Punch Drunk Love: The Criterion Collection

 ★★★★☆ 

Ostensibly a romantic comedy, but Punch Drunk Love is quite unlike any you have seen before. Strictly speaking, it could even scrape in as a musical in the way it employs music to drive the narrative. Just don’t go looking for any show-tunes.

It stars Adam Sandler as…

Hold on, don’t go! Granted, the idea that “it stars Adam Sandler” will be enough to put some people off. His brand of comedy, certainly since Punch Drunk Love, aims for the cheapest laughs at any cost to his credibility. Even if you like his stuff, he’s not the kind of actor you would expect to see in a serious role. Or at least in a role with serious intentions.

This is his Truman Show or his Lost In Translation, but like Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction, he seems content for this (and maybe Spanglish) to be his only notable attempt to demonstrate more dramatic clout. That’s not fair on Ferrell though because his brand of comedy is good enough that he can still pack out a cinema. Sandler’s unlikable, arrogant shtick is just bad taste.

That’s a terrible shame because he is superb in Punch Drunk Love. The role plays on and against the formula he had created for himself by 2002; that of the loner given to explosive rage. It’s a tender, layered and generous performance, one which makes you understand how intelligent an artist he really is. Perhaps he simply needs to let go of his own ego, play nice with a brilliant cast of actors and trust a director as he clearly did here. As a result, he is the unlikely anchor in a delightful, innovative film. A very likeable performance of an unlikeable man, who seems to just want to be left alone. You find yourself rooting for him not to be. So, let’s try that again.

Punch Drunk Love stars Adam Sandler as Barry Egan, a neurotic, rather lonely oddball who sells novelty toilet plungers for a living. He has seven sisters, who all lovingly torment him, and he’s the sort of guy that buys cheap chocolate pudding in bulk to collect air-miles. Not that he has anywhere to go. His chances of romance are slim-to-none, but a chance meeting with Lena (Emily Watson) changes that. She seems a bit off-centre herself and sees something in Barry she likes. If he can trust himself to be honest with her, maybe he’ll have a shot at real happiness and be content. He just needs to deal with the sex-line operator (Philip Seymour Hoffman) trying to extort cash first.

If the Coen Brothers remade Taxi Driver as a musical with a stutter, maybe we’d get something close to Punch Drunk Love. In truth though this is uniquely Paul Thomas Anderson’s film and only he could make it. It’s possibly his most honest film, as close to his own sensibilities as we are likely to see. All of his films have been brilliant in a different way; Punch Drunk Love is perhaps closest in sensibility to the unusually obtuse The Master and the likeable musically-inclined Magnolia.

It must be stressed, Punch Drunk Love is not a musical. Neither is Magnolia, except it does use music more openly. Paul Thomas Anderson understands the intrinsic rhythm of narrative and sometimes explores that literally. In this case, when Barry is at his most neurotic, the editing is harsh, the narrative driven by chaos and watching the film can be likely trying to listen to a radio with a poor signal, intentionally of course. Barry doesn’t quite fit like he himself is out of tune. But he finds quiet solace in an abandoned Harmonium and when he can get a tune out of it, the diegetic world seems to fall into order around it and him. A similar thing happens when he relaxes around Lena. Scenes like this are at odds with the more unpredictable comedy of when he randomly bursts into tears or kicks in three windows at his sisters.

So, definitely not a musical then. Or at least an Eric Morecambe one with all the right notes not necessarily in the right order. But it embraces a sensibility that responds in that same awkward way a traditional show musical will burst into a perfectly rehearsed song and dance number. Strictly speaking, every musical you have ever seen is breaking logical rules of narrative and paying little attention to making actual sense. Punch Drunk Love seems to be a response to this. Not critically so, but just highlighting the contradictions by making them work outside of an audience who would usually accept them.

It’s a strange film, brazen in contrivance. The opening scene has Barry alone witnessing an astonishing car accident. As he recoils in shock, a van screeches to a halt, dumps the Harmonium and roars off. He speaks with no-one and then grabs the instrument and scurries off with it! Neither event is given any further explanation, but in just a few seconds we get a sense of his character and he now possesses the thing that will help the story unfold.

The more obvious and traditional innovation of the film is in the mise en scene exploiting naturalism. Barry’s world is rather bland and normal, but he is dressed throughout in a strikingly blue suit. Several throwaway lines of dialogue tell us this is unusual. Clearly, it is for our benefit. He inhabits almost every scene and scant regard is paid to highlighting anything else. He even visits Hawaii in one sequence and despite a street carnival taking place, all we see is him yelling down a phone in one of his frequent outbursts! Scenes are often also broken up with video art by Jeremy Blake. Dream-like and colourful, their inclusion is eccentric, but relates to Barry’s character, just as everything does. Meanwhile, Jon Brion provides a score just as eccentric and organic. Even a truck’s brakes in one brief sequence form part of the soundtrack. He and Anderson worked closely on this film as they did with Magnolia, Brion even providing the strange Harmonium instrument, on which some of Sandler’s scenes were improvised.

Emily Watson and the much missed Philip Seymour Hoffman provide fantastic support for Sandler and round out a colourful, vibrant film. Strange though it may seem, Sandler works with them brilliantly and owns the film overall. He can be hilarious and sad as awkward Barry and yet in his relationship with Watson, uplifting and genuine. He brings scenes to life that might otherwise be too odd for their own good (buying chocolate pudding for example). Someone should make him watch his performance again.

All of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work is brilliant in different ways. This is more loose, surreal and scattershot than usual, but also it is his most intimate film. Perhaps there is more than a little bit of the notoriously reserved director in Barry Egan, so it’s worth investing in more than once. If it matches your own rhythm, it is a unique and special experience.

VIDEO

The clever photography by Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) appears disarmingly and intentionally routine. Adam Sandler’s suit stands out all the more for it. The film somehow seems older than 2002 in some ways. The natural lighting and contrast is soft, but where it really shines is in the surreal moments of Jeremy Blake’s video art and almost literally so in the brief, blue lens flares. While not an extraordinary transfer, it stands out against previous editions.

AUDIO

This is a brilliant DTS-HD Master Audio track. You appreciate a film like this in the quieter moments because that’s when you get the range of subtlety in the unusual score.

EXTRAS

This is an unusual release from Criterion. It lacks the tenacity you find in their typical extra features and there is a sense that cast and crew are largely absent; there aren’t even contributions from film historians, so there is little insight into one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s most intriguing films. The same can be said of Adam Sandler. In their finest releases, Criterion can be seen as curator’s of the release, but here the film remains an enigma.

Deleted Scenes (7m) – Two rather inconsequential scenes; one of Barry receiving more calls from his sisters, extending a gag in the film. Another is an alternative version of him paying off Philip Seymour Hoffman’s thugs.

Mattress Man Commercial (1m) – Almost counts as another deleted scene with Philip Seymour Hoffman advertising mattresses (the cover for his phone sex scam). Brief, but very funny prat-fall.

Blossoms and Blood (12m) – A short film version of the main feature and even more raw. It’s a curiosity, though little more. Time and narrative take a backseat to the indistinct imagery.

Scopitones (6m) – A collection of sequences featuring Jon Brion’s score and Jeremy Blake’s artwork. A scopitone were a sort of music video in the 1960s, so this is intended as a jukebox of sorts.

Jon Brion (27m/10m) – An interview at last with some insight into this unusual film, and from one of the most important people. Composer Jon Brion’s score drives the strange narrative and he explains how well it was integrated. Also, some of the work was done before the film, to which Paul Thomas Anderson edited it and Brion wrote some of the score after hearing what Adam was playing naturally on the Harmonium. Also, includes 10 minutes of recording session behind the scenes footage.

Jeremy Blake (20m) – A conversation between Michael Connor and Lia Gangitano about the late Jeremy Blake and his abstract art that peppers the film. Includes additional art for the film.

Cannes Film Festival, 2002 Studio Interviews (7m) and Press Conference (28m) – Interviews from Cannes in 2002 with cast and crew. Perhaps it is ironic that such an impenetrable film should include old interviews, that themselves are inconsequential and messy. Press Conference (28m)

The Pudding Guy (5m) – One plotline features Barry buying a ridiculous amount of puddings because there was a loophole in a frequent flyer miles offer. This was based on a real person, David Phillips, and this was an interview NBC did with him.

Trailers

Originally published on The Digital Fix: http://film.thedigitalfix.com/content/id/79398/punch-drunk-love-the-criterion-collection.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

Arrival

Arrival

 ★★★★★ 

Sometimes art can be important. Sometimes it can be special. Be it by timing or construction, it can have a powerful, lasting effect for the right reasons. In both timing and in construction, Arrival is one such example.

Arrival is the best kind of science fiction, a poorly served film genre when you consider the number of releases classed as such. Most are actually action or fantasy and those that need to use science fiction to drive the narrative are few. Arrival has a distinct theory -in this case, one of time and language- and distills it into a very human, relatable drama; the feel of the unfamiliar, the alien imagery, accentuates that drama through tense wonder. It makes you think outside of the world it presents and into our own through understated naturalism, which makes the ominous sight of those ships even more indelible. It makes you even think about why you like movies at all.

Certainly, when any film achieves a sense of cohesion beyond itself, such as this one does, it perhaps earns even more respect. Not that Denis Villeneuve’s film isn’t the only brilliant film released this year, of course, it might not even be the best, but it works so beautifully, so succinctly. And it’s sci-fi! Aliens, for goodness sake!

There are easy wins for a story line this. Big scary spaceships, aliens that may or may not be a threat, a woman in a man’s world. Arrival pulls every obvious punch. The commitment to character and theme is so absolute, it’s almost perverse. And better than the sum of its parts.

Those who know the potential of science fiction, and who may have read the short novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang on which Arrival is based, or know of Kurt Vonnegut’s theories that echo within it, won’t be surprised by Arrival’s premise or execution. Anyone who knows little about the film except that it features aliens, first contact and nervous military, might be pleasantly surprised to hear that it doesn’t tread an obvious path. The reality of Arrival meets somewhere in the middle and it has a generosity of optimism that can be appreciated by everyone.

First and foremost, it’s a drama centred on isolated Dr Louise Banks played by Amy Adams. We see her haunted by memories of her daughter’s short life; it’s no spoiler to say that the first intention of the film is to break your heart within minutes. Don’t be concerned, it has designs on fixing it too.

If there is a flaw to be criticised it is only that this structure might feel closed or contrived, but I mention that only to condemn it. All fiction is contrived to some degree and has to start somewhere; and it should be forgiven, encouraged even, when it is to an intention that the result is so even-handed, obfuscating the ingenious construction. It should be congratulated that it doesn’t exploit sentimentality, nor is it burdened by exposition or an agenda.

Louise has a routine, teaching languages, a routine that is quickly disturbed in a narrative sense by the actual arrival of 12 mysterious spaceships, hovering over key points of the earth. Are they a threat? Think of the smooth black obelisks in 2001: A Space Odyssey causing a reaction without actual action. They simply impassively hang there. Intentions veiled.

Humans being reactionary, fearful and jealous, the real threat is in how we respond. And so Forrest Whittaker’s Colonel Weber approaches Louise to translate the first clumsy attempts to talk to the visitors in the ship floating over Montana. But it’s impossible and she needs to be there herself. Soon she finds herself heading up the team charged with learning how to communicate with the visitors. She works alongside Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who similarly leads the science team.

From there the simple structure of the film involves Louise and Ian’s various visits to the mysterious craft to talk with the two squid-like aliens, nicknamed Abbott and Costello. It’s slow going and fascinating viewing as both sides tease their languages into something that can shared. The tension comes from the pressure applied by governments around the world and their primitive, fear-fuelled thirst to understand the intentions of the aliens before everyone else. There are some attempts to work together, but China in particular start to mobilise troops, piling the pressure on Louise who is pushing to unlock the key to their language and maintain peace.

This is where the narrative is so clever, embracing the film’s concept entirely. Linear would be predictable, but neither is it so cheap as to signpost intentions. Meanwhile, the 12 ships around the world are cold and black, moving rarely. They could have been MacGuffins, as Hitchcock would consider them. The film’s visual identity is centred around those ships; quiet, muted, a masterpiece of CGI because it’s the sort you don’t notice and compliments Bradford Young’s photography, notable for use of natural light. Clouds gathering and rolling like smoke are as memorable as anything Roland Emmerich could throw at us in a more predictable invasion movie.

The spell is completed by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s mesmerising score. Playful, haunting, it is key to delivering the tone. Where the spell could easily be broken is in realising the creatures themselves. You might even wish they’d resist showing them at all, but again they are just one more element of the film designed to respect all others. They are awe-inspiring, but also not jarring. And with no visible face they physically embody the film’s fascinating central concept about the unwieldy structure of language and the notion of time.

Their circular sense of language starts to affect Louise. Time becomes indistinct and unreliable as memories of her daughter bleed into the present. The sound and editing throughout is superb, presenting the same sense of confusion, while the witty dialogue keeps it anchored. Eric Heisserer’s intelligent screenplay is a perfect adaptation of the short story, retaining the theories, plot and language while emphasising Louise’s more intimately private story.

The terrific characterisation gives Ian and Louise personality without exaggeration. They don’t change as such. They are just normal people dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Amy Adams performance is simply breathtaking, almost shouldering the film entirely and there is barely a scene without her. Her influence through her work is intended to be global, but the lonely dreamlike memories of life with her daughter give the film a crucial melancholy we can all recognise, softening the intensity. Something important to hold onto while things become weird. But she couldn’t have quite pulled off the effect without Jeremy Renner. It would be easy to take his spiky, cheerful delivery for granted. Kind of the point though and he is an excellent character actor for support. If we think of his high profile roles in the Marvel movies, etc, this is his thing and he does it very well.

In the end, this is Denis Villeneuve’s film. His identity and style consummately marshal all the individual pieces together. It’s impressive work and intriguing how closely it can be compared with Sicario. Just the same, yet so different, he could deservedly be called an auteur if he keeps this up. Where Sicario was uncomfortably grim, almost perversely so, Arrival reverses it into a slow burn tension with an undercurrent of hope that is as strongly felt as the unrelenting doom in his Mexican drug cartel drama. If he’s allowed to pursue the Blade Runner sequel with the same freedom, we will be in for a rare treat.

Reviews shouldn’t really be dated, but in this case, it’s important. Arrival was released in the same week that Donald Trump won the 2016 US Presidential election. It is not fair to dismiss all of his support as bigoted and ignorant, but it is a matter of fact that ignorance and bigotry greased his wheels. The same can be said of Brexit in the UK, and Europe’s far-right smell blood in France and Germany. More than ever we need to look out for one another and work together.

Arrival reminds us of our true potential and understands the power of language across cultures to avoid willfully committing to a disaster. Let’s hope that the film’s inspirational message spreads outside the cinema.

I was not prepared for the purity of Arrival’s intentions, both transcending the pettiness of, and yet embracing humanity. It is just the kind of science fiction film I wanted to see cinema produce. It’s a modern retelling of The Day The Earth Stood Still in the style Jeff Nichols’ underrated Take Shelter, which similarly avoided what could have been a pious, perhaps even arrogant message. Instead, it’s gently sophisticated and intelligently reserved.

Originally published on The Digital Fix: http://film.thedigitalfix.com/content/id/79396/arrival.html

Why We Should Indulge Quentin Tarantino

The release of a Quentin Tarantino film always follows the same routine. Hype, great reviews and then following release, the backlash. The Hateful Eight appears to be no exception, with soap opera drama of leaked scripts and cancelled productions. Only with Tarantino should the production be part of the plot!

The criticism is always along the same lines: too long, too violent, too indulgent, rips off everyone else. But is the casual criticism founded? The comments come from both those who like and dislike his films; “I hated it because…” vs “I loved it, but…”.

What you see is what you get with Tarantino. Complaining his films are too long or that he’s self-indulgent is like saying you enjoy the winter and then saying it’s too cold. All his films take their time and are laden with influences.

Reservoir Dogs is a reasonable length, as is Kill Bill or Death Proof. But consider that Reservoir Dogs is possibly part of the Pulp Fiction universe, hence the Vega character link and Kill Bill was merely part of a four-hour opus, as was Death Proof, it starts to become clear that Tarantino likes to wallow.

I enjoy his indulgent nature. I know if I’m going to see a Tarantino film chances are I’ll be there a while, but then I’ve always enjoyed narrative more than anything else; to see the director as the hidden voice, the story teller. Accept Tarantino’s method and those three hours for The Hateful Eight fly by without much of anything happening, particularly if you try not to assume anything about what is going on and just let it unfold.

Some directors plot films like they’re telling you a knock-knock joke, straight to the point. Others, more like a limerick with a dash of poetry. A romantic analogy, but Tarantino is like a guy at a campfire telling ghost stories, or an old man in a pub who knows everything that happened in the town for the last fifty years and likes to playfully tease those that bother to listen.

He is also like Spielberg or Hitchcock, or even Orson Welles, though he takes a lot longer than any of them to tell a yarn. He shares their thirsty nostalgic love for cinema and makes the films he would want to watch himself. To be one of the audience. And like a lot of this generation’s filmmakers he draws on what he’s seen before, but that’s not to be dismissed as talentless ripping off, especially not when done with the skill and brio he brings to it. Martin Scorcese made a documentary some years ago (A Personal Journey with Martin Scorcese Through American Movies, which is brilliant by the way) where he spoke of the director as a smuggler, demonstrating that motifs and sequences have been reused repeatedly since cinema began.

Quentin Tarantino is one of cinema’s most brilliant modern storytellers because while he boasts his influences a little more than he should, the films are still original. In Reservoir Dogs there are at least three plot lines nested together in a terrific piece of audacious writing. Pulp Fiction is just as fresh now, the perfect example of how his brand of procrastination can work. Only Death Proof tries my patience as it does with many people, but what he attempted should be congratulated; a modern twist on Psycho, proving that what Hitchcock achieved was extraordinary: Kill the central character halfway through, yet keep hold of the audience. It was the second bit Tarantino couldn’t quite grasp.

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Since Inglourious Basterds, he has shifted into a more character based and confident style. A style that exaggerates Hitchcock’s theory of suspense: that the drama is not in the bomb exploding, but in waiting for it to explode. A Tarantino movie is now typically people nattering while the tension builds and focuses to a point of cathartic, extreme violence. While some yearn for his leaner Dogs days, maybe this is the film-maker he always wanted to be.

So why is Tarantino so indulgent? Why can’t his films quite escape his shadow? Or should they? It’s worth considering him in relation to Sergio Leone and Once Upon A Time in The West in particular. He isn’t shy about any of his influences, but that one he positively shouts about, right down to Ennio Morricone creating original music for him. I can’t blame him as I think OUATITW might be the pinnacle of cinema as an artform pre-1970. I’m not dismissing the subsequent 50-ish years of film, but our modern view of cinema was formed in the 70s with the birth of the blockbuster and the rise of independents. It’s hard for us young(ish) film-nerds to put film history into context, avoiding nostalgia and revision. For the purposes of the example, we need to look at where Tarantino came from, which is Leone’s era.

Leone’s sprawling Western is the perfect marriage of Hollywood escapism and European restraint. From its earliest days Hollywood churned out movies in the mould of Romantic Realism (as Mark Cousins would call it); we recognise the worlds and situations the films present, but realise they aren’t necessarily real or of our time. The Italians, artistically speaking, responded to this sentimentality with neo-realism in the 1940s. Bicycle Thieves, Il Posto, etc., were fictional, but set in real places and acted by regular people often playing themselves. Camera style and editing were almost documentary-like. Neo-Realism then developed further with Pasolini’s Mamma Roma. It contains a couple of mistakes, but Pasolini left them in because… well, they happened. This led into Fellini’s , a fascinating journey through the brain of a director. We see his dreams, his fantasies, his reality, all the while he is trying to make an actual movie, partly the one we’re watching. A bridge between the artist and the audience had been created.

Genius it may be, but is not an easy watch. That’s the job of the Western to at least start with an intention to entertain, and so we reach Sergio Leone and his spaghetti. If we take it for granted that he has been brought up in a neo-realist world, but loving Hollywood, what kind of film is OUATITW?

It’s long, indulgent and operatic, but importantly the indulgence comes from not trying to hide that it is a film, the basic ‘rules’ of which Leone ignores. He tells his story with exuberance as if he himself was relating it. In The Good, The Bad and The Ugly we have the famous Ecstasy of Gold sequence, a perfect example of taking a simple moment and making it huge. Same with the opening gunfight in OUATITW. I wonder if people came out of the cinema saying, “fantastic! But a bit long. That Leone bloke and his ego, etc”.

A typical movie today might be more fun if just occasionally it would acknowledge that the audience is in on the joke. Consider the Bond franchise vs their inspiration, North By Northwest, a film fundamentally better because Hitchcock embraces the absurdity. Deadpool represents an opportunity to play with narrative again and break that trend, an opportunity that will more than likely be squandered.

Unlike Clint Eastwood who learned from and ultimately rejected Leone’s style, Tarantino embraces it. He does so, I would argue, naturally, not as a mimic, indulging where Romantic Realism couldn’t. It’s his stage, his sandpit and his play-pen. He interrupts The Hateful Eight with narration, so the narrative is literally embodied by the director, happy to remind us he’s part of the fun. Just as you would remember details about the camp-fire and the old man trying to scare you with shadows, so you remember his story.

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One has to be careful defending Tarantino’s excesses because we end up only considering him in isolation. The development of realism is just one thread in cinema’s rich tapestry and can be mirrored across the world, for instance, Japanese cinema. Tarantino certainly isn’t the only one who can employ that history. In 2015 Alejandro González Iñárritu won the Best Picture Academy Award for Birdman, a love letter to that arguably manages to be more entertaining than Fellini’s masterpiece. He has a chance of taking the same award this year for The Revenant, tackling Tarantino’s current favoured genre and stealing his thunder. He does all this quietly, without hype.

Tarantino is frustrating because he can be selfish and petulant. Jackie Brown was superb, but its relative misunderstood failure at the box office led Tarantino to say he’ll never adapt someone else’s work again, so he can’t take a direct hit to his ego. And while he can pull together as good a soundtrack as anyone, on the flip-side, this is only because he can’t work with a composer. Ennio Morricone did segments of original music for The Hateful Eight, but only segments. Then there’s the usual noise around sequels and prequels and uncut versions (will we ever get Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair?) or the rubbish about retiring. Perhaps he simply needs to shut up and let his work speak for itself.

Put his ego aside (if you can, it’s got some weight to it) and separate his films from his personality and there’s nothing else quite like anything in his oeuvre; all are brazenly violent, entertaining and artistically credible in equal measure. You might baulk at the running times (Kubrick covered the evolution of mankind in less time than an average Tarantino flick), but peek under the surface and question if it really could be shorter. You’ll find a rarely matched standard of screenplay and mise en scene from a master film-maker who simply loves movies as much as the rest of us.

Solo Affect: The Narrative of Star Wars

The following article contains huge spoilers regarding Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

One of J J Abrams’ strengths as a director is that he is a superb mimic. Super 8 was a Spielberg film in all but name and The Force Awakens predictably apes George Lucas who was taking his inspiration from Akira Kurosawa (the 70s Lucas. The 90s Lucas took his inspiration from money and yes-men while hiding in an ivory tower/ranch). Thanks to using actual Kodak film, cinematographer Dan Mindel has even added grain to the new film giving it an old fashioned soft-focus. If a bit more frantic in the telling, the plot line is very much a retread of the elements in A New Hope. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it really isn’t because the new film feels like an old friend. It’s phenomenal entertainment, fresh and exciting.

The few defendants of the much -and rightly- maligned prequels argue that there is no difference between them and the original trilogy. Actually, nostalgic grown-up fanboys like me are wearing rose-tinted spectacles, shocked that their favourite movies were made for children. And not especially well-made at that. Forgive me being ungracious to someone else’s opinion, but that’s rubbish. The original trilogy was glorious and occasionally ground-breaking cinema embraced by those of all ages thanks to a timeless charm. The prequels were simply dreadful, ill-intentioned and cynical. Maybe they’d have had a chance though if Han Solo or an appropriate avatar had turned up to sell us the new films.

A typical Star Wars narrative is a thing of measured elegance. All the design and work appears to be in pre-production, allowing the plot to unfold easily. Great swathes of exposition are delivered in the swish of a lightsaber, while hiding that it’s all made up, sometimes on the spot; read The Making of The Empire Strikes Back about the various drafts and you’re left with the impression that Darth Vader was sat on a park bench picking petals: “I am Luke’s dad… no, I’m not… yes, I am…”. That’s part of the magic. It’s all rather neat and everyone thinks that was the plan when the only real constant demanded is a focus on character. The Force Awakens has been written by J J Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan with that same focus. Take a sideways look at the structure of all the films (ignoring the prequels) and if you’re going to include Han Solo this far in, his fate is inevitable. Not some superficial fan-baiting spoiler moment, but an organic development.

In the original trilogy Han Solo was one of the characters that set it apart, but why is he so important? It’s simple really. He’s there to tell us how unimportant everything is. When we meet him in A New Hope he has no intricate back-story nor any commitments, except to Chewbacca and that iconic piece of junk, the Millenium Falcon. More importantly, he doesn’t believe in the story. The Force? It’s all mumbo-jumbo. Nor does he care about the Rebellion. He’s pushing the other characters and plot to be accountable and does it with charm. It’s doubly effective because Harrison Ford felt the same way; still, does if you read any of the current interviews! (In another stroke of serendipity Alec Guinness also felt lost and disillusioned in the twilight of his career by having to play the lost and disillusioned Ben Kenobi).

If Episode IV were a calm, flowing river, Solo and Chewie would fly the Falcon like a kid lobbing stones from the shore. Han is utterly unpredictable, which gives the otherwise straightforward plot an edge, one that was desperately missed in Episodes I to III. No-one could have got away with saying “midichlorians” to Han Solo and expect him to have kept a straight face. Han’s sarcastic eye-rolling sense of humour continually disrupts the narrative. In The Empire Strikes Back they have to literally freeze him to shut him up! In the first series of 24, Jack Baur’s wife developed amnesia for a couple of hours, a trick to pace the real story. Same in TESB, but carbonite is much more fun.

Han is back to causing chaos in The Return of the Jedi, but to full advantage of the team; the saga can only conclude when he completely conforms. General Solo, indeed: Fully paid-up member of the Resistance and prospective brother-in-law to Luke Skywalker himself while lending his pirate ship to become part of the fleet. Star Wars has always been about family and accepting Han and Chewie in is one of the saga’s arcs.

But surely now that the literal narrative smuggler is dealt with the Empire can finally win? Hold on… there’s a teddy bear with a rock! The Ewoks take over the unpredictable role in RotJ when Han becomes soft. And yes, I did just defend the Ewoks. Admittedly perhaps Han’s shift in tone and giving his day job to a bunch of muppets was why the trilogy’s third wheel isn’t as fondly remembered. I remember it very fondly, but certainly, it’s rather more routine compared with The Empire Strikes Back.

So 32 years later, where is Han now? Back to being a smuggler, back to what he knows he is good at, but while he is briefly Solo (snigger) he cannot deny his responsibilities as once he did. There is a lovely conceit in the new film that the Jedi are a long-forgotten myth. It’s left to Han Solo of all people to admit to Rey and Finn that the legend is real. This is huge. He’s selling the mumbo-jumbo while filling Ben Kenobi’s shoes too.

Alec Guinness was playing an important trope in A New Hope, that of the mysterious old man (Ben Kenobi) leading the naive hero to their destiny. Unfortunately, it’s usually one-way (as well as Ben, see also Gandalf’s “you will not pass!” in The Fellowship of the Ring). Breaking the hearts of millions of fans, J J Abrams has given that heavy responsibility to Han Solo and without magical/Force powers to resurrect him, I think we have seen the last of the rogue. Harrison Ford plays Han Solo as perfectly as ever this last time. The banter with Chewie never misses a beat and there’s a weight to the characters that can’t be faked. Yet narratively speaking, his departure isn’t going to leave a hole.

Finn played by John Boyega is the closest fit. He plays a Stormtrooper that decides he’s had enough and only rescues Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) because he needs a pilot for the Tie Fighter he’s stealing. Sound like anyone we know? He spends the rest of the film wise-cracking, trying to find a way out and save his own skin. His only concession is a need to help Rey (Daisy Ridley).

And what of the feisty Rey? While the marvellous Daisy Ridley is clearly the equivalent of Mark Hamill, playing the young Skywalker of The Force Awakens, she is also far more independent and capable for herself than Luke’s farm-boy. And as well as having Force powers, she can fly the Falcon so Chewie still has his partner.

Keep a close eye on Finn and Rey in the next episodes. They’re likely to form a very tough duo. Han Solo can rest in deserved peace and Luke Skywalker has room to become something else. I worry about C3PO and R2D2 though…

There is a lesson in Star Wars for any screenwriter: When the plot is done, put Han Solo in it. Well not the actual Han Solo, granted, but turn one of the characters into an argumentative scoundrel who doesn’t agree with you or your silly story. Let him mix things up a bit. Preferably he should have a dog. And an awesome spaceship.

First published on The Digital Fix: http://film.thedigitalfix.com/content/id/78832/solo-affect-the-narrative-of-star-wars.html

Sicario

sicario

 ★★★★★ 

Sicario is a tough film. So tough, even the title is hard to pronounce. Mexican for “hitman”, but that would have been an obvious moniker. Like much of the film, it feigns a lack of sophistication; yet the last thing it wants is to make things easy. This is not cinema as entertainment. It’s brutal, raw and punishing. Cruel, even.

The opening scene sets the pattern. An FBI team raid a suspected drug den and find more than they bargained for. Bodies in the wall, then more bodies, and a bomb goes off just for good measure. Kate Macy (Emily Blunt) is exhausted and battered and we haven’t even got to the real story yet.

Kate feels like she’s achieving little. The raid was just one more in the war on drugs, a war she suspects they might be losing. Matt (Josh Brolin) thinks different. He has the power to take the fight into Mexico with extreme prejudice and gives Kate the chance to join him and his team of Delta Special Forces. Along for the ride is mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro).

Laws are being broken and the team are very cavalier about it; Kate is way out of her depth. Alejandro proves himself to be brutally efficient, but his motivation and affiliation are unknown. Kate’s sense of duty is being pushed by a desire to make a difference. Surely there’s a way to do it by the book?

All attempts to find out are rebuffed. Brilliantly, the narrative makes the most of the thin plot by putting the viewer in exactly the same position as Kate and the tension is palpable.

Denis Villeneuve is like the love child of David Fincher and Kathryn Bigelow. The opening scene is not unlike Se7en, albeit with better lighting and the same sense that the audience is being pushed already. And the guts of the film are a match for the over-rated Zero Dark Thirty, a plot that lost tension the longer it went on. This is gripping from the start and gradually tightens until the draining conclusion. It makes his previous film, the superb Prisoners, seem positively sentimental by comparison.

To put it in perspective, there is just one scene that feels relaxed. Kate lets her hair down, literally. Dialogue becomes lighter and you may even smile. “Oh, so you think this is funny?”, the film seems to say. That needs a response and it is the tipping point for her and us into something worse. And to add insult to injury, it was always going to go that way. Sicario laughs at you, not the other way around.

It’s mean, but it takes its time. The measured direction gives way to occasional violence, none more affecting than the journey into Juárez. Apparently, the mayor has complained about the way his city is depicted, and it’s understandable. It’s portrayed as a true hell-hole, not even metaphorically. Bodies hang from underpasses like a grim warning to visitors, sporadic gunfire goes on throughout the night. Roger Deakins is on typical form as cinematographer. Sicario looks fantastic, cool and muted. Fairly static throughout, but look out for the dry horizons of Mexico and Arizona. There is a stand-out night vision sequence in the last act too.

It is utterly committed to Taylor Sheridan’s raw screenplay. He worked on TV show Sons of Anarchy, also known for its stark brutality which tells you a lot about the approach here if you know that series. And the cast is without fault. It bears a resemblance to Traffic, though it’s more effective through simplicity and focus. Star of both, Del Toro simmers throughout, looking not unlike a deadly Brad Pitt. But the film belongs to Emily, ironically the least Blunt thing in the film (sorry); she brings a humanity and warmth to the grim proceedings. Vulnerable and tough in equal measure, right through to the powerful finale, hers is a performance that should be a front-runner come Awards season.

Sicario is magnificent adult action cinema with a bitter agenda. The trailer might have suggested it would fill the noticeable gap left by the Jack Ryan movies, but it’s far more cynical. Not something to be enjoyed as such, but irresistible all the same. It will leave a substantial mark.

Published previously on The Digital Fix: http://film.thedigitalfix.com/content/id/78642/sicario.html

Beyond the Lights

Beyond the Lights

Beyond the Lights is the story of Noni, a hot new award-winning artist who is primed for superstardom. But not all is what it seems, and the pressures cause Noni to nearly fall apart – until she meets Kaz Nicol, a promising young cop and aspiring politician who’s been assigned to her detail. Drawn to each other, Noni and Kaz fall fast and hard, despite the protests of those around them to put their career ambitions ahead of their romance.

Yet another behemoth series of The X-Factor is about to lumber into view and perhaps it’s a lofty expectation for a small film, but it would be nice to imagine that this effortlessly watchable movie could help dispel some of the myths surrounding supposedly easy fame. Beyond the Lights follows Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a genuinely talented singer who is on the brink of super-stardom. Her aggressive mother-cum-manager (formidable Minnie Driver) is pushing Noni into a world she doesn’t really want. In desperation, the exhausted girl finds herself dangling from a balcony, eager to end her very public life, but police officer Kaz (Nate Parker) saves her and they both find something they need in one another and a chance to determine their own fates. Level-headed Kaz is struggling with a parent’s expectations too; his father (Danny Glover) imagines a life of politics for him.

A good-natured companion piece to The BodyguardBeyond the Lights is a low-key drama told in broad strokes. It can be both predictable and sentimental, neither of which are criticisms. On the contrary, a well-told fantasy can only embrace that predictability otherwise risks coming off as false. And barely a single-note of this melodic romance doesn’t ring true. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s screenplay is deftly written, bereft of cliché, with emotional dialogue that betrays an intelligence, one that considers race, relationships and the cynicism of the music industry, yet it plays out as a dreamy-eyed, almost naive, reflective take on Romeo and Juliet, complete with the rather different balcony scene and featuring two youngsters being pulled in opposite directions by their families.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is wonderful as the troubled Noni. Her layered and honest performance is all the more remarkable for her not being a professional singer. They searched for a vocalist, who could act, but the focus on performance won out and you wouldn’t know the difference anyway. Listen out for “Grateful”, the Academy Award nominated original song by Diane Warren, and Nina Simone’s Blackbird, a key-stone of the narrative, is a goosebump moment to round out her character beautifully. The original intention was that Noni would be American, but finding Gugu meant that she could be British, giving the film a global feel and isolating her even more. And the London scenes are excellent. So often, US-centric films feel like they rush their foreign locations or worse, dip into stereotypes. Not so here. It simply feels like a British drama, then an American one. The trick to it’s success appears to be Gina Prince-Bythewood’s generous focus on the characters, regardless of where they are. Never showy, never in awe, her measured pacing and bright compositions complement the restrained tone and keeps the sentimentality at bay.

That the British angle was almost an after-thought is interesting considering the casting of Minnie Driver. Hers is a fiercely determined and complex role that may have lost some relevance had it been an all-American family. Well, at least lost to British viewers! Almost the villain of the tale, Driver still demands sympathy. Her performance is that of a single-mother seeing a way to give her daughter a better life.

It’s hard to be cynical about this breezy, wonderful drama with such believable characters you can immediately identify with, yet take a cynical side-long glance and you might find a problem with the story in that Noni has the privilege of already being a famous success; her first album is due for release following singles and awards. She might feel trapped, but what about the thousands of other talented unknown artists determined not to sell their souls? But that is precisely the very well-handled point and it comes to bear on Driver. This is a world where only image and media is important at the cost of personality and integrity, and it’s Noni’s mother that must bear the responsibility for losing sight of what is important.

Kaz, played by Nate Parker, is the key to getting Noni to believe in herself again, but a relationship with a raunchy pop-princess is just not going to work while he is being groomed for a life in politics. Over the course of the film, Kaz chips away, sometimes unwittingly, at Noni’s false exterior culminating in a sublime moment where the real her is revealed. Meanwhile, Noni shows Kaz a world he could only dream of.

Nate is a convincingly solid, rock-like presence and the chemistry between him and Gugu is the stuff you just can’t write (as proved by the dreadful Fifty Shades of Grey). You’re willing them to succeed. He’s convincing and measured, gently pushing back on his ambitious father, Danny Glover’s police captain. Softer than the ruthless Minnie Driver, yet still exudes a weight pulling on Kaz. It’s cheap to link Glover with Lethal Weapon again, he’s better than that, but I did have to smile when Kaz tells him that he loved the stories in his youth that made his dad seem like a superman. He must have seen the films too!

The only duff note in the cast is real-life rapper Colson “MGK” Baker, as the record label’s public partner for Noni, both as a duet and a tabloid couple. An essential element of the narrative, but he represents the only point where both writing and performance fall short. I know you’re supposed to think he’s a misogynistic idiot, but when it’s clear the director already thinks that, there’s a problem with convincing us he’s a genuine character like the rest of the cast. Late in the film, a stage performance is particularly awkward. Heavily sexualised, clearly a commentary on the state of pop videos, but still, it’s a hard sell and one of… no, actually, the only point at which the spell was broken, especially as it results with Kaz running onto the stage. This felt like an impossible moment, given the setting. The film has its fair share of sentimentality, but only here does it jar, giving into the fantasy of the thing. Still, letting the film have its real boo-hiss villain works over-all. Baker is the only one without a good intention.

That’s a brief stumble and there’s otherwise a reassuring unassuming quality to Beyond the Lights. Even if the credibility is occasionally stretched, it is to a single purpose. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s experience shows and whether it’s her wily direction or just serendipity, the relationship between the characters feels substantial and real. Nate and Gugu work so well together there’s a sense that they might exist beyond the film and surely that is the test of any such performance.

The sad fact is you’ve likely never heard of this film. I hadn’t until it was championed by The Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin who had found it simply didn’t have a UK release despite the strong British angle to the story. The lack of confidence in even a limited release appears to be because several cast members are black, an awful reason nonetheless supported by a bemused Gina Prince-Bythewood who has faced resistance to the film from the beginning because of casting. It’s not the only film affected (although comedies do better than drama; make of that what you will) and it’s depressing to think that such ignorance plays a part in distribution.

Beyond the Lights is available on DVD and streaming services where I managed to track it down. Take a moment to do the same. It is an optimistic and beautifully played film, anchored by Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s incredible lead performance and it deserves far more attention.

Originally published for The Digital Fix: http://film.thedigitalfix.com/content/id/78591/beyond-the-lights.html

Legend

Legend

 

 

 

 

 

 

 ★★★★☆ 

A chance to bring the British gangster film back to its tough roots, Legend is magnificent. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in it’s own right is fantastic, but its success skewed people’s perception of what the British gangster film should be. And it stands as the modern era’s example against which all others should be judged. Legend instead takes it’s lead from solid classics like The Long Good Friday, while adding a dash of comedy charm. It proves it can be the best of both worlds.

Director and writer Brian Helgeland has form in crime and thrillers. In Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential he fashioned James Ellroy’s book into a screenplay that paid tribute to the glory days of American Noir while being one of the finest examples of the genre itself. While Legend is more baggy (a common problem to biographical films) it is a similar success; a modern take on old fashioned style.

The structure of Legend revolves around the narration of Reggie Kray’s wife, Francis (Emily Browning). In itself that is a clever conceit, giving sentiment and humanity a strong voice in the Kray’s world. The myth is that they looked after their own, family came first, that they only extorted those who deserved it, etc. Actually that’s rubbish of course; they were criminals, plain and simple. The film recognises both sides and allows us to be in turns charmed and horrified, just like Francis. We get in close without having to sympathise with the brothers. This is a film about their relationship to Francis, rather than the idea their mother was the real power (as suggested by 1990’s The Krays with Billie Whitelaw and the Kemp brothers).

Despite the responsibility, Browning has a difficult role as Emily and pulls it off brilliantly. She represents a timid innocence to be exploited by Reggie, despite his best intentions. She is both tied to and in sharp relief to the ferocious Tom Hardy who is yet to give a poor performance. And it’s buy-one-get-one-free this time! We finally have someone able to stand up to the shadow of Bob Hoskins (The Long Good Friday) and Michael Caine (Get Carter). He finds the fierce intelligence in Ronnie and the real monster in the charming Reggie. It’ll be Ronnie you’re more likely to remember though. The dialogue is rich throughout, but he gets the best lines and will disarm you with a mere stare.

There is solid support in the rest of the cast, especially from the coppers. With Christopher Eccleston as Nipper, the Detective doggedly hunting the Krays, they never feel like idiotic stereotypes. Even when the brother’s are running rings around the Government and it would be easy to make the establishment a laughing stock, there is humour, but not absolutely at their expense, somewhat helped by Kevin McNally as Harold Wilson in a brief role. Taron Egerton also deserves a mention, building on his confident lead in Kingsman, seen here as Ronnie’s homosexual sidekick.

There are no gimmicks in Helgeland’s direction. There was ample opportunity to pull a Scorcese, with flashy editing to match the soundtrack, but instead he lets the cast take the lead in a convincing and bright 1960s London setting. Not to say he’s lazy, far from it; it’s a shrewd triumph of understatement and classical film-making. The joins between Hardy’s two roles, even when they fight each other, are invisible. The violence isn’t over the top either. It is neither ignored nor glamourised, even in the most horrific moments.

Ultimately Legend is a fascinating study of the notorious brothers, their relationship to each other and, through Francis, to the normal everyday world -our world- that would be forever enamoured by a pair of lunatic murderers. That it never excuses their actions is to its credit.

Empire Strikes Back: Secret Cinema 2015

 ★★★★★ 

SCESB01

We were on a tube train in Central London, minding our own business when curiosity got the better of the young kid of about five wearing a Storm Trooper t-shirt.

“Is that real?”, he inquired of the lightsaber hanging from my wife’s belt, only partially hidden by her Jedi robes. Of course it was real, she assured him, though a demonstration regrettably wasn’t possible. Nevertheless he excitedly ran to tell his even younger brother that she was going to “chop his arm off”! I decided to keep my laser blaster safely wrapped in it’s Co-Op bag. Surely the key to being a successful mercenary is picking your fights and brandishing heavy artillery (even the plastic stuff) at Londoners would be frowned upon. It’s alright for Jedi; their lightsabers are such elegant weapons.

In this moment we learned a couple of things. That the appeal of Star Wars is timeless and the healthy imagination of boys is still reassuringly violent, but also that there is no need to worry at all about being dressed like pillocks while travelling to Secret Cinema’s latest event. We were not the only ones. Well, we were on that particular carriage, but we had already seen a few X-Wing pilots and multiple Jedi striding around the Underground. Luckily, no Imperial troops though, considering we needed to keep a low profile…

Upon reaching the meeting point and led by desperate, shouty Rebel commanders onto our transports that promised escape for the Rebellion, two more points became clear; you’re only going to feel like a pillock if you don’t dress as the obscure communications suggested (the embarrassment was obvious for the three ‘normally’ dressed people I saw) and this incarnation of Secret Cinema is so huge, it defies comprehension.

I thought I’d seen it all before. A few years ago I attempted to “escape to the off-world colonies” (Blade Runner) and while it was great fun, it was a fraction of the size of this endeavour, which cleverly feels like several distinctly different and sizeable locations. Blade Runner was also only a fraction of the cost, a fact widely reported. It seems to me £78 is reasonable, in-line with previous screenings considering this one is huge (although I didn’t go to the Back To The Future event). For a Princess or a pirate, it’s a big chunk of change which ever way you cut it, even before travel costs and pricey on-site refreshments, but if you can afford it, I can’t see how you can consider being robbed. You’d pay similar for a concert lasting a couple of hours and Secret Cinema create a five-hour plus illusion, the memories of which will last a lifetime. Anyway, it was my birthday. I don’t smoke, nor drink to excess, so sod it. If I’m going to start a mid-life crisis by confirming my uber-geek status, this is the best way to do it!

It would be great to spill the beans about exactly what goes on, but that would really spoil the spirit of the thing, so I’m keeping spoilers to a minimum. You’re so much better embracing it fully and if you’re a Star Wars fan you owe yourself this experience. You’ll absolutely love it. One important tip if you do go for it, read the mysterious emails fully. Log into the chat rooms they direct you too a couple of times at least. Take the various obscure items they suggest. And dress up. Like a pillock, maybe, but dress up like your scummy Rebel life depended on it. Geeks are fashionable now, anyway!

Your life is not your own as you go through the entrance, your phone sealed in a silver packet away from signal, Twitter, Facebook and other loved ones. You’ll soon forget about it anyway although it’s a damn shame photography has to be denied, albeit understandably. That selfie with Boba Fett is going to have to wait.

The first major area you get to is a wretched hive of scum and villainy. (Actually that’s not true, they turned out to be lovely people). There are real market traders where you can buy food, trinkets and t-shirts, while being bothered by Jawas. Keep your eyes peeled for familiar characters while drinking in the Cantina, but what happens exactly is up to you. Suffice to say, it’s like a live-action Skyrim! Wander around as much as you like, but tease the actors a little and you’ll discover tasks that pull you into the story. You won’t be stuck on that dust-ball for long and your jaw will drop more than once throughout the evening.

The actors are superb. They never break character, seemingly regardless of how cheeky you are, so interact with them as much as you can, because those guys absolutely make the experience, working very hard to guide and tease you through the various features throughout the evening until you reach the actual screening. You might have forgotten by that point, but there is the little matter of the film to watch. Even if I wanted to tell you how the staged segment of the evening prior to watching the movie is brought to a close, I don’t think I know how. It’s an exhilarating, glorious, goosebumpy “how are they doing this?!” kind of moment. The approving roar from the crowd was deafening.

A welcome surprise was that the screening was relatively comfortable. Bladerunner certainly wasn’t, so I’d been anxious about two hours stuck on a cheap seat. I mean, you shouldn’t expect much, considering the secret location certainly isn’t exactly the Odeon, but still we were able to relax. And of course, 30+ years on, The Empire Strikes Back is still phenomenal. Any of you who have been to a Secret Cinema screening before will know there are occasional surprises during the film and they are brilliantly done again. The Force is strong with this one and the few poor reviews I’ve seen are not justified.

We set off for home, exhilarated and exhausted in equal measure, riding waves of nostalgia for the most beloved film trilogy of all (what prequels?). The Secret Cinema team know their films and more importantly, their audience. The Empire Strikes Back is a gob-smacking achievement, staged for those of us that love Star Wars by people who might love it just a bit more.

It says something that on that tube ride home I’d almost forgotten the clothes we were wearing and certainly no longer cared what anyone thought. I only noticed my laser blaster, slung across my shoulder, hadn’t been put back in it’s Co-Op bag until we got to a KFC and I absent-mindedly put it on the table next to me. That might explain why they didn’t charge us…

The Rebellion continues through September. Go join while you still can. “With you, RebelX”.

Selma

 ★★★★☆ 

SELMA - 2014 FILM STILL - Background left to right: Tessa Thompson as Diane Nash, Omar Dorsey as James Orange, Colman Domingo as Ralph Abernathy, David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr., Andr¾© Holland as Andrew Young, Corey Reynolds as Rev. C.T. Vivian, and Lorraine Toussaint as Amelia Boynton - Photo Credit: Atsushi Nishijima   © MMXIV Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

 

The acclaimed film Selma tells the gripping and moving true story of the pivotal moment in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s epic civil rights struggle – the 1965 protest march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama to secure voting rights for African Americans. Starring British actor David Oyelowo (The Butler, A Most Violent Year) as Martin Luther King Jr. Alongside Tom Wilkinson Carmen Ejogo Tim Roth and Oprah Winfrey the 2015 release of Selma celebrates the 50th anniversary of the passing of the voting rights act and this triumphant story of the power of the people.

Selma is an incredible achievement and among the many things you could praise it for, it perhaps works best as the bio-pic of Martin Luther King Jr. that we still haven’t had. I’ve always maintained that the best way to understand someone is to tell their story through one key event, not trying to encompass everything.

Selma only covers a few months towards the end of Dr. King’s 13 years working for civil rights and we find a man uneasy with his success, his statesman-like reputation, and how it reflects on the those he supports. He is aware of his potential fate and the strain that puts on his family; his wife Cloretta (Carmen Ejogo making the most of a limited role) speaks of death as a fog that surrounds them. While the film does not include his assassination, the knowledge that Dr. King pays that price adds an air of melancholy despite the glorious success of his achievement that started on the Edmund Pettus bridge. David Oyelowo’s under-stated performance is superb, convincing as both the calm leader everyone relies on and the human being, struggling to understand if he is doing the right thing. He lifts every scene he is in, even when the film occasionally stumbles and lacks focus in the first half (particularly the awkward tone of wire-tapping sub-titles).

There was much talk of Selma being snubbed by the Academy Awards. With just two nominations and one win (Original Song for Common and John Legend’s Glory) there was a notable lack of coverage for what seemed like an obvious choice. Reviews were almost all full of praise and it did have an air of importance, the sort suspicious cynics would have you unfairly believe is Oscar-bait. The Academy’s omission was certainly curious in any case, but in truth, Selma does have some minor flaws that take the wind out of its sails. Overall it lacks the consistency and, more importantly, the spark that made 12 Years a Slave distinctively special.

That’s understandable because it’s heart rightfully belongs on the historic Edmund Pettus bridge and until we’re on it, narratively speaking, Selma lacks focus, rushing to get to the march. It is far more complicated a story than that of persecution over race represented by good guys and bad guys. Set in 1964, America was becoming more self-aware of it’s shameful history and progress had been made in Civil Rights, just not very quickly where voting is concerned. Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson embodies America’s personality in a smartly judged role, trying to balance a past he is both ashamed of and sympathetic to, with an inevitable future that he at least believes in. In other words, of course black Americans should be able to vote without fear of discrimination and violence, but… well, it is Alabama, so maybe next year? A delay cannot be afforded though and the bridge comes to represent an emotional and Constitutional crossing as well as a physical one. It must be crossed now and the battle to do so is that of one in an on-going war. That’s exactly what it was, of course and the tension before the attempted crossing is palpable. The march itself is a powerful realisation of the struggle, though in-between the catalyst to action for both sides is some horrific violence that will make you wince.

It’s hard to comprehend that Martin Luther King Jr. had made such huge strides in a relatively short space of time, yet we can’t celebrate his legacy as purely historical. Recent events show that hate and ignorance continue, 50 years on from that historic crossing. Perhaps we’ll know true diversity has been properly recognised in art at least when a film such as this can be snubbed by an award ceremony because, despite it’s brilliance, it simply doesn’t quite measure up to other nominees. Instead, in 2015, there is still a niggling feeling of sinister motives. That isn’t fair on anyone, least of all this powerful film and those who made it.

Jaws

 ★★★★★ 

jaws

Jurassic World‘s cinema release in 2015 marks just over 20 years since Steven Spielberg re-wrote the monster movie with the original Jurassic Park, but it’s a full 40 since he changed cinema forever with the incredible Jaws. And it’s looking like a teenager. The current Blu-Ray release is stunning quality and it’s striking how fresh the film still is; it’s still one of the best of that kind of film and likely to remain so for some time.

But what kind of film is it exactly? Obviously horror and bearing more than a passing resemblance to Hitchcock’s The Birds, yet also an event film. Along with Superman and Star Wars, Jaws ushered in the era of the original ‘blockbuster’. Some would argue that’s a bad thing, but while these films did open up the ruthlessly commercial side of cinema more than ever before, with a noisy focus on franchise and merchandise rather than art, it was a long time coming and these early films were made with the best of intentions and bucket loads of talent.

The first theatrical film for Spielberg (his debut Duel was made for TV) Jaws is arguably still his best film, full of invention in every frame and a superb, ambitious screenplay. It’s particularly astonishing to watch the editing (with Verna Fields) and compositions, the way the simplest of exchanges are injected with energy. Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) would always ensure there was movement in every scene he composed, often simply with weather in the background. As well as famous shots such as the three-step zoom on the beach, Spielberg achieves a similar ambition, yet it never feels gratuitous. Although some of his later work can be over-engineered, the mise en scene of Jaws is perfectly measured. The camera roams when it needs to roam, and lingers when it should linger. And of course John Williams’ score provides the rhythm. Often imitated, it’s only when you see the film again you can really appreciate just how brilliant that theme is. It creeps into the back of your brain ratcheting up the tension.

It’s exhilarating stuff and every time I see Jaws there is something new, but on this last occasion I was paying more attention to the screenplay and considering the popular critical idea that it isn’t about a shark at all. It’s about divorce. Bit random, I know! There’s definitely a very large shark in the film and it does seem to have grabbed everyone’s attention. Then again there should be a reason for the creature.

The best movie monsters represent a single character’s more mundane real-world demon (or a country’s, with Japan’s fear of nuclear armageddon represented by Godzilla). In this case it’s Roy Schneider’s police chief and while there is nothing explicit about a difficult relationship with his wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary) -on the contrary, they seem happy- there is a melancholy bubbling to the surface. Read between the lines and this is a marriage being worked at. Chief Brody’s family are new to the town and it is inferred they moved from New York to a more idyllic lifestyle, escaping a violent job. Ironic that Brody finds in Amity a more singular deadly risk yet he is determined to deal with it despite his aversion to water and boats. That determination becomes all-consuming, almost as if he needs the distraction.

The film is fairly neatly split into two halves: ‘Not On The Boat’ and ‘On The Boat’. When Brody eventually steps aboard The Orca with Oceanologist and shark-expert Matt (Richard Dreyfuss, in fine form) and gnarly old shark-hunter Quint (the intimidating Robert Shaw), the brief emotional scene with Ellen suggests an amicable trial separation. If he fails to kill off his shark-shaped demon he won’t be coming home.

It is to Spielberg’s credit that he could translate the various and shifting tones in Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb’s screenplay (based on Benchley’s own novel) into a narrative at once affecting and thrilling. For all his enthusiasm to skilfully scare the crap out of us with horrific moments, including the opening attack on a skinny-dipper or a young boy taken in a shower of blood in front of a crowded beach, the composition of the quieter scenes have as strong an effect. Note the moment at dinner where Brody’s youngest son mimics his pre-occupied dad; or on the boat comparing scars, where Brody keeps potentially the best one quiet, before Quint tells the haunting story of the USS Indianapolis. This is already a thriller of the highest quality and that shark is still yet to be seen properly.

The magnificent beast was created by Bob Mattey and is a mile-stone achievement in animatronic effects. Well, when it worked! Spielberg himself has admitted that he probably made a better film because of the problems with Bruce (the affectionate nickname for the shark, apparently inspired by Spielberg’s lawyer) limiting his plans and it makes you wonder how much higher standards could be now if filmmakers hadn’t a CGI safety net to rely on. As it is the brief glimpses of the shark are deeply unsettling, especially when you see the size of him compared to The Orca. And when he finally makes his full entrance? Just keep telling yourself, he’s 40 years old and made of fibre-glass! It won’t work though.

The shark is all the more powerful an image for the false sense of security built up by Bill Butler’s gorgeous cinematography. From snappy hand-held work to the wonderful and serene skylines, the film looks gorgeous throughout. One of those rare movies where you could pause at any moment and you’ll probably get an image worth framing. Visually the film’s a masterpiece, with or without the shark. That’s where so many pretenders fall short; focusing too much on the monster, putting everything else in service to its appearance. Alien is another example of building the characters and sets so well that the creature has that much more power when it finally does strike because it is as real a place as possible that is being attacked.

Forty years on Jaws still retains considerable power. It is as thrilling and at times as scary as anything else in the genre. The fear of sharks may be misappropriated, but it’s still a primal dread that will never dissipate, if only because audiences want to be scared that much.