Monday 31 January 2011

Notes on the Oscar nominations: part two

Best Cinematography
Danny Cohen, The King's Speech
Jeff Cronenweth, The Social Network
Matthew Libatique, Black Swan
Roger Deakins, True Grit [above]
Wally Pfister, Inception

The variously showy (Cohen, Libatique, Pfister) versus the self-effacing: Cronenweth's crisp, wintry lensing had the cold chill of the Harvard campus running through its veins even before the digital boffins painted in all that condensing breath - but the veteran Deakins remains a master of landscape, and I suspect the Academy feels it has to give True Grit something to justify all those nominations.

Who will win? Deakins
Who should win? Deakins
Who did win? Pfister

Best Editing
Jon Harris, 127 Hours
Andrew Weisblum, Black Swan
Pamela Martin, The Fighter
Tariq Anwar, The King's Speech
Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall, The Social Network

I liked 127 Hours' relentless mash-up of imagery, as a way into the Ralston mindset - but it is exactly that: relentless. (Still, credit Harris for getting 127 hours of storytime down to a brisk 94 minutes; there's a reason The Way Back wasn't nominated here.) Baxter and Wall's work on The Social Network is no less alert to the processing speeds of its characters - but also sensitive to the needs of Sorkin's dialogue, and the melancholy downtime between zinger lines. A bang-up job of ultra-contemporary cutting.

What will win? One of the big two, depending on the way the wind is blowing
What should [and did] win? The Social Network

Best Art Direction
Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
The King's Speech
True Grit

Let's rule out a few of these before we go any further. Alice in Wonderland is all art direction, yes, but ugly and cluttered with it; the art direction in the Harry Potters has been a reliable source of pleasure over the years, but seemed to diminish this time around - yes, you get the Ministry of Magic, but elsewhere, well really, how much effort does it take to throw up a couple of tents in the woods? Inception gives good corridor, but its most spectacular sequences were rather like being trapped in a revolving Best Western - its conception of dreaming was of the most decorous and tasteful kind. Personally, I'd take the matchless evocation of a foursquare Western town in True Grit over its rivals here, although the contrast between palatial luxury and garish Antipodean wallpaper choices in TKS may just be too obvious for Academy voters to resist.

What will win? The King's Speech
What should win? True Grit
What did win? Alice in Wonderland. Ugh.

Best Costume Design
Alice in Wonderland
I Am Love
The King's Speech
The Tempest
True Grit

If it's stuff that catches the eye, it's one thing. If it's stuff you'd actually want to wear, however...

What will [and did] win? Alice in Wonderland
What should win? I Am Love

Best Make-Up
Barney's Version
The Way Back
The Wolfman

Not much to choose from here - there have been bloodier horror films this year doing more imaginative work with gouged eyeballs and severed limbs. Barney's Version is a flimsy, unconvincing old-age latex job; The Way Back is a selection of chapped lips; The Wolfman at least tries to do something comprehensively transformative, although its bristles perhaps only work fully in combination with CGI.

What will win? The Way Back, the most respectable of the three choices
What should [and did] win? The Wolfman

Best Original Score
Alexander Desplat, The King's Speech
John Powell, How to Train Your Dragon
A.R. Rahman, 127 Hours
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, The Social Network
Hans Zimmer, Inception

Desplat has done better work elsewhere, and Rahman stoops to include a dreary Dido song at one point. Wouldn't it be rather cool to see Trent Reznor picking up an Oscar?

Who will win? Rahman, for 127 Hours (and residual memories of Slumdog)
Who should [and did] win? Reznor and Ross, for The Social Network

Best Original Song
"If I Rise" (from 127 Hours)
"Coming Home" (from Country Strong)
"I See the Light" (from Tangled)
"We Belong Together" (from Toy Story 3)

Zzzzzzzz. You're looking for whatever might keep the voters awake, so just say no to Dido. The Country Strong song has a classic Shania/Celine-esque key change, which might swing it, but in this category, one generally shouldn't bet against Disney. If nothing new, the Newman is typically upbeat, which does it for me; as far as Mandy Moore offerings go, "I See the Light" seems an awful long way down from the sublime "Candy".

What will win? "If I Rise", to complete the double
What should [and did] win? "We Belong Together". With an honorary Grammy for "Candy".

Best Sound Mixing
The King's Speech
The Social Network
True Grit

and Salt have the most to process, which presumably gives them the edge in this category - and you can't help but feel voters will be longing to give a populist blockbuster some sort of recognition at this point in proceedings. What's The King's Speech here for, other than a sense of completion?

What will win? Inception
What should [and did] win? Probably Inception

Best Sound Editing
Toy Story 3
Tron: Legacy
True Grit


Again, a category that tends towards the noisier end of the spectrum. I retain a sneaking respect for Unstoppable - a nuts-and-bolts job in most departments, albeit one that let you know exactly where the eponymous train was, and exactly where the strains were upon it, at every point along the ride.

What will [and did] win? Probably Inception, the highest profile nominee
What should win? This once, Unstoppable

Best Visual Effects
Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
Iron Man 2

Has to be one of the latter two this time out, surely. (Clint's Asian tsunami looked too much like something you'd have a go on.)

What will win? I fear Alice in Wonderland
What should [and did] win? Inception

Best Documentary Feature
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Inside Job
Waste Land

The final four are all fine, serious films on eminently worthy subjects (respectively, the consequences of natural gas mining; the collapse of the financial system; the war in Afghanistan; and the work of an eco-friendly artist in one of Brazil's poorest regions) - but Exit Through the Gift Shop feels the most cinematic and playful, the best movie of the lot: keep your fingers crossed, and let's hope for a Banksy prank to mark the occasion.

What will win? Restrepo
What should win? Exit Through the Gift Shop
What did win? Inside Job

Best Documentary Short
Killing in the Name
Poster Girl
Strangers No More
[the winner]
Sun Come Up
The Warriors of Qiugang

Best Animated Short
Day and Night (as seen accompanying Toy Story 3, and the strongest Pixar short in years)
The Gruffalo
Let's Pollute
The Lost Thing
[the winner]
Madagascar, a Journey Diary

Best Live Action Short
The Confession
The Crush
God of Love [the winner]
Na Wewe
Wish 143

This year's winners will be announced on Sunday, February 27.

Sunday 30 January 2011

Notes on the Oscar nominations: part one

No need to shout.

Best Picture
127 Hours
Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

At the risk of seeming harsh, seven of these titles are purely decorative - here to reassure studio bosses they've had a better year than that in which their accountants had to dress up flagging ticket sales with the proceeds from the rental of 3D specs at Clash of the Titans matinees. The third horse in this race - Toy Story 3, the generally triumphant conclusion to one of the greatest movie trilogies of all time (and thus deserving of some form of recognition) - is now so far behind the frontrunners as to be worth an outside bet; otherwise, at this late stage in proceedings, it's an either/or decision. The appeal of The King's Speech is that it's a good story, well told - and heaven alone knows audiences and awards committees alike have been starved of those in recent years, which is perhaps why it's received the reception it has. The Social Network is not only all of the above, it quietly speaks to our times - and, most impressively of all, manages to do something bittersweet with modems and our own false intimacies. What worries me about its chances is that, plugged-in and precocious, TSN is very much a young person's picture, and if history shows us anything, it's that the Academy does its level best to keep its collective fingers as far away from its own dull and distant pulses as possible. The momentum at the time of writing is all with The King, and not the young pretender: if The Social Network is - as some have claimed - our generation's Citizen Kane, then The King's Speech has increasingly come to resemble this year's How Green Was My Valley - a perfectly decent selection for voters to have made, just not one anyone's going to get particularly excited about in years to come.

What will [and did] win? The King's Speech
What should win? The Social Network

Best Actor
Javier Bardem, Biutiful
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King's Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours

Some very likable choices here - Franco and Bridges, in particular, even if the latter seems to be chewing his own beard through True Grit's more indecipherable stretches. But - damn those Biutiful apologists - Bardem's only here because he makes the Academy's female voters (and - who knows? - quite possibly half the Academy's male voters) foam in their underwear, the big hunky troll; in an ideal world, he'd be replaced by Ryan Gosling, whose far less monotonous work in Blue Valentine once and for all removed that giant millstone marked "The Notebook" from his neck. Still, you can't see even the excellent Eisenberg dethroning Firth at this stage.

Who will [and did] win? Firth
Who should win? Eisenberg

Best Actress
Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Not the strongest of fields? I'm a Portman agnostic at the best of times, so don't expect me to cheer too loudly when she wins - although I'm sure she'll give a thoroughly gracious acceptance speech. Black Swan is mostly done to her - it's like a mild re-run of the endurance tests Lars von Trier traditionally puts his actresses through, however pretty this one may look looking into mirrors. (But that's slavering fanboys for you. And yes, that is the pot and kettle you can hear interacting.) As for the starrier runners-up: though they function in the context, both Kidman and her face are constrained by the numbing material they've taken on, and I do rather feel I've seen Bening doing spiky and passive-aggressive before. Credit Lawrence, then, for at least bringing something new and tough and valuable to this table - and let's, in my fantasy Oscars, give Williams the prize for her subtle and beautiful differentiation between past and present tenses, and never once having to look into a mirror to do so.

Who will [and did] win? Portman
Who should win? Williams

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Fighter
John Hawkes, Winter's Bone
Jeremy Renner, The Town
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech

All good, no bad. Traditionally, the supporting Oscars are among the first given out on the night - so if Rush triumphs here, and Helena Bonham Carter does likewise in the Supporting Actress category, we'll know that King's Speech sweep is well and truly on. The possibility of a surprise or two remains: Bale beat out Rush and Renner in this category at the Golden Globes.

Who will win? Rush
Who should win? Rush, although I retain soft spots for Hawkes and Ruffalo both
Who did win? Bale, a performance I appear to have underrated

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

I haven't seen Weaver at work as yet, although I'm hearing tremendous things about her - and a certain logic persists that Steinfeld, good (and unexpected) as she is in True Grit, should have been considered that film's lead actress. (Surely Rooster Cogburn is subservient to her by the end, rather than the other way around? The London Film Critics' Circle certainly seems to think so.) Otherwise, an intriguingly level playing field: Helena is appreciably warm, eccentric and loving as the Queen Mum, but seems somehow to have less to do (or struggle against) than either Leo or Adams. And I'm a sucker for a redhead.

Who will win? Bonham Carter
Who should win? My head says Leo, for a lifetime's worth of great supporting performances; my heart, however, says the redheaded ex-highjumper
Who did win? Leo - yay!

Best Direction
Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
Ethan and Joel Coen, True Grit
David Fincher, The Social Network
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
David O. Russell, The Fighter

I liked most of Hooper's choices - more than I did all the hand-held business in his HBO mini-series John Adams, which seemed much more conspicuously "modern" (and inappropriate) - but both he and Aronofsky are liable to charges of showing-off; and unfortunately, it's the kind of showing-off that tends to catch Academy voters' eyes more than the restrained stuff does. (With the exception of the crazy boat race, Fincher is more self-effacing in The Social Network than he was in Zodiac, for which he didn't even get nominated.) The Coens' classicism is clean and appealing, but undermined by their (typically perverse) decision to allow their male characters to mangle their speech - in terms of shaping (yet never entirely throttling the life out of) the material, telling a story, getting the best out of the performers, and, heck, simply providing a stand-up entertainment for a Saturday night, Russell may actually do the best job out of the five.

Who will [and did] win? Hooper, because that's the way it looks to be going
Who should win? Fincher or Russell

Best Original Screenplay
Mike Leigh, Another Year
Scott Silver et al., The Fighter
Christopher Nolan, Inception
Lisa Chodolenko and Stuart Blumberg, The Kids Are All Right
David Seidler, The King's Speech

Our curiosity about Mike Leigh's methods of authoring his films shouldn't blind us to the precision structure of Another Year, or the deep-seated human truths he turns up, which can't, surely, have just been arrived at on the day. His fellow Brit Nolan, meanwhile, has a fascinating idea in Inception, but gets lost inside it, alongside his own characters - and I can't help but think The Kids Are All Right, while funny, generous and wise, really needed to explain how one of the kids got stuck with the name "Laser". (It seemed happy enough to bombard us with Joni Mitchell, for heaven's sake.) Which leaves us with the Silver/Seidler scripts, consummate (if very different) examples of how to tell true stories while retaining some degree of integrity. Again, you wonder if this is one of those awards that'll get caught up in what some are (all right, what I am) already calling The King's Sweep.

Who will [and did] win? Seidler
Who should win? I'd be happy enough with Seidler, but happier still with Leigh

Best Adapted Screenplay
Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, 127 Hours
Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network
Arndt/Lasseter/Stanton/Unkrich, Toy Story 3
Ethan and Joel Coen, True Grit
Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini, Winter's Bone

A shoo-in, providing the Academy's Coen-love doesn't kick in.

Who will win? Sorkin
Who should [and did] win? Sorkin

Best Animated Picture
How To Train Your Dragon
The Illusionist
Toy Story 3

Would it be heresy to say that Toy Story 3 would only come third on my own personal ballot in this category?

What will [and did] win? Toy Story 3, by way of a consolation Oscar
What should win? The Illusionist

Best Foreign Language Film
Civilisation (Denmark)
Dogtooth (Greece)
Incendies (Canada)
Outside the Law (Algeria)

I haven't seen Incendies as yet; Outside the Law is a very solid, occasionally provocative proposition from Days of Glory director Rachid Bouchareb about Algerian resistance fighters. (Nevertheless, it remains the Andy Townsend of Oscar nominees, qualifying through the Academy equivalent of an Irish grandmother: more French than Algerian, as indeed was the official French selection Of Gods and Men.) I didn't like Dogtooth as much as some - hell, I've always been more Scandinavian than Mediterranean in my tastes - but it's certainly a bold choice, bold enough (in the eyes of the Academy's more conservative members) to disqualify it from serious award consideration. Which leaves us with a battle to the death between the Golden Globe-winning Civilisation, from the eminently remake-friendly Susanne Bier (Brothers), and the utterly false and fatuous Biutiful, which benefits from a higher-profile and the presence of Javier Bardem in the main acting categories. Not for the first time in this category, I fear the worst.

What will win? Biutiful
What should win? Dogtooth, for a laugh, or Civilisation, if it's any good
What did win? Civilisation

Tomorrow: select thoughts on the remaining categories.

Saturday 29 January 2011

Notes on the Razzies

The nominations for this year's Golden Raspberry Awards - celebrating the very worst in American filmmaking - were announced this week. They are, with notes, as follows:

Worst Picture
The Bounty Hunter
The Last Airbender

Sex and the City 2
Vampires Suck

Proof that the studio system can still churn out rubbish to match the best of them - yet I'd have been tempted to leave Eclipse alone (it's, you know, for kids), and even as a SATC-sceptic, I had more amused and appalled fun during Part 2 than I did sweating and shaking my way through the franchise's first big-screen outing. Which means it's surely between professional knuckle-dragger Gerard Butler bundling Jennifer Aniston into his car boot - ah, whoever said romance was dead? - and Dev Patel committing post-Slumdog career hari kari in M. Night Shyamalan's stereoscopic turkey, a film so crap that, within twenty minutes, you've forgotten to snigger at all that "bender"-friendly dialogue.

What will [and did] win? The Last Airbender
What should win?
The Bounty Hunter

Worst Actor
Jack Black, Gulliver's Travels
Gerard Butler, The Bounty Hunter
Ashton Kutcher, Killers and Valentine's Day
Taylor Lautner, Eclipse and Valentine's Day
Robert Pattinson, Eclipse and Remember Me

There can be only one winner. [Edit: I was wrong.]

Who will win? Gerard Butler
Who should win? Gerard Butler
Who did win? Kutcher

Worst Actress
Jennifer Aniston, The Bounty Hunter and The Switch
Miley Cyrus, The Last Song
The Four "Gal Pals", Sex and the City 2
Megan Fox, Jonah Hex
Kristen Stewart, Eclipse

A much closer field, not least as the combined ensemble ghastliness of the SATC crowd could, collectively, rival Cyrus's toothy dullness and Fox's terminal woodenness. A word in favour of a couple of the nominees: if there's anything wrong with Stewart's performances in the Twilight movies, it's because she's limited by the character of Bella Swan, not through any failings of her own dramatic range; and, though I loathe The Bounty Hunter and everything it stands for, I don't think Aniston's anywhere near as godawful in that and The Switch as other actresses might have been - she's just there, which is exactly the problem with her big-screen career thus far.

Who will win? The Four "Gal Pals"
Who should [and did] win? For services against femalekind, the Four "Gal Pals" prove hard to beat.

Worst Supporting Actor
Billy Ray Cyrus, The Spy Next Door
George Lopez, Marmaduke, The Spy Next Door and Valentine's Day
Dev Patel, The Last Airbender
Jackson Rathbone, The Last Airbender and Eclipse
Rob Schneider, Grown Ups

To rule out a couple of these contenders: I've yet to witness Schneider's contribution to the much-reviled Grown Ups, although it can't, surely, be any worse than his comedy Chinaman in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry; while Lopez's 2010 work merely represents a triple-threat of burly mediocrity. With the inclusion of Miley's dad down to reverse nepotism - although he did record "Achy Breaky Heart", the idea that Billy Ray Cyrus might comprise part of America's intelligence forces was The Spy Next Door's one good joke - and my inability to pick Jackson Rathbone out of a line-up, there's surely only one winner, amply delivering on all the promise his participation in TV's Skins suggested.

Who will win? Dev Patel
Who should win? Dev Patel
Who did win? Jackson Rathbone. Whoever he is

Worst Supporting Actress
Jessica Alba, The Killer Inside Me, Machete, Meet the Parents: Little Fockers and Valentine's Day
Cher, Burlesque
Liza Minnelli, Sex and the City 2
Nicola Peltz, The Last Airbender
Barbra Streisand, Meet the Parents: Little Fockers

I'll confess this one's got me totally stumped - I'm at a disadvantage when it comes to Streisand (haven't seen), Peltz (haven't a clue) or Cher (whom I gather has her fans); I thought Minnelli's inclusion was one of the highlights of SATC2 (which probably tells you all you need to know about that film), and even the reliably useless Alba was only variably ineffective this year - cleverly deployed in Machete, taking chances in The Killer Inside Me, and anonymous among the all-star pile-up that was Valentine's Day.

Who will win? Minnelli, if there's a SATC2 landslide
Who should [and did] win? Alba, for her commitment to cinematic rubbishness.

Worst Eye-Gouging Misuse Of 3D
Cats & Dogs 2: The Revenge of Kitty Galore
Clash of the Titans
The Last Airbender
Nutcracker 3D
Saw 3D

No Alice in Wonderland, still the flattest, most cluttered example of hasty, post-Avatar stereoscopic retrofitting? Curiouser and curiouser. Otherwise, some fine examples of Hollywood bandwagon-jumping - in a category all too badly needed.

What will [and did] win? The Last Airbender
What should win? Clash of the Titans, for having fewer dimensions than Ray Harryhausen's original stopmotion creations - and thus illustrating how regressive 3D filmmaking has become.

Worst Screen Couple/Worst Screen Ensemble
Aniston and Butler, The Bounty Hunter
Josh Brolin's face and Megan Fox's accent, Jonah Hex
The entire cast of The Last Airbender
The entire cast of Sex and the City 2
The entire cast of Eclipse

Several tricky generalisations here: giving it to Eclipse would mean punishing the excellent Billy Burke as Bella Swan's father; giving it to SATC2 would do the same for Chris Noth's suddenly heroic Mr. Big. Can you think of anyone who might similarly spare the ensemble of The Last Airbender from their tragic fate? Nope, me neither.

Who will win? The entire cast of The Last Airbender
Who should win? The entire cast of The Last Airbender
Who did win? The SATC ensemble

Worst Director
Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, Vampires Suck
Michael Patrick King, Sex and the City 2
M. Night Shyamalan, The Last Airbender
David Slade, Eclipse
Sylvester Stallone, The Expendables

Slade, in his defence, actually bulked up the action quotient of the Twilight movies; King was merely doing what was expected of him and his franchise, in putting two-and-a-half hours of handbags and "risque" dialogue up on screen; Stallone wasn't exactly on peak form with The Expendables, but he's a big, obvious, lumbering target. Friedberg and Seltzer have form in the field (they're the giggling morons who gave us Date Movie, Extreme Movie et al.), but surely no-one will stop Shyamalan claiming rightful recognition for his recent descent into absolute batshit career-annihilating craziness.

Who will win? Shyamalan
Who should [and did] win? Shyamalan

Worst Screenplay
The Last Airbender
Meet the Parents: Little Fockers
Sex and the City 2
Vampires Suck

Examples of how Hollywood movies can often get stuck on a single word, to their detriment. What The Last Airbender does with the term "bender", Sex and the City 2 did with "sex", the Twilight movies are doing with "yearning", and the Meet the Parents sequels have done with the name "Focker". The biggest missed opportunity here is Vampires Suck, given how solemnly sincere and thus open to parody the Twilight saga is - although you have to wonder why Shyamalan didn't type the word "bender" into Google before opening up a new Word document.

What will win? The Last Airbender
What should [and did] win? The Last Airbender

Worst Prequel, Remake, Rip-Off or Sequel
Clash of the Titans
The Last Airbender
Sex and the City 2
Vampires Suck

Practically the same line-up as the Worst Picture category, which would suggest that making one of these is the one cast-iron way of ending up with a bad movie on your hands. At this point, it's looking more and more likely that either Airbender or SATC2 will sweep the board, with token gongs for the remaining contenders - although, in terms of dumping all over what I hesitate to describe as the inspiration, Clash of the Titans' betrayal of the fondly remembered original is perhaps a little worse than the others' myriad misdemeanors.

What will win? The Last Airbender
What should win? Clash of the Titans
What did win? Sex and the City 2

This year's Razzies will be awarded on February 26th.

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of January 21-23, 2011:

1 (1) The King's Speech (12A) ****
2 (new) Black Swan (15) **
3 (2) The Green Hornet (12A) ***
4 (new) The Dilemma (12A) *
5 (4) Gulliver's Travels (PG)
6 (3) 127 Hours (15) ****
7 (5) Meet the Parents: Little Fockers (12A)
8 (new) Morning Glory (12A) **
9 (8) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (12A) **
10 (new) NEDs (18) ****

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. NEDs
2. The King's Speech
3. 127 Hours
4. The Mechanic
5. Ride, Rise, Roar

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (new) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (12) **
2 (3) The A-Team (12) *
3 (new) Devil (15)
4 (new) The Last Airbender (12) *
5 (8) Iron Man 2 (12) ***
6 (new) Grown-Ups (12)
7 (1) Inception (12) ***
8 (new) Knight and Day (12) **
9 (re) Shrek Forever After (U) ***
10 (re) Eclipse (12) ***


My top five:
1. Ajami
2. The Town
3. Mary and Max
4. Shed Your Tears and Walk Away
5. Into Eternity

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Grave of the Fireflies (Thursday, C4, 1.35am) [above]
2. Once (Sunday, BBC2, 11.35pm)
3. Pickup on South Street (Monday, C4, 12.35pm)
4. The Girl Next Door (Saturday, BBC1, 11.25pm)
5. The Hoax (Tuesday, BBC1, 11.15pm)

On DVD: "Ajami"

Watching Ajami, the notable new bulletin from the frontline of the Arab-Israeli conflict, one is reminded of the informed resignation of The West Wing's Toby Ziegler, faced with another breakdown in the peace negotiations: "It's tribal. It's Hatfield and McCoy. It'll never end." This collaboration between two young filmmakers, one Israeli, one Palestinian, nevertheless breaks new ground by addressing the economics of the conflict. It opens with a retribution killing that turns out to be a tragic case of mistaken identity. When the intended target, the 19-year-old nephew of a bar owner who refused to pay protection money to an Arab crime syndicate, goes to try and broker peace with the killers, a court of the community's elders rules the teenager, too, must pay a form of protection to spare both his and his younger brother's lives. The young man's big idea is to start selling drugs to meet these payments.

On the other side of town, meanwhile, a wearied detective laments the manner in which an entire neighborhood will take to the streets to defend one of their own, no matter that the person being defended is himself peddling drugs on his defenders' own doorsteps. It's tribal, all right, and we should credit Ajami for raising, for perhaps the first time in a cinema, the notion that peace in the Middle East may just not be an economically viable business model for some; that - in a region with a long-standing tradition of trading - there are certain individuals making a lot of money out of prolonging this conflict.

The irony is that the film unfolds not within the Occupied Territories, but instead around the relatively cosmopolitan outpost of Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv: a city where Arabs, Israelis and Christians exist side-by-side, sometimes occupying the same bed, and conversations flip freely between Hebrew and Arabic, most of the locals able to understand a little of both. Few of the film's characters seem actively religious, when it comes to it: they have businesses to run, parties to throw, bongs to smoke. The directors, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, don't easily differentiate between one set of residents and another; truth is, it's hard enough to tell who's who, let alone who's in the right, once they've started brawling in the road.

Thrown into the very thick of these niggles and conflicts - always a bold move on a filmmaker's part, and here a sign of justifiable confidence - the viewer, for their part, is left, like the peacemakers of this world, trying to make sense of this situation as best they can: a greatly less simplistic experience than one might have expected going in, it's a film - and a narrative puzzle - that will reward second and third viewings on DVD, as we try to pinpoint where exactly we are in the timeframe, and what characters who have momentarily disappeared offscreen might be up to. (The film provokes suspicion and fear, which may be the dominant modes of response in the Middle East at the present moment.)

Ajami reportedly started life as a conventional crime drama before being radically restructured by the two directors: while elements of a linear narrative remain, the film's five chapters shuffle back and forth, framed by one of the community's younger residents striving to compose a comic strip out of the events we've witnessed. This enterprise - turning tragic realities into art - will itself come to an abrupt halt; the conflict, we soon gather, is strong enough to resist all framing. What this gives the film is a greater multiplicity of perspectives: licence to double back or jolt forwards, dodge the cliched, even appear to contradict itself in places.

The result really does contain multitudes; for all the bloodshed and suffering it shines a light on, it feels very nearly as alive, as electric, as Amores Perros, the last great city movie of this decade. Copti and Shani have a particular feel for nights shading into days without anything constructive having been resolved - indeed, with worse still lying in wait for its characters over the horizon: young children toting guns, drug overdoses, a neighbourly noise complaint that resolves itself in a vicious, unmotivated stabbing. The abiding image is of one endless street scuffle, where bodies wrestle in the gutter, aggravation piles atop aggravation, and the situation spirals rapidly out of control; where even the peacemakers, those trying to pull the troublemakers apart, begin to dissolve into a blur of bruised and bloodied limbs. In the Jaffa of Ajami, even those trying to do the right thing are fated to be dragged into the carnage: the violence may stop, but the processes behind the violence never end.

Ajami is available on DVD from Monday.

Friday 28 January 2011

"The Mechanic" (Scotsman 28/01/11)

The Mechanic (15) ***
Directed by: Simon West
Starring: Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Donald Sutherland

Jason Statham’s reliably furrowed brow gets a thorough workout in this generally efficient remake of a 1972 Charles Bronson vehicle; one suspects he won’t be the only onlooker baffled by the multiple-crosses playing out here. For starters, there’s no plausible reason for Statham’s hired assassin Bishop to off his own wheelchair-bound go-between (Sutherland) in the opening moments, save to get the plot off with a bang. Out of guilt, Bishop adopts his former employer’s unruly offspring (Foster) as a partner – and while the lad’s aim improves rapidly, his ultimate target remains whoever killed his pa.

There’s not much humour, and little place for women, either, save to pop their heads up (and tops off) every now and again to prove the deadly bromance goes only so far. Yet Brit director West, formerly a blow-it-all-to-hell merchant (Con Air), devotes himself to the intricacies of the hit, sketching neat thumbnails of Bishop’s victims, and ratcheting up the tension when Foster fumbles a bolt at the scene of one assignment. It’s nuts-and-bolts action cinema, indeed, of the kind that does a job come Saturday night: on the Stath-o-meter, nothing so delirious as Crank, but a marked improvement on the Transporters.

The Mechanic opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"How Do You Know" (Scotsman 28/01/11)

How Do You Know (12A) **
Directed by: James L. Brooks
Starring: Reece Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, Jack Nicholson

The latest all-star soap from Terms of Endearment helmsman Brooks offers the sight of likable performers doing their best to rescue a script that bears precious little relation to reality. The title refers to the romantic quandary faced by Witherspoon’s Lisa now her professional softball career (!) is coming to an end. One option: nice but dim jock Matty (Wilson), whose bedroom expertise Lisa has to share with several other women. The other: sensitive listener George (Rudd), an eminent catch distracted by the fraud charges hovering over him and his corrupt father (a hammy Nicholson).

Witherspoon is the obvious winner, letting her hair down and showing how radiant, even sexy, she can be when not playing professional try-hards – and unlike the mirthless likes of The Ugly Truth, it’s a romcom with actual chuckles, if not laughs. It’s just a pity Brooks isn’t above phony narrative crises and dialogue too often indistinguishable from the Post-It platitudes tacked to Lisa’s bathroom mirror. More creative energy has gone into furnishing these characters’ apartments than devising credible emotional situations to put them in; the result’s wholly undemanding, and best saved for a long-haul flight.

How Do You Know opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"Hereafter" (Metro 28/01/11)

Hereafter (12A) 124 mins *

With eleven directorial credits to his name since the millennium, there’s no denying Clint Eastwood’s industry. It’s his eye for a script that’s going: here, Eastwood takes on a bottom-drawer effort by The Queen’s Peter Morgan that might best have been left for ITV1’s prime-time drama commissioners. The somewhat unfeasible set-up is Ghost meets 21 Grams, presenting us with a trio of individuals dealing with death in their own way. In Paris, Cécile de France is the TV presenter haunted by flashbacks to the Asian tsunami that left her with a glimpse of the great beyond; in London, a young boy (George McLaren) sees his twin killed in a road traffic accident; while in San Francisco, Matt Damon is the blue-collar worker troubled by his psychic abilities.

We’re heading towards a communion of sorts, yet Hereafter takes an eternity to get there, with a lot of extraneous rubbish en route. Damon’s night-school romance with Bryce Dallas Howard goes nowhere; De France wanders ineffectually around picturesque Swiss euthanasia clinics; there’s a bizarre cameo from Derek Jacobi as himself; and, worst of all, a nagging sense that real-world tragedies – including a weird misappropriation of the 7/7 bombings – have been shoehorned in to lend dramatic impetus to a flimsy and vapid premise. A personal project for an ageing filmmaker wondering what lies ahead for him? Maybe, but Clint’s unflashy professionalism has rarely seemed duller, or more open to question – it’s less a film than an extended senior moment.

Hereafter opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Monday 24 January 2011

Christ Almighty: "Biutiful"

The characters in the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) have traditionally been fragment-people, pieces in a puzzle that has to be assembled by the viewer; only at the end of these films, when we realise how these elements do or do not fit together, can we form a solid opinion of the filmmaking at play - a bold strategy that has come, with each successive release of this nature, to seem like a stalling tactic. Iñárritu's latest Biutiful looks to break with this tradition in focusing on a single character who sits at the very centre of such a web of interconnectivity.

Javier Bardem's Uxbal bears the weight of, if not the world, then an entire support network upon his burly shoulders - plus the remnants of a rat's-tail haircut that is very nearly as unadvisable as the sociopathic bowl he sported in No Country for Old Men. A fixer on the streets of Barcelona, Uxbal spends his days brokering deals between the city's migrant Chinese and African communities, performing some kind of peacemaking service for the bereaved at a local funeral parlour, and sorting out the cremation of his own father. These pressures have started to exact a heavy toll: Uxbal's marriage has been ripped asunder, leaving him to raise his two kids on Weetabix and sugar alone while his ex takes up with his feckless brother. During a routine visit to the bathroom one morning, he finds himself pissing blood.

The structure is primarily linear, with only a couple of pre-credits flashforwards, shifting us chronologically from point A (the happy marriage) to point B (Uxbal making shady arrangements in the woods) to keep us on our toes. The questioning this time lies less in how this all fits together than what the film's purpose is, what Iñárritu is getting at. I think he thinks he has real tragedy on his hands, the downfall of one working man, yet as social realism goes, Biutiful proves peculiarly grandiose, composed of more artfulness than harsh truth: I refer you to the story a cop contact of the protagonist tells about a mutual acquaintance who "moved to Murcia to train tigers in a circus", or the marital row that ends with the Bardemian flourish "My love, what you see up there isn't stars - it's your nervous system!"

The suffering of the saintly Uxbal is characterised as closer to Christ than, for example, anyone in a Ken Loach movie. We plod along in the soulful Bardem's wake as he soulfully gazes out of windows, soulfully upchucks in back alleys and soulfully heads into lap dancing clubs at the time of his greatest need, where the film embarks upon a show of phony piety in the face of so much tits and arse the camera can barely drag itself away. This is what happens when a name arthouse director gets to a certain point in their career when they're being indulged by their producers, and no longer just backed.

Remind yourself how simple, direct and thrilling Amores Perros was, how alert it seemed to the energy and rhythms of the streets. Now here's Iñárritu in the press notes, trying to find the words to justify Biutiful's existence: "Since the film's inception, I was never interested in making a movie about death, but a reflection in and about life when our inevitable loss of it occurs. Modern society suffers, among many things, from a profound thanatophobia. For this reason, I realize the formal and thematical contradiction of creating a sordid poem about an enlightened man while he is falling into the darkness of death and the unknown is a challenge... If Babel was an opera, Biutiful is a requiem."

Actually, it's a wallow, the urgency in the filmmaker's earlier work replaced by the complacency of someone who knows that, with the right star in place, he can get anything funded and shown at festivals, not to mention picked up for full international distribution. Bardem suffers so that we don't have to; so that upmarket audiences can feel good about their own serene lives for a two-and-a-half hours - and then emerge from the Curzon Mayfair safely untouched by the whole experience.

Biutiful opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Friday 21 January 2011

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of January 14-16, 2011:

1 (1) The King's Speech (12A) ****
2 (new) The Green Hornet (12A) ***
3 (2) 127 Hours (15) ****
4 (4) Gulliver's Travels (PG)
5 (3) Meet the Parents: Little Fockers (12A)
6 (6) Love and Other Drugs (15)
7 (5) The Next Three Days (12A) **
8 (7) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (12A) **
9 (9) The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (PG)
10 (8) Tron: Legacy (PG) *

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. NEDs
2. The King's Speech
3. 127 Hours
4. Ride, Rise, Roar
5. Breakfast at Tiffany's [but reluctantly, through clenched teeth]

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (new) Inception (12) ***
2 (1) Salt (12) **
3 (new) The A-Team (12) *
4 (3) Toy Story 3 (U) ****
5 (new) The Girl Who Played With Fire (15) **
6 (new) Catfish (12) ****
7 (2) The Expendables (15) **
8 (8) Iron Man 2 (12) ***
9 (5) The Karate Kid (PG) ***
10 (re) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (18) ***


My top five:
1. Mary and Max
2. Shed Your Tears and Walk Away
3. Into Eternity
4. Catfish
5. The Other Guys

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Pulp Fiction (Sunday, BBC2, 11.25pm) [above]
2. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Saturday, ITV1, 10.30pm)
3. Withnail and I (Saturday, C4, 12.10am)
4. Requiem for a Dream (Friday, BBC2, 11.50pm)
5. Aladdin (Sunday, five, 3.40pm)

"John Carpenter's The Ward" (Metro 21/01/11)

John Carpenter’s The Ward (15) 88 mins **

John Carpenter has now had more comebacks than Sinatra, without ever threatening to arrive at his "My Way". A decade after his last flurry of activity – which brought us the less-than-vintage Vampires and Ghosts of Mars – the director comes in from the convention circuit with this non-chiller, set on a 1960s psych ward. Amber Heard, oft-shirtless mash-up of Scar-Jo and K-Stew, plays troubled young Kristen, dispatched to a typically forbidding movie institution where the shock treatment meted out by Jared Harris’s stiff English doctor is as nothing compared to the rotting ghoul stalking the corridors after dark.

The widescreen frame's as big as that of Halloween, but Carpenter has forgotten how to fill it, and what's truly dispiriting is seeing him resort to hacky crashes on the soundtrack to distract from the absence of any sustained suspense. Of the girls, the mannered Danielle Panabaker grabs the best lines (and the ickiest demise), but these are among the movies’ least ruffled mental patients, styled like Mad Men extras and left to run around a preposterously under-supervised facility. With anybody else's name on the credits, you'd struggle to sell this as passable sleepover fare; from Carpenter, we surely deserve better – anyone claiming this constitutes a return to form quite frankly needs their head examined.

The Ward opens nationwide today.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Broken wings: "Black Swan"

When Darren Aronofsky observed Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, it was with a documentary-like degree of detachment, hanging out in changing rooms and trailer parks, and catching on the fly an ageing warrior's weary climb back to the middle; it was as fascinated by the context as it was by the man falling to pieces in the middle of it. When Aronofsky watches Natalie Portman as the ballerina at the centre of his latest Black Swan, his gaze is compulsive and creepy, as though the director had got stuck midway between the Michael Powell of The Red Shoes and the Powell of Peeping Tom. Perhaps unmoored is the better word. The Wrestler reached for its heightened states from a bedrock of authenticity, but Black Swan deals in a knowing inauthenticity that falls dangerously close to camp. Behind its plies and pirouettes resides a ropey old melodrama, and all Aronofsky is doing, in the film's wilder moments, is hanging a few whistles and bells alongside the mothballs.

Portman's Nina is but one young dancer competing for the role of the Swan Queen in her New York company's upcoming production of Swan Lake. She has the good-girl routine - the grace, the smooth, self-effacing movement and beauty - down pat; what she doesn't do, and what she struggles to convey in rehearsal once she's selected for the part by the company's artistic director (a self-parodying Vincent Cassel), is dark, seductive, spellbinding. Which is where newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) comes in. With Nina suddenly finding herself surrounded by bitchy, spitting rivals, Lily arrives as something else entirely: a shadow, an ally, a confidante; on these fledgling divas' nights out together, a wingperson; and, eventually, a lover, a nemesis, the antithesis of everything Nina has stood at the bar for.

If there's one thing Black Swan seems likely to provoke more than hormonal Internet buzz about what we may or may not see in the Portman-Kunis relationship, it'll be a thousand and one academic screeds about its representation of femininity. Various mouldy archetypes are shuttled on from the wings, from the Smothering Matriarch (Barbara Hershey), who threatens to toss an entire gateau into a bin when her daughter turns down the offer of one slice (mental) to the company's very own Old Maid, the resentful former principal dancer Beth, played by Winona Ryder. This latter is as knowing a bit of casting as Rourke was for The Wrestler, but crueller, too: without the prospect of getting even one of her finely honed heels back in the spotlight, Beth is composed of 75 percent streaming mascara, and is eventually punished for the sin of getting on beyond her years.

The film's acute sense of body horror will doubtless go over big with young female viewers. Nina's ascent through the ranks coincides with the outbreak of a nasty rash on her back, and the camera hews to the broken nails and bruised ankles that come as professional hazards in this particular field. At the centre of the film lurks Aronofsky's stated desire to shatter, or at least sully, Portman's mostly pristine rep for a kind of well-bred, sexless dullness. "I want you to go 'ome and touch yourself," Cassel instructs Nina, and - whoop-de-do - she does. Portman is convincing on the sacrifice and self-denial needed to steal a leap on her rivals, the damaged personality that causes her to pick and tear strips off herself; yet if she is to win the Oscar, I'd merely ask we consider how much she does for Black Swan, and how much of Black Swan is done to her - for the film's conception of madness surely lies in Aronofsky's gaze, and not the performers.

It doesn't help the latter group that they're obliged to work within an inherently preposterous framework. One of Black Swan's irritations is that, for a so-called major work, it permits a strikingly narrow range of responses. You either look past its silliness and forgive it anything (in which case it may rightly be labelled a post-preposterous work of cinema), or you get stuck on it, and see only the following: nonsense on straining tiptoes, Cruel Intentions in tutus, all dressed up for those tuxedo-clad committee members who like their trash to have the posture and bearing of High Art.

Here's Cassel on the Ryder character: "There was a force inside her - it's what made her so dangerous, so fascinating to watch". Aronofsky is as in thrall to the idea of the Bad Girl as certain women-in-prison movies, and indeed as certain chickflicks (and certain women) are to the notion of the Bad Boy. In the role, however, Kunis is limited to a handful of glowers and tart responses, and - most predicably - a tattoo covering most of her back. Yes, the actress enters enthusiastically into the pivotal girl-on-girl action, but isn't there something at least a little unseemly in a male director drooling over all this? (The press appear to have been too busy pursuing Aronofsky's allegedly faithless ex Rachel Weisz to raise this point; heaven forfend the couple's recent split should have anything to do with his day job.)

I'd hoped the film might have been carried by Aronofsky's usually exhilarating technique, which worked for me even during the generally reviled The Fountain - but no, up until the closing moments, Black Swan is prosaic to look at and listen to; it projects a dull sort of madness, reliant on gimcrack effects (subliminal flashes), cliche and secondhand thought; it's the kind of film that'll show you Portman staring into a looking glass a thousand times in the belief this will give us a new and dazzling insight into the mind of a troubled young woman. (And yes, those mirrors will be shattered eventually.) You can't see any of it much pleasing balletomanes, since its drive is towards fracture, crack-up, breakdown, rather than any unified or controlled beauty of performance.

It's Cassel, again the director's drooling mouthpiece, who gets to speak a defence of this tactic: "Perfection is not about control, but letting go - surprising yourself, so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence!" In other words: what Aronofsky learnt from loosening up on The Wrestler, working towards that final (and genuinely transcendent) leap into the unknown. For all Black Swan's myriad transgressions - and they're mild, 15-rated transgressions at that, the kind that might only be considered transgressions in Puritan America - I never once felt it starting to transcend its material; it didn't seem much more to me than a horror movie assembled with rather more craft than usual, which is why the standing ovation directed into its end credits felt more than mildly presumptious. Aronofsky may be the first filmmaker in history to have gone to the ballet for a slumming session, however elegant or prize-worthy some may yet deem it.

Black Swan opens in cinemas nationwide from tomorrow.