Wednesday, 8 July 2015

We Don't Need Another Shero

Shrieking weak-willed women are a Hollywood cliché of ancient tradition. But with the bold introduction of the domineering Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, summer blockbusters may finally be listening to their critics and presenting characters that both sexes can be inspired by.

Depictions of supporting female characters have noticeably changed in popcorn flicks since Kate Capshaw screamed her way through Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Over the thirty years since the blonde love interest bemoaned chipping a nail in the aftermath of another daring escape, whilst being wooed by Harrison Ford’s irresistible charms in the process, scripts have slowly improved by diverging from ridiculous feminine stereotypes.

This revolution in celluloid gender roles has reached a recent landmark wave with Charlize Theron’s performance as Furiosa in the relaunched Mad Max series. As a former supermodel, the South African actress could have so easily been a piece of eye candy casting. However, George Miller’s movie toughens her to the point of being an equal brawler with the eponymous dystopian drifter. Not only that, but as an obvious amputee, her character could quite easily qualify for a disabled sticker to go on her machinegun-toting tanker. Yet she is always shown to be strong, determined and –most outrageously – not interested in her male counterpart sexually whatsoever.

Ignore such hackneyed codswallop as Theron making herself ‘ugly’ for the role. In truth, whatever preparation the Oscar-winner did prior to shooting in order to get in better physical shape, the end goal was to heighten the sense of reality, not denying her any genuine gender qualities. Much is the same for Emily Blunt in last year’s Edge of Tomorrow.

Within Furiosa’s DNA lies a strong hint of Alien’s Ellen Ripley, who alongside Sarah Connor from the Terminator series, were the forerunners of women’s liberation on screen. All of these femme fighters have exhibited their ability to fight superior enemies (a fair few muscle-crunching men numbered among them) and generally shirked the inhibiting strictures of a conventional love interest. Younger fans may recognise this phenomenon as the ‘Katniss Everdeen effect’.
Audiences as diverse as casual female viewers and die-hard nerds have called for more of such spirited characters. Joss Whedon, a key member of the latter fraternity, gave the baying crowd another heroine in the form of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Although she had her fair share of doomed romances, the fierce teenage schoolgirl personified the trend for ‘girl power’ sweeping nineties pop culture.

More recently, this decade is seeing a return to the original women action stars with rebooted franchises arriving at our cinema screens where Ripley and Connor are synonymous. Prometheus once again sees the alien critters being bested by a female lead whilst the otherwise disappointing Terminator Genisys pits Emilia Clarke (AKA Daenerys Targaryen) against a killer cyborg.

A sterner test of women in mega-budget productions will be the new Star Wars instalment. While George Lucas kept his actresses constrained in medieval narratives as helpless princesses, the released trailers indicate that J.J. Abrams may be brewing a more significant part for the fairer sex in the galaxy far far away.

Either way, Hollywood now has its fair share of sheroes, so much so that the feeble and victimised damsel in distress may be a thing of the past. Let’s hope so.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Jurassic World

Has there ever been a year in which the Hollywood box office has relied so much on its past successes as 2015?

From the reunion of the main cast from the original Star Wars to tooling Arnie up again for Terminator Genisys, some of cinema’s best known and most loved franchises are making a return this year, and the recent success of Jurassic World (which became the first film ever to take over $500 million worldwide in its opening weekend) suggests that there’s much profit to be had in audience nostalgia.

But surely nostalgia is a finite resource? The original Jurassic Park, for instance, is full of brilliant moments that remain entrenched in the collective pop cultural conscious, moments that Jurassic World is as enamored by as the rest of us - most of its money shots make direct references to them. But the problem is director Colin Trevorrow and the rest of the filmmakers involved in this reboot offer nothing new and exciting beyond reverence of the original, and as such, for all its financial success, their film is never going to be remembered in future years as anything more than an inferior copy.

Early on a meta-commentary is established that initially seems slyly aware of the difficulty the film has establishing itself as a worthy picture in its own right. ‘No-ones impressed by a dinosaur anymore’ says Bryce Dallas Howard’s corporate character; ‘Consumers want them bigger, louder - more teeth’. But unfortunately the film’s answer to this dilemma is the ‘Indominus Rex’, a genetically modified half-T Rex, half-velociraptor that reeks of a lack of imagination.

As with so many big-budget films these days, ‘bigger, louder - more teeth’ translates to yet more CGI. The consensus in Hollywood is that the limitless possibilities of what can be digitally put on screen through computer pixels is the way to satisfy their audience’s desire for spectacle; unlike the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, of which huge, animatronic models were built to supplement the special effects (see right), the Indominus Rex is an exclusively computer-generated creation. But, as Mad Max: Fury Road recently proved by eschewing effects for stunts wherever possible, digitally-created virtual reality is never a match for the visceral feel of watching filmed real objects moving in real space.

This over-reliance on CGI often also means that more basic components like story and character are overlooked. Whereas Jurassic Park featured a charismatic and eccentric cast of characters, cringe-worthy children and women constructed by sexist cliches make up the new film’s universe - even Chris Pratt’s effortless charisma is here flattened into a dull, run-of-the-mill alpha male lead. And the tone is erratic, lurching from unconvincing sentimentality to mean-spirited deaths.  

Among all its faults, there is one scene that does seem to have captured the imagination and looks as though it could be remembered for years to come - the shot of Chris Pratt, arms outstretched, attempting to subdue his trained velociraptors, has launched a popular meme, with copycat versions spreading across the internet. But it’s interesting to note that this scene first came to prominence not as a moment in the film, but as a moment in the many trailers that contributed to the huge pre-release marketing campaign. Perhaps our future memories of today’s films won’t stem from what we see in the cinema, but instead from the endless hype that precedes the actual viewing experience.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron - A fantasy in more ways than one

Why don't civilians ever die in Marvel films?

For all the destruction on screen, both the superheroes and the filmmakers shooting and choreographing the explosive set-pieces go to great lengths to ensure that no innocent bystander is ever harmed amidst the chaos.

The obvious answer is that these films are mere light blockbuster entertainment, and that seeing civilians drop dead here and there would be tonally out of place with their sense of escapism.

But that would be to do the Marvel studio a disservice, Theirs are sophisticated and smart films, on one-hand full of hilarious zingy one-liners and fun interactions between their many charismatic characters, and on the other insightful and moving character studies with thoughtful plots featuring interesting real-world parallels.

The plot for Avengers: Age of Ultron, for example, speculates on the futility of using technology for the morally good purpose of protecting the world; the AI Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) implements to complete the global defence program he has been working on in order to defend earth from future alien attacks promptly goes rogue and turns against the Avengers, aiming instead to wipe out humans and start Earth over again.

Yet despite this philosophical premise, any sense of moral ambiguity and the potential difficulties of protecting the world through such destructive warriors is trumped by the invincibility and infallibility of the superheroes. Even when, in one intriguing scene, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) loses control and wreaks havoc on a city as the Hulk, Iron Man comes to the rescue and miraculously manages to contain the Hulk's fury whilst simultaneously ensuring that no civilian comes to harm.

These scenes of hectic violence that kills the bad guys with no consequences for the innocents feeds the American fantasy of solving the world's problems through heroic force. Aptly, on the day Age of Ultron  was released, news broke that a US drone strike targeting al-Qaida accidentally also killed a US and Italian citizen who were being held hostage. From Vietnam to the War on Terror the US has seen itself as the world's superhero, but the realities of war means that thousands of innocent civilians are killed as collateral damage in the name of making the world a safer place- an uncomfortable truth that would rather be ignored, as in Age of Ultron.

Again, to apply such sombre moral concerns onto films that are harmless, unpolitical fun may be seen as taking popular escapist entertainment too seriously. But escapism and political ambiguity can coexist - just look at that other huge pop culture phenomenon of recent years, Game of Thrones. With its exotic landscapes, names, creatures and outfits Game of Thrones is certainly of the fantasy genre, but is far more willing to involve itself with grubbiness of reality. No well-meaning action it seems is ever free of negative consequences, and consequently moral complexity abounds. There is never one simple moral decision to be made, and its characters feel all the more human and relatable for having to choose between courses of action that will all have undesirable consequences.

As fun as Age of Ultron and other superhero films are, they'll never do justice to the intriguing premises they introduce without embracing such moral ambiguities. With so many Marvel films to come over the next few years, the studio would do well to take not of Game of Thrones' popularity and add a little more complexity - even if that does mean killing a few civilians.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Wild Tales

The Icarus of new cinema has finally begun to feel the trickling of hot wax along his spine. Damian Szifron’s latest film is too perceptive, too real, to escape the grim turn of current events. 

The opening scene of this macabre series, told with honest comedic intentions, strikes a raw nerve by its eerie similarity to the recent Germanwings tragedy in the Alps. While the rest of Hollywood seemingly suffers a dearth of originality, this piece of celluloid prophesy holds a dangerous excess of it. The imagination of this script - written long before the airline disaster - bites uncomfortably close to the last tethers of our social fabric. Surely it would have been better, for filmmaker and public alike, to delay the release for longer? Instead, burying it in the post-Oscars lull has not benefited anyone.

For all that doom and sorrow, Wild Tales is actually a fairly pleasurable film. Even so, it remains totally unmarketable outside of its native Spain.  To state the obvious, Blighty’s box office does not traditionally favour subtitles. Its scattered vignette structure, moreover, proves a turn-off for the casual viewer. And so it seems that even if the dialogue were in our primitive mongrel parlance, the investors would suffer financial embarrassment anyway. Amongst their names with a producer credit is that irrepressible stalwart of liberal Latin cinema: who else but Pedro Almodovar?

Artistically speaking, no matter how sweetly these narrative hors d’oeuvres can be consumed, they lack the emotional significance and narrative panache of an arcing tale. Szifron is an accomplished storyteller but this is no All About My Mother. There are six pieces in all, each of which varies in quality to a slight degree.

Like the old critics’ line about sketch shows, this is a hit and miss affair. The wedding reception of a psychotic couple (including Iberia’s answer to Bradley Cooper as the groom) is a baffling triumph. In contrast, a crossover between Goodfellas and Diner seems prematurely rushed towards its hollow conclusion. A case of road rage, on the other hand, is middling fare.

On the whole, it’s an impressive assortment that benefits from slick performances and directing. And when, as in the sequence featuring a man frustrated by oppressive bureaucracy, the script scours the scab of common cultural anger it carries a definite appeal. Szifron’s best is his penultimate tale, for once told without the desire for laughter. Alas, if only the foresight had been available to treat the opening setting with the same sensibilities. To do so, nevertheless, is asking the impossible. But the cold talk of money, to which all films (even these arty ones) aim for, pays no heed to such sentiments. 


Sunday, 22 February 2015

Oscars countdown part three: best picture nominees ranked

In the third and final part of our preview of the Oscars, we rank each of the films nominated for Best Picture

8. American Sniper

The huge commercial success and subsequent Oscar nomination for Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper ought to be me with despair by anyone hoping that US attitudes were moving away from impervious patriotism and the worship of guns. The film lacks Eastwood’s usual moral ambivalence and instead presents the controversial sniper Chris Kyle as an undisputed hero, while the depiction of the soldier’s many victims as no-more than (in the protagonist’s own words) ‘savages’ to be gratuitously shot at is essentially racist.

7. The Imitation Game

A film about someone as extraordinary and tragic as genius Mathematician and war hero Alan Turing deserves an extraordinary film made about him, but The Imitation Game is distinctly prosaic and full of cliches that diminishes him to a collection of biopic cliches. Rather than
depict the homophobia that ultimately led to his suicide, the film instead cowardly keeps illicit his homosexuality, even presenting his friend Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) as a surrogate romantic partner.

6. The Theory of Everything

Like The Imitation Game, this similar British nominee is full of things the Academy loves - romance, posh English accents, quaint English scenery, an able-bodied actor playing a disabled character, an ambitious man overcoming adversity to become great. But beyond ticking these awards season boxes, and excellent performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything is little more than a middling biopic.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel

With its spring release date and arthouse and cult credentials The Grand Budapest Hotel was an unlikely Oscars candidate, but something about its whimsical tone and retro feel clearly appealed to the Academy. The backdrops and sets are beautiful and Ralph Fiennes’ excellent performance anchors the film, but it is perhaps a little too fond of the sweet and superficial over the savoury and substantial to be a worthy Best Picture winner.

4. Selma

The fourth biopic nominated, Selma impresses more than the others thanks to its willingness to go beyond mere character study and focus on the politics of Martin Luther King’s march from Selma, and for refusing to insert a white-saviour protagonist at the expense of its black characters. But what really makes Ava DuVernay’s film stand out out is it’s eagerness to take this point in history not just to tell a detached story about the past, but to use it to comment on contemporary issues from Ferguson to NSA spying.

3. Birdman

Free from the shackles of the biopic genre, Birdman tells the fictional story of a fading actor embarking on a vanity project directing a play on broadway, who is tormented by a doubting inner-voice that manifests itself as the giant bird-superhero he used to play in Hollywood. The witty satirical elements directed towards the behind-the-scenes of the arts business is perhaps what attracted the film to the Academy, but it’s the daring shooting style and vibrant energy of the acting that makes it stand out from the more subdued, straightforward nominees.

2. Whiplash

In terms of sheer excitement Whiplash is surely the best of the nominees, thanks to great storytelling, edge-of-the-seat tension and barnstorming performances. Damien Chazelle’s debut perhaps lacks the topical seriousness or ambition that characterises most Best Picture winners, but the questions raised about what talent is and the best way to nurture it make for a thought-provoking subtext underpinning the surface-level thrills.

1 Boyhood

Rarely in the history of film has such a bold and original idea reaped such rewards as Richard Linklater’s decision back in 2002 to embark on a twelve year project to film the actor Ellar Coltrane growing from first grader-boy to university-bound man. Perhaps its prioritising of the white male suburban experience prevents it from reaching the kind of universality the title hints at, but it remains the most uniquely captivating and outright best film nominated, and proof that new ways of telling stories can still be found. 

Monday, 16 February 2015

Oscars countdown part two: what makes a good performance?

In the second part of our preview of the Oscars, we look at those nominated in the acting categories

What exactly is is that constitutes great acting? If the nominations for Best Actor are anything to go by, then imitating a real life person is the epitome of performance. Four of the five nominated play factual people, including Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, who warms himself yet further to the academy by playing a disabled character.

But what he, Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) and Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) have in common is a lack of complexity to their respective characters, as if Stephen Hawking, Alan Turing and Chris Kyle are all too respected to make for rounded characters with moral ambiguities. Compare them to Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, who, as the villain of the piece, possesses the kind of nuances they lack; and to Michael Keaton in Birdman, the only fictitious character nominated, and who is therefore allowed the kind of interesting flaws the others are denied.

Part of imitating someone on screen is making them believable as an authentic person that we can relate to, which has in itself been used as a key criteria in evaluating someone's acting. In the Best Actress category, for instance, Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl Strayed (Wild) is recognisable as a real person with real person-problems like dealing with grief and broken relationships, while we sympathise with Felicity Jones as Stephen Hawking’s wife Jane (The Theory of Everything) and her troubles balancing her personal goals with caring for her disabled husband.

Best of all though is another fictitious character. In Two Days, One Night, Marion Cotillard plays a desperate factory worker trying to keep her job, whose performance clearly brings psychological depth to the role that is demanded by the Dardennes brothers’ naturalistic techniques of realistic sounding dialogue, de-glamourised shooting style and shaky-cam long takes.

But then there’s Rosamund Pike’s performance in Gone Girl. Unlike the other high-minded dramas in this category Gone Girl is a full-blooded melodrama, and Pike acts accordingly. At no point are we meant to believe in her as a lifelike person; instead, we enjoy the performance for all its exaggerations.

In performances like this charisma is valued over realism - something that can also be said of the outstanding candidate in the Best Supporting Actor category, J.K. Simmons. His bellowing, terrifying jazz conductor in Whiplash dominates the film, so that, as one critic put it, ‘to watch [him] is always to be wondering what it is you’re seeing and what is going on in this man’s mind’. Similarly, Ed Norton’s character in Birdman is a satirical caricature of a pretentious method actor, whose performance is notable not for its everyday realities but for outlandish moments like him fighting in his underwear.

Even the great stars that defined the golden era of Hollywood - from Katharine Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe to Cary Grant and John Wayne - were defined by their magnetic stage presence rather than their resemblance to your average Joe. Cinema is not supposed to accurately reflect reality, as the use of artificial things like soundtracks and special effects demonstrate - it is heightened reality, and so the best performances are frequently larger-than-life.   

Finally, to what extent does good acting require good material to work with? Ethan Hawke and the outstanding candidate from the Best Supporting Actress category Patricia Arquette both enjoyed the benefit of working on Boyhood, and as such were given a great platform to inhabit their characters. On the contrary, the rest of those nominated reflect the paucity of good roles for women in cinema, best epitomised by Keira Knightley being shortlisted despite the two-dimensionality of her character in The Imitation Game. Even the best actors will struggle to shine in such limited roles.

All that considered, here’s StevesOnFilm’s picks for who should win:

Best Actor: Jake Gyllenhaal*

Best Actress: Marion Cotillard, Two Days One Night

Best Supporting Actor: J.K Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

*This actor wasn’t actually nominated.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Oscars countdown part one: the ‘other’ awards

With the Oscars ceremony just over a week away, we look at which films deserve the gongs in the less fashionable categories.

It takes a pretty devout film buff to be able to name the winners of Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Sound Mixing from past Oscars, yet it is these more obscure awards that often determine a film’s success during awards season.

For instance, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman have received lots of press for landing the most number of nominations (eight each), thanks largely to their hauls of technical awards. The outstanding film of this year’s selection may be Boyhood, and that film remains odds on favourite to win Best Picture, but unlike these two films its virtues don’t translate as easily into particular categories for awards - there’s no statuette handed out for ‘Best Premise’ or ‘Most Audacious Idea’.

The whimsical tone of The Grand Budapest Hotel as a whole may be an acquired taste, but there can be no doubting that it excels in the minor categories it has been nominated for. Director Wes Anderson’s notorious attention to detail in realising the precise and lavish look across all aspects of the film is reflected in its picking up of Best Production Design, Costume Design and Makeup and Hair, while his long-term collaborator Robert Yeoman - one of the key individuals in creating that distinctive Wes Anderson look - is up for Best Cinematography.

On most years he would perhaps he a shoe-in to win, but when up against cinematographer-extraordinaire Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, The Tree of Life, Children of Men) and his part in constructing the near-unique huge single take in Birdman, will probably have to miss out this time round.

This peerless cinematography was the strongest and most distinctive element of Birdman, but its odd percussive soundtrack has also seen it rewarded with nominations for Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. Sound is perhaps the most under-appreciated aspect in film, and frequently the most unimaginative uses of it are rewarded - this year The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game are both up for Best Score despite their bland and formulaic music, while the innovative and deeply unsettling use of sound in Under The Skin and brilliant original post-punk score of Frank were overlooked entirely.

The Academy did however recognise the merits of Whiplash, nominating it for Best Sound Mixing and Best Editing, the two aspects that made its drumming scenes and live jazz performances so thrilling. And it was also pleasing to see Mr Turner nominated for its fine work in honouring the art of its subject in such aspects as Cinematography and Production Design, while Christopher Nolan’s team of filmmakers were recognised for their continued excellence with Interstellar earning nominations in four technical categories, including Visual Effects.

Notably, however, these latter two films were overlooked in each of the ‘Big Six’ categories, including Original Screenplay and Adapted Screenplay. Instead the screenplays of already multi-nominated films like The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman, The Imitation Game and American Sniper were recognised, with the notable exceptions of Inherent Vice for its bold effort in taking on the apparently unadaptable Thomas Pynchon, and Nightcrawler, that also probably deserved recognition in the Lead Actor and Best Picture categories.

The films nominated for the screenplay awards are emblematic of the Academy’s trend this year of appreciating technical achievements and lighter entertainment, rather than political engagement - especially compared with the films nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, which include films that grapple with weighty political themes across the world from Putin’s Russia (Leviathan) to religious fundamentalism in Mali (Timbuktu). These are both excellent films, and the only way to really justify the absence of either of them in the other categories is to interpret the Academy Awards as essentially and English-speaking-only ceremony - although that notion was complicated by the somewhat patronising nomination of Michael Haneke’s Amour a few years (and the decision to choose the vastly inferior Argo ahead of it).

Such a lack of cultural variety and politics may be disappointing, but the nominations as a whole include a pleasing amount of talent on the top of its game. Take the Best Director category. With the exception of Morten Tyldum for The Imitation Game, all those nominated have all made films that feel unique to them - Bennet Miller for his sparse locations and cold tone in Foxcatcher the various technical characteristics that make up the idiosyncratic worlds of West Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman; and, best of all, Richard Linklater’s long-term commitment and warm intimacy in Boyhood. Perhaps the specific technical awards will elude Linklater, but his vision and its brilliant realisation will surely win him Best Director. 


StevesOnFilm’s picks:

Best Director: Boyhood

Best Adapted Screenplay: Frank*

Best Original Screenplay: Foxcatcher

Best Cinematography: Birdman

Best Film Editing: Whiplash

Best Foreign Language Film: Leviathan

Best Animated Feature: The Lego Movie*

Best Original Score: Under the Skin*  

Best Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel

*These films weren’t actually nominated.