Sunday, August 20, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Get Out


Released to major critical acclaim and audience enthusiasm, "Get Out" is still the film of 2017. Marking the debut feature of Jordan Peele of "Key and Peele", it satirizes our current sociopolitical climate with his trademark humor and wit. And as white supremacy continues to rear its ugly head, this clever horror-comedy has become even more timely 6 months later.

For anyone going into the film blind, the premise seems simple at first. A successful young black photographer named Chris Washington (played by Daniel Kaluuya) is nervously preparing to meet the parents of his pretty, rich white girlfriend Rose Armitages (a perfectly cast Allison Williams). As they make their way to the Armitage's affluent surburban home, things get off to an ominous start, as their car hits a deer on the way. When a cop arrives to assess the situation, undue attention is paid to Chris, who innocently sat in the passenger seat. Confidently defending her boyfriend, Rose handles a potentially fatal situation. But a larger, more sinister racist plot awaits them in the suburbs, in this modern, amped up take on "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner".

For any satire to be effective, it needs to be funny, smart and true. With his background in sketch comedy, the humour comes easily to Peele, as he writes characters and situations that are absolutely hilarious. Most notably, the paranoia of Chris' best friend character Rod (played by LilRel Howery) provides some of the film's funniest moments. As an inquisitive TSA agent, his investigation into the mysteries of Chris' suburban nightmare is pure comedic gold. Hypothesizing about possible sex slavery and brainwashing, he is essentially the audience surrogate, warning our hero of the dangers he may face.

Of course, what makes it all the more amusing is the fact that Rod's suspicions are well-placed. Without going into spoiler territory, the eventual reveal of the underlying sci-fi premise plays brilliantly off the notions of white privilege and exploitation. Indeed, one scene is a blatant nod to the auction blocks of the slavery era, disguised as a harmless game of bingo.

But while Howery brings the laughs with every frantic, concerned phone call and the script delivers the sci-fi smarts, what really hits home is the film's scathing truths. Namely, the truth that our outward personalities and attitudes are often just a performance. Whether its the seemingly tolerant white Obama-voters or the blind man who claims to be supportive of the black photographer with a great eye, these nice "allies" could be just as integral to maintaining the unjust status quo.

As Chris comes to terms with this reality, Kaluuya is tremendous at conveying the character's unease. Among an excellent cast, he is the standout, perfectly capturing the awkwardness and incredulity experienced when faced with subtle racism. He is a hero we immediately sympathize with and root for when the film shifts gears in the final act.

With its humor, thematic depth and the nuance of its social critique, "Get Out" is worth praise on ambition alone. But if it manages to make it into the Oscar conversation, that will surely be credited to Peele's impressive direction. Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay nominations are surely on the cards for Peele's astute handling of the film's shifting tones, from the deadpan apathy of the aforementioned bingo game to the ballsy thrills of the film's conclusion. Furthermore, his unique visual concepts reflect the imagination of a true visionary. "Get Out" is undoubtedly just the beginning of an exciting film career which I will certainly be following with keen interest.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Dunkirk


As the ongoing announcements of TIFF titles reminds us, Oscar season is fast approaching. But before the onslaught of the fall releases, one infamously overdue director is already staking his claim for recognition. With his unbearably intense "Dunkirk", superstar director Christopher Nolan may finally break through for an hitherto elusive Best Director nomination.

World War II dramas have long been catnip for Academy voters, from "Twelve O'Clock High" in 1949 to last year's "Hacksaw Ridge". Hope springs eternal for Best Picture contender "Dunkirk" then, which fits the bill not just thematically but in quality too. As the title suggests, "Dunkirk" depicts a pivotal moment in the war, when Allied soldiers were left stranded and cornered by the enemy in the region of Dunkirk. With little help on the way, the outlook looks grim for the thousands of men hoping for deliverance on land, air and sea. Through the perspectives of 3 such groups of men, "Dunkirk" thus takes us through their grueling experience. On land, a young British private (Fionn Whitehead) awaits evacuation on the beach of Dunkirk as German forces continue their relentless attack. In the air, Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and his small squadron engage the Germans in combat, though fuel and reinforcements remain in short supply. Meanwhile, a man named Dawson (Mark Rylance) answers the call to aid in the evacuation, setting sail for Dunkirk from the safety of Britain with only his inexperienced son and a teenaged assistant as support. With their backs against the wall, all of these men must play their part to achieve one objective - survival.

Indeed, "Dunkirk" sets itself apart from other war films by focusing not on violent displays of heroism but on humble retreat. While doing so, Nolan immerses us in the terrifying experience, dropping us right onto the beach like an unwilling soldier. As if to answer his critics, there is little exposition or backstory aside from a few opening lines of text explaining the current situation. What follows is therefore a taut, nerve-wracking experience and one of Nolan's most lean, consise films to date. For diehard fans like myself however, it also means a somewhat disappointing lack of originality in the script. Apart from the non-linear structure (which will likely reap a Best Editing nomination), this is a fairly straightforward survival story.

But what the film lacks in screenwriting ingenuity, it more than makes up for in technical mastery. Indeed, Nolan takes the term "theater of war" to heart, acting as the conductor for an astonishing cinematic symphony. Rarely has a war film felt so visceral, as Nolan recreates the sights and sounds of World War II with remarkable skill. Thanks to liberal use of wide shots, the cinematography conveys the enormity of the war with expansive vistas of land and sea. You can definitely expect Hoyte van Hoytema to be in the mix for his first Best Cinematography nomination.

Though these visuals and Nolan's direction are worthy of praise, the true MVPs of "Dunkirk" are actually composer Hans Zimmer and the team of sound editors. Much of the film's intensity is due to Zimmer's pulsing, agitating score, which perfectly captures the "ticking clock" nature of the evacuation. And if any viewers walk away from the film with PTSD, they have the frighteningly effective sound effects to thank. Oscar nominations for Best Original Score and Best Sound Editing would therefore be well deserved.

As with any Nolan effort, the filmmaking is top-rate all around, with many other fine aspects worthy of mention. Mark Rylance for example, could net another Best Supporting Actor nod for his steadfast performance. And though it's not his most memorable script, the satisfyingly cathartic conclusion will surely find some love in the Best Original Screenplay race. Indeed, this may finally be Nolan's year to steal the Oscar spotlight. There will certainly be several challengers to come, but for now, awards season has an early frontrunner.