You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Sunday, 20 January 2013


 One hundred and fifty years since the Emancipation Proclamation was signed into existence, slavery has once again become a hot-button topic in American cinema.

Arguably two of the biggest cinematic releases on show at the moment are Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. The former is a stylized romantic quest/social injustice revenge flick set in the antebellum South, the latter an inherently worthy dramatization of the life of the eponymous Commander in Chief in the days commencing the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.

Both of these films deal with that specter of the American psyche in very different, one could even say polarized ways – Django is all violence and pop culture and the N-word, a schlocky slice of exploitation; Lincoln is all serious social issues, character moments, and impassioned speechifying in the House of Congress. 

Returning to Quentin Tarantino and his obsession with his hit-and-miss ratio, I think there’s an argument to be made that the last exceptional film that Spielberg directed was Munich, all the way back in 2005.* After the disappointingly saccharine affair that was 2011’s War Horse, Lincoln marks something of a return to form.

Tony Kushner, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of Angels in America, deftly handles the duel conundrums of slavery and the Civil War – the conflicting need to end each one without expense of the other being the key question that occupies the mind of Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln.

Day-Lewis is demonstrably the foremost screen actor in the world at this point – equally at home playing sensitive cripples (as in My Left Foot) or megalomaniacal oil barons (There Will Be Blood), I can only imagine the anxiety of anyone who finds himself opposite Day-Lewis in the Best Actor category come award’s season. His Lincoln is a gentle, understated individual, prone to off-the-cuff anecdotes about paintings of George Washington hanging in water closets or Euclid’s common notions. You are never left in doubt as to his fierce morality, his political acumen, or the intractability of his mind. He is the calm center of a world torn apart by cannon-fire and by prejudice.  

Spielberg’s direction is unshowy, almost theatrical upon occasion, with plenty of dramatic showpieces to highlight his actor’s strengths – from the paneled hallways of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, through which the controversial Mrs. Lincoln drifts, Havisham-like, consumed by grief and rage, to the raucous House of Congress, in which Thaddeus Stevens, pro-abolition Republican, sits, crustily ensconced, ready to rise at a moments notice in vituperative defense of the 13th Amendment (Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones in the film’s two strongest and most focal supporting performances).

The main body of the film surrounds the politicking, the glad-handing, the betrayals, that surrounded those two major issues. Though Lincoln occasionally slips into (superlatively well-written) sermonizing, it never becomes weighed down with the weight of its historical baggage.

Running at two and a half hours, with a deluge of recognizable character actors flooding the screen at every moment – notably David Straitharn (Good Night and Good Luck) as Secretary of State William H. Seward, Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Mad Men) as Lt. Generald Ulysses S. Grant, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper) as Lincoln’s oldest son Robert. They occasionally blur together and perhaps a few of them could have been eliminated, but they serve to provide texture to 1860s Washington. When actors the caliber of James Spader (multiple Emmy winner), Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawke (Oscar nominee) are available to play a trio of comedy carpetbaggers carrying out a campaign of dirty tricks in order to secure the vote for their President, the more’s the merrier.

Lincoln handles itself with confidence, aplomb, and (for the most part) commendable lightness of touch. It’s hard not to feel a sense of elation when certain events come to pass – it’s almost enough to renew confidence in the democratic process, regardless of all the shady dealings that have gone on behind the scenes.

There’s a case to be made, without sounding too portentous, that this is a film America needs right now, especially following the acrimony of the recent election: a film where the Republican Party is a force for progress, where the majority of Democrats are the ones making an impassioned (if wrongheaded) plea for traditionalism. When Lincoln implores, “Shall we stop this bleeding?”, it’s hard not to, even outside of the context of civil war, to understand where he’s coming from.

Lincoln, to lay some charges against it, is perhaps overlong, and it’s cinematography, captured by Janusz Kaminski, tends to view the events playing out before us through an obfuscating chiaroscuro haze. It’s historical accuracy has been and continues to be debated – the role of black Americans, though they are shown as soldiers in the conflict and as house servants, is sidelined. When Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker and a freed slave, discusses with the Great Emancipator what the amendment means to her, we understand where she is coming from, but never who she truly is. In a world where to be black was to be devalued, dehumanized, this is perhaps an inevitable fault.

However, Lincoln has lofty ambitions and it straddles them well. That the 6’ Day-Lewis somehow manages to capture the stature of the 6’ 4” Lincoln, to loom over all yet seem to stoop while doing it, perfectly captures the spirit of the film, and is a minor miracle of itself.

Verdict: It may lack the anguish of Schindler’s List or the intimacy of Amistad – Spielberg’s previous engagement with the evils of slavery – but Lincoln is nevertheless a remarkable film. Even John Williams’ is a comparatively restrained affair. Compact and often touchingly subtle, when Lincoln heads at last for Ford’s Theater, we understand the weight of history upon his shoulders and the weariness soon to be lifted. Character study, societal account, political epic – Lincoln is showcase cinema. Bravo.

Friday, 18 January 2013


 Is there a more outwardly exciting director at work today than Quentin Tarantino? 

It's been three years since the release of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino's revisionist history cum Spaghetti Western account of Nazi killers and vengeful Jews in occupied France, and a further fifteen since he arguably created a whole new type of cinema with Pulp Fiction. Tarantino's brand -  pop culture spectacular, let's call it, has been aped by many others along the way, but never bettered. Focused yet bursting with energy, mordant yet light footed, and of course, endlessly quotable, "Tarantinoesque" is now a powerful adjective in the cinematic lexicon. Here we have Django Unchained: Tarantino's slavery revenge flick - Spaghetti Western meets Blaxploitation, a Western taking place south of the Mason-Dixon and before the Emancipation Proclamation.

The eponymous Django (Jamie Foxx) is, as the title suggests, a man in bondage. His skin's the wrong color in a time and place where nothing but that seems to matter; his life, according to the history books, is destined to be one of brutality and hardship. But, as I've mentioned before, Tarantino has never been one for following the history books. As such, along comes Doctor King Schultz (two-time Tarantino collaborator and 2009 Best Supporting Actor winner, Christoph Waltz), a former dentist turned bounty hunter, who offers Django his freedom in return for a hand tracking down a trio of fugitive cattle rustlers with whom Django - if you'll pardon the pun - has beef. So begins a tale that will take the unlikely pair the length and breadth of the Old West, encompassing a volume of blood to shame The Wild Bunch and enough instances of "the N-word" to give Spike Lee an aneurysm.

Hanging over the film is, of course, the pall of slavery. Tarantino's tackled controversial subjects before - the secondary protagonist in Basterds was, as mentioned, a Jewish woman whose family was massacred by the Nazis - but never in such a head-on manner. Tarantino, for all his renown, has never been greatly concerned with tact. Still, is Django, at it's core, any more exploitative than, say, The Pianist: they might handle their "material" - my apologies for such a crude term - to much different effect, but both ultimately seeks to illustrate and dramatize the historical injustices that provoked their creation. The danger is that Tarantino, as a director, is developing a track record of such projects. If you take Kill Bill, Parts 1 and 2, as a feminist revenge film, then he's spent almost the last decade viscerally rooting for the underdog. It's not difficult to imagine that a Tarantino project may well in the none-too-distant future feature a Native American protagonist in the early 19th Century.

Questions of ethics and canon aside, is Django Unchained a "good" movie?

Well, Scorsese may have his Hitchcock and Jonathan Demme may draw his cues from Roger Corman's B-movies, but no one's influences are as eclectic and far-ranging as Tarantino's, nor do they feed into their work in quite the same way. Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) in Pulp Fiction is lifted almost whole cloth from Godard's Vivre Sa Vie and here Tarantino transplants elements from Sergio Corbucci's Spaghetti Westerns to the antebellum South - Django even has Jean-Louis Trintignant's hat. However, this is more than simple pastiche: this is film as seamless homage. If there's a touch of Frankenstein's Monster to all of Tarantino's films, safe to say you can never see the stitches. Furthermore, while retaining the same freshness and vitality, I feel it's evident that Tarantino - no longer the callow hotshot who, as a video store employee, once recommended Au revoir les enfants to a passing customer, but rather a seasoned auteur of 49 - continues to mature as a director.

In Django, more so than any other of his films, there's the sense of Tarantino giving the material room to breathe. It's slower paced, occasionally languid even - in the opening scene, the camera focuses in on a group of slaves being led by their horse-riding owners across a rocky plain, a move of a breadth and scope unimaginable in even Basterds. The dialogue is more relaxed and scenes are allowed to unfold in their own good time. If you enjoyed the twenty minute dialogue sequence between the genial but deadly Colonel Landa (Waltz) and a wary farm owner in Tarantino's other most recent work, you'll find a lot to love here. That's not to say that it's slow paced nor heavy-handed: the film delves into the myriad abuses perpetuated against the black population in 1850s America and makes vivid display of the violence that formed part of their everyday lives, but manages to ever avoid feeling worthy, preachy, or, even more impressively, gratuitous. 

There's also a lot of beauty here, in spite of and perversely often because of the bloodshed. An arresting image highlighted in the trailer campaign - that of blood spattering across cotton bolls - is only one such example. A strange comparison that comes to mind, particularly in a scene where a misbehaving slave is removed from "the hotbox" - a metal box fixed in the earth and left to bake in the sun - and dragged back towards the house, is that of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon: there's the same fascination with the past, the same attention to detail, though the milieu may be far removed. I've heard it said, not least by Tarantino himself, is the classic story of a man's search for his lost love; if so, due to the time and place in which the star-crossed lovers find themselves and the color of their skin, it's at quest drenched in blood.

On a side note, it's worrying how quickly you become accustomed to hearing racial epithets; Tarantino lulls you into a world where such casual prejudice is the norm and it takes a man like Django to put it right. Tarantino never forgets that cinema is to entertain; leave educating to the documentaries.  There's no doubt that Django is entertaining. The moral slate contained within is pretty black and white: black folks, one notable instance aside, are decent and downtrodden; white people are either outright evil or else complicit and all deserve death. Only the fundamentally good man Doctor King escapes judgment, but, for a film that explicitly condones the wholesale slaughter of white slave owners, it never seems unduly distasteful. Tarantino has previously announced his intention to make a biopic about the life of abolitionist John Brown, a white man who famously advocated and carries out acts of violence in defiance of slavery, and who is often referred to as America's first domestic terrorist. Tarantino's message is unmistakeable here: sometimes negotiation is simply not possible, sometimes you've just gotta kill a whole bunch of mothaf***ers.

The fact that the Emancipation Proclamation was passed less than a decade later - documented in another big film released this year, similarly featuring one of my favorite TV actors Walton Goggins (Justified, The Shield) - does little to detract from this. President Woodrow Wilson apparently spoke positively in saying of D. W. Griffith's notoriously pro-Clansmen The Birth of a Nation that it was like "writing history with lightning"; Django Unchained goes some way towards redressing the balance. Indeed, a sequence featuring Clansmen-like figures, a posse riding against Django and Schultz, is played for comedy: they're portrayed, not exactly unfairly, as a bunch of self-righteous cowards incapable of even cutting eye holes in their masks for themselves. Jonah Hill, nominated for an Oscar last year for Moneyball, features as an unnamed Clansman, and Franco Nero, who played a character called Django in Corbucci's Django - followed by a further fifteen actors in almost thirty sequels - makes an appearance as a bar patron enquiring as to Foxx's name.

Foxx puts in solid work as the title character, empowered over the course of the film into a gun-slinging bad-ass. Unlike nearly all of Tarantino's other protagonists, we never get the sense of really getting to know Django: he spends a great deal of the film "in character" as a black slave trader, and, though we know what he wants, there's little sense of who he is or where he comes from. This is, perhaps, appropriate given the muteness of the equivalent figure in Corbucci's The Great Silence. The surrounding cast are mostly "types": the intense Django; the wry and charming Schultz; Django's wife, the beautiful and vulnerable Broomhilda ( Kerry Washington); and the lascivious Calvin Candie (played with joyful aplomb by Leonardo DiCaprio). In lesser hands, these roles could have devolved into caricatures, as always seem to be the threat with Tarantino's work, but, again, as always, the actors he works with and the performances he coaxes from them bring out the best from the work.

As yet unmentioned is Samuel L. Jackson in his forth collaboration with Tarantino (lest we forget his cameo roles in both Basterds and Kill Bill, Part 2). Jackson plays Stephen, the head slave in the Candie household. While Calvin is away on business, Stephen defacto lord of the manor - he raised Candie from a child and speaks to him on equal terms when the two of them are alone ("Thank you, Stephen. No, you're welcome, Calvin.") His age and initial appearance of irascible befuddlement conceals a sharp wit and terrifying fury. Stephen's powers of observation and mastery of the household rise to the fore in a tense dinner scene in which it is he, and not Calvin, who comes to the realization that Schultz and Django are playing them. Tarantino never tries to garner sympathy for Stephen, who, alternately servile and acidulous, is presented as a reprehensible, conniving figure, nor, to his credit, Django, who does what he does out of love and necessity. DiCaprio exudes superficial charm and seething menace as Candie, master of Candieland and newest owner of Broomhilda, while the role of Schultz must have been written for Waltz, not only due to it's Germanic overtones. My only regret in this regard is the excision of a scene in the shooting script between Stephen and Django, whom, as Candie adroitly notes, are bound to hate each other; Jackson bubbles, Foxx simmers - the would-be Spartacist against, in the parlance of the times, a mean ole Uncle Tom. There is a lot of history behind the two of them, in the broadest sense of the world, and, in an ideal world, it would have been nice to see it given a little more screen time.

Tarantino writes good villains: unambiguous, mostly unsympathetic, but with a degree of complexity. They are mannered monsters, but Calvin Candie, as with Hans Landa, has a thick seam of nastiness to him. Discourses on phrenology, weighted hammer in hand, are just a thin overlay over outright sadism. Just as in Basterds when - spoiler - the usually charming Landa brutally throttles the unfortunate Bridget von Hammersmark to death, Candie's bloodied hand (unintentional if set reports are to be believed) is a potent reminder of the atrocities these men have and will continue to commit. In essence, Candie is nothing but a sociopath with bad teeth and a carnation. As in the latter, however, turnaround is fair play, and, for the sake of the audience's enjoyment I will leave it at that (almost). Suffice it to say, the abrupt change in action at the end of the film's second act, amazing and almost out of left field as it is, just about works; at the very least, we understand why.

As with all of Tarantino's films, there's a great, as per usual deliberately anachronistic soundtrack that ranges from Johnny Cash to hip hop. It does take you out of the moment somewhat to hear an obviously contemporary voice singing "Now I'm not afraid to do the Lord's work. You said vengeance is His, but I'mma do it first", but in the context of the film it works. Tarantino's films are nothing if not artifacts of cool: effect comes first, historical verisimilitude a distant whatever. The status and power plays in Django Unchained are perfect fodder for Tarantino to showcase his revolutionary aesthetic and attitudes (and to turn in his obligatory cameo, in this case as an Antipodean mining company employee). You feel his passion for the subject, however, for all those victims of history: a movie geek from Tennessee might not feel like the natural choice for a defender of the suppressed, the marginalized, but, in terms of pop culture, it's most successful. Tarantino is, in my opinion, as much a populist as Spielberg, albeit with a whole different approach to cinema and something more of an obsession with his hit-to-miss ratio. 

Tarantino recently gave an interview decrying directors whose work declines with age and yet who continue to churn out films. It's a shame to think that he might be on his way out, artistically speaking: a particular shootout from Django where wave after wave of near identical white gunmen are mowed down by the hero draws from, albeit knowingly, the best of Peckinpah, as gobbets of blood erupt from wounds, permanently rouging the decor. There are also some light touches of Natural Born Killers to the ending, an early script Tarantino wrote but never got the chance to direct; sooner or later, with it's consumption and artful regurgitation of cinema classic and pop culture, Tarantino's work must come full circle. Till then, we'll be watching.

Verdict: This piece is long enough without further digression. I'll simply say that Django Unchained is smart, funny, and often beautiful - Tarantino remains a premiere director and writer, and, despite all the hype and controversy surrounding it, this is a worthy addition to canon of the pop culture spectacular.

Thursday, 10 January 2013


Post-war L.A. The glitzy and glamorous City of Angels is under the thrall of brutal mob boss Mickey Cohen, with mob slayings on every corner and half the police force on the make.

Or so Gangster Squad, the third feature of director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less), would have us believe. This is a hardboiled noir-ish world, pulpy and vivid. Starring Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men, W.) as brawler cop Sergeant John O’Mara, Ryan Gosling (The Notebook, Drive) as the deceptively fey Sgt. Jerry Wooters, Emma Stone (East A, The Amazing Spiderman) as gangster’s moll and love interest Grace Faraday, and, lest we forget, multiple Oscar winner Sean Penn (Mystic River, Carlito's Way) as the vicious, scenery-chewing Cohen.

From the opening scene in which a hapless Chicago wise guy is torn apart by opposing cars behind the Hollywoodland sign, the film steeps itself in the lore of every gangster film that has come before it. Brolin’s O’Mara is a less morally uncompromised Bud White (Russell Crowe’s character in L.A. Confidential) while Gosling’s Wooters could have stepped straight out of any number of classic cops v. crooks classics. The underutilized Emma Stone’s conflicted dame has the appropriate “legs up to here” look going for her and plenty of chemistry left over from Crazy, Stupid, Love, her previous film with Gosling.

Compare, however, Penn’s snarling Cohen to, for instance, Robert DeNiro’s cheerfully psychotic Capone in DePalma’s The Untouchables, and the gulf becomes clear. Despite his claims of manifest destiny and social climbing aspirations, Cohen is a one-note villain – every gesture may be imbued with menace, but, unlike with DeNiro’s turn as a historical mob boss, he fails to realize that violence is at it’s scariest when you can’t see it coming. Penn, for all his talents, isn't Cagney, and Gangster Squad telegraphs every development as clearly as it’s influences. It’s all charm and gloss, all flash and not much bang.

The supporting cast isn’t particularly well served either in roles that could charitably be described as boilerplate: Nick Nolte’s bullish but impotent Chief Parker; Robert Patrick’s old-time gunslinger; Michael Pena’s cocky (read: Hispanic) rookie; Anthony Mackie’s knife-wielding, well, black guy. I’ve previously commented on Pena’s respectable acting capabilities in my review of End of Watch, and it’s a shame that he and the similarly talented Mackie (who received an SAG nomination for The Hurt Locker) are reduced to their ethnicities for the sake of a group dynamic. Giovanni Ribisi’s family man/wire tapper fares better, but not by much.

There are a couple of nice if unremarkable shootouts with some judicious use of slow motion: bullet shells tumble as the marble lobby of a grand hotel is blasted to smithereens. Gangster Squad’s release was delayed considerably by the parallels between one scene – a shootout in a cinema with gangsters moving their way through the screen with tommy guns – and the theater shooting in Aurora, which is understandable given the need for tact, but Gangster Squad is such a bloodless affair it’s hard to imagine it prompting much of anything in response.

When one of the eponymous squad – spoilers! – finally pays the iron price two-thirds of the way into the way into the film, safe to say you will have seen it coming a mile off (if only because The Untouchables did the same thing first)*. Gangster Squad is resigned to following an unwritten role book, to repeating the clichés. As I mentioned earlier, it’s vivid and pulpy – Fleischer’s strangely frenetic yet streamlined style is a decent fit, but it’s the very definition of style over substance. To give Gangster Squad it’s due, it probably deserves the rating of a three-star film, but it gets there riding on the coattails of far better movies.

Verdict: In all honesty, Gangster Squad doesn’t have a lot going for it. It’s funny and glossy, but ultimately utterly unmemorable. If you’ve seen any of the other films, I’d recommend rewatching one of them instead; if you haven’t, start with L.A. Confidential. I guarantee you’ll get more out of it than with this pale imitation.

You may not know…
Real-life Cohen enforcer Johnny Stompanato, who is portrayed in L.A. Confidential and referenced here, dated film actress Lana Turner before he was ostensibly murdered by her daughter Cheryl. During filming of Turner-starrer Another Time, Another Place in the UK, Stompanato turned up on set with a gun, only to have it taken from him by a relatively unknown Scottish actor who proceeded to force Stompanato from the set. Stompanato was deported from the UK for possession of an unlicensed handgun. That actor was Sean Connery, four years before he starred in Doctor No.

*Oh, yeah: and the kid gets it too.


Wednesday, 9 January 2013


A Review

"Surely this is one of the most ambitious films ever made. The little world of film criticism has been alive with interpretations of it, which propose to explain something that lies outside explanation. Any explanation of a work of work must be found in it, not take to it. As a film teacher, I was always being told by students that a film by David Lynch, say, or Werner Herzog, was "a retelling of the life of Christ, say, or 'Moby Dick'." My standard reply was: Maybe it's simply the telling of itself..."

So says Roger Ebert, one of the world's most eminent film reviewers. It's true: regardless of any other opinion you made hold of 'Cloud Atlas', adapted from David Mitchell's critically acclaimed novel by The Wachowskis (The Matrix trilogy, Speed Racer) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), you certainly can't fault it for it's sense of ambition.

Its fractured narrative is that of a group of individuals scattered across time and space. While Mitchell's novel relates these in first chronological then reverse chronological order - cutting each story neatly in half so that the progression follows as 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1 - the film does not hold to the structural conceit: it jumps back and forth from the South Pacific in the mid 19th Century all the way to the Hawaiian Islands a century after some future apocalypse, by route of 1930s Edinburgh, 1970s San Francisco, present day Great Britain, and "Neo Seoul" in 2144. If this sounds like it has the potential to become a bit of a sprawling mess, it does, though the actors and themes that transition from one sequence to the next just about hold it together.

From a tribesman who becomes unwilling guide to one of the last members of a technologically advanced civilization long after mankind's fall, the ailing notary trying desperately to return home from an exotic archipelago, to a penniless musician seeking to make his name as amanuensis to a aged luminary, a crusading journalists whose life is threatened when she seeks to expose a coverup at a nuclear facility, a middle-aged publisher who flees his business when assailed by hoodlums and finds himself imprisoned in a nursing home against his will, and a genetically engineered server at a future fast food franchise who gains awareness and becomes a vital figure to a resistance movement, all these stories have in common are a few grand themes - life, death, resurrection - and some recognizable faces, most notably Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Jim Broadbent.

Unlike in the novel where each section had its own distinct style, there's no such effort to distinguish the sequences here, perhaps for the best given the huge tonal shifts already in play. While at first there would seem to be no connection between the different characters played by each actor - Hanks' roles, for instance, range between a deranged skinhead author and a milquetoast physicist - the presence of a comet-shaped birthmark carried across each of the stories by a different character, actor even, supports the idea that these are souls migrating from one life to another.

There's relatively little in terms of your standard villain, though each of the sections has it's own minor antagonist, such as the villainous Nurse Noakes, an authoritarian right out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, played, bizarrely, by Hugo Weaving. Like Weaving - who also plays a racist Victorian social theorist, an implacable hitman, and a green-skinned Satanic figure - Hugh Grant also gets a brace of baddies, including, somewhat marvelously, a rat-tailed, heavily tattooed cannibal. 'Cloud Atlas' is never less than thoroughly entertaining, though the outlandish of it's presentation occasionally undermines the seriousness of the themes it contains. Suffice it to say, each of our protagonists - played sequentially by Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae, and finally Tom Hanks - is a victim of time and of circumstance, though personally I only ever truly felt for Whishaw's tortured composer (given his recent appearance in Skyfall, this is transpiring to be something of a breakout year for him.)*

Never exactly lapsing into incoherence, the frenetic cutting between each of the stories does prevent one from fully bedding down in any of them. It's perhaps telling that the parts I enjoyed most about the original novel were generally the parts I enjoyed most here. While "unadaptable" is a word that's bandied about far too often - with successful adaptations such as Ang Lee's of Yann Martel's  'Life of Pi' going a long way to disprove the theory - the question is whether 'Cloud Atlas' was ever a book that required being on the screen.

Verdict: 'Cloud Atlas' is a strangely ephemeral work, full of themes and ideas, in which it's impossible to ever fully feel grounded. However, in a film about the transience of life and the endurance of the human spirit, maybe that's partly the point. More for fans of the book than anyone else, an ambitious if flawed and not wholly satisfying experience, 'Cloud Atlas' amounts to less than the sum of its parts, but, to it's credit, is never afraid to try something new.

* This is excluding Whishaw's performances in Bright Star, Perfume: The Story of a Murder (also by Tom Tykwer), and 2008's Brideshead Revisited.

Friday, 4 January 2013



Faith, Grace, Mercy, and Getting Ahead in Revolutionary France

This writer has been sentenced to hard labor for revealing film-related spoilers on his blog.

But I did warn them…

Quiet, you. 

You know that sometimes you leave the cinema struggling to articulate exactly what it is that you’ve just seen. Those are my feelings regarding Les Miserables, the adaptation of Cameron Mackintosh’s blockbuster musical, directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech). Often it’s the complexity of what you’ve experienced, but in this case it’s the sheer enormity – this version of the seminal work of theatre about life in early 19th Century France, to my knowledge the first full musical adaptation to ever hit the big screen, is breathtaking. From the opening sequence in which we witness condemned man Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) helping to heave a wrecked vessel into dry dock as part of a team of convicts, the film immerses you in the character’s stories and the world of poverty and bloodshed in which they are embroiled.

Having been lucky enough to have seen the stage play, I will try to prevent myself from referencing it too frequently. Suffice it to say, Les Miserables is a faithful conversion, albeit with a few minor concerns that I will address later. Jean Valjean, who finds himself a free man after twenty years for a petty crime of necessity, finds himself hounded by a world with no room it for an ex convict, nor work. Shown charity by a man of the cloth, Valjean repays the Bishop’s kindness by making off with the silver. Arrested and brought before the wronged clergyman, the Bishop shows Valjean almost unfathomable mercy: he tells the arresting officers that the silverware was a gift, as Valjean has claimed. The desperate, dehumanized Valjean is unable to understand the meaning of such an act. As the Bishop of Digne (played by original stage Valjean) informs him, he has bought his soul for God. Thus begins Valjean’s journey of redemption, which will encompass the next twenty years.

A big thing has been made of Hooper’s decision to have all of the film’s vocals performed live on set – every word that’s sung was sung the very take you see. Though arguably a gimmick, depending on your thoughts about lip- synching, this decision does a great deal to bring one into the film. When Fontine (Anne Hathaway), a single mother forced into a life of abjectness and prostitution, famously sings ‘I Dreamed A Dream’, it’s impossible not to buy completely into her denigration. “I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I’m living”, she cries, shorn-headed, in perfect tune, in a scene that is genuinely moving. In this regard, the whole cast acquit themselves admirably: Jackman carries the role of Valjean, the pursued convict, who has borne so much and suffered for so long. Russell Crowe, who plays Valjean’s pursuer, the dogged but principled Inspector Javert, has come under criticism for his singing abilities, but, apart perhaps from a lack of range, he does remarkably well in a role that would have destroyed lesser performers, particularly in his solo ‘Stars’.

Finding himself in the position of having inadvertently wronged the dying Fontine, Valjean adopts her daughter Cosette, who matures into Amanda Seyfriend. In doing so, he must pay a visit to Cosette’s caretakers, inn keeping couple the Thernadiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Both actors previously appeared in Tim Burton’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and they bring a familiar macabre humor to the disreputable money-grubbing couple. It is here that, in my opinion, one of the film’s few flaws becomes evident: on stage the juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy is somehow provided for by the formality of the space. Cinema is egalitarian while theatre, in form at least, is far more elitist. As such, the transition from – spoilers – the death of Fontine to the appearance of two cod-Shakespearean clowns is somewhat jarring. The couple’s appearances throughout the rest of the film become notably less so as they are integrated fully into Les Miserables’ grand narrative, but it certainly takes a moment to adjust.

As class tensions grow ever more fraught in the city of Paris, Valjean and his young ward find themselves caught up in the turmoil. In this, Cosette encounters the young would-be revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) – it is love at first sight. But for Marius there is the call of the barricade, and poor Eponine, played by the excellent Samantha Barks – who appeared in the role in the 25th Anniversary of the show at the O2 – the inn-keepers daughter, who loves him unrequitedly. How the film copes with these individual struggles is one of its chief enjoyments: from Valjean’s struggle with overbearing shame to Javert’s plight over his stark view of criminality being called into question, it’s a testament to Alain Boubil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Jean-Marc Natel – who adapted Victor Hugo’s 1861 novel for the original musical – and William Nicholson – who adapted their musical for the screen – that we never lose track of any of them and that they draw together so inexorably and fulfillingly throughout Les Miserables’ second act.

The film never loses it’s sense of scale: Hooper’s camera swoops through the streets of revolutionary Paris, soaring from the buttresses of Notre Dame to the impoverished citizens lurking in alcoves, longing for a brighter day. This brighter day takes the form of a ragtag bunch of students who man the barricade against impossible odds. Among their number is Enjolras (Aaron Tveit), who passionately leads the charge, and Grantaire (George Blagden), who would prefer to be whoring, drinking, and cracking wise – a minor show stealer. Each is fleetingly sketched but well characterized, and ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ carries all the more weight for it. Unusually, the barricade skirmish takes place in seemingly far smaller confines than on the stage – a bottlenecked cul-de-sac dead-ended by a tavern. It is from the upstairs window of this tavern that Enjolras sprawls, flag unfurling, recalling the equivalent moment from the stage play. The film never lets you forget the human cost of the violence that takes place, and, indeed, to this extent is arguably more successful that it’s theatrical progenitor without the artificial dignity of the stage.

With scale, however, come problems of emphasis, which I’ve alluded to earlier. In bravely attempting a synthesis of stage and screen, Hooper chooses to show his actor’s singing in close-up: close-ups of Marius and Cosette as, through the bars of a gate, they sing ‘A Heart Full of Love’; close-ups of Valjean in ‘Bring Him Home’ as he pleads with God to spare his adopted daughter’s love. Positioned as they are against grand and busy backdrops, from arching cathedrals to crowded battlefields, it often feels like you’ve been artificially forced into uncomfortably close confines with the performer in question. The songs themselves are soliloquized – which is to say, going heard or unheard by surrounding characters dependent on the needs of the plot. Though by no means perfect, Les Miserables is nevertheless brave and stirring, a noble experiment, and one that brings a much-needed sense of immediacy to the musical adaptation (my apologies to Oliver! and all it’s ilk).

Leaving the cinema, you feel like you know and have engaged with the characters like never before. A four-time attendee of the stage play in London, it’s only now that I feel like I truly know Jean Valjean and understand his plight as anything more than a passive bystander. This is theatre as cinema and it feels more immediate and urgent than most live productions I’ve been witness to. I’ve tried to retain some objectivity during this write-up, but it’s near impossible not to get swept up in it. Les Miserables is a triumph, a piece of cinema I truly enjoyed despite it’s near three-hour runtime. It’s not so much long as epic and, a few moments of tonal inconsistency aside, it feels like a complete work. When the main cast appears together, intercut from around the city, for the galvanizing ‘One Day More’ at the first act break, almost ninety minutes in, I felt glad that there was still so much to come. 

I have in recent weeks fallen into the habit of giving mainly positive reviews, with a few notable exceptions. This is largely in part because I only go to see films I’m pretty much sure will be good, but I will take a short here in the closing paragraph as a hard-nose cynic. Les Miserables is not particularly subtle and nuanced, as the ‘Hollywood Reporter’ levels against it, and, yes, to be utterly critical, some of the editing occasionally seems a touch arbitrary – why that particular close-up there? – and there’s a bit of an overreliance on Dutch angles. Some of the set-ups are even a bit – dare I say it – stagey. Les Miserables is nevertheless a powerful, often moving cinematic experience. When the whole cast sings together in the final scene, along with all the deceased, upon a enormous barricade, flags waving, voices soaring, in a sequence transplanted – transcendental Christian overtones and all – directly from the play, it’s hard not to feel that Valjean and the film have earned the conceit. So, altogether: “Do you hear the people sing, singing a song of angry men…”

Verdict: Moving, emotionally charged, epic – Les Miserables is the grandest, most ambitious musical adaptation possibly of all time and deserves a place in the canon alongside the very best of the genre. Move over the Sharks and the Jets. Vive la revolution!