Tag Archives: The Dark Knight

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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Man of Steel – Kal-El that ends well

The S stands for "Strike a pose": Henry Cavill as Superman

The S stands for “Strike the pose”: Henry Cavill as Superman

It’s been 26 years since we last saw Superman punch a guy on the big screen. The sole attempt to bring back the last son of Krypton since Christopher Reeve last wore the red cape, 2006’s cringe-inducing Superman Returns, saw Supes battling his greatest nemesis yet: an inanimate chunk of rock. That anti-climax is perhaps the greatest of the reasons that film, and the Superman brand, has suffered so hugely in the public consciousness.

Rebooted here with the explosive verve of a Zack Snyder movie, this take on the Superman myth satisfies both those who crave faster-than-a-speeding-bullet aerial fistfight-ery and those who like their Christ allegories with really good hair.

Superman Returns hammered home its Christ metaphor with Superman descending from the sky, resurrected, in cruciform pose. Man of Steel attempts to one-up it, recreating that divine posture—although at a less pivotal moment—and even having a scene where Clark Kent soul-searches in a church, haloed by stained glass. But it’s actually a lot cleverer than this. Clark, born Kal-El, is planet Krypton’s equivalent of the Virgin Birth, a child born through natural reproduction on a dying planet where kids have been eugenixed in Matrix-like pods for generations. Even before the planet crumbles due to the hubris of its ruling elite, Kal-El is already the last hope for his people.

As the fascist General Zod (Michael Shannon) mounts a coup, Kal-El’s father Jor-El (an exceptionally enthusiastic Russell Crowe) embarks on a quest to preserve the history of his people, showing the sort of physicality that escaped Marlon Brando back in 1978. The “Codex” of the Kryptonian people is retrieved and launched into space with the miracle child, just as Zod’s rebellion is brought to a close and the planet devours itself in a bowl of lava-Os.

Jor of the Worlds: Russell Crowe showing his son how staring into the distance is really done

Jor of the Worlds: Russell Crowe showing his son how staring off into the distance dramatically is really done

After this extended introduction to this slightly different take on the Superman origin, David S. Goyer’s screenplay eschews the chronological tracing of the early years of Jor-El’s life as Clark Kent, of Smallville, Kansas, in favour of cutting to his Bruce Wayne-like journey of self-discovery, helping those in need across America with less than sufficient subtlety for the only alien on Earth. In moments of reflection Clark thinks back to suitable lessons from his youth, the calming tone of his mother Martha (a finely aged Diane Lane) and the baseball coach morality of his father Jonathan (Kevin Costner, back with a very calm and insightful vengeance).

The intercutting flashbacks allow us to get to Clark’s discovery of who he is more quickly, uncovering a lost Kryptonian craft hidden in the Arctic and downloading his birth father’s memories, giving Crowe considerably more—and welcome—screen time. Soon he is wearing the old blue, red and bit o’ yellow and blasting around the planet like he owns the place. But crafty reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is on the trail of this super-human do-gooder, and a vengeful General Zod emerges from the shadows of space searching for the Codex and the son of Jor-El.

Snyder, a filmmaker whose hitting and missing along the years have never allowed critics to deny his ambition and flair, shows remarkable restraint here, choosing to focus on the scale of the world(s) his story is set in instead of drawing all attention to action and movement; there is not a moment of his signature slow-down/speed-up style of editing, allowing the super-powered Kryptonians to blast around the screen at their own dizzying speeds. The scenes on Krypton could rival Avatar for sheer scale of world-building, while the flashbacks to Kansas are filmed with the tenderness and tone of an Oscar-nominated coming-of-age tale: the director of 300 shooting like Richard Linklater meets Terrence Malick. Who’d have seen it coming?

Kent touch this: Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Pa and Ma Kent

Kent touch this: Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Pa and Ma Kent

The story is well-known, though there are a few new beats to this drum. Superman is unknown to the people before Zod and his army arrive. Lois is on to the son of Jor-El long before she meets Clark. Kryptonite and Lex Luthor play no part in the tale, although the latter’s industrial might is evident in one scene. A new extreme take on the life lessons Jonathan Kent teaches Clark provides one of the film’s most affecting scenes.

The action and drama are updated suitably, and there are some clever allusions to the world of today, with Superman in one scene forced to down a military drone sent to track his location. But the failure to properly evolve the Daily Planet, the “newspaper” of record, seems like both a missed opportunity and a cop-out. The internet is briefly mentioned as an alternative means to break a story, but there is no feel for the crisis in the industry. The scenes in the Daily Planet offices feel terribly dated, with even the layout of the newsroom floor looking like it’s from the 1970s. As if struck by a magic beam fired by some politically correct supervillian, editor Perry White is now black and Jimmy Olsen is now Jenny—all good progressive things, if only the characters were given anything to do.

The script is both the salvation and damnation of Man of Steel. Goyer, whose finest work rests in The Dark Knight trilogy, created this story with producer Christopher Nolan, taking a break from bats. The Batman Begins structure of the early earthbound sequences revels in this reunion, and Goyer’s screenplay is superb at contrasting the patriarchs and the lessons they imbue upon their shared son. But the dialogue outside of these father/son scenes is often dull, and almost every last one of Goyer’s jokes falls sigh-worthily flat. One military character has an identical arc to a police character in The Dark Knight Rises, almost scene for scene. The burden of two enormous themes—what does it mean to be human? and; what does it mean to be the last of one’s kind?—proves too much for Goyer to balance, and by the end one of these questions has been all but completely dropped.

British actor Henry Cavill, following performances in The Tudors and Immortals, shows himself a strong leading man as the adult Clark Kent. Preposterously handsome, like TV Clark Kent Tom Welling but sculpted in marble, Cavill’s presence dominates when he is not pitched against the two Robin Hoods, who utterly steal the film. Cavill may not be given too many opportunities to show off his talents, but in the few scenes where it counts his face unleashes an intensity and pain that totally sell the moment.

Hard-knocking journalism: Amy Adams as Lois Lane

Hard-knocking journalism: Amy Adams as Lois Lane

Amy Adams is less lucky as Lois, working with an awkwardly written version of the character, but still ever-believable as a successful female reporter. Zack Snyder, whose Sucker Punch has been the subject of more women’s studies PhDs than Sylvia Plath (FACT), refrains from making an obvious sex symbol out of Lois, keeping her professionally dressed throughout, and able to give as good as she gets in debate with even the most alpha male of men. If Goyer had been more successful in writing both her character and the love story between Lois and Clark, Adams could no doubt have stolen the show. Michael Shannon is similarly let down by lax characterisation, but his undeniable intensity makes him a riveting Hitler-esque Zod to Terence Stamp’s more Rasputiny take.

Hans Zimmer may be no John Williams, but his score rises at the most crucial moments and lingers in the ear with the same fire, if not the same bombast. This is a film with an almost faultless soundscape, and the sound effects on Krypton help sell it as both a believable world and society. The production design on Krypton is fantastic, with devices using Pin Art-style illustrations to communicate instead of video screens, and the costumes looking like Liberace-in-space, flamboyant but superbly detailed.

This all brings us back to the action, because yes—indeed—Superman does punch someone in the face. Several times. For the most part Snyder conceives a remarkable, rocketing look to his action scenes, although the speed can be hard to follow. Clark’s first battle with the Kryptonians is thrilling but overstays its welcome, and the camera at times is more concerned with framing the logo of an IHOP than showing the fates of those thrown through its windows. A battle with a tentacled robot is a poorly edited and indecipherable mess, but the payoff is immense. A re-enactment of a major scene from Independence Day slips from homage into theft, and the film’s recurring usage of the fatal consequences of buttons being only half-pressed down is insulting to the audience.

Zod man out: Michael Shannon looks, as ever, as if he is only moments away from snapping and killing everyone

Zod man out: Michael Shannon looks, as ever, as if he is only moments away from snapping and killing everyone

The carnage of the finale is unspeakable, and the presence of Transformers 3 DP Amir Mokri seems hardly a coincidence, with buildings crumbling and exploding all across Metropolis in a veritable blitzkrieg of CGI. It looks superb, but with Goyer choosing to focus on only three civilians throughout the colossal donnybrook there is little sense of human tragedy in what must be a ground zero of Nagasakian proportions. The Avengers was far more concerned with the average citizen.

Like the film itself, the action sequences are troubled, but overall satisfying. Snyder has not made the magisterial Superman film that people had hoped for, but he has made the most exciting take on the tale yet. Sequels will come, and the end earns them. But no scene is more deserving of a Superman franchise than that moment when Henry Cavill first takes to the skies, as if lifted by Zimmer’s score, and jets across the world, Snyder’s camera slamming from left to right, struggling to keep up with the superhero. It’s the cinematic moment the character has been craving since Action Comics #1.

You won’t need to believe a man can fly; you’ll see it.

3/5

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

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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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The Dark Knight Rises – The long goodbye

The Dark Knight returns

Has it really been only four years? The Dark Knight was such an enormous success on its release in 2008, both critically and popularly, that it upended the common perception of the summer blockbuster as infantile or mindless. Already a regular on many film fans’ favourite movies lists, it has even repeatedly permeated somewhat hyperbolic lists of the “best films ever”. Regardless of negative opinions some might have, there is no denying it was a step above the Hollywood machine’s average output, and, to borrow from the Joker, it changed things.

So expectations were high, probably too high, for The Dark Knight Rises, the “final act” in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Following on from the remarkable success of The Dark Knight (and the director’s popular, inspired, flawed Inception), the loss of that film’s breakout star (Heath Ledger’s Joker is perhaps the most iconic villain of the past decade) and the need to conclude a saga that, in many ways, had only just begun, have proved to be too much for Christopher Nolan and his brother and writing partner Jonathan Nolan to live up to. But while The Dark Knight Rises is the weakest film in the trilogy that started with the brilliant but overshadowed Batman Begins, it does not let the side down and brings the story to an acceptable, if premature, close.

We pick up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne is still physically and emotionally damaged from his encounter with Harvey Two-Face and the death of his beloved Rachel. He has not put on the cowl in that time, but the myth of Harvey Dent as a hero has allowed for the streets of Gotham to be kept free of scum by strictly legal means. Wayne, now a Howard Hughesian shut-in, is led back down the path of the Batman after an encounter with a cat burglar, Selina Kyle (the traditional Catwoman, though never named as such in the film), who is discovered to have links to a conspiracy within his own company and, worse still, connections to a vicious, hulking terrorist known as Bane.

World-weary Bruce and Alfred

The film opens with an impressive if over-elaborate Mission: Impossible­-style airborne action sequence, but slows down rapidly after that, taking its time to reintroduce to us to a very different Gotham, as well as a few new characters. It’s not until the 45min mark that Wayne is back in the Batsuit, chasing Bane and evading the police. The film becomes quite gripping from here on, as Batman tackles Bane and his henchmen, with a little help from the slippery Selina, before the revelation of Bane’s masterplan brings the film to a screeching halt. Dragging out the penultimate half hour with a bloated, convoluted and frustratingly unauthentic city-under-siege scenario, it is only in its final action sequence – a massive street brawl and a pulse-pounding chase sequence – that the film fully recaptures the viewer’s attention and excitement. One can’t help but feel there was just too much story for one movie here, and the scale was simply too big for the subject.

Despite a handful of surprisingly predictable plot twists in the final act – hardly believable from the men behind Memento and The Prestige – the story is strong and the dialogue is tight. The Nolans have done a good job returning to the themes of the previous movies – identity, justice, chaos – and extending them through this film, although they touch upon little new. The simplicity of the Joker’s master stroke in The Dark Knight – bombs on two boats with the triggers in the hands of the passengers of the alternate boat – is here echoed and extended to ludicrous proportions, dragging out the sense of terror and chaos. An earlier scene where Bane detonates a bomb at a sports stadium and threatens the spectators with more to come creates far more panic and horror than what actually follows.

Linking Bane to the League of Shadows, the terrorist guild from Batman Begins, helps to bring the story full circle, and Wayne’s character arc comes to a well-executed conclusion. Perhaps The Dark Knight’s greatest flaw was taking the focus away from Wayne and Batman, but here his struggle is once again at the forefront of the drama. Christian Bale continues his restrained performance as Wayne/Batman, though has little new to show off that he didn’t in the first film. His only real challenge is in the romantic subplots, balancing attractions to femme fatale Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and charitable billionaire Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). These subplots don’t run smoothly, but Bale captures something of a man who desperately needs to be loved but cannot admit it.

Disappointingly, the refocus of attention on Wayne comes at the expense of the minor characters, Alfred (Michael Caine), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). All three were given brilliant, short, simple character arcs in The Dark Knight, but here are reduced to their basics. With the exception of one emotional scene with Bale, Caine’s Alfred is little more than a butler. Gordon, now one of the few devotees of the cult of the Dark Knight, offers unconditional, undramatic support – although Oldman gets a chance to have some fun during the final action sequence. Fox is once again just black Q.

Anne Hathaway shows off her safe-cracking figure

Thankfully the Nolan brothers have found something special in their interpretation of Selina Kyle. Treating her as a Robin Hood-esque thief who believes the rich should sacrifice all their belongings, but still wants to keep the good stuff for herself, the pair have written a strong, feisty female role that it is both witty and sexy, and Anne Hathaway pulls it off with ample aplomb. Christopher Nolan has often (and justifiably) been criticised for the weak female characters in his films, so his Selina is a welcome addition, and the strongest woman to feature in a Nolan film since Memento. The fact that Hathaway kicks plenty of ass in a skin-tight catsuit with serrated stilettos makes her fanboy gold.

More problematic is new character John Blake, a rookie cop whose smarts soon raise him to the rank of detective, and who becomes a close ally of Gordon and Batman. It’s not that he is a weak or thinly drawn character, but that the story forces him upon the viewer. Before we’ve had a chance to get a sense of the character he rattles off a story about his childhood that screams “Like me! Like me! I’m an important character!” You can feel the hand of the writers at work, and it’s disconcerting. In the hands of a lesser actor it would have been a disaster, but, portrayed by the immensely charismatic Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Blake is elevated and carried through the story. It was a close call, though.

Featuring the top half of Tom Hardy’s head as Bane

And then there’s Bane. Played by a beefed-up Tom Hardy, the massive enemy has impressive screen presence, but not much more. With his face half-covered by a breathing device, and his voice echoing like a less-sleepy Orson Welles from Transformers: The Movie, Hardy’s performance can barely be seen. His mouth is completely cloaked, so it is his eyes and hands and body that do the acting. He is never quite dull, but he is truly limited, and many of his lines, laced with Nolanesque menace, are inaudible in the troubled sound mix. In many ways this Bane is little more than the previous cinematic incarnation of the character, as a grunting henchman in the lambasted camp farce Batman & Robin.

“BAAAAAAAAANE!!!”

Production values are as high as one has come to expect, and Nolan’s camera never misses a chance to show off the glossy grit on display. The choice to film an undisguised Manhattan as Gotham is an odd one, however. Several famous landmarks can be seen in wide shots as bombs go off, including the half-constructed new World Trade Center. The illusion is briefly shattered. But the action scenes are gloriously paced and captured, particularly the high-speed chases. The fight scene choreography is a bit lax, and one punch-up between Batman and Bane is out of focus for a disappointing amount of the time. CGI is well used to show the scale of Bane’s warpath, but one longs for an on-set demolition, like the hospital in The Dark Knight.

Editing is quick and clean, although Nolan relies too heavily on flashbacks, particularly to the less-seen Batman Begins, to make sure that everyone is up to speed. Further patronising can be witnessed when a minor character is killed and the camera whips in to a close-up on their body and lingers there until people who aren’t even watching the movie have all understood that yes, this relatively unimportant character is now dead. “Have you got it yet? They’re dead. Right? Yes? Let’s move on.”

What the film lacks in balance it makes up for in style and scale, and there is so much to enjoy here, despite its exhausting length. Much of the wit of Batman Begins lost in The Dark Knight is back this time round. There are more one-liners, with two of the film’s finest lines delivered by an unexpected but well-chosen character. Wittier than The Dark Knight though it is, it takes itself even more seriously, if that can be believed. Hinting at issues such as class struggle and the Occupy movement is all well and good, but you need to back them up with conclusions that are absent here.

Still, while Nolan has delivered the weakest film in his trilogy, he has still delivered a fine third instalment, and this trilogy will be immortalised for his incredible efforts. Rises is a better film because of the films that have preceded it; the characters already developed, the music carried over, its brilliant look and dramatic style. It brings little new to the table, but it repackages the old things with a sizeable punch. While its climax is overly predictable and oddly familiar, it is a suitable denouement.

Batman’s new Batwing the Bat

Nolan’s Batman may have finished his work, but the inspiration this series of films has provided audiences with will linger, and we will no doubt see the character again soon, in this guise or in another. The bar has been set for all future Batmans, and thanks to The Dark Knight Rises it is still an imposing height to reach.

3/5

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The Raid – Review

You would be forgiven for thinking that the sound designer working on The Raid had made some odd artistic choices; what’s with are all that manly grunting and hooting and the sound of sweaty palms slapping against one another on the soundtrack? You will in fact find that those noises are coming from the audience. The Raid is that kind of action movie that causes men (and women, though less verbosely so) to revert to a primitive, almost bestial state, resulting in cheers, roars and copious high-fivery.

Delivering every 10 minutes the sort of cheer-inducing ‘awesome’ moment that most blockbusters nowadays strain themselves to provide one of (think Legolas flipping onto the horse in The Two Towers, or the Batpod’s wall reversal in The Dark Knight), The Raid manages to entertain its audience without ever becoming too stupid or too experimental to alienate.

The story of how Welsh film fan Gareth Evans found himself at the helm of a modest budget Indonesian action film is quickly becoming the stuff of legend, and has been suitably embellished as all good legends are. The Raid is in fact Evans’s second film, after 2009’s Merantau, which introduced action star Iko Uwais and the extreme martial art pencak silat to the world. But if The Raid is not his cinematic debut, it is definitely the film that has made his name been heard the world over.

The story is all too simple: a squad of elite cops storm a tower slum to take out a drugs kingpin. But the boss turns the tables by setting his machete and machine gun-laden junkie goons on the cops. Soon the good guys run low on both ammunition and other good guys, and it’s up to the survivors to kung fu fight their ways to the top of the tower. (yes, I know it’s pencak silat, but I can’t say “they pencak silat” their ways” now can I?) There are a few minor plot twists along the way, but really this is all about intense action sequences, heightened by a pumping soundtrack.

Action! Action! Action!

Blood splatters, bones shatter, fridges explode. The fighting is frenetic and balletic; choreography for the hand-to-hand combat is honed to perfection, while clunky machetes are wielded with the grace and elegance of the Green Destiny in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

And indeed, this is a film all about references to classic action movies – but always references that show reverence, and not theft. The villain wields a hammer like Oldboy, his henchman shares the name “Mad Dog” with the henchman from Hard Boiled, the plot itself reads like The Warriors mated with Assault on Precinct 13. Obvious too are references to computer games; the film features action and stealth sequences, and the tower is literally played through level by level with “boss fights” along the way. One scene in which two of the acrobatic cops and their burly sergeant raid a meth lab full of goons is overwhelming similar to the classic arcade beat ’em up Final Fight.

Mini-boss fight #1

The film shows signs of clumsiness along the way. The geography of the tower is somewhat ill-defined, and it’s rarely clear where everyone is. Worse still is the editing of scenes together. In one sequence a goon walks to the end of a corridor, pauses to think, we cut to a separate scene and then back to the goon who has not progressed in any way in five minutes; this is the sort of continuity mistake silent cinema gave up on before 1910. Later, a character gets into an elevator and is in it for at least 15 minutes, simply because of the way lengthy scenes are cut around his (assumedly) brief descent. But with action this awesome these minor problems fall by the wayside.

We enjoy the violence because it is so stylised and, oddly, beautiful; there is a certain poetry to the way a man is knocked out by having his head shatter tiles along a wall. Iko Uwais shows off his formidable skills but also shows off an intensity in his acting that escapes many of his American action counterparts. It no doubt limits him to this sort of movie, but he is never anything less than sincere in his performance. In fact the realistic performances, combined with the film’s gritty, almost filthy look, are what make The Raid so memorable and impressive. It’s hectic madness, with men flipping over the backs of one another, yet somehow it all looks, well, sort of possible.

What it lacks in the one-liners of Die Hard and Commando it makes up for with Mortal Kombat-style finishing moves. A remarkable breakthrough for director and star, The Raid will become a staple in the collections of action movie buffs, and keep men (and women) roaring with delight until the day that impaling a guy on a doorframe is no longer considered entertainment.

4/5

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

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A guide to recognising your Oscar nominees

The BAFTAs are now over so it is officially time to go into Oscar-mania overdrive. A fortnight from this moment fever pitch will have been reached, and four hours of so-so entertainment will begin. As someone switching on Around the World in 80 Days for the first time will think: with this many stars it has to be amazing, right?! Eh, it’s fine. The Oscars will be too.

As many have noted the problem with the Academy these days is that, coming in rapid succession after the Golden Globes, BAFTAs and VAGs (Various Assorted Guilds), the word Oscar is now synonymous with predictable. But somehow I am holding out hope for a few surprises this year. I’m also holding out hope that hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway don’t suck – a boy can dream, right?

And the nominees for Best Picture are…

The King’s Speech

Leading the pack with an impressive, perhaps surprising twelve nominations, The King’s Speech is certainly a forerunner, though hardly anointed. It has the Hurt Locker edge, having won the BAFTA while the curiously unprescient Globes* gave their top nod to The Social Network (the Globes embarrassingly whored themselves out to Avatar in 2010). It also has a slew of top talent at next-to the height of their game – Colin Firth is a very difficult one to challenge for Best Actor, while Geoffrey Rush has lost none of his Shine (not apologising, you can’t make me) and would be a shoe-in for Best Supporting in other years. But the film has everything an Academy favourite needs: costumes and colour, wit and drama, happily-ever-after love, a WWII setting and of course a triumph-over-adversity tale that would make it this year’s Rocky if Rocky weren’t already nominated this year (see The Fighter, below).

Don’t expect a clean sweep, but if it starts one, it’ll nail Best Picture.

True Grit

The Coen brothers have been Academy favourites for some time now, and in the rare position that the film-going public at large love them also. True Grit is a spectacle alright, put together with all the flair the Coens can manage, but is it enough? Jeff Bridges could dethrone Firth (pun noticed, but unintended) for Best Actor, but despite their shared alcoholism the role is more The Dude than Bad Blake – his Oscar-winning role from last year’s Crazy Heart, and unlikely to steal the Academy voters’ hearts in quite the same manipulative way. The film’s breakthrough star, Hailee Steinfeld, has a much greater chance of taking home the Best Supporting Actress gong, although the Academy has been destructively patronising in not granting the youth a nomination in the leading category.

With ten nominations, most positively Art Direction, Costume Design and Cinematography, it may not win big, but it’d be a shock if it walked away empty-handed.

Inception

So The Dark Knight is held solely responsible for there being ten nominees in the Best Picture category now. Christopher Nolan is one of the most talented filmmakers alive today, but damn his fans are more terrifyingly devout than a Jihadi horde! So with an extra five spaces there would be further outrage/terror campaigns if his first film since The Dark Knight did not make the cut. And rightly so, Inception was one of the best films of 2010, but it is still the token audience-panderer, and has no chance of taking the big prize. The big coup would be for it to win Best Original Screenplay, but against The King’s Speech, Another Year and The Kids are All Right it seems to hold only a small chance. But technical awards should abound, and its music stands a fighting chance as the bombastic epic score against The King’s Speech‘s more traditional and The Social Network‘s more experimental nominees.

The Nolanistas will be disappointed.

The Social Network

Until recently this appeared unchallengeable to take Best Picture, but that seems uncertain now. Fincher’s drama has a lot to say for itself; it’s modern, character-driven, dripping in style. Outside of the director’s traditional thriller zone, he’s produced a mighty impressive movie. But it’s one that is greater than the sum of its parts (unlike The King’s Speech, which is simply a collection of great parts), so it will likely not clean up on the awards, which may affect its Best Picture chances. Jesse Eisenberg stands almost no chance at Best Actor, but if it loses out on Best Picture a win for David Fincher would be a great runner-up prize. Aaron Sorkin, a master of dialogue, seems destined to win a writing Oscar some day. Taking Best Original Screenplay this year is a strong possibility.

If it doesn’t win Best Picture, it could easily cut into The King’s Speech‘s spoils. It’s not out of the race yet.

The Fighter

Ah bless, how we struggle against adversity. And not just one adversity, but two! Two characters, struggling against two adversities! Why the fighter of the title could refer as easily to the struggles of the main characters as it could to the fact that the film is about boxing! OK, I’m being far meaner than this strong film deserves. The Fighter would be a superb film if it weren’t so darn familiar. With no chance at the big awards and unlikely to receive many technicals, The Fighter‘s strongest suit is in its supporting stars. Christian Bale will have little competition for Best Supporting Actor, given a superb turn as a crack-addicted former “star” boxer, unless the Academy decides to effectively dry hump The King’s Speech and throw this to Geoffrey Rush. Amy Adams, always the supporting bridesmaid, never the supporting bride, has already lost this to her co-star Melissa Leo, who is Hailee Steinfeld’s big competition. That will be a fun one to watch…

In another year it’d have had a crack at the title. All it can hope for now is a supporting sweep.

127 Hours

Danny Boyle is clearly still riding high on Slumdog Millionaire, as the same film made by any other director (not that it could have been, this well) would never have gotten a nod here. Still, it’s good to see this terrific film getting a chance at the big award – no ‘arm in that now, is there? (sorry) It’s biggest chance at an award is in the editing category, which it is undoubtedly deserving, but may be a touch too experimental for the Academy’s liking. James Franco deserves his Best Actor nomination in a role that showed the performer reveal a more mature side to himself, although the show’s host will no doubt be left a little red-faced when his name is not announced on the night. This is a problem the Academy should have foreseen and never allowed to happen.

Maybe editing, maybe nothing.

Black Swan

Quite the nail-biter (OK, I’ll stop), Black Swan looked like a major contender when its trailer first hit the internet last year, but I suspect it will be too much of a horror for the voters to make it Best Picture. A Best Director trophy for Aronofsky seems similarly unlikely, but the film will likely escape with an enviable Best Actress award in a very competitive year – Natalie Portman’s mesmerising physical presence in the film is worth a nomination before she even opens her mouth. Cinematography could go Black Swan‘s way, but competing with True Grit, Inception, The King’s Speech and The Social Network, I wouldn’t hold out hope for it.

Too gruesome to take anything more than a well-deserved Best Actress award.

Toy Story 3

Last year, Up‘s nomination in the Best Picture category made a bold statement about what a remarkable animated achievement that film was. While Toy Story 3 is also a triumph for Pixar, it is not one on the same level as Up, and its nomination in the Best Picture category only serves to give it an unfair advantage in the Best Animated Feature category, where it is up against superb (and arguably superior) competition in the form of The Illusionist and How to Drain Your Dragon. A shame really.

Pixar win another gong, but it should not have been the anointed animated victor the Academy has made it.

The Kids Are All Right

The token indie drama, this pleasant but confused little film never stood a chance at Best Picture. Mark Ruffalo, nominated Best Supporting Actor for his hardly outstanding role, needn’t bother turning up on the night, while Annette Bening is standing in for Meryl Streep this year. Its only hope is Best Original Screenplay, but even that seems far out of reach.

The Awards Are All Lost

Winter’s Bone

A curious addition, more comfortable triumphing at Sundance than in Hollywood, Winter’s Bone has few hopes of victory, though the nominations will boost its profile (and particularly that of its star). Despite its bleak setting and social commentary, it’s a surprisingly straightforward tale – perhaps why it sat well with the Academy voters – so it hasn’t really got the narrative punch to get it much of a look-in for Best Picture. Jennifer Lawrence would be a deserving Best Actress winner, but to steal it would be almost impossible; this is Natalie’s year. John Hawkes, star of several films previously but practically unknown to most, can expect a surge of interest after his turn here, but with Rush almost guaranteed the Supporting Actor gong if Bale somehow fails to take it home, he doesn’t stand much of a chance.

A miracle, albeit a happy one, is needed to get this a single gong.

As for the rest of the awards, nothing is too certain. Certainly a win for Banksy with Exit Through the Gift Shop would be a turn-up for the books, and perhaps lead to the most memorable acceptance… speech?… in Academy Award history. Biutiful has Javier Bardem behind it for Best Foreign Language Film, but after last year’s frankly insane spurning of The White Ribbon and A Prophet (as well as the noticeable absence this year of the heart-wrenching Of Gods and Men) anything could happen. Dogtooth could win the damn thing!

The real winners or losers on the night will be the show’s producers, however. They’ve taken a huge gamble on their hosts that could backfire enormously. We’ll have to wait and see.

See you in two weeks.

* Since 2004 the Golden Globes have only awarded their Best Motion Picture – Drama award to the eventual Oscar winner once; Slumdog Millionaire in 2009.

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