Thursday, 31 October 2013

Captain Phillips

When following a narrative, the audience does not simply route for whichever character is the most moral; rather, they respond to cues present in the way the story is told that inform them how to feel. To use the Pirates of the Caribbean films as an example – which, despite approaching the theme with a completely different tone and purpose, is comparable to Captain Phillips in that it also centres around pirates – we root for Captain Jack thanks to his charm, centrality to the story and the film’s light-hearted feel, and in spite of the fact her steals ships with little regard for the safety of others. 

All too often, serious, Oscar-baiting films that are ‘based on a true story’ present the divide between the moral Americans we’re to root for and the threatening foreigners we’re to hope are defeated in oversimplified shades of black and white. Two recent examples that were particularly honoured during awards season are Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Neither film bothers to humanise its Arabic characters, instead expressing sole interest in the American perspective and how its threat can be overcome. Such films encourage us to cheer an American hero, without ever tackling the moral intricacies of the wider context. 
Based on some of the trailers, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Captain Phillips (which is currently 16-1 to win best picture at the Oscars) is more of the same. Tom Hanks plays the titular seaman, who kisses goodbye to his wife before taking to the sea to captain a ship transporting cargo along the Arabian Sea. Panic ensues when a group of Somali pirates hijack the ship, with their leader Abduwali Abdukhadir ‘Skinny’ Muse (played enticingly by amateur Barkhad Abdi) pronouncing himself as the new captain.
Once again, foreigners are presented as a blood-thirsty rabble of ‘Others’, hell-bent on wreaking misery on innocent American lives, specifically that of the renowned decent figure of Tom Hanks. Thankfully, the film itself is more nuanced than this. Aside from its obvious virtues of being a gripping, exceedingly tense affair that does not let up for the whole of its full two hour, fifteen minute running time, Captain Phillips displays a sincere interest in the Somali captors. After the central concerns of ‘what’s going to happen next?’ and ‘Is everyone going to be OK?’ the main question prompted by the film is ‘What are the pirates’ motives?’
Some explanations are given in an early, pre-hijacking scene that depicts the difficult environment of their home, watched over by a war lord. More answers are offered in the brief, considered exchanges between Phillips and Muse, most tellingly, and potentially eye-opening to particularly naive audiences, when Phillips implores that ‘there’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people’; to which Muse replies, ‘maybe in America’.
Blink and you’d miss these moments, especially among the frenetic chaos that pervades most of the film, but they’re crucial in establishing an even-handed moral core and political context to the hijacking. In them, Muse gains a voice, and is able to express his point of view that he was forced into pirating ships after Western companies ruined his shipping business. His predicament certainly puts into perspective Phillips’ concerns that his kids won’t find it as easy to climb the job ladder as he did.
Still, more could be done in the name of balancing both sides. Throughout the ordeal we are constantly reminded that Phillips’ primary concern is his family, while none of the Somalis’ relations are even mentioned. And neither does the film compromise on setting up its protagonist as a noble, morally sound and self-sacrificial hero, even though reports suggest that the real life Phillips was far from such a straightforward good guy.
Greengrass’ trademark use of shaky-cam - that exhibits a claim to naturalism – and the self-important ‘based on a true story’ statement that features prominently on the poster should, therefore, be treated with as much scepticism as any film like this; regardless, Captain Phillips still deserves to be commended for showing sympathy towards its villains and contextualising their situations, and scenes of impending terror like the hijacking of the ship are some of this year’s most successfully realised action set pieces.
But Hollywood is still crying out for films bold enough to seriously question the misdeeds of its own nation, rather than yet more stories featuring innocent American victims. Sure, Captain Phillips was a true story, but it’s hardly representative of a common trend in reality; this U.S. cargo ship was the first to be hijacked in two centuries. Is it too much to ask for a Hollywood film to focus on the far greater number of victims of U.S. foreign policy? 

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Blue Jasmine

To say Blue Jasmine is a ‘return to form’ for director Woody Allen would, of course, be an oversimplification. In between a few duds, he has achieved two critically and commercially successful films within the last five years in the form of Vicky Christina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris.

 But what sets ­Blue Jasmine apart from these two films, and from any film Allen has released for a long time, is a seriousness in tone and topical relevance. Both Vicky Christina Barcelona  and Midnight in Paris were finely acted, funny affairs, but the former was little more than an enjoyable, breezy melodrama quickly forgotten after the credits had rolled, and the latter a lightweight, albeit experimental comedy. 

By contrast, Allen’s latest effort is full of biting satire. The titular character (Cate Blanchett) is a privileged, upper-middle class socialite, who at the start of the film is forced to move in with her substantially less well off sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins),  after her husband Hal’s (Alec Baldwin) fortune was taken by the government following his arrest for financial fraud.  As an uppity woman used to posh parties and extravagant apartments, the switch in lifestyle naturally comes as a shock to her system, and she often resorts to talking to herself in lengthy monologues that trigger the film’s flashbacks into her affluent past.  

A plot in which a once well off protagonist is plunged into economic crisis will no doubt strike a chord with audiences living through the current recession. Jasmine is a member of the elite classes forced to compete for jobs she would have in the past considered herself too good for, and the confrontation between her and her sister’s fiancé Chili (Booby Cannavale), an auto mechanic, displays the kind of class tension such a climate breeds. 

As well as being a compelling study of class, Blue Jasmine is also something of a feminist work. Jasmine recounts passing through school with straight ‘A’s, buy dropping out of college having been seduced by the glamorous, easy lifestyle offered by marrying Hal. Her demise is a dire warning against women sacrificing their independence and potential for a passive lifestyle as a man’s wife.
Jasmine may be a proud snob who lives and lived in denial of the immoral foundations her former wealth was built upon, but at the same time she is a victim of mistreatment at the hands of men. Her husband is presented without any redeeming features, discouraging her from questioning his reckless financial practice, and while committing to countless affairs with other women. Even men who appear decent on the surface (Louis C. K.’s character Al and Peter Sarsgaard’ David) aren’t quite as they seem, while Chili possesses a Stan Kowalski-esque violent streak. 

The similarities with A Streetcar Named Desire are obvious, and Allen’s film contains acting that can at least be held in the same breath as Marlon Brando’s iconic role. Even Dice Clay (!) puts in a good turn as Ginger’s ex-husband. But it is of course Cate Blanchett who stands out with a performance that will surely be remembered for years to come, and, in the more immediate future, the Oscars next year. Her feat is to make compelling a character who on paper should be loathsome and repellent. Thanks to Blanchett, she is a fascinating amalgam of charismatic, funny and distressing, possessing intricate complexities not often seen on the big screen.  Watching her unravel is at the heart of this film, and is at once intriguing, humorous and, ultimately, troubling.


The Great Beauty

Anyone who’s seen La Dolce Vita – a film that will inevitably be brought up in any discussion of Paolo Sorrentino’s new film The Great Beauty -may remember a group of young aristocrats whose decadent parties we bear witness to in the final few scenes. These rich Roman residents seemed to while away all their waking hours in a perpetual state of vacuous partying, as if they had to keep quiet the gnawing concern of the hollowness of their existence, that threatens to surface should they ever give their minds time to reflect.

In some respects, The Great Beauty resembles a sequel to Fellini’s classic, in which all the privileged revellers have grown and are now facing the wrong side of forty, yet continue to party with as much relentlessness as their youthful selves. Once more contemporary Rome provides the backdrop, but this soundtrack of their raves features dubstep and dance music rather than jazz and rock n roll. 

One of these characters, named Jep Gambardella (played with cynical charm and a degree of pathos by Sorrentino favourite Toni Servillo), forms the centre of the film, from which one dazzling set piece after another and a series of compelling, tangential scenes revolve around. In his old age, Jep finally begins to question his hedonistic existence, when a stranger reveals to him that his recently deceased wife had in fact been in love with Jep her whole life. Startled by the revelation, Jep ponders over his past, and the regrets of his love life and career as a writer. 

Sorrentino sees to it that we have as much fun watching the film as those in it, with some of the most sumptuous filmmaking you’ll find in the cinema. The Great Beauty is not structured around a plot that travels from A to B, but features instead a series of loosely related vignettes that provide the director the platform from which to display his marvellous set pieces. In one, a cabaret act throws paint-drenched knives around his model as a uniquely dramatic process of creating a work of art; in another, a 100-year-old nun climbs a church staircase on her hands and knees; in another, in fact in the very first scene, a Japanese tourist startlingly collapses taking in the wondrous Roman scenery. 

Just like La Dolce Vita, on one hand the film condemns the characters’ depraved lifestyles, but on the other it revels in and celebrates the sensuality of their world, reflecting its seductiveness with the equally appealing manner in which Sorrentino shoots the film. But all these comparisons to Fellini aren’t to say that Sorrentino’s style is a carbon copy of his legendary compatriot; Sorrentino possess his own distinct aesthetic, full of movement, rapid cutting and audacious that marks his out clearly as an auteur of our times. 

The gorgeousness and technical wizardry of The Great Beauty is beyond doubt, and there’s plenty of witty dialogue to inject life in the more downbeat scenes. But whether the film holds together entirely satisfactorily is questionable. There’s an excess of poetic images and the majority of conversations include a handful of profound-sounding witticisms, but whether it all amounts to more than a repetitive speculation concerning the anxiety of growing old requires the closer scrutiny of a second watch. But lovers of the sensory pleasures of cinema will care little for the possible hollowness of the film’s content, when the surface gleams as brightly as this.


Monday, 21 October 2013

Salem's Lot (1979)

The King's Vampires Saved by Soul

Every time I have been to the cinema this summer a particularly striking advert has been shown. On each occasion it has left me with goosebumps and a craving to hide my head behind the nearest sofa. I’m speaking of the BFI trailer which celebrates cinema’s Gothic glory in all its spine-chilling majesty.

Nosferatu silently looms; condemned, exposed, by the timid moonlight. The Mummy grudgingly stirs from its slumber. Frankenstein shrieks as his monstrous creation comes to life.

Our awful fascination with these sights is our undoing. Goblins and ghouls can’t possibly exist and yet the dark heart of man never ceases to dream up the next lurking ethereal threat. Humanity’s taste for the supernatural is explored in Salem’s Lot with the same delicate crescendo and jarring bizarreness which defines the greatest terrors.

In 1979 Tobe Hooper (Poltergeist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre) adapted Stephen King’s second novel for the big screen. With the inclusion of a haunted house, vampires and countless horror clichés, it is by far King’s most Gothic and traditional tale.

A successful writer (David Soul) returns to his sleepy New England hometown to investigate the derelict mansion that terrified him as a child. When a mysterious stranger buys the crumbling building terrible events begin to occur. Could a house be inherently evil?

Salem’s Lot survives as a relic of a time when the supernatural was not the obsession of heart-struck teenage girls but the preserve of macabre-loving nerds. To modern eyes it looks hopelessly dated, coming from a period when David Soul was considered a romantic lead and a British accent was the epitome of villainy. The last 34 years have not been kind and showcase this seventies quirkiness as little more than a niche novelty.

I half expected Scooby Doo and the gang to appear at any moment. “Yikes, Scooby. It’s a V-V-Vampire!”
Nonetheless, underneath its cheap exterior, Salem’s Lot is a horrifying thriller waiting to run rampant on our nightmares. Occasional scenes of originality convey a spooky tone and an insidious sensation of malevolence develops along the narrative. Like all of King’s best works, it flourishes on the premise of dragging ordinary - albeit flawed – characters into extraordinary circumstances.

However, because of some ruthless editing, the film never has time to fully explain the story’s development. Each change of scene requires a dizzying chronological leap which has no respect for character progression or consistency. One minute we’re following David Soul, and then we’re watching the estate agent, then the teacher, and so on. This style may suit an 800 page novel but seriously hinders a 120 minute movie.

Salem’s Lot is intriguing as either a piece of cultural history or entertainment for die hard horror fans. Casual viewers need to look elsewhere if they want to be spooked.


BFI's Gothic Trailer

Saturday, 19 October 2013


Formula for Success

Just like director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan’s previous collaboration Frost/Nixon (2008), Rush, more than anything else, is a film about male rivalry. The egos pitched against each other are even strikingly similar in both films; Michael Sheen’s cocky, flamboyant playboy is replicated in Chris Hemsworth’s James Hunt, while the slippery, complicated nature of Frank Langella’s Richard Nixon are attributes found once more in Daniel Bruhl’s Niki Lauda.
Like Frost/Nixon, the clash of such distinctive personalities is a perfect recipe for some scintillating Hollywood entertainment, especially once some noisy formula one cars have been thrown into the mix. At first neither character comes across as particularly likeable, with Hunt unapologetically arrogant and Lauda cold and forthright in his treatment towards others. But as the film moves from their early rise in the sport to their famous contest in the 1976 season, their characters become more rounded.
Hemsworth successfully conveys an inner vulnerability that checks the potentially irksome nature of his effortless outward charm, while Bruhl plays his role with a captivating sense of duplicity. Good as these two performances are, however, there’s not much going on with the rest of the cast, with the several female roles (Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, and Natalie Dormer) all given little to do aside from fulfilling their function as love interests for the two leads.
This being a film about formula one, it’s impossible not to be reminded of the excellent 2011 film Senna*. This documentary told the story of the famous Brazilian racer Ayrton Senna, and, in one particularly striking parallel, focussed a large deal on his rivalry with Alain Prost.
But whereas this film strove for maximum authenticity through the novel and affective sole use of archive footage to tell its story, Rush is very much a Hollywood-ised version of events, and bares all the advantages and disadvantages this carries with it. Incidences are weaved into a simple, neat narrative, with characters’ rises and falls all obeying the laws of Hollywood storytelling. The interplay between the pair’s rivalry does as a result lack the subtlety found in Senna, and could perhaps have benefited from playing out on the arena of the race course rather than through somewhat clichéd, expositional lines. But when on the road the film does benefit from some visceral, high production value shots of the thrilling cars. And for those worried about the film industry’s notorious disregard for historical accuracy, Rush has the seal of approval from the real life Niki Lauda, who has himself vouched for the film’s accuracy in interviews.
Another theme found in Senna and reoccurring here is that of the risk involved in racing. We’re presented a world where health and safety means far from what it does now. In an opening voiceover Lauda chillingly recounts how an average of two competitors died every year, and cars even adorn cigarette companies as sponsors. Ultimately, the film’s attitude towards the sport’s inherent recklessness is ambivalent; on one hand it celebrates the spectacle and bravery of hurtling around in these super-fast cars, but then we’re never allowed to forget the threat that lurks behind every high speed corner.
For the best film on formula one in recent times viewers are still advised to watch Senna, but Rush succeeds on its own terms as being a highly entertaining outing to the cinema, with a winning combination of character, thrilling racing scenes and storytelling that will satisfy most audiences.

*Link to my review of Senna: