The Dark Side of Sexposition: “Breaker of Chains” and the Lannisters

There is something perhaps morbidly fitting that Game of Thrones, the show that appears to have given rise to the term sexposition in TV criticism would be the one to take the concept to an area that is at once troubling, a betrayal of character and, quite simply, outdated storytelling and characterisation tactics. Now, much has already been written on the rape of Cersei Lannister in “Breaker of Chains” that can be described, quite simply, as controversial, from the aspects including the deviations from the source material (in this case George R. R. Martin’s novel A Storm of Swords), the role of women in Westeros and, of course, rape itself. I won’t be focusing on any of those; while I of course agree that they’re important issues that should be discussed, I’m not quite sure I’d be able to speak particularly eloquently on. One of the things that interests me most about that scene in “Breaker of Chains” is the way in which it has used outdated tropes in order to create characterisation.

For those who don’t know, sexposition is the idea of divulging expository plot and character passages during or in the proximity of sexual situations. There’s plenty of this in Game of Thrones, from Littlefinger’s monologue about his childhood and love for Catelyn Stark to pretty much every scene that involves Oberyn Martell (including one in “Breaker of Chains.”). Now, while Game of Thrones is the show that seems to have caused the coining of the term, it’s certainly not the first show to use it, between the strip club in The Sopranos and the brothel in Deadwood it would perhaps be fair to say that HBO has something of a penchant for sexposition. As a trope, sexposition of course has it’s own problems, from the pointless objectification of the background characters involved in the scenes to the fact it is, given it feels the need to use explicit and rather heavy-handed exposition, quite simply, bad storytelling. However, the problems of sexposition aren’t the focus here, but are instead a jumping off point to discuss the ways in which the rape of Cersei functions more as a plot device than anything else.

Before what could politely be called the unpleasantness of “Breaker of Chains,” I think it’s fair to say that lots of people were rooting for Jaime Lannister, between the season three episodes “Kissed By Fire” and “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” he was on track for a fascinating redemption arc made all the more compelling by the fact that he is not only the infamous Kingslayer, but also a Lannister. What the adaptation of Game of Thrones does in a way that the books don’t, and I must admit I have no idea quite why this is done, is create a much more clear divide between heroes and villains. In season one, for instance, Eddard is clearly the hero and the Lannisters clearly the villains, Dany, with her myriad titles has always been painted as a hero throughout, and the opposite can be said of the late Joffery Baratheon, in that he is more monstrous and outright villainous on screen than he is within Martin’s original pages. By proxy, this has always made Cersei a somewhat more sympathetic character than she is originally written as being, here she is a long-suffering mother who watches her child become a monster; now, it’s a compelling arc, but it’s perhaps the root of some characterisation that is questionable both for it’s departure from the source material and how antiquated it is. After Joffery’s death in “The Lion and the Rose” fans everywhere rejoiced, and after all, why wouldn’t they? The savage boy king, the main villain of the series, had been killed off. But what this does is raise an interesting question: where does the show go next?

Given that Joffery is no longer among the living in Game of Thrones, it’s safe to say that, based on the hero/villain duality they’d created, that a new villain was necessary. Now, while there are plenty of characters who are viable to don that crown, from Melisandre to Mance, the issue with them is that they’re not really close enough to King’s Landing which, for all of the show’s geographical branching and dozens of plotlines, has always been the heart of the action. So, once again, that villainous gaze falls upon the Lannisters. Tywin couldn’t be the villain because, for all of his faults, he’s not as awful a person as he seems, say what you will for his grooming Tommen to be king all of five feet from dead predecessor, Tywin recognised that Joffery was a monster and that it’s not something that King’s Landing should face again; it’s not unreasonable to assume that Tywin, in spite of his hunger for his family’s glory and perhaps, in spite of himself, much like Varys, “serves the realm.” Tyrion is of course out of the question, he’s just not a villain and everyone knows that. This leaves only two Lannisters in King’s Landing who could become the next villain, Jaime and Cersei Lannister.

The issue with using either of them is that it would be a betrayal of their characters up to this point to suddenly turn them into villains, between the stepping stones for Jaime’s redemption to the power-hungry but still somehow sympathetic Cersei. All that besides, would it really be fair to turn Cersei into an out-and-out villain moments after the death of her son? Probably not, and that’s where the cheap, lazy and – for many reasons – downright offensive use of sexual violence enters the equation.

The use of sexual assault in “Breaker of Chains” is many things, but the one I’m focusing on here is it’s antiquated status as a means of storytelling and characterisation. The use of sex, and rape in particular as a way of punishing women is an age old adage that spans Hitchcock, slashers and pretty much everything else. It wouldn’t exactly be a stretch of the imagination to say that Cersei being raped is some bizarre punishment for her having given birth to Joffery in the first place given that the scene in question takes place literally right beside the dead king’s grave. In punishing Cersei through this absurd plot device of an assault, Jaime is also made to be monstrous, because, to put it simply, he rapes her and rape is a monstrous thing, considered almost unfathomable in it’s evil in society, and rightly so (even though I won’t be focusing on perhaps the more societal implications of treating rape in such a way, I feel I should again reiterate that they’re issues that should be talked about and probably have been by people much more eloquent than I.). Now, this of course goes against the source material in terms of both adapting the scene (which is disturbing but consensual) and Jaime’s character; even though the far-reaching implications of the scene are of course yet to be shown, it invalidates his redemption and immediately turns him into a villain. And as well as punishing Cersei, the scene creates an understandable sympathy for her as a victim, which again feels like, for all it’s other problems, bad writing. A perhaps fitting parallel would be the Bates Motel pilot episode “First You Dream, Then You Die,” when Norma Bates is raped by a home invader who she proceeds to kill in self defence. It’s difficult not to simply say that the attacker had it coming, because we at once sympathise with her and hate him, so when looking at this dynamic in relation to “Breaker of Chains,” Cersei becomes the object of sympathy where Jaime becomes the object of hated. Unfortunately, and again, rather morbidly, this scene serves the purpose it needs to within the version of Westeros presented to us on TV, one with heroes and villains where the villains are pure evil (Joffery’s most evil moment perhaps being the execution of the prostitutes that we see as Littlefingers informs in “The Climb” that ‘Chaos isn’t a pit. It’s a ladder.’), and so, in the wake of Joffery’s death, not only is another Lannister being groomed to be king in his stead, but another monster seems to be prepared to step to the fore.

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Is This the Death of the Anti-Hero?

Between the season three finale of Homeland and the final episode of Breaking Bad, TV dramas seem to be letting their anti-heroes drop like flies. And since, many moons ago when the Sopranos began what we like to call the TV revolution with the psychological depth it gave to all of it’s characters, but particularly the anti-hero that is at the heart of the show, conflicted mob boss Tony Soprano. And so, now that the anti-heroes that have began to show what it is that makes the TV revolution what it is are being killed off, the real question becomes, what’s next?

I think that the next natural step in the TV revolution – if we’re still calling it that – is for the focus to become even more centred on female characters. From The Sopranos onwards, women have been integral to this new wave of TV drama, from Carmela Soprano and Dr. Melfi to Ruth and Claire Fisher in Six Feet Under, they’ve always been there and they’ve always been important, but they’ve always been a step or so away from the spotlight. Even in Homeland, which very much revolves around Carrie, much of the dramatic action – and more questionable decisions based around the writing of the show and characterisation of Carrie – has been linked to Brody. Of course, that’s not the case based on where Homeland left off at the end of it’s most recent season, and, as important as Saul is, he is and will in theory remain to be a supporting role rather than stepping into the story’s centre with Carrie.

This female focus, this idea of a female character either leading the show alone or along with a male character, appears to be a little more common over the last few years, between female led legal dramas like Damages and The Good Wife, and the twin-lead dynamic that lies at the very heart of Masters of Sex, the idea of the anti-hero as we knew it, which is to say a conflicted, morally questionable man balancing multiple lives like Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan and Nicholas Brody, appears to be changing. I suppose it’s something like the shift in the focus of tragic drama, between the great men of Shakespeare, kings like Lear and Richard, to the women of Jacobean tragedies, the eponymous Duchess of Malfi, or Beatrice in The Changeling. It seems like a natural progression now for women to take centre stage.

And this impacts much of the dynamic that lies at the heart of the conflicts that these characters have; where the men perhaps lead double lives (William Masters does, for instance), there’s something about the women that is more about the elements of themselves that they see in and want or don’t want to hand over to others, like Elizabeth’s relationship with her daughter in The Americans or elements of herself that Patty sees in Ellen in Damages. Here it’s more a case of mirroring than doubling that’s important. However, it is worth noting that, much like Masters, her cohort in the sex study that drives the first season of Masters of Sex, Virginia is also leading a double life of sorts, balancing work and home life, particularly once her relationship with Masters gets, to put it mildly, complicated. This seems effective in that it not only allows Virginia’s character to develop, but in relation to the notion of anti-heroes, in her sharing plots that tended to be given to male characters, we see both the way in which female leads are sharing the spotlight with their male co-stars, in doing so it also shows the ways in which anti-heroes and TV dramas more generally are shaking off the old stories and dynamics. Along with this, since the anti-heroes of yore have begun to die off, there is a tonal difference in the shows, especially, it seems, the ones that have female characters near or at their core. Masters of Sex, for instance, which could very much be the show that ushers in a new wave of characterisations, isn’t afraid to actually have jokes, to lighten the mood of it’s subject matter, it doesn’t seem compelled to be crushingly bleak or perpetually morose simply because it’s a TV drama in the 21st century.

Of course, it’s worth noting that, in spite of the passing of Walter White and Sergeant Brody, the anti-hero isn’t officially “dead” by any means; Ray Donovan seems to be trying with all of it’s might to essentially be a West Coast version of The Sopranos, and Game of Thrones has more pessimistic, morally conflicted men than you can shake a stick at, but it’s not just the shows that are starting that seem to be impacting the landscape of TV (with Masters of Sex starting it’s second season in a few months), but also the ones that are ending. Of course, Breaking Bad finished recently, next season spells the end for both Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men, and of course Homeland needs to restructure itself in the wake of the events in ‘The Star,’ so it seems that more than anything, it seems that there is a fast approaching void that will need to be filled, and it seems that, rather than simply rehashing the same old tropes that have been used in varying shades for the last fifteen years, the things that carry the banner as these shows take their final bow seem to be taking the form of an entirely different beast.

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The Truth Hurts: How HBO’s Girls is Growing Up

It seems very fitting to me that Girls, HBO’s much-discussed comedy/drama about the exploits of a group of female college graduates (and another way of looking at the postgraduate ennui that appears in the likes of Kicking and Screaming, Tiny Furniture and Frances Ha). Much of the discussion around the show has been around the frank way it treats sexuality, and the unapologetic narcissism of central character Hannah Horvath. One thing that seems to have been absent from the discussion of the show is just how well the development and what can perhaps be described as maturing of the narrative mirrors the situation of the characters within it.

The three seasons the show has had thus far seem to present different outlooks on the world that these characters inhabit, but all of them seem to spin around the orbit of one thing: Hannah. Season one is very much what could be called the world according to Hannah, and at the core of her development throughout this season is establishing her psychologically and presenting us more with how she views the world as opposed to how she fits into it. I mean, the first season even has an episode (‘Hannah’s Diary’) where the crux of the dramatic action comes from an observation made in the diary that gives the episode it’s title. If that’s not a way of making us intimately familiar with a character’s views on the world and the people around them, I don’t know what is. The second season seems to present a more introspective point of view, closer to Hannah according to the world than the world according to Hannah. Although this introspection reaches it’s peak in the masterful episode ‘One Man’s Trash,’ the rest of the season looks very unapologetically at the impact Hannah’s actions have on those around her, seemingly exposing her to the idea of consequences for the first time, with the episode ‘Bad Friend,’ in which Hannah takes cocaine for a freelance piece, ends with a heated discussion between Hannah and Marnie about which of them is the bad friend, as well as ‘It’s Back’ and ‘On All Fours’ forcing Hannah to confront her uneven mental state when her OCD resurfaces.

These ideas of both Hannah’s views on the world and then, later, the world’s views on Hannah, lead very neatly onto the third season which seems to focus on, if anything, Hannah trying to fit into the “real world.” In season three, she even goes so far as to get a job writing ads for Vogue; not that it lasts too long, given that she quits out of fear that it will crush her creatively, but here we see a Hannah willing to compromise, doing something that is expected of her. Perhaps the most important aspect of the show, and Hannah with it, growing up, is the way her relationship with Adam is shown. Early in the first season, their relationship could be described as being friends-with-benefits on a good day, given Hannah says “when I’m with him he’s so real and so present, and then he seems to disappear and I feel like I invented him” (I’m paraphrasing a little, but that’s the crux of the quote) and perhaps what is ostensibly “grown up” about their relationship is that it changes and grows quite organically. Amidst the chaos of the opening of the second season, their relationship ends and their friendship becomes rocky and uneasy until they’re reunited in ‘Together,’ the season two finale. And it’s during season three that their relationship is at it’s most interesting, as well as being the best barometer of what I suppose you could call the maturity of the show, going on to illustrate the title of this piece; that the truth, in fact, hurts.

As has been mentioned, season three features what I suppose could be called Hannah’s unsuccessful attempt to join the workforce whereas, by contrast Adam manages to do so in glorious fashion, being cast in a Broadway revival of Major Barbara. Now, while there’s plenty of maturity in other places in this season, they sometimes seem to fall prey to that haphazardness that is effective for Girls sometimes, but seems now to be a bit out of place amongst certain plotlines; Jessa’s rehab story is interesting, although the sudden return of Richard E. Grant’s character that throws her into a downward spiral is so much less than the character deserves. To me, it’s when the focus of the season shifts towards Hannah and Adam’s relationship, the last “act” of season three I suppose you could call it, from Flo to Two Plane Rides, the focus becomes their relationship and what it says about the two of them, both together and as individuals.

The relationship between Hannah and Adam manages to teeter into a crisis without exploding into juvenile drama or anything too haphazard, it isn’t suddenly thrown at the wall like Jessa’s rehab/recovery/relapse story, it’s allowed to go to interesting places both new and old, and it’s the old ones that are the most interesting.

It’s near the end of season three, most specifically during ‘Role-Play’ when Hannah and Adam are forced to confront their relationship and particularly what it means to them as individuals; their compatibility and stability is questioned in an inspired way, during the sexual role play that gives the episode it’s name. The aforementioned sexual frankness that seemed to come as a necessary discussion point during the early years of Girls is once again making an appearance here, but when the show looks at sex in the same disassociated, angry way that it did in season one, it’s critical about it now. One of the first times we see Adam in season one – in either ‘Pilot’ or ‘Vagina Panic,’ I think it’s the latter – he’s having sex with Hannah and decides to proclaim he found her “on the street” and that she was “a junkie.” She catches on soon enough, but in the third season, when she’s worried that their relationship is getting stale, largely due to the time Adam is spending working on Major Barbara, she initiates a role-playing situation and, to understate it slightly, it goes awry. Borrowing a blonde wig and Marnie’s apartment, Hannah puts on the façade of a married woman who wants to be rather violently taken by Adam. Once Adam is convinced, it seems to be going well enough and there does seem to be a sort of spark that Hannah feared was missing, bur once they make it to Marnie’s apartment, things take a decidedly more sombre, especially when Hannah changes their sexual dynamic on the fly, which doesn’t sit well with Adam. It’s Adam who ends the tryst, coming clean about the root of their more aggressive sexual past, saying that “fucking is what stopped [him] from drinking,” and that he doesn’t want to be distant from her when they have sex, he wants to be “there” with her.

This tension between what the two of them want individually from their relationship ripples throughout their scenes in the rest of the season, particularly in ‘I Saw You’ when Adam moves out to focus on rehearsals for the play. Hannah, who by now could probably be called a world renowned neurotic, panics a lot and tries to hang on to Adam and their relationship as much as she can. However, where the sting of the truth is really felt, and when the show is perhaps at it’s most mature is during the finale, ‘Two Plane Rides,’ when Hannah gets into a grad school writing workshop in Ohio, something that could of course help her progress by leaps and bounds creatively, and she decides to go. Hannah’s narcissism is of course well known, but here we see her doing something that is good for her, something she’s doing for herself, not to spite others. It may be a little too soon to say, but it appears that Hannah, and some of the others in the motley crew that make up the cast of Girls are all grown up.

 

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The Drop Heard Around the World: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and consequences in superhero movies

 

Warning: This piece discusses plot points from The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. There will be spoilers, read ahead at your own risk.

I think, all in all, it’s safe to say that the modern superhero movie has something of an aversion to consequences. This could be for a host of reasons, like just how much they can get away with showing in movies that will typically be, if you’ll forgive the Americanization, PG-13 rated. Another, perhaps more pertinent reason could be just how franchise-minded superhero movies have become in the wake of the first Iron Man film and the now infamous post-credits sequence where Nick Fury wants to talk to Tony about “the Avenger Initiative”. Marvel recently announced that they have plans for cinematic ventures spanning into the next decade, so, if you’re planning that far into the future, can you really afford to kill off major characters and have them stay dead? Probably not. The most ridiculous example of this is probably in The Avengers when Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson is run through and killed by Loki. To my knowledge – I don’t watch Agents of SHIELD, the TV series he was revived to participate in – his miraculous survival is yet to be explained, although, explanation or not, it does show a rather clear preference for what I suppose could be called the good of the franchise as opposed to long term impacts on the shared universe that these characters occupy.

This aversion to killing off major characters appears again in the latest of Captain America’s outings, The Winter Soldier. Within the first act – if you could call it that, given the film’s rather haphazardly episodic structure – Nick Fury is shot and killed in Steve Rogers’ apartment by the eponymous villain. One would think that this not only sets up a compelling motivation for Cap to catch the Winter Soldier (which it does), but also create emotional resonance for the characters (the Black Widow watching his surgery and eventual/alleged death is among one of the finest acted scenes in a Marvel film) and ripple effects for the rest of the characters, the ones who don’t feature in this particular feature. Alas, this is not the case; after many half-missions and escapes, Cap and the Black Widow are reunited with a splinter group of SHIELD agents who were aware of Hydra’s presence, and Agent Hill says that they’ll “want to see him first.” Lo and behold, Nick Fury has survived. Needless to say, I was far from impressed and couldn’t but ask why they didn’t let him stay dead, and of course I’ve mentioned the good of the franchise and actor contracts and the like, but still, it can’t help but feel like a slightly cheap move to create interesting drama and character development only to have it utterly invalidated an hour later, it’s a cop-out that almost reaches the abhorrent levels of Iron Man 3.

There is of course a rather clear exception to this rule, one that exists outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in a film that is deliberately, in everything from aesthetic to characterisation to the presentation of violence, darker and edgier than other films of its genre. That film is, of course, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Much has already been written on the “importance” of The Dark Knight as a film, people have discussed its “transcendence” of generic constraints, the way it made comic book adaptations “serious” and the like. But those decidedly broader strokes are not my focus here, that lies on a more singular event, both within the film itself and, I suppose, the whole cinematic superhero canon. Rachel, the woman who gives Bruce Wayne a reason to give up the cowl, is killed and, more importantly, stays dead; there is no dramatic third act reveal where miraculously survived and the two of them ride off to the sunset in the Batmobile. On the other side of this spectrum, even within Nolan;s own Bat trilogy, wherein Batman somehow, with no explanation given, survives a nuclear explosion. It, much like the non-deaths of Coulson and Fury, is what could charitably be called a cop-out, but this one is worse because it goes against the precedent set in the film that came before it.

This talk of precedent is where The Amazing Spider-Man 2 comes in. Now, first off, I’ll admit that this film has plenty of faults; it’s running time is unnecessarily inflated, it tries to juggle too many villains and plots (I mean, who really cares about Richard Parker?) and is tonally all over the place. However, in the film’s climactic sequence, all of those faults disappear as it goes against the precedent set by both the tonal lightness of the film that came before, but also Marvel’s cinematic tradition of not killing it’s characters. Now, I’ll admit that the Spider-Man films and Marvel Cinematic Universe films are produced by different companies, but that doesn’t make the departure from this norm any more shocking or satisfying. To put it bluntly, Gwen Stacy dies. In a strikingly faithful adaptation of a sequence from “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” the Green Goblin (who, I feel the need to single out in terms of performance, simply because Dane Dehaan hijacks the film with his incendiary presence) throws her from a high place (in the comic she’s thrown into a river), and, in spite of Spidey’s best efforts, she dies in that way that everybody dies when they’re thrown from a high place, like Alan Rickman in Die Hard.

Given the way the death of Gwen Stacey impacts our friendly neighbourhood wall-crawler (until the still necessary sequel set-up that closes the movie), the question becomes, what’s next? – both for Spider-Man (as a character and film franchise) and comic adaptations in general. Given that perhaps the lightest in tone of all the major comic adaptations went so far as to kill it’s main female character, one can’t help but wonder if this is a step towards a brave new world where filmmakers aren’t afraid to kill their characters and have them stay dead. I suppose, in perhaps a rather morbid way, we can only hope.

 

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Review – Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

Only Lovers Left Alive Movie Poster

 

It’s safe to say that supernatural love stories, particularly those about vampires, are something of a dime-a-dozen commodity; between that and the film’s lead characters being called Adam and Eve, Only Lovers Left Alive is perhaps rather likely to elicit more than a few eye-rolls at first glance. However, to look at this film with nothing more than a first glance is to do it a great disservice. Seemingly without a plot, and with a pace that could charitably be called deliberate, those who will go where Only Lovers Left Alive takes them are in for something that really is pretty special.

It’s not really about much of anything in the sense of a story, there are hints of plot developments that don’t really turn into major points, but that really isn’t a bad thing. Without focusing too much on events, or even the vampire myth in particular detail, Jarmusch can instead, rather ironically, shine a light on his leading duo, Adam and Eve, both of whom are played to perfection by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. As a pair of vampires who have been in love for centuries and married each other several times – Eve mentions that their third wedding was in the 1800’s – their chemistry is undeniable, and although both of their performances are understated, they play off of each other incredibly well, and there is never a dull moment when the pair are on screen together. However, their moments apart at the beginning of the film, when Eve is in Tangier and Adam is in Detroit, are just as important. From the beginning, a connection is formed between the two of them; as Jarmusch cuts between the two of them, it seems as if their distance doesn’t matter and what happens to Adam appears to have some kind of impact on Eve, particularly when we see the two of them imbibe with blood for the first time, with the movement of both their heads and the camera, their connection is established and crucial. The reason Eve decides to go to Detroit is out of fear that Adam is slipping into depression and emotionally decaying.

From that we get the first hint at something that the film could be “about”: decay. But not decay in a personal sense, but a wider, almost societal one. The humans, or “zombies” as Adam so pejoratively dubs them, seem to be doing something wrong if the condescension of this central pair is anything to go by. As they drive through Detroit late at night, it looks dystopian, devoid of life, and also strangely beautiful. That’s one of the things that Only Lovers Left Alive does so well, for all of its melancholy musings, there is a very real beauty at its heart. This owes a lot to the wonderful production design and cinematography, which helps to do what any good love story should do: seduce. With its lingering takes and decaying cities and abandoned apartments that somehow manage to be so enticing, the visual style of the film leads the audience in with a friendly and sensual hand as we enter Adam and Eve’s world.

The chemistry shared between Swinton and Hiddleston has already been mentioned, but it, and their performance should both be singled out for praise. It’s understated and minimal and there’s scarcely a raised voice in any of their lines of dialogue, yet between the minimalist script and poignant pauses they create emotion and a genuine sense that the pair have been together for centuries, with Eve mocking Adam for spending time with Shelly and Byron (who Adam claims was a “pompous ass”) in order to cheat her way into a winning a game of chess. They truly carry the film, which is what’s expected of them given that, at its core, Only Lovers Left Alive is a love story, but it never overflows with saccharine sweet romanticism. As the pair dance together to “Trapped By A Thing Called Love” the film simply lets them, it doesn’t focus visually on some grand romantic movement or image, we are simply allowed to observe the pair together.

On the other end of the spectrum to these two brooding lovers is the mercurial Ava, played to perfection by a scene-stealing Mia Wasikowska. She appears for a few scenes, quite simply, to raise hell, and has a hell of a time doing it, dragging Adam and Eve out to see live music and bringing Ian (the one “zombie” that Adam can stand) back with her for what can only be described as an interesting night. John Hurt does a similar job of dominating the screen as Christopher Marlowe – yes, that Marlowe – bringing at once a darkly comic and world-weary sensibility that so perfectly encapsulates what the film is about: love and death.

It’s really not a film for everyone. It meanders, picks at plot strands that disappear as quickly as they came and sometimes, perhaps fittingly given the nature of the characters, has what can feel like a cooler-than-thou sensibility that many may immediately denounce as “hipster.” However, if you’re willing to surrender yourself to the film’s wicked charms for two hours, you’ll be treated to a love story that is beguiling, broody, dryly comic – Swinton’s delivery of one-liners like “Adam, it’s been 87 years” and “well that was visual” really are a treat – and, in its minimalism, emotionally affecting in a way that’s rather surprising. The vampiric nature of the characters seems rather fitting when describing Only Lovers Left Alive, it almost feels like the kind of film that one needs to be “turned” to become fully immersed in. I’ll admit that before Swinton and Hiddleston were sharing scenes I was a little wary of what the film was trying to do, but it slowly won me over, and by the time Wasikowska came kicking and screaming into the frame I was truly hooked. Those who will like this film will probably love it, and even for those who are unsure, I urge you to give it a shot and see if it turns you as it did with me.

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Review – Nebraska (2013)

Alexander Payne is a man who is knowing for making a very particular type of film; films about middle-aged men in crisis, and as a result of this there’s something of a worry that any new film he makes could be doing nothing more than retreading old ground. Fortunately, in the case of his latest effort, Nebraska, such qualms are resoundingly dispelled, and he’s crafted what is, in my opinion, the best film in his canon.

It tells the rather simply story of a man, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), trying to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to collect $1 million he believes he’s won, and roping his reluctant son, David (Will Forte), along for the ride. There is of course much more to the film than this alone, it explores the fractured dynamics of the Grant family, the deteriorating health of Woody, his uneasy relationship with his wife (June Squibb) and sons (Forte and Bob Odenkirk) as well as the very nature of being on the road.

There is something almost metaphorical about the treatment of the road and travel in Nebraska, they are not just covering distance and going to Lincoln but instead, in a way that is perhaps cliche of road movies and road novels (it brings to mind the Kerouacian sense of self discovery in works like On the Road), they also discover themselves, as well as each other along the way. When Woody and David set off together, their relationship is uneasy to say the least, they scarcely speak a word to each other – although that can be said of Woody throughout the film – and David’s resentment is not masked, but perhaps the reason for this is that the two men seem to know nothing about one another, and, more importantly, neither do the audience. To begin with, Woody is unlikeable, he is distant and cold towards his family and gaining any attachment to him is almost impossible given he never seems entirely present. But as the film goes on and David – and by extension the audience – discover more about him and this cold man is peeled away to reveal, in his place, someone almost tragic, a point truly brought home when David says to someone else (in reference to Woody) “he just believes what people tell him,” and the power behind that simple statement is that it’s true, for better or worse, Woody believes what he hears.

Dern’s performance as Woody is nothing short of masterful, if just because he can do so much with so little. Woody is a man who is clearly in the early stages of something like dementia, and by seemingly doing nothing; looking off into the distance, standing away from everyone else, Dern effortlessly embodies a man who is clearly not entirely there, both physically and mentally. His dialogue is sparse throughout the film, more often than not he simply “yes,” “no,” or “what?” and the testament to the strength of his performance is that he can say so much with so little. When Woody, David, Ross and Kate (Woody’s wife) are back in the town where Woody grew up, they visit the house he lived in as a child, and in there, his past is brought to light in a way that is so calm that it becomes more powerful. When he is in the room he and his young brother slept in, he is asked if he was there when his brother died (he died very young). Woody simply says “I was there.” In his parent’s old bedroom, he says “this was my parent’s room. I’d get whipped if I was caught in here. Guess there’s no-one to whip me now.” These few lines create such a strong emotional response, as well as a connection with Woody’s character, that they show just how good Dern’s performance is, it’s understated and restrained nature in no way weakens it’s power. The same can be said for Forte as David; although he has more dialogue and is generally more animated than his father, it is the quieter moments, those in between vitriolic lines of dialogue, that highlight how good Forte is in the role. Squibb is generally more eccentric than the two men, more outspoken and chiefly the most comical of the major characters; her performance is full of moments that lighten the film and inject it with an almost infectious energy.

Infectious is also the best way to describe Woody’s resolve to get to Lincoln. Even though the audience are more than aware that there will not be $1 million waiting for him, it’s impossible not to will him on to his final destination. Besides, the money isn’t even the most important reason for Woody’s travelling to Lincoln. Once again, this comes back to the seemingly metaphorical treatment of travel in the film; the more distance between Woody and his house, or the town he grew up in, the more alive he seems to become; travelling for Woody isn’t just about the prize, it’s about finding something to hold on to, some energy to inject his life with. As he says “I ain’t got long left,” and it seems he’ll be damned before he spends it sitting around in the same house day after day.

It’s not a perfect film by any means; there are issues with the pacing. This isn’t to say that the film takes a long time to get going, it moves deftly and at almost two hours in length, sails by. Instead, it takes a while to truly ‘click,’ or at least it did with me; it wasn’t until Woody’s return to his hometown that I began to love the film; it’s early scenes almost have a detachment to them that, while seemingly done by design, could make it difficult for an attachment to be formed to characters later on, when it’s needed the most.

Perhaps the most effective dramatic device in Nebraska is the way that it balances humour and pathos, both in its writing and characters (Squibb’s animated comedy works as an excellent counterpoint to the dry, stoic elements on the surface of Dern’s performance). What’s most effective about the humour in Nebraska is that it’s used, in that age old way, as a defence mechanism. Early on in their travels, Woody and David go to a bar and have a beer together. The conversation is awkward, and stilted, and instead of being serious, the two men tell jokes, but it is when the laughter stops that the reality of their respective situations set in. David reveals to his father that his girlfriend of two years left him, as well as speaking up about Woody’s alcoholism. Woody of course, gives as good as he gets, before leaving and spitting out to his son “you can’t tell me what to do, cocksucker.”

Stunningly shot in black and white, Nebraska is very much an exercise in restraint, less being more. With Dern’s faultless performance at the center, the film is about so much more than just Woody’s mythical million; it is about fathers and sons, the past as a prison, the allure of the road and a straightforward refusal to let go. Quietly tragic and triumphant, with superb performances from the ensemble (Bob Odenkirk continues to impress as an actor beyond simply being Saul in Breaking Bad), Nebraska is the best film Alexander Payne has made yet, and one of the strongest of the year.

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Updated 2013-14 Oscar predictions

I haven’t made any Oscar predictions since the very beginning of the season (other than a short piece about some of the films coming out of Cannes), but that can probably just be attributed to a general silence on the blog for a while, something I hoping to rectify soon, especially with awards season – which I always enjoy – is reaching it’s peak.

Given it’s reaching the end of the year and all of the major awards contenders have been seen, bar a few like The Wolf of Wall Street and Foxcatcher, but by now I think the latter of those two won’t be around this season (although I may have read something to the contrary a little while ago, there’s been utter silence in terms of news about it for a while), then it seems now is as good a time as any to do a revised, which will hopefully prove to be more accurate than my predictions from the beginning of the season, which included nominations for films like The Fifth Estate and Diana.

Best Picture

Gravity
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Saving Mr. Banks
Captain Phillips
The Wolf of Wall Street
Inside Llewyn Davis
Her
Dallas Buyers Club
Nebraska

At this point most Best Picture ballots will probably all look like that, with Her being a surprising pick, although it seems more than possible after the groundswell of support it’s received from critics groups over the last week or so. There are a few films that, while not on this list of ten, are very Academy friendly, and so their rather middle of the road critical reception may not get in the way, and of all the films like that, the most likely to try to get into Best Picture is August: Osage County, with it’s award-winning credentials (Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play) and A-list cast (Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and the like), it might just creep in. Blue Jasmine is also a possibility given Woody tends to receive nominations when he’s on form, and given this may be his best film of the last few years, the Academy might want to reward him for it with a Best Picture nomination.

Best Director

Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity
Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave
Alexander Payne for Nebraska
Paul Greengrass for Captain Phillips
David O. Russell for American Hustle

There are plenty of other contenders here, given that it’s in general been a strong year, and there have been some surprise critics winners (again, Her is suddenly in the conversation here), but these seem like fairly safe bets, given some of them have received nominations in the past (Russell, Greengrass and Payne), and something like Gravity just seems like a pick that’s “edgy” and “different” by Academy standards, so they might just go for it.

Best Actor

Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks for Captain Phillips
Bruce Dern for Nebraska
Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford for All Is Lost

Perhaps the major surprise here is Redford, given that, although his performance is the strongest aspect of All Is Lost, it seemed to lose a lot of momentum after its release and the early raves for Redford, especially since there were no other major awards people were saying it should be nominated for (although Chandor’s direction is excellent), and until the NYFCC winners, he seemed like he was out of the race entirely (presumably to be replaced by Leonardo DiCaprio for The Wolf of Wall Street), but the win there has suddenly thrust him back into the conversation.

Best Actress

Sandra Bullock for Gravity
Meryl Street for August: Osage County
Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine
Emma Thompson for Saving Mr. Banks
Judi Dench for Philomena

While this list looks like most others at this point in the season, Best Actress is stronger this year than it’s been in quite a while, and there are plenty of performances that could sneak in (my gut is telling me that Streep and Dench are the most vulnerable to taken out), given Amy Adams has received acclaim for her turn in American Hustle, and many would say that she’s due for a leading nomination after several in Best Supporting Actress. And then there’s indie darling Frances Ha (which is unlikely, but not impossible, Gerwig’s performance is excellent, and if the screenplay gets in, there’s the chance that the Academy notice the strength of the performance too), and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight, which also, rather disappointingly, seems unlikely, but it would certainly be a pleasant surprise if she got in.

Best Supporting Actor

Will Forte for Nebraska
Michael Fassbender for 12 Years a Slave
Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club
Jonah Hill for The Wolf of Wall Street
Brakhad Abdi for Captain Phillips

Jonah Hill is an interesting one here, given many are saying that his work in Wolf… is the best performance of his career, and he does have a prior Oscar nomination (Moneyball), yet  at the same time, the sheer number of performances worthy of consideration could knock him off. There’s Tom Hanks in Saving Mr. Banks, which the Academy will probably love, and the late great James Gandolfini’s superb work in Enough Said which has gotten more notice after the critics groups (although his categorization as a supporting actor is debatable). While Abdi may be on the outside looking in on most ballots, I had to include him in my top five here simply because his performance is so good that I couldn’t justify not having it there.

Best Supporting Actress

Oprah for Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Jennifer Lawrence for American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave
Octavia Spencer for Fruitvale Station
Jane Squibb for Nebraska

Squibb seems to have come out of nowhere, but all of a sudden she has quite a bit of momentum behind her, although I feel like she’s vulnerable to being knocked off, perhaps by someone like Julia Roberts (or one of the other women, maybe Margo Martindale, in August: Osage County) or, to make a brave/ridiculous (delete as appropriate) claim, if the Academy take to Her as strongly as the critics did, Johansson could get in for her voice performance, which would certainly be an interesting turn of events.

Best Original Screenplay

Blue Jasmine, by Woody Allen
Inside Llewyn Davis, by Joel and Eathan Coen
Nebraska, by Bob Nelson
Her, by Spike Jonze
American Hustle, by David O. Russell and Eric Singer

There are some other contenders here, like Gravity, but it doesn’t really have the support the film’s other aspects do; the film with the best chance of breaking in here is probably Saving Mr. Banks, although this list of five seems rather strong, although where Banks has a shot is that there’s no typically “Academy” fare, except perhaps the mere presence of Woody Allen, but the films themselves don’t really cry out to the taste of the Academy members, so that could help Banks sneak in.

Best Adapted Screenplay

12 Years a Slave, by John Ridley
Before Midnight, by Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater
The Wolf of Wall Street, by Terrence Winter
Captain Phillips, by Billy Ray
Philomena, by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope

I feel like the fact Before Midnight has unfortunately run out of awards momentum makes it perilously vulnerable, which is a shame because it’s a wonderful film and I’d love to see it get a nomination somewhere. I suppose the question becomes; what would replace it? Adapted Screenplay doesn’t feel as packed with contenders as the other categories, although it’s possible that August: Osage County could get in, but beyond that, I’m not really sure what could take the slot from Before Midnight.

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