Awards season: decadence or deserved?

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Every year, the film industry is granted two months in which the geniuses of decades past and present are celebrated and brought to the forefront of pop culture.

However, as awards season draws to a close, the criticisms intensify once again, all following a similar line of argument: is this all simply a spectacle of self-congratulation validated by the media?

After all, the Academy Awards alone costs tens of millions of pounds to host every single year, factoring in the host’s fee, venue fee, catering, performers, the cost of making the statuettes and of course the dresses. While the parade of beautiful actresses competing like pedigrees at Crufts’ to be best in show and the media storm over “who” they are wearing provides the fashion world with a key event in their calendar, the frock show inevitably detracts the attention from the films themselves and feeds the point of view that their celebrity stars are the true focus of the awards season spectacle.

Indeed much of what is televised and promoted revolves around the obviously talented actors and actresses that the audience is familiar with. The equally talented and hardworking editors, animators, costume designers, cinematographers and general “behind the scenes” people are routinely ignored, their achievements included in an apparently tasteful five-minute segment at the very end of the televised ceremony. How many media outlets have been agonising over who will take home the no less coveted prize of Sound Mixing? Precisely.

However, the advantages of ‘awards season’ should not be overlooked in spite of the arguably biased presentation of the ceremonies themselves. In an interview with Edith Bowman on the BAFTA Red Carpet earlier this month, Birdman star Michael Keaton spoke specifically of awards season’s importance to the film industry in motivating filmmakers to create excellent drama in a world where blockbusters tend to offer a ‘safer’ financial reward. Without the awards shows offering huge exposure and prestige, would drama films lose their appeal to filmmakers and audiences alike? It’s highly unlikely that bigger studios would opt to fund and advertise films such as The Grand Budapest Hotel over the latest Fast and Furious without the motivation of a golden statuette at the end of it.

In the case of the Academy Awards, despite the multi-million dollar cost of hosting the event, the ceremony brings in an estimated 130 million dollars in to the Los Angeles economy, making the financial burden of one evening well worth the investment.

Now of course the film industry is awash with prestigious film festivals that some would argue are a better representation of excellence on a global, unbiased scale. However, the months between November and February are the designated time of the year for movies to dominate public consciousness and mainstream media. In spite of the contrived and biased presentation of the ceremonies, dominated by dresses and celebrity self-congratulation, the financial benefits of the ceremony is perhaps too great to dismiss.

Charlie Hebdo and Muslim oppression in France.

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Recently, a moving demonstration of millions of French, all uniting for the freedom of speech, lit up our television screens. Perhaps the most striking image was dozens of flags from around the world adorning the monument of the Place de la République, displaying only one message: the Marianne is every shade of French, and we are all Charlie.

World leaders united at the forefront of the march locking arms and leading their cause forward, including the coming together of the Israeli and Palestinian heads of state in a touching and mildly paradoxical stance against violence.

One French leader who wasn’t present at the march was Marine Le Pen, the head of the National Front, who was reportedly not invited. Peppered with a history of islamophobia and fascism, the last thing Paris needed was more division.

Nevertheless, it is near impossible to deny the scale of anti-Muslim acts that have taken place since the initial attack. Within 24 hours, police were dealing with a spike in racially or religiously motivated attacks against Muslims.

The National Front, were gaining Facebook likes by the second. In Le Pen’s statement posted on their YouTube channel, she calls for France to not bend to those trying to “paralyse them with fear and force them to submit to terrorism,” a turn of phrase I find ironic to say the least.

This support for discriminatory ideals validates antagonising the non-white French population.

An unspoken civil war has been created between the nativists and the equally French population of black or Muslim heritage.

In the violence of its supporters and desire to displace a French community defined only through their religious beliefs, the National Front and its evidently violent supporters have self-indentified as a terrorist party. The most terrifying thing about their terrorism, however, is that a quarter of the population of France are validating their viewpoint.

This is why the National Front were not invited to Sunday’s marches. The last thing an anti-terrorism march needs is a terrorist leader dressed in an expensive suit.

Review – Eastenders Live Episode (19th February 2015)

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This Friday, one of the nation’s best loved television programmes concluded their ‘Week of Revelations’ by treating fans to an ambitious, fully live episode. Following the reveal of Bobby Beale (Elliot Carrington) as the person who clobbered his half-sister Lucy (Hetti Bywater) all those months ago on Good Friday, EastEnders final episode in their highly-anticipated and heavily marketed 30th anniversary week opened with the soap’s longest-serving character, Ian Beale (Adam Woodyatt), accusing his on-off spouse Jane (Laurie Brett) of killing his daughter. What followed was nothing short of a triumph in live acting and production.

Minutes after Julia’s Theme and an impromptu firework display rounded off an emotional evening in Albert Square, the internet erupted with richly deserved praise for Adam Woodyatt’s phenomenal turn as a completely broken Ian Beale attempting to hold his family together. As well as the slew of soap and television award nominations he is bound to receive in the next twelve months, commentators are calling for a BAFTA nod that I would argue doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Woodyatt’s turn in this episode bordered on virtuosic in soap acting.

Many of the show’s actors have compared the live scenes to being on stage, simply “with a bigger audience”. I would stand to disagree. The realms of soap and theatre are worlds apart in what they demand of an actor and meaning is communicated in entirely different ways to a camera than it would be towards a live theatre audience. For Adam Woodyatt to create a convincing hybrid, pushing his performance to the very limit of Ian Beale, yet never waver from the world we have become accustomed to seeing him in demonstrates an enormous amount of talent that cannot be overlooked. Simply a brilliant show of acting by EastEnders’ longest-serving resident.

While Laurie Brett coped extraordinarily well with the huge range of emotions the revelation of Jane’s part in the cover-up of her step-daughter’s murder demanded of her, it was the younger actors portraying Peter (Ben Hardy) and Cindy (Mimi Keene) who went above and beyond what was expected of them. Although the episode demanded little more than anger from Hardy and didn’t sufficiently explore the character’s reaction, the material that was given to him was fantastically acted. Meanwhile, 16-year-old Keene was tasked with reading Lucy’s final words to her father as Lucy’s missing letter was finally found. The true tear-jerking material came once again from Woodyatt’s silent, sobbing reaction, but Keene’s delivery was the perfectly controlled counterpart the scene required it to be.

Despite being inevitably lost in the shadow of the Beale family, Maddy Hill also demonstrated exemplary professionalism in a sub-plot that saw her character, Nancy, become the only witness to what could be her father murdering her cousin/uncle (in true ‘Enders fashion). Hill’s role since joining in December 2013 has been chiefly in a supporting capacity to the storylines of her family members, but she truly shone in Friday’s episode, showing completely precocious control over Nancy’s desperate emotions whilst sparing the audience both melodrama and boredom.

Although many viewers on social media continue to object to the ‘unrealistic plot’ (to which I would argue: you are watching EastEnders), I felt that the script was marvellously well handled. With the exception of a few moments veering dangerously close towards soap clichés, such as Jane’s description of carrying Lucy across Walford Common ‘like a child’, the writing refreshingly veered away from classic EastEnders ‘fallouts’ of melodrama, shouting and explosions, whether material or emotional. Having spent the last ten months desperately trying to hold his family together against crippling grief, Ian’s shattered reaction to the revelation that could unravel this was addressed with a surprising and therefore all the more captivating calmness and maturity.

Finally, the true heroes of the “Who Killed Lucy” phenomenon and its earth-shaking conclusion were thanked in the televised live after party following the episode: the entirely invisible production team. It was a truly faultless effort in the fully live episode from the same group of people who have been charged with scripting a fantastic Whodunit without knowing who the killer is. Their hard work was perhaps the most important factor in delivering half an hour of television that both encapsulated and exceeded the soap genre and celebrated a show that has, over the last 30 years, become a national treasure.

Despite soap operas’ reputation as ‘cheap entertainment’, often lumped in the same category as Big Brother or Loose Women, the cast and crew of EastEnders demonstrated why the show has been so deeply loved by the nation over the last thirty years and why it is so often considered in the television industry to be the best in its genre.

Review – Unbroken (2014)

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Director: Angelina Jolie
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Finn Wittrock, Takamasa Ishihara, Garrett Hedlund
Length: 137 minutes
Country: USA

Rating: 3/5

Unbroken is the much-hyped sophomore effort from Hollywood heavyweight Angelina Jolie and her first English-language effort following her Bosnian War-set romantic drama In The Land of Blood and Honey in 2011. To do justice to the incredible life of the recently-deceased Olympic athlete and war hero Louis Zamperini, Jolie enlisted the rarely-disputed talents of The Coen Brothers, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson to adapt Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 book of the same name. The lead role was taken on by a relative newcomer to the big screen: British actor Jack O’Connell.

Unfortunately, this epic war drama recounting Zamperini’s exploits from the Olympics, to being stranded at sea and eventually interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp falls short of its hype. Jolie’s close friendship with Zamperini prior to his death and her obvious admiration of him handicaps the film rather than helping it. There is a consistent lack of subtlety throughout the film as Jolie attempts to drive home the character’s value as an inspiration. Every single scene is intended as a demonstration of his heroism, meaning that the audience is taken through a series of snapshots narrating various events instead of being taken through his journey. While Jolie does show her potential for excellence in the future, she doesn’t seem to realise that many of her strengths lie in more subdued scenes, such as the death of one of Louis’ colleagues after over 40 days stranded at sea. At times, she relies too heavily on symbolism and sequences representing the emotions of the scene, which leads to a very hit-and-miss finished product. The overuse of elements such as slow-motion results in key moments losing much of their impact and others appearing contrived. Meanwhile, the cinematography is brilliantly executed by Roger Deakins, but certain shots once again serve to ram the message of the movie too far down the audience’s throat. Little is left to the imagination and we are too often being talked at as opposed to told a story.

Nevertheless, Jolie’s casting and direction has given the movie a few very promising performances. The film’s leading man, Jack O’Connell, carries the movie through the entirety, appearing in nearly every frame without ever losing the audience’s attention. However, despite the initial excitement for a possible Academy nod, this doesn’t look to be the film to grant him gold. While there is little doubt over his ability, O’Connell is insufficiently challenged by the material. Louis is a strangely underdeveloped character, showing little signs of independent thought towards the war and being almost entirely passive. He appears very one-dimensional in his strength and heroism, hardly faltering from the perseverance he was taught despite the horrors he endures. The majority of O’Connell’s work, although faultlessly executed, revolves around depicting Louie’s challenges rather than embodying the man.

Although their characters are both too underdeveloped to convey their significance to the plot, both Finn Wittrock and Garrett Hedlund put in stellar supporting performances as Francis ‘Mac’ McNamara and Commander John Fitzgerald, respectively. Wittrock manages to illicit both sympathy and anger in the audience as the more selfish and weakest of the three stranded soldiers in the first section of the film, while Hedlund manages an assured and wonderfully restrained effort as Louis’ mentor during their time at the prisoner of war camp and a surrogate for the former’s older brother, arguably the defining figure of his life.

The sole acting disappointment in Unbroken comes from its least seasoned performer, Takamasa Ishihara, as the film’s primary antagonist “The Bird”. The violent, sociopathic war criminal is possibly the film’s best written character as an embodiment of all the things that Louie must survive against, yet Ishihara’s performance is unfortunately too contrived to communicate his importance.

While Unbroken isn’t by any means a bad film, it is unfortunately a victim of its own hype. It shows immense respect for the life of Louis Zamperini, yet isn’t brave enough to explore his darker side and engage more with his character. Although no longer an Oscar contender, this film can be defined as a showcase of directorial and acting potential from Jolie and her cast of young, brilliant actors.