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‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a yardie’. No character in Yardie says this line, yet Idris Elba’s directorial debut echoes Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas with its tale of the rites of passage through criminal syndicates. With its period detail and tactile sense of time and place, Elba’s adaptation of Victor Headley’s novel immerses the viewer in its milieu, its use of London also recalling David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, with an added Jamaican flavour. The narrative includes familiar genre tropes of revenge, redemption, how one defines identity and the tensions between men being men and women being sensible. The theme of immigration adds a distinctive element to the film, as Jamaican culture feeds both the yardie mentality and a non-criminal lifestyle. Elba handles the interpersonal drama effectively, allowing a very impressive cast to shine. Elba also displays confidence and flair as a director, especially with such devices as freeze frames and non-sequential editing. Various sequences begin, continue and end, but key moments from these sequences appear and reappear later, often with additional detail. This emphasises the film’s conceits of trauma and haunting, as our protagonist Dennis (Aml Ameen) is psychologically trapped in a formative moment, an experience that he cannot escape even when his location changes from Kingston to London. As the film follows Dennis’ progress, there is a constant sense of enclosure, demonstrated with claustrophobic framing and close quarters. The one avenue for escape comes from music, brilliantly realised with an atmospheric soundtrack, that takes centre stage at key points. These include an attempt at an armistice between warring gangs, and later as a possible road to redemption for Dennis. Yet the musical and the criminal pathways are intertwined, and Dennis’ status remains fluid and liminal. Come the end of the film, the viewer is likely to feel ambivalent, which is a sign of the film’s strength. Not only is it worth seeing in its own right, but Yardie raises expectations for what Elba may do next.
Ridley Scott does hollow decadence like no one else. From Blade Runner to Gladiator to Prometheus, Scott crafts opulent environments that surround empty, powerful men. All The Money In The World creates this world around the real events of 1973, when J. Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) was kidnapped for ransom from his grandfather, the wealthiest man in the history of the world. Paul Getty is played by Christopher Plummer (no relation to Charlie), who replaced Kevin Spacey at very short notice, Scott reshooting and re-editing all of Getty’s scenes in ten days. The film’s greatest achievement is that the joins do not show, as Plummer fits snugly into the role of Getty, oozing charisma and greed in equal measure. Scott and DOP Dariusz Wolski create evocative locations, often with dim yet stark lighting, both in Italy and England, the opulence echoing Scott’s earlier film Hannibal. The curiously un-unified narrative strands are reminiscent of American Gangster, which cut between career criminal and honest cop in a Goodfellas meets Serpico sort of way. Here, we cut between Paul’s imprisonment, flashbacks to Getty’s history of wealth accumulation, and the emotional heart of the film, Gail Getty (Michelle Williams) as she attempts to get the ransom money from her ex-father-in-law, talks to the kidnappers with the help of the Italian police and negotiates/struggles against Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), a fixer for Getty himself. This aspect of the film works less well, because Fletcher’s role is underwritten and unclear. What is more interesting although largely left unexplored is the relationship between Paul and one of his kidnappers, Cinquanta (Romain Duris). Their scenes have a tantalising suggestion of Stockholm Syndrome and indicate the criminal infrastructure of Italy, but we only get this in passing. A further compelling yet frustrating dimension of the film Getty’s retreat into his wealth, as he describes himself as ‘vulnerable’ and holds onto his money like a bulldog. The film does not take a didactic stance on the impossibility of buying happiness, but rather displays an elevated and somewhat incomprehensible state. Getty understands finance in a way that the non-wealthy perhaps cannot, and he serves as an intriguing enigma at the centre of this compelling exploration of hollow decadence.
The Wolf of Wall Street is quite a surprise. It is a far more sedate film than I expected from Martin Scorsese, a director typically associated with an extremely mobile camera and a plethora of stylistic techniques. Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Departed are prime examples of Scorsese’s tendency to use whip pans, crash-zooms, pin holes and all manner of other cinematic devices. By contrast, The Wolf of Wall Street uses a steady, measured approach, largely recording the events of the plot rather than inflecting them, although there are some distinctive long takes. Furthermore, the dialogue scenes are remarkably long, the actors given time and space to develop their performances. This is especially true of Leonardo DiCaprio, who delivers a career-best, rocket-fuelled performance that powers the film through all manner of debauchery. If Scorsese is more sedate than usual, DiCaprio has never been more ferocious, his character Jordan Belfort powerhousing his way through money, drugs, whores, clients, friends, wives and authorities with scant or no regard for consequences. While Belfort is utterly loathsome, he is never less than compelling, a hugely charismatic and enthralling presence so utterly committed to excessive consumption that he is practically a personification of unmitigated capitalism. At three hours, the film might be too long for some, but I found the measured pace and very detailed story effective at conveying a hedonistic and voracious segment of society. Welcome to the life of the 1%. Now run away screaming.
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.
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.
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.
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.