02 March, 2014

1133 minutes

So here's the thing,

Tomorrow we have the 86th Academy Awards, rewarding the "best in film" for the 2013 film year. Which means that, once again and for no readily apparent reason, I have an almost-wearyingly overlong post discussing my reactions to the nine Best Picture nominees.

[Spoilers for 12 Years A Slave, Gravity, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, Nebraska, Her, Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, and Captain Phillips coming up after the break]

At this point most people seem to accept that 12 Years A Slave will win the Best Picture Oscar this year. Now, I will confess to going to 12 Years A Slave with a degree of scepticism. I hadn’t seen Steve McQueen’s first film Hunger, but I did see Shame, and found it a very pretty-looking film but empty in a way that I don’t think was intended. I was therefore dubious about whether 12 Years was getting the accolades because it was a genuinely great film, or whether it was just doing well because it was an “important” film dealing with a challenging piece of history. Having seen the film, it’s not perfect, but it’s close, and my issues with it really are minor.

The film is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York. He’s living a good life, with a wife and children, and while he seems sympathetic to those slaves he sees around them, they don’t appear to figure too much in his life. Then one day he’s kidnapped, transported down south, and sold as a slave. It’s a shocking story, especially when you realise that he exists in a world where he can’t prove his freedom because his skin colour creates an automatic assumption that he must be a slave. His first owner is a comparatively good man (while still being, you know, a slave owner), but he’s eventually on-sold to a cruel slave owner, who we’re introduced to severely misusing the Bible to justify abusing his slaves. And so Northup remains a slave for a dozen years, until a fortunate meeting with a sympathetic man finally gives him the chance to communicate with his family and recover his freedom.

It’s a very fine film, anchored by a stellar performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor. The challenge of the performance is that, by definition, so much of it must be contained. Northup can’t show how he feels, he can’t offer any response to anything that’s happening, he can’t show his intelligence because that will get him killed. There’s one clip that has been shown over and over again, where Northup delivers a brief speech about how “I will survive; I will not fall into despair”. And watching the film, it’s clear that the reason that clip has been played so much is because that’s really the only moment of normal “acting” in the film, the only moment where Ejiofor gets to really attack the screen. At every other moment he has to be very small, subdued, while still communicating this sense of an intelligent, thoughtful man looking for every opening to escape. There are points in this film where it just stops and watches Ejiofor as he thinks, and he has to carry the entire performance in his eyes. That he manages to do so is an impressive feat of acting.

But the acting in general really is excellent. Michael Fassbender has obviously been nominated for playing the evil slave owner Epps, and he brings a lot of shading to a role that could easily be a one-dimensional villain. He never stops being utterly detestable, but his behaviour always felt rooted in a genuine and believable character, driven by a sense of superiority, insecurity, and undisguised desire. But it is the more obviously showy of the two “master” roles. Benedict Cumberbatch as the more-sympathetic first master William Ford gives a nicely conflicted performance. I haven’t read Northup’s book, but apparently he claims of Ford that “There never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man”. Cumberbatch gives the character a more interesting shading than the person Northup seems to describe, recognising that this man is a slave owner, but that he’s just blind to the general injustice of that fact because that’s the way the economic system worked at the time. In particular, there’s a moment where Ford basically has to confront the fact that he has in his possession this man who was illegally kidnapped, but has to choose to ignore that fact because to do otherwise would have an effect on him, and the internal conflict that Cumberbatch brings to that moment is great. And then there’s Lupita Nyong’o, whose performance as Patsey is probably the film’s other main award hope. She’s given a tough job, since she has to provide the tragic backbone to the film; in a film where the main character has hope of escaping his situation, she has to be the person who stands for those without such hope. And the film would be weaker without her heartbreaking performance.

One thing I found quite fascinating about the movie was the way it would often look at the side elements of slavery. It’s by no means the focus of the film, but it occasionally touches on how the slave economy worked, how it embedded itself into the society. There’s also a great single scene appearance by Alfre Woodard, playing a former slave who escaped by marrying her master and who now exists as a black slave owner, just glad that she’s out from under the whip and unwilling to do anything to rock the boat for fear of winding up back where she was. Moments like that offer a unique perspective on the experience and demonstrated just how much McQueen was interested in exploring, not just the standard narrative that comes with stories like this, but the wider world and the attitudes that allowed such an obvious injustice to continue.

The direction of the film is generally very impressive, with McQueen showing an careful approach in exploring some of the physical horrors of slavery (the beatings, the rapes, etc) without ever giving a sense that he is exploiting those events, and recognising that the emotional and psychic impact of slavery were just as important and painful as the threat of a beating.  He’s also successful  at making the film a strongly visceral experience for the audience. But if I have an issue with the film, it’s with these odd moments throughout the film where he throws in insert shots of the environment around the location that feel out of place. There’s almost a sense in those moments that McQueen the artist is getting ahead of McQueen the filmmaker, as though he just fell in love with the way the light shone through the trees or the way the setting sun reflected off the river. Tonally, I felt like these pauses in the film took me out of the intense emotional space that it was otherwise very effective in putting me in.

In addition, it should be noted that the story of Solomon Northup is not a typical slave experience. It is extremely unusual, possibly even unique, for a slave or former slave to be able to write about his experiences. Plus the title promises an end to his experiences, which inevitably gives the film a slight hopeful tone that doesn’t necessarily correlate to the experiences of most in Northup’s position. With the rather small number of films exploring the issue of slavery in America’s past, a film like this will inevitably become a touchstone as the definitive cinematic portrayal of the era. And I feel like the differences between the typical slave experience and Northup’s may be problematic in that case.

But those are minor issues with the film. On the whole, it’s a fine piece of cinema, and one that very effectively explores a piece of American history that is seldom discussed. I have a suspicion its worthiness and importance may take it over the line to win the Best Picture Oscar over its other contenders, but that would not be a unwarranted result. It is a film that people will be talking about for years, and deservedly so.

If 12 Years A Slave has a realistic competitor for Best Picture, it’s in Gravity. It almost seems a little pointless writing about Gravity, since it was one of the biggest films of the year, and even if you haven’t seen it, you’re aware of the premise: a couple of astronauts find themselves floating alone in the middle of space trying to survive after their shuttle is destroyed by space debris.

I was lucky enough to be in Auckland during the opening weekend of the film, which allowed me to see the movie at the IMAX cinema. And that really is the perfect way to see the film, because so much of the film was about this vast expanse of space, and the size of the IMAX screen was perfect for communicating that sense, for giving even just a tiny  approximation of the experience of being out in emptiness and seeing this massive planet rotating below you. I’m really curious what the experience of the film will be like on the TV screen; it’s a very well-made and exciting film, and the thriller and suspense sequences will probably survive the transition to home viewing, but the massive and awesome spectacle that the film had in cinema will inevitably  be lessened. The use of 3D in the movie was similarly sharp, using the depth as a way of communicating the enormity of distance and emphasising the sense of isolation, and even if you have a 3D television to watching the film in that format, much of what the film is communicating in its use of 3D will be lost.

But the film is a terrific experience. This is a quick, tight, and intense thriller. It barely runs longer than 90 minutes, and it throws in a major action sequence every ten or so minutes, which really leaves little room for any lag or lull in the action. And yet there’s a precision to the action. Most action movies these days seem to feel  the need to just have action sequences go on and on without relenting – I’ve seen other action movies that have contained relentless action sequences nearly as long as the entire running length of Gravity. But with Gravity the major setpieces are big, but they don’t outstay their welcome, giving us a chance to pause and recover before the next onslaught.

And some of those smaller moments are really great: there’s a beautiful moment where Sandra Bullock just rests, floating in the weightless environment. It’s not a subtle moment – it’s no accident that she pulls herself into the foetal position – but it gives a chance to pause at the exact right point, and also offers a memorable visual moment. Similarly there’s a nice little scene where Bullock winds up talking over the radio to a non-English-speaking Inuit fisherman named Aningaaq, and finds herself reflecting on all the simple joys of life she may never experience again. (There is also a nice short film that shows that conversation from the fisherman’s point of view).

Unfortunately that scene with Aningaaq is the exception when it comes to extended scenes of Sandra Bullock speaking, because most of the time her substantive dialogue is about making the point that the themes of the story are about grief, isolation, and finding the will to survive through loss. I’m not criticising Bullock, who is a good actor and who does as well as you possibly could with the words she’s given The film’s weakest point is definitely its script, which just seems determined to make sure no-one thinks the film is just about being lost in space. But fortunately it doesn’t stay in that reflecting-on-grief mode for too long, because the space debris is always orbiting back to cause problems, or there’s a fire breaking out, or there’s some other problem to snap our characters to attention ad=nd bring focus to the film.

It should also be acknowledged that the movie is utterly unbelievable, right from the start of the film, where they use the jets on George Clooney’s spacewalk pack to travel to the international space station. It’s patently absurd to think that the space station would be close enough to travel to given the vast distances involved, and the improbabilities just pile up from there, as they travel from one location to the next. But it doesn’t matter, because director Alfonso Cuarón engages us at a level of pure instinct where such thoughts seem almost irrelevant.

There’s a widespread expectation that this year the Academy will split the Picture/Director winners, with Gravity taking Best Director. And while the auteur theory would suggest that the notion of a best picture not having the best director behind it seems odd, it makes complete sense in this race. I would have issues with Gravity winning Best Picture – the clunkiness of the script is too big an issue for it to take that prize – but as a directorial achievement, Gravity is without peer. Cuarón approaches the film with a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve; he seamlessly executed a film with incredible technical challenges; and in an era where there are constant cries of doom and gloom over falling cinema attendance he made the best advert possible for seeing a movie on the biggest screen you can. Everything that the film achieves (and the film achieves a lot) is entirely due to Cuarón’s directorial hand, and if he does not win that Oscar then he will have been robbed.

I think the best statement I can make about the movie is that, when I walked out of the cinema, I was literally gasping for air, damn near hyperventilating for several minutes, because I had been so caught up in the film’s action.

For a long time, American Hustle was picked to be the frontrunner in the race. But as time went on and we got closer to the event, American Hustle fell by the wayside, and at this point is probably coming third place at best. And I’m good with that.

See, I generally like David O Russell’s films. I admittedly haven’t seen his earliest films, but I have seen all from Three Kings on, and while I have issues with some of them, on the whole I do find Russell to be a talented and intelligent director with a strong comedic talent and a clear focus on building strong characters. But American Hustle is just frustrating. The film is a fictionalised retelling of the so-called ABSCAM corruption sting operation, where the FBI worked with a con-man to catch various politicians accepting money from a phoney Arabic sheik. And it’s a very good film, it’s funny, interesting; I genuinely enjoyed the experience of watching it. But it’s one of those films where you naturally find yourself focussing on what you didn’t like about the film; certainly the discussion with my friend after the movie was entirely on our various issues with the film, and even the next day we found ourselves emailing each other with more issues we’d thought of after our conversation.

One of the main problems comes up in the first seconds of the film. An on-screen title card states “Some of this actually happened.” And I admire the honesty of (jokingly) admitting to fictionalisation; all “based on a true story” movies fictionalise (just look at Argo with its absurd chase-down-the-tarmac climax), and at least Hustle was open about its fictionalisation. But what I felt that opening card did was make it difficult to grasp onto the film, because you felt like you didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t. In the end, my suspicion is that the details of the actual scam were broadly real, but that he probably abandoned an accurate portrayal of the people involved for characters of his own invention. But the problem is that Russell seems to have so little interest in the ABSCAM sting that he ignores it for huge chunks of the film, and almost seems to resent the time he does have to spend on that story, which means that the film loses any focus. You almost wonder why Russell decided to use the ABSCAM operation as a basis for the film. Why couldn’t Russell just make up his own story for these characters rather than forcing them into a story in which he’s seemingly uninterested?

And the problem is, the characters aren’t that well-drawn. Walking out of the film, I initially had a problem with Amy Adams, who I normally like, but the more I thought about it the more I realised that the problem was with the other characters, who were so heightened and over-the-top that Adams (who generally gave a more dimensional and levelled performance) felt flat by comparison. In particular, while I loved how precisely Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence brought careful shading to their mental illnesses in Silver Linings Playbook, here they both just felt generically crazy (although admittedly in one case affected by drugs). It’s hard to take Cooper at all seriously still working as an FBI agent once he’s beating his superior with a phone.  It’s a weird film where the most sympathetic character is the corrupt politician they’re working to bring down, but the fact is that Jeremy Renner is the most likable character in the movie. And that itself is frustrating, because you can feel the hand of the director artificially shifting the film and its portrayal of Renner’s character so that he can force that sympathetic response from the audience.

The film is also frustratingly heavy-handed. There’s never any chance of the audience missing the significance of anything in the film. The worst part comes early, when Lawrence delivers a short discussion on the smell of nail polish, how all the best smells have something rotten mixed with the sweetness. In other films, that discussion might be an interesting character detail, and careful viewers might catch some thematic resonance with the people on-screen. But that resonance is never allowed to sit there; instead, we keep returning over and over and over again to this bloody nail polish, at one point it even becomes a plot point, until it just annoys you. When the polish makes a clumsy reappearance in the final scene for no reason other than to give a final thematic full-stop to the film, it just made me angry. I’m a smart guy; I hope I could understand what you’re saying through this film without needing constant restatement.

The music also irritated the hell out of me. It’s not that they have bad music. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Delilah, Live and Let Die, How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, A Horse With No Name: they’re all enjoyable, sometimes great, songs. But I know these songs; I know them well. And I’m not a music person at all; for crying out loud, I only discovered the Beatles five years ago. So if I’m watching a film and feel like I instantly recognise half of your soundtrack, that means you’ve generally gone for the easy music choices, pieces that already have certain emotional resonances for the audience, rather than looking for deeper, more unfamiliar music picks that could surprise the audience and bring something new out of the experience. When the only surprise in your soundtrack is that the song White Rabbit is sung in Arabic, that’s a problem. The soundtrack is just generic-70s soundtrack.

Indeed the entire movie feels like some generic “The 70s: The Movie!” exercise. The hair, the fashions, the music, even the on-screen fonts, all were as 70s as you could get, to a point where it essentially fetishizes the era. The problem is, it didn’t need to be so 70s, because that wasn’t a key part of the movie; it just happens to be when the actual events took place. Compare it to a film like Boogie Nights: that is also a film that is completely unsubtle about its era. But Paul Thomas Anderson, a great director, was only making his second film in Boogie Nights, so we can allow some youthful excess; American Hustle was David O Russell’s seventh film, he’s been making films for twenty years, so he should have developed more subtlety than this by now. Plus, Boogie Nights has reason to heighten its 70s elements, since one of the key ideas in the film is to create a contrast between the 70s and the 80s era; American Hustle has no such justification. It just feels like Russell called for someone to get him every lava lamp that could be found because that’s what the 70s were like.

I do regret how disappointed the film made me. I was genuinely excited about seeing it, and I did like it, but I felt deflated by how simple and how flawed it was. I just hope Russell will turn around and give us something better for his next film. Easily the biggest disappointment of the Oscar films.

Speaking as a Christian, I probably should not have loved The Wolf of Wall Street as much as I did. The true story of Jordon Belfort, a man who built a massive stockbroking firm through practices that were at best immoral, at worst illegal, and who spent his money indulging in every vice he could think of – this is not a film a good Christian boy should be enjoying. But my gosh, I was genuinely disappointed when the film ended.

One thing I found interesting about the film was where it sat with other films of 2013. In particular, I would put it with both The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers as brilliant movies exploring a culture of self-indulgence through the viewpoint of people who rely on criminality to support that lifestyle. And while I didn’t care for Pain and Gain at all, it’s worth noting that that’s another 2013 film that also exists in that same space. It’s also interesting to note that of those four films, three are true stories (only the girls-gone-wild gone wild Spring Breakers was fictional). And hell, you could probably throw DiCaprio’s own work in the flawed-but-interesting adaptation of The Great Gatsby as exploring an earlier culture of excess. I’m not sure why that’s been such a major element this year, but it’s probably not an unreasonable guess that the recurrence of that theme is probably due, at least in part, to the global financial crisis having worked its way into the culture. And if that’s what it is, Wolf becomes extremely significant as it’s the only film that explicitly addresses and explores the actual culture and environment that gave rise to that crisis.

At the core of the story is a phenomenal performance by Leonardo DiCaprio as the utterly awful Belfort. DiCaprio has a difficult balance to work with the role: the character has to be charismatic and charming, since that’s how he works as a salesman; he has to at times rouse the crowd and inspire them, yet the character also has to be utterly debauched and awful. And Leonardo works the character perfectly; we can understand and feel his appeal, we understand why people want to be him and be around him, and yet we never fall under his spell, we never unaware of just how repellent he is. It’s also a great demonstration of DiCaprio’s surprising comedic talents; there’s one remarkable extended sequence where Belfort takes some expired Quaaludes that involved one of the best physical comedic performances in years, and it’s a scene that left me in pain from laughter. Other performances are very good; Jonah Hill is obviously getting a lot of attention in the more comedic role as Belfort’s associate Donnie, and he probably has the single best joke in the film (a line about the Benihana restaurant), while Margot Robbie as Belfort’s second wife just holds the attention in an utterly memorable performance. Matthew McConaughey also continues his career resurgence, in a role that was limited to the first ten minutes of the film but that perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the film – the humour, the excess, the weirdness, the utter abandonment of morality; all are present in McConaughey’s big scene. But the thing I was surprised by was just how solid and how deep the rest of the film’s cast is. Every few minutes, we get an appearance from actors I know and love. I knew Kyle Chandler was in the film as the lead FBI investigator pursuing Belfort, but had no idea that people like Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, and Joanna Lumley had substantive roles in the film. Rob Reiner was a particular delight as Belfort’s father, constantly outraged at the morass of excess his son was descending into.

One of the big criticisms I’ve heard being made of the film is that Belfort’s victims never appear in the film. To me that’s an absurd suggestion. This isn’t Wall Street, where we needed to have Martin Sheen to remind us of the negative effects Gordon Gekko’s immoral behaviour would have. Scorsese is a better director than Oliver Stone ever was, and Scorsese knows he can rely on the audience to provide the necessary perspective. So when Belfort somewhat contemptuously states that his victims don’t matter because he is able to spend their money better than they ever would, and then we see him throwing their money away on drugs or hookers, Scorsese trusts us to understand that Belfort is wasting someone’s retirement savings. And if we understand that, why waste time throwing in a bunch of scenes with tearful victims that would inevitably be false to the movie’s viewpoint (since the victims were invisible to Belfort) and that would only serve to introduce heavy-handed moralising into a film that doesn’t need it.

And the notion that the film glamorises this man’s lifestyle is utterly absurd; we are introduced to Belfort as he literally sniffs cocaine out of a prostitute’s arsehole, which is about as unglamorised a version of the doing-drugs-off-a-high-class-hooker cliché as you can do. As the film progresses we see him naked with a lit candle shoved up him, we see him gut punch a woman, we see him completely destroy the lives of everyone around him and sabotage his own life. Anyone who can watch this film and think Scorsese is in any way presenting this man’s lifestyle as anything other than one to be repelled by is not watching the movie. There’s a scene later in the film where Jonah Hill admits that he “can’t imagine ever not enjoying getting fucked up” that we are supposed to view as a sad and tragic statement about the character’s lifestyle, not as something we are supposed to idealise.

I do recognise that the film is not universally beloved, and intellectually I can understand the criticism. It’s a three-hour film, so I can understand why people might find it too long. It’s a film about awful people doing awful and irredeemable things, so of course there are people who would not enjoy spending three hours in their company; that makes sense. It’s a film that is focused on a man who is misogynistic and cruel and who enjoys being so, and because the film is told entirely from his viewpoint that is how the film feels; I understand that. The Wolf of Wall Street is easily the most divisive and problematic film this year. But set aside from any questions of morality, I just felt like I connected to the film as a piece of pure filmmaking.

The thing is, Martin Scorsese is 71 years old, he’s been making films for over 40 years, and a lot of directors when they reach this point in their careers tend to ease off a bit. Now, I really like a lot of Scorsese’s output in recent years, but as good or great as Hugo, Shutter Island, The Departed, or The Aviator are, they don’t have this sense of “I have to make this film” that you get with Scorsese’s early output. But then he turns around and makes a film like The Wolf of Wall Street, a film that feels youthful, vibrant, and electric, and you feel his determination to just go all-out with an uncompromised vision, and you realise that he still has this energy and vitality in him. A new Scorsese is always something I look forward to, but now I’m desperate to see what he’s going to give us next.

The final film with a directing nomination is Nebraska. Now, I really like Alexander Payne; I think he’s one of the best and most interesting voices in independent cinema. (Admittedly, I felt let down by The Descendants, but that was primarily because of a problematic script.) So I was hopeful that Nebraska could live up to the rest of Payne’s work.

Nebraska is just phenomenal. It has a very basic setup – Bruce Dern plays Woody, an elderly man who gets a “guaranteed winner” sweepstake letter, and becomes convinced he’s won a million dollars and just needs to travel to the sweepstake company’s office in Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his prize. Everyone tries to convince him that it’s a scam, but Woody won’t hear trhat, and keeps leaving to walk the thousand-odd kilometres to Lincoln. So his son David (Will Forte) decides to take his father on a road trip, which 8involves an impromptu family reunion in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne.

It’s a very rich film, which explores some very core but complex issues. The setup obviously lends itself to exploring the relationships between fathers and sons – Woody and David aren’t estranged per se, but there’s definite distance and hurt, particularly since Woody is remarkably cruel to the son trying to get close to him. There’s also a really strong line in looking at the relationship between the person who we are and the person who we become. The key thing about the film is that, while we never see Woody as a young man, we get to know who he was and who Woody’s wife was through the memories of those who knew them only as youths, and whose perspectives haven’t been shaded by the person they became over the intervening years. And that naturally also brings up the issues of old age, of lives that have been stifled, of dreams unfulfilled, of regrets about the lives lived and the opportunities missed, whether by accident or by choice, of seeing the world change and finding that you don’t have a place any more. It’s no accident that as the film looks down the main streets of its location, the view is filled with closed shops that have been boarded up, sitting almost as though a graveyard of failed dreams. There’s a sense of dying towns, of communities trying to hold themselves together against economic realities. It also talks about the way unresolved resentments can build up and develop into relationship-destroying bitternesses.

And yet, for all the ideas and themes that the film talks about, it’s very sharply funny. At times it’s a comedy of discomfort; particularly in all the scenes of people holding up Woody as a local-boy-made-good because of his supposed lottery “win”. There’s absurd characters, like the cousins who sole conversation seems to be over how long it takes to drive from one place to another. At other points it’s just a comedy exploring these people and the various connections between them. At times it just goes silly, like a great sequence where Woody’s two sons try to steal something from a barn.

And Payne does a really great job with directing the film. The decision to shoot in black and white was a smart idea; it gives the film a stark and bleak feel that is perfect for a film that is infused with a great sense of melancholy. I also appreciate Payne’s affection for these characters; many filmmakers could have held these people up for mockery, but Payne clearly loves these people and treats them with a genuine respect. He may be making a comedy, but that’s never allowed to override the honesty of the film. By the time the film reaches its climax and beyond, I was shocked by just how much the film had

The main problem with the film comes with the actors. Now, the core cast are great; Bruce Dern is a Hollywood legend for a reason, and all his stubbornness and belligerence feels like a calcified part of his character; Will Forte brings a subtlty and sympathy to the character that you would never see coming from someone with a background on an often broad sketch comedy show like SNL; and people like Stacey Keach (as the former friend looking to exploit Woody’s new-found millions), and Bob Odenkirk (as the son who doesn’t understand Forte’s desire to build a relationship with Woody) are just perfect. I wasn’t as much a fan of June Squibb’s performance as Woody’s wife as many people were (or indeed, as the Academy apparently was, judging by her nomination); while it often worked, there were points where she fell into an “eccentric foulmouthed old woman” space, telling stories about the time Dern’s brother copped a feel, or pulling up her dress at the grave of a former boyfriend to reveal what he missed out on. But that was less a problem with Squibb’s performance, and more around how her character was written at times.

The real problem with the acting was that, as with The Descendants, Payne seems to love the idea of using non-actors to fill the small roles. I assume the idea is that, rather than finding people to play the role, it’s more real to find people who are that character and then get them to be themselves. But it’s rare that you manage to find someone with natural on-screen presence and talent, and when you’re putting as many inexperienced actors in the film as Payne is, you can’t help but have the actors’ discomfort at being on camera come through. It’s most frustrating with one recurring character; a local newspaper writer who once dated a young Dern. You can tell that she’s trying her hardest, but that’s just it – you can see her “acting”. When she’s working alongside someone like Dern, who is seriously phenomenal in the film, she has no hope of doing anything other than drawing attention to how lost she is in front of a camera. And that takes you out of the film. I just wish Payne would learn that there are reasons why most directors don’t fill their casts with non-actors, because it just doesn’t work. And it’s frustrating, because Nebraska is otherwise one of the highlights of the cinematic year, and I’d much rather be able to recommend the film without reservation.

Moving on to those films that didn’t get a directorial nomination, easily the best of them is Her, the story of a man who falls in love with the operating system on his computer. That is absurd, daft.  It’s something that should not work, and would not work, were it not for Spike Jonze’s work as director.

I’ve been a massive fan of Jonze’s directorial work ever since Being John Malkovich. In his first two films, Malkovich and Adaptation, Jonze was paired with Charlie Kaufman, a man who specialises in big, bold, almost wacky movie premises as an opening into exploring specifics of life. And there was something that clicked about that pairing, that was just perfect. It was possibly difficult to identify why they worked so well until you looked at their individual works separately. When Kaufman finally directed his first film, we got Synecdoche, New York, a movie that I adore, but one that is very cold, and at times more focused on the ideas it’s communicating than the characters affected by the story. Meanwhile, Jonze made Where The Wild Things Are, using the classic children’s book as a vehicle for exploring the emotional world that the lead child lives in, where the wild things are not just scary looking monsters but literal representations of the feelings that he can’t control. It’s a strange film, a children’s film that is more focused on speaking to the adults watching the film than the children, and I recognise how much it alienated many of its viewers, but to me it works perfectly because there is a real emotional power to the movie. And that’s why Jonze and Kaufman the two of them worked so well together. Kaufman brought the big attention-grabbing ideas and thematic richness, but his intellectual abstraction could have been really challenging to sit through without Jonze’s ability to communicate in pure emotion and create connections between the movie and the audience.

Certainly the emotional connection is why the film Her works. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore, a man whose marriage broke down a year ago, but who still can’t bring himself to sign the divorce papers and end the relationship. Then he downloads a new operating system with artificial intelligence, tailored to his specific needs and personality, and suddenly he has an OS called Samantha, with the voice of Scarlett Johansson, talking to him, and she’s sweet and she’s funny and every moment is a marvel to her, and so of course he falls in love with her.

It’s not exactly hard to work out what the film has to say. We live in a world where a get-together of friends will often end with everyone sitting around on their phones, existing in our own worlds rather than having the messy business of having to actually interact. The film is fascinated by that distancing effect that technology can have, and this idea that we are rapidly reaching a point where technology could have a negative impact on humanity. There’s a joke that I’ve heard repeated so many times I don’t know where it comes from, but it makes the point that we hold in our pockets devices that many times more powerful than the computers that sent man to the moon, devices that are capable of accessing the entirety of human knowledge, and we use them to watch videos of cats. These days, technology isn’t just about allowing us to do stuff we couldn’t, increasingly it’s about making things that little bit more convenient and perfect just for us. You want to watch cat videos; you can watch them wherever you want. We live in a world where we can increasingly structure our lives to our exact specifications. We can choose to get our news from a channel or website exactly configured to our worldview; we can watch any movie or TV show we would want to at the touch of a button; if we don’t like our coworkers we can avoid them by working from home; and the more we become used to the idea of having our world tailored to our every demands the more we may naturally become distanced from people, because people are messy and annoying and hold different political beliefs than you, and I like hearing your political rant on Facebook because I agree with you, but I’m blocking you because you’re just wrong, and why is my news feed always filled with photos of babies that I need to scroll past. And so the idea of a relationship that is utterly suited to us, even if it is with an operating system tailored to our every need (as absurd a notion as that might seem to users of Windows 8) might seem appealing. But the thing that makes us grow as humans is not always having our way, is having to learn to deal with others, is trying new experiences, is having our worldview tested by new ideas, and a person whose life is entirely focused on their convenience will just stagnate. And that’s kind of what I think Her is about.

But it’s also significant that the film is about a relationship. Technology is a remarkable thing for bringing people together; we can sit and spend hours talking to people on the other side of the world. But it’s only ever a substitute, because there’s something in the moment where you actually see someone in the flesh that you haven’t seen for a long time that no amount of emails or phone calls or Skype chats can possibly replace. And in that way, the film seems to be presenting a marginally-abstracted long-distance relationship. It doesn’t really matter whether the reason you can’t be together is because they’re in a different country or because they don’t have a physical presence in reality; the end result is the same: you’re just talking to a voice on the other end of the computer. Indeed, the ultimate resolution of the film makes so much more sense if you do view it as an abstracted long-distance relationship, where the fact that you’re not together, the tensions of being apart from someone, of them developing their own life separate from you, can seriously change the relationship.

I feel like there’s a million things I want to say about Her, about the richness of the way it explores the realities of our world, and I feel like what I’m writing is a mess because it just brings out so many issues that I don’t know how to coherently structure. But if I spent all my time focusing on trying to find a way to express what the film is saying, I would be doing the film an injustice, because as rich and as deep and thoughtful and intelligent the film is on a thematic level, it’s a great piece of entertainment. It’s funny and sweet and honest and painful. Joaquin Phoenix brings a nervous affection to his central role that is endearing and vulnerable. Scarlett Johansson’s vocal performance is phenomenal, giving Samantha a recognisable maturing arc just through the tones of her voice, from being effectively a youthful and naïve child on her first day of life to a woman with greater knowledge and wisdom than any human could ever acquire.

But the reason the film works is Jonze’s direction. He approaches this story with a determination to treat the emotions with honesty. He doesn’t hold the idea of falling in love with an OS up for ridicule, and nor do any of the other characters in the film. (Indeed, some rather shamefacedly admit that they themselves have become dependent on the relationship with their OS.) Instead, he takes the emotions the characters feel seriously. There are sequences where Theodore is walking with a portable Samantha, talking to her through an earpiece that feel exactly like any falling-in-love scene from any movie ever made. Because as bizarre as this relationship may be to us, to the characters involved the emotions are real, and the film treats them as such.

Her is a great film. Her is an important film. It will not win the award for Best Picture. I am, however, optimistic that it might win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. That’s a category that often goes to interesting and innovative works that otherwise are not recognised (indeed, Jonze’s old screenwriter Charlie Kaufman won the category for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and if Her wins that prize, well, that’s enough.

Philomena is a very good example of the-type-of-film-you-recommend-to-your-mother. Now, I do not say that as a criticism; I want to emphasise, it is very good, and is a very good version of those films. But it is that type of heart-warming and emotional film that you enjoy, but that doesn’t really linger in the mind, save for a moment or two. And while I genuinely enjoyed the film, by giving it a Best Picture nomination, the Academy is in effect calling it one of the nine best movies made last year. And it’s not.

A true story, the film focuses on an apparently-wrongly-disgraced political journalist who decides to work on a human interest story involving an elderly woman who, as a pregnant teenager, was taken in to a home run by Catholic nuns, who then sold her son for adoption. Philomena has always regretted the loss of her son, has been looking for him without success, and together the two work to try to find her now-grown son.

I had no intention of seeing the film before it was nominated for Best Picture. I’d seen the trailer many, many times, and that seemed like one of those trailers that tells you everything there is to know about the film. It showed that the search took them to America; showed that they discovered who the son was; even took you up to the climactic point where  a door is opened to Philomena. The film seemed like it could not be more spoiled by that trailer. I was therefore surprised to find  that there were a number of developments that the film (and admittedly real life) took that genuinely surprised me, and that took the story being told into a much more complicated emotional space.

The acting is all very good. Steve Coogan as the reporter Sixsmith gives a nicely balanced performance as someone who feels like he should be doing something more important than this human interest story, but who reluctantly takes the story on because he has no other option. It’s a finely moderated performance by Coogan; he’s someone who always takes on the smug and superior role, and he’s certainly playing off that characteristic here, often pushing up to the line of unlikability, but it’s a moderated, less caricatured and more affectionate performance than I think I’ve seen from him.

Judi Dench as Philomena is very nice and endearing, but her character often rang false for me. The film seems to want us to view the character as a little bit naïve and insular in her outlook, as though her world is opening up to her as she undertakes this search. The problem is that they really overdid that aspect.  There’s a moment at the start where Sixsmith makes a reference to the Tin Man that she completely fails to understand as a joke; frankly I doubt that The Wizard of Oz is that obscure a reference that the joke could be missed, especially since the comment made no sense except as a joke. But what completely kills the character is the next moment, where Martin states that his own mother has osteoarthritis, and Philomena immediately starts laughing. It’s an utterly false scene in which Philomena seems as though she’s never had any human interaction before. It’s so badly misjudged, and completely undercuts the character as a realistic person, that I do not know where to begin in trying to understand what they were thinking in writing the scene.

And yet when Dench is taken out of the obvious writerly moments and just given an honest situation to act, she does remarkable work. This is a woman who has had a dream for fifty years of finding her child, and for the first time in her life it seems like it might actually be possible to find her again. It puts her in a complicated emotional space, where every new development brings hope, every setback brings disillusionment, and where she has to decide how much emotional pain she is willing to go through to see this experience through to the end. And she plays those sequences absolutely perfectly.  The best moment comes when Philomena encounters one of the nuns who has horribly wronged her, someone who wronged her in ways she didn’t even know about when she started her search. It’s a painful moment, and the way that she reacts, struggling between the way she wants to respond and the way she knows she should respond, led to one of the cinematic moments of the year for me.

There’s been a lot of criticism of the film for being anti-religion, specifically anti-Catholic. But speaking as a Christian, I don’t really see that. It’s a film that stands against situations where institutions abuse their power and trust, certainly, and the Catholic church is guilty of a lot of abuses that it should be accountable for. But the Catholic church is not the Christian faith, and you can criticise the one without the other. So you can have a film with evil nuns in it, and that’s okay, because you’ve also got a character like Philomena, who despite her experiences remains a devout Catholic, and whose genuine faith in response to intolerable circumstances can be a real challenge to those of us who profess faith.

I liked Philomena; it’s a flawed but good film, and one that moved me more than I expected when I actually watched it. It shouldn’t be a Best Picture nominee, that much is obvious, but its nomination at least led me to see the film, and I’m good with that.

Dallas Buyers Club tells the true story of Ron Woodroof, a hard-living rodeo-bull-riding electrician who discovered in the mid-80s that he had HIV, caught from a drug-using prostitute. The doctors give him 30 days to live, but Ron is determined to prove them wrong, pulling every scam to try to get medication to survive. He initially tries stealing AZT, a drug that is being trialled at his hospital, but eventually becomes convinced that the drug is poison, and instead becomes dedicated to smuggling various non-FDA-approved drugs into the country to help treat himself and fellow AIDS sufferers.

The thing is, Dallas Buyers Club is an average film at best, but elevated by two phenomenal performances. As Woodroof, Matthew McConaughey feels like a force of nature; a charismatic charmer with a resolve that borders on sheer bloodymindedness. Whether it’s building this massive buyers club, fighting the FDA in court, or travelling to every country possible to find new drug sources, McConaughey brings a focus and determination to this character that conveys the sheer willpower required to live seven years after a one-month diagnosis.  Even in moments where he’s just undertaking research, reading magazine articles and books to understand the disease better, he communicates a sense of urgency, that reading this paper could mean the difference between life and death for him. Similarly, Jared Leto gives a heartbreaking and sympathetic performance as the drug-addicted transgender Rayon, who serves as Ron’s guide into the gay community. And it has to be said, the friendly-antagonistic relationship between Ron and Rayon is one of the best parts of the film.

The problem is, the film around these two characters is painfully generic. You have Jennifer Garner playing earnest and sympathetic female doctor (because of course the sympathetic doctor has to be female); you get recognisable character actors like Michael O'Neill playing the generic face of the administration trying to shut down Woodroof’s efforts, or Kevin Rankin playing the generic friend who abandons Woodroof because of his “queer blood”. You have the uptight doctor who seems more concerned about the effectiveness of the drug trial than the patients, you have the grizzled hippie disbarred doctor working in Mexico, you have the selected few to be the recurring AIDS patients who appear throughout the movie. None of these people felt real to me, even when they were played by people I recognised and whose work I usually like.

And there was something about the pacing that just did not work for me at all. Perhaps it was that it started to feel repetitive – Woodroof does something, FDA shuts him down, Woodroof does something else, ad infinitum – but I was genuinely shocked to look at my watch and realise that it was only two hours long, since it felt like two-and-a-half hours, minimum. It just lagged, and I reached a point where I was willing the film to please just end, and it kept going on.

And there’s a frustrating lack of interest in actually exploring some rather interesting questions. This story takes place right at the birth of the AIDS virus and at the frontline of efforts to find a cure, which brings up some challeging issues. You’ve got people participating in a drugs trial being given substances that may cure them or may kill them. You’ve got desperate and seriously sick people being given a sugar pill, people who are effectively being sacrificed to find a cure because the scientific method needs a bunch of people who think they’re being treated but who aren’t. You’ve got questions about the rights of one person to try to live as long as they can against the possibility that their early death might lead to information that allows thousands of others to be cured. And these are issues that are barely alluded – there’s a protest scene seen on TV where one guy has a “I got the placebo” sign; there’s a moment where one doctor tells Woodroof that his efforts to help these AIDS sufferers is interfering with the data from the trial and making it more difficult to find a cure, and that’s really all there is for exploring the complexities of these issues. The rest of the film is all about a clichéd “one man against the institutional machinery” story.

And that focus is made more uncomfortable by the way we’re told, in a closing on-screen statement, that AZT is still used (at a lower dose) in AIDS treatments.  I genuinely don’t know what the film’s view of that fact is. The film spent the entire movie railing against AZT as being pure poison; is the film now saying that they’re still poisoning people? Or that AZT is safe to take at lower doses, in which case that’s information that surely would have been discovered during the trial which Woodroof was so opposed to. Add to that the fact that Woodroof’s main reason for seeing AZT as a poison seemed, at least initially, because someone told him it was bad, and he personally  had a negative experience on the drug. But the guy preaching against AZT was a disbarred doctor pushing the use of substances collected from caterpillar secretions, while Woodroof’s own negative experiences with AZT might be due to the fact that he was taken stolen drugs without medical supervision, and seemed to be popping the pills like they were candy. I felt like the film was being entirely uncritical in its portrayal of Woodroof and his beliefs, to the point where it seemed blind to the possibilities of other viewpoints. Indeed, I found myself thinking that this was probably pretty similar to how an anti-vaccination or anti-fluoridation camp would begin, with a paranoia over “they’re trying to poison you, I know better than all those doctors”, and seen from that point of view the film’s lionisation of Woodroof becomes a lot more troubling. It’s worth seeing for a couple of great performances that will almoast certainly be awarded Oscars on the night, but two great performances do not make a great film by themselves.

Finally, there’s Captain Phillips, which has no hope of winning. As The Dissolve accurately noted, Phillips is the film I “always leave off the list when I try to name all the Best Picture nominees off the top of my head.” And I feel bad about that, because I really really liked the film.

Going into the film, I remembered the events that the film was inspired by; the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates and the attack by the SEAL team that left the pirates dead and the hostages rescued. And that inevitability of outcome can often remove a lot of the tension in a film. The thing is: Paul Greengrass is a phenomenal action director. We’ve all seen the Bourne films; we know this. And his work here easily rivals his work in that series of films. Just look at the scenes where the pirates launch their attacks on the Alabama; Greengrass ekes a tremendous amount of tension and frustration out of every second in that sequence. You’ve got this massive ship that almost seems impossible to attack, if only because of its colossal size; and you’ve got this small agile boat that is barely held together but that is being piloted by a man who is smart and determined  and able to outmanoeuvre the larger ship; and Greengrass seems to really enjoy the ebb and flow of the attack, the move and countermove. Greengrass understands that we know the pirates will successfully take the ship, so he shifts the question in the scene from “will the pirates take the ship” to “how on earth are they going to do it?”, and in so doing takes a scene with a forgone conclusion and brings great suspense to the scene. And he follows that approach almost all the way through the film, so that the level of suspense is maintained at an often unbearable level.

Where Greengrass is perhaps less successful Is in exploring wider issues. He’s said that the film is about the effects of globalisation, and sure, I can see that’s what he’s trying to do. I don’t know how well it works, though. He does manage to get us to sympathise with the Somali pirate characters early, looking at the dire situation these people are in, and seeing them as so desperate for work that turning to illegal activities realistically seems like the only option available. It’s a smart choice, because it made it difficult to see these characters as pure villains. And it’s hard to watch these people volunteering for a job out of desperation, knowing that by the end of the film they will all be dead. But really, other than saying that there’s an economic imbalance between America and Somalia, I’m not sure what else the film has to say. Just because a film is focused on a container ship, an obvious symbol of a globalised economy, doesn’t mean that making the film automatically means you’re making a profound cinematic statement on the issue of the day. And that may be why people tend to forget the movie was nominated. It’s a very very very good action movie, but it lacks the extra Wow spark that a film like Gravity brings to the genre, nor does it really have the depth that the rest of the films even attempt to have. And as a result it seems a little out of place in the nominations.

That said, it’s not like the film isn’t Oscar worthy. Like most people who saw the film, I was convinced Tom Hanks would get an Oscar nomination for his role here, and it was a real shock when his name didn’t appear on the nominee list. This is one of his best performances. The key thing about this film is that it could easily have had a typical lead performance and no-one would have blinked an eye – Phillips is the lead of the film, he’s an everyman hero, he was strong and brave and he protected his crew and managed to survive. And that is not the performance that Hanks gives. Instead he gives us a lead who is genuinely scared and desperate, convinced every moment is his last. Sure, he’s smart, and there are moments where I was genuinely impressed with  how quickly his character reacted to situations and managed to struggle to survive, but for the most part there is no doubt that this man is not suited to this situation and is just doing his best with what he has. And by the end of this film he’s been living in that terrifying emotional space for a week or so. And that’s what makes the final moments of the film so powerful, because Hanks is able to give us the trauma, the toll that this experience has had on that man, in a moment that to me seemed more honest than almost anything I’ve seen in a major movie before.  That final scene alone could have, should have, won Hanks the Oscar, and the fact that he didn’t get nominated is absurd.

On the other hand, Barkhad Abdi was nominated for his role as the leader of the pirates, and the fact that a man in his first on-screen role managed to achieve an Oscar nomination says a lot about his performance.  He’s utterly convincing in playing this man who is fiercely intelligent and cunning, who could convincingly strategize his way into taking over this colossus of a ship, but who at the same time is driven by fear and frustration at a situation that gets out of his control. Much of the film plays as a two-hander between Hanks and Abdi, and while the two characters quite deliberately feel like very similar people, Abdi manages to convey an extra sense of necessity and desperation that have forced him to develop a determination that Phillips never had to have. And that’s what gives him the upper hand in that relationship.

Incidentally, the strength of that hostage/captor relationship throughout the film is the reason why the last half hour of the film detracts from the movie (which only finds its place again in the last few minutes). For most of the film, it’s entirely focussed on these two men; then all of a sudden it turns into generic military film as a team of SEALs are launched to launch the attack. And while there’s still tension in those scenes, since we’re never quite sure when the attack is going to come, we don’t really care about the SEAL characters, and dramatically it’s a problem when your main character is uninvolved in your climax. I don’t know that there’s a way to really fix that problem, since that is what happened in the real events, but it is a very serious flaw when you view this purely as a movie.

Captain Phillips could potentially walk away with one or two technical awards, but it’s not taking any of the major awards this year. It’s just not quite operating at that level.  It’s a highly entertaining film, and strongly recommended, but in the context of the Best Picture award it’s a clear also-ran.

No comments: