Phone Booth (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #69

Your life is on the line.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 81 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 4th April 2003 (USA)
UK Release: 18th April 2003
First Seen: cinema, 2003

Stars
Colin Farrell (The Recruit, Total Recall)
Kiefer Sutherland (Flatliners, Dark City)
Forest Whitaker (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, The Last King of Scotland)
Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black, Silent Hill)
Katie Holmes (Wonder Boys, Batman Begins)

Director
Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys, Batman & Robin)

Screenwriter
Larry Cohen (Maniac Cop, Cellular)

The Story
Slick, smarmy Stu uses the last remaining phone booth in New York City to call the young woman he’s trying to cheat on his wife with. Then the phone rings: there’s a sniper rifle trained on him, and if Stu doesn’t follow the caller’s instructions, he’ll die.

Our Hero
Stuart “Stu” Shepard, a slimy publicist who’s trying to cheat on his wife, strings along a kid with hopes of getting in the game, wears Italian clothes to make himself look better than he is, and is generally a dick to everyone. So not a very nice guy, really… but does he deserve to be shot by a sniper, hm?

Our Villain
A mysterious voice on the other end of the phone, The Caller has some kind of moral code, has demands of Stu to fit that code, and also has a high-powered sniper rifle that he’s not afraid to use on just about anybody. Surprisingly witty, too.

Best Supporting Character
Captain Ramey, the cop in charge of the situation once the police get involved, who is at least bright enough to realise there’s more going on than meets the eye.

Memorable Quote
(After cocking his gun) “Now doesn’t that just torque your jaws? I love that. You know like in the movies just as the good guy is about to kill the bad guy, he cocks his gun. Now why didn’t he have it cocked? Because that sound is scary. It’s cool, isn’t it?” — The Caller

Memorable Scene
With both his wife and mistress on the scene, and surrounded by police and news cameras, Stu finally makes his confession. A heartfelt monologue that is definitely a showpiece for Farrell.

Making of
The whole film was shot in just 12 days: ten days inside the phone booth and two to shoot the surroundings. To do this the crew worked “French hours”, which involves not shutting down the entire production for lunch (which just sounds logical to me), and was aided further by Farrell nailing some big scenes in one take.

Awards
1 MTV Movie Awards Mexico nomination (Best Colin Farrell in a Movie — see also: Daredevil)

What the Critics Said
“The triumph of director Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Larry Cohen in Phone Booth is not just that they pull off the central gimmick but also that they fashion from it a creditable thriller. The result is a movie that combines a seriousness of purpose with a delight in craft in a way Hitchcock would have appreciated.” — Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

Score: 71%

What the Public Say
“It’s the kind of pulpy potboiler that is often wrecked by unnecessary padding, but the brisk no-nonsense approach here combines with its short length to make quite an entertaining off-beat thriller. Kiefer Sutherland’s vengeful psychopath who is only represented by a voice-over and a red dot for the majority of the film is the stand-out performance, but everyone involved acquits themselves admirably.” — Gary Anthony Cross, Film Noird

Verdict

Regular readers will know of my fondness for the single-location thriller, and this is one of the films that helped define that love. And events occur in real-time, which is just a bonus. Colin Farrell and Kiefer Sutherland are both on excellent form as the hostage who maybe has it coming and the hostage taker who maybe has a point. Larry Cohen’s screenplay takes a simple setup and follows it through, keeping it engrossing but still relatively plausible (something other such films struggle with in order to extend their concept), with some killer dialogue to boot. It all adds up to an immensely effective thriller.

Next time… yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate’s life for #70.

Brooklyn (2015)

2016 #63
John Crowley | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, Canada & Ireland / English | 12 / PG-13

BAFTABritish Academy Film Awards 2016
6 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best British Film.
Nominated: Best Leading Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Julie Walters), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hair.


BrooklynAdapted from Colm Tóibín’s award-winning 2009 novel by novelist-turned-screenwriter Nick Hornby and director John Crowley (Boy A, Is Anybody There?), Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman in 1950s Ireland who leaves behind her mother (Jane Brennan) and older sister (Fiona Glascott) for an exciting new life in New York. Lodging at the boarding house of Mrs Keogh (Julie Walters) with a gaggle of other girls and working in a glamorous department store, Eilis comes out of her shell, and falls for nice Italian-American lad Tony (Emory Cohen). When tragedy calls her back to Ireland, Eilis encounters nice Irish lad Jim (Domhnall Gleeson). Will she stick with her new life, or return home as a new woman?

That’s basically the plot of the whole film, bar the details; but the meat of Brooklyn is in the details, and knowing the shape of the story going in may even work to its benefit — it’s the kind of movie that might not look like it’s ‘about’ all that much. An easy point to pick on would be Eilis’ status as an immigrant, what with works of art about “the immigrant experience” being a definite Thing. There’s an element of that in the film, certainly, but I would say it’s not about anything so worthy-sounding. More, it’s a coming-of-age movie, about leaving home, spending time away, and then coming back to find home is different — not because it’s changed, but because you have. You don’t have to emigrate to understand that feeling — anyone who’s done something like go to uni will surely relate.

Guiding us through this, the film’s heart in every respect, is Saoirse Ronan’s leading performance. I will watch Ronan in essentially anything at this point, both because she seems to choose good material and because, even when she doesn’t, she’s great in it. This is probably her first really mature performance, convincing as a somewhat shy young woman who makes her way out into the world, in the process realising all the confidence she should have in herself. It’s the kind of character and performance that works by accumulation; it’s about the journey, not heavy-handed emoting in a scene or two.

As the family members left behind, Jane Brennan and Fiona Glascott get to give equally subtle performances, conveying reams of emotion in relatively few scenes and with their presence as much as their words. Similarly, Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson might have been stranded with no dramatic meat playing Nice Guys, but they each find enough nuance to sustain their roles. It’s always nice to watch a movie that can tell a romantic story without needing to resort to melodramatic histrionics, and Eilis’ choice is all the trickier for the fact that neither reveals a Dark Side or anything so simple. It’s been noted before that Gleeson was in four of the big awards contenders last year, only picking up a few relatively minor nominations himself (at the Saturn Awards, British Independent Film Awards, and Irish Film and Television Awards), but those four roles display his range magnificently. “One to watch” may be an understatement.

John Crowley’s direction is largely unobtrusive, but that is a very different kettle of fish to lacking quality. The subtle changes in framing, lighting, and colour palette as the film moves through its locations and stages helps emphasise how Eilis is changing, and how the world changes in her perceptions, too. It makes the story’s times and places look beautiful without quite slipping into picture-postcard rose-tinted-memories territory.

Brooklyn is a deceptively simple film that might be easy to dismiss as a slight romantic drama with no real stakes, but I think that would be to do it a disservice. It is fairly subtle and largely gentle (the odd shocking development aside), but it amasses a wealth of feeling and personal development that builds, not to a crescendo, but to a point of emotional understanding.

4 out of 5

Brooklyn is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

Adam (2009)

2016 #20
Max Mayer | 95 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Hugh Dancy (of TV’s Hannibal) stars as the eponymous Adam, a New Yorker with Asperger syndrome who’s having to work out how to go it alone after his protective father passed way. Isolated by his condition and his struggle to cope with change, his life faces upheaval when he loses his job, but he also begins to strike up a relationship with his new neighbour, Beth (Rose Byrne). As someone once said*, the course of true love never did run smooth — especially when one of a couple has a social interaction disorder.

Inspired by writer-director Max Mayer hearing a person with Aspergers interviewed on the radio, that starting point has had the end result of Adam at times being at risk of slipping into a “this is Aspergers” documentary. Fortunately it manages to pull that back — such explanatory scenes are surely necessary for neophyte viewers’ understanding of Adam’s condition, which is naturally central to the events that follow. Dancy worked with with Mayer for a month before filming began to develop the character, and spoke with individuals affected by Aspergers to learn about their feelings, sensory issues, and interests. It clearly paid off: I imagine it must be tricky to pull off a character like that without taking it too far, but Dancy is great in the role.

As the other half of the relationship, Rose Byrne holds her own having to almost play the ‘straight man’ to Dancy’s more obvious performance. She’s a considerably better actress than some of her movie choices would have you believe, and roles like this prove that. Bonus points to the writing here for Beth not just accepting everything Adam does — that’s much more realistic than him happening across an endlessly understanding saint of a woman. But boo to the critics who didn’t buy that a privileged “daddy’s girl”-type could ever possibly fall for someone with autism — how judgemental are you?

Among the supporting cast, Peter Gallagher plays the kind of role he always seems to play: as soon as he makes passing mention of being investigated for some kind of financial crime, you know he did it (and probably more), and his daughter will find out and it’ll wipe the scales from her eyes. The only question is whether he’ll be found guilty by the court or weasel his way out of it. Talking of predictability, Mayer opts for the ‘indie’ rather than trad-rom-com ending, but that in itself is kind of predictable. Of course, when both possible outcomes are predictable (and, in a rom-com, there are only two), you can’t win.

So you can’t deny there are clichéd building blocks here, and they do hold the film back from being great, but the sweet relationship and Dancy’s performance overcome them enough to make for a likeable movie.

4 out of 5

* It was Shakespeare. It’s always Shakespeare. ^

RIP Bill Cunningham

I don’t do this kind of post often/ever — as we all know, I’d’ve had a very busy year of it if I did — but the death of Bill Cunningham, New York fashion photographer, is less likely to be mentioned in the film world.

That’s with the notable exception of the documentary Bill Cunningham New York, which I reviewed in 2012 and included in my top ten for that year, too. It’s a film about one man, not only in name but in attitude — it’s a portrait more than a narrative, and the skill of the filmmaker lies in the fact you don’t notice the filmmaker’s skill.

Bill was 87 years old — “a good innings”, as we say, and consequently not the most tragic newsworthy death to have happened in this year of perpetual bitterness. Nonetheless, as I wrote in my review, Bill seemed “a fascinating, unusual, but likeable, and certainly unique, individual”. That’s why the film is so interesting, and why his loss is particularly sad.

For much of his photographic career he contributed columns to the New York Times, and so it seems most fitting to link to their obituary. As they write, he was less a mere ‘fashion photographer’ and more “an unlikely cultural anthropologist, one who used the changing dress habits of the people he photographed to chart the broader shift away from formality and toward something more diffuse and individualistic.”

If you’ve not seen the documentary, keep an eye out for it.

Gangs of New York (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #35

America was born in the streets

Country: USA & Italy
Language: English
Runtime: 168 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: R

Original Release: 20th December 2002
UK Release: 9th January 2003
First Seen: cinema, 2003

Stars
Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, The Revenant)
Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot, Lincoln)
Cameron Diaz (There’s Something About Mary, My Sister’s Keeper)
Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge!, Another Year)
Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, Kingdom of Heaven)

Director
Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, The Departed)

Screenwriters
Jay Cocks (The Age of Innocence, Silence)
Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
Kenneth Lonergan (The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, Margaret)

Story by
Jay Cocks (Strange Days, De-Lovely)

Inspired by
The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, a non-fiction book written in 1927 by Herbert Asbury.

The Story
New York City, 1846: after his father is murdered in a fight by fellow gang leader Bill ‘the Butcher’, young Amsterdam Vallon is dumped in an orphanage. Sixteen years later, he returns to the Five Points district. With revenge in mind, he tries to establish himself with the ruling gang and get close to their leader — Bill.

Our Hero
In the first of his five (to date) collaborations with Scorsese (or six if you count that advertising short they were paid an insane amount for), Leonardo DiCaprio is Amsterdam Vallon, son of a murdered gang leader who, decades later, plots his revenge. His nemesis is a cunning so-and-so, however…

Our Villain
Although he’s a ruthless killer, and the unquestionable villain from the outset, Daniel Day-Lewis manages to render Bill a perversely charming creation, who unavoidably captivates your attention whenever he’s on screen.

Best Supporting Character
Priest Vallon, Amsterdam’s father, only appears in the opening sequence, but his influence and death hangs over the rest of the movie. That’s why you need an actor of Liam Neeson’s calibre for the part, and of course such casting pays off.

Memorable Quote
“I’m 47. 47 years old. You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That’s what preserves the order of things. Fear.” — Bill

Memorable Scene
Scorsese captures an entire lifecycle in New York’s Five Points within a single tracking shot, which begins with immigrants arriving fresh off the boat and ends with coffins lined up on the quay.

Memorable Music
I have mixed feelings about U2 (because, y’know, Bono), but the theme they crafted for GangsThe Hands That Built America — is a pretty good track, and sits very appropriately at the end of the movie. It was Oscar-nominated, but lost to Eminem’s Lose Yourself from 8 Mile.

Letting the Side Down
Scorsese tried to make Gangs of New York for ages. At one point, he wanted Meryl Streep for the lead female role. He ended up with Cameron Diaz. Say no more, eh.

Making of
Unable to film in New York, which no longer looked like it did back in the mid-1800s, the production was mounted on a large set at Rome’s Cinecittà Studio. According to Wikipedia, production designer Dante Ferretti constructed “over a mile of mid-nineteenth century buildings, consisting of a five-block area of Lower Manhattan, including the Five Points slum, a section of the East River waterfront and two full-sized sailing ships, a thirty-building stretch of lower Broadway, a patrician mansion, and replicas of Tammany Hall, a church, a saloon, a Chinese theater, and a gambling casino.” Now that is a set!

Awards
10 Oscar nominations (Picture, Director, Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Film Editing, Sound, Original Song)
1 BAFTA (Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis))
11 BAFTA nominations (Film, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Music, Production Design, Costume Design, Editing, Sound, Visual Effects, Make Up/Hair)
2 World Stunt Award nominations (Best Fight (the opening), Best Stunt Coordinator and/or 2nd Unit Director)
1 Teen Choice Award nomination (Choice Movie Liplock)

What the Critics Said
“The ambition is immense. This is Scorsese’s version of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and there are echoes of Kurosawa, Eisenstein and Visconti, as well as the nod to Welles […] As with Heaven’s Gate, judgment on this film must await Scorsese’s longer version. Nevertheless, this remains an astonishing achievement, a film with a passionate sense of life, by one of the greatest filmmakers at work today.” — Philip French, The Observer

Score: 75%

What the Public Say
“This movie, even if it ended with Amsterdam’s degradation rather than his triumph, would be fabulous, probably only inferior to Raging Bull and Goodfellas among Scorsese’s oeuvre. The problem is that the movie is nearly three hours long, and that the movie continues after Amsterdam’s maiming. There is a marvelous story to be told about American tyranny, about the immigrant experience, about just how firmly entrenched the powerful are. Do you choose bellicose racism as Bill does, or do you throw your lot in with benevolent corruption as Tweed does? It hardly seems to matter; you will be expunged and forgotten in the slop and grime of the Five Points all the same while someone else wears a tall hat and eats well.” — speakerformediocrities, Seeing Things Secondhand

Verdict

Gangs of New York ended up with a bit of a mixed reception when it finally came out in 2002, which is only to be expected after Scorsese had been intending to make it for over 20 years, and the version he had shot was stuck in editing for a year (considering all the Director’s Cuts we get nowadays, why have we never had Scorsese’s original 48-minutes-longer cut?) It’s undoubtedly a compromised film, then, but one that retains a rich atmosphere, engaging performances (even if it suffers from two of the leads, DiCaprio and Diaz, being two of the least accomplished), and an impressive sense of scale. It may have a relatively simplistic revenge-tale throughline, but class swirls around it.

#36 will be… 攻殻機動隊.

Predestination (2014)

2016 #21
The Spierig Brothers | 98 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Australia / English | 15 / R

A man walks into a bar in ’70s New York. The bartender strikes up a conversation, which leads to a wager: if the man’s story is the most incredible the bartender has ever heard, he’ll give him a free bottle of whiskey. It had better be pretty good, because what we know that the man doesn’t is that the bartender, played by Ethan Hawke, is an agent for the Temporal Agency, travelling through time to stop crime before it happens; and he’s just had his face burnt off and completely rebuilt while failing to stop a notorious terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber. Beat that.

That said, the man’s story is pretty incredible too — but as the telling of it makes up over half the movie, and it’s full of its own twists, I shan’t get into spoiler territory. Predestination is a film that rewards knowing as little as possible, especially as the seasoned sci-fi viewer/reader has a fair chance of guessing a good number of its twists (possibly all of them) long before they’re revealed by the film. Fortunately that doesn’t really matter, because the tale remains an engaging and thought-provoking one, with many thematic points to consider, and not just of a science-fictional nature — there are human and historical issues in play here too, which is undoubtedly a rarity in modern screen SF.

We’re guided through this by a laid-back performance from Hawke, which turns intense when needed, but even more so by an affecting, transformative, award-winning turn from Australian actress Sarah Snook. She really should be much in demand after this. Chunks of the film are just a two-hander between Hawke and Snook, yet it effortlessly captivates throughout these stretches. That’s in part thanks to the fascinating nature of the narrative, adapted faithfully from Robert A. Heinlein’s short story All You Zombies (it has nothing to do with zombies — the story’s from the ’50s, before our modern conception of a zombie was formulated), as well as the direction of the Spierig brothers.

I don’t know how many people will remember, but the pair got a bit of attention back in the early ’00s with their debut feature Undead, because they not only wrote and directed it, but also edited it and created the CG effects at home on their laptops. That’s more commonplace nowadays (well, Gareth Edwards did it for Monsters, anyway), but was A Big Thing in certain circles back then. (I bought Undead on DVD at the time but have never got round to watching it. Plus ça change.) I thought they’d disappeared after that, but they were responsible for vampire thriller (and Channel 5 staple) Daybreakers in 2009. This is their third feature. Working from a low budget once again, they take us to alternate-history versions of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, from bars to orphanages to universities to training for the space programme to the headquarters of a time travelling police organisation and more. To my eyes, it never looked cheap. Sure, it’s not overloaded with CGI, but it doesn’t need to be. I never got the sense anyone was having to hold back because of the low budget. Others may disagree, because I have seen people express the opposite opinion, but I think they’re wrong, so there.

Predestination is the latest reminder that “sci-fi” is not a byword for “action-adventure”. It certainly won’t satisfy the needs of the action-hungry fan (it’s not devoid of the odd punch-up or explosion, but they’re far from the point). For anyone interested in something a bit more intellectual, a bit more thought-provoking, particularly if you like the (potential) complications of time travel, or issues of gender and identity, then Predestination has a lot to offer, even if you guess the twists.

5 out of 5

Predestination placed 5th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

It is available on Sky Movies on demand and Now TV from today. It debuts on Sky Movies Premiere next Friday, February 12th, at 11:30am and 10:20pm.

Purists be aware: existing British releases completely muffed up the aspect ratio (reportedly it’s both open matte and cropped), so there’s every chance Sky’s copy will be similarly afflicted.

Begin Again (2013)

2015 #188
John Carney | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Once’s writer-director returns with a film that could’ve been dubbed Once 2: New York.

Mark Ruffalo’s out-of-favour record exec discovers Keira Knightley’s singer-songwriter, stranded after her ex became a hit. Convinced she could salvage his career, he persuades her to record an album. They bond; will there be romance?

The songs aren’t as catchy (though some are decent) and the shape of the story is overfamiliar, but likeable performances from the stars, plus James Corden and Hailee Seinfeld, keep Begin Again a pleasant experience — albeit one that occurs more in the imagination of dreamy creative types than the real world.

4 out of 5

Birdman (2014)

aka Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

2015 #164
Alejandro G. Iñárritu | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Oscar statue2015 Academy Awards
9 nominations — 4 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography.
Nominated: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.



I started the week by reviewing the first Best Picture winner, and now end it with a review of the most recent — which just so happens to be coming to Sky Movies and Now TV from today (couldn’t’ve planned that much better if I’d tried!)

Birdman isn’t a superhero movie, though if the title sounds like one then that’s no accident: Michael Keaton is an actor who once played a superhero in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Well, to clarify, Michael Keaton plays an actor, Riggan Thomson, who once played a superhero in the late ’80s and early ’90s — the Birdman of the title. Decades later, he’s trying to be taken seriously by starring in a play on Broadway… which he’s also written… and is directing… and has sunk his personal finances into. So it’s probably not a good thing that one of his cast can’t act, his personal life is all over the place, the critics hate him before the play’s even opened, and he’s hallucinating superpowers.

Birdman is a comedy. “How the heck did a comedy win Best Picture at the Oscars?” you might well wonder, because that never happens anymore. Well, it’s a comedy-drama — it’s certainly funny, but drily so, and with lots of Personal Character Drama and a few Issues along the way. As it goes on, and gets a bit weird and kinda arthouse-y (as if it wasn’t to start with), you may forget that’s where it began. Nonetheless, I found it more consistently amusing than other recent acclaimed comedic Best Picture nominees, like the disappointing American Hustle.

In part this is thanks to Keaton, who gives quite an immersive performance as the numbed, self-deluded star. Some people were very much behind him for the Best Actor gong, but I think it found its rightful home: Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking was transformative to the point you forgot you were watching an actor; Keaton is just rather good. Anyway, for me the more enjoyable performance came in a supporting turn from Edward Norton. Norton is a notoriously difficult-to-work-with actor… sorry, Norton plays a notoriously difficult-to-work-with actor, who joins Riggan’s production and begins to wreak all kinds of havoc.

The rest of the cast are dealt very mixed hands. Emma Stone is good, but was there enough meat on the role’s bones to justify Best Supporting Actress, other than one awards-clip-baiting shouty monologue? I’m not sure. The most memorable thing about her performance is how extraordinarily large her eyes are. Andrea Riseborough is thrown a bone or two; Zach Galifianakis doesn’t showboat like I’d’ve expected a comedian with his background to; Lindsay Duncan appears for one scene, but it’s a pretty good one (sometimes it really benefits American movies that there are swathes of fantastic British actors who are capable of first-rate leading performances, but so low down the food chain that they can be drafted in for single-scene roles); and Naomi Watts is utterly wasted. (At one point Riseborough and Watts kiss, which is apparently a spoiler for Mulholland Drive because she kisses a woman in that too. Oh IMDb trivia section, you will let any old rubbish in.)

Famously, almost the entire film takes place in a single take. A fake one, of course. Well, I say of course — Russian Ark did a feature-length single take for real. I’d assumed this meant the film took place in real time, because that seems the obvious thing to use an unbroken shot for — to show us everything that occurred in the time it occurred. But no. Iñárritu uses that and the fact it’s faked quite cleverly at times, to pull off impossible changes of location. For example, at one point the camera leaves Norton in the theatre’s gods and drifts down towards the stage, where we can see him mid-performance.

The most curious aspect of the single take is: what did it need two editors for?! Everything had to be meticulously planned in advance — apparently, longer was spent on the screenplay than is normal, because once it was shot nothing could be cut — so surely all someone had to do was stick it together at the joins? Some of those joins are actually fairly obvious (your familiarity with filmmaking techniques and where joins might be hidden will dictate exactly how many), but a decent number remain hidden, I think. Well, I presume — I didn’t see them. Anyway, it’s more a feat of logistics and cinematography, the latter of which Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki did win an award for. How deserved that was, I’m not sure. It’s very impressive to work out how to shoot a movie in a single take, even a pretend one, but surely cinematography awards are for the quality of the images, not the logistics of moving your camera around? Birdman is by no means an ugly film, but the best-looking of the year? I’m not so sure.

Birdman is an entertaining film, both funny enough to keep the spirits up and dramatic enough to feel there’s some depth there. It’s also a mightily impressive feat of technical moviemaking, but then I do love a long single take (even a fake one). Is it the Best Picture of 2014? Well, from the nominees, it’s not the funniest (The Grand Budapest Hotel), nor does it have the most impactful performances (The Theory of Everything), nor is it the must gripping or thought-provoking (Whiplash), and it doesn’t feel the most significant (Boyhood). There is an interesting element of having its cake and eating it about Birdman, though, as it berates The Movies for their current superhero obsession while telling the story of a Hollywood actor who sets out to prove those snooty New York theatre critics wrong. Hm, however did this win Best Picture from an organisation whose main voting bloc is Hollywood actors?

4 out of 5

Birdman debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 1:45pm and 10:10pm.

TMNT (2007)

2015 #99
Kevin Munroe | 87 mins | streaming | 2.35:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English | PG / PG

The kids’ phenomenon of the ’80s/’90s has never quite gone away, and this film is one thing that kept it ticking over in the ’00s. I watched out of nostalgia, which may’ve been a mistake.

Eschewing an origin story, it dives in as a sequel rather than reboot; consequently, you constantly feel you’ve missed something, particularly given the focus on the heroes’ fractured relationships. The plot’s alright, though it’s an odd choice to not use any of the franchise’s major villains. Some action sequences are moderately entertaining, but other animations have provided better.

I expected little and was still disappointed.

2 out of 5

12 Angry Men (1957)

2014 #44
Sidney Lumet | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | USA / English | U

12 Angry MenTwelve people sit around in two rooms and talk for an hour and a half in more or less real time — sounds like a recipe for dull pretension, and yet 12 Angry Men is anything but. In fact, it’s probably one of the most gripping thrillers ever made.

The men in question are jurors in a trial we never see — we join the narrative as they retire to the jury room to debate their verdict. Except no debate is necessary: the kid in the dock, charged with murdering his father, is definitely guilty and destined for the electric chair. Or so eleven of the men think, because an initial count throws up one objector: Juror Eight, Henry Fonda. He doesn’t think the boy is innocent, he just thinks they should do their duty and discuss the evidence.

So discuss they do, much to the chagrin of the other men. It’s a burning hot day in New York City, we’re in an era before ubiquitous AC, and the cramped room they’re shut in doesn’t even have a working fan. The men want to get home, or to events they have tickets for, or what have you. But they have no choice, because Fonda won’t just change his vote. It’s through their deliberations that we begin to learn the facts of the case, though really these are neither here nor there: this isn’t really a trial of some minority teenager, but instead of the American justice system and these twelve men.

As the ghost of 82 discusses so well in his review, this is a film filled with first-rate performances. Fonda may be the only ‘name’, but there’s a host of recognisable faces, and every one of them is an essential cog in the film’s well-oiled machine. Screenwriter Reginald Rose has nearly doubled the length of his 51-minute teleplay*, but seems to have accomplished the extension effortlessly. The movie doesn’t feel padded, as other films with limited characters in a limited space can do, but like it’s precisely the correct length for the amount of material it needs to cover.

Killer evidenceSlowly, steadily, surely, Fonda’s juror leads a recap of the evidence, analysing it, picking it apart, challenging presumptions and suppositions. Gradually, other jury members begin to be won over. This could be trite — of course our hero has to start convincing the others — but this is where the writing and cast shine again, because even men who seemed unswayable have their minds changed in a plausible fashion. Even then, the outcome rarely seems certain, each victory hard won, so that the film holds you rapt, desperate for sense and reason to prevail. There are moments of tension which may literally push you to the edge of your seat; moments of exultant success which may elicit an exclamation of approval similar to a point scored in a sports match.

In his Criterion essay “Lumet’s Faces” (online here), law professor Thane Rosenbaum discusses the film’s groundbreaking and unique perspective on the legal system (how many other jury-room thrillers can you think of, before or since? Not many, I bet). The film has been seen by some as a defence of the jury system: even when a defendant has a poor defender in the courtroom (as, it seems, has been the case here), or an exceptionally gifted prosecutor, the truth will out among the jury. Rosenbaum disagrees:

The presumption that jurors are impartial is dashed within the first ten minutes of the film. … The virtues of the legal system are presented through the prism of its dark side. A jury is empowered to remedy the mistakes made by the defense… but will the jurors be able to overcome the imperfections of their own humanity[?] 12 Angry Men sends a warning to be careful in courtrooms. The custodians of the system make mistakes, and the corrective possibilities may be no better than a crapshoot.

Using the evidenceFor all that 12 Angry Men seems to show justice being served in the face of adversity, what it actually shows is justice being served thanks to blind luck: if Juror Eight had been a weaker-willed man, or another who was just as prejudiced as his eleven compatriots, then the debate would never have occurred, the teenager condemned to death in the blink of an eye. What are the odds on every jury room containing a Henry Fonda? I don’t fancy them myself.

Whatever (truthful) messages the film carries about the flaws of the legal system, there’s no denying its power as a thriller. You don’t have to debate its significance to the process it depicts, you can just be engrossed by the twists and turns of its story, be captivated by the twelve three-dimensional people it presents, complete with their own ideas, desires, and prejudices. Legal dramas are a dime a dozen on TV, but most still avoid the jury room. The unbetterableness of 12 Angry Men is probably why.

5 out of 5

12 Angry Men placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.


* Trivia time! Sidney Lumet directed over 40 episodes of television before this, his debut feature, but the original 12 Angry Men wasn’t among them. That was helmed by Franklin Schaffner. A lesser-known name than the acclaimed Lumet, I’d say, Schaffner went on to direct Planet of the Apes and Patton, and for the latter won a Best Director Oscar — something that, despite four nominations, Lumet never managed. ^