March 21, 2017

White trash precariat

American Honey (Andrea Arnold, 2016). How many films have been this concerned with money? Counting it, coveting it, stashing it, earning it, conning people out of it. Andrea Arnolds first non-British film is a road movie through the US midwest  Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota  that embeds viewers within a group of drifting, nihilistic teens who form a kind of white trash precariat (this was conceived several years ago and it debuted at Cannes last May, but it feels very much like a Trump-era story). As in Arnolds Fish Tank, there is a young woman at the centre (Sasha Lane, above) who is trying to negotiate the rules of the world and identify its predators. Arnolds view is raw, sympathetic, intuitive and not immune to the weird beauty of the entirely ordinary even when her Academy ratio close-ups risk giving viewers claustrophobia. 

March 20, 2017

Ten years earlier

The Serpent’s Egg (Ingmar Bergman, 1977). As though Cabaret could be repackaged as a dark and murky nightmare (apartments, corridors, basements, crowded clubs, wet night-time streets) in which Nazi crimes were somehow rehearsed 10 years ahead of time. David Carradine was no Max von Sydow but he was arguably more of a Max von Sydow than David Bowie was in the thematically similar but much sloppier Just a Gigolo a year later. 

March 19, 2017

On the river

Sully (Clint Eastwood, 2016). A man lands a plane on a river in New York and everyone lives, so why does he feel like this? 

March 18, 2017

Cities at night

Heat (Michael Mann, 1995). I hadn’t seen this for 20 years, I think, and I remembered the bank shoot-out most clearly – sudden guerrilla warfare choreographed in downtown Los Angeles – but I had not recalled its feeling, both grandiose and sad, beautiful and strange. And there is Mann’s romantic admiration for these quiet men – cops, criminals, what’s the difference? – who run on a mix of intuition and discipline, outsiders looking in. 

March 11, 2017

Trains and bad weather

Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2008). A dark and fairly pitiless noir with hauntings at its centre. The sex and death that drives these plots goes unseen, leaving just the clouds of suspicion and guilt, the sound of trains and bad weather.

March 9, 2017

Last time I walked down your street

Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016). This has an unexpected shape that feels like shapelessness (as we saw in the equally moving and impressive Margaret, Lonergan likes to take his time with scenes that might have seemed extraneous to others), and it’s observational rather than highly personal, but it is unusually sensitive to the burdens of guilt and grief and the ways that we try and sometimes fail to move on. There are entire worlds and stories beyond what we see here: the way Lee (Casey Affleck) wraps up the three photos when he moves, or the way the young Patrick glances at his passed-out mother, or the story of the man who lost his dad in 1959 and remembers every detail, or many other small and important moments. If you leave wanting more from Joe and Randi, maybe that is the point as well. 

March 5, 2017

Almost pleasantly underpowered

CafĂ© Society (Woody Allen, 2016). The annual Woody Allen film is nearly beyond criticism by now. This time: period nostalgia (Hollywood, gangsters) and an almost pleasantly underpowered love triangle in which passion, anguish or despair seem to be entirely absent. Call it a sketch of an idea of an experiment about a story about life, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But in a year, will you even remember which one this was?

March 4, 2017

The best Christopher Lee performance

The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher, 1967). The seriousness of the metaphysical struggle. He’s almost Max von Sydow.  

March 1, 2017

Old news

Snowden (Oliver Stone, 2016). The disillusioned patriot shaped the trajectory of Stone’s Vietnam films – Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Heaven and Earth (in Wall Street, the disillusioned capitalist). The Edward Snowden biopic is closest to the second in plot terms but it lacks the urgency and righteous anger that risked being embarrassing, which makes this seem stale, cautious and under-imagined instead. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance is suitably diligent. One thing: if your storytelling is hugely dependent on news clips and audio, are you making a dramatic feature or is it really a dramatised documentary? Another thing: it’s some kind of achievement to make even Nicolas Cage appear boring. But Stone manages. 

February 27, 2017

Whatever it is

The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor, 2016). A terrible shambles about maternal guilt, sexual jealousy and the black hole of alcoholism that demonstrates, again and again, that it takes a special kind of talent (Fincher, Hitchcock, Verhoeven) to make great entertainment out of psychologically lurid material. Perhaps it takes a sadistic or single-minded or simply cold-hearted person. Whatever it is, Tate Taylor is not it. 

February 22, 2017

Who makes the Nazis?

Imperium (Daniel Ragussis, 2016). The renaissance of Daniel Radcliffe (Swiss Army Man, Kill Your Darlings) seemed more myth than reality until his surprisingly strong showing in this unexpectedly topical undercover Nazi thriller. Radcliffe is a dweebish FBI agent turned shaven-headed Aryan warrior (he looks like a pocket-edition Henry Rollins) infiltrating neo-Nazi gangs who have – you will never believe this – been radicalised by a smarmy, conspiracy theory-peddling radio host.     

February 20, 2017

Faces in the water

Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979) and Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016). Like both Stalker and Andrei Rublev, Silence could be understood as a long and introverted meditation on the gap between religious aspirations and ideals and the compromises made by those who must live in the world. It is profound enough to wear the comparison and there is a rare cautiousness, or maybe piousness or seriousness, in the way that Scorsese directs. It may be true that Andrew Garfield lacks the gravity or sorrow that Liam Neeson and even Adam Driver carry with them, or the thin-skinned anguish of Willem Dafoe in the more turbulent and vivid Last Temptation of Christ, but there are many consolations. A remarkable Japanese supporting cast is just one of them. A thoughtful screenplay (by Jay Cocks and Scorsese) is another. Like Tarkovsky (or recent Malick), this is religious art, and you have to meet it at least halfway. 

February 11, 2017

Fish tank, hall of mirrors

The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947). Where is that line between the too-much-ness of Welles as actor and the hamminess? To put it another way: between the actor caring too much and not caring enough? You can say (David Thomson does) that Welles put a lifetime of acting into Citizen Kane and everything after was a variation on parts of Kane’s corruption. And everything is informed for us now by biography. The unconvincing figure Welles plays here, the Irishman O’Hara, is smart but clueless, an insightful writer who is easily duped. Welles’ expressionist flourishes are daringly at work in the closing amusement park Caligari scene, despite studio edits, but I’m as taken with the hallucinatory aquarium scene. No one has ever made sense of the story.

January 27, 2017

Last one leaving

Don’t Breathe (Fede Alvarez, 2016). The Detroit setting will get your horror movie at least half-way there (Only Lovers Left Alive, It Follows). Other than that, think about bringing the war home. This is efficient, brutal when it needs to be, and packed with dread. 

January 25, 2017

In the world

Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross, 2016). It seemed impossible but everyone learned something. Deep within it, there is pioneering American religious separatism, the founding story, tribes of children and the possibility of innocence. Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, George MacKay. 

January 24, 2017

At the lake

Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, 2015). There is a 1970s feeling to Alex Ross Perrys psychological drama  not quite a horror, but nearly – Queen of Earth, both in its setting (a lakeside cabin with timbered interior) and its theme (a Bergman-ish descent into madness). The eerie score by Keegan DeWitt has echoes of Rosemarys Baby and there is a similar sense of persecution and humiliation in the story of Catherine, a young woman who has lost her famous artist father, played with remarkable commitment and intensity by Elisabeth Moss. As in Perrys previous film, the vicious literary black comedy Listen Up Philip, these are well-connected, creative, upper middle-class New Yorkers whose relationships have turned competitive and bitter  it can almost feel like the dark flip side of a privileged, whimsical Wes Anderson world. 

January 20, 2017

Back from the dead: Mel Gibson, martyrdom and violent religiosity in Blood Father

Blood Father (Jean-Francois Richet). 
Chapter 1: it begins and ends in churches, with confessions of hopelessness.
Chapter 2: the body artist, the dragon drawing and the meaning of Don Quixote.
Chapter 5: the missing mother.
Chapter 9: when he loses the biker beard, he reminds you of his most vulnerable and remorseful self. 

January 19, 2017

The wretched of the earth

Chasing Asylum (Eva Orner, 2016). “It sat with me for quite a number of months. And if I didn’t speak out, who was going to? I’ve got a conscience and I was brought up the right way. And I don’t understand how we can do this to each other. I felt that it was the right thing to do. People need to talk up.” Manus Island guard and whistleblower Martin Appleby.

January 18, 2017

Gone missing

The Captive (Atom Egoyan, 2014). The sad thing about Atom Egoyan is that we measure everything against the heights of his greatest work and find it lacking, time and time again  perhaps he peaked too soon. It doesnt help when a (relatively) new film like The Captive seems to be a pallid, lifeless, poorly-constructed retread of his best films, with their deep explorations of loss and memory. Child abduction, disappearances, guilt, grief: it was all done so much better in The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica and Felicias Journey, which constitute the mature peak of Egoyans career. This has none of the sad, complicated feelings of those three films and Egoyan makes a confusing mess of the tricky timelines  the kind of thing that once came easily to him. 

January 9, 2017

Regrets, nothing

Unplanned double bill: What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015) and La Vie en Rose (Olivier Dahan, 2007).