Archive for Roger Deakins

Bully Beef

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2020 by dcairns

There are some big spoilers further down.

To the Vue Ocean Terminal with its good cheap prices and recliner seats, to see a bunch of car commercials (the Peugeot one unusually inept for this day and age) and 1917, the fabled long take WWI epic from Sam Mendes.

Now, I haven’t watched a Mendes film since AMERICAN BEAUTY. I’ve half-watched his James Bonds. It wasn’t really a deliberate choice, I had some problems with AB but I thought aspects of it were good and he stole from the best (that BIGGER THAN LIFE shot). I just had too many precodes and giallos and 70s scifi movies to watch to find room for REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. The one that would have been interesting for comparison purposes is JARHEAD, I guess.

What drew me this time was the long take conceit, and folks saying you had to see it on the big screen. Possibly true — I might have drifted off as I did with SPECTRE if this had been at home.

Here’s the thing — the behind-the-scenes ads tried to sell this as an actual single take, which you could immediately tell it wasn’t going to be. But it doesn’t even PRETEND to be a single take — we cut to black around the midpoint when our hero is knocked unconscious, and fade up hours later. I could have asked for my money back at that point, couldn’t I?

(I did actually take my seat thinking, Wouldn’t it be funny if, like ROPE, this had one or more absolutely blatant cuts in it? Well, we never cut directly from one image to another but we do go to black and change scenes, so it ain’t continuous.)

The next two questions I had to satisfy were whether the long take thing was effective, and whether the joins were skillfully managed. I feel like you can sense something off about some of the fast pans in THE REVENANT, a feeling that digital jiggery-pokery is being worked to tie separate images together. Would this be like that?

No, in fact. This is more like in ROPE when John Dahl walks into the camera, blocks the lens, and then walks away again. Ridiculous. I mean, it’s not quite like that, the image isn’t totally obscured, but Roger Deakins’ camera goes wandering around people and objects and lets them more or less occlude the image and a digital join is effected, and I was very conscious that the camera had no reason to be circling back there other than to make that join easy to manage.

But the first question is the key one: what effect does the long take have? Is it immersive or distracting? That may depend on how shot-conscious you are, and that in turn may be effected by how convinced you are by everything.

JARHEAD was written by a veteran and I gather it succeeds in terms of convincing detail, both environmental and behavioral. Obviously WWI is much further away historically than the Gulf War, which is where research comes in I guess. And talent. This film is written by Sam Mendes, who is not a writer, and Krysty Wilson-Cairns who I imagine must be a distant relative of mine.

I think, on a positive note, the film shows that the walk-and-talk shot can be sustained without loss of interest almost indefinitely. With continuous movement, there may not be something new to look at every second, but there’s always GOING to be, and we sense that.

On the other hand, I’m very picky when it comes to realism. Seeing soldiers pissing against a wall, it made me wonder how long the protagonist was going to go without relieving himself. When he gives away his canteen to a needy civilian, I was skeptical, especially seeing the milk bottle in the background into which he could easily have decanted its contents. How long is it going to take the army to issue you a new unbreakable bottle, Lance Corporal? And do you realise you can be court-martialled for losing army property?

The test of the single-take (or, in this case, two-take) illusion should be, does it make the film better? I’m fairly sure this movie could have done its job better as a series of long takes, using cuts for dramatic effect and thus obviating the need for transforming the hero into a CGI puppet when he goes over a waterfall, or having boulders pass through frame close to camera, from behind which he will emerge in a totally different position.


Oh, but there are guest stars! I didn’t feel it while watching, but afterwards I came to think of these bits as the cut scenes in a video game — a sort of First World War second person shooter. The only actor to make a real impression on me, besides our protags, was the ever-tricksy Andrew Scott, who seizes on his single character trait like a ravening terrier and worries it to death, but he brings the entertainment and isn’t around long enough to wear out his welcome. He’s very funny and arguably wrong for the film but I’ll take what fun I can get, thanks.

Some good things: effective use of offscreen space, some non-white characters, very beautiful night scenes.

But I think the film makes some peculiar choices which fly in the face of its own aesthetic. The wall-to-wall music — my impression was it coated around a third of the film — gets in the way of any “realistic” or “immersive” approach. Music is good for many things, but it doesn’t make things more REALISTIC. I would love to have heard what some of the film’s evocatively ravaged landscapes sounded like, without Thomas Newman’s very modern score.


When we meet a French civilian, she gets subtitles, which I found EXTRAORDINARY. If we’re meant to be sharing the experience of our protag, who doesn’t speak much French but helpfully speaks aloud his translations of the words he understands, how are subs going to help put us in his boots? (This film is really anxious for us to understand everything — when we enter the German trenches and somebody finds a brazier with still-hot ash, he helpfully remarks, “Not long gone.”)

That French civilian is initially afraid of our hero, but she relaxes when he explains that he’s British. Because we’re the good guys. Now, it’s not impossible that this might happen, I suppose. But if I were a French civilian, especially a young woman, I’d probably be a bit nervous of ANY lone soldier, whatever their country of origin. And I think it would make a more dramatic and convincing scene if the hero had to PROVE he meant no harm.

But the film is very committed to its goodies-baddies binary. One protag is stabbed to death by a German pilot he’s just rescued from a burning plane. Odd behaviour from the pilot, I have to say. The film’s frame of reference — follow two, then one, British soldiers, staying close — means it has limited opportunities to humanize the enemy. The rigor with which it rejects those opportunities is jawdropping.

It’s fine that the protags are pissed off that the Germans have left tripwires and explosives in their path, and killed the livestock and chopped down the cherry trees. We don’t need our characters to be even-handed about things.

The only other German we “meet” is the young soldier our hero throttles. First he claps a hand over the guy’s mouth and tells him to stay quiet. But when he un-gags the guy, he calls for help (he doesn’t get any subtitles though). What an absolute swine.

I *think* the subsequent strangulation was intended, along with the Hun’s youth, to make us think about how horrible hand-to-hand murder must be, but it’s staged in silhouette with another German pottering about obliviously in the background, so the primary emotion is suspense — we’re hoping our man doesn’t get caught. We’re rooting for him to soundlessly asphyxiate this Hun.

In the end, you’ll be glad to know, our chap successfully extinguishes life in his opponent AND delivers his message in time to stop the futile attack (because in WWI, it’s important to know, futile attacks were called off um lemme think for a second NO) AND thus saves the life of his friend’s brother. Apart from Benedict Cumberbatch being a bit grumpy, and his friend being dead, it’s all been a ripping success.

I had my doubts about this war but do you know, I think everything’s going to be fine.

Less Human Than Human

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2017 by dcairns

One line of thought. Probably spurious. On seeing Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL right after the 2016 presidential election, I was struck by how it felt like an optimistic statement — despite our stupid differences, humankind manage cooperate among ourselves and with the strolling heptapods — a movie aimed at that branch of the multiverse where Hillary won. BLADE RUNNER 2049, arriving hot on its heels (how did he manage that?) — with its polluted, post-nuclear police state, is aimed squarely at the Trump Parallel. Since escapism sells, it was ARRIVAL that was the hit.

It’s like somebody said about Kubrick: 2001 was the future we could have had; CLOCKWORK ORANGE was what we were going to get.

As shot by Roger Deakins — excuse me, Roger A. Deakins (where did the A come from?) — 2049 looks really good — I mean, REALLY good — and the performances are excellent, with a very committed Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford and an interesting bunch of relative newcomers supporting them. Poor Robin Wright has to find a new way to play an ice queen, but ever resourceful, she does it. And the story is OK — it avoids the Damon Lindelof approach of simply reconfiguring the original elements and rehashing them out of sequence with the roles switched. But we were vaguely engaged without being particularly excited by the movie.

We’d just seen a bunch of movie trailers and they were ALL for sequels, two of them superhero franchises, one of them the JUMANJI reboot (which seemed to show the most originality, grading on a curve). And BLADE RUNNER 2049 is a superior sort of belated sequel — it’s largely faithful to its source, and not only reproduces familiar design elements (the recurring Mayan kitchen) but concocts new ones that seem quite in keeping as well as being beautiful in themselves (dustbowl Vegas, Dave Bautista’s brown lounge). It has a precise sense of the original’s sick, slightly kinky violence, gialloesque, chilling and inventive. But we didn’t care too much.

There are clever touches — the ads for Atari and Pan-Am that “date” the original film are repeated, and a “Product of CCCP” logo confirms that this is an alternate future, so that it doesn’t matter that Leon’s incept date was 2017 in the first movie, and yet artificial Brion Jameses are not available in the shops this Christmas. The Peugeot and Sony signs are pure product placement, though — I only hope the well-documented (by me, right now) Curse of Blade Runner will swoop down and send those corporations spiralling into administration the way it did to the games company and the airline. But clever touches don’t necessarily make us care about a movie’s characters or story or even themes.

Impossible to explain such a visceral thing, and I’m not certain our response is of any use to anyone else — best to provisionally accept the positive things listed above and see it for yourself. It’s worth seeing.

I guess one problem is that the movie does seem to aim for a fairly straightforward kind of emotional appeal in its ending, and that somehow didn’t come off for us. And even if it had, I think it would have been less interesting than the original movie. Ridley Scott’s films tries halfheartedly to be about Rick Deckard but comes to life when dealing with Roy Batty, a much more original hero with a more pressing problem to solve. The fact that his methods are “questionable” just makes him more interesting. And while the movie’s attempts to find an emotional arc for Deckard are so ineffectual that the subsequent director’s cuts (two of them?) can chop off his last scene and nobody misses it, the emotions it rouses for Batty are, though conflicted, huge and operatic — that’s why I used a frame grab of the elevator scene in my previous BR post. Batty has just killed his father — God — and is breathing deeply of the strange new possibilities around him — while at the same time falling, falling, away from the heavens.

To get anywhere near that, 2049 would have to have been about its own most interesting, scary and transgressive character, Luv, ferociously played by Sylvia Hoeks. But she is very far from being even the chief antagonist — she’s a henchwoman for Jared Leto. And Leto’s wacko billionaire is the film’s most hackneyed element, and nonsensical to boot — always complaining that replicants are too difficult to manufacture, while randomly killing perfectly good replicants every time we see him.

The first film is about all kinds of stuff, but as Batty’s story resonates most deeply, it seems to mainly be about mortality. The second film seems to be almost straightforwardly about slavery — an important subject in the first movie too, but a less universal one. And in the original, since the replicants are escapees when we first meet them, slavery is relegated to backstory and is less an active theme. Death is the problem. In this sequel, our hero is a slave — maybe we need more convincing information about how he breaks his programming? But the story of his gradual growth beyond the limits imposed on him should be touching. I do actually hold out hope that this may kick in more on a second viewing.

2049 is a kind of replicant movie — beautiful, complex, elegant, closely resembling what it’s modelled on and undeniably made with enormous skill — but crucially lacking some important, indefinable inner ingredient. If the first film is cold — and it is — but possessed of some kind of weird, nameless Wagnerian emotion of its own — the sequel tries to do something commendable but less interesting — tell a touching human story — and doesn’t really quite manage it. (The two times I did feel some emotion: early on when we see Gosling’s K being the victim of prejudice; when he loses his cyber-partner; when he sees her porno billboard Doppelganger. Which suggests that Ford’s excellent performance is essentially a distraction from what should be Gosling’s movie.)

“I suppose that was the best BLADE RUNNER sequel we could ask for,” mused Fiona, doubtfully. But we never asked for one. “Well, maybe if they’d hired the OTHER writer,*” I mused, just as doubtfully.

*David Peoples, co-writer of BLADE RUNNER, also co-wrote THE UNFORGIVEN and 12 MONKEYS. Hampton Fancher, co-writer of BLADE RUNNER and 2049, is a former flamenco dancer once married to Sue Lyon, which is also pretty cool.

Into the Night

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 28, 2016 by dcairns


Having enjoyed ARRIVAL, we went back in time and watched director Denis Villeneuve’s previous hit. SICARIO. It’s very impressive, but we were less convinced by the “human killing machine” tropes which climax it than we had been by the hellish drug war developments of the first two acts. Shot by the always-impressive Roger Deakins, it has a more classical style than ARRIVAL (Deakins weaned the Coens off the wide angle lens, and seems to have drawn Villeneuve away from extreme depth of field long lens stuff, but I’ll have to see even earlier Villeneuves to know if my guess is accurate) with several of the impressive dusk scenes that distinguished NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (cartoon violence by comparison with this). The above image is just about all we see of a harrowing torture scene — imagination does the rest.


And then there’s this one, which recalls the closing shot of FULL METAL JACKET. The deceptive approach to perspective is an incidental pleasure which may not mean anything: the foreground figures’ bulk emphasises their closeness, but the low angle and silhouette effect makes them seem to be the same distance away as the line of smaller figures. Giants and dwarfs walking together. A Wellesian defiance of space, in the service of graphic impact.


But the fact that, as the figures advance, they sink below the horizon line, swallowed up by the same liquid darkness they’re composed of, gives the sequence a doom-laden quality, as if the men are descending into the Underworld, or beneath the surface of a dark ocean. Chills.