Feb 29, 2016

At Award Ceremony Subject to Tirades and Jabs, Academy Makes Right Calls

The academy was right to pick Spotlight over The Revenant, writes Jennifer Wilson.

Jennifer WilsonDeputy Film & TV Editor

With Nathan Lane recently dubbing it the “Annual Caucasian Awards”, the Academy was subject to a tidal of tirades and jabs in the lead up to the ceremony. Regardless of the hysteria and the dramatic “boycotting” ploys, billions tuned in to witness Chris Rock handle the situation. Known infamously for his sharp black comedy, infused with regular lambasting of America’s class system, Rock did not hold back: he used the platform to execute a brutal, honest and wildly humorous degradation of everything that has been taken far too seriously. Rock was his usual chirpy self, smattering his hosting duties with race gags to keep the audience on their toes. Using humour as the most potent antidote to controversy, he cemented his talent by creating a wonderful evening of celebrations with the appropriate amount of self-deprecation.

An unmistakable question lingered throughout the ceremony, spanning three-and-a-half hours: how would Alejandro Inarritu’s Revenant fare? As Best Picture winner for Birdman the previous year, Inarritu’s civil war tale was chasing the coveted back-to-back title. Commentary in the lead up had suggested a sure win for The Revenant, and with a hefty twelve nominations and global box office dominance, it seemed tipped for the crown. Yet reservations continued to surround its certainty, and eventually Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight prevailed as 2016’s Best Picture winner.

The danger with The Revenant may have been its potential to imprint longevity on the public, with many fearing that it would sink into the abyss as Avatar did. The Academy made the right call. They knew better than to commend a film of technical accomplishment over a hard-hitting exposé such as Spotlight, which aptly demonstrates the time in which we live.



Result: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay  Spotlight and The Revenant were neck and neck in the lead-up to the awards, with both films amassing a number of guild awards to justify the final result, meaning it was virtually impossible to call it.

Tom McCarthy’s journalistic whistleblower drama is respectfully executed, marrying analytical precision with raw injustice. With a phenomenal cast, the Boston Globe’s investigative Spotlight team expose the sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church, tarnishing its reputation on a global scale in a worldwide frenzy. McCarthy delicately handles the subject in its purest form. Whilst many have rightly made the comparison to All The President’s Men, Spotlight wonderfully emerges in blinding simplicity, where it is the building revelations which shape the style. The absence of dramatic pieces and showdowns would most certainly have poisoned this proposition.

Mark Ruffalo’s Best Supporting Actor nomination is questionable throughout. One particular outburst seems contrived and excessively rehearsed, whilst the remainder of his performance is littered with irritating character mechanisms. Michael Keaton appears far more deserving as the veteran reporter, holding the keys to the Spotlight office with dignity and less self-indulgence than the overzealous puppy that is Ruffalo.

McCarthy delicately hands discretion over to the audience, where we gradually witness a cruel unravelling of a domineering institution. We see the maligned intentions of numerous individuals in positions of power and the way in which they contributed to the overall collapse. Instead of splattering the blame around sporadically, the “banality of evil” emerges. What unfolds is not the expected, calculating system of abuse but the culmination of each subsequent wrongdoing.

Spotlight will shock those less in tune to the Church’s shortcomings, most notably international audiences and the younger generation whose knowledge is based on hearsay and disparagement rather than first-hand understanding. Yet with an Irish audience, the reception is different – with slow nodding heads and pursed lips. Recently in an interview with the Irish Independent, Michael Keaton reiterated this himself, saying that Spotlight wouldn’t shock the Irish given our understanding is “ahead of the curve”. Whilst not an Irish film with roots in executives or producers, lists of abusive priests appear in multiple shots: the names are distinctive, they roll off our tongue easier than any other nation. In that sense, there is an Irish sentimentality of reserved shame present. Yet there seems to be an acceptance and a hope that our future looks far brighter than the past.

The Revenant

Verdict: Best Director, Best Actor and Best Cinematography  Standing tall with twelve Academy Award nominations, The Revenant was not going to leave the Dolby Theatre empty-handed. Doubt continued to loom over its Best Picture potential, with equal favourite Spotlight marginally eclipsing it as a contender. Regardless, The Revenant was paid its dues in gold statues for technical accomplishments, Best Director and the much-anticipated Best Actor. The general consensus remained certain that DiCaprio would finally receive his long overdue Oscar, with fellow nominee Eddie Redmayne conceding that it was simply DiCaprio’s year. The academy longs for a narrative, a gripping story to justify Best Actor recipients and The Revenant fittingly reflected DiCaprio’s struggle to prove himself.

Alejandro Inarritu’s latest offering is a monstrous undertaking, but his investment has been reaping the returns as it flourishes at the global box office. The Revenant’s shooting schedule in the unforgiving wilderness has been cited by cast and crew alike as mindlessly grueling, with DiCaprio himself believing it to be the “most difficult professional undertaking” of his career. Filmed in Calgary and subsequently South America when summer caught up and arrived prematurely, Inarritu triumphs in recreating the setting for the plight of post-civil frontiersman. Based on true events, The Revenant charts the struggle of Hugh Glass, a hunter mauled by a bear and left for dead by his men. Deeply wounded and on the brink of death, Glass ventures onwards, for over 300 miles through the desolate wasteland of modern day North Dakota in a glorious, redemptive act of survival.

In stark terms, The Revenant is akin to watching DiCaprio on Quaaludes again, but in feature length format. Instead of opening a Lamborghini door with his toe, he valiantly demonstrates the toil of a 300-mile journey in the most treacherous conditions whilst perpetually on the brink of death. He utters merely 12 lines of dialogue throughout, conveying bouts of excruciating pain through choruses of grunting and snarls. DiCaprio’s dedication is not to be scoffed at and we’re left with little doubt over his exemplary internalisation of the character. Although an astonishing undertaking, perhaps it’s not unreasonable to question whether the fleet of award nominations are commendations for the atonement of physical exertion. For personal will and strenuous effort did he deserve the Oscar? Of course. Is it his best performance? Not really.

This campfire scene, which uses light bulbs to centre the light around the campfire, is the only one in The Revenant to use artificial, rather than natural, light.

Inarritu’s camera movements are also lucidly distinct. Like Birdmanem>, his 2014 win for Best Picture, filming is in the form of long, continuous shots. The opening sequence is particularly mesmerising as we follow Leonardo DiCaprio wading through knee-deep water towards an unsuspecting deer. In these moments, nature is respectfully enhanced as the eye follows the movement and choreography, flowing freely in harmonious rhythm with the elements.

Yet, the old adage of “everything in moderation fittingly applies. In one continuous swoop, dialogue in its rarity is captured and the camera moves from one player to another as speeches are delivered. As the eye follows the dialogue, the other participant is lost behind the cameraman. One is left far from inspired, but rather dizzy – longing for the respectful discretion of the unmotivated camera.

For the audience, Inarritu’s civil war tale is a journey in itself. It is long and unapologetically brutal. At two hours and 36 minutes, the collective exhaustion is palpable in the theatre – jaws release, flinching ceases and eyelids unclench. Violence is the norm – and presents itself far more often than warranted. Sequences in turn are difficult to watch, creating a kinetic tension that is tough to shirk off. While the CGI inclusion is possibly one of the most skilled arrangements in cinematic history, in particular the distinctly realistic bear mauling scene, the violence and gore follows suit. Perhaps I veer towards the aesthetic, or even old-fashioned approaches in depictions of violence. The days of a horse’s head strewn amidst bed sheets riddled with ketchup, or blood squirting out comically with the same trajectory of a Capri Sun straw have evidently passed. Their tactics worked, however –in turn enhancing the stories. Technology has altered the process, but The Revenant seems to have taken it to an exponential, realistic and all too uncomfortable level.


Result: Best Actress  Room is a heart-wrenching film, finely executed with a wonderful global reception and well-deserved recognition. Abrahamson’s touch is understated and moving. The Academy plucked this gem for one of eight best picture nominations and Room had as good a chance as any. With Spotlight as frontrunner and The Revenant trailing behind, Room was always in hot pursuit of the coveted award. Whilst always on the outskirts for Best Picture, Larson was continuously hailed as a shoe-in for Best Actress. As her first Academy Award nomination Larson found herself in the lead with multiple guild awards, a Golden Globe and a Bafta under her belt. One of The Academy’s virtues is its encouragement of young female actresses, so Larson’s win will certainly elevate knowledge of her talent within the industry.

“The Irish Film Board” flashes proudly on screen, supporting this Irish-led production as it is showcased around the globe. Room is simply put, a superb work and those involved are a credit to our little island. Based on Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel of the same title, Room is the big screen adaptation following the harrowing tale of a young woman (Brie Larson) imprisoned in a garden shed. In a nod to Blue Velvet, unbeknownst to her plight are those on the outside with their white picket fences in America’s Suburbia. Larson’s delicate mastery of the character is amply balanced with the joyous ambience of Jacob Tremblay’s Jack, her child conceived in captivity. At five years old, Jack’s solitary bank of infantile knowledge and basis for existence is that of this one Room. What proceeds to unfold is a wonderful encapsulation of the unbreakable maternal bond within a devastating environment of coerced confinement.

The screenplay is distinctly unique in that Emma Donoghue merely cinematised her novel – a task she valiantly undertook prior to Hollywood interest. When fellow Irish director Lenny Abrahamson came knocking, she was ready. The premise of Donoghues’s bestseller is that it is five-year-old who Jack composes the narrative. The objects of their captors shed are the only of their kind he’s ever known, leading to Jack’s innocent daily salutations such as “Good morning desk … Good morning lamp”. To Jack, Room is his world and Larson’s character creates a wonderful world for him (and possibly her) to envision in order to detract from the realities of the situation.

Admittedly, the premise of the narrative in which it is told through the eyes of the child appeared cynical and vacuous. Yet after being introduced to the minuscule and ragged confines of their prison, it becomes evident that this tunnel vision is more than warranted. The situation is grim and sombre as is, without burdening further uncomfortable details onto the viewer. Only through Jack’s eyes do we recognise the importance of his point of view and it’s a world we’re all too familiar with. As a culture, we are fascinated with this kind of tale. Incidents like Austria’s Josef Fritzl, the infamous Cleveland case of 2013 or the Jaycee Lee Dugard story have fascinated us. But when truly faced with the horror of captivity – essentially modern slavery in all its realities – an innocent outlook is comforting.

Putting the amateur dramatics in context, Hattie McDaniel was the first African American to win an Academy Award for her performance as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. This was in 1939, about 15 years before the civil rights movement. If anything, the Academy was ahead of the curve. America’s race problem isn’t in the Dolby Theatre or the isolated eco-system of Hollywood – it’s in the cities, workplaces, and schools. Chris Rock echoed this, calling for more opportunities than anything else while intertwining it within his monologue. The Oscars are ridiculed regularly, but the gravity of the platform is immense and should continue to be used as a stage for pending issues while still honouring the best of world cinema. After all, discussion can only be beneficial to change.

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