Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Thor 2As punishment for his actions on Midgard, which left New York in ruin and S.H.I.E.L.D. reeling from the resultant alien invasion, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is incarcerated in the cells of Asgard while Thor (Chris Hemsworth) attempts to restore peace to the Nine Realms. Meanwhile, with Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) warning of an approaching convergence of worlds, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and her intern (Jonathan Howard) visit a site in London where the laws of physics seem to have been suspended. The last time the realms aligned an army of Dark Elves — led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) — tried to plunge the universe into darkness using something called the Aether, and now that the phenomenon is finally set to repeat he is regrouping his forces for another attempt.

There is a scene towards the end of Man Of Steel, during the climatic battle, where the staff of the Daily Planet are put in harm’s way, and the stage is set for some mild peril. It’s a laughably inept attempt by director Zack Snyder to keep the audience engaged with the plight of the human race — the apparently sole survivors of a massacred Metropolis carelessly shoehorned between pixellated set-pieces involving Superman and some sort of space drill — and only serves to demonstrate even further the disconnect between film and viewer.

Compare that to the human element in Thor, Kenneth Branagh’s film about another God-like extraterrestrial, represented this time by anomaly-chasing astrophysicists Jane, Darcy and Dr. Erik Selvig. Not only are they fully formed characters that entertain whenever they are onscreen, an equal match for the Asgardian action taking place on the other side of the universe, but they are arguably developed and interesting enough that they could support a spin-off all of their own. When the film ends, you feel just as much for Jane as you do for Thor, if not more so. You couldn’t say that for “Jenny”, no last name.

The team return in Thor: The Dark World, this time working from Jane’s mum’s house as they try to hide out from S.H.I.E.L.D. (in London, for some reason — presumably not the abundance of CCTV cameras). We re-join Jane on a first-date with Chris O’Dowd’s photocopier, and despite following a pre-historic genocide at the hands of the Dark Elves and a Thor-led peacekeeping mission to rural Vanaheim it stands its ground, providing a moment of calm, comedy and humanity before the next dose of comic book nonsense. It’s a hallmark of Marvel, and a balance that both Thor and Avengers Assemble struck particularly well. The studio’s good humour continues to set the studio not just apart but ahead of its competition.

Not that the comic book nonsense doesn’t entertain in its own right; where Iron Man 3 was more of an experimental Shane Black movie than part of a shared universe and the seventh instalment in a blockbusting mega-franchise, Thor: The Dark World is only to happy to pander to the home crowd with in-jokes, call-backs and cameos aplenty. Game Of Thrones director Alan Taylor gives proceedings the gravitas necessary to distinguish the film from Branagh’s fairy tale origin story, but he laces even the darkness with enough humour to keep it buoyant and child-friendly. This is most true during the final battle, as Thor and Malekith fight their way around London: not only is it one of the most spectacular skirmishes of the year, but it’s far and away the funniest.

Hemsworth continues to boom beautifully as the titular God of Thunder, while his royal family and Norse chorus vie for any leftover ham. All is not well on Asgard, and the director isn’t afraid to put his characters through the ringer in the name of drama and development. Hiddleston still reigns supreme, however, stealing every scene he’s in as Thor’s scheming (adopted) brother Loki. Luckily, he’s absent for much of the first act, and that leaves ample room for Portman, Dennings and Skarsgård to shine back on Earth. Really, with the understandable exception of perhaps Ian Boothby the intern’s intern, the only characters under-served are Sif and The Warrior’s Three, though it has been suggested that there might be more of at least the former in a future DVD’s deleted scenes.

If the film wasn’t so entertaining it might be easy — and actually worth — pointing out the admittedly many imperfections. Malekith is pretty slight, at least in the film’s current edit, though his army of Dark Elves is effective and at times even mildly disquieting. Also of concern is the sheer amount of coincidence involved in getting the narrative off the ground — it is about as aerodynamic as Thor himself. The introduction of the Aether is particularly lazy, while the script relies a little too heavily on misdirection. There is also a bit of a lull in the second act; Taylor’s film is over-plotted and overcrowded, and while the logistics might never detract from the film’s enjoyment it does make writing a synopsis something of a challenge. The attack on Asgard must have been a nightmare to choreograph.

Overall, though, Thor: The Dark World is another success for Marvel Studios, and many fans may even see it as something of a return to form following the mixed allegiances of Iron Man 3. It shakes things up nicely, as you would hope given Taylor’s involvement, and leaves plenty in play for not only Thor 3 but the rest of “Phase Two” as well. Thor and mew-mew will return.


Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 3D (2012)

Sent to resolve a taxation dispute with the Trade Federation, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) instead find themselves under attack as Viceroy Nute Gunray (Silas Carson) orders an illegal invasion of the planet Naboo. The Jedi – along with exiled native Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) – escape with The Queen (Natalie Portman) and depart for Coruscant in order to find favour with the Galactic Senate. Forced to stop on Tatooine for repairs, the Jedi happen across a young boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) with whom The Force is unusually strong. Their discovery does not go unnoticed by Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), however, the political alias of a burgeoning Sith power.

Thirteen years ago, in a galaxy uncomfortably close to the bone, a loyal fan-base snorted in derision at a movie so apparently terrible that it not only made a mockery of their decades of devotion, but tarnished the memory of their once-hallowed original trilogy as well. Betrayed by the man to whom they had given years of their lives, a considerable sum of money and their first cinematic love, a generation found themselves sorely disenfranchised by the infamous phantom menace.

Except, they didn’t really. In the subsequent years, these individuals have upgraded their collection first onto DVD and then onto Blu-ray, continued to invest in expanded universe games and novels, and returned to watch the film’s two sequels, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. There is still great affection for George Lucas’ brain child, and where a generation was once inspired by the original trilogy, so too has a generation been enchanted by the new series of films. The franchise has endured, despite the continued resistance of a select few.

With Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace returning to cinema screens following a 3D overhaul, old wounds might once again begin to itch, however, as those once slighted by the film’s 1999 release question why they would ever wish to see the film again. After all, it is the same film, riddled with the same flaws, simply retrofitted in 3D. This is true, but with over a decade to let the old scars heal, I urge you to revisit The Phantom Menace and make peace with a film mired in unjustified contempt.

It’s ridiculous, after all, to think that George Lucas has somehow done his fans wrong by not making the movie that they wanted to see. It’s a shame to think that the man himself has been worn down to the point of retiring having been unfairly vilified by a group of people who just happen to have grown old and cynical faster than he can make movies. The Star Wars films have never belonged on a pedestal, their iconic status ultimately bestowed on them by misguided audiences determined to adopt the franchise as their own, resulting in a sense of entitlement that would see them become their beloved franchise’s own worst enemy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say the film is perfect, or even particularly great. Indeed, the problems with The Phantom Menace – and the prequel trilogy as a whole – have been well documented: the overly exclamatory dialogue that is rife with exposition, the embarrassingly wooden acting as actors grapple with excessive green-screen and a plot that gets too bogged down in pseudo politics to allow for any real momentum or character development. The truth is, however, that many of these criticisms can be just as easily levelled at the other films, and if we can overcome clunky dialogue and awkward plotting for them – anyone who denies there’s political jargon in A New Hope simply isn’t listening hard enough – then what’s stopping us here? Surely it can’t just be nostalgia alone?

Because – as I have already argued – there is so much to love in The Phantom Menace, particularly now that it has been spread over an extra dimension. The pod race, the lightsaber battles and the space dogfights are on a par with anything the series has to offer, and with the benefit of stereoscopy this is clearer than ever. This is one of the best conversions I have ever scene, the screen opening up to a degree reminiscent of the finest 3D experiences. Coruscant is quite simply breath-taking, while the underwater world inhabited by Naboo’s Gungan quotient dazzles as it looms into view. There is a size and scope to Lucas’ creation that is utterly cinematic – from Darth Maul to Sebulba, Mos Espa to the Galactic Senate – it’s pure genre entertainment.

But as ever, The Phantom Menace‘s biggest asset has never been the films admittedly stunning visuals. The film’s score is arguably one of John Williams’ finest; as the Star Wars theme blasts out over the opening crawl, it is impossible not to feel time rewind and yourself regress back to childhood once more. But unlike the film’s narrative – which riffs quite obviously (and unfortunately) on Return of the Jedi – this is no rehash. The usual leitmotifs are blended with a more diverse soundtrack, as the true operatics of this space opera come into play, crescendoing with the film’s piece-de-resistance: Dual of the Fates. Throw in Ben Burtt’s characteristically impeccable sound design and you have a film that is tantalisingly close to being note-perfect.

Revisiting Star Wars Episode I you will quickly realise that Jar Jar Binks is nowhere near as annoying as you remember him to be, that the midichlorians do little to demystify The Force and that the laughable Yoda puppet has been mercifully replaced with a decidedly more palatable special effect. Of course it could have been improved; the opening could be more exciting, the dialogue written by literally anyone else and Jake Lloyd replaced with someone who could actually act – if only Max Records or Dakota Goya had been around in 1999 – but even as it stands, The Phantom Menace is far from the mess your unfounded prejudices would have you believe.

Imagined as the cinematic equivalent of a Saturday morning serial, The Phantom Menace serves its purpose completely. While the film may be juvenile, flawed and inconsistent, it is nevertheless a beautifully crafted, ruthlessly imagined and wildly entertaining piece of children’s entertainment. Not a travesty or a betrayal, just a perfectly serviceable slice of science fiction. Nothing more, nothing less.

If 2011 Were A Movie…

In recent years we have seen Hollywood tap a variety of different resources in its ongoing search for new ideas. Stopping just short of sticking its hand down the side of the sofa and rummaging for loose inspiration, Tinseltown has instead chosen to adapt everything from the usual books, video games and television shows, to websites, theme park rides and – I still can’t quite believe it –  even board games. So, why not an entire year?

If 2011 were a movie, aside from reflecting such recent events as The Royal Wedding, the London riots, the Eurozone crisis and those pandas arriving at Edinburgh zoo, it would also have to reflect the trends and tendencies prevalent in the films it has seen released during its tenure. As such, it would most likely be a remake of a foreign language prequel, a motion-capture throwback and a steamy tale of friends with benefits, with no strings attached.

If 2011 were a movie it would star Michael Fassbender as a man haunted by an unsuppressable Irish accent, Ryan Gosling as someone who can wear clothes really well, and Natalie Portman in the midst of what must amount to the most productive pregnancy ever. Stellan Skarsgård would play a man with a hidden agenda, Felicity Jones’ character would ultimately win your heart and Justin Timberlake would appear as a surprisingly capable actor.

If 2011 were a movie it would be set in Rio de Janeiro, where endangered birds come to mate, the fast are as fun as they are furious, and vampires routinely honeymoon.  At least, that is, until Michael Bay crashes a Transformer into it, forcing our heroes to set sale, on stranger tides, in search of the secret of the unicorn. On a Zeppelin. It would see McLovin slay some vampires, James Bond team up with Indiana Jones, and Queen Amidala wooed by a bunch of carrots and a period mix.

If 2011 were a movie it would be called 2011: The Movie – Part II Of The Rise Of The Planet of The Apes Of The Moon 3D (in 4romascope). It would have more punctuation than characters, more dimensions than punctuation, and in all likelihood be prefixed with Green. It would be a kid’s film by Martin Scorsese, a superhero movie by Michael Gondry, a live action movie by Brad Bird and an animated movie by Steven Spielberg.

If 2011 were a movie it wouldn’t be as good as the book, the original or the trailer for Sucker Punch made it out to be. It would miscast Liam Neeson, boast too much Nicolas Cage, and at some point feature a fat character shaving his head and shitting into her dress. Worst of all, however, New Year’s Eve would kill the finale. And it would be inexplicably steampunk.

More importantly, however, if 2011 were a movie I would pay to see it. I would marvel at its melancholy, gasp at its production values and laugh unabashedly at its failure to kill Bono. It would be surprisingly heartfelt for a summer blockbuster, unexpectedly jaw-dropping for a low budget Norwegian flick, as funny as the TV show, and a fitting conclusion to a much loved franchise.

If 2011 were a movie, 2012 would have a lot to live up to.

V for Vendetta (2006)

Invited to dinner by television presenter Gordon Deitrich (Stephen Fry), Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) is attacked by members of the state’s secret police for having broken curfew. Saved by an alliteration-spouting vigilante who goes by the name of V (Hugo Weaving), she finds herself dragged into the masked man’s plans to overthrow the country’s dictator, High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt). Told she cannot leave his stronghold for fear of compromising V’s vendetta, Evey eventually winds up playing protégée to her captor as the government attempts to track them down before November 5th, a date which V has marked for his own, historically relevant endgame. Caught in the middle is Detective Chief Inspector Eric Finch (Stephen Rea), chief of police for Scotland Yard, who remains forever one step behind his freedom-fighting assailants while slowly coming to suspect that all may not be as it seems in 2020 Britain.

My God Alan Moore is hard to please. While the general awfulness of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen  and the shortcomings of From Hell might have earnt the visionary comic book writer a wave of audience sympathy, Moore’s general dismissal of any attempt to translate his work to celluloid has become very tired indeed. Not everyone involved has been so quick to remove their name from the end credits of James McTeigue’s retelling of the acclaimed comic, however, with original artist David Lloyd commending the film’s numerous successes. V for Vendetta is a movie I have watched every November 5th since its release on DVD, without fail, and a movie that never ceases to move me, impress or inspire me. It’s a classic.

Like all classics, however, it is not perfect: a subjectively personal favourite rather than a Film Studies mainstay. Lit like an episode of Eastenders, and featuring one of the worst affronts to the English accent ever committed to film, McTeigue’s vision is hardly a caress of the senses, the heavy handedness of the translation doing very little to pander to the fine tastes of Sight and Sound magazine or the snot-nosed preferences of broadsheet bourgeoisie. With its fancy dress and Benny Hill interlude, its heightened portrayal of government and its alleged confusion of Moore’s original thesis, the film is intermittently flawed and passingly unrefined; but what of the good? Is it entertaining?

Maybe it was a childhood weaned on Star Wars and Nickelodeon, but I have rather curiously found myself able to enjoy entertainment that doesn’t boast cellars of subtext, award-worthy performances and painstakingly naturalistic dialogue. Due to this ostensibly mutant talent, I have been occasionally able to look past the odd contrivance and overt instances of staging to the thriving heart of an otherwise captivating story. Moore’s creation is phenomenal, a taut and compelling slice of science-fiction political satire that paints a perfectly engaging – if simplified – portrait of neo-futuristic authoritarian dystopia.

Natalie Portman is quite simply superb as the transformative Evey Hammond. Though her performance might not match the considered excellence of Black Swan, she overcomes any early fumblings with a powerhouse metamorphosis that begins with the shaving of her head and the seizure of her humanity, and ends with the destruction of a landmark. As she is groomed and ultimately reborn as a result of her decision to aid V, she becomes one of the most actualised and liberated heroines in cinema. That said, this is undeniably Weaving’s movie. Hidden beneath the now-iconic mask and a bullet-proofed cloak, the actor nevertheless manages to engage with audiences to a truly heartbreaking degree. A phantom of the oppression, he is every bit as affecting as he is wonderfully articulate.

For V for Vendetta is an ode to the English language, a revelry in rhetoric that is every bit as stirring as the film’s unconventional emotional centre. At times verging on poetry, the numerous addresses and speeches that litter the narrative are as mellifluous as the film’s embrace of  Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, more than making up for the occasionally lacklustre dialogue. Whether he is crafting an alliteration with over fifty instances of the ‘v’ phoneme, or reminding a nation to remember a symbol from its past, V is the figurehead of a story which champions words and ideas as much as it does bullet-time knife fights; and let’s face it, while each is of course important, both are inevitably preferred.

Intelligent, articulate and wonderfully evocative, McTeigue’s V for Vendetta may struggle stylistically, but luckily Alan Moore’s vision is astounding enough to compensate. While you can watch any number of snow-dressed movies at Christmas, and anything from Meg Ryan/Matthew McConaughey/Katherine Heigl’s back-catalogue on Valentine’s Day, November 5th simply wouldn’t be complete without V for Vendetta. This is one comic-book adaptation that will never, ever be forgot.

Thor (2011)

Banished from Asgard for breaking an ancient truce with the Frost Giant realm of Jotunheim, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is stripped of his powers and banished to Earth for a lesson in humility. Discovered wandering the desert amid an astrophysical event, Thor collides with a van driven by scientists Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings). Taken to hospital after Darcy tasers him for good measure, Thor soon attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who confiscates Jane’s research and pursues Thor for information. Left with nothing to show for her life’s work, Jane retrieves Thor from hospital and helps him find Mjolnir, the enchanted hammer awaiting a worthy warrior to wield it, and learns of the connection between the interstellar phenomenon she has been studying and the Bifröst bridge that connects Asgard to the other eight realms. When Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) usurps the throne, however, Thor must reunite with allies Sif and the Warriors Three in order to save Earth from the war with a marauding golem sent by his brother and defeat Loki before the war with the Frost Giants can begin proper.

The first of two fledgeling Avengers to receive the big screen treatment this year, Thor was always a more intriguing prospect than July’s Captain America movie. Trapped in development Hell for years, it was always going to be a difficult endeavour breathing cinematic life into one of Marvel’s most outlandish properties. With Kenneth Branagh aboard, however, the stage was set for a directorial style which wouldn’t hide from the characters origins as an alien God from another realm. It is with a massive grin that I report that Branagh has succeeded masterfully, with a story that jumps between Argard and an American diner with improbable finesse. This is a very different – a very necessarily different – superhero movie, and it is a wonder to behold.

Treating the Asgard-set drama with Shakespearian respect, the film doesn’t bat a eyelid as it introduces frost giants, enchanted hammers and rainbow bridges. Once on Earth, however, the preposterousness of the set up is ostensibly “fair game”, with the movie’s tone often verging on that of a shameless culture clash comedy. The result is a wonderfully satisfying and bizarrely eclectic cinematic experience which jumps from Anthony Hopkins’ Thesping it up as Odin to Kat Dennings lowering of the brow with a mispronunciation of Mjolnir. As well a being epically grandiose, the, and suitably spectacular when it comes to inter-deity smackdown, Thor is one of the funniest superheroes working today – the Anung Un Rama of Marvel’s Asgard.

The film’s success is largely down to Hemsworth’s performance as Thor. Fresh from fathering James T. Kirk, Hemsworth manages the dichotomy between heaven and Earth admirably, never once leaving himself open to parody unless expressly required to be the script. A delightfully compelling fish out of water, it will be interesting to see how his Thor gels with Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark and Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers. Tom Hiddleston, too, gives an accomplished performance as Loki, setting himself up as one of the heavyweights in Marvel’s hall of villainy. It is in the film’s human element, however, that Thor shines. Natalie Portman’s inquisitive astrophysicist fleshes out her potentially stock love interest with graceful aplomb, bringing her vulnerability and charm to a story with might easily have been lost in the clouds.

That said, Thor isn’t the masterpiece I foolishly wished it to be. With the amount of exposition necessary just to get the thing off the ground – setting up both Thor’s origins in Asguard and the motivations of Jane Foster and her merry band of scientists – it was going to take a master story teller to maintain a throughline of compelling proportions. While Branagh copes admirably with the impressive scene setting, he struggles to weave those scenes into a truly fulfilling whole. Although he is to be commended for keeping such an intimate feel to proceedings that feature multiple realms and numerous battles, there wasn’t enough time spent in either reality to warrant the levels of investment necessary for true immersion.

As an origin story, however – and as an origin story less versed than that of other superheroes – Thor is positively bursting with potential, begging for further exploration and fully justifying what could otherwise have been just another superhero franchise. One thing, at least, is for certain: The Avengers is going to be amazeballs!

No Strings Attached (2011)

Romance is dead, and the quirk has been called in to substitute until the powers that be can find a suitable replacement. Emma Kurtzman (Natalie Portman) is a resident doctor who doesn’t have time for commitment, doesn’t believe in love and wouldn’t be seen dead with a bouquet of flowers. Adam Franklin (Ashton Kutcher) is an assistant on a musical comedy drama show, who has an unwanted script up his sleeve and an annoyingly famous father with boundary issues. Childhood friends, a no-strings attached (friends with benefits was taken) relationship developed as Emma and Adam made a pact to have casual sex until the day it grew into something more – they clearly hadn’t seen Love and Other Drugs.

I have just seen Submarine. However, as it was, like, so deep and meaningful and stuff, I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect upon its profundity and review something I’d seen a few weeks previously. For all intents and purposes, No Strings Attached is nowhere near as praiseworthy as Richard Ayoade’s accomplished directorial début – it’s generic, derivative and about as predictable as the alphabet. But I don’t care, I’m not a movie snob: I’m Steven Neish and I preferred No Strings Attached!

I know what you’re thinking (but it’s got Ashton Kutcher in it!), and you’d be right – it should be diabolical – but I preferred it anyway, as surprised as anyone when Mr. Demi Moore evoked a bona fide emotional reaction. I laughed when Adam created a period mix. I laughed again when we here it. Heck, when Adam is hiding something which we know can’t be flowers as this is a quirky comedy (it’s a cactus, isn’t it?), I laughed once more. For while it may scream zeitgeist as part of a indistinguishably harmonious chorus, No Strings Attached is a fine sex comedy, which – while not as naked as Love and Other Drugs – manages to impress on another level: honesty.

Natalie Portman is as adorable in No Strings Attached as she was terrifying in Black Swan, undoing her months of ballerina practice with a genuinely hilarious doughnut binge that demonstrates a glorious propensity for comic timing, boding well for the hitherto appalling looking Your Highness. The supporting cast prove similarly delightful, with Kevin Kline in particular making the most of a conceivably one note character, at his best since 1995’s underrated French Kiss.

So while No Strings Attached risks losing itself in familiar territory, and although the closest you will come to surprise is when the cactus turns out to be not a cactus at all, this is a surprisingly affecting slice of genre cliché that ups the funny in a desperate bid to keep you entertained until the disappointingly predictable finale.

The 83rd Academy Awards

Last night saw the annual 83rd Academy Awards crash into a room-full of endangered animals and explode all over a visiting class of schoolchildren. As James Franco and Anne Hathaway took to the stage to punish humanity for Eve’s taste in fruit, the scene was set for a slew of nonsense awards that made the Razzies look hugely original. Thankfully, however, not all of my predictions came true: while Toy Story 3 won best animation, Christian Bale scooped Best Supporting Actor and How To Train Your Dragon was unforgivably overlooked, the Best Director and Best Film awards went to a film that actually deserved them. Here, then, lies a full list of the nominees and respective winnners – or at least as full a list as I could manage at 5 o’clock in the morning. Yes sir, I am a mental person.

Best Picture

The Social Network – Winter’s Bone – The King’s Speech – Black Swan – True Grit – The Fighter – The Kids Are All Right – Toy Story 3 – Inception – 127 Hours

The Oscar which last year went to The Hurt Locker (blah!), this year was awarded to The King’s Speech, an unassuming but deeply incredible movie about overcoming obstacles in the face of one’s duties. While I would have happily seen Black Swan or 127 Hours take home this award – to Nina Sayer’s mirror world or Aron Ralston’s hole respectively – I, unlike most people, can live with The King’s Speech. At least, for example, it didn’t go to The Fighter, True Grit or Inception, becoming in the process a celebration of utter averageness.

Best Director

Darren Aronofsky – Tom Hooper – David Fincher – Joel & Ethan Coen – David O. Russell

Rather than breaking another taboo, and – say – being awarded to a hermaphrodite (equal opportunities!), this years Best Director once again went hand in hand with Best Film. Tom Hooper may have directed a TV movie, but it was the best, most engaging and outstandingly cinematic TV movie of the year.

Best Actor

James Franco – Colin Firth – Jesse Eisenberg – Javier Bardem – Jeff Bridges

Yes, James Franco can look dehydrated; sure, Jesse Eisenberg can invoke the God of awkwardness; and sure Jeff Bridges can move his chin but only Colin Firth gave a performance worth walking onstage about. Conveying a believable stutter, both technically and emotionally, and following up A Single Man with arguably his most inspiring performance yet, Firth had this one coming. In case you needed more proof, however, he is also the only actor to have not starred in Cursed, Tron: Legacy or Eat Pray Love.

Best Actress

Natalie Portman – Annette Benning – Jennifer Lawrence – Michelle Williams – Nicole Kidman

Natalie Portman trained for almost a year to ensure she convinced as ballet protégée Nina Sayers in Black Swan. She also made V for Vendette which, in my book, means has been a dead cert for years. Sure, each of the other actresses gave mightily depressing performances in their respective vehicles, but Portman was the only one who managed psychotic, turning into a black swan in front of our very eyes. With Julianne Moore sadly snubbed, there was no other choice.

Best Supporting Actor

John Hawkes – Christian Bale – Mark Ruffalo – Geoffrey Rush – Jeremy Renner

Oh Jeeze, with the big four firmly out of the way, it really is all down hill from here. Earned entirely by Geoffrey Rush, Best Supporting Actor was sadly mis-awarded to Batman’s teeth. Thanking everyone he had ever met with the worst in mockney accents, Bale appears to have won for mimicking the mannerisms of another human being – some parrots can do that – while giving one of the least likeable performances of the year.

Best Supporting Actress

Hailee Steinfeld – Melissa Leo – Jacki Weaver – Amy Adams – Helena Bonham Carter

Grabbing two out of five nominations, The Fighter was unfortunately a shoe in for Best Supporting Actress. Going to the entirely convincing mega-bitch Melissa Leo, Helena Bonham Carter was robbed of recognition for what might have been her first sane performance in years. It is telling that Leo’s accomplishment is already outshone by one ill-advised Bible-belt-baiting F-bomb.

Best Original Screenplay

AnotherYear – The Kids Are Alright – The King’s Speech – Inception – The Fighter

Thi is, perhaps, the first ever time I have begrudged The King’s Speech one of its awards. Best Original Screenplay? A film which Tom Hooper, in his acceptance speech for Best Director, attributes to his mother’s attendance of a play and which is based on historical fact? Much more deserving was the beautifully devastating  Another Year or the light, yet utterly compelling The Kids Are Alright.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Social Network – 127 Hours – Toy Story 3 – True Grit – Winter’s Bone

The Social Network was good in an alright kind of way. Yes the opening scene stung with its razor-sharp dialogue, but after that it was all a bit ass-numbing really. 127 Hours, however, took a challenging and confined story and edited the shit out of it until it shone of greatness. Danny Boyle is a genius.

Best Animated Film

The Illusionist – How to Train Your Dragon – Toy Story 3

DreamWorks did some sterling work last year, rejuvenating their flagging Shrek franchise, outshining the much-hyped Despicable Me with the far superior Magamind and blowing every other pixel out of the water with How to Train Your Dragon. Their efforts, as predicted, went unrewarded at this year’s Academy Awards, however, as Pixar’s third Toy Story movie stumbled into the limelight for an award that should have gone to one of its far superior predecessors many moons ago. This was the year of the Dragon!

Best Art Direction

Inception – Alice in Wonderland – The King’s Speech – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I – True Grit

You know what, say what you like about Alice in Wonderland but it was a wonder to behold. While The King’s Speech may have been all period, True Grit may have had a decent costume or two and Inception had a few beats Escher would have been proud of, Alice in Wonderland boasted example after example of glorious design. While I would have liked Harry Potter to win something, you could have done a lot worse than the splendour of Wonderland.

Best Cinematography

Black Swan – The Social Network – Inception – True Grit – The King’s Speech

Inception? Really? While it may be the best pick of this sorry bunch, this year’s best cinematography – in my opinion – was showcased in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I. Gorgeously shot, and breathing life into endless hillside, old tenements and Daniel Radcliffe’s face, Deathly Hallows: Part I was absolutely gorgeous to behold.

Best Visual Effects

Hereafter – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I – Iron Man 2 – Alice in Wonderland – Inception

I’ll give Inception this one, that scene in which the city folds in half is still absolutely breath-taking. Had it fully utilised its dream setting, however, its deservedness would have been far more striking. Iron Man 2 might have been pretty meh, but the opening tsunami in Hereafter, the opening escape from Privet Drive and Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole were all similarly awe-inspiring. For stand out moment, however, I’d have to give it to Black Swan for that transformation!

Best Original Score

How to Train Your Dragon – Inception – The King’s Speech – 127 Hours – The Social Network

The Social Network? Really? How the Hell did it go? At least Inception‘s bombastic foghorn made it all the way to Top Gear, cropping up in just about every movie trailer since. The real winner, however, was undoubtedly John Powell’s How to Train Your Dragon score, a beautifully elegant, eloquent and uplifting piece of music which fits the action entirely. A mainstay on my playlist ever since, “Forgotten Friendship”, in particularly, is one of the all encompassing, heartfelt and utterly moving scores you will hear all year. Robbed I say!

Best Makeup

The Wolfman – Barney’s Version – The Way Back

While I can just about forgive Alice in Wonderland: Oscar winner, there is no way I can accept a now acclaimed The Wolfman, possibly the year’s worst feature film (Airbender was not that bad!). Barney’s Version and The Way Back may not have featured an entirely unconvincing wereworlf, but at least they weren’t completely irredeemable.

So, there you have it: the Academy was wrong…again! Not worth the sleep hangover, there was at least brief evidence of talent onscreen. For a fleeting moment, Billy Crystal took to the stage with personality and the evening’s first and only trio of jokes. May I take this opportunity to congratulate The King’s Speech, and voice my wish that Spielberg next year wins Best Director for Tintin. Tune in next year, and watch as I am wrong again.

Black Swan (2010)

Determined to put on a stripped down version of Swan Lake, ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell) forces his previous muse (Winona Ryder) into early retirement and sets about finding a new Swan Queen. Needing someone who can portray the character’s inherent duality, Leroy is left to choose between two dancers; Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), whose pursuit of perfection sells her as the White Swan and Lily (Mila Kunis), who makes up in spirit what she lacks in precision. Winning the part after a brief display of the darkness her director is looking for, Nina’s determination to master the Black Swan proves her undoing as she slowly gives in to her passions and the paranoia that Lily is out to get her – life slowly beginning to imitate art.

Described by director Darren Aronofsky as a companion piece to 2008’s The Wrestler, Black Swan substitutes one art with another – as obsession and stubbornness lead to the downfall of another ageing performer. Unlike The Wrestler, however, Black Swan is less a meditation on the effects of such practices on the body as it is the psychological manifestations of over-mothered delusion and exhaustion. Aronofsky’s direction captures this beautifully, as he toys with doppelgänger myth to rapturous effect – his blending of hallucination and reality feeding the warped narrative while never losing the gravitas which comes from a stable grounding in reality.

Black Swan is a truly breathtaking movie, with Natalie Portman convincing entirely as a bubble-wrapped ballet dancer who fears she might have missed her moment in the spotlight, cursed to relive her mother’s begrudged life of disappointment and regret. Uptight, frigid and obedient to begin with, she is beautifully portrayed by a toned Portman who exudes the months of training that preceded filming. She is stunningly countered by the devil-may-care Mila Kunis, who seduces the audience with the same relentlessness with which she affects Nina. Vincent Cassle too, delights as the predatory director who appears drawn to instability – which he wastes no time in exploiting, his admiration of previous Swan Queen Beth MacIntyre impervious to the detrimental effect his guidance and her obsession ultimately had on her own psychology.

However, while Black Swan impresses and engages – unexpectedly boasting some of the most masterfully integrated CGI I’ve seen, the transformation scene was an absolute treat – it never truly takes flight. As Nina’s contrived conspiracy springs to life, it is never fully developed before she eventually implodes. Her acts of self-destruction seem a little too conscious of the MPAA, the film’s ‘mild peril’ at odd’s with the at-times pitch black subject matter. The episodes signalling her mental deterioration range from the embarrassingly tame (drinking alcohol, smoking, kissing a skin-head with *gasp* tattoos) to the suitably violent (a dressing room skirmish, introducing her terrifying mother’s hand to her bedroom door). Although there are a number of wince-worthy moments, this psychological horror is decidedly light on scares.

It is left to a malevolent rash, then, to herald in the new Nina. As a lesbian fling and disagreement with a mirror fail to arouse much of a reaction, it is with body horror that Black Swan truly comes alive. Much like the menacing leak in Dark Water, the spread of a skin irritation exudes Aronofski’s trademark suspense as Nina and her mother’s opposing reactions to it lead to some truly uncomfortable confrontations. As she pulls bristled feathers from her back, or snaps at herself with scissors, the relentless assurances that it is all in her head do little to maintain the ambiguity necessary for the film to work.

Black Swan is nevertheless spectacular, boasting unmatched choreography and a series of delightfully exploitative performances. However, while there are traces of the film’s seductively twisted potential, Black Swan has about as much bite as its disintegrating heroine. Like Nina Sayers, Black Swan dances the White Swan perfectly – delicate and technically brilliant – however it struggles to master the Swan Queen’s duality. Awkward, quiet and relatively uninteresting, the film’s inspired climax is not quite sufficient to counter the relatively unengaging opening act.