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 Such laissez faire attitudes have been superseded by nature documentaries that take pains to use hidden cameras and non-invasive techniques, as well as filmed polemics like An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There’s nothing atypical or necessarily wrong about this approach, of course, but Argo makes a deliberate attempt to vouch for its own authenticity, concluding with a sequence displaying images of the film’s actors alongside photographs of their real-life counter-parts: logic suggesting that if the characters look so much like the real people then surely the story must be equally accurate. Boal and Bigelow didn’t have this option. Where Argo is a period piece, Zero Dark Thirty takes place over the last few years, and while the “Canadian Caper” Argo depicts was international news, the level of its profile was nothing compared to the search for Bin Laden. Any attempt to sex up the film would have caused massive controversy in a story already brimming with difficult moral choices, from torture to the occupation of entire countries.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.