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The Infiltrator

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Films about drug cartels come with certain expectations, mainly about bad things. From Scarface (1982) to Traffic (2000) to Sicario (2015), drug cartels have a cinematic reputation (as well as a real world one) for brutality and viciousness. Brad Furman’s The Infiltrator continues this trend, but with the violence kept as a simmering expectation rather than foregrounded. Instead, and wisely, the film emphasises the strain upon identity and sympathies in this based-on-fact story, in which US Customs agent Robert Mazar (Bryan Cranston) goes undercover as a money launderer and forms multiple connections with senior figures in the cartel of Pablo Escobar. Playing like a combination of Donnie Brasco (1996) and Miami Vice (2006), The Infiltrator is stylishly shot, including two bravura long takes that track Mazar through complex locations, and conveys an effective sense both of the late 1980s and the intricate interconnections of drug suppliers and law enforcement. The film’s master stroke, however, is the incorporation of global finance into its narrative, with Mazar meeting with Panamanian bankers and having to negotiate with the US Federal banking system as part of his operation. This aspect links the film to other economically inflected films, such as The International (2009), Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) as well as 99 Homes (2014) and The Big Short (2015). The Infiltrator‘s blending of contemporary concerns over global finance with the generic elements of an undercover thriller indicate Hollywood’s continued and fascinating engagement in this cultural discourse.

Oscar Views – Part Five

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Nearly twenty years ago, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio sailed into our hearts (of love or hate, depending on your perspective) in Titanic, and now both are headed for Oscar glory. After picking up the Golden Globe and BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress, Winslet looks set to win her second Oscar for Steve Jobs, adding a Best Supporting Actress statuette to go alongside her Best Actress award for The Reader from 2008. Meanwhile, DiCaprio’s performance in The Revenant has already earned him a Golden Globe, a Critics’ Choice Award, a Screen Actors’ Guild award and a BAFTA for Best Actor, and for him to win those and not the Oscar would be astonishing, considering the overlap of voters. The cliché says that no one knows anything in Hollywood, but it isn’t hard to know things about Hollywood. I love both performances and have a fondness for the actors because of their ascension to stardom when I first getting into movies back in the late 90s. Were I a member of the Academy, though, would I vote for them?

In the case of Winslet, yes, because her performance as Joanna Hoffman in Steve Jobs is a key part of the emotionality of that film. While Michael Fassbender as Steve himself is the dazzling intellect of the film, Joanna is the heart, and her connection to Steve is what allows the viewer to connect with him. Winslet delivers the perfect combination of affection and exasperation, ensuring that the viewer maintains an understanding of Steve as equal parts compelling and infuriating. Of the other two nominees for Supporting Actress I have seen, Rooney Mara has a wonderfully subtle yet sad sweetness about her in Carol, making her arc soulful and heartbreaking. Rachel McAdams in Spotlight is a solid and sympathetic presence, but I feel she has more to offer and, frankly, everyone in Spotlight delivers the goods. I have not seen The Hateful Eight or The Danish Girl, but due to her SAG award, Alicia Vikander is the only likely rival to Winslet. Both are playing historical figures and both have to speak in accents different to their own (which the Academy members love). Vikander, of course, is not even speaking her naive tongue, which perhaps makes her performance more impressive. That said, Winslet’s accent at least is more showy and, according to interviews, unique, and that is likely to give her the edge.

Speaking of Steve Jobs, were I a member of AMPAS, Michael Fassbender would be my pick for Best Actor. Much as I was impressed by DiCaprio and certainly believed in his portrayal of Hugo Glass, he was easy to sympathise with because of his situations. Steve Jobs is a much harder sell because the character is pretty unlikeable – arrogant, self-aggrandizing, contemptuous of others and driven by an unwavering belief in his own superiority. Yet he was utterly captivating and never less than compelling. Much of this can be put down to Aaron Sorkin’s razor sharp script and Danny Boyle’s rehearsal schedule and assembly of the film, but Fassbender delivers a tour-de-force performance that impresses me more than DiCaprio’s survivalism or Matt Damon’s good humour/stubbornness in The Martian. I cannot comment on Bryan Cranston (Trumbo) or Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl), but of the Best Actor nominees I have seen, Fassbender would be my pick. But expect DiCaprio to add to his collection this Sunday.

Top Five of 0.5

We’re half way through 2014 so it’s time to see what’s impressed me the most in the last six months. As always, many films come and go that are doubtless entertaining, but did not quite necessitate shelling out for them. The following are the five films that impressed and entertained me the most. Will they be in my top films of the year in six months’ time? Come back then and find out!

To clarify, “Films of 2014” are defined in this case as films that went on general UK theatrical release from January 2014. While some of the films I discuss are officially recognised as 2013 releases, they only played at festivals are previews and therefore the majority of cinema-goers could only see them in 2014. Release dates are taken from the IMDb.

5. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (release date 16 April 2014)

TMSM posterThis was a genuine surprise for me. After 2012’s reboot was decidedly less than amazing, I went in with fairly low expectations. They were significantly exceeded as Marc Webb’s follow-up provided a touching central relationship, explored questions of esteem and choice and even prompted tears. Other superhero outings (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past) failed to successfully merge their disparate elements, but much like the web-slinger himself, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 came out on top.

4. The Raid 2 (release date 11 April 2014)

The-Raid-2-Mosaic-PosterAnother sequel that surpassed its original, Gareth Evans’ epic crime tale combined a complex plot with the brutal ballet of its fight sequences, while also incorporating themes of honour, loyalty, courage and ambition. I anticipated much of what I got in The Raid, and The Raid 2 not only provided this but so much more. If there’s a more intense visual ride this year, I look forward to seeing it.

3. Godzilla (release date 15 May 2014)

Godzilla_(2014)_posterGodzilla has long been a favourite of mine, and the character’s 60 year history has had its ups and downs. This was a triumphant up, as Gareth Edwards’ reboot pays homage to the original while also declaring its own identity. Operating both on a macro and micro scale, Godzilla 2014 is not only a bombastic disaster movie with a looming sense of dread and gigantic battle sequences, but also a intriguing exploration of humanity’s need to commune with nature. Any film that features monsters beating seven bells out of each other and incorporates philosophy is OK with me!

2. The Wolf of Wall Street (release date 17 January 2014)

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Easily the funniest film I’ve seen this year, and also a slightly terrifying one. Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Jordan Belfort is a rip-roaring rollercoaster of debauchery, debasement, drugs and money, money, money. It boasts a career-best performance from Leonardo DiCaprio as well as magnificent supporting players Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie, and uses its relatively sedate visual style to draw the audience in and encourage self-reflection.

1. 12 Years A Slave (release date 10 January 2014)

12-years-posterA worthy winner of its Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Oscars, Steve McQueen’s third film is a searing portrait of cruelty, resilience and humanity/inhumanity. Both mesmerising and at times extremely hard to watch, 12 Years A Slave features great performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o as well as the rest of its case, and shows the sheer raw power that cinema is capable of. A story of historical importance, a superbly crafted piece of cinema, and the finest film so far this year.

NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH

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In my last post, I discussed action cinema and the change in emphasis away from the spectacle of pain towards scale and wonder. I qualified, however, that there are still plenty of violent films but that they are very different from films like Olympus Has Fallen. In particular, there is a type of crime film which does not shy away from nor glamorise violence but rather presents it upfront in all its hideous glory. For my money, no movie brings home the treatment of violence in film better than Drive.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn won the Best Director Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and the film was distributed by Icon in the UK. 2011 proved to be the year of the Gosling, as Ryan Gosling appeared in three very different films in quick succession: Drive, Crazy, Stupid Love and The Ides of March, which demonstrated the range of his talents. 2013 looks to be another such year with the releases of Gangster Squad, The Place Beyond the Pines and Gosling and Refn’s reunion, Only God Forgives, which also looks to be very violent.

Across his oeuvre, including Pusher and Bronson, Refn has become associated with a particular kind of screen violence, as his protagonists tend to be existential loners who erupt without warning. Drive’s protagonist Driver echoes Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle in his peculiar and awkward relationships with others, and his recourse to violence to solve the problems that he encounters. Just as there is no warning for when Driver will strike, the violence in the film as a whole often erupts without preamble. I remember my first experience of viewing the film, at a morning screening during Norwich’s hottest October on record (yes, I would rather sit in an air-conditioned cinema than in the sunshine, what of it?). For the first forty minutes, I was drawn into the almost dreamlike representation of Los Angeles, a city I have seen on-screen many times and even visited twice. The film’s unhurried pace, expressive mise-en-scene and smooth transitions lulled me into a false sense of security, so that when a character was shot it came as a real shock. This was only the opening salvo, as in a quick succession of scenes, one character is shot and another stabbed, a man is attacked with a hammer, a head is reduced to mush in the film’s most infamous scene, several men are brutally stabbed. A scene of drowning is relatively restrained in the midst of this carnage.

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I call it carnage, but there is relatively little death in Drive as a whole. A total of nine people are killed in the film, which compared to the innumerable deaths in Olympus Has Fallen seems rather tame. But the issue is quality rather than quantity. The deaths in Olympus Has Fallen are largely anonymous, generally quick and, crucially, not dwelt upon. The BBFC Guidelines at “15” state “Violence may be strong but should not dwell on the infliction of pain or injury”; there is little dwelling in Olympus Has Fallen, for example.

In Drive, there is definite dwelling on the infliction of pain and injury. A head is blown apart at close range with a shotgun, the obliteration of the head shown in slow motion with ample spray of blood and brain matter. When a man is stabbed through the chest with a metal shower rail, he is not simply stabbed and left to die – the stabbing is drawn-out, blood bubbling out of the man’s mouth as the rod is forced through his chest with agonising slowness. Later, the sound of a hammer impacting flesh and bone is enough to make anyone wince. Several scenes of stabbing that involve knives and razors do not skimp on the blood and screams. The notorious elevator scene is one of the very few times I have had to look away in a cinema (on home viewings I forced myself to watch), as the unremitting brutality is deeply uncomfortable. The BBFC states that these scenes “contain the strongest gory images, which are at times accompanied by an emphasis on the infliction of pain and injury”, and they are not kidding. Although the violence takes up relatively little screen time, it leaves a lasting impression.

Drive’s depiction of violence is entirely appropriate, as it leaves the viewer shaken and disturbed. It is also very unusual, as violence in film is frequently sanitised to make it acceptable. Drive actually draws attention to this tendency, as Driver does stunt-driving for the movies in which everything is controlled and kept safe. The first driving sequence in the film is similarly safe, as Driver transports two armed robbers away from a crime scene with smooth, elegant precision. In his introduction, Driver dictates his guiding principle:

You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you’re on your own.

His approach to life is as simple as a movie – he has his role and other people have theirs. But as he is drawn deeper into the morass that lies between the streets of Los Angeles, his rules are disrupted and simple delineations become blurred.

A striking example of this blurring is the family that Driver helps. Ostensibly, he has a romantic interest in his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), bonding with her son Benicio (Kaden Leos).Yet his involvement with her family is to help her husband Standard (Oscar Isaacs). This seems strange for a movie like this – should he not be drawing closer to Irene herself? His endeavour leads him directly into the escalating violence, which includes a very different car chase to that which opened the film. Faster and messier, Driver guns his car away from a pursuing vehicle in reverse, while reaction shots of his passenger Blanche (Christina Hendricks) show her terror at this turn of events. The chase culminates in the pursuers’ car crashing, and things get more violent as we progress.

The contrast between the two chases is the difference between movies and reality. Drive moves from smooth, predictable organisation to discordant, random, surprises. Its violent sequences are the strongest expression of this, as the arrival of two gun-toting men is without warning as is the stabbing of a man in a pizza restaurant. The elevator scene features the film’s most violent set piece, but also its most romantic interlude. Violence interjects without preamble or significant warning, and when it strikes, it is messy, painful and horrifying to watch.

An interesting exception is a scene in which a car is forced off the road on a beach below and its occupant drowned in the sea. Driver wears the latex mask of a stunt driver, used to disguise the driver’s features in movie scenes. The drowning scene is relatively bloodless and largely rendered in long shot, so we are not exposed to the intimacy of violence as we are in the elevator scene. It is as though the film steps back into sanitised movie violence rather than “real” violence, before the final clash in which two men are graphically stabbed. The chronology of this scene is distorted, however, as two lines of action that would be sequential are intercut to appear simultaneous. Once again, the clear delineations of classical Hollywood cinema are disrupted, indicating the intrusion of something messy and unpredictable. The film’s conclusion is deeply ambiguous, the final shot (presumably) Driver’s point-of-view through the windscreen of his car. He has been injured, so he may be travelling to a hospital, or simply driving until he dies, or perhaps the final shot is posthumous, driving eternally in the afterlife.

I love the ambiguity of this final shot, leaving the viewer to decide what we think Driver’s fate will be. Our faith in him as a cinematic hero has been shaken, with his psychotic eruptions of violence, and the fate of someone about whom we are ambiguous is itself ambiguous. Drive itself provokes complex and contradictory feelings, as it is both beautiful and hideous, seductive and repulsive. The film makes a point about cinematic violence, with its own violent sequences exceptionally graphic in stark contrast to the sanitisation of typical movie violence. Whether this is critical of normal movie practice or simply Refn’s own aesthetic is also ambiguous, resulting in an unsettling viewing experience.

Film violence is a hotly contested debate, with arguments raging on both sides for years. I wrote previously on the two types of violence in Django Unchained, and in an interview with Channel 4, Quentin Tarantino stated that he would not answer questions about violence in his films because he had been doing that his whole career, and he has long been a referent for those concerned with this phenomenon. A recent BBC radio programme on Frank Capra included the comment that films today are too violent, although no evidence was presented. Human beings have enjoyed violent entertainment for centuries, and in cinema we can view both sanitised versions and graphic representation that is perhaps more realistic. Drive highlights this sanitisation by presenting violent assaults in unrestrained gore, as well as hinting at the disturbing psychology behind such attacks.

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“Argo” – balancing act extraordinaire

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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.

 

Politics

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!”

 

Comedy

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.

 

Thriller

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.

 

Nostalgia

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.