Author Archive: Sam Unsted

Killing in Kick-Ass

Kick-Ass is undoubtedly a truly fun experience for watching. It’s filled with stabs of smart, profane humour and knowing touches and nods to inspirations peppered throughout. The performances, particularly from the future superstar Aaron Johnson and the ridiculously precocious Chloe Moretz are superb. The action sequences, though occasionally creaking under budgetary concerns, are packed to the gills with energy and kineticism. They may occasionally lose touch of themselves, but they have a slick vein of humour that drives all the events which occur.

But… I have seen precious little comment about the way that the violence is depicted, not on an aesthetic level but on an emotional, consequential level. As with Wanted, also based on a Mark Millar graphic novel, Kick-Ass revels in the violence and killing perpetrated by both the good and bad guys. We are consistently told to chuckle at the ultra-violent content, including a man exploding, one being eliminated in a car crusher and numerous splattering headshots.

I’m not preaching that this is necessarily wrong, director/writer Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman are going for something, and they mostly succeed. This is supposed to be a post-modern superhero story which nods and winks at its knowing, desensitised audience. You could even make an argument that the film is so arch as to be specifically pointing out this macabre sensibility in its audience, akin to Haneke in Funny Games, but I don’t think that’s where is going. If so, this is a film which has its cake, the person’s next to it and then eats everyone’s.

The killing that happens is so fetishised and so cheered it’s very hard to feel anything but a little discomfort at what you are seeing. There would appear to be a stupefying lack of emotional consequence to the violence which happens, even though much of the violence which happens is driven by emotional concerns. Sure, the Hit-Girl and Big Daddy characters are seeking revenge, but shouldn’t there at least be a slight acknowledgement in Hit-Girl’s character of the amount of murder she takes part in? Many of the human characters in the film, henchman though they may be, are dispatched with such a sense of glee, with no remorse or consequence for the perpetrator. There is no recourse to the violence, it just happens and we are supposed to cheer and laugh. It may be in a comic-book world, but there just seems too much having and eating of cake going on for me.

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Oscar Predictions: Best Picture

The Nominees
Avatar
The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Precious
A Serious Man
Up
Up in the Air

The expansion of the category has had some impact on the talk around the Oscars, mostly negative. It would appear that you could easily eliminate five films from the top category as being also-rans, if still good films. Where last year it would have served mostly just to allow The Dark Knight its nomination and sate the anger of so many over-hyped fanboys/girls, this year it felt as though the Academy was just reaching further to grab films from all corners, as if to indicate that they are not scared of honouring ‘popular’ films. The fact that they have never really done this and the actual small films almost always get screwed, that was left to the side of the discussion.

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Oscar Predictions: Best Director

The Nominees
James Cameron for Avatar
Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds
Lee Daniels for Precious
Jason Reitman for Up in the Air

This category seems to break down into three categories as regards the chance each has of winning the prize. In the last category, essentially the no-hopers, are Lee Daniels and Jason Reitman. Reitman is the kind of director who will consistently struggle to win this prize as his skill comes through his ability to manage performance and tone rather than anything visually spectacular or inventive. Up in the Air is a pristine film with some well-composed images, but it’s script and performance-driven, similar to Juno and Thank You for Smoking. He deserves plaudits, but they won’t be sufficient for the prize. Lee Daniels has promise as an inventive director, but too many choices fall flat in Precious and he won’t win.

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Oscar Predictions: Best Actor

The Nominees
Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart
George Clooney for Up in the Air
Colin Firth for A Single Man
Morgan Freeman for Invictus
Jeremy Renner for The Hurt Locker

This one feels like it’s been complicated in recent weeks, too. I still don’t think Jeremy Renner will have the momentum to take the prize and I would be shocked if Clooney wins, even though I would cite Up in the Air as his finest performance. He should also, as argued by Stephanie Zacharek, be rewarded for his great role in Fantastic Mr Fox, but unfortunately that film, like Clooney, will go home empty-handed.

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Oscar Predictions: Best Actress

The Nominees
Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side
Helen Mirren for The Last Station
Carey Mulligan for An Education
Gabourey Sidibe for Precious
Meryl Streep for Julie & Julia

Okay, let’s get going. This undoubtedly to be the most interesting category of the lot, if interesting for you is having four possible winners. A couple of months back, I was pretty sure that Carey Mulligan was a shoe-in to win this – she had all the momentum and buzz to get her over the line. Then things started to shift and, as I said, I think there are four possible winners here. Before we kick off then, let’s just say, Helen Mirren won’t win.

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Oscar Predictions: Best Supporting Actor

The Nominees
Matt Damon for Invictus
Woody Harrelson for The Messenger
Christopher Plummer for The Insider
Stanley Tucci for The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds

A few months ago, this would have been a serious race between two of the contenders. Really, up until anyone with a Twitter or blog saw The Lovely Bones, Stanley Tucci was the major frontrunner to take the prize. After seeing that performance, I would argue strongly for his inclusion, but for his role in Julie & Julia instead. Due to the poor reviews for Peter Jackson’s horrendous film, Tucci will have to give up his leading place in the category to Mr Waltz.

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Oscar Predictions: Best Supporting Actress

The Nominees
Penelope Cruz for Nine
Vera Farmiga for Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal for Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick for Up in the Air
Mo’Nique for Precious

Filling up three paragraphs on this category is going to prove difficult, hence the start of this section being guarded with meta-waffle about the difficulty of writing this column. The reason it’s difficult is precisely the same reason it is difficult to fill three paragraphs on any complete inevitability. I could probably waffle on for even longer about such inanities, but I’ll get stuck in now. Mo’Nique will win.

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Oscar Predictions: Best Original Screenplay

The Nominees
Mark Boal for The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds
Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman for The Messenger
Ethan Coen and Joel Coen for A Serious Man
Pete Docter and Bob Peterson for Up

Having taken home the BAFTA, it would seem that The Hurt Locker has positioned itself for a potential clean sweep at the Oscars this year. The film has garnered almost uniformly excellent reviews and its meagre box-office take appears to have had little impact on its chances come Awards season. To get it out of the way at the start, this is going to be the Iraq film to compete for the awards, to The Messenger will have to put up with being the year’s second-best semi-apolitical Iraq movie.

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Oscar Predictions: Best Adapted Screenplay

The Nominees
Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell for District 9
Nick Hornby for An Education
Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Ianucci and Tony Roche for In the Loop
Geoffrey Fletcher for Precious
Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner for Up in the Air

There was at least a degree of surprise at the BAFTAs this year that it wasn’t one of the English nominees that took home this prize. After all, An Education managed to garner eight nominations overall and ended up walking home with little in return from the one place it would have felt most favoured. I’ve never been a big supporter of that film – it’s beautifully acted but the construction ends up feeling rushed and gives the film a slightness which undermines the acting – but, even with that known, I don’t think Nick Hornby has any chance of going home with this.

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Oscar Predictions: Best Cinematography

The Nominees
Mauro Fiore for Avatar
Bruno Delbonnel for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Barry Ackroyd for The Hurt Locker
Robert Richardson for Inglourious Basterds
Christian Berger for The White Ribbon

I have a slight problem in this category as I’ve been debating whether Avatar should really be eligible for a cinematography prize given that everything being filmed has been created. There has always, to me, seemed a need for the cinematography prize to be handed out on the basis of the photographer having captured what is tangibly in front of him. I’ve come around to the idea, however, as Avatar’s spectacular look is achieved, if not through literally filming the world of Pandora, through the advice and guidance that the cinematographer would have given. This advice will have contributed to the immersive nature of the film and, so, I’ll happily accept and applaud Fiore’s nomination.

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Oscar Predictions: Best Animated Feature Film

The Nominees
Coraline
Fantastic Mr Fox
The Princess and the Frog
The Secret of Kells
Up

I don’t know that there is even much point in putting anything after the jump for this category. Though other studios in the animation world continue to put out good stuff for the most part, absolutely nobody is close to competing with Pixar on storytelling, complexity of characters or catering to a wide audience in a satisfying and stimulating way. Up will win and, probably, should win purely for the opening ten minute sequence, easily the finest piece of filmmaking in the past year.

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A Riposte to Lovely Bones Praise

There is plenty of criticism to fling at the article written on The Quietus this week by Josh Saco seemingly in defence of Peter Jackson, currently drowining under a flood of criticism for his The Lovely Bones adaptation. Just for the purpose of keeping this simple, I’ll concentrate on the assertions made about the film itself and its place in Jackson’s body of work.

“In The Lovely Bones he plays out his darkest, most macabre, and most mature film to date, exploring the afterlife and life in ways he never has before.”

I would agree that Jackson definitely explores the afterlife in ways he, indeed no one, has done before. Jackson’s CGI-rendered afterlife, or ‘In-Between’, involves shifting landscapes of mountains, perfect green grass and glistening bodies of water. The CGI (and I realise how much I have marked myself out as a luddite-misanthrope as regards this technology) is unbelievably poor for the man behind the creation of Golem. There are moments in which it resembles a PS1-era edition of Final Fantasy, while the man appears pathologically intent on using effects work even when simply having a camera move through a window. Not a spectacular, otherworldly window, just a basic window which could have been built without even one computer in the room.

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Our BAFTA Predictions

You can listen to the podcast on which we ‘discussed’ these here but, for the purposes of finality, here are the predictions we made for this year’s BAFTAs. Also, make sure to follow us Live Tweeting the show this evening.

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Implications of a ‘Hollywood Stock Exchange’

Cantor Fitzgerald, the Wall Street investment house, is reportedly harbouring plans to make its ‘Hollywood Stock Exchange’ fake money spread-betting game a reality, offering investors the opportunity to make real-money bets on the financial performance of films.

Though the concerns around this are far beyond the movie world – insider trading likelihood, expanding the volume of risky products at market etc. – this could likely have some serious consequences for the quality of movies that come out of Hollywood.

Studios are already overly-focused on money-making in the films they release. This is not necessarily a negative; movie-making is a business and all movies, all of them, are not made with the aim of losing money. But the skewed view which has been fostered in Hollywood is that bigger is better or, more expensive is better. Blockbusters like Transformers 2 and Avatar, and before them the superhero and comic book adaptations, have become the central currency of Hollywood.

Audiences have been conditioned not to see films because of the talent behind them, but because of what the film is about. This has driven the growth of the wide universe of films based on existing properties (superhit children’s books, superhero comics) and has caused nothing but problems for the auteur-based projects out there. Even when you see an anomalous hit (Inglourious Basterds and District 9), this seems to have almost no influence on what kind of movies are coming out of Hollywood. They continue to operate on the assumption that the more money you spend, on production and marketing, the more money you will make at the box-office.

It’s hard to argue that this isn’t normally the case, though the reason that these films do so well is never down to the quality of the product. The behemoth summer releases are scattered across the season in a bid to make sure that, essentially, there is no other choice for the passive movie-goer. When they turn up at the cinema looking to see a film, there is a good chance that Transformers will be on in five of the twenty screens at their local multiplex and probably starting every half-hour or so. What we snobby critics and cinephiles would describe at the ‘worthy’ releases get relegated to sparse showings at inhospitable times of the day, or are just ejected from multiplexes altogether, meaning that casual watchers, those who really drive up box-office, don’t see them through a combination of inconvenience and ignorance.

Should this Cantor plan come into play – and any improvement in the economic environment and return of confidence to investment markets would make this almost inevitable, if only in germ form at first – it would surely only encourage studios to focus on huge movies, placing all their available energy into the tentpole releases so as to make them as profitable as possible. There is a chance that this could well mean that studios take more notice of aspects like script, character and direction if they do this, therefore maximising the change of turning a profit. But the incredible success of Avatar, for all its qualities, would, I venture, communicate to studios that big and simple is the best way to go. Unfortunately, the component they would fail to note would be James Cameron (or, The Talent) which is what actually turned the film into something special and successful. Chuck a journeyman behind the camera and Avatar would have fallen into the annals of flop history.

In addition, making a spread-betting market for movies would instantly shift the business aspects further to the centre of investor thought, meaning that any concerns over the quality of movies would become further sidelined (check out this Raw Story article on the news). Through neat trickery, brokers would be able to shift enough money around that even bad or unsuccessful movies become profitable, something which would remove that consideration in the minds of executives to make films, you know, ‘good’.

This is all conjecture at this point. It could well be that studios will become more cautious with budgets and spread marketing spend across their properties to achieve profit from all releases. The drop in production budgets could well have the influence that so many wanted District 9 to have this past year in making directors have to improvise and get creative due to constraints in what they can do. Plus, spreading around marketing budgets would give many independent films a significant boost in the amount of money they have to promote themselves. It’s possible that this could be a hugely positive move for the quality of output in Hollywood.

Of course, the actual problems with this lie in the risk profile of such investments, so whether the quality of films coming out of Hollywood will rise or fall will be of little concern to financial regulatory authorities. Still, worth a thought as to whether a shift in the financial model of Hollywood could prove good or bad for the industry, because heaven knows the current model is resolutely failing to promote everything equally and has skewed the focus from art to business.

Intimacy in A Single Man

I liked Tom Ford’s debut film quite a bit. An adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel of the same name, the film is meticulously constructed throughout, both in terms (predictably) of the costumes and set design and the editing style. The latter probably harms the film somewhat, especially during the first few scenes in which Ford and editor Joan Sobel intercut and jump-cut all over the place. It does have a jarring impact which reduces as the film goes on, but it causes the first ten/fifteen minutes to be confrontationally creative and difficult for the audience to sink into.

The film succeeds through two components. The performances are excellent; Julianne Moore is superb but she does slightly suffer from her English accent which dives between the Queen’s and an East London trader in her closing inflections. Colin Firth though, who I’ve never been a fan of, is astounding. So easily is this the best performance of his career, that you worry that he will end up missing out on the Oscar (probably owing to Academy atonement towards Jeff Bridges) on the one occasion when he has absolutely found a synergy between his style and a character. More of that on the coming podcast.

The other thing that A Single Man does perfectly is intimacy. The relationships between all the characters are pitched just right. Firth and Moore, playing old friends and former flames – before Firth fell in love with Matthew Goode’s enchanter – manage to communicate all the years of hurt and regret which would exist between friends in which friendship is the desire for only one of the two. Moore, despite the accent issues, carries in her eyes all the years of quiet heartbreak which erupt into unintended attacks in a couple of barbed exchanges. Better though is Firth and Goode’s relationship. The two complement each other beautifully, and the scene in which the two are listening to music, huddled on a sofa and both reading, wholly captures the kind of quiet intimacy that any long-term, utterly right-for-each-other couple would have.

On Valentine’s Day weekend, in which the television screens will be bombarded by constant romantic comedies and the cinema is clogged by the shit-tacular-looking smugfest named after the day, you would be well advised to take the moments between Firth and Goode in this film as both an antidote to the saccharine crap being pushed onto you and as a touching representation of true love.

Smith asks fans to finance Red State

Kevin Smith has made an appeal to fans to donate to back his next movie, the long-delayed horror movie Red State, after heeding a suggestion made to him through Twitter.

There has been some backlash against the idea, and it doesn’t seem even close to fullproof, but this could prove a really interesting acid test of a new financing model for moviemaking. Smith is a famous enough director, with his first studio film (and first non-written director project) coming out soon, that he will garner much in the way of press coverage for the move. If successful it could open some doors for those with difficult and uncommercial projects to get to market.

The problem, as I see it, is unfortunately potentially multifold. First, there is a need to consider that you are making a commercial product which will seek to generate a profit. Taking donations to do finance this could prove troublesome unless Smith pledges to put all profits into his next project or redistribute the profits to the donors, effectively transforming them into investors. That would undermine the process in the first place to a degree, although the lack of clarity over how the system would work is, in itself, slightly troubling. If this is to work then Smith will have to put together a real-life business plan to outline his plans

The second major issue is the potential backlash which could come should the fans decide they want to have a little creative control over the project. If there are particularly hefty donors, which is a problem which could easily be remedied through creating an actual business plan and providing information on how much one could donate, there is a danger that, given they are currently not going to be expecting any kind of return, that they will want to get special consideration on their creative desires. Any sense that this would be turning into a crowdsourced movie could well end up with a supersize disaster/experiment which Smith won’t want to get involved in.

However, if successful, it does put the fans into the power seat, at least in a very small way. The people who actually care enough to have a movie made, people you could argue are true fans of moviemaking, would have a hand in the industry, something which may drive young filmmakers to start to consider the method for financing their own smaller pictures. Though it would require a significant amount of money, and a strong donation infrastructure, to succeed, this could definitely start a grass roots movement in moviemaking if the right intentions are able to take precedence.

There has yet to be a great use of the internet as a distribution model reaching a wide audience for new filmmakers. What is out there appears often too niche or exclusive (the very cool but uber-artsy Garage, part of The Auteurs) to really capture the imagination. I have only cynicism that the likes of Michael Bay will ever be defeated by the small, heartfelt independent moviemaking which keeps the art form rolling, but at least a black eye could be dealt to the industry if enough smart, committed people can take the germ of the idea from Smith and run with it.

Batman & Robin: Worst Film Ever?

Lists are made to be argued with, so I won’t deny that primal urge, but I do feel obligated to hold onto Movie Overdose’s position as the only, and it does seem only, defender of Batman & Robin as a movie experience.

The film was today voted the worst film of all time by Empire Magazine readers, something I just cannot agree with. I don’t deny that Batman & Robin is a terrible film, but what was everyone expecting? Batman Forever is a far less joyful and dumb experience, one which still believed that things were going down a good path. Joel Schumacher has proved again and again that with a budget, he’s a douche. I was never expecting Batman & Robin to be great and, therefore, why not just sit back and enjoy the relentless stupidity of everything that happens.

Also, consider what it’s actually doing. This is not a film which is pretending to be cool or clever. Everyone in it, especially the dead-eyed Clooney, completely understands that this is a terrible film. Even Schwarzenegger has to bring his quip A-game to the party to attempt to ring some fun out of his insane dialogue. To contend that a film with such low aims doesn’t manage to succeed to meet them is one that lies to opinion. If you feel this film didn’t meet its aims, it probably is among the worst films ever. But I would argue this film meets those low, low aims perfectly well.

Yes, Batman & Robin is a terrible film, but it wholly crosses the line to be so bad it’s watchable. If you are watching this movie with The Dark Knight in mind, shame on you. That film was expected to be, and was, really good. It took a better storyline, better villains, better actors and a much better director and, shock horror, resulted in a better film. Batman & Robin took a dying franchise which thoroughly deserved to die and be taken in a completely different direction and thuddingly, camply thrust the knife into the heart of the series.

Without this overblown mess, you would not have what followed in the future, and there are many more bad films which have pretensions of grandeur and greatness which thoroughly deserve to be consigned to the shitter of history. But let us keep Batman & Robin, the most gloriously terrible superhero film we have.

Razzies Thoughts…

It’s only fair to talk about another awards ceremony at this time of year, one which has managed to maintain its staunch anti-commercial stance and has never sacrificed its history to allow higher-grossing films into its top categories. This is partly because the films which tend to get given Razzies are often seen by millions of foolish people, a pattern which dictates future movie release schedules and therefore repeats the feat, making more bad movies which more people see and therefore perpetuating the need for the Razzies.

This year’s bunch, in full here, are particularly righteous, with Land of the Lost and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen leading the ignominious. So, a few bulleted thoughts on the nominations:

  • Sandra Bullock ‘does and Eddie Murphy’ and gets nods for Best Actress at both The Oscars and The Razzies. She gets it here for All About Steve, a film which I have not seen but is purportedly so awful as to have made some member of the MOD’s extended family spew expletives beyond the recognition of well-bred English-speaking people. Whether this nod will hurt her chances for winning for The Blind Side, as I would suggest Norbit did for Murphy when he got his Dreamgirls nod, remains to be seen.
  • Nice barbed stab at The Jonas Brothers as Worst Actors. A band which appears to be attempting to disseminate abstinence-only teachings to your children, a tactic which will only end in massive number of underage pregnancies amongst fans of the stupifyingly pointless band, deserve to be kicked, beaten and knocked down at every possible point.
  • Shia LeBoeuf and Megan Fox for Worst Couple is perfect. The entire pair of those films looks as though he is frightened to touch her for fear of having his hands smeared in sweat-ravaged fake tan or the germs of other men. Her nod for worst actress though perhaps should be paired with her comically inept performance in Jennifer’s Body, in which she mistakes ‘sexy’ for ‘late-80s New York hooker’.
  • Also, praise to the board for the dumps taken on Hugh Hefner, Billy Ray Cyrus, Miley Cyrus and Steve Martin, on of whom can do better and the rest of which should be consigned to a dumpster to live in shame.

As it’s the end of the decade, they’ve also released their nominations for Film, Actor and Actress of the Decade, worst that is. My predictions and views are below.

  • Picture: I think Battlefield Earth may have to take it on this one, though the competition is tough. I Know Who Killed Me probably didn’t offend enough people to take the prize, but Gigli is a worthy challenger. Freddy Got Fingered probably has too many dumb revisionist cult movie fans to win this one.
  • Actor: Travolta and Murphy will battle it out for Worst Actor. The nod for Myers is absolutely right, especially after he attempted to shit on Inglourious Basterds this year, as if he had yet to destroy enough over the past ten years. Affleck been okay in some stuff so doesn’t really deserve it and Rob Schneider, everyone just wants to forget about Rob Schneider.
  • Actress: For Worst Actress, Madonna has always been terrible but she may not have done enough to earn the title. Lohan has Mean Girls to prevent her dropping in to the race. Gigli places Lopez in a strong position to win while Carey has had Precious to redeem her a little. So it has to be Hilton, an STD which has blighted cinema for ten years now and should be deservedly eviscerated.

Oscar Thoughts…

You can read a full list of nominations here, but I thought it best just to note a few little aberrations and nice surprises which the Academy threw our way this year.

  • The Blind Side for Best Picture – I don’t know how, why or for what reason this has happened, but awards boards and ceremonies are becoming increasingly too interested in rewarding the most popular rather than the quanitifiably ‘best’ films of the year. How this syrup-fest slice of mawkish shit has managed to score a few nods, I really don’t know. This nomination does give hope however to all those Hallmark/Lifetime movies about retarded children in inner-city schools or single mothers dealing with cancer that they could one day make the leap up.
  • District 9 for Best Picture – Rewarding a film which was not only popular, but broke all the present rules of blockbuster filmmaking – intelligent plotting, no on wearing catsuits and made on a budget which didn’t allow egomaniacal directorial masturbation. Blomkamp strikes on for all the people out there convinced that summers can be better.
  • Lee Daniels, Best Director for Precious – Not that Precious isn’t specifically well-directed, but there seems a much better argument to have Neill Blomkamp in there for District 9 given his handling of his material. Some of the decisions in Precious make the film play a little flat, which means that some of what should be the most powerful scenes lose much of their intended force.
  • Penelope Cruz for Nine – Yes, she is the only person that comes out of the film with real dignity left intact. No, this does not mean she should be rewarded over Diane Kruger in Inglourious Basterds. Julianne Moore in A Single Man and Rosamund Pike in An Education would also have been more deserving.
  • No Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs – A film which not only should have been given a nod in the expanded animation category, but also for its sparkling script. Probably one which many Academy members failed to see on the same terms as a film like Up which, my opinion only, it is just as successful as.
  • An Education for Best Adapted Screenplay – The characterisations are not what made An Education a decent film. That is a movie saved from flat direction and a weak script by great acting, so the script getting a nomination, over the wonder that is Where the Wild Things Are, is a travesty.
  • In the Loop for Best Adapted Screenplay – A fantastic, completely deserved nomination for a film which has some great performances but, like The Thick of It, is driven by the foul-mouthed poetry of the script.
  • Avatar nine, but no script – Avatar gets nine nominations in all the right places. Undoubtedly a breathtaking cinema experience, I’ll allow its Best Picture nod. But the Academy had the sense only to reward Cameron’s direction in the upper categories, meaning that it rightly competes to take home, deservedly, every technical nod it can be given.
  • Nine for Hurt Locker, Eight for Inglourious Basterds – I’ve had a short-term turnaround in Inglourious Basterds, a film I didn’t enjoy in first watch, liked more on second and now fucking love. Eight nods is right. The Hurt Locker, the only film from the past year considered for my Best of Decade list, is a deserved recipient of nine nominations, with the script and Bigelow’s direction the most likely places for it to be triumphant.

DVDs This Week – 01/02/10

Broken Embraces

Though far from his best work, Almodovar indulging himself has been earned and this, despite occasionally leaning close to self-parody, is him toying with his own form. Hitchcockian in plotting but completely Almodovar in execution, the film does include some great acting performances from its men and, in Penelope Cruz, an actress entirely in sync with her director and shot as if she is the quintessence of beauty. Not close to his finest (for me, Talk to Her) but undoubtedly worth watching and, coming in the wake of the difficult Bad Education, extremely fun.

In Treatment: Season One
HBO’s first half-hour drama series ran five nights per week for nine weeks. I’ve only sampled it, but I’m very interested to get stuck into this one.

Burma VJ
Intense documentary filmmaking on an entirely required subject.

The Invention of Lying
Slight misfire but reasonably enjoyable Ricky Gervais vehicle. Major atheist overtones.

Sin Nombre
Not seen, but reportedly a tough but tender love story.

Away We Go
Only-okay Sam Mendes quarter-life crisis movie which strays too close to cuteness but is saved by great performances by Maya Rudolph.

Surrogates
Pointless and witless sci-fi action starring Bruce Willis. Only beaten by Gamer as last year’s worst avatar-based film.

Also Out: The Firm, Aliens in the Attic, The Peter Serafinowicz Show, The Soloist, Avatar: The Last Airbender Book 3

Sundance Buzz: The Killer Inside Me

What Antichrist was to Cannes last year, The Killer Inside Me appears to be for Sundance 2010. Michael Winterbottom, not a stranger to controversy following his art/porn examination 9 Songs in the past, directs Casey Affleck in an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s novel about a sociopathic deputy sheriff and the people he leaves in his wake.

The reaction has been ripped in two between those fascinated by the questions and challenges it poses and those repulsed by everything it appears to be positing. It’s already provoked CHUD’s Devin Faraci to write a column about how the film has sparked a debate once more about depicting violence in movies. New York Magazine’s Vulture blog has described it as ‘Antichrist meets Precious meets No Country for Old Men’. Even the Daily Mail has got its teeth stuck in.

The scene causing the most consternation involves the brutal beating of Jessica Alba with her face reduced to pulp.

Jay A Fernandez at The Hollywood Reporter’s description goes thus:

In Michael Winterbottom’s “The Killer Inside Me,” Jessica Alba is pulverized, fist to face, fist to face, fist to poor pretty face, by Casey Affleck for a good three minutes or so. Until her eyes are swollen shut and part of her face has been smashed away, exposing her jaw. What one character later describes as ‘hamburger,’ ‘stewed meat.’

Todd McCarthy at Variety says:

Winterbottom’s presentation of the violence is blunt, direct and vivid enough to inflict winces, if not actual pain, on the audience; some will no doubt look away.

Cinema Blend’s Katey Rich is less kind:

The film’s violence is what’s got everyone talking, and while it’s debatable whether the movie shares Lou’s own misogyny, the camera does take a certain delight in shocking us by showing repeated shots of Jessica Alba’s face being beaten to pulp. When men are killed in the film they’re shot cleanly or dispatched with offscreen, but the women suffer brutally– and you have to wonder if Lou is the only one enjoying it.

Reportedly, Alba herself left the screening half way through. Winterbottom himself has defended the violence, saying: “When you read the book, it’s incredibly shocking… But the violence is supposed to be horrible.”

But there have been some positive reactions. IFC’s Alison Willmore tweeted: “THE KILLER INSIDE ME: Oh, it’s completely off its rocker and I love it. Casey Affleck kills, kills and kills, noir style. And Texan style.”

Daemon Movies wrote:

All and all, The Killer Inside Me is a brilliant movie with strong and believable characters and a powerful story. It is certainly not a movie for everyone, especially if you tend to be squeamish around violence, however I would recommend that you see it if you want to see some fantastic acting and a brilliant story.

But the majority of the criticism appears to be expressing discomfort and a sense that the film is more provocative than successful. Fernandez muses:

Does the violence work in the context of a deeper exploration of a character’s psyche, or that of society as a whole? Or is it displayed in a vacuum without any redeeming context to provide meaning to a viewer other than an indictment of their being willing to sit through it in the first place?

McCarthy, too, is mostly lukewarm on the actual quality of the film:

…Winterbottom cogently unfurls the sordid narrative, although, at least at the screening caught, some of the dialogue was unintelligible, either due to some mumble or slurred dialogue and/or undue amplification. Still, when compared with the many films noir made during the period when the novel was written, this “Killer” lacks punch, dynamism and genuinely seedy atmosphere; at the same time, it falls short of the sort of the rich texture, moodiness and interconnectedness of production values that mark the best contemporary period crime films…

Sundance Buzz: The Runaways

The vast majority of the buzz surrounding this movie is split across the fact that Kristen Stewart is in it and that she and Dakota Fanning kiss in the film. I’m not wholly sure what the buzz is around the latter, but it should surely be more controversy that salaciousness given that Fanning is only fifteen.

Cinematical’s Kevin Kelly dug the movie, with a pretty significant amount of praise in his review devoted to the performances by Stewart, Fanning and Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley. He describes the performances from all three as “powerful“, but asserts that Shannon “takes this movie, straps it to his back, and walks away with it completely“. On the two female leads:

Kristen Stewart steps out of her normal angsty girl act and nails down the punk rock, hard as nails Jett, and Fanning is equally as good with her disconnected portrayal of Currie, who is dealing with the fact that she’s abandoning her alcoholic father and her twin sister Marie (played as fraternal in the movie, although they were identical in real life) to embrace a life of rock and roll.

Sam Adams for IFC was less taken by the movie itself, but is also praising of the Stewart and Fanning performances:

As much as for its characters, “The Runaways” is a rite of passage for its stars: Fanning, attempting to move beyond her preternaturally placid juvenile roles, and Kristen Stewart, whose volcanic Joan Jett runs hotter than the brooding teens she’s played in, well, everything.

Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir was again entertained, but felt that more was promised somewhere along the line: “[Director Floria] Sigismondi has made a straightforward rock ‘n’ roll biopic that’s fluid and exciting to watch, but clearly aspires to something more,” he says.

One dissenting voice comes from First Showing’s Alex Billington.

…I was completely unimpressed with Floria Sigismondi’s inability to handle the characters, the story, or the film at all. And despite having a good time watching concert scenes, I don’t have much else good to say about The Runaways. This was one of the first big let downs of Sundance for me and I was even looking forward to it.

So mostly love, especially for Fanning and Shannon, though Stewart also picks up quite a few plaudits. There seems a general agreement that it’s a little unfocused character-wise, but the performances do much to rectify these problems.

Sundance Buzz: Cyrus

The Duplass Brothers, Jay and Mark, shift out of the mumblecore movement and into studio-backed filmmaking with a pretty decent cast and a story of comedy potential. John C Reilly plays a guy just out of a break-up who hooks up with Marisa Tomei and then has to deal with her son, played by Jonah Hill, who remains living at home and enjoys something of an odd relationship with his mum.

Katey Rich, who is doing some great work in covering the festival for Cinema Blend, loved the film nearly unreservedly:

The Duplasses play brilliantly with the sense of comfort that comes in a romantic comedy, that secret assurance that we know how things will play out. Because the movie bears that mumblecore label of realism, there’s an actual suspense to this film’s particular will-they-or-won’t-they. By not changing the romantic comedy formula and instead bringing their own style to it, they create something wholly original, a skewed mirror on Hollywood that lovingly turns the old tropes around.

She adds that the film is “stellar and hilarious and by far one of the best things to come out of the festival so far“.

And Rich is far from alone in her praise for the film. HitFix’s Drew McWeeny was equally enchanted by the Duplass’ step up to the big(ger) leagues:

Shot with a simple, austere eye and elegantly constructed, Cyrus was a complete knockout, and Fox Searchlight will figure out how to sell this to the general public in a very big way. What’s great is that Mark and Jay Duplass seem to have proven that they can work for the studios in a way that makes them happy, that allows them to make their movies, and that will reward the faith of the studios with genuinely great commercial fare.

Add to those voices Scott at We Are Movie Geeks, who claims: “There isn’t much you can say that is negative about the film… its pretty much perfect.

The one major dissenter is Duane Byrge over at the Hollywood Reporter, who isn’t quite wholly scathing, but certainly didn’t find the same level of enjoyment.

A romance laced with psychological poison, “Cyrus” is a well-performed but superficial drama of emotional co-dependency that is unlikely to venture past the select-site/festival circuit.

Overall, “Cyrus” is more a clinical enactment than a complex human drama and ultimately just droops in predictability and easy outcomes.

So a potential breakthrough for the Duplass brothers, though it does sound as though it could struggle to find a major audience if they are so carefully integrating their mumblecore sensibilities with mainstream style.

Sundance Buzz: Howl

Having had its two stars, James Franco and Jon Hamm, compare the events surrounding Allen Ginsberg’s obscenity trial related to his poem of the same name of the film to the Proposition 8 battle in California, Howl arrives on the scene with a great deal of cache for the indie audience.

Neil Miller at Film School Rejects kicks off his review with what appears the central debate surrounding the film:

The interpretation of art is tricky. In fact, most great works of art are the trickiest because what makes them great is that they can mean different things to different people. This is something I’ve known, but was reinforced by Rob Epstein’s excellent film Howl, which is a commentary on interpretation set against the obscenity trial that catapulted Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem into the national spotlight. This is also something I realized in the peer conversations that followed my viewing of the film — if taken one way, Howl is a great film. If interpreted another, it loses all of its impact.

He goes on to argue that the film can be read either as an interpretation of the art itself or a meditation on interpretations of art. He also expresses great admiration for James Franco’s central performance, something echoed by MTV. Though this wasn’t something completely shared by Cinematical’s Kevin Kelly, who said that Franco “does a decent job in the role when he’s imitating Ginsberg via recordings, but veers off-track in fictionalized moments”.

Kelly also struggles to find as much enthusiasm as that expressed by Miller, arguing:

Interviews discussing the impact of HOWL, photos, recordings (a vintage recording of Ginsberg reading HOWL aloud was actually discovered in 2007), and more of a background would have been more interesting to watch than this unfortunately clumsy approach to adapting one of the quintessential American poems to film.

It’s scepticism is echoed by indieWire’s Eric Kohn, though he is perhaps even less kind:

Although Howl technically didn’t provide Sundance with its opening night film—it was one of two competition films screened on opening night—it reeks of the stigma associated with the aforementioned slot: Poorly executed, socially relevant counterculture fetishization executed with a few familiar faces. Ginsberg says he reached ‘complete control’ with his composition of Howl, but the movie version apparently has none.

At the moment, Howl looks like it could face a rocky road which may have to be driven by the buzz which seems to surround Franco’s performance. He’s getting praise, but the film itself is getting something of a muted response, with many noting that the two directors had originally envisioned the film as a documentary and have possibly become a little confused in their aims.

BAFTA Thoughts…

Though I could gripe immediately with a bunch of the nominations given, I’m going to give the first part only of this over to the minor grips I have with the BAFTA nominations, announced this morning (and here in full via Empire Magazine).

The leading nominees, each with eight, are Avatar, The Hurt Locker and An Education. The overrating of An Education, at the expense of better British films like In the Loop and Fish Tank, is a little irritating, but the acting is so strong in the film that it seems to have elevated everything around it, including the nominated script by Nick Hornby and the nominated directing by Lone Scherfig. Avatar’s eight is mostly taken up with technical nods, which is entirely fair, but its picture nod, over Inglourious Basterds and Up, is predictable but wrong. Obviously, for those who read or listen to anything I say or write, know that I wholly agree with all The Hurt Locker nods, with my only desire to see much more attention given to Anthony Mackie in the supporting categories.

As with the Golden Globes, I can’t possibly pass this opportunity up to criticise the nomination of The Hangover for script, specifically given it is just a slightly adjusted take on Dude, Where’s My Car?. On personal taste, I probably wouldn’t have sought to reward the script for An Education, but kudos for adding District 9 which, despite a host of action movie tropes peppered throughout, is a much smarter film that the credit given would suggest.

The acting sections are all pretty good. That said, I wouldn’t have given Alec Baldwin a nod for It’s Complicated due to Anthony Mackie’s great performance in The Hurt Locker, but Baldwin is good so not too much annoyance there. Also very good indeed to see Christian McKay nominated for his amazing performance in Me and Orson Welles. Also great nod for Anne-Marie Duff for supporting actress in Nowhere Boy. This seems like the only place where Mo’Nique just might not win for Precious, so Duff and the others could nick it.

It’s a decent enough selection from BAFTA. They are slightly over-praising, as most have, An Education and, as most haven’t, Coco Before Chanel. The nomination of Audrey Tautou over the incredible debut by Katie Jarvis is jarring, but sometimes you have to give concession to BAFTA’s predeliction for costume drama, no matter the costume. But nothing but praise should be given to the nods for The Hurt Locker and District 9, though you might wish that some of the better British films, notably Moon and In the Loop, were given a little more attention outside of nods in those Brit-focused categories.

Sam’s Most Anticipated Films of 2010

Not ranked, but just sixteen movies I picked out for my enthusiasm to be aimed at this year. Just a note the following have been excluded for a variety of reasons: Kick Ass/Shutter Island (both coming out pretty soon), The Tree of Life (was on last year’s list and may still not come out this year), Inception/Toy Story 3 (too big to need my advocacy) and Scott Pilgrim vs The World (purely because Tommy was always going to choose it). Also, remember to check out Chris’ list here.

So, here are the sixteen I’ve chosen, in alphabetical order, after the jump:

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Golden Globes Thoughts…

It would seem to me that the awards season should be used to reward the best films, the best performances in terms of the measurable quality of the product put out rather than the popularity of the nominees. The Golden Globes, as if edging, as my podcast colleague Tommy suggested today, towards becoming a glorified version of the MTV Movie Awards, has this year chosen to nearly-exclusively reward the popular choices.

I have no real problem with James Cameron getting best director; Avatar is an incredible achievement from a technical standpoint. But to reward that film, a confused hodgepodge of political allegory, predictable plot and stock characters, the prize for the best picture seems ridiculous. It is a huge milestone for technical filmmaking, but when put into 2D and playing on television screens across the land after its DVD release, the massive problems with the story and characters will become increasingly clear. To suggest other winners could easily be written off as me just griping that my favourite films didn’t win, but I don’t think many could deny that the success of the vision of The Hurt Locker or Inglourious Basterds far, far surpasses that of Avatar as a piece of storytelling.

Outside of that, witness the prize handed to Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side, a mawkish TV movie-style sleeper hit, beating the nuanced skill of Carey Mulligan in An Education. Witness The Hangover, winner of Best Musical/Comedy, rewarded for managing to convince an entire audience that it was funny despite having only one good performance and then three douchebags, one terrible cameo and one borderline-racist gangster. It was a weak category, but at least (500) Days of Summer spoke to a sense of truth and actually could fit into being both comedy and musical.

There should be some sense of duty for awards that, rather than pander to bringing in the largest possible audience for the truly pointless televising of the ceremony, they should seek to reward those filmmakers that have made films which, even if they failed to connect with audiences, have something to say beyond ‘see how fucking cool this looks!’

Box-Office Depression

Reading the most recent issue of Time, there was a brief note during its Oscar predictions on the comparable box-office totals for The Hurt Locker and Avatar.

The first, an essentially apolitical Iraq war movie which explores the psyche of those addicted to conflict, made a total of $12m at the US box-office. That’s a total of $12m over its entire run in the US.

The second, James Cameron’s uber-blockbuster and undoubtedly a treatise on either environmentalism or, pertinently, the imperialist ambitions of the US in the Middle East, has made that per day. Yes, it’s total box-office in the US so far is around $400m, meaning an average of $12m per day.

Far more than The Hurt Locker, which is set in Iraq, Avatar is about Iraq, about American powers wading into worlds without fully understanding or empathising with their own customs.

So, two points. First, any suggestion that movies about Iraq cannot work isn’t quite true, they just have to be 3D and wrapped in Pantheistic theory. Second, isn’t it slightly depressing that a film which seeks so desperately to understand something about the human condition is trounced so heartily by a bloated, arrogant but visually impressive film. An on-mass example of someone fleeing towards the shiny goods instead of the quality produce.

It would seem that, given that the two are emerging as the key contenders for the Oscars this year, that the Academy has an opportunity either to reward hollow commercialism with a mixed message, or vital independent filmmaking in which the ‘message’ is eschewed in favour of probing the mind of those at the heart of our generation’s conflict.

Understanding Characters

I watched James Gray’s Two Lovers last night, his polarising relationship drama starring Joaquin Phoenix which, inevitably, was unfairly caught in the storm of madness which surrounded his breakdown and (hopefully) botched rap career launch.

Gray’s films are a strange experience. The man appears to have very little sense of irony on the surface of his work, creating worlds which seems to be deadly serious and yet tinged with a sense that a knowing hand is at work. Two Lovers is, for the most part, an extremely uncomfortable experience, in which we are given Phoenix’s Leonard, a bi-polar, semi-suicidal sometime photographer, who falls in love in two completely different ways with two entirely separate potential mates. The first, Sandra (who is played incredibly well by Vinessa Shaw), is the daughter of one of Leonard’s father’s business acquaintances and friends with whom his father is presently seeking to broker a merger of their respective dry cleaning businesses. She makes her attraction to him known during their first exchange alone, giving Leonard the knowledge that this option has become open to him, something he later takes advantage of on two separate occasions.

The other is Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) who is the antithesis of Sandra. She is a fuck-up, a former addict conducting an affair with a middle-aged married man in a city law firm, who moves into Leonard’s building and subsequently his life. There is even a sense that I got that her coming into his world wasn’t entirely by accident on her part. She becomes an infatuation for Leonard, someone for him to look after and play the man for, to take her to hospital appointments and give approval on her lover, all the while harbouring notions of a romantic relationship with her.

The triumph of the film is in making the audience understand these relationships, if only from a distance. I could never place myself within the role of Leonard and understand, despite the heroic ideals she drives in him, why he would persist in going after Michelle. But that would be a view from my perspective. Extracting myself from the story and just watching the characters, richly drawn as they are by Gray, I could wholly empathise with the path that Leonard chooses to take in pursuing something with Sandra.

For Leonard, she represents an opportunity to escape an existence of being looked after. His mother near-coddles him when he is at home. His father allows him unlimited leeway whilst working in their dry cleaners. Even in his burgeoning relationship with Sandra, he becomes the one being looked after, a sense beautifully communicated by a scene in which she purchases him a pair of gloves. Leonard sees in Michelle an opportunity to escape this way of living, to take on the task of being the one doing the looking after.

Yet we understand that this relationship is doomed. Despite understanding Leonard’s attraction to Michelle, Gray leads us constantly into knowing that she will break his heart by the denouement of their relationship. Indeed she does, and the moment forces Leonard into understanding his place in life, that he needs to have someone to look after him. The final few scenes, in which this emotional transition occurs and concludes with Leonard using the ring he bought for Michelle to propose to Sandra, is the moment in which Gray’s film shifts from anthropological study of human love to a truly personally empathetic experience.

The film is imperfect, primarily because the detachment which makes it so admirable does not translate into having a truly emotional experience. But there can be no denying that Gray, for all his lack of subtlety in writing relationships, completely understands the inner motivations and desires of his characters.

Chris’ Favourite Year of the Decade: 2006

So, which year in the last decade was the best for film? For me, the shortlist dropped down to two years immediately, 2000 and 2006.

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