I know, I know, the awards were ages ago. I’ve been busy, whaddya want? Despite the various changes that took place, I enjoyed the Oscars ceremony. The absence of a host did not adversely affect things, although the opening speech from Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler suggested that any or all of these comedians would make excellent hosts in the future.
Other presenters were also entertaining, and it was especially pleasing to see the acting winners of last year presenting the awards for this year in pairs, Gary Oldman and Alison Janney presenting Leading Actor to Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody while Francis McDormand and Sam Rockwell presented Leading Actress to Olivia Colman for The Favourite, whose acceptance speech was one of the most moving.
Alfonso Cuarón spent a lot of time on the stage, winning three awards personally for Roma, Foreign Language Film, Cinematography and Directing, the last of which was affectionately presented to him by his friend and last year’s winner, Guillermo Del Toro.
Performance highlights included the various nominees for Original Song, especially the eventual winner of this award, ‘Shallow’ (from A Star Is Born) performed by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry appeared in hilarious costumes that incorporated elements of all the nominees for Costume Design, was another highlight.
Some of the most significant speeches came from the newcomers, especially those in the Short Film categories. For their winning Documentary (Short), Period. End of Sentence, Rayka Zehtabchi and Melissa Berton gave an impassioned and empowering speech about women’s rights and the need for films like theirs to get this kind of attention. Similarly, Domee Shi and Becky Neiman-Cobb were inspiring as they received the award for Short Film (Animated) for their charming Bao. And with his first competitive Oscar win, Spike Lee gave a jubilant celebration alongside his co-winners Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott, seeming to climb up the much longer form of his friend Samuel L. Jackson to receive a congratulatory embrace.
As is often the case, however, the Oscars are dogged with as much controversy as glamour. The most heated debate has been around Best Picture, and with good reason. In a year when such unusual fare as Roma and The Favourite and such provocative offerings as BlacKkKlansman were in contention, for the Academy to reward Green Book feels like a conservative cop-out. I don’t think Green Book is a bad film, but it seems remarkably unremarkable. Little in its subject matter or film style stood out, especially in comparison to the distinctive style and unusual content of the films mentioned above.
As is so often the case, the suspected politics of the Oscars are illuminating. Green Book presents a very simplistic view of US race relations, and it has been described disparagingly as Driving Miss Daisy with the racist in the front. Green Book charts the resolution of racism through a tale of one white man shaking off his prejudices, and in doing so saves a black man with companionship. It’s a white saviour story, where the journey of the white saviour is more prominent than that of the black man who is ‘saved’. It is therefore easy to see why Green Book’s victory annoyed Spike Lee as well as others. I won’t say I’m angry, but I am disappointed that after radical and surprising choices in recent years, Green Book feels like a Best Picture winner from earlier, safer times. Wackier choices next time, I hope.
Jordan Peele begins his new film with a long take of a rabbit. Slowly the camera pulls back, revealing many more rabbits. As the camera’s scope widens further, what appears to be a school classroom steadily appears. Nothing overtly horrific happens in this title sequence, yet it is deeply unsettling and disturbing. This sequence is testament to the power of the long take, a stylistic feature common in horror cinema from Halloween and The Shining to It Follows and Hereditary. The long take generates discomfort as the viewer yearns for a cut that could break the tension. In the case of Us, there is little sense of release, as the tension builds even as the film cuts between past – a childhood trauma of Adelaide (Madison Curry) and present – the adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) on her present-day vacation with husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). The slow burn menace includes a pattern of coincidences, home invasion and confrontation with the uncanny, that which is both familiar and unfamiliar. The tension is punctuated by jump scares, brutal violence and dark humour. Nyong’o is electrifying, delivering two distinct and equally compelling performances. The rest of the performances are very strong, especially as each actor must play two roles: one a civilised human and the other animalistic. When the violence happens, it is sadistic and merciless, as the line between civilized and uncivilized becomes increasingly blurred.
Despite this blurring, Peele never blunts his razor sharp satirical edge. Us is that finest type of horror cinema: steeped in the tropes and techniques of the genre, while using these features for incisive social commentary. Playing on ideas of class much as Get Out played on race, Us is a nightmare version of Karl Marx’s proletariat uprising. Socio-economic structures are targeted as affluence and privilege are attacked. The thematic and narrative doubling is replicated by the film grammar, as images are intercut with spine-tingling precision. The film is an elegant, demonic dance of micro and macro scales, interspersing the real world and allegory, past and present, identities and faces.
I saw Green Book after the Oscars, and its win for Best Picture raises issues that I will discuss in a later post. For now, we shall focus on the film itself. Peter Farrelly’s portrait of Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) and Dr Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a charming story of a chalk-and-cheese pairing, one that deftly combines the buddy film and the road movie. Over the course of their journey around the southern United States in the early 1960s, the white, prejudiced, working class, uncouth Italian-American Tony develops respect and admiration for the black, socially aware, intellectual, educated, linguistically and musically gifted African-American Donald. Similarly, Donald confronts some of his own disappointments with life, personally, politically and professionally. The performances of the two leads are quite lovely, Mortensen carrying extra weight and conveying his character’s attitudes as much through body language and gestures as dialogue. Ali plays the fastidious and erudite Donald with pinpoint precision, turning what could have been an annoyingly prissy control freak into a character of warmth and heart. There is a genuine sense of growing affection between the two men, and in their surroundings, we see a convincing portrayal of prejudice and segregation. This is where the film misses some opportunities, as complex problems are given too easy a solution. Come the end of the film, one may wish for ambiguity and less pat a resolution, as instead the film falls into easy platitudes. There is also a missed opportunity to make more of Donald’s music, as the sequences when his fingers dance across the ivories of Steinway pianos are electrifying set pieces that affect Tony as much as the audience. It is a shame that Green Book does not explore its more interesting elements, instead opting a safe tale of friendship across social boundaries which, in today’s climate, feels like something of a cop out. That said, the performances manage to elevate the unremarkable material.
Alita: Battle Angel is a lot like its eponymous character. It consists of many parts and only some of them work. James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of the graphic novel series Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro creates a tactile future world of cyborgs, bounty hunters, organised crime and a floating city. The film looks great, especially in the rendering of its central character, as Rosa Salazar is converted into the epitome of uncanny valley but in a context that makes sense, so her slightly odd appearance fits rather than being distracting. Unfortunately, the impressive visuals are largely wasted on a mess of plot lines and subtexts. Owing much to Blade Runner, Terminator, A. I., Rollerball, Avatar and Ghost in the Shell but lacking the coherence of any, Alita fails to explore ideas about identity, memory and embodiment and leaves the viewer waiting for inevitable clichés both verbal and physical. In the case of the former, the dialogue and character motivations are unlikely to provide surprises and beg the question why the film didn’t get there sooner. On the physical side, the film does deliver as Rodriguez stages some visceral action sequences that showcase the capabilities of the various cybernetic characters, most spectacularly Alita herself. Combining Rodriguez’s immersive and hyperbolic action with Cameron’s intricate world building, Alita should have been electrifying. Instead, it ends up being less than the sum of its parts, leaving too much to be built on in the potential sequel.