Danny Boyle is one of Britain’s hottest directors right now, with the double whammy of winning an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire and the small matter of directing the Olympics opening ceremony. Whereas other high profile Brits often make the jump to Hollywood (yes, Christopher Nolan, I mean you), Boyle has continued to make home-grown films, shooting on location in London and at such venues as 3 Mills Studios. Furthermore, Boyle has maintained his distinctive approach to filmmaking, despite the grandeur of the Oscars and the Olympics. His most recent film, Trance, is a psychological thriller which focuses upon three characters, and looks to have the same visceral, gritty approach that he established in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.
Boyle is a particular advocate of digital film, used to great effect in his Boyle’s foray into horror with 28 Days Later…. Shot on DV, 28 Days Later… tells the story of a Britain devastated by a virus that turns people into savage beasts, presented in a grainy image with an immediate, snatched quality. In the early scenes as Jim (Cillian Murphy) searches the eerie, deserted streets of London, the image has a tactile quality, drawing us further into Jim’s situation, feeling as well as seeing and hearing what he encounters. The processing of the image also feels underdone (though it almost certainly is not), which adds to the sense of immediacy.
The immediacy of the digital image expresses the down-to-earth level of the film as a whole. Although the film does not technically feature zombies, because the “Infected” are not dead, the post-apocalyptic tone of survivors holding onto existence owes much to the zombie film tradition, best demonstrated in the films of George A. Romero. Like Romero, Boyle’s non-zombie zombie film has political undertones, beginning with the opening shots that consist of news footage of violent acts: riots, police brutality, war. Presented on a series of screens before a laboratory chimpanzee, these initial images express humanity’s inhumanity, in contrast to the passive ape that is unaffected by the violence. This conceit runs through the whole film, as we are repeatedly shown the savagery and inhumanity of humans in a variety of forms.
The most obvious form of this inhumanity is, of course, the Infected, transformed by the Rage virus into rampaging beasts. Another form is the survivors, especially Selena (Naomie Harris), who has abandoned sympathy and compassion in favour of a ruthless survival wish, which she describes as willing to kill anyone infected “in a heartbeat”. Although initially dazed and confused, Jim eventually morphs into a savage creature himself, brutally killing an opponent (who is not Infected) by driving his thumbs into the other man’s eyes. Savagery is intrinsic in humans, the film suggests, all it takes is a little push.
Most interesting are the soldiers that Jim, Selena, Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns) travel north to reach. Commanded by Major Henry West (Christopher Ecclestone), the soldiers imprison Selena and Hannah as concubines to repopulate the human race, believing that they are the last survivors. Just as the Infected are reduced to basic animal ferocity, so have the soldiers reverted to reproductive desire. Major West describes their situation in clinical terms, saying that his men feared they would simply die and that would be the end of humanity, so he “promised them women”. What is more revealing, though, is what West says about all the killing:
This is what I’ve seen in the four weeks since infection. People killing people. Which is much what I saw in the four weeks before infection, and the four weeks before that, and before that, and as far back as I care to remember. People killing people. Which to my mind, puts us in a state of normality right now.
In other words, the Rage has not made any major difference. His perspective indicates that whether Infected or not, people kill people. The film plays out this belief, as almost everyone kills at least once. The exception is the teenage Hannah, the innocent child, who Selena will do anything to protect, even drugging Hannah so that she is oblivious to the impending rape. 28 Days Later… is post-apocalyptic in the sense of being post-civilisation – as the Joker said: “When the chips are down, these ‘civilised’ people, they’ll eat each other”.
The first time I saw 28 Days Later…, I thought the depravity of the soldiers was the first appearance of humanity’s inhumanity beyond the Infected, but on a second viewing I realised that the theme is there from the beginning (I missed the very opening first time around). The activists who break into the laboratory in the first scene see themselves as humanitarian by ending animal research that they view as torture. Equally, the scientists performing the experiments see their research as humanitarian. Nonetheless, the scientists have still harmed the chimps by infecting them with Rage, and the activists cause harm by ignoring the warnings the chimps. The scientist (David Schneider) urges the activists to kill the woman who is infected and then tries himself, demonstrating the swiftness with which “civilisation” is dropped. It is hardly surprising that civilisation becomes anarchy in just four weeks, if human savagery is awakened so easily. All that is left are random acts of kindness, such as Selena and Mark (Noah Huntley) rescuing Jim, Frank protecting Jim and Selena, Jim returning to the military headquarters to save Selena and Hannah.
What is especially interesting about the humanity that is left after the spread of Infection is where it is not found – as indicated in the title of this post, salvation is searched for in the wrong places. I use the term salvation deliberately, because the broadcast put out by Major West emphasises salvation, and his base turns out to be anything but. During Jim’s initial search of London, he goes into a church, presumably in search of salvation. Instead he finds the building filled with people, who initially seem dead (indeed, I wondered if there had been a mass suicide). But when he calls to them, they reveal themselves to be Infected. A priest emerges from a doorway and staggers towards Jim, who backs away before knocking the priest to the floor and running away. A church and an army base promising salvation prove to be dangerous, and there are various scenes that feature choral music reminiscent of church choirs. During the survivors’ journey from London to Manchester, they stop to rest at an old monastery, in one of the film’s few peaceful moments. There is little in the way of peace or mercy in Boyle’s blood-stained Britain, but a spiritual element nonetheless runs throughout 28 Days Later…
What we see in 28 Days Later… is a loss of the soul, humanity’s soul consumed by the Rage, reducing most of the population to bloodthirsty animals. For those who survive, the soul is ignored in the battle for survival. Selena’s lack of sympathy and compassion suggests a containment of her soul, which is weakened over the course of the film. Not that a weakening of her soul’s containment means Selena herself weakens – she remains strong and assertive throughout, if anything gaining further strength in her desire to protect Hannah and save Jim after he is shot. Jim never becomes as cold as her, providing the film’s only comic relief with blackly humorous comments about their situation. His discovery of West’s plans for Selena and Hannah leads to complete rejection of the soldiers, and West orders his death as well as that of Sergeant Farrell (Stuart McQuarrie). Farrell clings to some form of faith which prompts West to ask why Farrell joined the army in the first place, which Farrell does not answer. What place does faith have when we are abandoned? Although Jim does maintain sympathy in his compassionate quest to rescue the women, he still resorts to complete savagery in order to do so. Does he lose his soul as well, or is the soul somehow compatible with savagery? This is one of several spiritual questions the film poses.
Horror cinema is often used to express political, social and moral issues, such as consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, male fear of pregnancy in Alien, infection in Nosferatu. 28 Days Later… explores spiritual questions relating to the durability of the soul and where to find salvation. Institutions like the church and the army prove to be as savage as the world around them, salvation found only in individual compassion and sympathy. It is perhaps fitting that the message our heroes stretch over the grass at the end of the film says “HELLO” rather than “HELP” – Jim, Selena and Hannah are connected to each other, and reach out to make further connections with others.
Django Unchained is a Tarantino film. No matter what else can be said about Django Unchained, it is very much WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY QUENTIN TARANTINO. This brings with it a great deal of baggage, and not all the baggage is good. On the plus side, Tarantino is a very skilled writer, delivering dialogue that is witty and urbane, eloquent without being forced. His plots require and reward attention, and he can structure an individual scene and set piece superbly. As a case in point, the introduction of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in Django Unchained, his banter with two slave owners and the (literal) unchaining of Django (Jamie Foxx), is a master class in tension and dark humour.
Tarantino has great strength as a director of actors as well. Christoph Waltz has now won two Oscars for his performances in Tarantino’s films, and Django Unchained also features outstanding displays from Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson. This is perhaps due to Tarantino taking a step back and allowing his actors to enjoy his dialogue, resulting in conversation scenes which are longer than many other directors would allow. These sequences can also be extremely tense, such as when Calvin Candy (DiCaprio) explains the biological differences between white and black people, and when the threat of imminent death literally bursts into the scene, Calvin transforms into a ferocious demon. By prolonging the scene, the tension is all the greater.
This prolonging though, is indicative of Tarantino’s greatest weakness: self-indulgence. Tarantino the director seems incapable or unwilling of restricting Tarantino the writer. Not only are dialogue scenes prolonged, but so are action sequences, particularly the big shoot-out in which several of the film’s main players are killed. This sequence is unnecessarily protracted with excessive amounts of agonised screaming and blood spatter. Worse, there are scenes that do not progress the plot and, while they may work individually, they slow the narrative and make the film bloated and flabby. Ridiculing the Klu Klux Klan (and possibly Birth of a Nation) is all very well, but it does not aid Django and Schultz’s quest for Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Similarly, having Stephen (Jackson) regale Django with details of his impending doom gives Jackson a chance to be very very nasty, but it serves little other purpose, as Stephen’s despicable nature has already been established by this point.
I could go on, as there are many indulgent moments and unnecessary scenes in Django Unchained, which add up to a bloated, overlong film that lacks pace and is sorely in need of discipline. Of course, perhaps I only say this because I am accustomed to films that are made by directors without Tarantino’s creative freedom, with producers demanding that the film come in under a certain time so there can be more screenings in a day to generate greater revenue. Harvey Weinstein clearly trusts the Tarantino brand enough that the film’s length won’t harm its box office (and let’s not forget that the extremely successful Gone With the Wind and Titanic are even longer than Django Unchained, so the industrial logic of shorter films may well be hokum). Perhaps Tarantino is to be admired for not restricting his films, letting them play out at a leisurely and unhurried pace. But that doesn’t stop the director’s cameo being unnecessary and very frustrating.
Tarantino has stated that his intention with Django Unchained was to put slavery up front and present it honestly. Whether the details of this presentation are correct or not is beside the point, because the premise of slavery presented in Django Unchained is one of utter dehumanisation. Black people, within the institution of slavery as it appears in Django Unchained, are treated as inferior beings in every possible way. Calvin’s (literal) dissection of the reasons for this inferiority is chilling in its absurdity, and the physical violence inflicted on slaves is utterly horrific. Examples include being locked in a metal box in the hot sun; whipping; physical combat that leads to fatal injuries and, in perhaps the film’s most upsetting scene, a pack of dogs are set upon a would-be escapee. These scenes are oddly juxtaposed with more over-the-top violence, such as the four shoot-outs that occur towards the end of the film. As mentioned above, one goes on for a long time with much wailing and spraying. Another is comical in its abruptness and suddenness. Django’s final revenge is drawn out and, again, over the top to the point of absurdity.
These moments of “Tarantino-esque” violence are pure spectacle, almost amusing in their excess, very different to the violence inflicted upon slaves, which is presented as mundane. This normalcy exacerbates the cruelty of the violence, convincingly expressing the dehumanising perspective of slavery, which provokes revulsion and dismay on the part of the viewer. It may be trite and obvious to say that slavery is bad, but Tarantino makes an effective presentation on just how bad it is to view and treat people in such a way. He has been criticised on many occasions for his use of the word “nigger”, but in Django it is used appropriately and not excessively. Django Unchained is an excessive film, but not in terms of its language and violence.
This utilisation of violence to express man’s inhumanity to man makes Django Unchained Tarantino’s most interesting film politically. The flippant nihilism of Pulp Fiction and the genre homages of Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill stand in sharp contrast to Django Unchained’s angry condemnation of racism, inviting comparisons with Blazing Saddles. Jackie Brown commented on the difficulties facing particular demographics, especially a black woman over the age of forty with a criminal record, but did not explore these ideas in depth. Inglourious Basterds is a love letter to cinema and its potential for propaganda, part of which is explored in its amusing disregard for history, but it doesn’t make much of a statement. Django Unchained demonstrates Tarantino’s canny understanding of cinema and the different uses of its features.
It is especially interesting to compare Django to Lincoln. Both are concerned with slavery, and set within ten years of each other, 1858 for Django and 1865 for Lincoln. One is explicit, gory, brutal and violent; the other is reserved and concerned with political procedure and debate. Oddly, both are very wordy, the scripts of Tarantino as well as Tony Kushner featuring extensive dialogue scenes, but Steven Spielberg is a more economical director than Tarantino, editing more ruthlessly and using intercutting as a means to generate tension and suspense. Both approaches are valid, but I find the classical technique of Spielberg more effective because it is more dynamic. While Tarantino can be dynamic, there is an overly staged quality to his films as a whole, whereas Spielberg’s style is fluid and flows easily from scene to scene, creating a more unified cinema experience.
I much prefer Lincoln to Django, partly because I prefer intercutting to long scenes, and also because I adore political dramas. Spielberg’s finest film since Munich, Lincoln has been described as The West Wing in wigs, and while I have never seen The West Wing, if it’s anything like Lincoln I know I will like it. Political dramas are tremendously entertaining because the delight is in the detail, the precise perusal of principle paralleled with persuasion to produce policy. Lincoln could be described as a film about talking. Aside from the central debates over the amendment to the Constitution, as well as the end of the Civil War, there are various personal alliances and dramas that play out in conference rooms, bedrooms and other domestic spaces. When I first heard about Lincoln, and saw the trailers, I expected an epic war drama with vast battle scenes, as Spielberg delivered in Saving Private Ryan and War Horse. Instead, it is one of his most intimate films, dealing with interpersonal dramas in the midst of great upheaval, emphasising the importance of talking in the progression of human civilisation. Abraham (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his wife, Mary (Sally Field) have severe family problems, as Mary suffers from mental health problems and their son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) desperately wants to fight in the war, against the wishes of his parents. While Abe listens to Mary’s advice, he acts against it and grants Robert’s wishes, driving Mary closer to a breakdown in some truly heartbreaking scenes. It is testament to the skill of the filmmakers that these scenes do not feel out of place or a distraction from the political posturing and pontificating.
Various politicians debate the 13th Amendment and its political impact, including dry witticisms in their offices as well as impassioned speeches on the floor of the House of Representatives. As Thaddeus Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones is on especially fine form, playing a firebrand abolitionist whose frail physicality belies the passion of his words and the strength of his resolve. If there was any flaw in Lincoln for me, it was that I wanted more of Stevens – his solitary limp out of the House once the Amendment is passed suggested a great deal more, a history that it would be interesting to see. Perhaps someone else could make a film about this courageous and impassioned advocate for human rights. But please bring back Tommy Lee Jones to play him!
In contrast to Django Unchained, Lincoln is less concerned with the representation of cruelty so much as the political topic of slavery, emphasised by the multiple scenes of abolition being debated. Like Django, Lincoln has some chilling moments in which slavery and racism are justified, in eloquent and (almost) persuasive ways. What makes these speakers so repulsive is that they are not stupid rednecks but intelligent, educated men, mostly lawyers, so their political stance is one born of belief in their own superiority and righteousness. This gives Lincoln contemporary resonance, as eloquent, educated speakers with dangerous political agendas are just as prominent today as in 1865, and many are in prominent positions of power. In the centre of Lincoln’s battle between the pro and anti-slavery factions stands the figure of Lincoln himself, on whom the film casts an interesting light. He is presented as both saintly crusader for social justice (which Lincoln most likely was not), and a canny politician (which he must have been). Whether the film is historically accurate or not is irrelevant, because what it aims to do is show the balance between idealism and pragmatism, which is exactly what Lincoln does, brokering deals and promises in order to obtain the votes he needs to get the amendment through. Daniel Day-Lewis perfectly captures this balance, and combines it with impassioned resolve and palatable personal pain. A towering performance that rightly won Best Actor.
Django Unchained and Lincoln explore ideas around slavery in different ways. Tarantino’s “Southern” is typically referential, both to the Western genre that it pays homage to as well as to movie violence and its potential more generally, striking deep notes in its depiction of the psychology that justifies slavery. Spielberg’s account of the 13th Amendment is sombre and monumental, but never treats its weighty subject matter as anything other than human actions and decisions. This ensures the film does not slip into preachy or patronising territory, but truly treats slavery as a political and economic issue, as well as an ideological one. This is what impressed me most about Lincoln – it takes the notion of romance in politics, a highly dangerous proposition, and manages to walk the line between romanticising major historical events and presenting them rationally. Perhaps inevitably for Spielberg, there is an ultimate slide into sentimentality with Lincoln’s death, much as Django’s final revenge is gratification for the audience who have waited for it. But whereas Django Unchained suffers from indulgence, Lincoln’s precision and poise ensure that it makes its point, but is never less than thoroughly involving.
For the first two months of 2013, I made a point of seeing the nominees for Best Picture at the 85th Annual Academy Awards. Some people, more hardcore than me, see every film nominated for any Oscar, but that is expensive and time-consuming. I therefore restrict myself to seeing the Best Picture nominees. Between 2003 and 2008, I managed all five nominees, but since the Academy expanded the list of nominees to up to ten that’s become more difficult.
Interestingly, whereas in previous years most of the Best Picture nominees were released in awards season, between December and February, the expanded list of nominees has meant that films from earlier in the year receive more consideration (and if you didn’t happen to catch them you need to wait for home release). The Hurt Locker, Best Picture winner of 2009, was released in August in the UK, and nominees Inception and The Kids Are All Right were released in July and October, respectively. This year, most of the nominees were released since October, including the eventual winner, Argo. Perhaps we can credit canny Oscar campaigns for the win here.
Thus far, I’ve only reviewed Zero Dark Thirty. This was mainly due to the reactions the film had received as I expected they were incorrect and unfair (I was right). I was utterly captivated by Zero Dark Thirty and, were I a member of the AMPAS, I would have voted for it to win. Life of Pi and Argo, the actual winner, I saw and reviewed last year before they were nominated. But what about the rest (Amour, sadly, does not make an appearance as I am yet to see it)?
Les Misérables and Silver Linings Playbook
Les Misérables is a film of grand scales: the scale of the French Revolution; the scale of the oppression upon the wretched; the scale of the emotion that swells in rebellion; the scale of the volume delivered by singers with slight frames. And yet, I found the experience somewhat underwhelming. This might have been a matter of expectations (which seems familiar) – the trailers for Les Misérables had me wanting to burst into song and I hoped to do exactly that at the cinema, Code of Conduct be damned! I didn’t, and nor did I feel moved to do so, as the different narrative strands were not drawn together well enough to draw me into the world of the film.
Les Misérables is a patchy film. Some parts are weak, such as Russell Crowe’s singing and Tom Hooper’s direction. Other parts are very good, including the performances of Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, the production design and the costumes. The cinematography is intermittently effective: various shots present an unbalanced frame for what seem to be excessively long takes. A character’s head occupies half the frame, but the other half is empty, apparently so the viewer can admire the wallpaper. Whatever the reasons for this, it is highly distracting. At other points though, the cinematography is very effective, especially during the film’s standout sequence, the number “I Dreamed a Dream” performed by Fantine (Hathaway). Presented in only three shots, the majority of this heart-rending rendition is mostly delivered in a single take, with extremely shallow focus that puts Hathaway’s nose and tear-filled eyes in focus, but her ears out of focus. Perhaps the purpose of this is to express Fantine’s fading out of existence, disappearing along with her dream. Either way, it is effective.
This sequence, of course, would have been nothing without the song itself, which is very moving. Indeed, the best feature of Les Misérables is the music, an extraordinary symphony of voices (most of then good) and instruments that carry one above the shortcomings and summon us all to the barricades. Yet this is something of a problem. If the best thing about an adaptation of a musical is the music, then something in the adaptation is inadequate. A film adaptation, especially of something that already exists in a dramatic form, needs to do something uniquely cinematic in order to work as a film. The rousing sequences of Les Misérables are medleys, with different singers contributing to a chorus that rises to a crescendo. Cinema is ideal for such a sequence as editing can cut between different people and locations with an ever-increasing tempo that exacerbates the tension. Yet Les Misérables does not capitalise on this opportunity except to follow the lead of the music itself, such as in the emotional climax of the film, “One Day More”. For that moment, the film reaches the heights to which it aspires throughout. Elsewhere, though, director Tom Hooper appears to follow the music’s lead and simply transpose the musical to the screen, which can leave the viewer feeling they might as well have seen it on stage. Come the Oscars ceremony, a medley was performed, with Jackman, Hathaway, Crowe, along with Eddie Marsden, Amanda Seyfried, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham-Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, and seemingly the entirety of the cast, on stage at the Dolby Theater, and it was very impressive. The film was impressive as well, but only in parts.
Overall, Les Misérables fails to deliver emotion as sweeping as its scale. By contrast, Silver Linings Playbook is an acutely observed, intimate comedy drama. Writer-director David O. Russell allows his actors to play out long scenes that veer from funny to painful to sweet. I have written previously that I am more interested in plot than character, but in a narrative like this, the development of the characters and their relationships is the plot, so in order for the film to work, the characters need to be engaging in themselves and in their interactions. As Pat, Bradley Cooper is a wonderfully sympathetic lead, by turns loveable and infuriating (much like people in our own lives). In her Oscar-winning performance as Tiffany, Jennifer Lawrence matches him for wit, social awkwardness and forthrightness, the two of them creating one of the most sympathetic screen couples of recent memory. Crucially, they are both awkward, Pat because he is bi-polar and has poor social skills, Tiffany because she has little patience for social niceties. In an early scene, Tiffany tells Pat that they are both “different”, and should exult in this.
The awkwardness of the central characters is important because Silver Linings Playbook highlights and revels in the joys of being different, as the oddball couple bond through peculiar conversations, especially an excruciating non-date that involves Raisin Bran and tea. The time Pat and Tiffany spend together feels like time lived, their relationship noticeably growing as they learn more about each other. It grows through Pat’s obsession with being fit, getting his wife back, reconnecting with his old life and even his mantra of “looking for a silver lining”. It grows through Tiffany learning to trust another person, her soundproofed dance studio a manifestation of her shielded heart. Tiffany is a glorious creation, Lawrence giving her the perfect balance of sass, sweetness and sexiness, combined with intelligence, pain and ambition. She isn’t a typical romantic comedy heroine, which is another reason to exult.
The developing relationship between Pat and Tiffany is also the means by which all the characters rebuild their lives. Pat’s quest for a silver lining is to build his life out of the fragments he begins the film with, and the same is true of Danny (Chris Tucker, in a remarkably low-key performance). Pat, Snr. (Robert De Niro) seeks to rebuild his life after being laid off, both through his bookmaking as well as reconnecting with his son. Similarly, Dolores (Jackie Weaver) wants harmony in her family. A useful counterpoint is provided by Pat’s friend Jake (Shea Whigham), who is trying to maintain his own standard of living by working too hard and constantly trying to please his demanding wife Veronica (Julia Stiles). Through Jake and Pat, Snr., the film references the recession, echoing other recent comedies such as Get Him to the Greek and Bridesmaids. Like these other genre entries, Silver Linings Playbook does not allow social realism to overpower the drama, but the real world reference adds to the film’s great strength: everyone’s problems are relatable. The characters and their situations are presented as familiar, rather than suffering from something specific and incomprehensible for the inexperienced. For the grieving Tiffany and the bi-polar Pat, their problems are simply more acute than those of the other characters.
The film’s trump card is to use the cliché of dancing in a fresh and innovative way. The dance sequences emphasise the work and discipline involved, rather than the sensual and sexual dimension – this is Dynamic Dancing rather than Dirty Dancing. Pat and Tiffany do not draw closer because dancing substitutes for sex, but because they work towards a common goal and build a relationship through this shared endeavour. This creates a parallel with all the characters who are trying to build something – as Pat and Tiffany get closer to the dance competition, the investment of the other characters and the viewer is increased. The viewer is drawn into the development of this project, which adds significance to the final performance. And, remarkably, the film’s climax actually made me care about the result of an American football game.
Silver Linings Playbook is the epitome of bittersweet, balancing the sentiment with suffering. Les Misérables, oddly, works hard to ladle on the pain but is only intermittently successful. This comes down to direction, and I fully applaud the Academy for nominating Russell for Achievement in Directing but leaving Hooper out. Hooper fails to deliver the precision that made The King’s Speech so impressive, while Russell not only focuses on the actions of his characters but also allows his scenes and actors to keep going, much as he did in The Fighter. It seems Russell will be uniting the stars he has directed to Oscar-winning performances in his future project based on the Abscam investigation. Mr Hooper, maybe try something smaller next time?