Wednesday, 27 February 2013

85th Annual Academy Awards

Here we go again with Hollywood's annual love-in: the Oscars! Much to my surprise I note that last year was the first time that I blogged about the ceremony, despite being a near religious viewer of the annual fun and games. So how was this year's? Good question!

For a start I wish that the powers that be would get their act together when choosing a host for the procedings, rather than opting for a flavor-of-the-month like we had in the form of Seth MacFarlane. While I know next to nothing about the man, never having seen any of his television shows nor yet seen his directorial effort "Ted" (although I must admit it sounds something of a hoot from the reviews I've read), my received impression was to expect a sharp and humourous intelligence. Wrong again! His shtick was a cringing example of bad taste and mis-timed attempts to raise laughs, exemplified by his song number "We've seen your boobs", highlighting well-known actresses who have bared all on screen. The look of disgust on the faces of some of his 'culprits' reflected the audience's unease, even if two of his victims had agreed in advance to react with pretend horror (Theron and Watts I've read). No need to pretend ladies, since his entire routine verged on the unwatchable with sexist, racist, and religious so-called jokes. When the 'god of good taste' William Shatner appeared to him as some sort of deus ex machina telling him to improve his hosting or risk disastrous reviews, we were treated to some clumpy musical numbers to make the opening more 'Oscarly', but which only made one think that what the ceremony really needs is a professional host who gets on with the business to hand. 

As usual I have only seen a minority of this year's contenders, although I know that I will catch up with them all in due course, having so far only seen "Life of Pi" and "Django Unchained" on their release. However that in no way stops my having my own biases and prejudices. Staying with these two films for the moment, I suppose Tarantino deserved his second screenwriting Oscar since he is a far better writer than director or god-help-us actor, and Christoph Waltz is a mesmeric screen presence. As for "Pi", it was surprisingly the evening's big winner, if you count receiving four awards as notable. As expected it had two well-deserved technical awards for visual effects and cinematography, a third for its rousing musical score, and I felt a very deserved acknowledgment of Ang Lee as best director. I think that pleased me more than anything else.

However his film did not go on to win best picture, an honour taken by the very popular "Argo", which brings me to the often commented upon anomaly of a best picture 'directing itself 'when its director is not himself nominated. In a way this is inevitable when the Academy decided to expand the list of nominated films to a maximum of ten, while limiting the directorial nominations to five -- although this conundrum existed even when the totals were five and five. If truth be known, I suspect that Lee might have lost the race had Ben Affleck been numbered amongst his opponents, although I think the absence of the other three missing directors would not have mattered. At any rate I'm pleased that "Lincoln" and Steven Spielberg did not win in either category.

Meanwhile Lincoln's star Daniel Day-Lewis went on to make Oscar history by being the first man to win three best actor Oscars. I don't have a lot of time for this infamous method actor, although there is no doubt that he pours himself into his roles, since he often comes across as humourless and holier-than-thou. However I did chuckle during his acceptance speech, after his win was announced by Meryl Streep -- herself no slouch when it comes to nominations and wins -- that he nearly didn't take the role since he was contracted to play Margaret Thatcher, leaving Streep as Speilberg's next choice as Lincoln. Now there are two never-to-be-seen films worth savouring!

As for the other acting kudos, one couldn't help feeling that the awards to Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway reflected their current popularity rather than necessarily being the best amongst the nominees. It would have been lovely to see octagenarian Emmanuelle Riva win best actress. as she did at the BAFTAs, but most of the voters probably don't know who the heck she is. As for Hathaway's Oscar, this probably annoys me more than any of the awards, not just because her screen time in "Les Miserables" was limited (this didn't stop Judi Dench's receiving the same award some years back for only eight mintues on screen), but because she becomes increasingly more and more full of herself and no doubt believed that she deserved this honour more than any of her fellow nominees. I should say in passing that I have resisted ever seeing the stage version of "Les Mis" despite its having run here for the last umpteen years and I can hardly say that I am looking forward to watching the three hour, totally live-sung musical film. It sounds to me like three hours of purgatory -- but that's probably just me.

Anything else? Well I am fed up with hearing winners say with mock humility that in any 'normal' year their competitors would have been the obvious winner; I think this has been said every year since the year dot. Secondly, while the theme of this year's ceremony was meant to be the celebration of screen musicals, this would have been far better accomplished with one of the compilations that have shone at previous ceremonies, rather than subjecting us to unnecessary re-enactments of the Oscar-winning "Chicago" and "Showgirls" and then giving the cast of "Les Mis" the chance to perform their nominated best song. You really can't mix tributes with nominations, and apart from Adele's winning performance of "Skyfall" the other three nominees were given little exposure. In an average year I normally record between five and eight parts of the evening's jollities to save for my future viewing pleasure, but this year there were only two: the rather well-done tribute to 50 years of James Bond with its crowd-pleasing performance of "Goldfinger" by Shirley Bassey, and the In Memoriam section honoring those now gone, which this year ended with a rare performance by Barbra Streisand. Both she and Bassey still 'have it' even if their voices are not quite what they were at their peak.

Well there's always next year for things to improve and perhaps I will have finally seen all of this years nominations by then -- even if this has to include "Les Mis".

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Hitchcock (2012)

Having been more than a little disappointed by the cable film "The Girl" (2012) screened over Christmas, where Toby Jones swathed in prosthetic make-up made a reasonable fist of portraying the iconic director, I nearly gave the cinema showing of the above movie a miss, especially since nearly all of the main critics came down hard on the film, only begrudgingly noting some splendid acting. So we went to a matinee at our local on its penultimate showing and found that we were far from alone in the small but crowded theatre. I suppose this is because Hitchcock is one of the very few directors whose name and image can conjure up fond recollections, especially among an older audience.

Let me say up front that I really enjoyed the movie and not just because I am an unrepentent film buff. A mixture of biopic, period recreation, and a new look at historical figures from 50s' Hollywood, stirred with a combination of thriller, black comedy, and romance, the film may be flawed and skewed beyond factual recognition, but it is thoroughly entertaining, thanks largely to the characters of Anthony Hopkins as "call me Hitch, hold the cock" and Helen Mirren as his wife, Alma Reville. As fine an actor as he is, Hopkins has not really been at his best when portraying real people -- think of his versions of Nixon and Picasso, whereas he is a master of bringing imaginary characters to life. In this film he too underwent possibly unnecessary hours in the make-up artist's chair to give the impression of the portly Hitchcock, but it was to some extent a waste of time, since he no more resembles the director than did Toby J. However, when it comes to his manner, his way of talking, his inflections and his phrasing, Hopkins is magnificent and one can immediately warm to the bull-headed and sarky beast that Hitch appeared -- despite his many self-doubts and insecurities. Were you to close your eyes, you could believe it was the man himself up there on the screen.

Although ostensibly about Hitchcock during the period when he was making "Psycho", the film in the end is more a love letter to the long-suffering Reville, largely ignored by the public that worshipped her husband, and portrayed here as the real power behind the throne. Mirren has drabbed down somewhat to morph into his dowdy collaborator (in this sense Imelda Staunton in "The Girl" was far more physically believable). She does however bring real strength to her portrayal of the equally talented filmmaker, who has spent years catering to her husband's eccentricities. I think her suggested flirtation with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (a real hack of the period, brought to swarmy life by Danny Houston) detracts from the film's overall interest, as does the spirit of serial killer Ed Gein acting as a macabre mentor for Hitch in certain scenes. Not having read the Stephen Rebello book which forms the basis for this film, I can't tell if these unnecessary sidelights are part of the backstory or merely embellishments by director Sacha Gervasi (a strange choice, this director of failed-band bio "Anvil") and his own screenwriter. Regardless we are privileged to follow the couple during the period when the only way they could fund the classic movie was to mortgage their own home (and swimming pool), since the studio just didn't want to know about Hitch's little horror film.

There is a great deal of fun to be had in seeing the supporting cast of characters in this saga reincarnated. Scarlett Johansson makes a truly scrumptious Janet Leigh. Having seen her recently in "Avengers Assemble", I thought she was beginning to look a little weary, but here she is delightfully lovely and naive; she does not come across in any way oppressed by the would-be lecherous Hitch with his pet blondes. Jessica Biel looks equally yummy as Vera Miles, whom Hitch purportedly 'hates' for having become pregnant rather than letting him make her a star in "Vertigo".  James D'Arcy becomes a fair likeness of Anthony Perkins, with all his own neuroses and mummy hang-ups. Toni Collette makes a fine Peggy Robertson, Hitch's longtime secretary-assistant, while Michael Stuhlbarg is 100% believable as the director's megastar agent Lew Wasserman. Right down to Richard Portnow as Paramount boss Barney Balaban and Kirkwood Smith as the prissy censor whom Hitch outmanoeuvres, the casting is spot-on.

The film is not as fine an example of film-making as the average Hitchcock/Reville product, and even at 98 minutes, it does feel over-extended. However scenes like the director dancing with joy in the theatre lobby at the first "Psycho" screening, as he hears the audience's terrified screams, more than make up for the occasional longeurs and probable elisions of the script.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Hyde Park on Hudson (2012)

We very nearly went to see this film last October when it was included in the London Film Festival programme. For a start I knew that Michael really likes Bill Murray (me? -- I'm a little indifferent) who was taking the lead role as the well-loved president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and secondly because I have fond memories of visiting Hyde Park (not the one in London, but the setting for Roosevelt's country retreat along the Hudson River, subsequently turned into an FDR museum) as a child. To make an already long story short, we decided per our usual guidelines for 'mainstream' films to wait until it received the inevitable cinema release. Well we had to wait until now and nearly didn't go at all, since the critics' reviews here were lukewarm at best.

Anyhow I'm pleased that I followed my instincts, since it turned out to be a slow, but gentle, 95 minutes in the cinema -- a far cry from the usual slap 'em up, knock-em down features that pull in today's audience. I was surprised therefore that the afternoon showing we attended was reasonably full. The story -- a slight one at best -- is set on a weekend in 1939 when FDR and his entourage are expecting a house visit from King George VI and his wife on the first trip to the United States by a British monarch. Their purpose is to woo American support for the looming forthcoming war; his is to carry on business as usual, juggling affairs of state with managing the bevy of bossy women who surround him -- his mother, his wife Eleanor, and several mistresses.

Unfortunately the story is largely told through the eyes of one of the latter, his distant cousin Daisy, played by Laura Linney. She is something of a drab little thing when she is summoned to keep him company at the country house; she is asked to admire his stamp collection (a ploy like "come up and see my etchings"). They go on a ride together in his specially adapted open-top car, when he pulls up and manipulates her into manipulating him. The camera discreetly pulls away, and as Kenny Everett used to say, it is all done in the best possible taste. The occasional affair develops from there until she eventually discovers that she is one of several, including his long-time assistant Missy, a much stronger and more attractive Elizabeth Marvel. It is when the film moves away from the Linney strand that it becomes more entertaining. Murray does a first-class job of giving us the feel of the crippled president, without in any way really trying to morph into him under layers of make-up. The actor leaves his droll comic chops behind and becomes the rounded, flawed yet loveable rogue we see on screen. Not really an Oscar-worthy performance as some would have it, but an immensely watchable one.

The rest of the main cast is largely spot on. Olivia Williams drabs down to become Eleanor the formidable 'wife' in name only; even so she still looks far too attractive. Samuel West plays the stuttering Bertie that we all know from the Colin Firth film, but still comes across as a feisty tryer, who really wants to become his own man. Only Olivia Coleman as Elizabeth lets the side down, lacking the warmth that Helena Bonham Carter brought to the role, and largely seems a rather unlikeable snob. The highpoint of her dilemma is whether or not her husband will eat a low-class hot dog at the picnic planned for the next day. Bertie manages to charm everyone on the day, despite the raucous entertainment by tom-tom beating Indians laid on by the effusive Eleanor. The real rapport between FDR and the young king comes across in a late-night scene over a few tumblers of whiskey where they admit their various handicaps and how they are best overcome. This was the start of the so-called famous 'special relationship' between the U.S. and Britain.

The director Roger Michell actually shot the entire movie in England, yet he gives us the feeling that we are really tootling along in the rural New York countryside. Similar care is taken with the set design, art direction, and costuming with the result that we feel that we are being given a privileged look into history and a way of life long gone. Naturally everyone smokes non-stop!

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Django Unchained (2012)

By and large I have enjoyed watching most of Quentin Tarantino's films, although "Four Rooms" was an unmitigated disaster and I have never been able to quite warm to "Jackie Brown" -- one of his fans' favourites. Otherwise there is much to like in the works of this cinema-literate director, although I wish he would curb his enthusiasm to act as well. His role-playing turns are invariably embarrassing and he should stick to what he does best.

I write 'does best' with some provisos in examing his eighth movie. There is no doubt that the man has many ideas when writing his screenplays and is not content if he is forced to omit anything, whether or not these inclusions are worthy. The result can be, as is the case with this film, an overlong and over-indulgent orgy of film violence and episodic action. Tarantino needs to understand the art of editing; his longtime editor Sally Menke died not long ago and somehow this latest film seems unpolished and unpaced. Still there is a great deal to like if the viewer is content to sit through nearly three hours of Quentinisms.

Set in a somewhat mythical South two years before the start of the Civil War, Jamie Foxx plays the title role of a rebellious slave, bought (by gunfire of course) and then freed by Christoph Waltz's dentist-turned-bounty hunter. The latter needs his help in identifying his latest quarry and subsequently trains him and takes him along on his bloody adventures. One must admit that Waltz is perhaps the director's greatest find and Tarantino's dialogue rolls smoothly from his silver tongue; in fact the heart and soul of the movie die with him when he is eventually dispatched. While Foxx does an adequate job as the man with a quest -- to be reunited with his dear wife (the German-speaking Broomhilda von Shaft: another of QT's in-jokes) -- there is no way that he could carry the film without Waltz's support; to my mind, he never quite dominates the action. I understand that Will Smith was originally sought for the so-called lead, but soon departed when he could see that his would be an overshadowed character. There are also meaty parts for Leonardo DiCaprio, playing against type as the cruel master of the Candieland plantation, home of Mandingo fighting, and for Samuel L. Jackson parodying false subservience as his Uncle Tomish 'house nigger. (I would not like to count the number of times that QT liberally includes his favourite N-word).

Then there are the countless small roles and unexpected cameos that are among Tarantino's trademarks: Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Zoe Bell, Tom Savini, and dozens more including unfortunately QT himself. Some are included like Russ Tamlyn playing 'Son of a Gunfighter' (one of his more obscure roles) and Amber Tamlyn playing 'Daughter of Son of a Gunfighter' solely as more wink-wink, nudge-nudge for the film buffs. The attempts at leavening the violence with humour are rather hit-and-miss, ranging from dressing Foxx up as Little Lord Fauntleroy when he is given leave to choose his first suit of clothes, through a prolonged and unfunny attack by the local Ku Klux Klan where they spend the time complaining about the poorly-cut eyeholes in their flour sack masks. Similarly the director's choice of music is so eclectic, that one bristles at hearing hip-hop riffs in this South that never was. Only the brief appearance of Franco Nero, the original and more charismatic Django from the spaghetti westerns, is really apt.

Of course Quarantino (this is obviously a Freudian slip on my part for 'Tarantino') does have a great deal to say about this shameful period in America's past, an interesting counterpoint to the more cerebral "Lincoln" currently on release, and he certainly says it at length. However he does tend to diminish man's inhumanity to man by using it as an excuse for mindless violence and spurting blood. Gore fans will have a ball! Everyone else can pick and choose between the 'good' bits and the bits that could easily have been edited out to leave a more cohesive film.