89th Annual Academy Awards – Acting Out

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Looking over this year’s Oscar contenders for Best Actor in a Leading Role, we see four previous nominees, three of them in this category, and two previous wins for one of them. Denzel Washington has a towering acting, and this seventh nomination for his performance in Fences, fourth for Actor in a Leading Role, could lead to a third win after previous gongs for Supporting Actor for Glory and Leading Actor for Training Day. Viggo Mortensen for Captain Fantastic and Ryan Gosling for La La Land are previous nominees for Lead Actor, for Eastern Promises and Half Nelson, respectively, while Casey Affleck, up for Manchester by the Sea, was previously nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Andrew Garfield for Hacksaw Ridge is therefore the only first time nominee, and at 33 the youngest of the nominees. The average age for the Best Actor winner over the last twenty years has been 44, so Garfield is unlikely to win this time. Similarly, the attention paid to Mortensen has been minimal, so if he were to win, it would be something of an upset. Therefore, this appears to be a three horse race.

The three performances are as different as the films they are in, but all have elements in their favour. The Academy often rewards those who develop new skills for roles (see Natalie Portman in Black Swan and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant), and Gosling did learn to play the piano and perform his own dance numbers in La La Land. Plus, he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. Washington’s performance is more varied, including at times moving with the caution of an aged man. At 62, Washington is the oldest nominee and the Academy often rewards older performers – in the past two decades, only seven Best Actor winners have been under the age of 40. In addition, Washington won the Screen Actors Guild award so clearly impressed his peers. Affleck’s performance is the more insular: hunched, mumbled, expressing through his eyes and minimal body language, his performance reminiscent of Marlon Brando in his prime, but without the physically imposing form. This makes Affleck’s utter domination of the screen in Manchester by the Sea all the more impressive, as he draws the viewer’s attention through the tiniest of gestures and the quietest of sounds. Plus, he is 41, making him the most average age nominee (like Garfield, Gosling is younger than the typical winner). Not that there is anything average about Affleck’s performance, and it does not hurt his chances that he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama,and the BAFTA for Best Actor. Come Oscar night, I anticipate Ben’s little brother will be delivering another heartfelt if somewhat stumbling acceptance speech.

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89th Annual Academy Awards – Acting Up

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Acting is the part of movies that everyone thinks they understand. Frequently, we hear or read fellow film fans declaring: ‘Oh, the acting there was great’, ‘The acting there was rubbish’, ‘So and so is overrated’, ‘Why didn’t she get nominated?’ Strangely though, these judgements rarely provide detailed reasoning as to why certain performers or performances are or are not worthy of great accolades. In a similar vein, there was significant consternation when the Oscar nominees were announced, with notable omissions described as ‘snubs’, but little explanation as to why. Granted, Amy Adams was predicted to be a nominee either for Arrival or Nocturnal Animals (or even both), but for her to be left out simply indicates that when it came to voting for nominees, other performers garnered more than she did. In any case, I find it far more interesting to look at what is, rather than what might have been. Let us therefore cast our eyes over the nominated performers this year.

After the diversity controversy of the last two years, it is significant that of the twenty nominees across the four acting categories, seven are performers of colour. Granted this is only 35% of the total number, but nonetheless it is a definite improvement over previous years. Furthermore, some of the performers of colour are hotly tipped to win. Three of the nominees for Actress in a Supporting Role are black, including Naomie Harris for Moonlight, earning her first nomination, and Octavia Spencer for Hidden Figures, who previously won for The Help. Spencer’s co-star from The Help, Viola Davis, has already won the Golden Globe, BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild awards in this category, as well as various critical associations, for her performance in Fences. She is therefore very likely to win the Oscar as well, making the most controversial aspect of her victories the fact that she is nominated in a Supporting Role. There is no other female role in Fences, so technically Davis is the Lead Actress (an argument that could also be made for Nicole Kidman in Lion). Her being put forward for the Supporting category is probably a tactical move by the studio, ensuring that Davis does not have to contend with the tougher competition in the Leading Actress category. If so, this tactic has paid off, and I predict that Davis will continue her winning ways.

Were Davis nominated in the Best Actress category, her main competition would be Emma Stone in La La Land, who like Davis has picked up the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role, and now looks like a dead cert to pick up the Oscar. This is Stone’s second nomination, after getting the nod for Best Supporting Actress in 2014 for Birdman. Her predicted victory is perhaps surprising, since three of the other nominees (Ruth Negga, Natalie Portman, Meryl Streep) play historical figures, which often attracts Academy votes. But perhaps the array of skills Stone displays in La La Land – singing, dancing and acting at acting – have won her this love from her peers, and come Oscar night I foresee Miss Stone will add to her awards collection.

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It’s you!

89th Academy Awards – Directing

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Following from my previous post, let’s consider the nominees for Achievement in Directing:

Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Denis Villenueve, Arrival

As is often the case with the award for Achievement in Directing, familiarity mixes with the new. Mel Gibson is the only previous winner here, whose Braveheart also picked up four other awards including Best Picture. Much like BraveheartHacksaw Ridge is a historical war film, with some technically complex and very impressive battle sequences that would have been difficult to direct, so Gibson’s nomination makes sense. The film is also something of a comeback for Gibson, who fell out of favour with Hollywood and audiences for his extremely foolish remarks some years ago. Despite that, I suspect that his past may well prevent him picking up the award. Of the other four nominees in this category, none have previously been nominated for Directing, although both Damien Chazelle and Kenneth Lonergan were previously nominated for Writing – Chazelle for the Adapted Screenplay of Whiplash and Lonergan for the Original Screenplays of You Can Count on Me and Gangs of New York. Barry Jenkins is significant, as only the fourth black director to be nominated for the Academy Award, again suggesting a wish among Academy members to compensate for previous years’ lack of diversity. The directorial styles of the five men (as usual, women have been completely excluded this category) are distinct, Chazelle opting for a range of long takes and crane shots while Lonergan favours an intimate, composed approach. Villenueve also favours long takes but combines this with discontinuous editing and a ‘dirty sci-fi’ aesthetic, while Gibson utilises a classical style with frequent moments of slo-mo (I’ll get back to you on the style of Jenkins once I’ve seen Moonlight).

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As with Best Picture, the subject matter is likely to be a factor when it comes to actual voting. Gibson delivers a true story about a character held up as an American hero; Lonergan crafts a tale of grief in small town America. Jenkins’ film is also concerned with urban American life, while Villenueve’s film features grief like Lonergan, although that is combined with aliens. While Hacksaw Ridge’s subject matter is common Oscar bait, Gibson’s own past may come back to haunt him. I confess to cynicism as regards Jenkins and Villenueve, and do not believe the Academy members will vote for a film concerned with black and LBGTQ issues, nor for a science fiction film director. Granted, Gravity did win Directing in 2013, but this can be credited to the elaborate artistic and technological innovations required for that film (and there were no aliens). This award feels like a two-horse race between Lonergan and Chazelle, but after his success at BAFTA, I suspect that the nostalgia and sheer bonhomie of La La Land is likely to win Chazelle the Oscar as well.

Hacksaw Ridge

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Hacksaw Ridge is a film of two battles, the latter of which is significantly more interesting than the former. The first concerns the difficulties of conscientious objector Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), when he enlists in the US army as a medic but is bullied and harassed due to his refusal to touch a weapon on religious grounds. The second battle takes place at the eponymous location on the island of Okinawa, and during this part of the film, director Mel Gibson creates some of the most visceral and horrific sequences of combat since Saving Private Ryan. The brutality of mechanised combat is presented in gripping and gruesome detail as bodies are blown apart and internal organs become outer. This part of the film works because of its focus on the intimacy of violence and Desmond’s extraordinary experiences in the combat zone. Much of the first section of the film, which involves Desmond’s home life, army training and court martial, suffers from portentousness. Desmond’s relationships with his parents Tom (Hugo Weaving) and Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), his eventual wife Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) and the rest of his platoon are somewhat laboured, although the commanding officers, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), prove to be more engaging as they turn out to be more than they seem. Desmond’s marriage proposal to Dorothy echoes a similar scene in Braveheart, but Hacksaw Ridge compares poorly to Gibson’s Oscar winner due to its overly weighty direction. With its epic scale, Braveheart got away with grandeur in every sequence, but Hacksaw Ridge is a more intimate tale and at its strongest when it focuses on Desmond’s personal experiences. Nowhere is this more apparent during Desmond’s exploits at Hacksaw Ridge, which led to him entering the history books. At times, Gibson overplays the religious symbolism (church in the background, Desmond framed by his fellow soldiers as if they were disciples, Desmond later framed against heaven – really, Mel?), but for the most part, the combat sequences are not only immersive and sustained, but effectively communicate the significance of Desmond’s faith without requiring the viewer to share in it. The first half may weigh it down, but overall Hacksaw Ridge is an impressive achievement: a thrilling and compelling film about pacifism that presents the horrors of warfare while expressing the importance of saving lives.

89th Annual Academy Awards – Initial Impressions on Best Picture

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Amid great fanfare as only the Academy can deliver, the nominees for the 89th Annual Academy Awards were announced on 24th January 2017. As always, the AMPAS members have come in for sneering over their ‘snubs’ and everyone, their pet bandicoot and the bandicoot’s veterinarian (and probably the veterinarian’s tennis partner) believes that they know better. Well, I do not know better, I’m just a guy on the Internet with some views. Rather than declaring the most deserving winners, I find it far more interesting to analyse the nominees, consider what these nominations represent and make some educated guesses about what might win and, more importantly, why.

For this first post, let’s take a look at Best Picture. Drumroll, please! The nominees for Best Motion Picture are:

Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight

Generically, these nine films are an interesting bunch. A science fiction film (a rare nominee in itself); a domestic drama adapted from a successful stage production; a war film; a modern Western; a historical drama; a musical; a true life story; a bereavement drama; an LGBTQ drama. Perhaps these nominees show a certain self-reproach on the Academy’s part over the lack of diversity among previous years’ nominees. Fences, Hidden Figures and Moonlight could all be classed as ‘black films’, while Lion is also concerned with issues of race and racial identity. Moonlight is a film with LGBTQ concerns, a rare thing indeed for the Academy to take notice of. More cynically, La La Land and Manchester by the Sea are typical Oscar fare featuring white men dealing with the problems of being white men. While these two films are fine examples of such dramas, they are hardly challenging in their subject matter. Whereas last year’s nominees included films critical of US institutions, only Hell or High Water and Arrival offer such a critique of current events.

Several of the nominees feature award-friendly subject matter, including American history (Fences, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge), World War II (Hacksaw Ridge), nostalgia (La La Land, Hell or High Water), true stories (Hacksaw Ridge, Hidden Figures, Lion), Hollywood self-love (La La Land). As I have commented previously, films with historical settings are frequently rewarded, which would work in favour of Fences, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge and Lion (more recent history, but Lion is based on a true story, which the Academy also often rewards). However, according to various publications, the smart money is on La La Land to be the big winner, despite or perhaps because of its nostalgia for the ‘grand tradition of MGM musicals’, as well as having a record number of 14 nominations, equalling those of All About Eve and Titanic. Perhaps the light-heartedness of La La Land will work against it, while the weightier subject matter of Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea will carry them through.

Subject matter is not the only factor, however. Analysis of previous winners demonstrates that winners of the Best Picture award also win one or more of these other three awards: Directing, Film Editing, Writing (both Original and Adapted Screenplay). Five of the five Best Picture nominees are also nominated for Directing – La La Land, Hacksaw Ridge, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Arrival. Of these, Arrival, Moonlight, La La Land and Manchester by the Sea are also up for Writing (the first two for Adapted, the second two for Original). Furthermore, only Arrival, La La Land and Moonlight are also up for Directing and Writing. Combine these factors with the non-award friendly genre of Arrival, and the potentially controversial subject matter of Moonlight, and La La Land emerges as the frontrunner. Were I a member of AMPAS, I would vote for Arrival, my top film of last year, but I suspect come the night La La Land will be dancing all the way to Best Picture.

Fences

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Films adapted from stage plays present both risk and opportunity. The focus on people in a fairly confined space provides great opportunities for actors to work with meaty dialogue. On the other hand, the long scenes and confinement can restrict cinematic style and make the film rather staid. In the case of Fences, director and star Denzel Washington mostly strikes a balance, making full use of the long scenes of conversations about being a black family in 1950s Pittsburgh. Washington plays Troy Maxson, an embittered patriarch who has suffered and inflicts suffering in equal measure. His wife Rose (Viola Davis) understands him all too well yet remains steadfast beside him, while his sons from this and a previous marriage, Cody (Jovan Adepo) and Lyons (Russell Hornsby) frequently clash with Troy’s bullish manner of parenting. Troy’s closest friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and his brain-damaged brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) fill out the rest of the characters, and the performances are universally superb. Washington excels as a man whose tough and bitter stance is understandable, and the viewer is likely to feel ambivalent towards him as Troy’s nastier qualities emerge. Davis is captivating as the loyal wife who is set upon to a sometimes appalling degree, and both these performers may well be stroking golden baldies come Oscar night. Cinematically, the first half of Fences is somewhat staid, confined largely to the backyard of the Maxsons’ house, but in the second half Washington displays directorial flair, with evocative changes in lighting, depth of field and editing. In his third outing as director, Washington was succeeded in translating this stage play to the screen, but his greatest talent and indeed the film’s greatest strengths lie in front of the camera.

Lion

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Lion (or Google Earth The Movie, brought to you by drone shots) explains its title in supertext just before the end credits. This rather patronising clarification is indicative of the film as a whole, which is overdetermined, obvious and features clumsy, repetitive direction. The true story of Saroo Brierley, who at five years old was stranded in Calcutta, adopted by Australians but searched for his original home when he reached adulthood, is a moving and uplifting tale. Unfortunately, director Garth Davies hamstrings almost every potentially emotional moment with disjunctive editing and repeated shots of anguished faces and Google Earth images. The young Saroo’s (Sunny Pawar) experience aboard a train that takes him over 1500 kilometres from his home could be heartbreaking and distressing, but Davies spends too much time presenting the train and surrounding country without expressing a sense of fear or loss. Similarly, the adult Saroo (Dev Patel) is clearly pained by memories of his early life, but these difficulties are again expressed through discontinuous editing that interrupt any sense of build-up. Saroo’s relationships are awkward for no reason other than he has unresolved issues, and by focusing excessively on Saroo and his pained expressions, the other characters are underdeveloped and the talents of Rooney Mara and David Wenham, as well as Patel himself, are largely wasted. Only Nicole Kidman emerges unscathed as Saroo’s adoptive mother Sue Brierley, especially in a monologue that she delivers about her life and choices, when the camera just focuses on her. This sequence stands out as most of the film uses an intermittent visual style that never gives more than an impression of the events. The film’s presentation of India, plus the casting of Patel, invites comparisons with Slumdog Millionaire, but Danny Boyle’s award magnet used its fast and visual style to convey dynamism and vibrancy, as well as the brutality of the world depicted. The actual pace ofLion is slow and often languorous, which would be fine if the style was more measured and sedate, while the film also lacks bite and any sense of threat. As it is, the schism between style and subject results in a frustratingly anaemic experience, squandering the potential of a promising story.