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Director: Ben Wheatley

Screenplay: Amy Jump

Country: UK

Runtime: 112 mins

Cast: Tom Hiddleston (Dr Robert Laing), Jeremy Irons (Anthony Royal), Sienna Miller (Charlotte Melville), Luke Evans (Richard Wilder), Keeley Hawes (Ann Royal), Reece Shearsmith (Nathan Steele)

A mordantly witty adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel about a concrete apocalypse

Watching the opening scenes of High Rise, I found myself musing how film adaptations of a book one has previously read can change forever the way you envision the book. I can’t now read J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun without imagining Christian Bale and John Malkovich as the main characters. I also recall one contemporary reviewer expressing disappointment that the film’s depiction of drained swimming pools – one of the central motifs in many Ballard stories – just seemed a bit underwhelming when viewed on the big screen.

It will probably now be impossible to read High Rise without imagining Tom Hiddleston as physiologist Dr Robert Laing and Jeremy Irons as architect Anthony Royal. But I am delighted to report that Ben Wheatley’s film really brings to life the imagery and spirit of Ballard’s novel. More than anything, he brings to the fore the mordant wit of the book (something I recently discovered upon re-reading but missed entirely when I read it as a younger man).

The story begins with Laing cooking a dog on the balcony of his apartment, part of a luxury tower block complex that has somehow gone to wrack and ruin. Then we flash back to the early days of the building three months before in order to learn just how the concrete apocalypse has come about. The inhabitants are all middle class professionals, but even within this privileged group social divisions arise and are exacerbated as the building itself becomes increasingly dysfunctional. People don’t care about those two or more floors above or below them and, in particular, those on higher levels have greater disdain for those further below them.

In a dreamlike fashion (reminiscent of Wheatley’s earlier A Field in England) anti-social behaviour escalates, from people blocking the rubbish chutes with used nappies, to parties that get out of hand, through to outright violence. As food stocks run out living takes on the characteristics of an urban hunter-gather existence, with the stronger men vying to monopolise the female inhabitants. Where Ballard presciently satirised the behaviour of a group of proto-Thatcherites, Wheatley is more explicit about the political nature of the material. Following an uproarious party on the middle levels, Royal’s acolytes plan a grander party to show the others how it ought to be done. As one of them explains, competition is at the heart of a modern economy. They then decide that the first step in their party planning must be to commandeer all the resources, surely as pointed a commentary on the nature of capitalism as it’s possible to make? High Rise actually closes with an excerpt of a speech by Margaret Thatcher.

Tom Hiddleston is totally convincing as the canny survivor “hiding in plain sight” who, as with so many of Ballard’s protagonists, embraces the catastrophe around him. And Jeremy Irons is an inspired piece of casting as the patrician architect of the luxury apartment complex, who watches with fascinated amusement at the creation of a new kind of society within his decaying empire. From the men’s terrible moustaches to the cars in the parking lot, Ben Wheatley does a great job of depicting the mid-seventies whilst nonetheless making it seem like the dystopian near-future that Ballard first envisioned. And if it won’t be possible to read his novel in the same way again, the same will be true of Abba’s song S.O.S. which is featured at several points in the soundtrack.

Rating: 5/5

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Director: Ridley Scott

Writers: Drew Goddard (screenplay), Andy Weir (novel)

Country: USA

Runtime: 141 mins

Cast: Matt Damon (Mark Watney), Jessica Chastain (Melissa Lewis), Kristen Wiig (Annie Montrose), Jeff Daniels (Teddy Sanders), Sean Bean (Mitch Henderson), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Vincent Kapoor)

Ridley Scott’s latest SF blockbuster is mildly diverting but don’t expect too much

Ridley Scott is responsible for some of cinema’s best-loved science fiction films, such as Blade Runner and Alien, as well as successful movies in other genres (Thelma and Louise). However, recent years have seen duds such as The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Does The Martian represent a return to form? Well, not quite, though it’s definitely an improvement of sorts.

The story follows the plight of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who finds himself stranded on Mars, believed dead, after his crewmates abandon the planet to escape an oncoming storm. A botanist by training, Watney devises a way to extend his limited food supplies by growing potatoes on Mars’ barren surface, though he does remain suspiciously healthy for a man who spends months and years eating only spuds (albeit garnished with ketchup). When he eventually manages to mend his damaged communications he contacts NASA, who then have to figure out how to rescue him.

I enjoyed the early parts of the film best, as Watney patches up a wound  sustained in the storm and then sets about the business of surviving incommunicado on the inhospitable red planet. However, once NASA begin putting their rescue mission together disbelief becomes harder to suspend. The number of problems that arise and the increasingly far-fetched and risky solutions that are developed simply serves to remind us that we are watching a Hollywood blockbuster. All these critical problems are presumably a device to distract us from the story’s main shortcoming – we never seriously entertain the possibility that Watney won’t survive (I’m not even going to flag this up as a spoiler).

Although realism may be too much to ask of a SF movie set in the far future, nonetheless The Martian doesn’t even strive for psychological plausibility. Would Watney really be so relentlessly cheerful after months on a barren planet with no one to talk to? For most of the film we know nothing about his life. Does he have a wife? Children? Is there anyone he might be thinking about and anyone who might be worrying about him? Is there any particular reason for us to emotionally invest in this character other than that he seems like a generally ok guy?

Back at NASA big name actors are wasted in roles that are not fleshed out. Jeff Daniels is the Head of NASA who must push the organisation’s top brains to put together a rescue plan, whilst managing PR with a view to future funding. Sean Bean is the no-nonsense team leader for whom the rescue takes precedence over PR bullshit, even if it means breaking the rules. Even more cruelly wasted is Chiwetel Ojiofor as a boffin who must convince everyone that his mad ideas will work.

Despite these shortcomings, The Martian is diverting enough, especially if your expectations aren’t too high.

Rating: 3/5

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Director: Woody Allen

Writer: Woody Allen

Country: USA

Runtime: 95 mins

Cast: Joaquín Phoenix (Prof. Abe Lucas), Emma Stone (Jill Pollard), Parker Posey (Rita Richards), Jamie Blackley (Roy)

In a directorial career as long as Woody Allen’s it is inevitable that there will be a few misfires between the hits. After the well-deserved success of 2013’s Blue Jasmine, I’m afraid Irrational Man is a bit of a dud. Joaquín Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a star philosophy professor who finds that his lingering depression disappears the moment that he decides to murder a corrupt judge for no other reason than that it will make the world a better place.

Lucas’s turn around happens when he realises that he is being held back by his endless philosophising. Action is what matters, and action is only possible if you embrace your intuitions. Later, when his student lover Jill figures out that Lucas murdered the judge, he insists that he did what he believed to be right. There  are echoes here, perhaps, of certain politicians’ justifications for authorising military action against Iraq. Does Allen intend a coded message for us?

Phoenix himself is fully believable as the anguished academic and receives solid support from Emma Stone and Parker Posey as his love interests. However, the film is too much of a one-tone piece, for which the blame must fall upon Allen’s screenplay. It lacks any real tension and drama. Neither Abe Lucas or Jill Pollard are particularly likeable or sympathetic characters, which makes it hard to care too much whether or not Lucas will get away with his crime. This is a shame as the film’s basic idea holds quite a lot of promise, but it feels like an idea that was never fully developed, and so ultimately Irrational Man just doesn’t deliver.

Rating: 3/5

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Directors: Ben Blaine and Chris Blaine

Writers: Ben Blaine and Chris Blaine

Country: UK

Runtime: 98 mins

Cast: Fiona O’Shaughnessy (Nina), Abigail Hardingham (Holly), Cian Barry (Rob), Elizabeth Elvin (Sally), David Troughton (Dan)

This blood-soaked modern-day Blithe Spirit is a real treat

Nina Forever is a perfectly-realised first full cinema feature by the Blaine brothers, Ben and Chris, in which a young couple, Holly and Rob, find theselves haunted by Rob’s deceased former girlfriend, Nina. A rather moving comedy-horror, Nina Forever is like a modern-day rendering of Blithe Spirit. Here, though, Noel Coward’s posh drawing rooms are replaced by a cramped flat on a fog-bound housing estate, the stock room of a supermarket, and a graveyard over which an electricity pylon looms ominously. Oh, and there is lots of blood and sex.

Holly is a trainee paramedic with slightly morbid leanings, who works in the supermarket during the day. There she meets Rob, who is trying to get over the death of his girlfriend Nina, the victim of a car crash. Unfortunately, whenever the two of them try to get it on between the sheets a scarred and bloody Nina appears and makes it clear to “silly little girl” Holly that death is not going to stop her staking a claim to Rob.

It is a credit to the Blaine brothers’ script and Abigail Hardingham’s performance that we are able to engage in a pretty big suspension of disbelief by accepting Holly’s return to Rob after the first alarming bedroom encounter with Nina. Credit must also go to Cian Berry who gets laughs as the bereaved Rob, by playing it completely straight. Fiona O’Shaughnessy revels in the role of Nina, coming on as a wide-eyed (blood-soaked) innocent whilst delivering the bitchiest of comments.

There are some recognisable and delightful everyday observations that add to the comedy, such as when a long-awaited text message turns out to be a special offer from a local pizza parlour, and when a luckless chap on a bus finds himself stuck between a quarrelling Rob and Holly. But beneath the comedy there is a very real recognition of the pain of grief and the difficulty of moving on with life after a loved one dies.

Nina Forever brings a refreshing originality to the comedy-horror genre.

Rating: 4/5

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Director: Aleksei German

Screenplay: Aleksei German and Svetlana Karmalita

Country : Russia

Runtime: 177 mins

Cast: Leonid Yarmolnik (Don Rumata), Evgenyi Gerchakov (Budakh), Alexandr Chutko (Don Reba), Yuri Tsurilo (Don Pampa), Natalya Moteva (Ari)

A mad, unique cinematic masterpiece

Hard to be a God is a mad, epic masterpiece unlike any other film I have ever seen. Ostensibly a science fiction film it is a mud-spattered vision of the Middle Ages, channelling the rain-drenched monochrome of Winstanley, with the sensibility of Tarkovsky, as imagined by Terry Gilliam without any studio interference.

Based on a 1964 novel of the same name by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the story is set on an earthlike alien planet where the technology is on a par with ours about 800 years ago. A group of earth scientists have been sent to monitor the planet and help it progress, but without interfering in their politics. One of these, Anton, has taken on the guise of a nobleman, Don Rumata, who lives in a castle in the Kingdom of Arkanar. There, he has taken a young local woman, Ari, for a bride. The village around the castle is populated by a poverty-stricken parade of grotesques, clad in rags and stumbling around from one dirty puddle to another. The plot concerns a quest of sorts: Don Rumata sets out from his Castle to track down Budakh, a doctor who has been kidnapped by the tyrannical Prime Minister, Don Reba, and his militia, known as the “greys”.

However, the story really takes second place to the film’s extraordinary visual inventiveness. The costumes and sets are convincingly real and the wonderful cinematography seems to violate the rules to great effect. Many scenes contain tracking shots that last several minutes. Primary and secondary characters often break the “fourth wall”, gazing into the camera as they amble about, rather as working-class people used to do when early film-makers set up their cameras in the street (check out some of the old footage of Petticoat Lane on YouTube). People wander into shot from the side, only to shuffle off again. In almost every scene there is some sort of business going on (at one point, for no apparent reason, someone off-camera is waggling what looks like a chicken’s legs in front of the lens).

It is probably only fair that I should mention that not everyone in the cinema appeared to share my enthusiasm. There were a few walk-outs mid-way through the screening. In terms of length and pacing this is more akin to Stalker than to Shaun of the Dead, and the plot does get a bit hard to follow at times. It is a film that might not satisfy the less patient kind of viewer. However, once I realised that this was not going to be a fast-moving story I simply relaxed, sat back, and allowed myself to become immersed in this marvellous and unique cinematic experience.

Rating: 5/5

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Director: Asif Kapadia

Country: UK / USA

Runtime: 128 mins

A tale of a tragic downfall by the director of Senna

There are many popular musicians who have followed a drink- and drug-fuelled pathway to an early death but few, if any, who have done it as publicly as Amy Winehouse. In the same way that he did with his earlier film, Senna, director Asif Kapadia has woven a highly affecting picture from contemporary footage taken from a variety of sources, including home movies, news items, fans’ mobile devices and camcorders, and an ever-present video camera in recording studios, cars and hotel rooms. There is no commentary but the visuals are regularly overlaid by the voices of participants in Amy’s story.

At the time of her death there was much criticism of the paparazzi’s intrusive behaviour but Kapadia’s documentary makes clear that the causes of the star’s death were multiple and complex, and that the seeds of her destruction were sown much earlier. Winehouse appears to have been a wilful force of nature, even as a child. She describes herself as uncontrollable once her father had left home. As a teenager she was bulimic.

Winehouse cheerfully states that her real ambition is to be singing jazz in clubs. Fame, she says early on, is something she wouldn’t be able to cope with but the success of her first album and the touring that follows means fame is unavoidable. From this point on Winehouse’s life is complicated by a dangerous cocktail of negative influences, including an obsessive relationship with Blake Fielder, heavy drinking and drug-taking, and the reappearance of her father who becomes involved in her professional life in a not wholly helpful fashion.

What I found particularly disturbing is the way that, as both Fielder and Winehouse begin to fall apart in front of the world’s cameras, they are treated as a source of laughs by various popular television comedians (the guilty parties include Graham Norton and Jay Leno; by contrast, former drug addict-turned comedian Russell Brand tried to get Winehouse to rehab).

As someone who was only passingly familiar with the music of Amy Winehouse this documentary made clear what a huge talent and charismatic star she was. None other than Tony Bennett hails her as one of the all-time great jazz singers. Amy is a gripping tale of a brilliant life cut tragically short.

Rating: 4/5

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Director: Alan Rickman

Writers: Jeremy Brock, Alison Deegan, Alan Rickman

Country: UK

Runtime: 117 mins

Cast: Kate Winslet (Sabine De Barra), Stanley Tucci (Philippe, Duc D’Orleans), Jennifer Ehle (Madame De Montespan), Alan Rickman (King Louise XIV), Helen McCrory (Madame De Notre), Matthias Schoenaerts (André Le Notre )

A stylish but undemanding period romance

Let me say right away that I think I may have enjoyed this period drama rather more than it deserved to be liked. Directed by Alan Rickman, A Little Chaos has some genuinely good qualities. The sets and costumes are lavish, the cinematography is beautiful, and there is some top class acting. Notably, Kate Winslet is in her element playing a woman striving for independence in a man’s world, smart but not overconfident.

As Sabine De Barra, a landscape gardener, she secures a position – in the face of male competition – to lead the construction of the grand gardens at the Palace of Versailles. The man who appoints her is André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), the head gardener to King Louis XIV. At Sabine’s first interview, however, André is not impressed by the lack of order in her designs, telling her: “In my world anarchy is by royal command and even chaos must adhere to budget”. However, upon reconsideration he decides that she can provide the kind of original eye that the gardens need.

His decision marks him out as a man of sensitivity and, unsurprisingly, an attraction develops between him and Sabine. But in time-honoured fashion there are barriers to any romance. She is widowed and with a secret that is hinted at by the visions she has of a young girl dressed in white; he is in a loveless marriage to a woman who thinks nothing of paying men for sex but who will not tolerate him forming outside attachments. Madame Le Notre (Helen McCrory) also has the ear of the Queen, so is able to exert control over her husband.

Sitting above all the courtly intrigue is the King himself, adroitly played by Alan Rickman who alternates between being fearsomely imperious and quirkily amusing. Will Sabine’s idiosyncratic vision meet his exacting requirements? And in the face of adversity will the gardens even be completed on time?

The film’s central weakness is its essentially Mills and Boon-ish plot, coupled with a certain lack of pacing. It’s pretty undemanding stuff, but may well find an audience for those who enjoy a straightforward old-fashioned romantic tale.

Rating: 6/10.

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Director: Peter Strickland

Writer: Peter Strickland

Country: UK

Runtime: 104 mins

Cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen (Cynthia), Chiara d’Anna (Evelyn), Fatma Mohamed (The Carpenter), Eugenia Caruso (Dr Fraxini), Monica Swinn (Lorna), Eszter Tompa (Dr Viridana), Kata Bartsch (Dr Lurida), Zita Kraszkó (Dr Schuller)

This pastiche of seventies soft-core movies has a serious theme at its heart

Aware that The Duke of Burgundy tells the story of a S&M lesbian relationship, the biggest surprise for me was just how funny this picture is, sometimes in a laugh-inwardly kind of way but also with quite a few laugh-out-louds (at least that was the case with the audience I sat among). There is little, if anything, by way of titillation, and in fact no nudity, so anyone expecting this is likely to be disappointed. Paving the way for the subsequent deadpan humour, the visuals accompanying the opening credits are pastiches of soft-core seventies movies, involving a series of fuzzy freeze-frames as a woman cycles through the countryside. The credits themselves include one for the provision of perfumes as well as a “human toilet consultant”.

The story begins with a primly-dressed young woman, Evelyn, arriving at a rather grand country house, where the imperious unsmiling Cynthia orders her to perform various cleaning duties around the house. The tone of command hints that this isn’t a straightforward employer-employee relationship, as does the instruction to Evelyn to hand-wash Cynthia’s panties. The suggestiveness is ramped up a bit more when Evelyn is ordered to provide a foot massage. However, when Cynthia discovers that Evelyn has failed to complete one of her duties properly the younger woman is marched towards the bathroom for punishment. The door closes behind them and the camera remains outside focused on the frosted glass, as we hear the unambiguous sound of Cynthia urinating into Evelyn’s mouth.

However, this sub-dom relationship is not quite what it seems. The apparently dominant Cynthia is actually following a script that has been written by Evelyn, a script that they seem to repeat most days. Evelyn is thrilled to have found someone who is happy to fulfil her particular desires and eager to find new ways to be dominated (such as being locked in a trunk overnight). For Cynthia, though, the older of the two women, the game is starting to get a little stale. She complains that she needs an instruction manual to get into the clothes that Evelyn buys her and rebels by dressing in baggy pyjamas. And she is less than impressed by Evelyn’s obsessive wish to carry on their sub-dom games even when she has ricked her back.

Here lies the more serious heart of the film. Director Peter Strickland poses the question of how two people can continue to fulfil each other as a relationship matures. This clearly applies to any relationship, whether gay or straight, and regardless of whether the sex is kinky or vanilla.

There are no men in The Duke of Burgundy. The title itself refers to a species of butterfly, an insect whose shape has an obvious sexual connotation. Cynthia herself is a lepidopterist and, with Evelyn, attends talks about butterflies at a scientific institution. For no obvious reason, apart from continuing the soft-core pastiche, all the speakers and audience members are women. One senior member, Dr Fraxini, gives every impression that she too might well enjoy lesbian S&M. She always stands at the side of the stage, dressed in tight-fitting clothes and tall black leather boots, her dark eyes staring down at the women. At one point she crops up as a figure of jealousy in an argument between Cynthia and Evelyn, after the former reveals that Evelyn has been seen cleaning Dr Fraxini’s boots.

As the story moves into more serious territory there is a rather dark and gothic sequence, recalling Strickland’s previous film, the giallo-inspired Berberian Sound Studio. But as the final credits roll, Strickland’s humour is once again evident as the names of various butterfly species scroll before our eyes.

The performances of the two lead actors cannot be praised enough. Sidse Babett Knudsen (familiar to many viewers as the Prime Minister in the Danish TV series Borgen) and Chiara d’Anna (who featured in Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio) play it straight – so to speak – all the way through, which makes the absurdity of their games all the funnier. But they also convey a real depth of emotion. There is no doubt about the love the characters feel for each other, which imbues the conflict in their relationship with a real sadness.

Rating: 4/5

And the award goes to…

Posted: February 23, 2015 in English language
Tags: ,

Just prior to the 2015 Oscars the International Business Times ran an article about how the Academy Awards voters are dominated by white men (with an average age of 63). A number of voters quoted (from an interview with Hollywood Reporter) defended this year’s nominations on the grounds that these just were the best films. If we take that at face value, then the shortlist that the voters were faced with for Best Picture was as follows:

(a) A story about a brilliant white theoretical physicist who is struck by a terrible illness;

(b) A story about a young white man’s attempt to become a great jazz drummer;

(c) A story about a white middle-aged male concierge at a fictional European hotel;

(d) A story about a white boy growing up;

(e) A story about a white male mathematician who helped win the second world war;

(f) A story about a white male soldier who killed lots of dark-skinned people in Iraq;

(g) A story about a black man’s campaign for equal rights for black Americans;

(h) A story about a white male Hollywood actor, played by a white male Hollywood actor whose age in real life is the same as the average age of the Academy’s voters (63).

Events have conspired to keep me away from this blog over the last week or so, but after a year of blogging about film I feel it would be remiss of me – with just a few hours to go – not to make a few comments about nominees for this year’s Academy Awards. Needless to say, there are films that I would have liked to see shortlisted for Best Picture but which weren’t. Under the Skin would be the film I’d have given an Oscar to; this, Foxcatcher, and Nightcrawler were, in my view, all vastly superior to American Sniper and The Imitation Game. However, the Academy Awards, like the recent BAFTAs, seem to exhibition a certain degree of conservatism.

The main points of controversy have been the lack of recognition for black performers and film-makers, as well as the degree of dramatic license taken in many of the films depicting historical events. I have seen, though not reviewed, all of the films nominated for Best Picture and in some cases my view of a picture has changed since I first saw it. So, without further ado, here are my brief thoughts on the nominations.

American Sniper  I didn’t for one minute think that this was a pro-war film, but in retrospect I agree with many of the film’s detractors that it was problematical to view all events from the perspective of Chris Kyle. In particular, Kyle appears to swallow the falsity that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, but director Clint Eastwood does nothing to disabuse the audience of this myth. We also know from Kyle’s own book that the opening scene of the movie is inaccurate, albeit in a way that invites the audience to share his view of Iraqis as “savages”: the woman we see carrying the grenade did not, in reality, pass the weapon to a child to carry. Nonetheless, to my eyes – if not to some other viewers – American Sniper clearly showed the American invasion of Iraq to be a futile venture. But does this film deserve its Best Picture nomination? Not in my view. By a long way, this is not even Eastwood’s best film.

Birdman (or the unexpected virtue of ignorance)Interweaving fantasy and reality, this is one of the more obviously dazzling nominees, with several terrific performances, a stirring soundtrack, and most of the film apparently shot in a single take. Michael Keaton excels in his role as Riggan Thomson, an actor who once starred as a movie superhero called Birdman, and who is now attempting to put on a Broadway theatrical production. There is obviously a degree of self-referentiality here, in that Keaton of course played Batman in two movies. Self-referentiality also appears when Riggan engages in fisticuffs with the volatile Mike, played by Ed Norton – who of course starred in Fight Club. Funny and inventive, Birdman is like Fellini’s remade by Terry Gilliam. I rather felt that the female characters played second fiddle to the men, but perhaps that simply reflects the way that Hollywood actually is.

Boyhood Richard Linklater is one of the most creative directors in the business, with films like the Before… trillogy, A Scanner Darkly, Waking Life, and School of Rock to his name. Filmed over a 12 year period, Boyhood is undoubtedly one of the most adventurous projects undertaken by any movie director. Some might question whether the slender storyline merits an Oscar, but on the other hand it is the very depiction of the development of ordinary lives that fascinates the viewer. As the winner of the Best Picture at the BAFTAs, this may have some momentum behind it.

The Grand Budapest Hotel  Wes Anderson’s latest has all his trademark visual style, as well as a range of weird and wonderful characters played by many of the most notable actors in the business. Ralph Fiennes gives a brilliant comic turn as Monsieur Gustave H., the concierge for the hotel of the title as well as a self-confessed lothario towards the female visitors. In my view Fiennes should have been nominated for Best Actor. However, like most of Anderson’s films this one amused me but failed to be as funny as I thought it would be.

The Imitation Game  I was initially very enthusiastic about this film. It is funny, thrilling, and despite its intellectual subject matter moves along at quite a pace. I wasn’t sure at the time just how historically authentic this was, but assumed that a few liberties had been taken in order to enhance the drama. That’s fine – up to a point. However, from what I have subsequently learned I feel that this is a film that has stepped over a line. Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific as Alan Turing, but the simple fact is that Turing was not the socially awkward Aspergers-like character shown in the film. He had a sense of humour and worked well with his colleagues. Perhaps even more importantly, among the film’s fictitious constructions is the suggestion that Turing failed to disclose to the authorities that one of his colleagues was a Soviet spy (for fear that his homosexuality would be revealed). In effect, this depicts Turing engaged in an act that would have been considered treasonous, had it ever actually happened. On a more positive note, Keira Knightley is fantastic as Joan Clarke.

Selma  In many ways this is a brilliant and moving film. It follows Martin Luther King Jr, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act and his award of the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act, which gave black Americans the right to vote, many southern states contrived various illegal devices to prevent black people voting. King attempts, unsuccessfully, to persuade President Lyndon B. Johnson to tackle the problem of the southern states, but the President is resistant, wishing to focus on the wider problem of poverty. King travels to the town of Selma, where he organises a series of increasingly large demonstrations. The violent response to these is widely televised, leading the President to finally take action. It is surely a major oversight of the Academy that David Oyelowo was not nominated for his excellent portrayal of King. However, this film also is not beyond criticism. It seems to have been generally accepted that President Johnson was actually far more sympathetic to King’s cause than is shown here. It is interesting to note that three significant Americans (King, Johnson, and Governor Wallace) are all played by British actors (respectively: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, and Tim Roth).

The Theory of Everything  The story of Stephen and Jane Hawking, this could perhaps be a safe choice for the Academy’s voters. The cinematography is beautiful, the story moving, and the characters sympathetic. Jane and Stephen Hawking are said to have been very pleased with the film. Nonetheless, the film’s overarching romanticism surely airbrushes events that must have been far more difficult than is depicted here. Eddie Redmayne is brilliant as Stephen, as is Felicity Jones as Jane, and both are fully deserving of their Best Actor nominations.

Whiplash  In terms of pure entertainment, this is hard to beat. It’s the story of an aspiring jazz drummer who comes up against a teacher whose drive to create a new “great” tips over into outright bullying. As a story, it doesn’t have the same significance as something like Selma or The Theory of Everything, but the narrative construction is as tight as one of its own drumskins, and the final scene is more perfect than any of the other nominations.

My verdict:  Of the films nominated, I would give the Best Picture award to Boyhood, a film that is captivating and unique and deserves to be formally recognised as such. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Academy goes for one of the more obvious crowd-pleasers.

For Best Director, I would have to pick Richard Linklater for the above-mentioned Boyhood. To put together such an extraordinary film over a 12 year period, whilst also making some other great movies, is a monumental achievement.

I was sorry that Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t get nominated for Best Actor (male), for his role in Nightcrawler. I thought he was easily more deserving than Bradley Cooper (good though he might have been). This is a pretty tough category to choose from this year, though, with some stunning performances delivered. I rather suspect that Michael Keaton or Eddie Redmayne will pick up the award, but if it were left to me I would choose Steve Carell for his portrayal of troubled millionaire John du Pont in Foxcatcher. Some have said that this is more of a Supporting Role, but for me Carell absolutely dominates the picture.

As I haven’t seen all the films in the remaining acting categories I shall refrain from commenting on those. Possibly the most egregious omission from the Oscars, in my opinion, is Mica Levi’s soundtrack for Under The Skin. I thought this was a country mile ahead of anything else in the year just gone.

For Best Original Screenplay I would choose Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, and for the Best Adapted Screenplay I would choose Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash.

I have seen just two of the films nominated for Best Documentary, but frankly – in terms of sheer contemporary importance – I find it hard to imagine how there could be a more deserving winner that Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour. This documentary about whistleblower Edward Snowden reveals just how badly we have been lied to by our governments about the scale of intrusive surveillance upon ordinary people. And more than anything, it shows just how brave Ed Snowden is.