makes up for this. Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington joins the cast as a macho pirate, but no one ever claimed the most exciting thing about Jon Snow’s storylines was his voice. Hounsou does his best with an underwritten, underdeveloped and frankly racist villain – the only black man in all of Scandinavia is also the only tyrant.

Dealing with this new threat, the script shows itself to be politically schizophrenic, commending Hiccup’s quest for peace while ultimately championing military dominance. The film concludes with a call to arms that sounds straight out of a post-9/11 docudrama directed by Leni Riefenstahl.

Danger in a strange land: The villain Drago (actually his name) is confronted by stout Viking lass Astrid

Danger in a strange land: The villain Drago (actually his name) is confronted by stout Viking lass Astrid

The action, however, is even more thrilling than the first time around, with some brilliantly planned-out aerial stunts. The dragon and human designs are far richer in texture, with the polar leviathan the Bewilderbeast a mighty achievement of the creators’ imaginations. Much of the comedy lands, while Toothless, a veritable reptilian catdog of personality and energy, remains just about the cutest animated character since Fievel.

The greatest highlight of Dragon 1, John Powell’s heart-quickening, triumphant score, is repeated here, although the addition of a dance-pop version of the main theme with echoes of Owl City is frankly sinful; like a punk rock rendition of the Schindler’s List soundtrack. Indeed the film is trying to appeal to a cool audience a little too hard – Hiccup’s latest inventions include a winged glide-suit and a fiery lightsaber, while Toothless develops new powers borrowed heavily from another popular movie lizard. The first film achieved coolness without a pinch of effort.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 shares a lot in common with last year’s disappointing Despicable Me 2; both are sequels to surprisingly affecting movies, both feature slapdash-scripted and ultimately racist villains, and both reinforce conservative family norms that their predecessors had soared high without.

Gorgeous to behold but thematically frustrating and confused, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a worthy entertainment, but little more. The first film was a borderline masterpiece, this one is only just good.

3/5

(originally published at http://www.scannain.com)

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Godzilla – Terror without character

King of the movie by the guy who made Monsters: Godzilla makes a move on San Francisco

King of the movie by the guy who made Monsters: Godzilla moves on San Francisco

Godzilla turns 60 this November. The King of the Monsters had a great run between 1954 and 2004, when Japan celebrated his golden anniversary by having him squash the life out of almost every monster in his rogue’s gallery in Godzilla: Final Wars; including dishing out a veritable curb-stomping to the mutant iguana beast of Roland Emmerich’s much-maligned 1998 would-be reboot.

But looking back on 1954’s Godzilla (or Gojira), it’s easy to forget how important a film it was, reclaiming the monster movie from the B-movie bin where Son of Kong dumped it only nine months after King Kong(1933) became the genre’s first masterpiece. Gojira balanced strong pacing, effective monster attacks and light characterization with a highly political but not overwrought metaphor for nuclear destruction in the atomic age.

So where does that leave us in 2014? A Godzilla reboot with state-of-the-art digital effects is where; featuring strong pacing, effective monster attacks and light characterization. But it’s not all it could have been, and it so easily could have been great.

Gareth Edwards’s take on the colossal lizard is a mixed bag. Opening with flashes of historical drawings of mediaeval monsters, there is an air of pretention to this project which is quickly rinsed away. Images of A-bomb tests in the Pacific from the 1950s are shown to apparently destroy Godzilla (the Godzilla? A Godzilla?). Cut to the late 1990s and some Japanese nuclear facility (let’s just call it ‘Fake-ashima’) comes under attack from an apparent earthquake caused by some burrowing beastie – the white guy (Bryan Cranston) saw it coming, but could not prevent it.

In the present, Cranston looks to his estranged son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to help him prove that something unnatural happened at Fake-ashima, and that a cover-up has taken place. Soon soldier Ford, scientists Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins and the U.S. military are chasing creatures across the Ocean towards a final showdown in San Francisco.

Breaking Dad: Bryan Cranston with Aaron Taylor-Johnson

All the components of a best-of Godzilla franchise are in place. The design of Godzilla is sublime. The drama is very much in check (Ford’s wife and son are in San Fran). The action sequences and monster fights are choreographed with balletic composure. Alexandre Desplat’s bombastic score is a noble successor to the work of Akira Ifukube. So then what’s wrong? The answer mostly lies in characterization, but not where you might expect.

Edwards rose to notoriety in film circles when his 2010 film Monsters managed to tell an engaging human drama against the backdrop of a semi-apocalyptic monster attack; all for $500,000. Here, working with a budget nearly 500 times that size, the monsters are infinitely more satisfying, but the human drama hasn’t succeeded. That falls largely on the fact the central romance, Taylor-Johnson and wife Elizabeth Olsen, only get one scene together. It’s a strong scene of married life marred by military duty, but it’s not enough to hang the emotional core of the film on. Secondly, looking back on the entire Godzilla oeuvre, there’s a reason the heroes of those films are regular scientists and journalists and never soldiers – soldiers are only interesting characters when they’re forced to go against the orders they’ve dedicated their lives to follow through, but here Ford is actually the good little soldier boy throughout, and it’s not exactly endearing.

Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Olsen are given far too little to work with, acting only as emotional fulcrums for a weight Taylor-Johnson still can’t lift. David Strathairn struggles to fit into his role as a top-tier general worse than he struggles to fit into camos a size too big for him. Ken Watanabe, that ever-reliable token Japanese star, is given the preposterous exposition section of the script; you’ll buy everything he’s selling, but when he’s not telling you what to believe, it’s hard to believe in what’s happening.

In an awkward (ex)position: Ken Watanabe

In an awkward (ex)position: Ken Watanabe

And that’s because of Godzilla. What is Edwards’s Godzilla? The film never seems certain. Certainly no product of the nuclear tests as in 1954 or 1998. More curious still, having a bomb dropped on him in 1954 has not left him with any vengeance towards mankind (in fact, like last year’s Pacific Rim, the film seems oddly unconcerned with nuclear power as a danger at all – an awkward Hiroshima reference gets briskly swept aside). The rival monster has far more explanation of where he came from; Godzilla comes off as an awkward plot-device, “addressing an imbalance in nature”, if we can excuse such hippy nonsense coming Watanabe’s mouth, and hunting that monster because… because. A line of dialogue from the trailer where Watanabe calls Godzilla “a god” has thankfully not made the final cut, which would have dumped even more confusion into the mix.

But the real shame is not the “what is he?”, but the “who is he?” Godzilla over his 50-year Toho run has been wrathful, vengeful, arrogant, proud, delighted, caring, even overtly sarcastic. Here the monster ranges from angry, to sad, to kinda tired, to kinda happy. He’s been reduced from a complex monster to a bland array of Seven Dwarf names. He has less characterization than the average Taylor-Johnson.

Which is not to say that when he unleashes his classic roar, or stomps defiantly on his opponent, that he isn’t clearly a worthy version of the classic monster. He’s just not quite there yet. Despite inherent problems, Godzilla is assertively satisfying, with a finale that rewards wholeheartedly after 100 minutes of monster foreplay. There’s enough innate craftsmanship on show to demand more appearances by this version of Gojira, but some proper fantasy world-building is required before we can buy this monster wholesale. Edwards has a lot to learn as a filmmaker (his reliance on Spielbergian child-shots to sell his disaster scenes proves this), but he is well on his way to becoming a force of nature himself. Should he return to Godzilla, there may no stopping the pair next time.

3/5

(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)

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Live from Culpeper, Virginia, it’s the 86th Academy Awards (liveblog)

Life is good. Oscars may be.

Life is good. Oscars may be.

There’s a snow storm coming, but inside there is beer and the Oscars. We can only hope for an entertaining night, full of probably not that many surprises, but surprising non-surprises.

[All times are in Pacific Time, all Thai food is in my belly.]

4:44pm – Chiwetel Ejiofor is the coolest African-American guy who is not African-American in the world.

4:46pm – Who are all these Oscar interns and why am I none of them?

4:47pm – Thank god U2 are here. I thought for a moment I couldn’t play the bitter annoyed Irish card all night.

4:51pm – Alfonso Cuarón, his O looks small because you can’t put an accent on a normal O.

4:54pm – Russell Brand Jesus is wearing a white tux. Good for him/her.

4:56pm – Tyson Beckford looks like he has been PhotoShopped to life.

4:59pm – Bradley Cooper: too handsome to like, too charming to hate. He’s the Switzerland of people.

5:01pm – Good lord look how much Mrs. Hill looks like wee Jonah!

5:02pm – Lupita Nyong’o in white. Seems she takes her memes to heart.

5:05pm – Wow, a homeless man in a tux! And oh no it’s Bill Murray.

5:06pm – The Oscar coverage is making fun of people tweeting the Oscars… this sketch is going nowhere good fast.

5:09pm – That Jimmy Kimmel sketch was drenched in classism, and lightly sprinkled in not good comedy.

5:13pm – It’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith! No, not Brad and Angelina (nor Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard), it’s Will and Jada Pinkett!

5:15pm – Nobody doesn’t quite wear a goatee quite like Jeremy Renner.

5:16pm -

“The person I went into as filming this movie is not the person I came out of this movie as.” – Sandra Bullock says, referring to her paycheck.

5:23pm – Take a deep breath everyone, we are now in the theatre!

5:30pm – It’s the Oscars. Champagne please! Also Ellen.

5:31pm – Weak start for Ellen. Pick it up pick it up pick it up!

5:33pm – I hope the real Captain Phillips and the real Philomena make out at the after party.

5:35pm – Some savage material from Ellen DeGeneres here. It could be more biting than actually funny.

5:37pm – Jennifer Lawrence getting a ribbing for falling on her face. Ellen managing to get off her own with this bit.

5:39pm – Ellen has gone for the penis joke!

5:40pm – Crap, if 12 Years a Slave doesn’t win, we are ALL racists!

5:42pm – If Best Supporting Actor goes where I think it’s going, it’s gonna be a very predictable night.

5:43pm – Jared Leto wins! He played Rayon, now he’s wearing spray-on.

5:44pm – Leto tells the story of his mother instead of thanking people he worked with. Ungrateful prick!

5:46pm – Ellen DeGeneres makes a live-tweeting joke. So contemporary.

5:48pm – Jim Carrey is recovering this sketch… just about.

5:50pm – About 70% of those animated films were made after the year 2000. An absolute embarrassment from the Academy there.

5:51pm – Will Ferrell is performing a happy song in blackface. How is this appropriate?

5:53pm – In fairness, the choreography here is pretty delightful.

5:57pm – What’s with the wall of roses?

5:58pm – Naomi Watts and Sam Jackson throwing out some tech awards. First up: costume design.

5:59pm – Gatsby wins! This spells ill American Hustle. Ironically the costume designer’s dress is awful.

6:00pm – Now… Dallas Buyers Makeup.

6:02pm – Shouldn’t Matthew McConaughey be home watching True Detective?

6:03pm – Harrison Ford is out. Of. It.

6:05pm – Channing Tatum is here to show us those damned students again. But I wanna be one of them!

6:11pm – Hahaha remember Ed TV.

6:12pm – Best Animated Short goes to Mr. Hublot. I did not see it. My friend said it was awful. Now I don’t know what to think!

6:13pm – Aw, nervous French guy is nervous.

6:15pm – Frozen or The Wind Rises or I go home.

6:16pm – Hooray for Frozen! Plus it burst a billion today! All the money and success. Disney’s first animated feature Oscar.

6:17pm – Sally Fields!

6:19pm – Look at all these famous films! They’re so famous! Yay! Fame!

6:20pm – Did Peter O’Toole just light up the Will Smith?

6:21pm – And the gravity award for best gravity in a gravity-themed film goes to… Gravity!

6:24pm – Zac Efron presents Karen O. She will now sing a lovely song that will slow down the entire night to a crawl.

6:30pm – Kate Hudson, absent from Kate Hudson’s life for some years, looks rather well presenting the short film awards.

6:31pm – Helium, assumedly the antithesis to Gravity, wins Best Short Film.

6:34pm – Best Documentary Short goes to The Lady in Number 6. The subject of which like just died the other day. What terrible terrible timing.

6:36pm – Not enjoying Ellen’s aisle shtick. Not at all.

6:37pm – Best Documentary Feature goes to 20 Feet From Stardom. I did not see it, but The Act of Killing was surely robbed.

6:39pm – There is a singsong going on on stage right now. It’s the Oscars, why isn’t this happening always?

6:40pm – Kevin Spacey cannot shake his Frank Underwood accent.

6:41pm – Lifetime awards to Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin and Angelina Jolie. Which coincidently enough is the dream cast to play me in the movie of my life.

6:49pm – Ewan McJared Leto and Viola Davis presenting Best Foreign Language Film.

6:50pm – Paolo Sorrentino wins the Oscar for Il Divo! But also I guess for The Great Beauty.

6:51pm – Oh, so that’s what Tyler Perry looks like.

6:54pm – Brad Pitt is here. He is going to do something important I wager.

6:55pm – Oh nope he’s just presenting U2. Never mind.

6:56pm – I can’t deal with ordinary U2.

6:58pm – In fairness, Bono can still kinda bring it. I guess.

7:03pm – Not retweeting Ellen’s tweet out of principle.

7:04pm – WHERE’S WALLACE?!? Oh, he’s at the Oscars…

7:06pm – It’s Thor and Charlize Thoron!

7:07pm – Sound Mixing goes to Gravity. Which is ironic because there’s no sound in space.

7:10pm – Sound Editing. Gravity. Called it. So there you go.

7:12pm – Christoph Waltz is here to present the decider for the rest of the night; Best Supporting Actress.

7:14pm – Cheers for Lupita Nyong’o! That makes tonight a rollover, in exactly the right direction.

7:16pm – A beautiful, passionate and tear-flecked speech from Nyong’o. Bravo bravo and bravo.

7:21pm – Ellen ordered in pizzas. They have Coca-Cola logos on them. This is not OK.

7:22pm – Remember when the Oscars did music numbers and was an actual show?

7:24pm – Wooo! Archives!

7:26pm – Amy Adams and Bill Murray. I would read that slash fiction.

7:27pm – Harold Ramis! We miss him.

7:28pm – Gravity wins Best Cinematography. But it already won this award for Best Special Effects…

7:29pm – Anna Kendrick and Gabourey Sidibe, announce the nominations for Editing.

7:31pm – Gravity wins again. Another tech award for the pile. Not convinced it deserved that one either…

7:33pm – Whoopi Goldberg presents a Wizard of Oz retrospective, in Wicked Witch footwear.

7:35pm – It’s Pink! In red! Those things clash!

7:36pm – I associate Pink Floyd with The Wizard of Oz, not Pink…

7:38pm – Remember when they made films like The Wizard of Oz… not like Oz: The Great and the Powerful?

7:42pm – Ellen is dressed as Gilda. I guess this is OK.

7:44pm – Jennifer Garner and Sherlock Khan present Best Production Design. Gatsby?

7:45pm – Gatsby gets it again! Can American Hustle win anything?

7:46pm – Everyone who didn’t design the Oscar stage tonight deserves Best Production Design.

7:47pm – A tribute to superhero movies. Otherwise known as the box office.

7:54pm – Glenn Close presents the sad bit.

7:58pm – Not Jim Kelly! Paul Walker! Peter O’Toole! Richard Griffiths! Joan Fontaine! Harold Ramis! Philip Seymour Hoffman! (and no Alain Resnais)

7:59pm – Bette Midler sings ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’. Everyone everywhere is crying and sad and crying sad.

8:05pm – The Oscars crashed Twitter. Hopefully that’s not the best thing that happens at the Oscars tonight.

8:06pm – Goldie Hawn is talking 12 Years a Slave. I have never thought of one without the other.

8:08pm – John Travolta present Idina Menzel singing ‘Let it Go’.

8:09pm – Well now they know.

8:11pm – Menzel kills it. The audience has to stand because they did for U2.

8:13pm – Jamie Foxx and Jessica Biel are getting their groove on on stage. Or at least he is.

8:15pm – Steven Price wins for Gravity’s score. Certainly one of Gravity’s most deserved awards.

8:17pm – ‘Let It Go’! let it go! I can’t because it deserved to win!

8:18pm – OH MY GOD THOSE TWO ARE SO ADORABLE!!!

8:22pm – Are the Oscars over yet?

8:23pm – Ellen is passing a hat around the audience to raise some money. Hopefully to go towards some better bits.

8:23pm – De Niro. Cruz. Writing awards. Coming this summer.

8:25pm – Best Adapted Screenplay goes to 12 Years a Slave. Good job.

8:26pm – “All the praise goes to Solomon Northup; those are his words.”

8:27pm – Best Original Screenplay goes to Spike Jonze for Her! Great stuff. Very emotionally honest and mature writing.

8:32pm – Angelina Jolie helps Sidney Poitier to the stage. A superb ovation for him. Nomination for Best Director pending…

8:34pm – Alfonso Cuarón wins Best Director, for best handling of a film that should have been awful.

8:37pm – A fine speech by Cuarón, and an important moment for Hispanic filmmakers overall.

8:41pm – Daniel Day-Lincoln is here to present Best Actress. Also Best Handsome. For him.

8:43pm – Terrible clip to show off why Sandra Bullock is even nominated in the first place.

8:44pm – Cate Blanchett wins which was expected why I am even mentioning this?

8:45pm – “Random and subjective” – Cate Blanchett on the Best Actress Oscar. Good for her.

8:47pm – No thanks for Woody Allen…?

8:48pm – Jennifer Lawrence is here to present lust. Lust to all. Lust.

8:51pm – Matthew McConaughey wins the Oscar for Best Career Comeback Fuck All Y’All Alright Alright Alright.

8:53pm – Matthew McConaughey thanks his mama, and… Charlie Laughton? Sure, why not?!

8:55pm – Best Picture Make Go Now. Shut up Ellen. Shut up Will Smith.

8:56pm – Best Picture goes to the animation to present best picture.

8:57pm – Actually 12 Years a Slave. So deserved. So gloriously deserved.

8:58pm – BRAD PITT ENDED SLAVERY!

8:59pm – Steve McQueen gets his say. Nervous, emotional, but he says what he must, focusing on the powerful women in his life. Wonderful.

9:00pm – A final call to end slavery around the world, and a leap. A leap for joy from Steve McQueen. True Oscar magic.

And that was the Oscars 2014. An enjoyable night, although low on spectacle, but the awards went mostly to the right people. And now to not think about next year’s show for a very, very long time…

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12 Months a Film – Predictions for the 86th Academy Awards

Cue the spotlight

Holy jaysus it’s Oscar time again!

Another year fades into memory. Remember how Argo didn’t surprise anyone but Life of Pi winning best director did? Remember how Seth MacFarlane had seen people’s boobs? No, me neither. Let’s move on with 2014 so

Rudely pushed from February by the Sochi Winter Olympics (which I totally watched a minute of, honest), March kicks off with the death knell of awards season, and supposedly the tightest race in recent Oscar memory. Awards have been split between three major players thus far; the relative outsider being Gravity (superb production, but a philosophic tabula rasa), while American Hustle (lively gloss with undercooked ideas) and 12 Years a Slave (harrowing majesty) will test the Academy’s love for art versus entertainment. It really could go either way.

Ellen DeGeneres hosts again, having put in a passable performance at the 2007 awards, but the big moment will likely come when the PowerPoint of the recently deceased plays, following a series of sad and shocking deaths in the American film industry in the past months. Much of the rest of the events are unpredictable, but that’s not gonna stop me from trying to guess the winners. Here goes.

 

Best Picture

His master’s voice: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) listens to the cruel whispers of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) in 12 Years a Slave 

Once more the line-up is nine, suggesting the Academy really can’t decide what to do with the expanded 10-position nomination hole it’s opened up for itself. Philomena, Nebraska and Captain Phillips are strong seat-holders. Her, Dallas Buyers Club and the cruelly maligned Wolf of Wall Street remain outside bets, that could’ve had great chances with bigger buzz and better campaigns behind them. Gravity is this year’s Avatar, although with the added benefit of being a great movie; it will likely choke in the airless vacuum of being too commercial. That leaves Hustle and Slave. The chance to make a little bit of history won’t be lost on the Academy.

Should win: 12 Years a Slave

Will win: 12 Years a Slave

Best Director

Starman: Alfonso Cuarón directs Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity 

Alexander Payne did a solid, gentle job with Nebraska, but that film has been slid under the awards mat for months now. Scorsese has earned an Oscar for the first time in decades, but sure when has he ever been given an Oscar he deserved?! David O. Russell (American Hustle) has been lucky with the surge of positivity his film gotten, but it won’t get him anywhere in this race. It comes down to Cuarón (Gravity) or McQueen (12 Years) – either win would be historical. In such a tight year, a split seems likely.

Should win: Steve McQueen

Will win: Alfonso Cuarón

Best Actor

The man with the plan: Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof

Leonardo DiCaprio found a new peak in his career with The Wolf of Wall Street, but whether or not the Academy will reward him thus is uncertain given the often negative reaction that film has received. Chiwetel Ejiofor gave an overpowering performance in 12 Years a Slave, but his name remains unduly obscure in Hollywood, whereas Matthew McConaughey’s comeback, of which Dallas Buyers Club is but a brick, is now legendary.

Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio

Will win: Matthew McConaughey

Best Actress

Blue is the loneliest colour: Cate Blanchett as Jeanette Francis in Blue Jasmine

Cate Blachett.

Should win: Cate Blanchett

Will win: Cate Blanchett

Best Supporting Actor

Trans-formation: Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club 

Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) once more stands in the wing, as will Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street). No, unless there’s an unexpected surge for Michael Fassbender (12 Years) or Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), this one is in the bag for Jared Leto’s impressive but unexceptional performance in Dallas Buyers Club.

Should win: Michael Fassbender or Jonah Hill

Will win: Jared Leto

Best Supporting Actress

Darling of the Academy: Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld in American Hustle

Last year’s Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) was an early call for this one, but there is new energy behind Lupita Nyong’o for her astonishing role as an indoctrinated slave in 12 Years a Slave. As that film begins a late surge towards best picture, this award could clarify things right from the beginning of the night. Julia Roberts (August: Osage County), Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) and June Squibb (Nebraska) are all worthy but out of the race.

Should win: Lupita Nyong’o

Will win: Jennifer Lawrence

Best Original Screenplay

Recent allegations against Woody Allen have surely crippled Blue Jasmine here, while Nebraska and Dallas Buyers Club are likely to have to sit this one out. Spike Jonze’s Her has deserving energy behind it after a win at the Globes, but don’t rule out American Hustle just yet, especially if it targets a clean-up on the night.

Should win: Spike Jonze

Will win: Spike Jonze

Best Adapted Screenplay

Despite everything, Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke don’t stand a chance for their superb Before Midnight. Billy Ray’s Captain Phillips screenplay sticks out here like a sore thumb, while Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s Philomena is just too slight to win this one. The split comes down to Slave (John Ridley) and Wolf of Wall Street (Terence Winter). It can really only go one way I think…

Should win: Terence Winter

Will win: John Ridley

Best Animated Feature

Snow chance of losing: Disney’s Frozen

Despicable Me 2 was too slight (and racist?), while The Croods was too inconsistent; neither has the buzz behind them to pull this one off. Speaking of buzz, there’s been so little word on Benjamin Renner and Didier Brunner’s Ernest & Celestine that I’d be shocked if a single member of the Academy even watched their screener of it (assuming they received it). Miyazaki’s final film The Wind Rises is truly deserving and it would be a glorious capstone to his career, but the public adoration behind Frozen will surely propel it to victory. And in fairness, Miyazaki’s already won this Oscar; Disney has not!

Should win: The Wind Rises or Frozen

Will win: Frozen

Best Animated Short

Of this lot I must confess I have only seen Disney’s Get a Horse!, and while amusing I daren’t think of it as an Oscar competitor. The other nominees are Feral, Mr. Hublot, Possessions and Room on the Broom. I shall make a monumental guess.

Should win: Not Get a Horse!?

Will win: Room on the Broom (only because I once read my niece the book and it was lovely)

Best Foreign Language Film

La Dolce Via: Tony Servillo in The Great Beauty

Some strange nominees here, with films from Palestine (Omar) and Cambodia (The Missing Picture) in the running. The Broken Circle Breakdown is Belgium’s entry, but there’s no energy behind it. Thomas Vinterberg’s superb The Hunt has become little more than a Netflix blip, meaning Paolo Sorrentino, outrageously overlooked years back for his sensational Il Divo, will now win for his stunning but over-indulgent/rated The Great Beauty.

Should win: The Hunt

Will win: The Great Beauty

Best Documentary Feature

Hearts of darkness, minds of light: Anwar Congo and Herman Koto re-enact their dreams in The Act of Killing

Honest to god if The Act of Killing doesn’t win I will break something. Cutie and the Boxer winning might appease my wrath. The Square winning will make me break a person. Dirty Wars and 20 Feet From Stardom are also nominated.

Should win: The Act of Killing

Will win: The Act of Killing

Had better win: The Act of Killing

Best Documentary Short

Two years in a row I have succeeded in not seeing any of these! Why do I draw such attention to my own failings?

Should win: ?

Will win: CaveDigger (has the best title)

Best Original Score

This is an odd selection, with Her (William Butler and Owen Pallett) and Saving Mr. Banks (Thomas Newman) surely in the running in any other year. But in Gravity Steven Price created an aural blast that has not been experienced since Strauss was sampled in 2001. A sure-fire winner.

Should win: Steven Price

Will win: Steven Price

Best Original Song 

When U2’s ‘Ordinary Love’ from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom won at the Globes, there was outrage. Frozen’s ‘Let It Go’ is not just a superb piece of music with clever lyrics, it is also a fantastic piece of storytelling in and of itself. Surely the Academy will recognise this.

Should win: ‘Let It Go’

Will win: ‘Let It Go’

Best Sound Editing

Last year I joked that nobody cared about the sound categories. But then Best Sound Editing was split between Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty and the world nearly imploded in confusion. So, let’s be serious here. Um… no, let’s just give it to Gravity.

Should win: Gravity

Will win: Gravity

Best Sound Mixing

I still can never quite work out what this award is for. But the sound in The Hobbit was pretty great, so let’s say it’ll win, if Gravity doesn’t.

Should win: Depends on what exactly is being judged…

Will win: Gravity

Best Production Design

Letting the ’20s roar: The incredible design of Baz Luhrmann’s largely misguided take on The Great Gatsby

Her and 12 Years a Slave would be very worthy winners here, but the options are so grand. Gravity is so heavily digital it should rule itself out, leaving the fight between the ultra-’70s sheen of American Hustle or the outlandish brilliance of The Great Gatsby. It’s very tight.

Should win: The Great Gatsby or Her

Will win: The Great Gatsby

Best Cinematography

Cinema software: The digital cinematography of Gravity astounds, but is it really cinematography?

Much like Avatar a few years back, I have no respect for Gravity’s inclusion here. Bruno Delbonnel should be in the running for Inside Llewyn Davis, but that film has gone down with the Academy about as well as discussions of Zionist hoodlums. This could go just about anywhere.

Should win: Roger Deakins (Prisoners) or Bruno Delbonnel

Will win: Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) 

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Styling AIDS: Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

Good lord am I still here writing this. Um… Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa winning would be funny for all kinds of reasons. No one wants The Lone Ranger to win any awards, so it’s out. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto did, admittedly, look like they had AIDS. That beats William Fichtner with a dodgy hairlip any day.

Should win: Dallas Buyers Club

Will win: Dallas Buyers Club

Best Costume Design

That ’70s glow: Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence all looking très chic in American Hustle

Once again it’s Gatsby versus Hustle. The former was outlandish, but the latter had more sideboob.

Should win: The Great Gatsby

Will win: American Hustle

Best Film Editing

The two big deserving films are Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips, but it’s never been clear to me that the Academy understands what editing is. Will they just give it to Gravity because it didn’t need editing due to long takes? Who knows…?

Should win: Dallas Buyers Club or Captain Phillips

Will win: American Hustle

Best Visual Effects

Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble

Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble: Satellites and space stations are shredded apart in Gravity

Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness… hell, even The Lone Ranger! These are all deserving films. But Gravity is the one that made special effects shine this year, so it’d be an absolute shock if it didn’t take the gold.

Should win: Gravity (or Smaug)

Will win: Gravity

 

So those are my calls. We’ll see how right I was in about 36 hours. I’ll be live-blogging the event as always, this year from a hotel somewhere in the middle of Virginia. Don’t ask. I’ll see you then.

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Only Lovers Left Alive – Blood ties

Immortal beloveds: Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as Adam and Eve

Immortal beloveds: Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as Adam and Eve

I know what you’re thinking. “Did the world really need another vampire movie?” The answer is assuredly no. But then, did the world need a vampire movie directed by Jim Jarmusch? Certainly not! Are we better off that we now have one? Actually, yeah, a little.

Jarmusch, one of American cinema’s greatest eccentrics, has dabbled with genre pictures before – his last movie before this was 2009’s esoteric hitman thriller The Limits of Control. Here once more he takes a done-to-death (pun unintended) genre and makes it distinctly Jarmuschian – more so even, in that Only Lovers Left Alive seems to be repeatedly referencing the auteur’s filmography. There are tinges of Broken Flowers in the reunions of old friends and lovers, and a number of extended night-time driving scenes conjure memories of Night on Earth.

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play the problematically named Adam and Eve, two vampires married for some 150 years, although Adam is many centuries older and Eve may predate him millennia. As their numbers have dwindled and their race developed a conscience, these children of the night have moved into isolation, despairing at the failure of “the zombies” – what they call humans – to evolve to meet their true potential.

Adam, possessed of the gift to play any instrument (it is alleged he wrote music attributed to Schubert back in the day), lives apart from Eve in Detroit, soaking in the industrially drained city’s music history and releasing it with his own remarkable new alt-rock compositions. Eve, meanwhile, spends her nights in Tangiers, Morocco, absorbing tomes of literature and hanging out with her vampire pal Kit (John Hurt), who is in fact the immortal form of the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe. While Adam and Eve keep in touch via FaceTime, the distance has begun to grow too much for the pair, and Adam’s increasing despondence at the state of mankind is pushing him towards thoughts of suicide. Eve decides to take a night flight to visit him, and their romance blossoms anew.

The concept of immortality clearly tickles Jarmusch pink and he and his stars have boundless fun with it. Adam and Eve’s anecdotes about great moments in history that they experienced, or regretfully missed, are delivered as deadpan as possible, but you almost want to see Hiddleston and Swinton corpse (pun intended this time) just so they can laugh with you. Their habit of naming all flora and fauna by their Latin genera never fails to draw a smile.  But more so it’s the idea of a literally undying love that gives Jarmusch and his performers the most room to play with. Adam and Eve can ponder their eternity together, or, when things look bad, the impending collapse of that presumed eternity together. Hiddleston and Swinton, with their similarly angular faces, ghostly pale skin and slender bodies look not so much like they were made for one another but rather that they have grown to look like one another over the decades.

The cinematography by Swimming Pool and Carlos D.P. Yorick Le Saux is excellent, capturing the grim moodiness of Adam’s hideaway and making the darkness of Detroit and Tangiers seem unthreatening and even hopeful. The opening shot of the film, a night sky full of stars, spins into a trail of lights that forms a perfect graphic match with a turntable spinning gently in Adam’s apartment.

The music is another standout point of the film; Dutch composer Jozef van Wissem provides an ethereal rock score that, while it may not sound quite as magnificent as characters within the film claim it does, does sound like something very new. Whether through clever camera trickery or impossible talent, Hiddleston is seen playing a wide range of instruments in the film with exceptional skill – regardless of who is playing, it helps sell the idea of this immortal who has had centuries to perfect himself.

The film takes an unfortunate dip in the second half with the arrival of Eve’s sister Ava, played by Mia Wasikowska in a role assumedly written for Juno Temple. She intrudes as much on the film as she does on the lovers, and her feckless attitude to her vampirism contradicts the subtlety of the universe that has already been established.

Perhaps Jarmusch’s most playful film to date, Only Lovers Left Alive is not quite as deep as it often thinks it is. But it is a pleasure to watch for almost all of its two-hour runtime. It will almost certainly be best remembered for how in a world awash with vampire stories it managed to create a number of new ideas. Including blood popsicles. Nothing beats blood popsicles.

3/5

(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)

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The Wolf of Wall Street – It pays to prey

Cult of personality: Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort

Cult of personality: Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort

“Greed is good,” someone somewhere once said. I can’t remember who. By the time you’re done watching The Wolf of Wall Street, you won’t remember either. Because greed is awful. Just awful.

But oh is it tempting. Temptation really is the theme of this movie, the latest from Martin Scorsese, one of the last American masters still in the business. Working with one of the finest casts he’s ever assembled, from a merciless true-story screenplay by Boardwalk Empire boss Terence Winter, Scorsese draws you into a world of bacchanalian excess and grotesquery, and invites you to excuse all the illegal activity that funds it because… well… damn it looks fun!

New York up-and-coming stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) has barely dipped his toes on the floor of the market when the biggest crash in a lifetime, 1987’s Black Monday, hits, and “shits him back out” onto the streets. Desperate for work he takes a gig on Long Island, selling ‘penny stocks’, tiny shares in go-nowhere companies, but where his cut is 50%. There’s good money to be made for a man who can sell anyone anything.

It’s not long before Belfort’s set up his own firm, and finds a way of shifting penny stocks to real high-fliers – three quick edits and he’s back on Wall Street. If only he didn’t illegally own so much stock in the companies he’s handling…

Wolf of Wall Street is surprisingly unconcerned with how the markets really work, only with how that much money and risk destroys a man; much like Goodfellas was more concerned with the vices of the characters than the structure of the mob, whereas Casino was maybe a little too concerned with explaining how Vegas works. (As an aside, these three films combine to make quite an epic trilogy of criminality in the USA – the similarities are startling, but they compliment each other in ways that critics and academics will enjoy discovering for years to come). The focus of this film becomes Belfort’s addictions; coke, sex and, most terrifyingly, Quaaludes.

Grin it to win it: Jonah Hill

Grin it to win it: Jonah Hill

We see up close the effect these addictions have on Belfort and his cabal, from raucous office sex parties to $2 million bachelor parties. Sometimes his narration will mention the awful repercussions of these events, but Belfort skips quickly past these things; he doesn’t wanna spoil his fun. He doesn’t wanna break the illusion for us.

Like many of his films before, Scorsese takes us deep into his antihero’s personal life, revealing the grief caused to and by Belfort’s wives (Cristin Milioti and Margot Robbie). But the real drama comes from his relationships with his closest confidants and fellow swindlers: Jonah Hill, Jon Bernthal and P.J. Byrne. Watching their drug-fuelled ramblings as the actors bounce improvised shtick off one another is when Wolf is at its best – the film is with little doubt the most laugh-out-loud hilarious film Scorsese has made.

But it’s not the best film Scorsese has made. Perhaps it’s his advancing years, or perhaps the grey walls and lined blinds of the stockbrokers office failed to inspire like the bright lights of Casino, but Wolf does not have the visual punch we come to associate with Scorsese’s greatest work. Brokeback Mountain cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto does great work keeping the film looking slick, but it’s still lacking something. When Prieto’s camera sails across the office floor as if on a jet-propelled string, it captures just the right sensation and takes in the faces of the key players spread throughout the room, but it feels like a basic tool in a way the steadicam shot through the nightclub in Goodfellas felt like an instrument of the gods.

High society: Margot Robbie and Leo DiCaprio

High society: Margot Robbie and Leo DiCaprio

Wolf is the first time Scorsese’s direction has ever been overshadowed by cast and script. That’s not to say it’s poorly directed; any filmmaker should be proud to have a film of this calibre under their belts. But it’s still a noticeable shift. But then, what a cast! What a screenplay!

DiCaprio has never truly been better than he is here, finding a balance of humour, pathos, ultra-confidence and shysterism that he struggled to locate in the likes of Howard Hughes or Jay Gatsby. He seizes the film with all the relish he can muster and never lets go. When he’s selling, you’re buying. When he’s raging, you feel his anger. When he overdoses on Quaaludes and loses all motor-control of his body, you witness one of the finest slapstick performances since the movies learned to talk. But the success of the film is in how DiCaprio refuses to chew the film up, leaving more than enough for his co-stars (and indeed Winter has written the supporting roles so well that they have a fighting chance of holding screentime with a character as dominating as Belfort).

Jonah Hill startles as Belfort’s No.2, Donnie, a sexually confused, financially overwhelmed, drug-addled teddy bear. Rob Reiner plays Belfort’s dad, ‘Mad’ Max, brought into the company as a voice of reason and to police the rampant excesses of staff (during office hours). Jean Dujardin plays a Swiss banker so corrupt and smarmy he is briefly able to take over Belfort’s narration, leading to a telepathic battle of wordplay between the pair. Matthew McConaughey radiates glorious immorality in an early cameo. Kyle Chandler, the come-back-prince of 2012, has a one-on-one with DiCaprio that proves to be perhaps the film’s most riveting scene – the characters are so superbly drawn and performances so balanced that a TV actor like Chandler can spar with a superstar like DiCaprio and have everyone look at their best.

Trade secrets: Matthew McConaughey passes on some much-needed advice

Trade secrets: Matthew McConaughey passes on some much-needed advice

Winter, adapting from Belfort’s memoirs (with apparently very little indulgence), is the real star here. It’s his words that suck you in, his callbacks through dialogue and set-ups that keep the film rewarding across its three-hour run-time. Nasty turns of phrase such as cold-callers dubbing themselves “telephone terrorists” make this world seem as sordid and hateful as it is hilarious and tantalising.

Alleged rushing in the editing room does reveal itself with traces of odd cuts here or there, while the film struggles at times to make it clear exactly how much time has passed between scenes. The music, some of it poorly chosen, does little to help this. There’s indulgence on display when a television screen showing an ’80s TV series reveals an early role for actor Steve Buscemi – the camera insists on lingering until you’ve got the joke. He’s worked with these guys, doncha know?

But you can forgive it these trespasses; you can almost forgive Jordan Belfort by the end of it all. But can you forgive yourself for getting so sucked up and entertained by his world? That’s the question being posed here, and Scorsese, fuelled by the energy of a tremendous script and enviable cast on top form, once more leaves us pondering if we could do all these terrible just so we wouldn’t have to go through this world as a regular schmuck.

4/5

(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)

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