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Last week, as a birthday treat, I went to the cinema. Twice. I saw two of the best films I can remember in a long, long time. At times, both left me breathless at the beauty of their images, thrilled with the daring of what I saw on screen, in awe of the acting and the directorial visions. Gravity and 12 Years a Slave were the showpiece films at most of the 2013/14 Film Awards ceremonies around the world, but when someone asked me which I preferred, I was caught cold. Surely this is like comparing apples with oranges?

Gravity movie poster

Juan Alfonso Cuaron’s effects-laden masterpiece in space is (mostly) a highly intimate one-woman show starring Sandra Bullock in her finest performance. It zips by in 90 minutes, every scene a marvel of special effects and cinematography that might just change sci-fi movies for ever. There’s a wafer-thin plot that all takes place in a few hours, largely cheesy dialogue, but action sequences like I’ve never seen before. It’s a disaster movie where everything that can go wrong does, repeatedly.

Steve McQueen’s 3rd film is a more languid affair that takes more than two hours to tell its story that stretches over 12 years. Scenes are deliberately paced, with often static cameras. There’s a wide cast of characters who come and go with complex relationship dynamics. It opens up a whole society to our scrutiny, and while there’s a constant underlying dread and threat, the eruptions of violence are relatively infrequent. But when they come, they are devastating, filmed in extended takes, all in camera, with brutal, shocking effect.

12 Years a Slave, Master Epps, Platt, Patsey

But on the other hand, they probably have a lot more in common than the superficial aspects that make them different.

Brilliant Directors: Alfonso Cuaron and Steve McQueen are two of my favourite directors working at the moment, both based on pretty short filmographies. Cuaron’s reputation for me is based almost entirely on the fantastic Children of Men, while I’ve been blown away by both Hunger and Shame by McQueen. Although their styles are different, the technique they display make them both masters of their art…

Human Survival: both films are about personal survival; indeed, the strength of the human spirit not just to survive, but to live, free from tyranny and fear. The lead characters are in alien surroundings, beset by seemingly insurmountable obstacles and dangers and forced into unspeakable situations to come through.

And more than that… these are films about asserting personal identity. Dr Ryan Stone has fled from her sorrowful existence on earth and shelters within the anonymity of her space suit. Solomon Northup has his identity stripped from him and replaced. He is forced to suppress and conceal his self as his literacy could even condemn him. How they escape these situations is the core character arc of each film. The climax of each film is a triumph and an escape for both characters that is as much psychological as it is physical.

Cinema is a visual medium: these two directors are masters of their art, albeit with very different styles. Cuaron’s camera is often moving in long, flowing takes that, in Gravity, brilliantly make the audience feel weightless, so we almost forget that there’s a concept such as ‘up or down’. McQueen’s camera is often static or slow-moving, focusing on faces, forcing the audience to lean in, to pay attention. Both directors are blessed with awesome cinematographers – Emmanuel Lubezki and Sean Bobbit – who conjure the most heartstopping images over and over again through each film.

The opening sequence of Gravity is a thing of wonder, but it unfolds so organically that it’s only when it’s over (almost 17 minutes) that you stop to breathe and realise that you haven’t seen a cut yet. Meanwhile, in the cotton fields and swamps of Louisiana, Bobbit shows us astonishing skyscapes and natural wilderness in a similar way to Terence Malick, as the backdrop to human cruelty.

And the sound… Both films have marvellous sound design and scores. The ambient sounds of nature are set against the extended silences of the slaves’ existence or the barking orders of their masters, or indeed the cracking of whips. Solomon’s violin provides occasional relief, but even then is at his Masters’ pleasure playing for ostentatious tea-dances. Slave spirituals are solemn choirs that express hope and loss and fear all at once. The contrast of sound and silence is marvellous in both films, and none more so than in the space of Gravity. Action sequences are made more powerful for the lack of sound, meaning we are given no warning of what’s about to happen, we have to focus on the visuals. The score is unsettling, with sounds manipulated to create unearthly effects. Voices are heard, not just offscreen but thousands of miles away, chattering reminders of exactly where we are.

Gravity Sandra Bullock Ryan Stone

Look into my eyes… The central performances of Sandra Bullock & Chiwetel Ejiofor could well both be career-defining. Both are rarely off screen, and often fill the frame in extreme closeup. Both are archetypal ‘fish out of water’ characters who undergo extreme ordeals and we live every moment with them. It’s here that 12 Years a Slave has the edge over Gravity for me. Not for the weightiness or importance of its subject (however true that is), or for its in-camera approach compared to the CGI wizardry, but for the deep, deep humanity that comes through every scene of McQueen’s film. From Solomon Northup’s incredulity and despair to Master Epps’ or Ford’s internal conflicts and self-loathing, from Patsey’s desperate defiance for a bar of soap to her brutalising just moments later, from the silent choruses of slaves at the graveyards, in the New Orleans slave markets, awaiting their master’s judgement in the cotton barns, listening to scripture or in the sugar plantations. All these images come back to me; still, silent, challenging me to reckon with myself. It’s hard to look away.

12 years a slave solomon northup chiwetel ejiofor

I get by…

…with a little help from my Dementia Friends…

800,000 people are currently living with dementia in the UK, and this figure is set to double in less than a generation. 6 million people are either immediate relatives or directly involved with caring for someone living with dementia. There are 2 degrees of separation between you and someone who knows someone living with dementia; your neighbour, friend, colleague. If you have all four living Grandparents, the chances are that at least one of them will develop dementia before they die.

The Alzheimer’s Society is leading a campaign, with funding from the Government Cabinet Office, that is seeking to transform the UK into a more dementia-friendly society. Alongside a whole raft of initiatives they are hoping to recruit 1 million people to become Dementia Friends in the next year or so.

A Dementia Friend learns a little bit more about what it’s like to live with dementia and then turns that understanding into action. By attending an information session, they will learn that

  • Dementia is not a natural part of the ageing process
  • Dementia is caused by diseases of the brain
  • It is not just about losing your memory
  • It’s possible to live well with dementia
  • There is more to the person than the dementia

In just an hour they will have a chance to learn, understand and reflect about what living with dementia can mean, like

  • Everyday disorientation, in terms of short-term memory,  a dislocated sense of place or time
  • Changes in visual perception: doormats can look like a hole, shiny wooden or tiled floors can look wet, a reduced ability to distinguish colours – so a white toilet in a white bathroom with white walls and floors and a white seat can disappear
  • A loss of ability to recall words or recognise the difference between a £1 and a 1p coin
  • A loss of ability to perform sequences of actions, like making a cup of tea

And they will reflect and commit to turning that reflection and understanding into action; relatively simple things like…

  • being more patient or sympathetic if someone seems to be showing signs of dementia (in a shop, on the bus)
  • spending more time with a friend or relative affected by dementia
  • never saying ‘suffering from dementia’, always ‘living with dementia’
  • helping their workplace to be more dementia friendly
  • telling other people about Dementia Friends

These information sessions are already taking place all over the UK, organised by a growing army of volunteers, the Dementia Friends Champions, who have been trained to deliver the information to help raise awareness and understanding across UK society.

Last week I committed to being a Dementia Friend Champion. I attended a one-day course, I have various resources and activities to help run the information sessions. I aim to start at my workplace and with friends and family, but also run sessions with groups in and around Tetbury.

Why am I doing this? Because at the end of last year, my company was invited to pitch our proposals for a national marketing campaign to support and drive this aim of recruiting 1 million Dementia Friends. Sadly, we didn’t win, but the experience was transformative for me. As part of my research to understand dementia better I was lucky to see the amazing one-act/one-man play by Trevor Smith, An Evening with Dementia.

Towards the end of this evening, the character starts talking about meeting a social worker. But, he cries,

…we all used to be social workers. Why do we need social workers? Everyone was once a social worker, because we used to talk each other, all the time. Now it’s as though we’ve forgotten how to talk to each other. We’re a demented society. We’ve all got dementia!

Just as the man with dementia is afraid and has forgotten how to talk to other people, we all wander around in our own little bubbles, not making eye contact, awkwardly avoiding other people.

Just like he sits in his chair and pretends to be asleep so he doesn’t have to answer any more questions that only confuse him, we try to ignore someone behaving strangely in a shop or on the bus.

I have become a Dementia Friends Champion because this is already, and will certainly become one of the biggest social issues in the UK. And while there is a huge need for more research, ultimately I agree that the answer isn’t more social workers.

The answer is for us all to care for and talk to one another a little bit more.

If you would like to learn and understand dementia a bit more, sign up to go to a Dementia Friends information session, and then make a difference afterwards. Get in touch, and I’ll come and run one for you. Please.

Everything is awesome!!!

I Reckon that The Lego Movie is as awesome its main theme song would have you believe. It’s continuously visually inventive, the laughs come thick and fast (so fast I certainly missed a whole heap of jokes), there is a real heart to the film, and I would love to see it again.

However, when I first heard about the film, I was more than a bit sceptical, and from talking to friends and colleagues, I know that is a pretty common feeling. So, I hope this might reassure you. You really should go and see The Lego Movie; preferably with kids aged 7+, but if you don’t have any of those, go anyway.

The Lego Movie

Isn’t it just another not-very-good CGI animated film for kids?

Nope. Not at all. It is all done in CGI, but it’s been done with love, verve and panache. The animation looks like (an admittedly very good) stop-motion Youtube clip. Characters move jerkily, when there are explosions, it’s not super-smooth and realistic flames, but flickering Lego pieces that look like torches.

The film is directed by the same team who made the fantastic Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and their creativity and originality has been brought into The Lego Movie. There are jokes hidden in every frame. They have (literally?!) created worlds within worlds here, with layers of jokes and visual references that will reward eagle eyes (with a pause button). It’s like the richness you get from an Aardman film, but even better…

OK, but what sort of weak story have they shoe-horned in…?

This is the really great bit. I’m keeping this review (for once) spoiler-free, as there is a significant development later in the film that caught me almost completely by surprise, and in a really, really good way.

The plot revolves around Emmet Brickowski, an everyman character in Lego World, who does everything he’s told by the detailed instructions he has for How to Live an Awesome Life. He’s in construction (obviously!) and thinks he’s living the dream. But then he meets a mysterious woman with amazing hair, and a Wizard-figure who tell him that he is The Special, and he has to save the Lego Universe using the Piece of Resistance to stop the evil Lord Business and his ultimate weapon, the Kragle. His quest then involves a misfit collection of characters including Batman, Uni-Kitty, Wonder Woman, Abraham Lincoln and a 1980s Space Guy.

I know, doesn’t that sound AWESOME?!?!

Really?! Please tell me what’s good about that…

  • It’s The Matrix made even better in Lego. The whole quest is a brilliant parody of that seminal sci-fi classic, with Emmet taking the part of Keanu Reeves’ Neo. Except Emmet has much, much more depth and range to him than Mr Reeves. And this film doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously as the Wachowskis do. If only Phil Lord & Chris Miller could have been involved in The Matrix sequels…
  • The visual slapstick comedy is amazing. The way Lego can be endlessly assembled and re-assembled is exploited to the full, to such an extent that it’s impossible to pick up on all the fabulous details in every scene.
  • It’s way cleverer than I expected. There are all sorts of riffs on consumer culture, including ridiculously expensive coffee.
  • The references and details go well beyond The Matrix… Batman is a clear parody of Christian Bale’s uber-serious Dark Knight, who claims “I only ever work in black, or sometimes very, very dark grey” and has written a song whose lyrics consist mainly of him shouting “DARKNESS … NO PARENTS”. Perhaps my favourite of them all is the 1980s Space-Guy, with scuffed and chipped helmet, and a child-like excitement for building spaceships that almost exactly mirrored my childhood 30+ years ago…

Fine, but isn’t just a great big product placement exercise…?

Well, of course it is. The clue is in the name. But I Reckon the real strength of The Lego Movie (even more than all the surface-features I’ve already mentioned) is that it does a great job of capturing the spirit of playing with Lego, which is all about imagination and creativity, breaking up the original (by-the-instructions) model, throwing in different sets together and building something unique… then breaking that up and starting again.

I’ve written before about some of Lego’s more recent developments coming pre-packaged with social and gender norms. Many of the licensed sets from superheroes to Harry Potter are designed to create one very specific model, and the parts are increasingly intricate. Even though we buy those sets to recreate the Harry Potter world rather than to build our own, The Lego Movie seems to be explicitly encouraging people permission to ‘mess around’ with those sets, almost (IMHO) as if the The Lego People have rediscovered the original joy and self-expression that their ‘brick-based systems’ enable…

And if I haven’t convinced you thus far, there’s no hope for you. Let me finish with the lyrics from the awesome Everything is Awesome!!! song that plays over the end-credits…

Blue skies, bouncy springs,
We just named you awesome things
A nobel prize, a piece of string
You know what’s awesome, EVERYTHING!!!

Dogs and fleas, allergies, a book of Greek antiquities
Brand new pants, a very old vest
Awesome items are the best…

Philip Seymour Hoffman

If you’d asked me to name my favourite actors a few weeks ago, I’m not sure how quickly or spontaneously I would have got to Philip Seymour Hoffman. However, since his very sad, premature death at the age of just 46, I’ve found myself thinking repeatedly about his performances and films, often prompted by excellent discussions on film podcasts like Filmspotting or Sound on Sight.

PSH was a great character actor, perhaps the great character actor of recent times. He could steal scenes and indeed entire movies with a small supporting performance, but he could just as easily dominate a film from start to finish with a rare charisma. There are fantastic reviews of his career all over the interweb, and a couple are here, or here. I recommend these to you. In the meantime, here’s What I Reckon…

Punch-Drunk Love is among my favourite films, and one of PSH’s many collaborations with my favourite director, Paul Thomas Anderson. This is the film where Adam Sandler proves he can act, brilliantly. PSH plays the outlandish Dean Trumbell (Mattress Man), and this is one of  many examples where he acts the sh*t out of a tiny part, and makes a phonecall into a brilliant piece of cinema (and Sandler’s pretty good too!).

Boogie Nights is another brilliant PT Anderson film with a huge cast, of which PSH plays the peripheral bit-part of Scotty, the sound boom man. Scotty is in love with Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler, the new King of Porn. He gets drunk and tries to impress him at a New Year’s Eve party, and it doesn’t go well.

Apparently the scripted scene was supposed to end where Dirk turns and leaves: the last 20 seconds are all added by PSH, which bring so much more pathos to both the scene and his character, making the humiliation even more real and human.

Happiness is a deeply unpleasant film, filled with deeply unhappy and/or unpleasant characters, of whom Allen, played by PSH, is as unlikeable as they come. Seemingly crippled by self-loathing he harbours violent sexual fantasies that erupt in conversations with his therapist or in obscene phonecalls to his neighbours. Somehow, against all rational human sense, PSH makes Allen into a rounded character, almost forcing us to engage with him despite feeling repulsed. And in the final moments of this scene, he appears almost normal.

I can’t think of many actors who would have even attempted to play Allen, let alone imbue him with genuine humanity. He’s appalling, but he’s still one of us, and that commands our attention.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a flawed thriller in which PSH plays another all-messed-up guy. Andy Hansen is a seemingly well-to-do, successful real estate accountant. He’s also a drug addict, and in this clip of two scenes, we get a drawn-out and bleak vision of lonely, anonymous middle-class addiction in the middle of a city.

I’ve left out Magnolia, The Talented Mr Ripley, Mission Impossible III, Capote, Almost Famous, The Master, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Ides of March, and Synechdoche, New York. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s filmography is mightily impressive, but (for a cinephile like me) depressingly short. But it is a far greater tragedy than the cutting short of his career that drug addiction claimed his life when he seemingly had everything to live for, not least his partner and three children.

I might not have named him spontaneously a few weeks ago, but the more I’ve reflected, the more I come to the conclusion that he improved every film he was part of; he was always interesting. He did comedy and pathos, rage and gentleness. He compelled our attention in everything from blockbuster action franchises to difficult arthouse fare. He was usually distinctly uncool, and like Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, he was honest and unmerciful to his audience and to his characters.

It’s 1984, and I’m 15 years old. I’ve discovered a new album via a friend, and its gatefold cover immediately intrigues me; swarming with imagery and hidden meaning. I put the fresh vinyl onto my record deck and wait for it to start, already looking ahead through the printed lyrics on the sleeve…

marillion script for a jester's tear

So here I am once more in the playground of the broken hearts.
One more experience, one more entry in a diary, self-penned.
Yet another emotional suicide overdosed on sentiment and pride.
Too late to say I love you, too late to re-stage the play,
Abandoning the relics in my playground of yesterday…

They’re not so much lyrics as poetry. The album has just six songs; most of them are over 8 minutes long. Almost symphonic arrangements, properly anthemic guitar solos, extravagant drum fills, changes of tempo and mood, 5/4 or 7/8 time signatures, elliptical subject matter hidden within dense vocals, laden heavily with adjectives. There’s minor keys aplenty, loneliness, rejection, drug addiction, aristocratic ponces, soldier victims of the IRA, all smothered into 40-odd minutes of neo-prog-rock. This is Marillion’s debut album. I’m 15, I’m angsty, I don’t do pop music, I’ve hit the limits of my flirtations with heavy metal and been fed up with Queen since they went all Radio-friendly, but this is fucking amazing.

Marillion are still around, recording and touring with their original line-up, bar the frontman, lyricist and singer, Derek William Dick. No, he didn’t think his name was especially Rock, so changed it… to Fish.

Fish Marillion 1980s Singer

He looks much, much better now…

I’ve only recently got into Spotify, and instead  of using it to discover new music, I’ve been wallowing in guilty pleasures from my youth, namely Marillion. I don’t think I’ve listened to any of their music in 25 years, but it’s all come flooding back. Their first two/three albums were very important to my teenage self. I loved the complexity and the ambition of their music. I loved the richness of the poetry/lyrics (especially compared to the banalities of 1980s manufactured pop), and Fish’s retelling of broken relationships, thwarted romantic idealism and how this world is totally Fugazi all resonated with my confused sensibilities.

Looking back with nearly 30 years’ hindsight and perspective, the music still just about holds up. Of course they wear their influences pretty brazenly on their sleeve, particularly Peter-Gabriel-era-Genesis. But the poetry… now it kind of seems almost embarrassing. If I’m generous, it’s someone trying very, very hard to be clever but unable to edit themselves. What’s an emotional suicide, exactly? What else is a diary if not self-penned?

At its worst, it reminds me of William Pitt the Younger as portrayed in Blackadder III, a moping adolescent…

There is just one thing before I go… (confidentially) I’ve got this sort of downy hair developing on my chest – is that normal? Also, I get so lonely and confused. I’ve written a poem about it; maybe you’ll understand. “Why do nice girls hate me? Why…

Marillion were nailed on, perfect for the teenage Chris. Where I now smirk quietly and try to forgive myself for embracing this tosh so readily, I once embraced it, I loved its wordplay. Yes, I really did.

The Web – Marillion (Script for a Jester’s Tear)

The rain auditions at my window, its symphony echoes in my womb,
My gaze scans the walls of this apartment
To rectify the confines of my tomb…

…The flytrap needs the insects, ivy caresses the wall,
Needles make love to the junkies, the sirens seduce with their call.
Confidence has deserted me, with you it has forsaken me,
Confused and rejected, despised and alone,
I kiss isolation on its fevered brow
Security clutching me, obscurity threatening me,
Your reasons were so obvious as my friends have qualified.
I only laughed away your tears

But even jesters cry.

Fish has described the first album as ‘bedsit thoughts’, while the follow-up, Fugazi, was ‘hotel-room thoughts’. Which is immediately reflected in the album cover.

Marillion Fugazi Album Cover

Can you spot the connections with the first album…

This time there was more anger, directed at women-as-demons (She Chameleon, Incubus), more relationship break-ups (Jigsaw, Emerald Lies) and in perhaps the most over-wrought, over-written and impenetrable song-lyrics I’ve ever seen, the final track, the titular Fugazi.

Vodka intimate, an affair with isolation in a Blackheath cell.
Extinguishing the fires in a private hell
Provoking the heartache to renew the licence.
Of a bleeding heart poet in a fragile capsule
Propping up the crust of the glitter conscience.
Wrapped in the christening shawl of a hangover
Baptised in the tears from the real.

Drowning in the liquid seize on the Piccadilly line, rat race
Scuttling through the damp electric labyrinth.
Caress Ophelia’s hand with breathstroke ambition
An albatross in the marrytime tradition.
Sheathed within the Walkman wear the halo of distortion,
Aural contraceptive aborting pregnant conversation.
She turned the harpoon and it pierced my heart
She hung herself around my neck…

I mean, WHAT? I’m not even sure Fish could explain this bollocks.It’s probably about alienation, or something.

This music meant an enormous amount to me for a couple of years at a pretty fundamental time. I was playing it the other day when Rachel overheard it and exclaimed her distaste. Apparently one of her teachers used to play it during lessons and walk around the class playing air guitar. That’s what Marillion was like for its fans. I can realise now that quite a lot of it is quite ridiculous.

But that hasn’t yet stopped me indulging this now very guilty pleasure. Forgotten Sons, anyone?

Whereas most film reviewers and podcasts I follow seem to produce their ‘best of the year’ reviews sometime in early December, I’m finally considering mine now. While our children are getting older and (even) more cine-literate, I still don’t get to the cinema very often, so only a few of my best cinematic experiences of 2013 were either actually at the cinema, or of films released in 2013. Nevertheless, it was a pretty good year for me…

Three sporting films surprised me, not least because my wife Rachel also enjoyed them, a tribute to their storytelling and (in one case especially) the jaw-dropping visuals on the screen.

Moneyball featured great performances from Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill (yes! really…) in the tale of the Oakland A’s baseball team’s rise from the poor relations of the Major League to statistical miracles. Lots of talking and stats about baseball can make for a really engrossing 2 hours.

I’ve already written at length about the brilliant documentary Senna, by Asif Kapadia. Even if you know nothing about, or care not a jot for Formula 1, I urge you to see this. But a terrific companion piece to Senna and its driven hero would be TT(3D): Closer to the Edge, which depicts the life in a week of the Isle of Man TT Races, following a few of the riders as they scream around the tiny, twisting island roads at up to 200mph, battling with uneven kerbstones, roadsigns and drystone walls just inches from the racing line. The spectre of death is never far away and the footage is mind-blowing, but even more astonishing are the men themselves. I don’t think it’s possible for world-class sportsmen to be any further from the pampered prima donnas in the UK Premiership. These guys operate out of winnebagos (or in one case sleeping in the back of a transit van on the beach), they live in modest houses, and if they weren’t doing what they do, would probably be mechanics in their local garage, spending Friday night in the pub with their mates.

Although last year I think I surpassed myself, seeing around 65-70 films, the number of foreign language films was down. Am I losing my arthouse tendencies? But although I didn’t see many, I did see an absolute belter, and it’s not a sombre drama in leaden rooms either. La Haine is a brutal depiction of the Parisian banlieue, featuring a breathless tour de force performance from Vincent Kassel. Shot in stark black & white, it follows three teens from the projects as they mope, drift and blaze their way around Paris, raging at the police and injustice and boredom. You sense from the start it probably won’t end well when the opening narration retells the story of a man falling from the 51st floor, who reassures himself as he passes each floor on the way down “so far, so good”.

La Haine movie

Another striking depiction of a particular community and place is the poetic, ambitious, fantastical (and flawed) Beasts of the Southern Wild. Here we’re in the Deep South of Louisiana, on an island forever under threat from the sea and storms. Poverty is endemic and crippling, housing seems ramshackle at best. They’re literally and figuratively a long way from the American Dream of the 21st Century, but the community spirit is unrivalled. The film focuses on a young girl’s quest to find her father under the imminent approach of a Hurricane-Katrina-like tempest. Thematically it reminded me a lot of Studio Ghibli films, where children (especially girls) take the leading roles, often in the place of irresponsible or simply absent parents. There’s a strong mystical element to the storytelling too, as she fears the invasion of mythical giant beasts (another Ghibli reference…).

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Two films surprised me in a way I wasn’t expecting. I’d heard good things about Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, and the DVD had sat on my shelf for more than a year. As (another) comic-book adaptation, I presumed I’d be underwhelmed as I had been so many times before. But this is ultra-violence, profanity and black, black comedy at its best. It’s audacious in ways that most films aren’t. Its daring left me open-mouthed several times; indeed, the least surprising and over-the-top element was Nicolas Cage.

And then there’s Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers. I’m a big fan of this British film-maker, from his debut film about low-rent gangsters in Brighton, Down Terrace, to his genre-busting Kill List, he’s never short of interesting, even if he’s not to your taste. The simplest way to describe Sightseers would be a mash-up between Mike Leigh’s brilliant Nuts in May and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. The most unlikely serial killers take a caravan around Northern England; carnage ensues.

Sightseers

Natural Born Killers?

Two films I expected to love and wasn’t disappointed… Scott Pilgrim vs The World and The World’s End, both directed by Edgar Wright. I’ve been a proper fanboy of this director since I fell in love with his TV series Spaced. These films are simply fantastic in mostly different ways. They know what they want to be and go for it, no holds barred, for good or ill. Hilariously funny but with real depth and charm, excellent acting and inventive direction.

Another great comedy that I feared would be diminished by the hype was Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, in which the eponymous and tragic radio ‘celebrity’ reaches the end of everyone’s tether in 90 minutes of mayhem before becoming an unlikely hero… we laughed a lot. A lot.

Alan Partridge Alpha Papa

I was beginning to think that I’d exhausted the cream of the crop in animation, as we’ve already run through the Pixar and Ghibli catalogues, but Paranorman was a wonderful treat. From the studio that created Coraline, it’s a brilliant mix of CGI and stop-motion animation with fabulous characters and a true love of cinema. There are countless horror genre references that all work. It repays multiple viewing with all sorts of details that are a wonder to behold.

paranorman

Lastly, and I’ve written about these at length, comes the outstanding trilogy Before Sunrise, Before Sunset & Before Midnight. Directed by Richard Linklater and co-written with stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, they depict a relationship in snapshot episodes filmed with 9 years in between each instalment. The actors/characters age, and yet their relationship is so perfectly drawn; the writing, the performances, the dialogue are all filled with humanity, which makes them my films of 2013.

IF YOU’VE NOT SEEN THE BEFORE SUNRISE/SUNSET/MIDNIGHT TRILOGY OF FILMS,
THIS POST CONTAINS SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS TO ALL THREE…

Before sunrise sunset midnight poster trilogy

My cinematic discovery of 2013 was the Before… trilogy of films co-written and directed by Richard Linklater, starring and co-written by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke as Céline and Jesse. The trilogy depicts snapshots in the lives of this couple of characters spread 9 years apart. In the first film they are young strangers who meet on a train heading for Vienna, seem to connect, and spend a day and a night together. 9 years later he is a writer promoting his book in Paris where Céline now lives, and they spend a few hours together. 9 years later they are clearly married and living on a Greek island…

The first two films had been on my ‘want-to-see’ list for years, but I finally watched them in anticipation of seeing the most recent episode in this drama, released last year. They’re three films I love individually and could watch over and over again, but as a trilogy they achieve something even more fantastic.

Not everyone can carry the weight of the world…
Jesse and Céline talk a lot: in all three films they spend most of the time wandering around bullshitting, just the two of them, in extended takes and conversations that are so natural it’s hard to believe there’s a script. The nature and tone of these conversations wonderfully portray what it is to be a young 20-something, early 30-something or turning 40.

before sunrise vienna ethan hawke julie delpy cafe

As the young idealists travelling Europe to discover the world and perhaps themselves, they tackle a whole series of ‘meta’ subjects, very high concept; love, sex, anger, a whole series of “romantic projections”. They almost never have any answers, it’s as if their conversational sparring is a kind of intellectual foreplay, demonstrating their brilliance, before they move onto the next theme…

When they meet again in Paris, they’re more world-weary. They lament the state of the world, the consumerist society, guns and crime. There’s an underlying sense of impotence and frustration,

there’s so many things I want to do and I end up doing not much (Céline)

and they focus on their own personal histories and fractured relationships rather than abstract matters of the soul.

In Before Midnight there’s a good deal of the first half of the film where they’re actually talking with other people, whether it’s Jesse attempting to say good-bye to his monosyllabic son Hank at the airport, or the increasingly awkward lunch party, where we first get a glimpse of how precarious this seemingly idyllic island life is for Jesse and Céline. Their age and relationship is shown starkly against the youthful romance of Achilles & Anna. In the second half, their conversations are more vicious and barbed than we could ever have imagined, as resentment and bitterness overflows…

Ageing Gracefully

I watched all three films over the space of a few days, which meant I was easily able to recall details from earlier in the later films. I don’t believe this, but there were more than a few moments when it felt like Delpy, Hawke & Linklater had this all mapped out from the start; the writing is sublime. Even if it’s done retrospectively, it’s simply wonderful. Consider a few examples…

  • Before Sunrise opens with an older married couple arguing on the train. Their disruption is the catalyst for Céline to move seats and end up next to Jesse. The wife storms off and leaves the carriage, only to return a few minutes later, and they appear to reconcile – not unlike Céline in the hotel room at the end of …Midnight.
  • The end of the first film recaps a series of locations where the couple have been in Vienna. The opening shots of the second film show a similar montage of locations where they have not yet been, as though these secret places in Paris are waiting for Jesse and Céline…
  • There’s a seamless and entirely natural progression in their state of minds. In Vienna they’re not really sure of who they each are and what they want, they seem to be discovering themselves and each other simultaneously. In Paris they appear to know who they are, but they’re not exactly happy with the way things have turned out. There’s a sense of missed chances and a good deal of unfulfilled aspirations. Maybe they are each other’s best hope? Then the island is witness to the dream turned sour. We learn of how events conspired against either one’s ideal scenario, and over the course of the day they allow what they each really want to erupt, and it’s not always pretty…
  • This sense of unfulfilled lives is a motif through each film. In Vienna the young couple scoff at other people who end up living a lie full of their romantic projections. In Paris Jesse repeatedly laments his missed chances, and Céline has written a song about hers… Let me sing you a waltz about this one-night stand.
before sunset paris ethan hawke julie delpy playing guitar

Celine sings & Jesse listens…

Finally real life overwhelms the historical yearning for true love as Jesse hurls a wicked jibe in their supposed romantic hotel room… I fucked up my whole life because of the way you sing.

  • One of the most rewarding aspects of these films is the way that lines and details do come around across the trilogy when you rewatch them. Right at the opening of their relationship in Vienna Céline playfully asks Jesse, What would be the first thing about me that drives you mad? Well, Before Midnight we’re left in no doubt about many things that have driven him mad…

…the idea of this little boy with beautiful dreams…

There is a repeated theme of dreams conflicting with reality throughout the trilogy, of the temporal and the spiritual. Indeed, the whole scenario of Before Sunrise feels to me like a dream. The couple have a series of encounters during their time in Vienna: meeting the actors (who play the two halves of a cow!), the fortune teller, the poet, visiting the strange underground cavern club, persuading the wine bar owner to give them a bottle of wine and finally in the park; all of this feels surreal. The final shots of the film revisit these locations, now in early morning sunlight and seemingly empty without Jesse and Céline. We see the couple, now separately, with their eyes shut as if asleep and dreaming about a remarkable day they might have spent in Vienna…

The talk in Before Sunrise is more like a mournful yearning for that lost idealism that they’ve never quite recaptured, as though they keep trying and failing to escape society, through experiments with Buddhism or travelling to faraway retreats. They almost seem to have given up on their romantic projections…

…happiness comes from doing things, not from getting what you want.

On the Greek island we’re given a real reality check right from the start, as if Linklater is warning us to be very careful what we wish for. Jesse and Céline are trapped by circumstance and it’s not good…

…the world is fucked … we’re shitty parents … I’m actually surprised we lasted this long…

Jesse has written successful books, but is an ocean away from his son. Céline has her man and two beautiful daughters, but hasn’t done enough. He’s trying to be romantic, but only seems to succeed in his stories. There’s no spontaneity any more, they’re perpetually dissatisfied as the world seems unable to meet all their expectations; has the dream finally died?

before midnight julie delpy ethan hawke final scene

Happily Ever After…?

Don’t dream it’s over…

As Céline leaves Vienna on the train after Sunrise and Jesse goes to the airport, we’re left wondering if this was just one beautiful day/night or whether they might just meet up, back in Vienna, as they promised. After Céline sings to Jesse in her apartment in Paris, and they’re smiling, we hope and wonder if this really is it; will he leave his loveless marriage for her, his soulmate? On the quayside café as the clock ticks around to Midnight, things are more unclear than ever. The brutal fight may have been a purging of the simmering resentment, but can it really be flushed away? Jesse is still an ocean away from his son, she is still chronically frustrated by being unable to change the world, or even try.

Jesse is trying to smile, trying to be positive, but is that the last grasp of a man who’s seeing his romantic projections finally fade and die? The couple are together, but apart. It reminded me of the end of The Graduate, the least triumphant happy ending ever. Linklater’s final gem is this last scene, which is utterly and truly ambiguous. There’s no scenario that can’t be argued here: they could be breaking up forever, they could be on the first step to working out a new happiness together. I only hope that it’s not a nine-year wait to find out.

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