Oscars 2019: Focusing on those in ‘Second’ Place

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody

The 2019 Oscars have come and gone. Number ones for best picture, best actor and actress, best animation feature and so on will be remembered. They are, respectively, Green Book, Rami Malek, Olivia Colman, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (see my review here). But what of those who came ‘second’? Are they just as memorable, if not more so?

Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz in The Favourite

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice

Two of the films nominated for best picture for this year’s awards were Vice and The Favourite. Neither of them won Best Picture. Interestingly, though, both films were about the people behind the main political leaders of the time, those in second place. In Vice, the story concerns Dick Cheney who became Vice President of the USA in the G W Bush era. In The Favourite, the main focus is on the two women in 18th Century England who get closest to Queen Anne. The women are Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham.

Not only do the films focus on these ‘vice-leaders’, they also show how exceptionally powerful the vices were. Political machinations go on behind the scenes that make George W Bush and Queen Anne, respectively, look like weak, easily manipulated puppets. The films were an excellent depiction of how leaders of countries/institutions can be merely figureheads, with the real power devolving from influential people who work cunningly to get their own objectives met.

Other similarities between the movies were how they were filmed. Vice breaks the fourth wall constantly with a quirky narrator whose identity is revealed in shocking fashion three quarters of the way through. There is also an amusing section when credits begin to roll as if the film had ended, when in fact it hadn’t. The Favourite uses wide-angle lens shots, gloomy lighting, and lurid details often hidden from the camera to depict reality and confront the viewer.

Olivia Colman – who played Queen Anne in The Favourite – won 2019 Best Actress (read about her acceptance speech). She was excellent as the ill, dithering, batty, very sad Queen Anne. In addition to her performance it’s the stories of the aspirations of those in ‘second place’ that make The Favourite and Vice riveting viewing.

 

Denial Pits the Rigors of Fact Against the Excitement of Conspiracy Theory

Denial is based on the book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier by Deborah E. Lipstadt. The cast of main characters is all British, with the exception of one South African, Caren Pistorius, who plays a junior paralegal. Even the one American character in the story, Lipstadt, is played by a Briton, Rachel Weisz.

The story revolves around exactly what the title of the book proclaims: a

Image source: Pretty Famous

Image source: Pretty Famous

day in court. Historian, Lipstadt, is accused by holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) of defaming him in one of her publications. Passionate about her subject, and Jewish herself, Lipstadt decides to go to court, rather than settle out of it. She is appointed a British legal team who takes on the case pro bono (although funding needs to be raised to pay costs). Despite its brilliance the team’s seemingly objective, very methodical approach to the case conflicts with Lipstadt’s strongly held – and voiced – values on her subject. Much of the story actually revolves around Lipstadt’s own coming to terms with their methods, one of which involves her not even taking the stand and thus remaining silent throughout the trial. This goes against her grain and is an exercise in “self-denial”, a line which appears in a conversation in the film.

A major aspect of the story is the depiction (and explanation) of the British legal system which is different to the American one. Whilst solicitors do the behind-the-scenes work, explains solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) in one scene, barristers are the ones who argue the case in court. In Denial Tom Wilkinson plays Richard Rampton, the barrister. Viewers are privy to the team’s decision to argue the case by proving Irving to be a racist, anti-Semite and a wilful liar. This tack requires a great deal of discipline, a huge amount of research (performed by an enormous team of historians, professors and students), and a firm decision not to defend the holocaust by putting survivors on the stand.

Tom Wilkinson performs his role as barrister Richard Rampton with delicacy and balance. Rampton approaches his job with scientific precision, but also manages to connect with his emotional and upset client, Lipstadt. He consciously avoids eye contact with David Irving in court, a tactic designed to unsettle the opposition. But when the court case is over, Rampton continues to ignore Irving thus revealing his true feelings. This subtle display of emotion made me weep.

Irving is well-portrayed as an ill-informed radical with his own agenda. He reminded me of purveyors of other conspiracy theories, proponents of which unfortunately get lots of attention in the media while the plodding, scientific, historical facts get overlooked. This may in fact be what happens to this film. Denial is not an action film. It tells a relatively small story despite its weighty subject, and may therefore not attract large audiences. I, however, was completely absorbed from beginning to end and highly recommend this tightly acted, carefully portrayed film.

Denial opens at cinemas in South Africa on 10 February 2017.

View the trailer of Denial here: http://bit.ly/2js5G4u

‘Youth’ (the film) makes old age look depressing

In the movie, Youth, Michael Caine stars as the main character, Fred Ballinger. Fred is a retired orchestra conductor who takes some time out in a health resort in the Swiss Alps. Also at the resort is Fred’s lifelong friend, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), who is currently working on a screenplay. The two friends are tied not only by friendship but by the marriage of Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), to Mick’s son, and through a common affection, in years gone by, for Fred’s elusive wife.

youth

Micahel Caine and Harvey Keitel in Youth. Photo source: https://bathffblogger.wordpress.com/2015/12/06/youth/

As the title “Youth” implies, Fred and Mick reminisce about their youth. While doing so they try to both hold onto their youth, and to accept its loss, something Fred seems to achieve to some degree in the end. Lesser characters at the spa also experience their own inner turmoil. For example, Lena’s marriage falls apart, and the brooding young actor, Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), cogitates upon the art and value of authentic acting.

Whilst the film ends on a somewhat positive (musical) note, most of the “action” is of a gloomy psychological nature, punctuated by a few bursts of happiness in the form of wise quips from small children. Even the beautiful alps form a silent and suffocating backdrop to the resort guests’ mental distress. Youth paints a depressing picture of old age, particularly amongst the idle rich, and is made even more melancholy by its cerebral approach.

Youth reminded me of another film Michael Caine starred in, the similarly psychological and depressing Mr Morgan’s Last Love, which I also reviewed. Whilst I didn’t exactly want to stick needles in my eyes rather than watch Youth, its two-hour long screening was not a particularly enjoyable one.

Youth opens at cinemas in South Africa on 8 July.