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.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Inherent Vice: Top 5 cinematic depictions of characters on drugs

Two things become immediately clear in Inherent Vice - the lead character Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) will smoke a lot of weed, and the plot will be very hard to follow.

These two characteristics of the film are of course meant to be linked. The mounting confusion and sense of paranoia the increasingly complicated plot builds is supposed to put us the viewer on the same wavelength and deliriously hazy state of mind as the stoned protagonist.

But instead the experience of watching Inherent Vice is more like being the only sober person at a party full of high people having a wild time: we’re confused by their ramblings, politely laugh at what they seem to find hilarious, and are reluctant to go along with their flights of fancy.

The main problem is that the film is too dialogue-heavy. Despite Paul Thomas Anderson’s exceptional talent for stylistic filmmaking, his usual visual flourishes have here been limited in favour of long, one-on-one conversations between Doc and another of the film’s zany cast, perhaps owing to the director’s eagerness to fit as much of Pynchon’s source material in as possible.

As a result, most of the film is spent wondering just what the hell these people are and what they’re talking about. Crucially, the characters - despite usually being intoxicated - do understand each other and are on each others’ wavelengths, leaving us shut out and finding the films impossible to directly relate to. Even those who have loved the film have admitted to getting lost following the story, underlining how our sense of confusion is fundamentally different from that of the characters.

So despite the film’s efforts, and despite Anderson’s obvious talents, we never feel in the same inebriated state as the characters. Such an effect is evidently difficult to pull of, but here’s five of the best successful attempts in cinema history:

1 The Big Lebowski

Along with noirs The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye this is a clear precursor to Inherent Vice, with a similarly bemused, pot-smoking protagonist who struggles to understand the madness that unfolds around him. But The Big Lebowski is just about coherent enough for us to grasp what’s going on at any given time, and the Coen brothers prove far more adept at humour than Anderson.

2 Easy Rider

Famous for being one of the first films to depict the taking of LSD on the big screen, hippie director Dennis Hopper used innovative cross-cutting techniques to represent the effect of the hallucinogenic drug in a way that was radical for a US film scene adapting to the new post-Hays Code environment. It still makes for trippy viewing, evoking the confusion, randomness and occasional terror of a trip.

3 Enter the Void

Forty years on from Easy Rider, French arthouse director Gapsar Noe offered his own take on the hallucinogenic experience, only this time with the drug DMT and through the use of digital special effects. What makes this film so distinct though, and so much more immersive than Inherent Vice, is the use of a point of view camera that never departs from the protagonist’s perspective, meaning we see, hear and directly relate to everything he does

4 Mean Streets

The scene (linked above) of Harvey Keitel’s character in a merry drunken state demonstrates yet another way of directly relating to an inebriated character; by attaching a camera to the actor’s chest, director Martin Scorsese brilliantly evokes the swaying motion and diminishing awareness of the surroundings that someone close to passing out feels. Also, special mention to the final act of Scorsese’s Goodfellas and the subtle way it alters the pace of the film to capture the frenzied mindset of its cocaine-addicted protagonist.

5 Trainspotting

Unlike the relentless high the characters in Inherent Vice enjoy, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting documents both the ups and downs of substance abuse. The first half-hour is a relatively light-hearted rollock, but the subsequent comedown is made particularly horrific by an awful tragedy. The scene of a feverish Renton hallucinating in bed while going cold turkey is particularly visceral.