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Sean Penn won the Oscar for best actor in 2004 for the Clint Eastwood movie Mystic River. The other nominees were Jude Law (Cold Mountain), Ben Kingsley (House of Sand and Fog), Bill Murray (Lost in Translation) and Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl). At the time of the Oscars I had seen and enjoyed all the films, Lost in Translation being my favourite, and my Pick for Best Picture and Best director, but that’s a story for another day. I think I would have been happy for any one of the actors to have won, but something deep down in me wanted Depp to win. It was his first nomination with two more to follow soon after; Finding Neverland in 2005 and Sweeney Todd in 2008. My disillusionment with the Oscars was at its hight at this time, the previous year they had handed best picture to Chicago and were about to crown The Return of the King, the weakest in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Pirates of the Caribbean was unashamed joyous silly fun, not the kind of film the academy recognises, and at the heart of it was Depp playing a charter like we had never seen before. Clearly this was a step too far and the ultra conservative academy were never going to award it, the nomination was enough.johnny depp Pirates-Of-The-Caribbean-The-Curse-Of-The-Black-Pearl

Fast forward just over a decade and I didn’t bother going to see Depp’s latest; Mortdecai. Why? I just couldn’t face it. Depp has become a caricature of one of his worst wacky characters. His eccentricities and acting up to 11 were perfect for Cry-Baby (1990) and Ed Wood (1994) as was the weirdness and vulnerability of Edward Scissorhands (1990). But by the time we get to Mad Hatter in I Alice in Wonderland (2010), Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows (2012) and The Wolf in Into the Woods (2014), we had seen it all before so many times it was just getting old. And thats without getting into The Tourist (2010) and The Lone Ranger (2013). johnny depp cry baby

I am not the type of person to review or even condemn a film before I have seen it, but I know I won’t like Mortdecai and am not prepared to put myself through the pain. The trailer is essentially the best bits re-cut to make them look even better/funnier to convince people to see the film. If the trailer is that bad I can only imagine how bad the film is. What makes it so disappointing is he is an actor capable of greatness. Transcendence was a flawed movie but he was very good in it, the same is true of Public Enemies. Then we think back to his earlier work, the aforementioned early collaborations with Tim Burton as well as films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Donnie Brasco (1997), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), the underrated Roman Polanski film The Ninth Gate (1999) and Blow (2001).johnny-depp fear and loathing in las vegas

At any time in the 90’s I was always excited by the prospect of a Johnny Depp film, even if it wasn’t great, it would be interesting and nine times out of ten he would be good in it. Now when I hear of a new Depp movie I wonder what silly voice he will put on and how ridicules it will be. I haven’t given up on him as a actor, but I will always think twice before going to see one of his films.  

I published my top ten of 2014 back in January.  As last year’s movie start turning up on DVD, VOD and even TV I thought it timely to go through my also recommended for 2014.  The first then were all contenders for my top ten of the year:

Under The Skin: With no back-story or explanation we only find out what is happening as it happens, or do we? The plot is relatively simple on the surface but without any exposition it isn’t totally clear but is all the more interesting for it. Scarlett Johansson is unrecognisable in look at performance from Captain America but equally as brilliant.Under The Skin

20,000 Days on Earth: Fictionalised account of musician and writer Nick Cave’s 20,000th day on the planet Earth.  Existing in a nether-region between documentary and narrative cinema, a real treat for Nick Cave fans and a great film for the uninitiated.20,000 Days on Earth

The Babadook : A dark psychological drama dressed up as a supernatural horror.  At its heart it is a story about despair and depression but to its credit leaves enough ambiguity for audiences to decide it that is the story or the subtext.  A lot of the success of the film is an intense performance from Essie Davis.The Babadook

Paddington:  Adapting the classic children’s story could have been a disaster,  amazingly the story of the titular bear from darkest Peru gets everything right.  From the cast (both the human characters and the voice of Paddington) to the animation of the bear.  Most importantly the comedy is just the right side of silly to make it charming and enchanting.paddington

Lucy: A young woman develops super powers when the packet of drugs in her stomach splits. The trailer makes it look like Limitless (2011) but its more ambitious and vastly different.  Far from perfect but interesting and fun.Lucy

The Rover: Ten years after a little explained “collapse” a man sets out to recover his stolen car for reasons that become clear at the end.   More sombre and low key than Mad Max, the film it has been compared to.  Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson are both excellent.  Opinions will be divided on the ending, I thought it really worked and gave and overall meaning to the film.The Rover

Pride: A group of lesbian and gay activists raise money to help miners during the 1984 strike.  A true story appears to be one of the best kept secrets of the era.    As funny and uplifting as it is poignant.Pride

Maps To The Stars: David Cronenberg’s satire on Hollywood  is as enthralling as it is cutting.  Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska are both excellent and would be early contenders for Oscar nominations  if the films gaze wasn’t so close to home.Maps To The Stars

I Origins: Mike Cahill reteams with Brit Marling.  A meditation on science, religion and the possibility of reincarnation told through the medium of a love story.  The film holds together even in its most arty moments largely thanks to Marling and co stars Michael Pitt and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey.i origins

Snowpiercer: Not actually released in the UK but available from a well know online retailer.  Visually spectacular.  It is equal parts satirical and bonkers.  As you would expect, Tilda Swinton steals the show with an over the top supporting role.Snowpiercer

And the best of the rest in no particular order:

What We Do In The Shadows: Vampires get the mockumentary treatment thanks to the Flight of the Conchords team.  The deadpan Spinal Tap style delivery takes a little time to get into but when you adjust to it, it is very funny.What We Do In The Shadows

Gone Girl: David Fincher’s movie based on Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel.  Joyfully bonkers dark and twisted and as enthralling as you would expect from Fincher.  Expect an Oscar nomination for Rosamund Pike.nick and amy gone girl

Oculus: A horror film full of TV stars Karen Gillan (Doctor Who), Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica), Rory Cochrane (CSI) and Brenton Thwaites (Australian soap Home and Away) doesn’t fill you with confidence. However Mike Flanagan’s movie based on his own earlier short is well scripted with a great concept; most of the film is set in a single location but at two different times. A superior horror that aims to disturb rather than shock and succeeds admirably.Oculus

Two Faces of January: Based on Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name the movie is old-fashioned in a good way. Beautifully shot and fantastically acted (Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac), Hossein Amini’s supremely confident directorial debut owes a debt to Hitchcock.Two Faces of January

The Raid 2: Gareth Evans movie The Riad (2011) worked largley for the simplicity of the plot. Set over one day, a small elite squad of police fighting their way through a building of people who want to kill them to get to the crime lord who owns the block. The Raid 2 takes huge risk by expanding the story out to a full three act narrative set over a couple of years. Amazingly it really works.The Raid 2

X-Men: Days of Future Past: Based on the seminal 80’s two part X-Men story of the same name. The casts of First Class and the original trilogy come together in one of the best X-Men movies yet. It also opens the door to tell future stories without worrying about the continuity of original trilogy.X-Men-Days-of-Future-Past-chess-game

Godzilla: After the success of his micro budget Monsters, Gareth Edwards is given £160million to play with. The film is a worthy successor to Ishirō Honda’s original and helps wash away the bad taste left by the Roland Emmerich version. The human characters aren’t great but we are here to see the monsters.Godzilla

Cold in July: After a small town Texas family man (Michael C. Hall) shoots and kills an intruder, the dead man’s farther Sam Shepard turns up. Avoiding the pitfalls of going all Max Cady the story takes an interesting twist. Set in the late 80’s the electro-synth gives a real 80’s feel and is reminiscent of John Carpenter and early Michael Mann. The most accessible and mainstream of Jim Mickle (writer, director) and Nick Damici (writer, actor), although not their normal horror, the film is still a genre film, and a real genre film, not a mainstream movie pretending to slum it.Cold in July

The Double: A dark satirical comedy based on the novella by Dostoyevsky. Set in a dystopian past/future; Simon James’ already mundane and directionless life is sent into turmoil by the appearance of doppelganger James Simon. Although it seems to have divided opinions with both critics and audiences, Richard Ayoade’s second feature is very different to be equally as good as his début.The Double

Blue Ruin: Low budget revenge thriller that is both considered and thoughtful. Throwing away the conventions of the genre it is full of suspense a tinged with a sense of despair and dread. Blue Ruin

Locke: Ivan Locke is an ordinary man. He is a foreman on a large construction site in Birmingham. The night before the most important day on the build he gets in his car to drive home. At the last minute he changes his mind and gets on the motorway south towards London for reasons that are revealed as the film unfolds. on the way he makes and receives several telephone calls. There is no great crime, no one is killed or kidnapped, just an ordinary man talking on the phone; Sounds dull? It isn’t, far from it, it is actually totally engrossing.Locke

Next Goal Wins: Documentary about the national football team of American Samoa, described as the worth national team in the world. A timely reminder of what sport is all about away from with multimillionaire footballers. Jast as with Senna (2010), you don’t have to be a fan to enjoy the movie.Next Goal Wins

The Guest: Homage to 80’s thrillers and slasher movies.   It really shouldn’t work but it strangely does.  Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens makes a seamless transition from TV to movies.The Guest

Belle: The true (ish) story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of the nephew of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England. Raised by her great-uncle and his wife, the film speculates on what impact Belle may have had on his ruling in an important court case of the day, one contributed to the abolition of slavery. A little lightweight but beautifully shot and really well acted.Belle Movie Stills

’71: A young British soldier gets separated from his regiment and as to negotiate the perils of Belfast at the height of the troubles in 1971. Jack O’Connell again shows why he is one of the most interesting young actors working today.   I have heard it compared to John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 but it really has more in common with Walter Hill’s The Warriors.Jack O'Connell in '71

Groovers Video VaultFor the first time in over a year I return to my VHS shelf for and entry in my occasional series.

We often talk of how films ages, but what does this mean?  We may enjoy a film more or less depending on the context, but unless it is restored or re-cut it remains set in stone as much as a Michelangelo sculpture. So it is clearly us the viewer that changes not the art.  I am sure there was a time people enjoyed the artistry of The Birth of a Nation without noticing the horrendous racism of the plot.  So what has prompted these thoughts of context?  The English Patient. Ralph Fiennes the english patient

I first saw the film on its original release in 1997. And that is the notable context of these ramblings.  In 1997 I was a typically 21 year old film student with the arrogance and stupidity to believe I understood life and knew all that is worth knowing about film.  In the near twenty years that have followed I have lived life and watched many more films than I had in the first twenty years of my existence.  When I first saw the film I truly loved it.  As a student of film I loved the old fashioned idea of the film reminiscent of Casablanca.  I was in awe of the stunning cinematography by John Seale.  Impressed by perfect structure that easily blends the two time periods.  On a more base level, like any self respecting red blooded male film geek I was desperately in love with Juliette Binoche and Kristin Scott Thomas having seen them in Three Colours: Blue and Four Weddings and a Funeral respectively.the english patient Kristin Scott Thomas

Just weeks after raving about the film it picked up nine Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director (Anthony Minghella), Best Cinematography (John Seale), Best Supporting Actress (Juliette Binoche).  Empowered by the critical success of the film I purchased the video (VHS) on the day of its release.  I immediately watched the film again but forgot it over time. Then last year I watched it again for the first time in over ten years.  Since that time, the video along with a few others has stood on the floor next to my TV and I have watched it three or four times.the english patient Colin Firth

Like Almásy’s (Ralph Fiennes) directions to Kip (Naveen Andrews) for reading Kipling the film has to be appreciated for what it is.  A film rooted in the golden age of cinema with the luxury of embracing aspects of the previous fifty years while ignoring others.  The themes of the film probably couldn’t have been expressed had it being made any earlier.   With the freedom of distance we are able to explore understand a measured view.   The brilliance of the filmmaking is the way all the questions of the source novel are explained without ever telling us that they are the questions.  The film is so much more than this.  There is a central plot and mystery that unfolds in the final act but you will get swept up in the film and forget that there is ever any mystery to uncover.the english patient Willem Dafoe

The thing that really made my write this article is Empire magazine.  Out of curiosity I looked the movie up in the hope of understanding what others thought of it.  Empireonline contains a rather sniffy postmodern four star review that doesn’t sit well as a representation of the film.  I decided to pull out an old copy of the magazine from my loft (issue 94 from April 1997), there if found a more glowing five star review.  There is no indication of when the online review is from but it clearly shows a cooling towards the film from the original glowing review.  Is it because in a post 9-11 lines on a map have become more important in the way they were a generation ago and the ideas of the film are less acceptable, or is it just because the film has fallen out of fashion? The beauty of the film goes beyond the aesthetic and the humanity and into the poetry of the direction.  Anthony Minghella in what is truly his finest hour balances a triumphant defiance hope with crippling Melancholia with true artistry.  From the opening brushstrokes over the desert to their final mirror of  Hana’s squinting vision of sunlight through the trees the film has a beauty underlined by  Gabriel Yared’s haunting Oscar winning score.the english patient Juliette Binoche

I have got this far without mentioning Ralph Fiennes and Colin Firth. Both relatively early in their career, they are both perfectly cast is Willem Dafoe and the two female leads.  On the subject of perfect casting: Having clearly read the novel, Kristin Scott Thomas wrote to director Anthony Minghella “I am ‘K’ in your film”.  Minghella and producer Saul Zaentz resisted attempts from the studio to cast bigger names including  Demi Moore.  This ultimately caused them to lose their studio funding until Miramax stepped in.  This goes beyond attention to detail, it is a passion to make the film as good as it could be, it really shows on the screen.the english patient Naveen Andrews

The stunning vistas do lose a little on the small screen other than that the film holds up as the masterpiece I remember watching at the cinema. 

There is a time when every adolescent thinks they are old enough to watch what they like and shouldn’t be impeded by parents or censors. I think I was about 12. At that age I started watching a lot of horror movies ranging from classic Hammer Horror to contemporary 80’s horror. In truth, I didn’t see much in the way of so called “video nasties” as I couldn’t get my hands on them. This leads me to the thought, why are we still restricting cinema going in a time when all content is so freely available in the home. Why not make all films 12A (or lower where appropriate) and let parents decide what they can watch in cinemas the way they do at home. The BBFC (The British Board of Film Classification) would still have a place for guidance.The Evil Dead

For those outside the UK, 12A is the rating that appears to be most commonly used rating by the BBFC. The category was launched in 2002 and replaced the 12 certificate. 12A (A for adult) films are considered to be unsuitable for young children and cinema’s can only sell a ticket for a 12A film if they are accompanied by an adult (18 years or older). 12A films may contain “mature themes”, soft drug use, infrequent strong language and moderate violence (this often means “comic book” violence with little or no blood), sex references and some nudity. Sexual activity must be brief and discreetly portrayed. Sexual violence may not be shown, but may be “implied or briefly indicated”. The standard 12 certificate remains for the DVD release stating you must be over 12 to buy or rent the movie. To give a little prospective, recent films that have revived 12A ratings include: Skyfall, The Hunger Games, Guardians of the Galaxy, Godzilla, The Fault in Our Stars.12A

My random thought goes back to all the 18 certificate films I watched at home between the ages of 12 and 18. For example I was about 13 when Die Hard came out (now re-classified as 15). The curmudgeon in me suggests all horror movies should have a special 25 rating to keep out all the gangs of kids who talk through the lower rated horror films. But the film lover in me suggests that many 15 year old are mature enough to appropriate Gone Girl and The Wolf of Wall Street in the cinema, they are probably watching them in their bedrooms, if they are not busy watching similarly rated TV The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones or playing 18 rated games. So give the power back to parents and boost cinema attendances and stop depriving kids the chance to see these films where intended on the big screen and not streamed (legally or illegally) on an ipad or laptop.Game of thrones

My view on censorship and classification has softened since I was a teenager, but find it increasingly difficult to see how relevant or practice they are in a multi media age. Although I choose to watch films in the best possible environment, in the cinema on a giant screen, I know how easily I can access things online. I am not sure I really want this to happen, but why have a blog if you can’t use it to express random thoughts!

Mr. TurnerIn a survey of 2,000 British people to coincide with the DVD release of the film Mr Turner discovered that 28% didn’t know that JMW Turner was a painter. Other significant British people (along with the most notable film about them) who didn’t do well in the survey are:

Charles Darwin - 25% didn’t know that he was a key contributor to evolutionary theory and wrote On the Origins of Species

Creation  (2009)creation

Sir Isaac Newton – 25% didn’t know that he discovered the existence of gravity.

Me & Isaac Newton (1999 documentary)Isaac Newton, Athee Donald, Comment

Sir Francis Drake 26% didn’t know about his part in the defeat of the Spanish Armada

Drake of England (1935)Drake of England

Sir Alexander Fleming 29% that he discovered penicillin (15% thought he was the James Bond author [Ian Fleming]).

(not aware of any films about him)Sir Alexander Fleming

Marie Stopes 33% didn’t know that she was a women’s rights campaigner and pioneer of birth control

(not aware of any films about her)Marie Stopes

Oliver Cromwell 33% didn’t know who that he was a political leader and his part in the English Civil War.

Cromwell (1970)Cromwell

Michael Faraday 35% didn’t know that he was a pioneer in the field of electricity

(not aware of any films about him)Michael Faraday

William Wilberforce 40% didn’t know about his part in the abolition of slavery

Amazing Grace (2006)Amazing Grace

William Tyndale 43% Didn’t know that he was the first man to translate the Bible into English and led the Protestant reformation (I had never heard of him either)

God’s Outlaw (1986)God's Outlaw

Tim Berners-Lee Most surprisingly 44% didn’t know that he invented the World Wide Web.

(not aware of any films about him)Tim Berners-Lee

As Mr Turner finds its way to DVD then TV will more people be aware of Turner? If so, do these people need to have a film made about them, and those that already have a film, do they need a better one? For example, is Lord Mansfield better know now thanks the film Belle (2014)? Stephen Hawking is clearly well know now, but will the film The Theory of Everything (2014) help keep him in peoples concessions for longer? My knowledge of Alan Turing only comes from an interest in wartime code-breaker, I am sure many people knew less than that before seeing The Imitation Game (2014).

I am sure many people will think that it is a poor state of affairs that people history comes from motion pictures, however I have a different theory on the subject. Watching a film may encourage people to read the true story about the characters they have been watching for example Louis Zamperini from Unbroken (2014) or the aforementioned Alan Turing.

January was an impossible act to follow but there were still a few good films.  This is what I saw: 

Inherent Vice: the incoherent plot is both the best and the worst thing about Paul Thomas Anderson’s detective thriller.   It looks good and has a great dream like tone but ultimately it left me cold.INHERENT VICE

Trash: Written by Richard Curtis and directed by Stephen Daldry.  showing a more gritty side of Rio concentrating on the backstreets and favelas.  Often darkly funny but ultimately uplifting and rewarding.Trash

Jupiter Ascending:  The thinly written and poorly conceived characters are a waste of Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum.  Ultimately rubbish but enough fun to get away with it.jupiter ascending

Selma: It is criminal that it has been more than more than 50 years since Martin Luther King’s most famous speech.  On the other hand it is fitting that the film is so good.  David Oyelowo is sensational in the lead role.Selma David Oyelowo

Focus: Will Smith and Margot Robbie are likable leads in this con man comedy drama, but the plot is flimsy and the twists signposted.  Fun but forgettable._87C7066.dng

Fifty Shades of Grey:  Groundbreaking erotic thriller about a BDSM relationship, sadly NO! It is a dull and vanilla love story with laughable dialogue, to put it another way Pretty Woman with less edge.fifty shades of grey

Blackhat: Michael Mann is back with a cybercrime thriller.  A solid and enjoyable film let down by a disjointed final act.  A good film but not amongst Mann’s best.blackhat

Project Almanac: Teenage time travel movie that isn’t afraid to refer better films of the genre.  Let down by clichéd characters and a plot that offers nothing new.ProjectAlmanac

The movie of the month is:selma-movie-poster (1)

Now the dust has settled on the Oscars it is worth taking look back at the biggest two awards, Best Picture and Best Director. I thought and indeed hoped Richard Linklater would win for Boyhood, not that I begrudge Birdman and its director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Boyhood was my favourite film of the year, and Birdman would have made my list had it been released last year (Early January in the UK). As I have previously mentioned Birdman was the most directed film and Boyhood has such a bold concept setting it apart from other movies. By the time the awards came along it appeared to be a two horse race with Boyhood winning at the Golden Globes and BAFTA’s and Birdman at the Directors Guild of America and AFI Awards.Alejandro G  Iñárritu

So why did Birdman triumph over Boyhood? It is often mentioned that Actors voting block is the largest in the academy. While the other categories are voted for by their peers, voting for best picture is open to all academy members.  This has resulted a lot of success for actors turned director.  Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, Ron Howard, Warren Beaty, Robert Redford, Ben Affleck have all won Oscars for best director, and or their films winning best picture. There was also the recent win for The Artist, a film about Hollywood and actors. And so we come to Birdman’s awards this year, it is a film about actors and acting starring an actor who is reinventing himself in a similar way to the character he plays.Richard Linklater

Is it that simple, are actors patting themselves on the back? Yes and No! Birdman is a worthy winner, but as I have repeatedly bemoaned the absurdity of awards for art, no one film is better than all others. With this in mind, it stands to reason that when faced with a tough choice, voters will go with what they can most associate with, this happens to be a film about actors, or in past years directed by an actor.  So be it. It is certainly an improvement on some of the WTF winners: Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Braveheart (1995), Shakespeare in Love (1998), Chicargo (2002), Crash (2005).

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