A Real Hero?


2011’s neon-drenched Drive earned a standing ovation at its Cannes debut, winning Nicolas Winding Refn Best Director in a sea of critical praise. Despite the initial reaction of the film world being one of awe as it witnessed a virtuoso at work, some retrospective pieces have branded Drive one the most overrated films of the decade. Particularly, some have noted the similarities with Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, whilst suggesting that Baby Driver combines style and substance where Drive does not. So which appraisal is right: stylish substance? Or a shallow experience disguised underneath impressive visuals?

The plot of Drive is simple by design. The nameless Driver the film follows is a Hollywood stunt-driver by day, and a get away driver for criminals by night. However, as he begins to form a connection with his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos), his efforts to improve their lives crash full-throttle into the criminal underworld he himself is a part of, thus leading him to reject one life to protect the other, as he vies against criminal bosses portrayed by Alfred Brooks and Ron Perlman.

A film doesn’t receive such a response at Cannes without holding some merit. Refn is an extremely talented filmmaker, evident in the visual flair displayed throughout Drive. I’ve heard Refn is colour-blind, which only makes the vivid, deliberate use of colour to drench this film in its own unique atmosphere all the more impressive. Equally atmospheric is Cliff Martinez’s synthwave score, adding a brooding soundscape sonically symmetrical with the decrepit parts of Los Angeles Drive inhabits. This all helps immerse us in a world that exists in Refn’s dreams rather than is tangible in reality.  Likewise, the filming of certain sequences from largely or entirely within The Driver’s Car helps to immerse us in this dream world; the first sequence of the film works accordingly to instantly build an affinity between us and Gosling.

Gosling sells The Driver to us as a real person with nuances and idiosyncrasies, rather than merely an actor playing a character. There is a genuine conflict between him and Albert Brooks villainous Bernie Rose, in perhaps a career-best performance. The rest of the supporting cast ranges from effective to strong; Oscar Isaac notably imbues a bit-part character with a depth not present in the script itself.

What is most impressive about this story, however, is Refn’s aforementioned visual flair; his story is most effective when communicated visually. Dialogue is employed extremely economically, with much of the story instead communicated through sound and vision. The most acclaimed example of this is the elevator scene midway through the film. Shot in a confined but moving space, the sequence perfectly captures how The Driver can no longer chose inaction, situated between the woman he has grown to love and the violent consequences of his criminal life. Wordlessly and gracefully, the scene moves from slow-mo intimacy to intense violence.

So why does this finely crafted scene leave me feeling somewhat empty? Explaining this is key to explaining my broader critique of Drive, for the reasons Refn himself gives:

‘Yeah, I structured the movie very much like a Grimm’s fairy tale…it had to be extremely pure in the beginning, but then it had to be very dark and moralistic at the end. One part needed the other part to justify the circle…it starts off as something really pure and beautiful, but then it erupts into a psychotic explosion.’


The contrast between tender romance and brutal violence is undoubtedly intense at a sensory level. But how it is “moralistic” is less clear. Distill the message of the scene down, and it really isn’t anything interesting or originally presented: vigilante violence is justified by romantic motivation. Intense lightning and ambient synth music doesn’t somehow make this profound; visual style cannot substitute intellectual substance. This is a problem that extends to the movie as a whole, and it is here that the visual storytelling of Drive falls down – because a poor story lacking emotional resonance or intelligent ideas doesn’t become better simply by being told visually.

This is not to say that Drive is without some intelligence. Many have highlighted the parallels present between The Driver and Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, from Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. Both are nameless anti-heroes who stumble into the events of their respective stories, easily identified through their distinctive outfits (a scorpion-branded jacket and faded poncho). Both also have withdrawn personalities and idiosyncratic mannerisms, as they avoid significant engagement with people and focus on practising their singular talent.

Where these two characters diverge, however, demonstrates the deficiencies in The Driver as an effective protagonist. Crucially, The Driver only seems to be involved in violence and crime as an opportunity to use his talents, whilst The Man With No Name is irrevocably violent – violence is his talent. He lives in a harsh and violent world, where he is only able to survive because he excels at outwitting and outshooting criminals and rivals. Conversely, The Driver has meaning outside of his violence, and is established as a character who doesn’t need to employ violence at all to live comfortably, nor employ his talent. Thus, where Leone created a character that gels with the setting he was shooting in, Refn conversely tries to justify The Driver’s violence by adjusting the world around Gosling. One approach feels natural, and one feels artificial.

The consequence is that The Driver’s violence is disorienting, which is heightened by the differences in how Refn and Leone present their characters. The Man With No Name’s words reveal little, but nuance is added to him through his actions – particularly in this famous wordless scene. The reverse is generally true for The Driver. His actions tend to be violent and unpleasant, with his little dialogue intended to provide a softening counterpoint. But none of his sweet nothings to Irene are nearly as memorable as the image of Eastwood handing a dying man a cigar; none are as memorable as The Driver crushing somebody’s skull with his foot. Thus, it is ironically too little rather than too much visual storytelling that handicaps Gosling’s character.


The Driver’s iconic scorpion jacket gives him his own unique visual identity – and as another review suggested, hints at violent potential per the fable of The Scorpion and the Frog

Less convincing parallels have also been drawn by Refn between The Driver and superheroes – though reading such comments seem eerie in light of the increasingly dark and hyper-violent recent superhero films. Nonetheless, superheroes don’t throw people to the floor then stamp their heads into pulp, no matter how much they may deserve it. Refn’s reasoning for The Driver being a superhero is that he uses violence to protect people against injustice, which is a description that could encompass the vast majority of non-superhero action movie protagonists. I’m not going to humour this bizarre comparison any further, but it is worth mentioning as a demonstration of the broader wonky and half-baked intellectual approach underpinning Drive.

This returns to the dominance of hyper-violence throughout Drive, as it feels like Refn feels violence is its own intellectual justification. Refn compared his affinity for violent filmmaking as akin to that of a ‘pornographer’ when discussing his equally-violent Only God Forgives. He has even gone so far as to remark that ‘art is an act of violence, and the more emotionally engaged you are in a piece of art, the more violent it feels.’ Violence doesn’t serve as a means here; violence is an ends to meet Refn’s titillation. This does not deny that the violence in Drive is technically impressive, nor that it generally does progress the narrative at a basic level. But it does highlight that Refn seems to prioritise violence for its sensory value first and foremost, with no greater meaning underpinning the violence than the threadbare and emotionally-middling plot.

Another, perhaps unwitting, parallel with the works of Sergio Leone comes in how this whirlwind of ultra-violence – perpetuated by a male anti-hero – excludes female perspective. Besides Marisol in For a Fistful of Dollars, women are almost entirely absent from the Dollars Trilogy. Beyond those films, there is the outright misogynist and exploitative treatment of Deborah in Once Upon a Time in America.  Likewise, the two female characters present in Drive exist either as motivation for male action, or simply as a punching bag. Carey Mulligan’s Irene only serves as an emotional prop, to justify The Driver’s transition to ‘superhero.’ The only other notable female character is Christina Hendricks’ ultimately inconsequential criminal, threatened with violence where she is completely incapable of defending herself against the supposedly-heroic Driver. She is then murdered in excessively violent style. Refn’s comments on the casting of the character are telling:

‘I was actually casting porn stars for that role. I was trying to work in a more reality arena for a character like that.’

Hendricks’ character is established as criminal, but not as a sex worker. Thus, the implication here is as transparent as it is retrograde: female criminals are inevitably connected to sex work. Knowing that Refn conceived of Hendricks character in this way also has connotations of the ‘Disposable Sex Worker‘ trope. Moreover, the only other women visible in Drive are nameless strippers, silent and subservient to powerful, male crime lords that they serve.

This combines with The Driver’s awkward characterisation to leave an emptiness at the heart of this film. The Man With No Name was a hero from a different time, conceived in the 1960s for a film set in the American West. That archetype is less compelling in a contemporary setting, and while the misogyny here was probably not intentional, it is an unfortunate by-product of the intellectual approach behind Drive, where voyeuristic violence is prized above emotional resonance or intellectual boldness.

Thus, we are left with a male power fantasy lacking clever ideas or emotional heft. Drive is undeniably stylish and deliberately crafted, with a precision to its visual flair and atmosphere. Nevertheless, it is a hollow experience that is neither cerebral nor emotional in its priorities. Instead, Drive prioritises the sensory and immediate through its intense violence, vivid imagery and retro soundscape. This succeeds in immersing us in the singular world of The Driver, leaving an ethereal, dreamlike initial impression. But as dreams fade easily from memory, so too does Drive – for the most interesting thing about the people, events and ideas of this dream is the filmmaking techniques used to visualise them.

Verdict: 6/10


El Madrid, It’s Nice to be Here


Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank offers a refreshingly honest take on the standard rise-and-fall journey of a band, defying convention in its approach towards the creative process. In doing so, Frank celebrates the eccentricities of its artists without glamorising them, inverting cliché ideas of tortured genius through a bizarre, vivid and insightful journey through the creative process and the psychology behind it.

Following aspiring but creatively-bereft musician Jon’s (Domnhall Gleeson) chance encounter with a keyboard player-less band (“the Soronpfrbs”), he is introduced to the mysterious Frank (Michael Fassbender) – a singer-songwriter whose head is sealed inside a paper mache mask at all times. Soon, however, Jon realises Frank is not just a freak in a costume, but a brilliant and visionary artist. As he joins Frank’s equally eccentric entourage, Jon desperately tries to undergo the same kind of trauma that will finally allow him to see the world as Frank does…

The focus here is definitely not on the rock n’roll, but neither is it on the sex and drugs. Rather, the thrust of Frank is creativity itself, with the Soronpfrbs spending much of the film isolated in a lake-side retreat undergoing all sorts of insane trials and tribulations at the behest of Frank – from intense physical training, to inventing their own musical language. Nevertheless, the band all follow Frank, and as Jon increasingly struggles to find his creative spark, the film is challenging us just as Frank’s talent challenges Jon: is creativity a natural gift only a few possess? Or is it a result of your experiences?

This all boils down to whether creativity can be emulated or if you are just born with it. What Frank highlights through this approach to the creative process is that there is often this assumption in musical spheres that creativity must come from an external force – be that drugs, sex, or (as is the case here) mental trauma. Certainly, such factors can inspire creativity, but the ultimate source of creativity comes from within; you don’t have a parent die then suddenly become Bob Dylan.

Really, this is a problem of correlation over causation; that multiple artists seemingly share such personal trauma does not mean said trauma is the source of their talent or creativity. In fact, these external influences often hinder creativity rather than boost it – as much as people like to romanticise Syd Barrett as a tortured genius, the truth is that drug use ultimately destroyed his ability to create (and indeed function as a human being). Likewise, Frank’s mental problems are revealed to have developed after his creative talents, and to have only ever hindered him in musically expressing himself.


Fassbender’s performance as Frank is no less vivid and brilliant than the character himself

It’s a testament to Fassbender’s ability that he is able to anchor the entire film in a performance that is always compelling, and moreover remarkably multi-faceted, showing the duality between brilliance and madness, between eccentricity and vulnerability. Acting as the perfect foil to Gleeson’s self-centred but relatable Jon, Fassbender’s Frank shows a character fascinated with the fleeting and very much in-the-moment, who can create art with ease but lacks the focus or maturity to package this in a way that is easily accessible.

Crucially, Fassbender is able to show by the time the credits roll that Frank has the creativity Jon lacks but equally doesn’t possess Jon’s desire for fame and fortune. For him, the Soronpfrbs aren’t a means to revolutionise music or change the world, just a way of expressing himself alongside his friends in a world full of people who don’t understand him, and when Jon tries to exploit Frank’s talent for his own ends, it becomes clear that creativity has to be achieved on its own terms; someone like Frank can’t be creative when tied to a commercially-palatable tether. In this way, Frank represents creativity in its pure and unrefined form, whereas Jon represents the bluster and excess of people who wrongly misunderstand creativity as something you can emulate and control through formula.

There’s not really much more to Frank than this, but there doesn’t need to be. You don’t need a big budget, layers of visual effects or a two hour run-time to make a great film – just a great idea that is both intelligently conceived and executed. To put it another way: you can’t compensate for a lack of creativity with any amount of explosions or horn of dooms. Neither can you emulate it simply by surrounding yourself with the best writers, the best technology or the best cinematographers – because even if external factors may inspire you in one direction or another, the creative spark must ultimately come from within. And guess what? If you start out with nothing to say, your film is probably going to end up with the same problem.

Perhaps none of this is sending the most inspirational message for budding artists out there. However, the message Frank conveys doesn’t dispose of ideas of improvement and progression, it simply shows that they can only take you so far. Not everybody can be Stanley Kubrick or Jimi Hendrix; not everybody can be Frank. Some artists just operate at a level too far beyond their contemporaries for anybody to ever match. Pointing this out isn’t a criticism of self-improvement, but a celebration of individuality, only making these rare few creative sparks – much like Frank itself is in a sea of uninspired sequels and muddled messages – all the more precious to us.

Verdict: 10/10

The Slow Death of the Superhero


The superhero film has oft been dismissed by a vocal minority of critics as little more than men in tights pummelling cardboard cut-out villains, as lowest-common denominator violence and pomp, devoid of any value beyond the superficial. This, however, is to miss the point of superhero films and, indeed, of superheroes themselves. Superheroes are more than just characters we relate to; superheroes are symbols which we aspire to. They embody the very best traits of our species: courage, perseverance, self-sacrifice. No matter how alone you may feel, no matter how dark things may seem, superheroes such as Batman and Superman serve as a reminder of everything good about humanity – our hope for a better future personified in the form of bulging muscles and questionable fashion choices .

I say this, because Zack Synder’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is, perversely, just as ignorant to what it is that makes the superhero genre as important and treasured as it is by millions of peoples worldwide as are the genre’s harshest critics. The result of this ignorance is that Synder has created a work of supreme iconoclasm that not only completely disregards the characters of the two most influential superheroes of them all, but furthermore rejects every value that these titans of popular culture represent. It is utterly deplorable how shamelessly Synder distorts and twists the characters of these great two symbols of hope, unity and justice into walking, talking justifications for the kind of paranoid, xenophobic divisions we are seeing grip the Western world. The inevitable consequence of this wilful distortion is a grim, ugly film which fails on levels beyond merely the artistic.

Gone are Batman and the justice that he embodies, alongside his recognition of the value of life. In his place, we get a paranoid, sociopathic figure who is all of the dark with none of the knight. Setting the tone for the film, we first meet him physically branding a terrified man – a criminal, but nevertheless a living, breathing human being – with the bat-symbol – no longer a symbol of justice, but a symbol of vengeance and death (we are soon told criminals wearing this brand are usually murdered in prison).

This is far from the most deranged act by Synder’s nu-Batman, however; he also guns down at least a dozen mercenaries, stabs one man with a knife and hits some criminals with such excessive force that they would realistically end up paralysed for life. This is a film marketed to kids and families, passed with a 12a certificate in this country. Eight year-old kids are seeing what should be an aspirational figure turned into a paranoid, hyper-violent figure who kills with no remorse and is ruled by fear. As I said earlier, this goes beyond Synder releasing merely a poor-quality product, but in shirking his responsibility as the guardian of the DC cinematic universe. In doing so, he is replacing a message of hope and unity for the younger generation with one where we allow fear to compromise all it is that makes us good as a species.

To emphasise just how superficial Synder’s understanding of the source material here is: the film begins with a gratuitous, slo-mo scene of young Bruce Wayne watching his parents get gunned down. Yet Synder doesn’t see the significance of this moment in making Batman into who he is – somebody who will never kill and detests guns, because he never wants anybody else to experience the same loss he did seeing his parents die. Rather, Synder looks at this and seems to see it as a justification for killing and maiming en masse because, like, Batman is so damaged and dark and vengeful.


Synder’s iconoclasm laid bare

Superman doesn’t fare much better, turned from a unifying symbol of hope and all that is good with humanity into a reluctant, grimacing saviour who cares only for Lois Lane. He causes so much collateral damage and is so ineffectual in actually saving anybody throughout the duration of Batman V Superman that Synder literally has to shoe-horn in a montage of Superman saving people to remind us that this is in fact Superman, the hero famous for, you know, saving people.

The conflict between the two may have been justifiable if there had been an actual ideological reason for it – two competing but equally valid approaches, both ultimately seeking to help. Synder vaguely attempts this, with a nonsensical explanation of Batman being angry over the deaths Superman indirectly causes – even though Batman himself directly kills people – and Superman’s unaccountability – even though Batman circumvents the justice system by branding criminals with a guaranteed death sentence. Consequentially, the reason for the conflict is instead defined entirely in terms of personal factors: Batman’s resentment of Superman and fear of his potential power, and Superman’s likewise hypocritical resentment of Batman as unaccountable.

As many other reviewers have noted, there is no room for any kind of ideological conflict because there is little difference between Batman and Superman in this. Both kill, whether directly or indirectly, both mope, neither possess any real differences in personality, and neither have any real faith in humanity’s better nature.  Furthermore, the “heroes” set aside their differences (in perhaps the most ridiculous plot-point in a blockbuster of this scope since Padme died of a broken heart) for all the wrong reasons, again letting one extremely tenuous personal connection overrule the ideological face behind what is really a tale of jealously and fear. Considering this, even the ending’s attempt to present a message of unity ultimately fails in showing the error of either Batman or Superman’s ways, therefore failing to refute the film’s continuous glorification of paranoid hyper-violence.


“If there is even a 1% chance that he is our enemy, we have to take that as an absolute certainty and destroy him.” Batman’s approach to Superman is distinctly un-heroic, driven by fear and paranoia rather than anything Superman has actually done – eerily reminiscent of some of the current anti-refugee rhetoric

It seems like Synder is trying to take much of the hate, prejudice and violence of the post-9/11 world and mirror it through the lens of the superhero film, except he has neither the talent nor the taste to achieve this. Instead, what he has produced is a miserable celebration of violence and paranoia that only succeeds in aggrandising the rhetoric of division and fear currently being peddled throughout the Western World. Or, to put it off another way, in such such troubled times, we need symbols of hope which show us a better way and reject the evils of the modern world, not symbols of violence and vengeance that reflect them.

The real failing of Batman V Superman, therefore, is not that it is an inept and artless production (although it is both of these things). No, the real failing of Batman V Superman is that Synder has refracted these two symbols of justice and of hope through a millennial prism of violence, despair and powerlessness – and, as Alfred observes, it is this feeling of powerlessness that turns good men cruel. A feeling of powerlessness that cinemagoers will not be offered a release from, but beaten over the head with again, and again, and again, because it’s “dark” and “realistic.”

Do you want to know the saddest part of  this all? We only have ourselves to blame. People didn’t buy tickets for Superman Returns; people did buy tickets in ridiculous quantities for Batman V Superman (myself included). We have allowed ourselves to become duped by Hollywood executives peddling lowest common denominator shit for guaranteed profit, and in the process we have distorted and corrupted these characters so much that we have killed them and the ideals that they stood for, instead accepting fool’s gold from a pretender.

So yes, let’s celebrate the realism, the darkness, the hopelessness of Batman V Superman – because, if we continue to buy into this nu-superhero DC are trying to force-feed us, we will soon be free from the superhero standing above us a guiding light, as we instead wallow besides them in our own filth.

*Related – Why the World Needs Superman



The Oscars Whitewashing is Real

There is little time left until the 88th Academy Awards are announced, however the controversy surrounding the #OscarsSoWhite and questions of representation have overshadowed the upcoming ceremony. I don’t need to restate the controversy (unless you are somebody who lives under a rock), so I’m just going to delve straight into discussing why the whitewashing accusations are valid and why some level of whitewashing is undeniable.

What I think most people can agree on is that the recipient of an Oscar is not always the most deserving recipient. In fact, often far from it: Stanley Kubrick never won the Oscar for Best Director; classics like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly didn’t even manage a single nomination; Ennio Morricone’s landmark score for The Mission was defeated by the score for Round Midnight (which would not even qualify for Best Score today as it used pre-existing pieces).

Thus, whilst an Oscar is certainly indicative of quality, this is a certain type of quality; the AMPAS has tended to reward the traditional and safe over the experimental and bold. People recognise the ideas of Oscar bait, of “norbitting” and of the behind-the-scenes politics which skew the validity of the Oscar’s as anything other than an entirely subjective measure of quality.

Yet when this principle is extended to the question of race, so many people seem simply unable or unwilling to contemplate the possibility that this is a factor. To a certain extent, this view does hold up; the idea of the AMPAS members all scheming to snub the entirety of black cinema is ridiculous. The problem, though, is that the issue is one of subconscious racial bias and under-representation within the AMPAS, rather than overt or deliberate racism. For one, a poll by the Los Angeles Times in 2012 showed that the AMPAS membership is 94% Caucasian, with the median age of voters 62. Two things should be apparent here: the age and ethnicity of the AMPAS membership. An exploration of both follows below.

Let’s get statistical regarding ethnicity. The US population is 13.2% African Amerian; the AMPAS membership is 2% African American. The US population is 17% Hispanic and Latino; The AMPAS Hispanic and Latino membership falls below 2% per this survey. Asian representation is also criminally low (Asian Americans account for a further 6% of the US population). With such a ridiculous discrepancy between the proportion of African Americans comprising the US population and AMPAS membership, it is intellectually dishonest to argue anything other than that there is an issue of whitewashing here. Again, I must stress that I am not accusing the AMPAS of deliberate racism, but that there is an institutional lack of representation for people of colour.

Furthermore, the age of the AMPAS membership reflects the problem of the AMPAS as an elite, conservative clique rather than a diverse and representative body; under 14% of the AMPAS membership in 2012 was under 50. The superficial reading here of linking age to racist attitudes is not without merit, as literally anybody with living grandparents can attest to. The Academy itself has realised this to be a problem, and has promised long-overdue reforms to the AMPAS membership for the 89th Academy Awards.

Yet despite the above evidence, I still see people defending the Oscars from claims of whitewashing, suggesting that the awards are merely colour-blind and don’t reflect the “PC” positive-discrimination is disappointing. This is an argument that is easily disputed by an examination by the demography of the Academy, and also one which falls apart when comparisons are drawn between the Academy’s nominations and those of other awards (such as The Golden Globes – which nominated Idris Elba and Will Smith for awards).

This goes beyond just the 2016 Academy Awards too – there have simply been too many glaring omissions these past few dears to be explained by coincidence. For one, the Best Picture category can hold 10 nominations; only 8 films were nominated. Straight Outta Compton and Creed have both been touted as Best Picture material – I can’t comment there, but I can say that Beasts of No Nation was a well-crafted film that actually has a metacritic score 3 higher than The Revenant. Considering also that films as shallow as Titanic and Doctor Dolittle got Best Picture nods, I personally fail to see how Beasts of No Nation is not worthy.

But Beasts of No Nations snub is more understandable when you consider that films like Steve Jobs and Carol (the latter of which has a metacritic score of 95) were likewise deemed not worthy of the two spare Best Picture nods – the Academy is finicky, supremely arrogant and extremely sentimental in what they deem “worthy.” What is not understandable, however, is that, Idris Elba was snubbed in favour of a left-field Best Supporting Actor nomination for Tom Hardy. Elba was absolutely immense in Beasts of No Nation – why has Tom Hardy, who received neither a Golden Globe or SGA nomination, got the nod over him here?

This isn’t about including a token diversity nomination, it’s about an honest reflection of the diversity of talent within mainstream filmmaking: Idris Elba; Michael Jordan; Will Smith; Samuel L. Jackson; Guatemalan American Oscar Isaac; Jason Mitchell; Ryan Coogler; F. Gary Gary; Beasts of No Nation; Creed; Straight Outta Compton. It’s not that all these films or people deserved to win, it’s that literally not one of them has got even the recognition of a nomination.

This is simply not acceptable. As I mentioned earlier, the Oscars aren’t really a great measure of quality – Stanley Kubrick, possibly the greatest artist in the history of cinema, never won an Oscar, whereas Nicholas Cage managed one. But this isn’t just about being peeved that a film or performance you didn’t like getting excluded, this is about institutional racism and issues of representation and whitewashing in cinema.

Cinema should be a vehicle for creative expression, a form of art that brings people together in awe of the images on that big screen, of shared exuberance at that happy ending, of shared pain at the death of a beloved character – of shared wonder at the seemingly-impossible ideas and images realised before our very eyes. It transcends colour, sexuality and gender identity, and however baffling it may be that the Oscars are seen as some all-encompassing measure of quality, that is how things are. The Academy has a responsibility that comes with this power which they have disregarded – for these latest nominations serve not to unite us in celebrating the escapism of cinema, but divide us in debating the reality of racism.

That, to me, is tragic beyond belief.

Eddie Redmayne, Overacting and “Ironsing”

Eddie Redmayne, ladies and gentlemen – fresh off the back of his second Academy Award nomination. As the above video makes apparent, his performance in Jupiter Ascending is so hammy, so over-the-top and so misjudged that Redmayne has been “honoured” with a nomination for a Golden Raspberry.

It’s completely justified, too. He slurs his lines in a murmur that you have to strain to decipher, interspersed with random bellows – “GOOO!!!” perhaps the most inexplicable (and thus hilarious) example of this. Who, of course, can forget that completely disgusting little gurn he gives 24 seconds into the video? It’s comedy gold. (you can read this writer’s thoughts on his performance here)

So, what gives? An Academy award-winning actor who is nominated for Best Actor two years running gives a performance like this? How does something like this happen?

Ironsing. Eddie Redmayne Ironsed the fuck out of Jupiter Ascending.

Ironsing (a term I have invented myself in my hubris) refers to when an acclaimed, usually Oscar-winning actor who has otherwise carried him/herself with dignity and decorum somehow ends up in a doomed production with the worst script of their life – a script so bad, not even Daniel Day-Lewis could save it. Instead of letting themselves become a victim of the production, the actor instead decides to become the most memorable and entertaining thing about it. Before, a line like “I create life, and I destroy it” would be a hellish nightmare that could consume the budding Thespian’s soul; now, it becomes an opportunity to just go full-on ham.

Obviously, the term gets it name from Academy Award-winning actor Jeremy Irons – some simply call it “pulling a Jeremy.” Irons provides the defining example of Ironsing it up in 2000’s doomed Dungeons & Dragons adaptation, not so much lacking restraint as laughing in its face. He exaggerates even the most minor of actions, with every laugh, snarl and bellow taken to such extremes that his performance ends up as a parody of acting, totally sincere in its insincerity.

For example, watch below as Jeremy Irons becomes a human vibrator.

Again, I can’t stress enough that actors with the experience, ability and critical acclaim of Irons are self-conscious beings, aware of their strenths and weaknesses as an actor, and of the strengths and weaknesses of the productions they are cast in. A performance this bad from an actor this good (as Wikipedia will point out, one of the few to win an Emmy, Tony and Oscar) doesn’t happen by chance; Irons will have been aware of how bad this performance was.

Herein lies the beauty of a Thespian colossus being cast in a production otherwise so conspicuous for its lack of talent – he or she, knowing the film is going to be a critical and commercial disaster regardless of what they do, is free to do whatever the hell they like. Nobody – be they the director or an executive producer – is going to stop them, even if they suddenly become lucid enough to realise that the performance they are witnessing is glorious, unadulterated shit.

However, Jeremy Irons was not the first to take such an approach to a bad film. Probably the most well-known example prior to Irons’ is Frank Langella’s performance as Skeletor in 1987’s Masters of the Universe. A Shakespearan actor with nominations for a Saturn Award and a Golden Globe, Langella nevertheless had the misfortune to be cast in the campy mess that was Masters of the Universe. However, rather than try to insert any trace of subtlety or complexity into a character and script bereft of either, Langella instead revels in the camp absurdity of the role, bellowing every ridiculous line with such volume that even Brian Blessed would have to tip his hat in admiration.

I’m not calling this “Langellaing,” though, and there are three main reasons for that:

  1. Langella, despite some praise, had not achieved near the level of critical acclaim Irons had when Dungeons & Dragons was released.
  2. Langella’s performance, although hammy, is somewhat fitting considering the deliberately camp nature of The Masters of the Universe, whereas Irons’ ham contrasts more strongly with the sincerity of the rest of D&D’s cast – only Irons appears to be in on the joke that is the film.
  3. Quite simply, Langella just never goes quite as far as Irons; he isn’t quite as committed to delivering a hilariously awful performance. Langella has no “human vibrator” moment to be shared online for the rest of time, whereas Irons does.

But I’m losing track here. The conclusions to be drawn from a performance this complete and deliberate in how utterly awful it is are:

  1. That they only come round once in a blue moon – it’s rare that a great actor signs onto a film as obviously awful as Dungeons & Dragons or Jupiter Ascending
  2. That they require an actor of real talent and presence – they’re distinct from the regular, unintentionally bad-but-bland performances of lesser actors
  3. That they are almost always the only deliberately-entertaining part of the film – in contrast to the unintentional and unentertaining flaws of the film, the performance is perfectly crafted in its sheer levels of awful, hilarious ham

To put it another way: without the prospect of Redmayne’s comically-bizarre slur and bellows, I would have had nothing to look forward to when watching Jupiter Ascending. So God bless you, Eddie Reddie, for taking one for the team, and if you do win that Golden Raspberry, mount it in its rightful place alongside your Oscar – because sometimes, there is just as much artistry in foregoing restraint as there is in employing it.

Other notable examples of Ironsing include:

  1. Glenn Close (3 Tony’s, 3 Emmys, 6 Oscar nominations) – 101 Dalmations, Cruella De Vil
  2. Michael Sheen (Golden Globe, Laurence Olivier, Bafta and Emmy nominations/wins) – The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Aro
  3. Gary Oldman (2 BAFTAs wins, Oscar, Emmy and Palme D’or nominations) – Lost in Space, Dr. Zachary Smith (some would also say The Fifth Element)
  4. Dennis Hopper (Golden Globe, Oscar and Emmy nominations) – Super Mario Bros, Bowser
  5. Nicholas Cage (Oscar and Golden Globe wins) – Almost every role he has ever been in, to the extent that he’s made a full-blown career out of Ironsing

Twist and Shout


M. Night Shyamalan is a director who requires little introduction, so synonymous is he with the twist ending. What doesn’t need repeating here is that M. Night Shyamalan has made good films (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable). What does is that the fundamental problem with M. Night Shyamalan is not his ability as a director, but his highly-questionable taste as a storyteller – for The Village is, despite a few hiccups in casting and tone, largely an aptly directed, suitably creepy film that collapses under the immense weight of its egregious, miscalculated twist ending.

The film begins in a 19th century village in Pennsylvania. The titular village is picturesque, but caught in an autumnal bleakness that betrays the unpleasant reality of the seemingly-pleasant life which these olde Pennsylvanias lead – for the surrounding woods harbour dangerous, shrouded monsters. “Those We Don’t Speak Of” have a relationship to this village that lies somewhere between a siege and a pact; the villagers don’t enter the woods, and they don’t enter the village. However, after a mysterious illness claims a young child’s life, inquisitive villager Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) insists upon braving the perils of the woods in hope of reaching the towns beyond, despite the protestations of Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) – a charitable and caring girl, blind from birth yet able to “feel” colours.

There is something inherently interesting in this set-up, a unique blend of gothic horror, period drama and rural living. The world-building itself, where present, is also intriguing  – the houses have trapdoors-cum-panic rooms, the colour red attracts the nameless monsters, and the villagers speculate over mysterious towns past the woods.

Moreover, unlike much of his unintentionally-goofy work, Shyamalan does manage to keep a consistently foreboding tone for the majority of the film. There’s plenty of vivid, disturbing imagery, with Coen Brothers’ cinematographer Roger Deakins expertly capturing the bleak atmosphere this script demands. In addition to the faded hues, special mention must be made of Deakins’ excellent imitation of natural candle light, with such an organic use of lighting essential in generating much of the atmospheric tension here.


Expertly shot and genuinely suspenseful

Old-school suspense techniques are employed to great effect, with the mysterious monsters hinted at through cracking twigs and sinister noises, their malevolent off-screen presence complimented with dark lighting when they do appear to add to their terror, thus allowing the audience to project their own fears to fill out the missing traits.

However, there are nevertheless a few oddities in terms of the cinematography, occasionally distracting from The Village‘s atmosphere by trying too hard to appear stylistic. The problem here is almost certainly due to Shyamalan rather than Deakins, with Shyamalan often guilty of forcing certain shots into scenes where they don’t necessarily feel appropriate. The below excerpt is very telling, with Shyamalan discussing how he “feels” a shot is right, then comes up with the intellectual justification for this later – the cinematographer’s version of confirmation bias. Certainly, this innate ability can produce – and has produced – wonders, but this admission from Shyamalan does go a long way in explaining the random nature of some shots in his films.

“I never try to justify a camera move first,” adds Shyamalan. “First I feel something, and then I justify it intellectually. If we’re pushing in on a character and the camera’s low, and I look through the camera and feel it’s not right, then I’ll find an intellectual justification for why it doesn’t feel right. It may be that the lower angle makes the character feel too strong, and at that moment the character is making a decision out of weakness rather than strength. How do you convey that? Roger may just know that by gut, but I need to work through it in my head.”

– Excerpt from https://www.theasc.com/magazine/aug04/village/page3.html

This ties back into the key flaw of Shyamalan’s work – again, his peculiar taste. This bizarre taste also manifests through some of the characters and their performances. Granted, Bryce Dallas Howard delivers a reasonable performance as Ivy, who is honestly one of my favourite aspects of this film. For one, the decision to make her blind ties in fantastically with the themes of faith presented earlier in the film, whilst also making her decision to brave the dangerous, uncharted woods feel more profound. Besides this, she just feels like a well-rounded, kind and likeable protagonist, with established motivations for her actions, if not clear enough an arc.

However, none of the other characters really connect, and none of the other actors really connect. For one, talented actors such as Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt and Joaquin Phoenix seem to have had all the life sucked out of them, delivering their lines with no real intonation or emotion.

Talented actors giving stilted performances is, of course, a Shyamalan trademark, and again makes me question his taste rather than his ability to elicit emotions from his cast; I think these are the performances that he actually envisaged for these characters. For one, because the monotous and colourless performances seem reflective of the opaque and stilted dialogue these characters have to deliver. For example, after Lucis helps cover a watchmen’s vigil of the camp, the watchmen blandly states “thank you Lucis, you’re my friend.” This is just one example amongst many of Shyamalan feeling the need to tell rather than show, and it’s not even necessary – the friendship is already demonstrated by Lucius going to help at the tower in the first place.

On the complete other end of the spectrum, both the writing and performance behind Adrien Brody’s Noah Percy are completely over-the-top and inappropriate – distractingly so. His characters feel cheap and exploitive, and the corresponding performance feels misjudged, unconvincing and even mocking of mental illness. Again, Shyamalan’s taste has to be questioned here, as Brody is a fine actor. The decision to include mental illness a traditional setting was an intriguing one; the decision to portray so disrespectfully manner was not.

Nevertheless, The Village isn’t ruined by the weaker performances or characters. Moreover, it shines in other areas of production. The costumes convince; the editing is sharp; James Newton Howard’s soundtrack is superb. So, why then has The Village become the film that is so heavily associated with Shyamalan’s demise?

I’ll give you one guess.

“The Village is a colossal miscalculation, a movie based on a premise that cannot support it, a premise so transparent it would be laughable were the movie not so deadly solemn … To call the ending an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes. It’s a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It was all a dream. It’s so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don’t know the secret anymore”

– Roger Ebert

Yes, of course the downfall of The Village is its now infamous twist ending. For those who are yet to see the film (although I would not recommend you do), spoilers below.

The decision to make the village into, rather than an actual 19th century village, a hidden retreat from a group of bereaved adults disillusioned with 21st century life is just wrong on every level. It deceives the audience just as much as it deceives Ivy, whereby their expectations of a suspenseful horror movie – expectations that, it must be remembered, the film meets for the majority of its runtime – are exploited to get them, in effect, to watch what is essentially an excuse or Shyamalan to try and one-up his prior work’s endings.

Not only does the ending feel cheap, illogical and unearned. No, the real sin here is that it renders obsolete all of this delicate world-building and slow-burn suspense that up to that point had made The Village such an intriguing film. In fact, it’s almost impressive in how totally the last third of The Village invalidates everything leading up to it, with the mystery, atmosphere, suspense and distinct visual character of the film all traded in the service of one astounding moment of hubris.

Consequently, The Village is essentially two hours of build-up without any pay-off at the end of it, with Shyamalan more interested in providing an excuse for a twist than in telling a compelling story.

That he so flagrantly butchered his own work to fit in a needless twist speaks volumes for how misguided Shyamalan’s priorities were with The Village. Again, this ultimately comes down to the questionable taste of Shyamalan, as he clearly couldn’t discern that the film he had to begin with before the twist was better than the film that he had after it. The other flaws in the film that I’ve highlighted equally reflect this problem in taste – tonal inconsistencies with inappropriate humour, inappropriate direction for Adrien Brody, and seemingly-deliberately emotionless performances.

Of course, there must be questions of too much creative control here. Perhaps, had Shyamalan had collaborators in the script, or executives overseeing production, they could have intervened and helped to lead the film in the right direction.

It’s easy, too, to see this all as one big cautionary tale; the parallels to George Lucas and the prequels seem clear. However, the tragedy here is that this is a tale that has largely gone unnoticed. We still proclaim ever new director with an original concept as some sort of revelation – from the Wachowskis to Christopher Nolan. However, each and every time a combination of believing their own praise and studios relaxing creative control has soured the subsequent work of each of these directors – from The Matrix to Jupiter Ascending, and from The Dark Knight to Interstellar.

Perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that, after a series of critical and financial flops, Shyamalan’s latest film, The Visit, indicates the possibility of him bouncing back. Unfortunately, by allowing himself to become just as closed off from reality as the titular village here, Shyamalan nevertheless has a long way to go in winning back audience’s trust. Perhaps he can build on the goodwill he gained with The Visit, but for now: think of The Village and that stupid, inexplicable twist ending when you see a shiny new film baring the Shyamalan seal of inexplicable taste.

Verdict: 3/10 – and the only reason that I won’t go lower is because I really appreciate the effort that people like Deakins, Dallas Howard and James Newton Howard put into this car-crash. Had it not been for Shyamalan’s supreme arrogance, there would probably be something to show for it

Top 10 (Favourite) films of 2015

With the Golden Globes out of the way and the Academy Awards just round the corner, we feel it is high time that thenichecinema.com had their say. After furious debate (especially about number 5 and number 2 on our list…), we finally got a collective decision and here we present the 10 films released in 2015 that we enjoyed the most. While there are a few we would very much like to have seen (particularly The Revenant), we can safely say that this list would probably not be very different. If there are any you think should have made the cut, feel free to fight us. Without further ado, let’s get started!

10) Carol


Exploring the clandestine romance between the nascent youth Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and the assured, cultured Carol (Cate Blanchett), Carol is as intelligently directed as it is beautifully acted, offering a rare insight into the subtleties of forbidden love in an era long gone. The cinematography is beautiful; the direction is subtle; Blanchett and Mara are both immense. However, whilst I would love to place this film higher on the list, it unfortunately has two serious flaws. Firstly, it focuses too heavily on the sexual chemistry between Carol and Therese, in the process forgetting to establish strong enough a romantic connection to justify its last third, coming across as inappropriately melodramatic. Secondly, too often it moves the focus away from the engaging interactions between Blanchett and Mara to instead offer a level of familiar, Oscar-bait social commentary that seems too on-the-nose for such an otherwise understated piece of cinema. Nevertheless, Carol is perfect in almost every other regard, and a film which I highly recommend.

9) What We Do in the Shadows


What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary following four chummy vampires in their attempts at suburban integration. Despite this seemingly thin premise the film never felt too forced, and kept me roaring with laughter throughout. This is in large part due to its imaginative script, written by Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame, which ingeniously pokes fun at all manner of folklore tropes. In particular, the frequent jabs at the Twilight Saga are sure to go down well.

(read our review here)

8) Beasts of No Nation


Beasts of No Nation offers a brutally intense, unflinchingly honest look at the predicament of child soldiers. It feels unique in not reducing child soldiers to the issue, remembering as well to make its protagonist Agu (portrayed perfectly by newcomer Abraham Attah) a real, breathing character, rather than just an emotional prop to elicit tears from sheltered, Western audiences. Much has also been made of Idris Elba, who is immense as the nameless Commandant. Again, he feels real rather than as the pantomime villain he could easily have become – the sad king of a sad little hill. Whilst utilising a few too many questionable widescreen shoots and an overlong runtime (in addition to worrying accusations of plagiarism), Beasts of No Nation nevertheless stands as a moving, engaging and bold piece of cinema (though one available through Netflix rather than a wide cinematic release).

7) The Martian


For a film centred around an astronaut’s lone struggle to survive abandonment on Mars, The Martian is unexpectedly one of the funniest films I’ve seen all year. This is no mean feat, considering how it largely involves protagonist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) sitting around by himself, performing complex mathematical calculations and/or producing fertiliser with his own excrement. The combination of a witty screenplay, Damon’s compelling performance, and a return to directorial form on the part of Ridley Scott make The Martian a film I can easily recommend. While still a work of science fiction, its lack of ‘fictional science’ is very refreshing.

(Read our review here)

6) The Hateful Eight


The Hateful Eight is not a perfect film, but there have been few as bold, tense and powerful as Tarantino’s latest offering. A stunning and intelligent script is combined with startlingly beautiful cinematography on the 70mm format, and given atmosphere by a haunting return to composing by Ennio Morricone. Though not to everyone’s taste, The Hateful Eight deserves to be remembered as a classic and perhaps the most mature work the director has yet produced.

(read our review here)

5) Star Episode VII: The Force Awakens


It’s fair to say that expectations for The Force Awakens, bolstered by a decade-long wait, the disappointment of the prequels and a nostalgia-based marketing campaign, were sky high. Despite this, J.J. Abrams and his team succeeded with flying colours in recapturing the physicality, charm and spirituality of the original films, whilst also managing to introduce diverse, nuanced and incredibly entertaining characters. Criticisms pointing to the narrative as derivative miss two key aspects of Star Wars’ character: its role as a modern-day myth, and its focus on character-driven conflict. After all, A New Hope was just a standard take on the Hero’s Journey, but one with fantastic pacing, beautiful worlds and strong characters. The Force Awakens is able to draw upon the existing mythos whilst introducing its own new, unique elements, resulting in a film that whilst nevertheless still less daring than it could have been, succeeds wonderfully in establishing the basis for a new trilogy of Star Wars, for a new generation of movie-goers.

(read our review here)

4) Ex Machina


Arguably the best film to star both Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac this year, Ex Machina managed to present the well traversed subject of artificial intelligence in a, well, intelligent manner. Bearing many similarities to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in both the themes and ethical questions it raises, the film could be likened to a feature length ‘voight kampff’ test (the system used in Blade Runner to determine whether an android can express empathy). That said, the ways that Ex Machina explores these ideas are both original and compelling. Stand out is Alicia Vikander’s performance as Ava the android, who manages to convey a latently sinister yet still sympathetic character. Think Frankenstein, plus robots.

3) Bridge of Spies


I saw Bridge of Spies on a whim; lacking the time to see the film I wanted to see, I ended up going into Spielberg’s latest film with no idea what to expect. I am profoundly happy that I did so. Bridge of Spies is full of fantastic performances that give life to a difficult subject matter. The communist conspiracy that the plot revolves around could have so easily felt dated or irrelevant; the heart given to the film by Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance makes it far more than a period piece- a trap that Carol came unnervingly close to. Whilst the conflict may be from a bygone era, the emotions certainly are not, and Spielberg’s classic understanding of people, politics, and heart are captured fully in this fascinating piece of cinema.

2) Inside Out

inside out

Inside Out is an effervescent, colourful adventure film that is as gorgeously animated as it intellectually daring. Through making the emotions of eleven year-old Riley into its cast, and the polar opposites of Joy and Sadness into its protagonists, Inside Out offers an incredibly nuanced exploration of our emotions, presented with enough colour and clarity to also remain easily accessible for younger audiences. Therefore transcending the boundaries that divide us and embracing the feelings that unite us, Inside Out tells a story that will resonate with everyone of every age – possibly Pixar’s finest ever achievement.

(read our review here)

1) Mad Max: Fury Road


Mad Max: Fury Road is perhaps the most important piece of cinema that emerged from 2015. Certainly, the two films I have already contributed to the list are well up for criticism for being, at the center of them, films dominated by white men. Mad Max not only ignores traditional ideas of Hollywood, but smashes into them at one hundred miles an hour whilst screaming and firing a gun. On the one hand, this film is not about gender, politics, capitalism etc. Undeniably, the frantic and brutal action and car-chasing sequences dominate the film, beginning almost in the first five minutes and not finishing until the tremendous climax. However, they are also entirely central to the film and George Millar deserves commendation for creating a film not just about big ideas, but also immersing them within a genuinely powerful and entertaining action film. Using vibrant colours, oodles of practical effects, and a stellar performances from Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road set a new benchmark not merely for action films but the Blockbuster in general. Truly the most important and, above all, entertaining film of the year.