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.

Oscars 2014 – Her

Posted on February 15th, 2014 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »


Some spoilers – be warned.

As previously noted, I thought this was a dreadful idea for a movie. Electric Dreams seemed facile and absurd in 1984, but computers being so much more commonplace in 2014, we know so much more about their strengths and limitations now which makes a movie like this very, very tricky to pull off. Anyone who has talked to Siri for any length of time will no doubt have been delighted by the wit of some of the reponses and will also have been frustrated by the system’s inability to parse what would seem like very simple instructions to another human.

And yet, from this thinnest and seemingly most unproductive of premises, Spike Jonze as writer and director has created something rather magical. This sweet, sad, odd, funny, charming, moving film is by no means perfect but it is one of the most purely original and beguiling films of the year, and I think earns its place come Oscar time, albeit in the “also-ran” category.

The pitch is as follows – sometime in the near future, when trousers are worn extremely high and writing sappy letters on behalf of other people is a full-time job, a new operating system will be developed which has full artificial intelligence and which is expressly designed to interact with you. Theodore Twombly, whose personal life is a disaster, purchases and installs this software, creating a virtual companion for himself, named Samantha, whom he proceeds to fall in love with.

There are numerous pitfalls here for an unwary director. The first is to make the software convincing. By beginning the story in a future world, where video games take up half the living room and where natural language interaction is the usual way of issuing instructions to personal computers, Jonze creates a very useful credibility stepping-stone from the limitations of today’s devices to the unlimited processing powers of Samantha. The second is to avoid it being creepy. If we feel like Samantha is a made-to-order psychological prostitute, we will lose sympathy for the lead character very quickly. Jonze carefully lays the groundwork, confronting Twombly with a genuine creep in the form of a very funny voice-only cameo from Kristen Wiig as one “SexyKitten” whom Twombly meets in an online sex chat room. But he is also helped enormously by Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, which is suitably off-kilter – a straight-arrow leading man actor like Matt Damon or Tom Cruise kills the movie dead – but also achingly vulnerable and uncertain.

It’s also clear that – as far as Jonze is concerned – this isn’t really a science fiction movie. The world-building is all relegated to the background, we have no idea what breakthroughs have made this technology possible, and the details of how “Samantha” works are glossed over (the interview which the installer conducts is over with almost before it’s begun – this isn’t a made-to-order perfect woman unless the company has been spying on Twombly for months). And there’s no broadening of the scope of the story to show, for example, the company which created this software getting wiped out on the stock exchange when all the sentient OSes suddenly decide to “leave”. Sometimes, this refusal to remove the narrative blinkers is a weakness. When Samantha goes off-line, leaving Twombly to panic and rush his hand-set to the IT emergency room, she blithely replies on her return that she had sent him an email informing him of her forthcoming absence. Fine, but how is he expected to read an email without an operating system?

However, when the ramifications of this “magic bean” intersect with the human drama which is unfolding, then the follow-through is admirably thorough. Human/OS romantic relationships are, if not taken for granted, certainly expected and talked about. Of course! Of course Theodore wouldn’t be the only one to become intimate with his gracefully personal personal assistant. An OS has more in common with another OSes than with a human master. Of course! And of course they would be able to communicate effortlessly with each other in this connected world.

The limited scope of the movie puts a lot of weight on a relatively small cast. As well as Phoenix, Jonze casts Rooney Mara as Twombly’s ex-wife, Chris Pratt as his work buddy, Olivia Wilde as his blind date, Amy Adams as his best gal-pal and – apparently – a 25-year-old David Hyde Pierce as her husband. All do excellent work, especially Wilde who makes the most of a two-scene cameo. Amy Adams is on fine form too, far less glamorous then in American Hustle but equally compelling.

As Twombly blunders through misunderstanding after crass remark, he is permitted some moments of happiness, even joy, in Samantha’s company and Scarlett Johansson also does lovely work as the voice of the software. It’s these scenes which give us hope for the future. Twombly’s relationship with his computer may have been a horribly misguided, fucked-up, dead end (nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the extraordinary scene where Samantha procures a sexual surrogate to consummate her and Theodore’s love) but it helped heal some wounds, and Theodore ends the film if not having been made whole then at least having learned to feel again, to laugh again, to share again.

With a lovely and very distinctive soundtrack from Canadian band Arcade Fire, Her is a very carefully controlled piece of work – delicate, intimate and precisely focused. By avoiding really exploring the wider consequences of the creation of an army of Samanthas, Jonze is able to tell a deeply personal story about one man’s struggle against loneliness. But it’s still occasionally frustrating to get only tiny glimpses of another, broader, more technological but no less interesting, story happening outside the frame. Whether it would have been possible to set such a fragile love story in this wider context is unanswerable. What’s clear is that Spike Jonze achieved exactly what he set out to, and the result is rather lovely.

Oscars 2014 – The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle

Posted on February 3rd, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

An interesting double bill – both vaguely based on true life stories (Wolf much more so than Hustle), both doling out exposition via voice over from the leader character(s), both open to accusations of self-indulgence from their powerhouse directors, and both widely praised for the performances, especially of the leading men. They both even begin in the middle of the narrative before flashing back many years (handled in both cases rather better than in 12 Years).


Let’s take Wolf first. Scorsese returns to the well-spring of inspiration which has served him so well in the past. In outline, his new movie is a virtual retread of his amazing 1990 classic Goodfellas, only in pin-striped shirts and braces. It even opens with DiCaprio all but saying “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a stockbroker.”

When his journey starts, DiCaprio is eager young stockbroker to be Jordan Belfort. Belfort is quickly taken under the wing of Matthew McConaughey’s lanquid master of the universe who schools him in the art of keeping his clients’ money moving from deal-to-deal while he pockets commission each and every time. Oh, and lots of masturbation, obviously. Belfort’s plans are abruptly derailed by Black Monday but he lands on his feet pushing worthless penny stocks to suckers.

Along the way he picks up eager young salesman Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, virtually recreating his role in Money Ball only with more and whiter teeth), and a motley gang of drop-outs and reprobates whom he in turn schools to extract even more sales from even richer marks until his firm of Stratton Oakmont has become a genuine, if thoroughly corrupt, Wall Street powerhouse, eventually attracting the attention of federal agent Kyle Chandler.

Throw in Rob Reiner as Belfort’s dad, newcomer Margot Robbie as his smoking hot second wife, Joanna Lumley (really!) as her English Aunt and Jean du Jardin as a crooked Swiss banker and you have a fizzy, heady concoction which held me absolutely riveted despite the fact that the tale of Jordan’s life doesn’t really have the kind of pivot point which most strong narratives require. Jordan simply is not able to learn the lessons that life tries to teach him, consistently failing to cash out when the opportunity is presented and hardly ever deviating from the course he sets in the film’s opening sequences – line your own pockets, share with your friends, and live to preposterous excess.

That at three hours the film never once seems boring, despite this lack of plotting, is largely testimony to how precisely Scorsese handles the material. Realising that bravura shot after bravura shot would become wearing, he wisely keeps his powder dry save for a handful of delirious sequences. More often than not – as in the lengthy but gripping sequence when DiCaprio and Chandler meet on Belfort’s yacht and trade first pleasantries, then vague threats and finally profane insults – Scorsese is content to trust the script and the actors to carry the audience with them.

And what actors! Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and Rob Reiner in particular are all quite outstanding, carefully finding a tone which suits the extraordinary largesse of the movie. But striding magnificently across the whole enterprise is DiCaprio who is quite exceptional. I’ve long wondered at the appeal of this charming but rather ordinary-seeming actor, and in particular I’ve struggled to see what Scorsese sees in him. Now I get it. In scene after scene, he pours demented energy into his characterisation of Belfort, filling him up until it seems as if he might explode. His rat-a-tat voice-over in the film’s opening is pure movie star. Later when he addresses the camera Francis Urqhuart-style, and then declines to bore and confuse the audience with the technical details of this latest fraud, he’s electric. In the lengthy sequence when he and Hill are reduced to spastic incoherence on weapons-grade Quaaludes, he is absolutely astonishing. And in the terrifying yacht sequence, when in wild-eyed hysteria he bellows at Hill “I’m not going to die sober!” he is frightening, pitiful, hilarious and sickening all in one.

The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t an important film that needed to be made. The stakes are often relatively low – even though Belfort’s actions may be destroying lives, neither he nor Scorsese are even slightly interested in that – but the world the movie takes place in is so bracingly absurd, so shockingly excessive, so confoundingly amoral that it’s a hugely entertaining place to spend three hours.


The grifters in American Hustle have nothing like the ambition of Belfort and his crew, for whom bigger is better and diminishing returns never set in. Paunchy, middle-aged, dry cleaning operator and fraudulent loan salesman Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale with a comb-over of prodigious proportions, cautions again and again that for their own safety, they need to maintain an operation that isn’t too big.

His world is upset by the arrival of a new girlfriend, luminous Amy Adams, FBI agent on the make Bradley Cooper, and by the continued presence of his lunatic wife, Jennifer Lawrence, who is seemingly able to make any new household gadget catch on fire (especially her new Science Oven, i.e. microwave). Determined to make a name for himself, Cooper recruits Adams and Bale to run a sting operation involving the mayor of Camden New Jersey, a number of high-ranking politicians, Florida mob bosses (led by Robert De Niro) and a fake Arab Sheikh. Everyone involved is bedecked with ridiculous hair-dos, and most hide behind gigantic glasses, in a way which creates a weirdly consistent look, knitting together this disparate collection of clashing characters.

Early on, director David O Russell is fully in command, swiftly and engagingly painting in back-stories for these compelling characters, nimbly allowing Bale and Adams to share voice-over duties as the need arises, and populating the rest of the world with delightful cameos – none more so than Louis CK as Cooper’s stick-in-the-mud (or should that be fall-through-the-ice?) boss. But, as the plans of the various participants start to unravel, so too does the narrative focus of the movie. It’s telling that, for me at least, the three hour movie actually felt lean, propulsive and sleek, while the 138 minute movie feels indulgent, sprawling and undisciplined, at least in the middle third. It’s during this forty minute or so stretch that the movie can’t seem to find a centre, wandering aimlessly from sub-plot to sub-plot – never less than interesting, but starting to feel like channel-hopping between four or five different, but oddly similar, movies.

Everything picks up however, for a final act which delivers in style and stays perfectly true to the rich and rounded characters which Russell and his “repertory company” of actors have created. Amy Adams is wonderful as the mercurial Sydney whose loyalties shift as easily as her accent. Bradley Cooper uncovers layer after layer of sleaze under what we first take to be a pretty straight-arrow G-man. Jennifer Lawrence, in a role which sometimes seems like an afterthought, is a force of nature as Bale’s emotionally crippled wife – but Bale is outstandingly good as Irving, adding a vivid and completely original new face to an already amazingly impressive rogues’ gallery. There’s a lightness of touch to his nervy conman which I haven’t seen from him before. Sometimes when strong dramatic actors are given licence to be funny, the results are clunking and overblown, but Bale allows the absurdity of the situation to flow through the character and is content to let his hair be the most over-the-top aspect of the performance.

Sadly for this fantastic quartet, although all are nominated, I don’t think any of them are going to win come Oscar night – each is up against a juggernaut. Bale will lose out to Chiwetal Ejiofor, Amy Adams will have to watch Cate Blanchett win and Bradley Cooper will have to fake-smile as Jared Leto lifts the Oscar. Jennifer Lawrence has got a chance, but seeing as she won last year, I think that Lupita Nyong’o will be the one smiling on 2 March.

The Academy’s eccentric rules about screenplays means that of the various movies inspired by true stories which are in contention, 12 Years A Slave is up for Best Adapted Screenplay, which means that Hustle will almost certainly pick up Best Original Screenplay, which is a little disappointing, since the storytelling is probably where it’s weakest, even if only in the middle.

The last two movies on the list – Dallas Buyers Club and Her – are not released in the UK at the time of writing, so I may try and take in August Osage County and Inside Llewyn Davis to fill the gap. So far, though, this has been a strong year, the strongest I can remember since the Academy decided to nominate more than five films for Best Picture.

Oscars 2014 – 12 Years a Slave

Posted on January 27th, 2014 in At the cinema | 5 Comments »


I haven’t seen Steve McQueen’s earlier efforts, Hunger (which friends of mine hated) and Shame (which friends of mine loved) and as noted in my earlier post, I was a little wary of guilt porn here. It’s not that the brutal horrors of the American slave trade need not be recreated on film, it’s more a question of what can McQueen add to what has been depicted already. Slim Pickens opting to save a handcart from quicksand but leaving his slaves to their doom in Blazing Saddles is shocking and funny, but Blazing Saddles was a long time ago.

The recent cycle of Hollywood movies examining America’s racist past has so failed to produce a major movie which wasn’t either twee (The Help), focused only on politics (Lincoln) or simply demented (Django Unchained) so there is maybe a need for a movie like this, just as there was, arguably, a need for Schindler’s List to be made, which almost trumps any conversation about the film’s actual merits as a piece of cinema.

Well, I don’t really think I’m sticking my neck out too far when I say that broadly speaking I think slavery was A Bad Thing and so I’m not surprised to have left the cinema sickened and horrified by the brutalisation of those poor unfortunate wretches who found themselves owned by other humans. But overall, I didn’t leave the cinema feeling that this was a magnificent piece of film-making. Important, yes. Necessary, possibly. Deeply felt, almost certainly. But free of flaw? That’s another matter.

The story, just in case you didn’t know, concerns one Solomon Northup, living as a free man in Saratoga, New York, who unwisely accepts the invitation of a couple of white strangers to come and play violin with them in Washington (where slavery is still legal). After imbibing a Mickey Finn, he comes to in chains, and is told that his name is now Platt and that he is free no longer. He is passed from owner to owner until, well, the title of the film kind of spoils the ending.

As might be expected, McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbit compose the shots wonderfully, holding on certain images for much longer than might be expected which gives them a stark beauty, even if what is being depicted is horrendously inhumane. And McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley assemble any number of individual scenes of tremendous power – the slave trader touting his wares, the plantation owner’s wife who hurls a decanter at the comely young slave woman who is her husband’s favourite, Northup desperately lying his way out of trouble at knife-point when his letters to his wife and children are discovered, and most shockingly of all, Northup forced to whip another slave to the point of death. Guilt porn? Maybe just a little, but McQueen’s camera – neither cold, dispassionate observer like Michael Hanneke’s, nor soaringly emotive like Spielberg’s – makes you feel every horrible lash.

However, where the filmmakers stumble is in their failure to successfully link individual scenes together to make arresting sequences. This is a film full of unnecessary stops-and-starts, with far too many one-or-two scene guest stars (Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Michael K Williams, Sal off of Mad Men) breaking up the flow. Almost no element of the story carries over from one scene to the next, and several key moments are robbed of their power, either because the context is missing, or in one case, the bizarre choice to show that moment as a very early flash-forward before the film has really got going.

It’s also striking to me that, in common with Schindler’s List, McQueen has chosen a very particular, very unusual slave story to tell, just as Spielberg didn’t want to tell a tale of everyday ordinary Auschwitz folk. Oskar Schindler’s perspective on the Nazi holocaust is utterly unique and the moral calculus which he performs gives a very specific lens through which to view the terrors of the Final Solution. In theory, Northup’s position does the same. Although many free black man and women were kidnapped by the slave trade, almost none escaped to tell the tale, and so Northup’s story is very unusual, and he also makes an excellent viewpoint character. How much easier for McQueen’s affluent, free audience to identify with a man who had everything they had but had it snatched away?

And yet the demands of the plot mean that we only very occasionally get this perspective. Northup is told early on – tell no-one who you really are, tell no-one you can read and write – and so most of the time, he looks and sounds like all the other slaves and this opportunity for a new vantage point is at the very least muted. That’s why it is so frustrating to see his early attempts at writing a letter thrown away as an unnecessary throw-forward. It’s also striking that his eventual release is dealt with in an almost perfunctory manner, in the last few minutes of the film, and his reunion with his family and rehabilitation after the agonies he has suffered provide none of the expected catharsis.

So, why is this and why does nobody else care? Well, there’s a perception that a well-crafted screenplay with neat set-ups and payoffs is formulaic or cheating. This I think is very far from the truth. Obviously, such a thing can be done badly and when the plot gears grind too loudly, one can no longer believe in the events depicted. But even to do this badly takes a lot more effort than what has apparently been done here – make a list of the noteworthy events in Northup’s 12 years’ incarceration and then run them in sequence until he is released. But maybe this stop-start, never building, never crescendoing quality is deliberate? Either to make the film seem more important, or to make it seem more authentic, or to give it the grinding, never-ending, soul-crushing feeling of a life in servitude.

None of these seem to me to be defensible positions. The Shawshank Redemption, for example, free of the perceived need to tell an important story about a terrible human tragedy manages to be authentically relentless, and well-structured, and even to include moments of grace and beauty which Slave can’t or won’t. And it’s not like writing the script didn’t involve making a thousand creative decisions about what to include, what to leave out, what to emphasise, what to overlook and how to paper over the gaps in Northup’s account. All of these choices certainly have been made – this is not a documentary and it certainly doesn’t suffer from walking Wikipedia entry syndrome like say, Behind the Candelabra.

Thankfully, this shortcoming ultimately does very little to undermine what is essentially a very fine piece of film-making. The performances are excellent throughout, with especial praise going to Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o who I think must now be a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actress for her heart-rending turn as the luckless Patsey. But it’s on Chiwetel Ejiofor’s sturdy shoulders that the whole enterprise rests and he is nothing short of magnificent. When McQueen’s camera hangs on his face, impassive and yet hauntingly expressive, he is able to take the disparate bits and pieces of Northup’s life and somehow braid them together in the way he stares at the horizon. In those moments, the film achieves an almost terrible beauty and an almost unbearable sadness.

Edited 2/2/14 to correct some errors of fact and poor phrasing picked up by commenters – thank you.

Oscars 2014

Posted on January 18th, 2014 in At the cinema, Culture | 2 Comments »

It’s Oscar time again. Ladies and gentlemen here are the runners and riders…

The ones I’ve seen already…


Tying with American Hustle for most nominations (ten, one more than 12 Years A Slave) it’s perhaps a little surprising to see this getting quite so much Academy love. Pared-back and innovatively-shot it may be, but it’s still essentially a blockbuster thrill-ride at its core. What’s even more surprising is that it hasn’t been overlooked in the “big six” department. Alfonso Cuarón is nominated for Best Director as is Sandra Bullock for Best Actress. To be honest, I don’t think it has much of a chance in any of these categories, except possibly Best Picture ironically. I wouldn’t give myself odds of better than 4-1 but since Paddy Power was offering 12-1 I’ve put a tenner on it. My full review is here.

Captain Phillips

Another one-person-against-the-odds movie (Robert Redford’s All is Lost didn’t get a nod), Paul Greengrass makes a huge virtue of his lean, documentary shooting style and Tom Hanks makes an appealingly unsympathetic hero – although his real-life crew insist that the real guy was even a bigger asshole – but what knocked me out is the total collapse of the Captain Phillips character when the ordeal is over. Tom Hanks’ raw, authentic, bewildered inability to cope with his recent experience is some of the very best screen acting I have ever seen and his failure to be nominated is utterly confounding – especially when antagonist Barkhad Abdi has got a nod for Best Supporting Actor. This is not to take anything away from Abdi’s performance which is very fine, but Hanks’ snub would be easier to understand if the Academy had failed to notice any of the acting in the movie. Anyway, this won’t win the big prize.


A delightful, personal, and very moving film showcasing a completely different side of Steve Coogan, who abandons Partridge-style mugging completely to carve out a much more detailed and intimate portrait of a journalist whose compassionate zeal never tips the story into mawkish sentimentality. In fact the whole film pulls off a very delicate balancing act between humour, soap opera, detective story and politics. The detective story is the loser, but it’s by far the least interesting and necessary component. Judi Dench also gets yet another acting nomination. Nothing for Coogan as actor (which would have been surprising but not wholly undeserved) but the screenplay gets a hat-tip.


Alexander Payne continues an extraordinary run beginning (for me at least) with the brilliantly spiky Election, continued with the more subdued but still excellent About Schmidt, the splendidly freewheeling Sideways and the truly marvellous The Descendents which readers may recall I favoured over eventual Best Picture winner The Artist. Nebraska is a very, very simple story. In fact my only real criticism is how noisily the plot gears were grinding in the first twenty minutes to achieve its fairly straightforward set-up, viz – septuagenarian Woody Grant mistakenly believing himself to have won a million bucks in a sweepstake stops off in his old home town en route to collect his winnings.

As soon as we arrive in Hawthorne, however, we are off to the races as Woody reunites with old friends, family and rivals, most of whom are eager to get their hands on his new-found dough. Accompanied by his son (SNL’s Will Forte – a revelation), and eventually his wife (June Squibb, delightful) and brother (Bob Odenkirk), Woody drifts through much of the movie in somewhat of a senior daze, but this lack of desperate questing serves to give the rest of the movie time to settle. Much of the dialogue is peppered with one-liners, but nothing ever seems forced, except possibly the final pay-off which is just a little too neat.

Immaculately shot in cool, grainy black-and-white, this is a real treat and it’s great to see “little” movies like this and Philomena getting the Academy’s attention as well as the big spectaculars, all-star casts and “important” movies – see below.

The ones I haven’t seen yet…

American Hustle

A strong contender in the three horse race for Best Picture, only a year after Silver Linings Playbook, director David O Russell assembles much of the same cast and gets them nominated in all four acting categories again. I was dissatisfied with Silver Linings because I felt the ending sold the characters down the river. Early reports of this suggest that the plotting also goes awry towards the end, but we’ll see. Like Argo, this could make it if the Academy finds Gravity too frivolous and 12 Years A Slave too self-important.

Dallas Buyers Club

This is the one I know the least about. Part of the recent rehabilitation of Matthew McConaughey which began with 2012’s rather unsatisfactory The Paperboy, it also stars Jared Leto as a transgender character and follows the tale of a drug smuggler – not cocaine but untested HIV pharmaceuticals. It’s released in the UK on 7 February so look out for a full review some time after that date.


One of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard for a movie, grinding through the unproductive furrow of the wretched S1m0ne, and the absurd Electric Dreams as well as the ghastly AI and the limp Bicentennial Man. I didn’t see Robot and Frank so maybe that was better. On the other hand, this is Spike Jonze who can usually relied on to be interesting, so let’s give it a whirl. It’s released here, appropriately enough on Valentine’s Day.

The Wolf of Wall Street

I can’t remember the last time I looked forward to a Martin Scorsese movie this much. I couldn’t get on board with The Departed which began by examining the mirror-image moral conundrums faced by a cop-turned-mobster and a mobster-turned-cop, then turned the movie over to Jack Nicholson who proceeded to Nicholson all over the middle third. After his character’s demise, the afore-mentioned moral conundrum is entirely lost in a welter of gunfire and bodies hitting the decks. It scarcely seems to matter what moral choices any of these characters make, today everybody dies. Completely pointless in my view. Shutter Island was diverting but ultimately a rather empty puzzle-box picture, and Hugo was very disappointing (full review here). This, on the other hand, seems to have a much clearer direction to head in, a crackerjack cast and – hey! – jokes! I doubt it will sweep the board though, in what is looking like a pretty strong year.

12 Years A Slave

And here it is – the bookies’ favourite and the likely front-runner, but it remains to be seen after Django Unchained, Lincoln and The Help how much more guilt-porn the Academy can take. It also remains to be seen if it’s any good. I haven’t seen either The Hunger or Shame but I’ve heard extremely mixed reports about both. 12 Years has been largely praised by critics and has done decent box office, but I worry that it will be too worthy and not engaging enough as a piece of narrative.

What wasn’t nominated

As well as All is Lost missing out, I had expected to see Inside Llewyn Davis get a mention and possibly August: Osage County. I feared that the execrable Blue Jasmine would appear and vaguely wondered if The Butler was in with a chance. Although I loved Saving Mr Banks and although the Academy generally appreciates Hollywood-devours-itself movies, that film always looked too… breezy to be in with a chance. In fact, the breezy parts I liked the best. When it attempts to wring psychological depth out of a piece of fruit, and when we spend endless tediously repetitive minutes cavorting with Colin Farrell in what is meant to be small-town Australia, I want to check out.

Other predictions…

If it all goes Steve McQueen’s way, and it still could, then Chiwetel Ejiofor has a good chance for Best Actor and McQueen himself for Best Director. Best Actress is probably going to Cate Blanchett – it’s hard to overlook such a stellar performance if, like me, you didn’t think much of the script. For people who liked the rest of the movie, it must have seemed virtually god-given.

As is often the case, the supporting nominations are a little more open. Michael Fassbender is probably the front-runner, again for 12 Years A Slave, but I wonder if Jared Leto might just nick it. For Best Actress, June Squibb must be a good bet. The Academy loves them some old ladies and if those old ladies are on film lifting up their skirts in a graveyard in order to taunt an old suitor in his grave, so much the better.

Best Director will probably go the same way as Best Picture, so if they give it to Alfonso Cuarón, and your bookie is still open, put a big bet down on Gravity immediately. On the other hand if, as seems more likely, it isn’t Gravity’s night, I can see these two awards splitting between Slave and Hustle although I’m not sure which way around is more likely.

Finally, screenplays and as usual we have two bites at the cherry as the Academy distinguishes (sometimes eccentrically) between original screenplays and adaptions. In the Original Screenplay category, I imagine American Hustle has it sewn up, and likewise I would expect Adapted to go to 12 Years A Slave. If, say, The Wolf of Wall Street pinches Best Adapted Screenplay, we could be in for some 3:00am surprises.

Okay, that’s where we’re at. More reviews coming soon.