11th 03 - 2016 | no comment »

Free Entry (aka One Day of Betty, 2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Yvonne Kerékgyártó

2016 European Union Film Festival

Free1

By Marilyn Ferdinand

One type of film I’ve charted through my own experience is the coming of age of a teenage girl. Having been a teenage girl myself, I remember the films that attracted me during those exciting years—the quite appalling Where the Boys Are (1960) and the touching The Trouble with Angels (1966). A vestige of personal interest in these films remained when I was in my 20s and made a minor religion out of visiting and revisiting Valley Girl (1983) and Mystic Pizza (1988). Since then, my need for such films has abated as my interest in them as a film critic has grown up along with the subgenre. I’ve been pleased to see such films tackle a more diverse array of stories that cross into other genres—horror (Heathers [1988], Ginger Snaps [2000]), mystery (The Virgin Suicides [1999]), and biopic (The Runaways [2010]). Despite the quality and relative success of these films, Hollywood seems to have abandoned the teenage girl. The best such films I’ve seen lately have come from Europe, including the exuberant “buddy” film We Are the Best! (2013, Sweden), the tough gang drama Girlhood (2014, France), and the film under consideration here, Free Entry, from Hungary.

Free2

Free Entry, the feature film debut of Yvonne Kerékgyártó, is something of a breakthrough for Hungarian filmmakers as a whole. The movie’s life began in 2011 with a no-budget shoot that eventually yielded five 5-minute web episodes that formed the series FreeEntry (2012). The series won awards, including a monetary prize that allowed Kerékgyártó to expand the concept into a feature film. In the process, she became the first Hungarian filmmaker to receive federal funds for postproduction and DCP creation. With a high-quality DCP to submit to film festivals, Kerékgyártó’s small movie about two friends who start breaking the bonds of childhood after they sneak off to a music festival has found its way to audiences all over the world.

Free 4

Doughy-faced 16-year-old Betty (Luca Pusztai) is introduced sulking alongside her single dad (Róbert Kardos) as he drives her to meet her friend V (Ágnes Barta) at a Budapest train station and urges her to comb her punk-style hair. The girls have a cover story about going to the country together to visit a relative of V’s. Instead, they stash their luggage at the station and head to the annual Sziget Festival held on a North Budapest island in the Danube River. They make a stop at the apartment of Wolf, (Péter Sándor), a friend of Betty’s brother, who gives them some marijuana to sell.

Free7

V looks more mature and thinks every man is hot for her, though her aggressive advances and Lolita sunglasses pretty much force a response. Betty is more businesslike and responsible, disliking V’s flirtations and the guys she picks up. Eventually, she gets tired of V’s antics and tries to do her job selling Wolf’s weed. Two security guards become suspicious, examine her entry bracelet, find it is a forgery, and evict Betty from the premises. With this separation, V and Betty make their own discoveries that turn their reunion the next day into something of a triumph for them both.

Free6

Kerékgyártó shot Free Entry at the real Sziget Festival, and though her cast held to a tight, well-rehearsed script, Kerékgyártó’s roaming camera picks up every nuance of a music festival, from the overflowing trash cans to the spontaneous dancing and singing that add to the authenticity and joy of the presentation. When Betty finds a cellphone in a port-a-let and realizes it belongs to someone she knows—someone who is with one of the girls’ favorite bands (and one friendly to the film’s director)—Kerékgyártó is able to film backstage and capture Betty and V’s excitement at receiving such special treatment. At other moments, the girls join the rest of the crowd jumping up and down, waving and shouting, as such groups as Hungarian alt-rock band Quimby and South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord entertain the festival goers.

Free3

The easy rapport between Pusztai and Barta makes the friendship of their characters completely believable. It is very true that opposites often become friends, balancing each other’s tendencies and teaching each other lessons in behaving responsibly or running loose. I was quite reminded of the dynamic between Angela (Claire Danes) and Rayanne (A. J. Langer), from the late-lamented TV series My So-Called Life (1994-95)—the former dreamy and intense, the latter flamboyant, reckless, and a budding alcoholic. Indeed, Betty and V do an awful lot of drinking in this film, which scared me just a bit while reminding me how much excessive drinking is a time-honored rite of passage that I, too, indulged.

Free 6

Another time-honored tradition of youth is acting before thinking. Although they plan to be at the festival all week, neither girl has thought to bring a tent or extra clothing for the cold nights ahead. The only food they have is a melon that Betty has to bash on a rock to open. After the girls get separated, V wanders through the tent city of festival goers looking for a place to sleep. Her anxieties surface in an effectively confusing, nightmarish scene as she comprehends how vulnerable she really is in a sea of strangers and an altered state of mind—the girls took a hallucinogen with two boys they met. Betty, on the other hand, starts for home, but eventually ends up at Wolf’s. Perhaps because of his name, she grabs his guitar and very competently sings Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’s “Lil’ Red Riding Hood” in one of the most original scenes of its type I’ve ever seen.

There’s nothing terribly revelatory or ground-breaking about Free Entry, but it gets my full endorsement because it so brilliantly and realistically captures a crucial moment in time that escapes us all too quickly.

Free Entry screens Sunday, March 13 at 5 p.m. and Thursday, March 17 at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

One Floor Below: Another tale of personal disharmony inflected by the past from Romanian New Wave director Radu Muntean, this film brilliantly explores the conflicts experienced by an ordinary man who withholds information in a murder investigation. (Romania)

Latin Lover: Director/coscreenwriter Cristina Comencini pays tribute to the glories of matinee idol worship in this hilarious tale of an Italian screen star who has slept his way across Europe and the United States and the jealousies and camaraderie of the lovers and children he’s left in his wake. (Italy)

How to Stop a Wedding: A smart script and committed acting elevate a simple story of two jilted lovers sharing a train compartment who find out they are both planning to stop the same wedding. (Sweden)

Anton Chekhov 1890: The final directorial effort of René Féret surveys six years in the life of Russian writer Anton Chekhov in the naturalist style Chekhov helped introduce to the modern world. (France)

Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


7th 03 - 2016 | no comment »

One Floor Below (Un etaj mai jos, 2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Radu Muntean

2016 European Union Film Festival

floor

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The opening scene of master Romanian filmmaker Radu Muntean’s new film, One Floor Below, is deceptively simple. Sandu Patrascu (Teodor Corban) is in a Bucharest park running off some extra pounds and throwing sticks for his dog, Jerry, to retrieve. Their play is interrupted when Sandu hears someone tell another man to put his dog on a leash; the dog is aggressive and could tear another dog apart. Sandu steps over to meet the barking dog and says, “I used to have a pit bull like that,” to which the dog’s master responds, “So you’ve got yourself a teddy bear now.” Sandu replies that “it was a bargain,” but what kind and with whom remains a mystery. In this one brief scene, Muntean has laid out the personality of his central character, a man whose darker instincts and need for self-protection under the repressive Communist regime have abated, but not disappeared.

One-Floor-Below_0011

Of all of the great filmmakers who formed the Romanian New Wave, Muntean is perhaps my favorite. He has found an understated, seemingly effortless technique for combining the personal and the political in a way that illuminates both. He dramatized in a surprisingly leisurely style the behavior of a small group of soldiers and some ordinary people on the extraordinary day in 1989 when dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was overthrown in The Paper Will Be Blue (2006) that brought the absurdity and tragedy of those lost years into laser focus. His portrayal of a disintegrating marriage in Tuesday, After Christmas (2010) offered a probing look at the emotional violence that simmered under the surface of the newly free country. With One Floor Below, we gain insight into the effects of the police state on the Romanian people and the still-yawning gulf of misunderstanding that lingers.

floor4

Sandu, his wife Olga (Oxana Moravec), and their son Matei (Ionut Bora) are a modern happy family. Sandu and Olga run a business together helping people cut through the red tape of vehicle registration and licensing and share parental concern and responsibilities for their precocious 12-year-old son, who, of course, spends most of his time playing video games and posting online. They host a small family gathering to celebrate the birthday of Sandu’s mother (Tatiana Iekel), and Sandu gathers regularly with his buddies to watch sports on TV—one night, when they seem distracted, Olga threatens to change the channel to “Romania’s Got Talent.”

ClickHandler.ashx

Sadly for Sandu, he has the misfortune to return to his apartment building while his unseen first-floor neighbor, Laura (Maria Popistasu), is arguing with a man inside her apartment about a trip she is taking with her sister to Italy. Instead of going straight up the stairs to his home on the third floor, he listens at the door. Just then, the man emerges; it is his married second-floor neighbor, Valentin Dima (Iulian Postelnico). Sandu hurries away. The next day, Laura is found dead in her apartment. When the police come by to investigate, Sandu mentions nothing of the argument.

media-title-One_F-2

It’s not hard to sympathize with Sandu. He has a great life after years of deprivation, and all he wants to do is get on with it. He never asked to be involved in a murder investigation—he only knew Laura to say hello to, after all—but here he is sitting on some explosive information. Worse, Dima seems to be going out of his way to get close to Sandu and his family, asking Sandu to help change the registration on his car, playing video games with Matei, offering Matei and Olga advice on how to upgrade their computer system, even accepting a plate of food from Olga. What’s his game? Why won’t he give Sandu his wish and go away?

floor5

One Floor Below interrogates the secrets and lies that grease the wheels of every society. In the context of a repressive society, it’s not hard to imagine Sandu and people like him listening in on private conversations, if not to inform the secret police, then to ensure they avoid associating with people who could prove dangerous to them. It’s also reasonable to assume that Sandu would be reluctant to share information with the police out of simple conditioning. Corban had me believing in Sandu’s goodness through his carefully built signs of a guilty conscience. Sandu loses his appetite, defends Laura’s honor to his friends who assume she was a slut who got what she deserved based on nothing but their need to gossip and have an answer to her murder, and mumbles painful condolences when he runs into Laura’s sister, also played by Popistasu, trying to get inside Laura’s mailbox.

floor3

But he is also timid, a man who could lose the confidence of his neighbors and the clients on whom he relies for his living if he “turns informer” to tell the truth of what he heard. Muntean is careful to show the extent of the bureaucracy that envelops even something as benign as the department of motor vehicles. Romania may not be a dictatorship anymore, and secret police may not be around every dark corner, but the mechanics of that society are still in place. Nobody of a certain age—certainly not Sandu—has forgotten, and it is the silence that results from living in such conditions that intrigues Dima, a young man who would have been a mere child when Ceauşescu’s regime fell.

floor2

Of course, it’s hard to forget that this kind of conspiracy of silence is exactly what allowed the atrocities of Ceauşescu, Stalin, Hitler, and many others to begin and continue. Despite our sympathy for Sandu, we can’t forget that self-interest is to blame for so much injustice in the world. Perhaps justice for one woman isn’t worth misery for an entire family. Perhaps the police will find the killer anyway. The brief catharsis that Sandu experiences feels good for him and for us, but the ultimate price may prove to be too high. As Romania continues to build as a nation, Muntean offers its people thought-provoking scenarios through which to build their social conscience as well.

One Floor Below screens Sunday, March 20 at 5:30 p.m. and Thursday, March 24 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Latin Lover: Director/coscreenwriter Cristina Comencini pays tribute to the glories of matinee idol worship in this hilarious tale of an Italian screen star who has slept his way across Europe and the United States and the jealousies and camaraderie of the lovers and children he’s left in his wake. (Italy)

How to Stop a Wedding: A smart script and committed acting elevate a simple story of two jilted lovers sharing a train compartment who find out they are both planning to stop the same wedding. (Sweden)

Anton Chekhov 1890: The final directorial effort of René Féret surveys six years in the life of Russian writer Anton Chekhov in the naturalist style Chekhov helped introduce to the modern world. (France)

Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


3rd 03 - 2016 | no comment »

Latin Lover (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Cristina Comencini

2016 European Union Film Festival

Latin Lover 5

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The movie industry trades in all types for all tastes. Among male matinee idols, you have your blond-haired, blue-eyed men with boyish good looks (Tab Hunter, Brad Pitt), your frail, poetic, doomed types (Leslie Howard, Robert Pattinson), and your approachable sophisticates (Cary Grant, George Clooney). No matter what flavor you prefer, what’s great about matinee idols is that they are meant to delight, to provide us with enjoyment and vicarious romance. Taking the image of the matinee idol too seriously would ruin the pleasurable escape they provide when we need a vacation from our lives.

bg_latin-lover-trailer

This featherweight quality also makes them perfect targets for satire. It is in this spirit that a large raft of women in the film industry—director/coscreenwriter Cristina Comencini, coscreenwriter Giulia Calenda, and a bevy of actresses, including the great Virna Lisi in her last performance—came together to create Latin Lover, a spoof on the type of smoldering lothario that gives the film its title.

virna-lisi

The Latin lover in question is Saverio Crispo (Francesco Scianna), an Italian movie star whose serial infidelities stretched across Europe and the United States, leaving many broken hearts and attractive children in his wake. Saverio has been dead for 10 years, and the unveiling of a commemorative plaque in his home town has his Spanish second wife, Ramona (Marisa Paredes), and his five acknowledged daughters gathering at the home of his Italian first wife, Rita (Lisi), to attend the ceremony and festivities surrounding it.

5623dda7c10869030a8a31b21d171f

Oldest daughter Susanna (Angela Finocchiaro) is the somewhat neurotic head of the Crispo Foundation, which is dedicated to keeping the star’s film legacy alive. She hides her relationship with Walter (Neri Marcorè), Saverio’s film editor and her long-time fiance, from the rest of the family for somewhat obscure reasons and refuses to allow him to come to the house or walk with her. B-list actress and full-blown neurotic Stephanie (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), Saverio’s illegitimate second daughter with his French wardrobe mistress, arrives with her half-black Moroccan son, Saverio, whom she delusionally insists resembles his namesake around the eyes. Ramona and her daughter, Segunda (Candela Peña), whose name proclaims her to be the actual second daughter of Saverio, shows up with Segunda’s sons (another Saverio among them), and her husband, Alfonso (Jordi Mollà), who immediately starts putting the moves on Solveig (Pihla Viitala), Saverio’s Swedish daughter. Near the end of the film, Saverio’s American daughter, Shelley (singing star Nadeah Miranda), also arrives.

Capture

It’s hard to keep the players straight, at least during the opening scenes of the film, but eventually, the nonstop introduction of characters and polyglot dialogue mostly comes to an end and their personalities start to shine. Of course, jealousy rears its ugly head, as Ramona vents her hostilities toward the “American slut” who gave birth to Shelley and anyone else who stole Saverio’s affections from her, while Rita nods sympathetically but with a more generous attitude toward the women who found Saverio irresistible. Solveig tries to resist Alfonso out of sisterly solidarity, but her thermostat seems permanently set at hot to trot where he is concerned. A mournful-looking Stephanie bears her relatives’ slights with exaggerated winces, self-deprecating asides, and frequent phone calls to her shrink in Paris. Intrigue is stirred when Saverio’s stunt double, Pedro (Lluís Homar), shows up, and Ramona and Rita work hard to keep him away from a writer (Claudio Gioè) who is working on a life of Saverio.

Latin Lover KEY 2-web-0-800-0-450-crop

The actors work off each other with exquisite timing and broad emotional interplay, turning what is largely a sex farce into a breezy comic masterpiece that compares favorably with Alain Resnais’ final masterwork Life of Riley (2014). The old masters, Lisi and Paredes, offer brilliant portrayals of women who adhere to the non-Bechtel-approved roles of the sexes; Paredes especially seems the very image of a nonliberated woman until she reveals that she has found her freedom from the torments of love in a rather unusual way. The sisters seem resigned to multiple marriages and unfaithful husbands, as befits their generation, and argue more over the lack of a fatherly presence in their lives. Shelley even reveals that she thought Saverio would instantly know who she was on their first meeting, only to discover he had no clue and merely wanted to jump her bones.

Latin Lover 9

I was captivated by Toni Bertorelli, who plays Picci, an old chum of Saverio’s from their home town who shares his memories of his famous friend whenever possible in endlessly boring fashion. But it is Homar who nearly walks off with the picture as the ruggedly handsome oldster who can still spin a gun like a Wild West performer, chase down a nosy photographer and sniff out his hiding place, and cry like a baby at the thought of his “workmate,” Saverio.

Latin Lover 4

In the final analysis, however, the beating heart of Latin Lover is Saverio himself. Comencini opens the film with a full-frame picture of the actor and then pans out to watch a worker walk the photo blow-up to the theatre where a film tribute to him will be held. A quick review of his career via the reminiscences of Picci show him performing in every kind of film imaginable, from Hollywood musicals and beach bum films to spaghetti westerns and neorealist dramas. The various clips and the very structure of Latin Lover call to mind some of the greats of Italian cinema, from Federico Fellini and Sergio Leone to Pietro Germi and Mario Monicelli. The final montage of Saverio images reveals that the women and men who realized no peace with who he was as a man found their greatest fulfillment in worshipping him as their ultimate matinee idol. Latin Lover is a superb comedy with heart that shows Italian cinema still has a great deal to offer, with or without its Latin lovers.

Latin Lover screens Saturday, March 5 at 6 p.m. and Tuesday, March 8 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. A reception follows the Tuesday screening in honor of International Women’s Day.

Previous coverage

How to Stop a Wedding: A smart script and committed acting elevate a simple story of two jilted lovers sharing a train compartment who find out they are both planning to stop the same wedding. (Sweden)

Anton Chekhov 1890: The final directorial effort of René Féret surveys six years in the life of Russian writer Anton Chekhov in the naturalist style Chekhov helped introduce to the modern world. (France)

Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


1st 03 - 2016 | no comment »

How to Stop a Wedding (Hur man stoppar ett bröllop, 2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Drazen Kuljanin

2016 European Union Film Festival

ClickHandler.ashx

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I always find directorial debuts interesting for what they tell me about the state of filmmaking and the mindset of budding filmmakers. The first-time feature director of How to Stop a Wedding, Drazen Kuljanin, was 34 when he made this film from his own screenplay. Like many freshman efforts, the film was done on the cheap, using only two actors and shooting with a Canon C300 handheld digital camera. Settings are borrowed—someone’s apartment, a nightclub, a train, and a train station and its immediate environs. It also relates a “tell what you know” personal story about a young man and young woman sharing the same train compartment who are traveling from Malmö to Stockholm to break up the weddings of their former sweethearts. The twist is that they learn they are planning to stop the same wedding.

Capture

Kuljanin shorthands Amanda’s (Lina Sundén) break-up by showing her and her former boyfriend arguing briefly in their apartment and then switching to a nightcub and Amanda crying in the bathroom. Kuljanin places large, black frames around these brief scenes, perhaps suggesting that we are watching them on a cellphone, but certainly giving the impression of constriction. The rest of the film takes place on the train.

Wedding3

When Philip (Christian Ehrnstén) boards, Amanda is asleep in a corner seat. He awakens her and tells her she is in his seat. Although Amanda says she gets motion sickness if she has to sit backwards, he stands his ground because he, too, can’t sit backwards. She tries to sleep in one of the forward-facing seats, but can’t get comfortable without a wall to lean against. She moves to the seat facing him and promptly gets up to vomit. Perhaps in retaliation, she lets him tell his tale of woe without letting him know that his former girlfriend is her best friend—well, perhaps not best, since she is marrying the love of Amanda’s life. Soon, she is sharing a bit about her relationship with the man she still loves and, now, passionately hates.

Wedding 5

There are few films that are set almost entirely on a train, the most notable being Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952), a suspenseful noir filled with murder and mayhem. Kuljanin’s film offers no such drama, so he resorts to sex and visual tricks to keep us engaged. His film starts rather annoyingly with a look at Amanda’s naked boyfriend, certainly original in that we don’t get an actual sex scene or a naked woman, but nonetheless a gimmick to engage us immediately. His framing and effects also seek to keep us engaged, using a horizontal split screen to shoot a conversation between Philip and Amanda that avoids the usual two-shot approach but adds nothing to the presentation, and shooting through windows to obscure his characters with arty blurs and reflections. He also scrambles the chronology of the lengthy sex on the train scene that occupies most of the final fourth of the short, 72-minute film, again seemingly for the sake of doing something different with what’s becoming a tired cliché of modern filmmaking.

Wedding2

Kuljanin should have just trusted his script and his gifted, committed actors. The dialogue is fresh, with just the right amount of combativeness and an enormous amount of honesty that is the most original part of the film. Philip’s plan to win back his love is to imitate the cue card scene between Keira Knightley and Andrew Lincoln in Love Actually (2003); Amanda, who, to Philip’s amazement, has never seen the film, savages his idea for the ridiculous Hollywood device it is. She further taunts him by describing his girlfriend in a generic sense and wondering why men fall so hard for women like her, but ending with a reference to her “cupcake earrings” that reveals she’s known all along whom Philip is pining for. She believes they need to speak from the heart, so Amanda and Philip film each other on Amanda’s cellphone as they rehearse what they plan to say at the wedding. Sundén’s wrenching monlogue is devastating to watch and feels utterly spontaneous. Ehrnstén’s dialogue is more contained, but spurred by his acting partner’s vulnerability, he also finds Philip’s authentic voice amid his reaching for Hollywood clichés. If it weren’t for these two powerful moments, I would not have believed the energetic sex scene that follows Amanda’s seductive dance to the music pouring from her phone.

c3a30559ea00552c9f6e19a8fed066c9-stopp1

Indeed, Kuljanin’s scenario offers an absorbing look at the unnamed third character in the film—the cellphone. Technology is lifeblood to today’s youth. Although Amanda leaves her suitcase on the platform in Malmö with “everything,” she says, her phone was tucked neatly into her pocket, part of her second skin. Shooting cellphone frames to start the film and using the phone for everything from making calls to making videos and music—these actions show how integral technology is in helping the millennial generation express their feelings and share their views.

hur-man-stoppar-ett-brollop-3_825x468

Ultimately, however, Kuljanin affirms the importance of real contact, not only by ending his film with sex but also when Amanda offers her arm to Philip as a place to write his phone number instead of storing it in her phone. The emotional basis of How to Stop a Wedding is reaffirmed and the possibility of living to love another day a hope Kuljanin shares with his audience. While How to Stop a Wedding shows the relative inexperience of its director, it should find a grateful, enthusiastic audience who needs to see it.

How to Stop a Wedding screens Saturday, March 26 at 4:15 p.m. and Monday, March 28 at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. Drazen Kuljanin will attend the screenings.

Previous coverage

Anton Chekhov 1890: The final directorial effort of René Féret surveys six years in the life of Russian writer Anton Chekhov in the naturalist style Chekhov helped introduce to the modern world. (France)

Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


28th 02 - 2016 | no comment »

Anton Chekhov 1890 (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: René Féret

2016 European Union Film Festival

Chekhov3

By Marilyn Ferdinand

On April 28, 2015, actor/director/screenwriter René Féret died, less than a month shy of his 70th birthday. Féret is something of a mystery to moviegoers outside of France; his only directorial effort to have gained widespread distribution is Mozart’s Sister (2011), a fictional imagining of the largely unrecorded life of composer and pianist Maria Anna (“Nannerl”) Mozart, lost in the shadow of her brother as her sexist father pushed him to the forefront, and without a single extant work to her name. Mozart’s Sister was the first film Féret made about a famous person, but his directorial oeuvre is filled with autobiographical works and stories that revolve around families, and he frequently casts members of his own family in them. Anton Chekhov 1890, his final film as a director, encapsulates many of his interests with his distinctly French point of view.

ClickHandler-2

Unlike Nannerl Mozart, a great deal is known about Anton Chekhov, the towering Russian writer who is credited with helping to found the modernist movement in literature. His short stories were much admired by his countrymen, writer/artist/art critic Dmitri Grigorovich and legendary writer Leo Tolstoy. He was very close to his five siblings and mother, though he generally despised his Bible-thumping father, and brought the family under one roof when he became their sole financial benefactor. He was also a practicing physician all his life and loved a great many women while avoiding marriage until three years before his death from tuberculosis at age 44.

Chekhov6

Féret hews close to the facts of Chekhov’s life and chooses judiciously which elements to dramatize, beginning in 1890, when Chekhov is first approached by prominent publisher Alexei Suvorin to begin writing stories for his St. Petersburg newspaper, New Times, and ending with the first production of The Seagull in 1896. His approach to depicting that life gains inspiration from Chekhov’s naturalist approach to drama in his four timeless works, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard.

Chekhov2

Féret’s fortuitous choice to play Chekhov, Nicolas Giraud, is a handsome, quietly charismatic man much in the mold of the writer himself, the center of attention for the whole family. When Suvorin (Jacques Bonnaffé) and Grigorovich (Philippe Nahon) come in search of “Antosha Chekhonte,” whose short stories published in a small paper startled them with their originality, the family bands together to keep Anton under wraps until they can determine the pair’s intentions. Féret establishes in this opening scene of high spirits the particularly close bond between Chekhov and his sister, Masha (Lolita Chammah), and his four brothers, who all sleep together, two in bed and the rest on the floor.

Chekhov 7

It is Anton’s bonds with brother Nikolai (Robinson Stévenin) and Masha that punctuate the turning points in Féret’s drama. Nikolai is a talented artist suffering from tuberculosis whom Anton persuades to abandon his dissolute life in St. Petersburg to come home, where he will illustrate Anton’s works and be cared for properly. Nikolai has the idea that he wants to visit a penal colony on the island of Sakhalin to view its living conditions, and makes Anton promise to travel with him. When Anton fails to prevent his brother’s death, he decides temporarily to give up writing—Féret has Giraud melodramatically toss a couple of manuscripts into the fireplace—and undertake the arduous two-month trip to Sakhalin. The result is the sociological treatise The Island of Sakhalin, published in 1893-94.

Chekhov1

Masha appears to be the true love of Chekhov’s life. She copies all of her brother’s works to be submitted to his publisher, is his confidante via correspondence about his life in Sakhalin, and is the person through whom Chekhov meets Lika Mizinova (Jenna Thiem), a woman in a loveless marriage with whom he has an affair. Although Lika’s love for Anton is unrequited, her parting words to him after his final rejection become part of Nina’s dialogue in The Seagull.

ClickHandler

Féret portrays the Chekhov circle as similar to the doomed families in his famous plays, emphasizing the consumptive Nikolai, the ardent romantic Lika, and Anna (Marie Féret), a teacher at Sakhalin who has shaved her head as an example to her lice-ridden students and, of course, fallen for the kind, flirtatious writer whose works she adores. At the same time, Féret offers a Francophile interpretation of their story. L’amour takes a very prominent place in the film, with Lika and Anton’s affair (and Thiem’s obligatory nude scenes) and Anna and Anton’s repressed affair consuming a fair amount of screen time.

Chekhov5

It appears Féret shot largely with natural lighting, and his DP, Virginie Surdej, makes the most of the candlelit interiors and natural landscapes. One scene where Anton interviews Sakhalin’s prisoners in what looks like an empty barn has them emerge from the shadows near the walls into the light coming through the door as Anton enters and sits at a desk recording their experiences, an effective visual metaphor for the revelations Chekhov will soon publish. Féret uses music only when filming action, which, to me, seemed like unnecessary filler to attract our gaze. The production is rather too pretty, a collection of well-appointed drawing rooms, picturesque estates, and spotless, fashionably dressed characters. Even the prisoners seemed to have carefully arranged rags and dirt.

ClickHandler-1

The Seagull was not a success when it premiered and didn’t gain recognition as a masterpiece until it was remounted in 1898. Féret doesn’t give us this information, preferring to allude to the radical transformation in acting styles that must have confused audiences by having Chekhov berate his actors during a rehearsal for their artificial line readings and melodramatic gestures. Of course, melodrama has fallen far out of favor, but I wonder whether Anton Chekhov 1890 might have benefited from a more passionately Russian approach similar to what John Huston achieved in sounding some very Irish notes in filming James Joyce’s, The Dead (1987)—a similar family affair that was the director’s last film. Regardless, Anton Chekhov 1890 is a well-crafted period piece that does justice to its subject.

Anton Chekhov 1890 screens Sunday, March 6 at 3 p.m. and Thursday, March 10 at 8 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


25th 02 - 2016 | no comment »

Home Care (Domácí péce, 2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Slávek Horák

2016 European Union Film Festival

HC1

By Marilyn Ferdinand

If we live long enough, we will be confronted with the crisis known as middle age. Some middle-aged men live the cliché of ditching their longtime mates for someone younger with whom to start their second adolescence, but the vast majority of them simply choose to berate and abuse their partner to express their fear of aging and feelings of entrapment. Among middle-aged women, routine and manic activity often cover for their terror of being left alone and, more important, the feeling that they’ve wasted their lives conforming to society’s rules. Home Care, the debut feature of Czech director Slávek Horák, examines a self-sacrificing home care nurse who, compelled by personal calamity, looks for more out of life.

HC8

Home Care opens with a static camera regarding an open green surrounded by trees. Some distance away, a deer moves into the frame and stops. After some moments, the camera shifts to Vlasta (Alena Mihulová), dressed all in beige and humping two large bags of medical supplies as she makes her way along the edge of the green to call on a patient, the first of several she will visit well into the night by foot and by bus. Her rounds can be difficult. A vicious dog bars her way at one home, and she has to fish a piece of meat out of her sandwich to distract him long enough to get inside. Another patient locks her in his bathroom to avoid getting an injection, forcing her to escape out the window.

HC7

At home, Vlasta lives in passionless coexistence with her crusty husband, Láda (Bolek Polívka). Although the couple starts each morning with a comradely shot of slivovitz, Láda treats his wife like “twice the freight and half the fun” and embarrasses her in front of her sullen daughter, Marcela (Sara Venclovská), and Marcela’s boyfriend, Robert (played by director Horák). Láda often refuses to drive her to or from work, even when she’s missed the bus or the weather is foul, because he says they spend more on gas than she makes working for the impoverished Czech healthcare system.

ClickHandler.ashx

One day, as she’s hoofing it in a downpour, a neighbor offers her a ride on his motorcycle. Although she is reluctant to accept—his nickname is “Speedy”—she climbs aboard. They promptly crash. Speedy breaks several bones, but Vlasta suffers only minor lacerations. In the process of treating her injuries, however, the doctors discover that she is seriously ill. Vlasta does what many desperate people do—she seeks alternatives to the Western medicine she herself practices and starts demanding more from her life.

Deer

The double meaning of the title Home Care signals the division in Vlasta’s life, dedicating herself to the care of others while neglecting the care she needs herself. Vlasta’s discontent and fate gained rather poetic expression when I realized that Horák means for us to associate Vlasta with the deer in the opening scene—similar in color, moving on foot, vulnerable. I initially wondered whether the deer would be shot by a hunter, but it is Vlasta who is in peril; when she goes into a deep trance during a session with a spiritual healer, she dreams that Láda has hit a doe on the road that transforms into Vlasta herself.

HC3

The film’s view of spiritual healing is fairly standard-issue. Hanácková (Tatiana Vilhelmová), Vlasta’ dance teacher, has a wise-beyond-her-years quality and encourages her to brighten up her wardrobe, pamper herself, and believe in the power of touch when she warms a spoon with her hands, bends it, and hands it to Vlasta. Miriam (Zuzana Krónerová), the spiritualist, has Vlasta drink her own urine and bond with a dead tree to heal her soul. Vlasta’s outrage that none of their ministrations are aimed at curing her ironically kicks her back into her own life to take care of business and settle her feelings with her family.

HC6

Mihulová and Polívka seem born to play husband and wife. Their alternately comic and callous behavior offers a very believable look at a wilted marriage, and their awkward return to each other is touching and also terribly sad for having come so late. The scenario also offers a realistic look at Czech home care, as Horák based some of the interactions between Vlasta and her patients on stories from his mother, a home care nurse herself. His affection for his characters comes through even when they are behaving at their worst, and shooting the film in his parents’ house, workshop, garden, and vineyard in his hometown of Zlin adds a sweet regard and comfort in the skillful environmental shooting. Some of the homey touches he brings to the film include the tradition of burying a bottle of slivovitz on the birth of a child and then digging it up to toast the child’s wedding, crooning folk songs, and forcing women to sit on towels to keep their ovaries warm. A touch of the much-beloved Czech absurdity can be found as road workers construct an underpass for frogs.

HC5

Conventionality is not something I associate with Czech cinema, but Home Care’s story and execution are as safe as can be, which perhaps explains why the Czech Republic chose it as its official 2016 entry for the safely conventional Academy Awards. Nonetheless, Horák and his crack cast infuse this familiar story with humor and heart.

Home Care screens Saturday, March 12 at 8:15 p.m. and Tuesday, March 15 at 8 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


23rd 02 - 2016 | 13 comments »

Forbidden Films (2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Felix Moeller

2016 European Union Film Festival

Swastika

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Freedom of speech. Has there ever been a more slippery phrase in modern times? In 2015, French cartoonists exercising their free speech to lampoon Islam were gunned down by offended Muslim extremists, causing worldwide mourning and defiant support for their work; yet, a French comedian was arrested for hate speech for making comments that appeared to sympathize with the gunmen. Americans condemn the repressions of the Iranian state, which has banned writers, filmmakers, and activists, imprisoning and executing some of them; yet, in recent years, Americans have seen major suppression of demonstrations and the killing of citizens, most notoriously in Ferguson, Missouri. Moreover, in the name of free speech, billionaires are now able to spend unlimited amounts of money in U.S. elections on politicians they favor. If there’s anything that’s certain, it’s that free speech is neither universally understood nor universally available, even in countries where it appears to be a core belief.

Homecoming

Film, of course, has a long history in the debate over free speech. From the Catholic Church to AMPAS and governments at all levels, films have come in for condemnation, censorship, and outright banning for everything from miscegenation of the races (Piccadilly [1929]) to sexuality (Kiss Me, Stupid [1964]). Implicit in these actions is the recognition—or fear—that films can be an effective tool for winning hearts and minds. As Hitler articulated in Mein Kampf:

One must also remember that of itself the multitude is mentally inert, that it remains attached to its old habits and that it is not naturally prone to read something which does not conform with its own pre-established beliefs when such writing does not contain what the multitude hopes to find there. … The picture, in all its forms, including the film, has better prospects. … In a much shorter time, at one stroke I might say, people will understand a pictorial presentation of something which it would take them a long and laborious effort of reading to understand.

With this assertion in mind, the Nazi Party included propaganda filmmaking in its plan, establishing a film department as early as 1930. Eventually, filmmaking was nationalized and administered by Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. While only about 15 percent of the more than 1,000 films that were made in Germany from 1933 through 1945 were blatantly propagandistic, most films conformed to Goebbels’ Nazification program in some way.

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 3.51.50 PM

Today, Germany still grapples with its Nazi past, including how to deal with the hundreds of propaganda films that unified the people of the Third Reich so effectively behind its mission to become masters of the universe. Forbidden Films deals specifically with the 40 or so Nazi-era motion pictures that are still banned from unrestricted public viewing. Director Felix Moeller isn’t as interested in the films themselves as in the debate surrounding whether it would be wise to loose them upon the general public. Although Forbidden Films wends its way through some of the “genres” with which Nazi propagandists concerned themselves, including anti-British, anti-Polish, youth indoctrination, pro-euthanasia, and, of course, anti-Semitic, with each topic prefaced by a quote from Goebbels (e.g., “Film is the educational tool to teach our young people” for films meant to delegitimize parental guidance in favor of Nazi ideology), he’s more interested in the reactions of those who attended supervised screenings of these films in Germany, France, and Israel and discussed them afterward.

Forbidden

Moeller consults a number of film scholars who foreground the films under discussion with their specific function and the elements that helped them work their magic on the movie-going public. Some films are blatant with their messages, which we see in the anti-Polish Homecoming (1941). Poles are shown discriminating against their German-minority population, climaxing with the gunning down of a family of five—an incredible act of projection that the Nazis used to justify their invasion of Poland. Homecoming fooled one German viewer, who said he never knew about the “merciless way that Poles terrorized minorities.”

ClickHandler.ashx

Other films, the scholars say, are more suggestive. The Rothschilds (1940), which takes fictionalized biography to new territory, reinforces with subtle, repeated phrases the notion of a global Jewish conspiracy to control the world by controlling its banks, ending with the admittedly not-so-subtle image of a Star of David formed by connecting the dots representing centers of Rothschild domination. An even more disguised propaganda film, the pro-euthanasia I Accuse (1941), was designed to make the public comfortable with the Nazi plan to murder 70,000 physically and mentally disabled Germans. The film concerns a woman afflicted with multiple sclerosis who begs her physician husband to end her life before the disease leaves her unrecognizable. Right-to-die groups operating today might take a lesson from its persuasive melodrama and the star power of Heidemarie Hatheyer as the wife. Indeed, I Accuse is only one of the films that skillfully used well-known stars for their marquee value and acting talent. In addition to Hatheyer, Goebbels employed Paula Wessely (Homecoming and other films), Emil Jannings (Uncle Kruger [1941] and other films) and Heinrich George (Kolberg [1945] and other films). Many of the viewers are surprised at how entertaining and well produced they are.

vlcsnap-2011-02-20-19h23m09s252

The most notorious film Moeller takes on is Jew Süss (1940). Considered by many to be one of the most effective of the anti-Semitic films of the era, it takes place in the distant German past, during the 18th century reign of Duke Charles Alexander of Württemberg. The duke turns to Süss the Jew for financial help, and this allows Süss to infiltrate Christian society, where he subverts the rule of law and eventually rapes a Christian woman. The money-grubbing stereotype is paired with dangerous, lawless behavior to incite audiences and help them justify the persecution of Jews. A lot of money was spent on this film, and the high production values and quality performances and script made it a big hit.

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 4.00.47 PM

Most of what I know about Jew Süss is what I’ve read because Forbidden Films provides only excerpts of that film that are not particularly edifying about why it is so heinous. On the whole, however, the film handles its excerpting quite well, and I found particularly interesting the edited-out footage—swastikas, Hitler, tanks, and planes—of films that then went on to be shown in theatres and on TV after the war.

verbotene-filme5

Forbidden Films is hardly a well-crafted film itself. It opens somewhat inexplicably at a well-fortified storage facility for thousands of nitrate films. Apparently, the idea was to compare the flammable and explosive nature of nitrate with the incendiary nature of the banned films whose reel cans are displayed for Moeller’s camera. The audience discussions resemble C-SPAN televised lectures and discussions. Better are the individuals who are filmed outside the screening room for their take on what they have seen. These interviews go from unhelpful to illuminating: director Margarethe von Trotta, no doubt approached for her celebrity, adds nothing, while a French woman, interestingly, believes the films would be more dangerous in France, where the right-wing National Front is strong. Moeller also obscures the faces of two interviewees, former neo-Nazis, who offer little other than that these films were popular in their group and available through YouTube.

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 3.55.32 PM

Unsurprisingly, opinions about the continued restrictions on these films are varied. In Israel, one man thought they should be shown to every school child so they can be understood and rejected. A Holocaust survivor in Germany did not want them shown on TV, as had been proposed, whereas free-speech advocates believed that people should be allowed to make up their own minds. Some people castigated film fans for wanting them released just to satisfy their cinephilia, and one scholar felt that editing the films was tantamount to mutilation. Knowing how carefully these films were crafted to sway public opinion and how susceptible all of us are to being manipulated, I personally favor erring on the side of caution by offering them only for educational purposes. Forbidden Films is not a great film, but it can be a great facilitator of conversation.

Forbidden Films screens Sunday, March 6 at 3 p.m. and Wednesday, March 9 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.


12th 02 - 2016 | no comment »

The Last Rites of Joe May (2011)

Director/Screenwriter: Joe Maggio

May 9

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Dennis Farina had one of the more unlikely routes to show business fame and fortune. A dyed-in-the-wool Chicagoan, he spent nearly 20 years with the Chicago Police Department before he was elevated from acting as a consultant on Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) to performing a small role in the movie. Farina knocked around the Chicago theatre scene, garnering the support of his fellow cops, who came to see and cheer him on. Chicago actors were hot in the 1980s, and Farina was swept up in the talent scouting that took such stage actors as William Peterson, Joan Allen, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Cole, John Malkovich, and Gary Sinise on to bigger and better things.

farina

Farina’s Sicilian-American mug and unmistakable working-class accent didn’t outfit him for romantic leads in Hollywood, so, unsurprisingly, he played a lot of cops and crooks. Indeed, Mann would return to Farina again, casting him as cops in the classic 1986 film Manhunter and the TV series Crime Story, and as a crime boss in the TV series Miami Vice. What I always appreciated about Farina’s approach to his characters was that he never overplayed their toughness. His real-life experience prevented him from hyping the potential threat his characters posed, allowing his natural gravity from having walked in those shoes do the talking for him. At the same time, he found something individual in each of them and understood the delusions and vulnerabilities that might drive a man to choose a tough-guy profession. I became startlingly aware of just how great an actor he had become after watching one of his last films, The Last Rites of Joe May.

May1

Joe May looks at a few weeks in the life of its title character (Farina), an aged short-money hustler of stolen goods who has just been released from the hospital after six weeks’ treatment for pneumonia. He must have been admitted in warmer weather, because the thin leather coat he wears is no match for the brutal dead of winter that greets him on his way back to his apartment in Little Italy, on the near West Side of Chicago. When he arrives, things look different. His belongings are missing, and signs that a child may be around (drawings on the refrigerator, frilly bedspread, toys) dot the apartment. Unexpectedly, he surprises a young woman in the shower. It seems Jenny Rapp (Jamie Anne Allman) and her daughter Angelina (Meredith Droeger) are living there; the landlord (Phil Ridarelli), thinking Joe died, rented the apartment out from under him and tossed all his belongings. A shocked Joe is next to be tossed by an equally shocked Jenny. Now homeless—even his ancient car has been ticketed as abandoned and towed away—Joe has nowhere to go and nothing to do but ride a bus until he is kicked off. One night, Jenny finds him shivering at her bus stop. She takes pity on him and offers him a room in the apartment. He immediately prepares to resume his “career” and get his life back on track.

dennis-farina-as-joe-may-in-the-last-rites

Farina plays May as a man who has followed his delusions all his life, believing he was destined to do something great and ruining his relationships with his family and friends in the process. His life has been self-centered, petty, careless. His old age is a betrayal of how he sees himself—vital, tough, charismatic, a force to be reckoned with. He rejects the advice of his friend Billy (Chelcie Ross) to move into a retirement community with him where he can socialize and relax. Joe’s life project is unfinished, he hasn’t achieved his potential yet, so relaxation is out of the question. The less Farina does, the more he says about May—his quiet determination and a mind racing to outpace the bad fortune that is overtaking him, but not knowing what to do.

GaryCole_1-rev

According to director/screenwriter Joe Maggio, he based the character of Joe May on the impoverished, displaced pensioner who is the title character of Vittorio de Sica’s classic drama Umberto D. (1952). Unlike Umberto D., Joe May never succumbs to pathos or melodrama. Farina’s May meets the world with bravado and refuses to let his belief in himself crumble. When he goes to see Lenny (Gary Cole), the fixer who fronts him the stolen goods he sells for a percentage of the take, Joe makes a big show for the drivers waiting outside for their hoodlum bosses to call, using what little money he has to hire a taxi and have the driver (Craig Bailey) open the door for him. Lenny’s contempt is palpable, but Joe is polite and controlled.

last-rites-joe-may1

Sure he is going to get back into the game, he finds that Lenny has fixed him up with a 50-lb. hunk of grassfed New Zealand lamb (“It sells itself.”). It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry as we watch Farina hump the slowly thawing meat all over town as one grocer after another throws him out on his ear. Farina shows varying shades of anger, exasperation, fatigue, and defiance as Maggio records a day of effort move into a night of failure. Joe loses his courtly ways with Lenny when he goes back to get some respect and spits venom at one of the drivers who tries to offer him some money to tide him over, a cruel act that Farina plays to rip some sympathy for Joe from our hearts. He’s not willing to give Joe a pass, even though we might be.

May2

His saving grace is the tenuous friendship he forms with Jenny and Angelina. Farina’s May is more embarrassed to see Jenny naked than she is shocked to see a stranger in her bathroom. Somehow, he finds it within himself to accept her charity, choosing to believe he can help with the rent, though he has barely a dollar to his name. He bristles at looking after Angelina when Jenny wants to have a romantic weekend away with her boyfriend, Stanley (Ian Barford), a Chicago cop; he was never around for his own son and doesn’t see himself doing “woman’s work.” He proves his inadequacy when he can’t even babysit Angelina properly, “losing” her when he dumps her at Billy’s rest home while he is trying to land a deal. Nonetheless, when he learns that Stanley beats Jenny up and intimidates her, he realizes that it’s finally time to square things with himself, to live up to his potential—which, surprisingly for him, is to do something for somebody else.

May 5

Maggio’s script is very observant, very attuned to what happens to us when we find the world has passed us by before we are ready to go. Joe’s neighborhood bartender (Matt DeCaro) still fronts him a boilermaker from time to time, but the gentrifying neighborhood is now overrun with hipsters who look at Joe’s tavern as the perfect “old man” meet-up bar. One of the hipsters even tries to buy Joe’s leather jacket for its retro cool look, insulting its current owner. When Jenny and Angelina buy Joe a record player for the few opera records of his the landlord didn’t toss in the garbage, we know it’s come from a junk shop, a relatively worthless relic that still fits Joe’s present need.

May 3

Maggio’s camera, lensed by Jay Silver, offers the real Chicago, far from the famous buildings, marquees, and lakefront that most films use as signifiers, a great tribute from a New York native who changed the location of the film from his city when he cast Farina. This film lingers on outside-the-Loop streets, underpasses, working-class residential neighborhoods, and meat-packing facilities. I’d almost say this film isn’t recognizably anywhere to people who don’t live here, but the presence of Farina and a raft of other Chicago actors gives the film a distinctive voice and vibe. A rap of the knuckles on a tabletop signifies thanks and recognition, short, plain-spoken sentences and expressive looks emphasize the understated staccato of a Chicago conversation, inadequate outerwear gets a matter-of-fact “That’s a little thin for the weather.”

May 8

The Last Rites of Joe May is full of small, telling moments that paint a picture of a place, a time, and especially a man whose life amounted to something after all just in the telling of it. The film builds believably to its inevitable end, honestly earning Joe the respect he craved all of his life. Dennis Farina’s tour-de-force performance is an appropriate legacy for a great actor who shared his soul and passion to the end of his life.


7th 01 - 2016 | 5 comments »

The Hateful Eight (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

HatefulEightInside

By Marilyn Ferdinand

My conversion to Quentin Tarantino fan has been a fraught and slow one, and not for the reasons some of you might imagine. I’m not that squeamish about violence and profanity, though I will admit they are not my favorite things. No, the real reason I started digging in my heels about Tarantino is that a very aggressive group of male film fans with whom I used to be associated kept insisting that I had to see his films. I don’t like being told what to do, and I especially don’t like to be told by a bunch of men with anger management issues and sexist tendencies. So it came to pass that it was 2008 before I saw one of his directing efforts, Grindhouse: Deathproof (2007). It was a rather unfortunate experience, as his homage to this form of cinema was so faithful that it bored me to tears. Nonetheless, the thaw between Mr. T and myself began, and though I still haven’t seen much of his oeuvre, I thoroughly enjoyed the Kill Bill movies and look forward to viewing others.

8-7

Which brings me to his latest film, The Hateful Eight. I was genuinely excited about seeing it, particularly since he was bringing back the widescreen, celluloid film format I remember so fondly from my childhood PLUS an overture and intermission. Why, I haven’t seen those lovely interludes in a proper theatrical setting since The Sound of Music (1965)—and believe me, a lot of films today could use them! I relished the idea of spending a New Year’s Day packed into the vintage Music Box Theatre with a sold-out crowd of 860 to see a genuine movie event. Even waiting outside in the cold for the patrons of the previous sold-out show to exit the theatre and the staff to clean up after them was kind of a thrill. We got some very good seats about 10 rows back from the specially rigged wide screen and waited for the lights to dim and the film to jitter slightly along the sprockets of the 70mm projector, through the Ennio Morricone overture, and finally to the opening vista of a snow-covered range in Wyoming. It was kind of downhill from there.

DouglasForced

Tarantino’s choice of genre—a western set during Reconstruction—is an interesting one at this current moment in U.S. history. As racial tensions run high, in part because of the failure to sustain the advances of Reconstruction beyond the pitifully short 12 years it lasted, a bit of truth-telling to the country’s frantic white supremacists and “postracial” neoliberals is certainly in order. The writer/director’s transmitter of choice is a fully empowered African American named Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) who fought for his freedom as a member of the Union Army; indeed, as a gun-toting bounty hunter who always brings ’em in dead and who claims a close friendship with Abraham Lincoln (read Barack Obama), he’s their worst nightmare.

8-10

The crackers he’s about to instruct constellate certain types. John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is a fellow bounty hunter whose nickname, “The Hangman,” refers to his preference to bring ’em in alive. He doesn’t really say so, but it seems he believes in the American system of justice whose foundation is that everyone has a right to their day in court. He also adjudicates life and death on the road to Red Rock by deciding to let Warren and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a goofy guy who claims he’s headed to Red Rock to become their next sheriff, ride with him after they are stranded with a blizzard approaching. Chris, whose daddy was the leader of the infamous Mannix’s Marauders, a band of Confederate soldiers who kept fighting for the cause mainly by killing blacks anywhere and everywhere they found them, represents eager, uneducated youth, sure he’s ready to uphold the law in a land where violently breaking it is more the rule than the exception. The prisoner Ruth is transporting to Red Rock is Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an unrepentant outlaw and racist whose obviously drawn-on black eye and function as a punching bag and target for disgusting bodily emissions are so cartoonish that her roles as plot device and (not very funny) comic relief are never really in question. Also, since she’s destined to hang, her enlightenment is neither needed nor wanted.

409076-tim-roth-the-hateful-eight-crop

This being a Tarantino film, we know that this caravan is headed for some kind of bloody reckoning and that it will come at Minnie’s Haberdashery, the waystation where they must ride out the blizzard before reaching their final destination. Minnie (Dana Gourrier) and her husband, Sweet Dave (Gene Jones), are away. Bob (Demián Bichir), a shaggy Mexican, has been left in charge of the store. General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), an elderly Confederate officer who is on his way to Red Rock to erect a tombstone for his son, who died there while trying to seek his fortune, is holed up with two other stuck travelers, hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) and cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). Warren turns sleuth at this point, noticing clues that all is not what it seems at Minnie’s, turning this western into a very crude episode of Murder, She Wrote as the cast of characters bob and weave around each other and start dying. All that’s left is to wait for Warren to call them all together to solve the mystery and finger the bad guys.

8-6

There are things about The Hateful Eight to admire. Tarantino seems to be more interested in creating character arcs that reveal some changes and depths of understanding. Warren is by far the most full-blooded of the film’s characters, revealing intelligence, cunning in dealing with a racist world, literacy far beyond what might be expected of a man of his background, and leadership skills. Although he appears to be named for Charles Marquis Warren, a pulp fiction writer, as well as a screenwriter and director of numerous western films and TV shows, he seems modeled in part on Robert Smalls, a slave who freed himself and others in a daring escape, joined the Union Army, lobbied Abraham Lincoln to enlist more black soldiers, and eventually served as a congressman from South Carolina. Ruth seems to have an emotional life, with an appreciation of music, an ability to compromise when he lets Daisy off her handcuff tether to him to eat dinner, and a genuine admiration for Warren as a fellow professional of uncommon skill. Even Chris, who initially offers a healthy helping of bigotry to Warren and greets Smithers with outsized respect, seems to grow into his supposed role as a lawman to work with Warren. Only Daisy resists redemption, which marks her out as the baddest of the bad in Tarantino’s eyes and deserving of everything she gets, though, in fact, the script reveals there is a far worse person associated with her in the eyes of the law.

8-9

I also applaud Tarantino’s attention to detail in showing how westerners handle blizzard conditions. It was really interesting to see guidelines strung between the store, the outhouse, and the stable through looped poles struck into the ground, and the camerawork of his regular DP, Robert Richardson, did all but put the ice on our noses as stagecoach driver O.B. Jackson (James Parks) struggles against gale-force winds to reach the store from the outhouse. That said, I found a singular lack of imagination in the use of the widescreen format for the duration of the film. Expecting great things from the beautiful panoramic shot that opens the film, I was dismayed that Tarantino immediately slaps us into a claustrophobic stagecoach for some lengthy conversation between Ruth, Warren, Mannix, and Domergue that made me wonder (probably correctly) if the whole thing had been filmed on a soundstage using really good process shots to show the great outdoors through the slivers of window that made it into the extra-wide frame.

8-5

After the coach ride, we are again largely confined to the interior of the haberdashery. I have read that Tarantino’s use of Panavision was to record the landscape of the face, but honestly, any camera at all can capture a good close-up of a face (see my review of The Lodger, a 35mm-shot film from 1926, for more on this). In fact, Richardson doesn’t spend all that much time on faces, but rather uses blocking that suggests Cinerama, whose logo is displayed during the opening credits. He divides the screen in thirds and places objects, mainly the characters, squarely in each zone when they are not large enough to fill the screen. This blocking makes demands on the actors and lighting technicians that other films don’t, and thus, there is a real finesse required of everyone to make the technique work. More than that, there needs to be a compelling reason and vision to use it. Westerns tend to be a natural fit because the ethos of the genre is conquest of the wide-open spaces. In this case, I feel Tarantino has neither the finesse nor the imagination that filmmakers like John Ford and David Lean possessed to envision a widescreen world. I applaud the attempt, however, for at least it gives young audiences a taste of what they’ve been missing all these years watching films on increasingly smaller and smaller screens in relative isolation.

8-3

Tarantino’s great love for B genre films seems to have extended to his lack of attention to continuity. In one scene, O.B. grabs a bearskin off the wall, rolls himself in it, and throws down next to the fire to warm up from his exposure to the blizzard. He is never seen in this position again. In another, a character is shot, crawls a bit on the floor, and dies. He does the same thing a couple of shots later. The denizens of Minnie’s stake out zones for Union and Confederate sympathizers, respectively, and then repeatedly violate those zones. He also offers the symbolism of an enormous, snow-covered, grotesquely carved crucifix on the roadside, a genre fixture, but never refers to religion in any way again. Even the too good to be true “good people” he injects into the film seem religion-free. In addition, scenes are allowed to drag on and on. For example, we really didn’t need to see eight of the looped poles going into the ground to get the idea, and the repeated “gag” of having to nail the door shut to keep out the snow wore out its welcome very quickly.

8-8

The biggest problem for me is that the film really held no surprises, nor did the stakes feel important or personal in any way. I kept thinking about another film, Day of the Outlaw (1959), and how much deeper it went in surveying a similar story because its characters behaved like real people and it seemed rooted in its surroundings in a way all the bric-a-brac in Minnie’s and then some could never accomplish. The film is a flimsy fantasy that I found almost completely humorless, though I may be an exception in this regard, and lacking a proper ending. Its comment on race relations, particularly in one lurid fantasy Warren relates to Smithers, certainly gets at the hysterical fear of black men especially, but because it’s so hard to take Tarantino’s films seriously, any statement he might be making—if indeed he was trying to make a statement at all—will likely be lost. I have no problem with filmmakers who just want to give their audiences a good time, and many filmgoers have had a great time seeing The Hateful Eight. I just wish I had been one of them.


6th 01 - 2016 | 15 comments »

Man in the Wilderness (1971) / The Revenant (2015)

Directors: Richard C. Sarafian / Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu

Man in the WildernessClickHandler

By Roderick Heath

The story of Hugh Glass contains the essence of American frontier mythology—the cruelty of nature met with the indomitable grit and resolve of the frontiersman. It’s the sort of story breathlessly reported in pulp novellas and pseudohistories, and more recently, of course, movies. Glass, born in Pennsylvania in 1780, found his place in legend as a member of a fur-trading expedition led by General William Henry Ashley, setting out in 1822 with a force of about a hundred men, including other figures that would become vital in pioneering annals, like Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, and John Fitzgerald. The expedition had a rough time over the course of the following year, often battling warriors from the Arikara nation. Near the forks of the Grand River in what is today South Dakota, Glass was attacked by a bear and terribly mauled, and his party on the expedition believed his death was inevitable. Fitzgerald and some other men, perhaps including Bridger, were left behind to watch over Glass. For whatever reason, they departed before Glass had actually expired, taking his rifle with them. But far from dying conveniently, Glass, alone in an inhospitable wilderness, instead began to recover. Living off the land and at first literally crawling his way cross country, Glass headed for the nearest sure outpost of western civilisation, Fort Kiowa, about 200 miles away. He was helped by friendlier Native-Americans tribes and eventually made it to the Cheyenne River, where he built a raft and floated downstream to the fort. He later confronted and recovered his rifle from Fitzgerald.

ManWilderness16

Glass found only temporary reprieve from the violent death that would eventually come 10 years later, when his luck ran out and the Arikara caught up. But the account of his ordeal has been told and retold, lending him a kind of immortality. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s latest work, The Revenant, takes on Glass’s story via the highly fictionalised novel by Michael Punke, and Iñárritu and coscreenwriter Mark L. Smith embellished the tale further to illustrate not merely a great vignette of trial and suffering, but also a panoramic experience of a time and place that’s less than two centuries in the past and yet seems near-fantastical. It’s not the first film to take direct inspiration from Glass. Man in the Wilderness was the second of two films Richard C. Sarafian released in 1971, the other being his most famous work, Vanishing Point. Man in the Wilderness fell into obscurity by comparison, perhaps because it was overshadowed by a host of similar films at the time, including A Man Called Horse (1970) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Man in the Wilderness is, after a fashion, also a product of a legendary time of pioneers and radicals impossible to recapture in an age of more insipid labours, except this time the disparity is merely one of artistic modes. Sarafian’s film is a totem for the fresh, sun-dappled, smoky-grainy stylistics of American New Wave cinema, whilst Iñárritu’s comes with a hefty, technically demanding contemporary production with a massive budget trying to recapture the same feeling of extreme experience and offer that peculiarly contemporary aesthetic, high-powered moodiness. Both films are nonetheless fascinatingly unified, and divided, by their approaches to Glass’s tale, and by their stature as products of filmmakers at the height of their respective powers.

ManWilderness12

Man in the Wilderness imposes pseudonyms on its characters for the sake of independence and portrays its main character, redubbed Zachary Bass (Richard Harris), as an Englishman, whilst also introducing an element of loping surrealism in Sarafian’s vision right at the outset: his “Captain Henry” (John Huston) commands from the deck of a boat that has been repurposed as a huge cart dragged overland by a team of horses, allowing his expedition to tackle both water and land as he aims his team toward the nearest big river to catch the spring melt. Immediately, Man in the Wilderness recasts Glass’s narrative as a variation on a theme by Melville, a tale of hubris on land rather than sea: Huston, who adapted Moby Dick into a film in 1956, here takes on the Ahab-esque master role, one which also fits neatly into the run of such corrupt overlord figures Huston would play in this period, most famously in Chinatown (1974). Iñárritu is less fanciful if not less referential or less preoccupied with symbolic dimensions, as his version of Ashley, also called Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), is forced to leave behind his river barge as well as all the furs the team has obtained after a devastating attack by the Arikara that leaves most of the party dead. Iñárritu quickly reveals his own points of adherence as his camera drifts through eerie, sunray-speared forests straight out of some imagined cinematic handbook of Terrence Malick’s (suggested title: “How to Be a Transcendentalist Filmmaker in 2,346 Easy Lessons”), with a strong dash of Herzog as Iñárritu’s camera roams restlessly around his characters on their small raft. Iñárritu creates a jittery, incessantly neurotic mood that suggests that, far from finding limitless freedom and romantic self-reliance in the wilderness, these pioneers are lurching into a bleeding sore in the Earth partly of their own making. Iñárritu and cowriter Mark L. Smith also quickly introduce fictional aspects of Glass’s story, as they portray Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) as accompanied by Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), his teenage son by his native wife.

Revenant07

Glass’s life before he joined the Henry expedition was by all reports already amazing. His adventures included a stint of piracy under Jean Lafitte and a spell living with a Pawnee tribe. He married a woman of the tribe and helped represent them in a delegation to the U.S. government. So Hawk isn’t at all an improbable invention, underlining both Glass’s attachment to and affinity for the land and its inhabitants, an affinity too few of his fellows share, as well as lending grim consequence to his character’s preoccupations and the odyssey ahead of him. Iñárritu’s Glass is haunted by the memory of Hawk’s mother, killed in an army raid on their camp, and Glass is marked with enigmatic infamy by his fellows for having killed one of the army soldiers who threatened his son. Fitzgerald, called Fogarty in Sarafian’s film (played there by Percy Herbert, whilst Tom Hardy takes the role in Iñárritu’s), is portrayed in both films as an antsy, truculent, paranoid exemplar of the white pioneer, with a side order of racism and a dose of fear-and-trembling religiosity in The Revenant. Iñárritu makes sure we know whose side to take when his Fitzgerald keeps insistently calling local Indians “tree-niggers.” To a certain extent, Sarafian’s Bass combines aspects of Iñárritu’s Glass and Fitzgerald, presenting a man stripped out of his world and adapted to a new one, solitary and haunted, motivated by almost inchoate need and sometimes seeing the mother of the child he left in Britain, Grace (Prunella Ransome), in foggy memory. Sarafian’s film is a sprawl of hazy browns, yellows, and pale greys, whereas Iñárritu paints with blue filters just occasionally relieved by the touch of the sun.

Revenant21

Early in The Revenant, Fitzgerald tries to spark a fight with Glass and Hawk in his anxiety and boiling anger following their battle with the Arikara and their looming cross-country hike, a gruelling journey made all the more bitter by their lost fortune. Fitzgerald takes out his resentment on Glass as the man who knows the land and has the cool mastery over it and himself that Fitzgerald lacks. Fate puts Glass at Fitzgerald’s mercy, although Fitzgerald only accepts the sorry and dangerous task because Henry offers him a bonus. He, Bridger, and Hawk remain to keep vigil, but Fitzgerald, who once survived a scalping by Indians—he has the semibald patch on his pate to prove it—is so afraid of being caught again by the war party on their trail that he knifes the protesting Hawk to death, dumps Glass in a shallow grave, and lies to Bridger about an imminent native attack to get him to flee with him. In Man in the Wilderness, Fogarty and the avatar for Bridger, Lowrie (Dennis Waterman), flee when they really do when seeing Indians close by, and, when they meet up with Henry, the commander acquiesces to their decision with a pep talk: “Man is expendable. We’re exploring new frontier – we must always push on and give our lives if need be.” Henry all but invites becoming Bass’s nemesis, not just by not going back for him, but also by anointing himself as representative of all the forces and powers by which Bass has felt persecuted. As the film unfolds, the two men fight long-range psychic warfare, Bass making a spear and aiming it with gritted teeth at the distant mountains Henry is trying to cross, Henry firing his guns into the whirling snow behind his wagon train at the invisible opponent. But Henry has his own bewildered feeling for Bass, as he gave the runaway a place on his ship when he was a youth and wanted to be his father figure; instead, he remained locked out by the coldly self-reliant exile.

ManWilderness46

The Revenant’s title comes from a nickname attached to Glass, a French word meaning to come back or be reborn, and both Sarafian and Iñárritu emphasise Glass/Bass’s story as one of both literal and mystical resurgence. Sarafian’s Bass emerges from his rough grave with some piece of his spirit now infused with the land, and his former fellows begin to see the landscape as charged with portents of his survival. Visions of the stalking revenger torment Captain Henry and Fogarty, to the point where Fogarty accidentally guns down Lowrie, thinking he’s Bass back from the dead. The meaning and import of Bass’s experience isn’t discussed or turned into images as literal as The Revenant’s, but rather diffused throughout the textures of the film. Both Man in the Wilderness and The Revenant wrestle with Glass/Bass’s journey as a tale replete with religious, or at least spiritual, overtones, but also present the hero himself in a state of deep crisis about his belief systems, an insistence that suggests just why Glass’s story fascinates them, as Glass travels as far, physically and in terms of life force, from other men as it’s possible to get and then begins his return. Iñárritu loads his take with images of both shamanic and Catholic concepts of rebirth, as Glass crawls out of the grave, emerges from a ritual hut after surviving a bout of sickness, and later is disgorged from the belly of a horse he climbed into to keep warm. He also enters the (possibly imagined) ruins of an abandoned frontier church replete with faded murals depicting devils and angels. “God made the world!” a hand-lashing, Bible-bashing teacher instructs bewildered and smouldering young Bass, and Sarafian’s film studies the divergent tug between the call of the sublime hidden somewhere in the landscape and his hatred of abusive powers claiming to work in the name of an almighty.

Revenant29

By contrast, Iñárritu’s take on Glass, whilst offering a similarly ecumenical view of spiritual impulses, nonetheless offers what is essentially a passion play, a Catholicised fetish tale of suffering as the way to truth. Both films also depict Glass/Bass’s revenge-seeking journey with a sense of anticipation over whether he’ll actually carry it through. The question of whether to take revenge is couched in terms of maintaining something like an ethical system in the face of a nihilistically indifferent land and a focal point for Bass’s already deep-set sense of alienation and aggrieved fury in the face of humanity’s contemptible side. Iñárritu’s Glass, on the other hand, has a more obvious spur to chase down and confront his enemy—the murderer of his son. Hikuc strikes up a woozy amity with Glass in part because they’re both bereft wanderers, but it’s Hikuc who conveniently spells out the message that vengeance is God’s province, not man’s, and the question becomes whether Glass will heed the credo of vengeance belonging to the Lord and bring mercy to the terrible reaches of the Earth. Meanwhile, authority as represented by Henry is, in very 1971 fashion, posturing, despotic, and grave in Man in the Wilderness; authority, in very 2015 fashion, is callow, well-meaning, and barely competent in The Revenant. “Zach fought against life all his life,” Captain Henry says of Bass, who is presented as a classic prickly antihero of the late ’60s and early ’70s, a self-reliant misfit who can’t handle domesticity, has contempt for standard religion as plied by figures like Henry as representative of the self-righteous, hierarchical world, and who only finally begins to regain a reason to engage with humanity, ironically, because of his betrayal and abandonment. Shortly after he’s left to die, Bass is found by a band of Arikara on the warpath, whose chief (veteran actor Henry Wilcoxon) gives him a blessing, an act that arms him spiritually on the way to recovery.

ManWilderness11

Sarafian’s world is happenstance, gritty and eerie. Iñárritu’s is enormous, but also reaches incessantly through the nightmarish for the ethereal. Iñárritu, although not universally admired, comes to the material right off the Oscar-garlanded success of Birdman, or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014), and he’s been lauded as a major talent since the release of Amores Perros in 2000. By comparison, Sarafian’s vision didn’t get much time to mature: a former TV director, he seemed poised for a major career with Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness and produced a handful of other cultish films, including Lolly-Madonna XXX and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (both 1973), few of which were successes at the time, forcing him back into TV and very occasional features. Nonetheless, Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness stand as one of the most coherent units of filmmaking of the ’70s, complimentary mythical takes on the death and resurrection of the American spirit in that age of great national questioning. Vanishing Point’s hero, Kowalski, is contemporary man, riding his chrome horse across the landscape towards his inevitable date with death; Bass is both his ancestor and spiritual counterpart, clawing out of the Earth and relearning how to live in an Ouroboros-like chain. Man in the Wilderness is as shaggy, earthy, and fecund as Vanishing Point is shiny, modern, and solipsistic. Both films start in the present but explore their heroes’ lives via interpolated flashbacks: we see Grace, who had to contend with his restless incapacity to live a normal life and his decision to leave their son in her mother’s care after Grace died, whilst moments of dreamy, proto-Malickian beauty drift by, including Bass, lying tattered and agonised, staring up at autumnal trees dropping their leaves on him in languorous slow-motion, his lost lover’s face fading in and out of focus over maps of autumn detritus.

Revenant37

Vanishing Point was written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, whose script referenced a peculiarly Latin-American brand of symbolic journey also reflected in Iñárritu’s comprehension of his material, which amplifies to the point of overloudness many of the ideas already present in Man in the Wilderness. Iñárritu has plainly long been fascinated by characters on the edge of the mortal precipice, whether explored in personal experiences fending off death or desperation in the likes of 21 Grams (2004) and Biutiful (2009), and caught between worlds, as evinced in Babel (2006). Iñárritu’s Glass is equally at odds with his nominal civilisation but has his place in a new one, again in a manner familiar from a lot of post-Dances With Wolves (1990) westerns. Iñárritu’s visual approach to The Revenant varies the one he proffered in Birdman, often punctuating the film with virtuoso linked camera movements, at once drifting and propulsive, and including staging several violent action sequences in seemingly unblinking single takes. In Birdman, the visual scheme emphasised both theatrical unity and the transformative power of its protagonist’s vision, as well as the impelling intensity of his neurosis. In The Revenant, Iñárritu regards the landscape as a sprawling system and a much larger stage through which his characters wander, apparently both free, but also locked in by the scale and indifference of the land and, even more unavoidably, the brutality of other humans and the wilderness of one’s own mind. But dreams and reveries have just as much import for Iñárritu as Sarafian, interpolating throughout Glass’s visions of his dead wife and other awesome, terrible sights around the west, like a mountain of buffalo bones and the smoking ruins of his village.

ManWilderness37

Iñárritu’s narrative incorporates a motif that suggests a tribute-cum-inversion of John Ford’s canonical western, The Searchers (1956), as he weaves in a rival storyline with Glass’s. The Arikara band’s leader, Elk Dog (Duane Howard), scours the landscape because his daughter, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), has been kidnapped, and his belief that Henry’s party took her sparked the initial assault on them. At one point, he trades Henry’s recovered furs to a band of French trappers led by Toussaint (Fabrice Adde) in exchange for some horses, unaware that this party is the one holding Powaqa captive as a sex slave. Glass finds succour when he encounters a Pawnee loner, Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud), who shares offal from a felled bison with him, and later, recognising Glass is in danger of dying from infection, seals him up in a hut and plants maggots on his wounds to clean them. Glass emerges from this ordeal greatly recovered, but finds in the meantime that the French trappers have murdered Hikuc. He comes across them as Toussaint is raping Powaqa, intervenes, and lets Powaqa kill Toussaint before distracting his fellows whilst she runs away. Glass now has two gangs of incensed enemies on his trail. By contrast, Sarafian’s Bass remains much more of an onlooker, witness to the often surreal on the wilderness. He watches helpless as a small party comprising a white mountain man and his Indian family and companions are assaulted and wiped out by others on the warpath, but the funerary pyres the war party light near the dead bodies gives Bass the gift of warmth for the first time in weeks; he is also able to salvage spearheads and other tools from the attack. Later, he watches as a native woman gives birth in the midst of the woods whilst her man waits beyond a cordon of taboo, a spectacle of pain and exposure that nonetheless communicates an overwhelming charge of life’s unruly beginning and power, forcing Bass to think at last about the son he left behind and marking his own, genuine moment of spiritual rebirth.

Revenant39

The Revenant comes pouncing out of the underbrush, a careening, unstoppable beast of a film, much like the bear that gives its hero a very hard time. Iñárritu’s film is a visual experience of great verve and occasionally astonishing invention, utilising cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s incredible talent and turning his eye on terrains of grand mountains, snows, rivers, blood, filth, fire, night and day and, most zealously, the sepulchral beauty of magic hour. Iñárritu unveils a vision of nature as hell and cathedral, forge and fire. The director’s new obsession with plying his tricky extended shots and wowing the audience with how’d-they-do-that-isms conjures at least one great sequence, when Glass is awakened by the arrival of the Arikara war party and forced to flee on his horse only to ride over the edge of a cliff, pitching himself and his mount into an abyss. Lubezki’s recent shooting style, which he pioneered to mighty effect on The Tree of Life (2011), has brought to modern cinema something of a panoramic effect, utilising extreme wide-angle lenses, but with looming, lunging actions in the foreground, imbuing even simple actions with epic stature and lucid beauty. Iñárritu leans on this effect like a crutch throughout, when the camera is roaming. Unlike on Birdman, though, this incessant movement here seems to foil the energy and effects of his actors, who are often reduced to filling in unnecessary spaces. The more sophisticated Iñárritu becomes in terms of his filmmaking, the more scanty and heavy-handed his and Smith’s screenplay seems, the more repetitive in its action and straining in its search for significance the film becomes. The second hour of the two-and-a-half-hour film concentrates on Glass’s recovery and agonised journey, but ultimately gives less convincing a sense of his method than Man in the Wilderness. It’s not enough for Iñárritu to have his motif of death and rebirth or stage one sweeping chase sequence—he gives variations on both several times.

Revenant17

DiCaprio’s genuinely good performance does far more to put flesh on Glass than the script ever does, presenting a man who’s in deep, soul-twisting pain long before the bear gets him, a being used to the laws by which frontier life is lived: it’s there in his eyes as he polishes his gun and keeps a firm lid on his son’s mouth. By the end, he’s suffered so much he enters a kind of rhapsody, and the thirst for revenge cannot be sated; it can only be transmuted into a different kind of rhapsody. But Hardy, who stops just this side of broad, has the juicier part as the half-mad Fitzgerald. The film desperately needs more of the eccentric character power of the scene where Fitzgerald tells Bridger about a revelation that a duck he came across was God and had a vision of the interconnectedness of things, just before he shot and killed it. Even this scene, though, doesn’t seem to have a point to make other than to underline Fitzgerald’s already underlined mixture of weird conviction and cynicism. Dialogue in early scenes is so awkward-sounding like it might well have been translated from Spanish. But to be fair, Iñárritu is making his first true epic film, perhaps the first since Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) that tries to mate the worship of expanse and macrocosmic survey that defines the epic with a volatile, near-experimental aesthetic. At the core is an appropriately epic purpose, an attempt to invoke the breadth of the American historical experience as crucible of trial, suffering, and violence, of contention with nature as an alternately brutal and sublime passage of arms, and with human nature, the bitterest of wildernesses. A point of reference here could well be D.H. Lawrence’s diagnosis of the death worship at the heart of so much formative American mythology and an attempt to move beyond it, to explore the emergence of new faiths, binding ideas, and crossbreeds of culture created in such a time and place. But Iñárritu doesn’t give enough of that, and it’s also hard to shake the feeling after a while that he just adores all the handsome gore and portent as some kind of art. Sarafian includes the birth scene to give a pungent, urgent image of life counterbalancing death, down to the mother biting through her babe’s umbilical cord. Iñárritu, on the other hand, can handle manly suffering by the bushel, but can’t handle its opposite. His art only exists in a hysterical flux.

ManWilderness29

Sarafian’s film is far more becalmed and classical, though in many ways, its approach is not only similar but, in its early ’70s manner, more sensible, balladlike in moments of wistfulness and muscular in action. It’s also much shorter, but still manages to conjure a mythic tone through the force of its images and the surging drama of Johnny Harris’ score, whose old-fashioned romanticism directly contrasts The Revenant’s surging atonal drones and thuds from a battery of composers. Wielding a sense of nature untouched both by human hands and CGI tweaking, Sarafian actually explores his hero’s mindset via flashbacks and the utilisation of the landscape as mimetic space, where Iñárritu rather merely states it: we know what the world means to Bass in a way that’s much richer, and less sentimental, than Glass’s pining for his wife. Indeed, Sarafian’s structure is more successful here than in Vanishing Point, where some of the flashback vignettes laid on formative crises a bit thickly. Richard Harris, an actor who could be sublime or a colossal hambone depending on his mood, was at his best for Sarafian as DiCaprio is for Iñárritu: both actors seem to revel in simply inhabiting their roles with a minimum of dialogue, their reactions to the shock of cold water, the feel of the earth, and the texture of blood entirely real. It could also be said that Sarafian does a slyer job inverting the audience’s viewpoints, as he offers a vignette depicting the Indians recording the sight of Henry’s land-boat in a painting, a glimpse of the strangeness of western enterprise through native eyes. Sarafian presents his Native Americans in their tribal contexts, in their fully formed social life, so starkly contrasting the bizarre, lumbering, unnatural expedition they make several attempts to wipe out.

ManWilderness44

Sarafian’s film could well have had significant influence, or at least psychic anticipation, of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), which revolve around similarly absurdist adventures of western world-builders seen in stark remove. By contrast, in spite of the powerful technical accomplishment of The Revenant and the often extraordinary beauty of its images, its aesthetic seems mostly second-hand, marrying long-take machinations in competition with Alfonso Cuaron to Malick and Herzog’s visual habits, with hints of a dark, wilfully odd brand of historical filmmaking that bobbed to the surface now and then in the ’70s and ’80s, like Avery Crounse’s Eyes of Fire (1984) and Geoff Murphy’s Utu (1983), and a rather large dab of Chuck Norris. Both Sarafian and Iñárritu build to action climaxes that underline the hero’s development of a new sense of moral compulsion, albeit here, at last, in notably different ways. In Man in the Wilderness, Captain Henry and his compatriots find the river they’ve been making for has dropped and the cart-ship literally finishes up stuck in the mud, forcing the party to stand and fight off a massed Indian attack. The Indian chief, seeing Bass approaching, clearly believes he’s been spared by cosmic forces to gain his righteous reward, and gives him the opportunity of taking his revenge with the trapping party entirely at his mercy. In The Revenant, catching wind that Glass might be alive, Henry leads men out to find him, and they bring him back to Fort Kiowa, whilst Fitzgerald tries to rob Henry’s safe and runs off, ahead of approaching justice. Henry and Glass ride after him.

ClickHandler1

Man in the Wilderness ends stirringly with Bass finally refusing to take revenge, instead simply vowing to return home to his son with a look of weary gratitude and uninterest in Henry and then tramping on. The rest of Henry’s party start trailing after Bass, abandoning their quest and likewise starting off, humbled and delivered from their own baggage, physical and mental. By contrast, the addition of Hawk and his murder to Iñárritu’s narrative has created a more immediate melodramatic spur that Iñárritu feels bound to satisfy at least partway, and so we get Glass and Fitzgerald fighting it out in a savage death match in the snowy wilds, knifing each other and biting off body parts with hateful gusto before Glass has a last-minute attack of morality and instead kindly sends Fitzgerald floating off to be scalped by Elk Dog, who happens along with the recovered Powaqa and the war party and are watching the fight with bewildered interest. Glass’s act of mercy towards Powaqa saves his life here, but the mechanics of this sequence are so clumsy and thudding that Iñárritu fails to deliver the moral lesson he wants to. Sarafian’s finale is the consummation of his work; Iñárritu’s is a bridge too far, an underlining of the director’s habits of unsubtlety and fondness for chasing down the obvious. Finally, the two films stand as ironic avatars of their filmmaking periods. If Man in the Wilderness is an underrated classic that was virtually ignored because of the wealth of such works in its time, The Revenant is a failed attempt to make a masterpiece in a time when Iñárritu will be praised for his ambition to drive cinema into new territory.


3rd 01 - 2016 | 4 comments »

My Movie Year 2015

ClickHandler

By Marilyn Ferdinand

2015 is officially over, and I have squeezed in the last few films I can from the year, with the last of which, The Hateful Eight, still buzzing annoyingly in my head. Of the total of 63 2015 films I’ve seen, 13 were festival films, of which I’d guess perhaps only four or five will be released in 2016 or later in the United States, including Pablo Larraín’s brutal look at sexually predatory priests under house arrest, The Club; Corneliu Porumboiu’s gentle comedy, The Treasure; Michel Franco’s moving meditation on death, Chronic; and perhaps Gillian Armstrong’s inventive biopic of Orry-Kelly, Women He’s Undressed, and Arab and Tarzan Nasser’s sad comedy from Palestine, Dégradé.

ClickHandler
The Look of Silence

Among the new releases Americans had a chance to see in theatres this year, I took in the much-buzzed-about (e.g., Mad Max: Fury Road, Carol, The Look of Silence) and films that were lucky to find any screens or viewers at all (e.g., The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, James White, I’ll See You in My Dreams). Even with the poor distribution of foreign films, I grabbed a larger handful than most because of film festivals I’m able to attend in my cinema-mad city, though most had played here one of more years earlier, including About Elly, which I saw in 2009.

ClickHandler-1
Youth

It has been an interesting year for the elderly in cinema. Seventy-year-old George Miller rebooted his own series, Mad Max, to delirious accolades, though, on the whole, I much preferred the genuine tension and creativity of his Babe: Pig in the City (1998) and hope he will be allowed to reboot that franchise soon. After decades of undistinguished parts in undistinguished movies and TV shows, Blythe Danner finally got the showcase she deserved in I’ll See You in My Dreams, a romantic drama about a retired Baby Boomer trying to awaken from the lethargy of a routine life. Jane Fonda, Michael Caine, and Harvey Keitel showed that age really does have it over the pretentiousness of the seriously flawed Youth. Charlotte Rampling gave a performance for the ages as a disillusioned woman about to celebrate her 45th wedding anniversary in 45 Years.

ClickHandler-2
Anomalisa

The year’s most anticipated films also had their share of imaginative failure. The formerly wildly inventive Charlie Kaufman teamed up with animator Duke Johnson to create the thoroughly dreary Anomalisa, perhaps thinking that using stop-motion animation would somehow save a story about a cynical man who stays cynical. Quentin Tarantino perhaps hoped that shooting on 70mm Ultra Panavision film would camouflage the fact that The Hateful Eight is a poor genre film; in fact, it not only did not compensate for the weaknesses in the script, but it revealed that the great film fan has no idea how to make use of widescreen technology. The excitement that greeted Roy Andersson’s 2000 return to feature filmmaking after 25 years with the highly original and funny Songs from the Second Floor led to diminishing returns with You, the Living (2007), and finally, thankfully, the last and least of his millennium trilogy this year, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

ClickHandler-3
Maps to the Stars

Just as Jessica Chastain seemed to be everywhere the last couple of years, this year, Alicia Vikander burst onto the scene in four high-profile films, Ex Machina, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Testament of Youth, and The Danish Girl. However, 2015 wasn’t the year of one woman; it really seemed to be a watershed year for women in film. There was a noticeable number of real women who were the protagonists in such films as Brooklyn, I’ll See You in My Dreams, Carol, The Clouds of Sils Maria, Maps to the Stars, and By the Sea, as well as transgender female characters in the delightful Tangerine, the less successful The Danish Girl, and in the festival films Open Up to Me and Girls Lost. Even the sexist American animation industry produced a female-centric film that felt authentic to a girl’s experience, Inside Out. In addition, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Julianne Moore, Patricia Arquette, Meryl Streep, and other actresses lit up the 2015 Screen Actors Guild and Academy Awards ceremonies by decrying the unequal and frivolous treatment they receive. More seriously, a hack of Sony email accounts revealed the lower salaries and insults Hollywood actresses receive from those in positions of power. In May, the ACLU called for an EEOC investigation into discriminatory hiring practices in Hollywood, and in October, those investigations commenced. (For a complete look at the cinematic year in women, I highly recommend this post by Marya E. Gates at her website, Cinema Fanatic.)

ClickHandler-4
Tab Hunter Confidential

On the whole, I found the documentary year to be disappointing. On the positive side, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, a follow-up to The Act of Killing, his 2012 look at the Indonesian death squads that killed more than 1 million people during the 1960s, and the close look at the life and career of Nina Simone in What Happened, Miss Simone? provided wide-ranging edification of events as well as specific people. However, too many documentarians focused their lenses on celebrities, fashionistas, and food in such films as Iris and Tab Hunter Confidential. Even a social-justice-oriented film like Dreamcatcher failed to escape the allure of the charismatic individual.

ClickHandler-5
No Abras Nunca esa Puerta

Of course, my movie year must include the vintage films I’m privileged to see because of the many dedicated exhibitors who search the archives and the great foundations that resurrect forgotten works and have them restored and issued for theatrical and home viewing. Among the restored treasures of the past I’ve been able to see on the big screen this year were Sherlock Holmes (1916), Terence Young’s directorial debut, Corridor of Mirrors (1948), Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger (1990), Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy (1955/1956/1959), and Joseph Green and Konrad Tom’s Mamele (1938). The invaluable Film Noir Foundation again brought their Noir City program to Chicago, bringing more world noir with it, including reuniting the two halves of Argentine director Carlos Hugo Christensen’s 1952 classic thriller No Abras Nunca esa Puerta (Don’t Open that Door)/Si Muero Antes di Despertar (If I Die Before I Wake) in a new print. The celluloid-only Northwest Chicago Film Society inaugurated its new permanent home at Northeastern Illinois University with a two-strip Technicolor rarity, Follow Thru (1930), that brought down the house. They followed up with a number of archival and contemporary film prints, including Richard Lester’s first feature, It’s Trad, Dad! (1962), Ernst Lubitsch’s So This Is Paris (1926), and Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping (1987), to name only a few. Finally, a weeklong residency of the great Agnès Varda at the University of Chicago ended with a sold-out screening of Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) and a Q&A with the director at the Music Box Theatre.

Now here’s my baker’s dozen of favorite films of the year, in order of preference.

1. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz)

ClickHandler

The final film in the Amsalem Trilogy is the most intense and claustrophobic yet. Ronit Elkabetz continues her painfully committed 10-years-long performance as a woman trapped in a miserable marriage by Israel’s medieval divorce laws. Further, the courage to reveal this hidden scandal of domestic entrapment is a first in Israeli filmmaking and a feminist statement to rival any yet seen on the silver screen. That it is wrapped in a fascinating, well-executed story with vivid characterizations makes it the best film of 2015.

2. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)

ClickHandler-1

Old-fashioned filmmaking in the best sense, Spotlight relies on keen ensemble work to tell a compelling story about the successful efforts of Boston Globe investigative reporters to unearth the massive abuse of children by Catholic priests and the Church’s attempts to cover it up. Inspiring and horrifying in equal measure, the film builds up the painstaking detail work like a great detective story, and unlike the film it’s most often compared with, All the President’s Men (1976), shows the effect of the scandal on the ordinary people who suffered and those whose faith was shaken badly by the revelations.

3. La Sapienza (Eugène Green)

ClickHandler

Sixty-eight-year-old Eugène Green, a late bloomer who began making films in 2001, has finally fully realized his potential with this fascinating dive into the Baroque period he so loves. A disaffected couple find their way back to each other by revisiting the past through its Baroque architecture and a brother and sister who seem to have transported from another time to teach them some lessons in immediacy and high romance. Unusual, beautiful, and supremely romantic.

4. About Elly (Asghar Farhadi)

ClickHandler-2

Lies and tragedy sour the weekend getaway of some well-to-do residents of Tehran. The repressions of Iran’s Islamist state take a back seat to the more universal repressions between the sexes and the way guilt can turn normally rational people into blamers and liars. Golshifteh Farahani gives a performance for the ages as she manipulates her friends and husband to achieve her ends.

5. James White (Josh Mond)

ClickHandler

Many people may find the in-your-face close-ups and raw performances of Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon almost too uncomfortable to watch, but I was astounded by how truly the film conveys the dynamics of a loving parent-child relationship and the emotional and practical aspects of caring for a dying parent. I felt privileged to share this intimate act with the actors and their director, who used his own life experience to create this moving film.

6. Blackhat (Michael Mann)

ClickHandler

Michael Mann brings his unique brand of cool and weird to a tale of outrageous greed and cynicism fought by an outsider computer genius with a populist soul. The action shares equal time with the emotional core of each character, committed to their choice of good or evil in a way that reaches beyond the mechanics of plot. Underrated at its release, I hope it finds the acclaim it deserves.

7. Amour Fou (Jessica Hausner)

ClickHandler-2

The Romantic Era of 18th century Europe infects the extremely conventional protagonist of Jessica Hausner’s comedy of manners, skewering the romance of love unto death while remaining compassionate toward those whose narrow lives reach toward some sort of true and pure act. Hausner’s generosity and wit have never been better.

8. 45 Years (Andrew Haigh)

ClickHandler-3

The simple story of a long-married couple whose foundation is shaken by news of the husband’s long-ago love provides a platform to examine the assumptions and compromises we make or refuse to make when we take a spouse. Charlotte Rampling is astounding as an intelligent, rational woman who realizes she was second-best in her husband’s affections. No one who has ever been in love will fail to understand her feelings or those of her husband, played with oblivious honesty by Tom Courtenay.

9. Suffragette (Sarah Gavron)

ClickHandler-4

It took a full complement of women to bring the story of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain to the big screen nearly 100 years after that country gave women the right to vote in 1918. The film focuses on the struggle of working-class women, eschewing the more usual top-down approach to depicting civil rights movements and showing how betrayal in the halls of government led to increasingly violent action. Brendan Gleeson, excellent as a shrewd cop, transposes the word “terrorism” onto the militant wing of the movement. Carey Mulligan gives a convincing performance as a woman radicalized by dashed hopes and masculine mistreatment into giving up everything for the cause. Historical details lend fascination to a compelling story.

10. Room (Lenny Abrahamson)

ClickHandler-5

This adaptation of the Emma Donoghue novel about a kidnapped woman who finally makes a bid for freedom after seven years of captivity downplays the point of view from which the book was told—that of the woman’s five-year-old son. However, in its place is a warm relationship between mother and son, preserving the boy’s fondness for the only home he’s ever known while understatedly horrifying us with her wretched existence bargaining for the necessities of life while being repeatedly raped. Brie Dorsey and young Jacob Tremblay could not be better in a challenging scenario.

11. By the Sea (Angelina Jolie Pitt)

ClickHandler-6

Angelina Jolie Pitt is slowly building up a body of work as a director that could put her in the rarefied company of Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, and Robert Redford as an actor/director to be reckoned with. By the Sea, her most accomplished work to date, is reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), focusing as it does on a troubled couple and their relationship with a younger couple. Jolie Pitt’s strong performance plumbs the depths of her character’s depression, self-loathing, and destructiveness. Her strong use of a Mediterranean idyll as a setting gives the film the timelessness of a Greek tragedy. A mesmerizing experience.

12. What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus)

ClickHandler-7

The triumphs and tragedies of Nina Simone are chronicled largely using her own words from her letters, photos, and film clips of her performances and interviews. Her life illuminates the Jim Crow South, the black power movement, and the highlights and lowlights of her life in Europe. Her pain is palpable, her anger frightening, her embrace by those who would use her fame and talents for their own purposes cautionary. And, of course, her music, her glorious music.

13. The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt)

ClickHandler-8

I didn’t expect to enjoy this film very much, chronicling as it does two writers, David Foster Wallace and David Lipsky, whose work I don’t know from an era of writing for which I have little love. Yet, Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg turn this two-hander into an engaging dialogue full of gamesmanship that compares favorably with Sleuth (1972). The genuine, if short-lived friendship is touching and revealing, and the truths Wallace expresses about the life of an instant celebrity offer much food for thought.

Runners-up (alphabetically)

Aloha (Cameron Crowe)
Best of Enemies (Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville)
Carol (Todd Haynes)
Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (Michael Almereyda)
I’ll See You in My Dreams (Brett Haley)
Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen)
The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer)
Phoenix (Christian Petzold)
Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton, Richard Starzak)
Tangerine (Sean Baker)
What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi)


27th 12 - 2015 | 9 comments »

Confessions of a Film Freak 2015

ClickHandler

By Roderick Heath

Last year, I vowed I was going to spend much less time and energy keeping up with the films of 2015. So, of course, this year I saw over 100. Was it worth the time and effort? In the sense that I have an even broader perspective over the year than usual, yes. But I’ve still spent most of the last 12 months in a state of intense frustration, amidst a litany of films unable to sustain their best ideas and works whose worthiness seemed to be established entirely by the rhetorical force of the internet. This may, after a fashion, presage a vintage crop for next year, considering so many well-rated films from the major international film festivals are still limping their way towards distribution, like Dheepan, Jacques Audiard’s Cannes champion. But this year I’ve seen 50 different styles in old hat passed off as genius novelty, and had the feeling many films have been snatched hold of by cinephiles and critics like lifebuoys, talked up in a state of mild desperation. I just haven’t been able to get with the program at all.

ClickHandler
Inside Out

2015 has been a year for colossal hits and equally big misses at the box office, as the Hollywood worm has been munching on its own tail even more voraciously than usual. Deep into the 21st century, ’60s spy tales and their disreputable heroes, including James Bond, the Mission: Impossible team, the Men (and girl) from U.N.C.L.E., and their ethically dubious descendants the Kingsmen, joined superheroes who go back even further, along with a clutch of franchises that date back variously to the Carter, Reagan, and Bill Clinton eras. By comparison, the compulsory well-reviewed Pixar movie of the year, Ronnie Del Carmen and Pete Docter’s Inside Out, seemed like a fount of originality, even if you swore you saw the same idea used in an old episode of Muppet Babies or Punky Brewster. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey flew the flag for something resembling cinema intended for adults, but, of course, that film’s brand of S&M erotica was actually turgidly adolescent in its underpinnings. It’s not surprising that in a time of fervent, reawakening social protest and anger over proofs of the retarded and monstrous things still at loose in our time, a lot of films took on an edge, whether vaguely metaphorical or concretely activist, of revisionist and redefining intent, from recasting the Rocky franchise as a tale of African-American resurgence where once, however unintentionally, the franchise expressed working class white anger at black success, to casting an all-female version of Ghostbusters.

Backcountry2
Backcountry

Part of me digs this sort of thing, but another part recoils at the self-congratulation some of these tweaks stoke, distracting us from the fact that instead of coming up with new myths for a new time, we’re just redrafting old, tired models with thin veneers of fashionability. Of course, any good postmodernist might say that’s all art does anyway. I also wonder if our attachment to such familiar templates, as well as being enforced by risk-averse corporations, is as much to do with the fact that, well, for whatever reason, we can’t come up with anything better. Some great new shock might have to come to the culture. In any event, these are all “official” themes. In the past I’ve had more fun trying to pick the connecting threads of interest in the year’s films that seem more happenstance or coincidental, revealing of the zeitgeist’s subterranean structures. Those sorts of connecting motifs have felt rather diffuse this year, though. Certainly survivalism seems an ever-popular preoccupation. The hugely ambitious The Revenant, the tensile chamber drama Backcountry, and the good old monster movie Into the Grizzly Maze all depicted gruesome bear attacks on heroes lost in and assailed by nature, perhaps giving symbolic teeth to the anxiety surrounding climate change. Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest had no bears, but it had the might of the world’s biggest mountain, conquerable most of the time but able to swat away pesky humans when a foul mood descends, Mad Max: Fury Road posited a futuristic wasteland beset by mechanical monstrosities and humanoid tyrannies, whilst The Martian looked both forward and right back to the founding survival tale—Robinson Crusoe—in contending with an alien world.

Faults2
Faults

This “here there be dragons” motif stalked the cinema screen more consistently than any other. Films as diverse as Fury Road, Spotlight, The Big Short, The Tribe, Testament of Youth, Sicario, Suffragette, Faults, Spectre, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Jurassic World, Cymbeline, Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens, The Water Diviner, and The Assassin all depicted supposedly unshakeable institutions with all their safeguards and systems of security failing, releasing devils into the world, and described hapless protagonists amidst the furore, trying to keep hope in the box. Those lost characters, wandering through deserts, sometimes of their own making or imposed on them by fate or the machinations of others, also beg attention, a manifestation perhaps of the many talented and resolute people adrift in our time. This motif connects such apparently diametric figures as the loser antiheroes of Faults and The Mend and the scum-bucket tycoon of Welcome to New York, the battered frontiersmen of The Revenant, the blindsided FBI agent of Sicario, the increasingly politicised heroines of Suffragette and Testament of Youth. The titular killer of The Assassin and the renegade heroes of Blackhat and the wasteland riders of Fury Road, the bereft survivor of Backcountry, the outmatched individuals trying to become a lesbian couple of Carol. The junkies of Heaven Knows What and the hooker transsexuals of Tangerine, the stormtrooper-turned-righteous outcast in The Force Awakens, the banker who bets on the collapse of his nation’s economy and beholds his terrible success in The Big Short. The various actors in the tales of the Tale of Tales. The schoolgirl digging into her own collapsing identity in The Falling. Just about everyone in the versions of Detroit depicted in It Follows and Lost River.

TestamentOf Youth2
Testament of Youth

Over in the more respectable climes of cinema, some of this year’s more ambitious works following the lead of last year’s Selma, including Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, Richard Laxton’s Effie Grey, Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, Todd Haynes’ Carol, and James Kent’s Testament of Youth, in harking back to social and personal struggles with perplexed avatars of zeitgeists past, a good way of measuring achievement and failure in the current day, if also one that carries a certain cosy distance like a shield. Of these, Testament of Youth stuck with me most pleasurably, a temperate, fine-palette but quietly remorseless study in loss and positive political radicalisation. Apart from Velvet Goldmine, I’ve never warmed to Todd Haynes’ preciously arty style, and though I at least watched the whole of Carol, something I couldn’t manage with I’m Not There, nonetheless I found it a stiff, ponderous, stillborn approximation of Patricia Highsmith’s beloved lesbian romance: if you want to study repressed passion, it helps to actually have a sense of passion. F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton tried, with some verve and a good cast, to create an authentic contemporary hero myth via the career of rappers NWA who shook up the complacent pop culture of the mid-’80s. But the film, far from being as radical as the art it paid tribute to, soon fell victim to the castrating bent of both standard movie narrative and authorised biographical nicety. Adam McKay’s The Big Short took on the global financial crisis in an attempt to blend real-life drama with a waggish, Michael Moore-esque sense of panoramic satire, but finished up a mass of divergent impulses, with McKay’s annoying direction playing here to the rafters and there to the Oscar-bestowing tribunes, one part Funny or Die skit and one part Stanley Kramer aren’t-you-ashamed mallet. Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight took on a rather different subject, newspaper investigation into rape, cover-ups, and the abuse of power, with a similarly compulsive, procedural pursuit of a lurking menace. Whilst it overtly courted comparison to All the President’s Men (1976), Spotlight failed to bring anything like Alan Pakula’s cinematic power to the table or much nimbleness to its outlay of facts: sometimes the dialogue was more like reading a journalist’s notes than experiencing the journey of enquiry.

TheMend8
The Mend

The old-is-new-again spirit of blockbusters was also powerfully apparent in the artier, capital-D dramas. Would-be serious filmmakers offered a parade of films harking back to the recent past and fondly fetishized model artworks, mostly from the heights of ’60s and ’70s moviemaking, including Spotlight, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Mississippi Grind, Yann Demange’s ’71, and Cédric Jimenez’s The Connection. Such films were all engrossing, well worth watching, solid and intelligent, but also couldn’t shake the feeling of careful ventriloquism and a certain dramatic inevitability. One thing that made the various cinematic New Waves so great lay in the determination of artists not to heed the past or be nailed down by safe aesthetics or received ideas. Such work did give way to genuinely strong and imaginative movies that drew on certain classic traditions but also offered real evolution. Films like the shaggy, Cassavetes-gone-hipster mood of John Magary’s The Mend, the disorienting power tussles of Riley Stearns’s Faults, the neo-beatnik brutalism of Ben and Joshua Safdie’s Heaven Knows What, the screwball-goes-digicam mood of Andrew Bujalski’s Results, and the wobbly but ultimately enriching street-level tragicomedy of Sean Baker’s Tangerine, which was filmed on an iPhone, and managed to look better than many far, far more expensive films. Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York was like seeing the ancestor of these films rearing up like one of Jurassic World’s genetically revived dinosaurs, roaring with anger and pain; if the film was too distended to count as one of Ferrara’s classics, it was still a blast of unremitting purpose and unflinching artistry.

AlexOfVenice4
Alex of Venice

By contrast, some humbly likeable movies about humbly likeable people flitted about the edges of the cinematic consciousness, offering some spells of relief from all the Op-Ed themes and epic posturings, like Chris Messina’s gentle, balladlike Alex of Venice, Helen Hunt’s likeably ditzy surfer time-out Ride, and Results, which followed Bujalski’s Computer Chess in looking into a niche world of people no one takes seriously with a wry, but definite sense of empathy. Noah Baumbach offered both one of the year’s most trying films, While We’re Young, and one of its slyer successes, Mistress America, both studies in the manners and morals of contemporary New York as an Eden of smug, filled with people coasting on the triumphs of other, braver generations and dens of culturati. The Mend, set in much the same pocket of humanity, was such an inspired mix of the fuzzily indulgent and the ruthlessly well observed that it almost obscured how its statement about modern day masculinity essentially came down to a choice between being a shiftless, recherché outcast or submitting to concealment in coupledom. Dave Boyle’s Man From Reno was an original take on classic varieties of mystery thriller and fish-out-of-water adventure tales, its only major flaw, like too many films this year, its inability to come up with an ending.

ClickHandler
Mortdecai

Rude critical and box office treatment doled out to some of this year’s films compelled me to take note, for instance, how the first half of Josh Trank’s infamous bomb Fantastic Four was actually well done and more ambitious than most superhero films will ever be, and how David Koepp’s Mortdecai, crucified well before it was even released, was terribly overdirected, but sported some entertaining shtick nonetheless, including a fun Terry-Thomas tribute from star Johnny Depp. Depp was partly saved from career doldrums subsequently by his role as the glum, hollow bad guy in the glum, hollow Black Mass. On the other hand, there was some real shit out there. Where once upon a time Luc Besson’s imprimatur was a reliable source of good, dumb action, this year his protégés offered up the excruciatingly bad Taken 3 and The Gunman. Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland seemed primed to be another successful flight of fancy for one of Disney’s golden boys, but proved instead a fragmented, preachy, rather witless amble through one of the least interesting fantasy worlds ever concocted. Susanne Bier’s Serena, a film that wanted to be a laudable throwback to muscular melodramas from the days of classic Hollywood, was instead one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever seen, sporting a miscast Jennifer Lawrence playing a nature child femme fatale (!) and such dialogue as, “I love you. I have your child inside of me,” and, “They have to know it was a woman who tamed the eagle!” Come back, Pia Zadora, all is forgiven.

LostRiver2
Lost River

Ryan Gosling’s Lost River, awkwardly dumped into release, was certainly an affected piece of Lynchian artiness, but it also offered up some of the most compelling images and textures in any movie released in 2015. By comparison, I found some of the more praised left-field items of the year, like Alex Garland’s Ex Machina and Carol Morley’s The Falling, to be films that could have embraced the strangeness and wildness their best moments teased, but which instead took refuge in obvious concepts and arch metaphors. I’d still watch these any time over anodyne quality flicks like John Crowley’s Brooklyn, a pretty comedy-drama which also starred Lost River’s Saoirse Ronan, and The Danish Girl, which saw Eddie Redmayne misinterpreting his task in playing a pioneering transsexual as a quest to recreate the performances of divas past and win the Best Actress Oscar for 1932. Or something as bogus-gritty as Denis Villeneuve’s showy but empty drug war flick Sicario, and Justin Kurzel’s awful attempt to turn Macbeth into Games of Thrones. Macbeth was a particularly galling disaster, offering fine actors and some beautiful visual elements, but fumbling Shakespeare’s text embarrassingly and reducing its theme to a turgid parade of grandstanding violence.

DaSweetBlood1
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

Yann Demange’s ’71, set in Belfast during the height of the Troubles, was rather similar in focusing on a solitary man trying to survive in a cruel landscape: Demange’s you-are-there aesthetics were strong, but the storyline descended into a mere potboiler thriller. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe, although vigorous, failed to truly explore a closed-off world, in this case, a school filled with deaf-mute students somewhere in the grimiest centres of Ukraine, with authentic interest in the specifics of its environment and the pains of its characters. Instead, it offered up a technically daring but gimmicky, X-rated St. Trinian’s film with a ham-fisted metaphor for the shambles of contemporary Eastern Europe. Michael Almereyda’s Cymbeline was like a recipe the filmmaker hadn’t entirely perfected, and so, though far more interesting as screen Shakespeare than Macbeth, it also wasn’t half as successful as the same director’s Hamlet. Still, it was anchored by a fascinating high-wire performance by the year’s breakout star Dakota Johnson, who also gave Fifty Shades of Grey a flicker of charm and provided the one spark contradicting the dude-drama heaviosity of Black Mass. Almereyda quickly followed Cymbeline with Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story, one of the best releases of the year. Everybody’s been raving about Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (I haven’t seen yet, and I certainly hope is a roaring comeback for Lee), but his immediate predecessor, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, was a stilted remake of Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess. Where Gunn recorded the intricacies of his intellectual moment in a way that seemed as much reportage as surrealism, Lee suggested how square and alienated his academic characters were by dressing them in Poindexter suits.

FaceOfAngel5
The Face of an Angel

Michael Winterbottom, who like Lee has eased back from the previously frantic pace and protean urgency of his earlier work, offered The Face of an Angel, an experiment in narrative forms and postmodern flimflam based on the infamous Meredith Kercher murder case. The film was a mess, a pile of impulses and half-baked ideas, but it was just about the only film I saw this year actually about the zeitgeist rather than a symptom of it, describing the confused and tumultuous spiritual tenor of the moment manifest in its images of mass furore and private anguish, the simultaneously exciting and exhausting nature of it all. Winterbottom followed his protagonist in contemplating a criminal proceeding charged with intersectional issues and buzzwords, noting how the public event, which seems, thanks to media coverage, wide open to understanding, is in fact constantly redefined in terms of the baggage each of us brings to the table, a jumble which the creative mind meets with dizzy bemusement as it tries to organise an honest, organic response.

Dark Was The Night01
Dark Was the Night

Similarly occupied with a wayfaring antihero in Italy, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Spring toyed amusingly with the canard of a young man who encounters a beautiful, possibly dangerous young woman in an exotic clime, quoting ’80s body horror films through the prism of sunny, ’50s-style romantic comedy. It was a fresher and more original genre twist than the year’s wildly praised horror film, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, though Mitchell attempted with real purpose and some art to mate John Carpenter-esque menace with his own dreamy surveys of coming-of-age troubles. Leo Gabriadze’s Unfriended took on a similar idea—a group of teens tormented by a supernatural entity—with much less refinement, but perhaps with more punch and relevance. Meanwhile David Gelb’s The Lazarus Effect stood up for good old fashioned dumb-dumb schlock, and Jack Heller’s Dark Was the Night was a gripping, if slightly verbose, monster-on-the-loose thriller. Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak was a curious byproduct of its creator’s imagination, alternately original and referential, gorgeously moody and excessively declarative: if the whole work had been as good as its first and last half-hours, it would have been a major classic. John McNaughton’s The Harvest, rescued from a distributor’s shelf, proved a throwback to a brand of modest, low-budget, high-tension thriller that used to bob up a lot in the ’80s, plus Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon playing memorably batty parents—imagine being their child! Daniel Espinosa’s Child 44 had incredible plusses going for it, including a terrific cast, meaty story based in fact, hefty production values. But it finished up choking on its own cornucopia, transposing the Chikatilo murder case to the Stalinist era for the sake of more self-important irony and drama, and then failing to decide just what kind of cliché thriller it wanted to be. Joe Lynch’s Everly knew exactly what it wanted to be—a nasty, gleefully disgraceful entertainment—and it delivered even as it went too far over the top. Everly did, at least, give Salma Hayek the rampaging revenger role I never knew I wanted, and it made Mad Max: Fury Road’s stilted action feminism look like so much hot air.

JurassicWorld08
Jurassic World

History may remember, or choose to forget, 2015 as the year of titanic reboots. It’s like when I was a kid again, and finally, that’s lost its charm. The biggest hit of the year, Jurassic World, was heir to one of the more comparatively youthful franchises, only harking back to 1992. Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens comprised the year’s big three in this field, with the surprising Creed giving chase and poor old Terminator: Genisys limping somewhere in there, too. Genisys actually had a certain charm, with its ramshackle plot and cheeky structure that turned the logarithmic variances of rebootology into its very own structure, and felt like the biggest budget Cannon Films production ever. Everyone but I liked Fury Road, so we’ll move on past that (but get real, folks, it was a two-hour dodge ’em car ride shot like a ’90s music video you all would’ve whizzed on if a less storied director had made it). The Force Awakens bravely told a story already told long ago in a franchise far, far away. Although in many ways an honourable attempt to reconstitute the hallowed epic series created by George Lucas with some excellent newcomer heroes and technical qualities, it was finally a flatly professional exercise, an overt tribute to beloved superficialities determined to give fans of a certain age a long, slow hand job. Frankly, Jurassic World was my favourite of these, cheesy as its bioweapon subplot was, because it was the only one that made anything like proper use of the movie stars at its disposal, and it was properly constructed, building up to its monster bash finale with a sense of showmanship and gleeful crescendo. Also, in spite of the often excruciating “debate” over its leading lady’s footwear, Jurassic World actually offered in Claire Dearing one of the year’s most endearing heroines, a gender-flipped version of Spielberg’s classic hapless Everyman who rose to the challenge of erupting chaos. Her release of the T-Rex upon the evil genetic chimera is still the most properly thrilling big movie moment of 2015.

AvengersUltron5
Avengers: Age of Ultron

James Bond poked his head up again for another dance with the devil in Spectre, a film that disappointed many and was undoubtedly riddled with problems. But I still liked it more than the last two entries in Daniel Craig’s tenure as the superspy, as it sought to combine several rather antagonistic stylistic impulses that have defined the series over its half-century of life. Creed was good fun, but it had a tendency to presume too quickly that its new characters had earned a place in the heart, dutifully sending Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky through a lazily handled bout with cancer for the sake of pathos and to distract us from the fact that young tyro Adonis “Donnie” Creed was a bland, unconvincing inheritor whose daddy issues remained entirely abstract. Also, Coogler, whose filmmaking was so impressive throughout much of the film, fumbled the final fight by turning it into a long montage. By comparison, Antoine Fuqua’s much lumpier, less cool Southpaw remembered to bring the blaring baseline melodrama a boxing flick needs and paid off with much more kick. Marvel continued sucking in money like a black hole at the centre of the movie galaxy, but with decreased gravitational force. Avengers: Age of Ultron tried to bundle together the increasingly unwieldy sprawl of the superhero genre, and even nerd overlord Joss Whedon couldn’t cope with trying to meet the conflicting demands placed upon him: the result was both a gaudy good time but also somehow a quiet disappointment, overstuffed and lacking a focal point. The potential of Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man to form an islet of true cleverness and conceptual élan in this genre was undoubtedly foiled by losing Edgar Wright as helmsman, but it proved far fleeter and less exhausting than Age of Ultron, a throwback to the uncomplicated days of the first Iron Man.

Kingsman7
Kingsman: The Secret Service

Meanwhile, some more contemporary franchises did fly their flags. Furious 7 proved a perfectly fine and fun action flick even if it wasn’t quite as rockin’ as everyone hoped, running out of steam barely halfway through. Plenty of noble man tears were nonetheless shed as it waved Paul Walker away into digital heaven, and that’s what mattered. Dwayne Johnson sometimes seemed like the epicentre of pop movies this year, also appearing in San Andreas, a big, clanging disaster movie, but his presence there felt like a cheat; as warm and welcome a screen presence as he usually is, the genre demands ordinary people as its heroes, not giant musclemen. The Hunger Games – Mockingjay: Part 2 brought a once-promising series to an end so flat and dutiful that even when lots of people paid to see it, barely anyone could remember it a week later. Donald Sutherland’s invaluably virulent President Snow did manage just briefly to jolt the whole tepid affair to life, at least. Meanwhile, Insurgent, the continuation of the second-string YA dystopia Divergent series, was considerably more fun, better paced and visualised. Kingsman: The Secret Service saw Matthew Vaughn revisiting Mark Millar’s rabble-rousing fare, presenting a bratty send-up cum tribute to old-school James Bond blended with deliberately outré humour: the result was slicker and more consistent than Vaughn and Millar’s Kick Ass, but didn’t match that film as a truly pungent, lawless-feeling take on its chosen genre lampoon as it laboured through a midsection taken up by a surprisingly straitlaced take on the usual learn-to-be-a-super-warrior story. Christopher McQuarrie, who proved his action-thriller chops with Jack Reacher, reteamed with Tom Cruise for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and many were eager to hail the resurgence of Cruise as the Last Movie Star. But McQuarrie didn’t bring anything new to this most dispensable of movie series, making the fatal mistake of opening with the best stunt before proceeding through a parade of flashy, competent action scenes. Kenneth Branagh brought customary epic lustre and a sense of cavalier flash to Disney’s agreeable, if deliberately unimaginative Cinderella. Some people even tried to come up with something vaguely original, but sadly, the Wachowskis failed badly with their second attempt to match Star Wars, the well-made but weirdly listless and jumbling Jupiter Ascending.

Youth2
Youth

The best entries in fantastical cinema I saw this year weren’t from Hollywood. Christophe Gans’ Beauty and the Beast was, in spite of its obvious intention of beating a lot of Hollywood CGI wonders at their own game in a manner likely to turn off Gallic fetishists, the year’s single most delicious piece of eye candy, and a smart mythopoeic amplification of the familiar story. Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales was a deeply strange and original take on classic Italian fairy tales, one that located real beauty and ugliness, pathos and terror in them in a way that evoked an imagined past’s alien textures. Tales of Tales, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, and Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria were all major Euro-auteurs who made films in English for the sake of convenience. Youth was one of the most wounding disappointments of the year, wasting a marvellous cast and Sorrentino’s talents on a slight and hackneyed exploration of artistic life. Assayas succeeded in every regard Sorrentino failed in, even if his method was passing arch, and with the irony that a French film found more power in the English language being used than just about any other movie lately. Peter Strickland, an English director at home amidst the rarefied textures of the continental film, offered The Duke of Burgundy, a darkly funny, mockingly sensuous trip through the intricacies of adult relationships via tropes harvested from a certain brand of disreputable cinema. I found some of it entrancing and some of it a mere repetition of Berberian Sound Studio’s wilful obscurantism, as if Strickland was marking time instead of looking for new, genuinely inventive games to play.

Phoenix5
Phoenix

Poor distribution has really been a hindrance for non-English-language cinema lately. Christian Petzold’s Phoenix broke through this laggard scene to provide a real art house hit, providing an odd, occasionally wicked blend of Holocaust survivor drama and Hitchcockian identity thriller, though I found it didn’t add up to all that much in the long run, at least until that marvellous final scene. La French, aka The Connection, borrowed the finery of a certain brand of ballsy thriller from the glory days of such films, and it was a concoction that went down like a shot of a cheap whiskey blend—not refined or exceptional, but it hit the spot. At the opposite end of the filmmaking world, action master Tsui Hark tackled a story based in Maoist propaganda and Chinese opera and turned it into a high-flying action yarn for The Taking of Tiger Mountain: the result was gorgeous-looking but, by Tsui’s standards, curiously lacking depth and real inspiration, with the misjudged, gimmicky double finale only highlighting this. Meanwhile, in South Korea, Han-min Kim’s The Admiral: Roaring Currents, the biggest hit in the country’s history, was a blustery but full-blooded account of great national moment of trial, with a truly terrific battle finale. Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s The Assassin took on the same brand of historical swashbuckling and emerged as one of the year’s singular achievements, but also one of the most eccentric, an anti-action film that disassembled the familiar figure of the avenging angel. Australian cinema this year was dominated by Mad Max’s return, but there were some movies that crawled out of the rubble, including the young audience-oriented Paper Planes. The Water Diviner, Russell Crowe’s debut film, released at the end of 2014 here but exported this year, proved a lumbering mixture of disparate genre formulas mated to moral and patriotic soul-searching. Kim Farrant’s Strangerland was a good-looking mystery film that sadly seemed like a greatest hits record compiled with ideas from better Aussie films.

Trainwreck5
Trainwreck

And what of comedy? Paul Feig’s Spy was well reviewed and a hit, but I found it as funny as a mouthful of turds, a mass of incompetently shot pseudo-lampooning that offered only the spectacle of “edgy” modern comedy grazing rock bottom. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was like watching the indie film tradition slowly bleed out with its too-cute claymation interludes and desperate desire to be the next Juno/Napoleon Dynamite/Perks of Being a Wallflower/whatever. All the hipsters went nuts for the Kiwi vampire housemate comedy What We Do in the Shadows, but lines of dialogue like “Werewolves, not swear-wolves” left me unmoved as the film kept contradicting its own basic tenets. Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, on the other hand, was such an old-fashioned brand of star vehicle and low-key character comedy that its bewildered audience reception wasn’t so surprising. Crowe, not normally a filmmaker I like much, offered a new-age variant on John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef complete with Ford’s gift for coaxing fine details from his actors: even if the nominal plot was excessively silly and the resolution far less engaging than the set-up, it still felt like an oasis of genuine cheer. Results similarly channelled the mood of a bygone brand of romantic comedy but with the antsy insecurity of modernity stitched into the seams, diagnosing in fitness fanatic types what Evelyn Waugh called the kind of neurosis that gets mistaken for energy. Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck was an admirably filthy take on the romantic comedy that showcased Amy Schumer well. Although the film was ridiculously overlong, the dance finale managed to slot Schumer into the most gallant tradition of screwball comediennes.

ClickHandler-2
The Walk

Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk was another of the year’s heavy bombs in spite of its urgent desire to please. This was a real pity, as it was Zemeckis’ most digestible film in a while, somewhat arduous in the set-up but transfixing when the moment of truth came, and harking back to his earlier work in its gallivanting, slightly asocial protagonist who wants to tread the finest line of the sublime and thumb his nose at the earth and its more stolid inhabitants. Magic Mike XXL and Pitch Perfect 2 became interchangeable in my mind in spite of their asymmetric demographics, both being ramshackle, knowingly superfluous sequels about putting on a good show for its own sake. Focus, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s lush tribute to a bygone brand of elegant romantic drama built around criminal activities, had a script that sadly played its best hands far too early, but it looked good all the way down and got the best out of stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie. That perennial Oscar cash crop, the biopic, hasn’t had nearly as much traction this year as usual, perhaps because of the domination by ensemble dramas about headline events. Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs was reminiscent of the eponymous antihero’s Macintosh, a bright, shiny, efficient object of technical art the mass market had no interest in. But it came armed with a terrific cast working at fever pitch, Boyle’s direction effectively restrained for once, and Aaron Sorkin’s script, although no less inclined to remake everyone in sight in his own image, was punchy and found theatrical integrity in its overtly artificial structure. Bill Petzold’s Love & Mercy was an entirely acceptable, good-natured biopic recounting Brian Wilson’s tumultuous life, sometimes wielding a genuinely clever sense of how to use sound and image independently, albeit whilst reducing its tall and tortured subject into a damaged pixie genius for easy consumption.

ExMachina2
Ex Machina

Of course, even in the midst of movies that don’t hold up, there can be scenes and images that linger in the mind, and in a year filled with so many not-quites, there’s a lot of such moments. The ebullient hip-hop variation on the compulsory training scene in Creed, where our young hero rants like a bard as motorcycle knights form his honour guard. The extended accidental house-party-cum-group hate-in in Mistress America and the Greenwich Village poseur gathering in The Mend. The attack of crippling, but also transformative dysmorphia that sweeps upon the protagonist of The Danish Girl, giving a flicker of momentary intensity to the hero’s need for transformation. James Bond beholding his new lady love swathed in silk in elegant surrounds in Spectre, and his opening adventure that transmutes 50 years of series lore into a perfect 10 minutes. The kinetic waltz that tears the heroine of Crimson Peak out of her solicitous solitude and the final chase, also dancelike, that sees her fighting for her life, painted in tones of snow white and blood red. The disquieting dream sequences that signal monstrous and bizarre things claiming the soul of the wretched antihero of Faults. The beach sequence in It Follows, gaining eruptive tension not from hiding the menace, but watching it with dispassion. The spectacles of action and detachment dotted through The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The awe-tinged climax of The Walk. The too self-consciously weird, but effectively creepy dance at the heart of Ex Machina.

ClickHandler-1
Love & Mercy

Will Smith’s conman starting into a seemingly mad game of ante-up with B.D. Wong’s grinning gambling tycoon in Focus, essayed in a sprawl of fragmented and diffused images and jolting music cues that obscure the mechanics of deception at work. The brilliantly shot accident sequences with their ridiculous, but intricately observed processes of cause and effect bookending Age of Adaline. The gruellingly realistic bear attack sequence that gave Backcountry its moment of awful reckoning. The wittily staged microcosmic action finale of Ant-Man, complete with miniature tribute to 2001 that outdid the whole of Interstellar. The rip-roaring, one-shot, church massacre sequence in Kingsmen and the balletic aerial battle of hero and villainess. Tom Cruise dangling off the side of a plane at the very start of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. The pummelling storm sequence in Everest and the astonishingly casual fate of John Hawkes’ gutsy, but outmatched ordinary man. The outbreaks of order-cracking deliria that punctuate The Falling. The hilarious interview with the industrious designer of S&M furnishings in The Duke of Burgundy. The nonverbal communication espoused by the two alpha males in Aloha. The depictions of recording Pet Sounds in Love & Mercy.

LostRiver10
Lost River

The song recital that gave Phoenix its climax and moment of ultimate revelation. President Snow laughing his guts out at the aptly nasty final spectacle of death that capped The Hunger Games – Mockingjay: Part 2. The ride of the Resistance in The Force Awakens, heroic flying knights skimming across the waters bringing retribution for the blitzed. Ultron singing his weird, mad song likening himself to a puppet freed from strings as titans and gods fight to undo his unleashed chaos. In Welcome to New York, Gerard Depardieu’s monstrous banker roaming like some soon-to-be-extinct Apatosaurus in New York’s dawn light, flanked by temples of glass and steel whilst meditating on the tragedy of his own lost hope. Shu Qi’s eponymous gentle killer in The Assassin, hovering amidst the shadows and gauzy drapes of the palace like some hazily remembered ghost of reckoning, listening in to the tragedy of her own life. The unblinking abortion sequence and silent final murder rampage in The Tribe. Alicia Vikander’s boozy, liberated heroine dancing behind Armie Hammer’s smouldering, gelded Soviet superman in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The assailed squaddie protagonist of ’71 carrying the young victim of a terrorist bombing out of the inferno. Saoirse Ronan enthroned as queen of the underworld by Matt Smith’s feudal lord of the wasteland, and Christina Hendricks slicing off her own “face” in the Grand Guignol theatre, in Lost River

Performances of Note

Jacqueline Bisset, Welcome to New York
Jessica Chastain, Crimson Peak; The Martian
Viola Davis, Blackhat
Gerard Depardieu, Welcome to New York
Harrison Ford, Age of Adaline; Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Greta Gerwig, Mistress America
Donald Glover, Magic Mike XXL; The Martian
Tom Hanks, Bridge of Spies
Christina Hendricks, Lost River
Nina Hoss, Phoenix
Bryce Dallas Howard, Jurassic World
Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight
Dakota Johnson, Black Mass; Cymbeline; Fifty Shades of Grey
Sidse Babett Knudsen, The Duke of Burgundy
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Rachel MacAdams, Aloha; Spotlight
Ben Mendelsohn, Lost River; Mississippi Grind
Carey Mulligan, Suffragette
Leland Orser, Faults
Shu Qi, The Assassin
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Peter Sarsgaard, Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story
Liev Schreiber, Spotlight
Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Donald Sutherland, The Hunger Games – Mockingjay: Part 2
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl; The Man From U.N.C.L.E.; Testament of Youth
Maisie Williams, The Falling
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Alex From Venice; Faults
B.D. Wong, Focus
Jason Mitchell, Straight Outta Compton
Ensemble: Aloha
Ensemble: The Mend
Ensemble: Results
Ensemble: Steve Jobs

Best of 2015

The Assassin (Hsiao-Hsien Hou)

Assassin06

A dense, elusive, bewitching work from a real master, The Assassin, along with Michael Mann’s Blackhat, took on the well-worn idea of the rogue deliverer of justice in a corrupt world. Where Mann’s film was a myth of the hypermodern, Hou’s is a dream of the past, a whispery, folkloric exploration of a usually high-powered genre, turning the familiar marital arts drama inside out whilst staying true to some of its deeper cultural and spiritual underpinnings, every shot reverberating with implicit mystery, longing, and melancholy as well as impossible beauty. Shu Qi provided a near-silent centre of gravity with unerring poise.

Blackhat (Michael Mann)

ClickHandler

One of the year’s heaviest flops and a divisive experience for those who did see it, Michael Mann’s Blackhat was perhaps the surest litmus test to differentiate between auteurists and everyone else since De Palma’s Mission to Mars, encompassing as it did the full pantheon of Mann’s ideas, obsessions, and stylistic quirks. At once a dashing piece of genre storytelling and a genuinely original, boundary-pushing piece of cinema, Mann’s first film in six years took on technological concepts that are notoriously tricky to film and turned them into raw cinema, whilst diagnosing the present day’s insidious psychic dichotomy, split between technological wonder and a reversion to almost primal causes and concomitant violence, with the kind of cool that burns.

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)

ClickHandler-1

Nobody would have minded much if Steven Spielberg had relaxed a little with the follow-up to his magnum opus Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies might have been just a grace note, another civics class account of righteous causes and plucky dealmakers with macro-historical interest. But Bridge of Spies built to its finale with admirable narrative cool that concealed a sneaky emotional punch, and provided, like Blackhat, a summary for its director’s career that also clears the way for new material. The familiar ordinary man at the heart of Spielberg’s early work strove through a narrative that moved in stages through his ’80s retro adventures, ’90s conscience dramas, and ’00s moral quagmire studies. Uniformly excellent performances helped.

Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)

ClickHandler-2

Olivier Assayas’ antidrama took on the familiar conceit of art vs. life, applied a stringent cinematic and conceptual rigour to it, and came up with a work that was at once deliberately frustrating, even alienating, and yet somehow profoundly enjoyable to experience. Not all of Assayas’ twists and trials felt necessary, but as long as he was arming leading ladies Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz with words to wrap wicked tongues about, it was riveting. It was also, in spite of its emphasis on the verbal and theatrical, a work of exquisite visual poise and economy.

Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (Michael Almereyda)

Experimenter1

In a year filled with rickety prestige films trying at once to be strong-arming dramas and meaningful statements on Big Issues, Experimenter proceeded with the same analytical, essayistic dispassion, mixed with a misdirecting technique, of its central character. Director Michael Almereyda stripped out everything that smacked of melodrama, whilst retaining a spry sense of humour and an absurdist visual style that might have been offering symbolism or just trolling us. Like Clouds of Sils Maria, Experimenter was a work that prods the audience to think rather than smother them in screenwriting contrivances.

The Martian (Ridley Scott)

ClickHandler

In some ways a comedown in ambition from Ridley Scott’s recent films but all the more fluent for it, The Martian was an almost defiantly relaxed, sublimely confident exercise in crowd-pleasing, with a dose of big-heartedness and respect for intelligence that made it feel distinct amongst recent big-budget films. But under the new-agey take on heroic themes and pseudo-satiric waggishness was an old-fashioned sense of cinematic virtue, eyeing both grand vistas and the quirky nobility of its humans in both solitude and solidarity with a clear sense of their entwining: truly, a grain of sand doesn’t stir on Mars without eyes to see it.

Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone)

ClickHandler-1

A movie I can imagine delighting or disturbing viewers in roughly equal numbers with its triptych of perverse, funny, often bloody, occasionally harrowing mythical stories harvested from a collection published in the 1500s, Tales of Tales was a fervently weird and original work that had much in common with a near-forgotten strand of European fantasy cinema that sometimes poked its head up during the ’60s and ’70s. Although made in English with an international cast, Tale of Tales retained an atmosphere rooted in the arcane, ornate Italianism at the heart of Garrone’s source material. But it also realised the essential timelessness and symbolic force at the heart of such stories, with their acerbic metaphorical attacks on power, class, family, desire, the hunger for beauty, youth, and riches, as well as other ills that still define our collective neurosis.

Would Have Been On Best-Of List If I Had Seen It In Time

The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)

Runners-Up

Aloha (Cameron Crowe)
Beauty and the Beast (Christophe Gans)
Faults (Riley Stearns)
Heaven Knows What (Ben & Joshua Safdie)
Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow)
The Mend (John Magary)
Results (Andrew Bujalski)
Testament of Youth (James Kent)
Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara)
Wild Tales (Damián Szifron)

The Worthy & The Underrated

The Admiral: Roaring Currents (Han-min Kim)
Creed (Ryan Coogler)
Crimson Peak (Guillermo Del Toro)
The Falling (Carol Morley)
Joy (David O. Russell)
Man From Reno (Dave Boyle)
Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)
Pan (Joe Wright)
Spectre (Sam Mendes)
Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy)
Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle)
Suffragette (Sarah Gavron)
Tangerine (Sean Baker)
Trainwreck (Judd Apatow)
The Walk (Robert Zemeckis)

The Underwhelming & The Overrated

Black Mass (Scott Cooper)
Carol (Todd Haynes)
The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper)
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie)
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (Spike Lee)
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)
Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams)
Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray)
What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi)
Youth (Paolo Sorrentino)

Unredeemable

Concussion (Peter Landesman)
The Gunman (Pierre Morel)
Macbeth (Justin Kurzel)
Serena (Susanne Bier)
Seventh Son (Sergei Bodrov)
Spy (Paul Feig)
Taken 3 (Olivier Megaton)

Unseen

45 Years / Beasts of No Nation / Chi-Raq / Diary of a Teenage Girl / The Dressmaker / Eden / The End of the Tour / Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem / Mustang / Room / Son of Saul / Tu Dors Nicole

Vintage: Best First-Time Movie Classic Viewings of 2015

Baby Doll (Elia Kazan)
The Big Boss / Fist of Fury (Lo Wei)
The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith)
Caravaggio (Derek Jarman)
The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (Sergio Martino)
The Creation of the Humanoids (Wesley Barry)
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Robert Bresson)
Deadline USA (Richard Brooks)
Dillinger (John Milius)
The Driver (Walter Hill)
Eugenia (Jesus Franco)
Eyes of Fire (Avery Crounse)
Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger)
Fear City (Abel Ferrara)
Foolish Wives (Erich von Stroheim)
Ganja & Hess (Bill Gunn)
Gold (Peter Hunt)
Green Snake / The Blade (Tsui Hark)
Hangover Square (John Brahm)
Krylya (Larisa Shepitko)
Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu)
The Laughing Policeman (Stuart Rosenberg)
Les Amants / Le Feu Follet (Louis Malle)
A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Lucio Fulci)
Mamma Roma / The Gospel According to St. Matthew / Medea (Pier Paolo Pasolini)
Men in War (Anthony Mann)
The Man on the Roof (Bo Widerberg)
Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Psych-Out (Richard Rush)
Riot in Cell Block 11 / Charley Varrick (Don Siegel)
The Samurai Trilogy / The Birth of Japan (Hiroshi Inagaki)
San Demetrio, London (Charles Frend)
Scandal (Akira Kurosawa)
Spring in a Small Town (Fei Mu)
Shack Out on 101 (Edward Dein)
Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky)
The Story of G.I. Joe (William A. Wellman)
The Wild Angels (Roger Corman)
The Witch Who Came from the Sea (Matt Cimber)


17th 12 - 2015 | 29 comments »

Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: J. J. Abrams

ClickHandler.ashx

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers.

And so it begins. Again. After months of feverish anticipation, it finally came down to me amidst a movie theatre filled by fans, many dressed as their favourite Star Wars characters. Some recoil from the way such popular material can suck up all the oxygen of cultural discussion, but I can’t help feeling enormously cheered when surrounded by people who love a story and a way of seeing so much that it inspires them to throw out the usual rules about how we’re supposed to treat the products of imagination in real life. Amidst such cultish fervour, however, it can also be hard to formulate an objective opinion. J. J. Abrams now lives out the dream of so many in the audience who saw the first Star Wars back in 1977 in relaunching the series for a new time and generation, skewing it back toward his understanding of what made it great in the first place. Abrams is, of course, the former scribe of TV shows, including Lost and Alias, who graduated to making films with the nervy action thriller Mission: Impossible 3 (2006), the big, fun, rather dumb rebooted Star Trek movies, and his best to date, the deeply personal, if derivative, semiclassic, Super 8 (2011).

Auteurist scruples may wince at the prospect, but then again, just as George Lucas was so ready to remix his favourite old movies into something for himself, the time had come, apparently, when someone can do the same to Lucas’ model. The new Star Wars entry comes weighed down with a colossal amount of expectation amongst many hardcore and casual fans, most of who want to bury the memory of Lucas’ prequels that I spent so many digits exploring recently. I like the prequels, and my set of expectations are inevitably different. I’m a fan of the series, of Lucas as a filmmaker, and of fantastic movies in general, a set of loyalties that can converge neatly—or twist in gruelling discursions.

SW1

The Force Awakens nonetheless studiously hits all the right notes from the outset— the classic title swooping away from the camera, the expository screen crawl, the first glimpse of something awesome deep in outer space. In this case, it’s a Star Destroyer appearing as a silhouette against a planet and disgorging a swarm of smaller space ships like some monstrous arachnid. The crawl does a fair job setting up the essential story: the Republic is faltering, a bunch of Imperial holdouts calling themselves the First Order are on the march, and Luke Skywalker has disappeared. First Order jackboots, including new dark lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Stormtroop commander Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), are chasing down dashing X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who’s on a mission to retrieve a map that may show Luke’s whereabouts. Poe receives the map from an old rebel adherent, Lor San Tekka (Max Von Sydow, pitifully wasted), on the desert planet Jakku, but Ren and his thugs arrive, forcing Poe to hide the map in his droid BB-8 just before he’s captured. The First Order thugs massacre Tekka and his fellow villagers, but one Stormtrooper, whose only moniker is FN-2187 (John Boyega), is disgusted with the slaughter. He helps Poe escape Kylo’s clutches, albeit not before Kylo uses his skill with the Force to extract the map’s whereabouts. Poe gives his rescuer a proper name, Finn, based on his number, and they escape in a TIE fighter. The craft is damaged, and they crash-land on Jakku. Finn thinks Poe has died and starts searching for BB-8 alone, only to be adopted quickly by venturesome young salvager, Rey (Daisy Ridley). Duo and droid flee First Order forces, and eventually hijack an old, battered spaceship found lying about a Jakku junkyard. Whaddaya know, it’s the Millennium Falcon.

SW6

The Force Awakens works well up to this point. Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac are able to create likeable heroes and strong repartee with surprising fleetness, setting up this fresh roster of characters in the context of a new era whilst also counterpointing the story beats of the very first Star Wars film in a way that feels apt to the basic patterning that has dominated the series. Rey is, like Anakin and Luke Skywalker, the product of a desolate environment and even more hardscrabble existence, and Finn recalls Han Solo and Lando Calrissian in his determination to do right in spite of a morally compromised past. BB-8 is an ingeniously designed and executed new droid who has to bear all the heavy lifting of cute appeal in this edition, for precious little kid-friendly whimsy will be allowed to slip through tightened fanboy security. Isaac, in particular, is instantly convincing: his natural charisma and swagger, so often damped down in more earnest performances and films, makes Poe a real focal point — so, of course, the film leaves him out of its middle act. Abrams’ insistence on returning as much as possible to “practical” special effects, replete with model work and life-size mock-ups, pays the most obvious dividends. The physical world here has texture, and the technical production is magnificent, every ray gun blast and engine noise registering with thrumming force, every spaceship seeming real and tactile. If Abrams achieves nothing else, it might be that he does something similar to what Lucas, Spielberg, and the other Movie Brats accomplished in their day for his own contemporary cinema: reinvigorate the love of craft and sense of film production as a near-religious event.

Chewy

Rey and Finn’s first adventure in the Falcon, dodging TIE fighters inside the strewn wrecks of cast-off Imperial death machines, is dynamically staged, and carries thematic force—the world of the old Star Wars films is now a dramatic scrap heap, a legendary time given way to an age of fractious decay needing new blood and gumption. But The Force Awakens starts to go awry here, too. The arch touch of finding the Falcon in such a circumstance is wittily purveyed, but segues into a desperately flimsy reintroduction for Han (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who have just returned to their old lives as smugglers because, as Han says at one point, it’s “the only thing I was ever good at.” You’ve gotta be kidding me, Abrams. Han and Chewie, appearing in a big, junky smuggling ship, zero in on the Falcon and pick it up. They hold off some disgruntled clientele and marauding monsters in a sequence that comes across more as a big-budget Red Dwarf gag than Star Wars-grade fare, and Abrams gets to do one of his trademark breathless but unimaginative run-about-hallways action scenes. The best news is that Ford is at the top of his game here, slipping back into Han like a second skin and tossing off his bluffs and grouchy quips with sublime ease. But this is part of the problem, too. Howard Hawks, one of Lucas’ masters and models, knew very well that he couldn’t utilise John Wayne the same way in El Dorado (1966) as he had in Red River (1948), and apart from Han’s tentative reunion with Leia late in the piece, there’s little convincing sense of character development. Abrams offers the juice of seeing an old friend, but with the dispiriting corollary of finding that old friend is still a screw-up. Of course, there’s a reason for this, such as it is.

Hux

It’s not surprising that Abrams is confident in making a continuation that gives us “what we want.” Any experienced TV writer learns quickly how to move onto a project and mimic the qualities that sustain a successful show. Here that honed skill is matched to a fan’s fetishism for the look, sound, and tenor of the original trilogy. The Force Awakens bends over backwards to operate like someone just took all the old Star Wars toys out of your bottom drawer and started playing with them again, at the expense of developing Lucas’ fantasy world in any meaningful way. Spent the last 30 years wondering what the rebuilt Jedi Order would look like, how Han would take to being a war hero and husband to a princess, what the rebuilt Republic would be like? Abrams answers these questions by negating them, hitting the reset button and returning the narrative to comfortable, fan-service postures. Luke’s in narrative purgatory, the Jedi are a nonstarter, Han’s gone rogue again, and Leia’s now a general, which means she does the same thing here as she did in the finale of the original—stand around watching glowing maps. The Republic is up and running once more, but fragile, and the First Order is being fought by “the Resistance,” which is basically the Rebel Alliance with a mandate, still scrappy, outmatched outsiders. The First Order looks, sounds, and operates exactly the same as the Empire though they seemingly have none of that entity’s resources or purview. Having experienced two giant variations on the Maginot Heresy already with the Death Star, here is, well, another Death Star, except it’s been constructed inside a planet and is called the Starkiller base: “It’s bigger!” Han cracks, a touch of knowing self-satire that doesn’t actually excuse the laziness of the story. The First Order have an overlord who’s come out of nowhere named Snoke (Andy Serkis)—wow, there’s a terrifying villain name—and looks like a bigger, even pastier and nastier version of Emperor Palpatine. His underlings Ren and Phasma are joined by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, overacting something shocking) to duke it out for most incompetent bad guy prize.

SW4

The emotional element for many in seeing Han, Chewie, and Leia again after so many years presents Abrams with a ball he can’t possibly drop, and he doesn’t. Nor does he do anything interesting or enriching with it: Han and Leia stand around swapping a few feels, and then we’re off again. The habit of reviving iconic characters only to make them mere furniture or to bump one or two off for shock effect is one comic book readers mocked decades ago, and Abrams lets himself be drawn into the same trap, as indeed he already did on his Star Trek films. One of the major spoilers or whatever here is Kylo Ren’s identity: in a motif drawn from the expanded universe novels that followed the original trilogy but tweaked for the sake of independence, Kylo is actually Ben Solo, Han and Leia’s son, who’s fallen under the spell of the Dark Side. The absolute signature moment of the original trilogy was, of course, the revelation by Vader that he was Luke’s father. Think about that moment, how brilliantly powerful and climactic it was, how dramatically staged. Here, we learn Kylo’s real identity in a throwaway piece of exposition spouted by Snoke. Lame scarcely covers it. Kylo keeps Darth Vader’s melted helmet as a totem in his bedroom to spur his longing to become a worthy heir to the Sith lord’s power. Driver is competent in the role, but anyone who critiqued Hayden Christensen’s rather more complex performance as Anakin Skywalker should not have the gall to call this anything more persuasive. Indeed, the film badly lacks a truly potent and charismatic villain, someone to shock the narrative into feeling like anything more than a wire hanger to drape callbacks and footloose action on.

SW9

I know this might sound rich coming from a guy who defended the writing of the prequels, but the script of The Force Awakens is weak in many respects. It struck me to be about three or four drafts away from optimal, and contains many familiar clichés of Abrams’ writing style—and contemporary screenwriting in general. Lawrence Kasdan might have been hired to give the script some gloss of familiarity with the original characters (he’s credited as cowriter along with Abrams and Michael Arndt), but too much of the film has Abrams’ rather more mechanical, weakly balanced sensibility. In its desperate need to get off to a high-powered start and stay in that gear, the sequences that have to bear the weight of character and story development, particular in the middle act when our heroes takes refuge in a bar run by gnomic alien crone Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o), take on an awkward feel, at once rushed and laborious. Maz is a fascinating example of how an attempt to reproduce an element of the original trilogy (Yoda) finished up as a bland and forgettable placeholder, someone to nudge Rey along her path toward finding her inner Jedi and nothing more: no one will remember a thing this character says or does. Also, why net an actress of Nyong’o’s quality for such a fruitless aspect of the film? The film sets up a tension whereby Finn fears the inevitable moment when his Stormtrooper past will be revealed to Rey. The moment comes. There’s no payoff. We wait for Han and Leia to be reunited. They’re reunited. And we’re done. Compared with the way Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) wove Indy’s reunion with Marion as a screwball bickering scene in amidst thunderous action, this is strikingly witless. Indeed, for all the faults of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it was a far more accomplished film than this in acknowledging aging heroes and weaving in legacy with derring-do.

SW3

The Force Awakens is a paean to popcorn movies as an ideal, and it moves along with such rollercoaster verve and good spirits that it does fulfil that ideal to a great degree. But something’s been lost. For Lucas, even at his lowest ebbs, the Star Wars mystique was about something more, something richer and more conceptually challenging. The acting is “better” here than in the prequels, but largely because the actors are called upon to do much less complicated things, in that increasingly common pseudo-screwball, TV-influenced manner where they all but trip over their dialogue from having to rattle it off so quickly. Boyega and Ridley give mostly confident, broad performances where they nail what their characters are supposed to be doing in any given scene, as much as the script is clear about who they are and what they’re thinking and feeling, which isn’t as often as I’d like. Boyega has a good sense of humour and he conveys Finn’s anxiety well, a particularly neat turn from an actor whose most notable previous role, as the hapless leader of the gang of posturing toughs in Attack the Block (2011), was defined precisely by a lack of self-humour. But at no point was I ever convinced that this character had ever been ruthlessly trained since childhood as a killing machine and then discovered his humanity. This is actually a very cogent example of something I was getting at in my comments on the prequels, where Lucas tried so hard to make his characters operate according to the laws of his invented universe rather than dumping easy avatars into that world, which is exactly what Abrams and company have done. Ridley, who suggests this year’s model Keira Knightley, is sometimes a plucky lass with a line of good-golly-gosh faces and sometimes an omnicompetent Sarah Connor type, and the film is remarkably cagey—or lazy—in telling us who she is and how she got this way. A couple of the bad guys sneer about her being a scavenger, but this feels more like regulation screenwriting apparatus than a real goad to her class rage. Nonetheless, I liked Finn and Rey as protagonists: as this revived series goes on, they might be allowed to take these roles to some interesting places. Or maybe not.

Capture

I’m not sure what, if any, authentic emotional level Abrams works on, except for his love of classic Gen X action and scifi flicks, and the originals in this series above all. The sprawl of Lucas’ references was vast. Abrams’ take on Star Wars refers to almost nothing outside itself, except with some vague suggestion of an Islamic State programme of all-consuming absolutism behind the First Order, as well as the usual Nazi-authoritarian stuff. Given the post-Romanesque world of the collapsed Empire, there was a good opportunity to give the overarching narrative shape by referring to tales of Charlemagne and Arthur, rather than the Greek and German myths used in the original sextet. One of the best heroic images in the film, when Poe leads in a flight of Resistance X-Wings to battle like charging paladins or knights of the Round Table, grasps this concept. There’s also a hint of Excalibur surrounding the light saber left behind by Luke, which Rey finds hanging around in an odd place (but convenient for Abrams, who still has a poor sense of how to get characters around points A, B, and C) which seems to now choose its owner. But the really alarming side of The Force Awakens is that it completely lacks any kind of fresh, motivating frame of reference or core idea, or at least, none that’s allowed to make itself apparent. The original films never let concepts get in the way of a good story, but they were held together doggedly by Lucas’ carefully parsed underpinnings. It’s enough for Abrams that a character goes from zero to hero; that’s his and Hollywood’s current idea of mythic resonance. Some critics have congratulated this film for precisely the absence of mythological preoccupation. Go to hell, I say; then why am I watching this and not the 300 other action-adventure franchises out there?

SW10

Abrams and his team have gone to great lengths to merely dress familiar things in new garb: here’s a new Emperor stand-in, here’s a Darth Vader wannabe, here’s a second-string Luke Skywalker, without pausing to let any of it breathe or gain substance. The original film took nearly an hour to leave Tatooine in the course of charting the events that set Luke on his journey, passing through stages of surprising stillness and quiet, evoking the meditative edge that often bubbled unexpectedly to the surface in places throughout the sextet. Lucas’ Jedi were thinkers and feelers; everyone here is a doer. Abrams grazes similar moments of horror to the death of Luke’s aunt and uncle and Anakin’s mother in noting the First Order’s violence, but it’s impersonal and offstage. Many branded the prequels as overly light and lacking grit, but The Force Awakens is actually far more blithe and evasive about the impact of violence. Many similarly derided the introduction of the idea of the midi-chlorians as a source for the Force as a misguided demystification of Lucas’ spiritual aspect, but here Abrams and company do something worse as the film reaches its climax and Rey literally gets her Jedi knight moves on in the course of battling Kylo. The whole point of the original trilogy was the process of developing the mental and spiritual discipline required to become a Jedi, and the prequels studied what horrible results could come of the process failing. To Abrams, it’s become just another cheap power fantasy.

Han Solo

The Starkiller base wipes out a few planets a la the destruction of Alderaan, but whereas that was Leia’s home and an immensely brutal act registered through her reaction delivered with a political purpose of tyrannising obedience out of Imperial subjects, here it’s just some places that get wiped out for no particular reason other than, well, the story needs to make us dislike the baddies some more. Such is the film’s great technical in-your-face bluster and swiftness of movement that the weakness of its story structure and designs is nearly obscured. Return of the Jedi saw the rebels embarking on a rather limp plan to foil their enemies’ defences, but that plotline now looks positively Machiavellian in cunning compared with the way Han and Finn take out the Starkiller base’s defences by holding Phasma at gunpoint and threatening her into lowering the shields. So much for these fanatically committed agents of evil. The second great spoiler here is that Kylo, when Han finally confronts him, kills his father, in a sequence deliberately reminiscent of the death of Obi-Wan in the original. That scene was wrenching and shocking in part because Lucas never really suggested it was going to be so momentous. Here Abrams telegraphs what’s going to happen so blatantly that I couldn’t feel even a flicker of surprise, or even much sadness. By this stage, Han is just another moving part amongst too many. But I did like the flicker of interesting ambiguity that strays into the scene—does Han realise what’s in Kylo’s heart and willingly sacrifice himself, or did he trust too much?—which lends the film momentary depth by offering the one vignette that isn’t plying the obvious.

SW2

The Force Awakens is spectacular, of course, but there’s a difference between spectacular and spectacle. Spectacular is flash and impact; spectacle is lucid and grand. Lucas aimed to give a touch of the sublime in his sense of the cosmic, and so often had a poetic edge to his visuals to counterpoint the kinetic ferocity. His frames spoke of his love of the fantastic, his desire to share with the audience a sense of things vast and strange, even when his words failed him and his movies skidded. Nothing like the romantic vistas of Attack of the Clones get a look in here, and Abrams’ way of evoking the same kind of yearning in Rey as once possessed Luke, so eloquently captured in the famous sunset shot of the original, manifests as her watching a spaceship take off, without anything like the same sense of visual rapture conveying inner meaning. The Force Awakens deploys the same lexicon of fantastic images as Lucas created, the scale of his war machines and the martial vigour of the space battles and final light saber duel. But Abrams has no gift for spectacle, and apart from the few brief visions early in the film, like the wrecked carcasses of Star Destroyers and their cavernous innards, no grasp on the dreamlike sensibility that coiled throughout the original sextet, no feel for the dark and hushed places that often live in the corners of that fantasy world where the heroes often found some of their truest threats.

Luke

Abrams has been consistently improving as a director, and he restrains his messy instincts here to a great degree, imitating Lucas as much as possible. Yet his images never escape the realm of mere prose. The final battle sequences forget entirely about the space war raging above the heads of the duelling young warriors, and the Starkiller base blows up with scarcely a raised eyebrow: there’s no sense of the dramatic shape that made the original’s finale so enthralling. Here it’s just more cool, pretty things going zap and boom. Even the scene I praised earlier, of the Resistance’s charge, kind of comes to nothing. Finn and Rey’s attempt to bring Kylo down really gains strength, but this is then spoilt by Abrams’ need to give too much too soon. I’m being churlish to a deliberate degree, I’ll admit. The Force Awakens is a beautifully produced, solid, fast-paced and entertaining space adventure movie. But on some level, for all the familiar paraphernalia and exacting tribute, I felt like it was barely a Star Wars film, but rather just another imitation, Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) with more money. The film finally wraps up with a coda that is, on one level, excruciatingly clumsy, but also intriguing, as Rey confronts Luke at his hidden abode, an ancient Jedi temple at the edge of the ocean, his grizzled and battered face suggesting the hells he’s been through coping with the aftermath of his awful triumph. It’s telling that merely the sight of Mark Hamill’s face captures exactly the note the film has spent more than two hours trying to strike.


14th 12 - 2015 | 4 comments »

The Assassin (Nie yin niang, 2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Hsiao-Hsien Hou

Assassin2

By Roderick Heath

Hsiao-Hsien Hou is one of the greatest living filmmakers, and also one of the most rarefied. A visual poet of the highest order, Taiwan-based Hou has nonetheless avoided most of the tendencies of other rapturously cinematic filmmakers, preferring to make quiet, intimately textured dramas that often barely count as narratives. Hou could be broadly described as a minimalist, but this doesn’t quite encompass the lushness of his visions or his quiet, yet rigorous, experimentalist bent, his ability to take cinema apart and reassemble it with the bare minimum of gestures. With Flowers of Shanghai (1998), Hou tried to tell a story with a very few, almost entirely static shots, and yet was able to enliven them to a degree that makes the experience riveting. His Three Times (2005) told the story of modern Taiwanese history entirely through the fragmentary experiences of a triptych of lookalike lovers from three different epochs. Hou approaches film like a classical Chinese poet, inferring elusive ideas in his meditation on surface beauties and flitting lightly over his chosen theme, in a manner where seeming superficialities instead take on holistic meaning. The Assassin seems on the face of it a jarring change of direction for Hou, a digression into that perennial genre, wu xia, the historical martial arts action tale.

Assassin1

The great masters of that form, like King Hu and Tsui Hark, long struggled to introduce flourishes of artistry and personality into a style driven by an urge towards kinetic movement and familiar archetypes. But Hou follows Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai, Kaige Chen, and Yimou Zhang, the most acclaimed Chinese-language art film makers of the time, into this realm. Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Zhang’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) were balletic, richly crafted films that nonetheless stuck very close to the essentials of wu xia, and indeed tried to create exemplars of the form. Wong, with Ashes of Time (1995) and The Grandmaster (2013), played more deeply with the form and structure, as well as story patterns, though he still revelled in the spectacle of motion and conflict that forms the essence of the genre. Hou goes further in subordinating this style to his own preoccupations, to a degree that The Assassin barely has a likeness in modern film. The closest comparison I can come up with is with Sergei Paradjanov’s folkloric cinema works Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and The Legend of Suram Castle (1984)—films that sustain a certain brand of narrative but prize evocation of past times and modes of life, an explication not merely of a bygone time, but also a total immersion in an alien way of looking, feeling, and experiencing.

nie-yin-niang-351042l

The Assassin is an elusive and taciturn work that doesn’t entirely dispense with the expectations of its chosen mode of storytelling, but does push the viewer to adopt a different sense of them. Hou prizes mystery, with a purpose: he evokes a world where treachery and violence are so endemic that almost anyone could be guilty of something, but where the responses to such a condition must inevitably be complicated. The core theme of The Assassin isn’t political so much as personal and moral, but there’s also a definite sense of parochial political inference to the film as well: although set in mainland China sometime in the 8th century, the situation of the state of Weibo, where the tale unfolds, resembles that of modern Taiwan.

Capture

Usually, the presence of an action hero in a tale signifies the need for action, but Hou’s film is predicated on the ironic inversion of this supposition. His heroine, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), has been trained since childhood to be a perfect killer—a lithe, silent, dynamically light-footed physical specimen who can deliver a death blow as lightly as the brush of a butterfly’s wings. Her gift is illustrated in the first sequence when she stands with her mentor and master, princess-turned-Buddhist nun Jiaxin (Fang-yi Sheu), watching a procession of state officials through a blissful copse in the countryside. Jiaxin instructs Yinniang to kill one of the officials, a corrupt and murderous man. Yinniang easily dispatches the man in the wide, open daylight and escapes barely noticed. The tensions set up here, between the shimmering, evanescent beauty of the woodland, with its promises of natural bounty, and the hatched seed of murder and depravity that is the dark side of human society, defines the rest of the film. Jiaxin has schooled Yinniang as the perfect engine of justice, a swift and detached instrument she can use when she targets someone she feels deserves a comeuppance in a world where the people who most deserve such ends are often the most shielded. But Yinniang shortly reveals a streak of independence and sentiment antipathetic to Jiaxin’s purpose, when she lurks in the rafters of a palace, watching another targeted official playing with his grandchildren and cradling a newborn. Yinniang drops into the room before the official but immediately starts to leave: when the official throws a blade after her, she spins and contemptuously knocks away the weapon, making it clear that she’s chosen not to kill him whilst leaving him aware how close he came.

thumbnail_23402

Jiaxin isn’t happy with a mere gesture and threat, however, and she curtly informs her protégé that she’s going to be returned to her native province of Weibo to kill Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang), her own cousin and the governor of the province, as an ultimate test of her grit. This mission is intended as a punishment, a severance, and a consummation for reasons that slowly resolve from the murk of complex, worldly tussles both vital and trivial. Yinniang is returned to the fold of her family. Her uncle is Tian’s provost Nie Feng (Ni Dahong), but Yinniang’s youth was even more tightly entwined with the current regime at the Weibo court and its overlord. She was raised to be Tian’s wife, but then the arrangement was broken in favour of Tian’s union with the current Lady Tian (Yun Zhou), a woman from the powerful Yuan clan. Yinniang’s exile began after she tried breaking into the Yuan mansion, making it clear that she was going to be a nuisance. Her parents hurriedly agreed to the proposal of Jiaxin, who is the twin sister of Tian’s mother Princess Jiacheng, to take her away and look after her. Her relatives and their friends at court are perturbed at Yinniang’s return as a cool, black-clad, silently boding presence. Yinniang’s taciturn manner buckles when her mother (Mei Yong) presents her with a jade ringlet, one of a matching set, and explains the regrets that have permeated their lives since the Yuan marriage took place and Yinniang left. A pattern of broken and warped relationships has beset them since the Emperor’s sister, Jiacheng, Tian’s mother and Jiaxin’s twin sister, married the old Governor of Weibo. Yinniang weeps silently over the ornament, symbolic of breaks between past and present, families, and loyalties.

211019r0gpwplr0gwtpl8r

This moment is, in spite of its early arrival in the unfolding of The Assassin, a crucial pivot in the film. Emotional epiphany is far more important than the to-and-fro of court conspiracy in which the characters wind themselves until their lives resemble less a spider’s web than a fouled-up cat’s cradle. Although Yinniang’s arrival spreads ripples of awareness and tension through the Weibo court, nobody connects her at first with the black-clad swordswoman who keeps appearing mysteriously in the gardens and fights with the guards. She appears before Tian and his mistress in the palace chambers, seemingly caught eavesdropping but actually affording Tian the knowledge, as she did for the official she spared, that she’s watching and waiting for some ineluctable purpose. Tian chases after her but holds off when he realises who she is and she makes clear she’s not after a fight. He remains silent about the incident, perhaps because she’s the least of the problems in his court. Tian himself has already set in motion a crisis when he reacted with bratty anger to the counsel of one of his ministers, Chiang Nu (Shao-Huai Chang), warning him against getting involved with the plots of other governing families in nearby provinces and agitation against the imperial court. Chiang finds himself exiled at the insistence of Tian and his fellow ministers, whereupon Chiang briefly feigns paralysis from a stroke to escape possibly heavier wrath. Wheels within wheels are turning. Former ministers have a terrible habit of being captured by assassins on the road and buried alive. Both Lady Tian and a sorcerous eminence gris connected to her have agents reporting the possibility that one of Tian’s mistresses, court dancer Huji (Hsieh Hsin-Ying), is pregnant.

hqdefault

Hou’s source material was a collection of swordfighter and supernatural stories by Pei Xing dating back to the Tang Dynasty, a famously prosperous and culturally fecund period in classical Chinese history that also threw up much of its folk legends (Tsui Hark has recently mined the mythos of Judge Dee, a real figure of the time transmuted into folk hero, for two recent movies). Xing’s story was brief; a skeletal frame begging for a more developed narrative. Hou remixes elements and changes the plot greatly, but also stays true to its essential presentation of Yinniang as a woman forcibly imbued with great, deadly talents taking it upon herself to shepherd the best rather than exterminate the worst. Usually, when such stories are approached by filmmakers, they’re transferred to the screen as straightforward tales of action and adventure—just look at the many adaptations of ancient Greek myths. But any scholar of mythology knows that such stories encode deeply held ideals and peculiarities, maps of the psychology and social structure of the worlds from which they emerged: many are as much maps and poems as they are narratives. Hou sets out to capture the evocative side of such tales.

nie-yin-niang-795779l

The Assassin’s extraordinary visual and aural textures create a mood that moves both in concert with, but also in intriguing detachment from this tangle of motives and actors. Silk curtains ruffling in the breeze and the licks of mist rising off a lake are observed with a sense of beauteous longing, a luxuriousness Hou refuses to give to the political drama. In some ways, Hou’s approach mimics Jiaxin’s programme of assassination: the context is smokescreen, the action all, in a world that’s rotten to the core, where everyone has become some kind of operative of the corruption. In other ways, Hou purposefully contradicts that programme, lingering on the intense, near-hallucinogenic beauty of this past world, the intricacy of the way it’s bound in with nature, in opposition to the modern world.

nie-yin-niang-648330l-1600x1200-n-e9a0b024

Upon her return, Yinniang is re-inducted into the feminine space of the court, wrapped in the lustrous hues of a highborn woman in a place that seems almost pellucid in its placidity and contemplative quiet. Here Princess Jiacheng plucks an instrument, and it seems like a breath of tension never touches them. But, of course, Hou, who evoked the brutal and deeply competitive side of brothels in Flowers of Shanghai and Three Times, understands the bind of power, soft and hard, in such a hermetic world. Hou writes thematic jokes into the visual pattern of his film: the shift from brilliant monochrome to the rich and iridescent colour that comes after Yinniang is sent to Weibo reflects the jarring movement from Jixian’s rigid worldview to Yinniang’s own, more complex viewpoint. The ugliness of much human activity is contrasted with the beauty of the world and our own arts, but, of course, beauty and decay are never distinct. Yinniang is in abstract a familiar figure, the killer with a conscience, and her relationship with Jixian evokes the title of another of Hou’s best-known films, The Puppet Master (1993); it would be very easy, one senses, for Yinniang to continue through life as an empty vessel operating at Jixian’s behest, as being a tool is far easier than being a moral arbiter and being defined, like a distaff Heathcliff, by exile, rejection, and forced repudiation of her love. But when confronted by human frailty, Yinniang judges, not from sentimental weakness, but because she comprehends that all actions, good and bad, take place in the real world, not some platonic state of ideals. The stringent sense of purpose and expression of identity often can be observed in people performing mundane things or simply living life, and The Assassin, in spite of the deathly portent of its title, is built around such actions—a man cradling a baby; serving women preparing a bath; kids kicking around balls; Tian practicing combat with his son and dancing with Huji and the other court dancers, suggesting a frustrated artist and performer; Lady Tian being assembled like a machine with the regalia of her position by her handmaidens. Hou thus finally aligns his visuals with his heroine’s, noting the way life teems and possesses tiny glories even in the midst of foul truths.

nie-yin-niang-901834l

Themes of political corruption and the toxic qualities of monolithic power are ones many recent Chinese-language filmmakers have tackled in recent years, often in historical contexts, including Zhang with Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) and Xiagong Feng with his Hamlet-inspired The Banquet (2006). It’s a completely understandable preoccupation, given the nation’s long, uneasy relationship with the political forces that have governed it and the anxieties of contemporary filmmakers in a time of tremendous social and political rearrangement. But Hou’s attitude to it is distinct, worrying less about who’s committing what crimes and plots and why, in favour of noting the impact of loss and violence on individuals. Yinniang’s life is one of severed roles, like the jade amulets that symbolise her and Tian’s betrothal, which also originally symbolised Jiacheng’s separation from her home. Tian himself is first glimpsed reacting like a tyrant, but he’s soon shot like a sneak-thief in his own palace, stealing into Huji’s chamber to grasp a moment of succour and to explain the weird languor in his heart: he’s a total prisoner of his inherited life, a life he ironically gained despite being an illegitimate son of the last governor, just like the child in Huji’s belly whose potential threat stokes ruthless reprisal by enemies in court. Life in the Weibo court is a cage, where someone will always be plotting to kill someone else or snatch the reins of power. Yinniang listens in to Huji and Tian while hovering amidst the dangling drapes and veils that willow in the lazy drafts of evening like a spectral emanation, the agent of death and justice reduced to a remembered ghost in her own life.

nie-yin-niang-686658l

At one point in the story, Tian approaches his wife and speaks to her of how Chiang must reach his place of exile unharmed, unlike the horrible fate that befell the last minister to pass the same way. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Lady Tian is earpiece and interlocutor, as well as active agent, of the Yuan family and rival political factions. Shortly after, riders are sent out after Chiang and his escort, Feng. Hou doesn’t elucidate whether Tian is asking his wife to use her contacts to save Chiang or make sure he meets a grim fate: the levers of an enigmatic machine of power are being pulled. Chiang’s party is waylaid on the road, his bodyguards die bravely, Feng is wounded and taken captive, and the killers start burying Chiang alive. A mirror polisher (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who overhears the battle nearby, ventures out of the woods to try to help them, distracting the killers long enough for Yinniang, who’s been shadowing the exile and her uncle, to arrive and carve a swathe through the assassins. Yinniang takes her father and the two men on to a small village, where they’re able to recover from their wounds. This sequence is the closest thing to a traditional action scene in The Assassin, where Hou finds incidental humour in the polisher’s dash-and-dart efforts to escape the hornets he stirs up by intervening, contrasted with Yinniang’s poise, and a gasp of melodramatic force as Yinniang saves the plucky artisan. But of course, it’s not the causes for the action here that are vital, but rather Yinniang’s reaction to it, her action on behalf of her uncle and Chiang a statement of her own moral compass.

ClickHandler.ashx

Hou’s use of doppelgangers and characters whose roles merge emphasises a feeling of duplicitous and untrustworthy surfaces and identities. But it also echoes deeper, as if we could also be watching a Buddhist narrative of combating the elements in one’s self, whilst also recalling the splintered selves of Three Times and their three different modes of living: The twin princesses whose different interpretations of duty diverge in complete passivity and coldly detached, punitive action. Yinniang and Lady Tian and Huji, all prospective or actual mates of Tian. Tian himself and Chiang, two men with near-identical names, the truth-teller and the man afraid of the truth, but able to shuffle it off into a dead zone. Yinniang’s fleeting appearances in her assassin garb that stir up Tian’s guards also brings out another mysterious female figure, this one with features obscured by a gold mask and swathed in flamboyant colours: this figure stalks Yinniang after she saves Chiang and challenges her to a duel in the woods near the village. The masked woman gives Yinniang a gashed shoulder, but Yinniang is able to break her opponent’s mask, and the strange woman has to retreat before it falls from her face. The two women continue on their separate ways with an almost comic sense of diminuendo, but Hou notes the fractured disguise lying amidst the dead leaves.

nie-yin-niang-702136l

At first glimpse, this is all rather cryptic, but closer observation reveals that it makes perfect sense: the masked assassin is actually Lady Tian herself, the woman who stepped into Yinniang’s place as Tian’s wife and who is also her equal-opposite as a martial artist, defending her turf from adherence to a credo of vested, familial interest, an interest she also obeys when turning her sorcerer ally on Huji. In another sense, the masked woman is again an aspect of herself that Yinniang has to fend off, the side that would work for venal causes, the side of herself lost in the world. Qi’s performance is one of intense and baleful near-silence in equal contrast with last year’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, where she was vibrantly comedic. She never lets Yinniang turn into a stoic or enigmatic blank, but instead seems to hang about the film even when not on screen like an old cape, the intelligence of her eyes a constant source of emotional tenor. The only time she speaks comes after she’s wounded by the masked assassin, as Chiang sews up the gash. She murmurs her new understanding of a seemingly obscure parable about a caged bird told to her earlier by being delivered a painful object lesson in the limitations of her strength and the price to be paid for meddling in systems too strong for an individual to combat, a truth that eludes Jixian’s program of assassination. Entrapment is one of Hou’s constant motifs, but so is liberation. In Three Times, he identified, more brilliantly than most any other artist of contemporary times, the peculiar anxiety that comes with ultimate freedom. The Assassin is more of a statement of overt hope, as Yinniang staves off all her shadow-selves and worldly parameters, as she realises her carefully imbued powers belong to her and give her something no one else in this time and place has, save for a humble merchant like the mirror polisher—the right to decide her own fate and morality.

the-assasin-still3

Lim Giong’s score, with its odd and eclectic instrumentations, gives the film a peculiar pulse, surging during fight scenes, but more often vibrating under the visuals in dull drum thuds, counting off the minutes until the next eruption of violence. But The Assassin is, above all, a visual experience, a film in love with elusive flavours of experience and littered with moments of extraordinary, tremendous exertions of filmic craft to capture moments that feel ethereal and featherlight: Yinniang’s vantage on Tian and Huji through curtains with guttering candle flames rendered by the focal range as hovering wisps of fire, a battle between Yinniang and Tian’s guards filmed from a distance amidst trees where only flashes of colour and movement can be seen, and the final meeting of Yinniang and Jiaxin on a hilltop where curtains of mist rise and swirl about them as if the shape of the world is dissolving. Nature is charged with such astonishing power here that it becomes another character, not a threat like the jungles of Herzog and Coppola or a stage like Lean’s desert, but a place of escape and revelation, where things that are hidden in the human world are exposed, but so, too, is a more elusive sense of life.

nie-yin-niang-724048l-1600x1200-n-cfb6d5c0

Yinniang’s heroism at the end is to expose villainy and pay homage to the one real loyalty of her life; once she does this, she exposes herself to the vengeful disdain of Jixian. This proves ineffectual: Yinniang is no longer a tool. The climax of the film isn’t an action scene and doesn’t even include Yinniang, as Tian, aware that his wife has conspired against his lover and also probably played a part in the death of his father, confronts her in a steaming rage, and their son places himself in front of his mother as a human shield, suddenly rendering the furious overlord an impotent tantrum-thrower, utterly trapped by life and role. The last glimpse of Yinniang sees her leading her charges on to a new land, dissolving from sight like the fading dew of morning, entering myth as she leaves behind the ephemeral obsessions of the world that created her and nurtured her to the point where it could no longer contain her.


10th 12 - 2015 | no comment »

Carol (2015)

Director: Todd Haynes

ClickHandler.ashx

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s hard to believe that Todd Haynes has been making movies of some significance since 1985, when he launched his career with Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud, a short film about the love affair between poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. Since this audaciously experimental beginning, Haynes has dealt explicitly and implicitly with gay themes, as with his examination of the sexually fluid glamrock scene through the eyes of a gay journalist in Velvet Goldmine (1998) and a camouflaged look at AIDS in his environmental-health horror story Safe (1995). He has also developed revisionist versions of classic films that have served as touchpoints for the gay community, including his TV miniseries Mildred Pierce (2011) and Far From Heaven (2002), his reimagining of Douglas Sirk’s “taboo” older woman/younger man romance All That Heaven Allows (1955) that pulls the conformist veil off the Eisenhower era to reveal the real social pariahs of the time—homosexuals and interracial couples. Haynes’ concerns have remained outside the mainstream for most of his somewhat sparse career, perhaps limiting the amount of work he could have accomplished, but also giving him the space to look at the films that influence him and find creative ways of capturing their appeal without succumbing to their amber-coated attitudes. In this respect, Carol represents the apotheosis of Haynes’ filmcraft.

Carol 5

Haynes once again turns to a mid-20th-century source, Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, to mine the period details with which he seems so enamored as well as the repressions and widespread prejudices of the period that will stand in opposition to the would-be lovers, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Interestingly, the barriers to happiness for the couple in All the Heaven Allows—class and age differences—face Carol and Therese as well and are compounded by their same-sex attraction. In truth, however, neither woman seems to have any trouble being in love with another woman; it is the reaction of Therese’s suitor, Richard (Jack Lacy), and especially Carol’s estranged husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), that puts them in a complicated bind.

Carol3

The film opens near the end, with the audience casual observers of two women we soon learn are Therese and Carol as they sit across from each other in a restaurant. A young man spies Therese and goes up to greet her and invite her to a party. Reluctant at first, she agrees to go when Carol arises and says she has to meet some people anyway. The film then flashes back to Carol and Therese’s first meeting in the department store where Therese works and proceeds chronologically from there, as Carol pulls the barely formed Therese into her orbit, her bed, and, eventually, her life.

Carol 4

Haynes’ choice to name his film Carol instead of “Therese” or “Carol and Therese” reveals something interesting about gay relationships, especially in more closeted times, as well as some myths the straight world has held regarding homosexuals. Carol is older and has pursued lesbian relationships throughout her life; in fact, her former lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson), is godmother to Carol’s daughter Rindy (Sadie and Kk Heim). Thus, Carol offers Therese the mentorship characteristic of gay relationships of the time. At the same time, her seduction of Therese is practiced and, frankly, predatory for the first half of the film—a perfect example of the “recruitment” homophobes fear. The revelation of Carol’s affair with Therese during her divorce proceedings further aggravates homophobic notions that she is a degenerate influence and blocks the slam dunk mothers of the time usually had in retaining custody of their children.

Carol 6

Haynes’ focus on Carol also presents a model of homosexuality that is more assertive and positive than it might have been had Therese been the center of attention. Therese is little more than a lump of clay who admits that she acquiesces to everyone because she has no idea who she is or what she wants. Her idea of rebellion is to “forget” to wear her Santa hat at work and to suggest that Carol buy her daughter a train set instead of a doll for Christmas—a gift Therese coveted as a child, in the script’s small nod to her hidden butchness. Even the stare she fixes on Carol when she first sees her, though insistent, is terribly repressed, so glazed over that it might be mistaken for something other than attraction, say, spotting her long-lost mother or recognizing the woman who seduced her father away from the family.

Carol 8

Carol quickly moves in on Therese, who instantly agrees to every invitation—to lunch, to Carol’s country estate, to take a road trip to Chicago and beyond. It’s sadly funny to watch the men in their lives stomp around like Rumpelstiltskin when they realize they are neither needed nor wanted. Richard can’t believe Therese won’t join him on a cruise to Europe—at his expense—and isn’t thrilled that he wants to marry her in opposition to his usual tom-catting ways. Harge keeps harping on Carol that she’s his wife and is supposed to want him, though his tragedy is that he is deeply in love with Carol and tries very hard to woo her back, turning vindictive and calculating only to unleash his pain at her and protect their daughter from her possibly harmful influence. Lacy creates a certain simple, straightforward man in Richard, one whose ordinariness makes him seem a bit like a pale caricature. Chandler defies expectations that he will eventually explode in violence and seems all the more impotent and pitiable for being, actually, a good man.

Mara hat

Haynes flings all his balls in the air, moving them skillfully in rhythmic orbit around each other, adding in and subtracting balls from his circular tale. He punctuates scenes with telling looks, charged touches, and fetishized objects, like the gloves Carol leaves on Therese’s counter to ensure they’ll be in touch again, the toy train shot from above as it describes a small, closed loop, the tartan hat Therese wears in many scenes, a blatant emblem of her schoolgirl innocence longing for experience, and Carol herself, with her luxurious golden locks, ruby-red lips and enveloping fur coat that rivet our attention. Haynes’ regular cinematographer, Edward Lachman, offers us a Technicolor dream, highlighting the breathtaking colors that accompany scenes shared by Therese and Carol, while offering muted, cool colors when Therese is on her own or bereft at her separation from Carol, as well as gauzy, dreamlike sequences that make his images indistinct and private. Haynes finally winds back to where the film started, but shot from a different angle to reveal the changes the previous scenes have wrought on Carol and Therese.

Mara

Blanchett delivers a complicated performance—all surface and sheen in the beginning, the gradual defrosting that happens during the road trip, and finally, a completely open declaration of who she is and what she wants when facing down Harge. Mara, on the other hand, doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve, which seems contrary to what young people usually do, and remains a mousey presence whose main attractions for Carol seem to be her refined name, her slight ability to play the piano, and her eager youthfulness. When Carol tells Therese that she loves her, it seems sincere, but the final look she gives a slightly more wised-up Therese is tantalizingly enigmatic.

Mara 6

Honestly, I don’t believe in the sincerity of this love story, but Carol accomplishes something more interesting—it honors authenticity, devalues social convention and wealth, and presents a capstone tale that validates the tremendous gains made by the LGBTQ community in the past few years. It must have given Haynes great pleasure to acknowledge this progress in the best way he knows how—by continuing to chronicle and reinvent the gay experience for audiences everywhere with exquisitely crafted and directed films.


29th 11 - 2015 | no comment »

James White (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Josh Mond

151109_MOV_james-white.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I want to get one thing straight at the outset: I do not see James White as a movie about a self-destructive, self-centered, rich-ish 20-something who needs to grow up. The character of James White is not the problem that needs figuring out in this film. In fact, from where I sit, James White, as played brilliantly by Christopher Abbott, who is never offscreen, is a sensitive human being who feels everything so deeply and sees everything so clearly that he uses sex, drugs, and alcohol to beat reality back to a tolerable distance. James White is likely a difficult person to be with and live with because of how he deals with his sensitivity, but those who focus on these difficulties will miss the larger beauty of James and the film itself—the opportunity to understand how to behave when someone is grieving and how to undertake the sad privilege of caring for a dying loved one.

James 10

We first meet James in a pulsating nightclub where the in-your-face glitz and noise form an insignificant background to the almost full-frame shots of James’ sweat-soaked face and hair as he gets visibly more wasted as time goes by. Eventually, the scene shifts to a nice apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where his mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon), is sitting shiva for James’ father, her ex-husband Barry (Scott Cohen). Nick (Scott Mescudi, who also provides the evocative score), James’ best friend from childhood, has flown in from Europe to lend his support, a support he must know James will need desperately in the weeks ahead. The shiva, a bizarre exercise given that Gail is not Jewish, is loaded with people from Barry’s life with his second wife, Karen (Sue Jean Kim), and friends of Gail’s who cruelly greet James with remarks like, “We always thought you’d end up in prison.” James and Nick leave the gathering to drink and find a couple of one-night stands to take to a hotel. When they return to Gail’s, the mourners are watching a tape of Karen and Barry’s wedding. Incensed at the insensitivity of this act toward his mother, James throws everyone out of the apartment. Very soon thereafter, he decamps to a posh Mexican resort with Nick, where he meets fellow New Yorker and future girlfriend Jayne (Makenzie Leigh), drops acid, and is called back home by a frantic Gail, who has learned that her cancer has returned.

James 5

Josh Mond’s perceptive first feature is shot in a way that refuses us the comfort of distance. His extreme close-ups, handheld camera work, and honest dialogue force us into James’ world, a world of loss, pain, and above all, love. The searing first scene in the nightclub gives us no clue as to what kind of a man James is or what his story will be. We are as disoriented as he is, and Mond keeps us off balance throughout the film. There is no settling into a familiar narrative rhythm, as James remains constantly on the move, free-falling through what plot there is, making tentative connections episodically and living in the raw through sensorial experiences as oppositive as beatdowns and being beat off by Jayne. In Mexico, the ocean laps at him, and an LSD trip makes his excursion through a shopping mall almost tactile for the audience as he and his friends reach toward the colorful baubles on display in a kind of parody of the dazzling allure of acquisitiveness.

James-White-4-e1446948304772

The painful truth of James’ life is his ironclad connection to his creative, dependent mother who raised him without the presence of James’ father to provide him with a strong sense of direction in life—indeed, James never even met his father’s second wife until the shiva. James, a would-be fiction writer who promises more than he has so far delivered in the way of actual work, seems stuck in place, but some of his paralysis is beyond his control. Gail excoriates him for being a slacker who lives off her, while in the same breath condemning him for not being where he says he will be, for not being there for her. In fact, James has given up long stretches of his life to care for her through her various bouts with cancer. We see just how much when he races home from Mexico to be her advocate, her caregiver, her son during her final illness. His extreme competence in taking care of his mother shows what skills he was required to hone during the time of life when newly mature adults are establishing career trajectories and looking to settle down. His friendly alliance with Gail’s home care nurses shows that he has this drill down pat, while subtly emphasizing that no one else in Gail’s life seems to be around to help carry the water. Cynthia Nixon’s beautifully off-balanced intensity completely sells the double-bind Gail has necessarily put James in.

James 6

Mond moves into the intimate space of illness as we watch Gail remove her wig after the shiva to reveal a spiky, short hairdo that hints at the hair loss she experienced as a result of chemotherapy, and then in her gradual spiral to the end of her life. We see her embarrassment when she vomits suddenly, her temporary victory in getting her fever down, her helplessness when hospitalized with only James to scold the call nurse for not cleaning up the diarrhea she is sitting in. In the most touching scene I have seen in years, James is with Gail in their bathroom at home after she has just been sick. He asks her where she wants to be. Paris, she says. She leans her head on his chest as he starts to describe a beautiful life in the City of Light, where he lives with his wife and two children. She lives in her own apartment just a few doors away, close enough to visit frequently to play with her grandchildren and dine with them. It is in this moment that we see the essential utility of being able to escape, to pretend for a little while to get over the horrors of each moment leading to death. Who would be callous enough to deny either of them this harmless comfort?

James1

Of course, escape for James and Gail is only temporary. Eventually, the reality of Gail’s imminent death results in a vigil of James, Nick, Jayne, and a number of the people who attended Barry’s shiva. Gail’s death rattle is frightening and so very final. James’ despair is almost too difficult to watch, but the aftermath offers us another dark chasm of uncertainty. Mond has softened the blow somewhat by writing in an editor (Ron Livingston) at New York Magazine who seems willing to hire James when he gets his act together, and the enduring presence of Jayne in James’ life is unexpected, but welcome.

James 3

Nonetheless, James is alone. Whether he will weather this raging storm is very much in doubt, and that heartbreaking reality forms a coda to his sadly tenuous life.


13th 11 - 2015 | 9 comments »

Crimson Peak (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Guillermo Del Toro

CrimsonPeak39

By Roderick Heath

Since his debut with Cronos (1993), Guillermo Del Toro has stood as one of the few major arbiters of a near-bygone attitude in contemporary fantastic cinema. That attitude still floated to the surface even in his stabs at epic, vibrant crowd pleasers, including Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009) and Pacific Rim (2013), where a delight in the colour and spectacle of blockbuster cinema blended with a fervent belief in melodrama as a form that demands no apology. The brand of pop surrealism apparent even in Del Toro’s action works saw machines of the superego take on the welling forces of the id. Crimson Peak, his latest, is a partial reversion to another strand of his cinema and another province of his obsessions—outright gothic horror and classically contoured ghost stories. This streak was previously parlayed in his Spanish-language works, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), tales pitched in the keys of haunting loss and reality-transmuting fantasy mixed with bizarre and thunderous thriller plots that evoked political dimensions, as both of those films took place during the Spanish Civil War. Like many films these days, Crimson Peak blends homage with its own purposes, serving as a visual tour through the history of screen horror, evoking aspects of German expressionism, Universal and Hammer horror, 1940s gothic melodramas, and the romantic decadence of Italian horror. Del Toro declares his allegiances the moment you hear the heroine’s name is Edith Cushing.

CrimsonPeak08

The setting is turn-of-the-20th-century Boston with all its protomodernity of motor cars and typewriters as still-new but swiftly adopted technology. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is the product of clashing social systems, the safe but cloying enclosure of a traditional ideal of femininity and her father’s “go get ’em” Americanness. Crimson Peak shifts territory from Del Toro’s earlier ghost stories, as it’s not about a child struggling in an adult world, though most of his protagonists are defined by similar experiences of being orphaned and left adrift in that world, a theme that also secured Hellboy, Pacific Rim’s Mako Mori, and even Blade to Del Toro’s personal universe. Edith certainly has the same quality of the innocent abroad about her, and she, too, is left alone to survive and finds herself in the midst of a situation she understands through the intuition of signs and distorted simulacra rather than from more worldly cues and hints. Edith, daughter of respected financier and former steel manufacturer Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), has ambitions to become a writer, but faces rebuff by a sniffy, patronising publisher at the outset because her book has no romance and is a ghost story. “It’s not a ghost story,” she protests, “It’s a story with a ghost in it.” Edith has a peculiar affinity with ghosts, however, as her mother’s spectre appeared to her as a young girl shortly after her funeral, delivering enigmatic warnings about a place called Crimson Peak. The shade returns and renews its entreaties not long after Edith’s eye is caught by a darkly handsome stranger who approaches her father for capital: Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet, trying to finance development of a digging machine he’s designed to revive his family’s clay mining business.

CrimsonPeak35

Encountering Thomas at her father’s workplace, where she labours during the day as a secretary, and then in local society, Edith falls under his spell. He encourages her out of her intellectual bubble and offers her a moment of metamorphosis as he dances a waltz with her at a society ball. Thomas is accompanied by his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), whose taciturn and boding manner manifests as she takes entomological interest in dying butterflies and runs frostbite eyes over Edith. Edith has a childhood pal, Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), now an eye doctor setting up practice in the same building as her father who shares Edith’s interest in spiritualism. He only starts to recognise his deeper affection for her as she’s pulled into Thomas’ orbit, whilst his mother (Leslie Hope) looks down her nose at the unglamorous would-be writer. Carter takes an immediate dislike to Thomas he can’t quite account for at first, except that as a self-made American, he can’t stand Thomas’ air of slightly effete, quixotic inspiration and softness. Later, as it becomes plain that Thomas is pursuing Edith, Carter hires a private detective, Mr. Holly (Burn Gorman), to investigate the Sharpes. Holly turns up something disturbing enough to make Carter call the Sharpes to his office and confront them. He pays them off and orders them to leave town quickly, whilst also extracting a promise from Thomas to break off with his daughter in a suitably jarring and heartbreaking way. Thomas obediently does so, humiliating Edith in front of a dinner party’s guests by disdaining her writing and lack of life experience. The next day, as Carter prepares to shave in the bathroom of his club, someone sneaks in and kills him by bashing his head against a sink to make it look like he’s died in a fall. Thomas returns and marries Edith, and then he and Lucille whisk her to England and introduce her to the lugubrious grandeur of their family manse, Allerdale Hall.

CrimsonPeak17

This long first act proves one of the more surprising aspects of Crimson Peak. Del Toro flirts interestingly with a Henry Jamesian approach to milieu, a sense of the personal and the cultural intersecting, and commences in an essentially realistic frame whilst setting up a move into perfervid weirdness. The film continues in this vein even as that weirdness floods the screen, taking its characters with unexpected seriousness even as they perform archetypal functions to the point where the chief source of tension in the last act stems from anticipating where the twists of character loyalties will lead. Of course, James himself notably departed from his serious social tales with his famous ghost story The Turn of the Screw, which locates the source of horror in the strange and twisted psychological reactions of its repressed and rootless female protagonist. Del Toro isn’t interested in ambiguity of genre—he’s far too fond of the imagery and mechanics of spookfest traditions—but if it wasn’t for the ooky-kooky wraith that appears in the first few minutes, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled into some classy literary adaptation. Del Toro turns the waltz Thomas and Edith take into a subtly symphonic moment of swooning romanticism with a touch of the sublime indicated by their ability to dance whilst keeping a clutched candle lit. Thomas’ mastery of courtly arts and aura of bruised poeticism let him sustain waning aristocracy with Yankee money, a phenomenon that was very real in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. There’s a meta touch to making Edith a penner of the kinds of stories she’s about to get herself into—I detect a hint, deliberate or not, of Joseph Mankiewicz’s lampoon The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), which likewise turned on a similar conceit of literary self-reference.

CrimsonPeak19

A number of contemporary ghost tales made for the cinema have been set like Crimson Peak in the first quarter of the 20th century—Haunted (1995), The Woman in Black (2011), The Awakening (2012)—because the era presents a telling, yet quaint, opposition between evolving modernity and the persistence of the irrational, and they often reference the actual explosion in interest in spiritualism of the period. Del Toro goes a few steps further. Just as he looked to the schisms of Spanish history to ground his dark fantasias in a real-life sense of angst and unhealed wounds, here Del Toro takes New and Old Worlds as a similar line of division and angst. The narrative immediately touches several essential aspects of gothic melodrama: the loss of a parent, the heroine’s aura of intellectual independence colliding with desire, the coming of the Byronic stranger and the triangle formed with a more parochially charming suitor, and the eventual shift to strange territory in the form of the grand old house that contains dark and potentially destructive secrets that the young bride must either defeat or be consumed by.

CrimsonPeak26

The 1940s were a high point for this mode of cinema, perhaps nudged on by the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940)—Mankiewicz’s debut Dragonwyck (1946), Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1945) and Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Strange Woman (1946), the Gainsborough melodramas in Britain. By the finale, there’s a dash of Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), too. Wasikowska has already played the heroine of a classic text in this style, Jane Eyre, a few years back, whilst Del Toro, with his lexicon of influences, readily invites comparisons with Rebecca. Del Toro isn’t particularly Hitchcockian as a filmmaker, but he clearly has an intellectual kinship with Hitchcock’s general delight in tales of seething repression, covert truths, and subversive hungers. Hitchcock returned to gothic territory with Under Capricorn (1948) and ultimately transmuted it into something newer and stranger with Psycho (1960).

CP2

Once the film reaches Allerdale Hall, Del Toro takes a swift turn into the saturated colour tones and densely miasmic moods of mid-century horror cinema. Del Toro is undoubtedly one of the great craftsmen of contemporary film, and his filmmaking throughout Crimson Peak hums with a sense of cinematic largesse. Del Toro infuses Lucille with a characteristic close to his own heart, a fascination for insect life, and turns an allusive moment when Edith and Lucille chat about American and British species of butterflies and moths, into a visual aria of a scene: butterflies paralysed in the chill evening become prey for swarming ants, filmed in colossal close-up. The foreshadowing is obvious—Edith is the butterfly, Lucille the black ant—but the effect is eerily sublime. As is right and correct in the gothic tradition, Allerdale Hall is a character in the film, a triumph for Del Toro and his production designer, Thomas E. Sanders, in creating a physical structure that has a quality of mimetic trap littered with remnants of past lives and decaying in synch with the psyches of its characters. Giant moths infest corners of the house. A great hole in the ceiling above the foyer lets snow collect on the floor, a rickety elevator connects the house with the basement and treacherous old mine workings. Mouldy, giant portraits gaze down on Edith and perverse spectres flit in the shadows and peer upon her. Thomas’s digging machine huffs and trembles like a great metal dinosaur hewing at the earth. The weird soil mixture in the hill the Hall stands on sees blood-coloured muck welling up, giving the hill its name; yes, this place is Crimson Peak.

CrimsonPeaka

Once safely ensconced again in their home, the Sharpes press Edith to sell her father’s estate to finance work on the digging machine. Meanwhile, Alan, troubled by the mysteries swirling around Carter’s death and the newlyweds’ swift departure, begins investigating, and thanks to information from Holly, begins putting together the terrible pattern behind the Sharpes’ activity—a truth that begins unfurling to Edith in a more urgent form. Edith keeps seeing spectres about the Hall, bearing signs of violent death. Although they terrify the hapless young bride, they seem to be trying, like her mother’s shade, to warn her about the hidden evil around Allerdale Hall. The early line about a story with ghosts in it seems an evident pitch on Del Toro’s part to gain a certain breed of critical favour, but it also helps make viewers aware of the way the supernatural and the corporeal interact in his story, with these ghosts operating more as totems of awful things, which is generally what tales of hauntings have traditionally served as, ways of preserving and communicating dread events and attaching them to places where they occurred in folklore. But Del Toro also loves spooks far too much to reduce them to the realm of the merely symbolic and the suggestive a la Val Lewton. This proves a major flaw, or at least superfluity, in Crimson Peak. The manifestations of the supernatural are both unnecessary and not terribly well handled (then again, I think the same thing about some of spooks in The Shining, 1980).

CP3

This is an odd weak point for Del Toro, who’s made a career out of his wholehearted love of the fantastical and his talent for illustrating it; perhaps that’s part of the problem, that it’s just too reflexive for Del Toro, who otherwise does a remarkable job here of blending multiple frames of reference. But the juddering, squirming, hissing wraiths that dog Edith are far too obvious, even clichéd displays of special-effects cinema, reminiscent of those in some of the rather lame horror films Del Toro has produced recently (like Mama, 2011). I get the feeling he and script collaborator Matthew Robbins (who once upon a time directed the interesting genre revision Dragonslayer, 1982) merely added ghosts to the film as a concession to presumed audience expectations, a way of sneaking them an uncool genre exercise in the guise of another. There’s a tension within Crimson Peak that doesn’t entirely resolve between the expansive showmanship manifest in Del Toro’s visual and conceptual approach and the stringencies of his story, which unfolds with a classical, near-leisurely interest in characterisation and mood, milieu and atmosphere. On the other hand, Del Toro resists turning his work into a mere haunted house ride. Crimson Peak probably counts as the first major stab at a true, unabashed gothic work since Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), and it does have a surprising number of concerns in common with Burton’s Dark Shadows (2012), without the variable levels of humour: Del Toro is in earnest. That’s not to say Crimson Peak doesn’t earn any horror stripes either, it just belongs to a different branch. The scene of Carter’s murder references Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975) and nods to the common giallo ploy of playing games with the gender of the killer.

CrimsonPeak20

Argento’s predecessors Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava seem generally much closer to Del Toro’s thoughts than giallo, however, in the diseased romanticism of their gothic-accented horror works that took inspiration equally from Hitchcock and Edgar Allen Poe. Crimson Peak shares similar points of obsession with Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1972) and particularly Freda’s The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock (1962)—sexual deviance, piano playing, insidious presences, poisoned drinks, a house as all-but-organic presence. Ultimately, although both spooks and the equally insidious nature of money figure in this tale, boiling human passions edging into the realm of madness are the real stakes and drivers, as Edith is confronted by the true grotesqueness of perverted lives and psychopathy channelled into relished crime. Del Toro can face up to the sorts of fetid underlying motives that generally had to be communicated more discreetly in classic genre inspirations: he ultimately reveals that Thomas and Lucille, having grown up isolated and neglected in the tottering towers of Allerdale Hall, have long engaged in an incestuous relationship. It’s an apt, if icky, revelation; quite often in classical mythology, the dark secret at the heart of many a riddle was a similar revelation (e.g., Oedipus, the parentage of Siegfried). The siblings have developed a modus operandi of marrying Thomas to rich, solitary women for their money, and having Lucille murder them with the same brutal relish she turned on their mother. It’s not hard to guess the grim intent at the heart of the Sharpes’ plan, and I also guessed the dread secret they harbour, too. But the pleasure of the story here is wrapped up with both its uncertainties and its fervency, the emotions and conflicting desires that ultimately create a deadly situation Edith has to fight her way out of, and the way Del Toro’s superlatively conjured creative universe illustrates that psychic landscape.

CrimsonPeak11

Hunnam played the jut-jawed young hero of Pacific Rim, and here inhabits a role akin to the sort David Manners used to play in the early Universal horror films—the square, upright character who keeps matters rooted in a less bizarre reality and whose traditional brand of heroism seems weirdly pallid in such a context. In ’80s slasher movies, they usually turn up dead sometime in the fifth reel, but here his search gives Robbins and Del Toro an excuse to steal one of the cleverest narrative touches from Joseph Ruben’s thriller The Stepfather (1987) when the time comes for the storylines to collide. It’s in its last act that Crimson Peak finally slips its moorings and goes gloriously over the top, as the tensions sustaining the triangle of Edith, Thomas, and Lucille crumble after Thomas gives into his real affection for Edith and sleeps with her, driving Lucille into a fit of psychotic, vengeful violence. One of Del Toro’s most distinctive traits is his ability to find humanity in even the most bizarre figures, and he locates real pathos in Thomas and Lucille, who lesser filmmakers would probably have reduced to mincing caricatures once necessary narrative games were dispensed with. Here, Lucille and Thomas become all the more interesting and strange the more their crimes and their own sufferings become clearer, particularly as Thomas tries to prod his sister toward self-awareness over what their attempts to avoid change have turned them into—and, of course, that sort of awareness is exactly the hardest thing to countenance. Hiddleston has a gift for suggesting things shiftless and septic under the surface of his lean English charm has been exploited well by several filmmakers lately, and he does fine work here, chiefly because like Del Toro he enjoys the pathos of tortured figures. Not without reason, if also by accident, has his Loki evolved into the heart of the Marvel franchise. Here, his performance reminded me a little of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, particularly in the underregarded Psycho 2 (1981), a film that recast the former serial killer as a troubled antihero.

CP4

Chastain’s slow-burn performance, suggesting degrees of tightly suppressed feeling at the beginning and slowly unsheathing lunacy laced with relished villainy, most effectively channels the melodrama spirit, particularly as Lucille slips the few bonds that keep her restrained and sends the film spiralling off with her into delirious realms. She’s most enjoyable letting a sweetly psychopathic pleasure sneak into her manner as she enjoys the chance to finally squash Edith under her thumb like a bug. Chastain remains one of the most interesting performers around at the moment because she can adapt her performing style to suit her material, and here she’s required to keep her characterisation just on the near side of camp. The finale’s loopy force makes up for some of the problems in Crimson Peak’s unfolding, proffering the image of a thoroughly unhinged Lucille pursuing Edith through the dank confines of Allerdale. The gears not just of story, but also within the iconography of Del Toro’s images, snap at last into perfect alignment: the Victoriana dolly nightgowns flowing in the dark and splattered with blood, the bars of the elevator crashing on delicate flesh, Chastain’s eyes bugging with vicious glee as she hefts a colossal axe intending to plant it in Wasikowska’s head, the cellar with blood-filled pits and bobbing bodies, the flakes of fairytale snow flitting in through high places, and then, finally, the wasteland of ice and metal where the final confrontation takes place. It’s like some lost last reel of a fondly imagined Joan Crawford movie viewed through a prism of freaked-out cosplayer chic and Final Girl survival drama, one that lets the ladies get down to business. Here, Del Toro cashes the check his labours have written and caps Crimson Peak as a grand experience in spite of its hesitations.


20th 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: The Treasure (Comoara, 2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Corneliu Porumboiu

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

-1

By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of the brightest stars of the Romanian New Wave is Corneliu Porumboiu. His 2006 feature debut, 12:08 East of Bucharest, is a dead-on comic critique of finger-pointing at the dawn of Romania’s release from communist oppression and dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. In the years since, Romania joined the European Union, in fact, only one year before the economic meltdown of 2008. The EU and financial hardships that afflict modern Romanians and their response to them are the themes Porumboiu examines in The Treasure.

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 2.48.45 PM

Costi (Toma Cuzin) is a hard-working civil servant living in Bucharest with his wife Raluca (Cristina Cuzin Toma) and 6-year-old son Alin (Nicodim Toma). As the film opens, Alin is sitting alongside Costi in the family car scolding his father for being late to pick him up. Although he acknowledges that Costi is almost never late and that heavy traffic delayed him, Alin is still upset because he thought Costi did it on purpose and that he told Alin a story about trying to save people like Robin Hood, Alin’s favorite fictional character, to try to smooth things over. Costi apologizes.

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 2.49.05 PM

That evening, Costi is reading The Adventures of Robin Hood to Alin for the umpteenth time when his neighbor, Adrian (Adrian Purcaresco), asks to see him. Adrian, recently unemployed from a lucrative job, is far behind on his mortgage interest payments and about to lose his house. In desperation, he wants Costi to loan him 800 euros so that he can hire a metal detector to locate treasure said to have been buried by his great-grandfather on the grounds of his family’s country estate in Islaz; Adrian offers to split the take 50/50. Costi has to manage his money carefully to pay his bills each month and tells Adrian that he can’t help. However, the idea worms its way into his mind, and with Raluca’s belief that the story could be true—Islaz was the site of the Wallachian Revolution of 1848 that was bankrolled by some wealthy families—he scrapes together enough money to hire Cornel (Corneliu Cozemi) to scan the grounds.

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 2.49.41 PM

The Treasure is a sly little film that says a lot, especially about the European Union, without doing a lot. The golden dream of a democratic, capitalistic society to which Romanians clung while they were part of the Eastern Bloc tarnished in the oxygen of reality. Usurious interest rates combined with economic instability in the new Romania have our characters, Adrian and Costi, dreaming a different dream—in fact, a fairytale. Hilariously, Costi’s boss (Florin Kevorkian) learns that Costi used a work excuse to sneak out of the office. When Costi tells him truthfully that he left to meet with a metal detection firm to scan for treasure on a friend’s property, the boss nearly fires him for trying to play him for a fool. He insists Costi must be having an affair, and Costi, fearful of losing his job, complies with a made-up mistress and promises to end the affair to save his family.

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 2.51.28 PM

The actual search for the treasure is about as true to life as it gets. Cornel moves back and forth inside the ramshackle remains of the once-grand estate and the acreage surrounding it, has trouble with his sophisticated, deep-imaging scanner, switches to a screeching surface scanner until Costi effects a repair, and argues off and on with Adrian as the tedium of the long day grows more acute. It’s odd to share the experience of standing around doing nothing; it’s a little boring and causes one’s mind to wander, but the anticipation that Cornel will turn up something exciting underlies the experience. When he finally thinks he’s found something, in the spot Adrian predicted, the men must then set to the hard work of digging two meters below ground. It’s almost cartoonish to watch, through Porumboiu’s steady, clinical gaze, as the dirt flies out of a hole lit only by a set of headlights and a single bulb flung over a tree branch.

Treasure book

Porumboiu introduces us to a rich cast of supporting characters, from minor functionaries at the Islaz police department to a resourceful thief and some larcenous country neighbors. Adrian doesn’t seem trustworthy, with his tales of family riches, but the country home he split with his brother as their inheritance is real enough. Costi is a kind, law-abiding man in a happy marriage, and we want the best for him. In the end, I felt quite happy with the behavior of all involved. Despite the looming threat of state seizure and only a small finder’s fee should a treasure of cultural significance be found, Adrian and Costi pursue their dream fairly. The film comes full circle, back to the magic of Robin Hood, the fantasy of buried treasure, and a father’s desire to be a hero in his son’s eyes—in part, thanks to the EU and the prosperity of a former enemy. The Treasure is a funny, human delight for the whole family.

There are no more screenings of The Treasure. It may be shown during Best of the Fest on Wednesday, October 28 at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Motley’s Law: Informative and inspiring documentary about Kimberley Motley, the only American allowed to practice law in Afghanistan. (Denmark)

The Emperor in August: Fascinating, beautifully shot historical drama of the final days before Japan’s surrender to Allied forces in World War II. (Japan)

Dégradé: Tensions both personal and political rouse a group of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon by street warfare in a revealing look at life in a war zone. (Palestine/France)

Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


19th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Motley’s Law (2015)

Director: Nicole Nielsen Horanyi

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

Motley 1

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The documentaries at this year’s CIFF lean heavily on portraits of influential individuals, including Chicago “Breakfast Queen” Ina Pinkney, Italian designer Michele De Lucchi, and architect Helmut Jahn, whose State of Illinois building in downtown Chicago may be facing the wrecking ball. I don’t deny that these and other individuals highlighted at the festival are interesting and notable, but I’d bet large that the most fascinating and arguably most important person profiled in a CIFF documentary is Kimberley Motley, the central figure of Motley’s Law.

Motley 4

Motley is an American attorney and former Mrs. Wisconsin who is the only American allowed to practice law in Afghanistan. She first went there in 2008 as part of a nine-month legal education program run by the U.S. State Department and spends approximately six months a year in Kabul mainly defending foreigners caught up in the country’s legal system and pursuing women’s rights cases on a pro bono basis.

Motley 7

Motley, half-black/half-Korean, proudly sporting her University of Wisconsin Badgers T-shirts and a dizzying array of dangling earrings, would be a striking figure anywhere, but in Kabul, she’s utterly singular. She never wears a veil anywhere, not on the streets, not at the prisons where she consults with her clients, and not in court. She’s forceful, no-nonsense, and relentless in pursuing justice under whatever laws apply—constitutional, Sharia, or tribal. She shakes off the fact that a grenade was thrown into her house while she was in the States and tells her assistant Khalil, who wants to bring her car into the courtyard, to leave it on the street. She prefers to be the intimidator, not the intimidated.

Motley 5

We follow her as she visits a prison to see her client, a South African contractor who was convicted of what may have been trumped-up charges and has been in prison for six years. Instead of waiting however long the prison guards see fit before allowing her in, she simply breezes in through the open gates, blankets of barbed wire flanking her on either side. The South African has found ways to keep his spirits up, but he says he has reached his breaking point. He knows that if he pays a $5,000 bribe, he will be released—the two Nigerians who were convicted with him went free long ago, most likely because they paid up—but he refuses. He has already gotten a letter ordering his release from Afghanistan Attorney General Aloko, but the court officials want to keep bouncing his case around, perhaps hoping he will eventually pay them off. Motley isn’t exactly patient, but she hangs in there, restating her points over and over; finally, when she offers to help an official with a green card problem he has in the United States, her client gets his walking papers. “Every system is corrupt,” Motley says, “but this system is really corrupt.”

Motley 10Motley 2

Motley is very frank in stating that she came to Afghanistan for the money, which affords her, her husband, and their three children a very comfortable lifestyle in North Carolina. We see the contrast during the fall months when she’s at home celebrating Halloween with her family and neighbors. Horanyi takes her camera down a North Carolina street lined with trees and comfortable houses and then immediately contrasts it with a Kabul street, where a father, mother, and baby stand in the middle of the street, seemingly with nowhere to go, and children wade through garbage-filled water. The military roams everywhere.

Motley 8

Although Motley lives in a very large, fairly luxurious house in Kabul, she is subject to power outages and leaking plumbing. When the lack of utilities becomes too much, she decides to move into the luxury Serena Hotel; 15 minutes after her check-in, gunmen arrive and kill nine people. She sluffs it off as just another attack to her husband—she likes to drive after an attack because the streets are usually clear—but he learns how serious it was from U.S. news reports. Ironically, her husband is nonfatally shot through the jaw when he visits his family in Milwaukee. Motley decries Americans and their guns, but she isn’t sure she’ll remain in Afghanistan as cut-ins of President Obama announcing the pull-out of U.S. troops in 2015 (now delayed) means decreased security for her and increased factional fighting.

Motley 11

It’s hard to know what keeps Motley going in such capricious and dangerous circumstances, but one case she handles provides the best clue. A young, religious woman has been thrown in jail for running away from her husband. He took her to a party where he wanted her to drink and have sex with his friends. Motley points to the Koran to defend her and wins her release. The poor woman, practically a girl, is crying as she talks to Motley and says she would kill herself if she didn’t fear Allah. Motley may have been in it for the money, but it’s clear that she considers herself, as her banter with Khalil at the beginning of the film states, like a member of DC Comics’ Justice League.

Motley_j-1fyg44p

I found Motley’s Law inspirational as well as informative about what life in Afghanistan is like beyond the dutifully reported attacks and counterattacks. While anarchy may seem to reign, people like Motley prove that the infrastructure of Afghan democracy, while shaky, still stands.

Motley’s Law screens Tuesday October 20 at 8:00 p.m. and Thursday, October 22 at 2:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

The Emperor in August: Beautifully shot, compelling, and updated telling of the final days before Japan’s unconditional surrender in World War II. (Japan)

Dégradé: Tensions both personal and political rouse a group of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon by street warfare in a revealing look at life in a war zone. (Palestine/France)

Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


18th 10 - 2015 | 6 comments »

The Martian (2015)

Director: Ridley Scott

vlcsnap-2015-10-10-22h38m08s38

By Roderick Heath

Mars, the near future. The members of Ares 3, the third manned mission to the Red Planet, pick at the surface whilst pursuing their scientific mission. The team consists of commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), pilot Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), and a crew of highly competent supernerds, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie). As Watney and Martinez trade their practised acerbic banter, the team are called in because a powerful sandstorm is heading for their mission base. Rather than weather out the storm and risk the safety of the rocket that will take them off the planet, Lewis orders the mission aborted and immediate evacuation. During the near-blind and floundering trek through the storm to the rocket, Watney is struck by a piece of flying debris and flung into the maelstrom. Lewis tries to find him but, faced with the evidence that he’s probably dead, and with the rocket in danger, she gets aboard and orders lift-off. The accidental tragedy, the kind that can befall such dangerous missions, is reported, and NASA boss Teddy Daniels (Jeff Daniels) breaks the sad news to the world’s press. Watney, however, is not dead. He awakens half-buried in the red Martian soil, a steel spike jutting from his chest, his pressure suit leaking but not enough to kill him. He manages to get back to the habitation unit, dig the jagged metal out of his body, and staple the wound closed. He is then confronted by the awful fact of his situation: the smart-aleck botanist and engineer knows he’s alone on Mars, his communications wrecked, and the rations left behind insufficient to last him the wait of up to four years until the next mission arrives.

vlcsnap-2015-10-10-22h40m20s70

Watney must improvise the best he can with the limited tools available to him, the limits of his existence reduced to a glorified tent on an alien alluvial plane. There’s nothing left to do but, in his words, to science the shit out of this. Watney is presumed dead by everyone on Earth for many months, and his survival is only discovered by accident when the NASA director of operations, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), asks permission to scan the site of the Ares 3 mission by satellite to check its condition. Technician Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) quickly discerns that someone is driving around the abandoned rover vehicle. Daniels refuses to pass on the news to the Ares 3 crew, who are already grieving his loss, but NASA snaps into gear to work out how to resupply Watney in a tight window of opportunity. Unexpected disasters soon begin to make the situation critical, as Watney’s crop is destroyed by a near-fatal rupture in his airlock, and the first rocket built to send food to him crashes during launch because of its hurried construction. The head of the Chinese space agency, Zhu Tao (Chen Shu), offers to help with his organisation’s new experimental booster rocket, but a young telemetry expert, Rich Purnell (Donald Glover, stealing scenes), has a better and less risky idea, and proposes turning the Hermes, the spacecraft used by the Ares crew, around and sending them back to fetch Watney after a resupply. Teddy nixes the idea, not wanting to risk the rest of the crew, against the heated disagreement of Mission Controller Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), so Mitch secretly transmits Rich’s plan to them, essentially making it their call whether to turn around and trek back across space to save their friend. Meanwhile, Watney survives his ordeal with the only supply of Earthly culture left behind for him: Lewis’s USB collection of ’70s sitcoms and disco music.

vlcsnap-2015-10-10-22h39m19s230

Andy Weir’s 2012 novel The Martian had a very contemporary genesis. Weir, after dabbling unsuccessfully as a writer, started the story as a blog purely to amuse himself, but then the project developed much like the adventures it portrays: a solitary task that attracted like minds fascinated by the same ideas and problems Weir postulated. The ideas readers contributed via comments were woven into the tale. Weir placed most of his emphasis on the science part of science fiction, striving to create a believable depiction of survival on another planet. Weir’s narrative template was obviously Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe: as with Defoe, the nuts-and-bolts survival methods of a castaway concerned him first and foremost, tackling in abstract the very real and likely problems of survival as a mixture of thought exercise, best-practise thesis, and classical frontiersman narrative. For dramatic convenience, Weir eventually brought in other characters and viewpoints, including a collective of NASA brains and Mark’s own guilt-ridden crew. Weir’s novel was deliberately (in part) artless, most of it presented in the form of Watney’s daily log that suited the initial presentation on a blog perfectly whilst also reviving an old literary form, the epistolary novel. Watney’s yammering, authorial voice was replete with pop cultural references, sophomore sarcasms, and nerdy enthusiasms—pretty much the voice we’re all used to reading on a thousand fliply amusing websites. The blend of hyper-detailed procedure and antiheroic humour wasn’t great drama or deep contemplation, and yet it made for a very enjoyable read.

vlcsnap-2015-10-10-22h38m34s41

Ridley Scott’s film adaptation was destined to be a rather different creature, though screenwriter Drew Goddard, who handled the witty, if minor, horror genre riff The Cabin in the Woods (2012), follows the novel scrupulously in many regards. Scott, one of the few great maximalists left in cinema, couldn’t be much different to Weir in his approach to his art. But it’s not difficult to discern the appeal of the material for the director. For one thing, it lets Scott operate in several genres at once, most of which he’s tackled before, particularly in his restless late career. It’s a scifi vista about fighting for survival a la Alien (1979); a comedy about characters with weak social skills like Matchstick Men (2003) and A Good Year (2006); an epic pitting man against primal forces following on from Prometheus (2011) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014); and a tale of a searcher founding new worlds like 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005). The sequence in which Watney operates on himself suggests a prototype for Prometheus’ best scene, which depicts more sophisticated self-surgery. Prometheus was doomed to stay in the shadow of Alien because of a confused screenplay, whilst it also discomfortingly revealed how much more staid and lumpen much current big cinema often is compared to that from the days when Scott emerged. The mild disappointment of the experience seems to have stung Scott out of a relatively flat period. The Martian, excellent as it is, might also count as a decline from the gutsy strangeness of The Counselor (2013) and the epic vigour of Exodus: Gods and Kings, two films with completely diverse brands of ambition that few seemed willing to process.

vlcsnap-2015-10-10-22h38m45s149

Most vitally, though, The Martian allows Scott a chance to approach narrative entirely on the level of systematology, a notion he’s been dabbling with for most his career but started reflecting most seriously on his underrated crime movies American Gangster (2007) and The Counselor. In those films, he strove to do what most gangster flicks avoid and demonstrate the drug industry as a chain of cause and effect leading right down from kingpin to the most pathetic junkie. Even more impudently, he used a spectacular chain of logically metastasising events to illustrate that most illogical of things, divine intervention, throughout Exodus: Gods and Kings. Watney is Scott’s anti-Moses, and yet echoes his take on the mythic hero, partly signalled by Scott’s return use of Wadi Rum in Jordan as a location for the drama (whilst also tipping his hat again to Lawrence of Arabia, 1962, which also used the same location). Watney is forced to rely purely on his own invention, using happenstance advantages, like the manna provided for him in a package of potatoes shipped for a Thanksgiving feast that gives him the chance to grow enough crops to live, and then carefully manufacturing what he needs, including water, through risking chemical and mechanical processes. Weir’s book was obviously far more detailed and in-depth about the pure process of this undertaking, and to a certain extent Goddard’s script skates over the very business that is the essence of the tale. But then The Martian is a mass-market movie, and it’s already stretching the template by avoiding many regulation elements and clichés—only the very faintest hints of romance, little action, very little religion, and a bunch of eggheads for protagonists.

vlcsnap-2015-10-10-22h39m02s59

The Martian’s can-do poptimism strikes a refreshing note in the contemporary film landscape, following Weir’s lead in contemplating a situation where scientists get on with their jobs without political interference and the world’s populace looks on, riveted by the spectacle of how to do a lot with very little—a very now theme if ever there was one. The Martian belongs to a recent string of science fiction straining to be more accurate than the cinematic branch has often been seen as in the past, whilst also connecting to hallowed works of the genre’s history. The speculative problem-solving has roots not just in Robinson Crusoe but also in Jules Verne’s template of blending hard and soft science based in the best available knowledge and cutting-edge concepts of his time. Cinematically, Byron Haskin’s Robinson Crusoe in Mars (1964) is an obvious intermediary: Haskin’s film dragged in scientific improbabilities, like stones that give off oxygen when heated, and the outright fantastic, when aliens eventually appear. But it also evoked an eerie, distinctive, dislocated mood that anticipated the serious science-fiction filmmaking of the next two decades, including Alien. Haskin had worked long before that with George Pal, who had produced Destination Moon (1950), the first modern scifi film and one that was just as persuasively preoccupied with the true problems of space travel. Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2001), a controversial flop at the time of its release and another film made in the image of Stanley Kubrick’s tirelessly (and, increasingly, tiresomely) influential 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), helped reinvigorate realistic scifi with its elegant use of the authentic limitations of travelling in space, usually sidestepped readily by filmmakers, as the very matter of its drama—the danger of meteors, the tyranny of distance and scarcity, the exacting punishment attending the smallest of faults and miscalculations.

vlcsnap-2015-10-10-22h37m25s113

More recently, Gravity (2013) and Interstellar (2014) had delved into similar territory (The Martian shares Interstellar cast members Damon and Chastain). One thing The Martian has that those films conspicuously lacked is its scallywag sense of humour; Scott’s film is less pretentious than either whilst going well past them in actual, practical acumen. If it lacks the intermittent glimpses of unusual grandeur Christopher Nolan conjured in his work, it also avoids the bad wobbles of story and characterisation, and actually lives up to the promise of convincing use of a far-out setting on which Gravity failed so conspicuously to deliver. But actually, a closer ancestor to Weir’s novel was The Andromeda Strain (1970), Robert Wise’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel where almost all of the drama was found specifically in scientific exegesis. A lot of Weir’s more finicky process details are left out of the film, and Scott is more attentive to the physical level: Watney, as his ordeal continues over months, degenerates from a man blessed with Damon’s weathering but still very boyish features and sturdy physique, to scrawny, sore-riddled, malnourished remnant sprouting a ragged beard. Scott’s filmmaking is part of the great pleasure of The Martian: avoiding much of the mannered and assaultive lexicon of contemporary pseudo-realism (some of which Scott helped invent), Scott instead offers a work of classical filmmaking sweep, perhaps his most successful attempt: it somehow manages to be at once fast-paced and dashing, yet also curiously relaxed, a work of profoundly casual skill.

vlcsnap-2015-10-10-22h39m37s156

The filmmaking here is most memorable when regarding the Martian landscape itself, a vista grand and beautiful, but also utterly desolate. Watney’s journey across the planet to locate the escape ship intended for the next mission but now to be repurposed as his ark is an interlude of cinematic grandeur that again nods to Lawrence of Arabia’s Nefud Desert crossing sequence, alternating viewpoints both godlike and eye-level. Some have called Scott’s approach to the material distant, but I found it simply elegant, and perhaps that’s so rare these days, no one recognises it. The mix of old-school cinema and new-age humour, potentially awkward, works for the most part. Perhaps there was the seed of something shaggier and more genuinely oddball here, in the mould of John Carpenter and Alien collaborator Dan O’Bannon’s heady Dark Star (1974). But of course, that was never part of the mission statement. Weir resisted introducing much introspection on Watney’s part, with the suggestion that Watney’s detail-focused approach to his situation holds at bay existential angst. One of the best jokes transcribed here satirises a tendency towards heavy metaphysical ponderings in such fare, when Kapoor wanders what Watney must be thinking, before cutting to the stranded astronaut deploring the lyrics of disco music.

vlcsnap-2015-10-10-22h39m41s193

Scott, on the other hand, whilst not trying to graft something too weighty onto the material, doesn’t let Watney escape unscathed, simply utilising his filmmaking to acknowledge a sense of isolation and the tug of eternity, and finds a sense of wonder as much in the miracle of a sprout of living green, with all its scientific and poetic meaning, as in the vast reaches of an alien world. Watney is confronted with a landscape of perfect solitude, his status as pioneer, the first one to go just about anywhere on the planet, a space cowboy and tourist who has the technology-provided ability, familiar again to most of us these days, to define his own reality with the music he constantly blasts, and yet with the tug of airless infinities just beyond his cocoon of plastic and digitised music.

vlcsnap-2015-10-10-22h40m15s24

Scott and Goddard smartly dial back on some of Weir’s more awkward, populist-wannabe touches, like the clashes of temperament between Teddy and Mitch, aiming more for an interesting diminuendo where a confrontation of the two men after Mitch makes his risky play acknowledges consequences like grown-ups. It’s tempting, indeed, to read Mitch, with Bean in the role dampening his trademark machismo and playing up his intelligence, as Scott’s avatar in the film, a man long used to playing by a larger game’s rules but willing to occasionally remind everyone he doesn’t always sign on with the smooth, hierarchical, technocratic suppression of human instinct (Bean’s presence also presents an opportunity for one great in-joke for Lord of the Rings fans). I was also pleased that Chastain, who might have been prodded to overplay the fearless leader in a manner close to her charmless part in Interstellar and her steely-neurotic spymaster in Zero Dark Thirty (2012), instead offers a portrait in mature leadership that, again, feels rather rare in recent filmmaking. Chastain expertly handles the moments like when she holds herself accountable for leaving a very-much-alive Watney behind with pliant skill, registering both piercing reprobation and lucid realism. In fact, the cast is so generally excellent that many actors, like Kristen Wiig, must count as wasted.

vlcsnap-2015-10-10-22h41m01s229

The Martian isn’t perfect. I could’ve done with a few less rounds of NASA technicians cheering and cutaways to enthralled audiences in Times Square and other international locations. The theme of contact and cross-pollination between cultures is one close to Scott’s heart, and yet The Martian gets oddly stiff when contemplating an American’s butt being saved with Chinese aid. Yet something of the crowd-sourced joie de vivre of the novel’s genesis has slipped through into this film, one that invites the audience along and doesn’t talk down much as it explains the minutiae of growing crops on Mars and explores the method Watney has to use to strip down and repurpose the ascent vehicle in order to reach the Hermes, reducing to a “convertible,” as Watney quips, assaulting the craft to the point where it seems unsafe, and indeed this turns out to be so.

vlcsnap-2015-10-10-22h41m10s59

The climax is a particularly brilliant display of technique and visual power, ratcheting up tension but also finding weird epiphanies of motion that extend the film’s theme of seeing the beauty and wonder even at the outermost fringes of survival. The jokey yet fundamental theme of music as a basic human need resolves in a zero-gravity dance where the need to grip onto another human is quite literally a life-saving act of faith. Scott and Goddard go further than Weir for a postscript that underlines, amidst a mood of bouncy triumph, the notion that experience equals knowledge that then must be passed on in the same way a seed leads to a green shoot. Such uncynical epiphanies make The Martian one of the most charming big-budget movies of the year and one of Scott’s most entertaining works.

Tags: ,

Next Page »« previous page

What others say about us

"You put a lot of love into your blog." – Roger Ebert, Roger Ebert's Journal
"Marilyn and Roderick … always raising the tone." – Farran Smith Nehme, The Self-Styled Siren
"Honestly, you both have made me aware of films I've never seen, from every era. Mega enriching." – Donna Hill, Strictly Vintage Hollywood




Subscribe to Ferdy on Films

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Blogs

Chicago Resources

General Film Resources

Categories

Archives