Monthly Archives: December 2013

Love Actually – 2003

love-actually-3It’s very easy to discount Richard Curtis’s Love Actually. In fact, it can come across as a huge mess. As this diagram aptly demonstrates:


But, looking closer, you realise that this is in fact a very closely linked community. Every character is linked to at least one other by love. The variety of loving relationships shown is huge, there’s family, friendship, unrequited love and, just occasionally, a spark of ‘true love’. No single story line is more or less important, even the more light-hearted and comic stories have real emotional backing. The plotline where Thomas Sangster plays a lovestruck 12 year old desperate to win over the most popular girl at school is actually, and far more importantly, the story of him learning to love his step-father after his mother’s death. Laura Linney’s shy and inept search for romance is in fact mainly hampered by her unstoppable love for a brother in need. These understated, non-romantic relationships are some of the most tender in the film.

Technically, the film is structured as a long series of vignettes where every protagonist explores their own emotional journey. What’s truly ingenious is the way the vignettes are blended into a cohesive whole. This changes between them following certain characters as they shift between their casual and corporate situations, or by switching on a phone call. One character calls another and their vignette is over, passed onto the character they call. Also there are the transitions based around editing matches. Often a vignette will just cut abruptly to the next but the two shots will match in light, colour or composition. We’re so used to seeing jump cuts in narrative that it doesn’t feel jarring to watch. Best of all are the transitions filled out by music. At the end of a scene a piece of diegetic music will suddenly become louder in the mix only to cut and become a soundtrack of the next vignette.

Love Actually is, in a sense, a Christmas film. It’s set in the six weeks leading up to Christmas and includes such rituals as nativity plays and present shopping. Yet, unlike the majority of “Christmas films” it doesn’t extoll some cheesy Christmas message, there’s no magic of the season, there’s no elves waiting in the wings. More than anything it just tells people to love each other, which, after all is really the point of Christmas. Back at its roots Christmas is a celebration of God’s love and even in a secular context it’s entirely possible to honour that by just showing love to one another as much as possible.

In many ways Love Actually is the natural high point of Richard Curtis’s work. Writing another part for Hugh Grant to shine in, refining the intricate web of relationships and translation-based humour from Four Weddings and A Funeral (who can forget that sign language scene?) but before delving too deep into the psychology of male companionship in The Boat that Rocked and About Time. Looking at those two films, written after Love Actually, it seems like Love Actually knocked all the love stories right out of him. Probably with good reason, the final scene of Love Actually set in the arrivals gate at Heathrow shows us at least eight happy endings for the characters we know and millions of other happy endings for the characters we don’t know. In a way, ending the film there means that most of the stories shown in Love Actually are never actually shown, we just glance them in passing at the arrivals gate. It brings home the mandate that “love actually is all around” every person we see kissing or embracing has a love story of their own to tell. Every person you walk past loves or is loved by someone and their story is as valuable as every story shown in this film.

True to the spirit of Love Actually I’d like to wish every one of you a very Merry Christmas, feel it in your fingers, feel it in your toes….

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:              3/5
  • Intellectual:       3/5

The Shawshank Redemption – 1994

shawshankArguably a modern classic, The Shawshank Redemption is a bold and accomplished debut film from Frank Darabont, a director who seems to specialise in prison narratives, directing The Green Mile only five years after this film.

If ever there was a film that proves the importance of narration The Shawshank Redemption is it. These days it’s a cliché, almost a joke, to have Morgan Freeman narrate anything, but The Shawshank Redemption uses his voice as the driving force of the screenplay. It would be a very different film, perhaps even a different story if narrated by anyone else. The film relies on the gap of ignorance between the protagonist and the narrator to deliver any of its plot twists or emotional punch. In a way, the whole mystique of the film comes from a very everyday human phenomenon, the inability to know another human being. Andy Dufresne is charismatic and magnanimous towards his fellow inmates prompting Red to become fascinated, almost obsessed with him. The story, told from Dufresne’s perspective would be one-dimensional and self-congratulatory. He knows his own past, his plans and his tricks whereas Red, the observer, can only marvel at the unfolding of events. This is the experience the audience gains from Red as narrator.

The Shawshank Redemption is regularly listed as one of the best films of all time. It’s a very well-made film, the cinematography brings across the claustrophobia of prison. The choreographed dehumanisation is chillingly reminiscent of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The problem with Shawshank comes in the form of the ending, or rather, the endings. The climax of the plot occurs about 30 minutes before the credits roll and this time gets filled up with predictable sentimentality. It becomes clear that the redemption of the title is for all the inmates with Dufresne as the redeemer. As he escapes the prison and throws his arms out wide it suddenly clicks that this man, the sinless among the sinners has, in some strange way saved them. The visual metaphor is incredibly powerful and my objection comes from how it is diluted by what follows. Just at the point when the viewer has understood the true beauty of the story, and of Dufresne as a character, it starts to be hammered home.. The last section of the film drags on and on in swells of music. It seems as if Darabont was just so proud of his creations that he couldn’t bear to leave them with anything less than a happy ending. Cutting the film off just after the reveal of Dufresne’s plot would leave the inmates with hope, but no definitive light at the end of the tunnel. It’s strange that a film which extolls the virtues of hope above all else refuses to let hope be the lasting message. Fulfilment is not quite so cheerful as hope, it makes Red a lucky survivor rather than the everyman he’s been set up to be. It undermines the foundations of the narrative and makes The Shawshank Redemption shockingly self-indulgent. It’s like the disappointment you feel watching the studio cut of Blade Runner after the beauty of the director’s cut.

  • Entertainment: 3/5
  • Artistic:              3/5
  • Intellectual:       3/5

Days of Heaven – 1978

days-of-heaven-5Despite having watched most of Terrence Malick’s films more than once, I recently decided to address the glaring gap that was Days of Heaven. It’s certainly a strange experience, coming to a director’s most lauded and well-known work nearly last. Days of Heaven falls neatly into the chronology of Malick’s work. Seen through the same naïve eyes as Badlands yet addressing emotions as huge and complex as those in To the Wonder.

Malick’s narrative is sparse and allusional. While characters are going through emotional upheaval this rarely manifests itself in speech. The true emotional high points of the film are those where no one speaks at all and everything is simply implied from the actions and faces of the cast. It takes an accomplished ensemble to pull off a film like Days of Heaven. A poor actor fears silence, but Malick demands that silence reign in the on-screen relationships. Even our narrator, the young Linda (Linda Manz), is detached. The thrust of the story is not about her, she just happens to be the voice we hear telling it. This distance allows the audience to process the emotional story in their own time. Rather than wallowing in sadness Days of Heaven takes a deeply upsetting story of love loss and betrayal but chooses to render it as a series of unalterable events, as meaningless as any other. What comes through as a result is the resilience of the human spirit. The spirit of the young girl which, at the end of the film, somehow remains unbroken and capable of optimism, despite the awful series of events she has lived through.

Malick is famous for filming in the ‘golden hour’ to attain the look he prefers. While this may sound as unnecessary as celebrities who refuse to bathe in anything but mineral water, this move does actually pay off. The quality of colour which Malick captures throughout the film is ethereal and other-wordly. Quite apart from the symbolic power of the light – making the film feel disconnected from the present, without the cheap tricks of desaturation and grainy film stock -it is simply beautiful to watch. The sky, the wheat, the whole countryside that Malick portrays seems richer and more beautiful than any real grain field. The cinematography is bold and extraordinary for it’s time. Malick used almost entirely natural light to achieve the authentic visuals, shocking hollywood and his production team. There is a tension between artistry and immediacy that makes the film haunting and beautiful at the same time.

Days of Heaven truly is a tour de force, the themes and feelings echo throughout Malick’s work, but Days of Heaven is perhaps the point where artistry and accessibility met most perfectly.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:              5/5
  • Intellectual:       4/5

Jules et Jim – 1962

Jules et Jim 2Widely regarded as one of Truffaut’s seminal works Jules et Jim tells the story of a love triangle spanning almost an entire lifetime. Truffaut wastes no time about being revolutionary, the very first frames of the film assault the viewer with short cuts and a racing voiceover. A friendship between the titular characters is built up from nothing into a believable bond that the viewer invests in during about 30 seconds of film. Truffaut doesn’t allow the viewer to rest during the film, the soundtrack is forceful and loud, full of eerie discords. In some sequences the film seems to portray some heightened reality, freezing and zooming in on what is important as if seen through the minds of the characters.

Unfortunately it seems that there has been a historical opinion that this film shows three people who are in love and their joint relationship. I dispute that entirely. Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) are best friends who share everything, even going so far as courting the same woman until she makes a choice. This is proven early in the film when they come across the absent-minded Thérèse (Marie Dubois) who can’t even tell the two men apart yet ends up sleeping with one of them nonetheless. The character of Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) is yet another example of this airheaded female archetype that the two men share an appreciation of. Both Jules and Jim blithely superimpose their ideal woman onto Catherine. Their ideal is a fragment of statue they once saw, by mixing the ideas of the two Catherine is given a legendary importance, akin to an ancient culture. She is thoroughly undeserving of such a comparison but Catherine is all too happy to accept their attention. Over the decades that follow she will abuse them, hurt them and reject them in her desperate search for attention but they still follow her with idiotic loyalty. I suppose that their foibles are to be forgiven, after all, they are in love.

What is much more extraordinary is the robust nature of their friendship. Catherine tries with all her might to elicit jealousy from either one or to turn the two against each other, but it is all to no avail. She comes close, effectively exiling Jim from their life. It’s extraordinary that these men allow a woman to come between their friendship at all, a friendship that wasn’t damaged from fighting on opposite sides of a war. Truffaut’s omniscient narrator seems to mock these two who allow Catherine’s dramaticism to hold sway. While they puzzle over Catherine’s feelings the narration tells us directly of her selfishness. The camera hangs on her just as these men dote on her but we so not see her through lovers’ eyes and are left bemused more than enchanted. Yet beyond Catherine’s attention seeking and frivolous antics are two men who are so similar that they love the same woman. At the same time, they care so deeply about each other that they accept sharing her.

In the end this is what Truffaut has captured, Jules et Jim is aptly named, in the end it’s a friendship, not a ménage-a-trois. Jules and Jim remain friends with no ill will, even when confronted with a woman whose selfish behaviour challenges their bond.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       3/5

Now You See Me – 2013

NOW YOU SEE MEEvery so often you have to sit back, relax and watch some high-glamour escapism. Louis Leterrier’s Now You See Me fits the bill to a tee.

It’s a genuinely rare phenomenon to find a film that carries the audience so well in its spell. For nearly two hours Now You See Me draws you in and doesn’t let go. When the credits roll you barely feel like any time has passed and it leaves you wanting more. It’s not like the explosion-filled bonanza’s that require a cheering crowd to rile you up, nor is it a superhero film that requires admission to a fandom before you can be allowed to ‘enjoy it properly’. Now You See Me is a standalone, franchise-less and source-less. It entrances with snappy dialogue and an intriguing plot. It reminds me of what I hoped The Adjustment Bureau would turn out before it got weirdly preachy.

The four actors at the heart of the film play a group of magicians performing the biggest trick of all time. Jesse Eisenberg plays a smarmy, entitled know-it-all as he does so well, Isla Fisher is added in to give the men a love interest to play off and Morgan Freeman is calmly superior. It’s not exactly a stretch to watch and the performances are entirely comfortable, a group of tropes and stereotypes gathered together for our amusement.

Of course, the magic in the film is done with CGI, you don’t need to question the tricks too closely to realise this, but that doesn’t reduce the mystery of the denouement. In a way it’s similar to Inception – you never know quite how far down the trick goes. You can try to figure it out, or blithely ignore it and wait for the conclusion to surprise and delight you. Both are equally enjoyable.

It won’t win many Oscars, it certainly won’t make Cannes but in the tradition of Busby Berkeley’s flapper girls, Now You See Me is an escapist fantasy, and when it’s done so well there is never a problem with that.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:              3/5
  • Intellectual:       1/5

Napoléon – 1927

007-napoleon-theredlistIt truly is an extraordinary experience watching a silent film with live music. I have been lucky enough to see a film in this way three times, Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr with a decidedly non-authentic Jazz soundtrack, Harbour Drift at the London Film Festival 2013 and yesterday, Abel Gance’s Napoléon accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. The score for this third film was written over thirty years ago by Carl Davis and is widely considered to be the definitive classical score for the film. Hearing it live, it’s obvious why. Not only does the score hugely heighten the emotional impact of the film it is also masterfully synchronised to the visuals. Not a single cue is missed. If an instrument is on screen, you are hearing it. It even matches when the characters are singing the Marseillaise, as the orchestra swells into the chorus you see the crowds mouthing the chorus filmed a hundred years ago. It’s a bizarre sensation, to hear a piece of music completely in time with what was happening on the other side of the camera a century ago.

However, no matter how excellent the music it will always be overshadowed by the film it accompanies. Gance’s epic blurs the lines between history, fiction and documentary. Recreating some scenes almost exactly as they would have happened while in other places giving precedent to symbolism and emotion above historical fact. In 1927, the year when the ‘talkies’ burst onto screen Gance’s film represents a zenith in silent film production. When sound came in and anchored the camera to a static microphone it was work like Napoléon, the expressive and experimental side of cinema which suffered. The use of visual metaphor and motif is especially powerful, the sway of the ocean mirroring the sway of political opinion and an eagle representing Napoleon’s power. Throughout the film the cinematography and editing are incredibly modern. The film pioneered techniques such as splitscreen and and superimposition and these are used to fantastic effect but not overused. The freedom of the camera to go wherever the characters bodies, or indeed minds, go makes it an immersive piece of cinema. You truly feel the emotions of the characters and see the world through their eyes, not just physically through POV shots but emotionally. Panic and fear in fast cutting, cold in the blue tint and anger in the red.

There are a few places where the narrative drags but this is understandable in a five hour film, not every section will interest every viewer in a film which encompasses war, love, poverty, government and the lives of the aristocracy. Yet each and every section is rendered with the same detail and thorough mise-en-scene as every other. After an hour or so you can genuinely find yourself forgetting that you are watching a fiction, rather than the actual events. Albert Diudonné’s interpretation of Napoleon himself is captivating and deeply emotional. It brings humanity to the legend without trivialising or caricaturing the character of Napoleon. He holds the film almost single-handedly throughout. It is his burning passion that drives the action and holds the viewer’s sympathy regardless of any preconceived notions the viewer may have had.

The famous triptych sequence is truly a sight to behold. After so long watching a film in a tiny 4×3 box the world suddenly opens up as the film and the character of Napoleon reach their full potential. The triptych is not just a way of creating a widescreen effect, the images are duplicated and mirrored across the screens. The wide shots convey a huge sense of scale, but the real innovation is in the sequences projecting different images onto three screens. It’s an idea that was used by Gance in 1927 and then largely ignored for 100 years. He was doing then what James Franco’s As I Lay Dying is doing now, to at least equal effect. In the last couple of minutes the three screens take on a new significance as the left and right reels are tinted blue and red respectively. The film becomes a glowing tricolore instilling a sense of patriotism and joy that really captures the spirit of Napoleon’s legacy. In those final moments he becomes the cultural hero and you can’t help but admire the film, the man and the performance that has brought these images to you. It’s astonishing and completely breathtaking. Napoleon should not be judged as a film within its time, it should take its place alongside Gone With the Wind and Citizen Kane as a film where cinema took flight.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:              5/5
  • Intellectual:       5/5