You are here
Off To The Oscars!
MUSCLING INTO CINEMAS
Brains reign over brawn for a change (thankfully) this time of the year, going by 2018's Best Picture shortlist
By Dylan Tan
DON'T LIKE SUPERHEROES? Tough luck if you're a movie-lover. Try as you might but there is no escaping Iron Man, Superman, Batman, Aquaman or (insert name of animal, insect or material)-Man at the box office.
Just look at the list of the top 10 highest grossing films in Singapore last year. Half were titles adapted from comic books with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Justice League, and Wonder Woman all making the list and Thor: Ragnarok topping the chart. It may be the Year of the Dog but Black Panther is already in cinemas and by summer, we would have been bombarded by The Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, and Ant-Man and The Wasp. That's not all: brace yourself for Venom, X-Men: Dark Phoenix and Aquaman before 2018 is over.
There has been some reprieve in the past couple of months though, thanks to the awards season. It's that time of the year when this writer is grateful cinema isn't just about brawn but also about brains; and the nine Best Picture nominees for this year's Oscars is proof Hollywood hasn't totally sold its soul to Marvel and DC.
It's a mixed bag which doesn't just lean towards the usual suspects like biopics, period dramas or the works of heavyweight actors and directors whose names crop up annually. Don't get us wrong: Steven Spielberg's The Post is as timely and gripping as it gets but so is just about anything he's ever made. (Plus, it has got Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in it!)
Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, is another shoo-in but what's refreshing is to find its spiritual companion Dunkirk also in the running for a Best Picture prize. The Christopher Nolan-directed epic is set in the same period as Darkest Hour but is unlike any war film ever made. It has minimal dialogue, there isn't one central protagonist or any manufactured heroics, and the movie boasts Imax-worthy breathtaking cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema, who is also being nominated for his effort. The heavy drama is also balanced with enough action set pieces to out-muscle any superhero flick and Dunkirk could well follow in the footstep of The Hurt Locker to take home the Best Picture Oscar.
Another unlikely contender for the main prize is Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water. It's an old-fashioned Hollywood love story except with a mutant as the romantic male lead (bonus points for having real-life actor Doug Jones in the role instead of a CGI creature) and this girl-meets-fish fantasy puts an enchanting twist on the age-old Beauty and the Beast fairy tale.
The Shape of Water is easily del Toro's best film in his otherwise hit-and-miss career (Blade II, anyone?) and despite being set in 1960s Baltimore, the themes of xenophobia and America's relationship with Russia all feel quite timely. Plus, he pulls off fish sex that makes the kinky stuff in the Fifty Shades trilogy look like child's play.
But the real dark horse in this year's Best Picture race must be Get Out. There is nothing scarier than realising you've bought a ticket for a horror film so full of cliches you get that sense of deja vu that you've seen it all and director Jordan Peele is fully aware of that.
By putting a spin on the genre and painting it as a subversive, razor-sharp social satire about race, he bowled over both critics and movie-goers with this laugh-out-loud then cover-your-eyes update on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
Get Out is up against plenty of heavyweights in the Best Picture category - the Coen Brothers-eque (complete with Frances McDormand) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a favourite, while the coming-of-age dramas Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird as well as Phantom Thread trail closely behind - and Peele, who is also up for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, might require some sort of superhero feat himself to cause an upset.
Regardless which film wins, the movies are all superb works in their unique ways and restore our faith that solid, original storytelling still has a place in cinema. We can't wait for 2019's contenders; just give us the strength to get past the Avengers.
THE COMING-OF-AGE FILM COMES OF AGE
Girls and boys are exploring their sexuality. And cinema is finally brave enough to show it
BY HELMI YUSOF
Two front-runners of the current Oscar race focus on teenage characters discovering adulthood, and neither one of these characters is a white heterosexual male. Lady Bird, nominated for five Oscars, centres on a 17-year-old girl nicknamed Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) who, between fights with her mother and make-out sessions with her two boyfriends, learns to take flight. Call Me By Your Name garnered four nominations and portrays a 17-year-old boy (Timothee Chalamet) falling for his father's older male assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer).
Both films have been nominated for Best Picture, and both Ronan and Chalamet received Best Actress and Best Actor nominations. It's worth noting that these movies come on the heels of last year's Best Picture Moonlight, about a black teenager coming to terms with his homosexuality.
Something is happening to the coming-of-age film. And critics and audiences alike are lapping up these shifts. For a long time the Hollywood coming-of-age film, which depicts the transition of a protagonist from youth to adulthood, had focused on the white male. The genre's earliest hits were Rebel Without A Cause (1955), The Graduate (1967) and American Graffiti (1973).
In the 1980s, a young redhead actress by the name of Molly Ringwald became the vehicle for female-centric coming-of-age films such as Sixteen Candles (1984) and Pretty In Pink (1986) where sexual curiosity finds its biggest expression in that first kiss. Ringwald was succeeded by Winona Ryder whose hits Heathers (1988), Mermaids (1990) and Reality Bites (1994) projected a different kind of young woman - less innocent and more determined to pursue the boy she's infatuated with.
In the late 2000s, the genre changed again, this time portraying snarkier, more confident, more complicated girls ready to take charge of their own bodies. One of its biggest milestones was Juno (2007), about an unwed pregnant teenager who gives her baby up for adoption. Juno perfected the unconventional girl persona: she's a misfit who doesn't yearn to be a cheerleader or school president; she's completely comfortable in her own skin, and she makes some of the sharpest quips ever heard on screen.
By the early 2010s, the genre was no longer bashful about exploring young women's sexuality. Lena Dunham's HBO series Girls (2012-2017) became a huge hit, while the 2013 Cannes Film Festival awarded its biggest prize to Blue Is The Warmest Colour, about a young lesbian. In Hollywood, 2015's The Diary of a Teenage Girl was surprisingly candid about a girl's seduction of her mum's boyfriend, while 2016's The Edge of Seventeen had its young protagonist sending lewd text messages to the boy she likes.
And that brings us to the present time with Lady Bird. In many ways, Greta Gerwig's film on teenage sexuality is much more restrained than the films of recent years. Lady Bird is eager to lose her virginity and finally does so in a brief, awkward scene that concludes with her professing disappointment. But there's so much honesty and insight in this scene and others that the film's garland of Oscar nominations is all but inevitable.
This Hollywood sexual revolution appears to be expanding. Before the turn of the century, there were already depictions of black, Asian and gay teenagers transitioning into adulthood in films such as Cooley High (1975), Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Mississippi Masala (1991). But despite critical plaudits and/or box-office success, these films were few and far between.
Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name might change that. Both films are critical and commercial successes, with box-office grosses many times their budgets. Next month, 20th Century Fox is releasing Love, Simon, about a closeted gay boy exchanging email with his crush, while later this year Focus Features is releasing Boy Erased, about a gay teenager pressured to undergo conversion therapy by his parents, played by Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe.
Cinema is no longer just concerned with depicting the maturation of the white straight male. It's become more diverse and inclusive, reflecting social changes beyond it. The Oscars are taking note.
THE LAST OF THE MOVIE KINGS
A tribute to Best Actor nominee Daniel Day-Lewis who brings down the curtain on his career with a stunning turn in Phantom Thread
BY GEOFFREY EU
Good actors come and go but great ones stay with us forever, indelibly linked to one role, perhaps more, that they made their own: Brando as Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Nicholson as Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and De Niro as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull come readily to mind. Each won an Academy Award for his efforts.
This year's Best Actor nominees are no slouches either, although one performance - Gary Oldman's as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour - appears to be shining a little brighter than the rest. Oldman, 59, is the clear front-runner but with two nominations to date he's a relative newcomer compared to the two Big Ds on the list: Denzel Washington (eight nominations, two wins, nominated for Roman J. Israel, Esq.) and Daniel Day-Lewis (six nominations, three wins, nominated for Phantom Thread). Fellow nominees Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name) and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) are first-timers in the Oscar stakes but at 22 and 28 years old respectively, they have long careers and many potential nominations ahead of them.
They won't need to look far for inspiration. At 60, Daniel Michael Blake Day-Lewis has called time on his acting career and announced that Phantom Thread - in which he plays 1950s London dressmaker and control freak Reynolds Woodcock - will be his final film role. In 2012, Time magazine proclaimed Day-Lewis the world's greatest actor and if his Oscar hit rate is any indication, no one else measures up: the famously reticent Day-Lewis is the only person ever to have won three Best Actor Oscars (for My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood and Lincoln).
"I just feel it's time to explore the world in a different way now," the actor said at a recent press conference in Athens for the premiere of Phantom Thread, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. "It's work that I have loved not just in my adult life but also as a child - in a way it saved me from myself when I was a kid." He added: "It's been a sanctuary, it's been an endless source of fascination."
Day-Lewis is without peer when it comes to his "madness method" acting style - inhabiting a character and staying fully immersed in it throughout the making of a movie. In My Left Foot (1989) where he played Christy Brown, the Irish writer and painter who had cerebral palsy, he spent two months in a Dublin clinic learning to speak and also to write and paint with his left foot, as Brown did. He never left his wheelchair and was spoon-fed for the entire shoot.
As Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), he learned how to hunt and skin animals and only ate food he had killed; bizarrely, he also carried his flintlock rifle with him at all times, even off set. In The Boxer (1997), he tattooed his arms and trained for 18 months to play an ex-con and IRA volunteer-turned-boxer. Gay street punk (My Beautiful Laundrette, 1985), conflicted oil tycoon (There Will Be Blood, 2007) and the American president during the US civil war (Lincoln, 2012) were roles that helped to cement his place in the pantheon of movie greats.
Somewhat surprisingly perhaps for someone from a middle-class English background (he and Oldman grew up near each other in south-east London) and whose father Cecil Day-Lewis was a Poet Laureate, Day-Lewis is an unabashed fan of American cinema. He watched Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver several times during a single week in 1976, when he was 19. Famously selective (Phantom Thread is his first movie part in five years), he didn't turn Scorsese down when the director approached him for the role of 19th century New York gent Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence (1993), or for the knife-throwing thug Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York (2002). His ability to seamlessly straddle different roles - and different worlds - is what sets Day-Lewis apart from mere mortals.
Meticulous, methodical, mesmerising - Day-Lewis's unique commitment to his craft and his innate curiosity takes him to places few actors are familiar with. Even when wordlessly brushing his hair or simply pulling on a pair of socks - as he does at the beginning of Phantom Thread - it's evident that the person on the big screen is Woodcock, not an actor playing the part.
A profile in the Oct 12, 1992 issue of The New Yorker magazine describes Day-Lewis as a man who comes to America "either to become someone else or to receive awards for having done so". Things haven't changed much since then. With Oldman the prohibitive Oscar favourite this year though, Day-Lewis claims he will be relaxed in the time leading up to the ceremony in Los Angeles on March 4. Meanwhile, his many admirers will reflect on a superb body of work - and wonder if this unmatched artist's career has been sewn up all too soon.