The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman is one of the great movie conundrums of 2017. It was tepidly received my most critics and savaged by others. Yet, over time, it’s become an unqualified popular and financial success. While Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Black Panther have taken most of the media attention, The Greatest Showman has quietly made more than $344 million on an $84 million budget, more than $155 million of that domestically.

There is clearly something attractive here that the public likes and the critics don’t see or appreciate, which is beyond the interest and scope of this particular analysis. But it’s just one of those “disconnect” films that shed light on what the public wants to see that will likely be misinterpreted, judged, and wrongly imitated in an attempt to cash in on the film’s financial success. Sometimes this stuff is fun to watch!

I mention this because as the film began, my own heart was lightened as I thought it was going to be a brave, fun, joyous, and blissfully uncynical film that would be the equivalent of a more family-oriented La La Land. I was partially right: the cynicism is minimal, the movie is all heart (even when its heart isn’t necessarily in the right places), and the main players, with one great exception, do their own singing.

But the initial magic disappeared as the film devolved into less of a film than a series of musical numbers that are often clichéd in terms of subject, and which provide a lot of pizzazz with little feeling and with a strange tendency to avoid the most intriguing conflicts in the film. It is fun, to be sure, but only on the most superficial level. It stubbornly refuses to go deep, which may well be its most attractive factor (dare I say it?) in these troubled times.

The narrative is thin as a thread and serves primarily as a line on which to hang one musical number after another. The script is a barely-there gloss on P.T. Barnum’s life, with the creation of one fictional person and event after another in an attempt to create current relevancies and more “regular” movie situations. For example, there was no younger partner in love with a performer of a different race, nor did Barnum and Jenny Lind ever have any semblance of a romantic relationship. Also, while the casting of perennial favorite Hugh Jackman in the role of Barnum softens many edges and draws great empathy, Barnum was more of an exploiter than a modern-day tolerant equal opportunity employer.

The least interesting aspect of the film and its numbers is exemplified by “This is Me,” a variation of the Disney princess song of independence combined with what seems like a modern rallying cry, but one that even in modern times goes back to “I’ve Gotta Be Me.” Much more interesting was the fake interracial romance, which was only celebrated musically in terms of its romance rather than with its righteous defiance of social convention—a lost musical opportunity. The best vocals of the film, however, are found in this number—“Rewrite the Stars” with Zac Efron and Zendaya. Even more interesting and therefore more of a disappointment because it wasn’t really explored was Barnum’s insecurity, rooted in his childhood years and exacerbated by snobbish and judgmental in-laws. Such a great and gritty topic for a number…oh, well.

Efron and Zendaya are both just fine in roles that don’t stretch either one of them, but Michelle Williams is basically wasted. She is one of our most talented actresses, and is capable of adding depth and multiple layers of meaning to her films most of the time, but the film doesn’t allow that kind of subtlety. She proves to film audiences that she can sing well enough, but her performance, as fine-tuned as it is, is as shallow as the film itself.

Then there is Rebecca Ferguson as opera legend Jenny Lind. Ferguson looks modern and of course nothing like Lind. This is to be expected, but then then there is her signature song, “Never Enough.” I get that the composers wanted a modern sound, but I was wondering why they couldn’t have at least given a nod to Lind’s more lyrical operatic sound. Instead of a “Swedish Nightingale”—Lind’s nickname—we have an American screech owl of a performance. It thought it sounded straight out of an audition for “American Idol”. I was wrong. It’s from a genuine finalist on “The Voice” and it’s wrong on so many levels.

This of course brings us to Jackman, the raison-d’être of the film, its unwavering center, and the force behind the film’s long road to realization. Jackman can sing and move, though I wouldn’t call him a dancer. His voice is just OK, but he knows how to act through song, and unlike the straining he had to do in Les Misérables, only one song near the end stretches his vocal abilities. He’s a natural leader on screen, and a vibrant personality that fits with the Barnum image. The non-musical scenes are solidly acted, but formulaic. A less charismatic actor would never have been able to hold this thin narrative and string of production numbers together; those profiting from the film owe Jackman a great deal here.

This is the first feature directed by special effects expert and music video director Michael Gracey. That explains the lack of narrative coherence and the focus on the splash of the musical numbers. Fortunately, the songs are by the same composing team that did La La Land, and they are, if not on the same level as those of that film, catchy, fun and infectious.

The Greatest Showman is clearly hitting a sweet spot with audiences. Perhaps it’s the central character/actor, perhaps it’s a group of singable and enjoyable songs. Perhaps it’s perfect counter-programming to the dark and intense films out there at the moment (take a look at the Best Film nominees, for example). Unfortunately, in terms of the history of film musicals, the film as a whole doesn’t just bring us back to pre-Oklahoma! days (I refer to the original Broadway version), it brings us back to musical review and vaudeville days when productions were discovering that a plot could help unite the numbers.

To reset once you’ve seen the film, go back and re-watch Singin’ in the Rain. Inside its brilliant satire, that’s a film with a real plot and some of the best musical numbers you’ll ever see. You’re welcome.

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The Post

The Post has been called second-tier Spielberg, and that’s true. Of course, second-tier for SS means it’s more finely crafted than 95 percent of other films. But in spite of the political perspectives brought to the film by many viewers that have added value where there is none, this is less intriguing and more simplistic than either All the President’s Men, to which it’s been compared, or Spotlight, to which it hasn’t.

To get all the political considerations out of the way … This has been judged something of a rallying cry for freedom of the press, and the actual story of lies and deceptions regarding the Vietnam Way is both infuriating and tragic. Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite been translated into the suspenseful (All the President’s Men) or enraging (Spotlight) film it could have been. In fact, it’s not quite clear what the film wants to be. Is it a story of the free press, or an anguished cry for the lost young lives and loss of truth and trust? Or is it the story of a woman finding her voice and ever-strengthening spine? Apparently, all three and more, and the multiple goals blunt the film’s force.

Also irritating is the issue of fake news, which isn’t just a rallying cry of the left. Upon learning years ago that the New York Times, in covering the infamous Kitty Genovese murder, decided that the “no one came to help” angle, though completely untrue and known as such by the paper, was the story they would promote because it made better copy, my respect for even the greatest newspapers in the land has been suspect. I won’t even go into the hatchet job I know the paper at the center of The Post has accomplished based on politics alone.

But back to the film…. Much of the attention has been on the two legendary leads—Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. When I heard that Streep had been nominated for Best Actress again, I was tempted to think it was just an easy vote for a great actress. But darn if she doesn’t deserve it. Streep shows the fear, hesitance and insecurity of a woman thrown into an unanticipated position and learning to come to complete terms with that. It’s an original and fresh performance that doesn’t lean on her past successes yet adds another example of her range and abilities. Unfortunately, the slow tracking shot onto her face when making the key decision doesn’t…quite…work…. But that could be the fault of the writing or direction as well.

Hanks, not nominated this year (to the surprise of some), doesn’t quite fare as well as Ben Bradlee. Perhaps because he is in the shadow of Jason Robards’ Oscar-winning performance in All the President’s Men, Hanks comes across as a hard-working but ultimately unconvincing substitute. He’s fine to occasionally very fine in some scenes, but he basically is too nice a guy and doesn’t have the requisite darkness, bitterness, and grumpiness to be a new generation’s Ben Bradlee. Occasionally his comic persona and comic chops override the character to a temporarily humorous but ultimately undermining effect. Fortunately, Bob Odenkirk gives a consistently strong performance as Ben Bagdikian. There’s also solid work all around from Bradley Whitford, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys (as Daniel Ellsburg, who needed to be in much more of the film), and David Cross, but the net effect is a parade of well-known television actors whose personae override their characters.

One great strength of the film apart from its acting is the acknowledgement and investigation of the various elements at play when making a decision of whether to print controversial material or not. There were business considerations at this juncture in the paper’s history that one wouldn’t have expected, and there are several personal issues at stake, the main one being the sometimes murky relationships between journalists and politicians that are not always the solid friendships they may have appeared at first glance. Any one of these could have been a separate film, and perhaps a better one.

Sorry, National Board of Review. Streep could be considered Best Actress, yes; after all, how can one judge among several great performances this past year? But Best Picture and Best Actor for Hanks?—these will come back to haunt you.

The Post is a solid film with one great performance and several good ones. It follows one main story that turns out not be as interesting as the many other issues it touches on. It’s worth one’s time, but no need to hurry.

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2018 Oscar Noms—First Thoughts

I love Oscar season. Each year is fascinating for different reasons. While genuinely good work gets recognized (and some good and great work gets ignored), the other factors that figure into the nominations, and then the final awards, change each year. The common other factors are an unhealthy sense of self-congratulation, a desire to make up for past oversights, and an aspiration to position themselves as correct, or caring, or aware, or a combination thereof. The percentage of the ingredients is what fluctuates from year to year.

This year, there is a recognition of good work, an avoidance of uncomfortable situations, and a desire to use the nominations to make amends for 100 years of sexual harassment and abuse in the industry. As if….

But let’s take a look at the categories:

BEST PICTURE

Good ones. Get Out is wildly original, a rather breathtaking first directorial effort, and the kind of social statement that is surprising enough to get attention and not vicious enough to get the wrong kind. This is a sign of the academy growing and expanding.

Wonder Woman and The Big Sick could have been in the mix here, perhaps with the loss of Darkest Hour. The rest look like they belong there, though Phantom Thread is a surprise, considering its art-house sangfroid.

The Shape of Water is a lovingly crafted film and the most overrated of the year. And Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has great performances, and is something of a structural mess. And The Post is solid and workmanlike with one great performance and several good ones.

BEST DIRECTOR

Finally! Christopher Nolan gets a nomination, and a well-deserved one, for Dunkirk. Newbies Jordan Peele (Get Out) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) are nominated partly as recognition for their excellent work, and a nod to talented first timers that show some new pathways for mainstream films. Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread) is a bit of a surprise for the same reasons as above.

No Spielberg? Perhaps because The Post is good but not great, or because he’s been awarded enough, and this year is about a younger crowd.

BEST ACTOR

This one is interesting. It’s likely Gary Oldman’s year for a powerhouse performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Daniel Kaluuya was very good in Get Out, and his nomination is part of the respect shown to that film and its director Jordan Peele. Denzel Washington has James Franco’s apparent past sexual indiscretions to thank for his nomination for Roman J. Israel, Esq. To be honest, it’s easy to vote for talented and likable actors such as Washington and Streep; it’s just not always correct. Six months ago, Franco would have been a shoo-in for The Disaster Artist, for which he just won the Best Actor/Comedy Golden Globe Award, as well as several other critics groups awards.

And of course, Jake Gyllenhall gets ignored again. But his continually being overlooked will help him the next time he puts out a great performance in a year when the Oscar isn’t “owed” to someone else. He’s the male Amy Adams with fewer nominations.

BEST ACTRESS

As in recent years, a strong category. It’s pretty much decided that Frances McDormand will win for her blistering performance in Three Billboards. Saoirse Ronan is proving herself the budding great actress we thought she was with Lady Bird, but apparently her time hasn’t come. (I wish she’d won for Brooklyn.) Margo Robbie (I, Tonya) has successfully proven herself a serious actress and has moved past the fact that she is stunningly beautiful. Streep, like Judi Dench, is always so good that she is often taken for granted. Yes, it seems overdone to grant her another award-breaking nomination, but it’s deserved, too.

Other considerations: In terms of neither drama nor comedy, who else could have done what Gal Gadot did in Wonder Woman? Seriously—who else could have pulled this role off with such success? But that’s just a superhero movie, so it doesn’t count (please hear the irony and slight sarcasm). Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, and the production design were the best parts of The Shape of Water, but the nominations are the rewards here (except for perhaps production design).

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Another strong category, with nary a weak one. I haven’t seen All the Money in the World, but it seems as if Christopher Plummer’s nomination for his quick replacement work for the disgraced Kevin Spacey is the reason for the nomination. I seriously doubt it would be in that group without Ridley Scott’s near-miraculous work in re-gathering the cast, shooting quickly, and re-editing the film. But Plummer won’t win anyway. It will likely be Sam Rockwell, both for his performance in Three Billboards (he’s McDormand’s equal) and for his having been under-recognized but appreciated nonetheless all these years—the curse of the actor’s actor at times.

I was glad to see Woody Harrelson in the mix for Three Billboards, but I hope he and Rockwell don’t split the vote.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

This is Allison Janney’s year for the showiest of the great performances here. She’s a highly respected actress and has won every other major award here. She is the J.K. Simmons of this year’s awards. But it was good to see Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird), whom I expected in the lineup, and especially Leslie Manville for her excellent work in Phantom Thread, on which much of the film rests.

Octavia Spencer. Oy. She is a talented actress, and a delightful screen presence. But this is her third nomination for essentially the same role. Enough said….sigh…. Mary J. Blige’s nomination for Mudbound is her reward, but is significant beyond her coming from music to film. The film itself is considered an independent and not the normal “contender,” though the categories have been breaking down for years.

CINEMATOGRAPHY

Speaking of Mudbound, it receives the first nomination for cinematography for a woman, Rachel Morrison—another significant moment. Though the nominations for all the films are well deserved, I personally hope that Roger Deakin’s work in Blade Runner 2049 finally brings him a long-delayed and most definitely deserved award.

PRODUCTION DESIGN

Production design was a strong element in all the nominated films. Darkest Hour deserves a nomination, as does Dunkirk. Production design may have been the single strongest element of The Shape of Water outside the performances, but Blade Runner 2049 was extraordinary, and it is hoped that the film’s underwhelming financial performance in the States won’t diminish its chances.

WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)

Both James Ivory (Call Me By Your Name) and Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game) have high name recognition going for them. But this category also contains another nomination for Mudbound, plus a perhaps surprising one for Logan, certainly an anomaly in the fantasy superhero category.

WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

So very glad The Big Sick—the best romantic comedy in 20 years—received its well-deserved nomination. Also happy that Lady Bird and Get Out, two of the freshest screenplays in years, got some attention here. Still not in love with The Shape of Water or Three Billboards here, however.

Watching the ups and downs of certain films is fun as critics and others look at the various “other factors” that make up the awards other than quality. The nominations are one thing, and include attempts to right the world and atone for previous sins of omission. Sometimes they actually promote some of the best work of the year. We’ll see which factors dominate in March.

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Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is exquisite. That’s neither a compliment nor a criticism, but just a description. It follows the story of a 1950’s London fashion designer described early on in the film as “too fussy.” That’s one way of describing him. So is fastidious, high-strung, attentive to detail, elegant, infinitely patient and impatient, and the kind of successful professional that has re-created the world around him to maximize focus and minimize distractions. His life is narrow, as is his emotional palette.

But the plot may mean little to many film folks. After all, this is the second collaboration between director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Daniel Day-Lewis, (There Will be Blood ) as well as the fourth collaboration between Anderson and composer Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead (There Will be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice). Also, horror of horrors, if Day-Lewis sticks to his dreaded promise, this is his last film as an actor. It’s also the coming-out party for Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps, who manages to go to-to-toe with the greatest English actor in the world and hold her own, mostly by refusing to go toe-to-toe with him as a character.

The beginning of the plot is simple. Tightly wound, precise fashion designer meets awkward foreign waitress and asks her out. Some typical and many atypical actions ensue. Then the ensuing actions get distorted in unpredictable ways that will likely keep audiences buzzing. It’s not horror-movie stuff, but suggests that love and connection can be, shall we say, unhealthy at times.

The look of the film is impeccable. Anderson, giving full credit to his collaborators around the camera, was his own director of photography, so that there is no line between idea and visual conception. It’s as specific and defined as its lead character.

What fascinated me were the use of music, sound, and the rhythms of the film. Doing a complete 180 from his work on There Will be Blood, Greenwood creates a more traditional sounding, luxurious soundtrack that is at times subversive in its exaggeration of a classically beautiful soundtrack (a subject worthy of much greater attention than I will give here).

Sound is a major component of the film. Sounds that “offend” the main character—the buttering of toast, the sound of teeth against a spoon– are highlighted in much the same way that Janet Leigh’s moves are in the shower before her murder in Psycho—crisp, clear, and getting the viewer attuned to sound. It’s a key component of storytelling, and makes the film worth listening to as much as looking at.

The rhythms of the film are the antithesis of the modern American film. Individual scenes are played out rather slowly, or at least with a deliberate pace, and go on longer than most. But there are no wasted seconds, as the cuts bring us into the middle of the action suggested by the previous scene. Action slow; cuts deceptively quick.

But the focus right now is on the acting. Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock (a name with a great story behind it) is first cousin to J. Alfred Prufrock, measuring out his life with coffee spoons. He’s created a world so delicate that a deviation from the norm during breakfast can set his day off in the wrong direction. It’s a performance that is as far from his work in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood as possible. It takes an actor of great intelligence, focus, and precision to pull this off. And of course he does. The character is irritating; the performance is mesmerizing.

As good, if not also quite as tightly wound, is Lesley Manville as Woodcock’s sister Cyril, his administrator, protector, and business partner. She carries echoes of Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, especially in her intelligence and strong presence, but without the growing sense of unhinged danger. She’s a crucial character on which much of the film depends, and Manville’s tight and concentrated performance is every bit the equal of the other supporting actresses that are receiving such attention this year (e.g., Allison Janney, Laurie Metcalf).

Vicky Krieps is something of a mystery, or her character is, or both. Her Alma is not the typical rube that either must be socialized or who helps bring the repressed male lead out of his shell (think Pretty Woman). We alternately appreciate and side with her, find her annoying, or find her unable to be understood. That works for the narrative twist in the film, but engaging with her character (unlike with Day-Lewis’ and Manville’s) is a challenge that the film never quite overcomes. It’s hard to tell from this one film what kind of future Krieps may have. But what a start in mainstream American/English films!

Lastly, what the film seems to suggest about love and dependence borders on the dysfunctional. More can’t be said without spoilers. But the directions the film finally takes are uncomfortable, occasionally unpredictable, and fascinating.

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Three by Boyer: Liliom (1934), Algiers (1938), and Love Affair (1939)

Charles Boyer was thought of as retro and a subject of satire when I was young. He was somewhere between the worlds of my parents and grandparents, and most of us knew that he was the model for Pepé Le Pew, the “French-striped” cartoon skunk with over-the-top romantic inclinations. I knew him primarily as the aging and wicked manipulating husband of Ingrid Bergman’s character in the 1944 American version of Gaslight. To my young understanding, he was the epitome of suave Continental charm for an earlier time.

Enjoying some of his film after his early work in silents, I found a better-than-expected actor who was unlike any other of his time, and really can’t be compared to anyone today. Yes, he was suave and sophisticated at times, and oh that preternaturally deep and resonant voice. But apart from the face and the voice, these three performances were not alike at all.

Liliom

Liliom was fascinating for several reasons. It’s the third film based on the 1909 Hungarian play that formed the basis for the Oscar and Hammerstein musical Carousel. (The first film version, directed by Michael Curtiz in 1919 Hungary, was never completed.) The second was a 1930 American film directed by Frank Borzage and starring Charles Farrell. The Boyer version is the one French film directed by Fritz Lang between his early life in Berlin and his later life in America, standing as a transitional film for those who like to compare and contrast his German and American films.

Boyer is wonderful in the role. His passionate performances, here and in the others discussed today, were at odds with his more introverted, quiet natural personality. But here, there is no coating of gracious urbanity that we find in the other two films. He is superficially charming, but also lazy, self-centered, and abusive. He takes a character that borders on the despicable, yet he retains our interest and even concern.

The film is also of interest because much of it doesn’t take place on earth, and the move to that new place, and the place itself, are a study in special effects, very questionable theology, and early sound film perspectives on otherworldly issues.

Algiers

Just a few years later, Boyer was paired with relatively new Hedy Lamarr in Algiers, making her American film debut four years after a scandalous appearance in the Czech-Austrian film Ekstase (Ecstasy). She was often referred to as the most beautiful woman in film at the time, and while nowhere near the actor Boyer was, her mysterious beauty helped make the two something of a balanced team.

Boyer plays a notorious jewel thief who both rules and is imprisoned in the Casbah region of Algiers. And yes, this is the famous “Come with me to the Casbah” film where that line, like “Play it again, Sam,” is never really said (though it reportedly was quoted in the trailer). Boyer plays Pépé le Moko, as did Jean Gabin in the previous year’s Pépé le Moko (1937), and the film is a virtual shot-by-shot remake of the original. (Producer Walter Wanger bought the film rights to the French version and tried in vain to get his hands on all the copies. Thankfully, he failed.)

Yet Boyer and Gabin are two different animals, and Boyer, while foolishly directed to imitate Gabin’s work here, brings a fresh energy and different rhythm to this and his other performances that make them original and unique. Unlike in Liliom or in Love Affair, here he is intense and wound up; watching him react and think as the caged creature he is, is a special pleasure. The film was nominated for four Oscars, including Boyer, James Wong Howe’s cinematography, and for supporting work by Gene (father of June) Lockhart. The film was also something of an inspiration for Casablanca, with the idea of using Lamarr as the female lead in that film. We can only be grateful that MGM refused to release her.

Love Affair

Most of the current generation knows the plot of Love Affair for its remake, 1957’s An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Many remember that this is the film so soundly mocked by Tom Hanks and Victor Garber in Sleepless in Seattle as Rita Wilson so tearfully recounts the plot. But most have forgotten that the original was released in the “great year of Hollywood movies”—1939.

Boyer brought all his charm and insouciance to the role of a French playboy who falls in love with an American nightclub singer. Here is the debonair Boyer that is perhaps best remembered—and certainly most imitated. He was unlike any other actor with Continental charm—or who tried to have it—as he wore it lightly and naturally without striving. The multi-talented Irene Dunne is the female lead here, and their banter is perhaps the strongest part of the film, save possibly for the “visit to grandmother” scene. The film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Actress. Boyer was not, however, though he was nominated four times between 1937 and 1944, and then again in 1961. The film lacks the production values and gloss of the 1957 version, and is all the better for it. It’s probably best to see the film in the light of 1932’s One Way Passage than as the precursor to the classic ‘50s version.

Boyer is largely forgotten today, and is possibly more remembered as a romantic cliché and the inspiration for an admittedly funny cartoon character than as the excellent actor he was. Just these three films alone show a range and talent that if not standing above others, certainly stood apart.

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2018 Golden Globe Thoughts

Ah, yes, the relatively meaningless Golden Globes. Well, since the shelf life for interest in this first awards show of the season is so very short, I must needs get my thoughts out rather quickly.

Again, the Golden Globes only represent the votes of about 90 international journalists, and is therefore plucking from a relatively small and focused pool. No actors, directors, screenwriters—just journalists. But it has positioned itself to be taken a bit more seriously in the past few years, and tales of buying off votes have diminished. As the first major award of the season, though, it can be a great starting point for Oscar discussions.

There are many weaknesses to the awards, its constituency being perhaps the greatest. But they do divide drama and musical or comedy in many categories, which is great. The downside is the foolishness of categorizing some films as comedy, as 2016’s yuck-fest known as The Martian. The only thing funny about that film was its categorization as a comedy. This year we have three questionable films in that category, but they certainly have more right to be in that category than The Martian: Lady Bird; I Tonya; and Get Out. All are black comedies (no pun intended for Get Out), and have stings that are decidedly dramatic in nature.

The good news for film is that there is attention paid to musical and comedy performances that tend to fade behind the generally more respected dramatic performances. (Was Gary Cooper’s performance in High Noon really better than what Gene Kelly managed in Singin’ in the Rain?) For those eager to look into future Oscar nominations and wins, the division can be confusing. Sometimes the winning actors in the categories are the future Oscar nominees with the best chances of a win (as in this year), and sometimes the most likely winners are all in the dramatic category (as in last year, when nearly all of the musical/comedy nominees in the leading category didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning an Oscar, or even being nominated.)

So we have Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ) and Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird) winning in their respective categories, and they are the strongest candidates at this point to win an Oscar. James Franco (The Disaster Artist) and Gary Oldman (Dark Hour) were winners as Best Actors, but I don’t see Franco winning this year—and he may not even be nominated. (I was thinking Daniel Kaluuya would win for Get Out.) Best Picture winners were Lady Bird (a likely contender) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (ditto). Allison Janney (I, Tonya) and Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards…) are strong contenders for future awards (though I was somewhat disappointed that Laurie Metcalf didn’t win for Lady Bird).

In the director category, Guillermo del Toro’s win for The Shape of Water was a legitimate win, though the film left me relatively untouched. I was hoping that Christopher Nolan would win for Dunkirk, admittedly a completely different kind of film with different strengths.

Looking outside the awards themselves, Seth Meyers managed the near-impossible of being funny and bitingly relevant at the same time, wisely recognizing the danger of Trump fatigue and yet not backing away from the socio-political issues of the movie industry this past year.

Movie and television awards are growing more challenging for me over the years, as I am more and more sensitive to the self-importance and self-congratulatory atmosphere in the room. I’ve often joked that physical therapists and chiropractors have their work cut out for them on the day after these awards, as the attendees, and especially winners, have nearly injured themselves patting themselves on the back so hard. Granted, these events are about celebrating the work and the artists who did all that work, but the tendency of most of the participants to wrap themselves in the morality-du-jour can be a bit enervating.

This year was a little different, not in kind but in emphasis. The goal of stopping (or let’s be honest, limiting) sexual harassment, the casting couch, and even the smallest of sexual advances or discrimination is the worthiest of aims. “Time’s Up” is both a much-needed rallying cry and a hope. (Gender equality was another cry, but is unfortunately far from being defined, and “equal pay for equal work” is a slogan that tends to cover over the nuances and complexities of that rather multi-layered concern.)

But Hollywood’s general tendency to know and be better than the rest of us (in their minds, anyway) tended to compromise the worth of last night’s real concerns for putting an end to a genuine systemic problem of harassment; the lecturing and occasional shrillness was a little much by the second hour. Even the solidarity of women all dressing black was undercut by the outfits of several of the women, who managed to expose a great deal of skin and cleavage while wearing said black. Most women knew how to wear an attractive black outfit that complimented them without compromising themselves; some obviously couldn’t or wouldn’t, wanting to have their cake while eating it too. (Of course this raises the other legitimate topic of women who exploit their looks and sexuality for advancement, but given the much greater power of men in positions of influence within the industry, and the greater damage their behaviors have done throughout the decades, that issue may have to wait a while to be legitimately.)

Though this blog focuses on film rather than television, there were a few things to be noted. Sterling K. Brown got the Globe this year for This is Us that he also deserved last year for his portrayal of Christopher Darden in the O.J. Simpson version of American Crime Story. The aura around The Handmaid’s Tale is also worthy of mention. I haven’t seen it, but Elizabeth Moss is a very talented actor and likely deserves her awards, as might the show from a production standpoint. What I have great objection to is the groupthink around the book and series, as if we’re in imminent danger of having this kind of society. Though the author of the book apparently contends that she considers such a society as a perversion rather than an expression of Old Testament ideas (and driven by people concerned with power rather than faith), the unthinking thought “out there” is that today’s crazy Christian evangelicals are what would lead us to such a society if they had their wish. This idea betrays, and please don’t pardon the pun, a fundamental misunderstanding of both evangelicalism and even Christian fundamentalism. For anyone wanting to know more, check out this insightful article on the impossibility of such a thing occurring, and why: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/may-web-only/handmaids-tale-wants-us-to-heed-threat-of-fundamentalism.html

One last comment: Oprah is an amazing businesswomen and humanitarian, a model for many, a decent actress, and a phenomenal communicator. But the worship is a bit much. Can we just dial that down a few notches, please?

The attention paid to the Globes will fade quickly this year, as it always does. It is to be hoped that the real issues addressed within the industry these past few months will not be overshadowed by too many hopes being pinned on one night of sartorial solidarity and even genuine indignation.

 

 

 

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Darkest Hour

What I recently wrote about the 1961 film Two Women (https://film-prof.com/2017/12/31/two-women-1960-1961/) could just as easily applied to Darkest Hour—that the main point of interest was the central performance, but that the evolution of the director’s style was also worth noting.

Darkest Hour is the story of 28 days in May 1940, when the German forc\es had pushed British and French forces to the beaches of Dunkirk, and makes a timely companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s film from earlier this year. The events and personal dynamics are unsurprising as they are largely a matter of historical record, or are best left to be discovered by the viewer, so I’ll leave them alone.

The hubbub is about Gary Oldman’s performance. I’d thought that his nomination for Best Actor for 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was the Academy’s tip of the hat to a character actor long respected by his peers, but who would likely never actually win anything except an honorary Oscar for his body of work when he was too old to have his life affected by it. That’s not the case now, as he is likely to win Best Actor for this performance. There are several reasons for this: One, the other likely nominees are either former winners not necessarily turning in their best work, or newcomers that will likely have a long and award-winning career. Two, this is the ultimate Oldman performance, meaning that he is almost nowhere to be seen as an actor as he embodies one of the most famous men of the last century; he, as he so often does, disappears into his character. Three, it’s a showy, fun, marvelous performance overflowing with feeling and emotion, and one that completely dominates the film.

Of course there are other actors in the film, but they are planets around Oldman’s sun. The talented Kristin Scott Thomas joins the ranks of other tall, thin, aging, and angular actresses in playing Clemmie Churchill, and is as solid as always. The ubiquitous and lovely Lily James (best known for Cinderella and Downton Abbey) plays Churchill’s secretary (though in real life she didn’t work for the man until the next year). Her character is the audience point of connection for the film, much as Romola Garai functioned as the fictional Millie Appleyard in 2016’s Churchill’s Secret; it’s hard to relate to a Great Man, after all. James is fine if underused, and her character, beyond connecting the audience to the events of the film, does little.

It’s been a point of jesting between my wife and me that there are only really about two dozen British actors working today, and that they appear in every other British film. That’s the case here, with Ben Mendelsohn, Stephen Dillane, Samuel West popping up and even Pip Torrens (The Crown) sneaking in for a cameo.

What’s getting almost no attention is the director, Joe Wright, director of Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and Anna Karenina. I had greatly admired Wright’s camerawork and mise-en-scène in the first film, and appreciated his dazzling if sometimes too self-conscious direction in Atonement. And then there was Anna Karenina, which had me thinking we’d lost this talented director to extreme formalism. He pulls back to his Pride and Prejudice ways here, and he moves the story along beautifully with lovely camerawork and just a formalist touch here and there that doesn’t threaten to take you out of the film. The look of the film is claustrophobic, however, with small, dark, and enclosed hallways being the norm. That, with the almost extreme emphasis on the central performance, makes for an intense and narrowly focused film that, considering that the “action” is mainly discussion and argument, moves along quickly and with surprising energy.

Sadly, we’ve reached the point where the main audience doesn’t remember the events of World War II, and information must be spoon-fed to the viewer (e.g., Churchill wasn’t reelected as prime minister after the war). The script, which isn’t as strong as the direction, falls back on misquotes, misinformation and wrong timing (e.g., Lily’s character). But it does so in minor ways that might only be frustrating to the knowledgeable historian. This leads to a few dramatic clichés, but they’re minor, and they don’t detract from the blustering and occasionally blistering portrayal by Oldman.

The film will likely be remembered as one that “contains” a great performance by an acting legend. I hope it will also be remembered as the one that brought Wright back to storytelling and stylization without extremes.

 

 

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