Film Reviews

Recent Viewing #6

La Danza De La Realidad (The Dance Of Reality) (Jodorowsky, 2015): Clearly a very personal film by Alejandro Jodorowsky, which is partly an exaggerated, dreamlike vision of his own childhood experiences and partly a kind of late life statement of reckoning. It includes performances by his three sons, one of whom takes on a pivotal role (effectively playing his own grandfather), with other family members dotted throughout the crew. There’s an element of frustration involved when viewing – you’re watching an interpretation of a dream or a series of faded, half-remembered memories made by a noted surrealist with a flair for bizarro, acid-soaked filmmaking, after all. However, I can say from experience that if you’re not adept at finding meaning within lashings of weirdness, The Dance Of Reality is still an enjoyable watch as long as you’re happy to sit back and gawp at one striking image after another.

The Dressmaker (Moorhouse, 2015): The comedy in this Australian comedy-drama grated, and the drama isn’t great. It’s a film that’s partly defined – or perhaps suffocated – by its array of eccentric characters and exaggerated, boggle-eyed performances, which quickly become tiresome. The setting is a small, dusty Outback town that’s still scandalised by an earlier child murder. The supposed killer returns from time away – played as an adult by Kate Winslet – and she subsequently injects some style into the local community with both her own appearance and the fashionable, glamorous dresses she makes, which become popular with the townsfolk; some locals can’t forgive and forget, though, and further deaths ensue. The costumes by Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson are colourful and attractive, and they (along with Winslet) briefly light up an otherwise drab drama. Too self-consciously wacky for my liking, though.

urok_mgosheva_0Urok (The Lesson) (Grozeva, Valchanov, 2015): For the most part a very good, tightly-controlled drama about a teacher in Bulgaria trying to pay off debts (missed mortgage payments initially, followed by repayments owed to an unscrupulous loan shark); she is forced, eventually, into dishonesty and theft, having spent most of the film trying to teach children in her English class a valuable moral lesson relating to stealing and honesty. I say ‘for the most part’ above because the ending is a bit of a stretch, even if it does neatly tie everything together. Margita Gosheva gives a fine lead performance, though, and there’s shared ground with the Dardennes, if you like their work.

The Great Escape (Sturges, 1963): I have no idea how many times I’ve seen John Sturges’ epic war film over the years, but it remains one of my favourites, and that’s possibly because the good humour of the first half eventually gives way to one of the more brutal, unforgiving, and utterly involving final acts you’ll find in these enduring ensemble capers. Of course no director today would be allowed to build up to the escape for so long, but Sturges carefully took his time establishing the characters and the dynamics that exist between them, which pays dividends as they make their break for freedom; we follow each individual story closely, waiting to get a new update on Hilts on his stolen motorbike, Bartlett and others on the train or Sedgwick as he slowly cycles to France. The scenes set in the POW camp are a delight, with British stiff-upper-lip defiance (Attenborough, Donald, Jackson, McCallum, Pleasance) mixing with American bluster and insouciance (McQueen, Garner, Coburn), and I just love how the film treads a fine line between being a fitting memoir to those who escaped (or who died trying to escape) from Stalag Luft III and being a piece of lighter, frothy entertainment. Magic cinema.

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (Miller, Ogilvie, 1985): Regular readers may have noticed that I’ve recently been re-watching the original Mad Max trilogy, and this is the weakest part, though oddly it’s this one that George Miller used as a template for Mad Max: Fury Road (well, up to a point, anyway). The final act is decent, but the mess of sweaty torsos, gurning faces, bad acting and forced humour that precedes it hasn’t dated well at all, while the tribe of lost children sub-plot makes the Ewok bit in Return Of The Jedi look like Citizen Fucking Kane. It’s all a bit disjointed, a bit of fire has gone out of Gibson’s eyes by this point, and considering it’s in the title the thunderdome doesn’t actually feature much at all. Also, the stuntcasting of Tina Turner doesn’t work in the film’s favour, though I’m glad Miller opted for a female baddie for a change.

198323651If… (Anderson, 1968): Lindsay Anderson’s film about an anarchic public schoolboy (Malcolm McDowell, extremely charismatic in his debut role) who turns on teachers, fellow pupils and other members of the community is a satire of the English public school system, and by association a swipe at the various professions or organisations that are traditionally linked to it, such as the church and the military. It also serves as an interesting state-of-the-nation piece for the late 1960s, when acts of civil disobedience were on the rise among students in the UK, as they were elsewhere across the globe; in this school rebellions and struggles that are taking place miles away are inspirational but also seized upon for their cool factor, with the iconography of various rebel leaders appearing on the walls of the students’ private rooms and spaces. And eventually the acts of these far-flung revolutionaries are echoed by one group of kids, who defy the old order, and the establishment, before eventually attempting to overthrow them with a brutal, bloody coup-in-miniature. If… is a strong, experimental drama, in which order and structure gradually surrender to primal urges, rebellion and chaos, and as the film progresses Anderson incorporates more and more flights of fancy and weird, dreamlike passages accordingly. The film stock changes constantly from monochrome to colour; initially this was due to financial constraints, but the director liked the shift and kept moving from one to the other throughout the rest of the film. It’s certainly jarring, but it’s another facet of this work that captures a period of change: it has often been said that this was the decade when Britain moved from black and white to colour.

Chronic (Franco, 2016): A stripped-back drama about a palliative care nurse (Tim Roth in his best performance in some years) whose dedication to his patients perhaps masks some kind of obsessive/stalkerish tendency, or is perhaps reflective of an addiction to grief or death, or it may even be a source of sexual pleasure; it’s not initially clear, but director Michel Franco gives us subtle clues in several well-constructed scenes that show Roth’s character at work – gradually shutting out his patients’ families – or awkwardly dealing with people during his own down-time. He may well be a chronic liar, too, but the film is rarely explicit on such matters. The camera remains still throughout, though there’s one simple but effective tracking shot at the end and another when Roth follows a young woman from her house and into a university campus. In fact a kind of stillness hangs over the film from start to finish, which dovetails with sterile-looking interiors (private bedrooms and living rooms resemble hospital wards) and a general lack of dialogue (or rather a prevalence of quiet). Like Roth’s performance, it’s understated, subtle and very good indeed.

the-ones-below-trlr-920The Ones Below (Farr, 2016): This is the kind of icy, nasty drama that occasionally seems to go down well with the bitterest of critics out there: two London couples who live above and below one another in the same building are both expecting their first child, but it being a film and all something goes horribly wrong and a spate of terrible, unlikely behaviour ensues. One of the problems, though, is that The Ones Below relies on one early scene and one late sequence in particular, and both will elicit laughs from unforgiving viewers on account of the acting. In the first instance a character takes a fall but it looks completely fake; in the second I’m afraid the performance by one of the film’s four leads just doesn’t cut it, and his reaction to two specific terrible events completely undercuts the drama. It’s not all bad, though. There’s quite a tight focus on the core plot with little space left for extraneous fluff, and the faintest whiff of Polanski abounds. Plus David Morrissey gets to play an insufferable prick, and he’s quite fun to watch at first. I hated his character so much.

Listen To Me Marlon (Riley, 2015): Stevan Riley’s documentary makes sense of hundreds of hours’ worth of audio recordings that were made (and left behind) by the late Marlon Brando. It’s a fascinating insight into a creative mind, and it also shows us to a certain degree how age and experience changes an artist’s approach, and also because a life has been condensed to 90 minutes it shows how such factors gradually alter a personality. The film opens and closes with an electronically-rendered talking head of Brando, which is a weird old sight, but much of the rest of it involves carefully-chosen film clips and home movie footage. It’s edited with intelligence and it flows beautifully, while Brando’s recordings are often insightful and always interesting.

concussion-01-800Concussion (Landesman, 2016): Based on a true story, Concussion sees Will Smith’s unconventional and brilliant Nigerian pathologist going up against the might of the NFL after he finds evidence that men who repeatedly slam into one another during American Football matches suffer long-term damage to their brains. (I’d have thought that was obvious, but in real life the research by Smith’s character Bennet Omalu into chronic traumatic encephalopathy was apparently groundbreaking.) It’s a very predictable ‘underdog’ film, in the sense that the director concentrates on the discussions between the quiet, humble Omalu and the arrogant medical experts and powerful NFL bigwigs who have a vested interest in silencing him, and it comes as no surprise when our doctor-hero stands firm against the gathering naysayers (strings obligingly swelling on the soundtrack). The subject matter is a little dry, and I was a bit put off by the film’s pre-occupation with Omalu ‘becoming American’; not the ‘gaining citizenship’ element of the story, but the recurring theme that through his work and honesty the doctor came to embody Great American Traits, as if that’s all that this intelligent, well-qualified individual – who was doing very well as a Nigerian man with character traits he presumably developed in Nigeria and other countries thanks very much – ever wanted. It’s not a bad film by any means; just formulaic and (understandably) very serious. Smith is pretty good, and he is well-supported by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks.

Film Reviews

Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates

Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates is an unambitious comedy about two badly-behaved brothers (Adam DeVine, Zac Efron as Mike and Dave Stangle) and their badly-behaved wedding dates (Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza as Alice and Tatiana); all four are on their best behaviour in the build-up to a Stangle family wedding in Hawaii, but their masks inevitably slip, and they end up wreaking a fair amount of havoc (which mainly affects the poor old bride-to-be, played by the wonderfully-named Sugar Lyn Beard). It’s a puerile, throwaway, stoopid comedy that you’ve seen before in various guises: The Wedding Singer, Wedding Crashers and American Wedding are just three examples. Attempts to replicate the kind of over-the-top, spontaneous silliness of an Adam McKay/Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly movie are a little too calculated for my liking, but I did laugh on several occasions, and I tend to go along with most comedies if you can sense (or see) that the actors were permanently on the verge of cracking up during the shoot. I suppose having low expectations also helps, plus if you like one or two of the main players you’ll get through it without experiencing any major, lasting trauma. I’m a fan of Kendrick, for example, and her early scenes with Plaza are a treat; it’s just a shame that the quality dips thereafter (and indeed a shame that the film isn’t called Alice And Tatiana Need Nothing). By contrast I can take or leave DeVine’s Seann William Scott/Jack Black hybrid, and Efron has seemingly decided to make the same kind of movie over and over again, turning in identikit performances. With that in mind, tomorrow I’m going to visit a bookmakers to place a £100 bet that he will win an Oscar in 2026 for an amazing turn as Adolf Hitler in Steven Spielberg’s final movie Kampf.

Directed by: Jake Szymanski.
Written by: Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O’Brien.
Starring: Zac Efron, Adam DeVine, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Sugar Lyn Beard, Stephen Root.
Cinematography: Matthew Clark.
Editing: Lee Haxall, Jonathan Schwarz.
Jeff Cardoni, Various.
Running Time:
98 minutes.

Film Reviews

Bridget Jones’s Baby

Twelve years after the underwhelming Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason and fifteen years after the hit adaptation of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, original director Sharon Maguire has returned with most of her original cast intact – there are a couple of good-natured digs at an absent Hugh Grant – for another outing in the company of the London-based chronicler of love, work and unsexy knickers. Bridget, now 43 and played for a third time by Renée Zellweger, is largely defined by her singleton status yet again, though as before there is some emphasis on her social life, her relationship with her parents and her career (she’s working for a TV news channel but her position is threatened by – gasp! – younger people). In early scenes she sleeps with The Chiselled American Dude (Patrick Dempsey) and The Tight-lipped English Guy (Colin Firth) during the same week, and subsequently discovers that she is pregnant; and so on we go through the term of the pregnancy, with doubt as to who is the baby’s father, and with a soul-searching Bridget flitting back and forth between both men as she weighs up the pros and cons of American beef and English muffin.

Few people were clamouring for a third Bridget Jones movie, but in fairness the character still seems to be very popular — my local multiplex had it on five screens during the opening weekend, and apparently there were only a handful of seats available. It pleased the crowd, and actually it’s not difficult to see why such goodwill remains after a long break: Zellweger puts a lot into her performance as Bridget once again, and she’s happy to take pratfalls and let other laughs come at her expense (in fact I’d forgotten how good a physical comedian she is). I like her a lot in this role, and she’s ably supported by the likes of Sally Phillips, Sarah Solemani and Emma Thompson, all of whom I’d have been happy to see more of; the men, by contrast, play it straight once more. There are a number of gentle, ever-so-slightly-risqué laughs here and there, as you’d expect from a Working Title film, and a few scenes that make you cringe at the depiction of London, and England, as you’d also expect from a Working Title film. It’s not really my cup of tea (and obviously it’s not really aimed at me) but I do appreciate the fact that it’s fairly warm-hearted and that it ribs a wide variety of (admittedly easy) targets. Millennials – the predictable punching bag de nos jours – come in for some treatment, and there’s a good Thatcher joke in there too, though I don’t think anyone under 30 in my screening got it. Simply put, if you enjoyed the first Bridget Jones film you’ll probably find plenty to like here, too.

Directed by: Sharon Maguire.
Written by: Helen Fielding, Dan Mazer, Emma Thompson.
Starring: Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Patrick Dempsey, Emma Thompson, Sally Phillips, Sarah Solemani, Jim Broadbent, Gemma Jones, Shirley Henderson, James Callis, Celia Imrie, Neil Pearson.
Cinematography: Andrew Dunn.
Editing: Melanie Ann Oliver.
Craig Armstrong, Various.
Running Time:
123 minutes.

Film Reviews

Captain Fantastic

Captain Fantastic, the new film by Sundance regular Matt Ross, is a comedy-drama about an unusual family that’s led by a strong-willed patriarch of the hippie/counterculture persuasion, here played by the dependable Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen’s character Ben cares for his six children while his wife is hospitalised elsewhere, undergoing treatment for bipolar disorder. The family lives off the grid, in the Pacific Northwest, where they forage and hunt for food together, grow their own vegetables and avoid what might be described as luxury, unhealthy or unethical items: soap, TV, fizzy drinks, and so on. Ben’s the kind of father who wants to teach his kids valuable information and useful skills so that they have the tools to adapt and survive in any circumstances; during the day the home-schooled brood train to fight with combat knives and learn how to climb mountains, while at night they discuss matters of science and offer critiques of literature before the inevitable campfire sing-song kicks in. Instead of Christmas they celebrate, somewhat amusingly, Noam Chomsky Day, because – in Ben’s words -‘he’s actually a real person’. The grand plan, then, is that the kids will become ‘philosopher kings’; however, as the film takes an age to point out, their upbringing and education ensures that they don’t really fit in when they come into contact with other people, something the children seem to desire more and more. Ben’s approach has become too dogmatic, and the kids are simultaneously growing and suffocating under his rule.


Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic

Of course it takes a certain amount of determination to live this way. Ben’s stubborn approach in providing this way of life, and whether or not it has been beneficial to the mental health and welfare of the rest of the family, is examined in a number of ways; there are brief, unsustained challenges to his status as pack leader by his two eldest (occasionally unhappy) boys, Bodevan (George MacKay) and Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), while the family’s decision to go on a road-trip together, thereby coming into contact with the wider, ‘normal’ world, also forces us to ask questions of Ben’s single-mindednes. Most obviously, though, it’s the fragile state of Ben’s wife that serves to undermine the idealism of the lifestyle.

Ross’s decision to opt for the road-trip as a way of exploring these issues recalls Little Miss Sunshine, most obviously: the motley crew pile into an old, rickety bus, whereupon various cracks and fissures seem to get worse and/or heal, and the film takes on a similar, episodic nature, walking the line between broad comedy and serious drama. The group devise a master plan to steal food from a supermarket, in a weirdly anarchic move that doesn’t tally with anything else in the film and could have been explored in more detail. Later, in Captain Fantastic‘s best and most excruciating passage, they drop in on Ben’s exasperated sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn), her husband Dave (Steve Zahn) and their two teenage boys. And finally they end up at the palatial home of Ben’s wealthy, conservative father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella) and mother-in-law Abigail (Ann Dowd), where the fairly predictable culture clash between the two men is nicely offset and complicated by genuine affection between the grandparents and the kids.

The film appears to have polarised critical opinion, and I’m not particularly surprised: I seemed to veer from liking Captain Fantastic ever-so-slightly to being irritated by it every five minutes or so, based almost entirely on what Mortensen’s character was saying or doing from one scene to the next (though his chipper, can-do, precocious kids are annoying on occasion, too). That’s kind of the point, though; the interesting thing about Ben is that his triumphs go hand-in-hand with his failings. He means well, and has taught his kids an incredible amount, but he is in denial about the negative side effects. As mentioned above the suggestion is that the extremity of these lifestyle choices – however noble the intention – have contributed to his wife’s bipolar disorder, though it’s hard to say for sure as she is an elusive, absent figure.

The film includes some nice photography of the Pacific Northwest, but if you’re averse to being battered around the head with a positive/schmaltzy Sundance Indie Spirit you might want to give it a miss, and I should warn you that the Guns N’Roses cover near the end is one that quickly needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Also, for all the time we spend with this family, the three daughters seem underdeveloped as characters, certainly in comparison to the two older sons. A mixed bag.

Directed by: Matt Ross.
Written by: Matt Ross.
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Frank Langella, Ann Dowd, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn.
Cinematography: Stéphane Fontaine.
Editing: Joseph Krings.
Alex Somers, Various.
Running Time:
118 minutes.

Film Reviews

Recent Viewing #5

Antigang (aka The Sweeney: Paris, aka The Squad) (Rocher, 2016): This routine cops n’ robbers thriller was released as Antigang in France, The Squad in some other territories and the terribly-named The Sweeney: Paris in the UK (because it’s a French remake of Nick Love’s dire 2011 film The Sweeney, itself a big screen, modern take on the gritty, London-set 1970’s cop show of the same name). Anyway, it opens promisingly enough, with Jean Reno’s grizzled cop (relationship problems / heavy drinking / they don’t like his methods / but he gets results) extolling the virtues of Johnny Hallyday before he and his team carry out a raid on some generic, balaclava-clad criminals, but really that’s pretty much all that happens during the next 90 minutes (minus the chat about Johnny Hallyday). It’s far too repetitive, with a large number of one-note, completely underdeveloped characters, and it’s all fairly dull as a result. Reno’s usual on-screen charisma seems to have gone walkabout.

Sleeping With Other People (Headland, 2016): A reasonably funny New York-set romcom, and it’s nice to see a decent film role for Alison Brie, who has produced so much excellent work for TV in recent years, most notably Community, Bojack Horseman and Mad Men. Jason Sudeikis I’m less fond of, but he’s OK here, I guess, as a sort of chirruping lummox. They play a couple of thirtysomethings who once slept together at college before meeting cute years later at a ‘love addicts’ meeting; they become ‘good friends’ despite the fact they’re clearly perfect soulmates and attracted to one another, but neither of them makes a move and instead they both sleep with other people, as the title makes abundantly clear. Then, instead of the predicted ending, an alien race invades Earth and makes Brie’s character their new queen before dismembering Sudeikis’s bro in an alarmingly disgusting fashion, with entrails flying across the screen left, right and centre. Possibly.

WASP_DAY_20-0175.CR2Irrational Man (Allen, 2015): When Woody Allen’s 2016 film came out recently I realised I hadn’t yet seen his 2015 film, and on balance I’m quite glad I got round to it. Irrational Man isn’t a classic, by any means, but neither is it the kind of Allen film that has fans tearing what remains of their hair out or hammering on the wall with their fists, bemoaning the lack of a latter-day Annie Hall or Crimes & Misdemeanours. It begins in a familiar way, with Joaquin Phoenix’s downbeat, uninspired professor Abe Lucas starting a new job at a fictional, well-to-do New England college. We’re firmly within the (mainly) white, chattering upper classes, once again, and Abe’s arrival on campus is preceded by a reputation for boozing and womanising, so you can probably see where this is going to go. Love blooms as he enters into an affair with Emma Stone’s smart student (and Parker Posey’s fellow teacher), but as it happens things take an unexpected turn when a random conversation in a diner is overheard, and our prof suddenly becomes inspired again, albeit in a bad way. Allen has made better, of course, but ah this one’s OK.

Mavis! (Edwards, 2016): A ‘what it does on the tin’ kind of music documentary about Mavis Staples: it’s unassuming, with filmmaker Jessica Edwards mainly placing her faith in archive footage of performances by the subject, as well as some more up-to-date concert film and newly-filmed anecdotal interviews. And Staples is a genuinely entertaining raconteur, mostly talking with enthusiasm and an infectious smile plastered across her face, though there are some tears when she discusses her late bandmember Pops Staples. There are numerous other talking heads, too, including Bob Dylan.

janis-documentaryJanis: Little Girl Blue (Berg, 2016): By contrast, Amy Berg’s documentary about Janis Joplin is a little more ambitious, though arguably it has to cover less, considering that Joplin died aged 27 and her musical career lasted for less than a decade. It’s sad, in the same way Joplin’s life was clouded with sadness (the film does nothing to challenge this legend), but there are excellent performances here amid the discussions of her struggles, most notably in DA Pennebaker’s footage from the Monterey Pop Festival, which finishes with an impressed Mama Cass mouthing ‘wow’ in the crowd. Some of Joplin’s diary entries and once-private letters home are read aloud by Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, whose own nearly-breaking voice with all its life-lived-on-the-road experience makes her a well-chosen narrator. The film feels thorough, and seems to be well-researched.

Tallulah (Heder, 2016): A Netflix original release directed by Sian Heder, who previously wrote for the service’s hit TV show Orange Is The New Black. Ellen Page plays a drifter who decides to steal a baby from a stranger in a New York hotel room; Alison Janney is her former partner’s mother, offering shelter and help while she’s unaware of the baby’s true origins. Neither looks entirely comfortable to me as the film lurches awkwardly from one melodramatic scene to the next but they’ve garnered plenty of praise for their performances, so I guess I’m missing something.

maxresdefaultEddie The Eagle (Fletcher, 2016): A deliberately corny, deliberately schmaltzy underdog sports film containing a Chariots Of Fire-referencing soundtrack that made me want to bang my head against the wall. Lots of people seem to have responded well to Dexter Fletcher’s third movie as a director – it’s the highest-grossing British film of 2016 at the time of writing, though Bridge Jones’ Baby will probably beat it – so this miseryguts appears to be out of step with the general consensus yet again; however I’d had enough of the gentle feelgood factor after five or ten minutes and the tone and performances grated thereafter. Taron Edgerton tries hard with some facial gymnastics, Hugh Jackman is just terrible, and I’ve rarely enjoyed watching Keith Allen. I remember the fuss around Eddie The Eagle and the Calgary Winter Olympics well, and his is certainly a very unusual and interesting story, but there was something inherently tragic about the guy and the film never once tries to explore this angle. Instead he’s just painted as a sweet-natured but incompetent, buffoonish simpleton, which matches the convenient image peddled by the British tabloid press in 1988. Weirdly, though, there’s a bit when Christopher Walken does a monologue that sounds like the ‘watch-up-his-ass’ speech from Pulp Fiction. He appears in a couple of scenes with Jackman, and it’s impossible to determine who has the bigger dollar signs in their ‘just-pay-me’ eyes.

Theeb (Nowar,2015): I found this drama interesting from a cultural perspective – this is the first film I’ve seen that’s set in Jordan, and my knowledge of the country’s early-20th Century history isn’t particularly great. (Um…that’s an understatement.) The story is fairly straightforward, with skirmishes and other incidents involving a British soldier and some bandits largely seen through the eyes of the titular young boy (Jacir Eid), an orphaned nomad, and there are a couple of extremely gripping scenes involving shootouts during the second act. These follow a slow, inauspicious beginning and precede a more reflective final third. I’ve seen it described as a ‘Bedouin western’ here and there; I’m not sure if that phrase has come from the director or someone else involved with the making or distribution of the film, but it seems a little reductive to me, given that it’s using the most American of genres to describe filmmaking that’s resolutely from and about the Arab world. I guess Theeb does invite the tag by subverting that particular genre on occasion: in the final scene, for example, the usual western shot of a lonesome adult hero riding off into the sunset on horseback is replaced by a young kid wandering slowly into the desert atop a camel.

The Immigrant (Chaplin, 1917): Is this one of the first films made about the American Dream? Some initial boat-based shenanigans – complete with wonky, nausea-inducing camerawork – give way to a smartly-played restaurant scene as Chaplin’s Tramp arrives in the US. He’s on the make throughout, but it’s the sweet-natured scenes with Edna Purviance that are the most memorable and affecting. Eric Campbell’s timing as the Head Waiter is impeccable.

a-warKrigen (A War) (Lindholm, 2016): Like his earlier films, this Oscar-nominated drama by Tobias Lindholm (The Hunt, A Hijacking) wrestles with complex moral issues and also places much weight on the shoulders of one man (a Danish Army Officer, played by Lindholm regular Pilou Asbæk). It’s a tense and emotional picture that’s set partly in Afghanistan – where we see some of the dangers and situations faced by the Danish army, in scenes that are almost completely drained of gung-ho heroism – and partly in Denmark. Asbæk gives a very good performance as a Commanding Officer who is court-martialled after ordering an airstrike on Taleban forces that results in civilian casualties, and his scenes in Afghanistan in the middle of war are particularly gripping. Where last year’s Kajaki focused on one patrol in a relatively small area in Helmand Province, this feels slightly more expansive, attempting to wade through murky legal waters relating to expected behaviour during conflict, as well as examining (slightly more generally) the western coalition occupation of the country. That said, this is another film about the country and this particular war where Afghan characters are once again marginal. Faring better is Tuva Novotny, who has a critical role as Asbæk’s wife. Rather than a stock partner-back-home who pops up intermittently to remind audiences of what is at stake for the Danish men who are fighting abroad, her role is substantial and her continuing struggles back in Denmark are not understated, which is not something you could say about most war films, and certainly not about any that have covered the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s excellent, though it does lose steam during the second hour when it becomes a court procedural.

Film Reviews

Hell Or High Water

If I had a dollar for every film I’ve seen about a pair of men – one batshit insane, the other somewhat smarter but constantly dragged down because Ol’ Howling Mad Headcase is his brother or his best friend or whatever – then I’d be well on the way to being a rich man. This well-worn conceit rears its head again here: the story focuses on two Texan siblings, Toby Howard (Chris Pine, playing the bright, cautious one) and ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster, overdoing the loopiness a little), who rob banks together. They’re trying to keep a low profile, only hitting small branches in tiny, flatlining towns, and even then they’re only taking money directly from the tills first thing in the morning, so their scores are low but they’re managing to avoid the attention of the FBI as a result, who presumably have bigger fish to fry. The case lands on the desks of nearly-retired Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, on top form) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who bicker like an old married couple as they set out to catch the thieves in the act.

This is an entertaining crime film, set largely in West Texas, an area notable for its wide, open plains, long, straight roads and dusty small towns. You’ve seen these spaces (and the men and women on the right and wrong sides of the law who inhabit them) many times before – Blood Simple, No Country For Old Men, Lone Star, etc. – but if you’re prepared to look closely you’ll see that it looks different today, in 2016; there opening shot reveals graffiti on a walls that has been scrawled by a disenfranchised Army veteran, and the roadside billboards seen throughout are reflective of America’s wider economic woes. And, slowly but surely, this astute and well-made film directed by David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) gradually reveals itself to be about the economy, and the very land that we see throughout, or rather the value of land and the property that has been built upon it. The action moves between a casino housed on a Comanche reservation, a ranch sitting on lucrative oil reserves, banks that are preoccupied with chasing foreclosures, and at each location we see and hear about the link between land and money. It’s even there on the roads that connect all these places, where we see weary cattle herders moving livestock away from burning fields; they complain about the difficulty of making a living in such an inhospitable environment, and understand why their children would not want to follow in their footsteps.


Dudes abiding: Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in Hell Or High Water

The two Howard brothers – local guys – understand such hardship. Tanner is a loose cannon addicted to the thrill of crime, but Toby isn’t robbing banks for the hell of it. He has devised a plan to settle a score with a particular lender by stealing money directly from them, laundering it via an Oklahoma casino and subsequently using the funds to pay back the mortgage repayments the very same bank is owed, thereby securing the family home, which will increase in value when oil pumps are installed in the surrounding fields. Various figures throughout voice their approval of this Robin Hood-esque crusade against the bank; the institution receives little sympathy from Toby’s fellow Texans. When the final mortgage payments are made future generations of the Tanner family will benefit from the land, even if the Howard brothers – all fraying denim and thirst-quenching beer-drinking – are taken down by the law.

We’ve all seen dramatic bank robberies on screen countless times, but they’re still tense here, particularly when the brother inevitably get greedy and go after a bigger score in a busier branch. Naturally it all goes horribly wrong, but it’s surprising to see how the aftermath unfolds: there’s a dash of Michael Mann’s Heat to the subsequent shootouts, albeit in a completely different setting, while the car chases that follow are well-executed. So yes, this is a serious film, where criminal activity has serious consequences for all of the major characters and many of the minor ones, but pleasingly it also has moments of humour that had the audience in my local cinema laughing regularly (a comic scene involving Bridges and Birmingham in a no-nonsense steakhouse is one of my favourites of the year to date). As the story unfolds the two brothers roll their eyes at one another, waitresses are sassy and Bridges’ grizzled Ranger ribs his partner on account of his joint Mexican and Native American heritage, the insults barely masking a deep affection. Sicario was serious as hell, but Sheridan shows he also has a lighter touch with some fine comic dialogue.

There’s a very good Jeff Bridges performance in Hell Or High Water, too, which should please his many fans, and a brooding, moody turn by Chris Pine that seems to fit perfectly with the setting, the genre, the overall feel; the same could be said for the plaintive violin and piano-led score by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave. The only shame is that the film just falls short of the gold standard set by the other Texas-set work about criminals and the law that I mentioned above, but I stress the ‘just’; Mackenzie’s film is still well worth a watch, and in a year of disappointing American crime dramas this is surely the standout to date.

Directed by: David Mackenzie.
Written by: Taylor Sheridan.
Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham.
Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens.
Editing: Jake Roberts.
Nick Cave, Warren Ellis.
Running Time:
101 minutes.

Film Reviews

Blind Spot: La Battaglia Di Algeri (The Battle Of Algiers)

[Note: this is the ninth film in my 2016 Blind Spot series. For a list of the other well-known or well-respected films I’ve already watched or I’m going to be watching for the first time this year, see this post.]

Gillo Pontecorvo spent his early years as a director making documentary films, so it’s not surprising that his most famous dramatic feature – 1966’s The Battle Of Algiers – often looks and feels like a doc, or newsreel footage. You can see the influence of Roberto Rossellini and Italian neorealism in this black and white dramatisation of the urban battle between French troops and Algerian insurgents during the Algerian War; away from the violence there’s an emphasis on daily street scenes and naturalistic conversations taking place within the slums of Algiers, often featuring non-professional actors. In fact The Battle Of Algiers looks and feels as real as any drama I can think of, despite everything that tells us otherwise: cameras have been set up beforehand to capture different angles; the pace of the editing is in sync with the level of threat on screen; you can hear a score by Ennio Morricone as the action unfolds; and no-one actually dies when they’re shot, of course. But it’s as near as cinema can get.

It’s a visceral experience that tries to show how and why conflicts escalate between opposing factions, and the director includes his own versions of some of the more unpalatable images that one associates with restaurant bombings or brutality by armed forces. In one scene we see a bomb dropped off in one café in a handbag; the camera then moves from the bag, which has been stashed under a seat, and lingers on the unsuspecting faces of the patrons, forcing us to acknowledge that these people are about to die, that the life in them will soon be extinguished. The explosions in The Battle Of Algiers kill the young and the old, they feel real, and it’s clear that Pontecorvo went to great lenghts not to sanitise or tone down the imagery. With that in mind, it’s unsurprising that it fell foul of censors in some countries upon release. In fact it was banned in France for over five years, where Pontecorvo was heavily criticised for favouring the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front) in his finished work. As I had little prior knowledge of the conflict it’s hard to say whether such a criticism is justified or not, though I will say the film seemed fairly balanced to me before I read about the ban. True, it was the first independent Algerian film production, and we see a lot of the action from the perspective of Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), a petty criminal who becomes radicalised while he’s in prison by El-hadi Jafar (Saadi Yacef). But we also see plenty of Jean Martin’s Coloniel Mathieu too, and the behaviour of soldiers on both sides is reprehensible. Yet we can also see why the characters in the film are forced to do what they do: they’re driven by ideologies, or ideologues, or oppression, or the need to respond, and other reasons.

The film’s fame, or notoriety, comes partly from its status as a key text in the subject of urban guerilla warfare. The tactics used by the FLN that are depicted in The Battle Of Algiers apparently inspired the Black Panthers and the Provisional IRA. It’s said that it was Andreas Baader’s favourite movie. And at the start of the Iraq War the Pentagon held special screenings for staff, with one flyer reading: ‘How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.’ That it was still relevant to a mighty opponent – one that could use satellite imagery, drones and goodness knows what else – 40 years after it was made is quite incredible.

The subject matter makes the film hard to watch. Everything else – the score, Marcello Gatti’s grainy cinematography, the editing, the performances, and so on – seems to be fighting against it so that the finished piece ican be judged a work of art, and The Battle Of Algiers is a work of art. It’s also a social history, a gripping war film, an apparently reliable reconstruction, and a drama that compares and contrasts the structure and culture of its two opposite factions. It has sympathy for the ordinary people of Algiers – whether of French or Algerian origin – who were caught up in the escalating violence, yet it also films them impassively, managing to see both their individual relevance but also their irrelevance to the bigger picture. It’s a film that deals with complex moral issues, and tragedy, but it also has thrilling escapes and shoot-outs in the streets; it’s as entertaining as any of the great Second World War films, or any of the great Vietnam War films. Little wonder it regularly features high-up in Sight & Sound‘s ten-yearly Greatest Films Of All Time poll.

Directed by: Gillo Pontecorvo.
Written by: Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas.
Starring: Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef, Tommaso Neri.
Cinematography: Marcello Gatti.
Editing: Mario Morra, Mario Serandrei.
Ennio Morricone, Gillo Pontecorvo.
Running Time:
120 minutes.