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Ten Films for Ten Days – Day Nine

2001-a-space-odyssey-1968-014-monolith-sunThose familiar with this blog were probably expecting this entry in my list of ten significant films, and it is one that will likely provoke eye-rolling and nodding in equal measure. A bold statement, but this film is the finest example of cinematic art that I have ever seen. I didn’t see it until I was in my late twenties, which is a good age to first encounter 2001: A Space Odyssey. While the film carries a ‘suitable for all’ certificate, it is a smarter child than I was who would sit through a very deliberately paced (read: slow) and often barely comprehensible film. By the time I did see it, I was sufficiently mature and experienced in film viewing to appreciate it. Not that that stopped me from finding the film utterly baffling on first viewing, and deeply beguiling and thought provoking since then. 2001_MAINUKQUADI had a rule that I would only watch 2001 at the cinema because I thought TV would not do it justice, a rule that led to me seeing multiple screenings, often with an introduction from experts on the film. However, when I watched it on DVD, I found it just as impressive. I regard this film as the greatest cinematic achievement I have ever seen because it is pure cinema. The plot would fit on the back of a postage stamp – birth of humanity to dawn of new species – but the attention to detail in the mise-en-scene and the extraordinary combination of cinematography and editing make it a genuinely transportive experience. Furthermore, one of the major criticisms that the film receives is for me a great strength. Arguably, the most sympathetic character in the film is a computer, the HAL 9000. I don’t particularly engage with HAL any more than I do with the humans, and therefore I am not distracted from the experience of the journey, the Odyssey, itself. As I mentioned in my post on Titanic, lack of character and characterisation is not a problem for me, because the less character there is the easier it is for me to project myself into the film. The most powerful cinematic experiences for me are not where I follow a character’s journey, but go on one myself. I have similar experiences with Avatar, The Matrix, Blade Runner, Gravity, which also attract criticism for their lack of characterisation. Through Stanley Kubrick’s exquisite direction, I feel myself part of the revelation when Moon Watcher starts to use bones as weapons, myself on the journey to and across the Moon, I also spin through space away from the Discovery, and most memorably, I travel through the stargate and beyond the infinite. This sequence is the film’s pinnacle, where sound, colour, emotion and reason and the divisions between them merge into pure sensation, in possibly the most profound and compelling sequence I have ever encountered in cinema. I genuinely find this encounter hard to describe beyond it being an incredible and transportive experience, cinema taking me to strange new places. In addition, it turns out that 2001 is a great teaching text: when I ran a student debate on the film, the session was so filled with insight, argument and students sparking off each other that I was reminded of why I love to teach. Thanks, Stanley.

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Ready Player One

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Thrilling filmmaking blends a coming of age drama with adolescent relationships and more pop culture references than you can shake a registered trademark at. This is the smorgasbord of Steven Spielberg’s latest blockbuster, an immersive and bombastically brilliant adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel, scripted by Cline himself along with Zak Penn. In 2045, the world is a dystopia future with nothing to look forward to except the OASIS, a virtual reality environment where one can do and be anything. Within the OASIS, designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance) has hidden three keys that enable the finder to control the entire virtual world and become incalculably wealthy. Gamers of all types, from the corporate ‘Sixers’ of Innovative Online Industries (IOI) to the enigmatic Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and our protagonist Wade Watson/Parzival (Tye Sheridan) compete in extraordinary events where literally anything can and does happen. Motor races feature Back to the Future’s Delorean roaring alongside Tron’s light cycle and the Batmobile, while a Tyrannosaurus Rex and King Kong take swipes at them. Zero gravity discos merge Saturday Night Fever with Aliens; battles to rival The Lord of the Rings sweep across distant planets, where the Iron Giant battles with Mechagodzilla and there is cause to shout ‘It’s fucking Chucky!’ In a bravura sequence, Spielberg pays homage to his mentor Stanley Kubrick with a prolonged sojourn into The Shining. In the midst of this eye-popping Nerdvana, Ready Player One tells a fairly traditional story where a young hero comes of age, learns the value of friendship and connections in the real world (including first love), while evading the nefarious machinations of corporate scumbag Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).

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What is especially pleasing about Ready Player One is that it demonstrates Spielberg experimenting and delivering with new technology. Previous efforts with motion capture including The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and The BFG were interesting but lacked a sense of immersion. Here, Spielberg and production designer Adam Stockhausen as well as various effects houses including Digital Domain and Industrial Light and Magic have crafted a world of virtual environments and extraordinary avatars to match and in some cases exceed, well, Avatar. Long takes propel the viewer through incredible vistas that are uncanny in the best sense – different yet also familiar. The action sequences have a visceral thrill despite their virtual nature, the viewer never forgetting that their surroundings exist in a digital framework but experiencing the rush much like the characters. That is Ready Player One’s greatest achievement: with a cinematic marketplace stuffed with familiarity, the film manages to take a plethora of archetypes and trademarks and deliver something that feels wholly fresh and thoroughly exhilarating. For this, it deserves the highest applause.

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Oscar Views – Part One

Oscar-2016-Nominations

It’s a wonderful night for Oscar! Or at least it should be on February 28th. As the 88th Annual Academy Awards approach, it’s time for me to look over the various categories and offer Vincent’s View on the nominees and likely winners.

I decline to arrogantly presume that I know best and say what the Academy got wrong. I don’t necessarily agree with the nominees and, were I a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I would have voted differently. I had my own favourites last year but that’s simply my view – the assembled results of nearly 7000 people do not pale in comparison to my almighty judgement, or indeed anyone’s. What interests me is what the particular nominees say about tastes and trends about Oscar nominees, now and historically.

Beginning with the nominees for Best Picture, they are a rather surprising bunch. I have written before on the kind of film that tends to win Best Picture and the commonalities among nominees. The cliché is that biopics win Oscars, but more broadly historical films win Oscars. Historical films attract awards, presumably because the AMPAS members (not to mention other institutions) respond to the apparent gravitas of “history.” Furthermore, films “based on a true story” do well, as few things offer more “importance” than “truth.”

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With that in mind, consider the eight nominees for Best Picture:

The Big Short 

Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian 

The Revenant 

Room

Spotlight

If the nominees were still restricted to five, I believe that the nominated films would be Bridge of Spies (based on real events), Brooklyn (literary adaptation), The Revenant (literary adaptation, based on real events), Spotlight (based on real events) and either Room (literary adaptation) or The Big Short (literary adaptation, based on real events). In addition, all of them are concerned with ideas of “America,” a common theme of Best Picture winners from Wings (1928) to Patton (1970) to Unforgiven (1992). The six films here are concerned with, respectively, the Cold War, the immigrant experience, frontierism, church and community, family, financial disaster. All of the key nominees present aspects of America in relief and highlight them to the world. Cinema has long been an important form of US propaganda, so it is unsurprising that the Academy reward films that effectively advertise the USA. And if the advertisements are about less than savoury events, like Spotlight and The Big Short, this shows a degree of self-reflection and introspection somewhat lacking in US foreign policy and election campaigning.

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Spotlight

Two of the nominees are, however, anomalous: The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road. I saw both films and enjoyed them very much, but to see them nominated for Best Picture is actually staggering. Both are science fiction films (space travel, post-apocalyptic), which makes them part of a very rare group. The only other sci-fi films to be nominated for Best Picture are Star Wars (1977), Avatar (2009), Inception (2010) and Gravity (2013), so to have two such films nominated in one year is quite extraordinary. Furthermore, Mad Max: Fury Road is an action movie and a sequel, only the fifth to ever be nominated after The Godfather Parts II and III, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Return of the King. So for the first time, a sci-fi sequel is up for Best Picture! This is actually radical and groundbreaking for the Academy, and perhaps signals a possible shift in its members’ typically conservative tastes.

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Some Kind of Film: Perspective on Oscar Nominations Part Two

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Continuing my response to the response to Oscar nominations, it is worth noting that there are certain types of film that are consistently honoured by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This type is determined more by content than anything else. I have seen the accusation that the Academy is more interested in rewarding financial than artistic success. In the case of the current crop of nominees, this is patently nonsense, as the eight films nominated for Best Picture are the lowest earning group of nominees in recent years. The combined box office gross of the eight Best Picture nominees came to $203.1 million before the announcement of the nominees, and there is little time before the ceremony for this to increase significantly (although American Sniper is doing very well). Furthermore, look at the earnings of other films, including nominees in other categories. In an act of remarkable brashness, Paramount submitted one of the year’s highest earners, Transformers: Age of Extinction, for consideration as Best Picture. Shockingly, it was not nominated in that category or indeed any other, but the five films nominated for Best Visual Effects (the category Transformers: Age of Extinction had a chance in) have a combined box office gross of $3.6 billion worldwide. So to say that AMPAS only rewards box office winners is simply untrue.

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It is typical that the Academy Award for Visual Effects goes to commercially successful films, often along with other post-production categories such as Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. What irritates me about this is the perpetuation of the art/entertainment divide – movies make money and might win an award for their effects; films are “art” and win awards for being “artistic”. It is an utterly nonsensical division that I love to see occasionally challenged, such as when genre films like Avatar (2009) and Inception (2010) are nominated for Best Picture (unsurprisingly, neither won that award although both won Best Visual Effects, as well as Cinematography). There are exceptions that straddle the divide, earn vast box office receipts and pick up multiple awards as well, but these are few and far between. The best example is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), a fantasy blockbuster that won all eleven Oscars for which it was nominated. Although they did not win, other unusual nominees include The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), as well as Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), the occasional animated film such as Toy Story (2010), Up (2009) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), and especially Gravity (2013).

Gravity

Gravity

An interesting comparison can be made between Gravity, which won seven Oscars including Best Director, and Titanic (1997), which tied the record of eleven awards set by Ben-Hur (1959) (a feat later achieved by The Return of the King). Both Gravity and Titanic were commercially successful, and both are disaster movies with very high production values. Yet Titanic was more honoured than Gravity, picking up Best Picture whereas Gravity lost out to 12 Years A Slave. The common factor between 12 Years A Slave and Titanic is the factor that the Academy consistently rewards – history.

Look over these Best Picture winners of the last three decades:

2013 – 12 Years A Slave

2012 – Argo

2011 – The Artist

2010 – The King’s Speech

2009 – The Hurt Locker

2008 – Slumdog Millionaire

2007 – No Country for Old Men

2006 – The Departed

2005 – Crash

2004 – Million Dollar Baby

2003 – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

2002 – Chicago

2001 – A Beautiful Mind

2000 – Gladiator

1999 – American Beauty

1998 – Shakespeare in Love

1997 – Titanic

1996 – The English Patient

1995 – Braveheart

1994 – Forrest Gump

1993 – Schindler’s List

1992 – Unforgiven

1991 – The Silence of the Lambs

1990 – Dances With Wolves

1989 – Driving Miss Daisy

1988 – Rain Man

1987 – The Last Emperor

1986 – Platoon

1985 – Out of Africa

1984 – Amadeus

Only eight (26.6%) of these thirty Best Picture winners have a setting contemporary to the time of their release, whereas twenty-one (70%) have a historical setting, ranging from 18th century Vienna to ancient Rome, 13th century Scotland to various points in the 20th century. Many of the films feature significant historical events, including World War II (four), Vietnam (three), the Middle East (two) and the US Civil Rights Movement (the anomaly is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Ten of these films (33.3%) are based on specific historical events or people, making them “true” stories.

The Academy consistently rewards the depiction of history, both in terms of period setting and significant events. Unsuccessful nominees have the same features – Saving Private Ryan, L. A. Confidential, Quiz Show, The Cider House Rules, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning – demonstrating that a significant proportion of nominees depict historical subjects. One can interpret this historical dimension as adding (in the minds of some) an element of gravitas, a quality that makes the film seem “important”. If we accept that AMPAS is an institution devoted to the development, promotion and cultural significance of motion pictures, then it follows that this institution would reward films that make the effort to engage with significant socio-cultural concerns and events. “History” can be considered a short-hand for this, the Academy honouring films that depict “history” because this subject matter is worthy of reward. Equally, it is rare for a contemporary-set thriller to win Best Picture (only The Silence of the Lambs and The Departed in the last 30 years – Argo and No Country for Old Men have thriller narratives, but both are historical and the former is based on a true story) and unheard of for a science fiction film to win. Gravity came closest and I had hopes for Interstellar this year, but no such luck for Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic. Surprise, surprise though, Interstellar is nominated for Visual Effects.

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This goes back to the art/entertainment divide, a form of cultural elitism that goes far beyond the Academy Awards. The Booker Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for literature rarely (if ever) go to science fiction, fantasy or thriller novels, and there remains the nonsensical view that literature and theatre are “art” and therefore somehow superior to cinema which is “only entertainment”. Interestingly, one of this year’s nominees, Birdman, engages with this elitism through its portrayal of a former movie star struggling for credibility in the face of immense cultural prejudice, including a scene where a theatre critic lambasts the entire practice of Hollywood cinema for being too commercial and giving awards for “cartoons and pornography”. The great irony of AMPAS is that it perpetuates this bizarre double standard within its own medium, for the most part ignoring genre films and those with a contemporary or (God forbid) future setting and consistently rewarding historical dramas of “importance”.

Birdman

Birdman

While I am frustrated by this practice of AMPAS, it would be unfair to entirely blame AMPAS, because the cultural attitudes at work here go far beyond a single institution. But I will blame the Academy members for their general conservatism and reluctance to honour films that differ from the typical pattern. Nominees like Gravity and Avatar, and the extraordinary success of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, are especially gratifying because films like these develop the cinematic medium, creating fantasy worlds and taking audiences to new and exciting places. The challenges and innovations of these films are often expensive and the only way they can pay for themselves is through commercial success, therefore by honouring such films the Academy honours and encourages the development and continuance of cinema itself. That is what I would like to see more of in the future, though I am not optimistic as year on year the Academy instead rewards subject matter rather than innovation, perpetuating an unnecessary cultural elitism.

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“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” Oscar night.

To Infinity, and Beyond: Science Fiction Countdown – 1

2001 poster

No surprise here. 2001: A Space Odyssey tops the list of my top five transportive science fiction films with its extraordinary vision that more than lives up to the title of its third chapter, “Beyond the Infinite”. 2001: A Space Odyssey takes the viewer from the dawn of humanity to the birth of a new species, an odyssey few films approach. What makes 2001 top of this list is that it expresses its themes and makes its claims in a specifically cinematic way. The plot is simple, but ideas of humanity and identity, destiny and our place in the universe are all presented through cinematic techniques of image and sound. The opening and closing chapters are entirely without dialogue and remain cinematic touchstones, the stargate sequence one of the most exquisite pieces of cinema I have ever seen. The middle section portrays space travel as both wondrous and mundane, the production design detailing the mechanics of space travel and the logistics of weightlessness and docking. HAL is a definitive example of artificial intelligence, a clear influence on MUTHR in Alien as well as Blade Runner’s replicants. Furthermore, thanks to this film a single red light shall forever be menacing. Despite the detail given to spacecraft and inter-planetary travel, 2001 never explains too much (over-explanation being the major flaw of the film’s recent descendant, Interstellar), relying instead on suggestion and ambiguity. The film maintains a mystery and opacity much like the black monoliths, which is a common feature across the films that constitute this countdown. How human are the replicants in Blade Runner? What is the reach of Eywa in Avatar? What do the extra-terrestrials want in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? How did the alien ship come to be on the planet in Alien (the explanation in Prometheus notwithstanding)? Mystery abounds in 2001 but not to the point of frustration, as enough is suggested by Stanley Kubrick’s precise alignment of production design, cinematography, editing, sound effects and music to give the viewer a sense of what is going on, while leaving enough ambiguity for us to wonder, and indeed, wonder at the majestic mystery of what we behold. After nearly fifty years, 2001 remains the greatest journey undertaken by the sci-fi genre and an unrivalled cinematic landmark.

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To Infinity, and Beyond: Science Fiction Countdown – 3

Avatar poster

The third film in my countdown of top five transportive sci-fi movies gives the most overt attention to transporting the viewer (although it is not necessarily the most successful). Avatar creates a tangible, tactile environment that immerses and surrounds the viewer, an environment that took me far beyond the cinema in which I first saw it and continues to do so across repeat viewings. It is a literally awesome film in the sense that it fills me with awe with its extraordinarily rich and compelling vision of an alien planet and the experience of exploring it along with the protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Nor is this experience of Avatar simply down to the 3D, as I find the film immersive and absorbing on 2D home viewings as well. This effect is partially due to the remarkable production design that details the geography, flora and fauna of Pandora, as well as the film’s vibrant visual style that thrusts the viewer through these gorgeous but also dangerous environments. James Cameron has always been an intensely visceral director, from the relentless pursuit of The Terminator to the collapsing environment of Titanic. In Avatar, the director’s visceral and absorbing style takes the viewer into a world that is both alien and familiar, showing us what we know in a new light and creating greater appreciation of our surroundings beyond the filmic world itself.

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Interstellar

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Interstellar is many things. It is a descendant of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the direct descendant of Contact (1997), midwifed by Avatar (2009) and Gravity (2013). It is the most ambitious film of Christopher Nolan’s career, incorporating theories of wormholes, time and gravity into a story of space travel in the midst of environmental devastation that, perhaps appropriately for a film with apparent familial connections, explores themes of family, hope and love. It is a near-three hour spectacle of epic proportions that delivers awe-inspiring visuals as well as exquisite detail in the production design. It utilises Nolan’s trademark crosscutting techniques to tie together sequences for greater impact. It centres on a father-daughter relationship, beautifully played by Matthew McConaughey and Mackenzie Foy (later Jessica Chastain) along with a cast that includes Nolan alumni Michael Caine (obviously) and Anne Hathaway, along with Topher Grace, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, Wes Bentley and Ellen Burstyn. It is a eulogy for NASA and a lament for the abandonment of space travel and all that represents for human endeavour and ingenuity. And it is an attempt to blend hard science (both fact and fiction) with an emotional story of broken families.

Cooper Murph

At times, Interstellar achieves the heights of its ambition, utilising its extraordinary scale to move its audience both emotionally and intellectually. At other times, the balance between science and sentimentality is lost and some scenes feel awkward. Explaining love as a dimension within the universe is ultimately unconvincing because love is at its most dramatic when it is not quantified. Love is the ultimate mystery that is most dramatic when left unexplained, and Interstellar’s attempts to incorporate love into scientific calculations do not work.

Perhaps ironically, Interstellar’s greatest weakness may be its insistence upon science, in the sense that everything is observable and quantifiable. A great strength of Nolan’s previous work is ambiguity. How much of Memento can be trusted? Who did what in The Prestige? Was everything justifiable in The Dark Knight? How much of Inception was a dream? Ambiguity is also used to great effect in Contact and 2001: A Space Odyssey – in neither film is it entirely clear what happened. Mysteries abound in Interstellar, but they are ultimately explained and, while the explanations are consistent within the logic of the film, they are also very pat: Eureka moments with the mathematical formula laid out in painstaking detail, which reduces the dramatic impact of key moments.

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That said, while Interstellar overplays its (pseudo)science, it succeeds both as a visual and an emotional spectacle. The vastness of space is beautiful and awe-inspiring, as are the landscapes of Earth and other planets. The eponymous interstellar travel is breathtaking and humbling, while Nolan provides a number of action set pieces that rival the tension of zero-gravity combat of Inception and the impact of the street battle in The Dark Knight. Furthermore, the sentimentality of the father-daughter relationship is played with Spielbergian conviction, as recorded messages express loss and longing across separations of both long years and immense distances. The climax is an extraordinary special effects sequence of dazzling technical virtuosity, yet this sequence is sustained by a moving and affecting display of love. Interstellar may fail to explain love, but it does succeed at portraying love.

Spectacle

Ostensibly the film is about abandoning Earth and seeking a future on other planets. But as with any film, the events are open to interpretation. As with Nolan’s previous films, grieving and loss are major themes, and Interstellar suggests that part of loss is what we leave for our children, the importance of the future we create for them. Time is a variable within the calculations of Professor Brand (Caine) and the adult Murph (Chastain), but it is also a philosophical consideration for the film as a whole. What do we do with time? How can we maximise its utilisation and its availability for others? Do some people warrant more time than others and a species warrant more than individuals? Interstellar expresses a fundamental aspect of cinema: the capture and manipulation of time. Nolan’s work is often meta-cinematic, and just as a filmmaker rearranges time, temporal calculation and manipulation is intrinsic to the story, emphasising the importance of time and our use of it. Furthermore, the film undertakes that most fundamental task of cinema, especially science fiction – to transport its audience. Watching the film, I both felt myself transported beyond Earth and to a new perspective on time, all based upon concepts of love and hope. Interstellar is a flawed film, but it is an undeniably affecting and moving experience.

Interstellar poster