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Saturday, February 8, 2014


It’s almost that time again. Yes, Hollywood will soon begin to overindulge itself in a frenzy of backslapping, tearful acceptance speeches and (for the most part at least) wrong choices. Yes – the 86th Academy Award ceremony is just around the corner. Nine films have been nominated for best picture and it seems that American Hustle appears to be the front runner.

While I’ll admit that the performances are excellent (particularly the one by Christian Bale’s toupee) can anyone tell me why this boring, overlong, pointless and distinctly underwhelming film has received all the plaudits?

Because I’m baffled.

I haven’t seen Her, Nebraska or Philomena yet, but 12 Years A Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, Captain Phillips and Gravity are all vastly superior to American Hustle.

But then the panel of voters selected for the Academy Awards have often made strange and dubious choices for the film that they consider to be the best of the year.

Yes, I admit that throughout the years of the Academy’s existence the best film has been selected – Casablanca in 1942, Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2 in 1972 and 1974, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, Unforgiven in 1992 and No Country For Old Men in 2007 – but in many cases the film that should have won (whether  it's because of the political climate in the US or the stupidity of the voting panel) has often been overlooked.

The first really famous film to fall foul of this was Orson Welles’ ground breaking and notorious Citizen Kane, which tells the story of Charles Foster Kane, who rose from humble beginnings to become a wealthy, greedy and ultimately isolated and reviled human being. The film starts with a group of reporters trying to understand why Kane’s last word was “Rosebud” and from then on it’s constructed like a jigsaw puzzle, told through multiple viewpoints (many of which conflict with each other).

Its notoriety sprang from the fact that it was a thinly veiled account of the life of the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who attempted (unsuccessfully) to have every print of the film burned. It was also rumoured that the film’s motif Rosebud was Hearst’s pet name for his wife’s clitoris.

Welles, who had never directed a film before, claimed that he watched John Ford’s film Stagecoach thirty-seven times to prepare himself for the task ahead. Whether it was because Welles was a first time director and saw film as having no boundaries or because he approached the project with the same verve and ambition that he utilised in his stage and radio productions (most notably in his adaptation of War of the Worlds), Citizen Kane has more than earned its reputation as a masterpiece – it’s a brilliant firework display of a movie with Greg Tolland’s masterful use of deep focus photography and imaginative camera angles, a startling use of expressionist lighting, a literate and intelligent screenplay by Welles and Herman J Mankiewicz that used (for the first time) overlapping dialogue, and outstanding, natural performances (especially those from Joseph Cotton and Welles himself as Kane).

Welles had reportedly coaxed his cinematographer, Greg Tolland, away from John Ford after he had seen The Grapes of Wrath and so it was ironic then that he lost out to Ford’s vastly inferior How Green Is My Valley, filmed in Technicolor with everyone concerned doing terrible Welsh accents that occasionally sounded Irish (and sometimes Scottish) and with Hollywood star Walter Pidgeon, who appeared to give up on his attempted Welsh accent fifteen minutes in and revert to own American twang for the remaining hour and forty-five minutes of the film.

How Green Is My Valley is a dated, unimaginative, turgid melodrama, and was (wrongly) voted the best picture of 1941. It is now largely forgotten and shown only as a filler on daytime television schedules, but Welles’ pyrotechnical masterwork has topped Sight and Sounds poll of the best film of all time more than any other in the magazine’s history and that’s because modern cinema began with Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane was just the first of many. Down through the years of the Academy’s history mediocrity has triumphed over intelligence and originality. In 1977, Sylvester Stallone’s formulaic and predictable boxing film Rocky was up against Alan J Pakula’s All The President’s Men, a brilliant political thriller about Watergate, Sidney Lumet’s Network, a scathingly satirical attack on television exploitation and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, a disturbing view of an ordinary man’s descent into madness and murder. Guess which film won? I’ll give you a clue – it’s none of the last three I just mentioned.

And don’t get me started on Martin Scorsese, who (despite being one of the most innovative and brilliant directors America has ever produced) is one of the most shamelessly overlooked directors in the history of the Academy’s existence. He has directed a feast of dynamic and original classics – Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The King of Comedy, Casino, The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Hugo and most recently The Wolf of Wall Street (which I think is his best film to date - with an electrifying performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, proving yet again that he is the most talented and versatile actor of his generation) – but he won his only best director Oscar for The Departed, a remake of the Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs. It’s a great film but he should have won an Oscar for any (if not all) the films I mentioned previously. Giving him the Oscar for The Departed was a bit like giving John Wayne his best actor Oscar for his portrayal of John Wayne with a patch over his eye in True Grit when he really should have won it for his powerful and penetrating role as the revenge driven, racist Ethan Edwards in The Searchers.

And I don’t care what anyone says – the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit was much better than Henry Hathaway’s original.

Martin Scorsese wasn't the first director to be ignored by the Academy. The great Alfred Hitchcock was also given the cold shoulder come Oscar time. Throughout his long and distinguished career he never once won an Oscar for best director, even though he was responsible for introducing many of the cinematic techniques we take for granted today. Remember the scene in Jaws when the boy is attacked by the shark and the camera zooms into Chief Brody's face while the background rushes away - this is now known in the film industry as the Vertigo Zoom because it was first used in Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo in order to give the audience a sense of disorientation. In Psycho he became the first director to kill off the film's major star, Debbie Reynolds, within the first thirty minutes. Psycho - for better or worse - also ushered in the genre now known as the slasher movie. He was the first to shoot a film in one take (Rope), the first to set a thriller entirely in one room (Rear Window), the first to show children being killed in a bomb blast (Sabotage), the first to have a charming psychopath as a central character (Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on Train). The magazine MovieMaker described him (quite rightly) as the most influential filmmaker of all time, but the Academy couldn't see that. Why? Because they were idiots who regarded Hitchcock's films (as they did with Steven Spielberg's until he made Schindler's List) as being too commercial to be of any worth.

But the same old story has repeated itself over and over again throughout the last thirty years or so. Apocalypse Now, possibly the greatest war film ever made, lost out in 1979 to the dire and manipulative tear-jerker Kramer vs Kramer. In 1983 the dreadful Terms of Endearment won the award instead of The Right Stuff, Phillip Kaufman’s brilliantly told story about NASAs Apollo Project. Twee, boring, politically correct Driving Miss Daisy was apparently a better film in 1989 than the superb My Left Foot. And then there was Titanic in 1997, picking up as many awards as Ben Hur, probably because it was just as boring, overlong and shit. Finally on my hit list of Oscar winners is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, A Beautiful Mind (from the usually reliable Ron Howard). It’s a vapid, empty, pointless film that tells you absolutely nothing about the person it’s about.

Ron Howard has not made many bad films, but when he does make one it's not just bad - it's mind-bogglingly terrible. Anyone who has followed this blog will know that my least favourite film of all time  is Top Gun - but thinking about it, there are two films that are worse than that steaming pile of horse manure - and they are both directed by Ron Howard. As bad as Top Gun is, it is still watchable if only for the flying sequences and if you're so drunk you can't hear any of the predictable dialogue. The two films directed by Ron Howard that I'm talking about here have got nothing going for them at all because, right from the start they were hamstrung by the very worst source material that has ever existed.

That's right, you guessed it - they are both based on books by the world's worst writer, Dan Brown, whose central character, Robert Langdon, is the most boring creation in recent fiction. I have every confidence that my wife could knit a more interesting character than Robert Langdon.

I thought the books were bad enough but the films surpassed even their level of total, mind-numbing stupidity, and I was amazed to find that the wafer-thin, zero-dimensional characters of the books were transferred to the screen with even less charisma than they had on the page.

Watching Tom Hanks as the internationally renowned (and dumbest) symbologist (a made-up profession if ever I heard one) in the world, racing around with a ridiculous haircut struggling to solve puzzles that a five year-old could have worked out before him was worse than having to stand on my head for two hours in a bucket full of shit. When I went to see the film I had this vague notion that Ron Howard would somehow improve the book, using his directorial skills to transform it into something that was, at the very least, exciting – but I was wrong, and I quickly came to the conclusion that the only way you could ever improve a Dan Brown book is by burning it.

Apparently Ron Howard is turning the latest travesty by Dan Brown, Inferno, into a movie, which is a shame as his latest release, Rush, is a truly thrilling film about the rivalry between the racing drivers James Hunt and Nikki Lauda. Inferno, on the other hand, is anything but thrilling - it's dull, unbelievable, stupid and worthless. With not even enough plot to fill a short story, the book spends most of it great length acting as a travelogue of Venice and other Italian cities. If I wanted to read a travelogue about an Italian city I would have bought a Lonely Planet travel guide because (a) it would have been better written than Dan Brown's effort, and (b) no, that's it - there is no (b).

So, I don’t like Dan Brown’s books or films made from them. I don’t like Titanic, A Beautiful Mind, Kramer vs Kramer, Terms of Endearment, Driving Miss Daisy or any of the commercially driven effluence that is squeezed out of the arse of Hollywood. And I didn’t like American Hustle.

In that case, what films (in my humble opinion) should have been nominated instead of American Hustle? Well, there’s Saving Mr Banks, a beautifully told film with great performances from Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks and Colin Farrell about the problems Walt Disney had when attempting to secure the rights of Mary Poppins from Mrs PL Travers. There’s also Ron Howard's Rush, which I just mentioned. The Coen Brothers should be there with Inside Llewyn Davis, a film about a struggling folk singer in Greenwich Village in the early sixties with an ending that makes you rethink everything you’ve just watched. The Frozen Ground is a true story featuring standout performances from John Cusack as a serial killer and Vanessa Hudgens (yes – her from High School Musical) as the victim that got away. Richard Curtis’ quirky time travel film About Time should have been considered. And finally there’s Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor, a film that I suspected would be a cheesy, gung-ho American war film that turned out to be nothing of the sort. It’s a brutally honest and moving depiction of brotherhood and heroism in the face of overwhelming odds that tells the true story of a team of four US Navy SEALs who make the correct moral choice after a mission goes wrong in Afghanistan and end up paying for it with their lives.  

But let’s forget the Oscars now and concentrate on a film that didn’t have a hope in hell of winning any award anywhere, but what I nevertheless thought was the most entertaining and enjoyable film I had the pleasure of seeing all last year.

It’s directed by Anthony C Ferrante and features a cast of characters that are paper-thin composites of characters that have drifted in from other films.  There's little or no plot. Logic has been replaced by a lack of continuity and a total disregard for anything remotely scientific. The actors range from being mediocre to bad to terrible and the special effects are often hilariously ineffective. It starts with a pointless prologue involving a small fishing boat, a  captain wearing a silly hat and speaking in a strange accent, a dodgy Japanese businessman, a suitcase full of money, a bowl of shark-fin soup and a chase around the deck of the aforementioned small fishing boat. After the title sequence none of these things are mentioned again in the film – ever.

It's a terrible film – but, you know what – it's also brilliant because it was never meant to be taken seriously. Here's a young director working within a tight budget (and producing a film that actually does what it set out to do) with money that he'd probably borrowed from his Auntie. Sam Raimee did much the same with The Evil Dead and he went on to direct the blockbuster Spider-man. Even well-established directors with budgets running into millions can't achieve that - anyone remember the disaster that was Cleopatra?

Watching Anthony C Ferrante's film slightly pissed with a bunch of mates made it probably the funniest film experience I’ve encountered in recent years. For those of you who haven’t worked it out yet – it’s called Sharknado and it’s about some tornados coming in from the sea with – wait for it – sharks in them.

By coming up with the idea of doing a mash-up of the films Twister, Jaws and Deep Blue Sea, Anthony C Ferrante (for me at least) has proved that he is an absolute genius.

Enough said!

To all the readers of this blog - I now have my own website at www.stephen-mitchell.co.uk. Have a look if you want. The more hits I get the better.

Thanks for all your support.

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