Friday, 31 January 2014

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Fast & Furious 6

Directed by: Justin Lin

Produced by: Neal H. Moritz
Vin Diesel
Clayton Townsend

Screenplay by: Chris Morgan

Based on: 'Characters' by Gary Scott Thompson

Starring: Vin Diesel
Paul Walker
Dwayne Johnson
Michelle Rodriguez
Jordana Brewster
Tyrese Gibson
Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges
Sung Kang
Luke Evans
Gina Carano
John Ortiz

Music by: Lucas Vidal

Cinematography by: Stephen F. Windon

Editing by: Christian Wagner
Kelly Matsumoto

Studio(s): Original Film
One Race Films

Distributed by: Universal Pictures

Release date(s): May 7, 2013 (London Premier)
May 17, 2013 (United Kingdom)
May 24, 2013 (United States)

Running time: 125 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $160 million

Box-office revenue: $788, 679, 850

Now, this is a film blog, granted but I'm going to have to give a quick five dimes on certain events going on in the professional wrestling world. Sunday's Royal Rumble pay-per-view was effectively hijacked by the wrestling fans, who voiced their disapproval rather loudly at the booking, particularly in relation to Daniel Bryan, arguably the most popular wrestler since Stone Cold Steve Austin, the guy who should clearly be the face of the company. This appears to have been the straw that broke the camel's back for CM Punk, who reports are saying has walked out on WWE six months before his contract expires. Punk, in my opinion, is the hardest working wrestler of the past decade, and so it's a shame to see the best in the world go, and I think this will affect WWE in the long run more than they can imagine. So, for all the latest and greatest in the world of professional wrestling (and the occasional film review ;), keep your eyes posted!

Alright well, today's film up for review is Fast & Furious 6 aka Furious 6 aka Fast Six or whatever the hell they wanna call this movie: the DVD case says Fast & Furious 6, but the title at the end of the credits sequence says Furious 6, and I rewound to check I wasn't missing some spinning logo or something. To give a bit of context of the Fast & Furious film series, which has become Universal's highest-grossing franchise of all-time, a fact I find to be very strange given the Universal 'Monsters' period of the 1930s and it's long association with Steven Spielberg, I have seen all but 2 Fast 2 Furious and Tokyo Drift. The first was a pretty good, but not as good as everyone remembers movie which had some fine car chases and was one of three movies (along with Pitch Black and XXX) that sought to make Vin Diesel a major action star. After his star waned in the mainstream, Diesel and the whole gang decided to fall in line with the mid-late noughties trend of rebooting franchises, only that this one was about eight years old and not akin to the decades long stretches we saw in the Die Hard, Rocky, Rambo and Indiana Jones franchises. Put simply, Fast & Furious was a pile of hooey, a horrible bilious mixture of wonton destruction amidst a street racing movie and a monstrously self-important movie about morality and redemption. I think everyone involved recognised the weakness of that film, and thus in 2011 we got Fast Five, a movie which, while by no means perfect, was wholly refreshing, reinvigorating a stagnant franchise about street racing into what was essentially a heist movie. After the warm reception of that movie, the plans to turn the series around paid off, and what we have in this sequel is in a similar vein: following the successful Rio heist, Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) have retired from the criminal world, living with their respective spouses Elena (Elsa Pataky) and Dominic's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), who gives birth to her and Brian's son at the beginning of the film. However, DSS agents Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Riley Hicks (Gina Carano) are investigating the destruction of a military convoy in Moscow by former British Special Forces soldier Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), and manages to persuade Dominic to gather his crew together and infiltrate Shaw's gang by showing him a recent photo of his supposedly-deceased lover Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) working for Shaw. Got that? Good!

To start off with what's right about FF6 (I've decided from hereon to refer the film by way of this helpful acronym), the decision made by the producers and writer Chris Morgan to take the series away from pure street racing into a series of heist movies was a stroke of genius. There's only so much you can do with street racing, and with the heist format there are any number of possibilities, including the odd street race or too, so it hasn't been completely done with. Morgan also wrote the malignant 47 Ronin, but without the inappropriate clash of styles with Hossein Amini, he just rights some right and good action sequences. After the success of Fast Five, we've went further down the loophole: much of the film is set in London, and if you know anything about London (as I do), the streets aren't exactly designed for chases, and aside 2012's The Sweeney, haven't seen many. However, through ingenuity and just outright gall, we have incredible chase scenes full of chaos and wanton destruction. I've criticised this franchise before, but I've always felt they've kept up the fine tradition of the car chase. Not only do we have car chases, we have gun battles, foot chases in the London Underground and some of the most hard-hitting martial arts action scenes in a mainstream Western film I can remember seeing. Morgan's just been given the ball and ran with it, creating an utterly ridiculous, absurd, but kind of awesome action environment, culminating in one of the most outrageous and bizarre action scenes in film history. Also, you'd like to think that for all the effort that has been put into coming up with this stuff that the stunt team, however daunting the challenge may be, would be up to scratch, and they certainly are. Everyone who reads this blog knows I'm a sucker for crazy stunt-driven action movies (incidentally, when are the Oscars going to ever get a Best Stunts award? Surely it's long overdue...), and this completely whetted my appetite. It's one thing putting things down on paper, but execution is another thing altogether and the choreography is of a consistently high standard. Quite clearly it's practised down to a tee, and yet with so much going on we are given the illusion that at any moment a car could be totalled. The same could be said for the gun battles and fight scenes, which have this palpable element of danger to them. I remember last year people were salivating over The Raid, which won my award for Best Stunt Work last year, but I think the compendium of chaos presented here is right up there with the best I've seen in my time as a reviewer. Also, the film is appropriately shot and edited. I know I always make this argument, but it always rings true: 'ensure that the audience can see what is going on in an action movie.' I'm a big proponent of that philosophy, for while I think the likes of the Bourne movie do shaky-cam well, most don't, instead giving you nausea, and also, isn't more respectful to the craft of those stunt teams involved to display and show their work? Here, I got to see everything that was going on, and yet the editing was done in such a way, alongside the constant banging, clanging, smashing and crashing of the sound design that I was left genuinely aghast: not in the sense that I was horrified, but in genuine shock that an entire group of people took $160 million to go to London and make and put onscreen the kind of scenarios kids come up with playing with their Lego bricks. It is absolutely outrageous, over-the-top and I had a hell of a lot of fun with Fast & Furious 6.

Now, here comes the negative, which I wish I could say "it pains me to say," but frankly the bad stuff is as much part and parcel to the madness of this movie as the good stuff. Morgan is a writer who can do action, I mean, he was hardly going to write the soap opera stuff for 47 Ronin (Wings Of A Dove writer Hossein Amini still couldn't save it), and FF6 has some absolutely terrible characterisation and plotting. There is no inclination to make us really care for any of these characters whatsoever, and that'd be fine if we didn't have Vin Diesel droning on about family every now and again simply to tick off the boxes. I personally think the movie'd be better if the self-serious bullshit was left on the scrap heap, and these Adams Family Values' omission would certainly give the film a shorter (therefore better) running time. The lack of characterisation also has an impact on the actors who are supposed to be performing this stuff. Diesel drones, and frankly while Paul Walker has never been a particularly good actor outside of the first film, he says what he has to say with very little conviction. I mean, people talk about Keanu, and I'm sure there'll be some going "meh, meh, meh, let us not speak ill of the dead," but there's a point where Walker has to say something noteworthy and there's that dropout of silence movies do after a zinger, but that silence just served as an enabler for my brain to do a somersaulting WAT of incomprehension. Only big Dwayne is safe from this, but that's because the guy's so frickin' charismatic he could make The Yellow Pages sound cool. The whole central motivation for the story, Letty's return, is explained off simply in the movie by the most contrived plot point of "oh, she got amnesia from the crash, that's why we she's working with the baddies." It's the whole poxy "well she didn't die onscreen so therefore how can we know she's dead routine," a gimmick that seems to be in place for the sole purpose of whether or not fans want to see characters return, and the gimmick is used on a couple of occasions here as well. 

Fast & Furious 6 has terrible characterisation, which means the actors end up giving poor performances and it has some of really contrived plotting, full of lame gimmicks. However, I must say that this stupidity is part and parcel to the overall package, which is a hell of a lot of fun. The action scenes are preposterous and yet the stunt team splendidly pulls them off, making for some ingenious car chases and fight scenes. Also, the cinematography and editing backs them up, ensuring that not only can we see everything going on and still have a certain level of frenetic bombardment. Frankly, it's like a kid has been given the keys to the kingdom, and this is a $160 million action fanboy fetishist's fantasy, which, for all it's inherent stupidity is a highly entertaining action flick that needs to be seen to be believed.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 7.5/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Still stuffy (on and off, but on the whole getting better)

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Dallas Buyers Club

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallee

Produced by: Robbie Brenner
Nathan Ross
Rachel Rothman

Screenplay by: Craig Borten
Melisa Wallack

Starring: Matthew McConaughey
Jennifer Garner
Jared Leto

Cinematography by: Yves Belanger

Editing by: Martin Pensa
John Mac McMurphy

Studio(s): Truth Entertainment
Voltage Pictures

Distributed by: Focus Features

Release date(s): November 22, 2013 (United States)
February 7, 2014 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 116 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $5 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $20, 528, 954

Alrighty there, it took a wee bit there to get out my review for A Hijacking, frankly because I had a wee weekend to myself, catching up with my friends, watching NJPW's 2014 FantasticaMania and WWE's 2014 Royal Rumble at The Fly and finishing two books in the process (Live And Let Die, The Commitments). So yeah, while I've seen some movies, I haven't been as mad about seeing them as I should have been, so for all the latest, greatest and belated film reviews, keep your eyes posted!

Today's film up for review is Dallas Buyers Club, which at the time of this review's publication is a major awards contender. This is kind-of being seen as the tip of the iceberg regarding the reconnaissance of Matthew McConaughey, which got started with 2011's The Lincoln Lawyer, but really got kicked into full motion with his playing the title role in William Friedkin's Killer Joe, and has since seen turns in Magic Mike, Mud, The Wolf Of Wall Street (another of the nine Best Picture nominees at this year's Oscars) and an upcoming part as the lead in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. Aside from the BAFTAs, from which Dallas Buyers Club is noticeably absent, McConaughey has been racking up the awards, and while I still feel there's a shot at Bruce Dern picking up the gong his work in Nebraska, chances are by the time he's in Nolan's latest he'll be billed as 'Academy Award Winner Matthew McConaughey.' So, plot synopsis here: it's 1985 in Dallas, Texas and Ron Woodruff (McConaughey), an electrician by trade and rodeo cowboy by pleasure with homophobic views suffers a work-related injury and is diagnosed as HIV positive and given thirty days to live. Despite finding himself ostracised by his friends and family as a result of his diagnosis, he finds from Dr. Eve Sacks (Jennifer Garner) that there is a drug being tested called AZT which is the only legally approved drug by the FDA for AIDS patients. After bribing a hospital employee for the drug, he finds his health declining and winds up in hospital with Rayon (Jared Leto), an AIDS positive transgender woman. He drives to a hospital to get more AZT, and Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne) turns him off it, claiming it to be a dangerous drug, and from there, Woodruff begins to smuggle drugs for his own use and with Rayon's extensive list of contacts eventually opens up his own 'buyers club,' charging a fee per month in exchange for free medication. That's enough on the synopsis, I needed to establish the premise but not tell the whole damn movie, which I've succeeded in at least...

To start with the good regarding Dallas Buyers Club, I must say that the central performance by Matthew McConaughey is frankly mesmerising. When I look back over the years at great performances, I think not just of those from films I reviewed, such as Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler or Carice Van Houten, but the likes of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull or Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, and what links all of those performances is the fact that I never thought of them as an actor playing a character, but simply a character. McConaughey's performance as Ron Woodruff is of that very same vein. It's an elaborate and meticulous part of details: not only does McConaughey look horribly gaunt and weak, but he still carries Woodruff with strength, conveying such swagger, confidence and determination. Also, not just physically, but in terms of the way he uses his voice, delivering his lines with a note-perfect diction, applying his Texan accent to give the character a Dallas drawl. You never buy this part as anything less than wholly legitimate: he's charming, insulting, loathsome, sympathetic and inspiring, often at the same time, and the complex brilliance of this character is on display thanks to McConaughey. Also on the acting plane, there are two great supporting performances from Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto. Although hers is the least 'showy' performance, if you will, she still does a splendid job of depicting the conflict that her character has, the conviction with which she is able to prescribe medication she knows doesn't work and disavow the practices of the Dallas Buyers Club highlights the hypocrisy of the medical organisations (FDA, etc.) and their legal wranglings. Furthermore, she's not just a cypher, and is someone who is inflected with real grace and a sense of justice, and Garner is not afraid to show us the rut that her character is in. Jared Leto's performance as the transgender Rayon is certainly the most showy, but that does not take away from Leto's accomplishment. The sass and quick wit of Rayon is the perfect foil for McConaughey's Woodruff, with Leto more than able to stand up to McConaughey, and this leads to some genuinely amusing exchanges. Leto also plays a brilliant balancing act, in that he captures the androgyny that can come with transgender women, but refuses to let it degrade into a camp comic figure or creepy caricature. Leto's Rayon is a sweet and very loveable rogue. Speaking of dialogue, I'd like to address the script, which did have some praiseworthy aspects. Of course, the dialogue is terrific, and as I mentioned, there are some splendid exchanges between Ron and Rayon, things like him having a gun by hand and telling Rayon he'll "give you the sex change you been looking for" and "God sure was dressin' the wrong doll when he blessed you with a set of balls" are brilliant pieces of dialogue. The interplay between these characters was a pleasure to behold. Also, it nails down the little details in the dialogue, their construction making it believable that Woodruff, who for all intents and purposes is a relatively uncultivated hick, could become through his own willpower a learned man on matters such as the treatment of his condition. Another that impressed me about the film was the fact that from what I could tell, the only music in the film (aside from sound effects when Ron feels sick) was part of the film's diegesis. Stylistically, it's largely devoid of gimmicks like credits, voice-overs and what have you, this being to the film's benefit, and the absence of a score lets us see the story unfold in a way that ensures it isn't a sentimental, popcorn 'issues' movie: it simply, but not without flavour, tells it as it is. Director Jean-Marc Vallee should be applauded not only for this, but for giving the film such a plain, no bull-bleep! attitude towards the film's LGBT themes. I make no bones about the fact that I am a strong supporter of LGBT rights, but I make a point of remaining objective about it when looking at art. While I am no fan of the gay scare bro humour that pervades many comedies (and thus, society), equally I do not like the patronising tone of people telling me XYZ, "isn't it wonderful how open-minded we are:" no, people are people, as the Mode would say. Of course this is subjective, but Vallee wisely maintains an artist's objectivity and lets the audience make up their own mind.

Now, as you can tell, I was very much into Dallas Buyers Club and frankly thought it was a really fine piece of work. However (the big however), I do have to say I have one reservation about the movie that, while I will admit to it being great, denies it from being up there with the very best of them. I say reservation because it's not exactly a fault, but the fact of the matter is is that Dallas Buyers Club, for all that's good about it, is a film we have seen in many different guises before. Thinking about it there, the first thing that came to my head was Akira Kurosawa's 1952 film Ikiru, in which Watanabe, a long-serving bureaucrat finds out he has stomach cancer, and given a year's life-expectancy, decides, as the title translates, 'to live.' Before then I'm sure there were other similar pictures, but in the sixty years since then there have been countless variations on the same theme, so that, while Dallas Buyers Club was one of the more engaging ones, it's still part of the same overarching vein and isn't quite distinctive enough to be among the very best.

Despite the fact that is in many ways another variation of the well-trod theme of 'dying person learns to start living,' I still found Dallas Buyers Club to be a merit-worthy film. It has an extraordinary lead performance from Matthew McConaughey, backed up by two fine supporting parts from Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto. Also, while I did find the film's script/story to be conventional to a certain extent, the dialogue was fresh and invigorating, with some really splendid interplay going on between McConaughey and Leto. The diegesis and stylistic atmosphere of the film sees everything laid bare, presented as a raw representation of a story that does not batter us over the head as to how we should be feeling, something for which director Jean-Marc Vallee should be applauded. It's a pure, unadulterated movie that lets us make our own judgement calls regarding the characters and their story, whilst doing into in an altogether engaging and entertaining fashion. 

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.6/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Stuffy (my nose is, anyway.)

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - A Hijacking

Directed by: Tobias Lindholm

Produced by: Rene Ezra
Tomas Radoor

Screenplay by: Tobias Lindholm

Starring: Pilou Asbæk
Søren Malling
Dar Salim
Rolland Møller
Gary Skjoldmose Porter
Abdihakin Asgar

Music by: Hildur Guonadottir

Cinematography by: Magnus Nordenhof Jønck

Editing by: Adam Nielsen

Studio: Nordisk Film

Distributed by: Nordisk Film Biografdistribution (Denmark)
Magnolia Home Entertainment (United States, DVD)
Arrow Films (United Kingdom)

Release date(s): September 20, 2012 (Denmark)
January 10, 2013 (United States, Palm Springs International Film Festival)
May 10, 2013 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 99 minutes

Country: Denmark

Language: Danish

Production budget: DKK 15, 500, 000

Box-office revenue: $413, 276 (United States, as of September 27, 2013)

I suppose you can say that this review is brought to you in collaboration with Paul Oakenfold's Ready Steady Go, which I've been listening to much of the past couple of hours while working and getting up to various shebang. Anywho, I imagine that this might be finished over the course of two days, so don't be surprised if this review seems a bit fragmented, because I'm just getting a head start on the first two paragraphs. I'm trying to arrange a cinema trip at the moment, and I'd say I'm getting through on average one new movie a day, so for all the latest and greatest in the movies, keep your eyes posted. (Near on autopilot, it's any wonder I take an off-season after the Oscars!)

So, yesterday's (and today's) review is for A Hijacking, a Danish thriller which was released originally in it's home country in September 2012, but only received a limited release on these shores in May 2013, and therefore it is to be reviewed as a movie from 2013. I managed to get a copy on DVD in Sainsbury's on the cheap, and I assume it was in a supermarket because the marketing over here really plays to recent trend of Scandinavian thrillers. It's strange in that not only a particular genre, but works of a genre from a particular region, specifically that of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The first major work of this 'movement,' to use a term, was Stieg Larsson's posthumously published The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which was a success in it's home country of Sweden, but when translated into English in 2008, really set the world on fire as a bona-fide literary phenomenon. I remember there was a time when everyone was reading that book, and for that reason I avoided it until a couple of years later, and found it to be one of the best thrillers I'd read in a long time. Since then, we've seen the international emergence of authors such as Norway's Jo Nesbo, and the crime fiction sub-genre from this region has really transcended various medium(s), with Denmark's Borgen and The Killing (a real international sensation - it had a run in the United Kingdom on BBC Four) ruling the television airways. For A Hijacking, various alumni from those two shows (including the two lead actors and writer-director Tobias Lindholm, a regular collaborator of Thomas Vinterberg) come together to work on this project. Perhaps unfortunately, it has the shadow of Captain Phillips hanging over the top of it, but let's get to it with a plot synopsis: Mikkel Hartmann (Pilou Asbæk) is the cook among the crew of a Danish cargo ship which en route to their destination is hijacked by Somali pirates, and negotiations are orchestrated with the crews lives as bounty to extort their CEO Peter C. Ludvigsen (Søren Malling) of the company's money. The film's story alternates between the negotiations in Ludvigsen's office and the situation of the hijacked crew, with both stories interacting and weaving in and out of one another. Got it? Good!

Starting with the good regarding A Hijacking, it's a tightly knit movie. Much of the film, though going across two different groups of people in two different locations, is in small, enclosed spaces, and the maintenance of a consistent level of claustrophobia is something that the production designers and the cinematographer should be congratulated for. It is a cinematic space that is not only alien but relatable and entrenched in a reality that can at times be frightening. The two lead actors, Malling and Asbæk, are both very good in their parts. Instead of portraying his character as the faceless, cold representative of a company, what Malling does is depict him as a man with a real sense of empathy towards his employees, actively involving himself in the negotiations to bring them home. Also, an interesting point is that Malling's portrayal of Peter goes so far as to imply that it his essential humanity and how it affects him in the negotiation process which is also his greatest weakness. When cinema is sometimes full of these less than vaguely propagandistic portrayals of company men, Malling's part is refreshing. Also, that same humanity is vested by Asbæk in character of the ship's cook. Very much the film's equivalent to the everyman, he is the character through which we witness all the action of the movie, and Asbæk is subtle in ensuring that the character doesn't go too far into being an audience cypher, not forgetting that Mikkel needs to maintain a three-dimensionality. As I mentioned, it's a tight movie, and the same can be said for the editing. The movie comes to a running time just shy of a hundred minutes, which is just right. Also, it is cut in such a way that the juxtaposition, correlation and interaction of the two stories exist not just as chronologically appropriate, but also in terms of where the story is going. This is backed up by the use of a beautiful little minimalist score Hildur Guðnadóttir. It's a strange work, especially given the realistic aspect of the film, but when it comes in and the characters in a primarily dialogue-heavy picture have time to reflect upon their interactions, this is where the movie thrives best. Finally, writer-director Tobias Lindholm has done a uniformly solid job in terms of delivering this thriller. It is taut, intense and at the movie's best moments, eerily transcendent, touching upon the deepest recesses of our humanity.

However, while I did like A Hijacking a good bit, there are a couple of issues that deny it from being a great movie. As I mentioned, the film is at it's best when the minimalist score comes in and it plays out a bit like a silent movie, the actors' visual actions speaking more than words could. These strangely transcendent segments are few and far-between though in a dialogue heavy movie. Although for the most part it's satisfactory, the dialogue can get tiresome at times, and even though the short running time keeps it tight, they really couldn't have afforded any more. Furthermore, while I was impressed with the plot structure and the way the actors' portrayed their characters, I feel that the movie frankly lacks the additional depth that one needs to truly feel the movie. When I think of my favourite films, I always think of the many different things I fell in love with about a particular movie. Here unfortunately, and herein lies once again the subjectivity of film criticism itself, only a week after seeing I've found I've forgotten large chunks of the picture.

I had a couple of issues with A Hijacking, in that it is such a dialogue-heavy that it does get tiresome, and at one hundred minutes it really couldn't have afforded to be any longer. Also, I feel that it lacked the extra depth necessary to fully engage with the piece, and although it's only been a week since I've seen the movie, I've forgotten large chunks of it already. However, it's still a solid, taut piece of work. It's tightly wound, with the production design and the way it's shot having implications on the claustrophobia of the film. Also, the editing and how it causes the central storyline(s) to interweave and interact is a great piece of an appropriate emotional gauge and chronological timing. The two lead performances too by Søren Malling and Pilou Asbæk are strong and inflected with a real sense of humanity. Finally, writer-director Tobias Lindholm has done a mostly positive job in delivering a strong, intense, and at it's best, eerily transcendent thriller.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 7.3/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Good (work's getting on, my brothers and sisters!)

Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - A Good Day To Die Hard

Directed by: John Moore

Produced by: Alex Young
Wyck Godfrey

Screenplay by: Skip Woods

Based on: Characters by Roderick Thorp

Starring: Bruce Willis
Jai Courtney
Sebastian Koch
Yuliya Snigir
Rasha Bukvic
Cole Hauser
Sergei Kolesnikov

Music by: Marco Beltrami

Cinematography by: Jonathan Sela

Editing by: Dan Zimmerman

Studio(s): Giant Pictures
TSG Entertainment

Distributed by: 20th Century Fox

Release date(s): February 14, 2013 (United Kingdom and United States)

Running time: 97 minutes

Country: United States

Language(s): English

Production budget: $92 million

Box-office revenue: $304, 654, 182

This review is brought to you in collaboration with Depeche Mode (starting off with Shake The Disease - "understand me..."). Anywho, I've been keeping rather busy on this front, rattling through the pile I've got sitting at my house as part of my catch-up list. 2013, regardless of the quality of the material, or lack thereof, has been an interesting year that has seen a lot of bold, daring films. Even some of the worst films have had a feeling of ne plus ultra, filmmakers attempting to push the boundaries of the medium. So, for all the latest and greatest in movies (and a good few reviews over the next couple of weeks), keep your eyes posted!

Today's film up for review is A Good Day To Die Hard, the fifth instalment in the Die Hard film series starring Bruce Willis in the role of John McClane. Directed by John Moore, the film was released at the start of 2013 to overwhelming critical derision, with the general consensus being that the film lacks any real characterisation and exists completely outside the realm of plausibility. Indeed, one of the very few positive reviews comes from my good friend over at Danland Movies, who has said to me on several occasions that he had a lot of fun with it. Now, for those of you who don't know, one of my two great weaknesses as a reviewer (along with schlocky horror films) is gratuitously violent action movies, of which I think the crop of those from the 1980s (First Blood: Part II, Commando etc.) are glorious pleasures. Among them are 1988's Die Hard, the difference being that Die Hard is to this day one of the greatest films ever made; it's script is watertight, directed with real craft and confidence by John McTiernan, terrifically shot by Jan de Bont and features one of the great everyman performances of cinema in Bruce Willis. Since then, three sequels were made of a varying quality. Renny Harlin's 1990 Die Hard 2 was quite clearly a case of jumping the gun on the back of a box-office success, and while decent, nowhere near the standard of the original, while the returning McTiernan's 1995 Die Hard: With A Vengeance I feel is a great action movie and far better than the reputation it gets. It was then over a decade before the franchise was revived by Len Wiseman with Die Hard 4.0, an outrageously over-the-top and absurdly fun film which was the inaugural winner of my Most Surprisingly Entertaining Film back in 2007. Six years later, we come to A Good Day To Die Hard: in this film, John McClane (Bruce Willis) travels to Russia (Hence the "Yippee Ki-Yay Mother Russia" tagline) after discovering that his estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney) is in prison. However, he is soon caught in the crossfire of a terrorist plot when he finds out his son is an undercover operative whole got his way into prison to get close to and protect political prisoner and whistleblower Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch) from assassination and extradite him from the country. Got it? Good!

To start with the good (yes, there is good, so shush!), it's nice to see Bruce Willis back in the saddle as McClane. Though he's had a solid run the past few years, his biggest movies of late have been showing as part of big ensemble casts and showing up when he's best as the lead in a movie. As I mentioned, John McClane is part of the great tradition of the everyman, and this is no exception. Willis is as sardonic and cynical as ever; if anything, age seems to have made him come across every more so as a surly old man. Some of the one-liners McClane gets here are a real chuckle, and I think Willis also plays up a bit of parody, willing to be wholly self-deprecating for the sake of the overall picture. Some of the interactions between him and Jai Courtney, who is strong and grounded as his son Jack, often in the midst of heavy gunfire, are very entertaining. Also, like it's immediate predecessor, the action is outrageous in the highest order. The sheer amount of wanton destruction in the Moscow car chase is unlike anything you see these days, and the set-pieces in general border on the level of insanity. The stunts and choreography team have done a fine job here. Speaking of the action, it is shot with a fine eye for craft. Regular John Moore collaborators Jonathan Sela and Dan Zimmerman bring their trademarks to this film, giving the film a good look and a genuine sense of freneticism. Importantly though, and I've mentioned this before in relation to action movies, what Sela and Zimmerman do best for the movie is ensure we can see what is going on. Ever since the Bourne films, there's been this obsession of wobbly-cam to the point that you can't see what's going on, and this isn't the case here. Indeed, it's quite the opposite, cutting at the right points and ensuring that we are able to comprehend the sheer scale of how much chaos is going on onscreen. Finally, A Good Day To Die Hard is directed by John Moore, a guy who knows how to shoot a good genre film. While he has a mixed bag in his repertoire (I didn't like either his remake of The Omen or Max Payne, but am rather fond of Behind Enemy Lines), he is an auteur with a distinctive style who brings a real panache to the films he works on. Action-wise, they have real impact, and here is no exception.

Now, while there were things that I liked about A Good Day To Die Hard, unfortunately there are also a number of things that serious detracted from my overall enjoyment of the film. Most of these issues emerged from the script by Skip Woods. Woods has a mixed track record as a screenwriter, known primarily for scribing action films (Swordfish, Hitman, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The A-Team), and while some of them may have memorable set-pieces, they, like this film, will never be remembered for their characterisation. The villains in the movie may as well be cardboard cut-outs for all the purpose that they serve in the film, because there is absolutely nothing established that suggests to me I should in any way have any more emotive reaction them than half-scale paper target McClane shoots at the range at the beginning of the film. Oh wait, I forgot, we establish that the daughter of Komarov has sold her father out to the terrorists, because she, like Jack McClane, has daddy issues, oh how reflexive of you! Isn't there some sort of correlation between the relationships of fathers and their children, their broken homes and how it influences their respective decisions in their later lives, how highly astute! Given how the Die Hard series have been about keeping it all in the family in the past, what the McClane's, the brother's Gruber and what have you, this is over-simplistic twaddle aspiring to heights it will never reach. Speaking of heights, you've brought in Sebastian Koch, a terrific German actor who has starred in the likes of Black Book and The Lives Of Others, one of the top five films since the beginning of the 2000s, and you're going to give him a role which requires him to do nothing but sit on the fence and serve as a grotesque homage to the original film (I'll not say which one, because it involves plot spoilers), really? C'mon, son, as Ed Lover would say. Also, I'm not nitpicking, and though the score wasn't anything bad, I frankly switched off to Marco Beltrami's sounds here. I like and admire Beltrami very much, but his work here was just boring and did nothing for me.

I did think that A Good To Die Hard was a troublesome film at times. It suffers from a script hampered by a severe lack of character depth, any attempt at which is base in it's simplicity, the score does nothing for me, and the fact that they've brought Sebastian Koch for a nothing role is more or less indicative of what the movie does wrong. I wish I could like it more than I did, but it is a problematic picture. That said, it's still a decent action movie. Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney make a good father-son duo, their interactions clearly being the highlight of the movie, but it also has some terrific action sequences, particularly the Moscow car chase. The stunt team have really put themselves out there, and it is a well-shot and edited movie. Finally, although I feel that the wholly underrated John Moore needs to get involved in better movies, he lends this his trademark panache, and gives us a decent romp.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 5.5/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Laughing (my dog is sitting beside me and farted, giving me the least inconspicuous look as though to say "I didn't do that...")

Monday, 20 January 2014

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Directed by: Peter Jackson

Produced by: Carolynne Cunningham
Zane Weiner
Fran Walsh
Peter Jackson

Screenplay by: Fran Walsh
Phillipa Boyens
Peter Jackson
Guillermo del Toro

Based on: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Starring: Martin Freeman
Richard Armitage
Ian McKellen
Benedict Cumberbatch
Evangeline Lilly
Lee Pace
Luke Evans
Ken Stott
James Nesbitt
Orlando Bloom

Music by: Howard Shore

Cinematography by: Andrew Lesnie

Editing by: Jabez Olssen

Studio(s): New Line Cinema
WingNut Films

Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures

Release date(s): December 2, 2013 (Los Angeles, premiere)
December 13, 2013 (United Kingdom, New Zealand, United States)

Running time: 161 minutes

Country(s): New Zealand
United Kingdom
United States)

Language: English

Production budget: $600 million (also for An Unexpected Journey and There And Back Again)

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $834, 340, 000

Not much to say in the opening paragraph this time apart from all the usual shebang about what I am going to see in the cinema and on DVD before my reviews for the year go out. A lot to get through in Oscar season, catching up with both the major contenders and others from the whole of 2013. Also, at this stage, though whether or not you give a damn is another matter (I'm gonna tell you anyway), I've had a rather dreary day with a wretched cold, sneezing my lamps out with puffy eyes and an irritable nose at the best of times, so you'll have to excuse me if I make a mistake or what have you. Anywho, for all the latest and greatest in the movies, keep your eyes posted!

Excusing my cold, today's movie up for review is The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, the second of three parts comprising Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. I'll try to be relatively brief regarding the contextual details, but in my review for An Unexpected Journey (the first instalment), while admitting that it was still a very good film, had a number of criticisms regarding the movie and felt that though it was hardly the worst of the Middle-Earth motion pictures (that dubious honour must be bestowed upon The Two Towers), it still fell short of the greatness of The Fellowship Of The Ring and The Return Of The King. At the time, mainstream publications such as Empire and Total Film were giving An Unexpected Journey glowing reviews, and now, upon the release of The Desolation Of Smaug, which has had a far warmer reception, their publications are now saying things like "Middle-earth's got its mojo back" which, notwithstanding their gross rhetoric, are undercutting the work previously published under that banner. Yes, I know in both magazines there were different reviewers for each movie, but doesn't it seem a bit political that on both occasions the publications selected positive reviews for 'the big movie?' Anywho, I'll get down to a plot synopsis: following on from the events of An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Thorin Oakenshield's (Richard Armitage) company of elves are being pursued by an orc party, and take refuge in the house of Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a skin-changer who sometimes takes the form of a bear. It is here they discover they've to travel through Mirkwood in order to reach the Lonely Mountain and retrieve the Arkenstone from among the jewels of Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), but are diverted from their course when captured by a group of elves, led by Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). Shall we dance?

To start off with the good, I don't think there is any doubt at this stage in the game that between The Lord Of The Rings films and An Unexpected Journey that Middle-Earth is one of the most glorious and brilliantly depicted of all film worlds. The standard we've come to expect over the years and that won An Unexpected Journey two awards last year in my year-end award for Best Costume Design and Best Make-Up/Hair is continued on in this film. However, while there is a consistency to the look of this universe, there's enough in The Desolation Of Smaug to make it stand out. Personally speaking, I thought the creation of the lake town of Esgaroth was the real highlight, which is a little Venice by way of shanty town, full of life and movement bobbing around on the water. Also, Smaug's 'chamber,' if you will, in the Lonely Mountain is a thing of beauty, a fine example of what computer animation can contribute to a mise-en-scene if used properly. Speaking of Smaug, the overall realisation of this character, from the CGI, the sound design and the vocal and motion-capture talents of Benedict Cumberbatch are up there with the work previously seen by the designers and Andy Serkis on the character of Gollum. Weta Digital's work in visual effects has always been of a high standard, but never have they had to produce a character quite to the scale of Smaug, and boy is he here in all his sheer size and glory. Furthermore, what Benedict Cumberbatch does for the character is add another layer of three-dimensionality; Smaug slinks around Bilbo like a large feline playing with a mouse, rather enjoying himself and the anxiety he is inflicting on the poor hobbit before he decides to go in for the kill. Vocally, Cumberbatch gives Smaug this regal quality, with a highly eloquent and witty diction that could make you imagine the dragon reading Shakespeare's soliloquies if he didn't spend much of his spare time wallowing in his treasures. In these scenes too, Martin Freeman really shines in his awkward attempts to charm the beast. Stumbling upon his words with a palpable breathlessness, Freeman is an engaging protagonist who wills us into engaging with the material. Welcome additions to the film include Stephen Fry, humorous as ever in the part of the dirty old slug that is the Master Of Lake-town, and Evangeline Lilly, who plays the character of the elf Tauriel, an original creation for the film series. Lilly is a fine actress carrying a real strength to the parts that she plays. As a performer, both from the physical sense of the choreography and the story, she fits right into the thick of things. Although parodied in the song Who The 'Ell Is Tauriel (which could be set to be the new They're Taking The Hobbit's To Isengard), I think that the character is a welcome addition to the franchise. Speaking of the story, I felt that the script this time round was much stronger than that of it's predecessor. Not bogged down with the basil exposition that took up SOOOO much of An Unexpected Journey, and apart from a short prologue involving Gandalf and Thorin, we are just thrown into the thick of it, and structurally the story is a lot tighter. Though doubtless it abides by the basic three-act model, it is done appropriately, the whole movie essentially being a buildup to the third act, which, for all the visual effects and splendour of Smaug, is rather low key and more or less just a dialectical jest between Freeman and Cumberbatch. Other aspects of the movie that are praiseworthy include the score by the mighty Howard Shore. Shore, who last year went into my Hall Of Fame for his work over the years, has always been and remains to be a composer who understands the central thrust and heart of a story, and the music here is no exception. Another point I'd like to mention is the cinematography by Andrew Lesnie and it's relation to the forty-eight frames per second frame rate. When the first movie came out there was a lot of groaning about how the movie looked like a video game, and now many critics are going back on their word, the 'improved' look more or less an admission to saying the film looked good in the first place and they've got used to it. I thought that this, like An Unexpected Journey, is a splendid looking movie, and that the 'high frame rate,' as it's being popularly marketed, gives it a look that is visually distinct from The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, so, thank you and shush! Also, the stunts and choreography in the movie are terrific. It was a great pleasure to see the dwarves' escape from the wood elves in empty wine barrels (one of my favourite sequences in the book) done with such gusto. It's one of those scenes that encapsulates The Hobbit and what's so good about the material: not only is it a great adventure, but it's also highly humorous. With this instalment, Peter Jackson has delivered a much tighter, more efficient and less distracted film, dictating the tangibles that come with the source text with real confidence and flair. By the end of the film, which is the best cliffhanger I've seen in a franchise film since Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part One, I was gripped and my heart skipped a beat as the film closed on the real note of uncertainly and expectation for the climactic instalment.

Now, as you can tell, I loved this instalment of The Hobbit film series. However, I would be amiss in saying that it is a masterpiece, great as it is. The central issue of detraction from the film is the fact that like the previous film I still haven't got a real feel for the characters of the dwarves. It's unfortunate, but when you look at how they juggled the wonderful characterisation of the nine members of The Fellowship and how you cared for each and every one of them, how you got a feel as to just who and what they were, you can't say the same for this bunch of vagabonds. Aside from Thorin, Dwalin and Balin, I couldn't tell you who any of the other dwarves are apart from the fact that one of them is played by Jimmy Nesbitt and another is implied into a sort-of love triangle situation with Legolas and Tauriel. Speaking of Legolas, this was a character whose absence I can't say was missed, and with the returning Orlando Bloom, who plays the part as rather two-dimensional and bland, I remembered why I didn't miss the character. At least Aragorn and Gimli had charisma!

Well, as with the last film, The Desolation Of Smaug certainly gave me a lot of food for thought and there was a lot on my mind regarding the movie. As I mentioned, I would be amiss in saying I didn't find the same problems with the characterisations of the dwarves as I did the first time round, with only two or three (including leader Thorin) getting any real depth, and while I'm sure some salivated at the prospect of a returning Orlando Bloom, I was not one of them. However, The Desolation Of Smaug is a fine film, another testament to the monumental achievement of Peter Jackson's loving depiction of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, one of the most wonderfully realised of all film worlds. Weta Digital's visual effects are splendid, and works brilliantly with Benedict Cumberbatch's interpretation of the dragon Smaug. Also, like the last one, Howard Shore's score and Richard Lesnie's cinematography help contribute to the atmosphere of the film. Structurally too, the story is a lot stronger and tighter, with the ending being timed perfectly and being one of the best I've seen in a franchise film. Finally, while not quite at the upper echelon of the Middle-Earth film saga, Peter Jackson ensures that The Desolation Of Smaug is a welcome and distinctive addition to the tale.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.4/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Stuffy (my nose is doing my 'ed in!)

P.S. Speaking Ed, Mr. Sheeran's single written for the film, I See Fire, is a fine piece of work in it's own right, and is one of the best songs I've heard in a film from 2013.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Directed by: Adam McKay

Produced by: Judd Apatow
Will Ferrell
Adam McKay

Screenplay by: Will Ferrell
Adam McKay

Starring: Will Ferrell
Steve Carell
Paul Rudd
David Koechner
Christina Applegate
Meagan Good
James Marsden

Music by: Andrew Feltenstein
John Nau

Cinematography by: Oliver Wood

Editing by: Brent White
Melissa Bretherton

Studio(s): Apatow Productions
Gary Sanchez Productions

Distributed by: Paramount Pictures

Release date(s): November 24, 2013 (Australia, Sydney premiere)
December 18, 2013 (United Kingdom and United States)

Running time: 119 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $50 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $163, 871, 000

Aloha, well, as you saw, I did a little post there on the Oscar nominations, and if you didn't I'll be putting a link to it at the bottom of this review. The madness is certainly well into play now, and with The Wolf Of Wall Street having been released there's another major awards contender for me to watch. I have eight movies to watch at home here, but I also plan on seeing 12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug and I'd like to watch Gravity again before it gets out of it's second run at The Odeon. While Gravity is my highest rated film on the blog this year, nothing is set in stone as there is one other movie (I'll keep it a surprise) that has been making this more than a clear cut decision. So, for all the latest and greatest (and craziest!) in the movies, keep your eyes posted!

Well I know this isn't exactly latest as it came out about a month ago, but today's film up for review is Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. Just to give you a bit of a background context, I have a bit of a mixed relationship with Will Ferrell as an actor, in that I think he can be very funny when he wants to be but at times subjects himself to the mediocrity of rubbish films, randomly screaming and shouting whilst adorning a new wig or a moustache for every film. For every movie like The Other Guys, we get a Blades Of Glory or Land Of The Lost. Regardless of those mixed opinions, I think that it near general consensus, if I may be so bold to claim as much, that the original Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy is a contemporary comedic classic. It is in many ways the perfect neutral movie that everyone can agree on: there's been many times where I've been at a house party or drinking with a couple of friends and if we decide to stick a movie on, it's (IN UNISON:) "Anchorman." When I was still in school, I held a poll which involved my classmates in selected their five favourite movies so I could pool the results and unveil their all-time greatest movie: none other than Anchorman came out on top. As for myself, I could stick that movie on just about any night of the week and after what must be well into double figures in terms of how many times I've watched it still get a kick out of it. That movie is so wacky, strange and out there in bizarro world, full of detail, brilliant dialogue and featuring note-perfect comedic performances, and while I'd love to gush about, this review is about the sequel: so, years after the events of the first film, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) are married and look to become co-anchors for the nightly news in New York when Mack Tannen (?), Burdundy's idol, announces his retirement. However, Veronica is hired while Ron is dismissed rather vehemently, and kind-of loses it, leaving Veronica and their six-year-old son Walter (Judah Nelson). Six months later, after being fired from Sea World and a failed suicide attempt, Burgundy is offered a slot on GNN (Global News Network) and gets his old news team of Champ Kind (David Koechner), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and Brick Tamland (Steve Carrell) back together. Got it? Good!

(On a side note, this review is brought to you courtesy of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack: even if I think Quentin Tarantino has become cinema's equivalent to The Emperor's New Clothes, I'll never deny that movie's brilliance!)

So, starting with the good on Anchorman 2, they've retained the same bawdy wackiness of the original film. Adam McKay and Will Ferrell waited a good while before they actually I went out and made a sequel to the original film (nearly ten years), and the wait has paid off. From a purely dialogue standpoint and how it operates in the interplay between the various characters, the movie is absolutely outrageous. While it didn't hit me as hard as the original in terms of the onslaught of laughs, there were plenty of hearty guffaws and inadvertent raspberries being blown because I genuinely couldn't believe what I was hearing. There's also something to be said about how good this cast is at their parts, given that they spend much of the movie talking utter rubbish: only Ferrell could manage to make this lewd, misogynistic, borderline racist so damn funny. I mean, there's an entire three-four minute scene in which the central hook is Burbundy braying about how he's blind, and while it is completely stupid and moronic in a way, it's still bloody funny stuff. The same can be said for the rest of the cast: David Koechner's Champ Kind is in many ways the best parody of 'Murica in the movie, Paul Rudd (who really needs a vehicle of his own: he's good enough for it!) is a monumental sleazebag as Brian Fantana, and Steve Carrell's Brick Tamland remains ever the blockhead. Christina Applegate is a welcome returnee and doesn't pull any punches, while Meagan Good proves she can hang with the old guard. There are also a bevy of cameos from folks who I would assume they got in on the cheap due to the popularity of the original. Indeed, there's an homage to the news network fight scene in the original, but this one is set in a park, and although it's essentially a bunch of walk-ons, it's done with such florid fluidity that "in the name of Margaret Thatcher," we're still following it. It's also a movie that looks very good in its overall presentation. Not only is it well-shot, but in terms of the overall mise-en-scene it looks the part. The costumes and the wigs/hair are designed in just the right way, in that they are both appropriate to and yet parodic of the period in which the film is set. Some of the coats for instance look absolutely ridiculous, but it wouldn't have been unlike something you would have seen in a 1980s television show like Miami Vice. Finally, I'm glad that Paramount didn't decide to get another director on this project when they did go ahead with it, because Adam McKay is one of the most consistently entertaining comedic filmmakers of the past ten years. His part in this movie (as writer, producer and director) is as important as that Will Ferrell to its success. He and Ferrell are the partnership that guide this thing through the whole process, and to me doing an Anchorman with Ferrell or McKay would be like doing Laurel & Hardy with only one of them.

Now, I did quite like Anchorman 2, but that's not to say that the movie is by any means flawless, for there are a number of faults to it. Part of the problem I would say stems from the quality of the original film itself, because it was done so well that I don't think Ferrell and McKay really had much of a choice to completely up the ante. The first movie is about an hour and a half, not lagging a single bit, but this one is close to two hours, and I'd be a liar if I said that I didn't think certain scenes dragged out. Also, much as I love Kristen Wiig as one of the funniest comedians currently working, I don't think that the whole romance angle between her character Chani and Brick works. It comes across as a diversionary tactic to give Carrell's character a bit more screen time, and unfortunately it comes across as a digression. Also (and no, I'm not going to attack the music!), I feel that the editing by Brent White and Melissa Brentherton could have been a lot snappier. There are some instances of good editing (the conversations are purposefully chopped to comedic effect), but otherwise I think that they let too much of drag out. The thing about these comedy films that barrage with constant zingers is that they have to be watertight. You take the first Naked Gun movie, which has a frankly extraordinary sense of pacing and timing, and put this up against it: unfortunately, Anchorman 2 feels slow and ponderous at times by comparison not just to it's predecessor, but by the very best of the comedic genre.

Anchorman 2 has problems, in that it is too long and draws out a number of scenes to give a running time beyond necessary parameters. In the film's own terms, that is down to both the script and the editing, but strangely the first film causes issues, in that not only are they forced to up the ante to the nth degree, but also the shadow and reputation that comes with the first Anchorman ensures there is an element of self-mythologisation. However, despite this, I was quite happy with Anchorman 2. The cast are on fine form all round, and while the script has issues, one of them is not the dialogue, which is sharp and acerbic, giving the actors more than their times worth and the plethora of laughs that come with it. It's also a nice overall package in terms of presentation, with it being well-shot, and the mise-en-scene manages to both appropriate and parodic of the film's period setting. Finally, the Adam McKay-Will Ferrell comedic team have their game turned on in a genuinely out there and wacky comedy.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 7.2/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - On 

Friday, 17 January 2014

The Thin White Dude's 86th Academy Awards 'Oscar' Nominations Analysis

Right, so yesterday the nominations for the 86th Academy Awards came out, and with the Golden Globes having been at the weekend, it is more or less a given that we are now well into 'Oscar season' as it is popularly known. Ellen DeGeneres is hosting this year, which is great, because she has been the best of the recent schlock of hosts for the ceremony (much as I love Hugh Jackman). As a critic, we share the same feelings of a general audience during this period, ripples of excitement at the prospect of seeing so many potentially great films at the same time. On Wednesday, I planned on watching Anchorman 2 at the Movie House Dublin Road (which I ended up not seeing, for complicated and boring reasons), and half an hour before the start time, there were queues out into the street, for what I assumed to be advance screenings of Martin Scorsese's The Wolf Of Wall Street, but so I found to be a line that was split between American Hustle and 12 Years A Slave. That is perhaps indicative of the atmosphere in the race to the finish come March 2nd (a late scheduling for a ceremony normally in mid-late February), but the other main aspect for a critic is that it is oftentimes (aside from perhaps the late May/June Summer threshold) that most chaotic time of the year. I've only seen at present three (Captain Phillips, Gravity, Philomena) of the nine nominations for Best Picture, and alongside the fact that I want to see Anchorman 2 and the second Hobbit instalment, I've no less than eight movies on DVD to catch up with over the past year, so, to paraphrase an old line, you'll have to keep your eyes posted!

I supposed we'll start with the big ones, being the movies with the most nominations. American Hustle and Gravity lead the pack with ten nominations apiece, with 12 Years A Slave just behind with nine to it's name. American Hustle is very much an Oscar movie, if you will; it has a now thrice-nominated Director in David O. Russell, who has also been nominated for his screenplays, and ensemble cast with all acting categories represented in the nominations. Looking at that list now, while Christian Bale has done another of his transformations, I see Jennifer Lawrence as the frontrunner in the Best Supporting Actress category, and the movie may well pick up some awards for nominations in the likes of the Best Costume category. However, while it may be a big player in the noms, I don't see it snapping up the awards. From a technical standpoint, Gravity is one of the most extraordinary films ever made. I see it as the big winner of the night, and that it will be the frontrunner in the Visual Effects, Editing, Production Design, Cinematography, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing categories. I think it will go away with no less than four of those awards. Also, the fact that it has been nominated in the Best Picture and Best Director categories is indicative of the power of the movie, but also the shift in the tide regarding the voting in the Academy. In 2009, there was concern over the fact that The Dark Knight and Wall-E (along with, to a certain extent, The Wrestler and Gran Torino) failed to received any major awards nominations at the 81st Academy Awards, that the Academy were out of touch with the climate of movie audiences, and thus, the next year there were ten nominees, which was later (and rightly) amended to a number between five and ten, so that there wasn't a set number, but judged on the basis of the voting ballots. Call me a cynic, but I don't see Gravity winning Best Picture, but I think Alfonso Cuaron will pick up Best Director. It used to be unusual to have the Best Picture and Director awards split between two movies, but I think for the first time in a long while we'll see it happen two years in a row. I see the major winner of the night in the terms of the awards being Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave. Already it has been compared to the likes of Schindler's List for it's unflinching portrayal of slavery and racism, and Spielberg's 1993 movie has since entered the AFI's top ten films of all-time, so that's no mean comparison. Also, not to sound gripey about it, 12 Years A Slave is an 'issues movie,' it's about something, and we all know how the Academy loves movies with issues, so, while I would say that American Hustle and Gravity have a chance, I think Steve McQueen's movie will take the gong this year. 

Now, while those are the majors, there are certainly other noteworthy nominations in this years pack.
Most surprisingly, but perhaps most emblematic of fierce Oscar campaigning and of the Academy's love for the Brits, Philomena has gotten nominations in a number of major categories; Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay (which I could see it winning as an acknowledgement for 'the little movie') and Best Original Score (thank you, Mr Desplat!). Judi Dench mentioned about getting a fake tattoo of Harvey Weinstein's name on her bottom, I think there's a chance this time she might need to get it properly inked! Also, in the Best Documentary category Joshua Oppenheimer's extraordinary The Act Of Killing has been nominated and hopefully it will pick up Dogwoof, who have been distributing some of the finest documentaries of the past ten years (Burma VJ, Restrepo) their first Oscar. It's a film unlike an other I've ever seen, and hopefully the Academy will also recognise it's brilliance. Captain Phillips has picked up a number of noms, of course Best Picture, but I'm also happy to see Barkhad Abdi and Billy Ray get acknowledged respectively in the Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay categories. Ray is a fine writer and filmmaker, so it's nice to see that he's getting recognition, and Abdi more than holds own with Tom Hanks, and deserves this, though he's got competition not only Mighty Fassbender but from Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club. Speaking of that movie, what a year for Matthew McConaughey! First he had Mud earlier in the year, and now he's in both Dallas Buyers Club and The Wolf Of Wall Street comes awards season. At first, it was looking like Best Actor was going to be between Chiwetel Ejifor and Bruce Dern (for Alexander Payne's Nebraska), but McConaughey's (Leto's) win at the Golden Globes has put him in as a strong contender. As for The Wolf Of Wall Street, while I look forward to seeing it, I don't see it being a major player, and while Martin Scorsese may be piped as an Academy Award winning director, aside from The Departed, look back at his record at you'll see that they still fail to acknowledge one of the greatest filmmakers of this or any generation. Just look at there was a complete lack of nominations for Shutter Island, despite being one of the best films of 2010 and of Scorsese's entire back catalogue. While there were five wins in technical categories for Hugo, once again, I don't see it as Scorsese's year. 

While Scorsese's The Wolf Of Wall Street may not get any wins, at least it's up there, as there are some noticeable absentees from this years list. Most notable of all these films is Rush. Now, I was also surprised at Inside Llewyn Davis not getting major noms, especially win the Coens being Academy favourites, but Rush's lack of acknowledgment for any award is a bizarre one. You've got former Oscar winner and favourite Ron Howard at the helm, it's fronted by two powerhouse lead performances by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl, and aside from Gravity it's perhaps the most technically accomplished film of 2013. It's not just sour grapes on my part, for it's one of those movies that would fit right in with the likes of Unforgiven as a movie that manages to be both high-art, great entertainment and a snug awards movie. In other categories, I was surprised not to see more representation from Prisoners, which looked to be a major awards contender in pretty much every category upon release but only pulled a single nomination for Roger Deakins' exquisite cinematography, but also not a single nomination for Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is The Warmest Colour, which has bagged Best Foreign Language Film noms with both the Globes and the upcoming BAFTA's. Another of the good things to emerge from the more fluid voting process for Best Picture is that it now leaves films from other countries (such as Michael Haneke's Amour) the opportunity to find a slot not only in the Foreign Language category, but in other major categories. Furthermore, although it carries with it a certain reputation, Blue... won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and you'd think if the Academy wanted a token foreign language film in there, that'd be it. Finally, although to be frank I didn't expect it to get major nominations (though it deserves them, certainly), how in the name of heck did Pacific Rim not get any nominations in the technical categories? Like it or not, that is one of the best designed films of 2013.

Overall, though, not an altogether bad year for the Academy Award nominations, but not perfect by any stretch. Yes, this is a jury of one judging an institution whose membership is not too far shy of six thousand, but hey, learn to live with it! Once again, the best thing to be said about the Oscars is that the Best Picture voting system is far more malleable than the stringent ties of the former five nominations. Francis Ford Coppola once said that there hasn't been a masterpiece since Raging Bull, and while I agree that Scorsese's picture is a masterpiece, I disagree with the sentiment that there isn't great worth in contemporary cinema. Every year, we see about four or five masterpieces, and many great more, and there are at least a good number of them in contention at this year's Oscars.

Here is a short breakdown of my predictions for this year's winners (don't take this to the bookies, incidentally!)

Best Picture: 12 Years A Slave

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Best Actor: Bruce Dern, Nebraska

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Best Writing, Original: Spike Jonze, Her

Best Writing, Adapted: Steven Coogan/Jeff Pope, Philomena

Best Animated Feature: Frozen

Best Foreign Language Film: The Great Beauty

Best Documentary, Feature: The Act of Killing

Best Original Score: Thomas Newman, Saving Mr. Banks

Best Original Song: 'Ordinary Love,' U2, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

Best Sound Editing: Gravity

Best Sound Mixing: Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Production Design: 12 Years A Slave

Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Dallas Buyers Club

Best Costume Design: American Hustle

Best Film Editing: Alfonso Cuaron/Mark Sanger, Gravity

Best Visual Effects: Gravity

There you have it! I dare say my awards won't look altogether like this, but that, my friends, is for another day...