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Viewers care about character in films. Character can be a route into the film’s world, but somewhat controversially this reviewer believes there are other routes and ‘caring about the characters’ is not essential. Indeed, in the case of Mile 22, characterisation is a distraction. In this latest collaboration between Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg after Deepwater Horizon, Lone Survivor and Patriots Day, Wahlberg plays James Silva, a US special ops agent who is over-characterized. After an opening scene that establishes the remit and lethal abilities of strike team Overwatch, we are treated to a credit sequence that details Silva’s history: identified as ‘gifted’ (which quickly becomes synonymous with ‘troubled’ and ‘mentally abnormal’), his military service, exceptional skills, special forces, recruited to Overwatch, and the rubber band that he snaps on his wrist when his thoughts are too fast for the everyday world. As the film progresses, this rubber band snaps many times, while Silva delivers verbal barrages at his teammates as a form of motivation. The excessive characterisation distracts from the otherwise fairly stripped-down story. Overwatch must transport cop Li Norr (Iko Uwais) through Jakarta to a landing strip 22 miles away (hence the title) so that he can provide vital data about terrorist activity. Along the way they encounter resistance which leads to intense violence, violence that extends into the fabric of the film as well as the narrative. Director Berg mixes multiple formats, from handheld cameras to satellite, drone and security footage, while the present day story flashes forward to a debriefing session. For the most part, this unsteady chronicling effectively conveys a disorientating sense of danger, although it unfortunately obscures Uwais’ martial artistry at several points. A sequence in a tower block with our heroes facing multiple adversaries recalls The Raid, but Mile 22 has a different sort of onslaught. The bombardment of visual information quickly becomes confusing, but this confusion is itself part of the action. In a technologised world of globalisation where US covert ops, Indonesian police and state intelligence, other espionage agencies and civilians violently interact, what can be trusted or depended upon? The double and triple-crossing of the narrative, combined with the disorientating visual grammar, adds up an action thriller that is overwrought and overdone. Nonetheless, Mile 22 is a gripping couple of hours, and an effective product of our troubled and confusing times. Pity about that pesky characterisation.
In the space of two days, I recently saw two films that could not be more different. The first was The Raid 2, Gareth Evans’ sequel to his explosive 2012 martial arts adventure. The second was A Story of Children and Film, a documentary by Mark Cousins that merges the conceits of his last previous works, The Story of Film: An Odyssey and The First Movie. The Raid 2 is a fictional drama, a martial arts/crime thriller that delivers a blistering ballet of brutality. Cousins’ documentary is lyrical, free associative and meandering. Both excel at what they do and each film offers particular delights and pleasures, and serve to highlight one of the most important tools in filmmaking – editing.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that the three most important components of any film were script, script and script. While this is a convenient soundbite for the critic who decries overreliance on special effects or glamorous actors, it is overly simplistic to describe cinema as being based primarily on the written word (and besides, Hitch could have been referring to screenplay, shooting script and another form of script). For sure, the written screenplay is important, but many a filmmaker subscribes to the belief that films are made in the editing room, in the assembly of otherwise disparate images. Small wonder that directors form lasting and productive collaborations with their editors, such as Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, Michael Mann and Dov Hoenig, and some, including James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh and Gareth Evans, edit their films themselves.
Sergei Eisenstein argued that the power of cinema lay in the juxtaposition of images rather than the sustained shot, hence his development of montage in such classics as The Battleship Potemkin (1925). Similarly, Evans uses fast cutting to express both the swift blows and dizzying impact of martial arts combat. Films like The Raid 2 are a testament to the merging of combat performance and editing, as the skills of performers like Iko Uwais and Julie Estelle are displayed to dazzling effect, while the cuts between different shots express the physical impact of the blows, leading to a visceral experience. Long takes of athletic prowess are impressive, and frequent in The Raid 2 as well, such as sustained pan shots of a prison yard during a riot as well as a warehouse towards the end of the film. Such shots, however, are generally at a distance, wide angle and encompass much of the cinematic space. Fast editing of close quarters combat helps to create a sense of being in the thick of combat, a vicarious experience for the viewer that gives us the experience of being in the ferocious fights of the film (without the inconvenience of pain).
By contrast, Mark Cousins uses editing to link together seemingly disparate scenes. Early in A Story of Children and Film, Cousins explains that he will not progress through films chronologically, but will be guided by how the behaviour of his niece and nephew reminds him of children in other films. The range of films referenced by Cousins is extraordinary, including An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990) and The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi, 1995). I consider myself reasonably familiar with cinema, but the only films referenced in Cousins’ documentary that I had seen were E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982) and The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), making the film something of an education. I was a little disappointed at the omission of films about children and film, such as Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011) and Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings, 2007), but Cousins is interested in how film presents children, identifies and extrapolates their shyness, their defiance, their performativity. Editing enables Cousins to draw together his seemingly disparate examples, taking us from Japanese boys chasing dogs to an Iranian girl having a “strop” about goldfish. Cousins’ finale brings together films from various countries about kids with balloons, linking these unrelated movies in a moving and thought-provoking way.
Cousins’ cinematography favours a static camera, both of his niece and nephew in his living room as well as wide angle exterior shots of the Isle of Skye. Evans’ camera is more mobile, taking the viewer into the cinematic space of his drama and, as mentioned above, thrusting us into the thick of battle. Cousins’ camera also creates intimacy through dwelling on the events before it, both in his own footage and the scenes from other films that he refers to. The techniques of these filmmakers serve to draw the viewer in, and invite us to interpret meaning from the assembly of images, the editing both presenting meaning and allowing us to infer from the spaces between the shots.
I’ve been posting recently on my top and bottom films of 2012, and realised I had been remiss earlier in the year. Two films in particular impressed me in their own ways and are contenders for my top ten, so I thought it only fair to give them mention. Both are smaller films, rather than the major blockbusters I’ve discussed recently. I enjoy the mainstream, and seeing the full facility of cinema through big budget blockbusters and studio prestige films are among my favourite movie experiences. The division between “mainstream” and “independent” is vague and indeterminate, and sometimes used nonsensically, not to mention inaccurately. I have heard references to Clint Eastwood as an independent filmmaker, which is absurd as he is a Hollywood institution, whose films are always funded and distributed by major studios, usually Warner Bros. Similarly, the world’s most successful independent filmmaker is George Lucas, who could also be regarded as the epitome of Hollywood. If considered from a more analytical industrial perspective, the distributors of the films under discussion here are still related to major studios, so the division is unclear.
Not that it matters, as the quality of a film and one’s appreciation of it is not determined by who funded or distributed it, but by what is in the film itself. Speaking from an auteurist position, as I do, one of the giants of New Hollywood back in the 1970s was responsible for my favourite comedy of the year, Killer Joe. William Friedkin won the Directing Oscar for The French Connection in 1971, and went on to direct The Exorcist two years later. He has never come close to the heights of that double whammy in the last forty years, but continued to make striking and interesting films (Bug), as well as some turkeys (Rules of Engagement). Killer Joe is one of his successes, a pitch black comedy that is funny if you are prepared to laugh at its unflinching depravity. Complaints about Killer Joe focus on all the characters being unsympathetic if not downright repulsive, which they are. I question though whether being nasty is reason to criticise, as horrible characters can still be well-rounded and compelling. To call the central family of Killer Joe white trash would be a compliment, as they are more the vermin that feed upon trash, but I was nonetheless intrigued to see what they did next.
My interest was held largely by commitment, from the script, the direction and some very fine performances. Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church convince as a couple of idiot rednecks, Gina Gershon balances sultry with embittered, and Juno Temple conveys sweet naivety and disturbing sexuality. 2012 was the year of Matthew McConaughey’s renaissance, with acclaimed performances in Killer Joe, Magic Mike and Bernie, receiving an award from the New York Film Critics Circle for Best Supporting Actor for his performances in the latter two. I did not see those, but found his performance as the titular polite psychopath in Killer Joe to be both chilling and amusing. McConaughey’s stony expression and slow Texan drawl lend themselves well to perfectly controlled menace. As with other characters in 2012, the sound of the voice is central to the dangerous aura of the character. Tom Hardy demonstrated the menace of his voice twice, famously as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (although his voice was clearly altered in post-production, so maybe that shouldn’t count) and then in the lower profile Lawless, in which he pulled off the remarkable feat of appearing dangerous while wearing a grey woollen cardigan. A key element of Hardy’s menace was in his voice, a low, indistinct mumble that nonetheless conveyed clear authority and willingness to do harm. In Skyfall, Javier Bardem’s almost liquid tones emphasised his relaxed attitude towards his murderous enterprises. McConaughey’s sardonic vocalisations were perpetually chilling, especially as he spoke in much the same tone whether discussing his assassination fee or about serving tuna casserole.
Killer Joe is based on Tracy Lett’s play of the same name, and its final scene especially retains the script’s stage origin. The escalating horror of this scene demonstrates the script’s conviction to deep levels of depravity, and Friedkin’s commitment to the story is demonstrated by the maintenance of the scene’s length. Films based upon modern plays often shorten scene length, either through outright cutting of the script or fast editing. When the length is retained, as in Killer Joe and also Doubt, the scenes are noticeably longer than those written specifically for the screen. The maintenance of the final scene’s length increases the tension and indeed the horror of what may be the worst family dinner ever. The commitment to the revolting events that unfold aids the power of the scene, and yet a twisted sense of humour is still present. This is integral to Killer Joe’s success as a piece of cinema: the film presents humiliation and abuse, but with just the right level of wit. Not laugh out loud funny, but still amusing if you have a strong stomach.
If Friedkin is a known if somewhat diminished directorial star, Gareth Evans is an utter unknown. This anonymity worked to his advantage in his contribution to cinema this year, the Indonesian The Raid. Having never heard of Evans until buzz about The Raid started, I was not sure what to expect. What I got was the most blistering, dizzying, dazzling, delirious action film I had seen in a long time. The combating characters flew as light as feathers yet struck with bone-crunching force – I lost count of the number of times I winced, ducked and said “Ow! Ow! Ow!”
I am not well-versed in martial arts cinema, The Raid being one of only a smattering of such films that make it into mainstream western cinemas. It was also the only foreign language film I saw at the cinema in 2012. I am keen on all films, but foreign language fare tends to be restricted to art house cinemas, and at least in Norwich, the art house cinema is more expensive than one of the multiplexes. Unfortunate but true. The upside is that a film like The Raid felt wonderfully fresh and different. This is not to disparage western action cinema, which can provide visceral thrills very well as The Avengers and Skyfall did this year, but The Raid added some variety. Whereas the wuxia genre of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers provide balletic myths of martial arts beauty, The Raid was down, dirty, brutal and unforgiving, combining physical stunts with blazing guns and swinging machetes, to create an immersive and enthralling experience.
The Raid’s power is a combination of martial arts choreography and filmmaking. I would describe the choreography as exquisitely channelled chaos: fists and feet flying in all directions could be chaotic and confusing (and in reality probably would be), but with the right choreography, it becomes a marvel of organisation. This can be presented as something elegant and even serene, especially if slowed down as in the films of Zhang Yimou. Evans, however, keeps the action fast and the cutting intimate, conveying a sense of velocity and impact. As I have discussed previously, tension is key to action sequences, and build-up is crucial to tension. Tension in The Raid comes in a variety of forms. At one point, the protagonist Rama (Iko Uwais) hides in a wall cavity with an injured comrade. The gangsters searching for them repeatedly stab a machete into the wall, only just missing our heroes. This scene is extremely tense, the tension exacerbated through extreme close ups of the characters’ faces as well as the massive blade. During actual fight sequences, the combat is continuous yet tension is increased as the violence escalates. Why punch your opponent once when you can do so seven times and slam their head into a wall, just to make sure they’re incapacitated? Several stand-out fight sequences are not only highly involving, but carry major stakes as these are important characters, particularly Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) VS Jaka (Joe Taslim) as well as Mad Dog VS Rama and Andi (Donny Alamsyah). These fights go on far longer than human endurance would actually allow, but realism is not on the agenda here. The agenda is to show people fighting in creative and elaborate ways, and make us feel every punch, kick, head-butt and blow from an improvised weapon (my personal favourite: a shattered strip light).
The Raid could be criticised for having a plot summed up in the tagline: “1 ruthless crime lord. 20 elite cops. 30 floors of chaos.” This is unfair, as The Raid also features betrayal, corruption, loyalty, abjection and duty. While its main selling point is incredibly talented practitioners of pencak silat, The Raid has the bonus of an engaging protagonist in Rama, some sympathetic characters, and a villain in Tama Riyada (Ray Sahetapy), complete with psychotic henchman Mad Dog, worthy of any Bond or superhero film. While many of the characters are cannon fodder, I nonetheless cared when the cops were hurt or killed, because Evans made sure to keep the PAIN on-screen. Visceral cinema can simply draw one along with the action, much as Joss Whedon does in his bravura long takes like the climactic battle in The Avengers. Evans’ approach is more brutal, as the impact of each blow is clear. Sound adds a great deal as well, and the smack of fists and feet, not to mention the burst of skin and the breaking of bones, aid the film’s immersive thrill. While 2012 featured many stunning sequences, nothing matched the sheer physical thwack of The Raid.