Any film that covers thirty years in the life of its subject will inevitably contain an generous amount of incident, especially if that person is as industrious and well-travelled as Jacques Cousteau. Despite Jérôme Salle’s biopic The Odyssey providing a breathless and thorough account of the oceanographer’s technical innovations, canny harnessing of global celebrity and difficult familial relationships, however, the most significant event it depicts is a simple change in perspective.
“No no no no no, you did not understand, no”, Cousteau (Lambert Wilson) says to a row of American TV executives. “I am not making animal documentaries. I am going to tell the story of men who are going to explore a new world.” The disdain in his voice might seem surprising given his reputation as a director of nature films – his feature debut The Silent World (1956) was the first documentary to win the Palme d’or, and he made over 120 documentaries for television – but Salle returns often to the idea that Cousteau is more enamoured with the romance of exploration than with anything that actually lives in the deep. The line between adventurer and colonialist exploiter is shown to be perilously thin, as early boasts about “the sea’s fabulous resources, waiting for us” are supplanted by the sight of offshore oil rigs whose existence Cousteau is personally responsible for.
With his indifference to natural life and willingness to stage scenes, Cousteau’s approach had its roots in early ethnographic features like Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), which presented recreations of the Inuit tribe’s earlier way of life as contemporary fact. Such laissez faire attitudes have been superseded by nature documentaries that take pains to use hidden cameras and non-invasive techniques, as well as filmed polemics like An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and this year’s follow-up An Inconvenient Sequel that explicitly aim to warn against the destruction of the environment. Instead of the emphasis being comradely adventure and the journey of man – “it’s not stories about fish that interest people, it’s stories about people”, Cousteau argues – this is now seen a fundamentally selfish dereliction of responsibility.
In The Odyssey, it takes Cousteau a few decades to come to this conclusion himself. Interestingly, Salle suggests that his ecological blindness comes from the same essential place as his philandering and his hubris: a fame-assisted self-absorption that corrodes almost every part of him. Salvation and insight must come from the younger generation, represented by his brooding son Philippe (Pierre Niney), whose concern about the crew’s oblivious actions mirrors his growing disillusionment in the father he once worshiped.
Cousteau’s subsequent evangelical conversion to environmentalism both reflected and led the shift in how the world saw the planet and its finite resources. While it’s easy for a modern audience to judge the man harshly on several fronts (without even getting into his secret second family), scuba diving technology was so new that he literally invented it. Ultimately Cousteau came to symbolise the possibility of change: where once he was happy to capture wild sea lions if it would make a good scene in a movie, by the end of The Odyssey he is telling his men to wipe their boots as they set foot onto Antarctica, lest they spread any germs.
Originally published in Curzon Magazine Issue 63
Dissatisfaction has lingered around the adaptation of The Hobbit seemingly from the moment director Peter Jackson announced his plan to divide J.R.R. Tolkien’s relatively slim children’s book into three separate features. Even during the excellent second instalment The Desolation Of Smaugit was difficult to escape the idea that the trilogy was somehow inessential. For all of its merits – most of which involve Martin Freeman’s performance as the titular halfling Bilbo Baggins – The Hobbit has always felt more like a retread of The Lord Of The Rings than a singular, vital work in its own right.
Now that we’re at the end – truly, definitively, finally at the end – it becomes reasonable to ask: what was the point of it all? Why does The Hobbit exist? These aren’t meant to be hostile questions. It’s generally unfair to demand the motivation for artistic endeavours, but some reflection in this instance might help to understand how best to comprehend the three films. What was Jackson trying to accomplish, and did he succeed on those terms?
Here’s one possible explanation. At the close of that other long trilogy directed by Jackson and set in Middle Earth, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) sits in the back of a wagon with his forgetful, rapidly-ageing uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm in this incarnation). Their adventures are over. “Frodo, any chance of seeing that old ring of mine again, the one I gave you?” Bilbo asks. His nephew apologises and says he lost it. A compassionate lie. Bilbo declares this a pity: “I should like to have held it one last time.”
If there’s a sentiment in either of the two trilogies that can best illuminate The Hobbit‘s genesis, perhaps it’s this one. While it’s possible that the director and his collaborators had things to say about Middle Earth that they hadn’t managed to during the 683-minute running time of The Lord of the Rings, the overwhelming impression is simply that they wanted to live those 683 minutes over again.
The biggest danger that follows massive success is the loss of artistic constraints, and this is to some degree responsible for Jackson’s tendency to bloat material whether it’s required or not. Who’s going to tell the person who made The Lord Of The Rings that it’s a bad idea to make a film as big as possible when that approach has worked so well for him before? The consequence of no limitations is that Jackson was less interested in what made the source novel unique than how it could be shaped into something else. Accordingly the structure of the three films is derived not from the book but the trilogy that was made before it, with characters, sequences and storylines added to inflate the narrative into an epic, and the focus broadened from one hobbit to a vast ensemble.
The decision to expand the cast is particularly troublesome in The Battle Of The Five Armies, the concluding chapter of the series. Martin Freeman, ostensibly the protagonist, is reduced to being the fourth or fifth main character. Endless time is spent instead on the travails of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and sulking elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who pointlessly hunts a secondary antagonist virtually identical to the main one. Even the tiresome servant Alfrid (Ryan Gage) gets more screen time, spending a portion of the film in ludicrous drag as if someone had told him they were remaking Monty Python’s Life Of Brian.
Bilbo has almost nothing to do in his own story: he calms a few people down, frets a little, and sneaks out of the Lonely Mountain a couple of times. That’s pretty much it. While this is in some respects due to the novel, in which the hobbit is unconscious for most of the battle, it is a shame considering how eager Jackson and his co-writers were to embellish the story elsewhere. If they could invent a baffling elf-dwarf-elf love triangle for Legolas, then surely they could have given Bilbo something other to do than repeatedly offer to head home and get out of everybody’s way. As with the previous two instalments, The Battle Of The Five Armies is wonderful whenever Freeman is around and a bit of a slog when he’s not.
If one were to be generous, it could be argued that Jackson made the films he thought audiences wanted to see. This would be understandable: after all, the first trilogy is one of the most beloved and commercially successful cinematic enterprises of all time. Unfortunately, the choice to dwell so readily on earlier successes both in its structure and inclusion of returning characters robs The Hobbit of any identity of its own. In all non-chronological respects it is a sequel to The Lord Of The Rings, and consequently suffers from the same problem that besets most sequels: by attempting to provide more of the same, it offers less.
Given that the three films were shot at the same time, the collapse in quality in its final chapter is unexpected and bitterly disappointing. The trouble is that The Battle Of The Five Armies finds the story at a juncture where almost all of the book’s good material has already been depicted. Focusing on just the final 47 or so pages, Jackson is left to kill time however best he can, scrambling around to the point where some extras apparently seem to have their own storylines. Inevitably, one day a person with an admirable disregard for copyright law will re-edit The Hobbit into the two films it was originally intended to be, and both of them will be terrific.
Without Gollum, Smaug, talking spiders or daring barrel-based escapes to distract, the trilogy’s issues become ever more apparent. Somehow the film looks more fake than the ones that were made over a decade before: special effects have been a cornerstone of Jackson’s Middle Earth efforts since Fellowship of the Ring, but they have overtaken the film-making to the extent where unless a character is shown in close-up it’s a good bet that it’s not actually them. It is essentially an animated film: where previous outings utilised New Zealand’s natural beauty, The Battle Of The Five Armies could have been made in any studio that owned enough green screen. None of this is helped by the story being restricted almost entirely to a single uninspiring location that has the grey-and-brown colour scheme of a shabby industrial park.
Despite all of these problems the film is generally successful in its opening half, exploring themes of greed, subjugation, malice and spite, and effectively building up to the climactic battle as several characters become driven by competing material desires. The depiction of Thorin is especially effective, as the dwarf leader succumbs to “dragon sickness” and builds literal and emotional walls around his party. Devoted to protecting the birthright that’s shredding his mind, he declares: “Life is cheap, but a treasure is worth all the blood we can spend.”
Throughout the first half, Jackson and his co-writers make beautiful and simple points about the true value of wealth and the importance of more meaningful priorities: unlike a world-threatening ring, the Arkenstone, emeralds of Girion, and Smaug’s gold are ultimately devoid of any power beyond the evil they inspire people to do, and thus they are inherently useless. In the film’s most moving scene, Bilbo describes his plans for an acorn he’s been carrying around, and it makes one ache to think of all the time wasted on endless, miserable battle scenes rather than this wise, duplicitous, funny, stout-hearted, ornery, strange little hobbit. Alas, Jackson ploughs on, and on: CG dwarves and CG elves and CG men fighting CG orcs and CG wargs and CG trolls, everyone toppling over constantly like a tub of army men being played with by a careless, rambunctious child, and none of it meaning a thing.
To read the original article at The Quietus, click here.
If An Unexpected Journey – the first entry in Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit – was disappointing, part of the reason may have been because of how long it spent in the Shire. The settlement serves the same function in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: an untroubled, bucolic ideal that its hobbit protagonists yearn for whilst travelling on their respective quests. With its absence of danger or surprise, the Shire is differentiated from the rest of Middle-earth, which makes it a problematic location to set more than a few opening or closing scenes – the very constancy that makes the naturally-unadventurous hobbits want to return to it is the antithesis of the drama Jackson wishes to depict. With so much space to fill, however, the filmmaker was in no hurry to leave, and his dawdling in the Shire and elsewhere contributed to An Unexpected Journey feeling like a three-hour-long first act.
Fortunately, The Desolation of Smaug finds Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf cohorts having left the serenity of Hobbiton far behind. Now solidly within the middle part of the story, Jackson doesn’t need to concern himself with beginnings or endings, and is free instead to focus on entertaining the audience.
While the film suffers from many of the same problems that afflicted An Unexpected Journey – Jackson has never met a CGI bridge that he hasn’t wanted lots of people to cross – it is still a notable improvement. The lack of a long-winded introduction plays to the book’s strengths: where The Lord of the Rings is an enormous, solemn epic, The Hobbit is an adventure story, typically introducing a new creature each chapter. The Desolation of Smaug accordingly bounds from encounter to encounter, with little need to linger on any of them.
Making a deliberate attempt to emulate the epic sweep of The Lord of the Rings, Jackson’s adaptation is far darker than its source material. But whilst he still strains towards the portentousness of his sequel trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug is nonetheless suffused with wit and energy: the scene in which Bilbo and the dwarves use barrels to escape down a river is amongst the most propulsive, purely exciting sequences in any of his Middle-earth films, shot with a fluidity reminiscent of the lengthy single-shot chase in the Jackson-produced The Adventures of Tintin. Similarly, Bilbo’s climactic parley with the dragon Smaug is wonderfully tense, the hobbit skittering evasively among cascading piles of gold, alternately attempting to flatter and manipulate his predator as coins landslide beneath him.
Even though The Desolation of Smaug contains many excellent set-pieces, their existence is further proof that the expansion of the story to three pictures was ill-advised. The film’s standout sequences all come directly from the book, whilst its least necessary ones all do not. The trilogy remains like a bloated double album that should have been squeezed onto a single CD, its filler tracks discarded. Whilst The Desolation of Smaug definitely fares better from inflation than An Unexpected Journey, which filled out its running time with dull, endless fights with orcs and wargs, it still runs into problems whenever it strays too far from Tolkien.
The series’ bright spot continues to be Martin Freeman’s depiction of Bilbo. A fine actor who found himself typecast in everyman roles following The Office, Freeman is so successful in the films precisely because of how innately relatable he is. It’s through Bilbo that we understand Middle-earth: a land that’s scary, wondrous and a little silly as well. Decent and courageous and yet with a natural aptitude for deceit, his inherent contradictions make him more compelling than the staidly noble protagonists of The Lord of the Rings. It’s telling that while the quest of his nephew Frodo was to dispose of a precious object, Bilbo’s is to steal one.
As the One Ring extends its sway over Bilbo, Freeman’s portrayal evolves subtly. In one of the film’s darkest moments, Bilbo fights a horde of giant arachnids trying to eat the dwarves. Battling heroically, he suddenly sees the spiders as a threat to the ring and loses sight of his initial objective, turning barbarous in an instant. Bilbo’s subsequent disgust at his own murderous potential is a fascinating depiction of the ring’s seductive power; by contrast, Frodo mostly responded to its burden by looking pallid and falling down a lot.
Where The Desolation of Smaug expands upon The Lord of the Rings is the notion that the One Ring’s insidious qualities aren’t unique, that greed and ruthlessness can be inspired by anything of particular value, from precious objects to power. Uneasy dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield, who sets out on the quest in order to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and restore the standing of his people, is implicated by the notion that he is just as entranced by the mountain’s stockpiled riches as Smaug.
The Desolation of Smaug’s strong characterisation is only let down by its secondary antagonist, Azog, an orc chieftain already long dead in the book. For a literary universe where villainy derives from the corruption of good people as much as it does from ancient monsters, the omnipresence of such an uninteresting enemy is disappointing. Constantly chasing the dwarves to little effect, Azog exists only to give a sense of urgency to their quest, despatching yet another wave of easily-bested orcs at the group whenever the momentum sags.
Deep within Tolkien’s exhausting mythopoeia The Silmarillion, the author remarks that the elves of Middle-earth define the passing of their age as starting at the moment of its creation. The concept of something’s end being present within its beginning is a miserably beautiful one, and this melancholic perspective hangs heavily over both Tolkien’s writings and Jackson’s cinematic interpretations. Essentially functioning as Middle-earth travelogues, both trilogies find their protagonists journeying from one exotic location to another, and each new forest, mountain or kingdom is rarely encountered in full bloom. A disease of some description has often taken hold: in The Desolation of Smaug decay is present everywhere from the hallucinatory forest of Mirkwood to the corruptly-governed Lake-town.
Late in the film, the dwarves attempt to insult Smaug by accusing him of being “in his dotage”, but the same holds true for all of Middle-earth. Even when the characters ultimately triumph against evil, their actions are recognised as contributing to the end of the “Færie” age and the start of “the Dominion of Men”. More so than similarly outsized blockbusters or other fantasy adaptations, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are defined by a sense of waning glory, an ever-present autumn.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
By some distance, the best album cover of Bruce Springsteen’s long recording career is the one for his 1982 LP Nebraska. A stark black-and-white photograph taken from the window of a pick-up truck, the image depicts a flat, charnel landscape, divided only by a road that may as well be heading nowhere. As well as being a strong cover in itself, the photograph complements the spare acoustic recordings within–songs dealing with aimlessness and hardship amidst diminished expectations. It’s easy to imagine that if hadn’t already been used by Springsteen, the shot would have been ideal for the poster of Alexander Payne’s latest film, also called Nebraska.
Taking place in large part on the endless roads evoked by that image, the film follows aged, ornery recovering alcoholic Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) as he attempts to claim a million dollar prize promised in a piece of spurious junk mail. First seen lumbering along a stretch of highway trying to walk from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, Woody’s mind has flown off the thread, cast into a perpetual fug. After repeated unsuccessful interventions, his son David (Will Forte)–the definition of long-suffering – agrees to drive Woody to Nebraska himself.
Payne’s greatest strength as a filmmaker is the way he creates empathy for his characters not in spite of their flaws, but because of them. Finding the grace in banal lives, he retains a fundamental compassion for his characters, understanding their circumstances even as he casts a clear-eyed gaze upon their personal failings. His protagonists, all layered studies in dissatisfaction, are met with warmth as well as arched eyebrows. This humanist approach is present throughout Nebraska: Woody, who on some level is aware that he hasn’t really won any money, is burrowing desperately into his own confusion to claim some meaning for his uninspiring life and failures as a father. He remains irascible and difficult, but his profound disappointment is both recognisable and deeply sympathetic. Woody’s knotty depiction has its roots in Bob Nelson’s understated script as well as Bruce Dern’s nuanced, enormously moving performance.
While Nebraska is littered with comedic moments, as well as a memorable turn from Stacy Keach as Woody’s old business partner, it’s the relationship between Woody and his son that forms the film’s emotional core. David, whose life is so indistinct that his girlfriend can’t even tell if they’re in a relationship, concedes readily to the futile task of transporting Woody not out of familial duty but to grasp a few days of distraction from an otherwise dreary existence. It’s refreshing to see Forte in such a weighty role, and his performance, all slumped shoulders and quiet exasperation, suggests a man felled by life yet unable to forsake his patient, Midwestern politeness.
As Payne carefully tends to the protagonists of his films, it’s not unusual to see smaller parts rendered with less complexity, employing minor characters entirely for narrative reasons or for the sake of a laugh. This fate befalls the extended Grant family that Woody and David– joined briefly by Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) and David’s local newsman brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) – visit on their way to Lincoln. Unleavened by the empathy afforded to Woody and David, they’re portrayed with a superciliousness that hews towards the cruel.
David’s cousins suffer the harshest treatment, their conversational interests limited to how long it takes to drive specific distances. Once they come to believe that Woody is rich, the pair are depicted as spectacularly dim-witted and money-grubbing: if the film was animated then at some point dollar signs would surely appear in their eyes, accompanied by the ringing of cash registers. As in Payne’s previous film The Descendants, the vulgar avarice of distant family members is used as a way to unite the core family unit and remind them of their values. However, the consequence of this narrative decision is that a quartet of flawed, endearing humans are surrounded by problematic caricatures.
That the film espouses the same distrust of extended family as Payne’s last effort raises questions about the momentum of his work. As enjoyable as Nebraska is, there’s nothing in it that he hasn’t attempted before. As ever, Payne excels at creating a sense of place by identifying the mundane, swapping the suburban sprawls of Hawaii for the patio furniture and small talk of the Great Plains. With dissatisfaction as his key theme, he returns again and again to sad sack individuals in denial about their unhappiness. Woody, it could be argued, is just a slightly older version of Jack Nicholson’s character in About Schmidt, albeit one with a drinking problem and a cataract mind. Like Sideways and About Schmidt, his frustrations are brought to the surface via a meandering road trip–if you were to broaden the idea of a trip to include general long journeys, then the list of Payne’s films that use this strategy would also include The Descendants and Payne’s beautiful short 14e arrondissement, made for the uneven portmanteau film Paris, je t’aime.
Everything that Payne can do well as a filmmaker he does well here, but for someone who isn’t especially prolific his reliance on the same few tropes has the potential to make even well-constructed work feel like a retread. It isn’t Nebraska’s fault that it’s Payne’s sixth film rather than his debut, of course, but the endeavour is a little less impressive when held up against its overly-similar peers.
It’s arguable whether or not this familiarity is a problem. If a film is excellent–and Nebraska certainly is–does it matter if its creator has made it a few times already? Repetition can produce diminishing returns, but using the same motifs and techniques in different circumstances can also cast a new perspective on pet themes. Ultimately, perhaps, it depends upon the path you hope an artist’s career will follow: whether you want them to grow from each creative experience and venture towards uncertain new directions, or to keep doing the things they do best.
Considering Payne’s cool-yet-ultimately-sympathetic approach towards his characters, perhaps a similar way to look upon Nebraska would be to conclude that it isn’t derivative of his earlier films, but is instead a distillation of them. After the relatively exotic climes of Sideways and The Descendants, Payne returns to the state where his first three features were set and where he grew up. In doing so, he strips his work down to its elemental form: discarding not only the picturesque backdrops which softened his previous two films but the use of colour as well, all he has left to work with are those flat landscapes and endless roads that may as well lead nowhere. It’s from this desolate starting point that he can wholly focus on his enduring interest: unhappy people, trying to find a way to make their lives feel meaningful.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
An inevitability of life is that every Academy Awards ceremony will feature at least one montage celebrating “the magic of cinema”, striped with iconic imagery from the medium’s short, rich history. That many of these moments will come from epics is not incidental. An epic–like a child’s drawing of a house with two windows, a door and a chimney–is what one thinks of when envisioning the idea of cinema. With their duration and grand visual lavishness, epics share the same inherent appeal as film itself: a sense of overwhelming scale.
Typically, filmmakers use this ample canvas to portray significant lives and events, both fictional and otherwise. In his beguiling new film, Blue Is the Warmest Colour, Abdellatif Kechiche employs the same maximalist approach, but his subject isn’t war, a historical movement, geopolitical manoeuvring or the trials of a great figure. Instead, over a running time of 187 minutes Kechiche charts in minute detail the rise and fall of a single relationship.
While the union between Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Léa Seydoux) comes for them at an age when love finds its most fervent expression, the relationship itself and the path it follows is fairly typical. From a distance it wouldn’t be much different from the madly consuming relationships that many others experience when similarly youthful. This ordinariness is what makes Blue Is the Warmest Colour so extraordinary. It is an epic of the human heart: understanding that who we love and how we’re changed by that love is one of the defining aspects of our lives, Kechiche uses the film’s substantial length to explore something apparently small, finding that it’s anything but.
As encapsulated by its beautifully precise French title, “La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2”, Blue Is the Warmest Colour covers the breadth of two distinct sections in its protagonist’s life. Even though love–both in its arrival and departure–is a primary focus, Kechiche is singularly compelled by Adèle’s maturation into her adult self. It is through her relationship with Emma that Adèle first starts to define herself, but self-discovery scurries in from other areas too: literature; dancing; political engagement; the pleasure in simple food, well made. Most importantly, Adèle gives herself to work, finding that her warmth and discretion engenders a natural gift for teaching. The film has become notorious for the protracted sex scene at its centre, but Kechiche devotes just as much time to the other passions of Adèle’s mind and body. As each one blinkingly awakens inside of her, it takes her further away from Emma, whose engagement in a patronising art world renders her unable to appreciate the person Adèle has become.
The detail that Keviche lavishes upon every facet of Adèle’s life helps construct a complex, evolving portrait of the character, supported immeasurably by Exarchopoulos’ exceptional, emotionally munificent performance. If the long, steady and unhurried nature of this portrait is at times exhausting, then it’s because life itself is exhausting: we’re all living inside our own epics, Adèle included.
It’s the equal application of Keviche’s attention that counters the arguments about his motivations in depicting sex between the characters. Sex is an important aspect of Adèle’s life, but it is only one part amongst many. The length, physicality, explicitness and voracious passion of its sex scenes undeniably makes Blue Is the Warmest Colour stand out, but it isn’t the film’s fault that it’s an outlier. Instead, its rarity highlights the need for the language of sex in mainstream cinema to be expanded.
Despite its unique potential to depict the act in poignant, sensual, expositional, bold ways, cinematic sex is rarely anything other than perfunctory: an indication of romantic progression between characters, or to demonstrate some transgression taking place. The sex in Blue Is the Warmest Colour–a physical manifestation of Adèle and Emma’s wild, desperate longing for each other–stands as a rebuke to such drab portrayals. The length and nature of the sex scenes is unusual, but any erotic power they have comes entirely from Exarchopoulos and Seydoux’s performances. Whether the scenes are a physically accurate depiction of sex is beside the point: they are an emotionally accurate depiction.
While “Chapitre 1” of “La Vie d’Adèle” conveys what it’s like to be young and love – its secret languages, its near agony–the film’s second part is concerned with how adulthood can affect those passions. By the film’s conclusion, Adèle is left struggling to experience anything as powerful as her relationship with Emma. In part that’s a testament to the strength of their love, but it’s also indicative of how people put walls up around themselves as they get older.
Being too young to know any better, Adèle’s inability to protect herself was what made her relationship with Emma so potent, even if it led to pain eventually. By guarding herself from being hurt, she excludes joy as well. It’s here that the inconclusiveness of the ending is a balm for the audience, if not for Adèle. She doesn’t realise it, but she’s still evolving: there are other chapters to come. Sadly for us, we won’t get to see them.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
As an actor reads their lines and moves around the set – or around a light box containing 1.8 million LED bulbs, in Gravity’s case – their ability to inhabit a role isn’t just affected by their talents as a performer, but by the baggage they bring along with them. Against their own control, they present a mélange of their current part, the notable characters they’ve played before, and whatever the audience believes about their private life, true or otherwise. In acting, to be employable is to be recognisable, and to be recognisable is to be classifiable.
Beyond the commercial motivations for using popular, well-known actors, such casting allows filmmakers to shrewdly play them against type, or to use their presence as narrative shorthand. You don’t need to establish, say, that a character played by George Clooney is charmingly aloof but essentially decent – he’s George Clooney. At its worst, this approach cynically expects star power to do the work that the screenwriter was unable to, but when a filmmaker genuinely understands both an actor’s strengths and their innate persona they can use it to tell a story that satisfies in unspoken ways.
For a film as relentlessly action-heavy as Gravity, efficiently establishing character and motivation is essential. Depicted almost in real time, the film follows two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) stranded in space after a catastrophic debris strike on their shuttle. The pair must find a way to survive before their oxygen runs out and the debris completes its orbit and hits them again. Set in the blankness of space with only two characters (excluding a few auditory contributions and a winking vocal cameo from Ed Harris as Mission Control), director Alfonso Cuarón and his co-screenwriter/son Jonás have little opportunity for creating back story without bombarding the audience with exposition. Where Cuarón’s previous film Children of Men was able to provide such information through the use of superlative production design, Gravity’s lack of environmental context means that intuitive casting is required to do much of the heavy lifting.
Considering the production’s much-reported casting problems – Cuarón waited years for technology to catch up to his vision, losing initial lead Angelina Jolie in the process – it’s difficult to think of an American movie star better suited to the film’s central role than Sandra Bullock. Sitting quietly amongst Gravity’s many achievements – and it is, unequivocally, one of the most technically accomplished motion pictures ever made – is something unglamorous but absolutely crucial to its success: it’s a perfectly cast film.
Mark Hamill once compared acting in Star Wars to being like a raisin in a giant fruit salad, and to an extent that’s always going to be an issue in films that focus on delivering action through special effects. However, for all of its overwhelming visual splendor, Gravity absolutely hinges on Bullock’s performance, and her performance absolutely hinges on our understanding of her as an actress.
Bullock entered the public’s consciousness in the early nineties with a pair of supporting roles in high-concept action movies: first in 1993’s Demolition Man, where she portrayed a meek, 20th century-obsessed cop, and eight months later as a frazzled passenger-turned-bus-driver in Speed. The actress has appeared in 28 pictures since then, but it was in those two parts that audiences’ perception of her as a good-natured ingénue calcified. Unfortunately, the starring roles afforded to Bullock by Speed’s breakout success have been mostly restricted to an unending series of middling romcoms, sentimental dramas and fluffy comedies (this year’s excellent The Heat being a notable exception), but regardless of merit, most of these films have drawn in some way upon her established thespian identity.
The parallels between Gravity and Bullock’s early, defining roles are unmistakable. In both Speed and Demolition Man she plays an inexperienced figure out of her depth, nudged into a dangerous, high-pressure situation by her charismatic male co-star. Under both circumstances the character excels, albeit stutteringly, against the odds. Two decades since Bullock’s ascension to stardom, Gravity finds her coming full circle in the part of Dr Ryan Stone, a bereaved mission specialist battling an upset stomach on her first visit to space. Guided by the jovial reassurances of veteran Matt Kowalski (Clooney), Ryan must overcome physical hardships and paralysing fear in order to escape her ordeal.
The character is easy to root for because regardless of whether or not you can accept Bullock as a medical engineer, you can accept her as an individual who has the will to achieve despite self-doubt. Ryan, in essence, is the same character Bullock first played twenty years ago, and it’s precisely this fact that makes her so empathetic. We’ve been here before, but this time something is different, colouring the familiar narrative of hard-fought proficiency. Shadowed by grief and uncertain of whether there’s even anything back on Earth worth surviving for, Ryan is damaged by her past. Evelyn Waugh almost certainly wasn’t thinking about Sandra Bullock when he wrote Brideshead Revisited (in part because she hadn’t been born yet, but also because it’s difficult to imagine him enjoying Demolition Man), but on seeing her performance in Gravity it’s possible to be reminded of the line:
“That was the change in her from ten years ago; that, indeed, was her reward, this haunting, magical sadness which spoke straight to the heart and struck silence; it was the completion of her beauty.”
Protagonists in action cinema are often delineated by an innate steeliness, but Ryan’s temerity comes with reluctance, driven instead by primal survival instincts in the face of entirely reasonable panic. Placed in her position by the narrative’s singular focus and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s lingering camerawork, the audience shares her sense of alarm and disorientation, as well as her urge to fight. Ryan does extraordinary things, not because she is extraordinary but because humans have the capacity to become so when events demand it.
Ryan’s efforts not just to live but to find reasons to do so are what propel Gravity from being an exhilarating, mesmeric exercise in action filmmaking towards the realm of the spiritual, and this can only be achieved through such a raw, mature performance. Acknowledging the limitations imposed upon the actors by the production’s incommodious technical demands, the accomplishment is even more striking.
Given that the film is only an hour and a half long (17 minutes of which are taken up by its astonishing opening shot), what’s most surprising about Gravity is how patient it is, especially considering the immediate, colossal danger facing the characters. With their spacesuits draining of power and oxygen, Ryan and Matt’s progress is often slow, relying on gentle movements. Despite the fact that virtually everything is animated except the actors themselves, the film places an importance on the manipulation of objects: locks need to be thrown, moorings untethered, and hatches opened. There’s a lot of stillness, even dead time, and this affords Cuarón the chance to produce moments of great beauty, reflection and sadness.
This measured pacing is also highly effective at creating tension. Dangerous situations are given the room to develop naturally: a spark, briefly glimpsed, builds into a perilous fire, whilst a vitally important cord gets agonisingly looser and looser. The cinematic language of lengthy takes that Cuarón and Lubezki have developed together over their career-long collaboration works impeccably for the subject matter: the same slowness that allows for contemplation also allows for sequences of extreme emergency. By taking place in real time, the audience is aware of just how grave individual hazards are. The film doesn’t cheat.
Sadly, Gravity’s use of dialogue is less impressive. It’s an understandable problem: the difficulty with having your entire film centered on the actions of a single person is that everything they say is like someone ringing a bell. Cuarón and Cuarón’s screenplay is utilitarian and purposefully thin, employing abbreviated characterisation to provide all the information the audience needs and nothing more. An action movie in its purest form, Gravity is defined instead by its emphasis on movement and physical struggle – a moment where Ryan curls up into a foetal position expressing more about the character’s state than a conversation could. Featuring long stretches without any speech at all, its focus is the human body, vulnerable and under threat
It becomes clear at a certain point that the story is essentially binary: disregarding all of the specific variables, the film can only really have two possible outcomes. The one that Cuarón opts for is arguably the more daring, but it almost doesn’t matter. Ultimately, Gravity isn’t about the struggle to survive but about why that struggle is important. Open to both humanist and religious interpretation, Ryan’s trials are a metaphor for renewing faith. Stranded in nothingness, she must try to find her way back towards something tangible. The deluge of recent articles nitpicking every element of Gravity’s science miss the point entirely: despite his thorough research, Cuarón favours storytelling over accuracy when the film demands it. Faced with the choice between airtight logic and making a riveting, beautiful picture about why we endeavour, he has selected the latter.
At a stretch, Drinking Buddies contains about ten minutes of plot. Co-workers at a Chicago craft brewery, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) enjoy their jobs whilst trying to ignore their mutual attraction – a relatively successful strategy until their partners (Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick) are introduced to each other and a parallel romantic predicament emerges. If writer/director Joe Swanberg’s sole objective in making the film was to convey what happens to the characters, the entirety of the story could be covered easily in a couple of scenes. There’s a lot of drinking, everything gets a bit messy, the situation is resolved, and that’s about it.
Broadly uninterested in plot, Swanberg instead devotes his attention to creating a sustained mood, akin to a late languorous summer. Aided by the alcohol the characters drink in virtually every scene of the film, the director captures the feeling of slight inebriation: that warm, hopeful sensation in the pit of your stomach as your judgement starts to cloud. It’s not that Drinking Buddies lacks momentum – although it does – but rather that its storytelling is deliberately unhurried, content to simply spend time in the company of the characters.
Largely improvised, the film luxuriates in the different phases of Kate and Luke’s evolving attraction, shots lingering just a touch longer than you might expect. By giving the characters room to breathe, Swanberg is able to document the tiny shifts in emotion that would otherwise be lost in the headlong rush of narrative.
As one of the key proponents of the Mumblecore film-making movement, Swanberg’s low-key, improvisational method will be familiar to anyone acquainted with his prolific output. Where Drinking Buddies outpaces his previous films, however, is the impact of increased production value. Whilst retaining the naturalistic dialogue of Swanberg’s earlier low-budget efforts, the film benefits greatly from the presence of its accomplished, starry central foursome (with Wilde as a particularly terrific stand-out), as well as the skilful work of Beasts of the Southern Wild cinematographer Ben Richardson. Rather than detract from Swanberg’s attempts at authenticity, the input of talented professionals brings out the subtlety that his previous work has sometimes lacked.
Like a pet taking on the personality of its owner, Drinking Buddies reflects the characteristics of its two laidback protagonists, who approach life with relaxed good humour. Whilst Kate and Luke are not exactly unambitious, they’re starting to settle down, happy with their current station. Even the issue at the heart of the film – the complications caused by their burgeoning attraction to one another – is tempered by both characters being comfortable in lives that they enjoy.
Having just left their twenties behind, their nascent maturity equips them with the awareness that what they’re going through isn’t the end of the world. For a film where the climax involves moving furniture and arguments about dinner plans, this sense of perspective is crucial. They’ve been here before, and might be here again. Swanberg depicts emotionally difficult events, but also their aftermath. Painful, certainly, but ultimately bearable: even when you’re heartbroken you still need to go to your job in the morning, answer phone calls, and make conversation with co-workers.
Swanberg also perceptively suggests that the flipside of emotional maturity can be timidity: it’s Kate and Luke’s general contentment that’s responsible for their hesitancy to act upon their feelings in the way they might have if they were younger. Friendships are murky things that can often resemble love. What happens when you stop being able to tell the difference? Is the pair’s smouldering desire an expression of deeper feelings, or just the incidental result of a friendship between two attractive people who like to get drunk together? Would the consummation of those longings be worth the possibility of spoiling everything else? It’s from this shared internal conflict that the film derives much of its dramatic tension, but Swanberg also uses it as a way to ask meaningful questions about love, friendship and attraction, as well as the opaque, shifting boundaries that separate them.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Cinema, like chemistry, is the study of change. In the classic Hollywood narrative – still utilised by most mainstream films – a protagonist starts at a point of equilibrium, has a journey of some kind, defeats something, and ends the story in a different, usually better situation. There’s a reason why this basic narrative model predates the invention of cinema. Problem solving is central to the human condition: it’s fundamentally satisfying to see characters face an internal or external obstacle and overcome it.
Employing this narrative structure becomes difficult, of course, when depicting actual events. Reality is just too untidy and contradictory. In order to create elegant narratives out of the disappointments and dead ends of real life, filmmakers must condense, conflate and simplify. An implicit understanding exists: unless the changes are completely egregious, audiences are willing to accept a certain measure of factual massaging in service of a better story. This strategy, whilst useful to a screenwriter dealing with a 600-page novel about dense historical events, can also be eschewed in favour of directly confronting life’s inherently convoluted messiness. Where Stephen Frears’ mostly-terrific drama Philomena runs into difficulties is its inability to decide which of these approaches it wants to take.
Based on Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book, Philomena follows the former BBC correspondent (played by Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay) as he tries to help septuagenarian Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) find the son she was forced to give up for adoption half a century earlier. Having been unceremoniously fired from his job as a government advisor, Sixsmith is motivated by listlessness rather than compassion, dismissing Philomena’s plight as another human interest story about “the weak-minded, vulnerable and ignorant”. Frears cuts between the unlikely pair’s transatlantic investigations and the story of teenage Philomena, virtually imprisoned in a Magdalene home for the alleged sin of having a baby out of wedlock.
The character arc that Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope try to build into the plot is not unexpected: Sixsmith, initially self-absorbed and unfeeling, comes to care for Philomena, developing a righteous anger about the way the Catholic Church treated her and her child. What muddies this intended character development is that Sixsmith is unchanged by anything that happens. Unwilling and unable to understand Philomena – a devout Catholic who espouses forgiveness despite the enormous, shameful wrongs committed against her – he doesn’t learn anything from the experience. This is where the film seems unsure of what it’s trying to be: depicting a character who remains essentially the same regardless of external events is admirably in its realism, but it’s as if Coogan and Pope want the audience to respond to something that isn’t there. Sixsmith is unsympathetic at the start of the film, and almost no less unsympathetic by its conclusion, and the constancy seems unintentional.
When considering Sixsmith’s likeability problem, it’s useful to consider that this is a role Steve Coogan wrote for himself to perform. From the self-deluding Alan Partridge onward, Coogan has built a career out of playing vainglorious, often disagreeable characters (including the part of “Steve Coogan” in a handful of his collaborations with Michael Winterbottom). Underneath his characters’ inevitable arrogance, though, he has regularly managed to find other qualities – resilient ambition, and notes of melancholy and loneliness – that warm us to them. Coogan communicates Sixsmith’s underlying kindness on occasion, but it’s often lost amidst his self-interest. A character doesn’t need to be sympathetic to be interesting, but it’s clear that Sixsmith is meant to be, at least in part.
Part of the reason Sixsmith is problematic as a character is what also makes so much of the film pleasurable to watch: Philomena herself. Judi Dench is wonderful in the role, portraying the character with tremendous warmth and humanity. Regardless of her foibles, Philomena is so unerringly decent that Sixsmith’s irritation with her seems out of proportion, his condescending responses bordering on the cruel. Accordingly, the audience’s sympathies lie with Philomena from the beginning, so even when she is dottily reciting the plots of romance novels or getting overexcited at the concept of a hotel breakfast, the joke is never at her expense. Considering how easy it would have been to make her a figure of ridicule compared to urbane Sixsmith, the self-control is commendable.
It’s this sensitive depiction of Philomena that is essential to expressing the raw hurt that defines her. Philomena is complicated in a deeply human way, and it’s ultimately her faith – incomprehensible to Sixsmith considering what organised religion took from her – that provides the film with its thought-provoking, expectation-subverting denouement which denies both Sixsmith and the audience of the moral retribution they crave. A film that could have been glib or overly sentimental in other hands, Philomena’s impressive restraint can be credited to Frears. One of Britain’s most prolific and versatile directors, he demonstrates his experience by wisely getting out of the way, confident in the story’s power. The skill with which Philomena’s complex humanity is portrayed is to the credit of everyone involved. For Philomena alone, perhaps it’s worth the narrative muddle.
Blue dust clings to leaves. Boys drink an unknown liquid and make synchronised movements that could be a dance or a fight. Grub-like creatures are collected and carefully sorted. Bin liners are dragged out to a dumpster, stuffed with paper chains covered in unintelligible writing.
Like the rest of what follows, Upstream Colour’s opening imagery is both strikingly gorgeous and difficult to understand. Obviously it all means something, but what that something is exactly isn’t made clear. As the film unfurls in its beautiful fug, the common reaction to a first viewing is outright bewilderment, and what’s most surprising is what a refreshing experience that is.
Confusion has largely been banished from contemporary cinema: even when a film obscures the machinations of its plot or the true motivations of its characters, its structure can usually be easily processed and understood throughout. This insistence on narrative clarity in modern filmmaking is what makes Upstream Colour feel like such an outlier. Rarely letting a scene play out in full, the film flits from moment to moment, making temporal jumps and finding itself caught in loops, or drawing unexplained parallels.
Completed nine years after his similarly uncompromising debut Primer, it’s understandable how director Shane Carruth (also the writer, composer, co-editor and co-star) had such trouble finding funding for the film: from its aggressive sound design to its surreal imagery – which may be metaphorical, hallucinatory, or something else entirely – Carruth disregards prevailing storytelling conventions for an approach that is far more opaque.
Even though it can often feel like watching a foreign language film without the subtitles on, it’s clear at all times that every shot, sound and line of dialogue has a specific meaning. Somehow, this seems more important than whether you understand what that meaning is or not. Carruth places faith not in the audience’s ability to keep up, but in their capacity to be comfortable with not always keeping up. It’s through this – as well as its overwhelming splendour – that the film manages to avoid the frustration that could make such a picture unwatchable.
While the struggle to decipher what exactly is going on is part of Upstream Colour’s many pleasures, its obfuscations also serve an important narrative purpose. It would be unfair – and unproductive – to articulate the plot, but the film for the most part follows Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Carruth), who meet after their identities have been violated by the actions of another character. Their combined efforts to rebuild their lives are hindered by the extreme disassociation caused by the procedure they were made to go through, and this disorientation is manifested in the film’s sustained perplexing mood. It’s an elegantly conceived, effective way to reflect the emotional state of the characters, as well as to depict the deep transgression they’ve uncomprehendingly suffered.
A puzzle box of a film, Upstream Colour’s many enigmas are designed to linger far past the point when the credits have started running, but aside from a few key scenes its central narrative is relatively straightforward. Instead, it’s the beguiling manner in which it asks its questions that leaves the deepest impression. To fully enjoy the film, then, one must embrace not just its mysteries, but its obstinate, vibrant confusion.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Although its proximity to the present day somewhat disguises the fact, The Bling Ring is a period film. From fashions to attitudes to social systems, the appeal of such films is that what was once commonplace – even boring – can become exotic just by virtue of no longer existing. That The Bling Ring is set in 2008 is almost irrelevant: the film depicts a world different enough from ours to seem slightly uncanny.
Based on the true story of a gang of high school students who stole over $3 million in luxury items from a host of celebrities, The Bling Ring is a persuasively alarmist examination of the corrosive effects of wealth and celebrity culture upon young people. Whilst the arguments that writer/director Sofia Coppola makes would be equally pertinent in a story set today, the distance that the period setting provides demonstrates just how warped the group’s values are; as the gang obsess over celebrities like Orlando Bloom and Audrina Patridge whose stars have fallen significantly over the past half-decade, the oddness of their fixation becomes more apparent.
Playing out like the adaptation of some great unwritten Bret Easton Ellis novel, the film is an apocalyptic vision of how privilege corrupts youth. The gang’s belief in their own exceptionalism is so warped that it extends to fame itself, which is not only their ultimate goal, but something they believe they have a right to. Emma Watson has justly received attention for her surprising, note-perfect portrayal of a spoilt American teen, but the cast are uniformly excellent, giving committed performances of characters whose encyclopaedic knowledge of their society’s markers of success disguises their incredible naivety about everything else.
Raised by neglectful parents who dole out Adderall like sweets, and living in a culture that elevates the idea of celebrity above all else, it isn’t surprising that the gang’s sense of entitlement would expand to incorporate the property of those they idolise. The audience is implicated in the act too: by breaking into famous people’s houses and stealing the signifiers of their opulence, the teenagers make literal the ownership we believe we have over celebrities. Where the gang feel entitled to their objects, the audience feels entitled to their private lives – either way, famous people are treated as a sort of property.
At a point in their lives where all teenagers are constructing their own identities, the protagonists of The Bling Ring create theirs through the possessions of other people. After all, if you stand in the same nightclub as Paris Hilton and you’re wearing all of her stuff, does it really matter that you’re not actually her? Convinced that they’re untouchable by the ease of their initial robberies and their brash youthfulness, not to mention the increasing quantities of cocaine they keep taking, the gang’s downfall is inevitable from the start.
Enough was never going to be enough: as they stockpile luxury watches and shoes that they never needed in the first place, the teenagers reflect the distorted consumerist values of the culture that spawned them. Privilege creates a false sense of security, in which respect the thieves differ little from their targets: houses which look well guarded have a key under the mat, or an unlocked door around the back. Insulated by their wealth and fame, the celebrities consider themselves equally beyond risk.
Even though there are significant consequences to the gang’s recklessness and complacency, Coppola makes the case that their actions are rendered almost meaningless by the culture in which they took place, documenting as the group accrues fame through the crimes. As the film’s depressing final scene demonstrates, society doesn’t tend to care whether such recognition is obtained through accomplishment or notoriety – as long as you’re famous, it doesn’t matter how you got that way.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
It’s unsurprising that Before Midnight hasn’t been marketed on the basis of its mysteries. Anyone who has seen the first two entries in the series understands what to expect: like 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset, the bulk of the film centres around a discursive conversation between Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) as they wander through a location in Europe – in this case, Messenia, Greece. Before Midnight is a little less mobile than its forebears, staging lengthy scenes in a car, at a dinner with friends and in a hotel room, but its emphasis on freeform debates about life and relationships will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the series.
Most films are best viewed knowing almost nothing about them in advance, but this applies especially to Before Midnight. While plot has always taken a back seat to character in director Richard Linklater’s much-loved series, it’s important to remember that Before Sunset ended with one of cinema’s greatest cliff-hangers – a tantalisingly inviting statement from one of the protagonists that has remained unanswered for nearly a decade. Sadly, as even the most basic synopsis of the film would disclose the outcome of its predecessor’s final moments, it’s likely that most of the audience will be deprived of the unique rush of emotion that arrives minutes in when Jesse exits an airport and everything becomes clear.
Thankfully, even without that heady moment Before Midnight is still a marvellous film. The reality of a well-worn love between people in their forties – depicted here as something both wonderful and exhausting – is a subject that is rarely explored in cinema, but Before Midnight manages to do so in a tremendously moving fashion. While the conversational, naturalistic format of the films produces a level of detail and intimacy absent from most cinematic romances, what gives the series its power is the palpable history that has increased with each entry and has added depth to the ones that have gone before.
In Before Sunset, Jesse and Céline’s struggle to accept the compromises and disappointments of adulthood resonated because the audience had seen the characters at their most youthful and impossibly optimistic. Similarly, Before Midnight finds the pair a decade later as they attempt to find continued meaning in a long-living love. Because the audience has seen how that love has defined their lives ever since they were two curious, joyful young people who randomly met on a train, their shared past provides enormous stakes. Jesse and Céline are as fictional as any other characters in any other film and yet their sporadic, recurring appearances have created an ongoing emotional investment in what happens to them. Most films have to fake the history between their characters: Before Midnight succeeds because the audience shares it too. With the benefit of its two lived-in, imperfect, beautifully-written-and-performed characters, Linklater and his co-writers Delpy and Hawke have contributed another terrific instalment in what has perhaps become one of the defining love stories of a generation.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
A child prodigy who eventually became the highest-paid entertainer in the world, Liberace led an extraordinary life. However, Steven Soderbergh’s film Behind the Candelabra eschews biopic trappings in favour of a claustrophobic portrait of the deeply dysfunctional relationship between the famed pianist and ingénue Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).
Introduced by a mutual friend (an impressively-moustachioed Scott Bakula), Michael Douglas’ Liberace seduces Scott not just with his opulence and fame but with sustained attention of a sort that the orphaned Scott is unaccustomed to. Based on Thorson’s tell-all book – published shortly after Liberace’s death from an AIDS-related illness in 1987– the film follows their relationship as it is slowly corrupted by Liberace’s controlling nature and Scott’s spiralling drug abuse.
Forced to transform himself with plastic surgery into looking like a younger version of Liberace, Scott becomes addicted to “the California diet”, regularly imbibing a medicine cabinet’s worth of prescription drugs peddled by surgeon Rob Lowe (whose Afghan Hound haircut and surgery-ruined face steal the film entirely). As Scott turns to selling Liberace’s gifts to pay for his habit and his gentle nature is consumed by strung-out tetchiness and paranoia, Liberace’s quenchless thirst for sex and control leads him to increasingly dangerous trysts.
Soderbergh, an intellectually curious filmmaker who often marries his talents with a passion for experimentation, once again demonstrates that he can be at his strongest when giving the audience exactly what it expects. There is little that will surprise in the narrative – from the moment we see Liberace’s soon-to-be-former-boyfriend Billy Leatherwood (Cheyenne Jackson) rolling his eyes and disconsolately picking at his dinner we’re aware that Scott is following a path where many other handsome, impressionable young men have already trod – but the unavoidable journey of seduction and disenchantment is given power by how well written and performed each scene is.
Scott and Liberace’s relationship is doomed from the start, and accordingly the film is a compelling exercise in horror as their love brings out each other’s worst qualities on the march to an inevitably painful conclusion, all while they destroy their bodies with plastic surgery and prescription drugs.
Even after an acting career of more than forty years, Douglas’ performance is revelatory. Caring, creepy, needy, fatherly, and predatory, his portrayal is empathetic towards the character and yet uncompromisingly savage at the same time. He is equally matched by Matt Damon; despite being too old for the part (Scott started his five-year relationship with Liberace when he was 17), Damon is similarly as good as he’s ever been.
At the heart of their performances the pair conveys a genuine love that perseveres in spite of everything else. Both Scott and Liberace crave adoration and use the other to attain it, but even as their behaviour plumbs new depths the film has sympathy for them and the destructive cycles they’ve found themselves in.
Behind the Candelabra deftly veers between comedy and tragedy, but nestled within is an earnest argument about the legal rights of homosexuals in long-term relationships. Despite being ultimately damaging for both of them, Scott and Liberace’s relationship was a marriage for all intents and purposes, and yet Scott ends up with few legal rights at the end of it. More even than the plastic surgery or drug abuse, the inability to express their relationship openly is what truly mars their lives.
For all of Liberace’s wealth and success, he was unable to escape the experience shared by all gay men of his era. Forced to pretend he was straight, Liberace spent his life trapped in a lie, one perpetrated not just by himself but by everyone who knew him – from his manager concocting imaginary love affairs and suing gossiping journalists to his audience, deluding themselves about his sexuality in order to embrace his work at a time when the idea was unthinkable.
Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay doesn’t beat the audience over the head with the point, but builds it naturally into the story (a beautiful little scene where Scott sees Liberace’s autobiography in a bookshop years later and finds that it’s essentially a work of fiction.) In a film which features such gloriously flamboyant costume design and heavy prosthetics depicting the horrors of plastic surgery, its quiet moments are often the most powerful.
The potential audience for any Star Trek film is going to fall broadly into two categories. The first category contains the general cinema-going public, who would not especially classify themselves as Star Trek fans but who might have some fond memories of the programme; mostly, they just want a good time out at the movies. In the second category are those who do describe themselves as Star Trek fans and who have followed and supported Gene Roddenberry’s creation through its many incarnations, even grimly awful ones such as Star Trek: Voyager. Whilst they too are looking for an exciting blockbuster version of the show, they would also like to see a faithful translation of the series’ humanist themes and progressive values.
J.J. Abrams’ strongest attribute as the shepherd of Star Trek‘s cinematic rebirth is that he understands that one of these categories has more people in it than the other.
Like Marvel’s Phase One series of superhero pictures, Abrams has made his Star Trek films highly profitable by taking rich but potentially dense and impenetrable source material and forging it into audience-pleasing movies that pay appropriate respect to their established property. Star Trek Into Darkness, like 2009’s Star Trek, is more concerned with the swashbuckling ideal of the original series than the show’s philosophical underpinnings, favouring action sequences over morality plays – it’s notable that by the conclusion of Into Darkness the USS Enterprise’s famous five-year mission to seek out new life and civilisation is still only just getting started.
With both films Abrams has taken what was most memorable about Star Trek – its spiky character relationships, bold, clean production design, the concept of a young and dynamic crew exploring a perilous, alien-filled universe – and poured it into the mould of a solid modern blockbuster. Into Darkness unquestionably wears Star Trek‘s primary-coloured, tight-fitting clothes, but tonally it has more in common with its fellow summer tentpoles than any episode of the actual programme. Confidently produced and consistently enjoyable, Into Darkness is terrific example of a contemporary blockbuster, but is nevertheless afflicted by the same problems as its peers – being overstuffed, too slick and unnecessarily complicated.
Into Darkness spends much of its running time dealing with the threat of Benedict Cumberbatch’s mysterious John Harrison, but the opaqueness of his actions often leaves the Enterprise’s crew without identifiable goals. The viewer is aware that a long game is in play and that everyone’s true motives are yet to be revealed, but the reality of the script’s incessant mysteries is that Harrison is too abstract of a figure to be sufficiently menacing. Cumberbatch is unsurprisingly great in the role, but in a blockbuster climate lousy with Banes and Lokis, it’s difficult for a verbose British movie villain to stand out.
Given that the novelty of seeing re-imagined versions of the original characters has worn off somewhat, a shift to focusing on a more involved antagonist is sensible, but the film’s emphasis on plotting means it loses a little of the sense of fun that made Abrams’ first outing such a pleasant surprise. Despite its portentous title, Into Darkness largely avoids taking itself too seriously, but it offers little as wonderfully random (and human) as the scene in Star Trek where Scotty (Simon Pegg) meets Leonard Nimoy’s alternate-universe Spock and asks him if people still eat sandwiches in the future. Scotty – off the ship for much of the film – is sorely missed, as is the prickly interplay between Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban). With a mass-murdering enemy to pursue there’s hardly time to bicker, and Into Darkness suffers as a result.
Abrams’ career as a film director has been defined by successfully rebuilding the work of others:Mission: Impossible 3, the two Star Treks, and presumably the forthcoming Star Wars sequels. Even Super 8 – his sole cinematic work not based on an existing property – is a painstaking homage to Steven Spielberg circa 1982. Abrams’ ability to create engrossing, satisfying blockbusters can’t be denied, but people joke about his overuse of lens flare because, in truth, it’s the only distinctive feature of his work. It would be unfair to say that Into Darkness could have been made by anyone, considering the undeniable skill involved, but besides providing continued evidence of his love of a good mystery, there is little to demonstrate why it could have only been directed by J.J. Abrams.
Into Darkness will provide audiences of any description with a good time, but is unlikely to stick with anyone past the closing credits. The film’s source material, for all its faults, at least meant something to its fans. A vehicle for action sequences without years of its own backstory to draw upon, it’s difficult to imagine Into Darkness provoking any sort of devotion; indeed, the film’s only real flat note comes in a climactic scene that deliberately mirrors one of Star Trek‘s most famous moments, where clumsy foreshadowing, absence of dramatic impact and failure to follow through leave it as a depressingly limp reminder of what came before.
Perhaps it’s churlish to complain about something so well-made; certainly we should be grateful that action movies of this level of quality are not only being produced but are commercially successful as well. Even so, watching Into Darkness it’s hard to shake the impression that Abrams is using his directorial aptitude to disguise a lack of passion – his heart doesn’t seem fully invested in the endeavour. He’s putting nothing at risk. Abrams has yet to make a bad film, but he also hasn’t made a truly memorable one yet either. If only he’d apply his ample talents to a project he really cares about. It remains to be seen whether something involving lightsabres will do the trick.
To read the original article at The Quietus, click here.
It’s palpably disheartening when the protagonist of a film is introduced to cocaine. This disappointment is not borne from concern for the character, but instead surfaces because you now know every step of the well-trodden path to come. The introduction of drug use pinpoints the exact moment when someone has risen almost as far as they’re going to, leaving only their long, unavoidable descent to come. It’s an event that comes midway through The Look of Love, and in structuring its narrative in this manner, the film joins a distinct sub-genre that encompasses pictures like Goodfellas and Boogie Nights, where damaged people become successful through disreputable means, and cocaine acts as a hubris-symbolising, tragedy-inducing catalyst for their inevitable downfall.
The fourth project in the fruitful collaboration between Steve Coogan and director Michael Winterbottom, The Look of Love is a deliberate twin of their earlier work 24 Hour Party People. Like that film, The Look of Love is a portrait of an unconventional Northern mogul courting controversy and success to the detriment of those around him. Dissimilarly, however, the film leaves a less pleasant taste in the mouth afterwards. While The Look of Love possesses 24 Hour Party People’s capacity to be funny and insightful, the story is by necessity less warm, and told without the same affection.
Documenting the life of entrepreneur Paul Raymond, The Look of Love follows Raymond’s rise from a post-war mind-reading act to becoming Britain’s richest man in the early 90s, controlling an adult publishing empire and owning most of Soho. Echoing loosening attitudes to sexuality, Raymond slides from revue impresario to pornographer, his venues morphing from theatres producing gratuitous plays to strip clubs. Raymond is complicit in the coarsening of his trade, barely minding as long as his titles keep selling and he owns more and more property.
Winterbottom captures Soho in its many stages of evolution, grounding the film in specific details like its little side alleys and low-ceiling offices. The production design, hair, make up and cinematography all excel at depicting the march of years (the way Received Pronunciation fades from usage is a particularly neat touch), but the true markers of change come from Matt Greenhalgh’s script: it’s easy to place the year by how people react when Raymond mentions his association with the Beatles, or to gauge his reputation and desperation to be hip by the way he brings it up.
Greenhalgh intelligently observes how Raymond disguises the emotional distance he keeps from everyone in his life, but this makes the character difficult to empathise with. Never terribly interested in artistry, he has a lack of passion for anything beyond pleasing himself. Greenhalgh suggests that perhaps Raymond is empty save for his distorted, corrupting love for his daughter Debbie. Although Greenhalgh occasionally can’t help turning Raymond into Alan Partridge for the sake of a good line, he is adept at succinctly defining his characters: early in the film Raymond offers to buy a round of champagne and quickly clarifies “house champagne”, a laugh at his expense but also one that demonstrates the prudence that allowed him to become so successful.
While it would be satisfying to see Raymond challenged by inner turmoil, this detachment is intentional, and in no way due to Coogan’s excellent performance: his absolute self belief and ability to charmingly weather criticism is what allows him to become so successful. However, as the corrosive, static centre around which the film revolves, Raymond is less compelling than the characters surrounding him. Raymond never really changes, as patterns repeat themselves again and again and he always escaping comeuppance, essentially because he owns everyone and everywhere around him. Instead, it is Imogen Poots’ portrayal of Debbie Raymond that lingers. Cursed by her inability to match her extraordinary father, she forms a co-dependent, symbiotic relationship with him, based on mutual neediness – his to be adored and hers to feel accomplished. Poots is wonderful in a role that in lesser hands might have been a film-sinking annoyance.
Towards the end of the film the endless scenes of sex and drug taking becoming extremely wearing, even boring, but the effect is intentional. Equipped with almost limitless money and the opportunity to indulge every whim, Raymond and his peers become unable to break free from a lifestyle they’ve long stopped enjoying, trudging on because there’s little else to do. At its best, The Look of Love is a skillfully-observed portrait of an area buffeted by the continual upheavals of the twentieth century, depicting sexual liberation compromised by canny, ruthless commodification.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
An actor whose fame rose in concert with the amount of Tumblrs devoted to him, Ryan Gosling is perhaps the first viral movie star—his offhand utterances repurposed into memes, his visage harvested for viewer-targeted listicles.
Consequently, Gosling’s recent decision to take a hiatus from acting (“I need a break from myself as much as I imagine the audience does”) is a pragmatic decision from a performer aware that his ability to emotionally connect with audiences might soon sink under the weight of pictures of him carrying his dog. But a greater concern for the actor might not be the ravenous online attention but the diminishing returns that come from playing the same type of character over and over again.
While Gosling’s brooding, intense cinematic persona has been employed to excellent effect in several terrific films—not to mention that it’s allowed admirers to project any personality they wish onto the real version of him—the release of his latest film The Place Beyond the Pines finds him in danger of entering a cul-de-sac. As troubled motorcycle stuntman Luke Glanton, Gosling once again gives a performance of silent machismo flecked with vulnerability; essentially, his appeal is that he has the body of a movie star and the eyes of a lost little boy.
Gosling is superb in the part, of course, but he was also superb all the other times he played it. Luke, nearly mute and prone to committing vehicular crimes, evokes the nameless protagonist of Drive repeatedly—the key difference being that Drive held Gosling’s character in awe whilst The Place Beyond the Pines has a deeply-felt empathy for Luke’s inability to break from his own failings and limited status. Viewed in a generous light, Luke acts as a commentary on Gosling’s earlier, feted role, finding the point where nonchalant self-assurance sours and becomes something narrow, aimless and fatalistic.
Like Gosling fearing the fatigue of his audience, concerns about over-familiarity in his roles are fairly nascent. Taken within the context of the film (Gosling’s second collaboration with Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance), the unwavering naivety of Luke provides a useful counterpoint to Bradley Cooper’s aspiring police officer Avery.
Cooper, who only a few years ago risked similar character-repetition from all the oily parts he accepted in the wake of The Hangover, gives a complicated, committed performance as someone whose fundamental decency is muddied by self-righteousness and ambition. The distance between the two characters and the contrasting ways they deal with their messy situations is perhaps the film’s strongest element, ably supported by compelling turns from Eva Mendes, Mahershala Ali and Ben Mendelsohn.
Separated into three distinct acts, The Place Beyond the Pines effectively knocks over all of its pieces and starts afresh on two occasions. In the first instance this is as surprising and invigorating as you’d expect; by the second it has become wearying.
Cianfrance’s bold structural choices are understandable considering the film’s interest in how children pay for their parents’ mistakes and the relentlessness of time, but each iteration of the story has more difficulty than the last in getting up to speed. The final section is also hindered by lurches into hastily-executed melodrama, as if Cianfrance remembered he was supposed to be doing something else and had to hurry to tie everything up as quickly and dramatically as possible.
For a film that’s at its best depicting complex characters pulled by the undertow of their grimly constrained circumstances, it’s a minor disappointment.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) are about the same world, but were made in different ones.
While it would be unfair to pit the two films against each other – especially as one is a classic of traditional Hollywood filmmaking that’s had a 74-year head start in garnering affection – looking at their differences can illustrate much about the considerable changes that have taken place in the intervening years.
Considering that Sam Raimi’s production walks around wearing the clothes of another film, like a carnival magician pretending to be a great and powerful wizard, it provides a unique opportunity: with its CGI-blanketed mise-en-scène and climatic Lord of the Rings-style battle, Oz the Great and Powerful could be a state of the nation address for where big-budget American film-making stands in 2013.
The Wizard of Oz, despite its abundance of poverty, despair and murder, features at its core a simpering turn from Judy Garland as the unwaveringly decent Dorothy Gale (self-described as “the small and meek”). In contrast, the hero of Oz the Great and Powerful is the Wonderful Wizard of Oz himself, an opportunistic charlatan who is by far the more complex, funny and interesting character.
James Franco’s greatest asset has always been his smirk, which can be mischievous or sinister depending on the requirements of the circumstances, and he uses it to great effect. Disappointingly, he is perhaps a decade or so too young for the part: while Franco excels at portraying the magnetism that draws people to the Wizard and the insincerity that eventually pushes them away, he isn’t quite able to convey the hints of desperation of someone who has coasted through their life with a charm that is beginning to fade. The part was intentionally written for Robert Downey Jr., and unfortunately it shows.
Beyond its choice of protagonist, the gulf between the two films is most noticeable in their production methods. It’s understandable that filmmaking techniques have progressed unimaginably, matte paintings and backlot sets replaced with green screens, but the prevalence of CGI in Oz the Great and Powerful intimates some bigger shift. The omnipresence of CGI creates a luscious world beyond what Wizard of Oz director Victor Fleming could have dreamt of depicting, but in some paradoxical way it ends up feeling more fake.
Long stretches of the film are essentially James Franco walking around an animated film, talking to computer generated companions. Where The Wizard of Oz cast vaudevillian actors and burned through its face paint budget, Oz the Great and Powerful has Franco’s closest allies as a small girl made of porcelain (whose tragic, genocide-sprung origin is waved away), and a talking monkey with the voice of Zach Braff and the creepy, bizarrely wizened features of an old man.
One gets the feeling that if the Scarecrow, Tin Man or Lion had originated in Oz the Great and Powerful they would be rendered in the same way, with impressive but ultimately soulless CG creations.
With its camera swooping through CG vistas populated by rubbery digital humans, Oz the Great and Powerful shares more in common with Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy than his Evil Dead one, and is surprisingly violent. If it seems like the film is too frightening for the young children it’s trying to reach, it might be worth remembering that the flying monkeys and melting witches of the Wizard of Oz likely provoked a similar reaction.
Perhaps in 74 years there will be another film set in the land of Oz, perhaps from the perspective of a Munchkin or Toto or a gingham dress, and Oz the Great and Powerful will appear tame in comparison to the witch-filled hellscape it will inevitably depict.
Sam Raimi creates some terrific spectacles, particularly with the Wizard’s final trick, and his use of 3D is excellent, but there’s a blandness at play throughout. Marvelous visuals and tart dialogue can only do so much to disguise an obvious, plodding narrative that seems aimed at the very young. For all of the time spent on the Wizard’s moral dilemma, the audience never has any doubt about what he’ll decide to do. Aside from its violent streaks, the film feels like it’s been focus-grouped and homogenised into formulaic mush. Oz the Great and Powerful has been produced with a tremendous amount of skill, but really it could have been made by anyone.
The film’s blockbuster aspirations are most glaring during its ending, which ostensibly establishes it as a prequel to the 1939 film but in truth exists to set up a potential franchise. This is reasonable when you consider the hundreds of millions of dollars spent producing and marketing the film, but contrasts sharply with the elegant simplicity of its predecessor, which was content to be a self-contained story even though it was based on a book with over a dozen sequels.
This is one of the biggest shifts that has taken place in the 74 years since Dorothy clicked her heels together: there are virtually no films made over a certain budget that won’t be potentially spun into sequels, franchises and endless reboots, whether the story needs it or not.
Cloud Atlas doesn’t really work. There can be simple reasons why some films find themselves in this situation: the lead actor was miscast, or the script needed a few more drafts, or the budget was too low, or the director didn’t have a strong enough vision.
It’s easy to observe a film’s errors and be aware of the superior work hiding beneath its skin. Beyond exploring the wrong turns made during Cloud Atlas’ production, however, is a pertinent question: could the film have ever worked? Is it a valiant attempt at translating an unfilmable book to the screen or a botched adaptation of superlative source material – a compelling artistic exercise or a missed opportunity?
Adapted and filmed by the Wachowksi siblings (The Matrix trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), and based on the novel by David Mitchell (not that one), Cloud Atlas follows six separate stories set in different eras, loosely connected by the idea that all six protagonists are the same soul. Eschewing the book’s nesting structure where each protagonist found the previous story, the film cuts between them, highlighting the thematic and narrative similarities in each story, while its cast play different roles.
The decision to cut between stories is understandable and often well-handled, but means that every story has to be connected. In trying to draw out the book’s underlying theme – the endless cycle of subjugation of one’s fellow man – each story is winnowed down so it has vaguely the same plot. The result is that a generally comic story like the contemporary one featuring Jim Broadbent’s fastidious publisher seems woefully out of place when sitting alongside stories where human lives and whole societies are at stake.
Unsurprisingly, even with a length of nearly three hours, Cloud Atlas suffers from too little time spent in each world and with each main character. Having six whole narratives to plough through doesn’t help, but a greater issue is the time devoted to lengthy voiceovers that underline the film’s themes over and over again whilst the characters are shown treading water in their narratives, stuck in repose, thought or danger.
The separate plots grind to a standstill on several occasions to do this, and then have to race to catch up. In the 2144 story, it’s barely established how genetically-enhanced fabricant Sonmi-451 is subjugated before she becomes drafted to join the resistance, whilst Halle Berry’s 70s journalist solves her case with virtually no effort: new developments literally come to her apartment and knock on her door.
The struggle to define so many different worlds means all of them feel smaller and more generic than they should. Despite its $102 million budget, the film feels reined in. Considering that its directors are so talented at conveying movement and action, it’s disappointing how saggy and slow Cloud Atlas feels, while there is also no effort to differentiate the stories visually.
Where much of the pleasure in Mitchell’s book came from his experimenting with different genres and writing styles, there is no corresponding shift in the translation to film. As a consequence of the stories being mixed in together, they share their look, theme, plot and actors. The result is oddly reminiscent of the Wachowkis’ Matrix Trilogy: good guys destroying an evil Hugo Weaving over and over again, in order to free the oppressed.
The reasoning behind having the actors play multiple roles is fairly clear, suggesting through repetition that anyone is capable of contributing to subjugation, and that man is caught in a near-eternal struggle to break free of it. However, the technique is ubiquitous enough to be incredibly distracting, especially in dramatic scenes or during the film’s first half when the six protagonists are being established. There are a few fun cameos, particularly Tom Hanks as a thuggish writer and Hugh Grant’s many ne’er-do-wells, but it’s impossible to not play a game of Guess The Actor. For the most part it adds to the film’s unintended goofiness, making Cloud Atlas hard to take seriously even as it argues nuanced, interesting points.
There probably was a better film to be made from the source material, but even that one would have likely been a sprawling mess. The Wachowskis and Tykwer demonstrate real intelligence in the choices they’ve made and a good understanding of what is special about the novel, while their ambition and willingness to engage with big themes is laudable. For Cloud Atlas to have even been made at all is a major accomplishment; sadly, that doesn’t make the actual film any more satisfying.
There must be few jobs in the film industry as simultaneously rewarding and frustrating as being an actor in a Terrence Malick film. To make it into one of his pictures at all is an achievement: Malick famously overshoots everything, finding the film later in the editing room; a young Adrien Brody believed himself to be the star of 1998’s The Thin Red Line until he got to the premiere and found his part cut down to two lines of dialogue.
It’s a trend that has carried through to his latest film To The Wonder, which somehow lost Rachel Weisz, Barry Pepper, Amanda Peet and Michael Sheen on the way to the screen, along with most of Rachel McAdams’ role and almost all of the film’s dialogue.
Even when an actor does manage to survive the cutting room floor, Malick uses them essentially as props. They exist as fragments of memories, a tool Malick employs to reflect on his themes. As his associative, narrative-eschewing approach has pared further and further down to the point where To The Wonder is almost entirely voiceover, his actors are used as ciphers rather than characters whose journeys we’re meant to invest in.
The main reason actors line up to appear in Malick’s films, other than the prestige of his work and his reclusive mystique (until recently, Malick was averaging about a film per decade, with a twenty year sabbatical between 1978’s Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line), is that there are simply no other filmmakers quite like him.
There are inherent dangers in being so distinctive. Like all filmmakers who are blazingly idiosyncratic, Malick’s approach is in threat of becoming overly familiar, verging on self-parody: the camera moves restlessly forward in every shot, while the voiceover – mostly from Olga Kurylenko but occasionally giving way to Javier Bardem’s lost priest – can be beautiful and profound one minute, facile the next, filled with lines like “Love makes us one. I in you.” These are usually played over scenes of Ben Affleck walking around in circles, frowning, the camera occasionally finding refuge in a puddle or leaves roused by the wind.
Even though the film is glacially slow, To The Wonder feels too short, like an hour has been cut from it. This impression is, of course, an accurate one. Malick uses nature as a mirror for humanity, but with the connective tissue of narrative removed, his lingering scenes of nature appear isolated, their significance less readily apparent.
Malick’s films, while gorgeous, moving and insightful, are philosophical explorations rather than stories told with characters and plot. When Malick’s last film The Tree of Life was released, a cinema in Connecticut put up signs warning viewers of its “uniquely visionary and deeply philosophical” content. It’s dispiriting that art house cinema has been swallowed by middlebrow independent film to the point where such a warning is necessary, but it’s a practice that To The Wonder would also benefit from. Like all of Malick’s post-sabbatical work, it’s a film that needs to find its viewer in the correct mood, which is a receptive, thoughtful, thoroughly unironic one.
For all its unevenness, To The Wonder is alive with the possibility of cinema in a way that the majority of straightforward films can only hint at. While the film remains disappointing in comparison Malick’s towering achievements, To The Wonder fails at things more conventionally satisfying films wouldn’t even dream of attempting.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
For most of its running time, I Give It a Year gives the impression of being a romantic comedy. The directorial debut of Borat co-creator Dan Mazer, the film follows Nat (Rose Byrne) and Josh (Rafe Spall), an attractive, youngish couple who have rushed into marriage. As they get to know each other and attempt to dispel the misgivings of their quirky friends, co-workers and relations, their lives are complicated by the introduction of potential love interests – an ex-girlfriend and a dashing new work colleague.
There’s little that appears to be uncommon or noteworthy about this scenario, and yet by its conclusion I Give It a Year proves itself to be surprisingly subversive. The film traces the same pattern as other romantic comedies, but its pessimistic nature means that during a few key moments it zags where similar films would zig.
In part, the film’s iconoclasm is a result of its scepticism, which refuses to relent at any point. Negativity in comedy isn’t unusual, but I Give It a Year stands out by never abandoning its uncompromising view of its characters and relationships in general. Where its contemporaries suffer whiplash as they ditch bitterness for a formulaic, heart-warming finale, I Give It a Year is marinated in cynicism, avoiding cheap sentiment throughout.
There’s an admirable, if bracing purity to the approach. Nat and Josh come across like real people, in that while they’re funny and capable of warmth, they’re also frequently unlikeable, making poor decisions out of insecurity, selfishness or spite.
Mazer avoids the temptation to make his leads blandly good or comically horrible, or to give them an unconvincing third-act redemption, but he also has little interest in finding the humanity in their imperfection and fumbling. You shouldn’t have to root for the characters to stay together for a year, but you should at least care about what happens to them.
Occasionally the suspicion arises that Mazer doesn’t like his characters at all, which makes them difficult to empathise with. This is especially true with the supporting cast, where many of the roles – while comically excellent – are one-note and mean-spirited: Stephen Merchant is reduced once again to repeating his Darren Lamb character from Extras, and Minnie Driver is stuck with a thankless role as Nat’s bitter, joyless sister.
I Give It a Year has interesting points to make about modern relationships and the pressures incompatible people feel to make them work, but its argument is sometimes obscured by coldness. While it’s refreshing to find a film so unwilling to bend to formula, its cynicism is ultimately dispiriting, despite it being very funny throughout. Mazer should be commended for some of the bold choices he makes, but he might have been able to retain them without the aftertaste.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
The death of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011 was a major inconvenience for Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow. At the time of the fatal raid in Abbottabad, the screenwriter/director team behind The Hurt Locker were in the middle of developing a film about the US’ post-September 11th failure to apprehend Bin Laden in the Tora Bora caves. Understandably, the successful killing of Bin Laden demolished their project overnight.
After a period of adjustment, the pair broadened the planned film’s scope to encompass the entire decade-long search for the terrorist, with Boal granted extensive and unprecedented access to classified CIA intelligence about the mission. While the extent of Boal’s access raised early concerns that the film would be a hagiographical depiction of the organisation, in retrospect the film’s proximity to both to events and the people behind them has produced a film of unexpected power, arising as a deliberate result of its dispassionate, journalistic approach.
The decade following the September 11th attacks has seen countless depictions of counter-terrorism both historical and contemporary, mining a rich vein of suspense, paranoia and murky ethics. Zero Dark Thirty‘s accuracy is a key part of its marketing strategy, selling itself as the true, untold story of the clandestine hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Partially a consequence of being released in the same year, Zero Dark Thirty invites direct comparison with Argo, Ben Affleck’s retelling of the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis. While Argo is also based on a true story, the filmmakers heighten the drama through the addition of fictional events, culminating in an airport chase which never actually happened. The story is still fundamentally true, but has been embellished to be more thrilling and emotionally satisfying.
Zero Dark Thirty is fortunate historically in that it has an action-packed third act already built in − SEAL Team Six’s raid on Bin Laden’s compound − but even so, the film consistently eschews action in favour of confusion and malaise. Continuing the approach they employed in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow and Boal demonstrate a conviction that process is as interesting as action – believing that their story is exciting enough without artificial roadblocks and emotional enough without complicated back-stories or character motivations. Focusing primarily on fledgling CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), the film demonstrates an admirable disregard for the sympathetic crutches usually given to main characters. The audience isn’t given any details about Maya beyond what’s relevant to the story: she doesn’t have any relationships, family members, friends, or even a surname. The most we see of her private life is a few moments of her sitting on her sofa at the end of a long day, exhausted. While this emphasises her single-mindedness and dedication to her task, it’s also emblematic of the film’s detached manner and the conscious decision to avoid artificiality, or appear to at least.
The film’s impassive journalistic tone is equally striking in its representation of how the mission was conducted. Boal’s script strives to not make political points, offering images without commenting directly upon them. This is most evident in the now-notorious scenes of torture, a CIA strategy which is shown to be appropriately horrifying and one that produces unreliable results. Considering its prominence in the CIA’s pre-Abu Ghraib intelligence-gathering procedures, its absence would be conspicuous: the torture of detainees is a part of the story, and so it’s a part of the film (but not the only part, despite a score of opinion pieces from those wishing to use the film to rehash old battles.)
Without the benefit of hindsight that the audience possesses, Maya spends most of the film stumbling around in search of her quarry, pursuing dead ends, leads gone cold, and men who may or may not be alive. Anything less than this would be unfaithful to the reality of the task, but it’s also a brilliant narrative device. By making frustrated stagnation occupy the bulk of the narrative and largely withholding its action until the end, Zero Dark Thirty ensures that its climax is immensely satisfying. Excluding the raid’s target and the lengthy, extraordinary circumstances which led to it happening, the operation itself is fairly straightforward, and yet if the film had been littered with gunfights and ticking clock scenes then it wouldn’t be nearly as tense. Instead, the Abbottabad raid is one of the most gripping sequences of the year − a flash flood after two hours of drizzle.
Structuring the film in this way is as much of an attempt at audience manipulation as Argo‘s fictional additions, but it somehow feels more gratifying, more real. Boal and Bigelow manage to have things both ways: Zero Dark Thirty affects the appearance of a docudrama while smuggling in a familiar narrative. As a driven outsider, smothered by bureaucratic superiors and obsessed with vengeance as others lose interest, Maya’s journey is conventional, even though the mission’s historic nature and the avoidance of intimacy disguises this. Halfway through the film she even suffers a tragedy to make it personal, or as personal as a film like Zero Dark Thirty can manage.
While the focus on Maya downplays the contributions of countless others, her value to the task can’t be overstated; as she puts it so memorably, she’s “the motherfucker who found this place”. Boal and Bigelow would argue – and have – that they were just lucky, discovering in the course of their research that the centre of their story was a steely, complex, resourceful woman (who is also allegedly the basis for Claire Danes’ character in Homeland). It’s fortunate for the audience as well: in large part due to Chastain’s terrific performance, Maya is as compelling as the film that surrounds her.
To read the original article at The Quietus, click here.
The problem with many biopics – particularly the middlebrow, awards-courting ones that tend to pop up around this time of year – is that the story they’re trying to tell is simply too large.
These films succeed in recounting the biographical details of a historical or cultural figure’s life, but by trying to convey the entire sweep of a person’s existence, the lives of complicated, messy people are smoothed out into a familiar narrative: a rise, a fall, and perhaps some sort of late rebirth if the protagonist is lucky. The rest is colour – a box-ticking exercise recreating events the audience is already aware of, inevitably featuring a lead performance that is closer to impersonation than acting.
Based in part Doris Kearns Goodwin’s terrific biography Team of Rivals (much admired by Barack Obama, as the cover mentions four or five times), Lincoln eschews this convention, focusing solely on the final few months of Abraham Lincoln’s 56 years of life as he attempts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Considering the extraordinary particulars of Lincoln’s life, from his poverty-stricken upbringing through to his unlikely ascension to president through to four years of civil war, it is a bold choice from screenwriter Tony Kushner and director Steven Spielberg. The pair were spoilt with options – Goodwin’s book contains enough material to fill half a dozen biopics – but by concentrating so unwaveringly on a single act of governance Kushner and Spielberg create a rich, compelling portrait of the man, the times he lived in, and what made him so important. A 19th century political drama about the passage of a single bill, Lincoln is riveting, overflowing with murky deals and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring.
Kushner and Spielberg’s efforts to wrest Lincoln into life are supported by Daniel Day-Lewis’ superlative performance, which is at once gentle, wry, gregarious, melancholy and resolute. It’s easy to imagine his portrayal becoming the definitive depiction of the 16th President. Every element of Lincoln is excellent, from screenplay to cinematography to editing, but in a film with 148 speaking parts, Day-Lewis is unforgettable.
For a man whose face is carved into the side of a mountain, it would be easy for a depiction of Lincoln to slide into easy mythologising; instead, Spielberg’s film makes great efforts to show a man whose greatness comes from the management of his own complicated personality, rather than a simplistic, overpowering eminence.
The passage of the Thirteenth Amendment is used as a synecdoche for Lincoln’s life: a man who accomplished his transformative goals against impossible odds using wily political ingenuity, compassion, great intelligence and exceptional oratorical skills. By depicting less of his story, Kushner and Spielberg get to the heart of its importance.
Eight films into his career, Quentin Tarantino’s methods and themes have boiled down to a single purpose: the pursuit of vengeance for the historically oppressed.
While the pictures Tarantino completed in the 1990s used his impressive cinematic techniques for no purpose other than enriching the films themselves, the writer-director now employs the nonlinear narratives, extravagant violence and relentless pop-culture sifting for which he’s known in an attempt to obtain retrospective justice on behalf of subjugated groups. Using the apostatised genres of cinema’s past (Grindhouse, Blaxploitation, Spaghetti Westerns), Tarantino has created a series of films where women (Death Proof), Jews (Inglourious Basterds) and now slaves (Django Unchained) bloodily reclaim agency from their oppressors.
This evolution in objectives has been accompanied by a shift in public perception: where once Tarantino was overrated, he is now decidedly underrated. By using the same mixture of violence, comedy, pop culture-cribbing and stylised film-making as he has done throughout his career, his motivations are routinely called into question – it doesn’t help that he’s from none of the groups who comprise the vengeful protagonists of his films.
However, a film like Django Unchained demonstrates the value of his approach. In making the Spaghetti Western his template, Tarantino uses the disreputable, historically subversive genre to express a raw, genuine sense of moral outrage at the subject of slavery and the accompanying myths of the antebellum period. When faced with such inhumanity, Tarantino argues that the only appropriate response he can provide is bloody retribution through the power of cinema.
As a result, while Django Unchained shares the stylistic tics that run throughout Tarantino’s work, the film it most resembles is his most recent, Inglourious Basterds – a picture, of course, in which a coalition of film projectionists, critics, and actors destroy Hitler in a cinema. Like Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained provides its eponymous former slave hero (Jamie Foxx) with an endless supply of persecutors to exterminate, exploding in gore as selections from Spaghetti Western soundtracks play in the background. But even though the sight of Django extending brutal vengeance upon slave owners works as wish fulfilment in the same manner – a carthartic release after the many torments the film’s black character endure – the effect is less striking a second time around. There’s a sense that Tarantino isn’t quite challenging himself, content to make a retread of what worked before.
Despite being set a century earlier, on a different continent with different characters, Django Unchained feels like it could be a sequel, featuring several long, tense senses of characters undercover, trying to conceal their motives through verbal jousting. Indeed, Christoph Waltz’s dentist/bounty hunter Dr Schulz is essentially a reprise of his Oscar-winning role, except now the villain has become the hero’s sidekick, his ominous politeness used against the antagonists rather than for them.
While the relationship between Django and Dr Schulz has its basis in Spaghetti Westerns – a mentor working alongside a protégé – it mainly seems that Waltz was brought back because he was so much fun last time. He’s just as watchable, inevitably, but the character lacks the element of danger that made its predecessor so compelling. Fortunately, this deficit is made up for by Leonardo DiCaprio, who is exceptional in a similar role as the terrifying-yet-genteel Calvin Candie.
Other than the sense of familiarity, another factor that provokes weariness is the film’s sheer length. Django Unchained meanders into all sorts of interesting places, but it doesn’t really have enough plot to sustain itself for three hours, and its relatively straightforward narrative often means lengthy waits for scenes you know lie ahead. In particular, the film builds to a natural climax but doesn’t quite finish, and so has to take half an hour to return to what’s essentially the same scene again. But while Django Unchained is imperfect, the film carries itself with such vigour, flair, and righteous fury that you’re willing to forgive it.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
For a technology that spent fifty years mouldering alongside curios like Illusion-O and Smell-O-Vision, the public perception of 3D has shifted massively in the past three years.
Widely acclaimed in the billion-dollar wake of Avatar, 3D’s value was irrevocably damaged by the cheap 2D-to-3D conversion jobs that followed: as dire blockbusters like Clash of the Titans and Alice in Wonderland sought to cash in on Avatar’s success, cinemagoers paid extortionate fees for dark, muddy 3D that felt like reading a bad pop-up book. By the time influential filmmakers like Steven Spielberg (The Adventures of Tintin) and Martin Scorsese (Hugo) got a chance to use the technology, audiences were no longer interested.
At least until James Cameron gets around to making his Avatar sequels, this is probably how the situation will remain, with audiences either indifferent or hostile towards 3D. The technology is a victim of its own success: seen by studios as a balm against piracy, its omnipresence means that films using 3D in interesting ways are doomed to be ignored amidst the dozens of releases blandly employing the format.
In an ideal world—i.e., not this one—3D wouldn’t cost extra and only films that really benefited from the technology would use it. Falling into that category would be Ang Lee’s new film Life of Pi, which employs 3D not just for spectacle but as an important tool in establishing spatial relationships within shots.
An adaptation of Yann Martel’s middlebrow blockbuster, Life of Pi tells the story of a 16-year-old boy (Suraj Sharma) stranded on a boat with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. As reflective as it is exciting, Life of Pi is one of the year’s most beautiful films.
While the source material affords Lee many opportunities for immersive visuals, from Pi’s whimsical upbringing in an Indian zoo to a leaping, bioluminescent whale, his use of 3D is most effective during the film’s shipwrecked middle section. Lee ensures that the audience is aware at all times of the boat’s size and the tiger’s proximity. As such, he remains a constant threat, careful framing establishing that Pi is never further than a lapse in concentration away from his own death.
In large part due to its impressive CG rendering, Richard Parker is a wholly believable living creature, existing without pity and powered only by animalistic instinct. Representing the untameable danger of nature, the decision not to anthropomorphise the tiger adds tension throughout, and is crucial to depicting his association with Pi—the film concerning their ever-shifting relationship as much as Pi’s struggle to survive. Focusing on this is also essential to avoiding the quirkiness that might have engulfed the film in lesser hands. There are islands of meerkats, and strongmen uncles, yes, but at the film’s core is a desperate battle for survival.
It’s impossible for the film about a boy and a tiger trapped on a boat to feel entirely realistic, especially considering the amount of computer imagery involved, so Lee instead opts to make the struggle biblical in its size and grandness. Entwined with Pi’s practical difficulties, the film retains the spiritual dimensions of Martel’s novel, capturing Pi’s quest to hold onto his faith after everything in his life has been torn away—not just to survive but to find a reason to do so.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
As a cinematic achievement, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is nearly unparalleled: a gorgeous, sweeping epic skilfully adapted from Tolkien’s seminal work of popular fantasy. Whatever his other flaws as a filmmaker, Peter Jackson was uniquely suited to the project, utilising the beauty of his native New Zealand and commanding a superlative production team and still-impressive computer imagery to create a believable Middle-earth.
Shot back to back, the movies avoid the decline in quality that mar comparable trilogies. Even Jackson’s infamous propensity for bloat – which sunk his 2005 remake of King Kong – was fitting for such a vast story. Maligned only for its protracted ending (and it’s hard to entirely begrudge an 11-hour-long story for having a few loose ends to tie up), the trilogy remains the high-water mark of populist, blockbuster filmmaking.
It’s a curious decision, therefore, for Jackson to co-write and direct The Hobbit. Standing in his own shadow, at best he can only equal what he’s already done, while the scope for disappointment is massive. In the production notes for An Unexpected Journey – part one of a new trilogy – Sir Ian McKellen notes that while new parts enticed him more than the iconic wizard, he returned to the role because, “In the end, I couldn’t really bear anyone else playing Gandalf.” It’s a revealing quote, and one that could easily apply to Jackson himself. Middle-earth is his ring, his precious, and he can’t part with it.
For all the darkness teeming at its edges, The Hobbit is a relatively simple children’s book about a hobbit called Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) going on an adventure with some dwarves and returning. The book features battles and peril of the sort that litter its adult sequels, but it’s as in love with rhymes and riddles as it is with grand quests. This slightness doesn’t damage the book, with stakes deliberately lower than the world-threatening ones in The Lord of the Rings, but Jackson and his screenwriters (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and the contractually-obliged figure of nearly-director Guillermo Del Toro) seem insecure about the fact. In a desire to match the scale of the earlier trilogy, An Unexpected Journey suffers from mission creep, stuffed with encounters, subplots and characters it doesn’t need.
Every scene is rendered with the care and skill of the earlier trilogy, but many of them feel inconsequential or overly long. With nine or so hours to kill, Jackson has a lot of his time on his hands: there’s a lengthy stay in Rivendell, and the scene introducing the dwarves, despite being a lot of fun, goes on for about half an hour and features two songs. In perhaps the movie’s nadir, there’s a whole scene where wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy, doing well for himself) tries to coax a hedgehog back to life. Unless that hedgehog later becomes the Dark Lord Sauron, the scene probably could have been cut.
Such frivolity wouldn’t matter if the picture was as slim as its source material, but the story can’t stand being expanded to such a degree. One leaves with the impression that all of the really good stuff is still to come. While that bodes well for the remaining two parts of the trilogy, it can’t help be disappointing, as if Jackson had been clearing his throat for three hours and is just about ready to start talking. More so even than The Lord of the Rings, in all likelihood The Hobbit trilogy will be best suited to marathon viewing sessions on lazy Sunday evenings, where fans can luxuriate in its length rather than cursing that they have to wait eighteen months for the Battle of Five Armies.
The heart of the film, as was the heart of the book, is Bilbo, and anything else is a distraction – even the dwarves, even Gandalf. A far more interesting hobbit than any of the Lord of the Ringsquartet, Bilbo is as pernickety as he is brave and stout-hearted. In the standout scene, Bilbo plays a game of riddles with Gollum, and while he wins through wily ingenuity, he definitely cheats. Freeman’s understated portrayal is a joy, and he’s sorely missed whenever the narrative loses itself in miscellany. For a picture with so much padding to do, this tends to happen a lot.
A further issue is that while Bilbo is far more engaging than dour Frodo, resolute Sam and (hungry?) Merry and Pippin, his solitude makes it difficult to engage with the rest of the cast. The dwarves meld into an amorphous comic blob because none of them are ever in tangible danger. They function as the fantastical, hard-fighting figures that Bilbo is in awe of, so they only ever exist in relation to him. Even if one died, there would still be a dozen more to compensate. Presumably this will be less of an issue in future instalments as the dwarves learn to rely on Bilbo and come into their own as characters, but essentially An Unexpected Journey is the first act of a film, which means the characters develop very, very slowly. Dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) comes off the worst, having to spend three hours acting grumpy and petulant.
While it’s still a pleasure to dwell in Middle-earth, by the end it doesn’t feel like the story has even started. In a closing scene reminiscent of 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves look out at the Lonely Mountain, far away on the horizon. Where the effect in Fellowship of the Ring was one of excitement – look how far there’s still left to go! – the corresponding emotion in An Unexpected Journey is that of exhaustion: look how far there’s still left to go…
Roughly twenty minutes into the movie, and twenty minutes into The Hobbit trilogy’s nine-hour running time, Gandalf asks Bilbo, “Don’t all good stories deserve embellishment?” By trying to make a Lord of the Rings-sized epic, Jackson proves Gandalf wrong. The film tries very hard to beThe Lord of the Rings, and while you can’t blame Jackson for the impulse, the film would be a lot more satisfying if it was just content to be itself. As enjoyable as it is, An Unexpected Journey is stretched, as Bilbo will be in three films’ time, “like butter scraped over too much bread”.
A quick note on the now-notorious High Frame Rate, for that’s all it merits. At its best, this makes the film look like you’re watching it on Blu-ray. At worst, it makes the film look like sped-up daytime television. While Jackson should be credited for tirelessly developing filmmaking technology, 48 FPS is awful and distracting, and deserves to be chucked into the cinematic equivalent of Mount Doom.
To read the original article at The Quietus click here.
Police break into a Parisian apartment. Its furnishings suggest inhabitants with refined tastes – books line the walls and a baby grand piano sits in the living room – but the doors are sealed with duct tape, in an attempt to mask the stench. Thanks to concerned neighbours the police know what they’re looking for: the body of a old woman, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva). She lies on her bed, haloed with petals and long dead.
This is the opening scene of Michael Haneke’s devastating Amour, but it’s also the film’s eventual conclusion. By starting with the end the Austrian director ensures we never forget Anne’s steadily approaching destination. Her death is a fixed point, as inescapable as our own, and its inevitability hangs over every scene.
Since his 1989 debut The Seventh Continent depicted a middle-class family calmly destroying their possessions and then committing suicide, Haneke has been celebrated for his provocative, bleak, fitfully violent films. Like many of his other works, Amour also portrays the destruction of a family, but instead of spawning from bourgeois fatalism or a cataclysmic disaster (Time of the Wolf) or even being instigated by serial killers (Funny Games), this obliteration comes from the grim trudge of time.
Attentive and still flirtatious despite their age, retired music teachers Anne and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) live a life of quiet contentment until Anne suffers a small stroke. In a scene as unnerving as any Haneke has done previously, Georges is first aware of a problem during breakfast, when Anne becomes momentarily catatonic. Ruin slips in unannounced. Even if neither of them are fully aware at the time, it is the end of the life they’ve been enjoying and sharing.
After a visit to the doctor leads to surgery, Georges attempts to fulfil his promise to care for Anne at home as her health deteriorates rapidly. Where other movies might play the situation for its maximum emotional value, Amour focuses instead on the mundane realities of caring for an ailing partner: having a new bed installed, or helping them to use the toilet. Haneke’s camera watches coolly, unable or unwilling to intervene.
Haneke’s earlier pictures have been notable for their lengthy shots which sometimes end with a moment of sudden, shocking violence, and in Amour he relies upon audiences’ familiarity with this technique. The viewer is trained to expect something horrible to happen, so that when it doesn’t they are still left feeling tense. Even a simple event like a pigeon flying in through a window portends disaster. Like Georges, the audience is unable to relax, as the situation gets worse and every new development is inevitably a bad one.
Georges and Anne have been dealt a bad hand but Haneke refuses to pity them, giving his subjects dignity as they struggle through a situation seeking to rob them of it. It’s deeply respectful not just of their love but of Georges’ tenacity: in one scene he tells Anne about a syrupy funeral he has just attended, and the film mirrors his distaste for mawkishness.
Haneke has previously documented extremes of violence that probably won’t afflict us in our own lives, but in Amour he explores a form that almost definitely will. Having made a career from torturing characters both literally and metaphorically, his characters here are tortured by the cruel indifference of life itself, and the degrading way it sputters out. Riva and Trintignant are remarkable in their roles, and because the actors’ long careers mean we’ve seen them at their most youthful and alluring, their obvious frailty is even more affecting.
Anne and Georges revere music in the way others do religion, but as the succession of strokes take away Anne’s ability not only to play music but also to appreciate it, Haneke asks us what the characters have left after culture, society and even family have fallen away. The answer, obvious from the title but surprising considering the unemotional source, is love. Humanely, but with clear eyes, the director observes that love isn’t youthful passion or even comfortable retirement. Love is cutting up someone’s food, or washing their hair, or lifting them out of their wheelchair even though you find it difficult to stand yourself. By keeping his distance – as always – Haneke’s film is as moving as it is brutal.
To read the original article at The Quietus, click here.
The primary objective for the protagonists of romantic comedies isn’t to defeat a villain but to attain love, winning over a possible partner by clearing a number of obstacles. The necessity of such obstacles to pad out the film often results in two characters who are suitably matched being kept apart by simple misunderstandings that could be easily resolved by a phone call.
The problem with this structure is that while it’s emotionally satisfying to watch two attractive people flirt and fight their way towards a reconciliation at an airport, it bears absolutely no resemblance to an actual relationship between actual people. At best, it only manages to rosily cover the shallow, early part of a relationship, whilst at worst it makes people feel that every moment in a relationship should feel like the third act of a movie rather than something that requires dedication, patience and understanding. Therefore it’s refreshing whenever any halfway-mainstream film manages to treat both its characters and its audience like adults. Luckily, Celeste and Jesse Forever is one of those films.
Starring and co-written by Rashida Jones, Celeste and Jesse Forever follows childhood friends-turned-spouses Celeste and Jesse (Andy Samberg) as they make their way through the challenges of a divorce. The film perceptively captures the confusing, painful process of being newly single after a long-term relationship, particularly in how Celeste and Jesse relate to each other: the awkwardness in knowing someone in a new context after being so close, the scary-but-exciting pleasure in trying on new identities, the strangeness in seeing the other person do the same.
Jones and Samberg are both wonderful in their roles; warm and believable as a couple with a long shared history who now feel awkward being in the same room. The viewer’s engrained instincts might want them to get back together, but the film does a good job of showing why it’s better for both of them that they don’t, even though it’s an upsetting truth for both of them.
As well-observed as Celeste and Jesse Forever can be, however, the film is hampered by an early development that causes a disparity between Celeste and Jesse. While it gives an opportunity for Jones and co-writer Will McCormack (who plays Samberg’s drug-dealing best friend) to explore what it’s like to lag behind in the race to move on, it means that Samberg’s character stops developing in order to become an unreachable symbol of the closure Celeste can’t attain.
Jesse’s emotional leapfrogging is plausible but it means that for much of the film he has little to do other than be disappointed in Celeste as she spirals out of control. As a result the film falls apart towards the end along with Celeste, as her desperation takes her to a low that’s reminiscent of Kristen Wiig’s nadir in Bridemaids.
Celeste’s anguish is imprudently exaggerated for comic effect, but to Jones and McCormack’s credit the film is never less than honest about a state of despondency that most people have to suffer through at least once in their life. In a world where the average romantic comedy finishes just as a couple gets together, it’s invigorating to watch a film that sees a relationship through to its bitter end, and then keeps going.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
In America when a writer wants to work on an existing television series they’ll often create what’s called a “spec script”, which would be an imaginary episode of the programme they want to work for. The script would not only demonstrate their skills as a writer but prove that they understand the style, pacing and tone of the show, as well as being able to ape the distinct voices of its characters.
If Tim Burton’s filmography existed as a television series, it’s easy to imagine that Frankenweenie would be a spec script for it, an imagined, archetypal version of what a Tim Burton film is like.
Putting aside the $39 million budget, it’s as if Burton had forgotten to create a film, and suddenly it was the day before it was due in at Disney and so he stayed up all night putting it together out of the bits and pieces of his old ones. Here are some spindly characters, misunderstood by their community but ultimately lovable. Here are some evil fat antagonists. Here are some references to 30s horror films. Here’s Christopher Lee, Winona Ryder and Martin Landau. Here’s a Danny Elfman score, sounding identical to every other non-Simpsons score he’s ever done. Here’s a climax at a flaming windmill.
Cover it all in black and white stripes and you have yourself a creatively bankrupt Tim Burton film. At least from the perspective of its creator, Frankenweenie is one of the laziest films ever made. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Damien Hirst’s spot paintings, or one of Damien Hirst’s animals in formaldehyde, or basically anything Damien Hirst has made in the past 17 years.
There’s a moment towards the end of the film where one of the main characters, having done something self-sacrificial and heroic, lies dead. The music swells dramatically and the other characters mourn his loss. He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead … and then there’s a twitch. Just a twitch. The other characters don’t notice at first, but then there’s another, and then suddenly he’s back to life, having saved the day for everyone. It’s a miracle.
This isn’t really a spoiler because whether you’re aware of it of not, you know every beat of this scene. You’ve already seen it a few dozen times. The resurrection moment is one of the cheapest methods of audience manipulation in cinema, and yet it pops up again and again, mostly in films aimed at children who aren’t old enough to realise how lazy it is.
It’s a way to milk all the emotion of a main character’s death without having to have a pesky unhappy ending. Excluding E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, which can be given a pass for a similar scene because it’s sublime, there’s no excuse for it in modern cinema. That such a moment features as the climax of Frankenweenie is endemic of everything that’s wrong with the film. It assumes that because its audience is mostly made up of children that it can get away with being pedestrian and obvious and hackneyed. Hopefully parents of those children will be able to prove the film wrong.
Stanley Kubrick’s films are laden with ambiguities and unanswered questions, and his adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Shining even more so: from spatial impossibilities to rotating carpet patterns, the film provides a wealth of potential readings.
An icy, unsettling film, The Shining received a poor reception upon its release in 1980, disowned by King and unloved by critics (in large part due to the fact that in the preceding fifteen years Kubrick had made A Clockwork Orange, Dr Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey). Now rightfully seen as an equal to those earlier pictures, The Shining is the subject of Rodney Ascher’s engrossing new documentary Room 237, which is composed entirely of interviews with five individuals who became fixated with the film and its possible meaning.
Each interviewee is heard only in voiceover as they lay out their reflections on its subtext: one believes the film is about the Native American genocide, whilst another thinks it’s a statement on the Holocaust, and a third maintains that the film is Kubrick’s confession for faking the Apollo Moon landings. Aside from some stock footage and clips from Kubrick’s other films, the majority of Room 237 is comprised of footage from The Shining itself, and the pleasure in the documentary comes from watching as the interviewees grasp for hidden meaning in background posters, typewriter brands and disappearing props, their observations alternately ingenious and insane.
What differentiates Room 237 from an online video essay is the way the interviewees’ opinions are presented, piling up on top of each other and finding evidence for their theories in the same shots and lines of dialogue. As the interviewee’s reflections become more outlandish it becomes difficult to distinguish an astute observation from a far-fetched one, and Room 237 descends into a kind of obsessive madness similar to Jack Torrance’s in The Shining.
The overriding reading of Kubrick’s film is that it’s about the need to break free from the past, whether that past is America’s bloody beginnings or Nazism, and yet the interviewees themselves are unable to heed the message of their own theories. For the most part they seem unaware of the parallel, lost within a maze, consumed by the Overlook Hotel and its many ghosts.
For many viewers, John Hawkes’ career started in 2010, when he was nominated for an Oscar for playing the menacing, mercurial drug addict Teardrop in Winter’s Bone. Until that point, he has been a steadily-working character actor — one of those people you see popping up in everything, a face without a name, usually dying in the first act.
Hawkes followed up Winter’s Bone with an equally acclaimed performance as a cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and he became an overnight sensation at the age of 51. In his latest film, The Sessions, Hawkes stars as the late poet Mark O’Brien. Paralysed from the neck down due to childhood polio, the film depicts O’Brien’s attempt to lose his virginity with a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt, who spends most of the film being completely naked, and all of it being terrific). Even after Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, Hawke’s performance is revelatory. Despite only being able to move his head and often being encased in an iron lung, Hawke is funny, tender, and enormously soulful.
With the release of the film — and what will be almost certainly a second Oscar nomination — a solid career as a character actor has blossomed into that of a legitimate leading man. Hawke’s acting career actually began in 1985, so why did it take 27 years for his breakthrough role?
Partially, the answer is that the career of an actor depends as much on circumstance as it does on talent. It doesn’t matter how good an actor is if they don’t have the roles to demonstrate the fact. Hawkes has rarely been less than excellent in a variety of supporting parts, but his natural charisma was always buried playing underachievers and misfits. It wasn’t until Winter’s Bone that audiences were given a full showcase of his talents, which shone in an excellent, much-celebrated film.
Additionally, as someone with a character actor’s looks — that is, the looks of a regular human being rather than a movie star — Hawkes wasn’t sought out for larger, leading roles, despite his versatility as an actor and obvious talent. Often talented actors with non-movie star faces don’t get roles worthy of their ability until they’ve aged a sufficient amount. Their looks matter less in middle-age, so they don’t find themselves losing out in the search for good parts. If anything, it helps that they’ve built a career out of diverse, well-received smaller roles. Conversely, middle-age can also be a boon for talented-but-conventionally attractive actors who are stuck playing bland heroes until their faces get a bit puffy and their waistline starts to expand (see: Leonardo DiCaprio).
By finding himself in leading roles midway through his acting career, Hawkes follows the path of former character actors like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti who both flourished after they reached a certain age and found their breakthrough roles (Capote and Sideways, respectively). Mark O’Brien is a gift of a part for Hawkes, but what’s really exciting is the potential for more to come, not just quirky, interesting characters who perish twenty minutes into the film.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Wilee—the industrious bike messenger played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in offbeat-bicycle-action-movie Premium Rush—refuses to ride anything but a fixed gear bike. “Can’t stop. Don’t want to, either”, he states, eschewing brakes, gears and common sense for sheer velocity and the thrill of the ride.
It’s a ready-made analogy for the film itself: like the bike, Premium Rush is at its best when it’s in motion, zipping through the traffic-snarled streets of Manhattan in search of the next destination. It runs into trouble whenever it slows down, but to its great credit tries to avoid that at all costs.
The film is refreshingly, thrillingly efficient. Sometimes, Wilee has to pick up or drop off a package. Sometimes, he has to outrun someone on a bike or in a car. That’s pretty much it. For at least an hour of its slim 90 minutes running time, Premium Rush is one of the purest films ever made, existing solely to provide one chase scene after another.
Non-stop chases would likely turn tedious in any other film, but the film’s action is so light, fast and fun that it doesn’t seem to matter. By making its hero Joseph Gordon Levitt on a bicycle instead of a grunting man in a car, it adds a level of empathy almost entirely absent from today’s CGI-heavy action films. Even though the film is shot with a heightened reality that can feel like a video game, we can still see Wilee peddling away for dear life, and the combination of his physical exertion and the very real danger of the traffic around him has a unique thrill to it.
While there’s a clunky backstory involving a corrupt cop (Michael Shannon) and people-trafficking, the film clearly cares little about it, and suggests the audience does likewise. Shannon’s character is so hapless at every turn that there’s no doubt that he’ll eventually get his comeuppance, which leaves the viewer free to just enjoy what’s going on elsewhere—which is largely Shannon being outwitted by Wilee and his bike messenger friends. Wilee, who would be a stock hero in lesser hands, is a warm and engaging figure due to the performance of the warm, engaging Gordon-Levitt, equal parts John McClane and Bugs Bunny.
Premium Rush is very a silly film from its nonsensical title onward, but it’s hard to truly begrudge any action film with a protagonist whose biggest motivations are riding a bicycle and maybe getting a sandwich.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Ever since it first developed the tools to destroy itself, the human race has been obsessed with the idea of its own extinction. In cinema, this fascination with potential apocalypse has found willing analogies that reflect the threats and traumas of specific times, in everything from Japan’s post-Hiroshima monster movies to North America’s AIDS-influenced body horror films in the 1980s.
Perhaps indicative of our self-absorbed, self-documenting present, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World’s apocalyptic vision has little to do with the fear of colossal death, but with the concern that we’re somehow not living right. Set three weeks before an asteroid strikes the planet, the film follows morose, recently-single Dodge (Steve Carrell), and his rent-a-quirk neighbour Penny (Keira Knightley) as they join together to reach old flames and family members before their untimely ends. Really, though, their journey is an opportunity for self-examination, as Dodge reflects upon a life of timid living and missed opportunities.
It’s apocalypse as therapy session, with the bitter joke being that any realisations are too late anyway. The downside of this is that Carrell spends most of the film depressed and disengaged from the world around him before his inevitable conversion, which dampens the comedy more than it should. Knightley gamely tries to bring energy to the proceedings and almost succeeds, but her part is essentially a stock “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” role rather than a recognisable human person.
While it’s commendable in an age of big-budget disaster movies for such a film to eschew spectacle and focus on a personal experience, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a little too mawkish and safe to fully take advantage of the opportunity. By far the film’s strongest (and funniest) scene comes near the beginning when Dodge attends a house party where all of the guests are embracing manic, bitter hedonism, desperately pretending that they’re not completely miserable as mainline drugs and sleep around frantically. It’s a bracing, perceptive take on how people might react to the prospect of their short-lived existences suddenly rendered meaningless, and makes the film all the more disappointing when writer/director Lorene Scafaria leaves those more interesting characters behind in favour of a wet blanket and a kook who keeps screwing up her face and going on about vinyl records all the time.
Post-apocalyptic worlds remain attractive to filmmakers and audiences because even though the reality would unbearably grim, they’re fantasies in much the same fashion as stories of the Wild West or Tolkien-esque adventures are. Such stories portray worlds without society, or at least worlds without water bills and commuting and National Insurance numbers. The freedom almost seems worth zombie attacks or mohican-sporting biker gangs. As such, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is not without its pleasures, but it largely shuns these for a tired road movie plot, filled with life lessons and budget-trimming countryside exteriors. The film at least has the courage to end well, and finds itself as a sweet, funny, completely passable missed opportunity.
Envying the past isn’t difficult; all it requires is that you disregard the advances made in your time and focus instead on what has been lost, convincing yourself of some mythical and departed golden age.
This is as true of cinema as anything else: our access to films has never been greater, but our voracious obsession with upcoming releases can sometimes create a nostalgia for a time when there weren’t film trailers for film trailers. This nostalgia makes it very easy to envy those cinemagoers who first saw Alien in 1979; cinemagoers who walked into a cinema knowing nothing about it other than its setting and basic premise. In a world where exposure to a film would largely come from a single viewing of a trailer, and perhaps a review or two, Alien’s considerable surprises would have been extraordinary.
Its successor, − technically a prequel − isn’t nearly so fortunate. With news outlets scrambling over each other for any sort of scoop (to the point where this country’s most popular film magazine ran a split-second analysis of one of Prometheus’ trailers), it’s impossible to come to the film with anything less than sizeable expectations. While the marketing department has used that situation to its advantage masterfully, creating genuine excitement about the film whilst giving little away about its actual plot, this unrelenting culture of anticipation can only be negative for the film’s reception.
Prometheus just can’t win: caught in a dust-storm of hype, anything less than one of the greatest science-fiction films of all time would be a massive disappointment, not only because it has the blessing/curse of coming from a series that already contains two of those
As such it’s remarkable how close the film comes to achieving its lofty goals. Engaging, spectacular and tense, Prometheus loosely follows the beats of the original: a group of people travel to a planet they shouldn’t, and things ends very poorly for them. The key difference is that the core team are purposefully making the journey: true believers rather than the bored crew of Alien’s Nostromo, their trip is a quest for discovery. As a result the film deals with larger questions of faith and the pursuit of knowledge, but loses the streamlined terror of its progenitor. Both in setting and in structure, Prometheus is open and expansive where Alien was closed and claustrophobic.
The plot of Alien was simple: a perfect killing machine with acid for blood stalks the crew of a spaceship. The plot of Prometheus is far less clear. Ambiguity is something to be praised considering how morally simplistic most films with massive budgets are, but Prometheus is in dire need of an imperative for its characters beyond a desire to learn their origins. Crowding the edges are too many characters with ulterior or murky motivations that it’s hard to get a purchase on anything, or to feel that much is at stake for anyone − there’s a surprising lack of drama considering how big and noisy everything is.
It’s a testament to how well the film is made and how many great elements it contains (foremost of which is its production design and Michael Fassbender’s superlative performance as the complicated, chilling robot David) that it manages to be as entertaining as it is, in spite of its many flaws and missed opportunities. But to give any more away however would be a disservice. As thoughtful and accomplished as Prometheus’ marketing campaign has been, one feels that the best way to view the film would not be dissimilar to way those audiences in 1979 watched Alien: in the dark.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Out of the many talented filmmakers currently working there are perhaps only a handful whose aesthetic is both consistent and distinctive enough that their films are instantly recognisable. This consistency extends beyond specific artistic preoccupations and even visual tics; Steven Spielberg may have an obsession with absent fathers and shafts of light, but none of his films look or feel quite the same. From Tim Burton to David Lynch there’s a paucity of directors whose choices in cinematography, scoring and performance are singular to a point that they’ve become more than filmmakers, they’ve become brands.
There are worse problems to have than being so aesthetically idiosyncratic that everyone knows what your films look like, but the situation does come with complications. It’s a sad truth that the more distinctive a filmmaker’s style the more likely they are to run that style into the ground. From Zack Snyder’s judicious slow-motion to Tim Burton’s pop gothic Americana (and obsessive use of Johnny Depp wearing lots of make-up and sporting a silly accent), what starts off as different and fresh can quickly congeal into a sad parody of itself, something that is homogeneous in its uniqueness.
Obsessively repeating oneself stylistically and thematically is a criticism that Wes Anderson would be well aware of. Perhaps the most highly distinctive of highly distinctive directors, Anderson’s seven films share a great deal in common, from fastidious production design to British Invasion music (inevitably played as characters walk in slow-motion) to locked-down axial cinematography. His films are populated with precocious children and failed adults and Bill Murray, with characters that isolate themselves in enchanting worlds: underground burrows, aging ships, and sleeper trains threading their way across India. The pictures look and feel so similar to each other that it’s hard to believe he’s capable of making them any other way.
Anderson’s latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, is no different. Set on an isolated island off the coast of New England, the film is about a pair of 12-year-old lovers who run away together, drawing the attention of the lonely adults who are meant to look after them. Like the other Wes Anderson films that came before it, Moonrise Kingdom flirts with preciousness with every line reading and musical cue. But while it is undeniably whimsical, to deride it as being fey or twee would somewhat miss the point.
Moonrise Kingdom has the feel of reading an old children’s book but beneath that still and intricate exterior is a sensitive rumination on young love. At one point in the film the runaways, Sam and Suzy (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward), find shelter on a secluded beach, a place so remote that it’s only known as “Mile 3.25 Tidal Inlet” until they arrive and give it a name. The beach is a world of their own making that exists only for the two of them. As a metaphor for how it feels to fall in love for the first time, it’s as thoughtful and beautiful as the film’s production design, costuming or score. Moonrise Kingdom captures the all-consuming, glorious strangeness of falling in love for the first time, and how it feels unstoppable and absolute.
The singularity of Anderson’s work doesn’t just come from mustard yellows and Futura typefaces, but from being celebrations of intelligence and heart (and by being very funny at the same time). Anderson uses his meticulous and artificial style not to distance the viewer but to draw them in: his bright, damaged characters, while impeccably dressed, are typically haunted by neglected relationships and neglected promise, and his films are compassionately optimistic about how they can reverse such decline. They solve their problems by learning to properly value the people in their life, embracing families either actual or created. It’s through this that his films avoid the diminishing returns from which other stylistically distinctive filmmakers inevitably suffer.
In Moonrise Kingdom it is the older, secondary characters that are in need of revelation of a better path, which comes to them from the union of Sam and Suzy. The film is admirable in the way it allows its characters to change their minds – instead of the couple’s quest being continually star-crossed, the strength and purity of their love changes and enriches everyone around them. It’s a story of an idyll: in this film, if not in real life, first love is able to endure, and thrive.
Try and imagine, just for a few moments, that you are Mel Gibson.
Mel, while your movie star looks have aged relatively well, your career has not; this has less to do with your film choices and more to do with the person that you are. The problem is, you see, that you have lots of deep-seated views which are deeply offensive, some of which you might not fully be aware of in your day-to-day life: views such as anti-Semitism, homophobia and misogyny. You managed to keep this part of yourself internalised, or at least out of the public’s view, for most of your successful career. And very successful it was: you were one of the biggest stars of the 80s and 90s, balancing popular action films with the occasional venture into more serious drama. Your work as a writer/director also, while containing a major obsession with physical suffering, was for the most part accomplished and interesting. You took some bold chances, funding by yourself a $30 million non-English language film you were making about the death of Jesus, which most people predicted would be a massive failure and end your career. It made $600 million, most of which went to you.
But then something happened. The thing is, you’re a recovering alcoholic, and in 2006 you relapsed severely with an infamous arrest for drunk driving. It wasn’t the arrest that shocked people, but the tirade of hate that accompanied it. You argued that the awful things you said weren’t your real feelings but were instead the result of extreme drunkenness. Perhaps this could have been true, and perhaps people might have moved on, but then the vitriol poured out from you again, and again, and again. You’ve developed a nasty habit of leaving abusive voicemail messages, insulting co-workers, and threatening to kill your ex-wife. As such, your career has imploded, and it is now almost impossible for audiences to separate your damaged public image from the characters you play.
So what do you do now? You don’t need the money, but everyone has to fill their days somehow, and presumably you still harbour a desire to perform. Perhaps you even think people might start liking you again if you appear in something they enjoy. Ultimately you’re an actor: you want to act. But what sort of films do you choose to appear in? You tried playing a lovable family man, attempting public rehabilitation with man-finds-happiness-through-a-hand-puppet movie The Beaver. It was a flop: while audiences could accept you playing someone mentally unhinged, someone who would speak entirely through a puppet of a beaver, they couldn’t accept you portraying a decent human being.
A year passed, and now you’ve tried another tack, producing and co-writing a film with your old first AD, Adrian Grunberg. The picture, How I Spent My Summer Vacation, casts you as the roguish Driver, a career criminal trapped in the notorious Mexican prison El Pueblito. Driver must learn to survive in El Pueblito whilst trying to recover his ill-gotten millions and protecting a 10-year-old boy (Kevin Hernandez) from the prison’s organ-harvesting kingpin Javi (Daniel Gimenez Cacho). Ostensibly a black comedy that’s supposed to grittily evoke genre pieces of the 70s, the film just doesn’t work, despite impressive production design and the tobacco-bleached cinematography of Benoit Debie. How I Spent My Summer Vacation is not nearly as funny or exciting as it tries to be, or as innovative as it imagines it is.
The real problem, as always, is you. Where once you fruitfully played against type as an anti-hero in darker fare such as Payback, here your public perception bleeds distractingly through: instead of Driver seeming like a world-weary cynic with a hidden kind streak, instead he just comes across as a horrible, cynical, bitter man. Driver’s fondness for the unnamed boy and the boy’s mother (Dolores Heredia) feels insincere, and his criminal resourcefulness doesn’t have the charm that it’s meant to. The mischievous charisma that has been your appeal since Lethal Weapon has deserted you: the joke isn’t funny anymore.
As a career choice, playing an unpleasant character wasn’t a bad impulse, and perhaps the strategy would have worked if the film itself was better. Unfortunately for you it wasn’t, and like the many, many other problems in your life, this is your own fault and you’re just going to have to live with it.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
American Pie’s transmogrification into a cinematic brand (ala National Lampoon) has had the effect of diminishing its cultural reputation, its original qualities drowned out by a series of substandard sequels and tangentially-related spin-offs; dire straight-to-video monstrosities whose only connection to the first film are some inept stabs at raunchiness and the depressing, contractually-obligated figure of Eugene Levy.
From its working title onward (“Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made For Under $10 Million That Most Readers Will Probably Hate But I Think You Will Love”) American Pie was a witty, self-aware film. It’s easy to forget, as indeed the straight-to-video spin-offs did, that beneath the gross-out comedy was a disarmingly sweet story. The film understood that its protagonists’ abortive attempts to lose their virginities had little to do with their libidos and was instead an expression of their fear of leaving their comfortable adolescences behind for an adult world. As such, it treated the characters’ journeys with a surprising amount of sensitivity: it embarrassed them freely, of course, but was never cruel.
The film’s third (or seventh, depending on how you’re counting) sequel, American Pie: Reunion revisits those same characters – now with puffier faces and more facial hair – 13 years after the first film as they prepare for their school reunion. Despite the publicity material touting the return of the original cast to the series, notably missing is the original creative team of screenwriter Adam Herz and directors Paul and Chris Weitz. Their absence is sorely felt: the film misses an opportunity to genuinely explore the disappointments and pleasures of adulthood with the same perceptiveness that the original explored the end of adolescence, something that would have been greatly helped by the fact that the actors’ subsequent careers have largely unimpressed, despite their youthful promise.
A scene mid-way through the film illuminates this: the central characters, having met up ahead of the reunion, decide to head to the romantic lakeside which they remember from their school days. They arrive to find a party already in progress, populated by the current high school students. Crestfallen, they realise that they’re no longer welcome. They’ve had all the formative experiences at the lakeside that they’re ever going to get, replaced in their own youth by the teenagers who have followed them. A significant part of their youth has left without them noticing, never to return.
It’s a melancholic, very real moment, or at least it would be if it wasn’t immediately followed by the characters heading to the lakeside anyway, feeling in no way awkward about being thirtysomethings at a teenage party. The teenagers at the party all look like models and act like sexpots, which could be a comment on what youth looks like to those on the outside of it, but is probably just bad writing: outside of the returning characters, who at least have two dimensions to cling to, everyone else is frustratingly one-note. The world of American Pie: Reunion is one of shouty bosses, libidinous neighbours, and jerk boyfriends, paper-thin creations whose existence furthers the plot but provides no mystery about where anything is heading. The returning characters don’t fare much better: each one is given a single issue revolving around their advancing age, which they must deal with in the most straightforward, obvious way possible, preferably culminating in a climactic sex scene with someone.
Disappointingly, American Reunion has nothing of interest to say about sex, adulthood, aging, or maintaining friendships with people with whom you have a shared history but little else in common any more. If a viewer were to play a drinking game where they had a drink every time a character walked in on another in a compromising situation, it wouldn’t be long before that viewer would need medical attention. This would be all forgivable if the film was funny, but its comedic set pieces are rote and overly familiar. Perhaps the first sequel in the series with the potential to be more than a tired retread, American Reunion ultimately joins the other instalments in having scant reason to exist, and in being destined to mean very little to anyone.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
The Muppets of Sesame Street were each specifically designed to embody a different teachable issue: Bert and Ernie show how friendship can endure despite differences; Oscar the Grouch teaches children how to react when someone shows positive and negative emotions; and Big Bird represents curiosity about an adult world that one is not quite able to understand yet.
Fashions changed, the curriculum evolved, and a few humans came and went, but other than that Sesame Street has otherwise remained largely the same show as it was when it debuted in 1969, until the arrival of puppeteer Kevin Clash and the attendant ascendancy of Elmo in the 1980s and 1990s.
The reason for Elmo’s phenomenal success was simple: Elmo embodies indiscriminate, fullhearted love. As narrator Whoopi Goldberg points out in Constance Mark’s new documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, Elmo needs people, and that’s why they love him in return. His popularity has risen to the point where he has become the star of the programme, despite his inauspicious beginnings as a caveman-like Muppet that no-one could figure out how to perform successfully.
Being Elmo examines the popularity of Elmo as a character, but its main focus is squarely on Elmo’s performer, Kevin Clash, and his journey from being a child enchanted by Sesame Street to becoming the show’s “Muppet Captain”. Indeed, if Being Elmo has a problem at all it’s that the journey of the title is relatively straightforward: Kevin grew up in a poor but supportive family, was teased a little for his passion but people largely understood that he was special, and he worked solidly as a puppeteer from high school through to the point that he finally realised his dream of joining Sesame Street and then his breakthrough moment when he created the modern version of Elmo.
It’s certainly inspirational to see Kevin’s journey, and it would be almost impossible to come away from the film without developing admiration and respect for him, but there’s not much else to it: Kevin wants to become a puppeteer, and due to his talent and dedication is able to do so. That’s the entire narrative.
Kevin is an undoubtedly talented, hard-working, soulful person, but there are other layers to him that Being Elmo doesn’t fully engage with. There’s a more interesting, slightly underexplored thread about how he began to miss out on his daughter’s upbringing due to his commitment to performing Elmo for other children, but it’s largely brushed over in favour of footage of Kevin teaching new puppeteers and cheering up terminally ill children (both of which are compelling and inspiring, of course).
The most memorable scene of the documentary is his daughter’s 16th birthday party: Kevin watches his daughter watch a video he made for her filled with birthday wishes from her favourite celebrities. At the end of the video is a message from Elmo, telling her that Elmo loves her. Kevin cries as the Muppet says the things that he couldn’t say in person. The love that Elmo expresses so freely – the quality has made him so popular – is love that Kevin himself can only properly express through a puppet. It’s a deeply sad moment, and one that says more about the documentary’s subject than any number adulatory talking heads ever could.
Marks, whose husband James Miller (the film’s cinematographer) worked on Sesame Street for several years before making the film, clearly came to Being Elmo wanting to celebrate Kevin Clash and his life, and the film does this so successfully that it’s hard to begrudge her for that. Despite its unrealised potential to go a little deeper into Kevin’s mindset, it would be churlish to hold that against what is a charming and lovely documentary about a charming and lovely man: for anyone who not only adores Muppets but also what they represent – joyfulness and community – Being Elmo is a treat.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
In a recent interview promoting the release of The Muppets, Jason Segal pointed out the difference between CGI and the real world. “You could touch Kermit; he exists in our world. You could potentially meet Kermit. But you’ll never meet Shrek; he lives in a computer”.
The inability to comprehend this is what doomed Aardman Animations’ 2006 film Flushed Away, their first flop. Flushed Away’s character designs were created in the same style as Wallace, Gromit, or any number of electricity-promoting animals, but somehow it just didn’t feel the same. There was one key difference: its characters didn’t really exist.
Aardman failed to understand that the appeal of their films wasn’t just their character design or their distinctly British comedic sensibility, but also the comfort engendered by their tangible, Plasticine world. It isn’t that Wallace is endearingly befuddled and Gromit is endearingly put-upon, but that they’re actually there; if you look carefully you can see the thumbprints of their creators. Regardless of whether the pair were present in your childhood or not, they speak to it. Aardman’s work is fundamentally nostalgic, which is why it can only properly work if it’s rendered through stop-motion. It isn’t meant to be cutting edge, or modern, or in any way fashionable.
Thankfully, massive financial failure taught Aardman the error of its ways, and the result is The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! The film feels like it could have been made at any time in Aardman’s history, and that’s the point. While it leans on its plot a little too hard when it should be content to just spend time with its wonderfully silly characters, it’s still a spirited, bright, lovely film. Like all of Aardman’s best work, The Pirates! is unafraid to be itself, however largehearted or harebrained that may be.
Watching the film, you feel the desire for it to be successful because it absolutely deserves to. Even if you wish it could be just a little bit better (and feature a little less Charles Darwin), there is something very comforting about the fact that it was made and exists and is something that you can see in a cinema, thumbprints and all.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Along with the usual legal language about how any resemblance the characters have to people living or dead is purely coincidental, This Means War’s end credits would benefit from a disclaimer stating that any resemblance to anything remotely approaching real life is also a coincidence. It would be unsurprising to learn that the film’s screenwriters Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg had spent their entire lives living in a box in the woods, with no contact from the outside world except for access to a television showing nothing but dire 80s action movies and the worst romantic comedies ever made.
A story about two best friend super spies (we know they’re best friends because every ten minutes or so one of them will say “you’re my best friend” to the other) who fall for the same woman and resort to increasingly sociopathic methods to win her over, This Means War is set in a bizarre land without logic or consequences. Spy Kids 4 is a more accurate depiction of what spying is like, even though it featured Ricky Gervais as a talking robot dog. Shark Tale is also a more accurate depiction, and it’s about a streetwise shark who gets involved with mobster sharks. The film has no relationship to anything that has happened or will happen to any actual human being, and takes place in a world that exists solely within the hackneyed minds of two lazy screenwriters.
Writing about its complete lack of sense induces a strange sort of pity: it feels like kicking a particularly stupid dog in the face. This Means War is depressingly bad, not because it’s poorly written or directed – although it is both of these things – but because of its resolute determination to not mean anything at all. It is film-making at its most cynical and basic.
The film’s problem isn’t that it’s unrealistic, or that it’s light – although it would blow away if you accidentally breathed on it. Light, silly films provide happiness for a few hours: Singin’ In The Rain is a light film. Duck Soup is a light film. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a light film. It would be inconceivable to have Cinema without the blissful release of escapism. Instead, This Means War’s crime is that it is absolutely content to be fist-bitingly inane. It isn’t light, it’s empty: a film that taunts you for having had the temerity to pay money in order to see it.
It would be easy to blame the screenwriters, or the director, McG, who embodies the old proverb that you should never trust a film director who calls himself McG. It would be even easier to just blame everyone involved for being complicit in something so meaningless, including its charming and game cast (Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy), all working for a paycheck as they fill a gap between better films.
This Means War is everything bad about studio film-making, and the fact that it’s pretty watchable and has a few adequate scenes doesn’t change the fact that it is without any sort of soul. It doesn’t respect you, and no amount of incoherently-shot action sequences will make up for that. It has no heart, no meaning, no joy; it has no purpose other than to sap time from your finite life and take some of your money while doing so.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
When you look at Nicolas Cage, what do you see? Is it a talented actor who once used his trademark intensity to moving or riotous ends in films such as Leaving Las Vegas and Raising Arizona, who has become an expanding mass of tics so repetitive that his portrayal of a New Orleans cop (Bad Lieutenant) seems identical to his portrayal of a 14th century Teutonic Knight (Season of the Witch)?
Or do you see an actor whose performances are a unique pleasure in cinema, who has forsaken traditional projects in order to star in bizarre genre films that are often terrible but occasionally brilliant and certainly never unmemorable, giving performances so large that they would look out of place in anything half-way decent or sane? Regardless, your response to Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is likely to be the same: dissatisfaction.
For those in the first category, they will see yet another wasting of Cage’s talents – a poorly written, unimaginative superhero film where he descends ever further into self-parody. Those in the second category will finally appreciate the disappointment of the first group: if you’re someone who enjoys “Nicolas Cage” as a distinct cinematic persona then Spirit of Vengeance had lots of potential. Mostly this was because of the film’s directing team, Neveldine/Taylor, who direct as if they’ve snorted a bin liner full of sugar before every take and as a result have made some of the most interesting, awful, brilliant films of the past few years.
The film’s premise is that a stunt motorcycle rider called Johnny Blaze sells his soul to the devil and becomes the eponymous superhero with a flaming skull for a head. Together with Neveldine/Taylor and late-period Cage this suggests all manner of headache-inducing goodness. Instead, Spirit of Vengeance ends up as something of a bore, despite the occasional good moment and the presence of Idris Elba, who walks around as if he’s in a better film.
The characters are dull, the script is tepid and the plot reheated and largely free of incident, but the film’s problems go deeper than that. Fundamentally Ghost Rider doesn’t work as an idea. When Blaze becomes Ghost Rider he doesn’t pull on a mask, he’s possessed by an all-powerful, immortal spirit. This makes the Ghost Rider sequences almost impossible to feel invested in: it’s difficult to root for a superhero when he has become an entirely different person, one who is unstoppable and able to make his enemies combust within seconds of meeting them.
It’s easy to feel sorry for Cage, whose penchant for buying remote islands and dinosaur skulls means he has to star in worse and worse films. Perhaps the biggest comic book fan in Hollywood, he’s ended up with a distinctly second-tier superhero. What might work in the pages of a comic book becomes curiously unmoving on the screen. Even if it’s actually Nicolas Cage playing Ghost Rider, you’re still just watching some random spirit with a CGI skull going around exploding things for almost no reason. It’s a concept that’s only cool if you’re a 12-year-old boy, or Nicolas Cage.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Cinema is very good at capturing life. It’s death that it finds tricky. The problem isn’t that death is undramatic, but rather that it doesn’t conform to the tidy demands of narrative. In life, death is untidy and unpleasant, seldom accompanied with a noble sacrifice or a secret-revealing speech. There’s rarely a good time for death to come, so it rarely does. Instead, it arrives without warning, in the middle of the night, or on a bus, or in the frozen foods aisle of a supermarket; or maybe it drags out endlessly, over weeks, months or years, accumulating misery and tedium in equal measure.
Alexander Payne’s new film The Descendants is about such a thing: a death in slow motion, as inconvenient as it is devastating. What makes this more complicated is that it’s the death of someone the audience don’t know: the dying woman is only seen in the film’s opening shot, smiling gleefully moments before the boat crash that will put her in a coma. What follows in its wake is scene upon scene of her husband Matt King (George Clooney) visiting family members and friends to announce the death of someone who is a stranger to us.
By not having an emotional investment in Elizabeth, the film sidesteps what could be potentially maudlin and instead contemplates the idea of inheritance and legacy. The imminent death of his wife sharpens Matt’s mind, revealing to him a lifetime of missed opportunities and mistakes that it just might still be possible to make up for. Played with lumpy desperation by Clooney, Matt learns in the most painful way possible that there is a better person inside of him. Grumpy and awkward, Matt King is reminiscent of the protagonists of Payne’s other films, from Paul Giamatti in Sideways to Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt: completed flawed but wonderfully, heartbreakingly human.
The Descendants is buffered from predictability or cliché by its Jim Rash and Nat Faxon’s sensitive screenplay, as well as a host of fine performances: in particular Shailene Woodley as Matt’s daughter Alex, taking the overly-common trope of a disapproving teenage daughter and turning it into something tender, angry and real. Even moreso, it is the unusual setting of Hawaii that makes the film seem fresh. The story is a familiar one, but the unhurried, relaxed nature of Hawaiian life (where powerful people “look like bums and stuntmen”) makes it feel different.
This foreignness doesn’t dilute the emotion: Matt explains in his opening voiceover that living in a paradise doesn’t protect you from the pain that life brings. The film and its protagonist come to the bittersweet conclusion that perhaps it’s okay that so much of life is rubbish and painful: what’s important is learning to endure, so that we can protect and pass on what was passed on to us. It’s a realisation that might seem trite in other films, but here is one that is well-earned.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
The best place to see some films isn’t necessarily the cinema. Some are best viewed on drowsy Sunday evenings, some with friends, pizza, and sarcasm, and a few are best stumbled upon at some insomniac hour of the night, half awake and terrified of the horrible thing you’re watching (say, Funny Games). Arguably, the best place to view Meet Me in St Louis is blissed out in front of the TV on Boxing Day, surrounded by Quality Street wrappers and your sleeping grandmother. Still, given how festive it feels, it’s unsurprising that the BFI are re-releasing it cinematically over the Christmas season.
Meet Me in St. Louis is notable for being one of the first cinematic musicals to actually integrate its songs into the narrative, coming from the characters rather than being a random assortment of popular hits. Still, the plot is so paper thin that this scarcely matters. The patriarch of the Smith family (Leon Ames) plans to move his family from St. Louis to New York. The elder daughters (Lucille Bremner and Judy Garland) are bothered about this due to their blossoming romances, and the father eventually changes his mind. That’s pretty much it, which means the film is heavily padded, featuring a weird fixation with minutiae that adds to the feeling that incredibly little is actually going on.
Perhaps more than in The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis represents Garland’s apogee as a star. It makes the experience of watching her more poignant now than it would be for audiences of the time. Her character may get a husband and the happy ending that is compulsory with such things, but Garland herself was headed for a slow, tragic decline. What we’re left with is Garland at her brief, winsome best, singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and completely breaking your heart. Interestingly, that most depressing of Christmas songs performs the function in the film of being a lie Garland tells her younger sister when all hope seems lost. A song which has always seemed excessively melancholy finally has a context: a sad, beautiful fiction, sung to a child.
More than the costumes, the songs or the plumminess of the accents, what feels truly old-fashioned are the attitudes of the characters. It’s unsettling to see a world where a father is the only authority in his family and where getting married is the sole life goal for a proper young girl. But the film is lovely enough that it isn’t too difficult to acknowledge that and put it aside—the past is a foreign country, etc.—and focus on just enjoying the thing. Gorgeously shot and filled with rousing songs and dialogue that’s agreeably flinty when it’s not being bland, Meet Me in St. Louis is one of the finer musicals of cinema history. If it’s not to be watched while merry on mulled wine and waiting for someone to get out Trivial Pursuit, seeing it in a cinema feels like a rare treat—a way to spend a few hours in a glorious Technicolor world in which everyone sings and everything is going to be alright. For that small measure of escapism it’s worth dressing up for and braving the cold: we could all use the break.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
One of the more difficult videos to watch on the Internet is the full-length trailer for Alvin and the Chipmunks 3: Chipwrecked. Most viewers over the age of six will find it tough to get further than 47 seconds into the video, when the lady chipmunks (The Chipettes) start singing Whip My Hair.
It seems unlikely that the film will ever be watched by any adult unless in the presence of minors, and even then, the endeavour would be a struggle. From the trailer, Chipwrecked looks insipid, hollow, and as if you’d shed brain cells just be being in the same room as it. Bearing that in mind, I decided to accept the invitation I received to a screening of the film, despite the distinct absence of children in my life and possessing some semblance of taste.
A bad film can be far more enjoyable than a good one, but Chipwrecked doesn’t fall into that category. It isn’t a folly of ambition, where a good concept was derailed by bad choices, or where elements simply didn’t click. That at least would be watchable, and worthy of discussion. The problem with Chipwrecked isn’t that it’s awful, but that it’s competent. The film is a mediocrity, and deliberately so: it’s entertainment designed to keep children with low standards occupied for an hour and a bit, and nothing more. If Sony could get people to come to a still image of Alvin and his chipmunk brethren with the words “Quiet down now” written beneath, then presumably they would.
And that’s okay. Pixar and Studio Ghibli continue to make films, and continue to be commercially successful, so children are still getting the magic they need. When you’re stranded in it, childhood is infinitely boring and pretty endless: not every film can be WALL-E, and there’s a market for something that will literally just pass the time. Children need to have their time passed, because they have so much of it. Chipwrecked isn’t an insidious film by any means, it’s just one that any rational human would only watch with 6-year-old cousins, on a wet Saturday, under duress.
What is notable about the film (and it’s just about the only thing that is notable about it) is its non-rodent cast list. Someone who isn’t an aficionado of the sizeable, baffling series might be surprised to see comedian David Cross star as the chipmunks’ arch-nemesis, Ian. Best known for playing Tobias Fünke in Arrested Development and for his acerbic stand-up, Cross is an unlikely choice for the series, and Chipwrecked is exactly the opposite sort of film you’d expect him to be in.
Unsurprisingly, when Cross appeared in the first film he was crucified by cultural commentators and across the internet, leading him to write a lengthy blog post defending his right to appear in a kid’s film solely for the money. The non-controversy raged on for a while and eventually dissipated, supplanted by something else. Now as the third film appears no-one has taken any notice at all, and even Cross’ fans probably have no idea he’s continuing to star in the series. It’s understandable: a film like Chipwrecked is cultural white noise. It basically doesn’t exist.
That initial outcry is worth investigating, however, because it says less about artists and more about our desire for those artists to be unimpeachable. The high standards we hold creative people to seems hypocritical when applied to our own lives. The rest of us do jobs that we don’t like so that we can pursue things we care about, so why can’t actors? Why can’t there be a division in an actor’s work between things they do for the art and things they do for the pay check, even though both things exist in a creative medium?
We may balk at a gifted comedian like Ben Stiller starring in family-friendly dross, but doing that dross allows him to appear in films like The Royal Tenenbaums or Greenberg, or to have supported a string of talented filmmakers early in their careers. Night at the Museum 2 doesn’t cancel out Flirting With Disaster. Unless an actor is exceptionally lucky it isn’t possible for them to maintain a career without taking roles just to pay the rent.
Perhaps we should think of Chipwrecked as the equivalent of working in a shop. Surely it’s better for David Cross co-star in Alvin and the Chipmunks 3 than him doing admin somewhere? Admittedly that may be an arguable point, considering that Cross spends the entirety of Chipwrecked wearing an oversized pelican costume and acting opposite CGI chipmunks who insist on breaking into song every five minutes.
It’s a defendable choice, however. A lot of us spend our working lives putting on oversized pelican costumes they just happen to be of the metaphorical kind. Undeniably, though, there isn’t a great deal of dignity in it. Cross did the first film because he hadn’t worked in six months and wanted to buy a cottage, but what was his excuse the second time (Alvin and the Chipmunks 2: The Squeakquel), or now? How many cottages does one man need? When is it okay to say yes? And when should you say no?
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
It’s difficult to make something last. This is especially true with cinema, where the eddies and tides of progress are felt more keenly. A great song will sound as good when heard decades later by a new audience, but films aren’t as lucky. They have a tendency to age poorly. Some of this is down to aesthetics, which strands them in the years they were shot (a gripping drama from the late 80s is rendered ridiculous because everyone has massive hair).
More damaging to a film’s continued relevance are sea changes in acting, particularly in regards to naturalism. Unlike theatre, where a play can be imagined anew by subsequent companies of actors and directors, a film is stuck forever with the acting styles that were prevalent at the time. Performances that garnered critical and popular acclaim in the past seem too stagey by today’s standards. And there’s no line where it stops – there’s nothing to say that films made today aren’t going to seem somehow off to the audiences that follow.
The reason this is all relevant to A Dangerous Method is that the entire film hinges on its three central performances, and one of those performances is absolutely mental.
Adapted from Christopher Hampton’s stage play, A Dangerous Method is about the complicated relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), focusing on Jung’s treatment of a troubled young girl, Sabine Spielrein (Keira Knightley), and their later affair. While Mortensen and Fassbender are typically excellent, giving subtle, restrained performances, Knightley is on another plain altogether.
Throughout her career Knightley’s acting abilities has received criticism by some, but her work in A Dangerous Method is nothing if not bold. It’s a performance that’s impossible to ignore: she yells, she moans, she quivers her lips and juts out her teeth. She pounds food into mush and cackles through her throat and pulls at her skin. For much of the film Sabine is madness personified; her repulsion and shame and desire are indistinguishable and all-consuming. Regardless of whether you enjoy the performance or not, there’s something undeniably remarkable about it.
That doesn’t mean that her acting in the film is good necessarily – it’s remarkable in the strictest sense of the word. The performance is so big that it wouldn’t really be possible to discuss the film and not mention it. Whether it actually works or not is subjective; some of the most celebrated performances of cinema’s history are also the largest (significantly, they’re also the ones that receive awards). Regarding the quality of such performances, it comes down to whether you believe that accomplished acting is something that draws attention to itself or not. Even if there’s realism to be found in playing someone with such serious mental problems, Knightley is still very clearly acting. While it’s possible to appreciate the effort that’s going into the performance, that isn’t the same as inhabiting a role.
Do we want actors to inhabit roles and disappear, or do we want to see them act? There’s an argument to be made for both positions. It depends on the film, and the work of the entire cast. An outsized performance amidst more subdued ones can completely tonally unmoor a film. And yet, this unbalance can also be a deliberate decision: this seems to be the case with A Dangerous Method, where Sabine is an unpredictable, chaotic force amongst the film’s more repressed characters. As an actor, where better to express that than in the body, as Knightley does, shaking all over and trying to tear herself apart?
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Expectations are dangerous. There can be little more damaging to how much you enjoy a film than actually hearing about its quality before you see it. To be told that a film is terrible before viewing is to plant seeds of doubt, even for the most level-headed of cinemagoers. The same works in reverse, too: if you hear that a film is amazing then at best it will only be able to meet that expectation. At worst, it will provoke a negative reaction against a film that has committed the crime of being merely very good. Hype can only bring disappointment.
Call this the King’s Speech theory. An enjoyable, if not especially remarkable film, the experience of watching The King’s Speech for latecomers must have been soured by the attendant hype and its long road to the Oscars. Instead of being pleasantly surprised by an entertaining, well-made film, they may have wondered just what the fuss was all about.
The journey of a film from surprise hit to awards season darling to critical backlash is a depressingly familiar one. It’s a journey that’s possible to glimpse in the future of The Artist. One of the most purely enjoyable films to show at this year’s London Film Festival, The Artist is a valentine to the silent era of Hollywood. A story about a film star (Jean Dujardin) who suddenly becomes undesirable in the age of talkies, it’s a funny, warm, beautifully crafted film. Despite being black-and-white and virtually dialogue-free, The Artist is so shamelessly entertaining that a wide audience seems assured. It’s the sort of film that has the chance to be a sleeper word-of-mouth hit along the lines of something like Amelie, and yet that’s also the problem.
Sometimes when something reaches a certain level of success a natural instinct is to rebel against it, and it’s easy to see how one might start to feel that way about The Artist months down the line when your grandmother has gone to see it and you keep hearing it mentioned in checkout queues. The film isn’t perfect, mostly due a second act that drags out longer than it should, and as such it wouldn’t be difficult to be disappointed by too much hype, rather than enjoying it on its own merits. If anything, the Festival was the perfect time to appreciate it, when there were suggestions of something special but not the weight of expectation that is likely to come.
Of course, nothing is certain and perhaps the film won’t click with the public in the way that it promises to. That would be a shame. The Artist is a film whose only goal is to please its audience, and it’s very good at doing this. Joyfulness is an underrated quality, and perhaps eventual oversaturation is a small price to pay in order to obtain some of it.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
At its heart, Miranda July’s first feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, is endlessly hopeful. It’s a film about how difficult it is to connect with others, but how doing so can be a transformative, defining experience. It’s about the first time someone takes their hand in yours. As such, watching it is an uplifting, gorgeous experience: the sort of film you could watch again and again. In comparison, July’s second film, The Future, is the sort of film one might never want to see a second time.
That’s not a criticism. If MAYAEWK (to use an awkward acronym) is about the tentative first steps of a relationship, then The Future takes place sometime beyond that. The Future is about a relationship that no longer works, a relationship that due to its comfortableness and length has been taken for granted and as such has wilted with neglect. July shows how this begins, with the death of small kindnesses, the turning inward of oneself, and the creative ennui that stasis can provoke. It’s an everyday experience but no less horrible for it, and one that everyone encounters eventually. In its own way The Future is more wrenching than any kitchen sink drama because it’s about the horror of how the most lovely thing in your life can wither before your eyes, and then disappear, and then life just continues as if it was never there at all.
It might seem strange to describe The Future as wrenching considering that its narrator is a cat, or that it contains a sequence in which an old tee-shirt slowly crawls back to its owner, or in which a girl buries herself in her back garden. These whimsical touches may distance some from the film, and it’s a shame because these surreal moments never exist purely for the sake of quirkiness alone. Instead they work as metaphors for the emotional states of the characters, showing a fragile openness that’s easy to overlook or laugh away.
There’s a deep sadness to all of Miranda July’s work that’s sorely underrated: as an author and filmmaker she’s painfully honest about how lonely you can feel when you’re with another person. Do you stay in your comfortable, threadbare relationship or risk the strangeness and terror of something new? At a certain point one has to try and forget about how twee the idea of a cat narrator is (and it is so very, very twee), and instead place a bit of trust in what July is trying to accomplish. If you do that then you’ll find a reflection of yourself, or at least the version of you that wakes up at three in the morning and can’t drift off again, troubled because the person lying next to you became a stranger while you slept.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Coriolanus is a serious film. An adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-performed plays, it’s the directorial debut of noted thespian and boy wizard-scourge Ralph Fiennes.
Set in a contemporary Balkan-like state, the film deals with issues of authority, fascism, and democratic rule, whilst containing lots of shouting from Fiennes and harrowing battle scenes courtesy of Barry Ackroyd, cinematographer of The Hurt Locker. Alongside Fiennes as the eponymous General, the cast features a rafter of excellent actors from Vanessa Redgrave to Brian Cox. Everything about the film suggests a heavy-going, rewarding cinema-going experience. That is, until you get about half an hour in and Jon Snow shows up.
In a small role Snow plays the Messenger, who in the film is re-imagined as a Jon Snow-like news anchor. His appearance brings appreciative laughs from the audience, but its incongruity must take them out of the film at the same time. Instead of reflecting on the scene and its place in the narrative, it’s difficult to do anything but wonder what on Earth is Jon Snow doing speaking iambic pentameter. It just seems so awfully silly in a film that is trying to be anything but.
Snow’s cameo, aside from causing much head-scratching, illuminates one of the more pressing questions in modern cinema: why do filmmakers insist on using actual news presenters in the middle of their fictional films? If everyone else in a film is an actor, why not the newscaster too? It’s hard to think of any comparable real-life figures that are represented in the same way.
One possible answer for this trend is the inexplicable blind spot that filmmakers seem to have in creating newscasters who seem real and that can convey the natural sense of authority that’s required of them. So often a fictional newscaster will feel slightly off in ways that are difficult to articulate. The language of television news is so ingrained on our unconscious that the slightest deviation announces itself loudly, and the audience is reminded that they’re watching a film.
In light of that, the logic of using real presenters seems understandable: they appear genuine to the audience because they are, and additionally there’s the novelty of seeing a familiar face appear in the middle of the film. While that’s true, and may work in the case something light-hearted, the approach completely out of place when it comes to a film like Coriolanus, one that is very serious indeed and is attempting to ask big questions.
The problem is that having real people play themselves in the middle of a fictional film detracts from the believability of that film. It’s possible for Ralph Fiennes to play Coriolanus and for us to accept him in that role, but if Jon Snow is inhabiting Jon Snow in the same film then all it does is remind the person watching that he has a whole life outside of the film’s fictional construct, one of actual news presenting and not wearing poppies and all of his other activities.
And yet, Coriolanus is Fiennes’ first film, so perhaps he should be granted some leniency. Directing a film is hard enough without having to star in it at the same time, all shouty and covered in blood. Perhaps the sight of Jon Snow and his colourful socks was all that got him through the days. Like Coriolanus sparing the Rome that banished him, one must learn to forgive.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is Lynne Ramsay’s third feature film. She made her debut with Ratcatcher in 1999, which she followed up with Morvern Callar in 2002, and now in 2011 We Need to Talk About Kevin is being released. That’s nine years between her second and third films. It seems like quite a while.
To make an unfair comparison, Woody Allen made nine films during that same period. To make an even more unfair comparison, the Beatles were together for nine years and managed to record 12 albums, 13 EPs and star in four films. Between 2002 and 2011 Ramsay has made one 112-minute feature, which works out at about a minute per month. The obvious question to ask is, well, what was she doing during all that time?
The story behind the answer is a torturous one. Years spent working on an adaptation of The Lovely Bones were for nothing when the book became a big success and the project was taken from her to be given to Peter Jackson. After recovering and slowly adapting We Need to Talk About Kevin, the production’s funding fell through, requiring a complete rewrite. Over nine years setback after setback beset Ramsay, and the result is nearly a decade lost to the making of a single film.
Was it worth it? Perhaps. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a stunning work: an intimate character study that vividly captures the painful repetitions of memory. For its use of colour and textures alone it should be recommended, never mind its performances and compelling narrative. But is that enough for nine years of a person’s life?
It seems a tragedy that through misfortune and a lack of support that a filmmaker as talented as Lynne Ramsay had to slog through molasses in order to make one film. Unfortunately Ramsay’s troubles are not uncommon, and whilst she’s an extreme example, it’s a depressingly frequent occurrence for U.K. filmmakers with unique visions to be hampered in such a way. The most creative years of many filmmakers’ working lives are lost endlessly waiting for money. The bodies of work they end up creating are impressive but woefully small.
Unless you happen to be the head of a sizeable film funding body, sadly there’s not a great deal the average cinemagoer can do about the situation. Except, of course, by expressing support by actually going to see films like We Need to Talk About Kevin. It’s unlikely that the film will unseat Johnny English Reborn from the top of the Box Office when it’s released tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be a big enough hit for Ramsay to continue to make such striking, moving films. Here’s hoping the next one arrives before food comes in pill form and we’re all wearing silver jumpsuits.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.
Carey Mulligan’s greatest strength as an actress is that she’s good at looking. This talent first announced itself in An Education; some of that film’s loveliest moments occur when Mulligan looks out at rooms filled with dancing and music and life, wordlessly conveying the nervous enchantment of a child entering an adult world for the first time.
Mulligan is one of the most empathetic actresses working today, with the power to make the audience understand the depth and root of her emotions and to make them feel those emotions at the same time.
More recently Mulligan has put her innate looking-at-things skill to use in Drive, where she and Ryan Gosling develop a thrilling, utterly believable attraction whilst doing little more than just looking at each other. Without the need for snappy dialogue or laboured music cues, the film perfectly captures what it’s like to meet someone who makes you giddy just from the sight of them, someone whom you just can’t stop looking at. Their courtship gives a strange sort of validation for the ultraviolence that follows, providing it with context and motivation.
Mulligan has a further opportunity to look meaningfully in Shame, the Steve McQueen-directed sex addiction drama in which she co-stars with Michael Fassbender. As the bruised-but-merry Sissy, her significant looks are employed to depict the sadness which stems from her fraught, transgressive relationship with her brother Brandon (Fassbender). Their maladjusted relationship is the core of the film and defines them both; expressing itself through Sissy’s self-harm and Brandon’s unquenchable need for sex.
It seems strange to focus on Mulligan‘s role, excellent as she is in it, when Fassbender appears in every scene of the film and gives such a bold, mesmeric performance (as long as he continues to have such good taste in projects, he will surely become one of the key actors of his generation).
The connection to Mulligan’s looks of developing emotions is relevant, however, as Brandon in Shame uses those same looks for more malign purposes. In an early scene of the film he makes eye contact with a woman on the subway, sharing flirtatious glances. Like Mulligan in Drive he just can’t look away, but here it’s a trick: one of the many subtle ways in which he gets women interested in him. She thinks that he’s making some fleeting yet deep connection, when he’s really trying to position her into giving him what he wants.
Shame is less a film about having a sex addiction than it is about having that addiction whilst looking like Michael Fassbender and having the intelligence to manipulate situations for your own benefit. It’s a study of a man who wants something constantly and has the ability to obtain it, again and again, and again and again and again, until there’s nothing of him left but his need.
Originally published on Oh Comely’s website.