Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

17 December 2017

Darkest Hour, Roman J. Israel, Disaster Artist, and the Best Actor Oscar

Last night I saw Joe Wright's Darkest Hour, the Winston Churchill-leading-up-to-Dunkirk movie, and I am here to tell you it is really, really strong.

Gary Oldman plays the cantankerous old Prime Minister, beginning his fight against fascism, and his performance is just pitch perfect the entire time. He's under a large amount of makeup, of course, but this doesn't seem to get in the way of the work he is doing at all. Churchill emerges as a rich, nuanced, fascinating figure filled with doubts and attempting to balance two warring political factions at home while making the right decisions about the soldiers fighting the Nazis in France and Belgium.

Oldman is superb, and he is definitely the best part of the film, but this is only because he is so good. Wright's filmmaking is also just excellent, the script is smart if it occasionally veers off into the overly sentimental, and the camerawork and editing are wonderful. Oh, Dario Marianelli's score is great, too, keeping the mood intense even when what we're watching doesn't seem to be about the stakes of human lives in peril.

Darkest Hour is also total Oscar bait. It's a WWII movie with a great performance at its center. It's (obviously) way better than The King's Speech (in fact, Darkest Hour has it's own King George VI – Ben Mendelsohn – who is great), and it maintains a sort of regal, important tone throughout.

It earns all of this, though, and the movie works very, very well. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I hope Oldman does win his Oscar.

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While I'm talking about this year's Best Actor Oscar, let me just go all the way in. The SAG nominees are out, and the Golden Globe nominees are out, so that means the field is pretty well established.
Here is how it looks to me.

The Screen Actors Guild nominated:
Timothée Chalamet for Call Me By Your Name,
Gary Oldman for Darkest Hour,
James Franco for The Disaster Artist,
Daniel Kaluuya for Get Out, and
Denzel Washington for Roman J. Israel, Esq.

The Golden Globes doubles up its nominees. To the list above they added the following five names:
Tom Hanks for The Post,
Daniel Day-Lewis for Phantom Thread,
Steve Carell for Battle of the Sexes,
Ansel Elgort for Baby Driver, and
Hugh Jackman for The Greatest Showman (haha).

I think the Golden Globes Drama list – Chalamet, Day-Lewis, Oldman, Hanks, Washington – is the top five. I would say there only really two alternates for those top five spots and those are Daniel Kaluuya and James Franco. But the SAG skews young, and it is also going to skew toward films that have come out earlier. It makes sense that movies like The Post and Phantom Thread, which are only now just being seen by everyone, are not on that SAG list. I don't see either Kaluuya or Franco breaking into that top five. It could happen, but I don't see it.

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As for Roman J. Israel, Esq., it's surprisingly good! I was sort of expecting it to be just a star vehicle, but Dan Gilroy (who also made Nightcrawler a couple of years ago) is trying to deal with ethics in Los Angeles, and he has crafted a script that explores social justice and law in the U.S. in interesting ways. The movie is too long, and it has an oddly uplifting, hopeful ending, but perhaps this just reflects the fact that Gilroy believes in the possibilities of change a bit more than I do.

And Denzel Washington is great in this part. It is a really beautiful performance that often feels new and intriguing, and Roman J. Israel, Esq. is very different from other parts that he has played recently. It's a de-glammed, non-powerhouse part that (paradoxically) packs an interesting punch. I really enjoyed the film, and after seeing the performance really feel confident that he will get nominated.

Oh! And Colin Farrell is also in this movie, doing his usual excellent supporting work. He is just a fantastic actor. I am glad he works so much. At some point, I am sure people will wise up to just how good he is, but for now I guess he can just keep churning out great performances.

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I have also seen Franco's The Disaster Artist, and I can tell you that I also think Franco is great in the movie. The movie itself is... well, I think it is for people who really like The Room. I'm not one of those people, so I didn't think the film was nearly as funny as it thought it was. Also, and this is the part that doesn't really sit well with me, The Disaster Artist's treatment of Tommy Wiseau strikes me as mean-spirited, even ugly. For all of the brilliance of Franco's mimicry – and it is brilliant – The Disaster Artist thinks Wiseau is a total fucking joke. So the entire film, which is about the making of a terrible film, is busy making fun of Wiseau. The film thinks he's a sexual deviant; it is baffled by how rich he is but also happy to cash his checks; and it is laughing at him to his face.

What is fucked up about The Disaster Artist is that this is all done under the pretense of really loving Wiseau. The movie even begins with various actors speaking to the camera in documentary style about how brilliant the film is. We love Tommy Wiseau, everyone in the movie seems to be saying.

The Disaster Artist, in other words, wants to have it both ways. It wants to make fun of Wiseau while pretending that it is paying tribute to him or some such business. It all feels disingenuous to me. The Disaster Artist isn't really interested in getting to know Wiseau, in exploring what's going on with him or how he works or what he thinks. It's content, instead, simply to look at him as a curiosity, a bizarre, wealthy clown. It reminded me a bit of the way last year's Stephen Frears's film looked at Florence Foster Jenkins: this person is a freak and nothing more. We might feel a little bit sorry for these people, but we certainly can't identify with them. Both of those films allow us to believe that we normal people are nothing like those weirdos.

I didn't dislike the film, really, but it definitely left a bad taste in my mouth.

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My own preferences for Best Actor this year lean toward Robert Pattinson, Claes Bang, Harris Dickinson, and Jeremy Renner – but that's another story, and I haven't seen Call Me By Your Name, The Post, or Phantom Thread yet, so the jury's still out.