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2012 in review
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 3,100 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 5 years to get that many views.
Review of 2012 Part Six: The Neglected – The Raid on Killer Joe
I’ve been posting recently on my top and bottom films of 2012, and realised I had been remiss earlier in the year. Two films in particular impressed me in their own ways and are contenders for my top ten, so I thought it only fair to give them mention. Both are smaller films, rather than the major blockbusters I’ve discussed recently. I enjoy the mainstream, and seeing the full facility of cinema through big budget blockbusters and studio prestige films are among my favourite movie experiences. The division between “mainstream” and “independent” is vague and indeterminate, and sometimes used nonsensically, not to mention inaccurately. I have heard references to Clint Eastwood as an independent filmmaker, which is absurd as he is a Hollywood institution, whose films are always funded and distributed by major studios, usually Warner Bros. Similarly, the world’s most successful independent filmmaker is George Lucas, who could also be regarded as the epitome of Hollywood. If considered from a more analytical industrial perspective, the distributors of the films under discussion here are still related to major studios, so the division is unclear.
Not that it matters, as the quality of a film and one’s appreciation of it is not determined by who funded or distributed it, but by what is in the film itself. Speaking from an auteurist position, as I do, one of the giants of New Hollywood back in the 1970s was responsible for my favourite comedy of the year, Killer Joe. William Friedkin won the Directing Oscar for The French Connection in 1971, and went on to direct The Exorcist two years later. He has never come close to the heights of that double whammy in the last forty years, but continued to make striking and interesting films (Bug), as well as some turkeys (Rules of Engagement). Killer Joe is one of his successes, a pitch black comedy that is funny if you are prepared to laugh at its unflinching depravity. Complaints about Killer Joe focus on all the characters being unsympathetic if not downright repulsive, which they are. I question though whether being nasty is reason to criticise, as horrible characters can still be well-rounded and compelling. To call the central family of Killer Joe white trash would be a compliment, as they are more the vermin that feed upon trash, but I was nonetheless intrigued to see what they did next.
My interest was held largely by commitment, from the script, the direction and some very fine performances. Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church convince as a couple of idiot rednecks, Gina Gershon balances sultry with embittered, and Juno Temple conveys sweet naivety and disturbing sexuality. 2012 was the year of Matthew McConaughey’s renaissance, with acclaimed performances in Killer Joe, Magic Mike and Bernie, receiving an award from the New York Film Critics Circle for Best Supporting Actor for his performances in the latter two. I did not see those, but found his performance as the titular polite psychopath in Killer Joe to be both chilling and amusing. McConaughey’s stony expression and slow Texan drawl lend themselves well to perfectly controlled menace. As with other characters in 2012, the sound of the voice is central to the dangerous aura of the character. Tom Hardy demonstrated the menace of his voice twice, famously as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (although his voice was clearly altered in post-production, so maybe that shouldn’t count) and then in the lower profile Lawless, in which he pulled off the remarkable feat of appearing dangerous while wearing a grey woollen cardigan. A key element of Hardy’s menace was in his voice, a low, indistinct mumble that nonetheless conveyed clear authority and willingness to do harm. In Skyfall, Javier Bardem’s almost liquid tones emphasised his relaxed attitude towards his murderous enterprises. McConaughey’s sardonic vocalisations were perpetually chilling, especially as he spoke in much the same tone whether discussing his assassination fee or about serving tuna casserole.
Killer Joe is based on Tracy Lett’s play of the same name, and its final scene especially retains the script’s stage origin. The escalating horror of this scene demonstrates the script’s conviction to deep levels of depravity, and Friedkin’s commitment to the story is demonstrated by the maintenance of the scene’s length. Films based upon modern plays often shorten scene length, either through outright cutting of the script or fast editing. When the length is retained, as in Killer Joe and also Doubt, the scenes are noticeably longer than those written specifically for the screen. The maintenance of the final scene’s length increases the tension and indeed the horror of what may be the worst family dinner ever. The commitment to the revolting events that unfold aids the power of the scene, and yet a twisted sense of humour is still present. This is integral to Killer Joe’s success as a piece of cinema: the film presents humiliation and abuse, but with just the right level of wit. Not laugh out loud funny, but still amusing if you have a strong stomach.
If Friedkin is a known if somewhat diminished directorial star, Gareth Evans is an utter unknown. This anonymity worked to his advantage in his contribution to cinema this year, the Indonesian The Raid. Having never heard of Evans until buzz about The Raid started, I was not sure what to expect. What I got was the most blistering, dizzying, dazzling, delirious action film I had seen in a long time. The combating characters flew as light as feathers yet struck with bone-crunching force – I lost count of the number of times I winced, ducked and said “Ow! Ow! Ow!”
I am not well-versed in martial arts cinema, The Raid being one of only a smattering of such films that make it into mainstream western cinemas. It was also the only foreign language film I saw at the cinema in 2012. I am keen on all films, but foreign language fare tends to be restricted to art house cinemas, and at least in Norwich, the art house cinema is more expensive than one of the multiplexes. Unfortunate but true. The upside is that a film like The Raid felt wonderfully fresh and different. This is not to disparage western action cinema, which can provide visceral thrills very well as The Avengers and Skyfall did this year, but The Raid added some variety. Whereas the wuxia genre of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers provide balletic myths of martial arts beauty, The Raid was down, dirty, brutal and unforgiving, combining physical stunts with blazing guns and swinging machetes, to create an immersive and enthralling experience.
The Raid’s power is a combination of martial arts choreography and filmmaking. I would describe the choreography as exquisitely channelled chaos: fists and feet flying in all directions could be chaotic and confusing (and in reality probably would be), but with the right choreography, it becomes a marvel of organisation. This can be presented as something elegant and even serene, especially if slowed down as in the films of Zhang Yimou. Evans, however, keeps the action fast and the cutting intimate, conveying a sense of velocity and impact. As I have discussed previously, tension is key to action sequences, and build-up is crucial to tension. Tension in The Raid comes in a variety of forms. At one point, the protagonist Rama (Iko Uwais) hides in a wall cavity with an injured comrade. The gangsters searching for them repeatedly stab a machete into the wall, only just missing our heroes. This scene is extremely tense, the tension exacerbated through extreme close ups of the characters’ faces as well as the massive blade. During actual fight sequences, the combat is continuous yet tension is increased as the violence escalates. Why punch your opponent once when you can do so seven times and slam their head into a wall, just to make sure they’re incapacitated? Several stand-out fight sequences are not only highly involving, but carry major stakes as these are important characters, particularly Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) VS Jaka (Joe Taslim) as well as Mad Dog VS Rama and Andi (Donny Alamsyah). These fights go on far longer than human endurance would actually allow, but realism is not on the agenda here. The agenda is to show people fighting in creative and elaborate ways, and make us feel every punch, kick, head-butt and blow from an improvised weapon (my personal favourite: a shattered strip light).
The Raid could be criticised for having a plot summed up in the tagline: “1 ruthless crime lord. 20 elite cops. 30 floors of chaos.” This is unfair, as The Raid also features betrayal, corruption, loyalty, abjection and duty. While its main selling point is incredibly talented practitioners of pencak silat, The Raid has the bonus of an engaging protagonist in Rama, some sympathetic characters, and a villain in Tama Riyada (Ray Sahetapy), complete with psychotic henchman Mad Dog, worthy of any Bond or superhero film. While many of the characters are cannon fodder, I nonetheless cared when the cops were hurt or killed, because Evans made sure to keep the PAIN on-screen. Visceral cinema can simply draw one along with the action, much as Joss Whedon does in his bravura long takes like the climactic battle in The Avengers. Evans’ approach is more brutal, as the impact of each blow is clear. Sound adds a great deal as well, and the smack of fists and feet, not to mention the burst of skin and the breaking of bones, aid the film’s immersive thrill. While 2012 featured many stunning sequences, nothing matched the sheer physical thwack of The Raid.
Review of 2012 Part Five – Great Expectations III: The Name’s, Well, You Know (Or Do You?)
The penultimate hugely anticipated film of 2012 was the 23rd instalment in the world’s longest running film series, reaching a triumphant 50th year of James Bond, 007. Skyfall carried not only the expectations of being a major blockbuster, and a franchise instalment, but it was also a landmark film which had to both honour what had come before and show the old dog had enough life for another 50 years.
There are several ways in which Skyfall met this challenge. One of the most celebrated aspects of the film was its director, Sam Mendes. The first Oscar winner to direct a James Bond film, Mendes brought a particular set of baggage with him. Most successful with intimate personal dramas such as American Beauty, Revolutionary Road and Away We Go, Mendes’ forays into larger scale stories, such as Road to Perdition and Jarhead, were mediocre at best. Skyfall would be his first franchise film and his first action film. Despite Mendes’ prestige, the pedigree for a director like him was not promising, as Marc Foster is a director also known for more sedate fair than Bond, such as Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland. Quantum of Solace was generally regarded as a failure, and the pressure was on for the 23rd film to return to the quality established in Casino Royale.
This quality brought with it further expectations, as Daniel Craig was being spoken of as the best Bond, even before the release of Skyfall. After his lean, intense yet vulnerable turn gave Martin Campbell’s 2006 reboot something different, fresh and exciting, the failure of Quantum of Solace seemed something of an aberration. Surely something had gone wrong and a Bond film featuring Craig should somehow be better. I think Craig makes a very fine Bond, and the problems with Quantum of Solace mostly relate to the director. Foster fails to give the film any suspense, as scenes go from a standstill to a breakneck pace, not allowing for build-up. Foster’s skills are ill-suited to directing action sequences which, as I have written before, require tension that needs to be built up. To have everyone suddenly burst out of their chairs and running like mad is too sudden a transition to allow any tension.
As an example, the first post-title sequence of Casino Royale is efficiently built up as Bond and his fellow agent Carter (Joseph Millson) watch their target in Madagascar, then move in towards him which increases the tension. Then the scene accelerates into a chase with Bond heading after Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan) through all manner of obstacles, the famous free-running through a construction site, fighting on top of a very high crane and culminating in a running gun battle through an embassy. This scene increases the stakes and in doing so raises the tension, whereas Bond chasing after Mitchell (Glenn Foster) in Quantum of Solace comes out of nowhere and, after the initial shock, the viewer is left disorientated and disengaged.
Mendes said in interviews that he was especially concerned about making the opening sequence memorable, as Bond has a distinguished history of opening sequences that grab the viewer’s attention. Skyfall pulls this off impressively, as we begin in Istanbul with Bond slowly pursuing a stolen hard drive, then missing a shadowy figure in the corridor. He meets with his fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and there is a brief car chase culminating in a marketplace, which is followed by a motorcycle chase over the city rooftops. From there the chase progresses onto a train, with Bond making use of a convenient earthmover and gets wounded, then the chase moves through the train itself and eventually on top of it, before Eve is ordered to “take the bloody shot!” This line is significant, as it is the culmination of this sequence that is intercut with a parallel scene in London in which M (Judi Dench) barks instructions. The intercutting between the chase and the supervision heightens the tension by raising the stakes, and the finale of the chase creates further anticipation for the rest of the film.
Even at this early stage, Skyfall is playing to the audience’s expectations, and throughout displays an acknowledgement of what the viewer wants to and also expects to see. No viewer would believe that Bond is actually killed at the start of the film, and Skyfall understands the audience’s position as Bond’s re-appearance is hardly a revelation. Rather, we get to enjoy Bond’s hedonistic retirement in a tropical paradise, and his shadowy re-introduction at M’s home. Skyfall acknowledges the viewer’s expectations – this is a Bond film so he will come back at his own instigation – but also exceeds the expectation through the inclusion of Bond “enjoying death”, as well as the continued lively relationship he shares with M.
This is but one of many expectations that are rewarded, exceeded, and acknowledged. Many moments in the film refer to Bond’s history, much as The World is Not Enough did with lines such as “I never joke about my work, 007” and the reappearance of gadgets from previous films. Similar gags appear in Skyfall, such as Bond receiving his new gun, a Walther PPK, just as he was issued with in Dr No. Similarly, in a moment that might as well have featured a wink direct to camera, Bond reveals his Aston Martin DB5, made famous in Goldfinger. No explanation is given for him having this remarkable vehicle, which possesses a few modifications, and this is part of the fun – the film and the viewer share a smirk at the inclusion of this piece of nostalgia. Even Bond’s early “death” echoes You Only Live Twice, the viewer well aware that Bond cannot be killed at the start of the film, if indeed at all.
However, Skyfall retreats from excessive technology, at least as relates to Bond himself. When issued with his gun, another smirk is shared between viewer and film as Q (Ben Wishaw) admonishes: “What did you expect? An exploding pen?” This is both contemporary and nostalgic, as over the years, Bond’s gadgets became increasingly outlandish, culminating in the invisible car of Die Another Day. Pierce Brosnan’s last outing as 007 serves as a watershed in the franchise’s history, with the reboot Casino Royale acting as a return to a more gritty, “realistic” spy thriller. Quantum of Solace continued the emphasis on physicality, and Skyfall develops this conceit further, continuing the trend for physicality and reliance upon one’s own wits and abilities. Computer hacking gives way to machine guns and helicopters, then to jerry-rigged mines and pistols, and eventually to knives and unarmed combat. A disdain for sophisticated technology is demonstrated in a repeated gag about the “latest in communications technology: a radio transmitter”. At key moments, both Bond and his nemesis Silva (Javier Bardem) make reference to radio transmission, as if slapping the face of the computer boffin Q and his ilk. When Q inadvertently plays into Silva’s hands through his expert hacking, Silva admonishes the younger man with the message “Not such a clever boy”, before all hell breaks loose.
Not that Silva is above using technology: his nefarious schemes necessitate a global reach that is facilitated through him being an expert hacker as well, allowing him to destabilise governments and attack MI6 headquarters. But whereas previous Bond villains established their bases in volcano craters (You Only Live Twice, Goldeneye), undersea complexes (The Spy Who Loved Me) and even space stations (Moonraker), Silva’s lair is eerily simple: an abandoned city on an isolated island in the South China Sea, a ghost town that reinforces the almost supernatural influence that Silva enacts over the world. The scene that introduces Silva is a master-class in minimalism, as the mise-en-scene is a crumbling building reminiscent of a church, filled with computer base units and a few screens. This serves as a contrast to the steel and glass MI6 headquarters, a symbol of power that Silva easily infiltrates through his technological skills. Visually, Silva’s introduction is stunning, as he emerges at the end of the long hall and steadily walks towards the camera in a continuous shot. This long take further exacerbates the viewer’s anticipation for Silva to reach the foreground, while his silken tones echo through the cavernous space, emphasising our awareness as well as Bond’s that this is Silva’s domain.
Silva himself is a remarkable and impressive feature of Skyfall. The most effective Bond villains have been those that serve as a dark reflection of Bond himself, such as Grant (Robert Shaw) in From Russia With Love and Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) in Goldeneye. With Silva the reflection is multi-faceted, as he is not only a (former) successful MI6 agent, who like Bond has officially “died”, his relationship with M is a twisted version of the one she has with Bond. As in No Country For Old Men, Bardem delivers a thoroughly chilling performance of a genuine psychopath (despite a bizarre haircut): quiet, poised but with an evident relish, like a cobra that will smile as it strikes. Also, he demonstrates a remarkable ability to get under Bond’s skin, as evidenced in the homoerotic encounter between the two as Silva unbuttons Bond’s shirt in a seductive manner.
Craig’s films have downplayed Bond’s seductive powers, which became tedious and even painful during the Moore years. None of the last three films have ended with Bond in the arms of a lady lovely, and in Skyfall there are only a couple of such scenes. This emphasises a different relationship that is central to the film, between Bond and M, as well as Silva. Serving as the dark reflection of Bond, Silva is also coded as the bad son to Bond’s good son. Bond’s bristly but ultimately devoted relationship with M provides the emotional core to Skyfall, personal dramas adding to the plot developments.
As mentioned earlier, MI6 contrasts with Silva’s dilapidated headquarters, but there are different locations used by MI6. After the grand offices on the Thames are attacked, they move underground into a back-up HQ built out of Churchill’s WWII bunker. Thus begins the film’s concern with “Britishness”. Curiously for the British Mendes, Skyfall was his first foray into presenting something British, and nationality remains prominent throughout Skyfall. A key trope of the Bond franchise is exotic locations, which do appear including Istanbul, Bond’s “retirement” in the tropics and part of his mission that takes him to Shanghai and Macau, and from there to Silva’s island. But afterwards, the film takes place entirely within Britain, and uses its locations to interesting effect. Churchill’s bunker brings with it connotations of Britain under fire, and a chase takes place through the London Underground and into Westminster, with Silva disguised as a British copper. The film’s final act involves going “back in time”, travelling into the highlands of Scotland to a stately home. Both for Bond and for the film as a whole, the final act is a return to the past and to homeground, defending Britain against invasion.
Other tropes of “Britishness” appear: M has a china bulldog, decorated with a Union Jack, that becomes a talisman for Bond despite his dislike of it; Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), initially presented as an interfering Whitehall bureaucrat, is revealed to have a military history serving in Northern Ireland; Bond’s mission to Macau carries postcolonial connotations, the British agent exploring a former colony. The past haunts Skyfall, both in its narrative and our understanding of it. The past of the franchise itself explicitly returns when Bond enters M’s office, which is identical to the office of years gone by, visited by Sean Connery since 1962. I always remembered the door with leather padding, and seeing it behind Daniel Craig was an interesting blend of the old and the new. Clearly the blend of elements in Skyfall worked, as it has now become the highest grossing film ever at the British box office.
The history of Bond was not the only reference I found in Skyfall. In my last post on Looper, I commented on the inter-textual connections found in Rian Johnson’s film, as a central element in science fiction. For all its elaborate technology, the Bond franchise is not science fiction, but it also reminded me of other films. The Jason Bourne trilogy is an apparent influence on the reboot of James Bond, with a grittier approach and Daniel Craig constituting a more realistic and vulnerable spy protagonist in the mould of Matt Damon’s amnesiac assassin. Specifically, Skyfall’s opening chase through Istanbul is reminiscent of The Bourne Ultimatum’s frantic dash through Tangiers, including our hero riding a motorcycle up a flight of stairs. Bourne is not the only secret agent inspired by Bond and echoed in Skyfall, as a scene in which Bond moves through the London Underground, in constant communication with Q in a high-tech hub, is reminiscent of 24. When Silva is brought into custody, he taunts Bond and M much like the Joker does Commissioner Gordon and Batman in The Dark Knight, and like the Joker, Silva is both psychotic and physically deformed, as revealed when he extracts a prosthetic mouthpiece to reveal his true features in Skyfall’s most gruesome moment. Silva’s taunting of M also echoes The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps very deliberately. As in The Dark Knight and also The Avengers, Silva’s imprisonment is a ruse and all part of his master plan, a narrative trope that may well continue. John McClane has been described as a blue collar James Bond, and the final attack on Bond’s family home, Skyfall, features a highly organised assault team against a resourceful individual who uses his surroundings to his advantage, much like in Die Hard. To take it even further, Bond defends his home using homemade devices, not unlike Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone – not a comparison I ever thought I’d make!
One aspect of Skyfall troubles me: the reassertion of classic Bond tropes brings with it some disturbing gender politics. Since Goldeneye, the Bond franchise has taken some steps to distance itself from Bond being “a sexist misogynist dinosaur”, as M argued in Brosnan’s first outing. Tougher Bond girls have made appearances, such as Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) in Tomorrow Never Dies, Jinx (Halle Berry) in Die Another Day and Camille (Olga Kurylenko) in Quantum of Solace. Skyfall features Eve, who is Bond’s fellow agent in Istanbul and Macau, and with whom he appears to have a romantic liaison (though we’re spared the details). Eve is a competent field agent, but come the final scene, she is relegated to a secretary and revealed to be M’s eternal assistant, Moneypenny. This is another wink to the Bond fan, but also implies that secretary is the correct role for a woman. M’s fate implies this further, and the final occupant of the office seems a reassertion of patriarchy, as though the franchise has returned to where it belongs with men in the positions of power and agency. This is a disturbing element in a film aware of its legacy, especially in light of the potentially progressive amendments taken since 1995. Skyfall’s conclusion appears to suggest that the Bond franchise is not a place for women except in traditional roles.
Despite this disconcerting reassertion of patriarchy, I enjoyed Skyfall immensely. It was gripping and thrilling, well-plotted with detailed characters, exercised a knowing acknowledgement with the viewer to just the right extent, therefore avoiding being too clever-clever, and looked stunning. Some have described Skyfall as the best Bond ever, and while I think it is too early to say, it is certainly the most beautiful, as Roger Deakins’ digital cinematography looked deep and rich enough to swim in. Digital filming has been growing steadily in recent years, and Skyfall is a film that makes full use of its possibilities. There were points during the film when I wanted shots to linger on the myriad of colours captured in the frame, especially during a sequence in Shanghai. This sequence features one of the strangest fight scenes I have seen in a film, as Bond and his opponent move with a fluid grace within the shimmering beauty of the digital image. Alternately silhouetted and illuminated by shifting light patterns, the hand-to-hand combat becomes an almost dream-like dance, perhaps a microcosm of the dance of light and shadow that is cinema itself. This level of visual invention permeates the film, especially apparent in the climax, when the Scottish moors are illuminated by a deep red, casting an almost hellish yet still beautiful hue over the film’s finale.
Silva sends M a message that reads “Think on your sins”, and the themes of atonement and redemption reach fullest expression during the final sequence on the moors. Not only is the scene bathed in hellish red light, it also features Bond struggling with an opponent beneath the ice of a frozen loch, sinking deeper out of sight. Bond’s emergence from the water adds to the sense of a lone warrior battling the legions of hell, while in a church M awaits her fate. Her fate genuinely surprised and moved me, and I was left wondering whether M achieved redemption or damnation in the end. Much like Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, Skyfall does not end triumphantly for our hero. It does conclude with Bond ready to get back to work, but it also possesses a profound ambiguity and sober ambivalence. For a Bond film to offer such ambiguity is genuinely surprising and impressive, enabling Skyfall to excel not only as a Bond film, but as a film in general, one of the most satisfying of 2012. I have previously written about expectations and how they influence our responses: with Skyfall I expected a good Bond film, but not a film that worked on so many levels and exceeded my expectations narratively, aesthetically and thematically. The blend of familiarity and innovation in Skyfall surpassed the (expected) pleasures of The Avengers, Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises and Looper, providing one of the most satisfying cinema experiences I had in the past twelve months.
Review of 2012 Part Four – Great Expectations II: Inter-textual Looping
A late release of 2012, which I expect to be one of my films of the year, arrived with high expectations as to its quality. Rian Johnson’s Looper is, unusually, not a sequel, nor a prequel, nor a franchise instalment, a reboot, a remake or even an adaptation, but that rarest of films, an original mainstream movie. I found Looper an excellent sci-fi thriller, which used its time-travel conceit to effectively fuel its gangster setting and explore themes of freedom, destiny and responsibility. As Old and Young Joe, respectively, Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt convey excellent contrast between naïve nihilism and desperate hope, while Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan and Jeff Daniels provide sterling support, and Pierce Gagnon is thoroughly creepy.
Johnson’s style is unusual for an action film, favouring longer takes and a more measured pace than might be expected. The style is, however, effective, as rather than being caught up in frenetic action sequences, the film lingers on the consequences, both physical and mental, of violent action. We are used to seeing Bruce Willis wipe out a room’s worth of armed thugs, but at several crucial moments, Looper pauses to allow contemplation of what is about to come, and at one point denies showing us the kill. Instead, Joe’s face(s) shows the impact of what he has done, experience steadily etched into both, one youthful, the other aged, but both deeply pained.
Consequence is crucial, as the time travel conceit of Looper is deeply concerned with the impact of one’s actions, responsibility for those actions, and consideration of what impact actions have upon the future. Looper can become confusing if you think about its temporal mechanics too much, as Abe (Jeff Daniels) mentions. But it also uses these mechanics to motivate the overall plot and individual scenes, including a thoroughly nasty yet remarkably bloodless torture scene, and an emotionally powerful conclusion that emphasises personal responsibility. Whether the laws of causality would allow such attempts to change the future by altering the past is debatable, but that’s why we call it science fiction. However, the resonances with other science fiction films is quite striking, as it is easy to relate the film to others that are similar and yet different.
I am not alone in this response, as without pre-existing material to base expectations upon, the buzz surrounding Johnson’s third film seemed desperate to relate the film to other films, particularly in the science fiction genre. It makes sense to form associations through the time travel trope: Looper explores time travel in a similar way to The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Donnie Darko and Twelve Monkeys. All involve a traveller from the future who attempts to change the future by altering events in the past. Stylistically, Looper is very much its own entity, not as smooth as Cameron’s cyborg opus nor as trippy as Kelly’s debut or as skewed as Gilliam. A hard edge runs throughout Looper, perhaps echoing Johnson’s debut, high school noir Brick that also starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The measured pace restricts the visceral thrill of Looper’s action sequences, and the brutality of the film’s gangster setting is maintained, creating a grim and oppressive atmosphere. This brooding, malevolent oppression is in constant tension with the conceit of being able to change your destiny, through time travel or any other means. Looper’s grimness distinguishes it from Back to the Future, which is far more light-hearted and, furthermore, that film’s time travel and temporal causality is accidental rather than intentional. A more recent comparison is Source Code. Like Looper, Source Code involves an individual trying to change the past within a context that works against him and places him in terrible danger. Unlike Looper, Source Code is more concerned with alternate time lines than actual time travel, but both play to the conceit that one man can make a difference, face the past and fight the future (hang on, isn’t that Looper’s tagline?).
Other films that have been related to Looper include The Matrix, Children of the Corn, The Adjustment Bureau and Blade Runner, and these seem less obvious. A dystopian future need not always echo Blade Runner, and Looper’s largely rural setting is very different from Ridley Scott’s noir cityscapes. Only the final act bears resemblance to Children of the Corn, as Looper brings horror into its already potent genre mix of gangster, chase thriller and sci-fi. It is testament to Johnson’s skills as a writer-director that these elements integrate rather than clash – much like Argo, Looper performs an impressive balance between potentially disparate elements.
To compare The Matrix with Looper is strange, as the film’s subject matter as well as Johnson’s style is very different to the Wachowskis. While there is an element of mind-over-matter in Looper through the telekinesis of various characters, in The Matrix that element is part of the artificial reality, which is not a feature of Looper at all. Looper and The Matrix both involve men with a lot of guns, but that is hardly a distinctive feature. Similarly, as Looper is an intelligent sci-fi film with some complex ideas, an obvious reference point is Inception. Indeed, a moment in the trailer in which objects levitate reminded me of the famous upward tilt of a street in Inception, but when I saw Looper itself there was very little that reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s dream heist film.
Why is it so hard to take a film on its own without reference to other films, and why is it so easy to make these inter-textual connections? Saturation may be partly responsible, especially in an era of cross-media platforms where films, TV series, video games, music videos, webisodes, trailers, advertisements and YouTube videos assail us from every screen. But such inter-textual references are hardly new, as studies have demonstrated how major texts from Gothic literature such as Frankenstein fed into the work of later writers like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Subsequently, this literature fed into science fiction films from A Trip to the Moon and Metropolis, to The Blob and The Day the Earth Stood Still, to Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and Blade Runner, The Matrix, Inception and Looper. Science fiction is inherently inter-textual, as any science fiction film seems influenced by others and may well have been, consciously or unconsciously on the part of the filmmaker. As sci-fi consumers, we link one text to another as part of our textual understanding. As another example, when I recently saw the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (which was not as bad as I feared it would be), while being very different from the original film, it also looked to have been influenced by Independence Day, Close Encounters of the Third Kind as well as E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial. Similarly, Looper is perceived and understood as a science fiction film in relation to other science fiction films, so critics and audiences alike forge these links as part of our understanding of the science fiction mega-text. This works in several ways, as audiences are savvy enough both to see the commonalities between films like Source Code and Looper, and to create their own links between Looper and The Matrix or Inception.
These inter-textual references, not to mention marketing and commentary, created expectations for Looper. Not being a franchise instalment, marketing was more moderate and I only noticed the trailer and posters. But reviews had an influence: Total Film, which I tend to agree with, gave Looper a five star review and described it as the best sci-fi film since Moon, while Empire also gave it five stars and compared it favourably to Repo Men, Surrogates and In Time. The BBC’s Mark Kermode was positive but more reserved. Overall, critical reaction was very positive, so one could go into Looper expecting something good.
Precisely because of its non-franchise status, I was not sure what to expect of Looper except that it be very good, based on the reviews that I encountered. Most years deliver a major film which is not based on pre-existing material. Looper was the original oddity of 2012, much like Super 8 in 2011, Inception in 2010 and Avatar in 2009 (Avatar can be accused of being unoriginal, but it is not an adaptation of any previously published property). Super 8, Inception and Avatar were all among my favourite films of their respective years, and they are also all sci-fi. The link I made for Looper therefore was with earlier favourites of mine, and I expected the film to blow me away as those had. It is perhaps unsurprising that it did not, as Looper is not an emulation of those films and, overall, I do not think it is as accomplished. Super 8 created a convincing, believable community that was afflicted with something very strange; Inception used its high concept to explore issues of grief and memory while also being meta-cinematic; Avatar re-invigorated cinema and performed a spiritual call to arms. Looper merges genres in an intriguing and cohesive melange, but I did not feel it offered me the combined emotional and intellectual satisfaction of those previous films. Looper has much to admire and to enjoy, regardless of what it is like and unlike, but once again, expectations were too high and had a negative effect upon my appreciation of the film. That said, I imagine it will be rewarding on repeat viewings, and like Prometheus, should be an interesting film for philosophical discussion.
“Argo” – balancing act extraordinaire
Argo accomplishes the remarkable feat of striking a balance between drama, thrills, laughs and politics. It could have been an outright comedy, sending up Hollywood in a merciless satire, and it could have been a thoroughly tense and gripping espionage thriller. To be both of these and more is testament to the craftsmanship of Chris Terrio’s screenplay and Ben Affleck’s superb direction, which handles the different styles necessary for the contrasting sections and maintains an appropriate tone across the disparate elements. Equally, Argo avoids the pitfalls of being either a tedious and offensive piece of anti-Iranian propaganda, or a ponderous piece of finger-wagging at the US.
Where The Iron Lady spectacularly failed to be political, Argo accomplishes a remarkable piece of political balance. In the current climate, propaganda and political correctness are in constant tension, and Argo manages this tension by not offering judgement. Affleck does not apportion blame for the hostage crisis, but also does not shy away from historical evidence. The opening storyboards that relate the history of Iran feature a nationalised oil industry that made the people prosperous, and the replacement of that government, with foreign aid, by one that would serve the oil interests of the USA and the UK. Consequently, the Iranian Revolution in 1979 seems a reasonable response to almost thirty years of foreign-backed government that disrespected traditional Islamic beliefs. Politically, this is a bold stance for Affleck to take, presenting an Islamic uprising as a political revolution rather than religious fanaticism. Terrorism does not come up, and while the Iranian Revolutionary Army is certainly intimidating and aggressive, the members are not presented as psychotic, but justifiably angry and indignant.
Nor does the film perform a laboured critique of US foreign policy. Plenty of films do this and many quite well, such as Rendition (Gavin Hood, 2007), Fair Game (Doug Liman, 2010) and Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010). But Argo contents itself with simply presenting the historical evidence and allowing the viewer to form their own opinion. By focusing on the human element, the film allows us to see the impact upon ordinary people of both revolutionary anger and capitalist greed. There may be some who bemoan any presentation of the CIA and US foreign policy as anything other than the epitome of evil – even a humanitarian mission like that undertaken by Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) can be seen as an act of American imperialism and the Embassy fugitives should have been caught. I find this attitude unduly cynical and quite offensive – if we can feel empathy for the Iranian people then we can for the Americans who are equally victimised, ultimately by the same culprit. Or to quote Lester Siegel (Alan Alda), “Argo fuck yourself!”
Satires about Hollywood range from the unnerving Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) to the outrageous For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest, 2006). Argo accomplishes much that these films do and does so with neatness and economy, plus it has the bonus of being based on actual events. Lester Siegel and John Chambers (John Goodman) were a real producer and make-up artist in the 1970s, and Argo’s presentation of the lies, bluster and outright absurdity in movie-making is presented as both plausible and completely normal. This is crucial – rather than making Hollywood appear silly through caricature or stylisation, Argo plays it straight with simple presentation, again allowing the viewer to make up their own mind. I laughed out loud at several points during the Hollywood section of the narrative, such as Siegel’s anecdote about “knowing” Warren Beatty. Alda’s performance is larger than life which suits his character, and in a town known for frauds, fame and fantasy, he fits perfectly. The stages of film production are traced in all their showbiz glory, including the acquisition of a script, a cast reading complete with sci-fi costumes, and the more mundane office and (essential) advertisement in Variety. The cumulative effect of these scenes give the viewer reason to care that this film is produced – an interesting what-if would be for Argo to be entirely about the production of such a film; would the viewer’s investment been as high? I believe that it would – the passion and conviction of Siegel is infectious, and there is much to be enjoyed in the depiction of success, especially in such a weird and wonderful setting as Hollywood.
While the Hollywood section of Argo is highly amusing, the bulk of the film follows thriller conventions, from the storming of the US Embassy and the escape of the six fugitives, to the final act when Mendez joins them and must lead them through Tehran. Argo delivers several highly tense set pieces – there were at least three points at which I let out a breath I had been holding. The casting helps: while Affleck is the biggest name in the film, the other recognisable faces – Goodman, Alda, Cranston – are all either in Washington or Hollywood. The fugitives in Tehran are all played by relative unknowns, so there is no star baggage to indicate who is more likely to live or die. Furthermore, the opening scenes establish these characters very well, thrust into a perilous situation. The sense of fear is conveyed through the combination of the performances and Affleck’s close, intimate cinematography, and also the ambient soundtrack. Shifting from hushed tones to eruptions of shouting, the atmosphere of omnipresent danger is almost palpable. I was struck by the sound of footsteps – hurried, on-the-verge-of-panic steps as they run from the embassy, and also voices – bustle in the market, discussions among the Revolutionaries at the embassy, and most of all in the breathlessly tense climax at the airport, when the fugitives are in most jeopardy.
Perhaps ironically, tension is exacerbated through the absence of violence. Not a single American agent fires a weapon in Argo, and despite the constant threat the film has few moments of actual violence. This places emphasis upon the actors and their fearful reactions, as well as those playing Iranians, especially Farshad Farahat as a checkpoint guard at Tehran Airport who is frightening when shouting in Persian, but terrifying when whispering in English. Similarly, the danger to the fugitives is increased through the (literal) piecing together of shredded documents, rather than men with guns chasing them. When armed men finally do chase the fugitives, it is all the more nerve-shredding for being the culmination of all the tension that has been built up previously.
Argo is also interesting as a period piece. I was struck by the moments in which Mendez or his CIA superior Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) communicate via landlines, diplomatic telephones and radios, as these contrast with the modern day equivalent where computers and cell phones are always within easy reach. It is surprising how much tension can be generated by the simple inability to contact the crucial person who will give the essential authorisation, and if the person is not beside the telephone, lives will be lost. The CIA desperately trying to find somebody without the advantages of surveillance cameras and electronic tracking could seem quaint and dated, but it actually increases the drama as it appears strange and alien in contrast to the high tech of James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer (clearly, secret agents always have the initials JB). How do you get hold of the crucial person when they have no mobile and are not in the office to answer the phone? The resource used time and time again in Argo is creativity, a crucial element of intelligence that (at least on screen) can be lost in the jungle of technology. This resonates with the production of a movie, where creativity is needed at every stage, from script to publicity, creating another meta-cinematic link between the fiction spun by Mendez and the narrative spun by Affleck, and links Argo with a recent spate of nostalgic spy thrillers.
Like the contemporary-set Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012) and the period features Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005) and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011), Argo displays a nostalgia for old-style espionage, more dependent on individual resourcefulness and ingenuity than high-powered technology. Mendez’s mission is entirely dependent on subterfuge and his wits; despite the urgency of some situations, patience is also needed as an instant response may not come. Much as Skyfall features a steady stripping away of 21st century benefits, so Argo demonstrates a time, not so long ago, when high speed internet connections (which always seem so much more reliable for movie characters than for us mere mortals) were not the saving grace.
The nostalgia is established from the opening credits, which are presented with the Warner Bros. logo from the 1970s. There also appeared to be scratches on the print, which was impossible because I watching a digital projection. For there to be “scratches” means that the appearance of scratches had been added to the film data digitally, and this indicates a remarkable (and possibly excessive) commitment to the presentation of period. Historical context is not confined to what is represented but extends to the manner of presentation, creating an air of nostalgia that extends beyond the screen and into the auditorium itself.
Personally, I did not need digital scratches or an old style logo to draw me into the past. I was born in the same year as the Iranian Revolution so I remember scratches on celluloid prints and often found them irritating. Some lament the passing of projectionists and the rise of digital projection, but the presentation of a pristine image aids the illusion of looking through a window into another world, place or time. Scratches could interfere with engagement in the narrative, if one pays too close attention to the presentation. That said, after the opening minutes I was sufficiently drawn into the film that I didn’t notice any further scratches.
The nostalgia demonstrated in Argo, as well as the other films identified above, suggests a perspective on espionage and foreign relations that links back to the film’s political balance. By immersing the viewer within the context of the story, providing a potted history lesson and allowing the Iranian perspective as well as the American, not to mention emphasising the importance of Canadian assistance to the mission, Argo offers a perspective that is not only politically balanced but historically astute and remarkably multi-cultural. It is a tale of globalisation set in a time before globalisation was a buzzword. Rather than being a story of espionage for nefarious purposes, here the CIA saves lives and the casting of blame or identification of villains serves no purpose. All over the world, now as then, people are in danger and in terrible situations, often as a result of political decisions made by those who never have to experience the consequences. Argo draws attention to consequence and interconnections, and dares to suggest that international cooperation is a way forward, rather than individual nations and agendas.
Theatre and film work in very different ways, and normally I prefer the medium of cinema. Recently though, I watched a film in the afternoon then went to a play in the evening, and was very glad to have the latter to look forward to. The film was Catwoman (Pitof, 2004), widely reviled as a stain upon the generally admired genre of the superhero film. That revilement is well deserved as Catwoman is a tawdry, messy, poorly edited, badly shot, horribly written, abysmally performed torture session of a motion picture. Within twenty minutes I wanted to strangle the director; by the end, I thought that would be too kind.
Happily, that evening I went to see Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path at the Sewell Barn Theatre, performed by the Sewell Barn company. It proved an excellent piece of theatre that highlights some of the differences between the two media, both in terms of production and consumption. A film script is written, or adapted, for a specific release, whereas plays, though they can be written for specific productions, also exist in their own right and anyone can do a new version of it, assuming they can obtain the rights. Therefore, I am happy to report that the only criticism I would make of Flare Path relates specifically to the play/script itself, rather than any choices or actions of the director, stage designer or actors, as it was hardly something that could be omitted or altered.
Rattigan’s one misstep is the under-developed reference to the acting profession. The Hollywood actor Peter Kyle, played with wavering bluster by Paul Goldsmith, is a former lover of Patricia Graham (Gemma Johnston), née Warren, now married to Teddy Graham (Luke Owen). He comes to the hotel in Lincolnshire to win Pat back, and she must choose between this romantic figure and her pilot husband. The love triangle is a great device, but there is no reason for their romantic history to be based on the stage, as this barely informs the action of Flare Path itself. References to playing a part and never being oneself or expressing true emotions could be interesting, but these are not related to the context of the War or the fear and concern that runs through most of the characters. Peter’s outsider status is obvious yet under-developed, and the drama could have been heightened by Peter being less of a contrast to Teddy, making Pat’s decision more difficult. As it is, her conflict is less a choice between duty and romance, but between a desire that is simple and one that is complex.
Not that this writing infelicity is a barrier, as Johnston is mesmerising as a woman in turmoil. Even if a choice is underwritten, the important thing is that the character with the choice must be sympathetic to a viewer, and Pat was in clear and sympathetic turmoil throughout much of the play. Her inner conflict serves as a microcosm of the wider conflict in which the play is set. Director John Holden states that the “The War is like an extra character off stage, always present and threatening”, and indeed its presence is never forgotten, impacting upon the minds, hearts and souls of both characters and audience. This is most apparent in the play’s standout emotional scene, when Owen delivers a heart-wrenching account of Teddy’s terror during his last mission. Post-traumatic-stress-disorder is familiar to those who take an interest in war, combat veterans and their representations on stage and screen. While it may have been called shell-shock, or a “funk” back then, it is impressive to see this difficult subject, and the cultural attitude towards it, presented with such sensitivity. Teddy’s suffering contrasts well with Pat’s, Owen and Johnston conveying a relationship that is still in-development but can grow through further time and experience shared together, if that is what she decides.
Other performances were equally strong – of particular note is James Thomson as Flying Officer Count Skriczevinsky. Saddled with a comedy accent and limited English, the Count could have been little more than a caricature. Yet every time he was on-stage left me in no doubt that I was seeing a rounded, developed human being, a man out of place with a makeshift family, alienated despite the kindness and support around him. Although he seems a minor character, the affection that the others feel for him is infectious and their concern for his safety palpable; I reacted quite emotionally when his fate was revealed.
Truly, there was not a bad note from a single performer, and Holden demonstrates what is essential about multiple points of action. When two people are talking in one part of the stage, and someone in another area is reacting, the one who is reacting must always be worth looking at. This is the difference between viewing film and viewing theatre: the film text directs the attention of the viewer through different shots and cuts, but such control is not possible in theatre. Though I could focus on one piece of action on-stage, at many points I glanced over to somebody else, and never was I taken out of the drama when I did so. Holden could have cleared the stage except for those talking, or have those not directly involved remain frozen, but instead everyone on stage felt active, engaged and relatable to. It may be a cliché to say that I forgot I was watching actors performing, but I genuinely did. For two and a bit hours, I considered myself in 1942 with people engaged in the War, both in combat and awaiting news of combat, feeling their fear, fortune, amusement and anguish along the way. Definitely no strangling required.
I guess I’d better see the film adaptation, The Way to the Stars (Anthony Asquith, 1945), at some point.
Review of 2012 Part Two – Turkey of the Year: “The Iron Lady”
As a liberal “lefty tosser” (as Boris Johnson might say), I was raised to despise Margaret Thatcher and everything she stood for – the disempowering of the unions, the privatisation of Britain’s rail systems, the Poll Tax, the emphasis of private profit over public service and businesses over people, and the war over the Falklands. However, none of that means I could not appreciate or even enjoy a film about her, because she is a fascinating figure and one of the most significant political forces of the 20th century. Just because you do not agree with someone should not prevent one from engaging with the issues that they raise. Issues around political process and ideology, electoral campaigns, personal loyalty and, yes, feminism are all issues I would have happily engaged with in a cinematic narrative, regardless of what I think about the actual person of Mrs Thatcher.
Viewing the film, therefore, proved an exercise in frustration as every interesting issue is brushed aside by scriptwriter Abi Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyd. Margaret’s younger years growing up during the Blitz and involvement with local politics in support of her father’s business are thinly sketched, offering insufficient motivation for her passion and commitment. Her experience in the Conservative Party as a lone woman in a boy’s club is restricted to shots of her shoes and hat, and brief discussions about how she can advance her career and political agenda. Clashes with her family such as husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) over her decision to run for party leader appear and disappear quickly, as are the conflicts she experiences as Prime Minister: the US Ambassador; the opposition; her cabinet; eventually the faction that forces her to resign.
The major problem with The Iron Lady is its flashback structure, as the 80-something Margaret (Meryl Streep) ambles around her home and encounters various figures from her past. As individual scenes, the actual flashbacks are handled well, but they are all over too quickly and we return to the doddering old woman. Her mental deterioration is presented with sensitivity, but Thatcher’s impact upon British life is glossed over far too much. The one standout moment comes when Margaret, as Education Secretary, is confronted by the Labour opposition who deride her for speaking too shrilly. Margaret rises to the challenge with the ringing speech: “If the right honourable gentleman could pay a little more attention to what I am saying rather than how I am saying it, he may receive a valuable education in spite of himself”. Thatcher-hater though I am, I found that scene inspiring and thought the film could embrace the gender politics, making the point that Margaret is a capable politician disadvantaged only by the sexist attitudes of her peers. But the topic does not appear again – when Margaret mentions to the US Ambassador that she “has been at war all my life, sir”, no link is made between the two confrontations with men that could suggest her on-going struggle. I do not entirely agree with Thatcher being a feminist icon, but I understand the position and was caught up with the moment of female challenge to patriarchy. But The Iron Lady abandoned this challenge as quickly as everything else, returning to its light, insubstantial treatment of weighty material.
I try to assess films on what they are, rather than what they are not. It irritates me when critics and viewers complain that the plot, characterisation or dialogue should have done x or y. It is a common complaint about adaptations, sequels, remakes, reboots, and especially historical dramas that exercise dramatic licence over “actual” events. The Iron Lady is historical and probably misrepresents a great many events chronicled in various news reports and parliamentary memoirs – I care not. What is more problematic is the lack of interest in the events on display. JFK, Braveheart and U-571 may play fast and loose with historical records, but their depiction of the events demonstrates an interest in them. As a biopic, The Iron Lady suggests interest in the life of Margaret Thatcher, yet fails to demonstrate this interest time and time again.
An interesting comparison is The Queen, also concerned with recent British political history. The Queen focuses upon the relationship between Elizabeth II and Tony Blair during the furore following the death of Princess Diana, digging into issues such as the role of the monarchy in modern Britain, especially when another royal figure provokes a strong response. Michael Sheen’s role as Tony Blair was overshadowed by the attention and praise showered upon Helen Mirren in her portrayal of Elizabeth II, but he still came across as a sympathetic and believable politician as well as a human being. In its apparent desire to avoid controversy and humanise Margaret Thatcher to the point of enfeeblement, The Iron Lady fails to engage with her as a politician which is a central part of her historical identity. To take a controversial figure and focus upon the controversy, and make a believable, sympathetic character out of that context could have been really interesting and, had I seen such a film, I would have been impressed. But to treat Thatcher’s political career virtually as part of the background is to disrespect Thatcher herself, deliver a safe, anodyne film and treat the viewer to little more than a series of vaguely connected vignettes. It could have been so much more, and what is there is all too easy.
There was rumour at one point that Oliver Stone was to direct a biopic of Margaret Thatcher. While he has mellowed in recent years, Stone used to be Hollywood’s enfant terrible, and has delivered films of other controversial figures, most recently W. W. is a thoroughly odd film, eclectic in casting, style and music, but Stone wraps it together with enough élan to keep the viewer engaged. George W. Bush is arguably even more controversial than Margaret Thatcher, and Stone’s film engages with the controversy without offering tedious, moralistic judgement. A judgement in The Iron Lady was not essential, but engagement with the political history of a politician seems obvious, and to actively avoid this feels like cowardice and a lack of conviction in the subject. Meryl Streep’s performance has conviction and she richly deserves the plaudits and awards she has received (or, to quote the great lady’s Oscar acceptance speech, “whatever”). It is a crying shame that the screenwriter and director do not also demonstrate this conviction, instead delivering a film that is, ultimately, a tale of an old woman suffering from dementia and experiencing flashbacks of her vivid, fascinating and controversial life. How frustrating, then, that the film itself is not vivid, nor fascinating, and only controversial in playing it so utterly safe. Easily, the biggest disappointment of the year.
Review of 2012 Part One – “Safe House”
To break with tradition, I thought I’d start relaying my top ten of 2012 rather early. The main reason for this is that financial pressures have made it hard to see many films this year, so I’ve probably had my last cinema excursion of 2012. That said, there might be a December release that can be seen in January, so the official, ranked Top Ten will not appear until the start of 2013. But over the next few weeks, I’ll post commentary on the films that really impressed me this year. I have posted on several before, so I’ll try not to repeat myself, and those which have not been spoken on yet shall be in detail.
As a start though, I post on the year’s disappointments, as I don’t think I’ll see anything else that provokes my dismay. Overall, this has been a good year. I have very wide tastes so usually find something to appreciate in all movies that I see. There have been a couple of turkeys in which I did find something to appreciate, but they were still less than good. Terms such as “best” and “worst” are problematic because they imply some sort of objective standard, so in discussion I shall simply refer to what I found the weakest, the least convincing or the least entertaining films, and later on, what I consider the strongest and most impressive films that I saw this year.
Safe House (Daniel Espinosa, 2012) was a disappointment, mainly because its content was over-emphasised and therefore felt lacking in confidence. A film expresses confidence through pacing, measure and commitment to its subject. Safe House failed to deliver this confidence, through a plot that felt contrived for the sake of contrivance, characters that were thin at best, and a style that was terribly overwrought and more distracting than engaging. I’m all for a good conspiracy, but the conspiracy was so side-lined as to appear rudimentary. The film’s finale suggested some kind of wider socio-political critique, but this jarred against the mostly personal dramas of the earlier narrative.
The personal dramas were unconvincing as well. Denzel Washington is one of the finest actors working today, and he is as committed as always. But his Tobin Frost is neither sufficiently cynical nor idealistic. His poise and control demonstrates his experience and confidence, which results in him seeming to have walked in from another movie. I understand star vehicles, but could the vehicle and the star at least be going in the same direction? Frost’s relationship with Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is meant to be the emotional core of the film, and Reynolds does a decent job of portraying the well-trained but inexperienced CIA operative. However, too much time is spent on the run for any real relationship to develop, and while some mentoring moments appear, they, along with too much of the film, get lost in the incessant, intrusive, infuriating unsteady cinematography.
The shaky cam aesthetic is one that can be used well, Paul Greengrass being a particular master of it with The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), United 93 (2006) and Green Zone (2010). Indeed, the cinematographer for Safe House, Oliver Wood, was also DOP on The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum, which gave me a particular incentive to see it (although some were put off by the prospect of nausea-inducing cinematography). I did not find the shaky cam sickening, but it was very annoying due to its indiscriminate use. Weston sits and bounces a ball off the wall – camera waves around like the operator is drunk. David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) and Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) talk tersely at Langley – camera rocks around as though on board ship in a storm. Frost meets Alec Wade (Liam Cunningham) in a private restaurant booth – camera swoops around their faces and the confined space like a mosquito on speed. It got to the point where I wanted to shout at the screen: “Just stay still!” It was annoying to the point of disengaging me from the action completely.
When used judiciously, such as in sequences like Safe House’s car chases, one of which involves a struggle, as well as a fight at a second safe house, unsteady cinematography can be effective in bringing the viewer into the action and allowing us to vicariously experience the instability and disorientation of the action sequence. However, if the camera is constantly unsteady the viewer has no stability to be lost, is already disorientated, and therefore there is no suspense. Suspense is absolutely crucial to a thriller or action movie – the viewer requires uncertainty about what might happen in order to be engaged in the scene. Instability and disorientation can add to this uncertainty and increase the suspense, but when the opening shots and indeed all subsequent shots are unstable and disorientating, the viewer can be certain that what happens next will be unstable and disorientating! If you know what’s coming, suspense goes out the window.
Naysayers may point out that Paul Greengrass is similarly indiscriminate with his cinematography, but the crucial difference is pace. Greengrass maintains a swift pace throughout his films, Jason Bourne typically on the run while in Green Zone characters are either moving very fast or having quick, terse meetings. In United 93, the shaky cam is appropriate during the takeover and attempted re-taking of the doomed airliner, but earlier the camera stands back, only moving slightly as it betrays an almost voyeuristic pose as the hijackers offer final prayers and the passengers prepare to board. So Greengrass, champion of shaky cam, exercises its use with a surprising restraint and discipline, which Espinosa did not instruct Wood to do with Safe House. The dialogue scenes in Safe House are slower and more deliberate, working as a break between the action, yet the camera continues to pan, track, tilt, dip, sway, plunge, spin for no dramatic purpose. Get a Steadicam for the love of Hitchcock!
I like to assess a film on all its components, and I will say that the South African location of Safe House distinguishes it from the more standard American setting. But James Bond has been globe-trotting for 50 years, Jason Bourne passed through most of Europe as well as India and Russia (smashing a fair bit up along the way), and even Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011) spent some time in Istanbul. For a view of a South African slum, you’re better off with District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009). For a lean, tense espionage thriller with judicious use of shaky cam, you’re much better off with The Bourne Ultimatum.
Frightful Five No. 1. “The Descent” (Neil Marshall, 2005) [Spoiler Warning]
In the summer of 2005, I went to see the second film by British director, Neil Marshall. I had enjoyed Dog Soldiers immensely but reviews had warned me that this was very different, and they were not kidding. Within the first five minutes of the film I had jumped out of my seat and been thrust into a thoroughly bleak and uncaring filmic world. Then things got nasty.
The Descent is, quite simply, the most harrowing experience I have ever had in a cinema, and subsequent viewings on DVD have not dimmed my appreciation/trauma. The films included in this list all feature threatening environments, and no environment could be more threatening than a cave, many hundreds of metres below ground, surrounded by solid rock and no possibility of rescue (at sea, there is a chance you might be spotted). I am not claustrophobic, but I felt utterly trapped as I watched the plight of the six characters; it also put me off caving for the foreseeable future. I think much of the film’s claustrophobia was brought on by the simple technique of having the actors light themselves. This restricts our view to what they can see, and therefore draws us closer to them, increasing our empathy for their dire situation. The cruelty I have mentioned previously is not only in the cinematography, which is less distant than the other films in this list, but also in the mise-en-scene: hard, unyielding rock without any give or semblance of mercy. The sea of Jaws is uncaring, but the caves of The Descent are utterly brutal, serving as both enclosure and obstacle as our heroines struggle and battle to escape.
Battling is also key to the drama and the horror of The Descent. The eponymous downward motion refers not only to the physical journey, but the psychological disintegration of the group. When panic sets in, they all start to lose their grip, shouting at each other and casting blame. Not that the assignment of blame is without reason – Juno (Natalie Mendoza) is responsible for them being in an unknown cave and in grave danger, but casting blame will not get them out and Juno proves the most capable, maintaining authority as they need to focus on escape if they are to survive. Yet the panic continues to grow, such as when Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) glimpses what she believes is daylight and runs recklessly towards it. Holly is an experienced caver and should know better, but her descent into panic and recklessness has progressed to the state where she runs straight into a fall that breaks her leg. Marshall does not skimp on the grisly details, as Holly’s agonising injury is presented in graphic detail, as are other injuries that the characters later sustain.
Most of this terror occurs in the first hour of the film, before anything nasty has appeared. The fear is generated entirely from the environment and the situation, and by this stage, there have been at least two major jumps, terrible events and an increasingly desperate situation. One hour in I was already terrified, and had the film continued in that vein, it would have been frightening enough because of the steadily increasing suspense. When all hell really breaks loose with the appearance of the crawlers, the film could have descended (sorry) into a wild, gory free-for-all, which might not have been scary. Remarkably, the film maintains tension for its second half, including some truly nerve-shredding sequences. There are further moments of (literally) bone-crunching violence, and also scenes of sheer helplessness. Empathy and suspense reinforce each other at these moments, such as when three of the women make an agonisingly painful climb across a deep chasm. Their helplessness in the face of overwhelming odds mean the viewer is not only afraid for what might happen, but desperately sad when something does.
As if all that wasn’t enough, the crawlers are thoroughly scary. Their initial appearances are as shadowy glimpses, and the moment I first saw one in all its horrific glory, I actually screamed in the cinema, which is a very rare occurrence. On subsequent viewings, even though I know it’s coming, I still jump and give a little yelp. Nor do the crawlers simply look horrible, as they are among the most vicious monsters ever to grace a screen. Their assaults upon our heroines are a debasement, turning human beings into meat that will be torn apart with no regard. The attack of the crawlers therefore is another descent, both of the characters into prey, and the descent of humans into predatory animals, as the crawlers are themselves at least anatomically human.
The descent of humanity is also expressed in the central character, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald). From the beginning of the film she is steadily stripped of the features of civilisation, culminating in her virtual transformation into a primitive beast. Improvising weapons out of rocks, antlers and fire, stained with the blood of her enemies, she becomes nearly as frightening as the crawlers. Yet her transformation provides at best only a brief victory, as her later confrontation with Juno is as vicious as anything yet encountered. Tragically, Juno tells Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) that she must save Sarah, and their time spent fighting shoulder-to-shoulder is all too brief. Sarah is the Final Girl, but the film’s final twist (at least in the British cut) confirms just how cruel The Descent truly is.
I have mentioned in previous posts the cruelty and indifference expressed by the camera of horror cinema. Crucial to The Descent’s place as my Number One Frightful Film is its unrelenting cruelty: the suffering experienced by Sarah; the awful situation the women find themselves in; the claustrophobic mise-en-scene; the hideousness and the viciousness of the crawlers; the descent into conflict and eventual savagery; the devastating finale which ranks alongside Se7en and The Mist for a vicious kick in the teeth that leaves one feeling a sense of abject horror. Abjection is perhaps the lowest state to which anyone can sink – the knowledge that no matter what you do, your life has been ruined, you have been ruined and you are going to die horribly. Some films offer this state, but few combine it with unrelenting tension, severe emotional discomfort, major shocks and a profound sense of loss and pain. The Descent manages all of this and more, making it my Number One Frightful Film, and a really, really good one as well.