Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Last quarter 'true story' Oscar bait underwhelms

I can be a tough critic to please sometimes, but I get especially grinchy during the holiday crunch when awards season group-think forces me to seek out prestige-courting biopics and true-to-life narratives for which I'd gladly have waited. In the ten days since I first set eyes upon Todd Hayne's exquisite Carol, I've struck out thrice with other Globe/BFCA heavies Trumbo, The Danish Girl, and The Big Short; All of them capitalizing on year-end kudos, whether or not they should.
Trumbo is especially unfortunate. True Hollywood stories are of inherent interest to me (and many a cinephile, I should imagine), so it really says something when I despair at how unengaged I was by Jay Roach's shapeless biopic of the legendary screenwriter, who was infamously blackballed by McCarthy-era witch hunt politics. The man himself (likely Oscar nominee Bryan Cranston) would have shuddered at the screenplay's lack of structure and payoff. The film's strong SAG haul, particularly the Best Ensemble nomination, is baffling. Sure, there are a handful of droll impersonations in there -- David James Elliott's John Wayne and Dean O'Gorman's Kirk Douglas are aces -- but everyone is play acting instead of screen acting. Yes, there is a difference. The lone exceptions are Elle Fanning and Diane Lane as the key female figures in Trumbo's life, his daughter Niki and his wife Cleo.
The Danish Girl might have been able to conjure the perfect zeitgeist storm, with transgender issues reaching levels of prevalence and discussion in contemporary culture they've never reached before. Alas, Tom Hooper's biopic of trans pioneer Lili Elbe is a snooze. It may be handsomely appointed and finely dressed (Paco Delgado's costumes are superb), but it's sadly superficial and soft-spoken to a fault. There's a difference between stillness and dullness. The extent to which Hooper is willing (or able) to explore Lili's complex internal shift is to show Eddie Redmayne -- whose affectations strain with effort -- stroking women's clothing and looking abashed. His co-lead Alicia Vikander is far more naturalistic, though it still doesn't compare to her awards-worthy work in Ex Machina. Hooper's notorious composition gimmick (off-centre closeups of actors gazing out of frame) persists, but to no thematic end; At least in The King's Speech it was somewhat defensible.
And springboarding from an AFI Fest premiere into unlikely but very real Oscar consideration was Adam McKay's The Big Short, a self-righteously furious lampoon of the Wall St. corruption that left the U.S. (and global) economy in ruins in 2008. At the very least this based-on-a-true-story story has more on its mind than the period biographies described above. It's verbose and clearly thoroughly researched and sounds awfully smart, but a truly smart movie would be able to explain its complexities to an audience without leaning on the expository gimmicks this one does. Neither Spotlight nor Steve Jobs needed to break the fourth wall or indulge in random celebrity cameos to get heady points across.
On the other hand, you could say it isn't necessary to understand high finance to understand the movie. The characters are well defined and performed, but then the script does nothing with them. Only Carell's character has any semblance of an arc. The cast interactions are entertaining for half an hour, after which it starts landing far fewer laughs than it intends.
The one bio I've seen this week that didn't manage to disappoint was actually released earlier this year, Love & Mercy. Bill Pohlad's take on the life of Beach Boy Brian Wilson (dually played by John Cusack and an awards-worthy Paul Dano) is kind of like this year's Interstellar; Not just because it starts getting a little bit 2001-ish towards the end, but for being frustrating and brilliant in equal measure. For a biopic, it's unusually daring in its form and flow. Some extended takes needed to be reigned in, but some are transcendent. Not all the performances quite work, and others are phenomenal. Cusack is hit-and-miss while Paul Giamatti majorly overdoes it, but Elizabeth Banks is wonderfully empathetic and Dano is on a whole 'nother level. What Pohlad may lack in visual flare, he more than makes up for with his use of sound, putting us right in the tumultuous headspace of a troubled genius. Sound designer and re-recorning mixer Eugene Gearty deserves an Oscar. Full stop.

Okay. I'm ready for some more fiction now, please.

1 comment:

  1. Don't you worry. Some great fiction is coming your way with Star Wars!!