The Exorcist (1973)

2017 #150
William Friedkin | 122 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English & Arabic* | 18 / R

The Exorcist

Did you know The Exorcist was based on a true story? I didn’t, until I watched some of the special features on the Blu-ray release. “Based on” is a bit of a stretch, to be honest. “Inspired by” would be more accurate. But you get the sense from author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty that he believes all this stuff so much that he thinks “based on” would be fine.

The Exorcist does start out very plausibly. It’s about Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), a sweet 12-year-old kid living with her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) in Washington, D.C. But one day Regan begins to act oddly: delivering insults and soiling herself at a party; yelling obscenities; slapping her beloved mother; somehow causing her bed to shake uncontrollably… Doctors run tests, but they reveal nothing. The only suggestion they’ve left to give is that Regan may believe she’s possessed by an evil spirit, and that she might be tricked into believing she’s cured if the church will perform a little-known procedure called an exorcism.

Worried mother

Everyone’s so busy talking about The Scary Stuff when it comes to The Exorcist, no one ever tells you how low-key and grounded a lot of it is. Okay, the talking in voices and spinning heads and vomiting green gunk and bloody crucifix masturbation are pretty memorable, so fair enough. Before that, though, it’s more of a character drama, about a single mother struggling to handle what appears to be her daughter’s out-of-control mental health problems. Meanwhile, a priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller), struggles with a crisis of faith brought on in part by his ailing mother. Naturally these two threads align when Chris calls on Karras to investigate Regan’s condition.

Another thing I’ve never heard about The Exorcist is how good Miller is. This is his film debut, before which he was a stage actor, but he delivers a very naturalistic performance as a man of the cloth who also has his head screwed on — his training in psychology keeps him suitably skeptical of what’s going on with Regan. Events conspire to challenge his point of view, of course. Karras has the clearest arc of anyone in the film, giving Miller the most scope to develop his role. I’d venture he’s the film’s most interesting character.

Father Karras

That’s not to dismiss Burstyn, who’s also excellent as the very together mom who begins to crack under the increasing strain of her daughter’s worsening, inexplicable condition. As said daughter, Blair’s performance is certainly memorable, though the potency of Regan is aided by special effects and voice work from another actress. Although second billed, Max von Sydow only pops in at the beginning and end in the titular role of Father Merrin. It’s no wonder someone later thought Merrin’s past was ripe for a prequel, because there’s a backstory there that’s only hinted at.

And no one ever says how little Tubular Bells is in it, either.

The thing people do say about The Exorcist is how scary it is. Tales of audiences fainting and running out during its initial theatrical run are the stuff of movie legend. Today its releases are branded as “the scariest film ever made”, with the justification of several polls that have named it thus. I can well believe that, in the early ’70s, it was indeed the most shocking film most people had ever seen, certainly from a major studio. The extreme bad language, the gruesome special effects, the morally depraved acts, and all of it happening to a child…

Regan... or is it?

It was surely an element of sensibilities being offended (especially in America), as much as it was actual horror, that provoked such radical reactions from audiences back in the day. Nowadays we’re a bit more deadened to those things — the last 40+ years have served up plenty of elaborate gore, and potty-mouthed pre-teen girls are more likely to be found in comedies (Hit-Girl is even younger than Regan when she utters the C word in Kick-Ass, for example). I also thought it frequently undermined its own intensity by cutting away from the scary scenes to more mundane stuff. Maybe the goal was to never give those scenes an ‘out’ — we always seem to leave them when supernatural stuff is still going on — but for me it killed the momentum that was building.

That’s not to say the horrific and shocking stuff is no longer powerful. What really works in its favour is how long the film spends being grounded and plausible — most of the first hour is a ’70s social drama about a child with a mental health problem. That level of realism helps the later horror scenes be all the more effective. They quite quickly transcend the realms of the plausible (unless you’re some kind of religious fanatic, I guess), but the grounded setup lends weight to them nonetheless. The climax in particular — the actual exorcism — might just be silly without the realistic world it’s been placed in. Instead, it’s a suitably tense climax.

The exorcism

Obviously it was the extreme stuff that caught people’s attention and earnt The Exorcist a reputation that it still trades off to this day. However, I’d say it’s best regarded, not as a fright-fest, but as a film about characters: the mother who’ll do anything for her child; the priest battling with a crisis of faith. It’s a drama about real people in extreme circumstances, it’s just that these extreme circumstances happen to be horror movie fodder. In this respect it’s such a film of the ‘70s, which I mean in the best possible way.

5 out of 5

The Exorcist was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

* IMDb lists half a dozen other languages, but Arabic’s the only one I remember being significant enough to earn subtitles. ^

Advertisements

Flash Gordon (1980)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #30

Pathetic earthlings…
Who can save you now?

Country: UK & USA
Language: English
Runtime: 115 minutes
BBFC: A (1980) | PG (1987)
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 5th December 1980 (USA)
UK Release: 11th December 1980
First Seen: c.1995

Stars
Sam J. Jones (10, Ted)
Melody Anderson (Dead & Buried, Firewalker)
Max von Sydow (The Seventh Seal, The Exorcist)
Topol (Fiddler on the Roof, For Your Eyes Only)
Ornella Muti (The Last Woman, Tales of Ordinary Madness)

Director
Mike Hodges (Get Carter, Croupier)

Screenwriter
Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Batman: The Movie, Three Days of the Condor)

Adaptation by
Michael Allin (Enter the Dragon, I’ll Be Home for Christmas)

Based on
Flash Gordon, a newspaper comic strip created by Alex Raymond.

The Story
American football player Flash Gordon and journalist Dale Arden accidentally end up on the spaceship of scientist Dr Zarkov, which transports them to the planet Mongo. There, they learn the planet’s evil Emperor, Ming the Merciless, is subjecting Earth to natural disasters in a bid to destroy it. Flash must unite the warring factions on Mongo to defeat Ming and save the Earth.

Our Hero
He’s a miracle, king of the impossible. Just a man, with a man’s courage, but he can never fail. He’ll save every one of us. Flash! Ah-ah!

Our Villains
Max von Sydow is deliciously villainous as evil emperor Ming the Merciless. There’s a handful of similarly entertaining underlings, too, like scheming right-hand-man Klytus, who gets a great death, and right-hand-woman Kala, who gets some of the very best lines.

Best Supporting Character
Prince Vultan may be culturally iconic for one two-word exclamation, but it kind of encapsulates the presence he brings throughout the film.

Memorable Quote
Zogi: “Do you, Ming the Merciless, Ruler of the Universe, take this Earthling Dale Arden, to be your Empress of the Hour?”
Ming: “Of the hour, yes.”
Zogi: “Do you promise to use her as you will?”
Ming: “Certainly!”
Zogi: “Not to blast her into space? …uh, until such time as you grow weary of her.”
Ming: “I do.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Gordon’s alive?!” — Prince Vultan
(Not that it’s likely to be appropriate in everyday conversation, but you’re still going to hear it said — especially if you’re ever around Brian Blessed.)

Memorable Scene
In Ming’s harem, Flash’s love interest Dale and Ming’s rebellious daughter Aura end up wrestling on a giant bed. Kinky! But it’s knowingly directed, with cutaways to sniggering servants indicating a deliberate commentary on such gratuitous girl-on-girl spectacles in other films.

Write the Theme Tune…
“Dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum FLASH! Ah-ah! Saviour of the universe!” Rock group Queen composed the entire score for Flash Gordon, and their unmistakeable sound is a significant part of the film. Best of all is that main theme, surely one of the most memorable and hummable pop themes for a movie ever recorded. If you’re interested in the making of the soundtrack, there’s a detailed article on Queen’s official site.

Technical Wizardry
The design work is great. The sets, costumes, and spaceships are all huge, vibrant, retro, often ridiculous, and wonderful.

Truly Special Effect
Skies full of swirling rainbow colours, rainbow clouds for the spaceships to float through, platforms that tilt over a rainbow vortex… OK, there’s a lot of rainbows, but it’s unique and looks great.

Letting the Side Down
There is so little that’s bad about Flash Gordon that I’ve left this section in just to point out that there is nothing bad about Flash Gordon.

Previously on…
The most famous earlier version of Flash Gordon must be the three cinema serials starring Buster Crabbe that were produced between 1936 and 1940. They’re great fun (I nearly made space for one of them on this list, but… not quite). There was also a live-action TV series in the ’50s and an animated one in 1979.

Next time…
An animated TV movie followed that last TV series in 1982. Flash was part of the Defenders of the Earth animated series in the mid ’80s, alongside other heroes such as the Phantom. Another animated series came along in 1996, while a live-action reboot was attempted in 2007. It looked terrible, and I’ve heard it’s one of the worst TV shows ever made. Reports of a new film being in development come along now and then, with Kingsman’s Matthew Vaughn being the most recently attached director. Until that rolls around, Flash’s main claim to current pop culture relevance comes courtesy of Ted and its sequel.

Awards
3 BAFTA nominations (Music (because Queen), Costume Design, Production Design/Art Direction)
3 Saturn nominations (Science Fiction Film, Supporting Actor (Max von Sydow), Costumes)
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Actor (Sam J. Jones))
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
Flash Gordon is played for laughs, and wisely so. It is no more sophisticated than the comic strip it’s based on, and that takes the curse off of material that was old before it was born. This is space opera, a genre invented by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Hugo Gernsback and other men of unlimited imagination harnessed to definitely limited skills. It’s fun to see it done with energy and love and without the pseudo-meaningful apparatus of the Force and Trekkie Power.” — Roger Ebert

Score: 82%

What the Public Say
Star Wars was squarely heterosexual, but Flash Gordon could only have emerged from the same pop-culture closet that birthed David Bowie, Elton John, Mick Jagger, and Freddie Mercury […] As for the empty-headed dialogue and the puerile plot, isn’t it obvious those are both part of the point? Everyone involved (well, except maybe Sam J. Jones) knows precisely what this is and performs accordingly, with a straight face but with a small gleam in the eye. […] I don’t know if I’d want to know anyone who couldn’t love this movie, or at least enjoy it on some level.” — Rob Gonsalves, eFilmCritic.com

Elsewhere on 100 Films
In 2009 I said that Flash Gordon was better than Star Wars. Well, I mean, I don’t know if I exactly stand by that, but I’m also not going to contradict it — Flash Gordon is awesome.

Verdict

Once reviled for being a laughably silly Star Wars cash in, the world has gradually begun to realise the truth: that Flash Gordon was always in on the joke. And it’s so obviously in on the joke, it makes a lot of the old reviews criticising it look embarrassingly tin-eared. It’s not meant to be a serious sci-fi adventure, like its big-screen Trek and Wars contemporaries. It’s designed to be camp, colourful, over-the-top, driven by cliffhangers and wackiness. It’s funny, it’s fun — it’s Flash! Ah-ah!

#31 will be… slightly more expensive.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

aka Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens

2015 #191
J.J. Abrams | 135 mins | cinema (3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
5 nominations

Nominated: Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects.




Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not the best film of 2015. Not according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, anyway, who didn’t see fit to nominate it for Best Picture at tomorrow’s Oscars. Many fans disagree, some vociferously, but was it really a surprise? The Force Awakens is a blockbuster entertainment of the kind the Academy rarely recognise. Okay, sci-fi actioner Mad Max: Fury Road is among this year’s nominees, but with its hyper-saturated cinematography and stylised editing, it is action-extravaganza as art-film, further evidenced by some people’s utter bafflement at how anyone can like a film so devoid of story or character. (It isn’t, of course — those people are wrong.)

I’m sure the makers of Star Wars can rest easy, though, what with it being the highest grossing film ever at the US box office (at $924m and counting, it’s the first movie to take over $800m, never mind $900m), and third-ever worldwide (behind only Titanic and Avatar, both of which had re-releases to compound their tallies). Its reception has been largely positive too, with many fans proclaiming it the third or fourth best Star Wars movie — which doesn’t sound so hot, but when two of those previous films are unimpeachable all-time favourites, being third is an achievement. There are many dissenting voices though, disappointed thanks to their perception that it’s just a rehash of A New Hope, and that it’s a movie short on original ideas but long on modern-blockbuster bluster and noise.

I think, at this point, one or two other people on the internet have written the odd word about The Force Awakens — you have to really go looking, but trust me, there are some articles out there. (Of course, by “one or two other people” I really mean “everybody else”, and by “the odd word” I mean “hundreds of thousands of millions of words”. And by “have” I mean “has”, for grammatical accuracy in this completely-revised sentence).

I too could talk about the likeable new heroes; the triumphant return of old favourites; the underuse of other old favourites; Daisy Ridley’s performance; John Boyega’s performance; the relationship between Rey and Finn; the relationship between Finn and Poe; the success of Kylo Ren and General Hux as villains (well, I thought they were good); the terrible CGI of Supreme Leader Snoke; the ridiculous overreaction to the alleged underuse of Captain Phasma; that awesome fight between the stormtrooper with that lightning stick thing and Finn with the lightsaber; the mystery of Rey’s parentage; the mystery of who Max von Sydow was meant to be (and if we’ll ever find out); some elaborate theory about why Ben wasn’t called Jacen (there must be one — elaborate theories that will never be canon are what fandoms are good for); the way it accurately emulates the classic trilogy’s tone; the way it’s basically a remake of A New Hope; the way it isn’t that much of a remake of A New Hope; why ring theory and parallelism makes all this OK anyway; all of its nods to the rest of the saga; that death scene; that ending; those voices in that vision; and the single greatest part of the entire movie: BB-8 giving a thumbs up.

But I won’t talk about any of that. Not now, anyway. Instead, for an angle of moderate uniqueness, I’ll talk about the five elements of the film that have been singled out for recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Editing
J.J. Abrams seems to have tricked some people into thinking he’s a great director with The Force Awakens (rather than just a helmer of workmanlike adequacy (when he’s not indulging his lens flare obsession, at which point he’s not workmanlike but is inadequate)), and I think that’s partly because it’s quite classically made. Yeah, it’s in 3D, but the style of shots used and — of most relevance right now — the pace of the editing help it feel in line with the previous Star Wars movies. Some of the more outrageous shots (often during action sequences) stand out precisely because they’re outside this norm. Perhaps we take for granted that Abrams delivered a movie in keeping with the rest of the series, because that’s The Right Thing To Do, but that doesn’t mean he had to do it. And the transitional wipes are there too, of course.

Score
Ah, John Williams — 83 years old and still going strong. Or still going, at any rate. I’m not the most musically-minded viewer, unless something really stands out to me. I don’t remember anything in Williams’ Force Awakens score standing out. Not that there’s anything wrong with it per se, but I didn’t notice anything new that has the impact of The Imperial March or Duel of the Fates (for all of the prequels’ faults, they at least gave us that). In Oscar terms, it’s apparently not looking so hot for Williams either: his return to a galaxy far, far away is being trumped by Ennio Morricone’s return to the West.

Sound Mixing & Sound Editing
No one knows what the difference is between these two categories. I’m not even sure that people who work in the industry know. As a layperson, it’s also the kind of thing you tend to only notice when it’s been done badly. The Force Awakens’ sound was not bad. It all sounded suitably Star Wars-y, as far as I could tell. That’s about all I could say for it. It feels like these are categories that get won either, a) on a sweep, or b) on a whim, so who knows who’ll take them on the night?

Visual Effects
CGI is everywhere nowadays, and at the top end of the game it seems like it’s much-for-muchness in the photorealism department. So what dictates the best of the best, the most award-worthy? Well, innovations are still being made, they’re just less apparent in the end product, it would seem: reportedly there are a load of workflow-type innovations behind the scenes on Star Wars, which improved consistency, as well as some better ways of achieving things that were already achievable.

Nonetheless, for a franchise with which they have a long, close history, it’s understandable that ILM pulled out all their tricks here — fairly literally: they even used forced perspective to extend some sets, rather than the now-standard digital set extension (green screen + CG background). Most notably, a lot of BB-8 was done with working models and puppetry. Of course that’s still computer aided, be it with wire and rod removal or some bits of animation, but it still lends the droid greater presence and physicality. That kind of grounded, make-it-real mindset pervades — the effects team exercised “restraint […] applying the basic filmmaking lessons of the first trilogy,” according to this article from Thompson on Hollywood. Effects supervisor Roger Guyett says that attitude was about being “very specific about what the shot was about. And making it feel like you were photographing something that was happening.”

In terms of whether it will win or not, well, take your pick of the predictors. Some say Fury Road will sweep the technical categories, presumably in lieu of it winning any of the big-ticket prizes. Star Wars was the big winner at the Visual Effects Society awards though, which have predicted the Oscar on nine of the past 13 occasions. The times it’s failed have generally been prestige films that happen to have effects kicking blockbusters off their pedestal, like Hugo beating Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or Interstellar beating Rise of the Planet of the Apes (the Academy clearly hates those damned dirty apes). With The Revenant taking secondary honours at VES, perhaps that’ll be an unlikely Oscar victor.

In truth, I don’t think any of those are the best things about The Force Awakens. What really works for it are the characters, the relationships, the pace of the story (rehashed or not), the overall tone. It was never going to get major awards in the categories that recognise those achievements (acting, writing, directing), and, frankly, those elements aren’t gone about in an awards-grabbing fashion anyway. In the name of blockbuster entertainment, however, they’re all highly accomplished.

With the good ship Star Wars relaunched under a sure hand and with a surfeit of familiarity to help steady the ride, hopefully future Episodes can really push the boat out.

5 out of 5

Star Wars: The Force Awakens placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

What Dreams May Come (1998)

2015 #129
Vincent Ward | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 15 / PG-13

When What Dreams May Come first came out, the reviews seemed to conclude that it was rubbish, but at least visually splendid. Back in 1998, that put me off — “it’s not meant to be very good” was the takeaway thought there. As the years have gone on, for some reason those reviews (or possibly just one I extrapolated into a consensus, who knows?) stuck with me; and as my temperament as a film fan grew, that it was visually extraordinary (even if nothing else) began to seem reason enough to watch it. It lingered in the back of my mind, never quite becoming a “must see”, especially as the opportunity rarely (if ever) presented itself. So that’s more or less how I come to it now, 17 years since its release and those reviews — a long-awaited scratch of a long-lingering itch. (Perhaps this gives some insight into why/how it takes me so long to get round to watching recommendations/things I’m quite keen to see/etc.)

Adapted from a novel by Richard “I Am Legend” Matheson, the story concerns Dr Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) and his wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra). Their perfectly lovely life is shattered when their two kids are killed in a car crash. Despite Annie suffering a mental breakdown, they hang in there… until Chris is killed in another car crash a few years later. He ascends to a kind of Heaven, a wondrous place controlled by his imagination — this is where those visuals come in. However, Chris learns that Annie has committed suicide, and so been condemned to Hell. He vows to do what has never been done, and travel to Hell to rescue her.

Hell, incidentally, also looks incredible, as do the various locales visited by Chris and his companions (played by Cuba Gooding Jr and Max von Sydow) on their way there. Director Vincent Ward and his team have created a rich, engrossing visual space here. It’s not just the Oscar-winning visual effects either, which create Chris’ initial realisation of Heaven as a kind of living painting, but also the locations, their decorations, and some fantastic sets. The design work is brilliant, and the vast majority of it still holds up today. Even the CGI doesn’t look glaringly like 17-year-old graphics, and in many cases what I presume is a mix of live action, models and some CGI is far more effective than the all-CG look it would likely have if made today.

However, the story is… problematic. Its logic comes and goes (the afterlife’s rules have to be obeyed or are able to be broken depending on the situation, for instance), it goes on too long, with too many asides, and there are needless twists, reveals, and reversals that are neither surprising (thanks to their ultimate predictability) nor illuminating (thanks to their unnecessariness). There were too many flashbacks and asides to real life, and I’d have liked it more if it stuck to the afterlife stuff — cut the flashbacks, limit the story to the afterlife quest, and stop mirroring it in the couple’s earlier real-life troubles. That would make the movie shorter, more streamlined, less wishy-washily sentimental, more focused, and therefore better.

Nonetheless, some will identify with the sentimental “love transcends death”-type message more than others, and there’s a chance those who like (or don’t mind) their films to be at the soppier end of the spectrum will genuinely love it. For the rest of us — for anyone who likes visual splendour in their movies, anyway — it does indeed merit a look for the imagery alone.

3 out of 5

Shutter Island (2010)

2015 #73
Martin Scorsese | 138 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Shutter IslandAdapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane (whose work also inspired Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone), the fourth collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio stars the latter as US Marshal Edward Daniels, who in 1954 is dispatched with this new partner (Mark Ruffalo) to the Ashecliffe facility on the titular island, a prison/hospital for violent, mentally ill criminals run by Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr Naehring (Max von Sydow), where one of the patients has disappeared from her locked room. Her presumed escape seems to be impossible, the staff are remarkably unhelpful, and Daniels has a theory about something much darker and more sinister being conducted on the island… Naturally there’s an almighty twist, which will either keep you guessing or you’ll spot early on so you can brag about how you thought it was very predictable in order to make yourself look big and clever on online comment sections (because that works).

In fairness, the twist — or, at least, key elements of it — are fairly guessable if you’re playing that game. Equally, the film leaves enough doors of possibility open that if you set your heart on one answer (even the right one) then you’re perhaps being a bit blinkered and not indulging in the fun of being strung along by a well-built mystery. And as I always say, most twists are only “predictable” if you predicted the right thing. The mystery certainly kept me engrossed and guessing. I did suspect certain things that turned out to be correct, but there were enough other possibilities floating around that I wasn’t twiddling my thumbs waiting for the reveal.

US MarshalsBesides, the film has other delights beyond being an elaborate guessing game. One of the things Lehane set out to do in his novel was write “a gothic”, and Scorsese and co have taken that ball and run with it. It’s overflowing with a fantastic atmosphere: unsettling, creepy, chilling, horror-movie scary when needed (some sequences are properly hair-raising); truly gothic-feeling. Every aspect of filmmaking — the direction, the photography, the editing, the sets and locations, the music — work in harmony to create a coherent mood.

To single out two, it’s gorgeously shot by Robert Richardson. There are a couple of dream sequences that are a show-off for that kind of thing, but it’s true more widely, the storm-bedevilled island presenting a rewardingly overcast palette. There are instances of what one might call dodgy green screen… but, combined with the continuity-troubled editing, I sense it may’ve been a conscious choice to enhance the disquieting sensation (the editing is certainly deliberate — that some commenters seem to believe Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker could make so many basic errors is bizarre).

The second is the music, put together by Robbie Robertson. Scorsese and Robertson decided against a traditional score, instead choosing to compile fragments of other works (many of them anachronistic) and chop them up in different ways. It’s probably to Robertson’s credit that it doesn’t feel like a jukebox soundtrack; indeed, I assumed it did have a fully composed score, and really rather liked parts of it.

Thoughtful LeoAnd then, after Scorsese and co have done their best to shred your nerves, in the final half-hour the pathos is immense. Quite without realising it had brought me to that point, I had a tear in my eye. This is in part thanks to some great performances, though you do need to reach the twist to fully appreciate them. Everyone reveals more levels once you know it, and indeed it’s clear a great amount of effort went into ensuring re-watchability — that if you view it again knowing the answers, you can spot things; not clues, per se, but elements in the performance, the design, the staging, that tie in to the reveal.

DiCaprio has the showiest performance, though he never goes too far with it — it’s resolutely plausible at all times. Ruffalo may give the best turn of them all, in retrospect — if you watch it a second time (or, for a quick fix, check out the clip-laden making-of documentaries where they discuss the acting), you can really see what he’s doing. Kingsley, too, who without changing his performance is both threatening and kindly.

Incidentally, reviews criticise the brevity of the documentaries on the Blu-ray, but with over half-an-hour of content they could be considerably worse, and they’re quite focused — I learnt a lot from them. No, you’re not getting a scene-by-scene breakdown like you would in an audio commentary, and there’s minimal detail on the usual moviemaking details, but there’s a solid overview of the film’s themes and how they were translated to the screen.

All is not as it seemsI think the more you let Shutter Island percolate after it’s over, the better it becomes. Solving the mystery and guessing at the twists occupies so much of your time on a first viewing that you almost miss the details in the characters and the world, but they build up nonetheless. There’s layers and depth here, and a plausibly realistic depiction (even according to an expert) of something that’s incredibly hard to depict in fiction. You can view Shutter Island as just an atmospheric gothic mystery chiller, and as that it’s a quality piece of work, but it’s the extra depth that mark it out as, actually, a great movie.

5 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of Shutter Island is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

Shutter Island placed 16th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

2008 #69
Julian Schnabel | 112 mins | download | 12A / PG-13

The Diving Bell and the ButterflyLe Scaphandre et le Papillon, as it’s titled in its original French, has until now been on my (unwritten) ‘List of Films to Avoid’, alongside the likes of Ichi the Killer, Hostel, Caligula, and Salo. Strange company for an Oscar-nominated drama I know, but whereas those others have visceral horror that I have no real desire to deal with, the situation of Diving Bell’s central character, Jean-Dominique Bauby, which is exacerbated by it being a true story, seemed too horrendous to bear. In a similar way to how one might struggle to think about death if one doesn’t believe in an afterlife, the idea of being paralysed but for one eye is an almost unimaginably tortuous fate. Nonetheless, in the wake of a huge amount of praise — and in the name of finding a film starring Mathieu Amalric for My Quantum of Solace Film Season — I resolved myself and hoped for the best.

The most striking thing about the film is that, for about the first 40 minutes, it takes place almost entirely within the head of Jean-Do, as Bauby is affectionately known. From the opening shot we literally see through his his eyes, blurry and limited as that is, and hear his thoughts, which brings us a lot closer to him than any character in the film can be as we soon realise he can’t speak. During this first third the film only ventures outside Jean-Do’s immediate vision for memories or imaginings — although the viewer might perceive them as breaks from the prison of his mind due to the change in imagery, we’re actually still stuck inside his head, just as he is. One begins to wonder if the whole film will be told this way, or, if it does break free, how Schnabel and writer Ronald Harwood are going to find a cinematically plausible way to achieve this after so long. (Pleasingly, when do they it doesn’t feel like a contrivance.)

Jean-Do’s situation is obviously far from everyday, so this device makes for a highly effective — and, indeed, affective — form of identification. As we can see all he sees and hear all he hears, and as he can’t feel anything, we’re being given access to his entire sensory experience and, through his voice over, we even have access to his thoughts. (I say “his entire sensory experience” — it’s never mentioned whether he can taste or smell; but as his paralysed mouth means he’s unable to eat I presume the former isn’t much of a consideration at least.) This style also creates some exceptionally uncomfortable moments, such as when Jean-Do’s right eye has to be sewn up so as it doesn’t dry out, even though it still works at the time. As we see from his vision, we see the eyelid being half-closed and the needle pushing through as if it were our own. Again, it brings the viewer a lot closer to his experience than watching the act objectively from a third-person perspective would.

It’s not just the effect on Jean-Do that we’re privy to, however. As the story progresses we encounter his family: an estranged wife, three children, a mistress, and a house-bound father. The pain these relatives feel is both varied and palpable, as is the added pain for Jean-Do. He can’t play with his kids, or even really communicate with them, and his mistress is too afraid to visit — in one scene, his disability means they have to communicate uncomfortably through his wife. Arguably most affecting of all is his father. Played by Max von Sydow, the couple of scenes featuring him are beautifully understated in both direction and performance, but it’s their attempt at a phone conversation, using only the awkward blinking system developed by Jean-Do’s speech therapist, that is absolutely heartbreaking.

Incidentally, the scenes where Jean-Do uses this method — which, put simply, involves him choosing one letter at a time — are quite odd to watch for an English viewer. Obviously the word is being spelt in French, but the subtitles unsurprisingly spell the word in English. It’s the only sensible way to convey the point, but it makes for an especially odd disjunct between original dialogue and the subtitle translation. It’s not so much a flaw as something that distracted me at times, but I can’t come up with a better solution.

As Jean-Do, Amalric is required to give a rather unusual performance — not just because he’s stuck with only the use of one eye, but because for much of the film Jean-Do is omnipresent while Amalric is nowhere to be seen. This in-his-head style means that the direction, cinematography, editing and sound design are as much part of the character as the work Amalric does. He rarely actually narrates anything — it’s sort of a half voiceover, with snippets of thoughts and the like. That said, it’s to the credit of his work with this slight material, and to those on the technical side, that when he does actually appear on screen it doesn’t seem unusual or disconnected.

I’m not sure where I got the notion that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly would be truly excruciating to watch, but, as anyone who has seen the film will surely be aware, it isn’t. Schnabel and Harwood employ a variety of techniques to make you understand the real-life horror of Jean-Do’s situation, but these don’t tip the film into sensationalism or terror. In fact, despite the measures taken to enable the viewer to identify with Jean-Do and make his a very personal drama, I found it was primarily interesting on a documentary level — understanding the hard, slow, awkward processes of recovery (as much as he can) and coping (to a degree); how it might feel to be in that situation, or stuck in similar aspects of human experience, such as in the visit from a former Beirut hostage.

In fact, if the film had a message it would surely be, “live every day as if it’s your last”. That might sound a bit corny — something which I certainly wouldn’t accuse the film of being — but it’s never been presented so starkly. Never mind dying, thereby having no chance to realise what you didn’t do — Jean-Do is a prisoner, tortured with all the things he never did or didn’t do enough, and the knowledge that he will never be able to do them again.

4 out of 5