Film threat

StarredUp2

Two violent films, seen within 24 hours of one another. Starred Up is out this week on DVD. Joe is in cinemas. The first, from debuting writer Jonathan Asser – who, as a psychotherapist who’s worked with prisoners and young offenders, knows of which he speaks – is a prison drama. And already you’re thinking: oh no, not another prison drama. It’s true, the genre has long since hardened into if not cliché, certainly formality. But Starred Up – and you’ve heard this before, but stick with me – is different.

Yes, it resonates with the clanging of metal doors and gates, and makeshift weapons are furtively manufactured from toothbrushes and razor blades, and everyone says “fuck” or “cunt”, and there’s a sadistic, unsmiling deputy governor whose faith in rehabilitation is not devout, and a prisoner hierarchy with an unlikely, weaselly geezer at the top, and lags walk around in a circle in the exercise yard, but … it’s not about prison, no more than Hunger or Un prophète were about prison. It’s about a father and son.

Jack O’Connell, whom I never really saw in Skins but appreciated in Chris Chibnall’s United and James Moran’s Tower Block, is the son, and Ben Mendelsohn, one of the Aussie breakout stars of Animal Kingdom and brilliant in supporting roles in Killing Them Softy and Girls, is the father. The son, Eric Love (brilliant name), has been “starred up”, that is, moved from a young offenders’ institution to a grown-ups’ prison, where his dad, Neville, has carved out a functional life for himself, nearer to the top of the tree than the bottom, but he’s no Mr Big. He and his son have been estranged for most of Eric’s life, who grew up in care. He’s still in care. So is Neville.

What differentiates Starred Up – the best work from Scottish director David Mackenzie since the brooding and alarming Young Adam (although I’ve enjoyed plenty of his commercially under-loved work) – is that from the first scene we glimpse the human being under the self-generated armour of Eric’s cocksure invincibility when, after the long walk through the prison induction system to his cell, the door is shut on him and he allows his face and posture to retract from self-preservation and convey sadness, frustration and fallibility. It’s incredible acting from O’Connell (this film will make him if he isn’t made already), and infuses the rest of the film with depth.

StarredUp

Eric is a coiled spring of curtailed ambition whose reflex reaction is to lash out (a request for the borrow of a lighter results in a brutal attack very early on), which makes his introduction to a modest therapy group run by Rupert Friend all the more jarring and counterintuitive. This is not a film about fairytale transformations, but the way Eric’s story plays out is not predictable. Nor is the way the father-son reunification unfolds. Mendelsohn plays Neville as recalcitrant and proud – also a man who thinks with his fists and would clearly have parented with slaps had he actually attempted to do so – but not without a heart. Friend is a chameleonic actor (proven by his transformation into an American CIA officer in Homeland) who is utterly believable from word one as this voluntary shrink whose commitment to rehabilitation is everything Sam Spruell’s cold governor’s isn’t. A peacemaking speech he makes later on in the story where he calls the black prisoners in his group “black cunts” and Eric “a white cunt … I’m a cunt, we’re all cunts” is far more profound than it sounds.

Asser’s screenplay, worked through over a number of years, with the help of many professionals at workshops – to whom he pays sincere tribute in interview – was also honed during the tight 24-day location shoot at Belfast’s former Crumlin Road Prison and the infamous Maze, with Mendelsohn particularly involved in fine-tuning his character. All of this shows in the incredible depth throughout, even in exchanges that seem trite or functional. And there’s a terrifying stand-up stand-off in the therapy group that’s as exquisitely and exactingly choreographed by Mackenzie as a dance routine.

However, and here’s why I suspect Starred Up only showed for a week at my local arthouse in March and then disappeared: it’s defiantly repellent stuff. Strong meat. Hard on the ears as well as the eyes. A film I love, but not a film I would recommend to anybody with a weak constitution. A low-level threat of violence persists throughout the entire 106-minute running time. It’s not if, but when it explodes. The violence is not as explicit as it seems (that’s clever directing and editing), but the sheer physical force with which it erupts is quite distressing. Blades, table legs, teeth, fists, all are pressed into service. Fathers and surrogate fathers are attacked by their sons and surrogate sons, and their sons and surrogate sons are beaten back. It’s tactile-Oedipal. And they’re “all cunts”. (It was a hot evening when we watched the DVD but we eventually had to close the skylights for fear of our neighbours being offended by the language.)

I appreciate that the violence inherent in the system is a valid subject for fiction, and Starred Up is a supremely intelligent depiction of that violence. But I would actually warn people from watching it. You have been warned. (Actually, I found myself wholeheartedly evangelising it to a woman I met at the Inbetweeners 2 aftershow and literally gave that warning.)

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I’d read a lot of praise for Joe, the new film from director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express – that’s some CV), adapted by Gary Hawkins from the 1991 novel I’ve never heard of by Mississippian Larry Brown (about whom Hawkins once made a documentary). It’s also violent. It’s also about fathers and sons, and surrogate fathers and sons. It’s also tactile-Oedipal, and a lesson in restraint. What a coincidence.

It’s also very different. Shot in areas around Austin in Central Texas, it’s not quite a Southern Gothic, although the relationship between Tye Sheridan’s 15-year-old grown-up Gary and his good-for-nothin’ dad Wade, played with unadulterated authenticity by non-actor and actual alcoholic drifter Gary Poulter (who died after filming), is a dark entry indeed. In the very first scene, Gary berates his wizened soak of a father without any fear until Wade slaps him, hard, around the face, and retreats to his preferred cycle of guzzling spirit and passing out. Gary’s surrogate father turns out to be Joe, an ex-con played with admirable restraint by Nic Cage – a restraint that has earned him endless plaudits, although it turns out that this is all relative.

Joe runs a gang of casual workers – all black – whose task it is to literally poison trees to make way for a corporate re-planting, a job they merrily do without gloves, let alone masks. But their camaraderie and joshing are genuine and inspiring, and there’s two-way respect between the workers and their genial employer. Everyone knows Joe has “a past”, and he himself explains that “restraint” keeps him from “hurting people” and keeps him out of jail. He drinks, loves his guard-dog (who lives in the crawlspace under his home, always tethered), and uses prostitutes. He also knows his way around skinning and butchering a deer. He’s more than a little bit country.

Violence erupts more than once, and again, that threat lingers. It’s difficult to relax into the scenes of socialising and ball-breaking, as bad things are always round the corner. The director paints his pictures in dark greens, buff browns and queasy yellows, but finds beauty in the way sunlight bounces off surfaces, or through a glugged bottle of rose wine. Coincidentally, Mackenzie creates a red light in Eric’s cell when material is fixed up over the only window – an effect akin to that which Green conjures for the brothel. It ain’t pretty, this backwoods world he depicts, but it is not without natural beauty, perhaps best personified by a box bridge (a key location) that’s being gradually wrapped in vine. You can poison nature at the behest of a corporation, but it always finds a way. Perhaps, Joe seems to be saying, male violence is a natural state, and restraint is unnatural.

The characters in Starred Up are in a physical prison. In Joe, they’re out in the wide open spaces; there are worse places to work than a forest, even if you’re poisoning it, but it still feels like a high-viz chain-gang, especially as the workforce is exclusively African-American. When hardworking, personable Gary and – briefly – the workshy Wade join the herbicide detail, they are in the minority. But there’s little to elevate Wade from the bottom of any social heap: he’s cruel, selfish, vicious and callow. When he launches into an implausible breakdancing routine, it is the only ray of humanity we are privileged to see. (We must imagine that Poulter, who apparently enjoyed acting in the film, started a Twitter account and had been in and out of rehab, was more redeemable than Wade.)

Gary’s relationship with his father is less complex than Eric’s with Neville. Gary is the de facto adult, but Wade is dominant through threat of violence (and actual enaction of violence); we barely see the submissive mother, who also seems to drink, and Gary’s sister appears to have been rendered mute by family life. He’s the one who must go out and earn money (he saves to buy a truck from his new role model, Joe). I won’t go into the plot, as you may wish to see it, but I have to say, I felt Joe was over-praised. I felt like I’d seen all this before. Calling a drama noir doesn’t instantly bestow it with class. Some of the story is too neat – the way it’s bookended, for instance – some of it is too messy. There’s no resolution to some strands (such as Joe’s relationship with an ex who sort of moves in with him and then just moves out), and too much resolution to others (a stand-off that brings Joe’s relationship with the local law enforcement to a head).

There’s a scene in Joe that’s more explicitly violent than even the most violent scene in Starred Up. (People in the cinema audibly groaned and said “No!” when it happened.) I’m not against violence artistically, or politically, but I can personally do without seeing a skull being caved in, or a cheek slashed with a blade. There are a lot of movies about violence. We live in a violent world. Hundreds of men, women and children are killed every day in acts of violence – albeit much of it long-range, and not perpetrated with metal bars on bone – and these acts do not act as neat catalysts for dramatic resolutions.

But I can tell you, I was in the mood to watch The Inbetweeners 2 last night.

 

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Film 2013: great beauty

Michael Smiley in Ben Wheatley's A Field in England.beyond_the_hillsSpring+Breakersthe-great-beauty2Frances-Hagravity-cuaronBlue-is-the-Warmest-Colorblackfishbig i-wish

As I write, it’s not quite yet the very end of the year, but my records indicate that I have seen 153 films in 2013 – that is, 153 films I’ve never seen before (which includes films I’ve seen but never before seen on the big screen, such as Manhattan, Aguirre Wrath Of God and Chinatown). Of those 153, 122 have been films released in 2013. If I were an actual film critic, I’d be seeing around seven a week. But I’m not one. So I’m calling 153 a decent tally. But never mind the width, feel the quality.

Here are my Top 30 in order. I’ve eschewed qualitative ordering in my entries for TV, books and albums, but I feel more confident about films as I log them as I go, and enter a star symbol next to any that stand out from the pack. This makes it easier to sift them. Frankly, the Top 10 rose effortlessly to the top, but the next 20 confirm that it was a damn good year.

1. The Great Beauty | Paolo Sorrentino | Italy
2. All Is Lost | JC Chandor | US
3. Gravity | Alfonso Cuarón | US/UK
4. Blackfish | Gabriela Cowperthwaite | US
5. Compliance | Craig Zobel | US
6. Beyond The Hills | Cristian Mungiu | Romania
7. I Wish | Hirokazu Koreeda | Japan
8. Spring Breakers | Harmony Korine | US
9. Blue Is The Warmest Colour | Abdellatif Kechiche | France
10. Frances Ha | Noah Baumbach | US

11. Mea Maxima Culpa | Alex Gibney | US
12. Silence | Pat Collins | Ireland
13. Lincoln | Steven Spielberg | US
14. Nebraska | Alexander Payne | US
15. Made Of Stone | Shane Meadows | UK
16. A Field In England | Ben Wheatley | UK
17. Mud | Jeff Nichol | US
18. The Selfish Giant | Clio Barnard | UK
19. Shell | Scott Graham | UK
20. No | Pablo Larrain | Chile
21. Zero Dark Thirty | Kathryn Bigelow | US
22. Captain Philips | Paul Greengrass | US
23. Parkland | Peter Landesman | US
24. Blue Jasmine | Woody Allen | US
25. Prisoners | Denis Villeneuve | US
26. What Richard Did | Lenny Abrahamson | Ireland
27. Stories We Tell | Sarah Polley | Canada
28. The Place Beyond The Pines | Derek Cianfrance | US
29. In The Fog | Sergei Loznitsa | Russia
30. A Hijacking | Tobias Lindholm | Denmark

Some thoughts. Four documentaries in the Top 30 (and one in the Top 10) says something powerful about the continued relevance of non-fiction. (The Act Of Killing topped many a critic’s poll in Sight & Sound; for me, it was a unique film, but not one I actually enjoyed.) And two Irish films in the Top 10, too, which has to be a first, and a welcome one. I note that only half my Top 30 are American, which feels like a significant victory for “the rest of the world” as Hollywood accountants call it – although I only did a Top 20 last year and less than half were American, so who knows? On a geographical note, Gravity is apparently “British” enough to qualify for a British Bafta nomination in 2014, as it was shot here and Alfonso Cuarón has dual UK citizenship.

For the record, the following films also received a star under my yes-or-no rating system this year, so they merit an honourable mention. More documentaries, and two more Irish films!

Beware Of Mr Baker | Jay Bulger | UK
Django Unchained | Quentin Tarantino | US
This Is 40 | Judd Apatow | US
For Ellen | So Yong Kim | US
The Spirit of ’45 | Ken Loach | UK
Arbitrage | Nicholas Garecki | US
Reality | Matteo Garrone | Italy/France
Neighbouring Sounds | Kleber Mendonça Filho | Brazil
Good Vibrations | Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn | Ireland
The Gatekeepers | Dror Moreh | Israel/France/Germany/Belgium
Spike Island | Mat Whitecross | UK
The Look Of Love | Michael Winterbottom | UK
Easy Money | Daniél Espinosa | Sweden
Behind The Candelabra | Steven Soderbergh | US
The World’s End | Edgar Wright | UK
Before Midnight | Richard Linklater | US
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa | Declan Lowney | UK
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks | Alex Gibney | US
The Deep | Baltasar Kormákur | Iceland
Fire In The Night: The Piper Alpha Disaster | Antony Wonke | UK
Hawking | Stephen Finnigan | UK
Oblivion | Joseph Kosinski | US
What Maisie Knew | Scott McGhee, David Siegel | US
Mister John | Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor | Ireland/Singapore
Leviathan | Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel | US

A final postscript: I didn’t get to see Philomena this year, which leaves an obvious gap as I suspect I will like it.

Theatrical release

It was Baz Luhrmann who coined the phrase “red curtain cinema” to cover his loose trilogy Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge. What he meant by it was film that embraced the theatre and revelled in the theatricality of performance, even when frozen in celluloid and thus robbed of that particular verité. Song, dance, heightened reality, a certain opulence, a sense of camp, grandeur and all-round stagey staging add to the effect, and as someone who saw Moulin Rouge in a huge, impersonal West End cinema in the immediate, overcast aftermath of 9/11 and found myself part of an ordinary paying audience cheering at the end, I can account for the best of the effect “red curtain” achieves.

Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina is part of that tradition. It wasn’t always meant to be this way – indeed, Wright’s last-minute decision to re-stage and shoot Tolstoy’s torrid aristo-romance in a theatre and to make that its narrative and visual advantage apparently drained the colour from screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s cheeks, and has rubbed some critics up the wrong way, too. Me? I found it not only bold and brave, but mostly thrilling. A gamble that paid off.

Historically, the novel was staged before it was filmed, in 1907, but its most famous adaptations have been for the screen – Greta Garbo in the 1935 version; the 1977 BBC series with Nicola Pagett; perhaps even the 1997 one with Sophie Marceau, the first Hollywood adaptation to be filmed in actual Russia. This, however, is something different. It begins in the theatre, with Matthew McFadyen playing Count Oblonsky in heightened farce mode, and the actors moving betweens sets and backdrops, with stage hands lurking and scenery being changed. The “realism” of the theatrical setting is challenged at key moments; firstly, when Levin (a suitably dour and serious Domhnall Gleeson) leaves St Petersburg for the countryside and steps outside of the theatre into a vast, David Lean-style snowy landscape. (I haven’t read or studied the book, but I can see that the contrast between the ritualised dance of town and the agrarian honesty of the country is key.)

For me, when the action deliberately and symbolically moves outside of the constrictions of the theatre to convey the vastness and openness of the country – where, for instance, Levin mucks in with the workers on his estate in what looked like a deliberate, dappled echo of Days Of Heaven – some of the film’s singular magic ebbs away and the film becomes conventional again. (That said, the way the scythes swoosh in time to Dario Marianelli’s soundtrack pulls it back a bit.) Conversely, when Keira Knightley, as Anna, sits beneath a toy railway to reassure her young son before heading off to Moscow, and then we zoom in on the lit carriages of the toy train in a fake snowscape, wherein Anna now travels, it is a captivating leap from artifice to “reality”.

Some have found Wright’s approach a bit “arm’s length”, and criticised him for removing us from the emotion of the story by placing obstacles in our way, but while I accept that much of the cleverness – including a horse race with actual horses also held inside the dilapidated auditorium, and a government office building transformed into a restaurant, with workers revealing aprons beneath their formal suits to become waiters – is designed to dazzle rather than involve, this is an artistic risk, and you have to credit Wright for taking it.

And anyway, the performances are rich and real enough, notably Knightley’s and that of Jude Law as her cuckolded husband. Both these performers improve with age, and while Law might have been playing the cocky Count Vronsky if the film had been made ten years ago, I prefer him as the balding, formal, upstanding Count Karenin. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Vronksy, and embodies all the arrogance of privileged youth. He’s not likable, but is he supposed to be? Too many decent actresses are reduced to cameos – Shirley Henderson, Holliday Grainger, Emily Watson, Michelle Dockery, even Ruth Wilson’s part is relatively small – but then this is one of those lavish costumed productions that actors presumably fall over themselves to be in, and in the patriarchal society it depicts, the men are in charge while the ladies fan themselves in royal boxes. Of the female characters, only Anna is allowed any real substance.

At its most Luhrmann-esque, a courtly dance, choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, seems to blend a more modern framework over the 19th century formality, with an intricate interweaving of hands and arms that almost threatens to usher in a modern dance track, as per Moulin Rouge (amid whose wayward wackiness, it might have worked). Thankfully, this never happens, and Wright keeps a tighter lid on the inner logic of his production. I almost yelped when Vronksy and Karenin – by now locked in a Cold War for Anna’s affections – leave and enter by adjoining revolving doors in the lobby of the theatre, glimpsing each other through the glass; this is Wright hitting the jackpot.

It’s a long book, and the film is too, at 130 minutes, towards the end of which I found myself drifting a little. But overall, despite the aforementioned remoteness, I thought this Anna was a treat. Oh, those Russians.

Cheer up

And well you might look sad, Olivia Colman. Despite producing one of last year’s stand-out performances in film, namely, as abused wife and Christian charity shop manager Hannah in Paddy Considine’s devastating debut Tyrannosaur, you have been overlooked by the membership of Bafta in their 2012 nominations (which can be seen here in full). Instead, Leading Actress will go to one of the following five: Bérénice Bejo for The Artist; Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady, Michelle Williams for My Week With Marilyn; Tilda Swinton for We Need To Talk About Kevin; and Viola Davis for The Help (which I haven’t seen, for the record). All of the above are great performances – and I’m sure Davis is good in The Help, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt – but it seems a crying shame that Colman didn’t make the final five.

It’s a shame, but it’s not a scandal, as many peers and commentators have made it seem on the internet today. If you want to understand the Bafta voting system, it’s explained in detail here. Basically, the 6,500 Bafta members vote the starting list of about 250 contenders down to 15, the longlist, then vote that down the shortlist, after which they vote for their favourite from that list of five. In other words, their vote is not influenced – at least not directly or explicitly – by such cynicism-feeding factors as who will look good on the front row at the ceremony on TV, or who deserves an award because they will make the British film industry look good, or the who will make us look good because they are American and will therefore stop the Baftas looking parochial and insular.

I’m sure Bafta members ask their friends who they’ve voted for, in secret (just like Big Brother housemates always seem to do) or who they intend to vote for, but with 6,500 of them, a consensus is bound to arise, and it will, you have to expect, accurately reflect the views of the membership. This is not the Hollywood Press Association, or the public, it’s 6,500 mostly professional people from within or in the vicinity of the industry.

In other words, across those 6,500 members, Olivia Colman might actually have been their sixth favourite Leading Actress, as she was rightly included in the 15-strong longlist. She was also longlisted for Supporting Actress for The Iron Lady, interestingly enough. It would have been ironic if she’d made the shortlist for that but not for Tyrannosaur.

Frankly, as is well known, Tyrannosaur is easily one of my favourite films of last year – right up there with Kill List – and I’m hardly on a limb in this regard. But in both cases I can see why Bafta members might recoil from the subject matter, and the execution. Neither is an “easy” film. Certainly not as “easy” as My Week With Marilyn or The Help (which I haven’t seen, but I will eat my hat if it doesn’t have an uplifting message, something that Tyrannosaur doesn’t, at least not in the conventional sense). Tyrannosaur gets a nomination for Paddy Considine, which is cheering news, but that is the full extent of its Bafta recognition.

What we have here is a disconnect between a broad consensus and the personal passion of a number of individuals. It happens. It happens in elections, too. As we have established, in a democracy the middle ground wins elections, and not the fringes. The Artist may be French, and in its own way radical, but it’s easy to like, and will prevail, I think, in all the big award categories this season. Considine did not write his first feature film so that it would bag him an Oscar, but he might, in his heart of hearts, dared to imagine it being recognised by Bafta. Unfortunately, if it wasn’t eligible as an “Outstanding Debut” (which it is), we would be looking at a total snub.

Except it wouldn’t be a snub. It wouldn’t be the insidious result of an agenda, or of internal politics. It would just be a larger group of professionals not liking a film about horrible, depressing abuse and brutality, than those liking it.

Which doesn’t make it any easier to be Olivia Colman today, who has arguably delivered the performance of her career so far – because Considine cast her in a non-comic role and gave her so much more to get her teeth into – and it has slipped beneath the radar.

It is not abuse. It is the way of the world. You wanted democracy. You got it.

PS: It has been suggested – by none other than that nice man Boyd Hilton on Twitter – that both Shame and We Need To Talk About Kevin, nominated for best film, are less conventional than Tyrannosaur. It’s an interesting point. I would say that Tyrannosaur’s “conventionality” or otherwise isn’t really the issue here; it’s more about its unrelenting misery, all-round tone of grey despair and scenes of sadistic violence. Shame is about a rich man who has a lot of mechanical sex but can’t get a girlfriend. It’s a powerful film, but actually pretty glamorous with its New York setting, and the only abuse is really self-abuse. Kevin is definitely disturbing, but it has moments of happy home life at the beginning (against which the nightmare plays out) and again has a bright, aspirational, middle-class setting (again, which points up the nightmare). But do discuss!