Films By and For Actors & The Theory of Everything

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Working hard on the usual match-fixing, corruption and sport stuff. I will be back in a few weeks with a fair amount of work and news.

However, in February I am taking a break to post thoughts on the themes of the current Best Picture Oscar-nominated films. I also include below the bookmaker’s rankings of the films from an ‘Odds-Checker’ site.

**

Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman and The Theory of Everything

Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman are films by and for actors. You know the kind of thing. Where people inside the industry give each other nominations for past favours.

To the purely pleasurable first: Grand Budapest Hotel is a European-style film made by Americans. It stars a wonderful Ralph Fiennes who, finally, seems to be putting the trauma of Maid of Manhattan behind him.

It will not win any Oscars, except possibly for design or art direction, but if you’re the type to like sub-titled films this is good, non-taxing fun. Strong recommendation.

3.5 stars (out of five)

Birdman is pretentious crap. The director and writer Alejandro G. Iñárritu seemed to be trying to say something about art, theatre and Broadway using magical realism.

He failed.

Iñárritu failed because he did not understand the differences between theatre and cinema. Acting for theatre is fundamentally different from acting for cinema. In theatre acting, you have to project your emotions one-hundred-and-twenty feet to the back of the hall. It means large, dramatic gestures and an underlying, organized rhythm to your performance so you can repeat it every night.

Acting for the camera is different, you have to feel the emotions and allow the camera to register what is inside. Stanislavski and his American acolyte Lee Strasberg are said to have claimed an actor must live their role. This is partly true as in film the nature of the work means in one day you have to do the same scene over and over again, and often because of the shooting schedule, you have to do them out of sequence (one of the first scenes I ever did as an actor in television was my character’s murder: then over the next few days, we filmed the various scenes that were to play before the murder).

The second difference is the way information is conveyed in the two mediums. There is a story about Peter Shaffer the playwright and Miloš Forman the film director together in a snow-bound New England farmhouse writing a screen adaptation of Amadeus. Shaffer would write pages of emotionally charged dialogue to allow the actors to express their feelings. Forman would rip them up saying, “On film a good actor can express all those thoughts with just a two-second look.”

A further issue is that in the thirty years since Amadeus visual literacy of the public has speeded-up. If you watch a ‘great’ film from the 1980s – like Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor – the editing and story presentation are simply too slow for a modern audience. We all capture information far more quickly from a visual medium than a generation ago.

The problem with Birdman is that the director seems to have forgotten all these things. It is as if Iñárritu fell in love with 1950s theatre and edited the film to make a play rather than a movie. Scenes go on for too long. The dialogue is trite and predictable. Iñárritu tries to break up the long takes using hand-held cameras, but it does not work.
Edward Norton, Michael Keaton, Emma Stone and the others deliver spot-on acting jobs. The problem is that they were asked to hand in theatre acting rather than film acting. So the whole film has a feel of a high school production.

However, the fundamental problem of Birdman is at its heart the film does not have much to say and takes a great deal of time saying it.

The film is, according to the bookmakers, on course for a number of Oscars. This must have something to do with the power of the insiders, for as a film it fails. Avoid Birdman. If you’re in the cinema when it comes on run out immediately.

** 2 stars

Finally, The Theory of Everything is the best film yet seen for this year’s Oscars.

It is the story of Stephen Hawking and his first wife.

On the outside, the film seems like the usual historical analysis of our time. When you watch history done now it shows that we are often uninterested in the actions or ideas of the greats; rather we attempt to ‘humanize’ them by reducing them to their sex lives.

You know the form: Florence Nightingale was not just a pioneer in public health nursing, she was also, supposedly, a lesbian. Charles Dickens was not just a great author on themes of social justice; he was actually a bigamist who fathered a number of illegitimate children. Henry VIIIth was not just a16th century Stalin who committed an appalling cultural genocide by seizing the UK monasteries and shutting down their social welfare system: he had a great sex life and chopped off two women’s heads, blah, blah.

The film certainly sails right into that harbour. Hawking’s ideas and research are reduced to the kind of thing that you can write on a Christmas card. However, The Theory of Everything soars above this usual reduction of the greats. It does so because it is about a human love story. In short, Hawking is not portrayed as monster, nor is his wife. Rather both are seen as frail human beings who are trying to do their best in very difficult circumstances.

My usual observations about the current-generation of English films are all there: it is about upper-class people, the only Celtic character is portrayed as a slight villain and there is as little mention of Americans as possible.

However, in The Theory of Everything those are all minor points. The absolute winner in this film is Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking.

Great art should teach us something new about the human condition this film does in spades. Go and see it.

**** 4 stars

2015 Oscars

                                                  Star Ranking            Bookmaker’s Odds

The Theory of Everything              4 stars                           100/1
Grand Hotel Budapest                   3.5 stars                          33/1
The Imitation Game                       2 stars                            40/1
Birdman                                            2 stars                             8/13
American Sniper                            -2 stars                            50/1

To be posted February 20

Selma                                                                                        100/1

Boyhood                                                                                     5/4
Whiplash                                                                               100/1

2014 Oscars

12 Years a Slave                           5 stars
Dallas Buyer’s Club                    4 stars
Galaxy                                           3.5 stars
American Hustle                        2 stars
Wolf of Wall Street                    1 star

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