A social horror story, a tragedy of people and systems, and a convincing portrait of character change, as the nervous Voichita takes on Alina’s fearlessness. That change in character aspect is evident in much of the film’s form, not least the journey from the fretful handheld overshoulder shot that opens the film to the controlled slow zoom that closes it. The film’s realism is key to the accumulating sense of foreboding, and it’s very different to the kind of realism we’ve. And it’s an elegant realism – showcasing restricted point of view, open frames, long takes and precise deep focus staging that belies its unchoreographed feel.



If you find Andersonland amenable rather than irritating, you’re never short on gestures to relish. Gustave and Zero, both the characters and the characterisations (Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori and F Murray Abraham). Boy with Apple. The concerto for footsteps that ends in four severed fingers. The Society of the Crossed Keys – for which Desplat must be partly credited. Lessons in comic framing in three aspect ratios, reminding us that frame shape is more of a choice than most filmmakers make it. Lessons in instantly communicating storyframe through style choices. The conclusion’s deft closure of three of the film’s storytelling frames in half a minute is a feat of punctuation. The film’s dramatic side is just as strong. Gustave’s rage and subsequent shame after the prison break. More impressive: the elegiac endnote the filmmakers find their way to after so much tomfoolery. In this picture-book alternative Mitteleuropa, the heavy-hearted history of Europe is barely seen, but not unfelt.

A film wrapped around a ghost, represented by the song ‘Fare thee Well’. The shift in character of that song from first to final appearance tells you most of what you need to know, but which the Coens are expecting you to find for yourself. As with A Serious Man, interesting things are happening with structure here. (Another nice twist on showing the same scene twice from different points of view.) The time loop adds a sense closure to an episodic narrative, a sense of inevitability to Llewyn’s final state, and generate empathy with one of recent cinema’s pricklier protagonists. Kudos for the ‘Kuleshov cat’ subway scene.

A true city film: loneliness is the only constant, intimacy is only possible with strangers, and what little solace can be had is transient. As strong as it all is, the pleasure is in the detail. The gentle humour of manners (‘the food was too salty today’). The mental image of a man standing in his grave. The food. And 2014’s nicest use of the acousmetre character in Ila’s unseen ‘aunty’ (apologies to Spike Jonze). In the spirit of In the Mood for Love and Brief Encounter, sharing their affinity for social texture.

A great reworking of the graphic novel into blockbuster form, using Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as the fish out of water. More than any of its series so far, this film tapdanced in showing off the mutant powers of its characters. One of these moments was a lovely theatre moment, as a crisis allows the powers of Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to come to the fore. The appreciative noises that ripple around a cinema when an audience knows what is about to happen (yet still manage to be surprised) are great to hear. The demonstration is so effective, the film had to shuffle the character offscreen shortly after, lest his gifts circumvent all other remaining crises. Most of the other set pieces are less soloistic, each written to take optimal advantage of the impressive ensemble cast. (The opening battle, the Pentagon heist and the Paris Peace conference all come to mind.) The ‘lowest point’ moment, when Young Charles (James McEvoy) finds consolation in his future self (Patrick Stewart), is surprisingly moving, as is the outcome of Wolverine’s quest.

Much as I appreciate Captain Phillips, this film succeeds by being everything Phillips was not. If the Greengrass film is about the timeframe of crisis that mobilises all players, this is about the slower war of attrition that is likely involved when the United States doesn’t take an active interest. There is no Pax Americana to force a climax. Corporate executives, consultants and a translator (employed by pirates) trade gesture and counter-gesture without direct communication. There is no pulse-racing ship-seizing setpiece. The inciting incident of piracy happens offscreen. The effortless crosscutting that instantly communicates scene geography and stakes in Greengrass’s film is gone. Instead, we’re often stuck on one side of a phone call, deprived of a clear sense of the circumstances of what is happening in the other story branch. Violence is rare, and comes without tense foreplay or catharsis. But the realist feel Lindholm cultivates is much stricter than Greengrass’s more classical approach, so when the violence does come, its implications are more keenly felt.

The Rise of Electro (Marc Webb) – Many criticised this film as lacking a coherent narrative centre for its charming romance to orbit. I saw a charming romantic centre around which a few marginally-coherent villains orbited. To me this was a nice change from the villain-antagonist emphasis of the superhero form, and a sensible response to the perceived strengths of its predecessor (romance strong; villain arc weak), even if it was the unintentional outcome of a haphazard process. Not that the villains are a complete waste of time. The visualisation of Electro is truly beautiful, and his first clash with Spiderman in Times Square a reminder that there is very little that can’t be rendered in today’s visuals. The film is also blessed with a rare traditional superhero score by Hans Zimmer’s team, including a Vangelis-style theme for Spiderman and a bold (if not quite revolutionary – don’t tell Hans) use of vocals for Jamie Foxx’s Electro. Between this and Interstellar, Zimmer’s had a striking presence in film this year.


The film also contains one of my favourite associative edits of late – Lucy’s animals notwithstanding. The climactic struggle is situated amongst an abstract cathedral of clocks, which collapse dramatically in slow motion around the action. As a beloved character falls to their death, the stop of their falling body is echoed with the collapse of a giant clock’s minute hand. Subtle it’s not. Visual storytelling it is.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes followed in the spirit of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, ruminating on the dangers of playing God in biochemistry, projecting them into a franchise that has always proved a good carrier for insecurities. Dawn jumps the story ahead, and despite its sci-fi cloak, it’s the nearest thing you’ll see to a western these days. (Genres tend not to die, but when they do, they forward their concerns to others.) It’s a settlers-in-the-wilderness western, with a weakened ragtag of humanity in place of the usual colonists/settlers, and the flourishing ape culture in place of the indigenous other. There’s a nice inversion in that the colonists are striking out from the West Coast rather than the East Coast, and they’re perilously weak.


War hasn’t begun yet, but it seems inevitable. Competing influences within each culture are convinced of the necessity of war or peace between men and apes. The story aspires to the tragic revelation even the best doves will struggle to achieve a first-best world while hawks abide. Both hawks and doves are more simplistic than they need to be here, but nonetheless I was moved by the relationship between Jason Clarke’s character and Andy Serkis’s Caesar. (There’s a beat of eye contact between the two towards the end of the film that is a testament to the naturalism of modern special effects.)


There’s a lot that works about this reinvigorated series, and the aesthetics have moved even further in the right direction. The taste of Cloverfield that comes mid-battle as a tank is torn apart is a good example of the right camera angle raising the stakes.

A coward dies a thousand deaths. While this original sci-fi property has an interesting collection of symbols (World War II feels like the last significant war that happened), it offers something few of Cruise’s starring vehicles have offered: using that stunning smile as the shield of a coward. Somehow Cruise as snaky coward is more believable than Cruise the Innocent (his last sci-fi dabble, Oblivion), Cruise the Deadbeat (War of the Worlds) or Cruise the Griefstricken (Minority Report).


Perhaps the only shame here is that more isn’t made of the personality clash that should exist between a marketer in soldier’s clothing and Emily Blunt’s Joan of Arc figure, particularly the comic possibilities. The thousand deaths are inventively mapped, but was he a coward for enough of them? By the time he makes a good woman of Joan of Arc, the terrain has regularised into something a bit blander than what it could have been. (But I forget myself. This isn’t entirely nice.)


A lot of what works and doesn’t work here is useful for anyone writing a replay structure to study (e.g. Run Lola Run) – something that will become more importance as more films emerge from video games and those that play them. It’s less repetitive than you’d think, given the premise, and in part that’s a function of the amount of story ground it needs to cover. The film also has a ton of exposition to convey about its world, and the opening faux news montage does an impressive amount of heavylifting. (Although a later verbal exposition dump flew a little more over my head.) And there’s got to be something said about getting the most out of your shots. Has any film this year more frequently referred to one of its images than the way this film returns to Emily Blunt, transitioning in slow motion out of a plank position into a cobra stretch?

While few would describe the film as a comedy, the chuckles of embarrassment that circulated my cinema spoke to the way people identified with Tomas’s reduced stature as cowardly father. The rift that forms between Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and children over a failure of valour lowers the man to a moment of emotional honesty so embarrassing one can only laugh. The satire is broader than the role of the father – few figures escape unscathed, and it’s not exactly gentle ribbing at that.


The film is immaculate in its direction. Ostlund crafts some truly uncomfortable frames for his characters to squirm in. He applies a clear visual strategy that speaks to the story – from their first grinning moments in posed family portraits, the family is pushed apart to separate focal planes and separate frames. (Only Tomas’ meltdown brings them together again.) Much like the daily cycle suffered by Roy Scheider in All that Jazz, the repeated instrusions of avalanche guns and snatches of Vivaldi each new day brings add a dash of malicious humour. And I love the landing where Tomas and Ebba argue in their pyjamas, in plain sight of hotel cleaners – effective use of place. What possibly elevates the film as a dissection of marriage over Gone Girl is the added pressure brought by the presence of children, the absence of pulpy signifiers, and most important of all, Ebba is a human being, rather than a psychopath.

Whoever said ‘a couple is a conspiracy in search of a crime’ might have been thinking about a story like this. Many films blend genres together effectively. Few pass the ball entirely from one form to another, and seeing it done well is reason enough to see this. Here the genre baton is passed from the most poe-faced of forms, thriller/crime, to the least sincere, social satire, both well suited to the feeling of emotional detachment Fincher’s films often convey. Many staples of satire appear in memorable forms – the preacher whose teachings leave us outraged (Anna Ratajkowski); the innocent who exits the stage screaming at the insanity of the system on our behalf (Carrie Coon); the sardonic trickster who knows better than to expect sane results (Terry Perry).


Perhaps the characterisation most native to satire is that of Amy (Rosamund Pike). We can lament that the film tilts sympathetically towards Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) – Amy’s psychotic status nullifying most of her criticisms of him – or we can relish the film’s awe of this impressive antagonist. When she wanders up that garden path, drenched in blood, and her husband insists on a naked shower with her for his own safety, I could only smile, and it took a while before I stopped. You have more to fear than the safety of your bunnies with this partner in crime.


I’m not sure the film tears marriage apart. Rather it seems to be saying that even under absurd circumstances, it’s necessary for survival. That theme is written all over that ending, but perhaps the strongest hint is in that mid-film encounter Amy has with trailer park America. It takes two to take on the world, and when she gets that math wrong, even this superwoman is vulnerable.

SPOILERS (worse than usual) – I don’t know that I really appreciated what Alfred Hitchcock pulled off in Psycho, ripping out the protagonist without killing the film, until I saw this adaptation of Glendon Swarthout’s novel. True, this is a double journey (between Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones), so the loss of a key character is mitigated somewhat, but it’s the more important character that we lose, and I had no hint that it was coming. The way the film carries on despite that loss perhaps is not so surprising – from early on some truly disturbing images are laid out in so casual a manner that we see these moments for what they are, rather than the melodramatic value they’d normally bring to a story. The time jumps are handled similarly, the kinks are somehow abrupt, yet not – perhaps influenced by Jones’ collaboration with Guillermo Arriaga (Three Burials).


There are deep ironies in this material. That the same behaviours exhibited by women and men will be seen as madness in the former and strength in the latter. That figures of strength might fall to depression more readily than more obviously fragile cases. And as far as prize-worthy final images go, this film has a beauty. A drunken man tries to lose himself in revels and gunplay as he drifts across a river into darkness. It caps off a strangely ambiguous final scene that seems to be saying that the redemptions so many films offer us are not possible here. (What makes it an ambiguous scene is that we don’t have a character revelation to experience this through. Normally films use empathy with a character’s learning as a way to tell us what they’re trying to say. Our point of view is separate to anyone else’s in the scene. Truly perhaps this is what is meant by ‘letting the audience discover something for themselves’, although the risk is that discovery is less assured.)


Marco Beltrami does lovely work in a folk-hymnal idiom, connecting to the time and mourning the disappointment of its ideals.

Few films in the last year require as much active leaning forward on the viewer’s part. And the more knowledge you can bring to fill in the many ellipses of the story, the better. Some basics on the shifting positions of Jews, the Church and socialism in twentieth century Poland won’t go astray. A bit of background in the films of Bresson and Dreyer wouldn’t hurt either – this film will stoke the untended fires of their fans in much the way Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty could be called sustenance for malnourished Fellini fans. (Which is not to speak ill of either film.) By the time art film’s favourite Bach selection – BVW 177 – is needle-dropped, as ever a superb formal signal that a film is coming to a close, cinephiles of the right generation should be amply wooed. With time, everything becomes fashionable again.


The aesthetic journey is unique amongst recent films. Stoic use of the Academy ratio with ample ceiling room is a reminder of how rarely filmmakers reach outside received wisdom of classical visual language. (We might argue about what that open-top framing is about, but its ubiquity makes it an essential, and beautiful, part of the package.) The central performances of Agata Trzebuchowska (Ida) and Agata Kulesza (Wanda) place two different acting approaches alongside eachother, and the effects can be felt in how we attach to the characters. Ida is the Bressonian model par excellence, a Kuleshov face hungry for an image either side of it, and even then we wonder what’s on that mind. Wanda is more complete in her detailing and sense of inner life. It’s no coincidence that viewers tend to consider this character, not Ida, as the film’s richest. The discrepancy of depth in the two is well suited to where this film wants to take both. (Perhaps there’s something about the mentor-antagonist figure in coming-of-age stories in that.)


If there is such a thing as visual storytelling, it’s probably at its purest here. The sequences where Ida tries on her aunt’s shoes, or her mid-film return to the convent, are exemplars of this. The soundtrack is minimalist to say the least (and I don’t just mean the absence of music). Dialogue is scant, and increasingly as the film progressed we’re asked to deduce what must have happened, rather than witness it happen. This extends to what might be considered the most important aspect of any narrative film – the evidence of whether the world or characters have changed as events come to a close. There’ve been some strong coming-of-age / personal growth narratives in European art film these last two years – Beyond the Hills and Blue is the Warmest Color among them – but of those I’ve seen, Ida’s growth is the most inscrutable. Has she been changed by what has happened around her, or not? If you believe that the best surrogate is a palimpsest, Ida is the girl for you.

We can probably thank this film for endeavouring to ensure that a few more minds out there can relate to relativity theory. Dylan Thomas’ estate probably appreciates the attention too. There’s a coming cohort of quantum physicists inspired by this film that’ll have at least one line of poetry to muse on as they spend millennia transcribing the quantum data of their broken watches.


There are some interesting things going on in this film. I can’t recall seeing a film of its sort intercutting scenes of unrelated energies and events before, and I’d be interested to see if that pattern of scene alternation (which really starts with Jessica Chastain’s first appearance) is there in the screenplay or is, as it feels, an experiment that began in the editing room to balance narrative momentum.


The grain of the imagery, particularly in the spaceship, also has a unique feel to it (quite unlike Gravity or Prometheus) – could that be the elusive look of film?

The emphasis Nolan gives to music in his filmmaking is also heartening to see in an era where that tool is often employed timidly or haphazardly. The second striking work of Hans Zimmer’s team this year (after Spider-man 2) is a potent brew of glistening electronics, Straussian violin melodies, organ arpeggios and col legno strings. The fresh ingredients distinguish the work from the Zimmer tricks that make so many films indistinguishable. If not his most interesting musical smorgasbord since The Thin Red Line, it’s at least his strongest since Inception. For the album alone, I’m grateful for the film.


The music’s relationship to the imagery is as striking as its character. Few scores play through action as relentlessly as they do here. At moments, the serene parallelism of 2001’s indifferent music is within reach. (How striking the moment when a tiny ship floats through space to piano chords made equally small by reverb.) At other times it’s the more heated melodrama of Pino Donaggio in a Brian DePalma setpiece – more the driver of story than the accompaniment, and not all of these avoid haphazardness. (McConaughey’s departure sequence, or the build-up to Matt Damon’s betrayal, are about as close to running the show that a film score can get short of turning off the pictures altogether.) I’m not sure I can quite trumpet the choice to position some dialogue on the knife-edge of audibility. There’s more than one reason why nobody objects to that choice in 2001, and few of them apply here.


The strongest musical ideas for me are the simplest. The ticking of col legno strings renders the tense moments unique among recent spectacles. The build-up to the complete break of sound in ‘Imperfect Lock’ was the film’s most memorable moment for me, as is the swelling organ chord in the following sequence (‘No Time for Caution’). And the simple organ melody, first present in ‘Cornfield Chase’ and later central to ‘Stay’ and ‘Quantifiable Connection’, lend the film’s closing scenes an emotional heft for me that would not have been there in their absence. Ironically these are the most conventional moments of scoring within the film.


It is gratifying as well to see an attempt to weave a scientific idea (or even the smattering of one) through a story, something that seems – going on recent results – to be among the hardest dramatic feats in Western filmmaking. And I’m not talking about the film’s solution to the theory of everything, rather the setpieces and plot developments that communicate ideas about space-time relativity and higher order dimensions. It visualises black holes, neutron stars, wormholes, singularities and tesseracts. I wish the film offered more than a smattering of thought, that the film’s form didn’t continually work against its themes, that ideas were shown at least as often as they were told, and above all, that the drama was as emotional for me as it seemed to be to the frequently-teary characters. But I did appreciate that the film set-up an explanation for Rust Cohl’s cosmic epiphany in the finale of True Detective. It’s a rare film that not only explains not only all of its own mysteries, but those of others too.

There’s an older post on this blog (lamentably incomplete) on how effectively Farhadi’s script utilises the framework and beats of the detective genre. (Quite likely without any intention of doing so, in much the same way his A Separation ups-the-ante on the courtroom battle stories.) This was pitch perfect filmmaking on every level. If we went into every thing it did right, we’d be here all day. Some things to watch for: deep focus compositions that allow the cast to breathe; realism without shakey-cam; an opening that beautifully flags the issues ahead without the symbols showing too clearly; a discrete colour arc; the metaphorical setting (a house mid-paintjob); great performances at all ages. The most graceful touch of all: a style shift to formalism worthy of Bresson as we finally meet the ghost whose unhappy wake we’ve witnessed.


Farhadi already showed in A Separation that he doesn’t need bad guys to generate dramatic conflict, and that instinct shows in his crafting of the characters. The film consistently turns left when other films would turn right. (Take the unease we naturally feel when Ahmad – Ali Mosaffa – is left in the care of children not his own, and how it’s subverted by what a natural Ahmad is with the kids.) Perhaps the ablest hattrick is the passing of the ball between protagonists over the course of the film. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) is the right perspective to bring us into this world, and when others take over the torch to lead us to the self-revelation, most viewers will never notice that it’s happened.

I’m told I’ve seen the shorter version of this film. Even then, it’s a film that will try your patience by the end, but that’s by no means a reason not to see it. There’s a madcap, uncontainable visual energy to Gondry. True, it rarely sees you through a whole film, but if it means 40 minutes of excellence before diminishing returns set in, there’s no shortage of nice trinkets to meditate on. The whirlwind romance section is giddy and inspiring, even if the slide to despair is too linear and emphatic to work. Almost every scene is alive with visual trickery that suggests another path cinema might have taken if we hadn’t gotten so hung up on making special effects integrate naturalistically with other narrative elements. The cocktail of Etienne Charry’s score and Duke Ellington selections helps with both the giddy magic (the former) and the sense that beneath the hullaballoo, something real is in contention (the latter).


Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer) – Did I say Ida was the most inscrutable character of 2014? Allow me to politely withdraw that statement. (Just kidding, I think Scarlet Johansson’s arc is more apparent here. 😉 ) Despite all the talk of this film’s opacity, it seemed to me if you just looked at what was happening, it was fairly apparent. Because we’re held at an emotional remove for some time from the main character, the film relies on negative capability more than most. I found its twist on fairy tale motifs thought provoking, and the fate of the main character enough of a payoff to the journey.


The fusion of filmmaking styles – observational, almost candid camera sequences alternating with the most abstract of effects-augmented imagery – is fascinating. Nobody makes movies this way, and that can’t help but affect the way it comes across. While master craftsmen shoot HBO coverage in IMAX, this filmmaker is searching for a new way to look at a story. Highlights include the opening sequence (sort of a modern of Persona) and the layering of observational footage over itself mid-film to form Johansson’s spectral likeness.


Mica Levi’s compositions come from another place to most film scores. They’re not an instrument of empathy, or not at first anyway. They rumble away orthogonally to the film, as strident as Johnny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood, but even more resistant to familiar forms and emotions. We’re well past the halfway mark by the time the music lets us in, and it’s not until Scarlet herself has begun to thaw. The fusion of the composition ‘Love’ with its accompanying sequence works largely because of the distance we’ve been held at for so long, feeling cathartic in comparison.


I like to think of the film as a fairy tale told from the point of view of a character that would normally be the ‘nameless other’ that we fear. It’s telling that it takes a ‘monster’ amongst humans to draw her out of her predatory pattern. And once capable of empathy, she weakens. The pitiable image of seeing her suffering a medieval fate – practically tarred and burned at the stake, like so many women before her – ultimately moved me.

The anti-Ida? Merchant Ivory Ida? (These could be both positives and negatives depending on your tastes.) If Ida is committed to inferring events with the barest of dialogue, and edits that teach us to search for what is left out, this adaptation of Pascal Mercier’s novel is more committed to revealing its secrets through dialogue setpieces. But unlike Ida, this film will verbally fill in any historical gaps you might have about post-war Portuguese history, so you can lean back in your chair a bit more. And it’s a strong cast, reminiscent of Euro-pudding glory days. Irons makes much of a role that could have been played like Ida – an inscrutable listener – but which probably would have harmed this film.


One of the strongest ingredients is Annette Focks’s score, a classical epic score appropriate to our bombast-shy era. (Maurice Jarre by way of Rachel Portman, you could say.) She gives melodic presence to the ghosts and secrets that the film slowly unveils, and when the truth is set free, you can feel it in her arrangement of the main theme. The ‘piano scene’ (viewers will know it when they see it) is a nice example of how easily score and diegetic music can – at a moment’s notice – switch places and serve as the other.

Generational sagas come few and far between, so it’s refreshing to see one ably pulled off within a manageable length. See this one to witness how to pass the protagonist baton not just once but twice within the same film. The first handoff in particular stands out, as the film’s two top-billed actors share a beat of eye contact moments before one exits the narrative for good. Also worth noting is the use of the forest location to gather in the sprawling timeframe. Seemingly incidental at first, the woods gather force as the years roll on, witness to a history the characters themselves are often unaware of.

If transcendent horror pushes beyond fear of a monster and finds the monster within the fearful, Hugh Jackman’s arc in particular fits the bill ably. Johannes Johannssen’s score – taking Arvo Part as its starting point – is a model of how to raise the stakes of a film to the highest possible concerns, rising beyond the bumps and stings of a thriller to strengthen the film’s emphasis on the spiritual. The union of his music with Roger Deakins’ golden light in the candlelit vigil makes that sequence and the chase that follows one of the strongest in 2014 cinema. The closing beat of the film similarly leaves an impression. What a beautiful sound idea that whistle in the dark proves to be, ending the film on the cusp of a moment that – as much as we want to see, we’re better left anticipating, fearful that it might not have come to fruition.

Another film people were dying to hate, and to be fair, portraying PL Travers (Emma Thompson) as The-Grinch-who-wants-to-keep-you-from-the-Poppins-you-love isn’t likely to tilt the audience towards the author. But biopics always play fast and loose with the facts, and this isn’t so much about Travers as about the idea that artworks inspire responses that often bemuse the artist. Fight as you might, once it’s out there, it will be what people make of it.


Two beats stood out for me. When the Grinch arrives in California, like all characters heading for a comic reduction, she’s full of opinions about what she can’t stand about Americans, film producers and cloying, animated musicals. Her first encounter with her antagonist, the Little Lord of Magic (Hanks’ Walt Disney) thrusts her into everything she hates, and it’s hard to suppress a smile at her suffering. The second beat is stranger, and more sympathetic to Travers. As Disney’s Elves (the Sherman Brothers) present Travers with their satirical song ‘Fidelity Fiduciary Bank’, she recalls her shame at one of her father’s (Colin Farrell) drunken outbursts. The intercutting of the song’s inception with Farrell’s public shaming is eye-catching, tying the film’s two narratives together with striking energy.

Truly if there’s an ‘uncanny valley’ in 2014 cinema, it has to be this fusion of graphic novel aesthetics, Marxist politics, environmental dystopia and setpiece-driven suicide mission. I understand the disconnect more sensible minds experienced when they encountered this, but after a week juggling fever and wine tastings (in Adelaide of all places), the sweet notes outweighed the jarring chords. Cockroach protein bars; sniffable narcotic fuel crystals; the ‘cutting of the fish’ as prelude to slaughter; the circumnavigation salute; the danse macabre violin waltz as eggs are circulated to one and all and bullets re-enter the narrative; the impossible glance and firefight between the cars of a train arcing around a corner; Marco Beltrami’s carrying of the Jerry Goldsmith flame. A memorable ensemble too: great to see Song Kang-Ho (the beating heart of Bong’s The Host) used so well.


All of these are decorative, and perhaps secondary to the broader dramatic arc we go on with Chris Evans’ protagonist. The film takes advantage of the assumptions we place on heroes like this, and this blond-haired blue-eyed revolutionary has a monologue at the three quarter mark that bloods the stereotype memorably. Revolution is not uncomplicated in this world (even if the same can’t be said for what it’s attacking). Another highlight is the ‘sound of the engine’ beat – I don’t know if the moment quite worked (the metaphor is not so much mixed as naked), but I have to admire a film that puts that idea at its climax. Such a film is more than a dumb action movie.

It’s a strange alternative universe of wealth, classical elegance, and ubiquitous art that Tornatore and his collaborators build as the setting for this modern noir thriller. Another of 2014’s great acousmetres lies at the heart of the film’s mystery, and unlike the other two (Her, The Lunchbox), the unveiling of the source of the voice of Claire Ibbetson (Sylvia Hoeks) is critical to the story. From a voice on the phone, to one on the other side of a door, to a visual presence whose lips finally speak, few character introductions were as carefully attenuated in recent film as this one. Many relate how moved they were by Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso. (A film I saw for the first time within a week of seeing this one.) For me this tale of a proud man’s humbling was far more moving. Largely this comes down to the role as written and the work of Geoffrey Rush, but the performance has sway in part because of the strength of the audio-visual work around it. A brief example. There’s a scene early on where Virgil (Geoffrey Rush) luxuriates in a hidden vault with his life’s work – portraits of women by many artists, in many styles, gathered illegitimately by virtue of his position as a valuer. As Tornatore’s camera takes in the wall of beauties, Ennio Morricone’s score offers us not so much a piece of music as a space where female soli of different styles float through, carrying parts of a long line melody. Virgil’s blindspot in relation to women, and his need for genuine contact in this regard, have been unmistakeably communicated by the scene’s end, without a word uttered. (The subsequent cut to the many young men who staff his office serves to underline the point.)

Like many biopics, this one utilises a detective structure (and even a detective) to find its way into the life of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberpatch). He’s an enigma, but fear not, the film will decode him in time. The condensed arena in which that decoding is achieved is worth noting – we don’t even meet the parents that are normally a staple of this genre.


Two recurring features of this screenplay (as filmed) I appreciated. Despite the stakes, and the sense of tragedy they want to build by the end, scene after scene are advanced through comic beats. Turing, written and played as Asperghers, is a machine comic, always under-emoting or fixating to humourous effect.


The second feature is the layering of the film’s theme of coded communication through all the story branches and relationships. A code like Enigma could fall to Turing, but he forever struggles with the social codes those are around him are fluent in. The theme extends to include both the power and powerlessness that come with understanding a code.


A few more decorative observations. The time period switches aren’t signposted, yet always apprent. At times I wish they’d allowed some other aspects of the material (such as the all important birth of the computer, or one particular oft-repeated line of dialogue) to speak for themselves. (But I forget myself – that wasn’t entirely nice.) And Alexandre Desplat is incisive as ever, his delicately orchestrated reserved arpeggios and ostinati seemingly made for terrain like this.

I suspect one’s enjoyment of this film depends on foreknowledge of the destination. If you know where it’s going, as I did, the title becomes an apt pun, and more importantly, the protagonist’s desire line becomes a lot less opaque. Brooding silences take on a clear subtext, someone’s motivation becomes clear, and seemingly unrelated environmental details – the way dogs bark in the background as Guy Peace’s anger comes to the fore, or a brief glimpse of a dog shelter – point towards the film’s unstated ‘ghost’. Without that knowledge, you’d assume more was going on than is, the coda would be a letdown, and the film would have to stand on its decorative merits. (Which are considerable, starting with that seamless shift from metal-popping opening underscore to the sound atmosphere of the opening scene.) Fortunately that experience wasn’t mine, and I appreciated Michod’s slow but limited unveiling of this dystopian society.
A tribute to filmmaking’s ongoing commitment to the Noah’s Ark principle (two of everything, even biopics of pivotal British intellectuals), this is a more sentimentally uplifting experience than Imitation Game. If that film was a detective story, this is a love story, following the gravitational pull two bodies (Steven and Jane Hawking, played by Edie Redmayne and Felicity Jones respectively) continue to have on each other many years after first flirting with each other’s orbits. The theme of the awkward, essential marriage is never far away in this film, whether it be the marriage of Steven (ever the teaser, ever flexible in his assumptions) and Jane (sensitive and constant), of science and faith, or quantum mechanics and relativity (those peas and potatoes). The filmmakers should be commended for slipping in more than a few references to Hawking’s area of expertise. Was the intercutting of the camping trip with the opera melodramatic hokum, or an ingenious demonstration of the ‘spin’ proposition of quantum mechanics on a level more easily understood? I also appreciated the closing nod to Hawking’s oft-employed thought experiment of reversing time, applied here to the narrative universe. (Appropriate to Hawking’s theory, the endpoint is not the inciting incident, but the point of no return, since his Big Bang was preceded by a Big Crunch.) More decorative thoughts. Redmayne’s gormless smile is hard to resist, as is Jones’ patience and vulnerability. Johan Johannson’s score finds ways to fall in empathetically behind the characters – in particular during the croquet game, and the melodrama of their third child’s christening. The imagery of Steven and Jane struggling with domestic life has a more real air than Imitation Game’s mise-en-scene (and I’m not just talking about the faux home video material that bridges narrative movements), although perhaps that’s quibbling over shades of classicism. (The film softens the experience of Lou Gehrig’s disease if only by cutting out the boring bits.)

More millennial fever than sci-fi. It may not be intentional, but Lars von Trier’s Melancholia felt like it might have been an inspiration, particularly for the ending. (Although I guess there’s a broader tradition of things like The Road, On the Beach and Last Night.) The team have done well for their budget to give a sense of the end. The child actor, Angourie Rice, is well directed. The choice of dilemma and the hero it was handed to seem to have worked for audiences, going on IMDB comments. My thoughts were mostly with the other side of the story: Zoe’s (Jessica de Gouw). That character needs sufficient magnetic pull to bring the story back to her, so it’s no surprise her desire leaves a stronger impression than that of the film’s protagonist. Australian cinema’s commitment to the emotionally reticent male is strong, but I’m not sure his was the right desire line to follow this time.

The filmmakers’ commitment to rendering ethereal the journey of Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) across some of Australia’s most punishing terrain cannot be doubted. (I’ve experienced Australia’s inner challenges only in the lightest possible sense, and it’s a truly transformative art that can make those conditions ethereal.) I was struck by the clear direction of the film’s soundtrack’s composition – both in the use of Garth Stevenson’s New Age compositions and the delicate sound design arranged around them. If the film consistently moves away from gritty immersion towards a different sense of time and place, it’s in that soundtrack.


You don’t watch this film for the drama, nor for stoicism. Its handsome aesthetic journey is almost reason enough to take the trek. The shift of colours from red to orange to brown to white and finally blue, as Davidson disappears into a frame of aqua, is carefully plotted and achieved. Our surrogates are amenable enough that human interest isn’t forsaken either.


There is a scene that has always made it into a class of mine. The opening montage distils the essentials of the narrative, planting the idea that Davidson’s famous journey began with a pivotal parting in her childhood. We tilt up from a passing child’s feet to see, far away, the shape of a growth woman running into a desert heat shimmer, her footsteps coagulating into the shunting of a train. And then, in one of the loveliest cuts of 2014, we find ourselves in the now, looking at the face of a dog, sitting on a train. And then we meet our protagonist, asleep on a train, still facing in the direction she was running. That’s what film can do.

Sometimes you miss the memo on what makes a film so bad, and so I felt when I finally saw this film. I can actually see why Nolan himself eyed this as a project – in some ways it’s more suited to his sensibilities than Interstellar (which has a few strong legacies of Spielberg’s involvement). It’s true there’s a lot that doesn’t quite work here. What I think works about it is that it’s a love story at heart, with shades of Orpheus (Rebecca Hall) and Eurydice (Johnny Depp). Rebecca Hall’s character wilfully commits the error of denying death its prize (or does she fall for the impression of life?), and because of it, much more will be lost. She’s also Mina Harker by the end, joining her lover in both death and what might lie beyond it. Paul Bettany makes a good Jonathan Harker, although I can’t say the same for Morgan Freeman as Van Helsing. In between, the scenes of Hall in the love nests built by Caster’s digital avatar (Johnny Depp) have a beautiful ambivalence about them. (It says everything about this film that it spends more time dramatizing her bedtime manner than it does showing the FBI’s late film machinations.) Perhaps I’m the rare romantic soul that can survive the high concept conditions and find something to like here. For everyone else, perhaps the year’s other singularity romance – Her – is more your cup of tea. Working the death of Alexander Litvinenko into the scenario was a nice touch. It’s probably the closest we’ll see to the Michael Mann project on that assassination that Depp was intended to star in. (Although possession of polonium bullets renders the film’s neo-Luddite terrorists even more incongruous.) The position of the FBI by the end is interesting dramatic territory – shades of the Waco siege – although the filmmakers play the authorities as more heroic than makes sense. By the end of the film the whole scenario feels more like a war of religious factions, also an interesting choice. On the decorative side, the screenplay (as edited) seemed to get the balance right between verbal and visual exposition, and for most of its length, moved quickly past places I expected it to settle into others. The plot unfolds with visual economy, and a strong sense of what an image can say. Fades to white, planar layers, and strong vanishing points within imagery repeatedly feature in its arsenal. I can’t entirely disapprove of a film so committed to montage editing (consider the climactic choice of Depp’s character). And I like the circularity brought about by the prologue – I doubt the closing images would be as resonant without it. By no means am I suggesting the film was without flaw, and I’m probably projecting more into it than was there (a common weakness for sci-fi viewers), but this is ‘everything nice’ after all.

It will seem a small thing, but the transitional rhythms of this film lingered in my memory. One in particular: the sermon of a slave owner (Benedict Cumberpatch) interwoven visually and aurally with the abuses of his farm manager (Paul Dano) and the percussion of seed sowing. It’s a passage that’s indicative of the film. The vision is not without its adornments. For all the praise of realism (and the long, unfolding wide shots certainly bring that neutral observer feel during some key abuses), I couldn’t help but feel the extent to which McQueen and his team nudged the material towards dark fairy tale, or even horror story. You could be taken in the night, have your identity stolen and toil ceaselessly as a slave without hope of escape. That cacophonously percussive steamboat is a passageway to another world. (The frequency with which reviews emphasized its metaphorical import is telling.) The long shot on Solomon’s face as he leaves the plantation is a nice stylistic answer to that earlier scene.


(What’s also interesting is how forward the filmmakers were about the structural shift in the editing process from linear-chronological to a loose flashback/storyteller structure.)

Did I say Ida was the most inscrutable character of 2014? Allow me to politely withdraw that statement. (Just kidding, I think Scarlet Johansson’s arc is more apparent here. 😉 ) Despite all the talk of this film’s opacity, it seemed to me if you just looked at what was happening, it was fairly apparent. Because we’re held at an emotional remove for some time from the main character, the film relies on negative capability more than most. I found its twist on fairy tale motifs thought provoking, and the fate of the main character enough of a payoff to the journey.


The fusion of filmmaking styles – observational, almost candid camera sequences alternating with the most abstract of effects-augmented imagery – is fascinating. Nobody makes movies this way, and that can’t help but affect the way it comes across. While master craftsmen shoot HBO coverage in IMAX, this filmmaker is searching for a new way to look at a story. Highlights include the opening sequence (sort of a modern of Persona) and the layering of observational footage over itself mid-film to form Johansson’s spectral likeness.


Mica Levi’s compositions come from another place to most film scores. They’re not an instrument of empathy, or not at first anyway. They rumble away orthogonally to the film, as strident as Johnny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood, but even more resistant to familiar forms and emotions. We’re well past the halfway mark by the time the music lets us in, and it’s not until Scarlet herself has begun to thaw. The fusion of the composition ‘Love’ with its accompanying sequence works largely because of the distance we’ve been held at for so long, feeling cathartic in comparison.


I like to think of the film as a fairy tale told from the point of view of a character that would normally be the ‘nameless other’ that we fear. It’s telling that it takes a ‘monster’ amongst humans to draw her out of her predatory pattern. And once capable of empathy, she weakens. The pitiable image of seeing her suffering a medieval fate – practically tarred and burned at the stake, like so many women before her – ultimately moved me.

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