Instead of a written assessment of this year’s nominations, check out my Oscar Preview and Predictions on SKIPI TV!
Your comments always welcome.
Instead of a written assessment of this year’s nominations, check out my Oscar Preview and Predictions on SKIPI TV!
Your comments always welcome.
The folk at Illumination Entertainment, a French animation house, have had a stellar run of late. They made Despicable Me and its sequels and Minions off-shoots, as well as The Secret Life of Pets. So they are in the Billion Club and then some.
Add another. Their latest, Sing, has made a quarter bil and counting. DVDs, sequels and merch will push it into billion on its own in years to come. Sacre blue!
Their style is more ramshackle, eccentric and, well, French than Pixar or Dreamworks, and Sing is no exception. A Koala tries to save his foreclosed-upon theatre by hosting a singing competition. Various animals compete. Matthew McConaughey plays the Koala, which suits his hucksterish persona, and there are a lot of pop hits – across all decades – referenced, with a fair few sung in their entirety by hippos, lllamas, porcupines, pigs and others. It’s all incredibly colourful.
This was the first feature film I took my not-quite-yet three-year-old daughter to at the cinema. She made it through the whole thing and loved it. That’s rave enough. For my money, the middle act, lacking songs, dragged a bit, and the concept of not having enough money to save one’s property seemed to me to be a boring – and hopefully alien – concept for teeny kiddies (Princesses, you’ll notice, don’t carry wallets). But the animals are cute, the songs great, and… well, my daughter loved it, so yours probably will too.
****1/2 (out of five)
Australian Release Date: 12 January 2017
Jackie, a film about the preparations for John F. Kennedy’s funeral as experienced by his widow Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Natalie Portman), is a relentlessly sad hundred minutes, a close-up dissection of one person’s intensely painful grief combined with unique, almost unimaginable pressure. Fuelled by a baroque string-heavy score by Under The Skin maestro Mica Levi, the film, directed by Chilean Pablo Larrain (No, Neruda) has almost unbearable extra resonance in these waning days of the Obama administration. As in this film, (at least I feel like) we are in mourning for the loss of a kindly, wise father, and scared of the brash, unpredictable one waiting on the doorstep.
Larrain and cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (Captain Fantastic) shot the film on Super 16mm, instantly giving it a grain (and aspect ratio) to complement the period. They are aided by astonishingly effective production and costume design, and by Portman’s tremendous performance.
It can’t have been easy. Being confined to the hours between her husband being shot and seeing him put in the ground (outside of a framing device, an interview with a reporter a week later), Portman’s Jackie is not just in grief but in shock. She’s drinking, popping pills and smoking a million cigarettes. More than anything, she is alone. The next President is sworn in in front of her while she still has her husband’s blood on her face, the Secret Service think her plans for a funeral are an insane risk; essentially, her existence in the White House is a burden to a lot of men in suits who’d prefer the grieving, strong-willed widow to just float away quietly.
She will not. Constantly referencing the three other presidents murdered in office, she insists on a State Funeral to rival a British Monarch’s coronation (or, much more specifically, Lincoln’s own funereal procession). Her motivations are complex and vexing to anyone who isn’t her, being everyone – even Bobby Kennedy, one of her only allies, and played admirably by Peter Sarsgaard. She has one other true ally, her Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig, showing not one iota of Brooklyn hipsterism) but Nancy’s a girl’s name, and this is a man’s world. Even the journalist interviewing her, and trying as hard as he can to be empathetic (Billy Crudup), cannot help but reveal the underlying, inbuilt, horrendously demeaning sexism of the time.
The themes are big but the focus is tight as a drum; Larrain and Fontaine keep their nearly-square, unyielding frame tight on Jackie’s face, on her limbs, at one point – somehow achingly revealingly – her seemingly fat-free, spiny back while she has a shower, the first since the event that shook America and the world. The water runs over that nobbled back, that tight, white skin, that tiny frame, awash with her husband’s blood that remains matted in her stylish dark hair.
Set in a roomy Texas house on Thanksgiving and taking place entirely within that day, Krisha is a serious, creepy, ambitious, moving, uncompromising and wholly successful cinematic work. Krisha, played by Krisha Fairchild, Shults’ aunt, returns to the bosom of her family – played almost entirely by members of Shults’ own family – for the holiday. The trouble is, under the welcoming surfaces, everything is cracked, and as the day progresses, the glass starts to splinter. It’s seemingly simple yet, in just 83 minutes, enormously, profoundly compelling and quite terrifying.
Trey Edward Shults, Krisha
The film was shot in Shults’ parents’ home in nine days for around sixty thousand dollars, but it is fully realised as a piece of cinema, with bold, elaborate cinematography, astonishing creepy original music by Brian McOmber, and absolutely superb acting that deliberately combines pure naturalism with a heightened style as the film demands. It has won sixteen major awards including the Grand Jury and Audience Awards at South by Southwest and was nominated for the Critics Week Grand Prize and the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Best Feature Documentary:
David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, Tickled
If the definition of a good film is one that keeps you wanting to know what happens next, Tickled is among the greatest ever made. You cannot look away. Don’t drink a batch of water, coffee, beer, whatever before you go in, because woe-be-tide you have to go to the toilet and miss a moment. This is breath-taking stuff. I want it to be nominated for Best Feature Length Documentary at the next Academy Awards. That may sound like a long shot, but only because of the subject matter’s inherent weirdness. In terms of proficiency and engagement, Tickled is an instant classic, one that will appear on “Top 50 Documentary” lists forever.
Best Lead Performance by a Woman:
Hayley Squires, I, Daniel Blake
The scene that got me crying takes place in a food bank. Thankfully, I’ve never been in one. But thankfully, too, they exist. The scene is a masterpiece – a perfect confluence of script, direction and acting, particularly and specifically by Hayley Squires, who plays Katie, a young single mother of two befriended by Daniel Blake (UK stand-up Dave Johns), a carpenter who, after a heart attack, is finding it impossible to get out-of-work benefits from the Kafkaesque clutches of the bureacratic State. All this, of course, in a hardscrabble Northern (English) town.
Best Lead Performance by a Man:
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Thematically massive, tonally bold, determinedly non-formulaic and featuring a preternaturally perfectly cast leading man at the top of his game, Matt Ross’ second feature film as writer/director is one of the best of the year. Viggo Mortensen – and, once you’ve seen the film, you cannot imagine anyone else in the role – plays Ben, the father of six kids living off the grid in the mountainous forests of the Pacific Northwest of the United States. He’s brining them up with a philosophy combining intense survival skills, intense physical training, intense learning (his eldest speaks six languages) and intense moral introspection. Ben is intense, and so are his incredible spawn.
Best Supporting Performances by a Man:
Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash and Hail, Caesar!
Fiennes, whose out-of-the-box comic performance in The Grand Budapest Hotel gave Luca Guagagnino the clever idea to cast him in his loose remake of 1969’s French film La Piscine, gives us something we’ve never seen from him before, with gusto and huge energy. His character Harry is a big big character and Fiennes gives a big big performance that is spellbinding and – the cursed cliché of the film critic – revelatory. And in Hail, Caesar!, he shares (with Alden Ehrenreich) the funniest scene of the year.
Best Supporting Performance by a Woman:
Lucy Boynton, Sing Street
John Carney’s Sing Street is a total delight from start to finish. It is also a completely engaging, hugely romantic love story. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, as Conor, and Lucy Boynton, as Raphina, are superb; Boynton in particular will be a massive star by next year, mark my words. Like Carney’s Once, the film crackles with the excitement of discovery: Walsh-Peelo and Boynton, like Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in the earlier film, will, quite simply, steal your heart.
Ensemble Performance Award:
The kids are all – well, fantastic. George MacKay, as that eldest with the six languages, is one of those “I can’t believe he’s English!” English actors – I recognised him from an excellent little Brit Mini-Series called The Outcast (2015) after getting past the likelihood that, despite appearances, he probably wasn’t Mortensen’s actual son – he’s that well cast. And Annalise Basso and Samantha Isler are tremendously believable as spookily precocious sisters. The scene in which one of them (I’m not sure which!) gives her own take on Lolita is worth the ticket on its own. And the rest of the supporting cast are perfect. Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Ann Dowd, Missi Pyle, Erin Moriarty – I mean, come on. They’re all superb, and even when they’ve only got a scene, they contribute a multi-dimensional character. It’s really rather remarkable.
Best Original Screenplay:
Matt Ross, Captain Fantastic
Road trip movies are inherently episodic, but Ross’ astonishingly rich script allows each stop along the way to contribute to the film’s larger thematic texture with deeply satisfying construction. Indeed, the rhythms of the film are so singular that you are almost upbraided (well, I was upbraiding myself) for trying to predict them. The road in this road movie is not the length you expect, and doesn’t lead you where you may possibly think it will. Don’t try to out-guess this film; you can’t. It’s pretty plain that Ben’s extreme parenting methods are going to come into question, but exactly how they are questioned – and answered – is the stuff of near-genius screenwriting.
Best Adapted Screenplay:
David Birke, Elle
It’s relentless. I can’t recall a recent movie with so much plot, so many things going on. Each scene piles on more incident, more character intrigue, more development, as if, like a shark, the film would die if it stood still. This is not a bad thing.
Abe Forsythe, Down Under
On the eleventh of December, 2005, a hot sunny Sunday, a series of racially-motivated attacks at Cronulla Beach in Sydney lead to some pretty serious national shame and soul-searching. Now, finally, a filmmaker has examined the incident – as a comedy. It’s a brave, brazen and bold move, and it pays off mightily. Writer / director Abe Forsythe’s last feature was the deliriously funny Ned Kelly spoof Ned way back in 2003. That film was a gag-fest in the vein of Airplane! or The Man With Two Brains, but Down Under has much more serious concerns. It’s an extremely angry film, spewing vitriolic rage at the kind of people who spew vitriolic rage. Basically, it’s a war on idiots, of every ethnic stripe.
Julia Bloch, Green Room
Joins the canon of “under siege” movies – Rio Bravo, Assault on Precinct 13, Night of the Living Dead, The Mist, From Dusk Till Dawn, Panic Room, Home Alone etc – not with louder bangs, scarier invaders or more bloodshed but with originality, wit and subversion. As the story hits the most essential beats this sub-genre demands, the screenplay and direction and editing surprise us with off-beat timing and unusual methods: people die at odd times in odd ways. It is jarring only in that it upsets the rhythms we’re used to: it bucks formula even as it adheres to it, and vice versa.
Chung-hoon Chung, The Handmaiden
There is an excellent series of YouTube videos about filmmaking called Every Frame a Painting. I kept thinking of that delicious phrase during The Handmaiden, Chan-wook Park’s exquisitely beautiful new potboiler. Every shot is stunning, and many are breathtaking. It’s the gorgeous movie of the year.
Best Production Design:
Mark Tildesley, High Rise
[Director Ben Wheatley’s] coup de theatre is to set the film not in “the future” but in the future as a film director working in 1975 might be able to visualise it. Thus it’s both “futuristic” and retro, with sideburns, wide ties and big moustaches accompanying concrete bunkers out of Logan’s Run. It’s a brilliant conceit brilliantly realised on the production design side; the “high rises” themselves look exactly as I’d always imagined them (the novel is one of my all-time favourites).
Best Original Score:
Brian McOmber, Krisha
The film was shot in Shults’ parents’ home in nine days for around sixty thousand dollars, but it is fully realised as a piece of cinema, with bold, elaborate cinematography, astonishing creepy original music by Brian McOmber, and absolutely superb acting that deliberately combines pure naturalism with a heightened style as the film demands.
****1/2 (out of five)
Gareth Edwards’ (and, it must be acknowledged, Tony Gilroy’s) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is sensational, a thrilling, spectacularly crafted action-adventure tale set in the Star Wars universe. Unburdened by the weight of expectation, and J.J. Abrams’ almost pathological addiction to fan service, this “stand-alone” romp is more fun, more thrilling and just a better movie than The Force Awakens.
If you don’t know by now that the plot involves stealing the plans for the original Death Star, you’re probably not particularly interested in seeing the film. It’s a terrific story idea, though, allowing Edwards and his unbelievably talented team to assemble a motley crew on a stealthy raid with stakes as big as the universe. Essentially, the model here is The Dirty Dozen and so many films that came after, involving a wartime assault by a small group with big hearts against, well, Nazis – because that’s what the Empire is, right? Stormtroopers and all.
The film looks, feels, sounds and smells astonishingly like a Star Wars film, right down to its grain (in this it neither surpasses nor underperforms against The Force Awakens, which would have been responsible for constructing all the tech that allow these films to be so evocative of the texture of Lucas’ original three movies). It has the right rhythms, the right dialogue style and the right kind of story beats, but, unlike Force Awakens – which was, let’s face it, a remake of A New Hope (the first one, from 1977) – the story here is fresh. It also doesn’t seek to aspire to being Epic (with a capital “E”, see?) and so feels a lot tighter and more structurally satisfying.
The tone is more serious, or dare I use that dreaded word… “darker”. Force Awakens was so jam-packed with jokes as to be easily labeled comedic; Rogue One has very few. These people have too much on their mind to crack wise. Jyn (Felicity Jones, continuing the series’ fetish for very petite posh British brunettes) has a missing father who has designed a genocide machine; Cassian (Diego Luna) has, in one of the film’s rather excellent dialogue moments, been fighting against the Empire “since I was six years old”. Even this film’s droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk, but doing an English accent!) is no-nonsense, and also kicks butt. (He’s also ugly; Rogue One scrupulously avoids the cute).
Characters from A New Hope appear, including, astonishingly, Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin – and not just for a moment but in whole scenes, with many lines of dialogue. This is the most extended use of a dead actor’s likeness I have yet seen. There was a hint of uncanny valley to this most special of special effects, but I’m willing to bet a teenager who didn’t know Cushing died in 1994 wouldn’t pick it. It’s pretty amazing, and Actor’s Equity should be very, very afraid.
Jones and Luna have superb chemistry; as they fell for each other, I fell for them. It’s hard to describe how satisfying Rogue One is. As craftsmanship and story-telling it’s superb, but it is something else, something magical. It really does offer a kind of welcome regression to the thrill of the movies as only children experience them. Perhaps seeing it on my birthday had some influence on my state of mind, but I felt like a kid again, giddy with pleasure, excitement and a warm heart. I guess like I felt after seeing the first one. What higher praise for A Star Wars Story can there be?
Ira Sachs had a bit of a circuit hit a couple of years ago with Love Is Strange, his bittersweet tale of a mature gay couple wrenched apart by the price of New York real estate. That demon rears its head again in Little Men, this time specifically examining the effect Brooklyn’s gentrification is having on a personal level.
Greg Kinnear plays Brian, a New York actor married to a surgeon (Jennifer Ehle). They have a young teen-age son, Jake (Theo Taplitz). When Brian’s dad dies and he is left his Brooklyn apartment, it comes with a tenant, a new best friend for Theo, and some heavy choices to make.
It’s hard to make the film sound at all exciting from its premise, but Sachs deals in realism, minutiae, and the kind of dilemmas actual people face. His is the opposite of Superhero Cinema. As it moves calmly but deliberately along, the power of the dilemmas facing each of the main characters grows stronger. Inexorably, you can’t help but be drawn in.
Denis Villeneuve has a pacing problem. The last act of the otherwise excellent Sicario (2015) slowed to a crawl; Prisoners (2013) dragged; and now Arrival, his dour, monotonal emo-sci-fi extravaganza, starring Amy Adams as a linguist trying to talk to the aliens, spends its long second act in a kind of suspended animation almost guaranteed to bring sleep to the weary. It’s laborious.
The film also feels deeply, cloyingly influenced by others. It’s the last act of Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets Contact meets Inception / Interstellar meets The Tree of Life. Scenes of Adams’ character, Dr. Louise Banks, and her daughter seem directly ripped from the latter, while Nolan’s influence is not just apparent but breathtakingly obvious – as though Villeneuve wanted to be Nolan and was trying to pull off some weird con by making a Nolan movie.
Aliens have arrived at twelve locations around the world; they’re hovering in big ships, and we the people of earth don’t know what to do. The US Army enlists Louise to try to talk to them. She tries and tries, along with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who really should have been played by Mark Ruffalo. But their language is complicated, it’s taking too much time, and, meanwhile, the Chinese want to nuke ‘em.
It may sound exciting but it’s not. For the most part, it grinds on in scenes that are repetitious not only in content but visually, the drab overcast Montana skies combining with the monotonous hues of an army camp to induce a sense of overwhelming Sunday afternoon melancholy. Forest Whitaker stands around and spits out quiet, intense exposition as an army Colonel, while Michael Stuhlbarg – bless him! – provides the film’s only lightness and wit as a CIA Agent along for the language lessons.
Like Interstellar, the film aims to be deeply emotionally compelling, but, while the complicated story structure definitely pays off as a sci-fi concept, it tries too hard to make you cry to actually make you cry. I appreciated the clever gimmickry of the conclusion and was glad the credits rolled.