Friday, 19 December 2014

... And Everything Nice

It’s often said: if you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all. This constraint would halt many a film pen, and probably my own, perhaps because the analytical temperament tends to be more incisive about acute flaws than general strengths. My enthusiasm is rarely unguarded, and my derision rarely allows room for a saving grace. If a film is good, it would have been better if only for ‘x’; if a film is bad, there was nothing good about it. (And occasionally, if a film is great, we’ll not hear a bad word said about it.)

But film is a form of many levers, many moments. It shouldn’t be too hard to find something nice to say about even the least of them. Perhaps the constraint – ‘speak well, or not at all’ – will free us up to emphasize the elements that do work. It could be as simple as a shot, a music cue, an edit, a line of dialogue, a dramatic situation or a theme. It would be an unworthy film indeed that taught us nothing at all about the form, or contained no single positive demonstration of why film continues to capture our imaginations.

We’ll start with a handful of the titles I saw in 2014. (Yes, there are more of these to come.) 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 fellow Antipodeans, several of the below will look like 2013 and 2012 releases. Finally, the positivity constraint need not apply to comments on this article. Say anything – it need not be nice, merely on topic.

Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu) – A social horror story, a tragedy of people and systems, and a convincing portrait of character change, as the nervous Voichita takes on Alina’s fearlessness. That change in character aspect is evident in much of the film’s form, not least the journey from the fretful handheld overshoulder shot that opens the film to the controlled slow zoom that closes it. The film’s realism is key to the accumulating sense of foreboding, and it’s very different to the kind of realism we’ve. And it’s an elegant realism – showcasing restricted point of view, open frames, long takes and precise deep focus staging that belies its unchoreographed feel.

The Lunchbox (Ritesh Batra) – A true city film: loneliness is the only constant, intimacy is only possible with strangers, and what little solace can be had is transient. As strong as it all is, the pleasure is in the detail. The gentle humour of manners (‘the food was too salty today’). The mental image of a man standing in his grave. The food. And 2014’s nicest use of the acousmetre character in Ila’s unseen ‘aunty’ (apologies to Spike Jonze). In the spirit of In the Mood for Love and Brief Encounter, sharing their affinity for social texture.

The Immigrant (James Gray) – It’s nice to see Todd Haynes isn’t the only modern American filmmaker interested in bringing back the melodrama. As monstrous antagonists go, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) is a fascinating, broken human. The final frame, of diverging character paths, is worthy of a mise-en-scene class.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer) – A great reworking of the graphic novel into blockbuster form, using Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as the fish out of water. More than any of its series so far, this film tapdanced in showing off the mutant powers of its characters. One of these moments was a lovely theatre moment, as a crisis allows the powers of Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to come to the fore. The appreciative noises that ripple around a cinema when an audience knows what is about to happen (yet still manage to be surprised) are great to hear. The demonstration is so effective, the film had to shuffle the character offscreen shortly after, lest his gifts circumvent all other remaining crises. Most of the other set pieces are less soloistic, each written to take optimal advantage of the impressive ensemble cast. (The opening battle, the Pentagon heist and the Paris Peace conference all come to mind.) The 'lowest point' moment, when Young Charles (James McEvoy) finds consolation in his future self (Patrick Stewart), is surprisingly moving, as is the outcome of Wolverine's quest.

Begin Again (John Carney) – A nice twist on showing the same scene twice from different points of view, managing to illustrate the difference between how most of us hear a musician, and how a music producer might. The first performance of ‘Lost Stars’, travelling through a video camera to the past, is moving. The same song, when it emerges in a new incarnation for the finale, becomes the marker of story change. Some would begrudge Carney shifting away from the realism of Once, but there’s something to be said for trying something he hadn't done before. (Arguably this film's romantic streak was anticipated in Once's nighttime walking song number.)

Non-Stop (Jaume Collet-Serra) – The premise – ‘a plane passenger will die every 20 minutes or else’ – is set up with the kind of skill that these films can’t live without. When, at the twenty-minute mark, the first passenger does die, after a close quarter fight in a toilet cubicle, it’s a surprisingly lean-forward moment.  

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel + Ethan Coen) – A film wrapped around a ghost, represented by the song ‘Fare thee Well’. The shift in character of that song from first to final appearance tells you most of what you need to know, but which the Coens are expecting you to find for yourself. As with A Serious Man, interesting things are happening with structure here. (Another nice twist on showing the same scene twice from different points of view.) The time loop adds a sense closure to an episodic narrative, a sense of inevitability to Llewyn’s final state, and generate empathy with one of recent cinema’s pricklier protagonists. Kudos for the ‘Kuleshov cat’ subway scene.

Godzilla (Gareth Evans) – The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead of monster films? While the monsters settle ancient accounts, mankind cowers confusedly in the wings. The angle is a nice idea, done well. Some of the details are striking too – the association between the ribbing of Godzilla’s spine and the shape of the film’s mushroom clouds; the allegro of the opening credits; the strangely serene climactic moment. (The latter two enormously aided by Alexandre Desplat.)

Lucy (Luc Besson) – Scarlet Johannson has played the goddess more than once lately (Her, Under the Skin). Of the lot, Lucy has the most visibly-apparent outward arc. But even the commitment she brings to the film pales next to the film’s real pleasure: 2014’s greatest associative edits. There’s not a lot of common ground between Nicholas Roeg and Luc Besson, but intercutting predatory cheetahs with Lucy’s foyer scene might have done it. I only wish the film had kept it up.

Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson) – If you find Andersonland amenable rather than irritating, you’re never short on gestures to relish. Gustave and Zero, both the characters and the characterisations (Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori and F Murray Abraham). Boy with Apple. The concerto for footsteps that ends in four severed fingers. The Society of the Crossed Keys – for which Desplat must be partly credited. Lessons in comic framing in three aspect ratios, reminding us that frame shape is more of a choice than most filmmakers make it. Lessons in instantly communicating storyframe through style choices. The conclusion’s deft closure of three of the film’s storytelling frames in half a minute is a feat of punctuation. The film’s dramatic side is just as strong. Gustave’s rage and subsequent shame after the prison break. More impressive: the elegiac endnote the filmmakers find their way to after so much tomfoolery. In this picture-book alternative Mitteleuropa, the heavy-hearted history of Europe is barely seen, but not unfelt.

Parts 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 of this series follow herehereherehere and here respectively.

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