CJ Johnson and Danielle McGrane look at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ year of self-fouls, own goals and other idiotic mis-steps in anticipation of a train-wreck 2019 Oscars. In addition, they step outside of the boring conventional wisdom predictions for this year’s Oscars, and instead, take a few big swings. Don’t bet on these long shots!
* * * *
A grand romantic drama, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War won the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why. There are many movies to get through at Cannes, and Pawlikowski’s superbly crafted film clocks in at only eighty-eight minutes, covering fifteen years and four nations. It’s a lot of movie, and represents tremendous value if your time is tight.
Should you be lucky enough to have oodles of time up your sleeve, Cold War’s brevity might count against it. It’s so good, and so engaging, that you feel a little cheated when it ends. It’s the kind of sweeping European love story that in the past has sustained epic cinema, and Pawlikowski’s decisions to keep it so tight – he also constrains the image, shooting in the boxy “Academy Ratio” and in black and white – seem like a defiant, almost petulant, flight of fancy. Obviously not a cheap production, Pawlikowski seems determined to not put all the money on the screen.
But that’s his aesthetic, and we should be grateful for it. Anyone can shoot a movie in black and white, or in Academy Ratio, but not everyone will do so with such purpose and rigor. He restrained himself similarly with his last film, Ida (2014), and the two films complement each other in other ways. They’re both concerned with post-war Europe, with devotion, with sacrifice, and, here especially, with love. Ida was austere, whereas Cold War is lush and highly populated, but the sharp contrast of the black and white cinematography – Lukasz Zal shot both films – keep the vibe forever wintry, the mood ever melancholy, like a meal for one in a quiet Paris bistro at twilight on Christmas Eve.
Cold War’s love story, of two musicians destined to continually be drawn together and pulled apart by the Iron Curtain and their own internal conflicts, is such a good one – such a blatantly effective story – that it verges on the preposterous. It’s not. It’s based on Pawlikowski’s own parents, and that tips it over into the miraculous. One of the films of the year.
* * * *
Adam McKay is an American treasure, a keenly intelligent, outrageously talented writer / producer / director whose last film, The Big Short (2015) and last television work, the pilot for Succession this year, were both phenomenal. His new film, Vice, a sweeping examination of Dick Cheney, will inevitably be seen in comparison to The Big Short; stylistically, they share similarities, together defining McKay’s new, mature “style” (as distinct from the major comedic chops he swung as writer / producer / director of such films as Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers). Vice suffers in that comparison – such is the problem when one follows a masterwork -but it is still vital and urgent and demands to be seen.
Christian Bale plays Cheney, Amy Adams his wife and co-conspirator Lynne, Steve Carell his mentor Donald Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell his boss, George W. Bush. They’re all excellent; Bale once again proves himself a master of playing old white men under makeup and fat (I believe his own). Interestingly, in the scenes of Cheney as a younger man (the film, more of a traditional biopic than I was expecting, covers Cheney from college-age to the present), Bale seems hardly disguised at all, save for makeup to make him appear more youthful. Was Cheney ever that good looking?
As with The Big Short, McKay uses many techniques to tell his complicated story, including a non-linear structure, fragmented editing incorporating quick inserts of representative imagery (especially drawn from the world of fishing, Cheney’s hobby, which at least isn’t golf), and use of news, archival and other real-world footage. He also incorporates a narrator, mainly off-screen but sometimes on, played by Jesse Plemons, and sometimes relies too heavily upon him. There’s a lot of narration, and I felt a little spoon-fed, as though McKay had lost a little nerve, or a little trust in our own abilities to connect the dots. It felt like a surprising mis-step given the spectacular clarity with which McKay was able to tell the Big Short story, which was really complicated.
I have another quibble, and I’ll call spoiler alert, although of course this is a true story. McKay uses Cheney’s long support, and ultimate betrayal, of his daughter Mary’s homosexuality and her same-sex marriage as the emotional spine of the film and ultimate depiction of Cheney’s wickedness. But, as a title card at the end tells us, Cheney could be seen as responsible for well over 600,000 human deaths. Surely that is more powerful than his betrayal of his own daughter, as ghastly as that sounds? Again, it’s as though McKay worried that Cheney’s story was simply too cold to engage without a family hearth to shatter.
Ultimately I suspect McKay possibly could have developed a better version of this story given more development. As it is, it’s still totally worth your time. I hope it doesn’t just play to the converted.
* * 1/2
Zine Doueiri’s The Insult arrives in Australia a big deal, loaded down with awards, nominations, plaudits and (relatively) boffo box office in other markets. It was nominated this year for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award (a first for Lebanon), it won the Audience Award for narrative feature at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, and one of its two lead actors, Kamel El Basha, won the Best Actor award at Venice. It’s nominated for nine Lebanese Movie Awards but, I daresay, given its agenda (more on that below), is unlikely to sweep the field.
It’s easy to see why the film has done so well, particularly outside of Lebanon. It runs with precise engineering, offering the viewer an almost exhausting roller coaster ride of conflicting emotions. It is designed to make your blood run hot and cold, and it does. It is also fatally hindered by some egregious errors of judgement or polemical politics, depending on how personally you take Douheiri’s stake in his own script.
Tony (Adel Karam) is a Lebanese Christian, member of a vocal right-wing, nationalistic, anti-immigration Christian Party, and mechanic living in Beirut. One day he trades some bad civil behaviour with a contractor doing work on his street, Yasser (El Basha), who happens to be a Palestinian refugee. Things escalate, get out of hand, and end up not only in the courtroom, but all over the media, and, in some quarters, with violence.
Tony and Yasser obviously, deliberately and unapologetically represent opposing sides in the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990, and, as a blatant metaphor for the dumb ways ideological conflicts can rise out of misplaced pride, vanity and, especially in the Middle East, “machismo”, the film works smoothly and effectively. If only men weren’t so damn stubborn, so much suffering could be avoided! It’s also a very clean plot mechanism to keep us thoroughly engaged: by the nature of the men’s increasing insults (in every sense of the word), the film naturally keeps raising the stakes almost on a scene-by-scene basis. Conflict is drama; conflict with high stakes is better drama; legal conflict with national implications, therefore, must be great drama.
Except – and it’s a big exception – Tony is such a deeply unlikeable protagonist that the film is hard to stomach. The party whose leader’s inflammatory speeches pepper the film through Tony’s televisions are full of hateful rhetoric, and Tony is a hateful guy; he’s racist, a nationalist, a bigot. I gave up on him long before the film did, and when, in its closing act, it introduced a massive, dramatically over-bearing rationale for his behaviour, it not only lost me completely but angered me to boot. Tony’s lawyer, and, by extension, Doueiri, seems to be claiming that bigotry is justified by past trauma, which is not a message I can get behind, let alone in the current climate. Palestinians are upset by this film, and it’s easy to see why. Yasser is depicted as a noble character, but the film is really on Tony’s side. Sympathy for the devil, indeed.
CJ and Jim go through most of the categories. We have ideas, opinions and predictions. We make a financial bet over Best Original Screenplay. And at the end, we apply the Preferential Ballot System of voting to our own ballots and come up with a BOLD PREDICTION FOR BEST PICTURE! Your comments welcome and appreciated. Happy Oscars 2018!
Don’t feel like reading reviews? Have a listen to CJ chat about a bunch of awards contenders, taken from The Nightlife on ABC (Australia).
As always, your comments welcome. And please share Film Mafia with your friends who like movies.
*** (out of five)
On paper, it’s hard to tell if teaming Dwayne Johnson, the artist formally known as The Rock, now officially the highest-earning movie star in the world – in salary and box office – and Meryl Streep, the most awarded and respected (except by the President of the United States) movie actor in history, was a good one. In practice, it’s turned out surprisingly well. In My Bodyguard, which is a very tenuous, practically “in name only” remake of the 1980 drama, Johnson plays Sanchez, the well-meaning, dyslexic janitor at an isolated, elite private high school hired by the school’s principal (Streep) to be her bodyguard against the increasingly – and bizarrely – dangerous student population. It’s a strange hybrid of gritty (and surprisingly violent) action and sentimental May/December romance, and, somehow, it works, despite a few preposterous moments.
Happily, those moments are also some of the film’s (deeply) guilty pleasures. As with seeing Helen Mirren blow things and beat people up in Red (2010), it’s highly entertaining to watch Streep lay into one of her particularly odious charges while Sanchez sits calmly in a dark corner of the room, his presence all that is needed to keep the student from fighting back. Likewise, it is a rare joy to see Johnson go into emotional territory he simply hasn’t explored before; – spolier – yes, we see the big fella cry.
By setting the scene in an expensive private school, the film deftly – or, blatantly – avoids racial politics. All of the students turned violent are white; the few minority students, all on scholarships, are also the good ones, who pay Sanchez respect even before he puts down his broom and picks up his bat. Like The River Wild (1994) and The Giver (2014), this is Streep taking a swim in genre cinema seemingly to just give it a go, but – of course! – she also deeply commits. Watch, they’ll give her another Oscar nomination; wouldn’t it be fun if Johnson got one too?