Thursday, 2 January 2020

The Best Films I watched in 2019

At the end of last year (as in the end of 2018) my mum asked me what the favourite film I had watched that year was. Wracking my brains to try and think of the answer, I realised how hard it was to remember what I had watched that year, even the films that I had really enjoyed. So this year (2019) I have kept a list of all the films that I watched and I thought I would just share the ones that I enjoyed the most. In total in 2019 I watched 53 films for the first time (I'm not including re-watches). I watched a huge range of different types of films, starting the year with an Ardman animation (the makers of Wallace and Gromit) about cavemen inventing football, Early Man (2018), and ending it with a Chinese social realist film about the Cultural Revolution, In the Heat of the Sun (1994). I watched some classics and some new releases, some small independent films and some blockbusters. So in order to really narrow this list down I have just chosen the ones that really made me feel something strongly. This is a very broad definition but basically I want to avoid films that are just intellectually interesting or passably enjoyable- with such a small selection I want it to be selectively only films that really made a big impact on me in the moment of watching them. With this criteria in mind, I have chosen six films that I just loved this year, and I hope that they might be of interest. The list is simply in alphabetical order and does not reflect any ranking.

Eighth Grade (2018, dir. Bo Burnham)

The first of three films on this list that I watched on its release in the UK, Eighth Grade is a brilliant little film about the struggles of a socially awkward teenager in high school. I love cringe humour and Eighth Grade has this in absolute stacks as it makes the most out of all those horrifically awkward teenage engagements and I watched much of the film through the gaps in my fingers as I looked on in sublime agony at the misadventures of the protangonist, Kayla, played brilliantly by the 15 year old Elsie Fisher. But what is really so amazing about Eighth Grade is that whilst it is mercilessly funny in its use of cringe humour, it also tells a beautiful, sometimes sad and eventually uplifting story in such a simple and relatable way. Kayla may be more socially awkward than most, but her insecurities and worries will be familiar in some way to anyone watching the film. What is even more moving is Kayla's well-intentioned but slightly out-of-his-depth father's frustration at his total lack of power to help his daughter. Watching the film, I related so strongly to her father's desperate desire to just sit Kayla down and say "don't worry so much about yourself, it's all just teenage bullshit and you'll be fine. Just get through it." But at the end of the day, all he can really do is watch and try and support her in every way she can. And this makes the ending even more uplifting- no-one can help Kayla except herself (and growing up) and when she finally comes to realise this it is a moving moment like no other. This is a film that more than any on this list really takes you through a range of emotions: laughter, despair and finally a wonderful optimism that things can be alright.

Joker (2019, dir. Todd Philips)

Easily the most mainstream of the films on the list, I was initially unsure about whether to put Joker on here. I certainly have some reservations about the film on an intellectual level and it is such a dark and destructive film that I guess it doesn't fit easily with the other films on this list. But thinking about it more it definitely deserves a place on the list based on my original criteria of films that made me feel strongly- it just has such a dark power which glues you to the screen, unable to look away. Similar to other great "thriller" films of the last few years like Whiplash and Dunkirk, Joker has an intensity to it which pulls you in. Joaquin Phoenix gives the role of Arthur his characteristically total commitment and it's really the intensity of his performance that fuels the film, in a similar way to his performances in The Master (2012) and You Were Never Really Here (2017)- he is definitely one of the best actors working today. On top of the thriller-ish intensity of the film, I do also think that it has to be applauded for its social message. In a year where Endgame, the superhero movie of superhero movies, became the highest grossing film of all time it's great to see a "superhero" film which takes the genre into new territory and is such a biting political commentary. It might not have the subtlety of the Scorsese films that inspired it, Taxi Driver (1976) and King of Comedy (1982), but it really captured the current Zeitgeist of total frustration with the status quo of our political and economic system and effectively showed how those who are socially, politically and economically marginalised can be driven to the most awful extremes.

Paddleton (2019, dir. Alex Lehmann)

The first three films on this list have all been American films released in 2019 but Paddleton is a very different beast to Joker and even to Eight Grade. What I like about this movie is how the first two thirds are very ordinary. The basic premise of the film is a buddy movie, but one in which one of the two friends has terminal cancer and decides to end his life rather than have treatment. For most of the film we simply hang out with the two friends, Andy and Michael, played by Ray Romano and Mark Duplass, trying to come to terms with Michael's impending death and making the most of their remaining time together. However, what really makes this movie special is the ending- it is such an unflinching and deeply moving portrayal of death, in all its horror. It hits so hard because most of the movie has been quite a light buddy comedy but then suddenly at the end you are forced to confront the horrific reality of dying. Mark Duplass does an amazing job of conveying just how scared his character is of dying, whilst Ray Romano is brilliant in his helplessness in just having to stand by and watch his friend die. I also watched Ordinary Love (2019) this year which was another moving examination of someone with cancer, but Paddleton's gentle humour and slow-burn first half made it, for me, a much more moving experience at the end which depicts an utterly unsentimental but deeply moving portrayal of death.

Still Walking (2008, dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)

Kore-eda is Japan's best filmmaker working today and is very much in vogue at the moment because of his international hit Shoplifters which was released last year. Whilst I also watched and enjoyed Shoplifters in 2019, the Kore-eda film which moved me and stayed with me more was Kore-eda's earlier film Still Walking, which I watched at the cinema during a Picturehouse Kore-eda season. The film tells a very simple tale of a family getting together over a day and a night at the house of the grandparents. The plot is unfolded in a very subtle but simple way and without giving anything away the point of the film is that the family are deeply resentful of each other: the father against the grandfather, the grandfather against the grandmother, the father against his wife, and so on. What is so brilliant, however, is that this is all kept just boiling under the surface- it captures that exact feeling of being at a family gathering in which everyone is trying to be polite and civil to each other, whilst really they're all seething inside. On top of this, nothing gets resolved- just like in real life, there is no big speech or climatic moment which resolves all these deep tensions and resentments, for good or for ill. Instead, we're left with a much more depressingly realistic portrait of a family unable to ever fully come to terms with its problems. At the end of the day, however, the film does have a positive message in the midst of this rather depressing family drama: that we should make the most of our time with our family and be accepting of one another's faults, rather than obsessing over the past mistakes of ourselves and others.

Wadjda (2012, dir. Haifaa al-Mansour)

Wadjda is the first film in Saudi Arabia to have been made by a female director and it is probably my favourite film that I watched this year. Wadjda, our titular heroine, and played with jaw-dropping confidence and assurance by 10 year old Waad Mohammed, is a young girl growing up in Saudi Arabia. She is spirited and rebellious and really wants to buy a bike, but this is not seen as an acceptable pastime for girls. In defiance, she decides to enter her school's Quran recital competition which has a large cash prize which she will use to buy a bike. She lives with her mother who has a tense relationship with her father, who is currently looking for a second wife because Wadjda's mother seems to have become infertile after having her. The relationship between the mother and daughter is fraught throughout the film and it is this central relationship and the eventual expression of total selfless love between mother and daughter that makes the film so powerful. In this way, the film is a very moving exploration of the oppression of women in Saudi society but it also has a fundamentally optimistic message about the potential of Saudi society to change and improve, as well as of the resilience of those women who live in such a regime. It is also a fascinating portrayal of religious hypocrisy, as Wadjda is continually being told that she is a bad Muslim by those who are themselves failing to live up to the same high standards. A true gem of a film which I really would recommend to anyone.

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001, dir. Alfonso Cuaron)

Cuaron's Roma was one of my favourite films of 2018 and his film Y Tu Mama Tambien is also a fantastic, albeit very different, film. This one really emphasises the social aspect of watching films: I saw this at the Oxford International Film Society in March at an absolutely packed out screening- so many people showed up that people were sitting on the floor to the extent that you couldn't move. You might think that this would ruin the viewing experience and perhaps for a more tense or high-minded film this might have done so but Y Tu Mama Tambien is first and foremost a comedy and there was just such an amazing energy in the room, with everyone laughing their heads off the whole way through, that it really just felt like the more, the merrier. The basic plot of the film is that two Mexican teenagers go on a road-trip with a beautiful older woman, with hilarious (and erotic) consequences. The film is, as one would expect from Cuaron, beautifully shot and the performances are pitch perfect from all the actors. The script itself is clearly reaching for a higher and more profound message which it doesn't entirely reach although it does make for an interesting portrayal of the hedonistic Mexican upper classes, contrasting this with the poverty of rural Mexico. This film earns its place on this list, however, not for any profound message but for its comedic value- rarely have I walked away from a film with such a huge smile on my face and aching sides from laughing too much. It's not perfect but it's filled with such joy and humour that I found it impossible not to love it.

Sunday, 30 June 2019

The Politics of Game of Thrones: How Its Ending Betrays the Politics of the Left

Season 8 Poster
I realise I'm a bit late to the whole bashing of Game of Thrones Season 8- I actually started writing a review trying to explain why I thought it was so bad after the final episode but I gave up because, since everyone else was doing the same, I couldn't see the point. However, since it all finished I have been mulling the season over in my mind and have been focusing less and less on what I think didn't work about the season narratively speaking, and increasingly on how I think the final season of Game of Thrones totally fails in fulfilling the books and earlier seasons' promise of a nuanced and complex approach to political questions. Furthermore, I see this failure to provide a nuanced, complex or interesting political conclusion as coming chiefly at the expense of the left, with the ending of season 8 instead promoting an ill thought through, ridiculously optimistic and naive right wing "happy" ending. This should annoy both left and right wing fans of the show since Game of Thrones has always been at its best politically when showing the challenges that face everyone in politics, regardless of ideological alignment. In contrast, the ending of the show provides an overly simple conservative conclusion which seems to totally disregard any but the lightest criticisms of a right wing world view whilst not conceding any real political credibility to the left at all.

Before we jump into an analysis of the final season itself, however, I should first explain how I am defining "left" and "right". Obviously Game of Thrones exists in a fantasy quasi-medieval world and thus does not have the same ideological or partisan issues which we might see dividing the left and right in the modern world (e.g. state intervention in the economy). Instead of focusing on narrow issues, therefore, I see the politics of Game of Thrones as viewing left and right wing politics in a much more philosophical sense. On the leftist side, I see Game of Thrones as exploring left wing views on change, reform and revolution. This is most clearly embodied in the character of Danaerys. Dany is, in her views, ahead of her time and more in line with the assumptions of the modern audience than the others who inhabit the quasi-medieval fantasy world of Game of Thrones. She opposes slavery, promotes the liberation of women and talks of "breaking the wheel", which seems to imply the destruction of the oppressive feudal system which dominates the societies of Game of Thrones. What is key to understanding Game of Thrones' politics is that Dany's wider political aims are never questioned by the show: slavery, the oppression of women and the aristocratic feudal system are all seen to be bad things, as they are assumed to be for the typical modern western viewer. Dany's left-wing revolutionary goal of "breaking the wheel" and instituting a more liberated, progressive society is criticised, therefore, not from the perspective that its ultimate aims might be bad, but that it will cost too much to achieve. This is the right wing element of Game of Thrones: an individualist, pragmatic message which emphasises the status quo and stability over change because of fears that Dany's "revolution" will cost too much. This is clearly seen in Dany's problems with the slave owners in Meereen in seasons 4 and 5, in which her idealistic abolition of slavery stirs up so much practical trouble and resistance that we are made to question how worthwhile her reforms really were in the first place.

Emilia Clarke as Danaerys Targaryen
On the one hand, this right wing criticism of left wing revolutionary politics simply fits into a wider moral message in Game of Thrones, which is that idealism is impracticable and will get you killed, vis-a-vis Ned Stark. However, whilst other characters like Ned and Robb Stark, as well as Jon Snow, struggle with the attempt to marry their idealism to practical politics, Dany is the only one with a political programme. For Ned Stark, the conflict between morality and politics is only on a personal level (his desire not to compromise his honour by "playing" the Game of Thrones, despite the fact that this may plunge the Kingdom into civil war). Dany in some ways, therefore, has the opposite problem to Ned Stark in that she is clearly prepared to do "dishonourable" deeds in pursuit of the greater good, for example crucifying the masters in Meereen en mass. The question, therefore, is whether the pursuit of the "common good", Dany's idealistic brave new world, really justifies these dishonourable deeds. In other words, is the viewer willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of potentially innocent people in order to attain Dany's indisputably more benevolent society?

This is a question which goes to the heart of one of the most difficult political and moral questions that those on both the left and right have to face. For the right, how much suffering can you bear before change is necessary? On the left, how much suffering can you bear in pursuit of that change, especially if you are unsure what that change will be like? Season 8 most clearly brings these questions to a head in the final confrontation between Jon and Dany in the last episode. Jon questions Dany on her decision to burn King's Landing to the ground, killing thousands of innocent civilians. Dany replies that it 'was necessary', arguing that 'small mercies' will get in the way of building 'the new world we need...a good world'. In this exchange, we see the full spectrum of the politics of Game of Thrones. Dany promotes an idealistic, left wing vision of a good, brave new world built on the back of her violent "revolution", whilst Jon questions whether it will be worth the cost and wonders if this new world can truly be a 'good' one. Politically speaking, these are broadly unanswerable questions which every person has to come to an individual decision about where they stand on. Artistically speaking, this makes for an excellent conclusion: the audience is left to decide where their sympathies lie between two deeply likable, well intentioned characters. The political conclusions of the show are left unanswered, allowing the audience to reflect on their own political opinions and make their own decision.

Or that's at least how it should have been. The problem, of course, is that the widely derided undermining of Dany's character in the last season of Game of Thrones also results in an undermining of the political side of the show that she represents. Much has been written about how the writing in the final season was subpar when compared to previous ones. I don't want to focus on this too much since there is so much out there already, but I do want to highlight one key distinction which I think has fundamentally altered the political nature of Game of Thrones. In previous seasons (up to season 5), based on George R.R. Martin's books, the nature of the storytelling in Game of Thrones was broadly sociological rather than personal. The reason why we can sympathise with deeply immoral characters like Cersei, Tywin or the Hound is that these characters were situated clearly within a wider social context. The personal was intimately linked to the social and political: Cersei's understanding of the vulnerability of her own femininity; Tywin's sense of familial obligation; the Hound's nihilism in the face of a corrupt society. To me, one of the chief problems with the final season is that the writers, having left George R.R. Martin's source material behind, increasingly turned from sociological storytelling to the more typical and "Hollywood" form of personal storytelling. In this way, Dany's narrative arc over both seasons 7 and 8 becomes less about her ideals and wider sense of social injustice, and more about her personal relations and development. In season 8, the key turning point in Dany's story comes in episodes 4 and 5, in which she is increasingly driven to madness by a series of personal losses and setbacks (discovering Jon's claim to the throne; the deaths of Rhaegal and Missandei; Varys' betrayal). In the end, when Dany commits an act of brutal slaughter in episode 5, the Bells, when she burns Kings Landing even after the surrender of the Lannister forces, this is given absolutely no socio-political justification and is motivated only by a sense of Dany's personal instability and possible madness.

Kit Harrington as Jon Snow
In and of itself, this personal descent into madness could have worked fine narratively speaking (although I think even then that they left it underdeveloped making it ultimately unsatisfying). However, regardless of whether it makes narrative sense, this story line totally capsizes the political balance of the show. When Dany tries to justify her actions in the season's final episode as 'necessary' in order to build a better world, this simply doesn't ring true. It clearly was not necessary in promoting Dany's ideological vision of "breaking the wheel" to slaughter a load of innocent civilians and just surrendered soldiers, and no such justification was attempted at the time (i.e. in episode 5). For Dany's argument to make sense, the slaughter in Kings Landing would have to be more explicitly justified in ideological terms from the start: we need to have some sense that Dany might be doing the right thing, which she clearly thinks she is, instead of turning her into a one-dimensional "descent into madness" character. On top of this, Jon Snow is so piously portrayed as to make the contrast laughable, with his only action during the battle of King's Landing being to stop one of his own soldiers from raping a woman. When we come to the final confrontation between Jon and Dany in the throne room, therefore, there is no balance between the two sides: as an audience we know that Dany's new world is not justified and we agree with Jon's perception of Dany as a mad, bloodthirsty tyrant. Dany's claim that her actions were 'necessary' to build her 'new world' thus only appear as retrospective justifications. We are not left with an ambiguous political message which allows us to reflect upon the deep problem of the costs of change or the righteousness of idealism, but rather are being sheparded into siding with Jon Snow against Danaerys- with the right against the left.

This right wing conclusion is followed up by the full ending of the show. There is a nod to leftist ideals in Sam's proposals for democracy at the grand council, but this is mostly played for laughs. Instead, what we get is the most bizarrely optimistic, naive conservative ending imaginable, lacking any balance or nuance. This is epitomised most in making Bran king. Bran is the ideal type of conservative ruler. An all seeing, completely wise king who we can trust to rule justly, but who gives absolutely no sign of wanting to shake up the status quo. This is the ideal conservative scenario in that it provides ostensibly just government without actually having to change anything. In reality, something Game of Thrones has always prided itself in having a sense of despite being a fantasy show, this conservative ideal rarely works because the ruling class or monarch cannot maintain justice all the time- a system dependent upon the abilities or sense of justice of a singular individual will always be undermined by that individual's flaws. By imposing Bran as king, however, the show gets around this problem by effectively cancelling out these individual flaws due to Bran's superhuman abilities and wisdom. Instead of the systematic change that Westeros needs, and Dany argues for, these flaws are covered up a fantasy good ruler who can seemingly do no wrong; in other words, Game of Thrones becomes exactly the type of moralistic fantasy it was supposed to critique.

On top of the superhuman powers of Bran the Broken, we are also presented with a hilariously politically misguided scene of the small council. The scene, which is comedic and light in tone, suggests to the audience that whilst there might be some petty squabbling between council members, this new regime headed by Tyrion is serious about ruling well. The seemingly unnoticed irony of this is that the new master of coin, in other words the controller of Westeros' entire financial and economic system, is Bronn, a man who, for all his personal charms, has swindled, lied, blackmailed and cheated his way to the top. The fact that this kind of individual corruption might be systemic in an aristocratic system is completely disregarded, however, and all is made to seem as if things can only get better. On top of this, Samwell Tarly, again a man of significant personal likeability, is also on the small council, despite his total lack of political experience and retained almost childlike naivety, a trait endearing on a personal level but damaging politically. Below the surface of the scene's lighthearted tone, therefore, lies the actual realisation that this new small council is deeply problematic, and is unlikely to really fix the systemic problems facing Westeros.

The point that I am trying to make is that the ending leaves us with an optimistic but deeply false conservative conclusion. Bran acts as a sort of "deus ex machina" figure as king, resolving all the fundamental tensions and flaws that monarchy presents, whilst we are meant to feel hopeful about the new small council, despite the fact that the immorality and inexperience of its members suggests that it may be little better than previous regimes. Most crucial and unforgivable, however, is the fact that the ills that Dany identified with society are entirely ignored: we are given no sense that the current system is anything other than just and benevolent. All we are shown are happy, self-satisfied aristocrats getting on with their jobs, with no sense of how the rest of society might be effected. In other words, the failure of Dany's revolution means nothing.

Overall, I actually think the conservative conclusion to the show is a fitting one. Game of Thrones has always been a deeply pessimistic show and the idea that Dany could effectively implement a political revolution in a feudal country like Westeros seems pretty implausible. What I strongly object to, therefore, is the optimism of this conservative conclusion, which undermines the delicate balance between left and right that the show had previously created and seems to betray Game of Thrones' own realistic, pessimistic sense of itself. It would not take all that many changes to create this ending: giving Dany a proper ideological and sympathetic justification to commit a war atrocity in King's Landing rather than being driven by personal madness; showing that, despite Bran's benevolent rule, significant problems in Westeros still exist for the majority of people; and giving us a much darker picture of the small council, with Tyrion trying to balance Bronn's self-serving corruption with Sam's political naivety. This would give us a much more balanced political picture, truer to Game of Thrones' roots: an ending in which Dany's revolution, for all its admirable idealism, becomes polluted by the slaughter that it necessarily incurs, but the failure of which leaves Westeros where it was at the beginning, still plagued by the same problems.

David Benioff and D.B Weiss, the showrunners
of Game of Thrones
Why didn't this ending happen? Partly, as I already mentioned, I think it was the move from sociological to personal storytelling, which the majority of mainstream storytellers find most natural. This is most clearly seen in the character of Jon Snow who more obviously came to embody the character of the reluctant hero as the series went on, at the expense of our sympathies with Dany and her political project. I also think that a general desire to please the fans got in the way: the overly optimistic conclusion in socio-political terms makes for a more comforting "happy ending", especially with regards to the small council scene which ignored the worrying political weaknesses of the new regime in favour of having a scene of lighthearted banter between some of the shows most popular characters. However, most crucially I think the showrunners, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, gave the show an optimistic right wing conclusion because they were scared of the political implications of treating Dany, and her left-wing project, fairly. To some degree, I sympathise with them: it takes some guts to try and get the audience to sympathise with or at least understand a character who kills thousands of innocents. But surely this is what Game of Thrones has always been about- teaching us that the "right" choices are not always obvious and often come with unbearable consequences. In making Dany's character arc about her madness, rather than about her admirable desire for change, the showrunners seemed to disregard the very questions that made the show so politically interesting in the first place: what is the right thing to do, and how far should you go in pursuit of it?

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049- 3 Stars

Original Blade Runner Theatrical
Release Poster
Blade Runner 2049 is a film that is being universally lauded by critics, with some even saying it is better than the original. However, my viewing of the film left me with very different impressions. Though the film has good elements and was "enjoyable" in a watch-ability sense, much of the film was uneven, lacking in subtlety or underdeveloped. This review will aim to compare the two Blade Runner films, and through this comparison draw out the positives and negatives of each.

Firstly, let's examine the original Blade Runner. The strengths that are traditionally praised are of course the stunning visuals and the creation of a convincing and real dystopian future. The nightmarish, claustrophobic cityscape, drenched with atmospheric rain to contrast with the blindingly bright neon advertising has become a staple of dystopian sci-fi's since and is arguably the most influential aspect of the film. The whole atmosphere is reinforced by Vangelis' eerie techno-jazz score which perfectly captures the sci-fi, neo-noir feel of the film. However, the chief emotional strength of the film is Rutger Hauer's performance as Roy Batty, the leader of a group of renegade replicants seeking to expand their life span. His "Tears in the Rain" speech is of course the emotional climax, but throughout Roy is an engaging and ambiguous figure. In typical genre terms he is of course "the bad guy", the evil robot murdering innocent humans, seen chiefly in his cold manipulation of lonely and sympathetic replicant engineer, J.F. Sebastian. However, by the end of the film he is transformed into a Christlike figure and, though the religious imagery is definitely too heavy handed with the nails through his hands and the white dove, Roy's decision to save Deckard makes him the true hero of the film, showing his humanity through his ability to show mercy.

Harrison Ford as Deckard and Sean Young as Rachel-
a lack of chemistry?
In contrast, where the film falls flat is its main character. Harrison Ford's performance has long been derided as too flat and boring. In his defence, it must be said that he was trying to imitate the deadpan acting of neo-noir leads, such as Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. However, this deadpan style always walks a fine line between subtlety of acting and simply negating any interest in the character and sadly Deckard falls in the latter category. A simple way to demonstrate this is to try and describe what Deckard's character is. There is almost nothing to say. He really seems to have very little motivation throughout the film, other than that he is doing his job. He undergoes almost no change of character. The chief problem lies in his total lack of chemistry with Rachel, played by Sean Young. Harrison Ford and Sean Young famously disliked each other on set and it shows in the film. There is really no sense of attraction between the two of them, let alone love, and the scene where they get together is not only unconvincing but actually ends in Deckard forcing Rachel to kiss him, which should make any modern audience member distinctly uncomfortable. Deckard's arc is clearly meant to be that at first he is a washed up cop, with no meaning or purpose to his life, seeing killing replicants simply as a job to be done. Then, meeting and falling in love with Rachel should give him new meaning in his life, as well as make him question his role in killing replicants, something which is finally reinforced when he is saved by Roy at the film's end. As it is, the lack of chemistry between Rachel and Deckard leaves the film with a main character who is uninteresting and unengaging, which means that it is difficult for the audience to be invested in the plot leading to claims that the film "drags" or at worst is "boring".

Blade Runner 2049 Theatrical
Release Poster
How does Blade Runner 2049 compare? Well, visually it strongly builds on the original film, creating similar striking cityscapes but also showing us other aspects of the Blade Runner world. From the nuclear wasteland, filled with towering, now abandoned statues, to the film's final confrontation in the water, the film looks incredible, and combines CGI well with on location filming. The score is also effectively used, both with new material but also effectively deploying melodies from the original film at key points. Moreover, plot wise Blade Runner 2049, at least at first, creates an intriguing and taut plot, along classic noir lines, in the form of officer K's investigations into replicants. Some, or even many, reviewers are claiming that the plot of 2049 is better than that of the original, praising the fact that K "actually does some investigating" in contrast to the first film (@RedLetterMedia). This is unfair on the original. The rather infamous "enhance" scene from the original is actually a prime example of Deckard doing investigating, and for an engaged viewer has a sense of tension about it. In some ways the second film actually loses the noir plot element more than the original film, as in the third and final act it spirals into blockbuster action territory.

Ana de Armas as "Joi" and Ryan Gosling as K
What Blade Runner 2049 does really well compared with the original, however, is the relationship between the lead character and the romantic lead. Ryan Gosling is fantastic as Officer K, portraying his change from deadpan unthinking replicant gunslinger to someone with real humanity by the end of the film. He makes the change that Deckard should have made during the first film, and this gives us a real emotional climax at the end of the film when K's story line is given its conclusion. The success of K's character is in no small part down to his relationship with "Joi", a mass produced hologram whose role is to be its owner's girlfriend, played by Ana de Armas. Gosling and de Armas have fantastic chemistry but the relationship on its own has a real poignancy, and the film's most impactful scenes come from their interactions. Feminist critics of the film have argued that it objectifies women, in presenting de Armas as "a doting, doe-eyed housewife, she appears to him in hologram form as and when he dictates, wearing and saying whatever she thinks suits his mood." This, in my view, misunderstands the film's message, as shown in two key moments. Firstly, after K and "Joi" have sex through a prostitute who Joi hires, the film then cuts away to a large neon advertisement of "Joi" on the side of a skyscraper. Similarly, at the end of the film, K encounters a huge, naked, holographic Joi advertisement which attempts to seduce him. The point of these two scenes is to make a feminist point: to remind us that Joi is a corporate product, programmed to convince its owner that it loves them. The effect of the advertisement suggests to the audience how K's experience of love is neither unique nor genuine but simply the product of a company. That said, the film is definitely more ambiguous about Joi thematically than these two scenes would suggest. K is definitely in love with her, and she appears to be in love with him. The film therefore raises the question: if your holographic corporate product appears in all respects to love you, what is the difference between that and real love? It is a classic case of Blade Runner's "More Human than Human" theme.

Jared Leto as Niander Wallace
However, in almost every other respect, Blade Runner 2049, in my opinion, fails to truly reach the heights of great film making. The narrative itself devolves, in the third act, into a rushed action finale. The introduction of the replicant resistance, simply for the purposes of exposition, in order to make important plot revelations to K, feels forced and unnecessary. What makes it particularly frustrating is that the idea of the replicant resistance is an interesting one, which makes it so frustrating that it is just casually thrown in, with almost no build up. Moreover, the villains of the film lack any degree of complexity, in total contrast to the original film. Jared Leto's Wallace is a completely one sided character, simply defined by his evilness. Compare this to the equivalent figure in the original film, Dr Eldon Tyrell, who tries to portray himself as the benevolent creator but always carries with him a suggestion of malevolence and cold steely pragmatism. Wallace's evilness could be excused if the film's other villain had been more complex. However, Wallace's replicant henchman, "Luv", is perhaps even worse. Her motivation throughout the film seems unclear, only explained by unflinching loyalty. This has been explained to me as a result of her being a new type of replicant, programmed only for loyalty. But for me, this does not excuse a boring character, especially one who, at the beginning of the film, appeared to be more complex, flirting with K and crying when Wallace killed a new replicant. What would have been more interesting was if she had struggled with her status as a replicant to some degree, perhaps similar to Roy's struggle in the first film. As it is, she was totally uninteresting and became the equivalent of the infamous "strong (wo)man" from the Indiana Jones films.

Old and grumpy and playing Deckard, it's Harrison
Ford again
Robin Wright's Lt. Joshi was well played and moderately interesting, but was given very little development and as such came off as a missed opportunity. Similarly, Deckard's appearance in the film was fairly good, but in this case it was limited by the original film. We are building up to Deckard's arrival throughout the whole film, partly due to plot but also due to the presence of Harrison Ford in the film's advertising. However, when he arrives, though Harrison Ford acts the part well, it feels jarring. This is because Deckard in the first film didn't really have any character. When he starts making jokes about cheese upon his entrance in Blade Runner 2049, it doesn't really feel like the Deckard of the original Blade Runner, who for most of the film is rather cold and impersonal. Moreover, the scene where Wallace presents him with a replicant copy of Rachel to try and persuade him to co-operate also falls flat, because it depends upon the audience's belief that Deckard and Rachel were deeply in love, despite the fact that in the first film Deckard borderline sexually assaults her and they appear to have little or no chemistry or affection for each other. Blade Runner 2049 arguably can't be blamed for the flaws of the original, but this doesn't prevent the fact that scenes fundamentally based upon the original's flaws fall flat.

Overall, I would say the biggest problem with Blade Runner 2049 is that it tries to do too much. One of the strengths of the original film is that it only really has three characters: Deckard, Rachel and Roy. Blade Runner 2049 doesn't firmly settle which relationship it wants to make the film about. To some degree it hints at K and Joi's relationship being the central one in the film, but that plot line comes to an end long before the film's conclusion. Instead, we have far too many characters and relationships: K, Joi, Deckard, Joshi, Luv and Wallace, as well as the prostitute and the memory creator. The ending of the film demonstrates most clearly the film's failure to focus, but requires large spoilers so skip the end of this paragraph if you haven't seen the film yet. SPOILER ALERT. At the end of the film, K shows Deckard where his daughter is living, and then lies down to die on the steps outside, with the "Tears in the Rain" melody playing. This should be where the film ends, because the film is K's story, which has been brought to a conclusion. Instead, however, we head inside and are shown Deckard meeting his daughter. This seems to be more of an attempt at fan service, to give Deckard's story some closure. But this distracts from the film's focus on K. His personal story gets rather dwarfed in the grand scale of the film, which is sad because for the most part his character feels very real and as an audience we sympathise with him.

"Like Tears in Rain"- Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty
In conclusion, Blade Runner 2049 has its moments but is perhaps best described as a film with elements that are great, and other elements which could have been great, but were not executed perfectly. For the most part, other than the relationship between K and Joi, the film seems to lack emotional connection and thematic intelligence. The first film, whilst not perfect in its own right, and perhaps being less enjoyable, is better put together as a coherent package, with two tightly plotted storylines and a small amount of developed characters. At their best, the Blade Runner films make us question what it is to be human, and there is nothing within Blade Runner 2049 to rival the ultimate heartbreaking humanity of the "Tears in the Rain" speech.


Blade Runner: Entertainment: 6 Technical: 5 Intelligence: 5= 16/20 ****

Blade Runner 2049: Entertainment: 6 Technical: 5 Intelligence 3= 14/20 ***,0,182,268_AL_.jpg

Links to reviews quoted in this review:

Friday, 9 September 2016

Yi Yi- 5 Stars

Criterion Collection Cover
Yi Yi, roughly translated as 'One after another' (although the original characters, when placed together, form the Taiwanese word for Two), was the final film made by Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang before he sadly died at only 59. It is a film that really defies short description. On the surface it is simply the story of a family living in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, and their different everyday struggles and choices. Yet under this simplistic premise, the film is really an examination of human relationships, age, love and, most of all, regret.

The three central characters in the film are NJ, the middle aged father who struggles to maintain his business endeavors whilst also meeting by chance his former girlfriend who he walked out on many years ago; Ting-Ting, the teenage daughter who struggles with the family dependence on her in her mother's absence (the mother heads off to a Buddhist retreat at the start of the film after facing a midlife crisis) and her own development of romantic feelings; and finally Yang-Yang, the 8 year old son and his troubles at school. Surrounding these three central main characters is a huge supporting cast including NJ's brother-in-law, A-Di, who at the beginning of the film marries a film starlet because he got her pregnant despite still being in love with his former girlfriend, a Japanese game designer Ota, who seems to be the only person with any clear sense and ability to express it in the film, and Ting-Ting's friend Lilli, whose mother brings home a string of men, many of whom are abusive, whilst Lilli struggles with her troubles with her own boyfriend.

The biggest difficulty in writing about this film is knowing where to start. There are so many different plot and character threads, all of which contribute different thematic perspectives that it is quite overwhelming in terms of analysis, with each scene contributing another nugget of understanding. It makes most sense, therefore, to dissect each of the main character's arcs in turn, and from there to deviate into supporting characters and their meanings when necessary. Since NJ is seemingly the linchpin of the film as the head of the family, I shall start with him.

Japanese comedian Issey Ogata as the wise Ota
 NJ is a rather typical middle aged father- he loves his family, wants to do better than his own parents did, and yet is so lost in both his personal and professional life that he cannot really connect with them. Professionally, NJ is working with his old school friend in trying to bring about a deal with Japanese game designer Ota. Although NJ is initially reluctant to get involved with games, something he knows nothing about, Ota's wisdom and kindness win him over. Unfortunately, the very qualities in Ota that win over NJ seem to put off NJ's business partners who decide to pursue another cheaper designer Ata, and assign NJ to string Ota along in case the Ata deal doesn't work out. Ota and NJ bond over music and Ota shows NJ some magic tricks with a pack of cards at a bar. For NJ, Ota represents an integrity and honesty that is completely lost in the commercial sector. Moreover, Ota's love of magic and music points to something beyond the simple making of money. One of the most genius technical achievements of the film is Yang's frequent use of overlaying dialogue from one scene onto another visual scene without having us realise it. The best example of this is when Ota's grand ideas about the next generation of gaming are overlayed onto the previous scene of A-Di's wife having an ultrasound. Ota's ideas of creation in gaming are thus linked with birth and the creation of life- Ota is an artist and his work is a creation of life in itself. NJ, drawn by this and put off by the mundanity of his own work and baseness of financial, commercial greed, begins to withdraw from the business. However, the sadness is that although Ota has given NJ an understanding of how life can be so much more, there is not much NJ can really do to bring it about- he is trapped in the busy day-to-day of modern life.

Wu Nien-jen as NJ meets Sherry (Su-Yun Ko) in
a brief encounter
It is interesting how in the film Japan represents a new hope both professionally and personally for NJ, for it is in Japan where he not only meets with Ota but also reunites for a week with his first girlfriend, Sherry. It is in the handling of the relationship between NJ and Sherry that the film reveals its true genius for it turns what could easily be a melodramatic plot line into a bittersweet reflection on times gone by. Sherry and NJ first meet in the film by chance in the hotel where A-Di's wedding is held. At first their conversation is polite but it is obvious, especially when Sherry comments on NJ's child, Yang-Yang, that something has passed between them. Sherry leaves but then comes storming back over demanding to know why NJ left saying 'I waited, I waited!' but before anything else can happen NJ's old school friend arrives and both go back to their former politeness. In many ways this is a reflection of all the film's main characters- there are all these feelings bubbling under the surface that they want to get out, but, for one reason or another, be it social convention, fear of rejection or simple acceptance that the time has passed, they keep it in, bottling it up inside. Yang very rarely shoots scenes in closeup. In one heartwrenching scene, when NJ calls Sherry up, gets her answerphone and apologises for the past, wishing her all the best, the whole thing is shot from a distance. In a western film, we would usually get close to the character's face, see their emotion, hence creating the stage for melodrama which is based on our emotional response. Yet Yang realises that instead, just as everyone in the film never says everything they need to say, so too must we the audience not see everything we need to see. Just as the characters keep each other at arms length, the audience must be kept at arms length too- it is only through this distancing, that we can really understand the distance between the characters themselves. And yet we understand that just as we desire to be closer in the scene, so too do the characters wish to be closer to each other.

NJ and his son, Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang)
NJ and Sherry eventually spend a week together in Japan. They reminisce about their past relationship, sometimes wistfully, sometimes angrily turning on each other. Although they never say it, both are trying to understand what went wrong between them, and, perhaps more importantly, whether if they get together now the same thing will happen again. In the end NJ tells Sherry he has never loved anyone but her. She then leaves the next morning without a word of farewell. NJ says that even if he could go back in time he would still have left her. We understand that they do love each other, but that their time has past. Yet Yang adds another layer to their relationship, although to understand this we must first examine several other characters. Firstly, the next door neighbours are used to emphasise the noble restraint of NJ and Sherry. The woman next door, Mrs Jiang, brings home many different men, some of whom hit her, and in the process she alienates her daughter Lilli. In contrast, NJ and Sherry hold hands, but it is made clear by Yang that they do not go further. For NJ and Sherry love is not the passion of Mrs Jiang and her string of boyfriends- one minute having wild sex and the next screaming at each other- it is rather a soulful search for meaning. Both NJ and Sherry are dissatisfied in their current lives and wish to return to their youth, thus their joint interest in each other. It is not, as Yang would see it, a lowly desire of the body, but rather a higher search for the soul. In this way NJ mirrors his wife's retreat to the Buddhist monastery- what she seeks to find in religion, NJ seeks to find in youth and love. Yet both of them fail, with both of them admitting upon their return to still feeling empty.

The second important relationship is that of NJ's brother-in-law A-Di and his wife and former lover. A-Di's wedding starts the film off but it is apparent that he and his wife do not really love each other. Instead A-Di seems to be more interested in spending time with his ex, Yang-Yang, who tells the grandmother at the beginning of the film that she should have been marrying A-Di. We are never told explicitly what has happened between them, but it seems obvious that A-Di and Yang-Yang were in a long term, loving relationship, until A-Di had a short fling with his now wife, resulting in her pregnancy meaning he had to bow to social custom and marry her. This mistake has now ruined A-Di's life. One of the scenes most poignant images is when the usually cheerful and loud A-Di returns home alone after his baby shower, takes off his shirt and just stands there in the centre of the room. His stomach spilling over the front of his trousers, his messy hair- this is a man who, despite the spacious apartments he is living in and the new wealth of his wife, is deeply unhappy and as he enters the beginnings of the physical decay of middle age, he regrets the action that has saddled him with a demanding, unloving wife and lost him his love and happiness. The following scene, in which his wife returns to find him locked in the bathroom with the gas on and the windows closed, leaves it deliberately ambiguous as to whether this was a suicide attempt or not. Whichever way, we understand that NJ's situation, whilst not ever exactly identical, is replicated time and time again.

Yang-Yang reads to his sister, Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee)
Finally, the last important character with which to draw comparisons with NJ and his relationship with Sherry is NJ's own daughter Ting-Ting, and her own tentative relationship. Ting-Ting, at the beginning of the film, watches the next door neighbour's daughter, Lilli, and her boyfriend, Fatty, sneak off to make out (incidentally, distracted by this, Ting-Ting forgets to take the trash out which leads to her grandma having a stroke as she attempts to take the trash out herself, leaving Ting-Ting with feelings of guilt). Ting-Ting befriends Lilli, but it turns out that Lilli and Fatty's relationship is far from ideal and Ting-Ting frequently becomes the go between point between them. As Lilli seemingly begins to follow her mother, and hooks up with other guys, Fatty and Ting-Ting become closer. Perhaps the very best scene in the film is when NJ and Sherry reminisce about the first time they held hands, and realise they are doing so again now, decades later, which is overlaid at the same time with Ting-Ting and Fatty holding hands for the first time. It is simple and underplayed but carries several layers with it. On the surface it seems sweet and romantic- love is both unique and shared by everyone. Everyone has their own unique first time of holding hands with a lover, yet this is an experience with common ground. Yet underneath it all there is a sadder, less romantic implication. Just as NJ and Sherry's teenage relationship fell apart, so too will that of Ting-Ting and Fatty. The regret that NJ and Sherry feel now and the wistfulness for their lost youth will be inevitably repeated throughout time, with Ting-Ting and Fatty, as the next generation, being the symbol of that.

Yang-Yang with his camera- art becomes the only form
of expression for Yang-Yang and Oda
There are many more things to say about Ting-Ting's plotline but, because of space and the fact that aspects of it are the least interesting and convincing of the film (especially the rather contrived murder), I shall move straight on to Yang-Yang. Yang-Yang is in a way the secret hero of the film. In his child's mind he is the only one with true understanding. He asks his father NJ at one point how he knows that they are seeing the same things as each other. NJ responds that he doesn't know. In one small question Yang-Yang sums up all the problems of communication that characters have in the film- no-one quite knows what anyone else is seeing or thinking or feeling, and thus we can never truly know anybody else. Yang-Yang follows up his first question by pointing out that you can never see the whole truth, only half the truth because you can never see the back of your head. He then proceeds throughout the film to take pictures of the back of everybody's heads. This is symbolic of our own self deception and also our failure to ever truly understand anything. It is similar to the magic and music of the Japanese game designer Ota who insists that he cannot explain his tricks: there are some things in life that are greater than us that we cannot explain- true knowledge is in knowing that we cannot explain it.

Ratings: Entertainment: 9 Technical: 5 Intelligence: 5= 19/20 *****

Note: There is still so much to talk about in this film so please do go and watch it. The one further thing I will say is that the actors of Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) and Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) who were only 13 and 8 respectively at the time of filming are truly brilliant in this film and go to show that, provided you find the right ones, child actors need not be a 'kiss of death for your movie'

Thursday, 2 June 2016

The Greatest Filmmakers of the Century so Far: Charlie Kaufman and Richard Linklater

Charlie Kaufman and Richard Linklater are, in my opinion, the greatest filmmakers of the 21st Century so far. Granted, we are only 16 years in, and both have careers stretching back to the 1990s, but both Kaufman and Linklater are beyond doubt great filmmakers, although this is not always recognised in the media. Kaufman's genius is probably more strongly certified, with films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) attracting both popular and critical followings, but the commercial failure of his directorial debut, and masterpiece, Synecdoche, New York (2008), has limited his ability to get films made, resulting in him making only two films in the last ten years, one of which Anomalisa (2015), had to be financed via crowd funding. Linklater, in contrast, has had a much steadier career, but one which has seen far less messiah-worship in terms of critical following. In fact, he only really broke through into the mainstream of critical appraisal in 2014 with Boyhood, despite the film utilising very similar cinematic styles and techniques to his previous films such as Slacker (1991) and Before Sunrise (1995). However, here I aim to show how Linklater and Kaufman use very different cinematic styles to produce works of art that, at the core, share very similar themes and ideas about the world we live in: namely, our loneliness and isolation from others, but our hope in love to form a connection which give our lives meaning.

On the surface, Kaufman and Linklater appear to be very different filmmakers, although, it must here be noted, that for five of his seven films, Kaufman has been the screenwriter, not the director, a fact which has occasionally brought him into conflict with the film's producers, such as with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) of which Kaufman claimed director George Clooney moved away from his script and therefore is 'a movie I don't really relate to.' That said, most critics acknowledge Kaufman's pervasive influence on the majority of the film's he has written, so much so that there were doubts about whether Spike Jonze, the director of Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaption (2002), could really make good films without Kaufman (doubts put down by Jonze's 2013 film Her).

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard
in Synecdoche, New York
Kaufman is probably the foremost absurdist filmmaker of modern times. His films are all characterised by bizarre comic events punctuating the lives of the protagonists. His films are based in 'reality', in that they all are set in typical modern world settings (Being John Malkovich is set in a office, Synecdoche, New York in a theatre, Anomalisa in a hotel) but these settings are twisted and subverted so as to make the world seem irrational and beyond comprehension. In Being John Malkovich the office the protagonist Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) works in is on floor 7 1/2, and as a result is incredibly small, requiring everyone to crouch everywhere, a reflection of the claustrophobia and feelings of imprisonment the trappings of the office environment bring. And that's not even to mention the magic realist plot of the film, in which Craig finds a wormhole into John Malkovich's brain. It is most important to consider, however, Synecdoche, New York, because it is not only Kaufman's best film but also the film upon which he worked on as both screenwriter and sole director, and thus carries the greatest Kaufman mark. Synecdoche, New York is also a film with a realist setting- that of Caden Cotard's (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the protagonist, ever growing theatrical production- but introduces increasing absurdist elements, as both Caden's physical health and his personal relationships begin to fail. The best example is Caden's love interest, Hazel (Samantha Morton), who lives in a house that is eternally on fire, which is meant to symbolise how our choices impact down through the rest of our lives. Another example, is how, at the beginning of the film, the passing of time is shown through a series of incidental objects: the radio says one date, the newspaper another, the milk carton a further one. The point is to give time a loose feeling- Caden's life is dull and monotonous, so much so that he doesn't even notice time passing.

Theatrical Release Poster for Boyhood
This is all in stark contrast to Richard Linklater's humanist realism. Whilst Kaufman skips over time, presenting it as loose and changeable in order to suggest life's monotony, Linklater's Before Sunset (2004) is a real time film, i.e. every minute on screen consists of a real minute of the audience's time (which is perhaps why the film is only 80 minutes long). Kaufman uses the irrational and absurd to emphasise human isolation, whereas Linklater wants to show how people interact with one another in our everyday lives, and that can only be done by slowing down and focusing or the mundane. For Kaufman the mundane is something nightmarish, depriving our lives of meaning and driving us to isolation. Linklater, in contrast, sees the true nature of life in the mundane. Slacker is a film in which various different characters walk around Austin, Texas, talking with each other. Linklater hopes to present the audience with a slice of real life, and asks us to examine how people interact with one another. Linklater also has a sense of life's meaningless, yet he sees a positive way through it. According to Linklater, a 'slacker' is not someone who is lazy or stupid in choosing not to work, or at least, choosing not to take their work too seriously. Instead, a slacker is someone who understands that life is not to be found in the competitive world of careers and work but rather in the important personal relationships we form. This certainly seems to be the case in Boyhood, as by the end of the film it is the father, Mason Snr (Ethan Hawke), who has taken his time to get a career, and therefore has a new family, who is left happy and optimistic whilst the mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who has a successful career, is the one left despairingly saying 'I just thought there would be more.'

Michael (David Thewlis) and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh)
in Anomalisa
However, despite their differences Linklater and Kaufman are actually fundamentally concerned with the same question- what is it that gives our lives meaning? This is a very obvious theme to take from any of Kaufman's films, but perhaps is especially clear in Kaufman's animated film Anomalisa in which Michael Stone (David Thewlis) sees everyone else in the world as having the same face and voice (provided by Tom Noonan), except for Lisa who is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh and has a distinctive facial scar. Michael is at the beginning of the film completely drifting because his life has no purpose- what he needs is some kind of meaning. Linklater's concern is perhaps more subtle because of the realistic nature of his films but his concern with life's purpose is seen fairly clearly in Before Sunset's opening scene in which Jesse (Ethan Hawke) talks about his pretentious idea for his next novel saying 'Happiness is in the doing right? Not in the getting what you want.' Linklater's films are deliberately full of pretentious dialogue about the meaning of life which is not meant to be taken all that seriously- there is no delusion on Linklater's part that this is philosophy- the point is the essence of the characters themselves. Jesse's concern with where happiness lies, reflects a wider human concern of what it takes to be satisfied and happy in life. The point of film as a visual medium is that this should be shown to us not told and that is exactly what Linklater does- the pretentious dialouge doesn't solve the problem of human satisfaction, but the personal relationships between characters and their wants, fears and desires, are what point the way to life's true meaning.

So what meaning, if any, do Kaufman and Linklater find in life? Here again both are in agreement that it is personal relationships, and perhaps specifically for Kaufman, love. In Synecdoche, New York, Caden is constantly drifting and dissatisfied. His first marriage to Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) falls apart and his second marriage to Claire (Michelle Williams) is one of convenience. His true love is instead Hazel but, due to difficult circumstances, and Caden's own social awkwardness, they fail to properly get together until it is too late. Yet the film's main song, the lyrics to which are written by Kaufman, accurately describes a hope inside all of us that love and someone special will save us from life's meaningless mundanity:

'I do my little job
And lead my little life
Eat my little meals
Kiss my little kid and wife.

But somewhere maybe someday
Maybe somewhere far away
I'll meet a second little person
Who will look at me and say:

"I've known you
You're the one I've waited for..."'

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine
(Julie Delpy) in The Before Trilogy
Linklater places a similar hope in personal relationships. In Before Sunset, both Jesse and Celine (Julie Delpy) are unhappy with the direction of their lives in the past nine years since the first film. Although at first they seem to be much the same as they once were, it becomes apparent that both are much less hopeful and satisfied with life than they were nine years ago. Jesse talks of marrying out of a sense of duty whilst Celine describes how she feels unable to truly connect with anyone. Yet they have hope in each other. Whilst in the first film, they part on an ambiguous note with the audience unsure as to whether they will see each other again, or whether they are even truly suitable to each other (as Jesse puts it in Before Sunset 'Maybe we're only good at talking for one night whilst walking round European cities), in the second film there is a sense that Jesse and Celine really are perfect for each other, and that together they can create a meaningful life together.

Richard Linklater, director of Slacker, The Before Trilogy
and Boyhood
It is tempting, therefore, to say that Linklater is more positive about finding life's meaning than Kaufman. In contrast to the rather cliched, cheesy and hopeful song of finding 'the one', in Synecdoche, New York Caden does eventually get together with Hazel, but on their first night together she dies of smoke inhalation from her burning house. The ever presence of death in Kaufman's film, in fact, makes any hope seem far away, especially as Kaufman seems to imply through Hazel's death that any love and meaning that can be found in life will be fleeting, an idea similarly seen in Anomalisa where Lisa begins slowly to adopt Tom Noonan's voice and thus loses her individuality- in other words Michael's perception of her as someone special turns out to be wrong, she is just the same as everybody else. In contrast, Boyhood is a film of optimistic belief in the power familial relationships. At the end of the film, when Mason Jnr breaks up with his girlfriend, his family are there to support him. He asks his dad what the meaning of life is, to which Mason Snr laughs and replies he has no idea, except that it's important to keep feeling things. For Linklater, meaning is therefore found in our emotions and relationships, whatever they may be, and thus he could be judged to be more optimistic than Kaufman.

Charlie Kaufman, writer of Being John Malkovich,
and director of Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa
However, this is too broad a brush and ignores the various changing ideas that have influenced the directors throughout their careers. To label Kaufman purely as a pessimist is to ignore the positivity in his films. The clearest example of this is in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which Joel realises that wiping his memory clean of his relationship with Clementine, no matter how sad he feels about it now, is to remove the meaning that the relationship gave him. The final meeting between Clementine and Joel, in which it is implied that they start a new relationship, is probably the most optimistic Kaufman ending, as love in the end wins out, to some extent. It is perhaps not surprising that this optimistic ending resulted in Kaufman's most commercially popular film to date. That said, Anomalisa also has some optimism in its ending. Although Michael is still as self-pitying and despairing as he was at the beginning of the film, the relationship between him and Lisa allows Lisa to begin enjoying life again, symbolised by her optimism at the end of the film, and more significantly by the fact that the friend Lisa is with has her own individual face, instead of the generic puppet face which she has worn for the rest of the film. Meanwhile, Linklater is not entirely optimistic about human relationships. Before Midnight (2013) ends in a climatic and emotionally brutal fight between Jesse and Celine as they argue over their children, Celine's feelings of underachievement, Jesse's alienation from his son and more. In the end, the meaning of love is implicitly disputed. For Celine, love is romantic passion, so when she tells Jesse at the end of the fight 'I'm not sure I love you anymore' it means that they have perhaps lost the social dynamic that first kept them together. However, for Jesse love is something deeper- it is a steady, enduring feeling of companionship and dedication to another person. He realises it isn't perfect, but that no matter what happens he and Celine must depend upon each other to give their lives meaning. It is not an optimistic picture of love- it is not idealised and it certainly isn't implied to be perfect or to last forever- but rather it is the love of real life, guiding us away from dissatisfaction, and that is ultimately what makes Linklater's films great.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Oscars 2016

As the Oscars are forever wrong in their choices I thought I'd do my own little Oscars for all the films I've seen this year. Of course I haven't managed to see every film this year so I'm sure there will be lots of films left off the list that should be deserving of a place.

Best Film: 45 Years

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years
45 Years has only been nominated for one Oscar (best actress for Charlotte Rampling) which it probably won't win, but really it should be winning just about everything. Directed by Andrew Haigh it stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as elderly couple Kate and Geoff Mercer who are rocked by the discovery of the frozen body of  Geoff's former girlfriend who died 50 years ago, after falling to her death in the Alps. This is not a detective film- I'll put it out there now that neither Geoff nor Kate had the girl murdered- but rather it is film about love, marriage and how we deceive ourselves. There are moments of discovery and drama, but mostly it's about a slow realisation that you can live with someone for 45 Years and still not truly know who they are. It is moving, intelligent and beautifully acted...and it wasn't even nominated for Best Picture.

Best Director: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller, Director of Mad Max: Fury Road
This was a difficult one. The other two major contenders for the award were Alejandro Inarritu for The Revenant (who will probably win the actual Oscar) and Andrew Haigh for 45 Years. Inarritu, for all my slight qualms about the film itself (that it doesn't have all that much to say, that the revenge plot is less interesting than the simple survival, that the main character isn't well defined) has directed a film which is an experience to watch- there are moments in it where you feel the pain that Glass is going through. In complete contrast, Haigh's direction is subtle and quiet but all the more impressive for it- he approaches the film with admirable restraint and poise. However, in the end George Miller wins the day. I didn't enjoy Mad Max as much as other people- the characters weren't all that well defined and I wanted to see more of the world- but the sheer scale of the action, all done with live sets is incredible. There is such an intensity and creative energy to this film that means you can't help but love it, and that is all down to Miller, the man who started the franchise and is now overseeing its resurgence.

Best Actor: Tom Courtenay, 45 Years

Tom Courtenay as Geoff Mercer
Tom Courtenay has not been nominated for the Oscar which has caused quite an outcry in British circles and you can see why. His performance here is one of the utmost intelligence and maturity. 45 Years is a film told mostly from the perspective of Kate, which, for a lesser actor than Tom Courtenay, might make it a struggle to bring Geoff's feelings across. Not the case. We feel Courtenay's sadness and struggle, even as this impacts Kate, the protagonist. Even more impressive, we see a shift in his character throughout, even whilst he retains this sympathy. At first he is lovable and comedic, by the end his physicality takes on an almost grotesque style- his jerking movements and odd intonations show how, in Kate's eyes, he's becoming all the more distant and strange. Geoff's end speech, which I cannot properly describe without explaining the crutch of the film is utterly heartbreaking, and is made so by Tom Courtenay's strength in performance. A quick note should say that although Leo is expected to win tonight it will be a disappointing victory. His performance in The Revenant is supremely dedicated (read the reports of the shoot) but the character of Glass is limited and ill defined- his character can be summed up by survival and revenge. This doesn't give Di Caprio much to work with and so although his performance is good, anyone who was willing to crawl around in the snow for a long time and grow a beard could have done it.

Best Actress: Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Charlotte Rampling as Kate Mercer
45 Years is a brilliant film, and it is Charlotte Rampling's performance that makes it so. She is just amazing. The subtleties of Kate's feelings are portrayed by a slight move of the mouth, a glance, a slight crack in her voice. Throughout the film we see Kate's increasing uncertainty, as her world crumbles around her, and yet it is all done with a serene and realistic calm. There is no breakdown, there is no screaming fit, only an awkward dinner, a silent car journey, small things. And Charlotte Rampling does it all perfectly. The most moving scene of the film is at the end when, during Geoff and Kate's wedding anniversary, Kate goes into the toilet and just stares at herself in the mirror. There is no dialogue, but Rampling's look tells you all about her feelings, her uncertainty, her isolation in this event full of people. There should be a special shout out to Cate Blanchett in Carol who is brilliant as you would expect, balancing a superficial glamour with deeper emotion, and Saoirse Ronan, who gives a very subtle and moving performance as Ellis in Brooklyn.

Best Supporting Actor: Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina

Oscar Isaac as Nathan
This was a tough one. I initially was going to go with Tom Hardy for The Revenant, because his performance creates a strange and intriguing mixture of loathing and empathy (he is so evil and cruel, yet you see how his life at the frontier has shaped him that way). However, in the end I have settled on Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina. It is a wonderfully ambiguous performance, at once funny (Nathan's dance to Get Down Saturday Night is a moment of surreal brilliance), sinister and slightly pathetic, Oscar Isaac's billionaire Nathan is a constant enigma. From the moment he appears, you know there is something wrong and suspicious about him, but what it is you can't place your finger on.

Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

Alicia Vikander as Eva
I promise it wasn't intentional that the acting awards would go in duos to two films, but since both leading actor awards go to 45 Years, both supporting actor awards are going to go to Ex Machina. If Oscar Isaac's performance is one of supreme ambiguity and change, Alicia Vikander as the AI Eva is one of a different kind ambiguity. Her initial innocence and slight jerking movements, as well as the seem instability of her body, give her an appearance of fragility- she needs to be protected. However, as the film progresses, this seemingly simple picture of Eva becomes more complex. I want to avoid spoilers, but suffice to say Alicia Vikander's performance captures the subtleties of both sides of Eva and, my God, if she doesn't make a convincing robot I don't know who does.

Best Original Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa

Charlie Kaufman, writer and director of Anomalisa
This was almost another win for Ex Machina but in the end I couldn't overlook one of my all time favourite film makers, Charlie Kaufman. Anomalisa is a puppet film about a middle aged man, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) who lives in a world identical to our own, except that everyone else has identical face and voices (Tom Noonan's voice, to be precise). When he meets Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh), therefore, he believes they have a special connection. Like all Charlie Kaufman's films, this is a film with so many layers. However, its foremost themes are the typical Kaufman ones of loneliness, of living in a world which seems devoid of meaning, and, most importantly and tragically, the hope and desperation to escape this meaningless through love. It may be a puppet film, but it is melancholic to the bone.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Andrew Haigh, 45 Years

Andrew Haigh, writer and director of 45 Years

Based on David Constantine's short story In Another Country, it's 45 Years again- go see it, it's brilliant. (The other real contender was Brooklyn for a very mature adaption of Colm Toibin's novel of the same name- for a film about a love triangle, it's amazingly unsentimental and devoid of 'weepy' moments, yet still maintains that romantic yearning that you'd expect from a period drama romance.)

Best Animated Film: Anomalisa

Michael (David Thewlis) and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh)
 in Anomalisa
I loved Inside Out and so it breaks my heart not to give it a single award, but in both the categories it was seriously competing in, it has been beaten by Anomalisa. And, to be quite fair, how could the award for best animated film not go to Anomalisa, a truly daring film by one of modern cinemas true artists. Its boldness is breathtaking- it is all about what it means to be human, yet is done completely with puppets; it has the most realistically awkward sex scene, again, done only with puppets; and it combines comedy, elation and pathos in a way only Charlie Kaufman can. Unfortunately, very few people will see the film, but that says so much about the state of the film industry when genuinely brave and original films like Anomalisa go missing, whilst studios keep churning out more and more remakes and sequels.

Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant

Emmanuel Lubezki
Finally a win for The Revenant. Lubezki won the Oscar last year for Birdman which had the continuous shot gimmick. Although the continuous shot did contribute to the film's intensity and the idea that it was a piece of theatre, personally I thought Mr Turner deserved it more for its beautiful response to Turner's artwork and portrait of the changing English landscape. However, this time Lubezki would be fully deserving of his Oscar. The Revenant is a haunting film, and a major part of this is the contrast between the harsh brutality of the acts of men and beasts, juxtaposed with the beauties of nature, filmed lovingly by Lubezki. Not only is the landscape beautiful, but the action scenes are also filmed with technical skill and intensity, using long takes reminiscent of Birdman.

Best Original Score: John Williams, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Howard Shore, composer for all of the
Star Wars films
Combining seamlessly the old with the new was what made the latest Star Wars film great, and nowhere more so than the score. The original trilogy is noted for its brilliant scoring, from the opening titles, to Darth Vader's entrance, to Luke staring up at the suns of Tatooine. For the prequel trilogy, one of the few good things about it was its amazing score, especially during the large dramatic fights scenes. Star Wars: The Force Awakens builds on this, with new songs introducing new characters (especially Rey's theme) but also supplementing these new songs with the well known old songs at key moments, such as Darth Vader's theme when Kylo Ren is talking to his burnt out mask. Basically, I'm giving Star Wars: The Force Awakens an award because I love it and want to give it an award. Plus, if you can't give the traditional Star Wars force theme when Rey starts fighting back against Kylo Ren an award, what can you do.

Overall Winners:

45 Years: Best Film, Best Actor (Tom Courtenay), Best Actress (Charlotte Rampling), Best Adapted Screenplay (Andrew Haigh)- 4 awards

Anomalisa: Best Original Screenplay (Charlie Kaufman), Best Animated Film- 2 awards

Ex Machina: Best Supporting Actor (Oscar Isaac), Best Supporting Actress (Alicia Vikander)- 2 awards

Mad Max: Fury Road: Best Director (George Miller)- 1 award

The Revenant: Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki)- 1 award

Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Best Score (Howard Shore)- 1 award