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2020 was a year of remarkable debuts, and few more remarkable than this absolute gem from Andrew Patterson. Set during one night in the late 1950s, The Vast of Night follows two high school students, Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) and Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz), who while operating a local radio station start to pick up something strange. The strangeness of the film comes from the events that may be taking place, as well as the beautifully assured delivery. Long takes track through the town for minutes at a time, and much of the action is delivered by sound, especially people talking through radios and telephones. This runs counter-intuitive to standard film logic of show don’t tell, yet The Vast of Night achieves a great deal by telling rather than showing. The intelligent script and strong performances are aided by superb period detail, both in terms of production design and social conditions, and while there is clear homage this never overwhelms the drama. The pacing is perfect and the film wonderfully atmospheric, leaving a genuine sense of mystery and pathos.
On the one hand, Extraction is a very standard and almost retrograde film. It is a straightforward action movie, much like those of the 1980s and 90s that made performers like Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme stars, as established brawny beefcake Chris Hemsworth plays Tyler Rake, an exceptionally talented ex-special forces operative (aren’t they all?) who is called in to perform, wouldn’t you know it, an extraction. Rake plunges into the dangerous world of Dhaka, Bangladesh, to rescue the son of a crime lord from another crime lord, takes on an entire army and seems to blow up half the city. It also plays to white saviour expectations as almost every person of colour Rake encounters is either a helpless victim or a violent criminal. We’ve pretty much seen all this before.
However, Extraction still manages to be a wildly entertaining ride, as stunt coordinator turned director Sam Hargrave embraces the action chase thriller wholeheartedly, and brings a genuine sense of punchy style and outright nastiness to the proceedings. Action films are often sanitised, but Extraction offers brutal violence, a sense of mental as well as physical anguish, and even consequence. Hargrave gives the film a relentless pace, director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel thrusting the viewer into the heart of the Dhaka streets and propelling the viewer through gunfights, car chases and intense physical altercations. This is best expressed in a blistering twelve minute long take along alley ways, up stairways and down walls, with enemies appearing at every turn and all manner of weapons coming into the fray. Think about Extraction and there are a lot of problems. Experience it and you’re in for a hell of a ride.
Over the 125-year history of the cinematic medium, a pervasive idea is that of pure cinema. Pure cinema expresses its meaning through the unique elements of the moving image, not needing the components of literature, theater or photography from which it evolved. The commercial history of cinema has imbued the medium with narrative, films used to tell stories because audiences embrace and therefore pay for stories. Consequently, plot, character, dialogue and suchlike are tied into the expression of meaning, working in relation to cinematography, editing, production design and sound. But the conceit of pure cinema still informs narrative films, and can be found in Sam Mendes’ World War One masterpiece 1917.
1917’s distinct selling point is that it is captured in a single take. We open on two lance corporals in the British Army, Schofield (George McKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), resting under a tree in the French countryside. This peaceful image is interrupted non-jarringly by Sergeant Sanders (Daniel Mays), who orders the corporals to report to General Erinmore (Colin Firth). As Blake and Schofield follow Sanders, the camera pursues them past their comrades, into a trench and thus into a dugout. Within the dugout the continuous shot pans around them, zooms into important features, tracks alongside them out of the dugout and through further trenches, Over The Top and across No Man’s Land, around craters, through barbed wire barriers and onwards. Aside from a brief blackout, the shot is continuous and unbroken. In practical terms, it is not really one shot, and a sharp-eyed viewer can spot the joins and hidden cuts. But to do so is to miss the point and to deride the film for this cinematic sleight of hand churlish. Mendes and director of photography Roger Deakins use the device of the long take to create an immersive experience, the continuous shot creating a restricted view even as the scope of the frame widens and contracts. As Blake and Schofield encounter the expanse of No Man’s Land, the shot expands to encompass the devastation ahead of them. As they fall into a shell hole, the frame narrows to present their restricted view. This restriction means that shocks hit the audience just as they do the characters, especially encounters with bodily horrors and dangerous traps. Jumping, ducking and exclaiming are all appropriate reactions to the film, but so is awe and wonder.
Much of the awe and wonder can be credited to the genius that is Roger Deakins. Deakins not only keeps faces in focus within the frame even when the surroundings are blurred, but also crafts beautiful images within fraught and threatening scenarios. The French countryside at times seems idyllic, the horrors of the battlefield far away even as our heroes’ progress highlights the close proximity of peaceful fields and destructive weaponry. In one extraordinary sequence, the camera moves through a town during a night bombardment. Deakins’ use of light captures nightmarish reds and deep, black shadows, presenting a mesmerizing journey that is both threatening and stunningly beautiful. At one point, action takes place both in the foreground and background, the deep focus of the shot doubling the tension as one threat is encountered while another approaches. Subsequent set pieces including fire, water, chases and shelling are just as startling, horrifying and exhausting, the film lending a new dimension to the oft-quoted description that war is hell. Yet there are additional moments of beauty, such as a battalion in the woods waiting for battle while one of their number sings, and also fantastical moments including a young French woman hiding in a ruin with a baby, as though we had stepped into a fairytale.
For all its stylistic grandeur, the film could be described as empty, offering purely surface thrills with little to say beyond that. In fairness, 1917 does lack in-depth characterisation, because while we follow Schofield and Blake throughout the film, there is little sense of development. We only learn their first names at the end of the film, and for the most part they are reactive, following orders, avoiding bombs, constantly moving with little opportunity for introspection. References to their families back in Blighty are clichéd, as the corporals look at photographs and reminisce. It is worth noting that all performances in the film are very fine, especially McKay whose luminous eyes convey fear, resolve, resentment, compassion and desperation, often simultaneously. Dialogue takes a backseat here to physical expression, both through eyes and expressions as well as body language, the exhaustion often as apparent an obstacle as the treacherous terrain ahead.
Deprived of long discussions and voiceover, 1917 will win no awards for profound ruminations on the meaning of existence like The Thin Red Line or Apocalypse Now. Nor does Mendes investigate simpler themes like loss of innocence or loyalty struggles as seen in Platoon or Saving Private Ryan. It is a frequently breathtaking technical exercise, but what does 1917 offer beyond that? The answer is yourself. 1917 is an experience that works as character projection rather than expression. It is a film you can put yourself into, a first-person shooter video game that you can enjoy without having any knowledge or experience of first-person shooters. It is, therefore, a primal cinematic event, reminiscent of the earliest cinema audiences who allegedly panicked at the sight of a train coming towards them. Here, a bi-plane comes hurtling towards our heroes and, crucially, us. A search for water is interrupted by cries of distress so we turn back towards the sound, and throughout the action other figures appear by literally stepping into frame, our awareness intimately tied to Schofield and Blake, just as our awareness is itself limited to our immediate surroundings. And in perhaps the film’s most bravura sequence (no mean feat considering that the film is effectively one extended bravura sequence), we run alongside our onscreen surrogate while bombs rain down and men rush past. “1917” may utilize a single technique to place the viewer in the combat situation, but it adheres to this technique with extraordinary invention, aplomb and power, delivering an immersive, visceral and often terrifying piece of pure cinema.
Jordan Peele begins his new film with a long take of a rabbit. Slowly the camera pulls back, revealing many more rabbits. As the camera’s scope widens further, what appears to be a school classroom steadily appears. Nothing overtly horrific happens in this title sequence, yet it is deeply unsettling and disturbing. This sequence is testament to the power of the long take, a stylistic feature common in horror cinema from Halloween and The Shining to It Follows and Hereditary. The long take generates discomfort as the viewer yearns for a cut that could break the tension. In the case of Us, there is little sense of release, as the tension builds even as the film cuts between past – a childhood trauma of Adelaide (Madison Curry) and present – the adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) on her present-day vacation with husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). The slow burn menace includes a pattern of coincidences, home invasion and confrontation with the uncanny, that which is both familiar and unfamiliar. The tension is punctuated by jump scares, brutal violence and dark humour. Nyong’o is electrifying, delivering two distinct and equally compelling performances. The rest of the performances are very strong, especially as each actor must play two roles: one a civilised human and the other animalistic. When the violence happens, it is sadistic and merciless, as the line between civilized and uncivilized becomes increasingly blurred.
Despite this blurring, Peele never blunts his razor sharp satirical edge. Us is that finest type of horror cinema: steeped in the tropes and techniques of the genre, while using these features for incisive social commentary. Playing on ideas of class much as Get Out played on race, Us is a nightmare version of Karl Marx’s proletariat uprising. Socio-economic structures are targeted as affluence and privilege are attacked. The thematic and narrative doubling is replicated by the film grammar, as images are intercut with spine-tingling precision. The film is an elegant, demonic dance of micro and macro scales, interspersing the real world and allegory, past and present, identities and faces.
With the clacking of a typewriter, Darkest Hour echoes Atonement, Joe Wright’s earlier (and more impressive) foray into World War II drama. The bravura moment of that film was an extraordinary long take of the British troops trapped at Dunkirk, the focus of Christopher Nolan’s award botherer. Darkest Hour presents the time of Dunkirk from another perspective – that of Parliament in May 1940 as Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) takes the office of British Prime Minister while Europe collapses before the Third Reich. Winston faces multiple challenges as he tries to wrangle survival for the troops and also protect his own position. Oldman is superb, unrecognisable in remarkable makeup yet never appearing to be a man in makeup. From his voice that wanders from quavering to strident (more varied than Brian Cox’s equally powerful turn), Oldman brilliantly portrays a career politician who understands the game of Westminster and only plays it his way. As a character study the film is effective and compelling, and Wright uses some thrilling cinematic effects such as long takes that travel around the House of Commons and overhead shots that range from Winston working furiously in bed as well as beleaguered British soldiers in Calais. At other times, however, the drama feels overdetermined, such as the machinations of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) as well as a sequence on the London Underground when Winston performs a mini-referendum on relations with Germany. This speaking to the people raises the interesting question of how to view the film through the lens of Brexit. There may be a temptation to adopt Darkest Hour for nationalistic propaganda, its depiction of a time when Britain stood against Europe calling for Britain to stand against the EU in these uncertain times. Equally, one can see Darkest Hour as a call for unity across borders in a time of division and mistrust, a point emphasised by Winston’s rallying of MPs even as the War Cabinet plots against him. For all its flaws, Darkest Hour still offers much food for debate, be that Parliamentary or otherwise.
In the middle of David Leitch’s unashamedly achingly 80s spy thriller, there is an action sequence presented in a protracted long take. The sequence is stunning in its execution, as combatants clash in an elevator, up and down stairs, into and out of rooms, guns spit, knives and razors slash and fists, feet, elbows and all manner of available weapons collide with bodies. It is a breathless and bravura set piece that genuinely hurts and leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the effects of this violence. The rest of the film hangs off this tent pole, rising to the set piece’s crescendo and then falling away from it and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Atomic Blonde never quite reaches such a height again. Despite this, Leitch still crafts an effective period spy adventure from Kurt Johnstad’s script, based on the graphic novel series The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart. The city in question is 1989 Berlin just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a city of vice, corruption and constant surveillance. Into this seething swamp of sin comes cool as (and frequently immersed in) ice MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), sent to retrieve a list of undercover agents, which is also being hunted by the CIA, KGB, French intelligence and probably the dodgy bloke on the corner. It’s a well-worn plot imbued with regularly crunchy action and great attention to period style, as the film is blaringly 80s in its fashion, music, decor and geopolitical backdrop. Practically every scene emphasises a mise-en-scene that is garish, vivid and frequently drenched in neon; if there’s a film with more blue filters this year I’ll be very surprised. Looking back on this period with such overt nostalgia, Atomic Blonde is a fairly insubstantial 115 minutes, but it has enough kitsch charm and stylistic brio to earn its keep.
Time is a foundational element of cinema, as the medium captures and manipulates, plays and re-plays, deconstructs and reconstructs, presents and re-presents time. An eternity can be reduced to an instant and an instant extended to an eternity. David Lowery’s A Ghost Story explores time and our fluctuating perception of it, and is also a mournful and moving story. How does our perception of time change when we cannot adjust to a world changed by loss? Grief keeps us locked in the moment of loss, the famous five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – related to the moment of someone being gone, rather than the revised state of the world in which they are gone. Lowery explores these concepts with exquisite focus and restraint, using the specific possibilities of cinema to portray the experiences of grief, time and timelessness with precision, grace and humanity. We see the film’s central characters C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) experience events in their lives that are remarkable in their unremarkableness: a discussion about moving house; investigating sounds in the night; listening to a song composed by C. Following the death of C, and his haunting of their home under a white sheet with eye holes, scenes are played out with varying presentations of time. What could be days, months or years pass in seconds, while in one bravura sequence, M eats an entire pie in almost a single take. This scene is almost unbearably uncomfortable, conveying the non-time that M and the watching ghost experience, completely separate yet unable to disconnect. The long take is the film’s most used and effective device, as it not only prolongs uncomfortable sequences, but also impacts on the viewer’s expectations of cinema. Various shots continue far past the point at which we expect a cut, highlighting our engagement with cinema and with time itself. Much like the ghost, we constantly wait for things to move on, and when they do not we may be discomfited but then again we may embrace the film’s conceit of reassessing our engagement and experience of time. A Ghost Story invites such responses but never provides answers, offering only the most tantalizing questions as an experience that is both frustrating and compelling.
With the other award ceremonies done and dusted, the likely winners at the Oscars are now clearer than before. Few categories seem less certain than Achievement in Directing. The Revenant director Alejandro G. Iñárritu has now won the Golden Globe, the DGA award and the BAFTA for Directing, and looks set to become the third back-to-back Oscar winning director, joining John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. This is a remarkable achievement considering Iñárritu is not a prolific filmmaker, having directed only seven features including his debut Amores Perros. Yet each have had a distinctive style and, noticeably, each of his films perform interesting experiments with the cinematic form. Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel are all network narratives that utilise editing to distort and confuse chronology, using the harmonics of image and emotion rather than strict narrative logic to progress the film. Birdman drew great praise for its (trick) single take that consists of most of the film, and despite being acerbically critical of celebrity culture, manages this critique without being mean-spirited or cruel. The Revenant is similarly an impressive formal experiment, with many long takes and a remarkable use of light. Iñárritu has said “We shot at the end of the day every day, at dusk time, which I always say is the time when God speaks.” This lighting and shot composition adds to the ethereal quality of the film, and explains why the various electorates of the award-giving institutions would credit this work. While the work of the other nominated directors is distinctive and effective, The Revenant is the film that stands out as being distinctly “directed.” This might suggest an emphasis on the artifice of the film that could be distancing, and yet the film also has a feeling of organic unity to it, clearly carefully designed yet feeling immediate and vibrant, its themes of survival, revenge, regret and even love exquisitely expressed through image and sound over the course of a fairly simple story (note, The Revenant is not nominated for Screenplay). Of course credit is also due to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who looks set to pick up his third consecutive Oscar after Gravity and Birdman. Much as in those earlier films, Lubezki draws the viewer into these complex visual assemblies, the engulfing landscape of The Revenant as immersive as the 3D work in Gravity and the twisting corridors of Birdman’s theatre. Were I a member of AMPAS, I would pick these fine cinematic poets to receive awards for Directing and Cinematography, as they are fine practitioners and experimentalists of the cinematic medium, continually pushing it in exciting and engaging directions.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is acerbic, scathing and merciless. It’s also quite brilliant, excelling in every area including script, production design, cinematography, editing, music and performance. Every character bares their banality, pretentiousness and insecurity, none more so than protagonist Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton, never better), former star of the superhero franchise Birdman, trying to regain artistic credibility with a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which he also directs and stars in. Riggan’s protracted expostulations, combined with an internal monologue from the Birdman character, steadily dissect popular culture and highlight Riggan’s failures while also proclaiming his continued value and relevance. Not only is Riggan at war with himself, he also clashes with everyone around him: his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), who constantly tries to keep Riggan and the play up and running; his recently-out-of-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who understands the fickle nature of the Twitter generation and is endlessly frustrated at her father’s refusal to face reality. More ludicrous are Riggan’s clashes with his fellow actors: Broadway artiste Mike (Edward Norton), whose attitude towards the art of theatre acting satirises Norton’s own reputation for perfection; Riggan’s lover/co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who cannot keep her personal and professional issues separate any better than Riggan; Lesley (Naomi Watts), wrestling with her own insecurities as an actor as well as a strained relationship with Mike. Only with his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) does Riggan appear to have some measure of peace, though it is clear his own self-absorption ruined this relationship as well.
The relentlessness of Riggan’s trail of destruction is manifested by the film’s extraordinary style, Iñárritu and DOP Emmanuel Lubezki appearing to capture almost the entire film in a single shot. The continuous shot takes the viewer on a breathtaking ride through the theatre as well as the surrounding streets in several bravura sequences, one of which is a nightmare for many actors and another that takes the film into the realm of magical realism. These technical flourishes are never extraneously flashy but help pull the viewer into Riggan’s skewed world, ensuring that the extreme characters are never bereft of sympathy. Riggan is frequently (and fairly) described as an “asshole”, yet the viewer is drawn into the exposure of Riggan’s soul. Meanwhile, discourses including celebrity culture, art VS entertainment, critics and relationships are all drawn into the personal dramas. Yet despite its biting satire, this lampoon of the superhero film never feels mean-spirited, the laughter tinged with sadness throughout, right up to the denouement that even manages to include the fundamental theme of superhero narratives, that of hope. Amongst all its scabrous energy, Birdman finds time for warmth and a deep affection for the special kind of madness that drives people to create.
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’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.
The 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.
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.