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For just over a year I’ve been a volunteer for the Alzheimer’s Society Dementia Friends campaign, which seeks to change attitudes, perceptions and behaviours in society towards the 850,000 people currently living with dementia in the UK. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. Last week I was immensely privileged and proud to attend a screening of the film Still Alice at 10 Downing Street along with 40-odd other volunteers and Alzheimer’s Society staff, where we also met the star of the film, Julianne Moore. I Reckon Still Alice is one of the most important films of recent times, and her performance perhaps the most authentic performance I’ve seen on-screen.

Still Alice is based on a novel by Lisa Genova and tells the story of a 50-year-old linguistics professor. She’s healthy, wealthy and wise. She has a close and loving family. She is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.

SPOILER ALERT: much as I want you to read on, I’d much prefer you to watch the film spoiler-free. If you’re thinking of seeing the film, please do that first… thanks.

Still Alice movie Julianne Moore Alec Baldwin

It’s not just forgetting where you left your keys…

Julianne Moore spoke to us in Downing Street and has spoken subsequently in interviews about how all her behaviours and events portrayed in the film came directly from the stories told to her by families living with dementia, and it certainly feels that way.

The indignities and horrors that Alice has to face escalate by degrees from lapsing on a word during a lecture to feeling lost while running through the campus where she teaches, from forgetting the bread pudding recipe she makes every Christmas to being unable to find the bathroom in her family’s holiday beach house.

At first she’s at least partly conscious of what’s happening to her, even if she can’t understand it. But what we knew as Alice gradually retreats and shrinks, mostly imperceptibly and over time, but in a way that strikes us like a hammer in a tremendous and upsetting scene towards the end of the film.

Premature Grief

I’ve heard dementia described as a prolonged and ‘premature’ grieving experience, both for the person living with the disease, but also and especially for their carers and family. Just as the symptoms and progress of dementia are unique to each individual, it affects those carers and family members differently. Everybody loses something.

Alice’s husband (brilliantly played by Alec Baldwin) wants to support and help her, but is both caught up in his own career as well as feeling helpless to actually make a difference. Her elder daughter seems almost offended by it, as if it obstructs her own aspirations for their family. It’s the younger daughter, Lydia, who comes to the fore and deals with the loss most humanely.

Lydia is played wonderfully by Kristen Stewart. Her relationship with her mother Alice is utterly believable, from early arguments over her choice of career to the way she takes later responsibility for caring for Alice when her Father and older siblings seem unable or unwilling. She suffers some of the greatest shocks but bears them with admirable calm and sensitivity. Alice unwittingly reads Lydia’s diary and ‘innocently’ lets it slip later, but it’s clear that she doesn’t understand this betrayal, and Lydia has to stifle her upset in silence, realising that chastising Alice would help no-one. Months later, Lydia takes a leading role in a Chekhov play, but her triumph is deflated in a heartbreaking instant as her mother fails to recognise her after the performance.

It’s in the eyes…

I can’t praise Julianne Moore’s performance enough: it’s astonishing. Over 90 minutes of film she demonstrates the savage diminishing of her mind through mostly silent expressions, flickering glances and subtle gestures. At the start she is a highly functioning, very conscious and intelligent woman. When Alice first tells her husband she is filled with rage, screaming at the world in pain and frustration. Then she keeps careful track of her symptoms, playing memory games in the kitchen and recording important questions into her phone (what is the month of your birthday, what is your eldest daughter’s name). She hatches a deeply upsetting plan, recording a message to herself for when she can no longer answer these questions, that she should go to her bedroom drawers and take a bottle of pills…

this is very important… do not tell anyone what you are doing

Late in the film she accidentally stumbles upon the message, and it’s only then that we fully realise how far Alice has ‘gone’ from the start of the film. Her face, speech, movements are all fundamentally changed, diminished, and it’s a staggering feat of performance that we barely noticed the full scope of that before.

Not suffering, but struggling…

I Reckon there’s only one false scene in the film, which comes when Alice gives a public speech about living with dementia. We’re aware of her previous existence as a lecturer, and how precarious and difficult this task has become. So she and we both enter the scene with apprehension, and then the directors ramp this up by having her speech fall to the floor, sheets scattering. But somehow they are all collected in the correct order, and she completes the speech (The Art of Losing) in triumph. This felt hollow to me; it felt like this was the film’s BIG MESSAGE SCENE, and this is SO IMPORTANT that it couldn’t be jeopardised. That’s fair enough, but then don’t taunt the audience with a cheap trick to heighten the tension if you’re then going to ignore the consequences.

It’s about love…

I Reckon this film is so important because it truly dramatizes and depicts a human journey of living with dementia. It’s not exploitative or sentimental, there’s no tragic ending or miracle cure. But it shows how the most important aspect of everything, of humanity, is love. Alice’s childhood photos come alive with the memories of her (long-since-dead) teenage sister, she takes comfort in familiar surroundings – her kitchen, the beach.

I dreamed we were there. The plane leapt the tropopause, the safe air, and attained the outer rim, the ozone, which was ragged and torn, patches of it threadbare as old cheesecloth, and that was frightening. But I saw something that only I could see, because of my astonishing ability to see such things: Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles, and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired. Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there’s a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.

In the beautiful final scene, Lydia reads this speech from her newest play Angels in America, written in rich prose with deep and complex imagery, to which Alice smiles and responds, barely managing a murmur, “it’s about love”. And it is, and so is Still Alice.

I Reckon everyone should see this film, because the number of people living with dementia will double in the next generation, and it’s important to understand what families living with dementia really undergo and feel, and how it is possible to live well with love in the moment. There is no cure yet, but there is still a massive stigma around this (and other) mental illnesses. If Still Alice can help open our society’s eyes a little wider, reduce the stigma by just a little, and help people live with love and kindness a little more, it will truly be an important work, and one for which we should all give thanks.

During my Best Man’s speech at my brother’s wedding, I referred to a selfie he had taken as a teenager (always ahead of his time!), in which the album cover of Peter Gabriel’s ‘So’ is clearly visible, remarking that this was an almost compulsory purchase for any intellectual, white, middle-class teenage boy in the late 1980s. Of course I had a copy: I was there right from the start.

Peter Gabriel So Album

So is Peter Gabriel’s most commercial album, and propelled him from the arthouse audience he had enjoyed since leaving Genesis into the mainstream, driven by stunningly inventive videos and the heyday of MTV. As a white middle-class angsty teenager, it was very important to me in the late 1980s, and I still love it today.

I come to you, defences down, with the trust of a child…

For all its commercial gloss, slick songwriting and laser-sharp production from Daniel Lanois, So is an intensely intimate album. The opening track, Red Rain, recounts a vivid dream to the constant shimmering of cymbals and restless, always moving drumbeats. By the end of the song, the vocals collapse as if exhausted.

The insistent rhythms of percussion and bass are important throughout the album, driven by Manu Katché’s fabulous work, creating a tone that’s sometimes mystical (Mercy Street), sometimes unsettling (That Voice Again), sometimes soothing, like resting on a partner’s chest listening to their heartbeat (Don’t Give Up)…

This is the new stuff…

Sledgehammer is one of the most iconic songs of the 1980s. Its groundbreaking video featured fabulous stop-motion animation from the then-fledgling Aardman Studios and became the most-played video ever on MTV. It’s a massive departure from Gabriel’s earlier singles, a joyous, innuendo-laden homage to Otis Redding that opens with bamboo flutes but is dominated by an in-your-face horn section. This ends with a bang, not a whimper. Perhaps less successful, Big Time also takes an unapologetically straightforward approach to satirising Gabriel’s own success, although it feature terrific guitar work from Nile Rodgers.

We’re proud of who you are…

Don’t Give Up follows Sledgehammer on the album, and couldn’t be more different. From an assertion of sexual machismo, we’re brought down to earth in this limpid duet between Gabriel and Kate Bush. Apparently inspired by Dorothea Lange’s photos of a woman and her family during the Great Depression of the 1930s, this is less a traditional duet and more a conversation between a man and a woman. He’s been battered by unemployment and the recession of the 1980s, and clinging on by his fingernails.

Dorothea Lange Migrant Mother Don't Give Up Peter Gabriel

Kate Bush is simply perfect in this song, providing the counterpoint to Gabriels’ damaged masculinity. Just  a couple of years later she’d write and sing (for me) one of the greatest and most heart-wrenching songs about femininity, This Woman’s Work.

Wear your inside out…

Amongst the singles, there’s still the more artsy, eclectic songs, of which Mercy Street is clearly my favourite. Breathy vocals, a throbbing bass and ethereal Fairlight sampling make this a thing of great beauty. We do What We’re Told and This is the Picture are more experiments in tone than anything else. They always felt like a slightly weak end to the album to me, a judgement I’ve only slightly amended with time.

But whichever way I go, I come back to the place you are…

On the original (vinyl) album In Your Eyes was the first song on side 2, even though Gabriel wanted it to close the album. Apparently this was because its heavy bass rhythms could cause the needle to jump in the tighter grooves in the centre of a disc (historic trivia that you young kids won’t understand…!).

Perhaps that contributed to my underwhelming sensation as the album ended, because I Reckon that In Your Eyes is one of the best love songs ever written, and a brilliant end to any collection of songs. It’s a brilliant consolidation of everything I like about So: a terrifically catchy chorus, fabulous percussion and rhythms throughout, wonderful vocals from Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour, and lyrics that never fail to move me, despite how familiar they have become to me since I first heard them as an angsty teen in 1986.

Love, I get so lost sometimes.
Days pass, and this emptiness fills my heart.
When I want to run away, I drive off in my car
But whichever way I go I come back to the place you are…

Now I look back on 2014, it was a relatively quiet year for me and movies. Or at least, new movies. By my count there were fewer than 40 films I saw for the first time, perhaps the lowest total for a while. And without further ado, here are those I enjoyed most…

Trollhunter

This is terrific fun – one of the few found-footage genre films that actually works. A student film team hunting for a bear poacher whom no-one wants to talk about stumble upon a Government conspiracy that becomes all too real. They discover a fabulously grizzled, unpleasant, anti-social troll hunter, brilliant played from start to finish, and the mythology of the trolls is fabulous. There are bridges to cross, Christians in trouble, goats left as bait, and big trouble around sunrise.

Amour

Amour movie Emanuelle Riva

An elderly couple face their last days together. Georges thinks of nothing and no-one but his ailing wife Anne as she succumbs to a series of shattering strokes. Michael Haneke makes films I hugely admire, even if I don’t often ‘enjoy’ them. Here he depicts (in often uncomfortable openness) the day-to-day behaviours and unconditional love that Georges continues to lavish upon Anne, in all her frailty. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emanuelle Riva are simply astonishing in every scene, and her performance especially is heartbreaking as she recognises the savagery of her condition and the indignities it’s causing them both. This left me with a long-lasting and complex mixture of both sadness (the depressing end of life, suffering and private pain) and happiness (the memories of two lives shared completely).

The Lego Movie

It is awesome. Its omission from the Oscar nominations for Best Animated Film is as inexplicable as it is stupid.

Gravity / 12 Years a Slave

It makes almost no sense to group these two films together, except that I saw them in the same week, so wrote about them together. They’re both brilliant in their different ways, and they have a lot in common.

Singin’ in the Rain

Singin' in the rain Gene Kelly Donald O'Connor Debbie Reynolds Good Morning

I’m almost ashamed that it’s taken me this long to experience the wonderful 100 minutes of Singin’ in the Rain, which is such a joy throughout that I Reckon the famous title song is probably only the 4th best musical sequence in the film. Make ‘em Laugh is a breathtaking triumph of physical comedy from Donald O’Connor, Good Morning is fabulous and the ‘Broadway Melody‘ is a riot of Technicolor, surely influenced by The Red Shoes just a few years before.

This film has influenced everything that followed it, from Family Guy to The Muppets to, well, everything. It revels in the joy and excitement of movement, song and dance to such an extent I felt glad to be alive afterwards. An all-time classic.

Stop at Nothing: the Lance Armstrong Story

When I first read “It’s not about the bike” I was struck by how partial Lance Armstrong’s storytelling was. He kept a near psychopathic control over his own narrative, and Alex Holmes’ excellent film brings this to life with compelling clarity. It makes no apology for showing us how great and how driven Armstrong was as a neo-pro young rider. He was not ‘made’ by his cancer: he was already there, mostly fully formed. But his cancer both fuelled and enabled his resurrection and ascension to an exalted position where he was able to look the world in the eye and lie without any self-doubt, again and again. This is a strongly told tale that is definitely worth your time, even if you’re not a sports fan. Like SENNA, it’s a brilliant piece of human drama.

Zombieland

zombieland rules

I loved this. It’s just a bloody good time, in all sorts of ways. There’s gore and guts aplenty, two feisty female characters who give even better than they get, and two great co-leads in Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson.

I loved the Rules to survive a Zombie Apocalypse, and Harrelson’s quest for a Twinkie bar. Most of all, it features perhaps the best cameo performance ever seen on screen. I laughed out loud several times in just a few minutes…

Killer Joe

Killer Joe movie poster

Based on my last few months’ viewing alone, I should definitely watch True Detective. Matthew McConaughey  is transformed here from his open-shirted romcom days into Joe Cooper, a very, very bad man. This film has more than a few troubles, not least some extraordinarily uncomfortable scenes where Joe Cooper does Very, Very Bad Things, and the family he’s working for (against?) are often so despicable and stupid that I found myself rooting for him, as though he’s the hero. That’s how twisted this gets…

Rampart

Look! It’s Woody Harrelson again, also playing a very, very bad cop. His performance is fearless in an often impressionistic and sparse screenplay, interspersed with sequences of almost grotesque nastiness that are often very uncomfortable. The cinematography is great – as LA becomes a really strong character, oppressively hot and bright (despite the murkiness of what’s happening in the streets), and there are lots of extreme close-ups that leave the characters no hiding place. Perhaps there’s nothing too much that’s new here, but it’s done really well, and Harrelson is terrific at bringing a combination of natural, easy charm and a threatening menace and barely-concealed violence to almost every scene.

Looper

I absolutely loved this, from Joseph Gordon Levitt’s disarming makeup to Bruce Willis’ refusal to discuss the ‘rules’ of time travel. This is a hard-boiled, gritty thriller that’s chock-full of references and genre tropes, but also stunningly original: the ‘torture’ scene (in which we see no actual torture, only its results) is as shocking as anything I saw all year (including Killer Joe!). The performances are all great, and the introduction of the young boy who may have a dark, dark future adds another twist to the tale. Watch and listen carefully, there are plenty of details and throwaway comments in the opening scenes that come back later…

Paddington

Paddington Bear movie

Please look after this bear… (sniff)

I finished the year on a lighter note, with this gem of a very British family film. I loved the stories and 1970s TV animated version, and was more than a little apprehensive about expanding it to a full-length, live-action film. But almost from the first moments it had won me over. It’s full of charm, wit and slapstick, with a menacing villain (Nicole Kidman in best Cruella deVille mode) and lovely themes about accepting outsiders. Perfect for a wintry weekend in…

 

Honourable Mentions:

Mud: more great McConaughey, with strong writing and direction from Jeff Nicholls, and two terrific kids

Flight: Denzel. Say no more…

The Impossible: blimey. This is a one-timer; brutal, upsetting.

The Imposter: a great documentary that you truly couldn’t make up. Only a slight shame that the real end of the story isn’t quite as satisfying as a movie script might be…

Bullhead: unlike anything I’ve seen, a taut, brooding, menacing Belgian thriller set in the gritty, dirty world of cattle breeding, steroids and low-level gangsters.

theproseandthepassion:

I first posted this 5 years ago, and I hope to post it every year, well, forever! Happy Anniversary to Mike & Kate xxx

Originally posted on What I Reckon:

I was thrilled and privileged to be Best Man at my brother’s wedding to Kate last weekend. It was a terrific day, complete with even a couple of small fires during the reception…! My abiding memory of the occasion was the overwhelming sense that Mike and Kate make each other smile and laugh; just being with the other is enough to make them both feel better.

One of the readings at their marriage ceremony really summed this up.

A Lovely Love Story – by Edward Monkton

The fierce Dinosaur was trapped inside his cage of ice. Although it was cold, he was happy in there. It was, after all, his cage.

Then along came the Lovely Other Dinosaur. The Lovely Other Dinosaur melted the Dinosaur’s cage with kind words and loving thoughts…

I like this Dinosaur, thought the Lovely Other Dinosaur. Although he is fierce he is also tender and…

View original 299 more words

The Hollywood director Howard Hawks was once asked what he believed made a good film, and his no-nonsense reply is the title of this post: “Three good scenes, and no bad ones.” And while I’m by no means an aficionado of Mr Hawk’s filmography (which is pretty stellar), I’m using his criteria to back me up when I Reckon that Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies”  (henceforth BotFA) is not a good film.

I am a massive fan of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s epic world-building like nothing else, with a superlative attention to detail, vision, social and cultural history, language, and design. JRR Tolkein gave him a lot to work with, but Jackson and the teams from Weta Workshop delivered a masterpiece trilogy, up there with the best cinema of recent times. I’ve devoured the massive library of DVD Extras, marvelled over the differences between Elvish and Dwarf armour, and I love revisiting the films with (or without) my daughters.

I was a bit sceptical of The Hobbit trilogy as soon as I heard about it. I won’t retread all the arguments made by so many about the length etc; suffice to say my elder daughter can read the novel quicker than she can watch the three films. During the first two films in the series I just about managed to suspend my disbelief, and, like Dorothy in Oz, kept thinking “This is not a film of the book of The Hobbit” (repeat until nearly convinced).

Wes Anderson’s brilliant Fantastic Mr Fox brings grown-up existential angst to a cartoonish children’s hero. Peter Jackson has added hundreds of years of Tolkein’s lore that hardly anyone has ever read to the slight but charming tale of a Hobbit-creature and created a sprawling mess that is often fabulous to look at, but is ultimately diminishing returns writ very large, and very, very long. I don’t like to reference the two Star Wars trilogies, because (whispers) I’m not such a massive fan of the first three; let’s face it, they’re more than a bit clunky, there’s barely any story and the script is appalling. Empire Strikes Back is great, though… But I have to fight hard not to think The Hobbit diminishes and tarnishes the Middle Earth cinema for which Jackson has been so widely and rightly lauded.

The Hobbit Dwarves

How many could you name without the captions?

Too many characters, not enough time…

Some of Jackson’s problems do come from the text. There are thirteen dwarves on this quest to recover their homeland, or steal treasure, or whatever. And as is the preference of their proud race, their names are often very similar. And while the film-makers went to extraordinary lengths to create specific hairstyles and elaborate beards, most of the time I couldn’t recall who was who, or why. Thorin and Kili aside, they have a collective story-arc rather than anything personal to their character, which meant I simply couldn’t care about them as individuals. Except for James Nesbitt, I love him.

At the same time, so many of the other characters they meet are poorly drawn or don’t get enough screentime for me to care about them either. The Goblin King in the first film is a grotesque creation who actually has some terrific lines, but he’s gone, slaughtered almost as soon as we start to appreciate him. Despite virtually 9 hours of story-telling, there are hardly any characters I care about, and most of them are also in the LoTR films, meaning I brought my baggage with me.

It’s not about the book…

It’s often a fatal flaw of film reviews to compare the cinematic version, but I’m going to take that risk. I don’t object per se to Jackson’s expansion of the tale of Bilbo and the Dwarves’ quest to The Lonely Mountain with legend and lore from previous centuries of Middle Earth, and looking forward to the LotR stories and the return of Sauron.

BUT (and you knew this was coming) in order to shoe-horn in the antagonists of Azog and Bolg, he had to radically rework aspects of Tolkien’s history to meet the needs of the film. I’ve complained about this before, and it still riles me. Leave bits out, be biased in highlighting themes or characters, but don’t just make sh*t up because it suits you. If you want to make stuff up, write an original screenplay.

Azog is a Tolkien creation, but he was killed in battle hundreds of years earlier. Tauriel the elf is an entirely new creation simply to bring an actual female character into the story (or else, you know, women and girls wouldn’t buy tickets). And of course, if there’s a gorgeous female character, she surely has to be the love-interest for one of the men (why couldn’t she just be heroic and strong on her own terms?), which means creating a whole new story arc for Kili (or was it Fili?). And so eventually poor old Kili (I think) gets killed by a created enemy defending a created love-interest in a (very impressive) sequence that lasts at least 15 minutes.

Fili Kili Dwarves The Hobbit

Fili and Kili, or Kili and Fili? Ant and Dec?

And given that the entire quest for the gold beneath The Lonely Mountain is about Thorin Oakenshield reclaiming his ancestral home and kingdom, it beggars belief that Jackson, such a passionate devotee to the spirit of Tolkien and Middle Earth, would omit the chance to dramatise Thorin’s ceremonial burial that could bring a close to the whole quest, instead glossing over it in a thrown-away line.

Spectacle over Substance

The LotR trilogy was made over a decade ago, yet its effects look just as good as those in The Hobbit. Increasingly as the trilogy goes on, it felt like Jackson was simply skipping from one tentpole effects sequence  to the next, many of which felt like a video game.

In LotR, we saw how individuals were swept up in massive events. At Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith, we followed Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn, or Pippin, Merry and Gandalf as they were caught up in a war for the future of the world. Here we just get hordes of men / orcs / elves / dwarves swarming over a landscape fighting for a lot of gold (I think) but nothing much besides, and the individuals (if we can even remember their names) are completely lost. Billy Connolly rides in on the back of a giant boar, says a few things in broad Scottish (so Dwarves are basically Celts? Gimli was Welsh, if I recall), swings a big hammer, then vanishes from the plot.

And after hours of Jackson creating ‘authentic’ battle scenes and world-building, we get the deus ex machina to end them all, the bloody eagles, who having allowed the slaughter of thousands, turn up at the end to apparently end the battle in a matter of minutes. 25 eagles defeat whole armies. Whatever.

Let me be clear, The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies has at least three good scenes. Every moment with Martin Freeman, the whole sequence of Smaug destroying Laketown, and the sequence at Dol Guldur are all terrific.

Galadriel Cate Blanchett The Hobbit

Not just a pretty face

But there are lots of bad scenes, huge plot holes, terrible script decisions, and a real loss of character humanity that was never a problem in Lord of the Rings. I’m sure this was Peter Jackson’s dream to fully realise Middle Earth, but I Reckon he should have been more careful what he wished for. This is often spectacular to behold, but ultimately to almost no effect.

It’s been nearly 9 months since my last blog post, although in that time I’ve tweeted and posted all manner of nonsense in various social spaces. I’ve written several blog posts in my professional capacity as a Strategic Marketing Type at The Real Adventure Unlimited. I’ve written many short film reviews on Flixster/Facebook. So in some ways I’m sure most of the small numbers of people who read this will be familiar with What I’ve been Reckoning since last March.

But during this time away from WordPress I’ve worked long hours in a climate of great uncertainty, more so than any year I can remember: so has my wife in her own workplace. I’ve tried to help my elder daughter navigate the stormy seas of secondary school. I’ve supported my (extended) family as my Father has had a pacemaker fitted and endured bladder cancer, while my 83 year-old Father-in-Law has had a knee replacement.

With a more positive outlook, we installed raised vegetable beds in our garden last Spring, and reaped great rewards in the form of beetroot, shallots, salads, green beans, spinach, chard, raspberries and courgettes, not to mention a massive crop from both our apple and plum trees. We enjoyed terrific camping trips to Dorset, Somerset and Oxfordshire, as well as a week in Devon. We celebrated a fabulous wedding with dear friends. I completed my 2nd (and probably last) Tough Mudder event.

In short, we’ve had quite a bit on. And even if you didn’t miss me, I missed you. Especially, I missed this; sitting down to write, actually writing, actually posting What I Reckon for anyone or no one to read. And so I’m resolving to re-start, perhaps slimmed-down posts from where I ended up, perhaps more film reviews and family life than political diatribes. I’ll probably leave the marketing stuff to my work blog (unless I’m having a rant).

Thanks for reading – it means a lot when I know people have read and enjoyed my blog. But, if I’m honest, a lot of this is about me, writing for me. You, dear readers, are a bonus.

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

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