Friday, 26 February 2010

'Micmacs' Review: The best film I saw last year...

In the first edition of the Splendor Cinema podcast Jon and I discussed out favourite movies of 2009. Missing from my list was a film I considered one of the very best and most enjoyable of the year, but as the film in question was not then on general release in the UK, I opted to consider it a film of 2010 and exclude it from my thinking for the time being. However, as of the 26th of February, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s ‘Micmacs’ is officially showing nationwide in UK cinemas, and the time is therefore right to post my appraisal of it here.

As previously mentioned, ‘Micmacs’ is the new film by the director of ‘Amélie’ Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and is his first film since 2004’s ‘A Very Long Engagement’. The story concerns a man named Bazil (Dany Boon) who finds himself the innocent victim of gangland violence on the streets of Paris - taking a gunshot wound to the head. Luckily Bazil survives the wound (albeit with the bullet permanently lodged in his brain) and befriends a gang of social misfits: featuring the usual array of quirky oddballs and cheerful grotesques, with parts for Jeunet regulars Dominique Pinon and Yolande Moreau. Together they conspire to bring down two international arms dealers, each guilty in their own way for crimes against both Bazil and the world in which he lives. It’s a darkly comic farce, with elements of social satire, not just of the arms trade and of corporations, but also broadly of Sarkozy-era France.

Of course the success of ‘Amélie’ can be attributed (for a large part) to the star-making central performance of Audrey Tautou in the title role, whose effervescent screen presence captivated audiences. But if Tautou was crucial to the success of that film, Dany Boon is equally crucial here. Boon (apparently already a huge comedy star in France) is quite brilliant, especially in one scene which requires him to convince an onlooker that he has entered a car – in what is surly a direct homage to a piece of Chaplin business seen in ‘City Lights’. Boon proves at moments like this that he is a naturally gifted silent comedian, and that if the sort of films made by Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd were still being made today, then Boon would be a huge international star. It also helps that matters that Boon is ably supported by a host of talented character actors who each pull off their own peculiar part with considerable skill.

Whilst I would usually try to steer clear of making simplistic “if you like ‘Three Amigos’, you’ll LOVE ‘Tropic Thunder’” type comments, I do think it’s probably quite accurate to say from the off that if you are one of those who didn’t get swept up in the whimsical charms of ‘Amélie’, then I would suggest you will not find much more to enjoy in ‘Micmacs’. If you hated that film's sensibilities (as a great many seem to do) then I don’t think this is the film for you. Conversely, I think fans of that film will find much to recommend about ‘Micmacs’, as it has the same oddball sensibility, along with many of Jeunet’s familiar visual motifs and thematic preoccupations.

Whilst I can see how the hyper-stylised world of the Jeunet film will not be to everyone’s taste, I found ‘Micmacs’ consistently entertaining. It was frequently funny, in parts touching and never less than beautiful to look at. Furthermore, it always has its heart exactly in the right place. And what more can you ask of a film than that?

'Micmacs' (rated '12A' by the BBFC) is now on general release across the UK, and is playing all week at the Duke of York's in Brighton. Also, on the subject of the long running 'Alice' boycott saga, the Odeon have relented to Disney's terms, a full look at which can be found here.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The latest Splendor podcast is up...

As the title says, the latest Splendor Cinema/Duke of York's podcast is now on the right-hand side of this very blog. You can also now listen to it on the Duke of York's Picturehouse official website, where it can be streamed at your will. It should be up on iTunes in the near future, but (as is so often the case) there has been a hitch there for the time being.

This time Jon and I discuss the recent BAFTAs, the Berlin Film Festival and we also take a look at a couple of upcoming features: 'Amelie' director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 'Micmacs' and Michael Moore's latest documentary, 'Capitalism: A Love Story'.

The podcast is now hosted by the Picturehouse website, but thanks must go to Eurogamer's Craig Munroe, who heroically hosted the first four editions out of the kindness of his own heart. Thanks Craig!

Finally, Dennis at Wrapped in Brown Paper has published his review of 'The Lovely Bones', so check that out!

Both 'Micmacs' and 'Capitalism: A Love Story' can be seen at the Duke of York's Picturehouse from Friday 26th of February.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Mark Kermode interview, plus: the 'Alice' saga continues...

Mr. Mark Kermode, the popular British film critic, has been interviewed by my good friend Jon on his Splendor Cinema blog. This is due to the fact that Kermode is coming to the Duke of York's on Monday the 29th of March to promote his new book "It's Only a Movie" (for which tickets are apparently still available here).

I personally rarely find myself in agreement with Mr. Kermode, but I do listen to his podcast every week, so he must be doing something right.

Also, in an earlier post I mentioned that Tim Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland' was the subject of a possible boycott by the UK's biggest exhibitors. It now appears that, whilst Vue and Cineworld have caved in to Disney's demands, the Odeon are standing firm and not screening the film. Good on you Odeon! I have some sympathy with Disney's point of view on this issue, but I still think it's good to see that the exhibition industry is capable of standing firm against one of the world's biggest film companies. I don't know what the fall-out of this situation might be, but it is clear that the Odeon's decision will have a huge impact on the film's UK gross (once projected at £40 million), with people having to travel to find a cinema screening it (although I see it is playing in a number of Picturehouse cinemas nationwide from the 5th of March!).

The latest Splendor Cinema/Duke of York's podcast has been recorded and is now (kindly) being hosted by the Picturehouse website and should be up in the next few days, so watch this space!

Sunday, 21 February 2010

To dub or not to dub?

Working in a cinema where Miyazaki’s marvellous animated film ‘Ponyo’ is playing in both English-dub and Japanese language versions, I have talked to many people who have expressed a strong preference for seeing the subtitled version. Many have spoken of their joy that the cinema is playing the film in its native language, with some suggesting that the American dub is in some way an inferior or compromised version of the picture, intended for children and not cinephiles. Now, as I made clear in my review of 'Ponyo' last week, I am not only a fan of Miyazaki, but of animation in general, and I personally prefer to see the American dubbed versions of these films.

Naturally, I would never dream of seeing a live-action film like ‘The White Ribbon’ played with an English language soundtrack, as that would be fairly comical and would, in turn, spoil the film. I would also prefer to watch an animation like ‘Ponyo’ in its native language if I were a fluent speaker of that language, gaining from that many subtle details I'm sure are lost in translation. However, as I don’t speak Japanese, I find the Pixar-produced dubs of the Miyazaki films to be the best option. They are done with obvious love and respect, they usually get decent actors in to play each role (rather than simply hiring ‘stars’) and they make a real effort to match up the new voices with the original lip-syncing. It should come as no surprise that Pixar re-dub the Studio Ghibli movies with such proficiency as they meticulously redub their own movies for most foreign markets, using localised acting talent (this isn’t an example of one-way American cultural hegemony).

Ultimately, I view Miyazaki (pictured above with John Lasseter of Pixar) as a master of animation and want to spend my time looking at his films, and not at the text at the bottom. You couldn’t remove this barrier from a live-action film without completely compromising it, whereas this isn’t the case with dubbed animation, where it can enhance the experience. When I see a foreign language film, I may not understand that some characters are joking when they use a phrase which is lost in translation, or I may not be able to detect subtle changes in intonation which can make something read as humorous or threatening (a Spanish-speaking colleague experienced a different 'Sin Nombre' to me for just this reason), whereas a dubbed animation (when done properly) can provide you a truer experience than a subtitled version in the original language as the film can be transmitted without this barrier.

A common reason I have heard for why many people prefer the subtitled version is that it ensures the audience is devoid of children. I also feel this diminishes the experience for me in a dubbed version. I am always intrigued about audience reactions to any film, and love to feel like the film I am watching is exciting, amusing or scaring the people around me. I hated Peter Jackson’s ‘King Kong’, but I remember fondly the moments when everyone in the audience gasped in horror at some of the huge insects. Similarly my fondest memory of seeing ‘Wall-E’ at the cinema involved hearing a child exclaim “Oh no, not Wall-E!” when the loveable robot fell down a ventilation shaft. To a grown-up, cynical person like me, a film like ‘Wall-E’ can’t convincingly impart a feeling of peril: I know that ‘Wall-E’ will triumph and will survive the ventilation shaft ordeal, for example. But when I hear children reacting to a movie in an emotional and un-cynical way, it helps me to understand the impact the film is having on (what is ultimately) its intended audience and gives me more pleasure as a spectator.

I saw 'Ponyo' in both versions and enjoyed it on both occasions. For me, the American dub is a faithful and truthful account of the movie (at least as read in the subtitles) and I don’t see why, in the name of cultural snobbery, anyone would rob themselves of being able to sit back and really look at the movie in all its glory, with all its warmth, humour and charm intact.

Both versions of ‘Ponyo’ (rated 'U') are still packing in crowds at the Dukes and will continue to do so until it ends its run on Thursday the 25th of February. Come and see it whilst you still can!

Friday, 19 February 2010

A good year for British film?

Jon Barrenechea, of Splendor Cinema, is back in the country now after attending the Berlin Film Festival. So expect a new edition of our podcast within the next week. We will, of course, be covering the highs and lows of Jon's time in Berlin, as well as looking at the winners and losers from the BAFTA award ceremony this weekend.

Personally, I'm hoping Armando Iannucci's sublime satirical debut feature 'In the Loop' (Iannucci and cast members pictured above) wins the award for 'Outstanding British Film', which is arguably the ceremonies most interesting category this year with the others being very similar to recent award shortlists in terms of the films nominated. With that category also featuring nominations for the low-budget Sci-fi 'Moon', Andrea Arnold's 'Fish Tank', Sam Taylor-Wood's John Lennon biopic 'Nowhere Boy' and the multi Oscar-nominated 'An Education' (which being nominated for the overall Best Film prize, must be the favourite here?) it looks like a decent year for British film, especially considering that films of the quality of 'Looking for Eric' and 'Sleep Furiously' failed to make the shortlist.

Finally, my good friend Dennis at Wrapped in Brown Paper has written a cracking review of a recent British crime film I have never heard of called 'Tony'. He highly recommends it and it's worth checking out his review if you are interested in British independent cinema or the crime genre in general. Apparently it's available on DVD and on the strength of Dennis's review it maybe one to check out soon.

Watch this space for the next Splendor Cinema/Duke of York's podcast!

Support Armando and co by watching the BAFTAs award ceremony in full on BBC1, Sunday the 21st February at 21.00.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

'A Single Man' Review: Colin Firth shines in Tom Ford's decent debut film...

Having recently seen Pixar’s ‘Up’ for the second time, I was struck by its principle (albeit superficial) similarity to Tom Ford’s debut feature ‘A Single Man’. Both films concern a man struggling to continue living life following the death of a loved one. But whilst Carl Fredricksen decides to tether helium-filled balloons to his house and set off on an adventure, George Falconer (portrayed by Colin Firth in an Oscar-nominated performance) resolves to shoot himself in order to alleviate the pain he feels upon waking each day. Yet, the Disney animation led me to cry into my 3D glasses last year, whereas ‘A Single Man’, though undoubtedly handsome and boasting a terrific central performance from Firth, was never able hit me on the same emotional level.

‘A Single Man’ concerns Colin Firth’s George, an English literature professor at a Californian University in 1962, who eight months prior to the films narrative has lost his long-time partner (Matthew Goode) to a car crash. George’s sexuality becomes a central issue which, although Colin Firth and Tom Ford have both been eager to play this down when promoting the film, plays its part in accounting for the George character having to struggle in relative solitude with his socially inconvenient grief. For instance, it emerges (early on) that George was not permitted to attend his late partner’s funeral, whilst in another scene he lectures his class on the fear of difference. It is also his homosexuality that leads George to comment that he “lives in a glass house”, although it should be noted that George is not conflicted within himself with regards to his homosexuality, a fact which marks a refreshing deviance from the Hollywood norm.

Much has been made of the film’s director, Tom Ford, having made his name in fashion, though I must plead ignorance to his work as creative director of Gucci. But it is not the case that ‘A Single Man’ is all style and no substance. Yes, the male characters George meets do look as though they have stepped out of a glossy Calvin Klein ad (with their tight vests and immaculate hair) but I am happy to see the beauty of these figures as heightened by George’s new found fascination with the world as he experiences (what he believes will be) his last day on Earth.

Whilst the costume design is just as elegant and stylish as you’d expect, the films aesthetic beauty is evident in much more than just its sartorial splendour and it is the young (and relatively unknown) Spanish cinematographer Eduard Grau who must take credit for what is a very attractively lit film. Whilst I found the transitions between washed out grey tones into ultra-bright, glowing colour (and in one scene to black and white) a little distracting and heavy handed as a device, the film never looks anything less than beautiful. It also helps that the production design is excellent at invoking the period (as expected from the crew behind HBO’s ‘Mad Men’).

It is with elements like the changes in the colour palette, the frequent slow-motion and the pretentious cuts to images of George underwater, which severed my connection with the film as an emotional experience. Especially given the clichéd nature of the images that lead George to see the joy in all the world’s things: these include the sunlight, a rose and a child playing - often with the saturated colour and slow-motion combining to highlight their intense beauty and profundity.

It is also rather distracting that a game of geographical musical chairs appears to be going on amongst the films cast, with two British supporting players (Nicholas Hoult and Matthew Goode) employing ill-advised American accents, whilst Julianne Moore is cast as a British ex-pat. It must be said that Moore does a much better job than her co-stars of convincing after this switch, but it hardly seems to have been necessary to do this in the first place. Not only are there many talented British actresses who could have played Moore’s part, but there are a great many American actors who could easily have filled the other two roles better. That said Julianne Moore gives a really good performance as George’s friend Charley, arguably sharing the best and most intense scene with Colin Firth late in the film.

Colin Firth, as has been recognised in the form of an Academy Award nomination, really excels as George Falconer and holds the entire film together. Finally it seems there is a vehicle for him which finds a way to add a degree of warmth to his rather restrained, but usually cold, manner. In his many roles as a Mr. Darcy figure (literally in the BBC’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and later in ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’) Colin Firth has had the thankless task of playing the same dashing, but woefully dull, aristocrat. Here he demonstrates that he is rather more talented than all that, and where ‘A Single Man’ works, it is Colin Firth who comes away looking the best for it. I haven’t yet seen Jeff Bridges in ‘Crazy Heart’, but on the evidence of ‘A Single Man’ Bridges performance must be pretty spectacular if it beats Colin Firth to the Oscar this March, as expected.

Ultimately, I enjoyed a lot of aspects of the film; with the excellent cinematography and production design being two key examples. Tom Ford is certainly a better director than many predicted when the film was announced and his debut film is handsomely made to the extreme. But when ‘A Single Man’ should sit still and draw you into its gripping central performance and wholly relatable emotional story (we will all lose somebody important in our lives), Ford insists on employing some unfortunate visual gimmicks and slightly pretentious imagery. It is a pity, as this film could have been just as effective a rumination on life, love and loss as Pixar’s ‘Up’, but unlike that film, it is never really allowed to take off.

'A Single Man' is currently playing to packed crowds at Brighton's Duke of York's Picturehouse and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

'Ponyo' Review: The beauty of Miyazaki

I’ll make it known from the off: I’m a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s work. Because of this, I probably have a little bit of trouble evaluating his latest film with much objectivity. I quite simply can’t see what anybody could dislike about “Ponyo”.

Miyazaki’s first feature since 2004’s ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’, ‘Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea’ (to use its more picturesque Japanese title) will be enthusiastically devoured by fans of Japanese anime, by fans of traditional hand-drawn animation in general, as well as by fans of its legendary filmmaker. Indeed, it will be a film welcomed by all of the above all the more enthusiastically as it comes in the wake of Studio Ghibli’s last, rather lacklustre, 2006 effort ‘Tales from Earthsea’ (directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son: Goro).

‘Ponyo’ is the story of a fish who desires to become a human after falling in love with one. In this way it is essentially an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”. However, that is not to say that the film does not bare the auteurist stamp of its director, as all of Miyazaki’s usual preoccupations are on show here: Miyazaki transforms Andersen’s mermaid and prince into two young, self-sufficient children; the film has similar environmental messages to ‘Princess Mononoke’ and ‘Spirited Away’; our hero saves the day (spoiler!) by overcoming trials of the heart, rather than tests of physical strength (see any of Miyazaki’s heroes); and Miyazaki again displays his fascination with people at work – here seen in the sections featuring the men at sea or the young boy's mother tending to the old women of the nursing home.

All of these motifs are echoed in this film, but there is a far more important one which is also present here. Miyazaki carries everything off with his customary lightness of touch and effortless charm. The characters in his films are unfailingly good-natured and there are never any bad guys to speak of (perhaps with the notable exception of Muska in ‘Castle in the Sky’), as he refuses to deal in straightforward good versus evil. It's heartening, that the villains in Miyazaki are never too far from redemption, often befriending the heroes.

As is to be expected by now, the film is superb from an animation standpoint. The animation is colourful, fluid and detailed throughout, whilst nobody in the history of the art form has so effectively captured the spirit of childhood through the depiction of children in motion. Like ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ before it, ‘Ponyo’ features some of the most sensitive and poignant animation of children I have ever seen and it is here that the film really excels.

However my enduring memory and perhaps my favourite moment of the film was its depiction of a downcast and rainy early-afternoon. I have never seen any film (animated or live-action) so accurately evoke that time of day and the feeling that comes with it. As you can no doubt tell from this review: I loved ‘Ponyo’. It was purely and immensely joyful and if my fandom of Miyazaki has in any way compromised my judgement and rendered me unable to find any negatives in this film, then I am entirely happy with that outcome. In an age where most children's films have a post-modern, knowing cynicism about them, it is really refreshing to find something so sincere in its unabashed enthusiasm and childish naivety.

'Ponyo' is playing all week at the Duke of York's Picturehouse in Brighton (in subtitled and dubbed versions) and is rated 'U' by the BBFC.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Tim Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland' a key battleground as Disney fights pirates?

Disney have apparently told the UK’s biggest film exhibitors that they are shortening the time between the theatrical and home entertainment releases of the new 3D Tim Burton film ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Apparently the standard length of theatrical exclusivity is 17 weeks, which Disney have plans to cut to 12. Needless to say, the UK’s biggest cinema chains have not been impressed and are holding their ground, threatening to boycott the film entirely unless Disney reverse their stance. The Odeon and Vue chains have apparently taken the step of removing all trailers and promotional materials from their cinemas, as well as putting a hold on the buying of advance tickets. Cineworld is still advertising the film, but is also understood to be rebuking Disney’s deal.

What is the big deal? Well, distributors, understandably, don’t want to see the gap narrow between the theatrical run of a movie and its home video release, as it increases the likelihood that many may wait and catch the film on DVD rather than go to the cinema. With two adult tickets (or maybe just one for a 3D film) usually being equal to the price of a new DVD, which can be endlessly re-watched with as many people as you like, it isn’t hard to see why waiting for the DVD would become increasingly appealing if the gap were to narrow. Disney, however, have taken the view that most films have stopped showing in cinemas after 12 weeks anyway, and that denying people who wish to own the film a legitimate way to do so for a couple of months may play into the hands of pirates. A fair point, I think.

Of course, this dispute will likely be resolved one way or the other in time for ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to open across the country. I’m sure all this grandstanding ultimately won’t prevent the Odeon from showing Johnny Depp in 3D, with all the potential revenue that brings, whilst Disney won't want to forfeit a projected £40 million UK box office. But regardless of which side wins this battle, it seems clear that it will not signify the end of the war. If Disney sees this as a potential way to schedule all releases in the future then that could very well spell big problems for the exhibition industry, especially once the 3D capable televisions have taken that particular cinema-exclusive novelty into the home later this year.

Anyway, if the Odeon aren't showing the trailer at the moment, allow me to exhibit it here:

For more information on this story read the original Reuters news story or the article on the Guardian website.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

It's alive! The most splendid Splendor podcast yet is here!

It’s finally here! After a technical hitch that involved the host thinking he’d accidentally deleted the entire recording, the latest Splendor Cinema/Duke of York’s podcast is up. Of course you already know that if you subscribed to it on iTunes. For everyone else, what’s keeping you?

This time around Jon and I talk about the Oscar nominations and discuss who should win and who will win the coveted awards in March. It’s pod gold. Sadly, it may also be the last podcast for a few weeks as Jon is off to Berlin to catch the festival, the lucky devil. On the bright side he will be back with news of the latest films from Scorsese and Polanski, as well as insights on a whole host of other interesting movies and events. So watch this space for that report.

Monday, 8 February 2010

'Precious' Review: A 'Precious' thing?

'Precious’, or ‘Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire’, to use its full US title, is a big Oscar contender and a new film from Lee Daniels, best known as the producer of ‘Monster’s Ball’. Set in Harlem in 1987, ‘Precious’ tells the story of a sixteen year-old African American girl who suffers horrendous domestic abuse (of both a violent and sexual nature) at the hands of her parents. Claireece Precious Jones, played by Oscar nominated newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, is illiterate, obese and has twice been made pregnant by her father. Her mother, excellently portrayed by a terrifying Mo’Nique (pictured above), has not only allowed her daughter to be repeatedly raped, but also regularly subjects her to the most appalling physical and mental abuse. She force feeds her daughter and then torments her about her weight. She knocks Precious unconscious by throwing frying pans at the back of her head, all the time sitting watching television game shows and misleading well-meaning social workers in order to collect her welfare cheques.

Mo’Nique (a famous comedienne stateside) really makes this role her own and it is no surprise that she is the odds-on favourite to take home the Best Supporting Actress award at the Oscars in March, having already been honoured by Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild – she would certainly be a worthy recipient. Not only is she a truly frightening presence, but she also manages to round her character out, avoiding making her a two dimensional villain. Mo’Nique imbues her character with enough insecurity and disappointment at how her own life has turned out that when she does irredeemably cruel things they are rooted in her own history of abuse and neglect. In this way the film avoids taking a complicated social problem and attributing one individual with the blame.

Gabourey Sidibe is equally good in what is essentially a thankless role as the young Precious. She is reduced to brooding silence or painful inarticulacy for most of the film – and to vapid smiles during the relief fantasy sequences. Her character is, by necessity, unable to really express herself due to her reluctance to confront the reality of her life. But she convinces and instils Precious with her own aura of violent menace, whilst crucially maintaining an air of vulnerability. Among the supporting performers is a decent turn from Lenny Kravitz (in a minor role as a male nurse) and a really brilliant performance from Mariah Carey (pictured) as the social worker looking over Precious’s case. A lot has been made of Carey doing without make-up and being prepared to be unglamorous, but to focus on that aspect ignores a very solid performance. She absolutely nails her role with an air of authority and keeps the emotional distance required in that sort of profession, without seeming cold. She is stern and authoritative and at the films climax she brushes away a budding tear with quiet dignity in a wonderful moment. Helen Mirren, who was originally cast in the role, could not have done better. In fact in many ways she may have felt less authentic.

The film has some interesting racial politics as Precious mistakenly calls Mariah Carey’s Ms. Weiss “Mrs. White” and later questions her about her ambiguous ethnicity. In an earlier scene, Precious sees herself in a mirror as a thin, white girl. It is also constantly repeated during the films monologues that Precious desires a “light-skinned boyfriend”. This could be seen as supportive of some statements made by US critics that the film paints a negative picture of African American life, with Precious wishing to escape being black as if it would end her problems. But I think the many times we see smiling white people on television taking part in aspirational television shows we are being shown an alien world quite different to the one that Precious experiences in Harlem. If anything this aspect of the film links its social issues to poverty and highlights how, in America, the urban poor are often ghettoised ethnic minorities.

The one exception to the overall excellence in the cast is Paula Patton in the clichéd role of the inspirational teacher. The ludicrously named Ms. Blu Rain delivers the film’s most cumbersome and sentimental lines (“I love you precious...” adding with a whisper “your baby loves you.”) Her role is admittedly overwritten and heavy handed, but Patton fails to bring anything to it, let alone carry it off with the same effortless hard edge as her co-stars. It feels a little as if she has strolled in from a different, more obvious, movie.

Another criticism I could direct at the film is at the contrived level of misery befalling its protagonist: Precious is sexually abused by her father and physically assaulted by her mother; she is illiterate; she is obese; one of her two children has Down’s Syndrome; she lives in poverty and off welfare. As if these difficulties were not hard going enough the final act sees Precious again dealt another horrible blow by fate, which I won’t go into here so as not to spoil the film. It feels a little like it’s actively courting Oscar attention. I would also agree with many critics who have taken issue with the fantasy sequences. Although I understand (and admire) their intended purpose to relieve the viewer of too much distress (such as during a rape scene) and also to give us a glimpse at how Precious copes with her situation, I found the sequences themselves to be poorly shot and cheap looking compared to the rest of the film. They don’t fit stylistically with the rest of the piece, which is a problem.

Despite these flaws, ‘Precious’ is a film worthy of attention, especially for the performances. The films last scene is flawlessly executed and many of the scenes between Precious and her mother are tense and suspenseful. I wouldn’t award it Best Picture, in March, but then neither will the academy. However, it is an interesting film worthy of consideration.

For a preview of Mo'Nique's inevitable Oscar win, watch her excruciating Golden Globe acceptance speech below:

'Precious' is certified 15 by the BBFC and is playing until Thursday 11th of February at the Duke of York's Picturehouse in Brighton.

Why I still care about the Oscars

Unfortunately a technical error has delayed the latest ‘Splendor Cinema/Duke of York’s’ podcast. In it, Jon and I, discuss the Oscar nominations predicting who should win and who will win. It should be up this week. However, there are friends of mine who would question the wisdom of devoting as much (or any) attention to the Oscars. Some really hate the Academy Awards and will say that they don’t care who wins on the big night. To them, I say, there are so many reasons to care.

Obviously the Academy Awards can rarely be looked at as the definitive summary of that year in film, especially as they ignore foreign language film in the major categories to such a degree. But the awards are of interest because they interest the industry itself. It matters who wins because they will find it easier to get work, and if a film you like wins an Oscar then more people will be encouraged to go to see it. OK, ‘Avatar’, a likely winner of Best Picture this year, doesn’t need a boost to its box office. But imagine if ‘A Serious Man’ won. It would probably more than double the number of people who see that film. In 2008, when Paul Thomas Anderson was nominated for Best Director, I was thrilled, because that sort of recognition counts for something in Hollywood. Maybe he’ll find it a little easier to make his next film, or to attract the actors he wants or whatever. I care if films I like win awards because I want to see more films like them. Mostly though, I cover the Oscars, not because of what they say about art, but because they impact upon cinema as a business in a way BAFTAs, Golden Globes and SAG awards just don’t.

In an earlier post I predicted who I thought would be nominated this time around (and was fairly accurate). Today I thought it would be a bit of self-indulgent fun to hand out my own awards for last year in film. Now, if I were a one-man award academy, ‘A Serious Man’ would win Best Picture, with ‘The White Ribbon’ and ‘A Prophet’ nominated in the category. I would also include the mumblecore gem ‘Humpday’ and the brilliant British satire ‘In the Loop’. The Best Director would be Lars Von Trier (already self-proclaimed greatest in the world: why not make it official?) for ‘Antichrist’, the beautiful and haunting movie that became so notorious last year. ‘In the Loop’ would win the screenplay award it so richly deserves (and is really nominated for) and ‘Ponyo’ would win Best Animated Film (for which it isn’t even a nominee). In terms of actors, I would award Michael Stuhlbarg and nominate Max Records (the little boy from ‘Where the Wild Things Are’). Both are intense and interesting screen performers. The actress category would be won by Carey Mulligan, for ‘An Education’, who is deservedly actually nominated outside of this fantasy.

If, somehow, you aren’t all Oscar-ed out by now, stay tuned for the aforementioned podcast later this week to hear Jon and I predict the winners and losers for the real event.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Armageddon as directors top Hollywood rich list for 2009

An interesting fact emerges from this year’s Vanity Fair “top Hollywood earners” list: the top five places go to directors. Todd Phillips comes in at five, fresh from directing ‘The Hangover’ (subject of a recent Oscar snub), a surprise hit which must have seen Phillips claiming a proportion of the box office gross to earn his reported $44 million last year. At four, Jim Cameron (subject of Oscar buzz), comes in with some of that sweet ‘Avatar’ money. ‘Avatar’ was only released in the last couple of weeks of 2009, so Cameron’s place at four on this list shows just how much money he/that film has made in such a short space of time. I’d expect Cameron to be at the top of next year’s list with the same film. Three sees Roland Emmerich taking $70 million home for directing the disaster movie ‘2012’ (never linked to Oscars). Emmerich is probably another one seeing a healthy proportion of the box office as part of his fee.

That leaves, in second and first place, respectively, father and son duo (as pictured) Spielberg and Bay. They have (depressingly) been raking it in from the recent ‘Transformers’ movies. Say what you will about ‘Avatar’, but it is a coherent film at least – and with its heart in the right place. Michael Bay reportedly made $125 million last year so it's no wonder he doesn’t care what people say about his films. The full break down of this figure is available in the original Vanity Fair article, but interesting highlights include: $75 million from directing/producing the film, $25 million from sales of the DVD (yes, if you bought it, you’re lining his pockets, happy?) and $12.5 million from toys and video games etc.

I really, really wanted to come at this list from the perspective that, regardless of who they were and what they had made, directors had claimed the top five places in this poll, where usually actors dominate (as indeed they dominate the remaining thirty-five places). The thing is that there isn’t really a single person on the list who is there because they directed a film: rather all the directors on the list are also producers. Or they made $50 million from theme parks last year (Steven Spielberg).

Anyway, check out the entire top 40, and all the details therein, here.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Ozu monogatari: Mark Cousin's stares into the void

According to Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu made films of “dignified severity”. He meant it as a criticism. In terms of the films they gave us, the two men could hardly have been more different: you certainly couldn’t confuse the horse chase sequence in ‘The Hidden Fortress’ or the titular ‘Seven Samurai’ running through the tall grass to save the villagers (both conveying an urgency and a sense of speed) with the famous stillness found in Ozu’s work. The most famous examples of his work are slow, small-scale family dramas like ‘Early Spring’ and ‘Tokyo Story’ (though, as Tony Rayns points out in last month’s Sight and Sound, he made many other types of film in his long and prolific career at Shochiku).

Yet Ozu’s films are no less compelling than Kurosawa’s. They delight with their attention to detail. In Ozu’s films, pauses are emphasised, shots linger, often with the camera close to the ground or looking in at the “action” from another room. External shots of trains going by are a common occurrence and seem simply to mark the passing of time and require patience. They are formal, beautiful and poignant: emotional, yet never mawkish or sentimental. Ozu never had wife or family of his own, yet he told stories about families which speak a universal truth, such as when the well-meaning elderly couple of ‘Tokyo Story’ find themselves to be an unwelcome inconvenience when visiting their (now grown up) children, who have jobs to attend to and children of their own to raise. None of the people in these stories are wrong or bad: they just are.

I am writing about Ozu because there has been a lot of attention paid to his work recently. This has partly been due to the fact that this month sees a programme of Ozu films playing at the BFI Southbank (until February 27th) and partly because similarities between Ozu’s work and that of Hirokazu Kore-eda are being drawn in reviews of his new film ‘Still Walking’ (Sight & Sound’s Film of the Month for February). Noted film historian David Thomson has also seen fit to contribute a snobby and pompous article about Ozu versus ‘Avatar’ for the Guardian newspaper. But the piece that caught my attention was a tribute paid to the great man by Mark Cousins during BBC Radio 4’s Film Programme. During the programme, Cousins described not only his appreciation for Ozu, but also his experience visiting Ozu’s grave recently. He describes how the man he sees as the “centre of film history” is represented by a tombstone without a name or any dates, but simply the Chinese character “Mu” which he translates as “emptiness” or “the void”, but which can also be read as “the space between all things”. "Dignified severity" indeed.

Surrounded by tributes of alcohol (like Kurosawa, Ozu was a notorious alcoholic) this grave is somehow the ultimate monument to a man whose films faced the facts of human existence, however apparently bleak, without any need to sugar coat them. He didn’t even want to romanticise his own passing from this Earth. That takes a special kind of dedication to the “truth” so often talked about by artists. Yet Ozu was not a pretentious artist. He was a company man. He was loyal to one studio his whole life and made a great many films (from the silent-era onwards) as a hired gun. He was disciplined and demanding, a perfectionist, but not at the expense of his humility. And whilst his films are not sentimental, they are not without sentiment (‘Tokyo Story’, for one, is a real tear jerker). He was, for me, a real humanist with a deep understanding of, and affection for, life’s smaller moments. He is survived by his films and not by a piece of stone.

Apparently Mark Cousins visit to the grave was made as part of an upcoming documentary on Ozu’s life and work. I, for one, look forward to a closer look at this fascinating 20th century artist if and when it is released. I will keep an eye out.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

The award for Best Trailer for a Motion Picture goes to...

Movie trailers: they can make you laugh, they can make you cry. Well, maybe not cry (that is unless the words ‘Transformers 3’ appear somewhere) but trailers can certainly make a very compelling case for themselves as an art form in their own right. They may not have an award dedicated to them at the Oscars, but here are three examples of trailers from the last year that would be in contention if they did (incidentally there is an industry award for trailers: see The Golden Trailer Awards):

Where the Wild Things Are had a superb early teaser trailer, helped in no small part by its use of an amazing song by Arcade Fire to really which really helps to invoke the spirit of the film:

Possibly my favourite of last year, A Serious Man had an amazing trailer which was a masterpiece in editing:

Finally, A Single Man, which has a very slick trailer and opens at the Duke of York's cinema from Friday 12th February. It looks stunning:

I hope you enjoyed the trailers. Please post some of your own favourites below and come back later in the week, when the latest Splendor Cinema/Duke of York's podcast will be up. It's our fourth episode and we will be looking at the Oscar nominations, picking our winners. It can't be missed!

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

My predictions for the 82nd Academy Award nominees are...

The nominees for the 82nd Academy Awards are due to be revealed today. I thought it would be worth jotting my predictions down here so I can refer to them at a later date, hopefully with regards to their accuracy.

As many readers may know, the Best Picture shortlist has been doubled from five films to ten. This makes my life a little easier as I’m bound to get one or two guesses correct now! I reckon we can expect to see the five features which were nominated for the same honour at last month’s Golden Globe awards, those being ‘Precious’, ‘Inglourious Basterds’, ‘The Hurt Locker’, ‘Up in the Air’ and, of course, the winner ‘Avatar’. They could be joined by the BAFTA best film nominee ‘An Education’, the highly-rated and commercially successful Vegas comedy ‘The Hangover’ and Pixar’s splendid ‘Up’. I don’t have too much confidence in the final two guesses, but I’m going to go with ‘The Blind Side’, a sentimental American football “you can live your dream!” movie, for which Sandra Bullock has been winning all the actress awards this year, and ‘It’s Complicated’ because it has Meryl Streep in it and also stars this year’s ceremonies co-hosts, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. There will be a lot of good will in the room, as they say.

In terms of Best Actress, I have already mentioned two obvious contenders: Meryl Streep for either ‘It’s Complicated’ or ‘Julie and Julia’ (at the Globes she was nominated for both) and Sandra Bullock. I expect to find Carey Mulligan on that list (or at least I hope to find her on it) for her dazzling turn in ‘An Education’. ‘Gabourey Sidibe’ may get a nod for her part as the abused and illiterate Precious in the film of the same name, whilst Julianne Moore is a possibility for her co-starring role in ‘A Single Man’.

Colin Firth is the hot favourite for Best Actor, with his portrayal of a homosexual University professor in Tom Ford’s upcoming film ‘A Single Man’. Jeff Bridges was a popular winner of the equivalent Globe last month, so he’ll surely be a contender for his role in ‘Crazy Heart’. To be honest, one of those two will win the award, so the remaining three are a formality: George Clooney (‘Up in the Air’), Tobey Maguire (‘Brothers’) and Morgan Freeman, perhaps a good outside bet for his portrayal of Nelson Mandela in Clint Eastwood’s ‘Invictus’. I would like to see ‘A Serious Man’ star Michael Stuhlbarg get a nomination, but that appears unlikely, though I’d be surprised if that film isn’t nominated for some minor awards (you know, little things like Editing, Sound and Writing!).

The supporting actor prizes will be won by Mo’Nique for ‘Precious’ and Christopher Waltz for ‘Inglourious Basterds’, without a shred of doubt in my mind. The two female leads of ‘Up in the Air’ (Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick - who would both be worthy winners in my opinion) may also be nominated in the supporting actress category, whilst Waltz is likely be competing against Matt Damon and Stanley Tucci (‘Invictus’ and The ‘Lovely Bones’ respectively). Best Director is being billed as a tussle between a former husband and wife: James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow (‘Avatar’ and ‘The Hurt Locker’ respectively). That category may be fleshed out by the likes of Jason Reitman (‘Up in the Air’), Lee Daniels (‘Precious’) and, possibly, Tom Ford for ‘A Single Man’. You heard it here first!

I now lie in wait to see if my predictions are given any credence by the actual nominations later today. Please share your thoughts and predictions below.

I just thought I’d update this post in response to the Academy Award nominations having been announced now. Earlier I predicted the nominations and I am pleased to say I was (mostly) accurate. I predicted eight of the ten Best Picture nominees successfully. I was incorrect when I suggested ‘The Hangover’ (winner of Best Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes) and ‘It’s Complicated’ might be included. However, I was happy to be wrong as two of my favourite films of last year were nominated instead: ‘District 9’ and ‘A Serious Man’. Whilst neither will end up winning the award (‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘Avatar’ must be considered favourites, and both are nominated for nine awards overall) I am glad to see both making the list and earning themselves that honour. I was very pleased to find Carey Mulligan in the Best Actress category, as predicted. In fact, in that category I only got one guess wrong (Julianne Moore was not nominated, but Helen Mirren instead). It’s the same story with my picks for the actor category, with one wrong guess, in this case Tobey Maguire was not nominated and Jeremy Renner, of ‘The Hurt Locker’ was. A good mistake again. I guessed correctly with the nominations for both supporting categories, though I only guessed three names for each in that case. I was incorrect about Tom Ford being nominated for the director category for ‘A Single Man’, with Tarantino the preferred choice in the final shortlist.

Personally, I would have liked to have seen a foreign language film slipping into the Best Picture category now that the shortlist has been expanded. 'The White Ribbon' is certainly a better film than many that made the list. And whilst 'The Hangover' wouldn't have been my pick for Best Film, it would have been good to see comedy being acknowledged. However, it was pleasing to see an animated film successfully able to escape its sub-category this year, and 'Up' is deserving of the honour. All in all I'm pleased with the nominations. Whilst 'Avatar' will probably win the Best Picture and Best Director awards, I am really happy to find that six of my top ten films of 2009 (see the list in the right-hand margin of this blog) are nominated for awards, with three nominated for the main prize.