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 It is just an award, but it does become an easily accessible historical document, it alters careers (mostly for the better, although not always) and it does sell movie tickets.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 feministic 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. 


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

American Film Institutes Top 10 Films of 2013

Good list. Good year for cinema.

12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Fruitvale Station
Gravity
Her
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nebraska
Saving Mr Banks
The Wolf of Wall Street

To be honest, American Hustle feels lightweight to me (sight unseen), but the NY Film Critics anointed it Movie of the Year, so I guess I should start adjusting my expectations.

It's a pity some of the fantastic indie fare, like Before Midnight, Mud, Before Midnight, Blue Jasmine and Before Midnight didn't make the cut, but how great is it seeing The Coens, Mr Scorsese, Spike Jonze, Alexander Payne & Steve McQueen dominate (not to mention Paul Greengrass and Alfonso Cuaron)? 

They save their list by nodding Fruitvale Station over The Butler. Smart move.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Review: About Time


There are three things you may have noticed about About Time:

1. It is a Richard Curtis movie

2. It is a time travel movie
3. It is a Rachel McAdams romantic-type movie.

While it succeeds admirably at point 1, it fails miserably at point 2, and I would like to make a case for point 3 meaning something far meatier connotations than it currently does. (And, yes, amazingly points 2 & 3 have co-existed before).


Point 1:

Being a Richard Curtis movie, it is of course charming, cutely eccentric, unashamedly sentimental and just potty-mouthed enough to remind you it is British, and therefore less shallow than an American movie. For this reason alone, About Time will do quite well. 


Are they not adorkable?

Point 2:

As a time travel movie, it's pants. If you're interested in the philosophical nature of time travel scenarios, the unforeseen consequences of altering past decisions or the worrisome establishing of multiple timelines (and you should be), About Time will drive you bananas. Curtis is not so much interested in time travel so much as ruminating on how to spend our limited time on earth wisely. 

Curtis makes some lovely observations about family & how to live an ordinary life well and, perhaps, he's on to some poignant points.It's just a pity he's not into tight plotting or space-time continuum logic. Perhaps I've been spoiled by too many great episodes of Fringe and Community, but when time travel / alternate realities are introduced to the plot, it is to be taken seriously (preferably with gloomy, mind-bending results). 


Curtis doesn't, and he makes this clear upfront by the whimsically casual way he Bill Nighys time travel into the story. Sure, when it comes to magic realism, the less exposition, the better, but forgive me for wanting to be at least slightly baffled by the unforeseen implications of tiny shifts in time. I'm pretty willing to suspend my disbelief and overlook plot holes for time travel conundrums, but there need to be some solid ground rules / internal logic. Curtis stays light on internal logic, favouring a more freewheeling approach instead.

Tim's time travel abilities leave little in the way of undesired consequences, but much in the way of magical fun & male wish fulfillment. It's kind of a straight-forward Erase / Rewind situation, with a few arbitrary twists and bugs (sperm logic, anyone?) thrown in for some plot tension. 

But who cares? It's not the point. You're not watching a Time Travel Movie, you're watching a Richard Curtis movie. Since the point of the movie is kind of not over-thinking life, but just enjoying it, I suppose a similar approach is to be advised for the film itself.


Point 3

Yes. This is the second time travel romance that Rachel McAdams has made. How bizarre. This one makes the other one seem more legit from a time travel point of view. But I'd probably still want to watch this one again before that one. 

It is very bizarre that Curtis seems intent on presenting Rachel McAdams as some kind of frumpy, quirky, smart, loner girl. Yeah, no, vintage dresses, hipster glasses, brown hair & a weird obsession with Kate Moss do not the lovely McAdams into an outsider frump make.

I really wish the description "a Rachel McAdams movie" would carry with it more weight and thrill of anticipation. She's really a much better actress than her agent seems to think. Someone please give this woman a good script. I'd really love to see her play a murderer, or a vile politician, or basically any character not impossibly adorable and lovely. At least half the time.   

But more to the point, McAdams is lovely and huggable as ever in About Time. Domhnall Gleeson is equally charming and together they have a sweet chemistry. Though all the meet-cutes, chat-cutes and grow-cutes would appear to indicate that Tim and Mary are soul mates of sorts, just one single tiny fight would have gone a long way to making their relationship more believable. More problematically, it is unforgivable that Tim never bothers to mention his gift / condition to Mary. Especially since he does little with it but trick his way into her life, heart and pants. 

Really, it kind of fails as a romcom, cause it's ultimately much more of a father-son movie, which bring me to my conclusion.

Conclusion

Taking the film for what it is, here is what is great about it:

  • Bill Nighy 
  • The father-son bits of the story 

Curtis makes a strong case for the importance of (eccentric, accepting, British, tea drinking) families, and presents a touching, incredibly sincere (if underdeveloped) father-son relationship. Again, Curtis is painting in broad strokes of father-son relationships generally (as neither character is developed enough to really delve into the relationship specifically) but, in its final stretch, Curtis' script and film find a sincerity and depth nothing else in the film touches, and emerge with easy sentiment marginally defeated by an authentic delivery of earnest longings. If only Curtis could give us a more workable plan for spending less time at work and more time with teenage sons (standing in a cupboard and clenching your fists likely won't work for most of us). 

All in all, a somewhat lazy, but quite charming & uncommonly meditative Richard Curtis outing. Probably great for first dates. Even better for father-son dates (although, if you already do those, you probably don't need to see this).



Friday, November 22, 2013

Review: The Place Beyond the Pines


Derek's Cianfrance's debut, Blue Valentine, blew my freaking mind. A searing, uncommonly intimate portrait of a young marriage alternately blossoming to life and crumbling away that performed beautifully on every level. It was a heart-, nay gut-wrenching powerhouse indie. To stop me going on about it any longer, you can go here to read my Blue Valentine Review.

Cianfrance's second film as writer and director, The Place Beyond the Pines, is a slower, more measured exercise; a great sophomore effort that shows Cianfrance is not interested in repeating himself, but in letting his stories guide him through the maze of human relationships.

In Pines, Cianfrance and his two co-writers Ben Coccio & Darius Marder, are interested in father-son relationships and the defining presence they have on the lives of men; how deeply the fact of being a father, or a son, fulfillingly or not, impacts how we shape our identities.

Pines is not as intense or swooning a film as Valentine. It's a more ambiguously contemplative slow-burner, boldly presented in three divergent but narratively & thematically connected chapters. On the surface a crime thriller (or three crime thrillers), but really a multi-generational, multi-protagonist (always a difficult trick to pull off) character study.

Chapter 1:

The strongest of the three and the one that feels most likely to succeed as its own full-length film. It's almost a pity when Pines moves on from it, but everything that follows gives it a different resonance & weight of context. In a way, it lingers far longer in the memory precisely because Cianfrance abandons it so soon.

This chapter follows Luke (Ryan Gosling), a heavily tattooed hipster/stuntman who seems to exist purely to smoke broodily on the edges of society & look ridiculously cool doing dangerous stuff on a motorcycle. A spark is awakened, though, when he learns that a former fling Romina (Eva Mendes) has given birth to his son & he sets out to be an involved father & breadwinner - even if it means robbing banks (spectacularly, with motorbike getaways) & luring Romina away from her stable family life with a new boyfriend. 

You can't deny the guy his passion and dedication to being a present father, even if his presence is destabilizing. When Luke says that that he wants his son to know him - because he didn't know his father & look how he turned out - it comes off massively poignant rather than trite. Surely Fatherly love of such conviction counts for something, even if the father in question is less than stable? Well, that's the question. 


This segment of the film has everything going for it. Cianfrance writes a great character for Gosling and Gosling, when given great characters, is naturally dynamite. He plays Luke all coiled rage and beautiful intentions. He doesn't say much but he has a helluva lot more to do than look cool (there's a lesson here for Nicolas Winding Refn). This is a great character with a great trajectory, and Cianfrance gives him some great scenes - from 
crying in a church to racking up the tension as he passive aggresively puts together a baby cot in Romina & Kofi's house (uninvited) to his final moments on screen, he is electric. Gosling & Mendes also have great onscreen chemistry - Mendes, with this and last year's Holy Motors, is starting to make a legitimate case for being taken seriously. Starting.


DOP Sean Bobbitt also does some of his best lensing here, milking some gorgeous shots from both Luke's theme park workplace & his time spent on motorcycles. He also creates a gentle, melancholy intimacy for Gosling & Mendes' sad-awkward-beautiful family portrait. I should also mention that Ben Mendelsohn is fantastic as Luke's odd/unpredictable/white trash employer/friend/crime mentor.

Chapter 2:

The story moves on to Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a nervous-seeming cop who becomes a hero, and alienates his family as he wrestles with his conscience, after he kills a perp in the line of duty, in less-than-ideal circumstances. It's all less angsty than it sounds because a) Bradley Cooper is good, but not yet as good at inner turmoil as he is at loud, cutesy bi-polarism and b) Avery is kind of a passive character who seems to feel bad about a lot of things but not do much about them. When he does take action, you can't help but question his motives.

Which brings us to the next part of the story, which introduces Ray Liotta as Deluca, a tough, sinister corrupt cop leading a band of similarly tough, corrupt cops who tries to draw Avery into his circle of extortion. Moral dilemmas ensue. Ray Liotta is great, of course. Rose Byrne is also around, as Avery's longsuffering wife but, while she has some good moments, her presence feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity.


This part of the film is odd, but not in a bad way, simply because it takes the narrative in such a different direction and seems to change the tone so sharply. As a character, Avery is hard to read or warm up to and, though there is a clear sense of chaos brewing, it is hard to tell quite how it is going and how it will all tie together.

Chapter 3
AJ (Emory Cohen) is a teenager sent to live with his father in Schenectady to help him stabilise after he gets in trouble over drugs. His father, however, is distracted by his campaign to be elected New York City General and a son with drug-related misdemeanors is less than convenient. The father in question is Avery Cross.

At his new school, AJ befriends broody loner Jason (Dane Dehaan) and, sensing a shared void, the two strike up a tentative friendship. Jason is a sensitive kid, ready to boil over under the surface, while AJ is a jock of sorts, hiding his frailty under a layer of douchiness. What neither boy knows is that Luke is Jason's father and their stories are inextricably linked.   

Both young actors are excellent (although Dehaan is the broody standout) and the writers must be commended for writing such vivid teenagers: complex beasts negotiating posturing and insecurities they don't yet fully understand. Far from the jocks and nerds trope usually presented as high school standards, they are authentic, unsure adolescents trying to find their way into adulthood and sensing that they may be looking for the same things.

This part of the film works and really drives things home because Cianfrance takes it slow and gives it plenty of time to breathe. Things rise to a slow, broody conclusion that simmers out into the film's thematic inclinations. 

In the end it all comes together as a slow burner that was always intended to be an enigmatic thinkpiece rather than a straight drama or thriller. Cianfrance is more interested in the legacy of fathers and sons, the choices - even bad ones - that produce life and belonging, and the ones that leave a void.

Each of the characters is somehow marked by the choices of those who went before them; Luke never knew his father while Avery is always living in the shadow of his. Both AJ and Jason, in turn, continue to live out shadows of the secret crimes, compromises & sacrifices of their fathers, without even knowing it. It is simply imprinted on their spiritual DNA.




Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Review: Gravity


With a Metacritic score as high as 96 and talk of Best Picture gongs, it's best to go into Gravity with normalised expectations.

This is not an arthouse sci-fi extravaganza in the tradition of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is also not an unspeakable horror film detailing a slow suffocating death in outer space (both a pity and a huge relief).

It is, however, breathtaking visual filmmaking and a marvel to behold. Director Alfonso Cuaron beautifully marries fancy (CGI) camera work (read long, slow, complex shots) with perfectly rendered special effects, a romping spacey score, deathly silence, where needed, and sharp pacing to put us right out in space with Dr Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Matt Kowlaski (Clooney), he taking in the beauty of space while she focuses on fixing whatever it is she is out there to be fixing.

(As a side note, it's weird that Cuaron fought to have a woman in the lead and then gave her a man's name, for no apparent reason. Not important, just odd.)

Disaster ensues, of course, in the shape of Russian space debris of some sort and the next 90 minutes are a breathless survival adventure, during which Dr Stone will learn life-affirming adventures. It's great stuff. It's just not the artistic masterpiece we may have been led to expect. Make no mistake - it's a great, gripping, expertly made film. You'll probably want to see it twice because, visally, it will blow you away. You just have to set your expectations at standard, script wise.
 
It's kind of like Cast Away, in space, with a woman, but much leaner and far more exciting. Like Cast Away, it puts one of the most likeable people in Hollywood in extreme, isolating circumstances where they must learn to let go and stop trying to control life. Unlike Cast Away, the action in Gravity is confined to what must be just a few intense hours in the life of Dr Stone. In Cast Away, Tom Hanks cries over a basketball. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock howl's with a dog. But I digress.

The other important thing about Gravity is that it centers almost entirely on a 50+ woman all alone in space. And still made tons of money at the box office. Take that 14-year-old-boy-demographic. More importantly, it is also the moment that Sandra Bullock finally approaches enough credibility as a character actress to start justifying her Blind Side Oscar as a career Oscar (this will all change for the worse if she manages to steal Cate Blanchett's Oscar). For the most part, her performance as Ryan is understated, heartfelt and appropriately subtle. It's just a pity the script didn't allow the second half of the film - and by extension Dr Stone's journey - to be as understated as the first. It may have tipped a gripping adventure yarn into haunting, devastating masterpiece territory. Or maybe not.

Gravity does have philosophical ambitions beyond the great visuals, but they're closer to Richard Curtis' In Time positivity vibes than Kubrick's abstract ruminations on consciousness in 2001. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Simple contentment may be the smartest thing of all.

All in all, you really have to see Gravity, but just expect a good night at the movies, not your world to be changed. Then you should be fairly blown away.

Another side note: this movie has amazing sets. For real.

And on a final note, Emmanuel Lubezki. Seeing as the whole ship on digital cinematography has clearly sailed (was there ever even a debate), we can accept that the way-overdue Director of Photography (the man behind the camera for Tree of Life, Children of Men, The New World, Lemony Snickets etc) will finally be bagging his first Oscar. 3D seems to do the trick lately, but he is well and truly deserving. For this and everything else he has shot. Huzzah.