Monday, 29 February 2016

The Academy Awards

Back in January I went to see The Revenant at the cinema. The film tells the tale of a man's desperate struggle to win an Oscar. I wrote that:

"Now [Leonardo DiCaprio, for it is he] has been nominated for an Academy Award. Who will beat him? Difficult question. DiCaprio does a tonne of physical acting but has very little dialogue and essentially no character development - there's a suggestion that he has some kind of epiphany at the end of the film, but he begins as a fundamentally decent man in a brutal world and ends that way. Of the other nominees Bryan Cranston is a television actor, Matt Damon has the same problem as DiCaprio, Eddie Redmayne has won already, and I'm done with films about Steve Jobs. Besides which I can't think about Matt Damon without also thinking about this. Perhaps DiCaprio will win after all."

I wrote those words forty-seven days ago, and forty-seven days later they have come true and Leonardo DiCaprio has won an Academy Award. Nobody beat him. You, dear reader, and all the other readers of this blog, you are all forty-seven days ahead of the curve, because I am your guiding light and only friend.

The irony is that DiCaprio won in a performance that was essentially an endurance test. The Revenant is a memorable film, but also a shallow film, and I suspect that over time it will fade from the memory, leaving behind some nice screenshots and a haunting soundtrack.

It's time to look back at the films I saw last year. I only pay money to see good films, and I have exceptional taste, so all of the films I saw were nominated for something of other. Jurassic World merely passed the time, so I didn't write about it. What is there to say about Jurassic World? Bryce Dallas Howard looks nice in a vest, and if I wore panties they would surely have been rustled by Chris Pratt.

On a superficial level Jurassic World felt like a throwback to the age of movie serials, with Chris Pratt as a big dumb sexless lunk and Bryce Dallas Howard as an old-fashioned damsel. On a deeper level the film appears to have been written for a Victorian audience. The message is that women are not suited for the world of business or indeed for looking after machinery of any sort, and that their natural place is at home looking after the kids. The dinosaurs of Jurassic World are of course a thinly-coded racial metaphor. They are violent beasts driven by animal lusts. They can be trained to obey the white man's commands, but for the most part they should be kept in cages. The thought of a dinosaur being allowed to captain a ship or fly an airliner is absurd.

Leonardo DiCaprio's Oscar win was overshadowed by a row about race which will be forgotten in two days. Should Leonardo DiCaprio be black? Lost amongst all this is Leonardo DiCaprio's voice; does he want to be black? Is he prepared to make that leap? On a metaphorical level The Revenant is just as problematic as Jurassic World. DiCaprio's character is mauled by a bear, which is an obvious racial symbol; but who controls the bear? Given that The Revenant is a Hollywood film, I think we all know which group of people set the bear on DiCaprio. You know who I'm talking about. Invisible, ever-present, off the edge of the frame; filling bears' minds with poison, and we all know who is responsible. But none of that is DiCaprio's fault. He is merely a pawn, just like the bear, driven by forces beyond his comprehension.

The Revenant won best director for Alejandro Inarritu - of all the nominees he was definitely the most committed - and best cinematography for Emmanuel Lubezki, who has now won three years in a row. Over his career Lubezki has demonstrated that he can do the technical stuff (on Gravity and Children of Men) and that shorn of gimmicks and even lights he can compose a scene (on The Tree of Life, for which he should have won an Oscar, and of course The Revenant itself).

This raises the question of what he will do next. Kill himself in a fit of depression, just like Anton Furst. Or perhaps his stark desaturated style will go out of fashion and he will find himself unable to find work any more, at which point alcohol will consume him. Or he will try his hand at directing and fail badly. Or he will suffer from a debilitating kidney disease just like Jonah Lomu, the rugby player. Or he will crash his helicopter and die, killing his kids, as happened to rally legend Colin MacRae. Or he will suffocate in the depressurised cabin of his faulty LearJet as with Payne Stewart. Death has laid out several paths for him, which will he take?

The Revenant was not nominated for its original score. I would have nominated it. The winner was Ennio Morricone for The Hateful Eight, which was nice of them, but come on. It was a good year for ambient soundtracks - Sicario was excellent as well - and it's a shame they couldn't have given Ennio an honorary award instead. Will I remember The Revenant? Over time the impact of its visuals will fade, and I can't imagine ever seeing it again. It works as an experience but as a film it is hollow. It was nominated for Best Picture but lost out to the more obviously Oscar-baity Spotlight. Usually the Best Director and Best Picture awards are linked - films do not direct themselves - but in this case I can sympathise with the Academy. The Revenant was a mass of work, and it has something about it, but so much of it is weak.

The Force Awakens was nominated for several awards, mostly technical. It got nothing. I remember enjoying the film but obviously I was wrong. I hate you, The Force Awakens. You lied to me.

No, seriously, I can understand why it came away empty-handed. John Williams' score had patches of greatness but was generally lacklustre. The film was a visual feast, but all films are visual feasts nowadays. The Force Awakens was no more feast-y than any other film. The easy availability of computerised editing, drones, portable hi-def cameras and so forth mean that even television movies now have a cinematic look, and directors are now far more familiar with CGI than before.

Looking back, it was a well-made, enjoyable space adventure that may or may not be elevated to greatness depending on how the sequels flesh out the story. The performances were winning, Daisy Ridley is the internet's new crush, the action was exciting, and it was on the whole superior entertainment notable for not sucking. It could so easily have gone wrong. As with The Revenant I doubt that I will remember it in the future, although I will remember the experience of seeing it in proper 70mm iMax at the Science Museum.

Spectre was nominated for best original song, nothing else. It won. My recollection is that the song was dreadful; why didn't they just get Adele to do another one? I can barely remember Spectre. It feels like a dream. In my review I completely omitted the Empire Strikes Back "no, I am your father" aspect of the Blofeld-Bond relationship, because I wasn't sure if I had dreamed it.

Like so many Bond films Spectre had a number of interesting parts that stood out - the scene in which Bond visits a snowbound cabin in order to have one last chat with his nemesis, the train chugging through the desert, the strange interlude in the hotel room - but an overall storyline that made no sense capped with a finale that was both gripping and silly in equal measure.

The derring-do with M in London was exciting, but the film ends with the other villain losing his footing like a girl and Bond shooting down a helicopter with a pistol(!). Admittedly he reloads and uses several pistols, and the film tries to sell this, but still. Bond shoots down a helicopter with a pistol.

And yet if the film is so unmemorable, why am I still bitching about it a year later? Ultimately Spectre was sold as classy entertainment but it is in fact a drinking game, and as pure entertainment it works, but not as well as Skyfall.

Amy. Nominated for and winner of best documentary feature. I remember it. One moment sticks in the mind; Amy Winehouse gesturing to an intrusive camera crew, hired by her dad, who has just told her that he would never exploit her. The film's final scenes are haunting because we were all waiting for her to die, without expecting that she actually would, because stars don't just die nowadays. And then she died. We were waiting for it; us, here in the real world. It only happened yesterday.

Amy Winehouse loved music, had a fantastic voice, and enjoyed working in a studio with people she respected, but by the time she died her musical career had essentially finished. We will never know how she would follow up Back in Black and no-one has come forward to take her place.

Mad Max: Fury Road, oh yes. It won six Academy Awards, again mostly in technical categories, although unlike The Force Awakens it was nominated for best picture and so forth. Fury Road is a lot like The Revenant, in that it's a mass of viscera without much of a plot behind it, and the co-star is a lot more interesting than the star.

But whereas The Revenant tried to dazzle me with its symbolism and arty shots of the moon up in space, Fury Road just wanted to thrill me, and I respect that. The Force Awakens had a space chainsaw, The Revenant had scalpings, Fury Road had a guitar that spat flames, Spectre had a man shooting down a helicopter with a pistol and another man with a double-barrelled pistol shooting down an aeroplane. That's what cinema is all about. Women in bikinis and blood for the blood god.

Fury Road was shallow fun, but it was a lot of fun. I drank its milkshake. I was surprised when it was nominated for so many awards, because it is essentially a chase move on a grand scale, and as with The Force Awakens we won't be able to tell whether it is truly great until the sequels come along. It had no chance of winning best picture and has made less money than its most obvious competitors - The Revenant is surely the oddest mainstream film to make $400m at the box office - but I remember it, I remember it. I remember orange and blue, and slow-motion machine wreckage gracefully smashing through the air. Even today the internet remembers "shiny and chrome" and "to Valhalla" and "such a lovely day" and so on. I can't remember any of the dialogue from The Force Awakens.

No, seriously. "Leave that blaster", that's about it. Something about the other spaceship being junk.

NB several other films were nominated for awards but none of them leapt out at me. Of the Best Picture nominees I haven't even heard of Brooklyn. Some kind of Oscar bait film about Irish people, again with Domhnall Gleeson. Carol is of course a chance to see Cate Blanchett kissing a woman, but judging by the clip I have just watched on PornHub it is no better in that respect than Desert Hearts, which didn't win a thing because women kissing other women was box office poison in 1985.