ThePageBoy

Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: United States

Oscar Winners in Review – Argo

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Right,

This is somewhat potentially embarrassing for me – as someone who has always considered himself a film buff I always used to be on top of awards season. Before the ceremonies I would have always seen the nominated films, talked them over and made my picks. This year though a multitude of things got in the way and when the Oscar ceremony rolled around I realised that I had seen hardly any of the big films that had picked up all the nominations. So, over the next few weeks I’m going to try to remedy this, by retrospectively looking over all the critical beloved movies of 2012 and seeing what all the fuss was about. I figured I may as well start with the big winner this year, Ben Affleck’s third film, Argo. Whilst it may not have won as many awards as some films in years past this film has been the concluding part of Affleck’s career second act as he makes the transition from fairly flaky actor to one of the leading directors of popular cinema in America. With an Oscar win for best picture (and a historic snub for best director) under his belt the critics are rubbing their hands with glee at where Affleck will go next. But how does this film match up? Does it really deserve the hype and has Affleck managed to escape things like this?

In short the answer is…yes. Following a little explored angle of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 the film follows six Americans who escape and are taken in by the Canadian ambassador. Whilst the country outside becomes ever more fervent in the quest for American “spies” the 6 low-level diplomats are left cowering in the crawl space. At the same time the CIA are desperately trying to find out some way of extracting them and from every side threats to the six become more and more extreme. The film follows the CIA’s top exfiltration expert, Tony Mendez, as he comes up with the ‘best worst idea’ they have. Fly in Iran as a Canadian producer; recruit the six to act as the crew on a location scout and then all fly out together.

Did I mention this is based on a true story?

Well…it is.

One of the most impressive things about this film is that it genuinely captures the not only the mood of tension but the look and the feel of the late seventies. Everyone smokes, everyone drinks, all the time and the fashion and design is accurate down to the last detail. In a way the film feels like it came from another age of action movies too – no dumb explosions or unnecessary action but rather a story that expertly ratchets up the tension at every single opportunity. That isn’t to say that there are not cool action sequences, far from it. The opening sequence that details the fall of the embassy is done with a terrifying realism and the action emerges organically from the quality of the story. It’s the quality of the story that makes this too, as instead of wasting time of showy explosions the story is given urgency and the characters depth so that watching them drive through Tehran becomes edge of your seat excitement. Technically the film is great too; the editing and direction from Affleck are simply superb and the skills that Affleck showcased with Gone Baby Gone and the fantastic The Town have been honed and refined to a really high level. There isn’t an unnecessary moment, or pause to the film’s narrative and the editing just wrings every single drop of tension from every single sequence.

The film is also quite darkly comic too –mainly thanks to the fantastic performances from John Goodman and Alan Arkin as the Hollywood insiders who help Tony Mendez set up the legitimate production company to make his cover stand up. Arkin especially gets ALL the best lines, especially his fantastically rude response for why the fake film is called what it is. It’s the Hollywood scenes that probably help explain why the film was so beloved by organisations like the Academy, as it indulges the idea of a film about the power of cinema. Fans of film will have fun spotting the references and the little glimpses of insight into how the movie business worked back in the day. It feels like Affleck enjoyed directing these scenes too, allowing him to get in a few subtle digs at how the film industry and Hollywood works. The only moments where the pace slips a little are the scenes with the six people trapped in a house – as the story can’t allow anything to happen before the rescue the time is used as a chance for characterisation but the film picks up when the story can move forward again.

As I said, Affleck has proven that he is a director and an actor with the chops to handle material that results in high quality and intelligent entertainment, and the details of just how much was based on the historical record only increases my admiration for the film. Whether or not it deserves to have the title of best film of 2012 is a little difficult to judge right now, but if you’re looking for something smart, nail-bitingly exciting and expertly done it looks like the former Mr Jennifer Lopez is now the man to go to.

Kudos Ben. You’ve earned it.

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It’s been a while, or, ‘This sure isn’t a comic…’

Right,

Well, hello there blogosphere, it really has been far too long. You’re looking lovely by the way. Have you been doing something different with your hair? I know we haven’t spoken much lately but I’ve been knee-deep in producing a fairly large piece of academic work so sadly things have had to be a little quiet here on the blog. Thankfully though, I’ve gotten myself to the point where I feel comfortable enough to leave the serious work for a little while and jot down a few thoughts here upon an appropriate novel.

Now, I know that the last few blogs have been a little too comic focused for some tastes and whilst this was never meant to be a comics blog in the middle of a heavy work load a comic was often the only thing  even remotely felt like reading. So, have no fear my good and patient reader, the comics will not be appearing here for a little while – there is a big wide adaptive land to explore so it’s time to do something a little more traditionally literary.

Thinking back over the last films I had seen that came from a literary source it took me a little time to come up with one that I felt was different enough to be a break from the whizz bang excitement of the graphic novels. Till I found it. Something deeply melancholic, concerned with the deepest question of what makes us human and wonderfully, bleakly English.

Oh, and it’s a another Keira Knightly film…Ah well…

It’s Never Let Me Go if you haven’t already got there.

Unlike many films that spend years and years in development hell, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel was published in 2005 and principal photography of the film began in late 2009. Frankly, for the film industry this is nothing short than working at the speed of light. The film was produced with surprisingly little fanfare befitting its (by modern films) low-budget of a paltry $15 million dollars. Then it went and surprised everyone by being really quite good indeed. As usual I’m going to try to be quite coy, this is a film you need to seek out and a book you should beg borrow or steal so if the lack of detail is frustrating, consider this me trying to whet your appetite.

The film follows the lives of a group of school children who grow up in an exclusive English boarding school called Hailsham. Whilst the world of the film is broadly similar to ours the film opens by detailing a medical advancement that now allows people to extend their life span to beyond a hundred years. We’re then introduced to the 28-year-old Kathy H, played by the simply superb Carey Mulligan who recounts the experiences she’s had at the school along with her closest friends Tommy and Ruth – played by the excellent Andrew Garfield and Knightly respectively.

From the outset the film really shows a deft control of perspective and of subtlety; we have the impression that there is something horrible lurking in the background of this world but thanks to the childlike perspective and heart shattering naivety of the characters it remains out of sight. The more developed your own personal sense of awareness with the action the more the characters seem hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with the world. A world, which when the reveal comes, proves to be a place that uses them in some of the cruellest ways imaginable.

Not that these three are played in any way as one-dimensional simpletons, the real pathos the film generates is from the attempt for these characters to behave like real people. Out of the three Ruth probably serves the best example of this; now, it is quite fashionable to slate Knightly as an actress, deriding her as naught but a pretty face but after this film you simply can’t say that she doesn’t have talent. Ruth is, for the vast majority of the film, not a nice person at all. Deliberately she keeps Kathy and Tommy apart as she recognises the emotional depth their relationship has. She pretends to be the most worldly-wise of all the characters from Hailsham but is left shockingly exposed when in the outside world. The films later scenes when she and Kathy are brought back together are the flip side of the film’s opening. Ruth ends up weak and reliant on the character that she so mistreated and yet through it all Ruth never slips into easy characterisation or poor performance.

Andrew Garfield is another one who turns in an incredible performance – I’ll admit I knew very little about him before this but here he proves that he has the acting chops to compare to the best actors working in cinema. Tommy is possibly the saddest of all the three, grappelling with issues of emotional depth and complexity that he  has neither the awareness or the emotional articulation to properly express. The scene where he and Kathy have their chance of happiness dashed brutally by a frail woman in a wheelchair is gripping cinema and the look on Tommy’s face, pleading, hopeful and utterly uncomprehending.

This film is all about Carey Mulligan, described by one of my friends as going to watch her emote for two hours, Never Let Me Go proved her as an actress that could carry an entire film. Heartfelt, morally complex but always a good person Kathy is a character that hold this film together and Mulligan does a simply stellar job. Her air of resignation to the fate that she and the people like her are condemned to, makes the whole thing strangely  calm. The brief moments when we see what actually happens to these people become even more shocking thanks to the air of quiet stoicism that Mulligan brings to the role.

So I think that I’ve established I think this is a great film, but how does it stack up as an adaptation? Well, really quite excellently. There is one thing that the film does very well that I feel is worth talking about, and brace yourself, because here be the language of English criticism. In academic English nothing annoys more than language used clumsily and it is for this reason that I got hammered by the marker in one of my first undergrad essays for using the word tone to describe what a book was like.

Looking back I can see this is the kind of basic writing error that would make an academic’s head explode with rage, to talk about a book’s tone doesn’t really tell the reader anything of what the book is like but I think with film the tone is an interesting thing to look at. It’s a hard word to try to pin down but the best way I can put it is the sense that a film leaves you with. And this is where I think the film got it absolutely right. The book and the film are extremely similar and the only real adaptive ‘flaws’ are shifts in emphasis from certain elements of the story and a couple of characters that I really liked did get slightly short shrift from the film.

But let me see if I can find the best way to put this, the book Never Let Me Go is a love letter, to an era of humanities lost innocence and a dire warning of the path things could go down if, for one second, we all forget just how much value is inherent in humanity. It’s important, beautiful, full of sadness and tinged with nostalgia and you don’t have to understand the technical elements of narratology to understand that.

This is what the film nails, the photography and cinematography and simply beautiful using landscape and haunting scenery to show the insignificance of human life. The look of the film is wonderfully authentic and the make up gives the characters a lost look in their ever-so-slightly too large costumes.

It’s the details you see, that’s why this is so good. Couple that with an understanding of the source material, a top-notch cast and a story to touch the most stony-hearted of you then this is simply one you cannot miss. Read it, watch it, love it!

Already seen it? Disagree entirely? Think I’ve gotten all of this so wrong? The please join in the conversation in the comment section below.

Nearly at the end of my dissertation so I’m going to be doing my best to try to catch up with the ever-growing list of awesome suggestions that you’ve all given me and I’ll be back to updating more regularly once again. Thanks for reading and keeping the conversation going.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

‘Why John Hurt is destined for a happy life in a facist state’ or 1980’s flashback!

Right,

First of all, apologies for the slightly morbid title – but I thought it best to title this one with a quote from the book, and when the book is considered in all of it’s glory there really aren’t that many quotes from this magnificent novel that aren’t as bleak as Labour’s re-election chances. If the small semantic clue I dropped in the last sentence wasn’t clue enough to the more lively cells in the great hive mind of the web, I adore this novel. It was one of the first great works of literature I remember reading from my early teenage years and it scared the bejesus out of me then and still does. All of this is to say, that any adaptation of this book has one hell of a bar to meet.

To that end, enter Michael Radford, whom, in 1984, with the backing of Virgin Films released what has become an acclaimed interpretation. Whilst I was optimistic,  the idea of releasing the film in 1984 initially struck me as a gimmick. Coupled with the tagline, ‘The year of the movie. The movie of the year,’ I was slightly concerned the makers of the film had inspired the marketing strategy from The Omen re-boot, (notable only for the 11.11.11 release date and being a complete load of old balls.)

Thankfully I was swiftly disabused of my cynical notions from the opening minutes as the viewer is plunged into the ‘Two Minute Hate’ and introduced to Winston Smith, played by John Hurt. As the protagonist of the story Hurt carries the film out of necessity as the book itself is all about the isolation that the world of ‘1984’ has forced upon him. Frankly, Hurt is simply incredible; a man blessed with the kind of face that looks like weathered granite, an actor ideally suited for conveying so much through silence, glances or twitches in the face.

The rest of the cast is extremely good but I will only mention one more here, (to see more on the cast of the movie just check out the IMDB page for the film) and that would be the chilling Richard Burton as O’Brien. This was Burton’s final film and his first after a lengthy hiatus but he is simply brilliant. Cold, calculated and utterly convinced of not simply his right-ness but the Party’s righteousness. Though a fourth choice for the part he is O’Brien – the next time I go to read the book I fully expect to hear his smooth and authoritative voice giving me the image of a boot stamping on a human face, forever.

This isn’t merely a post to sing the praises of this Brit-flick classic but to assess how this works as an adaptation. To return to the film’s opening, it highlights what I believe is the crucial difference between the book and the film, a difference that is inherent in the two mediums. The opening of the book contains personally, what I believe to be one of the finest opening lines of any book ever written, ‘It was a cold, windy day in April, and the clocks had just finished striking thirteen.’

Go on, read that again. Take the time and appreciate just how good a sentence that is. That is wonderful, frankly.

The opening of the novel plunges the reader into Winston’s world. It is close, lonely and fetid with paranoia. The milieu is superbly evoked, from the first line we as readers are presented with a brew of the familar and the strangely alien. With the film, immediately the viewer is submerged, not in isolation but by faces. Screaming faces. Watching the film for the first time it actually took me a few moments to realise who was Winston Smith.

This isn’t to criticise, don’t get me wrong – the nature of film is as a visual medium, and the directorial choice to present the viewer with a bewildering and strange image is a very bold one but for me, the power of the story comes from its closeness to Winston’s point of view, something that the close third narrative point of view was specifically designed to do and film, well not so much. The film is commendably close to the original text however, and this is hugely to its credit, the design and setting of the film tracks incredibly closely what I thought the world of the book would look like.

So, all good right?

Yeah – a harrowing retelling of the classic novel for freedom that elegantly juxtaposes the original text with its modern-day 1980’s setting. And now, I’ll stop using the language of an arse and actually offer some criticism. In one very important way, I don’t believe this is an adaptation of the book.

I’ll pause to let people re-adjust. Finished freaking out?

Good.

The film is hugely and apparently indebted to the book yet is that what makes the film an adaptation? I think it could quite easily be argued, no. The closer that a film comes to the original source material the more difficult it is to transfer that into an easily comprehended, coherent visual narrative. Books are, by the nature of their form, designed for the exploration of the psyche, motive, feeling and thought. This aren’t things that have immediately obvious visual markers and whilst the film transfers really well the experience feels more like an attempt at a straight re-telling rather than an adaptation of the story in a new way. The thing that really tipped me off to this was a thought that flashed through my  mind midway through the film.

‘Would I like this as much, if I didn’t know and love the book beforehand?’

Arguably? No, I don’t think I would.

There are a few more examples that back up what I’m saying, from time to time the script feels a little crowded – jamming in points from the book without the means of explaining WHY these things matter. Things such as the old rhyme about the churches of London, the coral in glass, Winston’s thoughts on his young neighbours are all crucial to the book for understanding everything that is going on from Winston’s perspective yet in the film these events felt rushed and crowded out by the main thrust of the narrative. However, there is one moment from the film that I feel gets the balance right, with the sequence in Room 101. Watching it took me back to the first reaction I had to the novel as a teenager. I don’t want to add too many more spoilers here, (check it out on YouTube) but everything about it works. The camera work, (with it’s emphasis on the faces of the two main charcters) along with the minimal violence and the tension of it shows how the film does have flashes of genuine adaptive genius, whilst showing all of the greatness British film making is capable of.

Maybe I’m not being fair and I will certainly admit I’m splitting hairs. Yes I know – the very fact this exists in a seperate and distinct form from the book does make it an adaptation but all I’ve tried to argue here is that, perhaps, adaptation should not simply re-tell, (no matter how well it does) but should give a reason for exisiting as a film – if a re-telling is all a film offers surely I could just re-read the novel.

I will also admit that there are book/films that demonstrate this much more extremely than this one, but if I’m guilty of being too harsh please let me say that it comes from just loving this book too much for my own good.

So.

There we go. Now go off and read the book, (no seriously, go read the book right now) then watch the movie and let me know what you think.

Thanks!

ThePageBoy

So onwards we go. Next time I promise to not split hairs as much and do a book/film that properly lives up to the term ‘adaptation.’ In the meantime, join the conversation, find @ThePageBoy1 on Twitter and keep talking about the best and the worst of books and films.