By Our Selves (Kötting, 2015): A fascinating experimental work by Andrew Kötting that shares a psychogeographical link with the only other film of his that I’ve seen, 1996’s Gallivant. This one’s about the poet John Clare, who left an asylum in the 1840s and walked 80 or 90 miles from Waltham Forest in Essex to Northampton, via Peterborough, charting his thoughts and experiences along the way. Toby Jones plays the wandering Clare, and Jones’s father Freddie – who played Clare in a BBC play 40-odd years ago – also appears. Kötting doesn’t try to disguise the sights and sounds of modern life (cars on main roads, overpasses, etc.) or his own film crew (the boom operator often appears in shot) while recreating the journey, which adds a certain laid-back charm to proceedings. That’s enhanced by the strong, pastoral feel: Jones’s Clare wanders through fields of swaying grass and down quiet woodland paths, and though the film is in black and white you’re almost tricked into thinking that you can see all the lush greens that surround him. The calm and tranquil nature of much of the film is regularly interrupted by loud, shrill noises and Olde English oddness (animal masks, straw men), and the journey is also punctuated by illuminating, intelligent interviews involving the likes of Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair. It’s a curio, and won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I liked it.
Louder Than Bombs (Trier, 2016): I wanted to write a longer review of this new film by Joacham Trier, as it deserves more than a paragraph, but sadly I’m pushed for time. It’s a low-key and very effective look at a family still coming to turns with the death of a loved one, several years after the event, from an excellent writer/director partnership. There’s no grand, Hollywood-style resolution for the grievers at the end, which is welcome, and I enjoyed the brief flights of fancy that peppered the story, which offer occasional respite from the heaviness. Also, rather unusually, it’s a film that manages to incorporate MMORPGs in a way that helps to tell the story, albeit briefly. It stars Isabelle Huppert, Gabriel Byrne, Jesse Eisenberg and David Strathairn, among others, and each actor turns in a strong performance, even if no-one’s on career-best form.
I Am Belfast (Cousins, 2016): Mark Cousins turns his creativity, energy, intelligence and boundless enthusiasm to Belfast, the city that he was born and raised in. A documentary with fictional elements, it’s as much a lesson in the art of seeing and listening as it is a potted history of the place or a study of its people; Cousins shows the beauty and drama in ‘ordinary’ street scenes and occurrences, even managing to wring tension out of a scene in which a lady accidentally leaves her shopping at a bus stop. He also interviews a couple of locals and visits a few places that, for him, seem to sum up the city in some way or other. Belfast is presented as a feminine entity, with Helena Bereen playing a (wo)manifestation of the capital, which Cousins explains away eruditely in the DVD extras; these are all worth a watch, too.
Bronenosets Patyomkin (Battleship Potemkin) (Eisenstein, 1925): Battleship Potemkin is often described as a film that’s easy to admire but difficult to like; I’ve seen it described as lacking in warmth, though I completely disagree. Sergei Eisenstein’s interest partly lay in the workings of the ship, and there are plenty of eye-catching formal elements to marvel at, but the film’s famous emotional sequences (the onboard mutiny being every bit as impressive and empathetic as the more celebrated Odessa steps passage), and the number of arresting close-ups on various characters, reveal a director with as much interest in humanity as anyone else working during the same period. It’s raw, and moving. And yes, the rhythm created by the editing, the various aspects of the cinematography, and the way that these factors combine as scenes build to a crescendo, confirms this as a fine achievement of the silent era.
Haunted Spooks (Goulding, Roach, 1920): Starts off pleasantly enough, with Harold Lloyd at his best during a sequence in which his character repeatedly tries to kill himself (and fails, natch), but sadly the final third depicts black house staff in a racist way. You sit there cringing for five or ten minutes, in no mood for pratfalls.
The End Of The Tour (Ponsoldt, 2015): A well-written and surprisingly engrossing take on the journo vs subject battle of wits, starring Jesse Eisenberg as Rolling Stone scribe David Lipsky and Jason Segel as the late author David Foster Wallace, whose 2008 suicide is dealt with in a forward-flashing prologue. Segel is particularly impressive as the guarded interviewee, showing that he’s a much better actor than many people probably thought (i.e. this is not just another Apatagonist we’re dealing with, here). It’s set during the final few days of the promotional tour for Wallace’s best-known book Infinite Jest, but knowledge of the novel or the author isn’t a prerequisite.
Truth (Vanderbilt, 2016): This recent journalism procedural flopped at the box office, perhaps because the cinema-going world was enamoured with Oscar-winner Spotlight at the time, which is to an extent a film that covers similar ground. Where Spotlight concentrated on a team of investigative journalists at a newspaper, Truth is about some of the women and men responsible for CBS’s 60 Minutes, who were caught in an ethical storm 12 years ago over the Killian documents controversy (basically an investigation into Dubya’s military service that was carried out during the 2004 presidential election). Cate Blanchett stars as producer Mary Mapes and Robert Redford lends further pedigree as anchor Dan Rather (while also reminding viewers of an earlier, far better political journalism-related movie). They’re both quite good – particularly Blanchett, who has some enjoyable scenes near the end as Mapes takes on a room full of male CBS lawyers who are out to destroy her reputation. Faring less well are Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss and Dennis Quaid, who form the rest of the reporting team; their roles are undeveloped and Moss in particular looks like a spare wheel in every scene she appears in. When all five are together the montages of them putting the show in question together never really ring true in the way that Spotlight’s editorial conflabs do, and first time director James Vanderbilt (writer of Zodiac) has given the film an unnecessary slickness that does for any sense of realism; one case in point is a terrible sequence in which each member of the team makes a call to a potential source within the military only to be given short shrift. The actors here always look great and wear lots of make-up, so when the shit hits the fan you never believe that these people are going through the most hellish fortnight of their professional careers; that’s kind of acceptable in terms of the camera-facing Rather, but not with regard to other characters; for example Grace’s unconventional livewire reporter (questionable methods/gets results, etc. etc.) has the plasticky sheen of a Nickelodeon presenter throughout. There are comments here on the influence of government and advertisers on the media, on the freedom of the press, and some exploration of sexism within the industry (it’s based on Mapes’s own account and has been heavily criticised by CBS), but as a news procedural there are more thorough, more involving options available.
Omoide No Mānī (When Marnie Was There) (Yonebayashi, 2016): When Marnie Was There is a quiet, measured treat from start to finish. It’s a Japanese animation from Studio Ghibli – probably not its last, as the studio’s use of the term ‘hiatus’ suggests future projects will be developed – that explores loneliness, unhappiness, deep-rooted family issues and a sense of belonging. These are common themes in many animated films, particularly those which are aimed at children, but Marnie addresses them in a way that is considered, intelligent and not in the least bit patronising. It looks as marvellous as you’d expect, and it’s a lovely way for Ghibli to temporarily sign-off. Again, I’d have liked to have written more on this, but time has got the better of me.
Remember (Egoyan, 2016): I’ve not kept up to date with his career of late, but Atom Egoyan’s latest is interesting and if I can find the time I’ll try and check out some of his other recent films. The story here follows a Holocaust survivor (Christopher Plummer on great form) who is convinced by another aging victim of Second World War atrocities (Martin Landau) to leave the retirement home they live in, in order to exact revenge on the former Auschwitz Blockführer who killed their families. The ex-Nazi in question has changed his name to ‘Rudy Kurlander’, and there are four Rudy Kurlanders in the US, so each must be visited in turn to establish the correct, intended target. Difficult enough in itself, but made harder due to the fact that Plummer’s character is suffering from dementia. Egoyan and writer Benjamin August aim for a drama that’s part-Memento memory puzzle and part vengeance thriller (with a touch of exploitation unexpectedly thrown in), and it’s pretty good for a while, though sadly it all falls apart during the final act and becomes rather silly. A shame, to be perfectly honest, as Plummer shares some excellent, gripping scenes with the likes of Bruno Ganz, Jürgen Prochnow and Dean Norris beforehand.
We Need To Talk About Kevin (Ramsay, 2011): I wish Lynne Ramsay would make more films; both Morvern Callar and this adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s acclaimed novel are visual delights, and she is surely one of the most interesting British directors working today. We may be seeing more of her work in the next year or two, with the Joaquin Phoenix-starring You Were Never Really There slated for a 2017 release, and a bizarre-sounding take on Moby Dick that’s set in space currently in development. (Or, y’know, someone’s been fucking with her Wikipedia page and this blog’s Captain Ahab has fallen for the bait hook, line and sinker, as it were.) Anyway, We Need To Talk About Kevin is really good, but you probably know that already; Tilda Swinton is excellent as the mother who can’t seem to find any love in her heart for her son (at least not until he’s done something truly terrible), and Ezra Miller impresses as teenage Kevin, the boy whose own malevolent streak may be innate or may be partly due to experience (i.e. his mother’s exasperation and distance). It’s a terribly sad, necessarily miserable film: her love of travel – and seemingly any enjoyment of life that she had – is ended by her pregnancy; and her marriage to John C. Reilly’s Franklin is doomed from the off. Kevin, meanwhile, is rarely anything other than difficult, and we find out early on what becomes of two members of the family. The flashbacks fill in the details, and it’s all so very stylishly rendered by Ramsay and her DP Seamus McGarvey. With a typically-discordant, off kilter soundtrack, Jonny Greenwood provides the viewer with constant reminders that horrors are looming. Cold but crisp, and potentially Swinton’s finest performance.