Wednesday, 31 December 2014

... And Everything Nice: Part Four

Say something nice, or nothing at all. This piece continues the review of 2014 releases begun here, and continued here and over here. Spoilers abound, large and small. I also clearly don’t apply too strict a notion of what “2014” is.

The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance) – Generational sagas come few and far between, so it’s refreshing to see one ably pulled off within a manageable length. See this one to witness how to pass the protagonist baton not just once but twice within the same film. The first handoff in particular stands out, as the film’s two top-billed actors share a beat of eye contact moments before one exits the narrative for good. Also worth noting is the use of the forest location to gather in the sprawling timeframe. Seemingly incidental at first, the woods gather force as the years roll on, witness to a history the characters themselves are often unaware of.

Prisoners (Dennis Villeneuve) – If transcendent horror pushes beyond fear of a monster and finds the monster within the fearful, Hugh Jackman’s arc in particular fits the bill ably. Johannes Johannssen’s score – taking Arvo Part as its starting point – is a model of how to raise the stakes of a film to the highest possible concerns, rising beyond the bumps and stings of a thriller to strengthen the film’s emphasis on the spiritual. The union of his music with Roger Deakins’ golden light in the candlelit vigil makes that sequence and the chase that follows one of the strongest in 2014 cinema. The closing beat of the film similarly leaves an impression. What a beautiful sound idea that whistle in the dark proves to be, ending the film on the cusp of a moment that – as much as we want to see, we’re better left anticipating, fearful that it might not have come to fruition. 

Room 237 (Rodney Ascher) – It’s said that the paranoid are rewarded for their faith with evidence that the world is as bad as they believe. If nothing else this film proves (via extremes) how two-sided the film-audience dialogue is. No film’s meaning is independent of the viewer, or at least not The Shining in any case. Much could be said of the fine line between evidence furnishing and parody that this film’s editing straddles. It allows us to entertain the possibility that The Shining essayists are actually onto something, while leaving the door wide open for us to laugh at the ridiculousness of their theses. (Why not have a cake and eat it?)

A personal anecdote that proved the film’s point. Interrupted late film by a phone call, I found myself explaining Heisenberg’s ‘uncertainty principle’ over the phone in response to something my interlocutor brought up. I returned to the film only to have the film conclude with an explanation of the same idea as its concluding thought. Coincidence? Surely not. Doors in the house were double-bolted that night.

The Amazing Spiderman 2: The Rise of Electro (Marc Webb) – Many criticised this film as lacking a coherent narrative centre for its charming romance to orbit. I saw a charming romantic centre around which a few marginally-coherent villains orbited. To me this was a nice change from the villain-antagonist emphasis of the superhero form, and a sensible response to the perceived strengths of its predecessor (romance strong; villain arc weak), even if it was the unintentional outcome of a haphazard process. Not that the villains are a complete waste of time. The visualisation of Electro is truly beautiful, and his first clash with Spiderman in Times Square a reminder that there is very little that can’t be rendered in today's visuals. The film is also blessed with a rare traditional superhero score by Hans Zimmer’s team, including a Vangelis-style theme for Spiderman and a bold (if not quite revolutionary – don’t tell Hans) use of vocals for Jamie Foxx’s Electro. Between this and Interstellar, Zimmer’s had a striking presence in film this year.

The film also contains one of my favourite associative edits of late – Lucy’s animals notwithstanding. The climactic struggle is situated amongst an abstract cathedral of clocks, which collapse dramatically in slow motion around the action. As a beloved character falls to their death, the stop of their falling body is echoed with the collapse of a giant clock’s minute hand. Subtle it’s not. Visual storytelling it is.

Saving Mr Banks (John Lee Hancock) – Another film people were dying to hate, and to be fair, portraying PL Travers (Emma Thompson) as The-Grinch-who-wants-to-keep-you-from-the-Poppins-you-love isn’t likely to tilt the audience towards the author. But biopics always play fast and loose with the facts, and this isn’t so much about Travers as about the idea that artworks inspire responses that often bemuse the artist. Fight as you might, once it’s out there, it will be what people make of it.

Two beats stood out for me. When the Grinch arrives in California, like all characters heading for a comic reduction, she’s full of opinions about what she can’t stand about Americans, film producers and cloying, animated musicals. Her first encounter with her antagonist, the Little Lord of Magic (Hanks’ Walt Disney) thrusts her into everything she hates, and it’s hard to suppress a smile at her suffering. The second beat is stranger, and more sympathetic to Travers. As Disney’s Elves (the Sherman Brothers) present Travers with their satirical song ‘Fidelity Fiduciary Bank’, she recalls her shame at one of her father’s (Colin Farrell) drunken outbursts. The intercutting of the song’s inception with Farrell’s public shaming is eye-catching, tying the film’s two narratives together with striking energy.

Part Five follows here.

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