Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Blade Runner 2049 - a second watch

Watching ‘Blade Runner 2049’ again, it seems to me that the accusations of a too-slim narrative are misguided: every scene is full of theme and the revelation of plot details that texture and drive the narrative. But, yes, the visuals are so immersive that the superficial reaction is that they are dominant; the tone is a little abstract and underplayed so that it is perhaps easy to miss the details of narrative being disclosed through hints and  dialogue. 

For example, the human-free showdown that opens the film sets up a replicant-killing-replicant backdrop: Ryan Gosling’s slightly regretful but unquestioning execution of his programming; Dave Bautista is living a solitary existence hiding away on a farm until Gosling tracks him down; these are artificial humans that debate briefly how to resolve the situation before Bautista calls out K/Joe/Gosling’s motivation, saying how it’s because he hasn’t seen a miracle. This sets up the key theme of artificial humans always trying to be human. Later, it will be suggested that Bautista let himself be killed to protect the secret of the human-replicant birth, retrospectively giving this moment an extra theme of self-sacrifice as well as playing into the philosophy that to die for a cause is the ultimate human behaviour. This leads to Gosling discovering the bones of a body that triggers the story of the replicant-human baby that drives the plot. There seems to me here plenty to chew on during the set-up, providing not only crowd-pleasing visuals and a fight, but setting up motivation and themes that thread and are coloured in throughout the film.

And then there is the thorny issue of gender politics, but it seems obvious that almost every male character is confused or/and weakened or/and deluded whereas all the female characters are mostly certain and clear and direct. It is the women that are the true power in ‘Blade Runner 2049’, no matter how much the culture’s veneer of misogyny insists otherwise.  Even with Joi, Gosling’s stay-at-home fantasy “wife”, she seems to enact her programmed devotion to Joe with individualist determination and invention. She is not passive although she may be deferential. It seems Joe’s fantasy is to have a loyal woman who takes charge and reassures him as much as she serves holograms of better food. This surely indicates his insecure nature… but that surely can’t be his programme? Even with the replicant prostitute we see hints of individualism if not independence (but movie prostitutes are typically feisty, it’s true). Later, he will see Joi advertised through sexual promise, coded in vibrant pink, but it is not so clear if this shatters his illusion of her or simply reinforces her differences to him. This is the most tender and humane relationship in the film and it’s the interplay between false humans. There is nothing we can read as un-human or unusual in their communication as we might the conflict of Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) crying as she kills. Where the rise of technology tries to make everything as human and interactive as possible through means of nostalgia, ‘Blade Runner 2049’ offers a decent vision of a future resulting from this conflict. It’s a future where artificial humans develop identity crisis and seek solace in holograms. Technology so far gone it has to reassure itself. It barely needs humans at all.  It’s a future that arguably insists on the misogynistic culture that guided Ridley’s original – itself derived from film noir – even as the evidence of the real world negates it. 

And then there's the symbolism of rebirth in the waves although the more obviously religious is commendably avoided. 

These are just a couple of ruminations of many inspired by a second watch of ‘Blade Runner 2049’, and there are sure to be more with repeat viewings. Each scene is vibrant with these themes and questions into identity and motivation. Like the original, it’s an experience that rewards and becomes more textured on repeat viewings. And again, it is surely an achievement that it gives answers whilst still maintaining much ambiguity. If nothing else, there is the glorious cinematography of Roger Deakins and the thunder and the synth tsunami of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch to overwhelm the senses. But there is depth beneath these pleasures.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Brawl in Cell Block 99

S. Craig Zahler, 2017, USA

Bradley Thomas is having a bad day: he’s just been fired and goes home to discover his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) is cheating. He turns to drug-running to resolve issues, but this is not to imply he’s just a scumbag or weak-willed: rather, he’s just a pragmatist that does what he feels needs to be done. But he has the ultra-violence and savvy to back it up. Nevertheless, getting involved with bad people eventually only leads to more trouble and a descent to cell block 99 and there’ll be no more turning his back on a violent nature.

The cover blurb quotes The Hollywood News saying “The most impressive director since Quentin Tarantino,” but S. Craig Sahler has in Bradley Thomas a character that cuts through all the verbose digressions and bullshit to the bone – the kind that both Tarantino and Vaughn are known for. Vince Vaughn plays Bradley with less of the Clint Eastwood existential machismo or Charles Bronson’s disinterest, but rather like ‘Point Blank’s Lee Marvin striding in and just punching without fanfare. The only one that seems likely to veer into broad villainous caricature is Don Johnson’s Warden Tuggs, but that turns out to be something of a red herring, despite being a lot of fun.

Bradley Thomas is someone who appears to have mostly turned his back on a life of violence but he triumphs at it when he unleashes. Sahler’s previous film ‘Bone Tomahawk’ established that he excels at extreme violence (very few times have a felt an audience so physically reacting to a killing), and ‘Brawl’ doesn’t disappoint. There is bound to be one or two moments that will lodge into your memory as un-erasable once seen. If films like ‘The Villainess’ and ‘The Raid’ are about skill, this is about brute force and in keeping with that candour action is not conveyed through fast cuts but rather unflinching straightforward shots. It is Vaughn’s hulking physical and terrifying directness that is likely to be most memorable.

There’s nothing new in the narrative but it’s all executed with a slyly fated and doomed air as if this is more than just riffing on that exploitation staple of the super-violent man hammering vengeance on all and sundry. But it’s very much grindhouse brutality through arthouse melancholy, the latter somewhat shaving off the rough edges of the former, making it gratuitous and restrained at the same time. There is none of the thoughtfulness on the topic of violence and community here that ‘Bone Tomohawk’ offered – indeed it appears that this was written beforehand – but that’s probably moot when you are flinching/giggling at the excess. ‘Brawl in Cell Bock 9’ offers movie violence and a more-or-less unbeatable fantasy male in a probably never-better Vince Vaughn performance. It’s a straightforward guilty pleasure where Zahler’s pacing and skill subscribes to a sincerity beyond trash even as Udo Kier is talking about dismembering foetuses and heads are being stomped. 

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Belko Experiment

Greg McLean, 2016, USA-Columbia
Writer – James Gunn

In an office building in a suspiciously remote office block in Columbia, eighty employees suddenly find themselves sealed in and told by an ominous intercom voice that they must kill each other. It covers similar ground as Joe Lynch’s ‘Mayhem’ where office life becomes a bloodbath. It’s a fine horror-drama set-up full of possibilities but James Gunn here doesn’t seem to know how to write the best of it and forgets to sprinkle some jazz to make it sparkle. It’s decently if uninterestingly played but its conclusions – a group of locked-in people will always revert to and be overcome with violence – aren’t fresh and there is little to distinguish its initially promising premise. Its satirical high-point is a fight against a projection of a company promotional film, but it ends up being just another tokenly decent guy’s revenge fantasy against the overlords.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

One moment in 'Sorcerer'

'Sorcerer' - the rope bridge

William Friedkin, 1977, USA

Very few moments in cinema can perhaps capture the lunacy and gung-ho spirit of film-making than the rope bridge scene in William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. Hey, let’s put a truck on a rickety rope bridge in the middle of torrential weather and drive it across. Yes, let’s do that. This is filtered through blue and a soundtrack of relentless storm: the scene let’s one truck cross, and then another that has more trouble as the river floods violently below and foliage is uprooted and goes flying. The weight of the truck is all one side at one point and it looks for sure that it will fall in. It looks perilous just to watch and it last around ten minutes.

Of course, the mystery and mechanics of it is laid out by Wikipedia, but the filming still reportedly was as crazy and as hard as it looks. Roy Scheider commented that shooting 'Sorcerer'  "made Jaws look like a picnic." It’s one of those mysteries whose debunking only increases the admiration of behind-the-scenes development. It’s something that CGI can’t hope to replicate.


Terminator Genisys

Alan Taylor, 2015, USA

Bang bang bang exposition bang bang bang Schwarzenegger bang “pops” bang bang bang exposition bang bang double-Scharwzeneggar! bang bosh bang time travel thingy bosh exposition exposition bang bang Hey, this isn’t very good, is it? Bosh Shut up! Turn up the banging! BANG BANG BOSH BANG etc

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

My Life as a Courgette

‘Ma vie de Courgette’
Claude Barras, 2016, 

Laika studio’s ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ showed how stop-motion animation can now be as smooth and seamless as CGI, but the joys of ‘My Life as a Courgette’ are the old-school rough edges, the tangibility of the aesthetic and movements. It’s so tactile that the ridges of a crayon line stand out like Braille and the felt of the character’s mask catches the light like and seems as textured as sugar. The backdrops and clothing are full of scope and detail but retain the charm of a kid’s homemade set. The colourscheme bears the pallet of a kid’s watercolour selection and the lighting is as dense and considered as any live action feature. In shots such as a high-angled view of a house as a train goes by just above, modern and older techniques seem to meet to revel in both contemporary smoothness and the delight of a DIY history.

With a screenplay by Céline Sciamma adapted from Gille Paris’ book, it’s a tale of simple kindness and friendship overcoming trauma which, in the name of dramatics, we perhaps don’t get enough of without lapsing into trite sentimentality. There is sentiment but it feels earned and genuine, offering the empathy of giving the kid characters respect and autonomy. It’s rooted in valid darkness as all the kids come from backgrounds that speak to real trauma, but despite the threat of the loneliness of suffering, ‘My Life as a Courgette’ pays tribute to the resilience of children and their friendships, as well as the unfussy kindness of adults always in the environment. 

It’s succinct with a running time of just over an hour, written in a direct but unpatronising manner and lush with its stop-animation delights. Its mildness may be mistaken for inconsequentiality rather than strident humanitarianism, but it’s a small and considerable gem.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Highlights of 2017 cinema

Because lists are popular and because there was so much to choose from:

The confrontation between Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams in ‘Manchester by the Sea’. Confrontations are so often just arguments in drama, but this was something else: two people trying to talk about what they had been through but the rawness of feeling makes it impossible and the moment is a remarkable dance around body language and non sequetirs

The final kitchen scene in ‘Moonlight’. The openness of André Holland’s performance and Trevante Rhodes’ hesitancy and reticence make this moment thoroughly disarming.

The Brazilian in ‘Raw’: and I saw someone walk out during this.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2’: Baby Groot dancing to E.L.O.’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’. Electric Light Orchestra’s feel-good bombast, the cheesiness and melodies always disarm me, and although there are many other great moments, baby Groot dancing to 'Mr Blue Sky' is unashamedly cute and delightful.

The opening of ‘Dunkirk’: sets up the stakes straight away and only stepping away for a moment might save you from that unseen enemy that only wants to kill you.

The opening fight in ‘The Villainess’: the corridor scene of ‘Oldboy’ as done through ‘Hardcore Henry’. When she looks back to survey the carnage, the FrightFest audience applauded. 

Fight in holo-Vegas and the fight in a flood in ‘Blade runner 2049’. Yes, two moments that combined a brilliant mixture of the physical and effects. And if we are talking shots of the year, shots flying over the city and that shot of the ocean wall keeping back nature were exceptional.

The train arriving in ‘A Cure for Wellness’: the reflection of the scenery on the side of a train was a truly beautiful shot.

Explaining the cultural background of graffiti on a car: ’20th Century Women’. 

The men peeing in the jungle in ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’. But keep in mind one is a woman in Jack Black’s body, discovering the utilitarian purposes of the penis. 

The party in ‘Toni Erdmann’: a considerable melding of po-faced indie-drama, farce and surrealism.

The book-reading in ‘The Handmaiden’.

The car ride to the prom with Peter Parker and The Vulture in ‘Spider-man: Homecoming’. I could have gone for Peter’s gleeful recapping of his battle in ‘Captain America: Civil War’ at the start, or even his spider-sneaking into his room only to find he has been watched, but it’s this car ride that truly achieves something sinister and shows why Michael Keaton probably signed up for this.

The coastline of 'The Red Turtle'.

The warmth of the performances of André Holland (‘Moonlight’),
Michael Stuhlbarg (‘Call me By Your Name’) and Annette Benning (‘20th Century Women’) and Willem Defoe ('The Florida Project').

The wonderful density of performances by Anne Hathaway (‘Colossal’), Josh O’Connor (‘God’s Own Country’), Nicki Michaeux (‘Lowlife’), 

Tom Holland’s exuberance as Peter Parker; James Franco as Tommy Wisseau; the women of ‘In Between’; the comedy collective of ‘The Death of Stalin’.

The most calming backdrop and overall feel: ‘The Red Turtle’ and ‘Call Me by Your Name’. 

A mention for the  rope bridge scene in ‘Sorcerer’: it was an old film I saw at the cinema but this was truly jaw-dropping in an old-school way.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Notes on 2017 cinema visits

I think this year I prefer to ramble about highlights rather than make a list of the best. There really wasn’t many lowlights – only ‘Attack of the Adult Babies’ was horrible – so there doesn’t seem to be any reason for that.

My first trip to the cinema in 2017 was a double-bill of Kenneth Lonergan’s  ‘Manchester by the Sea’ and J.A. Bayona’s ‘A Monster Calls’ which proved a real emotional work-out. The first was an excellent portrayal of how adult trauma is challenged if not overcome by everyday drama, about how some people may not be able to move on; this is a nice shrug and rare sober corrective at the positivism of the typical overcoming-trauma narratives. I thought ‘A Monster Calls’ was going to be worthy but maudlin, but I found it much less typical than that, treating rage as a wing-man to grief as our young protagonist learns nothing more than that narratives are not always what they seem, and that maybe what you are thinking and feeling are not quite as clear cut as you believe. Both are considerable evocations of male grief and anger. And both prove clear-eyed tear-jerkers.  

I went to see Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ before it became a phenomena and there was barely a seat available in the theatre. When it was announced as an Oscar contender I was surprised because it seemed so much to me to be one of those exceptional indie films that gets its worth outside the mainstream. But don’t be put off by the Oscar win: it’s every bit as touching and as great as they say. The final segment where they meet again is exceptional.

Mike Mills’ ‘20th Century Women’ was a delightful but generally neglected drama about various women influencing one teenager at a crucial time of development that deserved more recognition, centred by Annette Benning’s wonderful, slippery performance. The moment where the culture war origins of graffiti written on a car has to be explained is a highlight and, if it’s your thing, you’ll immediately speed off home to listen to early Talking Heads.

James Franco’s ‘Disaster Artist’ emerged as one of the year’s best comedies and character studies of the mystery that is Tommy Wisseau. An essential drama on anti-heroes and the film industry.

Maren Ade’s ‘Toni Erdmann’ was another great film. I did encounter a response of “yeah not sure I want to see a three hour German comedy” which seemed to fall into the presumptions of what German comedy is (shall we say) – not as if we would see many in the UK – but I wasn’t expecting it to be more dramatically grounded and prone to surrealism. The themes of social anxiety, farce and surrealism culminates in the naked party with a full-blown abstract monster wandering around, topping several preceding moments that pushed just that little bit more. If it was founded on the comedy of embarrassment and awkwardness, the achievement is surely in  how it never indulges in cruelty. And Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek were just two of the many exceptional performances this year.

Musicals are not so much my thing – I love ‘Bugsy Malone’, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ and ‘The 5000 Fingers or Dr T’, if that’s any help – so if the full-throttle love for Damien Chazelle’s ‘La La Land’ eluded me, I enjoyed it well enough. I am probably going to forgive Ryan Gosling anything because of Dead man’s Bones, but it’s the coda where the film shows how songs can create other histories and realities in our minds, just for a moment, that made it all the more credible for me.

James Gray’s ‘The Lost City of Z’ had much of the worthy epic about it, and although there were visuals and moments to make it vivid, it was also a film where the flaws come with equal weight so that there was a feeling that it was never quite as good as it ought to be. A common refrain was that people would have preferred it to be about the Robert Pattinson character, which surely points to a major mistep when people think a secondary character would have been more interesting (as well as pointing to Pattinson’s seemingly effortlessly intriguing qualities). 

‘Free Fire’ took the cool affectations out of the ‘Reservoir Dogs’ gangsters-in-a-warehouse scenario and replaced it with scuzzy humour. It proved to be entertaining but arguably lesser Ben Wheatley – but why shouldn’t he have fun too? And it certainly didn’t hold the same disappointment as Edgar Write’s ‘Baby Driver’, whose car chase musical started well but couldn’t disguise that it ultimately offered slim pickings, even with Jamie Foxx eating up the scenery all in sight. Most of the general comments I heard were of indifference.

Takashi Miike’s ‘Blade of the Immortal’ was straightforward
gungo-ho Miike bookended by two exceptional fight scenes. Despite how many corpses and limbs just laid around – hey, isn’t that a stream running red in the middle-distance? – it was surely the constant slicing and squelching on the soundtrack that upped the super-violence. A simple tale of an immortal assassin getting caught up in one annoying/sympathetic young girl’s confused thirst for vengeance, the pile up of massacres was given texture with a little politicking and immortals constantly bemoaning their deathless existence. The flip side of the studied intent of ’13 Warriors’ and ‘Hari-Kiri: Death of a Samurai’. Miike fans will be satisfied right from the start when a blood-spray splashes over the opening text.

I didn’t know the plot of Sarah Waters book ‘Fingersmith’, so the twists of Park Chan-Wook’s adaption ‘The Handmaiden’ came as a surprise and an absolute delight to me. Handsomely and sumptuously mounted and, like many films listed here, boasting great central performances and as brilliantly executed as you would expect from Chan-Wook. 

Wildfred Oldroyds ‘Lady Macbeth’ moves its protagonist (Florence Pugh) from victim, to defiant heroine, to anti-hero to villain with such fluidity that it’s hard to see where the changes come. With precision and sparse framing, the film exerts a cold chill that you don’t really feel creeping up on you. 

As women were trying to get in on the superhero game with ‘Wonder Woman’, they were also finely represented not only by ‘20th Century Women’ and ‘mother!’ but also by ‘In Between’ which ended on a note that female resilience would win out, no matter what. But female stories were also well-served by oddities such as Nacho Vigalondo’s ‘Colossal’ where the rampaging monster Id was also clearly owned by girl’s too. There were a lot of crappy men around for an excellent Anne Hathaway to contend with, but this crappiness was often also subtle and complex, which is another benefit from a narrative taken from a feminine viewpoint. But for balance, one of the biggest female arseholes was surely Bria Vinaite’s mum in Sean Baker’s ‘The Florida Project’; but, boy, she felt real and somewhat heroic in her stubborn refusal or inability to just play nice. And Willem Defoe has never been so "ordinary" and charming.

Taylor Sheridan’s ‘Wind River’ was diverting and solid enough until you thought of how a white man defined so much of a tale that was meant to be about a murder of a Native American woman on a reservation. Elsewhere, other minorities were vigorously and splendidly represented, not only the gay black community through Oscar Winners like ‘Moonlight’, but in the gay narratives of the grubby but ultimately tender ‘God’s Own Country’ – which seemed to me something like what if Bill Douglas has turned his hand to the genre – and ‘Call Me by Your Name’

Rupert Sanders’Ghost in the Shell’ showed that CGI with live action can match anything animation might think up: it was a reasonable adaption but the much beloved original was always lacking a magic ingredient for me and this remake did nothing to fill that. A lot of bluster with very little to warrant the call on emotions it seemed to want, but this is all in line with its source. Traditional animation was represented gloriously by the sublimely serene ‘The Red Turtle’ by Michael Dudok de Wit and Claude Barras’ ‘My Life as a Courgette’. Both were exceptionally visually striking and full of dense emotional pay-offs.

Although Gore Verbinski’s ‘A Cure for Wellness’ was lush and intriguingly elusive for the most part, but surely too long. In the end I was amused and enjoyed at its full-throttle plunge into the Gothic. It was only the very final moments that I thought were truly terrible.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ ‘King Kong: Skull Island’ is indeed a film about a giant ape hitting things, so smarts aren’t really expected, but even if it offered several striking visuals – Kong against the sun; people hiding out in a giant skull, etc – the script was just the wrong side of stupid.

On the other hand, ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ proved a lot of fun. Its central gag of a bunch of high school archetypes sucked into a game as the avatar’s they have chosen was one to carry the whole film: so the nerd finds himself personified as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, the whinging alpha male jock finds himself as a diminutive sidekick, the nervey shy girl becomes a kick-ass Lara Croft type – and just as ridiculously dressed – and, best of all, the popular girl who can’t get off her phone becomes Jack Black. Of course, through their avatar, they learn to be better people. Considering how contrived this is, that they will learn to overcome their weaknesses (not just cake), it perhaps earned more emotional resonance than expected. 

Daniel Espinosa’s ‘Life’ showed how passable coasting derivative genre b-movie conventions can be whilst Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’ showed how those conventions can be given new life by being placed in a different culture and tapping into the zeitgeist. The latter is certainly of the moment and is surely to go on to be one of those genre films that defines its decade. It’s funny, well-played and creepy.

Julia Ducournau’s ‘Raw’ was one of the essential horrors of the year, with cannibalism and coming-of-age melding to deliver a neat slice of French family drama and extremism.

In the past, there has usually been one particular trait that defines the overall FrightFest festival every year (i.e., rape; found footage; etc) and this year it was humour. Comedy-horror and satire was on top form and the one that I have come away with thinking that it’s subversive traits are much under-noted is Chris Peckover’s ‘Better Watch Out’. Perhaps we are just too used to American precocious brats that many couldn’t see the woods for the trees and just treated it solely as a romp (and the majority of comments on twitter, including mine, say “don’t watch the trailers”)?

I was made aware of a lot of hate for Olivier Assayas’s ‘Personal Shopper’ but it seemed to me an intriguing piece of work that mined not only indie drama but both thriller and horror techniques to create chills and suspense without ever truly verifying outright the supernatural. I am all for pushing at the edges of ghost stories and David Lowery’s ‘A Ghost Story’ did that too, although I venture I found it more agreeably goofy than moving. 

Trey Edward Shults’s ‘It Comes at Night’ also proved a winner and much maligned for not quite being perhaps what such a title promises. But horror again proved that locked doors are slabs of paranoia and people are their own worst enemies.

Perhaps aside from ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’, nothing proved as divisive and ladled with audience outrage and disgust as Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’ But upon reflection I can see it treading much of the black humour, gleeful provocation and indulgent flourishes that Peter Greenaway used to trade in. And that’s no bad thing.

Horror was much more conventionally covered by Juan Carlos Medina’s ‘The Limehouse Golem’, filling in the Gothic delights unironically with a heap of social commentary on the side to give it gristle. 

For super-powered blockbusters:

James Mangold’s ‘Logan’ was a winner because it added a bit of post-‘Deadpool’ grit and grue to the super-hero formula, but with a straight face. Its riding on more adult themes was welcome and surely accounts for its popularity over much else. And the edge of nastiness was a much needed colour for Wolverine, whose character was well-fitted for more Western genre tropes.

James Gunn’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2’ continued to show the others how superheroes should/could be fun and offered up a sequel that – despite the element of surprise being gone – proved the equal of the original. Probably guilty, like most of these things, of being too long and a bit bloated, but it’s consistently amusing and probably turns being overstuffed into an asset. And it wins alone for the opening with baby Groot dancing to E.L.O.

Whilst Patty Jenkins’ ‘Wonder Woman’ proved that a female director could deliver just as good and problematic a superhero film as any male, it was Jon Watts’ ‘Spider-man: Homecoming’ that proved the real surprise. ‘Thor: Ragnorok’ was agreeably amusing, which was only to be expected from Taiki Waititi, and showed again that, post-‘Guardians’, the powers that be saw money in adding humour to their properties, but Peter Parker proved the real surprise. ‘Spider-man: Homecoming’ was probably the way I felt Peter Parker ought to be done (although it’s a given that Sam Raimi’s first two ‘Spider-man’ films were good-to-great), mixing a real high-school comedy-drama with super-powered tropes. Yes, it stole Miles Moran’s storyline – and there are proper problems with that – but Tom Holland proved an excellent version of Parker and I and the audience I was with laughed all the way through. That such a big property could get a laugh from the simple line “Chess?” instead of heavy wisecracking zingers proves that the genre was learning to be defter with appeal, concentrating on the tiny stuff as well as the big explosions.

Like ‘Wonder Woman’, Matt Reeves’ ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ wasn’t quite as exceptional as it ought to have been. It hadn’t quite overcome the problem that anytime a human is on screen it isn’t particularly good. Was that a meagre if not bad performance from Woody Harrelson? (Go see ‘Edge of Seventeen’  to see him firing on all smouldering canons) But the apes and the motion capture and all that were as breathtaking as you would want.

And then there was Denis Velleneuve’s ‘Blade Runner 2049’ for which the main criticism seemed to be style-over-content, but it seemed a much tricksier and more slippery product than Ridley Scott’s original (which, seminal as it is, is surely style-over-content). It was visually stunning, of course, but what impressed more was that it maintained an air of abstractness whilst simultaneously seemingly filling in some blanks.

The other big film was Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’: although it was inevitable that it would take severe wounding from people calling doubts on its veracity and accuracy, but what made it win for me was that rather than the large heroic sweeps, it cast war mostly as the individual’s race to survive. 

And in terms of classics I saw at the cinema, there was David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’ – as unnerving as ever – and then William Friedkin’s ‘Sorcerer’ whose rope-bridge scene proved one of the most jaw-dropping scenes I saw this year. And all without CGI.

Maybe I'm easily amused, but it was a good year with so many great performances and much agreeable quirkiness in general and blockbusters delivering a lot of funny. 

Friday, 29 December 2017

The Spy Lodgers: "Codename: Redacted file 002"

The second "Codename: Redacted" EP from The Spy Lodgers, for which I sing and inform for.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Call Me by Your Name

Luca Guadagnino, Italy-France-Brazil-USA, 2017

Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of André Aciman’s novel is sun-drenched, wealthy and luxuriant and is full of a summer romance wish-fulfillment. It’s also primarily measured and sumptuous which mitigates how much idealism defines this tale of talented seventeen year-old Elio seducing and romancing the man that comes to stay to assist his father’s research. The age difference between them isn’t truly addressed but the key to this romance is consent.

Elio (Timothée Chalamet) may be precocious but he is not bratty or spoilt. Not for this bourgeois family the underlying rot and obnoxiousness of something like Lucrecia Martel’s ‘La Ciénaga’. These are decent, thoughtful people. When Oliver (Armie Hammer) appears on the scene, a smart American beefcake who disarms everyone around him, Elio tries to find fault but he is protesting too much. Elio goes through the motions of having a girlfriend but Oliver’s allure pulls him out. If perhaps the opulent summer and Oliver’s charm seem idealised, this is surely because it is all filtered though Elio’s viewpoint (the film is too knowing and well-realised for it to be bad writing). It takes a little time to show us that, no, this talented youth and this brazen man are not obnoxious stereotypes. Chalamet’s performance is wonderfully physical and knowing, catching the somewhat inelegant gangliness of youth even as he is negotiating his restrained feelings and how to articulate them. Hammer is charming and effortlessly colours in what ostensibly could have been a very thinly characterised object of desire.

Yes, the film takes it time to draw things out, bolstered by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography of Northern Italy’s Crema for a lush canvass, and eventually these men come out whilst circling a war monument. One advantage that this kind of gay narrative has is that longing and repression often calls for restraint, for inventiveness when finding the right dialogue and images and language. Euphemism reaps rewards in understatement. It is, though, the opposite of the clumsy aggression that pushes the declaration of passion in Francis Lee’s ‘God’s Own Country’ (which is sublime in a different way). James Ivory’s screenplay is swamped by atmosphere but the dialogue is often restrained and expressive in its pacing and silences. Occasionally it’s a little on-the-nose – Elios’ father saying how antique statues seems to be daring you to desire them and a few music cues (in that pop-songs-spell-out-the-emotions way... except The Psychedelic Furs’ ‘Love My Way’ which grants no criticism) – but it’s the kind of film that allows for a little indulgence. And then there’s the final talk.

The final monologue where Michael Stuhlbarg brings out the big acting guns and dazzles with his warmth and delivery is the domestic drama’s version of Darth Vader felling the rebels in the final action piece of ‘Rogue One’. If Chalamet and Hammer have been quietly stunning, it is here that Stuhlbarg just settles in and stakes his claim. Perhaps this talk is a little too long but is an unforgettable articulation of generosity – and the film is probably guilty of both these things as a whole. Luckily, Chalamet is more than up to the task of being left wordless in the aftermath for the end credits. 

It’s not unlike the sunnier but melancholic tones found in texts such as Umberto Saba’s novel ‘Enersto’ or Patrice Leconte’s ‘The Hairdresser’s Husband’. Or a romantic daydream inspired by a postcard.