A decent, competently-made documentary by Brendan Toller about the life of Danny Fields, a mover and shaker – here described as a ‘connector’ – in the American music scene for most of the 1960s and 1970s. Your enjoyment will probably depend on your interest in the cultural stories of the era, as the film describes in reasonable detail Danny’s time spent with Andy Warhol and The Factory in-crowd, his life as a pop magazine editor, his subsequent years as a talent scout with Elektra – he says he’s the guy that told the label to release The Doors’ Light My Fire as a single – and his long-standing friendships with Nico, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, David Bowie and more. He also managed The Ramones during their early years, so you can see there’s a lot of rock mythology to fit in here, but Toller does a decent job of paying as much time as possible to it all. Fields is an intelligent guy with a varied career behind him, so his interviews are enjoyable to listen to, and the other talking heads are engaging, interesting figures in their own right: Judy Collins, Iggy, Lenny Kaye, Wayne Kramer, Alice Cooper, Jonathan Richman and more all say nice things about the subject. The animations that are used occasionally feel a bit cheap and scrappy, though maybe that’s understandable for a Kickstarter-funded project. (***)
As I don’t have kids I tend to miss quite a lot of family-oriented films when they’re on at the cinema, like this update of the Paddington books and TV show. I’m glad I caught up with it at long last, as I enjoyed it way more than I was expecting to, and found myself chuckling along throughout; more than I tend to during most adult-oriented comedies, in fact. Paul King – who directed all three seasons of surreal comedy show The Mighty Boosh – is the man behind it, and he has created a winning blend of slapstick silliness and altogether smarter jokes, while also incorporating a timely subtext about London’s history of immigration, (eventual) tolerance and (eventual) acceptance, which made me ponder whether our detestable, oily snake of a Prime Minister has seen the film. The soundtrack, not without reason, features calypso played by a group of British African-Caribbean men.
The story of Paddington (entirely CGI here and voiced by Ben Whishaw), the bear from ‘darkest Peru’ (eeesh!), is well-known. The nice middle-class family who find him and take him in are the Browns, led by Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins, and to a certain extent they remind me of the Banks family in Mary Poppins. Even their home, which is creatively depicted as a doll’s house on a couple of occasions, is a modern version of the smart townhouse in Disney’s classic, and there’s a nice nod to Julie Andrews’ iconic umbrella flight here too (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Raiders Of The Lost Ark also provide inspiration during the finale). Naturally after Paddington settles into his new surroundings a feature length story requires some adventure and danger for narrative propulsion, and Nicole Kidman’s evil taxidermist is introduced as a kind of wicked witch / Cruella de Vil-style villain. I really like Nicole Kidman here – quite simply she is great fun to watch – and she teams up with an equally-amusing Peter Capaldi, whose nosy neighbour is just one of the many send-ups of an old-fashioned, fussy England, a place where there are ’42 words for rain’ and meat paste sandwiches are still considered a delicacy.
King’s writing is sound: simple enough for young children to follow, but clever enough to keep adults interested and entertained. His warm-hearted film largely eschews crazy set pieces, save for breathless chases along Portobello Road or through the Natural History Museum, and instead relies on tried-and-tested sight gags, double takes, cutaways and other comedy staples (Hugh Bonneville in drag is far funnier than it ought to be). There are a couple of mis-steps – Jim Broadbent’s supporting turn as an antiques dealer doesn’t quite click, but is fairly short anyway – but otherwise I liked all of the performances; as well as those mentioned above Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon provide voices for other bears, while Julie Walters steals every one of her scenes as the Brown family’s live-in cleaner. Paddington is streets ahead of most of the family-friendly films that I’ve seen in the past twenty years, and funnier than the majority of comedies I’ve watched in that time too, so it’s no surprise it did so well at the box office.
Directed by: Paul King.
Written by: Paul King, Hamish McColl. Based on Paddington Bear by Michael Bond.
Starring: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Nicole Kidman, Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin, Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi, Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton.
Cinematography: Erik Wilson.
Editing: Mark Everson.
Music: Nick Urata, D Lime featuring Tobago Crusoe, Various.
Running Time: 95 minutes.
This captivating thriller by Diao Yinan won the Golden Bear earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival, and it’s a stylish, meticulously-paced police procedural, one that consistently delivers sudden, unexpected twists and turns. Set in northern China in 1999 (initially, anyway), the story begins with dismembered body parts turning up on a conveyor belt in a coal processing plant. Mysteriously other parts of the same body appear simultaneously at other coal plants in the region, and detective Zhang Zili (Liao Fan) is assigned the case. One botched arrest later – an excellent scene that serves as a further reminder as to why western directors have long been aping their eastern contemporaries – and Zhang goes off the rails before losing his job as a police officer. The action subsequently moves forward five years; we discover that he has hit the bottle and is working as a security guard. However he is drawn back to police work when he finds out from a former colleague that new murders have been linked to the 1999 killing; body parts begin to show up in coal plants again, while a common thread appears to be a dry cleaning store and the woman who works there, Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-Mei); Zhang launches his own unofficial investigation.
If there’s something predictable about the film’s developing romance – former cop haunted by his inability to solve a murder becomes obsessed by a widow and key suspect – there’s nothing ordinary about the way in which it is depicted, or filmed. Wu remains distant throughout. In one scene the pair go ice-skating. She is graceful and at ease on the ice, while he is slow and lumbers around awkwardly; it seems to sum up the way he has carried out his investigation, while she is one step ahead, moving away from him. (Later on Zhang has to chase a male suspect – also a talented skater – across the same patch of frozen lake; the ex-cop runs and slips while, in the distance, the man in question gradually disappears.)
Diao has made a grim ode to the night, but it is also a movie that is awash with colour. Much of the action takes place after sundown in and around neon-lit streets, the shop signs and other lights of the heavily industrialised city reflecting against the snow that covers the ground. There are unexpected visual touches; when the first body part shows up at the coal factory, for example, the camera tracks its journey, even spinning around 360 degrees as the part is dumped by a tipper truck. When the action moves forward five years Diao makes the leap via a long tracking shot down a tunnel. During the aforementioned skating scene Lun-Mei is filmed by a gliding cameraman, presumably DoP Dong Jingsong, who sashays from side-to-side in tandem with Wu as Zhang struggles in the background. This strong visual style, coupled with the slow, methodical pacing, reminds me of David Fincher’s Zodiac.
Despite the strong visual style I wouldn’t describe this film as flashy; it has grounded, realistic performances and the scenes mentioned above are exceptions, rather than the norm; there’s also an inherent chilliness due to the seasonal weather, and it paints a rather unflattering picture of industrial China, to the point that I’m surprised it made it out of the country uncensored (though apparently the version shown within China was cut). Nevertheless the film’s ending is aloof, offbeat and a little frustrating, and I wonder whether the symbolism included by the director at the end has been lost in translation. The screenplay, also written by Diao, recalls the plot of Harold Becker’s late-80s thriller Sea Of Love, though it also has a flavour of Raymond Chandler about it: it’s easy to get lost as the plot takes sudden left turns, right turns and about-turns, while the characters are, generally-speaking, noir archetypes. From what I can gather the pace of Black Coal, Thin Ice, coupled with the challenge of staying on top of the plot, seems to have put some people’s noses out of joint – a sign of the times, I’m sorry to say – but make no mistake: this atmospheric piece has been made by a talented filmmaker, and is well worth seeking out.
Directed by: Diao Yinan.
Written by: Diao Yinan.
Starring: Liao Fan, Gwei Lun-Mei, Wang Xuebing, Wang Jingchun, Yu Ailei.
Cinematography: Dong Jingsong.
Editing: Yang Hongyu.
Music: Wen Zi, Various.
Running Time: 109 minutes.
Comet is the debut feature by the versatile Sam Esmail, a man who is enjoying considerable success at present as the creator, executive producer and head writer of the TV series Mr. Robot. This 2015 film, which he wrote as well as directed, may one day be viewed as an early career curio, given that it features a strong-but-forced visual style that could be developed into something special over the coming years: it’s a romantic drama that charts the six-year on-off relationship between cynical pessimist Dell (Justin Long) and occasionally-exasperated Kimberley (Emmy Rossum), with barely any screen time given to any other characters. Structurally it draws heavily from Marc Webb’s (500) Days Of Summer, opting for a non-linear path through the relationship from start to finish that means we’re aware pretty early on that they break-up at least once, although you could also describe Comet as a condensed version of Linklater’s Before trilogy (an homage, even, given that one passage takes place in a Paris hotel room). Several key moments from the six years are presented as vignettes, with some smart cross-cutting along the way by editor Franklin Peterson, allowing the viewer to form an overall impression of the couple’s love affair; to be honest they don’t actually seem all that compatible – they meet and apparently live in LA but he’s drawn to New York, she wants to live in the present but he’s always looking to the future, and so on – but despite the rows and the partings the ol’ flame of love refuses to go out etc. etc. and indeed etc.
I’m reminded of Linklater for another reason: this is an extremely talky indie, and perhaps one that is less clever than it thinks it is. There’s a depressing predictability about the casting of a vaguely-nerdy (but actually good looking man) playing opposite a woman who dresses and looks like (but thankfully does not act like) the archetypal Manic Pixie Dream Girl. As a kind of preemptive strike against the indifferent shrugs of everyone who is sick of watching relationship dramas about identikit millennials, Esmail tries to put a spin on things, supposing that the vignettes are taking place in a parallel, alternate universe. Unfortunately this comes across as an underdeveloped gimmick, and never more so than during the scenes in which we see twin suns in the background, which dutifully rise during the rooftop will-they, won’t-they finale. Still, arresting imagery like this is at least vaguely in keeping with the general theme of the couple’s fate being writ large in the stars; they meet-cute at an open air comet viewing event and the motif is continued via the dialogue and in the way cinematographer Eric Koretz occasionally emphasises the vastness of the sky. There’s a distinct colour palette too, with a range of indigos, pinks and violets used throughout, but sadly a lot of the time it feels like window dressing, and it can’t disguise the fact that watching Kimberley and Dell talk about the state of their relationship becomes boring all too quickly.
Directed by: Sam Esmail.
Written by: Sam Esmail.
Starring: Emmy Rossum, Justin Long.
Cinematography: Eric Koretz.
Editing: Franklin Peterson.
Music: Daniel Hart.
Running Time: 89 minutes.
Sigh. Let’s just get this out of the way so we can all move on: Con artist movie Focus is a steaming pile of dung. It’s a stomach-churningly glossy, empty, poorly-plotted, terribly-scripted, overly-shiny, vacuous, blank, emotionless, impassive, wooden, lifeless, careless, abonimable, abhorrent, insipid, loathsome, repugnant, odious, hateful, nauseous, insufferable, irksome rotten mess of a movie. It’s the kind of picture that has come into being because the bunch of cynical fucks behind most Big Movies have gone too far and have assumed that we – that’s me, you, the guy who was here five minutes ago and the girl who will drop by tomorrow – are nothing more than cooing, mindless idiots who will be left impressed and satisfied and mentally stimulated by nothing more than a combination of Margot Robbie’s body, Will Smith’s body, some sparkling jewellery, a couple of expensive cars and swanky hotel room after swanky hotel room after swanky hotel room after swanky hotel room after swanky hotel room after…AAAAAARRRRGGGHHH! MAKE IT STOP! MAKE! IT! STOP! They think that by merely throwing all these pretty things together into one 90-minute package and including nothing else of note we will be convinced that we’re being entertained and we will not notice that the plot is as thin as a cheese sandwich or that the whole thing is very close to being completely devoid of charm; the one saving grace being Adrian Martinez, who is ever-so-slightly amusing during his brief time on screen. As for the rest of it: porridge has more charm. A carpet has more charm. A toothpick…a fucking toothpick…has more charm than Focus. I find it incredible that people are expected to pay good money for this or that *splutter* $50 million was spent in order to make it. Here’s Will Smith’s chest. Here are Margot Robbie’s legs. Give us your money. Here are some shiny things. Look how they sparkle. Here’s a sports car. Look at the sports car. Looky wooky at the sportsy wortsy car. These people have nothing but contempt for cinemagoers. The story is woeful, the whole ethos of the film makes me sick, the cons are particularly unconvincing and I fear for Smith in particular, who seems to have no trouble whatsoever playing an insufferably smug prick. It’s incredible that the duo behind I Love You, Phillip Morris, Crazy, Stupid Love and the screenplay for Bad Santa have turned this in. Seriously: watch The Thomas Crown Affair (either version), The Grifters or The Sting instead of this repugnant toss.
Directed by: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa.
Written by: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa.
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney, B.D. Wong, Adrian Martinez.
Cinematography: Xavier Pérez Grobet.
Editing: Jan Kovac.
Music: Nick Urata.
Running Time: 102 minutes.
This road movie about two gambling addicts – one young, suave and incapable of settling down, the other a degenerate with racked-up debts whose wife has long since bailed with their daughter in tow – feels at times like a blast from the past, a 70’s-style character study that flows south along the titular river before eventually climaxing in New Orleans with the kind of win-or-bust ending that has been done many, many times before — see The Hustler, Rounders, California Split, etc. That latter work by Robert Altman is probably the closest cousin to this new film by writer-director team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who made Half Nelson a decade ago, though they also nod to the original version of The Gambler by including its writer James Toback in a brief cameo. It’s clearly set in the present, but Mississippi Grind is imbued with a distinctly retro look that further recalls the not-too-distant past: the casinos, bars, racetracks and pool halls often used as locations have all seen better days, for example, while a sole reference to Justin Timberlake is offset by a number of montages containing nicely-framed shots of old eateries and other crumbling establishments as the duo travel down to St. Louis, Mobile, Memphis and beyond. The film stock used, with its lustrous primary colours in dimly lit bars and grain-heavy shadows, also goes some way to recalling the 1970s and the general look of the American New Wave.
The two men, who meet in Dubuque, Iowa before travelling south, are played by Ryan Reynolds – typically cocksure – and Ben Mendelsohn, who continues to impress and unsurprisingly has no problem stepping up from his recent eye-catching supporting roles to a lead performance. They meet in a casino, naturally: Reynolds’ Curtis lays the charm on thick and Mendelsohn’s Gerry, desperate enough to believe he has chanced upon a lucky charm, comes over all doe-eyed. Within a day or two they’ve hatched a plan to raise enough money to play in a high stakes poker game in Louisiana, and shortly thereafter they set off (Curtis with no ties to the area, Gerry eager to walk away from his job and his debts). The obvious question is why would Curtis, who appears to be doing quite well for himself as he moves from state to state, pick a down-on-his luck kinda guy like Gerry as a gambling partner, presenting him with $2,000 to use as buy-in funds? Perhaps an innocuous scene where the pair back a longshot at the dog track provides the answer; it seems that the chances of Gerry winning big in New Orleans are similarly low, and Curtis simply gets more of a thrill when the outsider he backs goes on to win. Curtis remains something of a mystery throughout, though the writers slowly and skilfully turn the loser/winner axis on its head as one character nears his home while the other moves further away from his, and while we discover that Curtis isn’t quite the success he initially seems it also becomes apparent that Gerry isn’t exactly the completely pliable sap of the first act either.
As far as gambling films go we see less of the card games that Gerry partakes in than you might expect. Certainly with regard to the first two acts it’s all stripped back to just one hand (and one main opponent), which means that by the time Fleck and Boden serve up the casino-set finale you’re not sick to death of watching people looking at their cards while seated at nondescript green tables. When we do see the poker or blackjack being played Boden’s editing speeds up the action via a series of quicker cuts, and although it’s easier to follow if you know the rules of the games in question, such knowledge isn’t essential; it’s always clear who wins and who loses, which is the most important thing. This all enables the focus to stay on the two principal characters, and how each of them feels about the other, the relationship changing the longer they stay together. Neither man can be trusted: Gerry’s lack of a moral compass ensures the viewer completely understands why he has no friends or family left to turn to, while Curtis stitches his partner up on a couple of occasions and continually makes empty promises to on-off girlfriend Simone (Sienna Miller).
Though I’m not (and hopefully never will be) a gambling addict, Mississippi Grind seems like it’s reasonably susccessful in terms of getting into the mindset of the kind of people who can’t walk away from a bet or a game, even if they’ve just lost big. The two leads do well to keep you onside with their characters’ respective quests for riches, despite some of their decisions, and though the film doesn’t really have anything new to say about addiction, or even the fabled search for the American Dream (the billowing flag reflected in a car window at the end is an unnecessary and heavy-handed touch), it’s still an enjoyable drama and worth checking out. There are some interesting motifs running through the film, most notably the use of rainbows (and by association what lies at their end) and body language, while there’s also a suitably invigorating delta blues-heavy soundtrack, with attendant song lyrics repeatedly reminding us about loss, bad luck and men being left by their loved ones. The one shame is that several reasonably-interesting female characters (played by the likes of Analeigh Tipton, Alfre Woodard and Marshall Chapman) are all quickly established and then, with the exception of Miller’s Simone, completely forgotten about, though this is perhaps in keeping with the way the two self-centred men at the heart of the story appear to be travelling through the country, and through life.
Directed by: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck.
Written by: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck.
Starring: Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Alfre Woodard, Marshall Chapman.
Cinematography: Andrij Parekh.
Editing: Anna Boden.
Music: Scott Bomar, Various.
Running Time: 108 minutes.
Having watched Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme d’Or-winning Winter Sleep a couple of weeks ago I felt the need to see Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, the well-regarded non-conformist crime drama the director made a few years earlier. Both films are set in the same mountainous region of Anatolia and both are shot by Ceylan’s regular cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki, who certainly has a flair for photographing the desolate, largely-bare landscape. Yet where Winter Sleep seemed to draw back from the region’s inclement weather by ‘hibernating’ with its main characters inside a cliff-top hotel, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is for the most part set outdoors, and follows a group of people moving necessarily from one indistinguishable spot to another during a long, cold night. This group – made up of a few police officers and gendarmerie forces, a couple of gravediggers, a doctor (played by Muhammet Uzuner), a prosecutor (Taner Birsel) and two suspects in custody (Fırat Tanış, Burhan Yıldız) – is searching for a murder victim, who we briefly glimpse enjoying a drink with the two accused men in the film’s short prologue. Chief suspect Kenan (Tanış) is supposedly leading the police to the spot where he left the body, presumably as part of a plea bargain or a legal equivalent, but because so much of the vast landscape looks the same he becomes confused, a problem exacerbated by the fact he says he was drunk when he dumped the corpse; his brother, who was with him at the time, appears to have learning difficulties and the increasingly-exacerbated police officers direct few of their questions his way.
Much of the running time is concerned with the group’s journey to a variety of spots during the night, and the discussions that take place when they arrive at their destinations. The search is a primary concern of Ceylan’s, but while it seems as if little of note is actually happening the exact opposite is the case: a series of long conversations – the director is fond of scenes that can last for up to 10 or 15 minutes apiece, a construct that distances his films from the mainstream and is designed to attract patient viewers – take place between characters, principally involving Uzuner’s doctor, and gradually their personalities and their relationships are either clearly established or enigmatically built up, leaving the viewer with a general idea of what these men think of one another while also leaving some unanswered questions. In these scenes the doctor and Birsel’s prosecutor engage in lengthy dialogue about a separate issue regarding a woman’s heart attack, while Kenan eventually reveals what happened during the night of the murder, the brief (and understated) revelation raising the possibility that he came forward to the police and gave himself up. The group stops for food and shelter at the house of a local mayor, and several characters become briefly entranced by the mayor’s daughter, before the search continues the next morning; eventually the action (for want of a better term) moves from the open land to the town of Keskin.
Rather unusually this is a crime drama that avoids all the obvious elements of a crime drama; i.e. we don’t see the murder in question occur, or the subsequent early stages of the police investigation, or the suspects being arrested, or their trial. Instead Ceylan picks out the less interesting, more mundane aspects of police procedure: the hours spent waiting or driving around searching for crucial evidence; the satisfaction of legal procedure, embodied by the prosecutor, who gives dictates at length to an official recorder; and the autopsy of the body, a task that is usually unseen in films, most of which tend to spin on to the moment that a detective arrives at a morgue and conveniently receives key information that moves the plot forward (whereas here some vaugely revelatory information is quickly buried). The idea of watching a film that closely resembles the reality of a murder investigation, rather than the usual depiction of a sensationalised, stripped down adventure, is probably anathema to a lot of people, and I guess the idea of searching for the devil among the details for 150 minutes is too. Additionally the thought of sitting through an extremely slow, brooding piece that revels in long conversations that highlight the monotony of life will probably put even more off, but personally I have been very impressed by what I’ve seen of Ceylan’s films; the combination of pace and length is something I find a challenge, but it doesn’t put me off, and I’d rather be challenged by the films I watch than not. I’m most impressed by the way they look: each featuring alluring combinations of beautifully-lit, warm-looking interiors and distant shots of figures moving across spectacular vistas or traversing town streets. The acting across both films I’ve watched has been uniformly excellent, and the writing has thrown up a number of well-drawn, interesting characters as well. The Sergio Leone-referencing title seems like an odd choice, though, unless it was deliberately chosen to entice an international audience; I guess the landscape of Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is similar to that of Once Upon A Time In The West, but if there’s another link I’m afraid it has gone over my head.
Directed by: Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
Written by: Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ercan Kesal.
Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Yılmaz Erdoğan, Taner Birsel, Fırat Tanış.
Cinematography: Gökhan Tiryaki.
Editing: Bora Gökşingöl, Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
Running Time: 150 minutes.