Oscars 2016: Predictions

Posted on February 28th, 2016 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It’s the Oscars! And I will be running my usual sweepstake for a larger-than-usual gathering as we stay up in our jim-jams to watch the fun. Although competitors are encouraged to submit their answers without looking at what others have plumped for, I’m going to publish my predictions now. My track record is hardly unblemished, but nevertheless here’s what I think.

Best Picture

The Revenant is sweeping all before it. Despite a surge in support for both the excellent and precisely-judged Room and the worthy-but-dull Spotlight, it’s quite clear that nothing is going to stop Leo sleeping inside a dead horse. Not my favourite of the year (I can’t decide between Room and Mad Max) and a film I admire rather than love, but it’s certainly extraordinary in a year when many of the nominees are rather run-of-the-mill.

Best Director

Again, will almost certainly go to Iñárritu, although there is just a chance that George Miller could nick it if we have one of those years where Best Director and Best Picture go to different movies.

Best Actor

Redmayne, Fassbender, Damon and Cranston need not even bother to write a speech. This is Leo’s.

Best Actress

There’s a lot of Academy love for Cate Blanchett, whose performance in Carol really is something special, but I both hope and expect Brie Larson to take this one. Charlotte Rampling appears to have pissed in her own chips but I did hear very good things about 45 Years.

Best Supporting Actor

Obviously, Mark Rylance gave the best performance out of these five, but soft-hearted Academy voters are going to give this to Stallone. Spare a thought for Domnhall Gleeson, appearing in four Oscar nominated films this year (The Revenant and Brooklyn both nominated for Best Picture plus Ex Machina nominated for Screenplay and Star Wars nominated in various technical categories) but failing himself to pick up an acting nod.

Best Supporting Actress

This one is harder to call. I’m pretty sure it won’t be Rachel McAdams who doesn’t get enough to do in Spotlight, but honestly you could make a good case for any of the other four. I’m going to go for Alicia Vikander, nominated for The Danish Girl but also absolutely incredible in Ex Machina.

Best Original Screenplay

Again, a number of worthy contenders, and white guilt might force the Academy to hand this to Straight Outta Compton – although I hope they realise that both credited writers are white! I can also see Bridge of Spies and Ex Machina winning here, but I think Spotlight just has the edge.

Best Adapted Screenplay

This probably deserves to go to either Room or Carol, but I think the sheer novelty of the construction of The Big Short will take Adam McKay all the way to the stage.

Those are my predictions – I’ll post again tomorrow and let you know how I did.

 

Oscars 2016: The Big Short and Trumbo

Posted on February 21st, 2016 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

big short

Trumbo’s Oscar-buzz faded quite rapidly, and so it’s not up for Best Picture, but Deborah and I nevertheless took the opportunity to double-bill it with The Big Short in the delightful faux-hipster environs of the recently-opened Picturehouse Central near Piccadilly Circus. They make an interesting pair – both true life stories of poor decision-making among the America’s rich and powerful and both helmed by directors known for comedy for whom this is a more dramatic piece of work.

The Big Short is undoubtedly the more interesting of the two. Based on Michael Lewis’s excellent book of the same name, it has to deal with several elements that make it tricky to package into a two-hour entertainment. The first is the fact that there were several independent groups of people who all hoped to make a profit by placing a “bet” on the housing market collapsing rather than booming (a “short” rather than a “long” position). Any one of these might provide a traditional protagonist, with some kind of recognisable “arc” through the piece, but director and co-screenwriter Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys) wants to include everyone from the book.

Then there’s the problem that much of the book is basically a lecture about the workings of Wall Street in the early 2000s. Lewis’s style is breezy and informal, and he has a great talent for picking out the key details and keeping the humour and character stuff to the fore, but there’s still a lot of factual information to take on board. To begin with, McKay populates the cast with a range of strong comedy actors who can fill up this vast array of characters with their own tics, quirks, improvised put-downs and face-pulling (Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling lead the way, but we also get Brad Pitt, Rafe Spall, Melissa Leo, Karen Gillan and many more). But he also gives most of them permission to address the audience, either in voice over or by directly talking to the camera, sometimes to emphasise what has just happened, other times to flatly contradict it. And then, he wheels out celebrity cameos to give brief explanatory lectures.

The narrative is so totally extraordinary that this kind of approach does seem in keeping. Allied to this is the need for the audience to empathise with these people who – even if they aren’t quite as dumb or quite as venal as the rest of their breed – are nevertheless hoping to profit tremendously from an economic disaster which will ruin the lives of countless millions.

Sometimes this need to inject a shot of vinegar into the brilliantly coloured candy of the movie is handled clumsily, as when Brad Pitt is forced to lecture his two young neophyte investors about their inappropriate jubilation. Elsewhere, it’s more subtle. Early on, Carell’s team goes to visit homeowners who they suspect may have been sold vastly subprime loans. One resident is aghast to learn that his landlord has taken out the mortgage in his dog’s name and has not been keeping up the repayments. Later, the same family is seen living out of their car, which passes without comment.

However, the overall approach boarders on the hyperactive, like an over-excited child always eager to show you yet another new thing and get another reaction out of you. And this creates some disappointingly unintended consequences. McKay is rightly careful not to allow the material to become sentimental, but when Steve Carell’s Mark Baum finally breaks down and talks about his brother’s death to his wife, McKay can’t bear to let the camera rest on his face, and so frantically cuts around the scene, slathering music all over the top. Not only does this mean that Carell can’t show us where the character actually is, but in a movie with precious few female characters as it is this robs Marisa Tomei of her only scene with any emotional power at all. There’s a whiff of misogyny from other quarters as well. Margot Robbie shows up as herself to explain one financial concept – naked in a bubble bath. Male cameos tend to be experts like Anthony Bourdain and Richard Thaler who are allowed to keep their clothes on. All of which suggests that the movie wants to celebrate these awful lifestyles as much as it would like us to think it’s being fearlessly critical of them.

And more familiarity with the true facts tends to breed contempt. When Gosling turns to the camera after one of Carell’s more outré moments and cheekily tells us “This is true – Mark Baum actually did that,” it’s great – until you realise that Mark Baum is a fictional character and while a man called Steve Eisman is said to have uttered the words which Carell used, his backstory has been completely rewritten for the sake of the movie. Should someone else have turned around and pointed that out too? I don’t really know, but I do know that the movie is pretty uneven, albeit also pretty entertaining.

Where does that leave us? Well, The Big Short ultimately I think does do a fair job of telling the story of the credit crunch from an interesting perspective, and the vigorous performances keep the bubbles in the champagne for the most part of the running time. It’s also great to see such an individual and unusual movie get a Best Picture nomination, even if not all of the experimentation worked for me, and even if it doesn’t actually have a hope in hell of winning.

Trumbo is rather more by-the-numbers and suffers from the same problem that plagues a great many biopics. By starting the action in the 1940s and following screenwriter Dalton Trumbo all the way to his return to the Hollwood fold in the 1970s, the filmmakers give themselves an awful lot of ground to cover, with the result that characters pop up and disappear and whole sequences flash by without really having the time to register.

The through-line of Trumbo’s battles with the Un-American Activities Commission (personified mainly by Helen Mirren’s Hedda Hopper) provides a bit of a thread for these sequences to hang on, but the feeling that this is a series of short films is hard to dispel. So we get Trumbo Picks a Fight, followed by Trumbo Behind Bars, followed by Trumbo Writes for Peanuts, followed by Trumbo’s Script Factory and finally Trumbo and Spartacus, but there’s precious little here that really resonates or illuminates.

What we do get, once again, are some bright performances. Diane Lane gets a little more to do than Marisa Tomei did in The Wife Part, John Goodman is marvellous as ever as schlock producer Frank King, Louis CK does great work as Arlen Hird (one of very few fictional characters), Alan Tudyk is criminally underused as Ian McLellan Hunter, Helen Mirren has great fun as Hopper and Richard Portnow seems born to play Louis B Mayer.

There are also some more recognisable figures resurrected. Director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) fussily cuts between old footage and recreated events, but can’t settle on a style for portraying famous people. Most successful is probably Michael Stuhlbarg, who summons up a little of Edward G Robinson’s appearance and manner, but makes no attempt at that extraordinary voice, and so creates a wholly believable character. David James Elliot makes a decent fist of John Wayne’s voice, but looks nothing like him and so comes across as an impressionist. Least successful of all is spindly Dean O’Gorman who has nothing of Kirk Douglas’s burly charisma – and the obvious parallels between Spartacus and Trumbo’s own treatment seem to have evaded all concerned.

But the dialogue is bright and breezy enough, and the film has one last Trumbo card to play – Bryan Cranston in the leading role. With his lean frame, Harry Potter glasses, Terry-Thomas moustache, Hunter S Thompson cigarette holder and Peewee Herman suit, he presents an extraordinary physical presence and Cranston fills him with manic energy and determination while gracefully aging him across the years of the film. It’s an amazing, precisely judged performance and almost makes the whole film worthwhile.

Oscars 2016: Room

Posted on February 14th, 2016 in At the cinema | No Comments »

room

Based on the 2010 novel and adapted for the screen by the author, Room is the story of…

No, wait – stop.

It’s almost impossible to go and see a movie today without having already sat through countless trailers, clips, interviews, reviews and featurettes. If you haven’t heard anything about Room yet, then just stop reading now and go and see it. I wish I had gone in “cold” because as much as I got out of it, I can’t imagine how much more rewarding it would be to see especially the first third gradually unfold.

Okay. The rest of this review won’t be too spoilerific, but I’m not going to type on egg-shells either. Where was I?

Room is the story of Brie Larson’s Joy Newsome, kidnapped and imprisoned as a sex slave at the age of 17. Now, seven years later, she is bringing up her five-year-old son Jack who has no knowledge or understanding of any kind of world outside the four walls of “room”. Not knowing any of this before going in would make the first third or so of the film a horrible puzzle to be unravelled. We are just presented with Joy and Jack’s mundane life within this tiny space – making a birthday cake, running from one side of the room to another for exercise, watching TV. Eventually, both Jack’s lack of comprehension of anything outside, and the appearance of their captor “Old Nick” makes it terrifyingly clear what has transpired.

When Old Nick loses his job, Joy realises that if he is no longer able to pay for even the meagre rations they live on, then he will have no option but to kill them both. She attempts to get him to take Jack to hospital by pretending he has a fever and when that doesn’t work, she hatches an even more desperate plan to have Jack play dead and get Nick to take away the “body” in a rolled-up carpet.

This execution of this escape plan is some of the most tense and buttock-clenching movie making I’ve seen and it’s also around this time both that the movie transitions into its second phase and that the importance of point of view comes to the fore. Director Lenny Abramson (Frank) brilliantly captures Jack’s disorientation as he finally sees something of the world, but from this moment on, he and writer Emma Donoghue keep Jack at the centre of the action. As the police officers who pick him up struggle to piece together just who he is and where he came from, we are denied even a hint of what is going on with Nick and Joy back in the prison.

The remaining two thirds of the movie documents Jack and Joy’s slow rehabilitation as they come to terms with how much has changed and how much is unfamiliar. Joy reconnects with her parents William H Macy (removed from the narrative with unseemly haste) and Joan Allen, faces the overwhelmingly media scrutiny that her high-profile case has attracted and relearns how to be a parent, a daughter, a person in the world. Jack gradually learns to trust adults and other children, to play with toys and games, and begins to experience life as a normal five-year-old for the first time.

Unlike last year’s over-praised Boyhood, which set up the possibility of an adult story told through gradually maturing eyes, and then fudged it with a slack narrative structure which wandered in-and-out of its characters’ lives seemingly at random, Room is absolutely ruthless in telling the story only through Jack’s eyes and it’s all the better and richer for it. Giving us only glimpses of the complexities of the adult emotions, crises and conflicts does nothing to rob them of emotional power, but prevents them from tipping into TV movie-of-the-week mawkish sentimentality as well as giving us a fascinating and unique lens through which to see this tale of awful horror, terrifying ordeal, grim recovery and finally closure.

Larson, who has been a perky figure in a number of movies and TV shows before now, absolutely shines in this role of a lifetime, investing Joy with a ghastly forced optimism, then a desperate pragmatism and makes her descent into depression and self-loathing entirely believable. But the movie belongs to Jacob Tremblay who is nothing short of extraordinary as Jack. This is either the birth of an acting superstar or a phenomenal piece of coaching and editing by Abramson, or more than likely a perfect combination of the two.

While the story is relatively slight (although still weightier than Brooklyn), the execution is so good and the challenges of the narrative so great that I have little hesitation in naming Room my favourite of the Best Picture nominees so far.

Oscars 2016: Spotlight and The Martian

Posted on February 8th, 2016 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Spotlight is one of those movies that crept up on me. Before it started making the rounds as Oscar-buzz, I had no idea it even existed. Today, priests molesting kids is often little more than a careless punchline to an “edgy” comedy routine, but in Boston in 2001, it was absolutely unthinkable. Like a modern-day All the President’s Men, the movie focuses not on the vile actions of the priests or the suffering of the victims but on the diligence of the journalists who brought the case to the public’s attention.

Leading the (sometimes absurdly over-praised) “Spotlight” team at the Boston Globe is Michael Keaton as Walter “Robby” Robinson, who keeps his wide-eyed mannerisms under control to create a sober portrait of a modest crusader. He is flanked by Rachel McAdams who does much with relatively little to create a softer but no less driven counterpoint to Keaton’s eyes-on-the-prize clarity; and by Mark Ruffalo in an Oscar nominated turn, bizarrely appropriating some of Bruce Willis’s facial tics, who is the true heart and soul of much of the movie’s long middle section. The fourth member of the team, Matt Carroll, is played by Brian d’Arcy James who sadly lacks the star-wattage to compete in this company.

Above Keaton and co sit John Slattery as Managing Editor and Liev Schreiber as Editor in Chief. When the movie opens, the new boss is just taking over and Schreiber has tremendous fun making Marty Barron absolutely impossible to read. His impassive declaration over lunch that he intends to make the Boston Globe “indispensable to its readers” hilariously leaves Keaton none-the-wiser about whether he intends to kill off the Spotlight team or retain them.

In fact, it’s Barron who directs them towards the shady goings-on between the DA, the church and the underage population of Boston. His relentless, although underplayed, zeal to strike at not just the wrong-doing but the systemic cover-up hints that he may know more than he is giving away. Likewise, little moments of tension between Keaton, Slattery and Schreiber keep hinting at a forthcoming crisis, feud, conflict of interest or horrible secret. But in the event none of this materialises and everyone just gets on with the job. Schreiber is still fun, but he turns out to be scarcely relevant to the story. And apart from those viewers with a vested interest in seeing the chain of command accurately depicted, I doubt anyone would notice if Slattery’s character was deleted altogether (which might free him up to play Matt Carroll instead – there’s a thought).

That’s this film all over. There are some great cameos from luminaries such as Len Cariou, Billy Crudup and especially Stanley Tucci as a devious but secretive lawyer working with victims, and there are some very well-judged bits of testimony from some of those victims. But generally it sticks strongly to its sober, methodical, procedural playbook with the result that it only flickers into emotional or comedic life very briefly and occasionally.

This is not necessarily to suggest that a more hysterical, heart-tugging, garment-rending version of the film would have been better. On the contrary, it would almost certainly have been worse. But given that – due to the nature of the subject matter – the story can’t be turned into Erin Brockovich or (God help us) Jerry Maguire, I question the need to make a drama out of it at all. With Making A Murderer the latest binge-watching craze, why would not a documentary have told the story just as clearly and soberly?

Listen, I had a good time watching it – or if not a good time, then at least an engrossing time. But the little clues that something more melodramatic might be about to happen between our central characters ended up as distracting. And as a piece of cinema entertainment, while it didn’t do very much wrong, it didn’t really strike me as terribly exceptional either, except possibly in its restraint.

That’s how I’m feeling about most of the movies on the Best Picture list this year. Plenty are solid, workmanlike and entertaining enough, but few if any are genuinely remarkable. True there have so far been no turkeys like Amazingly Long and Incredibly Shit or even ill-conceived misfires like Warhorse but likewise there are no real stand-outs. Even The Revenant, certainly the most extraordinary film of the year, blots its copybook by going all Terrance Malik and wonkily spiritual from time-to-time in a manner which seems rather at odds with the rest of its triumph-over-absurdity storytelling and which is wisely abandoned at the end. It seems I did such a good job of mentally editing this out that I forget to mention it at all in my review. Rather like skimming over all the turgid poetry in The Lord of the Rings.

I also found a cinema still showing The Martian which I had greatly enjoyed reading on holiday a year or two ago. The book is a fast-moving popcorn science adventure story with smart plotting, a great sense of humour and a love for technical details which I really appreciated. There isn’t a lot more to say about the movie which captures the book pretty faithfully and where it does streamline or re-order events, does so intelligently and skilfully. Ridley Scott directs with pace and clarity, and seems generally in control of the narrative. A large group of supporting characters is well-differentiated and brought to life by a pleasingly diverse cast (even if the diversity of the cast does not always match the diversity of the name of the character they are playing). And Matt Damon is a very strong centre for the whole thing. If the climactic sequence is even more demented than the version in the book, that’s made-up-for by the new-for-the-movie coda which gives astronaut Mark Watney a chance to reflect on what his Martian adventures have given him.

So, that just leaves Room and The Big Short. Watch this space…

Oscars 2016 – Nominations and the Hateful Eight

Posted on January 14th, 2016 in At the cinema | No Comments »

The Academy Award nominations for 2016 were announced earlier today and my campaign to see all eight nominees at the cinema before the ceremony is off to a flying start. Here’s an alphabetical list of the films in the running.

The Big Short. Out here next week, and one of those films I would have gone to see anyway. On a good day, might combine breezy character work from funny actors with a clear insight into the systemic problems which contributed to the credit crunch. On a bad day, of course, it could just be a lot of mugging and shouting. Very unlikely to walk off with the top prize.

Bridge of Spies. Pure Hollywood craft and hugely entertaining. Full review here. No nod for Spielberg as best director, but Mark Rylance is nominated for best supporting actor and might have a chance, as does the screenplay. Top three, for sure, but probably won’t win the big prize.

Brooklyn. Sweet, affecting, laugh-out-loud funny, but rather unambitious both structurally and in its presentation. Doesn’t stand a chance of winning, and Saoirse Ronan and Nick Hornby are both going to face heavy competition too for Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Full review here.

Mad Max: Fury Road. I saw this at the IMAX but I don’t think I ever reviewed it. The best of the Mad Max films (and how extraordinary that a fourth chapter should ever get even a nomination) it’s probably the most purely entertaining film on the list, and in fact I think the race is between this and The Revenant – it’s that good.

The Martian. This was the one that fell through the cracks, but it’s still showing on a handful of tiny screens, so I will try and catch it in the next few days. I loved the book, and the film seems like a suitable faithful but not slavish version, so I imagine it will be pretty good, but it’s far too boys-own to win, nor does Matt Damon have a chance against DiCaprio. Might win some technical awards if Mad Max doesn’t snaffle them all.

The Revenant. This is it – the one to beat. Leading the way with 12 nominations, and an early favourite not just for Best Picture but Best Director and Best Actor too. My full review is here.

Room. Out here next week, so check back for my full review then.

Spotlight. Out here at the end of the month, so check back here for my full review then.

Not nominated were Joy and The Danish Girl, both of which I am very happy to catch-up with on iTunes, and also Creed which I had no interest in at all.

Also not nominated for Best Picture, but still picking up three other nominations is The Hateful Eight, the self-styled Eighth Film By Quentin Tarantino. I’ve moaned before about how QT’s career since the elegant and thoughtful Jackie Brown has been characterised by a flight from maturity towards gleeful juvenilia. One of the (several) reasons I disliked Django Unchained was that it seemed to have been made by a writer/director who has lost his balls and so couldn’t bear to see his hero parted from his.

Make no mistake, The Hateful Eight is yet more pulpy melodrama, but it manages to find a way to exploit all of Tarantino’s habits, tics and vices and turn them into strengths – most of the time at least. Just as Django was a Western, set in the American south, this is a Western, set in the snowy wastes of Wyoming. A stagecoach brings together bounty hunters John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson) as well as nervy good-old-boy sheriff-in-waiting Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins in a star-making turn) and Ruth’s captive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, gleefully chewing up the scenery). They are in turn deposited at Minnie’s Haberdashery where more distinguished character actors familiar from previous Tarantino movies are already in residence (Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen et al), there to wait out the storm, shoot the shit, and blow each others’ brains out.

The three-hour plus film (I saw the “Roadshow” version in 70mm with overture and interval at the Odeon Leicester Square) is split up into six chapters with cute names, as in Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds (and for that matter Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie) and not all of these chapters are presented in chronological order. It also takes a tremendous amount of time for the expected physical violence to erupt, but to criticise the film for being baggy I think is probably unfair.

Django certainly has far more going on than the film’s structure can handle, and Basterds sprawls all over the place (which is partly why the script has to adjust the end of the Second World War, in order to somehow gather up the various narrative threads it has strewn over the preceding two hours). And while Eight doesn’t have anything like Reservoir Dogs lean, propulsive energy, the fact that the characters spend an awfully long time just exchanging back-stories doesn’t stop the whole of the film from being thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing. In fact, as is often the case with Tarantino, the long conversations are largely the point, especially since they do contribute to the melodrama (unlike those in Deathproof for example).

The whole film looks absolutely stunning as well. I admire the perversity of returning to Super Panavision 70 and shooting with lenses made in the 1960s to create some of the widest and most detailed images cinema is capable of and then telling a story set almost entirely in one room. But the old fashioned feel of the celluloid images (created with no digital intermediate) is part of the texture of the story. If I have a concern, it’s a vague wonder about whether this, fairly simple, story really deserves to have all of this care and attention lavished on it. Does shooting in this way inflate the film to epic proportions, which the actual narrative can’t quite live up to?

Well, it’s a close run thing, but I think ultimately the operatic nature of the final reel harmonises the form and the content. This is not a film which is going to tell you very much about the human condition or the nature of America or anything else (despite what the auteur behind the camera might want to believe) but as an pressure-cooker tale of trial-by-wits, in its dementedly stylised way, with its almost Agatha Christie mystery plot (for once, telling the story out of sequence seems to serve a purpose) and with such ripe and juicy performances as these, it really does work.

For such an indulgent director, this is a very controlled piece of filmmaking – still not as grown-up as Jackie Brown, but worlds away from the cartoon nonsense of Kill Bill or the tedious Death Proof.

Oscars 2016: Brooklyn and Bridge of Spies

Posted on January 9th, 2016 in At the cinema | No Comments »

While waiting for the official list of nominees in a few days’ time, I took in a couple more likely contenders. Brooklyn was a film which passed me by almost completely but then started showing up on all sorts of Best Films of 2015 lists, and has plenty of Oscar buzz attached to it, so I was keen to try and watch it before it left cinemas. And while it passed the time very pleasantly, I’m not at all sure what all the fuss is about.

Theatre director John Crowley helms this slender tale, adapted by Nick Hornby from the novel by Colm Tóibín, and Saoirse Ronan stars as Eilis Lacey, a spunky young woman who has tired of her provincial life in a sleepy Irish village in the early 1950s and (we learn in a flurry of exposition) has arranged passage to Brooklyn, New York, where a boarding house, green card and department store job await her, all arranged by a kindly ex-pat priest. Following the grim details of her voyage, she initially struggles with home sickness but eventually meets a nice boy and proceeds essentially to lead an utterly charmed life.

When tragedy does finally strike and she has to return to Ireland, life there is almost equally charmed, with her New York stories buying her tremendous street cred, and a better job and an equally nice boy are presented to her. Eventually, she makes the right choice and scampers off back to Brooklyn where presumably she pops out babies and lives in domestic bliss.

This is all presented with a great deal of charm and wit, and the supporting cast is stuffed with good turns – notably from Jim Broadbent as the aforementioned priest and Julie Walters playing the kind of batty old Irish landlady she’s cornered the market in for the past thirty years. Other parts are well-cast too with Domnhall Gleeson almost inevitably cropping up as her Irish beau and Emory Cohen – a sort of Diet Coke James Dean or Marlon Brando, all rueful lips and doe eyes and mumbling dialogue – as her Brooklyn boy. And no review of this film would be complete without mentioning James DiGiacomo as the world’s funniest eight-year-old.

So, all the details are well-captured, all the parts are well-played and I was never bored. But as a piece of movie-making, this is pretty thin stuff. There is so little jeopardy, so little tension for great swathes of the film. As luminous as Saiorise Ronan is, and as enjoyable as it is to watch Ailis grow and flourish, it would have meant more if she had been tested even a little. And the real dilemma of the story – will she stay at home in Ireland or return to the unfamiliar but much more exciting world of Brooklyn – takes half the film to appear, and when it does, is somewhat of a foregone conclusion.

A more daring adaptation might have played with the timeline a little, to present this decision as the true focal point of the film. As it is, it just appears as another diverting but not especially moving episode following the equally diverting but rather disconnected Leaving Ireland episode, the Boat Voyage episode, the Meeting an Italian Boy episode and so on.

Adding to the sense of a TV movie rather than a cinema experience is the rather ordinary presentation from the director who shoots, for example, the two contrasting beach scenes in almost exactly the same way. There is nothing done with the camera, lenses, grading, sound or editing which in any way elevates this or makes the story bigger than before.

Maybe this is what fans of the book were looking for, but not having been a fan of the book, I found myself charmed but rather unsatisfied.

Equally charming but rather more satisfying is Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, the true story of insurance attorney James Donovan who was involved in negotiating a spy swap in Berlin as the Iron Curtain was being built. This film might suffer from the same slightly episodic feel, as we first meet suspected Soviet spy Rudolph Abel who is swiftly apprehended by the FBI. Then we are introduced to Donovan, who is given the thankless task of defending him, and quickly finds that American justice is more interested in being seen to be done than actually giving Abel a fair hearing. This narrative is intercut with material relating to the American U2 spy plane programme which eventually results in one Lt Powers being captured, and thus the suggestion of a prisoner exchange, which Donovan must mediate.

As with Brooklyn, each episode unfurls at its own measured pace, but several things elevate this above the other film. Firstly, the script (doctored by – of all people the Coen Brothers) is well aware of the danger of the structure falling apart and so there are plenty of thematic, character and dialogue moments which tether various sections to each other. It’s absolutely clear from quite early on what all of this is about: country, duty, humanity, honour.

Secondly, Spielberg mounts it beautifully and Janusz Kamiński shoots it luminously. There is something stately, elegant, old-fashioned in all the best senses of the word about this film. It was even shot on celluloid! It could almost have been made in 1952, but the clear hindsight of our modern perspective allows all sides to have the fairest of hearings.

Thirdly, among an excellent cast (Jesse Plemons, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda to name but three) Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance do astoundingly good work. Hanks is possibly the only actor alive who could have pulled off Donovan’s crucial speech about the constitution early on without either underselling it or making it sound corny as hell. And Rylance – who was seemingly scared off movies by the horrors of porno-drama Intimacy in 2001 but who seems since to have made-up with the camera – is an understated marvel. With two actors like this, who can tell you whole paragraphs with one flicker of an eyelid, it’s hard to go too far wrong. And the fact that Spielberg (who hasn’t directed a movie set in modern-day since War of the Worlds in 2005) can do this kind of stuff without breaking a sweat shouldn’t cause us to forget how few other directors can marshal sound, light and emotion this way – nor how effective it all is.

This doesn’t quite have the epic power of The Revenant or the breadth of scope of the (oddly similar) Argo, but it’s handsome, grown-up, intelligent movie making and it’s cinema craft of the highest order.

Also worthy of brief mention is The Lobster which is unlikely to trouble Academy voters much, but is a breathtakingly original undertaking. Colin Farrell (paunchy, dead-eyed) is one of a number of guests at a bizarre hotel run by Olivia Colman. Guests have 45 days in which to successfully pair up with another guest or be transformed into the animal of their choosing (Farrell has picked a lobster). Extra time can be obtained by shooting the “loners” who live in the woods during regular hunts.

The film is every bit as demented as it sounds, with great turns from other familiar faces including John C Reilly, Ashley Jensen and Ben Wishaw, but loses momentum a little in the second half when Farrell spends most of his time in the woods with other loners including Lea Seydoux and Rachel Weisz. Lovely little gags, many of them jet black, pepper the film and the discordant soundtrack and stilted acting style unite the whole very successfully. It certainly won’t bust any blocks but it’s very funny and rather disturbing, all in a good way.

Oscars 2016: The Revenant and Carol

Posted on January 7th, 2016 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Another year, another awards season. Once again, I am attempting to see all the movies nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, on the big screen if at all possible and before the awards ceremony itself. Partly because there are a lot of movies out that I want to see, partly because I’ve not seen many movies at the cinema in recent months apart from the great big blockbusters, and partly because I have had a few free evenings recently, I am attempting to get ahead of the game by going to see some likely contenders before the nominees are announced.

My first visit was to the poky confines of my local Camden Odeon for one of their Screen Unseen showings. The, rather fun, idea of these is that you pay a fiver and sit down to watch a film not yet released in the UK, but with (in theory) no idea what it is until it starts. In practice, they often give some pretty easy clues on their Facebook page, but I rarely look at these.

So it was with some happiness that the film which unspooled on Monday was Alejandra Iñárritu’s much-anticipated The Revenant starring Leonardo diCaprio as an apparently unbreakable fur-trapper fighting for life and revenge in an American wilderness of the 1820s. This is not a film which is remotely interested in spoon-feeding the viewers. The exact nature of di Caprio and company’s organisation, where and when they are, and what relationships – personal and formal – exist within and without are all pretty much left to the viewer to puzzle out. There are no handy captions to tell us what is going on, precious little dialogue of any kind (at least a quarter of which is not in English) and next to nothing in the way of back story.

What it does have is a tremendous immediacy and almost physical power. Although not quite going as far as the apparently single-take Birdman, Iñárritu shoots almost the whole film with long, swooping steadicam takes. When (as happens on several occasions) one of our characters is standing over the other, with a rifle in his face, there is no cut from one man to the other. The camera instead floats around the face of the aggressor and then glides down the barrel of the gun to eventually discover the other person lying on the ground. It’s a technique which makes the two early stand-out sequences (the initial attack on the compound and diCaprio’s mauling at the hands of a bear) utterly terrifying and engrossing.

Once pragmatically ruthless Tom Hardy (once again strangling his vocal cords, Bane-style) and nervy naïf Will Poulter leave diCaprio’s ironically-named Hugh Glass for dead, much of the movie documents his agonising struggle to regain sufficient fitness to return to base and let Captain (I think?) Domhnall Gleeson know what has happened. Let’s have a little talk about diCaprio. When Wolf of Wall Street was released, I mused that I had previously found the career of this appealing but unexceptional actor hard to fathom, but that as crooked stockbroker Jordan Belfort I saw something of the power of which he is capable.

Almost uniquely among modern Hollywood leading men, he manages to precisely straddle the divide between “personality” actors, who generally play some variant of themselves (Bradley Cooper, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr) and “chameleon” actors who routinely transform themselves for each role (Johnny Depp, Gary Oldman, Christian Bale). (This is not, by the way intended to imply that this division is precise or absolute, nor that one kind of actor is more admirable than the other.) Different wigs and costumes aside, diCaprio generally looks and sounds the same, but there is something bizarrely protean about this blandly good-looking male. Want someone to play a tortured dream thief in an urban psycho adventure? DiCaprio will nail it. Want someone to play a happy-go-lucky conman chancer? DiCaprio is all over it. Want someone to play a delusional US Marshall? DiCaprio is your guy. Need a charming front for your slave-fighting gang? DiCaprio’s got you covered. Quite how he does this still is not clear to me, but now he adds a fiercely protective, utterly determined nineteenth century fur-trapper to his resume.

As I’ve said, the film uses dialogue very sparingly. Often the only sound we can hear is diCaprio’s stertorous breathing, and at times his breath even seems to fog up the lens of the camera – not an effect I can recall ever seeing before. It’s probably a little flabby in the second half, and it’s possibly telling that I began to become more interested in the lies that Hardy was having to tell in the safety of the compound, and less interested in diCaprio’s physical ordeals as the film wore on, but the final confrontation is perfectly satisfying and the film as a whole is an amazing achievement.

Next on my list, in the rather more luxurious confines of the embattled Curzon Soho, was Todd Haynes’ Carol. I’d been hugely impressed with this director’s 2002 offering Far From Heaven and couldn’t wait to see this simple tale (adapted with economy and grace by Phyllis Nagy from a novel by Patricia Highsmith) of forbidden love in the 1950s.

I hope it isn’t a spoiler, but although I hadn’t read the book I was vaguely aware that it was famous not for its ground-breaker depiction of a lesbian affair (although it does depict that and it was ground-breaking) but because the lesbians in question don’t end up dead or insane or grief-stricken. That isn’t to say their story is entirely a happy one, but Haynes accurately steers a path between the tedium of a lack of incident and the deadening effect of too much melodrama.

He is helped enormously by two absolutely stand-out performances without which the entire enterprise would founder. Rooney Mara is incredibly good, her pinched-pixie face and apologetic manner perfectly counter-parted by Cate Blanchett’s far more lavish and statuesque bearing. Weirdly, as much as Mara put me in mind of Audrey Hepburn, Blanchett put me in mind of Katharine.

Although it’s Mara’s Therese Belivet who learns who she is, what she wants and how to order lunch over the course of the movie, it’s no surprise that the title is Carol (and not for example, When Carol Met Therese or the rather more obscure The Price of Salt, the title of the original novel). Blanchett’s Carol Aird presents herself to the world, and to Therese in particular as gloriously and completely in control of her own destiny. In fact, her failing marriage and the struggle with her husband over custody of her child, the improbably-named Rindy, are gradually hollowing her out until she becomes little more than a gaily-painted husk. Finally, in the film’s last reel, she is able to reconstruct her personality and become the person that Therese has begun to love. It’s an incredible journey and Blanchett shines off the screen at every turn.

Ably supported by familiar faces from TV (Sarah Paulson, Jack Lacy, Kyle Chandler – even Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia and Sleater-Kinney), this centre pairing is certain to be among the Best Actress nominees – my guess would be Blanchett for Actress and Mara for Supporting Actress so they aren’t competing with each other.

I do have one quibble and it’s perhaps an odd one. The power of the emotion between the two women is absolutely clear and the role than each can play in the life of the other is certainly vivid, but what was perhaps missing for me was any sense that they just enjoyed being with each other. Apart from one flirtatious comment about Therese’s company-mandated Santa hat at their first meeting, these two never make each other laugh or share a joke. A curious omission I thought.

Not a bad start to awards season then. Let’s see what the rest of the month has to offer.