Archive | January, 2015

American Sniper: the film equivalent of Born In The USA?

31 Jan
Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, the American sniper with 160 kills to his name.

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, the American sniper with 160 kills to his name.

Critics seem bizarrely divided on American Sniper, which opened in the UK yesterday. Some think it’s the sort of simplistic right-wing fable you’d expect of an avowedly Republican director, Clint Eastwood, who famously bizarrely addressed an empty chair at the Republican Convention. (Incidentally, no one at the time pointed out that this was a common technique in Gestalt therapy – it presumably indicates Clint has been in counselling at some time.) Others think it’s been misunderstood by the American heartland who have adopted it so enthusiastically, in the same way as Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA was misguidedly adopted on the campaign trail by Republican White House contender Bob Dole.

The truth is somewhere in between. Psychologically, it is a nuanced, understated portrait of the havoc war can wreak on even the most untroubled Texas good ol’ boy psyches: the back-home drama, in between the most lethal sniper in American history’s several tours of duty, concerns the attempts of his wife (Sienna Miller, rather good in a thankless role which has only two settings, winsome at the start and whinesome for most of the rest) to get him to come home in mind, not just body.

Politically, it is dishonest in establishing an implicit connection between the Twin Towers atrocity and the Iraq War, and profoundly racist by omission. Yes, this is the soldiers’ story, but still there is not one – not one! – sympathetic Iraqi character. There is no suggestion (and this sadly may be true to life) that any US soldier is in Iraq to help free its people from tyranny; they talk only of protecting America from attack.

And of the many departures from the real-life memoir of sniper Chris Kyle that you would expect of any Hollywood blockbuster, the exaggeration right from the first scene is telling: Bradley Cooper as Kyle is, in his first assignment as a sniper, confronted with a situation where a mother hands a grenade to her little boy and sends him running towards American soldiers. Kyle must decide whether to shoot the child. “That is evil like I have never seen before,” he says after.

You’d have to agree – were it true. A similar incident does indeed open the memoir, but there is no child, only a woman. The film never once departs from this presentation of the Iraq War as a pure struggle between “good” (the guy even carries a bible wherever he goes) and “evil”.

Okay, aside from the politics, is the film “good”? It’s well acted, as I said, and the combat scenes are gritty and tense; if you like war films you’ll probably enjoy this one. But in the usual Clint style it’s directed efficiently rather than brilliantly; if you hadn’t seen the name on the credits, you would have no idea which film-maker was behind it. Actually, there is one clue. In a couple of bizarre and, frankly, risible scenes, Kyle and his wife hold a “baby” that is so obviously a doll that it shatters the suspension of disbelief. Clint is famous for his two-takes, let’s-get-this-done approach; presumably he just didn’t want a real crying baby to hold up the day’s shooting.

Which seems to be the approach overall: why let crying liberals get in the way of a story America can be proud of?

Foxcatcher: wrestling with doubts

20 Jan

Foxcatcher

It’s rare that I feel totally out of step with the world on a movie, but Foxcatcher is one such. Why all the raves? Steve Carell gives a very good, very understated performance as the socially awkward billionaire who decides to fund America’s 1988 Olympic wrestling team, in which his creepiness, aptly, creeps up on you. But part of the pleasure is the sheer surprise at seeing the comedian take on such a downbeat role. As Samuel Johnson said of female preachers, “It is like a dog’s walking on its hind legs. It is not that it is done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Chuck Tatum is similarly cast against type, suppressing his usual breezy charm as the dour wrestler Mark Schultz. He is aiming for a portrait of brooding physicality, but just comes across as entirely absent. Only Mark Ruffalo as his brother is allowed to play his usual role, as the dishevelled, easygoing nice guy, and does so with effortless rumpled charisma.

As for the direction, by Bennett Miller of Moneyball and Capote fame, it lost me from the off. I often like slow films where nothing much happens. Not this one. As son Sam said afterwards, with his usual perspicacity, “I’ve seen so many indie films recently where slowness is mistaken for depth, and where all the shots are in shallow focus to foreground the actors, to emphasise how good their performances are.”

With no one to root for, and a meandering narrative (it’s based on a true story, which does not always make for satisfying drama), I found the whole thing just alienating. Maybe I’d feel more kindly inclined if expectations hadn’t been raised so high by its five Oscar noms. But if you want to see an Oscar contender this week, I’d sooner recommend Birdman, Whiplash, The Theory Of Everything or (probably – I haven’t yet seen it) American Sniper.

The 2015 Oscar nominations: Brit hits and Whiplash wit

16 Jan
"Whaddya mean I should be happy with my Golden Globe? I'm going for an Oscar, dammit!" JK Simmons shows his less cuddly side in Whiplash

“Whaddya mean I should be happy with my Golden Globe? I’m going for an Oscar, dammit!” JK Simmons shows his less cuddly side in Whiplash

Congratulations to Whiplash, which I blogged about last Friday as “The little film that could”, for its four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It opens today in the UK: read my articles about the making of it here.

The noms are a great haul for the Brits, with eight for The Imitation Game and five for The Theory of Everything, plus a deserved nod to Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl. Mr Turner managed four, which is actually not bad going for a slow film about a long-dead British artist who communicates largely through grunts. The stunning cinematography that recreates Turner’s paintings, light and all, must surely be a strong contender in that category. It is disappointing that neither Timothy Spall nor Mike Leigh were recognised for what is probably their finest work, but not as flat-out outrageous as their snub from the BAFTAs.

For the first time since 1998, there is not a single black actor among the nominees, though Selma gets a nod in the Best Picture category. That’s not yet out in the UK, so I can’t comment on whether David Oyelowo was unfairly overlooked. But the nominations are a reminder that this was a fine year for cinema, and an innovative one to boot. Boyhood was filmed over a period of 12 years; Birdman was shot in one single continuous take; The Grand Budapest Hotel was a delirious artifice; and Whiplash was a little indie film shot in 19 days that somehow muscled through to be nominated for Best Picture.

Much as critics may bemoan the blockbusterisation of cinema (and actually, even the blockbusters are a lot more competent, coherent and fun than they used to be), there’s life in the old Hollywood dog yet.

For the official Oscars site with the full list of nominees, click here.

Why Birdman soars: the art of the 90-minute single take

14 Jan
Michael Keaton, former superhero actor, plays Riggan Thompson, former superhero actor, in Birdman's deft exploration of truth through artifice

Michael Keaton, former superhero actor, plays Riggan Thompson, former superhero actor, in Birdman’s deft exploration of truth through artifice

Saw Birdman with my son Sam last night, and it really is as extraordinary as they say. Every character, however small, is well delineated and has at least one great scene; Emma Stone is particularly brilliant, as so often.

But from a film buff’s point of view, the most exciting and head-scratching element is that it appears to be shot in one continuous 90-minute take, without a single cut. Ever since Orson Welles pulled off a wonderfully complex 3 min 20 sec tracking shot as the opening to Touch of Evil, directors have vied to outdo him. Gravity raised the bar last year, with Cuarón’s 17-minute opening shot made possible by digital technology. His fellow Mexican Iñárritu has now forever smashed that record with an entire film’s length. (Admittedly Russian Ark got there first, in 2002, but Birdman is filmed in a far more fluid and dynamic style.)

Fiendishly complex as it was to pull off, it is of course a digital trick, with the cuts hidden in digitally blended scenes when the camera pans to one side without a person in view. But beyond a “look ma, no hands!” desire to show off what can be done, why did Iñárritu decide to do this?

My son, who is perceptive when it comes to films, pointed out that Iñárritu’s trademark is the interlocking multiple narrative which was first displayed in Amores Perros, was developed in 21 Grams, and reached its apotheosis in Babel, which is set in four different countries in four different languages. Birdman’s single continuous take goes to the opposite extreme. Perhaps Iñárritu just wanted to do something different. He told Variety, ““It was like I was on a ladder, and I was getting a little too comfortable.”

But what is the technique’s impact on the film, its effect on the viewer? I noticed a weird thing. We are so used to the grammar of film, the cuts between characters and the sudden shifts in time and location, that they are no longer intrusive. In fact, to me, the definition of a great film is one where I lose myself within it completely, where I am no longer aware that I am watching a film but inhabit it completely, and 15 minutes or more can pass before I blink and remember that I am in a cinema at all. That’s why I always sit up close, in the third row, so I cannot see the edges of the screen.

So the long take in Birdman, which you would expect to feel more naturalistic than constant cuts, to me has the opposite effect. It is stylised, it reminds you continually of the artifice of film. The performances, as befits a comedy that is not quite a comedy, are somewhat stylised, too.

And this perfectly suits the theme of the film. On one level it is the story of a mid-life crisis, of a man who is famous for doing something he does not value (grossing billions of dollars 20 years previously in a superhero franchise) trying to achieve self-worth through putting on a “serious” play based on a story by Raymond Carver.

But it is also about the power of dreams, and the nature of truth, and the thin line between reality and fantasy, and how each can inform the other. That the superhero its protagonist used to play is Birdman, whose superpower is flight, is no accident. Nor is it that Iñárritu has cast in this role an actor, Michael Keaton, who himself is burdened with the fame of playing a superhero – Batman – in a blockbuster franchise. That Keaton is putting on a play within the film allows Iñárritu to explore notions of truth and artifice: Edward Norton’s character is a charming and manipulative bastard who can only “be real” when he is acting, on stage. He even tries to have sex with his girlfriend for real in the play’s bed scene, because it is only on stage, in character, that he has managed to get it up in the last six months.

When Keaton stands on a roof ledge, increasingly drawn into his schizophrenic fantasy that he really is Birdman, a woman shouts out: “Is this for real, or are you shooting a film?” “A film!” he says. “You people are full of shit,” she shouts back. His Birdman alter-ego, who whispers in his ear, tells him to make another blockbuster: “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” Which, of course, is the kind of film Iñárritu has just made, though smuggled into the multiplexes under the guise of a film about a superannuated superhero, including a gigantic fantasy scene three quarters of the way through of SWAT teams and exploding helicopters and a giant robot bird-villain so it can have its cake and eat it: criticising blockbusters while at the same time benefiting from the action scene’s trailer value.

The result is an intensively artificial film which, through artifice, gets closer to exploring truth and the nature of reality than perhaps any this year. Birdman is also funny, and touching, and something of a masterpiece. Go see.

4 articles about Whiplash, the little film that could

9 Jan
Miles Teller and JK Simmons in Whiplash, described as "Full Metal Jacket set at Juilliard"

Miles Teller and JK Simmons in Whiplash, described as “Full Metal Jacket set at Juilliard”

A really terrific little movie opens next week: Whiplash, about a young drumming prodigy’s fractious relationship with his terrifyingly perfectionist mentor, which although made in 19 days on a budget of $3 million is attracting Oscar buzz. I was commissioned by the Guardian to write four different pieces on the film, which is especially close to my heart as my son is an ace drummer himself (check out his band Venus Envy on Soundcloud).

Whiplash’s young writer-director had lofty goals, setting out to do for drumming what Martin Scorsese once did for boxing. But in many ways it’s less like Raging Bull than like Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam masterpiece: producer Jason Reitman describes the film as “Full Metal Jacket set in Juilliard”.

Check out my Guardian pieces, which came out today:

— Why Whiplash is not just about drumming, but a psychological thriller, sports/war movie and mismatched buddy movie all in one. Discover the “Dead Poets Society from hell”.

— How do you make an Oscar-worthy feature in just 19 days? Despite cracked ribs and a car crash, this is how Damien Chazelle got it done.

— Both lead actors in Whiplash underwent an extraordinary transformation for their roles. From Lon Chaney Jr to Holly Hunter and Daniel Day-Lewis, discover the ten biggest transformations in film history.

— Einstein himself said that “genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work”. From Isambard Kingdom Brunel to Marie Curie, here are ten great men and women who owe as much to perspiration as inspiration.

The Theory of Everything: two stars are born

5 Jan

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne shine in The Theory of Everything.

At the beginning of The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking describes the study of cosmology as “a kind of religion for intelligent atheists”. Hollywood star-watching could be seen as “religion for dumb atheists”.

Nevertheless, here I go again.

There’s a huge buzz around Eddie Redmayne for the film – on Friday William Hill shortened the odds on him winning the Golden Globe from 10/11 to 1/3 – and it’s richly deserved. At the start he is boyishly charming and rogueishly handsome, deploying a killer smile under thick glasses and a tousled fringe. That clichéd coup de foudre when his eyes first meet those of his future wife across a crowded room actually convinces.

His gradual transformation into the wheelchair-bound genius stricken with progressively degenerating motor neurone disease we now know as Stephen Hawking is astonishing. If Daniel Day-Lewis could win an Oscar for My Left Foot, it’s possible to hope that Redmayne could win for this.

And not just one star is born here, but two – it’s a binary system, to use Hawking terminology. Felicity Jones has a more difficult role to shine in, as The Dutiful Wife; but she displays a rare combination of vulnerability and strength as she is torn between her own desires and her need to stand by her man. It’s her film every bit as much as his.

Last year was a good one for British film, starting off with 12 Years A Slave. In a smaller way, this is about as good a start to 2015 as one could wish for.

When I met Stephen Hawking: click here.