Tag Archives: Academy Award

In which I take a big s**t over the Big Short

26 Jan

 

the big short

The Big Short, starring Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt and Christian Bale

It’s not often I see a film that makes me angry, but hot new Oscar contender The Big Short managed it. Not because of any righteous rage engendered by its star-studded, faux-documentary-style expose of the banking crash of 2008 – my rage at that was righteous enough already – but because of the patronising, intelligence-insulting, comedic-didactic way it chose to tell the story.

Maybe there are people so incurious about the near-collapse of the global economy and Capitalism itself that they never bothered to read up on it, and to discover how the banks rolled sub-prime mortgages into a grab-bag of triple A-rated bonds with the connivance of lazy and/or corrupt regulators, and that the banks, when they realised the whole thing was going tits-up, then took out their own shorting positions, effectively betting against themselves and their own investors in order to protect themselves in the final weeks or days before the financial apocalypse. If so, they will find much here to enlighten them.

For the rest of us, it’s like having Russell Brand bellow “Wake Up, Sheeple!” into a megaphone for two hours, interrupted occasionally by L’Oreal Elvive’s Jennifer Aniston tossing her golden locks knowingly to camera as she warns, for the benefit of beauty-loving women who obviously therefore have no brain, “Here comes the science bit!”

Here’s how close the Aniston analogy actually is: near the beginning, there is an explanation of financial terms that the film-makers worry will make the viewer nod off, despite being illustrated with pictures of puppies in sunglasses, I kid you not. Here the film actually stops like a scratched record and says, in these exact words, “Are you getting bored? These terms are designed by Wall Street to give the impression that only they know how to understand them. So here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain it.”

They actually do cut to Margot Robbie – the comely actress from The Wolf of Wall Street, playing herself, not a character in the movie – sipping Champagne in a bubble bath as she talks about how the crisis originated. [As another journalist has pointed out, this is far from the only sexist aspect to The Big Short: it also leaves out a key real-life female player, and “amusingly” tries to sugar-coat another load of financial exposition by setting it in a strip club.] Other such breakings of the fourth wall include “celebrity chef” Anthony Bourdain explaining bad bonds through the medium of fish stew, and Selena Gomez demonstrating CDO’s through a Vegas Blackjack table.

No doubt the critics, who have raved about the film, see all these devices as thrillingly post-modern. I think that kind of thing is becoming cliched, myself, but my real problem is with the film telling its audience, loudly and clearly: “You’re all celebrity-obsessed jackasses who won’t listen to anything unless it comes from a gorgeous star’s pouting lips or hits you over the head with a hammer, so here you go, you’re welcome.” Maybe some people are like that. But even so, you don’t usually convince someone of an argument by first insulting them, you patronising triple A-holes.

Sigh. All right: on the plus side, the cast are excellent, particularly Christian Bale, cast against type as a borderline autistic heavy-metal-loving maths whizz with a glass eye and poor social skills who staked hundreds of millions on betting against the supposedly infallible housing market – the “big short” of the title. I am also enormously glad that risky, brave, high-profile films with a social conscience are being made at all: kudos here to Brad Pitt, who is behind this one as producer, as he was behind 12 Years A Slave. And, as I said, many people like it: it’s had four-to-five star reviews and won the Producers’ Guild award for best film. In disliking it, I kind of feel like the people depicted in The Big Short: convinced of my rightness against the prevailing orthodoxy.

So let’s go for broke. In my last blog, I wrote how The Big Short had suddenly surged to become William Hill’s front runner for the Best Film Oscar. Call me crazy (you wouldn’t be the first), but I think Oscar is more discerning than that. So I’m going to contact William Hill and try to lay my own “short” – betting against it winning.

 

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The 2015 Oscar nominations: Brit hits and Whiplash wit

16 Jan
"Whaddya mean I should be happy with my Golden Globe? I'm going for an Oscar, dammit!" JK Simmons shows his less cuddly side in Whiplash

“Whaddya mean I should be happy with my Golden Globe? I’m going for an Oscar, dammit!” JK Simmons shows his less cuddly side in Whiplash

Congratulations to Whiplash, which I blogged about last Friday as “The little film that could”, for its four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It opens today in the UK: read my articles about the making of it here.

The noms are a great haul for the Brits, with eight for The Imitation Game and five for The Theory of Everything, plus a deserved nod to Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl. Mr Turner managed four, which is actually not bad going for a slow film about a long-dead British artist who communicates largely through grunts. The stunning cinematography that recreates Turner’s paintings, light and all, must surely be a strong contender in that category. It is disappointing that neither Timothy Spall nor Mike Leigh were recognised for what is probably their finest work, but not as flat-out outrageous as their snub from the BAFTAs.

For the first time since 1998, there is not a single black actor among the nominees, though Selma gets a nod in the Best Picture category. That’s not yet out in the UK, so I can’t comment on whether David Oyelowo was unfairly overlooked. But the nominations are a reminder that this was a fine year for cinema, and an innovative one to boot. Boyhood was filmed over a period of 12 years; Birdman was shot in one single continuous take; The Grand Budapest Hotel was a delirious artifice; and Whiplash was a little indie film shot in 19 days that somehow muscled through to be nominated for Best Picture.

Much as critics may bemoan the blockbusterisation of cinema (and actually, even the blockbusters are a lot more competent, coherent and fun than they used to be), there’s life in the old Hollywood dog yet.

For the official Oscars site with the full list of nominees, click here.

The Theory of Everything to do with Oscar odds

9 Dec
Eddie Redmayne as a young Stephen Hawking, with Felicity Jones as his wife Jane, in The Theory of Everything

Eddie Redmayne as a young Stephen Hawking, with Felicity Jones as his wife Jane, in The Theory of Everything

The Theory Of Everything is only recently out in the States, at first opening in just five theatres, and isn’t even released in the UK until Jan 1, but already it’s generating Oscar buzz: William Hill has just slashed the odds on it winning to the same level as Interstellar. About the relationship between a young Stephen Hawking and his wife, it has everything Oscar loves: disability, a veneer of intellectuality, and a romance. “His mind changed our world. Her love changed his,” runs the tagline.

It’s certain to make young Eddie Redmayne, whose dashingly freckled good looks attracted attention in Les Misérables, the next major British Hollywood star. And it’s tough luck for Benedict Cumberbatch, whose Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game has been left in the backwash; especially since Benedict played Stephen Hawking first, ten whole years ago. (For the time when I went on set with Hawking himself, click here.)

The odds released today by William Hill make for interesting reading. Boyhood is the clear favourite, while Gone Girl trails in tenth place, despite the heat it generated on release. A bet on Rosamund Pike at 11-1 seems like a good flutter.

Here’s the list in full:

Best Picture: 4-7 Boyhood, 10-3 Unbroken, 5-1 The Imitation Game, 7-1 Birdman, Selma, 10-1 Interstellar, The Theory Of Everything, 16-1Foxcatcher, Whiplash, 20-1 Gone Girl, 25-1 Inherent Vice, Mr Turner, 33-1 A Most Violent Year, American Sniper, The Grand Budapest Hotel, 40-1 Trash, 50-1 Big Eyes, Fury, Into The Woods, Rosewater, Suite Francaise, Wild, 66-1 Kill The Messenger

Best Actor: 4-6 Michael Keaton – Birdman, 13-8 Eddie Redmayne – The Theory Of Everything, 9-2 Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game, 9-1 David Oyelowo – Selma, 10-1 Steve Carell – Foxcatcher, 12-1 Jack O’Connell – Unbroken, 14-1 Timothy Spall – Mr Turner, 25-1Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler

Best Actress: 1-5 Julianne Moore – Still Alice, 10-3 Reese Witherspoon – Wild, 6-1 Amy Adams – Big Eyes, 10-1 Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night, 11-1 Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl, 12-1 Felicity Jones – The Theory Of Everything, 14-1 Jennifer Aniston – Cake, 16-1Jessica Chastain – A Most Violent Year, 20-1 Jessica Chastain – The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: Them, 25-1 Hilary Swank – The Homesman

Best Supporting Actress: 1-5 Patricia Arquette – Boyhood, 6-1 Laura Dern – Wild, 9-1 Emma Stone – Birdman, 12-1 Carmen Ejogo – Selma, 12-1 Keira Knightley – The Imitation Game, 14-1 Jessica Chastain – A Most Violent Year, 14-1 Meryl Streep – Into The Woods, 25-1Carrie Coon – Gone Girl, 25-1 Jessica Chastain – Interstellar, 25-1 Katherine Waterston – Inherent Vice, 25-1 Kristen Stewart – Still Alice,33-1 Dorothy Atkinson – Mr Turner, 33-1 Julianne Moore – Maps To The Stars, 33-1 Sienna Miller – American Sniper

The Silence of the Lambs: discover screenwriter Ted Tally’s key scenes (part two)

8 Dec

Slightly delayed, here is the final part of screenwriter Ted Tally talking us through the key scenes of The Silence of the Lambs, from a live screening at the London Screenwriters’ Festival. To read part one, click here

lambs van

Buffalo Bill tricks his next victim into his van: This shows Jonathan Demme’s sensitivity as a film-maker. He’s about to knock his victim out with his fake cast, and Demme doesn’t show it, it’s off-camera. It’s partly a matter of taste, but also that an audience’s imagination is more powerful than anything you can show them.

The coroner scene: We shot this in Rural Valley, Pennsylvania. It was 10 degrees Fahrenheit, we were stood around waiting for trucks in the mist, all 100 townspeople gathered to wait for the circus to arrive, and Jonathan looked at me and said, “So you think you want to direct?” The elderly coroner was one of the producers, Kenny Utt (above right). The head in a jar was another of the producers (above left). I’m not kidding! With Jonathan it’s like family, he likes to get everyone involved. Roger Corman, Jonathan’s mentor, plays the head of the FBI.

the-silence-of-the-lambs-blu-ray-screenshot-0138660-I-824

Buffalo Bill tucks his penis between his legs and dances around the basement: It was very courageous of Ted Levine to take this part. He didn’t work for years after this. True! He was only offered slasher parts. The character of Buffalo Bill was more fleshed out in the book than in the script, unfortunately. In the movie we never get the inside into his tormented childhood, and how he was created. There was controversy because a lot of people thought it was homophobic. But he’s not meant to represent a group of anything. He’s a unique, strange specimen. A lot of the controversy was because he had a white poodle named Precious – with hindsight it should have been a different breed or a different name.

screaming lambs

The screaming of the lambs story: Now we’re getting on to Memphis which is almost like a different movie, it starts to be an action movie. This scene about the spring lambs originally called for a flashback – it was going to be the last thing we shot, in May. But after shooting this scene, Jonathan sent me the rushes and said, “If I cut away from their faces, I’ll be drummed out of the Directors’ Union. Look at Jodie Foster – she could win an Academy Award for this scene [as indeed she did].” I said if I had known there would be no flashback, I would have written it differently. But Jonathan said “It’s all there.”

finger

Lecter touches Clarice’s finger: It’s one of my favourite moments in the movie. You also see Jonathan and the cinematographer pushing the camera further and further through the bars, until there is no distance between them. Jonathan did challenge me on this whole scene. He said, “It’s the climactic scene, but – we’ve had dinner, I know you like a rack of lamb, and so do I. Why are we going to care?” I said, “I don’t care about the lambs, but she does, and I care about her.” Jonathan accepted that.

escape

Lecter escapes: Again, Jonathan said to me, “How can we cut away from Clarice for so long? It breaks your own rule about focusing always on her.” I said “I know, but the escape in the book is such a great scene there is no way we could not have it in.” You can break all the rules, except for one: “Don’t bore the audience.” Jonathan used to say, “I’d rather have the audience confused for four minutes than bored for four seconds.”

The_Silence_of_the_Lambs_8712_Medium

Clarice and Buffalo Bill play cat-and-mouse in the dark: That sequence was shot in one continuous evening, we finished at 5am. It had to be done in one night. Jodie is as exhausted as she looks. Everything you can get out of an actress came out of her.

tropics

A change of ending, in which Lecter phones Clarice from somewhere tropical: The original ending had Chiltern hiding out in his Chesapeake home, and the camera travels over his grounds, and you see dead security guards, Chiltern taped to his desk, and Lecter’s there. Jonathan said “No, he’s a scumbag but he’s a human being; we have to give at least the illusion that he might get away.” So I said, “We can have him on some tropical island, with Chiltern on holiday.” Jonathan said, “You mean we’d have to send a production crew, including you and me, to somewhere hot and tropical, in February? This is a good idea!”

That’s my last of many posts from the London Screenwriters’ Festival. What a wonderful three days that was. For info about next year’s, click here

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: this is Andy’s Serkis, and these are his monkeys

18 Jul

Caesar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

There’s a useful Polish expression currently doing the rounds on Facebook: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” It means, “Nothing to do with me, mate.”

Having seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, however, this is very much the Andy Serkis Circus, and boy, are these his monkeys. His portrayal of the ape leader, Caesar, is one of the wonders of the modern age. There are a very few films which hit you as a step-change in cinematic special effects: the first rumble of engines and long slow pan across a great spaceship in Star Wars; the liquid-metal morphing technology of Terminator 2;  the 3D animation of Toy Story.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, so much more than Avatar or even Andy Serkis’s star turn as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, is digital film-making’s breakthrough moment: the first moment a computer-generated character has truly emerged from the “uncanny valley” to appear fully real. It’s the eyes, famously the windows to the soul, that usually give the game away. Caesar’s are brooding, expressive, filled with wisdom and pain. The final shot, which zooms in on them, is one of the great climactic close-ups in film history: up there with Robert De Niro’s smile in Once Upon A Time In America.

It helps, perhaps, that the human cast are (deliberately?) so godawfully dull, aside from Gary Oldman’s obligatory blockbuster turn. The apes can’t help seeming more alive in comparison. But huge plaudits go not just to the special effects boffins, but to Andy Serkis’s mo-cap (motion-capture) performance. His Caesar, head permanently cocked to one side to indicate thought, is noble in restraint, terrifying in anger. When he speaks, it sends shivers up the spine.

Serkis’s reward is to direct a mo-cap movie of The Jungle Book, and to spark a debate about whether mo-cap actors should be eligible for an Oscar. How long before they get their own special category, as the Academy has now done with animated films?

Pride and prejudice: the Oscar link between Dallas Buyers Club and Twelve Years A Slave

23 Feb

Okay, so having now seen Dallas Buyers Club, it’s going to be a closer Oscar race than I thought for Chiwetel Ejiofor in Twelve Years A Slave. The Academy has loved a physical transformation ever since De Niro piled on the pounds for Raging Bull. Here the famously pec-tastic Mathew McConaughey slims down alarmingly to play a straight rodeo roughrider afflicted with HIV.

The two films are intriguingly similar, in that each uses a Trojan Horse to smuggle a minority subject into the hearts of majority film-goers. If Solomon Northup had not been a free man illegally sold into slavery, but born into it instead, it might have been harder for the audience to identify with his plight. If Ron Woodruff had been a gay HIV sufferer, he might not tug on the heartstrings of Middle America.

But apart from McConaughey’s gutsy, livewire, enormously affecting performance, Dallas Buyers Club is not half the film that Twelve Years A Slave is. The supporting characters, though well acted, are little more than stereotypes: from the drag queen with a disapproving banker father to the good ol’ boys who turn against their former friend when they learn he has the disease. There’s a battle with the FDA, but it’s sketchily developed; and the closing caption pretty much undercuts Woodruff’s mission throughout the film rather than supporting it as intended.

It is powerfully affecting, though, especially if you lived through that terrible period. The HIV drugs war was starkly illustrated for me at Time Out, in the late ‘80s: the much-loved receptionist/Gay editor was HIV-positive (though few knew at the time why it was forbidden to throw him into the pool at the party in Porchester Baths, and did it anyway), and he died before effective drugs were developed. The features editor, Tim Clark, one of the liveliest, cleverest, funniest, warmest people I have ever known, was initially given months to live, but science caught up just in time, giving him well over a decade.

And it’s important to have this reminder, as with 12 Years A Slave, just how recent are our sins as a society. While everyone is sneering at Russia for their backward laws forbidding the “promotion” of homosexuality, we should recall with shame that they are a carbon copy of Britain’s own Section 28 legislation, passed by Thatcher’s government just when gay people needed the most support.

Meanwhile, as I was waiting in Chicago on Friday for my delayed flight back to London, the TV news was full of the new Arizona bill which allows Christian business owners to discriminate against gay people. Is the US heading for segregation all over again, with gays instead of blacks?

Never were two Oscar contenders more timely, more needed, and more closely matched.

Experimenting with a new blog filtering programme, http://www.blogdash.com/full_profile/?claim_code=ec939413da13e0427871df185e1cb971

Why 12 Years A Slave is already the film of the year

10 Jan
Image

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup with his demented ‘owner’ (Michael Fassbender)

12 Years A Slave opens today in the UK, so you can finally see what all the fuss is about. I saw it at a preview a couple of months back, and was blown away. It is flat-out impossible that Chiwetel Ejiofor will not win the Academy Award for Best Actor, and doubtless the Golden Globe this Sunday too. Director Steve McQueen has said he never considered another actor for the role, and his performance is, like the film itself, one of enormous power, courage, dignity and, above all, restraint.

Where The Butler took such liberties with its source material that it can hardly be said to be ‘based on a true story’ at all, shoehorning all sorts of historical events Forrest Gumpishly into the narrative under a mess of mawkish music to demonstrate that Racism Is Bad, 12 Years A Slave is such an extraordinary true story it needs no embellishment. It is based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free negro born in New York state, who was drugged and sold into 12 years of brutal slavery in the Deep South.

Benedict Cumberbatch and regular Steve McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender play, respectively, considerate and demented slave owners, and producer Brad Pitt gives himself a cameo as just about the only decent anti-slavery white character; but it’s Ejiofor’s film. His expressive eyes fill every scene, haunting you long after the film has finished.

Steve McQueen’s direction is extraordinary, too. He’s not afraid of long takes – consider the monologue in Hunger – and of letting the pictures do the talking: foreshadowing Northup’s captivity by a close-up of his violin pegs being tightened, for instance. The extraordinary natural beauty of Northup’s surroundings, shot on 35mm film and in widescreen by cinematographer Sean Bobbit,  only make his bondage the more poignant.

None of this sounds like a fun film for a Friday night, I know. But see it soon, and absolutely see it on the big screen where it belongs. Though we’re only two weeks into January, I would confidently predict it will be the best film you’ll see all year.