Tag Archives: James Cameron

Gravity – Earthbound and down

Free falling: Sandra Bullock loses her grip in Gravity

Free falling: Sandra Bullock loses her grip in Gravity

“DON’T LET GO” reads the tagline for Gravity, a zero-gravity disaster movie from the versatile Alfonso Cuarón, director of A Little Princess, Y tu Mamá También, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men. It doesn’t quite do the film’s more thrilling sequences justice – as Gravity proves to be one of the most edge-of-your-seat movies to crash into cinemas in decades. “Don’t let go of your seat/jaw/bowels” might have just about captured it, though would not have looked as good on a poster.

Of course, Gravity is not the kind of movie posters sell. This is the kind of movie that gripping, unusual trailers and phenomenal word-of-mouth sell. This is the kind of movie that people say “You have to see it in IMAX 3D”, and rarer yet it’s the kind of movie where people hear that, they listen, and obey.

The film’s cast of barely more than two is led by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Bullock is the awkward science expert who, all things considered, shouldn’t be on space missions in the first place. Clooney is the seasoned astronaut whose cocky attitude makes him oddly endearing and a great source of comfort in a crisis – he’s more or less playing George Clooney in a spacesuit here.

When a shower of ricocheting space debris tears through their space shuttle, Bullock’s Ryan Stone and Clooney’s Matt Kowalski find themselves hurtling through the void above the Earth, traversing chasms of darkness to find shelter, and a passage home, in one of the space stations that litter the heavens.

Taking cues from Alien and far more notably 2001: A Space Odyssey, specifically the sequence following HAL’s attack on Frank, Gravity brilliantly captures the noiseless horror of the vacuum. The lack of gravity is matched tenfold by the crippling silence. In space no one can here you anything.

Steven Price’s score fills in for the dearth of sound effects, synchronised brilliantly to the metallic carnage unfolding as our heroes are ragdolled about space. The music creates the sounds you feel you should be hearing as you silently watch structures shredded (in one disappointing instance Cuarón relies on a sound effect outside a module, but this is the only slip in an otherwise immaculate soundscape). In quieter moments, dramatically speaking, Price’s score overwhelms and forces the emotions – it’s an oddly bipolar composition that works sublimely in parts and rips you from the film in others.

Cuarón and his son Jonás’s screenplay is the weakest note, relying too much on Clooney’s charm to sell the slighter dialogue. Ryan’s personal issues back on Earth never properly tie into the actual disaster drama unfolding, and the personal and religious metaphors that derive from this fall clunkily off the screen – both Christ and Buddha make cameo appearances in moments of great crisis. When an astronaut is found dead, a photograph of his family is preposterously found floating beside him, as if the audience wouldn’t care for this character unless he was a family man.  Cuarón has succumbed to Hollywood audience-handholding.

Thematically the film is about as weightless as its characters, floating adrift in space. But where Gravity fails to make a personal punch, it hits with some of the most astonishing visuals ever created for the screen. The demolishing of a space station torn to veritable ribbons of metallic fabric leaves the eyes baffled and dizzied with where to focus. The camera enters the visors of the characters during incredible single-take shots to create action sequences filmed from terrifying first-person perspectives. A flaming bubble of gas floats through the corridor of an orbiting station; later a single tear drop runs off Bullock’s face and blobbishly makes its way towards the camera, accentuated by the often startlingly effective 3D. When the film approaches its most pretentious, a brief moment of womblike comfort that draws further parallels to 2001, the imagery is too brilliantly conceived to make it feel unwarranted.

Gravity is not a terrific movie, but it is an astounding cinematic experience, and will be remembered as such for generations to come. Not since Avatar has there been such an “event movie”, and despite Gravity’s weaknesses, and it has many, it is a considerably more cohesive work than James Cameron’s overblown sci-fi epic. With the exception of one additional action sequence towards the end that oversteps the audience’s suspension of disbelief (and unintentionally draws some laughter), Gravity thrills throughout. The imagery is often borrowed (2001 is all over this), but crafted with such remarkable skill and framed by the endlessly talented cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life) it is a cinematic experience that simply must be seen on the biggest, loudest screen you can find.

4/5

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Side By Side – Evolution or revolution?

Let's get digital, digital: Keanu Reeves and Martin Scorsese

Let’s get digital, digital: Keanu Reeves and Martin Scorsese

The revolution will not be televised, it will be projected. That’s the message of Christopher Kenneally’s documentary Side By Side, which shows in great detail the effect digital filmmaking has had on the industry, beginning life as a budget-friendly side-show, before becoming the medium of choice for almost all the big players in the film business.

Briefly sketching the early history of filmmaking, Side By Side goes on to chart the rapid rise of digital cinematography since the release of the first feature-length movies shot on digital in 1997.

Hosted by actor Keanu Reeves, in conversation with a massive who’s who of contemporary filmmakers, Side By Side certainly covers most of the bases, but never quite qualifies its comparisons.

Amongst the interviewees are digital devotees such as James Cameron, George Lucas and Danny Boyle, while new converts include David Lynch and Martin Scorsese, who until only a few short years ago seemed steadfast in his support for traditional film stock. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, both major digital converts (although Spielberg shot 2011’s War Horse on film), are noteworthy in their absence from the doc.

Only Christopher Nolan is steadfastly opposed to shooting on digital, with even his cinematographer Wally Pfister unwilling to rule it out entirely in future. Elsewhere actor John Malkovich praises how digital allows you to continue shooting, and acting, without breaks for changing the magazine every 10 minutes, allowing continuous performance like in theatre. Actress Greta Gerwig counteracts that by saying how exhausting the non-stop-ness of digital filmmaking is, which David Fincher backs up with an unfortunate anecdote about Robert Downey Jr. on the set of Zodiac.

Aside from film directors and actors, a large number of cinematographers are interviewed, including Pfister (The Dark Knight, Inception), Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Apocalypse Now), Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and Anthony Dod Mantle (Festen, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire), offering some fascinating insights. Side By Side also investigates the effect of the digital era on other aspects of the production process, from visual effects to editing and colour grading, providing an outlet for some less-sung heroes of the cinema to have their say. Recent developments such as Higher Frame Rate technology, 3D and 4K+ resolution are briefly touched upon.

Darth Innovator: George Lucas discusses digital in front of a scene from the best film he never made

Darth Innovator: George Lucas discusses the digital revolution in front of a scene from the best film he never made

While the interviews are Anglophone-centric, with only a brief trip to Denmark to interview the Dogme 95 pioneers of digital filmmaking, Kenneally and Reeves have gone out of their way to track down a far more representative selection of female filmmakers (including cinematography Ellen Kuras and director Lena Dunham) than similar documentaries have done in the past. The documentary should be lauded for these efforts.

The use of footage from representative films is mostly exceptional, although there are some poor choices along the way. When Steven Soderbergh mentions the “revolution” in filmmaking, Side By Side shows us a clip from Che, his digitally shot biopic set in revolutionary Latin America. It’s one of the few times this film patronises.

Where Side By Side fails is in giving film a fair hearing, other than defending it with a “it worked for 100 years, so why change now?” No one discusses the crispness of photochemical film imagery with any of the passion of your average muso down the local record shop defending vinyl over CDs. Keanu can’t quite get anyone to explain to him why film would be preferable to HD. When Soderbergh attacks the dirt that appears on traditionally projected film, no defence of it is offered up. Side By Side works brilliantly as a history of the digital revolution, but in terms of laying film and digital side-by-side, it is found wanting in regards the former.

The film leaves no doubt in the end that the death knell has been rung for film, and digital cinema is most definitely ruling the roost now, but does not manage to answer whether or not this is a good thing. To quote Orson Welles: “It’s pretty, but is it art?”

3/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, an expected prequel

Return to Middle Earth (again)

It seemed for a time there like we might never return to Middle Earth, that incredible world which provided us with one of the finest cinematic triumphs of the last dozen years. But like the Pevensie children wondering if and when they might return to Narnia, fate (and finances) would deem it was always to be.

And yes, I am aware of how confusing an analogy that is.

So after nine years, some rights squabbles and a directorial switcheroo (or rather switch back), The Hobbit is finally on the big screen.

Peter Jackson, who brought us The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and more recently the pointless Lovely Bones and, in producer mode, surprise hits like District 9 and the disenchanting The Adventures of Tintin, is back in control of his fantasy sandpit, and has taken some strange, and some arguably unethical, decisions with it.

Dialling back the whimsy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s childish adventure book (though not entirely, with a hit-and-miss effect), Jackson has expanded the world of The Hobbit using extracts from Tolkien’s extended writings about the greater events that preceded and surrounded the story, to give a more epic, Rings-like flavour. The most controversial result of this has led to the relatively short book being broken up into not two but three films – the second and third instalments will follow in 2013 and 2014.

It’s okay Bilbo, you have three films to learn how to ride a pony

An apparent cash-grab on Jackson’s behalf, it is still only fair to judge The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as a stand-alone film. Successful feature-length adaptations have been made of short stories only a fraction the size of The Hobbit (The Dead, Brokeback Mountain, Total Recall), so the question is not the morality of Jackson’s decision, but whether or not it works.

And the answer is: eh… sort of?

Using the same technical team that helped create his opus, Jackson has indeed rebuilt and expanded Middle Earth, and much of the magic still exists in the sets, CGI, costumes, armoury and the impossibly enchanting landscapes of New Zealand. “Well,” said Sam Gamgee, “I’m back.” – and it’s hard not to feel that same sense of homecoming when we first see the hobbits’ homeland of the Shire and hear Howard Shore’s indomitable music.

Launching into proceedings with a preface set during the opening act of The Fellowship of the Ring (officially making The Hobbit a film prequel as opposed to The Lord of the Rings being a premature sequel), An Unexpected Journey takes its good time setting up the history of the dwarves and their conflict with the dragon Smaug that sets the story’s events in motion. An explosive siege against the dwarven stronghold Erebor by the beast, kept largely unseen through clever cutting to withhold some surprise for film two, puts us firmly back in the epic setting of The Return of the King before we launch into pastoral antics akin to the early half of Fellowship. A clever smoke-ring cut transforms our narrator, Ian Holm’s Bilbo Baggins, into his younger self, played by Martin Freeman. Greeted by the grumpy but truly good wizard Gandalf (the ever-perfect Ian McKellan), the anally retentive hobbit soon finds himself playing host to a bevy of brutish, slovenly dwarves, 13 in total, with whom he is caroused into embarking on an adventure to retake the distant fortress of Erebor.

More Gandalf! This guy never gets old!

Even more the fish-out-of-water than the hobbits in the Rings films, Bilbo’s discomfort agitates some of the dwarves, particularly band leader and would-be king Thorin Oakenshield, while endearing him, cautiously, to others. But his surprising courage, hobbity ability to be easily ignored by the worst of creatures and occasional moments of ingenuity eventually make him an accepted part of the team.

On their journey across New Zealand, the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf encounter some strange and terrifying creatures, before a late encounter with the Great Goblin (voiced by a brilliantly camp Barry Humphries) and his slithering hordes deep inside the Misty Mountains, where Bilbo has his fateful meeting with Gollum and the Ring.

Bouncing from one encounter to the next, Jackson attempts to keep the pace going by inserting action scenes where they are uncalled for. Between Bilbo’s famous encounter with the trolls and the band’s arrival at the sanctuary of Rivendell, Jackson inserts a wholly unwelcome chase sequence, in which orcs riding wargs (giant wolves, thankfully less hyena-ish than in Rings) pursue the dwarves across an ill-defined landscape. The dwarves are rescued thanks to the help of elves, who dispose of the orcs off-camera, causing the excitement levels to plummet. Unfortunate comparisons are easy to draw. A similar sequence at a similar point in Fellowship, after Gandalf confronts the Balrog, where the heroes were to be chased by orcs to the safety of Lothlorien, was cut in the editing room, because a chase sequence was deemed uncalled for at that stage. Ten years later, it seems Jackson has not only failed to learn from his mistakes, but is now making them where he evaded them before.

But it’s not the newly invented or the sourced-from-other-texts scenes that really throw this film off, rather it is an inability to pace scenes within themselves. The dinner party introducing the dwarves goes on that little too long. The troll encounter runs a beat too long. A council between Gandalf and the most powerful beings in Middle Earth contains just a pinch too much information.

And it’s this overflow from scene into following scene that causes An Unexpected Journey to feel so much longer than it actually is, so much more crammed and cramped; and given it is the first part of an easily argued needless trilogy it’s hard to not come away from the whole experience feeling something went very wrong in the editing room.

But so much has gone right elsewhere. The production values remain at the pinnacle of the game, with individual costumes and weapons having more skill and design in them than any landscape from Avatar. Makeup, from bulky, bearded dwarves to the blight-riddled faces of orcs, could hardly be bettered. The CGI is mostly excellent, with wargs and trolls looking weighted and textured. The Great Goblin has a suitably cartoonish but still real presence. Gollum, whose very follicles are now plainly visible, makes the award-winning Gollum of The Two Towers look like Jar Jar Binks.

Ugh, not you agai- no wait! You’re the best part!

While the design fits in perfectly with the Rings films, there are some additional touches brought in by co-writer and one-time-attached director Guillermo Del Toro which spice up the visual palette. A cackling gremlin of a goblin, who appears to be the Great Goblin’s P.A. and runs errands on a zipline about his caverns, feels like he just zipped in from Hellboy 2’s Troll Market. Another sequence in the Misty Moutains, where Bilbo and the dwarves encounter giants made of stone, also feel like they leaked from the brain of cinema’s most inventive fantasist. Of course, the stone giants throw up more problems in this adaptation – referring to a single sentence from The Hobbit about giants hurling rocks (that can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for a thunder storm), Jackson has once again shown his inability to resist turning such an event into a scene of peril, as the band are nearly crushed in the fray. One is left thinking of the Fellowship sailing past the Argonath, the two mighty stone statues; sometimes it’s good just to show wonder, not everything needs to be life or death. Jurassic Park would not be the film it is if, upon first seeing a brachiosaur, Sam Neill suddenly found himself in the midst of a stampede (à la, yes I’ll go there, Jackson’s King Kong).

And the action sequences are a tale of two halves, with the skirmishes between the dwarves and their enemies exquisitely choreographed, each dwarf revealing variations on a fighting style based on their weapon of choice, while the escape from the goblin caverns and the stone giants sequence reveal an over-reliance on video game imagery. There is a subconscious urge to press the A button every time the right-scrolling dwarves have to leap a chasm, and as they wait for a swinging platform to swing back their way, visions of Sonic the Hedgehog impatiently tapping his foot come to mind. Gandalf splinters a boulder from a wall and rolls it down a hill, crushing several goblins, in a feat Donkey Kong would be proud of.

Jammed full of scenes, Jackson’s film is oddly low on character. Most of the 13 dwarves might as well have personalities based on their names like in Snow White; Prissy, Fatty, Yokelly, Deafy, Mentally Disabled (the dwarf with a small piece of axe permanently buried in his skull seems to stutter out his sole line of dialogue, in what could be the most offensive moment in one of Jackson’s films since Meet the Feebles). Thorin (Richard Armitage) is given backstory and a bit of fleshy dialogue to work with, but he is little more than stoic and, towards Bilbo, disbelieving. Bilbo at least gets real fun to work with, and Freeman has a blast with his awkward mannerisms (some impressively based on Ian Holm’s), discomforts and terrors. Freeman carries the film on his back from start to finish, a tremendous achievement for a one-time typecast TV actor. The film’s highlight comes when he is thrust into the dark with Andy Serkis’s Gollum, taking what might have been a dull recitation of assorted riddles from the book, and turning it into a menacing match of wills. The writers and Serkis have taken the schizophrenic Gollum of Rings and imbued him with the creepish, toying playfulness of the famous film psychopaths who followed in his wake; Hans Landa, Anton Chigurgh, the Joker. The scene, while not shot with any of the ingenuity of the Gollum scenes from Rings, is still a standout one of writing, acting and CGI, and shows that Jackson still has what it takes to deliver the goods.

Thorin – handsome dwarven badass

It would be wrong to not take a paragraph to address the most significant contribution this film has made to film history; the introduction of HFR (higher frame rate) technology, shot at a smoother 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24. This addition, a pet project of James ‘have I left my mark on cinema yet?’ Cameron, does indeed make 3D look more natural, and in certain sequences the visuals flow beautifully, but the negatives outweigh the positives. As the eye takes its time to adjust to the new film speed, everything appears unpleasantly sped-up. Who wants to see Bilbo, the world’s fastest geriatric, hobbling like lightning around his hobbit hole? While the eye does eventually become accustomed to the HFR, every now and then the effect slips, and everything appears like those sped-up scenes in Tom Jones, except without the intentional comedy. The detail is immaculately crisp, but almost too much so. Real life doesn’t look this real. Audiences (and Hollywood) may decide it is here to stay, but it seems unlikely, and less likely for the best.

But the visual (and audio) tableau that makes up Middle Earth is the real reason this film remains an essential recommendation, despite its flaws. The world looks better than ever, from its green hills to its torch-lit caves. The soundscape is second to none, and Howard Shore’s score, borrowing a little too much from themes originated in The Lord of the Rings, is never short of epic. His major new creation, a theme for the dwarves, is first hummed in burly baritone and bass, before erupting in a maelstrom of brass and woodwind – it’s as grandiose a piece as anything composed for Rings.

While Jackson may have irritated some viewers with the length and pacing of his film, he has still achieved a great feat with An Unexpected Journey, getting this wonderful tale underway. What comes next may prove an even greater challenge. There’s little denying that were The Hobbit two films as previously planned, the end point of that film is exactly where this part ends. It remains to be seen how he can draw the rest of the book out over two filmic volumes. But since they will continue to look this good, it shouldn’t really matter in the long run.

There’s no denying, it’s good to be back in mythical, mystical Middle Earth.

3/5

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Prometheus – Game over, man. Game over.

It’s behind you…

Thirty-three years ago we were told that in space no one could hear you scream. But with massive financial and critical success and an enormous fanbase that extends beyond the remits of traditional science fiction, millions heard Alien’s call.

Ridley Scott’s “serial killer loose in a haunted house… in space” movie managed to do two things that have made it one of American cinema’s most iconic films: it utilised the ideal horror movie pacing perfected during the 1970s; and it gave audiences more iconic visuals than most directors can create in a career – including three creatures (or rather stages of a single creature) that are burned into the public consciousness forever more.

Yeah, that’s the one

Where the franchise went next is well known; a hugely successful (and worthy) action movie sequel followed before diminishing returns struck with a vengeance, resulting in cash-in crossovers with the Predator movies. Now Scott has returned to the franchise and the genre that made his name, setting a sci-fi epic in the universe that he, writer Dan O’Bannon, Walter Hill, James Cameron, H. R. Giger and others have built over the years.

So you’ll forgive me if I’m going to compare Prometheus to Alien. Because the comparison is drawn in the material, it is drawn in the film’s advertising and it is drawn by their shared director. I will, however, also critique this film with my Alien cap off (if I had an Alien cap, it would look like a facehugger for the top of my head), lest anyone accuse me of being a fanboy disappointed that Prometheus did not live up to expectations.

Because expectations aside, in front, wherever; Prometheus is a troubled beast.

The film is set mostly in 2093, aboard the exploratory spaceship Prometheus. The crew have come to a newly discovered planet, deep in space, following archaeological evidence that points to early human contact with alien life forms. These creatures may or may not be the creators of all life on Earth, and are therefore our gods. Either way, they left us a way of finding them.

Now that’s a spaceship!

We are first introduced to David, an android, played with perfect disconnect and scene-stealing dryness by Michael Fassbender. His mechanical motives are for the most part unclear, but he is a welcome reintroduction to the Alien universe. He bears a somewhat unhealthy fascination for the archaeologist couple at the film’s centre, Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green). The pair argue about her faith even as their exploration clearly shows her faith to be erroneous. Sure, why not? Aren’t these the kind of questions sci-fi should be dealing with in absolutes?

It is not long after exploring one of the structures they find on this alien world that things begin to look a little suspicious. What are these ominous holograms and murals? Why does that giant statue look human? And why is very little still alive? Also, since this is an Alien movie, what secrets are the corporate types back on the ship hiding from the team?

The story soon transitions smoothly into a tense horror/thriller as the mission goes suitably haywire and things that should never have been uncovered are unleashed. But much like the mysterious black goo that the crew of Prometheus find on the planet, the plot and its themes soon morph into something far more nasty, indescribable and, well, terrible.

Let’s just say this now and be done with it, Ridley Scott is a superb filmmaker who has been on the front line of the craft technically, ever since he got into the game. Even the biggest detractors of films from Legend to Kingdom of Heaven cannot fault his technical skills. Prometheus is not only no exception, but it is arguably his greatest-made film – his camera marries ultra-detailed sets with crisp, realistic CGI (let down by some very bland, darkening 3D), while his editor keeps the story flowing and the tension, for the most part, bubbling. This is a well made movie. But it is also a badly misjudged one.

At the core of Prometheus’ troubles is a schizophrenic script that suffers as much from meddling and rewrites as it does from a blatant case of just-not-ready-to-shoot-yet. This falls under three categories: dialogue, character and story.

The dialogue is the most noticeably embarrassing. When the crew begin to awaken from their sleep aboard the ship, we are subjected to the sort of chat that we might expect of a mismatched band in space, but eschewing the charm of the crew of Alien’s Nostromo (and other movie vessels, it’s just fun to reference Alien) in favour of ad-libbed banter. This adds realism, one supposes, but it lacks purpose or entertainment. Later, a geologist character says the word “rocks” as much as possible – we have to conclude the script had no written dialogue for his character; he was just given flashcards that said “rocks” on them. The ship’s two co-pilots engage in a bet about what they will find on the alien world, assumedly as stand-ins for the audience. But it’s all so forced; the audience isn’t stupid, it can question these things itself. Sadly, patronising the audience is one of the Prometheus script’s nastiest habits – towards the end Charlize Theron’s character reveals a minor (utterly unnecessary) plot twist throwing EMPHASIS on one word (accompanied by a spike in the music) as if to ensure that everyone down the back of the class understood and processed this already very clear twist (that remains utterly unnecessary to the story).

And then there are the characters; flimsy at best. Rapace’s Elizabeth gets the best of it, as a proto-Ripley with genuine aims within the film. These are undermined however by the character’s religious faith, apparently deriving from severe daddy issues, that like the pastor in M. Night Shyamalan’s preposterous Signs remains steadfastly Christian in spite of insurmountable evidence contradicting such traditions. She is also unable to have children, which without a Newt (the girl in Aliens) or a Jones (the cat in Alien) for her to redirect her affections to, says nothing about her character other than forcing an underwhelming dramatic scene with her lover. Charlie, played by the hopelessly uninspired Marshall-Green, is another anomaly of the script – it is unclear if we are meant to be on his side at all, agree with his opinions in any way, even care about him. Through clumsy writing and a humdrum performance, most of Prometheus is spent hoping he will be killed off sooner rather than later.

He was better in the ads.

David at least has some characterisation, but alas too much. An unsuccessful fusion of Alien’s psychotic robot Ash (Ian Holm) and Aliens’ heroic robot Bishop (Lance Henriksen), the character is the result of clear indecision on behalf of the writers, who also throw clumsy references to his passion for Peter O’Toole’s T. E. Lawrence into the mix. While drawing allusions to Ash (and by extension, it must be added, 2001’s HAL) in his uncertain directive, his dangerousness is undermined by a rewrite blatantly designed to make Fassbender’s character more heroic (he is so hot right now, in fairness). But the constant backpedalling between hero and could-be villain offers us nothing other than a few fun lines delivered by a truly talented actor. If only it worked with the story.

Charlize Theron is farcically misused as the film’s token corporate henchwoman; playing the Paul Reiser role from Aliens if he were lobotomised. Idris Elba at least gets to have some fun with his role as the ship’s captain, but his best lines all sound ad-libbed, and his character cannot be described using any more complex words than “cool and good”. Other than that there is the angry one and the nervous one (are these dwarves or intergalactic scientists?) and a dozen or so redshirts who no one even tried to give lines to. Ellen Ripley is a more complex character than the whole cast of Prometheus thrown in together.

Characters, apparently

Finally, there’s the themes. And what big themes they are. Creation, death, the afterlife, rebirth. Prometheus should be admired for aiming so high. But it should be condemned for not knowing what it is even talking about. Aside from the universe-contradicting religious issues discussed earlier (somehow faith sort of wins in the end), there is the schizophrenic role (and yes, I’ve used that word again) of the alien “Engineers” – known in traditional Alien lore as “Space Jockeys”.

What was I thinking?

These creatures play the dual, oxymoronic role of creator and destroyer, but their methods are perverse and inexplicable. The film’s title alludes to the Olympians of Greek mythology, destroying earlier races of man due to their wickedness and keeping fire from later men as punishment. But in mythology the Olympians created law, and were thus able to judge mankind. But the Engineers do no such thing. They plant and leave, and while they might predict the creatures that arise they cannot judge them when they develop thought and morality within their civilisations. A gardener who returns to a garden to find it overgrown with weeds does some pruning, they don’t light the place up with napalm.

Are these godlike Space Jockeys good or bad, wise or insane? Well, we learn nothing, and depending on the likelihood of sequels and what they contain we may never. One of the film’s two writers, Damon Lindelof, was the primary writer on the TV series Lost; but while that show often meandered between questions without answering them, it never completely doubled back on a question without answering it either way – why did they make us? Why did they destroy us?

By the film’s conclusion we know so little we are left uncaring. The film turns the Space Jockeys into villains because it is easier than actually dealing with the fascinating questions it raised. A good mystery is a good thing, but a mystery for the sake of it is not. By the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the audience is left free to interpret what happened. In Prometheus we are not, we are simply not told, left in the dark, unentertained.

It is just sad that Prometheus was made when it was not ready. The production values are superb, but based so strongly on imagery from Alien, the template was already there to work with. The film’s one standout scene, an intense, nightmarish surgery, remains an homage to that most famous scene from Alien. The rush job isn’t just noticeable in the script, it can be heard in the music. While the film’s action scenes have a suitable pulse-pounding musical accompaniment, many of its slower, tenser scenes are backed by an utterly inappropriate piece of triumphant bombast that sounds a little like someone strangling the Star Wars overture. Miscommunication is the only thing that can explain such a disconnect between sound and image.

Another of the film’s most troubling decisions is to cast Guy Pearce as the nonagenarian Peter Weyland, the financier of the expedition. The 44-year-old is covered in barely successful old man makeup for the role. Two better courses of action might have worked here. One would be to take the smarter Alien Vs Predator approach (yes, I just used those words), where Lance Henriksen was cast as a member of the Weyland family, named Bishop, suggesting the robot in Aliens was built in his image – thus casting Fassbender in old man makeup as David’s maker would have been at least witty, if odd-looking. Alternatively, they might have CAST SOMEBODY THE CHARACTER’S AGE! There are certainly enough actors available over 70. If you wanted to be very smart with your references, cast Peter O’Toole! Pearce’s casting comes down to the fact that Pearce, sans makeup, played a younger Weyland in promotional material for the film. But what was Scott thinking? How could the master filmmaker be foolish enough to sacrifice our suspension of disbelief for the sake of an ad campaign?

Note: not a scene in this movie

As a slow-building horror film Prometheus works reasonably well, but with this budget and skill behind and in front of the camera it is ludicrous that you don’t care for the main characters any more than you might the errant teenagers in a bad slasher movie. The preposterous, unanswerable grand questions the film raises only serve to distract from the jump scares and body horror.

Prometheus is so well made, but so poorly handled. Perhaps it would have worked well outside of the Alien universe, with less to live up to and no need to attempt a (failed) tie-in at its climax. But that would have robbed the film of its gorgeous design, which, in the end, is the sole superb feature to recommend it on. Alien aside, it does the film no service that the two films it references most often are 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia, which are, simply put, the two best-made films I have ever seen. It raises the bar far too high for even a spaceship to soar over.

In the end, this all comes down to Scott’s hubris. Knowing full well he has helped create one of the most iconic creatures and indeed images in the history of cinema, he has foolishly decided that somehow this creature is linked to the very meaning of existence. The result is confused and clumsy, with its ambitions reduced to pretensions of genius.

It’s a mess. A beautiful, terrifying mess.

Oh, and don’t get me started on that “the secret is in the music” nonsense…

2/5

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Titanic: 100 years later, it still sinks, and now stinks in 3D

They said it was unsinkable...

According to my calculations, with a worldwide gross of $1.8 billion and home video/DVD sales of several million units, if you’re reading this then you’ve probably already seen this film. But despite claims that director James Cameron and Fox are just after the money with this re-release, it is hard to complain about it being back on the big screen, as the world commemorates the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic (ooooooh… did I just give the end away?). Indeed, you would hope that All Quiet on the Western Front will be back in cinemas between 2014 and 2018. How could we not return to Saving Private Ryan in June 2044?

The question therefore is should it have been re-released in 3D. Indeed, it’s been a struggle for most critics to not use this film’s resurgence to argue for or against 3D – sure what does it matter what we think about the film at this stage?!

Well you’re going to find now anyway. Let’s start at the beginning… In a 20 minute prologue that is arguably more interesting than the rest of the film, oceanographer Bill Paxton searches the wreckage of the ill-fated liner for a magnificent diamond that by all historical records and archaeological morality deserves to be in a museum in France. A clue leads him to centenarian Rose (Gloria Stuart), who was aboard the Titanic and owned the diamond. She proceeds to tell a very lengthy story about the ship’s sinking which features a surprising number of scenes that she was not present for and could therefore have no means of recounting them accurately.

"The reflection's changed..."

Over the next three hours, posh Rose (Kate Winslet) meets poor Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), they fall in love, plan to run away together, and then the ship sinks. Various minor characters insist on stealing scenes from the leads.

Revisiting Titanic after more than 10 years, a number of things strike you. How baby-faced Leo looks. How glowing Winslet was back then (it’s a very different glow to the one she has now). How truly godawful the dialogue is (it’s not that the “something Picasso” line is bad, it’s that it takes three more uncomfortable lines to explain the joke). How delightfully hammy Billy Zane is as the jilted fiancé. How much more Victor Garber resembles Enda Kenny when he does an Irish lilt.

Victor Garber and Enda Kenny

Most shocking however is how well spread out the film is. It is extremely long, but like the best epics it never feels particularly boring. Indeed, the Titanic strikes the iceberg a little over 90 minutes into the film, barely halfway through proceedings! This leaves a huge amount of time for the admittedly spectacular, perfectly drawn-out sinking of the colossal ship. Say what you will about James Cameron (suggestions include: “His dialogue is laughable”, “His messages are delivered ham-fistedly”), but he can do grand spectacle like few others.

Behind the scenes footage of how the screenplay for Titanic was written

So, now that you’ve been reminded why you loved or hated the film originally, let’s deal with this 3D issue. A lot is riding on the reception of Titanic in 3D. Cameron created the current appetite for 3D amongst the masses – an appetite perceived by Hollywood as being perhaps bigger than it actually is – with Avatar, another film you probably saw. Desperate to jump on the bandwagon after Avatar, Hollywood pumped out a number of 3D films that were digitally made 3D in post-production, a method referred to as retro-fitting. 2010’s Clash of the Titans was the first of these films to emerge, and was slated for its cardboard pop-out look. While its sequel Wrath of the Titans is now being praised for being shot in 3D, it seems little has improved in the world of retro-fitting, even with the master of 3D James Cameron in charge.

Titanic 3D is flat and ugly. The characters stand out from the background like marionette puppets, but without any of the definition and depth that creates a real three-dimensional face. Worse still, the film makes regular use of focus pulls and depth-of-field trickery, causing 3D blurs to clutter up the imagery. This is most noticeable near the film’s beginning, as the Titanic leaves port at Southampton and throngs of out-of-focus people pass by the camera as Rose and Jack make their ways aboard. The 3D creates the illusion that these dashing blurs are closer to you, naturally causing your eye to attempt to focus (in vain) on them and drawing your gaze away from the action and principal characters.

"I'm flying!"

Fans of 3D action will be similarly disappointed. The collapsing of the ship happens mostly side-on, so there is very little cause to duck or dodge objects “coming right at you”. Worse still, in the wide shots of the ship, the 3D causes the digital persons walking on the decks to stand out, revealing them more clearly as dated computer creations. Titanic’s seams are showing.

"I'm sinking!"

In the end, it is what it is, a brilliantly produced movie based on a clumsy, patronising screenplay. You already know if you like it or not, but the 3D will take away from that either way.

Titanic: 3/5

Titanic 3D: 2/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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The 82nd Academy Awards – Live!

My return to the blogosphere has been nicely timed to coincide with this year’s Oscars. As I did last year, I will be keeping my thoughts rolled out here as the night develops. Hopefully it will be a fun one, there’s definitely more room for controversy than last year. The double hosting act of Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin is an interesting one; Baldwin is at the top of his comedic game right now and Martin has managed to stay away from bad comedies sufficiently of late to be forgiven his trespasses. Although one can’t help but feel they may have missed a big chance to win a larger audience for their modestly received It’s Complicated, released a few months back.

My money is unfortunately on Avatar to take Best Picture, although there is still hope that The Hurt Locker might unseat it. Other worthy contenders such as Up, A Serious Man and Up in the Air, and indeed District 9 (hardly amazing but certainly a more worthy winner than Avatar) seem to have hardly any hope at all of winning the top award. That said, if Kathryn Bigelow can at least take Best Director the night will not be a complete disaster should Avatar win Best Picture and prove you can just fire as much money as possible at the screen and eventually people will give you prizes.

Indeed, a contest of similar intrigue has emerged in the Best Foreign Language category, where the frankly haunting The White Ribbon goes up against the outstanding A Prophet. While Hollywood may not care, it will be the big one for cinéastes to watch, aside from the battle of the mainstream behemoth and the indie upstart waged by exes James Cameron and Bigelow.

Up has Animated Feature in the bag, and will hopefully at the very least take home Best Score. The beautiful and charming film’s five nominations very much speak for themselves.

As for actors, Jeff Bridges, Sandra Bullock, Mo’Nique and Christoph Waltz seem to have their four categories all cornered. Only a surprise upset in Best Actress looks at all probable, and not very at that.

Proper commentary will resume later this evening, in the meantime I must feed and prepare for the all-night event.

In the meantime, bask in the glory of this wonderful pisstake trailer for every Oscar-winning film ever from Cracked.com…

The following takes place between 3.30pm and 9pm

Events occur in real Pacific Standard Time.

3.38pm – James Cameron is selling his wife’s dress as “Na’vi blue”. Wonder what colour Kathryn Bigelow is wearing…?

3.39pm – Vera Farminga looks amazing, although her dress looks like it might come alive an devour her.

3.44pm – E! Entertainment TV are carrying considerably less obnoxious coverage of the red carpet than Sky, so looks like I’ll be following them for the next 90 minutes or so. Just in case you needed a point of reference.

3.49pm – Is Sigourney Weaver wearing a blood-red toga?

3.51pm – Lots of nice dresses, nothing mind-blowingly stunning or godawful yet though. And no outlandish variations on the tux either. The next hour could well be hell. Why am I even live-blogging the red carpet at all?

3.57pm – For the record, the following films are the main contenders tonight that, for a number reasons (including at least one that has yet to come out in Ireland) I have yet to see: Precious…, The Blind Side, An Education, The Last StationA Single Man, Julie and Julia, Invictus. Just so that we’re on the level here.

4.01pm – A part of me is hopeful for Sandra Bullock, as she’s one of those actresses who has always been likeable but you just assumed she would never win an Oscar. I mean The Net, Two Weeks Notice, All About Steve. She’s so feisty that no matter what trash she makes you can’t quite bring yourself to hate her.

4.03pm – Amanda Seyfried is still the perfect woman. I know I said it last year, but seriously, who in the last year has challenged her crown?

4.05pm – So what, Crazy Heart gets a few nominations and suddenly every country/western singer gets an Oscar invite?

4.06pm – Miley Cyrus’s dress appears to be made out of bra.

4.08pm – Antonio Banderas appears to be preparing for his role as Saddam Hussein. In… a film I just made up?

4.13pm – Who the hell is Elizabeth Banks? Why am I only discovering Elizabeth Banks this evening? And by this evening, I mean it’s long after midnight…

4.15pm – Sarah Jessica Parker is wearing a beautiful silk… sack. It’s a sack.

4.17pm – How tall is Kathryn Bigelow? As a talentless male I like to think that an Oscar-nominated director would be as unattractive as she is talented. But nope, she’s just a bit yummy. There, I said it.

4.19pm – Charlize Theron looks like a delicious frosted cake. Her dress invites far too many suggestive jokes. I’ll keep quiet.

4.25pm – I wonder was Nelson Mandela invited… and what did he RSVP?

4.28pm – Damn you Colin Firth, so darn charming!

4.29pm – Can someone clear this up for me, is George Clooney grey or not? He looks like he’s half-dyed his hair sandy.

4.31pm – Meryl Streep’s dress looks like it’s made out of cream, smoothly flowing cream. It’s good.

4.39pm – Poor Keanu Reeves, he’ll never win an Oscar. Tonight Sandra Bullock leaves him behind.

4.43pm – Robert Downey Jr is the first major black-tie breaker, wearing a teal bowtie. Yes, that’s right, I know the colour teal!

4.52pm – As ever, Kate Winslet looks enchanting. Nothing I say here can add to how wonderful she looks in that dress.

4.58pm – Ha! Remember Cameron Diaz.

5.09pm – Anna Kendrick looks like a pink Grecian goddess. Where did she come from this past year? And how our lives have been made better. Well, not counting that Twilight nonsense.

5.12pm – Zoe Saldana’s dress looks like someone ate a Na’vi then threw it back up on her.

5.27pm – Good lord who let Nicole Richie in?

5.30pm – And we’re off! So the last two hours were pointless then?

5.32pm – Eugh, the stars are a bit pointlessly on display here. Why are the Oscars always looking for new means to make sales pitches?

5.33pm – Yay! Neil Patrick Harris!

5.34pm – Singing a solo number about the need for duets. Irony!

5.35pm – Jeff Bridges does not look impressed.

5.35pm – Here come the boys…

5.36pm – A few light stabs at Hollywood now. Fun times.

5.38pm – Meryl Streep threesome gag, they’re totally going for an It’s Complicated DVD push.

5.39pm – Alec Baldwin’s delivery is way off. Not a good start.

5.40pm – Martin and Baldwin are harassed by Avatar forest creatures. What is this, Family Guy?

5.44pm – Penelope Cruz presents the first award. My those two were quite embarrassing. Penelope’s dress looks like fire. In all the best ways.

5.46pm – Christoph Waltz came from nowhere this year with knowing but a broad knowledge of languages and a knife and fork with which to devour scenery. If he doesn’t win, then this whole night could go in any direction.

5.48pm – Phew. Thought we were going to have a night of surprises there.

5.49pm – That’s an über-bingo.

5.52pm – Wow, ads already? We’ve only had one award. Have I missed something, what’s will all this (fake?) animosity between the hosts and George Clooney?

5.56pm – Cameron Diaz and Steve Carrell, make a mess of it all. Ouch. Animated characters talk about being nominated. Fun stuff!

5.58pm – Yay! Dug is licking the camera. I love the Oscars!

5.59pm – Up wins! Thank goodness. My word that film was sheer delight.

6.00pm – Pete Docter makes a very quick but pleasant speech. Is it just me or is his head tiny?

6.01pm – Seyfried and Cyrus present the nominees for Best Original Song and slip over their lines again. A lot of teething pains this year.

6.03pm – Could a Colin Farrell-sung song win the prize?

6.04pm – Yes, ‘The Weary Kind’ takes it – first win for Crazy Heart.

6.06pm – Ouch, Chris Pine has to introduce District 9, which essentially nabbed the nomination from Star Trek. Who on earth thought that was a fair idea?!

6.11pm – Best Original Screenplay could call the rest of the night. Hurt Locker seems a lock, but Inglourious Basterds is a contender.

6.12pm – “Great movies begin with great writing,” says Tina Fey. So why is Avatar not in this category again…?

6.15pm – The Hurt Locker takes it. Interesting…

6.17pm – Mark Boal’s speech was simple but to the point. Molly Ringwald and Matthew Broderick talk about John Hughes. Don’t they usually do all the obituaries en masse?

6.19pm – This seems like an odd way to make the Oscars seem more mainstream. He made some fun films though.

6.22pm – And the stars of his films all come out. I wonder who else will get an homage like this?

6.23pm – Samuel L Jackson presents Up – no, don’t show the sad bits, I’ll cry!

6.28pm – Zoe Saldana and Carey Mulligan to present Best Animated Short Film.

6.31pm – No Pixar this year, though the fun Irish short Granny O’Grimm is worth a mention.

6.32pm – French short Logorama wins. Looks fun. Hope it’s up on YouTube…

6.33pm – Documentary Short now. I said it last year, I’ll say it again: where the hell can one see these?!

6.35pm – Music By Prudence get shuffled off stage by the orchestra pit. Poor them.

6.37pm – Danish short The new Tennants wins Best Short. That’s those three knocked down swiftly…

6.38pm – Ben Stiller as a Na’vi. Better idea than last year.

6.39pm – Best Makeup; here’s hoping for Il Divo. And Ben Stiller is rapidly becoming unfunny.

6.41pm – Na’vi tail joke = win! Win for Star Trek too. Guess it was deserved.

6.43pm – Jeff Bridges introduces A Serious Man. It is oddly under-represented at this year’s awards.

6.47pm – Best Adapted Screenplay. Lot of options. Up in the Air is the likely winner. In the Loop would be fun though.

6.48pm – Thank god they keep calling Precious just Precious. That is one exhausting title.

6.50pm – Precious (which I believe is based on the novel Push by Sapphire) wins.

6.52pm – Queen Latifah and Steve Martin have a bit of a flirt.

6.53pm – The… Governor’s… Awards? What’s going on?!

6.54pm – Hooray for Lauren Bacall!

6.56pm – Robin Williams presents the Award for Best Supporting Actress. Alas, it’s got Mo’nique scribbled all over it, despite the two charming ladies from Up in the Air.

6.59pm – Mo’nique. Bo’ring.

7.00pm – A nice speech that one, shameless plug for BET though.

7.02pm – I’m sure I’ll see it eventually, but nothing about An Education made me want to rush to the cinema.

7.06pm – Sigourney Weaver presents Best Art Direction. Surely Avatar will dance home with this.

7.07pm – Avatar wins. The presenter kinda gave that away, no?

7.09pm – Tom Ford and Sarah Jessica Parker present the costume award. It’s like beauty and the bitch. Ha, I went there!

7.10pm – This is probably the most open category yet – The Young Victoria wins!

7.17pm – Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin do a Paranormal Activity skit. Brilliant.

7.18pm – Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner give a little talk on respect for horror films. If only we could respect these two worthless upstarts.

7.19pm – My word these are some obvious clips they’re showing.

7.23pm – Morgan Freeman talks about sound editing and mixing. I could listen to him all day.

7.24pm – Sound Editing – surely a win for Avatar?

7.25pm – Wow, The Hurt Locker takes a techie award. Shocking!

7.26pm – Sound Mixing, another for Hurt Locker perhaps?

7.26pm – Yes it is. If Revenge of the Fallen had won an Oscar I would have hunted every one of you down and killed you all.

7.27pm – Elizabeth Banks! Who are you?

7.29pm – Know what the problem with Inglourious Basterds was? The Inglourious Basterds – they were the worst part of their own film.

7.35pm – Sandra Bullock presents Best Cinematography. She’s already acting like she’s won Best Actress.

7.36pm – Avatar wins! Seriously? How hard is it to point a camera at a green wall?

7.38pm – Demi Moore is here for the roll call of the lost. Actually, there were few huge deaths in Hollywood this year. James Taylor sings The Beatles!

7.39pm – Dom DeLuise. Now I’m sad again.

7.41pm – Karl Malden, Patrick Swayze, Jack Cardiff?! I take it back, this was a terrible year!

7.43pm – Best Special Effects coming up. Thank god, finally, an award Avatar genuinely deserves!

7.46pm – First, Jennifer Lopez (oh dear) and Sam Worthington (oh lord, his accent is death) introduce the best scores, with dancers!

7.47pm – Never thought I’d see someone dance the robot to The Hurt Locker score.

7.48pm – Eugh, The Fantastic Mr Fox music sounds like Deliverance for kids.

7.49pm – The Up score is just enchanting. Oooh, ballet.

7.52pm – Yes! Michael Giacchino wins for Up. Such gorgeous music.

7.54pm – Gerard Butler and Bradley Cooper present the Avatar Award for outstanding Avataryness.

7.55pm – One of these guys is Irish. Should I care? Which one? Can the Irish guy say something now?

7.56pm – Jason Bateman introduces Up in the Air. Finally, someone actually involved in the film!

8.01pm – Matt Damon is here to present the Best Documentary Feature award. Once again, I suspect I’ve seen none of these.

8.03pm – Ok, at least I’ve heard of The Cove and Food, Inc.

8.04pm – The Cove wins! Three great reasons to see it now, dolphins, Hayden Panettiere and now an Oscar!

8.05pm – And Fisher Stevens. I love Fisher Stevens!

8.06pm – Wow. Editing explained by a sexist simpleton. Now I know everything!

8.07pm – The Hurt Locker wins! Damn straight. Sublimely edited thriller that there Hurt Locker was.

8.13pm – Back to the hosts. My they’ve been dull.

8.14pm – Pedro Almodovar and Quentin Tarantino present Best Foreign Language Film. Why is this a separate category again? I suspect The White Ribbon will take it. Haneke’s film is damn haunting.

8.17pm – Wow, a surprise win – Argentinian film El Secreto de Sus Ojos takes the gong. Didn’t see that coming. “Thank you for not considering Na’vi a foreign language.” Nice.

8.18pm – Cathy Bates is here to masturbate Avatar. Thank goodness, we didn’t have anyone else doing that already.

8.22pm – Down to the last four. Here come the big ones! Acting gongs seem pretty predetermined.

8.25pm – Former co-stars come out to sing the praises of the Best Actor nominees. A much better idea than last year’s former idols approach.

8.27pm – This is almost too sweet. Finally, George Clooney doesn’t look miserable any more.

8.29pm – Poor Morgan Freeman, he’s really not supposed to be there.

8.30pm – Colin Farrell and Jeremy Renner spooned. Right. There’s the quote of the evening.

8.31pm – Why can’t Kate Winslet give me awards?

8.32pm – Jeff Bridges wins, utterly expectedly. Good for him!

8.33pm – Oh dear. He’s channelling the Dude just a little…

8.35pm – Wow, Jeff Bridges is really being allowed to talk!

8.39pm – Best Actresses now. God Sandra Bullock’s accent in that film is grating.

8.40pm – Oprah? Seriously?

8.40pm – Curious. Jeff Bridges went first, now Sandra Bullock. I see a pattern forming…

8.42pm – Helen Mirren: Royalty with a tattoo.

8.43pm – Carey Mulligan is so cute it makes me want to bite off my own arm. “We’re lucky she’s so young,” says Peter Sarsgaard. Which means: “You’ll win another year, dear.”

8.46pm – Oprah did not annoy me there. Maybe it’s time for to learn how to spell Gabourey Sidibe. Thanks Wikipedia!

8.47pm – God I hate Sean Penn. What is he prattling on about?

8.48pm – This is the first Academy Award and nomination for Sandra Bullock. What, she didn’t get one for Speed 2: Cruise Control?

8.51pm – She’s crying! Tears! Finally! Several hours, we finally got there!

8.53pm – Barbara Streisand is here to remind us that an African American and a woman are nominated for Best Director. Aw, bless.

8.54pm – Kathryn Bigelow takes it! Incredible stuff, and a huge upset for Megabucks Cameron. Not very important history is made, but history nevertheless.

8.57pm – Who’d have thought the director of a piece of piss like Near Dark could win an Oscar. Still, most deserved. Cameron looks none-too-pleased.

8.58pm – Tom Hanks gives Best Picture to The Hurt Locker! Amazing stuff. What a night! That’ll teach Avatar a lesson about actually waiting til the script has been finished to make the damn movie.

9.00pm – Well that’s a delightful surprise. Kathryn Bigelow is giving her final thanks and holding back the tears, dedicating her award to men and women in uniform the world over.

9.01pm – That ran over time a little. Very disappointing show but great awards, mostly deserved. Another fun night at the Oscars. Here’s to next year!

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