Oscars 2016 – My Reaction

Firstly an apology for a lack of content this week – I’ve been busy with academic and social commitments, so I haven’t been able to post here as frequently as I’d have liked to. For the time being things seem to have slowed down, so I thought I’d come back with a few thoughts on the recent Academy Awards ceremony.

It wasn’t a particularly surprising or upsetting night. Chris Rock did a good job of hosting, delivering a rightly scathing monologue on the diversity issues that plagued this years’ nominations process. Politics seemed to be on the agenda even more than usual; from Ali G to Sam Smith to Leonardo DiCaprio, there were references to race, gender, sexuality, and the environment throughout the proceedings. While some may have found this soapbox approach tiresome, it must surely be a good thing to see artists using their platform to raise issues of greater significance than themselves. Probably the most moving moment of the night came as things took a slightly surreal turn, with Joe Biden introduced Lady Gaga and a crowd of sexual assault survivors for the song Til it Happens to You.

On to the awards, and here it was more of a mixed bag. My highlight of the evening was Ennio Morricone winning his first Oscar for the soundtrack to Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Morricone is, in my mind, the greatest of film composers, and it’s a pleasure to see him finally receive Academy recognition (2007 honorary Oscar aside) for an outstanding body of work going back seven decades. Sixty years since he composed the iconic theme to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Morricone may cut a small and unimposing figure, appearing noticeably frail as he was helped to the stage, but his Oscar winning score for The Hateful Eight demonstrates that even at age 87 he remains a master.

Also pleasing was Mark Rylance taking the Supporting Actor award, as I had predicted in my Bridge of Spies review. While a Stallone victory would have been an undeniably refreshing development, stage veteran Rylance was a deserving winner for a film that otherwise went largely unnoticed. Similarly, witnessing Mad Max: Fury Road sweep the technical categories, with six wins, was a happy vindication for the level of craft and innovation that went into George Miller’s action behemoth.

Now, my disappointments. I was hoping to see Winslet take the Supporting Actress prize for a subtle and engaging performance in Steve Jobs, but I’ll admit to not having seen The Danish Girl as of yet, so I can’t comment on Alicia Vikander’s right to the accolade. My only genuine bugbear, however, was the biggest success story of the night – Leonardo DiCaprio.

There’s been a lot of noise on the internet over the past few years about DiCaprio never having won an Oscar (strangely the same fuss was never so vocal for the likes of Roger Deakins, Morricone, or Gary Oldman). But as much as I respect Leonardo DiCaprio as an individual and an actor, I have never thought any of his performances deserving of a Best Actor award, and I maintain that position having seen The Revenant. He simply isn’t a chameleon in the manner that the great actors are – he never succeeds in dropping the typical Leo mannerisms and really becoming his character. This remained obvious in The Revenant, pitted against Tom Hardy’s superior performance in a supporting role.

I’ll accept that DiCaprio’s opposition this year was not particularly strong, particularly compared with the last time he was nominated in 2014. I would personally have given the award to Fassbender, who was thoroughly convincing as Steve Jobs, without having to eat a raw fish or film in exceptionally cold weather. Dedication to a character and arduous filming conditions do not make a good performance, and The Revenant’s wafer-thin script didn’t really leave diCaprio much opportunity to act beyond the odd groan and a lot of dribbling.

I do not wish to come across as petulant or contrarian – I believe Leonardo DiCaprio to be a dependable performer with a slew of quality roles behind him, but he falls short of the legendary status that is often attributed to him. Of course, he’s still young and has a bright future ahead of him; I simply find the emphasis put on his abilities to be misplaced. From the beginning of the awards season, his claim to the Oscar seemed inevitable, and I can’t help but feel that this had more to do with hype than the quality of his performance.

As for Spotlight, the winner of the all-important Best Picture award, it’s difficult to argue that it was really the best example of film-making of the whole year. Nevertheless, despite being stylistically uninspired, it’s a great film, with an excellent ensemble cast and, above all, an important story to tell. Certainly a more welcome winner than The Revenant, Spotlight will likely be remembered as a deserving, if unmemorable, Best Picture.

That’s about all I’ve got to say for this year. I haven’t covered everything; after all it was a bloody long night, so this was just the awards and moments that I had a particular reaction to. Obviously not everyone is going to agree, but I hope I’ve put forward my case in a satisfactory manner. Please comment below with thoughts and responses, but until next year, that’s all for Oscar season 2016!

Oscars 2016 Recap – Mad Max: Fury Road Review

Mad Max: Fury Road is a modern classic of the action genre. Unashamedly bombastic from beginning to end, George Miller effortlessly blends the old-school with the state-of-the-art.

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Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky. Copyright 2015 Warner Bros. Ent.

The original Mad Max may have been released in 1979, but it was the 1981 sequel that rightfully secured its place as a pop culture phenomenon. Anyone familiar with Mad Max 2, or The Road Warrior as it is alternatively known, will remember the seminal, climactic chase involving an oil tanker and a bunch of leather-clad bastards in pursuit. If you’re wondering what Mad Max: Fury Road is like, it’s basically that, but extended over two hours.

And that’s a wonderful thing. Decades since the misjudged Mad Max 3: Beyond the Thunderdome, director George Miller has returned to the Australian action franchise that made his name, and he delivers with aplomb. Mel Gibson has been replaced by Tom Hardy as the eponymous Max, but the violent, visceral world around him remains unchanged. Set in a post-apocalyptic Australian desert, Fury Road tells a familiar tale of one man’s fight for survival and, eventually, redemption, in a world gone to hell. But this is really only half the story. Max may have his name in the title, but it’s Charlize Theron’s Furiosa who takes the front seat for much of the film, providing most of the substance both narratively and emotionally. Although Furiosa has a lot more to say and do than Hardy’s half-mute protagonist, it is to the latter’s credit that he provides a powerful screen presence despite his limited role. These two leads give effective, world-weary performances, saying as much in their actions as their words.

Ostensibly, Fury Road is composed of a single, extended car chase, with occasional lulls and highs in the action. But it is a mistake to consider the film in such simplified terms. Yes, the action rarely relents, and you’re likely to emerge exhausted when it’s all over, but there’s more going on behind the crashes and explosions. The main characters all feel refreshingly complex, despite their cartoonish exteriors; they give the impression of real and lived-in people, and there isn’t any need for clunky exposition to tell you. Fury Road is a visual experience, but this shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of development. The plot may be lightweight, but it serves the action and characters admirably. It’s an action film, first and foremost, but you don’t need to leave your brain at the door.

Essential to its success is the fact that Fury Road feels real. There is a constant sense of physicality throughout that allows you to connect with the events on screen. It’s an insane, exaggerated world, but the gritty façade keeps everything grounded and engaging. Certainly, it is a tribute to Miller’s talents that he was so seamlessly able to blend physical stunts with visual effects, with the film a sure shoe-in for awards recognition in this regard.

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Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa. Copyright 2015 Warner Bros. Ent.

It must come as something of a wake-up call to the Hollywood establishment that a 70-year old man,  whose most successful films include Babe and Happy Feet, was able to make the best action film of 2015. There is a palpable lack of complacency throughout the picture; an abundance of on-location shooting and intricate set design, practical stunts and effects, and human characters with motivations that feel believable and multi-faceted. You feel that there was a desire to do something different, as the frame rate purposefully stutters and the camera manoeuvres unconventionally through the action. Not all of these artistic flairs are necessarily successful, the colour palate is distractingly over-saturated, for example, but they all amount to a bolder and more interesting film than could have been.

Mad Max: Fury Road is, in a word, spectacular, and should be seen on the largest screen possible. Considering its lack of pretension as anything more than an action film, it was pleasing to a nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars this year. Considering the usual predictability of the awards, I would be more than happy to see it win, if anything for a little variety. Alas, such an outcome is unlikely, as the category is full of worthy and more conventional Oscar material. Fury Road’s most obvious talents lay in the technical realms, and this is where it should yield the most results.

The fourth Mad Max may not be the most thought provoking work of 2015, but it succeeds magnificently on its own terms and demonstrates the huge cinematic potential of the action genre. I would still rank it below its aged predecessor, Mad Max 2, which probably has greater depth despite its humble origins. However, this is a more than worthy sequel, invigorating a franchise most would have considered, at best, moribund. There’s still life in the old, mad dog yet, and I can’t wait to see more.

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