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Top Ten Directors – Part Four II

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In my last post, I introduced Michael Mann and why his work is important to me. While I find much to admire across his oeuvre, the Mann film that impresses me the most is The Insider, an epic rendering of subject matter that does not seem overly dramatic. Yet by focusing on intimate details and conveying a cumulative and pervasive sense of threat, bewilderment and betrayal, The Insider turns the account of tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) and the journalist who told his story Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) into a sweeping, enthralling and gripping thriller of corporate, legal and human skulduggery. The criticism of corporatism is handled deftly without being naive or didactic, and the film provides a sober meditation on life within Information Age late capitalism.

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While The Insider is Mann’s finest work, it is not the best introduction to Mann’s oeuvre nor my personal favourite. The quintessential Mann film, the one that serves as the perfect introduction to this singular body of work, is my favourite film of all time, Heat.

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Despite the iconicity of Heat‘s central pairing, the most annoying thing about responses to the film is the reductive view that it is all about Al Pacino and Robert De Niro meeting on screen for the first time. If you ever needed proof that great actors do not equal great films, look no further than Al and Bob’s (we hang out all the time) subsequent collaboration, Righteous Kill (2008). Heat‘s majesty is elevated by the central performances, but they are two in a wide ensemble that includes Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Ashley Judd, Diane Venora, Tom Sizemore, Natalie Portman, Amy Brenneman and many others. The different plot lines for these characters – many of whom never encounter each other – cause Heat to resemble Los Angeles-set network narratives such as Magnolia (1999), Boogie Nights (1997) and Crash (2004), albeit with a more generic central thrust. Mann has a long-standing association with the crime genre and Heat is a major part of that association, but the film does not sit comfortably within generic confines. Rather, the film pushes against these confines and uses the tropes of a cops and robbers thriller to create an intricate, existential and sociological portrait of life in a late twentieth century metropolis. Tensions around gender, race, class and work abound, while the frequent motion of the narrative, the characters and the camera creates a sense of transience and instability, despite the imposing concrete structures of the buildings and freeways.

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Neil McCauley (De Niro) describes LA as the city of lights, but what he neglects to mention and that the film highlights is that these lights are isolated and disconnected, as are the inhabitants. Relationships fracture and fragment across the film, often due to violent action such as the opening heist, the incredible central gun battle and the final chase through LAX. But away from the bullets, personal differences also drive people apart, these differences exacerbated by this environment of disconnection and inconstancy. At least six intimate relationships are destroyed over the course of the film, largely by the actions of intractable men who neither know how nor want to do anything else. Nor does the film neglect its female characters despite their relatively brief screentime, as it is the women who recognise and lament what Justine (Diane Venora) describes as ‘the mess you leave as you pass through’. Heat is a sweeping, intricate and enveloping story, intensely detailed, stunningly visualised and thunderingly rendered, representing many concerns that run throughout Mann’s work, making it the archetypal Mann film, and one of the finest crime thrillers of the 1990s.

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Top Ten Directors – Part Four I

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Regulars at this blog (if there are any) may recall that some years ago I started posting about my favourite film directors. I posted about three of them – Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Christopher Nolan – and then I got caught up in reviewing every new release I saw. But I thought it time to get back to my top ten, with the caveat that to credit the director as being solely responsible for any film is to utterly misunderstand the filmmaking process. So here we go…

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For me, Michael Mann is probably the single most important filmmaker I have ever encountered. It was in early 1996 that I first saw Heat (1996), a film that had a profound effect on me and set me on the course of becoming a film scholar and critic. I had seen The Last of the Mohicans (1992) beforehand, but Heat was my major introduction to Mann’s work. Subsequently I sought out The Last of the Mohicans again and made sure to see The Insider (1999) when it came out. Then I gathered the video tapes (and later DVDs) of Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), The Keep (1983), The Jericho Mile (1979)and L. A. Takedown (1989). When Ali (2001) came out I made the effort to see it, by which time I had decided that I would do a PhD in film studies focused on Michael Mann (as you do). Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006) were released while I was researching my doctorate, and in the week of my graduation, Public Enemies (2009) came to British cinemas, before very briefly in 2015, Blackhat. I saw them all, think about them at length, and have written and published at least something about all of them.

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Due to my research, I have a very particular view of Mann that may not communicate well to others, but here goes. Mann is a holistic filmmaker whose work demonstrates precise interaction of the various cinematic elements. Working as writer and director on most of his films, Mann has spoken in interviews of the ‘harmonics’ in his work, and indeed the various elements are harmonised to an extraordinary degree. Script, performance, cinematography, production design, editing, sound, music – all resonate in a very specific and distinct way across Mann’s oeuvre. These harmonics are what create the relentlessly lyrical movement in The Last of the Mohicans, the sleek and almost ephemeral stream of Collateral, Miami Vice and Blackhat as well as the distorted mental and physical worlds of Manhunter, the state and industrial containments in The Jericho Mile and Thief, the confusing disjointedness of Ali and Public Enemies and the expressionism of The Keep.

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From within this extraordinary oeuvre, what really stands out as Mann’s best film, and what is the best introduction to his work? All will be revealed in my next post

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War, what is it good for? Movies!

Not long ago, I reviewed Fury (2014), which I thought was a very fine film that showed both the hideous damage of mechanised warfare as well as the camaraderie between soldiers. War is a continually interesting subject for filmmakers, indeed some of the first American films in the early 20th century depicted the Mexican-American War. War is often a subject of award films, because the portrayal of historical events like D-Day and the Holocaust, the American Civil War, the trenches of WWI etc., often leads to a type of reverential, “important” cinema that the Academy repeatedly rewards.

Lists of the “Greatest War Films” abound, so I thought I would call my personal top ten to attention. Some are obvious, others less so, but these are the war films that I have found particularly affecting, sometimes moving and always powerful. What actually counts as a war film is open to debate, as this can range from films like Fury that depict combat to films a long way from the front line, such as The Imitation Game (2014). For the purposes of this list, I have defined “war film” as “film that “depicts soldiers in combat”, as all of these films are interested in presenting the human experience of warfare. The technical and logistical challenges of presenting combat onscreen were met, in my view, with verve and vivacity in these films, each managing to convey the thrills and fear of the combat experience. That makes them my personal Top Ten War Films.

  1. The Thin Red Line (1998)

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Not only is this my favourite war film, but it is one of my top ten films of all time. Terrence Malick’s adaptation of James Jones’ novel about the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942 is an enthralling meditation on war, peace, life, death, humanity, nature and everything in between. Rather than offering any definitive statements on these concepts, Malick fills his near-three hour movie with questions, sometimes delivered in dialogue and sometimes through multiple voiceovers from his extraordinary cast, including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Adrien Brody, George Clooney, John Travolta, John C. Reilly and, in the key role of Private Witt, Jim Caviezel in his first high profile role. The constant voiceovers combined with the seemingly endless shots of grass, trees and water, juxtaposed with horrific sequences of flying bullets and exploding shells, may not be to everyone’s taste, but for me, The Thin Red Line remains a beautiful, mesmerising and deeply profound piece of work.

  1. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

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War may not seem the most obvious aspect of Michael Mann’s adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, as the film was marketed and is largely consumed as an epic romance. But this romance is epic precisely because of its war background, as wildly passionate relationship between Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Cora (Madeleine Stowe) occurs against the backdrop of the French-Indian War. Cora laments that “The whole world’s on fire”, and combat sequences as well as the cost of military action are evident throughout. The impact of war upon civilians is a key concern, as homesteads are attacked and women and children are victims as much as soldiers. Furthermore, the war between colonial powers adds to the decimation of Native Americans, the true victims of European colonisation of the Americas. While romance may be the central narrative of the film, The Last of the Mohicans remains a mournful lament for the passing of Native Americans, a passing hastened by the dehumanising effects of war.

  1. Apocalypse Now (1979)

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OK, this is an obvious one. Apocalypse Now is a film I first encountered on a university module about 20th century novels and their film adaptations. I can therefore testify that writing about Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now can make you morbidly depressed, which is good to know. Much about Apocalypse Now is extraordinary, not least its tortuous production history as detailed in Eleanor Coppola’s documentary, Hearts of Darkness. But as a film in its own right, Apocalypse Now serves as a mesmerising and compelling journey into humanity’s heart of darkness. The Vietnam War serves as context not only for the inhumanity of combat, but also the depravity of the mind in which truly lurks “the horror, the horror”.

  1. Green Zone (2010)

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A recent entry and a very fine one, as Paul Greengrass’ Baghdad-set thriller balances plot, action and politics superbly. The combination of Greengrass with star Matt Damon inevitably echoes the Jason Bourne franchise (a further collaboration was recently announced), but Green Zone is a more explicitly political piece of work, as well as being an intense thrill ride. The occupation of Iraq remains hugely controversial and Greengrass, along with screenwriter Brian Helgeland in his adaptation of Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s memoir Life in the Emerald City, pull no punches in their exploration of US deceit in the justification for the invasion. Damon’s Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller is both a soldier committed to the army and an investigator committed to the truth, but the film really excels with its Iraqi characters, General Al Rawi (Iqal Naor) and Freddie (??). As representatives of both Saddam’s and post-Saddam Iraq, these characters are villain and victim, both of the previous regime and current US policy. With its detailed portrayal of a complex war, Green Zone succeeds as gripping action cinema and as an angry political statement.

  1. Henry V (1989)

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Kenneth Branagh’s debut as a film director has held a special place in my heart for many years. I studied Henry V at school and eventually directed a production at university, and Branagh’s cinematisation of the play was a major influence on me. To a contemporary audience, Henry V can be attacked for its propagandist message (intrinsic to its original production) and for a glorification of war. That has never been my understanding of the play and it is not Branagh’s either, as his adaptation conveys the horror of combat, the isolation and responsibility of those in power as well as a wide view of those affected by war. Much of this material is in Shakespeare’s text, but Branagh uses his cinematic scope to create striking visuals, especially the climactic Battle of Agincourt and the scenes preceding it, with enough mud to rival the finest portrayals of Flanders and the Somme.

  1. The Hurt Locker (2009)

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The most significant contribution of The Hurt Locker to cinema history is Kathryn Bigelow being the first woman to win the Oscar for Achievement in Directing, but that is no disparagement of the film itself. Whereas Green Zone is an active engagement with the politics of the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker is a largely depoliticised dramatization of contemporary warfare, creating an experience akin to that of an embedded journalist. The war-reporter experience of screenwriter Mark Boal is translated by Bigelow and DOP Barry Ackroyd into a harrowingly intimate approximation of the combat experience. Whatever one’s views on the Iraq War may be, it is hard to deny the white-knuckle tension of disarming explosive devices. The experience is shown in agonisingly intimate detail as Sergeant Will James (Jeremy Renner) risks his life on a regular basis, dismantling detonators and disassembling death-dealing devices. Yet the film also generates ambivalence through James’ enjoyment of his work. Whereas the standard attitude of war films is that war is hell, The Hurt Locker takes the interesting step of suggesting that it may not be. This element makes it a fascinating as well as thrilling viewing experience.

  1. Glory (1989)

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Another obvious one but a very fine example of hope and despair amid the horrors of war (cheerful, I know). Ed Zwick has fashioned a cinematic oeuvre of VERY IMPORTANT SUBJECTS, ranging from the epic corn of Legends of the Fall (1995) and the dissection of propaganda in Courage Under Fire (1996) to the didactic chin-stroking of Blood Diamond (2006) and the critique of US health care in Love and Other Drugs (2010). But with this Civil War drama he may have got the balance just right, as Glory spends more time focusing on its characters and the historical events they are involved in than pontificating about human rights. Serious topics are absolutely appropriate material for film in general and war films in particular, but they are best expressed as dramatic content rather than lectures. Glory features the visceral horror of 19th century war as men are blown apart and left with hideous injuries, as well as the institutionalised racism of the Union Army, which may be fighting to end slavery but still treats black people as lesser beings. Its ending is also one of the most… Well, that would be telling. Glory may be 25 years old, but if you haven’t seen it, go check it out.

  1. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

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Clint Eastwood made a film in Japanese. Is this a publicity stunt? No, it’s very true. Eastwood’s two films about the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945 show the two sides of the conflict, but whereas Flags of Our Fathers is a tiresome dirge of flashback foolery and voiceover-drive, Letters from Iwo Jima is a subtle and melancholic tale of haunting combat experiences. The film focuses on three soldiers within the Japanese army fortifying Iwo Jima: General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, familiar to Western audiences after his roles in The Last Samurai, Batman Begins and Memoirs of a Geisha); Ito (Shidô Nakamura), a lieutenant who has spent some time in America; Private Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), who understands from an early stage that he and his comrades are way out of their depth. Through the experiences of these three men, as well as the others around them, the film provides some unusual perspectives. For a mainstream Hollywood film from one of the world’s most recognisable directors be almost entirely subtitled is extraordinary, and the strangeness helps to convey an alternative perspective. Seeing the American forces hit the island and feeling the impact of their attack places the viewer in the position of sympathising with who is normally the enemy. The different military strategy of the Japanese, largely ensconced in caves and burrows rather than bunkers and frequently with inferior technology, creates a palatable sense of fear and foreboding. This is reinforced with the knowledge that they will lose, lending a tragic air of futility to the narrative that is strengthened by Kuribayashi’s belief that his troops are fighting a hopeless battle. Eastwood and DOP Tom Stern also use a washed out visual palette, adding to the grimness of the spectacle and removing any sense of victory or even a noble death. Death in this battle is as futile as any other military engagement, but rarely has this futility been expressed with such powerful melancholia.

  1. Platoon (1986)

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Oliver Stone has made no secret about Platoon being inspired by his own experiences in the Vietnam War, the film portraying combat both against the Viet-Cong and within a US platoon. The visceral horror of mechanised combat is on display as well as the inhumanity of soldiers towards the enemy and to each other. It can be argued that the impact of the conflict is reduced solely to the experience of an individual soldier, Chris (Charlie Sheen) going through the tagline’s claim: the first casualty of war is innocence. But Platoon is among the finest of (American) Vietnam War films in that it convincingly portrays the senselessness of the conflict. War ultimately serves a political agenda, and while the politics of the Vietnam War seem clear today – it was to stem the tide of communism – Platoon presents the irrelevance of such a concept to a soldier on the ground. All Chris encounters is pain, death, violence and misery, the tool as well as the victim of US foreign policy. Less psychological than Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket or The Deer Hunter, Platoon remains a seminal film in depicting the physical horrors of war in the jungle.

  1. Enemy at the Gates (2001)

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I know, most of my choices are American, but here’s one a European production that delivers a very interesting view of the war experience. Set during the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II, Enemy at the Gates concentrates on the interpersonal battle between peasant Russian sniper Vassili (Jude Law) and aristocratic German sniper Major Konig (Ed Harris). Soviet political officer Commisar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) recognises the skill of Vassili and turns him into a hero for the demoralised troops. Fellow Russian soldier Tanya (Rachel Weisz) becomes involved with both Vassili and Danilov, and these intimate dramas are played out against the backdrop of urban warfare that includes precise sniper shots as well as major battles. What is especially effective about this film is the tension of duelling snipers. Victory and life are not determined here by superior numbers or firepower, but by skill and patience, not to mention courage. Courage in this case, however, is presented in its true form – dealing with fear and carrying on despite being, at times, terrified. There are some nail-biting set pieces on both a large and intimate scale, and the film does not shy away from the implacable cruelty of combat nor the tensions within the political ideologies followed by the central characters. Enemy at the Gates is a much underrated war film that is worthy of greater attention.

Honourable mention – Black Hawk Down (2001)

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This is another tale of urban warfare, but a more nihilistic and downright horrifying film than Enemy at the Gates or indeed Full Metal Jacket. Black Hawk Down shows the appalling damage and indifference of mechanised warfare (which has been something of a pattern on this list). Intimacy is again an important feature, as director Ridley Scott and DOP Sławomir Idziak bring the viewer from the eponymous helicopter down to street level, amid the ghastly (and Oscar-winning) noise and visually disorientating barrage of enemy fire. Despite the big name cast, including Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor and Eric Bana, the soldiers are largely anonymous, blurring together amidst the carnage. This is an interesting depiction of military combat because, on the one hand, it reduces everyone to cannon fodder. On the other hand, it places the viewer in that position as well, giving the viewer an appreciation of this combat experience. This anonymising effect creates the nihilism of the film. Who you are means nothing in combat, echoing a sentiment expressed in the film that tops my list: “It makes no difference who you are, no matter how much training you got and the tougher guy you might be. When you’re at the wrong spot at the wrong time, you gonna get it.” Black Hawk Down, much like the other films I have discussed, emphasises this point, showing no glory in war and the indifference with which life can be extinguished.

Expression in Editing

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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.

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2013 Omissions Part One – To The Wonder of Piney Places

2013 is almost over and, like so many a critic (which is, of course, everyone), I’m compiling my top films of the year. In the process, I realised that I neglected to post on some of the films that impressed me the most, so I’m rectifying that omission now.

Two arthouse offerings that I saw early in the year made my long list for films of 2013. The Place Beyond the Pines featured in my top five of 0.5 halfway through the year, and its remarkable power has not diminished since. Derek Cianfrance’s tale of fathers, lovers, sons and sins balanced the epic and the intimate in a touching yet mournful way, and performed a quite remarkable narrative feat. At 2 hours 15 minutes long, and starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, along with Eva Mendes and Ray Liotta, I expected intertwining stories of criminals, cops and the people around them, perhaps a blue collar version of Heat. What I got instead was a trilogy of equal length, largely self-contained stories that are only loosely connected to each other. The first 45 minutes focus on Luke Glanton (Gosling), a stunt motorcyclist who moonlights as an armed robber. The next 45 minutes were concerned with Avery Cross (Cooper), a cop who crosses paths with Luke once, and then continues his story, encountering police corruption en route to fulfilling his political ambitions. The final 45 minutes are concerned with the sons of these two men, Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen), who, by a coincidence that only happens in the movies, find each other and create a whole new drama.

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Based on its synopsis, The Place Beyond the Pines should not work. Three distinct stories that could easily stand by themselves? Three loosely connected stories placed in sequential order so that we effectively abandon the earlier protagonists? An epic saga of intergenerational sin shot with the claustrophobic intimacy of Cianfrance’s debut, Blue Valentine? How can this work? Commitment is the answer, as Cianfrance never wavers in his piercing glare into the hearts of his characters and, more broadly, the community in which they live. While the sequential stories are different from Michael Mann’s multi-stranded narrative, The Place Beyond the Pinesdoes feel like a blue collar Heat, replacing the freeways and concrete canyons of Los Angeles with small town upstate New York. The interconnections between the different characters are both familial and sociological, such as Luke’s criminal association with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), who utters the film’s best line: ‘If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder’, as well as Romina (Mendes), the mother of his child, who lives with her current boyfriend Kofi (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali). Romina and her family later encounter Avery and corrupt officers led by Peter Deluca (Liotta), prompting Avery to seek advice from his father Al (Harris Yulin) and forge an alliance with District Attorney Bill Killcullen (Bruce Greenwood). Fifteen years later, the connections between these characters continue to haunt Avery as well as his son AJ.

The epic scope of the film echoes classic crime dramas like Heat, Goodfellas, Once Upon A Time in America and, yes, even The Godfather, but unlike those films, Cianfrance and his cinematographer Sean Bobbit present something much more down to earth, largely eschewing long shots of grand vistas in favour of extreme close-ups that bring the viewer uncomfortably close to the characters. There are stylistic flourishes as well, especially the opening long take that lasts several minutes as Luke walks towards the cage where he performs his stunts, but the seemingly perpetual handheld footage gives an amateurish slant to the visuals, rather than the slick, polished look of Mann or Scorsese. This is not a criticism, however, as Cianfrance’s style suits his characters and even his genre. Down to earth, gritty and unsteady cinematography blends superbly with the different social levels explored in the film, while the scope of the narrative demonstrates that, with the right treatment, everyone’s story is epic.

A very different film style, like none other, is found in another arthouse offer from 2013: Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder. I’ve been a huge fan of Malick since his metaphysical war film The Thin Red Line (1998), and found The New World (2006) and The Tree of Life (2011) to be entrancing developments of his poetic filmmaking. To The Wonder continues this conceit, as its simple story of characters musing over their relationships and lives is beautiful and beguiling, but never straightforward. Neil (Ben Affleck) is almost silent apart from his voiceover, an environmental inspector who is almost literally of the earth, trying to choose between the free-spirited Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and the more practical Jane (Rachel McAdams). Meanwhile, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) also muses on the weights of his mind, wrestling with the difficulties of counselling others while struggling with his own faith.

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Malick’s free association approach to editing largely excludes continuous narrative, as cuts are often motivated by a word or a look from a character, the film then presenting another image with a purely conceptual link. Cuts are also motivated by purely visual matches between skylines and landscapes, or indeed contrasts between the rolling fields of Oklahoma and the dramatic coastline of Normandy. People stand both in isolation and unity within these landscapes, their lives uncertain in the film’s beguiling yet beautiful ambiguity.

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Like The Place Beyond The Pines, To The Wonder brings the viewer close to the action, but is more concerned with philosophical than sociological connections. What binds people together? What are our connections to the land, the sea, the sky? Malick’s film, like all his work, is a visual monument to the wonder of creation, most explicitly in The Tree of Life, but found here as well. To The Wonder does a fine job of placing Malick’s philosophical filmmaking in the contemporary context, as Badlands, The Thin Red Line and The New World are all historical, while The Tree of Life encompasses the timespan of the Earth (as you do). While To The Wonder is not the easiest film to engage with and is likely to frustrate some sensibilities, for me it was a beautiful and provocative piece of work. Furthermore, it was different, distinctive and, frankly, unique amongst the films I saw this year.

Unexpected Item in Reaction Area I – Rushing to Director

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.

Rush posterIn 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.

Rush raceLike 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?

Hunts Laudas

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.

Rush crash

Throbbing with Meaning

SPOILER WARNING

PosterOnly God Forgives is an extremely ‘arty’ film – languorous and deliberate, seemingly opaque, potentially pretentious. It has very little plot and even less characterisation. The visual palette largely consists of prolonged takes in long shot, capturing both cavernous and intimate spaces in deep focus, as performers walk, reach and turn their heads or even their eyes in extreme slow motion. This emphasises the placement of Julian (Ryan Gosling), Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) and the other characters within the highly expressive mise-en-scene, which is really the star of the film. It may seem strange to praise the scenery, but Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up to Drive is more concerned with mood than plot and character, and the film expresses theme through a visual composition of set design and colour scheme that positively throbs with meaning.

SceneryMultiple viewers and critics have lambasted Only God Forgives or at least advised caution upon seeing the film, especially due to its lack of sympathetic or even engaging characters. Such characters are not unusual in Refn’s films, as the eponymous character of Bronson is psychotic and Gosling’s Driver is inscrutable and blank. This conceit is taken further in Only God Forgives as the characters are largely cyphers, expressive of the underlying forces that bleed into the slow motion and mise-en-scene, particularly the extensive use of red light that led at least one reviewer to describe it as film rouge rather than film noir.

A recurring topic on this blog has been characterisation, and whether it is essential for audience engagement. When I hear the criticism “I didn’t care about the characters”, I often ask “What about everything else?” and am met with blank stares, as though I had asked if you enjoy conversations with yoghurts. In the case of Only God Forgives, I appreciate that the lack of characterisation is a noticeable absence in the film. As Julian, Gosling takes the strong, silent type to a new level, having only 22 lines of dialogue in the film (about the same as Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator). When he speaks, it is almost a painful effort, as though he is reluctant to express himself. Most of his lines are monosyllabic, and the only time he expresses strong emotion his shout turns into an almost childlike scream. This is reminiscent of Gosling’s last role, Luke in The Place Beyond the Pines, who displays childlike naivety and, in one scene, screams like a petulant infant. In both cases, the high-pitched scream undermines the power of the character, Gosling’s voice contradicting the poise of his physical presence.

PhotoshoppedDespite his “Photoshopped” physique, Gosling is not an especially large man, yet he is capable of conveying significant gravity through his remarkable screen presence, but writers/directors like Derek Cianfrance as well as Refn play with this presence, undermining it with losses of control, such as the scene in Only God Forgives when Julian screams at his preferred prostitute, Mai (Rhatha Phongam).

Crystal is rather more talkative, having several amusingly filthy speeches that suggest the strained relationship between her and her son:

[To Mai]: And how many cocks can you entertain with that cute little cum-dumpster of yours?

And what with Billy being the older brother and having a bigger cock… Julian’s was never small, but Billy’s was… oh, it was enormous!

DinnerJulian’s lack of reaction to his mother’s unflattering comparison between him and deceased brother Billy (Tom Burke) indicates that he is used to taking Crystal’s abuse, not reacting, and largely following her instructions. Yet even in his obedience, Julian is a disappointment, Crystal taking charge when her son does not measure up to her expectations following Billy’s murder. The viewer can get a sense that Julian’s own identity was largely ignored by his family, and his tightlippedness is a symptom of a childhood in which he was seldom if ever heard.

I interpret this character detail but there is little evidence to support it. The lack of character detail however did not prevent my engagement with Only God Forgives, because I have great fondness for film stylistics. The long takes, highly designed mise-en-scene and overwhelming soundtrack constituted an immersive cinematic experience for me, and the people moving within it were, literally, part of the expressive scenery. And while dialogue is sparse, the film is anything but quiet. Since Inception, many soundtrack composers have favoured the use of a booming sound, referred to by some as BRRRRRRRAAAAAWWWWRWRRRMRMRMMRMRMMMMM!!! In Only God Forgives, the soundtrack doesn’t boom – it roars. Various scenes begin with a strange roaring scream that emphasises the impending danger and the underlying menace that permeates the entire film. Earlier in the year, I described Man of Steel as using the trope of swelling – Only God Forgives is a constantly throbbing film, not because of a constant sexual presence, more a throbbing sense of scarcely-contained violence. Violence is a recurring theme in Refn’s work, as demonstrated in Bronson and Drive, but whereas they focused on violent men, Only God Forgives depicts a violent world, in which the cypher characters are merely manifestations or even conduits for the violence that constantly throbs and sometimes erupts.

Sexuality is part of the throbbing violence, as the film’s sexual events demonstrate violence in sexuality – Billy’s murder is retaliation for his rape and murder of a sixteen-year old girl, and Julian’s session with Mai involves him being tied to a chair while she touches herself. The scene implies that Julian’s own sexuality is eruptive and violent like his brother’s, so he has himself physically restrained in order to prevent an incident.

ChangNo such restraints are necessary for Chang, who is presented as a manifestation of punishment for the guilty. If only God forgives, Chang is the Angel of Death, there to arrange the meeting. Chang speaks through perfectly applied action as well as verbal lessons that he delivers with his brutal sentences. These sentences are the film’s striking scenes of violence, which are hideous both in their brutality and in their foreshadowing. Chang’s very presence exudes danger, and his slow, deliberate drawing of a concealed sword throbs with portent. Nor is the sword for show, as limbs are lopped, ribcages slit and throats pierced. The precise application of violence is presented in exquisite detail, including the agonised screams of Chang’s victims, the slow, almost balletic sprays of blood and the lingering shots of the bodies mutilated by Chang’s actions. Whereas in Bronson and Drive, violence erupted suddenly and without warning, it is a constant undercurrent throughout Only God Forgives, the mood of the film leaving the viewer in no doubt that violence will erupt – the only question is when.

The one unconvincing element of Only God Forgives is the karaoke scenes, when Chang sings to the police. The scenes are not necessarily incongruous, indeed they maintain Chang’s celestial status by giving him an angelic song. The karaoke even makes sense from a character perspective, as this is the way Chang unwinds. But tonally, the scenes interrupt the grim menace of the film as a whole, coming across as simply odd and therefore jarring in an inscrutable and frustrating manner. But as the whole film is inscrutable and frustrating, perhaps that is the point.

Karaoke aside, Only God Forgives is a treat for the cineaste, because of its highly expressive visual composition. Every scene, whether it is Julian examining his fists, Crystal smoking in her hotel suite or Chang drawing his sword, displays exquisite visual detail that throbs with meaning. It is also reminiscent of the work of other directors, much like other films by Refn. Bronson is similar to A Clockwork Orange, and I described Drive as the best Michael Mann film that Michael Mann did not direct. Only God Forgives is what might have happened if Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and David Cronenberg collaborated on a film. The sense of something lurking beneath the surface, expressed through the lighting and production design, echoes Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Blue Velvet, while long, static takes of corridors are reminiscent of Kubrick’s The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut.

CorridorThe eerie beauty of shots depicting bodily injury echo Cronenberg’s work such as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, especially in a surreal and disturbing scene in which Julian finds the corpse of his mother, executed by Chang, and touches the bloodstained ruin of her abdomen. It is as though he is looking for a way back into her womb, a return to the only place he might have felt safe and wanted. Refn may not have consciously sought to emulate these directors, but his film does suggest their stylistic and thematic concerns.

This lack of explicit meaning may explain both the positive and negative reactions to Only God Forgives. The slow motion, excessive design, lack of character, plot and dialogue, leave an absence into which the viewer can place their own understanding. I have suggested background features of Julian, but these are speculative and drawn from my own interpretation of the events onscreen. Minimal onscreen background can suggest style for style’s sake, Refn concentrating on hyperbolic lighting, set design and cinematography to compensate for a lack of story. But it also allows more interpretation on the part of the viewer, requiring us to fill in the blanks. Mainstream cinema is intensely plot driven, with character development generally integrated into that of the narrative. Arthouse cinema, typically, operates in contrast to mainstream conventions of narrative and style, and Only God Forgives certainly offers this contrast. It can be argued that it goes too far into being ‘arty’, but the minimalist plot and cypher characters allow for the film and viewer to work together in creating meaning, rather than meaning being explicit. This is not to suggest that those who found Only God Forgives frustrating are incapable of deciding on the meaning of a cinematic text for themselves, but highlights that this film has particular pleasures for those who enjoy filling in the blanks as to character background and the implications of expressive style.

These pleasures made Only God Forgives a great experience for me – it is intensely cinematic and a treat for those who enjoy cinematic features, techniques and tropes. This is not to say that only those with my background and taste (a pretty narrow demographic) will enjoy the film, but it demonstrates the particular pleasures that can be found in films that eschew the mainstream elements like detailed plot and rounded characters. Only God Forgives is not an easy film to love, but I came away with a lot of love for it.

Fight