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‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a yardie’. No character in Yardie says this line, yet Idris Elba’s directorial debut echoes Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas with its tale of the rites of passage through criminal syndicates. With its period detail and tactile sense of time and place, Elba’s adaptation of Victor Headley’s novel immerses the viewer in its milieu, its use of London also recalling David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, with an added Jamaican flavour. The narrative includes familiar genre tropes of revenge, redemption, how one defines identity and the tensions between men being men and women being sensible. The theme of immigration adds a distinctive element to the film, as Jamaican culture feeds both the yardie mentality and a non-criminal lifestyle. Elba handles the interpersonal drama effectively, allowing a very impressive cast to shine. Elba also displays confidence and flair as a director, especially with such devices as freeze frames and non-sequential editing. Various sequences begin, continue and end, but key moments from these sequences appear and reappear later, often with additional detail. This emphasises the film’s conceits of trauma and haunting, as our protagonist Dennis (Aml Ameen) is psychologically trapped in a formative moment, an experience that he cannot escape even when his location changes from Kingston to London. As the film follows Dennis’ progress, there is a constant sense of enclosure, demonstrated with claustrophobic framing and close quarters. The one avenue for escape comes from music, brilliantly realised with an atmospheric soundtrack, that takes centre stage at key points. These include an attempt at an armistice between warring gangs, and later as a possible road to redemption for Dennis. Yet the musical and the criminal pathways are intertwined, and Dennis’ status remains fluid and liminal. Come the end of the film, the viewer is likely to feel ambivalent, which is a sign of the film’s strength. Not only is it worth seeing in its own right, but Yardie raises expectations for what Elba may do next.
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.