Tag Archives: Roger Deakins

Stormy Monday (1988, Mike Figgis)

Stormy Monday is beauty in despondence. The film is set over a few days in Newcastle, where the local businesses have given up hope on any economic recovery of their own and instead are letting shady American businessman Tommy Lee Jones spearhead an “American week.” You get a discount for being American, there are U.S. flags everywhere, the radio is playing American music. There’s even a scene where Jones addresses politicians and businesspeople and tells them there’s no hope but for them to embrace the American way of… not life, exactly, but mode of corruption. Jones wants to build a development.

The only thing standing in his way is Sting, who owns a little jazz club. Turns out Sting isn’t what he appears (and Jones is less than he appears). They’re playing a chess game against one another, though neither are fully aware of it. Not at the start at least.

But Sting versus Jones for the economic and development future of Newcastle-upon-Tyne isn’t the main plot of Stormy Monday. The main plot is Sean Bean and Melanie Griffith falling for each other. Bean’s new to town and finds a job at Sting’s night club. Griffith is a waitress, but also under contract as Jones’s femme fatale. She convinces politicians for him. When the film starts, it’s been a while since they’ve seen each other and Griffith’s kind of done with it.

Figgis–who, in addition to writing and directing, did the music–has a very gentle hand when it comes to exposition. Bean’s backstory is a note in a read fast or it’s lost shot in the beginning montage. There’s some dialogue, some setup, but for at least ten minutes of Stormy Monday, it’s just Figgis arranging some of the chess pieces with protracted narrative distance, set to an expository radio program. Bean and Griffith are both listening to it on headphones, walking around town, cut off from the world, but–unknowingly–connected to one another.

There’s another plot line involving a Polish jazz ensemble who’s going to be playing at Sting’s club. One of Bean’s first job tasks is to get them from the airport. Coincidence will have them show up in Jones’s story line (they’re all at the same hotel), but eventually Andrzej Borkowski–as the band’s manager–and Dorota Zieciowska, as a Polish woman living in Newcastle, become familiars in the supporting cast. They have their own romance narrative running alongside the main plots. It’s one of the film’s truly lovely details, as none of the principals have much illusion about the unpleasantness around them.

Bean and Griffith pursue romance knowing that unpleasantness, actively working against it, dreaming against it, juxtaposed against Borkowski and Zieciowska’s hopeful one. Not naive though. One of Stormy Monday’s other themes is how ignorance isn’t just bliss, it’s simultaneously dangerous and necessary.

But Figgis never talks about it, of course, because Figgis never really talks about anything. Griffith and Bean will have these intense moments, deep moments, with short dialogue exchanges and endless mood from Figgis (as writer, director, and composer), cinematographer Roger Deakins, and editor David Martin. Deakins’s contributions to the film are outstanding, but don’t define it in the same way as Figgis and Martin’s cutting of scenes, cutting of sound. Stormy Monday is never rushed; there’s tension, there’s danger, but Figgis never races to get there. Even when he’s got a brisk pace, he’s more interested in keeping the established tone and making the dramatics fit into it.

Everything is precise; the film’s just over ninety minutes and Figgis, not changing the tone (which he sets in those first ten or fifteen minutes), employs numerous subtle devices for exposition and plot development. For example, how Figgis handles Sting’s character development (Stormy Monday is Sting’s story, we just don’t follow it). Bean’s fortunes change once he overhears a couple of Jones’s hired goons–James Cosmo and Mark Long, both terrifying–talking about confronting Sting. So Bean’s at Sting’s house for breakfast, telling him about it (information the audience already has; audience actually has more information it turns out), and Figgis does the whole thing from Prunella Gee’s perspective. She’s Sting’s wife. It’s her one scene. But it’s more character development than Sting gets almost anywhere else.

Figgis sets up the audience’s narrative distance, which is different than Bean’s, different than Griffith’s. Even though Bean and Griffith are the leads, co-protagonists. Well, after the first act, Griffith mostly takes over. I’m also using first act rather loosely. Figgis is as exuberant as he can be–stylistically–about breaking plotting expectations. Not plot expectations so much, Stormy Monday has some predictable twists (or maybe more not it just doesn’t have twists as much as reasonable developments), but how the plots run concurrent and where they intersect.

The acting is all good. No one’s particularly spectacular. Figgis doesn’t really ask a lot from his cast in terms of performance; they serve the film, which Figgis is going to precisely cut, precisely score. Lots of silent, thoughtful moments for Bean and Griffith, who both essay them beautifully. For their characters, the saying isn’t as important as the hearing, the sitting with what’s been said. It even comes up as a minor plot point later.

If Figgis’s ambitions for the narrative were stronger, Stormy Monday might be singular. Instead, it’s a phenomenal style exercise (with a solid script). If it were more narratively ambitious however, Jones and Sting would probably be liabilities. Sting gets a lot of help from Figgis’s direction, while Jones always seems like he’s just about to be exasperated with the thinness of the part. Figgis knows how to pivot to a better angle on the character, always implying more depth.

Stormy Monday is a masterfully, exquisitely, intelligently made film. It just doesn’t want to be anything more. Figgis fills it with content–good content–but no potentiality.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Mike Figgis; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by David Martin; music by Figgis; production designer, Andrew McAlpine; produced by Nigel Stafford-Clark; released by Atlantic Releasing.

Starring Melanie Griffith (Kate), Sean Bean (Brendan), Sting (Finney), Tommy Lee Jones (Cosmo), Andrzej Borkowski (Andrej), Scott Hoxby (Bob), Dorota Zieciowska (Christine), Mark Long (Patrick), Prunella Gee (Mrs. Finney), and James Cosmo (Tony).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 5TH ANNUAL RULE, BRITANNIA FILM BLOGATHON HOSTED BY TERENCE TOWLES CANOTE OF A SHROUD OF THOUGHTS.


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Sid and Nancy (1986, Alex Cox)

It takes a while for anyone in Sid & Nancy to be likable. Even after they’re likable, it’s not like they’re particularly sympathetic. They’re tragic, sure, which is director Cox and cowriter Abbe Wool’s point, but entirely unpleasant to spend time with. The film has a bookend–Sid (Gary Oldman) being taken into police custody for murdering–at that point an unseen–Nancy (Chloe Webb). Oldman makes a visual impression, but kind of gets overshadowed by Cox’s New York cops. They’re all outlandish caricatures, including their costuming, which clashes with Oldman’s punk rock chic.

After the bookend, the action goes back in time to London, with Oldman hanging out with Andrew Schofield (as Sex Pistol’s vocalist Johnny Rotten–the film doesn’t offer any exposition to set up a viewer not at least somewhat familiar with The Sex Pistols) and meeting Webb. Webb’s an American punk rock enthusiast–and heroin addict–with a grating voice and an obnoxious demeanor. But she’s being obnoxious to Oldman and Schofield, so it’s hard to fault her. Oldman’s a moron, arguably–as the film starts–Schofield’s flunky. Meanwhile Schofield comes off as a pretentious poser (needless to say no one thought much of Sid & Nancy’s historical accuracy, not its surviving subjects or even the filmmakers).

But Oldman soon becomes sympathetic to Webb and ends up, after some misadventures, getting high with her. From then on, they’re always together. Much to everyone else’s displeasure; well, not band manager David Hayman, who encourages Oldman’s behavior for the media attention. But much to Schofield’s. Sex is anti-punk so Schofield is anti-sex. Until they’re strung out too long, Webb and Oldman like the sex.

Most of the first half of Sid & Nancy is Oldman and Webb getting high, trying to find money for getting high, getting mad about not finding money to get high (Hayman apparently has Oldman on an allowance without a heroin allotment), Oldman messing up band obligations, Webb pissing off Schofield and others with her demands (which become Oldman’s demands, only he’s way too high most of the time to put much force behind them), Webb and Oldman fighting (usually over drugs, sometimes over the band). The dramatic result comes from the actors in scene more than anything in the script. The intensity, which sometimes means Oldman being almost completely inert, or Webb hitting a new level of annoying, propels the film. As a director, Cox oscillates between indifference and dislike for his protagonists; friction keeps the film in motion.

Until the Sex Pistols go on their U.S. tour–leaving Webb in London–and Cox gets a jumpstart, starting with the first shot of the U.S. tour. He finally finds something cinematic to chew on. The U.S. tour itself, the visual juxtaposing of English punk and cowboy hat wearing Americans, Oldman freaking out on payphone in the middle of Americana… it all becomes visual foreshadowing of the second half. The band breaks up on tour; Oldman and Webb head to Paris for a bit, back to London for a bit, then end up in New York. She becomes his manager. They visit her family. Sid & Nancy gets these moments of absurd hilarity, a pressure release as it tracks its protagonists’ descent. Cox doesn’t glamorize their heroin dependency (he does very little exploring it). As it becomes more and more clear Oldman and Webb can’t survive–they quite clearly can’t take care of themselves–Cox focuses in tighter on the two characters and their relationship. It’s always in a nightmarish setting, but often dreamy.

Oldman’s performance gets better and better as the film progresses. At the start, thanks to the narrative, Schofield overshadows him, then Webb overshadows him. After the tour sequence, when Oldman appears to get some agency, he’s always the narrative’s driving force. If not in scene, than in performance. Even when it’s Webb’s scene, like when they visit her grandparents and extended family and are way too punk rock for the late seventies suburbs. Webb gets to be flashy in those scenes, but they’re all built around Oldman’s eventual contribution.

The second half descent also has the film’s most beautifully edited and realized cinematic sequences, always set to music, sometimes (apparently) diegetic music, sometimes not. Roger Deakins’s photography is always phenomenal, but it’s often phenomenal in its dreariness. In the grand cinema sequences, Deakins never changes the film’s visual tone, he, Cox, and editor David Martin just find a way to hold the moment long enough the intensity burns through the dreary. But not visually, obviously. Cox and Martin are aware, the whole time, how to control the mood (and Deakins’s photography’s affect on it) through length of scene, length of shot. They just don’t start doing much with that knowledge until the second half.

And once Sid & Nancy opens itself ot cinematic splendor, there’s always a subtle impatience until the next sequence. The first half is so light on them (and so frequently narratively unpleasant), it causes some de facto resentment. Cox could’ve done more with the film and didn’t.

Oldman’s great, Webb’s (annoying as all hell and) great, Schofield’s great (regardless of historical accuracy). None of the supporting performances are bad and there’s a large supporting cast, but they just don’t have much to do. Or they don’t have much to do for long. Sometimes getting out faster is better. Sy Richardson, for instance, has a great scene as Oldman and Webb’s methadone caseworker. But it’s a scene. Meanwhile, Hayman’s around so much without any character development, he suffers. Ditto Xander Berkeley (as Oldman and Webb’s New York drug dealer) and Courtney Love. The more scenes they have, the more it matters they’re caricatures.

Transfixing lead performances, excellent direction, great cinematography, sublime music (original score and soundtrack)… Sid & Nancy is a technical marvel. It just should’ve been more of one, which matters since Cox isn’t invested in the narrative.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alex Cox; written by Cox and Abbe Wool; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by David Martin; music by Dan Wool; production designers, Lynda Burbank, J. Rae Fox, and Andrew McAlpine; produced by Eric Fellner; released by The Samuel Goldwyn Company.

Starring Gary Oldman (Sid), Chloe Webb (Nancy), Andrew Schofield (John), David Hayman (Malcolm), Anne Lambton (Linda), Perry Benson (Paul), Tony London (Steve), Debby Bishop (Phoebe), Courtney Love (Gretchen), Xander Berkeley (Bowery Snax), and Sy Richardson (Methadone Caseworker).


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Fargo (1996, Joel Coen)

Much–probably most–of Fargo is exceptional. The Coens take over half an hour to bring their protagonist into the movie. They spend that first half hour with the villains, even having time to make said villains simultaneously lovable and even more dangerous. William H. Macy isn’t just some loser who schemes to rip off his father-in-law, he’s a dangerous sociopath. It’s amazing what the Coens can fit behind those goofy accents and the folky talk.

And those levels of Fargo are what make it so fantastic. Frances McDormand isn’t playing a silly sheriff, she’s playing this incredible investigator who just happens to sound like she lives in a waffle commercial. All of the police work in the film is thoroughly executed; the cops aren’t of the Keystone variety.

But the Coens don’t engage with this situation. They don’t force the viewer. They don’t even acknowledge it. They’re playing it straight.

Until the end. McDormand stumbles across the bad guys by accident. Even worse, there was a plot point earlier to set up an actual investigatory discovery of the bad guys and the Coens skip it. Very disappointing.

Otherwise, the film is fantastic. Great photography from Roger Deakins, wonderful score from Carter Burwell. Fargo speeds along too. There’s never a slow moment.

The supporting cast–Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare, John Carroll Lynch–is great. Buscemi has some exceptional rants throughout.

McDormand and Macy are both excellent. McDormand even manages to sell the questionable stuff at the end.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen; written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Rick Heinrichs; produced by Ethan Coen; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Frances McDormand (Marge Gunderson), William H. Macy (Jerry Lundegaard), Steve Buscemi (Carl Showalter), Harve Presnell (Wade Gustafson), Peter Stormare (Gaear Grimsrud), Kristin Rudrüd (Jean Lundegaard), John Carroll Lynch (Norm Gunderson) and Steve Park (Mike Yanagita).


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True Grit (2010, Joel and Ethan Coen)

By doing a faithful adaptation of the source novel, the Coen brothers ignore what True Grit does really well. It’s the incredible adventure of a girl, told without any gloss and at times rather harsh. It features one of those great child actor performances (from Hailee Steinfeld). And with their faithful adaptation, the Coen brothers take the role away from Steinfeld and give it to Elizabeth Marvel, playing the role as an adult.

Even worse, they end the film with way too thoughtful narration as a coda. It serves to establish True Grit as a “serious” Western instead of just a Western, something the rest of the film doesn’t really do. There’s nothing profound about the film’s narrative, it’s just what the Coen brothers do–they make really good films.

Their composition here is fantastic. With Roger Deakins shooting Grit, I don’t think there’s a single bad shot in the film (until the overlong third act, which also gives the viewer time to calculate story implausibilities and contrivances). There are many wonderful shots.

Bridges is good but his essaying of the role is a little abrupt. Matt Damon has less to work with and does more. The film’s mostly Steinfeld for the first act, the trio for the second, then the third introduces Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper. Again, Brolin’s got the showier role and ostensibly more material, but it’s Pepper who shines.

It’s very well made and very entertaining. They just didn’t make the profound film the ending suggests.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, screenplay by the Coen brothers, based on the novel by Charles Portis; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Jess Gonchor; produced by the Coen brothers and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Jeff Bridges (Rooster Cogburn), Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie Ross), Matt Damon (LaBoeuf), Josh Brolin (Tom Chaney), Barry Pepper (Lucky Ned Pepper), Bruce Green (Harold Parmalee), Roy Lee Jones (Yarnell) and Elizabeth Marvel (adult Mattie).


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