Tag Archives: entertainment

Smell my crystal balls: which nominees will take the Oscars

24 Jan
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The magic of movies: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La-La Land

I saw La-La-Land a few months ago at a press screening, and I’ve never been more sure of an Oscars blitzkrieg than for this gossamer confection. It flatters the ageing voters of the Academy by recalling a bygone age of Hollywood musical glamour, but brings enough modern cynicism to make it seem brand-new. There were times, I kid you not, I wept just for the sheer beauty of the composition and colour scheme, let alone in sympathy when Emma Stone’s saucer-sized peepers filled with tears.

And so it’s proved: it received 14 nominations today, matched only by All About Eve and Titanic. Some friends of mine have remained unmoved by the film. No accounting for taste. I’m longing to see it again.

So what other films may get a look-in at the Oscars? Just get a whiff of my crystal balls:

Best Picture. La-La Land. Duh. Not even after Brexit and Trump can I believe that this safest of sure bets will be overturned, though both Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea have passionate fan bases (and I also very much liked Arrival, though it’s hard to love it).

Directing. Damien Chazelle for La-La-Land. His previous film, Whiplash, was nominated for Best Picture, though he himself missed out on being the youngest nominee for Best Director. He will make up for it by being the youngest winner, at (gulp) 32.

Leading Actor. Not La-La-Land, for once. Ryan Gosling was perfectly Goslingy, but never reached that extra gear that Oscar demands. Casey Affleck is the contender to beat for Manchester on Sea.

Leading actress. When I saw Arrival, at an early preview, I thought Amy Adams good enough to win it. Then I saw La-La-Land and, sorry Amy, that statuette is Emma Stone’s. Which suits me, since when I reviewed Easy A for The Times back in 2010 I went out on a limb to predict she’d become a huge star. But then last weekend I saw Jackie. Natalie Portman is EXTRAORDINARY. She disappears into the part completely. And as the only thing Hollywood loves to reward more in an actor than excessive weight loss/gain or disability is the impersonation of a famous figure, she has a chance of upsetting the La-La-Land bandwagon. Still won’t, though.

Supporting Actor. I’d like Jeff Bridges to win for his subtle, elegiac performance as the ageing marshall in Hell or High Water. But then Moonlight hasn’t come out in the UK yet, and they tell me Mahershala Ali may well take it. Fair enough. He was good in House of Cards, and it would be a pleasure to see an antidote to #OscarsSoWhite.

Supporting Actress. Viola Davis is tipped to take this for Fences. Again, the damn thing’s not out yet, so I cannot possibly comment.

… And then La-La-Land will sweep many of the smaller awards, too, especially cinematography, production design and song. It can’t possibly win Best Documentary, however! I’d like that to go Ava DuVernay’s 13th, one of the best docs I’ve seen in ages, available to view now on Netflix.

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In praise of Shane Black: Nice Guys finish first

9 Jun
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Double act: Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in Shane Black’s Nice Guys

Nice Guys is flat-out one of the funnest films I’ve seen in yonks, and good enough to “do a Tarantino” – in other words, resurrect failing careers. Russell Crowe, as a bear-like, punch-happy enforcer who dreams of becoming a more respectable private eye, hasn’t made such a great fist of a part in years; Ryan Gosling, as the private eye who’s not half as smart as his teenage daughter, displays a gratifying flair for comedy after a string of overly po-faced films.

Set in the ‘70s, it’s the thriller-comedy that rare Paul Thomas Anderson misfire Inherent Vice wishes it was: funny, smart, stylish and very odd – in the best possible way. The central hedonistic party scene alone would be worth the price of your ticket.

But then, if you’ve been following the career of Shane Black, this should come as no surprise.

Shane Black wrote Lethal Weapon at the age of 23. Have defined the action movie for a decade to come, he then set about attempting to demolish it: The Last Action Hero was, as I described it to a Time Out colleague following a screening in 1993, “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career suicide note”. Brilliant and post-modern, it mercilessly took the piss out of the regular Arnie action audience. It also contains what is still my favourite line in movie history, during the imagined trailer for a Hamlet played by Arnie: “To be… or not to be.” Pause. Clicks open a Zippo to light cigar. “Not to be.” The whole castle of Elsinore explodes in flames.

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) ended Black’s career for a while. It was a lot of fun, but it, too, bombed (relative to its massive budget), perhaps because audiences were still not yet ready for a woman (Geena Davis) in a lead action role. Black made his comeback as writer and director in 2005 with the modestly budgeted neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which was well received even if it didn’t set the box-office alight. But it starred Robert Downey Jr., which was key to Black writing and directing Iron Man 3, which grossed more than a billion dollars. If you haven’t seen it yet, I won’t spoil the reveal, but the secret behind Ben Kingsley’s villainous The Mandarin is pure Shane Black.

So now Black is back, with the next Predator on his slate as well as Marvel’s Doc Savage. He’s had a dizzying rise – his script for The Long Kiss Goodnight netted him $4 million – and a precipitous fall. He’s still only 54. Long may he reign.

 

Oscars 2016: the winners

29 Feb
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And the overall Oscar winner is… Mad Max: Fury Road

The #Oscarssowhite controversy notwithstanding, the ageing white males of the Academy actually seem to have got it right this year. There can be little outrage over last night’s Oscar winners, which produced only mild surprises, all of them pleasant.

For Best Picture, they ignored The Big Short which, at one stage, was leading in William Hill’s betting. At the time, I wrote that I would be shorting The Big Short, ie betting against it winning, so I’m pleased with that. Instead they chose the early favourite, Spotlight, but honour in The Revenant camp was satisfied by awards for Best Director and – obviously! – Cinematography.

Leonardo DiCaprio, to the utter astonishment of precisely no one, took best Actor at last after six nominations. The Supporting category delivered a teeny surprise K.O.: Sylvester Stallone was tipped for his elegiac reprise of Rocky Balboa in Creed, but the desire to reward genuine skill prevailed over sentiment, and Mark Rylance very justly took it down for Bridge of Spies. His restrained, unshowy performance was the anti-Leo: a cotton-wool cocoon of quiet dignity wrapped around a core of pure steel.

No shocks at all in the Actress categories, as Brie Larson won for The Room and Alicia Vikander took Best Supporting for The Danish Girl. The two screenplay awards were shared between Spotlight and The Big Short – again, no surprise – and Inside Out was the clear runaway winner in Best Animation.

But the biggest winner of the night, numerically at least, was Mad Max: Fury Road. Though it won none of the big awards (action and sci-fi movies rarely do) it took six of the technical awards, including production design and editing. Sad that Carol could not win for its sumptuous and meticulously recreated costume and production design, but Mad Max had the arguably greater challenge of creating a whole new world. Kudos to its unsung hero, genius UK comics artist Brendan McCarthy, who, as I wrote here, was behind much of the look of the film as well as its story.

A flight of films: eight recent reviews from Chappie to X+Y

5 Jul

I love travelling. It’s not so much the exotic food, the stunning landscapes, the interesting people – it’s the seven hours of uninterrupted films on the flight, with even more time now that airlines have started allowing the in-flight entertainment to run before take-off and after landing. I’m just back from Canada with British Airways, which allowed me to catch up on several movies I missed at the cinema. Here’s what’s worth your time – and what’s not:

chappieChappie ***: Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was pretty awesome, coming seemingly out of nowhere; Elysium a lot less so. Chappie falls somewhere in the middle. A police robot is given an AI programme and becomes sentient, sadly with a cutesy baby voice at first and some annoyingly twee attempts at learning about human life from the low-rent gangstas who co-opt him into a heist. But though it lays on the sentiment with a builder’s trowel, enough of it sticks to get to you in the end.

ex-machina-movieEx Machina ****: All those years of writing for Danny Boyle have paid off for Alex Garland in his directorial debut: Ex Machina is not just a thoughtful and intelligently written addition to the AI canon, but the performances are first-rate. Like Moon or Her, Ex Machina is a sci-fi film of ideas rather than action scenes and explosions – it shows you what Garland’s Sunshine could have been like without the stupid tacked-on climax.

ExodusExodus: Gods and Kings **: Watching this big-screen spectacle on a seat-back screen, there’s really very little left to enjoy in Ridley Scott’s epic. Christian Bale, as too often these days, seems to have no handle on what kind of movie he’s in. After an hour, I found I was distracting myself by imagining the cast breaking into a song-and-dance of “Moses supposes his toeses are roses/ But Moses supposes erroneously/ For nobody’s toeses are poses of roses/ As Moses supposes his toeses to be”. I switched it off then.

The GamblerThe Gambler **: I love films about gambling. In theory. But in practice, with the odd honourable exception such as Rounders, most of them are witless and clichéd (yes, Runner Runner, I’m looking at you; and Focus, you scrape a “C” on the leads’ charm alone). Sadly this Mark Wahlberg movie, though reaching for something metaphorical, falls into the latter camp. And how can you watch a guy who doubles in Blackjack on 18? And then hits a 3?

gethaGet Hard *: Will Ferrell as a privileged rich white financier being trained by Kevin Hart to withstand being everyone’s bitch in a maximum-security prison? This actually sounded like good brainless airplane fun to me, and I fired up a couple of Bloody Marys in expectation.  It is so, so not. Fun, that is. Brainless, yes. Also abandoned after an hour.

insideInside Out ****: Pixar have done it again. Directed by Pete Docter, the man behind Up, this takes a hackneyed conceit – there are mini-people inside our brains controlling our actions, like in the comic strip The Numbskulls – and gives it heart. There are, apparently, five key emotions warring for supremacy: foremost among them, in a young girl’s life so far, is Joy. When the girl reaches hard times in her teens, Joy discovers that Sadness also has its place, and is better embraced than shunned. Simultaneously simple and deep.

while we we're youngWhile We’re Young ***: I wasn’t sure I liked this for most of the film, but it improves as it goes. A fortysomething couple (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, both less annoying here than they can be) meet an arty-party young couple who turn their lives upside down. Along the way, it becomes an interesting meditation on truth in life and art. Written and directed by Noah Baumbach.

X+YX+Y ***: A lovely little film about an autistic teen savant who enters the Maths Olympiad. When I say Sally Hawkins plays the mother, you’ll know exactly what kind of film it will be. Asa Butterfield, who was so watchable in Ender’s Game, plays the troubled young genius who finds the trickiest equation of all to solve is love.

Secret Cinema review and interview on Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

13 Jun

Last night I took a trip to a galaxy far, far away – just 30 minutes from my door. Secret Cinema have pulled out all the stops this time for their immersive screening of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. The world they created (see pics above) was as detailed as when I saw their Blade Runner, though the set was vastly bigger. And they sorted out the projection problems that had ruined Lawrence of Arabia in Alexandra Palace and caused me to leave in the interval: both image and sound were super-crisp and clear.

I can’t give away any of the surprises of the night – this is Secret Cinema, after all. But I will say that standing next to Imperial Stormtroopers can give you a surprising frisson of primal fear, however much you are aware these are actors in white suits (and that Stormtroopers never shoot straight anyway!); that Secret Cinema have recreated not just a Tatooine desert village, but some of the vehicles, too, moving and lifesized; and that whereas previous Secret Cinemas have disgorged you into the night, blinking, straight after the screening, this time you can party in a vast industrial nightclub space.

Is it worth £75? That depends on how big a Star Wars fan you are, and whether you are more used to spending £60-plus on a theatre ticket or £12 in the cinema. I can say that you do see where the money has gone. I recently interviewed Fabien Riggall, the founder of Secret Cinema, and he insisted he wasn’t in this to get rich – “Do I drive a Bentley? I don’t even have a car, just an old camper van that’s always breaking down” – but that doing justice to a cultural icon like Star Wars means putting on the show of a lifetime.

“I could list everything that goes into a production of this size,” Fabien said, “but that would spoil the mystery. I’d rather keep it in narrative, and say something like the final stage of the Clone Wars left massive destruction across the galaxy and the price of titanium has gone up.”

Secret Cinema receives no public arts funding (unlike, for instance, immersive theatre company Punchdrunk), even though Fabien Riggall says he has applied many times; and he refuses to do an overall sponsorship deal with a credit card company or similar. In fact, he has strong feelings about how big brands and corporations are ruining the arts.

Fabien Riggall

Secret Cinema’s rebel founder, Fabien Riggall: “Why is it not rock ‘n’ roll anymore, with girls throwing their knickers?”

“Every studio and label is owned by these huge corporations – it should be rock ‘n’ roll, there should be mystery, but instead we’re being taking over by giant shopping centres, the whole world is becoming like Dubai. There’s a distinct thread to those deciding how we live and what our experience of the theatre or the multiplex will be. If I ran Live Nation I would create a game, where if you get through it you can go to the front of the stage.

“Like, recently I was in Detroit and found out that Prince was playing. I tried to get tickets but they were $500, so I just went to the theatre and pretended I was distant family of his from England – I was just acting, pretending to myself I was in a show – and that created this confusion, so I managed to get in right to the front without a ticket!

“But when I got there it was filled with VIPs paying thousands of dollars. Why is it not rock ‘n’ roll anymore, with girls throwing their knickers? Culturally we are in a place where the wrong people are in charge. Every studio and label is owned by these huge corporations. We deserve to lose ourselves in another world, get some of that magic back.”

Fabien is planning to launch Secret Cinema in America soon, but, more intriguingly, he is also talking to top film-makers and musicians directly about how to make immersive art that connects more strongly with their audience. In short, he wants nothing less than to revolutionise the way art and entertainment is created and consumed.

Going back to Star Wars, Fabien says that this is not just a film “cherished by millions”, that has “ignited thousands of creative careers”, but also feels very personal to him. “The Rebel Alliance represents fighting for a world of mystery, excitement and adventure, a world of quests and dreams: that represents the ethos of Secret Cinema.”

In other words, Fabien is a maverick pilot, with Secret Cinema as his Millennium Falcon; the big corporations are the Death Star. The Force is indeed strong with this one.

Secret Cinema presents Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back runs now until 27 September. http://www.secretcinema.org/tickets

Gained in translation: top 10 adaptations of foreign films

5 Jun

We’ve all heard of “lost in translation”. But what about “gained in translation”? It can happen. A good friend, Frank Wynne, is an award-winning translator of novels who often picks up errors and infelicities and corrects them along the way. I can’t always judge the quality of the original prose, but I can say his books read wonderfully.

What of film? I was asked this question by someone at www.smartling.com, who specialise in translation software. They clearly want to promote their product (so: Smartling! Smartling! Smartling!), but since I find the question intriguing, I’m happy to answer. Do please add your tuppence-worth in the Comments section.

There is a tendency to regard Hollywood adaptations of foreign films as lazy knock-offs. Whatever induced them to take Godard’s joyful New Wave game-changer A Bout de Souffle and remake it as the hollow 1980s Richard Gere vehicle Breathless? But there are honourable exceptions. Here’s my Top 10, in no particular order:

for-a-fistful-of-dollars-pictures-12A Fistful of Dollars (1964). This is the film that single-handedly invented the Spaghetti Western genre, and turned Clint Eastwood from the clean-cut, yawnsome hunk of TV’s Rawhide to an edgy counter-cultural anti-hero. It is also heavily based on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, a fact which landed director Sergio Leone with a hefty lawsuit. But since Kurosawa himself was inspired by Westerns, notably the films of John Ford, perhaps it’s a fair cultural trade.

magseven-e1314596581742The Magnificent Seven (1960). I couldn’t claim that this is better, artistically, than Kurosawa’s masterly The Seven Samurai, on which it is based (the original script was more faithful than what the studio eventually produced). But it was a classic of its time. A remake is due in 2017.

a-the-departed-HD-WallpaperThe Departed (2006). For me, the Hong Kong original, Internal Affairs, is tighter than the Scorsese version, though it finally won him the Best Director Oscar he’d been denied for so long. But this is certainly a gripping piece of film-making, with the wonderful central premise intact: an undercover police agent is placed within a criminal gang; a gangster is placed undercover within the police force; each must uncover the other without blowing their cover. Confused much?

willis12 Monkeys (1995). Great though the French short La Jetée is, 12 Monkeys goes the Whole Gilliam, taking Hollywood’s then biggest action star (Bruce Willis) and weaving around him a nigh-on incomprehensible, genre-bending dystopian sci-fi with philosophical heft.

true-lies-arnold-schwarzenegger-jamie-lee-curtis1True Lies (1994). If you like Arnie films (and I do, I do!), this loose remake of 1991’s La Totale is a superior example of the genre. Directed and written by James Cameron, it was at the time the most expensive movie ever made. Until Titanic, of course.

Vanilla_Sky_G_01Vanilla Sky (2001). Amenábar’s original Open Your Eyes was excellent, but Vanilla Sky has direction from Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise at the peak of his powers, and even had the good grace to retain Penélope Cruz in her original role. How the BBC’s otherwise wonderful Life on Mars thought it could get away with lifting the rooftop scenes after not one but two films had used it, however, I don’t know.

InsomniaInsomnia (2002). I haven’t seen the apparently excellent Norwegian film on which this is faithfully based, but Christopher Nolan’s adaptation is certainly a goodie. It contains one of Robin Williams’ least annoying roles, and even Pacino is prevented from going over the top.

Some_like_it_hotSome Like It Hot (1959). I haven’t seen the 1951 original of this, either: Fanfaren der Liebe. But no comedy could possibly beat the chemistry of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag, Marilyn Monroe at Peak Sex, and the genius of director Billy Wilder. “Nobody’s perfect”? This film is.

Let-Me-In---2010-007Let Me In (2010). There’s no question that the original modern vampire pic Let The Right One In was better. But the adaptation that followed it with indecent haste was not far off it, thanks largely to a typically precocious performance by Chloë Grace Moretz.

birdcageThe Birdcage (1996). This kind of ultra-broad farce is not really my cup of tea; and the American adaptation is even broader than the French La Cage Aux Folles. All the same, it can be a joy to see Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, as the drag queen who has to play it straight to impress their son’s potential in-laws, go way over the top. Hank Azaria as the butler is flat-out hilarious.

Do you prefer The Ring to Ringu? Clooney’s Solaris to Tarkovsky’s? Have your say in Comments, below.

Why French flick Girlhood kicks Kidulthood’s arse

7 May
Bande de Filles: The young cast of Girlhood

Gang of four: the young cast of Girlhood

Girlhood, which has just finally opened in the UK, grabs you from the get-go. Over a fizzing electro-pop soundtrack, two teams of black girls clash in slow motion on an American football pitch. Their striped cheeks and outsized body armour set the tone for a film about urban warriors, but when the match ends and the helmets come off, it’s all broad grins and high fives. So this is a movie about the bonds between women, too. The girls walk home gossiping through the concrete night, splitting off one by one from the pack until we are left with just one: 16-year-old Marieme, who henceforth will appear in every scene.

It’s testament to Céline Sciamma’s skill as writer/director that she introduces the movie’s themes so effectively without words. And though the dialogue throughout feels real and street-fresh, heavily influenced and improvised by the astonishingly talented first-time actors who play the girls, it is the wordless scenes that linger long after the film has ended.

Oppressed at home by a violent older brother, denied access to high school by poor grades, Marieme falls in with a devil-may-care gang of three girls. It is while washing up that Marieme decides on her new life: she stops cleaning the sharp kitchen knife, folds it, and puts it in her pocket. Her hands clutch the edge of the sink. The camera moves behind her, and pulls back until she is small within the illuminated space of the sink. Then her shoulders straighten, and she lifts her head.

The pivotal scene that seals the girls’ bond is also wordless. They rent a hotel room with some ill-gotten gains. They knock back rum and coke, smoke a joint, and put on glamorous dresses with the anti-theft tags still attached. It’s as though they are getting dolled up to go out clubbing, but they are not dressing to attract men; they are dressing for themselves, testing out their power as women. The gang’s charismatic leader, Lady, begins to dance to Rihanna’s Shine Bright Like A Diamond, lip-synching perfectly. Marieme looks on for a few seconds, then joins in – setting a new style of dancing which foreshadows the way, later, she will take over as leader. It’s a beautiful, tender, exhilarating scene, which Sciamma rightly allows to play out for the whole length of the song.

You can even chart the girls’ emotional journey through their hair. When Marieme decides to join the gang, she unpicks her cornrows and lets her hair flow free, like theirs. When Lady is humiliated in a crucial fight with a rival, her hair is cut, Samson-like. When Marieme’s life choices narrow and she sinks further into the underworld, joining a hardened adult criminal gang, she adopts a short white wig.

Sciamma says she started with characters, and the plot grew from them. She herself came from the disadvantaged banlieues outside Paris, and was inspired by observing groups of black teenagers on the streets. “When you meet these girls,” she told Cineuropa recently, “they have such energy, such intelligence, such humour, such charisma, even though they don’t get to dream a lot and their country does not give them a vision of what they could become or do.”

Girlhood is Sciamma’s third coming-of-age movie, after Water Lilies (2007) and Tomboy (2011). Though a more direct translation of its French title, Bande de Filles, would be “Gang of Girls”, “Girlhood” evokes Kidulthood and Adulthood, the seminal British films about young black urban experience. But whereas Noel Clarke’s films were raw, hit-and-miss affairs, Girlhood is more than just a political statement about straitened opportunities or a moving female-centric relationship drama. Ravishingly shot in Cinemascope, it is pure cinematic art.

This review was first written for the Guardian website during the 2014 BFI London Film Festival.