The Square

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Ruben Östlund follows up his cringe-tension masterwork Force Majeure (which won Movieland Awards in 2014 for Best Film, Best Direction and Best Cinematography) with this Palmes D’Or-winning art world satire, which is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Oscars. At its best, it skims sublimely from scene to scene, arousing constant knowing humour, satirical appreciation and – Östlund’s speciality – ambiguous dread, before arriving at the scene of the year, in which Terry Notary, known primarily for motion-capture and particularly ape work in the vein of Andy Serkis, plays a performance artist with a particularly involving piece to present. Danish Theatre actor Claes Bang makes a gigantic impression in the lead role of the curator of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm who may not be as cool as he looks; watch as Bang becomes a massive worldwide star (his spoken English, accented towards British, is perfect). Great fun, thought provoking, extremely entertaining, and highly recommended.

Oscars 2018 Preview and Predictions!

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!

Mustang

Mustang_french

***1/2

At this year’s Academy Awards, the race for Best Foreign Language film came down to two horses: Mustang (which neatly fits the metaphor, yeah?) and Son of Saul. It’s completely understandable that the latter won: it’s a rather revolutionary work, which justified re-visiting the holocaust by its bold technique and astonishing integrity. Mustang is not revolutionary, it’s just a very solid and well-constructed film that is eye-opening without being heavy-handed.

Five sisters go to the beach after their final class for the semester. There they play in the water with some boys. It is a sequence of pure beauty and delight: young people enjoying a classic vibe. School’s out, and they are free.

But there’s the rub – because they’re in a Black Sea town in Turkey, not Sydney or Santa Monica, and a local old lady, watching from afar, doesn’t like what she sees. The sisters are orphans, living with their progressive or at least easy-going grandmother, and when the nosy old biddy dobs them in to their uncle, he takes it upon himself to tighten the reins. These beautiful free, somewhat wild horses are going to be broken.

The magic trick of Mustang is that it’s a scathing indictment of traditional patriarchal control in modern Turkey without being at all heavy handed. You’re in for the story and the message comes free. I had no idea this stuff went on in contemporary Turkey; that exposes some ignorance on my part and made the film all the more powerful.

The performances are all terrific but the girls are just sublime. The actresses – the youngest is thirteen – are astonishingly believable as sisters. In the opening, sunny, completely enticing early scenes, when the “mustang” is free, the way the girls move together, through the streets and open spaces of their town, is extraordinary. They flow like a single organism that contracts and expands, exchanging positions, following and leading, their energy seemingly binding them on invisible elastic cords, not so much like a school of fish as an amoeba.

Warren Ellis contributes a score made up of cello, flute and violin that suits the tone of the film perfectly, which is dreamy, soft and fluid, despite the imposing subject matter. It’s the debut feature for writer / director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who made the film for just €1,300,000. We’ll be hearing more from her.

LAST LOOKS, FINAL CHECKS: POTENTIAL OSCAR UPSETS

Well, tomorrow they’re not gonna matter more than a hill o’beans except to the winners, but it’s Oscar Day, so some final thoughts are due.

Every year, the punditry (of which I am part) gets noisier, more crowded, but also – I guess because of the first two – more accurate. The Oscars are losing their surprising quality. When I was a kid, I could cross my fingers ‘till they ached hoping that Raiders of the Lost Ark was going to win Best Picture; these days, by the time I’ve read the blogs, heard the radio spots, and checked the bookie’s odds, I know what is likely to pan out (and it wasn’t going to be Raiders). I have put my money where my mouth is before (by laying bets), and I’ve won. I decided to stop doing that because it took a little of the fun out of it for me.

But there are still, always, thankfully, some surprises. So here are a few concepts of what might happen. In other words, some possible upsets.

surprised-little-boy1GRAVITY WINS BEST PICTURE

The money’s all on 12 Years a Slave to take the Producer’s prize at the end of the night, and Alfonso Cuarón is as much of a lock as has ever been for Best Director. But everyone I speak to says something along the lines of, “Look, I loved 12 Years A Slave, but for me, the best picture of the year was Gravity.” Some of these people vote. A lot of the voters, I suspect, feel this way. All those sneaky votes for Gravity may just end up in… a win for Gravity.

LEONARDO DiCAPRIO WINS BEST ACTOR

All the money’s on Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club, he deserves it, he’s won all the others, and he’ll almost certainly win it. But DiCaprio has been campaigning like no-one has ever campaigned before, particularly “behind closed doors” – ie, through his Top of the World contacts and status in Hollywood. He wants this award more than anyone in this race wants an award. He bought the rights to Wolf of Wall Street, he went through all sorts of financing hell to get it made (over seven or so years) and it’s become an astronomical financial success and a huge favourite with audiences despite lacklustre reviews. Leo’s the Last Man Standing in Hollywood, the only performer left who can open a picture, guaranteed (Will Smith having fallen to the mat with After Earth, big time). If Leo has said to enough people, on closed lines and in private rooms, “vote for me this one time, and I owe you one”… then, in a huge upset, he may just, bizarrely, win an Oscar tonight.surprise

SANDRA BULLOCK WINS BEST ACTRESS

Even more unlikely, Bullock leapfrogs Amy Adams to then push Cate Blanchett off the podium to take home that weirdest of concepts: an acting gong for Gravity. She hasn’t won anything leading up to the Oscars and Blanchett has had her face stamped with “Oscar Winner” since Blue Jasmine hit the screens months ago. But Gravity only works if the (essentially only) character works, she owned it, and by now everyone knows what a new-fangled method of performance was involved to actually play the role, stitched up like a cyborg in all sorts of contraptions all day, being hurled around and imagining… everything. It’s old-school versus new school, Blanchett essentially giving a performance that smacks of theatre training. If Bullock hadn’t won for The Blind Side a couple years back, I’d consider her a lock. But she did, kind of unfortunately.

gabby-sidibe-laura-linney-big-c-surprise-04THE WIND RISES WINS BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Every bookie in the world would shoot themselves if this happened, as Frozen is already considered The Greatest Animated Film Ever, a true cultural phenomenon, the saviour of all the teenage (and younger) girls in the world; it’s already been green-lit as a Broadway musical, a “Sing-A-Long” version is already playing in theatres, and the DVD will probably outsell the light bulb. But Hayao Miyazaki has stated that The Wind Rises will be his last feature film, it’s made for adults, it quietly takes the concept of animated feature films into new areas, and Hayao Miyazaki has stated it’s his last film. If Picasso was offering his last painting against a still-productive Warhol’s Soup Cans, which would you vote for? It’s that kind of choice.GomerSurprise-271x322

20 FEET FROM STARDOM WINS BEST FEATURE DOCUMENTARY

If this slight, feel-good peek at what is undoubtedly a fun and deserving subject wins over the ground-breaking, bold, challenging and completely original brain-f**k The Act of Killing, it may come as no surprise to anyone who prefers slight, feel-good movies about celebrity to bold, challenging mind-f**ks about mass political slaughter.

HER WINS ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

There’s a lot of love for Spike Jonze’s Her, but not a lot of room to give it any awards. Here’s a spot; it would take a statue away from David O. Russell for American Hustle (isn’t that fun to say?) but in the last couple of weeks, not everyone is saying they liked that script nearly as much as the performances it inspired.

surprise-01ANYONE WINS BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

Dallas Buyers Club reportedly had a hair and makeup budget of $250, which was used to make sure that McConaughey and Jared Leto were always at the right stage of their HIV+ effects. This was really tricky, as the film had an independent film’s shooting schedule – that is, short and out of sequence. Although the actors lost weight, their characters still had to be leaner, and “sicker”, some days more than others. It’s really subtle work, the kind that doesn’t normally even get nominated here (see The Wolfman for the kind of film that wins the Oscar). Bad Grandpa’s makeup is astonishing, and really should win, as the whole film is predicated on that makeup being so good as to fool “civilians” (while they’re surreptitiously filmed) into believing Johnny Knoxville is 86. The thing going against it is that it’s a prank movie called Bad Grandpa. And The Lone Ranger just seems to be here as some sick joke. What’s missing is American Hustle, which used hair and makeup as an essential metaphor for its themes of artifice, illusion and trickery.

Let The Games Begin!

Okay, now that the dust has settled – meaning that everyone in LA has appeared on at least one radio or television show, podcast, blog, column or street corner, pontificating about the Oscar nominations, I will now pontificate about the Oscar nominations. Enjoy, and please, do not be afraid to comment. I’ll continue to post throughout the categories, but let’s begin with…

BEST ACTRESS

Cate Blanchett and Amy Adams are on Centre Court here. Blanchett received reviews of the “Give her the Oscar now!” variety when Blue Jasmine came out, but that was many months ago, which is a lifetime in an Oscar campaign (the risk always being the dreaded phrase “That came out this year?”) Somehow, though, she’s maintained momentum, buoyed hugely by her recent Golden Globe win.

But Amy Adams also won a Golden Globe. How, you ask? And here things get funny, and they get funny about the concept of “funny”. Amy Adams won the Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical – and American Hustle is definitely not a Musical (despite a fine soundtrack). By contrast, and gaining the superior position of receiving her award later in the ceremony, Blanchett won her Blue Jasmine award for Best Actress in a Drama.

Blanchett. Drama?
Blanchett. Drama?

Except not only are both movies comedies, Blue Jasmine is the more obvious comedy. It’s a Woody Allen film full of Woody Allen one-liners, situations, characters (including stereotypes) and comic set-pieces. Interiors it is not. It’s not even Match Point. It’s not even Deconstructing Harry, and it’s a million miles from Husbands and Wives and Crimes and Misdemeanours – which, by the way, were also comedies. The placement of Blanchett in the “Drama” category was ludicrous. But many things about the Golden Globes are. So the beef there is with them, not Blanchett.

So back to the performances themselves and their likelihood for the Oscar. For my money, Blanchett’s performance is too much. I – and this is not only very much a personal taste thing but also, I feel, a minority view – could “see the acting” the whole way through. It was what the British call virtuosic or bravura acting – acting which calls attention to itself. It’s awfully fun to watch but it’s also just extremely proficient hamminess. Which is absolutely not calling Blanchett a ham. All brilliant actors are capable of hamminess if they want to use it, while not all hams are capable of brilliance.

Adams. Comedy?
Adams. Comedy?

Adams’ performance in American Hustle, by contrast, is simply brilliant (not bravura, “virtuosic” in the British sense, or hammy); it’s subtle, endlessly layered, and perfect. I gave her my MOVIELAND Award for Best Actress of 2013. Playing a con-woman who is conflicted in love and life, juggling street intelligence with emotional cross-wiring, and layering an intense sexuality throughout, it is the performance of her career and the performance – in any category – of the year.

Adams comes with more freshly-baked presence, not only being “younger” (at least in terms of the industry) than Blanchett but having her film released much more recently and to many many more Oscar nominations. But I suspect the Oscar will go to Blanchett – just. She won the Screen Actor’s Guild Award for Best Actress, which is huge, as the Actors are the biggest voting bloc of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And she kind of has this going on for her: “Well, if you didn’t give it to her for Elizabeth (it went to Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love), and you don’t give it to her for this, then what kind of bloody performance are you expecting from her to actually give it to her for?” Whereas Adams has this: “Just wait, we’ll give you one. We just have to give Blanchett one first. To make up for Elizabeth…”

Nothing To Be Afraid Of

The Wolf of Wall Street ***1/2 (out of five)

454You get a lot of movie for your sixteen bucks with The Wolf of Wall Street. But you’d have a better time if you got less movie. It’s two hours and fifty-nine minutes, which sounds like director Martin Scorcese said to Paramount, “You don’t want a three hour movie? I haven’t given you a three hour movie!”

Actually, he probably would have said it a lot more colorfully. Wolf drops the F-bomb 506 times, making it the most fucked fictional feature film in history (the documentary Fuck uses it 857 times). There are some scenes where the use of the word almost seems banal, as though the writer (Terence Winter) was being lazy, but, in truth, this is a movie about banal people.

The worst is the main one, based-on-real-life Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), and this is the movie’s burden: for three hours (“Two hours and fifty-nine fucking minutes!”) we have to watch a movie about a royal prick. Greedy, self-obsessed, nihilistic asshole Belfort has almost no redeeming features, and, as played well by DiCaprio, that’s a bitter pill to have to suck on for such a long time.

wolf-of-wall-street-poster-poster-2033087940The movie is so similar in structure and style to GoodFellas that it’s fair to wonder if Winter stuck the script of that movie into Final Draft and then changed the words. A young ambitious man of limited means finds his niche, rises to dizzying heights while breaking the law, has his downfall… and squeals like a fuckin’ pig. Scorcese has themes, tropes, tricks, milieus and every other fancy type of cinematic self-referential tic, but he’s never so blatantly repeated himself as he does here – and unfortunately he does it with far less precision than with GoodFellas. Stylistic elements are haphazardly placed. Like GoodFellas, there is lots of voiced narration, but unlike in GoodFellas, it’s not funny, ironic or clever. Halfway through, Belfort turns and speaks directly to camera, but that’s an hour and a fuckin’ half through the movie, which is a weird time to introduce such a conceit. Some of the scenes seem deliberately improvised and are cut with the haphazard style of The League and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where the dialogue suddenly lurches to a new topic as though to skip over a dead patch of improv. And many of the scenes of debauched excess – such as a flight with hookers and drugs – are ludicrously (and unrealistically) over the top.

Robbie: The Next Huge Thing
Robbie: The Next Huge Thing

All this makes thematic sense – the film is about excess – but it’s too much. In particular, Scorcese gives DiCaprio too much, as though (and this could actually be the truth) he said to him, “Leo, I’m 71, you’ve done five films for me, I’m gonna get you that fuckin’ Oscar.” There are three Leo-centric scenes – two speeches and one silent piece of physical comedy – that go on soooooo long, so ludicrously, painfully, obviously too-long long, that you can feel the whole audience being aware of it: “Isn’t this scene bonkers fucking long?”

The staggering bloat aside, there are some hysterically funny scenes, some absolutely killer dialogue, endless great performances (starting with Jonah Hill, cruising through instant star Margot Robbie, and climaxing with Matthew McConaughey, who opens the movie with what is essentially a comic monologue that is, in retrospect, the best part of the whole film) and, of course, Scorcese-level craftsmanship throughout. It’s a very hard movie to love, but it’s an easy enough movie to enjoy, especially knowing that, at any time, you can go for a piss and not miss anything important… there will be plenty more movie for you when you get back.

Rage and Compassion

Philomena **** (out of five)

urlSteve Coogan concludes his Year of Living Brilliantly with Philomena, a controlled, precise, moving and very funny film that he co-wrote and co-stars in, playing it relatively straight and holding his own against none other than Dame Judi Dench, who, graciously, brings her most A of A Games and holds her own against him.

Coogan is a phenomenon, or at least his work has conspired to congeal around him in order to make him appear so. His 2013 has seen him as a big-screen Alan Partridge in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, one of the two funniest films of the year, which he also co-wrote and which was, in Britain at least, a huge hit, and being absolutely brilliant in a straight dramatic role in What Maisie Knew, as a father separating from his small family (and stealing scenes right out from under Julianne Moore). And now this, Philomena, which will come to define him as an artist for the next phase of his career.

Philomena2What a career! Besides being a massive comedy star in Britain, with multiple television incarnations of Alan Partridge shows, innumerable appearances, a stand-up career, radio and all manner of such success, Coogan has already had a spectacular film run, the highlight package probably being his films for Michael Winterbottom – 24 Hour Party People, The Trip, The Look of Love and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story – but which also includes stand-out appearances in the Night at the Museum films, Phileas Fogg in the big-budget remake of Around The World in Eighty Days, Marie Antoinette, Hot Fuzz, Hamlet 2, In the Loop, Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief, The Other Guys, Our Idiot Brother, Ruby Sparks, Despicable Me 2 and, very memorably, Tropic Thunder.

Philomena Lee.
Philomena Lee.

But Philomena is something very special, not least of which is because Coogan co-wrote the superb, faultless screenplay with Jeff Pope from the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith (whom Coogan plays in the film) but also because Coogan’s performance in this excellent film is absolutely terrific. I can’t imagine any other actor getting the balance of comedy, drama, pathos and anger as absolutely correct as Coogan does here.

The real Sixsmith helped a woman named Philomena Lee (Dench, perfect) search for the son taken from her by Magdalene Sisters fifty years previously, and Coogan uses the story to look at faith, religion, family, friendship and love with care, delicacy, and great and constant humour. The jokes never upset the drama and the drama is never laid on. Everything comes out of character, and the two central characters are impeccably drawn.

Judi Dench in PhilomenaThe only fault lines in the film occur as constructed by director Stephen Frears with his cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, and his composer, Alexandre Desplat: some of the shots, and some of the music, do actually tip over into a sentimentality that is not at all present in the writing or the performances. But the underlying script, and those committed and heartfelt performances, are so strong, that golden hour in the frame and strings on the soundtrack don’t pull them undone. This is a wonderful, fully realised movie, small in scale but grand in scope and theme. Don’t miss it.