Oscars 2017 – Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, predictions

Posted on February 26th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Hell or High Water

This was still showing at a couple of rep cinemas but I missed it and had to catch up with it on iTunes. Maybe it would have cast a stronger spell over me in a cinema, but watching at home on my own I was immensely struck by how ordinary it was, especially in the light of the other nominees. It’s not a bad film by any means, but nothing in it is in any way striking, original or important.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster are fine as the brothers resorting to bank robbery for reasons which (to create a bit of extra false suspense) are not immediately clear and Jeff Bridges is in good form as the laconic sheriff on their tale. The sprawling rural setting, casual violence and Bridges in particular all call the Coen Brothers to mind, but this is even more straight down the line than True Grit, arguably their most conventional film, and it sorely lacks the kind of idiosyncrasies which they or someone like them might have been able to bring.

Taylor Sheridan’s script is unhurried (good!), the characters do more than simply go through the motions, and David Mackenzie photographs and paces it well, but I couldn’t find anything to excite me. It’s all fine, but it’s all been done as well or better elsewhere, notably on TV in shows like Justified and especially Breaking Bad.

Hidden Figures

More problematic is Hidden Figures, which aims higher and misses much more comprehensively. On paper, this looks like ideal Oscar fodder. Like Best Picture Winners before it including The King’s Speech, Argo and god help us, Shakespeare in Love, it appears to tackle important issues but does so in a way which is ultimately reassuring rather than challenging. While this is not as cack-handed as either, this film reminded me not of the foregoing but rather of previous nominees The Help and The Imitation Game.

To begin with, this was a story which deserved a wider airing and if people who had not known about their contribution beforehand leave the cinema able to cite the names Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson (as well as appreciating that they were three of an entire team of African-American women who contributed to NASA in very significant ways over several decades) then that is a very good thing indeed.

But it’s a shame that the movie itself is so generic, bland and unconvincing. As with The Imitation Game, I am not unduly worried about historical accuracy (although it’s reassuring that unlike with that film, someone on set knows how to pronounce the name Euler). I did feel that I didn’t learn an awful lot, compared to, say Selma for example, but to be fair it’s not entirely to Selma’s credit that I was rather uninformed about that period of Dr King’s life, nor is it a slam against the makers of Hidden Figures that I was rather more aware of the facts that movie is based on. But whereas Selma viscerally made me feel what life was like for black people in the segregated south, Hidden Figures feels like the carnival float version, depicting the pain and struggle in very broad and familiar brushstrokes.

So I don’t mind at all that in reality Katherine Johnson just went ahead and used the whites-only ladies’ room, nor that although John Glenn did ask for her personally to check the calculations, she had a couple of days to do it. What I do mind is that the depiction of these women’s struggle is not on its own terms convincing, illuminating or even terribly interesting. Compared to the depiction of sexism (and to a lesser extent, racism) in Mad Men, although the fictional versions of Dorothy, Katherine and Mary do face a lot of road blocks, most of them are overcome fairly easily once they make an Impassioned Speech. When in 2017, Donald Trump is trying to stop transgender people from using appropriate bathrooms and stopping green card holders from being with their families, the cosy come-on-in-and-join-us, racism-is-solved moments come across as smug and complacent, rather than punch-the-air triumphant. The slow thawing of Kirsten Dunst’s character towards Octavia Spencer is the sole exception, as this is at least presented without the implausible grandstanding seen elsewhere.

Screenwriter Allison Schroeder does little to really establish who these three women are and what sets them apart from each other, so we must be thankful that the three leads do such amazing work. Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae all manage to find moments to elevate the largely sit-com style script to something a bit deeper and more complex, but these opportunities are frustratingly rare. Meanwhile Director Theodore Melfi has failed to learn the lesson of Apollo 13, where Ron Howard used all-CGI shots of rockets and spacecraft, but made them all look as much like real footage as possible. Here we have science-fiction style sequences where virtual cameras whirl around shiny capsules, cut together with archive footage which clashes horribly.

So, I fear that one of the films I was most looking forward to ends up as probably the weakest of this year’s bunch.

Now – predictions. The big question is: will this be La La Land’s night? I’m going to say yes. Moonlight is gathering a lot of buzz but faced with a choice between the feel-good musical about Hollywood itself, or the low-key drama about a black, gay man whose life is turned around by the drug trade, the very conservative Academy is going to stick firmly in the middle ground, so La La Land takes Best Picture and Damien Chazelle takes Best Director, although I wouldn’t entirely rule Barry Jenkins out of the running.

Denzel Washington has probably done enough to eclipse Casey Affleck in the Best Actor stakes, but if it is going to be La La Land’s night, then Emma Stone will take Best Actress. The Best Supporting categories are far easier to predict, with Mahershala Ali needing to write a speech and Viola Davis probably having already cleared space on her dresser.

As they are nominated in different categories, Moonlight and La La Land can expect to split the screenwriting awards and I’d expect La La Land to take Best Song, Best Score and maybe Best Cinematography too.

Let’s check back here tomorrow and see how I did.

Oscars 2017- Fences and Moonlight

Posted on February 19th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It would be easy to lazily lump these two films in the same category – family dramas dealing with contemporary issues of race and class – but actually Denzel Washington and Barry Jenkins’ films reveal two fundamentally different approaches to movie-making. I didn’t think either of them was entirely “complete” but both have immensely powerful moments.

Fences

Fences is probably an extremely good play. I never saw it on the stage, either on its first run in 1987, or its 2010 production with Washington and Viola Davis. It won a slew of awards in the eighties though, and watching the movie, I can sense its power. But original author August Wilson died in 2005 and Tony Kushner (discreetly taking only a producer credit) has reverentially adapted it for the screen, while Denzel Washington directs himself in the leading part.

From the opening scenes, something is off. Troy Maxson (Washington) and buddy Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) shoot the shit, first riding around on the back of their garbage truck, later with Maxson’s wife Rose (Davis). Their dialogue is full of non-sequiturs, half-sentences and interruptions, but the rhythms are practised, mannered and artificial. Part of the problem is that Washington is such an articulate and literate actor that, in these early scenes, Troy’s storytelling never convinces as the imagination of a salt-of-the-earth working man. The fourth wall becomes a narrow slit through which we glimpse real humans only occasionally, through a mesh of stylised language and pseudo-authentic banter.

The story takes its time to get going as well, but as it does, the depths of Troy’s character are revealed and the movie begins to evade its stagey origins. An early speech from Troy to his son in which he is lectured about the importance of duty sets up just how selfish and hypocritical this man truly is. Washington has never had any compunction about playing morally flawed characters, but Troy Maxson must be the most compromised of all his creations, constantly screwing over the people around him, while angrily denouncing the injustices which life metes out to him.

Despite this, the fog of artificiality never really goes away and among the very small cast (one major character is never seen at all) Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brain-damaged brother in particular fails to convince. One key problem is that not only has Kushner been unable or unwilling to open the play out in any useful way, but as director Washington often frames the shots awkwardly and almost never finds ways of telling the story visually. Even the fence of the title is much more often talked about than seen, to the point where each repetition clangs more absurdly than the last.

However, as the human drama builds, the film slowly starts to weave its spell, and when Troy has to tell his wife the worst news she’s ever heard, Washington just points the camera at Viola Davis and lets her fall apart. It’s an incredible piece of acting, a shattering moment in the story and there can’t be many actors alive who could have pulled it off.

The last episode in the film belongs to Jovan Adepo, as Troy’s son Cory. This young British/American actor had been extremely solid bouncing off Washington earlier, but he is completely convincing in these final fifteen minutes, and if it weren’t for Davis’s barnstorming performance, would have been the MVP for sure.

It’s a shame then that such quality material has been handled with such clumsy reverence. Washington is good when he’s good, but he’s been better on-screen many times before, and as director it feels like he’s out of his depth. However, Viola Davis is absolutely sensational and her grip on the Best Actress Oscar is now iron-clad.

Moonlight

If Fences is a film stuck in the eighties, then Moonlight feels like a film which simply could not have been made even three years ago. Although the story is much simpler, smaller, more contained than Fences, it feels like cinema throughout, with its three narrative sections identified by named and numbered chapters (one of my favourite devices), we meet our hero as a child, teenager and young man. Early on, Jenkins is so determined that this small story should not feel like TV (or, worse, theatre) that his camera whirls dementedly around a simple three-person dialogue scene. Later on it settles down, but the shot selection is always inventive and the lighting and grading are sumptuous.

The first section revolves as much around Juan (Mahershala Ali, worlds away from the smooth charisma of Remy Danton on House of Cards) as it does Chiron, a taciturn and lonely child whose mother (Naomie Harris, also miles away from Moneypenny) is slowly falling apart. The drug trade is an ever-present feature of the film, but it is presented clearly and without judgement. Juan is the most principled and compassionate drug lord you are ever likely to meet, and when later Chiron slips into his erstwhile mentor’s shoes he is presented more as a successful entrepreneur than anything else.

The second section is at once the most familiar and the most successful. In its early parts, where Chiron is bullied at school, it feels like every other eighties or nineties high school movie remixed, but the tone is so intense that the broad familiarity ceases to matter as the specific details make it sing. When Chiron finally connects with Kevin, it’s a really beautiful moment.

In a film filled with truthful, subtle and powerful acting, the third section is blessed with a marvellous performance from Andre Holland (Selma). Kevin and Chiron, reunited after countless years, struggle to reconnect and rebuild what they once had. So far, so fantastic. Moments of real power, beautifully underplayed and shot with great skill and panache. But the movie doesn’t so much end as stop, leaving any number of unanswered questions and a gnawing feeling that the shattering conclusion which would bring these various threads together is still sitting on Barry Jenkins’ hard drive.

It’s fascinating how the old-fashioned melodrama of Fences, finally overcomes the staginess of its presentation to create a moment whose sucker-punch power Moonlight cannot hope to match. But it’s equally fascinating how, even without a narrative which conforms to those expected shapes, the tiny details of Chiron’s life remain telling, affecting and moving.

Oscars 2017: Manchester by the Sea, Lion, Hacksaw Ridge

Posted on February 14th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Three more movies to add to my tally. Minor spoilers throughout – you have been warned.

Manchester by the Sea

Writer director Kenneth Lonergan was not someone whose work I was very familiar with. I’d seen Gangs of New York, but that seems like writer-for-hire stuff, owing much more to Scorsese’s vision that Lonergan’s. I haven’t seen You Can Count on Me or Margaret – but on the other hand, I have seen a fair number of Boston Male Angst movies, generally starring whichever Afflecks are nearest to hand, or Matt Damon if wet (here Damon produces and Casey stars).

Initially, Manchester is a slow burn. Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler operates according to the cast-iron law of movie heroes that the audience will always like you, no matter how grievous your crimes or appalling your character flaws, if you are good at your job. So, he can’t keep a civil tongue in his head while doing odd jobs in dilapidated apartment blocks, but he knows one end of a wrench from another and he’s a hard worker.

Then he’s summoned to his hometown, narrowly missing the death of his father, and needing to break the news to nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). When his brother’s will names him as the boy’s guardian, Affleck will do anything to avoid staying in Manchester by the Sea.

So far, so Hallmark. Just imagine the TV movie version of this story, where ill-matched handyman and teenage tearaway discover that despite their early clashes, actually they both need each other. Ugh. But Lonergan’s handling of the material is far more subtle, restrained and powerful. Of particular note is the flashback structure. Ultimately, we come to realise that the problem is not the sudden and unexpected burden of quasi-parenthood, nor is Affleck’s refusal to relocate sheer stubbornness. The whole town is full of ghosts, and some of the memories unearthed by his visit are truly ghastly.

So, the film nips back and forth along the timeline, but – emphasising that at any moment the lead character can be confronted with another grim reminder of horrendous past decisions – there is no visual distinction between then and now, nor any overt cue that a flashback has begun or ended. This makes for an initially confusing watch, but once I got used to the rhythms of Jennifer Lame’s editing, and once the jigsaw started to come together, everything made perfect sense.

That freed me to admire the crystal clear digital photography by Jody Lee Lipes, making the every-present cold feel absolutely real. And the powerhouse performances from Affleck, Hedges and Michelle Williams doing a great deal with not very much as Affleck’s ex-wife. And there are flashes of humour too – notably a lovely cameo from Matthew Broderick of all people, as well as Hedges’ endless quest to bed either or both of his girlfriends.

So, if the scope of the movie is not terribly broad, then the depth of the writing and the acting largely makes up for it, and although this isn’t a movie to watch and re-watch, it’s certainly a moving and effective piece of work.

Lion

Lion similarly doesn’t try to encompass anything more than the plight of a handful of people in a peculiar situation, but also like Manchester, on the whole it succeeds very well. Considering the pitch – Saroo, adopted by a white Australian family when he was only six years old, in his early adult life suddenly needs to reconnect with his origins in India and risks alienating his adoptive family – it would seem “obvious” to begin with marquee names Dev Patel (Saroo) and Nicole Kidman (his adoptive mother) and have the audience feel Saroo’s confusion and anguish along with him.

In fact, about the first hour of the movie concerns Saroo’s early life in India. We meet his brother, mother and sister and see exactly how he came to be separated from them, thousands of miles away from home, unable even to speak the local language. This whole section of the film works brilliantly, and the terrible details of his accidental removal from everything he knows are worked out with remorseless precision.

Sunny Pawar is astonishing as the young Saroo. Shot after shot depicts him furiously running away from some kind of danger, like a pint-sized Tom Cruise (insert your own joke here), tiny fists pumping, fierce little face set in grim determination. When he evades what were probably people traffickers and ends up at an orphanage, the tension ebbs out of the film a little, but the details of his arrival in Australia are some of the most affecting sequences. Kidman, barely on screen for more than twenty minutes, seizes every opportunity she is given, and her quiet outpouring of love for the little boy in her bathtub, who can’t yet speak her language, is incredibly moving.

Dev Patel – suddenly brawny, rangy and hairy, quite unlike the powerlessly slight figure he cuts for much of Slumdog Millionaire – also does well as the grown-up Saroo, and the early scenes of him trying to figure out just what had happened to him all those years ago are effective, but here’s where it becomes clear why this movie needed that long first act. There isn’t really enough story to keep the momentum going after Saroo makes his decision to try and Google Earth his way back to his origins.

Rooney Mara is largely wasted as his new girlfriend, largely because he’s not letting her in on what he’s trying to do. And the damage done to his relationship with his Australian family is undermined because the filmmakers – somewhat letting the truth get in the way of a good story – have included his brother Guddu, adopted a year or so after Saroo. Guddu’s mental health problems already mean that his family unit is under stress, and the film can’t make up its mind whether Saroo trusts or resents Guddu, so this portion of the movie represents a significant dog-leg, effectively marking time until Saroo can be permitted to solve the puzzle of his beginnings.

When – finally! – Saroo makes it to India, the film pulls out of the dive and really delivers a cathartic ending, emphasised by photos and video of the real Saroo, Sue Brierley and others, and with an absolutely brilliant title card punchline. It’s tremendously emotional stuff, handled beautifully by director Garth Davis, making his feature debut.

Not quite as complete as Manchester by the Sea, then, but still well worth seeing, especially for the opening hour.

Hacksaw Ridge

I don’t really like war movies.

Of course, there are exceptions – Saving Private Ryan (mainly for the Omaha Beach scene), Paths of Glory (absolutely devastating) and, er, does Casablanca count?

But, by and large, tales of heroism behind enemy lines, brilliant military stratagems dreamed-up by inspired generals, or the bonding of boy soldiers who should never have been sent to the front lines, all leave me cold. And the wave of seventies and eighties Vietnam films similarly left me unstirred. No thank you Platoon, I’ll leave after the Russian Roulette scene The Deer Hunter, you’re not doing it for me most of Full Metal Jacket, enough already Casualties of War.

So, maybe I was never going to like Hacksaw Ridge, the true story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss who nevertheless signs up to serve as a combat medic in World War II and ends up saving the lives of dozens of men on the titular ridge at Okinawa. But honestly, Mel Gibson’s film is a total mess, tonally incoherent, riddled with inconsistencies, and clearly glorifying the very violence that its hero is so determinedly opposed to.

The first act of the film, sketching in Doss’s home life in Virginia, is pretty corny movie-of-the-week stuff. We begin with a very clumsy flash-forward, flash-back, flash-forward opening, seemingly designed to ensure that nobody expecting a military bloodbath panics that they’ve walked through the wrong door, while scooping up a supposedly key childhood incident which is never picked up on again (a later incident is drafted-in where this one presumably was meant to go). Then we follow Doss’s journey from somewhat misfitting youngster to eager recruit.

But Gibson keeps emphasising all the wrong things. He can’t even shoot Doss and his new girlfriend (the preternaturally beautiful Teresa Palmer) having their first kiss without trying to have them both killed in road traffic accidents. And it’s absolutely baffling when his dad (Hugo Weaving, wasted) tells him that his problem has always been that he has to ponder and pray on every little decision before acting – since up till now all we have seen is him being headstrong to the point of reckless. Later, in the training scenes, he will be resolute and steadfast and in the extended climax in Okinawa he will be decisive and focused. This ponderous indecision is simply not a part of his character. It’s almost as if the script was assembled from multiple drafts by choosing pages at random.

In the middle section, every cliché of the Army Boot Camp is wheeled out. The men are giving amusing quirks and cheeky nicknames so that we can keep them straight when they start getting sliced up by Japanese bullets (this doesn’t work). And Vince Vaughan of all people essays a hugely uninteresting take on the shouty drill sergeant who really only wants the best for his men.

But the conflict between a conscientious objector, who refuses to even touch a rifle but who nevertheless wants to join the Army to serve as a medic on the front lines, should make for a fascinating battle-of-wills – even if presented with these over-familiar tropes. But again, the key scenes evade Gibson’s camera. Doss repeatedly asserts that he was told by the recruiting officers that he would not have to handle firearms, but since we didn’t see this scene, we have no way of knowing whether or in what manner this undertaking was given. So rather than seeing him as a wronged man, a pawn mislead by the great machine of war, it’s tempting to see him as just naive or worse a simpleton not worth rooting for.

In the end, the stage is set for a court martial, but once again this is handed in the most clichéd way imaginable, with a “hail Mary” piece of key evidence arriving at the eleventh hour causing all charges to be immediately dropped with smiles and handshakes all round. For all I know, this is exactly the war things happened (although I doubt it) but events are presented with zero verisimilitude.

Act Three is the main event, Hacksaw Ridge itself. Take the ridge, you take the city. Take the city, you take the country and win the war. But the dastardly Japs have claimed many brave American lives already and this won’t be easy. It’s tempting to compare the gruesome battle scenes which follow to Spielberg’s handling of the Normandy Beaches in Saving Private Ryan, but while Gibson’s film handily exceeds the Tom Hanks movie for viscera, brutality and ghastly sound effects, it totally lacks Spielberg’s perfect balance between the fog of war and the demands of narrative clarity. Spielberg’s sequence is precision storytelling. Gibson’s version is a blood-spattered roller coaster.

When the American forces are cut to pieces and have no option but to retreat, brave Private Doss drags the wounded to safety and lowers them off the ridge. This selfless act of heroism is entirely true and it’s with genuine humility and shame that I watch my soft hands type these words. What that man did on that ridge is absolutely remarkable, but the film which was intended to honour his noble deeds continues to lose its footing in these crucial moments.

Firstly, as noted, Gibson succumbs to the temptation to make the battle scenes thrilling, which means that the film fails utterly as a parable about the horrors of war (should that point need making again). Secondly, the moral complexity of Doss’s position is completely overlooked. War is presented as a necessary tool to achieve global stability and the mission of the American forces is one of truth and rightness. When Doss drags Vaughan on a makeshift sled while the other man sprays bullets from a submachine gun behind him, we’re supposedly meant to punch their air, or cheer or something. I just thought this was a ridiculous spectacle belonging to nonsense like The Fast and the Furious, not a serious Oscar-winning movie confronting the realities of warfar.

In big ways and small, Gibson presents the Americans as all-too flesh and blood humans, whose lives would be deeply mourned if they were lost. But the Japanese are presented as boogie-men who exist only to imperil the lives of Our Brave Heroes.

This can be seen not only in their stereotypical presentation (when they are finally defeated, they even commit hari-kiri) but in more subtle ways as well. None of what they say is subtitled. Their faces are almost never clearly seen. Sometimes their whole bodies are obscured by smoke, but even when they emerge from the mists, the lighting and grading conspires to hide their eyes, or mute their features completely. They are alien, separate, other, killable. Doss does lower a couple of Japanese wounded off the ridge, but we never see them and we are later told they “didn’t make it” leaving open the question of whether or not American surgeons would have operated on them or not.

And the muddled writing hasn’t gone away either. Holed up for the night, Captain Glover marvels at Doss’s continued refusal to handle firearms. “Any sane man would want a rifle,” he exclaims. Doss quips in return “Well, I never claimed to be sane.” Fair enough, except that an hour earlier, I watched this same Captain Glover attempt to drum Doss out of his platoon on the grounds of insanity, in response to which Doss very cogently argued for his sanity, and this was the conclusion reached by the psychiatrist assessing him who then made his report back to – you guessed it – Captain Glover. Again, I can only assumed no-one was paying attention to which draft was being shot today.

Andrew Garfield, seemingly channelling Tom Hanks not as Captain Miller but as Forrest Gump, does well enough with what he’s given, but even he and a parade of talented Australian character actors, can save this nasty jingoistic propaganda piece from collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.

Five down, four to go.

Oscars 2017 – and La La Land

Posted on February 7th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

At the time of writing, I’ve seen four out of nine of the nominees. Here’s a quick assessment of the runners and the riders, and then I’ll post some more reviews.

Arrival: Cerebral science fiction with a cracking central performance from Amy Adams but zero chance of winning the main prize. Longer review here.

Fences: Denzel Washington directs and stars in this family drama which also explores social and racial issues in 1950s Pittsburgh. Viola Davis is also up for Best Supporting Actress. Well-reviewed but not getting the kind of buzz it needs to win.

Hacksaw Ridge: Mel Gibson directs a number of other Aussies in a World War II movie based on a true story. Again, well reviewed but not really a contender.

Hell or High Water: Clint Eastwood directs and Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine star in the Western crime thriller which completely passed me by on its initial release, but which I’m hoping to find at an art cinema somewhere before resorting to iTunes.

Hidden Figures: Second true story on the list, this time that of the social and racial issues surrounding the largely unsung women of colour working on the maths behind the moon landing. Not a front-runner but I wouldn’t right it off completely, especially after its cast won the Screen Actors Guild Award.

La La Land: Festooned with awards, this is Damien Chazelle’s bubblegum follow-up to his brilliant debut Whiplash. By any measure, the one to beat.

Lion: Third true story, this time a family drama focusing on adoptive Australian Dev Patel’s quest to rediscover his Indian heritage with attendant social and racial issues.

Manchester by the Sea: Casey Affleck leads a very strong cast in this family drama which also explores social issues in contemporary Boston. Kenneth Lonergan’s film represents the best that the La La Land haters can hope for.

Moonlight: But don’t write-off Moonlight either. Mahershali Ali is the most recognisable face in this unstarry cast assembled to essay this family drama which also explores social and racial issues in contemporary Miama.

So, this is very much a list of two halves. Four films which represent adventure and derring-do of one sort or another. Four films which represent smaller more personal stories, including as noted, explorations of social and racial issues.

And then there’s La La Land.

Okay, let’s start with Damien Chazelle’s film taken purely on its own merits. I’m a sucker for Hollywood musicals and I regard the current TV trend towards musical numbers as a very positive and happy thing. I thought Whiplash was a fascinating and largely excellent piece of work, and I was absolutely ready to be charmed by the follow-up – and by-and-large I was.

The opening number is delightful and the leads are sketched in efficiently and playfully, with just enough time-jumping shenanigans to keep me on my toes, but not so much that it becomes distracting and show-offy. I don’t find Seb’s passion for jazz or his need to explain it to others offensive or insufferable, and I can forgive the occasionally iffy singing, especially when the dancing is largely very successful. And I defy anyone to not leave the movie humming Justin Hurwitz’s music.

For the most part, the tone is very carefully balanced – just enough sweetness and naiveté to sustain the confection of the musical genre; just enough real-life cynicism and acid to make it play in 2017. And the two leads do tremendous work. Chazelle repeatedly frames Emma Stone’s preternaturally expressive face very close-to and just lets his camera absorb the play of emotions across her features. And if Ryan Gosling isn’t exactly giving Winona Ryder a run for his money, then when the camera rests on his far more stoic physiognomy, there’s always something going on behind the eyes.

There are quibbles. When both parties get everything they dreamed-of, the details don’t entirely hang together, nor does the cost (they have to give up on each other) quite counter-balance the sugariness of Cinderella twist. And their parting is a little too comfortable and mature for their not-quite-reunion to have the kind of bittersweet tang that it really needed. But overall this is a perfectly inoffensive and rather winning piece of film-making, which shows that Whiplash was no fluke and that Chazelle is a singular artist whose career will be well worth watching.

But is it one of the top ten best films of the year? Well, that seems a bit of a stretch, even given that the Best Picture nominees frequently contain works of hugely varying quality. For it to have received more Oscar nominations than any other film this year seems very surprising. And for it to have equalled the record for the most nominations of any film ever is nothing short of ludicrous. With so many true life stories, so many intimate family dramas and so many explorations of social issues to choose from, faced with a world which seems to be rapidly heading towards a Twitter-fuelled Armageddon, the Academy appears to have voted for pure, flimsy, gossamer escapism.

Frankly, who can blame them?

Culture round-up early 2017

Posted on February 1st, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

Well, for some time now, my new role as podcast producer has made updating this blog very difficult, and in the light of the ghastly developments in UK and world politics, my half-assed views on TV shows and movie seem hardly relevant. But the world keeps turning and since I’ve been to see a few movies and things, I may as well try and keep up my record.

So, let’s start with the Doctor Who Christmas Special. One reason for my not reviewing this at the time is that it was basically fine. Nothing terribly wrong, but nothing terribly exciting either. As writer, Steven Moffat reigned in most of his worst excesses, Ed Bazalgette frames it all with professionalism and style, real (north) American Justin Chatwin and faux American Charity Wakefield are both convincing and Matt Lucas was far less irritating than we might have feared.

Even the one big error simply duplicates a mistake made in pretty much every superhero movie ever shot, which is the physics-defying fantasy of magic catching hands. A person falling off a building will hit the floor and be made to stop very suddenly, and the impact will cause them severe damage. The kinetic energy they give up when their acceleration towards the ground suddenly ceases has to go somewhere. However, in superhero movies and in The Return of Doctor Mysterio, no such problem exists if the thing which the falling person (or object) collides with is a person’s hands. When Grant catches the ship, it stops just as suddenly as if it had hit the ground, but mysteriously with no damage to Grant, the ship or any of its occupants. Other than that, absolutely fine. Four stars.

Next let’s turn to Arrival, the cerebral science-fiction slow-burn movie starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and directed by Dennis Villeneuve which depicts the international response to a number of alien obelisks which descend without warning on planet Earth. Putting so much emphasis on Adams’ painstaking attempts to decipher the alien language is undoubtedly gutsy and for me in pays off handsomely, drawing me in to the puzzle as the various military powers across the globe get increasingly twitchy.

The central twist is a little over-familiar for those of us who have seen more than half-a-dozen science fiction films, but it’s artfully concealed and bolstered by excellent performances, from a luminous Adams on down. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, of which more later.

And finally, let’s tick off Rogue One. I’m not really a devoted Star Wars nerd, which meant that the number of “Easter Eggs” I noticed was not excessive, although I gather that they come at the rate of about two a minute if you really know your Force from your elbow. The tactic of alternating “saga” movies (like The Force Awakens) with “anthology” movies seems like a smart one and by inserting a narrative into the gap between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope seems like an excellent way to start things off.

And so, this is not quite the Star Wars we’re familiar with. No opening crawl! No John Williams! No wipes! On-screen captions to identify the planets we’re visiting. And early on, it’s all a bit clunky, as we whip from planet-to-planet in search of the film’s plot. As the characters start to establish themselves, and the humour and adventure comes to the fore, things begin to improve, and the team assembled around Felicity Jones’s Jyn Erso all get some great moments, especially Alan Tudyk as reprogrammed droid K-2SO, even if Jones herself can’t quite match up to the astonishing Daisy Ridley.

But the narrative momentum isn’t sustained, as the plot ties itself in knots to prevent us from getting to the last act too soon. I swear when they meet up with Jyn’s father, I can actually hear two different drafts of the film fighting each other, as the person Jyn trusted to deliver her to her father, whose message the rest of the film depends on her hearing, has a crisis of confidence and decides not to betray her by killing him anyway. Badguy Krennic then kills all of his men but not him and then rebel bombers blow him up anyway! Not exactly a clean narrative line!

In the final mission to get the plans out of the Imperial base, however, things improve enormously as director Gareth Edwards manages not just to summon up the spirit of the original trilogy, but to finally give his movie the singularity of purpose it seemed to struggle for earlier. And I have to admire both the commitment to the reality of the suicide mission and the neat plugging of the original film’s most glaring plot hole.

Everyone seems to have their own opinion about the digital Cushing and Fisher avatars which appear throughout the movie. For me, the brief glimpse of digital Leia worked fine. But the continual featuring of the CGI Tarkin stretched the envelope well-past breaking point. The dead eyes and weird mouth and imperfect vocal impression were a constant distraction and I was left with an appreciation of just how wide and featureless the uncanny valley truly is.

A full round-up of the 2017 Oscars will be here soon.

At The Movies – Inside Llewyn Davis

Posted on February 15th, 2014 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Inside Llewyn Davis: Oscar Isaac with that elusive cat.

I was surprised that this didn’t sneak into the Best Picture nominees. Ever since 1996’s Fargo, the Academy has tended to appreciate the Coen Brothers’ efforts, nominating True Grit in 2010, A Serious Man in 2009 and No Country for Old Men which won in 2007. I was even more surprised given the near-universal critical acclaim it received, and since I’ve enjoyed almost everything the Coens have produced, I fully expected to love this one. Having seen it, I’m no longer surprised that it wasn’t nominated and even more startled at the unstinting praise it seems to have garnered.

It starts promisingly, with Oscar Isaac brilliantly portraying Llewyn Davis as a bitter, misanthropic, parasitical, drifter, permanently couch-surfing as he struggles to scratch together a few hundred bucks here and there playing folk music. On leaving the apartment of his bewilderingly benevolent uptown friends the Gorfeins, he mistakenly lets their cat out and ends up almost adopting the poor thing. From here, he ends up at Carey Mulligan’s Greenwich Village apartment and manages to make a little bit of cash playing guitar on a novelty song written by her boyfriend played by Justin Timberlake.

So far, so good. We are offered a bracingly unlikeable hero, struggling for meaning and identity in a heartless universe – see also Barton Fink, Larry Gopnik and to some extent, even Fargo’s Jerry  Lundegaard. But this is a movie trying to find a centre, a narrative thread that will pull us through. We have various plots set in motion – Llewyn’s opportunity to return to the navy, the Gorfein’s cat, his ex-girlfriend who may have secretly raised his child in Akron, the abortion which he has to procur for Mulligan, the song he has recorded with Timberlake, but they have not yet begun to satisfyingly mesh.

And suddenly, they are all, repeat all, underline all, abandoned for an entirely self-contained thirty minute stretch in the middle of the movie, wherein Llewyn shares a car with an absurdly over-the-top John Goodman, laboriously makes his way to Chicago, gets an amazing offer from record magnate F Murray Abraham, turns it down and equally laboriously makes his way back to Chicago to rejoin the movie I thought I was watching. By now, even if the Coens had been interested in joining up the plot-threads, there isn’t time, so it’s left to a clumsy revisiting of an earlier flash-forward to try and give this narrative porridge some sense of structure. It’s worth noticing that this is the third rather episodic film I’ve seen in a row to use this device and here it’s done particularly pointlessly. The sequence we have to watch twice is hardly any more interesting or significant than those around it, and it’s far from clear when we first see it that it is a flash-forward which briefly threatens to turn the whole film into Groundhog Day when suddenly it starts happening again.

I can certainly see what other critics liked about this – Llewyn is a fascinating character, brilliantly realised by Oscar Isaac and by music supervisors T-Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford. The supporting cast are all fine, and some (Abraham, Mulligan) are exceptional. Some of the episodes are diverting in themselves, others are just a bit “so-what”, but the whole is so wilfully disorganised and uninterested in cause-and-effect that it just starts to become tedious. If you can’t be bothered to arrange the episodes in your story to create some semblance of relevance, I’m not sure I can be bothered to watch.

We get to see Llewyn at his most vulnerable when his doctor friend reveals that he might have a child in Akron. It’s possibly the most powerful scene in the film. Later as he is driving back from Chicago, he passes the turning for Akron – but declines to take it. In a movie which generally has been well-structured and where the plot is strong, this would be a fascinating character beat. In a movie which is characterised by hopeful juxtaposition of unrelated cameos, it’s the last straw.

I return briefly to some points I made about 12 Years a Slave, while noting that Llewyn Davis is by far the lesser film. It is certainly arguable that the events depicting in the Coens’ film are much more like real-life. But it’s also worth pointing out that real life is frequently very boring. The job of an entertainer in a narrative medium is to cut out the dull bits and give the rest relevance and power by properly constructing the architecture of the story. It is also no doubt true that the point of the film is largely that Llewyn is fundamentally incapable of change, growth or development, but it nevertheless seems to me that the story of a character who cannot change can be much more powerfully told if placed in a context where familiar screen archetypes would change. Instead, Llewyn’s “fuck this” attitude seems to have infected the entire screenplay, resulting in a series of unrelated events which wouldn’t really have the power to change anybody.

I don’t know if this kind of what-the-hell plotting is intended to give the movie greater poignancy, significance, insight or profundity. I do know that simply typing up a handful of unrelated incidents and stopping on page 120 is a hell of lot easier than constructing a satisfying narrative, with set-ups and payoffs and cause-and-effect throughout. A major disappointment from one of my favourite movie-makers and I can’t for the life of me understand why everyone else seems to love it so much.

It occurs to me that I am pretty much a Coen completest, so for context, here’s a quick rundown of my take on their other movies.

Blood Simple
Powerful, brooding, brilliantly plotted and properly nasty. The low budget shows from time to time, but with a script and performances this good, who cares?

Raising Arizona
Their breakthrough, a sort of live-action cartoon, radically different from their debut, with brilliantly demented lead performances from Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter. I don’t love it the way some people do, but I like it a lot.

Miller’s Crossing
Amazingly complicated film noir with classic scene after classic scene. Just great.

Barton Fink
Just possibly my favourite – a film only the Coens could make. A satire on Hollywood capitalism and East Coast narcissism equally which suddenly turns into a ferocious grand-guinol nightmare in the final reel.

The Hudsucker Proxy
Maybe their most charming film, although a big flop at the box office, especially compared to its more than usually lavish budget. I like it a great deal, possibly because of how unpopular it is amongst Coen fans.

Fargo
A masterpiece of atmosphere, characterisation, plotting and cinematography. Earns all the praise the gets lavished upon it.

The Big Lebowski
Sprawls where Fargo marches relentlessly, bloated where Fink is lean and focused, but by combining the life-and-death stakes of Fargo’s kidnapping plot, with Hudsucker’s charmingly naive characters, the Coens fashioned another classic which won them armies of new fans.

O Brother Where Art Thou?
A disappointment after the brilliant run of form they experienced up till now. The cheerful stupidity of the characters pulls in the opposite direction from the Homeric template they’ve given themselves and so the film lurches about a bit and goes past several possible endings. The lead performances however are great and the film contains many stand-out sequences.

The Man Who Wasn’t There
Powerful stuff to begin with, but the plot runs out of steam and eventually turns into the same pointless slurry as Llewyn Davis only without the songs. My least favourite of their films by quite a distance.

Intolerable Cruelty
The reviews of this were so bad, I had to stay away. It’s not a true Coen Brothers movie in any case, as Joel and Ethan were drafted in to doctor an ailing script and somehow ended up directing it.

The Ladykillers
Just horrible. If you have the urge to watch this film, just put on the 1955 Alexander Mackendrick version instead. Watch it all the way to the end. Then watch it again. Then destroy any copy of the Coens film in your possession. The only reason I like this more than The Man Who Wasn’t There is Tom Hanks as The Professor. He is electrifying throughout.

No Country for Old Men
Frustrating, because again any semblance of plotting is abandoned in the final third, but the shift in emphasis seems somewhat more purposeful here, and all the sequences are excellent, even if it feels a little bit like reels from two different, but related, movies have been accidentally spliced together.

Burn After Reading
Somewhat trivial, but bouncy and fun. Very happily passes the time.

A Serious Man
A very similar theme to Llewyn Davis but Larry Gopnik is basically a decent guy who makes good decisions, which makes the tiny calamities which unravel his life so much more meaningful. Larry Gopnik’s life doesn’t make much sense to him, but he notices this and complains about it, and seems to live in a narrative world where choices matter. Llewyn Davis lives in a narrative world where it doesn’t much matter what he or anybody else does, because no idea carries over from one scene to the next.

True Grit
A far more faithful version of the novel than the earlier version starring John Wayne, with better supporting performances and with better-staged action. After the intensely personal A Serious Man though, this felt a bit workmanlike.

Next up, Spike Jonze’s Her

Gravity – no spoilers

Posted on November 15th, 2013 in At the cinema, Culture | 2 Comments »

gravity-film

This is a quick spoiler-free review of Gravity which I saw yesterday at the IMAX. A more thorough review, full of spoiler-y goodness may follow later. Or not.

So, firstly – believe the hype. Everything you’ve heard about these being the best space sequences, and especially the best weightless sequences ever shot – that’s all true. Almost every frame is stupefyingly convincing. IMAX 3D makes all the difference, I imagine this would lose a lot on Blu-Ray, or heaven forbid DVD.

And I’ve been pretty down on 3D in the past but here it’s used with remarkable taste and restraint. We got a trailer for The Hobbit before the movie and it had that awful cardboard cut-out look that so many stereoscopic movies have these days. In Gravity, apart from some flying debris, what you mainly get is depth – horrifying, unimaginable, inky, depth.

The storyline is lean to the point of austere. After a dizzying 12 minute sequence with no apparent cuts, all hell breaks lose when a cloud of debris ploughs in to astronauts repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. Minutes later George Clooney’s grizzled and loquacious old space-salt and Sandra Bullock’s wet-behind-the-ears scientist are the only survivors with no working shuttle to get them back to Earth. What follows is an amazingly contained and sustained ordeal as they struggle to make it back to Earth safely.

Director Alfonso Cuarón (who wrote the screenplay with his son Jonas) is extraordinarily rigorous about point-of-view, almost never showing us material which would not be visible to the protagonists, and only allowing such sounds as would be likely to transmit through spacesuits to be heard. In one groundbreaking shot, the camera drifts, almost lazily, inside Sandra Bullock’s helmet and back out again. What’s impressive is that this doesn’t seem like showboating, it’s a natural part of the visual grammar of the movie.

It isn’t perfect. Most of the technical quibbles are irrelevant to me, when they got so much else right. I don’t really care that the shuttle has been decommissioned, or that orbital mechanics make journeys from one craft to another much more complex than is depicted here. I’m sure the law and medicine I see practiced in movies isn’t accurate either. So what? But I do have some issues of pure audience credibility in the last few minutes.

And the tone wobbles a little in the middle. By making the bold, and probably correct, decision to avoid clumsy flashbacks to her life back on Earth, Cuarón as writer and director requires that Sandra Bullock’s back-story is delivered almost entirely in two brief dialogue scenes, at least one of which felt just a little forced. But Bullock and Clooney both do excellent work here – theirs are basically the only faces we see – aided by (of course) Ed Harris as mission control, voice only and precious little of that.

Gravity is an extraordinary achievement, a fine adventure story in a breathtaking environment, helmed with precision and rigour. I don’t know how much of it will live with me, but I’ve very, very pleased to have seen it, and delighted to see it get made. Such a strongly authored piece, with no franchise to back it (and it’s essentially immune to sequels) deserves to do well and it’s been killing it at the box office.

There is even talk of Oscar nominations – about which, more very shortly…

The Oscars 2013 – Wrap up

Posted on February 27th, 2013 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

On Sunday afternoon, I popped in my Blu-ray copy of Beasts of the Southern Wild which would complete my ennealogy of Best Picture nominees. I’m afraid to say it’s probably the one I liked least. Partly this is due to the fact that movies short on plot but long on squalor just don’t tend to engage me, and partly it’s due to the fact that the one element which is potentially the most interesting is poorly integrated into the main narrative. However, that’s not to say it isn’t a fine piece of filmmaking. In what’s been a generally quite strong year, Beasts simply isn’t to my taste, rather than genuinely bad like, say, War Horse, Extremely Long and Incredibly Shit or Midnight in Paris.

So while its disjointed and slender narrative, eccentric use of fantasy and limited supporting cast might not have entirely worked for me, I did enjoy some of the individual set-pieces and – like everyone – was completely captivated by both Dwight Henry and especially tiny, extraordinary Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy. She makes the entire movie worth watching with her pint sized charisma and astonishing lung-power.

On to the main event. Seth MacFarlane’s hosting faced the usual horrible cleft stick. Does the host adopt the irreverent tone for which they are known and risk a backlash from the self-important Hollywood elite? Or should they play it safe and leave fans wondering who on earth is this ghostly photocopy of their idol? MacFarlane managed with unerring accuracy to dive straight between these two stools. Whereas Tina Fey and Amy Poehler pulled off the trick of appealing both to their smug hosts and their own fans, MacFarlane was just crass enough to piss off those to whom the Academy Awards are everything, but far from extreme enough to be a genuinely bracing breath of fresh air. William Shatner’s wheezing cameo was clunky in conception and execution and “We Saw Your Boobs” was just embarrassing.

On to the awards themselves. Regular readers will know that I told them there was no point betting on Spielberg for Best Director and Lincoln for Best Picture and this certainly proved to be sage advice, although for all the wrong reasons. Almost as soon as I made my prediction, Lincoln’s lead began to evaporate and Argo which many considered a spent force, released far too early to clean up at the Oscars, experienced a huge resurgence. So while I’m smarting at my error, I’m delighted that Argo, my favourite film of the year, took the main prize. With Affleck not nominated as director, despite his beautifully precise handling of Argo’s mise-en-scene, the field was wide open and I suppose a win for Ang Lee is justified. I was less impressed with the Academy’s decision to give Christoph Waltz a second gong for essentially the same performance a second time around, but very happy indeed for Jennifer Lawrence. I might have to go and watch The Hunger Games now…

The Oscars 2013 – Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook

Posted on February 10th, 2013 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

This is the 800lb stovepipe-hatted gorilla at this year’s Oscars. I’d tell you to go and put your money on Lincoln winning Best Picture, Spielberg winning Best Director and Daniel Day-Lewis winning Best Actor now – if it weren’t for the fact that the odds are so poor it would hardly be worth your while collecting your winnings. Is it actually any good?

Having apparently learned the tedious lesson of Chaplin among other lumbering biopics, most recent Great Figure Of History movies have done the sensible thing and opted to dramatise a manageably short but pivotal chunk of a distinguished life and career, the sort of thing that can be panel-beaten into a recognisable story shape, rather than depicting an endless series of disconnected episodes in a joyless plod from cradle to grave. See also Hitchcock, My Week with Marilyn, The King’s Speech and many more. Lincoln is no exception, beginning shortly after his re-election but crucially before his inauguration and focusing almost exclusively on his quest to pass the Thirteenth Amendment which would end slavery in the United States.

From the first few shots, it’s clear that this is an Important film, a Serious film and a Quality film, but it isn’t without its flashes of sly humour. Opening with a neat handling of the Gettysburg Address (including Lincoln’s own reciting of it would have just been too Bill and Ted), we slowly understand Lincoln’s feverish desire to pass this legislation rapidly, even at the cost of potentially prolonging the Civil War, such is his moral imperative to have the outlawing of this barbaric practice enshrined in the most respected of all American legal documents, and such is the uniqueness of the opportunity presented to him.

He is aided and opposed by a simply stunning rogues gallery of American character actors, putting to shame even the impressive rosters of Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Sweating under wigs, beards, hats and sideburns, it’s just possible to discern David Strathairn, Bruce McGill, David Costabile, Michael Stuhlbarg, Walton Goggins, Jackie Earle Haley and Gregory Itzin – to say nothing of the delightful trifecta of John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and blessed, glorious James Spader, having an absolute whale of a time as one of Lincoln’s unofficial vote-fixers.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is perfectly fine as Lincoln’s eldest son, but isn’t really given much to do. More interesting and impressive is Sally Field as the sometimes hysterical Mary Todd Lincoln. If it weren’t for Anne Hathaway towering over the award like Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, Field might be walking away with Best Supporting Actress.

But ultimately, the film belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis. This is simply an epic performance. His Lincoln is stooped, grave, benevolent, picaresque, tenacious. Spielberg’s atypically restrained camera work gently dollies and arcs past his leading man’s hunched shoulders and quiet smile, again and again contriving to turn Day-Lewis granite features into a monument – appropriately enough! The story is largely one of politicking, deal-making, legislating and debating. Tony Kushner’s script includes enough human interest to prevent the film from desiccating  as you watch, but knows when to take its time and simply allow Lincoln to set out his legal reasons for pushing ahead with the amendment when the Emancipation Proclamation is already law.

The only performance which can even attempt to eclipse Day-Lewis is Tommy Lee Jones – never better than here as Thaddeus Stevens, Lincoln’s ferocious antislavery bulldog whose ranting zeal may be more hindrance than help. It’s in what possibly should have been the film’s final shot of Stevens and his housekeeper (in fact it comes about ten minutes before the end) that the epic human reason for having all these bearded men shouting at each other is made heartbreakingly clear.

This, then, is proper grown-up filmmaking, handled by a director who made his name with hugely energetic and skilful popcorn nonsense. It’s particularly gratifying to see him tackling such a weighty story with such delicacy after the ghastly Warhorse last year. It’s almost as if the director recognised that that script was so slight that the only chance it would possibly have would be for him to Spielberg all over it, but here he trusts the clarity of the text and the precision of his actors to do much of the work for him, which is greatly to his credit.

There is a tremendous amount to admire here, but ultimately I feel that this is a hard film to love. Dense, complicated, internecine and talky, it doesn’t have enough of an emotional pay-off – or enough good jokes (although there are some) – to be a truly engaging cinema experience. But it targets the Academy’s proclivities with prodigious accuracy. If Argo was ultimately too loose, too funny, too boys-own – too much fun – to win Best Picture, but Zero Dark Thirty was too bare, too sombre – not enough fun – to win Best Picture, then Lincoln hits the bullseye.

My other film of the week was David O Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. Russell is the writer-director of one of my favourite unsung gems, the delightfully funny Flirting With Disaster, an early success for Ben Stiller as neurotic Mel Coplin, unable to name his child until he has tracked down his own biological parents. On first seeing the trailer, I didn’t clock Russell’s name. It looked for the first two-thirds like standard-issue kooky indie rom-com fare, then they started dancing and I just checked-out. When it later started to get Oscar buzz I was somewhat confused to say the least.

Now I’ve seen it, I’m still somewhat confused. Much of it is very good indeed. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence’s pair of star-crossed crazies are not, as I had assumed, run-of-the-mill Hollywood nutjobs with endearing eccentricities. On the contrary, they are deeply damaged people, seriously, unpleasantly and dangerously ill, both struggling to understand the faulty wiring in their head, but having to use that same faulty wiring to do it. Brilliantly, Cooper’s father has his own history of mental illness, is a bundle of superstitions and OCD and, even more brilliantly, is played by Robert de Niro.

Cooper and Lawrence ignite the screen whenever they appear – their superstar charisma (and pretty nifty dancing skills) instantly elevates the story and they each manage to create genuinely affecting characters for the great majority of the movie. The scene in which Lawrence uses her own statistical research to clamber inside the de Niro character’s delusions and rewire his perception of the world is absolutely extraordinary, delightfully funny and quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

Unfortunately, it’s also around here, in the final act, that the wheels start to come off. Firstly, the plot is juggling quite a lot of different elements at this point – the central love affair between Cooper and Lawrence, Cooper’s attempts to reintegrate himself with his family and friends, Cooper’s unresolved feelings for his wife, the letters which Lawrence is ferrying between them, the dance contest which Cooper and Lawrence have entered, the epic sports bet which de Niro has made – it’s a lot. And the demands of the genre begin making themselves felt, so this quite unconventional story suddenly starts ending in a very conventional way indeed.

But although all the basic plot demands of a wacky rom-com are met, Russell the scriptwriter has been sloppy with the details. The first three quarters of the film are littered with set-ups which are never paid-off. Whole characters turn out not to influence the plot one bit (say hello, Chris Tucker) and what look like hugely important plot contrivances are just forgotten about or brushed aside. But at the same time as the structure is becoming unsatisfyingly frayed at the edges, the spiky, unpredictable, unconventional characters are becoming unsatisfyingly airbrushed into conformity, with all of the rough edges sanded off and all of their dangerous quirks blanded away by the soothing power of dance.

I doubt it was Russell’s intention but the very clear message of the end of the film is – you have to be normal to be happy. For such an original, nonconformist piece, this is a hugely disappointing way to wrap things up.

No-one else seems to have noticed, or to care though, especially not at the Academy where it has been nominated for an astonishing  eight awards, all of them big hitters, including the “Big Five” plus supporting actor and actress nominations for de Niro and Australian Jacki Weaver as Cooper’s mother.

I only have Beasts of the Southern Wild to go now, which is on its way to me on DVD. For now, here are a few quick predictions about the Oscars ceremony on 24 February. As noted, Lincoln will scoop Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor and probably Best Adapted Screenplay as well – although Silver Linings Playbook and Argo probably have a shot here too. Best Actress is a toughie, but  I reckon Jessica Chastain will probably take it, although I would love to see Emmanelle Riva triumph. De Niro has a good chance with Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress will go to Anne Hathaway, absolutely beyond a doubt. Best Original Screenplay is also wide open. I wonder if Mark Boal will be recognised for Zero Dark Thirty.

The Oscars 2013 – Zero Dark Thirty (and Jack Reacher)

Posted on January 31st, 2013 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Every list of Oscar nominations brings its own themes. In 2013, the Academy seems to be favouring history (not for the first time), politics – (a little less typical), children adrift on a raft (wtf?) and tragic death (natch).

Zero Dark Thirty, like Amour, can hardly be called entertainment. Kathryn Bigelow follows up her astoundingly good The Hurt Locker (probably my favourite Best Picture winner of the last ten years) with this reconstruction of the tracking, finding and executing in Pakistan of Osama bin Laden.

Obviously, telling this story is fraught with political pitfalls, most of which Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal nimbly avoid. It’s telling that the film has been both criticised for validating torture since it shows that the “detainee program” under George W Bush’s presidency provided vital leads which led eventually to bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound; and praised for demonstrating that after suspects at Guantanamo had been subjected to “enhanced interrogation” for years, real progress in tracking the al-Quaeda leader was only made when torture was abandoned in favour of more traditional “tradecraft”.

In fact, the movie studiously avoids any such comment, it simply portrays the events which undoubtedly took place. Suspects were waterboarded by Americans, the programme was shut down and other methods were later substituted, following both of which bin Laden was located and eliminated. It’s impossible to say, based on the evidence presented here what might have happened if there had been more torture or less.

In fact the whole approach of the movie is simple, factual, procedural. There are moments of excitement – various life-and-death moments during the course of the investigation, not to mention the final approach and assault on the compound, presented in all its chaotic brutality – but the main meat of the film is simply observing how this kind of international police work is done.

Bigelow and Boal’s task is to take this history lesson and turn it into a movie, without it becoming a melodrama, and by and large they succeed admirably. By taking a single character (whose real-life counterpart has not been publicly identified) in the luminous persona of Jessica Chastain and threading her like a needle through every aspect of the story, they manufacture both a complete through-line and just enough human interest to keep the story watchable. As the baton is passed from Chastain to DC bureaucrats and finally to the officers of SEAL Team Six, the screenplay does an excellent job of keeping her an active part of the narrative without compromising credibility too much. The movie is also neatly divided into titled chapters, a technique I’ve always enjoyed (see also The Fortune Cookie and Pulp Fiction to name two favourite but utterly dissimilar pictures).

If anything, as with The Hurt Locker, Bigelow occasionally lets the demands of traditional movie storytelling get in the way. A couple of times, what should be a shocking surprise is telegraphed too much by the need to show the calm-before-the-storm. But film grammar tells a savvy audience that if we just see calm for too long, with no other obvious purpose, then it can only mean that a storm is coming. By and large though, this is clean, simple, urgent and distinctive filmmaking, with a forensically clear gaze, but enough taste not to dwell on the viscera and brutality of its subject matter. Although I did note that the actual events of 9-11 are deemed too shocking to reproduce through visual effects – instead we are just given an audio montage at the beginning of the film – whereas the 7/7 bombings in London are happily recreated with lots of black powder and gasoline.

William Goldman has observed that “audiences love ‘how’” and this film does test that to the limit. If your tolerance for patient detective work is limited and your appetite for political manoeuvring small then you might find the middle third of the film slow or even boring, but I was very happy to sit and watch events unfold. With a large cast, many of whom contribute only a few lines here-and-there, Bigelow is smart to cast familiar faces to help us keep track. Mark Strong shows up, in full-on Alec Baldwin Glengarry Glen Ross rant mode, not to mention fleeting appearances by James Gandolfini , Stephen Dillane, Harold Perrineau, Kyle Chandler and even Chris Pratt from Parks and Recreation, surprisingly effective as one of the Navy SEALs. More jarring is the handsomely incongruous presence of John Barrowman for two lines, not to mention my friend Jeff Mash. Hi Jeff!

Many have compared this to Lincoln, which apparently is much the same only with more beards and fewer suicide bombers, but – not having seen Spielberg’s no-doubt Oscar champ – my main point of comparison is with Argo, that other tale of do-gooding CIA heroes abroad. It’s a fascinating counterpoint. On the one hand, Argo is a far simpler tale, in which the good-guys are engaged in a purely humanitarian mission. And Argo makes it easy to streamline the narrative, since it gives itself far more licence with the facts. Zero Dark Thirty on the other hand, wades through much murkier ethical waters – the good guys here are on a revenge execution mission and are, at least initially, unafraid to torture their way to their goal. But, even though it’s a simpler story, Argo is actually more ambitious – delicately balancing the demands of being a political thriller, historical account, Hollywood satire and boys-own adventure. By giving themselves permission to bend the truth, and invent characters and situations, director Ben Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio have created a piece of cinema which possibly feels less important, but which is more entertaining, more satisfying and – yes – actually has more to say.

Zero Dark Thirty is thoroughly deserving of its place in the Academy’s top nine of 2012, but it’s not the best film on the list, and it won’t win the main prize. Even if Lincoln were suddenly disqualified, it would still be too divisive, too political and just not fun enough. Jessica Chastain has a shot, but she’s got stiff competition from all four other nominees, as does Mark Boal, up for Best Original Screenplay. Awards success aside, if you want to know what counter-terrorism is actually like, then this is definitely worth seeing, if only as a corrective to the demented antics of TV’s 24.

My other movie of the week – not nominated for best picture – also reminded me of the adventures of Jack Bauer. It’s the Tom Cruise vehicle Jack Reacher, based on the lengthy series of novels by Lee Child.

It’s somewhat of a mystery to me why this film exists, and an even deeper mystery why Tom Cruise is in it. No doubt scores of relatively unheralded sequences of thrillers exist in airport bookshops across the world. Any one of them might be purchased by a film studio hoping to mint a new franchise at any time. Make no mistake, the Ian Fleming books were popular and sold briskly (especially after JFK bizarrely nominated From Russia With Love as one of his favourite novels) but the James Bond phenomenon started with Sean Connery in Dr No and it’s the Eon-produced films which ensure that the character is still current sixty years after the first book was published.

Especially in the context of other movie heroes, the Jack Reacher of the books isn’t especially striking. And here, with some of the rough edges sanded away and in the compact form of Tom Cruise, he seems even less remarkable. Since Dr No in 1962, the standard action adventure hero has been composed of the same basic ingredients – only the proportions vary. From Die Hard to Batman, to Raiders of the Lost Ark to Lethal Weapon, you can see the same approach. Your hero needs to be a kick-ass, a smart-ass, be possessed of preternatural gifts of perception, deduction and luck, and to be just tortured enough to provide the illusion of depth. Not only does Jack Reacher add nothing new to the pantheon of cinema action heroes, it adds nothing new to the pantheon of cinema action heroes played by Tom Cruise, who already has a perfectly serviceable tortured smart-mouthed magic kick-ass to build a franchise around in the shape of Ethan Hunt.

But Jack Reacher would have been an oddity even without Cruise. Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s laudable goal was to create a more intelligent kind of action-thriller, but it’s easy to see why it hasn’t set the box office alight (so far $180m worldwide – in 1996 the first Mission Impossible film did $450m). Far too slow and talky for the Transformers crowd, it’s also far too dumb for those who would seek out Argo or Lincoln. The plot, involving a sniper who picks off five random strangers and is then beaten into a coma but not before scrawling “get Jack Reacher”, is effective enough (although the real reason for the quintuple murder was obvious to me almost immediately) but there isn’t enough of it to justify the running time. And while Werner Herzog has a ball as the panto villain known as “The Zec” who chewed off his own fingers to avoid gangrene, Rosamund Pike has a fatal lack of chemistry with Cruise, indeed she can’t seem to summon up any spark at all.

This is well-mounted, with exciting car chases and gun battles and some suitably pithy one-liners, and perfectly serviceable bank holiday weekend TV watching stuff, but it’s amazing to me that this utterly ordinary piece of movie-making was either Cruise or McQuarrie’s dream project.