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Boston has a funny effect on makers of crime films. Whether it be Clint Eastwood with Mystic River, Ben Affleck with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Antoine Fuqua with The Equaliser or Martin Scorsese with The Departed, Boston demands sociological depth as part of its crime milieu. The same is true of Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, a detailed examination of notorious gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger’s (Johnny Depp) relationships with the FBI and a sizeable chunk of South Boston’s criminal and political community. This sociological aspect contextualises the film’s action, as Bulger’s criminal exploits impact upon his FBI handler John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), his politician brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) and various others. Crime is not separate from society here but deeply imbricated within it, as are the personal connections and loyalties between childhood friends. At times the emphases on trust and ‘who ya know’ becomes a little repetitive, but this is a minor detraction in what is otherwise an solidly absorbing and effective crime drama.
We’re half way through 2014 so it’s time to see what’s impressed me the most in the last six months. As always, many films come and go that are doubtless entertaining, but did not quite necessitate shelling out for them. The following are the five films that impressed and entertained me the most. Will they be in my top films of the year in six months’ time? Come back then and find out!
To clarify, “Films of 2014” are defined in this case as films that went on general UK theatrical release from January 2014. While some of the films I discuss are officially recognised as 2013 releases, they only played at festivals are previews and therefore the majority of cinema-goers could only see them in 2014. Release dates are taken from the IMDb.
5. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (release date 16 April 2014)
This was a genuine surprise for me. After 2012’s reboot was decidedly less than amazing, I went in with fairly low expectations. They were significantly exceeded as Marc Webb’s follow-up provided a touching central relationship, explored questions of esteem and choice and even prompted tears. Other superhero outings (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past) failed to successfully merge their disparate elements, but much like the web-slinger himself, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 came out on top.
4. The Raid 2 (release date 11 April 2014)
Another sequel that surpassed its original, Gareth Evans’ epic crime tale combined a complex plot with the brutal ballet of its fight sequences, while also incorporating themes of honour, loyalty, courage and ambition. I anticipated much of what I got in The Raid, and The Raid 2 not only provided this but so much more. If there’s a more intense visual ride this year, I look forward to seeing it.
3. Godzilla (release date 15 May 2014)
Godzilla has long been a favourite of mine, and the character’s 60 year history has had its ups and downs. This was a triumphant up, as Gareth Edwards’ reboot pays homage to the original while also declaring its own identity. Operating both on a macro and micro scale, Godzilla 2014 is not only a bombastic disaster movie with a looming sense of dread and gigantic battle sequences, but also a intriguing exploration of humanity’s need to commune with nature. Any film that features monsters beating seven bells out of each other and incorporates philosophy is OK with me!
2. The Wolf of Wall Street (release date 17 January 2014)
Easily the funniest film I’ve seen this year, and also a slightly terrifying one. Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Jordan Belfort is a rip-roaring rollercoaster of debauchery, debasement, drugs and money, money, money. It boasts a career-best performance from Leonardo DiCaprio as well as magnificent supporting players Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie, and uses its relatively sedate visual style to draw the audience in and encourage self-reflection.
1. 12 Years A Slave (release date 10 January 2014)
A worthy winner of its Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Oscars, Steve McQueen’s third film is a searing portrait of cruelty, resilience and humanity/inhumanity. Both mesmerising and at times extremely hard to watch, 12 Years A Slave features great performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o as well as the rest of its case, and shows the sheer raw power that cinema is capable of. A story of historical importance, a superbly crafted piece of cinema, and the finest film so far this year.
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.
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.
As may be apparent to regular readers of this blog (nice to see you both), I am something of an auteurist. I am drawn to films by directors whose work I have previously enjoyed, and tend to credit the positives and negatives to the film director. One director whose work I have consistently enjoyed is Ron Howard, including Apollo 13 (1995), Ransom (1996), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Cinderella Man (2005), The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels and Demons (2009) (yes, I like Dan Brown’s work, deal with it). When Howard’s latest film, Rush, came out this year, I was interested on the basis of his involvement. Positive reviews from Total Film, Empire and the BBC strengthened my interest, and when I saw Rush I absolutely loved it. It was gripping, funny, compelling, at times horrifying and immensely visceral, which is one of the chief pleasures of cinema for me.
In terms of the subject matter, I should have had no interest at all, because Rush is about motor racers and I have zero interest in sport. But the interesting thing about sports films is they generally are not really about the sport at all. Is Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980) about boxing, or the descent of a man plagued by self-loathing? Is Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004) about boxing, or the relationships between damaged people? Is Ali (Michael Mann, 2001) about boxing, or resistance against prejudice? Seabiscuit (Gary Ross, 2003) is more about rising above the misery of the Great Depression than horse racing, The Mighty Ducks (1992, Stephen Herek) and Cool Runnings (Jon Turteltaub, 1993) are about camaraderie rather than ice hockey or bobsledding, and Run, Fatboy, Run (David Schwimmer, 2007) is far more interested in personal redemption than it is in running. In keeping with this tradition, Rush is about the obsession that drives its central characters, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Nicki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), and the relationship between them.
I’ve seen all these sports films, and enjoyed them despite the prominence of sport in their narratives. The main reason I don’t enjoy sport is that the spectator, whether in attendance at an event or watching a telecast, is at a distance from the action, and I like to be close. I do enjoy professional wrestling, but that is scripted and individual matches are part of ongoing storylines, therefore more a drama series than a sport. I have enjoyed the odd boxing match, such as Lennox Lewis VS Frank Bruno in 1993 and Bruno VS Tyson in 1996, but even these are at a distance, unlike the boxing matches of Ali, Raging Bull and Ron Howard’s own boxing biopic, Cinderella Man, which bring the viewer into the ring, on both the delivery and receiving end of the blows.
A similar technique is used in Rush, as director Howard, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill create an intimate sense of involvement in the races. This is achieved through extreme close-ups of the pit stops, in which we see the replacement tyres and machinery used on the cars, as well as very rapid editing during the actual racing. Cameras mounted on the cars hurtling along at breakneck speed place the viewer in the position of the driver, aided by the extraordinary sound design. This is Rush’s greatest strength, allowing us to experience the thrill of high octane racing and emphasising the danger, much as a battle scene or a chase also throws the viewer into the action.
Like Cinderella Man, Ali and Raging Bull, but unlike the other films mentioned above, Rush is a true story (as far as any film can be). As a result, the events portrayed in the film are public knowledge, especially the rivalry between Hunt and Lauda, well known to fans of F1. I saw Rush with a friend who is a big fan of F1, so he knew the results of the various races and the twists and turns in the rivalry, while I did not. Despite our different levels of knowledge, we both enjoyed the film immensely, as an engaging, thrilling character drama. This was itself surprising to me. I’ve written before that character isn’t a major source of pleasure for me in cinema – I am interested in the plot and the events – what will happen next is usually the paramount question for me when watching a film. Interestingly, the one point in Rush when I lost interest was during the final race in Japan, when Lauda abandons the race because the weather conditions make it ‘too dangerous’. Hunt has been behind up until this point and Lauda’s withdrawal enables Hunt to win. I lost interest because I didn’t care who won – the drama of the film was always the rivalry between the two, and Lauda neutralised that rivalry. None of the other racers were identifiable as characters, so it was really Hunt just competing against the odds. Without the rivalry, there was less tension and therefore less drama.
Prior to the final race, however, Rush offers plenty of tension both between Lauda and Hunt and within the men themselves. The different approaches used by each man to build their racing profiles are gripping in their contrast – Hunt the playboy, indulging in alcohol, drugs and sex as much as racing, with his support team essentially stroking and maintaining his ego; Lauda the calculating professional with no regard for others and a machine-like commitment to racing. When Hunt loses his sponsorship and is unable to race, his psychological disintegration is apparent, crumpled into a heap with toy cars and a whisky bottle, and his unforgivable treatment of his wife Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), telling her to ‘Fuck off to New York, darling. I’m sure there’s an eyeliner or a face moisturiser that needs your vapid mush to flog it’. Yet Lauda is more interesting because of the humanisation that his association with others enables. Lauda tells Hunt at one point that Hunt is both responsible for injuries Lauda suffers, and for inspiring him to recover and get back into the race. Furthermore, the relationship Lauda forms with Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), whom he eventually marries, creates further tension between his calculating ambition and his emotions. Who does Lauda has the closest relationship with – Marlene, Hunt, or racing?
All of these relationships are fractious, both in terms of Lauda and Hunt’s intense yet respectful rivalry, and the dangers of racing. This was the most impressive aspect of Rush for me, the vicarious experience of living through these intense lives, given extraordinary edge by the incredibly dangerous races. It would not be unreasonable to conclude from Rush that F1 racers are mad, as the film does not flinch from showing the mangled bodies and lost limbs that result from crash. Most compelling though, is the horrific crash in which Lauda’s car catches fire, leaving him hideously scarred and with scorched lungs. The scene in which Lauda’s lungs are vacuumed by the insertion of a metal tube down his throat (while he is conscious) is extremely uncomfortable to watch and helps convey the extraordinary commitment of these men.
The fact that these men are racers is somewhat beside the point, as both are motivated by something not necessarily tangible. Hunt does mention the appeal of living on the edge, the emotional high of risking everything for the sake of an electrifying win. Lauda is less explicit – the most we get is a sense of differentiating himself from his family. Both Lauda and Hunt mention the other careers they rejected in favour of racing, and the film explores the consequences of their mutual choice. Howard’s film therefore conveys both the adrenalin rush of F1 racing, and its devastating price.