S/cene [3]: The Crown – Beryl (Episode 4)

S/cene [1]: https://robsfocuspull.blog/2017/07/03/scene-1-the-social-network/

S/cene [2]: https://robsfocuspull.blog/2017/07/03/scene-2-fight-club/

 

The idea of S/cene is to break films down a little more closely and see how nuanced the art of film-making can be.  This time I’ve chosen a short scene from Episode 4 (Beryl) of The Crown.  It’s a stunning TV series that has the production values of a big movie.  I enjoyed the first season (though I did have some problems with it, found here: https://robsfocuspull.blog/2017/07/03/defusing-the-tension-in-drama/).  This second season, however, is a real triumph and each episode is made with gorgeous precision.  As soon as I saw this particular scene I knew I could write about it…

 

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Shooting Princess Margaret

To give this moment some context, it occurs around 37 minutes into episode 4.  This episode is where the season diverts from Queen Elizabeth to branch out to the other characters surrounding her.  It focuses on her sister Margaret who is having a torrid time romantically.  She is one of the most interesting characters of the series because of her ability to be more open with the way she acts.  I also think she is played superbly by Vanessa Kirby, who makes her both vulnerable and fearsome.  Recently, at some lavish (though slightly left-field of the monarchy) party, she met photographer Tony Armstrong – Jones, who is played by Matthew Goode.  It’s casting brilliance because Goode fits perfectly into this world, and has a striking look for a striking character.  The pair have an instant, if jagged, chemistry and when Tony offers to take a photo of her she takes it up – desperate for some fresh air.

The scene opens with Margaret pensively coming into Tony’s studio alone.  Outside the door window is a bright natural sunlight, somewhat symbolising the safety Margaret is leaving.  There’s a non-diegetic soundtrack on the go that is ticking, which is increasing the tension like a thriller would.  Tony shouts: “Upstairs” as soon as she opens the door, indicating very quickly just who is in charge here.  She passes a photograph of several men huddling around and staring at a singular woman.  This background image echoes Margaret’s life in the spotlight and the constant criticism she receives.  It then cuts to her sat waiting under the lights for Tony, and the soundtrack fades away.

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Next, Tony strolls in.  Unlike Margaret (who has a dress on), he is dressed casually with a loose tie and light coloured trousers.  His face is extremely thin, drawn out but still pleasant.  It’s this peculiarity in his looks that makes the camera draw to him, and make us follow his every move.  He says nothing as he enters and then retreats away.  Suddenly the light is on her, and off him.  He’s in the dark, adding more to the mystery of his character.  Purposefully he is making noise to unsettle her and it cuts between them.  They light a cigarette at the same time from different rooms, showing their connection and obvious chemistry.  Margaret gets up to look outside – perhaps thinking of an escape.

Eventually Tony returns to the room and removes his shoes, which enumerates more calmness to his nature.  He starts casually taking photos, and Margaret is clearly fond of him as she smiles.  Despite this effort at a bond from her, his dialogue is sharp – making sure he stays on top of this exchange.  Tony brings up her former lover Peter Townsend who she was forced away from, and the conversation becomes passive aggressive.  He’s edging closer; awkwardly pushing his camera forwards as the sexual tension grows.  The ticking soundtrack begins again.  It cuts to the side of them, almost a wide, in one of my favourite shots I’ve seen for a while.  The screen is split in almost two, her on the left out of the light and the camera on the right in the light.  He is invading her life as he moves the camera into the frame – breaking down her insecurities.  Standing over her, you can’t see his face as he moves her, then slightly pulls down her dress.  It’s a move of total power dominance, yet also sensuality as she gasps.  Tony has walked right into her world and taken over it.  The camera then follows him back and he says: “Do you miss him?” and she replies: “Sometimes”.  He takes the picture.

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This scene is excellent because it reveals so much about the characters in a short space of time.  Like the rest of The Crown it’s wonderfully executed – the lighting is warm, the camera moves gently and the acting is captivating.  Director Benjamin Caron really makes the scene engaging with all the subtle choices he makes, and allows this relationship to be fun to watch.  The Crown is so great because of how it’s made, not necessarily because of its content.  It’s the style of the show that makes it standout, and hopefully it’s been a good example of how the techniques of film-making (tv-making) are what creates the enjoyment of watching.

William Friedkin – The Imperfect Director

William Friedkin – The Imperfect Filmmaker

There is a problem with modern cinema, and that’s streaming.  Having things like Netflix, Amazon and Sky (as well as possible downloading) means that there are thousands of films at your fingertips.  Yet what kind of films are we watching on these services?  If you’re like me you research films before watching them – check out how they reviewed.  This has the unfortunate outcome of only ever watching things that other people like.  What about what you like?  I’ve seen enough films to know that a 6.5 on IMDb might be something that I really love.  The problem with having access to every film ever, is the lack of surprise, or risk you take seeing a random film.  There was a magic to catching a film late at night on the TV, then being pulled in by it.  So I would encourage anyone to delve out of their comfort zone, and look for films in the past that were possibly unpopular.  Search for left-field directors, who might have a style you gravitate to.  This is what I’ve been doing by going through William Friedkin’s filmography.  A legend of cinema his films have often been polarising, or just out-right hated, or loved.  He’s a filmmaker who is totally uncompromising and has an incredibly varied back catalogue.  I’ve now seen a fair bit of that catalogue, and why wouldn’t I share my unasked thoughts about them?  This is done in order of when the films came out, and not the order I watched them in.

 

The French Connection (1971)

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This film is like an action video game that has a tutorial soon as it loads up.  The tutorial is tricky, and it’s almost as if it expects you to know everything already.  Take a breath before watching this film and make sure you are in the right mindset.  Get past the 10 minute tutorial, and abstract introduction to the characters, and then sit back.  The rest of the film is Friedkin yanking you along with a big lasso.

This is a classic, and one of those films that fits into the loved category.  It’s been on my list for a while, and I was disappointed when I finally started it.  So much so that I turned it off, and decided to give it a go a different day.  Thankfully it was much better the second time around.  After the first 30 minutes the film really picks up the pace, and never stops moving till the end.  Friedkin is quite level-headed and subdued in his direction here.  It’s early in his career and he’s more of a steady hand then a visionary.  Despite that, it still has the great imperfections that I’m going to try and highlight.  Imperfections such as incongruous pieces of acting, or ridged cuts.  Gene Hackman is playing a disjointed character – saying and doing rash things.  This makes the film entertaining because as the central character he is unpredictable.  These are early signs of Friedkin not conforming to simple movie tropes.  He doesn’t need to take a break between action scenes or have additives to the plot.  That is the main thing I can say about this film, there are no add-ons.  There’s no need for a tacked on love-interest, or twist, or moments of pause.  Friedkin tells the story how it is – a policeman desperate to bust a drug dealer.  He is a visual director, someone who is concerned with cinema and not narrative.  It’s one of the things I love most about him – he does not care in the slightest about something if it doesn’t make the cinema experience greater.  There’s no fat in The French Connection at all.

I’m not sure that it completely holds up, and there’s plenty of stitching marks.  Yet its early signs of those errors, and scratches, and dirt on the lens that make Friedkin the great director that he is.

 

The Exorcist (1973)

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This whole piece is about how imperfections make things stand out and have character.  However this film is perfect in every way.  Perfectly paced, perfectly acted, perfectly shot.  Lightning really struck for Friedkin here.  Each scene is wonderfully crafted to aid the visual pleasure for the viewer, and the building of the plot.  The characters are all 3 dimensional, all relatable, and real.  They are acted with care and Friedkin creates a complex world for them to be in.  For me, it’s not scary, but gets it so right tonally that it is certainly unnerving & intriguing.

Each character is composed with style.  Jason Miller as Damian Karras is the standout, who has subtle inner troubles that makes him likeable.  He’s charismatic but unfathomable. The film took great risks, and Friedkin pushed everything and everyone as far as they could go.  It’s these risks, and leaps of faith (some literal faith) that make it so genius.  The themes of faith are deep-rooted in him as artist and it is a classic of theological storytelling. There is plenty of legend around this film, and whatever Friedkin did on set it certainly worked.  It’s timeless.

 

Sorcerer (1977)

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The beginning to this film is tough to follow, but if you allow yourself to settle in you will be rewarded with a breathtaking second half.  It’s a masculine film with lots of sweat and grunting.  The characters are frustrated, tired, pushed to their limits and its showing.  Natural human nature is emerging and the men at the centre of the film are starting to lose their minds.

Friedkin is excellent at capturing people doing things on screen.  He has this ability to shoot characters problem solving without it being boring.  This is particularly noteworthy in a spectacular scene about half way through the film when they have to blow up a massive felled tree to continue their journey.  It’s the simplicity of his camerawork that makes it compelling, and every second of that scene has weight behind it.  There is a real peril at all times.

Friedkin’s direction is so suspenseful throughout.  This film is thick, and sweaty. The characters are brash and heavy handed.  It’s clear that Friedkin just let the camera roll on them, because so much of the acting is idiosyncratic and personal.  This matches alongside the jarring electronic soundtrack that soon blends with the hearty visuals

The ending to this film is a spiritual experience and I haven’t stopped thinking about it.  It’s profound in its use of music and colours with Roy Schneider at the centre being physically engrossing.  There is a mood to this film that can only be explained once you’ve seen it.  SEE IT.

 

Cruising (1980)

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The feeling you have watching this film is impossible to explain.  It has a strange intrigue and showcases everything that is great about Friedkin.  My favourite quote from him is: “If I don’t show it, it doesn’t exist,” and with Cruising he shows just enough.  It’s a murder mystery with the late 70’s gay BDSM scene as the backdrop, and Friedkin feels no need to make it anything else.  There are no political statements, just visual storytelling.  The film moves weirdly, and is mostly soulless yet it is fully engaging.  All the performances are convincing, with of course Al Pacino guiding the film.  Each small player is thought of carefully and has a reality to them.  Karen Allen’s character Nancy adds a lovely femininity to the film.  There is clarity during her scenes, and Friedkin doesn’t feel the need to push anything during them.  She’s involved in the final moments of the film, final moments that are hard to get your head around.  Is Friedkin trying to say something at last?

A lot of this film feels like the surface level of something much deeper.  Famously there is 40 minutes of lost footage that Friedkin had to cut to stop it from being X-rated.  It was basically pornographic material and in 2013 James Franco made a Documentary/fiction film about the lost footage called Interior Leather Bar.  That film delves into the ideas on what should be shown on screen, and how actors feel about shooting stuff like that.  It’s a weird one but tackles the question that I had whilst watching Cruising: “Where’s the rest of it?” There appears to be something missing from this film, something that would fit into audience expectations.  Never once does the Al Pacino character question his sexuality, and the gay scene is never criticised or praised.  It’s the reason I love the film, and Friedkin so much.  He leaves that out, making the film raw visual entertainment instead.  It doesn’t get bloated with ideas or dilemmas – it just tells the story. Most of all it has that magic quality and a bit of edge that makes it timeless.  What is that quality? Who the fuck knows the film just works for me.

 

To Live and Die in L.A (1985)

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There’s this odd memory about 18 rated films I have as a child.  It’s like I was scared of them – scared of that thick red logo.  Whenever I caught one in my grandfather’s collection I would be fascinated by it.  What makes that film an 18?  I wanted a bite of that forbidden apple.  To Live and Die in L.A is one of those 18’s I was scared of.  A violent thriller about corrupt policeman, and a villain with no boundaries.  There are explicit sex scenes, gore and moments of exploitation cinema.  It’s a brilliant, fun ride that does not hold back in the slightest.  Willem Dafoe is terrifying in this movie, playing a greedy sociopath.  His relationship with the people around him is distant but kinetic.  He’s an artist but a killer.  A business man but a maniac.  William Pietersen stars opposite and I adore him in this and Manhunter.  For my own personal film catalogue he is iconic to 80’s film.  In this movie he’s a conflicted, often unlikable cop, who is totally compelling.  His sex-fuelled relationship with Darlanne Fluegel is dripping with style and these smaller scenes are the highlight of the run-time.

80’s cinema can go three ways: popcorn joy, intense thrills or utter rubbish.  This is the second one and again Friedkin is working the visual art form to the extreme.  The film jumps from scene to scene, only allowing the audience in on some of the secrets.  Moral or ethical values are seldom, and Friedkin excites with his direction.  There are parts where this film is shocking, or uncomfortable to watch.  More than anything it’s brutally entertaining.

 

Bug (2006)

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Its 2000’s Billy Friedkin.  He’s known as a classic auteur but has had 20 years of pretty much flops.  Slowly he’s slipping into that aged director category, where his modern films are self servicing.  Bug throws all of that out of the water.  It’s not an easy watch but it’s a really strong (and strange) play adaptation.  Also it’s best going in not knowing much about it.

The film is dirty, and works like a horror.  Ashley Judd is magnificent as this spitting, bold, and clearly lost woman.  She has no direction and a past that is clinging onto her.  Suddenly Michael Shannon appears in her life as a complete enigma.  The film drudges along and they begin to unravel.  Shannon becomes manic and screen-grabbing in powerful spurts of monologue.  The colours and mise-en-scene are stark, and unnerving. The lines between imagination and reality are blurred, and it’s hard to grasp the meaning of it all.  The film moves with fragility until a total explosion in the climax.  This climax is true visceral cinema and worth the wait until then.

It’s definitely not one of my favourite Friedkin films as it has quite a dull plotline.  Though it is undoubtedly brave and left-field like the rest of his films.  And like the rest of his films it is worth watching.  That’s probably the best compliment I can give all of Friedkins work – worth watching.

 

Killer Joe (2011)

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After the first 10 minutes of this film, I thought what has Friedkin become?  What is this television looking, leering mess?  Then I quickly realised how grounded the film was, how great it was acted, and how Friedkin cuts all the fat away.  He leaves behind any sense of flair to give a bare bones story.  It’s crude and harsh.  Each character an archetype but also deeply complex.  There’s juxtaposition of beauty and real filth.  Hopelessness is constant, and a sense of danger imminent.  Friedkin is almost lazy with his camerawork but on the nose with his control of the narrative.

The now infamous scene with Matthew McConaughey and the chicken leg is disturbing, but I think gels with the rest of the film.  It’s repulsive but didn’t feel out of place.  The ugliness of this film is its outstanding feature and I was surprised with how engaging it was.  There’s no abstract emotional connection, or moments of clarity like his earlier films but the Friedkin-esque style shines through.

Synonymous with Friedkin’s work the film has a powerful ending that allows the viewer to ask their own questions.  I am hoping this isn’t Friedkin’s ending, as this is his last major feature.  He’s well into his 80’s now, but there must be another splash of mucky paint left in him.

 

William Friedkin

Billy Friedkin is a brave director, a risk taker – someone willing to go all the way.  He gets the best out of his actors and isn’t afraid to put them under some intense pressure.  Listening to him is like being in the presence of a thespian making his way through a Shakespeare sonnet.  His memory is outstanding and the stories he tells are mesmerising.  He has thoughts on films that are romantic and compelling but he’s not afraid of change – he welcomes it – he starts it.

These are just a small selection of Friedkin’s films as he has a fair few more.  Arguably the ones I’ve chosen are the only ones you need to see from him.  He has others that are heavily criticised, and a couple that are liked, as well as a plethora of documentaries.  He is imperfect because of all those failures, but when he gets it right it is an EXPERIENCE.

 

Thank god ‘The Snowman’ is rubbish

Imagine a world of film where there aren’t scenes of Val Kilmer grunting in the snow?  That world would be extremely dull.  The Snowman is properly rubbish; to a point where it’s hard to comprehend just how rubbish it is.  After about the first minute it was evident that something went badly wrong during the production of this film.  Another 30 minutes passes and I’m now thinking is it all a massive joke?  Are the film-makers pulling one over us?  Otherwise it could be the worst film I have ever seen in the cinema.  And I’m quite relieved about this because quite frankly there is too much good stuff out there.  It’s really hard to make a good film, yet there have been plenty of them this year.  So thank god for The Snowman and its ability to make me laugh at its flaws.

To dissect the comedy of the film we’ll start with plot.  There is kind of a lot going on and then at the same time nothing that matters?  It is never clear what the main plotline is or what the point is.  The narrative bounces around with little connections between.  To be honest the plot of the film is the least funny part of it because it makes absolute no sense.  By the end of the film the thread of the weak murder mystery is pulled together but without any pay off.  The killer comes out of the blue (though I guessed him half way through) to give a final ten minutes that is completely baffling.  Up to this point the film had been a series of edits rather than scenes, with some characters having no ties to the main story.  There are other weird detectives other than Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) who are present in a different city because why?  I honestly couldn’t tell you.  There is a side-plot of a sexually abusive business mogul that has no relevance to anything, that comes with an added on J.K Simmons role.  Most of all the film is one big long continuation of exposition and ex machina’s.  Every piece of information is thrown in your face and made obvious by either a weird cut or music queue.  The plot devices are numerous – including a square portable computer that the detectives have to use.  Why?  Are we in a different universe to our own? Do phones, computers, iPad’s not exist?  Nope just so we can get one shot of the bad guy deleting some files.  Preposterous.

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There is a screaming in your face problem in this film that is clear from the very start.  The editing.  It’s interesting to note that this film has two editing credits, and I assume they’re both children.  It’s edited like about thirty different people have had a go at it.  Within the first minute there must have been fifty different cuts.  It was like they shot the whole movie then realised the record button wasn’t on at the end of filming, and consequently had to cut every three seconds to make a cohesive runtime.  The film would cut to close-up and I would laugh, then suddenly it would cut to somewhere completely different and I was simply bewildered by it.  Timing in editing is massive, and this felt really off – to where dramatic moments would become comedic ones.  I cannot tell you how funny the actual snowmen in the film were, and when it cut to them I could not hold the laughter in.  The director must have been distant during this part of production as there was certainly no vision in this aspect of the process.  There are actual scenes (not really scenes) in this film where all the action is skipped through via the edit and if you manage to make it to the end you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, J.K Simmons and Toby Jones are all in this film.  These are four massive and talented performers.  Fassbender is so absent throughout and combine this with his paper thin character you get a leading role that’s impossible to care about.  Ferguson has the only slightly intriguing role but never given enough chance to be engaging.  J.K Simmons is miscast and a pointless distraction.  And Toby Jones is wasted for one scene of exposition.  However none of them have anything on the totally unfathomable Val Kilmer appearance.  I have run out of words to describe his disjointed, mumbling uncomfortable attempt at whatever he is attempting.  His scenes are separate from the rest of the narrative, and I can’t for the life of me work out why he was cast.  He is clearly insane.  Which is a shame because Val Kilmer was once a great actor, and has a great Twitter – where he comes across as quite normal.  In The Snowman though he is a struggle to watch, like a cat slowly dying after it has been hit by a car.

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Go and see this film if you get the chance because it is definitely an experience.  I have so many questions for the people that made it, and I can’t even imagine the atmosphere at the premiere.  It is something I have not quite witnessed before – A film based on a popular series of books, with a famous cast and skilled director that fails on every level.  Usually bad films have one or two things wrong with them, and sometimes these bad films become more appreciated as time goes on.  The Snowman gets it wrong on pretty much every film-making basis and cannot be appreciated in any way.  Thankfully so, because the world is way more colourful when these horrid outliers occur.

 

(The actual editors of the film were not children; in fact one of them is Thelma Schoonmaker who is probably the greatest working editor.  Something dark happened to the people who made this film.)

(Also, I’m aware Val Kilmer has throat cancer, which could explain his peculiarity, but why cast him?)

 

Woody Allen is my hero and it’s horrible

Woody Allen isn’t actually my hero and that headline is a little misleading.  I’m not making money of this though, so it’s fine.  I’m not buzz feed just yet.  He is however a kind of a film-making hero of mine.  And I say that with trepidation, because well he is probably a horrific child abuser.  Emphasis on the probably considering those accusations have never made their way to completion.  This doesn’t mean they’re not true of course, and the overwhelming consensus is that Mr Allen is a huge creep.  A huge creep, who in my opinion, has created some of the best films of the last fifty years.  Not only that but films that have influenced the entire movie business, and myself – how I act and see the world.  Does this mean that I’m a bad person? Does this mean that artistry requires torment?  These are two questions that I am almost certainly not going to answer but the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal has put a distaste of Hollywood in my mouth.  It is definitely a systematic regime of abuse from all corners, and the major question is: is it worth it all?  Is Pulp Fiction worth Weinstein’s disgusting nature traumatising young actresses?  Is The Usual Suspects worth Bryan Singer’s unhealthy relationship with young men?  Is my favourite film of all time Annie Hall worth Woody Allen’s possible paedophilia?

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To attempt to make this more about films, and less about the vile male gender, I’m going to talk about why I’m a fan of Allen’s work.  This will hopefully create distance between the sickness of the man and the greatness of the art…

Play it again, Sam (1972):  Essentially Allen’s first signs of his own neurotic style.  It’s a classic laugh a minute kind of comedy with a weird romantic edge.  Allen himself is great in it – doing his typical paranoid character.  It’s based on his own Broadway play, and this means small concept, which works.  We also get a Diane Keaton in a more subdued role than usual, because Allen really is at the centre.  The simple joys in the comedy and the timing are what make this a great.  Interesting to note that Allen didn’t direct this film, Herbert Ross did, so there is little in terms of the picturesque that you get with Allen usually and it’s the writing where his nature comes out.

Manhattan (1979):  In terms of impact on the film world, this is right up there alongside Annie Hall.  It’s an aloof film, which is full of ideas.  The black and white leads to some really gorgeous cinematography from legendary DP Gordon Willis and gives the film a really obscure quality.  At its core it’s Allen poking fun at himself, being very self referential about his previous films and life.  The fact that it is a film about falling for a 17 year old of course begs a lot of questions but Allen’s other relationships in the film are more interesting to me.  Every time I watch it I find something new in there, and it is a literal cinema classic.

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Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989):  This is an odd film that over time has developed to be extremely appreciated.  It’s odd because Allen’s appearance in the film is incongruous to the rest of the narrative.  There’s a sense that two films have been glued together in a way.  Despite this, I feel like the clash works and the main plot is a tough conflicted look on guilt and I guess murder.  The conclusion to the film makes the strange dramatic ride worth it, and it stands out different in Allen’s filmography.

Match Point (2005):  The first film in this little list where Allen doesn’t feature, I think this an underrated film.  When I watched it I was mesmerised by the way Allen presents the story of love and infidelity.  It’s an incredibly tense thriller really, that is full of these juicy back and forth (like tennis) between the characters.  There’s deceit and fear and I think a wonderful central performance from Jonathan Rhys Meyers that is supported well by Scarlett Johansson.  Them together are totally screen grabbing and Allen’s screenplay design is punchier than it has ever been.

Midnight in Paris (2011):  A return to the typical form of Allen, this film encapsulates everything that is great about his films.  The scenery that is shot with beauty in mind, a thoughtful screenplay, and a sympathetic central character.  It is one of Allen’s more ambitious films of recent times and has a story that surprises but ultimately reflects himself once again.  Owen Wilson does a good job doing his best Woody Allen and following him in this film is properly lovely.  It’s a sign that Allen still has ideas that are intriguing and worth paying the ticket price to go and see.

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There are plenty of other films that I could have mentioned that I also love, such as: Hannah and her Sisters, Radio Days, Mighty Aphrodite and Café Society.  I chose not to write about Annie Hall because I love it so much.  Those five films should start to explain why Allen’s films are special to me and why a world without them would be extremely dull.  There is a magic to his films and whatever he may be as a man, his legacy on artistic level shouldn’t be tarnished.  He has, in the last 20 years, had more rubbish films than good ones and there is a sense of existential crisis in his work.  Perhaps it is time for him to die, perhaps his sins as a father, and an abuser should catch up to him.  He still has talent, 2016’s Café Society proves that, but for me he has given enough to cinema.  If he was to fade away then maybe some of that gross Hollywood masculinity will fade away with him.  Thankfully the future is hopeful because the dinosaurs are dying.  And to answer the ‘is it worth it?’ question I would say that without pain there is no brilliance, and without films like Annie Hall I’m not sure what kind of person I would be.  I’m in awe of artists like Allen, just as I am repulsed by them.

Blade Runner 2049: I don’t want to die

“What’s your biggest fear?” – Should have a qualifier to it.  It should be: “What’s your biggest fear, apart from dying?”.  Everyone’s biggest fear is death, and it has been since the start of time.  Religion was founded upon that fear and then moulded by psychedelic drug use.  Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner is all about that inevitable clock waiting to grasp us all.  Sure it’s a fantastic Sci-Fi thriller but most of all it’s a story about a desperate attempt to stay alive.  Our villainous replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) says: “All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain” to round off a classic story and film.  Yet Blade Runner lives on, some 35 years later to fall in to the depths of mortality once again.

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Denis Villeneuve is the greatest director on the planet.  He has a run of form that would compete with a 70’s Coppola or a whole career of Scorsese.  His directorial style can be drab yes, but also pristine.  Each one of his scenes are crafted to perfection – there are no holes of error.  Like the modern greats (Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson) he moulds the narrative in his own way and builds his films with multiple layers.  Luckily for our eyes he is a frequent collaborator with the greatest cinematographer on the planet – Roger Deakins.  The Deak has shot some of the best looking films of the last 20 years and in recent history he has been at the top of his game.  We’re talking Hail Cesar, Sicario, Prisoners, Skyfall, True Grit, A Serious Man and No Country for Old Men – all stunning mainstream movies.  With Villeneuve he has made the most gorgeous 163 minutes I have ever witnessed.  Blade Runner 2049 is a marvel of visual cinema.  The lighting is balanced so well between the dreariness of the sunken future world and the brightness of a hollow landscape.  It is equally colourful as it is solemn and more than anything the actors are placed accordingly.  There are moments during this film where I could not believe what I was seeing.  How did they shoot that? I was gasping and I was enthralled.  If cinema is a visual art-form then this could be one of the great works of art.  The 1982 film has this quality also, though I do not think it is quite as awe-inspiring.  Just a simple shot of Mackenzie Davis walking through a crowded street blew my mind.  For this the film gets a glowing recommendation to anyone, however this of course does not mean it’s a perfect film.

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The film is slow, gracefully slow, but still slow.  It’s paced much like a character or a mood piece rather than a Sci-Fi romp.  There is very little ‘blade-running’ going on and only a couple of real action scenes to speak about.  As a fan of a slow burn I was fine with this, and the more time spent with scenes the better.  Villeneuve and the writers were in no rush to portray a plot or elements of a narrative; rather were happy to let moments unfold in an immersive world they had built.  The engine for the film comes from the mystery of it all, and a constant questioning of our own interpretations of the Blade Runner tale.  It’s fuelled by some lovely performances by side characters; particularly Ana De Armas as Ryan Gosling’s virtual girlfriend Joi.  She is both sexy and innocent – being the intrigue of the first half of the film.  Her chemistry with Gosling is naturally disjointed and their relationship is built upon a synthetic desire.  There scenes together really are highlights of the film, and dealt with excellently within the context of the whole narrative.  Gosling does well as blade runner Kay – being likeable in a tricky role that is almost sidelined by the enormity of situations as the film progresses.  Through his character Villeneuve and Deakins present a left-field version of Blade Runner with a runtime of sublime and gripping pieces of film-making.  They throw plot out the window and tackle themes instead; themes of humanity and sacrifice.  Death is at the heart of the film again, but there is more beauty than sorrows this time around.

[Spoilers ahead – watch both films]

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There were three times in this film where the film emotionally got me.  Now on several occasions I felt like my eyes were going to fall out of my head because of how unbelievably beautiful it looked, but it was on three occasions where a little tear may have trickled out.  Firstly when Joi died I was heartbroken as the bond she had with Kay felt genuine.  Ana De Armas was fantastic in the role and the character was completely loveable.  It shows that being human is about connections with others and her death was tearing a connection apart.  What the film does well is sub verse your expectations and when Kay comes across an advert for a model of Joi this happens.  Suddenly he is empty of grief and this spurs him on to realise his destiny and save Deckard (Harrison Ford).  So maybe all this robot love is phoney?  I believe that being human is about that unpredictability and phoney love feels real at the time.  The second time I was emotionally jarred was when Kay died.  His elegant collapse on the snow steps is dazzling and represents a sacrifice.  Kay, to feel human, is doing something that is the most human of all – dying.  This is where the beauty of death comes in, because he is dying for a cause; dying for a hope.  Death was empty and hopeless in the 1982 film and in 2049 it is heroic and peaceful.  Kay gives his life so that the real Blade Runner centrepiece Deckard can meet his daughter.  This meeting was the third time I was emotion struck.  It was a denouement I wasn’t expecting; an ending to a weird and complex story.  There are still questions to be answered but the notions of death and humanity were identified well by Villeneuve.  I don’t want to die because I’m enjoying myself too much.  I’m enjoying these great films too much.  In time Blade Runner 2049 may be tore apart by critics or seen as a masterpiece like the original.  All I want to do is write about it and right now I am engorging on its existence.

Why ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’ is So Remarkable – Part 2/2: Performance & Narrative

First part (direction): https://robsfocuspull.blog/2017/07/10/why-the-prisoner-of-azkaban-is-so-remarkable-part-12-direction/

In the first part I discussed Alfonso Cuaron’s vision and his stamp on the film.  I think ultimately he is the reason the film is so brilliant; however there are other cogs in the wheel.  These other cogs, in a broad sense, are performance and narrative – two things that are arguably the most important in deeming a film a success.  A poor narrative leads a film to be boring and poor performances lead a film to be unwatchable.  Azkaban has both a strong narrative and strong performances, so mix that in with some arty Cuaron-ness and it adds up to a remarkable movie.

J.K Rowling is extremely precious about her work, and fairly so.  Instead of being discarded when the rights were bought for her books, she was brought into the fold.  It’s clear she backed away through most of the films creation but certainly didn’t let them get away with anything that wasn’t a part of her imagination.  The third book in her series, and for me one of the weakest, was published in 1999 two years before the first film even came out.  It’s a strange thing because I view all the potter books very differently.  After re-reading them, I see them more and more as children’s books.  The dialogue is a little scratchy and some of the story telling is painfully basic.  Yet they are still clearly well written and I would say The Order of the Phoenix and The Deathly Hallows are extraordinary pieces of work.  Azkaban however is just a little too infantile at times for me, and obviously is going to be different re-reading it as a 19 year old and being plagued by a love for the movie.  The book almost has the exact same beats as the film, as it’s the last of the shorter novels.  Therefore Rowling’s mind is definitely on top form, despite some dull writing, as the plot is complex and meaningful.

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Narrative

It’s hard to congratulate a particular person on good narrative pacing, as a massive budget film usually has about thirty people behind it.  The writer credited is Steve Kloves, who adapted all the Potters apart from Order.  He is clearly a talented guy, because he manages to slim away any shaky dialogue and keep a quick movement by movement plot in all of the films.  Azkaban is a particular feat because there is so much plot going on.  Right from the start it is very different from the first two films and getting to Hogwarts is a Potter cliché and the first two films set that in stone.  This then leads to the typical Potter narrative, which goes as follows: arrive at Hogwarts in a funky way, listen to some kind of warning that’s going on in the school, go to classes and do wizardry stuff, discover something about the warning, develop a plan, more school wizardry stuff (Quidditch perhaps), then a final climatic battle or problem to overcome (wizards chess and the snake etc).  As the films go on this gets cloudier, especially in Goblet because the Tri-Wizard cup brings in a whole new narrative structure.  Consequently when Azkaban sub verses this, it’s very refreshing.  First off, because getting to Hogwarts is put into jeopardy straight away, because Harry has to get there himself.  It’s then a beautifully choreographed and funny travel set piece with the night bus.  Then even before the obligatory train ride, we have moments of calm outside of Hogwarts, where Harry gets that warning that’s going on this year (Sirius Black).  And even then, on the train, it is grounded to a halt by the baddies and we are introduced to a beloved character (the Dementors & Lupin).  I hope you get what I’m trying to say at this point, which is that Azkaban dismisses and plays with that classical Potter structure.  It toys with the source material, holding on drama and expressing it in a new way.

Moving on towards the ending as it of course has two of them.  The time turner, the most plot device written plot device in history, but so wonderfully done.  I still remember being shocked that there was another 20 minutes left in the film because they have to go back in time.  My small brain couldn’t quite fathom that they were going to answer some of the questions that had been built up.  It is mesmerising, it really is, that we get to relive a plot that has already gripped us.  From a different angle we see the story unfold, and so much more depth is added.  The characters (Harry & Hermione) begin to understand what actually is going on, and just how special Harry is in this world.  Cuaron has already masterfully balanced key scenes, and now the plot pulls it along to an exciting resolution.  The narrative in this film is exciting, and somewhat original, meaning that on a story basis it leaves most other blockbuster films behind.

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Performance

In this narrative, you have diverse characters played by diverse actors.  It’s a constant in Potter films, great Rowling creations played by a host of British actors.  This film in particular boasts an outrageously good cast with Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, Emma Thompson and Michael Gamdon coming into the series.  Oldman especially sits at the top of the helm in a challenging role.  He is conflicted, going quickly from bad to good and is very much a mentor to Daniel Radcliffe.  Radcliffe himself has stated how after working with Oldman he decided to pursue acting properly.  Sirius Black is the drive of the film and the emotional draw, so a legend had to be brought in and he did a perfect job of it.  David Thewlis comes in to play probably his now most infamous role, another conflicted character in Professor Lupin – a man shrouded in guilt but full of care and hope.  He plays him in a messy, rugged look; he’s imperfect but pragmatic.  Thewlis makes him likeable due to his soft nature yet a lean to the anti-hero because of his aggression and obvious darker side.  These two characters together have unbelievable chemistry and give a great sense of the friendship before with Harry’s parents.  It’s these top level actors that create such clarity in the story and allow the younger cast to develop their skills.

Like I said, Oldman was deeply influential on Radcliffe and I believe he still is today.  Harry has to be far more mature in this film and Radcliffe handles it well, cautiously not overacting in dramatic moments.  For example he is quiet when Oldman is present, allowing him to lead the scenes.  And when he has to be centre stage, he controls it well, such as when he reveals to Ron & Hermione that Sirius was one of his parent’s friends.  In my mind this is when Radcliffe becomes the proper leading man of the series and appears as a competent actor.  He is given pretty tough material and not once does he seem out of his depth.  His co stars improve on themselves as well, with Rupert Grint nailing his comedic timing and Emma Watson becoming much fiercer.  She is no longer the annoying know-it-all but a force to be reckoned with, and spars well with Radcliffe in the more intense scenes.  What is remarkable about the three’s performances is how real and convincing it is, combining well with the existing world building Cuaron has put into place.  The director got very close to the actors on this film and suggested they really get to know their characters inside out; it shows.

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In conclusion, the acting in the film ties well with the solid narrative.  It is an intriguing plot that requires some tricky portrayals, but all is dealt with well.  With this set of actors comes a fantastic chemistry that is carried throughout the rest of the series.  It is at this point that the franchise takes a turn south to become the breathtaking story that it is.  Daniel Radcliffe has since played some incredible roles and Cuaron has since made some incredible movies.  Their connection in this film makes it remarkable alone.  I think in these two short completely un-researched essays I have touched the surface on the magic of this film, maybe one day I’ll write a book about it, giving me chance to scour all corners of its genius.

 

War for the Planet of the Boring and the Stupid (Apes)

This is a series of films that sticks in my mind, which means that I have a lot to say about them!  When I first saw the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes it horrified me; mostly because Burton is a psychopath but also because thematically it’s pretty scary.  The idea of an Ape uprising is frightening stuff, and what the original films did well was bring in other interesting themes alongside that – about humanity, discrimination and arrogance.  So, there’s always an uneasy thought when you begin to think about these films narratively.  And with the first of the reboots Rise that uneasiness is definitely there.  It’s a solid movie that is really rough around the edges but is incredibly touching, especially if there is someone in your life suffering from Dementia.  The film sets up this idea of a greater Ape intelligence convincingly and there is an emotional connection with the characters.  Then along comes the sequel, which I think is probably the strongest of the three.  It opens up the conflict between the Apes and the humans and how they cannot coexist.  It boasts a series of exciting set pieces and those human issues are relevant within the Gary Oldman character.  Unfortunately all three of the films fall to many Hollywood clichés but none more than the latest and final film of the reboot.

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The War for the Planet of the Apes is 90% nonsensical from the start and a bitter disappointment.  I follow plenty of film critics on Twitter and they unanimously praised the film as a top rate blockbuster.  Mark Kermode, who I greatly admire, liked the film and didn’t really bring up the issues I have with it.  It’s almost as though they are watching a different film to me.  Now, I’m not saying it’s a bad film, it’s a good one.  It should be praised for its achievement in its special effects and composition of its Ape characters.  Andy Serkis is of course remarkable as Caesar and completely dominates the scenes he’s in.  And the majority of the action is wonderfully put together, especially in a horse chase scene through some snowy mountains.  Though I would say it never reaches the cinematography heights of the second film Dawn, which is absolutely gorgeous.  The problems I have with the film are a hold-up on the plot and some of the decision making in the film.  I’m not going to dissect every scene and pull it apart because I often feel like you have to sacrifice some clarity to make it entertaining; go to yourmoviesucks.org’s y YouTube channel for that.  Nevertheless there were some key elements that annoyed me throughout the run time.

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PLOT SPOILERS

To start with the film is certainly not a War between Apes and humans.  It is on a much smaller scale than that, which is fine but I think the marketing is slightly misleading in this.  I was expecting a climactic battle on an epic level and instead I got a kind of revenge film?  A revenge film that is set up because of a coincidence?  It is a coincidence that the Colonel can suddenly sneak into the Ape encampment deep in the woods and execute Caesars family and a coincidence that Caesar sees him do it.  Thus, he goes for revenge and with his pals he stumbles across Joshua from Friends who idiotically gets himself killed, leaving his daughter for Maurice to fend for.  And this character is one of the massive flaws of the film because she is mostly pointless.  I get that she is there to show the good of humanity and that it isn’t Ape versus Human, it’s Good versus Bad.  Yet this introduces one of the problems I have with all the Ape films, I’m a human!  I relate with the human characters far more than the Ape ones and will follow them blindly despite their evil tendencies.  There is a lot of this film where humans are non-existent or completely lost of likeability, meaning we’re stuck rooting for Ape characters we can’t really relate to.  There is only Caesar that appears well rounded; even Maurice is a little too good to be true.  But, back to the little girl, who has the same expression on her face all the way through and manages to add zero substance in any scene.  Probably the most ridiculous part of the film is when the Gorilla gives her the flower out of nowhere then of course dies in the next scene.  It scream forced, and like most of the film is pushing for an emotional release that isn’t there.

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Next is more stuff that is irritating but passable, such as the ‘Bad Ape’ character who I thought was going to bring other Apes into the mix, but no why make it interesting when it can be formulaic!  The film turns into an escape thriller of sorts that is fully based upon plot devices and clichés.  And I have questions more than answers.  How did the soldiers manage to capture all of the Apes so quickly?  Why do all these soldiers blindly follow the Colonel?  Woody Harrelson is charismatic enough but he’s clearly insane and the crossbow guy who we’re meant to sympathise for at the beginning loses all human traits and ignorantly abides the Colonels orders.  The Colonel himself is full of contradictions, like being totally ruthless let willing to let Caesar live, for what reason?  He’s a tactical genius who has managed to gain the following of a small army but can’t work out that he needs to feed his slaves so that they can work?  Also, he lets a little girl walk straight through the gates, and subsequently poison him, as well as barricading on top of a series of convenient escape tunnels?  The whole escape series of events are ludicrous and just thinking about them triggers me.  We then get a ending that is fine, though killing Caesar and whole load of humans we don’t know felt like a rushed resolution so that there’s no possibility of a fourth film.  Like I said I’m not going to go through the entire plot, but the narrative appeared narrow and dull where it could have been so much more.

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I think the thing that most disappointed me about the film was how dragged out and boring it was.  After the excitement of the previous film and the possibility of some interesting directions it could go in, it really let me down.  There are segments of this film that rely on Caesar carrying the weight of the drama, so when he’s absent or the plot is silly it doesn’t work on any level.  Tonally the film is incredibly dark, and to be honest I was a bit disturbed it’s only a 12A.  If there was a ‘fuck’ in there it would be a 15 but because it was just mass murder, loss, fascism, slave labour and the apocalypse anyone of any age can see it!  And when a film is that dark, it has to have a level of drama that you can connect to but they went so far off with the narrative that I didn’t care at all.  The excitement came in bursts and in between there was a whole load of emptiness.  Overall, I would recommend this film to someone who enjoyed the previous ones and if you can handle some really peril fuelled cinema.  It is breathtaking on a visual level and occasionally entertaining (thanks to some obvious nods to Apocalypse Now that at times is very close to the nose!).  However it never took off in the way that it could, or showcased an ability to surpass the original films.  My main question after all of this, after all the misdirection and flat story-telling, is: where on earth is James Franco?

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Why ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’ is So Remarkable – Part 1/2: Direction

The Harry Potter franchise is synonymous with global culture of the last 20 years.  Since the first books release in 1997, it has took the world by storm.  Today, Harry Potter sits alongside Coca Cola and OK as a globally known use of language.  The third film The Prisoner of Azkaban was the first one that I saw in the cinema and I couldn’t have been older than 7.  Back then it captured by imagination and it still flaws me today.  Every single Potter film has its own merit and they are all expertly made, however there is something about this film that makes it very special.  The opening two films, directed by Chris Columbus, made over 1.8billion US dollars combined, meaning that Columbus has set up the franchise.  He had successfully created the world, and introduced the characters; however it was all a very light affair.  They were very much in the vein of children’s fantasy films, with a little edge thanks to the source material.  So why after the success of the first films did producers switch to Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron?  Why go for a visionary from a different continent?  Whatever the answer is (we may never know) it was worth the plunge.

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Cuaron began his career in Mexican television, about 7 years before the release of the first Potter book.  His first film, Solo Con Tu Pareja was released in 1991 and went on to win many festival awards.  It was defined as a ‘sex comedy’ and told the story of a womanizing businessman who is fooled into believing he has contracted aids.  After that he went on to direct his first feature produced in the US: The Little Princess, a film that focuses on a young girl sent to a boarding school in New York City during World War Two.  The film was critically acclaimed and gained two Oscar nominations (Cinematography and Art direction), however flopped at the box office.  This acclaim brought him into the attention of American producers and soon he was directing a new adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic Great Expectations.  His version certainly had the sexual thread that lines a lot of his work and also boasted some interesting performances from Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow.  Overall, it received mixed reviews and didn’t really cement his spot as a top director and so for his next film he returned home to direct Y Tu Mama Tambien.  An infamous film, due to its controversial open portrayal of sex and love, it was a massive success both critically and commercially.  It is a film that I am always thinking about, with some stunning Emmanuel Lubeski (frequent partner of Cuaron) cinematography and some really intriguing themes.  This is where it gets interesting, because his next film was The Prisoner of Azkaban.

David Heyman was undoubtedly taking a risk with Cuaron.  So far, he had made four films, two not in the English language and two that were flops.  He certainly had shown his skill as a director with Y Tu Mama Tambien, which is without question a gorgeous film.  Yet, he didn’t seem quite the fit for a massive budgeted franchise film.  Harry Potter was still in its infancy yes, but one thing was very clear, JK Rowling’s vision took paramount.  I can only imagine her reaction when they told her they were going down a daring route with the new director.  So in comes Cuaron with a definite vision himself.  This is a guy who has already shown hints of auteur cinema and thus comes into the series with his whole set of ideas.  Subsequently his style is prevalent throughout the film and one of the reasons it is so brilliant.

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The Colours

The simplest way to describe the uniqueness and contrast of this film from the first two is its darkness.  In a way it’s a basic case of the ‘dark and gritty reboot’, or the Christopher Nolan effect.  This recently has become quite unfashionable and tiring, but Cuaron did it first.  And of course the colour scheme plays a massive part of this.  The Philosophers Stone’s iconic colour was red and the Chamber of Secrets green, together creating this royal fantasy look.  They are decadent colours, bright and magical, Columbus developing a world of wonder and not peril.  Cuaron quickly lets this go for a much more mature look, a harsher one.  From the opening shots, our palette is greyer and has this morose washed out filter to it.  It almost looks like a David Fincher film, like all the joy of the world has been sucked out of it (hint hint).  This instantly gives the film a more serious tone, and a feeling of dread.  The stakes are higher, and so we have a greater investment in the narrative.  Every costume is picked carefully; suddenly our three heroes look like teenagers, and are acting like them.  Our enigmatic Sirius Black looks like the front man to a 90’s hardcore ban, and our conflicted Professor Lupin looks like a gentle geography teacher.  They all have style and an actual meaning in the film.  These blacks, and dark browns coincide with the films subject matter but take nothing away from the magical elements of the film.

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The Camera

On a technical level, this film is stunning.  Cinematographer Michael Seresin is the master of light here, showing us just enough.  From the beginning the lighting is a key element, and the use of natural lighting creates a real visceral look to the film.  The low key fixes mean the film looks more real and grounded, giving this fictional world an actual sense of place.  For example the leaky cauldron is lit in a way that feels warm but mysterious, a sense of ageing and mysticism from the ‘muggle’ world.  This is just one of the ways Cuaron and Seresin build atmosphere in the film.  Another example would be the use of the Dementors, which are effectively black masses in this film, meaning that are inability to see them leads to a fear of the unknown.  Now onto Cuaron’s shot composition, which is nothing short of alluring.  There’s a creep to it, the camera following the characters voyeuristic-ally.  Like the rest of the Potter films, the landscape is vast, so we get some gorgeous shots, such as the scene where Harry rides buckbeak across the water or during trips to ‘Hogsmeade’.  The film never reaches the heights of the breathtaking scenery of the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, but Cuaron manages to have plenty of depth in his shots.  There’s a weight to them, which comes with the texture of the sets and Cuaron manages to really hold the camera on the important parts of the film.

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The Character

I’m hoping this section explains why Alfonso Cuaron’s direction is massive in making this film a classic, because it is all about his stamp and presence on the film.  It’s about his evident control of the artistic direction of the run time.  To start with, let’s talk about the big moments and how Cuaron portrays them.  Again, it all kicks off from the first few seconds of the film with Harry repeating ‘Lumos Maxima’.  This is a trivial part of the movie, yet is vital for setting the tone of the film.  Cuaron instantly throws us into the Potter universe, but with this cool edge.  This continues throughout the film, with iconography such as ‘the grim’ or the ‘boggart’, which are moments that are charismatically portrayed on screen, whilst also building the magical world and tale.  He handles the pivotal plot points with such grace, such as the quite mesmerising ‘Expecto Patronum’ scream or the throwing of Professor Snape across a room with a spell.  It’s quite difficult to explain the excitement I feel during these scenes, but it’s not because of my love for Harry Potter, it’s because of Cuaron’s sight of the film.  His authority is so wonderfully present and it means the scenes are full of life; telling the story with great vitality.

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Direction is key in any film, and perhaps less so in massive films.  Usually they are created by committee, with a long list of writing credits.  For me Cuaron feels very much captain of the ship here, and even though each Potter film has its own design, none of them feel like this one.  None of them have that bite or exhilaration that Azkaban does, and that’s why I love it the most.  After this Cuaron went onto make Children of Men and Gravity; the former being one of my favourite films of all time.  He is a remarkable director, and is not the only reason The Prisoner of Azkaban is too, which is what I will discuss in part two.

 

The Logic of Falling Down

‘The Logic of Falling Down’ sounds like the title of a collection of short stories.  This is not a collection of short stories but a look into the 1993 film Falling Down.  The title of the film itself is full of deception; is it in reference to the mental break of the main character? Or the collapse of a heavily capitalist society?  Or neither? At one point during the film I was almost certain someone was going to say Falling Down, and when they didn’t I felt sort of lead on.  The film is tricky and far more open than I thought it would be, with a real mix of morality throughout.  To understand it, I have chosen to carefully examine the two main characters of the film.

The Player

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Michael Douglas has a vast filmography and his role of D-Fens in Falling Down stands alone as his most troubled performance.  The character is the focus of the film, being the driving force as a disenfranchised defence engineer, who has recently lost his job and family.  However, apart from that, we don’t know much about him.  Even as the film progresses, his background and current life is shrouded in mystery, which in turn makes his moments of screen very singular.  It also adds a sense of confusion within the film, as both the audience and the rest of the characters struggle to work him out.  What are his motives?  The desire to be reunited with his wife and young child is certainly top of the list but there’s a feeling that he wants more than that.  There’s a dreaminess to him and an idea that he craves something beyond his reach.

His violent outbursts begin simply enough, leaving his car in a traffic jam in search of a phone booth.  From a lack of change, he begins an harassment on a Korean shopkeeper. This is the first point of the film where the morality of D-Fens is questioned, and put under investigation.  Quickly, we are put into a film where our protagonist is no hero, yet no villain.  He becomes an anti-hero with almost no likeability.  This is down to his seamless aggression, and his varying levels of race hatred.  He slides into that category of the frustrated racist, the ‘migrants are stealing American jobs’ kind of guy.  For some portion he becomes a sort of Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) type character, being upset with the cleanliness and poverty of his city.  Therefore this creates a character study film that is a look at a clearly deranged person.  A deranged person whose anger is amplified as the film goes on.

Recently an LA Weekly article was written about whether or not audiences (particularly white audiences) understood that D-Fens was the baddie in the film.  The film was released in a post Rodney King and LA riots world, which would lead me to the believe that perhaps a 90’s audience had very radical take on the film.  Did a scared 90’s white audience sympathise with D-Fens?  Were they disgusted by him, or rooting for him?  I would suggest that whatever they thought, the film would play very differently in 2017. My easily triggered mind was took back by some of D-Fens attitudes in the film, yet director Joel Schumacher never appears biased in anyway.  As far as I can tell, it is not a racist white revenge film, and is directly pointing at what frustration and abandonment can lead to.

The Reactor

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Robert Duvall is a legendary screen presence and he solidly plays Detective Prendergast in this film.  I can’t tell you how much I love that name.  His role brings a whole new set of issues that are distant from D-Fens.  It’s his last day on the job and he too has mysteries about him.  His daughter died young, his wife appears somewhat hysterical, and for the last years of his career he has been stuck to his desk, due to a shooting incident he was involved in.  The motive behind his reaction to D-Fens’ rampage is a sense of duty, and not leaving things unfinished.  There is a hero like quality to him, and a likeability that is absent from D-Fens.  Consequently his character and scenes become almost separate from the D-Fens plot, adding another layer to the film.

What is interesting is that his character is revolved around ageing and moving on, rather than being lost or not letting go.  He is a complete juxtaposition to D-Fens’ want for everything to go back to the way it was.  Prendergast is accepting in his fate, he understands his wives anguish, and his sudden numbness to the job.  This means that when the two characters finally meet, it is a mighty but calm showdown.  Instantly we are aware of the hero and villain.  Prendergast carefully dissects D-Fens and his plan to murder his family before killing himself.  This sets in stone a good and evil battle, rather than shades of grey.  It means the film has a satisfying climax, whilst also leaving unanswered questions.

Prendergast serves as foil for D-Fens and a means to an end to his crazed onslaught. However what the film does well is bring in new themes for this character so that he is not sidelined.  It balances the narrative out nicely and allows the film to be entertaining on a visceral level, rather than just a conceptual one.

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This film is a gripping watch on the surface.  It can be boiled down to a cat and mouse feature, with 80’s action sensibilities dripping into it.  The story is bold and interesting, in a world where there are more than two sides to the coin.  Looking deeper, it can viewed as picture about capital dominance.  A film about the risks of a corporate push for globalism, and the forgetting of the little guys.  D-Fens is the little guy in a suit, plagued by the heat and the sadness of losing everything he lived for.  It is a origin story of violence, of hatred and hopefully a lesson that everyone is always at the edge.

Manhunter VS Red Dragon

The relevance of these two films in 2017 may just be about dead.  Hannibal, the TV adaptation of the Thomas Harris novels, is opening them up for re-watches.  The story of Hannibal Lecter is of course now legend, thanks to the classic 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs.  Yet, what is interesting is the differences between the adaptations of the first novel.  Manhunter, released in 1986, was our first look at this world and its characters.  Red Dragon, released in 2002, was the much more mainstream edition of the story.  Together, they sit side by side as very similar but also incredibly different, down to simple stylistic abilities.

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On a basic narrative level is where the films are the most similar, which makes sense considering they are taken from the same novel.  There are several lines of dialogue that are clearly taken from the page as they are in both films.  It’s the timings and character moments when the films move away from each other.  Hannibal Lecter’s usage is one of these character moments.  In Manhunter he is used pretty sparingly, with Will Graham being more at the centre.  He dictates the story much less in this version and is only in the film for three short scenes.  In Red Dragon Lecter is very much a vital part of the plot, and often throughout the film directs Graham in his investigation.  This is due to the film having a closer relationship with The Silence of the Lambs and the success of it.  The producers clearly wanted to lean on the popularity of the Lecter character and utilise Anthony Hopkins in the role.  Manhunter, being released before The Silence of the Lambs was without the Hannibal Lecter legend and cult status, therefore he is used much less in the film.  As well as this, in Manhunter, Lecter is played by Brian Cox in a much more low-key fashion.  For me, Hopkins portrayal has always been overrated, but you cannot doubt the greater impact Hopkins has in his versions of Lecter than Cox does in his.

Lecter is not the only character in which the time spent with him is different in the two films.  Our main protagonist of Will Graham has varying weight between the films.  In Manhunter the camera spends more time on his silence and brooding.  There is more of a mystery and damage behind the character that is only brief in Red Dragon.  This is down to execution of the scenes, but also because of the different actors who play him.  William Peterson stars as Graham in Manhunter, and it’s probably his biggest ever role, which means there’s an unknown to him.  Consequently it creates a much more transfixed and dreamy character, thanks to the singular nature of it.  Whereas in Red Dragon, he is played by Edward Norton just past his peak.  The film came out post Primal Fear, Fight Club and American History X, meaning that is hard to separate the actor from the character.  Norton does a fine job, like he always does, but Peterson plays Graham so closely and with much more angst that he comes across as far more intriguing.  Often in Manhunter the film spends scenes really examining Graham and his thought process, which is where the timing of the narrative comes in.  Both films dwell on different plotlines of the story, creating different effects.  For example, they use the family of Graham to show different themes.  In Manhunter it is about Graham’s relationship with his son, and that battle for masculinity over the woman in their life.  And in Red Dragon it is much more about Graham’s relationship with his wife, and her ability to be strong without him.  These subtle differences allow the films to have different character arcs, and what I would say is that Manhunter focuses on these more.  Red Dragon is more transparent with its delivery and so Manhunter has perhaps some deeper messages hidden within it.

Red Dragon Ed Norton

Style is the massive comparison between the two films.  It’s easy to say that Manhunter is more artistic than Red Dragon and can stand alone as its own film; not part of some Thomas Harris – Hannibal Lecter universe.  However it’s the simple things and creative control that highlight this.  Manhunter is directed by Michael Mann, who shortly after went on to direct Heat, which is the definite heist film and a crime classic.  As a filmmaker he has individual look and way of storytelling.  Some of the shots in Manhunter are sparse and lonely, bland but full of depth.  He uses a wide view in most of the scenes, yet isn’t afraid to get extremely personal with the characters.  His use of colours is evident to show emotion, and there are a couple of scenes of strong blue that is prominent throughout all his work.  Mann has put his stamp on this adaptation, and it also helps that he had writing control.  This is a Mann written project and so his screenplay blends together with his directing.  The same cannot be completely said about Red Dragon.  It is not at all a badly directed film, and has moments that are pleasing on the eye, yet there is a lack of style there.  The director Brett Ratner is much less acclaimed than Mann and is certainly a poppy mainstream director.  He relies more on his cast and the story to keep the film going.  There is seldom use of techniques that make it individual and at times it is a culprit of attempting to copy The Silence of the Lambs.  This is something that Red Dragon can’t escape from, as the film has the same writer as The Silence of the Lambs.  Subsequently you quickly get a film trying to desperately replicate the success of The Silence of the Lambs, but also be separate from its director.  Ratner seems to be going scene by scene without really touching on the complexities of the story or characters.  Overall it doesn’t make the film any less entertaining, however it does leave Manhunter the more compelling watch, due to its auteur driven nature.

So far I think I’ve made it clear that my favourite of the two is Manhunter.  Despite this, I like Red Dragon for a multitude of reasons, the main being its remarkable cast.  I’ve already mentioned Ed Norton, but alongside him is Harvey Keitel, who I think is slight miscast because he’s caught between the straight up nature of Jack Crawford from The Silence of the Lambs and the more laid back nature of Crawford from Manhunter.  There is the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, possibly my most beloved actor, playing the slimy reporter.  And then Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson in a wonderful pairing.  Fiennes plays the villain with much more vivacity than Tom Noonan in Manhunter and he is the king of many scenes in the film.  The Emily Watson character as the love interest of killer Fiennes is much more fleshed out and her empathy in the film is really beautiful.  She does an excellent job of bringing another element to the film quite late on.  This ensemble cast means that the big moments in the film are exciting, as there is Hollywood finesse to it.

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To conclude all of this rambling, both films are great on different levels.  Manhunter is becoming a film I love more every time I watch it, because of its nuances and its care with the source material.  It is crafted stunningly together by Michael Mann, and sits almost like 70’s independent auteur film, whilst also having some 80’s romp sensibilities.  The darkness and pacing is balanced so well, putting it on a must watch list.  Red Dragon sits well as a follow up, yet prequel, to The Silence of the Lambs, and if you ignore the weird ageing of the recurring characters it can be brutally entertaining.  It loses its shine after a couple of watches, but holds up under inspection thanks to two great performances in Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson.  Summing up, no one cares about the intricacies of these films like I do; it’s just interesting to look at two films that have the same content but vastly different styles.  It’s a great example of what makes a quality film, rather than just a mainstream attempt of pulling in an audience.  The Silence of the Lambs will always be the classic view of this world, and the TV show is viscerally enjoyable, however you shouldn’t sleep on a great like Manhunter or a convincing tale like Red Dragon.