Oscars 2016 — Final Predictions

Oscars 2016

Another year, another highfalutin awards season (we love it really) culminating in an Academy Awards ceremony blighted by controversy. Despite the perceived change in acceptance and diversity — 2015 welcomed same-sex marriage legalisation, for instance — Hollywood, it seems, is struggling to keep up. Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs declared a plan to usher in urgent change, though chances are the Oscars’ lack of diversity is a consequence of a grander Hollywood problem as opposed to the definitive headache.

I digress. We have what we have and, in fairness, this year’s nominee crop is a good one. On a personal level, I enjoyed all of the films up for Best Picture, some pretty significantly. The women are top of the acting class having smashed their male counterparts to performing pieces, and in a Streep-less year too. Only one of the five directors up for a statuette has been nominated before, and Rocky Balboa’s back after a 40-year break. Alright, let’s get on with it.

I’ve watched more of the crop than ever before this time around, but as circumstance would have it I still have a few blind spots. The categories below the break host films I haven’t seen for various reasons (mainly the UK release schedule — disappointingly, many of the foreign language nominees are not yet out over here), however I’ve still made a prediction in those categories, for the sake of completion if nothing else.

Click links for reviews.

 

Best Picture

The Big Short

Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Room

Spotlight

— Will win: The Revenant

— Should win: Mad Max: Fury Road

— Should’ve been nominated: Girlhood, SicarioStraight Outta Compton

The Revenant, Spotlight and The Big Short have been jostling for the number one spot throughout this awards season, with each film taking home at least one main prize (critics have favoured Spotlight and producers The Big Short). The Revenant, meanwhile, seems to have cleared the pack following its victories at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, though this one could still go any way. It should go to either Mad Max: Fury Road for its sublime achievement against all odds, or to Room for its sheer emotional devastation.

 

Best Director

Lenny Abrahamson (Room)

Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant)

Tom McCarthy (Spotlight)

Adam McKay (The Big Short)

George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)

— Will win: Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant)

— Should win: George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)

— Should’ve been nominated: Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies)

Iñárritu has all of the momentum as well the admiration of the Academy, who rewarded him last year with Best Director and Picture wins over Richard Linklater and Boyhood (grrr). And with no clear, solitary challenger, it looks like a similar scenario will play out again this year. George Miller could be in the running though, and he should be given his stunning all-round effort on Mad Max: Fury Road. The Aussie has a significantly better chance of winning in this category than the one above.

 

Best Actor

Bryan Cranston (Trumbo)

Matt Damon (The Martian)

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs)

Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl)

— Will win: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

— Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

— Should’ve been nominated: Jacob Tremblay (Room)Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton)

Okay. It is not his best performance; there are times it mightn’t even be a performance. He should have won for one of The Aviator, Django Unchained or The Wolf of Wall Street. And sure, the end-of-days narrative peddled throughout his campaign has jumped from barely-worth-considering to head-rollingly-cliché. But of the five fighting for Best Actor, nobody is better than Leonardo DiCaprio. Fassbender comes close as Steve Jobs, but that’s it. The Academy will see this as righting a wrong — it’s DiCaprio’s year.

 

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett (Carol)

Brie Larson (Room)

Jennifer Lawrence (Joy)

Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)

Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)

— Will win: Brie Larson (Room)

— Should win: Brie Larson (Room)

— Should’ve been nominated: Emily Blunt (Sicario)

Jennifer Lawrence elevates Joy far beyond the limits set by its messy underbelly, and Blanchett and Rampling both offer subtle, powerful performances. But this one, rightly, will go to either Brie Larson or Saoirse Ronan. It’ll almost certainly be the former given her numerous wins on the circuit — Larson’s showing in Room is probably the best of the year, pained and hopeful in equal measure — though a victory for the wonderful-in-Brooklyn Ronan would be just as pleasing.

 

Best Supporting Actor

Christian Bale (The Big Short)

Tom Hardy (The Revenant)

Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight)

Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)

Sylvester Stallone (Creed)

— Will win: Sylvester Stallone (Creed)

— Should win: Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)

— Should’ve been nominated: Benicio Del Toro (Sicario)

Though Rylance entered the season as the likely winner here, Stallone seems to have gained increasing momentum since his win at the Golden Globes. I think Tom Hardy’s performance has been undervalued, and Ruffalo too is terrific in Spotlight. Come to think of it, this is probably a stronger category than it has perhaps been given credit for. The award could go to Stallone or Rylance. I’d be happy with either.

 

Best Supporting Actress

Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)

Rooney Mara (Carol)

Rachel McAdams (Spotlight)

Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl)

Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs)

— Will win: Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl)

— Should win: Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)

— Should’ve been nominated: Fiona Glascott (Brooklyn)

Competitiveness is key in the Best Supporting Actress section, arguably the toughest of the bunch to call. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a massive outsider here despite her maniacal excellence in The Hateful Eight, and McAdams’ chances are even lower (though she is great too). Winslet is back in the race following her BAFTA win and her grounded performance in Steve Jobs would be worthy most other years. Rooney Mara is the lead in Carol, she’s in the wrong category. I’ll go for Vikander, who steals the show in The Danish Girl.

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Big Short (Adam McKay, Charles Randolph)

Brooklyn (Nick Hornby)

Carol (Phyllis Nagy)

The Martian (Drew Goddard)

Room (Emma Donoghue)

— Will win: The Big Short (Adam McKay, Charles Randolph)

— Should win: Room (Emma Donoghue)

— Should’ve been nominated: Steve Jobs (Aaron Sorkin)

When I sat down to watch Room, one of the last things on my mind was Emma Donoghue’s screenplay. Not because I expected little from the novelist-turned-screenwriter, but because the buzz surrounding the film had mainly been for its two central performances and Lenny Abrahamson’s deft direction. But Donoghue’s adaptation of her own work is careful and stunning, truly. The Big Short will probably win here given its wit and snap (some very good wit and snap too), but it’d be nice to see Donoghue take the trophy.

 

Best Original Screenplay

Bridge of Spies (Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)

Ex Machina (Alex Garland)

Inside Out (Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Ronnie del Carmen)

Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer)

Straight Outta Compton (Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus)

— Will win: Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer)

— Should win: Ex Machina (Alex Garland)

— Should’ve been nominated: The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)

Any of the above could conceivably win with justification: the Coens’ sly influence over Bridge of Spies is noticeable and welcome; Inside Out thrives upon words carefully constructed and beautifully relayed; McCarthy and Singer’s steely determination to shine a light upon good reporting works because their script allows it; and the seemingly written-by-committee Straight Outta Compton fizzes with authenticity. But I’m rooting for Alex Garland’s Ex Machina screenplay, a smashingly construed, tense, and insightful piece of writing.

 

Best Documentary — Feature

Amy

Cartel Land

The Look of Silence

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

— Will win: The Look of Silence

— Should win: The Look of Silence

— Should’ve been nominated: N/A

Joshua Oppenheimer’s shocking Act of Killing should have won in 2014. Amy and Cartel Land are probably the more obvious choices facing the Academy, but I’m going to put my (perhaps misguided) faith in voters to pick Oppenheimer’s Act of Killing follow-up, the less striking but still wholly compelling and defiantly brave Look of Silence.

 

Best Cinematography

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Sicario

— Will win: The Revenant

— Should win: Sicario

— Should’ve been nominated: Slow West

Roger Deakins is long overdue Oscar-shaped recognition having received 13 nominations with no return, and Sicario should be the conduit for that eventuality. This is another strong category; any of the five could win with justification — Robert Richardson captures the claustrophobic egomania of Minnie’s Haberdashery, John Seale the muscular aplomb of a post-apocalyptic desert-scape, and Ed Lachman the crackling romance of 1950s New York. Emmanuel Lubezki looks destined to claim the award for the third year running though, which would be a cinematography record.

 

Best Visual Effects

Ex Machina

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Should win: Mad Max: Fury Road

— Should’ve been nominated: The Walk

Much has been made of George Miller’s desire to be as practical on set as possible, and when the result is as good as Mad Max: Fury Road, that desire ought to be rewarded. A word too for the visual effects team on Ex Machina, whose budget would have been significantly lower than those of their category compatriots, yet whose end product is futuristic, uncanny, and effortlessly employed.

 

Best Film Editing

The Big Short

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Spotlight

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: The Big Short

— Should win: Spotlight

— Should’ve been nominated: Straight Outta Compton

Mark Kermode talks about the key to a great editing job being its undetectability. You should be so wrapped up in the content that cuts should play naturally, and to an extent that is a fair assessment. I would challenge his assertion when it comes to The Big Short though, a film which is so furiously edited by Hank Corwin you are supposed to take notice (this rapidness fits the crazed culture of Wall Street). Having said that, I’m pulling for Tom McArdle’s considered work in Spotlight.

 

Best Production Design

Bridge of Spies

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

— Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road

— Should win: Bridge of Spies

— Should’ve been nominated: The Hateful Eight

One of the most endearing and successful things about Bridge of Spies is how the film pits an internally bubbling United States against an externally fractured East Germany. Much of that has to do with the Cold War climate drawn up by the production design team: you feel the domestic, retro anxieties of the US, and then you really feel the frostiness of Germany. Plus, Mark Rylance tinkering with magnificently integrated espionage devices? Come on.

 

Best Costume Design

Carol

Cinderella

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

— Will win: Carol

— Should win: Carol

— Should’ve been nominated: Crimson Peak

Sandy Powell is up against herself here, though her chances for Carol probably carry more weight than her chances for Cinderella. Unlike the production design in The Danish Girl, the film’s costume design is interminably fitting: at times bombastic, at times reserved, always representative of the time period. Having said that, I really like Powell’s work in Carol and Jenny Beavan’s efforts in Mad Max: Fury Road, so a win for either of those would suit me.

 

Best Original Score

Bridge of Spies

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: The Hateful Eight

— Should win: Bridge of Spies

— Should’ve been nominated: Macbeth

Since it’s his first western score since the 1980s (not to mention the first original score in a Tarantino flick), chances are Ennio Morricone will take home the bacon here. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s piercing, unsettling Sicario sound is a real masterstroke and would justify a win, though my favourite of the five is Thomas Newman’s score for Bridge of Spies. It flirts tremendously between Saving Private Ryan’s brassy grandness and a number of beautiful, touching piano melodies.

 

Best Original Song

“Earned It” (Fifty Shades of Grey)

“Manta Ray” (Racing Extinction)

“Simple Song #3” (Youth)

“Til It Happens to You” (The Hunting Ground)

“Writing’s on the Wall” (Spectre)

— Will win: “Til It Happens to You” (The Hunting Ground)

— Should win: “Manta Ray” (Racing Extinction)

— Should’ve been nominated: N/A

I quite like “Manta Ray”, but y’know, it’s Gaga and the Oscars.

 

Best Sound Editing

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: Sicario

— Should win: Sicario

— Should’ve been nominated: Everest

As mentioned above, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score in Sicario is a beauty, though it is complemented and enhanced by some gritty, punchy sound editing (I’m reliably informed editing refers to the seeking out or creation of various sound recordings, such as gunfire or general dialogue, whereas mixing involves finding the correct combination of all sound elements within a film).

 

Best Sound Mixing

Bridge of Spies

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road

— Should win: Bridge of Spies

— Should’ve been nominated: Sicario

I’m surprised Sicario hasn’t been nominated again in this category. Given mixing incorporates all sound elements, I feel compelled to root for Bridge of Spies.

 


 

Best Animated Feature Film

Anomalisa

Boy & the World

Inside Out

Shaun the Sheep Movie

When Marnie Was There

— Will win: Inside Out

 

Best Foreign Language Film

A War (Denmark)

Embrace of the Serpent (Columbia)

Mustang (France)

Son of Saul (Hungary)

Theeb (Jordan)

— Will win: Son of Saul (Hungary)

 

Best Documentary — Short Subject

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness

Body Team 12

Chau, Beyond the Lines

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah

Last Day of Freedom

— Will win: Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah

 

Best Live Action Short Film

Ave Maria

Day One

Everything Will Be Okay

Shok

Stutterer

— Will win: Day One

 

Best Animated Short Film

Bear Story

Prologue

Sanjay’s Super Team

We Can’t Live Without Cosmos

World of Tomorrow

— Will win: World of Tomorrow

 

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

— Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road

 

Oscars 2016 - Best Picture

Images credit: ScreenScoopVariety

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Beasts of No Nation (2015)

★★★

Beasts of No Nation PosterDirector: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Release Date: October 16th, December (UK & US)

Genre: Drama; War

Starring: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba

Beasts of No Nation, concocted almost single-handedly by Cary Joji Fukunaga — or that guy who brought us True Detective season one — has been touted as potential player at next year’s Academy Awards. The catch? It would be the first Netflix original to rub shoulders with Hollywood’s elite on their golden night. Its online distribution platform may well be the future of entertainment (hopefully not exclusively), but the film itself is rooted in the past and present, telling a story of violent civil war in West Africa.

Fukunaga (director, screenwriter, cinematographer) patiently paints youngster Agu (Abraham Attah) and his family with endearing strokes: once a teacher, his father is now a humanitarian clearing land for refugees; his mother evokes a loving aura, carrying out maternal and manual tasks with a smile; and his aloof big brother is your typical teenager, obsessed with muscle mass, girls, and having a laugh. Agu himself is smart egg, a kid full of sneaky creativity. He deconstructs his father’s TV and rebrands the empty frame an “imagination television” hoping someone will fork out some cash or food for it.

Granted, there is a significant military presence in the unnamed village and displaced groups are struggling to find a place to settle, but life for Agu is fairly good given the circumstances. That is, until war truly makes its presence felt. “Nothing is ever for sure and everything is always changing,” narrates Agu. And everything does change, horrifyingly so. Separated from his family, Agu finds himself lost in the bush and about to unwillingly travel down a path paved in unethical stone. For at this point Idris Elba’s Commandant swaggers on-screen, an eerily charismatic rebel leader who hypnotises with words, poisoning the minds of those too inexperienced to think for themselves. Elba suitably commands, persuasive in posture and delivery.

Head of the Native Defence Force, his followers parade a faux-macho exterior, wagging weapons and wearing the surrounding landscape as a battle uniform. Agu, now with nowhere else to go, falls in line and begins his training as a child soldier. As words such as “family” and “father” ring out, you can see Agu’s resistance collapsing and his loyalties shifting towards Commandant’s bloody policy. The latter trains his young army to understand stringent battle formations and inflict uncompromising punishments, all the while a soundtrack of propaganda wails out in the background. The soldiers also play football, albeit more aggressively than normal, a fleeting reminder of their humanity.

Once in battle mode, the situation turns to abhorrence: one particular execution is horrid, but thankfully (admirably) Fukunaga doesn’t gratuitously linger on the visual. It’s not that type of film. Rather, Beasts of No Nation wants to convey the very real dehumanisation of children via war and mind-warping. The sieges that we see are so impersonal, so chaotic, that it is difficult to tell who is killing and who is dying — and that’s the point. One such invasion is painted red even before blood has been shed, ominously predicting the inevitable while also projecting the drugged-up mindsets of the invading adolescents.

Fukunaga’s lens work gives character to the jungle; shots of mossy foliage landscapes wonderfully signify the denseness of the locale, parading this idea that there is no escape, not even for the rebels. It is a notion best captured early on as Agu attempts to escape a band of gun-toting killers: Fukunaga pulls his camera back, carefully revealing the contrast between the vibrant jungle ahead and the smoke-filled decimation in the youngster’s rear view. The environment transcends reality: the aforementioned coaching sequences, engulfed by mist, are loosely reminiscent of those swampy Dagobahian sessions in The Empire Strikes Back.

Blood Diamond is a clear cousin: the setting, the narrative, the relationship between Agu and his family — these are all shared characteristics. But Fukunaga’s piece doesn’t have said outing’s heart. While the lack of direct Western involvement is entirely justified (character or plot-wise), the lack of a determined, soulful saviour hurts. In Blood Diamond, that saviour is Djimon Hounsou. He plays the father of a young child solider and his stunning performance imbues Edward Zwick’s film with hope and humanity, traits that are somewhat lacking on this occasion. You find yourself yearning for a Hounsou-esque force in Beasts of No Nation, particularly as Commandant’s poisonous grip over Agu gains momentum, but there simply isn’t one.

There is also very little grace — some might argue rightfully — and this causes you to pull away from proceedings. Without a father figure valiantly attempting to save his son, there is nothing really to tow you back in. Abraham Attah is a true revelation as Agu, his transformation from bright boy to corrupt soldier disheartening, but also lacking in any semblance of goodwill. Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye is equally as good as Strika, another fighter with whom Agu bonds, yet unfortunately the duo don’t share enough screen time to truly generate a sense of collective humaneness.

I think the film is too long. Scenes reap repetition by the 80-minute mark, though this could be a measure employed intentionally to emphasise the gruelling nature of war. Fortunately, it does begin to incorporate some political elements in the third act; we hit an urban centre where Commandant engages in a verbal joust with another NDF head honcho. As they barter back and forth over payment, leadership, and resource deployment, The Last King of Scotland springs to mind. Had Fukunaga cherry-picked a tad more from his aforementioned genre ancestors, he could have been onto a classic.

Beasts of No Nation - Elba & Attah

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): NetflixBleecker Street

Oscars 2015 — Final Predictions

Oscars 2015

Don’t we all just love the Oscars? It’s an evening of maniacal celebration, of gratuitous back-patting, of cringe-worthy speech-making and of hosts trying to grasp the latest social trend – I’m looking at you, selfie Ellen. The folks over in Hollywood might “really like” Sally Field, but they’re not quite as fond of Selma or Nightcrawler, and goodness knows how fond they are of American Sniper (hopefully not as much as many fear).

All joking aside, Academy Awards night is a big one for the film industry. The movies nominated are, for the most part, pretty damn good too and should be heralded on a grand stage. Tonight’s ceremony is looking fairly clear-cut in most categories, but there are still a few ambiguities to be sorted.

Better get on with some predictions then. Click on the appropriate film titles for reviews.

Best Picture

American Sniper

Birdman

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Selma

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

– Will win: Boyhood

– Should win: Boyhood

– Should’ve been nominated: Interstellar

Oscars 2015 - Boyhood

Best Director

Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman)

Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher)

Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)

Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

– Will win: Alejandro G. Iñárritu

– Should win: Richard Linklater

– Should’ve been nominated: Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin)

Oscars 2015 - Inarritu

Best Actor

Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)

Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)

Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

Michael Keaton (Birdman)

Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)

– Will win: Michael Keaton

– Should win: Eddie Redmayne

– Should’ve been nominated: David Oyelowo (Selma), Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)

Oscars 2015 - Keaton

Best Actress

Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)

Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)

Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

Rosumand Pike (Gone Girl)

– Will win: Julianne Moore

– Should win: Rosamund Pike

– Should’ve been nominated: Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow)

Oscars 2015 - Moore

Best Supporting Actor

Edward Norton (Birdman)

Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)

J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)

Robert Duvall (The Judge)

– Will win: J.K. Simmons

– Should win: J.K. Simmons

– Should’ve been nominated: Channing Tatum (Foxcatcher), Andy Serkis (DotPotA)

Oscars 2015 - Simmons

Best Supporting Actress

Emma Stone (Birdman)

Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)

Laura Dern (Wild)

Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)

Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

– Will win: Patricia Arquette

– Should win: Patricia Arquette

– Should’ve been nominated: Carrie Coon (Gone Girl)

Oscars 2015 - Arquette

Best Adapted Screenplay

American Sniper

The Imitation Game

Inherent Vice

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

– Will win: The Imitation Game

– Should win: Whiplash

– Should’ve been nominated: Gone Girl

Oscars 2015 - TIG

Best Original Screenplay

Birdman

Boyhood

Foxcatcher

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Nightcrawler

– Will win: Birdman

– Should win: Boyhood

– Should’ve been nominated: Guardians of the Galaxy

Oscars 2015 - Birdman

Final Thoughts

It looks as though the only real tussle – and it’s a big one – will be between Boyhood and Birdman for Best Picture. They’ll probably split the top award and Best Director between them, though Boyhood and Linklater deserve both.

Michael Keaton might yet nab Best Actor from Eddie Redmayne and despite the bookies favouring the Brit after his BAFTA triumph, I fancy the American to win in the US (cynical me).

As far as the other three acting categories go, Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette are all shoe-ins. The latter two fully deserve to win. Still Alice still hasn’t hit cinemas over here in the UK therefore I have yet to see Moore’s performance, but I just can’t look past Rosamund Pike’s stunning turn in Gone Girl. Pike should win. She won’t.

The biggest snubs of the year are probably Interstellar and Nightcrawler. David Oyelowo absolutely should be contention for Best Actor (he should probably win it, in truth) but at least Selma has top table nomination. With ten possible slots in the Best Picture category, the dismissal of Interstellar and Nightcrawler is unjustified.

Carrie Coon should feel aggrieved to be missing out on a Best Supporting Actress nomination, as should Channing Tatum in the Best Supporting Actor – or even Best Actor – category. It has been a strong year for the actors to be fair. And a word too for Blue Ruin, one of 2014’s less well-known masterstrokes.

If you’re watching, enjoy the show!

Oscars 2015 Best Picture

Images credit: ColliderHollywood Reporter, Indiewire

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

★★★

TGBH PosterDirector: Wes Anderson

Release Date: March 7th, 2014 (UK); March 28th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Adventure; Comedy; Drama

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori

It goes without saying that Wes Anderson rustles up his films to appease a desired taste and The Grand Budapest Hotel, despite its universal recognition on the awards circuit, is another fine delicacy. That’s not a bad thing, especially if you’ve previously been a fan of Anderson’s work. Cards on the table: I haven’t seen enough to really form a stalwart opinion on the director. Moonrise Kingdom was a charm-fest and although The Grand Budapest Hotel doesn’t quite match up for my inexperienced liking, it is still a fun one hundred minutes.

This is the story of a much admired hotel concierge and his invaluable lobby boy. Not for the first time we watch a Wes Anderson flick that is tremendously well crafted, with everyone from prolific cinematographer Robert Yeoman to those in the costume department really pulling up trees to make the outing a visual feast for the audience. It rattles on without so much as a chink, fluent and meticulous in full flow. Walls are painted the right shade of blonde or pink to suit the mood at any given moment, and we watch the madness unfold as if perched on a stand measured to a ninety degree angle with the utmost precision (at one point a character fixes a lopsided painting to maintain this custom).

The piece is a real gem to look at — you could easily spend the entire run-time focused on how minor details play out in the background without as much as a glance towards the immediate plot and still be pretty satisfied. Different aspect ratios are employed at different points in the film, from the older traditional 4:3 to current traditional 1.85:1. It’s fairly enjoyable watching hotel concierge Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his young partner in crime Zero (Tony Revolori) scamper around, but the purpose of the varying ratios gets somewhat lost as time passes.

There is an almost slapstick element to the film, one that totally suits its colourful, comic-ey surroundings. Every movement is overly emphasised, from running with knees aloft to plate-setting. The characters are all sky high on the eccentric scale — Tilda Swinton appears as an elderly lover and we even get Harvey Keitel in especially nutty convict form. The sheer volume of famous faces that show up, many of whom only appear for a scene or two, is a testament to Anderson’s strongly regarded reputation around acting circles, as well as the jovial atmosphere apparently present on set. This star-studded Hollywood collective helps fund a comedic tone — funniest when it breaks the mould with common insults (“that little prick!”; “who’s got the throat-slitter?”) as opposed to long-winded monologues, some of which can be a tad egregious.

And The Grand Budapest Hotel can be difficult to get into, simply because the screenplay’s ferocious nature doesn’t offer as much as a breather for the audience to adjust and then readjust. It might be a personal thing, in fact it almost certainly is, but the constant velocity can be off-putting (despite it enabling much of the sharp humour). As a viewer, you’re either strapped in and along for the ride or still weighing up the height of the roller coaster. For me it’s a bit too tall.

Much of the film’s allure emanates from the charismatic Gustave, played brilliantly by Fiennes. Fairly short of previous comedy chops — he was part of In Bruges, though his performance in the Martin McDonagh piece was far darker — Fiennes is quite the surprise here. He gets the funniest gags (“you know the drill then? Zip it”) and the actor plays the popular Gustave with an amusing air of receptive non-discrimination; he engages with everyone equally, from jail mates to lobby boys to militant inspectors.

Tony Revolori is a fine assistant to Fiennes on screen, and the two strike up quite the odd chemistry. Members of Anderson’s large cast move in and out of shot as if through a revolving door — Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Léa Seydoux all show face, to name but a few. The film isn’t as fun when we’re not watching Gustave and Zero in tandem, but thankfully they’re together for most of the piece.

The question remains: is there anything going on beneath the surface, or is it all just that — surface? The director doesn’t appear too fussed about incorporating deep meaning and there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. He is more than an aesthetic filmmaker, as evidenced by the humour on show here, but his approach does to an extent alienate those without wholesome affection for it. There isn’t really a plot, rather a whole host of five minute segments incorporating many different Hollywood stars.

As such The Grand Budapest Hotel is an enjoyable spectacle, rampantly good fun on occasion, but not much more than that.

TGBH - Fiennes and Revolori

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Imitation Game (2014)

★★★

The Imitation Game PosterDirector: Morten Tyldum

Release Date: November 14th, 2014 (UK); December 25th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Biography; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley

I saw The Imitation Game last year and was too caught up in other work to jot down some thoughts in a semi-coherent manner. This review, then, comes significantly later than it should have and, despite still possessing a few pages of notes designed to jog the memory, I’m now struggling to recall much of the film. That’s the main problem here. The Imitation Game is just unmemorable. It’s not a time issue either — the piece left as much to be desired back in December as it does now. Of course, the story of Alan Turing is an incredibly memorable one but that has nothing to do with this film per se (rather, it’s because his life actually happened and was shocking in and of itself).

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing, a British mathematician and cryptanalyst courted by his country to solve the seemingly impenetrable Nazi Enigma code. The film takes place at the peak of World War II, but you wouldn’t have guessed it if not for the occasional reference. At one point, problem solving team member Peter (Matthew Beard) refers to that big battle thing happening far from the otherwise serene Bletchley Park: “There are actual soldiers out there trying to win an actual war.” We don’t see enough, or at the very least feel enough, of this supposed ongoing war. It’s as if all the events on-screen are unfolding on a remote island as opposed to an island entrenched in a horrendous, deadly human struggle.

Returning to more local matters, we watch as a whole host of obstacles are thrown in front of Turing — those well-known ones related to his private life, but also professional obstacles that simply do not make sense. Charles Dance’s Commander Alistair Denniston, who is overseeing the operation at Bletchley Park, essentially becomes a less brutal version of Tywin Lannister as he dishes out ultimatums to Turing and his team, threatening to shut down their potentially life-saving efforts. “Our patience has expired,” he groans. But why? Surely it’d be wise to keep the process going irrespective of how long success is taking. The film doesn’t address this awkward stance enough, and as such we’re left with a weird sense of internal squabbling that doesn’t chime well given the war climate.

For the most part, emotionally devastating moments — at least, that’s what they should be — are presented in a fairly generic manner. Graham Moore’s screenplay lacks imagination. A ship sinking debate is one of the more morally dubious scenes but you can see the ambiguity coming from a mile off. Since the film is based on a true story it is very possible that parts such as the one referred to above are reflected with genuine truthfulness, their blunt coincidence thus horrible to even consider. However, Moore and director Morten Tyldum set up the majority of these would-be taut interactions too easily. The ship sinking argument feels like a Hollywood moment when it should be the complete antithesis – dirty and righteously murky.

There is a lot fuelling the narrative and as such the film begins to confuse itself as it juggles a number of different layers (any codebreakers around to sort this mess out?). We touch upon the intricacies of gender politics, man versus machine, sexual orientation and the war climate, each with varying impetus. The technological struggle between Turing’s team and the Enigma machine is intriguing, and when Tyldum focuses on the mathematician’s private life the piece flourishes with authenticity and solemn gravitas. To its credit, The Imitation Game does effectively capture the painstaking conclusion to Turing’s life. Perhaps singling out only two elements instead of trying to engage with a handful of themes would’ve yielded something more concise and coherent for Tyldum.

Having said all that, the performances from many of the cast are very good — one or two are particularly noteworthy — and these keep the piece bubbling over (they also undoubtedly had a hand in shooting the film into wide-netted Oscar contention). Cumberbatch bumbles as well as ever playing the intellectually gifted Turing, whilst at the same time empowering the periodically unaccommodating man with increasing resilience and vigour. He is the perfect fit for the role and Cumberbatch really comes into his own when reflecting the weightier points of Turing’s life.

Matthew Goode, Allen Leech and Matthew Beard complete the team of puzzle solvers. The latter duo don’t have as much to do but as Hugh Alexander, Goode carries out the brazen and often unimpressed act to a T. It is Keira Knightley, though, who has the most impact opposite Cumberbatch. She plays Cambridge graduate Joan Clarke who develops a close bond with Turing throughout the film. In lesser hands the role might’ve fallen foul of poor characterisation but Knightley has steel in her eyes, Joan often the person bearing the strongest will.

The film doesn’t really match up to the awards recognition it has been receiving over the past few months, but it does manage to be a suitably uplifting-turned-demoralising piece. I reckon that has more to do with Turing’s real life struggles than how the picture depicts them. Maybe The Imitation Game isn’t as dreary as I recall, but I’m not recalling much.

The Imitation Game - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): StudioCanal, The Weinstein Company

Whiplash (2015)

★★★★

Whiplash PosterDirector: Damien Chazelle

Release Date: October 10th, 2014 (US limited); January 16th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Music

Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons

Towards the beginning of Whiplash, Andrew, the film’s central character, chats away to his father as they crunch on popcorn whilst taking in a film at the cinema. Astonishingly, despite this double-misdemeanour Andrew isn’t the worst human being we see throughout the one hundred minutes. He doesn’t even come close, in truth. That honour goes to the talented drummer’s insane music instructor. Terence Fletcher is the teacher whose class we all sat in tight-lipped for fear of scolding. This guy puts Matilda’s Trunchbull to shame. The problem for Andrew is that he wants to become “one of the greats”, and gaining Fletcher’s approval might just send him along that path.

A first year student at one of New York’s most prestigious music academies, it is apt that we first meet Andrew as he’s drumming away. This is also when we encounter Fletcher for the first time, who happens upon Andrew mid-session and then leaves seemingly unimpressed. The same scene more or less plays out with varying intensity across the remainder of Whiplash — a brooding Fletcher brashly critiquing Andrew’s skill — and yet the film never loses steam. This is testament to a fierce screenplay, dazzling editing and slick direction, but most significantly to the performances of both J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller.

Simmons imbues his monstrous autocrat with unflinching poise — Fletcher is like an experienced hunter aware of everything going on around him. The actor’s timing chimes with absolute precision, his sweeping hand signals in rhythm with every “not my tempo” jibe. There is real menace behind Simmons’ eyes as he acts, an authentic rage that places his character beyond the usual eccentric teacher type. Fletcher invites Andrew to join his elite studio band (the student’s previous practice band comes across as a soft, bubbly playground in comparison) and is civil towards him at first. It’s obvious the niceties aren’t going to remain a permanent factor in their relationship, but it’s still a shock when Fletcher hurls a chair at his new recruit before slicing him apart with piercing insults.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle manages all of this fury by including the occasional moment of hilarity, and these often come by way of Fletcher’s razor sharp put-downs. You could play a game of ‘most degrading insult’ bingo and never run out of source material (my favourite is “weepy willow shit sack”). Andrew is usually on the receiving end of the worst of these and Miles Teller reflects the toll the taunts take via scrunched-up facial expressions and reciprocatory anger. As the film progresses he grows paler, his hair more bedraggled and dark bags forming under tired eyes. Fletcher never breaks sweat, of course. It appears to be quite the physically demanding performance too; as Teller relentlessly hammers out sequence after sequence of drum beats, all you can think about is the searing lactic acid building up in his arms.

We are on Andrew’s side from the get-go and remain there even as he develops the dickish attitude that first spawns on screen when he severs romantic ties with directionless student Nicole, played with charm by Melissa Benoist. The abrupt conclusion to their relationship is a shame as, on the off chance we do get a spot between Benoist and Teller, their interaction is a pleasurable change of pace. Tom Cross’ impactful editing comes to the fore during a flurry of super sweet date scenes and super intense practice scenes invariably relayed in juxtaposition.

The nuances fuelling both men’s desires reverberate with uneven success. On the one hand, a surprisingly emotive speech has us questioning whether Fletcher in is it to develop world class musicians or world class music. The moment adds another, more humanistic layer to the otherwise wholly maniacal instructor. Though the matter is eventually resolved, Fletcher’s ferocity flares through and it is right that it does so. Andrew’s back-story is a tad more conventional — he’s the odd family member out — and as such the character is a bit more generic.

No matter, the two actors share an awkward-yet-sizzling chemistry that suits the personas they are playing. Fletcher costs his young counterpart a lot: relationships, family life, a social life, even blood. And still we completely believe the attraction felt by Andrew in regards to impressing his fiendish teacher. A duel between the pair towards the end of the film is utterly mesmerising, exemplifying Whiplash’s technical proficiencies as well as its superb acting in one glorious finale.

At only his second attempt Damien Chazelle has constructed a really exciting film, one that is unsurprisingly propped up by a soundtrack incorporating pulpy beats and bluesy flows. It is engrossing, focused and quite the positive mark on a promising young filmmaker’s portfolio. Hey, Damien and co? Good job.

Whiplash - Teller and Simmons

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Sony Pictures Classics

Selma (2015)

★★★★

Selma PosterDirector: Ava DuVernay

Release Date: January 9th, 2015 (US); February 6th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo

Carrying on the awards-fetching tradition that tends to follow flicks of biographical and historical heritage (a tradition particularly in vogue at this year’s Oscars) is Selma. We all know the argument by now: ‘the only reason this weighty film about that important figure doing those serious things has been made is purely to fill the brazen palms of those involved with golden statuettes’. As a general rule I don’t really toe that line. There are too many external factors that’d have to align for a filmmaker to predict prizes before even rolling a camera, and then successfully follow through with that prediction. Oscar bait. It’s a bit of a nonsense assumption anyway. Selma is a film first and foremost, about struggle and perseverance and dignity.

Movies aren’t made to be awarded then, but when the turn of the year approaches and the air begins to smell that bit more Weinsteiny, it’s still an exciting time for cinephiles the world over. And it can be a kick in the teeth when evidently deserving performances aren’t given at least a nod of appreciation by those all-knowing folks in Hollywood. David Oyelowo’s shunning by the Academy is as bewildering as it is unfair on the Brit. He plays Martin Luther King, Jr., minister and activist at the helm of the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the middle of last century.

Director Ava DuVernay’s film centres on Dr. King and his collaborative attempt alongside other SCLC members to gain voting rights for black US citizens in the 1960s. As such, success hinges upon how effectively Oyelowo embodies the famous fellow. In some ways, playing a prolific figure such as King might be easier because his presence has continued to circulate in some form for so many years and his mannerisms and tones therefore exist in great volume, essentially forming a vault of primary sources for the actor to refer to. Having said that, there’s very little room for error because the man is so recognisable — if you’re watching Selma, you’re probably pretty well-versed in the humanitarian’s past. The audience knows King and Oyelowo has to convince, not after 30 minutes or 60 minutes but after 10 seconds, that he is King.

Goodness me, he convinces. Oyelowo’s portrayal is very similar to Eddie Redmayne’s manifestation as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, not because the roles reflect each other in too many ways but because each actor completely dissolves into the persona he is playing. The magnetic charisma is there, shining through particularly during speeches delivered with power and precision, but Oyelowo also conveys a vulnerability in King that humanises the god-like leader. Moments of self-doubt creep in and harness his stubbornness; this unusually burdened appearance can be seen in a prison cell conversation or an emotional debate between husband and wife.

At this point it’s also worth noting some really solid work done by Oyelowo’s supporting cast, namely Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King and Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson. King and Coretta’s relationship is frosty when we meet them, the latter certainly an admirer of her husband’s moral graft but not as keen on any potentially nasty consequences. “I don’t joke about that”, she says after he quips about dying in the line of protest. Ejogo’s Coretta is strong-willed but clearly at odds with the viable threat posed to her family.

On the other hand, King’s combative rapport with the US head of state is driven by ethical politics. Wilkinson plays the President with that familiar governmental defensiveness — sympathetic to a degree but only really in favour of King because he’s not “one of those Malcolm X types”. It’s a shame we don’t get to see more of Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch plays him in one short scene) as the clash in styles between he and his activist colleague could’ve added another layer to the film’s fairly cut-and-dry morality. Henry G. Sanders’ heartbreaking turn as a pained grandfather is as affecting as anything else on screen. Unfortunately Tim Roth hams it up a too much as the Governor of Alabama, his performance lacking somewhat in authenticity when pitted up against the others.

As alluded to previously, there are a few heavyweight vocal diatribes laced throughout the film but DuVernay smartly avoids employing the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Instead the material is fresher and Oyelowo is afforded the chance to inject less high profile dialogues with his own portentous verve. Thus there’s never a preachy air but rather a story bound by the bluntness of immorality, one that holds a mirror up against an inconceivable blotch on our history whilst also hauling shocking relevance today.

Despite the obvious humanity failure on display, DuVernay manages to avoid the gloominess of the subject and instead directs with spirit. A bubbling, soulful soundtrack compiled by Jason Moran — which reminded me of a Coen/T-Bone Burnett concoction, oddly — gives energy to proceedings. This vibrant approach means when the Selma to Montgomery protest marches from which the film pivots occur, their impact is heightened. The notorious Bloody Sunday walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is harrowing in its depiction but also sublimely executed; raw brutality is interspersed with a white reporter’s increasingly disturbed commentary and reactions of abhorrence from around America brought on by television broadcasts.

It might’ve been largely overlooked by awards shows but Selma isn’t a film that should be ignored by those who love accomplished filmmaking. Indeed, Ava DeVernay’s moving dramatisation of oppression in society fifty years ago reaffirms a life lesson that some are failing to abide by even in 2015. For that reason alone Selma is a film worth seeing.

Selma - David Oyelowo

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (c): Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, StudioCanal