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Review of the Year – Part One: Award Season

The start of the movie year is largely filled with awards contenders, and as a fan of awards I make a point of seeing as many of the nominees as I can. Kicking off 2018 for me was the film best known for a sudden recasting, as Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World featured the removal of Kevin Spacey and rapid replacement with Christopher Plummer. While the film itself is competent if uninspired, the willingness of the filmmakers, especially Scott himself, to engage with and take seriously the debates over appropriate behaviour make this film something of a landmark. And Mr Plummer did not do too badly, earning an Oscar nomination for his trouble.

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All The Money In The World did not concern the Academy members otherwise, nor indeed did one of the Best Picture nominees, The Post. Nominated for Best Picture and Best Actress (21 nominations, Meryl, really?), The Post was nonetheless a gripping, urgent and timely tale of the importance of the press as well as being a significant story of female empowerment. However, it was a rather safe film in terms of awards attention, so I was pleased to see other films honoured.

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Another safe bet, which did pick up some awards, was Darkest Hour, with Gary Oldman and a tonne of prosthetics bringing Winston Churchill to quivering yet unwavering life. I found Darkest Hour a patchy film, but there is no denying the strength of Oldman’s performance.

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Two of the nominees for Original Song I missed on their original release but caught up with later. The first of these, The Greatest Showman, proved a hollow effort that raised interesting ideas which then got lost in the seemingly heady rush to the end for, well, not much. Far more rewarding was Coco, a charming, funny and yet bittersweet tale that not only picked up the Oscar for Original Song, but also continued Pixar’s triumphs in the Animated Feature category.

I count four of the Best Picture nominees in my top films of the year, and had a tough time picking which I wanted to win. Phantom Thread may have been the most meticulously crafted film of the year: every comma of the script, every cut to a different angle, every raised eyebrow of its stellar cast as precise and perfect as Reynolds Woodcock’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) intricate creations. Meanwhile, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird reminded audiences and Academy members alike that women do make interesting films and that there are interesting stories about women (shocking!), and that Saoirse Ronan can do no wrong.

The big hitters at the award ceremonies, and two of the best films of the year, were Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and the eventual winner, The Shape of Water. I love both films, finding Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to be heartbreaking and uplifting in equal measure, with plot, character, performance, direction, editing and music held in near perfect balance. The Shape of Water is, for me, less accomplished overall, as its Cold War narrative strand feels artificially attached to the central fishy love story. However, for the Academy to reward a fantastical monster film gets a thumbs-up from me, and Guillermo Del Toro’s magnificent direction, not to mention progressive gender politics, makes the film a major winner in my view.

Ten Films for Ten Days – Day Seven

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The seventh film in my list of ten significant films used to be among my top ten, and although it has been supplanted by another from the same director, this one still holds great significance for me. In 2000 AD, when this was released theatrically, I went through some bad times in which I felt that the majority of people were against me and that an institution I believed in was going to the dogs. Therefore, Ridley Scott’s epic tale of a general who became a slave, who became a gladiator, who defied an emperor, struck a deep, resonant chord with me. I went to see Gladiator five times on its original release, that’s right, five. While I have seen other films as many or more times in the cinema, those were due to re-releases and special screenings (yes, The Dark Knight, I mean you). ‘Gladiator’ offered me hope, inspiration, catharsis and the other positive feelings that one gets from bloody hand-to-hand combat and the deep-set rot of a once noble empire.

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The talent behind Gladiator have to an extent gone off the boil. Russell Crowe was a known figure but became a star and an Oscar winner with this film, while Ridley Scott came as close to an Oscar as seems likely. Their subsequent collaborations such as American Gangster and Body of Lies failed to bottle the lightning of Gladiator. That said, it is fair to say that Joaquin Phoenix has become a more respected presence as time has gone by, not least by seeking out interesting projects from Walk The Line to The Master to You Were Never Really Here. Writer John Logan recently did us all proud with the excellent TV series Penny Dreadful, and The Martian demonstrated that Scott still has some decent work left in him (the less said about The Counsellor and Alien: Covenant, the better). But Gladiator remains undimmed in its epic grandeur, an awesome spectacle that works on a pure visceral level and has moving emotional depth. Furthermore, the film makes interesting comments about the proper uses of power and even our own violent appetites. Are you not entertained? I certainly am.

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All The Money In The World

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Ridley Scott does hollow decadence like no one else. From Blade Runner to Gladiator to Prometheus, Scott crafts opulent environments that surround empty, powerful men. All The Money In The World creates this world around the real events of 1973, when J. Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) was kidnapped for ransom from his grandfather, the wealthiest man in the history of the world. Paul Getty is played by Christopher Plummer (no relation to Charlie), who replaced Kevin Spacey at very short notice, Scott reshooting and re-editing all of Getty’s scenes in ten days. The film’s greatest achievement is that the joins do not show, as Plummer fits snugly into the role of Getty, oozing charisma and greed in equal measure. Scott and DOP Dariusz Wolski create evocative locations, often with dim yet stark lighting, both in Italy and England, the opulence echoing Scott’s earlier film Hannibal. The curiously un-unified narrative strands are reminiscent of American Gangster, which cut between career criminal and honest cop in a Goodfellas meets Serpico sort of way. Here, we cut between Paul’s imprisonment, flashbacks to Getty’s history of wealth accumulation, and the emotional heart of the film, Gail Getty (Michelle Williams) as she attempts to get the ransom money from her ex-father-in-law, talks to the kidnappers with the help of the Italian police and negotiates/struggles against Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), a fixer for Getty himself. This aspect of the film works less well, because Fletcher’s role is underwritten and unclear. What is more interesting although largely left unexplored is the relationship between Paul and one of his kidnappers, Cinquanta (Romain Duris). Their scenes have a tantalising suggestion of Stockholm Syndrome and indicate the criminal infrastructure of Italy, but we only get this in passing. A further compelling yet frustrating dimension of the film Getty’s retreat into his wealth, as he describes himself as ‘vulnerable’ and holds onto his money like a bulldog. The film does not take a didactic stance on the impossibility of buying happiness, but rather displays an elevated and somewhat incomprehensible state. Getty understands finance in a way that the non-wealthy perhaps cannot, and he serves as an intriguing enigma at the centre of this compelling exploration of hollow decadence.

Blade Runner 2049

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There is a key moment in Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner when a character learns an important truth. The moment features two figures captured in a two-shot that silhouettes their profiles against a richly textured background. This instance encapsulates the film as a whole, as every frame is saturated with meaning, craft and beauty. Set thirty years after the events of the original film, Villeneuve’s follow up is not a sequel that we needed but it is one that fans of the original deserve, as BR2049 pays homage to the original, one of the most influential science fiction films ever made, while also staking out its own territory. Villeneuve and writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green’s story of cop K (Ryan Gosling, developing his taciturn roles in Drive and Only God Forgives into something all the more eerie) searching for answers in a dystopian California builds upon the first film and explores many of the same questions about humanity and identity, what it means to be a person, what is the influence of voice, embodiment, obedience, views of self and other. Brilliantly, BR2049 takes these questions in new directions, raising issues of what constitutes procreation and the importance of digitization. Production designer Dennis Gassner and the visual effects team go beyond the huge advertisements of the first film with giant 3D projections in the Los Angeles of 2049, while interactive AI and immersive holographic environments appear throughout the film. Blade Runner 2049 therefore continues to explore the tension between what is real and what is artifice, a line that is progressively blurred and distorted. Interestingly, the film is reminiscent both of the original Blade Runner as well as more recent science fiction such as A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Her. The recurrence of these themes and tropes demonstrates the eternal recycling of concepts in science fiction, yet BR2049 never feels stale or like something we have seen before (even though, in a sense, we have). The central uncanny conceit operates on a narrative, thematic and stylistic level, and even in the very substance of the film.

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Roger Deakins is the true star here, his exquisite visuals spellbindingly beautiful while simultaneously laden with portent. Yet these images are themselves ephemeral, data that has no more physical substance than some of the characters in the film. The viewer’s reaction therefore mirrors the characters. Just as K gazes at holograms with a mixture of wonder and bitterness, so does the film invite awe tinged with scepticism. Some of this scepticism can spill over into criticism – the film’s length and languorous pace is not to all tastes, while aspects of the principal antagonist add little to the proceedings. It also sidelines exploration of its female characters in favour of male questing, which is a shame because the female characters often suggest intriguing alternatives. But overall, these are minor quibbles in a film that largely delivers on the promise of its predecessor, and will likely be analysed and debated for another thirty years.

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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!’

The Martian

Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian is one of the director’s most accomplished films in a long time. The film’s success is partly due to Scott’s stunning visual style, rendered in gorgeous visuals by DOP Dariusz Wolski, where vast desert landscapes express the terrible isolation of Mars, in sharp contrast to the supportive, enclosing environments of Earth. Credit must also be given to Drew Goddard’s witty and engaging script, Matt Damon’s roguishly charming performance as Mark Watney and Pietro Scalia’s smooth editing, all of which combine to keep the film flowing easily but informatively. Due to an accident during an evacuation, Watney is marooned on Mars and must ensure his own survival or, as he puts it, “science the shit out of this.” What follows is a hugely engaging portrayal of ingenuity and determination, as Watney uses his own waste to fertilise a potato patch, creates water from the requisite ingredients, and records multiple video diary entries as a record of his experience. Meanwhile, his NASA colleagues both on Earth and aboard the spaceship Hermes grapple with the personal guilt of leaving Watney behind and the practical difficulties of helping him stay alive. This singular goal permeates the entire film, and allows for fine humour as Watney comments on his surroundings, political tensions as NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) clashes with department heads Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), scientific and engineering problems on both Earth and Mars, and some nail-biting set pieces where physics is an inexorable antagonist but also the only means of survival. Despite these apparently disparate elements, The Martian is a bravura success, a gripping and perfectly-paced survival story filled with wit, brio and invention.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

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Exodus: Gods and Kings is an odd beast. Plagued (see what I did there?) with controversy as well as unhelpful comments by director Ridley Scott (these complex issues warrant specific discussion for another time), it arrives at the tail end of the year with little competition in terms of scale. It also comes out in a year that saw another Biblical blockbuster play fast and loose with the source material, Noah. Comparisons between the two are inevitable, as are comparisons between Exodus and Ridley Scott’s previous sword and sandal epics, Kingdom of Heaven and Gladiator. While these films have epic scale (and at times Exodus seems to openly imitate Gladiator, including almost identical lines), Exodus suffers in comparison with Scott’s Roman tale, especially for failing to deliver the same epic sweep, a problem that also troubled Kingdom of Heaven (though not Noah). However, this is also an unexpected strength of Scott’s take on the story of Moses. Rather than a grand, sweeping style that takes the viewer on an irresistible ride, Exodus offers instead a surprisingly intimate take on faith and politics.

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Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are close friends and allies, raised as brothers and both responsible for the Egyptian Empire. Moses is presented as more rational and politically savvy – talking to people rather than prejudging, reviewing financial records and consistently demonstrating critical thinking. By contrast, Ramses is impulsive, paranoid and, as the film progresses, increasingly cruel and tyrannical. The clash between these two men becomes a clash between power and justice, Moses’ pursuit for Hebrew liberation echoing with contemporary concerns over redistribution of wealth and the ruling 1%. While the film delivers grand spectacles in its depiction of the ten plagues of Egypt as well as major battle sequences, it does not overplay these elements – the inevitable parting of the Red Sea is handled in a surprising way. The film’s portrayal of faith is also ambiguous, as Moses’ encounters with God (Isaac Andrews) can be read as divine intervention but also as hallucinations. That said, while some spectacles are given rationalist explanations, others are not and can only be read as supernatural, creating a lack of confidence in the subject matter. The storytelling is sometimes loose and progression between scenes illogical and unsatisfying. These flaws do undermine the film, but it remains a dramatic and engagingly personal exploration of politics and faith in the grandest of settings.

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