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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.