Bafta Film Awards Nominations

As BAFTA have released their film awards nominations, I thought it would only be right to have a quick rundown of the more popular categories where I feel I can offer an informed opinion. I will be hesitating to put an accumulator bet on these though, you can never tell…

Best Film

Avatar won the Golden Globe for Best Drama, but as much as I loved the art direction, the story was disappointing and left me unmoved, while Up in the Air turned out to be a bit of a vapour trail after the interesting premise it started with. An Education was an enjoyable piece of heritage cinema, but the power was in the lead performance. I don’t think it competes with the visceral reality of The Hurt Locker, or the disturbing and moving subject of a schoolgirl insulating herself against a poisonous homelife in Precious.  I think the latter has the edge.

Outstanding British Film
It’s nice to see a thoughtful sci-fi film going against the typecast British movies so often found in awards categories, and so it’s got to be Moon. Essentially a ‘man-in-a-room’ scenario, it’s laudable how it still holds the attention with only one actor throughout most of the movie.

Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer
This is a tricky one. Moon is such an accomplished piece of work from Duncan Jones, who has previously but one short film to his name. Although I’ve not seen Mugabe and the White African, I’m going to choose it for the sheer courage and audacity it must have taken to film covertly in a country where filming is banned. For a debut film this is astonishing, as is the fact they shot on bulky and highly visible cameras, moving safehouse each night to escape detection.

Director
You want me to say Cameron, don’t you? Yes, he has created a new system of filmmaking in 3D, but as a director you are responsible for the story as well, and Avatar just fell down in the onslaught of 3D computer generated ecstasy. I’m going for Neill Blomkamp for District 9, who wrapped effective social commentary in the clothing of a highly original sci-fi movie.

Best Original Screenplay
I’m not A Serious Man, but I’m going to choose it for the wonderfully bizarre characters that the Coen brothers have created in this little gem. Larry Gopnik is the increasingly bewildered man of the title, and I will always remember the deliciously evil Sy Ableman, soothing Gopnik into his psychological grave. Fantastic stuff.

Film Not in the English Language
I really liked the simplicity of Let the Right One In. It’s sparse locations swathed in white snow, or plain interiors of drab dwellings feed the tender and intense emotions at the heart of the relationship between the two children. It’s a perfect little film. That’s not to say that A Prophet or The White Ribbon are not in with a chance here though.

Animated Film
I enjoyed the escapist fun of Up and to a degree, the dark fairytale qualities of Coraline, but Fantastic Mr Fox was charming with its stop-motion animation technique and I do like a good Roald Dahl tale.

Leading Actor
Now I’m no music man, so I’ve not heard of the Crazy Horse that Jeff Bridges has played to such acclaim. I’m no Blockhead, but I do know who Ian Dury was, and it’s evident that Andy Serkis has done a sterling job in bringing the man to life in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. I think though, it’s time to pay a man his dues, and Colin Firth must be recognised for his best role in years as A Single Man, quietly grieving the loss of his partner, albeit in unusually fine tailoring from director Tom Ford.

Leading Actress
For those of you who have been making room for me in the Tower of London for so far not mentioning An Education, I would like to ask for a stay of execution to see Carey Mulligan take the award. She carries the film with her astoundingly assured performance for someone of her age, she made the character of Jenny completely believable as someone who, at times, was the most mature character on screen.

Production Design
Likewise, for those of you about to string me up from the nearest spirit tree, I’m going to give this to Avatar for the spectacular detail that has gone into realising the planet Pandora. I’m still fascinated by the bioluminescent lichen that glows when you step on it. Very disco.

Cinematography
Both District 9 and The Hurt Locker employ a style reminiscent of news footage, with dramatic, high key exteriors parched by the sun. But it’s the moody greys, slick blacks and muted browns of The Road that I would like to see win. The beautifully sharp, side-lit, naturalistic close-ups and warm interiors contrast with the feeling of damp chill from the muted exteriors. The forest fire is a thing of beauty, a riot of orange against deep, inky blackness.

Special Visual Effects
Not surprisingly, this I have to give to Avatar. It’s the work behind the scenes rather than just the work evident on screen that should be considered. Whatever you think of the film, you can’t deny the massive technological leap that was made to create this leviathan, which today became the highest grossing movie of all time.

That’s all for now folks. You can see the full list of nominees on the Bafta website.

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Whatever happened to good movie projection?

Ladies and gentleman of the world, I want to take you back to a more decent time in our history, a time when you could go to a movie and the damn thing would be in focus, and there would be none of the other hideous projection errors that seem to be so prevalent today.

I can’t tell you how fed-up I am of going to cinemas, paying good money and then witnessing sloppy standards in movie projection.

Apart from the flagship London cinemas of Leicester Square and IMAX screens, it’s a fair bet that what you see will not be sharply focused, or will have varying focus across the screen. Depending on the size of the picture to be projected (widescreen at a length to height ratio of 1.85:1, or Cinemascope at 2.35:1), the projectionist must choose the correct ‘matte’ to frame the print as it passes through the projector. This is metal strip that is inserted in front of the film to give tidy, crisp black edges to the image on screen. Often there is a badly sized matte that gives fuzzy edges, or even worse, visible edges of sprocket holes on screen! Don’t get me started on poor film registration that means the film weaves all over the screen, or dirt and scratches on the print.

Only the other day the show started, but the film was laced through the projector back-to-front, diagonally across the screen, I mean guys come on! Another time, the standard ‘spherical’ lens was not changed to the Cinemascope ‘anamorphic lens’ after the trailers (it does a similar thing to the button on your tv to stretch the picture horizontally), with the result that the feature started to play with everyone having squashed heads. That’s the actors on screen, not the audience in agonised confusion like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ painting.

I used to work as a trainee on camera crew on movies, and we have people called focus pullers (well, 1st Assistant Cameramen now) whose entire reputation and career rests on them being able to accurately and consistently predict the distance of a moving subject, and change the focus accordingly, all without looking through the camera viewfinder! Granted we spend time measuring distances and putting marks on the floor out of shot, but it’s still a dark art. I dare you to try it yourself with your SLR stills camera, looking through the viewfinder. It’s bloody nigh impossible, and a skill that takes years to attain. So you can imagine how galling it must be for them to go see a movie they worked on, and see all their hard work undone.

I don’t want to pin this on multiplexes, as I’ve seen as many errors in boutique indie cinemas as in larger ones. I just want to know what happened to the old skills?

When I was but a youngster in my late teens (nostalgic brass band music plays), I used to hang around at my local fleapit cinema learning the ropes from the projectionist. It was a old place with peeling paint, a musty smell and nearly everything held together with twine (the ancestor of Duct tape) such was the limited budget to run the place. One thing you could count on though, was that the slightly eccentric projectionist would have that movie on screen, pin-sharp, in registration and with a nice bit of pre-show dimming of lights and music, without being deafened by an overloud sound system.

The projector was mounted on a wooden box whose fittings weren’t the best. The best thing I ever saw was when he thought that the focus across the screen wasn’t entirely consistent. He picked up a broom, stood parallel to the projector looking through the viewing window at the screen, and positioned himself and broom as if he was lining up a putt on a golf green. He swung the broom back over his head, and then swung it with a drive into the wooden base, shifting it ever so slightly back into position, and in my impressionable mind, restoring pristine focus. Now that’s what I call ingenuity.

Having been trained in the 60s, he was part-electrician, part-engineer, able to make the adjustments needed to fix the minor glitches that frequently used equipment throw up now and again. He told me once of a training instruction he had received from his chief projectionist: “Harry [his guv’nor] said, ‘Son, I don’t care if the sky and the walls fall down. You get that film on screen, on time and in focus!'”.

Now I know that SkillSet, the industry training body, still trains projectionists to industry specifications, so what on earth is going wrong? Are cinemas just so pressed for staff that people are multi-tasking too much and cannot spend the time they need in the projection box?

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe no-one else cares. Whatever the reason, you can be sure to find me silently stewing in a cinema somewhere in London town, pondering if I can bothered to get up yet again and ask for someone to fix the image. It’s not too much to ask, right?

Film Review – Spread

I went to see this without really paying attention to the ’18’ certificate rating. I saw it billed as a rom-com, thought I’d push outside my usual filmgoing habits for the sake of inclusiveness and assumed I would face a world of pink, fluffy hearts. It was when I saw Ashton Kutcher manoeuvre Anne Heche into a variety of yoga poses while both were in the nip, that it dawned in me that this was not Nora Ephron territory.

British director David Mackenzie returns to a theme loosely similar to his 2007 film, Hallam Foe, looking at a young man and his amourous and sexual encounters with women. Nikki (Kutcher) is a lothario of unspecified age, though I assume his late-20s, who through seducing the rich and beautiful women of Los Angeles, provides himself with a borrowed life of easy sex, late night clubs, luxury houses, fast cars and no commitments.

With an initial performance of almost Zoolander proportions, we see him pick up Samantha (Heche), an obviously accomplished businesswoman given her hilltop pad that they head back to, in what is initially a one-night stand, until she finds him still at home when she returns from work. At this point she develops an interest in him as a possible partner, unknowing or unwilling to acknowledge that he sees her as a source of sex, food and shelter (at the end of the film, we are led to believe she made a similar mistake again). The twist comes when Nikki encounters Heather (Margarita Levieva) a waitress at a local cafe who refuses his pick-up lines and who turns out to be more than a match for the game he plays.

What at first appears to be a sexually explicit but cheeky comedy that will turn out to be a Shakespearean battle of the sexes, becomes more of an indie drama with a plunge of a knife to the heart with a twist. I am going to give the director the benefit of the doubt, and say that the surprise ending is perhaps meant to make us feel the jolt of reality that Nikki’s character feels. The trouble is, the intermittent Hollywood rom-com gloss throughout, has the effect of neutralising any message about how confusing and painful the characters’ relationships might actually be. Levieva brings a veiled and heartfelt vulnerability to her scenes, which is where the leftfield tone of the movie originates. It is her portrayal of a young woman racked by insecurities that makes the film even slightly interesting. Kutcher, with few subtleties in his performance, is left to ride her coat-tails.

The question then becomes, is this movie aimed at men as much as at women? It’s not obvious at the beginning if guys in the audience will admire or ridicule Nikki. His shocking disregard for the feelings of the women he picks up may be appreciated by some who admire the player in him, while others will relish his fall from grace. For those who did admire him, I’m not sure the transformation is complete enough to strike the message home.

Film Review – Daybreakers

A bit silly, but also a good bit of fun, Daybreakers delivers the gore for another variation on the current cinematic trend of the undead.

In the year 2019, a plague has transformed all but a few humans into vampires that require a constant supply of human blood, to prevent them transforming further into grotesquely deformed and insane creatures. Humans are captured and farmed for their blood by large corporations, but there is estimated to be only one months supply of blood left in the world. With the general population gripped by panic, one corporation struggles to find a solution to the crisis, at any cost.

Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), is chief haematologist at the corporation that inhabits the perpetual night of the silver grey urban landscape. You know you're with the bad guys when the interior design looks like a Bang & Olufson catalogue. The identical, slick corporate housing is styled likewise, and bore more than a passing resemblance to another Hawke movie, Gattaca. It's a familiar world, but not one that shocks in the very real sense that say, zombie flick 28 Days Later did, or plays mysteriously as did The Matrix, and so it does rather well as a slick B-movie.

Sam Neill funds his vineyards back in New Zealand with a satisfactory performance as the nasty, besuited CEO and boss of aforementioned corporation. I guess it was only ever going to be him or Hugo Weaving for that one. Willem Defoe plays the country wildcard with the key to saving the city-folks, and a fondness for classic hotrods and rock n roll to warm the souls of those cold-hearted vampires.

The plot could be contested on one or two major points, but what the hell, with no grand agenda and just enough of a plot, it means more fun. There are aspirations to a commentary on corporate greed in the face of market forces, but it takes a back seat as bodies spontaneously explode when you least expect it, in Sam Raimi-esque comedy moments, and later there are zombie-like feeding sessions with the comedy ripping of limbs from torsos. I like my human rare please waiter.

Now see what you think, but I swear there are some tributes to 70s and 80s icons of film and TV. The montage building-the-gadget-with-welding-equipment? That's The A Team.
The scene where Ethan Hawke and co turn up at the Senator's log-cabin? That's the sequence in Star Wars where Luke discovers the farm has been roughed up, even down to the musical cues I swear! Also, in the last half of the film, Hawke appears to be wearing Han Solo's white shirt with black waistcoat combo, with ruffled hair to match. Finally, the end shot of a black American hotrod roaring down a country road toward the sunset? Mad Max. See if you can spot any more, or let me know if I'm going nuts, either will do.

A good, fun movie this one, don't pay too much attention to the plot and you'll be fine.