Life on Film – Tokyo Story and Boyhood

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Tokyo Story (1953)

I recently watched Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) for the first time. It’s an interesting and quite slow paced portrayal of life in post-war Japan, telling the story of an elderly couple visiting their grown children in Tokyo. Although there’s little in the way of plot, the film masterfully contrasts the hurried indifference of a new generation with that of the old Japan – through the experience of a single family, Ozu captures a moment of transition for all of Japanese society.

While watching the film, I found myself drawing comparison to a much more recent picture; Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014). Filmed intermittently over a 12-year period, Boyhood chronicles over a decade in the life of a single boy, from elementary school to university. While the backdrop of these two films would struggle to be more different, both Boyhood and Tokyo Story attempt to capture and portray life as it truly happens, without a strictly structured plot or the usual embellishments of cinema – they simply provide a snapshot of the human experience. The two films were also critically acclaimed; Tokyo Story was rated as the greatest film of all time in the 2012 Sight and Sound Directors’ poll, while Boyhood has the rare honour of a perfect 100 score on metacritic.

Despite the acclaim, Boyhood is a film I have never been able to get behind – on both of my viewings I’ve found myself achingly bored. I’ll accept that my opinion resides within the minority, but Boyhood is an interminably dull tale of very normal things happening to a slim selection of non-characters. What’s more, every shot is framed in a flat, televisual style which, as far as I can see, is devoid of any real craft or cinematic value. As a result, it’s difficult to engage with the film on either a technical or an emotional level, and I find myself longing for an injection of melodrama. Indeed, my criticisms of Boyhood were only accentuated by the achievements of Tokyo Story.

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Boyhood (2014)

The essential success of Tokyo Story is that Ozu is able to take life and make it worth watching. Although the film is heavy on dialogue, it’s always staged in a visually interesting manner, disposing of the typical shot-reverse-shot approach and confidently breaking the 180-degree rule to bring the audience closer. Moreover, it consistently feels like the events on screen, no matter how mundane, have a point to them; the characters and their separate stories all contribute to an understanding of Japanese society as a whole, giving you something palpable to take away from the experience. The existence of this over-arching narrative means that Ozu’s social-realist approach is anchored to a story that is worth telling.

Boyhood, on the other hand, fails to be anything more than a series of events occurring, and the result is a film that’s crushingly dull. It may have taken twelve years to make (and the advertising wouldn’t let you forget it), but I fail to see how this contributes anything when the aging characters are such uninteresting husks. Admittedly, Linklater’s long production time is a technical triumph, allowing the audience to experience the passage of time in a way that feels tangible, but it’s impact is hollow against a script that is devoid of genuine drama or effective character development.

In recording reality, Linklater appears to have forgotten the essential truth that most people go to cinema to escape the depressing reality of life, not watch it unfold over an excruciating two-hour-forty-minute period. Of course, a realist approach can be a powerful storytelling tool, ably illustrated by Tokyo Story, but Boyhood has none of the artistic weight or social commentary that makes Ozu’s film so valuable. Much like the visual effects of today’s comic-book sequels, the realism of Boyhood is undeniably impressive, presenting life itself with a plainness rarely seen. Underneath, however, there simply isn’t enough substance to justify the feverish praise with which the film was lavished.

At least that’s what I think.

High-Rise Review

Despite some great performances and an interesting visual style, a muddied narrative prevents High-Rise from reaching its full potential.

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A sort of Orwellian Nelson Mandela House. Copyright 2016 Studio Canal.

The latest film from director Ben Wheatley, High- Rise is a long awaited adaptation of JG Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name, the story of a luxury apartment building and a violent descent into depravity. As the tower and its occupants become increasingly isolated from the outside world and their resources run low, the neighbours quickly turn upon each other for control of the building. For the inhabitants of the high-rise, the construction gradually takes over their existence, swallowing up their lives and their jobs in the outside world as they indulge in debauchery and horror within their own microcosm. Despite its dark tone, the plot has a whimsical, allegorical quality to it, musing upon the fragility of modern civilisation and the nature of human barbarity. It’s a premise that requires a measure of disbelief, but nevertheless provides an intriguing examination on the human condition.

Wheatley has made the interesting decision to set the film very specifically within mid-1970s Britain, appropriating the release period of the original novel. It provides for a stylish and somewhat nostalgic aesthetic; trousers are flared, wallpaper is garishly printed, and shades of brown are rampant. Indeed, the whole film is visually excellent, as the set design juxtaposes brutalist architecture against the disorder wrought by the tenants.

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Tom Hiddleston as Dr Robert Laing. Copyright 2016 Studio Canal.

The frame is also filled with some exceptional central performances. Tom Hiddleston stars as Dr Robert Laing, a stylish neurosurgeon and the latest arrival to the tower. Laing is an almost impenetrable character; his past is left purposely shrouded in mystery, whilst his motivations remain unclear as he adapts to the degrading world around him. Hiddleston commands this ambiguity well, providing a charismatic yet unsettling presence throughout. Opposite him is Jeremy Irons as the antagonistic Anthony Royal, the original architect of the building, who evinces similarly ambivalent intentions. He claims to have constructed his own self-contained civilisation as an “instrument of change”, but doesn’t seem clear as to what change he seeks.

Deserving of particular praise, however, is Luke Evans as Richard Wilder, a menacing figure who leads a campaign against the wealthy residents of the tower’s upper floors. Wilder is an evidently despicable character from his first entrance, becoming more so as the madness intensifies, but Evans’ passionate performance is captivating. Ironically, his uncontrolled anger feels like the sanest response of all within an insane world. The female roles are broadly given less to do, but Sienna Miller rounds off the lead performers as Charlotte Melville, a carefree party-goer with little caution for social norms or even the safety of her young son.

Where the film fails, then, is in its storytelling. Both the opening and concluding chapters of the narrative are well executed, providing an immersive picture of the film’s peculiar world. It is in bridging these two sequences that Wheatley loses his way. For much of the second act, the film appears so keen to show you what is happening, but never does much to explain why. We are presented, in vivid and unflinching terms, with the collapse of the building into a hysterical and nightmarish state, but the underlying causes and social divisions beneath this turmoil are never really explored. The result is a narrative that feels muddled and without proper premeditation, which left my eyes wandering towards my watch rather than glued to the screen. A series of shocking events take place, but it’s difficult to be invested when so little attention has been given to the set-up.

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A pause for reflection. Copyright 2016 Studio Canal.

With the central characters of the film being so well drawn, it feels odd that the world around them is little more than a sketch. The high-rise itself is a visually stunning backdrop, but the script could certainly have done more to define its own conflicts and give more focus to the narrative. A last minute reference to Margaret Thatcher reveals some of the original story’s satirical edge, but it’s too little, too late. Wheatley’s penchant for visual symbolism and montage undeniably bogs the film down, and a shorter runtime would have resulted in a more coherent final product.

Nevertheless, High-Rise is an interesting experience, particularly if you allow yourself to be immersed in its unique world. Perhaps lacking in focus, its performances and use of imagery will leave a lasting impression, giving you much to think about long after the film has ended; as is often the case with Wheatley, the film is multi-layered and repeat viewings will likely reveal further intricacies. On first impressions, however, High-Rise fails to entertain as much as it really should, and there’s a feeling that Ballard’s satire deserves a more thorough excavation. The opening narration of the film states that “for all its inconveniences, Laing was satisfied with life in the high-rise” – I felt inclined to agree.

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This review was also published in Exeposé, the independent student newspaper for Exeter University. It can be found here, along with my other work for the publication.

Top Ten… Movie Endings

We are living in an age of lists, so I thought it was only appropriate that I threw my hat into the ring. Below you’ll find my top ten film endings of all time. I don’t intend for it to be exhaustive; I’m only human and I haven’t seen everything, but I hope you’ll enjoy this selection of the movie finales that I have found most impressive, or the ones that have left the greatest impact upon me. Selecting just ten was more difficult than I imagined, and there are an awful lot of brilliant conclusions that I had to leave out. A few honourable mentions include; Citizen Kane (1941), The Godfather (1972), The Shining (1980), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), The Wicker Man (1973), The Searchers (1957), The Italian Job (1969), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

Beware, spoilers below!

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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You might think I’m talking about the opening of the Ark scene, when a bunch of Nazis have their faces melted off by the might of God. But no, I’m talking about the last thirty seconds of the film, and that shot. Having been recovered by Indiana Jones, the Ark of the Covenant is sealed away and buried within a vast government facility, never to be seen or opened again. The effect is accomplished through an ingenious matte painting, and it manages to brilliantly conjure a sense of both intrigue and humour. Its mystery may have been diminished somewhat by the misjudged opening of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but it remains a powerful and thought provoking end to an excellent film.

  1. Roman Holiday (1953)

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Roman Holiday is arguably the definitive bitter-sweet ending. As much as we may wish that Princess Ann and Joe Bradley could give two fingers to the world, run from the palace, and be together forever, their separation was always inevitable. As she goes back to being a princess, and he a reporter, they are left with nothing but a few candid photos and cherished memories. In a film full of celebrated images and scenes, none is so lasting as the sight of Gregory Peck strolling towards the camera, an ironic smirk on his face, as he leaves the princess behind forever.

  1. Casablanca (1942)

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Drama, romance, suspense – the ending of Casablanca has it all. It’s a scene that has become almost laughably iconic, a symbol for tragic love itself. The brilliance of this ending is that it’s exactly the opposite of what the audience wants to happen; it’s a harsh, realist picture of love in a time of adversity, an ending that says, sometimes, love can’t conquer all. Painful to watch, it exists as a testament to the unmatched chemistry between Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. Director Michael Curtiz shot this iconic ending without a finished script and unsure of how he even wanted it to end. Watching Rick and Louis walk into the mist, I think you’ll agree that he made the right choice.

  1. Raging Bull (1980)

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An aged and overweight Jake LaMotta stares at himself in the mirror, quoting On the Waterfront as he prepares for his next stage show. He psyches himself up, straightens his bow tie, and steps out of the dressing room. Once the screen has cut to black, Raging Bull closes with a quote from a biblical passage, specifically John IX, 24-26, followed by a tribute to Martin Scorsese’s mentor, Haig R Manoogian. An extract reads “ ‘Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know.’ / the man replied. / ‘All I know is this: / once I was blind and now I can see.’ ” It’s an ending that has stuck with me profoundly, ever since my first viewing. Having just seen the sum of this man’s life, we are forced to ask if it is really our place to judge. Indeed, seeing LaMotta backstage is a reminder that he is, above all, a man, as complex as he is formidable. And that’s entertainment.

  1. Bicycle Thieves (1948)

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Bicycle Thieves is a relatively low-key film; the tale of a man, Antonio Ricci, and his young son desperately searching for his stolen bicycle in post-war Rome, in which bursts of emotion are rare and potent. In the film’s final moments, Antonio’s exasperation boils over as he attempts to steal an unattended bike, only to be caught and condemned as a thief himself. When his son’s pleading causes the mob to let Antonio go, the pair disappear into the crowd, holding hands and unsure of their future. It’s a forlorn picture of life in Italy’s war-torn capital, giving a captivating and very sympathetic face to what was mass human suffering.

  1. Planet of the Apes (1968)

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It is difficult to consider the original Planet of the Apes now without thinking about the ending. It’s shock factor has largely worn off, as the final shot has become probably the most iconic image from the film – parodied in The Simpsons and showcased on the cover of the DVD. Nevertheless, the final, shocking discovery of the film – that the planet in question is, in fact, a post-apocalyptic Earth – is an excellent and unexpected twist. Playing on contemporary fears of nuclear annihilation, the closing image of a destroyed Statue of Liberty and Charlton Heston’s infamous cry of “Damn you! God damn you all to hell!” still resonates powerfully today.

  1. The Godfather Part II (1974)

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It was difficult choosing between the endings of the first two Godfather films, but the second entry just tops the first upon repeat viewings. With all of Michael Corleone’s enemies lying dead, including his brother, Fredo, the film flashes back several years to the morning of 9 December 1941, the day of the attack upon Pearl Harbour, and Don Vito Corleone’s birthday. The younger Michael’s patriotic dedication, and resentment of his family, draws a powerful contrast against his later, tragic descent into a murderous and patriarchal figure. However, the flashback also highlights Michael’s continued isolation; in 1941, his idealism had left him shunned, sitting alone at the dinner table. Years later, Michael remains a solitary figure, despite all his efforts in the name of family. Now greying at the temples, he continues to exist as an outsider to all those who loved him. A powerful and inspired juxtaposition.

  1. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

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The only appearance of a Bond film on the list, the ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was not only a break from the series’ tradition, but a genuinely risky move for a franchise so steeped in convention. 007 had defeated the villain, destroyed a mountain-top base, and fallen in love. But this isn’t where the story ends; as Bond and his new wife, Tracy, drive off into the sunset, a botched assassination attempt leaves Tracy with a bullet in her skull. Instead of pursuing the villain, a tearful Bond cradles his dead wife and tells a passing policeman “It’s quite alright… We have all the time in the world.” Although now an iconic moment, it must be remembered how genuinely shocking such an ending would have been in 1969, depriving audiences of the triumphant conclusion that had become standard. It remains a travesty that subsequent Bond films would abandon this gritty approach for years to come.

  1. The Third Man (1949)

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The closing shot of The Third Man lasts for around two minutes, neither moving an inch nor cutting a frame as our hero, Holly Martins, stands waiting at the roadside for the heartbroken Anna to emerge from the horizon. As she walks past Holly and out of his life without so much as a glance, the camera lingers excruciatingly, forcing us to share in his pain and solitude. Although a desperately sad conclusion, there’s a wry humour in Holly’s resignation, as he lights himself a cigarette and tosses away the match. Anton Karas’ melancholy music perfectly complements Graham Green’s gorgeous photography, providing for a profound and lasting image.

  1. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)

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The final sequence of The Good, the Bad and The Ugly is not only one of the greatest endings of all time, but one of the best examples of film making – ever. It plays out with almost operatic grace, a perfect blend of music, cinematography, acting, and direction. This concluding chapter begins as Tuco desperately bounds across a graveyard, searching for a buried hoard of gold, while Ennio Morricone’s Ecstasy of Gold swells in the background. It ends as three title cards contrast the fates of the titular gunslingers; one dead, one alive, and another on horseback with four bags of treasure. Sergio Leone weaves a scene that is both beautiful and unbearably tense, perfecting the western as only he could.

Deadpool Review

With a script that isn’t funny and action that fails to excite, Deadpool falls well short of expectations.

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Ryan Reynolds in costume as Deadpool. Copyright 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

There’s a peculiar self-confidence to Deadpool. It’s a feeling of assuredness, not only in the film’s eponymous hero, but permeating throughout the events on screen. For its entire duration, the script is all too eager to break the fourth wall, wink at the audience, and remind you just how clever it is. The jokes are crass and fly in your face without much subtlety, while references to pop culture and other comic book movies are incessant. It’s akin to an irritating friend, nudging you all the way through to make sure you’re getting his jokes. Despite all this, there really isn’t much in Deadpool to warrant  such self-assurance. Beneath a veneer of gimmicks, genital jokes, and non-linear sequencing, there exists a very average superhero film.

From debut director Tim Miller, Deadpool is a story of Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a foul-mouthed former mercenary who dons a red suit and takes on an alter-ego following a medical procedure that leaves him horribly disfigured but enhanced with super-human abilities. Swearing revenge upon Ajax (Ed Skrein), the psychopathic mutant who ruined him, Deadpool pursues a bloody campaign to track down the villain and exact his bloody justice. If that story rings a surprisingly conventional tone, that’s because it is. Where Deadpool attempts to distinguish itself is with an adult sense of humour and a mocking, self-referential attitude towards comic book cinema.

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Ed Skrein as Ajax. Copyright 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The problem is that Deadpool simply isn’t as funny as it thinks it is. The jokes arrive thick and fast, but more often than not they outstay their welcome or rely on a somewhat outdated knowledge of popular culture (a female with close-cropped hair is hilariously referred to as “Ripley, from Alien 3!”). Admittedly, such a sense of humour certainly has an audience, and my screening of the film wasn’t short of laughter. But for a script that seems so pleased with itself, much more should be expected.

Of course, Deadpool involves as much action as it does comedy, but in this regard the viewer is served the same unengaging, computerised spectacle that has become commonplace in the genre. The violence quotient has been substantially increased, but the total lack of excitement remains the same. In a film that takes such pleasure in mocking the tropes of superhero films, it is inexcusable for Deadpool to equally succumb to their failings. Miller’s pedestrian visual style simply has none of the distinction that his script requires, and the result is a conclusion that descends into protracted tedium rather than a triumphant finale.

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Even Deadpool himself was shocked by the quality of the script. Copyright 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Even if joy can be found in its humour, there’s little else in Deadpool to encourage repeat viewings. Ryan Reynolds may provide a convincingly charismatic performance, but he’s given little to work with next to a plot that’s barely there and a cast of one-note supporting characters. The action set pieces are unrelentingly dull, while Deadpool’s crude one-liners become an exhausting annoyance within an otherwise uninspired script. As Careless Whisper plays out and the credits roll, both comedy fans and action enthusiasts are likely to find themselves disappointed. I know I was.

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Ben-Hur: A Remake Too Far?

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Who wore it better? Jack Huston (left) and Charlton Heston (right) as Judah Ben-Hur.

Remakes are not a new phenomenon. Ben-Hur, William Wyler’s iconic biblical epic from 1959, was itself a remake of a 1925 silent film by Fred Niblo, which was a remake of an earlier adaptation from 1907 by Canadian Director Sindey Olcott. Even before the first Ben-Hur picture, Lew Wallace’s 1880 book, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, had previously been adapted into a successful play, and probably a Hugh Jackman musical. The decades since have taught us that remakes are an inevitable fact of life, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but at least the films we love will be there forever. Despite all this, watching the first trailer for this year’s Ben-Hur felt very different, almost like a personal insult. I was compelled to run through the streets, possibly naked, and wail manically on the horrors of CGI and inappropriate casting decisions. More than anything, I was shocked. Shocked that of all the films in the world, they’d done this to Ben-Hur.

Beloved classics have been remade in the past, and it’s a practice that remains as common as ever. Recent years have brought Robocop, Point Break, Total Recall, Carrie, True Grit, Evil Dead, Oldboy…it goes on and on. But Ben-Hur was a film that felt untouchable. After all, the 1959 version is widely considered among the greatest films of all time, one of only three features to win eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. It’s akin to remaking The Godfather, or Gone with the Wind – films that have been cemented in annals of popular culture, parodied in everything from The Simpsons to Father Ted.

Of course, it’s naïve to assume that anything is sacred in Hollywood, especially if there’s some money to be made. But it’s also important to remember that remakes aren’t always a terrible thing. Many of them have become classics in their own right, even if they don’t replace the original. The Magnificent Seven, Scarface, The Gold Rush, Heat, The Thing, A Fistful of Dollars, and The Departed were all derived from older films. And some remakes might not necessarily be masterpieces, but they don’t have to soil the memory of the first time around; personally, I’ll always have a soft spot for Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991), despite De Niro’s occasionally confused southern inflections. Not every “reimaging” is quite as misjudged as Gus Van Sant’s 1998 re-tread of Psycho.

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Charlton Heston and Jack Hawkins in Ben-Hur (1959).

So what is it about Ben-Hur that offends me so deeply? The essential problem with remakes is that people often attach a lot of emotional baggage to films that they love, and it doesn’t feel nice when you see those memories being trampled on or replaced, particularly if the remake looks a bit naff. This goes to explain a lot of the vitriol directed towards the first trailer for the upcoming Ghostbusters “reboot”; it might not be rational, but cinema means an awful lot more to people than is often sensible.

Regardless of how you feel, remakes certainly aren’t the sort of thing that should be encouraged. When there are so many fresh stories to be told, it’s always disappointing to see the industry reverting to type and pushing out the same material we’ve seen before. However, putting aside my personal attachments, what is it that makes Ben-Hur so disheartening, if not inexcusable?

Fundamentally, it’s really difficult to find any reason to be interested. Directing the project is Timur Bekmambetov, the visionary behind Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (a truly awful film despite its postmodern pretentions) – whereas the 1959 Ben-Hur was helmed by the great William Wyler, a three-time Academy Award winner and the only director of three Best Picture winners, whose catalogue includes Wuthering Heights (1939), Roman Holiday (1953), and The Big Country (1958). The greatest affront to decency, however, is that the trailer appears to be comprised entirely of scenes and characters that were done better almost sixty years ago. I re-watched Ben-Hur (1959) recently as part of a degree module, and despite having seen the film before, I was genuinely taken aback by its spectacle and technical achievement. The famous chariot race remains as exciting and visceral as ever, while the CGI enthused sequence in the new trailer just brought out a tremendous sigh from deep within my soul.

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The nine-minute chariot race from Ben-Hur (1959).

Of course, it’s only a trailer, and there are several months to go until the final product is out – if the Earth was built in seven days, who knows what Bekmambetov can do in five months. But the entire thing simply appears devoid of any respect for what came before it, or any intention of forming its own identity, as if a child reproduced The Mona Lisa with a huge, toothy grin, and plastered it around the art galleries of the world. The most important question one should ask oneself before embarking on anything, particularly if you’re going to spend a lot of money, is why? Watching this trailer, I certainly can’t answer that.

Den of Geek recently published a comprehensive list of films due to receive remakes, and it makes for sobering reading. Whatever comes of these impending updates, whether it’s Ben-Hur, The Magnificent Seven, or even An American Werewolf in London, we may take comfort in the fact that the originals will remain exactly as they are, un-weathered by time and fate. So maybe it’s best to calm down and let the hacks and the money people do their thing; pretenders may come and go, but we’ll always have Ben-Hur.

The Anatomy of a Scene – Goodfellas’ Copacabana

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The Copacabana sequence from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) is an iconic moment within the canon of popular cinema. For a scene so short and simple in its execution, its continued appeal is a testament to Scorsese’s genius, perhaps his greatest collaboration with Director of Photography Michael Ballhaus. Indeed, twenty-six years later, new innovations have saturated the film industry with technically impressive camera work, yet the Cobacabana sequence remains revered; only around three minutes in length, it is often cited as a masterwork of cinematography and storytelling.

Single-take sequences are fast becoming a staple of mainstream cinema. In 2015, the commercially successful films Spectre, Creed, and The Revenant all featured extended scenes shot in what appeared to be solitary, unbroken takes (although often stitched together in post-production). Two years ago, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Oscar winning comedy, Birdman, seemed to be entirely comprised of one continuous shot. Considering the prevalence of the Steadicam in modern multiplexes, what is it that makes Goodfellas worth coming back to after all this time?

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In essence, Scorsese uses his camera to tell a story. Technical showmanship should never be employed for its own sake; the camera exists in support of the narrative, and nowhere is this clearer than in Goodfellas’ Copacabana. As the camera weaves behind our two protagonists, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and Karen Friedman (Lorraine Bracco), we follow their journey into another world. For Henry, it is a familiar one; he moves confidently and with ease, echoed by the smooth tracking of the camera behind him – our gaze never breaks away as one life transitions into another. Karen’s experience is altogether less assured – it is her first introduction to Henry and the unconventional life he leads. Much like the hubbub of the Copa’s kitchen, the shot is an assault on the senses, taking in exteriors, corridors, a kitchen, a dining room, and finally a table right next to the stage. In a film that enjoys feeding us a near-constant voice-over, this single shot tells us all we need to know without saying a word.

Of course, it would be a crime not to consider the technical achievement of the shot. The whole sequence, in all its complexity, was blocked, lit, and shot in half a day. Steadicam operator Larry McConkey has explained the difficulty he faced in blending close and wide shots within such a tight frame – it was this issue that necessitated the brief moments of interaction between Ray Liotta and the others in the hallway. Later, when Henry and Karen take a turn through the kitchen, they actually walk in an extended circle and exit through the same way they came in, which is hidden through well-timed changes in extras and scenery dressing. Michael Ballhaus discussed the struggle he faced in ensuring that every actor and movement was timed perfectly for the duration of the shot. Yet after only eight takes, cinema history had been made.

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Scorsese returns to screens this year with the long awaited Silence, but it remains my opinion that Goodfellas represents his best work. The Copacabana shot demonstrates that a story may be told just as effectively through action as with words or dialogue. It has always been my belief that Thelma Schoonmaker’s distinctive editing has had much to do with the iconography of Martin Scorsese’s films, but Goodfellas shows just how effective he can be without a single cut.

Oscars 2016 Recap – The Big Short Review

The Big Short provides a wry look at the financial crisis that’s both entertaining and educational.

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Christian Bale as socially awkward Michael Burry. Copyright 2015 Paramount Pictures.

With The Big Short, director Adam McKay’s heritage as a comedy helmsman is clear, never taking himself too seriously despite a thoroughly depressing subject. For a story that could have been enormously hard going, there’s a lightness of touch throughout that makes The Big Short a joy to watch, if a little hard to follow, complemented by an ensemble cast of heavyweight performers.

Documenting the run up to the 2007-2008 financial crisis, The Big Short is a fictionalised account of a few individuals who predicted the crash and sought to cash in on their foresight. The events are fast paced and wordy, with regular breaks in the fourth wall to ensure you’re keeping up with the jargon-heavy dialogue. Indeed, from the erratic cinematography to the constant cutaways, The Big Short walks the line between documentary and drama. There’s a sense of both Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job and Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, admittedly with fewer orgies and more Collateralised Debt Obligations than the latter.

The Big Short is focussed around a small number of characters, with independent but inter-connected stories, and as such the central cast hold the film together. Both Steve Carell and Christian Bale are deserving of particular praise, playing outside of type in the film’s two most complex roles. They are supported by an effectively smug performance from Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt in what amounts to an extended but welcome cameo. As the film weaves between their individual narratives, no one outstays their welcome and the pacing maintains excitement in a topic that you may have otherwise dismissed as interminably dull.

What is never quite clear, however, is if these canny investors are more interested in making themselves rich or teaching a lesson to the corrupt system, and indeed the film itself doesn’t seem very sure if it wants to be a fun romp through a topical backdrop, or a damning indictment of capitalist greed. This results in a somewhat inconsistent tone and a sharp left turn in the film’s final moments, as everything becomes quite serious once the housing market tumbles. It’s a reflective denouement that feels necessary, but could have been handled in a more fitting manner.

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Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling. Copyright 2015 Paramount Pictures.

However, in dealing with these hugely complex issues, The Big Short doesn’t shy away from asking difficult questions. The picture takes a nuanced and surprisingly in-depth approach to the financial crisis, doing its best to explain the complexities in simple terms. It’s probably best to brush up on a basic overview of the real events if you want to come away with a full understanding of what happened, but the script makes a valiant effort to introduce beginners. Although McKay’s comedic style does much to elevate this heavy material to something highly watchable, the documentary-style footage can be distracting at times. His camera work is often reminiscent of TV comedies The Office or Parks and Recreation, incessantly zooming and dropping out of focus in a faux-amateur manner, which was usually more distracting than immersive.

Nevertheless, The Big Short is a film that’s much easier to like than it is to criticise. It points an accusing finger at the banking classes, and will leave you feeling rightly outraged at the greed and carelessness of a system that brought the world to its knees and got away with it. Underpinning all this are some excellent performances and a genuinely funny script. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why the economy is in the state it is, or who was to blame, The Big Short is essential viewing. It’s fun, clever, and above all, important.

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Oscars 2016 Recap: Bridge of Spies Review

As part of my Oscars 2016 season, I’ll be reviewing some of the most popular nominees of 2015, weighing up their chances to win big at the awards this year. For the first entry, a review of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.

Bridge of Spies is a tense, captivating experience with a stellar lead cast and some beautiful set-pieces. Maybe Spielberg has set himself to autopilot, but he remains a master of suspense.

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Bridge Of Spies
Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks. Copyright 2015 Dreamworks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The opening ten minutes or so of Bridge of Spies is undoubtedly its stand out sequence. Hardly a word is spoken as a group of FBI agents stalk their prey, Soviet Spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), moving through the crowded subways and peaceful parks of circa-1957 Brooklyn. Nothing on screen is obviously amiss, but there is a pervasive feeling of unease cutting through the atmosphere. It’s a scene that might feel inane in less competent hands, but the technical prowess of 69 year-old Steven Spielberg remains evident. Within the first few frames, it is clear that atmosphere serves as the key to this film; from the snowy back streets of East Berlin, to an air force base in Pakistan, Bridge of Spies feels authentic to its cold war backdrop, helping to create a thoroughly believable world.

The picture’s greatest strength however, is in its emphasis on character; there is little time spent on the technicalities of international espionage, or the American criminal justice system. Fundamentally, it’s a human tale, the story of individuals who are both out of place and out of depth in an unforgiving world. The cast is primarily held together by its two leads; Tom Hanks is excellent as James B Donovan, an insurance lawyer unexpectedly thrown into the world of espionage and international negotiations when he is called upon to defend an exposed Soviet spy. However, particular praise must go to Mark Rylance, who gives a sympathetic and understated portrayal of the accused spy, Rudolf Abel. It’s a performance that casually moves from vulnerability, to stoicism, to humour, and does so in a restrained, quiet manner, which has thankfully been recognised with a supporting actor nomination at the Academy Awards.

Bridge Of Spies
Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. Copyright 2015 Dreamworks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The story revolves around the 1960 U2 crisis, blending real history with cinematic embellishments to heighten the stakes. It all makes for an enjoyable and rewarding cold-war thriller, although it’s difficult to shake a sense of rigidity in Spielberg’s style. As with much of the director’s work since the turn of the century, there appears to be an aversion to taking any real risks. Bridge of Spies won’t leave you guessing, and the film’s final few moments fall into by-the-numbers Spielbergian sentimentality. It’s beautifully shot, superbly-acted, and the story is competently told, but the opening sequence of the film promises a style that doesn’t quite deliver.

Bridge of Spies has been produced with a masterful level of craft. Spielberg and his collaborators, including usual cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and featuring the Coen Brothers on script-duty, have fashioned an entertaining and character-driven story. John Williams is notably missing from the roll-call, with Thomas Newman serving as an able replacement, but otherwise its business as usual for the aged auteur. When the credits roll, there simply isn’t much food for thought. The history is depicted semi-faithfully, while the final few sequences create a palpable air of tension, but it’s difficult to find yourself engaging on an emotional level. Despite its few nominations, Bridge of Spies is unlikely to make waves at the Oscars. Perhaps not Spielberg’s best, but for taut spy cinema done properly, look no further.

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