12 Angry Men – Infuriatingly good

Picture the scene – twelve ordinary people are sat around a table in an ordinary room. The heat is stifling and they are all perspiring freely. I burst in the door, gasping for air.

“You guys, 12 Angry Men is absolutely amazing!”

The occupants of the room are unfazed.

“We know… we’ve already seen it…”

Ok, so I am really late to the party on this one. But 12 Angry Men is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. It is a remarkable pairing of an engaging story with simple but effective cinematic techniques. I’m almost angry myself that it’s taken me 24 years to finally get around to seeing it.

As normal, I won’t spoil the plot (despite the fact that it is basically public knowledge by this point), but the premise is this – a young man stands accused of murder, and if found guilty will face the electric chair. The 12 men of the jury retire to a room to reach a decision, which must be unanimous. After an initial vote 11 men vote guilty while one man stands alone and votes not guilty. And so the group unravels…

As I stated in my first post my principal interest as a filmmaker are the visuals on screen but it would be criminal to not talk about the plot of 12 Angry Men. Originally written as a teledrama, then adapted into a stage play and then adapted into a film, it very much plays like a one-act play. But remarkably it doesn’t suffer for it. The characters all get a good amount of screen time to reveal their complex natures and motivations, and each are characterised just enough to make them distinct and interesting. Everyone comes away with a few favourite jurors – #8, #2, and #11 for me – despite never knowing their names. Each juror is referred to simply by number, with the exception of two jurors (who I won’t name) who identify each other in the very last shot of the film. The shot in question being one of only a handful to take place outside the stifling jury room – of the film’s 96 minute running time only 3 minutes take place outside the sixteen by twenty four foot space, and yet the film again doesn’t suffer for it.

In fact 12 Angry Men seems to laugh in the face of typical filmmaking practice – instead of showing you the events of the film, it tells you what happened. Characters are reduced to a simple list of occupations and opinions. The camera is limited to a space no bigger than a train carriage. And somehow director Sidney Lumet (in his debut, I incredulously mention) makes it all work. And more than just work – the film is a triumph of pared down storytelling.

Lumet makes two very effective directing decisions that span the whole film in impressive consistency – as the film progresses shots get tighter, and lower. At the start of the film the room is shot in long takes with wide lenses at a high angle, to set the scene and give a sense of scale. As the film progresses the wide lenses are ditched in favour of telephoto ones, and the framing on each character gets tighter and tighter, representing the building tension and claustrophobia (and number of sweat patches) in the room. The viewpoint is lowered as well, moving from an almost omniscient high angle to being level with the members of the room, drawing you in.

Compare a shot from the beginning of the film...
Compare a shot from the beginning of the film…
... to a shot from toward its conclusion
… to a shot from toward its conclusion

This is then undone at the film’s conclusion, with the last shot of the film following juror #8 leaving the courthouse shot on the widest lens used in the whole film at a high angle. Lumet has said in interviews that this was used to convey the sense of release and freedom associated with the shot, and it works. For such a simple technique, it really contributes to the building tension throughout the film. The shot of juror #3 which acts as the film’s denouement represents 80 minutes of tension ratcheting up and up and when the wave of emotion breaks it is just breathtaking. I can’t praise the effectiveness of Lumet’s direction on this matter enough.

Apart from these two techniques the use of camera movement to keep the film’s static location dynamic is also very effective, as is the use of some geometric framing techniques. One shot in particular constructs a triangle between three jurors, which is an effective technique in itself.

Note the triangle formed between the heads of jurors #2, #8, and #11
Note the triangle formed between the heads of jurors #2, #8, and #11

But what Lumet (and cinematographer Boris Kaufman) then does is interrupt this triangle with the arrival of juror #10 twisting the facts of the discussion to fit his prejudice.

...and now juror #10 interrupts the constructed triangle
…and now juror #10 interrupts the constructed triangle

By disrupting a classic framing technique the juror’s interruption becomes even more impactful and even more brash. This is just one moment in a sequence of excellent shots, and yet this one stands out in particular. Visual directing at its best.

Lastly on the visual front the film is beautiful to look at. Kaufman lights in a pseudo-noir fashion, with extensive hair lights providing deep shadows on the juror’s faces, and highlights on the face provided in ‘glamour shots’ at key moral moments. It’s probably the best-looking black and white picture I’ve seen, right up there with Gregg Toland’s work on Citizen Kane.

Is there anything wrong with 12 Angry Men? If I was splitting hairs I would quibble with the use of dramatic music at certain points at the film, as is so common with pictures from this time. Entirely how people didn’t find it over-the-top at the time I will never know. But this is me splitting hairs. 12 Angry Men is one of the best films I’ve ever watched. The way that it handles racial tensions, personal prejudices, conflict resolution and an escalating tension is just world-class. If you’ve never seen it, or only watched it after being forced to for GCSE English, please do yourself a favour and give it a watch. It’s an engrossing 90 minutes and a masterclass in how you can take a simple premise and make an excellent film out of it.

The Little Mermaid – Best Disney villain ever?

I’ve been a fan of animation for as long as I can remember, though modern Disney wasn’t really a part of my childhood. Despite (or perhaps, because) Pocahontas was the first film I saw in the cinema, we didn’t really have modern Disney in the house. The Aristocats, One Hundred and One Dalmations and The Jungle Book were regularly in the VCR machine, while the renaissance-era classics like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid went sailing by my pre-adolescent head. Having now caught up with these titles I think that was a great shame. And The Little Mermaid is a classic example of what I was missing out on.

A good Disney film in my opinion has to check multiple boxes – good soundtrack/songs, visually engaging, a solid plot (for a kids’ movie), and perhaps most importantly a GREAT villain. The Little Mermaid checks all of these boxes and so definitely deserves the cult following it seems to have among university students, though falls short of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast on most fronts. With one exception – The Little Mermaid has what I think must be one of the best Disney villains of all time. The scheming Ursula has it all – megalomania, a lust for power, being (briefly) all but omnipotent, and having freaking octopus tentacles for legs.

wallpaper-the-little-mermaid-1005916_445_302
Take that, Scar.

When I was a kid I would have been scared of Ursula, and that’s one box on the Disney list very definitely ticked.

The plot is serviceable – Ariel, the daughter of the sea king (having evolved from Goldeen) Triton, falls in love with the unfortunately named Prince Eric. Unfortunately Eric is a landlubber and Ariel is a mermaid who has a confusing respiratory system that allows her to breath water and air, and a fish tail for legs. Ursula sees her predicament and offers her a deal with a short fuse and horrible consequences… which I won’t ruin if you haven’t seen the movie. It’s a simple plot but not to the point of condescending its target audience, and moves along at a fair clip after a sluggish start. Without much fat at all, the plot gets a tick.

Visually The Little Mermaid is a great example of what traditional animation is capable of. While it might suffer by comparison to Pixar’s Finding Nemo in having sparser frames and a less engrossingly underwater feel, it is still a gorgeous picture to look at. Specifically, art directors Michael Peraza Jr. and Donald Towns use abstract images of sometimes just two tones to create really visually striking frames. In particular the storm sequence in the first act and basically any scene involving Ursula (especially in the final act) is visually gorgeous by being pared down to such a limited palette. While this is possible in live action, and directors like Wes Anderson are known for doing it, the king of this kind of visual abstraction is traditional animation. Another technique which animation allows, and this film in particular uses to lovely effect, is matching scene transitions – to see how another great of animation, Satoshi Kon, uses this I highly recommend this excellent video essay from one of my favourite YouTube channels, EveryFrameaPainting. Visuals – tick.

Lastly, and to many people most importantly, what does the film sound like? Pretty good, is the short answer. While composer Alan Menken doesn’t produce his best work for the score (that accolade definitely belongs to Beauty and the Beast) the score is still good, and his decision to use a simple leitmotif to connect the plot together works very well. The songs however, written by Menken with Howard Ashman, are really top notch. The film is credited with bringing the Broadway style into Disney films, and with musical numbers such as the famous ‘Under the Sea’ you can easily see why the style was copied by the other films of the Disney renaissance, and is still copied to this day with releases like Frozen. The last tick goes in the box.

I do still have issues with Disney animation. The overly simplistic (even for a kids’ film) world view, the emphasis placed on the need for women to make love fall in love with them, the white heteronormativity (though this is hardly exclusive to Disney films from the era), and the unrealistic body expectations portrayed still rankle me. But The Little Mermaid is a good film. Well made, and historically interesting for representing a return to form for the studio. Give it a watch, especially if you are a fan of the style of music in early 90s Disney films. Or if you like badass villainous women. Especially that.

I mean, come on! Look how EVIL she is!
I mean, come on! Look how EVIL she is!

Forrest Gump – 40 years of American history, as seen by a violent halfwit and his child-abused girlfriend.

Entirely how this film passed me by I will never know. I remember seeing the distinctive white case in just about every VHS collection in friends’ houses when I was growing up, but for some reason I never saw it myself. Robert Zemeckis’ most famous film could have been a saccharine mess in the hands of a lesser director but instead carries some real narrative heft, though still occasionally strays into over-sentimentality.

If you – somehow – also haven’t seen the film then I’ll spare you spoilers, but the condensed plot of the two and a half hour run time is the life of Tom Hanks’ eponymous character, spanning from his childhood in the 1940s to the film’s conclusion in the 1980s. Gump finds himself at several famous events from the time, including meeting Elvis, JFK, and Jon Lennon. Notably almost everyone that he meets seems to end up dying. These famous encounters are only a sideshow however, with the main narrative being Forrest’s lifelong love for his childhood friend Jenny, and his attempts to be with her across the years.

Somewhat unsurprisingly for such a well loved film I enjoyed it a lot, and found myself moved especially by the film’s conclusion underneath Gump’s childhood tree. As well as being moving it was really quite funny, with almost all the laughs coming from Hanks’ justly-lauded performance. The editing of Arthur Schmidt also deserves praise, with effectively placed jump cuts breaking the unobtrusive style of most of the film.

I do take issue with the film on a few areas however. For one thing the way in which Gump resolves conflict – namely, violence – is never addressed, nor are many of its characters fleshed out beyond pantomime-esque roles. That said, the main three characters of Gump, Jenny and the legless wonder Liutenant Dan (played by Gary Sinise) are wonderfully complete. My primary gripe with the film is its visuals. Cinematographer Don Burgess uses a relatively muted colour palette, bringing out warm pastel tones and only occasionally straying from a relatively flat profile. The notable exception to this is the storm sequence and a few shots of the Vietnam war. This aesthetic fits in with other films from the mid 1990s such as Mrs. Doubtfire – interestingly, also driven by a strong male lead performance and appealing to a wide audience (and featuring a turn from Sally Field) – in being inoffensively low contrast, using smooth tracking camera moves and relatively wide shots. To me this is rather boring. I would much rather have seen more contrast between different parts of Gump’s life visually, such as employing a greater contrast and harsher lighting in the Vietnam sequences, and gradually increasing saturation of the film as time went on. This would mirror what the soundtrack does most effectively, changing as the times do. This could also have created a greater contrast between Gump’s mainstream cultural life and Jenny’s counter-cultural one.

A last point to be made is the film’s commendable use of visual effects to mesh Gump into historical footage – sometimes very effectively, while sometimes less so. Being released only a year after the huge breakthroughs of Jurassic Park and three years after Terminator 2, the film’s subtle use of computer technology (including the removal of Sinise’s legs) is definitely to be commended, even if some of the historical sequences have aged well into uncanny valley territory.

So did I enjoy Forrest Gump? Yes. Did it deserve as many academy awards as it received (6)? I’m not hugely convinced. Especially given the strong competition offered in 1994 by The Shawshank Redemption, The Lion King, and Pulp Fiction, I think the film is somewhat overrated. But if like me you haven’t seen it, give it a watch.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

An explanation

My name is Simon Clark, and I am a charlatan and a fraud.

For years I have claimed to be a film fan, and it is true that I know a lot about films and how they are made. But over the years gaps have appeared in my watching history – friends would often say “How have you not seen…??” when I confessed my ignorance of a particular classic.

This happened so many times that eventually I sat down to write out a list of films that I really should have watched by now. I ended up with over 200 titles that spanned pretty much every genre.

I had to conclude that I wasn’t a very good film fan.

The point of this blog is to watch one of these films a week and post what might well be the most delayed movie reviews in history. Interspersed between monumental classics that I’ve somehow missed will be more niche films that I have always wanted to watch, either for curiosity value or for their technical prowess. As a filmmaker I’m most interested in cinematography, and so my focus in some posts will be on visual aspects of the film. I’m also very interested in the history of cinema and how productions and technology developed over time, so some reviews will incorporate the story of how those visuals made it to the screen or why they are historically significant.

Essentially this blog is my journey to being a better film fan, and (hopefully) a better filmmaker. While film has been a passion of mine since my mum brought home the Star Wars special edition box set in 1997, it’s only now that I find myself drawn to picking up the camera and creating visions of my own. After 5 years of making YouTube videos I’m determined to make the leap to cinematic storytelling, and hopefully I’ll be posting some of my own work in months to come.

Through this blog I hope to learn to better articulate what I find poetic in cinema, and share the stories behind the stories on screen. And I’d be delighted to have you along for the ride.