British director Paul Greengrass started out his career in journalism, before moving onto documentary filmmaking and then into fiction, bringing us the acclaimed Bourne trilogy. This year he combines his talents with action thriller ‘Captain Phillips’, based upon the book, ‘A Captain’s Duty’ in which American cargo ship Maersk Alabama is hijacked by Somali pirates. Tom Hanks stars as the eponymous leader, Richard Phillips, a grounded family man who takes a stand against the armed assailants who overrun the vessel on the hunt for a big payout. He vows to protect his crew at all costs leading to a fascinating hostage situation allowing for an in-depth character study in an intensely claustrophobic environment. This is a gripping account of an incredible true story, helped along by two excellent central performances and expertly applied direction.
The narrative builds quickly, the camera stalking Phillips’ every move from the outset as he prepares to guide his ship around the Somalian coast from Djibouti to Mombasa. Rather obvious emotioneering techniques are used in the opening third as he talks about his children’s uncertain future and bids a fond farewell to his loving wife. To me, Phillips appears to have lost passion for his profession, the long trips taking him away for his family for too long at a time, but he continues to carry out the tasks at hand with brutal efficiency. Similarly, we also interestingly see pirate chief Muse and his squad of criminals take to the seas, giving a little background to their morally contrasting but equally determined mission.
Ultimately, the forces soon collide in spectacularly nail biting chase segment when Muse’s tiny boat sets its sights on Phillips’ colossal craft. The use of shaky cam combined with visual graininess offers documentary-like authenticity as we see the real events unfold before our eyes. Around two thirds in, the plot does stall in the same place for slightly too long but when Phillips’ harrowing journey reaches its conclusion, it is worth the wait with an emotionally charged stand out scene, which should result in audiences rising from their seats somewhat jelly-legged.
In portraying Phillips’ not as the typical action hero, but as an everyman, Tom Hanks’ is the perfect option, and I cannot imagine anyone else doing a better job. He excels in a role which is not always likeable, but easy to relate to from start to finish, taking us through the waves of emotion with him as an individual whose moral compass is unfaltering. Also very impressive is Barkhad Abdi as Muse in his acting debut, providing a multi-layered turn as a villain wishing to create a better standard of living for himself, but with an unfortunately narrow set of skills. The relationship between these two captains is tense and unpredictable, aided by a nicely crafted screenplay by Billy Ray, adapted from the aforementioned text written by Phillips himself.
It is hard to recall many films that have achieved such a persistently simmering intensity throughout in the way that ‘Captain Phillips’ does. The enclosed and imprisoning setting perhaps draws slight similarities with the Dog Day Afternoon-esque hostage scenario, given the misguided, nearly empathetic outlaws, albeit on a vastly different stage. Putting minor problems aside such as the a dragged out lifeboat segment, and an overbearing score, Greengrass directs with flair, effectively implementing docu-style elements and building unmerciful suspense climaxing in an astounding finale to crown what is arguably Hanks’ career defining performance.
Can a filmmaker be considered an author, or an artist, in the same respect as a novelist or a painter? In the 1950s, the auteur theory was created and explored by a collective of influential French critics, and directors including Andre Bazin, Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. This would put all the weight of a piece down to a vision from an individual, namely the director. It was said that the “critical perspective dictates that the director is in a unique and irreplaceable position of personal artistic perspective, and that the film is, most importantly, a product of that perspective”(Montano, 2010). Truffaut even controversially stated that “there are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors”. I see that even although the making of a film is a collaborative process, there is undoubtedly directorial trademarks and recurring themes such as Scorsese’s use of violence, Spielberg’s sense of sentimentality, Lynch’s madness and Tarantino’s Tarantino-ness.
For a number of reasons, the filmography of veteran New York director Woody Allen can be recognised as a body of work with similar questions of love and relationships raised throughout his career, as well as signature techniques present in key pictures including extradiegesis, psychoanalysis, witty dialogue and a strong establishment of setting, the location almost a character in itself particularly in Allen’s more recent pictures. Initially a stand up comedian, he seems to put a lot of his own humour and personality into his films, and some say his work is almost autobiographical. Florence Colombani wrote that “the autobiographical is obvious and the audience falls under the irresistible charm of the emotional torment of characters”. This aspect featured heavily in his most critically acclaimed ‘Annie Hall’ which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1978, and on top of this Allen also picked up the awards for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. This looked at comedian Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and his complex relationship with the eponymous Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) as he tries to figure out where it all went wrong.
A great Woody flourish, used most effectively and memorably in Annie Hall is the breaking of the fourth wall. This is where his character Alvy talks directly to the camera, expressing his opinions straight to the audience. This was done to connect with the viewer on a more personal level, and as Singer is probably the most Allen-esque character that Woody Allen has ever written and played (they’re both comedians raised in the Bronx) then perhaps it can be seen as Allen himself addressing the audience. On this topic, Allen hilariously once said that “comedy just pokes at problems, rarely confronts them squarely. Drama is like a plate of meat and potatoes, comedy is rather the dessert, a bit like meringue”. Jokes aside this gives interesting insight into why it was handled in this way, and has become a technique used more and more, maybe slightly overused in recent years, but Allen is one of the pioneers of this idea. Allen regurgitated this concept in the critically panned Anything Else (2003) where Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs) arguably played a young Woody Allen or Alvy Singer and also talks to the camera.
Furthering this extradiegetic feel to Annie Hall was a scene in which subtitles were used to show what the Alvy and Annie were thinking, despite saying something completely different, delving into the much studied relationship language that hasn’t been mastered to this day. This inventive stroke of genius has also been copied, most notably in 500 Days of Summer which was a modern take on the complexities of relationship, with Annie Hall clearly a massive influence across the board, showing the legacy of Allen and that his work defines this genre to this day. This cleverly allows the viewer to reflect on the message behind the story, and reminds them that they are in fact watching a movie. Surely by revolutionising these techniques, Allen’s personality as a filmmaker can be attributed to his authorship, a style that has carried on through the years.
The theme of the ‘struggling artist’ is also featured in Annie Hall, whereby a character feels unfulfilled and strives to be recognised for his achievements. Trevor Gilks, in a piece titled ‘We’re Not Like Other People’ commented on this recurrence, and similiarity in Allen’s male leads. He said that “in addition to their creative hurdles, the artists that occupy Allen’s movies also like to talk about their special role in society. Woody Allen’s artists also have the near-universal tendency to inject their own lives into their art. In Annie Hall, Alvy Singer stages a play that blatantly re-enacts his own life (albeit with a happier ending)”. This continues throughout his career, and could be said to reflect his own dissatisfaction with his films as he has been known to be his own harshest critic in the past. In more recent efforts, now he himself is a little too long in the tooth to be taking on the romantic lead parts, he writes for actors who are brought in to play what always seems like an extension of himself, and of his earlier characters. Examples include Josh Brolin in You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (2010), Jesse Eisenberg in To Rome With Love (2012) but the perfect example of is Midnight in Paris (2011) where Owen Wilson plays Gil, a screenwriter who is seen to be hugely successful but has a sense of disdain for his profession, wishing to be a novelist and to do something more meaningful. The script assists in generating another stereotypical but likeable Allen lead, bumbling through passages with paranoia, strong self-awareness and magnificent smartness. Gil clashes with the typical Allen pseudo-intellectual antagonist Paul (Michael Sheen) and their battle of wits plays out like the famous Marshall McLuhan scene in Annie Hall where Alvy encounters a know-it-all in the cinema queue and appeals to the audience before lecturing the man by pulling in the real McLuhan to prove his point. In Midnight in Paris, Gilks states that this “scene is now taken and elevated to subplot, with Gil filling in for Alvy Singer, Paul filling in for the guy in line, and Pablo Picasso filling in for Marshall McLuhan.”
On the much discussed topic of Allen basing characters on himself, he has actually admitted that the aforementioned Jerry Falk was based on himself. Gilks explores the uncanny resemblances, saying that “Jerry Falk could easily be a younger Alvy Singer. He could also be a younger Woody Allen which, in fact, he is. He’s a rare character that Allen will admit is based on himself. Falk is a 21-year-old divorcé (Allen first divorced when he was 22) and an established joke-writer (Allen was writing for The Tonight Show by the time he was 19). Falk is neurotic, self-deprecating, death-obsessed, and ridiculously well-read — which Allen also was in his 20s, as anyone who’s listened to his early comedy record can attest.” This signature persona is so obviously Woody Allen and even when he is not in the role, his attitude and charisma comes across so heavily, again asserting him forward in the argument for authorship theory.
Allen is a proud New Yorker, born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn. This identification with his roots comes across vividly in his early works, the Big Apple taking a prominent role itself in illustrating the world that his characters inhabit. His features were frequently set in New York, most famously Annie Hall and of course, Manhattan, and have been described as love letters to the city with glorious landmarks on show, glamorising the location and fitting perfectly into his developing style. In recent years, as Allen is growing old, it is as if he is ticking the boxes of all the European capitals, using the settings and establishing them in a deliberately heavy handed way, some even have the name of the city in the films title. In each he again doesn’t shy away from immediately shoving the setting in the forefront with clear familiar sights and tourist attractions, often also incorporating a fitting complimentary soundtrack for further emphasis. In Match Point (2005), the first of his two London films followed by Scoop a year later, the lovers stand by the River Thames with the well known scenery in the background, a piece constructed in the same way aesthetically as the iconic conversation scene under the Queensboro Bridge in Manhattan. Then in Vicki Cristina Barcelona (2008), Javier Bardem and Rebecca Hall cross paths at Antonio Gaudi’s Park Guell directly in front of the dragon fountain and in Midnight in Paris, again there is a riverside shot with Eiffel Tower lurking in the shot. The long establishing shot in Midnight in Paris (2011), setting the scene, was commented on by analyst Mathew Brownstein where he said that it “illustrates beautifully what his characters will be seeing and visiting while staying in Paris. It helps set up the audience to understand where they are viewing this from and illustrates the importance of the location in the film. Paris is a main part of the film. Instead of having characters or dialogue, Allen allows the audience to just view the scenery and familiarize themselves with what Owen Wilson’s character will be experiencing in the film.” This has been a late theme in Woody Allen’s career but still one worth mentioning, stressing a recurring motif and a new visual signature.
In Paul Sartre’s introduction to Le Temps Modernes, he says that “once we break out of the confines of exclusively aesthetic concerns, we quickly see that the main determinant of who was an auteur was the director’s world view which he expressed through the material he was working with.” This illustrates that camera work, and imagery aside, what really defines an auteur is a sense of their own identity as a person, and how this is shown through his or her work. Allen to me is an auteur as his films are so synonymous with him as an artist, as a writer, a director or as a person. The brilliant sense of humour is ever present where the jokes come from him or one of his many amalgamations of himself and a conflicted character he has written, going through the same turmoil in love and work as he has. “All the films praised by the auteur critics begin with the physical, psychological, and spiritual isolation of the main character or characters. As the tale develops, we find that the hero is forced to discover his most base and humiliating aspects; he has reached the point at which his relationship to other people and ultimately to God becomes clear to him and to the audience as well”.(Hess, 2006) Whilst Hess talks of a discovery suggesting an air of reflective conclusion, Allen’s characters do often discover their true vocation in life, or make the decision on the right woman they should be with, but don’t always act on it, leaving some of his character arcs beautifully unfinished and unresolved. As a Jewish comic, this bleeds through into his films from his early stand up shows, mainly in the form of paranoia of anti-Semitism, attacking the misconception of the tightwad New York Jew. This idea has influenced fellow Jewish acts such as Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David who share this mentality, and use it for comparable comic effect. This, along with his dry wit, simplistic but striking cinematography (though this is mainly down to Gordon Willis who worked with Allen on his most aesthetically pleasing films, but influenced his future project art direction) and eccentric bumbling characters all contribute to the being of what is a ‘Woody Allen’ film – a style admired and often emulated but never duplicated – and instantly recognisable, placing him amongst the greatest filmmakers of his generation and an auteur in his own right.
Scripts have been scrunched up and chucked away from previous efforts to adapt Irvine Welsh’s ‘Filth’, all supposedly unbefitting of the desired quality and charm. That was, until writer and director Jon S. Baird pitched up with as much passion for the novel as Danny Boyle and John Hodge had for Trainspotting when they developed it for the big screen nearly twenty years ago. Baird’s interpretation is both loyal to the book yet takes Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson’s tragic journey in a fresh, but strange new direction. Bruce (James McAvoy) has his beady eye on a promotion in the force and will stop at nothing to put himself in pole position ahead of his competitors. When a Japanese student is killed in one of Edinburgh’s most grimy underpasses, he is placed in charge of the murder investigation, but his deep psychological issues soon begin to scupper his plans as his state of mind spirals wildly out of control.
Handpicking elements from the novel, we are thrust into various subplots straight from the off, from colleague mind games to wicked prank calls to his friend Bladesey’s wife, and the narrative quickly becomes as incoherent as the protagonist’s control obsessed lifestyle. Bruce is a nasty piece of work: a racist, homophobic, alcoholic, drug-addicted, misogynistic mess, yet his story is not without moments of empathy. Welsh’s dark humour is smeared all over the reel, his trademark sick wit is forever present, and the sense of setting is perfect, capturing the festive season in Scotland’s capital very aptly, so much so that you can almost feel the chill as Robbo roams the grey cobbled streets of the Old Town. Most impressive is how Baird handled the complexities of (Bruce’s inner trauma tapeworm, which appears on paper as a bold intrusion streaking through the page, but is cinematically transformed into trippy doctor visits displaying a great understanding of the storytelling tool). This surreal gloss clogs the arteries of the film increasingly throughout, providing a gruelling, yet at times terribly funny, depiction of a man’s physical and mental decline.
With a host of characters squeezed into the running time, some giving no more than brief cameos, the majority of the all star cast weren’t given much of an opportunity to stand out and be noticed. Eddie Marsan again flaunts his admirable versatility as the nervous bumbling Clifford Blades, known affectionately as Brother Blades to Bruce. Shirley Henderson is also a lot of fun as his feisty missus Bunty. Other notable turns come from Jim Broadbent as Dr. Rossi and Jamie Bell as young cocaine snorting police officer Ray Lennox whose character was the key to Welsh’s spin-off Crime. This would also be intriguing to see on the big screen, allowing time for the character to unfold a little more. Despite an acclaimed supporting ensemble, nobody comes close to the show stopping James McAvoy’s in what is the performance of his career in a role he was born to play.
McAvoy epitomises Bruce, encapsulating the sheer weight of the character and all the layers involved. Physically, he is pasty and bloated having gained weight for the role. His unkempt face sports ginger fuzz and his hair is smeared back in as much grease as it takes to deep fry a Mars Bar. In the past, rooting back to his Shameless days, I’ve always found McAvoy likeable but unobtrusive, never in a part that offers that little extra and slaps you across the face. As Bruce Robertson, he slaps you, trips you up and kicks you until you cry, before spitting at you when you’re down. I cannot imagine anyone else doing a better job. Not only is to utterly repulsive, he also manages to achieve an air of mercy and understanding that I believe would be unthinkable from most other actors out there today.
Where Trainspotting gave us a grubby little junkie pocket of the mid-nineties with its iconic soundtrack, and Boyle’s product placement, ‘Filth’ on the other hand is timeless. It is a dirty portrait of a man desperately trying to rebuild his life and put his sinister past behind him. This is ever relevant in any time period, and is a magnificent piece of work, due to the hard hitting script expected of any Irvine Welsh variation, and a remarkable James McAvoy acting masterclass. Outlandish themes aplenty, Baird carries them off with ease, given this is only his second feature film, tackling the tough subject matter with aplomb. Fifteen years after the book was first published, this is a story well worth digging up again, but you will be scraping the filth from under your finger nails for a long long time.