Recent Viewing #15

As Mil E Uma Noites: Volume 1, O Encantado (Arabian Nights: Volume 3, The Enchanted One) (Gomes, 2016): I’ve now watched 382 minutes and all three parts of Miguel Gomes’s epic trilogy about modern day Portugal (brief reviews of Vols 1 and 2 here) and I must admit that it was a slog to get through at times. I’ve seen and heard many critics fawn over it, and to a certain extent I can see why: Gomes is a playful filmmaker, he has lots to say and he’s intriguingly experimental in the sense that a) anyone who decides to make a modern cinematic interpretation of Arabian Nights that reflects a country’s current social issues is by definition an experiemental filmmaker; and b) he uses a variety of styles and tones across the three films, although title cards, credits and other elements do ensure there’s plenty of consistency from one story to the next (in terms of how it looks). But I have to hold my hands up and say ‘it’s not for me’. This third installment follows the three story structure again, and employs a lot more on-screen text to help the various narratives along. It’s at its most beguiling when Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) is on screen in the first segment, while a middle section about birdsong sounds great but drags on for what seems like an eternity. Just when my patience was running out, one of the greatest scenes of the entire trilogy – using the Langley Schools Music Project’s version of Klaatu’s Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft – is both a fine finale and a stirring call to arms for the disenfranchised. Yet one wonders how many of them across Portugal, Europe or even beyond actually saw it, or will get a chance to do so, or will bother to do so in the future. Let’s be perfectly honest: however good his intentions may have been, Gomes’s trilogy has been championed (and watched) by a small, elite, arthouse-loving set of cineastes, and in the great scheme of things his overt, worthy messages – while all well and good – will not have much of an impact on society. In fact, much less than allegory-heavy blockbusters that the same group of film fans likes to sneer at and dismiss so regularly. (***)

El Club (The Club) (Larraín, 2016): I suppose it’s common for critically-lauded non-American filmmakers to make their way to Hollywood at some point in their careers, but I do find it odd that Pablo Larraín – a director hitherto very much concerned with the many wrongs that occurred within late-20th century Chile – has chosen to do so now (his Jackie Kennedy biopic Jackie is out in the UK in 2017). Still, I guess there’s nothing stopping him from going back home and carrying on where he left off, and over here we’re still waiting for his ‘other’ Chile-set 2016 film, Neruda. Anyway, The Club came out earlier this year and it’s a very dark, glum drama about a group of former priests and a former nun who have been sent to a rain- and windswept beach house by the Catholic Church to purge their sins and crimes. These range in their severity: one was a whistleblower, another is there because he stole babies from people so that they could be adopted, and so on. They’re not permitted to interact with the local townsfolk, and their only pleasure (at least that we see or hear of) is that they get to train and run a greyhound in races; even shower time is monitored so that the priests cannot possibly orgasm if masturbating. However, things change when a new priest – a former child abuser – arrives to live in the house; he has been followed by one of his understandably bitter, damaged victims, who is now an adult and seems intent on not letting the Church or the priest in question forget about these sins. Larraín – who relies heavily on the production design of his films – opts for a washed-out colour palette, and the gloomy look suits the downbeat nature of The Club. It’s a gripping, well-written and superbly-acted drama; this is a filmmaker who appears to be going from strength to strength, and I hope that continues whatever country he makes his work in. (****)

red-dawnRed Dawn (Milius, 1984): Over the years this rather silly slice of Republican propaganda has become a cult classic in the eyes of many people, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. If you’re unfamiliar with it, the premise of Red Dawn is that the US is invaded by a Russian/Cuban coalition, with comrade paratroopers suddenly falling out of the sky and shooting up an American high school during the opening scene, from which brothers played by Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen escape. (Seriously, can you get any more 80s than that?) The teenagers form a resistance group called The Wolverines, which – rather brilliantly – also includes Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey (nobody puts Baby in the corner…not even the Russians), C. Thomas Howell and, briefly, Powers Boothe. The film lurches from one insurgency attack to the next, with only brief mentions of anything happening further afield, and there’s very little in Milius’s clumsy action sequences to suggest that he was a better director than he was a writer during his most prolific decades (he penned the original screenplays for Apocalypse Now and Dirty Harry, among others). Looking at it today it’s hard to take Red Dawn seriously, though it caused a fuss at the time of release and was notoriously considered by the Guinness Book Of Records to be the most violent film ever made way back then. It hasn’t aged well at all, and I’ve nothing else to note, except to say that Harry Dean Stanton pops up for one scene and is absolutely fucking terrible. (**)

Kes (Loach, 1969): Ken Loach’s classic Kes – his second feature film, following Poor Cow – needs little in the way of introduction, but it’s one of those widely-celebrated works that I’d just somehow never got round to watching. As my last ‘blind spot‘ entry of 2016 I have finally put that right, and what a delight it is: in terms of the new-to-me films I’ve watched during 2016 it’s up there with the very best, such as Breathless, Klute and The Battle Of Algiers. David Bradley is excellent as lonesome Barnsley boy Billy Casper, whose life appears to be utterly miserable: he gets into trouble at school, the teachers and headmaster are all complete bastards (with one exception), his brother is a vicious bully, his mother is too busy to pay him any attention and his newagent/paper round boss is a miserable old codger – in short, Loach rams home the utter cackness of being a child in northern England in the 1960s, with all those petty rules and terrible, suffocating attitudes bestowed on kids by adults; it was never grimmer up north. Yet there’s hope in the form of falconry, and Billy manages to train his own kestrel, which he loves. Suddenly he finds himself away from the oppressive brick houses that line every street, as well as the school assemblies and the belching coalmines, and instead he runs around large, expansive fields, taking in the fresh air as his kestrel swoops around; it’s a tantalising glimpse of freedom, but as a child without much academic success full-time employment beckons, and Billy’s future seems writ large. The kestrel – which should by rights be free to fly wherever it pleases – is often symbolically tethered or kept in a shed, for we know that in all likelihood Billy will not make it far from Barnsley, if he escapes the place at all. The extended scene in which Brian Glover’s PE teacher pathetically lives out his football fantasies has rightly gone down in movie folklore, while the ending is like a punch in the face, but in a good way. What a marvellous, moving film this is. (*****)

rogue-one-movie-appreciation-cd5c5148-61b1-469d-861c-70cbdffa5d3aRogue One: A Star Wars Story (Edwards, 2016): I know it has been reviewed to within an inch of its life elsewhere, but I may as well add my two-bob, with the caveat that I’m an avowed fan and viewed this one through the old rose-tinted spectacles; I just couldn’t approach it objectively. That said, while there are elements of this Star Wars standalone movie that I absolutely adored, there are also other bits that I disliked as much as anything that appeared in George Lucas’s much-maligned CGI-heavy prequels. I mean, let’s get this out of the way first – who on earth signed off on the computerised versions of living and dead actors that pepper this movie? I’m afraid I’m in the camp of people who believe that doing this kind of thing – specifically to one actor who is no longer alive to approve or reject the digitising and subsequent appropriation of his features – is ethically dubious, to say the least, but even disregarding that issue (and disregarding the fact the go-ahead was given by the late actor’s estate) the movement and appearance of the computer-generated character in question is awful, and I’m afraid it jolted me out of the film every time said familiar face appeared. That was my major problem with Rogue One, which otherwise is a very good entry into this ever-expanding sci-fi universe, and offers something new for long-term fans; certainly this is the darkest episode since The Empire Strikes Back, and the final act set on and above the tropical planet Scarif is as good as any sequence George Lucas, Irvin Kershner or JJ Abrams have served up before (indeed, if I ever list my favourite Star Wars scenes, the final three or four minutes of Rogue One will take some beating). Performances are OK, and though the characters are generally fine only Alan Tudyk’s unconventionally frank and sacrastic droid K-2SO really stood out for me among the good guys; over on the dark side, Ben Mendelsohn seems like a good fit for this kind of thing as Imperial bigwig Krennic, and of course it’s great fun to see Darth Vader back on screen. Overall I think it’s a good job by Gareth Edwards (and Tony Gilroy, assuming the reports of his heavy involvement in reshoots are accurate) and a pretty impressive action film, which generally forges links successfully with the films that sit before it and after it in the Star Wars timeline. One final note – I didn’t think much of the music, but appreciate that Michael Giacchino came in at short notice and didn’t have too long to compose; it’s a shame to lose the impact of that opening crawl and familiar blast of the Star Wars theme, too, spin-off or not. (****) (Edit: this was written before the sad passing of Carrie Fisher was announced.)

Rio Bravo (Hawks, 1959): There are a couple of embarrassing, dated aspects to this Howard Hawks/John Wayne classic (which they made together as a direct response to the anti-McCarthyism western High Noon), not least the odd, standoffish approach Wayne’s stiff sherriff has towards Angie Dickinson’s Feathers at the end of the film, or the questionable way the two Mexican characters were written. Otherwise, though, it’s a treat: the dialogue sings throughout, Hawks injects a lot of fun despite the occasional gravity of the situation the characters find themselves in, and Wayne’s sheer presence as the slow-moving big kahuna of the titular town is very impressive indeed. That’s no surprise, though it is a shock to see Dean Martin this good beside him, playing the alcoholism-battling deputy ‘Dude’ (a slightly insulting term during the period the film is set in, and one that was used to question a man’s manliness). Everything works, even the slightly cheesy scene in which a languid Martin and a fresh-faced Ricky Nelson sing and play guitar in the local jail. (****½)

236055L’Économie Du Couple (After Love) (Lafosse, 2016): I’ve seen three films starring Bérénice Bejo this year, and she has delivered two very impressive performances (in this, and in Brady Corbet’s moody The Childhood Of A Leader). Here she plays Marie, whose 15-year-old marriage to Boris (Cédric Kahn) has broken down, with a divorce settlement imminent; the only stumbling block, though, is how the proceeds of the sale of their house will be divided (and not, for example, who gets custody of their two young girls). As the film plays out it transpires that Marie’s reasoning for a 75%/25% split is understandable, as she has been more financially reliable and has been the person that has paid most of the mortgage; however Boris wants half, as he has put lots of effort in to renovating the place, and its market value has soared as a result. The film details their fractious relationship while they continue to live together under the same roof, with sympathies regularly shifting from one person to another (both are shown to be unreasonable and arguably vindictive at different points), and it’s a well-performed, excellently-scripted French drama that intelligently addresses marital break-up and the effect it has on everyone – the parents are so busy bickering over money they become less aware of the effect the animosity has on their children than perhaps they ought to be… though of course it’s easy to sit there and judge. This is really good. (****)

La Fille Inconnue (The Unknown Girl) (Dardenne, Dardenne, 2016): The Dardenne brothers re-cut their latest film after initial responses to screenings at Cannes were largely negative. Only a few people will know whether the revised, released version is better, but I quite liked it. Adèle Haenel – one of the best young actors working in France at the moment – delivers a fine performance as Jenny, a local GP doctor working in a down-at-heel Paris neighbourhood. The film largely deals with her character’s (white) guilt after a (black) woman turns up after hours at her practice, is turned away, and subsequently found dead by the Seine. She has no ID, meaning the police initially have no idea who she is, and no family members can be informed. Jenny makes it her goal to find out the dead woman’s real name, slowly coaxing information out of other patients and people in the local area. The directors go to great lengths to paint the doctor in a positive light as a caring, community-minded individual, despite the decision at the start of the film that leads to tragedy. And the message that the Dardennes are trying to get across is, as you might expect given their previous work, about the great value of community and the loyal professionals who operate within them, with a well-intentioned reminder that some people are living extremely tough lives. Perhaps there should have been more focus on the real victim in the story, but I can only judge this film, as presented, and I thought it was better than the slew of rather sniffy reviews it has received suggests. (***½)

americanin-geneflowerAn American In Paris (Minelli, 1951): This may be a Gene Kelly sacred cow in the wider world, but over on Letterboxd I’ve just ploughed through a ton of sniffy comments about Vincente Minelli’s carefree musical. Ah well, I think it’s a force for good, though it’s a shame Kelly and the graceful Leslie Caron only dance together twice (in fact Kelly seems to spend half of the film in routines where he’s flirting with men, and greater exploration of that – coupled with his general ambivalence toward Nina Foch’s heiress – might make for an interesting alternative reading of the movie and its main character). Anyway, I was in the mood to gawp at the touristy side of Paris, too, and AAIP put a smile on my face, so I’m going to be boring and go with the majority – it’s uplifting fluff, but what fluff! (****½)

The Last Waltz (Scorsese, 1978): A rewatch of an old favourite that I’ve seen a number of times during the past 15 years. Martin Scorsese’s celebrated documentary about The Band and their final ever concert is a treat, especially when the special guests start to stack up: Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Dr John, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond and many more… what a gig. Equally arresting are the little snippets in-between songs, in which members of The Band recount tales of the road; and I also like the soundstage footage Scorsese shot separately, featuring The Staple Singers and Joan Baez. (****½)

Comments 5

  1. Todd B December 28, 2016

    Egads, Stu! I come home and check out your post, and it’s the first I hear of Carrie Fisher passing away! How sad…I had no idea she’d had a heart attack this past weekend. Well, I guess I should probably forego making my usual wisecracks and just say a) I agree with you on Rogue One…I probably liked it less than you did, b) I noticed that An American in Paris was available at my library, and was going to rent it. Not now, perhaps, and c) the end of your Red Dawn review made me laugh.

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