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Friday, 4 March 2016

Shooting Oscars

This will be the first year that I haven't devoted a full blog to the Oscar ceremony, partly because I don't have a great deal to add to the widespread coverage of the recent event and partly because a film viewed yesterday shouts for some comment.

Considering the brouhaha over the past few weeks about the whiteness of the Oscar nominees, Chris Rock did all that was expected of him to emphasize the problems of so-called diversity and largely with good grace, although a few of his gibes fell resoundingly flat. He had a very valid point in stating that historically having nominees of colour was of little consequence to the black community when your granny is hanging from a tree. And in all fairness, there have been a fair number of black winners in living memory. The point has been made, but I'm not sure it needs to be drummed home ad nauseum. There was certainly a compensatingly high percentage of dark faces among this year's presenters, most of whom felt obliged to add their two cents to the argument, but I'm pretty sure genuine talent will continue to be colour-blind in the years to come. Rock's amusing recasting of black actors in some of this year's nominated films (I especially liked the 'black' bear that violated DiCaprio) drove the point home that not every role calls out for colour-blind casting.

As for the awards themselves, there were actually a few surprises -- always a pleasant turn of events. I miscalled the likely winner of best supporting actress (although I think Alicia Vikander was even more deserving of an award for her amazing turn in "Ex Machina") and I was flabbergasted that sentimentality did not bestow the best supporting actor gong on Stallone. Also surprising is the fact that this year was the first Oscar win for the incredibly prolific and talented composer Ennio Morricone. Leo's win (at last, say some) for "The Revenant" was a foregone conclusion, but I could have done without the incurably smug Alejandro G. Inarritu winning best director for the second year running. However if the Academy once again manages to split the best picture award from the director responsible for its gestation, a far more popular choice would have been awarding the directing Oscar to veteran George Miller. After all, "Mad Max: Fury Road" was the big winner of the night with six technical awards -- and the production design really was magnificent -- a seventh to its director would have capped the evening. I was chuffed to find that Stephen Fry's 'bag lady' Jenny Beaven took home another costume design award for that movie, and you could just about hear the dressed-to-the-nines audience's horrified gasps when she took to the stage in her leather jacket and motorcycle boots.

Now to the second highlight of my cinematic week: "Shooting Stars" (1928). This restored silent film was one of the galas at last year's London Film Festival, and last night was the first of its less spangled showings before its DVD release later this month. The direction and screenplay are credited in retrospect to Anthony Asquith, son of a former Prime Minister, although he is uncredited for both -- the directing credit ascribed to a forgotten A.V. Bramble. Asquith did indeed go on to a successful career in the sound era, but I am certainly underwhelmed by his silent output of which this is the third and final restoration.

Set in a film studio where two productions are underway, the glimpses of early film-making techniques hold a certain fascination, but the story itself leaves much to be desired as do the largely wooden performances. Married couple Brian Aherne, who went on to a distinguished Hollywood career, and Annette Benson present a false picture of marital bliss, while she actually has the hots for Chaplinesque comedian Donald Calthorp. The latter actor continued in memorable British roles throughout the 30s, but Benson seems to have disappeared from the scene after 1931 (there isn't even any biographical information available); frankly she was neither sufficiently gorgeous nor convincing in her femme fatale role. When her adultery (strong stuff for movies for 1928) becomes exposed, she fears for her future because of the morals clause in her contract, and tries to stage Aherne's death on set. Her plan backfires and Calthorp becomes the unintended victim. All highly melodramatic...

In fairness the film did have a few well-staged niceties, in particular its moralistic ending, but the hyped 'boldly expressionistic' shooting style and dramatic lighting from so-called rising talent Asquith is barely in evidence. Variety published two reviews on its original release -- one from an American critic praising the work and a second from a British critic knocking it. However a third review three months later more or less said that the film was of little consequence and not worth screening. Of course now we are meant to hail its brilliance as some sort of masterpiece.

This performance was graced with a live score from composer John Altman and his chosen l2-piece jazz ensemble. The music was the better half of the evening, even if it didn't always seem to tally with the images on screen. Unfortunately we were seated just across the aisle from the musicians and the effect was a little overpowering to say the least.
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