Blackhat, The Duke Of Burgundy and a certain 90s boyband...

That was the week in which...

Hollywood’s priority was the final push for the Oscars. And as we enter the final stretch, Birdman and its director Alejandro González Iñárritu have gained a yard on Boyhood and Richard Linklater. That aside, none of the favourites for the major contenders have shifted since we examined the pack back in October.

Which poses the question: what’s the point of hyping up something that provides as many surprises as the final Premier League table? Just like the EPL, money of course. But let’s at least pretend to keep a veneer of mystique over the whole shebang.

The battle of Boyhood versus Birdman - an alliterative blessing, if nothing else - offers film fans the chance to back an ideology. The emotive and ultimately uplifting everyman tale created with a novel production narrative of its own? Or the clever post-modern cynicism of a film which favours audacious technical achievement and has resurrected the fortunes of The Man Who Was Batman?

That’s a striking dilemma. Elsewhere, it’s a different story for experts and bookies alike agree that all of the big categories are sewn-up. There’s a bit of a battle between The Man Who Became Stephen Hawking and The Man Who Was Batman for Best Actor, but that’s an exception: Robert Duvall is considered to be such an outsider to J.K. Simmons in Best Supporting Actor that he might as well not even bother to stay at home and watch it on TV - all the more so considering he picked up Best Actor over thirty years ago.

It’s the same situation in the other key categories. A nomination for Best Actress for Felicity Jones will be a huge long-term boost for her career, but the experts say she doesn’t have a chance. The only surprise in Best Supporting Actress could be that Patricia Arquette will be Boyhood’s only big winner.

Barring a huge shock, Monday’s narrative will offer little more than an endless swell of opinion as to why Boyhood or Birdman deserved to triumph over the other. They say a pessimist can’t be disappointed, but this ceremony is more likely to discredit the adage that no-one remembers who came in second.

The Big Film: Blackhat
Michael Mann’s cyber-thriller arrives on these shores already under something of a cloud. The film was a financial flop in the US, but box office isn’t always an indicator of quality (lest we forget, the last Transformers instalment was a billion dollar hit).

Mann casts Chris Hemsworth as Nick Hathaway, a convicted hacker offered temporary freedom in exchange for tracking down an international crime syndicate responsible for a code which has wreaked havoc across the world. As Nick gets closer to the culprits, the lives of him and his colleagues come under increasing threat.

Considering the prevalence of hacking in recent news cycles, the subject matter could hardly be more timely. However the whole film is hampered by an inconvenient truth - films about computers aren’t particularly exciting. The first half of the film is an endless montage of characters staring at code on a screen spouting jargon that sounds very cool but means nothing to most people watching.

Die-hard fans of the director may be satisfied with the second half, which does pick up with some energetic (and, of course, superbly shot) action scenes, but at this point there isn’t the urgency needed to emotionally invest, making the film a diverting but ultimately bland experience.

While he has the charisma to carry a film, muscular Aussie Chris Hemsworth always feels wrong as the genius hacker released to catch one of his own. Maybe it’s the dry dialogue, maybe it’s the hideous Rocky Balboa-esque American accent he’s been asked to put on, but this isn’t the stage for the actor to showcase his talents outside of Marvel.

He’s aided by a procession of solid character actors, including Viola Davis and John Ortiz, who stare at him sternly in various briefings and repeatedly threaten to “bump his ass back to prison” if he doesn’t fall in line.

This being a Michael Mann film, there’s still a slick visual style that comes into its own, particularly towards the end, but with a story so plodding and uninspired it’s little comfort. Not an unmitigated disaster, but we’d suggest another viewing of Heat instead. Words: James Luxford

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Also out: Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of

“Shut the fuck up!”

”Don’t be a dick!”

There are moments in this study of the return of the Backstreet Boys in which tensions run high. In this case, Nick and Brian are involved in a heated debate about the latter’s continuing problem with his voice, and what it means for their then imminent world comeback tour.

Such vulnerabilities are part of how life differs in the transition from global pop icons to resurgent man band. Whereas once they were dictated to (which Brian laments, particularly the fact that his open heart surgery had to be planned around the group’s touring schedule) now they’re free to whatever they want.

In the case of A.J. that means looking like he’s in a New York hardcore band, complete with nose-ring, arms snaked from top to bottom with tattoos and a baseball cap emblazoned with the logo “Fuck.” For the most part, however, it’s about displaying an honesty and vulnerability that a pop band can’t display when their brand is officially big business.

You can’t, for example, imagine any of One Direction summing up their European success by demonstrating that they learned the German phrase for: “Will you give me a blowjob?” Similarly, a contemporary boy band can’t allow the harsh realities of life to overshadow the illusion of contented stardom.

By contrast, we witness Nick in floods of tears as he recalls the joy of performing to overcome a tough homelife, a place in which his old friends are mostly imprisoned, addicted or dead. And there won’t be a dry-eye in the room when Kevin recalls returning to the family home shortly before his father’s death.

For a band that were once offered $100 million for a single tour, they’re surprisingly grounded. There’s even a moment of self-aware gallows humour as they stroll around the derelict home of their disgraced former manager Lou Pearlman asking: “We’re here, Lou, where’s our money”? It’s not a radical new take on the popumentary but Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of elicits a lot of goodwill for the quintet, regardless of whether you’re a fan of their music.

Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of is in loads of UK cinemas next Thursday, followed by a live satellite performance from the boys themselves.

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Also out: The Duke of Burgundy

It doesn’t take too long to establish that The Duke of Burgundy will possess a mischievous playfulness that isn’t often established in films which are focused on sexuality. The opening credits flick by. A lingerie credit? That makes sense. But perfume?

Like with his previous film Berberian Sound Studio, director Peter Strickland pays homage to the 70s underground in stylish if not wholly expected ways. Berberian Sound Studio evoked the atmosphere of giallo, even if its depiction of horror amounted to little more than the madness that sound engineer Gilderoy suffered after battling with the bureaucracy of Italian working life.

Similarly, The Duke of Burgundy is plotted and imaged like a slice of soft focus Euro sexploitation but the reality is somewhat different. The nature of the relationship between the domineering Cynthia (Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen) and the meek Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) first feels like the result of lax employment laws in their unnamed location. But soon it becomes clear that it’s all BDSM play, and their relationship is romantic in nature.

Gradually, both partners’ roles subvert expectations - Cynthia obviously desires a more conventional connection, and Evelyn is clearly in charge - which itself reflects the film’s own status as something which suggests it’s there to titillate, but actually uses their dilemma as a darkly comic reflection of the give and take which is an intrinsic part of all relationships.

Despite their often nuanced mannerisms, the couple lack much in the way of back story or motivation beyond the desire to overcome their problem, and that ultimately makes it hard to care whether their relationship metamorphoses or dies. In the context of such distinctive viewing, maybe that’s the point.

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Shorts
District 9 and Chappie director Neill Blomkamp announced that he’ll be in charge of the next Alien film, in the process causing much excitement amongst those who have forgotten the pretty good/mediocre/disappointing (delete as appropriate) form of Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection and Prometheus. Not to mention the cat shit / dog shit (delete as appropriate) thrills of Alien vs. Predator and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem.

Fifty Shades of Grey took a spanking £13.5 million at last weekend’s UK box office. No distributors had the balls to pitch any vaguely mainstream adult film against it, so the nearest new entry was the altogether more credible Peppa Pig down at #6.

Shane Meadows paid tribute to his friend and collaborator Gavin Clark who died this week. He wrote: “His music elevated my early work from student tat (in the early 90’s) into something resembling art, he’s penned at least one unforgettable song for pretty much everything I’ve ever made and his latest, as yet unreleased songs, are his greatest and have once again become the emotional heartbeat of my latest project."

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