VIVA MEXICO (AGAIN)!
When he held the best director statuette aloft at the 2018 Academy Awards ceremony, Guillermo del Toro became the third Mexican filmmaker in the past five years to win the prize. With his fantasy drama The Shape of Water also taking the best picture crown on the night, del Toro followed in the footsteps of his countrymen Alfonso Cuarón (for the space thriller Gravity in 2014) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (for the theatre-land character study Birdman in 2015); their combined achievements provide continuing evidence that America’s neighbours to the south have indeed produced a golden generation of directorial talent.
It did not, of course, go un-noticed that the triumph for The Shape of Water was unfolding some 16 months into the first term of US president Donald Trump, who had made a controversial campaign promise to build a wall between America and Mexico to stem the flow of migrant traffic. Notwithstanding its late 1950s setting, the narrative thrust of del Toro’s garlanded film – in which a mute cleaner, her female African-American work colleague and her closeted confidant together outfox the combined might of the US military – could easily be read as a defiant counter-blast to the prevailing right-leaning values of Trump and his supporters. It is typical of del Toro’s admired oeuvre, however, that a strongly fantastical element plays against the story’s historical context, since this is, above all, a love story whose heroine falls for an amphibious humanoid creature retrieved from the swamps of South America. Neither character has a voice and both appear powerless within the US intelligence base setting (in their respective roles as low-level employee and much-abused specimen), yet their unlikely bond gives them the power to make their own destiny. Critics suggested that the film did not quite match the mastery of del Toro’s 2006 Spanish production Pan’s Labyrinth – in which a young boy retreats from 1940s fascist-dominated Spain into his own imaginary world – yet The Shape of Water shows del Toro evidently capable of creating distinctive, unusual and deeply felt work within the Hollywood system, thus benefiting from the marketing clout to reach a much wider audience than his earlier subtitled fare.
OSCAR NIGHT FIESTA
In one way or another, the cultural footprint of Latin America loomed large at the 2018 Academy Awards ceremony, with the best foreign film category seeing a first-ever victory for Chile in the form of Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman. This melodrama centres on a young transgender woman whose older male lover dies suddenly, pitching her into conflict with his family and arousing the suspicion of the local police. The result is striking not only for the director’s forays into a magical realist register, but also for the emotive central performance from actress Daniela Vega (who became the Oscars’ first-ever transgender presenter when she introduced one of the nominees for best song).
With the groundbreaking Coco taking the award for best animated feature, the spotlight was firmly back on Mexico. Always known for technical foresight and innovative storytelling (as manifested by popular and critical favourites Wall-E, Up and Inside Out), production company Pixar surely outdid itself on this occasion, creating a family-friendly fable drawing on the iconography of Mexico’s traditional Day of the Dead. At its core is a story of generational separation familiar from previous Pixar triumphs Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, yet it is played out as the plucky young hero is whisked away to the land of the dead – whose skeletal forms, familiar from Mexican folk art, are sustained only as long as those remaining on earth continue to remember them. Startling subject matter for a film produced under the umbrella of Pixar’s parent company, the entertainment giant Disney, yet the respect it shows a decidedly non-American cultural heritage is indeed a heartwarming act of outreach. Speaking to acknowledge his own Oscar win, Guillermo del Toro said that ‘the greatest thing our art does ... is to erase the lines in the sand. We should continue doing that even when the world tells us to make them deeper.’ He was, of course, talking about The Shape of Water, and referring to the ongoing backdrop of the Trump presidency, but his words could just as easily apply to Coco.
AWARDS AND THEIR USES
Thankfully for the organisers, the 90th Academy Awards ceremony witnessed no repeat of the previous year’s calamitous erroneous announcement of the best picture (a snarl-up since dubbed ‘Envelopegate’). Instead, there was something rather predictable about the way that the key acting prizes all followed 2018’s established awards season form. One could hardly begrudge the recognition of perennial scene-stealers Sam Rockwell (the racist junior cop in Southern states drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and Allison Janney (controlling mother in the ice-skating biopic I, Tonya) in the best supporting actor and actress categories, nor indeed a first Oscar and BAFTA in the best actor category for the long-admired Gary Oldman. In Darkest Hour he stirringly embodied the resilience and declamatory prowess of Britain’s Second World War prime minister, Winston Churchill; Kazuhiro Tsuji, creator of the remarkable prosthetics facilitating Oldman’s physical transformation, was quite rightly rewarded by both US and British academies in the make-up and hair category.
If Oldman was expected to win and did, the same could be said for Frances McDormand, who took best actress awards on both sides of the Atlantic for her indomitable turn as the mother seeking justice for her murdered daughter in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This third feature film directed by esteemed Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh utilised his trademark tart dialogue to lay out an abrasive yet ultimately hopeful story about the impermanence of corrosive prejudice, with McDormand a rock-like presence at the heart of a story that often challenged audience assumptions. A joint production between the UK and US, it also took both best film and outstanding British film at the BAFTAs, thus affirming McDonagh’s prestigious status in both film and theatre circles, yet it was McDormand’s presence on both award nights which was to capture the news headlines.
THE #METOO EFFECT
On stage at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, McDormand supplied the abiding image of the Oscar evening when she asked all the women in the room to stand in a gesture of solidarity. This was one of various recent instances where high-profile film industry gatherings have been used as a platform to register female colleagues’ disquiet in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal. While an initial report by the New York Times in October 2017 featured several actresses going public with allegations against the Oscar-winning mogul’s abusive behaviour, social media worldwide – under the MeToo hashtag on Twitter and elsewhere – subsequently exploded with many thousands of women voluntarily sharing their own experiences of sexual violence and inappropriate behaviour. In response, film industry executives created an organisation called Time’s Up to campaign against workplace harassment across the board, and more specifically to engage with bodies including the Producers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America to instigate concrete anti-harassment measures. Hence, while cynics might regard events such as the black dress protests at both the 2018 Golden Globes and BAFTA awards ceremonies – a conscious rejection of the usual finery of awards season designer frocks – as mere publicity-seeking gestures, there are actually industry-changing moves behind these displays. After Frances McDormand ended her Oscar acceptance speech by exhorting the assembled audience to embrace so-called ‘inclusion riders’, various production companies did indeed later adopt this contractual proviso to commit to gender equality or to the specified representation of minority or LGBT staff within a film crew.
Whether or not this apparent cultural shift within the film industry will affect long-term changes remains to be seen, but it is definitely having an impact in the short term. Harvey Weinstein’s eventual surrender to the New York police prompted the bankruptcy and break-up of his Weinstein Company, a previously powerful production and distribution operation, while a growing tally of sexual assault allegations against leading man Kevin Spacey (who denies wrongdoing and is yet to be charged at the time of writing) caused the producers of the film All the Money in the World to remove him from their already-shot kidnap drama. Veteran Christopher Plummer replaced him in rapidly convened reshoots, and editing was swiftly completed for a late 2017 release which gained Plummer an Oscar nomination. In the present climate, mere allegations of past misconduct are proving toxic, prompting, for instance, the resignation of John Lasseter, co-founder of the hugely successful and influential Pixar animation studio responsible for the Toy Story trilogy, with an admission of ‘mis-steps’ in his treatment of female staff members. Disney also later removed writer-director James Gunn, the creative force behind the two popular and irreverent Guardians of the Galaxy superhero features, from the series’ third instalment, when a series of offensive older social media posts were deemed ‘inconsistent with our studio’s values’.
In terms of its overall spreadsheet, Disney’s 2009 acquisition of the Marvel Entertainment brand, home to myriad superhero characters, and its later 2013 purchase of Lucasfilm, creator of the Star Wars franchise, continues to place the company in a dominant position regarding global box-office revenues. Topping the figures for the calendar year 2017, with a worldwide take in excess of $1.3bn, stood Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the eighth feature film in the hugely popular intergalactic saga initiated in 1977 by George Lucas. Under the stewardship of writer-director Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi presented a canny blend of old and new, featuring key roles for cast members from the 1977 original and deepening the character development of leading players from the new generation. The passing of actress Carrie Fisher meant that this outing was initially presumed to be her final screen appearance as the story’s heroine Leia, but Disney later announced that she would reprise her role in Episode IX using previously unreleased footage. The Last Jedi saw her leading the Resistance against the malign imperial power of the First Order, while her original co-star Mark Hamill also featured as embittered warrior Luke Skywalker, who must be persuaded that the rebels’ cause is still worth fighting for. Lined up against them is relative newcomer Adam Driver, a revelation as the volatile Kylo Ren, Leia’s errant son, now seemingly consumed by the dark influence of his grandfather Darth Vader – the series’ most memorable villain. Capably achieved combat and chase highlights presumably kept younger viewers in thrall, but for those old enough to have followed the Star Wars saga since its inception, the significant contributions of Fisher and Hamill gave this instalment an elegiac resonance raising it above the throng of effects-driven extravaganzas currently crowding the cinema release schedules.
Somewhat disappointing audience figures for the subsequent Solo: A Star Wars Story, exploring the youthful origins of the devil-may-care Hans Solo character – with Alden Ehrenreich taking over in the role played memorably by Harrison Ford, hinted that the public appetite for over-expanding movie franchises might be approaching its limit, but the parade of screen superheroes continues, leaving film-makers searching for a distinctive selling-point as characters in spandex save the world for the umpteenth time. Deadpool 2, for instance, continued in the spirit of its predecessor by deploying a knowing and determinedly adult black humour. Another approach, pioneered by the X-Men series and amplified by the Avengers movies, has been to package numerous superhero characters within the same movie, which enhances brand recognition but can prove problematic in story terms, what with the logistics of giving everyone something meaningful to do and the challenge of creating an antagonist capable of providing a serious threat against these massed ranks. A troubled production released to a mixed response from fans and critics alike, Justice League brought together the DC Comics big-hitters, including Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, though the most common assessment was that at least it was livelier and more fun than its gloomy multi-pack predecessor, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
It was, however, eclipsed in every respect by Avengers: Infinity War, which has now become the first superhero movie to break the $2bn barrier at the global box office. There have been 19 previous movie releases involving the various components of the self-styled Marvel Cinematic Universe, but as in the previous Avengers entries, here no fewer than 28 different superheroes are brought together. Iron Man, Spider-Man, Thor and Captain America are just some of the much-loved characters peopling the 149-minute movie, which is believed to have cost somewhere between $300m and $400m to make. Bear in mind that Infinity War is essentially the prelude to a concluding second instalment due for release in spring 2019, eagerly awaited by audiences traumatised by Infinity War’s unexpectedly bleak ending.
After the galactic levels of destruction witnessed in Avengers: Infinity War, one wonders where the genre can go next, and it is fair to say that such computer-generated carnage, while superficially eye-catching, does eventually become curiously academic. Perhaps that explains the appreciative critical and commercial welcome given to Mission: Impossible – Fallout, where the physical authenticity of its stuntwork became an actual selling-point. The sixth instalment in the popular espionage series generated much publicity thanks to a production shut-down incurred when agile star Tom Cruise broke his ankle attempting a risky jump between two office buildings on London’s riverside. Animated sequel Incredibles 2, on the other hand, delighted audiences with its slyly comic suggestion that super powers had their uses when battling evil adversaries but might not be quite so effective in facing the everyday trials of childcare and housework. Its delightful combination of imaginative spectacle and recognisable home truths boosted its box-office takings, making it the first animated feature ever to pass the billion-dollar mark worldwide.
THE PANTHER STRIKES
Marvel’s release, Black Panther, also proved an exception among superhero pictures for the way it determinedly sought out connections to the real world rather than presenting the usual hermetically sealed fantasy environment. As the title suggests, this is a film which engages with the debate around the social status of African-Americans, and the adventures of Chadwick Boseman’s African superhero aim to create an iconography of black pride at a time of fractious race relations in the US. Arguably, Black Panther is merely serviceable as a superhero flick, though the way its production design plays on African tribal imagery and its score blends hip-hop with traditional African instrumentation shows the degree of thought that writer-director Ryan Coogler and his team have put into it. Moreover, with the story set in a fictional African country called Wakanda, whose technological advances and mystical powers are far in advance of anything else worldwide, the drama sets up a debate about whether its eponymous superhero leader should preserve his people by keeping them hidden from view – or use Wakanda’s firepower to overthrow the status quo and liberate other black citizens across the globe. In essence, this is derring-do with strong additional thematic richness, and demonstrates that there is scope to present a specific and provocative African-American point of view within a mass-market entertainment. That feat was also achieved by Jordan Peele’s rapturously reviewed horror fantasy Get Out. This starts in comic mode as black leading man Daniel Kaluuya worries about how his white girlfriend’s parents are going to react to his impending visit, then reaches a pitch of paranoia when his hosts’ welcome proves the very stuff of nightmares. Addressing attitudes towards black sexuality and the lingering stain of slavery on America’s social fabric, but also delivering shocks to delight even the most jaded horror fan, the film is seemingly set for classic status, and the Academy’s award to Peele for best original screenplay was definitely a popular decision.
There was also a warm response when veteran British cameraman Roger Deakins finally landed the Academy Award for best achievement in cinematography after no less than 13 previous nominations spanning over 20 years. His work on Blade Runner 2049 brought an otherworldly sense of tone and texture to the film’s future-gazing vision of an android-policed high-density Los Angeles, bordered by drought-ravaged landscape and heightened sea levels. The film itself, while an undeniably fascinating attempt to match up to 1982’s Blade Runner – now regarded as a milestone in cinematic modernism – brought much slow-paced melancholy and the welcome return of Harrison Ford reprising his key role from the original, but appeared to be trying too strenuously to summon up an aura of mystery that Ridley Scott effortlessly achieved first time round. Scott handed over the directorial reins to Canada’s Denis Villeneuve (who had proved his skills with egghead sci-fi in the previous year’s Arrival), and if the somewhat muted commercial fortunes of Blade Runner 2049 might be judged a disappointment after long years of anticipation, Sir Ridley himself ploughed on regardless. He passed his 80th birthday working full-tilt to reshoot and polish off the now Spacey-free All the Money in the World in record time. Months later, the director of Alien, Thelma & Louise and Gladiator received a richly deserved career tribute BAFTA Fellowship, though in this instance the British film industry’s highest honour certainly did not represent the equivalent of a gold watch presented on retirement. Scott, needless to say, continues to beaver away on upcoming projects including a further episode in the Alien series with which he continues to be most strongly associated. His sheer dedication to his craft continues to inspire.