Since the release of 2011’s Drive, Danish writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn is making a name for himself amongst British cinema goers. In September Refn ranked third on The Guardian’s list of the 23 best directors in the world, further proving that he is gaining respect in a cinematic world in which both film media and the UK box office are perpetually dominated by Hollywood directors. Furthermore, a British remake of his acclaimed film Pusher has hit cinemas this week.
However, Drive’s success cannot only be attributed to Refn’s direction; it’s also the first of his films to star Canadian sex symbol Ryan Gosling. Although unfairly judged by some as a gangster caper characterised by violence, Drive stands out for its character-driven story, thanks partly to Gosling’s turn as the unnamed protagonist.
Gosling was previously famed for his performances (and ab-flashing) in romantic dramas such as The Notebook and last year’s Crazy Stupid Love, but with Drive Refn gave him the opportunity to exhibit a very different set of skills.
In the film’s opening a neo-noir atmosphere is crafted through the sparing use of music and the muted colour palette which makes Gosling’s character the main focus. The close shots of his tensed jaw, blank expression and unreadable eyes are reminiscent of the ‘great stone face’, Buster Keaton. And for all the talking Gosling’s character does, sometimes Drive might as well be a silent movie like those Keaton made during the 1920s. Refn, who has penned many of his own films, including 2009’s Valhalla Rising, admits that he considers dialogue secondary to narrative.
It seems Refn was impressed with Gosling’s versatility. He is now slated to star in not one, but two of Refn’s upcoming films. The pair have recently finished shooting Only God Forgives on location in Bangkok. The progression of major cities as settings may invite comparison to Woody Allen, who has recently been inspired by more tourist-friendly cities, releasing Midnight in Paris and To Rome with Love in consecutive years. However, as Drive demonstrates, the tone of Refn’s work couldn’t be more different. Refn’s Only God Forgives is due next March, and although plot details are scant, it’s certain Gosling will be swinging his fists and taking some hits again, this time in a Thai boxing match.
Both Refn and Gosling have also signed up for the re-make of 1976 sci-fi flick Logan’s Run. Michael Anderson’s original seems to be enjoying a revival; the concept of a booming population, and the solution of execution at age thirty, is comparable to the dystopian vision and death-race of Rian Johnson’s blockbuster Looper.
If their forthcoming projects are as successful as Drive, Gosling and Refn will be an actor/director duo to rival the likes of Michael Fassbender and Brit Steve McQueen. Like Gosling and Refn, Fassbender and McQueen share an interest in sensitively exploring controversial issues and by combining their talent deservedly stealing the spotlight from Hollywood.
Well no, since you asked. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t deeply flawed.
The Oscars are the high watermark of film recognition. The red carpet trampling, lovvie love-a-thon that is the motion picture awards season starts in earnest with the Golden Globes in early January and extravagantly culminates every year in late February with the Academy Awards in which apparently “everyone is just thrilled to be nominated!” but in actuality hopes are realised, dreams are shattered and the presenters are almost constantly underwhelming. When it comes to the big night though it can all seem like a bit of game. A cynical, industry driven game in which awards are doled out by the sensibility load and Martin Scorsese can win an Oscar through sheer bloody minded persistence (and a superlative body of work of course).
The awards themselves essentially boil down to the artistic whims of a group of voters who are predominantly older, whiter and male-er than your typical movie audience, and your typical movie audience they most definitely aren’t. The 6000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are a venerable bunch of industry professionals who once inducted are placed into their various pigeonholes of expertise. Actors, directors, cinematographers and writers all have their place to name a but a few with the experts in each category having more sway when it comes to the tricky business of voting. In the first round directors nominate the work of directors, writers of writers and so on with each member providing a list of their top five choices. These feed the candidates for the second round of voting to the Academy as a whole who then all submit their top fives in most categories. The exception is of course the be-all and end-all award of Best Picture which everyone votes for.
Oscar voters are people sustained and venerated by their own artistic endeavours and as such they won’t be voting for any hack produced hokum any time soon. Added to this we don’t get many surprises either. We get them plumping for the worthy over the cinematic (think the choice of The Help over Tinker Tailor), the traditional over the innovative (War Horse over Drive), the heroic underdog over the perverted sex-addict (Brad Pitt’s average display in Moneyball over Michael Fassbender’s powerhouse performance in Shame). Way back when in 1989 we got the starkest manifestation of this we could ever wish for with the triumph of the comfortably middle class over the radical and intelligent with Driving Miss Daisy winning best picture over Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing – a film that set the tone of black-centric cinema for a decade to come and wasn’t even nominated. A case like that more clearly than anything shows how the mass appeal of the facile and one-dimensional can almost always triumph over the confrontational and original. This may seem like I am throwing The Help and Driving Miss Daisy together into some sort of race rights for dummies cadre and it kind of seems like I am. But Driving Miss Daisy cleaned up at the Oscars so of course it’s brilliant. Of course it is! Anyone who says otherwise is stupid, or a Hollywood Foreign Press member. So both.
Speaking of which when you compare the Oscars to the Golden Globes our gold plated, statuesque friend comes out smelling of roses. The Golden Globes are the sort of unashamed silly affair that keeps re-hiring a presenter to hilariously lampoon their inadequacies in some sort of devil’s pact for viewers. It’s like someone building a house on a cliff using stone from the cliff face. At some point the Golden Globes, I mean house, ahem, will collapse and all of the viewers will leave and Ricky Gervais will have to find somewhere else to live out the creative death of his career.
What the Golden Globes do have over their more respected counterparts however is timing. If something wins at the Globes it’s often a good indicator for things to come. By the time the Oscars swing round films like The Artist will have won so many awards that they’ll we struggling for something to say other than “OMG OMG OMG OMG the Oscars are the best it’s been my dream blah blah blah” that we’ve heard all before. There’s none of the surprise that there should be for indie flicks like The Artist when they win a huge award as their expectations are already so high come February that a Best Picture victory will seem more like a relief than anything.
So why will I be staying up into the wee hours of the morning waiting to get my Oscar fix for yet another year? Well it’s because they are just so bloody important and despite everything that I’ve said up until this point they still hold the requisite amount of artistic integrity.
More often than not the Oscars get it vaguely right and if they don’t it’s not usually that bad (apart from the Academy’s complete disregard for Senna this year which is ridiculous beyond parody). Yes, last year The Social Network should have walked off with Best Picture never to be refuted but that on the night it went to The King’s Speech wasn’t terrible. The Social Network would’ve been (and had been) a success irrespective of awards attention but The King’s Speech, high on the Oscar buzz it was getting – and Colin Firth’s repeated walk-ons at every awards show imaginable – carried the film through its January and February release period to a humongous (and thoroughly deserved) box-office. That an artfully inclined arthouse flick about a king with a speech impediment made $400 million worldwide is testament to the power of Oscar buzz. Without the Oscars such deserving films would get much less mainstream attention and I think cinema would be poorer for it.
Recently this also proved true for Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, 127 Hours, Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, Brokeback Mountain and the masterful Sideways to name but a few. Oscar buzz is the real force behind the Oscars. What happens on the night happens and will be raked over in movie posters for eons to come but the real relevance of the Academy Awards is in the bridge they build between the artistic medium of film and the mainstream engine of the film industry.
If you love films and hate to see the wrong things getting top recognition come awards night then yes it may seem like the Oscars are losing their relevance, but as an industry force they are nevertheless a force for good. Even if we do have to put up with the occasional give me a bloody Oscar already! film like I Am Sam (featuring the now famous Sean Penn going ‘full retard’ performance) or Seven Pounds (in which Will Smith begs for an Oscar so hard that I’m surprised he didn’t actually grab his nearest box jellyfish and jump into a bathtub for attention come nominations), ultimately they bring (albeit a small selection of) lesser known gems to the masses.
So come February the 26th 2012 I’ll be sitting down to watch 4 hours worth of film industry back patting, self indulgent montage and lots and lots of hysterical speeches. But I don’t think I’d have it any other way. Oh and Billy Crystal’s back. Which is nice.
Steven Spielberg first acquired the rights to make a Tintin movie in 1983. He commissioned screenwriter Melissa Mathison, with whom Spielberg had had sensational success on E.T: the Extra-Terrestrial, to write a script. Jack Nicholson was even approached about playing Captain Haddock. But that film didn’t get made. Spielberg was not satisfied with the script or that he could realise his vision for the film. What a sign of respect and love for the subject matter that one of the world’s greatest directors waited twenty five years before he thought he could make the movie the franchise deserved. The British public have hailed The Secret of the Unicorn as just that, spending 6.7 million pounds to see it since it opened last Wednesday. Innovative motion capture technology, a clever amalgamation of original stories and a stellar cast have led to a fun-filled romp that looks to be the best family film of the year.
This forms a stark comparison with another well known children’s character who has been committed to film over the last decade. The most interestingly filmed passage of the Harry Potter series appeared late in the octalogy; a stylised animation sequence that explained the legend of the Deathly Hallows. It was creative storytelling at its very best. Practically Spielbergian. Unfortunately, this was the exception rather than the rule for the series.
It is easy to see how such conservative films were made; legions of excited fans with equally large expectations, big business providing financial pressures, JK Rowling closely involved. Few people were surprised when they left the cinema having watched a narrowed version of their imagined literary world on screen. Did anyone actually prefer the films to the books? Independent of Harry’s written adventures, the films don’t stand up to great scrutiny. However, this is not surprising when what is supposed to be an overarching storyline is undertaken without a single auteur who knows how the story ends.
Making middle of the road family films is not a heinous crime. The logistical considerations involved make producing any film a great achievement. But when any film with the boy wizard involved is a sure-fire, hundred-million dollar hit, able to attract leading acting talent shouldn’t the audience expect more? These ‘open goals’ could be viewed as opportunities to really further cinema. Take risks, tell stories in creative ways, innovate! Recent book adaptations have provided breathtaking, cinematic films; We Need to Talk about Kevin, Drive and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy have all been great successes that function as films in their own right. Do not think that the feat is impossible with children’s characters either. Think of the countless Roald Dahl stories that have been inventively told on screen, most notably the recent Fantastic Mr Fox, Where the Wild Things Are and the timeless classic The BFG. During production on TTSS John Le Carré said to Tomas Alfredson not to do the book on screen. The book already exists. Make cinema. Just as Tintin was told through the eyes of Snowy so too could a Harry Potter film be told from a different point of view or in a more ingenious, cinematic way. Imagine films with Hagrid at their centre or that chart the rise and fall of Tom Riddle.
The Harry Potter film franchise has had many positive repercussions; practically singlehandedly creating a special effects industry in this country, putting familiar British faces on the global stage and giving John Williams an excuse to compose another sumptuous score. But it seems a shame that the films were made at a time when the hysteria and commercial pressures hurried the films into production; a shame that a director with a love and respect for the franchise wasn’t allowed to sit on the rights for twenty five years and bring a much loved children’s book to a subsequent generation; a shame that this opportunity to film a cohesive creative story wasn’t taken.