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 and 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 preconceptions 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 absurdist monster-suit 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 Landeluded 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 all the scenery 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 progressions 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 now 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’ and 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 of mortality 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.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Jumper - super-privileged tourists

Doug Liman, 2006, USA-Canada

A tale of how teleportation superpowers turn guys into super-jerks, who do nothing with their powers except to act as the worst kind of privileged tourist and smug brats. Oh, it also helps them to sleep around a lot and to disappear in the morning without responsibility. They are pursued by religious zealots (because the gifted ones are always persecuted) led by Samuel L Jackson (you know, the stern-faced kind of Jackson that really isn’t doing much), but they are so obvious with their powers that it is a wonder that they aren’t captured earlier. They just appear in libraries and Emergency Rooms, sometimes causing shallow action-craters when they appear and sometimes not (depending upon whether the plot requires it); they speed cars recklessly down busy streets, etc. Actually, the zealots are just as obvious, leaving a trail of bodies and explosions and killing officials, etc.

Considering they can go anywhere, the range of locations seems pretty limited (hey, on top of a Sphinx): it’s as if all locations jumped to are mostly from a postcard collection; certainly they don’t quite seem adventurous enough. To the fact that they do nothing selfless with their powers, the film seems to nod to this with a moment where our hero David Rice (Christen Haydenson) ignores a report of people drowning in a boat accident or something: is he thinking Well, maybe I could help….? In fact, the powers prove a bit superfluous when, by the magic of cinema editing, David just goes to Rome with Millie (Rachel Bilson) on a whim: Millie just kind of leaves her job and they seemingly have the cash (he can jump to rib banks so I guess cash is not a problem); then with a cut, they are in Rome. And that’s where the jumpers and hunters have a showdown but, although it’s meant to be a great location for a fight, it only adds to the impression of boneheaded tourists with no respect for their surroundings.

 Glossy, lazy and conceived without any complexity of thought seemingly by a teenager with parent issues that just wants to, you know, break free and do whatever the hell he wants. Superpowers for those who don’t want any real context bringing down the wish-fulfilment. 

Friday, 1 December 2017

The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci
2017, France-UK

Armand Iannucci has long been a reliable source of satire and ‘The Death of Stalin’, his adaptation of Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel, showcases his potent skills as a political humorist. The set-up is in the title and then all hell breaks loose as the main players in Soviet government, 1953, try to work out what to do next and how to extricate themselves from previous adminstration. Understanding that it’s working on multiple levels, a top tier cast play relatively straight without becoming cartoonish, relying on the natural absurdity that comes from the circumstance of a bunch of conniving but dangerous people trying to break off the shackles of The Great Terror whilst trying to figure out what exactly they should do next. What helps greatly is that the cast keeps their own accents, allowing Adrian McLoughlin’s Stalin to sound like an East End gangster, Steve Buscemi’s Krushchev to sound like a weary plotter (like Steve Buscemei, then) and Jason Isaacs’ to let loose with a showstealing Yorkshire bolshiness for his Georgy Zhokov.

And then there’s Simon Russel Beale whose turn as Lavrentiy Beria is truly chilling in his casual psychopathy, reminding everyone just how high the stakes are. As a thoroughly cold-blooded executioner by whim, it is Beria’s side of things that perhaps may have caused some to find this too chilling for a comedy, even despite the slapstick and humour of the corpse-carrying and lying in state set-pieces. But this balance of funny-horror is correct and deftly played, showing how the ridiculous pantomimes these officials go through to keep authority and, indeed, stay alive have terrible effects across the country that they barely seem aware of, so caught up as they are in their power plays. Iannucci has been very vocal about his intention in keeping that balance and has made it clear that muting the horror for the comedy would have been to belittle how truly terrible the truth of it was. 

Unlike, say, Sokurov’s ‘Moloch’ or Schlöndorff’s ‘The Tin Drum’, this does not use abstraction or magic realism to realise its absurdism: rather the absurdism comes from the buffoonery of Georgy Malenkov’s (Jeffrey Tambor) blundering vanity; or Comrade Andryev (Paddy Considine), panic-stricken, having to hastily recreate an orchestral performance for Stalin that wasn’t recorded originally; from Krushchev writing a list of notes of things that he did or said that pleased Stalin; or Zhukov’s confident crassness, etc. It’s like Monty Python meeting the seriousness of, for example, Andrzej Wadja. 

Some may find it’s framework of seriousness too much, even despite the set pieces, the funny-horrible black humour and slapstick, the droll script and performances, but it makes ‘The Death of Stalin’ more textured and more essential as a satire showing the terrifying effects of farcical politics. And of course, such satire is almost inherently subversive because fascism kills humour and loathes mockery. This is surely why it is also likely to only grow in stature over time.