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When he accepted the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, director Bong Joon Ho urged audiences to seek out films not in their native language. He could not be more right, because Bong’s Parasite is a wickedly inventive drama of deceit, family and social stratification that absolutely must be seen. Don’t ponder this, don’t wait for details, just see it. The less you know about this film, the better it will be for you. In brief, the film is funny in its situations that veer from the outrageous to the absurd to the witty. It is also scary in its portrayal of poverty and privilege and contains moments of gory violence. Amazingly, it is often scary and funny at the same time, causing the viewer to laugh and recoil all at once. It is also ingenious in its portrayal of families and in its scathing social commentary, making it a superb satire of contemporary South Korea. But it does not feel culturally specific as the concerns, characters, jokes and commentary could be applied to any modern city and society. The performances are all superb, from Kant-ho Song to Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo to Woo-sic Choi, while Ha-jun Lee’s production design ensures that the house where most of the action takes place is also a character in the film. Director of photography Kyung-pyo Hong shifts between deep and shallow focus, often capturing events accorded multiple planes of action so the viewer must always be alert. Most impressively, co-writer and director Bong balances the different tones of the film as superbly as he did with Snowpiercer and The Host, handling shifts from dark comedy to nerve-shredding tension, from warm family drama to absurdist social satire with a deftly light touch. To say more about Parasite would be to spoil it, so the simple review is to reiterate that it must be seen.



The Favourite

the favourite

The Favourite is bizarre and quite extraordinary. From the exquisite central performances to the unsettling score to the rich production design and cinematography that is both alienating and involving, director Yorgis Lanthimos works the rich and pungent script of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara into something that is simultaneously alluring and discomfiting. The film focuses on the mentally and physically afflicted Queen Anne, played with utter fearlessness by Olivia Colman, at the time of writing Golden Globe winner and BAFTA and Oscar-nominated. Anne’s life is one of difficulty and pain, made bearable by her close companion Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who effectively runs the kingdom by virtue of having the Queen’s ear. Into this hermetically sealed environment comes Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), who inveigles her way first into Sarah’s confidence and from there into Anne’s. Meanwhile, political machinations abound as rival political leaders Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) and Robert Harley (Nicolas Hoult) attempt to curry favour with the Queen through her shifting favourites. The courtly dramas and in-fighting vary from the vicious to the absurd, and Lanthimoss’ camera does not so much capture what takes place as peer quizzically at it. DOP Robbie Ryan’s frequent use of a fishbowl lens adds to the sense of peculiarity, as do a number of strange dissolves between scenes that highlight the interpretation of personal, political, sexual, economic and social agendas, not to mention rabbits. The Favourite is a seriously odd film, and a deliciously intriguing one as a result.

89th Annual Academy Awards – Acting Out


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.


89th Annual Academy Awards – Acting Up


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.


It’s you!


“Through the eyes of a child” tends to evoke a sense of innocence. Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, with a screenplay by Donoghue herself, makes use of this premise in the most extraordinary way: presenting deeply horrific events from the perspective of a child so that the viewer understands both the innocence and the experience. Abrahamson’s subtly intense direction creates a vibrant cinematic world, where Ethan Tobman’s production design of walls, appliances and furniture become a landscape as encompassing and immersive as any city or forest. Director of photography Danny Cohen lenses the film with an intimacy that is both hopeful and harrowing, the viewer never losing sight either of the appalling situation or the indomitable love that sustains Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Larson’s various awards for Best Actress are richly deserved, as she delivers a performance of strength, resolve, confusion and fragility, always captivating and never less than convincing, while Tremblay is equally impressive. Room succeeds in drawing the viewer into its unique world, ensuring that we constantly share the experience of Ma and Jack, an experience that reduced me to tears several times. The resulting experience is moving and enthralling, traumatic yet life-affirming, from this intricately designed, sublimely presented, exquisitely painful story of love.

Oscar Views – Part Six


A few weeks ago, I felt confident that the Academy members would make a sentimental choice and award the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor to Sylvester Stallone for Creed. Sly has done it all in Hollywood – acting, writing, directing, producing. Despite the passing of his superstar era, he remains an iconic figure and a great survivor. Furthermore, his nomination for Creed is for playing Rocky Balboa, the same character as his last acting nomination forty years ago, and the sheer novelty of that is remarkable. Actors sometimes receive awards that seem to be lifetime achievements, and Stallone has indeed had many achievements. His Golden Globe win earlier this year made him a strong contender, at least ahead of fellow nominees Tom Hardy and Mark Ruffalo and previous winner Christian Bale. But subsequent wins at the Screen Actors’ Guild and BAFTA now put Mark Rylance ahead, and I predict that this predominantly stage-based actor will pick up a further film acting award this weekend. Rylance’s quiet performance is a key part of Bridge of Spies’ sardonic wit, and he delivers a great supporting role to Tom Hanks’ likably earnest lawyer. The other performers are all strong – Bale and Ruffalo are fine members of the ensemble casts of, respectively, The Big Short and Spotlight, and Hardy is a brilliant antagonist in The Revenant. I would be happy to see any of them win – Ruffalo, now on his third nomination, has been a strong, dependable actor for some time; Bale, also on his third nomination, moves smoothly between leading action roles and quirky Oscar bait; this is Hardy’s first nomination, and there are likely more in his future. But Rylance and Stallone have the advantage of age, and a reduced likelihood of further nominations. Therefore, the Best Supporting Actor Oscar seems like a two horse race. Come the night, I think everything Rylance did in Bridge of Spies will turn out to have helped.

Oscar Views – Part Five


Nearly twenty years ago, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio sailed into our hearts (of love or hate, depending on your perspective) in Titanic, and now both are headed for Oscar glory. After picking up the Golden Globe and BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress, Winslet looks set to win her second Oscar for Steve Jobs, adding a Best Supporting Actress statuette to go alongside her Best Actress award for The Reader from 2008. Meanwhile, DiCaprio’s performance in The Revenant has already earned him a Golden Globe, a Critics’ Choice Award, a Screen Actors’ Guild award and a BAFTA for Best Actor, and for him to win those and not the Oscar would be astonishing, considering the overlap of voters. The cliché says that no one knows anything in Hollywood, but it isn’t hard to know things about Hollywood. I love both performances and have a fondness for the actors because of their ascension to stardom when I first getting into movies back in the late 90s. Were I a member of the Academy, though, would I vote for them?

In the case of Winslet, yes, because her performance as Joanna Hoffman in Steve Jobs is a key part of the emotionality of that film. While Michael Fassbender as Steve himself is the dazzling intellect of the film, Joanna is the heart, and her connection to Steve is what allows the viewer to connect with him. Winslet delivers the perfect combination of affection and exasperation, ensuring that the viewer maintains an understanding of Steve as equal parts compelling and infuriating. Of the other two nominees for Supporting Actress I have seen, Rooney Mara has a wonderfully subtle yet sad sweetness about her in Carol, making her arc soulful and heartbreaking. Rachel McAdams in Spotlight is a solid and sympathetic presence, but I feel she has more to offer and, frankly, everyone in Spotlight delivers the goods. I have not seen The Hateful Eight or The Danish Girl, but due to her SAG award, Alicia Vikander is the only likely rival to Winslet. Both are playing historical figures and both have to speak in accents different to their own (which the Academy members love). Vikander, of course, is not even speaking her naive tongue, which perhaps makes her performance more impressive. That said, Winslet’s accent at least is more showy and, according to interviews, unique, and that is likely to give her the edge.

Speaking of Steve Jobs, were I a member of AMPAS, Michael Fassbender would be my pick for Best Actor. Much as I was impressed by DiCaprio and certainly believed in his portrayal of Hugo Glass, he was easy to sympathise with because of his situations. Steve Jobs is a much harder sell because the character is pretty unlikeable – arrogant, self-aggrandizing, contemptuous of others and driven by an unwavering belief in his own superiority. Yet he was utterly captivating and never less than compelling. Much of this can be put down to Aaron Sorkin’s razor sharp script and Danny Boyle’s rehearsal schedule and assembly of the film, but Fassbender delivers a tour-de-force performance that impresses me more than DiCaprio’s survivalism or Matt Damon’s good humour/stubbornness in The Martian. I cannot comment on Bryan Cranston (Trumbo) or Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl), but of the Best Actor nominees I have seen, Fassbender would be my pick. But expect DiCaprio to add to his collection this Sunday.

Oscar Views – Part Three


With the other award ceremonies done and dusted, the likely winners at the Oscars are now clearer than before. Few categories seem less certain than Achievement in Directing. The Revenant director Alejandro G. Iñárritu has now won the Golden Globe, the DGA award and the BAFTA for Directing, and looks set to become the third back-to-back Oscar winning director, joining John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. This is a remarkable achievement considering Iñárritu is not a prolific filmmaker, having directed only seven features including his debut Amores Perros. Yet each have had a distinctive style and, noticeably, each of his films perform interesting experiments with the cinematic form. Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel are all network narratives that utilise editing to distort and confuse chronology, using the harmonics of image and emotion rather than strict narrative logic to progress the film. Birdman drew great praise for its (trick) single take that consists of most of the film, and despite being acerbically critical of celebrity culture, manages this critique without being mean-spirited or cruel. The Revenant is similarly an impressive formal experiment, with many long takes and a remarkable use of light. Iñárritu has said “We shot at the end of the day every day, at dusk time, which I always say is the time when God speaks.” This lighting and shot composition adds to the ethereal quality of the film, and explains why the various electorates of the award-giving institutions would credit this work. While the work of the other nominated directors is distinctive and effective, The Revenant is the film that stands out as being distinctly “directed.” This might suggest an emphasis on the artifice of the film that could be distancing, and yet the film also has a feeling of organic unity to it, clearly carefully designed yet feeling immediate and vibrant, its themes of survival, revenge, regret and even love exquisitely expressed through image and sound over the course of a fairly simple story (note, The Revenant is not nominated for Screenplay). Of course credit is also due to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who looks set to pick up his third consecutive Oscar after Gravity and Birdman. Much as in those earlier films, Lubezki draws the viewer into these complex visual assemblies, the engulfing landscape of The Revenant as immersive as the 3D work in Gravity and the twisting corridors of Birdman’s theatre. Were I a member of AMPAS, I would pick these fine cinematic poets to receive awards for Directing and Cinematography, as they are fine practitioners and experimentalists of the cinematic medium, continually pushing it in exciting and engaging directions.


Still Alice


It is somewhat surprising that the only awards Still Alice has attracted are for Best Actress. Julianne Moore won the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, the Screen Actors Guild and her long-overdue Oscar for her performance as Dr Alice Howland, a linguistics professor who develops Early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Moore’s awards are well-deserved, but it is a disservice to the film to only credit her, as Still Alice is a deeply moving portrayal of a life ravaged by disease. Nominations for Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing and even Directing or Picture would not have been amiss. Indeed, in many ways it is more impressive than a more-lauded film (at least in terms of nominations) of the recent awards season, The Theory of Everything.

87th Annual Academy Awards - Press Room

Cynically, one could argue that The Theory of Everything attracted greater attention because it focuses on a man dealing with a debilitating condition rather than a woman. Equally cynically although less accusingly, perhaps The Theory of Everything got more attention because its subject is a real person, whereas Still Alice is a fictional story adapted from the novel by Lisa Genova. Regardless of the reasons of the award-givers (which need to be considered in context), for my money Still Alice avoids the problems that I identified in The Theory of Everything. Not least among these is the attention to academia, as the scientific discoveries of Stephen Hawking are little more than background in The Theory of Everything. In Still Alice, the academic environment adds to the sense of loss, as Alice’s deteriorating mind is something she previously developed and which has helped to define her. What do we become when we lose crucial parts of our identity? This is one of the questions that Still Alice explores in detail.


What is most impressive about the film is writer-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland cinematic rendering of the protagonist’s experience. Early in the film, there is a wonderful sequence where Alice goes running and suddenly becomes disorientated. The image loses focus, expressing her confusion and fear, while the camera pans around her so that we also feel disorientated. Later, Alice becomes lost in her own home, the camera remaining with her as she searches in vain for the bathroom she not only knows must be there, but that she knows she should remember. Sequences like this run the risk of being simplistic or even cruel, but Glatzer and Westmoreland avoid this pitfall by never slipping into mawkishness. Nor are there moments of histrionic melodrama, as restraint is a great strength throughout the film. It is telling that the most moving scene (for me at least) is not one of the more flashy sequences but when Alice delivers a speech to an Alzheimer’s support organisation. For much of this scene, the camera rests on her face, Alice’s brittle voice simultaneously expressing her fear and her resolve. This expression continues throughout the film, ensuring that we are not alienated from Alice’s struggle. The film is a bold and affecting portrayal of a life falling apart, all the more heartbreaking because we are there every step of the way.


Wrestling for the Soul and Drumming for What? Foxcatcher and Whiplash

I recently had the pleasure of watching two of this year’s awards contenders in quick succession. Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash unfurled before my eyes in the same cinema, the same auditorium and the same seat over the course of a single day. It was rather tiring but very rewarding, although I wish the screenings had been the other way around. Foxcatcher was hugely engaging and rewarding, whereas Whiplash left me wanting more and wondering what all the fuss is about.


The two films have much in common. Both are up for multiple awards, and Whiplash’s J. K. Simmons has already won the Golden Globe, Screen Actors’ Guild award and BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor. Both feature highly skilled protagonists who seek to be the best at what they do: Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) in Foxcatcher is already an Olympic gold medal wrestler and wishes to repeat this accomplishment; Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) in Whiplash wants to be one of the greatest drummers in the world. Both films feature tough trainers for these would-be superstars: John E. Du Pont (Steve Carell) in Foxcatcher and Terry Fletcher (Simmons) in Whiplash, and both these trainers have questionable behaviour. Both films also feature more sympathetic mentor figures: Mark’s older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) in Foxcatcher and Andrew’s father Jim (Paul Reiser) in Whiplash, both of whom are more concerned about the well-being of their respective relatives than the professional success.


Fundamentally, both films are about the struggle over a soul, and it is here that Foxcatcher excels and Whiplash founders. Foxcatcher’s dour cinematography and measured direction, combined with the disturbing events and compressed performances of Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo, express the torment and confusion of its characters. Whiplash has slick editing and gives a striking presentation of obsession, but ultimately that is all it provides, a presentation. Foxcatcher expresses, Whiplash presents, and this difference means that the former has a creeping sense of menace and discomfort while the latter beats its drums in a flashy (not to mention bloody) but ultimately hollow display.


The most frustrating thing about Whiplash is that it does not appear to know what it is about. What is its attitude towards its protagonist’s obsession? I have no problem with ambiguity, but in order for that to work it must be presented as ambiguity rather than indecisiveness. Whiplash presents Andrew as so obsessed with drumming that he endures Fletcher’s relentless harrying and spurns the people around him, but the film neglects to make any statement about this. Is Andrew ultimately valorised or damned for his obsession? The film does not decide but not in such a way as to leave it open for the viewer, because Andrew’s arc is simultaneously too extreme and too triumphant, while Fletcher’s methods are so harsh as to be both a teacher-devoted-to-greatness and a vindictive bully. The film does not convince as an exercise in ambiguity because its focus is too narrow – the consequences of the characters’ actions are no more than incidental, especially in the perfunctory treatment of Andrew’s momentary girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist). In trying to have its cake and eat it, Whiplash fails to do both.

Foxcatcher, on the other hand, powerfully expresses the dangers of having and pursuing everything. John Du Pont is one of the wealthiest men in America and also one of the loneliest, and sees his wrestling team as a way of obtaining the companionship he has always been denied. Yet so blunted is his personality that when he fails to obtain what he expects the results are damaging for himself and those around him. Dave is well-adjusted and balances his status as an Olympic champion with his role as a husband, father and brother. Mark, however, is a tragic figure wrestling (pun intended) with a sense of inadequacy and irrelevance, chasing the dream that Du Pont offers him regardless of the cost. Foxcatcher brings the viewer into intimate contact with these three men, allowing us to appreciate Du Pont’s skewed view of the world and Mark’s steady descent into loss and confusion. It is a grim and compelling vision of obsession, thanks largely to the sense of oppression that permeates the fabric of the film. As for Whiplash, not quite my tempo.