Thursday, 6 February 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

As with any new Coen brothers film, I eagerly anticipated the release of Inside Llewyn Davis and the good things I’d heard from America before its UK release only added to my excitement. The fact that it’s taken close to a week to write something about the film though, might tell you something about my reaction to the movie. Unfortunately I left the cinema feeling disappointed. I’d go so far as to say that I didn’t really like or even enjoy the film and the last week or so has found me struggling to find a spin on it so that I could reward it with a favourable review. Alas I’m out of time so here’s what I think.

To put it bluntly, the film did little for me. I wasn’t entertained and was rarely amused. I didn’t get much from the story and disliked the central character. It left me feeling cold and uninterested and I never got on board with Llewyn, willing him on to succeed. Instead I just thought he was a bit of a dick. His misfortunes were often his own and his undoubted talent was clouded by his personality. Although the Coens’ attempt to present other characters even less favourably, I still wanted nothing to do with him and was only happy when he was singing.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Ranking the Directors

A few days ago I re-watched Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained and began thinking about how highly I've rated the vast majority of his films. I wondered exactly what ratings I'd given his movies so went through my reviews and calculated the average, thus combining two things I love; movies and statistics (I'm fun, I know). I then replicated this with Charlie Chaplin, the man who I consider to be my favourite film maker. Seeing as I'd already done these two, I thought I might as well go through my entire blog and work out the mean average mark I'd given directors. To be fair, I've created two categories, one for directors for whom I've reviewed more than three films and one group for those directors for whom I've reviewed exactly three films. Anything less than that has been ignored. The results surprised me as many of the directors who I consider my favourites, rank lower than those who I'd consider less important to me. Below are the two lists.

Park Chan-wook. 9.3 from five films. Park ranks as my favourite director in terms of average and is also amongst my favourites generally. His Oldboy is one of my favourite films of all time and his first American movie, Stoker, also impressed me last year, making my Top 10 of 2013 list.

Billy Wilder. 8.0 from four films. Twelve months ago I'd never seen a Billy Wilder film but now I count some of his films amongst my favourites. I was blown away by Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment and his average would have been much higher if I'd enjoyed Sabrina more. I can't wait to see more of his movies.

Quentin Tarantino 7.8 from ten films. There is only one Tarantino film which I haven't loved and if it wasn't for Death Proof, his average would probably be over 8. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are 10/10 films for me.

Werner Herzog 7.6 from eight films. Had I split Herzog's documentaries and features, the result here would have been quite different. I much prefer the likes of Encounters at the End of the World to Aguirre.

Alfred Hitchcock 7.5 from thirteen films. I was a late convert to Hitchcock and with only thirteen films reviewed, I still have some way to go. I'm a bit surprised that my average is just 7.5 as I've rated Rope, Shadow of a Doubt and Psycho extremely highly. His average is let down by the likes of North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Martin Scorsese 7.4 from seven films. I'd class Scorsese as my favourite film director of all time so to be at just 7.4 is a little misleading. This is because I'm currently reviewing his films in order (the recent Wolf of Wall Street aside). Once the likes of Goodfellas and Raging Bull have been reviewed, his average will shoot right up.

Peter Jackson 7.3 from four films. I think The Lord of the Rings trilogy was brilliant but wasn't so keen on the first Hobbit and although the second was better, I'm yet to review it.

Steven Spielberg 7.2 from ten films. Generally speaking, the more recent the Spielberg film, the lower I'll have rated it. This wasn't the case with Lincoln but Tintin is no Schindler's List.

Ridley Scott 7.0 from five films. Alien is an outstanding movie but I'm not huge Blade Runner fan.

David Cronenberg 6.9 from eight films. I have a love/hate relationship with David Cronenberg. The Fly I love. Crash I hate. A Dangerous Method I love. A History of Violence I, well don't hate but don't love either.

Kim Ji-woon 6.8 from four films. Korea's Kim has made some incredible movies, perhaps none more so than I Saw the Devil. His American début, The Last Stand was a big let down but was at least directed with aplomb.

Charlie Chaplin 6.7 from forty-five films. I've reviewed more Chaplin films than most of the other names on this list combined but I find him languishing with just a 6.7 average. Although I love the guy more than any other man should love a man, some of his early films are poor, even to a huge Chaplin fan. The Kid, The Circus and City Lights are three of my favourite films however.

Sam Raimi 6.5 from six films. I loved Evil Dead when I saw it for the first time last year but I'm no huge fan of the Spider-Man trilogy and didn't enjoy Oz the Great and Powerful.

Steven Soderbergh 6.0 from four films. I thought that Side Effects was a good film but I'm not usually excited by a new Soderbergh movie.

Lars von Trier 5.5 from four films. Von Trier is a fascinating director whose films infuriate me. The 8/10 I gave Antichrist shows how poorly I've marked his other movies.

I've only reviewed three of the following directors movies.

Steve McQueen - 9.0
Michel Hazanavicius - 8.7
John Lasseter - 8.7
Christopher Nolan - 8.7
Sidney Lumet - 8.3
Wim Wenders - 8.3
The Coen Brothers - 8.0
Paul Thomas Anderson - 7.7
Shane Meadows - 7.0
Tim Burton - 6.7
Guillermo del Toro - 6.3
Paul Verhoeven - 6.3
Ivan Reitman - 6.0
James Whale - 6.0
Judd Apatow - 5.7
Tony Scott - 4.7

You might also like
The Oscar Challenge
500 Reviews. The Story So Far
Six of the Best... Films About Film

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Making a Living



February 2nd 1914, exactly one hundred years ago today saw the launch of one of the most successful Hollywood careers in history. On this day a century ago, a twenty-four year old Englishman called Charles Spencer Chaplin made his screen debut in a one reel Keystone comedy called Making a Living. Eighteen months later he would arguably become the most famous entertainer on the planet and by his late twenties he was the richest. Being a man for whom Chaplin has a special place in my heart, not to mention a permanent inked place on my arm, today is something special for me and to celebrate I decided to watch his first film exactly a century after its initial release.

Although I’ve reviewed over forty of Chaplin’s films in the past two years on this blog, Making a Living was one that I had never seen. In a way I’m glad that today was the first time I’d seen the short film as there’s something interesting about seeing it for the very first time exactly a hundred years after it was first exhibited. Chaplin plays a charming swindler called Edgar English having not adopted his iconic Tramp costume and persona until his second film, Kid Auto Races at Venice. During the thirteen minute runtime, English has frequent run-ins with Henry Lehrman’s reporter and eventually falls foul of the Keystone Kops, leading to a chaotic and slightly confusing conclusion.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

All About Eve



All About Eve is a 1950 drama that for nearly fifty years stood as the lone record holder for most Academy Award nominations. At the 23rd Academy Awards it was nominated for a total of fourteen awards, a feat unmatched until Titanic equalled it in 1997. The film wouldn’t be a successful as James Cameron’s sprawling, water based epic however and won just six of it’s nominations including the important Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Sixty four years on and today I watched the film for the first time to see what all the fuss is about. My immediate impression upon completing the film was that of surprise for its multiple nominations and victories but stepping back a little, the film features a lot to like, not least some fantastic writing and superb acting performances.

The film strangely shares many themes with another 1950 release, Sunset Boulevard, and indeed the two would battle it out in eight of the categories at the Oscar’s ceremony I just spoke of. Another film that All About Eve congers memories of is stranger still and that is Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. All three movies feature stories about revered and ageing stars who are or at least feel threatened by perkier, younger women. Here, the marvellous Bette Davis plays Broadway star Margot Channing, a talented actress with an outwardly sense of entitlement but who is inwardly frail and uneasy, worried for her place in the theatre world. Her fears come to the forefront of her mind when she is confronted with the attributes and ambitions of Eve Harrington (Ann Baxter). Harrington begins the film as a timid and star struck young girl but what lurks beneath her downtrodden and excited appearance is a viciously ambitious starlet.

After Earth



Last summer, the film After Earth was labelled as rubbish by the vast majority of critics. They were all wrong, it’s much worse than that. After Earth came from a story idea by Will Smith which was fleshed out into a feature length screenplay by M. Night Shyamalan and Gary Whitta. The movie was directed by Shyamalan and was produced by and starred Will Smith and his son Jaden. The film gives its audience so little to enjoy that it’s almost offensive and provides none of the action or comedy that we have come to expect from a Will Smith fronted movie.

Set in the distant future, humanity now resides on the planet Nova Prime with the Earth abandoned. A thousand years after their arrival on their new home, the planet is invaded by aliens (irony alert) who wish to destroy our species and conquer the planet. Their primary weapon is the Ursa; a large, blind predator that is able to smell human fear. One man, General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) has the ability to ‘ghost’ – be free of fear and as such invisible to the Ursa. His son Kitai (Jaden Smith) is a Ranger Cadet who has hopes of replicating his father’s talents. The two are somewhat estranged but Cypher takes his son on a training mission which inadvertently crash lands on Earth, home to numerous deadly creatures as well as an Ursa on the loose.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Gone with the Wind



Epic in every conceivable facet, Gone with the Wind is a hugely successful, multi award winning melodrama which sweeps its way through intertwined families of the Old South during The American Civil war and subsequent reconstruction era. Notable in its day for its long pre-production and actual production problems, the film has come to be known as one of the most loved in history. As well as receiving a record ten Oscars, a feat that wasn’t beaten for twenty years, it was also the highest grossing picture of its day and still remains the highest grossing film in history when adjusted for inflation. When released in 1939 it also had the distinction of being the longest American sound film, clocking in at a patience testing 221 minutes, or 234 including overture and intermission.

Although recognised upon its release as a critical and commercial success, and despite its place in history well and truly assured, more recent critical reassessments have been less kind, picking up on details which were less consequential in the late 1930s and early 40s. I’d heard both the good and bad second hand but decided to finally set aside many hours on a rainy Sunday and watch it for myself. My opinion of the picture is less favourable than the norm but I’m able to recognise it for its strengths and can’t dispute its historical standing in the medium of film.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washinton



Nominated for eleven Academy Awards but having the misfortune of being released in the same year as Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a political comedy-drama that stands the test of time. Though produced and set in 1939, the film feels as fresh and relevant as the day of its release and contains the breakthrough performance of one of Hollywood’s greats, James Stewart. Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, the head of the Boy Rangers, local newspaper owner and all around good guy. When one of his state’s Senators unexpectedly dies, the local political machine looks for a replacement that will be popular with the people but keep his nose out of their shady political dealings. After much deliberation it’s decided that Smith is their man and he heads off to Washington, wide eyed and wet behind the ears.

Although this is very much Jimmy Stewart’s film, he was given second billing to co-star Jean Arthur. Arthur was already a star by 1939 whereas Stewart was very much on his way up, on the back of strong supporting roles in the likes of Navy Blue and Gold and You Can’t Take It With You, which as with Mr. Smith was directed by Frank Capra. Stewart launches himself with this role though and despite his long and successful career, this is remains one of his defining performances.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

The Roaring Twenties



The Roaring Twenties is a mid period James Cagney gangster picture which co-stars Humphrey Bogart in the third and final film in which the two screen legends shared billing. The film takes on the epic task of depicting the rise and fall of a big shot gangster from his humble beginnings in the trenches of The First World War, through the heights of the prohibition era, the crippling Stock Market Crash and the subsequent repealing of the Volstead Act. This is a film which never feels epic in scale and instead closely follows its protagonists within their ever changing world. It’s also a film which has few standout moments and although considered a classic of the genre, dragged and felt much longer than it truly is.

The romantic elements of the story felt forced and the film was on more solid ground during the rat-tat-tat-tat, fast talking, “What’s the big idea” back and forth of the scenes set in the underworld speakeasies or liquor distilleries. Pricilla Lane is excellent in her early scenes as a wide eyed, inexperienced girl next door but suddenly seems swamped when placed inside the illegal world of the bootlegger. Her voice is sweet sounding and she can certainly hold a tune but she’s at sea when unaccompanied by an orchestra.

Some Like It Hot



A Hollywood remake of the 1935 French movie Fanfare d'Amour, Some Like It Hot is widely regarded as amongst the funniest and most cherished films in the history of cinema. Written, Produced and Directed by one of cinema’s finest, Billy Wilder, it stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as destitute musicians, eking out a living in prohibition era Chicago. Having accidentally witnessed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the two men go on the lamb and hop on a train to Florida. In order to go unnoticed by the Mob they disguise themselves as women and join an all female band heading to Miami. Amongst the band members is Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) who both men (obviously) fall for.

I’ve wanted to see Some Like It Hot for a long time and having finally got around to it last night, I can report that I wasn’t disappointed. Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script is rich, saucy and hilarious while full of the sort of bawdy double entendre that would have been impossible to get passed censors in the years before. In fact, along with the likes of Hitchcock’s Psycho and Wilder’s own The Apartment, it was just this sort of movie which saw to the decline and eventually dismemberment of the dreaded Hays/Breen Code that had constricted Hollywood since the early 1930s.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Top 10 of 2013

January 25th 2014 marks the second birthday of this blog and following on from last year, I've again chosen the day before this anniversary as the day to post my Top 10 films of the previous year. The extra month from December has given me the chance to catch up on some of the cinematic releases I missed earlier in the year as well as see some of this year's crop of Oscar nominated films. I saw a lot fewer films in 2013 than in 2012, partly thanks to a new job and partly because of a mid year blip during which I briefly lost the love of writing and subsequently watched fewer movies. Nevertheless I saw a total of 271 films of which 94 were eligible to be included on this list. (Last year's numbers were 391 & 100). To be included, I had to see a film that was released in UK cinemas between 25/01/13 and 24/01/14. Because of the slightly odd timing for an end of year list and crappy cinema release dates in the UK, a few of last year's Oscar nominated films were eligible for this list and films such as Her, Dallas Buyers Club and Inside Llewn Davis, which haven't been released yet cannot be included. The films below begin at my 10th favourite of the year, progressing to my favourite and I've also included my girlfriend's top 5 for a female/weirdo perspective. There's no bottom 5 this year because I didn't see enough of the truly awful films. As always, click on a film's title for a full review (if I wrote one).


10. Rush. As a huge Formula One fan I had my doubts about an American director taking on one of the sport's most fierce rivalries but Ron Howard captured the two personalities of Hunt and Lauda brilliantly. He also captured the speed, danger and to some extent noise associated with the sport as well as the grease and glamour that accompanies it. As a fan of the sport, I felt that the film stayed true to the routes of the story yet entertained and my girlfriend was enraptured by the movie as much as I was despite only enjoying the sport for Jenson Button's face. The movie looks great and sounds incredible while it allowed one of my favourite actors, Daniel Bruhl to give a fantastic performance that helped him reach a larger audience than ever before.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Aningaaq



Aningaaq is a short companion piece to the award winning Gravity that was written and directed by Jonás Cuarón, son of Alfonso Cuarón. I should make it clear right away that this review will feature spoilers so if you haven’t seen Gravity then you may not wish to continue. Have you left? Good. Aningaaq is a seven minute short that shows a scene in Gravity from the reverse angle. Having given up aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) begins to receive a faint radio transmission. Initially believing it to originate from a Chinese Space Station, she soon realises it’s in fact coming from Earth. This film shows us the other side of the conversation the two people have; Stone, miles above Earth on the verge of death and Aningaaq, an Inuit fisherman on a frozen fjord.

Aningaaq begins with a long, slow panning shot which depicts the inhospitable icy surroundings in which the Inuit fisherman finds himself living. This connects beautifully with the story of Gravity in that both characters are separated from their species by many miles and life snatching surroundings. Both films share the same eerie silence, further promoting the idea of bleakness and exposure. Unlike the blackness of space though, Aningaaq is shown in a near white out, the exact opposite of Dr. Stone.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Gravity



I first saw the multi award winning Gravity in November last year during my non writing phase but it’s a film that I felt I needed to see again. Gravity is a game changer as far as visual effects are concerned and it appears to have re-written the rule book for films set in space. So over two months and $675 million at the box office after its initial release, I was able to take in the film’s awesome effects once more in stunning 3D. I’ll be honest, I never expected to use the words ‘stunning’ and ‘3D’ in the same sentence but Gravity is the first film I’ve seen for which 3D was the right choice and actually added something to the movie.



Rather than working on a two dimensional plane as most films do, Gravity has a full 360 degree scope to work within. The camera is able to, and expected to move around the entire scene, not limited by space or ironically gravity. The use of 3D is completely justified and adds immeasurably to the feeling of floating as well as helps to place the film in its environment. The opening scene of an astronaut moving around a shuttle with wanton ease is spectacular and things only get better from there. Thousands if not millions of tiny pieces of satellite erupt in a magnificent burst high above the earth and set off complex chain reactions which are visually stunning as well as incredibly frightening.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Monsieur Verdoux



Released seven years after Chaplin’s last film The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux arrived after yet another turbulent period in the actor/writer/director’s life. Based on an idea by Orson Welles which Chaplin bought from his friend for $5,000 in 1941, the film is loosely based on the life of a famous French bigamist and murderer called Henri Landru. Here Charlie Chaplin plays Henri Verdoux, who after losing his steady job during the Great Depression, marries several wealthy old women before murdering them and stealing from their estates. Chaplin plays Verdoux as a dapper and cunning gentleman. Charming and flirtatious he is an expert salesman - his product, himself. Cleverly he woos unsuspecting women, keeping several on the go at once and when money becomes tight he strikes. Speaking accurately about his work to a neighbour he declares, “Yes I have a job. If I lose one, I can always get another”. It’s this kind of pitch black humour that runs through Chaplin’s darkest film and the same humour that drew mass criticism from journalists and the public alike.

Stepping back in time for just a moment to understand where Chaplin found himself in 1947 it’s not difficult to see why he was given such a hard time in the press. Following several highly public failed marriages, often with women several decades younger than himself, Chaplin found himself in 1943 at the centre of the biggest celebrity scandal since the Arbuckle trials over twenty years earlier. An inspiring actress who Chaplin had privately tutored called Joan Barry had publicly declared the star to be the father of her new born child and a paternity case was played out in the full glare of the media that same year. Although two blood tests proved Chaplin was not the father, the court still ordered him to pay child support and the media backlash was something that Chaplin never really recovered from. Added to this was Chaplin’s refusal to become an American citizen after over thirty years of working in America and suspicions of Communist sympathies in an ever more paranoid and right wing country. So when in 1947 Chaplin released a film that not only did away with his popular Tramp character but also appeared to glamorise murder and polygamy, the knives were out.

Frozen



The charm attributed to Disney’s latest feature animation is something that has passed me by. Exhibiting little originality in story, art or character, Frozen is nonetheless a double Oscar nominated film. Loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, this is a classic tale of Disney princesses overcoming adversity, finding happiness through hard work, perseverance and love. Following a typical first act tragedy, Princesses Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) are left alone in their Scandinavian castle. Though formerly very close, Elsa’s ability to create ice and snow from her fingertips is considered a danger to others and she hides away for years until she’s old enough to ascend the throne. Soon disaster strikes and the Kingdom is plunged into icy darkness while Elsa absconds to the mountains to lead a hermit like life. This leaves her younger sister Anna to bring her back and save the Kingdom from ruin.

I have to admit that I found very little to like in Frozen. I was bored by the predictable storyline and disliked the musical theatre style songs. The one ray of sunshine though in this otherwise cold film was the character of Olaf the snowman. One of the best Disney characters in years, everything Olaf says and does is funny or sweet and he brightened up what was otherwise a dull 102 minutes.

The Railway Man



The memoir of Eric Lomax, a man held as a Prisoner of War and forced to work on the Thai-Burma railway, had the potential to form the basis of an excellent movie. Unfortunately in the hands of director Jonathan Teplitzky it’s a flaccid hodgepodge of sentimentalism and redemption with an overbearing amount of romance crammed in to satisfy its grey haired target audience. The film goes to great lengths to show the impact that those harrowing years had on the central character but in doing so waters down its effects. Over and over again we are shown Lomax as a reserved, quiet man who is screaming on the inside and the more we see it, the less it holds sway. Instead of focus, Teplitzky meanders through the aging Lomax’s mind, boring his audience when he should be shocking them.

The film works using flashback to show tantalising glimpses as to what happened between 1942 and the end of the war and this is when the film is at its strongest. The numerous scenes in later life do little to add to the story before a terrific climax in which Lomax is reunited with the Japanese soldier who tortured him while a prisoner. The elder Lomax is played by Colin Firth who while always watchable, sometimes looks as though on auto pilot. His younger self is an excellent Jeremy Irvine who captures the mannerisms and speech of his older co-star. The remainder of the film is miscast with a doe eyed and wooden Nicole Kidman as Lomax’s long suffering wife and Stellan Skarsgård as his Swedish sounding superior officer. Skarsgård makes no attempt at affecting an English accent despite the strong and pronounced accent of his younger self (Sam Reid). Tanroh Ishida is capable but hardly threatening as the young Japanese torturer who is played by Hiroyuki Sanada in the later scenes.

Friday, 17 January 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street



Martin Scorsese’s latest motion picture comes hurling towards its audience as though thrown from an amusement park ride. Loud, vulgar and covered in vomit, it’s the director’s most controversial movie in years, not to mention his longest and perhaps his most unabashed. The auteur is proving that even into his seventies he still has the power to enthral, entertain and repulse with a wild film about greed and intemperance. The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the memoir of the same name written by Jordan Belfort, a former New York stockbroker who lived a life filled with excess thanks to his shady stock market dealings in the 1980s and 90s.

Joining Scorsese for a fifth time as lead actor is Leonardo DiCaprio who plays Belfort with all the grace, charm and sophistication you expect from a Wall Street swindler. DiCaprio is nasty, vile, cruel and disgusting and yet you can’t help love both him and the character as you watch him snort cocaine from a hooker’s anus or throw hundred dollar bills in the trash. He’s made it, he’s living the American dream and he’s loving every minute of it. Criticism has come from the fact that the central character suffers no real comeuppance, no fall from grace. I disagree slightly with this but would also argue that Scorsese and screenwriter Terrance Winter are showing you how it is. The bad guy doesn’t always lose and in this case, he might not win all the time but it makes no difference. You know he’s a dick and you know he’s in the wrong but you also know that you want what he’s got.

Good Vibrations



A feel good sleeper hit, Good Vibrations is based on the life of Belfast’s godfather of punk Terri Hooley. Set during the 1970s and 80s with civil war raging across Northern Ireland, Hooley set himself apart from the political and religious fighting by opening a record shop in the troubled capital. Maintaining neutrality and encouraging the same, he drew people from both sides together through their shared love of music before becoming an instrumental figure in the burgeoning punk scene with Good Vibrations Records, a small label that signed the likes of Rudi, The Outcasts and The Undertones. 

Good Vibrations didn’t get a huge release back in March 2013 and it deserves more attention that it’s been getting since. It’s a charming, funny and engaging film which put a smile on my face and helped me look beyond Belfast’s infamous past.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

2014 Oscar Nomination Predictions

With the awards season already in full swing, we're now on the eve of the nominations for the 86th Academy Awards. As with the 2013 Oscars I'm joining in with Film Actually's annual Oscar prediction competition and as with 2013, I'm going to use my Britishness as an excuse for a poor showing. As my fellow countrymen will know, the likes of The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis and Dallas Buyers Club haven't been released in the UK yet so it puts us at a slight disadvantage compared to our American chums. Despite this, I'm going to use my expert film knowledge as well as other award ceremonies as a guide and have a stab at predicting the nominations and winners in 21 of the categories. The list of my predictions is below and my predicted winner is in red.

According to my predictions, 12 Years a Slave will be the winner nominations wise with an impressive (14). Gravity will get (11) with American Hustle on (10), Captain Philips not far behind with (8) and The Wolf of Wall Street and Rush on (5) nominations apiece. 

For the Oscar winners, I'm predicting that Gravity will win a total of (6) awards with 12 Years a Slave taking (5) home and American Hustle (2).

For those who want to keep an eye on awards buzz all year round, head over to Film Actually for up to date and insightful awards news, predictions, rumours and lists.

BEST PICTURE
12 Years a Slave
Gravity
The Wolf of Wall Street
American Hustle
Captain Philips
Philomena
Nebraska

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Get a Horse!



Get a Horse! Is a dazzling and enchanting Disney animated short that was featured prior to the feature length film Frozen in cinemas. Wonderfully mixing antique and modern animation it’s a feast for the eyes and a reminder of how good Disney once was and what it’s capable of today. Directed by Lauren MacMullen, the first woman to solo direct a Disney film, it takes inspiration from Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr with its stepping through the screen antics.

The plot follows the typical type of early Mickey Mouse short. Using hand drawn, black and white animation, Mickey is enjoying a musical wagon ride with Minnie Mouse when they are pounced upon by the wicked Peg-Leg Pete in his automobile. Spying Minnie, Pete attempts to steal her from our hero and drive off into the sunset with her as his prize. Following a brief fight, Mickey and his steed Horace are literally pushed through the cinema screen and become bold, brightly coloured modern versions of themselves. Hilarity then ensues as the fight goes back and forth between monochrome and colour, old and new.

I thought this film was incredibly witty and inventive. Initially I assumed the short was a re-release of an old classic and had no idea that the characters were about to be launched into the 21st Century. The traditional black and white animation is exquisite and the soundtrack is excellent to match. I’m not as much a fan of the newer style but that might just be my old codger-ness coming through. Throughout its seven minute runtime, the film was drawing laughs from young and old in the cinema and was hopefully introducing the younger members of the audience to the wonderful older style of animation. The score is bouncy and full of brass and made my feet bop along from start to finish while it also makes use of archive audio to capture the real voices of Walt Disney, Marcellite Garner and Billy Bletcher, all long deceased. This really is a wonderful Disney short, the best I’ve seen in ages. 

9/10 

You may also like
Frozen 2013
Tangled 2010 

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Look of Love



The Look of Love is a 2013 biopic of Paul Raymond, a self made man dubbed ‘The King of Soho’ thanks to his enormous property empire which included numerous clubs, bars, strip clubs and theatres. Branching out later to pornographic magazines he became Britain’s wealthiest man in 1992 with an estimated worth of £650 million. The film takes us back to his beginnings as a small time entertainer who hit upon the idea of a private gentlemen’s club in which naked women would appear in live shows, something that was previously banned in the UK. From here the movie charts his rise, reaching the dizzy heights of drug addled fame before crashing down to personal disaster.

Behind the camera is Michael Winterbottom, a man capable of producing excellent work (24 Hour Party People, Trishna, The Trip) while his frequent collaborator Steve Coogan takes on the role of Raymond. The film features some delicious period detail and more naked women than you could shake a stick at so why did I find it all so dull?

Despite the lavish interior sets and attention to detail in costume and hair (both collar and cuffs), the film never grabbed me. I was extremely bored throughout and never really cared about any of the characters. Paul Raymond is a smooth talking self publicist who spends the film going from one gorgeous woman to another while his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots) is portrayed as a spoiled, talentless daddy’s girl. Neither are particularly fun to be around and despite Coogan injecting a bit of humour into Raymond, I never missed them when they weren’t on screen. Raymond’s life was either not interesting or the film made it feel so. Considering he was a philandering, multi millionaire who owned Soho, I fear it’s the latter.  

The Blues: Feel Like Going Home



Feel Like Going Home is one of seven documentaries produced by Martin Scorsese on the subject of blues music. This particular episode was also directed by the auteur and focuses primarily on the roots of the genre. Narrated in part by Scorsese himself, it follows musician Corey Harris as he interviews fellow musicians and goes in search of the blues birthplace, travelling through the Mississippi Delta and eventually to West Africa from where the music was first snatched away in chains aboard slave ships.

Neither a hard hitting exposé nor critically acclaimed undercover investigation, Scorsese’s film is a sort of coffee table documentary, delighting its audience with some great stories and incredible music. It fails to go deep or uncover anything new but might help to bring the blues to a whole new audience.

The first thing that struck me about this film was its look. Scorsese has a reputation as one of the greatest film makers of his or any age and we are used to his highly polished latter work as well as his grittier, earthier beginnings but this film is unlike anything I’ve seen from Scorsese before. It feels cheap and basic, like one man and a camera, and not a great camera at that. A lot of the footage is grainy and dark and it doesn’t appear to be particularly well made in several places. Even the editing is a little slapdash. Although I tried to put this to one side, I could never quite get over it. I understand that the budget must have been low but I’d expected something a little flashier or at least more polished from Martin Scorsese.

The French Connection



A winner of five Academy Awards including Best Picture, The French Connection is a taught and edgy police thriller starring Gene Hackman in the role that won him the first of his two Oscars. The film is inspired by the book of the same name and blends fact and fiction to bring a major drug smuggling operation to the big screen. Detectives Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Hackman) and Buddy ‘Cloudy’ Russo (Roy Scheider) uncover a plot to smuggle a large quantity of heroin from France to the East Coast of the USA and tail leads, battle assassins and fight their bosses in an attempt to bring the traffickers down.

Early scenes criss-cross the Atlantic between New York City and Marseilles where the protagonists are either setting up to smuggle drugs or carrying out street busts. A few of the opening scenes gave me eye strain due to the slightly juddery hand held style of camera work used by Director William Friedkin. Once I was over the initial disorientation that the camera work gave me though, I was able to appreciate the almost documentary style of realism that Friedkin captures. He gets right to the heart of the action with cameras placed in close quarters to the actors when necessary but also stands back at times, delivering long tracking or panning shots as the characters play a game of cat and mouse through the streets of New York.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

2014 BAFTA Awards Thoughts and Predictions

Early this morning, this year's BAFTA nominees were announced. Now widely considered as one of the major award ceremonies (along with The Golden Globes) in the run up to the Oscars, the BAFTA awards have long been a well respected and coveted prize on both sides of the Atlantic. Below is a full list of the 2014 BAFTA Award nominees, the winners of which will be announced at the 67th BAFTA Award ceremony on February 16th at the Royal Opera House. Alongside the list of nominees you'll find my prediction and personal choice of which film or person I'd like to see win.

BAFTA gave us no real surprises with its announcement this morning with the most nominations going to Gravity (11), 12 Years a Slave (10) and American Hustle (10). Saving Mr. Banks performed strongly with (9) nominations, continuing its showing as a dark horse during this year's awards season. Behind the Candelabra received (5) nominations, this despite it not being released theatrically in the States. It's Mandela (1) nomination that will perhaps be dubbed this year's snub but there are no nominations for Spike Jonze's Her and Dallas Buyer's Club, the latter especially I expect to perform better in America. 

12 Years a Slave



Considering the ferocity of Steve McQueen’s small but impressive oeuvre and the subject matter of his latest film, I never expected to be in for an easy ride with 12 Years a Slave but nothing, not the trailer, the word of mouth nor my own imagination could prepare me for both its excellence and the horrors to be found within it. The director’s third feature is based on the memoir of one Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from up-state New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. The film charts the following decade and the unimaginable ordeal that is daily life for a slave.

It’s rare these days that I can report to have sat through a film screening in a packed cinema without seeing at least one or two phones light up in front of me. Talking and popcorn rustling are two other offenders which take one out of a film and back to the annoying reality of the fact that there are other humans around you. Throughout the two and a quarter hours of 12 Years a Slave however I didn’t hear a peep from the audience besides a few sniffles and yelps. The film gripped one and all from its opening frames and touched myself at least (but I suspect most) with a profound sense of heartache, perplexity and dare I say it, guilt.

Following a brief few scenes which outline Solomon’s life as an accomplished and well respected musician, living in middle class surroundings, side by side with blacks and whites, the film takes the turn you know to expect. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt presses his camera uncomfortably close to the actors during these scenes in a trend that continues during Solomon’s kidnapping. The screen becomes claustrophobic and seems to envelop the audience as though we too are being taken against our will. I struggled for breath and my palms were clammy, as they remained so long passed the credits began to roll. The camera is unflinching, not allowing the audience to avert their gaze from both the kidnapping and the horrors that are to follow.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Un Chein Andalou



Un Chien Andalou is a short, silent surrealist film from 1929. It was the debut film of Luis Buñuel and was written by Buñuel and fellow surrealist Salvador Dalí. The film features no discernable narrative in the traditional sense but rather dream logic, seemingly popping from one scene to another, often with tenuous links. Lasting only around sixteen minutes, it nonetheless crams in many eye catching (and eye slitting) images, some of which have passed into the collective consciousness. Describing the plot is near impossible as it weaves in and out of normality and plausibility with no regard for sense or building upon what comes before. Perhaps best described as a series of vignettes or windows into the minds of the men behind the film, it’s sometimes a frustrating watch but is notable for its striking imagery and skilled production.

The Act of Killing




The Act of Killing is a remarkable and stomach churning documentary that allows several mass murders to tell the story of their crimes in their own words and through dramatic re-enactments. Following a US backed military coup that resulted in a decades long, right wing dictatorship, somewhere in the region of 500,000 to 2.5 million Indonesians and ethnic Chinese were killed at the hands of Government backed ‘gangsters’ and paramilitaries. Today, nearly half a century later there has been no apology for these heinous crimes and many of the murders are revered as heroes. This film focuses on several of the now ageing killers.

The film is unlike any documentary I’ve seen before. It avoids the bias that inevitably accompanies a documentary feature by allowing the perpetrators to give their own account, in their own words. The director and occasional questioner Joshua Oppenheimer avoids leading questions, instead asking the occasional question that’s on all our minds and allowing those interviewed to answer and elaborate if they feel necessary. Luckily for us the viewer, they often do. Another thing that makes this film stand out is that its ‘stars’ are given carte blanch to re-enact their evil deeds with a full camera crew, make-up, professional lighting and even prosthetics. It makes for chilling viewing.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

American Hustle



Already attracting awards buzz and with seven Golden Globe nominations to its name, David O. Russell’s American Hustle is one of the early showers from this year’s awards season. Set in the late 1970s and making use of an ensemble cast plucked from his most recent productions, the film is set in the world of an experienced and successful con artist called Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale). Irving and his partner Sydney (Amy Adams) are caught by cocksure and ambitious FBI Agent Richard DiMasso (Bradley Cooper) who offers immunity in exchange for help in capturing more prized targets.

The plot isn’t a strong area of American Hustle which is why I’m surprised its screenplay has received many of the film’s plaudits. Although it spirals seemingly uncontrollably into deeper recesses of confusion, subterfuge and double cross, it features a sagging belly larger than that sported by Bale and drags on for too long before reaching its always expected conclusion. The movie’s strengths lie elsewhere, primarily in the design and acting, two areas for which the film deserves all the plaudits its being given.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is an average Joe New Yorker, working for Time Magazine. His life is dull, bland and listless. He lacks the adventure and excitement that he secretly craves and frequently day dreams, putting himself in exhilarating and romantically fulfilling positions. As news is announced that Time Magazine is to close, Walter is sent a roll of film from hunky adventure photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) who asks Walter to make sure that a particular photograph of his is considered for the final cover. The problem is that Sean’s photo never arrived and inspired by a secret love for a new co-worker, Walter breaks free of the shackles of everyday tedium and sets out to track down the illusive photographer not letting oceans, mountains or implausibility stop him.

It’s no coincidence that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was released here in the UK on Boxing Day, being as it is the perfect film to uplift its target audience from their overly full, post Christmas slump. Like a bland Christmas turkey, it’s the sort of film that comes around once a year at the festive period and even though it isn’t as exciting as venison or lobster, you eat it because it’s the time of year that you’re meant to. There isn’t lots of nourishment and if you’re honest, it’s quite dry but you let it slide because there’s also cranberry sauce on your plate. But wait a minute, there is no cranberry sauce, there’s Ben Stiller and he’s shoving another fork full of turkey down your throat. Eat the turkey. Eat it.