It’s that time of year again, when a thousand journalists around the world polish off the line, ‘It’s that time of year again’, and then stick in some platitudes about designer dresses and well-practised losers’ smiles. The US Academy Awards are very much about glamour, very much about cliché, but there is no escaping they are the very definition of the ‘awards ceremony’, and getting snooty about them is really rather tiresome. They are there to give a punctuation mark for the entertainment industry, but also they are there as an annual reaffirmation of the Olympian ideals we need to impress upon our Hollywood film stars. Every year the gods of moviedom get together to remind us they are rich, beautiful, variously talented, and painfully relevant (that last point may or may not have been made with fluctuating levels of irony). Our movie stars need us just as much as we need them, and how could the dancing circle of escapism and ego-feeding exist without this punctuation mark?
On Sunday night you will witness the most garishly revolting and enjoyable display of generally pleasant and harmless ostentatious demi-gods bashing it out to be lifted into the even more eternal halls of the Oscar-winners. Gods unto gods. It is hardly relevant that fewer people actually remember Oscar winners than is made out (I had to look up who won Best Picture last year, and then had to take a moment to remind myself just how underwhelmed I was in the first place by Argo – I went on about its relative mediocrity in last year’s Oscar’s Preview). A quick look through Oscar history and you’ll see that winning is not all that big a deal. The biggest movie stars barely get a look in when it comes to the personal awards – Clooney, Di Caprio, Pitt – and the big movies are almost always middling at the box office. But it is impossible not to feel like the Oscars are the ultimate verification of greatness (it demonstrably is not that), or the elevation of a movie to the halls of eternity and true cinematic greatness. And there is an argument that not winning can push a really good film into the darkness forever. Which makes 2014 all the more interesting, because it’s been a long time since there was a field as accomplished (and open, in betting terms) as this. The Best Picture category is bedecked with truly wonderful films, and they are all very different. Very very different.
May the myriad flaws of this first film be forgotten. May the pale mimicking of a heyday of dynamic American cinematic storytelling be overlooked. David O. Russell has, indeed, delivered a flawed film – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The story is overlong and flimsy, and the payoff is a damp squib. But crikey, what a cast, what a collection of performances! American Hustle is, simply, unmissable; a tumbling carnival of a romp, living absolutely within the rarefied walls of cinematic logic, having its cake and not only eating it, but gutsily wolfing it down until bits of sponge are stuck in beards and perms. Deconstruct it, and it is largely nonsensical, to the point of tedium. But avoid looking at it too hard, and just bounce from one performance to the next and the effect is, dare I say it, one fabulous confidence trick.
Largely because I don’t like being conned. But this, of course is a film about conning, and it’s not just the plot that concerns itself with that.
I have never seen such a blatant copying of styles as Russell has done with mid-period Scorsese in American Hustle. Every camera swirl is straight from Goodfellas, every turn of the head is from Casino. The film is smattered, soaked, drowned in period Dad Rock that punctuates every slo-mo, every lingering shot. Christian Bale gains the pounds a la Raging Bull and does a better De Niro than De Niro. Jennifer Lawrence is simply magnificent in the Sharon Stone role, the loose cannon wife who threatens to bring the whole thing down with substance-singed tantrums. And, my God, is that Alessandro Navola in a cameo doing a brilliant Christopher Walken impression? Tell me it’s not, with a straight face!
The entire film is about pastiches, copies, homages, rip offs. It is, on one level, a film about how way-off the mark film-makers can be when trying to recreate a bygone age. The outfits and much commented-on wigs simply must be a joke riffing on the conning mentality of period film-making. Russell even takes a moment to remind us that Paul Weller’s biggest hit record of the 90s, ‘Changing Man’ is a shameless rip off of ELO’s hit of 1972, ‘10538 Overture’.
But apart from the fact that American Hustle is less a film and more a Film Studies essay shot with a camera, it has most going for it in the performances.
Bradley Cooper is much more believable as the good-looking loser trying to break from the loser life he doesn’t think he deserves than he was as the extremely good-looking mental health patient trying to break out of the life he doesn’t think he deserves in Russell’s last film, the Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook. Cooper delivers a performance this time straight from the Scorsese playbook: charming, to too big for his boots, to coked up, to breakdown and back to loser again. Cooper is wonderful. Amy Adams would be worthy of an Oscar for her performance as the con co-conspirator, even if it’s not always clear when she’s supposed to be doing her English accent or her American one. Quite simply, Russell has assembled the most interesting and talented bunch of young actors on Hollywood’s A-list working today (and Jeremy Renner) and given them characters of unusual richness and depth. If Fassbender is to McQueen what De Niro was to Scorsese then Bale may be an equivalent to Russell. He is magnificent as Irving Rothschild, and although De Niro is all over the performance, you have to wonder at the talent of Bale. Could De Niro in the late eighties have played the Dark Knight in the same period of his career when he was Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas? I doubt it very much. And in an exciting era for young female cinema actors, Lawrence must rate among the best. Her talent and her ability to understand a script and create a memorable character of depth and compassion is nothing short of prodigious, perhaps even pure, natural talent.
But then the film as a whole keeps bubbling up between the performances and a thought keeps coming back to me: is this actually a piss-take? Is Russell paying homage to Scorsese or is he taunting him? There is enough in the film to support either leaning. The directorial techniques are still effective. Is Russell seeing how much he can get out of a largely uninteresting story and a half-decent script? (He gets a great deal). Has Russell studied Scorsese and realised that Casino wasn’t his last great film like most people think, but it was King of Comedy fifteen years before that; and this is Russell’s essay on it? In almost every scene Russell could be saying, ‘Look, Goodfellas and Casino were not great films. They were all pizazz. It was a con itself. I’m showing you how he did it. By making a film about conmen, using Scorsese’ conning techniques.’
Regardless, American Hustle might just clear up in the acting categories, and Russell could get the Oscar for biggest balls in Hollywood for taking the piss out of Martin Scorsese. But then, out of nowhere, Martin Scorsese came along and stuck two fingers up at Russell…
The Wolf of Hollywood
It’s almost as if Marty could sense a real pretender to the throne in David O. Russell, and he quickly raised his game. There is no other explanation for how Mr Scorsese could have turned around his energy-less, turgid stream of playing-to-the-gallery, playing-out-his-career yawn-fests with such graceless and wonderful aplomb as he has done with The Wolf of Wall Street. It is not only an anomaly in Scorsese’s later period because it is good, but it is an important film because it is a Scorsese film, and because it adds something to the portfolio of one of America’s most significant post war artists. And here’s why:
Whenever drawn on the subject in the last few years I have had no problem in carefully constructing an argument that deconstructs the opinion that Martin Scorsese is still a forced to be reckoned with in modern cinema. The only thing he has done that comes close to a great film in the last 20 years is Casino, which was overblown and relied unwisely on a multi-stranded post-modern narrative that largely undermined the material. It was too long and sagged heavily in the middle. There are those who believe The Departed was a great movie. I can only assume these people are both easily pleased and ignorant of Scorsese’s source material, the Infernal Affairs movies, which carefully lay out how the film should have been made. There have been many other attempts at staying in the fight – Gangs of New York, Hugo, The Aviator – but they have been interesting rather than wholly successful. Scorsese had always been a director who worked more like a novelist than a painter (although visually you can see the guidance of his idols Kurosawa and Michael Powell in his best work); and he had the potential over the course of his career to be the film-maker who most definitively captured the American psyche on screen. We thought we had him, but, sadly, after Goodfellas (1990) he seemed to slip away.
But now we have The Wolf of Wall Street, a brash, cacophonous, BIG, American novel of a movie. It is, quite simply, a masterful piece of work. Searing, hilarious, depressing and dazzling. And I have had to re-evaluate the greatness of Scorsese because of it. The reason is that not only is Wolf of Wall Street a superb film in its own right, but it seems to frame Scorsese’s life’s work, and makes it perhaps the most significant of any American Director (something to put him up on the big boys’ table, with Powell, Kurosawa and Bergman). Here he finally tackles real criminals: the ones at the stock market. No longer is he looking behind the shades of hoodlums, these are the multi-millionaires, the ones whose cultural vandalism goes far beyond neighbourhood racketeering or holding up a goods convoy. This is thuggery cloaked in the poisonous garb of the American Dream. That it ends up being perhaps Scorsese’s clearest comedy says a great deal. That it is the lead performance for which Leonardo Di Caprio may have been born, says a great deal too (although it still won’t bag him the Oscar).
The film is held together by a series of wonderfully constructed set-pieces, from the hilarious Di Caprio/Quaaludes overdose, to Matthew McConaughey’s fabulous improvised pep-talk (more about McConaughey later). The film is ugly and brash and one of the funniest I have seen in a long time; and it opens a scar of Americanism that perhaps only an artist who has looked so insightfully and grittily into the world of Hollywood, the mafia, the underclass, rock n roll, religion and celebrity could have done.
This is Scorsese’s most overt exploration (although certainly not his only) of the American psyche. It may not be quite up there with Raging Bull, a film of such brutal elegance that his has very few peers in the artform’s history, but it is up there with Goodfellas. David O. Russell cannot win an Oscar in this field. With American Hustle he has called out to the world, ‘Look everyone, I can do Scorsese.’ Scorsese has taken him by the shoulder and quietly corrected him; ‘No, son; no, you can’t.’
And Hollywood is a bit like that; dynastic. And people have roles to fill, just like in a dynasty. And the dignified-woman-entering-middle-age is very much a role Hollywood is trying hard to accommodate.
…or as the director oddly decided to call it, Gravity. A more accurate nod to the centrality of this movie would have been to name it after Ms Bullock, as, although trailers and press blurb liked to pretend otherwise, she sucks everything in toward her for the entire movie. This is a meticulously crafted tight little thriller that has pulled off the cinematic coup of finding a previously untouched primal fear at which the audience can take in deep sharp breaths. Being helpless and abandoned in space, cut off from everything, even a tether, is perhaps the most terrifying notion since Wes Craven told you you weren’t allowed to go to sleep or Spielberg told you not to swim at the beach. And being jettisoned in space is just as likely as being butchered by a child-molesting dream murderer, although somewhat less likely than being eaten by a 25-foot shark. So the premise works entirely, and Cuaron carries it off well (award-winningly well, in fact). I haven’t seen the film in 3D, but in two dimensions the zero-gravity effect camera work and the hurtling debris of the shattered satellite that causes all the commotion in the first place makes for a pretty tense experience. Cuaron deserves his Oscar nod (and after the BAFTA win he’s now favourite to take the main prize home, too), and Bullock, who ticks all of the girl-next-door boxes the academy loves (if she’d made better movies I have no doubt the Academy would have adorned her with quite a few statuettes over the years), must be one of the favourites for Best Actress (if she can prize it out of Cate Blanchett’s intimidating grasp). She has a previously unseen overriding sadness to her character in this film that marks her performance out as an ‘act’ rather than a ‘Bullock’. And she has cut her hair quite short, which would come under the Academy category of ‘Brave’.
But whereas Gravity might be ‘Brave’ in hairstyles, and hard-working in technical achievement, it is a sadly and subversively anti-feminist film. Contrary to what many critics and audience members have perceived as the strength of Bullock’s main character, the truth is this ‘strength’ is not only based almost entirely on the fact she is that rare creature, a female lead, but that she is able to step up when her natural protectors – men! – are shod. The truth is this film affirms female weakness and dependency, and you remove the special effects and all that is left is a woman trying to get back home to her kid, the only place she feels she can be of use. I cannot say it any better than Barthes:
Women, be therefore courageous and free; play at being men… but never get far from them; live under their gaze, compensate for your [achievements] by your children; enjoy free rein for a while, but quickly come back to your condition.
Really, Barthes could have written the pitch for Gravity.
To this effect, Gravity should be jettisoned into the outer-atmosphere of cultural debate; it should be ridiculed by women all across the globe; but as usual Hollywood has its way, and we are praising Bullock for her strength and haircut. That Gravity wins anything outside of the technical categories shows just how far media has to go before it really understands the point of feminism at all.
But for the time being, it just is what it is. Gravity is not complex, and the script is so well-paced it would not be shocking to find out it was composed by algorithm. I’d imagine there are some people voting who will be wowed by the 3D, not realising cinema is immersive only ever because of a good script and convincing performances, not because a plate flies past your head. But it has been revealed recently that 60% of the Academy voters are white men over sixty, so it’s anybody’s guess whether the achievements of this film turn them on or off. Where this statistic might be telling is in the voting for the only masterpiece to be made this last year.
12 Years a Slave
It is almost unthinkable that the Academy will not give Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s account of his time in captivity and slavery the Best Picture award. They are very aware of the weight on their shoulders when it comes to showing how progressive they are. My review of 12 Years a Slave says all I have to say on the film itself, why it is perhaps the great film of my generation, and why it should win; but I will say that BAFTA failed to honour McQueen where their American cousins might not be able to. It beggars belief how anyone can value McQueen’s achievements lesser than Cuaron’s. As far beyond me (and most people) it may be to orchestrate the technological capacity of the movie-making idiom to make Sandra Bullock look like she is tumbling through space, it is the opening of a fridge door compared the poetry with which McQueen has created the perfection of his film. Comparing McQueen to Cuaron is the difference between comparing W.B. Yeats to J.K. Rowling: the merits of both are on display for all to see, but the genius of one runs to depths that the other profoundly could not fathom. 12 Years a Slave is, importantly, in many ways, one of those films that calls up the efficiently vulgar market of the film business (it was clear on McQueen’s face when the BAFTA for best director went elsewhere). Great film-making should celebrate not just technical bravado, but should celebrate the achievements of the poetic soul. And for that give it to McQueen. Give them all to McQueen.
Or you could give it to Outcast meets United 93. Captain Phillips is an efficient, well-functioning and largely well-meaning film from Paul Greengrass. The Solemn Ship Greengrass makes these types of films now with a humourless shrewdness, and one that perhaps leaves his films a little cold. The main message seems to be that American Heroes can come in all shapes and sizes, but they’re still going to need a SWAT team to close the deal. Tom Hanks is very oddly bereft of a best actor nomination – which perhaps suggests this film is only in the main pool at all because of the recent lengthening of nominations to 10 films (an economic decision rather than one reflecting the growing quality of American movies). It is unlikely Captain Phillips will win anything (despite Barkhd Abdi’s delightfully surprising win at the BAFTA’s). This film makes it into the tail end of the Big Ten – no shame in that considering the competition is so high this year – but it is not the duffer. It is a long way away from being the duffer.
Kevin Smith’s Marigold Hotel
It might have made a good novel, the relationships developing over the journey of discovery in the richness and depths of literature; a subject for the hands of a Laura Ingalls Wilder or Colleen McCullough. But as a cliché-heavy performance piece saturated in inadequacies of every type Nebraska barely qualifies as cinema of any note at all.
Such is the strength of feature films in the main category, movies of real depth, snarl, dynamism and expert craft, seeing Nebraska was an exercise in readjusting wronged feet. Overall Nebraska is dull – not dreadfully so, it does nothing to such extremes. What it is is a somersault, a spine-bending manoeuvre that sends the American indie scene back to the days just before Kevin Smith reared his head to make me an outcast at parties where people quoted Clerks back and forth all night. My god, I hated Clerks. And the cinematographer for Nebraska is constantly threatening to pass his camera on Jay and Silent Bob leaning on a wall in the background, perhaps the Second Unit filming them for a scene that will be eventually cut for not quite being dull enough. The sad thing is, if you like Smith’s films (I like them even less now than I did back then), Nebraska may have something for you. Chances are it will fool you into thinking it is sophisticated and poignant, just as Clerks fooled you into thinking it was funny and relevant.
Nebraska has a couple of funny moments, but it is mainly quiet, poorly acted (in the Kevin Smith line-reading way of old), and the script is pretty dire (in the Kevin Smith faux-sophisticated way of old). Apart from Bruce Dern, who phones it in – he is at his best when he gets to scream and holler – and Stacey Keech, who is sadly underused by movie-makers of both the mainstream and the b-world nowadays – the acting is wooden at best. It is like overrated but somewhat affecting, miss-marketed but relatively sophisticated indie bumpf like Little Miss Sunshine and Sideways never happened.
The US does not have a particularly good return when it comes to Independent cinema. Most of the most notable films in this area are barely notable at all once the dust settles. Oscar-nominated films, like the two mentioned above, rarely are anywhere near as good as the reputation that carries them. Of course, with the output of the American film industry, there will be exceptions to this. Drugstore Cowboy, Reservoir Dogs and Lost in Translation are all magnificent examples of the ‘Indie Movie’, with moments that have lingered in the language of cinema. Most others have been incorrectly lauded and quickly forgotten. Nebraska, and its performances, will be forgotten most likely before the credits roll. It certainly won’t win any Oscars.
If you’re going to spend any time with Nebraska this Oscars season, you’d be better advised to do it with this one…
Oscar Buyers Club
And now for a sentence that, had I written it a year ago, would have seen me committed to the Home for the Cinematically Insane (formally known as Newport Film School): Matthew McConaughey may not win an Oscar this year, but he will win one, and he may win a few, in what may well turn out to be one of the most significant careers in modern serious cinema. His performance in Dallas Buyers Club, remarkable as it is, may not be enough to win him anything this year, but pair that with his brilliant cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street and what is one of the most exciting performances I have seen in many years in the new TV thriller True Detective and any serious follower of cinema is now asking just one question: what is Matthew McConaughey’s next project and when can I see it? So why not for Dallas Buyers Club? He has a strong shout, but I think, and hope, and I suspect it is Fassbender’s. And there is the chance McConaughey may have just overdone it here.
He does indeed flirt so aggressively with the Oscar potential of his role he’s in danger of infecting the golden statuette with a STD all of its own. The film itself is uncomfortable to watch for a number of reasons, a few of them unintentional I’d suggest. Dallas Buyers Club becomes a film about the morally-inept American governmental attitude to healthcare, something which has changed very little; but the problem is we are expected to forget McConaughey’s character is an ugly bigot, and we are supposed to have sympathy for him beyond the base human compassion we must feel when anybody is suffering from such a rotten illness. The emotional centre of the film is, by implication, rotten. Jared Leto, if no-one thought it possible, out-incognitos McConaughey as the PA of the club of the title, but has been rightly criticised for his clownish portrayal of a transsexual. The film is a about exploitation, and it leaves you feeling as soiled as an exploitative farce would do. McConaughey’s character, when it comes down to it, and despite any attempt by the film-maker to portray him as ‘changed’, is exploiting AIDS sufferers for his financial gain. You have to wander if they have not been equally exploited by all involved in the quest for Oscar. And then there is the dire thudding yawn of Jennifer Garner playing Dr Beige in an ill-judged attempt to add balance to the bedside tables at home. What I wouldn’t have given to have been at the Garner-Affleck breakfast table the morning the nominations were announced and her name didn’t come up.
Dallas Buyers Club won’t win anything either, although it doesn’t look, at first glance at least, too out of place in esteemed company. The nominations should be reward enough for all concerned.
Very few people start a film project with awards in mind, with Oscars in sight. For some it would be odd were it not to cross the mind. Steve McQueen, combining that subject matter with that cast must have taken a moment in the years it took to put 12 Years a Slave together to reflect on the very strong probability he would be in with a shout come awards season. But even then, a film is the best efforts of a bunch of people to do justice to the story in front of them. The result of this is that it is inevitably unfair to compare films that are in competition with each other, like plucking a Premier League footballer and forcing him to compete at darts with a chess Grandmaster; these things were not designed to compete. So how fair is it that a film of such dignity, sturdy craft and measured, almost televisual composition, be asked to puff out its chest in parade alongside the club-swinging of The Wolf of Wall Street or the gravitas of 12 Years a Slave?
The fact is it cannot, and it does not. Director Stephen Frears has again brought what is essentially a TV movie, and done such a wonderfully warm job with it, the movie world has given it a cinema release and made it eligible for Oscars (much as what happened with The Queen). The film is slight, but amiable in every department, and Steve Coogan is extremely good at suggesting the subtle awkward idiosyncrasies of Martin Sixsmith (the scene where he goes to eat at a Harvester for the first time is a delight); it is an unusually rich performance. Unusually rich too is Judy Dench as the title role; a simple woman, looking for her son whilst refusing to criticise the institutions that stole him from her and sold him for profit. Another worthy story for the Academy to consider.
Dench is in with a shout – lord knows she has delivered myriad performances of more worth than the 12 minutes that got her her Oscar for Shakespeare in Love.
But the Oscars are a weird place, often anointing people it feels should be in the club, rather than rewarding performances it feels were artistically accomplished.
As for artistic accomplishment…
This subtitle could stand for two things: either the gripping performance of Cate Blanchett in the surprisingly good Woody Allen movie, Blue Jasmine (Allen has made unmitigated dross since Mighty Aphrodite, and anybody who ever mentions Vicky Christina Barcelona to me is normally thrown from a window – awful, self-indulgent, lecherous, badly-acted, monotonous, verbose, over-exposed, horse-shit that it was); or it could stand for the brilliant sci-fi romance from Spike Jonze. As for Blanchett, she is favourite for a reason; her performance is extremely good, a masterclass in the note by note tonal construction of a character – often in this case in spite of Allen’s slightly-too-stagey script. She will probably win the Actress Oscar, and she absolutely should.
Over the years, the emerging voice of Spike Jonze, through Being John Malcovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Where the Wild Things Are, has been one with a natural if complex talent for exploring deeply emotional ideas in otherwise cold high-concept frames. He essentially brings humanity to science fiction, makes unerring emotional films with cores of universally attachable heartbreak and yearning. His characters are sensitive and extremely modern in the confines of their existential angst. Jonze is most comfortable (perhaps this is obvious) deep inside the engine room of his protagonist. That the world can be cold and functional, says Jonze, is a veneer; we are all as human as we have ever been, and even the most robotic of nobodies has the base simplicity of the profound rumbling behind their spectacles.
Here the spectacles belong to Jaoquin Phoenix, wonderfully quiet and disenfranchised from his own existence. The moral questions and philosophical conundrums, as always with Jonze, are abundant, and it is testament to his skill as a storyteller that he manages to keep his films this side of feeling like a philosophy paper. He is one of the most interesting, and stylised, directors working at the moment. He won’t see any nods this year, I fear, but Hoyte Van Hoytema would be my favourite for cinematographer (since Sean Bobbit for 12 Years a Slave somehow was overlooked), and wouldn’t it be great to see Arcade Fire win an Oscar. That would probably make up for the inevitability of Steve McQueen not winning best director.
For all that, I think the Academy will find its way through the quality and the fillers this year and largely do right. I was wrong in a few big areas last year, but in my defence, nobody really thought Ang Lee would in Best Director (most likely a number of Academy voters had gone back to Brokeback Mountain after the news of Heath Ledger’s death and realised what a mistake they’d made not giving Lee the statuette for that), and I had grossly underestimated just how popular Jennifer Lawrence is. My predictions below, I hope are a little more savy. Lawrence will have done herself no harm in hinting she may take a few years off from acting, and the Academy will want to try and convince her to stay in touch. She is box office gold, after all. But also her performance is worthy.
But I do see the other awards going to the people who deserve for their work in 2013. Perhaps unusual for the Academy to not pull any surprises, though, so feel free to tweet me and tell me how wrong I got everything this coming Sunday night.
And the winners probably won’t be…
Should win: 12 Years a Slave Will win: 12 Years a Slave
Actor in a Leading Role
Should win: Chiwetel Ejiofor Will win: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Actress in a Leading Role
Should win: Cate Blanchett Will win: Cate Blanchett
Actor in a Supporting Role
Should win: Michael Fassbender Will win: Michael Fassbender
Actress in a Supporting Role
Should win: Jennifer Lawrence Will win: Jennifer Lawrence
Should win: Steve McQueen Will win: Alfonso Cuaron