The annual Hollywood awards season is late arriving, but that doesn’t mean it has lost its impact or importance. In fact, it has suddenly brought more choice for both big screen and home viewing.
The delay, of course, is Covid-19 related, as most cinemas in North America, Europe, and much of the rest of the world remain closed, thus affecting the number of qualifying movies.
However, changed rules have opened the door for productions made outside the traditional studio-to-cinema format. The major streaming companies, led by Netflix and Amazon, are giving their prestige movies a brief theatrical window before they go online.
The studios themselves, such as AT&T-owned Warner and Disney, have both entered the business, sometimes spurning theatrical releases. The new qualifying date for an Oscar nomination is February 28, rather than December 31. This has produced a rush of new releases hoping for recognition at the Academy Awards, now to be held on April 26 (NZ time).
Many of the leading contenders have been available to local subscribers of the streaming services, or are popping up in cinemas. Others will, no doubt, appear before the end of this month.
Prominent among them is The White Tiger (Netflix), based on Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning novel. Not all Booker winners, including Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, have been turned into movies to match.
But The White Tiger, directed by American-born Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes and the 2018 version of Fahrenheit 451) from his own screenplay, is just as much a winner as Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which is also a rags-to-riches story set in modern India.
That’s where the similarities end. While the latter is about overnight wealth through a quiz show, the former is about hard graft, deception and boundless optimism. Entrepreneurialism, as explained by its protagonist, Balram (Adarsh Gourav), is about combining opposites; “straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere”.
In the setup, Balram recounts his history in a letter he hopes to deliver to visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiaboa, and advising him on India’s business environment.
We follow Balram’s rise through the caste system from candy-making rural poverty to chauffeur for a rich family, and finally to self-made success. Then comes the fall, as he is convicted of a serious crime, before recovering.
No flaw in Indian society goes unremarked, from its “rooster coop” description of how the masses are captive to poverty through to the perfidious practices of the ruling class. This is not a Dickensian story of good fortune (as in Slumdog), but a savage attack on a cruel social system.
The story’s strengths are not just in its literary origins, but in the multilingual, all-Indian cast. Apart from Gourav, who is outstanding, there is high-profile Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra Jonas, who plays an American-raised wife of a business heir (Rajkummar Rao). They have returned from New York to run the family business and are unsuspecting of what awaits them.
Rating: Restricted to audiences over 16. 125 minutes.
Palaeontology was brought to life in Ammonite (reviewed in the December 27 issue). Now it’s the turn of archaeology in this low-key, but absorbing, adaptation by director Simon Stone and screenwriter Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe) of John Preston’s novel of Sutton Hoo in Surrey, site of the most important find in 20th century Britain. The novel adds romantic human interest, but the critical relationship is between widowed landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) and Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), a hobbyist excavator. He displays his amateur expertise by uncovering a ship belonging to a seventh century Anglo-Saxon king. Professional archaeologists, who swoop in once news gets out on the eve of World War II, initially despise Brown, but are forced to concede credit when the full extent of the treasure trove is exposed. It remains the British Museum’s best collection of that period.
Rating: Parental guidance. 112 minutes.
(The Yellow Affair)
This modest, unpretentious Kiwi production by Max Currie is a sympathetic, but unsensational drama that explores the impact of gender change on a family and the wider rural community. Originally five episodes of 15 minutes in a web series, it has been re-edited into a feature. The transformation is as seamless as that of its lead character Caz (Elz Carrad), who returns home after a long absence. His former female best friend (Awahina Rose Ashby) is still angry, but his ex-boyfriend (Arlo Green) is more welcoming. The most tension is with his father (Kirk Torrance), who cannot forgive Caz not attending his mother’s funeral. All three have their own personal issues, while Caz supports his father in a land rights dispute that reduces race issues to a stereotypical small-town standoff. However, that doesn’t detract from a climax that accepts Caz for what he has become. Currie’s previous feature was Everyone You Loved (2014), a child adoption drama worth renting from Vimeo on demand.
Rating: Mature audiences. 87 minutes.
The annual British Film Festival can always be counted on for a good World War II drama. Last year had two, this and A Call To Spy (also reviewed on December 27). Summerland ticks all the boxes – southern coastal locations, including Dover’s unfenced white cliffs, a reclusive writer who is a suspected spy (Gemma Arterton), a curly-haired refugee boy from London (Lucas Bond), and some nosey villagers, notably Tom Courtenay as the local headmaster. Through flashbacks, we learn Arterton had a close friend before the war (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, of Misbehaviour and Belle fame), but had lost contact after she married. The boy moves in with his newly-adopted mum, who did not agree to provide refuge or want anyone interfering with her research into mystical cloud formations and “floating islands”. However, they eventually bond against the bigoted locals, in a story that evolves in what appears to be unlikely coincidence.
Rating: Parental guidance. 100 minutes.