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. ^

The 10th Kingdom (2000)

2014 #104a
David Carson & Herbert Wise | 416 mins* | DVD | 4:3 | USA, UK & Germany / English | 15**

The 10th KingdomCreated by British screenwriter Simon Moore (writer of Traffik, the Channel 4 miniseries that went on to inspire Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning film, and the first Dinotopia miniseries, which could not-too-inaccurately be described as “The 10th Kingdom with dinosaurs”), The 10th Kingdom is a miniseries that I seem to remember Sky made quite a fuss about when they aired it over here, nearly 15 years ago. Sadly it flopped on NBC in its native America, so we haven’t been treated to the mooted sequel(s), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth investigating now: unlike the abundance of Lost-inspired rolling TV narratives that are ruined when (almost inevitably) they’re cut short, The 10th Kingdom tells a complete self-contained story.

Said story takes place in both present-day (well, turn-of-the-millennium) New York and the fantasy world of the Nine Kingdoms — unlike the depiction in the title sequence, New York doesn’t mutate into a fantasy kingdom. Although it may not be storyline-accurate, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that’s one of the greatest title sequences of all time. In just a couple of minutes it conveys the style and theme of the show with effective, striking imagery. OK, the CGI is a little dated now, looking kinda rough around the edges, but it’s not so bad that it diminishes the sequence’s impact. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Main Title Design, and it was well deserved.

ManhattanitesAnyway, the Nine Kingdoms is the place all our fairytales come from — the part of the narrative set there takes place “almost 200 years” after the “Golden Age”, when the events we know from stories actually happened. We’re led into this world by Virginia (Kimberly Williams) and her dad, Tony (John Larroquette), after indolent monarch-to-be Prince Wendell (Daniel Lapaine) flees to our world while escaping the Evil Queen (Dianne Wiest) and winds up taking the two New Yorkers back to his world. Along with Wolf (Scott Cohen), a chap with animalistic tendencies, the quartet try to stop the Evil Queen’s evil machinations.

So it’s a quest narrative, the staple of fantasy storytelling; but, in this case, that allows Moore to explore a fair chunk of the world he’s created. It goes about that at its own, somewhat literary, speed. Published alongside the miniseries’ airing was an epically-sized novelisation by Kathryn Wesley (a pen name for couple Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith), which is how I first got into the programme. Unlike the innumerable sub-par novelisations published in the history of moviedom, this one was very good (and well-reviewed, if I recall, so it’s not just me). It’s ironic to me, then, that the series itself feels like a page-for-page adaptation of a novel. It’s something to do with the pace and style — the amount of time it’s prepared to devote to certain scenes or story elements, the way big twists and developments aren’t perfectly timed for episode endings (for example, our Manhattanite heroes enter the Nine Kingdoms just before the one hour mark — right in the middle of the first episode as originally aired, somewhere early in episode two of the ten-part version). Mummy dearestIt also means the way it’s been edited into one long movie on DVD feels quite natural: it’s one long story with arbitrary breaks, not a series of finite episodes. (If you’re thinking, “of course it’s one story, it’s a miniseries”, plenty of single-narrative series and miniseries still function as discrete episodes that build to a whole.)

Like a certain recent TV programme, the Nine Kingdoms is a world stitched together from numerous familiar stories; but, unlike that programme (the less said about which the better, in my opinion), it isn’t a land of po-faced ‘adventure’. Instead, it’s loaded with wry humour — after all, “fairytales are real and all took place in the same place” is a pretty silly concept, so why not mine it for laughs? As one character informs us, “things have gone down hill a bit since [the Golden Age] — happy ever after didn’t last as long as we’d hoped”. Rather than that meaning things are Serious and Troubling (and, based on how Once Upon a Time turned out, inadvertently laughable), things have gone to pot in a way that is amusingly reminiscent of our own world. This is mainly through a witty appropriation of real-world tropes: it begins at Snow White Memorial Prison, for example, with a worldmap that features a large arrow proclaiming “you are imprisoned here”; when some trolls believe they’ve been trapped in a witch’s pocket, they hope that if they behave they’ll be let out after serving only half the spell; later, there’s a cocktail bar that serves “A Long Slow Spell Against the Wall”; and so on (I don’t want to spoil them all!)

Wolf for the chopThis gives the whole thing a heightened comedy tone, emphasised by many of the performances. A gaggle of troll siblings are irritatingly over-played, but Cohen’s meat-obsessed Wolf is a hammy delight (pun very much intended). The entertainment value means we quickly warm to the characters, so that when more perilous aspects of their quest do come into play later on, we care what happens. Plus, like most of the original fairytales (as opposed to Disney-style sanitised re-tellings), there’s the odd darker undercurrent. For instance, you may think the story of Snow White ends with a kiss and “happily ever after”, but here we’re told how the stepmother who poisoned Snow White was made to wear fire-heated iron shoes and ‘dance’ at the wedding until her feet were burnt raw, before being thrown out into the snow. Very dark and grim (and possibly from the original tale, for all I know).

In the main, however, The 10th Kingdom takes fairytales, not for their grimness, but for the chance to subvert, play with, or expand on them. So, for example, when Wolf and Tony come across a woodchopper who’ll tell them what they want to know if only they can guess his name — and if they get it wrong, he’ll chop off one of their heads — Tony signs them up without a second thought: he knows this one. With Wolf’s head on the block, he declares “Rumpelstiltskin!” The woodchopper replies, “wrong!” Uh-oh. This feeds into Tony’s growing annoyance with why people in this world can’t just tell you things, or exchange money for services, but instead always pose riddles — real-world logic clashing with the fairytale tradition. And it has a funny pay-off, too.

My precious...Little details in this vein abound: an apple tree has grown by Snow White’s cottage (don’t eat those apples!); the site of her glass coffin is now a tourist attraction; if you break a mirror, you genuinely get seven years’ bad luck… There’s also a pair of golden shoes that can turn you invisible, but the more you wear them the more you desire to use them all the time — what a precious idea (wink wink nudge nudge). These subversions also manifest in a strain of pleasant practicality; for instance, the abundant magic mirrors aren’t “just there”, but instead have been manufactured by dwarves. It lends the feel of a fully-conceived and rule-bound world, rather than an “anything can happen”, “just because” environment.

Even with all this, there remain a few major fairytales that aren’t touched upon. The Little Mermaid is one; another obvious omission is Beauty and the Beast — except there is a version of that included: the romance between Virginia and Wolf. The comparison isn’t drawn out in the text, particularly as Wolf isn’t an ugly hairy monster (though he does have a tail), but the similarities are there: his first encounter is actually with her father; he pursues Virginia even though the attraction isn’t mutual; she gradually comes around to him; there’s a third-act complication (spoilers!), before they eventually end up together (surprise!) It doesn’t have the same thematic heft as a proper retelling of Beauty and the Beast because it doesn’t have the whole “seeing the true beauty inside” thing — Wolf may give in to his urges once or twice, most notably in a storyline set in a town dominated by the Peep (as in Little Bo) family, where prejudice comes to the fore and Virginia has to defend him, but he’s never a full-on monster. There are elements of the tale’s other subtext, about a woman having power and control (or not) over her future, but, again, not in quite the same way: Wolf is besotted with Virginia and she doesn’t (initially) reciprocate his numerous advances — Animal attractiona world away from being locked in a castle until you change your mind. If this sounds like criticism, it isn’t. I’m not arguing the love story element of the series is unsuccessful — I’m sure it engages plenty of fans as the series’ primary attraction, even — but, on reflection, I’m not sure reading it as a Beauty and the Beast variation is actually that illuminating.

That’s fine, because the value of The 10th Kingdom lies not in how it retells its fairytale inspirations, but how it takes their familiar symbols and tropes and then reconfigures and expands on them, how it follows their implications through with real-world-logic, or mashes them up against the banalities of our world, often to comical effect. It’s a series that requires a basic knowledge of the tales used as its basis — not in an academic way, but in the way most of us have, thanks to exposure through childhood story-time or endless Disney movies. By playing on such ingrained knowledge, the pay-offs can be huge. Put those amusing subversions alongside likeable characters and a story that is at once world-endangering and deeply personal for our heroes, and you have top-drawer entertainment.

5 out of 5

This review is part of the Fairy Tale Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fascinating articles collated at Movies Silently, and come back here on Tuesday for my second contribution, a review of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation of La Belle et la Bête.


* That’s just under seven hours to you and me. Most DVD releases present that as a non-stop movie, however in the US it was originally aired as five two-hours (which is reportedly how it’s presented on the 2013 DVD re-release), and in other regions (including the UK) as ten one-hours. ^

** Yes, it really is a 15. That must be thanks to some kind of technicality (use of knives, imitable violent techniques, etc), because it feels completely unwarranted. ^

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

2011 #26
Blake Edwards | 110 mins | TV (HD) | PG

Breakfast at Tiffany'sBreakfast at Tiffany’s is a stonkingly famous film — it’s the one most of the famous images in the cult of Audrey Hepburn come from — this despite the fact that, as one IMDb review puts it, the plot makes it sound like “a gritty, vulgar film”.

It originates from a Truman Capote novel. That makes “gritty” and “vulgar” less startling adjectives. This was the early ’60s, though, so George Axelrod’s adaptation sanitises things for a mainstream US cinema audience. You can’t help but wonder if there’s a more faithful remake to be done, but how would that sit with those who idolise Hepburn’s take on Holly Golightly? Not well, I suspect. But faithfulness aside, in the hands of director Blake Edwards any grittiness disappears in a wave of pastel-coloured humour and frivolity.

And a happy ending. Not that the novel’s ending is unhappy per se, but this version is certainly more Hollywoodised. Some hate it, and I can see their point, but as the whole film has been appropriately smoothed in parts from the original, the modified finale doesn’t sit too badly. Casting Mickey Rooney as an OTT Japanese character really was a bad idea though. Another strike against the film could be that it originated the song Moon River, which I hate; Tiffany's kissbut it works here, especially when sung plainly by Hepburn.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s isn’t Capote’s novel, but it is fun, and it’s plain to see why men and women alike have fallen for Hepburn’s Golightly. A more sordid adaptation of the book might be interesting, but that doesn’t negate the unique qualities of the film.

5 out of 5

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is on Film4 tomorrow, Tuesday 28th October 2014, at 11am.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

2011 #43
Sidney Lumet | 120 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Director Sidney Lumet sadly passed away a week ago today. In tribute, I watched one of his many highly-regarded films…

Dog Day AfternoonOn August 22nd 1972, John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturile attempted to rob a Brooklyn bank to raise money for Wojtowicz’s male wife to have a sex change operation. The ensuing hostage situation was watched live on TV by millions of New Yorkers. If you made it up people wouldn’t believe it — especially in the ’70s — which is why this film, closely based on those events, strives so hard for naturalism. And it succeeds, and then some.

There are multiple reasons it works so well, and I’m glad I for once got round to watching all the DVD extras because they reveal these factors very nicely. I’m going to use a liberal sprinkling of those facts as a way into my thoughts on the film, so if you’ve watched those features some of this may seem too familiar. Sorry.

Let’s start where all films do (well, should): the screenplay. Written by Frank Pierson, based on a magazine article about the true story, it was his screenplay that attracted both director Sidney Lumet and star Al Pacino to the project. It’s immaculately structured, from the excitement of the opening — a confused, amateurish bank robbery — through negotiations with police, emotional telephone conversations, and on to a nail-biting finale at JFK airport. The pace is well considered. It doesn’t rush through events but it never flags; the tension is maintained but important emotional scenes are never sped through. More on that in a moment. Importantly, the plot’s numerous reveals are well managed too — for instance, Sonny’s homosexuality and transgender partner are revealed quite far in, by which point we’ve already built a firm opinion of the characters. This was important for a ’70s audience (as Lumet suggests in his commentary), Sonnyto try to circumvent built-in prejudices that would’ve adversely affected an audience’s reaction too soon. It still works now — it’s not a twist, per se, but it is likely to change one’s perspective on the film and its characters mid-flow, which is always interesting.

The dialogue is also spot-on, but that’s not all down to Pierson. While rehearsing, Lumet was so keen to capture a realistic tone that he allowed the actors to improvise the dialogue. This was working so well that he had it recorded, transcribed, and Pierson rewrote the dialogue based on the cast’s improvisation. (His scenes and their order remained intact, just the words were changed.) This, coupled with additional improvisation techniques used on set, lends a believable tone to the characters’ actions and words — they’re not speaking dialogue, they’re just speaking.

In terms of performance, this is a real showcase for Pacino. As Sonny — the movie’s version of John — the whole film rests on his shoulders, and he’s more than capable of bearing the weight. Some roles allow an actor to subtly be good throughout the film; others allow a few grandstanding set-pieces where they can Act; but Dog Day Afternoon gives Pacino both. The latter are, naturally, easier to recall: the way he works the crowd (“Attica!”), the pair of draining phone calls to his wives; but most of all, the will-writing scene. As the climax looms, Lumet allows the time for Sonny to dictate his will in full to one of the bank girls. Pacino is brilliant, understated but — in a combination of performance and writing (though, in this case, the text is taken from the real-life will) — revealing, cementing some of the conflicting forces that have pulled on Sonny throughout the film.

BankIn trying to get a handle on the real Sonny when he was starting on the screenplay, Pierson talked to various people who knew him, but struggled to reconcile their conflicting accounts of the same man. The link he found was that Sonny was always trying to please people, and that’s what he used: in the film, he’s not just out for himself or his boyfriend, but also trying to placate and please his hostages, the police, the media, his partner, his mum, his other wife… Pierson and Pacino do indeed make him a different man to all of them, and this is one of the reasons Sonny is such a great character and a great performance: he’s genuinely three-dimensional. All of us behave differently, to some degree, when we’re with different people — we don’t necessarily realise it, because they’re all facets of the same us, but we do it — so to put that into a character is to make him real.

Pacino is propped up by a spotless supporting cast, all of whom get their moment(s) to shine and use them to excel. Of particular note is John Cazale as Sal, the other robber. It’s a largely quiet role, but he nonetheless conveys an awful lot with it. Lumet says that Cazale always seemed to have a great sadness in him, which you can always see come out in his performances, and he’s certainly right here. We learn very few facts about Sal during the film, but we still know him, you suspect, as well as anyone does.

Chris Sarandon is also superb (and Oscar nominated) as Leon, the gay wife who wants a sex change. Lumet was keen to avoid presenting a stereotypical homosexual type, Leonthroughout the film trying to avoid turning any of these unusual characters into freaks, and Sarandon pitches it right. He plays the truth of a conflicted, confused character; a man who is perhaps easily led but hard to please, I think. As with the rest of the cast, the little touches he brings — such as starting a sure-to-be-emotional phone call to a man currently in the middle of a tense hostage situation with “so how are you?” — sell the reality of the piece.

Capturing reality is clearly Lumet’s prime concern — it’s reiterated multiple times across all the special features — and I think he succeeds admirably. Some things we might not even notice — the film is lit with natural light outside, the bank’s real fluorescent lights inside, and the nighttime sequences by a genuine police van reflecting off the white front of the bank — while other things, like the complete lack of a musical score, are more readily apparent. I say that, but that’s not readily apparent: one may well notice, but it’s such a perfect decision that it never rears it’s head. Lumet argues that having an orchestra chime in to underline an exciting or emotional moment would have broken the realism of what we’re watching, and he was right — there’s not a single scene here that could be improved by music, but several that would have been damaged by it.

The way the film’s shot supports this too. This is from the ’70s remember, before the craze for faux-documentary and everything being handheld, so it still looks like a film, but it’s not one that’s been precision-staged. Indeed, quite the opposite. Everything is kept loose — sometimes actors block each other’s shots, or talk over each other, or the handling of a prop goes wrong, and so on — but Lumet leaved it all in, even plays it up at times, and makes it work to his advantage. Rather than being the obvious “we’re trying to make this look real” Policeof today’s grainy shakycam stuff, this just feels real; the heart and truth of it come through, not the surface sheen of it being documentary footage. That’s more important.

There’s great editing by Dede Allen too, though most of the time it goes unnoticed: in keeping with the aim of letting the audience ‘forget’ this is a film, most of the cutting is simple and natural. Two examples leap to attention, however, and those are the two times (the only two times) guns are fired. Lumet and Allen recreate the confusion and violence of such an event with a smash of fast, sub-one-second cuts on both occasions. We see mindless fast cutting all the time now, but this incongruous example shows the effectiveness a fast montage can have when done by the right hands. The soundtrack also jumps with each cut, which is equally vital to the slightly disconcerting way it works — they’re not just smoothing over this series of flashing images, we’re being deliberately disorientated by them.

Remember earlier I mentioned Pierson’s pace? The editing plays a role in that too, naturally. After the film had been tightened for the final time, Lumet felt it had lost something, especially when it came to the will-dictating scene, which now felt slow. So with Allen he went back and added six or seven minutes of footage back in — as with his staging, making it a bit looser, more naturalistic, and in the process fixing the pacing issue and making the important will scene feel right again. Without being able to see that cut it’s hard to say just how necessary it was, but as the final result feels so right it seems his instinct was a good one.

SalPierson’s screenplay won at the Oscars. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor and Editing, but this was the year of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest so that took most of the big awards. That’s another of those all-time classics I’ve not seen, so I can’t offer my personal take. What I will say is that it goes to show (as most of us I’m sure already know) that the Oscars are as much about the year you’re in as the film itself: Dog Day Afternoon is better than masses of films that have won the same awards before and since, but clearly it got an unlucky year.

I’ve written quite a lot here but, brilliantly, I’ve still only got a certain way beneath the surface — there’s plenty more in there. That’s always the mark of a good film. And there’s certainly more memorable anecdotes and interesting directorial techniques I learnt from the special features that I’ve left out. Lumet set out to make a believable film about an unbelievable situation, and I do believe he achieved that goal. These are normal human beings with normal emotions — not like you and I, perhaps; taken to an extreme, certainly — but in a very bizarre set of circumstances. It was important to Lumet that they didn’t come across as freaks and, with the help of Pacino and the rest of his cast, I think they’ve achieved that too.

Coming outThe film treads a delicate line between drama, comedy and thriller, but doesn’t once tip too far in any direction. It’s got several genuine laughs, but none compromise its serious side or claim to reality — it’s tense and touching too. Anyone else making a film about an extraordinary situation, be it a true story or from the mind of a crazed writer, would do well to look at Lumet’s work here.

5 out of 5

Dog Day Afternoon is on ITV tonight, 19th November 2014, at 2:30am.

See also my review of the documentary short about the making of Dog Day Afternoon, which is also on the DVD, Lumet: Film Maker.

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

2011 #4
Charlie Kaufman | 119 mins | TV (HD) | 15 / R

Synecdoche, New YorkDespite its unpronounceable title, Synecdoche, New York starts out like a relatively normal comedy/drama… but then weird touches begin to creep in. A house that’s on fire when a character buys it and continues to be on fire for the next several decades, for instance. No one in the film bats an eyelid. Then the really weird bit arrives; the bit you all probably know; what the film’s about (except, of course, not what it’s About), as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s theatre director begins to construct a life-size New York within a warehouse.

This film is written and, for the first time, directed by Charlie Kaufman. “Ah,” I hear you say, “that explains everything.”

And if it was anyone but Kaufman at the helm you’d say the film loses its way at the point Hoffman begins his impossible undertaking. And maybe it does anyway. It becomes a complex mishmash of reality and the play being staged; although you’re never in doubt about which is which (such a twist would be far too obvious), you are in doubt about why it’s all happening. The relatively congenial first hour (ish) is followable; the rest… bizarre, weird, inexplicable. I’m sure it all Means Something, but I can well imagine as many viewers getting thoroughly fed up as finding it revelatory. I don’t think one opinion would be inherently superior to the other.

At times it almost reclaims itself from this descent into impenetrability, almost edging toward finding a revelation that will explain what we’ve seen. And I’m sure there is an explanation of some kind. But, by the time it reached its end, I’m not sure I really cared any more; Fiction meets realityand I haven’t begun to care in the months since I watched it. It’s the kind of film where, as it gets on, you feel it’s a rich experience that you’ll have to ponder for a bit once it’s done, even if there’s something you quite fancy watching on the same channel immediately afterwards. But by the end it became the kind of film I was fed up with pondering, and I bloody well watched what was on the same channel immediately afterwards. Kaufman’s weirdness can wear you down to the point where characters who were interesting and ideas (both plausible and of Kaufman-logic) that had potential cease to be worth caring about; where you go from the point of “I’ll look up an explanation on the internet once it’s finished” to “…meh”.

That could be just me of course. Roger Ebert asserted it was the best film of the 2000s. Maybe you’ll agree. Maybe you’ll find it inspiring or life-affirming or goodness knows what else. Maybe you’ll be so bored you’ll give up even before the end. But, having made it to the end, I’m torn between not being sure what to think, thinking I should make the effort to understand it, and still just not caring.

Right at the end of that Ebert article, way past the bit on Synecdoche, he says this:

The set of a set

Almost the first day I started writing reviews, I found a sentence in a book by Robert Warshow that I pinned on the wall above my desk… it helps me stay grounded. It says:

A man goes to the movies. A critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.

That doesn’t make one person right and another wrong. All it means is that you know how they really felt, not how they thought they should feel.

This quote isn’t inherently more relevant to this particular review than it is to any other particular review, but I feel the need to consider it and include it for your consideration also. That said, it is relevant in this respect: it’s already provoked more reflection on my part than Synecdoche did. I think I’ll discuss it further another time.

3 out of 5

Synecdoche, New York is on BBC Two tonight, Friday 17th April 2015, at 12:40am (so, technically Saturday 18th).

Daylight (1996)

2010 #87
Rob Cohen | 110 mins | TV (HD) | 12 / PG-13

Daylight is a disaster movie; the kind they apparently made lots of in the ’70s, and has seen a revival (to some degree) thanks to Roland Emmerich and his brand of apocalypse-bringing. This was made in the ’90s though and, lacking any self-aware qualities, might be seen as a throwback. Whether that matters is probably an issue for more well-versed disaster movie fans than I.

The plot concerns the collapse of an underwater car tunnel, trapping people inside (naturally). It’s a tunnel that connects Manhattan to another bit of New York. Or possibly New Jersey. To be honest, I can’t remember now. Suffice to say, it doesn’t matter, besides the points that, a) who doesn’t like a movie set in New York?, and b) it allows for a moderately diverse array of victims-in-waiting. How diverse? Not very. But a bit.

Following the collapse, a fireball rips through the tunnel. It seems to destroy most cars and kill most people, except for about a dozen survivors. How are they not killed by the fireball? Well, it seems to be by the good fortune of Because We Need Some Characters. Should you ever get stuck in an exploding tunnel, pray you find yourself in a disaster movie and had been doing something mundane yet passably interesting earlier on, and you might get to survive. Naturally some of these will die later, because a disaster movie works in more-or-less the same way as a slasher movie, only with less jumps. After a few “well, they sort of deserved it” characters are dispatched with, screenwriter Leslie Bohem seems to have drawn up a list of Which Characters Would It Be Most Tragic To Lose and started to work his way through them until he reached the end of the screenplay. I suppose it’s flat-out good advice for a disaster movie, but, try not to get too attached.

The film continues to stretch credibility to the max at every turn. Are there really a series of giant fans that Stallone could conceivably lower himself through to get into the tunnel? Maybe there are — it’s got to be ventilated somehow — but it doesn’t stop the sequence in which he does it from feeling like a science-fiction movie. On the bright side, the lack of concern for plausibility makes for a couple of moderately impressive effects sequences. Despite the notion that CGI has somehow made everything look more realistic, sometimes the limits of ’90s technology help. OK, most of Daylight’s effects still look like effects, but they’re at least as believable as the plasticky sheen that still pervades most CGI.

A closing pan up to the twin towers of the World Trade Center provides, thanks to hindsight, a crushing reminder of reality when it comes to disasters. It’s a shame that an arbitrary shot of a New York landmark almost inadvertently overshadows the whole film. I suppose any shot of the Center calls up those memories now, but it’s unfortunate that this one comes at the end of a disaster movie.

All things considered, Daylight’s pretty ridiculous; in fact, it’s so daft you might begin to wonder if someone actually researched the facts of what might happen in such a disaster and it’s all a case of Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction. Or perhaps it really is just The Movies. If you don’t care for disaster movies then it’s certainly not going to change your mind, but for anyone who is prone to liking them, Daylight is, for all its faults, an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.

3 out of 5

Daylight is on ITV tonight, Friday 21st November 2014, at 11:15pm.

Pixels (2010)

2010 #40a
Patrick Jean | 3 mins | download

Pixels falls somewhere between a commercial and a CGI showreel, albeit one with a definite narrative and a dizzying amount of fun.

The plot is simple: characters and graphics from old 8-bit computer games escape and run riot over New York City. We’re talking Space Invaders firing on real streets, Tetris blocks crashing onto buildings, Donkey Kong hurling barrels from the top of the Empire State Building, Frogger hopping across a road of real traffic… For people of A Certain Age (a little older than me, it must be said) it’s an explosion of nostalgia, but everyone can be impressed by the CGI on display. My personal favourite is the effect of Tetris blocks on that building, but I won’t spoil it here.

Rather than just being a high-concept showcase, director Patrick Jean relates a story. It’s slight and dialogue-free, true, but then this is only two-and-a-half minutes long and, really, is a showcase more than a fully-fledged film. Considering the film’s point — a series of videogame-inspired vignettes — a narrative is virtually unnecessary, but tying them together with one anyway is a pleasing touch.

The visuals and execution of the humorous premise easily hold the attention for the brief running time, however, and I’m sure the former are set to do the film’s real job proficiently — i.e. win One More Production lots of work.

4 out of 5

Pixels can be watched in full on the production company’s website.

A feature-length adaptation is released in the US tomorrow, 24th July 2015, and in the UK on Wednesday 12th August.

Enchanted (2007)

2008 #80
Kevin Lima | 103 mins | DVD | PG / PG

EnchantedYou’ve probably heard about Enchanted: it’s the one that starts out as a traditionally animated Disney film, before The Normal Girl Who Will Marry A Prince is thrown into a Magic Portal by The Evil Stepmother and finds herself in present-day New York. It’s one of those concepts so good it just makes you think, “why haven’t they thought of that before?”

Thankfully, they pull it off. It’s very funny, riffing on many recognisable elements from Disney’s considerable library of classics, and manages to produce a number of catchy songs of its own. Amy Adams is brilliant in the lead role, managing to be infectiously sweet rather than sickeningly sugary, while Susan Sarandon has a whale of a time in her boundlessly camp (though disappointingly small) role. The rest of the cast are good too, especially a wonderfully vacant James Marsden as The Prince.

The plot is ultimately predictable, but no more than you’d expect considering the target audience — certainly, kids will likely go through all the requisite emotions, and it would probably be more disappointing if they did try anything truly shocking. Still, it’s crammed with more than enough fun invention and new ideas to make up for any unsurprising plot beats.

Quite simply, Enchanted is a fantastic concept, beautifully executed. A veritable success.

4 out of 5