Oscars 2019: The Favourite and Cold War

Posted on February 14th, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

The Favourite

Going into this, my knowledge of both Queen Anne and Jorgos Lanthimos was a bit skimpy. I had seen and largely enjoyed The Lobster, although I felt it ran out of energy towards the end and began substituting sadism for ideas. The mannered performances also began to grate after a while.

The Favourite is built on much firmer foundations, with the peculiar dialogue and mannered delivery pared back, and sitting much more comfortably among the period costumes. This is the tale of lonely, wretched, sickening, petulant, childish Queen Anne, who malingers, surrounded by flunkies, toadies and lickspittles, but none quite so close or as cunning as the Duchess of Malborough. Into this febrile atmosphere is dropped Marlborough’s cousin, Abigail, who quickly sees that she can re-ascend society’s ladder via the monarch, with or without Marlborough’s cooperation.

Lanthimos has found some extraordinary locations to shoot in, and the costumes are absolutely wonderful. As the atmosphere of the court intensifies, whether it’s the bickering between the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition; the hideous games played with humans, fruits and animals; or the pathetic and eccentric needs of the Queen, an enjoyably surreal mood takes hold. It rather reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, specifically the Jonathan Miller television production, in which he eschewed animal heads and let the actors’ faces be clearly seen – because for him the story was about Alice’s bemusement at the manic pointlessness of the adult world.

Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script deviates enthusiastically from what is historically certain, but whereas, as I’ve said, The Lobster ran out of steam, one of the most satisfying things about The Favourite is the way that the energy builds and builds and builds. The price one pays for this is a slightly sluggish opening half hour, but that is doing things the right way round after all.

And although he shoots with a lot of swooping Steadicam or hand-held camerawork, with super wide angle lenses, distorting the picture, this doesn’t feel like a tyro director who has rudely imposed his vision on the work. The story mainly speaks for itself (with possibly only the nigh-on unreadable credits and captions suggesting an indulgent director) and Lanthimos is obviously in love with his cast.

And what a cast! The boys don’t get an awful lot to do, but James Smith, Mark Gatiss and especially Nicholas Hoult are marvellous. No, it’s the central toxic trio of ambitious women who are the focus of this extraordinary film. Olivia Colman deserves all her praise, as the bellicose, pathetic, sentimental and possibly stroke-afflicted monarch. It’s a richly complex performance, never asking for sympathy and yet somehow managing to earn it. Emma Stone has a few accent wobbles, but she’s such a charming and winning performer that it scarcely matters and as her ambition erodes her few remaining morals, she’s compelling. But Rachel Weisz I thought nicked the film. Marlborough is probably the best part, and Weisz tears into it with compelling relish and won’t let go. She’s astounding.

Yet, I still think this is very good, rather than a masterpiece. The actors generate a great deal of complexity and sympathy, but we are still presented with a story largely about three ghastly people doing awful and selfish things to each other for the whole of the running time. That starts to become a bit deadening after an hour and a half. And although the shooting and acting styles are toned down, the lack of naturalism still creates a barrier between audience and characters which might have allowed for a little more compassion to creep in, if it had not been there.

Cold War

Less satisfying, but still very admirable is Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War, included here because Pawlikowski is the surprise nominee for Best Director, despite the film not getting a Best Picture nod (even though there are up to ten slots). This is the story of a couple who meet at a sort of band camp in post-war Poland – she is the star pupil, he is one of the directors. Over the course of the next ten or so years, they defect, are separated, return to Poland and are reunited. This is very much a film of three halves.

In the first act, things move sluggishly, but Pawlikowski makes the details count. He is also immensely blessed with Joanna Kulig who is utterly radiant as Zula, and who lights up the screen whenever she appears. How she uses the auditions and performances to her advantage, the manner in which she hooks up with Wiktor, and her hopes and dreams for a better life are compellingly, if prosaically told.

When the action moves to Paris, and the lovers are separated, the movie begins to gather steam. As well as finding stars, Pawlikowski has a great feeling for time and space, and the world of post-war Paris seems incredibly real and exciting. But the story begins to fragment a little, sudden leaps in time become more frequent and it becomes harder and harder to keep track of who is where and who wants what.

In the final third, the performances and the mise-en-scène are just as strong, but the cutting forward in time becomes almost ADHD in nature – and this is not a long film at only 83 minutes. By the time the lovers are reunited, both suffering greatly, the decision-making process has been so little examined that it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they are both simply the victims of their own poor choices, and so the supposedly tragic ending left me cold.

Just two to go now – Vice and BlackKklansman which I’m still hoping to catch at a cinema somewhere.

Oscars 2019: Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book

Posted on February 11th, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Bohemian Rhapsody

Another year, another biopic.

My views on biopics have been extensively aired on this blog and elsewhere. There are two different issues. One is that the cradle-to-grave approach almost always results in a piece of filmmaking which is very diligent at recording facts about a person’s life, but often rather poor at shedding any real light on who they were, and as a result fairly unengaging and uninvolving. See for example Chaplin, The Theory of Everything, Behind the Candelabra and so on. Even limiting the scope of the storytelling to a more pertinent and manageable timeframe doesn’t always rid the piece of the stench of animated Wikipedia entry – step forward Darkest Hour, but better biopics do tend to dramatize key events and trust that enough light will be shed to illuminate a whole career – Stan & Ollie manages this quite well for example.

Then there’s the issue of accuracy. A movie is not a text book. It’s not required that a biopic be fanatically faithful to the source material. Argo is largely a figment of the writers’ imaginations, but it’s a splendidly entertaining piece of cinema entertainment. The Death of Stalin is surprisingly accurate but will move events around if it makes the story more compelling. What’s always frustrating is when the true facts are ignored, but the new version is less interesting than the truth – or in the case of the wretched The Imitation Game, the story as presented makes little to no actual sense.

Bohemian Rhapsody might have done better to zero in on some key moments. The recording of Queen’s first studio album and their signing with EMI, or the writing of their seminal Night at the Opera album which included the title song, could easily have filled two hours. As it is, neither is on screen for longer than about two minutes, while the band’s entire 20 minute Live Aid set is forensically recreated at the end of the film.

But while it does often suffer from the rapidly moving from event to event malaise detailed above, when it does pause for breath, there are some effective scenes, and there is an arc of sorts to Freddie Mercury’s life. But while some significant events have been moved around to try and accommodate this, it still doesn’t quite cohere as a story. I won’t go through the whole film, but let me pick two scenes to show you what I mean.

After spending weeks writing and recording A Night at the Opera, in relative seclusion, the band present their work to (fictional) EMI chief Ray Foster, improbably played by Mike Myers, and they insist that Bohemian Rhapsody be released as the single. We’ve seen the band have a few minor squabbles during the recording, but we’ve seen much more of them working together as a unit, and in front of their record exec, they present a united front. This might sound less than dramatic, but the creative process is an interesting one (if sometimes hard to recreate on screen) and I greatly prefer it to the cliché of the band torn apart by creative differences. However, this scene appears only to allow Mike Myers to tell Queen that no-one will be headbanging in their car when listening to this song. Freddy Mercury storms out, telling Myers he will be the person who lost Queen.

Did the band members blame Mercury for this? Did they have to get a new record deal? Who with? Was Ray Foster forced to come crawling back on bended knee? None of these questions is ever addressed. Why have a scene in which a band quits their record label if you aren’t going to follow it up? Mercury slips the single to Kenny Everett who plays it on Capital Radio and the screen fills up with negative reviews it got in the press. Did this affect Mercury? Sap his confidence? We have no idea, because the next time we see him, he’s on-stage performing the songs to thousands of screaming fans. I know this film switched directors in mid-stream, but it seems to have been edited almost at random.

Later, with Live Aid looming, the band has a tense meeting in their lawyer’s office. Freddy Mercury’s solo career is not proving to be fulfilling, and he loves the idea of performing at Wembley. But the band hasn’t played together in over a year, and there’s no trust left between Mercury and the other three. Now, let’s just ignore the fact that not a single word of the foregoing actually happened. Does it work as drama? Well, not really. Mercury is forced to confess that going solo didn’t work because he hired good people, told them what to do and they did it. He didn’t get any pushback from Brian, Roger and John, like he used. Fine. But as I’ve said, we basically didn’t see that ever. We generally saw the band collaborating and embracing each other’s ideas.

The other three agree to the reunion, but they insist that this time all the songs they write are to be credited just to Queen, not to any individual. But again, we haven’t witnessed any credit wrangles, and we don’t see them writing any more material after this. The whole film is like this. Bits and pieces of story material that sounds as if it ought to have some kind of dramatic power but it doesn’t hang together properly.

Amongst it all, Rami Malek is outstanding. His large head makes him look rather slight and stocky compared to the rangy and athletic Mercury, but in fact they are nearly the same height, and in all other ways, he absolutely personifies Mercury’s energy, performing chutzpah and unique take on the world. Gwilym Lee also makes an impression as the ever-patient, wryly long-suffering Brian May, but there’s little Ben Hardy and Joe Mazzello can do to elevate Roger and John beyond the level of “the other two”.

Lucy Boynton does what she can with Mary, Freddy’s girlfriend, and it’s always a pleasure to see Tom Hollander. Bryan Singer or Dexter Fletcher or Newton Thomas Siegel or John Ottman or someone has made it always interesting to look at with some bravura shots that don’t feel too distracting, and – as mentioned – the Live Aid recreation at the end is spectacular, if a little light on story – and of course the music is amazing. But this is pretty sloppy work to be getting a Best Picture nomination ahead of If Beale Street Could Talk or, for that matter, the far more interesting Sorry to Bother You.

Green Book

Improbably directed by Peter Farrelly, of Dumb and Dumber fame, this is another true story but this time taking place over just a couple of months in the winter of 1962. Bronx-born Italian bouncer Viggo Mortensen takes a job driving cultured black piano player Mahershala Ali on a near-suicidal set of engagements through America’s Jim Crow southern states.

While lacking the gross-out humour of Farrelly’s earlier work, this is still fairly light and breezy stuff for the most part. Mortensen, all laconic Bronx vowels and paunchy physicality, gives a little welcome depth to a fairly limited character, while Ali cleverly lets a little bit of “Doc” Shirley out at a time, as his prissy guard is slowly lowered by his deepening affection for crass but capable Tony Lip.

So far, so Midnight Run, Planes Trains and Automobiles or Rain Man. But this isn’t simply the well-told and witty tale of a pair of men who begin as opposites and eventually learn to trust and even like each other. This is an examination of America’s racist past, and one assumes an attempt to shed a light on its still fairly racist present. Part of Tony’s arc is “wow, racism in the South is really a thing” (much less “wow my own racism is really dumb”, although there is a tiny element of that, it’s nothing like as profound as Rod Steiger’s journey in In the Heat of the Night for example). But it’s hard to escape the suspicion that white director Farrelly is also telling us “Hey, guys, racism in America is really a thing.” Yes, we know, but do we really want to hear it from you, Pete?

As if being posh, black, and isolated from his family wasn’t enough, Ali’s character also has a gay encounter in a YMCA for which he is almost arrested. Mortensen is able to use his street smarts and command of bullshit to make the problem go away, but it’s immensely striking that he isn’t shocked or revolted even for a second. Could this be true? I suppose it’s possible, and there is a single line of explanation later, but it did seem highly unlikely. Of course, to a 2019 audience, homophobia is revolting and it’s likely that we would instantly lose sympathy for the Mortensen character, which gives Farrelly and cowriters little option. But the reality is that in 1962, homosexuality was seen by almost everyone as a perversion and something to be feared and disgusted by. In this context, Mortensen’s blithe reaction makes very little sense.

And this lack of willingness to really engage with the complexities of the issues under discussion is this film all over. It’s warm and witty, and solidly constructed, with every character serviced, and every set-up properly paid off. The leads are both great, with good support from Linda Cardellini (someone give her a lead role again please), but it’s a feelgood family film about racial segregation in the 1960s. That’s a very odd cocktail indeed. Maybe most symptomatic of the film’s inability to handle its own setting is the scene where the car breaks down amid a field of sharecroppers. Mortensen and Ali just stare at the sight of the black people breaking their backs doing manual work for little or no pay. They don’t know what to do in the face of this spectacle, and neither do the filmmakers.

2018/2019 award season round-up

Posted on February 5th, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

Okay, here are some capsule reviews of a bunch of other movies I’ve seen this awards season.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Coen Brothers go to Netflix where we find them on rather frustrating form. The opening story of this anthology includes some marvellous effective moments, but judders to a half with one of those Joel-and-Ethan-what-the-hell endings. This malaise affects most of the stories to a greater of lesser degree. The third episode, Meal Ticket, works best as a traditional Roald Dahl or O Henry short story, but suffers from significant pacing problems. The largely plotless final segment might just be the best as it’s the one with the clearest idea of what it is supposed to be. It is nominated for its screenplay, costume design and original song.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? Lee Israel’s story is fascinating as her own best-selling memoir proved. This project began life as a Nicole Holofcener film with Julianne Moore in the lead. Although still credited for the screenplay (with Avenue Q’s Jeff Whitty) Holofcener has yielded the director’s chair to Marielle Heller. What Julianne Moore would have done with Lee Israel is impossible to say, but what is certain is that Melissa McCarthy is wonderful in the part, bringing her prodigious comic energy to the role, but nevertheless creating depth and pathos deep in the soul of this spiky, broken woman. Richard E Grant is enormous fun and if nothing very much happens beyond: she’s broke, she’s a forger, she’s sorry (not sorry), then who cares when the film is this well made? Both leads are nominated (Grant in the supporting category) and for its screenplay.

If Beale Street Could Talk. I found Moonlight slightly unfulfilling on first viewing but it nevertheless grew on me and at first glance I could tell that here was a filmmaker using every tool at his disposal. Beale Street is much less formally ambitious, but still darts nimbly around the timeline as it fleshes out the seemingly slight story (from James Baldwin’s novel) of pregnant Tish, boyfriend Fonny and their two families. If their predicament is a prosaic and familiar one, that’s by-and-large the point – that this or something like it is happening to millions of Americans every day. But an amazingly strong cast give it real texture, depth and warmth, and Jenkins’ fluid and confident direction knits it all together powerfully. Using lenses, cuts, sound and music to extraordinary effect, Jenkins is a real talent. He even finds a new way to film a birth scene and manages not to make it seem like showboating. It’s a real crime that this wonderful film is not nominated for Best Picture and utterly confounding that Jenkins was overlooked as Best Director. It is nominated for its screenplay, its score and Regina King has a good shot at picking up Best Supporting Actress.

Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse. Geniuses of animation (and beyond) Lord and Miller have done it again, with this incredibly ambitious, eye-poppingly rendered and genuinely exciting slab of comic book mayhem. With vocal performances from such as Nicholas Cage, John Mulaney, Lily Tomlin and Chris Pine, this is a real treat and will no doubt walk off with Best Animated Feature (its only nomination).

Stan & Ollie. Showbiz biopic done right, focusing in on a manageable period of time, with just a few glimpses of happier times. Coogan and Reilly are exemplary, delineating the men and the characters they played and never straying into parody. Equally good – and well served by Jeff Pope’s witty script – are Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as Lucille Hardy and Ida Laurel respectively; and Rufus Jones is having the time of his life as Bernard Delfont. Ultimately, this paints an affecting and affectionate portrait of two men who have spent a lifetime as professional buffoons, attempting to end their career with a little dignity. It doesn’t have any ambitions beyond that, but it achieves that goal admirably. No Oscar nominations, though, not even for Best Make-up.

The Wife. This is a conundrum, and a full review would have to include significant spoilers which even this paragraph won’t entirely spare you from. What’s really going on in this literary marriage only becomes truly clear in the last third, which makes some of the early material a bit so-what and prevents us from getting inside the head of our ostensible lead, Glenn Close’s Joan Castleman. In the final act, when the film stops being a detective story and commits to being a family melodrama it works better, and it’s the details in the script (by Jane Anderson, from Meg Wolitzer’s novel) that generally make it work, although there are some clunky lines here and there. Jonathan Pryce, Max Irons, Christian Slater (yes really!) and especially Glenn Close grab the material with both hands and give it tremendous passion and sincerity, but it’s rather an odd, broken-backed experience as a whole. Glenn Closes’ nomination for Best Actress is its only mention.

Oscars 2019 – Here are the runners and riders

Posted on February 5th, 2019 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Okay – so the nominations have been out for a while and the dust has settled, but nevertheless here’s my take on what Academy voters came up with.

Let’s start with the Best Picture nominees. Eight of them this year, and there are a couple of striking omissions. Let’s start with the three I’ve seen…

Black Panther. Very serviceable and well-made movie in the professional Marvel style. If more movies like this had had better representation sooner, this would seem rather less remarkable. Compared to the dementedly ambitious Infinity War, the elegantly-structured Spider-Man: Homecoming or the bananas Thor: Ragnarok, this seems a bit ho-hum until you take the wider social context into account. Sadly, no nominations in any other major categories makes this look a bit token, even if the total number of nominations (seven) is quite impressive.

Roma. Reviewed here. Transcendently wonderful. Intimate and personal without being even remotely self-indulgent, it’s a magnificent achievement and deserves to win everything it’s nominated for. And in a world in which the Academy gives its top prize to fare such as Moonlight and The Shape of Water, it just might.

A Star is Born. Reviewed here. The safer bet for Academy voters and if The Favourite and Roma divide the “quirky” vote, this one might just slip through the middle (although preferential voting ought to solve that issue, it isn’t guaranteed).

And now the five I haven’t seen (at the time of writing).

BlackKklansman. This one didn’t appeal, and I’m not quite sure why. I’ve nothing against Spike Lee and it’s a juicy premise. Sadly, I’ll probably end up watching this on iTunes now as it’s almost gone from London cinemas.

Bohemian Rhapsody. And I was hoping to spared this one too. I’m not fond of biopics, I have no interest in Queen and the troubled production history does not bode well. Rami Malek is amazing, by all accounts, so I imagine it will be worth seeing for his performance.

The Favourite. In a neat bit of nominative determinism, Jorgos Lanthimos’s film looks like the one to beat, although as noted, it will have to get past Roma and A Star is Born first.

Green Book. The backlash has started, so I don’t think this one is going to triumph, but Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are surely worth the price of admission.

Vice. Ugh. Looks a bit Saturday Night Live to me, and I wasn’t a huge fan of Adam McKay’s ADHD style on The Big Short.

Reviews of all of these will follow. Best Director meanwhile throws up a bit of an oddity, with a nod for Pawel Pawlikowski whose film Cold War wasn’t worthy of a Best Picture nomination. Surely Cuaron has this one nailed on though, even if he can’t get over the line for Best Picture?

Best Actor will probably go to Rami Malek, although I don’t imagine Bohemian Rhapsody will get anything else. Best Actress I imagine will go to Glenn Close (this is her seventh nomination without a win) but I would be delighted to see Melissa McCarthy pick it up, and thrilled if it went to Yalitza Aparicio. Sorry, Olivia Colman, I think the competition is too fierce.

Best Supporting Actor is a toss-up between two lifetime achievement awards. I was previously nervous about Sam Elliot getting it, but Richard E Grant is so damn good in Can You Ever Forgive Me? that I’m now tilting back in that direction.

For Best Supporting Actress I think again the two nominations for The Favourite will split the vote and that should allow Regina King to nab it, although there is a lot of love for Amy Adams and like Glenn Close she’s racked-up a lot of nominations without a win (six).

The Favourite presumably will win Best Original Screenplay (even if it wins nothing else). The Best Adapted Screenplay of the year is almost certainly If Beale Street Could Talk, but I suspect A Star is Born has this one wrapped up.

Further down the list, I expect Best Animated Feature to go to Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse and deservedly so. Best Foreign Language Film will obviously go to Roma.

Meanwhile, I have been catching up with a bunch of films not nominated for Best Picture – some of which deserved to be. For more on those, see the next post…

Pre-Oscars 2019: Roma

Posted on December 15th, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

I like structure.

I like structure in movies, and I like it both explicitly and implicitly.

I like it when a film is divided into chapters, or falls neatly into sections, or mirrors itself in some way.

But I also appreciate a well-constructed story, in which everything is there for a reason, in which chains of cause-and-effect link the actions of the characters and everything builds to a satisfying resolution. I like it even more if the plot points are artfully concealed, and if it’s at all original or has something to say, than that’s even better, but even building a complete structure like that and successfully hiding the scaffolding from view is not easy, which is why it so often makes me cross to hear critics carping about the three act structure, as if writing according to this template is some sort of paint-by-numbers job. Really? You try it.

Independent films which reject the three act structure often find very little to go in its place. As I’ve observed before, writing a film with no structure, in which a bunch of things happen and then the film ends, may or may not be truer to life, may or may not feel fresh compared to the Hollywood template, but it is certainly a great deal easier to write than a film which requires careful set-ups and payoffs all the way through.

So, films like Boyhood, The Tree of Life or Beasts of the Southern Wild (to pick three previous Best Picture nominees) often leave me cold. On the other hand, I don’t have a single template for movie narratives into which I insist that every story be forced. The three act structure endures because it works and because it’s so flexible, encompassing everything from Dumb and Dumber to Citizen Kane, but other structures are possible – they’re just harder.

In the case, for example, of The Hurt Locker, the only thing I didn’t like was the emergence of traditional Hollywood storytelling in the final third. It jarred and felt artificial next to the terrifying realism of the preceding hour. Or there’s Amour in which the brilliant performances and acutely observed details of the lives of the protagonists, combined with the pitiless direction to make an extraordinary, if harrowing movie experience.

All of which brings us to Alfonsa Cuaron’s Roma. This is not Gravity Cuaron. This is not Harry Potter Cuaron. This is not even Children of Men Cuaron. It’s closer if anything to Y Tu Mama Tambien in structure, if not in tone. A synopsis doesn’t really do it justice, because the story, although it contains many powerful and affecting elements, isn’t really the point. Roma is not a film you watch. It’s a film you experience.

Recreating and lightly fictionalising his childhood, growing up in Mexico City in the 1970s, Cuaron takes us through a year in the life of a wealthy family facing domestic strife, not from the point of view of one of the children, as you might expect, but from the point of view of Cleo, the maid and nanny. Point of view is of course vitally important. It’s what distinguishes storytelling from journalism. This perspective immediately brings harsh realities of class, economics, politics and relationships into sharp relief. There is the sense here that the mother’s story, or the child’s or possibly even the father’s would be good movies in their own right, but Cuaron is never distracted, keeping Cleo at the centre of every event, including momentous ones in her own life, the family’s life and Mexico’s history.

Over some of the bland domesticity which takes up about the first half of the film, there is the constant hum of potential violence. Hard-edged technology creeps into the softness of the family home. Too-large cars crunch into narrow drive ways. Cleo’s boyfriend shows off his martial artistry. Planes whine overhead. When Cleo visits a shanty town, a man is being shot of a cannon in the background. When, in the last third of the film, this violence erupts, it’s incredibly shocking and what follows is one of the most upsetting scenes in recent cinema history. But like those planes that are so often in view, Cuaron tells us that this too shall pass.

This has no need of any kind of three act structure, and would not be helped by it. The film would have been riveting enough with these performances (among a uniformly strong cast, Yalitza Aparicio is exceptional as Cleo) and this kind of storytelling. What catapults this to the very top of my list of movies for 2018 is the way that Cuaron tells the story visually.

Shooting in gorgeous 65mm black and white in 2.35:1, this couldn’t look less like an old movie, and yet the monochrome images can’t help but evoke the past (as does a cheeky reference to Marooned, a sort of 1969 version of Gravity). But although Cleo is the emotional heart of the film, by giving us a modern lens on an earlier time, Cuaron inserts himself discreetly into the movie too. This is 1971 from a 2018 standpoint.

We know Cuaron loves long takes, but here his style evolves again. Although shot with tremendous flexibility and panache, time and again, the camera tracks sideways or pans left and right across that widest of widescreen frames, almost like a security camera – observing but never intruding, And this unfussy style, combined with the patient editing, means that when the story is told in eye-popping images, which it so often is, it never feels forced, contrived or showy. This may have been bankrolled by Netflix, but you need to see it on a big screen.

Roma is an extraordinary achievement, clearly a shoo-in for Best Foreign Language film this year, and if there’s any justice at all, it will become the first foreign language film to win Best Picture. I’m not saying that’s going to happen – it probably won’t. I am saying I find it very hard to imagine seeing a better film than Roma this year.

Pre-Oscars 2019: First Man

Posted on December 11th, 2018 in Culture | No Comments »

First Man has all the trappings of an Oscar triumph. True to life story of American heroism? Check. Opportunity for visionary filmmaker tocreate indelible images? Check. Strong Oscar pedigree among creative team?Check. Box office smash hit… eh, not so much.

Damian Chazelle is an undeniably talented filmmaker, and – far more than the rather low-stakes and meandering La La Land – his new filmshares a lot of DNA with his first big hit Whiplash. Again, we are plunged intothe action with precious little in the way of explanation or backstory. Again, we are left to impose our own thought processes on to a stubbornly taciturnleading man. But here, rather than focusing on an intensely human battle ofwills, with a (frankly rather odd conception of) jazz music as the background,we instead have one of the most audacious engineering projects in the historyof the twentieth century as our story material.

The problem is that Neil Armstrong isn’t the most pivotal figure in this story. The Right Stuff succeeds partly because it finds a very specific angle from which to come at this tale – who are the people who will fly these machines and what qualities do they need to have? – and because of director Philip Kaufman’s determinedly quirky approach. The other companion film to these two is 2016’s Hidden Figures, which successfully finds an untold and very human story, but squanders it in unambitious, sitcom-level execution.

Not only does Armstrong spend the movie obediently carrying out the wishes of others, rather than being a wilful hero who makes decisions and controls his own destiny, the very facets of his personality which make him ideal for the job – calm under pressure, presents well, not prone to outbreaks of emotion – also make him a pretty dull hero for a movie. In this regard, Ryan Gosling is an excellent choice. His movie-star stoicism translates very well into Armstrong’s patient heroics.

What Chazelle attempts is a portrait of a marriage. Second-billed Claire Foy should have an equal stake in the narrative, but when he’s flying a rocket to the moon, and she’s at home hoping her intercom connection to mission control won’t be cut off, it’s hard to see them as equals. This version of the film suddenly crackles into life when Foy makes him sit down and tell their kids that there’s a chance he won’t be coming back. Suddenly, Gosling’s closed-off performance becomes the point, rather than a detail. But it’s a long time to wait and it’s over with fairly quickly.

Elsewhere, it’s pretty much drama-documentary here’s-how-we-went-to-the-moon stuff, buoyed by Chazelle’s sense of style – for example, almost completely denyingus exterior shots of rockets taking off, instead keeping us trapped in the variouscapsules and cockpits with the pilots. But even here, fascinating parts of the story don’t make the cut. Not just planting the American flag on the moon (for fuck’s sake) but the details of who (if anyone) wrote those first words for Armstrong to say – and did he blow his lines? Or Aldrin damaging the circuit breaker which would enable the lander to take off again – and having to jam a pen inthere to make it work. That would have been a great pay-off for the kind-of-an-asshole version of Aldrin essayed by Corey Stoll, but it’s omitted entirely.

Meanwhile, an entirely fictitious tribute to Armstrong’s late daughter is introduced instead, which I object to not because it’s made up but because it didn’t ring true, which is far more important.

Will this sweep the boards on 24 February? Hard to say at this point, but I think probably not. With up to ten nominees for Best Picture, it’s in with a shout there, but stands very little chance of winning. Chazelle and Gosling might pick up nominations too, but both were overlooked at the Golden Globes, so it doesn’t look likely.

Other films on my Oscar radar include: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Roma, Vice, The Favourite and Can You Ever Forgive Me.

Pre-Oscars 2019 – A Star Is Born

Posted on November 30th, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

We don’t yet know what’s on Academy voters’ minds for next year, but it’s a near-certainty that Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut will feature heavily. I confidently expect to see half-a-dozen nominations for A Star is Born, not just making up the numbers in Best Picture, but likely some or all of Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Score and Best Original Song too.

Not that this is a new story of course. First filmed in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March as a bitter satire on Hollywood’s star-making system, it became Judy Garland’s comeback vehicle in 1954 when she made a musical version with James Mason. In 1976, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson kept the music, but moved the action away from movies and into rock concerts, and that’s the pitch for the 2018 incarnation, which stars Lady Gaga as waitress-singer-songwriter Ally.

Part of the issue with the story, across all these variants, has always been – whose is it? Very often, the female lead has been the bigger name, but the structure of the plot generally means that the male lead takes over in the final third. Here, it’s much more Cooper’s story than Gaga’s all the way through. Previous incarnations of her character have been given new names as part of the star-making process (so Esther Blodgett becomes Vicki Lester). Here, slimy producer Rafi Gavron simply takes away Ally’s surname – a moment that never really lands because, almost unbelievably, we never find out what her original surname is!

Both Cooper and Gaga have families around them (which isn’t always the case in earlier versions), but Cooper’s is much more fleshed-out and his interactions with brother Sam Elliot (never better), and Dave Chapelle drive much of the action. What’s weird is that, Gaga aside, this is a woman-free story. Ally has a father (Andrew Dice Clay – no, really!) but no mother. She sings at a male drag bar. Her best friend is a gay man. Where are her female friends??

Little of this really matters while the film is on though. Cooper and Gaga have chemistry to spare, and even if the film closely hugs the contours of previous versions, it consistently finds ways to make them fresh and engaging. Ally’s first song on-stage with Jackson Maine is particularly fine, with Gaga pitching Ally’s uncertainty, strength, talent, delight and terror perfectly. Only the end of Jackson’s story seems a little hasty. Norman Maine overhears Esther Blodgett deciding to give up her career to look after her husband. Jackson Maine just takes his wife’s producer’s word for it and obediently fetches a sturdy belt.

As director, Cooper occasionally falls prey to some TV-commercial lighting and framing, and his sometimes eccentric editing rhythms don’t always work, but overall, this is confident, engaging, character-driven movie-making. It deserves its bonanza box office and if it does take home armfuls of Oscars – well, it will be a safe but not undeserving choice.