24th 07 - 2017 | 4 comments »

Our Time Will Come (Míng Yuè Jǐ Shí Yǒu, 明月幾時有, 2017)

Director: Ann Hui

By Marilyn Ferdinand

At a time when the outlook for women working in Hollywood appears just as bleak as ever, it’s wonderful to note that directors like Ann Hui are still working at or near the top of their game. Hui, 70, is a highly acclaimed Chinese filmmaker who is associated with the Hong Kong New Wave that includes Tsui Hark, John Woo, and Wong Kar-wai. Hui has 31 directing credits, including one of the best treatments of aging I have ever seen, A Simple Life (2011). She has told a variety of stories over her career, but her signature strength is the sympathy and meticulous detail she brings to her observations of ordinary people, especially as her desire to work on socially conscious projects has grown.

From a Western perspective, her latest film, Our Time Will Come, offers an unexpected look at World War II—the Japanese occupation of China and the underground resistance movement that sprang up to oppose it. It was a surprise to Hui as well, who determined to tell the story of the Hong Kong Resistance after learning about it only a few years ago. Hui punctuates her film periodically with black-and-white footage of an elderly cab driver, “little” Ben (Tony Leung), one of a group of older men meeting with a woman to recount their experiences in the Hong Kong resistance; perhaps this is Hui’s dramatization of how she gathered the information for her scenario.

In many ways, this film plays much like European resistance stories like A Generation (1955) and especially the fact-based Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The latter film told the story of a real resistance fighter and features coded poetry actually used in the French Resistance. Similarly, Our Time Will Come tells the story of a real woman, Lan Fung, and poetry is a prominent feature of Hui’s film; in fact, its transliterated Mandarin title comes from an ancient Chinese poem that uses the moon as a point of contact between separated loved ones. The poem, “Thinking of You,” is well known and certainly meaningful enough to Chinese audiences for Hui to feature the moon prominently in several crucial scenes and for the film’s marketing materials to feature a moon:

Thinking of You

When will the moon be clear and bright?
With a cup of wine in my hand, I ask the blue sky
I don’t know what season it would be in the heavens on this night
I’d like to ride the wind to fly home
Yet I fear the crystal and jade mansions are much too high and cold for me
Dancing with my moon-lit shadow
It does not seem like the human world
The moon rounds the red mansion
Stoops to silk-pad doors
Shines upon the sleepless
Bearing no grudge

Why does the moon tend to be full when people are apart?
People may have sorrow or joy, be near or far apart
The moon may be dim or bright, wax or wane
This has been going on since the beginning of time
May we all be blessed with longevity
Though far apart, we are still able to share the beauty of the moon together.

The film is roughly divided in half, connected by a resistance operation in the first half to rescue intellectuals and creative artists targeted by the Japanese for internment or execution. Mr. and Mrs. Shen (Guo Tao and Jiang Wen-li) have rented a room from Mrs. Fong (Deannie Yip) and befriended her sensitive schoolteacher daughter Lan (Zhou Xun). Lan knows that Mr. Shen is actually celebrated writer Mao Tun, and she enjoys discussing literature with him, as well as with her poet boyfriend Lee Gau-wing (Wallace Huo).

The resistance has devised a plan to get their cultural leaders to safety, and Lan inadvertently gets caught up in the Shens’ escape, orchestrated by Blackie Lau (Eddie Peng), a Robin Hood of sorts for the freedom fighters. She has broken with Gau-wing, whose proposal of marriage she has rejected after learning he is leaving to fight the Japanese, though unbeknownst to her, he eventually lands in their employ where he works as a resistance spy. Thus, Lan is open to Blackie’s proposal that she join the Urban Unit of the resistance, where she rises through the ranks to take command. Her activities heading the unit and their consequences for other resistance fighters form the second half of the film.

Hui uses the real-life rescue operation brilliantly to introduce the audience to the characters who will feature prominently in the second half of the film, offer clues as to how ordinary people go about becoming underground rebels, and tie their relationships and fates together. Although the operation is multi-pronged and will, in the end, move more than 800 people to safety, Hui patiently shows the small scale of the planning meeting, the crude maps that chart the routes the escapees will take, and the practical discussion of food rationing, already a dire situation for the starving residents of Hong Kong. She shows the dangers, close timing, and sheer luck that mean the difference between success and failure. She also shows that while resistance fighters must be prepared to improvise, there is nothing accidental in the way they wage their covert war.

While each character forms an integral part of the whole, and the film teems with secondary characters who add depth and information—who knew that Indian ferry operators were agents of the Japanese occupiers!—Xun and Yip sit at the heart of this drama. The mother and daughter have a fractious relationship. The illiterate Mrs. Fong is abrupt, disapproving, and desperate about money, which makes her rather unlikeable until we see just how carefully she measures the small amount of rice in the pantry to stretch through several meals. Lan is educated, a teacher, with a refined view of life her mother can’t share. When she must move away from home to run the Urban Unit, she is relieved to be free of her mother, though their parting shows a deep, if grudgingly shown affection between them. Both actors show a consistency of character that deepens as the movie moves along, with Lan, the more intellectual of the two, quietly giving into emotion as those she cares about walk into danger, and Yip revealing the impish fun Mrs. Fong feels when playing at espionage, only to learn that it’s no game for amateurs.

Eddie Peng’s character seems to have been brought in to provide some mainstream action and a bit of comedy. He bounds over roofs and dispatches his opponents with perfectly aimed shots on the run, even smashing into a banquet hall full of Japanese soldiers dedicated to his capture and bringing them down in a well-choreographed action sequence, with his small band of merry men at his side. Gau-wing has a duel of words with his respectful, but cruel overlord (Masatoshi Nagase) at Japanese military headquarters, pressured at gunpoint to compose a poem on the spot using two words the pair had just been discussing. Hui is adept at staging both large-scale action and slow-burn battles of nerves. The latter comprise the larger part of the film as she hones in on the small moments that make a resistance—smuggling arms in a blanket, hiding a communique in the hem of a jacket, pulling a map out of a wastebasket, dropping a note near a compromised colleague telling her to leave the building immediately.

The film is dubbed in Mandarin, which is distracting and, unfortunately, mars slightly some of the performances, particularly that of the great Deannie Yip. In addition, Our Time Will Come was initially pulled from its premiere as the opening night film of the Shanghai International Film Festival, with speculation that its anti-authoritarian message, however sanitized by its historical setting against the Japanese, made Chinese officials nervous. Nevertheless, the importance of resistance is asserted again and again. In the end, Lan and Blackie have the final word under a full moon: “See you after the victory.”


22nd 07 - 2017 | 20 comments »

Dunkirk (2017)

Director/Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beachfront of the French coastal region of Dunkirk remains one of the most legendary intervals of World War II. The beaten, bedraggled force of 400,000 men, left without recourse after the infamous Nazi blitzkrieg attacks that invaded Belgium and outflanked the Maginot Line, had to be rescued in a military operation that saw the Royal Navy mount a frantic ferry service, with hundreds of smaller craft, borrowed from civilians and even crewed by them, pressed into service to get men off the beaches. As a result, the core of the British army was saved, the Nazi advance found a limit in Western Europe, and the seeds were sown for eventual resurgence and victory. Or as the comic writer and performer Spike Milligan once reported a veteran of the event telling him soon after, “It was a fuck-up, son – a highly successful fuck-up.” Not that you’ll encounter such brusque and irreverent description of it today. Today, the appeal of Dunkirk as an event has an obvious wellspring as a moment of great communal action, one not without its dark side and its ahistorical mythologising attached, but still essentially true, an epic event that allowed the future to happen. It is the first act in the modern world’s creation myth, with D-Day the second, the turning of the worm. It also has a less agreeable facet now, as the rhetoric of Churchillian resolve and the epic stature of the age have been highjacked by sectors of contemporary society to service how they fondly imagine themselves and their quarrels with the realities of our common inheritance. But perhaps the event’s other aspect speaks equally to others, the background of calamity and resolve, the need for this-far-and-no-farther grit in the face of adversity.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Warner Bros. felt reasonably comfortable expending a huge sum of money on recreating the event. That, and the fact that Christopher Nolan is now fully testing the near-unique reach he’s gained as one of the few popular auteurs standing in contemporary Hollywood. Whatever else one thinks of Nolan, it is certain he’s a distinctive, ambitious talent who wants to reach a mass audience but in terms that don’t compromise his specific vision and methods. Either way, Dunkirk hasn’t had a particularly good time when it comes to movies. The event was encompassed but not depicted in William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver (1942), and the subject of a torpid and flimsy Ealing Studios production, Leslie Norman’s Dunkirk (1958). Although the film around it was wounded by the half-hearted pretensions of its source material, Joe Wright’s 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement contained a mini-movie depicting the event that has stood as certainly the finest to date, a five-minute tracking shot of extraordinary choreography and artistry following the film’s tragic hero in the midst of the evacuation chaos, a scene of cruelty and camaraderie, bleak immediacy and woozy surrealism, a desperate search for a locus of order and meaning only to be faced with its dissolution. The overt technical conceit succeeded in its aim of reordering the viewer’s sense of reality.

By comparison, in the first minutes of Nolan’s film, when one of his main characters stumbles onto the beaches, Nolan’s eye surveys great expanses dotted with soldiers spaced and grouped into the kind of geometric compositions Nolan is extremely fond of. Although Nolan’s Dunkirk proposes to plunge the viewer into a hectic event, even at its most madcap, this film is rather the by-product of a relentless eye and mind, one always imposing calculation and mechanistic contemplation upon the happenstance business of popular art. Nolan takes a familiar conceit from this kind of panoramic drama in depicting action from three different viewpoints – one from a soldier on the beach, one a pilot in the air, and one the owner-captain of a boat pressed into the citizens’ flotilla – but gives it a tweak by presenting them in different time frames. Thus the aerial swashbuckling of RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) takes place over a one-hour period; the voyage of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their young friend George (Barry Keoghan) unfolds over a day, and the survival run of battered soldiers Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles) lasts a week. All intersect eventually during the flux of events, with Nolan cross-cutting between the three different time frames, thus finding a real-world way to recycle the dream-state levels of Inception (2010).

The humans in these scenes, many of whom are scarcely invested in specifics of character or identity and quite often unnamed on screen (thank you, internet), are intended in part deliberately as blank slates and avatars, clotheshorses for Nolan to drape the experiential finery of his filmmaking on: Tommy’s very name signifies him as the essential British soldier. Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy pop up, looking windswept and uncomfortable as two officers, Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant, who stand in for the higher rank’s perspective and to offer fillips of exposition for an event that is otherwise left sketched only in the vaguest of terms as to why and how it came to such a pass. The mission statement here is to thrust the audience headlong into gruelling situations alongside these avatars in events that present, in their microcosmic way, extrapolations of the drama as a whole, in its various layers of eye-level experience. Great history is given a man-sized makeover (and I do mean man; no weepy mothers or sultry French hookers a la war movies of decades past get in the way here; a couple of nurses do get the odd line). Tommy and Gibson are two young privates thrust into each other’s company on the beach, when Tommy, who has just managed to beat a gauntlet of German besiegers on his route to the British pocket, sees Gibson burying the body of another soldier. Although Gibson will not or cannot speak, the two men join forces to try to find a more expeditious route onto a rescue ship, and so volunteer as stretcher bearers, carrying a man aboard a hospital ship, dodging the queues and the bomb craters punched in the long wharf, or ‘mole.’

Although they’re then kicked off the ship, the two men clamber down onto the underside of the mole to await a chance to slip back aboard this craft or another. But a Stuka bombing raid sinks the ship, and the pair help pluck Alex and other men from the water before they are crushed by lolling weight of steel. The trio flee down along the beach and take refuge with other soldiers in a beached boat, hoping to sail it for home when the tide dislodges it from the sand. But this plan goes awry when Germans beyond the British perimeter start using the boat for target practice, and the tide starts to flood the hold instead. Meanwhile Dawson, a gentleman of the coast who seems to have experience from the last war, sets to sea with a desire to help with his son and his friend aboard, having lost his elder son, an RAF pilot, already in the conflict. They pick up a soldier (Cillian Murphy) who’s survived the sinking of a rescue ship and is suffering badly from traumatic stress. The soldier panics when he realises his rescuers are heading on back to Dunkirk. During a tussle for control of the vessel, George is knocked back down into the boat’s interior and hits his head. Blinded at first, George soon dies of an aneurysm, but Dawson continues with his mission to save more men. Above their heads, Farrier and Collins try to ward off the Luftwaffe bombers playing havoc with the rescue; Farrier can’t tell how much fuel he has left after bullets knock out his gauge, so his fight is defined by uncertain guesswork as to how long he can continue it, whilst Collins is shot down over water.

I’ve had many issues with Nolan’s films in the past, but I had started to come around with him after the messy yet fitfully interesting third chapter to his very profitable Batman trilogy, and the sometimes excellent science fiction epic Interstellar (2014), a film that eventually foundered on Nolan’s uneasy attempts to fuse Kubrickian grammatics with Spielbergian emotionalism and a glum retreat into sub-2001 mind-bending, but conjured a genuinely epic brand of realist scifi along the way. It was a real movie, as opposed to a cinematic conjuring trick or pseudo-intellectualisation of genre and comic book fodder. Dunkirk sees Nolan venturing into historical drama and factual portraiture for the first time in his career, a choice that promises in abstract to discipline the writer-director within new parameters. And yet for better and worse, Dunkirk is a Nolan film through and through. Few contemporary filmmakers are as confident in wielding the infrastructure of a big-scale movie production in such a way that it remains touched with a strong personal aesthetic, which in Nolan’s case means scene after scene shot in a dingy colour palette, showy editing patterns, and cunningly orchestrated sound effects. Never in the history of cinema have the sounds of men’s muffled screaming as they drown been so peerlessly communicated.

A fascinating disconnection lays at the heart of Dunkirk, as it did with Interstellar. Nolan is a filmmaker who wants to engage in a voluble sense of human vulnerability, and yet he has little gift as a dramatist, and his human figures tend to stand in for states of mind and feelings rather than experience them. Many said that about Stanley Kubrick, one of Nolan’s evident and oft-cited inspirations, as well, but there were qualities to be picked up in Kubrick, from his coal-black humour to his sarcastic sensuality and the genuine rigour of his shot-for-shot cinema, that are totally absent from Nolan. Take, for instance, the early scenes that see Tommy escaping German bullets, and, when he gets his first time out on the beach, squats down to shit. No worry about mess. Nolan offers this sequence like a bonsai tree, lovely and potted and carefully groomed of all offensive detail as a sop to the supposed grit of his vision, and yet like everything else we see here, it’s preeningly aestheticized. Still, Dunkirk is very much a work of contemporary cinema style, and for a time, this is bracing: there’s no nostalgic gloss or air of antiquity to proceedings here even as the technology tends to look quaint now, like the Spitfires drilling the sky, battling opponents only with a pair of machine guns and their own good eyes to give them effect, and the Lee-Enfield rifles that seem so paltry a defence in the face of mechanised war.

Nolan stages action scenes as a constant scruff-of-the-neck scramble, as when Tommy and Gibson, apparently delivered upon a rescue ship only then to be torpedoed, are forced to survive near-drowning, or later, when a different ship is sunk and we’re treated to a harum-scarum cacophony of images as some manage to swim for safety and others are cooked by spilt fuel oil lit up by a crashing Nazi bomber. Nolan’s images come on coolly at first but soon begin to pile on with ferocity as hell breaks loose. Yet to make a film about such an event takes a streak of madness, of understanding of what it feels like to have the world drop out beneath your feet, and the capacity to revel in it. And if there’s one thing certain about Nolan, it’s that he doesn’t have a mad bone in his body. This is, after all, the man who remade the id-shaped heroes and villains of the Batman tales into creatures of witless literalism and who structured tales of romantic tragedy and adventures into the mind’s recesses as puzzles with placards at their hearts in Memento (2001) and Inception. The trouble with this approach steadily unveils itself, stripping out such niceties as personality, context, and interest in the authentic players of history and replacing them with these pasteboard exemplars who wear looks of hangdog gravitas. This suits what Nolan actually does with his account of Dunkirk, which is to essentially reduce the event to a particularly gruelling fantasy adventure camp and theme park. Survive the sinking ship. Shoot down the Messerschmitt. Crap on the beach. Dodge the broken pier of death. It’s no wonder Nolan is a god for millennial film buffs; he speaks fluently the language of video game.

In Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), the famous D-Day beach opening had its calculated side but successful realised a maelstrom of chaos and gore; death comes from every direction, in every manner. Here, Nolan winds up one shot of a creeping barrage of Stuka bombs advancing towards Tommy and blowing up a neighbour with the precious, self-satisfied smirk of a talented child arranging the elements on stage for a puppet theatre. Nolan compensates for his cynicism towards traditional drama by conveying dread through his films’ constant steely mood lighting. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s photography is fine and crisp but plays the same relentless game as Hans Zimmer’s scoring. Before going into the film I kept in mind the way Nolan uses Zimmer’s music to propel his drama and quite often provide it, and with such awareness in mind I became acutely conscious of how marvellously the music is used to high-pressure the viewer, as Zimmer mimics a ticking clock and surging tide. Much like James Brown made his band into a giant percussion instrument to fuel funk’s polyrhythms, Zimmer’s orchestrations are less music than metronome, shunting the images along with false urgency, Pavlovian cues steamrolling us into obedience. The crowds of extras are supposed to be stoic and sullen in patient anxiety whilst occasionally showing their humanity, mostly by roaring approval of certain acts of bravery. But in fact they’re as subject to Nolan’s relentlessness as a moulder of elements as any of Fritz Lang’s crowds depicting citizens of medieval Europe or futuristic Metropolis, devoid of raucous communal life.

Nolan’s dedication to studying the event through more of a communal than individual lens has a certain worthiness and aesthetic potential, but in comparison to a filmmaker like Miklos Jancso who really could realise historical events in a way where the mass enacted a tale (e.g., Red Psalm, 1972), Nolan is a clodhopper who reduces characters to switchable pieces of a crowd rather than finding character in the crowd. No one swears, plays cards, tells dirty jokes, sings a ditty, gets drunk. This is our contemporary realism: the stuff of life in the margins is excised. It is not important. Importance is now measured in venturesome suffering. Nolan’s attempt to synthesise a restrained emotional palette suits the material, and Rylance in particular handles this well. But dialogue barely serviceable as expressions of human communication drops from the characters’ lips on occasions, as when Branagh’s Bolton stares out to sea and pronounces, “You can almost see it from here.” “See what?” asks Winnant. “Home.” Later, he stares out to sea (he does a lot of this) and, beholding the small boat flotilla heading to the rescue, he’s asked, “What do you see?” “Hope,” he replies. Nolan got paid to write this stuff, folks. Occasional flickers of anger are displayed, mostly with the RAF for their sparse attendance of the festivities, and by the finish Nolan suddenly makes a thing out of the soldiers’ shame in defeat only then to find they’re being greeted as heroes anyway.

Nolan makes some effort to invest some complexity in his portrait of the situation, particularly in the scenes on the beached boat where Tommy, Gibson, and Alex have taken shelter with a gang of similarly unmoored men from the Highlander regiment. The young soldiers quickly reveal unreasoning ferocity in the face of blind terror. As the boat starts to flood with the rising tide, they turn on each-other. One soldier (Brian Vernel) gets it in his head, in Nolan’s efforts to generate a moral crisis, that they need to throw someone overboard to lighten the boat, in spite of the fact they’re on a sizeable craft where such an action would be utterly useless: they pick out Gibson in his silence as the odd man out, forcing the man to admit that he’s actually a French soldier who’s put on an English uniform to make his escape, his silence a ploy rather than a manifestation of shellshock. Tommy still bleatingly defends him: “It’s not fair.” This sequence reminded me of the similar moral quandary of the two bomb triggers Nolan deployed in The Dark Knight (2008), and it’s just as wince-inducing in its clumsiness as a story device and facetious as a depiction of the panicky idiot lurking under the surface of all men. Even as jittery and desperate as the men here are supposed to be, no-one in his right mind could possibly think through one man off so large a boat is going to stop it sinking. Here Nolan reminded me of some other films with blind spots in this regard, like Joseph Losey’s King & Country (1964), proposing to stick up for the little man in the face of great men’s games but ironically, in portraying that little man as gallant and those others as bestial primitives. When Nagisa Oshima cast David Bowie in his POW drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983), it was to exploit a pop star’s strange and alien beauty and use it ironically, to make him emissary of the human race in a way a Byzantine religious artist might have appreciated, as a vision of the rarefied soul. Nolan casts Styles, likewise a pop star foraying into acting, and buries him in the avalanche of lookalikes, a nobody in a sea of nobodies.

The same weakness is evident in another of narrative’s strands, as young George collapses and dies, killed in part by the war and its effect on people. If we actually, properly knew who George was, his end might offer some pathos. Peter doesn’t let the man responsible know George has died. He chalks it up to a fortune of war instead, choosing rather to seek memorialisation for George as a young hero of the great event. Nolan makes a nod here to John Ford’s famous dictum of “print the legend” evinced in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). And yet for all its avant-garde visual force and desire to communicate survivalist urges as an overriding trait, Dunkirk is actually astonishingly square as an historical portrait, the exemplification of “print the legend.” There is no political or institutional anger evinced here, or attempt to assess the failures of a mindset as a way of learning what goes wrong in war and why, as there was in, say, Richard Fleischer’s Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) or Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977). Dunkirk may well have invented a new cinematic genre: the history movie without history. When the great flotilla turns up, envisioned by Nolan as the cavalry running to the rescue, their crews stand upon the decks, chin cocked at noble angles, like they’ve all escaped from some Soviet Realist poster. Rylance’s performance as Dawson is both exceptionally good in its reserve and concision of emotional effect, but it also exemplifies Nolan’s assimilation of cliché: he’s an archetype of everything homespun and simple, soft-spoken and naturally gracious, exactly what we’d fondly like to imagine everyone engaged in this enterprise was like. Hardy’s handsome mug is hidden behind a mask most of the time, elected as stand-in for the Few.

It feels particularly tempting to compare Dunkirk to Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001), a lumbering and ridiculous melodrama that at least signalled some understanding of itself as such, an attempt to visit the past through the lens of that past’s own methods of mythmaking – sweeping cinematic romance and archetypes. Nolan’s efforts here pose as deep and true, but commit the same fraud as Bay did, reducing warfare to an obstacle course whilst affirming movie star credentials through flyboy antics, as Hardy’s masked but dogged hero shoots down about six German airplanes. Man, Tom Hardy is cool. The aerial combat scenes are easily the best thing about Dunkirk however, as Nolan, usually not a director who gives any great thought as to where and why he places a camera, here often tethers his perspective to that of the pilots, their enemies appearing as flashes in the rear-view mirror to the clatter of bullets on the fuselage, or trying to catch a glimpse of a friend or enemy in the water far below. There are only pure equations to survival up here – what you can and can’t see, how long until the fuel runs out. Nolan manages something reasonably original in this way, but then undercuts the exacting practicality as he strains credibility by having Farrier continue to shoot down enemy planes even when he’s run out of fuel, and then barrels in for a perfect landing on the beach, struggling with recalcitrant landing gear all the way.

Whilst Nolan’s temporal gimmick is engaging on some levels, inviting the viewer to piece together how everything fits in the mind and feel the pleasure of certain actions gaining context at length, I wish it didn’t often provoke to wonder if it wasn’t a great ruse on Nolan’s part to cover up how bad he’s been in the past at tracking action. Dunkirk both held my attention but constantly frustrated it, and by the end left me cold in a way that infuriates. Once, ambition and vision in Hollywood could mean works like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Heaven’s Gate (1980), giant, shambling, endlessly rich mosaics composed of history, dreams, ideas, and fervent emotion. By comparison, Dunkirk reveals how small-minded and blankly impersonal such cinema can be even as Nolan expands the limits of his frames and the impact of his sound and vision. Dunkirk demands to be described in hip clichés like “immersive” and “experiential,” but the cause such aesthetic aims are supposed to serve, in sensitising us to the meaning of individual perspective and placing us in the shoes of people overwhelmed by circumstances, are swiftly transmuting into the opposite, a method used by contemporary filmmakers to turn the art form into something more like virtual reality, sapped of dramatic – and therefore human – values. Along with it, history becomes fodder for a simplistic action-survival thriller – one without the pleasures of pulp or the tatty, bratty cornball of folk history, but instead decked out in its own borrowed finery of import. Kubrick could give you both a moment of profound sentiment like the famous singalong at the end of Paths of Glory (1957) and also a stinging moment of personal rage and black comedy like the anointed martyr who makes his prayers to wine rather than gods. Nothing like that subsists here. This is a cold, barren, sterile beach to die on.


11th 07 - 2017 | 4 comments »

The Lost City of Z (2016)

Director/Screenwriter: James Gray

By Roderick Heath

James Gray has failed to wield commercial success equal to his critical standing, which is significant, particularly in Europe, but also tellingly divisive. Perhaps a greater part of the reason for this lies in the key underpinning of his aesthetic, from his steely debut Little Odessa (1994), through his curiously elegiac crime films The Yards (2001) and We Own The Night (2007), and the mature, mutable drama of Two Lovers (2008) and The Immigrant (2014), is they resist familiar rules of screen drama in refusing to emphasise urgency or agency for its characters, but instead constantly nudge them along with the ineluctable quality of fate. They are, in essence, ghost stories set amongst the living. Gray’s oeuvre consists of tales of outcasts and troubled inheritors as much stricken and burdened with their ambitions as compelled by them, shot in sombre, moody, yet inescapably authoritative panoramas. Gray is often described as an old-fashioned talent almost without peer in the contemporary cinema landscape, but the truth is his kind of filmmaker was never particularly common or popular, crafting rigorous, lushly shot but essentially told tales of the emotionally thwarted and the life-beset.

Gray’s influences seem to include the stately gravitas of Luchino Visconti, the streetwise tragedies of Martin Scorsese, the sombrely artful side of Francis Coppola, the hymns of repression and freedom of David Lean, and the subtler side of John Ford, the one obsessed with social rituals and the problems of maturation. The Lost City of Z, Gray’s latest, is a venture into new territory for the director, as a film recounting the life of a British adventurer in exotic climes, and yet it pushes the ghost story aspect to Gray’s tales to an extreme. Every action of the central characters in The Lost City of Z is tethered to inevitable dates with obsession and doom. The story he takes up here itself immediately evokes such an mood of eerie transience and doomed embarkation, in recounting the life of Percy Fawcett, a controversial and much-mythologised figure who met a mysterious end in his attempts to penetrate the innermost heart of the Amazon jungle in search of a lost city he had become convinced once flourished there. Fawcett’s adventures were the stuff beloved of Boy’s Own magazines and early mass media hoopla, as Fawcett’s willingness to feed those beasts with tales of giant spiders and snakes as well as lost civilisations fed the lurid dreams of generations. Recently history has caught up with Fawcett in seeming to vindicate his wildest flights, as the remains of just such a civilisation around where he thought it might be have emerged, discoveries that cast a new light on the theories of a man who had been, at different times, dismissed as a charlatan, a eugenicist, and an Ahab-liked madman who lured his son and others to ignominious death in the jungle.

Gray presents him rather as a smouldering social rebel, driven along by the disgrace of his father, who, straining against the tight leash of high Imperial Britain’s social prescriptions, finds a way to give them the slip and strive to touch something grand. In this regard, The Lost City of Z takes up the little-considered but powerful spiritual side of Lean’s later epics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and strips away the more sensational elements to makes this pining desire for a transcendence tinged with pantheistic sublimation the focus of the journey. Fawcett, when first introduced, is seen gaining victory in a deer hunt held by British officers stationed in rural Ireland. Much as D.H. Lawrence identified Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans as the embodiment of the western death-dream, Fawcett has the same gift for the chase and touch with death, but he is doomed to hunt something much more rarefied, nominated by chance and temperament as a knight embarking on a grail quest. His swashbuckling prowess is in the meantime undoubted, but he’s still held at arm’s length by superiors who disdain meeting with him at the soiree following the hunt. Fawcett’s attempts to be a model soldier and citizen are contradicted by his broader mind and deeper emotional reflexes than most of the people around him. He’s married to Nina (Sienna Miller), a Victorian New Woman and free-thinker. Fawcett, pushing into his mid-thirties without any significant distinction to his name, finally gains a chance for advancement when his map-making skills, honed in doing surveying work for the army, are requested for use by Sir George Goldie (Ian McDiarmid) and Sir John Scott Keltie (Clive Francis), chieftains of the Royal Geographical Society.

Goldie selects Fawcett to head to South America and plot the precise parameters of the border between Brazil and Bolivia, to head off a brewing war between the two nations in the hunger for the riches produced by rubber. On his passage there, Fawcett meets the man who has volunteered to join his mission, the hirsute Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), who’s joining him purely for adventure, but who soon proves a stalwart out in the wilds. He picks up a third comrade in Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), a ranking British soldier sent to meet him in the jungle rubber planters’ town of Fazenda Jacobina, ruled over as a kingdom by petty potentate Baron De Gondoriz (Franco Nero). The Baron gives Fawcett an enslaved native as a guide, Tadjui (Pedro Coello), who tantalises the Englishman with tales of mysterious people who live in the jungle in their large and sophisticated cities.

The Lost City of Z represents a sharp digression for Gray in some ways as the first time he’s ever ventured out of New York, let alone a North American setting, and his intricate grasp on the lost souls of the urban landscape, even as it slots into his oeuvre stylistically speaking with ease, and Gray methodically disassembles several of the potential genres the film belongs to. Gray orientates himself in the jungle by referencing a pair of his favourite films, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979), both tales of self-appointed supermen with egos unchecked in the jungle, as Fawcett and his pick-up expedition venture into the wilderness only to find themselves beset by a nightmarish sensation of being unmoored from all familiar yardsticks of life and society. They become targets for native tribes who pepper their barge with arrows, and beset by maladies, like one that causes a team member to vomit up black blood. The forest proves near-desolate as a source of food, until Fawcett finally manages to shoot a wild pig. A brief attempt at revolt by a subordinate sees Costin shoot the mutineer’s ear off. But Gray also contends with such evocations and similarities and moves quickly past them, particularly as although as obsessive as the antiheroes of those canonical works, Gray’s Fawcett latches on to a dream of the landscape that beckons to the higher part of his mind rather than the black part of the id, and his journey becomes more one of diffusion into the landscape than resistance to it. He makes contact with tribes who have known only the thinnest connections to the outside world but soon learns of their capability in existence and the subtle harmonies of their lifestyles, which range from cannibalising dead tribe members to cultivating food and catching fish with special drugs.

Fawcett begins to glimpse haunting signs of long-ago habitation in the jungle, remains of pottery and other fragments of civilisation, and faces carved into trees and rocks, gazing out like the spiritual eyes of the land, a lost part of the collective memory, an idea that gives rise to his decision to name the city out in the jungle ‘Z’ as the last piece of the human puzzle. Fawcett’s return to civilisation sees him mocked at a Royal Geographical Society meeting when he presents his findings and he angrily defends his theories against a reaction he interprets as contempt for the Amazonian peoples. One of the Society’s senior figures, Sir James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), proposes they venture back into the Amazon together to look deeper, and Fawcett eagerly agrees. But Fawcett soon finds he’s made a poor bargain, as Murray proves not only too old and unfit for the arduous exploration, but bilious and recalcitrant too, proving a terrible drag on the expedition. Murray presents a different order of nuisance to the men from Fawcett’s previous expedition, so rather than continue to suffer his insolence and unable to blow a hole in his ear in deference to his standing, Fawcett gives him their only horse and some provisions to head back to the nearest outpost.

Shortly after, Fawcett catches glimpse of another carved face in the rock, and realises he’s finally made his way back to the realm of Z. But a flash flood nearly kills him, and then he’s called back to Costin to camp, and the sickening discovery that Murray sabotaged their supplies before leaving, a petty revenge that might also be intended to forestall any achievement of glory that sidelines him. The bedraggled party make their way back to civilisation and then to Britain, only to find Murray has beaten them there. After mutual recriminations and accusations between the two men, a charged meeting of the RGS sees Goldie and the other society bigwigs pressuring Fawcett to paper over the cracks in their unity and apologise to Murray, but Fawcett refuses and quits the society. Fawcett seems to have crashed headlong into a barrier of class and credibility even in amidst his elevated mission, but the outbreak of World War One soon erases all other concerns. In the trenches Fawcett, Costin, and Manley, who fight together, soon learn that Murray has pulled the same tricks on another expedition, leaving no debate as to his treachery.

Fawcett’s tale of real-life daring and fixation has all the hallmarks of a type of adventure tale that feels all but by-gone, but Gray’s approach pointedly disassembles the Boy’s Own side of Fawcett’s ventures and instead transmutes them into a cinematic work that calls to mind other portraits but which Gray bends to his own purpose, placing his emphasis not in derring-do so much as personal states of seeing and understanding. The Lost City of Z finishes up as much a portrait of a time and place as of Fawcett himself, an old world teetering on the edge of collapse, with Fawcett far out in front of its spiritual plane, hunting for signs in the wastes that once there were not just dragons here. Although an intrepid soul who seems far removed from the drab victims of life in Gray’s earlier films, Gray nonetheless sees shared traits with them, including We Own The Night’s Bobby Green, Two Lovers’ Leonard Kraditor and The Immigrant’s Ewa Cybulski, because like them he is both well aware of how much his place in society and his identity, imbued by genetics, reputation, nationality, and all the rest of it, define him, and drive his simultaneous need to find a place in the world and desire to escape it altogether. Upon return from his second expedition Fawcett finds his son Jack (Tom Holland), born when he was away on his first expedition, has grown into adolescence with a smouldering resentment for him by the time he comes back from the second. But that resentment soon enough evolves into eager desire to join in his adventures, whilst Percy himself obeys the urge to pursue a habit, one that imbues a feverish high whilst risking extermination all too similar to the one his gambling addict father chased by other means. Both men feel an urge towards honouring identity that nonetheless will destroy them, recalling the brothers in Little Odessa and We Own The Night who similarly find bonds of love and emulation become crushing chains.

What Gray signals is important about people like Fawcett is less the specifics of their own manias but the way they inhabit the shape of our dreams at large, as Percy becomes a popular hero and celebrity for much the same reasons the establishment figures are obliged to constantly close ranks against him, for letting his imagination get away from him, and encouraging others to do the same. The limitations of will against identity are also crucially illustrated when Nina, beset by anxiety and resentment at being left at home when her energies and capacities cry out for better use, suggests that she accompany Percy on an expedition. But the idea horrifies her husband and reveals to the limitations of his radical principles, as he declares allegiance to the idea of gender equality of mind but not body, particularly not hers in the gruelling reaches of the jungle, a place where, in fairness to him, he’s seen hardened trekkers and warriors crumble. This is a vital scene, not just for Hunnam and Miller’s all too volubly human incarnation of an essential modern problem, but also in offering a scene all too left out of this breed of film, encompassing two entirely understandable but diametrically opposed points of view between people who love each-other whose life circumstances and internal battles keep pulling them in different directions. Each time Percy returns to his wife she’s older and has more children rooting her securely to a world she’s in even more conflict with than he is.

Percy’s encounters in the jungle with the fringes of his own society and what he finds beyond them come as a series of pierced veils that reveal new truths but also new mysteries and tantalising prospects. The pretences to grafting European culture onto a primal shore first glimpsed when Percy finds opera in the jungle gives way swiftly to the backwoods warlord stances of De Gondoriz and the network of scars on Tadjui’s back, whilst the apparently blank malevolence of the tribes who try to wipe out the intruders soon reveal faces and rich gifts for cultivation and nuances of lifestyle. They yield to Percy’s determination to communicate: at one point he gets his men to sing “Soldiers of the King” and waves a Bible and handkerchief before him as signs of his friendliness, signs and song the keys to human interaction, and doesn’t let an arrow that pierces part-way through the Bible break his gesture, even as the sickening proximity of death sends his mind scurrying back through memories of baptising his son. The act of unveiling and discovery gains a new context when Percy is left temporarily blinded by poison gas and rediscovers his family whilst lying bandaged and sightless in a hospital bed, prompting reconciliation between father and son. Survival and reconciliation are themselves a false ending before the quest calls again, and when news comes to Percy a new expedition might be chasing Z, this time Jack convinces his father to let him come with him to the Amazon, and a reluctant Nina acquiesces, and joins her other two children in farewelling them when they set off, in a sequence of unforced rapture, with daughter Joan (Bethan Coomber) chasing after the van carrying them away.

Gray’s repute for crafting films with great visual beauty and concision on tight budgets reaches an apogee here, as every frame The Lost City of Z, thanks to Darius Khondji’s photography, comes on a muted yet cumulatively delirious beauty. And yet there’s a fragmentary quality to them as well, like pictures trapped in amber, managing to evoke the sensation Gray constantly reaches for as more remembered than witnessed. The sequence when Fawcett first enters Fazenda Jacobina is staged as a rapturous string of discoveries, as the bush parts to suddenly reveal an opera stage in the wilderness with singers mid-performance, and they tread the streets of the outpost, a warren of flickering firelight, an emanation from the physical and mental outskirts of the human world. This scene is rhymed later on when Fawcett returns to it with Jack only to find the place deserted, the jungle swiftly clenching it and drawing back into its heart. The town has become an instant and frightening example of just how fast nature can erase the imprint of human achievement once it ceases to be cared for, and thus providing in miniature a thesis statement for Fawcett’s concept for Z itself. Gray carefully violates the texture of his steadily paced, classical outlay of images with flashbacks, as when Percy, exposed before the arrows of a potentially hostile tribe, recalls baptising his son with Nina in a country church, a moment more dream-like than anything he finds in the jungle, which seems to be a trap for time but is actually a rigorously straightforward place.

The cyclical construction and collapse of civilisations is a historical phenomenon Fawcett becomes privy to as he and his mates are shoved into the eye of the Great War’s furore, the battlefield studded with splayed corpses and a lonely statue of Jesus jutting from the wasteland, just as the remnant artworks and wares of Z dot the jungle. Z is Fawcett’s own world, hammered into mud and splinters, whilst he clings on to his Edenic dream, sketched upon a paper scrap he carries with him; Gray locates the science fiction film lurking within the rough-hewn veracity of Fawcett’s adventure, diagnosing Fawcett as a proto-modern with eyes fixed uneasily on a new state of being that is also unknowably ancient, appropriate for an age when history will undergo a violent and wrenching reboot. Fawcett’s command is visited by a fortune teller who grasps the essence of his ambitions and the attractive power of the world he dreams of, “A vast land bejewelled with peoples,” whilst Gray’s pivoting camera matches the stark and filthy mugs of Percy’s battered soldiers with the visages of the Amazonians amidst the primal green. The devolution is completed as Percy leads his men into battle, envisioned in a war scene reminiscent of the one Stanley Kubrick conjured in Paths of Glory (1957) as the Germans become a mere blank force of extermination randomly picking off men around Fawcett. The hawkeyed hunter of the opening deer chase is reduced to ineffectually firing off his pistol at unseen enemies, the cavalier tradition Percy both exemplifies and nettles at finding its ultimate cul-de-sac. Z, a place he senses is real even as it seems to exist beyond any liminal reality, has become not simply a preferable place to be but the only place.

There’s incidental pleasure to be had in the way Gray utilises and disrupts the movie star wavelength of Hunnam and Pattinson, both of whom had been dismissed as pretty boys in their past roles and whose paths to proving themselves lend subtext to their characters here. This is particularly true of Pattinson with face smothered by great wispy beard, playing the oddball Costin who gains his introduction to Fawcett when the officer assaults him, believing him to be some ruffian dogging his footsteps, only to find he’s a tippling Edwardian bohemian looking for a life less ordinary. Costin eventually finds his own limit for Quixotic adventures after the war, when Fawcett tracks him down to a club where he doesn’t want to abandon his soft leather chair and whiskey. Hunnam’s own quality is one several directors have tried and failed to quite harness – Anthony Minghella came closest casting him as a vicious albino gunfighter in Cold Mountain (2003), an ironically villainous role for an actor sent down from matinee star casting, one that understood the tension between his standard, Nordic good looks and his slightly alien intensity as an actor. But it’s this tension that allows him to inhabit both Fawcett’s ready embodiment of the magazine hero type and the contradictions roiling around under the surface, the suppurating anger and spice of special lunacy that sends him again and again into the valley of death. Indeed, there are witty and intelligent casting choices throughout, particularly as Gray employs the likes of Nero, McDiarmid, and Macfadyen, actors with strong and specific associations in the modern movie canon. Murray Melvin, best known as the effete minister and gatekeeper in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), appears briefly in a similar role here as one who warns a grandee that Percy had an unfortunate choice of parentage. And yet the movie fan aspect to incorporating such actors has been carefully smudged into the landscape. Miller’s part critiques the many loyal wife roles Miller has played lately by inflicting that lot on Nina even as she does her best to escape it.

Gray’s patience as a filmmaker often pays off in climactic moments that strike hard as they resolve the themes of the films in ways words cannot, like the contact between the brothers in We Own The Night, and the schismatic last image of The Immigrant that sent its protagonists on their differing ways to paradise and purgatory respectively. Here Gray goes himself one better as he tracks Percy and Jack into the bush on their date with destiny, being caught between two warring tribes and being caught by one, who, deciding to help them on the last leg of their quest, feed them what might by medicine or poison, and carry them through a jungle alight with fire, an image hinted throughout the film and now abloom with atavistic glory for a crossing of the river on the way to oblivion. Nina keeps a faith at home, handing over a totem – Percy’s compass – as a sign they might still be alive in the jungle, living now with the natives as the ultimate mutineers against civilisation. Gray revises the last shot of The Immigrant here as Nina leaves the Royal Society building, filmed in a mirror, vanishing into crepuscular light through greenhouse fronds as the sounds of Amazonia arise on the soundtrack. Gray here signals Nina’s fate to be held arrested by the mystery of her husband and son’s fates, subject to the same vexation in being spiritually if not physically reclaimed by the same cruel and beckoning promise of subsistence within the wilderness, Pandora left nursing hope as the last and most mocking evil, and as ever the most desperately needed, in the box that is the modern world.


9th 07 - 2017 | no comment »

The Beguiled (2017)

Director/Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I’ve read a few reviews of Sofia Coppola’s revision of the 1971 The Beguiled, made by Dirty Harry director Don Siegel with Dirty Harry star Clint Eastwood at its center. Some of the reviews have been sincere engagements with the newly released film; others are desperate attempts to wrest this Civil War drama of a Union soldier mixed up with a small group of females in an exclusive Virginia girls school from its feminine focus and return it to its lurid, macho, misogynistic roots. To the latter I say, ‘I’ll give you this movie when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

Coppola’s The Beguiled has no clichés to spin about repressed schoolteachers, deviant headmistresses, Lolitas in cotton bloomers, and slaves who stand by their masters. It isn’t particularly interested in the Civil War either. The director’s films are not intended to be history lessons—they are explorations of timeless, therefore contemporary, human nature, fleshed out but not overwhelmed by their period detail. Coppola made that point perfectly clear in her sometimes reviled, but truly brilliant biopic Marie Antoinette (2006) by, among other things, scoring it with contemporary music. It is ironic (and partially proves my point) that the Cannes crowd booed her for her sympathetic, updated look at their executed queen, but gave her the Palme d’Or for a similar treatment of women and girls from slave-holding families.

Coppola’s film reaches beyond the usual narratives of the war and Southern gothic genres to present a psychologically plausible story about real people in real circumstances. The handful of women and girls who are holed up at the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, run by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), are relatively isolated from the war not only because of their location in the middle of a dense forest, but also because leaving would not be safe. Nonetheless, the war gnaws at the fringes of their world, with the occasional boom of cannon fire, small groups of Confederate soldiers and captured “blue bellies” passing by their front gates, and smoke rising above the treetops. Finally, it enters their sanctuary.

Mr. Stranger Danger is the injured Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell), whom tween Amy (Oona Lawrence) finds while she is gathering wild mushrooms in the forest and brings back to the school. Christian charity motivates the ladies to tend to his wounds and shield him from discovery. An object of curiosity not so different from Steve Trevor in the Amazon colony of Themyscira in Wonder Woman (2017), he rouses in each of them a desire to attract his attention. All of the ladies (always addressed as “Miss”) dress beautifully for dinner, with young Marie (Addison Riecke) borrowing pearl earrings for the night, and the oldest student, Alicia (Elle Fanning), stealing away from evening prayers to plant a kiss on the sleeping soldier.

It is important to emphasize that while most of the residents of the school take Cpl. McBurney into their confidence at one point or another, it is at his urging, and he remains largely a stranger and potential enemy. Indeed, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), an unhappy woman who teaches at the school, greets his professed ardor for her with, “but you don’t even know me.” The tables are turned here, with McBurney as a male Blanche du Bois depending on the kindness of strangers to see him through. At the same time, it makes him a perfect screen to project back to the ladies their fondest wishes—Amy, his greatest friend; Edwina, the woman with whom he will escape to a new life; Miss Martha, a paragon of virtue and strength; and Alicia, a woman men find irresistible. These projections are really the only insight we are allowed into these characters, as Coppola is more interested their self-defining fables and prejudices than their personal histories.

Of course, even flattery has its limits. Miss Martha, the ultimate authority of the house and a Southern aristocrat and astute judge of character, questions McBurney’s honor and, though wavering, maintains her resolve to return him to his outfit once his wounds are healed. A recent immigrant from Ireland who took money to take another man’s place in the Union Army, he deserted after landing in the thick of battle. While he is unconscious, Miss Martha carefully sews his gaping wounds and washes him with mounting sexual excitement, but reprimands him later for his dirty fingernails, evidence of his attempt to hide from battle in a hastily dug ditch. We know what he’s up to as well as she does, but until his essentially selfish and greedy nature asserts itself, we enjoy the game the entire household is playing and don’t blame McBurney for wanting out of a fight that’s really not his own. However, one seeming throwaway line, “There is nothing more frightening than a Southern woman with a gun,” sets us up for the violence to come.

In some ways, The Beguiled is reminiscent of Coppola’s first feature The Virgin Suicides (1999). In that film, boyhood friends recall their teenage years and the mysterious Lisbon sisters who haunt their memories as beautiful, desirable creatures who, one by one, killed themselves. I’ve long been convinced by the clichéd details of some of the deaths—the sister hanging herself while in schoolgirl attire is particularly relevant here—that there was only one death and that the men created the mythology of mass suicide as an expression of their own sexual frustration. In The Beguiled, Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd create a look that has heavy psychological overtones. The colors are muted, almost desaturated in many scenes, like a period black-and-white photograph, with candles and sunlight seemingly the only lighting sources. The images of lush forest and overgrown garden offer a primal splendor and interiority to the formerly grand Farnsworth estate, while the women almost always wear light-colored clothing, without even a trace of dirt at the hem despite the manual labor they must perform to keep home and hearth together. We can also surmise that perhaps with the exception of Edwina, who may have been farmed out to spinsterhood by her rich family, all of the ladies are virgins.

Coppola is greatly aided by the performances of her skilled cast, particularly Nicole Kidman. Miss Martha never loses her cool save for the need to splash cold water on her face after she bathes the corporal. The girls follow her lead without question and trust in her judgment implicitly. When she tells Edwina to fetch a saw and the anatomy book so that she can amputate the corporal’s leg after Edwina, in anger, has pushed him down a long flight of stairs, we are inclined to believe that the leg is irreparably torn and broken. Yet, her protestations that she doesn’t know how to set a broken leg, but can saw it off with the aid of an anatomy book, leads our thoughts in another direction. Why the leg must come off is anyone’s guess at this point, but his serial seductions of members of the household certainly pose a threat to her authority.

Reportedly, Don Siegel said the underlying ethos of his The Beguiled was women’s desire to castrate men. Coppola picks up that thought, but twists it. Women have a great capacity for love and kindness, she suggests, but will defend their power and honor when men seek to undercut it. In the protracted war between men and women, circumstances may force us all to become warriors.


3rd 07 - 2017 | 4 comments »

Song To Song (2017)

Director/Screenwriter: Terrence Malick

By Roderick Heath

Terrence Malick’s unexpectedly prolific burst of work in the second decade of the twenty-first century, The Tree of Life (2011), To The Wonder (2013), and Knight of Cups (2016), forms a loosely autobiographical, delicately interwoven trilogy exploring the sum and meaning of Malick’s life experience. His latest feature film, Song To Song, quietly reframes that series as well as extending it, resituating the three most recent works as a triptych describing the present day, but can also be seen as coda, revision, or even a return to point of departure. Here we are back in the heat-glare and sultry airs of Texas, the houses on sun-dappled streets charged with quiet yearning that have predicated Malick’s reminiscences since Badlands (1974), and returning to the theme of the eternal triangle that compelled Days of Heaven (1978), if in a radically different style. That film’s painterly poise in contemplating the tension between human unruliness and natural composure has given way to Malick’s recent, vertiginously mobile camerawork and his newly restless, hungry efforts to both experience and contemplate all at the same time, an option open to the filmmaker as it is no artist in any other art form. With his recent output, Malick has steadily abandoned the unique status he once had as American cinema’s most elusive and rarefied creator, a teller of grand tales of national genesis and mythical parable, at least to the extent that now he’s been releasing films regularly and engaging with the state of today rather than the epic pivots of epochs past. And yet Malick’s concerns here are generally exactly the same ones that have always dogged him: love, creation, destruction.

Song To Song is a movie centring, of all times and places, on the contemporary music scene of Austin, Texas, a nexus for messy conception and peculiar faith. The story involves a daisy chain of romances and seductions, some of them sexual, others artistic and fiscal. Malick’s mixture of pride and bemusement that a corner of his home state has become a crossroads for modern pop culture is written into this work’s texture, as he repeatedly and amusedly returns to the juxtaposition of modern Austin’s new high-rise architecture looming cheek-by-jowl with neighbourhoods still composed of fibre cement and wood-frame houses, an outpost of super-modernity grafted onto a parochial patch of earth. Hell, this could well even be Malick’s metaphor for his own imagination. The choice of the music scene as a frame for this tale essentially transposes Malick’s meditation on his early Hollywood days, already explored in Knight of Cups, onto another social landscape, albeit one with a transient vitality that contradicts the ponderous machinery and alienation of the movie industry’s outer precincts. The previous film’s portraits of the hilarious vulgarity of wealth and the corrupting effects of obtaining success at someone else’s whim and in betrayal of one’s muse are here re-engaged more directly, and so are questions about what drives an artist to create or not create depending on the moment, questions Malick, who spent twenty years out of the directing game, has obviously asked himself often. Michael Fassbender incarnates Cook, a music producer and recording magnate around whom the other characters are locked in orbit, as the person who can make or break dreams but who is himself beset by contradictory forces he seems unwilling or unable to identify. Rooney Mara is Faye, a would-be performing star who is, at the outset, Cook’s aide and also his sometime lover. Ryan Gosling is BV, another musical talent who impresses Cook sufficiently to be anointed as his next big thing.

In its initial story proposition, Song To Song calls to mind Kris Kristofferson’s “The Taker,” one of the many visceral yet sarcastic post-mortems that musician wrote about what it’s like to be a failure in a culture-industry town – in that case, the Nashville Kristofferson haunted in the 1960s, musing on watching a girl you like being romanced by a successful man. Malick’s narrative runs contrary to this in deed if not spirit as the artist wins over the mogul in chasing the heart of the lady fair, but then finds things are never quite so simple. The boiling masses of tattooed fans who surge around the Austin City Limits Festival stages and other venues might seem like expressions of riotous pagan impulse at odds with Malick’s Augustinian sensibility, but he readily subsumes them into his world-view, rejoicing in the bristling energy and explosions of primal life-force on hand. Cook uses their performances in part as a prop in his own life, an end to his labours and also a means for charming both lovers and artists. The bruising yet rapturous spectacles of communal joy and conjuring are counterpointed with the intimate and protean world of bohemian becoming that is the rest of the movie, and the camera (wielded by Malick’s invaluable recent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki) locates the lead actors here with a general aura of solitude even when in the midst of vast crowds: to be the artist is to suffer an eternal frustration of severance from the freedom the crowd has to simply experience the artwork, and indeed life itself. Faye inhabits a limbo as a talent who, through connections rather than actual, proper committed work, lives in comfort and prosperity, in a sky-riding apartment in one of the downtown buildings, which Cook probably bought for her.

Faye’s wont to turn the world into a smorgasbord of experiential possibility and Cook’s ability to offer it up that way is visualised with genius economy when, at one of Cook’s parties, Faye finds herself looking over a woman used as human food platter, her naked body bedecked with hors d’oeuvres (and the woman herself looks unnervingly like Faye), whilst Cook tries to interest BV in the bevy of beauties flocking around his swimming pool. But BV quickly zeroes in on Faye because of her self-declaration as someone detached from the scene, as she strides amongst the partiers listening to her iPod: when BV catches her eye, instead of stepping out of her bubble, she invites him into it by handing him one of her ear-buds, and they gently bop to the sounds she’s listening to. Cook’s methods of seduction ironically echo the great business of romance as it blooms between Faye and BV, and other Malick couples. The film’s first quarter is replete with images of the mogul and his two pals having a good time in distinct couplets, getting drunk in the streets of old Mexico or spinning weightlessly in a plunging jet, matching the way the first flush of the thrill in being freed from the rules of gravity through the alchemy of creation and the lubrication of money. But this loose, semi-clandestine menage comes to an end as Cook takes both Faye and BV south of the border, and recognises quickly Faye has fallen properly for the performer, diagrammed in terms of proximity with excruciating clarity amidst the geometrics of the Mexican architecture.

Cook quickly expiates this humiliation by flirting with Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a former teacher who’s now making ends meet working as a waitress. Cook breezes into her life and storms her barricades with all the swagger of his success and his practiced charm, and in short order marries her. Her mother (Holly Hunter) cautions her to be careful, as her finances aren’t in the best shape and she’ll have no power to fight her husband if she needs to break from him: “The law’s no help for those who are ruined,” her mother states. Cook even buys her mother a house. But true to mama’s rueful warnings, Cook uses his grip on Rhonda to draw her into his lifestyle, including at one point getting her into a threesome with Faye, who maintains an occasional sexual relationship with her boss even as she and BV move in together and share a seemingly bucolic existence. A rupture comes in this state of affairs when BV confronts Cook during a fraught drinking session over his copyrighting BV’s songs under his own name. BV spits at Cook’s feet and severs their business ties as well as their friendship. Soon Cook makes an offer of a recording contract to Faye, perhaps as a device to cleave the couple apart. BV advises her to take the chance even though he despises Cook, but soon BV also learns the real nature of Faye’s past with Cook, which soon learns to their breaking up. Both quickly drift into new amours. BV, trying to re-establish himself with declining enthusiasm for the music scene in general, encounters divorced millionaire Amanda (Cate Blanchett) and they have a good time together in spite of the discomfort some take in their age difference. Meanwhile Faye has a bring fling with a French artist, Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe), a steamy little affair that nonetheless quickly cools down as it has no emotional content.

Song To Song is tantalising, infuriating, utterly distinctive but also sometimes wearyingly repetitious, at once richly composed and yet often curiously lackadaisical. It feels more loosely assembled than any of Malick’s other recent films, but also flaunts this quality. Part of this seems dictated by setting and production and other parts by the matter at hand. Most of Malick’s movies have all been love stories to some extent, they’ve also been stories about the difficulties of humans evolving into their proper selves, even if it means leaving behind states of contentment. To The Wonder concluded with its errant exiled heroine giving herself up to a type of pantheistic world-love rather than merely human; Knight of Cups concluded with a vision of its hero finding happiness but leaving it vague as to just how. Song To Song commits itself to speaking of the damage lovers can do to each-other but also patiently traces the paths that can lead them back together. It tells of young emotions with a youthful zest of technique but with a notably aged note of languorous yearning and fumbling to articulate wisdom hard-won. Malick’s trademark use of voiceover is less prevalent here, the musings less abstract and more like attempts to boil specific understandings down to worldly sutras. It’s also the first of his labours to be told mostly from the perspective of an adult woman, Faye. The urgency that has propelled his recent output, the frantic, daring attempts to paint entire life cycles into two hours of cinema evinced in The Tree of Life and Knight of Cups, gives way here to a more modest study of desire in both its momentary and perpetual manifestations. Malick lets us see his performers footloose in the moment, adjusting themselves to his directions or provoking each-other in actor-exercise improvisations. The method suggests Malick’s attempt to reproduce the rough-hewn aesthetics and improvisatory lifestyles of the denizens of the music world, offering the technique he’s steadily mastered on his previous handful of films with the work showing this time.

Of course, one might be justified in regarding this as a sign Malick’s rigour and craft are abandoning him in his old age and following a string of such stylistically similar films where he’s worked them good and proper, especially as some of his obsessive motifs come on with almost self-satirising regularity – flocking birds, waving grass, infinity pools, dance-like choreography of everyday human activity, and sexuality that seems to do everything but the nasty – and Song To Song starts to feel like a by-product. Certainly some of his themes here also threaten to edge into a zone of triteness he’s generally been able to avoid before, particularly in portraying Cook as serpent in the Edenic zone, the sponging corporate type who uses and abuses the folk about him. And yet Malick’s empathy is strong enough even to wrestle this cliché to a draw, hinting constantly at Cook’s sources of torment. He’s glimpsed pouring booze into an urn containing what seems to be a family member’s ashes towards the start, and he seems dogged by the absence of actual creative capacity itself. He can only frame it or augment it, and his habits of reducing the artists he encounters to prostitutes in relationship to him in part mimics his own actual reliance on other people to provide meaning to his actions. “I can’t take this world straight,” he confesses to Rhonda as he eddies in the flop-sweat-sodden, dull-eyed exhaustion after one of his orgiastic good times. “I was once like you – didn’t know what I know now,” he is heard uttering at one point. This voice of frantic, nihilistic need is projected over a fragment of an experimental film replete with images of lonely planets and axe murders, in an aside that curiously resembles Malick both engaging and satirising a generational fellow and temperamental opposite: David Lynch’s similarly stark and evocative tendencies towards surreal yet visceral pessimism.

Whilst it’s not a star turn in the traditional sense, Fassbender gives nonetheless a performance close to career-best as he exposes Cook’s flashes of smarmy brutality and supernal charm, but also the desperation in his glass-under-rain eyes. His habit of reducing his relationships to adjuncts of his appetites is ultimately enormously destructive but also rhymes with Faye’s own seeker status, as she has dedicated herself to obtaining experience at any cost. Sexuality, a matter Malick notably avoided depicting in his early work, is very much a topic Song To Song tackles with curiosity as well as a certain censorial instinct, in a way that constantly evokes erotic fervour but also grazes the edges of moralism. Certainly Malick examines the problems of people reducing each-other to bodies whilst neglecting other forms of connection, a problem that foils Faye’s efforts to grow: “I took sex – a gift – I played with it – I played with the flame of life,” her narration sums it up at one point. Yet Malick doesn’t disdain the vitality seen even in Cook’s carnal escapades, his boyish delight commingling with screaming need for escape in being squeezed between two prostitutes, flesh boiling in protoplasmic forms, manifestation of a desire to slip the bonds of being, that most inarguable and desolately inescapable of states. Romance for Malick is as ever a state close to returning to childhood, driving the poised and cynical beings he portrays into paroxysmic motion, making them run, dance, skip, leap, screw, and cling to each-other in tactile need, always teasing the surfaces of their lovers, even penetrating, but never quite gaining proper union with until a strange state Malick feels is close to divine intervenes.

The solitary, wanderer-in-the-world lot of Malick’s protagonists is bound in with their sexual identities here, their search for completing piece of their being. But it’s also tethered to their own status as familial creatures, the products themselves of people coming together. Cook’s possibly grieving rootlessness is contrasted with BV and Rhonda’s connections to family. The fact that both these characters live in a place at once cosmopolitan and parochial allows Malick to study them in the context of family allegiances and alternative value systems, whereas the protagonists of many of Malick’s earlier films were constantly cut off from native soil and their own pasts either by fate or design. BV is drawn back in by his family as his father has fallen into vegetative senescence, a reminder of imminent mortality and the bonds of identity that lend a subtle drag to his efforts to recover from the damage Cook did him. Faye has a solicitous father (Brady Cameron) who readily operates as her sounding board and confessor, as Rhonda’s mother serves for her. If some of Malick’s ways of masticating his material here feels a bit shop-worn in terms of his signature approach, one more original aspect of Song To Song lies in how it furthers the documentary element to his filmmaking that The Tree of Life mooted and Knight of Cups embraced. Lubezki’s camera floats freely through landscapes noting life in its asides and grand stages, evinced during the many vignettes set during musical performances, where the actors are knitted in with music stars. Crowds of young moshers and rockers are glimpsed at the outset engaged in gymnastic cavorting. Music stars careen by the camera, some fleetingly glimpsed like Florence Welch, Alan “Neon Indian” Palomo, and Tegan and Sara, whilst elder gods like John Leydon, Iggy Pop, and Patti Smith are lassoed in to fulfil a more intriguing function: they offer snatches of personal wisdom, Greek Chorus-like commentaries on the problems besetting Malick’s characters gleaned from their own struggles and triumphs.

Nor is this just glorified star-fucking, for Malick has time for less spectacular confessionals, as he wrings from two of the prostitutes Cook hires, recounting their self-perceptions and experiences in hauntingly exposed terms, one young and fresh, the other older and feeling the stir of life’s colder winds. Malick’s familiar approach to utilising his actors, mining their most ephemeral, essential, and transient gestures and knitting them into the greater pattern of his editing, catches his actors both extremely wary, as Mara’s wide, alien glare absorbs her surrounds in suspicion and stoic remove, and also at their most unguarded, as when she launches into a dance in a bedroom, suddenly alight with the remembered pleasure of romantic moments. Gosling’s comedic gifts are allowed some leeway, as when he tosses away a terrible meal at some social shindig he’s been invited to. Val Kilmer appears in a bizarre cameo, part recreation of and lampoon on his famous role as Jim Morrison, as an aging rock star Faye is drafted into backing, who fires up the crowds with calculated barbarisms like using a chainsaw to cut a speaker in half, and scissoring off his own hair – pure incarnation of rock ‘n’ roll’s Loki-like, trickster god glee in all things antithetical and cathartically ruinous. Lykke Li has a substantial part as BV’s former girlfriend who’s become a jet-setting superstar, who visits him after he’s broken up with Faye and gives the siren call of joining her and drifting off into wild blue yonders. But BV, feeling the nagging tug of identity and responsibility as well as dissatisfaction with his life, instead retreats into his affair with Amanda, one that demands nothing but persistence in the moment. Faye seeks the same easeful time with Zoey, but her demanding, sensual, yearning face with its vulpine brows and teeth anxious for the red meat of love proves too potent for such a casual arrangement and an interloping straight lover, and the relationship quickly sunders. Meanwhile Cook’s indulgence of his many habits drives Rhonda to despair, and finally death, probably by suicide.

The Pre-Raphaelite image of Rhonda’s dead body splayed in water identifies her as a sacrificial victim for the cult of art, but the images of her mother wailing in banshee-like despair in a carpark identifies banal consumption of the soul as another trade of modernity. As Rhonda’s body is scooped up by a shocked and terrified Cook, Malick confronts an image of cold, cheerless death he has avoided in its last few films – even the crucial death at the heart of The Tree of Life, of the hero’s brother, was suggested rather than seen. It’s a logical end for an undercurrent of interpersonal violence witnessed continually but never evinced in blows or wounds. BV’s split from Cook is in itself as a fleeting yet gruelling vignette that precisely measures the meaning behind such acts as stealing someone else’s credit and smashing a bottle for cataclysmic underlining, whilst Rhonda’s squirming through the sessions of sexual adventuring her husband draws her into constantly prods with the spectacle of her reduction to concubine. Malick is also merciless in his understanding of a Buddhist philosophical truism, that what appear to be actions are in fact only ever consequences. BV’s understandable rejection of Cook nonetheless creates the circumstances that lead to Rhonda’s death because Cook is left untethered to any amity. BV and Faye’s journey by contrast eventually sees them reconnect and finally settle down, albeit it in quite different terms. BV abandons his music career for a simpler existence as an oil driller, swapping a frustratingly ethereal accomplishment for engagement with the physical world in a manner tied to his reclamation of his family identity, whilst Faye finally regains her musical fire even whilst settling into a more lucid and composed existence as a mother.

Song To Song is a striking and enriching collage on so many levels, and littered with gorgeous fragments that still bespeak of Malick’s capacity to find an arresting image in any setting and scatter intricate rhymes and patterns throughout. Like in a moment, close to the film’s start, when BV caresses Faye with Christmas lights, the accord of their nervous systems given a beautiful visual simile, rhymed to a shot much later of Faye lying sprawled alone on a coiled length of fluorescent lights, drifting in the ether of her own melancholic dreaminess, BV’s touch a memory. Or the sequence of BV and Cook’s first Mexico venture, a rollicking interlude of boozed-up good cheer that sees the two men following the old Beat trail, in the Indian summer of their mutual reliance and excitement at finding a second musketeer, giving way to the sorry sight of Cook trailing after BV and Faye as they spin off into their ecstatic union. And yet the film as a whole fails ultimately to cohere on several levels in a manner none of his other works quite fail, except perhaps his hippy-dippy war movie The Thin Red Line (1998). The reason why seems bound up with the absence of that aesthetic and expressive urgency that drove along Malick’s other recent works, the need to get at some vital fact of existence that had to be articulated no matter what damage was done or discomforting memory was parsed. Part of this failure is linked to the careless approach Malick takes to his characters’ actual business as artists. That facet could be neglected in Knight of Cups because its screenwriter was patently detached from his hack line of work, whereas here the business of making music is supposed preoccupy and define everyone. Malick’s polyphonic cinema on the other hand can’t sit still long enough to engage with creation and performance in any kind of meditative feeling.

Another problem is that none of these characters quite dominate the screen, and so they remain relatively remote as identification figures. The urges of Malick’s dramatis personae towards their destinations in the other films of this unique quartet gain momentum through and because of the pressure-cooker intensity of the filmmaking, mimicking their own impossible urges to move in every direction at once, to feel and know and be and conquer themselves and become unbound. Olga Kurylenko’s Marina and her desperate urge to chase ultimate liberty in To The Wonder had this persuasive, tidal intensity; in Knight of Cups, although the dramatic landscape was even busier than the one here, Christian Bale’s Rick remained key to all we saw, and understood his perpetually Sisyphean existence, so his flight into the wilds at the end also retained cathartic impact. Rhonda’s plight has the stuff of high tragedy but she’s only a minor character in the film when all is said and done, whilst BV and Faye remain comparatively muted figures, avatars for what Malick is trying to say but not quite gaining the stature of archetypes Malick pushes them to attain. But it also must be said that Song To Song also wears its imperfection on its sleeve, its (relatively) ragged, offhand feel as a war banner. Malick’s late oeuvre has stood as a general rebuke to the small-mindedness and watery technique of too much serious contemporary cinema, particularly that coming out of an independent film scene taken as natural heir to the American New Wave, an era Malick stands as one of the last standing warriors from. Song To Song is less rebuke than an act of leadership, signalled through the synergy Malick is chasing between his medium of film and the subculture he studies; just as the elders of the music scene like Smith offer their own counsel to the young artists on hand, this is Malick’s. Song To Song is about its own making and its message is that making, as Malick presents to independent filmmakers a template for creativity that makes virtues out of seeming limitations.


15th 06 - 2017 | 2 comments »

The Women’s Balcony (2017)

Director: Emil Ben-Shimon

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It is with a light and generous heart that I suggest anyone within reach of a movie theater showing The Women’s Balcony pack up your necessities and head there at your earliest convenience. What will unfold over your 96 minutes in the dark is a comedy so droll, so full of love and celebration, and so wise in its mild cautions that you may see the world much differently when you emerge into the light.

The Women’s Balcony, a major hit in Israel, offers a look at an orthodox Jewish community—and community is what makes this film so endearing and healing. As the film opens, men and women move rapidly with a buoyant excitement through the narrow streets and alleys of ancient Jerusalem bearing casseroles and chasing after escaped liters of pop on their way to their tiny synagogue. A bar mitzvah is to take place, though the white-garbed, formally attired women give the impression that they are attending a mass wedding. They watch with pride from the women’s section, a balcony above the sanctuary, as the grandson of Zion (Igal Naor) and Ettie (Evelin Hagoel) stands to read his torah portion just as the candy the women customarily throw on the bar mitzvah boy (Yair Parash) arrives after being left behind in all the excitement.

At that moment, the middle section of the balcony collapses. The torah is destroyed by the falling concrete, and several people are injured, including the rabbi’s wife, who is hospitalized in a coma for the duration of the film. The rabbi (Abraham Celektar), inconsolable about his wife’s condition, can no longer lead the congregation. The glue that held this community together starts to come unstuck.

The milieu, though possibly not the plot, of The Women’s Balcony is based on screenwriter Shlomit Nehama’s upbringing. Her knowledge of and affection for the ways of her Orthodox Jerusalem community make it easy for viewers to become immersed in and identify with a culture they may never have seen before. What is particular to this community—kissing mezuzahs affixed to door jambs, using a non-Jew to perform tasks that Jews are prohibited from doing on the sabbath, trying to form a minyan (10 men) needed to hold a religious service—is educational for non-Jewish viewers and stirs familiarity and affection in Jewish audiences. What is universal—the easy love between Zion and Ettie, the exasperation of Ettie’s unmarried niece Yaffa (Yafit Asulin) at the constant nudges to find a husband, the bar mitzvah boy who thinks the collapse was his fault for not learning his torah portion and hoping something would prevent his embarrassment in front of the whole community—brings us all into communion with their humanness.

Despite the liberal doses of humor that keep the film moving briskly, Nehama set out “to tell the story of the moderate people who are forced to deal with growing religious extremism.” The snake in the garden is young, charismatic Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush), who comes to the congregation’s rescue by rounding up a group of his acolytes to help them form a minyan at their temporary sanctuary in a storefront. He offers to preside over their services during their rabbi’s indisposition and even smooths the permitting process so they can rebuild their synagogue. Through these favors he claims a subtle, but powerful debt of obedience from the congregants and attempts to turn them toward a more extreme form of worship that would have the women banished from the main synagogue and pushed into more modest attire and behavior.

First-time feature director Ben-Shimon shows a sure hand in handling the script’s tonal shifts and providing a rounded picture of all of the players. He makes Zion and Ettie the core of the film and the exemplar of the health of the community, reveling in their playful and happy marriage. As Rabbi David’s influence starts to push the men into uncomfortable actions—giving their outraged wives headscarfs, allowing the women to be put in a cramped annex outside the sanctuary after the synagogue is made usable, allowing themselves to be discouraged from consulting with their rabbi on these and other changes—arguments escalate among the congregants. Ora (Sharon Elimelech) breaks with Ettie and starts wearing modest clothing full time, an ultra-Orthodox little boy is prevented from visiting Zion in his store, and most of the women leave their homes or force their husbands to sleep on the couch. We feel the pain of this group of once-happy people reduced to misery and strife by a wolf in black frock coat and hat spouting pieties designed to divide and control.

It is wonderful to see women so honored and central to the life of this community and their impassioned resistance to demotion, a shocking betrayal of what the community stood for—the love for their rabbi and his wife, and at base, for their faith, strong anchors in rocky seas. In the end, love has the final word. The old rabbi receives much-need medication through a deception that is a scene of comic genius and, sanity returned, he visits his comatose wife and returns to his flock. We have no doubt that the reawakening of the community she served will help speed her recovery.

The Women’s Room opens June 16 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., and at the AMC Renaissance Place in Highland Park. It is expected to go into wider release following limited runs in Chicago and other cities.


21st 05 - 2017 | 7 comments »

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Director: Ridley Scott

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Ridley Scott’s chimera of horror and science fiction, Alien (1979) launched its director on a Hollywood career and established a franchise that has become a fixture of the modern cinema landscape. Expanded by James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the Alien series, whilst declining steeply in quality as it went on and spawning an army of imitators, still managed to remain distinctive. That distinctiveness stemmed from the films’ unique blend of down-and-dirty generic imperatives, telling blood-and-thunder stories of rampaging monsters, obscene pregnancies and infestations, and raw survivalism, fused with high-class production values, conceptual intelligence, and technocratic grandeur, lending a veneer of respectability to a portrait of a future far less cheery and far more id-like than the norm for such spacefaring tales. This is a future defined by eerie fusions of biology and technology, painted in chiaroscuro contrasts of assailed light against overwhelming blackness, a place where nightmares dwell and heroes survive only by pure nerve. The series reached a nadir when the menace of the xenomorphs was pitched into combat with the hulking Predators of Twentieth Century Fox’s other beloved sci-fi action property for two readily ignored movies, but then Scott elected to return to the series that had made his name with Prometheus (2011). Suddenly the series, and its director, were exciting for many again. Prometheus proved a peculiarly indecisive concoction, however, and a divisive one.

Undoubtedly, Prometheus was an ambitious and hefty piece of work. But many, including me, were hoping that Scott would extend his work not just in theme and scope but in style. The specific aura of his original, defined by a mood of miasmic dread and mystery, and tension slowly ratcheted then exploited with relentless effect, was attuned to environment as a tool and source of drama, in the twinned environs of space’s unknowable expanse and the labyrinthine twists of the Nostromo. Such carefully worked filmmaking offered lessons too many contemporary directors forget, including, it seemed, Scott himself. Still, Scott poured a great deal of his matured technical and storytelling expertise into the film and many examples of his great eye, so that when viewed as a standalone thrill-ride, Prometheus was a fine effort, sporting one truly classic sequence depicting an excruciating surgical birth. But as a revisit to beloved universe by its progenitor, it was surely more conventional and clumsy.

The curious squeamishness Scott revealed on Prometheus about drawing too many clear lines to his original gives way with Alien: Covenant, his latest foray into this zone, to a bolder reappropriation of his stylistic cues, opening the door for an instalment that moves a long way towards closing the linkage between the two entries. The titles recreate the assembling motif of the original’s opening credits, and Jed Kurzel’s music score quotes Jerry Goldsmith’s plaintive, eerie, barely-there scoring for the original. Scott also quotes ideas from subsequent entries, like a projected image of lovely forest offered as a bogus panacea for grief and the stern rifle-wielding quoted from Aliens (1986). There’s a deftly clever reason to this sort of conscientious trope-harvesting, beyond mere homage and service to a conceptual universe, that becomes clearer as the film goes on. Prometheus dealt with an expedition financed by dying tycoon Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his efforts to track down the possible source of life on Earth, discovering facilities used for genetic engineering and the remains of a colossal alien race dubbed Engineers, who laid the seeds for the genesis of the human race but also intended its destruction and supplanting by more fearsome creations. The finale saw sole human survivor Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) appropriating an Engineer spaceship to track down their home world in the mangled company of Weyland’s magnum opus in cybernetic engineering, David (Michael Fassbender).

Alien: Covenant opens with a sequence depicting David’s first conscious moments as a creation and tool of Weyland, back when the creator was still relatively healthy and David was immediately faced with a quandary of being the perfect and undying progeny of a very frail beast indeed. Most of Alien: Covenant however takes place ten years after the events of Prometheus. Following Prometheus’ lead, Covenant is also the name of a spaceship, a craft carrying a load of 2000 colonists in cryogenic stasis to a distant planet chosen as a new home. Their well-being is overseen by the on-board synthetic human Walter (Fassbender again), an upgraded, less independent version of David’s make. In between leaps through wormholes with a solar sail deployed to recharge the ship’s power supplies, the Covenant is struck by a surge of energy from an exploding star, frying its electrical systems and causing the ship’s core crew to wake up. The captain, Branson (James Franco), is burned to a cinder when his stasis pod catches fire, leaving his partner Daniels (Katherine Waterston) distraught and his second officer Oram (Billy Crudup) in anxious command. Whilst repairing the solar sail, another crew member, Tennessee (Danny McBride), picks up an extremely faint and mysterious broadcast from a relatively nearby planet. Watching the broadcast, the crew realise it’s a faint image of a woman singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” When they look at the planet it’s sourced from, a mere seven weeks’ flight away, the crew decide it’s worth travelling there to search for the mysterious woman, because the planet appears to be a closer and superior place to set up their colony.

Arriving at the planet, the Covenant crew, who are mostly married or in relationships to better foster the colonial mission, leave a skeleton force to man the space vessel whilst most of the crew departs to the surface to investigate. Tennessee’s wife Faris (Amy Seimetz) is one joins the landing team, which also includes Oram, Daniels, and stalwart Lope (Demián Bichir, under-utilised), whilst her husband stays aboard ship with another couple, Upworth (Callie Hernandez) and Ricks (Jussie Smollett). Daniels has protested vociferously to Oram about his decision to come to this planet which she describes as too good to be true, a protest Oram registers as another slight against him, feeling a victimised status he blames on his oft-proclaimed religious faith. Touching down, the landing party soon find the planet apparently free of all animal life but weirdly rich in familiar, overgrown versions of Earth vegetation. They soon find a crashed Engineer spaceship and find Shaw’s dog tags on board. Two members of the party, Ledward (Benjamin Rigby) and Hallett (Nathaniel Dean) also inadvertently find something else, spore pods that release microbes that latch themselves on their bodies and soon start a gruesome and grimly familiar biological process. Both infected men soon fall ill, bleed copiously, and finally have small but deadly alien organisms erupt out of their bodies. These things grow and go on the hunt, leaving several crew dead and their shuttle craft destroyed. What’s left of the party is saved by a mysterious cloaked figure who releases a bright flare to scare the monsters off. This is soon revealed to be David himself, surviving a solitary existence on this planet with naught to do but pick up where the Engineers left off.

The early scenes of Alien: Covenant confirm Scott’s intention to reverse-engineer the series back to original specs, whilst also quietly stretching out sinew in readiness for hard exertions when they come, as he makes a film where its very status as a variation on a theme is an explicit part of the show. The workaday tedium that afflicted the denizens of the Nostromo is not quite rhymed with the more upbeat and expectant Covenant crew here, whose outlook is fixed on new horizons rather than hacky bonus cheques. This positive aspect to the crew makes them more harmonious and likeable for the most part, but also means most lack the hardened edge of survival instinct that finally sustained Ripley through to safe harbour. The crew’s increasingly panicky, frail responses to hard-charging survival situations comes both in response to sudden swerves of fate but also repeatedly create them. Daniels’ tragic loss of her partner which is also the loss of the expedition leader and pillar of stability has immediately punched a deep and ever-widening hole in the integrity of this unit. Oram cringes and privately fumes at presumed dissension to his authority, especially when the other members of the crew take pause during their repairs to give Branson a funeral. Tennessee becomes increasingly stressed and places the Covenant in danger from the violent storms that sweep over the planet’s upper atmosphere as he becomes increasingly worried about his wife. The way stressful and lethally intense situations sort out personalities, a minor but consequential theme of the original, is here revisited and becomes an overriding part of how Alien: Covenant investigates humanity and alienness as conditions.

This aspect is illustrated with particularly ruthless zeal when the long, investigative first act gives way to rapidly spiralling crises and hysterical goads to action. The creature in Ledward rips its way out of his back whilst he and Oram’s botanist wife Karine (Carmen Ejogo) are in the shuttle craft’s med bay. Faris locks Karine in with the monster and makes a frenetic but ineffectual attempt to get a weapon and kill the creature. Although new-born the creature still gnaws Karine to death and tracks Faris through the ship, finally driving her to accidentally blow up the craft with her wild gunshots. Scott repeats this process several times, as situations fall suddenly and ruthlessly on his characters, a callous quality given fresh bite by the fact most of these characters are in relationships, their functions as team members cut across by personal loyalties and instincts driving them in contradictory directions. Daniels’ enveloping grief is employed both as a personal trait and an aesthetic keynote in a mad dream where everything spirals in towards to twinned moments of birth and death. Her hopes for building a log cabin on an alien shore with her husband are recited as pathetic confession, and she shares an embrace with Tennessee when they’ve both lost loved-ones. Scott contrasts the increasingly frenzied, messy, and desperate actions of the humans against the ever-poised David, who, in spite of his solitary Ben Gunn-like existence on the planet and long, ragged castaway’s hair, has kept his composure and found peculiar purpose. He takes the survivors in hand and leads them to a deserted city where the petrified remains of the Engineer race still lie scattered across agora cobbles, like some grotesquely apocalyptic, genocidal edition of Pompeii’s dead. David explains to the survivors that the Engineer ship he and Elizabeth brought to the planet accidentally released a sample of the Engineers’ own biological agents, killing them and all other animal life, whilst Elizabeth was mortally injured when the ship crashed.

Although it has undoubtedly been composed of uneven individual works and has received little recognition, Scott’s late career has been rapidly taking shape as one of the most vital and interesting runs in recent cinema from a major filmmaker. This is apparent on both on the level of sheer cinematic swagger, replete with genre-swapping skin-changes worthy of his xenomorphs, but also in the way the key fascinations of his films have become increasingly compulsive. This phase began after the flop of Body of Lies (2008), probably Scott’s weakest film, and kicked off with Robin Hood (2010), both an attempt to recapture and to farewell a phase in his career defined by the success of Gladiator (2000), the movie which restored his standing as a major hit-maker but also reduced him to a spinner of simplistic fairy-tales for grownups. Robin Hood, although violently uneven and poorly focused, was nonetheless a complex conjuration, meshing closely observed historical context with mythology in a manner that highlighted several of Scott’s career-long concerns, particularly class conflict and the fate of the out-of-place individual, and the question as to how our contemporary humanity has evolved, in terms of one of Britain’s most famous folkloric figurations. The films Scott has made since then – Prometheus, The Counselor (2013), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), The Martian (2015), and this one – have all agitatedly sorted and re-sorted an essential catalogue of ideas and images, taking on parables in various settings and each with a different tone for framework. The Old Testament punishments for hubris in Prometheus, The Counselor, and Exodus saw moral dramas played out in landscapes of jagged stone and bleak portent, whilst the communal efforts to achieve sanctuary in Exodus and The Martian evinced a positive but exacting sense of vulnerability in the face of eternal powers. Like Luis Bunuel, a very different filmmaker in obvious ways, Scott has explored his own contradictory nature as a person without overt religion but easily fired up by a religious sensibility, urgently examining the forces that make and break us, trying to live up to a humane creed but constantly offering sly sympathy to his Satanic figures.

Alien: Covenant certainly extends this last aspect through the figure of David, who has slipped his bonds and become determined not merely to be excellent product but a most excellent and laborious producer. He’s that figure Scott admires most and has most qualms about, the exceptional being straining against a world of lessers, an antihero driven to be rebel archangel in his outrage at the way things are. Oram is a man of religious faith but little faith in himself and, more importantly, little gift for leadership, and he falls prey to David’s designs with tragicomic ease. The deliberate echoes and suggestions of direct connection provided here with Blade Runner (1981) flesh out something long implicit in the diptych offered by Scott’s most evergreen films, as David here marches on fearlessly into zones of self-definition Roy Batty could not quite bear to contemplate: he still wanted his father to tell him things would be all right. One forceful idea of Prometheus was the notion that discovering God might be a colossally disappointing act, underlined here with the revelation David casually exterminated the Engineers with their own works. One mask of creation simply gives way to another, leaving more mystery and more frustration. This becomes a spur ironically not to despair but to further, ever-more restless engagement with the act of creation itself. But the creation is only ever a mirror to the faults and strengths of what produces it, and David’s root programming error is suggested with a daisy chain of literary references that connects Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and the latter’s wife Mary, as the Frankensteinian progeny plans an elaborate and cosmically terrifying revenge on having been made so well and yet so impotent. His recitation of Percy’s epistle to the titanic urge, “Ozymandias,” reveals his own trunkless legs by misattributing it to Byron – a mistake Walter, seemingly David’s perfect replica, but carefully castrated by a more cautious and circumspect society, notices, the one clue that this would-be god is cracked.

The relationship between David and Walter is one of Alien: Covenant’s most sublime ideas, giving Fassbender a chance to give two supremely confident, carefully varied performances, and the ultimate actor’s challenge and fantasy, to enact both seducing himself and killing himself. David introduces Walter to the pleasures of personal artistic creation when he teaches him to play a flute, the perfect Narcissus eventually even kissing his double in his effort to find a worthy companion in his solitude, and what could be more worthy than himself. But Walter resists and eventually becomes the only real force standing between David and victory over the pathetic flesh-bags. David has become as central and eclipsing to Scott’s re-conception of this franchise as Peter Cushing’s similarly cool, incisive, utterly unrelenting Frankenstein was to Hammer’s series about the character, towering far over the monstrous by-products of his tinkering. The eventual battle between the two synthetics is the ultimate and perfect version of the essentialist struggle that Scott has meditated upon as far back as the inevitably titled The Duellists – at last the mirrored antagonists are actually, truly identical, distinguished only by the mysterious code called personality. Alien: Covenant eventually unveils another inspired notion as it reveals that the missing link between the Engineers’ parasitic monstrosities and the familiar xenomorphs of the series is David himself, toying with these in his attempts to build a species perfectly adapted not just to survival but to actively exploiting and destroying humans.

This provides an impishly clever explanation for why the xenomorphs seems at once so strange and so familiar, compositing animal types found on Earth and giving the Engineers’ brilliant but mutable creations a new spin. At one point David acidly refers to one of his human male victims as the intended mother of one of his children. David has become in word and deeds his own god, a version of god blazing hatefully out of gnostic texts and bitter agnostic fantasy, a mad designer perched over neo-medieval texts splicing together misbegotten demons. The film’s blackest joke involves two renditions of a passage of Wagner’s Das Rheingold depicting gods entering Valhalla, and is also a cunning call-back to a motif again mooted in the original, where Ash celebrated the purity of the alien beast with ardent fascist admiration. The Hitlerian dream is unbound and now written into the music of the spheres. Appropriately, Alien: Covenant is a mad scientist’s concoction itself, all mediated by Scott’s utilisation of David’s urge to creativity as a metaphor for his own, speeding through drafts, each one tossed off with ever-more feverish drive than the last no matter how good or how lousy the results; only the urge to keep moving counts. Thus Alien: Covenant is a highly perverse hymn to creativity as a natural law and urge, manifesting in whatever form it will. Scott’s professional drive to keep working, so often the source of critical suspicion of his output, is constituted by him as the essence of his being.

Scott does more than make a horror film here; he makes a film about the horror genre, its history, its place in the psyche, analysing the way the death-dream constantly underlies all fantasies of ego and eros. Scott reaches out for a hundred and one reference points, some of the already plain in the Alien series lexicon. The deserted Engineer city recalls the Cyclopean confines of the lost cities in Lovecraft tales like At the Mountains of Madness, the Elder Gods all left gorgonized by David’s perfidy. At one point Scott recreates Arnold Böcklin’s painting “Isle of the Dead,” an image that obsessed H. R. Giger, the crucial designer behind so much of the Alien mythos, as much as it did Val Lewton, whose cavernously eerie psychological parables redefined horror cinema in the 1940s; Scott no doubt has both in mind. David’s “love” for Elizabeth, which has taken the form of relentlessly exploiting her body to lend genetic material to his creations, is both reminiscent of a particularly tactile serial killer worthy of Thomas Harris and of the obsessive, invasive eroticisation of the loved one’s cadaver found in Poe, whilst the whole meditates as intensely and morbidly on its landscape of Poe’s poetry. The design of the failed prototype xenomorphs and David’s rooms hung with sketches reminiscent of medieval alchemic ephemera both pay tribute to Guillermo Del Toro’s films and also poke Del Toro’s oeuvre back for its own debt to Scott and Giger. A head floating in water comes out of Neil Jordan’s self-conscious unpacking of fairy tales, The Company of Wolves (1984). The touch of Captain Branson’s death struck me as a possible tip of the hat to Dark Star (1974), in which the captain had died in similar circumstances, and which was of course made by Alien co-writer Dan O’Bannon. Late in the film Scott stages a shower sequence that sees Upworth and Ricks having a hot and steamy moment under the spigot only to be surprised by a xenomorph. At first glance this sequence revels in a trashier brand of horror associated with 1970s and ‘80s slasher films, but Scott also adds self-reference – the xenomorph’s tail curling in demonic-penile fashion around their legs calls back to the similarly queasy shot in Alien when Lambert was attacked by the monster, whilst also nodding back to Hitchcock and Psycho (1960). It’s staged meanwhile with all the pointillist precision of Scott’s most fetishistic visual rhapsodies – spraying water like diamonds playing over soft flesh, fogged glass, grey knobbly alien skin, and the inevitable rupture of red, red blood.

Which points to another quality of Alien: Covenant – its deeply nasty, enthusiastic commitment to being a horror film, an anarchic theatre of cruelty and bloodlust barely evinced in any other film of such a large budget, especially in this age of gelded adolescent fantasies. If it’s still not the deep, dank leap into a barely liminal space like the original, it is perfectly confident in itself and bleakly poetic in unexpected ways. I don’t know if a film has ever been so casually beautiful even when deploying visions of hellishness, apparent in moments like the shower attack. Or in the following scene when a blown-out airlock results in air turning to million-fold vapour pellets and then ice, exploding in dazzling shards. Or in the surveys of the desolate sculpture garden that is the Engineer city. Daniels’ resemblance to Ripley, in her short dark hair and singlets and pluck in the face of monstrous adversity is both another purposeful echo and a miscue, a by-product of Alien: Covenant’s status as a logarithmic variant. Her embrace with Tennessee is one of the most unaffectedly humane moments in Scott’s oeuvre, and a summation of the film’s repeated statement that to be alive is to need others. Only that’s a rule that cuts both ways in a predatory competition for lebensraum, and leads to such fragments of ecstatic insight as David’s distraught look when one of his children fails.

Scott stages another brilliantly executed, madcap suspense sequence as Daniels and Tennessee attempt to flee the planet surface with a xenomorph scuttling around the hull of their craft, Daniels trying to blast the beast on a wildly pitching deck as the monster tries to head-butt its way through Perspex to get at Tennessee. There’s a skittish, occasionally madcap quality to Pietro Scalia’s editing throughout the film that communicates the off-kilter will at the heart of this project. Only in its very last act does some of Alien: Covenant’s assurance slip, as Scott doesn’t quite match the patience with which he deployed his sneak-attack coda in the original. But there’s still a final twist in store, at once galling and perfectly apt, deployed with obviousness but sustained in ambiguity with such malign showmanship that it becomes increasingly vexing and entirely riveting, before the axe finally falls. Scott builds with cold mirth to a punch-line for the tale that both echoes one he initially mooted for Alien, and which also recalls the sting in the tail of one of the signal influences on that film, Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1966). Scott exploits his own well-worn material here to push right to the brink of the abyss in a way reminiscent to what he did before in The Counselor, complete with a note of predetermined evil fate, only in a context where he can bait people to swallow it. But he also leaves a tantalising question open that might still be answered in creative and thrilling ways. This is the worthy achievement of this entry – it rejuvenates a well-worn property and restores all its dark and unexpected power. But more than that, it’s a testament of pure delight in his medium from a filmmaker who really has nothing left to prove, but likes to prove it anyway.


19th 05 - 2017 | no comment »

Heather Booth: Changing the World (2017)

Director: Lilly Rivlin

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“They said, ‘Elizabeth, if you really want to push for this consumer agency, you’ve got to get organized.’ And I said, ‘Great! How?’ They said, ‘I’ve got two words for you: Heather Booth.’” –Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the subject of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Ever since the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election became known, people throughout the country and the world have been mobilizing in a resistance to the current regime the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 1960s. The current outrages to human decency that are emanating from Washington, D.C., however, are neither as unprecedented nor as unusual as many newly woke people seem to think. Again we have had to learn that democracy is not a spectator sport. Now is the perfect time to reflect on the power of community organizing, and virtually no one has been a more important community organizer than Heather Booth.

People who know what community organizing is usually think immediately of the late Saul Alinsky, a Chicago-based educator and activist who wrote Rules for Radicals and is often called the father of community organizing. Or they may picture young community organizer Barack Obama, who we see in a still photograph at the very beginning of Heather Booth: Changing the World knocking on someone’s door. However, although few outside the groups that call on her for help know about Heather Booth, her influence is enormous. One interviewee says: “It’s like Zelig.” Anywhere a progressive cause needs a helping hand, you’re likely to find Heather Booth.

The sheer volume of Booth’s activities could be a challenge to any documentarian, but director Rivlin takes us through Booth’s life and career economically through the use of Booth’s audio diary, begun in September 2015, and interviews in which Booth recounts her personal history. What emerges is an inspiring portrait of a highly effective activist who has accomplished a great deal in her 70+ years on this planet.

The film starts with a look at the nuts and bolts of organizing, as Heather records in her audio diary the steps she is taking to organize a September 2015 rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C., for a group called Moral Action for Climate Justice. Booth lays out the basics of a successful action: “Clarity of purpose, clarity of the specific tasks, accountability on the tasks, and interconnection on the tasks.” Rivlin films her laying the groundwork for the event and then the successful rally itself. It then segues into a rough chronology of Booth’s life and activities.

Booth was raised in Brooklyn by progressive Jewish parents. When they moved to Long Island, she realized that did not feel comfortable in a suburban social setting. She spent as much time as she could in the free-wheeling atmosphere of Greenwich Village, taking up the guitar and hanging out with “the beatniks.” It was there that she took her first steps as an activist, handing out flyers for a group opposed to the death penalty, a task that intimidated her. Her own experience informs her approach to activism: “We need to give people confidence to take even simple steps like that.”

She lived on a kibbutz in Israel, but galvanized by news of the 1963 March on Washington, she returned to the United States to be part of the civil rights movement. Among her activities at the time involved going to Mississippi to set up freedom schools and to register voters. Her visit to Shaw, Mississippi, during Freedom Summer put her in touch with the Hawkins family, who eventually sued the city for equal access to services the white side of town enjoyed, such as sewers, traffic lights, and fire hydrants. Booth says that some consider the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of Hawkins to be as important as Brown v. Board of Education, which codified equal access to education for white and nonwhite citizens.

She met her husband Paul, then the national secretary of Students for a Democratic Society, in 1966 while both were involved in a sit-in on the University of Chicago campus to protest the war in Vietnam. He proposed on the third day of their acquaintance, and their life together, says Heather, “gets better and better. We work on our marriage the same way as our organizing.” It was inevitable that once the Booths had children, in 1968 and 1969, Heather’s work would turn to the plight of families. She helped organize the Action Committee for Decent Childcare in 1972 that eventually squeezed $1 million from the City of Chicago for childcare services. Her account of how the group accomplished this amazing feat shows her humor, ingenuity, and tenaciousness.

It’s not often commented upon, but the progressive movement was and often still is dominated by men. Booth decided that to help women avoid being marginalized in the movement, she would help found an institute to train more women in community organizing. The Midwest Academy, which she chairs to this day, was the result. Other work on behalf of women included JANE, a service that provided illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade made the procedure legal and widely available.

Rivlin’s film, which includes title cards, archival footage and still photos, and talking-head interviews, moves briskly, even breezily, with encouraging news about the wins Heather Booth helped effect, all scored by the infectious Bob Marley-like social justice song by Kyle Casey Chu, “Woman Strong,” that repeats “ain’t nobody gonna stop her now.” Her accomplishments are too numerous to recount here—a very good reason to see this movie and hear people like Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Sen. Warren, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, and other community activists sing her praises.

The forces that shaped Booth’s destiny helped her empower others. Booth said that visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel with its monument to the resistance fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto, had a profound effect on her. She says, “This was a place where people stood and and fought back—this feeling of better to go down standing up than living on your knees.” Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, whoever and wherever they are. A sign on Booth’s desk confirms this idea, but prescribes an attitude that refuses to admit despair: “Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will.” It’s a good thought to keep in mind for the fight ahead.

Heather Booth: Changing the World screens Friday, May 19 at 7:45 p.m. and Saturday, May 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. Heather Booth and director Lilly Rivlin will be present for audience discussion after both screenings.


21st 03 - 2017 | no comment »

Austerlitz (2016)

Director: Sergei Loznitsa

2017 European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 2008, I interviewed Errol Morris about his then-new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, which tried to make sense of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal of the Bush Jr. administration. We talked about why he thought one of the scapegoats who took the fall for the administration photographed the humiliations and torture in which she took part. He said:

In a way, it’s an essential question, and I don’t pretend that I have some definitive answer. I think, in general, we photograph things because reality is peculiar. Maybe we need to stop it and look at it and memorialize it so we can scrutinize it at some later time, refresh our memory of our own experiences.

This is certainly one of several possible reasons we take pictures, and tourists are especially keen to document and view themselves in places they may never visit again as a kind of highlights book of their life. What I find peculiar is not necessarily reality, as Morris suggests, but the urge not only to visit places like Auschwitz or Gettysburg, but to stand smiling before a camera at these sites of mass slaughter. Austerlitz, an unnarrated look at visitors to the Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp in northeastern Germany, raises these and other issues, and causes a unique kind of self-questioning in audiences who view it.

There are few things more boring than looking at someone else’s vacation pictures, and it is perhaps with this wry thought in mind that director Sergei Loznitsa places his static camera just inside the camp gate to film a long opening sequence of arriving visitors. Several tour groups deposit large clots of tourists outside, many with cameras dangling around their necks or selfie sticks at the ready. We also see family groups pushing buggies and baby strollers, and couples having a day out together. All the visitors are dressed for summer in slogan- or logo-tagged t-shirts, shorts, tank tops, and other light gear.

Many are drawn to having their picture taken in front of or standing like inmates behind the bars of the wrought-iron gate into which the message “Arbeit Macht Frei” is twisted, including a man wearing a yarmulke. That infamous phrase assures us that we are not at just any tourist attraction, but one specifically linked to mass murder. Loznitsa’s choice to shoot the entire film in black and white recalls the monochrome pictures and newsreels that are many people’s only exposure to period images of Nazi prisoners; thus, this choice has the effect of marching these day trippers in the shoes of those who would never emerge from this camp again.

Loznitsa sets his camera up at various locations, but aside from crematory ovens and a tiled room that was probably an exam or autopsy room, we don’t see most of what the visitors see. We watch people standing and moving down a long corridor pocked with doors, some looking briefly inside one of the rooms and at least one woman examining the contents of one for a long time, obstructing other visitors who want to see it, too—is it curiosity about what she’s seeing or just another stop on the tour to be checked off? After she finishes her examination, the camera catches her in the corridor looking grave and isolated while foregrounded by a child moving swiftly in her direction.

It is truly remarkable how a static camera can capture people randomly arranging themselves in very artful compositions. A bridge over a closed-up half-square is empty as a lone figure positions herself in front of the sealed opening to listen to the explanation of what she is seeing on the handset for her self-guided tour. Caught in the narrative, she must stand in place until it is finished as the bridge fills up with tourists moving in either direction. We, then, are the observers of a pure abstraction of disquieting beauty.

Loznitsa offers some details about Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg by way of the tour guides who provide information about the camp to their groups. One Italian guide describes the treatment of the political prisoners who formed the majority of the camp’s residents and the agonizing pain they went through when they were tied to pillars in the yard, their screams unnerving the other prisoners who were being interrogated. Again we see the spontaneous pull of the narrative as one member of the group puts his back to one of the pillars and stretches his arms up as though tied to it to pose for a picture.

What are we to make of this action? It’s a kneejerk reaction to condemn the apparent insensitivity of so many of the people who walk like seemingly mindless cattle through the camp—but then, weren’t Jews mocked for being sheep to the slaughter? Perhaps the photo at the pillar offers a graphic “caption” of how these pillars were used for the edification of unknown viewers in the future. Loznitsa is careful to ensure that we see the look of horror on some visitors’ faces at certain points, particularly at one exhibit we know must be especially meaningful because a large bronze sculpture commemorating the dead and suffering inmates stands opposite it.

We can’t expect people who are not living in emergency to act as though they are. This is history, an edifice devoid of actual threat that, nonetheless, bears witness to the fact that atrocities under the Nazi regime took place here. Those who choose to visit concentration camps may just be along for the ride, to see but not learn. But I imagine many of them and those who watch this film are drawn to examine a side of humanity most have never seen, to learn more about what their ancestors went through, or even to search their souls for their own capacity to do evil. The film takes its title from German writer and academic W. G. Sebald’s 2001 novel Austerlitz. Like most of his works that deal with personal and collective memory, his novel depicts a man who fled Czechoslovakia during World War II as part of the kindertransport who works to reclaim his history, which had been banished from memory by the foster parents who took him in and adopted him. Although Loznitsa’s Austerlitz may try some viewers’ patience, it is an excellent reminder that all works of art ultimately are examinations of the relationship of human beings to themselves, each other, and to the world.

Austerlitz screens Sunday, March 26 at 3:15 p.m. and Wednesday, March 29 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Eva Nová: An alcoholic actress faces her family’s rejection and the harsh reality of being old in a profession that worships youth in this compassionate look at human fragility and the need to survive. (Slovakia)

J: Beyond Flamenco: Master dance filmmaker Carlos Saura offers up another fascinating look at dance styles from Spain, this time, jota, a folksy, upbeat style from his native province of Aragón. (Spain)

Portrait of a Garden: This contemplative documentary shows a year in the life of a 400-year-old estate garden and a loving look at two master gardeners trying to pass on the wisdom of many years of working with plants, soil, and climate. (The Netherlands)

Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)

My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)


15th 03 - 2017 | 2 comments »

Eva Nová (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Marko Škop

2017 European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Most movies about alcoholics tend to put drunken behavior front and center, offering actors a golden opportunity to give the kind of dramatic performances that awarding organizations love (e.g., Oscar wins for Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas [1995] and Susan Hayward in I’ll Cry Tomorrow [1955], and Oscar nominations for Dudley Moore in Arthur [1981] and Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses [1963]). I’ve generally felt that, whether in fiction or real life, people under the influence are the farthest thing from entertaining, but who they are is another matter. Thus, while the title character of Marko Škop’s feature debut, Eva Nová, is addicted to alcohol, her story is complicated, compelling, and deeply moving.

Emília Vášáryová plays Eva, a famous Soviet-era actress in her early 60s to whom we are introduced on the last day of her third trip to rehab. She gives a recitation as her farewell gift to the women in her therapy group, and one of them gives her a tiny plastic camel to remind her that she can go without a drink as long as a camel can go without water. She returns to her flat, goes to a cabinet where she stashed a bottle of vodka before her hospitalization, and dumps it down the sink, turning her head away so as not to catch the scent of liquor. It is a fragile time for Eva, and the emptiness of her apartment seems to weigh on her heavily.

The next day, she boards a train to the countryside to visit her son, Dodo (Milan Ondrík), who lives with his family and Eva’s sister, Manka (Žofia Martišová), in the house where the older women grew up. Dodo’s wife, Helena (Anikó Varga), is not happy to see Eva but invites her in for a cup of tea anyway. Eva’s grandson, Palko (Alexander Lukac), just looks down and refuses to speak with her, and she meets her seven-year-old granddaughter, Noemi (Michaela Melisová), for the first time. When Dodo and Manka return to the house, Dodo refuses to let her stay with them and deposits Eva, her suitcase, and the box of chocolates she brought as a gift on the street. She’s forced to stay at a cheap hotel. The next day, when she checks out, we see that she has eaten all the candy.

This detail of the empty candy box is one of many telling moments that director Škop and Vášáryová use to build an indelible portrait of a vain, weak, older woman whose hungers outstrip her ability to fulfill them. But Eva Nová does more than this—it interrogates the place of women in Slovakian society, and arguably, other societies, and how the ages-old bugaboo against actresses aging plays into Eva’s problems. Vášáryová herself is a legend of Slovak and Czech theatre, film, and television who has claimed the titles of Actress of the Century by the Slovak Journalists Syndicate, as well as First Lady of the Slovak Theatre. Škop strategically positions photos of a younger Vášáryová in Eva’s apartment and uses clips from her films; thus, the actress not only accesses her character’s struggles with alcohol and the damage she has caused to her personal relationships, but also draws on the challenges Vášáryová herself faced at one point in her career trying to continue to work in an industry that worships youth.

Škop has said that he got the idea for Eva Nová from interviewing French superstar Annie Giradot, who covered up her struggles with alcohol, depression, and disillusionment by acting a version of her screen persona for him. Vášáryová is in almost every scene, a true star turn for the actress playing a character 12 years younger than herself (Or is she? Eva may be lying about her age.). Škop’s shooting style is very simple, with straight-on shots of understated moments reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s technique and close-ups that bring us into the space of these characters. The latter technique is especially important for Eva so that we can evaluate the relative truthfulness of her interpersonal interactions, an opportunity we realize we need when we watch her rehearse an apology to her family in the mirror before she turns up on their doorstep.

Škop doubles down on his mirror imaging when Eva encounters the much younger, pregnant wife of her long-time lover at an industry reception, both dressed in red, their repeated images in the bathroom mirrors subtly evoking the horrifying hall of mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Her lover rejected her and her bastard son, and denied her the child he is now having with her replacement. By now, Eva has gotten drunk and abusive, and she is dragged out of the reception as the paparazzi snap the kinds of pictures that made her a pariah in what is the most dramatic scene in the film. Then the film reverts to its air of quiet despair. At home, Eva’s bra strap has crawled back onto her shoulder from its hiding place down the sleeve of her off-the-shoulder dress, another detail of her fight against her aging body.

Although Vášáryová is in nearly every frame of this picture, she does not suck air from her supporting cast. Ondrík is very effective as a man who is beyond bitter with his mother, but bullying to his breadwinner wife and his daughter, whom he trains to repeat that she loves him in an awkward, creepy scene. Martišová is matter-of-factly disgusted with her sister, telling her that she is still paying off the headstone for their mother and rejecting any help other than financial when Eva tries to ingratiate herself. Only Helena gives Eva a break, with Varga hinting at why her character may feel more kindly disposed toward her mother-in-law when Eva confirms that Palko must definitely be Dodo’s son.

Still, Vášáryová shows Eva to be a survivor doggedly determined to keep control of her life. She endures the comedown of working as a shelver in a grocery store and performing a soliloquy for a group of dementia patients at a nursing home. She hangs on to the house where Dodo and his family live after it becomes hers on Manka’s death, refusing to sign it over to Dodo and agree to disappear from his life. In the end, she finds a precarious solidarity with Helena in a final tableau that suggests that women may only have each other to lean on in the end.

Eva Nová screens Wednesday, March 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

J: Beyond Flamenco: Master dance filmmaker Carlos Saura offers up another fascinating look at dance styles from Spain, this time, jota, a folksy, upbeat style from his native province of Aragón. (Spain)

Portrait of a Garden: This contemplative documentary shows a year in the life of a 400-year-old estate garden and a loving look at two master gardeners trying to pass on the wisdom of many years of working with plants, soil, and climate. (The Netherlands)

Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)

My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)


10th 03 - 2017 | 2 comments »

J: Beyond Flamenco (Jota, 2016)

Director/Screenwriter: Carlos Saura

2017 European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Eighty-four-year-old Carlos Saura has been making movies since 1956, with 47 directing credits to his name, including his masterpiece on childhood trauma in fascist Spain Cria Cuervos (1976). Nonetheless, Saura lamented during a personal appearance he made some years ago at the Gene Siskel Film Center that the only films he’s known for seem to be his dance films.

I understand how this can be frustrating to a consummate film artist, but in fact, Saura originally aspired to be a dancer, and his own enduring love of the form has resulted in a significant number of the best dance films on the planet, from his incredible flamenco trilogy Blood Wedding (1981)/Carmen (1983)/El amor brujo (1986) to his dance-specific documentaries, including Flamenco (1995), Tango (1998), and Fados (2007). Jota joins the dance documentary group, which are filmed dance recitals created on a soundstage that simulate a live performance in a theatre for the movie-going audience. In choosing to train his gaze on jota, Saura has chosen a dance form close to his heart and roots, a rhythmic, lively dance from his native province of Aragón in the northeastern part of Spain.

The opening title card informs us that the original dance incorporated Arab and Asian elements, and exerted a strong influence on flamenco. Of course, like all art forms, as jota traveled to other parts of the world, it changed, acquiring embellishments, as well as different pacings and stylings. Very cleverly, Saura opens the film with a youth dance class conducted by jota star Miguel Ángel Berna so that we can learn the basic steps that comprise jota in its purest form. After this lesson, it becomes relatively easy to recognize the characteristic heel-toe combination and low kicks that comprise the basic steps of jota in the performances to come. Incorporated into these performances, of course, is the characteristic music that is also considered jota, including in classical pieces by Luigi Boccherini and Pablo Sarasate.

Saura takes a historical look at jota, beginning with a bride’s song from Aragón’s Ansó Valley. The dancers are all in traditional dress from the region and dance a simple, circular jota as they honor the bride. Saura also introduces the music of jota with an Aragónese cantada performed by singers Nacho del Rio and Beatriz Bernad, and accompanied by Miguel Ángel Tapia on piano. Their loud, lusty singing, what Saura has called the “barbarous voices” signaling the independence of Aragónese women, takes place in front of a wall of historical posters and pictures, including one for the film Goyescas (1942) starring Imperio Argentina, who will be shown later in historical footage singing and dancing jota.

There are strikingly dramatic sequences in the film, for example, La Tarántula, which, unlike the Italian tarantella, builds slowly with a dancer laying on the floor covered in a white gauze slowly rising as a group of women dance around her and, finally, spreading her diaphanous, winglike “body” as they all fall to the ground. In another, Berna, dressed all in black, postures solo in front of a four-way mirror. The most affecting of the sequences shows a boy sitting in a classroom look up at rear-projection screens behind his teacher’s desk and watch archival footage of the Spanish Civil War—the battles, overhead bombers, frightened citizens running for cover, and dead children. Not only is Saura going through the history of jota and of Aragón, but also his own history.

Nonetheless, most of the film is a joyous celebration of dance and community, with the requisite number of flamenco jotas. My favorite sequence was the jota from Galicia, which gathered musicians playing everything from the Irish bodhrán to thumb cymbals and featured Carlos Núñez on the Scottish bagpipes and two dancers, one of whom leaped into the circle to dance barefoot, snapping his fingers because he lacked castanets.

The film ends with what I can only call the lounge lizard version of jota, called modern, and a fiesta of people of all ages dancing together to the sounds of the professional singers and musicians, while gigantic, papier-mâché figures circulate among them. Despite being confined to the soundstage, Saura finds visually varied ways to increase audience interest, with mirrors, overhead shots, projection, impressionistic painting, and color screens backing the dancers. This film, called J: Beyond Flamenco in English presumably to capitalize on the familiarity and popularity of flamenco, preserves the more folksy jota form and entertains us with it in all its many forms.

J: Beyond Flamenco screens Saturday, March 11 at 6:30 p.m. and Thursday, March 16 at 8:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Portrait of a Garden: This contemplative documentary shows a year in the life of a 400-year-old estate garden and a loving look at two master gardeners trying to pass on the wisdom of many years of working with plants, soil, and climate. (The Netherlands)

Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)

My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)


8th 03 - 2017 | no comment »

Portrait of a Garden (Portret Van Een Tuin, 2015)

Director: Rosie Stapel

2017 European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

There are few things I can think of that are as restful and exhausting, rewarding and frustrating, and the very definition of partnership as cultivating a garden. Like the fabled Garden of Eden, human beings can find peace and contentment surrounded by nature, but the minute they start thinking they are the masters of their surroundings, the garden will chew them up and spit them out like pollen from an Anneslea fragrans blossom. Gardeners must be patient, humble, and vigilant to partner successfully with their plants, soil, and climate for bountiful harvests and blooms.

Rosie Stapel seems to have cooked up the idea for Portrait of a Garden, her directorial debut, with Daan van der Have, one of the two featured gardeners in this lovely documentary, and the location choice is more than appropriate. There aren’t many places on earth more plant-mad than the Netherlands. Just as you’ll rarely see a Parisian going home for dinner without a baguette or two in hand, the Dutch provide a brisk business for their ubiquitous city and village flower markets.

The Dutch estate garden featured in Portrait of a Garden was founded in 1630, and has seen its ups and downs in the intervening 400 years. Van der Have and pruning master Jan Freriks had a good deal of restoration work to do when they dug their hands into the soil some 30 years ago. The 85-year-old Freriks is something of a rock star in the horticultural world; his books are known and loved by the estate staff, tree nursery owner and gardening enthusiasts they meet during the film. Freriks is handing down his knowledge to Van der Have, who is no spring chicken himself, in hopes that his skills built over a lifetime of observation, experimentation, and practice won’t die with him.

Stapel takes us through one year in the life of the garden and its tenders, beginning in fall. We first meet Van der Have and Freriks as they work on a wall of espaliers, energetically applying their pruning shears to maintain the flat profile of the trees against their natural inclination to branch and spread. We’ll see them throughout the film sawing away at tree limbs and twisting the branches of pear trees over the lengthy arch of an arbor they have been working to create for some years. They’ll reminisce about Van der Have tempting Freriks out of retirement with the chance to work on an estate garden where heirloom varieties of edible and inedible plants are grown and survivors from the earliest days of the garden still leaf and bloom.

It’s fascinating to watch the various techniques the two men and the other garden staff use in their work. White caterpillers of metal hoops and polyester tissue protect the tomato beds from birds and other animals. A multipronged hand hoe is raked across a bed to create perfectly spaced rows for planting. Thin cotton strings are pulled to hoist individual bean vines up to hang from a crosshatching of string above them. Bales of hay are spread by hand to keep beds warm during the cold winter and early spring. Stapel films the work straightforwardly, with slow, swooping boom shots and slower time lapse photography than audiences are used to seeing. The latter technique works quite well to preserve the relaxation the garden engenders in the viewer, even as the people on screen work hard at the many tasks they have to keep up with daily. Her ingenious shots are complemented by the meditative solo lute of Jozef van Wissen, who scored this film as well as Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).

At harvest time, Stapel’s experience in film art direction and production design comes to the forefront. She shows gardeners harvesting armfuls of luscious-looking rhubarb for the chefs who work in the estate restaurant. Then it’s a veritable card deck of fruit and vegetable varietals, shot overhead and labeled like still lifes at the Rijksmuseum, showing off the richness of our floral heritage. Freriks sees agriculture and gastronomy becoming less diverse because of industrial farming and the decline of growers who use cross-breeding techniques to develop new hybrids that can strengthen a plant line; the estate itself uses only organic pest control such as crop rotation, soil replacement, nontoxic pesticides, and visual inspection to protect the plants against damage or destruction.

Van der Have dreams of having a banquet under the pear arbor when the branches finally meet and the fruit hangs heavy above him. Freriks, however, hates that kind of thing. He prefers his plants and knowing that the work he started long ago as a steward of the earth will far outlast him. Rosie Stapel has ensured that the man himself and some of his words of wisdom also will be accessible for a long time to come.

Portrait of a Garden screens Friday, March 10 at 2 p.m. and Sunday, March 12 at 3 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)

My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)


6th 03 - 2017 | no comment »

Tomorrow, After the War (Eng nei Zäit, 2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Christophe Wagner

2017 European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Most countries in Europe suffered a lingering malaise after World War II that extended far beyond rebuilding physical, cultural, economic, and governmental structures. Most difficult to navigate was rebuilding trust and national unity. Human nature being what it is, feelings of loss, betrayal, and cruelty burn in the breast with something akin to an eternal flame if not confronted openly. In tiny Luxembourg, a landlocked country sandwiched between France and Germany that owes much of its national culture to both those neighbors, a return to normalcy often meant hiding from wartime crimes. In Tomorrow, After the War, director and coscreenwriter Christophe Wagner attempts to lance the wounds of the past.

A thin layer of snow covers the open fields through which newly freed Resistance fighter Jules Ternes (Luc Schlitz) trudges to his small village following the defeat of Germany and liberation of the lands they occupied, including Luxembourg. He tries the door of his family home, apparently as empty as the streets nearby. Suddenly, his sister Mathilde (Eugenie Anselin) comes around the corner and calls his name. They embrace, and she informs him that their father (Jean-Paul Maes) has not returned from the labor camp to which he was sent as punishment for Jules joining the Resistance. Jules gets more unwelcome news when Armand (Jules Werner), a shady functionary of the village government, comes in and kisses Mathilde, his fiancée.

Jules tries to pick up his life as it was before the war. When he learns his old boss, a Jew, was deported to a concentration camp, he hires on as an auxiliary police officer. He also resumes his romance with Léonie (Elsa Rauchs), who works for a German family who are running a successful farm confiscated during the war by the Nazis. She says they were not Nazis and lent money and protection when possible to locals in need. Of course, the family’s prosperity and nationality now mark them as targets by Luxembourgers wanting payback against Germans and collaborators. Jules, besotted with Léonie, is caught in the middle, a position that becomes even more uncomfortable when the family is found murdered. His probing into the crime, motivated by strong, personal feelings, turns up information that conflicts with the official story, jeopardizing futures throughout the village.

Tomorrow, After the War is fairly derivative of the better detective shows one might find on TV, with its accumulation of clues and lies to be uncovered, and a few sex scenes that no film seems able to do without these days. Nonetheless, Jules is no standard-issue moody detective. He was an ordinary man before the war who became a cop afterward—and not even a full-time cop at that—because there were no other jobs to be had and the chief of police (André Jung) put him on as a favor to Jules’ father, with whom he fought during World War I.

The very ordinariness of Jules gives the film a foundation to look realistically at the compromises that have to be made when life is not proceeding as usual, a lesson that should have ramifications for those of us who haven’t experienced a whole world in upheaval—yet. Almost all of the characters in this film bear some degree of guilt for their actions or complicity in the world order that overtook them during the war years. With one exception, none of them appear to be guilty of much more than wanting to live, however painful their circumstances have been, and none of them is headed for sainthood.

To underscore the real choices that have to be made in extremis, the film depicts violence quickly and effectively. For example, Jules’ comrade is shot in the head for refusing to give up the location of his Resistance cell to their Nazi captors, a graphic horror that terrorizes Jules. His father, semi-crippled in body and mind, is a verbally abusive drunk whose only “crime” was surviving the Battle of the Somme. The murder victims are shown in economical, but vivid detail with shotgun wounds and buzzing flies destroying the pastoral in which they lived.

The cinematography is exceptionally good, with breathtaking landscape shots that add to the moodiness of the story and fine attention to detail, for example, placing an abandoned German tank in exactly the same position as one shown in a still photo of the period. I liked how the opening scene in the snow seems to suggest a world purified after so much bloodshed, interrupted by the figure of a dead horse lying in the field as Jules passes by. As Jules seems to be putting his life back together, a lovely scene of him and Léonie cycling in a bath of sunlight offers them and us a reprieve from the background gloom in which their rekindled love began.

For me, the pièce de résistance is Mathilde and Armand’s wedding. All of the conspirators are gathered to celebrate a festive occasion at last, but Jules, too aware of the thin veneer of civilization all around him, has a final confrontation with his father. Heroism is the ideal, but neither his father nor Jules can live up to what the world expects of them. In the homely scene of a village wedding, we realize our real aspirations are none too lofty. In the end, if we grab for something more ambitious and ideological in dangerous times, we might very well end up paying the ultimate price.

Tomorrow, After the War screens Saturday, March 11 at 4 p.m. and Tuesday, March 14 at 7:45 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

My Name Is Emily: This film about a teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny, as she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)


3rd 03 - 2017 | no comment »

My Name Is Emily (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Simon Fitzmaurice

2017 European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Although Ireland is a modern country and vibrant part of the European Union, the cliché of the quirky, twee micks who let their freak flags fly in the soft Irish mist dies hard in film. My Name Is Emily is no exception, but its protagonists’ eccentricities arise from very real causes—traumatic loss and mental illness. And while these characters skirt the edges of those touched by the faeries, their grounding in something to which we can relate puts a lot of flesh on the bones of this well-constructed mash-up of grief processing, teen romance, and road picture.

We are introduced to our protagonist and guide, Emily (Evanna Lynch, who played Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter films), as she floats, bounces, and bubbles underwater. She has a very lengthy voiceover at the start of the film by which she introduces us to her parents (Deidre Mullins and Michael Smiley) and their odd and loving marriage. Apparently, Robert is a withdrawn person who has retreated to his study to read as many books as possible. The family is held together by the very pleasant, always smiling mother, who doesn’t get a name in this film. One day, Robert decides to emerge and regurgitate everything he’s read, becoming a teacher and then a wildly popular publishing sensation and lecturer who thinks the problems of the world could be solved if everyone had sex all the time.

Everything goes off the rails when Mom is killed in a car accident while lovingly lighting Robert’s cigarette as the two listen to the car stereo really loud because it “makes them feel young.” Robert’s behavior becomes more and more erratic until he is committed to a psychiatric hospital in the north of Ireland after yelling while naked on a Dublin street. Emily is placed in a foster home, where her foster mom, June (Ally Ni Chiarain), embarks on annoyingly cheerful attempts to make the sullen Emily happy. Emily is labeled a weirdo in her new high school; classmate Arden (George Webster), a young man with family troubles of his own, becomes smitten with her; and the pair takes off in his gran’s ancient Renault to spring Robert from his asylum.

My Name Is Emily is something of a sensation in the Irish film world because of the plight of its writer and director. Fitzmaurice was diagnosed with ALS nine years ago and given four years at most to live. His determination to continue his film career, which got off to a good start with the warm reception of his 2007 short film The Sound of People at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, helped him beat the odds not only to make and release My Name Is Emily, but also to live well beyond expectations and start work on another screenplay. It is perhaps Fitzmaurice’s underlying sadness and struggle channeled through his actors that keeps this film from triviality.

Robert, though obviously always a bit of a strange bird, can’t help but suggest Fitzmaurice’s incapacity, but also his vital love for his wife and daughter. Smiley is on top of his game, aided and abetted by Mullins in a sadly underwritten part that she infuses with warmth from her brilliantly beaming face, making her presence—and absence—felt through Emily’s affecting memories of her. Their connection broken, young Emily, played skillfully by Sarah Minto (a terrific physical match with Evanna Lynch), signifies her father’s ultimate failure of her by commenting on the failings of adults who underestimate her emotional intelligence. In the guise of sparing her feelings, they have told her her mother just went away; it wasn’t true, she says, because she couldn’t feel her mother watching over her anymore.

Minto sets an important tone with her unguarded love for her mother and Robert, providing a contrast to Evanna Lynch’s guarded, clenched teen Emily. Stubborn, reticent to the point of near-muteness, she refuses to dissect the aptly chosen Wordsworth poem Splendour in the Grass as instructed, instead interpreting its sexual longing and wistful memory for her uncomprehending yahoo of a teacher (Cathy Belton). Already noticed by Arden, played with touching unsureness by the extremely handsome Webster, Emily rebuffs him with an “I can take care of myself” when he tentatively tries to ingratiate himself by defending her in class. Her prickly remoteness, however, is underscored with slightly lingering looks that preface their eventual romance.

I liked the dynamic Fitzmaurice sets up between Emily and Arden, the former a wildly intelligent, emotional matchstick, the latter an exasperated realist drawn to her spirit and breaking free from his abusive father (Declan Conlon) in a crackerjack scene. He stands with her in a downpour trying to thumb a ride north, then just walks away; seeing the wisdom of his surrender, she follows him. She’s not the surest of leaders, but she always moves first; he defers to her when it’s safe and looks out for her when it’s not. The balance in their relationship is something one doesn’t often find in movies, and it is a definite strength.

On the downside, the film is so artfully photographed, it’s really quite distracting and threatens to take over the human story. I knew I might have trouble from the start when the newly born Emily with a doubtful set of dark-brown eyes dissolves to the blue-eyed, teenage Emily. Fortunately, the film does not repeat this kind of gaffe, and the script only rarely punts to plot conveniences and jumps of logic. I bristled mightily at a philosophy Robert and Emily adopt: “A fact is just a point of view,” painfully close to the newly minted abomination “alternative facts.” Fortunately, Arden objects as well, and Emily begins to experience a world in which the truth can, but doesn’t always hurt. And while Emily slowly reveals herself, she still retains her delicious, singular mystery. My Name Is Emily rewards patience with its generosity of spirit.

My Name Is Emily screens Saturday, March 4 at 6 p.m. and Tuesday, March 7 at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.


12th 02 - 2017 | no comment »

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Director: Raoul Peck

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Back in the 11th hour of the American Century, the now-extinct species called the American intellectual spoke not only in lecture halls, but also in printed newspapers and magazines, on television programs of all stripes, and especially in books that landed regularly on bestseller lists. James Baldwin, a true American intellectual from the most humble of circumstances, left a long, self-imposed exile in France to witness and become a part of the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, writing articles for such periodicals as The Partisan Review, Mademoiselle, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker and befriending Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. He started a memoir in 1979 whose working title was “Remember This House” that was to revolve around those three slain civil rights leaders and his relationship to his native land. Although it was abandoned after 30 pages, the book has been brought to life by black Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck as the script for I Am Not Your Negro. Through a combination of film clips of Baldwin and Samuel L. Jackson voicing Baldwin’s words from his unfinished book, Peck cogently resurrects Baldwin’s personality and vibrant intellect, showing his words to be not only powerful, but also prophetic.

I’m going to start at the end of the movie, with a taped interview of Baldwin during which he poses a question:

The question the white population of this country has got to ask itself is why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. And you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.

You’ll note that the title of this documentary avoids the very word Baldwin, a writer deeply concerned with the effects of language, asked us to consider. Think about that. Putting the word “nigger” in the title likely would have offended African Americans and shocked liberals of all kinds. It may even have hurt the advertising and distribution plans for the film. Yet if we don’t grapple with the implications of that word, but more important, that construct, as Baldwin asks us to do, this film will have been an exercise in futility.

Peck establishes that Baldwin may have left the United States voluntarily, but that the country never left him and that he has the communal connections, memories, and above all, the right to call himself an American and stake his rightful claim to full citizenship. He even rejects the concept of a civil rights movement, diagnosing instead “failure of the private life . . . the role of the guilty and constricted white imagination” with “white people . . . endlessly demanding that Birmingham is on Mars.” He says that “the Negro has never been happy in his place. When you stand up and look the world in the face like you have a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the western world. Forget the Negro problem. It’s not a racial problem,” he says, “but whether you’re willing to be responsible for your life.”

I have watched this film three times and am still not done with it. I looked at the angrily contorted faces of white people terrorizing painfully isolated black children trying to go to school, “heroic” movie stars shooting down marauding Indians (or more likely, white men in “red” face), and a final, shocking sequence of Doris Day looking her most angelic as she sings about whether to be “bad” and go all the way with Rock Hudson, followed by black bodies hanging from a tree as white onlookers smile their satisfaction. This sickness, this segregation not only of our physical beings, but also of our lived experiences, has turned many white people into what Baldwin calls “moral monsters.”

Am I a moral monster? I don’t think so, yet I can’t deny that my life rarely intersects with those of African Americans. I used to have black friends—real friends—but there were still gulfs of understanding between us. I was relatively poor, living paycheck to paycheck when I was friends with Bernadette, yet I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a safe, white neighborhood, and she lived in the projects. I even gave her my space heater after she had a baby so she and her son would not freeze; I never much used it, as the heat in my home was generally adequate. My friend Jacqui and I went everywhere together. We went to a disco in the Loop, which we had to exit quickly when two black men started fighting over who would dance with me. Why was I so important? She spoke with me in a real panic about her hair falling out—I knew nothing about how important hair is to a black woman and offered little in the way of comfort. Then she fell on hard times I couldn’t share with her and vanished. I don’t know where she is today.

I became aware of black anger as a daily condition for some people when I visited the headquarters of my employer in Alexandria, Virginia. The black/white divide was an open wound in this state that had once contained the capital of the Confederacy. Suspicious self-segregation was the order of the day at the office; I was oblivious to the tensions most of the time because I worked remotely, and I blithely sat with my black colleagues when we did team-building exercises during my visits east. I danced in a Soul Train line at one of our Christmas parties, proud that I watched the show and not American Bandstand, vaguely aware that my black coworkers were probably laughing at me.

The most defining moment of my personal education in the ways in which white supremacy operates came during a taxi ride. The cabbie was telling me a story about how he hit a black boy who rode his bike into the car’s path. The cabbie was guilt-stricken at the damage he did to the boy’s legs and spoke about it with real distress. Suddenly, his tone changed. His voice took on a sarcastic edge as he came round to blaming the boy for causing his own injuries, almost implying that the boy deserved to have his legs broken. The mental whiplash this strange encounter caused me has never healed; I have no idea what it did to the cabbie.

White Americans, particularly those who are liberal-minded, seem to think we can get past race if we just ignore it. Baldwin, a guest on The Dick Cavett Show, is shown confronting a white academic who complains that Baldwin needs to stop talking about race and argues that what we have in common in terms of our interests and personalities should be the guidepost for future interactions. Baldwin, who says he fled to Paris so that he could continue his work without fear of violent attack, roundly slams him: “You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my life . . . on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.” In a similar vein, I interviewed Harry Lennix in 2013. I asked him about colorblind casting, which seems designed by simpletons to level the playing field for people of all races and ethnicities. He said, “I just saw “The Hollow Crown” on Great Performances, with Jeremy Irons, the other day, and they had a very good actor by the name of Paterson Joseph playing Henry V’s cousin York. But he was black! I’m not aware, in the 14th century in England, of any black person walking around in the court of the king as a fully functional, empowered official of the court. ‘So who is this guy?’ I wanted to know. It took me out just long enough for me to say, I applaud the effort, that’s nice, it’s good that they want to include people, but that is not indicative of an actual experience.”

It is, as Baldwin says, our failure of imagination, our simplicity, that offers such tepid, inconsequential attacks on the construct of the nigger. Baldwin says, “Simplicity is taken to be a great American virtue, along with sincerity. One of the results is that immaturity is taken to be a virtue, too, with no necessity to grow up.” Peck inserts a litany of apologies coming from everyone from Ronald Reagan to the Clintons and Eliot Spitzer. Like my cabbie’s fleetingly expressed shame, these apologies were given with fingers crossed; these temporarily humbled leaders would commit their crimes, both large and small, again, and would never be made to take responsibility for them. Tellingly, the opposition white establishments take turns playing Parent and Child, with each calling the other out and demanding an apology. In 2017, given the individuals in charge of our country, no one expects to get even the smallest of apologies, black Americans least of all.

Baldwin asserts that “it’s an absolute miracle that the black population has not given into rage and paranoia,” as footage and images of white brutality from Birmingham to Ferguson fill the screen. This miracle, however, has a reason, which Baldwin himself offers in a television interview: “The Israelis pick up guns, or the Poles, or the Irish—every white man in the world says give me liberty or give me death—and the entire white world applauds. But if a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one, and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.”

And, of course, the film, spends time on the three martyrs Baldwin wrote about, none of whom lived to see 40. I’m particularly embarrassed by a popular 1968 song, “Abraham, Martin and John,” written by a white man and introduced by white teen idol Dion, and note how it lionizes the peaceful black man, and how the song was amended later to include the fallen Bobby Kennedy, a man whom Baldwin asserts was insulted when writer Lorraine Hansberry asked him, as then-U.S. Attorney General, to make a moral commitment to black progress at a 1963 meeting also attended by Baldwin and other black leaders. I’m also embarrassed that 2017 was the first year since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was declared a federal holiday in 1986 that my employer gave its employees the day off. I’m quite sure I will not live to see the federal government declare a Medgar Evers or Malcolm X Day; they did not preach respectability politics or nonviolence, even though Baldwin says that Martin and Malcolm were coming closer to a meeting of the minds that would have been less threatening to white people.

So, have African Americans come as far as white people think they have? Consider that black men were elected to office during Reconstruction; Joe Gans and Jack Johnson won world boxing titles against white opponents in 1902 and 1908, respectively; Madame C. J. Walker became a business scion in America in the 1910s; and integrated schools were known in the 1840s, before the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. These achievements have been more normalized in 2017, and, of course, we’ve had a black president, just about when Bobby Kennedy predicted in 1963 we would, outraging Baldwin with his arrogance as an Irish johnny-come-lately to America.

But I understand Bobby. His ancestors were hated and rejected, and so were mine. But he was and I am white. We eventually assimilate because our difference doesn’t show. As a Jew, I know I feel safer because someone else is targeted. I didn’t participate in slavery, nor did my ancestors in this country, but that doesn’t make me innocent of accepting the protections my skin color affords me. I move with relative ease and have absorbed some of the fear of black people I’ve been taught. When I was in South Africa after the fall of apartheid, it was the whites who were afraid of reprisals for their heinous behavior toward the black majority. Today, in America, I believe that white fear of facing our insanely cruel history in the name of commerce and comfort has allowed the worst elements of our society to run amok. I fervently hope we take a page out of recent South African history and set up our own truth and reconciliation commission to tour our country and pay more than lip service to our collective guilt, before widespread violence becomes the only recourse.


28th 01 - 2017 | 2 comments »

Finding Babel (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: David Novack

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“Babel loved life. He believed that people are born to enjoy life.”
–Antonina Pirojkova, mathematician, construction engineer, and second wife of Isaac Babel

Isaac Babel, the acclaimed Jewish writer from Odessa, Ukraine, enjoyed a momentous life—two wives, two children, numerous lovers, an international literary reputation, and an adoring public. But it was not a long one. He was arrested on May 15, 1939, and taken to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. Eventually, he was transferred to nearby Butyrka Prison, where he was tried for treason and executed in secret on January 27, 1940, at the age of 45. Soviet agents seized 24 folders that may have contained nearly 80 of Babel’s writings; they have never been recovered.

Andrei Malaev-Babel, an acting teacher at the theatre conservatory of Florida State University, was moved to uncover the history and retrace the steps of the grandfather he never knew upon the 2010 death of Pirojkova, his grandmother and still grieving widow of Babel. The odyssey took him to Polish Galicia, Odessa, Paris, and Moscow, to the places where Babel lived, was detained, died, and was interred. Along the way, he samples Babel’s works as a progression of the things the writer saw and felt compelled to comment upon, even though it meant his death.

Finding Babel, directed and cowritten by award-winning documentarian David Novack, offers viewers a look at a perhaps unfamiliar literary giant in a way that illuminates just how great a writer and chronicler he was. Malaev-Babel and he approach Babel’s story chronologically, linking key writings with the places and people they visit.

The film opens with a sculptor burnishing a giant, bronze sculpture of Babel that is to grace an Odessa square in front of a new museum dedicated to the writer. This polishing process, which makes the sculpture shine like gold, is an evocative metaphor for bringing Babel out of the shadows of Soviet oppression and his secret fate and into the light of a new age.

To emphasize the point, the film launches immediately into Liev Schreiber reading from Babel’s Red Cavalry, based on eyewitness reportage of his time riding with the Cossacks, the traditional enemies of the Jews. The music is mournful, and the image on screen mimics the location where Babel stood, posterized to distinguish it as heightened reality. The language is rich and voluptuous, the descriptions horrifyingly vivid:

“A dead old man lay there on his back. His throat had been torn out and his face cleft in two. In his beard, blue blood cloated like a lump of lead.

“‘Sir,’ said the Jewess, shaking the feather bed. ‘Poles cut his throat.’”

This is what it means to be a witness to history.

The film jumps to New York’s Brighton Beach, with lively klezmer music invigorating what was, and is, Russian Jewish life. Malaev-Babel is being interviewed on Russian-language radio about his pending trip to trace Babel’s footsteps. Next stop is what is now western Ukraine, where he meets a guide in Lviv who helps him find the places Babel wrote about in Red Cavalry. During his travels in Ukraine, he meets a group of tourists from Israel who are likewise interested in Babel, confirming to Malaev-Babel that Babel is more than remembered—he is revered. He visits a large Jewish cemetery Babel mentions in his 1920 Diary, one of the few not destroyed by the Nazis or the Soviets and an image that will form a bookend with Babel’s final resting place, a mass grave marked only by a single monument festooned with nameplates and flowers.

From his teens until his 30s, Babel lived in Odessa’s Jewish Moldavanka section, where he may have been born. His famous Odessa Stories put the area on the map, infusing it with the lively chatter of the courtyard buildings, streets, and shops before the pogroms began. Malaev-Babel is escorted by two history professors, who comment that the cobblestones that still line the streets are the same as in Babel’s time. Following a reception at the Babel museum and the unveiling of the statue, Malaev-Babel visits the apartment where Babel lived, a crowd of journalists and onlookers documenting this historic meeting of past and present.

Novack offers excerpts of Benya Krik (Benny the Howl), a 1926 silent film by director Vladimir Vilner of one of Babel’s Odessa stories about a master criminal of whom Babel says, “He is the king while you give people the finger with your hand in your pocket.” Novack cleverly superimposes images of the films on present-day structures, again working very deftly to bring Babel’s words to life.

Malaev-Babel moves on to Paris, where Babel lived for a time with his first wife and three-year-old child, both of whom he abandoned to return to his homeland, soon meeting Malaev-Babel’s grandmother. In Paris, his grandson stretches his professional muscles by rehearsing a production of Babel’s 1935 play Maria. The play was never produced in Babel’s lifetime; it was shut down during rehearsals because of its very dangerous message that human nature will devour the utopian ideal of the Soviet Union and that all the people who died during the Russian Revolution were sacrificed for nothing.

A final, chilling moment comes when Malaev-Babel tries to visit the place where Babel was arrested. It is now in a gated community, and when Malaev-Babel tries to enter, he is roughed up by two security guards. The past, of course, is still present in Putin’s authoritarian Russia. As French actress Marina Vlady, the daughter of Russian immigrants to France, told him in Paris, “We have no Stalin, but we have a great many little Stalins.”

I’ve largely given a precis of this documentary because I fear many people will not be able to see it, but if you have a chance, do not miss it! Novack is a master imagist, creating filmic paintings of wonderfully chosen excerpts from Babel’s works that reveal the writer’s sensuality, keen eye, and vivid understanding of events he thought, in his idealism about the Revolution, would never happen. Malaev-Babel exhibits a lot of the charisma and intelligence that must have adhered from Babel, and thus, is a compelling and engaging guide. The horrors of Stalin’s Great Terror are everywhere apparent, from our tour through the monastery that was built above former torture chambers and cells to the ruins of barracks that housed the murderous Cossacks and their horses, the latter a strong symbol in Babel’s writing.

Babel met his fate, but remains a passionate voice in our world today. Aaron Lansky, founder and president of the National Yiddish Book Center, explains it this way: “Tyrants fear the poet, and people fear the writer, because they tell the truth. They tell a much deeper truth.”

Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, 610 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, screens Finding Babel January 29 at 2 p.m. David Novack will introduce the film and lead a postshow discussion. Finding Babel is the first of four films showing at Spertus in its Sunday Cinema film festival, January 29–February 19, 2017.


19th 01 - 2017 | 2 comments »

River (TV, 2015)

Creator/Writer: Abi Morgan
Directors: Tim Fywell, Jessica Hobbs, and Richard Laxton

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In the crowded field of television homicide detectives, the British have offered rabid fans like me their fair share of talented, quirky sleuths. From David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot and John Thaw’s Inspector Morse to Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison and Robson Green as, well, just about everyone, there’s no shortage of obsessive coppers dedicated to bringing murderers to justice for our viewing pleasure.

The latest of this breed is John River, the title character of the miniseries River, played by Stellan Skarsgård. The brilliant Swedish actor, who would have been a natural for the Swedish detective of the Wallander series instead of Irish actor Kenneth Branagh, has largely avoided cop roles since his riveting turn as detective Jonas Engström in the original Swedish version of Insomnia (1997). Perhaps he was avoiding typecasting, as his pale, worried face is a natural fit for the kind of damaged souls writers imagine homicide detectives to be.

That he took the role of River, a taciturn Swedish immigrant who works for London’s Metropolitan Police Service, is perhaps due to the efforts of its creator and writer, Abi Morgan, who brought us such polished British features as Shame (2011), The Iron Lady (2011), and Suffragette (2015). I like to think Morgan might have heard a suggestion James Cagney made about the dime-a-dozen gangster he was asked to play in White Heat (1949): “Let’s make him crazy.” Most TV homicide detectives flirt with the edges of sanity as an occupational hazard; River went off the deep end long ago. He regularly talks to and fights with a bevy of dead apparitions; only his 80 percent clear rate and the protective ministrations of his buoyant partner, Jacqueline “Stevie” Stevenson (Nicola Walker), have kept him on the police force.

We meet River and Stevie as they are driving around their precinct. Stevie sings and hand jives to Tina Charles’ uber-catchy disco tune, “I Love to Love,” as River smiles his approval. The pair grows quiet as River spots a car with a dented panel, a clue to his current investigation. He spots the driver in a mini mart and spooks the young man with a hard, penetrating stare. A long chase on foot ensues, with tragic results. River is pulled off the case, ordered into counseling, and assigned a new partner, Ira King (Adeel Akhtar). You see, the case he was working on was Stevie’s murder.

River is shattered by Stevie’s death. Even though he and Ira are reassigned to the electrocution of a construction worker who is hovering near death, he keeps on the hunt for her killer and persuades Ira to help him. Everything he says and does, including advising the construction worker’s wife to tell him what she needs to before his inevitable death in a move judged callous by Ira, is self-reproach for withholding what is plain to viewers: he was deeply in love with Stevie.

Love, trust, and the betrayal of both form the slippery undercarriage of this otherwise fairly standard mystery drama. Morgan assembles a familiar cast of characters: a cop who can’t stand River (Owen Teale); psychiatrist Rosa Fallows (Georgina Rich), who just happens to run a therapy group for people who hallucinate; and River’s sympathetic superior, Chrissie Read (Lesley Manville), who keeps reminding everyone that she lost a friend, too. Morgan also trots out the usual tropes for murdered cops—working on a side case, keeping her investigation secret from the partner who thought he knew everything about her, locating corruption inside the legal system.

Stevie’s Irish family draws instant scrutiny from the seasoned murder mystery fan, particularly when we learn Stevie turned in her older brother, Jimmy (Steve Nicolson), for murder and that he has just returned to the family fold after 16 years behind bars. Her uncle, Michael Bennigan (Jim Norton), has the oily, cheery veneer of all TV Irish patriarchs. Stevie’s mother, Bridie (Sorcha Cusack, of the Father Brown mystery series), is the typical, no-nonsense, blustery Irish matriarch that’s become a cliché, and Stevie’s doughy younger brother, Frankie (Turlough Convery), seems strangely wounded and in need of the protective shield the whole family throws around him.

Other suspects—one might even say the usual suspects in these xenophobic times—emerge as River zeroes in on a Somali man with whom Stevie seems to have been involved. His probing uncovers a small community of immigrants who don’t understand the obstacles and hatred they face from their adopted land. It’s quite a poignant moment when River imagines the voice of his quarry, Haider Jamal Abdi (Peter Bankole), speaking to his wife in a letter Ira has only partly translated; River’s feelings of loneliness and isolation are given voice in the imagined end of Haider’s letter; his emotional projections are the true source of his ghostly visitors.

One projection is hard to decipher: Thomas Neill Cream, a 19th-century serial killer known as the Lambeth Poisoner, the subject of a true crime book River is reading. Cream, played by always reliably creepy Eddie Marsan, announces that he is the anger, rage, and darkest place inside River and urges him to come over to the dark side. Now, it’s true that in the game of cops and robbers, the players can change roles quite easily, but River isn’t playing a game. Cream seems more a device to shoot scenes of River shadow-boxing with a wall or strangling the air than something motivated from within, and I found these scenes incongruous and annoying.

Opposing these are the heartbreaking scenes he shares with the memory of Stevie. Nicola Walker fully embodies the enormous life force that was Stevie, making her murder all the more tragic for us as well as those who knew her. She provides River with intuitive clues to follow, probably much like she did in life. As he circles closer to the solution, she taunts him to really see her, know her—certainly an inner longing River has to be as close to her as possible, a conjoining he could only approximate by laying in her empty bed. His fixation on Rosa, who we think River may be using as a Stevie substitute, actually turns out to be River’s desire to break through his fear of intimacy and love.

Stevie was bringing River to life, and he is blessed to have another partner, Ira, who accepts his mental derangement and tries to befriend him. We very well might wonder why so many people stand by River, but that is all down to Skarsgård’s stunning ability to convey deep pain, shame, and loss while simultaneously trying to reach beyond his limitations to embrace life. We’ve seen detectives like him before, but never one who refuses so mightily to give up on himself. He gets the ending he has earned.


9th 01 - 2017 | 14 comments »

La La Land (2016)

Director/Screenwriter: Damien Chazelle

By Roderick Heath

A clogged LA freeway on a winter’s day, “Another Day of Sun,” cars backed up for miles on either side. Suddenly a spasm of frustration manifests itself not as shouting or horn-blowing, but as song, and the traffic jam erupts momentarily into carnivale, the humans caged in their rolling steel egoverses momentarily joining in shared celebration of the dreams and less glamorous reality that defines their lives. It’s the sort of absurdist set-piece I’m sure that has occurred to just about anyone who’s ever been stuck in such a traffic jam, and it retains a certain spiritual connection to the early dream sequence in that eternal touchstone of artistic self-appraisal in cinema, (1963), and even to the music video for REM’s “Everybody Hurts.” Damien Chazelle ultimately follows those models arcs towards melancholy reckonings with the gap between private passion and the dismay of modern living, but for the moment goes for big, raucous this-is-going-to-be-a-ride showmanship. It’s the sort of opening gambit that will surely split an audience right down the middle, between those who will be instantly swept up in the cued excitement and those who might uneasily gird themselves for what’s coming. I was amongst the latter. Not because ebullient outdoors production numbers annoy me per se, but this one did. Chazelle’s camera spins and twists and cranes with showy, athletic mobility. But the showiness of the camerawork is overtly strenuous, technique without actual purpose, distracting from the fact that what it’s filming isn’t actually very well staged or choreographed; it is in fact rather a hymn to its own existence, a “wow, can you believe I’m pulling this in 2016?” statement. People stand on their car bonnets and throw their hands up and down and fling themselves about in conga lines. This immediately lays down a template that the rest of La La Land follows studiously: approximation of classic musical style served up like the coup of the century, but which on close examination proves to be all sizzle and no steak.

Chazelle believes that the school of hard knocks is the path to greatness. This thesis he already explored in his scripts for Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano and his own Whiplash (both 2014), which purveyed the gym-coach mentality to artistic development: no pain, no gain, and never mind your pantywaist sensitivities. La La Land, his latest, depicts the exasperated romance of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), two Los Angeles wannabes. Grazing each other on the freeway at the start – he blasts his horn at her, she flips the bird at him – they soon find their paths repeatedly crossing, not always in the best of circumstances. Mia wants to be an actress, and works as a barista in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. studio lot. As such, she’s surrounded by the legends of filmmaking past but entrapped within early 21st century economic impositions, pecked at by her boss and forced to watch actual famous people parade by whilst she develops contempt for the roundelay of fruitless auditions that is the rest of her life. Encouraged to attend a party by her roommate friends, Mia finishes up departing the disappointment and is forced to walk home when she finds her car has been towed. A salve for such sorrows comes as she passes by a restaurant and hears a beautiful tune being played, drawing her inside. The player is Sebastian, a talented pianist, whose love of classic jazz approaches religion: unfortunately he’s just violated the restaurant manager’s (J.K. Simmons) injunction to only play strictly timed Christmas tunes, and he’s fired summarily for this, leading Sebastian to furiously barge past Mia as she tries to thank him for the beautiful performance. Some weeks later, she runs into him again, this time playing keys in a ’80s pop cover band. Her chosen method of revenge is to request the band play A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran.” The duo’s grazing, sniping humour and Sebastian’s tendency to turn most encounters into some kind of confrontation gives way to sparks of attraction.

This moment was the only one in La La Land that really entertained me, although it treads terribly close to Saturday Night Live-style shtick, in large part because it’s one of the few vignettes that taps both Stone and Gosling’s ability to play comedy, and also because it offers a combination of joke and character moment that revolves around the cultural attitudes of the two characters, the disparity between Seb’s semi-messianic sense of duty by his chosen art form and the pop culture around him, and the infuriating way his and Mia’s attraction continues to manifest through apposite impulses. Stone and Gosling are both accomplished neo-wiseacres, and Chazelle arms them with a small arsenal of zingers and prickles to make them convincing as representatives of a knowing and chitinous modern breed. But once their surfaces are scratched, both characters are revealed as deeply, almost suffocatingly earnest. Sebastian’s dedication is seen first as monklike as he subsists in an apartment barely furnished, with a stool once owned by Hoagy Carmichael as object of veneration or seating depending on the moment’s need. His sister (I think) Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt) appears for one scene, offering La La Land a jolt of call-bullshit sarcasm that cuts through the single-mindedness of Seb and Mia’s obsessions. One quality La La Land badly lacks is a major secondary voice or voices to lend depth to the palette, the kind they used to get people like Oscar Levant or Thelma Ritter to offer, pipes of sarcasm to put some smog in the airiness. When the few alternate voices that do come in Chazelle’s script, they’re nearly strictly pitched as rhetorical devices to push our characters about, like Simmons’ cameo as the asshole manager who prevails upon Seb not to play “the free jazz,” and, later, John Legend’s Keith, a successful band leader who seduces Seb into playing with his band with a get-behind-me-Satan spiel about the need for jazz to evolve.

Part of this might be explained by the fact that both Seb and Mia bring their own snark, but only long enough to be halfway convincing as contemporary types before we get into more traditional romanticism. But the course of true love and successful lifestyle maintenance never does run smooth. Mia lives with three other young women (Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, and Sonoya Mizuno) at the start who form both her posse and chorus line, dragging her into action at the Hollywood party where the stage seems set for a good production number. Except no real production number arrives, just more of Chazelle’s spinning camerawork and background dancers throwing their hands in the air again. After a certain point, Mia’s pals vanish from the party, and then from the film. Her moment of transcendent bliss overhearing Seb’s playing, is his moment of self-indulgence for which he pays an instant price. I can handle the notion of a restaurant manager so oblivious that anything but straight-up tunes to wheedle diners’ ears will piss him off, even if I don’t really believe it, and I sense it’s just a device to set up Seb’s humiliation; what I can’t quite buy is the interaction of writing and vision we get here, the manager’s quip about free jazz and the slightly pompous but pretty anodyne piece of improvisation that costs Seb his job but charms Mia. It’s like the music supervisor had a slightly different copy of the script to the director and actors. Mia is suddenly seen to be saddled with a Chad Cliché yuppie boyfriend who turns up just in time for her to run out on him, heading instead to meet up with Seb at a screening of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), a venture that segues into a tour of the Griffith Observatory where rapture blooms and the heavens open, a lovely moment that nonetheless seems to come out of a different film. Later, Seb tries to explain to Mia the value of jazz as active expression of America’s melting pot brilliance, the product of the constant shunt and shove of multiple voices.

This vignette is irksome on several levels, not least because Chazelle makes Mia the easily schooled avatar of an audience he presumes associates this beloved musical style with smooth jazz bilge, not the rocky, high-stakes art form he worships. And it’s not just the fact that the film turns into an NPR essay here. It’s that Chazelle backs away from finding any interesting conceptual way of exploring Seb’s love cinematically. In the end, the movie that proposes to revitalise certain classical precepts in the musical is just another contemporary film where someone talks too much. And it’s on this level that La La Land repeatedly and conspicuously fails, in weaving its use of the form with its subject, until one climactic sequence towards the end, in which Mia’s audition for a crucial role becomes a song number. There’s no pervading sense of jazz as the informing art here, nor of any other strong contemporary pop music form, although Chazelle evidently sees a connection between his understanding of jazz and his pursuit of giving new meaning to an old aesthetic in the musical form. His visual approach offers sublimation of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1966) insistently, aiming to recreate Demy’s skilful, deceptively rich blend of casual realism and stylisation, usually accomplished through careful redressing of real locations and employment of strong, colour-coded costuming and lighting. Sometimes, Chazelle succeeds, particularly in the shots of Mia and her gal-pals striding out to battle in their coloured frocks, her and Seb’s tentative shuffle before the mauve-hued sunset in the Hollywood hills, and a nicely quiet diminuendo scene where Seb sings to himself and dances on a pier at sunset, stealing away an old man’s wife for a moment of bewildered, good-natured dancing. Chazelle at least suggests schooling in the musical and its craft, avoiding the cut-on-the-beat style informed by music videos that’s infected the form since the early ’80s, instead going for long, lateral shots in the traditional musical manner to drink in physical context and the performers’ actions. And Linus Sandgren’s photography really is excellent.

Demy’s approach had hardly been forgotten to film history; in fact it was rather quickly assimilated and built upon by an array of American New Wave and Movie Brat filmmakers, many of whom tried their hand at fusing together the outsized fantasias of musicals with the kind of ragged, woozy, rough-and-tumble authenticity of their ethos. The 1970s and early ’80s produced a sprawl of gutsy crossbreeds in the wake of the musical genre’s official collapse as a mode following a string of huge-budget bombs. Some of these were deliberately frothy, like Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love (1975), but more often these were sharper, grittier critiques of the genre’s usual detachment from the reality of love and coupling as well as society. Hence Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) and Francis Coppola’s One From the Heart (1981) focused on fractious romances raddled by human feeling in all its livewire anxiety, and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) turned Fosse’s own life and experiences as a choreographer into the subject of a superlatively sarcastic opus. One thing all of these had in common was their spiky, anti-populist emotional intensity, which made them the opposite of what musicals have come to be considered as the genre languishing in a permanent pop culture demimonde. In the past 20 years or so, every now and then we get a film that’s going to make the musical great again, be it synthetic pizazz like Chicago (2002) or full-on blazing shit like Les Miserables (2012). And if one apostatises with any of these, one will be told one just doesn’t like musicals. Or not as much as another person, who wants the form reborn in all its old glory and will greet any new, major, proper version of it as manna. In the same way, the new-wave musicals aren’t real musicals, because they’re not pretty and escapist and nostalgic. And of course, let us not speak of what happened to the disco musical.

Never mind the far more interesting examples of the oddball explorations of the genre in recent years, from the Outkast-scored and starring vehicle Idlewild (2006) to John Turturro’s suburban karaoke tragedy Romance and Cigarettes (2005), Jacob Krupnick’s On the Town rewrite Girl Walk // All Day (2011) and Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (2015), which commit the sins of using pop music and foregrounding artifice, and have moments your grandmother won’t like. La La Land has been quickly celebrated as a new-age musical blending frivolity and melancholy, but I find on many crucial levels it hit me as a betrayal of the legacy of the gritty musical, one that quietly gelds this movement even whilst proposing to revive it. Particularly considering that its storyline and basic themes represent a filch not on Demy but on Scorsese. In La La Land, as in New York, New York, the theme is the troubled love of a couple joined by mutual admiration but torn apart by diverging career intentions, revolving around the disparity between jazz performance and mainstream pop celebrity, climaxing with an extended restaging of the basic plot as a stylised, more pure kind of old Hollywood fantasy designed to illustrate the contrast between the way things turn out and the way we’d like them to. La La Land is squeaky clean in spite of its attempt to talk about some mildly distressing things as relationships that don’t work out and the pressures of money that make people do things they don’t want to, as opposed to the classic musical where, as Gilda Radner once memorably phrased it, people never had to work or buy food.

La La Land’s moments of bruising, disillusioning conflict are entirely contrived – the set-piece dinner table sequence where Mia and Seb first fight over Seb’s compromised artistry and Mia’s looming date with destiny, where mild peevishness substitutes for unforgivable words, and the subsequent scene where Seb misses her show, a moment that could have been avoided with the newfangled invention call the telephone. Compared to the scene in New York, New York when Robert De Niro gets dragged out of the club in a rage of stoked jealousy, this is so wet it would barely pass muster as dramatic development on a Chuck Lorre sitcom. Chazelle’s nominal assault on musical tradition is not to give a traditional happy ending where love conquers all. But he leavens the experience by giving his characters everything else they want, which just happens to be a successful LA nightclub, a period recording and touring with a popular musical outfit, and becoming an international movie star. Wow, some takedown of the Hollywood dream. Instead, La La Land is an ode to hermetic qualities. Chazelle turns the urbane strangeness and sprawl of modern LA into a depopulated stage for weak song-and-dance numbers featuring two cute but underutilised white-bread stars, replete with odes to bygone pleasures that often reveal a crucial misunderstanding about what those pleasures work. There’s nothing witty or sly or sublime or even particularly sexy about Chazelle’s approach, in spite of his mimicry of the styles he sets out to recreate. La La Land is a bright neon sign describing its own facetious charm.

This wouldn’t count for much if the film was successful simply on the level of musical experience, but this is where it’s most disappointing. The music score for La La Land is so brain-numbingly banal that apart from Gosling’s oft-repeated refrain (“City of stars, are you shining just for me?”) I couldn’t remember two notes from the film minutes after it finished. It bears no inflection of any musical style apart from the most flat-rate off-Broadway stuff—least of all the sinuosity and rhythmic complexity of jazz. Perhaps La La Land represents the total victory of the last decade or so of shows like American Idol and Dancing With The Stars, shows that have carefully trained audiences to whoop and holler wildly when blandly talented neophytes and familiar celebrities who can barely sing or dance make a show of their mastery of a few soft-shoe steps. I felt a certain empathy for Sebastian in many regards: like him, I’m a jazz fan, particularly of the genre’s heights from the 1940s to the early 1970s, and I have violently mixed feelings about what’s happened to it since then. Seb however never feels like a real person – neither does Mia, but for slightly different reasons. Even the more interesting modern branches of jazz fusion don’t seem to have registered with Chazelle – Euro electroswing for instance, which, with practitioners like Caravan Palace, is a vibrant and utterly danceable wing of the genre, and would have made a great pedestal for this project. Whilst the indictments of Seb as some kind of white saviour figure with his obsession with putting his talents to best use sustaining and helping reinvigorate jazz very quickly reach the end of credulity (the limit of his ambition in this regard is to open a jazz club, and thus provide a platform for artists like himself, rather than to become the king of all jazz musicians), it’s hard to ignore the strident, rather strained aspect to the dramatic development whereby he becomes a member of Keith’s ensemble and finds roaring success in a band that offers a squishy melange of pop, soul, and jazz.

Chazelle offers one major performance scene for this outfit, during which Mia glances about in bewilderment over the crowd’s enjoyment and Seb’s apparent selling out. Although this song isn’t anything particularly special either, it reminded me a little of the scene in Dreamgirls (2006) when “One Night Only,” the unctuously meaningful ballad, was restaged as disco schlock: the “bad” song is more entertaining than the “good” ones. Which might even be Chazelle’s point — I just don’t know. La La Land drops hints to a cultural thesis that it then keeps swerving to avoid stating in any depth. What it is officially is a bittersweet romance where Seb and Mia are pulled together and then apart by their aspirations, their mutual understanding of each other as artists who feed on creation and fade when caged but also knowing that life means compromise. Seb’s commitment to Keith’s band sees him forced to hang about for a publicity photo shoot whilst Mia performs the one-woman stage show he encouraged her to write, which seems to bomb badly, leaving Mia distraught enough with the state of her life to flee back to her home town. Seb tracks her there when he learns a casting agent saw her show and wants her to audition for a major part: Seb’s coaxing draws her back into action, and her audition piece is a testimony to the example of her bohemian relative whose life in Paris has inspired her ambition to be an actress. It’s a big-ticket moment that goes for all the feels and finally seems to flesh out aspects of Mia as a character even as it actually underlines how generic she is, and how carefully calculated this scene is.

Gosling and Stone’s chemistry, which first manifested in the otherwise dreadful Gangster Squad (2012), here at least gets some space to stretch its legs: they’re both very good at making you like them even when playing faintly insufferable parts, a gift that’s vital in selling Seb and Mia, particularly from Stone in her portrait of Mia’s squall of apocalyptic feeling following her seeming humiliation in staging her play. Whatever else it does, La La Land understands what movie stardom is about, its facility in transmuting loose ideas and assortments of emotional reflexes into creations of great power on screen. And yet I’ve seen other films that make far better use of both stars – take for interest Gosling’s other film of 2016, The Nice Guys, which allowed him to reference a host of classic comedic actors whilst also stitching together a dynamic portrait of a man lagging slightly out of reality’s time frame from a mixture of grief and booze. By comparison Seb never moves out of the status of a kind of human placard. The issue at the heart of the film, one that’s relatively original and specific, is slightly removed from the more familiar making-it concerns; it’s actually the attempt to delve into the problems that beset many show business relationships, the time spent apart enforced by asymmetric professional demands. This is the one theme attacked by Chazelle that doesn’t feel done to death. What’s interesting is that La La Land offers a kind of calculus to the modern audience about what it would find the hardest to deal with – career failure or romantic failure. The answer is given as both Mia and Seb gain everything they want except each other. So Chazelle skips forward a few years to when Mia is a success and married to some dude and has kids, and one night fate directs them into a club that proves to be Seb’s, his apparently very successful showcase for old-school jazz. Seb, spotting Mia in the crowd, plays the same piece that enticed her into the restaurant all that time ago, thus sending the film off into an extended fantasia that re-enacts their relationship more perfectly, to the point where they’re married with kids themselves.

This sequence finally blew my tolerance fuse with this film, as Chazelle here rips off the “Happy Endings” sequence at the end of New York, New York, in offering an upbeat restaging of the narrative as a full-bore, total-style facsimile of classic musical method. Except it’s been shorn of all the ironic meaning Scorsese offered his climax with, for “Happy Endings” converted the messy stuff of life into a vision that would seem joyful to some and a sour mockery to others, and also commented on the way Hollywood mines and distorts life, questioning the ways and reasons why we tolerate convenient lies. There’s no such subtext to what La La Land offers, in part because it’s avoided any dialectic between the false and real. For Chazelle, this is just another facet of his showmanship, sleight of hand pulled to suggest there was actually some depth to this coupling and to work his audience over. Meanwhile La La Land ultimately has nothing actually bad to say about Hollywood, the cult of celebrity or the problems of dreams deferred, except for the fact that the film industry tends to be so forward-looking that it has no time for the past – not a fault I’ve noticed besetting the Academy voters lately. Somewhat amazingly, although not a word was spoken in it, Girl Walk // All Day managed to say far more about the uneasy relationship between personal art and joy and capitalism and society, building to the wonderful moment when its heroine realised her seduction by consumerism was erasing her identity and she kicked off her store-bought finery, all scored to music that captured the vibrant clamour of modern pop culture’s manifold dimensions. By comparison, La La Land remains wedged in its comfortable, rather smug niche, challenging nothing, reinventing nothing.


29th 12 - 2016 | 20 comments »

Confessions of a Film Freak 2016

 

By Roderick Heath

Around the middle of this year, I found myself awake late at night watching the oldest films ever made on YouTube—that place where everything resides now, the whole memory of the technological age of art. I watched Thomas Edison’s first stuttering shorts with their subjects dancing or fighting or simply being, against depthless black backgrounds. It felt like an act of cabalism, looking beyond the fringe of living memory at people recalled from the dead, hovering in a void. By comparison the Lumiere brothers’ escape into the light and discovery of the world at large was like returning to the land of the living. What genius of the day it took to create such an art form. What genius lets me watch it today with a click of a button.

Around the same time, I went to a cinema to see Suicide Squad. The experience was an ordeal, from the film itself, a work that might have been fun but which had been rendered close to intolerable by poor editing and witless handling, to the multiple irritations of the screening itself–the overly dark picture, the teenage jerks in front of me insisting on filming part of the movie and uploading it to the vague interest of their friends. It was hard not to feel like I’d stumbled upon cinema’s death throes, done in by an age in which the idea of a movie has devolved into a series of delivery systems, feeding fragments of incoherent but striking information to be channelled into instant iconography, detached from any pleasure of narrative or shared experience. But by year’s end I had also had radically different filmgoing experiences: regardless of what I thought of the movies in question, I knew when sitting in the theatre with crowds watching the likes of Rogue One and La La Land that the communal dream of cinema is hardly dead. In fact, it might be more vital, in both senses of the word, than ever. 2016 has felt like a year of gearing for hard knocks and rude awakenings. But it’s also had its bright lagoons and blooming promises.


Rogue One

Make no mistake—2016 has been a rough year, that’s for sure. Cultural heroes have departed us with dismaying regularity, and the less said about certain political twists the better. Hollywood definitely hasn’t been immune. The US summer blockbuster season saw film after film ring big loud gongs both critically and at the box office, and the laziest assumptions of filmmaking’s Mecca seemed set to be ransacked right at a time when it can least afford it. Apart from Disney and its many octopoidal limbs, it’s hard to shake the feeling much of Hollywood has almost forgotten what its business is. But what seemed like a train-wreck in July steadily resolved instead into a phase of quiet strength and achievement and signs of a shifting pop zeitgeist; audiences hungry for fresher, sharper thrills have been gravitating towards mid-budget thrillers, and for attentive cinephiles there’s been a constant flow of fascinating, worthwhile movies. Which is, of course, not to say that the age of franchise filmmaking is at an end, not when Marvel and Lucasfilm are raking in cash hand over fist. We still want great sagas and epics. But we want them done well, and finally audiences seem to be voting with their feet more effectively.


Little Sister

Suitably, a certain battered, whatever-it-takes terseness has defined many protagonists this year, with most keeping their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. The themes of besiegement, whether literal or spiritual or psychological, and of the fraught gathering of tribes only to find their axis has broken, have been obsessively touched upon. Following last year’s parade of collapsing systems, this year was all about getting through. A few mighty drama queens still made their presences felt, a la the damaged, frenetically needy mothers of the homecoming diptych Krisha and Little Sister, Ralph Fiennes’ gabby, sybaritic rogue in A Bigger Splash, and, more quietly but perhaps the most insistent of the lot, Toni Erdmann’s insinuating farceur father. But the year belonged more to the soldiers of extreme necessity, even in the year’s big, “fun” films. Roland Emmerich’s would-be throwback to ’90s pop jauntiness Independence Day: Resurgence, emphasised the damage and premature gravitas imbued by survival. The Star Wars franchise dug more deeply into the die-or-die grimness of the war film, offering up damaged and doomed heroes who finish up as backstory to someone else’s triumph. The very last scenes, a madcap, enthralling depiction of self-sacrifice whilst Darth Vader returned to his rightful place in the collective unconscious as emblem of marauding evil, came loaded with such symbolic and imagistic power that it seemed to capture something undefined about the year’s mood of dread. The Legend of Tarzan presented its never particularly talkative hero in battle with historical evil and deeply personal threat. Marvel came close to its finest moment in pitting its roguish gallery of heroes not against a great enemy but against each other, in Captain America: Civil War, which dramatized the very process of larkish venture shading into bleak and hateful interpersonal combat over deeply personal definitions of pain and history. The clash of titans in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice employed the same motif but with a different slant, presenting a battle of id and superego allowing ego to run rampant—a motif relevant in its own way. Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room managed in a few quick, dense cinematic ideograms to sum up the extreme poles of political and civic discourse this year: idealistic but clueless hipsters, convinced a few blunt “fuck offs” to their enemies would dispel all opposition and carefully cultivate their dissident status, run headlong into potent, eagerly violent Nazis, whose downfall is that they’re not half as smart as they think they are.


Hell Or High Water

Tom Hanks’ eponymous hero of Sully was the epitome of the year’s heroes, a professional who brings utter cool and a cellular-level marriage of craft and intuition to a high-pressure situation, only visited with doubt under the scrutiny of a scourging public eye. Meanwhile the pilgrims of Paths of the Soul engaged in their arduous, infinitely repetitive journey to try to redeem the whole world. The couple at the heart of a pivot in law and culture in Loving stayed loyal and true in the midst of the world’s cacophony. Chris Pine’s heroes in The Finest Hours and Hell or High Water dealt with life’s storms with stern resolve, counterbalancing Ben Foster’s part in the latter, as the man who brings his own storms. Pine and his familiar compatriots of Star Trek Beyond couldn’t mourn their own defeat and the loss of their ship, instead forced to keep moving by any means possible to keep up the fight. The patriots of Anthropoid set out to kill a monster with the fixated nihilism of the intensely dedicated; those of Allied found themselves forced to question whether the profoundest loyalty is political or personal. The hero of Hacksaw Ridge endures ostracism, disdain, and finally war at its most savage without protection. Nat Turner offered himself as incantatory engine of revenge in The Birth of a Nation whilst Free State of Jones came under the domain of Matthew McConaughey’s glowing-eyed honky beneficence. Elle’s elegantly untraditional heroine refused to be reduced to victimhood, instead entrapping her rapist’s desire and perversity within her own until it is shrunken enough to conquer. The certain women of Certain Women coolly and patiently waited out the gnawing winters of the heart and the hapless Little Sister and her family fronted up to things that could be changed and things that couldn’t, its heroine fulfilling both sides of her titular role on the field of care and responsibility by any means on hand. The inhabitants of the Cemetery of Splendour contended with randomly cruel illnesses and multiple zones of reality. Amy Adams’ epitome of the human race in Arrival even had to put up with having her brain rewired and her future mapped out in excruciating detail, and learned to accept it.


Suicide Squad

Perhaps it’s apt that the western has been sputtering to life this year, evinced in Hell Or High Water, In a Valley of Violence, The Magnificent Seven, and Jane Got a Gun, being as it is a genre where hard-bitten, squinting antiheroes live wild and die free. Results differed. Hell or High Water, a Texas excursion for Scots director David Mackenzie, who has been making the sort of vexing films that illustrate the maxim “good is the enemy of great” for over a decade now, was a Peckinpah-esque exploration of the legacies of dispossession and violence past and present. The film struggled to find its feet with (sometimes literal) big signs announcing its themes and some familiar chestnuts of the Euro-director-goes-US mode, but the last half-hour sang with its eruptions of violence and genuinely ambivalent coda. In a Valley of Violence brought a similar blend of referential exactitude and shrewd dissection of the tropes of its chosen genre that defined Ti West’s earlier horror films, restaging the basic revenge drama in many a western as tale of mirroring misanthropy and brutal reckoning. The result was foiled only by West’s already familiar tendency to take refuge in formula when his ideas run out. Antoine Fuqua’s visit to the trail blazed by Akira Kurosawa and John Sturges occasionally caught the breeze of straightforward, cheery, bloodthirsty entertainment that once made the western so popular, giving Chris Pratt a death scene to die for. But Fuqua’s lead-footed filmmaking squelched any hope this film could live up to its models—that, and a fascinating refusal to engage with the same themes of class and race so important to those predecessors. Jane Got a Gun tried to bring a feminist tilt to the table, but failed to also offer an effective story or any pulse of excitement, playing out on all levels with strenuous inevitability. Suicide Squad was the grunge-tinted, contemporary variant on The Magnificent Seven, as a mob of variously low-rent, half-mad villains were pressganged to fight for…well, something or other. Whatever potential the film had was lost in a shit-storm of studio second-guessing and tired “fun” gimmickry.


Independence Day: Resurgence

Nonetheless, the superhero genre is definitely the modern-dress version of the western, following very similar templates—heroes with an edge over ordinary folk forced to answer their questions of the nature of justice and the meaning of community whilst fighting variations of the same essential moral dramas over and over. Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was met with merciless brickbats for trying to expand and deepen the superhero film’s palette. Whilst it did deserve some of the criticism, Snyder’s superior director’s cut restored heft and solidity, and it finally emerged as a work of real gravitas. And yet for all the huffing and puffing, the movie it wanted to be still only finally emerges in the last few fleeting minutes. Dawn of Justice isn’t the only one of this year’s whipping boys for which I found a little fondness. Independence Day: Resurgence was interminable when trying to outdo the original’s wholesale destruction porn, but curiously likeable elsewhere, particularly as it gave old pros Jeff Goldblum and Brent Spiner a chance to make me chuckle and offered Maika Monroe one of the year’s better action heroine roles. David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan was weighed down by an extremely lazy chase plot and a script that seemed determined to foil all its own impending climaxes. And yet Yates’ eye for epic filmmaking was evident, and his film offered an intelligently revisionist approach to its hero. Yates’ other film for the year, an extension of J.K. Rowling’s Potterverse, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, renewed the franchise by backtracking. The result was at its best when simply having larkish fun and fell flat with the big picture game. Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was doomed to languish in its shadow as its frizz-haired auteur tried his hand at juvenile franchise cultivation. Burton couldn’t break out of the bland rhythms of slickly CGI-crusted Harry Potter wannabes, but his strong imagery, furtive understanding of adolescent proto-eroticism, and episodes of slyly nasty humour (like introducing Judi Dench only to feed her to a monster) made it a reasonably honourable discursion.


Star Trek Beyond

Rogue One, Gareth Edwards’ entry of the now rapidly expanding Star Wars mythos, was only serviceable on a dramatic level, but was jolted to life by the force of Edwards’ visuals and the sheer whatever-it-takes verve of his and his filmmaking team’s love of the material. Eternal rival Star Trek also had an entry this year: Star Trek Beyond was a similarly mixed bag but ranked as one of the year’s better FX blockbusters. The script, co-written by cast member Simon Pegg, actually understood how to pace and shape an adventure story and grasped the essence of the Trek brand, particularly as it pitched its heroes into amusingly generic Trekian locations. But it was also weighed down by a plot that bashed together concepts from the last four Trek films, including yet another quasi-terrorist villain with a grudge against the Federation. Justin Lin’s direction embodied the schism, drinking in scifi spectacle with an eye that easily dwarfed that of J.J. Abrams, but also offered jarringly hard-to-read action scenes. The film’s weak box office was undeserved but perhaps inevitable given how much air Abrams had let out of the tyre. X-Men: Apocalypse’s weak box office was, on the other hand, entirely deserved. Rarely has a once-noble franchise come to such an underpowered, apathetically written, acted, and directed turn, lumbering through the motions of killing off Magneto’s family yet again, and setting up Oscar Isaac as a villain of cosmic menace only to have him stand around waiting for the big gang-up finale—a sequence that did finally deliver some entertainment, but not sufficiently to redeem it. Marvel rival Doctor Strange was a splashy but entirely hacky entry in the superhero stakes from Scott Derrickson. The film was dotted with moments of cleverness, some vivid visuals and fun performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton, but it foundered on its derivative and tony annexation of a more mystical wing of the Marvel realm, and failed that most basic of tests for this genre: it’s not in the slightest bit exciting. Tim Miller’s Deadpool, meanwhile, aimed at upending all familiar rules for this filmmaking mode, offering up a potty-mouthed antiheroic jerkwad as protagonist and making sport of contemporary blockbuster cinema’s self-seriousness. And yet it was the kind of curative that hurts more than the disease, a wad of collected internet memes passed off as antic cool.


The Neon Demon

Horror and thriller cinema proved extremely lively this year, benefiting from the disenchantment with the laborious parade of “big” movies. The second instalment of James Wan’s happily ridiculous The Conjuring series maintained the brand’s defining contrast between the loving, lively, generous impulses of its heroic, central married couple, and their line of work, which brings them into contact with forces of cosmic nihilism, this time around with a great supporting turn from Madison Wolfe as the victim of a demon’s possessive streak. Fede Alvarerz’s Don’t Breathe was a tolerable but trite and mechanical entry, depicting a home invasion with a nasty twist. Don’t Breathe desperately needed some of the hallucinatory gusto of the late Wes Craven’s similar The People Under the Stairs, but was faintly redeemed by its coal-black sarcasm in handling the idea of identity as fate—who could forget the turkey baster of doom? Jason Zada’s The Forest had an interesting setting, the “suicide” forest of Aokigahara by Mount Fuji, and a cool star, Natalie Dormer, but misused both in a half-hearted spookfest. Karyn Kusama bounced back from lacklustre blockbuster experiences to make the tense and smart The Invitation, which imagined the touchy-feely precepts of La La Land encounter culture as prelude to cathartic mass carnage. Perhaps the film I most anticipated this year was Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, and it became conversely perhaps my biggest disappointment, though I still liked it in some ways. Refn’s craft, at once languorously aestheticized and patiently nasty, managed to tether together a raft of referential peccadilloes—classic Hollywood’s imperial egotisms and the mythology of its sacrificial young, the horny, id-welling chic of ’70s Euro-horror, the totemic force of Greek legend and the airy gloss of high-class consumer culture—into a heady stew replete with magnificent images. But it went on far, far too long and went down so many blind alleys before reaching its true reckoning that much of its minatory power evaporated.


Under The Shadow

Although more thriller than horror movie and technically really not even that, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals touched on similar territory to The Neon Demon in studying LA’s exalted spheres (and sharing cast member Jena Malone) counterpointed with harsh and menacing evocations of ambition falling foul of the nation’s dark heart. Ford evinced surprising gifts for generating suspense and envisioning pivots of horror to a degree that suggests he might eventually make a good noir director. But whereas Refn’s quotes of fashion art were satiric, Ford’s are merely displays of brand affectation, and his better work here dissolves amidst dumb ideas, like a pair of murdered bodies rhymed with a couple in bed, and a finale when revenge literally costs an eye for an eye, before the narrative cuts off in a place that reduces the whole affair to a sick joke. Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow was similar to 2014’s The Bababook in portraying a mother’s claustrophobic haunting by a demon, set not in anodyne suburbia, but in Tehran during the darkest days of the Iran-Iraq war and its stifling, paranoid, reactionary zeitgeist: Anvari’s cool direction only occasionally let slip visions of strangeness, sustained an eerie mood right to the end, and held its own metaphorical inferences tightly leashed until nearly the end. Meanwhile, Robert Eggers’ The Witch gained plaudits as a horror film that took on the foundational struggles of European colonisation in America and its lingering credos. For myself, I’m still not sure how much I like it. Eggers’ eye is undoubtedly excellent, some of his images sear, and his sustained mood of dread was deeply effective. But the film’s supposedly radical tilt is actually pretty familiar for horror fans.


10 Cloverfield Lane

One of the year’s more surprising winners was Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, triangulating scifi and psychological thriller, sustaining a genuinely intense and unsettling note of dislocation and apocalyptic mystery until nearly the end, whilst maintaining a gloss of pop cinema fun. Terrific performances from the perpetually underrated John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead helped. And I can’t help but admit a little, sneaky enjoyment of one of the year’s bigger critical and commercial failures, Burr Steers’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a work that tried to combine Regency manners and Romero splatter with a certain clunky, goofy zest. Jeremy Saulnier, whose Blue Ruin didn’t quite live up to its hype for me even as it marked an interesting debut, returned with the superb Green Room, a film with a genuinely Carpenter-esque sense of efficiency and drive. On top of its political inferences, it’s a film that offers sympathy for everyone by the end and actually manages to restore some of the fear of death and mutilation to a genre that too often treats both as playful pyrotechnics. Kudos in particular to the late Anton Yelchin and the marvellous Imogen Poots.


The Jungle Book

Making account of this year’s bad and mediocre films does require some time and effort. Timur Bekmambetov’s remake of Ben-Hur broke my personal record for turning off a film, when its opening frames insisted on taking me to the start of the chariot race, with Morgan Freeman’s stentorian voice delivering nonsensical narration, and the actors playing Judah and Messalah swapping lines of dialogue with all the conviction of two high schoolers who get involved with theatre club to meet girls. Jack Huston, one of those actors, has been a promising talent, but probably won’t get another leading role until 2033. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival was another fascinating example in how, if one can master certain arts of high-pressuring an audience through relentless use of editing and audio stunts, one can be taken as a genius even if the raw material of one’s art is tepid schlock. The climactic scene of a Chinese general explaining the plot by way of a supposedly casual encounter remembered/foreseen by its heroine was the stuff of broad lampooning, whilst the movie as a whole bested Interstellar for reducing the apparatus of cosmic awe to the meal of TV melodrama. Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book was one of the year’s biggest critical and commercial hits, a real display of Disney’s regal force of production values. But although it was entertaining, there was something pleasantly trite about its glossy, photorealistic but essentially nondescript CGI animals, duly solid depiction of Rudyard Kipling’s fantasia, and half-hearted annexation of the 1964 film’s musical aspect. Also the attempts to beef up the mythic and heroic side of Kipling’s story proved awkward, as in the finale when young Mowgli, marked for death by intolerant Shere Khan for his kind’s carelessly destructive ways, proves his point by behaving in a carelessly destructive way—but he’s the hero, so it’s okay.


The BFG

Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt and Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s The Huntsman: Winter’s War trod arduously through their mythic-heroic guff composed of utterly flavourless drama and purely rote, appropriated scenes. Even Steven Spielberg couldn’t entirely escape the air of enervation that hovered around so much of this stuff this year. Although his The BFG was clearly personal and intriguingly muted, it felt weirdly flimsy and miscalculated, a gigantic project couched in intimate whimsy that desperately lacked a meaty story and compelling, detailed characters. Whilst by no means bad, it stands as the director’s biggest bust since the not-so-dissimilar Hook. The year’s most disgraceful entry from a major director was Duncan Jones’ Warcraft, a staggeringly bad romp through a fantasy realm carefully wrought to evoke the computer game it was based on whilst obeying no laws of aesthetics, physical logic, or storytelling sense. Far from legitimising such adaptations, Warcraft instead described just about everything wrong with modern filmmaking, from pulverising its good cast into a lump of indistinguishable blandness to failing utterly to convey any feel for fantasy cinema, offering something more like a gamer convention promo reel gone berserk. Paul Feig’s remake of Ghostbusters, meanwhile, became a cause celebre for all the wrong reasons. For all the hype and hate, the actual movie proved about as thrilling as a bucket of warm spit, a total failure of wit and invention sporting an array of tepid pseudo-improv comedy, weak heroes and villains, and empty, characterless special effects. Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth did more for the film than it did for them. Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows started intriguingly as a gap-year take on Jaws with an emphasis on minimalist menace, promising a rock-solid thrill ride. But it quickly sank amidst clichés and contrivances before revealing itself as the most elaborate game of hot lava ever played, with added Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue appeal. Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen was the shit-smeared caboose of the long post-Die Hard action movie train.


Jason Bourne

J. Blakeson, whose debut, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, was so impressive a few years ago, returned at last, helming the eye-twistingly silly YA actioner The 5th Wave. The Divergent series went belly-up with the incident-free Allegiant, proving you can push the “let’s split the last book in two” adaptation process way too far. Tate Taylor, who at the moment is a serious candidate for the worst director in Hollywood, took on this year’s bestselling blockbuster adaptation, The Girl on the Train, and managed to waste Emily Blunt’s customarily good lead performance by shooting a supposedly creepy and intense thriller with all the propulsion and authority of a feminine hygiene commercial. There was some real bullshit amongst the year’s well-reviewed, classy fare too. Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship was Suicide Squad for people frustrated they never went to Oxford. Jeff Nichols’ first of two films for the year, Midnight Special, was an initially intriguing attempt to blend Nichols’ moody, big-things-happen-to-small-people motif first mooted on Take Shelter with tributes to ’80s Spielberg and Carpenter, but finished up boring me silly with its fuzzy, hole-ridden plot, unearned emotional ploys, and banal visualisations of the miraculous: the finale offered a magic, invisible city that looked disturbingly like the one in Tomorrowland, a place no one should have to return to. Rufus Norris’ London Road was an intriguing, radical-sounding project, adapted from a stage musical that used real interviews of the inhabitants of the title street where a serial killer lived as the libretto for its stuttering tunes, but the result was revealing only in how little such heavy lifting achieved. Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon’s return to profitable stomping grounds, Jason Bourne, had one fine set-piece, a chase staged in the midst of an Athens riot, but proved so listless and unoriginal as a whole that it didn’t just bore me, but also made me wonder if I’d actually enjoyed the earlier films in the series.


Down Under

Ben Stiller also tried to revive a beloved character engaged in international assassinations and conspiracy for Zoolander 2, and blimey if I didn’t get a few chuckles out of the resulting stew, even if it lacked the blindsiding nerve that made the original memorable, instead memorialising its own formula. On the other hand, Oliver Parker’s Dad’s Army revived the loveable old TV show but expended a perfect cast on hoary shenanigans and made the canonical mistake of such revivals by imposing an unfunny major character and resulting new dynamics on the classic template. Taika Waititi, whose What We Do in the Shadows exasperated me last year, returned with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a tribute to bygone days of New Zealand’s comic outlaw movies and the wider pantheon of ’80s genre film: here Waititi’s true chops emerged, adroitly mixing authentic sentiment and pop culture-inflected waggishness. Abe Forsyth’s Down Under took on a disturbing major event of recent Australian history, the ethnically charged 2005 Cronulla Riots, and offered shots of effectively weird humour, but its attempt to segue from broad, caricatured satire to violent, darkly telling parable was ultimately laboured. Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man tried to mate hipster philosophical concerns—the nature of life and how to meet girls—with body humour, and got a surprisingly long way on that odd mixture, only to fall foul of a near-inevitable exhaustion of inspiration well before it ended. Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon’s Sausage Party tackled a similar mixture of authentically heady themes and raunchy humour and worked rather better, in part because as well as a spicy parable in favour of hedonism and against prescribed blinkering, it was also a much-needed burlesque of the now well-worn Pixar animation formula.


Paterson

Shane Black’s The Nice Guys was doomed to be cited as the kind of great nonspecial-effect-driven film everybody claims to want more of but then doesn’t go to see, as, in spite of its top-line cast and strong reviews and crowd-pleasing tilt, it bombed hard at the box office. For me, Black’s raucous blend of black humour and retro action was often great fun and enabled an array of terrific performances from stars familiar (Russell Crowe), maturing (Ryan Gosling), and fresh (Margaret Qualley, Angourie Rice, Yaya DaCosta). But it also played the same hand one or two times too many, and wasn’t always so sharp at telling its great ideas from the ordinary. Gosling also featured in the film that will probably win all of this year’s Oscars, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a film that seeks to wrap its audience in a fervent recreation of musical aesthetics past whilst telling a mildly bittersweet tale about love going awry whilst careers catch fire. The pretty photography and Gosling’s chemistry with Emma Stone distracted from the fact it’s a neutered New York, New York (1977) knock-off that does precious little that’s genuinely creative or incisive, littered with utterly forgettable songs and choreography. Zachary Treitz’s Men Go to Battle blended drollery and bloodletting but in a very different fashion to The Nice Guys, applying the fuzzily realist aesthetics of contemporary indie cinema to a Civil War-era tale of two brothers sent along different paths with the thesis that people back then were just as confused, listless, and hapless as we are today—only the tides pushing them around were stronger. Jim Jarmusch’s charming, ambling Paterson was an ode to creativity as a life-force for ordinary people, couched in typically timeless, oddball terms by its writer-director and littered with lovely performances. But as a whole I didn’t enjoy it as much as its immediate predecessor Only Lovers Left Alive, for whilst Jarmusch’s feel for neurasthenic cool is undeniable, I doubt he could find actual normality with a road map.


Don’t Think Twice

Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice was a film about comedy and the kinds of people who create it, exploring the tension between public artistic idealism and private expectation that eventually it had better start paying off: the film’s rueful portrait of the resulting crisis was affecting but never really proved as compelling, or funny, or insightful, as it wanted us to find it. Robert Edwards’ One More Time also depicted the pleasures and pains of a life in show business, offering Christopher Walken and Amber Heard a diverting if unmemorable vehicle as a waned crooner and his shambolic wannabe daughter. Two entries in the very familiar indie film subgenre depicting tense reunions of dysfunctional families gained strong plaudits this year. Zach Clark’s Little Sister was the lighter in spite of dealing with suicidal tendencies and gruesome disfigurement, whilst Trey Edward Shults’ stylistically harder-edged Krisha portrayed the fallout of addiction. Both films revolved around the impact of a self-destructive mother steeped in countercultural cool but now just a wash-up with ironically square kids (a theme also echoed in Toni Erdmann). Clark’s film offered rather too many cute ironies left insufficiently explored, and political themes that never came into focus beyond indicting the smugness of the bourgeois lefty style many felt the Trumpista victory was comeuppance for. But it had a fine touch for the ways people who love each other find ways both oblique and direct to make contact.


A Bigger Splash

Krisha, by contrast, came on strong but also blunt, laying on pathos and cinematic manipulation with a trowel, held together mostly by the deeply convincing portrait of fraying human will at its heart: its suggestion that some people can’t help laying waste to everything even when they don’t want to was fittingly cruel, but Shults’ tricky direction kept bad faith with the audience and struck one note for 80-odd minutes. Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash sprawled out with glorious energy and eccentric humour with underlying menace for its first two-thirds as it explored the lives of the variously careless and rapaciously sensual, but then, after segueing into a fateful act of violence, left itself painfully beached without any idea where to go next. Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women was rapturously received by many. I liked it, although I can’t quite see what the big deal here is—stepping back from the genuinely original, cryptic indie-noir of Night Moves, Reichardt here offered a triptych of suggestive portraits where all the details feel as a carefully arranged as your grandmother’s crystal collection. Excellent performances and a great last 20 minutes did make the film worthy, however. Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, on the other hand, gripped from the get-go with its enigmatic but almost physically exciting portrait of isolation within community, taking up a conceit similar to last year’s The Falling but more effectively, respecting the mystery it invoked but clearly understanding the unruly heart of youth.


Allied

Simon Stone’s The Daughter likewise revolved around the power and fragility of youth on the cusp, transposing Henryk Ibsen’s The Wild Duck to Tasmania’s drizzly heartland with respectable if sometimes heavy-footed results, swapping Ibsen’s cool tragedy for soap operatics on occasion, but retaining an architectural solidity. I preferred it all in all to the film that overshadowed it on Aussie award nights, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. That film was a big, bristling, very broad tribute to the clichés of war films past and a celebration of Gibson’s overwrought but curiously compulsive worldview, his happily boldfaced, confessional purging, his storytelling savvy, and his love of thrilling butchery—all peculiarly enjoyable when taken as pure theatre. Allied saw Robert Zemeckis similarly delving into classic movie lore with a less personal but more peculiar, intriguing bent, starting off with obvious touchstones—a spy romance set initially in Casablanca, of all places, replete with we-saw-Inglourious Basterds-isms—before turning into a darkly romantic portrait of marital distrust and sacrifice in the context of onerous official duty and collective paranoia, spiralling in towards intimate reckoning rather than explosive theatrics. It could well be Zemeckis’s best film, and certainly his determination to unmask the mobile orgy the war obliged might count as a historical duty. Another director who started, like Zemeckis, as a screenwriter in the heady days of New Wave Hollywood, is Terrence Malick. Malick’s latest, Knight of Cups, received an indifferent reception upon release early in the year. Understandable, I suppose—after all, it was just another magnificently shot, feverishly edited, astonishingly acted visionary confession-cum-tone-poem exploring a deeply personal zone of experience through a universalised lens.


Sully

As usual, the major yardstick for would-be seriousness in this year’s high-end fare was a basis in some suitable real-life tale. That most esteemed of Hollywood veterans, Clint Eastwood, returned with Sully, another study in the ambivalence of myth-making as backdrop to the reality of valour. Few films of recent years have been so efficient, so concerted, and even the somewhat overworked bureaucrat bashing aspect was kept contained by Eastwood’s complex yet entirely lucid assemblage. Meanwhile eternal try-hard Peter Berg released two based-on-a-true-story fob-jobs this year, Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day. Deepwater Horizon was the only one I saw: bolstered by a strong supporting performance from Kurt Russell, who proved he still commands the screen like an ageing but still ornery beast of the veldt, this one built to an impressive but curiously, cumulatively pointless recreation of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Good thing dramatic niceties and a nick-of-time fade-out relieved the film of the responsibility of noting one of the worst environmental catastrophes of all time resulted from these events, which were all apparently the fault of nasty, weirdly accented John Malkovich. Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi was a similarly pumped-up take on recent headlines, inflating controversial events that cost the life of a US diplomat and military personnel as a kind of neo-Alamo, but at least Bay’s showmanship was sufficiently madcap to serve as an end in itself. Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky, unlike Berg and Bay’s films, was not officially based on a true story but lightly fictionalised some familiar aspects of the War on Terror and its strange new battlefields into the texture of its drama for the purpose of introducing the audience to the simultaneously detached and nightmarishly intimate world of drone warfare. Whilst not quite wielding the same bleak and alien power, it could be counted as a modern-day take on something like Fail-Safe (1964) as a chamber drama of conscience versus necessity.


Miles Ahead

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa returned to the kind of preposterous yet fact-based story they cut their teeth on with I Love You, Phillip J. Morris in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a film that offered Tina Fey and Martin Freeman welcome breaks from their more familiar parts, playing nerds transformed into wild cards in the midst of Afghanistan war reporting, but the film which could have been the MASH of the ’10s proved rather a few swear words away from being Private Benjamin instead. Natalie Portman had a much better time impersonating Jacqueline Kennedy and finding a lode of determination under her bob and Nob Hill accent in Jackie, the first of a superlative one-two punch from Chilean director Pablo Larrain, the other being Neruda, an inspired poetic twist on the usual hagiography. Don Cheadle suggested some real directorial chops in the snappy, colourful frames of Miles Ahead, a portrait-biography of Miles Davis, and Cheadle’s impersonation of the jazz great was suitably exact. But the facetious script eventually proved the opposite of Sully in that its showy structure led nowhere whilst its insights remained skin-deep. Sean Ellis’s Anthropoid, depicting the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich and the heroically futile battle for survival by his patriot killers, confused recreating scenes from generations of spy thrillers for noble filmmaking, and the results just serviceable. Mick Jackson’s Denial explored a moment of subtle but consequential import in the history of history, depicting the slow skewering of Holocaust denier David Irving, but David Hare’s script proved a textbook for study of now-familiar screenwriting tricks for this sort of thing—convenient conflict here! contrived misunderstanding there!—and Rachel Weisz’s annoyingly broad lead performance didn’t help matters. Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert depicted the life of Gertrude Bell, architect of nations and fool of fortune. Although generally dismissed and dumped on the home viewing market, I found this one quietly rapturous in recreating the brand of stoic, yet often blindingly intense romanticism at the crux of war, peace, man, woman, east and west: only James Franco’s miscasting proved a drag.


Hidden Figures

Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation looked set to be one of the films of the year, with director-star Parker receiving ovations at Sundance with his project which, in theory, sounded inspired—recounting the tale of Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion and stealing the title of D.W. Griffith’s Ku Klux Klan-glorifying epic, aiming to angry up the blood. But something went wrong: Parker’s dubious past became, perhaps unfairly, a sticking point for easy acceptance. More to the point, the film was a troubling chimera, with its best traits, a sense of moral torpor and lurking unease blooming into outright horror, owing too much to 12 Years a Slave (2013), and its lesser to a well-thumbed playbook of righteous avenger movies resolving in clumsily staged action scenes whilst suggesting, dismayingly, that laundered, manipulative history was the answer to the same. Jeff Nichols’ Loving ventured to explore the marrow-deep malignity of racist legacies and the challenge to it via the experiences of the so-aptly named Lovings and their consequential victory for marriage freedom in the late 1960s. Nichols’ feel for place and lifestyle was truly evocative here, but as it went along, the usual lapses of Nichols’ style manifested, particularly over-length, whilst the central, essential portrayal of the couple strained to celebrate them as quiet and decent but proved on closer inspection sentimentalised and vacant instead, offering plaster saints rather than real people, with the cumulative effect of locking all potential dramatic power in amber. Still, Ruth Negga, who also gave Warcraft its sole flicker of life, maintained dignity. Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures played a more populist key in recounting the stories of black women mathematicians working for NASA in the early 1960s: there’s a more serious and memorable movie lurking somewhere within, but the one around it has its moments.


The Handmaiden

Radu Jude’s Aferim! trod a sneakier path towards a truer depiction of human absurdity and cruelty as it roamed around historical Romania, a place hovering on the threshold of modernity’s transformations whilst still subsisting in a medieval past, showing how we all learn to acquiesce to wrong and injustice when it’s painted as eternal truth and if our paycheque depends on it. Jacques Audiard’s Cannes winner from last year, Dheepan, finally surfaced this year in English-speaking markets. Audiard’s usually riveting gifts for blending raw sociology and dramatic daring with genre filmmaking proclivities here failed to fuse properly, but the result was still intriguing in its depiction of total personal and social dislocation and the peculiar malleability of identity, trying to wedge itself into the grey zone between Kafka and De Palma’s Scarface. Chan-Wook Park’s The Handmaiden, which appeared at this year’s festival, was much hailed as a lush and loopy transposition of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith to Korea in the 1930s. This was another one everyone seems to have loved but me: I find Park’s filmmaking, eager as it is to claim the mantle of great cinematic sensualists and impresarios, to be a big hollow gong, his themes announced in unmistakeable brass booms, his eroticism slick and cold even (or especially) when it’s trying to be celebratory. Athina Rachel Tsangari’s follow-up to her great Attenberg was Chevalier, a would-be droll parable lampooning male anxieties and power games with a hint of political inference: some of its arrows landed deep and true and some images were sharp and funny. But the film, like its characters, kept going long after it had forgotten what the point was, if there ever was one.


Toni Erdmann

Tsangari’s fellow Greek tyro Gyorgos Lanthimos made his English-language debut with The Lobster, one of the year’s arthouse hits. Offering a twisted exacerbation of contemporary life’s obsession with sex and coupling as a retro-futurist dystopia, Lanthimos mixed comedy, horror, even romanticism in his stylised, deliberately (?) stilted context. At its best, it was jarring and disturbing in confronting human nature, but on other levels it was also just an inflated Monty Python sketch, and I absorbed it more in dazed fascination than real enjoyment or deep contemplation. Meanwhile in Germany, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann found general acclaim blending chilly realism and deadpan absurdity in depicting a mischievous father trying to prod his grown daughter, a serf to corporate life, to make some needed displays of undisciplined behaviour. Although the film had its fitful comic coups, and in spite of a nearly three-hour running time, it remained evasive in its characterisations and hackneyed in its supposedly biting critique of high capitalist behaviour, dressing up what was essentially an inflated Neil Simon three-act in the full regalia of Euro-cinema provocation. By comparison with such fastidious quirk, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour was so delicate and sublimely well-fashioned, it barely seemed to be there, and yet it accumulated like summer mist on leaves until the finest patina of brilliance appeared as it drifted through ages and states of being with wry and melancholy grace. Yang Zhang’s Paths of the Soul, the first mainland Chinese film to deal with Tibetan Buddhism, engaged in spiritual themes in a more worldly yet no less mesmeric fashion, lifting the spirits by studying the unyielding dedication of the truly faithful and its more secular celebration of teamwork and trust. Way over in France, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle proved a tour de force for the filmmaker even as he ceded so much of its intent and effect to star Isabelle Huppert, who responded by giving a performance made of vulcanised rubber. The harder she was hit, the faster and straighter she flew.

Performances of Note:

Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Luke Evans, High-Rise
Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash
Ben Foster, Hell or High Water
Krisha Fairchild, Krisha
Taissa Farmiga, In A Valley of Violence
Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane
Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys
Sienna Guillory, High-Rise
Tom Hanks, Sully
Amber Heard, One More Time
Royalty Hightower, The Fits
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Abbey Lee, The Neon Demon
Ruth Negga, Loving
Sam Neill, Hunt for the Wilderpeople; The Daughter
Chris Pine, The Finest Hours; Hell or High Water
Jenjira Pongpas, Cemetery of Splendour
Imogen Poots, Green Room
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Peter Sarsgaard, Jackie
Addison Timlin, Little Sister
John Travolta, In a Valley of Violence
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane
Madison Wolfe, The Conjuring 2
Odessa Young, The Daughter
Ensemble: Knight of Cups
Ensemble: Paterson
Ensemble: Paths of the Soul

Favourite Films of 2016

Aferim! (Radu Jude)

A blackly comic yet casually tragic journey through Romanian history, Aferim! viewed the past through black and white photography to present a remembrance that refused to offer monochrome morality, an attempt to diagnose national ills and deliver a finale that succeeds as sad pivot for a young man’s maturation and a study of the blend of arbitrary human constructs we call reality.

Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

Thai filmmaker Weerasethakul’s latest was nominally slighter and even less overtly fantastical compared to his earlier work, but his vision has arguably never been more lucid or imaginative. When so many films struggle to pinion us in our seats with vistas of soporific spectacle, Weerasethakul here evokes multiple planes and states of being with pure language of mouth and eye, and, like the hospital that is his film’s setting, provides an islet of enigma and contemplation in the midst of a modern world bellowing in our faces.

Elle (Paul Verhoeven)

Signalling that Verhoeven’s cinema has become cooler and more insidiously methodical in his late phase, Elle shows he’s lost none of his characteristic provocation, the taste of arsenic under the heady aroma of this stew. Isabelle Huppert’s effortlessly commanding performance is the linchpin of a study that both totally fulfils and makes ruthless sport of the cultural grail that is the Strong Female Character, portraying a heroine who refuses to be judged by anyone’s standards but her own.

The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)

Sparse, cryptic, finally ecstatic, an American descendent of such bastions of European social cinema as The 400 Blows and the Dardennes that nonetheless feels original, this study in a young black girl’s desire for acceptance and communal identity amidst a mysterious outbreak of paroxysms amongst a team of talented dancers provided one of the best portraits of inner-city life ever put on screen.

The Finest Hours (Craig Gillespie)

Nobody but me seemed to like this, but I found this throwback to an old-fashioned kind of adventure film a tonic amongst so many lumbering, bludgeoning big movie misfires, unabashedly corny but heartfelt and ravishingly shot. With its populace of hearty seafarers and flinty New Englanders, it was like an old Saturday Evening Post cover brought to life, and more successfully Spielbergian than the real Spielberg film of this year.

Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)

Straddling zones of horror, thriller, even western, Green Room quickly proved that Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier has his ear to the ground in ways I couldn’t anticipate, depicting the political schisms manifest this year in the manner of all great genre cinema—by enacting them at wild extremes. The result was hard, fast, and beautiful in the precision of its ugliness.

High-Rise (Ben Wheatley)

A portrait of Western civilisation’s crack-up as viewed through a lens of retro perversion, High Rise is the companion piece to Green Room’s diagram of 2016’s grotesqueness, contemplating the breakdown of a human and technological system that lays bare the workings of the social organism and suggests the strange, hideous, thrilling things that might take place.

Jackie / Neruda (Pablo Larrain)

A tawdry wing of current prestige cinema, the week-in-the-life biopic, is annexed by Latin America’s most dynamic current talent and transformed into something thrilling in Jackie, a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in the wake of her President husband’s assassination. The result is intelligent, investigative, and pungently unsentimental in its portrait of both intense personal horror and grief, and the construction of political mythology. Meanwhile, companion piece Neruda more quietly but just as radically dissects the role of the artist in society. Both films encompass the process turning life into fiction and fiction into the template of a new reality.

Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)

Knight of Cups offered the third and least celebrated of Malick’s unofficial trilogy exploring the state of modern life, coming on like a natural force in the relentlessness of its images and associations, replete with wide-eyed good humour as well as tragic force and fatalistic awe in its consideration of the manifold ways of humans being. Someday, it will be counted as a great shame no one was interested when such filmmaking was still being made.

Paths of the Soul (Yang Zhang)

The first Chinese film to deal with contemporary Buddhist faith blends documentary with gentle drama for a hypnotic experiential work depicting the quest of a small band of the faithful from a small Tibetan town who undertake a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, kowtowing all the way, for the sake of not just their own souls but the whole world. In a year of massive shows of wilful ignorance and collective sparring, this experience made me sad for wondering whether we are worth such dedication.

Queen of the Desert (Werner Herzog)

Another dismissed artefact by an ageing auteur, Queen of the Desert set out to be the anti-Lawrence of Arabia in style and substance, its lensing immediate rather than grandiose, desert surveys dusty and grey rather than radiantly expansive, its depictions of people and cultures intimate rather than mythic. Apt, for a tale that envisions the life of its heroine Gertrude Bell as moments of fleeting grace and escape and the desert an ocean of peace but only a respite from civilisation’s perversities. The result is that most contradictory of propositions: a romantic Werner Herzog movie.

Would Be On Favourites List If I Had Seen It In Time:

Silence (Martin Scorsese)

Runners-Up

Allied (Robert Zemeckis)
Dheepan (Jacques Audiard)
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
The Nice Guys (Shane Black)
Sully (Clint Eastwood)
The Witch (Robert Eggers)

Rough Gems & The Underrated

10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder)
Captain America: Civil War (Anthony & Joe Russo)
Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
Fences (Denzel Washington)
Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)
In a Valley of Violence (Ti West)
Little Sister (Zach Clark)
The Lobster (Gyorgos Lanthimos)
Men Go To Battle (Zachary Treitz)
Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
Rogue One (Gareth Edwards)
Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin)

Disappointing, Overrated, & Underwhelming

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ang Lee)
Deadpool (Tim Miller)
Free State of Jones (Gary Ross)
The Handmaiden (Park Chan-Wook)
La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
Love and Friendship (Whit Stillman)
Loving (Jeff Nichols)
Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols)
The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Passengers (Morten Tyldum)
Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)

Crap

The Fifth Wave (J. Blakeson)
Ghostbusters (Paul Feig)
The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor)
X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer)
Warcraft (Duncan Jones)

Not seen:

20th Century Women ∙ Captain Fantastic ∙ Christine ∙ Cosmos ∙ Hail, Caesar ∙ I, Daniel Blake ∙ Indignation ∙ Julieta ∙ Louder Than Bombs ∙ The Mermaid ∙ Neon Bull ∙ Rules Don’t Apply ∙ The Treasure ∙ A War ∙

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2016:

Bird of Paradise (King Vidor)
The Cat O’Nine Tails (Dario Argento)
The Edge of the World (Michael Powell)
A Hatful of Rain (Fred Zinneman)
Marooned (John Sturges)
Nazarin / The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Bunuel)
Outrage (Ida Lupino)
Phantasm (Don Coscarelli)
Rapture (John Guillermin)
Road Games (Richard Franklin)
Rodan / Mothra (Ishiro Honda)
They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray)
Transylvania (Tony Gatlif)
The Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman)
The White Reindeer (Erik Blomberg)


18th 12 - 2016 | 10 comments »

Rogue One (2016)

Director: Gareth Edwards

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Compared to the electric expectation stirred by last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the build-up to the release of Rogue One has felt comparatively muted. Or at least it has to me, because I felt particularly uneasy about what to expect. J.J. Abrams’ reboot for the Star Wars brand was a lovingly-made mediocrity, and seemed to presage a revived Disney-steered series without any boldness or fresh ideas, a bracing new trio of heroes surrounded by efficient but hollow mimicry and Pavlovian responses wrung out through careful employment of beloved fixtures. Rogue One, set between the first two trilogies in George Lucas’s deathless fantasy universe, sports a director and star I felt unsure about and rehashes old territory. Gareth Edwards, a special effects expert turned director, is the helmsman here: Edwards’ Monsters (2010) and Godzilla (2014) were ambitious, impressively mounted attempts to bring anxiety and artistry back to the monster movie genre, but both movies were foiled by Edwards’ unpersuasive dramatic touch. Rogue One had the potential to simply finish up a pile of good-looking spare parts and cheap call-backs for the fan base. Given that I’ve expended a lot of time and effort in the past defining my appreciation for Lucas’ much-derided but substantial and waywardly fascinating, romantically outsized prequel trilogy, I also felt a little threatened by this entry, which seemed poised to be the kind of film those works refused to be. This entry is determined to slavishly recapitulate aspects of Lucas’ 1977 inaugural blockbuster Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope, as Rogue One’s narrative quite literally brings us back to the opening seconds of A New Hope. As such it’s an overt work of retro ventriloquism, cloaked in borrowed finery, fan fiction with multimillion dollar heft.

Early signs aren’t greatly encouraging either. Edwards and his duo of very professional, almost overly-competent screenwriters, Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz, insist on recreating familiar beats for the series barely a year after Abrams did the same on The Force Awakens: thus at the beginning we have another wounded, vengeful young tyro created as the Empire’s violence costs her family members, and leaves her forced to fend for herself. In this case the aggrieved character is young Jyn Erso (Beau Gadsdon), who loses her family as a child, as Imperial commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) arrives on the remote planet to which her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) and mother Lyra (Valene Kane) have fled to lead quiet lives as farmers. Galen, a former Imperial officer and scientific genius who was working on the construction of the Death Star, had renounced his work, but Krennic is determined to pressgang him back into service and use his family as leverage. But Lyra is gunned down as she tries to shoot Krennic and the Stormtroopers fail to track down Jyn, who, recalling a foreboding plea of her father’s to remember all his actions are intended to protect her, hides out until located by a friend of her father, the dissident warrior Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whittaker). Years later, Jyn, having grown into the big-eyed, puffy-lipped form of Felicity Jones, is in an Imperial forced labour camp for incorrigible types. She was raised by Saw but then was suddenly abandoned to drift on the winds of fate, and now she’s an embittered, apolitical survivor and all-round tough cookie. But the Rebel Alliance busts her out of prison and offers her a chance to escape the yoke of law and history.

Thanks to the intelligence gathering of hardened Alliance spymaster Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the Alliance knows that Saw has received a message from Galen, delivered by a former Imperial pilot turned defector, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who is currently being brutally interrogated by Saw to ascertain whether he’s a fake or not. Because the Alliance broke off ties with Saw as he drifted into extremism and obsession, they want Jyn to approach him to find out what’s going on. They team her with Cassian and send them to the city of Jedah on a remote planet where the crystals used to power Jedi lightsabers were once extracted: the place has been strip-mined by the Empire for fuel for the Death Star. A Jedi temple used to be located here, and now its scattered caretakers subsist and stir trouble whilst Saw’s adherents fight a guerrilla war with the Imperial soldiers. Jyn and Cassian gain helpmates in two of the former temple caretakers, Chirrut Ïmwe (Donnie Yen), and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). They’re also aided by a reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). After ambushes and skirmishes in the streets of Jedah, this ragged band is captured by Saw’s fighters and brought to him. In Saw’s company, Jyn is privy to a holographic message from her father brought by Bodhi, in which he explains the flaw he’s laboured to install in the Death Star’s seemingly invincible defences. But Krennic, in command of the now complete and utterly deadly space station, annihilates Jedah and surrounding territory with a shot from its mighty energy weapon, forcing our heroes to flee, except for Saw, who, seeing his labours have found a fitting point of handover, remains to be swept away in the blast. With the proof of her father’s plan lost in the chaos, Jyn immediately faces the problem of attesting Galen’s good faith, a problem that becomes urgent as the Alliance orders Cassian to go to the planet of Eadu where Galen works at an Imperial research facility, and kill him.

I find Rogue One a tricky movie to critique because it stirred many, contradictory reactions in me, simultaneously annoying my critical faculties and getting my blood pumping. Although it bends over backwards to recreate familiar sights and sounds from A New Hope, it also uses that template as an excuse to shift ground just a few inches and avoids leaning too much on the regulation touchstones of the series, like John Williams’ inimitable theme, and the familiar structural conceits like the Star Wars title appearing abruptly on screen, only incorporating such touches when dramatically necessary. Rogue One instead suddenly and jaggedly announces its title, and Michael Giacchino’s score disassembles and refashions elements of Williams’ compositions whilst maintaining their spirit. Aspects of Rogue One that fail to live up to the Star Wars legacy also help to make it a slightly more galvanising and vital take on the saga than The Force Awakens. It’s a straightforward war film on most levels, fast-paced, refreshingly hard-edged and ready to go to places on a thematic level the series hasn’t touched on much before, as it emphasises the cumulatively taxing and degrading nature not just of life under tyranny but also of the fight against it. This choice allows Edwards to seek new substance in Lucas’s foundational inspirations, the side of Star Wars that was rooted in action-adventure films set during World War 2, particularly adaptations of Alistair Maclean like The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Where Eagles Dare (1968) and some older models like The Adventures of Tartu (1942), Secret Mission (1943), and The Dam Busters (1956). Aspects of the plot are so hallowed in the history of spy adventures that David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams’ great 1984 genre lampoon Top Secret! had basically the same storyline. The zesty, fairytale aspect of Lucas’ original creation has been largely suppressed here; so to has its greater conceptual scope and mythopoeic edge.

The stolidness of Gilroy and Weitz’s script isn’t entirely papered over by Edwards’ pacing and graphics, either. Gilroy’s a master of modern Hollywood’s programmatic story beats and a crinkle-browed idea of pop seriousness – witness his overrated thriller Michael Clayton (2007), which gave a coat of varnish to a mass of old furniture – whilst Weitz, though better known for comedies, directed the poky but weirdly likeable steampunk fantasy The Golden Compass (2007). That film’s bombing still seems to rankle Weitz, as he’s tellingly named his spunky heroine’s mother after its spunky heroine. Their script is much safer in affect than the archly stylised ye-olde-speak of Lucas’s prequels, so many will probably think it’s good, but it’s actually littered with thudding lines, and major characters remain fuzzily defined and lacking memorable traits. It serves, in a strange way, to highlight just how classically constructed and patient the original was, with its slam-bang opening quickly segueing into a long, almost shambling first act that put together its story and gave a feel for the predicament of its characters in the face of a galactic-sized struggle: archetypes though they be, one knew exactly who Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the other characters of A New Hope were by the time they left Tatooine and rooted for them, warts and all. Here by contrast Rogue One’s first third is a stuttering engine that takes a long time to get up to speed even as it tries to drive us along breathlessly.

We set up not one but two father figures for Jyn, good actors Whittaker and Mikkelsen turning up for a few scant minutes where they provide grizzled gravitas, only then to kill them off for teary pathos. Whereas in A New Hope such losses were rites of passage that mimicked familiar life processes in melodramatic terms, here such deaths serve rather another, blunter purpose, as Jyn’s fate inevitably takes a different turn to Anakin and Luke’s. Similarly, there’s a lack of creativity in the storyline that betrays the filmmakers’ lack of any real immersion in the process of inventing science fiction and fantasy concepts for themselves. Instead, they build up to a big, brash edition one of the essential, tiresome clichés of recent blockbuster filmmaking: the big fight around a great tall structure to try and stop or send some kind of all-important signal. Another telling lack, one carried over from The Force Awakens, is a lack of interest in or delight for the alien, the sense of mischievous invention in creating life forms and worlds. Most of what we get here is just slightly transformed familiarities and a couple of hairy moppets and tentacular things given the odd cutaway shot. Perhaps Lucasfilm’s Disney paymasters are still too antsy about the bombardment Jar-Jar Binks received to venture up this trail, and that’s fair enough, but we’re also being cheated of sequences as great and witty as the tavern sequence of A New Hope or characters as vivid as Yoda, Jabba, and Watto. On-screen casting diversity has become a mantra, and that’s something this entry does well, but diversity of personality and species is drying up quicker than the Salton Sea.

And yet, and yet. To a certain extent the problems of Rogue One cheer me more than The Force Awakens’ relentlessly considered, empty, focus-group-parsed idea of swashbuckling fun. It’s a work fashioned with both finicky attention and messy energy, one that finally gains and maintains real force in spite of all its hoary and lumbering elements. If the Star Wars saga has hitherto represented some surviving stem of the Homeric instinct in western art’s pop culture age, Rogue One is an authentically Euripedean discursion from it – touching base with all the familiar aspects of the mythology but also offering a considered takedown of some of its cherished motifs and a weighing up of what you could call the story behind the myth. Thus what becomes the great stage of heroism for Luke, Han, and Leia is seen to be built on the unstinting determination and sacrifice of others, and whose dedication somewhat ironically contrasts the faltering, Johnny-come-lately attitude of our more familiar champions. Our protagonists here are all battered outcasts looking for a way to hurt the forces of terror and iniquity as they in turn have been hurt, with Edwards emphasising the atmosphere of the Imperial control as one of general rundown, depression, deprivation and exploitation – notes repeatedly sounded in early scenes as Edwards darts between settings, particularly the grimy, packed, vertiginous environs of a city where Cassian meets with a jittery spy (Daniel Mays). Krennic’s motives are interesting if only sketched, sourced in his faith that the Death Star will finally bring about peace, echoing Anakin Skywalker’s reasons for turning Sith. Rogue One effectively links the original trilogies in both depicting the fallout of one set of events, the breakdown of a society, and setting the stage for a new pivot. Jimmy Smits makes a welcome if unfortunately brief reappearance as Bail Organa, Leia’s adoptive father, alongside Genevieve O’Reilly as Mon Mothma, both in parts they inherited in the prequels as leaders of the Rebels, giving the film a sense of continuity that feels genuinely necessary and cheering.

Much less necessary, even rather ghastly in fact, is the digital simulacrum of Peter Cushing used to represent his role in A New Hope, Grand Moff Tarkin, and, towards the end, of young Carrie Fisher’s Leia. These crappy animations, nominally employed to maintain a sense of immediate continuity, look like something out of a second-rate video game. It’s not even necessary, as O’Reilly’s ease demonstrates. Edwards’ exactitude also stretches less offensively to inserting shots of the some of the actors who play ill-fated X-Wing pilots in the original still in their heyday as hotshots in the Rebel fleet, a much better and salutary touch. Even Darth Vader returns for a couple of scenes to great effect, all his unholy stature, sardonic charisma, and psychopathic force undimmed, initially glimpsed in his private castle set amidst the landscape suggestively reminiscent of the place where he came undone at Obi-Wan’s hands at the end of Revenge of the Sith (2005). Tarkin attempts to lever command of the Death Star out of Krennic’s hands with the justification that Krennic has failed to keep tight security. Krennic visits Vader asking him for assurance his achievement will be credited to him and left in his hands, but the Dark Lord is barely interested in Krennic’s egotisms. Krennic also confronts Galen on Eadu, as he perceives Galen’s betrayal. This confrontation coincides with the urgent moment when Jyn tries to reach her father, whilst Cassian wrestles with the choice of obeying orders or helping Jyn to rescue Galen. A flight of X-Wings sent in by the Alliance to make sure of the question unfortunately decides for them, pulverising the facility.

The gloss and tactile quality of production that distinguished The Force Awakens has been carried over to this film and perhaps even bettered: Rogue One’s production values are always magnificent, and its special effects never less than persuasive. Better still, Edwards shows that he understands the sense of atmosphere, at once concrete and dreamlike, that is the great saga calling card. This is particularly true during the Eadu attack, filmed in a primal landscape of jutting stony mountains, drenching rain, and glowing technological outposts, the visit to Vader’s castle, places of and bleakly beautiful gothic scale and artisanal intricacy, and the sight of the Death Star in the sky like dawning doom. Edwards’ gifts at handling his cinematic canvasses in relation to human-level drama have strengthened, too. On the other hand, so much of the film is dismally underlit and shadowy, just like a few too many recent extravaganzas, affecting moodiness but actually simply trying to cover up any flaws in the effects. It’s telling that the first scene to shock Rogue One to life is one built around a display of physical rather than special effect showmanship, as Yen’s Ïmwe flattens a brace of Stormtroopers armed only with a quarterstaff. Yen’s dashing, lightning-fast moves and good-humoured incarnation of a character obviously inspired by the great Japanese movie hero Zatoichi, and Wiang’s equally fun incarnation of a common type of tough, big-barrel-wielding yeoman common in Chinese action films, gives Rogue One a jolt of authenticity both in the legerdemain on display and the connection to Asian genre film that’s also one of the more notable skeletons in the Star Wars closet. Ïmwe invokes the force throughout and uses it although not with a real Jedi’s competence, but otherwise Rogue One stays true to theme of mystic and spiritual depletion both internal and external that defines the Empire’s reign.

The film’s core dramatic moment comes when Jyn confronts Cassian over his willingness to assassinate her father, and his terse rejection of her harangue, as he’s suffered as much as she has and committed far worse crimes in the name of the Rebellion whilst she’s settled for subsisting on the sidelines. It’s really only here that Jyn and Cassian feel particularly lively as characters, defined by their grazing, mutual sense of righteous anger and defining loss which is of course also complicated by flickers of attraction. Jyn is interchangeable with The Force Awakens’ Rey in too many ways (with dashes of Katniss Everdeen too), to the point where she likewise sets a male counterpart’s eyebrows on high by taking down a few opponents with a stick (c’mon guys, it’s 2016). I don’t much like Jones as an actor and she trades on the same perpetual look of bee-stung hurt that got her through The Theory of Everything (2014) here: Jyn could have been a galvanising heroine but between the non-committal writing and Jones’ lack of effective pith or convincing aggression she remains essentially a placeholder protagonist in spite of the wrenching defining trauma she’s burdened with. Cassian isn’t much more noteworthy, not given any signature moment or quality, although Luna inhabits him with an effective blend of wiry intensity and quiet unease. In this regard Rogue One is something of an inverse of The Force Awakens, which had fun heroes but too often left them without really cool and interesting things to do. It’s more the characters that surround the central duo that keep things lively here: Ïmwe and Malbus, the abused and apprehensive yet determined Bodhi, and the droll comic relief of K-2SO, whose shtick isn’t terribly original – the obliviously inappropriate sidekick business was already covered in a different key by Guardians of the Galaxy’s (2014) Drax – but it’s still pretty good, thanks to one-time Serenity costar Alan Tudyk’s vocal delivery.

The earthy aspect to the action and the insistent edge of reckoning with the cost of great and calamitous warfare also gives the film ballast painfully lacking from The Force Awakens even as it retards the high spirits and breadth of vision Star Wars calls to mind. The film has an idea, that violence even in the service of a good cause isn’t great for the soul and that some causes are nonetheless more important than individual expectations, which means that it has something its predecessor didn’t have. That idea is also rooted in contradictory impulses and views of the same urge, which makes it similar to the conceptual schism that defines Lucas’s prequels: what if the thing you most want to do, nay, must do, is also the thing that destroys you? Rogue One emphasises the Rebel Alliance not as unstinting paladins but as a coalition of not-quite-aligned interests in a state of flux trying to elide outright confrontational warfare for good reason, engaged in a down-and-dirty conflict played out through more personal acts of violence over pieces of information. The reality of the Death Star suddenly and dramatically changes the landscape, forcing decisions and forging new alliances. In turn, Jyn and her new companions, including more Rebels eager for a chance to make a real difference, go, err, rogue and force their leaders’ hands by making a bold incursion at the Imperial archive centre to steal the Death Star’s plans on the planet Scarif.

Another lack apparent here, shared with The Force Awakens, is a failure to understand what made the action sequences in the original series work. As well as opportunities to incorporate the way-cool, they were structured as little stories in themselves – an aspect they had in common with Lucas’ other great pulp series, the Indiana Jones films, as chains of cause and effect pushed along by the characters’ objectives. Before one memorable aspect of the finale, there’s no ingenuity to the staging of action. There are not one but two scenes here that hinge on Jyn’s ability to climb really high ladders. Excitement! Ïmwe’s first display of prowess is both invigorating but also, frustratingly, connects to nothing else – he doesn’t even fight much in such a manner again. Perhaps that’s why the climb-the-tall-thing finale is so beloved of hack screenwriters at the moment: it entwines stake and endangerment in an obvious manner. But – and this is a major but – once Rogue One finally cuts footloose it offers a grand finale that, for all the hesitations, is still tremendous. Here the film finally gains the lucid sense of grand happenings entwined with acts of personal valiantness that make for a good epic. Edwards doesn’t have Lucas’ sense of widescreen sweep and spectacle, his scene grammar and punctuation more standard and jittery in the modern fashion, but he’s a much better director of action and visual artisan than Abrams. The rogue team’s assault on the Imperial archives draws a portion of the Rebel fleet in their wake for aid, led by Admiral Raddus (Paul Kasey and Stephen Stanton), a spacefaring fighter of the same species as Admiral Ackbar, wielding bravado as he tries to smash through the shield system around the planet to let Jyn transmit the Death Star plans.

This sequence is replete with contrivances and clichés, from absurdly placed controls for important pieces of infrastructure to weirdly unsophisticated defence systems for same. But, hell, so are most war films, and at least Edwards and company go for broke and admirably keep to the film’s brief of putting the war in Star Wars, a harum-scarum episode of wildly winging space ships and battling soldiers. Characters die one by one in suitably noble fashions, especially K-2SO, whose act of self-sacrifice is more moving than any of the humans’ deaths, and one which indeed highlights the peculiar approach of the saga to its droid characters, so deeply human as they tend to be in spite of their mechanical and digital natures – indeed, almost hyper-human in their sensitivities and loyalties. A late shot in the film of two people kissing before an apocalyptic plume about to sweep them away steals a vital image from Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii (2014). There’s great fun in the actual method Raddus and his warriors use to knock out the shield. Best of all, right at the very end, Vader’s return to action, glimpsed a figure of nightmarish evil chasing after the vital copy of pilfered plans and cutting his way through Rebel fighters to get them, the red glow of his lightsaber and his remorseless, unstoppable swathe of violence restoring the unique aura of frightening potency and mystery he wielded when first he advanced into view way back in 1977. Rogue One is definitely a mixed bag and a frustrating experience. But I can at least offer it this much praise: in these scenes, Edwards gets Star Wars thrillingly, uncannily right, and the film’s smash-cut punch-line is perfect.


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