Thursday, February 25, 2016

Why Spotlight is still taking Best Picture

I don't know why I care so much about this silly race, but I guess my brain likes having something inconsequential to obsess about. It's also great to see a film you love win. It's also great to catch up on great historical wins, and to moan about travesty wins. I guess there're many reasons I care about this stupid race. 

The thing about this year's oscar race is that The Revenant, primed as it seems to sweep, is not really the best picture front runner any more than Boyhood was last year.

The Revenant may have taken the lead at both the Globes and the BAFTAs - two highly visible awards - but so did Boyhood. This fact highlights two things -  first; even when the Globes and BAFTAs are in agreement, they can still be out of sync with the Oscars. Second; they both had a debt to settle with AG Inarittu, because they both 'snubbed' his film last year. The same is not true at the Oscars.

It's possible that The Revenant's momentum has become unstoppable at this point - the same way Argo became unstoppable, even though the Oscars had initially considered  it unworthy of a Directing nomination.

It's also possible that the Oscars will offer up some surprises. What's clear is that Inarritu is most likely winning Best Director, after becoming the first Director in history to win back to back at the Directors Guild. What's also clear is that DiCaprio will finally win Best Actor and Chivo will make history with his third back-to-back, richly deserved, Cinematography win.

But surprises do happen. Occasionally - as in the case of Braveheart and, perhaps, Rocky - they can favour big, epic crowdpleasers (although The Revenant, epic though it is, can hardly be considered a crowdpleaser), but more often, Oscar surprises favor films driven by good old-fashioned great writing and great acting. More specifically, films embraced by industry actors and industry writers.

Consider Shakespeare in Love's upset sweep over Saving Private Ryan in 1998. Private Ryan had taken the Globes, the DGA and the PGA and seemed primed to take the Oscar. Only the BAFTAs went all out for Shakespeare, but they're British so why wouldn't they? The only clue that Shakespeare in Love was primed to sweep in a big way was its performance with the actors and writers branches. It won the SAG ensemble award and the WGA award for Original Screenplay. It was also at the SAG awards that Paltrow first bested Blanchett.

Consider also the curious case of Steven Soderbergh coming in at the last minute to win Best Director for Traffic. The season had been dominated by two moneymaking epics - Gladiator for Best Picture (including a Producers Guild win) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for Best Director (including a Directors Guild win for Ang Lee). When the Oscars came around, the directors unexpectedly favored Traffic - a smaller, independent drama. This could be seen as the directors branch simply wanting to award Soderbergh for his rare double nomination, but it could also be seen as the Academy reacting against epic filmmaking overload, and opting for a film driven more by performance and writing (see also The Hurt Locker vs Avatar; Argo vs Hugo / Life of Pi; 12 Years a Slave vs Gravity). It's also noteworthy that Traffic had, up to that point, won only - you guessed it - the SAG ensemble award and the WGA award for Best Original Screenplay. Benicia Del Toro had also surprised by winning lead actor at the SAG Awards (although he ended up winning the supporting category at the Oscars).

This year, two epic epics - Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant - vie for the technical categories, while The Revenant seems to be the preferred choice for the major categories. The guilds and precursor awards have been sharply divided, with no real consensus on a single film outside of the Globes and the BAFTAS (see above). With seemingly wide open possibility, a surprise seems eminent, so it may prove valuable to consider which film won the SAG ensemble award and the WGA award for Best Original Screenplay. You guessed it again - Spotlight.

Recent years have shown the Academy is comfortable splitting between a smaller, character-driven drama for Best Picture, and a big, epic visual achievement for Best Director, and Spotlight / The Revenant certainly fits that trend. Spotlight is also still the highest rated film among the nominees on Metacritic, and seems to have the support of the actors and writers branch. It also won the Critics Choice award, for what it's worth (which is not much), splitting with George Miller for director (showing just how much things have changed since then).

Perhaps it counts against Spotlight that it did not have any other surprise wins at SAG - only Rachel McAdams was nominated, while both Ruffallo and Keaton had been expected to dominate (but they likely split the vote). Spotlight also does not seem to have much support outside of the main fields - making it harder to win on a preferential ballot. While it wasn't really in competition for any of the visual categories, it was expected to show up in Original Score, and didn't. Both Ruffallo and McAdams are representing the actors though, so main category support is strong.

The Revenant, on the other hand, outperformed in nominations in both the main and technical categories. A slew of nominations were expected, but with surprises like Tom Hardy for supporting actor and nominations for both the (brilliant but minimal) production design and costuming, The Revenant clearly has deep support throughout the Academy.

I guess it really comes down to whether the Academy (to the extent that they actually act and think as a united entity) are ready to embrace the effects-driven epic, or if they'll push back again to a writing and acting driven drama.

It helps to keep in mind that even Braveheart won the WGA before sweeping the Oscars, and Rocky's screenplay was recognized by the Academy, while no one has shown any love for The Revenant's script (perhaps unfairly, as it has nearly no dialogue). Even the PGA win for The Big Short seems to indicate that the industry is still favoring actor-writer dramas over big epics.

For all these reasons, plus the feels, my money is still on Spotlight to win Best Picture, Original Screenplay and - improbably - Supporting Actor on Sunday. 

The Revenant will likely take Director, Actor, Cinematography and both Sound Categories, while Mad Max will own the technical categories - Costume Design, Production Design, Make Up and Editing. Or The Revenant will sweep and win everything but screenplay. It is a damn good movie. Only Sunday will tell.

Note: last year I predicted Boyhood would win, so I'm almost definitely wrong about anything.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Oscar winners

And so, there you have it. Birdman is our new showbiz-themed Best Picture winner. It's an exciting winner, if not the one I was hoping for.

Interestingly, each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture took home at least one trophy, which must be rare. I don't know. I don't feel like researching it.

The big winner of the night was obviously Birdman, with four Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay & Best Cinematography. A pretty good four to nab. To its credit, it was probably also runner-up in all three of the acting fields it was nominated for.

But The Grand Budapest Hotel was close on its heels with four wins of its own: Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Costume Design & Hair & Make Up. Worth nothing - this was composer Alexandre Desplat's first win after 8 nominations (also worth noting; he scored, but was not nominated for: Zero Dark Thirty, Moonrise Kingdom, Syriana, The Painted Veil, etc).

2nd Runner up (much to first-time director Damien Chazelle's delight) was Whiplash, with three wins in Best Supporing Actor, Editing and Sound Mixing. All richly deserved.

Beyond that, the wealth was spread pretty evenly:

Boyhood - Supporting Actress
The Imitation Game - Adapted Screenplay
The Theory of Everything - Best Actor
Selma - Original Song
American Sniper - Sound Editing

Rounding out the major category winners were Interstellar (Visual Effects) and Still Alice (Best Actress).

Sunday, February 22, 2015

2015: The battle of two greats with gimmicks

On the eve of the 87th Academy Awards, it seems the race has come down to Boyhood vs Birdman, which is a very difficult but, truth be told, satisfying race.

As a great admirer of both films and the balls it took to make them, I'm not really sure where to put my loyalty, except that my loyalty is completely and entirely with Boyhood, even though I admire Birdman just as much. Confusing? Much. Welcome to Oscar watching.

I really don't know how to feel heading into tonight's ceremony (to clarify, I'm watching it on TV like everyone else. I just mean heading into it in an emotional sense). I mean, obviously it doesn't really matter who wins. It's just the Oscars. But then, it also matters who wins because awards and recognition make careers (they also break them, but mostly only if you're a woman and suddenly you're punished for all the bad scripts you need to say yes to after winning an Oscar because there are only so many good parts going around. But more on that later). Also, it's really hard when the race is teetering between two frontrunners that you actually care about.

I kind of feel bad for not getting behind the Birdman campaign. It's an amazing film, but it just feels like it will live on better as a great film that got fantastic awards coverage rather than as a Best Picture winner. Whereas Boyhood just feels like an enduring classic that will only keep earning it's place in the Best Picture winner lineup more and more as the years go by. Of course, both films have their fans and detractors.

I want to say a few things about all this:

1.  If Boyhood and Birdman split the vote, like Jack Nicholson & Daniel Day Lewis - both worthy contenders - did in 2002, which film will be the Adrien Brody that comes in to scoop up the difference? There are a few interesting contenders: Grand Budapest Hotel, Imitation Game and then there's American Sniper, which will feel like a big let down the moment it happens. Also, it's not gonna happen. If they really believed in the unexpected box office phenom, they would have nominated Clint Eastwood over the guy who made Imitation Game. If anyone gave a damn about Selma at all, I'd be worried for the two frontrunners, but no one does. Long story short, if there's a split the difference situation, let's hope it's Wes Anderson that reaps the benefit. (imagine Beck and Wes Anderson winning twin Grammies & Oscars in the same year - it'll instantly become unhip to be a hipster & jocks will become the new counterculture)

2. Boyhood has Best Drama & Best Director from the Golden Globes, where Birdman lost to Grand Budapest Hotel (but won Best Screenplay, which it also later lost to Grand Budapest Hotel at the BAFTAS) and the same from the BAFTAS. That feels right. At the same time, Birdman won the Screen Actors Guild ensemble award (and why wouldn't it? Every performer is pitch perfect) & the Directors Guild Award (here it is a toss up, but also easy to see why it would win - it's the more flashy of the two remarkable achievements) & most unexpectedly, the Producers Guild Award (clearly no producer, in particular, is more worthy of praise, in years, than Jonathan Sehring, who greenlit the project and financed it, bit by bit, over 12 years, with 7-year contract limitations and surely endless nagging from studio execs wanting to see return on investment. Of course, Sehring was somehow deemed not eligible as a Producer by the Guild, which might explain why the film itself was passed over. It's all very confusing.) Which is all to say that - we have a real race on our hands! What fun.

3. Birdman may be about ego and existential dilemmas in the movie business, but Boyhood is about real, ordinary life. I wonder which one Hollywood will respond to more (uh oh).

4. About the "gimmicks" inherent in both contenders: first off, both films are fantastic & remarkable beyond their gimmicks. Great writing, great performances and razor-sharp, confident directing (the one obviously far more subtle than the other). Secondly, both gimmicks are remarkable & fantastically executed. There's nothing wrong with doing something for the "first time" in cinema. It's to be applauded.

4.1 While Birdman's seemingly single shot trick has been done before (notably by Hitchcock in 1948's Rope), it's never been done well. Rope is pretty bad & the one shot gimmick distracts more than aids the story (the technology & know-how was also markedly less abundant in 1948). Birdman's "single shot" breathes new life into an already exciting film. It captures the breathless rush of Riggan's existential meltdown, the frenetic pace of live performance, and it just creates a damn cool freaking rhythm of a movie, man. And what's wrong with that? It's a breakthrough achievement that deserves to be celebrated many times over. Would Birdman by as good without its "gimmick"? It's hard to imagine it without it, but it has so much else going for it, I have to believe it would be. Would Gravity be as good without it's long take conceits? Let's not go there...

4.2 Boyhood's 12-year semi-documentary experiment is a real first in feature cinema, and something both thrilling and profound to behold. This one is trickier because the passage of time is so integral to Boyhood's stories, and the themes of much of Linklater's career. It's a daring conceit, but also the element that drives home the subtle profundity at the heart of this simple story. Time passes by the mundane and the melodramatic and before you know it, you're all grown up (or your kids are all frown up) and you barely know how it happened. There's so much more to the film and it's tenderly observed world of characters than that, but it's kind of the thing that makes it great. The idea, not the gimmick. The gimmick is just a genius way of expressing it. It's also kind of magical watching Mason / Ellar Coltrane grow up before our eyes in the blink of an eye, much as his mother does... I'm going in circles. There are so many beautiful pieces written about Boyhood (like this one) that I won't bother trying to wax lyrical. Would Boyhood be good without the 12-year gimmick? Honestly, yes. Would it have gotten a fraction of the attention? No. It kind of is what put it on the map. So it's a bit of a catch-22. Because the gimmick is so integral to the storytelling, but it also kind of makes it seem like it's the only significant thing about it. But it's not.

5. So my predictions? Boyhood takes Best Picture. Birdman Director. Because although both are amazing films & incredible directorial achievements, Birdman is the more flashy directing triumph, while Boyhood is the more enduring film, imo. On the other hand, the Indepedent Spirit Awards saw it exactly the other way around last night, and my wife says that makes more sense. So what do I know? At least it's a battle of two truly exciting and refreshingly original giants & both will be remembered for years to come regardless of how tonight turns out.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Top 5 classic films I discovered while living in NY

Recently, I was honoured to be featured on Between 10 & 5, where they asked my to name my top 5 films. Since this is clearly impossible and started giving me sleepless nights, I decided to narrow it down, instead, to the top 5 new-to-me classic films I discovered since moving to New York to study film. It's a fairly random selection of films with little in common other than that I love these 5 films so much.

Here's (my section of) the post:

Friedl Kreuser | Film Student and Illustrator

Choosing favourite films is like Sophie’s Choice for me, so I decided to narrow the field by listing the five biggest game changers I’ve discovered since moving to New York to study film.

Sherlock, Jr. (1924), Buster Keaton:

There is no end to the genius of Buster Keaton and, though everything in his filmography is worth exploring, this 45-minute fantasy comedy is bursting with fresh ideas and cinematic creativity.

The plot is irrelevant when you have Buster Keaton – as a haplessly in love wannabe detective / film projectionist – sleepwalking into a movie screen and experiencing first-hand the magic (and, in his case, danger) of film editing – a technically brilliant piece of Meta self-reflection long before Charlie Kaufman made it cool. As if that wasn’t enough, he finds time for a splendid, Bond-esque chase sequence and a perfect, quietly subversive ending.

Strike (1925), Sergei Eisenstein:

Warning: this clip contains spoilers of sorts & is pretty rough on animal-lovers
(Also: why are there not better clips of Strike online?! The opening sequences are blissfully beautifully)

The visceral power of undiluted Soviet montage should be a compulsory life experience, and there is no better place to start than Eisenstein’s masterpiece (far greater in scope, if more lacking in focus, than Battleship Potemkin). Throwing all the rules Hollywood was writing about cinema out the window, Eisenstein needs no protagonist – the humble crowd of factory workers is his hero – makes minimal use of dialogue and simply arranges his endless stream of images as six searing mood pieces of escalating tension.

And he goes for the jugular – throwing at you, by turns, some of the most beautiful, brutal, surreal and disturbing images you’ll ever see. The devastating climax is a clear influence on both Apocalypse Now and Schindler’s List (and Spielberg owes much of his career to one of Eisenstein’s favourite tricks – cutting to close ups of children at just the right moment).

The only thing wrong with it is that it is blatantly manipulative propaganda (but then, isn’t everything?) – so be careful, or it may turn you into a commie.

L’Atalante (1934), Jean Vigo:

This quiet, gentle film – a favourite of both Francois Truffaut and Michel Gondry, who loved it so much he illustrated this poster for it – is the only full length feature by Jean Vigo (arguably the great tragic Van Gogh of film directors, who died of tuberculosis aged 29 while a butchered edit of L’Atalante was being released to lacklustre response).

Beautifully marrying gritty naturalism with just a touch of lyrical poetry, Vigo takes a simple story of ordinary, working class newlyweds (on a barge, filled with cats, and a decidedly strange cabin mate with a splendid cabinet of curiosities) and crafts it into a subtly complex portrait of two stubborn, brittle humans figuring out whether they can belong to one another. Filled with extraordinary detail, surprising sensuality and the most vivid, authentic acting you’ll find that side of Elia Kazan.

L’Atalante poster, designed by Michel Gondry (1990 French rerelease)
L’Atalante poster, designed by Michel Gondry (1990 French rerelease)

Do The Right Thing (1989), Spike Lee:

This is a film so in touch with its time and place, it could stand simply as a document of early 90s cool (a fashion manifesto for young hipsters everywhere), but of course it’s so much more than that. It’s not just about Spike Lee’s invigorating visual style, or the Altman-esque, “plotless” narrative either – what makes Do the Right Thing so great is Lee’s willingness to have something honest and complicated to say about the racial tension he felt around him in early 90s Bed Stuy.

As his central premise, he presents contradictory philosophies from Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X, and tries to figure out what it means to “do the right thing.” Rather than give us an easy answer, Lee’s confrontational film demands that we have an opinion. With gentrification still creeping across Brooklyn and cops still shooting kids on the street for no reason other than being black, these are conversations that are sadly as critical in America today as ever.

There is also important food for thought here for South Africans. Though I doubt I could ever agree with those who call Mandela a traitor (he saved our country’s soul), Spike Lee’s film – if you let it – does offer some uncomfortable insight into the plight of those on the receiving end of (historical and on-going) racism who are constantly required to smile, forgive and forget.

Love and Death (1975), Woody Allen:

This is a bit of a cheat, because I saw it right before I moved to New York, but it is the great Woody Allen film that I somehow never knew was this great.

What could be better than Woody Allen channelling Tolstoy via the Marx Brothers and Ingmar Bergman via his New York neuroses while dragging Diane Keaton, Mother Russia, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Grim Reaper along for the ride? Epic, irreverent and, most importantly, hilarious.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Sound of Silence

Please forgive the silence.

Sumupfilm is at film school.

Normal ramblings will resume soon enough.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Oscar winners

So I failed at Oscar predicting again. I always try to predict upsets. I can't help it.

But this is a very satisfying bunch of winners (other than The Act of Killing losing Best Documentary).

Here are the 24 newest Oscar winners. It doesn't validate films, it it not a confirmation of artistry. It is just an award, but it does become an easily accessible historical document, it alters careers (mostly for the better, although not always) and it does sell movie tickets. I mean, if more people now feel peer pressure to watch the harrowing and important 12 Years a Slave, I won't be complaining.

Other than the obvious significance of 12 Years in making plain the horrors of the slave trade (when films like Gone With the Wind had presented a sugar-coated version that was far more convenient to believe), Benedict Cumberbatch summed it up so brilliantly on the red carpet - the slave trade is very much still alive, and in many ways it's bigger (and smaller) than ever. Other than the fact that this is a beautifully made, heart-wrenching film, it really is an important film. Even if it just starts the conversations.

Ultimately, Gravity was the big winner of the night, going home with 7 naked gold men
12 Years a Slave, meanwhile, took home only 3
Dallas Buyers Club nabbed 3 as well
Frozen took 2
The Great Gatsby landed 2 more for the Luhrman-Martin household
And American Hustle was the night's biggest loser, losing each of its 10 nominations

(Incidentally, there are Oscars travelling all over the world - to Mexico (Alfonso Cuaron & Emmanuel Lubezki), England (Steve McQueen), Kenya, sort of (Lupita Nyong'o who was born in Mexico but is of Kenyan descent), Australia (Cate Blanchett & Chatherine Martin) and, of course, Italy (La Grande Bellezza)). I remember what a big moment it was for South Africa when Charlize Theron did her victory tour back home, so - well done, bunch of other countries!

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron - Gravity
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine
Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey - Dallas Buyers Club
Best Supporting Actress: Lupita N'yongo - 12 Years a Slave
Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto - Dallas Buyers Club  
Best Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze - Her
Best Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley - 12 Years a Slave
Best Editing: Alfonso Cuaron & Mark Sanger - Gravity
Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki - Gravity
Best Production Design: Catherine Martin & Beverley Dunn - The Great Gatsby
Best Costume Design: Catherine Martin - The Great Gatsby 
Best Hair & Make Up: Adruitha Lee & Robin Mathews - Dallas Buyers Club
Best Original Score: Steven Price - Gravity
Original Song: Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Robert Lopez - Let it Go (Frozen)
Best Visual Effects: Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, David Shirk & Neil Corbould - Gravity
Best Sound Mixing: Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead & Chris Munro - Gravity
Best Sound Editing: Glenn Freemantle - Gravity
Best Foreign Language Film: La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty)
Best Animated Feature: Frozen
Best Documentary Feature: 20 Feet from Stardom
Best Live Action Short: Helium 
Best Animated Short: Mr Hublot
Best Documentary Short: The Lady in Number 6

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Last-minute Oscar predictions

Best Picture: American Hustle (Because Gravity / 12 Years splits the vote Day-Lewis / Nicholson style)
Best Director: Steve McQueen - 12 Years a Slave (Sasha Stone has a point - when it comes to Best Pic / Director splits, the movie everyone "likes" gets Picture, the film everyone "respects" takes Director)
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine (in the bag and overdue)
Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey - Dallas Buyers Club (he's earned it, made himself overdue in just two years, and was on TV being brilliant in True Detective through much of the voting period)
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence - American Hustle (this should be her first. She deserves it, but I would be thrilled if Lupita N'yongo takes it instead)
Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto - Dallas Buyers Club (they clearly love the film, what with upset nominations in screenplay and editing. Would be happy if Barkhad Abdi upset though)
Best Original Screenplay: American Hustle
Best Adapted Screenplay: 12 Years a Slave
Editing: Captain Phillips
Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects & Original Score: Gravity
Costume Design & Production Design: The Great Gatsby (it would be kinda rad if Costumes went to American Hustle)
Make Up: Dallas Buyers Club
Foreign Language Film: The Great Beauty (upset: The Broken Circle Breakdown)
Documentary: The Act of Killing
Animated Feature: Frozen (although it should be The Wind Rises)
Original Song: Happy - Pharrell Williams - Despicable Me 2

I didn't see any of the shorts. Bummer.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Mandela didn't throw spears (or: Why I hate Django Unchained)

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” 
- Nelson Mandela

This is a sort-of review of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a sort-of farewell to the great man, who passed away on December 5th 2013, and sort of a call for the forgiveness and introspection that Madiba stood for.

Let's start with Mandela, the film. No, it's not a Lincoln, and it's not quite a Gandhi either. Story-wise, it reads like a Wikipedia account of Mandela's life (or a CliffsNotes summary of Mandela's memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, minus the critical analysis). Naturally, there are many details and nuances lost in the telling of Mandela's whole journey, from his Abakwetha initiation ceremony at 14 to his inauguration as the first democratically elected President of South Africa at 76. If you take the film for what it is - an overview of a great life, an introduction to a complex struggle and hopefully inspiration enough to read (rather than substitute) Mandela's dense autobiography - it is a perfectly decent film with solid production values (handsome photography, fantastic costumes, effective if too-noticeable score) released just in time for the whole world to simmer together in Mandela's legacy. It's clearly a film that loves Mandela and strives to humanise him but it is not an abundantly thoughtful film. One wonders if viewers unfamiliar with Mandela's story would walk away understanding quite why over 20 000 people queued for days to view Mandela's body at the Union Buildings. Mandela's icon status always had less to do with what he accomplished than who he was and how he treated every single person he met. At the very least, Invictus should be compulsory ancillary viewing to get a glimpse of Mandela's playful leadership genius.

The problem with skimming over much of the detail is losing much of the context. For those who lived through the struggle, wrote about the struggle, analysed the struggle and believed in the struggle, the swift sign-posting of Mandela LWTF may be a very frustrating experience. Director Justin Chadwick explains that there was simply too much ground to cover in just a few hours so he chose, instead, to focus on Mandela the man, the cad, the womaniser, the fighter. Fair enough, but Mandela never really needed much humanising to anyone who who was paying attention -  he never made much effort to hide his flaws, he was always full of mischief and good humour, he seemed more interested in people than in policy and his loud trademark shirts were a gentle, enduring, and endearing, middle finger to convention (that may seem insignificant, but no South African President had ever bothered to be approachable before). That he was a ladies man and knew how to make bombs is fairly self evident from the fact that he was married three times and imprisoned as a terrorist (although it must be clarified that the bombings specifically excluded human targets, which is more than can be said for the ruling party at the time). That he was human was never in doubt. How he managed to be embraced as the Tata of an entire nation - black and white (and everything in between) is the really interesting question. Ultimately Chadwick gives us plenty of What, and too little Why. The Why is what makes this story both interesting and significant.

In the spirit of Madiba the reconiliator, I am inclined to say let's celebrate all that is good and competent about the film, and forgive it's shortcomings. In the spirit of Madiba the pioneering leader of our free nation, I am inclined to say, let's tell our own stories and let's tell them better. We can't keep complaining about foreigners' takes on our most fascinating, powerful, complicated histories, if we don't step up and tell them better ourselves. Challenge accepted.

On that note, We Need to Talk About the Bono song at the end of Mandela: LWTF (which has since become an award winner). Many have complained about the myriad of talented local musicians who were overlooked in favour of Rock n Roll's most obvious go-to humanitarian. In the inclusive spirit of Madiba, I am inclined to be proud that one of the word's most recognisable rock stars was inspired enough to celebrate our Tata's ethos of love in song - and at least Elton John didn't just recycle Candle in the Wind again. But as a movie-goer and a South African local, I can't help but kind of hate this song. Look, Bono was Irish in the 80s, so he should understand something about liberation struggles and his lyrics do indicate a genuine appreciation for Mandela's philosophy of love as the natural human state we should all remember to aspire to. This poppy, upbeat, radio-friendly song, however, feels tonally irreverent to the film and, in if heard in any other context, not really recognisable as a song about Mandela or the Apartheid struggle. It also jarringly concludes the film on a decidedly Westernised note, once again driving home the point that we should be telling our own stories with our own people. 

Songs were one of the primary ways of expressing solidarity during the apartheid struggle, and are actively used to this day to memorialise anti-apartheid leaders - for proof, attend just a single ANC rally. Mandela was also Xhosa, a tribe with a rich culture of music and musical storytelling. Now I am grateful that Bono didn't try to Africanise his song with a black children's choir or tribal chanting, but I can't help feeling that he could have put a bit more thought into it. At the every least he could have closed the film with a raw Rock n Roll liberation anthem, rather than this preppy, sugary tune. But let my ranting be over. I am indulging my inner Winnie Mandela (more on that later). Thank you, Bono, for your efforts, and for caring so much about our beloved Tata.

Then the performances. Mandela is a gift to any black actor. Many have tried, mainly only Morgan Freeman has really succeeded. He's still my Mandela for the ages, but Idris Elba does a commendable job. He is not given the same focus and nuance as Freeman, having to jog through about six decades of Mandela's busy life in a mere two hours and nineteen minutes (given the subject matter, you feel like they could have tacked on another 40 minutes and gotten a few more of the details right, stewed in a few more nuances). He lacks any physical resemblance to Mandela, other than being black, but quickly makes up for it with a pitch perfect accent and a comfortable understanding of Mandela's mannerisms. His appearance only becomes a problem in Mandela's prison years and beyond, when distracting aging makeup - the film's biggest technical fail - turns Elba into a weirdly morphed version of Madiba (yes, even Madiba thought he was watching himself walking through a field with children... but did they show him the shots of his creepily greying hair?). Elba is a great actor, and he does Madiba justice with the material he is given. There is great authority in everything that comes out of his mouth and a conviction that feels real rather than another awkward Braveheart impression. From his vibrant fighting spirit as young Mandela to his stirring, restrained SAUK address, Elba maintains a strong sense of who Madiba was throughout. I could have done with more time dedicated to what catalysed Mandela's great change of heart in prison - something more substantial than the passing of time and the trimming of tomatoes. Somewhere in the patience, introspection and broad thinking that prison required of him, Mandela touched the divine and become a leader of extraordinary vision and insight. 

Trying to sort through all the details and complexities, the film finds its back bone in the contrast between Nelson and Winnie Mandela as their lives become inextricably caught up in the freedom struggle. Both are passionate, educated, highly intelligent and trail blazing individuals who love their country and are willing to sacrifice their personal lives for the greater good of their people. Both are persecuted by the white government, but their lives and struggles turn out very differently (Winnie's life took a particular turn for the bizarre in the new South Africa, but that will be covered in the Winnie biopic starring Jennifer Hudson - for which I can only skeptically reserve judgment). In this regard, at least, Chadwick and British Actress Naomie Harris do quite some justice to the complex, contradictory Winnie. Sure, we only see her development in fleeting glances, and in juxtaposition to Mandela's, but Harris plays her with so much fire and conviction, you can't help but sympathise with her cause, while feeling the impending doom of the lines she keeps threatening to cross - and ultimately does. Like Elba, Harris nails the accent without inviting ridicule (we're looking at you, Leo DiCaprio & Terrence Howard) and rings true in every scene. She also wears some sensational outfits - one of the highlights of the film. And she wears them just the way Winnie would have - with a particularity and fierce confidence that let you know she made her own rules and meant business.

“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” 
- Nelson Mandela

Which brings me to what I think I want to talk about - Nelson vs Winnie. It's quite a tragic relationship - a meeting of minds separated by the weight of the Apartheid struggle. They spent their best years apart, they suffered their persecutions apart, they emerged at the other end of Robben Island with irreconcilably divided ideologies. You can't blame Winnie for wanting revenge, for wanting to to unleash the beast - her response to white oppression was reasonable, justified, fair. And you can't blame her for being disappointed in Nelson for turning the other cheek, for insisting on forgiveness to those who had long-since passed the point of deserving it. But ultimately, he was right, wasn't he? He chose an unreasonable higher road; one of forgiveness but, more importantly, of intrinsic human respect. He believed absolutely that the way Africans had been treated in their own country was inexcusable, but refused to treat anyone else the same way. Arguably, whites never belonged in Africa in the first place, and that is a tension that is still playing itself out in our new South Africa, but Nelson would rather embrace those that had come to share his country with him than treat anyone as a second-rate citizen. His forgiveness was controversial - then and now - but it united a nation, astonished the world, paved the way for a free, democratic society and avoided civil war. Winnie's anger, hatred and bloodlust led her down a path of blinded arrogance that almost ruined her and her legacy. It is to the African peoples' credit that they would rather honour her for her contributions to the struggle than persecute her for her bizarre mistakes.

And this is the thing about Mandela's high road - he touched something divine. In A Tale of Three Kings, Gene Edwards takes a lyrical look at the Kingship of the first three rulers of Israel - Saul, David and Absalom - and asks "What do you do when someone throws spears at you?" It is fitting that David and Mandela, two flawed, publicly vulnerable men, responded the same way to grossly unreasonable persecution - and it made them two of the most celebrated and influential leaders in history - they refused to throw spears back, even when they had the opportunity to, because to do so would have made them just like their oppressors. It would repeat the cycle and trap them in the same fears that made their unjust leaders abandon their own humanity. When you set yourself up as the moral authority, you set yourself up to become a tyrant. Mandela refused for his people to do that.

"It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else's freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity."
- Nelson Mandela

White people in South Africa can be ludicrously petrified of black hatred (see the absurd, white-created myth of the Night of the Long Knives, now finally dispelled a good number of weeks after Madiba's death). It turns out the majority of black South Africans never wanted to slaughter us all after all. They just wanted their kids to have the same opportunity as ours. (I mean, they were here first and all that). Integration is slow, but it is happening.
Black medical staff treat a wounded KKK member

And then, lastly, on to Django Unchained. Yes, it's a ballsy and entertaining, if messy and self-indulgent, piece of film pastiche, but I loathe it for implying that black slaves would / should have been as cruel and bloodthirsty as the inhuman slave owners who oppressed them. Tarantino's revenge fantasy belies and belittles the incredible grace, restraint and intelligence with which great men like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu fought for freedom but refused to surrender their humanity and their respect towards the notion that all men - their oppressors included - are created equal. 

What the ANC accomplished was nothing short of astonishing. There's no doubt the white minority in South Africa had bloodshed coming to them, but the great leaders of the African National Congress, refused to become the savages they expected them to be. The savages Tarantino still expects them to be. They showed us all that there is a higher way, and it is possible for flawed men to attain it.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
- Nelson Mandela

Rest in peace, Tata. I cannot hope and pray enough that your legacy truly lives on in us.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

2014 Oscar Nominees

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced its nominees for the 86th time this morning, and they've had a pretty respectable year.

You can see all the Oscar Nominees here. I couldn't present them more tidily or comprehensively myself.

This was a fantastic year for midstream (ie, not quite art house, but not quite box office mainstream either) movies, with literally all of my favourite currently working directors - Martin Scorsese, The Coen Brothers, Alexander Payne, Spike Jonze - turning in some of their best work yet (plus we had the privilege of a great Sofia Coppolla - I realise I am fairly alone on that one - and a good annual Woody Allen.

The Academy gave a fairly warm reception to all of these, with the exception of Sofia Coppola and - bizarrely - The Coen Brothers.

Scorsese's controversial Wolf of Wall Street scored 5 nominations, including Picture, Director, Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill) and Adapted Screenplay. Amazingly, the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker got shafted for editing. Bizarre, considering the editing in the trailer alone made me weep and her replacement appears to be the guys behind Dallas Buyers Club. It is a great moment for DiCaprio, though, who has received much rejection at the hands of the Academy since Blood Diamond. He goes all out for Wolf and this is a lovely way to commence his apparent acting hiatus. Also huzzah for Scorsese's nomination - he had us worried there for a moment when Academy members started declaring his film repulsive and viewers fled from cinemas in disgust. Fortunately, the Academy retained its balls this year and remembered that cinema is not Disney Land.

On that note, they all but completely snubbed Saving Mr Banks which, while I haven't seen the film and am willing to believe its perfectly lovely, was a smart move. Pity about Emma Thompson's nomination, but it became inevitable that Amy Adams had to make the cut - and ousting Thompson's performance over Streep's was probably the right thing to do.

Most perplexingly, after a six year love affair with the incomparable, incorrigible Coen Brothers (which included an inspired Best Picture nomination for the surreal A Serious Man), the Academy has completely overlooked Inside Llewyn Davis, one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year. Sure, they don't care, but in terms of preserving the year in cinema for future generations, that seems like a pretty big oversight. Sure, Please Mr Kennedy didn't qualify for Song, Director was crowded and Actor was way crowded, but no room in the Best Picture race for a Coen masterpiece? More embarassingly, no Screenplay nod? With Cinematography and Sound Mixing we shall be satisfied. Perhaps they can go back to being underdogs rather than Oscar darlings now, which suits them better anyhow.

Alexander Payne has always felt like more of a writer than a director, although he balances dark comedy and poignant drama like no one's business and never fails to extract quiet brilliance from his actors. It seems fitting then that he surplants both Spike Jonze and expected nominee Paul Greengrass as Best Director nominee for Nebraska, his first film from a screenplay he didn't also write. His low key, monochrome drama about family, money and mortality contends across the board, including Cinematography; a first for a Payne film.

Spike Jonze's glorious-looking Her (releasing soon where I live) did smashingly, despite missing out on that Best Director nod. Oh well. Jonze's postmodern digital age love story contends for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Art Directing / Set Decoration and, perhaps most excitingly, Original Song and Original Score by Arcade Fire (credited as William Butler and Owen Pallett). The Academy has a tendency to sideline rock stars and inventive scores in this category (with the sole exception of The Social Network and perhaps Thomas Newman's work), so this is a solid nod. Don't fret though - the rest of their Original Score nominees - other than Gravity - are predictably pallid. It's a pity Her doesn't contend for Editing and, especially, Cinematography, but let's take small winnings where we can get them.

Even Woody Allen gets a pretty respectable showing for Blue Jasmine, with Cate Blanchett obviously setting the stage for a brilliant acceptance speech on Oscar night, but the delightful Sally Hawkins (she of the dastardly Happy-Go-Lucky snub) and Woody's screenplay come along for the ride. Woody's screenplay almost always comes along for the ride.

Beyond my favourite directors, the three films leading the nominations - and likely battling it out for the top prize - are the life affirming Box Office Special Effects extravaganza Gravity; the gut-wrenching, devastating, gorgeous slavery drama 12 Years a Slave and David O'Russell's crowd-pleasing critical darling ABSCAM con movie American Hustle. It's really no contest. With four acting nods (one for each category) for the second consecutive year, O'Russell is the one to beat for Director and Picture, while Slave missed out on nominations for Cinematography and Score, which does not bode well for its popularity with voters. Gravity will, of course, clean out the technical awards, but if it couldn't even win at the Golden Globes (who anointed Avatar Best Drama), we can stop pretending the Academy is taking it that seriously.

On that note, though, Steve McQueen just became only the third black man ever nominated for Best Director. It would be monumental if he won, especially since his film is just so damn good, but the Academy rarely splits Picture and Director - and never on purpose. For some reason, everyone is besotted with David O'Russell and he seems to have this in the bag. I'm not complaining - unlike Silver Linings Playbook, Hustle looks legitimately good.

On the outskirts of the Best Picture race, float one of the year's best films; Captain Phillips - a thrilling real-life survival story that also takes the trouble to be a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, meditation on terrorism and the perceived value of a life. Greengrass's craft is exceptional, and he turns a rah rah Hero's story into the year's great tragedy, without any emotional sleight of hand. It's a huge bummer that Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass missed out on nominations for their brilliant, tightly wound work. Actor and Director were exceptionally crowded this year, and each ends up with a worthy set of nominees - but I'd gladly boot Payne for Greengrass.

Rounding out Best Picture is gritty AIDS drama Dallas Buyers Club - bolstered by two of the most talked-about performances of the year - and Stephen Frears' lovely seeming (nothing's been released here, okay?!) Philomena, floating in from the land of Downton Abbey with Harvey Weinstein's seal of approval, and another pitch-perfect performance from Judi Dench.

Other notable nominees:

  • Before Midnight, thankfully nominated for its sensational screenplay
  • The Great Beauty, nominated for Foreign Language Film and Cinematography
  • Prisoners, remembered for Cinematography, giving Roger Deakins yet another chance to lose
  • Frozen, nominated for Animated Feature and Song, and sealing the deal to be the first Disney film to win Animated Feature (and directed by a woman at that)
  • August: Osage County, contending for Actress (close call Meryl) and Supporting Actress
  • The much-maligned Lone Ranger, nominated for Make Up and Special Effects
  • The much-buzzed Lone Survivor, nominated for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing
The big losers:
  • Sarah Polley's much-celebrated, highly inventive docu-drama Stories We Tell missing out on Best Documentary 
  • Emma Thompson snubbed for Best Actress. Someone had to take the fall. Pity it had to be her. She's so delightful, whatever she does.
  • Robert Redford. Crowded category, but still an ouch. 
  • Tom Hanks downgrading from potential double nominee to zero nominee
  • Pixar's Monster's University snubbed in favour of Despicable Me 2 
  • Inside Llewyn Davis sidelined to Sound Mixing and Cinematography
  • Saving Mr Banks' sole nomination for Original Score - just to let them know they did see it, they just really didn't like it
  • Lana Del Rey. It's possible voters recalled her SNL performance and recoiled in fear. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Us and Them: To Have and Have Not in 2013

Us and Them 
And in the end, we're only ordinary men
Me and you
- Pink Floyd, Us and Them

Human beings have long fostered the unfortunate, and incorrect, idea that in order for one of us to win, another has to lose. We seem to believe that success is a limited resource that can only be attained at the expense of another. And we justify it with the idea that aggressive capitalism and ambition is the main catalyst to economic progress.

Filmmakers of all genres in 2013 are calling for a rethink, for us to challenge our notion of the “other” – the people we exclude to make sure we are included. The haves that enjoy their privilege at the expense of the have-nots; the haves that have lost their soul in the progress, and the have-nots that inexplicably idolise them (of course, having-not depends very much on what you figure you should be having - as Betty Sue Cox reminds us, it doesn't take much to be so very rich). 

Elysium & Hunger Games: Catching Fire take the idea of the 1% elite to sci fi extremes – the lesson? You can’t keep the masses down. They will destroy your bubble. The system will equalise itself. Just ask Marie Antoinette. And take heed, Jacob Zuma. In Elysium, the masses settle for access to health care and seem disinterested in vengeance. In Hunger Games, well we shall have to see (unless you've read the books, in which case you already know), but the point, at least so far, is that the masses possess more humanity than their oppressors.

The Wolf of Wall Street, The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers exposed the sick heart of consumerism and excess, while Woody Allen called the heartless 1% to account for the damage they have done in Blue Jasmine, and created a sort-of 21st century Blanche Du Bois for Cate Blanchett in the process (only, no one is trying to destroy her but herself). A change of heart for a man who’s spent so much time idolising Manhattan’s intellectual elite.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, The Butler and 12 Years a Slave all look at struggles for social equality and liberty by political have-notes, the victims of unjust laws. While 12 Years casts a scathing eye on the racial horrors of America's past, The Butler shows just how slow change can be. The oppression in Mandela is all the more disturbing because it is perpetrated by the white minority (how they ever thought it was going to last is beyond comprehension - that it ended with minimal bloodshed is miraculous), while Bono's closing credits song is a synecdoche of a bigger problem - we still need white people to tell black stories.

Perhaps most heartbreakingly, both Fruitvale StationCaptain Phillips examine the very sad truth that the perceived value of a life is still connected to the colour of your skin and the affluence of your origin. Like Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant was profiled, judged and treated according to the colour of his skin - and it was acceptable for him to end up dead. In Captain Phillips, Muse seals his own fate by going up against the US Navy with his puny resources, but it is a testament to his devastating lack of opportunities that he sees no other option. Muse's own country seems regards him as expendable - when everyone is too busy surviving, no one has time to risk their own lives for yours. What the US Navy pulled off to save Captain Phillips was commendable, beautifully executed and a picture of America's tenacity in fighting for the humanity of those they consider to be their own. It's a human shame that only certain lives, matching certain criteria, warrant that kind of effort.

Art reflects our reality, and hopefully we use it to reflect back on our own lives and the future we want to create. Some of our best filmmakers have taken the time to talk. Are we listening? Will we try to change the way we see and understand each other, or will we keep repeating an endless loop of reflections? (disclosure: that last phrase was just an excuse to link to a great music videos).

Final thoughts from Boyd Varty, a white man who learnt something invaluable from two great black men as a kid on his father's game farm: TED Talk - What I Learned from Nelson Mandela

There is room at the mountaintop
for everyone in God’s plan
The Rapture, It Takes Time to Be a Man

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review: Before Midnight

Who we were isn't lost before we were us
Indigo is his own
Blue always knew this

Tori Amos - Your Cloud

There's something that fascinates me about pulling off the perfect cinematic trilogy. It's a tough nut to crack.

With Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and now Before Midnight, Richard Linklater has cracked it. It's a wonder he pulled off even one enduring classic built entirely around two characters having a conversation. Instead, together with co-writers & stars Delpy & Hawke, he has delivered three films, each as lovely as the other, enriching rather than diluting what went before and demanding repeat viewings. Like any great trilogy, the first made a lasting impact on the popular zeitgeist, the second stuck to the template but upped the stakes, and the third changes the way we view the former, while faithfully playing out the characters and narrative we've come to love. Brilliant work, Linklater.

But Before Midnight is more than just a brilliant final instalment in a great, unlikely trilogy. It's also a harrowing / humorous dissection of a full-bodied relationship, and one of the best grown up films you'll see this year.

Every relationship is defined by the perceptions and participation of both parties. Things are only ever how we choose to see them. Jesse and Celine (SPOILER ALERT) are now officially together, with kids, and see their relationship very differently. What does it take to make it last, and is it worth trying? A preface between Jesse and his son casts a shadow of domestic responsibility over the enchanting encounters of the first two films. Yes, they made the choice we kind of hoped they would, despite the complications they would entail. Now those complications must play themselves out in the real world (or as real world as a family holiday at the Greek villa of a famous writer can be). There's no literal ticking clock here like in Sunrise and Sunset; The clock that ticks is in the unspoken tensions between Jesse and Celine. Or perhaps only in Celine's head. Or perhaps, as Celine would insist, fate. Whatever the cause, the metaphysical clock is set in motion to decide if Jesse and Celine will have a happily ever after. 

In a way,  for all its indie-kids romantic origins, Before Midnight is the anti-rom com. This is about the work it takes to keep the pieces of any relationship in place, and the terror that strikes when the bond is called into question. Relationships can't be all long walks and profound talks in beautifiul cities. Any choice you could have made, no matter how magical, will ultimately require work. And sacrifice. 

This time round, Linklater allows a number of ancillary characters to join the conversation in the middle section of the film, adding their perspectives to the question of love in the modern age - can it last? Is there any point in expecting it to? Wouldn't relationships be easier if we just take off the pressure and accept the expiry date? Only one party offers a differing view, but she makes a compelling case. Either she has been very lucky, or the others are doing it wrong. Or philosophise around their own fear of failure.

Both leads are brilliant, fleshing out characters they created nearly two decades ago, and replacing the awkwardness and uncertainty of the first two films with years and years of shared subtext, layered into the long takes and free flowing naturalism. It's hard to understand how well the actors have to know their characters, and each other, to work in so much complexity without losing the in-the-moment authenticity. 

But it's Julie Delpy who gives one of the unmissable performances of the year. Celine has always been the more complicated character - even their host, Patrick, tells Jesse he is the only great writer he knows who has a partner more interesting than he is - but, in Midnight, she is not in a great place. The mundane responsibilities of motherhood, and the intense devotion she feels for her family, leave her tired and she is keeping score of every sacrifice she makes for the sake of her relationship with Jesse that takes her further and further from the independent intellectual she always planned to be. She loves her family but fears losing herself to them, especially to Jesse. From domestic logistics to gatherings of friends to vicious arguments, Delpy plays it all with a constant swirl of resentment, bitterness, wit and devil-may-care independence simmering beneath the surface.

Delpy & her co-writers aren't scared to take Celine to dark places - we feel her frustrations, but also how she traps herself in her own contradictory rhetoric and impossible expectations. She's a woman who, in fighting for autonomy, insists on being unknowable, too easily plays the victim, denies her own insecurities and refuses to admit her overwhelming need to be loved, to be appreciated and, likely most embarrassingly for her, to be attractive and desirable, despite age crystallizing her bitterness, pessimism & melancholy into a temperament she knows she wouldn't put up with. But that is why Celine is Celine and Jesse is Jesse. The very things she criticizes in him are the things she needs from him. For all her complaints, even she does not know what she really wants. Overwhelmed by the frailty and frustrations of their relationship, she cannot imagine how it could last, or be worth the trouble, and sets about finding enough faults to end it before it can disappoint her.

The power in Delpy's performance is that she never succumbs to easy melodrama or playing Celine for laughs (although she is very funny). She believes in Celine, even as she lays out her fears and flaws for us to criticise. 

Jesse is still much the same carefree, pretentious kid he's always been; trying to reconcile his romantic views of life with the unsolvable complications his choices have left him with. If he seems happier and more carefree than Celine, she would insist it is only because he is more willfully naive, and selfish, but he ultimately emerges as a heroic romantic; with his eyes wide open, but his heart open wider. The same boy who plucked up the nerve to ask Celine to get off the train with him in Vienna is now the boy who'll keep asking her to spend her life with him, no matter how many times it takes.

Ultimately, Midnight is a brutally honest study of the moments we choose to save or break a relationship. The truth is, in those moments it can go either way. Celine implies it is fate, but the film suggests it has a lot more to do with choice. The things we break we often break out of fear. It's tempting to feel that if something can fall apart, it was never made to last. As if being breakable is reason enough for it to be abandoned. But we are all breakable. And it is precisely in fighting for each other in the breakable moments of our relationships that the strongest bonds are formed; the moments when we can transcend our fears, insecurities & selfishness to create something we decide will last with another person as breakable as we are. Love is losing ourselves. That is the point. And selfless love will hold us together if we let it.