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X-Men: Dark Phoenix

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The superhero genre groundwork was laid by the Superman and Batman franchises, improved by Blade, and received its first fully formed incarnation with 2000’s X-Men. The subsequent 19 years delivered a further eleven films, ranging from the highs of X-2 and Logan to the lows of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. X-Men: Dark Phoenix is, sad to say, another low. There are many familiar features, from visual renderings of telepathy to energy blasts from eyes, but there is little that’s new or interesting. Writer-director Steven Kinberg displays little flair or innovation, making the viewer pine for the stylistics of Bryan Singer (controversy notwithstanding) or Matthew Vaughn. Action set pieces on a space shuttle and aboard a train pale in comparison to earlier entries in the franchise as well as those in Marvel Studios’ output. That said, Kinberg does manage to evoke a sense of atmosphere, fitting for the steady and dangerous increase of power in Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). At their heart, superhero films are always about power and its appropriate use, and Dark Phoenix does continue this conceit in relation to Jean, and also Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), but without any significant depth. Indeed, much of the early part of the film is fairly bland, despite potentially shocking moments, though it does pick up slightly when Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) appears. Despite the best efforts of the cast, and a prominence of female characters, the strongest element of the film is the score, with Hans Zimmer at his most Hans Zimmer. Crashing synths and booming Braaaaaaahms abound, adding to the atmosphere even if the end result is somewhat hollow. As a chapter in the franchise, Dark Phoenix feels conclusive, and it is a damp squib for this long running series to go out on. But then again, you can never keep a good (or bad) mutant down.

Alien: Covenant

Alien-Covenant-First-Official-Poster-featIn 1979, cinema audiences were informed in no uncertain terms that ‘In space no one can hear you scream‘. For nearly forty years we have been reminded of this universally acknowledged truth, with varying degrees of success. In the case of Alien: Covenant, it seems everyone needs to hear you PANIC! because the film is so overloaded with PANIC! that I wondered if the various gruesome deaths were redundant in the face of surely inevitable heart attacks. From an opening space accident that introduces the viewer to far too many indistinguishable characters to set pieces in a medical bay and a field of tall grass to a climax followed by a climax followed by a climax, Alien: Covenant delivers far too many reasons to think ‘Don’t go off alone’, ‘Don’t look at that’, ‘Exercise more caution’, ‘Behind you!’ and ‘Slow down, Ridley!’ I’m a big fan of Ridley Scott and think Prometheus is pretty good, but it is telling that Covenant‘s best scene is a quiet moment of two characters playing a flute, captured in a long take of beautifully chilling serenity, helped by the wonderful Michael Fassbender who is easily the best thing(s) in the film. A crucial element of the original Alien is its slow pace, the longueurs of drip feed menace steadily creating an atmosphere of dread. Here, we charge headlong into danger because that way we can get to the PANIC! all the sooner, or perhaps this reckless charge is an attempt to disguise the general lack of narrative or thematic coherence. The conclusion of the film points to a further instalment, so it seems we’ll be reminded once again that in space, no one can hear you scream ‘Enough!’

Assassin’s Creed

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Cinema is the capturing and creation of space, within which events and characters take shape. Frequently films create a semblance of unified space, but in the case of Assassin’s Creed, space is often fluid and inconstant. Justin Kurtzel’s adaptation of Ubisoft’s blockbusting computer game achieves the remarkable feat of creating an immersive experience that allows the viewer to vicariously undergo the experiences of Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender), descendant of assassin Aguilar (also Fassbender), as he enters the Animus, a device that causes him to relive the experiences of his ancestor. The technobabble explanations provided by Dr Sophia Rikken (Marion Cotillard), part of a modernised Templar Knights, adds to the mystery of the events that understandably confuse Cal, but once he enters the Animus and his movements and feelings blend with those of Aguilar, the viewer is set for a visceral and enthralling experience where space, time and personality shift dramatically and arrestingly. Kurtzel stylises speech, location and action in a manner similar to his superb Macbeth, and while the emotional heft of Assassin’s Creed may not reach that of the Shakespearean tragedy, it does succeed as a strong film based on a video game (a rare beast indeed), and confirms Kurtzel as a promising talent to watch.

The Light Between Oceans

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In Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines, director Derek Cianfrance utilised an intimate and sometimes claustrophobic aesthetic that brought the viewer close to difficult events both domestic and criminal. With his latest film, Cianfrance combines this intimacy with an epic scale that engulfs the viewer in an overwhelming environment, both visually and narratively. Traumatised war veteran Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) takes a job as a lighthouse keeper in 1918, and begins a relationship with Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), which leads to marriage and her joining him on the island of Janus off Australia. Their secret, unofficial adoption of the baby girl leads to a range of tensions both private and public, especially once the child’s actual mother appears in the form of Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz). The central clash of the film is between moral duty and pure desire, as Tom is committed to a strict code while Isabel is emotionally guided. Pleasingly, the film does not fall into simplistic gender stereotyping, as the heady emotion of the film as a whole is in keeping with Isabel’s emotion while the expansive scenery feels at odds with Tom’s self-repression. The film makes no judgement about either perspective, but delivers a balanced, intimate and yet sweeping portrayal of a loving relationship lived and felt at every level.

88th Annual Academy Award Predictions

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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

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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.

Steve Jobs

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Ego. All-encompassing, unadulterated, unstoppable ego. Such is the driving force behind the titular Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) in Danny Boyle’s electrifying dramatization of the late Apple CEO’s life. I say dramatization because to call Steve Jobs a biopic would be a mischaracterisation. While it features Jobs and various other “real” people, including Jobs’ closest friend and marketing coordinator Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), former design partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and father figure John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Steve Jobs does not depict the man from adoption to death, nor even portray many events from his life. Instead, Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin depict the moments before three product launches, from 1984, 1988 and 1998 respectively. Never does the viewer see the launches themselves – the narrative is the backstage drama as various people come to speak to Jobs about design, marketing, technical difficulties, family, money, all of which Jobs subsumes within his overpowering ego. In this way, Steve Jobs echoes Sorkin’s previous screenplay about an IT entrepreneur, The Social Network. Like Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in the earlier film, Jobs is frequently unsympathetic but never less than compelling. Also like The Social Network, Steve Jobs cuts abruptly between time periods – sudden flashbacks interrupt the flow of scenes and conversations, giving us glimpses of how Jobs set up his products, plans and people. Boyle is on typically vibrant form, with a discordant editing rhythm that sometimes jars simple narrative flow, while surreal distortions of the mise-en-scene project Jobs’ words and thoughts onto walls and floors. Yet throughout all this, Jobs remains beguilingly inscrutable, as contradictory as the development of the products that he controversially takes credit for. Steve Jobs is unlikely to give the viewer information that could not be learnt (appropriately enough) from the Internet, but it is an enthralling and dynamic portrayal of a vigorous and fascinating ego.