A rare excuse to make it look like my blog is active, it’s the 87th Academy Awards (liveblog)

Don't think I don't see you hiding inside that A, Oscar. You gotta come out, you've got a show to do!

Don’t think I don’t see you hiding inside that A, Oscar. You gotta come out, you’ve got a show to do!

Another year, another lengthy Oscar show. I’m your host for the Neil Patrick Harris Show. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, I promise I’ll try not to complain about films I didn’t like too much.

[All times are Pacific Time. Because I’m anal like that]

4:11pm – Just tuned in and Rosamund Pike’s dress has made me need to lie down.

4:18pm – Costumes montage! Better during the Red Carpet Show than during the Oscars themselves…

4:19pm – The hosts are discussing #askhermore. Which is the only thing other than dresses they’ll be discussing tonight.

4:24pm – Felicity Jones is wearing half an excellent dress. She’s also wearing half a shark.

4:27pm – Who’s the blonde Red Carpet host on ABC wearing the violently clashing pink dress? You had ONE JOB!!!

4:33pm – Julianne Moore is celebrating her guaranteed win by wearing a dress that resembles a veritable oyster holocaust of pearls.

4:35pm – This 50 Shades of Grey banter with mum and daughter Melanie and Dakota is like my dad explaining proper condom use to me awkward.

4:42pm – Chris Pratt and Anna Faris are here to make everyone else seem unlikable. Deal with it.

4:43pm – Benedict Cumberbatch is dressed as Sean Connery as James Bond. Classy fuck.

4:45pm – Holy shit Lupita Nyong’o is LITERALLY wearing the oyster holocaust dress! I spoke was too soon.

4:47pm – Team Oscar 2015. Nope.

4:50pm – ABC are now just stealing celebrity Instagram accounts for content now. I guess that stops them from having to #askhermore

4:50pm – This Aveeno ad is the only appearance Jennifer Aniston will make at the Oscars tonight.

4:55pm – J-Lo’s doing that thing where we can see so much cleavage it’s barely even cleavage any more. It’s just torso.

4:58pm – In tonight’s episode of Oscars, the role of Sex Goddess will be played by Scarlett Johansson.

5:07pm – Ethan Hawke looks younger than when Boyhood started. Naomi Watts looks like the world’s most incredibly beautiful garden wall.

5:20pm – Lady Gaga is doing The Sound of Music tribute. I assume she’s dressing up as sexy Rolf.

5:24pm – Only 6 minutes until the show and Chris Evans has already been mildly humiliated.

5:30pm – OK here we go there’s a show on or something!

5:31pm – Neil Patrick Harris just went right for it with an #OscarsSoWhite gag!

5:34pm – A few too many recent movies in NPH’s Moving Pictures song, but man it’s so good. And look, here’s Anna Kendrick and Jack Black!

5:37pm – Can we please bring back “moving pictures” as the term for films? Please?

5:39pm – Neil Patrick Harris nails it, the Oscars are a good time to remind ourselves we all love the movies.

5:40pm – Best Supporting Actor is up first. Gotta be a straight-up J.K. Simmons win.

5:43pm – And here’s J.K. Simmons! A huge ovation from the get-go! A witty and heartfelt speech. Great start to the night.

5:45pm – Neil Patrick Harris is doing an over-elaborate bit about his Oscar predictions and I’m loving it all.

5:48pm – Why is Liam Neeson introducing Grand Budapest Hotel. AND American Sniper?

5:50pm – Dakota Johnson deers-in-headlights her introduction of Adam Levine singing a song from Begin Again.

5:56pm – Neil Patrick Harris makes a gag on the huge swag bags at Oscars, just a week after John Oliver revealed how excessive they are.

5:58pm – Grand Budapest Hotel takes Best Costume, well deserved, even I will say.

6:00pm – Makeup time. Surely Guardians of the Galaxy.

6:02pm – Grand Budapest Hotel wins! I’ll allow it for sure (as much as I dislike that movie).

6:04pm – Channing Tatum looks like an Oscar with a goatee.

6:10pm – Best Foreign Language time. I think Polish should win. I mean Ida.

6:11pm – “This is the fourth Oscar and 10th nomination for POLAND.” Glad to see the entirety of Poland is a filmmaker now.

6:12pm – He just broke the orchestra!

6:14pm – Birdman, Boyhood and Theory of Everything introduced together. One of those films does not have a chance of winning.

6:16pm – Neil Patrick Harris is flirting with the seat-fillers. Kinda cute.

6:18pm – The Lego Choir begins a chorus of Everything Is Awesome. Nice!

6:19pm – Was that Will Arnett in a Batman suit singing DARKNESS?!?

6:20pm – That was the greatest thing I have ever seen.

6:25pm – Here are the shorts! I have no contributions to make! Everyone’s a winner!

6:26pm – Best Live Action Short is The Phone Call! I’m told it had famous people in it! Hooray!

6:30pm – Best Doc Short goes to Crisis Hotline. Important theme for sure. But really I think the producers are winning for those dresses!

6:32pm – Lifetime achievement award for Ohio Miyazaki, this year’s Japanese Adele Dazeem.

6:33pm – Miyazaki, Carrière, Belafonte and O’Hara. Those are some solid champions of cinema.

6:35pm – David Oyelowo vindicated for not having a nomination with a good gag and the world’s awesomest tux.

6:36pm – Country music! Country music is a thing! It’s at the Oscars! So it must be a thing!

6:37pm – This is nice, unless the stage falls down I don’t need to tweet anything for the next 4 minutes.

6:43pm – Elongated Birdman sketch in front of 1 billion viewers is pretty damn special.

6:44pm – Miles Teller and Margot Robbie are attractive people who are attractive and I hope they have beautiful babies together.

6:45pm – Sound Mixing. Who knows where this will go? Who did I even guess it’d go to?

6:47pm – Whiplash wins! Unexpected but wonderful.

6:49pm – OK now Sound Editing. Um… Birdman, right?

6:49pm – American Sniper draws blood. This is mixing the night up a good deal.

6:51pm – Neil Patrick Harris is the Duke in Burgundy.

6:52pm – Jared Leto looking like a homeless man in a tux is here to present Best Supporting Actress.

6:54pm – Patricia Arquette has it and it’s most deserved! First win for Boyhood. More to come…

6:56pm – Patricia Arquette shoots out a rapid-fire thanks to everyone including I hope me.

6:56pm – Plus bonus income equality declaration!

7:01pm – I hear good things about Beyond the Lights, but I remain very unsold on this song by Rita Ora.

7:03pm – Chloe Grace Moretz wheeled out an Andy Samberg mannequin to present Best Special Effects.

7:05pm – Best Special Effects goes to Interstellar. Hardly undeserved, though I was hoping for Guardians.

7:06pm – I am finally seeing Anna Kendrick’s dress and it’s magical.

7:07pm – Best Animated Short goes to… Feast! It’s so cute and I love it I want a puppy now. Maybe I should call my mum and ask for one.

7:10pm – Best Animated Feature is being presented by Zoe Saldana and The F’ing Rock! So much beauty and charisma.

7:10pm – I’m gonna cry and rage when How to Train Your Dragon 2 wins.

7:11pm – Big Hero 6 wins! Disappointed for Kaguya. But so happy HTTYD2 bit it hard.

7:19pm – The President of the Academy is asking us to be excellent to each other.

7:20pm – So many Chrises at this year’s Oscars. I’d argue… too many?

7:21pm – Production Design. Even I feel Grand Budapest Hotel should walk away with this one…

7:23pm – Grand Budapest Hotel gets it. Some nice short speeches there.

7:24pm – Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain ARE Cinemtography.

7:26pm – Emmanuel Lubezki wins for a second year running! The work on Birdman was incredible, very rebellious cinema. Bravo!

7:31pm – Meryl Streep is here to make us feel very sad…

7:36pm – Can’t decide if I like this water colour style of presenting the in memoriam. But man it’s all so moving… Bob Hoskins. Sigh…

7:43pm – Cumberbatch and Watts sounds like a political talk show. Awards for Editing now.

7.44pm – Whiplash takes Editing over Boyhood! Very deserved, but a real blow to Boyhood’s chances tonight…

7.48pm – Terrence Howard is announcing Whiplash and Selma. That’s the last of our big contenders this year. Home straight ahead.

7.50pm – Best Documentary. Citizenfour kinda needs to win this.

7:52pm – Citizenfour wins! So deserved, a remarkable work of journalism and presenting of complex information.

7:53pm – Dammit, Neil Patrick Harris just made my “Edward Snowden can’t be here tonight” joke as I was typing it!

7:58pm – OK, here’s Glory. It’s kind of a quality tune.

7:59pm – A huge recreation of the bridge scene from Selma for this performance. Pretty damn impressive staging.

8:01pm – What happens when they reach Common? Will they push him off the stage?!

8:03pm – Oprah drying David Oyelowo’s tears away after Glory is undoubtedly the sweetest moment of the night.

8:05pm – Idina Menzel and John Travolta just made up on stage! It was so fun until he started touching her face…

8:06pm – After a few great performances, Best Song goes to John Legend and Common for Glory! Properly deserved. Everything is still awesome

8:09pm – The audience had a moment of “do we clap?” when Common mentioned more black men being in prison now than enslaved in 1850. Eep.

8:13pm – I don’t want Scarlett Johansson to stop talking. Don’t show me The Sound of Music!

8:15pm – Is the colour timing all off on these Sound of Music clips?

8:16pm – Lady Gaga is doing a decent Julie Andrews here. But still, this is pretty bland staging so far…

8:18pm – No not Edelweiss, it’s a lovely song! But we’ve been here three hours!

8:20pm – Julie Andrews comes out to anoint Lady Gaga as the new Julie Andrews. That’s nice. For a while we have two now.

8:22pm – Julie Andrews morphs Sound of Music banter into a Best Score chat.

8:24pm – Alexandre Desplat wins Best Score, but for Grand Budapest Hotel rather than Imitation Game. I’d have given it for the other.

8:24pm – With all these wins, is Grand Budapest Hotel in the running for Best Picture again?

8:30pm – Hey it’s Norbitt star Eddie Murphy!

8:30pm – Eddie Murphy did not sound committed to that spiel at all.

8:32pm – Birdman wins Best Original Screenplay, which is pretty deserved (if we forget the final scene).

8:34pm – Oprah presents Best Adapted Screenplay. Could go anywhere…

8:35pm – Imitation Game wins… Sometimes it’s the film you didn’t imagine could be the film that wins the thing you didn’t imagine.

8:37pm – “Stay weird” says Graham Moore, writer of The Imitation Game. He said lots of other stuff but that’s basically it.

8:42pm – Ben Affleck to announce Best Director. This is a big decider…

8:43pm – Alejandro González Iñárritu wins Best Director! Biggest surprise of the night so far!

8:44pm – Iñárritu’s underwear smells like balls right now.

8:46pm – That makes it look like Birdman for Best Picture. Unless we get a third director/picture split in a row.

8:48pm – Cate Blanchett looks like a druid. I mean that in a good way!

8:51pm – And now Best Actor goes to… Eddie Redmayne! Truly deserved. Shame for Keaton, but a genuinely fair trade-off.

8:53pm – Redmayne holds his tears back so awkwardly it is truly endearing in a way that only happens at the Oscars every few years.

8:54pm – Hey look Matthew McConaughey has Bradley Cooper’s beard from American Sniper!

8:55pm – Hey if Julianne Moore doesn’t win does the earth collapse in on itself?

8:57pm – Julianne Moore wins Best Actress for Still Alice. I hear good things, but I daresay I know no one who’s seen it.

9:00pm – The audience reaction shots during Julianne Moore’s speech were very strange indeed. Her husband taking a photo was the oddest.

9:02pm – Neil Patrick Harris’s briefcase gag has surprisingly played off. A little bit of magic goes a long way.

9:03pm – Sean Penn is mumbling something. Is the show over yet?

9:05pm – Birdman takes Best Picture. I’m happy enough with it, but coulda done without that green card crack by Penn beforehand.

9:09pm – Well that’s it for this year. Some big surprises, overall an entertaining show. Strong final note for the ‘immigrant nation” from Iñárritu.

And we’re done folks, thanks for sticking with me!

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Oscarhood – Predictions for the 87th Academy Awards

I like to imagine an alternate universe where giant gold men award each other Neil Patrick Harrises for their contributions to the cinematic arts

With your host, Dougie Stinson.

If I’m to understand this correctly, California is the only American state right now not crippled by unnaturally cold February weather. And it’s a good thing too, or this weekend’s Oscars would feature 90 very unpleasant minutes on the white carpet, and those of us on the East Coast wouldn’t have good excuses to hide inside from the snow on a Sunday night.

So yes, it’s Academy Awards time again, that one magical time of the year where everyone cares as much about movies as I do. The theme for this year’s show is “Neil Patrick Harris finally gets to host the Oscars”, so there’s a lot of pressure on the Starship Troopers star to make sure MC stands for ‘most charming’.

Twelve months on from 12 Years a Slave’s deserved win, and 12 years are again a major contender – this time the 12 years of Mason Evans’s life in Boyhood. Richard Linklater’s film is surprisingly lo-fi for a Best Picture contender, but the scope of its production makes it that one-of-a-kind film the Academy occasionally like to acknowledge. But it’s not quite a given yet, with the likes of Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel and the struggling British scientist twins Hawking and Turing all viable contenders. There’s been a notable best picture/director split the last two years, also, and although Interstellar has been denied the role of this year’s Gravity, there’s still a good chance of the top film of the night won’t walk away with all the gold.

The big event no one is talking about is The Sound of Music 50th anniversary something-or-other we’re all going to be subjected to because AMPAS have officially run out of ideas for how to throw a party. The only way it’s going to be truly entertaining is if they just play this clip on a loop for five minutes.

 

Anyways, where was I?

 

Best Picture

Free Mason: Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood

Free Mason: Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood

Only eight nominees this time around? What does that say about the movies in 2014? And what was the point of the whole Dark Knight-inspired revival of up to 10 nominees if Interstellar was gonna get shut out? And where the hell is Nightcrawler on this list? Boyhood has all the prestige in its pocket, but it also comes with plenty of fatigue given its summer release and the endless parade of praise since its Sundance debut more than a year ago. It’s a deserving winner though, and it’s hard to pick out a true opponent. Birdman is just that bit too out there to take the prize, and Grand Budapest Hotel suffers from both fatigue and over-whimsy. The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything would almost be shoe-ins in their own years (although the latter is a far more affecting film than the rather flaccid Turing tale), but I suspect they cancel one another out. Whiplash is terrific, but its real-world appeal is utterly overshadowed by Boyhood’s. American Sniper has courted so much ire and controversy it’s hard to see it taking the top prize, but then I remain astonished it was nominated in the first place – it has to be the weakest BP nominee since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Selma follows a Black History winner last year, and despite some superbly staged scenes just cannot live up to 12 Years; it’s a worthy nominee, but not a deserving a winner.

Should win: Boyhood or Whiplash

Will win: Boyhood

 

Best Director

Period Piece: Ellar Coltrane and director Richard Linklater check out some very dated hardware

Period Piece: Ellar Coltrane and director Richard Linklater check out some very dated hardware

Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher) and Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) are the placeholders here, while a win for Wes Anderson would be more a career achievement prize than a win for GBH. Really it’s between Alejandro González Iñárritu and Linklater. Iñárritu has energy behind him after Alfonso Cuarón’s win last year, ut really it’s hard to imagine Linklater not taking this home for committing twelve years to such an ambitious and personal project.

Should win: Richard Linklater or Bennett Miller

Will win: Richard Linklater

 

Best Actor

A Short History of Hawking: Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything

A Short History of Hawking: Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything

This one will go down to the very last vote. Michael Keaton has made an astonishing career comeback with Birdman, and it’s hard to know if he has another performance of this quality in him. But the astonishing physicality of Eddie Redmayne’s take on Stephen Hawking, which pushed through impression into a remarkably affecting conjuring of the scientist, is the sort of prestige performance the Academy adores. Steve Carell, Benedict Cumberbatch and Bradley Cooper can all sit this one out.

Should win: Michael Keaton or Eddie Redmayne

Will win: Eddie Redmayne

 

Best Actress

Forget-Me-Not: The internet assures me this is a picture of Julianne Moore in Still Alice

Forget-Me-Not: The internet assures me this is a picture of Julianne Moore in Still Alice

Julianne Moore seems anointed for Still Alice, although the film escaped me this awards season. Of the three performances I did catch, of Marion Cotillard, Rosamund Pike and Felicity Jones, all were stellar, although Jones did not completely carry her movie as the other two did.

Should win: Marion Cotillard or Rosamund Pike (but probably Julianne Moore?)

Will win: Julianne Moore

 

Best Supporting Actor

Srsly, no jk: Simmons offers a little encouragement to Miles Teller

Srsly, no jk: Simmons offers a little encouragement to Miles Teller

Robert Duvall gets his pat on the back for still being with us and wonderful. Ethan Hawke wins the award for most eternally youthful, so doesn’t need an Oscar. Ed Norton gave one of the finest (and most entertaining) performances of his career in Birdman, while Mark Ruffalo was solid throughout Foxcatcher. But yeah, why am I still writing here? J.K. Simmons dominated Whiplash. This is all his.

Should win: J.K. Simmons

Will win: J.K. Simmons

 

Best Supporting Actress

The single parent trap: Patricia Arquette with Lorelei Linklater and Ellar Coltraine

The single parent trap: Patricia Arquette with Lorelei Linklater and Ellar Coltraine

Emma Stone would be a deserving winner for Birdman, but something tells me (and I think everyone else) that she has a lot more performances of this quality in her. Patricia Arquette, on the other hand, deserves this on the power of her final scene in Boyhood alone, in which she summons millennia of forgotten, neglected womanhood and channels it into a wail lightly tinged with ironic wit.

Should win: Patricia Arquette

Will win: Patricia Arquette

 

Best Original Screenplay

This is a tight one too. It would seem unfair for Linklater to take this, given the script was worked so much on the fly. Anderson has lost momentum too, and assumedly his script says “[funny cameo]” one too many times for it to be taken too seriously. Dan Gilroy’s screenplay for Nightcrawler is one of the most brilliantly dark works to come out of Hollywood in years, but it’s so scathing of the entertainment business it’s hard to imagine it getting a bite. The Birdman gang, whose praise for real artists is found on every page, will take this.

Should win: Dan Gilroy

Will win: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Whiplash would be a very deserving winner here, as would Paul Thomas Anderson, whose Inherent Vice, however incoherent at times, is loaded with punchy scenes and dialogue. This could be where American Sniper takes it, but somehow I suspect Graham Moore’s (lacklustre) screenplay for The Imitation Game will win for simplifying so much complicated science in the manner of a tour guide at Bletchley Park.

Should win: Damien Chazelle

Will win: Graham Moore

 

Best Animated Feature

Bewilderbeasting: A satirical cartoon representing DreamWorks pressuring the Academy to vote for their shitty sequel

Bewilderbeasting: A satirical cartoon depicting DreamWorks pressuring the Academy to vote for their shitty sequel

Why even bother? The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, assumedly Isao Takahata’s swansong, was probably the finest film of 2014. It’s hard to believe any of the Academy’s members even watched it. Song of the Sea was equally as enchanting if not quite as deep or visually mesmerising. But that’s all irrelevant. DreamWorks have shovelled out enough money to claim it for the bog-standard How to Train Your Dragon 2 (a film whose predecessor was superior to Oscar-winner Toy Story 3, back in the day). Likely to be the biggest farce of the night.

Should win: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Will win: How to Train Your Dragon 2

 

Best Animated Short

I waaaaaaaan' it! Winston, the hero of Disney's Feast

I waaaaaaaan’ it! Winston, the hero of Disney’s Feast

I’ve only seen Feast so I’m guessing Feast because I want a puppy and now I’m hungry.

Should win: Feast

Will win: Feast

 

Best Foreign Language Film

Ida-ntity crisis:  Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza take a break on their journey

Ida-ntity crisis: Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza take a break on their journey

Embarrassingly I have only seen Ida of this batch, but it is magnificent. I have yet to read a review of Leviathan that wasn’t overflowing with praise, but really this can only go to Ida, if only for proving that the Holocaust can still be mined for the most exceptional drama.

Should win: Ida

Will win: Ida

 

Best Documentary Feature

Metadata is betta'data: Edward Snowden breaks down some complex coding for Glenn Greenwald

Metadata is betta’data: Edward Snowden breaks down some complex coding for Glenn Greenwald 

Two warzone films (Last Days in Vietnam and Virunga). Two photographer films (Finding Vivian Maier and The Salt of the Earth). And then there’s the astonishing and frighteningly potent Citizenfour. Maier is the only real competition, but as incredible as its subject is the film itself is very blandly thrown together. Citizenfour on the other hand grips like a thriller and chills like a horror. We have to trust the Academy on this one.

Should win: Citizenfour

Will win: Citizenfour

 

Best Documentary Short

I promise one of these years I’ll see one of these, OK?

 

Best Live Action Short

Ugh now you’re just trying to make me feel bad.

 

Best Original Score

What is the sound of science? The big competitors here are Interstellar (Hans Zimmer), The Imitation Game (Alexandre Desplat), and The Theory of Everything (Jóhann Jóhannsson). Criminally locked-out of the major categories, Mr. Turner appears here for Gary Yershon’s score, but like Desplat’s Grand Budapest Hotel score both were less memorable in the face of such exquisite visuals.

Should win: Hans Zimmer or Jóhann Jóhannsson

Will win: Jóhann Jóhannsson

 

Best Original Song

Hey did you notice how I managed not to piss and moan about The Lego Movie getting cut out of Best Animated Feature? Well now I’m gonna! Because that was bullshit. But just because it was cut out does not mean it should be patronised with a bonus Oscar elsewhere. ‘Everything Is Awesome’ is amazing fun, but musically and thematically John Legend and Common’s ‘Glory’, from the also largely overlooked Selma, is probably the more deserving winner.

Should win: ‘Glory’

Will win: ‘Everything Is Awesome’

 

Best Sound Editing

Hey look the third Hobbit movie got a nomination for something! But no seriously fuck that movie. Birdman gets this.

Should win: Birdman

Will win: Birmdan

 

Best Sound Mixing

Oh right! The other sound one! This will be tight between Birdman and Whiplash, but I suspect the former has it as it goes for a minor technical sweep.

Should win: Birdman or Whiplash

Will win: Birdman

 

Best Production Design

Box art: Tony Revolori and Saoirse Ronan in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Box art: Tony Revolori and Saoirse Ronan in The Grand Budapest Hotel

I’m sure I’ve made it very clear I am no fan of Wes Anderson’s latest, but even I think it would be criminal to let The Grand Budapest Hotel be beaten here, unless it was by the sensational Mr. Turner. But no, give it to Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock, seriously.

Should win: The Grand Budapest Hotel or Mr. Turner

Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

 

Best Cinematography

Flight the power: Michael Keaton takes to the skies in Birdman

Flight the power: Michael Keaton takes to the skies in Birdman

Emmanuel Lubezki’s work on Birdman was that film’s greatest draw, but with a win for Gravity last year and up against the likes of Grand Budapest, Ida, and Mr. Turner it’s hard to just hand it to straight to him. But the Academy will.

Should win: Emmanuel Lubezki, Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski (Ida), or Dick Pope (Mr. Turner)

Will win: Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman)

 

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Skin-jobs: Dave Bautista and Zoe Saldana show off some impressive full-body makeup

Skin-jobs: Dave Bautista and Zoe Saldana show off some impressive full-body makeup

Steve Carell’s nose takes on Dave Bautista’s full-body tattoos. You just never know which way the Academy will go. I suspect the tremendous goodwill towards Guardians of the Galaxy will see it through.

Should win: Guardians of the Galaxy

Will win: Guardians of the Galaxy

 

Best Costume Design

Purple pros: Ralph Fiennes comforts Tilda Swinton in the lift of the Grand Budapest Hotel

Purple pros: Ralph Fiennes comforts Tilda Swinton in the lift of the Grand Budapest Hotel

This is the sort of place outsiders like Mr. Turner or Into the Woods could sneak one through. Even Maleficent got a nod here. If we take it the fairytales cancel one another out, that throws the period dramas up against one another. Inherent Vice could take it for cool, but I’d put my money on another win for the look of Grand Budapest Hotel

Should win: Inherent Vice

Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

 

Best Film Editing

There’s only two choices here: Whiplash for rhythm, or Boyhood for scope. If Boyhood doesn’t take this early, the rest of the night could go very differently to what’s expected, and you may then dismiss the entirety of this article.

Should win: Whiplash

Will win: Boyhood

 

Best Visual Effects

Spirit in the sky: Star-Lord's ship the Milano flies over the planet Xandar

Spirit in the sky: Star-Lord’s ship the Milano flies over the planet Xandar

This is like making me choose between my children. I cannot remember the last time I would be delighted for any of the nominees to win. Captain America: The Winter Solider – fantastic. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – fantastic. Guardians of the Galaxy – fantastic. Interstellar – fantastic. X-Men: Days of Future Past – fantastic. Not only are they great effects films, but they’re also probably the five best blockbusters of last year, with films like Transformers 4 and The Hobbit 3 getting deservedly cut. I dunno, I just want to congratulate the winner and move on.

Should win: Guardians of the Galaxy or Interstellar

Will win: Guardians of the Galaxy

 

And that’s all there is. I wish I could predict which winners will be booed or orchestra’d off the stage, but that’s a very different kind of Oscar prediction. We’ll know around this time tomorrow night anyways… See you back here then!

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2014 in review – It wasn’t the best of times, it wasn’t the worst of times

(clockwise from top left) Ida, Nightcrawler, Under the Skin, Calvary

Another year goes by, more films come out than I get to see, and a promise to my young self to one day watch every film there is becomes ever-more a betrayal. The year 2014 was a busy one for me, still entrenched in the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation programme at NYU; moving images took a back seat in all but theory.

Towards the end of the year there were many saying that 2014 had been a disappointing 12 months in film. It was hard not to see some small truth in this; I certainly saw very few films that deserved consideration of being called masterpieces, and reports from others suggested I had not missed many either. But I saw no lack of great films in 2014. Whittling down a top 20 remained a challenge, with several films I feel hugely positive about not making the cut. Despite what some may think, there is no lack of greatness out there, even amongst the most mainstream of Hollywood popcorn fare.

Indeed, if anything, 2014 was a year of noble failures and flawed triumphs. Hollywood gave us works like Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Divergent, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Edge of Tomorrow, Lucy, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 – solid action movies with ambitious themes, some better pulled off than others, but evidence that the business of show and global audiences still want their brain candy to come with a little brain.

And then there were the dramas. 2014 opened with everyone finally catching Spike Jonze’s Her (a film that would’ve done quite splendidly on my last year’s ranking had I caught it in the last weeks of December but which I can’t in all anal conscience include this year), and the year didn’t quite live up to this until the post-summer pre-Oscar season. Gone Girl gripped for two hours, then choked its audience with a bewilderingly unsubtle final 20 minutes. Wetlands provoked more than any film in recent memory with its study of female sexuality, but came to be more a tantrum of provocation than a truly meaningful inspection. And Maps to the Stars took one of the finest shotgun blasts to the myth of celebrity that has ever been unleashed, before inevitably turning that weapon on itself. Elsewhere, Love Is Strange was that rare film that handled its subject matter with such maturity and confidence that it seems laughable to think that any of the issues it addresses were taboo in the last 100 years.

Then there were the comedies. While The Lego Movie provided more laughs than any film in years, movies like Neighbors (Bad Neighbours in countries with good soaps) and The Trip to Italy showed there’s still plenty of material out there to mine for clever laughs. The Grand Budapest Hotel was a ferocious misfire, gorgeous to behold but utterly empty of heart, bound to endlessly repeat the same two gags of “famous people appearing” and “famous people swearing”. 22 Jump Street failed to live up to its predecessor; critiquing the Hollywood formula for sequels by repeating every one of their failings is cute at first but rapidly succumbs to its own poison. At the very least its closing credits will go down in history as some of the most enjoyable and inspired in forever.

Sequels were a mixed bag. Captain America and Planet of the Apes saw marked improvements, while the finest X-Men movie in more than a decade may have saved that stagnant franchise. But The Amazing Spider-Man 2 proved that franchise alone cannot guarantee success, with a bloated and thematically bipolar production almost crucifying Sony’s hopes to move forward with more. Transformers: Age of Extinction was not the worst film in the franchise, but that’s about all that can be said for it, while How to Train Your Dragon 2, despite the expected gloss of its design, managed to extinguish much of the fire of the original surprise triumph. The Raid 2 was a misery of convoluted and derivative over-plotting that redeemed itself with some of the finest action spectacle ever recorded.

Back home, Irish cinema had a tremendous little year. Calvary, while hugely divisive with homegrown audiences, was viewed as a spectacular work elsewhere. Frank, if inconsistent, proved that Lenny Abrahamson could branch out of dark drama, and raised his profile as the saviour of Irish cinema (while also proving Michael Fassbender is so beloved he doesn’t even need to be visible on screen to astonish as an actor). Up North, ’71 took complex and controversial historical events and mutated them into a sophisticated thriller without feeling exploitative.

If 2013 was the year Netflix began to conquer television, 2014 was the year streaming releases became an enormous part of movie-viewing culture. Nymphomaniac saw online distribution just as it hit cinemas, while the terrific thriller Blue Ruin never saw a real cinema release. Netflix produced The Battered Bastards of Baseball, one of the year’s finest docs, while a Christmas tragedy (and World War III?) was avoided with the iTunes drop of The Interview after hacker threats saw it pulled from cinemas.

And then there’s TV. Basically True Detective happened, and then nothing else lived up to it all year.

My own year of film, as I’ve already suggested, has been very wrapped up with my studies, and will continue to be so for the first half of 2015. I was privileged to have the chance to spend the summer working at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland cataloguing and repairing a large collection of nitrate film, which will likely go down as one of the most important tasks I ever achieve in the film world. Discussing and recommending movies feels that little less important after you’ve saved a film from literally eating itself into a puddle of toxic goo.

As for the classics, well I continued to work away at those. Two films this year instantly ranked themselves for me as amongst the finest I’ve ever seen or will see: The Devils and The Holy Mountain. Other essentials included World on a Wire, Queen Christina, Spider Baby, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Z, A Star Is Born (1937), El Topo, Thief, Design for Living, The Sacrifice, The Tin Drum, Phantom of the Paradise, Tampopo, Sitting Target, Fury (1936), Woman in the Dunes, Possession, Taxidermia, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, Eyes Without a Face, Toute la Mémoire du Monde, Steamboat Bill Jr., Black Sabbath, A Page of Madness, Umberto D, and Tokyo Godfathers. There were many more, of course, but here is not the place to recommend them. And there were even more films too awful to ever recommend, but they’ll remain unmentioned.

Every year I set myself a film goal, and for 2014 it was exceptional. Having finally watched the second Godzilla film, Godzilla Raids Again, in December of 2013, I set out to finish the entire Toho kaiju catalogue (a further 26 Gojira films and more than a dozen connected features) by the end of this past year. It took a lot out of me, but I achieved it. There’ll be a full report soon, so stay tuned. It’s going to be silly.

And now we prep ourselves for my top 20 of 2014. As always let’s clarify what I missed. Films which evaded me that I suspect may have had places in this list include Two Days, One Night, Selma, Locke, Mommy, Citizenfour, Winter Sleep, and Force Majeure. I will catch them in their own time. Close contenders for the top 20 include Through a Lens Darkly, Captain America 2, La Sapienza, Tom at the Farm, Blue Ruin, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, The Congress, and, a late removal, Edge of Tomorrow. As I said above, it was a year full of great movies, even if all too few of them were spectacular.

20. The Babadook

The feature debut of Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent is one of those horror films that gives you the sensation of having seen it all before, while simultaneously feeding you with the unnerving sensation that that isn’t as reassuring as it could be. A superbly nightmarish take on the boogeyman idea that goes all-in on the “what if it’s just in my head” trope, The Babadook builds to several terrific frights. The all-grey aesthetic becomes wearisome before the end, but the film’s two terrific leads, Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, hold attention to the very last scene.

19. Jodorowsky’s Dune

The greatest film never made is an easy tag to throw around, with so many notorious cases of the ‘development hell’ concept out there. But Alejandro Jodorowsky’s abandoned take on Frank Herbert’s Dune is a stronger contender than most. This documentary assembles the essence of the cancelled ’70s psychedelic sci-fi epic through use of talking head interviews and an avalanche of spectacular concept art illustrations that once upon a time nearly saw this film into production. It is a nostalgic and remorseful study of a different time in Hollywood, while also a declaration of the need for experimentation and risk-taking in epic cinema and adaptation.

18. Inherent Vice

Critiquing Paul Thomas Anderson’s stoner detective movie without referencing the other films it invokes memory of is difficult, and that seems to highlight the film’s undeniable imperfections. But Anderson has made a gorgeous film, meticulously detailed and with a suitable faded ’70s look to the image. Bloated with too many oddball characters and a meandering mystery that never quite catches the imagination, it still finds a terrific lead performance in Joaquin Phoenix, and in Josh Brolin’s Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen one of the most audacious eccentrics in American cinema.

17. Interstellar

Contemporary science fiction has gone from ignoring big issues to addressing issues of colossal importance in frankly stupid ways. Just look at Prometheus’ “intriguing” explanations for the origins of life on Earth and our relationship with god. No, scratch that, please don’t. For all its aspirations Interstellar is not a smart movie, but it is a tasteful one, and a production unrivalled in envisioning outer space since 2001. Despite all its faults (abandoned subplots, awkward romance, poorly paced action, a self-contradicting emphasis on the power of love over science, and a second act twist that reeks of rewrites), there is no denying Christopher Nolan is a showman par excellence. The film’s imagery, accompanied by a divine score by Hans Zimmer, assaults the senses throughout, and Matthew McConaughey commits wholeheartedly to a role that supports the whole production.

16. The Lunchbox

Just when you think you’ve seen every high concept romance, this little gem emerges. Utilising Mumbai’s famed dabbawalas, an intricate and vast system of lunch delivery men, Ritesh Batra’s film finds a lonely widower accidentally receiving the lunchbox of a man whose unfulfilled wife is trying to reignite his passion through cooking. The wrong passion is ignited, and a complex love affair begins without the pair in question meeting. Effortlessly charming and rhythmically enrapturing, leads Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur achieve the impossible, to have extraordinary onscreen chemistry without sharing a scene together.

15. Guardians of the Galaxy

Much can be argued about the damage Marvel is doing by dominating mainstream action cinema (and encouraging rivals to try likewise), but when their output can be this furiously exciting there’s little room for complaint. Featuring a gaggle of lesser-known celestial superheroes, James Gunn took a postmodernist comedic slant to the story while also making room for genuine pathos. Challenging the progressively darkening aesthetic of comicbook movies with an effervescent purple, blue and yellow glow and an upbeat ’60s and ’70s pop soundtrack, Guardians showed that a blockbuster could refute seriousness without being dumb. Who knew?

14. Birdman

Speaking of superheroes, where did this one come from? A startling experiment by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman reimagines the fate of actor Michael Keaton after his glory days as Batman and conjures a fascinating tragic character, Riggan Thomson, typecast and devoid of credibility, attempting to reinvent himself on the Broadway stage, while simultaneously going insane from the pressures of failed ambition. The finest ensemble cast of the year and a thrilling jazz score help propel it through some overlong reflections, while cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s single take illusion is as mesmerising as it is unjustified by the content. The ending is an unsatisfying collision of the shocking and obvious, but the film is an intriguing treat throughout.

13. Foxcatcher

A hypnotic study of madness and obsession that slowly lures you in with its unsettling unpleasantness, Foxcatcher leaves you unable to look away from the disintegration of family and trust at its core. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo impress as real life Olympic wrestling champions and brothers, dazzled by a chance at wealth and immortality offered by psychologically damaged billionaire Steve Carell, in a career-redefining role. Shot with restraint and edited with beautiful subtlety, it is charged with a homoerotic intensity that builds to an impossible, exactly-as-it-happened conclusion. One scene of grotesque binge-eating stands out as the greatest horror moment of 2014.

12. The Wonders

One of the finest reflections on the isolation of farming communities from contemporary society, Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders took beekeeping as its subject. The family at the film’s centre, overburdened financially and by the sheer size of their clan, and patronised by an embarrassing reality TV show, represent a dying race of people, whose contributions are no longer respected by growing cities. Seen through the eyes of the eldest daughter, played longingly by Maria Alexandra Lungu, a cycle is revealed that cannot be reversed. Beautifully shot in the Italian countryside and full of witty asides, it is bolstered by fleeting sprinkles of magical realism.

11. Whiplash

More jazz drumming here, but this time it is central to the plot. Damien Chazelle’s tremendously rhythmic film features one of the year’s most intense relationships, a symbiotic S&M partnership between teacher and pupil. The idea that without punishment and cruelty genius can never be achieved is hardly new, but it has never been sold with such wit and ferocity as it is here. Miles Teller makes a convincing lead and impressive percussionist, while J.K. Simmons is simply thrilling as his demented and brilliant mentor. The green colour grading intrudes once too often, but otherwise is an extremely tidy film, hard to fault.

10. Mr. Turner

Attention to detail is all there is to this film. But isn’t that everything? Like the artist himself, whose paintings evoked such feeling by capturing the vastness of sea and landscapes in glorious detail, Mike Leigh’s film recreates the London of the first half of the 19th century down to the most inconsequential minutiae. But while the film reflects on art, class and late-blooming romance, it is Timothy Spall’s outstanding performance that holds the whole work aloft. Every tremor in his face and grunt from his mouth carries a trove of meaning and sadness, and Spall simply becomes another man, a great and tragically faulted man. If the film struggles with pacing and focus, Spall never stumbles for a moment, delivering the performance of his career and the performance of the year.

9. Nymphomaniac

This two-part study of female sexuality revels in the violent and grotesque; it’s almost a shame it’s so brilliant. Lars Von Trier’s latest is a series of vignettes taken from the life of Joe (Stacy Martin and later Charlotte Gainsbourg), which examines her spiral of self-discovery and sexual liberation with wit and pain. Certain sections work better than others, but the continuous raising of stakes, awe-inspiring visuals, and brazen abuse of pop music make for a delirious and provocative work.

8. Goodbye to Language

Cinema’s aging revolutionary, Jean-Luc Godard, delivered one of his most obscure and inspired works. Reflections on language and philosophy, the duality of relationships and existence, are framed in a series of stylistically contradictory shots; steady shots, concave angles, and handheld cinematography enlivened by simulated video errors. Godard’s decision to shoot in 3D is what makes this experiment the boldest work of 2014, and allows it to feature the year’s most astonishing shot – a stroke-inducing uncoupling of the stereoscopic cameras that bends the eyes and brain in ways cinemas has never done before.

7. The Lego Movie

If everything truly were awesome, how could we fully appreciate The Lego Movie? Phil Lord and Chris Miller began their deconstruction of the Hollywood machine in 2014 with this anarchic work of mainstream commercialism, managing to sell toys and major brands while also breaking down the very ideas that make them successful. The chaotic animation and riotous barrage of regularly sophisticated gags made it an audience favourite, but beyond that it was a complex discussion of artifactual purpose, creative intent, artistic inspiration, and obsessive anality. It is perhaps the smartest film aimed at young audiences since Toy Story, or even Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

 6. Boyhood

Much of the criticism that can be laid at the feet of Richard Linklater’s opus seems largely superfluous upon reflection of the effort that went into its making. Shot in spurts over 12 years, with music, technology and the rapidly aging protagonist underscoring the passage of time, Boyhood is hardly unprecedented in cinema, but not even Truffaut could craft the experience of growth and the triumphs and betrayals of life’s promises with this much confidence and style. Ellar Coltrane is strong as 6-to-18-year-old Mason, more awash in a sea of experience than an active dramatic character, while astonishing support is offered by Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and Lorelei Linklater. While it sometimes slips off course to focus on matters more of interest to Linklater Sr. than Mason, it remains an often overwhelmingly powerful study of what it is to be a young American, and what it is to become a man.

5. Under the Skin

So then what is it to be human? Jonathan Glazer cast hominid perfection Scarlett Johansson as an empty vessel, an alien purporting to be human to prey and consume. Using an astonishing and eerie array of editing techniques, cinematographic styles and complex sound design, Glazer at first stalks mankind with his alien subject, then has her seduced by its flawed complexity and finds herself the prey. Johanssen excels throughout, while the film pulls no punches in studying the darkness that dwells in the emotionally disconnected. Glasgow, stark and grey, stands in for the traditional invasion spots of New York or small town America. A chilling horror film and a riveting philosophical drama.

4. Calvary

In the finest performance of his career, Brendan Gleeson plays a priest chosen to be the target of an abuse victim’s revenge, a tortured mysterious figure who feels only the death of a good man will awaken the world to horrors gone unpunished. But since the lead knows who the would-be killer is from the first scene, we are left alone to investigate while he decides how to spend his allotted remaining days. A terrific cast of local oddballs make up the parishioners and suspects, allowed to run rampant with writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s deliciously biting dialogue. Ireland has rarely looked better, and the film acts as a remarkable dissection of a country in a state of schizophrenic uncertainty as to where it is going, or even where it has been.

3. Nightcrawler

A scathing assault on tabloid journalism, Nightcrawler is as bleak as it is beautiful, shot in the fluorescent glow of pre-dawn Los Angeles. Jake Gyllenhaal grips as the sociopathic, ruthlessly efficient and zealously self-serving Lou Bloom, whose morality-free clamber into the ranks of accident and emergency reporting represents the worst nightmare of the American dream in the information age. Unpredictable without being extreme, it builds tirelessly to a thrilling conclusion. In Bloom, writer-director Dan Gilroy has created perhaps the most original character of the 21st century so far.

2. Ida

This gorgeously composed black and white film emerged with little fanfare this year but was embraced rapturously by critics and its small audience. Set in 1960s Poland, still in turmoil after the War and the Holocaust, and with the lingering Damoclean sword of Soviet overlordship, Ida is a gentle reflection on identity that both uplifts and stings with the brutality of its humanity. Agata Trzebbuchowska and Agata Kulesza give astonishing, tragic performances as a young orphaned nun and the aunt she has been newly reunited with. The film packs an emotional wallop, but every frame along the way dazzles with pristine simplicity.

1. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

One of the last films produced by Studio Ghibli before it ceased production of new animations to much distress this past year, and the assumed swansong of Ghibli cofounder Isao Takahata, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is that director’s third masterpiece, and perhaps his most triumphant work. Based on one of Japan’s most famous fairytales, it tells of a childless bamboo cutter and his wife who find an enchanted infant, who they raise as their own. Financially supported by a divine source, the loving parents give the young Kaguya everything she could ever want, but her uncertainty and feelings of alienness prevent her from securing true happiness in a society that so pressures women to be what it demands of them. Once more abandoning Ghibli’s traditional style, Takahata this time paints in liquid bursts of watercolours, creating a spellbinding visual feast that reaches a cinematic zenith in a dashing charcoal nightmare. Wit and heart and fantasy combine; the story is pure magic. The production is too.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Booyah! Kaguya!

————————————————————–

I’m just assuming you skipped down to here. Because these are the films I hated this year. Dross such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Need for Speed, and even the egregiously misjudged Transcendence, which would easily have taken the bottom honour on a better year, weren’t as bad as these disastrous attempts at films, only one of which I can possibly recommend for ironic viewing (hint: it’s at No.3).

 

5. Gun Woman

Mindless and grotesque even by Japanese gore porn standards, this was certainly the most unpleasant film experience to be had in 2014. Featuring an antihero so bland it’s hard to call him a character, and a villain so cartoonishly despicable the man who thought him up should be kept under police surveillance, this is a joyless stool of a film, hideous to behold, and ritually disemboweled by its attempts at Tarantinoesque postmodernism.

4. Let’s Be Cops

Please, just make up your mind, do you respect cops or not? Do you think they are morons who should be made fun of, or that they are disrespected heroes one and all? Because really your film did not make it clear. But congratulations, you made a scene where a character chokes on a fat man’s testes look more pleasant than hanging out for just half an hour with your two buddy leads.

3. Winter’s Tale

Something about miracles and magic and horses called Horse. This overproduced farce is actually in the realm of so bad its funny. Colin Farrell and his awful hair have a brief and unbelievable love affair, while on the run from Russell Crowe, who is either Irish or suffering from some kind of brain aneurism. The dialogue redefines cheesy, the performances redefine confused, and the first act takes up 75% of the running time. The greatest miracle of all is that the film got made in the first place.

2. A Million Ways to Die in the West

Seth MacFarlane and his troublingly featureless face headline this Western pastiche that is… well nothing. Flatly shot, with a tsunami of jokes that don’t make landfall, and a plot so hackneyed you could write something more inspired by farting in sand, this follow-up to the genuinely enjoyable Ted proves McFarlane doesn’t understand high concept without being high. The supporting cast all seem embarrassed to be present. You’d almost feel sorry for them, ’cause they should be.

1. The Legend of Hercules

Where to start? The first of two big budget takes on the copyright-free demigod in 2014, this Renny Harlin venture took the most liberties with the material, pouring countless other myths and histories into the pot, and even a lightning whip-sword. The whole film is so joyless and po-faced, the actors so completely out of their element (unless their element is “stand there and look pretty”), the special effects so… uncompleted, it’s simply hard to believe this film exists at all. Thankfully, it proves as forgettable as it is awful, and due to The Rock’s moderately well-received Hercules, history will forget this Grecian stillbirth ever appeared in 2014.

 

See you again next year…

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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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