August 31, 2016

Dead heat

Trumbo (Jay Roach, 2015). The Coens’ Hail, Caesar! seemed too loose, too fantastic and farcical, but this treatment of the same material – Hollywood  in the 40s and 50s, Communist fear, poisonous gossip columnists – is just earnest and dutiful. Which wins? It feels like a dead heat.  

August 26, 2016

In a dream of being seen

Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, 2010). Life in a dream of being seen, with witnesses, and on stages. 

August 22, 2016

The shame of history

Enemies of the People (Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, 2009). In a gentler and less cerebral way, Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath gets to the same places Joshua Oppenheimer got to in his Indonesian genocide films The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence – the shame, the embarrassment of history. It’s a low-key, patient and undemonstrative film based on the slowly evolving relationship between Sambath, whose father was killed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, and Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s “Brother Number Two”, second only to Pol Pot. Chea and other former killers contemplate their consciences and their souls, explain or demonstrate their methods and show us where the ditches were. What Sambath learns, and this is something the Oppenheimer films do not convey, is that the truth from the past you dreaded or always half-expected does not come with a great flash of insight or pain or outrage, but arrives as simple human sadness about our flaws and unexplained motivations and the gaps in our memories. 

August 12, 2016

Ghost in you

Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016). Extending cleverly from his collaboration with Kristen Stewart on the more classical Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper has Assayas asking that most contemporary of questions: can you be trolled by the dead? This film is both an up-to-the-minute ghost story and an almost experimental character study developed for the precise talents of Stewart: that hurt loneliness, that sullenness. 

August 10, 2016

Curated world

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016). “It’s like living in the 20th century!” That line defines the film. So does this speculation: there wouldn’t be a book on Paterson’s shelf that Jarmusch has not read himself. 

August 8, 2016

Religious film of the year

Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016). So deeply American in its story of religious persecution, so packed with early 21st century anxiety and terror despite its deeper yearning towards the more innocent 70s/80s science-fiction of ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Starman, and containing perhaps Michael Shannon’s strongest and most tender work so far for Jeff Nichols.

August 3, 2016

70s interiors

High-Rise (Ben Wheatley, 2015). JG Ballard used to say that Britain lacked a homegrown surrealist tradition. One of the good things about Ben Wheatley’s crazed adaptation of High-Rise is that it restores the surrealism to Ballard, who is seen too often as some kind of severe futurist or Alvin Toffler figure. In Wheatley and regular writer Amy Jump’s hands, Ballard becomes a moral satirist with a vicious sense of humour. Wheatley also turns Ballard’s science-fiction-of-the-present into retro, keeping the setting at 1975 in a Britain on the edge of Thatcherism, amplifying a class war between a high-rise apartment block’s lower and upper levels and luxuriating in kitsch. Like many Ballardian heroes, Laing is a bystander in his own story, and Tom Hiddleston plays him as an effete, shallow figure who could have arrived from another time, like a preview of the 80s man (it makes sense that Hiddleston was told to watch The Conformist to prepare). The real mania goes on all around him, personified by a decrepit Jeremy Irons as Royal and a Luke Evans made up to look like Oliver Reed as Wilder. This High-Rise is 70s hedonism within a British-surrealist landscape of rubbish strikes, power cuts and smashed cars, where orgies and costume parties are soundtracked by orchestral or mournful covers of Abba’s “SOS”. There is an intriguing connection to David Cronenberg’s sexual revolution horror Shivers, released in 1975 and also set in a modernist apartment block (both films contain variations on wildly out-of-control pool parties). But where the feeling of Shivers was chilly and contemporary, Wheatley’s High-Rise is allowed the distancing effect of debauched retro. One other thing about Cronenberg: Crash was his Ballard adaptation but Dead Ringers might be his most Ballardian film and the journey from modernist luxury to death and ruin is similar to High-Rise, but slower, deeper and more tragic.

August 2, 2016

When everything has already happened

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (Werner Herzog, 2016). Fata Morgana is a long time ago now, and Werner Herzog is a very different kind of figure who works much closer to the mainstream, with eccentricities that are now considered to be quirks, but his internet documentary Lo and Behold reminded me of Fata Morgana more than anything else: it appears before us as a creation and destruction myth, narrated in numbered chapters that are reminiscent of the mythological chapter headings in Fata Morgana. There is the same mix of portentousness and black humour and a soundtrack, relying heavily on Wagner, that suggests both the start and the end of time at once. Mythological time. Herzog is drawn to images of catastrophe and collapse, even here. Where many would see only the Utopian and democratic promise of the internet, and the convenient ease of online shopping, travel and communication and the improved quality of life, he thinks about black holes and sun spots, destructive storms and the end of mankind, and finds a tranquil beauty in imagining that a deserted Chicago means we have all left for Mars.