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Ten Films for Ten Days – Day Five

titanic-cover-photo-960x540You may want to get your knives out, this one’s a doozy. My fifth highly significant movie, and indeed second favourite film of all time, is Titanic, one that I have spent twenty years arguing about and defending. I’ve probably heard your criticism, but if anyone’s got a new one, I’d like to encounter it, even if only for the amusement value.

Despite the vitriol the film receives, my love for Titanic is not based on being contrary, although it is multi-fold. From the perspective of cinematic craft, the film is superb in its production design that creates palpable and tactile environments in which to house the drama. The practical and visual effects merge beautifully to shift the viewer between past and present, and in doing so manifest a significant conceit of the film: the act of telling history. Titanic is not a true story nor does it purport to be, though it places its fictional tale within recorded events. It is, rather, a tale of telling and a drama of recording. The narrating figure of Rose who contradicts ‘official’ versions, the constant visual emphasis on image recording including film, portraits and photographs as well as memory, the array of images presented and re-presented – all contribute to a remarkable meta-cinematic investigation into the creation of narratives. This is one of Titanic’s most fascinating aspects, easily overlooked by simplistic judgements related to ‘accuracy’ or motivated by pompous self-righteousness.

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Furthermore, on a straightforward emotional level, Titanic never fails to move and enchant me. I saw it twice on its original theatrical release, various times on video and DVD, and for its 3D re-release. The 3D didn’t add much, but the IMAX certainly did. I’m a hopeless romantic and despite knowing how it ends, the emotional voyage (pun intended) of the film ever fails to transport me. Furthermore, it once again demonstrates James Cameron’s extraordinary skill for sustained set pieces, since virtually half the film is a prolonged action sequence. I always feel myself right there on the ship, alongside Jack, Rose and the other passengers, my heart in my mouth and feeling rather cold and wet. Plus I always tear up at the end when I get my heart ripped out. One criticism of Titanic that I understand, although I do not share it, is that the characters, especially Jack, are thin and offer little to engage with. For me, this is key to my enjoyment of the film, a point I will return to in a few days. This reason I engage with films the way I do is closely linked with Titanic, which is why it remains of great importance to me after more than twenty years.

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Mid-Year Review

By the Beard of Kubrick, we’re already half way through by the year! 2016 seems to be disappearing faster than good sense and decency in the UK electorate. But the movies keep coming thick and fast, and like a good critic, I need to rank them in my arbitrary and completely subjective fashion.

As we’re six months through the year (and I do a top 12 overall), I rank my top six films so far, based on the cited date for UK general release (so don’t go telling me ‘That film came out last year!’). Therefore, with much aplomb (which you can provide yourself), here are my top six films of the first half of 2016:

1. Room (15 January 2016)

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A sublime, magnificent, heartwarming, heartbreaking tale of the terrible and the wonderful.

 

2. Zootropolis (25 March 2016)

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A brilliantly inventive, hilariously zany, poignant and intelligent anthropomorphic comedy.

 

3. Eye in the Sky (15 April 2016)

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A tense, nerve-shredding thriller of surveillance, globalization, military, political and ethical conundrums.

 

4. Spotlight (29 January 2016)

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An absorbing, compelling journalism thriller about community, tradition and responsibility.

 

5. The Big Short (22 January 2016)

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An equal parts hilarious and horrifying tale of economic, intellectual and moral bankruptcy.

 

6. The Revenant (15 January 2016)

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An immersive, ethereal yet tactile portrait of survival, nature and revenge.

That’s a pretty good bunch, so if any of these don’t make it into the Top Twelve at the end of the year, 2016 will have been a very impressive year indeed.

Oscar Reflections – Part Two

Oscar-2016-Nominations

While the 88th Academy Awards had some surprises, the acting awards were not among them and I correctly predicted all four winners. I am yet to see The Danish Girl but hope that Alicia Vikander will avoid the curse of the Best Supporting Actress award and build on her great success of last year. Her Oscar for The Danish Girl culminates her achievements in Testament of Youth, Ex Machina and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., fulfilling the potential of earlier work such as A Royal Affair. Roll on The Light Between Oceans!

Mark Rylance received his award for Best Supporting Actor in Bridge of Spies graciously and generously, especially when he described himself as a spokesman for the nominated actors rather than a victor over them. Brie Larson surprised no one with her Best Actress win, that I consider richly deserved as her performance in Room was utterly captivating. Oh yes, and we can FINALLY say Academy Award Winner Leonardo DiCaprio! While DiCaprio doubtless has many roles ahead of him, it will be interesting to see if he takes easier roles in the future or if he continues to explore strange and interesting parts like that that in The Revenant. I suspect and hope the latter.

In his acceptance speech, DiCaprio spoke eloquently about the destructive attitudes that The Revenant highlights, and emphasised the need to work together against climate change and the politics of greed. He was far from the only political speaker at the ceremony, as various presenters and winners took advantage of the grand stage to urge for political action. Best Director Alejando G. Iñárritu urged for greater respect and recognition for people of all races and ethnicities, while various presenters took shots at the policies of Donald Trump.

After the controversy around diversity in the acting categories, Chris Rock made a serendipitous host. As a black comedian who frequently comments upon race, Rock took full advantage of the opportunity afforded him. His opening monologue exploited his own persona beautifully, and Rock’s jokes about diversity continued throughout the show, possibly to the extent of tedium, but overall he was funny and critical without being mean-spirited or facetious. Rock’s focus upon diversity, which other presenters and winners picked up on as well, hopefully demonstrates a desire to address this problem. But as Rock pointed out, the problem is far wider than the Oscars or the Academy, and Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs’ speech about AMPAS’ programme to improve diversity and support filmmakers of all races and ethnicities suggests genuine action to effect change. But don’t expect multiple people of colour to be nominated next year – change tends to be gradual.

Two other moments were particularly affecting. The first was the winner of the Documentary Short, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy for A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. Obaid-Chinoy’s speech about the need for and potential to battle inequality was both a sober reminder of this social problem and an inspiring message about the power of film. And in the most startlingly political moment of the night, US Vice-President Joe Biden spoke about sexual assault on university campuses across America, urging Academy members and viewers alike to join the movement against this problem. Biden then introduced Lady Gaga who sang the nominated song ‘Til It Happens To You’ from the documentary The Hunting Ground. Gaga’s performance, combined with the appearance of multiple survivors of sexual assault, was the most moving moment of the night for me. ‘Til It Happens To You’ would have made a fine winner of Original Song, but regardless, it was a magnificent performance.

Back when the nominations were announced, I commented that several of the Best Picture nominees were inward looking and critical, including The Big Short and the eventual winner, Spotlight. For the Academy to reward Spotlight in this way, as well as other films like A Girl in the River, and to have allowed multiple political statements which were not cut off by music (such as DiCaprio and Iñárritu), suggests the Academy’s awareness of film’s potential impact. AMPAS’ response to the diversity controversy, the rewarding of politically charged films and the sensitivity shown towards calls for progressive change was, for me at least, a hopeful and positive sign.

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

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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

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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

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Cinematography

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Sicario

Predicted winner – The Revenant

My preference – Sicario

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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

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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 Five

Oscar-2016-Nominations

Nearly twenty years ago, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio sailed into our hearts (of love or hate, depending on your perspective) in Titanic, and now both are headed for Oscar glory. After picking up the Golden Globe and BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress, Winslet looks set to win her second Oscar for Steve Jobs, adding a Best Supporting Actress statuette to go alongside her Best Actress award for The Reader from 2008. Meanwhile, DiCaprio’s performance in The Revenant has already earned him a Golden Globe, a Critics’ Choice Award, a Screen Actors’ Guild award and a BAFTA for Best Actor, and for him to win those and not the Oscar would be astonishing, considering the overlap of voters. The cliché says that no one knows anything in Hollywood, but it isn’t hard to know things about Hollywood. I love both performances and have a fondness for the actors because of their ascension to stardom when I first getting into movies back in the late 90s. Were I a member of the Academy, though, would I vote for them?

In the case of Winslet, yes, because her performance as Joanna Hoffman in Steve Jobs is a key part of the emotionality of that film. While Michael Fassbender as Steve himself is the dazzling intellect of the film, Joanna is the heart, and her connection to Steve is what allows the viewer to connect with him. Winslet delivers the perfect combination of affection and exasperation, ensuring that the viewer maintains an understanding of Steve as equal parts compelling and infuriating. Of the other two nominees for Supporting Actress I have seen, Rooney Mara has a wonderfully subtle yet sad sweetness about her in Carol, making her arc soulful and heartbreaking. Rachel McAdams in Spotlight is a solid and sympathetic presence, but I feel she has more to offer and, frankly, everyone in Spotlight delivers the goods. I have not seen The Hateful Eight or The Danish Girl, but due to her SAG award, Alicia Vikander is the only likely rival to Winslet. Both are playing historical figures and both have to speak in accents different to their own (which the Academy members love). Vikander, of course, is not even speaking her naive tongue, which perhaps makes her performance more impressive. That said, Winslet’s accent at least is more showy and, according to interviews, unique, and that is likely to give her the edge.

Speaking of Steve Jobs, were I a member of AMPAS, Michael Fassbender would be my pick for Best Actor. Much as I was impressed by DiCaprio and certainly believed in his portrayal of Hugo Glass, he was easy to sympathise with because of his situations. Steve Jobs is a much harder sell because the character is pretty unlikeable – arrogant, self-aggrandizing, contemptuous of others and driven by an unwavering belief in his own superiority. Yet he was utterly captivating and never less than compelling. Much of this can be put down to Aaron Sorkin’s razor sharp script and Danny Boyle’s rehearsal schedule and assembly of the film, but Fassbender delivers a tour-de-force performance that impresses me more than DiCaprio’s survivalism or Matt Damon’s good humour/stubbornness in The Martian. I cannot comment on Bryan Cranston (Trumbo) or Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl), but of the Best Actor nominees I have seen, Fassbender would be my pick. But expect DiCaprio to add to his collection this Sunday.

Top Ten Directors – Part Three

Nolan

Following my review of Interstellar, I thought it time to discuss another of my top ten directors. Christopher Nolan has had an impressive ascension through the hallowed halls of Hollywood, attaining a position similar to those of previous directors I have written on, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. All of these filmmakers are able to make distinctive, personal films within the institution of Hollywood, films that bear their unmistakable stamp.

Interstellar poster

Nolan’s progress has been remarkable – in fifteen years and with only nine films to his credit, he is now a marketable brand. This is evident in the publicity campaign for Interstellar: posters and trailers emphasise that the film is FROM CHRISTOPHER NOLAN, relying upon the director’s name rather than that of the stars as is more common practice. This is surprising considering the bankability of the principal actors of Interstellar – while their names appear on posters, they are not mentioned in trailers and there is no mention that these are Academy Award Winner Matthew McConaughey, Academy Award Winner Anne Hathaway, Academy Award Nominee Jessica Chastain and Academy Award Winner Michael Caine. Publicity for other recent films featuring these actors has emphasised them, but in the case of Interstellar, the director is used as the major selling point.

This emphasis upon Nolan has grown over his career – publicity for Insomnia mentions that the film is from THE ACCLAIMED BRITISH DIRECTOR OF MEMENTO. Similarly, publicity for The Prestige describes the film as being FROM THE DIRECTOR OF BATMAN BEGINS AND MEMENTO.

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Both these films, however, were largely sold on their stars, while Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are simply promoted as Batman films. Following the success of The Dark Knight and Inception, however, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar declare the director; these films are FROM CHRISTOPHER NOLAN. What then, does this publicity refer to?

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The Nolan brand is one of major releases of ever-increasing size, and with particular emphasis upon complexity – in short, brainy blockbusters. If the Spielberg brand is one of sentimentality then Nolan’s is intellectual – here is the filmmaker who makes you feel intelligent (if you can make head or tail of his films). While this is unfair to Spielberg, whose films are often as complex as they are sentimental, Nolan’s films consistently display interests in time and identity, and utilise elaborate editing patterns that confuse and delight in equal measure. This has led some reviewers to describe the director as chilly and unemotional, more interested in calculation than feeling. This seems strange when considered in light of the consistent interest in loss and grief that runs through Nolan’s oeuvre. Consider the grief that drives Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins and perverts Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, as well as Cobb’s haunting guilt in Inception and the tragic self-perpetuation of Memento, not to mention the parent-child relationship that runs through Interstellar. Nolan’s films are driven by the emotional torment of their protagonists, and the various narrative and stylistic tricks all serve this central conceit, taking the viewer into the emotional state of the characters through a dazzling mastery of the cinematic medium.

Memento-Poster

For all the scale and grandeur of Nolan’s blockbusters since Batman Begins, it is Memento that I pick both as my favourite Nolan film and the best introduction to his oeuvre. This is not to say that Nolan has lost his way or his interests and concerns have been swamped by bloated budgets and studio demands, but Memento’s deceptive complexity rewards repeat viewings and endless discussion (having taught this film several times on a film-philosophy course, I have repeatedly found this to be the case). Memento’s chronological rearrangements express the subjectivity of memory and knowledge, and the lack of certainty over what is presented at face value, while the presence of tattoos highlights the (unreliable) use of embodiment to fix oneself in the world. The ethics of revenge and personal goals are questioned and answered, and those answers are then questioned afresh. And the emotional core mentioned above provides the film with a deeply tragic dimension that leaves the viewer unsettled, both sympathetic and uncomfortable towards the protagonist Leonard (Guy Pearce). This ambivalence has continued throughout Nolan’s work, and while Memento may not be the most ambitious work in his oeuvre, it remains an enthralling and compelling introduction to the work of this distinctive and singular director.

Memento (2000)

Top Five of 0.5

We’re half way through 2014 so it’s time to see what’s impressed me the most in the last six months. As always, many films come and go that are doubtless entertaining, but did not quite necessitate shelling out for them. The following are the five films that impressed and entertained me the most. Will they be in my top films of the year in six months’ time? Come back then and find out!

To clarify, “Films of 2014” are defined in this case as films that went on general UK theatrical release from January 2014. While some of the films I discuss are officially recognised as 2013 releases, they only played at festivals are previews and therefore the majority of cinema-goers could only see them in 2014. Release dates are taken from the IMDb.

5. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (release date 16 April 2014)

TMSM posterThis was a genuine surprise for me. After 2012’s reboot was decidedly less than amazing, I went in with fairly low expectations. They were significantly exceeded as Marc Webb’s follow-up provided a touching central relationship, explored questions of esteem and choice and even prompted tears. Other superhero outings (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past) failed to successfully merge their disparate elements, but much like the web-slinger himself, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 came out on top.

4. The Raid 2 (release date 11 April 2014)

The-Raid-2-Mosaic-PosterAnother sequel that surpassed its original, Gareth Evans’ epic crime tale combined a complex plot with the brutal ballet of its fight sequences, while also incorporating themes of honour, loyalty, courage and ambition. I anticipated much of what I got in The Raid, and The Raid 2 not only provided this but so much more. If there’s a more intense visual ride this year, I look forward to seeing it.

3. Godzilla (release date 15 May 2014)

Godzilla_(2014)_posterGodzilla has long been a favourite of mine, and the character’s 60 year history has had its ups and downs. This was a triumphant up, as Gareth Edwards’ reboot pays homage to the original while also declaring its own identity. Operating both on a macro and micro scale, Godzilla 2014 is not only a bombastic disaster movie with a looming sense of dread and gigantic battle sequences, but also a intriguing exploration of humanity’s need to commune with nature. Any film that features monsters beating seven bells out of each other and incorporates philosophy is OK with me!

2. The Wolf of Wall Street (release date 17 January 2014)

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Easily the funniest film I’ve seen this year, and also a slightly terrifying one. Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Jordan Belfort is a rip-roaring rollercoaster of debauchery, debasement, drugs and money, money, money. It boasts a career-best performance from Leonardo DiCaprio as well as magnificent supporting players Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie, and uses its relatively sedate visual style to draw the audience in and encourage self-reflection.

1. 12 Years A Slave (release date 10 January 2014)

12-years-posterA worthy winner of its Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Oscars, Steve McQueen’s third film is a searing portrait of cruelty, resilience and humanity/inhumanity. Both mesmerising and at times extremely hard to watch, 12 Years A Slave features great performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o as well as the rest of its case, and shows the sheer raw power that cinema is capable of. A story of historical importance, a superbly crafted piece of cinema, and the finest film so far this year.