No fence

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Some context. In less than a week, I’ve seen three major awards-season movies with significant African-American roots: Ava DuVernay’s stunning documentary The 13th (nominated for Best Documentary); the adapted Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play and Denzel Washington vehicle Fences (nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay); and Moonlight (nominated for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Score and Cinematography). By further coincidence, I also saw episode two of the History Channel’s 2016 remake of Roots, showing here for unfathomable reasons on BBC Four, and different from the 1977 original mainly in the more visceral depiction of its violence, which is a sign of the times.

But it’s Moonlight I want to talk about, as I believe it’s as close to a perfect film I’ve seen this year, and I think it’s going to be hard to beat. It’s behind a paywall but I’ve picked up via social media that Moonlight was trashed for effect by the just-passing-through film critic Camilla Long in the Sunday Times Culture section. The gist of her pasting seems to be that its story of a young black male coming of age in Miami has been made to appease a straight, white, guilt-ridden, middle-class audience. This is bullshit, and I speak as a straight, white, guilt-ridden, middle-class man. This charge devalues the fact that it is adapted from an unpublished stage play about a specific black experience by a black writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and directed by a black director, Barry Jenkins, and yet it is a film so universal it will appeal to any demographic. (She disparages the central character for lacking any defining characteristics beyond “sad” and “gay”. That we’re talking about a low-budget indie film whose central characteristics are being “sad” and “gay” but which has broken through to the mainstream feels like a massive breakthrough.)

Long’s misrepresentation also subtracts from the fact that the film’s cast is almost 100% black, a straightforward reflection of the milieu in which it’s set, and thereby not an “issue”. (No need for handy white racists to prop up the story of black kids dealing with prejudice that comes in many colours. Sadistic, whip-wielding, white plantation owners are not required on this particular voyage.) Moonlight is not a film about the African-American experience through which we are led by the colonial hand of a white interpreter. Nor is it a film that wrings its hands about the statistical odds stacked against a child born black in 21st century America. That Chiron, our protagonist, is born to a single parent who is herself an addict who turns tricks to feed her habit, and has to fend for himself on the streets and at school, is not the defining narrative. For Moonlight is a love story. It is also a “gay” love story.

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The love that dare not speak its name is, we intuit, even less verbose among black males in what we’ll call working-class neighbourhoods. You have to assume progress is being made every day in terms of sexual diversity as well as racial diversity, even in more “traditional” social groups, but the story of Chiron from school age to manhood is all about keeping a dark secret. (I’ll refrain from detailing the plot too much, as you’ll want to experience its revelations in the moment, without forewarning. There is one that’s simply devastating. You’ll know it when it comes.)

I had never heard of Barry Jenkins. He’s still pretty young, 37, but I never caught his first film, Medicine for Melancholy, in 2007. Moonlight nails him to the map. Sometimes it’s just timing. This is his time. Arriving, as it does, in an America of #BlackLivesMatter and reinvigorated prejudice of all kinds, Moonlight shines especially brightly and beautifully. (You can see from the stills that it’s a picture to behold – cinematographer James Laxton has also been working for years, but this is his calling card – but its often moonlit, often sun-bleached beauty is played for sincerity and irony, aesthetically. What I mean is: even its violence, or the result of its violence, has a certain artistry. But it never detracts.)

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We have to commend the cast. Only the better established actors, Mahershala Ali (a mainstay on House of Cards) and Naomie Harris (one of our best known BME exports, and it’s a crowded field), have been nominated for major awards. I suspect the sublime Ali – playing paternalistic but conflicted drug dealer Juan – might take Supporting Actor on Oscar night. But while both are strong, it’s the unknowns who pump the blood through the film. Let’s hear it for Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, who cumulatively play Chiron; and for Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland (familiar to fans of The Knick), who give life to Chiron’s best friend Kevin. The casting is almost magical: the two acting trios look enough like each other to convince, but not enough like each other to distract. And each acts with the same relaxed, unforced poise. Kevin talks constantly, while Chiron keeps his own counsel (adult Kevin observes that he never says more than three words at a time). Both characters require care and attention to get right, and if the world was fair, all three could be nominated collectively for a single Oscar, or Bafta, or Globe.

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You might argue that no film is perfect. You might be right. But back to context. I saw Fences the day before I saw Moonlight, and without wishing to judge Fences too harshly (it, too, contains a performance worthy of accolade: Viola Davis), it feels almost pantomimic next to Moonlight’s grace and subtlety. Denzel Washington, directing himself, simply puts the camera down and points it at a Pulitzer-winning play. It’s not cinematic; it’s theatrical, and didactic. Jenkins never moves his camera without meaning, or subtext. Sure, its tracking shots could be dismissed as showing off, but the opening one, detailing Juan’s routine, checking up on a corner boy, asking about his mother, is surrounded by the camera, which spins around not for technical effect, but to reveal the wide open space of the dealer’s world: flat, bleached out, salt-flecked, while expressing the practical truth that a dealer needs to be able to see at 360 degrees. When a gaggle of schoolkids races past him suddenly, we feel his surprise; we didn’t see them coming either. (Jenkins cuts here to the boys, chasing through wasteland, and it’s only then that we see that it’s a pursuit, and a homophobic one. I cannot wait to see this opening sequence again.)

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Moonlight is a serious film, but not without humour, or hope, and certainly not one without tender mercies. It’s an acting and directing masterclass that’s all the things Camilla Long seems to think it isn’t: necessary, important, urgent, relevant. It’s also warm and sensual and streaked with tears.

Some fences are built to keep people out, some fences are built to keep people in, but Moonlight contains no clunky fence metaphors.

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The hopeful eight

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It was with some satisfaction that I belatedly watched Mad Max: Fury Road on DVD, thus putting myself in the position of being able to say I have seen all eight of the pale-faced Best Picture nominees at the 88th Academy Awards. I can thus now fruitlessly compare them. They seem like as accurate a barometer of this year’s crop (and thus last year’s movies), so I am about to do just that, although what I think should win is entirely theoretical, as I am not one of the 6,300 or so members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and thus hold zero sway in this regard.

What I think will win is also fluff. What do I know? I have feelings in my bones, and I am a seasoned Oscars watcher of many decades, so have some predictive form, but I don’t want to know what’s going to win. I’m glad about that. It would be boring. I like surprises. I actively want to be wrong. Despite being statistically made up of mostly old, white American men, the Academy is still capable of delivering a bookmaker-upsetting surprise; even causing a relative upset. I enjoy the start-of-year awards season and the resulting quality bottleneck, as I am usually entertained and exercised by its vagaries and waves. I relish the controversies the Oscars throw up. This year: lack of diversity. Meet the new controversy, same as the old controversy.

I don’t blame the august Oscar voters for Hollywood’s lack of diversity. Hollywood is to blame, with its deep-seated patriarchy and its demographic timidity, not to mention its unbreakable Plexiglass ceiling for women and the equivalent of “voter ID” for black actors, creatives and technicians. All of this bleeds into the reductive treatment of all Hispanics (sexy, smouldering, hot-tempered, etc. – it may be positive discrimination of a type, but it’s not so far round the dial from Trump’s rapists), although at least one of the Hopeful Eight was directed by a Mexican.

It’s the entertainment industry’s fault, not the mainly white, mainly male, mainly over-50 demographic of a club of movie professionals, which, by dint of inducting anyone who wins an Oscar and then has the ability to not die, means the Academy is full of people who aren’t black or Hispanic, and a vicious circle is hard to extract yourself from. The problem isn’t with the Oscars, or who wins them, but with American cinema itself, where people tend not to be of colour, or women, and especially not women of colour, like Jada Pinkett Smith, who is among those who’ve threatened to boycott the colourless Oscars ceremony. If I were a black actress, I’d kick up a right stink and then make damn sure I attended. Being invisible is playing into the racists’ hands.

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You keep hearing the truism that male Academy members “give the films to their wives to watch,” which may or may not explain the popularity of certain movies. I hesitate to make sweeping generalisations about what women or men want. Romantic comedies may be machine-tooled to appease women, but men also like them, and women also hate them. Equally, noisy action movies: aimed at teenage boys or men who wish they were still teenage boys, but not necessarily only appreciated by the intended gender or age group. The high nomination tally of Mad Max: Fury Road – which, by the way, is a “male” film by type (action, noise, explosions, petrol) but, interestingly, dominated as much by female characters as the eponymous male one – is a tonic. That it’s only really picking up “technical” awards (so named as if acting, writing and directing aren’t technical) – four wins out of seven at the Baftas for costumes, make-up, editing and production design – should not concern us. It’s doing well and it’s an action movie.

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Max is one of three Best Picture Oscar nominees whose poster is dominated by a woman’s face; also, Room and Brooklyn, both based on novels, one written by a woman, the other a man, one Irish-Canadian, the other Irish, which is a cheering ethnic skew. I first saw Brooklyn trailed at a tiny cinema in Bantry, County Cork, and felt the Irish love (I dislike being English and wish I was Irish). Though an Irish/UK/Canadian production by funding that’s set in Brooklyn and partly shot in Montreal, its Irish authenticity is deep, with the scenes set in novelist Colm Tóibín’s Enniscorthy also shot there, and only two of the principal Irish parts played by non-Irish actors (the bankable Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent). Since it’s about homesickness within the Irish diaspora in America, it could prick a few glands among the immigrant Academy members, but it’s not going to win.

Nor is Bridge Of Spies. I have no ill feelings towards it, but it’s a bit stolid and unsurprising. Cold War. Tom Hanks. Mark Rylance (not in it enough). Snow. Germans. Spies. It’s well enough made, but if it didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have to invent it. (Its score by Thomas Newman is actually something of a beaut, but it’s not the equal of Carter Burwell’s gorgeous score for Carol, which, by the way, despite being a good fit for the wives of the lazy male Academy members, looks to be this season’s big loser. I don’t really get why.)

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I admire Room; its stars, its writer (Emma Donoghue, adapting her own novel with precision), its director, another Irishman, Lenny Abrahamson. It will I think win Best Actress for Brie Larson, but it doesn’t feel like a Best Picture. Too gloomy. Too grubby. Too creepy. All the things I love about it. The Big Short, too, is a poor fit for traditional Best Picture thinking; I thoroughly enjoyed its manic energy, but I fear the financial crash and subprime mortgages will not sing in the minds of the panel. (“Aren’t we, like, in some kind of recovery?”)

If Best Picture is between any two films, it’s The Revenant (which I have raved about here) and Spotlight. I don’t think Ridley Scott’s The Martian is going to find much traction at the Oscars. I got it into it, but found it tonally disconcerting. Was it a drama? Was it a comedy? (It was canny of Fox to put it forward for the “Musical or Comedy” categories at the Golden Globes, where it picked up Best Film, thus unrealistically raising its producers’ expectations.) I wondered aloud if Matt Damon might pip Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor at the Baftas; that his have-a-go solo performance might sway our less macho voters. But no. There’s no beating Leo’s suffering; he’s a vegan who ate raw liver and raw fish for his art – give that man a statuette and the rest of the week off.

The Revenant is unassailable. There’s an outside chance – the “Crash wild card anomaly” (see: the year Crash beat Brokeback Mountain) – that Spotlight will beat The Revenant to Best Picture and break the Oscar algorithm. Tom McCarthy’s never going to win the Director category, as Spotlight is intelligent enough not to let the direction show (part of its consummate mastery), whereas The Revenant is something like a two and a half hour Oscar begging reel. Look! Natural light! It must have taken ages!

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I still harbour a tiny hope that Spotlight, having won Best Supporting Actor for Mark Ruffalo, might win Best Picture. It has all the hallmarks of one of those: true story, set in the past, talky, righteous, no sex, no violence (other than the violence wrought on children by priests, which we do not directly see), and an “issue” that bypasses partisan politics and shows that you have a heart. There are no shades of how much you revile paedophiles.

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As stated, I want to be surprised on Oscar night. I sort of was at the Baftas when Rylance won for Bridge Of Spies, although I suspect patriotism played its hand. (A resource in short supply when neither Tom Courtenay nor Charlotte Rampling found their way onto the Actor and Actress lists for 45 Years.) Hey, this time next year, the voting system may have been overhauled to address the existence of the past 50 years in civil rights, with Academy members who haven’t worked for the past ten years becoming ineligible to automatically vote. We already have gender-divided categories. What about categories graded for “colour”? It would make the Oscars as long and interminable as the Grammys, but perhaps it’s the kind of affirmative action the awards season needs.

Bear good

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I pity any film up against The Revenant at this year’s big awards. Not because I personally think it is an unassailable piece of filmmaking – although, incidentally, I do think that – but because it has that prevailing wind behind it already, the one that saw films as diversely deserving and undeserving as Shakespeare In Love, Gravity, Terms Of Endearment, The Artist, Amadeus, Kramer Vs Kramer, Gandhi, On The Waterfront, From Here To Eternity, West Side Story and Ben-Hur win big, and across the board, leaving all comers in their jet-propelled wake. As I always state for the record at awards season time: I prefer to be surprised on Oscar night (and Bafta night, and Golden Globes night), but a consensus can sometimes build, whether it’s within the Hollywood Foreign Press Association or the British or American Academies. If The Revenant does what I expect it to (and what it has already done at the Globes, with the big three in the Drama category all nabbed: Picture, Director, Actor), then its nearest rivals may find themselves heading for the exit, pursued by a bear.

I don’t often do this, but I have seen The Revenant twice. I saw it twice in the space of four days. I was so enraptured by its broad canvas, its artistic vision, its sodden tactility, its elemental power, and its on-the-hoof, let’s-eat-the-snow-right-here acting, I had to return to see how it felt when I knew what was coming. I have to tell you, foreknowledge is no witherer of its strange, ugly-beautiful magic. The only hope for the other big nominees is in the female categories, as the women in The Revenant do not get very much to do, it has to be said.

Put away the Bechdel test. It meets the first criterion: it must have at least two women in it. But not the second two: the women must talk to each other, about something besides a man. The film’s principal cast list contains two women: Grace Dove, who plays Leonardo Di Caprio’s deceased Pawnee wife, and Melaw Nakehnk’o, who plays Powaqa, the kidnapped daughter of an Arikara (“Ree”) tribal chief. The first is seen only in wordless flashback, where she is shot dead by a British soldier; the second is glimpsed being dragged off to be raped by a French trapper, then rescued by Leo, but empowered to exact her own poetic revenge on her abuser. You might applaud that outcome, but it takes Powaqa being enslaved and sexually assaulted for it to happen.

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I make no claims for the feminism of either the fictional or fictionalised 19th century menfolk in this western. Will Poulter and to an extent Domnhall Gleason play male characters with a moral compass, but by and large the American and English protagonists are a bunch of cavemen in furs with muskets and Bowie knives. Tom Hardy essays another venal baddie to add to Alfie in Peaky Blinders and both Krays in Legend; he is Leo’s nemesis, and very much a loner, out for himself, with no crumpled photograph of a sweetheart in his man bag. This is a rough, tough world of hunting, shooting, fishing, whoring and breaking things (in which sense: how very like our own Conservative cabinet). There is a fine tradition of independent and able women in westerns, but they tend to be subjugated in what is a deeply patriarchal world.

The Revenant makes no retrofitted liberal concessions to modern thinking, and in a way, why should it? These are violent men, raping the land and natural resources of indigenous people for profit. From this testosterone-stinking malaise, Leo’s Hugh Glass is as close as a Guardian reader as you could hope for: a principled man who married a Pawnee and had a “half-breed” son with her, risking disenfranchisement and worse for sleeping with the enemy. But his Pawnee empathy gives him a spirituality – and a drive to survive – that his peers perhaps do not possess. Their mistreatment of him forces him to live for revenge. The world of The Revenant brutalises even the most open-hearted. It’s like a war movie that’s really an anti-war movie; it can only be such by showing that war is hell.

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Aware of all of this, I was surprised at the vehemently negative response of trustworthy Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr. In a piece at the weekend, she unleashed these sentiments (having seen The Revenant before Christmas). Kicking off with objectively fair images of what’s in the film (“Ritualised brutality. Vengeful blood lust. Vicious savagery justified by medieval notions of retribution”), she then moves to undermine what is a serious film by calling it “the hottest blockbuster of the season … and yours for around £10-£15 this weekend at your local multiplex”. I assume she knows that not all films at your local multiplex are romantic comedies or Pixar animations. She quotes male critics (alright, too many national newspaper critics are male), who have praised the film’s “revenge, retribution and primal violence” and “unthinking, aggressive masculinity.” However, I don’t see this as a binary issue of male versus female, violent versus non-violent, blockbuster versus arthouse.

She does: “I’ll summarise the plot for you: man seeks revenge, man gets revenge. That’s it, basically, for two and a half hours, though there is a brief reprieve when you get to see Leonardo DiCaprio being mauled by a grizzly bear.” She counts the women onscreen, as I have done, but she misses out the silent squaw in a ruined encampment whom Will Poulter’s character feeds and leave alone, daring not to alert his aggressive “partner” Hardy to her presence. (She does not speak either, but the Native Americans we see seem to be men of few words and many thoughts.)

“The woman is not actually raped, of course,” Cadwalladr faux-complains. “She’s faux raped. Because this is what we call acting. And because The Revenant is what we call entertainment.” Who is calling The Revenant “entertainment”? It’s a fair question. It’s not the first noun I’d reach for. It’s an experience, maybe even an endurance, but was I “entertained”? By the spectacle, the scope and the thrill of the escape, certainly. But it’s tough going, this film. It’s not like a fairground ride, with sanitised ups and downs, it’s a slog. A wet, dirty, infected, sore, painful, blood-stained and spit-flecked assault course for the senses. It’s not boring, but it’s not a showbiz spectacular and there are few jokes or dance routines. To call it “entertainment” – as I rather suspect people in marketing aren’t even calling it – is to make a spurious point.

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I like Carole Cadwalladr’s writing, but she freeforms after this, saying that we “choose to pay to watch women being pretend raped rather than watching women being actually raped for free.” I’m not sure that’s a conscious choice for me. “Even the ending is ambiguous, and leaves many questions unanswered and issues unresolved. Nobody rides off into the sunset,” she correctly observes (in the Observer), thus undercutting her own sneer that The Revenant is “entertainment.” Oh dear. She speaks, disapprovingly, of a “well-oiled publicity machine of the type that fuels an Academy Awards clean sweep”, as if The Revenant isn’t entitled to pitch for recognition by its industry peers. Some Academy members may be disengaged enough to be “bought” by studio enticements, but most of these old, white men will only vote for a film because they liked it, now matter how old, white and male they statistically are. Many of them will still have freewill.

She mocks how “gruelling” the shoot is known to have been, and how “authentically” the actors “suffered”, belittling even that aspect with the aside, “They got a bit cold, apparently.” (Hey, either they suffered or they didn’t. If they didn’t, then the acting is even better.) The cinematography is “gorgeous,” she concedes, but, in conclusion, “the whole thing is meaningless. A vacuous revenge tale that is simply pain as spectacle. The Revenant is pain porn.”

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Putting a word before “porn” is a cheap trick. I should know, I’ve done it on numerous occasions. Certainly there is power in seeing pain acted if it’s done well, and it is done well. But is it pornographic? Leo’s mauled by a grizzly and bears the weeping scars, but this is clever makeup, aided by clever acting. (“Porn,” in the true sense, is sort of not acting, isn’t it? Otherwise customers would demand their money back.)  By the time she compares the artificial, acted violence with real violence, as seen in Isis videos, I was as lost as Glass. That Isis “lift” the techniques of Hollywood to make their nihilistic, barbaric point is not the fault of Hollywood. More people get killed in Gone With The Wind than in The Revenant. When she concludes that Isis “has seen what we want, what we thrill to, and given it to us,” she seems to want to make viewers of fiction feel in some way culpable for Islamic State. “The Revenant isn’t responsible for this,” she then points out, going back into the ring one more time to call a film she didn’t like “tedious” and “emotionally vacant.”

I found it to be otherwise. I would not argue that it’s a violent, masculine, macho film with little space for the input of women. But it is possible to watch it, with its sexual assault and brutal feuding, and not “enjoy” it in the way Carole Cadwalladr implies that we all do. (Unless she just means all men. It’s still inaccurate, if so.)

“Don’t pay £10-£15,” is her entreaty. Do, if you want to see an amazing piece of high-impact, naturally-lit, visually poetic cinema, is mine. And then you will have your own opinion.

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I hate you, butler

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I feel I ought to do the Oscar movies. I haven’t seen all of the big hitters yet, but I’m well on the way; pretty much, one Llewyn Davis short of a full house. First up: Northup. Steve McQueen’s third film, 12 Years A Slave, seemed poised to sweep all boards this season, having picked up a number of accolades at various prizegivings decided by circles, guilds and associations (for instance, from where I’m sitting, it seems to have beaten every other film to every award at the Florida Film Critics Circle in December, and you can replace “Florida” with “Iowa” or “Las Vegas” and get the same comprehensive result). And then the Golden Globes were distributed two weeks ago and 12 Years squeaked only one award out of seven nominations. True, it was for best motion picture (drama) and meant that McQueen and crew got to fill the stage as the TV credits rolled, but I can’t have been alone in expecting a clean sweep.

Having seen 12 Years just days before, I have to say I was glad that the Globes were so evenly distributed among the big players: American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, Wolf Of Wall Street, Blue Jasmine, Gravity, Her, Mandela and even the criminally overlooked All Is Lost, which picked up best score. In any year, I cross my fingers for a mixed bag of winners. I don’t like it when one film wins everything, whatever that film may be. I like surprises. I like upsets. I dislike sure things.

There’s no doubting the quality and ambition of 12 Years, but if it wins everything at the Oscars (and the Golden Globes at least hint that this might not be the case), my fear would be that it’s not the film but the abolition of slavery that’s being voted for.

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As you may know or remember, Hunger, McQueen’s debut, was my film of the year in 2008. I found much to applaud in his follow-up, Shame. And I take my hat off to him for moving so much further into conventional narrative cinema for 12 Years. As a black, London-born Briton of Grenadian blood who grew up at a time of great racial tension in the 70s and 80s, it’s not hard to see why it’s a personal film for him, even though it is a story about southern American slavery in the 1840s and 50s. And, like his previous work, it’s beautifully, artistically framed and confidently and movingly staged. It is a work of great power and adds another fine performance to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s CV. We hold these truths to be self-evident. And yet … it has unequivocal moral certainty on its side, and as such seems a slam-dunk with a modern, liberal audience, especially a white, liberal audience, and especially a white American liberal audience. I’m not saying it was an easy option – its depictions of unbearable, sadistic cruelty of an institutional, almost industrial kind are not for eating your dinner off a plate in front of a TV to – but it’s difficult to imagine anyone coming away from the experience wishing it had been less fair on the white plantation owners. Like the white apartheid South Africans in Mandela – another film whose morality comes in black and white – it wouldn’t be out of place to boo the screen at them.

I was fortunate enough to grow up with Roots on TV in the 70s. Regardless of the veracity of Alex Haley’s tale, its compelling narrative which took us from Africa to America, told a major historical truth. I was 12; I learned a lot. This is not to say I don’t need another fictionalised drama to tell me the same thing. But 12 Years A Slave tells the story of an educated, cultured freeman who is kidnapped and sold as a slave, which I felt we were supposed to be more indignant about than an African snatched from his homeland and shipped over. It veered towards those films set in Africa which always have a white protagonist so that, subliminally, white audiences will have someone to root for. Was Solomon Northup’s ordeal worse than the other slaves’ because he could play the violin, had visited Canada and used to wear a nice suit? The fact that the title reassured us throughout that after 12 years he would be free again took some of the sting out of it, for me.

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What, then, of American Hustle? I have always enjoyed the work of David O’Russell and can claim to have been in quite near the ground floor, having eyed his talent in Flirting With Disaster in 1996, his second feature. I’ll never hold him as dear as I do his contemporaries Alexander Payne, Paul Thomas Anderson or Wes Anderson, but Silver Linings Playbook was entertaining, and so is American Hustle. Is it an Oscar movie? That’s my question. Playing the 70s for cheap laughs – it opens with Christian Bale painstakingly glueing down his preposterous combover – is a fairly tired old sport now. It’s hard to imagine anyone topping Boogie Nights on that particular playing field. But in fictionalising a true story of private-sector confidence tricksters and an FBI sting, Hustle does boast a bit of content, a bit of story, to go with its hairstyles.

It’s hard to fault the sporting work by the principal cast: Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence (all logged with the Academy) and Jeremy Renner. You will enjoy seeing Louis CK in a meaty supporting part, too, plus an uncredited Robert De Niro atoning somewhat for his facile schtick parts, and Boardwalk Empire fans will be as chuffed to see Shea Whigham in a wig as they will be to see him in a boat captain’s whites in The Wolf Of Wall Street. The screenplay by O’Russell and Eric Warren Singer smart-mouths through some pretty complex grifting and triple-crossing, but at the end of the day, it’s a caper movie. So was The Sting, I know, and that was Oscar-approved, but I’m just a little bit niggled by the blanket adoration Hustle is getting from juries. Is life so bad in 2013-14 that we can only bear to watch films set in other eras, whether ones we remember or not?

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The Wolf Of Wall Street is Martin Scorsese’s first all-out comedy. (The King Of Comedy was about comedy, but closer to a tragedy?) Based on the real life of fraudulent “penny stock” trader Jordan Belfort and set during his rise and fall in the late 80s and 90s, it takes a fairly reprehensible individual working in an institutionally unsavoury sector and, through a winning (maybe even Oscar-winning) turn by Leonardo DiCaprio, turns him into if not exactly a hero, certainly someone you find yourself rooting for, against your better judgement. In this, and over a potentially wearisome three-hour running time, it cannot be faulted for holding its nerve. Talking to camera when he’s not rallying his white-collar troops like a cross between Gordon Gekko and Tom Cruise’s motivational speaker Frank T.J. “Respect the cock!” Mackey from Magnolia, DiCaprio somehow puts meat onto the bones of an appalling man doing appalling things with his even more appalling wingman Jonah Hill.

Foul-mouthed, misogynist, self-serving, dishonest, drug-addled, amoral, scheming, brutish, mercenary and at the very least seedy, these financial whizz-kids are no less confidence tricksters than Bale’s American hustlers and yet, working under the regulatory radar, they are almost Robin Hood figures in Scorsese and writer Terence Winter’s version of events. Theirs is a male business, and they behave in the most appallingly male ways. Women – and good luck being an actress in this movie – are commodities: whores, essentially, to be bought and sold and discarded. Sure, Belfort gets his comeuppance – they all do – with Kyle Chandler’s subway-riding CIA man constantly encircling with his friendly, squinty eyes and “sweaty balls”, but what makes Wolf Of Wall Street so compelling is that very eventuality. You know, just as you know Solomon Northup will soon not be a slave, the orgy cannot last. But you will it to carry on, such is the velocity of Scorsese’s film.

It’s pointless to have a favourite, but of the best picture nominees, I’m currently divided between Nebraska, Gravity and Wall Street. Gravity is what I call “pure cinema”. Nebraska is Alexander Payne revisiting his home state for an austerity comedy drama that tilts at The Last Picture Show for profundity and epic sweep. Wall Street dares to lionise the sort of casino-banker who arrogantly manhandled us into this recession and may forfeit Academy votes as a result. But it’s so rare to see a rollicking comedy duking it out with drama’s big boys. There are elements of comedy in Nebraska, Hustle, Philomena and – I detect – Her (another omission on my dance card), but none are all out. Wall Street is.

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Can I say a few words of support for this year’s great lost Oscar movie? All Is Lost, from JC Chandor, whose debut was the outstanding financial-crash fable Margin Call, is as “pure” as Gravity, and also about human beings adrift. In place of Sandra Bullock in space, we have Robert Redford’s solo sailor in the middle of the Indian Ocean. For both, all seems lost. I won’t confirm the outcome; needless to say, with a screenplay of few words, Chandor and Redford tell a tale that resonates down the ages: man versus the elements. Beginning with the unnamed captain’s message in a bottle, it works backwards eight days and walks us through his deteriorating pickle.

That All Is Lost was recognised with one Oscar nomination for best sound editing, and two Globe nominations for actor and score (the second of which it won), is a disgrace. Bafta ignored it altogether in its haste to garland American Hustle. (All hail the New York Film Critics Circle, which spotted that Redford was the year’s best actor.)

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Gravity has digital spectacle on its side, and Alfonso Cuarón may well deserve best director for what he has achieved within the strictures of that job description – I saw the film in 3D and 2D, and it works in both. But while Gravity pushes forward to infinity and beyond, in a sense All Is Lost delves backwards into analogue action spectacle. Robert Redford, the old man, and the sea, thrown together in the water tank built for Titanic, and, er, that’s it. I was gripped from one end to the other, with no notion of how it would play out. It’s probably just a coincidence that Captain Philips, more conventional still, should depict those in peril on the sea.

Tom Hanks stars in Columbia Pictures' "Captain Phillips."

Again, I was gripped. And it should be noted that the cinema showing I attended was potentially scuppered by a row of four disgraceful young kids who had bought their tickets with no intention of respecting the film and kept talking and changing seats throughout, destroying any mood skilfully constructed by Paul Greengrass, Tom Hanks and the crew. Staff were called to the screen on three occasions, the third by me, and at no point were these kids dissuaded of their approach, or threatened with expulsion; we complained afterward, for what it was worth. Captain Phillips‘ towering achievement was to grip and involve with all that shit going on. Bravo.

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The thing about Nebraska is that I knew what it was going to be like from the first stills, never mind the trailer. I am attuned to Payne’s melancholia and his penchant for men walking along by the sides of roads, and although I knew I’d love his hymn to the wide open spaces of the Cornhusker State, this does not diminish that love. I’d be more than happy if Bruce Dern – at 77 the same age as the snubbed Robert Redford – took best actor and made DiCaprio wait another year. It’s a Henry Fonda or a Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond, a Christopher Plummer in Beginners, a Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story, a John Wayne in True Grit, an Emmanuelle Riva in Amour … hey, a Jack Nicholson in Payne’s About Schmidt – the kind of part you have to earn.

I have yet to see Dallas Buyers Club, although I have been enjoying Matthew McConaughey’s renaissance and felt his energy in a cameo in Wall Street, so there’s little reason to doubt he’s on award-winning form as the HIV-positive Texan. Of the best actresses, Cate Blanchett is the best thing about Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, so my hopes are on her, with a soft spot too for Sally Hawkins are best supporting actress in the same, rich film. If Somalian limo driver Barkhad Abdi got best supporting actor for Captain Phillips, his first film, we could all go home happy: he’s electrifying.

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There’s a grumpy line that says we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about who wins the Oscars, or indeed any of the other statuettes and perspex doorstops. “When was the last time the best film of the year won the Oscar?”, the naysayers say, when not saying “nay”. As stated, I know for a fact that one of my favourite films of 2013 won’t win any of the major awards, because it is All Is Lost. Same goes for Inside Llewyn Davis, which is also locked out of the love-in and yet looks for all the world to be the best thing the Coens have done, if you like a bit of bleak medicine, and I do. I haven’t said much about Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, because it’s a pretty unremarkable film about a remarkable man, the least anyone could do with his lifestory, just as Ordinary Love is the least U2 could do for a theme tune. But for the song to earn a nomination and Idris Elba not is typical of the seemingly random nature of it all.

Hey, it’s my job to worry about the Oscars and to second-guess the proclivities of an organisation that, as of 2012, was 94% white, 77% male and with a median age of 62. Also, it’s quite good fun, isn’t it?

And at least they ignored The Butler.

Bondage: up yours!

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I hope it is not being too melodramatic to state that slavery is a cancer on the history of the United States of America. (Just as it is on any nation that shipped in Africans, or other foreigners, to do their dirty work, pressing them into forced servitude.) That the descendents of those slaves had to wait until the year I was born before they achieved full voting rights is a further stain on a nation that loves to call itself “great.” I speak, of course, as an Englishman by birth – a native of a country that has plenty to be ashamed of in its history, and as a nation in the present day; I also speak as one of the gender which caused most of the trouble, so I speak of this issue objectively and without any sense of moral superiority.

As you may know, Roots, the 1977 TV miniseries that famously addressed the issue of slavery head-on, and it is said, changed attitudes across America, was my favourite programme as a schoolboy. I was so moved by and invested in the freeing of the black African slaves, thanks to Alex Haley’s book (which I chose to receive at a middle school prizegiving), that I wrote many diary entries of the time in phonetic Southern African-American; hence, the notoriously inept compliment from a besotted 12-year-old white English abolitionist, “Roots is mah favourite programme.” (This is all in my own memoir, whose roots have never been contested in court, as Alex Haley’s were.)

The issue of slavery was central to Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), although much of that film’s central story revolved around a Supreme Court ruling. It was however, unflinching in its portrayal of cruelty to African slaves. Its take-home message was: the only good white American is an abolitionist. Spielberg’s Lincoln, already Golden Globe-garlanded and likely to win Baftas and Oscars, is, by coincidence just one of two major motion pictures to address slavery this awards season. The other – quite, quite different in tone and effect – is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (honoured at the Globes for its screenplay, and for supporting actor Christoph Waltz). I saw both films last week – on the same day, believe it or not. And am moved to compare them.

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Lincoln was initially conceived, with screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich), as a Presidential biopic, but in the event focuses on the knotty, nail-biting, filibustering progress through the House of Representatives of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery for good. Taking place over a couple of months, it distils Lincoln’s presidency down to his most far-reaching achievement, which also marked the end of the Civil War, despite seemingly putting peace in jeopardy to many naysayers. The 16th President is brought back to life, with understated authority, by Daniel Day-Lewis, who resembles him physically (especially in great height), and sidesteps his usual showboating, which is apt, as, amid the eloquent barracking of 19th century politics, the President is mostly absent. We see him in back rooms, on the sidelines, manipulating and commentating.

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Venerated by many as one of America’s greatest commanders in chief, he is cleverly lit and depicted in Lincoln as a kind of sepia deity. To many on the left, he was a hero, or a god, certainly a celeb. As he says, in one of his more animated moments, as the President he was “clothed in immense power”, and used it. And then he was shot dead. Revisionism has, naturally, taken place in the centuries since, and some historians enjoy calling him a “white supremacist” whose views on blacks were not entirely progressive. Such rewrites are not important to Spielberg’s black-and-white film. (Actually, even the most hardline Confederate in the Southern states today is probably beyond thinking slavery was a good thing. In that sense, it is a black-and-white issue.) At the time of the Civil War, many in the South felt that their economy would collapse if slavery was banned; perhaps it was less about race and human rights, and more about that age-old American concern of money.

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Few black people appear in Lincoln. There are a couple of kindly servants at the White House (Gloria Reuben – Jeannie off of ER! – and Stephen Henderson), freed slaves of course but still essentially bowing and scraping to a white employer. But Lincoln is not about the plight of slaves, it is of their plight; although it does open on a rare action sequence (it’s mostly talking), in which black Union soldiers are attacked by white Confederates. A powerful case is then made, to Lincoln’s kindly face, by a Union soldier (our own David Oyelowo, off of Spooks) about the inequality of wages, and of the chances for promotion, in the US Army, at which even the Emancipation President is challenged about the woeful limits of his vision for equality, even after the Proclamation. Django Unchained, meanwhile, is full of black people. It takes place two years before the Civil War, and is, of course, a wholesale fantasy. It is probably unkind to compare it to Lincoln, but many will find it more palatable and entertaining, so it’s just as important.

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Django is an African slave, chained and en route through Texas, who is effectively stolen by a foppish German bounty hunter Schultz (Christoph Waltz) at the beginning of the film; he is a prize because of information he has about certain slave owners with a bounty on their heads. The two hit it off, and after offering freedom to Django in exchange for his assistance, Schultz eventually takes him on as an “associate”, an equal. (When Django rides into town, the very idea of a “nigger” on horseback is enough to rile the locals.)

This against-the-grain, black-and-white merger is symbolic of Tarantino’s liberal wish-fulfillment: a white European and a black African taking revenge on evil white plantation owners, riding side by side as compatriots. When Django takes up the whip against one of his former masters, the poetic revenge is literal. The pair are initially driven by money (Django is promised a horse and $75 as well as his freedom), but their combined cause takes on a less mercenary, more ideological and political hue, as they home in on Leonardo Di Caprio’s arch-villain Calvin Candie, not just a sadistic slave-owner, but one who wheels and deals in the gentleman’s sport of “Mandingo fighting”, where black slaves are set upon each other like dogs, or cocks. He is a bad man. Schultz, who elevates Django to the status of the noble hero Siegfried in German mythology, is a good man, but rare among whites in being so.

Django Unchained might once, in the 70s, have been made by a black director, of whom there were very few, but it would have been for the midnight-movie circuit only. Today, thanks to the mainstream profile of Tarantino – Hollywood’s pet cult director, its “house rebel” – it is a major movie, taken seriously by critics and peers alike, and already stamped with award glory (including a Globe for Tarantino’s screenplay). As such, it sends out a powerful message. Equally, it preaches to the choir. If a single member of Hollywood’s royalty did not stand for Bill Clinton at the Golden Globes, he or she was not caught on camera.

Spike Lee has said he refuses to watch it, as for him, the issue is not suitable for entertainment, which this film surely is. It’s up to him, of course, but you might accuse Roots of being simplistic, or melodramatic, or even sentimental, about a serious issue, but it stirred the soul of at least one 12-year-old in England in 1977, and thousands more elsewhere, I suspect. Django Unchained strives for no such educational nobility or legitimacy; it is violent cartoon schlock, whose mischievous humour at one point strays into pure Mel Brooks territory, and in fact, by fantasising a black rebellion against the white oppressor in spaghetti western style, you could argue that it makes a mockery of the true violence done before emancipation.

You could also argue that sending a group of Jewish Americans out into a fantasy Nazi-occupied Europe to kill them (and carve swastikas into their foreheads), as Tarantino did in Inglorious Basterds, mocks the memory of the millions who died in World War II. But it’s hard not to think of Nazis or cruel white slave-owners as “the baddies”, so who’s to dictate whether it’s in good or bad taste?

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On points, I’d say that Lincoln is by far a better film than Django. It may be “boring” to some, but I lapped up its constitutional detail. It may iron out some of the inconsistencies that get in the way of Abe’s deification (ooh, his wife, Mary, came from a slave-holding family – that’s because there was slavery), but I still found it compelling. Tarantino’s film is uneven. It starts well, but descends into a relentless bloodbath; and even though it’s over two-and-a-half hours long, Django’s “journey” seems to jump-cut from character development to comic-book hero-avenger without a great deal of grey area in between. (Oh, and Waltz dominates for two thirds, and then sort of fades into the sidelines. Bad decision.)

That Tarantino wishes he’d been born black seems no longer in doubt. He’s been in trouble before for metronomic use of the n-word, although his previous films – including Jackie Brown, which drew a lot of heat – have been set post-reclamation of the word. Django is set at a time when “nigger” was a word filled exclusively with hate and oppression, and when Samuel L Jackson’s cowed, Uncle Tom-style butler uses it, we’re in very uncomfortable territory. This n-word is not spelled N-I-G-G-A. Perhaps it’s Quentin’s first truly responsible use of the epithet.

I realise I’ve just written an essay. Sorry about that. If I had been writing it for a magazine that was paying me to write it, I would have gone back and edited it.

Pi-eyed

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I know. We’ve been here before, but I think the point still needs making, and I know I’m not the first, or only, cinephile to make it: but can we just stop with the 3D now, please?

It being the awards season, I’m doing my usual January mop-up of “awards movies” that slipped through my net, or else have not yet been released. (People are always asking me to comment on awards nominations and make predictions; this is easier if I have seen the films! If I hadn’t lost my voice, you would have seen me on BBC News possibly twice last week, but I’ve not been terribly well since making the foolhardy decision to stop working for a week over Christmas.) This week, valiantly, I’ve seen previews of Lincoln, Django Unchained and Flight, caught up with The Impossible and Argo, and I have Zero Dark Thirty booked in for Monday. Yesterday I finally saw Life Of Pi.

Why didn’t I see Life Of Pi when it came out in December? Apart from the demoralising Coldplay song all over the trailer? Because Life Of Pi is presented in, and was designed to be seen in, 3D. This, I understand, is because it’s based on a Booker Prize-winning book which is mainly about a boy trapped in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, and was thus considered a tricky sell, and might explain why it took a decade to get to the screen. So, for all its “arthouse” credentials – directed by Ang Lee, and accordingly taken very seriously by Sight & Sound, who put it on the cover of their December issue – it’s been cooked up and marketed as a magical holiday “event” movie. By presenting it in 3D, instead of a film about a boy on a boat based on a book, it becomes a spectacle you cannot afford to miss this Christmas/New Year; an “OMG” moment. (Incidentally, the print I saw yesterday came with a teaser imploring us to “share our feelings” about the film on Facebook and Twitter, which irked me to my boots.) Result: it’s been garlanded with nominations: three Golden Globes, 9 Baftas, 11 Oscars.

Now, my local cinema has been showing it in 3D and 2D, so the option was there, and I was grateful for that. (They were equally accommodating with The Hobbit, although my reasons for not having seen that yet are because I don’t have the energy.) However, with Pi, because I left it too late, there are far fewer convenient 2D screenings left, and I was forced to see it in 3D yesterday afternoon. Also, and I’ll be perfectly honest here, it was clearly going to be such a spectacle, maybe I ought to see it as Ang Lee intended. Maybe I ought to get over myself?

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Well, it was a bad decision. This is a visually sumptuous film, its first act shot in the actual region of India where Yann Martel’s novel is set. So, even before we get to the middle of the ocean after the shipwreck, there is much to feast the eyes upon. Except, the eyes are locked out of the film behind a perimeter fence; the 3D glasses. Now, I’m not going to blame “smears” this time. My 3D glasses were clean and clear. But the very act of putting them on, in order to unlock the illusion of three dimensionality, places a barrier between you and the light. The sun in Pondicherry is blazing and bright. I lifted my glasses to have a sneaky, blurred look at it: it was pure white in the sky above Pi as he went about his business. As soon as you lower the glasses, it is dulled. It is slushy grey. It’s no wonder 3D films work so badly when the action occurs at night.

The shipwreck scene, spectacularly done in CGI, with swelling waves and crashing water to make The Perfect Storm and Poseidon seem like cartoons (computer technology moves so fast), occurs at night. For all the wizardry at play, and the “depth” of the 3D, it’s so dark, you can barely make out what’s happening. The second half is where we get the meat of the matter: teenage boy and crouching tiger in single lifeboat on an often millpond-calm sea. Many amazing sights are laid on for us: flying fish, luminous plankton, a leaping humpback whale. These might be enhanced by the 3D, if the colours weren’t muddied by the 3D. I tire of wearing those specs, and I tire of watching films through them, even when the illusion has the desired effect of … well, making something look closer than it is, or making something look like it’s in front of another thing.

The benefits are far outweighed by the defects, for me. I look forward to seeing Life Of Pi on DVD, or TV, in 2D. I’m sure it will still be a visual feast. All the work that went into creating that tiger out of pixels will still be there to marvel at, and be moved by. The relationship between Pi and the tiger will still exist. The story will still be told. Ang Lee’s direction and vision will still be intact. But I won’t be wearing heavy glasses, and the colours will be glorious, instead of muted, and gloomy. It’s a price I’m prepared to pay. (Or not pay, as I understand some cinemas charge extra for 3D, which is a bloody cheek.)

I’ve seen 3D used cleverly, in Pina, for instance. And it’s used sympathetically in some of the sequences in Pi. (The effect of making swimmers look as if they are swimming in the sky is definitely enhanced by the trick.) But it’s not just muddying the colours, it’s muddying the artistic decisions being made by directors and studios.

Oh, and that tagline? I am always prepared to believe the unbelievable. It’s what I go to the cinema for. I don’t need assistance.

Please be upstanding

This week’s Telly Addict, once again published by the Guardian on a Friday evening – so much better that way! – covers the Oscars on Sky Movies, Catholics on BBC4, Pramface on BBC3 and The Ronnie Wood Show on Sky Arts. (I love the comment left underneath on the webpage: “Andrew, you reviewed The Oscars not Sky’s presentation of The Oscars.” Yes, I did. You got me there. It’s a crying shame I didn’t review the UK pundits sat with Alex Zane, filling in the time while the lengthy US ad breaks went out, that would have been fair more interesting and enlightening. Honestly.)