Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Work

When was the last time you cried? For many of the men we see in The Work, tears are something they can't afford; they're a sign of weakness, of vulnerability, of shame. These men have spent years building up walls around themselves and burying their emotions, which makes the moments in which those emotions break through to the surface so extraordinary to witness. Twice a year, The Inside Circle Foundation brings together inmates at the Folsom maximum-security prison for four days of group therapy, aimed at addressing their most deep-rooted issues and creating a safe space for them to open up. Any gang affiliations or prior beefs are left outside. As Rick, a former member of the Aryan brotherhood, says near the start of the film, “For four days, let’s be what we could be.”

The most intriguing aspect of this programme is that the prison also invites members of the public to join the prisoners in these sessions. The Work opens by introducing us to some of the civilians who have signed up for this project, and while it’s easy to see how the inmates could benefit from these rehabilitative exercises, the outsiders’ motivations for signing up are initially a little more vague. Some talk of wanting to find a sense of purpose in their lives, others are determined to confront their own fears, but all of them reveal more pain, anger and sorrow than they could have anticipated. Whether they are inmates at Folsom or free men, everyone we see in The Work appears to be imprisoned in the same way.

The Work’s co-directors Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous take a straightforward approach to the film. They focus on one working group in particular, with a few particularly string characters coming to the fore. Chief among them is Vegas, a tall black man with a calm demeanour and piercing eyes, who we see working with Kiki, a fellow inmate, when he admits he hasn’t cried in so many years he no longer knows how. Through gentle but persistent cajoling he pushes Kiki to locate those buried emotions and bring them to the surface, to the point where he collapses to the floor, wracked by sobs. Other participants fight against their emotions and have to be restrained as they scream and rage. One civilian in particular, a teacher’s assistant named Brian, emerges as a fascinating figure. He sits in detached judgement of the other men, testing their patience, until one of them calls him out on his behaviour and he reveals his own feelings of inadequacy rooted in his fixed ideas of what he should be as a man. The Work is a powerful portrait of the damage toxic masculinity can do.

Some of the men respond to comforting words, others need to be prodded more aggressively, and some require roleplaying sessions to let down their guard, with one man having an inmate play the role of his father so he can finally tell him things he has kept bottled up since childhood. The filmmakers get close to the men with their cameras, following the ebb and flow of each emotional journey, creating a real sense of intimacy, and the moments of connection and release that they capture have a visceral, shattering impact. As we focus on one group, we occasionally hear the sounds emanating from the other gatherings – laughter, tears, anger – but sometimes it's the quieter moments that really land. When Vegas tightly hugs a suicidal young inmate named Dante, having possibly just dissuaded him from taking his own life, a microphone picks up the rhythm of their beating hearts.

Towards the end of the film I couldn't help wondering, how do the lessons learned in these sessions figure in the inmates' day-to-day lives at Folsom? When they go back into the yard, doesn't the emotional armour go straight back up? The filmmakers don't give us any insight to the world outside of the chapel, aside from a closing statement informing us that of the forty men who have been released from jail having gone through this programme, none have yet returned, a fact that I found deeply heartening. The Work presents us with a group of angry, damaged men and allows us to watch as they open their hearts and souls, as they courageously strive to be better people. I found the film exhausting, heartbreaking and ultimately inspiring, and I hope each of these men walked out of that chapel after four days into a future that looked much brighter than their past.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Wind River

Wind River is the third film written by Taylor Sheridan to be released in cinemas in the space of three years, and it’s the first to be directed by Sheridan himself. Perhaps that’s a problem. Wind River feels of a piece with Sicario and Hell of High Water in terms of its thematic territory and its play with genre conventions, but it lacks the style and perspective that an experienced director might have brought to the material. Sheridan makes good use of the majestic snowy peaks that surround his characters, but without a knack for telling his story in visual terms the success and failure of the film rests heavily on his screenplay, and it is often found wanting.

The film begins with a young woman running for her life through the snow. The next morning her barefoot, frozen corpse is discovered by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a US Fish and Wildlife Service agent who acts as a guide to this territory when young FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is despatched to investigate. The territory in question is an Indian Reservation in Wyoming, which makes Renner’s role a slightly awkward fit. His character married into this community and he has earned their trust and respect, but it still doesn’t sit well that it’s Renner educating us on the plight of Native Americans. Lambert is apparently a better hunter, tracker and marksman than anyone who hails from this land, and his abilities drive the narrative while Banner’s more traditional investigative techniques fail. He’s prone to spouting aphorisms such as, “You want to hunt a wolf, you don’t go where it might be, you go where it’s been” in his hunt for the killers, and his instincts never fail. One can’t help wondering how much more interesting the film might be if his character was a Native American, and Olsen’s Banner was the only outsider.

Lambert’s motivation stems largely from his kinship with the father of the dead girl as his own teenage daughter was killed some years before in a similar and unsolved murder; an incident that, we assume, was partially responsible for the breakup of his marriage. Sheridan takes some time in the film’s opening twenty minutes to set up Lambert’s relationship with his ex-wife and his young son, but these characters are arbitrarily dropped from the film when the central narrative kicks in, one of a few strands left hanging in Sheridan’s uncharacteristically straggly script. In fact, far too many of the characters feel marginalised as Sheridan focuses on Lambert. His sense of loss and grief is placed centrally in the narrative while we occasionally check in with the family of the more recently deceased girl. (The father is played by Gil Birmingham, so good in Hell or High Water and quietly touching here.)

Wind River is at its best when it plays as a straightforward thriller. Sheridan handles the film’s set-pieces well, particularly a sequence in which Banner – with temporarily impaired vision – stalks a suspect through a house, and a tense late stand-off that explodes into violence. He also teases out the tension of that climactic sequence by interrupting it with an extended flashback; the kind of bold narrative gamble that the film could have use a little more of. Wind River is engaging and moderately satisfying as a genre film, but it always feels like Sheridan is reaching for something greater; he wants to illuminate the situation of Native Americans in 21st century America, but it feels like that community has only intermittently come into focus throughout the course of the film. Wind River ends with the onscreen text: “While missing person statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women.” It’s a sobering statement, and it left me wondering when a filmmaker was going to tell their story.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Commentary Tracks - Out of Sight

Out of Sight (1998) with director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Frank

Comments on the film

On the Glades Correctional Institution sequence
Steven Soderbergh I think this was the hardest stuff for George [Clooney] to do, because George is a very, very good basketball player, and to be bad in front of 500 cons at Angola prison in Louisiana absolutely destroyed him. He was so mortified. These are all real cons we were amongst, and I have to say George made this a lot easier for us than a lot of people would have. He never left the yard, from the moment we showed up with our cameras he stayed on the yard, he was very gracious with all the inmates, posing for pictures and autographs. If George had been the kind of actor who blew out of his trailer to play the tough guy for two minutes and then blew back into his trailer, I guarantee you we would have had some problems. But he was out there all day every day, and it really took a toll on him, he was really tired, but it was worth it for me. There's Luis Guzmán, one of my favourite actors, with Paul Soileau, who was from New Orleans. Another local hire who was really terrific.
Scott Frank He was really popular. The cons liked him a lot.
SS When we were shooting that scene of Chino and Lulu jogging, a con came up and pushed Luis aside and got right in Paul's face and said, "I wanna ride you! I wanna ride you, man!" and there was a bit of a scene getting him away from Paul. It was pretty intense.

On the trunk scene
SS The infamous trunk scene, we should talk about this. On the deleted scenes we have the original single take that was in the first preview. It was my brilliant idea to do this all in one shot. I did 45 takes, I used take 44, and that was what we put in the movie initially. Then we previewed the film, and it's really hard to find the words to describe how derailed the audience became at that point. It was just deadly. I came out of the preview in Seattle and Casey Silver, who was the head of Universal and had basically put me up for this job, said, “I like the movie. It's about 15 minutes too long and you've got to re-shoot the trunk.” I said, “Yeah, I know.” We went back and re-shot it to make it the way you see it now, and I'm actually glad we did because we added just a couple of things in the dialogue that really helped. One is the discussion of the ex-wife...
SF And the other is more discussion of Three Days of the Condor. He's hoping they're playing out Three Days of the Condor and she's saying, "You know I never believed how they got together," giving him a hard time. I think that helped a lot. And we cut a lot of his background story that he told about the banks he robbed. Also that shot in one take was a little bit farther away, so you didn't get that intimate feel, and cutting out allowed us to have easier transitions.
SS Oh, no question. I think all of my theories of why a single take would work were correct in a literal sense and when you saw it in the movie they were completely wrong. The problem is – and I should have known this too – stylistically it's not like anything else in the movie. The whole movie is cutty and jagged, so to have this one long uninterrupted take, it just felt like a different film. It's a nice short, though.

On the Lompoc Federal Penitentiary sequence
SS This was shot in a prison out in Palmdale, I think. It's a working prison, it's like a holding area for immigration violaters. We were working in a section that wasn't being used at the time and all these extras are ex-cons. We found an 'Ex-cons for Christ' group and hired about 400 of them to come in, so they had a great look about them. I remember when we were budgeting the film Universal said, "You know, we'll save half a million dollars if you shoot the two prisons in one prison. Can't you shoot all the Lompoc stuff in Angola, in Louisiana?" And I really fought them on it. I wanted Lompoc to have this desert, parched, blown-out look, so I held the line and I said, "Look, you can save half a million dollars but the movie would look cheaper."
SF I also think what's great about the way you shot the prison sequences, and the fact that they look so different, it helps you keep everything straight. There are so many different prisons in the course of the movie and so many different timeframes, you need to help out in some way.
SS It would have been really hard. I also chose the yellow jumpsuits. We had many different colours and because we had the desert look I chose yellow. I think that really helps, whenever you see a yellow jumpsuit you know you're in a flashback.

On the bath fantasy scene
SF This is one of those things that was in, then it was out...
SS Oh right, I think this is on the deleted scenes.
SF But also it was out of the script for a while, the whole fantasy.
SS Well on the deleted scenes there's a long fantasy scene here of George and Ving coming in and having a conversation about baths and...oh, lots of stuff.
SF ...lavender oil, vanilla candles, rosé wine...
SS The idea behind it was that this was her fantasy of what Foley and Buddy were talking about, but it ended up feeling like two guys who were completely in love with each other. It didn't work so I cut that dialogue and just left it like this. Now you invented this, obviously. It's not in the book.
SF The problem in the book is that you're always reading about how they're thinking about each other and the challenge was making that work in a movie.
SS Of course we had to close the set during all these scenes. I don't even think I was present.
SF I was peeking over the top of that wall.
SS It's tough to gauge how long you can get away with this because you can feel when you watch the movie that people are thinking, "Wait a minute..."
SF In the script it cuts on "Hey," but I think this is so much better, because it is over-the-top and you do want people going, "Oh, come on!”

On Ray Nicolette
SS Here, of course, is Michael Keaton, reprising his role as Ray Nicolette from Jackie Brown, which I think was a Stacey [Sher] idea. He appears in both books, we should point out. We called up Tarantino and asked him what he thought of the idea and he thought it was a great idea, and he was nice enough to bring me into his editing room and show me all of Keaton's footage from Jackie Brown so I could get an idea of where Keaton was going with that part, to see if it really fit with what we were doing. We got hold of Keaton and he came down and did this just as a favour for nothing, which was really nice of him. To our knowledge this was a first, a character who appears in two completely unrelated movies played by the same actor. As far as all of us could determine nobody had ever done this before, which was part of its appeal.

On the sex scene
SF Again, this whole sequence was written straight in the screenplay.
SS Right, in the script they did half the dialogue here and then they went upstairs.
SF They did half the dialogue on the fly too, walking through the hotel, getting on the elevator, getting off the elevator, so they're kissing by the time they get to the door.
SS I remember calling you and saying I think we have to do something different.
SF All of this is you and Anne Coates, but mostly you. 
SS Well. I stole it from Don't Look Now. I remember telling you guys about the scene in Don't Look Now with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, where Nic Roeg intercuts the two them making love with the two of them getting dressed afterwards. There was something about the juxtaposition of those two events that was so intimate and you'd never think it would be, so I decided to just rip it off. When I explained it to people I would get a lot of blank stares.
SF In fact, when everyone looked at the dailies they kept saying the scene isn't hot enough.
SS In dailies it was probably hard to watch because I was grinding a lot of film to get little things like this that are hard to stage. I was running two cameras all the time and just doing take after take, and it was really boring to watch in dailies. I was getting a lot of flak for this scene not being more explicit in dailies, I do remember that, even from Anne Coates. I remember Anne, after she saw the dailies, asking if there's any more footage. I said no, that's it, and she said, “I'm afraid they don't really go at it.” She was very concerned that it wasn't explicit enough, but that stuff bores me. Somebody much smarter than me once said that as soon as an actor takes their clothes off in a movie, you're watching a documentary, and I think that's true. I think I break with the film. When somebody takes their clothes off I'm not watching the character any more, I go, "Oh my God, I'm seeing X, Y and Z with their clothes off!”

On changing Elmore Leonard's story
SF In the book Ripley's not in the house, there are no diamonds, White Boy Bob gets arrested, Buddy gets killed.
SS There's a kid. Who's the kid?
SF There's a 19 year-old housesitter who's having an affair with the maid, who's 45.
SS Well I think this is better and I don't care who knows it. I guess it's what we've been talking about, the difference between a book and a movie. It's stuff that all works great in the book but in a movie you've got to funnel the conflict.
SF Actually, it's the only thing in the book that doesn't quite work because you don't know why Jack is there. There's no guarantee of any kind of money there, he sort of knows already that Maurice is a psychopath, and the reason he gives in the book for going to try this is he tells Buddy, 'Well, I've never tried okra before either.' That's the line he gives in the book and you sort of lose patience with him at the end of the story because you don't know why he would do this unless it's a sort of fatalistic move. Because he's not a home invader, he's a bank robber.
SS This makes much more sense because now it's personalised.
SF Exactly.


Bits and Pieces

SS Here we go, another episode of A Couple of White Guys Sitting Around Talking.

SS Here's a classic example of a stubborn filmmaker. For months, Michael Shamberg was telling me you have to have music at the front of the movie to set the mood, it's no good if it's quiet, because I just had the street sounds there. I kept saying, you're wrong, you're wrong. I got really steamed at him at a meeting at Universal once, and I think it's because I knew he was right and I was really resisting it.
SF Also for a while we had to have the Universal music over the logo
SS That's true. We did win that battle, if you can call it a battle.

SS Here's George and his funny walk.

SF This bit with the flowers, in the script he hits him with a cross and Danny DeVito was a little concerned that we might get in trouble over him hitting him on the head with the cross. I did often wonder what a vase full of flowers is doing in the prison chapel, though.
SS Well, the prop guy put it there.

SS Here's Steve Zahn, another terrific actor. I remember when we previewed the movie, when Steve Zahn came on screen, before he even spoke, people were laughing at him. Like he was a friend of theirs, it was really amazing. It's a tough role in a way because it could turn into a real cartoon cliché, but Steve is so genuine it never feels like that.

SS Because it was so cold, I couldn't shoot this scene in Louisiana because the actors' breath was showing so much we had to stop. We re-shot this after principal photography in California and again it was so cold we could see their breath. Below frame here on every shot I've got a wall of gas heaters going. If you listen to the track really closely you can hear the hiss of these heaters, which I've tried to cover up with crickets.

SS That's not a real person. That's a dummy that we stabbed.
SF Really? I thought that was the other writer.

SS Here we are on our way to Detroit. This footage is some of my favourite in the movie only because I flew to Detroit, me and John Hardy and two guys, and I shot all this stuff myself on January 14th 1998, my 35th birthday. On my 35th birthday I was on the front of an insert car with a movie camera on my shoulder shooting this stuff. It was cold as all get-out, I had frozen tears on the side of my face, but we had fun.

SS It was cold this night, I tell ya. You can see it in the close-ups, with their breath, and you can actually see the frozen condensation on the tops of the cars. You can't fake that. I was going to say you can't buy that but actually you can because in Titanic they digitally put the breath in everybody's mouth, so you can buy it. But I couldn't buy it.

SS Here's Viola [Davis] on a sound stage in beautiful Universal City in California, and Jennifer [Lopez] in Detroit months later. I hate doing stuff like this. There are two shots in Kafka in a morgue scene at the end of the film, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Jeremy Irons shot on different months in different continents, that I had to put together. It's so frightening because you're convinced it's not going to work.

SS This is an actual house in Bloomfield Hills, where the action takes place in the book and the script, but it was in the process of being built. The interior is not complete at all so we shot the exterior in Detroit and every centimetre of the interior of the Ripley mansion was built on a soundstage by Gary Frutkoff. A couple of these sets, the library and the dressing room upstairs, the owners of the house in Bloomfield Hills came to the set in LA and liked these designs so much they asked for the plans so they could recreate this room here and the library in their house, which I thought was a very unusual turn of events.

SS Of course, in the TV version Don [Cheadle] says 'monkey feather,' which is actually scarier.

SS We were going to have a scene where Ving [Rhames] actually goes to the airport and runs into Jack Lemmon and gives him the diamonds, but we didn't have time.

Final Thoughts

SS We could sit here and poke holes in this thing all day. If that's what you want to do, Scott, then that's what we'll do, but it's not what...or maybe it is what people pay for. I don't know. Do people actually listen to these? I'm not even sure.
SF I don't think so. Have we started yet? Is this the actual take?
SS This is the rehearsal.
SF Oh good.

Friday, August 04, 2017

A Ghost Story in Sight & Sound

Think of a ghost. What do you see? The first image that comes to mind may be a floating white sheet in the vague outline of a person, with two holes cut out for its eyes. Ghosts in this form were popularised in the 19th century, the idea being that apparitions of the dead would reappear wrapped in their burial shrouds, but in time this representation has become hackneyed, more readily associated with childlike and comic characters than anything truly haunting. While some films, such as Finisterrae (2010) and Paranormal Activity 3 (2011), use the sheet trick in imaginative and unsettling ways, in our cultural memories it's more likely to evoke the unconvincing ghost disguise in Beetlejuice (1988), the trick-or-treating party in E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) or Charlie Brown's botched costume in the Halloween TV special It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown (1966).

Director David Lowery has been thinking about ghosts for a long time. When he made his first film at the age of seven, his brother wore a bedsheet to play a ghost, and in his animated short My Daily Routine (2011) a ghost again appears in the same guise. Perhaps it was inevitable that he would one day bring this idea to fruition in a feature. “It's something that has long been a fascination of mine, and the idea of doing a haunted house movie with somebody wearing a sheet was something I thought of a couple of years ago,” he says. “I thought it would be really funny to make a straight-up horror film, a very traditional horror film like Poltergeist [1982], but have the ghost constantly be represented by somebody in a sheet, and always visible. That idea was just something that amused me when I'd think about it from time to time.”

Read the rest of my interview with David Lowery in the September 2017 issue of Sight & Sound



Monday, July 24, 2017

Dunkirk

Dunkirk opens in an eerie silence, as a group of young British soldiers wander through a ghost town near the French coast. Paper flutters down from the sky, and one soldier grabs it – German propaganda informing the men that they are surrounded. We don't see any enemy soldiers but we soon hear them; gunfire explodes around the soldiers and they run for cover. The camera follows one of them, played by Fionn Whitehead and named in the credits as Tommy, as he scrambles over a wall and away from danger. This opening sequences sets the tone for Christopher Nolan's film, which creates a sense of anxiety that is sustained throughout; death can come from anywhere, and there is no sanctuary, even as Tommy races towards the relative calm of the beach.

400,000 men spent over a week on that beach, pinned between the German forces on one side and the Channel on the other. Attempts to evacuate the soldiers were stalled by the Luftwaffe bombing any ships that came within range and periodically attacking the sitting ducks on the beach. How must it have felt to be standing there, trapped between the enemy and the sea, shivering against the cold, and knowing that another wave of attacks could come at any moment? Dunkirk puts us on the beach alongside those men and makes us feel their panic and fear, and their desperation to find a way home. Tommy and another young soldier (played by Aneurin Barnard) pick up a wounded man and attempt to jump the queue to a ship by being stretcher-bearers, but they know that even if they do make it onto one of those ships there's no guarantee of surviving the crossing, or even escaping the port. The view from the beach is desolate indeed.

Nolan approaches this story from three angles. The primary section takes place on land, where the young soldiers await their fate, while other narratives are introduced on sea and in the air. Dunkirk develops a gripping momentum as Nolan eventually draws these strands together with a clockwork elegance towards the end of the film but, this being a Christopher Nolan film, the clocks are all displaying a different time, and that's sometimes a problem. While the land-based section is introduced with the title “One Week”, the sea-faring exploits of Mark Rylance and his little ship get “One Day” and Tom Hardy's Spitfire pilot has “One Hour.” The three stories eventually overlap, with events sometimes being replayed from multiple angles, but every time Nolan and his editor Lee Smith cut between them it necessitates a mental reset to recall exactly where these characters are in the grand scheme of things. Until the narratives converge, Dunkirk has a habit of interrupting itself.

Still, it's not hard to reorient oneself and get pulled back into the movie, because on a moment-by-moment basis, Dunkirk is riveting in a way few films are. Each strand of the film contains its own little mini-dramas in which characters are forced to make quick life-or-death decisions. When the boat being manned by Rylance's intrepid fisherman picks up Cillian Murphy from the wreckage of his ship, the shell-shocked soldier refuses to return to the beach, and a tense, understated stand-off ensues between these characters and the two youngsters (Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan) on board. Likewise, when Tom Hardy's pilot has to decide whether he should turn and engage with the enemy despite running low on fuel, the dilemma plays out entirely in the actor's eyes, the only part of him that's visible behind his mask. Dunkirk is a brilliantly cast film and Nolan uses his actors well, with the unfamiliar faces of the soldiers on the beach being complemented by these more experienced performers, who can help steer the drama and express a multitude of emotions with just a glance.

That kind of shorthand is crucial for Dunkirk. You might have noticed that I haven't mentioned many character names here, and that's because you won't know most of their names until the end credits. Dunkirk runs for just 106 minutes, making this the first time Nolan has come in below the two-hour mark since Memento and Insomnia, the two films he made before entering the blockbuster sphere. What has been elided in this tightening of focus are some of the more unfortunate hallmarks of his recent films; the burden of exposition, the narrative bloat, the clumsy dialogue. Instead, Nolan can put all of his energies and his considerable filmmaking gifts into recreating Dunkirk as an immersive experience. Since Saving Private Ryan in 1998 many war films have attempted to outdo each other in delivering a visceral experience for the viewer, with standard-bearers such as Black Hawk Down and Hacksaw Ridge being particularly indelible. Dunkirk lacks the ferocity and gore of those films, but it succeeds instead by overwhelming the viewer both sonically – thanks to the deafening sound mix and Hans Zimmer's bombastic score – and visually.

The main reason to see Dunkirk, and to see it on a big screen, is to drink in the images that Nolan and his talented cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema have created. The decision to eschew CGI wherever possible and shoot entirely on 65mm film gives the film an immediacy and depth that is frequently breathtaking. In particular, the aerial sequences are stunning; every time Nolan cut back to the spitfires swooping out of the sky and over the vast, deep blue of the ocean I was staggered both the gleaming beauty and the intimidating scale of the view. For all of the dazzling visual effects of contemporary blockbusters, little has made me gasp in a recent film of this scale as the way Nolan has filmed land, sea and air here. There are many reasons why Dunkirk feels like an anomaly in the summer movie season – the practical effects, the slender running time, the lack of any sequels, spin-offs or universes – but above all it feels like an essential cinema experience.