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Alien: Covenant

Alien-Covenant-First-Official-Poster-featIn 1979, cinema audiences were informed in no uncertain terms that ‘In space no one can hear you scream‘. For nearly forty years we have been reminded of this universally acknowledged truth, with varying degrees of success. In the case of Alien: Covenant, it seems everyone needs to hear you PANIC! because the film is so overloaded with PANIC! that I wondered if the various gruesome deaths were redundant in the face of surely inevitable heart attacks. From an opening space accident that introduces the viewer to far too many indistinguishable characters to set pieces in a medical bay and a field of tall grass to a climax followed by a climax followed by a climax, Alien: Covenant delivers far too many reasons to think ‘Don’t go off alone’, ‘Don’t look at that’, ‘Exercise more caution’, ‘Behind you!’ and ‘Slow down, Ridley!’ I’m a big fan of Ridley Scott and think Prometheus is pretty good, but it is telling that Covenant‘s best scene is a quiet moment of two characters playing a flute, captured in a long take of beautifully chilling serenity, helped by the wonderful Michael Fassbender who is easily the best thing(s) in the film. A crucial element of the original Alien is its slow pace, the longueurs of drip feed menace steadily creating an atmosphere of dread. Here, we charge headlong into danger because that way we can get to the PANIC! all the sooner, or perhaps this reckless charge is an attempt to disguise the general lack of narrative or thematic coherence. The conclusion of the film points to a further instalment, so it seems we’ll be reminded once again that in space, no one can hear you scream ‘Enough!’

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Life

life_ver3

Life is an original film that lacks original ideas. While it is not based on any previously published material, its narrative and themes are familiar to any fan of science fiction or horror. Obvious references are Alien and Gravity: the initial shots of space and the slow appearance of the International Space Station seem to deliberately echo the credits of Ridley Scott’s classic, while the opening action set piece is conducted in a single shot, reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s award magnet. Xenomorph references continue as the appropriately diverse crew members of ISS have a close encounter of the dangerous kind with a single-celled organism brought back from Mars. Nicknamed ‘Calvin’, experiments with this globular entity quickly turn grisly and gruesome. But Life‘s lack of originality does not stop it being an entertaining ninety minutes, as director Daniel Espinosa delivers a gripping romp, making smart use of the zero-gravity environment and the classic dangers of space. Depleted oxygen, dropping temperatures and loss of communication with Mission Control are all handled with aplomb, with the added tensions of medical drama, as Dr Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) reminds us of the various safeguards to prevent alien contamination of Earth. Calvin itself is commendably intriguing and revolting in equal measure and the different responses of Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) and David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) provide an effective progression through the drama. There are plenty of jumps and a good dose of tension, and part of the fun is predicting who will die, when and how. However familiar it may be, Life ticks all the boxes for an enjoyable orbital journey.

To Infinity, and Beyond: Science Fiction Countdown – 1

2001 poster

No surprise here. 2001: A Space Odyssey tops the list of my top five transportive science fiction films with its extraordinary vision that more than lives up to the title of its third chapter, “Beyond the Infinite”. 2001: A Space Odyssey takes the viewer from the dawn of humanity to the birth of a new species, an odyssey few films approach. What makes 2001 top of this list is that it expresses its themes and makes its claims in a specifically cinematic way. The plot is simple, but ideas of humanity and identity, destiny and our place in the universe are all presented through cinematic techniques of image and sound. The opening and closing chapters are entirely without dialogue and remain cinematic touchstones, the stargate sequence one of the most exquisite pieces of cinema I have ever seen. The middle section portrays space travel as both wondrous and mundane, the production design detailing the mechanics of space travel and the logistics of weightlessness and docking. HAL is a definitive example of artificial intelligence, a clear influence on MUTHR in Alien as well as Blade Runner’s replicants. Furthermore, thanks to this film a single red light shall forever be menacing. Despite the detail given to spacecraft and inter-planetary travel, 2001 never explains too much (over-explanation being the major flaw of the film’s recent descendant, Interstellar), relying instead on suggestion and ambiguity. The film maintains a mystery and opacity much like the black monoliths, which is a common feature across the films that constitute this countdown. How human are the replicants in Blade Runner? What is the reach of Eywa in Avatar? What do the extra-terrestrials want in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? How did the alien ship come to be on the planet in Alien (the explanation in Prometheus notwithstanding)? Mystery abounds in 2001 but not to the point of frustration, as enough is suggested by Stanley Kubrick’s precise alignment of production design, cinematography, editing, sound effects and music to give the viewer a sense of what is going on, while leaving enough ambiguity for us to wonder, and indeed, wonder at the majestic mystery of what we behold. After nearly fifty years, 2001 remains the greatest journey undertaken by the sci-fi genre and an unrivalled cinematic landmark.

Monolith

And the nominees are…

Oscars

On 16 January 2014, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominees for the 86th Annual Academy Awards. I’m sure there will be criticisms and complaints in the coming weeks that nominee X should not have been honoured in favour of snub Y, but as always, the nominees provide an insight into what the Academy like to reward, what are dubbed worthy and who has been able to garner the attention. There were some surprises, both among the inclusions and the omissions, but overall the usual suspects are well represented.AMERICAN-HUSTLE-poster-1024x768There are several remarkable aspects among the nominees, most startlingly the multiple nominations for a David O. Russell film, as for the second consecutive year, his film is nominated in every major category. Just like Silver Linings Playbook last year, American Hustle is nominated for Picture, Achievement in Directing, Actor in a Leading Role, Actress in a Leading Role, Actor in a Supporting Role, Actress in a Supporting Role, and Screenplay (Original rather than Adapted, as Playbook was). Silver Linings Playbook’s success can be credited at least partially to Harvey Weinstein, but American Hustle was not distributed by The Weinstein Company, whereas one of Weinstein’s major awards hopeful, Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom, only managed a nod for Best Original Song. Perhaps more effort was put into August: Osage County.

Anyway, here are my impressions of the nominees, and my initial predictions. These may change, depending on how other awards go.

Best Motion Picture of the Year
12 Years A Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
The Wolf Of Wall Street

I wish the Academy members would pick ten nominees as they’ve been able to do since 2009. Surely there was something else that warranted attention (for my money, Saving Mr. Banks is the major omission). Dallas Buyers Club would have been a surprise before the Golden Globes, but now its star has risen. American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Gravity, 12 Years A Slave and The Wolf Of Wall Street were all expected, and Nebraska isn’t that surprising, coming from Oscar darling Alexander Payne, but I’m impressed that Her and Philomena got in. Her is science fiction, which hardly ever gets a look in, and Philomena has stirred up controversy with its depiction of the Catholic Church. None are likely to win, however, as the obvious nominees are also the likely winners. With few nominations, Captain Phillips seems unlikely, and the provocative subject matter of The Wolf Of Wall Street is likely to put voters off. It looks like a three horse race at the moment, between American Hustle, Gravity and 12 Years A Slave. I’d love Gravity to pick up Best Picture because it is such an exquisitely cinematic film, but the historical subject matter of the other two contenders is likely to carry more weight (geddit?) than the space thriller. American Hustle, however, is rather flimsy, which works against it, so by process of elimination, and by virtue of it having won the Golden Globe and the Critics Choice Award, 12 Years A Slave emerges as the most likely winner.

Prediction: 12 Years A Slave

Best Achievement in Directing
Alfonso Cuarón – Gravity
Steve McQueen – 12 Years A Slave
Alexander Payne – Nebraska
David O. Russell – American Hustle
Martin Scorsese – The Wolf Of Wall Street

No surprises here, although I’m disappointed that Paul Greengrass was overlooked. I would like Alfonso Cuarón to pick up an award, as Gravity is a cinematic experience like none other, probably the closest the average cinema-goer is ever likely to get to being in space. With his second consecutive nomination (and third overall, as he was also nominated for The Fighter), David O. Russell might be in with a chance, but I don’t think he is any more likely than Steve McQueen (first nomination) or Martin Scorsese, who previously won for The Departed. Alexander Payne is the outside runner, and I think it will come down to between McQueen and Cuaron. I dare to predict the Academy will agree with me, as Directing can reward superb technical accomplishments even when the film as a whole is not honoured with Best Picture (see Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain, The Pianist, Saving Private Ryan, Traffic), plus Cuarón has already received the Golden Globe and the Critics Choice Award.

Prediction: Alfonso Cuarón

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Christian Bale – American Hustle
Bruce Dern – Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf Of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years A Slave
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club

There is a host of grand performers here, all of whom have elements working in their favour. Bruce Dern might be a favourite due to his age – at 77 there may not be many nominations ahead for him and he has only once been nominated previously, for Coming Home in 1978. Christian Bale is the only previous winner here, having picked up Supporting Actor win for The Fighter in 2010 (also directed by David O. Russell). While this might work in his favour, his performance is rather unflashy, and the Academy tends to honour more showy performances, especially if the character has to overcome something. Chiwetel Ejiofor is playing a historical figure in an “important” historical film, and white guilt could work in his favour. That said, it is his first nomination which can sometimes work against you. The same is true of Matthew McConaughey, but having won a Golden Globe, a Critics Choice Award and a SAG award he is a front runner, plus he is playing someone suffering from an illness – AIDS no less, which twenty years ago won Tom Hanks his first Oscar for Philadelphia (it’s surprising that Hanks isn’t up for either Captain Phillips or Saving Mr. Banks, but there we go). Leonardo DiCaprio also won a Golden Globe this year, but he is in a comedy, a genre that is rarely honoured with major awards (this is also a mark against Bale). But of all the nominees, he has had the most nominations, this being his third for Best Actor (previously for The Aviator and Blood Diamond) and fourth overall (Supporting Actor for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). Oscars can sometimes be cumulative, and maybe it is DiCaprio’s time. But his role and film are not the type beloved by the Academy, so expect the McConaissance to culminate (but not end) with a golden baldie.

Prediction: Matthew McConaughey

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Amy Adams – American Hustle
Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock – Gravity
Judi Dench – Philomena
Meryl Streep – August: Osage County

This is another very strong group, and a good set of roles for older women. All too often, Hollywood (and beyond) only pays attention to women under forty, but Amy Adams is the only performer of that age (and at 38, she’s getting close). This is Adams’ fifth nomination, but her first for Actress in a Leading Role, having previously been nominated for Supporting Actress in Junebug, Doubt, The Fighter and The Master. She is the only performer here to have not previously won an Oscar, so maybe it is her time. She did get the Golden Globe, but like DiCaprio and Bale, may be hampered by her film being a comedy. A very strong contender is Cate Blanchett, who also got the Golden Globe and was getting Oscar-tipped as soon as Blue Jasmine was released, plus she won the Critics Choice and SAG awards. Blanchett previously won Supporting Actress for The Aviator, a category in which she was also nominated for Notes on a Scandal and I’m Not There, while this is her third nomination for Leading Actress after Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. This could well be her year. The other three have all won, Bullock and Streep very recently, for The Blind Side and The Iron Lady, respectively. Streep has more nominations, seemingly, than anyone, but conversely a very poor success rate. Her role as a crotchety matriarch in August: Osage County may be a little low key for the voters, while Gravity’s technical accomplishments are likely to overshadow Bullock’s performance. Dench has been nominated a few times, including Leading Actress for Mrs Brown, Notes on a Scandal, Iris and Mrs. Henderson Presents, as well as Supporting Actress for Chocolat and a win for her EIGHT MINUTES in Shakespeare In Love. It would be lovely to see her win, but the strong contender at this stage is Blanchett, whose has had the momentum for months.

Prediction: Cate Blanchett

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper – American Hustle
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years A Slave
Jonah Hill – The Wolf Of Wall Street
Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

Once again, having won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and SAG awards, Jared Leto is a front runner, despite this being his first nomination. Leto as well as Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill are slightly surprising actors to see in Oscar territory as they are not always known for awards films. That said, Hill was previously nominated for Moneyball, while Cooper was up for Best Actor in a Leading Role last year for Silver Linings Playbook. These second nominations make these two actors more nominated than other, more obvious performers, such as Gary Oldman and, indeed, Michael Fassbender. This is actually Fassbender’s first nomination, despite his dominating performances in such films as Shame, Prometheus and Inglourious Basterds. He’s playing the sort of vile villain that sometimes attracts Oscar attention, while newcomer Barkhad Abdi is a very welcome presence. A year ago, no one had heard of this guy, and now he’s going to the Oscars, what a thrill! Captain Phillips has relatively few nominations, so this is probably its best chance for a win, but on the night, I think the Academy is more likely to go the same way as the Globes and the Critics.

Prediction: Jared Leto

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years A Slave
Julia Roberts – August: Osage County
June Squibb – Nebraska

This is an interesting bunch, with previous winners of the Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar, Jennifer Lawrence and Julia Roberts, up against newcomers Lupita Nyong’o and June Squibb. Sally Hawkins is an established presence, but this is also her first nomination. Sometimes, first timers can do well, such as Octavia Spencer in The Help, but big stars in supporting roles often do well, so this is likely to come down to Roberts and Lawrence. Lawrence got the Globe, but Nyong’o got the Critics Choice Award as well as the SAG award, and the members of SAG will also be members of AMPAS, so the newcomer may surpass the established.

Prediction: Lupita Nyong’o

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

American Hustle – Eric Singer, David O. Russell

Blue Jasmine – Woody Allen

Her – Spike Jonze

Nebraska – Bob Nelson

Dallas Buyers Club – Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack

Writing awards as often go to films that don’t win anything else to those that do, so it’s fairly open. I think David O. Russell is more likely to pick up this award than Directing, and never count Woody Allen out. Alexander Payne has picked up screenplay awards for Sideways and The Descendants, respectively, so could be in with a good chance here. Hard to say.

Prediction: American Hustle

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

Before Midnight – Richard Linklater

Captain Phillips – Billy Ray

12 Years a Slave – John Ridley

The Wolf of Wall Street – Terence Winter

Philomena – Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope

Adapted Screenplay and Picture often go together (see Argo, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country For Old Men, The Departed), so Before Midnight is unlikely here. The other four are all true stories, making them strong contenders in this category as well as Best Picture. While Steve McQueen is not a sure thing for Directing, the historical significance of a true story of survival and courage gives him a very good chance of winning here, whereas the controversy around Philomena may make voters anxious. The hedonism and debauchery of The Wolf of Wall Street might offend conservative sensibilities, but Captain Phillips is a tale of true life heroism, which makes it a strong contender. Come the night, expect this to go to one of the tales of courage.

Prediction: 12 Years A Slave

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year
The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Ernest & Celestine
Frozen
The Wind Rises

Frozen has been almost universally praised and already picked up the Golden Globe as well as the Critics Choice Award. I see no reason for it not to continue its winning ways.

Prediction: Frozen

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)
The Great Beauty (Italy)
The Hunt (Denmark)
The Missing Picture (Cambodia)
Omar (Palestine)

The only one of these I have heard of is The Hunt, so go Denmark!

Prediction: The Hunt

Best Documentary, Feature
The Act Of Killing
Cutie And The Boxer
Dirty Wars
The Square
20 Feet From Stardom

People sometimes deride the Academy for being very conservative and not rewarding films that are willing to take risks. While there is justification for this criticism, to see The Act of Killing included in this list of nominees is very positive. By all accounts, the film is harrowing beyond belief, and while that might negate its chances of winning, the genre of documentary arguably exists to challenge and, when necessary, provoke. I hope it does well.

Prediction: The Act of Killing

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score
The Book Thief – John Williams
Gravity – Steven Price
Her – William Butler and Owen Pallet
Philomena – Alexadre Desplat
Saving Mr. Banks – Thomas Newman

Scores are a difficult business because at their best, they neither overpower the drama nor are unnoticeable, synchronising perfectly with the mood of the images. John Williams has more awards than you can shake a conductor’s baton at, and Alexandre Desplat has done nicely as well. There’s a nice spread among these nominees which makes it hard to pick one, but since this is the only nomination for Saving Mr. Banks, I’d like to see some love that way.

Prediction: Saving Mr. Banks

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song
“Alone Yet Not Alone” – Alone Yet Not Alone
“Happy” – Despicable Me 2 (Pharrell Williams)
“Let It Go” – Frozen (Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez)
“The Moon Song” – Her (Karen O. and Spike Jonze)
“Ordinary Love” – Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom (U2)

Tough call, as the criteria for song are less obvious than other categories. I fondly remember U2 performing “Hands That Built America” back in 2003, and it’d be great for them to pick up an award (they did not previously). Then again, there was a time when Disney was unbeatable in the music stakes, and Frozen by many accounts is a return to form. Why not let it continue?

Prediction: “Let It Go”

Best Achievement in Sound Editing
All Is Lost
Captain Phillips
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
Lone Survivor

It’s disappointing not to see Rush in here, as that had some of the most exhilarating sound I’ve heard in ages. But the sound of the sea, storms, boats and man was a great feature of All Is Lost, so that is good to see here. Similarly, a great cacophony is heard in Captain Phillips, while Gravity makes great use of sound and also silence. I think Gravity is going to be the big winner in technical categories rather than “artistic”, so expect this award to gravitate towards the space tale.

Prediction: Gravity

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
Captain Phillips
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lone Survivor

Apparently, the voice of Smaug was created through multiple layers of Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice. If that’s not impressive sound mixing, I don’t know what is. Any film involving music is a good bet in the sound categories (see Les Miserables from last year), so that speaks well of Inside Llewyn Davis. As in Sound Editing, Captain Phillips and Gravity are strong contenders, so it really is hard to pick one. But since it isn’t likely to win much else, and it’s a fascinating fusion of human talent and technological wizardy, let’s go for the hobbity-tosh.

Prediction: The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Production Design
American Hustle
Gravity
The Great Gatsby
Her
12 Years A Slave

Historical dramas are often a good bet in this category, so that bodes well for American Hustle, 12 Years A Slave and The Great Gatsby, the last of which has the added bonus of being hugely concerned with design, sets and production. But it was a while ago – when I saw it nominated my first thought was “Wasn’t that up last year?” Her is an interesting choice, but not a likely winner. The production design of Gravity treads that fine line between sets and special effects, as it is often not clear whether the surroundings are physical are not. However, the very fact that it is in the category means that the production design has impressed the Academy members, so that impression may well lead to winning votes.

Prediction: Gravity

Best Achievement in Cinematography
The Grandmaster – Philippe Le Sourd

Gravity – Emmanuel Lubezki

Inside Llewyn Davis – Bruno Delbonnel

Nebraska – Phedon Papamichael

Prisoners – Roger Deakins

Please, let this be the year that Roger Deakins wins an Oscar! The man is an absolute genius with a camera and cinematography is the one thing that cannot be faulted in the otherwise deeply flawed Prisoners. This is Deakins’ 11th nomination and he has never won, and he really should just for staying power. But I highly doubt it, because cinematography has become the province of 3D. From Avatar to Hugo to Life of Pi, 3D is what impresses the cinematographers of AMPAS, and I see no reason for this trend to not continue.

Prediction: Gravity

Best Achievement in Makeup And Hair
Dallas Buyers Club
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
The Lone Ranger

It is quite baffling that American Hustle has been left out of this category, since the hair is one of the most overt features in the film. In its absence, and with the rather weird appearances of Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger, this seems a winner by default. Healthy men are turned into AIDS victims in Dallas Buyers Club; that has to be worth something.

Prediction: Dallas Buyers Club

Best Achievement in Costume Design
American Hustle
The Grandmaster
The Great Gatsby
The Invisible Woman
12 Years A Slave

Better to see American Hustle here, as the costumes are almost as important as the hair. Costume dramas, unsurprisingly, tend to dominate this category, but once again I think the time since The Great Gatsby was released will work against it. 12 Years A Slave is a decent contender here, but bear in mind that most of its costumes look (which does not mean they are) simple: shifts and dresses, shirts and breeches. The Invisible Woman is the epitome of costume drama, not only Dickensian but actually features Dickens himself, so I think it has a very good chance of winning.

Prediction: The Invisible Woman

Best Achievement in Film Editing
12 Years a Slave – Joe Walker

American Hustle – Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers

Gravity – Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger

Captain Phillips – Christopher Rouse

Dallas Buyers Club – Martin Pensa, John Mac McMurphy

Editing is the silver bullet that often leads to Best Picture, but not always. This is because the dominant filmmaking practice in Hollywood is that films are made in the editing room, so no matter how much work is done on location or on soundstages, the editing room is where the film is truly assembled, and then reassembled and trimmed and reconsidered and tweaked and adjusted before finally being released. Therefore, it is no surprise that all the nominees for Editing are also Best Picture nominees. One of the complaints about The Wolf of Wall Street is that it is too long, and to see Thelma Schoonmaker omitted from this category perhaps indicates a similar feeling among the Academy members. Therefore, I think the tussle for Editing will come down to those jockeying for Picture and Directing, leaving Captain Phillips and Dallas Buyers Club out. While American Hustle and Gravity both demonstrate accomplished editing, on the night the combined force of Editing and Adapted Screenplay will be key to 12 Years A Slave’s victory.

Prediction: 12 Years A Slave

Best Achievement in Visual Effects
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
Iron Man 3
The Lone Ranger
Star Trek Into Darkness

Ah yes, the blockbuster award. Every film in this category is a blockbuster, with only one also being a prestige film. That’s Gravity, in case you’ve dozed off by now. Iron Man 3 does a lot of good work in combining purely digital creations with integrating the human and the digital, while The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug creates fantastic creatures including but not limited to the titular dragon. Star Trek Into Darkness often looks completely digital, but does a decent amount of practical effects as well, which still have bearing and merit, it must be said. But I see this one going to the technical triumph of this year, which is going to win plenty, though not everything. OK, you can go back to sleep now.

Prediction: Gravity

Best Documentary – Short Subject

Cavedigger
Facing Fear
Karama Has No Walls
The Lady In Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Prison Terminal: The Last Days Of Private Jack Hall

Best Live Action Short Film
Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)
Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)
Helium
Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have To Take Care Of Everything?)
The Voorman Problem

Best Animated Short Film
Feral
Get A Horse!
Mr. Hublot
Possessions
Room On The Broom

I know nothing about any of these, so have no opinion.

HD Isolation

Shame title

My last post discussed the treatment of violence in Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011). Another theme in Drive is urban alienation, a theme explored in greater depth in another film which came out the same year: Shame, written and directed by Steve McQueen (no, not that one). Like Ryan Gosling’s Driver, Michael Fassbender’s Brandon is a man isolated in the urban wilderness, both men deriving meaning from specific activities, driving for Driver and sex for Brandon. Amusingly, both encounter Carey Mulligan, who plays Driver’s neighbour and potential romance Irene, and Brandon’s emotionally damaged sister, Sissy. Both films are made by non-Americans who turn a penetrating eye on American urban environments, Los Angeles in Drive and New York in Shame. A key element which emerges from these environments is isolation, and a key tool is high-definition digital film.

When discussing Shame with fellow movie buffs, the film has been described as “beautiful”, “haunting”, “hypnotic” and “mesmerising”. The underlying commonality among these responses is that Shame draws you in and maintains your attention, compelling the viewer to keep watching. McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt achieve this effect by staging much of the action in long takes. Many shots last several minutes and capture a lot of action, sometimes lasting for entire scenes. Furthermore, these long takes make use of deep focus, capturing detail in the distance as well as that close to the camera. In high definition, this detail is clearly visible, resulting in a rich and textured image, but not a cluttered one – everything within the frame is neat and ordered.

Shame 5

This style is used from very early in the film, as a naked Brandon rises and goes through his morning routine, a single take capturing him in his disciplined but sterile apartment as he walks, urinates and ignores the phone ringing. Through the expansive windows appear the first indications of his isolation – various anonymous buildings whose detail can be seen in high definition deep focus. This visual arrangement continues through the film, Brandon situated in expansive environments in which he is isolated. This isolation is achieved both by long shots which make him diminutive, and the high definition deep focus which does not emphasise him. The viewer identifies Brandon as different from the metal, concrete and glass around him, but with everything in equal focus and definition, the person is no more or less emphasised than what surrounds him. People are not only anonymous in Shame’s vision of New York, they are practically part of the scenery.

This scenery features many flat panels, including the plate glass windows of New York buildings, glass walls and doors in the office where Brandon works, sleek, shiny tables and computer screens. These smooth panels are visually echoed in the sleek planes of Brandon’s body, the naked breadths of his chest, back and legs are similarly smooth and almost featureless. These planes again integrate Brandon with his environment, which further expresses the disengagement he has with others. The protagonist glances off people as though he were made of glass or stainless steel himself. A subsequent role played by Fassbender was David in Prometheus, and his role in Shame serves as a fascinating precursor to the android. Although Brandon does have emotions, he as unable to operate as a human being as the artificial person.

Shame 2

McQueen’s long takes serve to emphasise Brandon’s isolation and immersion in his environment, in some scenes reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. This is especially striking when Brandon goes jogging, the camera capturing his progress in continuous tracking shots. As he jogs, he passes people, shops, restaurants, cars, never stopping or pausing, his progress uninterrupted either by obstacles or camera cuts. Again, his disassociation and alienation is emphasised by the film’s style, as the HD footage places the fibre of Brandon’s clothes and the texture of his skin and hair within an equally detailed environment – the reflections on water and oil patches, the sheen on car bodies and the detail of other people, not to mention the mottled walls of buildings. Everything is equally detailed, and so nothing is emphasised, our protagonist one feature among many, equally apparent and only discernible by the camera following his movement. This creates an intimacy between Brandon and the viewer, taking us (literally) along for his journey, sharing his isolation and disconnection which may be a reflection of many viewers’ experience of 21st century urban life.

Another version of this alienation appears during two scenes between Brandon and his co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie). They have a dinner date in which Brandon explains his aversion to relationships, his longest being four months. The scene occurs in a single take, the camera focus slowly narrowing either through a zoom or tracking shot, drawing the viewer closer to this intimate conversation. Outside the windows of the restaurant, the New York street is once again exquisitely detailed in the high definition deep focus, the couple, such as they are, merely the details that we can hear. Later, the deep focus creates an even more isolating effect, as Brandon and Marianne go to a hotel room and begin kissing and undressing, but Brandon stops before they proceed to intercourse. It seems that if he has an emotional connection to a sexual partner, he cannot become fully aroused. His isolation is again emphasised by the high definition deep focus which allows the viewer to see what takes place outside: rain spattering on the floor-to-ceiling windows, cars passing on the roads outside, cranes at a nearby construction site. Urban life progresses, this failed attempt at intimacy occuring in the midst of indifference. Brandon is emotionally distraught but, cruelly, the camera remains on him even once Marianne has left, a tearful Brandon gazing out at the uncaring city which continues uninterrupted. The viewer’s focus cannot focus on Brandon and Marianne, because the background action is a constant distraction. This distraction expresses the alienating effect of urban life, perpetual motion and empty expanses, in which Brandon, at least, cannot connect.

The long takes express Brandon’s discipline and continuity, his sexual addiction compartmentalised alongside his work and home life. Even when Sissy arrives unexpectedly, Brandon surprising her in his shower, the discipline continues as their first heated conversation occurs in a single take, Sissy’s naked form seen as a reflection, expressing her separation from Brandon. In a later conversation, when they talk on Brandon’s sofa, the focus becomes shallower, reducing the TV in the background to a blur of indistinct movement which is situated between them. Even while Sissy tries to find some way into her brother’s compassion, he coldly rebuffs her, the indistinct image of the TV expressing the barrier between them. The scene occurs in another long take, but the shallower focus helps to use the mise-en-scene to express the characters’ strained relationship.

Shame 3

Amongst these scenes of long takes, there are also moments of discontinuity, especially during Brandon’s virtual breakdowns. When he is overcome by shame and throws out all his pornography, the scene is presented in short takes, punctuated by jump cuts as he sweeps magazines, videos and a laptop into bin bags and dumps the bags on the street. A more intense and indeed upsetting scene occurs later, when Brandon goes to the apartment of two prostitutes and engages in a furious but agonising threesome. The scene is a montage, cutting between the expressions of Brandon and the women, their pumping bodies and the room’s furniture. It may rank as one of the most uncomfortable presentations of sexual intercourse ever committed to film, bereft of intimacy or even simple pleasure, Brandon screaming as though under torture.

Not that the prolonged takes are far away, as in probably the film’s most distressing scene, Brandon returns home in a panic to find Sissy in the bathroom with her wrists slashed. His discovery is captured in a long take, but without sound, Brandon’s anguish expressed through his face, contorted into a howl of agony. Here the film expresses the ineffable – the unspeakable and incomprehensible pain at finding a loved one dead or dying. Such scenes are common in films – Heat features a very similar one – but Shame offers one of the most effective encounters with an attempted suicide. Once again, the long take prolongs the agony, lingering on Brandon to an uncomfortable degree.

Shame demonstrates remarkable cinematography and editing choices, as one is largely merciless and the other restrained. New York is used to great effect, the HD footage capturing the city in exquisite detail, which serves to demonstrate the isolation of the protagonist. In another heartbreaking scene, Brandon sinks into an almost foetal crouch in a wasteland part of the city, crying out for something beyond his addicted and hollow existence.

Shame 4

Once again, we see everything, the pores of his face as richly textured as the tarmac around him. This is one the great effects of HD, creating a visual palette in which people and environments are presented in equal detail (I have published elsewhere on the use of this in Collateral). It need not be used in this way – particular shots as well as depth of focus can still emphasise actors’ faces. But in the case of Shame, urban alienation is effectively conveyed through long takes, deep focus and high definition digital film.

Searching for Salvation in all the Wrong Places – Part Two

Boyle 2 Spiritual themes run throughout the work of Danny Boyle, from the rise of greed in Shallow Grave to the transcendent states in Trainspotting, “what is written” in Slumdog Millionaire and the delirium of 127 Hours. In my previous post, I discussed the themes of salvation and the soul in 28 Days Later…, Boyle’s visceral and frightening non-zombie zombie film. Five years later, Boyle experimented with science fiction in Sunshine, which works as an interesting counterpoint to 28 Days Later…. The spirituality of Boyle’s work is especially apparent in Sunshine, and while parts of the film do not work as well as others, it remains a fascinating psychological and philosophical journey.

Whereas 28 Days Later… quickly breaks into a mad, frenzied dash, Sunshine has a more sedate opening act, the voiceover of Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy, again) easing us into the steady movement through space. The voiceover provides simple and necessary exposition, informing the viewer that the sun is dying so the vessel Icarus II has been sent to reignite the star with a gigantic bomb. We also learn that the first mission, Icarus I, failed and, as the film progresses, this failure and its ramifications will form both the narrative and spiritual conflicts of Sunshine.

Much of Sunshine resembles other space travel science fiction: the living quarters of the Icarus II and the banter between the crew are reminiscent of Alien; the film’s spiritual concerns are similar to Solaris, while the isolation and alienation, as well as the gardens, recall Silent Running. I greatly admire Sunshine’s willingness to engage with serious themes of spirituality and confrontations with death, life, God and science. When science fiction does this, like in other recent films such as Inception, Avatar and Prometheus, it is at its most satisfying. Inevitably, “serious” sci-fi echoes 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there are moments in Sunshine that echo Stanley Kubrick’s opus. One of 2001’s many memorable scenes is when astronaut Dave Bowman moves through a stargate, described by some as “the ultimate trip”. Sunshine features similar moments when the screen is filled with light, a golden expanse that is both beautiful and terrible. The general aesthetic of films set in space is to emphasise the void of blackness, but Boyle uses light in Sunshine to extraordinary effect, bathing the Icarus II and the performers in golden radiance.

The characters’ entrancement (see what I did there?) is mirrored by the viewer’s envelopment, as the film transports us into its world through its “retina-scorching” visuals. For me, the best science fiction is that which transports you, and Sunshine certainly does that. A key element of this transportation is the film’s spiritual concerns, closely tied to the film’s use of light. The first scene after the opening voiceover presents Searle (Clifford Curtis) viewing the sun at what appears to be intense brightness, yet it is only 3% intensity, and much of Sunshine is almost unbearably bright. Searle describes his experience as something transcendent and profound. This element of the mission through space remains prominent throughout, an encounter with something immensely powerful and magnificent. Salvation for the Earth is the goal of the astronauts, but beyond this, each of them seek spiritual salvation or enlightenment in different and often misguided ways. Mace (Chris Evans) is the most cynical of the crew, committed only to completing the mission, which he does not live to see. Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) focuses upon life through the ship’s garden, which is both a living environment and the means to life for the crew, but the garden is destroyed by fire and she dies among its ashes. Cassie (Rose Byrne) is the heart of the crew and the film, caring for everyone as much as she can, and there are suggestions of a (nascent) romance between her and Capa. Of course, it comes to nothing and her compassion and sympathy is overridden, largely by Mace. Harvey (Troy Garity) and Trey (Benedict Wong) are more minor, but it is interesting that after his mistake endangers them all, Trey seeks redemption in suicide. But the most interesting quests for salvation are those who seek it in light.

For Searle and, to a lesser extent, Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), salvation/enlightenment is achieved by “touching” the Sun. Searle demonstrates this conceit through his fascination with seeing as much light as he can. When Kaneda sacrifices himself to the Sun’s rays for the good of the mission, he turns towards the approaching wall of searing heat that will destroy him. At the moment of his death, Kaneda is calm, humble and seemingly embracing the great power that consumes him. Searle is intensely curious, repeatedly asking Kaneda over the radio “What do you see?” What Kaneda sees is his death, his eternal darkness, in the midst of light. What can you see when the retinas are overloaded by light? Too much light is ultimately blindness, while in the midst of darkness one heads for light. This paradox again reflects the film’s spiritual journey, a journey simultaneously into light and darkness.

The major contrast, of course, is between Capa and Pinbacker (Mark Strong), captain of Icacus I who went mad and killed his crew. Capa describes the ignition of the bomb, and by implication the Sun as a whole, as beautiful; Pinbacker has embraced death as he sees the Sun as expressive of God’s majesty, before which humanity should die. Pinbacker believes he has found salvation in death, Capa does so as well, but his death is life for Earth. Sunshine’s final explosion of light, and Capa’s almost ecstatic face as the reaction takes place, confirms his prediction that it will be “beautiful”. Indeed, Capa seems to achieve the transcendence that Searle pursued and that Pinbacker possibly found, but without the murderous madness. In its ultimate embrace of death as a transcendent experience, Sunshine resembles another film that came out the previous year, which also involves travelling to a dying star and confronting death: Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. To an even greater extent than Sunshine, The Fountain fills its frame with almost tactile light, blinding and beautiful all at once. And in this enveloping light, both films express transcendence and spiritual salvation.

Sunshine does have problems, especially the final sequence which suffers from Boyle’s over-stylisation. When the character of Pinbacker appears, naked, scorched and space-crazy, the erratic editing and cinematography distracts from the danger. Narratively and thematically, the ending is fine, but stylistically it is a problem and straighter presentation might have been more effective. This is a recurrent problem with Boyle’s films, although I think he gets the balance right in Trance. In Sunshine, the final spill into horror undoes some of the tension generated in earlier scenes, but the spiritual journeys continue, presenting a route to salvation even, or perhaps especially, in the face of death. Sunshine

Top Twelve of 2012

2012

On the twelfth day of Christmas

The movies gave to me

Twelve engineers

PROMETHEUS

Eleven Grey wolves

The Grey

Ten Joes a-killing

Killer Joe

Nine Lives of Pi

life_of_pi_5

Eight Raiders Raiding

The Raid

Seven District tributes

The-Hunger-Games

Six Unexpected Journeys

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Five Looping Loopers

Looper

Four Argo film crews

Argo

Three Assembled Avengers

Avengers

Two Dark Knights Rising

Rises

And a Skyfall from 00-Heaven.

Skyfall Image

That’s my musical version of presenting my top twelve films of 2012, and the reason I decided on a top twelve rather than a top ten.  Not that 2012 featured so many astounding cinema experiences that I could not pick less than twelve – originally there were ten.  But then I decided to put them into musical form, which necessitated an extra two.  Ranking them was surprisingly difficult, and the factor I used to ascertain their positions was surprise.  What surprised me, what met expectations, and what exceeded expectations were the deciding factors in deciding my favourites.

As I’ve written previously, expectation plays a large part in my engagement with a film, largely because I get involved in the hype and let it influence me – the cinematic experience is not only the time spent in the auditorium, but the anticipation that builds up through news, trailers, reviews and reactions of other viewers.  My most anticipated film of 2012 was The Dark Knight Rises, and when I saw it I was far from disappointed.  But Christopher Nolan’s EPIC CONCLUSION TO THE DARK KNIGHT LEGEND (sic) only met my expectations, it did not exceed them.  It has divided opinion, although there seem to be fewer who thought it “sucks” than those who found it “awesome”.  Similarly, while it was great to be back in Middle Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, there was an unshakeable sense of déjà vu which meant the film lacked freshness, unlike Avengers Assemble which united familiar figures in a new situation.  Skyfall also divided opinion, as many thought it was superb but there were (apparently) instances of people walking out, which is baffling to me.  I probably had a prejudice about Skyfall because it is a Bond film, and there is only so much I expect from the series.  Happily, Skyfall gave me so much more than its franchise led me to expect, working as a great film in its own right.

When it comes to ascertaining what makes a film good, different people have different standards.  For many, a crucial factor is character consistency and/or sympathy.  For others, flashy action and special effects are important.  Ultimately, there will never be universal agreement on what constitutes high cinematic quality, there will always be differences of opinion, and thank goodness for that because it would be very dull if we all liked and disliked the same things.

Fundamentally, I want high technical quality, such as detailed production design (Prometheus), expressive cinematography (Life of Pi), effective editing (Avengers Assemble, Argo) and direction that pulls all these elements together (The Dark Knight Rises).  I also want conviction to subject, as few things frustrate me more than a film that raises a topic and then abandons it (The Iron Lady), so a film that sticks to its guns (The Grey) and has the conviction to deliver on what it sets out to do (Killer Joe) is a good one to me.  Exploration of themes such as responsibility (Looper) and loyalty (Skyfall) also work, again so long as there is conviction throughout the filmic text.  Detailed fictional worlds, especially science fiction (The Hunger Games) and fantasy (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) work very well on me, and I like something visceral that draws me into the diegetic world and to make me feel what’s going on (The Raid).  The films on this list gave me what I wanted, and the best gave me more than I expected.

I often ask people to explain their opinions and their explanations indicate the standards which they use for assessment.  My standards probably seem strange and idiosyncratic, but they enable me to organise the list below.

 

Top Films of 2012

1. Skyfall

Classic features meet contemporary panache in the year’s most surprising and satisfying film.  Nobody did it better.

2. The Dark Knight Rises

An operatic conclusion to an epic saga.  Sublime technical features express weighty themes in a compelling story.

3. Avengers Assemble

A marvellous assembly of sparkling characters, high stakes, wit, brio and inventive action.

4. Argo

A superb combination of satire, history, political commentary and nerve-shredding suspense.

5. Looper

An atmospheric crime thriller that uses its time travel premise to effectively explore issues of responsibility and culpability.

6. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

A warm yet thrilling return to Middle Earth.

7. The Hunger Games

A grim vision of the future with powerful comments on voyeuristic pleasure.

8. The Raid

The most intense action movie in years.

9. Life of Pi

Beautiful, spiritual and metafictional glory.

10. Killer Joe

A jet black comedy which displays fearless conviction to its macabre tale.

11. The Grey

An enthralling, existential tale of survival.

12. Prometheus

Questions of faith and science collide with suspense and shocks.

 

Honourable mentions

The Muppets

A delightfully affectionate reboot of reinvigorated old favourites.

The Woman in Black

A genuinely chilling ghost story.

War Horse

Slightly undercut by its episodic structure but still an emotional journey with moments of real power.

The Descendants

A humorous and touching tale of a family struggling to cope with loss and betrayal, with great use of its Hawaiian backdrop.

The Cabin in the Woods

Smart, funny and scary meta-snuff film about why horror movies happen.

 

Turkeys of the Year

1. The Iron Lady

A mess of under-developed ideas that squanders every opportunity for compelling drama.

2. Safe House

A potentially gripping thriller undone by distracting cinematography.