Sunday, February 25, 2018

A Look Ahead to Best Original Screenplay

I watched Lady Bird yesterday, so I can analyse another Oscar category, woohoo! Read my analysis of Best Original Score here. Due to time constraints, this is probably the final category I’m gonna analyse before the ceremony, but, at least I discussed two fields this year, an improvement from last year by one.

05. The Big Sick  Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon

Heavily based on their experiences together, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon co-penned this film (in which he plays a fictionalised version of himself and Zoe Kazan, Emily Gordon). This fact seems to have blinded film awards bodies and critics alike to its quality, because watching it, it felt like any other unfunny Judd Apatow-produced romantic comedy script.

The Big Sick contains far too much telling rather than showing, which could have been excused, if doing so snipped some length off the film’s running time, but, at 2 hours, it’s at least 20 minutes too long.

The clunky over-use of the f-word echoed Sausage Party (a similarly insufferable film which I rate 5/10) in how hard it was trying to reinforce that it was an edgy R-rated movie.

But the most egregious thing about the script was the problematic way it reduced south Asian women to a punchline. It really troubled me, as a fellow Asian (albeit from east Asia) how every potential suitor of Kumail’s was presented as a blithering dolt, whose sole agency was to ensnare him into marriage. Nanjiani’s character doesn’t even so much as deign to look at some of these women, which raises the contrivance of why they’d be so keen to marry him.

This ‘trying too hard to be perfect Asian wife’ trope was illustrated in a range of ways, whether it be from quoting The X-Files over-earnestly, or doing amateur magic tricks. American girls, on the other hand, command Kumail’s love and admiration simply by existing.

When writing the script, did Nanjiani not reflect on how this would look? Because in terms of portrayals of Pakistani women and his flagrant disregard for them, the optics are bad, all around. */*****

(Other people out there are as perturbed by this writing flaw as I am, and I direct you to un et deux et trois, who say it much more eloquently than I ever could).

04. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Martin McDonagh
BAFTA and Golden Globe winner of Best Film and Screenplay, Martin McDonagh’s dissection of grief packed a much stronger emotional gut-punch on me than last year’s Oscar-winner in this category covering similar themes, Blandchester by the Sea. The blend of pathos and comedy in this film left many viewers unsure of whether to laugh or cry, and indeed, I did both, with abandon.

In assessing screenplays, it’s not just how many zingers in the dialogue (which, I’ll grant Three Billboards, it has its fair share), but also the way that characters develop and the film’s treatment of its central themes. For all its purporting to be bold and daring, Three Billboards actually takes a very pat, airy-fairy route when dealing with one of the film’s most contentious plot points: Officer Dixon’s racism.

It’s mentioned early on that he likes torturing black prisoners, yet, as events transpire, the film offers him an ‘excuse’ for this unforgivable character flaw (his father was dying), as well as a redemption arc, when he’s presented with the opportunity to indirectly atone for the lack of attention the Police Department showed the case of Mildred’s daughter’s rape and murder.

This is quite galling, to say the least, for people of colour who have actually suffered at the hands of bigoted cops. 

Furthermore, I feel McDonagh uses his script to dangle a Frances McDormand-shaped carrot at film fans, knowing that a vengeful woman on the rampage is likely to fare well with today’s climate. Yet, rather than sticking with her and focusing on her grief and her relationship with her son (played by Manchester by the Sea’s Lucas Hedges), which would have made for a more sombre, but honest and satisfying film, halfway through the film, he switches focus to his muse, Sam Rockwell.

This leaves the audience cheated, and means that what was masquerading as a film about a badass woman’s thirst for revenge, is actually a rather tone deaf, tonally misfiring piece of racism apologism.

03. Lady Bird – Greta Gerwig
Lady Bird, very loosely based around Greta Gerwig’s own experiences, tells the story of a 17-year-old girl growing up in Sacramento, and the various escapades of her final year at High School, whilst she’s yearning to attend college at an East Coast Uni.

The most astutely rendered relationship in the film is the constant bickering between Lady Bird and her mother Marion, who is unable to express her love for her daughter without infuriating her. The script thumbnails the love-hate relationship between mother and daughter, and the sacrifices Marion makes for her family which Lady Bird is too self-absorbed to appreciate.

The rest of the film, however, feels like a compendium of High School movie tropes. Lady Bird has two paramours in the film, sensitive Danny (the aforementioned Lucas Hedges from Three Billboards, he’s been prolific in 2017) and pretentious douche Kyle (Timothée Chalamet, as has he), both who disappoint her in their own ways. She acts in a school play but on being relegated to the least important part, phones it in. She sacks in her loyal best friend to hang out with the popular girl.

These are all pedestrian events, that, in any other film, would be labelled as cliché. But, slap a whimsical Jon Brion score on it and coming under an arthouse guise, Lady Bird is inexplicably considered a masterpiece by several critics. 

Gerwig would have done better to have let some of the scenes in the film breathe, so that the audience can take them in, rather than inundating her film with interaction, dialogue, interaction, such that, to me, none of the relationships bar between Lady Bird and her mother, felt particularly complete.

For this, I’m somewhat struggling to see the hype around this film, funny as it was. The Best Director nomination for Greta Gerwig was particularly generous. I know you’re not supposed to say things like this, but methinks the Academy only nominated her to go along with the #TimesUp narrative. They needed at least one female director in the five, and Gerwig was the beneficiary, rightly or wrongly. ***/*****

02. The Shape of Water – Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
As he mentioned in his gracious, charming BAFTA and Golden Globes acceptance speeches for Best Director, GDT has always been fascinated with monsters, and this fascination inspired him to write and direct 2006’s masterpiece, El laberinto del fauno, a truly original piece of storytelling and political allegory that thrilled viewers as much as it terrified them.

The Shape of Water  is a tad more derivative. It’s essentially a spin on the Beauty and the Beast story, set during the Cold War and with a mute protagonist falling in love with a sea creature which the government are conducting sadistic experiments on.

Unoriginality doesn’t always equate to poor quality, however, and some of the characterisations in The Shape of Water elevate it above your standard ‘woman f_cking fishman’ fare. Zelda and Giles, the protagonist’s friends, are well-rounded players, and the audience’s care for Eliza are reflected well in their interactions with her.

The most compelling character is the lead, Eliza Esposito (it was said GDT wrote the character with Sally Hawkins in mind. Funnily enough, Martin McDonagh also said the same about Frances McDormand in Three Billboards), who’s open-mindedness, bravery and resourcefulness is the anchor of a film, which, handled differently, could easily have descended into a parody-inspiring farce. ****/*****

01. Get Out – Jordan Peele
The seemingly familiar Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner-style set-up of a black man (Chris Washington) meeting his white girlfriend’s parents is given a subversive spin as he realises nothing is quite as it seems in her parent's creepy abode.

Jordan Peele toys with horror movie conventions to confound the viewer, so that we are never sure what is going to happen next. Unsettling clues are slyly littered about (such as the odd behaviour of the family’s maid), but such is Peele’s subtle-story telling, that you have to really pay attention to the film to figure out what is going on.

The smartest thing about Get Out is the sharp satire of self-declared liberals who fancy them as oh-so-progressive, but are really just as racist as your redneck hicks, they just disguise it better. Worse yet, they probably think they’re doing good with comments like, ‘I would have voted for Obama three times if I could have’, a classic Liberal Who Thinks They’re Woke thing to virtue signal about.

Writer and director Jordan Peele has spoken out about his experiences as a black man in the US (although he’s actually biracial, he said he’s viewed first and foremost as black), and no doubt, much of the patronising things said to Chris in the film are variations on things Peele himself has heard.

But whilst there is an undercurrent of mockery of these characters, Peele keeps it nuanced. The Armitages’ exchanges with Chris are uncomfortable, but never grotesque. If they were shown to be OTT villains in the first instance, Chris would have gotten out of there asap. As such, we can’t tell if they are just another tone deaf, well-meaning Caucasian family, or if they’re more sinister than that.

It’s a testament to Peele’s control and writing skills that, for all his righteous indignation, it never overpowers the plot of the film. Rather than making everything overt, it’s up to the audience to work with the film to tease out subtexts and the Armitage family’s hidden motives, if there are any.

Whilst Three Billboards... thinks itself woke, Get Out actually is. Whether the predominantly old white male population of the Academy’s voters can handle such truthbombs, only Oscar night will tell.

Will win: Three Billboards...
Should win: Get Out
Should have been nominated: Dunkirk

Fun BBFC fact: all five of the screenplays nominated here are 15-rated films!

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