Alternative Films: The 89th Academy Awards

It was always going to be a dramatic, mouthy escapade. Since Meryl Streep’s monologue at the Golden Globe Awards earlier this year, the current political landscape has been battered to pieces during many award speeches. With US late night host Jimmy Kimmel at the helm, the 89th Academy Awards quickly descended into a swell of political fervor and artistic determination. At times it was precious, sometimes self-indulgent, but mostly it was the truth.

Emotions were running high as the quality and excellence was made apparent when taking into account each of the nominated films. Some years are golden, and 2017 certainly delivered. Last year, the question of the evening was whether Leonardo Di Caprio’s turn as a mauled bear-hunter in The Revenant would be deemed watchable and suitably accomplished to be handed the Best Picture gong, against eventual winner, Spotlight Slim-pickings appeared a thing of the past as each Best Picture nominee basked in the beaconed light of their creativity, diversity and integrity of storytelling. As Kimmel subtlety stated in response to the Trump administration: “I mean remember last year when the Oscars were racist.”

Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay: Moonlight

However while a swell of emotions were expected, even the dramatics of Hollywood could not have anticipated Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty’s hiccup. After reading an envelope that is purported to have read “Emma Stone – La La Land”, Dunaway announced the rejuvenated Hollywood musical as the winner and Director Damien Chazelle, producers, cast and crew jumped on stage as the winners, launching into their thank you speeches. Murmurings in the background of the stage indicated trouble and the tables turned in one of the most spectacular moments where Moonlight was revealed as the true Best Picture. Beatty swiftly took to the microphone to explain that he must have been handed the wrong envelope we’ll have to wait and see what Carly Simon thinks about that. Whatever had happened, the damage had been done and La La Land’s production gracefully retreated to let Moonlight take their stage. Kimmel proved well adept at handling the mix up as he rushed out onto the stage crying: “I blame Steve Harvey for this” and decried the limited gold statues: “why can’t we just hand out a whole bunch of them?”. Ultimately, it was refreshing to see a split between Best Director and Best Picture with a push to praise Moonlight, the underdog.

Best Director, Best Actress, Best Song, Best Score, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design: La La Land

Like all love stories, the ubiquitous love affair with La La Land began at its debut in Venice last summer. Following this came Telluride, the Golden Globes, the DGA’s, the PGA’s and the SAG Awards. Director Damien Chazelle along with his cast and crew, were swimming in accolades, and The Academy followed suit with 14 Oscar Nominations, a record matched only by All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997) and in the end came home with six wins.

At the age of just 32, Damien Chazelle is Hollywood’s latest worth-the-risk asset, after La La Land’s global box office dominance. Director of the highly commended Whiplash, La La Land stirs up similar emotions of unrelenting ambition. Chazelle’s script follows aspiring actress Mia, played by the effervescent Emma Stone, as she struggles to ascend the ladder of acting success. Inevitable romance ensues when Mia stumbles upon Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling pianist, determined to single-handedly maintain the legacy of the jazz genre. While comparisons to Astaire and Rogers have been drawn in the midst  La La Land frenzy, this may be a tad genimgreserous, due in part to noticeable timing errors in the midst of continuous dance sequences. Despite this, or perhaps in spite of this lack of complete perfection, Stone and Gosling’s performances are wonderful, their chemistry tantalizing. J.K Simmons, who has a bit-part as Gosling’s boss, likened his costars diverse talents to the industry’s dreaded ‘big three.’ Both are well adept at the coveted trio of acting, dancing and singing. Gosling furthers this, having bound himself to the piano in preparation for this role, determined not to let CGI receive the praise for his characters piano-playing. In long, continuous sequences Gosling edges on Klipspringer, loose hairs fraying out from a well-gelled quiff as his hands work the keys.

In the opening number our eyes follow the motivated camera, dollying up against traffic on a Los Angeles Freeway ramp. As expected, a motorist bursts into song and others trapped in the standstill soon follow, the tempo is set for a glorious musical number. ‘Another Day of Sun’ hits its final beat and we recline, taking in the Los Angeles sunshine and the mesmerising, cornflower sky. Linus Sandgren’s winning cinematography transports the film, conveying the idealism and lucid visions generally reserved for Broadway productions. In this realm, Chazelle’s vision arrives in the form of arresting colours. His colour palette and approach in fact, are succinctly reminiscent of that unshakeable, Lynchian vibrancy. There is a remarkable likeness of his filming locations to production sets, in that Gosling and Stone operate in an alternate territory whereby they are not simply skipping along a road, but rather a stage. A true ode to dreamers, it is told through the backdrop of this glorious and at times brutal city, exclusively built on the foundations of many insatiable desires to fulfil a dream. Chazelle takes a commendable approach, locking in contemporary into the mix. It is this amalgam of two worlds, the supposedly out-of-mode musicals of the 1950’s and the modern era that elevates his film. It is a testament both to Chazelle’s talent and sheer confidence, that he felt he could accurately intertwine the two worlds. Directors all too often obliterate the advent of the mobile phone, for plot or simplicity purposes. Although La La Land harps back to the old ages of escapism, Chazelle does not shy away from the world in which we live, where dreams and modernization coexist: a place called reality.

Rose tinted glasses have received La La Land so spectacularly, it has bordered on the point of suffocation. These unrealistically high expectations may have indeed marred the end result for some. Be warned, it has its flaws. For a film heralded as the saviour of rejuvenating the dying breed of the movie musical genre, a slump at the halfway mark in fact favours drama over the much lauded musical numbers. Weaknesses in its script become evident when singing takes a back seat, and for a considerable amount of time it seems to forget it is a musical altogether.

While La La Land deservedly picked up Best Director for Damien Chazelle, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight ultimately triumphed, winning Best Picture after La La Land gracefully transferred power two minutes later. The Academy awarded a truly representative film with a harrowing portrayal of a young, homosexual black man growing up in Miami. Many critics were proved wrong, in that perhaps Hollywood is not entirely irrevocably in love with itself.

Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay: Manchester By the Sea

With a real life older brother reaping dubious box office returns as the Dark Knight in the Batman franchise, after Manchester By the Sea, Casey Affleck could truly be classed as the dark horse of the Affleck family. As janitor Lee Chalmers, Casey Affleck mesmerizes as the gentle giant, oozing painful fragility and sorrow, forced to return to his hometown of Manchester By the Sea after his brother’s death. Affleck dominates frames, he stands uneasily, hands perpetually in pockets like a staunch presence. As a tale of two brothers afflicted by terrible crosses, revered playwright Kenneth Lonergan presents this struggle against the backdrop of white picket fences, blindingly white snow and majestic New England churches. Affleck contrasts against the mundane sharply, hanging back, demure in dark colours, rarely surpassing the pigmentation of a dark green.

Affleck’s character is tasked with arranging the guardianship of his brothers only son, played in an evocative, career-defining performance by Lucas Hedges. The binary between Chalmers’ initial reason for leaving his hometown and his reluctant return to arrange guardianship propels the story onwards. We see Affleck’s character adjusting himself to the situation, before being hit by a demon of his past. What emerges is a deeply engaging dynamic between the lead and his teenage nephew, tipping the balancing scales, dipping between love and remorse so fluidly and inconspicuously. Hedges depicts perhaps the least stereotypical teenage character to grace screens in many years and in the absence of such accuracy, this offering would surely not be half as good. Quick wit, and demeaning banter solidifies their relationship, bringing a superb dynamic and camaraderie to the pair.

Where Lonergan’s script surpasses his contemporaries, is his innate ability to tap into the mundane world, still a rarity to witness on screen. Grief, not solely reserved for the recent passing of his brother, manifests itself in another form, a grievance for the affliction of past mistakes. Forced to return to his hometown, where, we are initially led to believe Lee Chalmers had once been stricken by tragedy, he confronts grief in all its capacities. Lonergan’s written complexities transform on screen into a stark, realistic portrayal of a man dogged by burdens and demons, battling these crosses in the midst of everyday life. Unprecedented panic attacks that arise after a dozen frozen chickens fall out of the freezer and crash in a heap on the floor, is a sample transcendental moment, grounding the grief-stricken characters in harsh, definition. It is Lonergan’s delicate hold over the dialogue, his immersiveness in the grieving environment, where he harnesses the understated value of the profane, bringing this death-driven story, to life.

In Manchester By the Sea, Lonergan aptly couples angsty, palatable grief with dry, home-town homour. It is a bonus to be prepared for the melancholic, given the predictably grief-stricken themes, only then to be hit by a surprising amount of humour. Lonergan was well-deserving of the Best Original Screenplay nod. The supporting cast thrive in their at times minute roles (Oscar Nominated Michelle Williams is on screen for less than fifteen minutes overall), wholly adding their skills to this bittersweet, ravishing film. In the lead up to the Academy Awards, Affleck has long been a shoo-in for Best Actor after this breathtaking performance and this steady stream of awards culminated in his golden statue last night.

Best Supporting Actress: Fences

It’s tough viewing. Not The Revenant tough, but it’s emotionally invigorating and in the end it’s all worth it. In Fences, Denzel Washington gives a gripping, haunting performance as Troy Maxson, a scorned rubbish collector that harbours a deep resentment for life as he has known it. Viola Davis stands in sheer solitude in the wings, levelling with and adoring her husband of eighteen years. Davis’s performance is understatedly mesmerizing. Washington toes the line between the charming facade of a man deftly proud and content with his lot in life, while also revealing inklings of his characters angst-ridden contempt, fuelled by dreams gone unachieved. Mykelti Williamson, known for his role as Bubba in Forrest Gump makes a stellar turn as Troy’s mentally unstable brother, labelled the village fool but with more truth to his words than anyone else.

Both leads know their characters like the back of their hand, having performed Wilson’s play on stage in 2010. Such theatrical adeptness appears initially to be a vice, with Washington and Davis firmly planted in the realm of the stage. It takes time to become accustomed to the dialogue heavy sequences, dogged with theatrical idiosyncrasies that one can not hide from on screen. Long, ponderous musings become the norm, swiftly moving from the sacred to profane, with the ease as if turning water to wine. Washington bears the brunt of August Wilson’s dialogue-heavy material, his character hiding stealthily behind his words in the same manner he hides in security behind his back garden fence. It takes a moment to become accustomed to the dialogue heavy scenes, before your subconscious accepts this as the way of the land. There are however, few natural breaks as the theatricality dominates. The physical proximity of the characters do propel the heat, bearing a resemblance to the fiery outbursts of A Streetcar Named Desire, similarly adapted from play to screen with the same batch of actors.

While Washington’s overt direction lacks in some respects, Fences is an extraordinary portrait of a man unwilling to relinquish his pride. It is this poignant reminder of a relatively recent time in history, which propels Fences to greatness. Still, one can’t help but wish to see Davis and Washington play is out where it belongs – on the stage. Viola Davis’s internalisation of Rose, the loyal wife who supports her husband despite the most crippling of adversities is executed with such a refined grace, wholly supporting her Oscar win. Her recipients speech was perhaps one of the most memorable of the night, such was the conviction and appreciation evident in her words. Washington’s turn as Troy Maxson, was a latecomer in the Lead Actor race, with Affleck firmly in pole position until the all-telling SAG awards. it was between Washington and Affleck with the latter ultimately coming out on top.

Jimmy Kimmel opened the show by crying out during his monologue ‘I’ve ruined the Oscars already.’ For the most part however the show went on without a hiccup, Kimmel wrangling as much as he could out of the material in front of him and capitalizing on his infamous faux feud with Matt Damon. Despite Dunaway and Beatty’s unfortunate error, on the bright side two films had a chance to deliver their recipient speeches and thankfully we now know that there’s no room for fake news, or fake Oscars.

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