Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Dunkirk


At its best, ‘Dunkirk’ is a tense, immersive and visceral experience that practically screams to be seen on the biggest screen possible. The dogfights are staged so that the vast expanse of sea and sky are abruptly juxtaposed with the claustrophobic interior of the Spitfires. Scenes of men trying to escape torpedoed or dive-bombed ships strive for a Brueghel-like level of hellish intensity.

There is enough in ‘Dunkirk’ that works – and works well – for me to hesitate in calling it a failure or even outright say that I was disappointed. I was perplexed, though, that’s for sure – Nolan makes some aesthetic and narrative decisions that are frankly baffling – and I was more than often frustrated.

Things start interestingly enough with a group of English soldiers, who may have been separated from their unit or may be deserters – sneaking through the narrow streets of Dunkirk, seeing what they can steal from deserted households. German planes are dropping propaganda leaflets, two of which our immediate and ostensible hero Tommy* (Fionn Whitehead) grabs from the air and stuffs down the front of his trousers. Not too much later on, he’ll drop his breeches on the beach to take a shit and the inference is that he’s saved Adolf’s best efforts at demoralisation purely to wipe his arse on. But Nolan, for all that he’s half an hour off gleefully wallow in blood and bashed-in heads and third-degree burns, tiptoes away from Tommy’s required toilet break and even stages the scene such that Tommy might not have answered the call of nature anyway.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not suggesting that Nolan should have gone all real-time defecation à la ‘Kings of the Road’, but if you’re starting your movie with an I-wipe-my-arse-on-Hitler’s-propaganda note, then don’t be fucking coy about it. Anyway, Tommy’s possibly postponed poop sees him make the acquaintance of Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) whose name is subsequently revealed not to be Gibson but the script doesn’t give him any other name so I’ll continue calling him Gibson. Tommy and Gibson decide to get off Dunkirk beach by any means necessary, first by impersonating stretcher-bearers (they’re booted off the ship by the medical orderlies), and then by a feigned act of heroism in front of an officer which sees them herded onto the next troopship. Which is promptly torpedoed and they find themselves back on the beach.

Their travails are intercut with the sea crossing of Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their friend George (Barry Keoghan) after the navy requisition Dawson’s pleasure yacht as one of the flotilla of “little ships”; and a dogfight with the Luftwaffe by RAF flyboys Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy). I use “flyboys” not as a derogatory term but to indicate how the script portrays them. Remember that ‘Family Guy’ episode where Stewie, on trying to join the RAF, is asked what his qualifications are and replies, “I have a British accent, I’m possibly homosexual and my wife’s just awful”? Well, that’s the level of characterisation on display here.

Nolan straight-up tells the audience from the outset that these three points of view occupy temporally different spaces: a week for the scenes on the beach, a day for the “little ships” to make the channel crossing, collect survivors and return; and an hour for the dogfight. He proceeds to intercut between them according to dramatic beats and the rhythms of Hans Zimmer’s score**. And at the cost of any sense of continuity. Granted, when he pulls all three timelines together with the tension ratcheted to the absolute maximum, it’s a genuine coup de theatre and pretty much justifies the ticket price.

The fact that we’re two-thirds plus through the film before he effects this coup de theatre, however, is indicative of the wider problem. As with so much of his work, Nolan approaches the story of Dunkirk as an exercise in non-linear experimentalism and showy imagery. His grasp of character and how men interact in the theatre of conflict is flimsy at best. Peckinpah would have focused on group dynamics and the mindset of the soldier; hell, even David Ayer would have known where to focus the drama. Nolan, to put it bluntly, misses the real story even as he continually stumbles over bits of it.

Case in point: Tommy tries to join a line of soldiers on the beach and is basically told to fuck off (“Grenadiers, mate,” a gruff squaddie says, eyeballing him). The military as a class system in microcosm: a fascinating angle Nolan could have explored, but no – a single throwaway line of dialogue and the theme is never revisited.

Case in point: James D’Arcy’s colonel is appalled by the bland assurances of Kenneth Branagh’s commander and seems, just for a moment, as if he were about to vent anger at the callous idiocy of the top brass back home, but no – the moment passes and he remembers he’s a British officer in a war movie.

Case in point: someone notes that the tide is coming in, another character asks how they know, and the curt response is that the incoming tide washes the dead – those drowned, burned or shot during an earlier (failed) evacuation attempt – ashore. Cut to a column of men, knee deep in the sea, waiting on a ship that might not even fucking exist, pushing away from them said incoming corpses. They do so hesitantly and respectfully but not without some measure of disgust. Or maybe despair.

And I couldn’t help thinking that this is where the real drama was. Imagine being one of those men on the beach. Lined up in columns. A pretence of military discipline enforced even in the aftermath of abject defeat. No certainty of rescue. The Germans pushing ever closer. Stukas strafing the beach. The promise of being on the next ship cruelly mocked by the previous ship erupting in flames then keeling over and being taken by the cold grey waves. This is where the drama is: the hope, the despair, the terror, the horrible sense of inevitability as the whine of a Stuka’s engine cuts across the sky. This is the story Nolan should have told. And yet he takes pains – and teeth-grindingly clichéd and melodramatic pains at that – to keep Tommy and Gibson off the beach. His only real focus on the men on the beach is the opportunity they present to frame a shot. He flips from the OCD delight of constructing purely geometrical images, to the childish delight in flipping over the first domino in an elaborately constructed sequence and chuckling as he watches them fall.

Likewise, the focus on Dawson does real damage to his portrayal of the “little ships”. For eighty solid minutes, you’d swear it was only his pleasure yacht making the channel crossing. Nolan doesn’t show a single other non-naval vessel until the last 15 minutes when a metric fuckton of them suddenly appear out of nowhere and Hans Zimmer loses control of himself on the soundtrack. What should be the key moment is reduced to here-comes-the-cavalry cliché.

What really kills the film, though, is two moments of bilious melodrama – one in a beached fishing boat where Tommy, Gibson and some other deserters basically re-enact that ‘Twilight Zone’ episode about the nuclear shelter but with a fishing boat instead of a nuclear shelter; and one on Dawson’s boat which makes the histrionics of ‘Dead Calm’ look like a piece by August Strindberg. Nolan’s preference for these moments over the genuine human drama of the men waiting on the beach speaks volumes about the film ‘Dunkirk’ could have been.

On a technical level, there’s little to dispute, however the performances are serviceable at best. Branagh squints and delivers his lines with all the engagement of a man who’s wondering when the pub opens. Rylance is dismal, trying for Everyman but forgetting that only the super-rich – whether it’s 1940 or 2017 – own yachts; his line readings are stilted and I’m still trying to figure out what accent he was attempting. Everyone else is basically forgettable. In fact, it says something that Harry fucking Styles is the film and his “performance” is functionally better than Mark Rylance’s!

Then we have the score. If the film itself hangs together at odds in the sum of its parts, weird tonal and aesthetic disconnects jarringly obvious from scene to scene and even within individual scenes, then the score summarises that feeling. I can only describe it as a score of two halves, not that it delineates so neatly in terms of its application throughout the film’s running time. It’s as if two entirely different scores had been commissioned, chopped up, and scattered across the film. The first uses two atonal motifs – one suggesting the inevitability of the tide, the other a thuddingly obvious “ticking clock” motif – and in the second is the kind of let’s-rip-off-Elgar-and-Vaughan-Williams orchestration that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hovis or Warburtons commercial.

But the biggest failing is Nolan’s insistence that the audience’s engagement be entirely based on a handful of cardboard cut-out characters. Dunkirk was an evacuation. The experience was collective. The odds against both soldiers and the pilots of the “little ships” were phenomenal. For all that he fills the film with carefully constructed long shots of beach and sea and columns of men, Nolan fails to communicate any sense of scale.



*Yes, Nolan wrote a script where an English soldier’s name is Tommy. Yes, my reaction was pretty much as you’d imagine.


**I will have more to say about Hans Zimmer before this review is over. It will not be pretty.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

It Comes at Night


Trey Edward Shults’s second feature film is an austere and controlled enquiry into what happens when— … No, wait. Almost wandered into spoiler territory there.

The genius of ‘It Comes at Night’ is that is takes a set of immediately recognisable genre tropes and— … Bollocks! Almost did the spoiler thing again.

It’s going to be very difficult to talk about this film in anything but the vaguest terms without inadvertently giving something away. Or rather giving away the one incisive point that every aspect of the film is moving toward, and to which every aesthetic decision by its writer/director contributes.

Subject of its writer/director: Shults is twenty-eight. This is his second film. It’s almost sickeningly well made. He worked on Jeff Nichols’s modern classic ‘Midnight Special’. The star of that film – Joel Edgerton – took the lead role in ‘It Comes at Night’ and lent weight to the project by acting as producer. Trey Edward Shults – I say this again – is twenty-eight. Talented bastard!

The film opens in Romero territory with a small group of people – in this case a family – holed up in a farmhouse in the backwoods. It’s either the present or the very near future. Some form of virus is sweeping America, possibly the world. Patriarch Paul (Edgerton) has adapted to the crisis by the application of strict routine and rigorous self-discipline, the better to protect his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr). Measures include donning gas masks when venturing outside, obsessive personal hygiene, and maintenance of a small armoury in case of attempted intrusion. One such intrusion is by Will (Christopher Abbott), who mistakenly believes that the house is abandoned. Swiftly disarmed by Paul, Will tells him that his family are holed up at a residence some miles away and while they have sufficient food they are running low on water. His incursion was to scavenge for same. Paul and Sarah discuss the situation, the latter being of the opinion that moving Will and his family and whatever supplies they have into their house offers strength in numbers against possible other intrusions. Against his better judgement, Paul accompanies Will on a journey through a stretch of woodland that might not be entirely empty of antagonist.

That’s really all I can say. What follows relies on character dynamics and interactions. There’s Paul and Sarah’s interracial marriage – no big deal in the twenty-first century, huh? But the sight of Paul (white, bearded, rifle slung across his shoulder) barking orders at his (black, wary, slightly subservient) wife and son gives the audience something uncomfortable to think about. The contrast between Paul and Will is handled effectively; in a screenplay that doesn’t waste words, every scrap of dialogue between them accumulates meaning. Nuances, pauses, a slip that could be lie, half-truth or simple misunderstanding – these things keep the audience unsure. Where, if anywhere, do your sympathies lie? Then there’s Travis, on the cusp of adulthood, vulnerable to the attentions of another father figure, not to mention— … ah, but I very nearly went waltzing down Spoiler Street again.

‘It Comes at Night’ is cannily scripted and, once you get past a draggy and rather po-faced first 15 minutes, generates slow-burn tension with a single-minded focus. Shults perhaps overuses Travis’s recurring nightmares to generate a horror movie vibe; the “jump” scares he effects by such means are the most generic aspects of the film and not as effective as the genuine moments of horror that are derive from the darker corners of the human psyche. Nor is he quite as acute a chronicler of the way men behave around each other as, say, Sam Peckinpah or Walter Hill, but that might be down to his comparative youth. Shults has talent to burn two years shy of thirty. There’s nothing to suggest that he won’t, in the coming years, deliver some outright masterpieces.

If ‘It Comes at Night’ doesn’t quite stretch its toe into masterpiece territory, it’s still damn good. Shults is smart enough to take his time and let his characters drive the narrative rather than the other way round (a failing of plenty of filmmakers twice his age). He knows how to stage a scene for maximum squirmy tension, how long to hold a shot and when to cut away. Self-evident stuff, you might think, but done with such intuitive confidence that half an hour into the film I hitched up onto the edge of my seat and, despite all of the bleakness and lack of hope on offer, grinned in anticipation of how it would play out, knowing that I was in the hands of a filmmaker who really knows what he’s doing.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Baby Driver


I went into Edgar Wright’s ‘Baby Driver’ not knowing what to expect – the trailer couldn’t have been more generic if it had tried – but with the mindset that all it had to do was be a damn good car chase movie. It’s been too long since we’ve had a good car chase movie. (And anyone who’s rehearsing a “but the ‘Fast and Furious’ franchise” argument can leave by the garage door: those things are what a Michael Bay movie would be if the Transformers stayed as vehicles; they’re porn with Turtle Wax instead of cum shots.)

‘Baby Driver’ is the opposite of porn: it’s a pure romance. It’s a love letter to cinema. A love letter to music. A love letter to movement – be it a car chase, a foot chase, or some ad hoc dance moves on a city street – and the exuberant energy of things simply being in motion. A love letter to enigmatic loners who don’t say much and the winsome girls who fall for them anyway. A love letter to smart-talking crims and meticulously planned heists. A love letter to abandoned warehouses and underground car parks. A love letter to the city and the freeway.

It’s almost a romantic musical and certainly a love letter to a city, and it does a damn sight better job in both respects than ‘La La Land’.

And at its absolute best – at its purest and most joyously infectious – it’s an abstract work of cinema that meshes kinetics and soundtrack for the sheer love of what it can do with music and motion, iconography and editing. As such, there’s little point in talking about the plot (a wholly derivative affair) or the acting except to note that everyone turns in a performance that is exactly what the film requires to sustain its non-car-chase bits. Kevin Spacey is typically deadpan, John Hamm ought to have a bigger film career, and Eiza González wins the Agitation of the Mind Girls With Guns Award for being a total badass and hot as hell with it.


Where ‘Baby Driver’ finds itself on shakier ground its during the last half hour or so where Wright suddenly remembers that he’s supposed to be making a genre film and the tyre-squealing fun gets cudgelled and locked in the trunk and the film goes on a slow plod through the demeaned streets of Cliché Town. Wright clearly wants to have his cake and eat it à la Ben Wheatley’s ‘Free Fire’, another film-as-experiment where the genre trappings provide a comfort zone for a mainstream audience; but whereas Wheatley mines a cynical vein of gallows humour that is integral to his film’s aesthetic (there is a streak of cruelty that runs through all his work), Wright never fully convinces when he piles on the macho thrilleramics in the last act. It just comes across as hollow posturing. Likewise, the series of flash-forwards that conclude the protagonist’s story are just plain dull: the moment Ansel Elgort slides from behind the wheel or doesn’t have Lily James’s too-sweet-to-be-true waitress to interact with, he ceases to hold any interest for the viewer.

It’s not a bad enough ending to derail the film entirely (I’m looking at you, ‘The Forest’!), but it certainly undoes some of the good work that’s gone before. In a perfect world, there’s a 90 minute cut of ‘Baby Driver’ with 50% less dialogue, where the cars get star billing and Eiza González firing off two machine pistols fulfils the quota of gunplay. That film would be a pop-art masterpiece.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle


Julien Temple’s ‘The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’ posits that there’s no such thing as rock ‘n’ roll. It does so by mapping out a fictive account of the Sex Pistols’ formation and rise to notoriety, every aspect stage managed and the band’s popularity nothing but a money-grabbing con job. When even something as working class and reactionary as punk is little more than another establishment sleight of hand, Temple seems to be asking, what can you trust?

Paul Sng’s ‘Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle’ asks a similar question: when the very concept of affordable housing is unmasked as anything but, what hope is there for the working class, the poor, the vulnerable, the disenfranchised? What quality of life for those whose only aspiration is a roof over their head?

The similarity in titles is no coincidence: Sng’s previous film ‘Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain’ showcased the UK’s angriest band kicking against the country’s political culture of austerity. Sng is keyed into the reality of life lived without support, sympathy or safety net. Two films into his career and he emerges, already, as an exemplary chronicler of the social underbelly and the establishment’s investment in keeping the poor and vulnerable poor and vulnerable.

Clocking in at a taut 82 minutes, ‘Dispossession’ economically deals with over half a century of social history, charting the progressive achievements of Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government to provide for its least-advantaged citizenry, to the free-market driven attitude of the Thatcher era. The right-to-buy scheme turned council houses into pieces in a huge property game, and the prevalent socio-political model was one that rewarded greed, divided communities and trampled on the underprivileged.

Thatcherism is something Britain has never quite recovered from: last year’s referendum scratched the surface of the country and right-wing belligerence came bubbling up; since then, Theresa May’s increasingly out-of-touch leadership has seemed more and more like a Z-grade Margaret Thatcher tribute act. The cluster of disasters on her watch during, and just after, the ill-advised snap election culminated in the Grenfell Tower fire. I saw ‘Dispossession’ at Nottingham’s Broadway cinema just days after the Grenfell disaster and it gave an already hard-hitting documentary even greater relevance.

Sng focuses on the St Anns estate in Nottingham, Tower Hamlets and Cressingham Gardens in London, and Govanhills and the Gorbals in Glasgow. In respect of the latter, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appears in interview and admits that improvements are unlikely to happen along a timeline that residents would wish for. She presents as calm and reassuring but Sng’s DoP Nick Wood captures images that tell a different story. Still, kudos to Sturgeon for appearing; she and Green Party leader Caroline Lucas are the only MPs who contribute.

Elsewhere, councillors and property developers (and those with fingers in both pies) decline to put forward their side of the story. The silence is particularly damning from those behind the Cressingham Gardens redevelopment, where the current residents, who put forward a “People’s Plan” to regenerate the estate, are ignored despite their plan being highly workable and their protests visible. The proposed redevelopment will see the estate bulldozed and replaced by luxury flats. Of the 1034 homes that look set to be demolished – ‘Dispossessed’ ends with Cressingham residents vowing to continue the fight – only 82 of a proposed 2704 new residences are earmarked for social housing. The result will be the death of a community, with families (as well as single and/or vulnerable residents) scattered and rehoused in any number of far-flung places. The only winners here will be the property developers.

But that’s what this is all about. We haven’t come that far from the slum clearances and dodgy landlords of the Victorian era, a fact that ‘Dispossession’ identifies with palpable bitterness. The film also tackles the concept of gentrification, noting that historically this was a gradual process of social development. Gentrification nowadays is a bullyboy council wielding a compulsory purchase order on behalf of a property developer with an eye on overseas investment.

With the odds stacked in the establishment’s favour, what can be done? Education, to begin with – see the film, visit the website, read up on the various campaigns. Then be active: support said campaigns, badger your MP, use social media. Get angry. Demand that the government be held to account.

Narrated by Maxine Peake (one of the most socially conscious and politically active talents in British cinema), ‘Dispossession’ is a film for our times. I can’t think of a single more important documentary feature to come out of Britain in the last decade.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Homesman


As a director, Tommy Lee Jones isn’t exactly prolific: four features in just over twenty years, two of them – ‘The Good Old Boys’ and ‘The Sunset Limited’ – for television. His big screen directorial debut was ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’ (2005), a contemporary western concerned with revenge and redemption that has about it more than a touch of Peckinpah. It’s a damn good movie; close as all hell to being a modern classic.

‘The Homesman’ is a western set in the 1850s concerned with failure and redemption that has about it more than a touch of Michael Cimino. In both films, Jones acknowledges his influences and draws on them subtly and respectfully in the service of the story he’s telling. ‘The Homesman’ has the stateliness and the visual grandeur of Cimino circa ‘Heaven’s Gate’ – cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto is the film’s unsung hero – the better to contrast with the dour narrative and its unsettling accretion of detail.


The film opens with three women in a hardscrabble Nebraska township emerging from a particularly vicious winter having succumbed to mental illness. “Mad women”, as the townsfolk are quick to label them. The parson, Reverend Dowd (John Lithgow), arranges for their care to be given over to a preacher’s wife in Iowa and calls upon one of his flock to make the journey: an undertaking of several weeks. When farmer Vester Belknap (William Fichtner) – husband to the afflicted Theoline (Miranda Otto) – refuses to take part in a drawing of lots to determine who gets the job, spinster of the parish Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) takes his place.

No prizes for guessing who ends up playing chauffeur to the disturbed women?

In addition to Theoline, Mary Bee’s charges number Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) and Gro Svendson (Sonja Richter). I’ll not reveal that nature of their mental illness: an unflinchingly blunt sequence early in the film – fleshed out by a couple of flashbacks around the midway point – spells out their suffering. Mary Bee – brittle, pious, frustrated in her attempts to find a husband – isn’t the ideal candidate for the company of the demented. Early in the journey, the incessant wailing of one of her charges drives her to despair. The hard realities of the journey don’t sit well with her, and the arrangement she enters into with petty criminal George Briggs (Jones) to assist on the trail as recompense for saving him from hanging is also fraught; they’re opposites in gender, age, social standing, theological views and general outlook on life.


As the journey progresses, Jones – co-scripting as well as directing (film is based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout*) – maps the gradual thawing of their relationship, only for things to take a sharp and unexpected turn. Again: I’m remaining tight-lipped. Suffice it to say that the last third of ‘The Homesman’ plays out under the shadow of the event in question, giving it the feel of an extended coda … notwithstanding one scene of stone cold ruthless violence that is cathartic only to a point.

‘The Homesman’ is a fascinating piece of work, primarily because of its focus on mental illness. It’s a theme that wrong-foots you as a viewer, subverting what you expect from a western even as the production design, cinematography and music evoke the genre as classically as in anything by Ford, Cimino or Eastwood. Inasmuch as Jones can only portray his female cast in terms of the few social roles that the rampant patriarchy of frontier life afforded women, ‘The Homesman’ can also be considered a feminist western. Jones as director has great respect for the film’s treatment of its anti-heroines and even two scenes depicting the grubby realism of personal hygiene on a long trial are shot without recourse to exploitation.

Any film so strongly grounded in character succeeds or fails by its performances. Jones gives a minimalist, elegiac variation on a type of character he’s played several times before and can play to perfection. Except where Briggs is required to be the focal point for a scene’s dynamic, Jones he is careful to keep himself to the side – if not in the background – and cede the film to his co-stars. Swank is as brilliant as you’d expect: I don’t think anyone else could have played Mary Bee.


Otto, Gummer and Richter, notwithstanding that they barely have a word of dialogue between them, turn in genuinely affecting character work. Streep, in a five minute cameo, does her best work since Eastwood’s ‘Bridges of Madison County’. Hailee Steinfeld, popping up at the end to literally be nothing more than an indicator of Briggs’s capacity for good, suggests soulful depths to a character that is pretty much one-dimensional on the page.

Everything else about ‘The Homesman’ works beautifully and in concert. It is a stunningly well-made film, glacially paced as befits its narrative; a film of telling minutiae and elegantly nuanced grace notes; it is mature, intelligent and deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Which, sadly, it failed to find on the big screen. But that’s what DVD, streaming and on-demand are for. Seek this one out, engage with it on its own terms, go through what its characters experience. It’s transformative.


*Robert Rossen’s ‘The Came to Cordura’, Henry Levin’s ‘Where the Boys Are’, and Don Siegel’s autumnal classic ‘The Shootist’ are all based on Swarthout’s work.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

City of Tiny Lights


Pete Travis’s ‘City of Tiny Lights’ – adapted by Patrick Neale from his own novel – does three things superbly well, fumbles the ball elsewhere, and outright drops a bollock in two places. On of these bollock-drops is crucial, the other an annoyance.

Here’s what ‘City of Tiny Lights’ does best: it gives Riz Ahmed a gift of a lead role and gives him the space to knock it out of the park. I’ve yet to see Ahmed give even a lazy performance; he’s certainly come nowhere near a bad one. The guy has charisma to burn and an effortlessness in front of the camera. I’m convinced he can play pretty much any character. Here, he essays the role of Tommy Akhtar, a chain-smoking ex-cop eking out a precarious living as a private detective.

Which brings us neatly to the second thing the film does brilliantly: it allows itself to be as hard-boiled as fuck. Akhtar is cynical and world-weary and not adverse to using violence if need be, and all of these things spew from the still open wound of his defeated romanticism. Tommy Akhtar is a private eye in the grand tradition of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe; his odyssey through the city’s underbelly is as dark and labyrinthine and as riddled with distrust and ghosts from the past as any of theirs. The narrative is almost deliberately complicated, the pinball of Akhtar’s investigation pinging from murdered call girls to low-level politics to crooked property deals by way of radicalisation and fundamentalism.

It’s a distillation of everything that’s wrong with a metropolitan city: corruption, careerism, capitalism, corporationism, racial disharmony and the arrogance and entitlement of power. With Josh Brolin or Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role, you could easily imagine it unfolding against the neon soaked backdrop of New York. But no, we’re in London but that doesn’t stop Travis shooting the city as if were the rotten half of the Big Apple. He also shoots London without feeling the need to shoehorn any of the obvious landmarks into the background. This is a London that doesn’t recognise the Eye, Big Ben, Tower Bridge or the Spire. Even the most upwardly mobile of the film’s characters wouldn’t get within spitting distance of West India Quay.

Akhtar is variously aided, distracted and emboldened in his investigations by new client, high class call girl Melody (Cush Jumbo – who ought to be a major star in two years’ time if there’s any justice), old flame Shelley (Billie Piper, sadly underused) and his memory-addled, cricket-loving father Farzad (Roshan Seth). Subject of whom: third massive plus-point in the film’s favour. Seth is nothing short of awesome, imbuing his role with poignant dignity even as he provides comic relief in the early scenes. His pivotal moment in a tense scene late in the game is something I absolutely won’t spoil; suffice it to say he walks away with the film.

Here’s what the film doesn’t do so well (I’ll keep this part of the review brief, because I’d rather retain my positive impressions of ‘City of Tiny Lights’): It has a terrible title. Yes, I know it’s from a song by Frank Zappa, but Zappa never gets a mention and Akhtar isn’t established as a music fan in the way of, say, Inspectors Rebus, Resnik or Morse. It’s a good title for a song, but not for a film, and certainly not for a hard-boiled film. Unfortunately, it’s a title that seems to have inspired DoP Felix Wiedemann to go overboard with the focus pulls, the cityscapes behind Akhtar drifting, time after time, into a blur of … well … tiny lights. It’s a thudding example of a visual aesthetic bludgeoned into literalism, and after a while it becomes wearying. The decision, too, to render a couple of dramatic pursuits as an impressionist blur of colour and motion might have sounded conceptually brilliant during storyboarding, but just comes across as arty-farty and an impediment to the film’s pace. And during those moments where the film slows long enough to let you think about it too much – its 110 minute running time is excessive; it should have been a fast and brutal 90 minute thriller – it’s difficult to fathom any reason why Akhtar persists with his investigation in the face of at least two very convincing warnings-off.

Which brings me to the two big failings. For all that Billie Piper brings the star presence to the role of Akhtar’s lost love, the series of flashbacks prompted by her reappearance – which cumulatively account for about a fifth of the overall film – are both unconvincingly staged and only peripheral to the plot. The big thing that’s been haunting Akhtar all these years is revealed in decidedly ho-hum fashion, and the connection between his wasted youth in the 90s and a character he reencounters contemporaneously, could have easily been effected with recourse to the rampant melodrama on display here. The 90s scenes are terrible and come damn close to derailing the film.

The job is almost done for them by the very last scene. It’s one thing for an anti-hero to find personal redemption after encountering the very depths of human venality; just like it’s one thing for a terminal loner to find himself, at film’s end, with an ersatz family (Clint Eastwood’s ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ pulls this trick off perfectly, without ever being saccharine). Unfortunately, ‘City of Tiny Lights’ tries to deliver both in a single scene, ending on a truly god-awful final line. It sends you out of the cinema choking on a sugar lump of pure schmaltz.

‘City of Tiny Lights’ has garnered cautious reviews at best, and struggled to finds its audience on the big screen. Maybe it will have an afterlife on DVD. I hope so, even though I know it’s not a film I’d get many repeat viewings out of. I would like to see Ahmed play Tommy Akhtar again, though; this time with a paired down script, directed with ruthless narrative drive, and free from even the vaguest strand of sentiment.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Mindhorn


High concept goes lo-fi in this British comedy that treads similar territory to 2013’s ‘Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’. Hell, Steve Coogan’s in both of them. Here Coogan plays Peter Eastman, an actor who’s done rather well in a forensic detective TV drama called ‘Windjammer’, a spin off of 1980s hi-tech cop show ‘Mindhorn’ whose protagonist was played by insufferable egomaniac Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt) and which ended after three seasons when an embarrassingly drunk and coked up Thorncroft publically humiliated himself on a talk show, offended everyone associated with the show, dubbed the Isle of Man (the series’ setting) a “shithole”, and announced that he was off to Hollywood.

Twenty five years later, having abjectly failed to make it in Tinseltown, Thorncroft is reduced to making commercials, attending auditions for rubbish parts, and haranguing his long-suffering agent (Harriet Walter). When Paul Melly (Russell Tovey), the chief suspect in a murder case, contacts the Isle of Man Constabulary to say that he will only talk to Mindhorn, Chief Inspector Newsome (David Schofield) and D.C. Baines (Andrea Riseborough) reluctantly contact Thorncroft and ask him to resume his old role. What follows – as you’ll probably guess, given the involvement of both Coogan and ‘Mighty Boosh’ regular Barratt – is a comedy of embarrassments that is, by turns, genuinely funny, dispiritingly predictable and ploddingly laboured. The moments where it really hits its stride are certainly worth the ticket price, but ‘Alpha Papa’ it isn’t.

One of its funniest set pieces is the opening, which sets up the dynamic of the ‘Mindhorn’ TV show. Full of macho posturing, overly-dramatic line deliveries and opening credits delivered in a hideous font, it’s a spot on piece of spoofery. Imagine ‘Mindhorn’ as a cross between ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ and ‘Bergerac’ with Thorncroft’s performance akin to that of “John Actor” playing Monkfish in the recurring ‘Fast Show’ sketches. (Mindhorn/Monkfish: I’m stating the obvious here, aren’t I?) Indeed, Thorncroft’s casual sexism recalls Monkfish’s “put your knickers on and make me a cup of tea” ethos.

Director Sean Foley, whose first film this is, mines a lot of humour from the cult of 1980s. A running gag about ‘Mindhorn’ merchandise pokes fun at any number of American hit shows of the era, while the ATV logo is sneakily inserted in the ‘Mindhorn’ opening credits. And there are a handful of bitchy jokes about ‘Bergerac’ (the John Nettles starrer that was set on Jersey). Essie Davis’s role as ‘Mindhorn’ co-star and romantic interest Patrica Deville is a thinly veiled nod to Louise Jameson’s nothing role on ‘Bergerac’.

But beyond nostalgic box-ticking for 80s TV fans, what does the movie have to offer? Sad to say that Barratt is probably the least of its attractions: not only does Thorncroft have to be an arrogant price for 90% of the running time to make the concept work, but Barratt seems to enjoy playing the façade a little too much, and when the time comes for the character’s redemption in the final act, it all feels very forced. Fortunately, everyone else is on form – Davis, Riseborough and an hilariously irascible Schofield are a delight to watch, Tovey takes a very trickily written character (Melly’s mental deficiency, while again necessary to the plot, verges on exploitative) and does fine work, and Simon Farnaby nabs the Agitation ‘Man of the Match’ award for his broadly comedic yet oleaginously creepy turn as Clive, Thorncroft’s former stuntman and now romantic rival.

The hour twenty five minute running time is just right. The pace is generally decent, except when Foley takes too long to set up a joke or labours the payoff (some business involving a switched videotape is a case in point). There’s one set-piece – an assassination attempt and a high speed getaway that are assumed to be part of a civic parade, a bored dignitary giving a running commentary on the whole thing – that is inspired in its concept and pitch perfect as an archetype of British humour. Had ‘Mindhorn’ scraped together another three or four moments this good, and Barratt redialled the performance just a tad, it could have been great. But there’s no reason why the same team, with just a slightly sharper approach, can’t deliver a bona fide belter next time round.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Going in Style


Let’s be honest: under any set of objective analytical criteria, ‘Going in Style’ is a pretty average movie. Its screenplay isn’t just predictable: you can literally cue in every narrative beat on a scene by scene basis. Matters pertaining to the gift of a watch and the capturing of a specific bit of CCTV footage are set up in such thunderously obvious style that their later relevance is something you can see coming like an ocean liner on a duck pond. The look of the film and its production design are entirely utilitarian. And with the exception of one whirlingly terrific scene where the sketching out of a bank’s floorspace segues into a “planning the job” montage, helmer Zach Braff doesn’t bring a single directorial flourish to the table. Had ‘Going in Style’ been made with a lesser cast than Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Alan Arkin, Christopher Lloyd, John Ortiz and Ann-Margret (who, at 75, still has more va-va-voom than many starlets a third her age), it wouldn’t have had much to recommend itself beyond the obvious anti-establishment satisfaction of watching a bunch of old dudes pull off a heist. (And let’s face it, Arkin’s contemporary Frank Langella set the seal on that concept in fine style with ‘Robot & Frank’ five years ago.)

That Caine and Freeman would play off each other in fine style was a done deal. That Arkin would bring his deadpan sarcasm A-game, ditto. Eccentric, scene-stealing supporting work from Lloyd? Guaranteed. Ortiz being cool just by underplaying? The man has the patent on it. Now throw in perfectly acceptable work by Matt Dillon as a determined FBI guy, Peter Serafinowicz (an actor often denied sympathetic roles) as Caine’s son-in-law, and Joey King as Caine’s granddaughter. Everyone’s engaged and, for the most part (Josh Pais as an unctuous banker is the over-egged exception), the cast pitch their performances to each other’s strengths; sure, Freeman, Caine and Arkin are the top billed talent, but ‘Going in Style’ is inarguably an ensemble piece.

The plot shouldn’t need a rehash for anyone who’s seen the trailer (hell, even a glance at the poster would probably do the job), but for the sake of completeness, here goes: three OAP buddies who worked at the same steel plant together are robbed of their pension when the firm undergoes financial restructuring; family commitments, health problems and an increasing awareness of their own mortality add to their woes. When one of their number is witness to a bank robbery, one that the media widely reports the perpetrators as getting away with, they decide to pull a similar job. That the bank is administrating the steel plant’s restructuring is the decider: they agree to take only what was depleted from their pension, superannuated by their assumed remaining lifespan (the scene where they each speculate how much longer they have is one of the best moments the film delivers).

Hands up everyone who’s pegged ‘Going in Style’ as ‘Hell and High Water’ with a free bus pass. Yeah: me too.

It’s derivative as all hell. At one point, Braff has his protagonists watch ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ on TV (“I don’t want to see the ending” one them muses) and the inclusion of footage from such an edgy and powerful classic almost sinks ‘Going in Style’. Elsewhere, the tone veers from meditations on the indignity of ageing that wouldn’t be out of place in ‘The Straight Story’ to knockabout farce that makes the average ‘Keystone Kops’ two-reeler look like Tom Stoppard.

And yet … and yet … despite everything – despite the fact the screenplay presents less a fluid narrative than a shunted-together collection of vignettes; despite the fact that the performances from the name-above-the-title triumvirate constitute screen work they could do in their sleep; despite the poundingly unsubtle sops to the audience’s emotions – it works. ‘Going in Style’ somehow finds a way to benefit from its hoariness, its obviousness, its lack of originality. It reminded me of ‘Papadopoulos & Sons’ in its conversion of comfort-food aestheticism into a fictive zone in which the characters are presented to you like old friends, their journey unfolds exactly as you expect (and moreover want) it to, and you’re simply allowed to enjoy the ride.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Free Fire


Let’s start by shooting the elephant in the room. And why not, since everything the fuck else gets shot in Ben Wheatley’s new film? ‘Free Fire’ is a technical exercise and nothing more. It’s an experiment in the spatial possibilities of a single location utilised to its maximum. It’s the work of a filmmaker, in thrall to every cool crime flick made in the Seventies, wondering how long he can drag out the shoot-out for. For almost the entire movie, it turns out.

As a narrative, ‘Free Fire’ can be summarised in less than twenty words: various crims converge on a warehouse to do an arms deal; everything goes tits up; gunplay ensues. Sure, I could pad that out to tell you who the characters are and who they’re played by, but that wouldn’t get us past the fact that they’re all ciphers, so let’s just think of them at the One With The Bad Sooth Ifrikaan Accent, the Moody Oirish One, the Snivelling Little Weasel and the Wiseass Douchebag whose mutual antipathy prompts the conflagration, the Too Cool For School One, and the Token Chick. That’s not me being sexist, by the way. Brie Larson’s character is basically referred to as a “chick” or a “bird” and only the actress’s natural screen presence allows for any characterisation beyond that.

As a crime drama or thriller, ‘Free Fire’ does nothing you haven’t seen before. The abandoned warehouse/decayed urban setting is reminiscent of ‘Reservoir Dogs’, ‘Trepass’, the last scene of ‘The French Connection’ and several dozen others at least. The dialogue – save for a handful of throwaway lines used to comic effect – is functional at best.

And even reckoned as an entry in cinema’s century-long pantheon of great shoot-outs – the film’s self-acknowledged raison d’être – it never comes close to achieving the catharsis of Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ or the sheer visual poetry of John Woo’s ‘The Killer’. Candles, fluttering doves and balletic dives by cool guys in long coats and shades firing two-handedly are notable in ‘Free Fire’ only by their absence. Nor does Amy Jump’s script engage with the interrelationships of the various groups who find themselves at odds and out to kill each other. Peckinpah would have rigorously interrogated the psychology, motivation and group dynamics so that even the longest and most visceral climactic bout of violence would have felt earned, devasting and inevitable. For Wheatley and Jump, the shoot-out exists for its own sake.

And therefore we have to evaluate ‘Free Fire’ purely for its technical prowess, since its so resolutely disavows any other frame of reference. Which is probably just as well since the performances – apart from Larson and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley – are generally terrible, the use of music cues is hackneyed, and the attempts at Scorsese- or Tarantino-style iconography near the start is mere copyism. Indeed, there’s precious little in the first 15 minutes to remind you that Wheatley was the dark, provocative talent behind ‘Kill List’, ‘A Field in England’ and ‘High-Rise’.

Still, it takes no more than those first 15 minutes to establish ciphers (sorry, characters) and setting and get everyone edgy and trigger happy. And once the shooting starts, Wheatley’s directorial prowess leaps to the fore. Unlike so many contemporary films – where choppy editing and shaky camera work conspire to leave the viewer in abject confusion as to who is where and shooting at whom; or where spatially finite interiors suddenly take on Tardis-like dimensions as heroes and villains range over seemingly endless square-feet of foot space and they squeeze off round after round – ‘Free Fire’ sets out its stall quickly and precisely in terms of the warehouse’s dimensions, the antagonists’ spatial relationship to each other and the ballistic capability of the weaponry on display, and plays scrupulously fair by its own rules.

What I took away from ‘Free Fire’ – more so than the observation that even the world’s worst perm, a coating of grime and some blood splatter can’t make Brie Larson anything less than radiant – is how incredibly well thought-out the film is. This wasn’t just a case of handing over the action stuff to a second unit; this is the work of a director who is genuinely interested in the aesthetics, logistics and challenges of shooting action, and the film benefits immeasurably from Wheatley’s complete engagement. He also makes a wise decision in not taking the material seriously, instead allowing it to unspool as an absurdist black comedy. Which isn’t say that ‘Free Fire’ is entirely fun-with-guns or muzzle-flash-and-quickfire-gags; the cynical cruel streak that runs through all of Wheatley’s oeuvre is present and correct here.

Full disclosure: I enjoyed ‘Free Fire’. It delivered up some decent belly laughs and it was just ridiculous enough to appeal. I can’t fault it on a technical level (the sound design, in particular, is something to be marvelled at). But I can’t help wondering what Wheatley’s motivation was. For all its strong points, so much of it seems like a showreel to demonstrate what he can achieve with a small budget ($10million) and that he can be trusted to deliver standout set pieces. What I’m hoping is that ‘Free Fire’ is a letter of introduction to the money men whose chequebooks can make possible his much mooted remake of ‘Wages of Fear’. If this is the case, we should all go out and see it, and maybe in 2019 or 2020 I’ll happily be reviewing the film that I’m convinced will be Wheatley in excelsis.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Get Out


When Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) take their relationship to the meet the parents stage, it’s a one-sided deal. Chris’s single-parent mother died when he was eleven. He’s beaten the disadvantage of class, race and economic background and is starting to make a name for himself as a photographer. Rose, however, is pure ivy league and it’s to her parents’ sprawling country estate that they repair for the weekend.

The last stage of the journey is down one of those ominously empty and tree-lined roads so beloved of horror-movie directors. Their car goes off the road after they hit a deer in one of those worse-to-come foreshadowing moments so beloved of horror-movie directors. At the Armitage residence, Rose’s parents – Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) – are effusive in their welcoming of Chris. Perhaps a little too effusive. But still, here’s Rose’s loose-cannon brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) to balance things out with some outright hostility. And we haven’t even met the Armitages’ retinue of decidedly oddball friends yet – all of whom are characterised by the slightly unhinged performances so beloved of horror-movie directors.

Does it sound like I’m gently satirising writer/director Jordan Peele? Far from it: his rigid adherence to the genre playbook is the film’s strength. Peele obviously knows his horror movies and loves them – but loves them with enough ironic remove that he can bend the formula to his particular agenda. And does he ever? And with such aplomb! ‘Get Out’ uses the structure, iconography and narrative expectations of the genre to lead its audience happily into a ‘Stepford Wives’-goes-torture-porn comfort zone, while sneakily engendering a dialogue on race, identity, cultural appropriation and the façade of liberalism.

The latter is one of the sharpest satirical blows Peele lands and I can imagine an entire tranche of Caucasian filmgoers bristling against it. It’s one thing having Bubba and John-Boy and any number of their dentistry-challenged, IQ-deficient cousins going all psycho on a black protagonist in a horror movie, but it’s quite a different dynamic when the villains are the very people for whom white-man’s-guilt hand-wringing and fiscally permitted entitlement combine to well-meaning but often wincingly patronising effect. “I’d have voted for Obama a third time if I could,” Dean espouses with deadpan sincerity at one point; “best president of my lifetime.” Missy, meanwhile, fixates on Chris’s smoking as unhealthy and badgers him to undergo hypnotherapy.

It doesn’t take Chris long to figure out that something is amiss. The too-forced jollity of the Armitages’ groundsman and housekeeper (both African-American); the token black man, all dapper outfits and plummy vowels, in their circle of friends; the parties where guests pry a little too intimately; the warnings of Chris’s best bud, airport security guard Rod (LilRel Howery, earning himself a Man of the Match award), that these aren’t the kind of people he should trust.

I wouldn’t dream of blowing the gaffe on where all of this is heading, although a fairly redundant pre-credits sequence drops some pretty heavy hints. ‘Get Out’ uses its surface as camouflage – and its surface has “dumb shlocky horror flick” written all over it. This is nowhere near as evident as in the third act, which is as dumb and schlocky as it gets, boasting some scientific shenanigans that make ‘The Man with Two Brains’ and ‘Frankenhooker’ look like documentary realism. And yet as conceptually daft as the third act gets, it’s still the best metaphor for cultural appropriation that genre cinema has yet concocted.

The film has very few flaws: it’s slightly overlong, some of the early scenes play out longer than necessary, the cinematography is a tad pedestrian in places (but only in places, mind: DoP Toby Olivers delivers a handful of genuinely striking images), and there’s no real chemistry between the leads. Although maybe that was intentional.

What it gets right, it gets right in fine style. Keener’s the best she’s been for ages, effortlessly creating an inscrutably creepy character; the comic relief (mostly courtesy of Howery) is perfectly balanced against the slow-burn tension and the gory shocks on the final act; and the use of the seemingly ordinary to create suspense, menace and imbalance is pitch perfect. This is, after all, a film in which the most antiseptically clean of guest rooms comes to feel like the dingiest of prison cells, social etiquette is revealed as racism with a university tenure, and a delicate bone china cup and saucer with the dinkiest of teaspoons can rightly take its place alongside Leatherface’s chainsaw, Freddy Krueger’s manicure and the driller killer’s toolkit as one of the most squirmily horrible instruments in contemporary horror cinema.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Nocturnal Animals


For anyone with a serious redhead fetish, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ – which features no less a quartet of world-class beauties of said hair colour than Amy Adams, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber and India Menuez – might well prove their ‘Citizen Kane’. (It also stars Andrea Riseborough, an equally not-troubled-by-the-ugly stick redhead, but buries her under a brunette frightwig.) For anyone else … hmmm, well …

‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a Tom Ford film. I know this because the opening credits are ushered in by the authorial statement “a Tom Ford film”. As are the closing credits. Seriously, the moment the final shot fades to black, there it is: “a Tom Ford film”. But let’s get back to the opening credits for a moment. As they crawl towards their interminable conclusion, overlaying slow motion shots of morbidly obese people dancing naked in slo-mo – a series of images that has no bearing on what follows and is never revisited – the last three are “produced by Tom Ford”, “screenplay by Tom Ford” and “directed by Tom Ford”.

Tom Ford has obviously never heard of the traditional “written, produced and directed by” credit. Or he has, but rejects it in favour of stamping his name on his product as omnipresently as possible. Tom Ford is also a fashion designer, and it might be that his fixation with labels extends to his new career as a director. ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is his second film and it should probably be legislated that you don’t get to say “a Your Name film” on your films until you’ve directed at least half a dozen of them and genuinely proved yourself as an auteur.

But, for better or for worse, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ (one of the worst titles I’ve come across since Nick Willing’s ‘Photographing Fairies’ back in 1997) is a Tom Ford film, so let’s take a few paragraphs to discuss what it has to offer in all its Tom Fordy Tom Fordiness.

Art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Adams) is twenty years divorced from non-career-focused wannabe writer Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), trapped in a loveless second marriage to smooth bastard, philanderer and also-ran businessman Hutton (Armie Hammer) and a distant mother to Samantha (Menuez). Her life is perfectly ordered, sterile and about two steps away from total implosion. One day, she receives a proof copy of a novel Edward has had accepted for publication (it looks more like an amateurishly bound MS rather than a set of galleys or a bound uncorrected proof, but hey ho) and which is dedicated to her.

The novel tells the story of regular guy teacher Tony Hastings, his wife Laura and their daughter India and how their family vacation turns into a nightmare after an encounter with a bunch of rednecks. Minor spoiled: Laura and India are sexually assaulted and murdered while Tony, more through his captors’ stupidity than any proactive decision on his part, escapes. Dead inside, he partners with unorthodox lawman Bobby Andes to track down the perpetrators and take revenge.

As Susan reads, she imagines Edward as Tony, and drops in place surrogates for herself and Samantha as Laura and India (Fisher and Bamber respectively). Also, she imagines the story in vicious and uncompromising detail. Andes is played in this film-of-the-novel-within-a-film by Michael Shannon and he’s the absolute motherlovin’ best thing in ‘Nocturnal Animals’ by a wide margin. Everyone else seems stilted and ill at ease, even down to Riseborough and Michael Sheen turning in caricatures in bit parts. The hillbillies – portrayed grubbily by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman and Robert Aramayo – are no less clichéd.

I’ve read a broadsheet review which seriously tries to suggest that the filmed excerpts from the novel are comparable with Peckinpah. Bullshit! Peckinpah would have given the rednecks characters and rooted their motivation within a socio-economic framework, not to mention establishing a realistic dynamic as regards their interrelationships. But, y’know, Peckinpah could direct and that’s the difference.

Edward’s novel is about revenge, and in riffing on little details that force Susan to confront her memories, it is also an act of revenge in and of itself. As Susan’s carefully constructed rationales for her equally carefully constructed lifestyle begin to implode, she wanders through her gallery and is confronted by a painting she can’t even remember acquiring. Black paint on white canvas: the word “revenge”. At this point I wondered if Tom Ford was going to run round from behind the camera, flick a speck of non-existent dirt from his impeccable Tom Ford suit, point at the painting and enquire of the audience whether they were fully aware that this is a film about revenge. And then perhaps deliver a short lecture on how it’s also a film about how the hollow lives of upper-middle class entitled people who do each other emotional violence are thrown into sharp relief by the story of a life rendered hollow by an act of physical violence committed by the underclass.

Tom Ford’s obsession with the rednecks’ filthy lifestyles – right down to showing his audience a post-arse-wipe scrap of toilet paper (thanks, Tom) – is if anything more prurient than his love of lifestyle porn. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography certainly emphasises this, exercising cool restraint as his camera prowls the art gallery or Susan’s clinically neat des res, then happily rubbing the viewer’s nose in degradation whenever the hillbillies are on screen. And can I say once again how fucking stereotypical these boys are? I half expected the end credits (“a Tom Ford film”) to refer to them as Bubba, JohnBoy and BillyBob Rapist.

‘Nocturnal Animals’ is undoubtedly well made. Thought went into every aspect of it. They way thought goes into films by Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke. And like those boys, for all the artfulness behind the enterprise, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that buttons are being pressed and controversy courted for its own sake. I’ve said before on these pages that von Trier and Haneke remind me of nine-year-olds who have just figured out that saying “fuck” in the playground gets a reaction and delight in proving that observation over and over again.

Tom Ford is playing from the same playbook – not to mention playing in the same sandbox – with ‘Nocturnal Animals’. He has a cast to die for, some incredibly talented collaborators behind the camera, none of which count for much in the face of his ego and what I can only suspect are a seething raft of issues that he’d be better off seeing a therapist about rather than inflicting on paying audiences.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Live By Night


In Raoul Walsh’s ‘The Roaring Twenties’, the trenches of the First World War are the cauldron in which loyalty, rivalry and criminality are forged. In Michael Curtiz’s ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’, a spiritual battle for the soul of the gangster is finally decided in an ambiguous closing scene. In Howard Hawks’s ‘Scarface’, the gangster is elevated to tragic hero, pursuing the attainment of the world entire at the cost of everything else.

Ben Affleck’s ‘Live By Night’ merges elements of all of these and more – surely it’s no coincidence that Dennis Lehane, on whose novel the film is based, picked the title for its evocation of Nicholas Ray’s hymn to the romanticism of the outlaw, ‘They Live By Night’ – as it strives to recreate the iconography of classic Warner Brothers gangster movies while engaging in a dialogue pertinent to a contemporary audience.

And to a certain degree the attempt is to Affleck’s credit. As the poet said: a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for? However, in identifying Lehane’s fiction as a potent combination of propulsive genre narrative and intelligent social commentary – previously translated to the screen in fine style in Clint Eastwood’s ‘Mystic River’ and Affleck’s own directorial debut ‘Gone, Baby, Gone’, and to a slightly lesser degree in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’ – Affleck makes two crucial mistakes.

But we’ll come to those later. For now, take my hand and we’ll waltz through a plot synopsis. Irish-American twenty-something Joe Coughlin (Affleck) comes back from the war pissed off with taking orders and kowtowing to rank. He and some buddies carve out a minor living doing nickel and dime hold-ups until Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister) recruits him under pressure. Coughlin, not wanting to be a part of any particular gang or organisation, accepts in the spirit of self-preservation and because it puts him closer to White’s flapper girl moll Emma (Sienna Miller, aurally defiling the movie with the worst Irish accent), with whom he’s conducting an affair. Meanwhile, Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) tries to persuade Coughlin to assassinate White. His options running out, Coughlin plans one last job to fund his absconsion with Emma. It goes tits up. Meanwhile, a vindictive Pescatore puts the word out to White about Coughlin’s dalliance with Emma. The only thing that saves him from death at White’s hands is the intervention of his police captain father (Brendan Gleeson, to whom Sienna Miller’s Irish accent owes an apology), and even then he still has to take a beating from Coughlin Snr’s cop buddies and do some jail time.

All of which would be enough material to fill a 90 minute feature and yet here is little more than an extended overture (one, moreover, that’s established and rushed through as inelegantly as a bull on steroids manoeuvring its way from the front entrance to the rear exit of an emporium dedicated to the crockery and figurines fashioned from the finest bone china). The main business of the story takes place post-prison sentence as Coughlin, grieving for Emma (presumed dead after her care plunges off a bridge) and burning for revenge against White, sells his soul to Pescatore and finds himself running the mobster’s rum smuggling operation in Tampa. Here, he partners up with Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), muscles White’s crew out of the game, and reaches an agreement with police chief Figgis (Chris Cooper) whereby Coughlin and Bartolo restrict their dealings to specific socio-geographical locations and the cops turn a blind eye. While Coughlin establishes a profitable business relationship with rum distiller Estaban Suarez (Miguel), whose sister Graciela (Zoe Saldana) he romances, Figgis’s impressionable daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) goes off to Hollywood to be a star but ends up addicted to heroin and forced to appear in skin flicks. When Figgis’s KKK-connected brother-in-law R.D. (Matthew Maher, stealing scenes like Rafferty stole jewels) takes against Coughlin on account of his relationship with the dusky-hued Graciela, Coughlin uses Loretta as leverage to convince Figgis to set R.D. up. Coughlin’s devious machinations are, however, not enough to avoid a full-scale conflagration between Klan and bootleggers.

There’s no doubt that this is the most effective part of the film, even if the pay-off is badly rushed, but again there’s material aplenty in this one plot strand for an entire feature. But Affleck isn’t done yet. With the Klan out of the way, the end of Prohibition looming and a fuckton of Pescatore’s profits sunk into a casino development, Coughlin then has to contend with Loretta’s post-rehab reappearance as a hellfire preacher (yes, Affleck casts the elfin Fanning as a hellfire preacher; yes, that decision works out exactly as you’d expect) and the cold-feet withdrawal of his legitimate business partners on account of the negative publicity Loretta’s anti-vice, anti-gambling, anti-everything-but-God campaign has stirred up. And if that’s not enough, Pescatore has plans to retire Coughlin, it turns out that Emma might not be dead after all, and White has one last hand to play.

Once again, enough material for a whole film is shoehorned into half an hour, with melodrama and cliché piling up against each other. A fantastically staged and edited hotel shoot-out restores some genre kudos to the proceedings, but an extended coda in three acts drags things out that bit longer.

I said earlier that there were two problems with the film. The first is Affleck the writer, the second Affleck the actor. While there’s no doubt that he’s totally engaged with the material as director, he doesn’t yet have the skill as a scriptwriter to translate Lehane into the cinematic medium; and as an actor, he doesn’t deliver the complexity Coughlin’s character calls for, nor does he have any chemistry with Miller or Saldana. (His asexual relationship with Anna McKendrick’s character in ‘The Accountant’ generates more frisson!)

‘Live By Night’ wants to be a sweeping old-fashioned epic but one that turns a contemporary eye to questions of race, religion, politics, loyalty, rivalry, compromise and even social justice (Graciela is driven by restoring dignity and honour to the underclass of her native Cuba). There would have been two ways to do justice to the book: focus on about a fifth of the existing narrative, truncating the timeline and focusing on character interaction (a la Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s ‘L.A. Confidential’), or as a TV mini-series of about five hours. Affleck simply tries to cram too much into his 128-minute running time. Paradoxically, this results not in a frenetic narrative but a plodding and sometimes tiresome one.

That said, there are still things to appreciate. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is a thing of beauty, conjuring some eyeball-searing images: a burning police car sinking into a steely-grey lake; a motorboat slowly cleaving the waters of a lake sheened with the pink/gold of a fireball sun sinking into the horizon; a nocturnal shoot-out in front of the skeletal frame of a half-built casino, laths of timber creating frames within frames within frames. There is also a cluster of fantastic performance – Cooper, Messina, Maher, Glenister, Girone – although this comes at the cost of there not being a single decent role for a woman in the whole thing.

“You get out of this world what you put into it,” Coughlin’s father warns him at one point, “but not always how you might expect.” Coughlin was always going to be blasé about this truism; he was always going to be a compromised protagonist. That the film is equally compromised is the real disappointment.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Antagony and alternatives

When I first took to this platform to create The Agitation of the Mind in 2007, one of the first of Blogger's extended film community to champion the endeavour was Tim Brayton. His blog was Antagony & Ecstasy and it quickly became one of my top three resources for intelligent, trenchant and - best of all - witty film criticism. And I've remained a regular visitor (if, to my shame, an infrequent commenter) ever since.

As of yesterday, Antagony & Ecstasy closed its doors. After Brexit and Trump's election, that might have been enough to give me the screaming heebie-jeebies and sending me sprinting for the nearest insane asylum. But fortunately western civilisation is only two-thirds destroyed and Tim is simply reinventing Antagony as part of a collaborative endeavour. His new project, Alternate Ending, debuts tomorrow. Go here to follow this new chapter. Update your link lists.

Good luck, Tim.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Sully


‘Sully’ is about many things: it’s about a cool-headed act of heroism executed under intense conditions and with no margin for error; it’s about how FAA investigators are basically witch-hunters but with corporate job titles; it’s about the different ways in which PTSD manifests; it’s about how a city claims heroes for itself; and most of all it’s about people doing their jobs.

Clint Eastwood’s direction acutely reflects this, to the point that even the villains of the piece – the soberly dressed men and women who do everything they can to prove an act of reckless endangerment on Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks)’s part – are just doing their job in the same way that Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) were doing theirs, the Manhattan ferry operators who assist in getting the passengers ashore from the freezing waters of the Hudson were doing theirs, and the paramedics who tend to them were doing theirs.

There is very little in ‘Sully’ that isn’t about the minutiae of getting on with one’s job of work. Just as ‘Deepwater Horizon’ invested a sizeable chunk of its running time in explaining how an oil rig works and what the various people who work on it are individually responsible for, and only gets down to the big disaster movie set pieces once all the necessary exposition has been delivered, so ‘Sully’ spends more time with its eminently professional and quietly understated protagonists as they go about their day-to-day (albeit a day-to-day that involves smug people in suits trying to blame them for deep-sixing an aeroplane and never mind that they saved every single passenger) than it does in said plane when it finally puts down on the Hudson.

In fact, Eastwood almost teases the audience with several iterations of the water landing (as Sully coolly corrects an investigator who refers to it as a “crash”). We first see it as Sully’s nightmare in the immediate aftermath; then in part as Sully almost seems to doubt his own judgement during a conversation with his wife (an underused but still effective Laura Linney). It’s very late in the film before Eastwood shows the whole thing, and his aesthetic is austere and realistic. What many directors would stage as a cathartic, even rousing, set-piece is here a jolting and immersive piece of visceral filmmaking. Notwithstanding that everyone knows the outcome – everyone survived – Eastwood communicates the urgency of the forced landing, the against-the-clock necessity of getting everyone off the plane before it sank, and the hypothermia-inducing temperature of the river.

To reiterate: ‘Sully’ is a damned fine film when it concentrates on, and offers up an unsentimental hymn to, the importance of professionals doing their job and trusting their instincts. Its footing is less sure elsewhere, though. The vignettes that introduce a handful of the passengers are lazy to the point of stereotypical. A scene in a bar where an overly garrulous bartender and two drunks are so overwhelmed to meet Sully that their effusiveness embarrasses him is staged like a particularly unfunny outtake from ‘Cheers’. Two other nags: Eastwood’s commitment to an austere aesthetic bleeds the film of any visual distinction; and the editing is fussy and sometimes distracting.

What can’t be denied, though, is that ‘Sully’ communicates its key points simply and with clarity. Hanks and Eckhart do sterling work, both actors bringing lightly-worn gravitas to the roles, and playing off each other in a wry and ironic style. I’d even suggest that, in Tom Hanks’s refusal to make his characterisation of Chesley Sullenberger a performance, he gives the performance of his career.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Passengers


‘Passengers’ is the most amiable 12A rated film that ought to be a solid 18 rated exploitationer that I’ve seen in a long time. And there’s no way I can talk about it in a remotely useful way without flinging SPOILERS out left, right and centre.

Okay, I’m exaggerating: there’s only one spoiler that I need to fling out, and I’m not sure that it even constitutes that much of a spoiler, but let’s assume – and it’s a fairly safe and logical assumption – that most movie-goers base their movie-going on trailers and proceed from there.

The trailer for ‘Passengers’ has it that Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are in suspended hibernation on a long-haul space flight only they wake up 90 years before the ship is due to make landfall (planetfall?) and all kind of shenanigans ensure including matey banter with Michael Sheen’s android barman, falling in lurve, and a desperate attempt at something or other when the ship goes tits up in the IT department and shuts down.

So far, so mainstream: soft sci-fi romantic drama starring to extremely attractive people. Let’s face, you could be of any sexual persuasion and abjectly loathe science-fiction and you’d probably still go and see ‘Passengers’ because Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence and you’d swing either way in that particular dynamic and say thank you afterwards.

But what the trailer doesn’t imply – what the trailer in fact goes to great lengths to keep off the radar – is that it’s only Pratt, playing a character whose name I had to look up on IMDb no less than an hour after watching the movie, that’s how fucking disinterested in characterisation the film is, who is awakened thirty years into a 120-year flight after his pod malfunctions and spends the first fifteen minutes or so of the film engaged in the following activities: trying to find out what happened and repair the fault; flipping out because he can’t; yakking it up with the bartender (who’s kind of like the bartender in ‘The Shining’ only he never “corrects” anyone); abusing the ship’s online entertainment system; and, after a year of solitude, getting so utterly drunk and depressed that he finds himself with only two choices: commit suicide or wake somebody up for companionship.

(You can see where this is going, can’t you?)

Credit where it’s due, Pratt’s character – let’s call him Hunky Mechanic Dude – opts for suicide as a first choice. Pussies out, though. Then he goes all “big moral debate” on the waking someone up thing, right down to interrogating the passenger manifest and accessing the records of his fellow passengers (information governance, anyone?), very quickly fixating on Jennifer Lawrence’s character, whose first name was Aurora because, y’know, stars and shit. So, after much browbeating and agonising – … oh, who the fuck am I kidding? – after about five seconds flat Hunky Mechanic Dude decides to reawaken the Hottest Blonde Chick On The Entire Fucking Spaceship. And then let her think that her pod malfunctioned the same way his did. And then dissuade her from engaging with a solution to the problem. And then allow a sexual relationship to develop between them.

Which pretty much turns Hunky Mechanic Dude into Skeazy Stalker Rapist-by-Default Dude. Not that Jon Spaihts’ screenplay doesn’t do its almost damnedest to rationalise HMD (a.k.a. SSR-b-D)’s behaviour. He reads Aurora’s file before waking her, discovers she’s a writer, samples some of her work and is impressed by her intelligence. (Nope: still a skeazy rapist-by-default.) Post-awakening, he “gives her space” before he makes his move. (Nope: see above.) When the fucked-up-IT-shit hits the fan, he embarks on a course of action that could end his life in order to save the lives of the 5000 or so other sleepers. (Nope: still a scumbag, albeit a fairly brave one.)

Oh, and regarding that saving-the-lives-of-everyone-else business? Said narrative arc is introduced immediately after the Aurora (understandably) wigs out big time about Hunky Mechanic Dude being Skeazy Stalker Rapist-by-Default Dude, and serves purely to get them back together. The way this boy-rapes-girl-by-default-girl-finds-out-boy-gets-girl-back obstacle is hurdled comes by way of a third individual reawakening after their pod malfunctions – in this case, a senior crew member who has access to various protocol levels (not to mention a tendency to dump exposition like a chemical company dumping waste) and who conveniently expires shortly after giving Weirdly Back On Romantic Hero Duties Dude all the information he needs to save the day.

After which How The Fuck Am I Supposed To Feel About This Dude Dude saves the day.

This is the truly weird thing about ‘Passengers’: you could take the entire film, cut out the bit where Chris Pratt is basically a skeazy stalker/rapist by default, drop in the briefest of scenes where Aurora’s pod malfunctions at the same time as his, and the rest of the film (absent, of course, the Aurora-finds-out scene) would play out exactly as written without imbalancing the film in any way, and actually giving us a romantic hero who would actually tick both of those boxes. Indeed, the raising-the-stakes finale would play better as the relationship would be genuinely and there would be infinitely more to lose for both protagonists.

Granted, there are plenty of other minor issues: Pratt’s character, as a lower grade passenger, can’t get a cappuccino or a full English in the automated breakfast bar, yet seems to have an open account at all of the ship’s restaurants and manages to rewire some circuitry so that he has access to the best quarters available; he’s a mechanic, but he wants to start a new life on a new planet so he can build a house (a mechanic is not an architect, builder, carpenter, plumber or electrician; try building a house without any of those guys); the way the ship creates its own gravity is scrupulously established then immediately forgotten about the moment the script needs to generate some tension.

On the plus side, the production design is a thing of beauty (the last time I wanted to live in a sci-fi environment was Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough’s cloud base in ‘Oblivion’), Sheen is terrific, the hour-forty-eight minute running time doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the leads are mighty attractive (even if both give awful performances). Everything considered, ‘Passengers’ emerges as watchable fare: it’s just weird to the point of perverse that it purposefully made the one narrative decision that robs of it of being the slick, enjoyable piece of escapism it unequivocally should have been.