Archive for January, 2014

Film Mafia now continues its prognostication and comment on the upcoming Event Of The Year. Comments welcome! And don’t forget to listen to the Movieland Podcast — click on the pic to your left.

Best Director and Best Picture

Alfonso!

Alfonso!

As seems to happen more and more these days, these two categories are gonna split. As Ang Lee got Best Director for the astonishing technical virtuosity of Tiger On A Boat, sorry – Life Of Pi, so too will Alfonso Cuarón win Best Director for Gravity. And so he should. Cuarón did this: he imagined the unfilmable – and then he filmed it. The director’s branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences all know this, and they’re going to give him the Oscar. It’s a lock. And so it should be…

Star Wars... not Best Picture.

Star Wars… not Best Picture.

But Gravity isn’t going to win Best Picture. It should, but it won’t. No matter how astonishing it is, it is Sci-Fi. Star Wars didn’t win, 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t win. And those two, just like Gravity, deserved to win. Sci-Fi doesn’t win Best Picture at the Oscars.

2001... not Best Picture.

2001… not Best Picture.

You would think this left 12 Years A Slave for the Best Picture slot as a lock, but this isn’t necessarily the case. American Hustle is not just in the mix, it’s neck-a-neck. How can this be so? There are a few explanations. One is that 12 Years A Slave has a reputation of being a “difficult” watch because of “unprecedented brutality” (both unwarranted charges: Django Unchained was tougher in this regard – remember the Mandingo fight and the hot box?) The Academy’s membership remains at an average age of 63 years old. Some of those old geezers will simply not have watched the film. However, American Hustle is a breezy, easy watch, totally accessible to anyone, and will have been watched by everyone who got a screener (which is every single Academy member). This alone could easily put American Hustle onto the podium.

American Hustle... not just in the mix, but a 50/50 chance for The Big One.

American Hustle… not just in the mix, but a 50/50 chance for The Big One.

There’s also a brimming undercurrent of resentment – rarely vocalised but real enough – that America’s great slavery movie has been made by Britain (actually, America’s great slavery movie as made by America is Django Unchained). Director Steve McQueen is British, the cast is British. It’s a British movie about not only a uniquely American subject, but one that every single American is ashamed of. It’s kind of a fuck-you – or at least, is perceived by some as such.

By contrast, American Hustle is so American it even has “American” in the title.

Mcqueen... Too British?

Mcqueen… Too British?

So where to place your money on this one? I can’t call it. To me it’s a fifty-fifty between Slave and Hustle. If they were my awards to give (see the Movieland Awards elsewhere on this page) Gravity would win. But, if I had to give the award to Slave or Hustle, I’d give it to Slave. I loved them both, but a movie begins with the thought of making it, and I really appreciate that McQueen has taken an absolutely astonishing, fundamentally important historical text and given it the screen treatment it deserved, retaining its language, its idiosyncrasies (both main slavers are incredibly nuanced and strange as they are in the actual book) and its essential raison d’être, being the story of one man’s journey, as told by that man.f834f891-852d-428b-9aad-20113fe21194

But McQueen won’t be taking out that Best Director award. That’s all Cuarón.

Unsentimental Journey

Posted: January 22, 2014 in movie reviews

Dallas Buyers Club **** (out of five)

dallas-buyers-club-movie-poster_thumb[3]Jean-Marc Vallée, of Montréal and the festival hit C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005), has directed a no-nonsense, unsentimental, tightly effective and supremely revealing work in Dallas Buyers Club, which is winning awards for its leads Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto and will almost certainly see both men win Oscars, for Best and Best Supporting Actors respectively. And so they should.

McConaughey plays real-life Ron Woodroof, a homophobic Texan electrician, rodeo enthusiast and  very small time drug dealer, who contracts HIV through hetrosexual intercourse with an intravenous drug user. Given thirty days to live, Woodroof used his wits, ingenuity, balls and sheer passionate desire to live to make sure he did – at least for longer than thirty days – and, in doing so, ended up, inadvertently at first and then deliberately, helping hundreds of other HIV-positive men not only prolong their lives but live with greater comfort and dignity. How he did so is a fascinating watch, exposing me, at least, to a fascinating series of legal loopholes, alleyways and traps that existed around the approval of drugs in the US in early response to the AIDS crisis.

I wrote in my recent Oscar nominations article about McConaughey: “Every thing he does in the film is a major choice (from the very first one – letting himself believe he actually has the “faggot disease”); he undergoes an absolutely, positively staggering transformation, from real, grade-A homophobe dick to compassionate caregiver and fighter for the rights of the neglected and marginalised, and therefore has a huge, and extremely clear, character arc.” It is an awesome performance and if you only see the movie for this, it’s worth it.dallas.buyers.club_.sun_-618x400

Leto is excellent too, in – ironically – the quieter, more understated role of the cross-dressing Rayon, who becomes Ron’s incredibly unlikely partner in survival. Rayon is not one of your big, brassy, sassy drag queens, but rather a sensitive, intelligent, relatively restrained and extremely touching fellow, confident on the surface but dealing with life’s challenges (and being transgender in Texas is a big one, let alone having the virus) by dangerously internalising them. Leto will get the Oscar and deserves it too.

Vallée.

Vallée.

There are so many ways this story could have been told, but Vallée’s method, resolutely anti-Hollywood (he uses no music in the entire film, let alone the strings that a studio would have essentially insisted upon), works for me. Woodroof is a tough customer and putting him into a sentimentalised story would have seemed every which way of wrong. Dallas Buyers Club is told with a cold edge, creeping ever-forward along Woodroof’s dark and deadly journey with cold, black title cards that inform us how long he’s been alive since his prognosis. At first these milestones towards an inevitable cemetery are devastating, but as they cruise by thirty days – and then way by that death sentence – they become hugely moving, albeit silent and abrupt – testaments to human will. Avoiding all false sentiment, the film is still hugely moving, as it should be.

My Oscar thoughts continue. Now for…

BEST ACTOR

This is Matthew McConaughey’s to lose, and he’s not going to lose it. His work in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club is sensational and the male performance of the year, without a doubt. He’s got the Globe and the Screen Actor’s Guild Award on his shelf already. He’s a lock.

The bridesmaid.

The bridesmaid.

The only other horse in this race is Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave but he’s not going to win and nor should he. Ejiofor, as the extremely unfortunate Solomon Northup, suffers from being in the strange position (just like Forest Whitaker in The Butler, not nominated for Best Actor here) of playing the least dynamic character in his own movie. Although 12 Years a Slave is Northup’s story through and through, and he’s in every scene, it is the performances of Lupita Nyong’o (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) and Michael Fassbender (nominated for Best Supporting Actor), along with a gallery of excellent actors in smaller roles scattered throughout the twelve years such as Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard and Paul Dano, that really grip as performances. Ejiofor is fine, perhaps excellent, and he certainly holds the movie together, but it’s a passive role, limited to bearing a burden (admittedly a very heavy one) and reacting to the horrors around him. As the title suggests and the movie makes very clear, all Northup has to do for twelve years is survive. He makes very few major choices and does not undergo any major transformation. His arc is very limited, and, therefore, so are Ejiofor’s options as an actor. Given his screentime, he also has limited dialogue to perform.

The bride.

The bride.

McConaughey’s role in Dallas Buyers Club could not contrast more. Playing the also-real Ron Woodroof, a Texan electrician, rodeo rider and homophobe in 80s Dallas who contracts HIV through hetrosexual unprotected intercourse with an intravenous drug user, McConaughey has to attack every challenge not available to Ejiofor, and he hits every single one of them out of the park. Every thing he does in the film is a major choice (from the very first one – letting himself believe he actually has the “faggot disease”); he undergoes an absolutely, positively staggering transformation, from real, grade-A homophobe dick to compassionate caregiver and fighter for the rights of the neglected and marginalised, and therefore has a huge, and extremely clear, character arc. As befits McConaughey, who has one of the best mouths for dialogue in Hollywood, his character never shuts up – he has pages and pages of brilliantly written dialogue with which to etch his indelible character. He displays humour, rage, intense grief, sensitivity, total lack of sensitivity, and, above all and most importantly, real change. He also manipulates his body weight throughout the movie to portray the physical ravages of the disease but that, while impressive on a technical level, is not why he should, and will, win. McConaughey’s Woodroof is a true, real-life hero, and he doesn’t start that way: he earns his heroic status every step of the way, every minute of the movie. The actor has been having a stellar last few years – the kind of run very few actors get but all the serious ones dream about – and this tops it off. But even if he’d been a total unknown in his debut feature lead, like Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry and Geoffrey Rush in Shine, he would still – like Swank and Rush did – walk away with the Oscar. He deserves it. A lock.

Okay, now that the dust has settled – meaning that everyone in LA has appeared on at least one radio or television show, podcast, blog, column or street corner, pontificating about the Oscar nominations, I will now pontificate about the Oscar nominations. Enjoy, and please, do not be afraid to comment. I’ll continue to post throughout the categories, but let’s begin with…

BEST ACTRESS

Cate Blanchett and Amy Adams are on Centre Court here. Blanchett received reviews of the “Give her the Oscar now!” variety when Blue Jasmine came out, but that was many months ago, which is a lifetime in an Oscar campaign (the risk always being the dreaded phrase “That came out this year?”) Somehow, though, she’s maintained momentum, buoyed hugely by her recent Golden Globe win.

But Amy Adams also won a Golden Globe. How, you ask? And here things get funny, and they get funny about the concept of “funny”. Amy Adams won the Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical – and American Hustle is definitely not a Musical (despite a fine soundtrack). By contrast, and gaining the superior position of receiving her award later in the ceremony, Blanchett won her Blue Jasmine award for Best Actress in a Drama.

Blanchett. Drama?

Blanchett. Drama?

Except not only are both movies comedies, Blue Jasmine is the more obvious comedy. It’s a Woody Allen film full of Woody Allen one-liners, situations, characters (including stereotypes) and comic set-pieces. Interiors it is not. It’s not even Match Point. It’s not even Deconstructing Harry, and it’s a million miles from Husbands and Wives and Crimes and Misdemeanours – which, by the way, were also comedies. The placement of Blanchett in the “Drama” category was ludicrous. But many things about the Golden Globes are. So the beef there is with them, not Blanchett.

So back to the performances themselves and their likelihood for the Oscar. For my money, Blanchett’s performance is too much. I – and this is not only very much a personal taste thing but also, I feel, a minority view – could “see the acting” the whole way through. It was what the British call virtuosic or bravura acting – acting which calls attention to itself. It’s awfully fun to watch but it’s also just extremely proficient hamminess. Which is absolutely not calling Blanchett a ham. All brilliant actors are capable of hamminess if they want to use it, while not all hams are capable of brilliance.

Adams. Comedy?

Adams. Comedy?

Adams’ performance in American Hustle, by contrast, is simply brilliant (not bravura, “virtuosic” in the British sense, or hammy); it’s subtle, endlessly layered, and perfect. I gave her my MOVIELAND Award for Best Actress of 2013. Playing a con-woman who is conflicted in love and life, juggling street intelligence with emotional cross-wiring, and layering an intense sexuality throughout, it is the performance of her career and the performance – in any category – of the year.

Adams comes with more freshly-baked presence, not only being “younger” (at least in terms of the industry) than Blanchett but having her film released much more recently and to many many more Oscar nominations. But I suspect the Oscar will go to Blanchett – just. She won the Screen Actor’s Guild Award for Best Actress, which is huge, as the Actors are the biggest voting bloc of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And she kind of has this going on for her: “Well, if you didn’t give it to her for Elizabeth (it went to Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love), and you don’t give it to her for this, then what kind of bloody performance are you expecting from her to actually give it to her for?” Whereas Adams has this: “Just wait, we’ll give you one. We just have to give Blanchett one first. To make up for Elizabeth…”

The Wolf of Wall Street ***1/2 (out of five)

454You get a lot of movie for your sixteen bucks with The Wolf of Wall Street. But you’d have a better time if you got less movie. It’s two hours and fifty-nine minutes, which sounds like director Martin Scorcese said to Paramount, “You don’t want a three hour movie? I haven’t given you a three hour movie!”

Actually, he probably would have said it a lot more colorfully. Wolf drops the F-bomb 506 times, making it the most fucked fictional feature film in history (the documentary Fuck uses it 857 times). There are some scenes where the use of the word almost seems banal, as though the writer (Terence Winter) was being lazy, but, in truth, this is a movie about banal people.

The worst is the main one, based-on-real-life Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), and this is the movie’s burden: for three hours (“Two hours and fifty-nine fucking minutes!”) we have to watch a movie about a royal prick. Greedy, self-obsessed, nihilistic asshole Belfort has almost no redeeming features, and, as played well by DiCaprio, that’s a bitter pill to have to suck on for such a long time.

wolf-of-wall-street-poster-poster-2033087940The movie is so similar in structure and style to GoodFellas that it’s fair to wonder if Winter stuck the script of that movie into Final Draft and then changed the words. A young ambitious man of limited means finds his niche, rises to dizzying heights while breaking the law, has his downfall… and squeals like a fuckin’ pig. Scorcese has themes, tropes, tricks, milieus and every other fancy type of cinematic self-referential tic, but he’s never so blatantly repeated himself as he does here – and unfortunately he does it with far less precision than with GoodFellas. Stylistic elements are haphazardly placed. Like GoodFellas, there is lots of voiced narration, but unlike in GoodFellas, it’s not funny, ironic or clever. Halfway through, Belfort turns and speaks directly to camera, but that’s an hour and a fuckin’ half through the movie, which is a weird time to introduce such a conceit. Some of the scenes seem deliberately improvised and are cut with the haphazard style of The League and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where the dialogue suddenly lurches to a new topic as though to skip over a dead patch of improv. And many of the scenes of debauched excess – such as a flight with hookers and drugs – are ludicrously (and unrealistically) over the top.

Robbie: The Next Huge Thing

Robbie: The Next Huge Thing

All this makes thematic sense – the film is about excess – but it’s too much. In particular, Scorcese gives DiCaprio too much, as though (and this could actually be the truth) he said to him, “Leo, I’m 71, you’ve done five films for me, I’m gonna get you that fuckin’ Oscar.” There are three Leo-centric scenes – two speeches and one silent piece of physical comedy – that go on soooooo long, so ludicrously, painfully, obviously too-long long, that you can feel the whole audience being aware of it: “Isn’t this scene bonkers fucking long?”

The staggering bloat aside, there are some hysterically funny scenes, some absolutely killer dialogue, endless great performances (starting with Jonah Hill, cruising through instant star Margot Robbie, and climaxing with Matthew McConaughey, who opens the movie with what is essentially a comic monologue that is, in retrospect, the best part of the whole film) and, of course, Scorcese-level craftsmanship throughout. It’s a very hard movie to love, but it’s an easy enough movie to enjoy, especially knowing that, at any time, you can go for a piss and not miss anything important… there will be plenty more movie for you when you get back.

Chop Chop!

Posted: January 4, 2014 in movie reviews

9781452114491_chainsaw_confidential_normChain Saw Confidential: How We Made The World’s Most Notorious Horror Movie

By Gunnar Hansen

Gunnar Hansen’s Chain Saw Confidential: How We Made The World’s Most Notorious Horror Movie is one for the diehards and Texas Chainsaw Massacre completists. Gunnar played Leatherface, the film’s truly terrifying villain and a subsequent iconic film figure, and he has gone on to enjoy the cultish fame and career that comes from being tall enough to fit the costume in an incredibly successful, influential – and truly brilliant – genre masterpiece. Unfortunately his book detailing that experience focuses a little too much on… details.

The vast majority of the twenty-one chapters involve intimate depictions of the technical difficulties of the shoot, from Hansen’s perspective: thus, the challenges of running in that mask and those shoes while carrying a chainsaw; wielding a chainsaw; wearing that hot mask; coming up behind people in that mask and those shoes wielding a chainsaw… These details are the banal, everyday, moment-to-moment minutiae of set life, and devoting a book to them may seem strange.

Hansen.

Hansen.

But obsessive fans want total coverage, and that’s what Hansen offers: essentially, every single shot that Leatherface is in is covered from every angle (pun totally intended) and the effect is similar to that of a Beatles book that closely analyses the differences in John’s vocal lilt from takes 17 to 18 on any given song. As I say, one for the diehards, and they just may love it. Put another way: if you’d go to a horror movie convention, you’d probably love this book.

There are a couple of more generally appealing chapters about Gunnar’s post-production weird style of fame, but these are short. A long chapter on the film’s financial fallout is taxing, and Gunnar’s final few chapters, analysing the film’s themes in the style of an essay, show that he’s a very lightweight essayist. Rehashing the horror vs terror concept through the lens of Peeping Tom has been done, to say the least.

Hansen-GunnarThe fascinating thing about someone like Gunnar is that they stumbled into a cultural phenomenon and had, to whatever degree, and for better or worse, their lives changed. It would have been terrific to get more of that life, and those effects. Essentially Chain Saw Confidential is a set-diary-by-memory, and very, very dry.

But, if you’ve seen the movie more than three times… it’s for you.