Moonlight Triumphs

Moonlight.

Moonlight.

One of the great mysteries of the show biz world is how it is that the most gifted, talented and ambitious stars in Hollywood contrive to produce the most tedious television programme of the entire year. The Oscars are so drearily predictable and every gesture has plainly been choreographed within an inch of its life.

Ironically, quite how redundant the Oscars are as a tv show was further highlighted by this year’s extraordinary GUBU – that’s Grotesque Unbelievable Bizarre and Unprecedented for the uninitiated. Because the vast majority of people who subsequently watched that, there’s no other word for it, unbelievable cock-up will have seen it as a clip on Youtube, thereby avoiding having to sit through the hours and hours of tedium that it was preceded and followed by. On the off chance that you missed it, here it is.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which lost to ?

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which lost to Gladiator.

Unusually, they actually got is right this year. Moonlight really is the best film of the year. But under normal circumstances, few members of the Academy would have bothered taking their dvd copy out of its box – they gave the Best Picture award to Birdman over Boyhood (reviewed earlier here) in 2014, to The King’s Speech over Toy Story 3 and The Social Network in 2010, and to Gladiator over Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Traffic in 2000.

Based on the unpublished play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight is divided into three acts as we follow the growing pains of a young black kid as a child, a teenager and as a young man. The damaged only child of a drug-addled mother who pays for her habit the only way she can, he is rendered all the more shy and awkward by virtue of being secretly gay. All of which screams hopelessly dull but drearily worthy.

12 Years A Slave, another surprise winner in 2012, and also supported by Brad Pitt.

12 Years A Slave, another surprise winner in 2013, and, like Moonlight, also supported by Brad Pitt.

Happily, indeed impressively, the film soars above and beyond its theatrical origins and rather than being subjected to the sort of preachy lecture that the material suggests, what we get instead is a vision that somehow manages to be both impressionistic and coolly detached at the same time. Director Barry Jenkins, whose second film this is, worked on the script with McCraney, and both do a remarkable job of freeing the material from its source and injecting genuine cinematic life into it. But they manage to do so without ever losing sight of quite how horrendously difficult growing up is for a gay black kid in the suburbs, when the only hope any of them ever have of escape is of tailoring to, and feeding off, people like his mother.

Boyhood, which lost to Birdman.

Boyhood, which lost to Birdman.

Magnificent yes, but not quite the masterpiece some would have you believe. In parts one and two, every time he tries to just get on with his life the outside world comes crashing down on him and it’s heart wrenching to witness. But by the time we get to the third and final part, the world leaves him momentarily in peace, and he is finally given space to breathe. So you leave the cinema on a much lighter note than you might have expected, but you are left feeling ever so slightly short changed.

The brilliant if dark Toy Story 3.

That’s how you make sequels.

But that is a minor quibble. This is a major film and Jenkins is a serious talent. Let’s just hope he manages to walk away from the obscene amounts of money that as we speak will be appearing on tables in front of him across the whole of Hollywood. Just say no.

You can see the trailer for Moonlight here.

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5 Worst Films To Win The Oscar For Best Film.

5. Million Dollar Baby (2004). For its first 90 minutes or so (most films’ actual length), Clint Eastwood’s boxer chick flick shuffles along as a poor man’s Rocky. But then, with what’s laughably described as a plot “twist”, it suddenly veers off into the final scene of Betty Blue, which it manages to drag out for a further ¾ of an hour.

Neither one thing nor the other, it manages to be dull and tedious twice over. Incredibly, it triumphed at the expense of the rightly lauded Sideways, the charming Finding Neverland, and Scorsese’s underrated The Aviator.

Having to write Million Dollar Baby was obviously the price that Paul Haggis had to pay for being allowed to direct Crash, which quite correctly won the following year.

4. The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (2003). The final installment of Peter Jackson’s magnum opus affords a third opportunity to spend yet another three hours (3 hours and 20 minutes actually…) watching one set of computer generated characters in a series of increasingly noisome battles with A N Other set. Which, inexplicably, they occasionally do with subtitles.

Watching a video game without being able to participate is the cinematic equivalent of being treated to a lap dance without being allowed to touch. For hours and hours. Oh and it beat Lost In Translation and Clint Eastwood’s superb Mystic River.

3. How Green Was My Valley (1941). Is John Ford the worst film maker of all time? Or is that Kurosawa? They are, as they say, well met.

Either way, just in case you thought that getting it monumentally wrong on Oscar night was a modern phenomenon, Ford’s oh so dull and typically leaden tale of, yawn, a Welsh mining town was duly awarded the gong in 1941. And at whose expense?

Well, for one there was a certain Citizen Kane. Then there was John Huston’s enigmatic and genuinely quirky noir classic, The Maltese Falcon. And William Wyler’s ice-cold but razor-sharp Bette Davis vehicle, The Little Foxes (which, like Kane, was shot by Gregg Toland). As well as Hitchcock’s Suspicion, starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine.

2. Titanic (1997). Our very own Ford and Kurosawa rolled into one (see above), the first thing you want to do with James Cameron’s mesmerically tedious  3 hours and 17 minute film is to take each and every one of its shots and chop off their opening and closing 25%. That would bring it down to just over an hour and a half.

You’d lose nothing. You would however see even more clearly that it’s little more than a shot by shot remake of the 1958 film A Night To Remember, but without any of the latter’s charm, social graces or understanding of etiquette. And as for those special effects. Well, they’re certainly special all right.

1. The Artist (2012). Anyone who’s ever done any of those Hollywood screenwriting courses will know that there are a certain number of archetypal plots. One of which is the Ironic Plot, a classic example of which goes as follows; he does something to avoid being caught, and hide his true identity, only to discover that what he does is precisely the thing that leads to him being unmasked.

The one thing that Hollywood is obsessed with, is proving to the rest of the world that, contrary to popular opinion, it is not in fact peopled by philistines. So they fell over themselves in their haste to lavish The Artist (reviewed by me here earlier) with ill-considered praise on the grounds that a) it’s French, b) it’s in black and white, and c) it’s silent.

But by failing to spot its complete absence of drama, or to notice that it’s made up of one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, albethey beautifully drawn ones, whose narrative arc could be comfortably predicted by most below-averagely intelligent 9 year olds, they have, needless to say, confirmed all our worst suspicions. So there you are then, QED.

Appropriately enough I  suppose, Hollywood itself has become a classic example of one of its own genres.

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“The Artist”- Michel Hazanavicius

This year’s smash hit at Cannes… Silent and in black and white… Classically French…  Charming performances… And the dog…! Hmmn, what? Oh I’m sorry, I think I might have dozed off there.

There have of course been some genuinely wonderful films about Hollywood. Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (’50), Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad And The Beautiful (’52), Robert Altman’s The Player (’92) and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (’01) being the four most memorable.

All depict a pitch black world bereft of a moral compass, where blindly driven characters devote their lives to sacrificing their talent on the altar to personal ambition. The result is a landscape where anything can happen, and everyone’s careful calculations are forever undermined by the whims of the non-existent but mischievous Gods. They are all in other words European films, that just happen to use Hollywood as their backdrop.

They reek of the Old World, with its ironic insouciance and casual cynicism, and are free entirely of that unshakable certainty and boundless optimism that make the New World so appealing and give it its veneer of invincibility.

Mulholland Drive might look like Hollywood, but its correct title, as David Thompson so perceptively pointed out is Mulholland Dr., and the that Dr stands for “dream”, as in nightmare. The powers that be that govern this world are nebulous, nefarious and hopelessly inscrutable. This might be the dream factory, but these are the wrong kinds of dreams.

The Artist is the exact opposite. It’s an all too conventional Hollywood film clumsily dressed in European art-house chic. Sure, if you’ve never seen, say, a Madonna video (it’s in black and white!!) or a foreign film (what, subtitles!!! (well, titles actually)), then you might but briefly mistake it for something mildly un-conventional. But you’ll very quickly tire of the film’s un-rippled progress, as all the characters dutifully make their way down all too well worn paths.

The fact of the matter is, The Artist isn’t a pastiche of those early Hollywood films, it’s one of them. And it’s every bit as dull, dreary and predictable as those kinds of films have always been. That’s why, both then and now, we gravitate towards the likes of Méliès and Eisenstein, Lang, Murnau and Chaplin. Their constant invention and dazzling brilliance are a glorious corrective to the barrage of endless tedium we’re forever forced to put up with from mainstream Hollywood.

Still. There is of course one part of the world where they’ll see The Artist as a fantastically courageous attempt to buck the prevailing trend of drowning everything in a cacophony of wide screen, surround sound 3D Technicolor noise. Roll on the Academy Awards.

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