Sunday, 4 March 2018

Oscar Predictions



I normally don't do this as I don't lock my predictions in until the red carpet but for the first time ever, I am publishing my predictions for the Oscars. But more than that - as telling you who I think will win doesn't really tell you what you should be watching - I will also tell you who I think should win, with reasoning, so you can make informed decisions yourself on what to go see next. So without further ado, we'll start at the smaller categories and work up to the biggies. 


Shorts:


The shorts are probably the most difficult three categories to predict this year and we're going to spend a bit of time on them as they're often under valued but here we go:

Best Animated Short


Predictions here are pretty mixed between Kobe Bryant's Dear Basketball and toad-tastic Garden Party. One is a hand-drawn love letter to the glory of professional sports, one is a beautifully animated slow-burn mystery filled with frogs. The Hollywood Reporter's brutally honest voters found Dear Basketball to be narcissistic whilst the unconventional story-telling of Garden Party and the realism of its animation be worthy of the prize.

Lou was a typical feel-good Pixar short but ultimately too predictable whilst Revolting Rhymes nicely brought classic children's literature to life but the under appreciated stop-motion stand out of the bunch was Negative Space. An impressively animated short poem about a man's relationship with his father with beautiful imagery brought to life in the animation. It's what the animated genre is created to do. 

Will Win: Garden Party
Should Win: Negative Space

Best Live Action Short

This year's shorts include a psychiatrist's worst nightmare, a retelling of one of America's most brutal lynchings, a true story of a bus attacked by terrorists, a deaf child's struggle to communicate, and a potential school shooter. The last two in that list, DeKalb Elementary and The Silent Child respectively, are the front runners in this category. The only other one in some contention is The Eleven O'Clock which involves one psychiatrist treating a patient who thinks he is a psychiatrist, but it's unclear who is the doctor and who is the patient.

Despite being a lot of fun and possibly the best performed of the nominees, The Eleven O'Clock will likely lose out to either the very politically timely DeKalb Elementary or The Silent Child. Frankly, as the former doesn't really offer much in the way of commentary on gun control, just passively watches the situation play out, the edge has to be given to The Silent Child which is not only tells the most effective story, but also portrays a powerful message (and even more powerful without subtitles though these are available to understand the signing). 
Will Win: DeKalb Elementary
Should Win: The Silent Child

Best Documentary Short

The documentary short subjects are a point of contestation this year. Sad films tend to succeed in this category so Edith + Eddie and Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 have the best shot at taking home a statue but the former is clunky and is too narrow in its sights. It doesn't offer a grander narrative and too much information is portrayed in title cards. 

Traffic Stop is an important story of police attitudes towards the black community but the elements here just don't work. There are so many stories that could make this point more clearly and poignantly but their subjects, tragically, are no longer alive to offer commentary. Traffic Stop feels watered down by necessity but to hit hard, it needs to be bolder.

The real winners here are Heroin(e), which stands a slim chance of coming out top and Knife Skills which doesn't. The former shows female first responders to heroin overdoses going about their daily business as well as the drug courts that support those suffering from addictions. The latter follows ex-convicts on their journey to graduate from a culinary masterclass and run a restaurant. These are stories of hope, of support for the ill-treated and the suffering and they should be rewarded as such. 

Will Win: Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405
Should Win: Heroin(e)

Technical Categories:

Best Cinematography

There are five beautifully shot films nominated here. Dunkirk captured the immensity of the situation out at war, whilst Darkest Hour captured the isolation, intimacy, and conflict. Anyone who tells you that Darkest Hour puts too much reliance on men talking is simply wrong. That being said, this battle comes between The Shape of Water and Blade Runner - Mudbound will likely not get much notice not least because of it's release via Netflix which older voters are likely to disregard as not 'real cinema'. 

Blade Runner 2049 captured a new world in strong greys and strong colours a like. Arguably, that's more difficult than beautifully capturing the world that already exists which pushes aside The Shape of Water but it's still a close call. All in all, for me, Darkest Hour used its camera most in its story telling, but Blade Runner 2049 most effectively in world building. 

Will Win: Blade Runner 2049
Should Win: Darkest Hour


Best Costume Design

There's little discussion to be had. It would be nigh on insulting to not reward Phantom Thread with this award. It's a film about glamorous dresses; the dresses are a character in this film and like any good casting, the dresses are spot on.


Will Win: Phantom Thread
Should Win: Phantom Thread

Best Make-up and Hairstyling

Much like the dresses in Phantom Thread, the make up is integral in Darkest Hour. There's just no way it can't win despite the good work in Wonder

Will Win: Darkest Hour
Should Win: Darkest Hour

Best Production Design

Production design is physical world building. Beauty and the Beast had the advantage that they could copy what was done before (though they did it very well). Similarly, Blade Runner 2049 draws inspiration from its predecessor but builds on it, making it its own. The Academy loves a period piece, so Dunkirk and Darkest Hour stand a chance but this also gives an advantage to Cold War-set The Shape of Water, which has an added bonus of mysticism and fantasy, combining the period with a whole new world.

Will Win: The Shape of Water
Should Win: The Shape of Water


Best Visual Effects


This is an award that is rightly due to the apes and how it could go any other way would be a mockery. Though that being said, it has happened before (remember when The Iron Lady beat out Harry Potter in the make-up category?) and Guardians of the Galaxy could sneak in to take the prize. Both films take place in an almost entirely technically generated world, but War for the Planet of the Apes was 1) a better film and 2) had a motion capture lead who managed a performance worthy of an acting nomination.  

Will Win: War for the Planet of the Apes
Should Win: War for the Planet of the Apes

Best Film Editing

Film editing is famously a tell for Best Picture, but with only three shared nominations here, there's a bit more room for guessing. Some found Dunkirk's timelines confusing, some found it revolutionary which gives it a very good shot. I, Tonya, The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards were all great but weren't screaming something special. Baby Driver however was made by its editing. It was perfectly crafted and edited to the millisecond with layer after layer of visual and audio information. It's a tough one to call. 

Will Win: Dunkirk
Should Win: Baby Driver

Best Sound Editing

The Academy voters are famous for not knowing the difference between sound editing and sound mixing so there's a huge possibility the two awards could go to the film that 'sounds coolest' but most know that editing is about making sounds so action heavy films tend to win this category. Considering how sensory it was Dunkirk seems a shoo in here, and rightly so. Sound was integral to the film and most of them were produced off set.

Will Win: Dunkirk
Should Win: Dunkirk

Best Sound Mixing

This is a more tricky one. For the reasons stated above, Dunkirk could take home the gold for mixing as well because the visceral environment the film creates is precisely layered and played with for maximum impact. However, Baby Driver is a film designed around its soundscape. Every second in the film is timed to a beat and Edgar Wright's passion project should be recognised for that. The Academy may be of the same thinking and if they vote as per my predictions, they may vote Baby Driver here as a consolation prize if nothing else.

Will Win: Dunkirk
Should Win: Baby Driver


Music:

Best Original Song

It's easy to write off the songs that don't play a huge part in their films so three of the nominees can be eliminated. That leaves us with 'Remember Me' from Coco and 'This is Me' from The Greatest Showman. Honestly its too close to call clearly. One has become a mainstream anthem, but the other is more integral to its story - you can't have Coco without 'Remember Me'. I think for that reason it will have to go to Coco.


Will Win: 'Remember Me' from Coco
Should Win: 'Remember Me' from Coco

Best Original Score


There are big names on this ballot. Hans Zimmer, John Williams and Carter Burwell but the film where the score's presence was most actively felt was The Shape of Water. The Cold War fantasy world was strengthened endlessly by Alexandre Desplat's score and whilst all the other nominees helped develop their worlds, none were so influential as Desplat. 


Will Win: The Shape of Water
Should Win: The Shape of Water



Writing:

Best Adapted Screenplay

In a category that could be Sorkin's for the taking on a normal day, Molly's Game was simply too wordy to compete with the slow brilliance of the likes of Call Me By Your Name or the noir adaptation of a superhero movie in Logan. The Disaster Artist should also not go without praise as the surprise stand out of the Oscar season, a season where rib-tickling comedy doesn't often get a look-in. That being said, one of the five is nominated for Best Picture.

Will Win: Call Me By Your Name
Should Win: Call Me By Your Name

Best Original Screenplay

Four Best Picture Nominees here and a rom-com that most people caught on Amazon Prime. Unfortunately for The Big Sick and Lady Bird (which were excellent) this is a year of revolutionary horrors, love stories, and billboard messages. Narrowing the top three down will come, probably, to the one that has failed to gain any other awards - often the case for the screen play award. 

Will Win: Get Out
Should Win: Lady Bird 


Fringe Films:

Best Animated Feature

When two nominations in a category are just barely okay (see Ferdinand and The Boss Baby), one is recognised more for its medium (Loving Vincent), and one is too sad for the animated medium (The Breadwinner), it makes predicting the winner easy. Coco was not just the best of the bunch though, it was a magical journey into a new world and was full of heart, family, comedy, death, life, music. Boy, those boys at Pixar still know what they're doing. 

Will Win: Coco
Should win: Coco
Best Documentary Feature

This category often has a couple of great movies and a few others. This year is no different. Last Men in Aleppo, Strong Island, and Abacus: Small Enough to Jail all do well, but offer nothing ground breaking. Some talking heads here, some statistics there. Whereas Faces Places, is an uplifting road trip movie about art and the stories behind the people on display. It's intimate and moving. On the other side of the coin, Icarus, easily the better film, is a thrill ride and the most exciting thing to happen to documentary film making in years. Will the Academy reward art or storytelling? Your bet is as good as mine here. 

Will Win: Faces Places
Should Win: Icarus

Best Foreign Language Film

Okay so full disclosure. At the point of writing, I am part way through The Insult so I cannot make an 100% fair decision here. But that being said, On Body and Soul and Loveless will not win; the former is too odd and the latter too Russian for the older American Academy members. The Square is an engaging commentary on the art community but asks too much of its audience. A Fantastic Woman is a league above these. A brutal and harsh reminder of the discrimination and hatred that still exists in our society so that someone can't even mourn for the loved ones they've lost. A hard watch, but a powerful one.

Will Win: A Fantastic Woman
Should Win: A Fantastic Woman


The Big Five:

Best Supporting Actor

This race has been dominated throughout the award season and whilst some people have predicted an upset in the form of Willem Dafoe, this is Sam Rockwell's year and well deserved. Though Richard Jenkins is a dark horse here. All three would be worthy winners but I can't see anyone knocking Rockwell from his podium

Will Win: Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards)
Should win: Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards)

Best Supporting Actress

Like Rockwell, Janney has dominated this season but in the supporting actress, I forsee a more likely upset and rightly so. Laurie Metcalf was astonishing in Lady Bird and brough the film to life. People love a bad guy (Janney) but they also love an under-dog. So could that win it? 


Will Win: Allison Janney (I, Tonya)
Should Win: Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird)

Best Actress

All the acting awards this year have been dominated and I don't see this changing that trend either. Frances McDormand portrayed rage with pain and hurt. The real Mildred was buried under the layers of anger and that is hard to do. The silent Sally Hawkins could rock the boat, but otherwise, this is McDormand's year (again).


Will Win: Frances McDormand (Three Billboards)
Should Win: Frances McDormand (Three Billboards)

Best Actor

Here we go again. Despite great performances all round, Gary Oldman was incredible. A transformative, powerful, heartfelt, and funny performance. This isn't mimicry (as the critics of Oldman's performance were keen to point out) as it is not close enough to the real Churchill. This is an artistic recreation and it is wonderful.


Will Win: Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)
Should Win: Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)

Best Director


One film about war, one about coming of age, one satirical horror, one about a dressmaker, and one a bout a mute lady falling in love with a giant fish. On premise alone, the Best Director race is sorted. 

Will Win: Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water)
Should Win: Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water)

Best Picture

The big one. Despite the big awards being spread out over several films, any of the nominees would be worthy winners. All have big pros and big cons. But lets think like the Academy. The Shape of Water is a love story, check. It's nostalgic and patriotic, check. It has a classic Hollywood musical number and tap dancing, check. It's innovative and new, check. It's a good vs bad story. It's amazing. Simply put, it has to be this year's winner as it's the least flawed in many senses. It's the safe option. If it's not a voter's first choice, it will surely be in the top three and those votes will add up. 

That being said I can't get Call Me By Your Name off of my mind. It was a beautiful film with incredible performance and it was the only film of the nominees that really took my breath away. I feel it will be overlooked tonight but this blogger will not forget it. I could go into great, objective or subjective detail on why this was a great movie and why it should win but I won't be heartbroken when it doesn't.

Will Win: The Shape of Water
Should Win: Call Me By Your Name

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Best Picture: Part II

The Post



Three-time Oscar winner (and seventeen-time Oscar loser, technically) Meryl Streep takes on the challenge of publishing a news story. What sounds like a relatively unexciting premise turns out to be a relatively unexciting film. Despite Tom Hanks by Streep's side giving it his best shot, he's unable to make the film what it could be. 



What the film could be is a great newsroom melodrama, landing somewhere between All The President's Men and Spotlight but in reality falling short of both of them. It is well trodden ground and nothing new is added in The Post except some great characterisations from the likes of Hanks and Odenkirk. 


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 


Imagine a world painted in grey. That is the world that Martin McDonagh has consistently portrayed in his films (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) and is most fully realised in Three Billboards. Ultimately a story of revenge but how far is too far in the search for justice? That is the question posed by McDonagh here and it is a difficult pill to swallow. 



Blurring the lines by removing the 'good' from the 'good guys' and adding humanity and pain to the anger and resentment, and in many senses ignorance, McDonagh brings something darkly unique to his film. Despite being side-splittingly funny, Three Billboards is a hard watch. It's narrative is grounded in the unspeakable - rape, brutal murder, suicide, cancer - but few films about these issues could be so entertaining without making light of its subject matter. There's no tidy resolutions here, but then again, when are there in life?


Lady Bird 


Growing up is something that everyone has to face, whether they'd like to or not, so the having that reflected in film is something we can all relate to and none do it better than Greta Gerwig with Lady Bird.



The complexity of relationships and reputations in teenage years is hard to grasp on film, not just for the young protagonist, but also for their families. Set against the backdrop of Christian doctrines and American poverty, the conflicts are all the more real, all the more touching. The film boasts outstanding performances by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf who make the film what it is, the mother daughter relationship/ conflict being central to the narrative (and in a more subtle sense, the name of the film). It's hard to be heartfelt and heartwarming but this does just that and makes it seem effortless. 


Darkest Hour


Whilst its easy to write a biopic of Winston Churchill off as pure 'Oscar Bait' (and many have - or at least described it as such - more on this another day), that would be to overlook the feat that is Darkest Hour. Gary Oldman's performance is the selling point here, which isn't wrong, but it is a pity. 



What's being overlooked here is a powerful visual story teller in Joe Wright. As darkness descends over Britain, darkness surrounds Churchill on screen. Wright is not fearful of negative space claustrophobic space, an under-rated quality in an age of mega-Marvel cinematic universes, and despite the darkness, he creates something that is often funny, engaging, and moving. Is it cliched, yes. Is it predictably structured, yes. But most importantly, does it still manage to be innovative and fresh. The answer is still yes. 


The Shape of Water


The Oscars are no stranger to an all out romance film, but they don't normally involve swamp men. Guillermo del Toro creates something sinister yet beautiful in his lagoon-loving monster and builds a world around him that emphasises that. Michael Shannon, the testosterone fuelled patriot, presents the sinister whilst Sally Hawkins, the mute monster lover, is the beautiful.



There are clear senses of right and wrong on display here; it is an ultimately moral film. It's easy to get your teeth into - which is certainly helpful considering the absurdity of the central romance - which only goes to demonstrate how brilliantly talented del Toro is in crafting the bizarre. It feels nostalgic, but not familiar. It deals with the difficult, but is never difficult to watch. It's about as unique as you can get and it never seems to take itself too serious - Octavia Spencer - an African-American in the sixties - and Richard Jenkins - a gay man in the sixties - providing some much needed heart and comic relief. This is film-making at its finest. 

Friday, 2 March 2018

Best Picture: Part I

Dunkirk


Visionary director and innovative story-teller, Christopher Nolan tackles the tale of one of Britain's most dangerous challenges during the Second World War: the evacuation of Dunkirk. The story is told in three temporalities with three areas of battle - we spend a week on land, a day on the sea, and an hour in the sky. The stories, interwoven into one another, capture the struggle and determination of both the British public and armed forces.



Nolan is at his visceral best. Every bomb hit you, water pouring into a claustrophobic space engulfs you. This is sensory film making as it should be. Delicately balancing his timelines to maximum effect, Nolan manages to tell three powerfully engaging stories which are all as gripping and nerve wracking as one another. A master class in war films.



Phantom Thread


Daniel Day-Lewis' 'retiring' film, Phantom Thread tells the story of a man, a dress maker, though more importantly, he's a perpetual bachelor, allowing women to float through his life and inspire him on a breeze before they drift away again. But falling for one of them disrupts his whole life.



Beautifully shot and wonderfully crafted, Paul Thomas Anderson's latest struggles at times to be fully engaging. Grounded by solid performances by the whole cast, notably Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread is, in essence, a film about the consuming world of fashion and an eccentric designer but his quirks often rub the wrong way, making it difficult to support the central figure and his reluctant pursuit of romance. It works as proof that making a technically brilliant film does not necessarily make a brilliant film.


Get Out


Take a the sense of unease you get in any good horror movie. Combine it with overtones of the racial oppression that haunts suburban, southern USA. What you get is Jordan Peele's phenomenal Get Out, a striking racial satire with Daniel Kaluuya anchoring the film with a star-making leading turn.



The important social issues presented in Get Out are the reason satire exists - to hold a mirror up to society and highlight its blemishes - and Peele focuses his quiet anger on making the audience feel uncomfortable before unleashing it in loud, brutal fashion.  Get Out is bold. Get Out is brave. But most of all, Get Out is terrifying. The question that remains is whether it is the film that is scary, or the darker reality it is portraying?

Call Me by Your Name


Beautiful, relaxed, loving film-making. This is what is on display in Call Me by your Name, the unconventional and forbidden character driven love story set in the countryside of Italy. The camera floats around the leads passively, simply observing something, allowing characters and relationships to evolve in its view. 



Featuring strong performances from its leads but also from the minor characters (particularly Michael Stuhlbarg, who was robbed of a Best Supporting Actor nomination), Call Me by your Name is arguably the most rounded, well crafted film at the Oscars this year. It succeeds on every single level, not to mention Luca Guadagnino's immense control over combining all these elements. This is film making at its very best, its most powerful, its most emotive. And the the long takes are to die for. 


Saturday, 3 February 2018

Oscars 2018: Part I

 Beauty and the Beast 


The live action re-telling of one of Disney’s biggest and most successful animations that occasionally dips its toe into original thought but otherwise clings passionately to its 1991 predecessor. And a little too much.

The issue with remaking a classic almost shot for shot is it all feels too familiar - we’ve seen this done better before. That’s the problem here. The nostalgic enjoyment of the original is overshadowed by the creepy realism of the living objects and the layers of auto tune slathered over certain numbers. The aim here is to recreate something magical but in doing so, the film loses its own magic. It feels like that passion is for imitating rather than creating, and as such it’s noticeably the lesser beast. It’s adequate; everything is done fine, but why settle for fine when Disney proved how well the story could be told 26 years ago. 

Strong Island


Director Yance Ford retells the circumstances surrounding his brother's murder and tries to get answers for why his killer walked free. Intermingled in the story are interviews with family and friends whose calm, quiet anger and hurt are the heart of this documentary.

A more haunting, personal, and pained perspective on the institutional racism in the US and its justice system than last year's 13th or OJ: Made in America but not quite as captivating or as powerful.


Kong: Skull Island

At the close of the Vietnam war, a team of scientists, explorers, and soldiers go on an exhibition to the elusive and uncharted Skull Island. A standard mapping mission with a sinister ulterior motive that goes wrong immediately when they disturb the king of the island: Kong.


Kong: Skull Island is a Vietnam film without the Vietnam. Visually, the inspirations from the likes of Platoon and Apocalypse Now are clear but the enemy are replaced with the unknown inhabitants of Skull Island. The film suffers from clunky dialogue and underdeveloped characters and relationships but succeeds in being a heap of fun. Considering the big names involved (Larson, Jackson, Hiddleston, Goodman), the film feels like it lacks depth in its human performers (which the exception of Jackson and John C. Reilly) whilst their computer generated counterparts dazzle.  It’s a film on the brink of brilliance so it’s a pity that it falls short on some major points (developed characters, particularly female, being the most needed element).


The Boss Baby


Obviously babies come from a company called Baby Corp that is run by businessman babies - we all know that - but in The Boss Baby, Puppy Corp, their business competitor, is about to release a new puppy that will be so adorable, no one will ever want a baby again thus putting Baby Corp out of business. 

The Boss Baby is a charming family film with enough 'adult' jokes about memos and meetings to keep the parents entertained. That being said, it walks a path well trodden; whilst the premise is original and entertaining, the story is lacking innovation. It's silly fun but Dreamworks still has a way to go to match the constant standards of Pixar.


Wednesday, 3 January 2018

The Greatest Showman



Phineas Barnum (better known as P. T. Barnum - played by Hugh Jackman) is a tailor's son - mistreated, penniless, and dreaming of better things for himself, including a life with Charity (Michelle Williams), the daughter of a wealthy client of P. T.'s father. Seeking to change his fortune to give Charity the life of her dreams, Barnum sets about making his fortune with a museum of curiosities, adapting it slowly into a hugely popular and increasingly controversial circus of oddity performers such as a bearded lady, a tattooed man, and a dwarf soldier. But as the circus becomes ever more renown but at the same time more ridiculed, Barnum teams up with Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron), a theatre producer, and sets his sights on a higher class of audience.


The Greatest Showman is a passion project that took seven years to take to the big screen that has produced some of the most inventively staged and filmed musical set pieces of the last 20 years. It immediately bursts into life straight from the Fox logo with a silhouetted ringmaster prancing and dancing his way through the greatest show whilst singing at the top of his lungs to a percussive beat that will make you jam out in your seat; it's clear from the off what sort of musical you are in for. With contemporary influences poured onto lavish ensemble numbers, The Greatest Showman's greatest strength, quite appropriately, is its showmanship - its marvellous spectacle. Teaming powerful voices like Hugh Jackman and Keala Settle with Oscar award winning songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and topping it off with choreography by Mathieu Leopold, The Greatest Showman dazzles, astounds, and brings joy through its big numbers.


The problem with this is that the narrative falls victim to a lack of detail, a lack of care. A story of showmanship is sold with showmanship, but much like P.T. Barnum's true life ventures, there's an element of fraudulence here. So much is expended on the set pieces that a huge amount of what is in between is shallow and lacking in substance. The stars of Barnum's circus, his critics, and his colleagues are all superficial creations, existing without backstory or depth beyond the most surface elements. Major plot points are skimmed over and the audience are expected to just accept the world with which they are presented but it leaves a certain hollowness to the whole thing. It's a pity that the passion that went into getting the film made (see videos from the workshops and the B-roll footage for evidence) couldn't make its way onto the screen.


It could be argued that what La La Land (the songs in which were also penned by Pasek and Paul) lacked, The Greatest Showman has. It has flair, it has style, but it lacks the substance of it's Oscar dominating peer and that's the difference. It could be put down to rookie director Michael Gracey going through some teething problems in directing his feature film though the influence of his career in visual effects is not lost here. The film is beautifully shot and edited and the narrative, or what is there, is brilliantly emphasised through some digital trickery and imagery and smooth scene to scene transitions. It never drags and it is never unenjoyable.

One of the truest movie musicals in recent cinematic history. It's no Sound of Music but it is a heap of fun expressed through a impressively dominating production design and while you'll want to watch the songs over and over, the overall product is missing the definition that could have made it the greatest show. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)



New York is famously home to some wacky characters and cinema has often sought to capture that 'New York spirit' in the stories it tells. Film makers build personalities around the New York ethos - the stories of the quirky, rushed, community driven but isolated individuals that inhabit the famous city.

Noah Baumbach's Meyerowitz Stories is one such story.  It's the tale of a family headed by semi-successful sculptor Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) that comes together and falls apart on repeat for its near two-hour runtime. After a medical incident, Harold's two sons, Danny (Adam Sandler) and Matthew (Ben Stiller), and daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), rally together to support each other and their father despite their estrangement from one another. But honouring your father isn't always as easy as it appears to be, especially when they're as neurotic as Harold. 


The Meyerowitz Stories is a fascinating exploration into the minds of the all the major players in a dysfunctional family jammed with exceptional performances. The film is broken into sections - handily titled or surmised with a title plaque like those you may see in a gallery - to give us greater insight into one character or situation at a time. We start with recently separated Danny as he desperately tries to park his car in busy Manhattan with his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) in a comical sequence where the viewer is rammed into the car with the pair, the camera squeezed in between them, not just seeing their relationship but feeling it. Later we join Matthew, Harold's favourite son, who has escaped to LA and returned for lunch with his father, but no restaurant lives up to Harold's standards. We then have several shorter episodes, a group episode, a short Jean episode, and so on. 


Around the place, the film is being heralded as an Adam Sandler film, and whilst this is his best performance in years, this is not strictly true. This is a true ensemble piece and each performer brings something powerful and meaningful to the story. Dustin Hoffman's Harold is a genius creation; a grumpy, mumbling, artist who never quite peaked in his career and is almost allergic to other's success, at one point physically running from a former contemporary's show. He is the glue that holds the narrative together by pushing the family apart but there's something oddly endearing about him. Sandler and Stiller, alongside each other for the first time since Happy Gilmore, are brilliant as the half-brothers Danny and Matthew respectively. Their drastically different relationships with their father bringing much of the film's entertainment and conflict and their on-screen chemistry amplifying and exaggerating the comedy in their pain. Emma Thompson is also present as Maureen, an alcoholic Professor Trelawney type and Harold's fourth wife (who lovingly refers to him as The Dad).


The genius of Mereyowitz is in its weighty screenplay. This is a puff pastry of a family narrative - it's layered. The dialogue flows but no one is listening to one another. It's almost like the audience are absorbing two conversations at once which is an extremely efficient way to build characters. We hear their life stories in a way that's completely self absorbed and yet somehow desperate for attention or affection, depending on who is speaking. It's that tension, those hidden desires, that bring the heart to the film. It's also a testament to what happens when you make funny people do something serious; you get something seriously funny. 

Whilst its final third loses its pacing somewhat, the editing of the sections becoming somewhat jarring, it more than makes up for it with its brilliant performances, witty writing, and touching dramedy. 

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

OJ: Made in America



Documentaries are some of the most under appreciated works of film out there. It’s not easy to take non-fiction subject matter, cram archival footage in, and jump between talking heads and make it is an engaging as any good thriller out there, but the best ones do just that. I’m not talking here about the ones with a charismatic guide to take us through what’s happening (like Super Size Me, Catfish or Fahrenheit 9/11), I’m specifically talking about those that let interviews and the events tell their own story (see Blackfish for one example). Today’s film is not only a record breaking, Oscar winning endeavour, it also tells the story of one of the biggest rise and falls in American history. This is OJ: Made in America.

We’ve all heard the name OJ Simpson, but do we all know who he is and what happened to him? OJ: Made in America details the the incredible rise and the even more spectacular fall of one of the most astonishing Americans to ever walk the planet. Following OJ from the ghettos of California, to the heights of the National Football League, to a prison jumpsuit in Nevada, the documentary clocks in at just under 8 hours but was sensibly separated into five meticulously structured parts. Focusing on his football career, his fame and fortune, his darker violent side, the trial of the century, and OJ’s life post trial respectively, the documentary breaks down the narrative of OJ’s life beyond the court room. Whilst other big players in popular culture are also focussing on the judicial phenomenon that was the trial (see American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson), OJ: Made in America paints a riveting bigger picture of racial injustice in the USA, of a harsh and violent LAPD, of the American justice system, and of our cultural obsession with celebrity status. It is more than a biopic, it is an analysis of a broken and divided society. 


Where OJ: Made in America really achieves is in the way it builds information to culminate in the biggest impact. Talking heads of friends, family, locals, jurors, and police officers amongst others are introduced with little to no context. Mark Fuhrman in interview, for example, offers comments on the Rodney King riots and Nicole Brown’s abuse calls before the documentary reveals his involvement in the case as a racially abusive liar, but it also gives him the opportunity to defend himself. Information is revealed when it is important to the story that director Ezra Edelman is trying to tell, like he is presenting the case in court himself. He allows all sides to have their say on the case and on OJ and the racial divide in America in general. It creates constant drama, suspense, and intrigue and even eight hours in you will want to keep going and hear more. 


Its more important for Edelman to tell the story of America than it is of OJ, thus the tagline for the feature: ‘Made in America’; that’s the real heart of the documentary. Whilst other documentaries on OJ have tried to critique the evidence or find alternative theories, Edelman explains how we ended up in that court room and how the country was so divided on the verdict. It’s painful to watch at times, refusing to shy away from the gruesome. It is the mark of a director who has something important to say. Whilst 13th made similar comments on the state of racial divide in America, OJ: Made in America isolates a specific example that the world is already aware of and bleeds every ounce of contextualising information it can out of it to drive home its point and focusing on such a renowned and particularly charming and popular figure in American culture adds to its appeal over the it’s more evangelical contemporaries. 

OJ: Made in America taps into the true-crime zeitgeist of Making a Murder and Serial but it is shocking in a different way. This documentary isn’t just exploring a potential wrong verdict. It’s very real; the issues it presents are those that our world knows and experiences still. It is not an isolated incident. One part sport movie, one part rising star story, one part race documentary, and one part crime thriller, OJ: Made in America is a rollercoaster and it may be uncomfortable at points but you won’t want to get off.