Tag Archives: Oscar

Beauty in the beast: Guillermo del Toro on The Shape of Water

13 Feb
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Sally Hawkins, as the mute cleaner in a military facility, makes contact with a creature from the deep in The Shape of Water

Pan’s Labyrinth was so exceptional, so unique, you’d think Guillermo del Toro could never again make a film that was its equal. You’d be wrong. The Shape of Water is every bit as beautiful, strange and idiosyncratic, but in tone shows the mellowness of del Toro’s middle age. While Pan’s Labyrinth was primarily about the monstrousness of men, The Shape of Water is more concerned with the humanity in monsters.

I saw the film at a BAFTA screening a few months ago, capped off by a Q&A with del Toro. He said that when he was young, he had terrible waking nightmares in which he would lie frozen in his own bed, seemingly conscious, watching monstrous hands clawing at his bedclothes. He made a pact with those monsters: if they didn’t hurt him, he’d be their friend for life. It’s a relationship he has been investigating throughout his film-making career.

With The Shape of Water specifically, he said the inspiration came from watching Creature From the Black Lagoon as a boy: he loved both monster and damsel in distress, and was heart-broken when they didn’t end up together. The Shape of Water is his attempt to rewrite that history.

As such, it’s not merely about the beauty in the beast, but also a love letter to old Hollywood: that’s one reason why the Academy, which notoriously loves films about itself, has given it 13 Oscar nominations – wildly unusual for a genre film. Sally Hawkins’s character, who is as mute as a silent film star, even lives above an old cinema. There are scenes which nod to old Hollywood song and dance, without quite breaking into outright musical, and its bright colour palette could have been filmed in Technicolor.

As the mute Elisa Esposito, who cleans in a top-secret military facility of the early ‘60s which takes possession of a monster from the deeps, Sally Hawkins is extraordinary. She says more with gesture and look than most actresses manage from screeds of dialogue. In any other year she’d be Oscar’s hottest contender, but Frances McDormand, surely, will take the highest honour for Three Billboards.

The creature is beautifully realised, Richard Giles provides touching support as Esposito’s best friend, Octavia Spencer provides energy and comic relief, and Michael Shannon gives this essentially feelgood tale a heart of darkness as the xenophobic military man obsessed with the Red Menace, his severed fingers rotting along with his soul. But it’s del Toro’s film, and he will surely win best director.

The crew with del Toro at the Q&A clearly loved him: they say he is obsessively knowledgeable about every area of film-making, from cinematography to production design, giving them fully formed ideas which then allow them to concentrate on the extra 10% that would transform a film from great to genius. He even came up with a long-forgotten method for simulating underwater movement which would require no CGI or fancy effects.

Released in the UK on Valentine’s Day, The Shape of Water makes the perfect date movie – because if your partner doesn’t love it, you’ll know they’re probably not the one for you!

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Captain Fantastic: here Viggo, here Viggo, here Viggo…

10 Sep
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Viggo Mortensen learned to play guitar for Captain Fantastic

Captain Fantastic, out in UK cinemas yesterday, is this year’s Little Miss Sunshine: an indie film with a good shot at some Oscar glory, with a road trip at its heart and a theme of societal outcasts determined to do their own thing against the odds. The difference is, it’s a little less overtly feelgood – though very funny in places – and a little more morally ambiguous.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else inhabiting the central role but Viggo Mortensen: he plays an old-school leftie who’d rather celebrate Noam Chomsky Day than capitalist Christmas, and brings his six kids up in the woods. They climb cliffs and hunt deer, but also devour enormous books around the campfire. The only cloud on the horizon is the suspicion that Mortensen, who rejects control, is himself rather controlling; and the cloud turns to full-on rain when a road trip introduces the children to society and modern life for which they are singularly ill prepared.

I won’t say more, so as not to spoil the plot, but this is one of my favourite films of the year so far, and it was a pleasure to put together a campaign for it for Guardian Labs.

My personal highlights were sending Karen Krizanovich off to fulfil a long-held dream of living on a commune (Cae Mabon in Snowdonia  – amazing place), and getting Ray Mears to contribute survival tips. But there’s also lots of stuff about the film and about living off-grid. Check it out at https://www.theguardian.com/captain-fantastic-film.

 

To infinity and beyond: my articles for The Guardian on The Man Who Knew Infinity

8 Apr
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Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel star in The Man Who Knew Infinity, filmed in Trinity College, Cambridge where the real-life maths duo of GH Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan worked

The latest in a long line of films about improbably brilliant maths minds, The Man Who Knew Infinity, opens in UK cinemas today. I won’t review it here, since I’ve written a whole raft of stuff about it for the Guardian as “branded content” (in other words, the film company pay the Guardian to carry relevant articles), so you would be rightly sceptical about my impartiality.

As it happens, I did really like the film – Jeremy Irons deserves an Oscar nom imo as the emotionally repressed Cambridge don who takes poor young Madras maths prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) under his stiff upper wing, and though it has emotional heft it doesn’t dumb down the maths – but rather than going on about it, let me just direct you to some cool stuff on the Guardian website I put together around the theme:

Could you be a maths genius? I got Mensa, the High IQ Society, to set a quiz. Even my brain-box son got stumped halfway through, so yes, it ain’t easy. But it requires no advanced maths knowledge; it’s more a test of reasoning. Leave me a Comment if you get through it, I’ll be impressed!

Are you smarter than an 11-year-old? Stumped by the above quiz? Then try this one, taken from sample Key Stage 2 maths papers. If you can’t do this one, best keep quiet about it.

The Beauty of Maths – in pictures. I love this one, though it was a bugger to research and write the captions for, when my Maths doesn’t extend beyond A Level (and even then I struggled incredibly hard to attain my lowly C grade). If nothing else… Look! Mandelbrot! Pretty pictures!

And a bunch of other stuff: Galleries, trailer, Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons on the making of the film… and if you look at today’s Guardian, that’s my cover wrap round G2, that is 🙂

Evening Standard Film Award winners: not all white on the night

7 Feb
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Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation: ignored by the Oscars, triumphing at the Evening Standard Film Awards

So great to see British films properly recognised: at the Evening Standard Film Awards tonight, the awards were full of them. Admittedly, only British and Irish films were actually eligible for this award, but still: go team GB!

Idris Elba took a swipe at the all-white Oscars when collecting his Best Actor award for Beasts of No Nation, pointing out that the director was half Japanese, the crew were from New York and Ghana, and the money came from all over. “That’s f***ing diversity,” he said.

Other deserving winners included Emma Donoghue for scripting Room and Amy for best Documentary, while The Lady in the Van took Best Actress for Maggie Smith and the Outstanding Contribution award for writer Alan Bennett, who wryly called this particular accolade “a sharp nudge in the direction of the grave”. Brooklyn won Best Film, though I would have loved it to go to The Lobster, certainly the most singular and original of the year’s crop.

Hollywood was thrown a bone in the shape of the Best Blockbuster award, voted for by members of the public – no surprises there, then, to find Star Wars: The Force Awakens triumphing. Funnily enough, it was picked up by Anthony Daniels – a man most famous for playing what is essentially a life-sized, ambulant version of the Oscars statuette.

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

26 Jan

 

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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.

 

“Should I see The Revenant?” Might as well ask, “Do I enjoy cinema?”

14 Jan
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Leonardo DiCaprio spent the last year Rocky Mountains way. Couldn’t get much higher

The Revenant is a film of few words, and so will be my recommendation of it: Go See. This is not merely a movie. This is Cinema.

The opening battle scene is as visceral as anything since Private Ryan (and as for that bear scene….!). The landscapes, filmed in the wild Canadian Rockies, show both the exquisite beauty and the cold brutality of nature – just as the ugliness of man, in this film, is interleaved with transcendent moments of tenderness and honour.

The score, by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, definitely deserves an Oscar, Golden Globes result notwithstanding. As to the cinematography, it would feel like the most shocking upset in Oscar history if regular Terrence Malick cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki didn’t land his third in a row (after Gravity and Birdman). Leonardo DiCaprio is almost certain finally to take home his little gold man for the gruelling central role, rarely off screen though saying very little.

But forget the Oscars. This is just hauntingly lovely film-making, a work of unique vision and, indeed, obsession – not since Herzog hauled a steamship up a mountain, or Friedkin slapped his actors and stuck them in a freezer, has a director (Birdman‘s Iñárritu) gone to such lengths to get what he needed.

At first it grates that Tom Hardy mumbles into his beard nearly as incomprehensibly as when playing Bane. But then you relax into that, and remind yourself that the words don’t really matter, and it becomes almost a plus. The haunting images are all the story you need.

10 Ways Hollywood Looks After Loved Ones — From The Afterlife

7 Feb

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At last! I’ve been asked to write a sequel. Not of one of my film scripts, admittedly, but of an article. Hot on the heels of The 11 Best Films About Life Insurance comes 10 Ways Hollywood Provides For Loved Ones From The Afterlife.

You wouldn’t have thought there was a whole sub-genre of Hollywood films that feature dead people belatedly caring for their families, but from Always to Ghost via PS I Love You there were way more than ten – I had to leave some out (many thanks to my friends in the Facebook hive mind for suggestions). It even includes Oscar nominee Michael Keaton in a film he must be hoping Academy members have forgotten – have you?

Click here to read the top ten.