Tag Archives: Gravity

Arrival: thank God (or alien equivalent) for sci-fi with a brain

13 Nov
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Amy Adams attempts to communicate with the visitors in Arrival

Arrival is that vanishingly rare thing: a major sci-fi release with a brain. When was the last one? Probably Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in 2014, and its brain was pretty small: the whole film seemed based, as I wrote at the time, on a Queen song, while its striking time-dilation planet scene will be familiar to any fan, as Nolan is, of the works of Alan Moore (Halo Jones Book 3 on the planet Hispus, I’m looking at you).

Directed by the awesomely talented Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) and based on a short story, it imagines what would happen, and how people would feel, if alien ships suddenly took up position over the earth. Spoiler-free hint: it’s nothing like Independence Day.

I don’t want to give away too much about the film, as ever, but I will just give you one example of why and how it works. Doctor Strange has several striking fight scenes in which gravity is spectacularly upended. They are fun. But they don’t make you think. It’s all just special effects. The moment in Arrival when the heroes realise that gravity is no longer working according to accepted laws is a hundred times more powerful. Communicated through the panicked breath of Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, it feels real. We’re there, with them, as the enormity of the situation takes hold. There really are aliens, and they really are changing the laws of physics.

It’s that level of realism, applied to a science-fictional premise, that makes this a great film. I had thought, coming out of a preview a few months ago, that Amy Adams would be a lock for Best Actress at the Oscars. I’ve since seen La La Land, and without question that will sweep the board, including, probably, for Emma Stone. Nevertheless, Adams is terrific: Arrival rests entirely on her slender shoulders, and she Atlases it. Go see.

Pecs appeal: what The Guest reveals about Hollywood’s new stripping sexism

15 Sep

Ye gods, but Dan Stevens is gorgeous in new movie The Guest. You hardly recognise him from Downton Abbey: the puppy fat is replaced by cheekbones, the floppy fringe by manly stubble, the limpid blue eyes are now focused laser beams of energy. He needs to be gorgeous: the more interesting first half of the movie, before things go pear-shaped and daft-thrillery, is all about how he wins over a family, one by one – the mother through sensitivity, the father through beer, the young son through help with bullies. But does he really have to win over the 20-year-old daughter by stepping from a steamy bathroom in the skimpiest of towels? Those pecs! Those lats! Those abs! She swoons.

If Stevens becomes a star on the back of this, and he surely will, his personal trainer deserves 10%, along with his agent and manager. In fact, it’s a little surprising there’s not yet an Oscar category for that. And what’s interesting is how thoroughly gratuitous nudity in Hollywood has now been turned on its head.

Right into the ‘90s it was almost impossible to be an actress and not get your kit off, unless you were Meryl Streep. It’s why columnist Julie Burchill used to call acting a form of legalised prostitution. Even the respected auteur Robert Altman pressurised Greta Scacchi (unsuccessfully) to show off her celebrated bust in The Player, despite a prior agreement: “When it came to the day of the shoot,” Scacchi later recalled, “he told me ‘Get yourself on the set, take your knickers off and do what you’re paid to do.’” Demi Moore was paid a record $12 million to strip off in Striptease. Halle Berry is rumoured to have been given an extra $500,000 to show her boobs in Swordfish, though she denies any extra fee.

How times have changed in the new millennium. When Alice Eve gratuitously stripped in front of Kirk in Star Trek Into Darkness, the backlash was huge, to the point where the scriptwriter apologised – and even then she only undressed to bra and pants. There is no expectation now that beautiful and talented actresses such as Jennifer Lawrence will have to get naked to get ahead. It’s one reason, aside from righteous indignation at the appalling invasion of privacy, that the recent hacking of nude celebrity pictures has aroused such interest: in the ‘90s, it would have been nothing people hadn’t seen before, on screens 40 feet high.

No such reticence applies to the male physique, and I blame Brad Pitt. When he took his shirt off in Thelma & Louise, revealing the washboard abs beneath the cheeky grin, it opened the doors for equal opportunities sexism. Since then, Matt Damon, Tobey McGuire, Will Smith, Ewan MacGregor, Michael Fassbender, Tom Hardy, Hugh Jackman, Tom Cruise, Gerard Butler, Ryan Reynolds, Channing Tatum… actually, it would be quicker to make a list of actors who haven’t had to bulk up and strip off.

And now, finally, there are signs that the more insidious sexism in Hollywood may gradually and grudgingly be coming to an end. It’s long been argued by movie execs, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, that films with women in the lead roles don’t make money. None, therefore, were made… so none made money. Bridesmaids in comedy, and in the blockbuster market The Hunger Games and Gravity (though its director initially had to fight the studio to get them to okay a female lead), have demonstrated the fallacy, and execs are, according to the New York Times, taking note.

There’s still a ways to go, and still a big disparity in pay cheques. But, in liberating Hollywood’s women, must we objectify Hollywood’s men? How long before aspiring male actors are simply reading for the part of “Hunky Boyfriend: must be prepared for Shower Scene”?

Academy Awards 2014: the winners and blingers of an Oscar night with no grouches

3 Mar

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That was actually a pretty great Oscar ceremony. Jennifer “J-Law” Lawrence took a little tumble before it even began this time, back on the red carpet. Any more trips and she’ll get sponsored by Expedia.com. As for the compere, Ellen Degeneres was never going to sail too close to the edge – a blessing, after the Seth McFarlane “boobies” embarrassment of last year – but she did bring a breath of fresh air.

She broke Twitter, briefly, by organising the most celebtastic selfie of all time (above), and, surreally, ordered in pizza. Chiwetel Ejiofor took the first slice; Harrison Ford looked at his dubiously, as though inspecting an archaeological relic. Ellen’s Oscars seemed to break down the barriers between celebrity and public, toppling the screen icons from a pedestal that most of them never wanted to be on in the first place. Though of course J-Law toppled from hers first.

Most of all, though, it helped that this was the strongest year for film in ages: there was never a moment where you thought, “the Oscar went to whaaaat?” And so, without further ado, the winners are…

Best Film: 12 Years A Slave. Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! So happy to see justice done. It is an extraordinary film. Chief producer Brad Pitt nobly and sensibly turned the speech over straight away to co-producer/director Steve McQueen, who was a sweet mess of nerves. He read out a long list of thanks, saying “I’m sorry about this” in a very British way for taking so long about it, and when he had finished, bounced up and down across the stage like a cuddly pogo stick. Brilliant.

Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón. I loved loved loved Gravity, but I wish Steve McQueen had won for 12 Years A Slave. Still, a worthy winner. Great to have two foreign art-movie directors vying for Hollywood’s most glittering prize.

Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey. Gutted that Chiwetel Ejiofor didn’t win this, but he’s unlucky to have come up against one of the strongest fields in ages. McConaughey is one of Hollywood’s own, and he was extraordinary in Dallas Buyers Club: a complete transformation. And he did say “all right all right all right” in his speech.

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett. Well of course. Always the bookies’ favourite, and it really couldn’t be otherwise. She absolutely carries Blue Jasmine, and what’s more, she’s about the only person ever in a Woody Allen film not to sound exactly like Woody Allen. “Julia hashtag suck it,” Blanchett said to Julia Roberts in her speech, continuing “The world is round, people!” Love her.

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto. He didn’t win me over. He was maybe as good as he could be in a part that was just a rainbow coalition of clichés, but I would rather have seen Jonah Hill win for his gutsy, literally balls-out performance in Wolf Of Wall Street.

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o. Yay!!! J-Law was fantastic in American Hustle, but we already know she’s that good. Lupita, however, is a new, fresh, raw talent, and so elegant and dignified off screen and in her speech: “When I look down at this little statue, may it remind me and every child that no matter where you are from your dreams are valid.” Somehow she makes this utterly heartfelt and charming, not hokey as you would expect.

Best Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze. Oooh, good for him! Her was a fresh, quirky, thought-provoking script, but I’m still surprised that the American Hustle bandwagon petered out quite so comprehensively as not to win this.

Best Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley for 12 Years A Slave. Fantastic to win this, I’m all for 12 Years winning as many as possible, though as Ridley himself said in the speech, the main credit goes to Solomon Northup. Scary speech by presenter Robert De Niro, incidentally: “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing,” he said. “Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.” Thanks, Bob! Mostly, it’s scary because it’s true.

The Oscar nominations are in: Gravity and 12 Years A Slave get Hustled

16 Jan

The Oscar nominations have just been announced. I’ve been glued to the live stream, co-hosted by Chris Hemsworth. American Hustle and Gravity are ostensibly the main contenders, with (by my count) ten nominations each, but I have a feeling Gravity may do better; and 12 Years A Slave, only just trailing with nine nominations, has the best chance of all. Other well nominated films include Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, Wolf of Wall Street and Blue Jasmine. Who’ll win? The debate starts here:

Best Movie: Nominees are American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, 12 Years A Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street

I half-fancy Gravity’s chances, even though it’s trailing third at the bookies (which makes it a worthwhile bet, odds-wise). When I saw 12 Years in preview a couple of months ago, it was easily my pick for the Oscar. Then I saw Gravity three days later – a film that couldn’t be more different, except they were both, essentially, mainstream movies shot by art-movie directors – and thought it had a strong chance.

The key thing is that it’s rare for the Academy to buck public sentiment entirely for the main award. And though critics mostly loved 12 Years, it took just under $40m in the US. The schmaltzier The Butler, by contrast, while no one’s idea of a Best Movie, took $116m.

Gravity took $256 million in the US; it also stars Sandra and George who are universally loved in Hollywood; and it can be enjoyed without controversy by any age, race or class. It would, however, be the first science-fiction movie ever to win – though when I said this to my film-student son, he argued out that’s it’s not really science-fiction; it’s just set in space.

Best Actor: Nominees are Christian Bale, Bruce Dern, Leonardo DiCaprio, Chiwetl Ejiofor, Matthew McConaughey

As I wrote last week in my review of 12 Years, it is inconceivable that Chiwetl Ejiofor will not win Best Actor. Yes, the Golden Globe went to Matthew McConaughey, for Dallas Buyers Club, and that’s also an Important Issue Film (about AIDS), which helps (plus see my update here). But not only does Ejiofor thoroughly and objectively deserve it, in the past the Academy has been so desperate to redress a perceived racial bias in award-giving that they donked the Oscar to, whisper it, Halle Berry. A bit hard on Tom Hanks, incidentally, not to be nominated, but this was a good year.

Best Actress: Nominees are Amy Adams, Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep

Surely Cate Blanchett. I thought Sandra Bullock might have a chance for Gravity, as she’s so darn likeable in it and carries the whole film, then I finally caught up with Blue Jasmine. Blanchett not only makes her horrible, shallow, self-absorbed, clothes-horse character astonishingly sympathetic and vulnerable, she’s about the only person ever in a Woody Allen film who’s managed not to sound like Woody Allen.

Best Director: Nominees are David O Russell, Alfonso Cuarón, Alexander Payne, Steve McQueen, Martin Scorsese

The bookies favour Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity, but I reckon Steve McQueen will still edge it for 12 Years. Both are worthy. As a sometime film critic, I mentally grade all the films I see. I give five stars rarely; to maybe three or four films a year. Five-star films, to me, are not just superb in all respects, but the product of a singular vision: in other words, you cannot imagine any other director having made just that film. Argo, which won last year, only rates four stars in my book; but then 2012 was a much leaner year for good films than 2013. I think, only slightly cynically, that it will be hard to resist the attraction of garlanding the first winning black director in Oscar history (McQueen is only the third even to be nominated).

Best Original Screenplay: Nominees are American Hustle, Blue Jasmine, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, Nebraska

This is toughest of the lot. What a great selection. Blue Jasmine has a chance, but continuing Woody Allen controversy will likely scotch it, and American Hustle will edge to victory. David O Russell writes knock-out scripts, and this will be consolation on missing out on the big awards. Note that Gravity is absent. Seems other people may have agreed with David Hare’s scathing assessment.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Nominees are Before Midnight, Captain Phillips, Philomena, 12 Years A Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street

The success of 12 Years is not so obviously in its script, well though it draws upon the ornate speech of the age. Either Captain Phillips or more probably The Wolf of Wall Street will take this as a consolation prize.

The winners are announced on March 2. For my backstage tour of the Academy Awards’ Kodak/Dolby Theatre, click here.

Gravity: just out of this world

21 Nov

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Seeing Gravity, late, now comes with crushing expectations: it’s got more stars than the Hubble telescope, an IMDB ranking at 59th of all time.

To me, it exceeded them all. If you go – and you should – do see it in IMAX. Expensive? They could have charged me £100 and I’d have thought it worth the ticket.

CGI seldom impresses any more: we expect the impossible. But damn – George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are actually floating. Those space stations are actually exploding. It feels as real as that first train did to terrified early audiences.

The camera-work is vertiginously virtuoso: long, long takes (the first is 17 minutes; take that, Orson!), drifting and revolving as we follow the space-walkers in their suits, spinning round until we’re inside the helmet looking out with them. (As Ender’s Game observes, there is no “up” in space.) This is what happens when you take a great art-movie director  like Alfonso Cuarón and give him a Hollywood blockbuster’s tool-box to play with.

David Hare is not a fan. In a talk I attended at the London Screenwriters’ Festival, he blasted: “Gravity is a film in which, from beginning to end, nobody says a single interesting thing. You think, ‘hang on, this film is at the cutting edge, you’ve spent $80 million for digital effects; it might be worth spending a quarter of that on someone who could write dialogue, not just spaghetti Bolognese coming out of their mouths.’”

I can’t agree. It’s simple, and it’s affecting. A little too patly “Hollywood” in its character arc perhaps – without spoiling anything for those who haven’t yet seen it, the emotional key-line is “you have to learn to let go” – but I was still literally on the edge of my seat throughout, I still cried at the end. Even if my tears didn’t drift away in shiny silver globules like Sandra Bullock’s.

Cuarón, incidentally, deserves major credit for sticking to his guns: the studio wanted Bullock’s character to be a man.  Well, we’re up to $527,756,931 and still counting. With Bridesmaids having re-written the rules for female comedy (it’s the highest grossing of all Judd Apatow movies), this may be the defining moment when Hollywood finally catches up with the music industry, and realises that women can take the lead.

Though hopefully not naked and perched on top of a wrecking ball.

London Bollywood: Indian film through vintage posters

16 Nov
Raj Kapoor's Bobby: a racy poster for 1976

Raj Kapoor’s Bobby: a racy poster for 1973 — though see below for more extreme

William Goldman noted that romantic comedies and dramas are all about obstacles. We know the couple will get together in the end – the fun lies in preventing them for as long as possible.

In the Western world, there are fewer and fewer barriers of class, wealth, religion and race, leading to ever-more desperate devices to stop couples just shagging on their first date: he’s in a coma (While You Were Sleeping); she’s lost her memory (50 First Dates); he’s mildly nuts (Silver Linings Playbook). But in India, many of the old barriers still apply. It’s one reason why Shakespeare works so well transposed to an Indian setting. And one reason why Bollywood movies can pack such a powerful emotional punch.

Though Bollywood is the world’s second biggest movie producer, until a few years ago I’d hardly seen any Indian films, bar the odd Satyajit Ray (hardly typical!). Now I love them. The drama is bigger, colours are brighter, wounds cut deeper. So I leaped at the chance to get a whistlestop tour of Indian cinema from Bollywood expert Ashanti Omkar.

The occasion was an exhibition of rare posters at the Westbury Gallery in the Westbury Hotel, prior to an auction on Nov 29 by Conferro Auctions. These were some of the highlights:

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Mother India (1957)

The plot is about the difficulties of a single mother that symbolise India’s post-Independence struggles. Equally notable is the fact that Nargis, the famous actress playing the mother, fell in love with the man playing her son (!), and they married soon after. It’s like when I saw Ralph Fiennes’s Hamlet at the Hackney Empire in 1995, alongside Francesca Annis as his mother – I had never seen such an Oedipal production, the heat between them in the ‘rank sweat of an enseamed bed’ scene was blistering. They too became an item, despite the 19-year age gap. With Mother India, Nargis was actually only 26 at the time, though playing much older: she fell in love with Sunil Dutt after he risked his life to save her from a fire on set. Awww.

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Dara Singh (1960s)

Dara Singh was India’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: a 6’2” wrestler who got into film in 1952, and was especially loved for his roles as Hanuman, the super-strong Monkey God. He later turned successfully to producing, writing and directing, became the head of a studio, and even the first sportsman nominated to the Upper House of the Indian parliament. He died just last year.

cdbp-19Baarish (1957)

According to Ashanti, this poster was exceptionally racy for its day. Why? Because the sari has – gasp! – slipped off Nutan’s (not even bare) shoulder. It is one of the brilliant things about Indian film that the consummation of romance is taboo – until relatively recently, even kisses were pretty much unknown. It gives a yearning and an erotic tension to so many Bollywood movies that Hollywood sex scenes can never match.

Bobby (1973 — see top of blog)

This was, says Ashanti, the movie every young person wanted to see in 1973. Partly because of the racy poster of Dimple Kapadia (Bobby) in a red bikini (see top of blog), and partly because it introduced to Bollywood the genre of star-cross’d teenage lovers from opposite sides of the class/wealth divide. It also introduced director Raj Kapoor’s son in the male lead role: Bollywood is very much a family business.

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Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978)

This translates as The Good, The True, and The Beautiful, which sounds like the airline edit of a Spaghetti Western classic. As well as possibly the raciest mainstream Indian film poster EVER (more so than the film, needless to say), the film, again directed by Raj Kapoor, has a terrific plot. A virtuous young woman with a burned face marries a handsome young engineer. Somehow he fails to notice the imperfection beforehand; when he does, he spurns her. She then comes to him in the night; they make love, he not realising it is his wife. When his wife falls pregnant (with his child), he assumes she has been unfaithful… As Ashanti puts, it’s a classic love triangle – with only two people.

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Shree 420 (1955)

Bollywood was HUGE in the Soviet Union, thanks to Raj Kapoor and his Charlie Chaplin-esque character in 1951’s Awaara and in Shree 420. A piece of trivia for Gravity fans: the song the Indian astronaut sings a snatch of is Mera Joota hai Japani (“My shoes are Japanese”) – the big hit from the film.

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Sholay (1975)

Of all the posters at the exhibition, this was the one most photographed. In 2002 a BFI poll ranked it the best Indian film of all time; it’s also, adjusted for inflation, the biggest-grossing. The first Indian movie to be released in 70mm wide-screen format and stereophonic sound, it’s a “Curry Western” that draws heavily from Western tropes even though it’s a cop movie (and musical; and romance; and…). You’ll note from the poster that the producers didn’t sell it short. It is, apparently, “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.