Sunday, 19 February 2017

Oscar Reviews: Part I

If Best Pictures are not enough to wet your appetite for this weekend's Academy Awards, here are some other nominated films that I have reviewed just for you:

13th (Best Documentary Feature)

13th is a daring documentary. It doesn't deal with an isolated far away issue that we can sympathise with from a distance. It gets up in your face and deals with one of America's biggest contemporary and most contentious problems: mass incarceration. However, this is not a Louis Theroux documentary where they gently try to find answers, sweetly exploring what has caused this mess. Ava DuVernay presents us with a host of academics, activists, and ex-inmates who clearly explain the history of the States' systematic oppression of the African American population, centering the discussion around the 'loophole' in the 13th Amendment that, to paraphrase, says slavery is okay as punishment for a crime. 

The documentary really hits home almost exactly half way through the movie when an image of Trayvon Martin fills the screen for an uncomfortably long fifteen-or-so seconds. We're no longer talking about slavery 150 years ago, or the civil rights movement 50 years ago, this is now. The second hour of the film is not easy watching, but it's not meant to be. DuVernay is drawing a big picture and it is an ugly one. We see the violence, the abuse, the police brutality happening in our time, today, on our streets. DuVernay plays these images alongside archival footage from the civil rights movement whilst Donald Trump's voice echoes over the images 'In the good old days...'. 

A powerfully moving piece of work. It's unpleasant and upsetting, but it is real, and that's probably the most heartbreaking thing.

The Lobster (Best Original Screenplay)

Imagine a world in which singleness is illegal, that those unable to find a mate must either go it alone in the woods or be it turned into an animal of their choice. This is the premise of The Lobster and it only gets weirder after that. Weird though it may be, it is also wickedly funny. Its finest moments of comedy are also some of its darkest, but for the laughs it produces it is completely justified. Kicking little girls in the shin, choking women, dead dogs - these things have almost never been funnier as Colin Farrell's David tries desperately to find a lover. 

The film is, in its own way, genius however it suffers from both a tonal problem and pacing problem. Its dry comedy, at first amplified by its drab and mechanical presentation, is later dulled as the gags come fewer and further between and yet the slow pace of the film remains unchanged. This leaves the second half of the film to begin to drag as it goes on. Secondly, the jokes move from dark toward vulgar. At somepoints this lands, using the same shock reflex that the darker jokes work with, but othertimes it feels out of place and uncomfortable. 

The Lobster is a few strokes away from a masterpiece, but those missing strokes are not small ones. They are unfortunately noticeable and it is a pity because the film ends with the feeling that it could have been more. 

Jackie (Best Actress, Best Costume Design, Best Score)

The story of Jackie Kennedy planning a funeral for her husband does not immediately spring to mind as one the most riveting biopics of our time, however Jackie, through its non-linear narrative and excellent performances, manages to be bold and striking. Director Pablo Larraín takes something simple, adds layers of complexity, jumping back and forth in time and even into a television documentary piece the Fist Lady starred, building one narrative to boiling point before switching across to something else. The audience keeps on their toes and becomes engaged in the story Larraín wants to tell. 

But the defining feature of this film, as all the marketing suggests, is Natalie Portman playing the titular Mrs Kennedy. Portman is no stranger to playing strong female leads and this could be her peak. She fully embodies Jackie Kennedy, balancing heartbreak, mourning, determination, grief, vulnerability and a gritty drive to make the world remember her husband. It is an astonishingly good performance and one that will no doubt be remembered. 

As a whole, the film lacks omph. The supporting cast are in shadows next to the powerhouse that is Portman. They're not poor or even average performances, there is just an inconsistency in quality. Peter Sarsgaard and the late John Hurt both put in a good show here, particularly Sarsgaard again showing his capabilities of being a top tier actor. 

Hail, Caesar! (Best Production Design)

The Coen Brothers' latest outing is a comedy noir romp through taking place in the behind the scenes world of 1950s Hollywood. It follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) whose job it is to fix things like press attention surrounding unwanted pregnancies or your lead of a huge blockbuster being kidnapped. When exactly that happens to George Clooney's Baird Whitlock, and he is taken to a group of communist thinkers' hideout, Eddie has to work twice as hard to find a fix. 

The film is scattered with moments of excellence and brilliance. Some set pieces really steal the show, particularly an all out singing and dancing spectacular with Channing Tatum as a sailor. However, the film is a bit convoluted in it's delivery. There's quite a lot of intersecting story lines and the narratives sometimes lose their way - you may find yourself questioning when a performer changes into a soviet spy, for example. 

Despite this, the film is hilariously funny. The Coens are masters of bringing out Clooney as a fool and a clown (see Burn after Reading and O Brother Where Art Thou?) and throughout, the jokes land as they're intended to. It makes for an enjoyable watching experience but it will probably leave you wanting to pull out one of the Coen's more acclaimed ventures and experience them at their best. 

Suicide Squad (Best Hair and Makeup)

'I'll carry your ass if I have to' says Will Smith's Deadshot as we head into the final act of Suicide Squad. He is talking to Rick Flag, played by Joel Kinnaman, but he may as well be talking to the film makers. Suicide Squad is a messy film, and not in a good sense. There's an overwhelming sense of overnighters in the editing room before deadline day and nothing quite fits. It consists of several pieces from different puzzles that director David Ayer is trying to bash into a cohesive picture and whilst you can see what he is trying to make, it's clunky and broken. 

There is some strength at the opening and in the final third of the movie, but shamefully for an ensemble piece, several of the supporting characters are left woefully underdeveloped and under-utilised, especially Jai Courtney's Captain Boomerang who is often found flailing in the background with no real substance. Suicide Squad seeks to capture the grit of the Batman comics and Nolan's films, but fails in being nearly as good as either.

Whilst solid leads in Viola Davis, Will Smith, and Margot Robbie (as Harley Quinn) keep the film afloat, the messy narrative and lack of cohesion cannot be saved by a few fun filled action packed sequences to a rock song from the noughties. It would also be remiss not to mention Jared Leto's Joker, a modern age, grill teethed gangster who seems to be able to do the impossible without explanation. Overkill may be too strong a word, and the artistic vision may to be to blame over Leto, but it's hard to ignore the press surrounding his 'method acting'. If there's a silver lining, its that if there is a sequel, it can really only be better.

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