Wednesday, 8 July 2015

We Don't Need Another Shero

Shrieking weak-willed women are a Hollywood cliché of ancient tradition. But with the bold introduction of the domineering Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, summer blockbusters may finally be listening to their critics and presenting characters that both sexes can be inspired by.

Depictions of supporting female characters have noticeably changed in popcorn flicks since Kate Capshaw screamed her way through Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Over the thirty years since the blonde love interest bemoaned chipping a nail in the aftermath of another daring escape, whilst being wooed by Harrison Ford’s irresistible charms in the process, scripts have slowly improved by diverging from ridiculous feminine stereotypes.

This revolution in celluloid gender roles has reached a recent landmark wave with Charlize Theron’s performance as Furiosa in the relaunched Mad Max series. As a former supermodel, the South African actress could have so easily been a piece of eye candy casting. However, George Miller’s movie toughens her to the point of being an equal brawler with the eponymous dystopian drifter. Not only that, but as an obvious amputee, her character could quite easily qualify for a disabled sticker to go on her machinegun-toting tanker. Yet she is always shown to be strong, determined and –most outrageously – not interested in her male counterpart sexually whatsoever.

Ignore such hackneyed codswallop as Theron making herself ‘ugly’ for the role. In truth, whatever preparation the Oscar-winner did prior to shooting in order to get in better physical shape, the end goal was to heighten the sense of reality, not denying her any genuine gender qualities. Much is the same for Emily Blunt in last year’s Edge of Tomorrow.

Within Furiosa’s DNA lies a strong hint of Alien’s Ellen Ripley, who alongside Sarah Connor from the Terminator series, were the forerunners of women’s liberation on screen. All of these femme fighters have exhibited their ability to fight superior enemies (a fair few muscle-crunching men numbered among them) and generally shirked the inhibiting strictures of a conventional love interest. Younger fans may recognise this phenomenon as the ‘Katniss Everdeen effect’.
Audiences as diverse as casual female viewers and die-hard nerds have called for more of such spirited characters. Joss Whedon, a key member of the latter fraternity, gave the baying crowd another heroine in the form of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Although she had her fair share of doomed romances, the fierce teenage schoolgirl personified the trend for ‘girl power’ sweeping nineties pop culture.

More recently, this decade is seeing a return to the original women action stars with rebooted franchises arriving at our cinema screens where Ripley and Connor are synonymous. Prometheus once again sees the alien critters being bested by a female lead whilst the otherwise disappointing Terminator Genisys pits Emilia Clarke (AKA Daenerys Targaryen) against a killer cyborg.

A sterner test of women in mega-budget productions will be the new Star Wars instalment. While George Lucas kept his actresses constrained in medieval narratives as helpless princesses, the released trailers indicate that J.J. Abrams may be brewing a more significant part for the fairer sex in the galaxy far far away.

Either way, Hollywood now has its fair share of sheroes, so much so that the feeble and victimised damsel in distress may be a thing of the past. Let’s hope so.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Jurassic World

Has there ever been a year in which the Hollywood box office has relied so much on its past successes as 2015?

From the reunion of the main cast from the original Star Wars to tooling Arnie up again for Terminator Genisys, some of cinema’s best known and most loved franchises are making a return this year, and the recent success of Jurassic World (which became the first film ever to take over $500 million worldwide in its opening weekend) suggests that there’s much profit to be had in audience nostalgia.

But surely nostalgia is a finite resource? The original Jurassic Park, for instance, is full of brilliant moments that remain entrenched in the collective pop cultural conscious, moments that Jurassic World is as enamored by as the rest of us - most of its money shots make direct references to them. But the problem is director Colin Trevorrow and the rest of the filmmakers involved in this reboot offer nothing new and exciting beyond reverence of the original, and as such, for all its financial success, their film is never going to be remembered in future years as anything more than an inferior copy.

Early on a meta-commentary is established that initially seems slyly aware of the difficulty the film has establishing itself as a worthy picture in its own right. ‘No-ones impressed by a dinosaur anymore’ says Bryce Dallas Howard’s corporate character; ‘Consumers want them bigger, louder - more teeth’. But unfortunately the film’s answer to this dilemma is the ‘Indominus Rex’, a genetically modified half-T Rex, half-velociraptor that reeks of a lack of imagination.

As with so many big-budget films these days, ‘bigger, louder - more teeth’ translates to yet more CGI. The consensus in Hollywood is that the limitless possibilities of what can be digitally put on screen through computer pixels is the way to satisfy their audience’s desire for spectacle; unlike the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, of which huge, animatronic models were built to supplement the special effects (see right), the Indominus Rex is an exclusively computer-generated creation. But, as Mad Max: Fury Road recently proved by eschewing effects for stunts wherever possible, digitally-created virtual reality is never a match for the visceral feel of watching filmed real objects moving in real space.

This over-reliance on CGI often also means that more basic components like story and character are overlooked. Whereas Jurassic Park featured a charismatic and eccentric cast of characters, cringe-worthy children and women constructed by sexist cliches make up the new film’s universe - even Chris Pratt’s effortless charisma is here flattened into a dull, run-of-the-mill alpha male lead. And the tone is erratic, lurching from unconvincing sentimentality to mean-spirited deaths.  

Among all its faults, there is one scene that does seem to have captured the imagination and looks as though it could be remembered for years to come - the shot of Chris Pratt, arms outstretched, attempting to subdue his trained velociraptors, has launched a popular meme, with copycat versions spreading across the internet. But it’s interesting to note that this scene first came to prominence not as a moment in the film, but as a moment in the many trailers that contributed to the huge pre-release marketing campaign. Perhaps our future memories of today’s films won’t stem from what we see in the cinema, but instead from the endless hype that precedes the actual viewing experience.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron - A fantasy in more ways than one

Why don't civilians ever die in Marvel films?

For all the destruction on screen, both the superheroes and the filmmakers shooting and choreographing the explosive set-pieces go to great lengths to ensure that no innocent bystander is ever harmed amidst the chaos.

The obvious answer is that these films are mere light blockbuster entertainment, and that seeing civilians drop dead here and there would be tonally out of place with their sense of escapism.

But that would be to do the Marvel studio a disservice, Theirs are sophisticated and smart films, on one-hand full of hilarious zingy one-liners and fun interactions between their many charismatic characters, and on the other insightful and moving character studies with thoughtful plots featuring interesting real-world parallels.

The plot for Avengers: Age of Ultron, for example, speculates on the futility of using technology for the morally good purpose of protecting the world; the AI Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) implements to complete the global defence program he has been working on in order to defend earth from future alien attacks promptly goes rogue and turns against the Avengers, aiming instead to wipe out humans and start Earth over again.

Yet despite this philosophical premise, any sense of moral ambiguity and the potential difficulties of protecting the world through such destructive warriors is trumped by the invincibility and infallibility of the superheroes. Even when, in one intriguing scene, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) loses control and wreaks havoc on a city as the Hulk, Iron Man comes to the rescue and miraculously manages to contain the Hulk's fury whilst simultaneously ensuring that no civilian comes to harm.

These scenes of hectic violence that kills the bad guys with no consequences for the innocents feeds the American fantasy of solving the world's problems through heroic force. Aptly, on the day Age of Ultron  was released, news broke that a US drone strike targeting al-Qaida accidentally also killed a US and Italian citizen who were being held hostage. From Vietnam to the War on Terror the US has seen itself as the world's superhero, but the realities of war means that thousands of innocent civilians are killed as collateral damage in the name of making the world a safer place- an uncomfortable truth that would rather be ignored, as in Age of Ultron.

Again, to apply such sombre moral concerns onto films that are harmless, unpolitical fun may be seen as taking popular escapist entertainment too seriously. But escapism and political ambiguity can coexist - just look at that other huge pop culture phenomenon of recent years, Game of Thrones. With its exotic landscapes, names, creatures and outfits Game of Thrones is certainly of the fantasy genre, but is far more willing to involve itself with grubbiness of reality. No well-meaning action it seems is ever free of negative consequences, and consequently moral complexity abounds. There is never one simple moral decision to be made, and its characters feel all the more human and relatable for having to choose between courses of action that will all have undesirable consequences.

As fun as Age of Ultron and other superhero films are, they'll never do justice to the intriguing premises they introduce without embracing such moral ambiguities. With so many Marvel films to come over the next few years, the studio would do well to take not of Game of Thrones' popularity and add a little more complexity - even if that does mean killing a few civilians.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Wild Tales

The Icarus of new cinema has finally begun to feel the trickling of hot wax along his spine. Damian Szifron’s latest film is too perceptive, too real, to escape the grim turn of current events. 

The opening scene of this macabre series, told with honest comedic intentions, strikes a raw nerve by its eerie similarity to the recent Germanwings tragedy in the Alps. While the rest of Hollywood seemingly suffers a dearth of originality, this piece of celluloid prophesy holds a dangerous excess of it. The imagination of this script - written long before the airline disaster - bites uncomfortably close to the last tethers of our social fabric. Surely it would have been better, for filmmaker and public alike, to delay the release for longer? Instead, burying it in the post-Oscars lull has not benefited anyone.

For all that doom and sorrow, Wild Tales is actually a fairly pleasurable film. Even so, it remains totally unmarketable outside of its native Spain.  To state the obvious, Blighty’s box office does not traditionally favour subtitles. Its scattered vignette structure, moreover, proves a turn-off for the casual viewer. And so it seems that even if the dialogue were in our primitive mongrel parlance, the investors would suffer financial embarrassment anyway. Amongst their names with a producer credit is that irrepressible stalwart of liberal Latin cinema: who else but Pedro Almodovar?

Artistically speaking, no matter how sweetly these narrative hors d’oeuvres can be consumed, they lack the emotional significance and narrative panache of an arcing tale. Szifron is an accomplished storyteller but this is no All About My Mother. There are six pieces in all, each of which varies in quality to a slight degree.

Like the old critics’ line about sketch shows, this is a hit and miss affair. The wedding reception of a psychotic couple (including Iberia’s answer to Bradley Cooper as the groom) is a baffling triumph. In contrast, a crossover between Goodfellas and Diner seems prematurely rushed towards its hollow conclusion. A case of road rage, on the other hand, is middling fare.

On the whole, it’s an impressive assortment that benefits from slick performances and directing. And when, as in the sequence featuring a man frustrated by oppressive bureaucracy, the script scours the scab of common cultural anger it carries a definite appeal. Szifron’s best is his penultimate tale, for once told without the desire for laughter. Alas, if only the foresight had been available to treat the opening setting with the same sensibilities. To do so, nevertheless, is asking the impossible. But the cold talk of money, to which all films (even these arty ones) aim for, pays no heed to such sentiments. 


Sunday, 22 February 2015

Oscars countdown part three: best picture nominees ranked

In the third and final part of our preview of the Oscars, we rank each of the films nominated for Best Picture

8. American Sniper

The huge commercial success and subsequent Oscar nomination for Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper ought to be me with despair by anyone hoping that US attitudes were moving away from impervious patriotism and the worship of guns. The film lacks Eastwood’s usual moral ambivalence and instead presents the controversial sniper Chris Kyle as an undisputed hero, while the depiction of the soldier’s many victims as no-more than (in the protagonist’s own words) ‘savages’ to be gratuitously shot at is essentially racist.

7. The Imitation Game

A film about someone as extraordinary and tragic as genius Mathematician and war hero Alan Turing deserves an extraordinary film made about him, but The Imitation Game is distinctly prosaic and full of cliches that diminishes him to a collection of biopic cliches. Rather than
depict the homophobia that ultimately led to his suicide, the film instead cowardly keeps illicit his homosexuality, even presenting his friend Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) as a surrogate romantic partner.

6. The Theory of Everything

Like The Imitation Game, this similar British nominee is full of things the Academy loves - romance, posh English accents, quaint English scenery, an able-bodied actor playing a disabled character, an ambitious man overcoming adversity to become great. But beyond ticking these awards season boxes, and excellent performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything is little more than a middling biopic.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel

With its spring release date and arthouse and cult credentials The Grand Budapest Hotel was an unlikely Oscars candidate, but something about its whimsical tone and retro feel clearly appealed to the Academy. The backdrops and sets are beautiful and Ralph Fiennes’ excellent performance anchors the film, but it is perhaps a little too fond of the sweet and superficial over the savoury and substantial to be a worthy Best Picture winner.

4. Selma

The fourth biopic nominated, Selma impresses more than the others thanks to its willingness to go beyond mere character study and focus on the politics of Martin Luther King’s march from Selma, and for refusing to insert a white-saviour protagonist at the expense of its black characters. But what really makes Ava DuVernay’s film stand out out is it’s eagerness to take this point in history not just to tell a detached story about the past, but to use it to comment on contemporary issues from Ferguson to NSA spying.

3. Birdman

Free from the shackles of the biopic genre, Birdman tells the fictional story of a fading actor embarking on a vanity project directing a play on broadway, who is tormented by a doubting inner-voice that manifests itself as the giant bird-superhero he used to play in Hollywood. The witty satirical elements directed towards the behind-the-scenes of the arts business is perhaps what attracted the film to the Academy, but it’s the daring shooting style and vibrant energy of the acting that makes it stand out from the more subdued, straightforward nominees.

2. Whiplash

In terms of sheer excitement Whiplash is surely the best of the nominees, thanks to great storytelling, edge-of-the-seat tension and barnstorming performances. Damien Chazelle’s debut perhaps lacks the topical seriousness or ambition that characterises most Best Picture winners, but the questions raised about what talent is and the best way to nurture it make for a thought-provoking subtext underpinning the surface-level thrills.

1 Boyhood

Rarely in the history of film has such a bold and original idea reaped such rewards as Richard Linklater’s decision back in 2002 to embark on a twelve year project to film the actor Ellar Coltrane growing from first grader-boy to university-bound man. Perhaps its prioritising of the white male suburban experience prevents it from reaching the kind of universality the title hints at, but it remains the most uniquely captivating and outright best film nominated, and proof that new ways of telling stories can still be found. 

Monday, 16 February 2015

Oscars countdown part two: what makes a good performance?

In the second part of our preview of the Oscars, we look at those nominated in the acting categories

What exactly is is that constitutes great acting? If the nominations for Best Actor are anything to go by, then imitating a real life person is the epitome of performance. Four of the five nominated play factual people, including Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, who warms himself yet further to the academy by playing a disabled character.

But what he, Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) and Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) have in common is a lack of complexity to their respective characters, as if Stephen Hawking, Alan Turing and Chris Kyle are all too respected to make for rounded characters with moral ambiguities. Compare them to Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, who, as the villain of the piece, possesses the kind of nuances they lack; and to Michael Keaton in Birdman, the only fictitious character nominated, and who is therefore allowed the kind of interesting flaws the others are denied.

Part of imitating someone on screen is making them believable as an authentic person that we can relate to, which has in itself been used as a key criteria in evaluating someone's acting. In the Best Actress category, for instance, Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl Strayed (Wild) is recognisable as a real person with real person-problems like dealing with grief and broken relationships, while we sympathise with Felicity Jones as Stephen Hawking’s wife Jane (The Theory of Everything) and her troubles balancing her personal goals with caring for her disabled husband.

Best of all though is another fictitious character. In Two Days, One Night, Marion Cotillard plays a desperate factory worker trying to keep her job, whose performance clearly brings psychological depth to the role that is demanded by the Dardennes brothers’ naturalistic techniques of realistic sounding dialogue, de-glamourised shooting style and shaky-cam long takes.

But then there’s Rosamund Pike’s performance in Gone Girl. Unlike the other high-minded dramas in this category Gone Girl is a full-blooded melodrama, and Pike acts accordingly. At no point are we meant to believe in her as a lifelike person; instead, we enjoy the performance for all its exaggerations.

In performances like this charisma is valued over realism - something that can also be said of the outstanding candidate in the Best Supporting Actor category, J.K. Simmons. His bellowing, terrifying jazz conductor in Whiplash dominates the film, so that, as one critic put it, ‘to watch [him] is always to be wondering what it is you’re seeing and what is going on in this man’s mind’. Similarly, Ed Norton’s character in Birdman is a satirical caricature of a pretentious method actor, whose performance is notable not for its everyday realities but for outlandish moments like him fighting in his underwear.

Even the great stars that defined the golden era of Hollywood - from Katharine Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe to Cary Grant and John Wayne - were defined by their magnetic stage presence rather than their resemblance to your average Joe. Cinema is not supposed to accurately reflect reality, as the use of artificial things like soundtracks and special effects demonstrate - it is heightened reality, and so the best performances are frequently larger-than-life.   

Finally, to what extent does good acting require good material to work with? Ethan Hawke and the outstanding candidate from the Best Supporting Actress category Patricia Arquette both enjoyed the benefit of working on Boyhood, and as such were given a great platform to inhabit their characters. On the contrary, the rest of those nominated reflect the paucity of good roles for women in cinema, best epitomised by Keira Knightley being shortlisted despite the two-dimensionality of her character in The Imitation Game. Even the best actors will struggle to shine in such limited roles.

All that considered, here’s StevesOnFilm’s picks for who should win:

Best Actor: Jake Gyllenhaal*

Best Actress: Marion Cotillard, Two Days One Night

Best Supporting Actor: J.K Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

*This actor wasn’t actually nominated.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Oscars countdown part one: the ‘other’ awards

With the Oscars ceremony just over a week away, we look at which films deserve the gongs in the less fashionable categories.

It takes a pretty devout film buff to be able to name the winners of Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Sound Mixing from past Oscars, yet it is these more obscure awards that often determine a film’s success during awards season.

For instance, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman have received lots of press for landing the most number of nominations (eight each), thanks largely to their hauls of technical awards. The outstanding film of this year’s selection may be Boyhood, and that film remains odds on favourite to win Best Picture, but unlike these two films its virtues don’t translate as easily into particular categories for awards - there’s no statuette handed out for ‘Best Premise’ or ‘Most Audacious Idea’.

The whimsical tone of The Grand Budapest Hotel as a whole may be an acquired taste, but there can be no doubting that it excels in the minor categories it has been nominated for. Director Wes Anderson’s notorious attention to detail in realising the precise and lavish look across all aspects of the film is reflected in its picking up of Best Production Design, Costume Design and Makeup and Hair, while his long-term collaborator Robert Yeoman - one of the key individuals in creating that distinctive Wes Anderson look - is up for Best Cinematography.

On most years he would perhaps he a shoe-in to win, but when up against cinematographer-extraordinaire Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, The Tree of Life, Children of Men) and his part in constructing the near-unique huge single take in Birdman, will probably have to miss out this time round.

This peerless cinematography was the strongest and most distinctive element of Birdman, but its odd percussive soundtrack has also seen it rewarded with nominations for Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. Sound is perhaps the most under-appreciated aspect in film, and frequently the most unimaginative uses of it are rewarded - this year The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game are both up for Best Score despite their bland and formulaic music, while the innovative and deeply unsettling use of sound in Under The Skin and brilliant original post-punk score of Frank were overlooked entirely.

The Academy did however recognise the merits of Whiplash, nominating it for Best Sound Mixing and Best Editing, the two aspects that made its drumming scenes and live jazz performances so thrilling. And it was also pleasing to see Mr Turner nominated for its fine work in honouring the art of its subject in such aspects as Cinematography and Production Design, while Christopher Nolan’s team of filmmakers were recognised for their continued excellence with Interstellar earning nominations in four technical categories, including Visual Effects.

Notably, however, these latter two films were overlooked in each of the ‘Big Six’ categories, including Original Screenplay and Adapted Screenplay. Instead the screenplays of already multi-nominated films like The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman, The Imitation Game and American Sniper were recognised, with the notable exceptions of Inherent Vice for its bold effort in taking on the apparently unadaptable Thomas Pynchon, and Nightcrawler, that also probably deserved recognition in the Lead Actor and Best Picture categories.

The films nominated for the screenplay awards are emblematic of the Academy’s trend this year of appreciating technical achievements and lighter entertainment, rather than political engagement - especially compared with the films nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, which include films that grapple with weighty political themes across the world from Putin’s Russia (Leviathan) to religious fundamentalism in Mali (Timbuktu). These are both excellent films, and the only way to really justify the absence of either of them in the other categories is to interpret the Academy Awards as essentially and English-speaking-only ceremony - although that notion was complicated by the somewhat patronising nomination of Michael Haneke’s Amour a few years (and the decision to choose the vastly inferior Argo ahead of it).

Such a lack of cultural variety and politics may be disappointing, but the nominations as a whole include a pleasing amount of talent on the top of its game. Take the Best Director category. With the exception of Morten Tyldum for The Imitation Game, all those nominated have all made films that feel unique to them - Bennet Miller for his sparse locations and cold tone in Foxcatcher the various technical characteristics that make up the idiosyncratic worlds of West Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman; and, best of all, Richard Linklater’s long-term commitment and warm intimacy in Boyhood. Perhaps the specific technical awards will elude Linklater, but his vision and its brilliant realisation will surely win him Best Director. 


StevesOnFilm’s picks:

Best Director: Boyhood

Best Adapted Screenplay: Frank*

Best Original Screenplay: Foxcatcher

Best Cinematography: Birdman

Best Film Editing: Whiplash

Best Foreign Language Film: Leviathan

Best Animated Feature: The Lego Movie*

Best Original Score: Under the Skin*  

Best Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel

*These films weren’t actually nominated.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Inherent Vice: Top 5 cinematic depictions of characters on drugs

Two things become immediately clear in Inherent Vice - the lead character Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) will smoke a lot of weed, and the plot will be very hard to follow.

These two characteristics of the film are of course meant to be linked. The mounting confusion and sense of paranoia the increasingly complicated plot builds is supposed to put us the viewer on the same wavelength and deliriously hazy state of mind as the stoned protagonist.

But instead the experience of watching Inherent Vice is more like being the only sober person at a party full of high people having a wild time: we’re confused by their ramblings, politely laugh at what they seem to find hilarious, and are reluctant to go along with their flights of fancy.

The main problem is that the film is too dialogue-heavy. Despite Paul Thomas Anderson’s exceptional talent for stylistic filmmaking, his usual visual flourishes have here been limited in favour of long, one-on-one conversations between Doc and another of the film’s zany cast, perhaps owing to the director’s eagerness to fit as much of Pynchon’s source material in as possible.

As a result, most of the film is spent wondering just what the hell these people are and what they’re talking about. Crucially, the characters - despite usually being intoxicated - do understand each other and are on each others’ wavelengths, leaving us shut out and finding the films impossible to directly relate to. Even those who have loved the film have admitted to getting lost following the story, underlining how our sense of confusion is fundamentally different from that of the characters.

So despite the film’s efforts, and despite Anderson’s obvious talents, we never feel in the same inebriated state as the characters. Such an effect is evidently difficult to pull of, but here’s five of the best successful attempts in cinema history:

1 The Big Lebowski

Along with noirs The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye this is a clear precursor to Inherent Vice, with a similarly bemused, pot-smoking protagonist who struggles to understand the madness that unfolds around him. But The Big Lebowski is just about coherent enough for us to grasp what’s going on at any given time, and the Coen brothers prove far more adept at humour than Anderson.

2 Easy Rider

Famous for being one of the first films to depict the taking of LSD on the big screen, hippie director Dennis Hopper used innovative cross-cutting techniques to represent the effect of the hallucinogenic drug in a way that was radical for a US film scene adapting to the new post-Hays Code environment. It still makes for trippy viewing, evoking the confusion, randomness and occasional terror of a trip.

3 Enter the Void

Forty years on from Easy Rider, French arthouse director Gapsar Noe offered his own take on the hallucinogenic experience, only this time with the drug DMT and through the use of digital special effects. What makes this film so distinct though, and so much more immersive than Inherent Vice, is the use of a point of view camera that never departs from the protagonist’s perspective, meaning we see, hear and directly relate to everything he does

4 Mean Streets

The scene (linked above) of Harvey Keitel’s character in a merry drunken state demonstrates yet another way of directly relating to an inebriated character; by attaching a camera to the actor’s chest, director Martin Scorsese brilliantly evokes the swaying motion and diminishing awareness of the surroundings that someone close to passing out feels. Also, special mention to the final act of Scorsese’s Goodfellas and the subtle way it alters the pace of the film to capture the frenzied mindset of its cocaine-addicted protagonist.

5 Trainspotting

Unlike the relentless high the characters in Inherent Vice enjoy, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting documents both the ups and downs of substance abuse. The first half-hour is a relatively light-hearted rollock, but the subsequent comedown is made particularly horrific by an awful tragedy. The scene of a feverish Renton hallucinating in bed while going cold turkey is particularly visceral.  

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Wolf Hall

One of the most annoying criticisms directed towards films and TV shows is to say ‘the book was better’. Bookworms passionate about a particular novel are often reluctant to concede that any adaptation could ever hope to be as good as the original, especially if it so much as dares to change key details of the plot, and their suspicions are backed up by the long and still widely-held prejudice that written works are inherently superior to visual forms of entertainment. Such a view overlooks how much filmed versions can add to a story, and how intelligent cinematography, acting and editing can be just as powerful as any well-crafted sentence.

Thomas Cromwell
But sometimes the qualities that make a certain novel so good is very difficult to translate to the screen, and in these cases the book simply is better than the filmed version. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies, for instance, brilliantly exploits all of the unique advantages of its novelistic form - the ability to express the protagonist (Thomas Cromwell)’s internal thoughts and feelings, the space to go into rich detail to build the world the characters inhabit, and the scope to go at its own pace and not be compromised by a limited length.

As fine an adaptation the BBC’s six-part series Wolf Hall appears to be based on last week’s opening episode, it will inevitably be limited by its form. Tom Rylance’s brilliantly understated and muted performance hints at the depth of Cromwell’s thoughts, but will never be as intimate as the access granted in the novel, while although writer Peter Straughan has paced proceedings at an admirably unhurried pace, there is too much to fit in in too small a time to replicate the gradual unfolding of diplomatic processes that made the novels so tense and gripping.

What the material really needs is more episodes. The golden age of television currently being enjoyed over in the US has been based on dramas that contain 12/13 hour-long episodes, and are commissioned for multiple seasons. Such a form retains the advantages of on-screen entertainment while relating far more closely to the pacing of a novel, with more room to fully develop characters and with each episode translating to a chapter. Just look at the success of The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad, which are all among the most popular and acclaimed works of art of the past few decades.

There aren’t any 6-part single-series TV shows that can claim such success, as the form itself is a sort of unhappy medium between the longer serialised drama and the shorter feature film. Rather than cover one chapter, each episode of Wolf Hall will have to squeeze in a whole third of one of the novels, and although the authentic use of candlelight makes for impressively gloomy look, the production is still no-where near the level of a film adaptation. As such moments like the death of Cromwell’s family does not carry as much dramatic weight as it should, and there isn’t enough going on in the cinematography to raise the show to anything more than a rushed, straightforward retelling of the novels.

So long as British television remains reluctant to commission more long-term, ambitious serialised drama, it will continue to lag behind the US. Wolf Hall certainly looks like one of the best BBC dramas in a while, but the nagging suspicion remains that the bulging potential of the novels would have been better realised in the hands of the US networks. 

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Paddington: The problem of all-white casts

Paul King’s Paddington has been widely praised for adapting the story of the famous Peruvian bear looking for a home in London into a contemporary immigrant-fearing British society - but is the film quite as inclusive as it at first seems?

The Brown family are initially reluctant to adopt Paddington, with the household father particularly suspicious of his unkempt manners and exotic marmalade-based diet, but gradually come to accept him as one of their own. The message is clear: contrary to UKIP’s fear-mongering, decent Brits warmly welcome strangers into their hearts, even if they are 3’6’’, wear ill-fitting hats and possess an awkward knack for knocking things over.

But despite this well-meaning intention, the film subscribes to the problematic view that social issues can be solved by the charitable discretion of the wealthy. The affluent Brown family decide to let him stay as the alternative - an ‘institution’, mentioned with a shudder down the spine - is so awful. The implication being that state welfare is ineffective, and better left for noble-minded individuals like themselves to resolve.  

This social conservatism is consistent with the film’s quaint, sanitised depiction of London, where friendly posh eccentrics abide and anyone with a cockney accent is not to be trusted. Ethnic minorities are consigned to the background, and even Paddington, despite himself being an immigrant, speaks in a refined British accent without a hint of foreign dialect.   

Such lack of diversity is characteristic of British film and television, and is in urgent need of addressing. At present, only 5% of those working in the creative industries are Black, Asian or of an ethnic minority, despite representing 12.5% of the UK population.With an all-white main cast Paddington is no exception, and is perhaps more culpable for celebrating the virtues of ethnic diversity while hypocritically not making room for a single non-white face in its main cast. When even a supposedly liberal-minded film fails to do this, it's clear that British film and television are a long way off sincerely embracing multiculturalism.


Sunday, 18 January 2015



It is hardly a shock to see Steve Carell dominate the publicity for Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher. His performance, playing against type as a real-life madman and murderer , is nothing short of bedevilling. With the help of various prosthetic features, the familiar comedian exudes an eerie chill as the millionaire-turned wrestling sponsor who became ensnared in his own destructive mental breakdown. His demeanour is deliberately languid – though no less menacing – and, I believe, wholeheartedly worthy of the announced Oscar nomination.

Nevertheless, this subtly poised piece of acting is the focal point for elegant, serene and dazzling directing from the man behind Moneyball and Capote. Dwelling in moments devoid of dialogue or narrative pacing, the camera still captures the nuances and complexity of a man-made emotional mess.

Let’s face it; Olympic wrestling is an incredibly homoerotic sport. Miller’s script does nothing to diminish that unflattering image. The long, periodic training sequences have no rousing backing music or rapid montage √° la Rocky. Instead they conjure up the same dark bodily fascination as Black Swan. It’s intimate, social and undoubtedly weird to see two men grope each other in such a contrived fashion. No wonder it has made such a fascinating film subject.

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) returns from the 1984 Olympics as a world champion but unable to escape his elder brother David’s (Mark Ruffalo) shadow. The unexpected intervention of super-rich philanthropist and egotist John du Pont (Steve Carell) offers a way to riches and fame in the sport that Mark loves. But at what personal cost?

Male angst is thrown about the script like a match-winning pin between two Herculean figures. All there is to be seen is men throwing about their bulk – physical or mental – in order to influence the ultimately fatal powerplays shown between the strutting characters. For this level of testosterone-laden drama there is not a single actor more dependable than Ruffalo. Once again he adds layers of unforeseen depth to a reasonably sane, run-of-the-mill everyman. And indeed, the young pretender, Channing Tatum, finally accomplishes the heights to which he has always teased audiences with. I always knew he had it in him (even after The Eagle) but it has taken longer than I had hoped for his dramatic talent to truly be revealed.

This male trio lock horns at the command of a director who is crafting astonishing pieces of art. Yes, I did just use the ‘a’ word, for this, given its full due, is a masterful canvas of human and natural frailty. The minutes of inconsequential acting and filming, which nonetheless crank up to a compelling climax, make that case alone.

If all other contenders match up to Foxcatcher, then the 2015 awards season will be a fantastic advertisement for the dwindling medium of cinema. 


Tuesday, 6 January 2015



Who honestly expected Paddington to be any good? The modern retelling of a much-cherished children’s tale is always a tricky business. These hallowed texts are protected by a cultural aegis, it seems, often defended with a natural distrust of movie adaptations.

Michael Bond’s stories of a notorious domesticated bear are even more precious due to the sublime illustrations and animations of the books, then later, the televisions series. Surely a cinematic CGI version would merely serve as another disappointing digital airbrushing of an adored character? A strict ‘hands off!’ warning seemed in order. And yet, this gloriously colourful film is the surprise hit of the year.

Suitable for both children and adults in equal measure, the new outing for the Peruvian bear is a jolly feast of smiles and happiness. The sensation of watching it is like being softly cooed by Test Match Special as you chew on toffees in a warm pair of slippers. It really is the pinnacle of reassuring viewing.

When an earthquake devastates his home, a young bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) takes an adventure to London where he hopes to begin a new life. The Brown family take pity on this exiled orphan and allow him into their home. So it is that this misfit causes a stir in the capital, no less than with an obsessed taxidermist (Nicole Kidman).

With a cast this impressive there was no chance of it being anything but marvellous. Julie Walters, Hugh Bonneville and, of course, Jim Broadbent all perform their usual routines. Plus the ever-impressive Sally Hawkins sparkles yet again in a charming role whilst the inclusion of Nicole Kidman as the pantomime villain wins the award for most unusual casting decision of 2014. Her character opens up some dubious publicity for the Natural History Museum, but then, the climax played out in its grand halls is a child-friendly slice of Hitchcockian thrills.

You are never too old to enjoy something sweet. This charming film makes children of us all.


Monday, 5 January 2015

Top 10 Films of the Year: Part 2

5. Frank

The brilliance of Frank is encapsulated by two performance scenes that bookend the film: the first, when protagonist Jon first steps onto the stage with the band, captures the exhilarating experience of the their music and the profound strangeness of the papier-mache-headed lead singer Frank (Michael Fassbender); the second again reinforces all these elements, only this time with an added emotional punch that ninety minutes of intelligent character development and honest portrayals of mental illness and artistic creativity sets up.

4. Under the Skin

British director Jonathan Glazer’s latest was a thrillingly avant-garde film about an alien (Scarlett Johansson) roaming the streets of Glasgow, which looked and sounded like nothing ever to have appeared on a cinema screen before. The alien spaces and imagery are totally devoid of sci-fi cliches and look genuinely extraterrestrial, provoking the kind of awe and eeriness you’d imagine from contact with a new sentient species. Then there’s the unforgettable score, full of hypnotic drums and icy strings that chill the bone and haunt you long after the film’s end.

3. The Lego Movie

This year’s biggest hit at the UK box office was also the funniest, a near-miracle for what initially looked like little more than a feature length advert for a toy. A hilarious script with a smart satirical undercurrent was devised, and brought to life both by an inspired cast that blended big Hollywood names (Morgan Freeman, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell) with some of the best performers in the US’ thriving sit-com scene (Chris Pratt and Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation, Alison Brie from Community, Charlie Day from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Will Arnett from Arrested Development), and a startlingly original form of digital animation devised to retain the idiosyncrasies of lego blocks while sending them on a dazzling fast-pace big screen adventure. As promised, it was awesome.

2. Whiplash

J.K. Simmons’ performance as jazz teacher Terrence Fletcher in Whiplash must be seen to be believed - he is at once unstable, inspiring, hilarious and utterly monstrous, one of cinema’s most fascinating creations. Miles Teller gives as good as he gets as driven student drummer Andrew, and forms a fascinating dynamic with his teacher that forms the heart of the film. One electrifying scene follows another and somehow the film gets better and better, up until an explosive crescendo in the finale that will leave you breathless.

1. Boyhood

It’s almost become boring to see Boyhood pop up on yet another end of year top ten list, but that shouldn't cloud just how extraordinary a film it is. Over one hundred years since films first started being made, Richard Linklater has demonstrated how there still exists new ways of telling a story with his unique long-term structure. For the first time ever audiences at the cinema were able to watch both a character and an actor literally growing up, and the experience was remarkably immersive and involving.

Both audiences and critics loved it - it is one of those rare films to have gained 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and near-universal five star reviews, as well as feature in the top 100 of IMDB’s top 250 films. When future generations look back at 2014, it will surely be remembered as as the year Boyhood was released.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Top 10 Films of the Year: Part 1

Stephen Puddicombe chooses his favourite films from 2014. 

10. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

This year’s installment of the Hunger Games franchise has been deemed the worst so far by most commentators, with most criticism directed towards the lack of on-screen action brought about by the decision to cut the final book into two films. But one consequence of this now sadly standard practice is to pare down this installment into a sleek, straightforward plot dramatising the propaganda war between Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and the rebels, and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and the government. Thanks to some astute satire and involving characterisation, this is an intelligent and rousing film in its own right that exposes the laziness of the scripts in most other blockbusters.

9. The Raid 2

Gareth Evans’ ultra-violent martial arts sequel may neither have neither been as purely visceral nor breathtakingly original as the first film, but it remained the most thrilling action film of the year by some distance. It never really justifies the 2-and-a-half-hour running time, and does not fulfill its epic scope with the necessary substance. But no matter - the stunning choreography confirms Evans as the most talented director of action sequences around, and this sequel is alive with imaginative ideas and extraordinary stunts that make the more mediocre plotting well worth sitting through.

8. Birdman

One of the year’s most audacious films was Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman, which (thanks to the occasional digital trick) looks as though it was shot in one very, very long continuous take. This restless, insomniatic editing aptly reflects the psyches of the cast, most of whom are anxiety-ridden actors whose anxieties threaten to overflow at any moment and jeopardise the Raymond Carver adaptation they’re rehearsing for. Ex-Batman Michael Keaton is captivating as the director of the play haunted by his past Hollywood role as superhero ‘Birdman’ in a meta-commentary typical of the film, while Edward Norton hilariously sends himself up as a pretentious method actor. An exhilarating, if a little indulgent, ride.

7. Two Days, One Night

The Dardennes brothers use a simple premise to tackle a big theme: employees of a small Belgian factory are forced to choose between accepting their end of year bonuses or allowing Sandra - who has been off work suffering from depression - to keep her job, leaving Sandra two days and one night to one-by-one convince each of sixteen colleagues to vote for her. At a time of zero-hour contracts and vanished trade unions, this film is well in touch with the zeitgeist, and naturalistic performances from the cast (especially the brilliant Marion Cotillard) effectively dramatises a troubling social issue at a very personal level.

6. The Babadook

One of the best horror films of the decade, The Babadook announced a major new talent in director Jennifer Kent. By emphasising character and emotion over cheap thrills and jumps, she breathed new life into tired horror tropes, and provided a timely reminder of the genre’s potential to inventively explore potent themes likes grief and motherhood.The Babadook itself is less a monster of the external world than it is the manifestation of deep, dark internal thoughts - and is for that reason all the more scary.