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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Oscar Roundup: Part 1 (?)

I'm hoping to have at least a few quickie reviews for all the Oscar movies out before the Awards themselves on 3 March but, for a start, here's a look at three major contenders, all hitting South African cinemas this week. 

I should say that two of these are my easy favourites of this year's best picture contenders. I don't think it will take too long to figure out which.

Call Me By Your Name. Easily one of the most lauded films of the past year - though, to be honest, a very long shot for winning best picture at the Academy Awards - Call Me By Your Name is a leisurely paced, achingly honest and beautifully put together adaptation of an acclaimed novel. I hate to be the voice of dissent, then, because though the film is all these things and probably more, I didn't like it very much.

It's impossible to deny how beautifully shot it is, how committed its performances are or just how much heart and soul clearly went in to telling this simple story of an adolescent boy who falls in love with his father's handsome assistant but, for me at least, it suffered from two fatal flaws; one following on from the other.

First, I just found the characters - in particular, the main couple - to be a lot of work to spend time with. Certainly not because they're gay or, more specifically, bisexual but because they're the sort of people I would fly to another country just to avoid bumping into. While Elio - played very convincingly by meteoric rising star, Timothee Chalamet - is the sort of thoroughly unpleasant teenager who wears their "privilege" (God, I hate that word but it is fitting here) in the most obnoxious manner possible, Armie Hammer's Oliver is a total bore.

This, inevitably, leads straight into the second problem: for a film this thoroughly character-driven, spending over two hours watching people you really don't want to spend any time with doing not very much at all is rather, shall we say, trying. For all that I admired so much about the film and its undeniably noble intentions, I mostly found it, by turns, very boring and very irritating.

Lady Bird. My problems with Call Me By Your Name are especially interesting in light of the quite comparable Lady Bird, which has been fortuitously released on the same day in this country (after being pushed forward from its initial May release date to allow South Africans to see it before the Oscars). Lady Bird is, if anything, even less plot-driven than Call Me By Your Name and is also a subtle coming-of-age story of self-discovery, first love, and the glorious foolishness of youth. My reaction to the two films could not be more different, though.

Lady Bird is effectively a year in the life of its adolescent heroine - given name: Christine McPherson but she prefers Lady Bird, thank you very much - told less through a conventional plot structure than through a series of vignettes of her final days of high school through her summer into her early days in college. It's a structure that does, it has to be said, take a minute or two to adjust to but the overall effect is, in the end, pretty much perfect as it poignantly conveys the sense of life being made up of smaller, often incidental, occasionally monumental, moments. Think Boyhood or Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly's excellent graphic novel, Local, but even more effective - if, admittedly, about a much shorter period than either of those.

More even than the previous year's wonderful Edge of Seventeen, authenticity is the name of the game here. It doesn't matter how much Lady Bird's life reflects your own - I, for one, have never been, to the best of my recollection, a North-Californian Catholic schoolgirl - but there's such an overriding sense of truth to her character and to her story that it's nigh impossible not to find something with which to relate or at least empathise.

This authenticity is so absolute that it doesn't even take a knock when writer/ director, Greta Gerwig - making her debut as a solo director - gives her characters the kind of smart, often hilariously funny dialogue that most of us could only wish we would come up with in our daily lives because however supernaturally funny and smart the dialogue is, it still always rings true. Similarly, Gerwig's subtle, unshowy but pitch-perfect direction doesn't go for the usual cinema-verite cliches of this sort of story but none of the added dramatic punch or well-crafted comedy ever gets in the way of it all still feeling fundamentally real.

On the latter point, it should be noted that the film's particular story-structure has an especially disconcerting effect on its comedy - at least at first. The film isn't an obvious gag-fest but it does feature plenty of perfectly structured comedic situations to go along with its witty dialogue but because of the way the film is structured, the punchlines usually hit right at the end of the scene and before you have a chance to fully register them, the film is already onto a completely different scene entirely. Once you get into the rhythm of the film, though, this problem all but entirely disappears - and is no doubt significantly less noticeable on a second watch.

Above all else, though, the key to the film's success lies in its characters. Lady Bird herself is a wonderful creation: very deeply flawed, yes, but also someone in whose company you're more than happy to spend more even than the film's two-hour runtime and whose character arc in the film feels as well developed as it does organic and smartly played. By now, we already know how brilliant an actress Soirse Ronan is but she has never been better than she is as Lady Bird and she has clearly found in Greta Gerwig the perfect collaborator - and she is, it has to be said, far better at playing a Greta-Gerwig-like character than Gerwig is herself. We can only hope for many, many more collaborations between the two to come.

More than just Lady Bird/ Christine/ Soirse, though, the film is also populated with a dozen or so memorable characters; many of whom could easily have been the stars of their own films but can't quite hope to overshadow Lady Bird in her own film. Much has already been made of Laurie Metcalf's sublime performance as Lady Bird's complex and intriguing mother, Marion, and how it is this mother/ daughter relationship that drives the film and the hype is more than deserved, but she really is only one of many truly great supporting characters. You especially have to give it to the film that it doesn't take the obvious route with its Catholic high school setting as it may present its clergy/ teachers as often being in opposition with Lady Bird but they are never the villains of the piece - indeed, they're fully drawn, sympathetic characters, regardless of how small their screentime may be.

Affirming the connection with Call Me By Your Name, incidentally, Timothee Chalamet also has a small but crucial role here. Though, oddly, he is perhaps the only character in the film to be less than sympathetic as one of Lady Bird's potential love - or at least, lust - interests.

Lady Bird, both the film and the character, is simply too intriguing and too likable to ever do true justice to in just a thousand-odd words. The biggest compliment I could pay it, though, is to say that despite its lengthy running time, it didn't feel like nearly enough time to spend in the company of these terrific characters. More cynical viewers may want to write Lady Bird off as just another teen movie but they couldn't be more wrong: in this Oscar race, there is only one more worthy contender for best picture than it.

Speaking of which...

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. 

In comparison to Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name, Martin McDonagh's (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) latest looks thoroughly stuffed with plot but, once again, this is a film that lives and dies on its characters. It's just as well, then, that of all the many, many things that it gets right, it is its characterization that impresses most.

The basic plot - while giving away as little as humanly possible - is about Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother, who puts up a series of billboards outside of her small town (Ebbing, Missouri, if you couldn't guess) calling out the police for their inaction in investigating the brutal rape and murder of her teenage daughter but what the film is really about is the way these billboards radically affect the lives of those living in the town - unsurprisingly, most especially Mildred and the policemen investigating the case.

It's a sobering examination of the way a single, horrible crime affects a small community and a truly spectacular character study of those closest to the crime: Frances McDormand's Mildred, Sam Rockwell's brutish cop, Jason Dixon, and Woody Harrelson's police captain, Bill Willoughby. Like Lady Bird, Three Billboards doesn't ignore its supporting and incidental characters as even those with barely a couple of minutes of screen time feel like real people but by keeping the focus squarely on these three characters, McDonagh ensures that not only do they have satisfying, if sometimes subtle, character arcs, but our first impressions of them are always, without fail, very wrong. To say more would be a crime in and of itself but let's just say that however much the film might first present some characters as heroic and others as villainous, by the end of the film those initial impressions lie in tatters after being torn apart from more angles that you can count - not through plot twists but through the characters revealing more and more of themselves as the story leisurely progresses.

If this sounds like heavy stuff, it is, but it's made not just watchable but enthralling, even thoroughly enjoyable by McDonagh's now trademark mix of caustic, profanity leaden but laugh-out-loud, dialogue-driven humour and big-hearted emotionality (I can't quite bring myself to call it sentimentality) that comes from McDonagh's empathy with his characters. It's a particularly strange mix that, in lesser hands, wouldn't work at all but McDonagh employed it satisfactorily enough in Seven Psychopaths and truly brilliantly in In Bruges - and he returns to and perhaps even surpasses his In Bruges form here.   
Three Billboards is an exceptionally well put together movie with outstanding performances from its top-drawer cast, evocative cinematography by Ben Davis, assured direction by McDonagh and pacing that is perfectly pitched at that sweet spot between deliberate and relentless, but it's also the sort of film where its so emotionally involving (that letter-reading scene!) and so relentlessly, if darkly funny that you only really register just how well made it is after the fact. 

Frankly, I could go on and on about Three Billboards every bit as much as I could Lady Bird (and second-and-third-tier superhero movies, for some reason) but this is a film that is far too easy to spoil with overly-detailed analysis. You should go in knowing as little as possible - and if you've just seen the trailers or read the plot synopsis, you, fortunately, are still going in knowing as little as possible - but unless you're overly sensitive to really foul language and a couple of scenes of quite upsetting but not in any way gratuitous violence, please do go see it. You do not want to miss this modern masterpiece. 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri isn't just the obvious frontrunner of this year's Oscar films, it is going to be very, very difficult to dislodge it from its very early spot as the best film of the year.


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