American Fiction

Posted on February 11th, 2024 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Cord Jefferson’s satire on the publishing business through a Black lens is many things. One thing it isn’t is the riproaring, one-liner stuffed, broad comedy which the trailer sells it as. By taking the ten best jokes and stitching them together, the marketeers have badly misrepresented this smart, painful, incisive, thoughtful – and yes, sometimes very funny – film. Ironically, despite the frustrations that this might cause, it seems appropriate for a story in which things are not what they seem, commercial imperatives trump artistic integrity and even vaunted literary prizes are hotbeds of pandering and intellectual shortcuts.

The cast is unimpeachable. Jeffrey Wright has never been better and is given a strong family unit comprising sister Tracee Ellis Ross, mother Leslie Uggams and brother Sterling K Brown. The early part of the story dismantles this strong family, forcing Wright’s hand much in the way that the St Valentine’s day massacre forces Joe and Jerry’s hand in Some Like it Hot. Only the incredibly convenient arrival of the perfect suitor for their live-in-maid strains credulity a little.

Based on what sounds like an unadaptable novel, the film’s unwillingness to settle for a single ending (or a single clear message) is probably the best way of taking the book’s style and finding a cinematic analogue, and Jefferson is careful to pave the way for this development in the way he structures and shoots some earlier moments (which include a lovely cameo from Keith David). He’s also careful to smudge the outline of what could have been too strident a moral, shading Issa Rae’s initially comical character with more depth and unafraid to make out hero seem like something of an asshole from time-to-time.

Possibly the best joke in the whole film, and one the trailer couldn’t spoil (so I will), is the conclusion of the literary judging process in which the three white jurors overrule the two Black ones on the basis that “It’s time to listen to Black voices.” Sharply satirical, but also oddly warm and even moving, this definitely isn’t what was sold to me, but is arguably better.

Oscar Nominations 2024

Posted on February 10th, 2024 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Have just discovered this languishing in my drafts folder. Apologies for the inconvenience.

The Oscar nominations are out and once again, we have ten Best Picture nominees. I have already seen a triumphant eight of these, and will be trying to mop up some of the International and Documentary features in the next few weeks. Here are the runners and riders.

American Fiction is one of the two I haven’t seen, but the trailer is very appealing (although you’d be forgiven for overlooking Sterling K Brown who is glimpsed only briefly, but who notches up a Best Supporting Actor nomination). Full review to follow.

Anatomy of a Fall. Terrific slab of Euro-intrigue which remakes the courtroom drama in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible, blessed with a remarkable tri-lingual script and a tremendous central performance from Sandra Hüller. Full review here.

Barbie. Thrillingly bonkers Mattel tie-in, which subverts the very play logic which it shockingly embraces to deliver a simplistic but deeply heartfelt feminism-for-beginners message. I briefly wondered if it might gather enough momentum to be a real contender for Best Picture, but with only eight nominations and nothing for Greta Gerwig as director or Margot Robbie as leading actress, I think we can write it off from this contest at least.

The Holdovers. Very Oscar-friendly, but probably not extraordinary enough to win. Full review here.

Killers of the Flower Moon. Scorsese demonstrates that he hasn’t lost his touch, blending the intimate with the epic, but I would have preferred a more focused two-hour version or a more exploratory six-hour mini-series which would have given more of a voice to the Osage people. Full review here.

Maestro. Despite all of the effort poured in by Bradley Cooper and the wealth of talent he has surrounded himself with, I kept waiting for the story to kick in. This feels like it’s run out of gas already.

Oppenheimer. Clear front-runner, with the most important story to tell, the biggest cultural footprint (possibly with the exception of Barbie) and it made a ton of money to boot.

Past Lives. Beautifully observed, painstakingly assembled, and far more original than its premise would suggest. Doesn’t have much of a chance at the big prize.

Poor Things. Lanthimos’s horny fairy tale horror has the potential to pull off a major upset, and I wouldn’t be mad at it for doing so, despite my reservations about the film. Full review here.

The Zone of Interest. The other one I haven’t seen but advance word is very strong.

In other categories, Best Director looks nailed on for Nolan, regardless of who wins Best Picture. The omission of Greta Gerwig is appalling but somehow not surprising. Nice to see Justine Triet there though. Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor also look set to go Oppenheimer‘s way. Best Actress is a straight fight between Emma Stone and Lily Gladstone. Best Supporting Actress looks more open with probably Emily Blunt the least likely to succeed, but a case could be made for any of the others. Original Screenplay looks like a two horse race between Anatomy of a Fall and The Holdovers. Adapted Screenplay is Nolan’s to lose.

Pre-Oscars 2024

Posted on November 22nd, 2023 in Culture | No Comments »

Killers of the Flower Moon

It’s awards season, and first up is Martin Scorsese’s epic Killers of the Flower Moon, bringing his two favourite actors together in front of his lens for the first time. This bum-numbing narrative probably could have been told at even greater length as a mini-series (the director falls back on a radio programme to deal with the aftermath, and gives himself a brief cameo) but which never bored me for a second. Clearly, this is a story made by white people and told from the point of view of white people, but as its purpose is to centre the selfish and cruel decisions made by those white people, I think this is legitimate, even if I’m left with a feeling that there was a whole other, less familiar, version of this story which I didn’t get, even at this length.

As usual, Scorsese doesn’t either judge his characters or manipulate the facts in order to generate a fake catharsis. Without giving too much away, I kept hoping for a moment of moral clarity from DiCaprio’s dim-witted Ernest, but in fact he just continues to be buffeted by the demands of people around him and his own shortsightedness. In other hands (or on another day) that might render the whole exercise slightly pointless, but the fact that this is a true story, the strength of the playing (Lily Gladstone is amazing), and the director’s expert marshalling of time and place and space combine to create an engrossing experience, which hugely benefits from the big screen experience.

How to Have Sex

Molly Manning Walker’s feature debut would lose less watched at home, but watched at the Curzon Soho, the more tense moments feel a little less escapable. This is a tricky exercise in tone. Too much hijinks and not enough pain and it might come across as trite and superficial. But turn the screw too far and we’re into soap melodrama, undercutting the blazing authenticity of the acting and filming. Walker, who also writes, finds this thin line with unerring accuracy and although Mia McKenna-Bruce is attracting all of the acting plaudits, the whole ensemble of terrifyingly young actors is faultless and the whole experience brilliantly grubby, joyful, horrifying, intoxicating, disturbing and life-affirming. While it’s unlikely to feature on anything like as many Oscar ballots as Flower Moon, a couple of nominations for, say, screenplay and one or two of the actors would be jokes.

Anatomy of a Fall

Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or winner arrives on these shores and represents a fascinating Euro-riff on the familiar US/UK courtroom drama, with a couple of neat twists. Chief among these is the fact that the continental legal process (which I can only assume is represented at least vaguely accurately here) is rather unlike the combative system we’re used to. Sandra Hüller is deliciously hard-to-read as the widow of the dead man and her last argument with her late husband, shared with the jury courtesy of a slightly ludicrous contrivance, is mesmerising stuff. Maybe because of the snowy Alpine setting (but not only because of that) this reminded me of the amazing and influential Force Majeure and while I don’t expect this to be followed with an American remake and a stage version at the Donmar Warehouse, it is  still compelling, engrossingly ambiguous stuff and I can understand entirely how it won.

The Eternals

And certainly unlikely to trouble Oscar voters much, the latest offering to fall off the Marvel production line does ask a considerable amount of viewers who are expected to simply know who all these various characters are (at minimum you need to have watched Infinity War, Endgame, Ms Marvel, WandaVision, Captain Marvel, Secret Invasion and ideally Hawkeye and Iron Man) but which gets by on the colossal charm of Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris and Iman Vellani, to say nothing of a very silly and very effective pantomime villain turn from Zawe Ashton. The other string to its bow is the near Rick and Morty commitment to bonkers space opera as we zip from orbiting space station to Skrull ghetto to Planet Jai-Ho where everybody communicates in the medium of song. But what’s really bonkers about this is that it’s the biggest box office success ever for a movie directed by a Black woman, and still a commercial failure which will end up losing Disney tens of millions of dollars. That’s your problem, right there.

Oscars 2023: Elvis and The Fabelmans

Posted on February 21st, 2023 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

I was lucky enough to find a cinema still showing Elvis after all this time, and so settled in to the Vue Westfield to watch this superior biopic, blessed with an uncanny central performance from Austin Butler, all wrapped up in Baz Luhrmann’s signature kinetic style. It’s easy to write off all of this frantic editing, multiple images, dizzying camera removes and dense soundtrack as “anything but subtle” but actually, it’s precisely this layering of sound and image which allows for a certain amount of subtlety, mixing in a few shots of the real Elvis early on, for example. But it is an onslaught, particularly the first half hour or so.

As it settles down, we get the basic beats (sorry) of the story, avoiding almost all of the Dewey Cox traps (but I did cringe when the young Elvis was offered pills in the back of a car) and sensibly focusing on a few key areas rather than pedantically ticking every available box. And with Butler’s astonishing physical performance and vocals which blend his voice with Elvis recordings, it’s an amazing recreation of what it might have been like to see the King live.

Using The Colonel to provide a Salieri-like framing device helps to provide context and some (unreliable) narration to move us from plot-point-to-plot-point, but whereas the title character is a near-perfect evocation, Hanks as Tom Parker is a pantomime villain version of the real person, and although Hanks can’t help but elicit sympathy, and exude warmth and charm, he appears to be a refugee from a different movie entirely, which is disappointing.

Casting is also an issue for The Fabelmans, which in many ways is a very fine film: detailed, engrossing, moving, warmly funny, cheeky and nostalgic without being cloying. Gabriel LaBelle is remarkable as the young wannabe filmmaker, being moved from town-to-town by his parents, and struggling to fit in. By and large, the story is told with nuance, suggestion and economy – with one odd exception being one scene towards the end (after the Ditch Day screening) where suddenly everybody just starts announcing their true feelings at each other with next-to-no provocation.

What’s odd is the casting of Michelle Williams and Paul Dano as Sammy Fabelman’s parents, in a story which is so concerned with Judaism. The debate is ongoing about the extent to which we want great actors to be able to take imaginative leaps to transform themselves vs the need for the kind of authenticity which only comes from casting actors whose lived experience matches the character, but it is odd how often the decision seems to come down against casting Jewish actors to play Jewish parts. Dano just about convinces as Sammy’s dad, but Michelle Williams, although finding the inner emotional life of the character very accurately, never remotely resembled any Jewish mother I’ve ever met (and I’ve met a few). Perhaps that’s why Judd Hirsch turns up near the beginning of the film, dines hungrily on any available scenery, and then leaves, having barely influenced the story in any way.

The final shot of the film, however, is absolute perfection. If this is Spielberg’s final work, as some say it was intended to be, it won’t be his masterpiece, but it is one I would happily revisit. I just wish the casting had gone differently.

Oscars 2023: Tár, All Quiet on the Western Front, Women Talking

Posted on February 13th, 2023 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Tár is one of those films built around a single actor. You sometimes hear directors saying “I wouldn’t have made the film if I couldn’t have got X to play the part.” Is that always true? I doubt it, but it probably is here. The intricacies of the performance is the whole point. Just as Lydia fanatically teases out details of classical pieces from her orchestra, so too does Cate Blanchett tease out details of this fascinating, complex, unlikeable, tyrannical, desperate, cruel, selfish and yet somehow relatable individual.

It’s lengthy, and it takes a while for anything to “happen”. I mean, stuff happens, but it’s not at all clear for a very long time what the actual point is, and I have to say, even now, I’m still not 100% sure what it’s trying to say. But like a number of other relatively plotless films which take place in very unfamiliar worlds (Gosford Park, The Hurt Locker, The Wolf of Wall Street) it’s the immersion in the details of the world that sustained my interest – although I’m not the least bit surprised to learn that it tried the patience of others.

But if all of the supporting players and the minutiae of a conductor’s life are the orchestra, then the soloist is of course Cate Blanchett who wrings every drop of nuance she can out of what could in lesser hands have been a wildly undisciplined caricature or a thin portrayal which couldn’t summon up the sheer charisma required to make the story work.

Women Talking has even less plot than Tár, and the most dramatic scenes all take place before the movie starts and are generally only described, or shown in brief flashbacks. But Sarah Polley’s unhurried and literate screenplay focuses on the rigour of the debate and the shifting moods of the characters. Essentially, this is Twelve Angry Men, restaged in a Mennonite Barn and where the stakes are far more personal.

Polley’s direction is also clear, unfussy and sensitive. She knows when to just let the words and the faces do the heavy lifting and when a little bit of an extra flourish will be helpful. And she has an absolutely crackerjack cast, led by Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley and Ben Whishaw, but also including a brief turn by Frances McDormand (who also co-produced) and a remarkable performance from Michelle McLeod as the fragile Mejal.

Polley’s control of tone is precise and when things take a turn for the melodramatic in the closing fifteen or so minutes, she’s able to prevent the story from tipping over into action movie or soap opera clichés, but instead remains steadfastly intent on the details of the character interactions, all the way to the incredibly moving final shots. It’s a deeply absorbing piece of work, and what’s delightful about this very strong slate of Best Picture nominees is that it’s hard to think of two movies more opposite in their aims, intentions, methods and influences than Everything Everywhere and Women Talking and yet they’re two of my favourite films of the year. (Top Gun Maverick I guess is the third leg of this stool, but that’s my least favourite of the ten nominees by some distance.)

Lastly, let’s look at All Quiet on the Western Front. Remakes of previous Best Picture winners are rare, but not unheard of (and we had another one last year with Spielberg’s take on West Side Story) but this is particularly interesting. Lewis Milestone’s 1930 film of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel had been conceived as a silent film, and traces of this earlier style of film grammar remain. It’s a testament to the studio’s desire to render the story as accurately and unflinchingly as possible, as well as the skill of the director and crew, that it has as much power as it does. When we watched it for our Best Pick podcast, we were all blown away (sorry) by the sheer force of the storytelling.

But this was a film about Germans in World War One, made by Americans in the inter-war period. The 2022 version is made by Germans, and is made not only with two world wars now in the history books, but also at a time when another conflict is raging in Europe. So, not only is there the opportunity to re-tell this story with the extra detail, sophistication and nuance which one would expect after ninety years of advances in filmmaking, but the time and nationality of the filmmakers gives it extra resonance.

There are plenty of changes from the earlier film, which was a pretty faithful rendering of the novel. Most obviously, this version is in colour, but this is no Technicolor fantasy. Director Edward Berger and cinematographer James Friend shoot it all in muted, muddy reds and fetid, billious greens. Milestone’s version kicks off with the rousing patriotic speech which inspires our young, callow heroes to enlist. Berger knows we won’t fall for that, and gives us the horrors of the battlefield right up front, with the dark irony that the jacket ripped from the shoulders of one unfortunate young soldier has the bullet holes patched up and is then given to the next new recruit.

Some of the episodes from the novel make it through intact, some are expanded or deleted. The most obvious omission is the sequence where Bäumer gets to go home briefly and discovers that he no longer fits back into civilian life. Instead Berger hints at his hero’s disassociation, and keeps him trapped on the front lines. He also gives us a window into the political dimension of the war, pitting Daniel Brühl’s Erzberger against Thibault de Montalembert’s Ferdinand Foch – whereas Remarque’s novel kept us in the trenches with the grunts. This leads to what I think of as an overreach, however, since the final death of Bäumer, instead of being the simple banality of the novel or the famous image of the first movie, is the product of an over-engineered ironic twist, which was such a shift in tone that I suspected it must have been based on a specific real event, but I’ve been unable to find any evidence of that.

However, the rest of the film is incredibly strong, with horribly convincing battle scenes, stripped of the grand tragedy of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, or the fleetingly optimistic showmanship of 1917, but reminding me more of a more reserved, more European Platoon. And Felix Kammerer as Bäumer is superb, as the enthusiastic idealism of the early stretch is replaced by horror and revulsion, and finally a blank fatalism as he reaches the end. It’s clearly going to win Best International Feature, and although I’ve yet to see the other nominees, I suspect deservedly so.

Oscar nominations 2023

Posted on February 5th, 2023 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

The Best Picture nominees, along with the rest of the Oscar contenders, were announced a few days ago. Here’s my quick assessment of the runners and the riders…

All Quiet on the Western Front. Like Spielberg’s West Side Story last year, this is a remake of a previous Best Picture winner, but instead of this German World War One story being told by an American studio in the interwar period, it’s now being told by Germans at a time when no-one who fought in that war is still alive. It should be an interesting watch, it’s clearly going to win Best International Feature, and it’s Netflix’s big hope for this year, but will it be better than the transcendent 1930 version or just slicker?

Avatar: The War of Water. Living up to Cameron’s maximum that “more is more and too much is never enough” this lumbering epic reprises most of the biggest hits of its now ancient-seeming progenitor only soggier. I saw it on an IMAX screen and was frequently bored. The plot seems to hinge on a 3D-printed version of the badguy from the first film committing an enormous amount of army resources (including people) to his own personal vendetta. Who signed off on this? Apparently Kate Winslet is in this one, but I didn’t spot her.

The Banshees of Inisherin. Containing none of the exuberance of his awesomely entertaining In Bruges, this melancholy character study reminds me most of McDonagh’s bleakly moving The Pillowman which got me close to tears when I only read it – I’ve never seen it. Rather like Moonlight, this left me oddly unsatisfied when I first watched it, but it’s really clung on to me. With nine nominations total, including four for its cast, it’s a real front-runner for the big prize.

Elvis. Wouldn’t be the Oscars without some hefty biopics and this is one I missed at the cinema but am hoping to catch up with soon. Austin Butler has some stiff competition in the Best Actor stakes, but even with eight nominations total, given that its director hasn’t been recognised, I don’t think this is a major contender.

Everything Everywhere All at Once. Dazzingly original, hugely authored movie which manages not to lose sight of the simple human story at the centre of its bewildering whirlwind of images. Arguably a bigger achievement than Banshees, and remarkably it leads the way in nominations with eleven – including another four acting nominations for its largely non-white cast – but I suspect that the Academy’s innate conservatism will swing it back towards Banshees and I wouldn’t be dismayed if that’s what happened. This could be a Mank-like situation, where the most-nominated film walks away with very few awards (although this is a far better film than Mank).

The Fabelmans. I’ve been hearing about this film for almost a year and have yet to see it. Recently, Spielberg seems to have been doodling in the margins a bit. This might be the film which lets us see the director’s heart and soul a bit more clearly, which would be fascinating. Will report back soon.

Tár. Watched this last night on the TV. Cate Blanchett is sublime and Todd Field’s intricate screenplay creates the world of Lydia Tár through shrewd detail and subtle suggestion. For a film in which not a whole lot happens, you need to pay attention and when I did, it was utterly absorbing. Does it mean anything? Well, that’s something I’m going to need more time to consider.

Top Gun: Maverick. The film that saved cinema. Well, maybe not quite, but it is a precision-tooled entertainment machine with all the cold cynicism that that implies. With its sentimental nods to its ludicrous 1980s progenitor, its by-the-numbers boys-on-an-impossible-mission central concept, and its punch-the-air reversals of fortune, I can’t quite bring myself to hate it – in fact I admire its streamlined efficiency – but I find it vastly surprising that it’s in the conversation at all for Best Picture. Also nominated for its screenplay and for a handful of technical awards. It’s also Cruise’s most commercially successful movie by quite some distance, making around twice as much as the (far-better) Mission Impossible: Fallout.

Triangle of Sadness. Ruben Östland follows up the enthralling Force Majeure and the fascinating The Square with this messier (in every sense) outing which skewers the world of modelling and the super-rich. Arguably soft targets, but the insights are still strong and the middle section is as bravura as the opening is contained and acutely observed. Only the last act didn’t quite work for me, gradually coming into land instead of building and building to an explosive climax. With only two other nominations, even if one of them is for Östland as director, I don’t think this has much chance of winning Best Picture.

Women Talking. The one I know the least about, despite having chatted briefly to the costume designer at a fancy wedding earlier this year. I’m a huge fan of Sarah Polley and I can only imagine that this will be excellent, if not exactly a laugh riot. Will report back.

Elsewhere, both The Daniels and Spielberg certainly have a shot at Best Director, but I think this could be McDonagh’s night, in which case I can see him picking up Original Screenplay too, with Adapted Screenplay I think likely to go to Ishiguru for Living. Best Actor is hard to call, but I wouldn’t count out Austin Butler. Andrea Riseborough’s Best Actress nomination has survived, but I think the controversy will have badly hurt her chances, so this is probably Blanchett’s to lose. I’d love Barry Keoghan to win Best Supporting Actor and I’d be thrilled to see Stephanie Hsu walk off with Best Supporting Actress.

Check back here in March for the results.

Oscars 2022: Nightmare Alley, King Richard, CODA

Posted on March 27th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

Nightmare Alley

Guillermo del Toro follows up his Best Picture-winning storybook fable about forbidden fish love with this noir remake based on a hard-boiled novel, but once again he renders it in a glossy, pixel-y style which is sometimes at odds with the content of the first act. It’s true that the exotic and colourful carnival world looks wonderful through his lens, but given that a key element of the story is the contrast between the wondrous sights presented to the public and the mundane reality behind the scenes, I can’t help but wish for a similar contrast in the style of shooting – here everything looks like a perfectly contrived videogame cut-scene.

Gliding through proceedings with his customary charm is an effortless Bradley Cooper, who manages to drive a clear line from the shy outsider fascinated by the carny schtick, to the nervy neophyte conman, to the hardboiled and cynical huckster, to the frightened man on the run he becomes by the movie’s close. But the tone and the structure goes awry when we leave the carnival and abandon the wonderful cast of characters we have established, who make a single brief token appearance after the time jump.

What follows is rather more predictable, rather more rote, rather more a product of the genre conventions, and again somewhat swamped by the lush visual style which overwhelms almost everything, rendering even the excellent Cate Blanchett a standard-issue femme fatale, and giving Richard Jenkins almost no room at all to show what he can do. A few shocks along the way don’t fully make up for a storyline which meanders to a conclusion which I was unlucky enough to see coming in the opening ten minutes.

King Richard

Assuming you don’t know the first thing about Venus and Serena Williams and the role their father played in their rise to competitive tennis superstardom, this film will fill you in. It will even tell you the second thing, although it does pretty much stop there. Taking nearly two-and-a-half hours to laboriously plod through the key points of their life story from 11 to 14 (Venus) this fails to achieve much except recreating episodes which are fairly well-documented already. That Richard Williams abruptly stopped his offspring from playing competitive matches until Venus suddenly debuted as a 14-year-old pro must have been hugely frustrating for those around him and I can see how it looks like dramatic conflict in a story outline, or even in a script. But on screen, it never generates any real tension or interest, or character development, with all the major players ending the film in exactly the same place they started it, only $12m richer. With the conclusion of the story never in doubt, the only reason to see this is for Will Smith’s excellent performance, completely inhabiting Richard Williams and giving him depth and soul which the limited screenplay and flat direction doesn’t deserve.

CODA

This was the last of the Best Picture nominees which I watched and one for which I had high hopes after it pinched the PGA award from The Power of the Dog. Nightmare Alley was dazzling but empty, King Richard was pedestrian and dull. CODA was never less than entertaining and left me suitably heart-warmed but for a film which is emerging as a front-runner in the Oscar race, it’s pretty unambitious, unconfrontational stuff, which in another year might have been little more than an after-school special.

A lot of what it attempts to do, it succeeds in. The eccentric family unit of deaf Frank, Jackie and older brother Leo, complimented by hearing daughter Ruby, is very well-drawn both on the page and on the screen. It’s always a delight to see Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur is a wonderful figure and has picked up a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but it’s Daniel Durant as Leo who impressed me the most with his easy charm, contrasted with flashes of barely post-teen anger.

The film also seems to have dodged some of the accusations of inauthenticity which dogged the French original (at which subtitles had to be provided for deaf audiences who couldn’t make out the poorly-executed sign language), although Deborah – who has worked as an interpreter – wondered at Ruby’s consistent editorialising, in contrast to the usual ethics of CODAs who generally interpret everything regardless of their own feelings, and also at the deaf people refusing to “turn on” their voices even when trying to be understood by hearing people. One can only imaging that the deaf actors and consultants on the film were aware of these issues, but it is strange.

What’s less easy to forgive is how much of a chocolate box of a film this is, with magically easy solutions to potentially intractable problems, ideal boyfriends, mildly eccentric and inspirational teachers, a minor work conflict which doesn’t required too much exposition to unpack, and some tasteful conflict all set to soaring ballads. Can the Academy really look at this and The Power of the Dog and call this the best film of the year? Will CODA be another Green Book, getting virtue points for its representation and providing a warm hug of reassurance when depicting a marginalised community? It’s not impossible.

Of course, representation only works if lots of people see your story, and – let’s be clear – a warm family drama on Apple TV+ is going to get lots more hearing Americans watching than this year’s other sign-language film the highly inaccessible Drive My Car, but then the prize should be lots of viewers, not the highest award that filmmaking has to offer.

Which leaves us with some predictions to make. I still think the sheer originality of The Power of the Dog can and must triumph over the very watchable but shmaltzy CODA, but I appreciate that Campion’s film is a hard one to love. Less in doubt, surely, is Campion for Best Director (you may remember that when Green Book won Best Picture, Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for Roma). My personal favourite of this crop is probably the wonderfully original Licorice Pizza although I have a lot of time for the beguiling Drive My Car as well – but I enjoyed watching all of this year’s nominees except for This Way Up. My chief complaint is that room should have been made for Tick Tick BoomFlee or (by reputation) The Worst Person in the World.

Best Actor looks like a straight fight between Will Smith and Andrew Garfield – both excellent and I think Garfield might have the edge, although Will Smith has waited longer for his. Best Actress I think is Jessica Chastain’s to lose, although I haven’t managed to see The Eyes of Tammy Faye yet. Best Supporting Actor might well go to Troy Kotsur, especially if CODA does not win Best Picture. Best Supporting Actress is going to go to Ariana DeBose and nobody else needs to bother writing a speech.

The screenplay awards are harder to call, but I think I’d bet on Kenneth Branagh winning for Belfast, and that film winning nothing else, and Adapted Screenplay could well make it three for three for The Power of the Dog, unless the Academy turns on Campion, following her stupid crack about the Williams sisters at the Critics Choice Awards.

My previous poor record at this game has taught me to hedge my bets a bit. See you back here soon to pick over the results.

Oscars 2022: Belfast (and The Batman)

Posted on March 17th, 2022 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Here be spoilers – you have been warned.

Belfast is this year’s “small” film, and like previous such Best Picture nominees (think Brooklyn, Lady Bird, The Kids Are All Right) it doesn’t really have much of a chance when it comes to Best Picture. But it does have a bit more heft than some of those, firstly because it’s a Kenneth Branagh film and secondly because the background of The Troubles anchors it to something a bit more meaningful.

Branagh, serving as writer for only the second time after In the Bleak Midwinter, has crafted a story drawn from his own memories of growing up in Northern Ireland. As such it’s quite a personal film, but I often find him rather an anonymous director, capable of slinging the camera around if he feels like it, but rarely stamping much personality on the material. Here, he manages to create an intimate family portrait, with some occasional flashes of directorial inspiration, such as having the movies that the characters go and see film the frame with colour, whereas everything else is shot in crisp black-and-white

But it’s an actor’s film first and foremost and Branagh’s cast easily rise to the challenge. Catriona Balfe leads from the top, turning what could have been a mere obstacle into a complex and relatable character. Jamie Dornan’s straight-arrow dad has a little less to work with, but he’s always a compelling presence, and Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench somehow make a believable couple despite the almost twenty-year age gap between them.

Walking away with the picture though is ten-year-old Jude Hill as Buddy who is never less than completely convincing, with his wide earnest eyes taking in the delights and horrors that life presents him with. What the film isn’t is in any way subtle. The child’s eye view of adult concerns is often used to hint at deeper themes, but here everything is laid out as clear as can be, and if anything the need to always have Buddy in the frame eventually becomes a distraction. And it walks a perilous tightrope between heartfelt sincerity and mawkish sentimentality, tipping over into the latter as Dornan stares impassively out of the window of a departing bus to the syrupy strains of Van Morrison.

Belfast is a perfectly charming way to spend an evening, it’s impeccably made and it doesn’t outstay its welcome. But it doesn’t confront any deeper truths about life, love, family or politics along the way. Like its paternal hero, it won’t get involved and it won’t take sides.

I also took in The Batman, which should have been right up my street, and has been getting strong reviews. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood, but it didn’t work for me at all. Nothing seemed to gel from Robert Pattinson’s absurd Robert Smith-like emo Bruce Wayne to Zoe Kravitz’s ridiculous nosekini balaclava to Riddler’s secret plan to assemble a secret militia via the secret means of public YouTube video comments. The entire movie seemed to consist of people walking through shadows, reciting enormous paragraphs of complicated exposition at each other, and then sinking back into the gloom again, while a monotonous soundtrack continually thumped away.

The nadir was the near-death of Alfred, who seemed to be largely the architect of his own misfortune (although lucky for all concerned that the Riddler chose to try and knock off Bruce Wayne remotely rather than in person the way he did all his other targets). The explosion which takes out a wing of Stately Wayne Manor when Alfred blithely opens an extremely suspicious lookin package only renders him comatose, and Bruce is there when he finally wakes up – and immediately begins info-dumping again like nothing has happened. That’s also his last appearance in the film.

Quite why it’s had such good notices isn’t entirely clear to me. Maybe I missed something, maybe other people really hated Ben Affleck’s version, or maybe the critical consensus will move over time. Or maybe I’m just the outlier who doesn’t appreciate good Batmanning when I see it. Regardless, I’m not in a hurry to see the inevitable sequel.

Oscars 2022: Licorice Pizza and Drive My Car

Posted on February 27th, 2022 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Licorice Pizza

I blow hot-and-cold on Paul Thomas Anderson, with only Magnolia really ringing my bell (Boogie Nights is fine, Punch Drunk Love is fine, There Will Be Blood doesn’t seem to be aware of how silly much of it is, The Master is good but gets locked into a repetitive cycle, Inherent Vice is fun but insubstantial and Phantom Thread is reviewed here). I also can quickly tire of “hang-out” films where we just pass the time with some characters until it’s time for the closing credits, so this doesn’t exactly feel tailor-made to my preferences.

Reader, I loved it. There’s something so beguiling about Cooper Hoffman (in his film debut, but man, those Hoffman genes are strong) as whizz-kid entrepreneur and child star Gary Valentine pinballing from press tours to water beds to – well, pinball machines; while at the same time pursuing Alana Haim’s 25-year-old photographer’s assistant who has started to give up on her dreams. It’s such a fresh, novel, endlessly fascinating relationship that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen.

And lucky I didn’t, as there’s a delightful parade of cameos, many of them evoking or just playing real people from the period, whether it’s faux-Lucille Ball, actual Jon Peters or if-you-squint William Holden.

True, the ending is never in doubt, and if you told me you got restless waiting for it, then I would totally understand why, but if this were to win Best Picture (and I don’t think it stands much of a chance), then I would practically skip upstairs in order to sit down and watch it again. I don’t think it will change the world, and I don’t think it has anything very profound to say about Age, The Past, Men and Women or The Human Condition but it’s blazingly original, beautifully played, with an exceptional score and a faultless period feel.

Drive My Car

Drive My Car is a harder film to love. Featuring an emotionally closed-off central character which only adds to the barriers erected in front of an English-speaking audience watching a story told mainly in Japanese (plus some Korean and some sign language) about a Russian play written in 1899. If Licorice Pizza feels long at two hours and ten minutes, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film feels glacial at three hours, and if one was so minded, one could certainly make a case for axing most of the first hour, since all the key events depicted are later recounted by other characters, and often have more power the second time around.

I think I would have struggled with this far more if I hadn’t already seen Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy by the same director, which taught me something about his rhythms and his interests in a more digestible version – it’s three short films together running for less time than Licorice Pizza. And as I watched, gradually my restlessness began to subside as firstly the characters began to blossom and bloom and secondly, the architecture of the story began to reveal itself.

Of particular interest to me was the relationship between director Kafuku and his driver Misaki Watari, whose fierce stoicism is brilliantly evoked by Tōko Miura. In the end, this is a story about loss, set in – of all places – Hiroshima (although the bombing is scarcely mentioned). Loss of a loved one, loss of dignity, loss of autonomy and loss of control. The all-powerful director who is king of the rehearsal room but can no longer steer his own vehicle is just one potent image among many.

Again, I don’t think this stands a chance of winning Best Picture, but unlike Licorice Pizza, that’s not because it’s in any way flimsy or insubstantial. But The Power of the Dog feels just as daring while giving Academy voters a more familiar structure and setting to guide them through. I think I’d have to see both again to be absolutely sure, but possibly – just possibly – I might prefer the Russo-Japanese story over the New Zealand-American one.

Oscar Nominations 2022

Posted on February 11th, 2022 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It’s Oscar time again and the Academy has voted. We have a full roster of ten Best Picture nominees and a full five nominations in every other category. I don’t remember that happening before. Oscar’s favourite is Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog with 12 nominations – Campion also becoming the first woman to receive two nominations as Best Director. Behind that is Dune with ten and then Belfast and West Side Story with six. Here are some thoughts on Best Picture and some of the other interesting categories. Firstly, here are the ten Best Picture nominees.

Belfast. Pure hand-milled Oscar bait. Famous theatre-types. Black-and-white. Poverty porn. I haven’t seen it yet, but despite that snark I am keen to. Also in the running for Director, Screenplay and Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench in the acting categories.

CODA. Again, I haven’t seen it, but good on Apple for making more of an impact on this year’s race, even if this does feel just a smidge like The Sound of Metal 2: Sounds Metaller.

Don’t Look Up. Why is it only Adam McKay who gets to make goofy comedies and have them nominated for Oscars. After the near-brilliance of The Big Short and the intermittently amazing Vice, this was a major disappointment – the cinematic equivalent of a small child picking lots of low-hanging fruit and then screaming “Look at all the fruit I picked!” at top volume for two hours.

Drive My Car. I recently had the chance to see Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, another Ryusuke Hamaguchi joint, which I thought was marvellous and this apparently is even better. Hamaguchi is also nominated as Best Director, but that doesn’t (quite) mean that Best International Feature is a forgone conclusion.

Dune. Masterly evocation of half of a classic novel, which only occasionally falls into the trap of people in funny clothes standing in theatrical postures, declaiming space dialogue at each other. More frequently, it manages to combine the epic and the personal in a very engrossing fashion, but it clearly doesn’t stand a chance of winning Best Picture, not least because Part II is on the way.

King Richard. It’s an odd way to approach a biopic about the two top tennis players in the world. It’s rather as if the recent Stan and Ollie biopic focused on James Finlayson. But Will Smith is usually worth a look, even if this is mainly here to make up numbers.

Licorice Pizza is the “small” movie, this year’s Brooklyn, Lady Bird, Room or Manchester by the Sea. I like all of those, but I often find Paul Thomas Anderson’s stuff hard to swallow. I am keen to see it, but at the same time, I’m approaching with caution.

Nightmare Alley. Guillermo del Toro is back for more gothic thrills and spills, with what is apparently an epic performance from Bradley Cooper, who missed out on a Best Actor nomination. With only four nominations total, none in major categories outside Best Picture, again I don’t think this one is a real contender.

The Power of the Dog. It’s entirely predictable that Jane Campion’s return to the big screen should be so completely surprising and beguiling. This fascinating movie never tips its hand, leaving you with plenty of questions even as the credits roll, but without denying you a cathartic resolution. Masterful stuff from a true artist.

West Side Story. Brilliant reworking of the 1957 play and 1961 movie, itself a Best Picture winner, this more than holds its own, even if not every choice worked for me. However, poor box office will have hurt its chances, and it didn’t get a nod for its screenplay, although it may do well in other categories.

Speaking of which – Best Director I think will likely go to Campion along with The Power of the Dog winning Best Picture. It’s about time the Academy made up for not giving The Piano its top prize. Likewise Benedict Cumberbatch must be in the running for Best Actor, but Andrew Garfield is magnificent in Tick Tick Boom and having Spider-Man out at the same time helps to demonstrate his versatility as well as keeping him front-of-mind.

None of the performers nominated for Best Actress are in films nominated for Best Picture, which is disappointing. Some people love Kristen Stewart’s performance as Princess Diana, and others hate it, but the Academy loves a biopic and this seems like a more realistic option than Nicole Kidman – although it’s always possible Jessica Chastain will pinch it.

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Jesse Plemons are head-to-head for Best Supporting Actor which probably hurts both their chances. Ciaran Hinds makes sense to me here, far more than Judi Dench for Best Supporting Actress which seems almost guaranteed to go to Ariana DeBose. Original Screenplay seems wide open to me, but Branagh probably has a good shot at it, whereas I think Adapted is between Dune and Dog.

I’ll put up reviews of more Best Picture nominees as my Star Trek schedule allows.