Let’s Talk About Oscar Categories

We need to recognise the films featuring men resembling a half melted candle opposite the latest talked-about actresses on the scene.

Recently the Academy’s decision to introduce the award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film sparked fierce debate about which honours belong at Tinsel Town’s showpiece event. As it’s the season of goodwill, it’s only fair that we put together a list of awards categories which have been neglected for too long.

The Award for Best Cinematic Universe, in which the only candidate is the Fast and the Furious franchise. The Award for Best Donald Glover Performance; is it for acting, writing or soundtrack? Probably all three. How about an award for actors and actresses cursed by being typecast? Yes, I am trying to find a legitimate award for Mark Hamill, but I’m also looking at you, Meg Ryan.

We’ve got an award for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay, but what about the Best Unoriginal Screenplay? Let’s hear it for the reboot of the remake of the movie adapted from the book, adapted from the fairytale. Robin Hood has recently returned to the big screen and if there’s one thing we’ve been begging for it’s an updated take on the notorious outlaw in order to ask: which will be more vacant? The script or the cinema? You’d have to travel all the way back to the distant year of 2010 for the previous adaptation, released alongside films such as Alice in Wonderland. Don’t even think about it, Hollywood.

Remarkably, one of Hollywood’s favourite tropes has yet to receive an awards category. I present to you the Award for Outstanding Age Difference between co-stars. It’s commonly known that men are allowed to age in the film industry whilst women seem to ridiculously pass their sell-by date by forty – if they’re lucky. We need to recognise the films featuring men resembling a half melted candle opposite the latest talked-about actresses on the scene. Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lawrence and Brie Larson are some of the many lucky women to embark upon this rite of passage.

Sticking with age, it’s high time the Oscars introduced the The Liv Tyler Lifetime Achievement Award for Women. If movies have taught us anything it’s that when a woman’s fuckability expires, she might as well start a trendy smoothie company. As San Diego State University’s recent study shows, only 29% of women over forty star in mainstream movies. This award would help the next batch of actresses in their late thirties transition into the next stage of their career: network television, subpar Netflix movies and relative obscurity.

Saving the best for last, I think we’d all welcome the Matt Damon Medal of Commendation award. It’s been a rough year for all the ‘good guys’ in Hollywood – isn’t it time for them to get some recognition? Last year Damon bemoaned the lack of attention on those in Hollywood who don’t partake in sexual misconduct and are in fact decent human beings. It’s time we gave those men the respect they deserve on the back of a difficult year for them. Keep holding those doors open you chivalrous champions!

High Brow Horror

Many of the best critical performers in the horror genre today are dwarfed by the financial success of those which hold comparatively little critical credence.

Many of the best critical performers in the horror genre today are dwarfed by the financial success of those which hold comparatively little critical credence. Whilst outliers such as A Quiet Place (2018) are both box office and critical successes, far more prevalent are bloated franchises packed with jump-scares, many of which appear to have been chopped up and reassembled in a slightly different order from their predecessors. But why do audiences opt for franchised offerings like The Nun (2018)? What makes them more profitable than critical successes Hereditary (2018) or It Comes At Night (2017)? 

We need only look at the Paranormal Activity franchise, an example of the formula A Quiet Place seems destined to fall victim to. The first movie in the series was a genre-changing hit with audiences and critics alike, grossing $139m against a meagre $15,000 budget. It earns the scares through a slow build of tension and disconcerting scenes such as the iconic moment its protagonist, Katie, wakes in the middle of the night to stand lingering over her bed for hours. By the time 2015’s The Ghost Dimension was released, everything the first entry had done successfully had been butchered. The franchise became a shambolic mess of jump-scares and was consequently slaughtered by critics. The root of this can be traced back to Paramount adding a new theatrical ending to the original which was included in the film’s wider release, adding a jump-scare finale as a setup for future instalments. Once the imagination had bled from the franchise in exchange for lazy moments of shock, Paranormal Activity became a safe financial investment.

Similarly, franchises offer audiences the kind of safety that original-concept just can’t. The formulaic nature of franchised horror films grants ticket-holders a feeling of comfort and familiarity. Originality doesn’t always appeal when the option to step back into recognisable scares already exists. Take the recent entry into the Conjuring franchise, The Nun. The film’s effectiveness hinges solely upon whether you find the appearance of its titular character scary. After that, it relies upon jump-scares in order to frighten its audience. There’s little imagination offered up in these lazy attempts to frighten, and this transfers to the viewer. It’s momentary terror driven by a sudden intrusion of noise, often without an accompanying frightening image. Scared, we may be; but the feeling passes. We’re not asked to think too hard, and if we do we’re likely to dismantle a nonsensical plot. We leave the cinema with an adrenaline rush, but there’s little to dissect and no lasting effect on our psyche. 

In contrast, the horror of It Comes at Night is born from the unknown. It examines psychological degradation as one family struggles to maintain their humanity under threat of infection from an unseen enemy. The audience is given no information about the infection, we never see any creature or infected humans actively trying to hurt them. The tension is instead drawn out through a dubious friendship with another family and the resulting paranoia created. The film effectively approaches its world building with unsettling imagery, an atmospheric soundtrack and its placing of characters under extreme duress, all elements which linger long after the film ends. Yet, the marketing for the film by production company A24 presents it like a creature horror much more akin to 28 Days Later (2002).

This year’s Hereditary issues a lethal injection of terror with its compelling depiction of a family unravelling in grief. It was billed as ‘this generations The Exorcist and yet, The Nungrossed nearly $300m more at the box office. Hereditary was also distributed by A24, with much of the promotional material portraying a more generic movie seemingly revolving around a disturbed child. There’s a correlation between packaging psychological horror films as formulaic and their poor performance with audiences. It suggests that we would rather take our chances with the spooky Nun, which has a tangible presence, than the more abstract haunting presence of evil which is liable to linger in our minds. When presented with a film which is more challenging than initially promoted, audiences respond negatively.  

This goes someway to explaining why A Quiet Place enjoyed such universal success. It managed to blend unnerving imagery and a tense atmosphere with an accessible story. There is undoubtedly a place for both the jump-scare and more emotionally challenging horror. Whilst some films will lean heavily on one or the other, the best manage to combine them, earning the scares which service a story that audiences are invested in; allowing the horror haunt us long after the closing credits.

Skate Kitchen – Review

It’s a welcome change to see women with agency in a culture which is often portrayed as predominantly masculine.

There’s a moment in Crystal Moselle’s 2018 Movie ‘Skate Kitchen’ where the titular posse pass a young girl on their skateboards as they roam through New York City. The girl turns and gawks at the group, whilst her mother drags her in the opposite direction. It’s easy to relate to the young girl as we’re thrust into the New York City skateboarding subculture, just as we relate to protagonist Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) who struggles with her identity throughout the movie.

The film opens with Camille suffering a particularly nasty injury whilst skating in her local Long Island area. Despite being in pain she attempts to skate home, still wearing hospital clothing, which grants us an immediate insight into the importance of skateboarding to her identity. When her mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) bans her from skating, it’s clear she’s going to ignore her. Their relationship is turbulent – her mother often speaks to her in Spanish, but Camille only responds in English. Such is the disconnection between them, her mother stumbles through asking if she’s alright after a follow up hospital visit.

Where Camille does find a connection, however, is with the all-female ‘Skate Kitchen’ in New York City. Though her introduction is awkward, she decides to meet with them because of a post on the group’s instagram and establishes a rapport through her skateboarding. Still, we can sense her discomfort as the squad skate off through the city traffic and she is left behind. Director Crystal Moselle is excellent at capturing mood and perspective through moments like this, using locations, street signs, street art and backgrounds to great effect. As the group of friends chill and smoke they cling to a fence which segregates their decaying skate park from the affluent city in the distance.

As Camille’s relationship with her mother crumbles, she moves in with Janay (Ardelia Lovelace) and her family. She grows closer to her and the group and, more comfortable with her sense of self, adopting lingo used by the group’s brash leader Kurt (Nina Moran). The film is at its strongest when discussing teenage insecurities and sexuality. The group also explore concerns about the insidious aspect to male skaters they encounter which serves to foreshadow a close call later in the film. It’s a welcome change to see women with agency in a culture which is often portrayed as predominantly masculine. The dialogue feels natural, rarely indulging heavily in exposition, instead only opting to do so when it’s earned.

However, when her newfound friendships threaten to come off the rails, Camille is forced to confront old wounds. Her past insecurities seep into the new identity she’s established – testing whether it can survive without her friends and without the security of skateboarding. ‘Skate Kitchen’ demonstrates the strength an individual can gain through friendship. It encourages us to share our passions, to reach out and form bonds, as Camille does, gaining confidence as an individual – and as part of a team.

Great Movie Scenes – Part 1

Sounding the spoiler claxon nice and early here.

‘Interstellar’ (2014) – Docking

Christopher Nolan’s space epic is a favourite of mine. Arriving after his Batman Trilogy and before recent critical hit Dunkirk, Interstellar‘s reception was a little more lukewarm. Its run time clocks in around 3 hours, dives into black holes and time dilation and ties it all together with love and family. There are several spectacular scenes (Miller’s Planet and just about any involving the Black Hole named Gargantua) but the most unforgettable is the Docking sequence.

Starting with the explosion in space without sound is haunting, it puts us in a moment – following from Dr Mann’s last piece of dialogue – and a moment is all Cooper needs to consider his options. The visual of the Endurance spinning, the ticking clock sound underpinning the score, debris scattering above the Ice Planet below, combined with the Organ striking up and thrusting us into the do or die attempt at docking is a perfect build of tension. The track features a grander, stretched out version of the motif which runs throughout Hans Zimmer’s score. It helps emphasise the strain on Cooper and the struggle as he attempts to dock the ship –  failure to do so will see them stranded or sucked back onto the Ice Planet below; their mission and mankind, in ruin.

’28 Days Later’ (2002) – Opening

I’m still holding out hope for the final movie in the 28 Days/Weeks series. It’s a forlorn and fruitless hope, I’ll only be disappointed as it seems the chances are almost as remote as surviving in the post-apocalyptic world built by Danny Boyle and Alex Garland. The film rejuvenated the Zombie genre, despite technically not being a zombie film. It’s such a bleak setting, but that only serves to make the few glimmers of hope so beautiful.

YouTube doesn’t have the full opening scene, but it gives a flavor of it. Sadly it skips the part where Cillian Murphy wakes up ‘bawz oot’, but that’s not hard to find. The empty London streets, usually smothered in people, houses only scattered souvenirs. The slow build of the music helps to elevate the unease and yet despite this, it’s an oddly personal scene. We’re questioning everything just as Jim is, where the fuck is everyone? What happened? His simple screams of ‘Hello’ which echo, unanswered, are haunting. I’m sure on reflection I can think of a better opening to a film, but as I write this I think this is probably my favourite. Also, as YouTube neglected to give us the whole opening here is another favourite: “World’s worst place to get a flat”

‘Jaws’ (1975) – Indianapolis Speech

Nothing really needs to be said about how iconic Jaws is so let’s just get into the scene:

The trio of Brody, Hooper and Flint enjoy a fractious relationship in the early stages of their journey. This scene is an absolute masterclass. The visual build up as Flint and Hooper compare injuries which grow as they go on competing gives us a false sense of camaraderie before the tension sets in and Flint recounts the aftermath of the sinking of the Indianapolis in World War II. The jovial atmosphere of the scene evaporates. We’re granted an insight into the tragic backstory of Flint, who initially comes off a unhinged, and we share the shock, discomfort and yet an element of sympathy and understanding which Brody and Hooper feel. Flint suddenly seems vulnerable, more human and relatable. It’s a wonderful way of humanising a character who initially appears as a bit of a lunatic and of course foreshadows what’s to come.

‘Baby Driver’ (2017) – Coffee Run

I’ve got some serious love for Baby Driver and I’m a big fan of Edgar Wright – though I’m not a huge fan of his movies. I went into Baby Driver not knowing what to expect, but not really expecting much either. What I got was a captivating experience, one of the most stylised movies I’ve ever seen which deserves all the praise it got and more for some incredible sound editing. This isn’t necessarily my favourite scene in the movie but it demonstrates everything the movie does well.

Each scene in the film features a track and it’s designed to match it. Actions meet the rhythm and beat in the soundtrack. It’s more apparent in the action orientated scenes but the coffee run scene manages to capture the subtlety and the more obvious moments of cohesion. The graffiti matches the song lyrics perfectly, see 0:40-0:45 “whole lotta” is graffitied behind dancers and “soul” appears on the lamp post Baby shimmies around. Baby slides to the left as a passerby barges past, just as the lyric commands, quickly transitioning into him playing the trumpet positioned in a shop window – it’s film making at the highest level. Managing to capture such synchronicity with subtle moments in a near 3 minute tracking shot so effectively is such a great technical achievement, it adds an extra layer to a film which already oozes style.

I’ll leave it here for just now but I’ll try and fill Part 2 with less tension orientated scenes. (and I’ll probably fail at doing so)

Okay… let’s leave it with some fun to counter the serious scenes:

 

Spider-Man: Homecoming – Spoiler free review

Spider-Man slings himself back onto the big screen with an infectious style and excitability. Tom Holland is the perfect fit for both the role of Spider-Man and Peter Parker. 

The movie never feels like it’s going over old, well trodden ground which is testament to the strong writing and fluid plot. 

The opening scenes add a sympathetic element to the antagonist, Vulture, and believable motivations. As the plot unfolds the stakes heighten between him and Spider-Man in interesting and surprising ways. Although, his somewhat flippant descent into being comfortable with killing felt slightly jarring.

Peter Parker’s sidekick Ned provides an extra comedic layer to the film. Their friendship helps to keep things moving during the high school scenes which never descend into the realms of boring. However many scenes are stolen by Zendaya’s character Michelle, who is excellent throughout.

The action scenes are well choreographed, although the climactic battle does get a little hard to follow at certain points. Michael Giaccino provides his usual blend of subtle and bombastic for the movie’s soundtrack.

The romantic element with Liz didn’t quite stick, feeling somewhat contrived from the outset. However, it did manage to add an extra dynamic to the climax.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is an effective reintroduction to a character whom we are well acquainted with both cinematically and in his comic book origins. The movie does an excellent job of reinvigorating Spider-Man and breathing new life into the MCU.

Arrival – Review

Dennis Villeneuve’s Arrival is an engrossing Sci-Fi experience which substitutes weapons for ingenuity.  The film is a refreshing take on the first contact trope, as Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) attempts to uncover the alien visitors’ intentions through using her skills in linguistics. The result is an engaging experience which conjures drama and tension without violence, relying upon a captivating performance by Adams and a story which is grand in scope but manages to remain personal.

Little time is wasted setting up the aliens’ arrival. The visitors, dubbed Heptapods, position twelve ships at seemingly random locations throughout the world. The affected countries establish communications with one another in an attempt to ascertain what the Heptapods’ intentions are. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) is sent to recruit Dr. Banks after some previous successful linguistic work with the army. Not every country agrees on a particular approach and China’s preference for aggression establishes a simmering threat to Dr. Banks’ peaceful method.

Much of the emotional resonance in the movie is attributed to a tragedy in Dr. Banks’ personal life. This tragedy, and the scenes depicting Banks’ personal life, creates an additional layer of tension which compliments the pressure situation of trying to communicate with the Heptapods. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), an astrophysicist, is an effective foil for Banks and the two build their own relationship as they attempt to construct one with the Heptapods.

Banks’ efforts to communicate with the Heptapods are key to getting an answer to the question: ‘What is your purpose on earth?’ She establishes visual aids as the most effective method of creating an understanding with the visitors. It’s fascinating to witness a rapport develop as they teach constructs of our language that we take for granted.  Each breakthrough that Banks makes is met with further pressure from Colonel Weber as the twelve countries stop cooperating with one another.

It becomes frustrating that Weber often doubts Dr. Banks, despite the obvious duress he is under, as this slips into cliché territory. Whittaker’s accent becomes as inconsistent as his character’s motivations. One particular plot point is too quickly glossed over whilst another borders on descent into the realm of silly. However, Adams’ engaging performance keeps the audience grounded as the film reaches its climax.

Fans of recent Sci-Fi hits such as Interstellar and Midnight Special should enjoy Villneuve’s Arrival, as it poses thought provoking questions whilst managing not to lose sight of the human aspect. This is owed to Adams’ excellent performance. The movie’s more ambitious elements remain grounded through her ability to engage the audience as the Heptapods’ true intentions are deciphered. Indeed the prevailing message, that humanity must work together, has never been more relevant.

 

Don’t Breathe – Review

Don’t Breathe focuses on three young thieves planning to rob a blind army veteran’s home. The movie lures audiences in with this premise and what we uncover is something far more sinister. Fede Alvarez’s latest horror demonstrates a masterful use of silence to develop tension whilst toying with the audience as we question just who it is we are rooting for.

Don’t Breathe opens with a scene which casts doubt on how innocent The Blind Man is, before spending a few short scenes establishing the daily lives and struggles of the ‘protagonists’ in attempt to lend sympathy. It’s fairly routine stuff; Rocky (Jane Levy) plans to escape Detroit with her young sister, saving her from a dead end life. Money (Daniel Zovatto) is in a loose relationship with Rocky and is responsible for trading the group’s bounty for cash. Alex (Dylan Minnette) is the voice of reason – initially unwilling to break into The Blind Man’s home. It’s also clear he has romantic feelings for Rocky. Their target, The Blind Man, received a huge cash settlement when his daughter was killed in a road accident.

The Blind Man’s neighbourhood is desolate, each house abandoned, only his home remains reflecting the only choice these characters feel they have. The setting captures the dead end life the thieves are facing. Once inside the home, they quickly lose control of the situation. The Blind Man is more than capable of defending his home and they become trapped in a situation which threatens to cost them their lives. The vacant neighbourhood that seemed to grant them freedom instead traps them, as their screams fall upon deaf ears.

The camera work is particularly effective in capturing hints that help The Blind Man navigate his home. One terrifying scene in the basement has Rocky and Alex attempt to flee The Blind Man in the pitch black. Alvarez expertly demonstrates the advantage The Blind Man has as he navigates using his other senses. He holds his arm aloft, touching a segment of lowered ceiling and feels items on shelves which help to place himself.

Alvarez grips the audience through his use of silence. The biggest advantage the thieves have is to avoid making any noise. The suspense creeps up on the audience and snares us, just as the thieves strive to contain every breath and squirm across floorboards as they attempt to escape.

The initial plot is formulaic enough, though this doesn’t serve to spoil the enjoyment. That the Blind Man harbours a secret is somewhat predictable. However, by twisting the formulaic premise the movie creates an extra dimension. It scratches at some of our most primal fears, adding another horrifying layer to the movie.

Don’t Breathe is an engrossing horror which exploits silence and clever camera work to deliver a thrilling, twisted experience that exceeds its initially formulaic premise.