Yes, we all know it’s a load of back-slapping, navel-gazing nonsense, but the Oscars has always been my guilty pleasure, mainly because it’s the one party I’ve always wanted to go to – a childhood obsession which is now an adult anomaly, given my cynical outlook on life and the number of times I’ve had ‘creative doors’ slammed in my face. By rights, I should detest such an event.
I’ve been to a few awards ceremonies (not these though!) and favourite bit is the people-watching or, rather, the spat-watching. Seeing two actors air kiss and flash their perfect Hollywood smiles, when I know they can’t stand the sight of each other, makes my heart feel all warm and squishy. This is why I love stuff like the Oscars. Oh, and because it gives me an excuse to binge-watch dozens of films just so I can write about them.
So this will be similar to my annual Eurovision blog; a rundown of who’s up for what and whether they were any good or not. I’ve only done Best Picture and the acting ones, and not Best Director, as the directors are usually directing the nominated films (except Foxcatcher, which has a Best Director nod, but no Best Picture, which is odd). I usually do Best Original Screenplay, too, but then, who gives a toss about the writers?
The voting procedure isn’t as rigged as Eurovision, but only just. So I don’t really care who wins what, I just like watching films and then droning on about them. I’m great at Eurovision predictions, but not so hot when it comes to the Oscars, because I’m not clued up enough on the ‘issues du jour’ which determine who and what the Academy vote for (you didn’t think it was about the films, did you??)
** Warning!: This article contains more SPOILERS than a rally car convention, so don’t come running to me if I end up “ruining it” for you… ****
So if anybody’s still reading, let’s get on with it.
Not so long ago, a new bylaw was written into the Academy Awards contracts which dictated that at least one Bradley Cooper film has to be nominated for Best Picture, as well as Cooper himself (doesn’t matter what film it’s for). So this is the flick which fulfills both caveats this time around. It’s like “we have to nominate him until he wins, and then we’ll just keep nominating him anyway.” Thing is, this performance actually deserves it.
Based on the true story of America’s most lethal military sniper, Chris Kyle (Cooper), we follow his life from being taught to hunt by his father in the Texas woods, through his brief career as a rodeo rider, and his decision to enlist in the Navy SEALs sniper unit following the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Dar-es-Salaam. Sent to Iraq after 9/11, Kyle is as patriotic as they come; the archetypal American hero with all the right lines and looks, dedicated to his task in picking off the enemy from the rooftops of bombed out Iraqi buildings. He also has a beautiful wife, Taya (Sienna Miller) waiting at home, giving him a hard time every time he decides to go back and do another tour.
I thought American Sniper would be the typical jingoistic, America-is-so-fabulous movie that Academy voters love, but I was actually surprised not just at how balanced and authentic the drama felt, but also at how good Bradley Cooper was. I’ve never been that fussed about him, to be honest, and couldn’t understand the hysteria every time he did a mediocre rom-com or guy-movie. But watching this film, I actually forgot he was Bradley Cooper and got totally into the character, he owned it completely. Even Sienna Miller was good, and I didn’t even realise it was her until about ten minutes before the end. Change her hair colour, and she becomes an actress.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, American Sniper was almost a ‘great’ film, if only they’d have introduced a less-cliched dynamic into the my-wife-doesn’t-understand-me spousal relationship (“you’re here, but you’re not here!” Yawn…), plus there was the inexplicable use of a fake baby in a few of the hospital/home scenes. It’s like when you see characters pack a large suitcase in one scene, then march outside in the next, swinging the case between two fingers, light as air, because it obviously has nothing in it. It was this lack of authenticity which threatened to break the overall spell. Pulling an audience back into an “oh yeah, this is just a movie” state of mind, isn’t fair. If you want us to lose ourselves completely in the story you’re trying to tell, don’t use plastic babies.
I was happy that Eastwood didn’t dwell too much on the military stuff and make American Sniper into just another movie about Iraq (I still haven’t managed to make it all the way through The Hurt Locker, despite three attempts). He was savvy enough to know that the real story was Kyle’s, and he kept us firmly enthralled with the action both home and away. Also, he avoided cliche yet again by giving us a discreet, respectful ending to Kyle’s story, which I won’t ruin here just in case anybody reading has been living in a cave for six months.
8.5/10 – Would have been higher but for the fake baby.
Birdman is a melancholic satire on ego, lost dreams, and the fleeting importance of celebrity. It pitches a washed-up Hollywood actor, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), famous for his blockbuster “Birdman” movie franchise, against the demands of writing, directing and funding a Broadway play. The play is Riggan’s attempt not just to get himself back on the celebrity radar, but also to validate his worth in a world (the theatre) notoriously sniffy about film actors who want to tread the hallowed boards.
Riggan also has superpowers (real, or imagined, we never really know). He can levitate and move objects by telekinesis (which nobody else ever witnesses), but he’s also haunted by the voice of his most famous character, ‘Birdman’ which, to the viewer, seems to confirm his delusional persona.
Riggan has spent his life consumed by fame and fortune as a Hollywood A-lister, to the detriment of his marriage and, ultimately, estrangement from his recovering addict daughter, Sam (Emma Stone). Fresh from rehab, Sam is persuaded by her father to become his assistant, mainly so he can keep an eye on her. But Sam is angry, lost and possesses a cynicism way beyond her years.
We follow Riggan as he struggles not only to build bridges with his daughter, but to pull the theatre production together ready for the previews and opening night, where feared Broadway critic, Tabitha Dickenson (Lindsay Duncan), is waiting, determined to savage Riggan’s play at any cost – she hates movie stars invading her beloved Broadway.
Riggan’s biggest obstacle is having to deal with self-obsessed method actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), whose ego and sexual aggression threaten to close the play before it’s even started. That, plus Riggan’s producer/lawyer/best friend, Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is on his case to make sure the play doesn’t bankrupt them, which heaps more pressure upon Riggan’s already fragile state of mind.
Billed as a black comedy satire, the joy of Birdman isn’t so much waiting to see if the play is a success or not, it’s about accompanying Riggan on his descent into a subtle madness which, in the shallow world of actors, theatre, “the truth” and all the one-dimensional, self-indulgent crap that comes with it, makes us think that, actually, Riggan is the sanest person there.
Story-wise, it’s not that original – there are loads of films/books/plays/TV shows about backstage shenanigans and ‘the actor’s life’ (1950’s All About Eve being by far the best) but what is original is the way director Alejandro G Inarritu has managed to shoot such a complex script in what feels like one continuous take. There’s little in the way of scene changes, seamless editing (which, incredibly, it hasn’t even been nominated for), and majestic walk’n’talks that make Aaron Sorkin look like a film student. It’s quite poetic that Birdman feels like a theatre piece, as well as being set in one. There’s no let up at all; to all intents and purposes, this is a two and a quarter hours one-act play which, for all its improvisational feel, must have been painstakingly rehearsed. Because we follow every second of the action from just inches away, every glance, every turn, every entrance and exit must have taken hours to perfect, just like on the stage itself.
The ensemble cast is very high quality, there isn’t a single weak link. Norton is deliciously repulsive as Mike; a sexual predator whose outward bravado betrays a crippling lack of self-confidence. The only time Mike is himself, is when he’s onstage. Stone is great as Sam, but I’m still surprised she got an Oscar nod – I thought her character could have gone further. Brit veteran Lindsay Duncan revels in a Dench-esque cameo as the waspish critic Tabitha, but it’s Keaton who’s understandably the star of the show. His casting was a stroke of deliberate genius; bagging a faded Hollywood action hero to play a faded Hollywood action hero, it’s not even a tongue-in-cheek thing, it’s entirely intentional, and the aching similarities between Birdman and Batman make the pathos of Keaton’s performance all the more poignant. It also shows us what a good actor he really is. A very strong contender for Best Actor, but only if someone kidnaps Eddie Redmayne.
8/10 – Keaton’s back on the A-List
I was a real Richard Linklater fan in the 1990s, mainly because of the brilliant Slackers and Before Sunrise, the latter of which is still one of the my favourite films. That also starred Ethan Hawke, a Linklater favourite, who was brought aboard to help steer this coming-of-age drama, filmed with the same actors over a 12-year period. Remember those 7-Up documentaries, which chronicled the lives of their subjects at seven year intervals? Well this is kind of like that, in movie form, and it centres around the growing pains of Mason Evans Jnr (Ellar Coltrane) and his dysfunctional Texan family. Hawke plays Mason’s lackadaisical father, Mason Snr (obviously), who’s divorced from Mason’s mother, Olivia (the brilliant Patricia Arquette).
There’s no plot, as such (again, typical Linklater), we just start in 2002, following 6-year old Mason on his life journey as he copes with – among other things – his parents’ squabbles, mother’s remarriage, stepfather’s bullying and the usual school/friendship struggles, as well as his love/hate relationship with sister Samantha (played by Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei). The story moves seamlessly through the years, with no notice of when we’re about to time-jump. It’s like watching time-lapse photography. One moment, we’re watching Mason look glumly through the car window as the family move house for the tenth time, the next, Mason is two years older with floppy hair and acne.
It’s as fascinating to watch Mason – and actor Coltrane – grow up in front of our eyes, as it is to see the others change, too. Linklater’s production method was to not have a nailed down story, but just to catch up with the actors for a few days each year and see where they were at, then shape his storylines around them. They’d shoot for a few days or weeks, then put something together to further the story along.
Boyhood is a unique piece of filming, no doubt about it, but it’s way too long, at two and three quarter hours. Obviously, we’re watching 12 years of stuff unravel before us in what sometimes feels like real time, but don’t watch this if you expect things to ‘happen’. It’s not a drama in the traditional sense of the word; there are no arcs, no carefully constructed dramatic tensions or scene building going on. Instead, it’s a gentle stroll through Mason’s formative years, which is certainly interesting, but arduous to watch in one sitting. I found my mind wandering more than once.
The acting has an understandably improvisational feel about it, and everyone performs their roles well – as mentioned, Arquette as flawed-but-honest Olivia manages to tug at the heartstrings almost as much as the impossibly cute Coltrane. Ethan Hawke is engaging and perfectly adequate but, when all is said and done, he’s merely playing the role he always plays – slacker. Also, he’s the one person who never seems to age. In his final scene, he looked exactly like he did twelve years before. Ironic that make-up or styling was actually needed here, even if the person themselves was twelve years older, for real. That, and the just-playing-myself bit, meant I was stunned when Hawke received an Oscar nomination. All the plaudits should rightly go to Coltrane as young Mason, who manages to act as well as grow up for real, right in front of the camera lens. Yet the Academy has completely ignored him, just as they have Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher.
The critics have wet themselves to death on Boyhood, calling it “the best film ever made”, “flawless”, and “unrivalled”. Well that’s a little bit over the top. I’m glad I watched it, but I don’t see any reason to ever go back and see it again. If they shaved half an hour off it, then maybe, but then perhaps that’s the point I’m missing. Maybe it’s a work of absolute genius but I wasn’t ‘in the zone’ when I watched it. Whatever. Good film, but it lurches a little to close to “meh” territory for it to be making my Top 10 list any time soon.
7/10 Epic, but not in that way.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
As with most of the nominees, I didn’t go into this film knowing an awful lot about it, as I think it can threaten an objective opinion. To sum up this film in one word, though, I’d say “bonkers”, but I mean that in a good way. This is a surreal, almost fairytale crime caper set in a fictional hotel in a fictional Eastern European country (Zubrowka), which has elements of so many other off-the-wall books/films/TV shows, as to render the film category-less.
Ralph Fiennes plays Gustave H, the legendary concierge at the titular establishment, who has impeccable manners, traditional values, and a tendency to sleep with his rich, female guests (even though he’s as camp as a row of tents). But when one of his elderly bedfellows, Madame D (Tilda Swinton), dies in mysterious circumstances and leaves a priceless painting to her beloved Gustave, he is immediately suspected of bumping her off. Thus ensues a comedy of errors which mixes comic book farce with Alice In Wonderland storytelling, as well as a visual feast of candy colours and postcard backdrops, and a cast so stellar, it’s like playing celebrity cameo bingo for 120 minutes.
Newcomer Tony Revolori plays trainee bellboy, Zero Moustafa, who Gustave takes under his wing, and who later becomes his saviour as Gustave tries to prove his innocence. As the elder Zero (F Murray Abraham), now the proprietor of the hotel, recounts his teenage adventures to a writer (Jude Law) over dinner, we get to see the contrast between the hotel’s glory days and the now-faded glamour which attracts only a few regular guests. The hotel itself is reminiscent of The Overlook in The Shining, while there are also nods to Inglorious Basterds in the exaggerated characters and production design. For some reason, the Alpine, almost Gothic setting got me thinking about stuff like Gormenghast, too.
The fictional Zubrowka is a poor country ravaged by war and oppression, with the son of the deceased Madame D, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), one of the leading lights in the local Nazi-esque league sweeping through the area. The film spans a 53-year period from 1932 to 1985, but it’s with Gustave and Zero in 1932 where our main story lies.
Fiennes is wickedly acidic in a rare comic turn; his clipped pronunciations, camp flourishes and deadpan one-liners in the face of disaster are laugh-out-loud funny. To not be nominated for Best Actor, is a real travesty, especially as he would have been the only one in this film eligible for it anyway, since everyone else (with Revolori as the only possible exception) has cameo roles. Having said that, each star turn may be small, but all are perfectly formed. Harvey Keitel as a prisoner who befriends Gustave, Bill Murray as a fellow concierge who comes to Gustave’s aid, and Willem Dafoe as Dmitri’s cold-blooded gun-for-hire, all excel in their ‘one day filming’ commitments. It’s the perfect way to make a movie, really. The Grand Budapest Hotel is bizarre, but thoroughly engaging, and I want to see it again as soon as possible.
8/10 – Glorious gobbledegook.
The Imitation Game
The case of Alan Turing has been well documented. A brilliant and socially-challenged mathematician (aren’t they all?) who cracked the Enigma code during World War II, thus ensuring Allied victory and shortening the war by two years, saving an estimated 14 million further lives. And Mr Turing’s reward for saving the world from evil? Persecution – and prosecution – for his homosexuality, which led to his alleged suicide in 1954 at the age of 41.
Flavour of the year, Benedict Cumberbatch, plays Turing with all the awkward aplomb required of him – he was the obvious choice for the role – while Keira Knightley shines as Joan Clarke, Turing’s friend and fellow codebreaker, with whom he shares a closeness and affinity not enjoyed since he fell in love with his schoolfriend, Christopher, back in the 1920s.
The story revolves around both Turing’s attempt, with his team, to crack the Enigma code as the wartime clock ticks, and also his personal struggles to recognise and accept who he is (or ‘what’ he is). It’s a tender moment when Turing actually proposes to Joan Clarke, half out of needing a reason to keep her around when her parents threaten to recall her home, and half because he genuinely does love her, albeit not sexually. It’s credit to the filmmakers that they never dwelled on Turing’s homosexuality too much, instead rightly focusing on his brilliance and heroism, although the impact of the witchhunt aimed at him ten years later, will make you angry and bitter on Turing’s behalf.
Charles Dance makes a triumphant appearance as the antagonist, Commander Denniston, who isn’t convinced of Turing’s genius and tries his all to get rid of him. Although it’s plain that Dance is merely channeling his Game of Thrones persona, Tywin Lannister, he’s mesmeric, nonetheless. Mark Strong, too, as shadowy MI6 head, Stewart Menzies, steals most scenes he is in.
Hollywood will love this, but because it was impossible to make Turing (or Cumberbatch) American, I’m not if this will get the votes. At least with Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, that voice synthesizer has the right accent.
8.5/10 – Ticks all the right boxes but it’s up against better films.
There’s been a lot of hoo-ha in entertainment circles about the seeming lack of recognition this film has received, as though its Best Picture nomination is merely a token gesture and it should have been nominated in every category going. But I’m not sure it should even have got this far, to be honest.
Set in 1965, the story focuses on Martin Luther King Jnr’s instigation of, and involvement in, the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Alabama. The marches’ main purpose was to highlight the fact that, although black people had been given the right to vote in law, many white-led towns and cities – especially in the Deep South – were deliberately rejecting voting applications from black residents. The film is an opportunity to get us close to King during a specific period in his life, as he and his wife, Coretta, battle not just the two-faced administration of President Johnson, but also conflicting views on how to further their cause from within their own ranks.
It’s a standard civil rights movie, in many respects, but there were two main elements which prevented any real, emotional attachment to what was going on and who it was happening to. Firstly, it took me a while to realise what was actually going on. Sure, I know Martin Luther King Jnr and the general timeline of how the movement progressed and the watershed moments which defined it but, as a film, there was a distinct lack of structure or coherent narrative to make it clear where we were, when, and who each of the characters were. I’m sure the majority of Americans wouldn’t have a problem recognising names like Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Bevel and Hosea Williams, but we’re not all American, nor are we necessarily fluent in the full history of civil rights in the US. Everything just felt too disjointed for me to get comfortable and actually follow – or care about – what was going on, from a story/dramatic point of view.
Secondly, the casting was a real problem. There were so many British actors in this – and obviously British, with terrible American accents – it was another obstacle in the way of just being able to go with what was happening. I don’t know what the current obsession is with casting actors who come from opposite sides of the world to their characters, but in this instance I found myself so concentrated on the awful accents, I wasn’t actually listening to what any of them were saying. Tim Roth was the worst offender, as Alabama Governor, George Wallace, his excruciating Southern twang going through me like nails down a blackboard. Tom Wilkinson wasn’t far behind; his impression of Lyndon B Johnson about as convincing as Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney in Mary Poppins. Better, were David Oyelowo as King and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta (the same role she played in Boycott in 2011). Accents are a real bugbear of mine because, nine times out of ten, they’re done so badly, you simply can’t believe in the character, and there’s just no need for it. I know not everyone can be Meryl Streep, but there must are so many actually-American actors who could have taken those parts, and made us believe them, it just doesn’t make sense to go elsewhere.
I struggled to last until the end of Selma, and it was nothing to do with the subject matter – I’m a history nut, after all. I simply found it dull, poorly structured, very preachy and littered with so much exposition, it bordered on patronising. I’ve seen a dozen other films this year which deserved to be on this list over Selma, so I’m afraid that, to all those ‘outraged’ critics who (I suspect) are merely banging the Selma drum because it’s the politically correct thing to do, I’ve got to ask “what film were you watching, exactly?”
5/10 – A bizarre inclusion on this list.
The Theory of Everything
Cynics were all ready to patronise this film before it even came out, touting it for Oscars just because it was about a guy in a wheelchair. I think I may even have been one of them. The Daniel Day Lewis Effect, I think they call it. But if you’ve seen it, then it’s impossible not to have been impressed by it. Based on the life of Professor Stephen Hawking, the film is largely an adaptation of Hawking’s ex-wife, Jane’s, book Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen.
But it’s not the sentimental, cliche-ridden journey you might expect. Charting the period between Hawking’s Cambridge days in the 1960s (when his motor neuron disease was diagnosed, and also when he met fellow student, Jane) through to when he was made a Companion of Honour by the Queen in 1989, we’re shown Hawking the Man, not just Hawking the Disabled Person. We see his whole character spectrum, both pre- and post-diagnosis (he was given just two years to live, in 1963); from the laid back student who frustrates his teachers with his lackadaisical approach to his own brilliance, and the shy, if witty, would-be suitor to Jane, right through to his glaring self-centredness and ill-hidden contempt for those he deems below his own intelligence level.
This isn’t a saccharine portrait of a genius, this is a study of fragility and human endeavour. It was also nice to see the focus shared equally between Stephen and Jane. It’s rare to get a film which doesn’t concentrate on a sole protagonist, with the rest of the cast in supporting roles. But this was as much Jane’s story as Stephen’s. We are shown that Jane, too, is a brilliant Cambridge scholar with her own ambitions (to live in Spain and study Iberian poetry); dreams which dissipate the moment she commits to Stephen, knowing the stressful time that lies ahead for both of them. Watching her almost break under the strain of not only caring for Stephen alone, but bringing up three small children, and writing her own thesis, is heartbreaking to watch at times, but serves to remind us that behind every great man, is always an even greater woman.
Both Redmayne and Jones are astonishing, which already sounds a cliche, given the amount of awards Redmayne, in particular, has already won. But without Jones’ flawless performance to accentuate his own, then Redmayne’s star maybe wouldn’t have shone so bright.
By refraining from harping on about motor neuron disease and, instead, concentrating on the central relationship between Stephen and Jane (and their other respective relationships with friends, family, potential lovers…), The Theory of Everything manages to give us a multi-layered portrait of a multi-layered man. It’s a story about issues which affect all of us – love, ambition, religion (or the battle against it), communication, honesty and frailty. It’s beautifully shot with an understated score, and it doesn’t need any bells or whistles to sell itself. You don’t even have to know anything about Hawking (I’ve never read any of his stuff), you just have to know what it is to feel helpless sometimes, to empathise with what you’re seeing. The result is a film which is impossible not to react to.
9/10 – The ultimate love story
I wasn’t rushing to see this because a film about drumming didn’t seem like the kind of thing to keep me entertained. Obviously, I was completely wrong, as usual, because it’s not a film ‘about drumming’, although there’s a lot of drumming in it. It’s a film about ambition, passion, and the fine line between nurturing talent, and destroying it.
Based on writer/director Daniel Chazelle’s own experiences, Whiplash tells the story of talented young jazz drummer, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a student at New York’s esteemed Shaffer Conservatory. Desperate to get a place in the Conservatory’s studio band, Neiman must first impress the band’s fearsome conductor, Terrence Fletcher (JK Simmons); an imposing bully who delights in intimidating his students, both mentally and physically, in an attempt to “get the best” from them. He throws equipment at them, hits them around the face, and makes them practice until their hands bleed, all in the name of art.
Sensitive Neiman succumbs to Fletcher’s bullying, humiliated on a daily basis, but he refuses to give up. Only when things get truly out of hand, does he have an epiphany and decide to take command of his own destiny, instead of allowing Fletcher to dictate it. I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but this is a superb, almost Shakespearean portrait of the lengths some people will go to, to be the best or at least perpetuate the myth. One incident surrounding the betrayed Fletcher, and his desire for revenge, is particularly malevolent, and sadistic to watch, but you can’t take your eyes off this film from the opening scene to the last.
From start to finish, Whiplash was gripping, totally absorbing. It’s the subversive version of Dead Poets Society, with a large helping of Platoon thrown in. Yes, there was loads of drumming and other (jazz) music, and all of it was enthralling. The musical element was used not just as subject matter, but as the film’s own score; building tensions, creating drama, and igniting fireworks, of which there were plenty.
Miles Teller is incredible as the vulnerable Neiman, and it was truly emotional to see him grow from scared and naive wannabe-Buddy Rich, to focused, driven, even egotistical prodigy. And seeing the ferocity with which he bangs those drums, as though each beat is part of his own heart’s efforts to keep him alive, is hypnotising. Teller hasn’t got a nomination at all, which is astounding, but JK Simmons, as the tyrannical Terrence Fletcher, has, thank goodness. More on him, later.
Whiplash is essential viewing, it doesn’t matter if you’re a jazz fan or not, it’s not ‘about’ the music. Chazelle has managed to weave a musical web of pain, sadism, desperation and, in parts, pure evil, out of something which, on the surface, should seem so benign. It should (but won’t) grab Best Picture, too, and even though I said I wasn’t doing screenplay reviews, this would be my pick for the Adapted category (Grand Budapest Hotel for the Original).
9.5/10 – Simply stunning.
Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)
I was very excited about watching Foxcatcher, but not because I have any interest whatsoever in wrestling (which I’ve always thought to be very, very weird), but because it was about a true crime that I’d read mountains about in the 1980s.
It’s 1986, and Steve Carell (in a rare straight role) is billionaire philanthropist and resident oddball, John E du Pont, who recruits former Olympic wrestling gold medalist, the shy and socially awkward Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to head up du Pont’s self-financed training camp called “Team Foxcatcher”. The point of Foxcatcher is to get his wrestlers selected to represent the US at the upcoming Seoul Olympics. Mark accepts the challenge, unaware that what du Pont really wants is for Mark’s elder brother – and fellow Olympic champ – Dave (Mark Ruffalo) to head up the camp, so Mark can concentrate on wrestling alone, and win gold for du Pont.
But when Dave refuses to uproot his family, du Pont has to settle for just Mark, and that’s when the trouble starts. du Pont is obsessed, not just with wrestling, but by his own desperate need for validation, to be somebody. Starved of affection since birth (he’s now in his 50s), he still craves the attention of his formidable mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave at her most evil), but her contempt for such a ‘low sport’ as wrestling merely compounds her eternal disappointment in her pathetic son.
Eventually Dave Schultz is lured by du Pont’s ever-increasing financial incentives to come out and join his brother, and Mark feels sidelined. That, and a fight with du Pont which leaves him feeling humiliated and worthless, forces Mark into self-imposed isolation, jeopardising his Olympic selection and threatening to scupper du Pont’s “Team Foxcatcher” dream. What happens next, is shocking and surreal and, although the filmmakers have taken massive liberties with the timescale of events, the impact is huge.
Carell is really good as du Pont, but I have to be honest and say that the huge prosthetic nose he sported was incredibly distracting, precisely because it was so obviously fake, and sometimes it was as though he was being deliberately filmed from angles which emphasized the fakeness. Was this supposed to be a metaphor for du Pont’s skewed view of the world? Or was it just a bad prosthetic? Carell almost managed to convince me with his creepiness, but the careful and considered delivery of his lines was so precise as to become caricature. Only Christopher Walken can talk like that in movies and get away with it. I still think the nomination is deserved – just – but let’s be honest, if a normally-serious actor had taken the role, nobody would have noticed. But that’s the Academy for you; step out of your comfort zone, and they treat you like you just cured cancer.
6.5/10 – Carell is trying too hard, but Hollywood will love him.
Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)
I still can’t believe I’m saying this, but Bradley Cooper was brilliant in American Sniper. The nomination, for once, is fully deserved but, ironically, he couldn’t be up against stiffer competition. Eddie Redmayne has been taking all the Best Actor gongs so far, and when you see The Theory of Everything, it’s easy to see why. What’s in Brad’s favour, though, is that the Academy is largely an all-American, apple-pie institution that won’t let a movie about US patriotism go home empty handed. Whether the Best Actor gong is one of the awards this film gets, I don’t think so, unfortunately. Eddie Redmayne was just too good. So Coop’s well-rehearsed speech will have to go back under the pillow for another year.
7.5/10 – Not the best, but could be the surprise win.
Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)
I did love this film and the acting was great, but there were too many Sherlock moments going on for me to absolutely believe in Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. Turns out Turing and Holmes shared many qualities – genius, contempt for those less intelligent, and a lack of social empathy bordering on autism. And because I’ve seen ‘Sherbatch’ put down many a hapless lackey on plenty of occasions, watching ‘Turbatch’ do exactly the same thing in exactly the same way, ruined my absorption of who he was and what he was doing.
7/10 – Too much an Imitation of Sherlock
Michael Keaton (Birdman)
The critics are divided over Michael Keaton. Some reckon his turn in Birdman is the biggest acting comeback since Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. Others (probably the theatre thesps) like to snipe and backstab and maintain he’s not all that. I’m with the first camp. He won a Golden Globe for this role, but it was the “Musical or Comedy” category, not drama. Had he been up against Coops and Eddie, I don’t think he’d have won, and as great as he was, he won’t win this one, either.
8.5/10 – The Academy won’t be brave enough to join Team Keaton
Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)
It’s hard to think of anything that hasn’t already been said about Redmayne’s performance. From the very first scene, he simply is Stephen Hawking. It must have taken months of rehearsal, sitting in front of mirrors in a wheelchair, practising sitting positions, facial expressions, affected speech, and every single nuance of the man, because sometimes in this film, it’s impossible to see where the join is between subject and actor. It’s astonishing to watch, it really is. Even watching Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, great though he was, I was always aware I watching Daniel Day Lewis. But the morphing level going on here was bordering on the creepy.
Plaudits due, obviously, to make-up, costume, voice coach etc, but it’s up to Redmayne to bring all of that together and convince us to believe in the character, in the man. He did all that, and then some. Bear in mind that much of the emotion and feeling he had to convey to us was silent and almost expressionless; a raising of the eyebrows here, a lingering look there, a hunching of the shoulders when things weren’t going his way… but Redmayne was captivating. It’s very hard to compare performances when the films concerned are so, so different from one another. But for sheer lasting impact that’s there for days afterwards, then Redmayne was streets ahead of any of the others.
9.5/10 – Should be the rightful winner
Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)
The Academy’s favourite foreign actress, Cotillard can do no wrong. Ever since she stunned Hollywood with her turn as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose (2007), which earned her her first Oscar, she’s been clever about her career; obliging the big boys with appearances in the odd blockbuster, but never completely selling her soul to the Hollywood machine. Deux Jours, Une Nuit is one of her nobler choices, in which she plays Sandra, a depressed housewife and factory worker who is being pushed out of her minimum wage job by unscrupulous bosses, who have offered her equally hard-up colleagues a vote: keep Sandra, or receive a €1000 bonus. So the film follows Sandra as, encouraged by her dedicated husband, Manu, she visits each of her 13 undecided co-workers at home to try and persuade them to do the right thing and keep her in a job.
Written and directed by the Dardenne brothers – Belgium’s answer to Ken Loach – this is a raw and very depressing film about the realities of the 21st century working classes. The Belgian setting is irrelevant – this is happening in every town and city across the Western world (except, ironically enough, in Hollywood), so the themes should be familiar to most people who watch it. But that won’t happen, because the very people who would empathise with this film are not the people who will go to see it.
It’s stark, authentic and contains little in the way of hope or optimism (and why should it?). But for all its importance, the drama does lapse too much into repetition at times, with Sandra reciting the same plea, almost word for word, to each person she visits. There are long, drawn out walks between houses, plenty of water-sipping and contemplation, and a failed, almost pathetic suicide attempt. I get why the directors have done this – it’s supposed to feel real to the point where we’re with her, every step of the way, so we feel just as ground down as Sandra is by the time the vote comes around. There is a deliberate lack of editing, and lots of real-time pauses and awkwardness. By the time the dreaded Monday morning arrives, we are just as emotionally knackered as Sandra is.
As a study of worker resilience and management oppression, Two Days And One Night is a triumph. But don’t watch this if you want to be entertained. There is no examination of why Sandra was depressed in the first place (she was sick before she was given the redundancy news), nothing to show us how she got on with her co-workers (and thus give us a reason to hope they’d vote for her), and no real insight into who Sandra actually is. Again, maybe this was deliberate, that Sandra is supposed to represent all of us?
Cotillard, as ever, is very watchable and, even though she was probably supposed to look as dog rough as possible (greasy hair, no make-up, dowdy clothes), it’s never possible to hide the star shining beneath. She won’t win the Oscar (the film didn’t even make it as Belgium’s entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category), but she’ll have made quite a few actresses very uncomfortable with the ease at which she makes such bold role choices.
7/10 – A rank outsider, just like Sandra.
Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)
Probably the name least-heard-of in this list, certainly among the voters, and that usually counts against you. But when you give a performance as strong as this one, then you’ve every right to think you’ve got a great chance of winning. Not just that, but you’ve managed to get the nomination while not having ‘the’ lead role, but merely shared it with someone else.
All the other actresses in this category have carried their films, they are the main protagonist, whereas Jones (as Jane Hawking) shares her spotlight with Eddie Redmayne as husband Stephen Hawking. So that’s in her favour, too, that her performance was so good, she stands out on her own merits.
Jones manages to portray Jane Hawking’s journey from naive undergraduate to devoted wife, dedicated carer, adored mother and passionately thirsty woman, with an admirable lack of self-indulgence which makes us root for her right from the moment she and Stephen meet. She’s pretty without being ‘movie pretty’, who gives us honesty without ego, and she uses her chemistry with Redmayne to give Jane an understated, yet powerful, sense of passion which never quite reaches the boiling point we know she craves.
There’s only one thing counting against Felicity Jones in this vote – and she’s called Julianne Moore, who the Academy loves, with extra sugar on top. Let’s face it, Moore could sit in front of a camera and read out the weather forecast, and she’d get nominated for an Oscar. But it doesn’t matter if Jones wins or not, we’ve seen what she can do, and we can’t wait to see what she does next.
9/10 – Knocking on the door, but will they let her in?
Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
And so to the likely winner. No-one can doubt Moore’s acting ability, but she has a knack of bagging dominant roles in films which focus entirely on her character, which is no mean feat for a 50-something actress in Hollywood. This is another one.
Moore plays Dr Alice Howland, an eminent linguistics professor whose whole life has been dedicated to words and communication. So when she’s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, her world falls apart and she’s forced to face up to the fact that she’s not only going to start forgetting who she is and those around her, but also lose her other love – her passion for language.
Support, when it’s allowed, comes from husband John (Alec Baldwin), aspiring actress daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart), sensitive son Tom (Hunter Parrish) and self-centred elder daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth). Unfortunately Baldwin lapses into 30 Rock‘s Jack Donaghy too many times to take him seriously, while Anna is so unlikable, I felt ambivalent when it was revealed that she, too, had the Alzheimer’s gene. The most watchable interaction was between Moore and Stewart, as the estranged mother and daughter find their way back to each other through feelings rather than words.
Obviously, Moore is fantastic, but her status as Oscar-favourite just feels a little too nailed-on for my liking. It’s a film about Alzheimer’s, so it’s like the Academy has a duty to give the gong to her. I know the same could be argued about Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, but the difference here is that, in Still Alice, I am watching Julianne Moore act, whereas with Redmayne you just couldn’t see the join, and that’s the truest mark of a great acting performance.
8/10 – Easily the favourite, but Felicity Jones deserves it more.
Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)
I’ll probably upset a few folk here, especially devotees of the book, which I haven’t read (shouldn’t need to), but I honestly don’t get the hype over this film. I was expecting great things, but ended up feeling a bit cheated. And I don’t understand why Pike has been nominated for her performance, when she’s only ever had one look – frozen. And that’s all she does, throughout the film, she just freezes. She can do ice like nobody else, so if there was an Ice Oscar, she’d breeze it every year.
I hope the book was a lot sharper and darker than the film, because the premise certainly deserves our attention – glamorous writer goes missing in suspicious circumstances and all fingers point to her unfaithful husband (Ben Affleck), who quickly realises he’s being framed for his wife’s murder…by his wife. I usually love psychological stuff like that, but Hitchcock, it ain’t. I didn’t like either character from the start – Amy & Nick Dunne were a couple of spoilt, arrogant ‘creatives’ who were totally wrong for one another and should have just got a divorce when they realised what a mismatch they were.
Instead, they stay together – why, nobody knows – and move from New York to Missouri so they can look after Nick’s dying mother, incurring Amy’s simmering resentment at having to leave her social coterie and life of wealth and leisure. The problem I have with Pike is that, aside from her glacial, Grace Kelly-like features, there’s not actually that much underneath. There was zero chemistry between her and Affleck (actually, there’s zero chemistry between Ben Affleck and anybody, so it’s not all Pike’s fault), so not only did I not believe that they were ever a real couple, I couldn’t get my head around why one of them didn’t just leave. What’s more ridiculous, is that at no point during Nick Dunne’s trial-by-media or police questioning, was he ever asked (or demanded) to take a lie detector test. A simple thing to do, right? Even the two hideous ‘Oprahs’ who used their vacuous TV shows to convict Dunne on gossip and hearsay, didn’t have a spare polygraph to hand. You wouldn’t catch Jeremy Kyle running out of such vital pieces of equipment.
Anyway, all that aside, I found Pike as frightening as a dead tuna. She annoyed me intensely and by the end of the film I was disappointed that the whole lot of them hadn’t ended up on the wrong end of an axe. If only Freddie Krueger lived in Missouri, then Gone Girl could have been a whole lot more interesting.
3/10 – Glad it’s gone, girl
Reese Witherspoon (Wild)
Reese Witherspoon is always a good bet to win whatever awards she gets nominated for but, Rosamund Pike aside, this year’s Best Actress Oscar pool is such a tough line-up, it’s almost impossible to call. I still think Julianne Moore will shade it, but there will be an awful lot of votes going to Witherspoon for her turn as Cheryl Strayed, who completed a solo hike along the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to Oregon in an effort to find herself and grieve the death of her mother (Laura Dern).
The film time-shifts between Strayed’s hike and the obstacles she encounters, and her childhood and teenage years, focusing on her close relationship with her mother, Bobbi. We are shown Strayed’s motivations for deciding to do the hike, and how she’s forced to find courage from hidden quarters to help keep her going. It’s really a story of emotional growth, as well as physical survival, and Witherspoon does an excellent job of showing us Strayed’s hopes, fears, regrets and acceptance of the things she cannot change. It’s cliched, in parts, and the Drum of Self Discovery is banged rather a lot as Strayed examines her own flawed behaviour.
It’s a good film, but it didn’t knock my socks off, even if Witherspoon is worth every penny. Any other year, and she’d be a favourite, but Wild doesn’t really live up to its name and I think many voters will feel rather tame about it.
7/10 – Withering Witherspoon is an also-ran this year.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Robert Duvall (The Judge)
Duvall’s best role will always be as Tom Hagen in The Godfather but, even at 84, he still keeps popping up with scene-stealing performances which rightly get him nominated for big shiny trophies.
Here, he plays the title role, Judge Joseph Palmer, overseeing justice in a small town in Indiana, until one day he’s arrested for the suspected hit and run killing of a man he once sent to jail. Enter his estranged son, Hank (Robert Downey Jnr), a successful Chicago lawyer, who hasn’t spoken to his father for decades, but who has now returned home on the death of his mother. Eager to go straight back to Chicago as soon as the funeral is over, Hank has to stay behind when his dad is arrested, when it becomes clear that the Judge’s chosen attorney is incompetent. Thus we follow the drama as father and son are forced to attempt some sort of reconciliation if the younger Palmer is going to keep the elder Palmer out of jail.
It’s pretty formulaic stuff – family secrets, resentments, the inability of men to communicate with one another, plus the ghosts of lost love and small town small-mindedness, all combining to send Hank on his own journey of self-discovery (there’s that word again), which will, inevitably, lead straight back to the arms of his cranky old dad.
Duvall is superb, as usual, but I found the predictability of the script and story too limiting for his talents. It’s clearly Downey Jnr’s, show, too, and despite some very tender scenes between the two, overall it was just way too obvious to stand out from any other film of family estrangement and reconciliation. Duvall has only ever won one Oscar, for Tender Mercies more than 30 years ago, and this might be his last chance at another. Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen.
7/10 – Back to the bench.
Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)
Very watchable, very likeable, but he was playing himself!! As much as I like him, and I do, he is the same character/person as he is in all his films, especially Reality Bites, and that was over twenty years ago. He’s a slacker, playing a slacker. Again. But Oscar? Good God, no.
8/1 – You can’t win an acting award if you’re not really acting.
Edward Norton (Birdman)
Hilarious to watch in Birdman, I know a lot of actors like Mike Shiner. Sexually confident, massive ego, arrogance in spades, and utterly crap at real life. Norton was one of the best things about Birdman, stealing every scene and sending up his own profession with obvious glee and no hint of mercy. Would deserve to win, if it wasn’t for a certain other acting performance we shall discuss in a short while. Which is a shame, because you just know that every Academy voter putting a tick in his box, will not have a clue that Mike Shiner was taking the piss out of every single one of them.
8.5/10 – You can’t kid a kidder.
Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)
More Foxcatcher, and I’m a big admirer of Mark Ruffalo, but this nomination was a bit of a “you what?” moment for me when I heard it. Sure, he’s great, but he’s always great. The thing is, he wasn’t great-er than anybody else in the film, and his character doesn’t even really get into it until the second hour. The relationship between Dave and Mark Schultz could have been explored a little deeper, which is a shame, because had we known more about their peripatetic past – as was hinted at – then I’d have felt a lot more for the characters.
Dialogue was scarce in this film, and I have no problem with that, and there seemed to be so much more to find out about these brothers, but their dynamic was sacrificed to give du Pont/Carell more screen time. No-one is going to deny Ruffalo his time in the spotlight tonight, but I honestly didn’t think his performance was particularly astonishing….unlike that of Channing Tatum, who was simply sensational, yet he hasn’t been recognised at all.
7/10 – The wrong actor was nominated.
JK Simmons (Whiplash)
All the superlatives you could possibly give Simmons for this powerhouse of a performance, have already been used. His character, Terrence Fletcher, is immense, he’s evil, he’s overpowering, he’s even charismatic, like all good sociopaths, and what Simmons does with him is bordering on genius. You just cannot take your eyes off him for the entire 110 minutes. His sartorial choices – black T shirt, black trousers, black everything – add to his malignancy, and I haven’t seen such a gloriously badass antagonist in the cinema for many a year.
Terrence Fletcher probably eats children for breakfast before he turns up at the Studio to begin biting on his own students. In this category, there is simply nobody who even comes close to the brilliance that JK Simmons exhibits here. This is as good an acting performance as you will ever see, in any film, at any time, anywhere. It is arguably the best supporting actor performance in the history of cinema. He should actually have been up for Best Actor, not the support, because there’s nothing supporting about his role in Whiplash. Suffice to say, that if Simmons doesn’t win on Sunday, then I’m never going to the pictures ever again.
10/10 – Breathtaking
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Patricia Arquette was superb as Mason Evans’ fragile mother, Olivia. It’s easy to overplay pathos and alienate an audience when you’re playing with such run-of-the-mill issues as divorce, relationships and that perennial movie favourite, self discovery, but Arquette manages to pull it off. She was even game to show us her larger self, briefly, when the story went through the years which coincided with her own personal – and public – weight battle, which adds real authenticity. I totally believed her character, and I was glad that Linklater didn’t give in to cliche and show Olivia finally overcoming all of her demons and coming out the other side a stronger, wiser woman. At the end, Olivia is just as flawed as she’s always been, but Arquette makes us like her anyway.
9/10 – Easy to fall in love with.
Laura Dern (Wild)
I can’t believe Laura Dern’s only 48, she seems to have been around forever, but it’s weird seeing her be the mother of somebody who’s only ten years younger than her in real life.
In Wild, Dern plays, in flashback, Bobbi, the hippy-ish mother of main character, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), who herself is trekking alone up America’s Pacific Crest Trail in an attempt to find herself and make sense of her life. We see Bobbi as she attempts to bring up Cheryl and her younger brother, Leif, in the shadow of their abusive father, Ronald. Bobbi is witty, with a thirst for knowledge, but has a knack for making appalling life decisions which usually result in young Cheryl having to balance the ship.
When Bobbi is diagnosed with cancer, her stoicism frustrates Cheryl, who wants her to be angrier with the shit hand life has dealt her, but it’s only after Bobbi’s death, and she nears the end of her hike, that Cheryl finally appreciates her mother’s optimistic outlook on life and decides to try and adopt a similar ethos.
Dern is typically kooky, as you’d expect, but she’s really not in it that much to get to any kind of meaty grip on her character. I don’t know, maybe I’m being mean, but I got to the end of Wild feeling a bit ‘so what?’ about Dern’s nomination, probably because I’ve seen her play similar characters before, so there was nothing to really mark this performance out from any of her others.
6/10 – Not much to get wild about.
Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)
I’ve struggled to be a Keira Knightley fan. It just wasn’t fair that someone so beautiful and so well-connected (filmmaking family….) and, by all accounts, someone so bloody nice, could also be a great actress. True, I’ve never seen her give a bad performance, but sometimes I wish she’d get her hands dirty and not be so flipping porcelain and English and ‘clipped’. Well she’s all three in this, but she’s still really good. Oscar-good? Well I don’t know. She didn’t stand out any more than she does in every other film she makes, and that’s not a criticism, because she’s consistent. Consistently good, consistently nice, consistently English, consistently consistent. And that’s OK, but that’s all it is.
7.5/10 – English Rose. Again.
Emma Stone (Birdman)
I did love Birdman, I really did, but I was still surprised when I saw Stone nominated. It must have been a quiet year for supporting actresses because, although she was good in this, I mean, really good, it wasn’t spectacular. She’s good at doing angst and she’s good at doing nice, so I suppose when you put the two together, the critics are going to go bananas, and I think that’s what’s happened here.
Her character is a former addict, trying to build a relationship with her estranged father (Michael Keaton, the Birdman of the title), while also trying to ‘find herself’. I think that was what the problem was for me – it was too cliched for it to stand out. A good supporting role that helped move the main story along, but I honestly didn’t think any more of it than that.
7.5/10 – Good but not ‘great’.
Meryl Streep (Into The Woods)
Ah Meryl, where have you been? It’s been a whole 12 months since you were last nominated for an Oscar (in the superb August: Osage County – watch it if you haven’t already, she’s dynamic). You’d have to be a robot not to be a Meryl Streep fan, although I’ve never seen her in anything quite like this before. I couldn’t work out if she was branching out, or dumbing down because, on paper at least, Into The Woods just didn’t seem like her kind of thing. It’s musical fantasy, for heaven’s sake, and that’s just not Meryl! And it’s got James Corden in it. Meryl, what are you doing?!
An adaptation of the Sondheim Broadway musical, it’s a fairytale mash-up of all the old favourites, including Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack & The Beanstalk, with our various heroes and anti-heroes chasing after their own happy endings, before realising that they’re not so happy after all. It’s a weird cast – Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, James Corden, Streep, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, even Frances de la Tour, for goodness’ sake, and there’s a tune every five seconds. Think Ever After meets Glee, and you get the idea.
Our Meryl plays ‘The Witch’, and has a right royal romp hamming it up with no apology whatsoever. In fact, she’s one of the few reasons to watch this (Emily Blunt being the other) because, to be perfectly frank, it’s an annoying, dull film and the only times I didn’t drop off were when Streep and Blunt were onscreen.
Into The Woods professes to be a musical, but most of the ‘songs’ use that extremely irritating talk-sing method, just trilling through normal, uninspiring dialogue but ‘singing’ the last few words of every line. Eg. “I don’t know why I’m watching thiiiiiiis, it’s getting on my nerrrrrrves! Tra la laaaa!” Worse, not many of the actors can actually sing, so it’s double agony for those watching. The gulf between musical professionals like Anna Kendrick (Cinderella) and wooden, tone-deaf actors like Chris Pine (Prince Charming) was excruciating to watch.
It may well have been fantastic entertainment on Broadway, but it obviously doesn’t translate to screen very well. The script was poor, the songs were terrible, the storytelling was mediocre – a criminal offence in the world of fairytales – and I just didn’t care about any of them, especially Red Riding Hood, played by Lilla Crawford; surely the most annoying child actor since Macaulay Culkin (although Daniel Huttlestone playing ‘Jack’ came a close second).
But this is supposed to be about Meryl Streep, and she was fabulous every time she appeared. She should have had more screen time, in fact the whole film should have revolved around The Witch, instead of the likes of James Corden’s Mr Baker, who I just wanted to punch every time he popped up. Johnny Depp’s ‘Wolf’ was a welcome distraction (a Johnny Depp anything, is always a welcome distraction…) but he can’t sing a note, either. Meryl obviously had a ball filming this little pantomime, but the fact that she was the only saving grace of it, won’t be enough to get her the Oscar.
7/10 – Not even Magic Meryl could save this movie.
So, to the predictions…
My Own Winners:
Best Picture: WHIPLASH
Best Actor: EDDIE REDMAYNE (The Theory of Everything)
Best Actress: FELICITY JONES (The Theory of Everything)
Best Supporting Actor: JK SIMMONS (Whiplash)
Best Supporting Actress: PATRICIA ARQUETTE (Boyhood)
What I Think Will Happen:
Best Picture: BOYHOOD
Best Actor: EDDIE REDMAYNE (The Theory of Everything)
Best Actress: JULIANNE MOORE (Still Alice)
Best Supporting Actor: JK SIMMONS (Whiplash)
Best Supporting Actress: PATRICIA ARQUETTE (The Imitation Game)
The 87th Academy Awards, Sunday February 22nd on Sky Oscars from 11.30pm GMT