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That Awkward Moment

I tried hard to ignore the fact that I wasn’t seeing as much honesty from That Awkward Moment‘s girls as I was from its boys. I wasn’t as interested as you might imagine in taking the film to task for gender balance issues. I think the Bechdel Test worked brilliantly as a comic, but it’s a wholly unreliable indicator of a problem that has existed for as long as film has been around, and its approach won’t so much solve that problem as create others. I certainly didn’t think I should dismiss the film just because the women in it never interact with one another. The film is, and has every right to be, from the boys’ point of view.

But That Awkward Moment really wants you to believe it’s getting women right. It gives them a little well-reasoned bite and lets its three male leads discombobulate around them. It wants to be a frat-boy comedy and a witty romancer all at the same time, determined as it is for multi-quadrant appeal. It might be enough to fool some, but there’s no truth here at all.

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Inside Llewyn Davis

Like Once, the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis stops dead every moment it lingers on one of its stunning musical performances. They are, literally, show-stopping. And it’s through them that we learn most about Llewyn Davis’s soul. Like the best of their creations, he is flawed: a man with an over-inflated ego, little gratitude for those helping him out and an entirely self-defeating attitude to life and work. You should hate him. But when he sings…

This is surely the brothers’ best work in years, imbued with that particular Coen Tone that seems to pervade most of their work, but that hasn’t been this unfiltered in a long time. There’s truth as much as fantasy; drama in balance with comedy. Few filmmakers have this sort of skill in baking highly incompatible ingredients into a whole with such satisfying results. It has something to say to any of us who’ve had a dream and let life get in the way, but it is definitive for any artist whose drive to persevere demands a wanton disregard for practical sense.

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Crystal Fairy

It doesn’t take long before the urge to run from Crystal Fairy becomes almost overpowering. The first aroma wafting from Sebastián Silva’s odd Sundancer is pungent; a murky, drugs-happy party somewhere in Chile, as Michael Cera says nothing through a haze of one too many Instagram filters. The idea that these people, and the trip they’ll take, could ever yield anything beyond surface hipsterism seems far-fetched at best.

But, given time, the film comes round. Michael Cera continues his career-long exploration of the obnoxious as Jamie, an American traveller who teams up with some of the locals to go in search of a San Pedro cactus to brew into a psychedelic by the beach. He’s impatient to get out there, and exasperated by the invite he’s extended to Gaby Hoffmann’s hippy, Crystal Fairy. He’s rude to her, even more so as she wins around the rest of the car. He is frustrated by how long it takes them to find someone willing to sell an off cut of the plant. It’s the most authentic character he’s ever delivered; what little we know about Jamie, Cera ensures we explore.

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BAFTA 2014

Why BAFTA Matters

I’m a proud BAFTA member. I’ve voted with the membership and sat on multiple Film Awards juries. I’ve been moved to see our decisions turned into life-changing nominations and awards. I’ve seen the genuine joy on winners’ faces, and the pride with which they stare at their prizes, at the parties that follow the show. I’ve watched as careers have taken off following a BAFTA nod.

It’s for these very reasons that I take my role as a voter incredibly seriously. On a macro level, it might appear that the BAFTAs slot into the calendar along with any number of other events that provide little more than a self-congratulatory back-slap for a luvvie industry, and that their true worth is measured only in the extra box office that some of the buzzed-about titles generate. That may not be entirely false, but to witness the human, emotional side effect of the role played by the BAFTA Film Awards is to understand their real importance.

In reaction to a piece run by an anonymous “whistleblower” on one tabloid newspaper’s website, I feel compelled to defend the process by which film awards voters go about their task. The piece alleges that the voter in question happily votes for films they haven’t bothered to see, because there’s not enough time to see them and the momentum carries the favourites to victory anyway.

It’s an odd idea that begins with one bizarre plot-hole: it’s actually much, much easier to simply abstain than it is to vote for films you haven’t seen. To vote in Round One – the nominations stage – the BAFTA system requires you to assemble a shortlist of films you might choose and then go through each category, digging out the eligible parties and arranging them in order of preference. Since abstaining in any category – or all of them – involves a simple click, and doesn’t affect your right to vote in subsequent years, doing so is entirely without effort or consequence. So what’s the point of doing anything else?

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The Wolf of Wall Street

In a letter to his daughter, published in Italian in the magazine l’Espresso, Martin Scorsese speculated that his friend and mentor, John Cassavetes, would suggest the fundamentals of filmmaking haven’t changed with technology. “[He would] continue to repeat the things he always said – you have to be totally dedicated to work, you have to give all of yourself and you have to protect that first spark that led you to make that movie. You have to protect it with your life.”

Which leads me to believe that Martin Scorsese really doesn’t care about the feathers he’s ruffled with The Wolf of Wall Street.

And boy, have they been ruffled. There’s an odd misunderstanding going on that Scorsese’s latest opus somehow glorifies the crimes of Jordan Belfort. The stock-trading playboy swindled clients out of hundreds of millions of dollars and his company thrived on debauchery, drug-taking and decadence. As played by Leonardo DiCaprio, he really, really enjoyed it too.

But the brilliance of what Scorsese has pulled off here is in what it allows us to conclude. It’s a flip on the usual biopic structure, in which a character’s ups are sweet while their downs are sour. When DiCaprio’s Belfort starts describing the illegalities he’s engaged in, he breaks off. “You know what, it doesn’t matter,” he says. Because it doesn’t. There’s no question that every decision Belfort makes goes against taste, decency and the letter of the law. The environment is cutthroat, shown to thrive only at its most despicable. When Belfort’s firm, Stratton Oakmont, throws one of its office parties, we witness degradation, prostitution and drug abuse. There’s no grey area here. These people are having fun at the expense of others, but we aren’t joining in, we’re bearing witness.

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Out of the Furnace

Permit me to introduce my issues with Out of the Furnace by borrowing from a chunk of its screenplay.

Moments prior to the scene copied below, Christian Bale’s Russell Baze had attempted to procure drugs from a dealer at the home of Woody Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat, the man he believes has something to do with the disappearance of his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck). DeGroat wasn’t in, but it didn’t matter: Baze was there on a fact-finding mission, which he made obvious by his deeply suspicious demeanour, the asking of far too many questions and a refusal to sample to product he was purchasing. After being satisfied by “Meth Guy”‘s answers, and completing his transaction, he leaves…

INT./EXT. METH HOUSE – FIRST FLOOR – MOMENTS LATER

BAZE and RED glance into each room and move toward the front door. Suddenly, a VOICE turns them around...

VOICE

Hey?

They both turn to find METH GUY holding their bag of METH.

METH GUY

Forgot this.

Baze moves toward him.

BAZE

Oh.... Thanks.

Meth Guy holds it up and slightly pulls it back...

METH GUY

Who’d you say you were?

BAZE

... I didn’t.

Baze holds Meth Guy’s look for a long, uncomfortable beat. Grabs the meth from Meth Guy.

RED

C’mon, bud...

Baze pockets the PURE TINA and moves to his truck...

It’s hardly Breaking Bad, is it?

This scene is only a small sample of the storytelling mistakes made by Scott Cooper’s second feature. In it, apparently rational characters behave irrationally for the sole purpose of drawing out emotionally-manipulative drama. It does no more than any number of low-rent horror films, in which the victim makes bad decisions that ensure they remain in the killer’s grasp. But at least low-rent horror films aren’t this worthy.

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47 Ronin

On First-time Directors in Hollywood

Variety’s Ramin Setoodeh (@RaminSetoodeh) and Scott Foundas (@foundasonfilm) cite Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) as precedents for Universal hiring first-timer Carl Rinsch to helm 47 Ronin in an interesting piece about the film’s failure. The Black Listed script has been turned into a disastrous flop by all accounts.

I don’t suppose any of these three will provide much encouragement for studios trusting first-timers in future, and perhaps that’s a good thing. To have to deal with the rigours of what is usually at least a two-year process, spending hundreds of millions of dollars and commanding a thousand people to make a product you have no experience of making? I can’t think of a path that makes that transition easy, short of working up to it with smaller (read: lower-budget) features.

And that’s to say nothing of the studio politics involved in the big leagues. I’ve seen that aspect crush the spirits of much more experienced directors on its own. We’re never given the full picture about which decisions were whose when a film is delivered, and I’m always surprised when I hear about ultimatums that had been handed down to some of the biggest helmers in Hollywood.

That said, it’s the very nature of film production when it involves so many voices, and there’s no other way to make Hollywood movies at the >$100m budget level. Don’t get me wrong – the big leagues are as fertile a breeding ground for ideas as anywhere else. But I’m increasingly convinced it’s something one must work up to.

All of this to say: Carl Rinsch had much to overcome, so we shouldn’t be too hard on him. I’m actually looking forward to seeing what he made of the challenge when I can get to the cinema in the next week or two – contrary to received wisdom, box office failure does not equal substantive disappointment. There are a few too many critics that seem to confuse the two.

I’m not really surprised the movie bombed – the writing had been on the wall for some time. But there are plenty of interesting ideas in that script, and I’d like to see how Rinsch realised them. Whatever the result, Universal will live to make another movie. I hope Rinsch does too.

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