Oscars 2021: Sound of Metal and Another Round

Posted on April 22nd, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Last on my list of Best Picture nominees was Sound of Metal. And I might just have saved the best for last. Riz Ahmed does career-best work here as Ruben Stone, a drummer in a heavy metal duo who suffers suddenly and catastrophic hearing loss which causes him to spiral despite the best efforts of firm but fair Joe (Paul Raci) at whose retreat for the deaf the middle part of the film is set.

So, this is another small film. Small in the sense that Minari is small or Nomadland is small, in that it’s about a handful of people and the intimate group of people around them. But it’s also small in the way that The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Judas and the Black Messiah aren’t. This isn’t righting any societal wrongs, or commenting on a troubled part of recent history. What’s fascinating about Darius Marder’s film (with input into the screenplay from Derek Cianfrance and Marder’s brother Abraham) is both its window into deafness – and particularly sudden loss of hearing – and its fascinating depiction of a protagonist who consistently makes amazingly poor decisions but who never loses my sympathy.

The evocation of deafness is absolutely stunning. Both in the sound mixing and the editing. Because deafness is impossible to evoke simply on the soundtrack. Certain scenes play like a weird looking-glass version of the nightmare scene in The Artist wherein objects sudden create noises. It’s the contrast between the kinetic movement in the frame and the precisely judged presence or absence of accompanying sounds that give these moments their profound impact. And Riz Ahmed – almost never off the screen – anchors the film with a commanding performance, which would make me sorry that he doesn’t stand a chance as Best Actor this year, were it not for my now unshakeable faith that it’s only a matter of time.

Paul Raci (possibly controversially, a hearing Child Of Deaf Adults rather than a deaf actor) underplays beautifully and there’s not a trace of sentimentality in his relationship with Ruben. And it’s greatly to the film’s credit that when that relationship is sabotaged by Ruben, he leaves and we never see Raci again – but nor does this feel untidy, like a loose end that needs to be tied off.

Less successful is Ruben’s relationship with his girlfriend Lou. Olivia Cooke does fine work in the first third, but she’s Jennifered off to sleep on a porch while the boys have their drama. The way their relationship shifts in the final act feels true and poignant however and the final shot is completely devastating. Richer than Minari or Promising Young Woman, less purely entertaining than Chicago 7 but more grounded, just more interesting than Nomadland and far more cinematic than The Father, this barely noses ahead of Judas and the Black Messiah as my favourite of the nominees.

I also watched Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, which for a while I thought would top the lot. It’s a marvelously dark, richly comic tale of middle aged angst, in which four schoolteachers use the (apparently real) writings of a crackpot psychiatrist to justify being permanently pissed at the job. Naturally, this can’t end well, but the sly way in which they egg each other on, and the sheer pleasure of seeing them almost lift out of the skins at home and at work is delightful. But this morbid tale demands a grim ending, and just as I was waiting for the final savage twist of the knife, the storm clouds lifted. I gather that a tragedy in Vinterberg’s life led him towards a more life-affirming ending for the tale, and while the final sequence is just that, it feels like the central conceit has been neither carried to climactic excess nor brutally undercut as reality seizes control and wrests the fantasy away from our heroes. A very near miss, then, but well worth investigating.

Oscars 2021: The Father and One Night in Miami

Posted on April 18th, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

WARNING: Spoilers herein. Read at your own risk.

I’d vaguely heard that Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own play (with a bit of help from Christopher Hampton) had arrived with rather poor reviews for all save Anthony Hopkins, but on closer reflection this does not seem at all to be the case. It’s got marvellous reviews pretty much across the board and it’s a wonderful showcase for Hopkins who manages to be charming, petty, exuberant, pathetic, manipulative and befuddled as Anthony, an elderly man whose daughter is concerned that he will shortly be unable to look after himself.

The set up – and weirdly the physical geography of the flat – calls to mind Michael Haneke’s devasting Amour but Zeller is playing a different game. Haneke’s approach was ruthlessly objective, never imposing anything on the material that wasn’t there already. The only exception to this is a sequence towards the end where a bird flies through the flat, which feels less than wholly literal to me and gives the whole piece a tiny extra spark of poetry.

Zeller’s approach would have played brilliantly on the stage – how I wish I’d seen this in the theatre – as after an initial scene between Anthony and his daughter (Olivia Colman, doing very fine work), Anthony is disturbed to find a stranger in his living room. He claims this is his flat, not Anthony’s and when his daughter comes home, she’s now played by Olivia Williams. From this point on, we are slave to Anthony’s encroaching dementia as people, faces, roles, ownership, time, geography and even personhood are constantly called into question by these simple devices. This might be a one-trick film, but by god it’s a wonderful trick and by god it works gangbusters.

And, as the human cost of living in this confused state finally becomes too much to bear, it becomes a deeply moving “trick” as well. What it never becomes, however, is cinematic. Zeller doesn’t do much wrong with the camera and – as noted – the cast are exemplary. What’s missing is any attempt to tell the story visually beyond what would have been observed by a theatre audience. There’s one moment which muddies the geography of the space more than usual which does hint at this, but it’s never developed.

This is a wonderful record of a fascinating play rather than a piece of fully-realised cinema then, but that shouldn’t take away just how fascinating a play it is, how beautifully acted it is by all concerned and how movingly it penetrates the quandaries faced by those with dementia and those who love them.

One Night in Miami

Also adapted from a play, and not nominated for Best Picture (although in the running for various other awards), this feels much more like a play in conception: four famous men sit in a room and talk. But Regina King is very at home on movie sets and constantly finds ways to make this feel like a movie – and crucially finds ways to tell the story that aren’t reliant on dialogue. The early section, prior to the four-way meeting, I imagine is new for the screen, and there did come a moment once all four were on screen that I detected what felt like slightly stagey rhythms as each man came in with his line precisely on the heels of the one before, but that moment passed and I was able to enjoy an equally absorbing play, this time playing out as cinema.

The four men are all excellent: Oscar nominated Leslie Odom Jr bides his time as smooth-as-silk Sam Cooke but his journey is probably the most profound; Aldis Hodge is powerful and striking as NFL player Jim Brown; Eli Goree summons up all of Cassius Clay’s bounce and swagger without making him a cartoon; and Kingsley Ben-Adir is a thoughtful, paternal, sometimes impatient Malcolm X. Although I something about Ben-Adir’s look is distractingly English in my eyes.

The conversation takes on many topics including colourism, parasitism, the Muslim faith and the need for solidarity. There isn’t much of a plot, but nor does their need to be one. The conversation is enough, and King expertly judges when to let that breathe and when to do more with the camera, the blocking or the mise-en-scene. It’s almost impossible to believe that this is her debut feature as director, although she has been directing for television since 2013.

Two slightly compromised films then, in terms of their form, but both of immensely high quality and featuring stand-out performances. I don’t know who will win the acting awards on Sunday night, but I do know that whatever the outcome, there will be people rightfully feeling they was robbed.

The Oscars 2021: Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari

Posted on April 15th, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

Judas and the Black Messiah

This can’t help but call to mind Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman for me. Both stories are about the infiltration by law enforcement of an organisation concerned with race in America, and both attempt to walk the line between true life stories, social commentary and thriller movie clichés. BlackKlansman is hardly subtle, and the final act of the story does become a slightly ridiculous race-against-time trip to movieland – before the closing montage slams the real message home. Judas (written by Will Berson and Shaka King and directed by King) is a bit more subversive, a bit more sly, and I think I very slightly preferred it.

It’s blessed by some powerhouse performances. On the one hand, we have Daniel Kaluuya, cementing his reputation as one of our most gifted actors. In Get Out he seemed vulnerable, almost spindly. Here, his doughy physique gives him massive presence and power – he dominates every room he’s in, physically, vocally and emotionally. Opposite him, in a less showy but more complex part, is Lakeith Stanfield, fulfilling all the promise he showed in Sorry to Bother You. His nervy, twitchy Bill O’Neal is nabbed passing himself off as an FBI agent and made to pass on information about the Black Panthers, which Jesse Plemons’ agent laconically sells to Stanfield as as much of a threat to civil rights as the KKK.

And while much of this film is a straight Fred Hampton biopic and much else (as noted) is fairly familiar from films such as Donnie Brasco or The Departed or the aforementioned BlackKlansman, it’s all extremely well structured, shot, acted and assembled. Where it becomes at first queasily fascinating and then shockingly tragic, is in the interplay between Stanfield and Plemons and then Plemons and Martin Sheen – playing J Edgar Hoover like a cross between Nixon and The Penguin.

Telling the story of an extraordinary person through the eyes of an outsider is often a smart move. We can’t know what it was like to be Fred Hampton (or Gandhi, or Stephen Hawking or Charlie Chaplin) but when the narrative unfolds this way, we can know what it was like to be in their presence. And it helps that – as with Selma a few years ago – much of the true story was not known to me. However, I still rank this film as “very good” rather than “masterpiece”. It’s a smartly written and directed slice of highly relevant history, with an outstanding performance from Kaluuya, and contains many memorable moments. But it doesn’t quite contain that extra little innovation, flourish or profundity that would elevate it to the absolute top ranks.

And I’d say pretty much the same thing about Minari, a film which otherwise resembles Judas in almost no way at all. Taking inspiration from his own childhood, Lee Isaac Chung writes and directs this tale of the immigrant Yi family abandoning their life in California, where father Jacob has become a chicken-sexing savant, to instead farm a few acres of Arkansas in the hope of taking a bit more control over their lives.

Whereas Judas presents some fairly clearly defined evildoers, one of the fascinating things about Minari is that there are no bad actors. Things go well and things go poorly for the Yis, but there are no moustache-twirling villains threatening them with eviction, no racist thugs who beat them up. There aren’t even thoughtlessly cruel classmates who taunt the children. Things go well and things go poorly because that’s what life is like. The trick (and it’s a good one) is to put that simple truth on the screen and make it interesting, and not use “that’s what life is like” as a pretext for a story which doesn’t build, or move or have a reason to end. Without a trace of artifice, Minari has all of these. Like Nomadland, it’s a delicate film, built out of small human moments. Unlike Nomadland, none of those moments ever feels without purpose or meaning.

The cast is effortlessly convincing. Winsome Alan Kim as little David and elderly Youn Yuh-jung as grandma are mopping up most the awards love, and Steven Yeun is the only familiar face from English-language fare thanks to his years of service on The Walking Dead. But I was constantly drawn to Han Ye-ri as Monica, the mother of the family, who manages to create a version of the wife-who-opposes-her-husband’s-desire-for-adventure which never feels like a shrewish cliché. She’s the glue that holds this family together and this performance similarly binds the film together.

That only leaves me with The Father and Sound of Metal from the Best Picture nominees but I’m going to try and take in a few others like One Night in Miami, Wolfwalkers and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom if time allows.

The Oscars 2021: Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Posted on March 24th, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It often seems to me as if the majority of modern American films fall into one of two types: self-actualisation through sudden wealth acquisition or self-actualisation through superior firepower. That’s not necessarily a criticism – some of my favourite films could be considered as belonging to one or other of those two categories – but it speaks to a lack of ambition that drags everything back towards the mainstream. Although criticised in some quarters for no longer representing the tastes of the average cinema-goer, the modern Oscars at least shines a light on films which pull in a different direction.

Part of the reason for all of this expiation is that… well, I didn’t love Nomadland the way I was supposed to. Poor Nomadland. It’s such a delicate, heartfelt, intimate little film, that for me to watch (and thoroughly dislike) Mank and then have Chloé Zhao’s film presented as the Mank-killer which is going to deprive Fincher and co of their armfuls of little gold men is hardly fair or appropriate.

And I did really like this film. I just can’t see it changing my life. That said, I do admire it intensely. While Fincher plays silly games with true stories, Zhao takes a non-fiction book and incorporates some of the real Americans who are living this lifestyle into her scripted drama. One of the many accomplishments of the piece is the way that lead actors Frances McDormand and David Strathairn so beautifully integrate themselves into the authentic “nomads” that it’s almost impossible to see the joins. And Zhao also creates some indelible images of the American landscape.

This is a story which needed telling and it’s thrilling that the most prestigious awards ceremony in the world is treating it so well. The US experiment in utterly unfettered capitalism is crushing huge swathes of the population under the oppressive weight of an American Dream which purports to create opportunity for all, and in fact does as little as possible to level the playing field. No wonder that some people just refuse to play the game at all.

So as a window into this lifestyle, this is fascinating stuff and McDormand’s Fern is an utterly winning protagonist. Nor does this fall into the trap of seeming like a series of self-contained short films which could have come in any order. Part of the interest lies in seeing how chance encounters pay off later down the (literal and metaphorical) road.

But – without ever wishing this to tip into melodrama – I couldn’t help wanting the stakes to feel a little higher, for me to be just a little more invested in the details of Fern’s life. I literally gasped out loud when David clumsily pulled a cardboard box out of Fern’s van, and I was happy that she was able to repair the damage with a handy tube of superglue, but the very fact that Fern was able to fix the problem so easily (barely an inconvenience!) made me just a bit less committed to wanting to know what happened next.

As noted – this is really a story of how not to watch a film rather than any real criticism of Nomadland as a piece of art. It’s clear that Zhao is a major talent and that she has made exactly the movie she set out to make. And I will be delighted if this film wins Best Picture on 25 April. But I fear I like the idea of this film winning Best Picture more than I actually enjoyed watching the film.

Of course, if it does win, I will have to watch it again for a future episode of Best Pick. And who knows – like both Moonlight and (to a lesser extent) Parasite, I might discover that what seemed to lack a bit of narrative punch on first viewing, turns out to have more rewarding depths second time around.

One thing you can’t accuse Promising Young Woman of is not having narrative punch. It’s a delirious, sweet-and-tart, fizzing cocktail of a movie, pulsing with energy, anger and black humour. The set up is wonderfully sick and yet horrifyingly just at the same time. Cassie feigns near-blackout drunkenness in bars and nightclubs, waiting for a “nice guy” to take her home. And then when he attempts to consummate the encounter, she terrifyingly reveals her sobriety and shames them for their horrible actions. While Cassie clearly has right on her side, these scenes are almost as scary putting yourself in her shoes as those of her victims. Any one of these “nice guys” could turn out to be more committed to adding another notch to the bedpost than she assumed and she could quickly find herself in very serious trouble. What could possibly drive someone to these extremes? Emerald Fennell has all the answers.

Not nominated for any Oscars is I Care A Lot which secured a Golden Globe for its promising young star Rosamund Pike. But whereas J Blakeson’s film is pure trash with an unremittingly morally bankrupt protagonist who ends up resembling the relentless Terminator in her ludicrous determination to succeed, Fennell’s is more nuanced, subtle and awkward. However, both films deliver final acts which are more interested in twisty thriller plotting than the moral questions they pose, and while this doesn’t make them any less enjoyable, it does make them both a little harder to take seriously.

I Care A Lot is best watched as a bonkers thriller with a satisfyingly sick concept as its premise. Promising Young Woman feels like it has considerably more to say and will live with me a lot longer, but the last twenty minutes or so have a straight-ahead quality that while not exactly betraying the complexity of the preceding hour and a half, doesn’t seem entirely in keeping with it either.

But these are minor criticisms really, when Fennell shoots everything so well, and assembles a remarkable supporting cast including GLOW alumni Chris Lowell and Alison Brie, Mclovin himself Chrisopher Mintz-Plasse, Connie Britton (whose one scene is a total stand-out), Laverne Cox, Jennifer Coolidge and Bo Burnham. But holding everything together is a radiant Carey Mulligan, who exudes resolve, vulnerability, loneliness, joy, desperation and clarity of purpose without ever turning Cassie into a chimera. It’s a stunning performance in a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable film.

I had already seen Promising Young Woman before the nominations were announced and the same is true of The Trial of the Chicago 7, but even longer ago, so forgive me if this review isn’t quite so detailed. If I had no idea what to expect of Promising Young Woman and was knocked out by the originality of the concept and the sureness of the execution, I had much clearer expectations of Aaron Sorkin’s latest, and while I wasn’t disappointed, I wasn’t thrilled in quite the same way.

Unlike Mank, Sorkin doesn’t appear to have taken quite so many liberties with the truth and – arguably more importantly – the story as presented does seem to make sense. Reality has furnished him with a number of extraordinary events and as screenwriter, he’s created a subtle but powerful structure which holds back some key information until very late in the day. As director, too, Sorkin continues to grow in confidence, and he brings a really authentic period feel to proceedings. He also parcels out exposition with his customary skill and knows when to play games, when to come in with the gags and when to slow down and make us take things seriously.

This is probably the most completely successful film of this batch so far – but also the least exciting. While it’s a powerful story that deserves to get a wider hearing, and while there’s another fantastic roster of American (and non-American) character actors having a blast with Sorkin’s machine-gun dialogue, there’s nothing here I haven’t seen before. I’d put this on the same shelf as previous Best Picture winners like Argo, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire or Shakespeare in Love – entertaining and well-made films which deserved their win but which probably wouldn’t have succeeded except in a relatively thin year.

And I’ve got a feeling this isn’t a thin year. I think this could be rather a special year.

Oscars 2021: Mank

Posted on March 21st, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

In 1925, Herman J Mankiewicz, newly employed Hollywood screenwriter, sent a famous telegram to fellow New Yorker Ben Hecht. “Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

In David Fincher’s film Mank this notorious missive is paraphrased, relocated to 1930, the recipient switched to Herman’s brother Joe, its status is lowered to that of a tired old running gag and it is shorn of its punchline. That’s this film all over: flagrantly inaccurate, its inventions usually less interesting and more confusing than the truth it rejects, freely borrowing other people’s witty remarks, but heedless as to what made those quips funny in the first place. Elsewhere, Sam Goldwyn’s famous barb about sending messages by Western Union is put in the mouth of Louis B Mayer and Mankiewicz himself adopts John Houseman’s savagely funny nickname for Orson Welles: Maestro The Dog-Faced Boy.

Mank, now trailing ten Oscar nominations in its wake, is (sort-of) the story of the writing of Citizen Kane. That’s a big problem right there. The actual process of writing, the hard graft of trying to construct a screenplay, the endless finessing of dialogue and action lines, the painstaking editing and re-editing, is rarely dramatic, and almost never cinematic. But whereas there are fascinating stories to be told about how Welles got the contract of a lifetime at RKO, why he wanted to collaborate with Mank and how they settled on Hearst as a suitable subject – not to mention the nearly catastrophic fallout when the film was completed – none of this is of interest to Fincher who starts the action with a 90 day countdown to Mank finishing the first draft and ends the movie before Welles starts shooting his.

That it’s Mank doing the writing means that Fincher (and his late dad Jack who wrote the script – given an uncredited polish by Eric Roth, irony fans) has swallowed the Pauline Kael Kool-Aid and is repeating the easily-debunked lie that Mank deserved sole credit for the Oscar-winning screenplay. Like Kael, Fincher’s camera just doesn’t look at it any of the writing of Kane done by Welles and thus concludes that he did none. In interviews, Fincher has claimed that he had no interest in attributing credit. But he was interested in the story of a man who agreed not to accept credit and then changed his mind. The sum total screentime which this debate occupies is less than two minutes. A great deal of the rest of it is rather ho-hum life-in-1930s-Hollywood flashback, which eventually and laboriously drags itself towards a slightly hysterical and mildly revisionist take on radical novelist Upton Sinclair’s run for Governor of California in 1934, which is then presented as Mankiewicz’s motivation for writing a satire about Hearst.

The facts are that Sinclair’s bid was harmed by “fake news” propaganda films released by MGM, and by poisonous columns in Hearst papers – although other papers were even more violently anti-Sinclair. Mank gilds this slim story with Herman being the only Sinclair supporter amid hundreds of loyal Republican MGM staffers, his personal crusade via his friendship with Marion Davies to prevent the films from being released, and the suicide of the writer-turned-editor-turned-director who was somehow goaded into creating these monstrosities. In real life, the editor of the films (who was previously employed by MGM as… checks notes… an editor) was perfectly happy with his work and made more of the same.

Mankiewicz had no involvement with Upton Sinclair whatsoever, and would no doubt have been drawn to the legend of Hearst even if he hadn’t first been a frequent guest at San Simeon and then been humiliatingly uninvited. So this is somewhat of a made-up answer in search of a suitable question. And the movie shifts gears abruptly when Mank’s aloof cynicism suddenly turns into messianic zeal as he briefly battles to prevent the forces of darkness from winning. It’s true that by this point in the film I was getting very fed up of people walking in and out of rooms, making mordant wisecracks at each other, always in the same monotonous rhythms, smothered by the ever-present score, and I dearly longed for there to be something at stake, for someone to strive for something, for me to be hoping for one outcome or dreading another. But its hard to escape the conclusion that Gary Oldman’s Mank adopts this role of desperate defender of all that is good and holy because he’s the protagonist of the movie since this behaviour is totally at odds with everything else we know about him. And this is the problem with making shit up to try and turn your slice-of-true-life into a screenplay. You need to make sure the pieces fit together and that what you’ve added to reality coheres with what was there before. Better to make up almost everything (as in Argo) – or just give up and make a documentary – if the fiction fails to mesh with the fact to this extent.

Take Mank’s relationship with Marion Davies. Probably the best scene in the entire film is their conversation in the garden of San Simeon. The score dies down, people stop quipping over each other and we just get to explore who these people are, and what they mean to each other. It has little to do with Welles or Kane or Sinclair or anything else but it does explore deeper themes of fame, wealth, notoriety and the power of narratives to shape our understanding of the world.

However, this largely-invented relationship now has to do battle with what most viewers already know. The person who came off worst from Citizen Kane was probably that same Marion Davies. Welles in several interviews is rather shamefaced about her, describing their depiction of Kane’s second wife as a “dirty trick” which unfairly tarnished the reputation of a basically blameless and clearly talented young woman. Obviously, at the time, the enterprising young screenwriters didn’t fully understand the consequences of their actions.

But, watching Mank, you are forced to conclude that Herman J Mankiewicz establishes a deep friendship and trust with Davies. Then, given total autonomy to write whatever screenplay he wishes, he chooses to write a version of Hearst and a version of Davies which wildly defames them both, and then when the damage this will do to Davies is pointed out to him – on two separate occasions – despite no pressure whatsoever in any other direction, he calmly leaves the screenplay exactly as it is without his conscience bothering him for a moment. And remember – the lesson he has supposedly learned from the Sinclair debacle is: movies can alter how people think. At this point, it’s impossible to try and understand who Herman Mankiewicz is. He’s reduced to a series of checkboxes and catchphrases, assembled at random.

There are other problems besides. While taking almost no time at all to school younger viewers as to who Welles is, what Citizen Kane is and why it matters, the script makes sure we know who individual characters are by having people greet them by name and most notable feature: “Thalberg! The boy genius!” “Herman Mankiewicz? New York playwright and drama critic?” Neither Mankiewicz nor Welles would ever have stood for that. Elsewhere, LB Mayer is “poppa” and WR Hearst is “pops” just in case you were having trouble keeping all these old white wisecracking men straight. About halfway through the film, everybody starts calling Hearst “Willy” to avoid confusion. And the Frankenstein plotting continues right to the end, where Mayer’s offer to buy the Kane negative off RKO for a little more than the film cost to make is bizarrely made before the script is even finished. And, a colossal bet that Mankiewicz makes on the outcome of the election is given huge weight and then never referred to again.

Performances are largely fine. Oldman is several decades too old for Mankiewicz, but maybe that fits given that Herman J essentially drank himself to death over many years. Sam Troughton makes a suitably fussy and pedantic John Houseman, Amanda Seyfried is very winning as Davies and Tom Burke catches something of Welles’ voice, although little of his wry self-reflection and megawatt charisma, while Charles Dance chews the scenery with predictable relish as Hearst.

And it all looks magnificent of course. One can only wonder if Fincher considered shooting it in 4:3 ala Zach Synder, but he fills the widescreen frame with period detail, including reel change marks, fake splices and type-written captions which, after they’ve appeared, scroll jerkily down the screen – you know, the way that paper in a typewriter doesn’t. It’s cute at first, but wearying after a while, like a precious child constantly demanding your attention.

There is a fascinating story here, and there are glimpses of what might have been. But the brilliance of the Kane script is (in part) that it takes a vastly complicated narrative, boils it down to only the most interesting and dramatic sequences and then erects a framing device which not only gives the whole enterprise a second layer of meaning, but avoids the need for any clumsy exposition to be given in dialogue. For a film which keeps making silly visual puns with the 1941 masterpiece, it’s amazing to look at the script and see that almost the exact opposite has been done in every single case. A fairly simple story has been made to seem more complicated than it was, the main timeline zeroes in on the least dramatic sequence and the only framing device seemingly required is a few terse captions.

Which would all be fine – or at least tolerable – if the execution weren’t so grindingly tedious. The worst offenders are the lengthy scenes at the Hearst mansion where everybody rattles out historical exposition alternating with ersatz versions of famous bon mots, carefully timed so as to delicately overlap. But the cadence is relentless, monotonous, deadening. There are no actual people in this room. It’s like a ride at Disneyland – we glide smoothly past animatronic versions of Charlie Chaplin, Irving Thalberg et al, reciting their familiar catchphrases. And at the end, I feel I know Mankiewicz less well than before. A big disappointment from such a talented team.

Oscars 2021: Nominations

Posted on March 19th, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It’s the Oscars! Just about. Finally. In some form. Probably.

Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas did the honours and read out the nominations and they’re quite an extraordinary bunch. First of all – ten nominations for Mank and no other film got more than six! That’s a big change from last year when four films got more than ten. But of course, the film which got the most nominations got no Oscars (The Irishman) and who’s to say that history won’t repeat itself?

And – in an outcome sure to get some members of the community foaming at the chops – this is a record-shatteringly diverse crop of nominees. Two whole women nominated as Best Director (the sixth and seventh ever female director nominees). Only one American man nominated as Best Director. Only one white American nominated as Best Actor, only one white American nominated as Best Actress. Two nominations for Borat including Best Supporting Actress for Maria Bakalova.

And Glenn Close has earned another nomination, bringing her total to 8. In 1985 Geraldine Page finally won an acting Oscar at her eighth attempt. Close already has the record for nominations without a win with seven. Can she duplicate Page’s feat?

Of course, it’s still the Academy so nothing for Delroy Lindo and in fact nothing at all for Da 5 Bloods except Best Original Score, which seems like even more of a kick in the nuts than just ignoring it completely. And there’s something slightly screwy going on in both Best Director and Best Editing. One of the five Best Director slots has gone to Thomas Vinterberg, whose film Another Round while it is nominated as Best International Feature is not nominated as Best Picture. And Best Editing – often a very good predictor of Best Picture – doesn’t include any mention of Mank. Which means the films which currently have the nominations trifecta of also being in the running for Director and Editing are Promising Young Woman and Nomadland. Make of that what you will.

Here’s my run-down of the Best Picture nominees…

The Father (w. Florian Zeller, Christopher Hampton; d. Zeller; Anthony Hopkins, Oliva Colman. Also nominated for Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, Production Design, Editing.)

For me this was the biggest surprise. Hopkins was widely touted as likely to get Best Actor but it wasn’t expected to get anything else. It got nothing at the Golden Globes, nor the Writers Guild, nor the Producers Guild, nor the Directors Guild. And yet here it is with six nominations. Rum.

Judas and the Black Messiah (w. Will Berson, Shaka King; d. King; Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield. Also nominated for Supporting Actor [Kaluuya, Stanfield], Screenplay, Cinematography, Song.)

Another one I didn’t see coming, but this time because I was barely aware of it. Kaluuya’s nomination as Best Supporting Actor is odd as the studio campaigned for him as Best Actor but the voting put him up against Stanfield in the supporting category. I don’t see this as a front-runner for Best Picture though, and I haven’t see it yet.

Mank (w. Jack Fincher; d. David Fincher; Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried. Also nominated for Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Production Design, Score, Costumes, Makeup, Sound.)

I honestly thought this was pretty poor. A longer review will follow but it’s trying to tell a true story in which nothing much happens, so it resorts to making a lot of shit up in order to try and manufacture some drama, and what we’re left with is impersonated celebrities walking in and out of rooms reciting their famous bon mots at each other. Did not got a nod for its screenplay but could still do very well in other categories, and must be seriously in the running for Best Picture.

Minari (wd. Lee Isaac Chung; Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn. Also nominated for Director, Actor [Yeun], Supporting Actress [Youn], Screenplay, Score.)

This has been getting sensational reviews and being a story about Asian immigrants, won’t suffer from the need to buy into another culture which you might have expected to hurt Parasite’s chances. Who’d have thought that Glen from off of The Walking Dead would be an Oscar nominee?

Nomadland (wd. Chloé Zhao; Frances McDormand, David Strathairn. Also nominated for Director, Actress, Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography.)

Definitely the one to beat if nothing comes up Fincher – and McDormand should get another speech ready too.

Promising Young Woman (wd. Emerald Fennell; Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie. Also nominated for Director, Actress, Screenplay, Editing.)

Only five noms – but they’re all in major categories. This is probably a shade too trashy to win big but could nick screenplay for Emerald Fennell and Mulligan has a slim chance. Review to follow.

Sound of Metal (w. Darius Marder, Abraham Marder, Derek Cianfrance; d. Marder; Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci. Also nominated for Actor, Supporting Actor, Screenplay, Sound, Editing.)

This sounds terrific and I’m so pleased for Riz Ahmed, but it faces very stiff competition in practically every category.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (wd. Aaron Sorkin; Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Daniel Flaherty, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella et al. Also nominated for Supporting Actor [Baron Cohen], Screenplay, Cinematography, Song, Editing)

Another Oscar film for Ali G! Who’d have thought it? Full review to follow but this is slickly entertaining stuff, on a level with Argo or The King’s Speech and in a year with so many detailed, personal films, that might not cut it in any category, not even screenplay where it has the best chance.

Reviews of the three I’ve seen and the five I haven’t (and possibly a few more besides) to follow in the next few days and weeks…

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

Posted on February 26th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

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 | 2 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.

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 warfare.

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.

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’t 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?