2013 Oscars in numbers: the Academy need to get their priorities straight

oscars

Watching last night’s patchy Oscars ceremony, one issue stuck out like a sore thumb: the appalling practice of the orchestra ‘playing people off’, interrupting their acceptance speeches, mid-flow, in the interests of time management. This is standard practice at most big awards shows which are meticulously planned, and everyone expects it. But it seemed particularly unfair last night, for two reasons.

First, for some reason, the orchestra elected to play the Jaws theme, which made everyone laugh, but seems especially humiliating and uncharitable to the winners for whom this is the highlight of their career. And second, if they were really that strapped for time, there were so many superfluous, tedious, obnoxious, excruciating segments that could have been cut instead. Evidently, the show’s producers couldn’t tell the difference between wheat and chaff.

I’ve combed through the ceremony again and highlighted what I think are a few rather shabby disparities.

  • Average time allowed for acceptance speeches: 1 minute
  • Number of award categories: 12
  • Time that Life of Pi‘s technical team were allowed to speak for their acceptance speech for Best Visual Effects before the Jaws theme started playing: 56 seconds
  • Time that VFX artists spent protesting poor working conditions on the streets outside the Dolby Theatre where the Oscars were held: 4 hours
  • Current worldwide box-office gross for Life of Pi$583million
  • Current status of Life of Pi‘s lead visual effects studio Rhythm & Huesbankrupt
  • Time that Anne Hathaway was allowed to speak for her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress, without interruption: 2 minutes
  • Anne Hathaway’s screen time in Les Misérables: 40 minutes
  • Time Rhythm & Hues spent working on Life of Pi: 3 years

And here’s what the Academy thought deserved more time than acceptance speeches:

  • Seth Macfarlane’s unfunny opening bit: 17 minutes
  • Octogenarian William Shatner in unfunny opening bit (a bid to win young audiences?): 4 minutes 10 seconds
  • Jaw-droppingly sexist showtune ‘We Saw Your Boobs’: 1 minute 36 seconds
  • “James Bond tribute”: 6 minutes 10 seconds
  • Seth Macfarlane’s Ted character getting some free advertising: 1 minute 50 seconds
  • Tribute to “movie musicals of the last decade”, including Russell ‘Rusty’ Crowe lip-synching 11 minutes
  • Barbara Streisand singing “The Way We Were” like a cruise ship entertainer: 3 minutes 30 seconds
  • Michelle Obama’s bizarre, cliché-ridden appearance by satellite: 2 minutes 50 seconds
  • Red carpet warm-up: TWO BLOODY HOURS

The Academy (and by extension, the industry at large) have always mistreated behind-the-camera crew, but this is just ridiculous. FOR SHAME, ACADEMY!

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Oscars 2013: Best Picture Round-Up!

Ah, the Oscars! The indulgent, masturbatory highlight of the entertainment calendar, in which pampered millionaires gather together to award each other golden statues for who is the best at pretending. A night of bad jokes and stomach-churning sentimentalism; of overlong speeches and vacuous fashion commentary; of extreme frustration and frequent boredom; of sleep deprivation and exhaustion for British viewers; of little-to-no merit whatsoever.

I’m not a huge fan. But I’m totally complicit. In spite of myself, I watch eagerly every year, swept up in the pageantry and spectacle. This year’s nominees fit the usual specious criteria for what constitutes award-worthiness, not to mention the usual outrageous snubs – where was Moonrise Kingdom? The Master? Holy Motors? The Imposter? – but in spite of all that, it’s a better-than-average crop, and a more-open-than-usual field.

Academy voters pick the Best Picture based on a weighted system, giving their choices in order, and I’ve done the same below, as if I were a voter. (You need me, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.) And this evening I’ll be on Twitter, ‘live-tweeting’ the whole thing like a twat, with my winning mix of sarcasm, caffeine, and a general sense of resignation. Join me! (I mean that in an abstract sense, please do not physically join me in person.)

lesmWhat in bollocks’ name is this even doing in the shortlist? What in bollocks’ name is it even doing in the longlist? One of the worst films ever to be nominated for a Best Picture OscarLes Misérables is a tedious and hollow melodrama that spends the best part of three hours on its knees, pleading that you’ll shed, at minimum, an imperial gallon of tears, or at the very least garnish it with some nice awards. And the singing… Oh, the singing. Always with the singing. A boring, irksome bit of filmed musical theatre with no interval should never be allowed near the Oscars again. (Anne Hathaway deserves her inevitable Best Supporting Actress win, mind.)

lincJust as America’s favourite president flaps about attempting to extract enough votes from the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment and ban slavery, so, it seems, Spielberg and Day-Lewis are flapping about, doing everything but beg on-screen for votes from Academy members. The history might be fascinating, the cinematography stunning and the acting (Sally Field notwithstanding) exemplary, but the execution is drearily worthy. Even a supposedly warts’n’all portrait comes out sugary and reverent with Spielberg at the wheel. Probably best watched on American soil.

argoAKA, ‘the winner’. I mean, really, any discussion about who will win the big prize is pretty much futile. Riding the surge of momentum – and the crossover of voters – from the SAGs, the DGAs, the BAFTAs and countless others, Ben Affleck is the man of the hour (if not the Best Director, thanks to an odd Academy snub), and barring a shock twist, this will almost certainly be crowned Best Picture of the last 12 months. But it quite demonstrably isn’t. It’s a strong film, sure; funny, suspenseful and entertaining, a thriller in an old-school mould. Even the acting from Baffles himself, whose front-of-camera record is haphazard, does a fine job. It’s a good film. Perhaps even a great film. But it just isn’t the best film.

life of piOnce again, Ang Lee delivers a captivating tale with a sweetly optimistic outlook on humanity – and he does so with an animated tiger. Source material and director are perfectly matched, as Lee, sometimes accused of being visually dull, dives headfirst into aesthetic bravado with some of the most beautiful and effective CGI imagery you will have seen. (As the technical team noted when accepting the special effects BAFTA, it was a rare opportunity to use their skills for art.) A faithful adaptation of a faithful book.

beastsThis, a confident and dazzling debut from Benh Zeitlin, came in for criticism from some corners for resurrecting the old ‘noble savage’ blueprint. It’s a fabular tale, depicting optimistic Southern peasants living off the land in near-future Louisiana, at a point when rising sea levels have cut a community off from mainland US in an area now known as ‘the Bathtub’. Whether or not it’s another cinematic manifestation of white guilt is open to debate, but it is inarguably infused with magical jubilation and childlike wonder throughout, thanks in large part to adorable 9-year-old lead Quvenzhané Wallis. She won’t win Best Actress tonight, but she damn well should.

zeroRiddled in ambiguities, Kathryn Bigelow has probably surrendered any chance of Oscar glory with the reams of negative commentary on the those torture scenes. As a historical account of recent real-life events, I had no problem with their inclusion – Mark Boal’s script is a meticulous piece of journalism, and it’s an honest, frank portrayal of Bush-era foreign policy. Politically, I still felt slightly uncomfortable at the less questioning depictions of extreme military heroism. But cinematically, it hit every note, intensely and self-assuredly.

silverA dysfunctional rom-com about dysfunctional people, Silver Linings Playbook is something I should hate, and on paper, I do: mismatched outsiders find love through a dance contest? I think I’ll pass, thanks. But the genre tropes here are immaterial – this is an intriguing, engaging, sporadically joyous character study from David O. Russell, of the kind he does best. And he wrings blistering performances from every corner. De Niro hasn’t been this watchable in years. No wonder it’s the first film in 31 years to get nominations in every acting category.

djangoEffectively the third in his unofficial ‘revenge trilogy’, Tarantino retreads pretty similar paths from Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. But who gives a rat’s ass when he’s on this sort of form? Easily his best effort in a decade, this is a beautifully shot, delicately measured, and blindingly entertaining, a delicious slice of pure pulp cinema. Quentin may get his conciliatory Best Screenplay Oscar but it’s simply too much fun for the Academy to deem appropriate for full honours.

amourAs far as I’m concerned, none of the other films on this list hold a candle to Amour. Here is a devastating and wrenchingly powerful piece of filmic art which lingers long in the memory and delivers a guttural emotional punch, thoughtfully pontificating on the human condition and manning a quiet assault on the senses while it does. It’s impressive, given their horrendous track record, that the Academy even acknowledged a modest European film about death starring a couple of octogenarians, but Michael Haneke can at least be proud of the nomination. Beyond the slow march of mortality, it’s a film in which nothing much happens for two hours. And yet, it’s gripping: a desperately moving account of love, life, family and sickness. It deserves to win everything and probably won’t win anything. And really, isn’t that what the Oscars is all about?

Future Cinema presents Casablanca

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Secret Cinema has, over the past decade or so, pioneered the concept of “live cinema”, transforming film into a uniquely dynamic performance, and encouraging thousands of punters to hand over cash without ever knowing what film they were going to see. It plunges film fans into a live interactive theatre space, directly relevant to forthcoming film screening, and elevates the experience of watching a film beyond slumping in front of a DVD. The people behind it, Future Cinema, have been branching out with further events, and this latest line on their increasingly impressive CV is ideal for those who don’t like surprises. Future Cinema presents Casablanca removes the element of mystery but retains most of the winning Secret Cinema formula.

Like Secret Cinema, there is an element of playful participation, inviting us not to be passive observers but active contributors to the event. Weeks before, I receive an email from ‘Rick’, giving details of the location and dress code – a white tuxedo or trenchcoat is encouraged; I’m relieved that I at least made the effort to slap on a shirt and tie on the day as there are some seriously well-dressed couples in the queue. (And it is mostly couples – Casablanca is a canny choice around Valentine’s Day). Those foolish enough not suit up, or who do not have the correct ‘papers’, are pulled from the line and berated by actors dressed as soldiers from 1940s French Morocco.

Once we get past ‘security’, we make our way inside, and it’s a little like stepping back in time to the 1940s, give or take a few camera phones. We’re in ‘Rick’s Café Americain’, a faithful recreation of the famous film setting, well-suited to the Troxy’s authentic art deco interior. A smartly-dressed band play some jazz and swing standards (including songs featured in the film, like ‘Knock On Wood’). Dancers in tiny sequinned dresses accompany them on stage with a Lindy Hop. Sam is there, in his fedora, and he does indeed play it again, on a jangly old piano. A few patrons are trying their luck at a casino, where occasionally a cheer will go up from the roulette table.

As with all of Future Cinema’s events, the attention to detail is tremendous, and the effect is entirely immersive. This particular event feels more relaxed than previous Secret Cinema outings – the last season, which screened The Shawshank Redemption, had filmgoers dressed up in prison gear and thrown into cells for insubordination. The lack of surprise and a classier setting made this more like a jolly evening out, albeit one punctuated by actors fighting and shooting prop guns at each other. There was no prison slop here: we sipped elegant cocktails and ate delicious Moroccan food from Exmouth Market’s Moro restaurant.

And then, after nearly three hours of chic live music and snippets of theatre, we sat down at the lampshaded tables and watched Casablanca. The confirmed classic has lost none of sits wistful romantic muster, and indeed is only enhanced by the surroundings. You can practically hear the sound of a thousand hearts ache by the time Bogart’s “hill of beans” speech rolls around. That this run has just been extended is no accident. We’ve said it before: you won’t find a better filmgoing experience in London.

Future Cinema presents Casablanca runs until March 23rd.

A Good Day To Die Hard

A-Good-Day-To-Die-Hard

Right, well, first off, I’d love to hear the shortlist of rejected titles. A Good Day To Die Hard? A $97million budget and that was the best title you could think of? Even Bruce Willis, in his now-famous One Show interview, seems baffled by it: “It’s like, have a sandwich and let’s go shopping – then Die Hard.” Quite.

As that painful interview highlighted, Bruce ain’t so sprightly these days; soon eligible for a free bus pass in the Greater London area, Bruce and his perfectly bald head today resembles a joint of gammon. John McClane in 2013 is barely recognisable from his original 1988 appearance, and it’s not just hair loss: as with the last sequel, A Good Day To.. really has nothing to do with Die Hard as we first knew it.

The biggest problem is that it never feels like John McClane’s film. If anything, he’s guest-starring in his son’s CIA-flavoured action film, and could probably have sat the whole thing out, without making any significant difference. The ‘plot’ (if it is not too insulting to the history of storytelling to call it so) goes: McClane heads to Russia to get his estranged son out of a fix, only to handily discover his son is a super badass action hero too; father and son subsequently kick Ruskie’s ass, and soppily patch up their differences along the way.

The turning point comes halfway through the film when all the major plot points are revealed in a startlingly stupid conversation between McClanes Sr & Jr, essentially boiling down to “You know Chernobyl? Well, these guys did it.” Then they go to Chernobyl. (And in doing so share the same spectacular lack of taste as last year’s Chernobyl Diaries by highjacking a human tragedy.) “Are we really going to Chernobyl?” asks McClane Sr, on the drive to Chernobyl. I shared his incredulity. Really? Chernobyl?

But you could hardly expect the fifth entry in an action franchise to deal in nuanced storyline or depth of character. Director John Moore deals primarily in explosions, gunfire, and explosions. And, to be fair, on this slim front he mostly delivers – the action is competent, muscular, exciting. There’s a fun shaky-cam car chase, and lots of noisy, dunderheaded gun battles. Indeed, before Chernobyl is mentioned, the first act actually starts with a lot of promise. It inevitably gets all rather silly, but even the finale’s CGI-enhanced action is watchable and thrilling.

So I didn’t hate A Good Day To Die Hard, despite it giving me plenty of reasons to.  We’ve lost the suspense, claustrophobia, and wit that earlier incarnations of the series could boast, but it’s not necessarily the zero-star turkey embarrassment that some outlets have suggested.

Tuesday Trailer: The Internship

“From the people who brought you The Watch” is not an immediately enticing proposition, but there are other reasons to be apprehensive about The Internshipthe first of this summer’s studio comedy blockbusters out of the starting block. ‘Frat pack’ regulars Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn recycle the fish-out-of-water template from Old School and Wedding Crashers – only this time around, the ‘out-of-water’ for these flailing fish is a coveted internship at Google’s California campus.

It looks a bit like a cinematic adaptation of the Simpsons episode ‘Homer Goes To College’ – boneheaded manchild in a permanent state of arrested development regresses to youthful exploits, to be taught important lessons by younger, smarter geeks, and along the way teaches those socially inept geeks how to par-ty down. Except that episode was as much a parody of movies like The Internship as anything else. Evidence from the trailer suggests it’s not much more than a fairly lazy vehicle for the increasingly paunchy Wilson/Vaughn partnership.

It’s also clearly a rather shameless feature-length Google commercial. And Lord knows, Google need that product placement moolah – they might have made profits of $10billion last year but the dudes down at HR could probably use another fußball table or two, and those silk beanbags in the employee lounge won’t pay for themselves!

Other slightly unwelcome elements we can expect as gleaned from the trailer:

  • The Daily Show‘s Aasif Mandvi relegated to Asian Nerd Stereotype
  • Chubby, middle-aged men improbably score with slim, young, beautiful women
  • Dialogue which would have sounded out of date in 1995 (“everything’s computerised now!”)
  • Snooty Brit in antagonist role
  • Man Getting Hit By Football-esque comedy
  • Swotty uptight geniuses learn the value of partying down
  • Etc

The Internship arrives in cinemas in June; expect to see it ranked suspiciously high in Google’s search results.

Beautiful Creatures

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It’s almost too easy to be cynical about a film like Beautiful Creatures. With the Twilight series currently sitting comfortably on $3.3 billion worth of box-office receipts, Hollywood is hungrily looking for the next cash-generating supernatural-teen-angst obsession. Beautiful Creatures ticks all the boxes: an inbuilt source novel audience; a sexy, chiselled young cast; a soapy romance intermingled with mystical forces; and a guaranteed franchise (the book is the first in a series of four). Cold, ruthless movie business logic, predetermined to be a roaring financial success.

Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) is a lonely 15-year-old girl who moves to the small South Carolina of Gatlin, where she struggles to make friends, and indeed, creates a few enemies, due to her strange and magical powers, which cause lightning storms and broken windows. Only hunky bookworm Ethan (Aiden Ehrenreich) takes pity on her, and a budding but star-crossed romance develops. Lena, it emerges, is a sort of witch, or ‘caster’, and on her sixteenth birthday, as with all casters, it will be determined whether she is a caster of the light or dark side.

This fictional universe features the usual fairytale stock: spells, curses, magic leather-bound books, and the overarching, absolutist theme of  good-vs-evil that all fantasies feel compelled to include.  Sometimes, the tedious spurts of magical particulars are trivial; several scenes feel cumbersome with exposition that could have easily been expunged in a more economical script rewrite.

Gratifyingly, unlike Twilight’s witless melodrama, director Richard LaGravenese injects a vague sense of humour, albeit an underdeveloped one. There are neo-gothic nods to mid-90s Tim Burton in some of the campier costume and set design choices, and the script intermittently acknowledges its own absurdity.

But for the most part, it’s business as usual, obediently following the young-adult fiction blueprint. Lena is a very obvious metaphor for the universal teenage themes of isolation and loneliness, and this is played to full dreary effect. The casters are outcasts, spurned by the conservative Christian community who label them Satanists. Some rather ham-fisted parallels are made, quite explicitly, with To Kill A Mockingbird; Lena calls her uncle (Jeremy Irons) “Boo Radley”.

Neither original nor interesting, Lena and Ethan’s tedious romance plods on in tandem with various effort to break a curse, and extreme boredom is only curtailed by the schadenfreudian pleasures of Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson attempting their very best “well ah do de-clay-uh” deep south accents. (Irons hits the mark maybe 20% of the time.) Beautiful Creatures will stir the quivering hearts of the pubescent target audience and cheap Valentine’s Day dates, but it’s slim pickings for the rest of us.

Originally published on CineVue.

Black Mirror is back, thank God

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Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirrorbroadcast at the tail-end of 2011, was as satisfying as it was disturbing. Three hour-long episodes, in which the only recurring character was the theme of techno-doom, wove darkly satirical yarns of talent show dystopias, eyeball-mounted smartphones and Prime Ministerial pig-shagging. It was an angry thesis on our species and the technology to which we are now inextricably wedded, and its conclusion, broadly, was: “we’re all fucked”.

We continue to be fucked in Black Mirror‘s return, a comeback which could not be more welcome in the current plodding TV landscape. Last night’s premiere, ‘Be Right Back’, boasted perhaps the series’ most intriguing concept to date. Martha (Hayley Atwell) is shellshocked when her husband Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) is suddenly killed in a car accident. Stricken by grief, Martha signs up for a futuristic new service which creates an artificially intelligent replica of a lost loved one, using their Facebook statuses or Twitter updates as contributing data. Add old home movies and a synthetically-constructed body to the mix, and you have yourself have a clone almost smart enough to pass the Turing test – the measure by which computers can be believably human.

Like earlier episodes, the fictional reality presented is near-future rather than Futurama, with smatterings of small but recognisable advances in existing technologies, making the experience all the more effective and – as is no doubt intended – unsettling. Brooker’s satire is a bleak and cursory warning, extending today’s trends to their darkly logical conclusion.

As before, there’s an implicit comment on our desperate over-reliance on technology. Martha scolds Ash at the start of the episode for having his head buried in his phone; later, she becomes obsessed with her own phone when it offers an artificial version of her late husband. But there are also deeper, philosophical ideas about what it means to be human; that our imperfections and foibles could never be matched by the cold unblemished rigidity of machines.

‘Be Right Back’ is probably the series’ best entry yet – thoughtful, engaging, and sad, a melancholic romantic drama with technology as the unworthy shoulder to cry on. Brooker’s script is matched with the sort of directorial elegance and cinematic grandeur (from Owen Harris, whose credits also include the excellent Holy Flying Circus and a few Misfits episodes) that the material demands, and assisted no end by a brave and vulnerable performance from Hayley Atwell. Television is seldom this affecting or intelligent. Get Black Mirror in your life.

A Liar’s Autobiography

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The late Graham Chapman, one-sixth of the legendary Monty Python comedy troupe, was a premium-grade bullshitter. The so-called ‘silliest Python’ once told a BBC reporter on the set of the Holy Grail that he was an extra (he was, of course, the lead actor). And thus it was for his 1980 autobiography, appropriately titled A Liar’s Autobiography, which shamelessly laid no claim to honesty or truthfulness, a stake further bolstered by the subtitle: “The Untrue Story”. Few narrators are quite so unreliable.

That same spirit of playful contrarianism is invoked in this uneven animated adaptation of the autobiography. All the original Pythons (except Eric Idle) lend their voices, including, uniquely, Chapman himself, having made several recordings of the book before his death in 1989. A Liar’s Autobiography is therefore significant in the Python oeuvre as being the first time he has “worked” with the rest of the group, Idle notwithstanding, in over twenty years.

Chapman’s voice, with that plummy Oxbridge enunciation, lends proceedings the weight of a certain shaky authenticity, even as its author defiantly shirks such fripperies as facts. To assuage any doubt as to the seriousness of proceedings, Chapman begins with an typically silly account of his birth, claiming his parents were “were expecting a heterosexual black Jew with several rather amusing birth deformities as they needed the problems.”

Recruiting fourteen separate animation studios for the project, the directing team of Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett essentially cobble together a series of vignettes to tell this spurious life story. Animation is often a useful tool for depicting the many surreal flights of fancy – a segment set in space works particularly well – but on the whole, it’s structurally loose and haphazard. The switch between animation styles and techniques, so frequently and without warning, can be disorientating, and difficult to get a purchase on.

Just when you settle into a computer-generated sequence of World War II fighter pilots, you are quickly thrust away into a dark, hand-painted depiction of alcoholism and drugs. As the Pythons themselves discovered with sketch-based films like And Now For Something Completely Different and The Meaning of Life, such an incohesive approach is doomed to fail, and Chapman’s original comic thrust is lost in the tangle.

Python fans, who have clamoured for any sort of reunion since the group effectively disbanded upon Chapman’s death, will no doubt be thrilled to see so many of their heroes on-screen again, and may well be cheered by the prevailing essence of silliness that made the Pythons great. But even the superfans would be forced to admit that A Liar’s Autobiography never quite scales the heights of comedy that its subject accomplished.

And crucially, we don’t go away learning any more about Graham Chapman, the man. Rather than being left with a clearer picture – however silly – A Liar’s Autobiography fosters a messy, colourful memory in your mind: surreal, psychedelic, sometimes funny, but frustratingly empty beneath the surface, a disappointingly inadequate tribute to a great comedian.

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