The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015). A different kind of horror movie, made with historical fidelity and Bergman or Dreyer-like seriousness – and a rare economy and a gradual increase of dread throughout. This small masterpiece may be the greatest religious film in years – relatively calm and steady where Von Trier’s more personal Antichrist was psychologically overwrought and fiercely anguished, but it is just as deep.
April 29, 2016
The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau, 2016). Hyper-realist and pleasingly old-fashioned, as though the Disney-Kipling story had somehow been found within a TV nature documentary from the 1960s, with their earnest understandings of animal motivations, power structures and loyalties. The first sight of the giant orangutan is straight out of Apocalypse Now, but so too is the tiger – all menace here, not camp. Humour is added lightly, and never overdone.
April 19, 2016
April 16, 2016
Black Mass (Scott Cooper, 2015). Don’t you feel like you’ve seen all this before? All that creeping fascination with violence, secrets and honour. The wiretapping, the infiltration, the trips down to sunny Florida, the slow drives to somewhere remote to kill and bury somebody. Even Boston isn’t a novelty anymore (The Departed, Mystic River) although the Boston Globe was featured here as an intrepid, investigative paper a few months before it got a much bigger, lasting splash in Spotlight. The gimmick of Black Mass is that psychopathic Boston-Irish crime lord Jimmy Bulger (Johnny Depp, unthreatening despite his vampiric Hunter S Thompson make-up) and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) are as close as family but it’s not until the credits roll and the screenplay reveals what happened to Jimmy and his politician brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), that you realise what the problem has been: Black Mass followed the wrong story.
April 14, 2016
Far From Men (David Oelhoffen, 2014). Algeria, 1952. There are astonishing landscapes and silence. It shows you that a world is disappearing from view forever and that nothing could have been done differently. In a French-speaking lead, Viggo Mortensen carries the weight of this himself. It suits his sense of nobility, or integrity.
April 7, 2016
Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, 2015). I’m glad I read that essay on Heidegger earlier, at First Things. One important thing: you can feel lost in the world and still feel sure, as well, that the world is a beautiful place that you never want to leave. Also, you can be forgiven. “All things shining” is almost a Malick catchphrase or slogan, or it should be (The Thin Red Line). There is a dead brother, with its suggestions of The Tree of Life (and Malick’s own life), as though The Tree of Life’s Sean Penn had, at the end, kept walking on the beach and turned into Christian Bale. There are pilgrims and legends, the desert and the sea, water and light, and us looking upwards. There are hints of Solaris and Mirror in that repeated piece of music and the dense web of sorrow, memory, love and regret. Has a film ever collapsed time quite like this – not even Mirror. There is no clear sense of what is past, what is present, what happened when, what is remembered, what is observed and what is imagined. It is a feat of editing, and it is mesmerising. The use of Hollywood studio lots as settings suggests dream cities or simulations of the real world, but then so does Las Vegas, which looks like paradise. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki stage crowd scenes that are moved through calmly, in real space, with real light, and the mobile camera has its own point of view. “Love and do what you like,” a woman says, quoting St Augustine. If they tell you that the ennui is stylised, that there are too many convertibles, too many girls and parties, say Antonioni. Tell them it’s as good as The Tree of Life, which was a masterpiece, remember?
April 5, 2016
April 2, 2016
The Two Faces of January (Hossein Amini, 2014). Americans in Europe – that seldom ends well. Greece and Crete, ruins and tourism. From a Patricia Highsmith novel and with aspects of a Ripley story, this is cunningly plotted. Yet you sense there is more in the book: more history, more psychology.
March 28, 2016
F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1973). There have always been phonies, Welles suggests, what’s new are the experts who claim to know how to separate the true from the false, or the real from the fake. On one level, you can read F for Fake as Welles’ answer to the “expert” (Pauline Kael) who challenged his authorship of Citizen Kane and you can see that Welles shares infamous art forger Elmyr de Hory’s delight in proving the experts wrong, just as he and Oja Kodar enjoy fooling us with their story about Pablo Picasso, but the quiet centre of the film is the Chartres section, in which the cathedral, silhouetted like Xanadu in Citizen Kane, is a monument that transcends all the individuals who worked on it, in Welles’ remarkable monologue. In the end, he asks, why does the name of the artist matter? The thing lasts, names disappear. But is this humility, really, or is it actually the opposite? A story about anonymity comes with Welles’ visual signature, familiar from the opening of Citizen Kane, and the Welles voice-over now has an intimate seriousness that the rest of the jubilant, chaotic and enjoyably contradictory film otherwise overlooks in its rush to entertain and impress. Everything is a performance, or a trick, you suspect – seriousness as well as levity.
March 27, 2016
The Falling (Carol Morley, 2015). A quiet, dreamy film about teen girl hysteria, set as the British 1960s were about to turn into the 1970s – and Carol Morley evokes the creepy, pagan, autumnal, erotic, supernatural feeling of the era, complete with anti-realist Don’t Look Now-style edits, beautiful cinematography (trees, rain, legs, faces) by Agnes Godard and a creaking folk soundtrack provided by Tracey Thorn. There are also tips of imaginary hats to The Devils, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Virgin Suicides and Heavenly Creatures and perhaps even early 70s Hammer horrors, but it’s not just pastiche or revivalism – there is something deeper and fresher happening here.
March 26, 2016
Risen (Kevin Reynolds, 2015). Risen is neither a daringly revisionist Jesus movie in the mode of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ nor a bloody slice of ideological violence in the tradition of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, to which it was planned as an unofficial sequel. Former Costner sidekick Kevin Reynolds directs – at Reynolds’ 1990s commercial peak, you might have said that he had a knack for choreographing epic exercises in crowd-pleasing mythology (Rapa Nui, Waterworld, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), but it’s hard to tell if this relatively low-budget and modestly staged Biblical film is a personal statement for him or just another job. Either way, the mood is traditional, respectful and slightly tepid, with Joseph Fiennes’ taciturn and death-haunted Roman centurion moved or shaken, forever changed, by his sightings of the resurrected Christ, played by the Maori Jesus (Cliff Curtis) as a figure of love, peace and generosity rather than the leader of the apocalyptic rebellion that the prissy Pilate (Peter Firth) fears. At best, the film is a footnote that cleaves closely to the story as it has come down to us, despite the invention of a Roman witness as an audience intermediary rather than the early Christian movement telling its own story – can we call this Romansplaining?
March 20, 2016
Northfork (Michael Polish, 2003). This doesn’t work, but it should. Angels of some sort descend on mostly empty plains in wintry Montana, into a sick boy’s imagination, while men dressed like FBI agents tell the few locals left that a flood is coming – not Biblical, although that is evoked a few times, but a power company’s dam-building. The slow, hushed style is an attempt at Lynchian Americana, but without surprise or depth or the genuine threat of something uncanny that comes as naturally as breathing to Lynch. The non-committal acting – James Woods, Nick Nolte, Daryl Hannah – doesn’t help. Just to exaggerate the Lynch B team feeling of it all, Kyle MacLachlan even has a cameo. The wide, empty, raw spaces do look kind of beautiful, though. Desolate, gloomy pioneer sublime, in shades of grey.
March 19, 2016
March 17, 2016
I contributed to Simon Sweetman’s “Five films that stay with me” series here. Five favourites. Saddest science-fiction, most serious theological horror, most paranoid urban drama, most tender dead-girl tragedy, best prison break in cinema.
March 16, 2016
Dream double bill: Skammen (Ingmar Bergman, 1968); Sleeping Dogs (Roger Donaldson, 1977). But they would probably be played the other way around, moving from civilisation’s colour to barbarism’s black and white, from sights of working cities to bombed or burnt-out ruins. Plane scenes, army scenes, torture scenes, betrayal scenes, uprisings and dull authority, a near future so close it is more or less the present, but with any belief in the value of change and conflict completely absent by the time Skammen is running.
March 13, 2016
Dheepan (Jacques Audiard, 2015). Sadly, most of us in the west don’t know a lot about the specifics of the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan civil war – probably even less than we knew about the Bougainville conflict that produced Mister Pip – which might actually help Jacques Audiard’s powerful Dheepan, which debuted at Cannes last May and controversially won the Palme d’Or over Carol, The Assassin and Son of Saul, find wider application as an unexpectedly topical French refugee thriller. An ex-Tamil guerrilla fighter, a woman and a girl form a makeshift family in a Sri Lankan refugee camp and, using found identities, make their way to a housing estate in France, which is not exactly paradise (maybe the UK will be). It’s a humane and detailed account of the struggles of relocation and resettlement with wonderful performances by the Sri Lankan trio of Antonythasan Jesuthan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan and Claudine Vinasithamby, and French actor Vincent Rottiers as the tragic gang leader Brahim, and while I know that some disagree with the sudden, nearly overwhelming eruption of violence that is hinted at throughout, the danger and proximity of violence – which is far from celebratory or glamourised – was also an important part of Audiard’s cinematic language in his best films, A Prophet and The Beat That My Heart Skipped, both of which feel connected to this one in their blends of dark pessimism and romantic hope and a liberal concern with social conditions.
March 3, 2016
THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971). Found locations, futurist pessimism, remarkable ingenuity and visual sense, and a wise Robert Duvall as the last human. No concessions are made to wider context or understanding. “These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future.” Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl
February 29, 2016
Girlhood (Celine Sciamma, 2014). The way the song (“Diamonds” by Rihanna) played out in the pivotal hotel room scene, and how that song will always have a different meaning now, more aspirational than could have been imagined. That it is a coming of age film that is neither moralistic nor sensational, where teenage experience is shown as fact and a fresh point of view is taken, without it ever seeming like a self-congratulatory big deal. That there is nothing of Charlie Hebdo or Bataclan in it, or nothing that in any clumsy way seems now to anticipate those events. Not sociological, in other words. Really just a good story, told well.
February 28, 2016
The X-Files: I Want to Believe (Chris Carter, 2008). Of all the films made in the shadow of the Catholic child abuse scandal, did you expect one to be an X-Files sequel? I came to the second X-Files film late, via the recent reboot (mixed reactions, but I was interested in the way Carter and other writers were so clearly and amusingly playing with the idea that these guys were out of their time, as if they had been in hibernation since the 1990s). The film is more serious than silly, a story dead-end as opposed to another confusing episode in the over-arching “mythology” and more of a Scully story than a Mulder one. All of which are good things. If both lead actors were slumming it in this series, then Gillian Anderson was slumming it more than David Duchovny. And it’s also good that the problem of “belief” is hers, not his this time: Billy Connolly plays a disgraced Catholic priest who may have psychic powers; he is also a paedophile. How does grace and forgiveness operate here? If he is a charlatan too, which part of him is bogus? The psychic part or the faith part? Why do we doubt one more than the other? But it’s not very nuanced and it could go much deeper.
February 20, 2016
Scream of Stone (Werner Herzog, 1991). This plodding dramatic feature about competitive mountain climbers is as bad as they say – Herzog himself disowns it and blames a poor script – and there’s little to mark it as distinctively Herzogian beyond an odd appearance by Brad Dourif as a man driven Aguirre-mad by the mountains and a couple of sightings of a prophetic Indian. Even the supposedly evil mountain lacks the awe and terror that mountains have in something like Nosferatu. But maybe there are personal traces, hiding in plain sight: can we see a version of Herzog in Donald Sutherland’s manic, frustrated sports director who tries to control the uncontrollable? As an epic of futility about the conquest of the useless, it may have felt autobiographical. It’s partly about pointless heroism but it’s also about the film business and the art of the deals.