Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Academy Award

Oscar Winners in Review – Lincoln

The original title was White Dudes doing stuff...

The original title was White Dudes doing stuff…


Let me begin in what might well be quite an unusual place for a review of an Oscar winning movie. I don’t like Stephen Spielberg very much. Or at all actually. It took me a while to actually work out what my problem with him was.  I always knew he was a competent film-maker and he seemed to be able to marry the tricky partnership of blockbuster and critical success but still I wasn’t quite OK with him. It was watching Schindler’s List that made things click for me. The whole film is filmed in monochrome apart from one scene. In the midst of a ghetto clearance the camera focuses on a little girl in a bright red dress. It’s an emotional manipulative trick that bypasses any sense of intellectual, political outrage you may have felt at watching the actions of the Nazi’s and replaced it with gooey, cloying sentiment. It’s a theme that runs through a lot of his work; from Saving Private Ryan to AI he seemed incapable of dealing with serious topics without that same overly cloying sentiment getting in to ruin things. Essentially I had Spielberg written off as a purveyor of perfectly packaged emotional pornography. He might have been popular but was never going to be someone that I took seriously. (Actually – thinking about I do like the first two Indiana Jones films but seeing as they are heavily based on the adventures flicks of Spielberg’s youth – yes they are both very good films, but hardly original stuff…)

The bow-tie is seriously classy though

The bow-tie is seriously classy though

Then I saw Munich. Far from a perfect film it actually seemed to be an artistic step forward for it’s director as it managed to engage with some seriously weighty issues about geopolitical history without taking the easy way out and getting overly sentimental. In fairness when I checked out the credits I shouldn’t have been surprised as the screenplay was co-written by Tony Kushner. For those of you not familiar, Tony Kushner is probably one of the most important figures in modern American theatre, producing the two part Pulitzer Prize winning play Angels in America. It, and the rest of Kushner’s work is a combination of the highly dramatic, the beautifully characterised and the wholly dramatic. He manages to combine genuine emotions and big ideas in a way that Spielberg can’t and his work on Munich gave the noted director one of his most interesting films.

This was their follow up collaboration and came into the Academy Awards nominated for pretty much every category going (including the highly prestigious ‘Best Beard’ award) but it only managed to scope one – Best Actor for Daniel Day Lewis.

Let’s be blunt for a second, Daniel Day Lewis is the best actor in the world and has been for a very long time. The film is made by his presence and there is not a single actor alive who could have pulled of a performance of such depth, clarity and nuance. Out of everybody nominated there was not a single person who came close and he thoroughly deserved the award.

So, how is the film?

It’s…good. The film follows the final four months of Lincoln’s life as he tries to get the 13th Amendment passed in the dying days of the civil war. As expected Spielberg handles the action and the period detailing very well. It’s also heartening to see him handle the war and the politics of the story so well, and you get a good sense of Lincoln the great orator and political titian. It’s a film that was crafted to win Oscars and awards and you can see the effort put into every aspect of it’s making. The supporting cast is stuffed to the brim with talented character actors and some serious talent including Tommy Lee jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader and Jackie Earle Haley. At this stage in his career Spielberg didn’t have to scrimp to get this done and if you enjoy historical drama that doesn’t neglect from either part of that combination this really should have been one you’ve seen already.  The only downside is that Daniel Day Lewis is so good that when he isn’t on the screen the film noticeable is not as good. Yeah, seriously.

"Don't take it personally. I'm just better than you two"

“Don’t take it personally. I’m just better than you two”

There have been the usual and expected critiques from the historians who have criticised the story for making things too simplistic, and it might well be true that real events were more complex and intricate than Kushner and Spielberg portray, but they aren’t historians. They’re a writer and a director trying to tell a story with iconic characters. The American mythologizing does grate a little I won’t lie but thanks to the Kushner’s script and a truly incredible performance from Daniel Day Lewis this is easily my least hated Spielberg movie ever.

No wonder it won an Oscar.



Oscar Winners in Review – Paperman


I imagine a few of you may well be taken aback from the title. Oscar Winners is this supposed to be? Oscar winners, you say, but what the HELL is Paperman? Well, allow me to explain slightly angry hypothetical reader – ‘Paperman’ is beautiful, short, animated and Oscar winning film making. Rather than spend all of my time in this little retrospective review series focusing on the big awards, the one that get all the attention I thought I would also try and give some (albeit limited) publicity to films that win the awards but have the bad luck to win the awards that nobody really seems to care about.

So ‘Paperman’ is the winner of the Oscar for best animated short, and as with most “minor” awards the best animated short is usual a good place for higher-ups at studios and in the industry generally to keep an eye out for promising talent and maybe give some of the struggling future success stories their first big break. Somewhat unusually, or maybe just counter intuitively that wasn’t the case here as the film had the backing and production money of Walt Disney and was directed by John Kahrs. For those of you not intimately familiar with the hierarchy and inner workings of one of the biggest studios in Hollywood (that would include me but thank the Lord for google) Kahrs is one of Disney’s animators who has taken a leading role in animating things like Tangled (2010) all the way back through Disney’s history to ‘A Bugs Life.’

So, rather than be a break-through piece maybe the best way to think about this is a respected creative artist being given a little more freedom to try something outside the limitations and demands of producing a smash, big-budget Disney movie. Then the question has to be, what’s new about this? Is it the writing?


The plot follows a business man who falls for a woman that he sees and then spends the rest of the film trying to get back in touch with. It’s a sweet, but rather slight story but that isn’t what makes this film so good. What makes this film so good is that it quite possible changed how animated movies are made from now on. I mentioned before that the director was one of Disney’s animators and one of the reasons that Disney has been so successful for so long when it comes to their animated features is that they are constantly developing new techniques. Back in the early nineties they were at the fore-front of CGI  animation and ‘Paperman’ uses a brand new in house piece of technology called Meander. In the director’s words what the new technology was there to do was to bring together ‘the expressiveness of 2D drawing immersed with the stability and dimensionality of CG.’

Now, brace yourselves because here comes the technical bit…

The technique that makes the difference is called final line advection and results in every artist having much more control over the final product. Starting from a CG ‘base’ animation things like folds in fabric, hair and textures all come from a 2D drawn design process. In effect animators can ‘erase’ the CG and draw in things by hand – changing profiles, changing how clothes look and so on.

To make up for the somewhat dry technical detail, here’s a picture of a cat.

Oh look, final line advection put him to sleep too

Oh look, final line advection put him to sleep too

The end result is that this is a gorgeous looking film, perfectly matching the sweet romantic plot with heartrendingly romantic drawing and animation. There is an edited down version on YouTube which gives a good sense of what this is like but if you get the chance please check out the proper version. It’s a great movie and an incredible example of matching form and content that Disney are getting better and better at in their animation. It’s wonderful to watch because it was clearly done by people who really cared about the film they were making, and how it was put together. I may not have said much about the plot, but it is a well written and imaginative take on what could have been something quite generic.

So, does it deserve it’s Oscar? HELL YES.

What’s more is nice to see yet more evidence (where it needed) that 2D drawn animation doesn’t just match CGI but can, when done well, actually be better than using just technology. On another note, it’s all too easy and far too common for film fans to become hipster about good cinema. Y’know the sort, who sniffily declaim the work of big studios as just there to generate profit and not really ART. Well, those people finally have a short designed to shut them up. It was made by one of the biggest studios in the world, by a man who has worked on some of the most commercial successful animated films ever made. Together, they produced this – which wasn’t just a critical and commercial success but it’s great art too.

Well done Disney, good work.


Now if you can just somehow find a way to NOT make the Monsters Inc prequel suck, that would be great too.




Oscar Winners in Review – Argo



This is somewhat potentially embarrassing for me – as someone who has always considered himself a film buff I always used to be on top of awards season. Before the ceremonies I would have always seen the nominated films, talked them over and made my picks. This year though a multitude of things got in the way and when the Oscar ceremony rolled around I realised that I had seen hardly any of the big films that had picked up all the nominations. So, over the next few weeks I’m going to try to remedy this, by retrospectively looking over all the critical beloved movies of 2012 and seeing what all the fuss was about. I figured I may as well start with the big winner this year, Ben Affleck’s third film, Argo. Whilst it may not have won as many awards as some films in years past this film has been the concluding part of Affleck’s career second act as he makes the transition from fairly flaky actor to one of the leading directors of popular cinema in America. With an Oscar win for best picture (and a historic snub for best director) under his belt the critics are rubbing their hands with glee at where Affleck will go next. But how does this film match up? Does it really deserve the hype and has Affleck managed to escape things like this?

In short the answer is…yes. Following a little explored angle of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 the film follows six Americans who escape and are taken in by the Canadian ambassador. Whilst the country outside becomes ever more fervent in the quest for American “spies” the 6 low-level diplomats are left cowering in the crawl space. At the same time the CIA are desperately trying to find out some way of extracting them and from every side threats to the six become more and more extreme. The film follows the CIA’s top exfiltration expert, Tony Mendez, as he comes up with the ‘best worst idea’ they have. Fly in Iran as a Canadian producer; recruit the six to act as the crew on a location scout and then all fly out together.

Did I mention this is based on a true story?

Well…it is.

One of the most impressive things about this film is that it genuinely captures the not only the mood of tension but the look and the feel of the late seventies. Everyone smokes, everyone drinks, all the time and the fashion and design is accurate down to the last detail. In a way the film feels like it came from another age of action movies too – no dumb explosions or unnecessary action but rather a story that expertly ratchets up the tension at every single opportunity. That isn’t to say that there are not cool action sequences, far from it. The opening sequence that details the fall of the embassy is done with a terrifying realism and the action emerges organically from the quality of the story. It’s the quality of the story that makes this too, as instead of wasting time of showy explosions the story is given urgency and the characters depth so that watching them drive through Tehran becomes edge of your seat excitement. Technically the film is great too; the editing and direction from Affleck are simply superb and the skills that Affleck showcased with Gone Baby Gone and the fantastic The Town have been honed and refined to a really high level. There isn’t an unnecessary moment, or pause to the film’s narrative and the editing just wrings every single drop of tension from every single sequence.

The film is also quite darkly comic too –mainly thanks to the fantastic performances from John Goodman and Alan Arkin as the Hollywood insiders who help Tony Mendez set up the legitimate production company to make his cover stand up. Arkin especially gets ALL the best lines, especially his fantastically rude response for why the fake film is called what it is. It’s the Hollywood scenes that probably help explain why the film was so beloved by organisations like the Academy, as it indulges the idea of a film about the power of cinema. Fans of film will have fun spotting the references and the little glimpses of insight into how the movie business worked back in the day. It feels like Affleck enjoyed directing these scenes too, allowing him to get in a few subtle digs at how the film industry and Hollywood works. The only moments where the pace slips a little are the scenes with the six people trapped in a house – as the story can’t allow anything to happen before the rescue the time is used as a chance for characterisation but the film picks up when the story can move forward again.

As I said, Affleck has proven that he is a director and an actor with the chops to handle material that results in high quality and intelligent entertainment, and the details of just how much was based on the historical record only increases my admiration for the film. Whether or not it deserves to have the title of best film of 2012 is a little difficult to judge right now, but if you’re looking for something smart, nail-bitingly exciting and expertly done it looks like the former Mr Jennifer Lopez is now the man to go to.

Kudos Ben. You’ve earned it.

Marvel Month II, or, ‘Why I love Kenneth Branagh’


Marvel month kicks off properly here, and I’m sure I can’t be the only one who, when thinking about the Marvel Comics films, immediately jumps to a middle-aged Irish-man with a burning desire to be Lawrence Olivier. Ah, Kenneth Branagh – good old Kenny; big Kenny B, a man who has been nominated for an Oscar in five different categories, a man who was married to the wonderful Emma Thompson and decided to have an affair with Helena Bonham-Carter as well as playing the title role in five different films/TV shows. In short, this man is the ultimate classically trained and RADA educated LAD. (not in the misogynistic, horrific rape culture endorsing way, mind you – that wouldn’t be cool..)

Yes, I know that he has got his fair share of dross on his CV but you know something, I don’t care. I think Kenneth Branagh is simply flawless, and yes, that does include his version of Hamlet which is about five days long and earned him the honour of being one of three people who make a punchline in Blackadder. (A shiny penny to the first person to get the other two and no using Wikipedia! That’s cheating!)

So Branagh, (*swoon*) was the man brought onto the juggernaut that is the Avengers franchise to direct Thor. I will admit, however, that at the news I wasn’t delighted. I was distinctly sceptical. Branagh seemed too cerebral a choice, someone reliant on dialogue and character to really handle, what I assumed would be a big noisy blockbuster. Now this attitude, I freely admit, was based on a shocking lack of knowledge about Thor’s comics and a little snobbishness about the kind of work I thought was beneath King Kenny.

Thankfully the film soared over my expectations. It was one of the biggest blockbusters of the year so I won’t waste too much time re-hashing plot, but suffice to say it involves the Gods of Asgard and the war with the Frost Giants, a sibling rivalry between Thor and his brother Loki worthy of the greatest tragedies and, of course, scientists.  In keeping with all Marvel movies there is the inevitable build up towards the Avengers nerd-gasm coming this year but even considered as a separate entity rather than a 120 minute trailer for another film, this is a very solid movie. To a large extent the strength of the movie comes, in my opinion, from Branagh’s direction and the cast. The gods of Asgard are old school in the theatrical sense of the word – these are Gods of wrath, violence and all the worst traits of humanity with the power to destroy the entire world. The relationship between Thor, Odin and Loki has more than an echo of King Lear to it; helped considerably by the thespian legend Sir Anthony Hopkins chewing through the CGI scenery as the Allfather and the hulking presence of Chris Hemsworth as the adolescent and powerful Thor.  Tom Hiddlestone deserves all the credit one can heap on him as Loki and I am delighted beyond words he’s returning as the villain for the Avengers. Idris Elba adds another touch of gravitas as Heimdall, as well as stirring up some cheap publicity by having the gall to be a black actor in an action film!

As the previous paragraph may have given away, I think the films strongest scenes are the ones that focus on the realm of Asgard and the power dynamics of the Gods. Also of note is the sequences where Thor rashly plunges into a fight with the Frost Giants and his final confrontation with Loki really adds to the grand, Shakespearean themes the film is trying to aim for. That said, I’m not a huge fan of the scenes here on Earth, as to keep the films running time down, it feels rushed, (especially the love interest with Natalie Portman) and personally I never get the impression that Thor’s exile on earth is a real struggle to overcome. That being said, the film succeeds for the most part in marrying grand themes of betrayal, power and jealousy with an action packed story.

So, a good movie. But a good adaptation? Well, this is where the whole thing becomes a little more complicated…

As I said in the last column Thor has been around since the early 1960’s in comic form, and his legends have been around for literally thousands years. This is, not just a literary story – Thor is a cultural juggernaut, it surely isn’t possible to fuse Nordic legend into a comic form without being not just crass, but hugely insensitive.

Or so I thought. And then I started reading what I consider to be one of the finest comic runs I have ever read – The Mighty Thor Volume 1 337-382. Written and drawn by Walt Simonsen and lettered by John Workman it is an incredible piece of work. The look of the comic is like nothing else, thanks to Simonsen’s wonderful art style and the sense of scale and grandeur is done so well thanks to the jaw-dropping lettering from Workman. The dialogue too,  is just as good as the film’s and in some respects, much better. This Thor feels even more Shakespearean than the film thanks to the sometimes archaic syntax and tendency of the characters to think or say what is actually happening mid scene! What I love  about this run is the sense of cosmic scale that the creative team has achieved; whilst there are times where the dialogue feels clunky everything is given the time and the space to breathe, all of the action feels like it has a sense of great importance and the characters are given the page space to be given depth and characterised to an astonishing degree. Loki, especially, is shown to be an incredible villain, one who will happily destroy someone’s entire life just for the fun of it.

The problem is, of course, that the film adaptation has to be something unique to the Marvel comic as opposed to a slice of cultural appropriation in the obligatory cape and big hammer get up. To an extent I wouldn’t say this is what the film is; it certainly encouraged me to actually pick up the comics and see what Marvel writers wanted to do and the stories they wanted to tell. In a way, Thor’s problem is one I feel could be repeated by the rest of these films in Marvel Month. Thor is so well-known that, in a way, the adaptation is always going to fall short. We all know the name of Thor and many of us are familiar with the legends and mythologies of Nordic culture – the Norse gods have even named the days of the week.

Many people might think that there are so many different stories that could be told with  these characters and just as with Batman and Superman there will be people who demand different tales be told. The problem is, of course, that it simply isn’t possible to adapt what is a continuing narrative, you can’t adapt Thor in the traditional sense of the word, as the source material is still being generated. However…what you can do it take the original concepts, and they clearly are the original concepts from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and add to the ongoing narrative that is being told. Strictly speaking, this is a transposition of the original mythos, world and characters into a new medium. And it’s done well. Really well. It makes the world of Thor accessible to a huge new market.

The more I think about this, the more exciting I think comic movies are – it adds to the story and the characters in a way that traditional narrative couldn’t. Roll on next week, as Marvel Month continues!



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