CJ and Dani preview the coming Oscars.
* * * * 1/2
Adam Sandler plays a Manhattan jeweller with a fondness for gambling that gets him in some trouble. That’s all you need to know, except to see this movie, the Safdie Brothers’ fourth, and feel the incredible rush.
This film is amazing, the logical and pure synthesis of the Safdie Brothers style, distilled to perfection. All the cast are incredible. Julia Fox, in her first role, is superb. Sandler is superb. All the grimy sleazoids, the nightclub homies, and the sports stars playing themselves are superb. Eric Bogosian is superb. And, once again, the Safdies have found all manner of non-actors and trusted them with big roles (such as Fox); all are superb.
Besides being a thoroughly successful experiment in relentless suspense and tension, it represents amazing storytelling. Every character, no matter how minor, seethes with inner life (case in point: the nice guy in the casino; you’ll see what I mean when you meet him). The dialogue is original, vibrant, startling and unique. The milieu is beyond evocative and fuelled by integrity, the camerawork is energetic and artful, the score (typically for the Safdies) wondrous strange, and the pacing magnificent. One of 2019’s best. It will make you grateful you don’t want any of the things the people in the film want, unless you do, in which case it may just get you to re-evaluate your life.
PS: John Amos? What a bonkers detail.
* * * *
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Film Mafia now continues its prognostication and comment on the upcoming Event Of The Year. Comments welcome! And don’t forget to listen to the Movieland Podcast — click on the pic to your left.
Best Director and Best Picture
As seems to happen more and more these days, these two categories are gonna split. As Ang Lee got Best Director for the astonishing technical virtuosity of Tiger On A Boat, sorry – Life Of Pi, so too will Alfonso Cuarón win Best Director for Gravity. And so he should. Cuarón did this: he imagined the unfilmable – and then he filmed it. The director’s branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences all know this, and they’re going to give him the Oscar. It’s a lock. And so it should be…
But Gravity isn’t going to win Best Picture. It should, but it won’t. No matter how astonishing it is, it is Sci-Fi. Star Wars didn’t win, 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t win. And those two, just like Gravity, deserved to win. Sci-Fi doesn’t win Best Picture at the Oscars.
You would think this left 12 Years A Slave for the Best Picture slot as a lock, but this isn’t necessarily the case. American Hustle is not just in the mix, it’s neck-a-neck. How can this be so? There are a few explanations. One is that 12 Years A Slave has a reputation of being a “difficult” watch because of “unprecedented brutality” (both unwarranted charges: Django Unchained was tougher in this regard – remember the Mandingo fight and the hot box?) The Academy’s membership remains at an average age of 63 years old. Some of those old geezers will simply not have watched the film. However, American Hustle is a breezy, easy watch, totally accessible to anyone, and will have been watched by everyone who got a screener (which is every single Academy member). This alone could easily put American Hustle onto the podium.
There’s also a brimming undercurrent of resentment – rarely vocalised but real enough – that America’s great slavery movie has been made by Britain (actually, America’s great slavery movie as made by America is Django Unchained). Director Steve McQueen is British, the cast is British. It’s a British movie about not only a uniquely American subject, but one that every single American is ashamed of. It’s kind of a fuck-you – or at least, is perceived by some as such.
By contrast, American Hustle is so American it even has “American” in the title.
So where to place your money on this one? I can’t call it. To me it’s a fifty-fifty between Slave and Hustle. If they were my awards to give (see the Movieland Awards elsewhere on this page) Gravity would win. But, if I had to give the award to Slave or Hustle, I’d give it to Slave. I loved them both, but a movie begins with the thought of making it, and I really appreciate that McQueen has taken an absolutely astonishing, fundamentally important historical text and given it the screen treatment it deserved, retaining its language, its idiosyncrasies (both main slavers are incredibly nuanced and strange as they are in the actual book) and its essential raison d’être, being the story of one man’s journey, as told by that man.
But McQueen won’t be taking out that Best Director award. That’s all Cuarón.
My Oscar thoughts continue. Now for…
This is Matthew McConaughey’s to lose, and he’s not going to lose it. His work in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club is sensational and the male performance of the year, without a doubt. He’s got the Globe and the Screen Actor’s Guild Award on his shelf already. He’s a lock.
The only other horse in this race is Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave but he’s not going to win and nor should he. Ejiofor, as the extremely unfortunate Solomon Northup, suffers from being in the strange position (just like Forest Whitaker in The Butler, not nominated for Best Actor here) of playing the least dynamic character in his own movie. Although 12 Years a Slave is Northup’s story through and through, and he’s in every scene, it is the performances of Lupita Nyong’o (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) and Michael Fassbender (nominated for Best Supporting Actor), along with a gallery of excellent actors in smaller roles scattered throughout the twelve years such as Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard and Paul Dano, that really grip as performances. Ejiofor is fine, perhaps excellent, and he certainly holds the movie together, but it’s a passive role, limited to bearing a burden (admittedly a very heavy one) and reacting to the horrors around him. As the title suggests and the movie makes very clear, all Northup has to do for twelve years is survive. He makes very few major choices and does not undergo any major transformation. His arc is very limited, and, therefore, so are Ejiofor’s options as an actor. Given his screentime, he also has limited dialogue to perform.
McConaughey’s role in Dallas Buyers Club could not contrast more. Playing the also-real Ron Woodroof, a Texan electrician, rodeo rider and homophobe in 80s Dallas who contracts HIV through hetrosexual unprotected intercourse with an intravenous drug user, McConaughey has to attack every challenge not available to Ejiofor, and he hits every single one of them out of the park. Every thing he does in the film is a major choice (from the very first one – letting himself believe he actually has the “faggot disease”); he undergoes an absolutely, positively staggering transformation, from real, grade-A homophobe dick to compassionate caregiver and fighter for the rights of the neglected and marginalised, and therefore has a huge, and extremely clear, character arc. As befits McConaughey, who has one of the best mouths for dialogue in Hollywood, his character never shuts up – he has pages and pages of brilliantly written dialogue with which to etch his indelible character. He displays humour, rage, intense grief, sensitivity, total lack of sensitivity, and, above all and most importantly, real change. He also manipulates his body weight throughout the movie to portray the physical ravages of the disease but that, while impressive on a technical level, is not why he should, and will, win. McConaughey’s Woodroof is a true, real-life hero, and he doesn’t start that way: he earns his heroic status every step of the way, every minute of the movie. The actor has been having a stellar last few years – the kind of run very few actors get but all the serious ones dream about – and this tops it off. But even if he’d been a total unknown in his debut feature lead, like Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry and Geoffrey Rush in Shine, he would still – like Swank and Rush did – walk away with the Oscar. He deserves it. A lock.
Philomena **** (out of five)
Steve 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.
What 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.
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.
The 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.