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Sometimes a film sells itself to you in its first moments. From its opening credits, Roma had me transfixed by a sequence of water rinsing a floor, while a plane passing overhead is reflected on the water. This prolonged sequence highlights the beauty in the mundane and the extraordinary appearance of the ordinary, as Alfonso Cuarón’s tale of domesticity is rendered epic through the magic of cinema. Covering the life of a Mexican family in the early 1970s, largely from the perspective of maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), writer/director/cinematographer/editor/producer Cuarón renders a story that is intimate and grandiose all at once. Domestic dramas are juxtaposed with political upheaval, familial fractures blend with social commentary. Cuarón utilises monochrome, deep focus photography, long takes and often pans to capture the full extent of the action. These long panning takes are the film’s great strength, as they convey the texture of life passing from one aspect to another, showing the shocking and gripping alongside the heartwarming and touching, the major flowing seamlessly to the minor. Roma is a true cinematic wonder, a reminder of what film can do using its essential elements, a work of art that recalls and reasserts the wonder of those early flickering marvels at the end of the 19th century.
In one of the stupidest moments in movie history, Jaws: The Revenge features a shark that roars. Aquaman may remind viewers of this epic piece of idiocy, as it features a range of sea creatures, including sharks, giant seahorses and an apparent Kronosaurus, that growl and snarl. The toothsome recollection is just one of many reminders in a film that is not only so oceanically stupid that it collapses like tissue paper in the tide the second you think about it, but so overtly derivative it feels like a deliberate pastiche. Narrative and visual tropes from the likes of Thor, Batman Begins, Gladiator, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Panther, Clash of the Titans and more compete for space within a world of wet sand that disintegrates under its own tide. The visual effects teams create bright and bombastic digital environments, but they fail to create a sense of wonder. As the titular hero Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) experiences an underwater kingdom, there seems little effort to make it strange or wonderful, which is a waste of the fine visuals. Yet despite these problems, director James Wan still manages to craft a decent superhero adventure. Adventures of this sort largely depend on the exploration, both narrative and visual, of super powers and heroic identity. When it comes to the action sequences, Wan shows stylistic flourish with some immersive long takes in which combatants spin, slash, shoot and swim at great speed. Central to these sequences are the powers of Arthur, who possesses super strength, speed, resilience – what self-respecting superhero doesn’t have these? – and the ability to breathe and talk underwater. A further power that proves crucial is the ability to communicate with sea creatures. An early scene in this origin story shows the young Arthur ridiculed for talking to fish, and a striking visual image captures the inhabitants of an aquarium assembling in a formation behind him. This conceit suggests that the greatest power is communication, a worthy addition to the pantheon of superpowers, and is one of two things that save the film from being a completely damp squib. The other is Momoa himself, a likable and engaging lead who delivers a performance of physical grace and witty personality. Arthur’s interplay with Mera (Amber Heard) is enjoyable, and while their globetrotting raises objections of ‘That was awfully quick’ and ‘How do they know how to do that?’, it also allows them to build a fun relationship. Thanks to its engagement with communication, and the charm of its leads, Aquaman manages to keep its head above water despite the currents of dumbness that threaten to engulf it.
Upon watching Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Linda LaPlante’s crime series, I was disappointed that it was not set in Boston. As noted in previous posts, Boston has a peculiar effect on filmmakers, and many of the features I saw in Widows also appeared in The Departed, Black Mass and The Equalizer. However, despite the Chicago location, Widows provided the necessary features for a gripping sociological crime thriller. Like the films mentioned above, as well as the LA set Heat and Crash, Widows features multiple characters whose lives interconnect through deals and betrayals. The domestic and the criminal intersect throughout, as an exhilarating heist sequence is intercut both with the preceding events and the aftermath. In these ripple events, we meet the titular widows, including Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Amanda (Carrie Coon). The film then utilises the conventions of the heist thriller as Veronica brings these women together to solve their shared problems, while also following the fortunes of rival political candidates Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), both of whom have malevolent backers. McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn’s interweaving of the social, the domestic, the criminal and the political lends the film a rich texture, the lives of all these characters detailed and nuanced. Subtexts involving race and gender receive attention as an organic part of the drama, much like McQueen’s previous work that explored sexuality, political prisoners and slavery. Where Widows fumbles slightly is that McQueen’s searing focus, exquisitely captured by regular DOP Sean Bobbitt, ideally suited to intense character studies like Shame and Hunger, is sometimes at odds with the multi-stranded narrative of Widows. The director’s trademark long takes allow for absorption into the cinematic milieu, and at times this is highly effective such as during the opening car chase. At other times, however, abrupt cuts throw the viewer out of the drama, which would be fine if at other times there was less absorption. Ultimately though, this is a minor issue, as Widows is consistently gripping, frequently distressing and thoroughly compelling.
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.
I recently cited The Infiltrator as an example of films that have a pronounced interest in finance, films that could be termed post-recession films. Many of these have been thrillers, mixing financial machinations with longer established generic elements, and Hell or High Water is another of these. David Mackenzie’s film of Taylor Sheridan’s script also incorporates aspects of the western into its heist thriller narrative, as Howard brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) commit very specific and careful robberies, while Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) perform a methodical investigation. Mackenzie’s borrowing from the western includes many wide-angled shots, shots that are sustained for long takes to capture prolonged action such as the brothers’ heists. Similarly, the Texas landscape and small, deteriorating towns express the liminal status of people caught between their ownership and what they owe to banks. Meanwhile, the film deploys the pleasures of the heist thriller through the execution of the robberies, both calculated and impulsive. Even the clichés of Hamilton approaching retirement and his constant insulting of his long-suffering partner are played as genuine rather than stereotypical. By marshaling these various generic elements with an absorbing and gripping visual style, Mackenzie has crafted an intelligent and effective thriller, as Hell or High Water imbues familiar film elements with a sober real world dimension.
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.