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The Magnificent Seven

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Let it never be said that I (only) do what is obvious, as there is far more to say of Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven than how it compares to John Sturges’ 1960 film or indeed Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Fuqua’s film warrants close examination in relation to its genre and period, rather than in terms of how it compares to what came before. Most obviously, Fuqua’s film can be read as a declaration of diversity, as the titular gang includes white, black, Mexican, Asian and Comanche members. Pleasingly, Fuqua and screenwriters Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto ensure that race and ethnicity are not simply there for declarative purposes but as organic parts of the story. Django Unchained may have made a point of racial revenge, but here little is made of Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) being black, while Native American characters in the film are varied with Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) contrasted with Denali (Jonathan Joss) on the side of vicious land baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). There is also a decent line in gender relations, as Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) is as integral and capable as the men around her. This ensemble of characters are well-rounded, including the PTSD of sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his touching relationship with Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), as well as a developing warmth between the seven and the townsfolk of Rose Creek who hire them. Narratively, the film is clear and detailed. So why the long face?

Image result for the magnificent seven horse

The problem with the film is its lack of scale. Fuqua is associated with urban thrillers such as Training Day and The Equaliser, in which his sharp, punchy style is effective because it creates a milieu of fast mouths and faster violence. During the action sequences of The Magnificent Seven, including the genuinely impressive sustained set piece that comprises the final act of the film, this style works, as it conveys suddenness, abrupt changes and viscerally draws the viewer in. But in the earlier part of the film, which introduces the characters and, critically, the setting, the pace of the editing is too fast. As a result, the environment, so crucial to the western, is not established and the film fails to place its characters and indeed viewer within the landscape. This undercuts the power of the finale, as there is little sense of stylistic progression towards this climax. As a result, we end up with a Seven that may be Magnificent, but a film that is only moderate.

Top Ten Directors – Part Four I

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Regulars at this blog (if there are any) may recall that some years ago I started posting about my favourite film directors. I posted about three of them – Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Christopher Nolan – and then I got caught up in reviewing every new release I saw. But I thought it time to get back to my top ten, with the caveat that to credit the director as being solely responsible for any film is to utterly misunderstand the filmmaking process. So here we go…

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For me, Michael Mann is probably the single most important filmmaker I have ever encountered. It was in early 1996 that I first saw Heat (1996), a film that had a profound effect on me and set me on the course of becoming a film scholar and critic. I had seen The Last of the Mohicans (1992) beforehand, but Heat was my major introduction to Mann’s work. Subsequently I sought out The Last of the Mohicans again and made sure to see The Insider (1999) when it came out. Then I gathered the video tapes (and later DVDs) of Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), The Keep (1983), The Jericho Mile (1979)and L. A. Takedown (1989). When Ali (2001) came out I made the effort to see it, by which time I had decided that I would do a PhD in film studies focused on Michael Mann (as you do). Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006) were released while I was researching my doctorate, and in the week of my graduation, Public Enemies (2009) came to British cinemas, before very briefly in 2015, Blackhat. I saw them all, think about them at length, and have written and published at least something about all of them.

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Due to my research, I have a very particular view of Mann that may not communicate well to others, but here goes. Mann is a holistic filmmaker whose work demonstrates precise interaction of the various cinematic elements. Working as writer and director on most of his films, Mann has spoken in interviews of the ‘harmonics’ in his work, and indeed the various elements are harmonised to an extraordinary degree. Script, performance, cinematography, production design, editing, sound, music – all resonate in a very specific and distinct way across Mann’s oeuvre. These harmonics are what create the relentlessly lyrical movement in The Last of the Mohicans, the sleek and almost ephemeral stream of Collateral, Miami Vice and Blackhat as well as the distorted mental and physical worlds of Manhunter, the state and industrial containments in The Jericho Mile and Thief, the confusing disjointedness of Ali and Public Enemies and the expressionism of The Keep.

Manhunter

From within this extraordinary oeuvre, what really stands out as Mann’s best film, and what is the best introduction to his work? All will be revealed in my next post

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88th Annual Academy Award Predictions

Oscar-2016-Nominations

 

It’s been a road of some indeterminate length, and I’ve given my views on some of the categories. But at long(ish) last, here are my picks for the 88th Annual Academy Awards. As before, these are both what I believe will win, and what I would vote for were I a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which is not the same as “should win” – I’m not that arrogant).

Disclaimer: I may change some of these after I see Brooklyn. Also, I am changing my Supporting Actress prediction, so don’t bother pointing it out.

Picture

The Big Short

Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Room

Spotlight

Predicted winner – The Revenant

My preference – Room

revenant-film-poster

Director

Lenny Abrahamson – Room

Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant

Tom McCarthy – Spotlight

Adam McKay – The Big Short

George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road

Predicted winner – Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant

My preference – Lenny Abrahamson – Room

Actor 

Bryan Cranston – Trumbo

Matt Damon – The Martian

Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant

Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs

Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl

Predicted winner – Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant

My preference – Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs

 

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Actress 

Cate Blanchett – Carol

Brie Larson – Room

Jennifer Lawrence – Joy

Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years

Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn

Predicted winner – Brie Larson – Room

My preference – Brie Larson – Room

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Supporting Actor

Christian Bale – The Big Short

Tom Hardy – The Revenant

Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight

Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies

Sylvester Stallone – Creed

Predicted winner – Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies

My preference – Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight

BRIDGE-OF-SPIES-QUAD-UK

Supporting Actress

Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight

Rooney Mara – Carol

Rachel McAdams – Spotlight

Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl 

Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

Predicted winner – Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl 

My preference – Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

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Adapted Screenplay

The Big Short

Brooklyn

Carol

The Martian

Room 

Predicted winner – The Big Short

My preference – Room

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Original Screenplay

Bridge of Spies

Ex Machina

Inside Out

Spotlight

Straight Outta Compton

Predicted winner – Spotlight

My preference – Spotlight

spotlight-one-sheet

Cinematography

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Sicario

Predicted winner – The Revenant

My preference – Sicario

Sicario-Poster-8

Costume Design

Carol

Cinderella

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Predicted winner – Mad Max: Fury Road

My preference – Cinderella

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Editing 

The Big Short

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Spotlight

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Predicted winner – Mad Max: Fury Road

My preference – Spotlight

 

Make-Up and Hair

Mad Max: Fury Road

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

The Revenant

Predicted winner – The Revenant

My preference – The Revenant

 

Score

Bridge of Spies

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Predicted winner – The Hateful Eight

My preference – Carol

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Original Song

Earned It, The Weeknd – Fifty Shades of Grey

Manta Ray, J Ralph & Antony – Racing Extinction

Simple Song #3, Sumi Jo – Youth

Til It Happens To You, Lady Gaga – The Hunting Ground

Writing’s On the Wall, Sam Smith – Spectre

Predicted winner – Til It Happens To You, Lady Gaga – The Hunting Ground

My preference – Writing’s On the Wall, Sam Smith – Spectre

Spectre-poster-Daniel-Craig-Lea-Seydoux

Production Design

Bridge of Spies

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Predicted winner – The Revenant

My preference – The Revenant

 

Sound Editing

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Predicted winner – Mad Max: Fury Road

My preference – Sicario

 

Sound Mixing

Bridge of Spies

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Predicted winner – The Revenant

My preference – Mad Max: Fury Road

 

Visual Effects

Ex Machina

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Predicted winner – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

My preference – Ex Machina

TFA

Animated Film

Anomalisa

Boy and the World

Inside Out

Shaun the Sheep Movie

When Marnie Was There

Predicted winner – Inside Out

My preference – Inside Out

Inside Out

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Foreign Language Film

Embrace of the Serpent – Colombia

Mustang – France

Son of Saul – Hungary

Theeb – Jordan

A War – Denmark

Predicted winner – Theeb (complete guess and as I have not seen any, I have no preference.)

 

Documentary Feature

Amy

Cartel Land

The Look of Silence

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Predicted winner – The Look of Silence (complete guess and as I have not seen any, I have no preference.)

 

Animated and Live Action Shorts – I have no knowledge of these so no predictions or preferences.

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Oscar Views – Part Two

Oscar-2016-Nominations

Previously, I discussed the radical(ish) Best Picture nominees, but did not address the burning question of what will win? The strong contenders can be determined by other awards and nominations. The Revenant and The Martian won Best Picture at the Golden Globes for, respectively, Drama and Musical or Comedy. The Big Short won Outstanding Producer at the Producers’ Guild of America. Spotlight won Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the Screen Actors Guild and The Revenant was awarded Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film by the Directors’ Guild of America. The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Spotlight and The Revenant are up for Best Film at the BAFTA awards as well, and there is significant overlap between the memberships of the academies.

In addition, Best Picture winners tend to win other Oscars as well, especially Directing, Writing and Editing. With that in mind, consider those that are up for all these awards. While Mad Max: Fury Road is a surprise nomination, it is extremely unlikely that a science fiction action sequel will win, despite George Miller’s nomination for Directing. The same goes for The Martian, which is doubly unlikely to win without a Directing nomination. This absence also makes Bridge of Spies and Brooklyn unlikely winners.

The only Best Picture nominees up for Directing, Writing and Editing are The Big Short and Spotlight, which makes them strong contenders, along with The Revenant with its existing awards. These results narrow the likely winners down to Spotlight, The Revenant and The Big Short. All these films display the tendency I mentioned before of being about “America,” and cast something of a critical eye on that peculiar, pervasive myth. The Big Short is the most critical, casting the banking industry and America’s massive social inequality as an absurdist tragicomedy. Spotlight is more ambivalent, portraying the interconnectivity of American society as responsible for terrible events as well as being capable of addressing them. The Revenant is thematically conservative, presenting a bootstrap story of one man surviving against overwhelming odds. I love all three films, and while I think The Revenant is the most likely winner, were I a member of AMPAS, I would probably vote for Spotlight, for its finely balanced and non-judgemental approach to controversial subject matter.

Predictions and Preferences: Perspective on Oscar Nominations Part Three

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The sharp-eyed among you, and possibly the impatient, may have noticed that my previous posts on the Oscars neglected to give any verdict on the actual nominees for this year’s Academy Awards. Now that I’ve actually seen more of them, that will be rectified, just in time too. What I am NOT going to do, however, is declare that I know better than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and that they should obviously have nominated Pride over American Sniper, or that Michael Keaton should win because he is clearly so much better than Eddie Redmayne, and that if Julianne Moore doesn’t win it will be a travesty, etc. I hate it when individuals insist that their own singular opinions are more valid than the democratically voted Academy nominees and winners. You may disagree with the results of these votes, but that does not make you right, better or superior. I therefore offer my prediction of what I believe will win and what I would vote for if I were a member of AMPAS. If I have not seen enough of the nominees, I offer no opinion.

Picture

best-pic_3166072kAmerican Sniper

Birdman

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Selma

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

Based purely on content, the films most likely to win Best Picture are The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. The former is a true story about an important figure of the twentieth century, largely set during World War II. The latter is a true story about an important figure of the twentieth century who overcame great adversity. The adversity is significant here – The Theory of Everything presents Stephen Hawking’s story as one of triumph and the power of love, whereas The Imitation Game balances triumph with tragedy, as Alan Turing may have cracked the Enigma Code but submitted to chemical castration before committing suicide (according to the film). It is a sad fact that the Academy’s conservatism is likely to block The Imitation Game from Best Picture, as it is a film focused upon a homosexual. While such films have previously been nominated, such as Brokeback Mountain, Capote (both 2005) and The Kids are All Right (2010), they are yet to win Best Picture.

American Sniper shares elements with 2009’s Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker with its attention to the minutiae of combat, and has the added bonus of being a true story. Selma is also a true story, about major events in American history and one of the most significant activists of the 20th century. Both these films have generated controversy, American Sniper for its (according to some) pro-war presentation of the Iraq conflict and Selma for the Academy’s failure to nominate Ava DuVernay for Best Director or David Oyelowo for Best Actor. The Academy rarely rewards controversial films, and it is a sad truth that “black” films are also seldom rewarded, 12 Years A Slave being the first “black film” to win Best Picture.

Of the fictional tales, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a long shot as comedies very rarely win; Whiplash speaks to an artistic sensibility that chimes with the Academy’s love for triumphing over adversity. The admiration for Richard Linklater’s twelve-year labour of love has continued since the Golden Globes and shows no signs of abating. While I was more impressed by Birdman’s visually thrilling attack on contemporary culture, I predict that the Academy will go for the American charm that Boyhood valorises.

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Predicted winner: Boyhood

Preferred winner: Birdman

Director

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman

Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

Richard Linklater’s extraordinary commitment to Boyhood’s twelve-year production is reason enough for the Academy to reward him. Furthermore, he is a well-established and respected figure in Hollywood (and apparently Ethan Hawke’s best mate) whose films have captivated many over the years. It seems to be his time. However, Alejandro González Iñárritu picked up the Directors’ Guild of America award, which is frequently followed by the Oscar, so it is a very close race. I preferred Iñárritu’s swift, relentless and visceral direction of Birdman, which is a sharp contrast to Linklater’s more fluid, blink-and-you’ll-miss-that-we’ve-jumped-forward-three-years approach. I still think Linklater will win, but I would be over the moon if this award went to Iñárritu.

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Predicted winner: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Preferred winner: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman

Actor

Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

Michael Keaton, Birdman

Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Physical transformation and playing a historical figure are what the Academy love, and Eddie Redmayne has already picked up multiple awards. While the Academy also loves a comeback like that of Michael Keaton, such performances don’t always win (see John Travolta for Pulp Fiction and Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler). I would love Keaton to win, not least because he is never likely to do a better performance, but I think it unlikely.

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Predicted winner: Eddie Redmayne

Preferred winner: Michael Keaton

Actress

Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night

Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

Reese Witherspoon, Wild

I have only seen two of these nominees, Rosamund Pike and Felicity Jones. I enjoyed both films and consider Jones to be the best thing in The Theory of Everything, but of the two I would pick Pike. However, it looks like this will be the year of five-time nominee Julianne Moore. I wish her well, and look forward to seeing Still Alice.

NExfzWhlijhrAB_1_bPredicted winner: Julianne Moore

Supporting Actor

Robert Duvall, The Judge

Ethan Hawke, Boyhood

Edward Norton, Birdman

Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher

J. K. Simmons, Whiplash

Aside from Robert Duvall, I have seen all of these and they are a great bunch (film fans in search of great acting should check out Best Supporting Actor nominees). J K. Simmons has picked up all the awards so far, and will almost certainly pick up the Oscar too. While I was less than enamoured with Whiplash as a whole, I have no problem with his performance.

Whiplash-Jk-Simmons-14Predicted and preferred winner: J. K. Simmons

Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Laura Dern, Wild

Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game

Emma Stone, Birdman

Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

I was impressed by Patricia Arquette, Keira Knightley and Emma Stone, and am somewhat bemused that Meryl Streep has yet another nomination to add to her collection (I have seen neither Into the Woods nor Wild). As Arquette has won everything so far, there is no reason to suspect she will not continue. And I pick her too, not least because she reminds me of my own mother.

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Predicted and preferred winner: Patricia Arquette

Best Original Screenplay

Birdman

Boyhood

Foxcatcher

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Nightcrawler

I’ve seen all of these other than Nightcrawler, and with Writers Guild Awards as well as a BAFTA, the witty and wacky script of The Grand Budapest Hotel is a safe bet. But as in the Best Picture category, I prefer the scathing, mad energy of Birdman.

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Predicted winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Preferred winner: Birdman

Best Adapted Screenplay

American Sniper

The Imitation Game

Inherent Vice

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

A mixed bag here, one based on a novel, three on biographies and one on a short film. The battle here is between the Writers’ Guild Award winner The Imitation Game and the BAFTA-winning The Theory of Everything. I like both films and it could go either way, but on the night I believe the Academy will follow the practice of the guild. I’m OK with that.

THE IMITATION GAMEPredicted and preferred winner: The Imitation Game

Animated Feature Film

Big Hero 6

The Boxtrolls

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Song of the Sea

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

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Predicted winner: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (the only nominee I’ve seen as well)

Foreign Language Film

Ida

Leviathan

Tangerines

Timbuktu

Wild Tales

Predicted winner: Leviathan (complete guess)

Documentary, Feature

Citizenfour

Finding Vivian Maier

Last Days in Vietnam

The Salt of the Earth

Virunga

What will win: Virunga (not seen any, so a complete guess)

Original Score

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Interstellar

Mr. Turner

The Theory of Everything

I’ve seen all of these but confess I barely remember the scores from all but one, and as a huge fan of Hans Zimmer in general and his score for Interstellar especially, I would like him to win. But Alexandre Desplat is receiving his seventh and eighth nominations simultaneously, and I think it is his time. For which film? Since Desplat picked up the BAFTA for The Grand Budapest Hotel, this seems likely. But then again, Jóhann Jóhannsson won the Golden Globe for his score for The Theory of Everything, so this race has a far from obvious winner.

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Predicted winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Preferred winner: Interstellar

Film Editing

American Sniper

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Whiplash

There’s a simple reason Birdman will not win Best Picture, which is that it is not nominated for Editing. Historically speaking, Editing and Picture frequently go together, at least in terms of nominations. If Best Director and Original Screenplay were certain to go to Boyhood, I would predict differently. But as Birdman could pick up Director and The Grand Budapest Hotel is more likely for Screenplay, as a Best Picture winner Boyhood will also pick up Editing. That said, I found the more intricate cutting of The Imitation Game to be more involving and absorbing.

Predicted winner: Boyhood

Preferred winner: The Imitation Game

Visual Effects

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Guardians of the Galaxy

Interstellar

X-Men: Days of Future Past

What could be known as the blockbuster award, this is the one bone that is regularly thrown to the box office champions, where artists and technicians make wildly popular cinematic marvels, for films that are consistently ignored for other awards. I imagine Interstellar’s spacescapes will be rewarded here, but personally I was even more taken by the extraordinary performance capture and digital rendering of ape armies.

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Predicted winner: Interstellar

Preferred winner: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Sound Editing

American Sniper

Birdman

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Interstellar

Unbroken

War films typically make great use of sound, and American Sniper is no exception. But the brilliant interchanges of sound and silence in Interstellar might just snag it, if I have my way.

Predicted winner: American Sniper

Preferred winner: Interstellar

Sound Mixing

American Sniper

Birdman

Interstellar

Unbroken

Whiplash

Again, I was captivated by the sound of Interstellar, but I cannot help but be impressed by Whiplash’s soundscape of music, voices and more indistinct noises.

Predicted winner: Whiplash

Preferred winner: Interstellar

Production Design

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Interstellar

Into the Woods

Mr. Turner

The Grand Budapest Hotel is an exquisitely designed film and it seems unlikely that the Academy members will ignore this.

Predicted and preferred winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Cinematography

Birdman

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ida

Mr. Turner

Unbroken

An astonishing level of artistic and technical brilliance is performed by Emmanuel Lubezki in Birdman, making this award a sure thing.

birdman-still-bafta-nominations-michaelkeaton-edwardnortonPredicted and preferred winner: Birdman

Makeup and Hairstyling

Foxcatcher

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Guardians of the Galaxy

The makeup and hairstyling of The Grand Budapest Hotel is a work of art in itself, and is exactly the type of work that tends to win this award.

Predicted and preferred winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Costume Design

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Inherent Vice

Into the Woods

Maleficent

Mr. Turner

Much the same as Makeup and Hairstyling.

Predicted and preferred winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

 

In the other categories, I do not know enough to guess.

Documentary – Short Subject

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1

Joanna

Our Curse

The Reaper (La Parka)

White Earth

No idea.

Live Action Short Film

Aya

Boogaloo and Graham

Butter Lamp (La Lampe au beurre de yak)

Parvaneh

The Phone Call

No idea.

Animated Short Film

The Bigger Picture

The Dam Keeper

Feast

Me and My Moulton

A Single Life

No idea.

Original Song

“Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie

“Glory” from Selma

“Grateful” from Beyond the Lights

“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me

“Lost Stars” from Begin Again

No idea.

Check back soon for my reactions to the winners and the show as a whole! I predict it will be legen – wait for it – DARY!

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American Sniper

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American Sniper is a film that provokes strong reactions. If a viewer is opposed to machismo and militarism, they are likely to be angered. If a viewer is inclined towards firearms and US patriotism, they may find the film laudable. But the evidence for either reaction is problematic because of the film’s stripped-down, character-centred approach, typical of director Clint Eastwood’s oeuvre.

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American Sniper depicts the life and career of Chris Kyle (played by a bulked-up Bradley Cooper), the deadliest sniper in US military history. The ethics of Kyle’s actions are never questioned and the conservative upbringing that he received is not problematised. Nor is the viewer treated to a nuanced view of US military action in Iraq. Kyle joins the Navy SEALs to serve what he believes is “the greatest country in the world”; he embraces military ideology, follows orders and protects his fellow soldiers, and he has a ruthless willingness to kill the enemy. However, the film does not present Kyle’s actions as noble or profound, denying any sense of triumph in his military exploits. There are moments in the film, particularly towards the end, that are ripe for patriotic sentimentality, but Eastwood steadfastly avoids manipulative reconstruction in favour of stock footage and utilises silence rather than stirring music. War is hell, but it is not grandiose or Wagnerian, Kyle and his fellow soldiers presented as dedicated professionals doing their (extremely dangerous) job. Whatever value may be ascribed to this job comes from the viewer rather than the film. Kyle is only a hero in the eyes of other characters, and his neglect of his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) in favour of his “duty to his country” is presented matter-of-factly rather than with an emotional, ethical or political inflection. The film therefore presents Kyle’s life and career, with intricate production design, intense action sequences and powerful performances, often creating a visceral and nerve-wracking experience. The presentation, however, does not offer explicit judgement in either direction.

Combat

It is tempting to see this lack of judgment as an implicit affirmation of the philosophy Kyle lives (and, if taken as a true story, actually lived) by. But the film includes Kyle’s post-traumatic stress, his inability to leave the war behind and his encounters with other veterans who were badly injured. The film therefore depicts the cost of war and the suffering of those who fight, and barely touches on the plight of Iraqi civilians, while Iraqi combatants are largely presented as cyphers, their identities irrelevant because they are simply “the enemy”. Again, this comes back to the film’s focus on its central character – the film is about Chris Kyle, not the Iraq War or American machismo or patriotism. Nor do we necessarily gain an in-depth understanding of our protagonist, as Kyle remains largely impenetrable, only his actions apparent. This inflects the film as a whole, the events of the narrative presented without explanation or commentary. American Sniper therefore treats its audience with great respect, allowing us to decide its meaning without guidance or manipulation, offering itself (successfully) as a topic for debate and discussion.

Fiddle-Dee-Dee: Perspective on Oscar Nominations Part One

oscars Perhaps I’m naïve, but responses to the Oscars, both nominees and winners, never cease to surprise me. Never mind within hours, within one hour of the nominees for the 87th Annual Academy Awards announcement (bit of a mouthful), the Internet was awash with ridicule, condemnation and insistence that the Academy had got it wrong yet again. Why do non-Academy members find it so hard to accept that the position of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is different but possibly just as valid to their own position? Why will we not accept that this is a bunch of films that AMPAS choose to honour, and that the Academy is allowed a different position to our own? Come the end of the year, many film fans post lists of their top films of the year, and these lists vary widely. We can disagree, but we do so respectfully, whether it is on online or in person. The level of vitriol and contempt directed against AMPAS every year seems excessive, dubious and downright arrogant. A Bunch of Dry Old Men? I am also irritated by the way the uninformed describe the award givers, referring to AMPAS as if it were a secret cabal or committee whose members meet, look over the films their friends made, puff their cigars and sip their whiskey, before voting for the films that made the most money. The Academy has over 5000 voting members, divided into 15 branches relating to the Academy’s various categories (acting, directing, cinematography, etc.). Each member of a particular branch picks nominees in their category from the films eligible for consideration, which can be any theatrical release that plays for seven days in Los Angeles between 1st January and 31st December of the previous year. Voting decisions can therefore be made individually and not necessarily because of others’ influence. This is not to say that personal and financial relationships do not influence decisions, or that no decisions are made by voters going “Eeny-meeny-miny-mo” on the list of candidates, but let’s have some perspective on the sheer size of the institution involved. nebraska_0 To be fair, this institution is far from diverse. According to a report published in the Los Angeles Times, over 90% of the voting members of AMPAS are Caucasian, over 70% are male, and at least 50% are over the age of 60. Furthermore, over 30% of voting members are former nominees and winners. The stereotype of the Academy voter being an old white man does therefore have some validity. Nonetheless, while this demonstrates that women and people of colour are severely under-presented in the Academy, it does not mean that anyone else necessarily knows what these old white men enjoy, respect and reward. We can speculate about their preferences and whether they will be more swayed by a gold watch from Rolex or Chopard, but we do not ultimately know. Furthermore, what makes your opinion or mine more valid than theirs? Granted, the opinions of this largely homogenous institution do lead to a great deal of Hollywood hoopla and one of the grandest shows of the entertainment calendar. The fact that these are the film industry’s awards and that the manner of their presentation is so ostentatious can appear crass and excessive. If that is your reaction, that the actual institution of the Oscar ceremony is offensive, why take any interest in the awards at all? And if you do take an interest, consider this: if the resources were suddenly made available for the [insert your name here] Film Awards, would you not make a big fuss about it as well? And if you were suddenly appointed the arbiter of cinematic quality, able to dole out awards to the film artists that you deemed worthy, would you be so different from AMPAS? What performances, scripts, special effects, cinematography, editing, sound mixing, sound editing, costume design, production design, hair and make-up, directors and, oh yes, films overall, would I vote for to win? But then again, what do we know about cinematography, sound mixing, sound editing, costume design, production design, etc? Are the people who actually work in these areas not somewhat qualified at deciding on high quality work? Orson_Welles-Citizen_Kane1 Of course, strong reactions tend to relate to particular categories, mainly Best Picture. This leads me to what I would like to see: a reasoned response to Oscar nominations that respectfully disagrees and does not declare that a few thousand total strangers are idiots. I may not agree that the films nominated each year are the finest examples of cinematic art that the previous twelve months have produced, but that does not mean my opinion is more valid than anyone else. Were I a member of AMPAS, and nothing I voted for was nominated simply due to number of votes, it would make my opinion a minority. The demographics may be narrow, but it is a democratic process rather than the dictatorship that negative responses infer: “the Academy members are wrong and I, the arbiter of all that is quality, am right”. It sounds different that way, doesn’t it?

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My question, therefore, is why is the opinion of anyone who derides the Oscar nomination decisions more valid than those of the combined beliefs of the members of AMPAS? Who is really qualified to give awards for filmmaking? Perhaps the people that spend the most time actually watching and assessing films, i.e. critics. Critics are among the first to give awards, presented before the Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Oscars take place. Indeed, the films honoured by the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle and other such organisations often go on to receive awards from the industry as well, which suggests that the Academy voters may take some guidance from the critics. Of course, if you don’t value reviews either, then you’re still going to be annoyed, perhaps by the type of films that are honoured. I will return to this in my next post.