Talking Movies

March 4, 2018

Why shouldn’t Fast & Furious 8 win the Best Picture Oscar?

The obvious answer is because it wasn’t nominated, but there’s an awful lot to be said about that obvious fact.

George Bernard Shaw once complained, after hearing one too many twits at dinner parties dismissing Wilde as facile, that he seemed to be the only man in London who could not sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will. Fast & Furious 8 would, Vin Diesel promised, star Dame Helen Mirren and win the Oscar for Best Picture. It achieved one of those impossible missions. And probably the one more worth achieving. Can one say that Fast & Furious 8 was not nominated for Best Picture because it was facile? Surely not, because, like Wilde, if it was really that easy then every studio would be able to make their own Fast & Furious at will, and they cannot. This film saga has liberated itself from realism, probability, physics, logic, and continuity in a manner that defines gleefulness. The only people who can save the world are petrol-heads, people escaping explosions or jumping off bridges or falling cars can always land just where someone is driving to pick them, cars can fly between and through and then between skyscrapers, and again cars can fly between and through and then between skyscrapers, the State is welcomed into the family after murdering one of the family because of insinuations that he has a forgiveness-worthy back story. This is glee incarnate.

And glee does not win Oscars.  Fast & Furious 8 was not nominated for Best Picture for the same reason that The Dark Knight was nominated on the understanding that nobody was to actually vote for it. One of my regular theatre cohorts dropped the Freudian slip/zinger “The Dark Knight is great but obviously it wouldn’t the Oscar” when discussing Fast 8 and the Oscars. Think about that, a film is great, but obviously it can’t win the Oscar. Why? Well, because it’s just, um, too popular… A mantra here at Talking Movies is that is what good ought be popular, and what is popular ought be good. That would ring alien to Oscar voters, and that’s not my opinion, it’s an empirically observable trend.

Consider the 1980s. Here are the films that topped the North American Box Office and the films that were awarded Best Picture year by year:

1980 The Empire Strikes Back

1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark

1982 E.T.

1983 Return of the Jedi

1984 Beverly Hills Cop

1985 Back to the Future

1986 Top Gun

1987 Three Men and a Baby

1988 Rain Man

1989 Batman

 

1980 Ordinary People

1981 Chariots of Fire

1982 Gandhi

1983 Terms of Endearment

1984 Amadeus

1985 Out of Africa

1986 Platoon

1987 The Last Emperor

1988 Rain Man

1989 Driving Miss Daisy

Only Rain Man won both the commercial and Oscar stakes, but some of the others were damn close. Ordinary People was 11th, Chariots of Fire 7th, Gandhi 12th, Terms of Endearment 2nd, Amadeus 12th, Out of Africa 5th, Platoon 3rd, The Last Emperor 25th, and Driving Miss Daisy 8th at the North American box office in their year of release.

Consider the 1990s, when two films topped the North American box office and were crowned with a Best Picture Oscar on their lap of honour.

1990 Home Alone

1991 Terminator 2

1992 Aladdin

1993 Jurassic Park

1994 Forrest Gump

1995 Toy Story

1996 Independence Day

1997 Titanic

1998 Saving Private Ryan

1999 The Phantom Menace

 

1990 Dances with Wolves

1991 The Silence of the Lambs

1992 Unforgiven

1993 Schindler’s List

1994 Forrest Gump

1995 Braveheart

1996 The English Patient

1997 Titanic

1998 Shakespeare in Love

1999 American Beauty

Oscars were still going to reasonably popular films. Dances with Wolves was 3rd, The Silence of the Lambs 4th, Unforgiven 11th, Schindler’s List 11th, Braveheart 18th, The English Patient 19th, Shakespeare in Love 18th, and American Beauty 13th at the North American box office in their year of release. But the Weinstein campaign that successfully prevented the seminal, serious, and popular Saving Private Ryan from taking the Oscar in favour of their slight but aggressively campaigned for confection bode ill.

Consider the 2000s, and you’ll see the people’s choices at the North American box office getting worryingly and increasingly ever further from the Oscar’s choices.

2000 How the Grinch Stole Christmas

2001 Harry Potter 1

2002 Spider-Man

2003 The Return of the King

2004 Shrek 2

2005 Revenge of the Sith

2006 Pirates of the Caribbean 2

2007 Spider-Man 3

2008 The Dark Knight

2009 Avatar

 

2000 Gladiator

2001 A Beautiful Mind

2002 Chicago

2003 The Return of the King

2004 Million Dollar Baby

2005 Crash

2006 The Departed

2007 No Country for Old Men

2008 Slumdog Millionaire

2009 The Hurt Locker

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The Oscars now start to veer sharply away from reality… Gladiator was 4th, A Beautiful Mind 11th, Chicago 10th, Million Dollar Baby 24th, Crash 49th, The Departed 15th, No Country for Old Men 36th, Slumdog Millionaire 16th, and The Hurt Locker 116th at the North American box office in their year of release. Where The Last Emperor at 25 had been an outlier in the 1980s when all other 9 films placed 12 or higher, now we find Million Dollar Baby at 24, and then beyond it Crash, No Country for Old Men, and The Hurt Locker. Where in the 1990s only 4 films placed lower than 12, now only 4 films placed 12 or higher – something is definitely up.

Consider the 2010s, a decade in which the Oscars have for eight years ostentatiously disdained the North American box office.

2010 Toy Story 3

2011 Harry Potter 7

2012 The Avengers

2013 Catching Fire

2014 American Sniper

2015 The Force Awakens

2016 Rogue One

2017 The Last Jedi

 

2010 The King’s Speech

2011 The Artist

2012 Argo

2013 12 Years a Slave

2014 Birdman

2015 Spotlight

2016 Moonlight

2017 The Shape of Water (?)

edward-norton-and-michael-keaton-in-birdman

Oh dear… The King’s Speech was 18th, The Artist 71st, Argo 22nd, 12 Years a Slave 62nd, Birdman 78th, Spotlight 62nd, Moonlight 92nd, and (sic) The Shape of Water 46th at the North American box office in their year of release. Remember the good old days in the 1980s when The Last Emperor at 25 had been an outlier as all the other films were placed 12 or higher? Remember the 1990s when only 4 films placed lower than 12? Or the 2000s when 4 films placed 12 or higher? Now only 1 film out of 8 has even broken into the top 20, and 5 films out of 8 couldn’t even crack the top 50.

What is good ought be popular, and what is popular ought be good, clearly has no currency as a mantra for the Oscar voters.

Bret Easton Ellis on his Podcast has persuasively trashed the Oscars from their inception as a ruse to pretend that the Hollywood studios were interested in art not money by parading a social conscience and worthy/boring movies for public notice. Talking Movies some years ago argued the Oscars were out of step, with many awards effectively do-overs, such as James Stewart winning Best Actor for The Philadelphia Story not Mr Smith Goes to Washington. But the Ellis verdict doesn’t sit with the notion in this piece that films which top the North American box office were crowned with a Best Picture Oscar on their lap of honour. Boxofficemojo.com only has detailed figures going back to 1980, the less documented Filmsite.org has errors that render it unreliable, so we’re forced to Wikipedia to allow us tentatively examine if there is a basis for saying that the biggest film of a year once customarily won the biggest Oscar prize, not just occasionally.

1930 Tom Sawyer

1931 Frankenstein

1932 Shanghai Express

1933 Cavalcade

1934 Viva Villa!

1935 Mutiny on the Bounty

1936 Modern Times

1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

1938 Alexander’s Ragtime Band

1939 Gone with the Wind

 

1930 All Quiet on the Western Front

1931 Cimarron

1932 Grand Hotel

1933 Cavalcade

1934 It Happened One Night

1935 Mutiny on the Bounty

1936 The Great Ziegfeld

1937 The Life of Emile Zola

1938 You Can’t Take It with You

1939 Gone with the Wind

 

 

1940 Rebecca

1941 Sergeant York

1942 Mrs Miniver

1943 For Whom the Bell Tolls

1944 Going My Way

1945 The Bells of St Mary’s

1946 Song of the South

1947 Unconquered

1948 The Red Shoes

1949 Samson and Delilah

 

1940 Rebecca

1941 How Green Was My Valley

1942 Mrs Miniver

1943 Casablanca

1944 Going My Way

1945 The Lost Weekend

1946 The Best Years of Our Lives

1947 Gentlemen’s Agreement

1948 Hamlet

1949 All the King’s Men

 

1950 King Solomon’s Mines

1951 Quo Vadis

1952 The Greatest Show on Earth

1953 The Robe

1954 Rear Window

1955 Cinerama Holiday

1956 The Ten Commandments

1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai

1958 South Pacific

1959 Ben-Hur

 

1950 All About Eve

1951 An American in Paris

1952 The Greatest Show on Earth

1953 From Here to Eternity

1954 On the Waterfront

1955 Marty

1956 Around the World in 80 Days

1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai

1958 Gigi

1959 Ben-Hur

 

1960 Spartacus

1961 West Side Story

1962 Lawrence of Arabia

1963 Cleopatra

1964 My Fair Lady

1965 The Sound of Music

1966 The Bible

1967 The Graduate

1968 2001: Space Odyssey

1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

 

1960 The Apartment

1961 West Side Story

1962 Lawrence of Arabia

1963 Tom Jones

1964 My Fair Lady

1965 The Sound of Music

1966 A Man for All Seasons

1967 In the Heat of the Night

1968 Oliver!

1969 Midnight Cowboy

1970 Love Story

1971 Fiddler on the Roof

1972 The Godfather

1973 The Sting

1974 Blazing Saddles

1975 Jaws

1976 Rocky

1977 Star Wars

1978 Grease

1979 Kramer vs. Kramer

 

1970 Patton

1971 The French Connection

1972 The Godfather

1973 The Sting

1974 The Godfather: Part II

1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

1976 Rocky

1977 Annie Hall

1978 The Deer Hunter

1979 Kramer vs. Kramer

Now then, while there are a lot of boring/worthy films crowding out crowd-pleasers in those years, my impression wasn’t entirely unfounded. In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s the Best Picture Oscar went to the North American box office champion a regulation 3 times per decade. In the 1960s and 1970s that rose to a regulation 4 times per decade. And then from 1980 to 2018 reverse all engines: instead of 4 times per decade, it has happened 4 times in 4 decades. Something has changed… The Dark Knight would probably have picked up the Best Picture Oscar had it been a film of the 1960s or 1970s, been as great as it was, and been as popular as it was. Unfortunately it arrived a truly obscurantist time for the Oscars, as the very next year the Oscars suckered viewers by nominating Avatar, a genuinely phenomenally popular film, and then awarding the Oscar to The Hurt Locker, which set a new record for unpopularity; being the 116th most popular film at the North American box office in the year of its release. You have to go to the second page of the 2009 statistics on Boxofficemojo.com to find it.

What seemed a deliberate slap in the face to the audience set up this current decade’s obstinate obscurantism and has reaped the appropriate result, fewer and fewer people watching. Now, one shouldn’t automatically equate popularity with artistic merit, but I can’t see that Fast & Furious 8’s glee is completely alien to 1963’s Oscar-winner Tom Jones, nor can I see that its crowd-pleasing is markedly different to 1976’s Oscar-winner Rocky. If it is well-crafted and pleases so many people globally why is it treated like the damn plague? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to announce that the winner at the North American box office would automatically be given the Best Picture Oscar? Or that the nominees for Best Picture would simply be the top 10 films at the box office? Instead the Oscars wring their hands: Why is nobody watching? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the presenters not young and hip enough? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the presenters too young and hip? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the nominations not diverse enough? (Nobody saw the movies) Yes! We must make the voters more diverse to produce more diverse nominations, that will make people watch, yes? (No, nobody saw the movies)

The Oscars have tied themselves into knots responding to vitriolic campaigns about their supposed racism lest, in the pompous Guardian terminology, they become increasingly insular and irrelevant if they ignore these sorts of institutional biases. And yet, even just going with the rigorously documented last 4 decades, the Oscars have already demonstrably become insular and irrelevant over these recent decades by becoming like a snooty waiter who when asked what’s good on the menu, laughs and says “Well, we have some fine fare for ourselves in the kitchen, but that’s not for the likes of you, eat the slop you’re given”, and clearly have no intention doing anything about that. It’s almost comical after the viewing figures turn out poorly every year to see them scrabble for any and all solutions except the actual, obvious one: nominate popular films, and not just for show, to win, like in the 1970s.

It might concentrate a few minds in Hollywood to automatically give the Oscar to the box office winners, because if you don’t value your stock in trade, and thereby show your contempt for your audience, how exactly do you expect the audience to feel about that – it’s pretty remarkable to expect them to tune in in their billions to watch you slap yourself on the back for movies nobody saw because in large part nobody wanted or would want to see them. It might also make global blockbusters a bit better to have people not simply start shooting with a shoddy script because they know all they need is CGI visuals when this is going to sell mostly in foreign language markets. The decline of the North American box office in its importance to Hollywood is fodder for a whole series of posts, but re-attaching the Oscars to domestic popularity might work on ego if pride is not enough to get people to stand over their work for the masses.

Fast & Furious 9 needs to win the Best Picture Oscar as a grand apology for the ridiculous conduct of the Oscars for many, many years. Make it happen, Hollywood.

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January 23, 2015

A Most Violent Year

1981 was the worst year on record for violent crime in New York City, and that threat hangs over director JC Chandor’s absorbing period drama.

A-Most-Violent-Year-5

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is a driven entrepreneur in the business of supplying the oil that gets New York thru its winters. He is buying a coveted piece of real estate from a Hasidic dynasty, but needs an awful lot of money to cover the sale or he loses his huge deposit and the tract of land; and with it the chance to trump his rivals. But things are unravelling. The government in the form of Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is ready to indict his business practices, somebody – possibly his rivals Peter Forente (Alessandro Nivola) and Gleen Fleshler (Arnold Klein) – are hijacking his trucks and stealing his oil, his protégé Julian (Elyes Gabel) has been severely injured in one of these jackings, and Teamster Peter Gerety (Bill O’Leary) is threatening a strike if Abel doesn’t arm his vulnerable fleet of drivers.

A Most Violent Year despite the menacing title isn’t a violent film. But from the outset, when you realise that driving a truck thru a toll-booth can lead to getting jumped, it has an unnerving tension. JC Chandor sets his film in 1981 New York, and seemingly sets out to replicate the 1970s New Hollywood in doing so. Frank G DeMarco who shot Chandor’s previous films Margin Call and All is Lost with a crisp clarity is replaced as cinematographer by Bradford Young. I raved about Young’s atmospheric under-lighting of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and here he channels 1970s DP Gordon Willis (aka Prince of Darkness) for rich, underlit interiors of browns and dark gold. And if certain scenes look like The Godfather then Oscar Isaac is on the same wavelength as a certain Pacino quality comes off his performance.

But this is Michael Corleone determined to remain on the straight and narrow. Abel’s wife Anna (Jessica Chastain in 1980s mobster moll mode) is the daughter of a connected man, but Abel is adamant that he wants to win by staying clean. Such morality confuses his attorney Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), who foresees disaster if Abel doesn’t learn to play dirty in a bent town. The control on display by writer/director Chandor is intimidating. This is a very precise film. Even action scenes, like a thrilling truck chase in a tunnel, feel exacting; and a foot-chase along a spaghetti junction with a steadicam recalls Marathon Man. But, as with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, there’s a point at which this Biskind-led valorisation of New Hollyood becomes crippling. How can you make it new, as Pound demanded of art, if you’re in thrall to making it like they did in 1975?

Chandor is an intriguing film-maker – he’s made three films, all wildly different, but each time characterised by singular vision.

4/5

September 5, 2012

Lawless

Director John Hillcoat reunites with his The Proposition screenwriter Nick Cave for another brutally violent piece of period film-making about savage brothers.

Virginia in 1931 finds the real-life Bondurrant brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy), Jack (Shia LaBeouf), and Howard (Jason Clarke) thriving in the wettest county in Prohibition America. Boardwalk Empire’s bootlegging looks understated by comparison with the Christmas tree appearance at night of this locale as illicit stills fire up to make liquor with the full conniving permission of the local law. A tough federal agent Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives to stamp out bootlegging, or rather restrict it to those who pay off the new and viciously corrupt DA. Local legend Forrest is unwilling to do so, and, being reckoned indestructible, doesn’t think Rakes can force his hand. But when Rakes declares war Maggie (Jessica Chastain), the new waitress at the Bondurrant diner, and Jack’s polio-stricken friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan), as well as Jack’s girlfriend Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) are more vulnerable targets…

John McGahern said that fiction operated under the burden of having to be plausible, when life could be as implausible as it liked because it was real. Despite being based on a true story it is implausibility that sinks this film. What appears to be a huge shock killing, in a scene worthy of The Godfather, transpires to be a truly bizarre refusal to shock. The finale is then marred by the equally unlikely survival of another patently fatal injury. Cave inserts some delightful touches in the soundtrack, listen for the bluegrass version of The Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat’ sound-tracking a bootlegging montage, and his interesting collapsing of time with the new preacher’s flock, who could as easily be a flock from the 1860s, is reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. This film’s problems, however, largely stem from his screenplay.

Lawless is inhabited by ciphers rather than characters. Jason Clarke’s Howard is totally undeveloped, while an oddly-made-up Guy Pearce is underused as a psychotic dandy. Gary Oldman’s gangster Floyd Banner really only has three scenes, as if his sole purpose was to remind us, with a machine-gunning scene and a good rant, that Oldman used to be the crazy villain of choice once. Hardy’s character is given to grunting rather than talking, and, while Hardy actually makes this expressive, it leads to a ridiculously gratuitous scene with Jessica Chastain which feels like a dramatic jump-start for a romance Cave couldn’t be bothered to write. And that’s before the film loses interest in Forrest in favour of young Jack’s attempts to both romance the preacher’s daughter Bertha and outdo Forrest in the bootlegging stakes with the help of his friend Cricket who has an unexpected talent for souping up car engines…

Lawless prioritises unrelenting violence over character development and leaves very good actors trying to flesh out characters the script has left un-nuanced.

2.5/5

July 18, 2011

The Movies aren’t Dead, they just smell funny – Pt I

Mark Harris’ GQ article The Day the Movies Died has caused quite the stir this year.

Harris makes a number of interesting points in his article, which I’ll get to in Part II, but he also adopts a number of poses which I’ve criticised in the past. I was infuriated by the speciousness of his opening salvo which characterises the present as the nadir of cinema. His characterisation of the studio response to Inception is entertaining but his clinching quote “Huh. Well, you never know” isn’t real; it’s a characterisation by him of the studio response. I could rewrite that entire paragraph to end with my Groucho & Me in-joke producer character Delaney wailing “I don’t get it. I saw that movie twice and I still don’t understand it. I couldn’t even get a single trailer to properly explain it, according to people who understood it, so why did people go see it?”, and it might be just as accurate albeit more generous. If I added “And why did they see Inception and then boycott Scott Pilgrim?” it would be even more accurate. What’s frustrating is that Harris is better than this. He quotes uber-producer Scott Rudin, whose warning of the danger of betting on execution rather than a brand name is exactly what led to the studio shrug at Inception that Harris misinterprets. Christopher Nolan is due a disaster at some point. Every director, writer, playwright, musician, artist will make a screw-up of epic proportions at some point. Would you like to have to explain to your shareholders how you bet $300 million on it not being at this particular point? There is no point in making a movie no one will want to see. Even when execution is perfect, as in the case of another whack-job concept from last summer, Scott Pilgrim, people may just not go.

Harris almost destroys his argument by the way he makes it. It’s an extremely cheap shot to list movies coming out in summer 2011 and summer 2012, not by their titles but by de-contextualised sneers based on their sources, before footnoting what the films are so that you can’t easily check which sneer corresponds to which film. This is the snobbery I questioned in my Defence of Comic-Book Movies run riot, and is incredibly inane bearing in mind that The Godfather would be ‘pulp fiction crime novel’, Gone with the Wind – ‘airport novel historical romance’, Casablanca – ‘failed stage play that couldn’t even get staged’ and The Empire Strikes Back – ‘sequel to a kids sci-fi movie’. Harris’ tactic can devastate 2011’s attractions when they’re listed as adaptations of comic-books, a sequel to a sequel to a film devised from a theme-park ride, two sequels to cartoons, adaptations of children’s books, and a 5th franchise instalment. But shall we parse that approach to listing Green Lantern, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Winnie the Pooh, The Smurfs, and Fast & Furious 5?

The underlying assumption is that comic-book movies are rubbish because comic-books are rubbish. Never mind that Green Lantern was an enormously risky undertaking when he’s just complained Hollywood doesn’t take risks – I’ve read Green Lantern comics, no one else I know has, and many consider him to be the most ridiculous character in the DC Universe – a position tantamount to saying that execution doesn’t matter, only the source material, which is patent nonsense. Sneering at POTC’s origins is embarrassingly 2002; POTC 4 should have been sneered at because POTC 3 was an endless joyless bore that forgot everything that made POTC1 such fun. Sequels to cartoons are not intrinsically bad, something Harris unwittingly demonstrates by yoking together sequels to a charming animation and an unbearable animation. If Winnie the Pooh has no right to exist because it’s an adaptation of a children’s book we must also blacklist Babe and Watership Down, while The Smurfs is almost entirely dependent on execution. Any source can be good or bad, depending on the execution. Stephen Sommers could direct War and Peace and it would be awful, and titled War. PG Wodehouse didn’t apologise for knocking out another Jeeves & Wooster novel when he thought of an amusing storyline for them, and Fast & Furious 5 isn’t bad because it has 5 in the title – what is this, numerology?

Harris criticises summer 2011 for not having an Inception type wildcard. But does he really think people have concepts like Inception every day? What was the blockbuster people grasped for as a reference point for Inception? The Matrix. So, it only took 11 years thru the alimentary canal, as Harris puts it, for the success of the Wachowksis’ whack-job high-concept blockbuster to produce another successful whack-job high-concept blockbuster. But the lack of Inception in Space in the summer 2012 slate informs his dismissive roster-call whose lowlights are The Dark Knight Rises being a sequel to a sequel to a reboot of a comic-book movie, and Breaking Dawn: Part II being a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to an adaptation of a YA novel. Harris’ logic appears to be (a) directors have no right to film all of a multi-novel cycle or (b) artistic integrity demands the cinematic Twilight story be left hanging. Neither of which persuades, while dismissing Nolan’s Bat-finale in such ludicrous fashion purely because of a dislike of comic-books undermines all his judgement calls.

Harris semi-apologises that some of these movies will be great, but surely he knows this apology is defeated by his prior cleverly contrived presentation of an avalanche of stupidity heading towards the multiplexes? He quotes a studio executive lamenting: “We don’t tell stories anymore.” Well, Hollywood does tell stories, the problem is the screenwriting is apparently done by jaded supercomputers… The Dark Knight astounded because of its sense of creeping unease that this could go anywhere. I praised Win Win for the same quality. Nolan and McCarthy are serious writer/directors and there will always be enough such ‘auteurs’ to make a crop of quality films every year. The question is whether studio tactics, counter-productive market research, lazy CGI, and a hype machine eating itself are all working against cinema by lowering the standard journeymen film-makers operate at…

June 15, 2011

Top 10 Father’s Day Films

Heroes tend to be portrayed as lone wolves, and families rarely interest Hollywood unless they’re psychotic, but here’s a list of men who made the protagonists what they are, and the complicated bonds that gave them the self-confidence to individuate. Joss Whedon defined Mal in Firefly as being a terrific (surrogate) father for Simon and River in contrast to their actual father, because he wasn’t just there and terrific when it was convenient for him, he was sometimes great, sometimes inept, but always there. There’s too much written about surrogate fathers in the movies (read any article on Tarantino’s work) so I thought I’d mark Fathers’ Day with a top 10 list of films featuring great biological dads and great complicated but loving father-son bonds.

Honourable Mentions:
(Inception) The moment when Cillian Murphy opens the safe and tearfully discovers his father held on to Cillian’s childhood kite as his most treasured possession is an enormously powerful emotional sucker-punch of post-mortem father-son reconciliation.
(The Day After Tomorrow) Dennis Quaid excels as a father who was always around but half-distracted by work, who makes good by braving death in a quest to rescue his son from a snowpocalyptic demise.
(Twilight Saga) Bella Swan’s taciturn relationship with her small-town dad, who she only ever holidayed with and who embarrasses her, slowly blossoms as he steps up to the parenting plate with some hilariously comedic unease.

(10) Boyz N the Hood
Before he got trapped in a zero-sum world of directing commercial tosh John Singleton’s coruscating 1991 debut portrayed the chaos of gang-infested ghetto life in a world almost entirely lacking positive male role models. His script privileges the bluntly honest wisdom of Laurence Fishburne to such an extent that he basically becomes the ideal father for a generation of black men that Bill Cosby acidly noted was raised by women, for the exact same reason that Singleton has Fishburne deliver: it’s easy to father a child, it’s harder to be a father to that child.

(9) Kick-Ass
Yes, an odd choice, but filmic father-daughter double-acts of the Veronica & Keith Mars ilk are surprisingly hard to find. Nic Cage does an amazing job of portraying Big Daddy as an extremely loving father who has trained Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit-Girl to survive independently in a hostile world and to never need to be afraid. Matthew Vaughn mines an unexpectedly deep vein of emotional pathos from suggesting that such empowering mental training is a legacy that would keep Big Daddy ever-present in his daughter’s life even after his death. It takes Batman to raise a true Amazon…

(8) The Yearling
Gregory Peck’s Lincolnesque lawyer Atticus Finch was held up as the perfect father in Vanilla Sky, but I’d strenuously favour his father in this whimsical 1946 movie that at times feels it’s an original screenplay by Mark Twain. Peck plays the type of father who’ll let you run free, and make mistakes so that you can learn from your mistakes, but will always be there to swoop in and save the day when you get in over your head. This may be an idyllic portrait of the rural South but the father’s parenting style is universally recognisable.

(7) The Godfather
Vito grooms Sonny to succeed him and consigns Fredo to Vegas, but he loads all his hopes of respectability onto his favourite son, Michael. Eventually, in a touching scene in the vineyard, he accepts that the one son he tried to steer away from the family business is the only son truly capable of taking it on, and that he has to let Michael live his own life and become Don. The tragedy of Part II is that Michael makes his father’s dreams of assimilation his own, but his attempts to achieve them only destroy his family.

(6) Taken
Liam Neeson has been divorced by the grating and shallow Famke Janssen who has remarried for a privileged lifestyle, which she continually rubs Neeson’s face in. His relationship with his daughter, whose birthday he was always around for even if the CIA disapproved, has suffered from this disparity in wealth. But when she’s kidnapped hell hath no fury like an enraged father rescuing his little girl. Neeson’s absolute single-mindedness in rescuing his only child makes this an awesome action movie that uses extreme violence to prove the superiority of blue-collar values and earnest protective parenting over whimsical indulgence.

(5) Finding Nemo
Marlin, the clownfish who can’t tell a joke, is perhaps the greatest example of the overprotective father who has to recognise that maybe he’s projecting his own weaknesses onto his son; and that he has to let Nemo attempt something that he, Nemo, might fail at, if Nemo’s ever going to succeed at anything. This lesson is of course learned over the length of an extremely hazardous journey as Marlin displays his absolute dedication, to the point of self-sacrifice, to saving his only child. In a weird way this combines elements of both The Godfather and Taken

(4) Wall Street
“Boy, if that’s how you really feel, then I must have done a crappy job as a father.” Martin Sheen’s words to Charlie Sheen show just how far under the spell of Michael Douglas’ daemonic father figure Charlie has fallen at that point in the movie. Oliver Stone followed Platoon’s opposition between two surrogate fathers with a clash between the humble blue-collar integrity of Charlie’s actual father Martin and the unscrupulous white-collar extravagances of his mentor Douglas. In the end Martin manages to make jail-time sound like an exercise in redemption because he will never desert Charlie.

(3) Gone with the Wind
Scarlett O’Hara, the ultimate survivor, is very much her father’s daughter. The post-Famine Irish obsession with the land is transported to America, and with it a desire never to be beholden to other people. Add in her father’s furious and quick temper, which gets him killed, and huge pride, and nearly all the elements that make up Scarlett are complete. She adds a ruthless skill in fascinating malleable men to become the supreme movie heroine. When Rhett leaves her and she’s inconsolable, her father’s words echo thru her mind, and she returns triumphantly to Tara.

(2) Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade
“He’s gone Marcus, and I never told him anything at all”. Spielberg likes to joke that only James Bond could have sired Indiana Jones, and Henry Jones Jr despite his eternally fraught relationship with Senior really is a chip off the old block; hilariously evidenced in their sequential relationship with Allison Doody’s Nazi; and that’s why they don’t get along. In a convincing display of male taciturnity it takes both of them nearly losing the other for them to finally express how much they love the other, well, as much they ever will.

(1) Field of Dreams
“I refused to play catch with him. I told him I could never respect a man whose hero was a cheat”. Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella has to bankrupt himself building a baseball field in his crops and magick the 1919 White Sox back into existence to do it, but he finally manages to atone for his sins and play catch again with his deceased father. There are few better pay-offs to shaggy-dog screenplays than when Ray realises the last player on the field is his father, as he never knew him, a young and hopeful man, before life ground him down. If you aren’t in floods of tears by their lines, ‘Is this heaven?’ ‘No, it’s Iowa’, then you’re already dead.

June 10, 2011

What the Hell is … Method Acting?

It may seem obvious, as it’s an endlessly cited term, but I’d like to examine it because I’ve been musing for a few years now about a brace of BBC documentaries which seemed to imply there were two styles of acting filed under the one term…

 

Method Acting was invented by Constantin Stanislavsky who directed the first productions of Chekhov’s four major plays (The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard) from 1898 to 1904 at the Moscow Art Theatre. So far, so good – you couldn’t hope for a better provenance, and sure enough Stanislavsky wrote numerous books on the more realistic style of acting and staging that he had developed, which focused on emotional authenticity and hyper-detailed/intrusive sound design to suggest the surrounding world offstage respectively. Best to gloss over the fact that Chekhov thought him incredibly ponderous in his staging, and given to destroying comedic scripts by weighing them down with psychological realism. The Method made the leap from Russian into English and from Russia to America and, as taught by Lee Strasberg in the Group Theatre in New York, became a vogue in Hollywood in the 1950s. But what exactly is the Method? The late great Dennis Hopper, in a detailed BBC interview a few years ago spoke extensively of the Method as a way of imbuing acting with felt emotions thru the use of a magic box of memories. In short the actor playing a role mined his own experiences for emotional equivalents and thought of them to achieve the desired emotion rather than trying to imagine out of nowhere an authentic emotional response to a fictitious event.

So if Hopper was told onscreen that his father had died, Hopper the actor wouldn’t start crying because he had intellectually thought about the troubled father-son relationship of his character and conjured an appropriate level of sorrow, he would start crying because he would have thought of the death of a beloved relative and hammered into that memory until real tears started to flow – and the audience would never know that these real tears were being shed for a real person and had nothing to do with the character’s father. Hopper then clarified this point, saying that it was crucial for Method Actors to continually renew their magic box of memories with new emotional triggers because otherwise memories would cease to be vivid and fresh and the resultant acting wouldn’t be authentic but would simply be ‘just acting’.

 

Fine, that’s good Method Acting, and Brando, James Dean and Hopper all gave great performances in the 1950s, and seemed to redefine the lexicon of screen acting. Except…Marlon Brando wasn’t really a Method actor. Sure he mumbled onscreen like Dean, but not to somehow be in the moment in character, but because of a hilarious inability/refusal to learn his lines. In theatre other actors on Broadway spoke in awe of how he could use tiny details of stage-craft to convey sucker-punches of emotion, how Brando hunched over a counter with his legs wrapping around a bar-stool could convey a helplessness and a weak despair that could reduce an audience to tears. In other words he wasn’t Method acting, he was merely ‘just acting’ exceptionally well. Indeed Brando only spoke of using the Method for one film, Last Tango in Paris, and felt violated as a result of how much of his own life Bertolucci had tricked him (as he saw it) into revealing to millions of people by talking about his own parents when his character spoke about his troubled relationships with his parents. Brando vowed never to make himself that emotionally vulnerable again, and to never dig deep into his own soul for roles in that fashion ever again, before triumphantly boasting that in future he’d ‘just act’, and no one would be able to see that he wasn’t engaging on the Method level – purely because he knew he was that good at regular acting.

Where then does that leave Brando’s performances in Apocalypse Now and The Godfather? Physically changing his appearance to more closely resemble the role as written shows great commitment but it’s not strictly speaking Method acting in the Dennis Hopper magic box of memories sense. Brando’s dismay at his one use of the Method technique of using real emotional traumas mirrors Stanislavsky’s alarm at the hysterical reactions this technique was producing in some of his actors. Ironically Brando’s vow to merely ‘just act’ really well seems, in its emphasis on improvisation and physicality, to actually replicate Stanislavsky’s later emphasis on physical actions and improvisation rather than the magic box of memories to achieve subconscious authenticity. So, as Brendan Behan said of every Irish Republican endeavour thru history, the first agenda on the item was the split – another type of Method.

 

A type of Method exemplified by those 1970s show-offs Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, and their more recent confreres, Daniel Day-Lewis and Christian Bale. The fact that Al Pacino is the one member of the 1970s generation of Method actors who does the most theatre work, associated with Lee Strasberg, and can still be found at the Actors’ Studio even now, should give the answer to the question of where the dividing line between the two Methods lies. What Hoffman, De Niro, Day-Lewis, and Bale do is not Method acting as Stanislavsky originally understood it; certainly it’s hard to think of Chekhov doing anything but throwing his hands up in even more than usual horror/despair at their antics. Hoffman’s continual improvisations would destroy any Chekhov play, or indeed any play, hence his great difficulty in performing Macbeth on Broadway until another actor menaced him into just finding truth in the words Shakespeare had written for him… Indeed if you watch the extras on Marathon Man you can see Hoffman’s insistence on endless improvisation damn near destroying that film as it leads to endless deleted scenes where the other actors get so rattled by his in-character ramblings that their minds go visibly blank, because they can’t improvise, and they start nervously babbling but all they have to babble as dialogue are the screenplay’s plot points; whose premature disclosure is not advisable in a suspense thriller, and is the reason those scenes were unusable.

Pacino never worked the same way that De Niro and Hoffman did in their hey-day, and that Day-Lewis and Bale still do. What this quartet does can only work for film, it is utterly unsuited to theatre, and given that Stanislavsky was a theatre director perhaps we need a new term for this quasi-hysterical evolution of his later conception of the Method. I’d like to propose ‘Immersive Acting’ as a more accurate term, because that is what they do. They don’t bring their own experiences to the role as Dennis Hopper propounded with his magic box of memories, instead they take the role and bend their own life for a certain period of time to make it the same as the role; think of De Niro driving a taxi, Hoffman long-distance running, Day-Lewis learning the craft of butchery, and Bale losing a terrifying amount of weight; and then they play that, interpreting Stanislavsky’s emphasis on physicality as meaning the actor gaining subconscious authenticity in the role almost thru sheer muscle memory.

Immersive acting produces terrific performances, but I think it needs its own term to emphasise its peculiarity, its curiously self-promoting showiness, as if acting somehow consisted of weight-loss and skills-training. Colin Firth’s reaction to a phone call in A Single Man has nothing to do with physically immersing himself in his role, but it will break your heart. Not bad for ‘just acting’.

June 2, 2011

Conspiracy Cinema at the IFI

The IFI is presenting a season of films this June playfully titled High Anxiety. As ‘filmnoia’ these are meant to encapsulate the post-Vietnam post-Watergate zeitgeist of chastened 1970s America. Invariably there is much idolatry of the faultless New Hollywood that was tragically killed off by Star Wars in this positioning, which regular readers of this blog will know I have little truck with. The truth is there are some great films here, some over-rated but good films, and by far the best film is the most defiantly Old Hollywood: The Manchurian Candidate, which is oblique in its violence, sexually charged without being sexual, and whip-smart and heart-breaking in its scripting; the kind of thing that Hitchcock might have directed on one of his darker days at the office. Let’s briefly trot thru the line-up of films in the season.

The Manchurian Candidate June 1st & 2nd @ 6:25pm

The pick of the bunch is the first out of the blocks. Catch this tonight if you can. A superb Laurence Harvey stars as Raymond Shaw, an unpopular soldier who unexpectedly returns as a war hero from the Korean War to the political machinations of his terrifying mother Angela Lansbury, a witch-hunting Senator’s wife. Frank Sinatra is his old army c/o trying to work out the mystery of just what happened in Korea that fills his men’s nightmares, and director John Frankenheimer ratchets up the tension as George Axelrod’s script satirically skewers McCarthyism while breaking your heart along the way.

Klute June 4th & 5th @ 4.50pm

Sex, lies, and audiotape. Widely regarded as the film that legitimised profanity as a hallmark of serious movies Alan J Pakula’s 1971 exercise in paranoia sees Donald Sutherland’s enigmatic small-town PI John Klute travel to the big city to investigate the possible involvement of his friend with Jane Fonda’s nervous call-girl, and her possible involvement in his mysterious disappearance. The sound design is extraordinary as ambient noise swamps the possibilities of recording the truth, and this arguably established the house-rules for all subsequent 1970s filmnoias. Keep an eye out for Roy Scheider’s ridiculous outfit in his cameo as a pimp.

The Parallax View June 6th @ 3.00pm & 7.05pm

Alan J Pakula again, this time Warren Beatty is the lead in a 1974 thriller about a journalist investigating the possibility that the powerful corporation the Parallax Organisation has been behind not only a political assassination allegedly carried out by a conveniently dead lone gunman, but the clean-up murders of all the witnesses of the assassination. The dazzling and famous highlight comes when Beatty is subjected to a test to see whether he fits the criteria for maladjusted misfit that Parallax likes to use for its lone gunmen. You know, people like say Lee Harvey Oswald, or James Earl Ray…

Chinatown June 8th @ 2.10pm & 6.30pm

If Roman Polanski’s film was just a little less self-regarding it would be a far better film noir. Jack Nicholson gives a terrific performance as the cock-sure PI suddenly out of his depth against Faye Dunaway’s ambiguous femme fatale and John Huston’s monstrous patriarch, and there are wonderful moments and lines throughout. The enormous self-importance of Robert Towne’s screenplay sinks the film from its potential heights but is unsurprising given that he reputedly told anyone who would listen that the success of the 3 hrs plus The Godfather was entirely attributable to his dialogue polish on one 3 minute scene…

The Conversation June 9th @ 6.45pm

Francis Ford Coppola’s small personal movie between The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II stars Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert who finds a simple job developing into something much more disturbing, which eventually pushes him to the very limits of his sanity. Walter Murch’s sound design is extraordinary and best appreciated on a big screen, but I’ve never thought that Coppola’s script was good at making us care about the possible murder plot Hackman stumbles upon; the physical distance his camera maintains from the camera being sadly replicated as an emotional distance maintained by the audience from the characters.

Night Moves June 12th @ 5.00pm

A staple of late-night TV schedules (TV programmers can be very easily amused sometimes) this 1975 movie sees Arthur Penn and Gene Hackman reunite for a more subdued outing than their 1967 collaboration Bonnie & Clyde. Hackman is a defeated PI who discovers his wife in adultery, but is unable to satisfactorily resolve that situation or any other case he is working on. Perhaps a lament for the lost idealism of the New Frontier in the age of Watergate, or perhaps just another deconstruction of American myths by Penn that has aged far less well than his Bonnie & Clyde.

Rollover June 18th @ 3.15pm

Yes, Alan J Pakula for a third time. He never stopped making paranoia movies, and this 1981 effort may have had the amazing good fortune to become relevant thirty years after being dismissed as pessimistic and incomprehensible, because of the second defining event of the last decade, the credit crunch. Jane Fonda stars as a company director’s widow who romances Kris Kristofferson’s financial trouble-shooter, brought in to steady the corporation, who ends up involved in an extremely risky deal with Saudi Arabia that goes belly-up in such spectacular fashion that it leads to the meltdown of the entire Western economy.

Winter Kills June 25th & 26th @2.00p

Adapted from another book by Manchurian Candidate novelist Richard Condon, this thriller stars John Huston as Not Joe Kennedy, who after 19 years is told by his son Jeff Bridges that he finally has a good lead on who really assassinated Huston’s other son, the President Not John F Kennedy. Winter Kills had an extremely troubled production, with director William Richert having one of his producers murdered, so this is a welcome chance to belatedly see Huston chewing scenery in such a ripe scenario of what could be classified alongside Inglourious Basterds as the genre of fantasy historical revenge movies.

Missing June 25th & 26th @2.50pm

Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek star as the father and wife of an American missing in Chile, in acclaimed Greek director Costa-Gavras’ first American film. An attack on Henry Kissinger’s brand of realpolitik, here masked by hypocritical mutterings about truth, justice, and the American Way, this vividly recreates the feel of Pinochet’s Chile; a regime enabled by CIA connivance in the overthrow of Allende’s democratically elected socialist government. There is a sense of kicking a dead donkey about this as Nixon was already out of power, but Costa-Gavras at least clothes his political points in empathetic flesh and blood characters.

March 31, 2011

To the Lighthouse?

The court-case winding up the Lighthouse cinema has been adjourned until April 15th; but will it be mere stay of execution, as in the case of the Sunday Tribune, or a commutation of the sentence?

Last autumn I complained about Cineworld busting thru the psychological 10 euro mark for ticket prices. The Lighthouse was one of the cheapest cinemas that I listed in a price comparison of my regular haunts, but it was never a particularly frequent haunt of mine. Sure, I enjoyed seeing Let the Right One In, Moon, and Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1 there, but most of my trips to Smithfield were for press screenings. That’s because of the cinemas I frequent (Savoy, Screen, IFI, Cineworld, Dundrum, Ormonde) the Lighthouse is the furthest away from my suburban southside lair, and the hardest to get to as well: no direct bus link and a 20 minute walk between Luas lines. It was an impractical cinema to get to for a lot of Southsiders who weren’t near the Red line, and no doubt, like me, they were happy to stick with the IFI. Which is a pity as the Lighthouse is a gorgeous cinema aesthetically; even features that shouldn’t work, such as the quirky multi-coloured seats in one screen, do work, making it a notably comfortable cinema experience with a great atmosphere because it has its own distinct and loveably eccentric personality.

But its physical personality rather dwarfs its cinematic personality. It’s great at screening films long after their IFI run has ceased, witness Of Gods and Men running there since Christmas and Animal Kingdom still playing, and their regular re-releases such as The Godfather and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes have been excellent. But the Lighthouse didn’t really stand out as much as it would’ve if it had opened in 2002. The question which the existence of the Lighthouse always begged must now be asked – are there too many art-house cinemas in Dublin? To appropriate the language of politics, where Battle: Los Angeles is Sarah Palin and Submarine is Ralph Nader, just how big is the left-leaning vote? Since the explosion in the number of its screens in 2003, when it took over the adjoining IMAX, Cineworld has screened a huge amount of foreign films and American indie productions that would previously have only played at the IFI. This has pushed the IFI to the left of centre, witness Inception last year playing at the Savoy, Cineworld, and the IFI simultaneously. All too often the Lighthouse, Cineworld, Screen and IFI are redoubtably running the same films at the same times. Given that art-house cinema is a niche to start, can it really be fragmented across four city-centre cinemas and remain a profitable niche?

The dimming of the Lighthouse’s beacon of intelligent cinema would be lamentable, but if the economic logic is against it, it’s inevitable.

February 25, 2011

Oscar Schmoscar: Part II

The annual parade of pomposity and razzmatazz known as the Academy Awards lurches around again this Sunday, so here’s a deflating reminder of its awful track record.

The Academy has long shown a baffling inability to tell the difference between a good movie and a hole in the ground, and an artist and a hack. The Academy did not nominate David Fincher for Best Director for Seven, Fight Club, or Zodiac. The Academy did nominate him for Best Director for The Curious Case of Benjamin Boring Button. It has now nominated him again for The Social Network. There are two interpretations. The uncharitable one is that the Academy cannot tell the difference between an inane ‘drama’ and a crackling drama. The other is that they only noticed that Fincher could direct at all when he paid his dues with Benjamin Button by making a movie that ticked all the boxes for the Academy’s consideration, which resulted, by an odd coincidence, in a dire movie…

The Academy Awards have been skewed for seventy years because of their habit of giving the right people the wrong awards. The Academy gave Jimmy Stewart the Best Actor Oscar for The Philadelphia Story. Jimmy Stewart didn’t even give the best male acting performance in The Philadelphia Story never mind in all the films made in 1940. They were giving him the award because they felt guilty about not awarding it to him the previous year for Mr Smith goes to Washington. The Oscars have been chasing their tails ever since, just look at Nicole Kidman who really won for her performance in Moulin Rouge! but was given the award for her far less impressive turn in The Hours. Al Pacino, in the most famous of the Academy’s belated accolades, was finally given his Best Actor Oscar for the now forgotten display of scenery chewing that was Scent of a Woman. He was not given the Oscar for his roles in The Godfather, Serpico, The Godfather: Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, Sea of Love, or Glengarry Glen Ross, all of which would have been more worthy of such recognition.

The Academy has a terrible habit of getting stuck in default-setting for automatic nominations. In the mid-1990s it seemed that every attempt to compile a shortlist of original scripts ended in despairing wails that there were no original ideas in Hollywood anymore, until someone asked if Woody Allen had made a film this year. Another nomination to Woody, and then they only had 4 more scripts to find… Meryl Streep’s ridiculous run of nominations is further proof of this approach. The Academy may like to delude itself that all these nominations prove she’s a throwback to the Golden Age, however, Streep’s painfully mannered accents and overwrought performances made Katherine Hepburn feel impelled to let it be known that Streep was her least favourite modern actress; “Click, click, click” she said, referring to the wheels turning inside Streep’s head.

We don’t need the Academy to tell us that The Social Network was a riveting film. We don’t need them patronising Inception by giving it a Best Picture nomination because it was a box-office smash, but not nominating Nolan for Director thereby signalling they’re not taking it seriously because it’s mere entertainment.

In fact, we don’t need them, period.

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