Oscar Catch-Up Triple Bill

Behind the curve as always, but thought I better give a low-down on some of the Oscar-winners from last Sunday night. More to follow as soon as I get time to write the reviews.

Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014) was the big winner on Oscar night, taking home four awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Set almost entirely in a Broadway theatre, it's about the struggles of an ageing movie star Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) to stage a 'meaningful' play, thereby atoning for the vacuous comic-book Birdman movies he made purely for the money in Hollywood. Naturally, the fact that Keaton once played Batman lends the film a distinct life-imitating-art edge as it gleefully pokes fun at the machinations of Hollywood and the up-their-own-arse actors who populate it. Keaton in particular is terrific as the star on the verge of a breakdown, with good support from Edward Norton as an obnoxious method actor and Naomi Watts as his put-upon girlfriend. In depicting Riggan's fragile mental state, there's also a playfully odd element to proceedings which lends the film a certain magical realism, right through to an ending which will no doubt baffle/delight in equal measures. The real achievement here, though, is that the film is seemingly filmed as one take. There are hidden edits to create that illusion, so it's not as amazing as Russian Ark, for example, but it's still a pretty impressive technical feat, with carefully choreographed action and several how-did-they-do-that moments, all of which resulted in a richly deserved Best Cinematography Oscar. It also won Best Original Screenplay, although it's not as original as some would have you believe. Woody Allen's Stardust Memories similarly ridiculed/celebrated actorly angst to better effect in the 1980s, whilst Robert Altman's The Player utilized long tracking shots and blurred lines between film and reality when it satirized the movie industry in the 1990s. In the end up, as good as Birdman is, it reminded me of one of those magicians producing birds from nowhere; entertaining and skilful work, with impressively tricksy presentation, but lacking a really long-lasting impact. That constant drumbeat soundtrack also gets annoying very quickly.

A pretty constant drumbeat also infuses Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014), which snared the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for JK Simmon's ferocious performance as a tyrannical, bullying school band leader who terrorises a talented student (Miles Teller) into being the best he can be, but at the distinct risk of cracking up. This does a pretty good job of re-locating the keen-student/angry-mentor relationship more often seen in sports/war dramas to the world of jazz drumming; think of it as Drum Metal Jacket. It's true that beyond the confines of the drum kit, it's less successful, dabbling with a half-hearted romantic sub-plot and a little family drama, but the head-to-heads between the two leads is compelling stuff, with fully committed performances as it builds to an exciting drum solo climax. No, really, it does! Animal would approve.

Big Hero 6 won the Best Animated Picture Oscar and Disney's first real foray into the super-hero genre could well have given the 'real' Best Picture nominees a run for their money. But here's the thing - I kinda wish they had steered clear of the super-hero angle. Not because it isn't good - in fact, it's thoroughly enjoyable - but because the action sequences end up detracting somewhat from the emotional centre of the story about a young boy dealing with the death of a loved one. The first 40 minutes, which focus on science whiz-kid Hiro and his loss, are just terrific, moving and funny by turns, with some laugh-out-loud moments as his healthcare robot Baymax attempts to heal him. However, it then lets a masked villain Scooby-Doo plot take over as it evolves into a super-hero origin story, which means it loses sight a little of that central relationship, something that, say, The Iron Giant, to which this owes some debt, balanced to better effect. That said, Big Hero 6 has an ace up its sleeve in Baymax, a terrific creation, coming across as a benevolent HAL2000 in the body of a Michelin Man. Plus I shouldn't be so down on a film that both celebrates science and champions a can-do attitude. Not to mention the gloriously animated futuristic setting of San Fransokyo, a city which blends Eastern and Western influences to simply stunning effect. It's very good, I just can't help feeling it had greatness within its grasp, only to let it go by following the comic-book crowd. But look, don't mind me, Perhaps I just need a hug. Or a fist-bump. (Fad-da-la-la-da-la-la).

NIghtcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)

What's it about? Petty thief Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) realises he can make money selling graphic footage of crime scenes to news stations, a job he turns out to be frighteningly good at.

Is it any good? A pretty good directorial debut from Dan Gilroy, coming across as a contemporary update on 70s classics like Taxi Driver (with its central, night-cruising anti-hero) and Network (with its commentary on media entertainment). It's not as good as either of those, but it's a agreeably claustrophobic thriller with a terrifically slimy turn from Gyllenhaal as the sociopathic Bloom (presumably his name a reference to Joyce's Ulysees). Yes, his approach to his work may be immoral and criminal, but maybe that just reflects his clear-eyed ability to see exactly what people want and how he can give it to them, whilst they hypocritically faff around with irritating things like small-talk, ethics and emotions. However, as a commentary on the the current state of the media and the public appetite for graphic news stories, it's a bit superficial - it could have done with a little extra BAMF! to support Gyllenhaal's excellent performance.

Anything else I should know? Award yourself 10 geek-points if you get that BAMF! joke above.

What does the Fonz think? Crime does pay, it seems.

Holocaust Memorial Day

A sobering day for many, this year marking 70 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, a name which will forever be associated with unspeakable evil.

On such a day, a film blog has little to offer in terms of analysis, or comfort, or commentary. However, it seems appropriate to recommend a viewing of a documentary which is regularly considered to be one of the greatest films ever made but, more importantly, is also considered to have transcended cinema to stand as a defining account of the Holocaust.

It will come as no surprise to learn that Shoah (Cluade Lanzmann, 1985) is not an easy watch. Containing over 9 hours of interviews with survivors, bystanders and perpetrators, it probes deep into disturbing areas of the human psyche, as it reveals the personal horrors of those who lived through such times. It isn't easy viewing, because it shouldn't be easy.

Shoah screens this week on BBC in two parts - the first half is now available on iPlayer, the second half screens at 7.00pm on BBC4 on Sunday 1st Feb.

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)

What's it about? Filmed at regular intervals over 12 years with the same set of actors, it follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his family as he grows from 6-year old boy to 18 year-old man.

Is it any good? On the surface of it, Boyhood is quite ordinary. We simply check in with a group of characters at different points over a period of time, watching how they and things around them have changed. Indeed, you could probably attempt something similar by cobbling together your old camcorder footage and selected photos from the family albums. But it is precisely this ordinariness that makes Boyhood quietly profound and life-affirming. In condensing twelve years of a boy's life to 160 minutes, Linklater reminds us that life - everyone's life - is short, so you better appreciate those 'ordinary' little moments because one day you'll look back and wonder where all that time has gone. In fact, for this reason, this is more likely to resonate with older viewers and parents, who will no doubt identify with Mason's parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) as they watch their little boy grows less and less dependent on them, whilst they themselves deal with various crises and issues in their lives. And as we witness a boy growing up and the relationships which shape him, it becomes clear that Boyhood is really a film about life, which ultimately means that, depending on your own outlook on life, it'll be as ordinary or extraordinary as you want it to be. I liked it and it even inspired me to go camping soon. Or at least think about going.

I don't trust you. What do others think? Well, after a slow start, Boyhood is now a front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar, garnering praise where'er it goes. It has been pointed out that this praise mainly comes from white, middle-class critics and Academy voters, whilst it may all seem a lot less 'real' to someone who grew up in less affluent surroundings. Plus, some have been quick to point out that the monumental Up documentary series has basically done all this before over a 50 year period, so it's not as unique as it thinks it is. Nonetheless, it would be a hard heart indeed who doesn't respond positively to the life taking shape before us onscreen.

What does the Fonz think? 12 Years a Boy

Buy it on Amazon

ABC Triple Bill

So New Year, new film project. DVD recorders and Sky+ are great for recording films, but at some point they need to actually be watched. But so many films! What to watch? I just end up muttering indecisively, then flicking on Celebrity Big Brother instead (not really). So in an attempt to free up some space on my hard drives, I've diplomatically decided to watch them according to the alphabet. So today's post is brought to you by the number 3 and the letters A-B-C.
Atlantic City (Louis Malle, 1980) is a quiet melodrama, set against the fading grandeur of a dreary-looking Atlantic City. Which is perfectly fitting for the story, which focuses on several equally faded characters, whose dreams of past and future glories clash with the cruel realities of the present. At the centre of the story, there's fine, Oscar-nominated performances from Burt Lancaster as the aged gangster who was never the bigshot he wanted to be, and from Susan Sarandon in her breakout role as the girl who wins his heart (mostly by rubbing lemon juice on her chest, in the movie's most celebrated scene). Romance briefly threatens to blossom, before reality and practicality intrudes in a sweetly melancholic fashion. It makes for low-key, but layered viewing. Also, watch out for a helluva slap from Sarandon in one scene, the bloke looks genuinely hurt!

The Blood of Fu Manchu (Jesus Franco, 1968) is the fourth entry in the Christopher Lee series of Fu Manchu films and it's pretty terrible. Imagine if someone approached you and your mates in the pub, gave you a camera and some costumes, and asked you to make a film about an Oriental criminal mastermind scheming from his secret Amazonian lair to take over the world by killing important world leaders with a poisonous kiss of death from ten scantily clad seductresses. Even if you were all hopelessly pissed, I doubt you could make a less coherent film than this one. Only the guy playing the twitchy Mexican bandit leader seems to be having fun, Lee and everyone else just looks embarrassed or bored. As I was after watching this.

The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1957) was the film which really put Hammer Horror on the map. Their first colour horror film, it was an enormous success and established them as the prime purveyor of lurid Gothic horror, paving the way for the resurrection of Dracula, The Mummy and many other monsters from their film graves. It also brought together Peter Cushing (Baron Frankenstein) and Christopher Lee (the Creature) for the first time in starring roles, sparking a lifelong friendship and a long career in films together. "I've got no lines!" Lee complained to Cushing when they first met. "You're lucky," responded Cushing," I've read the script." Despite his misgivings, Cushing gets the plum role here as the cultured, but clearly bonkers Baron, as he arrogantly stalks around in his splendidly equipped mad scientist lab, before resorting to some unethical grave-robbing and murder in his materials and methods. He does sport some excellent side-burns and quite a natty shirt ruffle, though, so I forgive him - it was all in the name of science, after all. Lee gets a little short-changed with limited screen time as the Creature, although he does get a memorable unmasking moment and a couple of creepy moments. Elsewhere, Hammer experimented with some heaving bosom shots, which also proved a hit with viewers. It's nowhere near as good as the original Frankenstein (1931), but it's still a key film in British film history and the two leads make it worthwhile.

So then, I'm off and running and so I'm happy to ignore the fact those last two films really start with T, if I were being pedantic. But hey! That's how I roll in my house, baby! Next time, D-E-F!!