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Manchester By The Sea

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There is a moment, early in Kenneth Lonergan’s superb Manchester By The Sea, that captures a dumpster centre frame, as protagonist Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) throws refuse into it. The shot stands for the film as a whole – the materials that we carry around but can never truly escape. Specifically, Manchester By The Sea explores grief and the tension between memory and current perception. This tension is expressed through the juxtaposition of carefully composed mise-en-scene and disrupted editing. Lee is a janitor living an anguished existence in Boston, his one apparent outlet getting into bar fights with strangers. A family bereavement brings him back to his hometown of Manchester, where he undertakes difficult relationships with his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), while recalling earlier times with both of them as well as his now deceased brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). The fragmented narrative regularly interrupts the present day with flashbacks to earlier events, illustrating the lingering and even entrapping power of traumatic memories. These moments echo other films’ depiction of the instability of memory, from Last Year at Marienbad to Memento. Manchester By The Sea applies this technique to a domestic drama, delivering a beautifully composed and, at times, exquisitely painful portrait of family and memory. Long takes offer unflinching portrayals of grief, delivered in raw yet never overdone performances from Affleck, Hedges and Williams. Lonergan’s script balances these heartrending moments with warmth and also humour, while DOP Jody Lee Lipes imbues the locations with a chilly and earthy beauty. Many moments may have the viewer reaching for tissues but, while it is not the most cheerful watch, Manchester By The Sea is a powerful and rewarding one.

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Top Ten Directors – Part Four I

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Regulars at this blog (if there are any) may recall that some years ago I started posting about my favourite film directors. I posted about three of them – Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Christopher Nolan – and then I got caught up in reviewing every new release I saw. But I thought it time to get back to my top ten, with the caveat that to credit the director as being solely responsible for any film is to utterly misunderstand the filmmaking process. So here we go…

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For me, Michael Mann is probably the single most important filmmaker I have ever encountered. It was in early 1996 that I first saw Heat (1996), a film that had a profound effect on me and set me on the course of becoming a film scholar and critic. I had seen The Last of the Mohicans (1992) beforehand, but Heat was my major introduction to Mann’s work. Subsequently I sought out The Last of the Mohicans again and made sure to see The Insider (1999) when it came out. Then I gathered the video tapes (and later DVDs) of Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), The Keep (1983), The Jericho Mile (1979)and L. A. Takedown (1989). When Ali (2001) came out I made the effort to see it, by which time I had decided that I would do a PhD in film studies focused on Michael Mann (as you do). Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006) were released while I was researching my doctorate, and in the week of my graduation, Public Enemies (2009) came to British cinemas, before very briefly in 2015, Blackhat. I saw them all, think about them at length, and have written and published at least something about all of them.

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Due to my research, I have a very particular view of Mann that may not communicate well to others, but here goes. Mann is a holistic filmmaker whose work demonstrates precise interaction of the various cinematic elements. Working as writer and director on most of his films, Mann has spoken in interviews of the ‘harmonics’ in his work, and indeed the various elements are harmonised to an extraordinary degree. Script, performance, cinematography, production design, editing, sound, music – all resonate in a very specific and distinct way across Mann’s oeuvre. These harmonics are what create the relentlessly lyrical movement in The Last of the Mohicans, the sleek and almost ephemeral stream of Collateral, Miami Vice and Blackhat as well as the distorted mental and physical worlds of Manhunter, the state and industrial containments in The Jericho Mile and Thief, the confusing disjointedness of Ali and Public Enemies and the expressionism of The Keep.

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From within this extraordinary oeuvre, what really stands out as Mann’s best film, and what is the best introduction to his work? All will be revealed in my next post

Michael-Mann

The BFG

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Roald Dahl and Steven Spielberg are significant parts of many childhoods. Both artists use an exquisite method of storytelling that captures that most elusive of elements – true wonder. It is, therefore, perhaps surprising that Spielberg has not directed an adaptation of a Dahl novel until now, but it was the worth the wait as The BFG delivers exactly what could be expected of this dream combination. From the lovingly crafted streets of London to the intricate maze of the Big Friendly Giant’s (Mark Rylance) home and workshop, Spielberg and production designers Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg place the viewer in the position of the enchanting Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) as she learns about giants, Giant Country and dreams. DOP Janusz Kaminsky lenses the film in soft hues, while capturing two bravura sequences in single shots. These set pieces convey wonder and thrills both as spectacle and experience, while screenwriter Melissa Mathison imbues the Buckingham Palace sequences with Queen Elizabeth II (Penelope Wilton) with laugh out loud comedy moments. Performance capture and digital effects bring the BFG to startling life, Rylance’s performance one of charming innocence which rivals that of Sophie. This guileless innocence and childlike charm are the greatest strengths of the film, even if at times it is thematically insubstantial. Reminiscent in its finest moments of Spielberg and Mathison’s previous collaboration, E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The BFG confirms Spielberg’s place as Hollywood’s enduring crafter of cinematic dreams, and the timelessness of Dahl’s beautiful storytelling.

Top Ten Directors – Part One

If you’ve been reading my blog regularly (ha ha), you may have noticed a pattern emerging: I am an auteurist. I believe in the theory that you can interpret films, and credit their strengths and weaknesses, to the individual(s) credited as ‘director’. It is a highly problematic critical approach, as it sidelines other creative personal such as producers, writers, actors, editors, cinematographers, set designers, and the army of personnel responsible for putting a film together. Industrially, it doesn’t really work. Critically, it provides a useful reading strategy for linking different films together, and even a cursory examination of the films directed by [insert name here] are likely to reveal similarities.

To this end, I’ll be writing a series of posts that discuss my ten favourite directors, and particular films of theirs. I won’t necessarily describe their ‘best’ films, because neither I, nor anyone, is qualified to say what is or is not better than others (although that doesn’t tend to stop people). I will describe my personal favourites of their oeuvre, and also what I think are the best introductions to their work. By introduction, I mean that if you wanted to show someone, perhaps with very limited exposure to cinema, a film that best expressed the work of this particular filmmaker, what would it be?

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As a starter, I discuss possibly the most accomplished filmmaker there has ever been – Steven Spielberg. I know, I know, the epitome of mainstream Hollywood, very middle-of-the-road, safe, conservative, blockbuster, lowest-common denominator, etc., etc. I disagree, to an extent. Spielberg has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to deliver emotionally and intellectually engaging cinema across a range of genres, working with different writers and actors, always delivering distinctive films within the parameters of commercial Hollywood production. Spielberg is a master manipulator, which is a loaded and problematic term, but need not be seen as negative. Cinema is intrinsically manipulative, and the most effective filmmakers are those who are most skilled at manipulating their viewers. Spielberg is not only a master at this, but open and unashamed about it. If you don’t want to be manipulated, don’t go to the cinema.

Examples of Spielberg’s powers of manipulation pepper his films. The concealment of the shark in Jaws, represented by underwater POV shots, the scream of victims and the eternally ominous score, create a sense of malevolence. The approach of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, such as the concentric ripples in cups of water and the steady stalking of the velociraptors, create nerve-shredding suspense. The precise balance over how much to show in Schindler’s List, some scenes capturing the sheer brutality of the Nazis with unflinching starkness, while others cut away but leave the viewer in no doubt about what took place. The steady passage through the eponymous Terminal, as our protagonist learns of the political shifts in his country on various TVs, literally chasing the changing channels for more information, draws the viewer into his anguish. And, of course, the carefully developed relationship between a little boy and a walking turd from outer space, which has been drawing tears out of viewers for thirty years and is likely to continue. While young Henry Thomas can certainly claim some credit, Spielberg’s careful timing and focus on the details of this relationship give E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial its glowing heart. The film charms and moves in equal measure, such as when Eliot is taken away from the dying E.T. who reaches out and calls to him with heart-wrenching anguish.

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E.T. is the best introduction to Spielberg’s oeuvre. It captures the sentiment and emotion, the pain and heartbreak, the humour and humanity of his cinema. It demonstrates Spielberg’s unparalleled ability to capture exquisite moments on camera and assemble them into compelling and dramatic wholes. But I’m a more bloodthirsty individual so it isn’t my favourite. No, I’m not referring to the bloody hell of warfare in Saving Private Ryan or the incredible cruelty of Schindler’s List, nor even the body-chomping of Jaws or the human puree of War of the Worlds. My favourite Spielberg film is Munich.

Munich

Munich contains a great deal and suggests so much more. As a thriller, it is incredibly gripping and psychologically disturbing, partly because Spielberg can deliver suspenseful sequences as good as anyone, and also because it shows the banality and horror of intimate murder. The Israeli athletes are attacked with discordant, bloody clumsiness. An unarmed, naked woman is shot in cold blood and dies slowly and painfully. An attack on a Palestinian safe house by Mossad forces veers between vaguely comical identification and merciless execution. It is an unflinching look at death and killing that pulls no punches, making it more compelling and shocking, in my view, than Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

Politically, Munich has been described as Zionist and as an overly sympathetic view of Palestinian terrorism, but neither of these accusations are fair. Munich presents an extremely balanced view of the conflict, for some viewers, so balanced that the drama is undermined. Perhaps taking a more definite stance might have delivered something more forceful. But I think the balance is key to the drama, because seeing the perspective of the Mossad agents and, in one bravura exchange between Avner (Eric Bana) and Ali (Omar Metwally), that of Palestinians, adds to the film’s impact. We see how the perspectives affect the people on the frontlines of this never-ending escalation of violence, a point underlined in the film’s final, chilling image of the World Trade Center, emphasising the escalation and wide-ranging impact of this conflict.

The film also works as an investigation into the philosophy of revenge. Is revenge justifiable, in any sense? How far do notions of humanity extend when they conflict with political expediency? The Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), expresses an extremely problematic position when she says ‘Every civilisation finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values’. These ‘compromises’ also operate on an individual basis, as the Mossad agents question the validity of what they do and the impact of their mission takes its toll. It takes a toll on the viewer as well, as the film’s unflinching focus on the ugliness of the mission, combined with a sense of hopelessness and a lack of triumph (for all the protestations of ‘celebrating’ from Steve [Daniel Craig]), can leave one drained and exhausted by the time the credits roll.

I would describe my experience of seeing Munich for the first time as traumatising, and on repeat viewings, it remains a very powerful and unsettling watch. One of Spielberg’s least appreciated films, but my favourite and one of his best.

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Frightful Five No 4. “Jaws” (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

I avoided seeing this for the longest time, not out of fear, but because of the damaging representation of sharks.  Then I remembered that Jaws is a film, I know it is a fiction and I will not be turned against sharks by it.  Furthermore, me not seeing it makes no difference to anyone else’s opinion, so I did.  It was a very specific occasion – 30th December 2000, alone in my university room.  I ordered pizza, drank Smirnoff Ice (I think) and enjoyed Spielberg’s mastery of suspense and the cinematic medium.

Spielberg is, for my money, the most accomplished director working in Hollywood, if not the world, today.  Several of his films are regarded as masterpieces, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List and, of course, Jaws.  Specifically, Jaws is a masterpiece of suspense (also used to great effect in Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds), and despite having watched it multiple times, I always find my pulse quickening practically at the same tempo as John Williams’ score.  Certain scenes are especially tense: the two fishermen who get yanked into the sea and are “chased” by a large piece of driftwood; the opening attack on the swimming girl; the attack on a small boy.  Best of all is the night dive, when Hooper inspects a ruined boat underwater and finds a large tooth.  As he inspects the tooth, the music playing, the viewer expects the shark to attack, but instead a decapitated head appears out of the hole in the boat.  I screamed the first time I saw that, and I still scream (perhaps deliberately) in subsequent viewings, even though I know it’s coming.

The fact that my pulse accelerates and I jump and scream, even when I know what is coming, is testament to Jaws’ power.  Once again, the threatening environment is as important in generating fear as the threatening presence.  But whereas in Paranormal Activity the environment is mundane, in Jaws it is an alien and menacing world that can easily kill us.  Most will agree that the shark itself look pretty fake and hardly menacing, but it pales in comparison to the vast, hungry, uncaring sea.  Martin Brody’s (Roy Scheider) fear of drowning makes him our substitute, and the knowledge that, regardless of anything else, it is never completely safe to go into the water.  The film epitomises an intractable adversary through the figure of the shark, presented not so much as an animal as a manifestation of the engulfing sea.  This is a common use of animals as enemies in films – from the lions in The Ghost and the Darkness to the wolves in The Grey, animals do not express their real-world counterparts, but our fear of the wild, the unknown world beyond our own.  The sea is perhaps the best example of this great unknown – an indifferent and all-consuming expanse.  Jaws expresses this fear through its use of suspense and by playing upon our expectations, making it a consistently and repeatedly nerve-wracking experience.

Oscars – who are we to say they’re wrong?

Every year the Oscar nominations are announced, and every year everybody and their dog proclaims that the Academy got it wrong and that everybody else (and their dog) knows far better. Whether it be critics or audiences, the Internet is never short of comments offering alternative versions of what “should” be nominated. This year has been no exception – as an example, while there is little protest over the nominations of The Artist and Hugo, many lament that Drive has been left out of, not only the Best Picture category, but every category except for a “paltry” nod for Sound Editing. On a related note, after his three major performances in three very different films last year, it seems rather mean that Ryan Gosling has been ignored in the Best Actor category. I’ve never heard of Demian Bichir, nor the film for which he is nominated, A Better Life, so it’s a good thing he is nominated as it will help publicise the film.

Critics are quick to insist that they know better – and it is after all their job to be critical. This year, the Academy has been soundly berated for not nominating Senna for Best Documentary. Critics have their own set of awards – National Board of Review, Critics Societies and Associations of various cities, National Society of Film Critics – and the BBC critic Mark Kermode presents his own awards each year, named the Kermodes. The only rule for winning a Kermode is that the nominee must not also have been nominated for an Oscar. While this practice is entertaining, the fact that alternative awards exist demonstrates that critics have their own position, maybe their own standards, and run their own awards, so why not be different from the Academy? If all awards went to the same films, that would mean everyone thought the same way, and we all appreciate variety and range of opinion, don’t we?

Similarly, we the public have a great range of different opinions, and all can be respected. I mentioned to a friend that The Tree of Life was up for Best Picture and Best Director because I knew he liked it. He asked about Melancholia with an expectant air, and on being told it had not been nominated commented that he hates the Oscars. Is this because they have a different position, and they should agree with him? Is “greatness” not a concept that is hard to identify and even harder to make universally accepted?

Complaining about what “should” be nominated is, to me, pointless and rather arrogant. Who are we to tell the Academy members how to do their job? Does the fact that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences consists of people who make films count for nothing? As the public, we vote in our ticket buying habits, and with people’s choice awards. When the public disagree with the Oscar winners, the question that always strikes me is “Why do you know better? What standards are you following, which are clearly different and seemingly superior to those of the Academy members?” We don’t know what goes through the heads of the Academy members any more than we know what goes through the heads of the other people at the supermarket or on the bus, and yet we are not shy to declare that we know better. Yet how we know better is a question few seem willing or even able to answer.

Why, indeed, would we, the viewing public, know what constitutes the “best” films? Or, for that matter, the best directing, writing, acting, editing, cinematography, sound mixing, sound editing, visual effects, art direction, costume design, music, make-up? I have a PhD in Film Studies, and am often asked “What’s a really good film?” or “What’s the best film ever?” I have absolutely no idea, and neither does anyone else. The Academy members are, in that respect, like the rest of us, choosing and voting for what they happen to admire. Some of us like to post our own favourites each year, my previous post being just that. I don’t think my top ten are necessarily the best, they are simply what I enjoyed. Yes, the Academy Awards are more significant than some random blogger’s top ten, but it seems unlikely that they are actually judged by any standard that is higher than that. Therefore, can we not view the Oscars as an expression of admiration among film industry workers for their peers?

This is not to say that I necessarily agree with the Academy’s decisions. For my money, Avatar is a more impressive piece of cinema than The Hurt Locker, because it genuinely stretches the boundaries of what cinema can do. The 2008 nominees (Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, The Reader, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon) were a rather bland collection, I thought, and both The Dark Knight and The Wrestler were far more powerful and compelling pieces of work. Last year, I found The Social Network to be an edgier and more critical and relevant piece than The King’s Speech, which was perfectly put together but rather too pat, too respectable, too safe. I found something else to be more impressive than what won or was nominated, but that doesn’t mean that my opinion is superior to those of the Academy members.

What is a more interesting question is why certain films get nominated and awarded over others. As a cultural institution, the Academy Awards are a fascinating expression of certain standards of taste. The very fact that The King’s Speech is about good behaviour, doing your duty and triumphing over adversity suggests that it made a more “respectable” choice than the ultimately inconsequential tale of highly intelligent but thoroughly unpleasant people squabbling over copyright laws in The Social Network. The Hurt Locker‘s depiction yet lack of commentary on the Iraq War made it a more “important” and “worthy” although non-controversial film than the science fiction spectacle of Avatar, even though Avatar is far more explicitly political. In the case of Melancholia, its being ignored probably has as much to do with Lars Von Trier’s controversial statements at the Cannes Film Festival as the high or low quality of the film. Political and personal taste will always have a bearing; rather than getting on our judgemental high horses it seems far more interesting to consider the reasoning behind decisions rather than just condemning them as incorrect.

As an initial consideration of reasoning, a glance over this year’s nominees suggests a strong element of nostalgia, with The Artist and Hugo, both acutely concerned with the history of cinema, leading the pack. The Academy members are clearly appreciative of this nostalgia, and seek to reward it. Why shouldn’t they? Both films are likely to win big, with The Artist gathering momentum having picked up Golden Globes, PGA and DGA. Acting awards are likely to be among The Artist, The Descendants and The Help, with technical awards scattered among the Best Picture nominees. I will post a more in-depth set of predictions nearer the time, but what I won’t do is say what should win. The Academy members are allowed their opinions just like everyone else, and are no more right or wrong than anyone else.

Is “Avatar” really “FernGully” without Robin Williams?

Avatar sees you?

As an initial post, and as part of my ongoing research into Hollywood auteurs, I address one of the many criticisms against James Cameron’s Avatar. Described disparagingly as Dances With Smurfs and FernGully with more money, I offer a counter argument to demonstrate how Avatar works aesthetically and philosophically, because rather than despite its apparent deficiencies in plot and character.

While there are resemblances between Avatar and FernGully: The Last Rainforest, they are superficial at best and there are crucial differences between the two. An easy one is the source of the enemy. In FernGully there is a malevolent entity that takes control of the machines, whereas in Avatar it is very explicitly human (read: capitalist) greed that is the enemy, there is no displacement.

While both narratives involve the hero renouncing his misguided ways, Jake Sully undergoes a more radical transformation than Zak Young – indeed Zak does not really transform at all. He realises the error of his ways, but ultimately goes back to where he came from, a wiser version of the same man. Jake however completely rejects his race and culture (read: Western capitalism) because it is morally bankrupt, evil and flat out wrong. There is no going back, he must become something completely new (or old?) and better.

Jake’s transformation speaks of the film’s overall message of environmental and human philosophy: a radical change is needed. It is not enough to simply point out to wrongdoers that what they are doing is harmful, a fundamental re-evaluation of values and philosophy is needed. FernGully makes no such challenge to the viewer, simply presenting the message that “conservation is important”, whereas Avatar is more confrontational and, it seems, discomfiting.

While the depth of the message can be obscured in Avatar‘s extraordinary visuals, it is not lost, nor is it dis-credited by the film’s existence as a commercial product. Few who have seen Avatar seem to have missed the environmental message, though there also seem to be few who take it seriously, largely because of the commercial status. But Avatar‘s message is not as crude as “Give up your life and go and live with nature in the woods”, it is a philosophical challenge to the viewer to look harder at their own life. The threat depicted in Avatar is less to the natural environment than to ourselves: we must learn to engage with our environment, as part of our care for it, to save ourselves (this is more obvious in the extended version in which the opening scenes present Earth, that looks a lot like Earth in Blade Runner).

The film’s message is conveyed through its visual aesthetic, making the CG landscapes, performance capture and 3D intrinsic to its meaning. The film’s emphasis upon “seeing” (a common theme throughout Cameron’s oeuvre) is directed at the viewer, and made all the stronger through the new cinema technologies. Through its groundbreaking visual aesthetic (and assault), the film presents the viewer with a rediscovery of seeing cinema, seeing film, seeing the world.

The challenging message meets its apex at the conclusion. Jake becomes fully one of the People, leaving his/our ruined human form behind (I have heard the anti-disabled arguments, which neglect what Jake’s body represents: our own damaged existence). Moreover, the film’s finale features the hugely important look out of the screen at the viewer: a direct, challenging gaze. From the environmentalist perspective, the look says “Over to you”. The philosophical challenge is deeper, the film saying to the viewer “I see you”, and asking what we see. Will we look upon ourselves, and learn from what we see? Will we perform the same reverse-anthropology that Jake does, or simply dismiss what we saw as a bunch of empty CGI?

Now, does FernGully do that?