Like last week, four Great Movies, and one not-Great-Movie-but-great-movie – but only in order to keep sane.
This week’s films are: Shaft (2000); Birdman (2013); Locke (2013); Shadows (1959-61); and To Rome With Love (2012).
Like last week, four Great Movies, and one not-Great-Movie-but-great-movie – but only in order to keep sane.
Shaft, dir. John Singleton, 2000
A strong action film with a solid enough cast that you momentarily forget this is a remake of a previous movie. It’s got the obligatory elements of the Blaxploitation genre; cigars, guns, big cars, gold chains, racism, black leather dusters, expensive cognac, crooked white cops, sleazy nightclubs, but adds in snappy, well-written dialogue that is professionally acted.
Samuel L. Jackson is at the centre of the action, ‘too black for the uniform, too blue for the brothers’, in one of his first iterations as an action hero. Christian Bale plays the villain, which after his character’s introduction felt a little dissonant. I’m not sure either why Bale wanted to play this despicable man, or why the producers thought he was the best choice (fresh off American Psycho).
In a trope we now see everywhere, Bale is the racist Ivy-league graduate, daddy’s boy who kills a black man he was bullying. For what I imagine was the introduction of this new archetype into cinema though, Bale plays note perfect.
The most intriguing relationship in the movie is between Christian Bale and Jeffrey Wright, the rich kid and drug dealer. There’s a scene where Bale comes to Wright, hoping to pay for a hit. Wright is not much into murder for hire, but wants the dude’s connections as a way to develop a more affluent clientele for his drugs. The way they talk to each other, the words they choose, the attitudes they strike, the changes they go through, are as subtly menacing as scenes in a film by Scorsese.
It’s worth seeing the film for this scene alone. The movie doesn’t give us stereotypes in these two familiar roles, but closely examined originals.
Birdman, dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2013
The plot follows a once famous superhero actor named Riggan, who is desperately trying to salvage his career by putting on his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s ‘What We Talk About When We Talk about Love’. His alter-ego, Birdman (also his old hit character), who throughout the film represents his second thoughts about quitting this Marvel-esque franchise to move on to do better films, haunts him constantly.
Around Riggan, Emma Stone plays his daughter/assistant who has recently come out of rehab, Edward Norton plays the outrageous TV star Mike Shiner who has been last-minute cast as one of the leads in Riggan’s play, and his producer, Zach Galifianakis, in his dark glasses and a more restrained but bubbling performance than usual.
A scene-stealing standout, Norton makes us realize how unspoken or dialogue between characters can be just as humorous without the punchline.
In one single scene, Stone revolutionizes and captures the essence of “Birdman” with a ferocity that you couldn’t see from any other performer. She finds the heart and soul of Sam, laying her on the screen meticulously and transparent.
The cast is a voltic ensemble – electrons spinning around the nucleus that is Keaton.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography only exemplifies this. Lubezki. A sentence, and just pure cinematic meaning nowadays. You can’t watch a movie shot by the cinematographer and not find yourself more intimately contained and available to the realm of the movies. Just one year after Gravity Lubezki shifted the gears entirely again, and allowed us, the audience, to be inside the movie. We are present in every scene, every movement, and every thought that a person is having. We feel as though Riggan and the cast are interacting with us. It feels like magic. The camera rolling lets the viewer see what happens before and after any given event. There is a perfect chronological sequence, the entire film only one shot (many spliced together of course), but which still must have required enormous amounts of choreography. This adds to the pre-opening night atmosphere in a theatre, everyone is rushing around with lights and props, while the characters confront each other in the dank hallways (the carpets used in the hallways were the ones used in The Shining).
The funny dichotomy is that the whole idea of the one shot show is to be more genuine. It makes the viewer feel he is not being lied to, or tricked, in any way. We can see everything clearly in front of us. But at the same time, the entire film is an exercise in hoodwinking; ‘how do we hide the cuts, smoothen the transitions, fix the camera movements’.
But what better way is there to capture the raw emotion and awkward stumbling of an angry outburst at your father than to show the immediate reaction of the father following her outburst; you get to see the anger slowly fade from her face as the reality of what she said sets in. These small details that pepper the film, the lost, immersive subtleties are what make Birdman the gargantuan triumph it is. Not to mention some of the dolly shots are just damn impressive.
It does share some awkwardly obvious similarities with Woody Allen’s Bullets over Broadway, most prominently the Underwear Chase Scene and the general mood and tone of the dialogue.
This is a film about the loneliness of one man, and his second thoughts haunting him for life. His ex-wife makes brief, fleeting appearances, showing both how much he misses her presence, but also his general lack of interest in making it work. His constantly changing levels of self-confidence dance in Keaton’s eyes.
Iñárritu seems to have been lying low for the past few years. But like Anton Ego, I will come back, hungry, for more.
Locke, dir. Steven Knight, 2013
Found under the Netflix category of ‘Critically acclaimed dysfunctional family dramas with a strong male lead’.
Ivan Locke, a dedicated family man and successful construction manager, receives a phone call on the eve of the biggest challenge of his career that sets in motion a series of events that threaten his carefully cultivated existence. It is set entirely inside a BMW X5 on the road from Birmingham to London, beginning in the car, and ending when he leaves the motorway.
Locke has to wrestle with a crumbling world around him – one where he is the only common denominator. He is not present for his company’s single biggest concrete pouring (they make it sound a lot more impressive in the film), he must tell his wife about his one night affair, and has to reach London to be present for the birth of his child from this other woman. We only see Hardy for the entire film, and fuck me is it nail-biting.
The film was shot in eight nights, with the actors all knowing the script fully. The BMW was put on a moving trailer behind a lorry, and three cameras were put in and around the car. The lorry was then driven down the motorway to London, with the other actors in a hotel room calling Locke from their mobiles and in a close-to-live performance.
He flips between rage, frustration, calm, all while speaking to various members of his life on the car Bluetooth system. He sometimes switches violently, sometimes gradually.
Yes, the film is frustrating. We are begging the director to give us a glimpse of the outside, a breath of fresh air, any other face but Locke’s. But it portrays his life exquisitely. A life where there are just voices, no faces and no expressions, just sound. A claustrophobic world that we all know but have never felt on the screen. Occasional recognisable voices pop up on the Bluetooth. Andrew Scott, for example, strong as usual as Locke’s ex-assistant, has taken it upon himself to make sure the concrete pour succeeds.
The enclosed space of the car is a perfect atmosphere for his anger to develop, yet there is no climax. Perhaps that’s a good thing, for after all, humans never reach a stress ‘climax’ in day-to-day lives, they absorb it, intellectualise it, and move on (some find it easier than others.
The helplessness of his position, and the fact that everything he has ever worked for is crumbling because of one mistake is deliciously depressing. Ivan Locke can only hear what is happening, for his eyes are only entitled to the road in front of him. Visceral.
Shadows, dir. John Cassavettes, 1959-61
Originally written in 1958, Cassavettes’ film was a racial prejudice story that took the form of the music that surrounded them all: jazz. Like jazz, the film is ‘improvised’, each scene beginning with a direction, a location, and nothing more.
The idea for the film came from a classroom exercise. Cassavetes was conducting classes for aspiring actors at the Variety Arts Theatre in Manhattan’s off-Broadway Union Square neighborhood; this was Cassavetes’ attempt to counter the adherents of method acting who controlled much of New York at the time. A particular exercise became the core of the film: a young light-skinned black woman dated a young white man, but he was repulsed when he discovered she had a black brother.
What it became was a film about three siblings on the margins of society. Two struggling jazz musician brothers and their light-skinned younger sister who goes through three relationships in a dream-like few days.
What struck me most was the faces and skill of the respective actors. Each of the leads are distinctive, very good looking in a way you can never put your finger on, and convincing. They do get wrapped up in loops and repetitions of conversations, not moving forward helpfully – but like most family units: revisiting treaded ground at the earliest convenience. It is a sort of ‘nothing’ film in the vein of Jarmusch or Hogg – where we are allowed far more intimately into the family circle by watching continuous conversation for ten minutes at a time.
The fast moving 16mm-camera captures the turn of the 50s New York life in its unrefined state. It’s a ‘cool’ film: the hip lingo and fast-talking characters are one with its bebop score. But there are some touching scenes, and very important early conversations about fetishisation and interracial relationship. It’s a scrupulously honest story.
To Rome With Love, dir. Woody Allen, 2012
Usually, Woody Allen tickles my crumpets. But take his typical, epigram-a-minute style, and merge it with kind of irritating actors, and you get a weird old film that seems a bit like a summer holiday project.
Where the film works is through its magic realism. It is never addressed, never explained, but never off putting. Alec Baldwin’s character appears throughout engaging Eisenberg in conversation – he is the helpful sprite – but also occasionally addresses other characters who engage with him. The rules of this logic are nil, and it feels refreshing to not even have to think about if it makes sense or not.
But then, there are lines like:
[talking about another character], he’s not a sufferer.
What’s so great about suffering.
There’s something attractive about a man who’s sensitive to the agonies of the universe.
– Which sound like fantasies Woody Allen has had of a woman saying that to him.
The portrayal of women is generally weak as well. They are either content in relationships with boyfriends who don’t care about them, trying to break up the relationships of their closest friends, or the quintessential Italian nonna (‘everyone before me’). It’s all a bit easy.
Another question – how interesting is it actually to watch inexplicably wealthy Americans traipse around Europe on some 21st Century Grand Tour. The film occasionally takes the piss out of the futility of trying to discover some new experience in a place not all that different from home, but most of all, it’s a lot of huffing and puffing and airy fairy conversations that sound like they’ve come from that moment when you realise you’ve drunk too much and it’s also too sunny.
There is a good scene where Allen’s character persuades a shy but talented opera singer who only sings in the shower to play a show in front of a large audience. He can, however, only sing in his shower – so I’ll leave you to imagine that.