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Terror in Space

My last post discussed the absence of drama in the survival story of the year’s worst film, After Earth. By contrast, one of the year’s best, Gravity, is a superb survival story. Survival is the only concern in Alfonso Cuarón’s film, as Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) must cope with diminishing oxygen, weightlessness and a debris field that will tear them to pieces. As the opening supertext informs the viewer, in space life is impossible, and anyone with ambitions of being an astronaut might find that Gravity gives them pause for thought.

Gravity 5

Gravity’s screenplay is textbook simple, a brutally basic survival story. Screenwriters Cuarón and his son Jonás use this simple story to structure terrifying set pieces through extraordinary use of cinematic techniques. The opening shot lasts for over ten minutes, as Stone and Kowalsky move gracefully albeit carefully in the void, before the debris collides with the space shuttle and Stone goes into a terrifying spin. I wrote earlier in the year that films like Zero Dark Thirty and Captain Phillips hit me in a visceral way. Much the same is true of Gravity, surely the closest I am ever likely to come to being in space. Rather than following Stone with intense close-ups that focus on her face, Cuarón and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki frequently opt for either direct POV or subjectively-inflected shots, including a long take that begins outside Stone’s helmet, moves inside it and into her POV, and then out again, allowing the viewer to share her position on a visual, aural and experiential level.

As well as these subjectively inflected shots, we sometimes see Stone spinning in long shots, with no apparent attachment, lifeline or hope. The vastness of space and the smallness of humanity is emphasised in these shots through great depth of field that presents the endless void of space. The 3D (which I have written about disparagingly in the past) enhances this sense of being in the void where one could literally spin and fall for ever. 3D is like any cinematic tool, such as CGI, practical effects, music, sound, etc., and like these other tools, when used judiciously it can enhance the experience. That said, I will be interested to watch Gravity again in 2D, and I expect it will still be effective, not least because of the realistic feature of silence. In space, no one can hear you scream, or indeed anything, and the silent vacuum adds another threatening element. The most dominant sounds are voices, breathing and electronic beeps, which emphasise the isolation of the characters in this utterly alien environment. When collisions take place between the debris and the space craft, rather than the familiar (therefore, comforting) sounds of crashing, there is silence. The most striking use of this silence occurs when a space capsule door is opened and the atmosphere rushes out in a silence that is almost deafening. When viewing grave danger, we are accustomed to hearing it at great volume, whether the sounds are screams, shots, explosions or simply the clatter of things against each other. By eschewing sound, Cuarón further enhances the sense of an alien environment where humans are out of place and out of their depth, entirely at the mercy of gravity. The fantastic technical features, combined with Bullock’s performance, ensured that I felt Stone’s anguish and terror on a physical level with each camera lurch, dip and pan. 

Gravity 4The technical intricacy involved in Gravity is remarkable: in an interview Cuarón explained that camera set-ups and movements were programmed using equipment similar to those used in car assembly, while production stills show Bullock swimming underwater in greenscreen environments in order to simulate zero-gravity motion.

gravity 3

The attention to detail in the space stations is exquisite, these digital sets appearing both functional and personalised, homes in the most inhospitable environments. Nor is danger ever far away, as not only are oxygen supplies dwindling but the field of debris orbiting Earth repeatedly returns to inflict further damage. The knowledge that the debris is coming, knowledge shared by Stone and the viewer, increases the almost unrelenting tension. There is one, quiet moment of reflection when it appears all hope is lost, which is intensely moving as Stone starts to sink into eternal unconsciousness, her tears seeming to float out of the screen towards the viewer which, again, allows us to share her experience. This moment is brief, however, and the desperate struggle for survival rapidly resumes.

Gravity is cinema at its most beautiful and terrible, taking us to a strange new world in the most visceral and exciting way possible. James Cameron has said that Gravity is the best space movie ever made, and I agree, because it is a film that creates an approximation of being in space, which is relatively rare as most space movies largely take place aboard spaceships. In Gravity, the environment of space itself, along with all its terrible beauty, is created, emphasised and expressed. Cinema at its best is experiential, and the experience of Gravity was one of the most powerful I had this year.

Gravity 1

2013 Omissions Part Two – After Oblivion

I’m making a point of posting on films that I neglected to earlier in the year, both good and bad. 2013 featured a number of post-apocalyptic science fiction films, demonstrating what can happen after the end of the world. Technically, this is a contradiction, as by definition there cannot be anything afterwards. This has not stopped “post-apocalyptic” being a genre for decades and the subject of many academic studies. Perhaps it is a misnomer, but “post-apocalyptic” is a recognised generic term which has provided such cinematic offerings as The Road (John Hillcoat, 2006), The Book of Eli (the Hughes Brothers, 2006) Waterworld (Kevin Reynolds, 1995) and The Postman (Kevin Costner, 1997). 2013 saw several contributions to the genre, each with their own take on the surprising amount of stuff that happens after the end of the world.

I did not see Elysium, partly because all reports were of disappointment from Neill Blomkamp after the blistering District 9, but also because the previous post-apocalyptic adventures failed to inspire me. Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski, 2013) offers a standard end-of-the-world scenario – alien invaders bombarded the Earth and left it uninhabitable. Only plucky survivors remain, in this case drone maintenance repair team Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria Harper (Andrea Riseborough), and their contact with the evacuees, Sally (Melissa Leo). The film’s production design is convincingly futuristic, sleek and cool. The design includes the comfortable and efficient house-on-mile-high-stilts that the Harpers occupy, a perfect home of the future complete with transparent swimming pool and landing pad for bubble-ship, one of many super cool elements in the film. As one viewer described it, Oblivion shows us the future as designed by Apple, and the sleek surfaces of touchscreens and control panels, drones, house and bubble ship all suggest the synchronism of comfort and efficiency. These are not just technological devices for use, but for pleasure in their use.

Oblivion

Oblivion’s production design also presents a suitably blasted Earth, Iceland providing some spectacular scenery from which the wreckage of the Empire State Building and other structures project like battered skeletons. A buried library provides both a melancholy echo of a lost civilisation and a sinister location for an action set piece, and a multi-levelled underground bunker is a convincing headquarters for a band of freedom fighters. And by way of further contrast, an idyllic valley, untouched by the forces that ravaged the rest of the planet, features trees, a lake and a wooden cabin filled with memorabilia of the past; a refuge for Jack away from high technology and barren landscapes.

The combined effect of this design is to create a palpable possible world, an essential element in future-set science fiction. The production design is the most effective aspect of Oblivion, as it provides this persuasive and involving vision of the future. Post-apocalyptic visions need an element of grimness, due to the extensive death that will have occurred, and the landscape of Iceland provides a suitably sombre setting. However, where Oblivion loses its way is in its exploration of more interesting themes. There comes a point when a major plot point is revealed that proves an effective surprise, and I wanted the film to explore this in more detail, perhaps as a more action-heavy version of Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009). Unfortunately, this was not the case, and Oblivion failed to explore issues of identity and humanity in favour of just having stuff blow up. I have no problem with stuff blowing up, but action set pieces and philosophical themes are in no way mutually exclusive – just look at any blockbuster by James Cameron or Christopher Nolan. Writer-director Joseph Kosinski included an interesting idea, but then largely abandoned it, making the film an overall disappointment.

Oblivion has its problems, but it is a masterpiece compared to the worst film I saw in 2013 – After Earth. M. Night Shyamalan showed such promise at the turn of the century, as The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000) and (most of) Signs (2002) demonstrated intelligent, careful, precise filmmaking. The Village had some great moments and a (literally) jaw-dropping twist, but The Happening (2008) proved a tipping point (I’m yet to see Lady in the Water [2006]). As a director, Shyamalan makes great use of atmosphere, location, camera and sound, ratcheting up tension with the best of them. But this can only distract so far from a nonsensical plot that defuses the tension entirely. The plants are angry? Quick, run away from the wind! I have no problem with films being silly – several Marvel productions are preposterous – but if you’re going to be silly have some fun with it. Shyamalan is not funny, and when a film features a daft central premise it only works if delivered with a sense of humour, severely lacking in anything by this director.

This lack of humour is not only apparent but actually the point in After Earth, which makes The Happening look like Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). It may not be fair to blame Shyamalan for After Earth’s weaknesses, as the story is credited to Will Smith, but I’m going to blame him anyway, because he co-wrote the screenplay and, more significantly, I’ve seen what he can do and it is crushingly disappointing to see this talent neglected. After Earth revolves around the premise of Rangers, elite soldiers who protect the human race against an undefined foe, being able to ‘ghost’, making themselves invisible to Ursas, creatures created to hunt them. The way in which Rangers ghost is to suppress emotion, mainly fear, which the Ursas can smell. Apparently adrenaline and sweat are not the issue, it is emotion that makes us vulnerable. Consequently, our young hero Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) must learn to be as cold as his father Cypher (Will Smith) in order to survive after their ship crashes.

After Earth

This premise has promise and might have made for an interesting film in another context, perhaps similar to a previous Smithonian (see what I did there?) sci-fi appearance, I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007). But the crash-landing on a planet that turns out to be Earth overwhelms the promising premise, because the film loses focus as it becomes overburdened with trimmings that distract from the central idea. Cypher and Kitai are on Earth, which the human race abandoned due to pollution and over-population, according to Kitai’s opening voiceover. Could this be an environmental film in the vein of Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)? No, because that idea does not reappear. Worse, nothing is made of the fact that they crash on Earth, frankly it could be any hostile planet, unlike Oblivion, which makes a point of Earth of being a memory (and a future) worth fighting for. Therefore, it makes no difference or sense to have the bulk of After Earth’s action take place on Earth, aside from giving the title a weight that the film as a whole lacks. The science makes absolutely no sense, as, according to Cypher, everything on Earth has ‘evolved to hunt humans’, a remarkable achievement seeing as humans abandoned the planet 1000 years ago. What were the animals evolving in response to? Every night Earth’s temperature drops to below freezing and ice coats everything. So why is the planet covered in tropical rainforest? I can forgive plenty of cod science (yes, Star Trek Into Darkness, I mean you), but internal contradictions like tropical environment that goes polar overnight is jarring and annoying. Not as jarring and annoying, however, as a giant bird of prey that suddenly abandons its need for food and sacrifices itself for the main character, purely for plot reasons. Perhaps more could have been made of this development by having Kitai and the bird develop some form of relationship, like Cody and the eagle Marahute in The Rescuers Down Under (Hendel Butoy, Mike Gabriel, 1990), but instead, it’s just a random episode with no further impact.

I tend to focus on concepts and premises, thematic content and how convincingly it is expressed through cinematic means. Normal people like character and plot, and After Earth has problems there as well. The Raige family are hardly harmonious because Cypher is always working, always emotionless and therefore a distant father and husband, while Kitai blames himself for his sister’s death. A moving portrait of a father and son learning to communicate again, perhaps like Real Steel (Shawn Levy, 2011)? No, because Kitai has to become like Cypher to survive, i.e. cold and distant, and Cypher is right to be that way so must not rediscover his humanity. Perhaps this could be challenged by Kitai, who learns to balance his humanity with survival, or even raise questions like one of the year’s unexpected delights, Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood, 2013). No, because every time an idea like this is raised, it is abandoned just as quickly, giving the characters no arc of development other than the survival story.

None of this would matter if the survival story was actually dramatic, but Shyamlan fails to inject energy or any major sense of threat beyond individual set pieces. Kitai fleeing a horde of ferocious baboons is fine, as is his scrapping with a sabre-tooth cat, but his encounters with the Ursa are lifeless and dull, mainly because the goal of these battles is for Kitai to become inert and dull. My response to the film consisted of a series of ‘Yes, but what about, oh never mind’; ‘That looks interesting can we go back to, oh never mind’; ‘Why aren’t we dealing with, oh never mind’. Overall, I wish no one had minded enough to make it in the first place. Easily, the turkey of the year.

2013 Omissions Part One – To The Wonder of Piney Places

2013 is almost over and, like so many a critic (which is, of course, everyone), I’m compiling my top films of the year. In the process, I realised that I neglected to post on some of the films that impressed me the most, so I’m rectifying that omission now.

Two arthouse offerings that I saw early in the year made my long list for films of 2013. The Place Beyond the Pines featured in my top five of 0.5 halfway through the year, and its remarkable power has not diminished since. Derek Cianfrance’s tale of fathers, lovers, sons and sins balanced the epic and the intimate in a touching yet mournful way, and performed a quite remarkable narrative feat. At 2 hours 15 minutes long, and starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, along with Eva Mendes and Ray Liotta, I expected intertwining stories of criminals, cops and the people around them, perhaps a blue collar version of Heat. What I got instead was a trilogy of equal length, largely self-contained stories that are only loosely connected to each other. The first 45 minutes focus on Luke Glanton (Gosling), a stunt motorcyclist who moonlights as an armed robber. The next 45 minutes were concerned with Avery Cross (Cooper), a cop who crosses paths with Luke once, and then continues his story, encountering police corruption en route to fulfilling his political ambitions. The final 45 minutes are concerned with the sons of these two men, Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen), who, by a coincidence that only happens in the movies, find each other and create a whole new drama.

The Place Beyond the Pines

Based on its synopsis, The Place Beyond the Pines should not work. Three distinct stories that could easily stand by themselves? Three loosely connected stories placed in sequential order so that we effectively abandon the earlier protagonists? An epic saga of intergenerational sin shot with the claustrophobic intimacy of Cianfrance’s debut, Blue Valentine? How can this work? Commitment is the answer, as Cianfrance never wavers in his piercing glare into the hearts of his characters and, more broadly, the community in which they live. While the sequential stories are different from Michael Mann’s multi-stranded narrative, The Place Beyond the Pinesdoes feel like a blue collar Heat, replacing the freeways and concrete canyons of Los Angeles with small town upstate New York. The interconnections between the different characters are both familial and sociological, such as Luke’s criminal association with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), who utters the film’s best line: ‘If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder’, as well as Romina (Mendes), the mother of his child, who lives with her current boyfriend Kofi (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali). Romina and her family later encounter Avery and corrupt officers led by Peter Deluca (Liotta), prompting Avery to seek advice from his father Al (Harris Yulin) and forge an alliance with District Attorney Bill Killcullen (Bruce Greenwood). Fifteen years later, the connections between these characters continue to haunt Avery as well as his son AJ.

The epic scope of the film echoes classic crime dramas like Heat, Goodfellas, Once Upon A Time in America and, yes, even The Godfather, but unlike those films, Cianfrance and his cinematographer Sean Bobbit present something much more down to earth, largely eschewing long shots of grand vistas in favour of extreme close-ups that bring the viewer uncomfortably close to the characters. There are stylistic flourishes as well, especially the opening long take that lasts several minutes as Luke walks towards the cage where he performs his stunts, but the seemingly perpetual handheld footage gives an amateurish slant to the visuals, rather than the slick, polished look of Mann or Scorsese. This is not a criticism, however, as Cianfrance’s style suits his characters and even his genre. Down to earth, gritty and unsteady cinematography blends superbly with the different social levels explored in the film, while the scope of the narrative demonstrates that, with the right treatment, everyone’s story is epic.

A very different film style, like none other, is found in another arthouse offer from 2013: Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder. I’ve been a huge fan of Malick since his metaphysical war film The Thin Red Line (1998), and found The New World (2006) and The Tree of Life (2011) to be entrancing developments of his poetic filmmaking. To The Wonder continues this conceit, as its simple story of characters musing over their relationships and lives is beautiful and beguiling, but never straightforward. Neil (Ben Affleck) is almost silent apart from his voiceover, an environmental inspector who is almost literally of the earth, trying to choose between the free-spirited Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and the more practical Jane (Rachel McAdams). Meanwhile, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) also muses on the weights of his mind, wrestling with the difficulties of counselling others while struggling with his own faith.

To the Wonder 1

Malick’s free association approach to editing largely excludes continuous narrative, as cuts are often motivated by a word or a look from a character, the film then presenting another image with a purely conceptual link. Cuts are also motivated by purely visual matches between skylines and landscapes, or indeed contrasts between the rolling fields of Oklahoma and the dramatic coastline of Normandy. People stand both in isolation and unity within these landscapes, their lives uncertain in the film’s beguiling yet beautiful ambiguity.

To The Wonder 2

Like The Place Beyond The Pines, To The Wonder brings the viewer close to the action, but is more concerned with philosophical than sociological connections. What binds people together? What are our connections to the land, the sea, the sky? Malick’s film, like all his work, is a visual monument to the wonder of creation, most explicitly in The Tree of Life, but found here as well. To The Wonder does a fine job of placing Malick’s philosophical filmmaking in the contemporary context, as Badlands, The Thin Red Line and The New World are all historical, while The Tree of Life encompasses the timespan of the Earth (as you do). While To The Wonder is not the easiest film to engage with and is likely to frustrate some sensibilities, for me it was a beautiful and provocative piece of work. Furthermore, it was different, distinctive and, frankly, unique amongst the films I saw this year.

71st Golden Globes Predictions

Globes

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has announced the nominees for the 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards, and as usual in these situations there are few surprises and doubtless plenty of disagreement. Sometimes the Golden Globes set a pattern for other award-giving bodies to follow, and sometime they don’t. Working on the principle that the HFPA like to reward the same kind of films as AMPAS, BAFTA, SAG, PGA and DGA, here are my reactions to the nominees and some tentative predictions on who might win.

BEST MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA

12 Years a Slave

Captain Phillips

Gravity

Philomena

Rush

This is a very solid bunch. I’ve only seen three of them, and Rush is a bit of a surprise because I don’t recall any awards buzz around it. I loved it though so it is a pleasant surprise. I missed Philomena so have no comment there, but I rate Gravity and Captain Phillips very highly. 12 Years a Slave is out in the UK in January, and looks suitably harrowing, so I look forward to it. On a hunch, I think it is likely to win.

Prediction: 12 Years a Slave

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Judi Dench, Philomena

Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

Kate Winslet, Labor Day

Awards buzz started around Cate Blanchett as soon as Blue Jasmine came out. She is one of the finest actresses working today and I would be very happy to see her pick up multiple awards. I haven’t seen Blue Jasmine so have no idea if she’s any good in it, but I may well check it out one day. Of the others, these are all really impressive performers who have a great history behind them, and indeed have all picked up awards previously – Winslet earned Golden Globes for both Actress and Supporting Actress a few years ago. I have only seen Bullock and Thompson and found them both superb, so I’d be happy for either of them to win. For now, Blanchett looks most likely.

Prediction: Cate Blanchett

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave

Idris Elba, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Tom Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks

Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Robert Redford, All Is Lost

An interesting bunch, of which I know little. The only one of these I’ve seen is Saving Mr. Banks, and I’m surprised that Hanks has been nominated for this role rather than Captain Phillips. McConaughey’s career continues to go from strength to strength, but it seems unlikely that he’ll rise this high at this stage. The same is true of Ejiofor and Elba – both are promising up-and-comers, but for their first nominations victory seems unlikely. Redford has picked up an award already for his performance, and is probably the strongest contender. He’s a Hollywood institution who has been largely overlooked by award-givers, and at his time in life it might well be his time.

Prediction: Robert Redford

BEST MOTION PICTURE – COMEDY OR MUSICAL

American Hustle

Her

Inside Llewyn Davis

Nebraska

The Wolf Of Wall Street

A great range here, of which I have seen none! I am really looking forward to American Hustle, and after the limited success of Silver Linings Playbook last year, I can see David O. Russell getting more love this time around. However, there’s pretty stiff competition, especially as reports of The Wolf of Wall Street have been very positive. Scorsese has made a comedy? According to the HFPA, so it appears. The others are lower profile so I anticipate it will come down to Hustle and Wolf. For no particular reason, I predict American Hustle to be a winner, so there.

Prediction: American Hustle

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A MOTION PICTURE – COMEDY OR MUSICAL

Amy Adams, American Hustle

Julie Delpy, Before Midnight

Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said

Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

A nice group of stalwarts here, including the seemingly ubiquitous Streep. Once again I haven’t seen any of them, but I would like American Hustle to be a big winner pick. That said, the completion of the Before trilogy might make Delpy a sentimental favourite, while one should never count out Meryl. Really hard to predict at this stage, but I’d like Adams to get an award, and it might just be her year.

Prediction: Amy Adams

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MOTION PICTURE – COMEDY OR MUSICAL

Christian Bale, American Hustle

Bruce Dern, Nebraska

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis

Joaquin Phoenix, Her

Bale and DiCaprio have potentially been heading for awards for a while, brushing against them here and there, including a previous Golden Globe for Bale for The Fighter. But the National Board of Review as well as the Cannes Film Festival awarded Best Actor to Bruce Dern who, like Redford, is at an age where this could be the last great performance he does. Sentimental favourites are often a good bet, so I predict Dern in this category.

Prediction: Bruce Dern

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

The Croods

Despicable Me 2

Frozen

Tricky, as I have seen none of these and it’s hard to identify the criteria. Despicable Me 2 is one of 2013’s highest earners, but Frozen is an adaptation of a beloved fairy tale. Tentatively, I go with Frozen.

Prediction: Frozen

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Blue is the Warmest Color

The Great Beauty

The Hunt

The Past

The Wind Rises

I have heard of one of these, because Blue is the Warmest Color has attracted controversy because of its focus on a lesbian relationship. Therefore I hope it wins, but I don’t think it will.

Prediction: NA

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MOTION PICTURE

Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine

Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

June Squibb, Nebraska

A nice range here, as three of the actresses named are familiar and more often in leading roles. Jennifer Lawrence is the cat’s pyjamas at the moment, and David O. Russell may have steered her to another award. But the relatively unknown Squibb and Nyong’o might prove to be a surprise so this one is wide open. If Lawrence wins, expect her to win more…

Prediction: Jennifer Lawrence

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MOTION PICTURE

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips

Daniel Brühl, Rush

Bradley Cooper, American Hustle

Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave

Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Big names jostle with unknowns here, Cooper, Fassbender and Leto being familiar while Brühl has been around for a while but Rush is his highest profile role. Barkhad Abdi, a complete unknown, delivers a powerhouse performance against one of the biggest stars in the world, matching Hanks for nuance and depth every step of the way. I would love for him to win, but I think after coming close last year, Cooper might be the one to beat in this category.

Prediction: Bradley Cooper

BEST DIRECTOR – MOTION PICTURE

Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips

Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

Alexander Payne, Nebraska

David O. Russell, American Hustle

Directing, that most subtle yet all-encompassing talent. The role that is most frequently associated with being the film’s author, or auteur, charged with balancing and orchestrating the multitude of other components into a coherent and, hopefully, compelling, whole. All five of these nominees have delivered sterling work in the past and the two I have seen, Gravity and Captain Phillips, demonstrate once again the cinematic power that Cuaron and Greengrass can muster. Gravity is an extraordinary technical achievement, while Captain Phillips balances an intense personal drama with wider political issues. 12 Years a Slave has been emphasised as an important historical drama, and after Steve McQueen’s previous efforts being too controversial for awards consideration (Shame, anyone?), 12 Years a Slave is the right sort of “respectable” fare that awards-givers admire. Payne and O. Russell are awards darlings as well, but I think this is likely to go to McQueen.

Prediction: Steve McQueen

BEST SCREENPLAY – MOTION PICTURE

Spike Jonze, Her

Bob Nelson, Nebraska

Jeff Pope, Steve Coogan, Philomena

John Ridley, 12 Years A Slave

Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell, American Hustle

If Alexander Payne were nominated in this category, I would predict him to win. But he isn’t so I pick Singer and Russell. I believe the HFPA would like to reward Russell, but not in the Director category McQueen may have him beaten (I say this not having seen either film!). Still, Screenplay is often a wild card, so it could be anybody’s game.

Prediction: Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE – MOTION PICTURE

Alex Ebert, All Is Lost

Alex Heffes, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

Steven Price, Gravity

John Williams, The Book Thief

Hans Zimmer, 12 Years a Slave

Another award for John Williams? Unlikely, I think. Something for Hans Zimmer would be fitting, I think, and, again, 12 Years a Slave could be a big winner.

Prediction: 12 Years a Slave

BEST ORIGINAL SONG – MOTION PICTURE

“Atlas,” The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Music by: Chris Martin, Guy Berryman, Jonny Buckland, Will Champion

Lyrics by: Chris Martin, Guy Berryman, Jonny Buckland, Will Champion

“Let It Go,” Frozen

Music by: Kristen Anderson Lopez, Robert Lopez

Lyrics by: Kristen Anderson Lopez, Robert Lopez

“Ordinary Love,” Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Music by: Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, Jr., Brian Burton

Lyrics by: Bono

“Please Mr Kennedy,” Inside Llewyn Davis

Music by: Ed Rush, George Cromarty, T Bone Burnett, Justin Timberlake, Joel

Coen, Ethan Coen

Lyrics by: Ed Rush, George Cromarty, T Bone Burnett, Justin Timberlake, Joel

Coen, Ethan Coen

“Sweeter Than Fiction,” One Chance

Music by: Taylor Swift, Jack Antonoff

Lyrics by: Taylor Swift, Jack Antonoff

People sometimes say they have literally no idea. I will not stoop to this level, for I have actually no idea, and will make a complete guess based upon the credentials of the composers.

Prediction: “Please Mr Kennedy,” Inside Llewyn Davis

Unexpected Item in Reaction Area Three – Captain Phillips

SPOILERS

I recently posed about Rush, which has a director I like and a genre I don’t, which was a delight, and Prisoners, which belongs to a genre I like, has a director I’d never heard of, and was disappointing. In the case of Captain Phillips, I love the genre as, like Prisoners, it is a thriller, and Paul Greengrass is one of my top ten directors. Captain Phillips exceeded my expectations and is one of my top films of 2013, as it is an incredibly gripping, highly intelligent, well balanced and merciless thriller.

Phillips Poster

Captain Phillips works because all its components support each other perfectly. Tom Hanks as the eponymous captain and Barkhad Abdi as his antagonist Abduwali Muse, leader of the Somali hijackers of the Maersk Alabama, deliver powerhouse performances that I hope will be remembered come awards season. Billy Ray’s script combines compelling personal drama with wider themes of globalisation and the poverty gap, while Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography is tight and intimate to the point of claustrophobia. Greengrass orchestrates these myriad elements into a visceral and enthralling experience, drawing the viewer into the action and allowing us to feel the resolve and hunger of the pirates as well as the desperate fear of the Alabama crew. My hands gripped the arms of my seats all the way through and, while I did not feel queasy, I can understand that some might as the sense of being aboard ship was palatable. One critic said that after seeing the film he wanted a stiff drink – I wanted to lie down.

Strong reactions to films are something I like very much, especially uncomfortable reactions. A major reason we go to the cinema is to have safe thrills – while the sense of danger and exhilaration can be created by the right cinematic experience, we are very seldom in actual danger (accounts of heart attacks and vomiting at The Exorcist, Jaws and Alien notwithstanding). The main reason Prisoners disappointed me was that it did not leave me devastated, while Rush was thoroughly exhilarating. Zero Dark Thirty and Gravity are two films that have left me shaken and stirred this year, and Captain Phillips did the same. But what made Captain Phillips unique, not just for this year but in my entire cinema-going experience (which is extensive), is that I cried. No film had ever before prompted me to shed tears, and this got me thinking about what gets our tear ducts working. 

Weep

 

Lists of tear-jerkers tend to include Casablanca, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Bambi, Dumbo, Old Yeller and It’s A Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s Christmas classic did bring me very close to tears when I finally saw it (at Christmas, obviously), and there are others that cause me to well up such as The Lion King, Twelve Monkeys, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby and, despite repeat viewings, Titanic (mock me all you want, I don’t care). All of these made me well up, so I could feel the tears in my eyes, but they would not flow, would not burst out of my eyes and reduce me to a blubbering wreck. In fairness, I hardly ever cry anyway, not because I’m a super tough macho man (though I am, please don’t hurt me!), but for some unknown reason, tears very rarely flow from me. I often wish they would, but when I feel tears in my eyes, I start willing them to flow, which takes me out of the tear-inducing situation and the damn things dry up.

The way my reaction works highlights the mechanics of tear-jerking cinema. Most reactions to cinema are a result of manipulation, because that is what film does. Anyone who does not like to be manipulated should avoid film, because film manipulates all the time, sometimes in such a way as to make you cry – recently I saw tears at Saving Mr Banks. Steven Spielberg’s films are frequent tear-jerkers, including E.T., Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and Spielberg has openly admitted that his films are manipulative. Schindler’s List, War Horse and, perhaps less obviously, Munich all caused me to well up, because they poured on the agony. Watching a man break under the emotion of what he has failed to do, a horse lie down and die, or a man who has committed terrible acts listen to the innocence embodied in his baby – these are scenes that Spielberg, with help from John Williams, draws out to inflict maximum anguish on the viewer. But once I feel effect of the manipulation, I try to encourage it, which takes me out of the moment and I don’t cry. 

Tom Hanks

This was not the case with Captain Phillips, crucially because the tears I shed were not solely out of anguish, as most weepy scenes are, but also sheer exhaustion. From the point where the hijackers take over the Alabama, there is no let up as they scour the ship, the crew fight back, Phillips is taken hostage, the US navy enters negotiations and eventually stages a rescue. Prior to the rescue, Phillips is brought to the limits of human endurance as the hijackers tie him up and blindfold him, all the while yelling at him and each other. The cacophony, the intensity and the empathy I felt for Phillips were what caused the tears to flow, and they continued in the aftermath when Phillips was brought aboard the USS Bainbridge and treated for shock – I cried out of relief and exhaustion as much as anything else. I have often considered Tom Hanks a rather bland actor, but no longer, as the anguish, rage, frustration, fear and desperation that he displayed in the film’s final act took me into Phillips’ dire position. When he was being treated for shock after being rescued, repeatedly thanking the naval officers, the sense of relief was palatable and deeply moving. I’m not always one to engage with characters, but on this occasion I felt very engaged indeed, possibly needed treatment for shock myself. Like Zero Dark Thirty and Gravity, Captain Phillips left me shaken and stirred, and also moved. I would not have expected a Paul Greengrass film to make me cry, so it was a very rewarding cinema experience. I tend to credit directors for making a film work, and Greengrass is great for delivering visceral, intense work, but hats off to all involved, especially Hanks for performing the most heartbreaking anguish I have seen in a long time.

Captain Phillips trailer launch - video

Fifty Shades of NC-Seven-KERCHING?

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A while ago, I posted on Don Jon, which some writers feared might be rated NC-17, but did qualify for an R, and an 18 certificate in the UK (I missed it at the cinema so the review will have to wait for the DVD). A forthcoming adaptation of the bestselling novel by E. L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey, is likely to face a similar issue. Don Jon is, according to its writer-director-star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, not about porn, and the same is true of Fifty Shades of Grey, because it is porn. This is not me being moralistic, it’s just a description: Fifty Shades of Grey is a titillating tale of sexuality that provides in-depth, graphic description of sexual organs and activities, all rendered in terms designed to arouse the viewer and give them a ringside seat for all the action. Come the movie version, we may have an even better seat.

Or will we? Will the film be presented coyly and with discretion, not treating the viewer to explicit sexual scenes? If so, it runs the risk of alienating its primary fanbase, as the major selling point about the book is its sexual explicitness. But including even some of the graphic detail risks the dreaded NC-17 rating, barring any viewers under the age of 17 from seeing the film. This is a pretty severe and fairly rare rating, usually only awarded to films with strong sexual material such as Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007), The Story of O (Just Jaeckin, 1975) and Wide Sargasso Sea (John Duigan, 1992). NC-17 films tend to perform poorly at the box office, because of the restricted audience that can see them and the limited number of theatres that will exhibit them. Lust, Caution, for instance, earned $4.6 million at the US box office from a budget of $15 million, while Wide Sargasso Sea’s domestic gross was only $1.6 million. As a result, when the MPAA awards an NC-17 rating, the distributor often appeals the decision or makes edits to obtain an R rating. If it fails, the film has a better chance of profiting from DVD and download sales, as indeed do many less restricted films.

I hope this does not happen in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey. I hope that the film retains the sexually explicit content of the book and receives an NC-17 rating, and receives wide distribution that helps it become a hit (although if the screenwriter could make the relationship less abusive, that’d be nice). An NC-17 blockbuster could be a major game-changer, especially if it leads to a cycle of sexually explicit films that are also widely circulated and do well commercially. As long as audiences for sexually explicit material are marginalised, such material will remain taboo and niche. To have a mainstream NC-17 hit would be a refreshing step towards acceptance and away from hysteria, especially considering the reaction to the novel.

E. L. James’ book attracted a great deal of controversy for a variety of reasons. Some lambast it for being a terrible book, violating rules of literature that are apparently universal and self-evident (i.e., arbitrary and undefined). Taking the same privilege, I found it tedious, repetitive and obvious, a 520-page book that could easily have been 300 pages. The sex scenes were, I admit, provocative, but there’s only so many times I will read descriptions of arousal and intercourse before I start shouting ‘Get on with the plot!’ The book also has some very problematic depictions of relationships and gender, but there is also a questionable aspect to the criticism. Fifty Shades of Grey has been ridiculed as ‘mummy porn’ – a label the author has protested against and described as ‘lazy’, suggesting that ‘mummy porn’ is a foolish piece of smut for horny, middle-aged women who should clearly know better. The gender politics of this criticism are problematic in themselves – if women of any age (or men for that matter) want to read about sexual activity, why shouldn’t they? Is it especially offensive to our sensibilities that woman of a certain age have sexual identities? Sadly, there is this view and, while I did not enjoy the book myself, I applaud anyone, especially the apparent key audience, who read it in public and are not embarrassed. There is nothing wrong with sex, nor with erotic fiction, and if mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, sisters, brothers or anybody want to read this, the truly dubious behaviour comes from those who judge themselves better than others.

As to the possibility of mainstream success for the film of Fifty Shades of Grey, I am not advocating giving young audiences easy access to pornography – that would be redundant with all the free porn on the Internet (no, I will not provide links). What I want to see is the mainstreaming of sexually explicit cinema. Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is probably not going to manage this, as Von Trier’s credentials/reputation as well as the subject matter will likely confine this to art cinema regulation. The distributors of Fifty Shades of Grey, Focus Features, might believe there is a big enough audience to make it into widespread circulation, and hopefully with the explicit material left in. Just as adults need not be embarrassed about reading or indeed watching sex, it would be very refreshing for sexually explicit cinema to be released outside specialist cinema exhibition.