I haven’t always been an F1 fan. There was a time when the sport came on TV and I, too, rolled my eyes at the very idea of watching toy cars go round and round in circles for two hours. But then I started working with a group of people who were really into the sport, and gradually I succumbed. I remember the season that I became a full-time, devoted follower of the sport.
Unfortunately, that season was 1994.
By then I’d missed a lot of the glory days of the sport that are captured in this astonishing new documentary on the life of three-time F1 world champion Ayrton Senna – his rise to stardom, his legendary feud with Alain Prost; I’d even missed Nigel Mansell becoming champion in 1992 then being replaced at Williams F1 by Alain Prost for one final title-winning year of his own. After Prost retired, Senna then moved to Williams, having been at McLaren – team and driver in a comparative slump for the last couple of years after their glory days – and at the time I can’t say I knew that much about Senna other than “former champion, probably past his prime.”
This new film is like a time machine every bit as good as the Tardis, allowing both those who remember and those who came to the sport too late (or not at all) to actually return to and relive those earlier golden years through an astonishing collection of contemporary footage. It’s so real, vivid and immediate that you’ll forget you’re watching events from over 20 years ago and become immersed in the battles, defeats and triumphs of people who seem very real and alive in front of you: the decision to use no “face to face interview” footage just removes you from the realm of documentary and puts you unshakeably in the moment.
Having heard so many people rhapsodise about this film for the last six months (as the makers tried to secure a mainstream international cinema release for it) I was if honest a little underwhelmed for the first section, which seemed like a perfectly decent but straightforward documentary on the life and times of a young Brazilian racing driver who came to Europe to make his name.
But where the film suddenly kicks in and becomes something quite exhilarating and extraordinary is when Senna arrives at McLaren as a team mate for Prost, and the personalities suddenly electrify and sparks fly off the screen: not just Senna and Prost, but the team boss Ron Dennis and most of all the astonishing president of the sport’s ruling body (the FIA), Jean-Marie Balestre, who comes over as such a staggering monster that he makes Darth Vader look too touchy-feely to ever dress in black again.
Senna’s battles with the “establishment” represented by Prost and Balestre absolutely transfix, and together with footage from the private drivers’ pre-race meetings (something that to my knowledge has never been aired before now) this middle section of the film is utterly compelling, as good as any drama you’ll see on film this year and surely good enough to be a stand-alone film in its own right.
But it’s also interspersed with character moments that show Senna the man – with his family and friends, talking about his motivations: he was very much driven by his faith, something that Prost regarded as dangerous as he felt that it made Senna heedless of the danger to himself and others on the track because of his faith in God. The film also expertly shows what he meant to the people of Brazil, and indeed what Brazil meant to Senna in turn: the sequence where he wins the Brazilian Grand Prix at last, what it means to him, and its aftermath is quite extraordinary.
Strangely – but intentionally, and effectively – after all this careful build up, the film then abruptly skims over 1992 and 1993 in a matter of minutes; so much so that the arrival of the caption “San Marino, Imola – April 29, 1994” catches you off guard. You thought you’d be ready for this moment when it came, but it turns out that you’re really not. Your stomach knots and your eyes tear up a little – at least, mine did. The director slows the pace, so that where whole seasons went by before, now a day takes even longer. That slow pace conveys the sense of dread and nightmare, and the film weighs heavy with sign and portent.
I remember watching that weekend all too well. I’ve never forgotten that the weekend claimed the life of Roland Ratzenberger, and came close to killing JJ Lehto, Pedro Lamy and Rubens Barrichello as well. Even though I knew the path that the film was now irrevocably on, I still wanted more than anything for it to stop. I wanted Senna to make a different decision: to decide that no, he wouldn’t race that day after all. But of course there was never any doubt – Aryton Senna could never have made any other decision other than to race and the film conveys this beautifully, with all its tragic consequences. And when the race finally got underway and it cuts back to in-car footage of a flying lap from Senna, it was unbearable.
When the caption at the end came up saying that after the Imola weekend, Professor Sid Watkins was put in charge of improving F1 safety and that “since then, no driver has been killed” I involuntarily reached out and touched the nearest wooden surface I could find. Because for any F1 fan, no one will ever want to see the events of Imola 1994 repeated.
Will the film appeal to a non-F1 fan? I think it will, unless the person is actively and passionately anti-F1, in the same way that my feelings about boxing mean I can’t bear to watch Raging Bull let alone Rocky regardless of their merits as films. I honestly think that this film – Senna – is such a strong narrative and character study that it will at least be readily accessible to the average non-fan, but then I’m probably not the right person to ask as I’m so much in the F1 fan camp these days.
But certainly to the F1 fan, this is quite something; quite probably the best film of the sport you’ll ever see, with stunning contemporary archive footage. It’s arguably one of the best and most powerful movies, period. I thought it remarkable, and really hope that it makes a decent showing at the box office and that more people are connected with one of sport’s – and life’s – genuine all-time personalities, heroes and icons as a result.
It’s extraordinary that one of Senna’s most heroic moments – when he stops his car mid-race, leaps out into the path of an oncoming F1 car in order to go to the aid of the stricken Erik Comas whose wrecked car is lying across the track at Spa in 1992, a moment of pure humanity and heroism – is included here only as an jaw-dropping piece of unexplained footage over the end credits, such is the amazing story of Senna’s life. Comas’ own role in the Imola weekend is excised altogether (it would have detracted from the focus) but was just one more shocking, tragic dimension to that dreadful day.
It’s the first time in nearly a decade that I’ve seen a film on its opening day; and I can’t remember the last time than I stayed in my seat until the very end, right until the end credits had finished.
But as far as I can recall, it’s the only time that I’ve left the cinema and started walking home and found it almost impossible not to burst into tears on the spot.
Every now and then I weaken and pick up a low-cost DVD on impulse at the checkout, of a film that I’ve never heard of before and know nothing about. Frankly its anonymity is usually a good warning: there are usually reasons why a movie sinks without trace, and that’s certainly the case here.
This is a film you really hope and expect will be better than it actually turns out to be. It’s got a good pedigree, directed by Japanese director Hideo Nakata (who brought us the original “Ring”) and featuring rising star Aaron Johnson (of Kick-Ass and Nowhere Boy) and it has an interesting concept of a sociopath twisting an online social network to their own ends. But frankly it never really gels or takes off.
There’s no trace of Nakata’s trademark “Japan horror” style, and the film is amazingly “English domestic” more in common with naff 90s TV miniseries “KillerNet” than the “Ring” films. Nakata does bring a nice visual flair to the online life which is presented in vivid colours and appealing (and peeling) design, the different chat rooms all having different and equally interesting visual personalities, while “real” life is effectively contrasted in washed out, pale and bleached out drabness. Nakata also brings a good sound design to the film that adds atmosphere that does much to unsettle the viewer.
The performances are good too, especially from rising star of the moment Aaron Johnson who gets to swing from insecure, troubled real persona to swaggering, confident virtual personality, which itself swings from initially charming group leader to gradually revealing his intensively evil impulses – and Johnson does evil well, too. Matthew Beard is very impressive too as the weak link who is deconstructed by Johnson’s character, while Imogen Poots has the most potential as the upper class airhead bitch initially attracted to but then repelled by Johnson. Sadly the other two characters are barely developed and their storylines suddenly peter out as the film loses interest in them (and the audience’s was never really engaged in them in the first place.)
The chatroom concept itself is nicely presented as a real location (bypassing people hammering away at keyboards) but every so often non sequitor dialogue such as “what do you look like?” or “where are you?” between two characters who appear to be sitting side by side remind you of the actual online situation; when characters do assemble in real life there’s a nice touch with one of them having to hold up a chalkboard in the air with their screen name on it so that they can recognise each other. This confusion of virtual life with real life is very much how many people experience it, and technically the film is reasonably realistic too, with nice roles of iPhones and iMacs, good representations of hacking and pedophiles and password protection into the visual representation of the virtual reality. For all that, it’s strange that this VR should be seemingly based on a text-line chat programme like AOL IM which instantly seems dated.
So how come this doesn’t work better? Really it’s because despite the film’s PR marketing and Nakata’s presence at the helm, this is no horror film. The stageplay on which its based is an “issue play” about online bullying which isn’t really as clever, original or interesting as it thinks it is, and it instantly feels like it would be more at home as a storyline in a teen soap instead of a film. The storyline is also disconnected, confusing, unfocussed and lacking subtlety, ending up in a pointless run around chase sequence around north-west London that feels tacked on.
It gets widely differing reviews online, from those thinking it’s underrated and deserves better, to those who want those 94 minutes of their life back. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s dreadful by any means, but it’s far from being one that will make you feel that your world is incomplete if you don’t happen to see it. Its flaws are enough to make the film feel rather laboured when it needs to fly, resulting in an okay watch but nothing special despite its occasional merits.
** out of *****.
You can always tell when something is a Tim Burton film – his touch is unmistakable. And yet at the same time no two of his films are alike, as he flits from black comedy (Beetlejuice) to Hammer-esque horror (Sleepy Hollow) and from fantastic drama (Big Fish) to stop-motion animations (Corpse Bride) and musicals (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street). Big studios try to harness him, but for every triumphant Batman they’re just as likely to get a terrible flop (the Planet of the Apes reboot.)
Even so, Mars Attacks! is one of the odder contributions to Burton’s canon of work. It appeared in the same year as the summer blockbuster Independence Day (aka ID4); in many ways Mars Attacks! is a spoof of ID4 and many 50s and 60s alien invasion B-movies in the same way Airplane! brilliantly spoofs the Airport films, and Scary Movie less successfully takes pot shots at horror films like the Scream oeuvre. But in fact, Mars Attacks! is more accurately a case of bringing a classic 1960s American science fiction trading card game from Topps to the big screen.
Like many such spoof films, it’s very hit and miss. Some people will love it, some will hate it; many will just be confused and baffled by it. If you can get on its wavelength then it could well become one of your guilty pleasure films than can be watched time and again simply because there is so much happening in almost every frame that it rewards repeating viewings. I’ll be honest – after my first viewing I started off not liking it and just found it left me cold, but now I’m in that latter category and seem to re-watch and enjoy it once or twice every year, a very unusual thing for me.
Mars Attacks! boasts a stellar cast, at sometimes inexplicably so. Danny de Vito pops up in a small role as a Vegas gambler only to be vaporised by the Martians when they invade; Tom Jones pops up toward the end to sing “It’s not unusual” and ends up being one of the “stars” in the end scenes despite hardly having featured; conversely Michael J Fox and Jack Black appear early on only to be early victims of the Martian’s ray guns. It’s all a bit hyperactive, as though Tim Burton burst into a cinematic sweetshop, scooped up all the actors and plots and FX that he could, and then legged it before the shopkeeper could stop him – and then had to make a film from all the candy that he had got away with.
But Burton’s one of the few filmmakers who could take such a disastrous hyperactive set-up and make it work. The Martians themselves (CGI creations, and yet still delightfully effective 15 years later) are wonderful, all the better for chattering away in Martian-ese and only occasionally being translated into English; their facsimile prostitute (played by Lisa Marie Smith) picked up by sex addict White House press secretary Martin Short is inspired, both stunningly beautifully and weirdly wrong and creepy all at the same time. The scene where the first contact in Pahrump, Nevada goes disastrously wrong thanks to a dove is a highlight, eclipsed only by a “second contact” moment that wipes out the whole US Congress before the invasion really gets underway, commencing with the Martians getting “pressed” into their war suits like plastic toys getting manufactured by being pressed by moulds.
Burton’s also the only director who can put Jack Nicholson in a film and make me … not mind. I hate Nicholson in films with a passion, with only two exceptions: his portrayal of the Joker in Batman (which is still a fantastic definitive portrayal of the comic book figure, with all due respect for Heath Ledger’s inspired and very different interpretation in The Dark Knight) and also his roles in Mars Attacks! – he plays both President James Dale and Vegas entrepreneur Art Land and is great in both. How Burton manages to make Nicholson so palatable to me is a mystery and a genuine small triumph.
Other actors include a young Natalie Portman, Annette Benning, Jim Brown, Pierce Brosnan (as a wonderful 50s-style pipe-smoking scientist), Sarah Jessica Parker (inspired as a fashion reporter whose empty head ends up transplanted onto a chihuahua), Glenn Close, Pam Grier, film legend Sylvia Sidney (delightful as an out-of-it grandma devoted to the classics of Slim Whitman), Rod Steiger and Paul Winfield (brilliant as petty bickering US Army Generals) and many, many more.
It’s a mad film. It’s inspired at times, and genuinely enjoyable, but it’s also uneven and imperfect. But I’ll happily keep re-watching it until the flaming cows stampede their way home (you’ll have to see the start of the film to understand that reference.)
It’s not had much love in its home cinema life – one pretty barebones DVD in 1999 and now finally a totally extras-free, non-remastered Blu-ray disc in 2011. However the Blu-ray is unexpectedly good given the palpable neglect, with the colours really popping and the extra sharper edge on key details really making this cartoon-esque film look really good, even if the quality is a little erratic (not unlike the film itself): sometimes details that should be sharp (like hair) suddenly become a rather blurry mess. It’s certainly an improvement on the mediocre DVD, though, and well worth adding to your collection.
So it’s Oscar night over in Hollywood, and I think that makes it mandatory for every review-inclined blog to troop out at least one post on the subject of who will win, no matter how ill-informed. Since I haven’t seen most of the pictures that have nominations, my opinion is even more ill-informed than usual – but what the heck, let’s roll into the spirit of the thing and trot out a few guesses and groundless preferences.
Best Actor seems a lock for Colin Firth. It’s one of those ‘perfect alignment’ moments, where an actor is playing the perfect role for an Oscar but also at the moment when everyone’s thinking “y’know, really he should have got it last year for A Single Man” so there’s a sense of obligation to put the situation right. It’s rather like that moment in Just a Minute where Nicholas Parsons redresses an earlier benefit of the doubt, so it would be truly shocking if Firth didn’t win for his role as King George VI in The King’s Speech. Arguably James Franco (the Oscar night co-host with Anne Hathaway) should get it for being the only man on screen in 127 Hours but then if screen time was a decisive factor then where is Ryan Reynolds for Buried, arguably a much more effective film and indeed solo performance? I rather wish Jesse Eisenberg had a shot at the award for his incredibly strong performance as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, but he doesn’t – he’s too new and young, which makes the Academy feel uncomfortably old, so he’ll have to wait a few years and pay his dues. And having actually seen Jeff Bridges in True Grit, all I can say is that it was a decent performance no doubt, but if that’s the Oscar-winning role of the year then Hollywood really isn’t paying attention and certainly not at the level of his Crazy Heart performance that won him the Best Actor Oscar just last year.
Best Actress seems a lock right now for Natalie Portman for Black Swan, which in itself is a bit of a “Marmite” movie (love it or hate it) but at least everyone seems to agree that her performance itself is stand-out memorable and fantastic. Her closest rival is probably Annette Benning for The Kids Are All Right, but Benning seems to have slipped up with her “I don’t care about any of this” early refusal to take part in the Oscar beauty parade and may have left it too late to repair the damage, which is a shame because her performance – rather like Eisenberg as Zuckerberg – takes a hard-edged, initially unsympathetic character and makes it work against expectations. The best performance of all is probably Michelle Williams, but the way that Blue Valentine has been treated in other categories looks like the Academy isn’t particularly well disposed toward it.
I haven’t heard much chatter about Best Supporting Actor which probably means it will default to The King’s Speech nominee Geoffrey Rush, although Christian Bale’s flashy performance in The Fighter stands a chance because the Academy can’t resist an ostentatious display of overacting and some good old fashioned method weight loss. Over in Best Supporting Actress the scandal of the year has been Melissa Leo’s over-zealous self-promotion for her role in The Fighter against co-star and fellow category nominee Amy Adams. The controversy and film duplication will probably knock them both out, leaving it to Helena Bonham Carter – admittedly fabulous as the Queen Mother (to be) in The King’s Speech and frankly long overdue an Oscar; and Hailee Steinfeld for True Grit who absolutely deserves it – and at 14, she is under that age that makes Academy members jealous and instead makes them go “awww, isn’t she terrific for a kid?”, so she may pull it off. I certainly hope so, but I have to confess Bonham Carter wouldn’t be a bad choice either.
In other categories, hard to believe Toy Story 3 won’t win Best Animated Picture rather like The Return of the King got the best picture nod for The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a whole; I’ll be cheering Roger Deakins for his brilliant work on True Grit in Best Cinematography; I’ll be hoping the provoking, controversial and important Inside Job wins Best Documentary, and I’ll be speechless if Inception doesn’t at least win Best Visual Effects for its brilliant, fascinating dreamscapes.
Talking of Inception, the Academy has already blighted this year’s nominee list by the omission of Christopher Nolan for Best Director which is just shocking given that one of the year’s biggest and best films was such a personal project and vision and which would never have been made without him. I hope at the very least they’re embarrassed into giving him Best Original Screenplay for the film – and as for Best Adapted Screenplay, as far as I’m concerned that just has to be Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network, no question.
As for the the director award, I’d say that it’s a three-way fight between Darren Aronofsky for Black Swan, David Fincher for The Social Network and the Coen Brothers for True Grit – I’d be surprised if British director Tom Hooper stood a chance for The King’s Speech, and David O. Russell will only win if we’re in the middle of a landslide evening for The Fighter. Oddly, Fincher doesn’t seem to be particularly keen on winning the Oscar for his film: as a renowned control freak he probably isn’t wild about the amount of control and attention writer Aaron Sorkin’s been getting for the film, and given that The Social Network has become a “tale of two auteurs” it’s probably not right that he should win for this and not for, say, Zodiac which was much more of an authentic “Fincher” film. I would be happy to see the Oscar go to the Coens for True Grit, but as my review a couple of days ago said, I tend to have “issues” with Coen Brothers films and so I’m not entirely sold. Instead, I have a sneaking feeling that this category is Aronofsky’s to lose.
And finally to Best Picture. The category’s been expanded to ten nominees to crank up the tension but really most of these don’t stand a chance – Inception in particular is a lame duck, unless everyone’s feeling very, very guilty about the Nolan omission indeed. Early on in 2010 this seemed like a shoe-in for The Social Network; then True Grit came along, and then the betting flirted with 127 Hours. Black Swan has rarely featured because of its divisive Marmite taste. Right now it seems like a lock for The King’s Speech. Personally I hope it defaults back to the first of those films and that Fincher/Sorkin’s collaboration walks away with the top prize, but I suspect the betting is right and that king trumps billionaire.
And now we can all sit back and see how completely wrong I am.
I’m a relative newcomer to Westerns, having mainly scoffed at them until I was dragged along to a digital showing of a remastered The Searchers at the BFI by a friend five years ago. Since then I’ve got to know and like the genre rather better, and would even go so far as so class 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as my favourite film of that year. I was certainly very much looking forward to seeing this much-lauded Oscar-nominated new adaptation of True Grit. I come out of it, as so often the case when I watch Coen Brothers films, with mixed feelings.
It’s common these days in studies of the Western to talk about ‘conventional’ and ‘revisionist’ examples of the genre, and the film seeks to have and balance both at the same time. For the latter, there is an unflinching look at the harsh reality and brutality of the life in the 1870s’ American West, from casual racism (the Indian denied his last words before being hanged) to every urine, sweat and vomit stain on Rooster Cogburn’s long johns as he sleeps fitfully in a cot at the back of the local butchers among the animal detritus – this film seeks an unflinching physical realism at all times. The big bad bogeyman, when finally tracked down, is as wretched and pathetic a wreck as you can imagine, rather than the evil devil Mattie Ross needs him to be if he’s to be worthy of slaying her father. And the land around them is also an emphatic character – cold, harsh, drained of colour. It’s beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins who also shot The Assassination of Jesse James … – but whereas that film has dazzling drop-dead gorgeous vistas, this film refuses anything remotely “pretty”. This scenery is plain and ordinary, or threatening and alien, an environment to be endured rather than admired; a hostile place where the land would much rather see you dead than suffer you to live off it.
But at the same time the underlying story on which it is based (the 1968 novel by Charles Portis) is a distinctly conventional story of Wild West revenge, with main characters and character arcs quaintly old fashioned. It’s clear from the start that Mattie Ross will overcome scorn and derision to prove her worth; that LaBoeuf will finally earn those dandy spurs; and that the irredeemable wreck of a man, Cogburn, will be redeemed by a pure love. And they’ll get their man too: but in true revisionist style, it will be at a cost. In fact the film’s strapline is “punishment comes one way or another”, and this is a film where any victory, no matter how small, invariably comes with a high physical or emotional cost to all parties.
Even so, I expect John Wayne would still be quite happy and at home starring in this film. And Wayne is in some ways the film’s biggest problem because of the huge shadow he casts: every scene featuring Jeff Bridges, you can help but remember (or imagine, if you haven’t seen the 1969 original film version) how Wayne would do it, and truth is that it’s not that far apart – Cogburn is still rather too larger than life, over the top and borderline cartoonish for the hard, realistic context of the rest of the film. By contrast, Matt Damon has infinitely more shading to work with when it comes to the role of LaBoeuf (and to be fair far less competition from his filmic predecessor: Glen Campbell is many things but actor was never one of them) and as for Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie – well, every bit of hyperbolic praise you’ve heard about her are true. Only, double them. (And it’s a crime that not only is she not nominated for Best Actress, her name isn’t even on the poster – while Josh Brolin’s cameo inexplicably warrants banner billing alongside Bridges and Damon. Absurd.)
Ultimately, the terms ‘conventional’ and ‘revisionist’ simply don’t fit. The tag that does is ‘elegiac’ – in the sense of this being truly an elegy not for a lost time of place, but for a lost genre. It comes not to praise the Western, but to bury it once and for all. After all the physical reality of the West, the styling of the film is strangely more of a romanticised pastiche: from the opening Southern-drawl voice-over, to the nostalgic country guitar-picking soundtrack and final scenes set in a Wild West touring sideshow, this falls back into the familiar techniques and tropes of a Ken Burns documentary. We’re seeing a film of the West that no longer has any personal connection with its subject, not even memories of the Wayne films and classic 50s TV shows, just recent sepia-tinted reconstructions. We are so far removed now from the era depicted that it is irrevocably lost to us. Everyone who truly remembered any part of the West has passed on, and so have all those that knew them – we’re now on third- or fourth-hand memories. The West is no longer real – as it was to John Ford and Raoul Walsh when they started making films in the 1920s – but folklore, myth and fantasy fixed in amber.
Never has the Western felt more lost to us in the present day than True Grit makes it: this is no revival of the fortunes of the genre in Hollywood, rather the reverse. The final scenes of the film are set in a graveyard, and the epitaph on the headstone may as well read: “Here lies the Western. Beloved genre, finally laid to rest once and for all with the most tender and lyrical parting kiss.” But the evident sentiment of the filmakers can’t avoid the fact that as far as they are concerned the corpse is still dead, and the ground is now hard and cold.