I hate you, butler

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I feel I ought to do the Oscar movies. I haven’t seen all of the big hitters yet, but I’m well on the way; pretty much, one Llewyn Davis short of a full house. First up: Northup. Steve McQueen’s third film, 12 Years A Slave, seemed poised to sweep all boards this season, having picked up a number of accolades at various prizegivings decided by circles, guilds and associations (for instance, from where I’m sitting, it seems to have beaten every other film to every award at the Florida Film Critics Circle in December, and you can replace “Florida” with “Iowa” or “Las Vegas” and get the same comprehensive result). And then the Golden Globes were distributed two weeks ago and 12 Years squeaked only one award out of seven nominations. True, it was for best motion picture (drama) and meant that McQueen and crew got to fill the stage as the TV credits rolled, but I can’t have been alone in expecting a clean sweep.

Having seen 12 Years just days before, I have to say I was glad that the Globes were so evenly distributed among the big players: American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, Wolf Of Wall Street, Blue Jasmine, Gravity, Her, Mandela and even the criminally overlooked All Is Lost, which picked up best score. In any year, I cross my fingers for a mixed bag of winners. I don’t like it when one film wins everything, whatever that film may be. I like surprises. I like upsets. I dislike sure things.

There’s no doubting the quality and ambition of 12 Years, but if it wins everything at the Oscars (and the Golden Globes at least hint that this might not be the case), my fear would be that it’s not the film but the abolition of slavery that’s being voted for.

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As you may know or remember, Hunger, McQueen’s debut, was my film of the year in 2008. I found much to applaud in his follow-up, Shame. And I take my hat off to him for moving so much further into conventional narrative cinema for 12 Years. As a black, London-born Briton of Grenadian blood who grew up at a time of great racial tension in the 70s and 80s, it’s not hard to see why it’s a personal film for him, even though it is a story about southern American slavery in the 1840s and 50s. And, like his previous work, it’s beautifully, artistically framed and confidently and movingly staged. It is a work of great power and adds another fine performance to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s CV. We hold these truths to be self-evident. And yet … it has unequivocal moral certainty on its side, and as such seems a slam-dunk with a modern, liberal audience, especially a white, liberal audience, and especially a white American liberal audience. I’m not saying it was an easy option – its depictions of unbearable, sadistic cruelty of an institutional, almost industrial kind are not for eating your dinner off a plate in front of a TV to – but it’s difficult to imagine anyone coming away from the experience wishing it had been less fair on the white plantation owners. Like the white apartheid South Africans in Mandela – another film whose morality comes in black and white – it wouldn’t be out of place to boo the screen at them.

I was fortunate enough to grow up with Roots on TV in the 70s. Regardless of the veracity of Alex Haley’s tale, its compelling narrative which took us from Africa to America, told a major historical truth. I was 12; I learned a lot. This is not to say I don’t need another fictionalised drama to tell me the same thing. But 12 Years A Slave tells the story of an educated, cultured freeman who is kidnapped and sold as a slave, which I felt we were supposed to be more indignant about than an African snatched from his homeland and shipped over. It veered towards those films set in Africa which always have a white protagonist so that, subliminally, white audiences will have someone to root for. Was Solomon Northup’s ordeal worse than the other slaves’ because he could play the violin, had visited Canada and used to wear a nice suit? The fact that the title reassured us throughout that after 12 years he would be free again took some of the sting out of it, for me.

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What, then, of American Hustle? I have always enjoyed the work of David O’Russell and can claim to have been in quite near the ground floor, having eyed his talent in Flirting With Disaster in 1996, his second feature. I’ll never hold him as dear as I do his contemporaries Alexander Payne, Paul Thomas Anderson or Wes Anderson, but Silver Linings Playbook was entertaining, and so is American Hustle. Is it an Oscar movie? That’s my question. Playing the 70s for cheap laughs – it opens with Christian Bale painstakingly glueing down his preposterous combover – is a fairly tired old sport now. It’s hard to imagine anyone topping Boogie Nights on that particular playing field. But in fictionalising a true story of private-sector confidence tricksters and an FBI sting, Hustle does boast a bit of content, a bit of story, to go with its hairstyles.

It’s hard to fault the sporting work by the principal cast: Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence (all logged with the Academy) and Jeremy Renner. You will enjoy seeing Louis CK in a meaty supporting part, too, plus an uncredited Robert De Niro atoning somewhat for his facile schtick parts, and Boardwalk Empire fans will be as chuffed to see Shea Whigham in a wig as they will be to see him in a boat captain’s whites in The Wolf Of Wall Street. The screenplay by O’Russell and Eric Warren Singer smart-mouths through some pretty complex grifting and triple-crossing, but at the end of the day, it’s a caper movie. So was The Sting, I know, and that was Oscar-approved, but I’m just a little bit niggled by the blanket adoration Hustle is getting from juries. Is life so bad in 2013-14 that we can only bear to watch films set in other eras, whether ones we remember or not?

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The Wolf Of Wall Street is Martin Scorsese’s first all-out comedy. (The King Of Comedy was about comedy, but closer to a tragedy?) Based on the real life of fraudulent “penny stock” trader Jordan Belfort and set during his rise and fall in the late 80s and 90s, it takes a fairly reprehensible individual working in an institutionally unsavoury sector and, through a winning (maybe even Oscar-winning) turn by Leonardo DiCaprio, turns him into if not exactly a hero, certainly someone you find yourself rooting for, against your better judgement. In this, and over a potentially wearisome three-hour running time, it cannot be faulted for holding its nerve. Talking to camera when he’s not rallying his white-collar troops like a cross between Gordon Gekko and Tom Cruise’s motivational speaker Frank T.J. “Respect the cock!” Mackey from Magnolia, DiCaprio somehow puts meat onto the bones of an appalling man doing appalling things with his even more appalling wingman Jonah Hill.

Foul-mouthed, misogynist, self-serving, dishonest, drug-addled, amoral, scheming, brutish, mercenary and at the very least seedy, these financial whizz-kids are no less confidence tricksters than Bale’s American hustlers and yet, working under the regulatory radar, they are almost Robin Hood figures in Scorsese and writer Terence Winter’s version of events. Theirs is a male business, and they behave in the most appallingly male ways. Women – and good luck being an actress in this movie – are commodities: whores, essentially, to be bought and sold and discarded. Sure, Belfort gets his comeuppance – they all do – with Kyle Chandler’s subway-riding CIA man constantly encircling with his friendly, squinty eyes and “sweaty balls”, but what makes Wolf Of Wall Street so compelling is that very eventuality. You know, just as you know Solomon Northup will soon not be a slave, the orgy cannot last. But you will it to carry on, such is the velocity of Scorsese’s film.

It’s pointless to have a favourite, but of the best picture nominees, I’m currently divided between Nebraska, Gravity and Wall Street. Gravity is what I call “pure cinema”. Nebraska is Alexander Payne revisiting his home state for an austerity comedy drama that tilts at The Last Picture Show for profundity and epic sweep. Wall Street dares to lionise the sort of casino-banker who arrogantly manhandled us into this recession and may forfeit Academy votes as a result. But it’s so rare to see a rollicking comedy duking it out with drama’s big boys. There are elements of comedy in Nebraska, Hustle, Philomena and – I detect – Her (another omission on my dance card), but none are all out. Wall Street is.

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Can I say a few words of support for this year’s great lost Oscar movie? All Is Lost, from JC Chandor, whose debut was the outstanding financial-crash fable Margin Call, is as “pure” as Gravity, and also about human beings adrift. In place of Sandra Bullock in space, we have Robert Redford’s solo sailor in the middle of the Indian Ocean. For both, all seems lost. I won’t confirm the outcome; needless to say, with a screenplay of few words, Chandor and Redford tell a tale that resonates down the ages: man versus the elements. Beginning with the unnamed captain’s message in a bottle, it works backwards eight days and walks us through his deteriorating pickle.

That All Is Lost was recognised with one Oscar nomination for best sound editing, and two Globe nominations for actor and score (the second of which it won), is a disgrace. Bafta ignored it altogether in its haste to garland American Hustle. (All hail the New York Film Critics Circle, which spotted that Redford was the year’s best actor.)

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Gravity has digital spectacle on its side, and Alfonso Cuarón may well deserve best director for what he has achieved within the strictures of that job description – I saw the film in 3D and 2D, and it works in both. But while Gravity pushes forward to infinity and beyond, in a sense All Is Lost delves backwards into analogue action spectacle. Robert Redford, the old man, and the sea, thrown together in the water tank built for Titanic, and, er, that’s it. I was gripped from one end to the other, with no notion of how it would play out. It’s probably just a coincidence that Captain Philips, more conventional still, should depict those in peril on the sea.

Tom Hanks stars in Columbia Pictures' "Captain Phillips."

Again, I was gripped. And it should be noted that the cinema showing I attended was potentially scuppered by a row of four disgraceful young kids who had bought their tickets with no intention of respecting the film and kept talking and changing seats throughout, destroying any mood skilfully constructed by Paul Greengrass, Tom Hanks and the crew. Staff were called to the screen on three occasions, the third by me, and at no point were these kids dissuaded of their approach, or threatened with expulsion; we complained afterward, for what it was worth. Captain Phillips‘ towering achievement was to grip and involve with all that shit going on. Bravo.

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The thing about Nebraska is that I knew what it was going to be like from the first stills, never mind the trailer. I am attuned to Payne’s melancholia and his penchant for men walking along by the sides of roads, and although I knew I’d love his hymn to the wide open spaces of the Cornhusker State, this does not diminish that love. I’d be more than happy if Bruce Dern – at 77 the same age as the snubbed Robert Redford – took best actor and made DiCaprio wait another year. It’s a Henry Fonda or a Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond, a Christopher Plummer in Beginners, a Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story, a John Wayne in True Grit, an Emmanuelle Riva in Amour … hey, a Jack Nicholson in Payne’s About Schmidt – the kind of part you have to earn.

I have yet to see Dallas Buyers Club, although I have been enjoying Matthew McConaughey’s renaissance and felt his energy in a cameo in Wall Street, so there’s little reason to doubt he’s on award-winning form as the HIV-positive Texan. Of the best actresses, Cate Blanchett is the best thing about Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, so my hopes are on her, with a soft spot too for Sally Hawkins are best supporting actress in the same, rich film. If Somalian limo driver Barkhad Abdi got best supporting actor for Captain Phillips, his first film, we could all go home happy: he’s electrifying.

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There’s a grumpy line that says we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about who wins the Oscars, or indeed any of the other statuettes and perspex doorstops. “When was the last time the best film of the year won the Oscar?”, the naysayers say, when not saying “nay”. As stated, I know for a fact that one of my favourite films of 2013 won’t win any of the major awards, because it is All Is Lost. Same goes for Inside Llewyn Davis, which is also locked out of the love-in and yet looks for all the world to be the best thing the Coens have done, if you like a bit of bleak medicine, and I do. I haven’t said much about Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, because it’s a pretty unremarkable film about a remarkable man, the least anyone could do with his lifestory, just as Ordinary Love is the least U2 could do for a theme tune. But for the song to earn a nomination and Idris Elba not is typical of the seemingly random nature of it all.

Hey, it’s my job to worry about the Oscars and to second-guess the proclivities of an organisation that, as of 2012, was 94% white, 77% male and with a median age of 62. Also, it’s quite good fun, isn’t it?

And at least they ignored The Butler.

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Korean opportunities

TA99What interesting connections we can make on this week’s telly on Telly Addict. Brushing Up On … British Tunnels with Danny Baker on BBC4 is essentially a middle-aged man reading out words he has written between some archive clips; Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States on Sky Atlantic (from Showtime in the US) is essentially a middle-aged man reading out words he has written between some archive clips; in Panorama: North Korea Undercover, easily the most talked about TV show of last week, reporter John Sweeney attempts, as does Stone, to get under the skin of a country whose propaganda is all-powerful (and in both cases, Stone and Sweeney risk excommunication from the nation which they criticise); 30 Rock‘s Season 6 finale, on Comedy Central, includes jokes – aired in May 2012 on NBC – about the totalitarian quirks of the North Korean regime; Modern Family, an imported US comedy not given to inter-textual cross-media jokes that are the stock-in-trade of 30 Rock, tries one on for size with a coda based on The Godfather on Sky1; and I also review new ITV three-parter The Ice Cream Girls, which has no link whatsoever with the other shows. Ah well. You can’t join everything up.

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In any other year, I suspect Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar would be all over the award nominations, with Leonardo DiCaprio a strong contender for best actor. As it is, it seems to have been barged out of the way, outclassed by the competition. (The film notched up one nomination at the Globes, for Leo, and has two at the imminent Screen Actors’ Guild awards, one for Leo – where he finds himself up against the expected Clooney, Pitt and Dujardin – the other for his excellent co-star Armie Hammer – who will presumably fall to Plummer or Branagh.) There’s no need for us to cry into our hankies. Clint Eastwood only has to make a film these days to earn an automatic place in the shortlists, and that can be tiresome and predictable. But the reviews for J. Edgar have also been lukewarm. Peter Bradshaw all but took it apart in the Guardian.

I went to see it yesterday with expectations lowered. And it turned out to be rather good. I have a keen interest in 20th century American history, and in US politics in general, and enjoyed seeing 40 years replayed, albeit rather more selectively and thus in more detail, than the comparable time frame covered by The Iron Lady. J. Edgar Hoover ran the Federal Bureau of Investigation from its inception at the Justice Dept in 1935 to his death in 1972, although the film, written by Dustin Lance Black, begins in 1919, when the up-and-coming 24-year-old Hoover was put in charge of a new bureau charged with weeding out radicals. This became his calling.

Because most of his private files were destroyed before the Nixon administration could seize them on his death, much of his story remains speculative, especially the infamous bit about him wearing women’s clothing – something of an own goal for a man whose reputation was built upon the old-fashioned Republican tenets of God-fearing moralism and family values. He never married, and lived with his mother (here played by Judi Dench, whose American accent occasionally wobbles but whose presence is suitably dominant), and Black’s screenplay, while never lurid, makes Hoover out to be quite the repressed “radical and subversive” himself.

His previous film was the excellent Milk, and there are similarities here, in that both are biopics of sexually unconventional political figures – albeit one out, the other closeted – told using the device of the character dictating the story of his own life for posterity. Harvey Milk is seen relaying his memoir into a cassette recorder as if certain of his own looming assassination; Hoover dictates, and embroiders, his to a series of agents at a typewriter, driven to do so by the ill-health of old age. It’s a well-worn framing device, and means both stories are told in flashback, but it helps to arrange the material in a clear and chronological fashion, which is particularly useful if you’re not familiar with the facts. (I knew little about Milk; I know plenty about Hoover.)

What seems to bother a number of critics is the way some aspects of Hoover’s career and character are foregrounded, while others are skipped over. This is built into any biopic lasting shorter than, say, eight hours. The Iron Lady got round it by providing only the most shallow soundbites to ratchet up the career highlights. J. Edgar does so by making the Lindbergh kidnapping and eventual, forensic-driven outcome its central drama, a turning point in Federal law, and in the reputation of the FBI, and thus of Hoover. I found it persuasively staged, and if it meant that less screen time could be devoted to, say, his witch hunts against the likes of Sean Seberg or Charlie Chaplin, or his failure to address the Mafia, well, something had to go. (There is a single scene with Bobby Kennedy, which touches on organised crime, one of the Attorney General’s pet subjects, but its central purpose is really to show that Hoover had to blackmail to keep his job with more moderate administrations.)

There’s no shying away from the fact that Hoover was a poisonous, bigoted hypocrite, but I found Black’s treatment of his career-long platonic love affair with his number two, the energetic and loyal Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, last seen playing both Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, and very good indeed here) actually rather sweet. Hoover is a mess of contradictions and repressed feelings, and would rather physically fight Tolson over challenges to his heterosexuality than kiss him, but as the two men age – call the makeup department! – their dotage brings with it a dignified acceptance that they are soul-mates even if they cannot be lovers. In the later scene where DiCaprio takes the top off Hammer’s boiled egg – the latter debilitated by a stroke – you are touched by the carefully controlled affection Hoover is prepared to exhibit in private.

This is not the same, I don’t think, as “humanising” Thatcher by showing her all forgetful and lonely in The Iron Lady. For a start, Hoover’s been dead since 1972, and his brand of red-hunting paranoia has been broadly replaced, while sexual honesty even in America has moved in apace (not least thanks to activists like Harvey Milk in the 1970s, and like Dustin Lance Black in the noughties and beyond). Because Clint Eastwood is a known Republican, it’s somewhat surprising that he would wish to make a biopic about a repressed homosexual who is shown, at one point, sniggering over the wording of a letter from Eleanor Roosevelt to an apparent lesbian lover, but Eastwood has actually made a film about old age, too. When DiCaprio and Hammer are trussed up in half a ton of latex for the Little Britain years – DiCaprio comes off better as an old geezer than Hammer – you really sense that the 80-year-old Eastwood identifies with them. There is a single kiss planted on Tolson’s head by Hoover that almost put a tear in my eye. This does not mean I forgive the man for hounding Martin Luther King and holding successive Presidents to ransom by foul means.

One of the main reasons I have stopped going to America since Bush is that I do not wish to add my fingerprints to the files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover set that in motion. His legacy is substantial. Anchored by an excellent, well-modulated turn by the Peter Pan of Hollywood, who finally carries some physical weight here, J. Edgar does a decent, if unshowy job of putting Hoover’s place in political history into some kind of personal perspective. And by kind of blaming him on his mother. LGBT activists worried that Eastwood might “de-gay” Black’s story, but he hasn’t, any more than he “de-Japanesed” Letters From Iwo Jima. Maybe he’s just getting a bit liberal in his old age. Something that never happened to Thatcher.

More soul-mates: a quick mention for Crazy, Stupid, Love, which I caught on DVD, and completes the set of Ryan Gosling’s Films of 2011, along with Drive, Blue Valentine and The Ides Of March. I thought I’d like it the least, but I didn’t, it’s actually my third favourite of those four films. This is a romantic comedy with a truly offputting title that conceals a significant dose of actual drama from writers/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, whose first film behind the megaphone was gay true story I Love You Phillip Morris, which in truly professional style, I’ve only seen bits of, on telly, so cannot comment upon in an meaningful way.

The man in Sight & Sound accused the plot of Crazy, Stupid, Love of being “mechanical”, and it is, in that it seems to tell a number of random stories about love – the crazy kind and the stupid kind – which turn out to be interlinked in clever ways. But two of these links were complete surprises to me. I didn’t see either of them coming. So something must be going right. Gosling is the bar shark, whose pickup rate with available women is around 100%. But the star of the film is recent divorcee Steve Carell, whom Gosling takes under his wing and retrains in the art of seduction. Julianne Moore, Emma Stone and Marisa Tomei round out the high-class cast, but it’s good to see Carell dialling down the gurning a bit, and he shows signs of being a decent serious actor here, among all the coincidences and occasional broad, comedic strokes. There’s a scene where one character makes a speech at a public event which was one conventional, forced set-up too many, and some of the minor characters – particularly Emma Stone’s dopey boyfriend – were too much like cutouts compared to the warm-blooded leads, but overall, this was a well-written, offbeat drama.

There’s a running gag in J. Edgar – yes, a gag – about Hoover’s paranoia not about Communist plots, but about his waistline. Two characters refer to his extra bulk as “solid weight.” You expect a historical biopic to carry solid weight, but less so a romantic comedy with a terrible title. Crazy, Stupid, Love bucks that expectation. Give it a spin.