The Oscars 2013 – Wrap up

Posted on February 27th, 2013 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

On Sunday afternoon, I popped in my Blu-ray copy of Beasts of the Southern Wild which would complete my ennealogy of Best Picture nominees. I’m afraid to say it’s probably the one I liked least. Partly this is due to the fact that movies short on plot but long on squalor just don’t tend to engage me, and partly it’s due to the fact that the one element which is potentially the most interesting is poorly integrated into the main narrative. However, that’s not to say it isn’t a fine piece of filmmaking. In what’s been a generally quite strong year, Beasts simply isn’t to my taste, rather than genuinely bad like, say, War Horse, Extremely Long and Incredibly Shit or Midnight in Paris.

So while its disjointed and slender narrative, eccentric use of fantasy and limited supporting cast might not have entirely worked for me, I did enjoy some of the individual set-pieces and – like everyone – was completely captivated by both Dwight Henry and especially tiny, extraordinary Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy. She makes the entire movie worth watching with her pint sized charisma and astonishing lung-power.

On to the main event. Seth MacFarlane’s hosting faced the usual horrible cleft stick. Does the host adopt the irreverent tone for which they are known and risk a backlash from the self-important Hollywood elite? Or should they play it safe and leave fans wondering who on earth is this ghostly photocopy of their idol? MacFarlane managed with unerring accuracy to dive straight between these two stools. Whereas Tina Fey and Amy Poehler pulled off the trick of appealing both to their smug hosts and their own fans, MacFarlane was just crass enough to piss off those to whom the Academy Awards are everything, but far from extreme enough to be a genuinely bracing breath of fresh air. William Shatner’s wheezing cameo was clunky in conception and execution and “We Saw Your Boobs” was just embarrassing.

On to the awards themselves. Regular readers will know that I told them there was no point betting on Spielberg for Best Director and Lincoln for Best Picture and this certainly proved to be sage advice, although for all the wrong reasons. Almost as soon as I made my prediction, Lincoln’s lead began to evaporate and Argo which many considered a spent force, released far too early to clean up at the Oscars, experienced a huge resurgence. So while I’m smarting at my error, I’m delighted that Argo, my favourite film of the year, took the main prize. With Affleck not nominated as director, despite his beautifully precise handling of Argo’s mise-en-scene, the field was wide open and I suppose a win for Ang Lee is justified. I was less impressed with the Academy’s decision to give Christoph Waltz a second gong for essentially the same performance a second time around, but very happy indeed for Jennifer Lawrence. I might have to go and watch The Hunger Games now…

Update #1: Oscars

Posted on April 2nd, 2011 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

This blog having been sadly neglected, I’m going to put up a few quick posts tying up loose ends. First is the Oscars. My quest to see all ten Best Picture nominees having met with success, all that was left was to watch the ceremony and test the quality of my powers of prognostication.

The ceremony itself was certainly marred by the choice of host. Anne Hathaway is a perfectly charming presence, but was rarely given anything funny to say. James Franco, such a charismatic and fearless actor seemed to be playing the part of stiff and gauche neophyte out-of-his-depth and made me feel rather uneasy watching him moreorless throughout.

On the upside, some of the dopier decisions of ceremonies past had been quietly reversed. Gone was the shepherding of multiple technical award winners on to the stage simultaneously. Gone were the ponderous personal valedictions from five presenters to five acting nominees. Back were the individual musical numbers for Best Song (sort-of).

The awards themselves were fairly predictable. In the technical categories, both Inception and The Social Network did slightly better than some had predicted, raising a question mark over The King’s Speech‘s chances at the top prizes. But stuttering Bertie eventually scooped up Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay as it was always bound to. Apparently, my choice of Tom Hooper was anti-consensus, but honestly I only picked him because of the momentum of the movie itself.

Truth be told, it almost certainly wasn’t the best-directed movie of the year – certainly 127 Hours and The Social Network both have stronger claims. Yet, I don’t think it’s fair to right off Tom Hooper’s contribution entirely. Hooper does use the camera and the sound design in interesting and compelling ways. The movie neither looks nor sounds like a TV movie (as An Education did last year, for example) and if, as is generally agreed, Colin Firth pulled off the performance of his career, then surely some of the credit for that can be given to the director?

My only other anti-consensus call was picking Hailee Steinfeld for best supporting actor, which I had serious cause to doubt after watching Melissa Leo in The Fighter but if you make an out-there prediction, and you stick to it, and you’re right – then you’re a genius. Whereas if you dither about and pile up caveats and codicils, then who cares? Of course, Steinfeld did not prevail and Melissa Leo fucking did, not undeservedly.

That’s it till next year. If this blog is still here, we’ll do it all again then.

Oscars 2011

Posted on January 30th, 2011 in At the cinema, Culture | 2 Comments »

It’s Oscar time again, which means that I’ve been moreorless keeping up this blog for a whole year. Well done to me.

It also means that I intend to duplicate my 2010 efforts and see all ten (why ten!?) Best Picture nominees before the ceremony on 27 February (and I’m away next week). In fact, I never did get around to seeing the very dreary-looking Sandra Bullock, Friday Night Lights-inspired The Blind Side (it’s still on my hard drive, courtesy of iTunes). However, it’s not so bad. I’ve already seen four out of ten in the ordinary course of things, so I’ll put my capsule reviews of those four up here, and a quick rundown of what I consider to be the favourites in the various categories.

First of all, here are the Best Picture nominees I’ve seen.

The King’s Speech
Big favourite this year, not just for Best Picture, but Best Actor and Best Director too. The King’s Speech is the most-nominated film this year, which generally bodes well and it’s easy to see why – it has Oscar glory stamped all over it. Apart possibly from Toy Story 3, it’s the most purely entertaining film on the list, has done well at the box office (although all the naughty swearing means an R rating which has hurt it a little in the States) and manages the ideal Oscar trick of being genuinely about something (duty, family, friendship, articulacy, communication, status) whilst at the same time, absolutely not daring to challenge its audience’s preconceptions in any way. Cosy enough to turn nobody away, yet meaty enough not to feel insubstantial, and blessed with two exceptional performances from Firth and Rush, this may not go down in history as a cast-iron classic, but it’s certainly in the right place at the right time (stealing momentum away from The Social Network).

Another film which tries to have its cake and eat it too, Inception, is a remarkable achievement from a remarkable director, and was a hugely fun night out when I went to see it on a nice big screen, but it doesn’t have a prayer in the Best Picture stakes. Whereas The King’s Speech is an entertaining drama which asks its audience to ponder weighty themes without asking any really awkward questions, Inception is a cerebral thriller, playing with levels of reality with huge daring and imagination, but with a popcorn heart. This is Nolan’s achievement – designing an intellectual framework within which he can pull off heart-stopping action sequences and eye-bending images, and then creating an emotional McGuffin to tie it all together. I loved it, despite Leonardo di Caprio’s characteristically bland central performance, despite Ellen Page’s dual role as naïf and sage, and despite the occasional plot hole. But its dry intellectual heft is no match for The King’s Speech double-whammy of historical weight and emotional drama. Worthy beats fun every time for Oscar, and so Chris Nolan will go home empty-handed, apart possibly from some technical awards.

The Social Network
Another film I thoroughly enjoyed, right up until the last ten minutes which attempted to tie a too-neat bow around what had been a compelling narrative thus far. Aaron Sorkin’s masterful and archly witty screenplay gracefully solves the problem of why we should care about what the geeks who invented Facebook ate for lunch between coding by the elegant device of the double-litigation flashback structure. As well as the wholly-unrealistic (but hugely satisfying)– whipcrack dialogue, the film showcases a pair of outstanding performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Spiderman-to-be Andrew Garfield and an invisible special effect – as they generally should be – to turn one actor into a pair of identical twins. What will hurt its chances at the Oscars are that it peaked too late, that David Fincher’s chilly direction will have put some people off what’s potentially a dry-seeming screenplay in the first place – and that Fincher himself was extravagantly praised for the lumpen Benjamin Button at the 2009 Oscars.

Toy Story 3
Will clearly win the Best Animated Feature award, but hasn’t a chance in hell of winning Best Picture, despite the fact that it apparently has a lot of the same things going for it as The King’s Speech – excellent box office, high quality entertainment, important themes which give it weight without dragging it down, technical standards dazzlingly high – but let’s be clear, no animated sequel ever has or ever will win Best Picture. Which is a shame, as it’s an exceptional piece of work even by Pixar’s high standards. Up was lovely, but the structure was a little clunky (and it was criticised in some quarters for double mumbo-jumbo), WALL-E was magnificent until they got on board the ship, after which I found the satire a little heavy-handed, Ratatouille had marvellous moments but lost energy in the middle third. Toy Story 3 reminds us where it all started for Pixar and also how far we’ve come. Resisting the urge to snazz-up Woody and Buzz, they’re just the same simple, yet appealing figures they were in 1995, the filmmakers flex their muscles with much more convincing humans and stunning simulation work of various kinds. The supporting cast is trimmed down where necessary (no Bo Peep, RC, Wheezy, Etch for example) and expanded on brilliantly (Michael Keaton as Ken, Timothy Dalton as Mr Pricklepants and Ned Beatty as Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear are wonderful additions). The tension is almost unbearable during the incinerator scene, which is brilliantly resolved, and when Andy – still voiced by John Morris – plays with Woody and Buzz one last time, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

So four down, six to go. And they are Black Swan (The Red Shoes meets Shutter Island), The Fighter (Rocky with Mark Wahlberg), The Kids are All Right (lesbians are mainstream now, cool), 127 Hours (I have to watch while you do what!?), True Grit (we’re not remaking the John Wayne film, we’re just adapting the same novel) and Winter’s Bone (which completely passed me by until it suddenly started popping up on American critics best of 2010 lists).

I’ll put reviews up here as I see the films, and I’ll attempt a little bit of crowd-sourcing to predict the results in the major categories. In the meantime, here are some gut reactions to the high profile nominations.

Best Picture – The King’s Speech pretty much has this sewn up I think, which means good news for Tom Hooper, since it’s rare for the director of the Best Picture to be overlooked.

Best Actor – will likely go to Colin Firth, who following his nomination last year for A Single Man, has demonstrated his Oscar-friendliness. But this is a strong category and it’s hard to right-off Javier Bardem, or – Oscar host! – James Franco.

Best Actress – is even harder to call, with all five women having a reasonable claim. My guess is that Natalie Portman has been made to suffer enough and hasn’t been smiled on yet by the Academy. The others are either too indie-obscure or too familiar with Oscar already, but any of them could do it, really.

Best Supporting Actor – is probably between Christian Bale, overlooked for The Dark Knight last year, and Geoffrey Rush, who may be swept along with The King’s Speech’s overall good fortune.

Best Supporting Actress – I have a strong hunch will go to Hailee Steinfeld who played the 14-year-old Mattie Ross in True Grit, at the remarkable age of, wow, 14. Best Supporting slots are good ways to reward newcomers, and otherwise overlooked films. Since I don’t believe True Grit will do well (a violent remake, which outweighs any nostalgia for westerns), this will be a place to recognise it. Steinfled could well follow in the footsteps of ten-year-old Tatum O’Neil and 11-year-old Anna Paquin.

The writing categories throw up a couple of oddities. The script for Toy Story 3, in which every twist and turn of the story is an original invention, is nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, since some of the characters were created for a prior movie. On the other hand, the script for The King’s Speech, which documents actual historical events, is nominated for Best Original Screenplay, since it does not acknowledge any particular prior work. This aside, The King’s Speech will probably take this category too, while in the Adapted camp, it’s a straight fight between 127 Hours and The Social Network, both of which turned uncinematic true events into gripping narrative. Winter’s Bone is probably in with a slim chance too.

That will do for now. In short, The King’s Speech will do well, True Grit won’t do as well as its ten nominations suggest. The Social Network, Black Swan and Winter’s Bone all have possibilities. Inception will be almost entirely overlooked.

Given my track-record with this kind of prediction, that should be enough for you to put an enormous bet down on Inception right now, but we’ll see in a few weeks’ time.

275 / 250 / 85 follow up

Posted on May 7th, 2010 in Politics | No Comments »

Well this is pretty much as I predicted, except that the Silly Party won. I think this is largely due to the number of votes cast.

To be fair to me, my prediction wasn’t quite as bad as that. With all 649 contested seats now having returned results (the Thirsk and Malton election will be re-run on 27 May following the death of a candidate) the final results are in fact 306 / 258 / 57. This means that about 30 seats I thought would go to the Lib Dems actually went to the Tories, outside my self-declared margin of error of 20. My prediction for Labour was pretty much spot-on, however, and so is what I called the overall narrative of the result. The Conservatives are the biggest overall party, but neither party has enough for a stable government without help from the Lib Dems.

However, the stunning collapse of Lib Dem vote (in terms of seats won) also means that the third party is a slightly less significant force when it comes to the Making of Kings, since now even with a stable Lib Dem coalition, Labour still can’t pass the 326 seat winning line without help from other minority parties. This may explain Cameron’s eager overtures compared to Brown’s rather more subdued approaches as each of the two parties with the most support in the country, and the most seats in the House of Commons effectively beg permission to govern of the party who came third. Ain’t democracy grand?

It may also be instructive to compare the actual result to the exit poll released at 10:00pm last night. This mighty exercise – for the first time a coproduction between Sky, ITV and the BBC was generally derided by pundits on its unveiling. None of the Party spokespeople wheeled in front of the cameras by any of the broadcasters had anything good to say about the poll, all proclaiming that it would be hopelessly incorrect and that it was pointless to speculate. However history will show that it was stunningly close. Off by just one for the Conservatives, three for Labour and two for the Lib Dems. Kudos to the real pollsters who actually know what they’re doing.

Finally, no matter how this all shakes down over the next week or so, I think the real losers in this election are the Lib Dems. True, the Tories did not win the outright majority they hoped for, but they are the largest party by a substantial margin and could probably hold a minority government together if they strike a couple of deals here-and-there. A good result by any standard. But nor was this a rout for Labour. The strength of the core Labour vote not only held the Tories back from the brink of victory but also curbed the Lib Dem surge. After three terms in office, and having survived a punishing recession, this is a very good showing. The Lib Dems however had their most lavish and successful exposure on the stage of British politics since their inception and yet not only failed to capitalise on it, they actually lost seats.

Of course, you can also interpret these results as a damning of our first-past-the-post electoral system. My thoughts on that are best left to another post. For now, with the rest of the country, I wait to see what the result of the result will be.

PS – come and see Horse Aquarium tonight at the Hen and Chickens 9:30pm to take your mind off this mess. Three improvisers, your suggestions, one hour, lots of laughs.

275 / 250 / 85

Posted on May 5th, 2010 in Politics | 2 Comments »

Following my stunning lack of success with the Oscars, I am determined to do at least as well, if not worse, when it comes to the General Election. Based on a thoroughly unscientific method of looking and some recent polls, and letting gut feeling do the rest, here’s my prediction of the numbers of seats each of the major parties will win tomorrow…

Conservative: 275

Labour: 250

Lib Dems: 85

While I would not be a bit surprised if these numbers turn out to be quite badly wrong, I would be quite alarmed if the overall narrative changed significantly. That is to say, I am fairly confident that…

  • The Conservatives will win the most seats
  • But will not win an overall majority (on the figures above, they are short by around 50 seats)
  • The Lib Dems will not crack treble figures (or if they do, not by much)
  • Despite having an increased share of the vote
  • And they will become the kingmakers in the new Parliament.

Or to put it another way, my figures are plus-or-minus about 20.

Both because this kind of outcome will shine a harsh light on our first-past-the-post-elect-your-local-constituency-MP-directly system, and because they rarely shut up about it (except when tactical voting boosts the number of seats they can win) the Lib Dems will be in a tremendously strong position to make electoral reform a key part of any coalition deal they might make. This in turn means a deal with Labour, not the Tories, even though Nick Clegg is basically a Tory at heart, since the Tories will never agree to electoral reform (nor could they stomach an alliance with such a Eurofriendly party).

Electoral reform almost certainly means the end of decisive victories in the House of Commons (as well as an end to directly electing your local representative) and so every general election henceforth will deliver the same outcome – of the three main parties, the one with the fewest elected representatives, becomes the party which decides who will govern.

And remember, when this happens, the Lib Dems told you it was in the name of democracy!

Oh, and in the mean time, if you haven’t seen this, then you should.