Archive for January, 2016

Oscars 2016 – Nominations and the Hateful Eight

Posted on January 14th, 2016 in At the cinema | No Comments »

The Academy Award nominations for 2016 were announced earlier today and my campaign to see all eight nominees at the cinema before the ceremony is off to a flying start. Here’s an alphabetical list of the films in the running.

The Big Short. Out here next week, and one of those films I would have gone to see anyway. On a good day, might combine breezy character work from funny actors with a clear insight into the systemic problems which contributed to the credit crunch. On a bad day, of course, it could just be a lot of mugging and shouting. Very unlikely to walk off with the top prize.

Bridge of Spies. Pure Hollywood craft and hugely entertaining. Full review here. No nod for Spielberg as best director, but Mark Rylance is nominated for best supporting actor and might have a chance, as does the screenplay. Top three, for sure, but probably won’t win the big prize.

Brooklyn. Sweet, affecting, laugh-out-loud funny, but rather unambitious both structurally and in its presentation. Doesn’t stand a chance of winning, and Saoirse Ronan and Nick Hornby are both going to face heavy competition too for Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Full review here.

Mad Max: Fury Road. I saw this at the IMAX but I don’t think I ever reviewed it. The best of the Mad Max films (and how extraordinary that a fourth chapter should ever get even a nomination) it’s probably the most purely entertaining film on the list, and in fact I think the race is between this and The Revenant – it’s that good.

The Martian. This was the one that fell through the cracks, but it’s still showing on a handful of tiny screens, so I will try and catch it in the next few days. I loved the book, and the film seems like a suitable faithful but not slavish version, so I imagine it will be pretty good, but it’s far too boys-own to win, nor does Matt Damon have a chance against DiCaprio. Might win some technical awards if Mad Max doesn’t snaffle them all.

The Revenant. This is it – the one to beat. Leading the way with 12 nominations, and an early favourite not just for Best Picture but Best Director and Best Actor too. My full review is here.

Room. Out here next week, so check back for my full review then.

Spotlight. Out here at the end of the month, so check back here for my full review then.

Not nominated were Joy and The Danish Girl, both of which I am very happy to catch-up with on iTunes, and also Creed which I had no interest in at all.

Also not nominated for Best Picture, but still picking up three other nominations is The Hateful Eight, the self-styled Eighth Film By Quentin Tarantino. I’ve moaned before about how QT’s career since the elegant and thoughtful Jackie Brown has been characterised by a flight from maturity towards gleeful juvenilia. One of the (several) reasons I disliked Django Unchained was that it seemed to have been made by a writer/director who has lost his balls and so couldn’t bear to see his hero parted from his.

Make no mistake, The Hateful Eight is yet more pulpy melodrama, but it manages to find a way to exploit all of Tarantino’s habits, tics and vices and turn them into strengths – most of the time at least. Just as Django was a Western, set in the American south, this is a Western, set in the snowy wastes of Wyoming. A stagecoach brings together bounty hunters John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson) as well as nervy good-old-boy sheriff-in-waiting Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins in a star-making turn) and Ruth’s captive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, gleefully chewing up the scenery). They are in turn deposited at Minnie’s Haberdashery where more distinguished character actors familiar from previous Tarantino movies are already in residence (Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen et al), there to wait out the storm, shoot the shit, and blow each others’ brains out.

The three-hour plus film (I saw the “Roadshow” version in 70mm with overture and interval at the Odeon Leicester Square) is split up into six chapters with cute names, as in Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds (and for that matter Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie) and not all of these chapters are presented in chronological order. It also takes a tremendous amount of time for the expected physical violence to erupt, but to criticise the film for being baggy I think is probably unfair.

Django certainly has far more going on than the film’s structure can handle, and Basterds sprawls all over the place (which is partly why the script has to adjust the end of the Second World War, in order to somehow gather up the various narrative threads it has strewn over the preceding two hours). And while Eight doesn’t have anything like Reservoir Dogs lean, propulsive energy, the fact that the characters spend an awfully long time just exchanging back-stories doesn’t stop the whole of the film from being thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing. In fact, as is often the case with Tarantino, the long conversations are largely the point, especially since they do contribute to the melodrama (unlike those in Deathproof for example).

The whole film looks absolutely stunning as well. I admire the perversity of returning to Super Panavision 70 and shooting with lenses made in the 1960s to create some of the widest and most detailed images cinema is capable of and then telling a story set almost entirely in one room. But the old fashioned feel of the celluloid images (created with no digital intermediate) is part of the texture of the story. If I have a concern, it’s a vague wonder about whether this, fairly simple, story really deserves to have all of this care and attention lavished on it. Does shooting in this way inflate the film to epic proportions, which the actual narrative can’t quite live up to?

Well, it’s a close run thing, but I think ultimately the operatic nature of the final reel harmonises the form and the content. This is not a film which is going to tell you very much about the human condition or the nature of America or anything else (despite what the auteur behind the camera might want to believe) but as an pressure-cooker tale of trial-by-wits, in its dementedly stylised way, with its almost Agatha Christie mystery plot (for once, telling the story out of sequence seems to serve a purpose) and with such ripe and juicy performances as these, it really does work.

For such an indulgent director, this is a very controlled piece of filmmaking – still not as grown-up as Jackie Brown, but worlds away from the cartoon nonsense of Kill Bill or the tedious Death Proof.

Oscars 2016: Brooklyn and Bridge of Spies

Posted on January 9th, 2016 in At the cinema | 1 Comment »

While waiting for the official list of nominees in a few days’ time, I took in a couple more likely contenders. Brooklyn was a film which passed me by almost completely but then started showing up on all sorts of Best Films of 2015 lists, and has plenty of Oscar buzz attached to it, so I was keen to try and watch it before it left cinemas. And while it passed the time very pleasantly, I’m not at all sure what all the fuss is about.

Theatre director John Crowley helms this slender tale, adapted by Nick Hornby from the novel by Colm Tóibín, and Saoirse Ronan stars as Eilis Lacey, a spunky young woman who has tired of her provincial life in a sleepy Irish village in the early 1950s and (we learn in a flurry of exposition) has arranged passage to Brooklyn, New York, where a boarding house, green card and department store job await her, all arranged by a kindly ex-pat priest. Following the grim details of her voyage, she initially struggles with home sickness but eventually meets a nice boy and proceeds essentially to lead an utterly charmed life.

When tragedy does finally strike and she has to return to Ireland, life there is almost equally charmed, with her New York stories buying her tremendous street cred, and a better job and an equally nice boy are presented to her. Eventually, she makes the right choice and scampers off back to Brooklyn where presumably she pops out babies and lives in domestic bliss.

This is all presented with a great deal of charm and wit, and the supporting cast is stuffed with good turns – notably from Jim Broadbent as the aforementioned priest and Julie Walters playing the kind of batty old Irish landlady she’s cornered the market in for the past thirty years. Other parts are well-cast too with Domnhall Gleeson almost inevitably cropping up as her Irish beau and Emory Cohen – a sort of Diet Coke James Dean or Marlon Brando, all rueful lips and doe eyes and mumbling dialogue – as her Brooklyn boy. And no review of this film would be complete without mentioning James DiGiacomo as the world’s funniest eight-year-old.

So, all the details are well-captured, all the parts are well-played and I was never bored. But as a piece of movie-making, this is pretty thin stuff. There is so little jeopardy, so little tension for great swathes of the film. As luminous as Saiorise Ronan is, and as enjoyable as it is to watch Ailis grow and flourish, it would have meant more if she had been tested even a little. And the real dilemma of the story – will she stay at home in Ireland or return to the unfamiliar but much more exciting world of Brooklyn – takes half the film to appear, and when it does, is somewhat of a foregone conclusion.

A more daring adaptation might have played with the timeline a little, to present this decision as the true focal point of the film. As it is, it just appears as another diverting but not especially moving episode following the equally diverting but rather disconnected Leaving Ireland episode, the Boat Voyage episode, the Meeting an Italian Boy episode and so on.

Adding to the sense of a TV movie rather than a cinema experience is the rather ordinary presentation from the director who shoots, for example, the two contrasting beach scenes in almost exactly the same way. There is nothing done with the camera, lenses, grading, sound or editing which in any way elevates this or makes the story bigger than before.

Maybe this is what fans of the book were looking for, but not having been a fan of the book, I found myself charmed but rather unsatisfied.

Equally charming but rather more satisfying is Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, the true story of insurance attorney James Donovan who was involved in negotiating a spy swap in Berlin as the Iron Curtain was being built. This film might suffer from the same slightly episodic feel, as we first meet suspected Soviet spy Rudolph Abel who is swiftly apprehended by the FBI. Then we are introduced to Donovan, who is given the thankless task of defending him, and quickly finds that American justice is more interested in being seen to be done than actually giving Abel a fair hearing. This narrative is intercut with material relating to the American U2 spy plane programme which eventually results in one Lt Powers being captured, and thus the suggestion of a prisoner exchange, which Donovan must mediate.

As with Brooklyn, each episode unfurls at its own measured pace, but several things elevate this above the other film. Firstly, the script (doctored by – of all people the Coen Brothers) is well aware of the danger of the structure falling apart and so there are plenty of thematic, character and dialogue moments which tether various sections to each other. It’s absolutely clear from quite early on what all of this is about: country, duty, humanity, honour.

Secondly, Spielberg mounts it beautifully and Janusz Kamiński shoots it luminously. There is something stately, elegant, old-fashioned in all the best senses of the word about this film. It was even shot on celluloid! It could almost have been made in 1952, but the clear hindsight of our modern perspective allows all sides to have the fairest of hearings.

Thirdly, among an excellent cast (Jesse Plemons, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda to name but three) Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance do astoundingly good work. Hanks is possibly the only actor alive who could have pulled off Donovan’s crucial speech about the constitution early on without either underselling it or making it sound corny as hell. And Rylance – who was seemingly scared off movies by the horrors of porno-drama Intimacy in 2001 but who seems since to have made-up with the camera – is an understated marvel. With two actors like this, who can tell you whole paragraphs with one flicker of an eyelid, it’s hard to go too far wrong. And the fact that Spielberg (who hasn’t directed a movie set in modern-day since War of the Worlds in 2005) can do this kind of stuff without breaking a sweat shouldn’t cause us to forget how few other directors can marshal sound, light and emotion this way – nor how effective it all is.

This doesn’t quite have the epic power of The Revenant or the breadth of scope of the (oddly similar) Argo, but it’s handsome, grown-up, intelligent movie making and it’s cinema craft of the highest order.

Also worthy of brief mention is The Lobster which is unlikely to trouble Academy voters much, but is a breathtakingly original undertaking. Colin Farrell (paunchy, dead-eyed) is one of a number of guests at a bizarre hotel run by Olivia Colman. Guests have 45 days in which to successfully pair up with another guest or be transformed into the animal of their choosing (Farrell has picked a lobster). Extra time can be obtained by shooting the “loners” who live in the woods during regular hunts.

The film is every bit as demented as it sounds, with great turns from other familiar faces including John C Reilly, Ashley Jensen and Ben Wishaw, but loses momentum a little in the second half when Farrell spends most of his time in the woods with other loners including Lea Seydoux and Rachel Weisz. Lovely little gags, many of them jet black, pepper the film and the discordant soundtrack and stilted acting style unite the whole very successfully. It certainly won’t bust any blocks but it’s very funny and rather disturbing, all in a good way.

Oscars 2016: The Revenant and Carol

Posted on January 7th, 2016 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Another year, another awards season. Once again, I am attempting to see all the movies nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, on the big screen if at all possible and before the awards ceremony itself. Partly because there are a lot of movies out that I want to see, partly because I’ve not seen many movies at the cinema in recent months apart from the great big blockbusters, and partly because I have had a few free evenings recently, I am attempting to get ahead of the game by going to see some likely contenders before the nominees are announced.

My first visit was to the poky confines of my local Camden Odeon for one of their Screen Unseen showings. The, rather fun, idea of these is that you pay a fiver and sit down to watch a film not yet released in the UK, but with (in theory) no idea what it is until it starts. In practice, they often give some pretty easy clues on their Facebook page, but I rarely look at these.

So it was with some happiness that the film which unspooled on Monday was Alejandra Iñárritu’s much-anticipated The Revenant starring Leonardo diCaprio as an apparently unbreakable fur-trapper fighting for life and revenge in an American wilderness of the 1820s. This is not a film which is remotely interested in spoon-feeding the viewers. The exact nature of di Caprio and company’s organisation, where and when they are, and what relationships – personal and formal – exist within and without are all pretty much left to the viewer to puzzle out. There are no handy captions to tell us what is going on, precious little dialogue of any kind (at least a quarter of which is not in English) and next to nothing in the way of back story.

What it does have is a tremendous immediacy and almost physical power. Although not quite going as far as the apparently single-take Birdman, Iñárritu shoots almost the whole film with long, swooping steadicam takes. When (as happens on several occasions) one of our characters is standing over the other, with a rifle in his face, there is no cut from one man to the other. The camera instead floats around the face of the aggressor and then glides down the barrel of the gun to eventually discover the other person lying on the ground. It’s a technique which makes the two early stand-out sequences (the initial attack on the compound and diCaprio’s mauling at the hands of a bear) utterly terrifying and engrossing.

Once pragmatically ruthless Tom Hardy (once again strangling his vocal cords, Bane-style) and nervy naïf Will Poulter leave diCaprio’s ironically-named Hugh Glass for dead, much of the movie documents his agonising struggle to regain sufficient fitness to return to base and let Captain (I think?) Domhnall Gleeson know what has happened. Let’s have a little talk about diCaprio. When Wolf of Wall Street was released, I mused that I had previously found the career of this appealing but unexceptional actor hard to fathom, but that as crooked stockbroker Jordan Belfort I saw something of the power of which he is capable.

Almost uniquely among modern Hollywood leading men, he manages to precisely straddle the divide between “personality” actors, who generally play some variant of themselves (Bradley Cooper, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr) and “chameleon” actors who routinely transform themselves for each role (Johnny Depp, Gary Oldman, Christian Bale). (This is not, by the way intended to imply that this division is precise or absolute, nor that one kind of actor is more admirable than the other.) Different wigs and costumes aside, diCaprio generally looks and sounds the same, but there is something bizarrely protean about this blandly good-looking male. Want someone to play a tortured dream thief in an urban psycho adventure? DiCaprio will nail it. Want someone to play a happy-go-lucky conman chancer? DiCaprio is all over it. Want someone to play a delusional US Marshall? DiCaprio is your guy. Need a charming front for your slave-fighting gang? DiCaprio’s got you covered. Quite how he does this still is not clear to me, but now he adds a fiercely protective, utterly determined nineteenth century fur-trapper to his resume.

As I’ve said, the film uses dialogue very sparingly. Often the only sound we can hear is diCaprio’s stertorous breathing, and at times his breath even seems to fog up the lens of the camera – not an effect I can recall ever seeing before. It’s probably a little flabby in the second half, and it’s possibly telling that I began to become more interested in the lies that Hardy was having to tell in the safety of the compound, and less interested in diCaprio’s physical ordeals as the film wore on, but the final confrontation is perfectly satisfying and the film as a whole is an amazing achievement.

Next on my list, in the rather more luxurious confines of the embattled Curzon Soho, was Todd Haynes’ Carol. I’d been hugely impressed with this director’s 2002 offering Far From Heaven and couldn’t wait to see this simple tale (adapted with economy and grace by Phyllis Nagy from a novel by Patricia Highsmith) of forbidden love in the 1950s.

I hope it isn’t a spoiler, but although I hadn’t read the book I was vaguely aware that it was famous not for its ground-breaker depiction of a lesbian affair (although it does depict that and it was ground-breaking) but because the lesbians in question don’t end up dead or insane or grief-stricken. That isn’t to say their story is entirely a happy one, but Haynes accurately steers a path between the tedium of a lack of incident and the deadening effect of too much melodrama.

He is helped enormously by two absolutely stand-out performances without which the entire enterprise would founder. Rooney Mara is incredibly good, her pinched-pixie face and apologetic manner perfectly counter-parted by Cate Blanchett’s far more lavish and statuesque bearing. Weirdly, as much as Mara put me in mind of Audrey Hepburn, Blanchett put me in mind of Katharine.

Although it’s Mara’s Therese Belivet who learns who she is, what she wants and how to order lunch over the course of the movie, it’s no surprise that the title is Carol (and not for example, When Carol Met Therese or the rather more obscure The Price of Salt, the title of the original novel). Blanchett’s Carol Aird presents herself to the world, and to Therese in particular as gloriously and completely in control of her own destiny. In fact, her failing marriage and the struggle with her husband over custody of her child, the improbably-named Rindy, are gradually hollowing her out until she becomes little more than a gaily-painted husk. Finally, in the film’s last reel, she is able to reconstruct her personality and become the person that Therese has begun to love. It’s an incredible journey and Blanchett shines off the screen at every turn.

Ably supported by familiar faces from TV (Sarah Paulson, Jack Lacy, Kyle Chandler – even Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia and Sleater-Kinney), this centre pairing is certain to be among the Best Actress nominees – my guess would be Blanchett for Actress and Mara for Supporting Actress so they aren’t competing with each other.

I do have one quibble and it’s perhaps an odd one. The power of the emotion between the two women is absolutely clear and the role than each can play in the life of the other is certainly vivid, but what was perhaps missing for me was any sense that they just enjoyed being with each other. Apart from one flirtatious comment about Therese’s company-mandated Santa hat at their first meeting, these two never make each other laugh or share a joke. A curious omission I thought.

Not a bad start to awards season then. Let’s see what the rest of the month has to offer.