Monday, 22 December 2014

... And Everything Nice: Part Two

Say something nice, or nothing at all. This piece continues the review of 2014 releases begun here. The films covered here include Mockingjay, Cannes favourite Force Majeure, and the duelling Oscar bait biopics, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything.

Notes: Spoilers abound, large and small. (Accordingly, some references border on cryptic.) I clearly don’t apply too strict a notion of what “2014” is. Even to other Antipodeans, several of the below will look like 2013 and 2012 releases. Finally, the positivity constraint need not apply to any who comment on this article.

The Best Offer (Giuseppe Tornatore) – It’s a strange alternative universe of wealth, classical elegance, and ubiquitous art that Tornatore and his collaborators build as the setting for this modern noir thriller. Another of 2014’s great acousmetres lies at the heart of the film’s mystery, and unlike the other two (Her, The Lunchbox), the unveiling of the source of the voice of Claire Ibbetson (Sylvia Hoeks) is critical to the story. From a voice on the phone, to one on the other side of a door, to a visual presence whose lips finally speak, few character introductions were as carefully attenuated in recent film as this one.

Many relate how moved they were by Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso. (A film I saw for the first time within a week of seeing this one.) For me this tale of a proud man's humbling was far more moving. Largely this comes down to the role as written and the work of Geoffrey Rush, but the performance has sway in part because of the strength of the audio-visual work around it. A brief example. There’s a scene early on where Virgil (Geoffrey Rush) luxuriates in a hidden vault with his life's work – portraits of women by many artists, in many styles, gathered illegitimately by virtue of his position as a valuer. As Tornatore’s camera takes in the wall of beauties, Ennio Morricone’s score offers us not so much a piece of music as a space where female soli of different styles float through, carrying parts of a long line melody. Virgil’s blindspot in relation to women, and his need for genuine contact in this regard, have been unmistakeably communicated by the scene’s end, without a word uttered. (The subsequent cut to the many young men who staff his office serves to underline the point.)

A Hijacking (Tobias Lindholm) – Much as I appreciate Captain Phillips, this film succeeds by being everything Phillips was not. If the Greengrass film is about the timeframe of crisis that mobilises all players, this is about the slower war of attrition that is likely involved when the United States doesn’t take an active interest. There is no Pax Americana to force a climax. Corporate executives, consultants and a translator (employed by pirates) trade gesture and counter-gesture without direct communication. There is no pulse-racing ship-seizing setpiece. The inciting incident of piracy happens offscreen. The effortless crosscutting that instantly communicates scene geography and stakes in Greengrass's film is gone. Instead, we’re often stuck on one side of a phone call, deprived of a clear sense of the circumstances of what is happening in the other story branch. Violence is rare, and comes without tense foreplay or catharsis. But the realist feel Lindholm cultivates is much stricter than Greengrass’s more classical approach, so when the violence does come, its implications are more keenly felt.

Force Majeure (Ruben Ostlund) – While few would describe the film as a comedy, the chuckles of embarrassment that circulated my cinema spoke to the way people identified with Tomas’s reduced stature as cowardly father. The rift that forms between Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and children over a failure of valour lowers the man to a moment of emotional honesty so embarrassing one can only laugh. The satire is broader than the role of the father – few figures escape unscathed, and it's not exactly gentle ribbing at that.

The film is immaculate in its direction. Ostlund crafts some truly uncomfortable frames for his characters to squirm in. He applies a clear visual strategy that speaks to the story - from their first grinning moments in posed family portraits, the family is pushed apart to separate focal planes and separate frames. (Only Tomas’ meltdown brings them together again.) Much like the daily cycle suffered by Roy Scheider in All that Jazz, the repeated instrusions of avalanche guns and snatches of Vivaldi each new day brings add a dash of malicious humour. And I love the landing where Tomas and Ebba argue in their pyjamas, in plain sight of hotel cleaners – effective use of place. What possibly elevates the film as a dissection of marriage over Gone Girl is the added pressure brought by the presence of children, the absence of pulpy signifiers, and most important of all, Ebba is a human being, rather than a psychopath.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her (Ned Benson) – The idea, of splitting a drama between two films, is certainly interesting. (Not having seen them both, I can’t say whether the whole makes more sense than this half.) One thing you can say for this film is its invested in its characters and milieu (university town America), to the point where the characters find the time to talk about the minutiae of life. Jessica Chastain is the heart of this one as the title suggests, McEvoy a more tangential presence. The supporting players are nothing if not distinguished (Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt, Viola Davis, among others).

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen) – It will seem a small thing, but the transitional rhythms of this film lingered in my memory. One in particular: the sermon of a slave owner (Benedict Cumberpatch) interwoven visually and aurally with the abuses of his farm manager (Paul Dano) and the percussion of seed sowing. It’s a passage that’s indicative of the film. The vision is not without its adornments. For all the praise of realism (and the long, unfolding wide shots certainly bring that neutral observer feel during some key abuses), I couldn’t help but feel the extent to which McQueen and his team nudged the material towards dark fairy tale, or even horror story. You could be taken in the night, have your identity stolen and toil ceaselessly as a slave without hope of escape. That cacophonously percussive steamboat is a passageway to another world. (The frequency with which reviews emphasized its metaphorical import is telling.) The long shot on Solomon’s face as he leaves the plantation is a nice stylistic answer to that earlier scene. 

(What’s also interesting is how forward the filmmakers were about the structural shift in the editing process from linear-chronological to a loose flashback/storyteller structure.)

The Infinite Man (Hugh Sullivan) – Not the first film this year to fuse science fiction and love (Her, I Origins and The One I Love also come to mind). The opening montage is full of potential, hinting at threads and motifs both perplexing and inviting. The location – an abandoned hotel in a desert, near an ocean – is appropriately cast for a romantic-comedic Last Year at Marienbad. The premise (a man, through science, tries to recreate the perfect weekend), and the first narrative reset (of many), are thought-provoking.

The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum) – Like many biopics, this one utilises a detective structure (and even a detective) to find its way into the life of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberpatch). He’s an enigma, but fear not, the film will decode him in time. The condensed arena in which that decoding is achieved is worth noting – we don’t even meet the parents that are normally a staple of this genre.

Two recurring features of this screenplay (as filmed) I appreciated. Despite the stakes, and the sense of tragedy they want to build by the end, scene after scene are advanced through comic beats. Turing, written and played as Asperghers, is a machine comic, always under-emoting or fixating to humourous effect.

The second feature is the layering of the film’s theme of coded communication through all the story branches and relationships. A code like Enigma could fall to Turing, but he forever struggles with the social codes those are around him are fluent in. The theme extends to include both the power and powerlessness that come with understanding a code.

A few more decorative observations. The time period switches aren’t signposted, yet always apprent. At times I wish they’d allowed some other aspects of the material (such as the all important birth of the computer, or one particular oft-repeated line of dialogue) to speak for themselves. (But I forget myself – that wasn’t entirely nice.) And Alexandre Desplat is incisive as ever, his delicately orchestrated reserved arpeggios and ostinati seemingly made for terrain like this.

Theory of Everything (James Marsh) – A tribute to filmmaking’s ongoing commitment to the Noah’s Ark principle (two of everything, even biopics of pivotal British intellectuals), this is a more sentimentally uplifting experience than Imitation Game. If that film was a detective story, this is a love story, following the gravitational pull two bodies (Steven and Jane Hawking, played by Edie Redmayne and Felicity Jones respectively) continue to have on each other many years after first flirting with each other’s orbits.

The theme of the awkward, essential marriage is never far away in this film, whether it be the marriage of Steven (ever the teaser, ever flexible in his assumptions) and Jane (sensitive and constant), of science and faith, or quantum mechanics and relativity (those peas and potatoes). The filmmakers should be commended for slipping in more than a few references to Hawking’s area of expertise. Was the intercutting of the camping trip with the opera melodramatic hokum, or an ingenious demonstration of the ‘spin’ proposition of quantum mechanics on a level more easily understood? I also appreciated the closing nod to Hawking’s oft-employed thought experiment of reversing time, applied here to the narrative universe. (Appropriate to Hawking’s theory, the endpoint is not the inciting incident, but the point of no return, since his Big Bang was preceded by a Big Crunch.)

More decorative thoughts. Redmayne’s gormless smile is hard to resist, as is Jones’ patience and vulnerability. Johan Johannson’s score finds ways to fall in empathetically behind the characters – in particular during the croquet game, and the melodrama of their third child’s christening. The imagery of Steven and Jane struggling with domestic life has a more real air than Imitation Game’s mise-en-scene (and I’m not just talking about the faux home video material that bridges narrative movements), although perhaps that’s quibbling over shades of classicism. (The film softens the experience of Lou Gehrig’s disease if only by cutting out the boring bits.)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (Francis Lawrence) – It was brave of the filmmakers to retain the highly subjective point of view of the book. (It must have been tempting to violate it.) This series also shines over all other comers in its genre in the strength of its casting, with Julianne Moore a worthy addition here. Many have concentrated on the fact that the source material shouldn’t have been cut in half, and the film doesn’t entirely prove them wrong, but the filmmakers have done a nice job of creating a new climax through intercutting of the commando assault with the dialogue between Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence). After so singular a narrative point of view, the parallel cutting here instantly introduces tension. Lawrence has a good sense of shaping an image system to a film – note the realignment towards symmetrical framing in the final shots as gesture of completion. (The same tactic closed the equally unresolved Catching Fire.)

Many of the tale’s commendable features come from the underlying novel, but they’ve made it to the screen well. The rebellion of District 13 is more complicated than the usual jingoistic freedom movements that pop up in these tales (e.g. everything from Total Recall to Braveheart). This is closer to Borges’ ‘Theme of the Traitor and the Hero’.  That the seemingly superficial terrain of celebrity culture continues to be the proving ground for success, now that Katniss is not only far from the Games, but removed from the authority of Panem, is supremely ironic. Few films foreground the ironies of acting and performance credibility as much as this series, best summed up in a scene where a number of deconstruct Katniss’s performance in studio-based propaganda videos. It’s nice to see ‘The Hanging Tree’ musical number made it. It’s one of the film’s highlights.

How I Live Now (Kevin McDonald) – The title is the last line of the film’s voiceover. It marks the end of what proves to be a momentous character journey. There are shades of Peter Watkins’ scenario in The War Game here, war positioned in the wings of a young American’s coming of age narrative. (Cate Shortland’s film Lore comes to mind also.) As played by Saoirse Ronan, Daisy’s indignant, insistent, self-loathing and fearful, qualities that have all convincingly been softened by tale’s end.

I appreciated the symmetry between the first act and the closing movement. We start with a young woman, with all the confusions the beauty and health industries can impact, coaxed out of prickly reticence by the eldest of her cousins. We end with position reversal, she now the coaxer, trying to draw a shellshocked young man back to life. It’s a moving transition, and while Daisy is a world away from Hunger Games’ Katniss in personality, it will be interesting to see how many register the similarity of destination when that film series comes to a rest in 2015.

There’s a nice arc in use of the voices in the soundtrack: from the cacophonic voices of admonition at the opening that keep her from participating in the pastoral life of her more expansive cousins, to the mature, reflective internal voiceover with which she closes the film. The midsection – in particular that strange dinner scene – is genuinely surreal, and speaks to the believable universe the film constructs.

Part 3 of ‘Everything Nice’ follows here.

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