Archive for March, 2014

Oscars 2014 wrap-up

Posted on March 8th, 2014 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Well, that was… er, underwhelming for the most part.

To take the hosting first, Ellen Degeneres could hardly fail to be generous, amusing and gregarious, but she seemed determined to play it safe. I’m sure I remember Jonathan Ross ordering pizza for the whole studio audience about twenty years ago, but he at least ordered enough for everyone. It was better than Seth McFarlane’s smug misogyny but a far cry from the glory days of Billy Crystal and David Letterman. Where’s the spark? When Amy Poehler and Tina Fey can so accurately and yet so benevolently skewer all of their targets, why is the Oscars host so determined to pussyfoot around? More than that, where’s the ambition? When Neil Patrick Harris celebrates Broadway with a routine which would put many Broadway shows to shame, why does Hollywood celebrate its achievements with a show which would make Broadway die of embarrassment at its paucity of imagination?

Worse than the genial but low-key hosting was the presenters’ lack of wit and preparation. It says a lot for the ceremony as a whole when the arguable highpoint of the whole show was one presenter mangling the name of a singer (I’m looking at you, Jewel Oltaveen) but a lot of people stumbled and fluffed and many looked awkward. One or two were briefly amusing, but no-one could clamber up to the level of actually funny, not even Jim Carrey (who at least tried). Two acceptance speeches stand out in my mind and for opposite reasons. Picking up the award for Best Supporting Actress, radiant Lupita Nyong’o was graceful, self-effacing and sincere. Following her searing performance in 12 Years A Slave,  I can only hope she nimbly escapes the guilt-porn cul-de-sac and starts showing her range in a variety of other roles, for she is clearly a magnificent talent. On the other hand, Matthew McConnaghey failed even to mention the name of the dead man on whose grave he scampered to Oscar glory, preferring to name himself as his own personal hero. This takes nothing away from his excellent performance in Dallas Buyers Club but does make me wish – again! – that he had been up against Tom Hanks, as justice and reason dictated.

So, as you all know, my 12-1 long shot of Gravity for Best Picture failed to make me any money, but I did end up not only winning our personal sweepstake, and with a completely clean sheet too (I hedged my bets by going for Slave for Best Picture). However, even if I’d placed an accumulator bet across all eight major categories, all of my choices had such poor odds, I’d have been lucky to double my money.

It might be worthwhile describing how I run my sweepstake, in case anyone reading this wants to run their own next year. Oscar sweepstakes have a couple of typical approaches, which have opposite vices and virtues. You can go for the top eight only, but then you tend to get a lot of general agreement – many are two-horse races such as Best Director this year, and many are one horse races – who would have bet against Cate Blanchett?

The other obvious option is to have everybody predict the winner in all 24-odd categories, but for many people, choosing who will win Best Sound Effects Editing or Best Documentary Short is going to be little short of guesswork. So, you may get a greater spread of entries, but people may well get bored of filling in quite  so many boxes and start choosing at random which makes a win much less satisfying.

I’ve found a way of splitting the difference. Everybody makes their choice of the Big Eight (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, Adapted Screenplay) and all the other categories are put into a hat. Each player pulls just one “wildcard” category from the hat and makes their choices of that and only that category for a total of nine picks per player. This has a number of advantages. It adds a little bit of luck – if you got Best Song this time round, it was pretty easy to pick “Let It Go” – but does allow you to do your homework to find out, for example, what the documentary aficionados were raving about this year, without the project taking hours on end. It also makes the ceremony more fun. “Best Score is up next – Sam, that’s your wildcard”.

As to whether justice was done or not, I’m not convinced that 12 Years a Slave will necessarily be a film for the ages. Gravity I think will either turn out to be a groundbreaker which is quickly overtaken, or more likely a Terminator 2 where the effects are both groundbreaking and rarely equalled. The advantage of the streamlined storytelling is that it contains less material which is likely to date it. The drawback of course is that it may be too thin to really resonate through the ensuing years. What the Best Director win will have done for Alfonso Cuaron is to buy him carte blanche to direct absolutely whatever he likes next. That promises to be interesting.

On the screenplay front, the win for Spike Jonze is certainly worthy. The win for John Ridley maybe less so, but I don’t know which contender deserved it a lot more – Wolf of Wall Street maybe? As I predicted, American Hustle was overlooked entirely, which I also think is just. It’s a lot of fun, but it feels a little hollow compared to a lot of its more substantial neighbours. It was a shame that Nebraska didn’t win anything, but going category-by-category I can’t see an obvious oversight.

That’s it then for another year. Join me in 2015 and we’ll do it all again.

Oscars 2014 – Dallas Buyers Club

Posted on March 2nd, 2014 in At the cinema | No Comments »


Last of my cycle of Oscar movies for 2014 and in many ways it’s the smallest story. The benefit of allowing more movies to battle it out for Academy glory (which doesn’t quite outway the drawback of cluttering the field with irrelevant also-rans) is that movies which are smaller in scope get a chance to compete along with the weighty historical epics, gigantic triumph-over-adversity narratives and special effects fantasies.

Jean-Marc Vallee’s tightly-focused movie centres on Ron Woodroof, diagnosed in 1985, to his horror and disgust, with HIV and given 30 days to live. Although the clock doesn’t run out quite that quickly, his life is changed by the diagnosis, but even compared to the small stakes of Philomena, this tale feels tiny. Woodruff doesn’t change the world, the law, or even his mind except in very small degrees, but it’s a testament to the clarity and energy of the filmmaking and the commitment of the actors that it never feels small as it unfolds.

As Woodroof, McConaughey is revelatory. Painfully gaunt, his lean features framed by an absurd porn-star moustache, his anxious eyes darting from behind heavy lids, he seems poleaxed by the diagnosis, only to flare up into indignant rage and then nimbly transform into a charmy, swaggering with easy charisma. Equally well-judged in a showier role which could so easily have become a cartoon, is Jared Leto as transgender Raymond/Rayon, as Woodroof’s partner in crime. Distrustful of the AZT being pushed by Dr Dennis O’Hare (decent, but given little to do), the two AIDS patients set up a “buyers club”, $400 monthly membership of which includes free experimental HIV drugs smuggled in from Mexico, Japan or wherever Woodroof can procure them.

Pitched between O’Hare’s drug company party line and McConnaghey’s maverick free-marketeering is Jennifer Garner whose Dr Saks is eventually so supportive of McConnaghey’s efforts that it costs her her job. Hers is probably the least satisfactory character, although Garner is as luminous as ever, as the screenplay can’t spare the time to create any kind of real emotional life for her and so she just watches from the sidelines as the movie unfolds around her.

The real triumph of the film is the way director Vallee marshalls the meagre resources at his disposal. With a drastically truncated 25 day shoot, he cuts nimbly, propels the story not just efficiently but effervescently, the drive of the storytelling preventing the grimness of the subject matter from overwhelming the piece. Unable to mount complicated set-ups, he uses the loose hand-held style to his advantage, and in particular uses sound design absolutely brilliantly to make his audience at one with Woodruff’s symptoms and emotional state.

Only in the last 10 or so minutes does it stumble at all, with a court case introduced too late in the day to seem truly relevant or interesting, and lacking the presence of the delightful Leto, but this is a minor quibble in a compelling and charismatic movie that does prove that McConnaghey is more than shirtless rom-com fodder, but does much else besides.

So, with the awards themselves just hours away I am revising my predictions slightly. McConnaghey I think may have the edge over Ejiofor for Best Actor, but it will be a close race. In the screenplay stakes, Her also seems to be gaining ground over American Hustle which might walk away gonglessly despite its wealth of nominations. Other than that, I think I’m on firm ground, but as so many of my picks are the bookies’ favourites, even an accumulator can’t win me any real cash, so I’m still holding out the faintest of hopes that Gravity will walk away with Best Picture, netting me £120 for a ten quid stake.

Overall, though, my favourite of this year’s nine isn’t as groundbreaking as Alfonso Cuaron’s film, nor as moving as 12 Years, nor even as charming as Philomena, but it was the most purely entertaining of the set and included a career-defining performance as well as any number of stunning sequences – it’s Martin Scorse’s The Wolf of Wall Street, a very fine film in what’s been a pretty strong year, Llewyn Davis aside.