Watched: 3 August
While not a complete mess, Dito Montiel’s Man Down is a slightly confusing picture, as for a long while it appears to be an odd, uneasy blend of Afghanistan-set war movie and post-apocalyptic drama. There’s a lot of jumping back and forth in time, and many segments share a similar look and ambience with The Walking Dead and The Road – all washed out colours and rust belt decay. Sadly, the film’s time-shifts are too numerous, given the short running time, and the visual style employed feels very tired as a result of its overuse elsewhere during recent years. Shia LaBoeuf delivers yet another intense, committed performance, and there’s an understated turn – finally! – from Gary Oldman, but ultimately this is a dreary affair and watching it quickly turns into a chore. The underlying points the film is trying to present about PTSD and the treatment of army veterans gets lost in the mire, unfortunately. (**)
Watched: 2 August
An excellent film by Jessica Hausner focusing on a woman with severe multiple sclerosis (played superbly by Sylvie Testud) as she visits Lourdes in France – a town of just 15,000 people with the capacity to cater for up to 5,000,000 Catholics on pilgrimages each year. Hausner is slyly critical of the whole set-up, or at least that’s how I read the deadpan shots of shops selling holy water and statuettes of the Virgin Mary, and there are also slightly more overt digs, for example characters looking on enviously when the ills of others miraculously heal (at least temporarily), or blasphemous jokes being told directly in front of life-size religious icons.
The director has evidently taken a lot of care in setting up her shots – there’s an incredible amount of detail in some of them, and so I suspect a second viewing would be beneficial, allowing me to take in the actions and reactions of many of the extras. The camera pans and zooms slowly, often from above, as if we have the view of a CCTV camera; scenes are not rushed and there is time to digest any subtext that might be going on, or dialogue that is intended to resonate (Hausner lingers, for example, when a matronly nun explains to a group that they have a ‘free’ day only to then set out two options that they must choose from, or when the same woman later excitedly announces a trip into the Pyrenees mountains before cruelly pointing out that those in wheelchairs cannot attend).
Sometimes long shots are used to highlight crowds or queues, which manages to illustrate the process involved with certain events or with regard to visits at certain holy sites, as well as the scale. There’s attentive and consistent use of colour, too, with red and a kind of ‘hospital’ blue predominant throughout, perhaps representing the simmering passion and unchecked coldness found within the group as a whole, and within certain characters. All of this combines to create a rather sterile, detached style, but I thought it worked really well, suiting the material perfectly. It’s hardly dialogue-heavy but characters are well-drawn and there’s a pleasing ambiguity to Hausner’s treatment of miracles and religion. Surprised that this film isn’t more widely known. (****½)
Watched: 1 August
A road movie/crime drama starring Tye Sheridan, Bel Powley and Emory Cohen that has a faint whiff of the early 1990s about it. (Seriously, is this the designated year for millennial True Romance homages or something?) There’s a slight twist to this one in that the structure and split screen employed leads you to believe that you’re watching alternative timelines unfolding, at least for a while (a bit like Sliding Doors, but with guns, Americans and desert roads), but it’s a sleight of hand trick that is really just an attempt to paper over a weak, cliché-ridden script, a barely-believable scenario and a decidedly ropey crazy bad guy performance from Cohen. Sheridan tries hard but fails to make his character interesting and Powley is wasted in an underwritten role as a stripper/prostitute, but there are at least a few good pulpy moments. (**½)
Watched: 1 August
A surprisingly low-key and now almost-forgotten film from 1991 starring Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh as a pair of undercover narcotics officers, both of whom struggle with smack addiction while trying to bust a Texan drug ring. It hasn’t aged too badly, but there are certain problematic aspects, such as Patric’s terrible scenery-chewing, some unlikely-sounding dialogue and a rather irritating and overly-intrusive noodly score by Eric Clapton (the soundtrack also includes his hit song Tears In Heaven). Jason Leigh is good, and there are also decent supporting performances from Sam Elliott, Max Perlich – an actor who I wish had done more movie work during the past 20 years – and Gregg Allman, who plays the local kingpin. (Allman doesn’t say much, and mostly just glares, so he’s actually quite a threatening presence.) A valiant attempt at a hard-boiled junkie cop drama that probably seemed more authentic at the time of release than it does today. (***)
Watched: July 31
Admittedly there isn’t much new to digest here if you’re a seasoned watcher of rock biopics, although the focus on an oft-overlooked all-girl band from the mid-1970s is at least different to the norm. In fact, aside from Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, I’m racking my brain to think of another band-oriented biopic that concentrates on women. The Runaways were Joan Jett’s first group, perhaps best known for their minor hit Cherry Bomb, though they were – as the film briefly shows – big in Japan. Kristen Stewart plays rhythm guitarist Jett with the kind of nuanced, embattled, nervy, slightly-withdrawn but also slightly-confident style we have subsequently seen her develop through the rest of this decade, while opposite her Dakota Fanning is at times a magnetic presence as lead singer Cherie Currie, whose gradual big-headedness is perhaps unfairly put forward here as being the main catalyst for the band’s eventual demise. The only other primary character of note is Michael Shannon’s necessarily OTT take on Kim Fowley, the songwriter and record producer who helped put the band together and send them on their way (his flamboyant guru appearances have a comic air about them, a little like Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s brief scenes as journalist Lester Bangs in Almost Famous; it’s worth mentioning, though, that the film is based on Currie’s memoirs and never touches on the allegations made by bassist Jackie Fox that Fowley raped her).
The progression of the story within scenes, and the order in which events play out, may be familiar – we see the band form, write their first song, negotiate their first hostile gigs before becoming more popular, leap wholeheartedly into the sex, drugs ‘n’ rock and roll lifestyle on the road and eventually implode in the studio once some band members start to envy the attention lavished on others – but it’s all done with such spirit and energy that I enjoyed it very much; its certainly much more fun than a few of the sombre, dreary and overly-reverent jazz biopics I’ve watched in the past year or two. This film actually captures the spirit of the band, and a certain flavour of the times, and hey, it’s got Kristen Stewart playing Joan Jett. (***½)
A very beautiful and dramatic love story set on the island of Tanna (part of Vanuatu), which features the Yakel people as actors – most of whom either play themselves or versions of themselves. The story – about a doomed marriage and the way a relationship exacerbates tensions between rival tribes – is based on true events, and is similar in many respects to Romeo And Juliet; in fact the link is played up on a few occasions. It’s a simple tale, acted well, and there are certainly insights into the Yakel way of life, particularly in terms of arranged marriage and the way that women in this society can be used as bartering tools with other tribes. The element I enjoyed the most is the cinematography, with plenty of good use made of the stunning, volcanic landscape, particularly at night or at dawn. (***)
A warm, sometimes-spirited Spanish drama – written by Paul Laverty of yer Ken Loach films – about a young woman’s attempts to find and bring home an olive tree that was sold against the will of her grandfather during the 2008 financial crisis, an incident that subsequently divided her family and which may or may not have contributed to the old man’s more subdued, withdrawn state of being. Once the basic elements of the story are in place it’s a rather predictable affair, and disbelief must be suspended as certain incidents play out, but the acting is fine and it’s competently directed by Icíar Bollaín. Laverty’s own politics are to the fore, with points made via his screenplay on the practices of big and small businesses, local corruption, the global economic crash and how the after-effects are still being felt in Spain; and in the lead character of Anna (Anna Castillo) we have a rebel with a cause, of sorts, who charms as these points are being made. (***)