TIFF: Notes on Oscar hopefuls "Darkest Hour" and "Downsizing"
Wednesday, September 13, 2017 at 10:00PM
NATHANIEL R in Alexander Payne, Best Actor, Best Picture, Darkest Hour, Downsizing, Dunkirk, Gary Oldman, Joe Wright, Oscars (17), Reviews, TIFF, WW II

Detroit may have bombed but the letter "D" could still reign come Oscar time with Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, and Downsizing all potential Best Picture players. Though it can sometimes feel gross to discuss rich movies from an Oscar perspective before they've even been considered as films, it happens to us all this time of year and the films invite it with their slow rollouts from festival reviews that result in months of discussion and speculation before the public can buy tickets. In other words: Look what they made me us do!

After 'miniature masterpiece' style reviews at Venice the critics got considerably chillier with Alexander Payne's latest once it hit Telluride. Now the film is playing in Toronto and the reviews continue to be mixed. This could spell trouble for the film, but be patient. Initial reviews are only part of the Oscar equation...

Public reception, campaigns, the length of media interest, and simply the matter of time can change perceptions of Oscar viability. I think it still might have a shot even whilst attracting its share of haters. At the very least a Golden Globes Best Comedy or Musical Picture run seems very obviously possible.

The story, difficult to describe without being totally reductive, is about a near future when people can shrink themselves and live far more fabulously in climate controlled miniature cities with plentiful amenities and very little waste. It's a way to both save the environment and live a lifestyle you can't otherwise afford. The premise is visually rich (that's new for Payne) and dense with opportunities for socioeconomic,  environmental, and political commentary (that's familiar for him). Downsizing is something of a shapeshifter as a result.  It begins as a deadpan (and hilarious) sci-fi comedy, then morphs into a dark socioecomic satire before just throwing anything and everything into the pot: environmentalism, political activism, organized crime, spiritual character, racial inequities, size prejudice, doomsday paranoia, and love stories. As a result it's... uneven. But it's so singular that you shouldn't miss it. You'll want to have your own opinion. The Academy loves Payne but we'll see how they react to this somewhat atypical project, by far his most ambitious film in terms of scale.

P.S. Hong Chau (who you might remember from Inherent Vice) is, as you may have heard, the film's standout. She plays a blunt but compassionate one-legged Vietnamese political dissident who was shrunken against her will. I've already heard talk that some people think the depiction of this character is racist and that strikes me as ill informed at best. I'm sorry but people do speak in broken English and more like a child than an adult when they don't know a language well. Anyone who has ever tried to learn a foreign language knows this. Frequent mistakes include dropping articles, confusing words, conjugating irregularly, having a limited vocabulary, etcetera. It's not racist to portray a refugee as less than fluent in the language of their new home, c'mon now. What's more, Ngoc Lan Tran is clearly the film's most engaging and compassionate character and the one Alexander Payne loves the most, rather than the butt of a joke. 

Grade: TBA leaning A- first half / B- second half. I'll need to see it again. It's dense.

On to a far surer thing...

Dunkirk may well be the only Best Picture lock that's already opened. It's clearly headed to a high nomination tally. The only question is 'how high and which categories?'  In November Dunkirk's unintentional companion arrives and could well outdo it in the nomination department.

Darkest Hour is literally the same story but from an entirely different vantage point. This tight riveting drama (the 2 hours flies by) takes place entirely within the homes and workplaces of the government officials controlling England's war efforts (but for one endearing if over-the-top scene in London's subway system). We follow Winston Churchill's baptism of fire as the newly appointed Prime Minister. He has to strategize a way out of the seemingly hopeless Dunkirk situation and prevent his government from caving and entering a deal with the devils (Hitler and Mussollini).


Possible Oscar nods include literally everything except the ones its ineligible for (Best Actress, Original Song, Foreign Language Film -heehee). Joe Wright directs with his still riveting visual dynamism. This is not quite Anna Karenina flamboyant but it's closer than you'd expect given the stuffy manly genre, cast, and setting. Wright is the only English language filmmaker that Baz Luhrmann might think should tone it down. (Kidding! I love them both for their unapologetic theatricality.)

Oh and Gary Oldman has already locked up the Best Actor statue. Sorry everyone else but there's no way Oscar passes on this huge honey glazed ham showboating. There's tetchy humor, flamboyant mimicry, emotional gravitas, and astonishing makeup work. Regarding the latter -- yes, they always give actors credit for that "__ TRANSFORMS / IS ____"  even if the makeup department does the actual work. See also the reviews and wins for Charlize Theron's Monster and Nicole Kidman's The Hours and the snubbing of their respective makeup teams. (This time I think the Makeup gets nominated, though.)

Grade: B+

Article originally appeared on The Film Experience (http://thefilmexperience.net/).
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