February 29, 2016

Diamonds

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

No UFOs


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

Mountains

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.

February 18, 2016

I'm not there


On David Bowie, Todd Haynes, Velvet Goldmine, glam rock impostors and disappearing acts, at Werewolf

February 15, 2016

Mourning


Macbeth (Justin Kurzel, 2015). I thought at times that Justin Kurzel’s dark and bloody, post-Game of Thrones Macbeth could have been done without any dialogue at all. Words and even actors seem secondary and his sense of mood is so strong and heavy and singular. The chief mood is grief and his version of the story is staged in the long, sad aftermath of an audacious opening scene, with grief evolving into madness and producing hallucinations and paranoia about glorious destiny and real or imagined enemies. The sense of doom is powerfully evoked but it also risks turning into monotony. 

February 13, 2016

Through car windows


Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015). People leaving and arriving, crossing roads, half-hidden, seen through car windows or behind the wheel: this marvellous and subtle Todd Haynes film of a Patricia Highsmith novel both opens up the mystery of romance and lets it remain enigmatic. I wrote somewhere else that the three Haynes rock biopics turned lives into complicated mysteries to be solved (or usually not solved); the same may apply here.  

February 11, 2016

It was the starting point for a whole series of tests


Blackstar connections, real and imagined (is there any difference?), keep spreading in all directions. There was an idea that the bandaged eyes in the last two video clips were somehow linked to La Jetee, which is not so fanciful given that a much earlier clip (“Jump They Say”, 1993) was said to be directly influenced by the Marker film and that the song openly concerned his brother, Terry Burns, which means it feels like similarly vulnerable terrain to the landscape of Blackstar. It’s in everything. 

February 8, 2016

Begin again


Z for Zachariah (Craig Zobel, 2015). To restart the human race, you need to turn a church into electricity. Filmed in our neck of the woods, which appears as an idyllic lost valley in an imaginary south at some unspecified time in the near future, Z for Zachariah, with its Christian-apocalyptic overtones, is wrenched out of the nuclear-fear 1970s to be recast as a gentle and symbolic fable about survival. At least one shot quotes a famous moment from Stalker, which is something you may not expect. Also a surprise: the typical urgency and terror of end-of-world stories is missing, replaced by a mysterious sense of benign purpose and direction. Craig Zobel also made Compliance whose lead character is not dissimilar to Margot Robbie’s serious, studious Ann here. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the last man. Chris Pine is the snake in the grass.

February 7, 2016

Shine a light


Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015). Tom McCarthy’s excellent, rigorous, intelligent journalism film prefers plain-speaking and an emphasis on the laborious and potentially boring details of newspaper investigations (phone calls, files, door knocks, editorial meetings) to espionage cliches, but there is one image that borders on the symbolic. It comes when Boston Globe reporter Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) discovers that an ordinary, unmarked suburban home in his neighbourhood is a therapeutic halfway house for paedophile priests – it says a lot about how big stories can hide in plain sight waiting for the right person to notice. The acting is unflashy but Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton’s character studies are nuanced; mostly Spotlight is a film about a process that trusts attentive and interested viewers to actually follow the process, unlike, say, The Big Short

February 6, 2016

Streets of Los Angeles

Straight Outta Compton (F Gary Gray, 2015). Music films usually start in bedrooms and garages and end in lawyers’ offices, but the arc in Straight Outta Compton is quicker and steeper than most: success came fast for NWA and so did the end, meaning that one film can take in the start, the glory days, the break-up and the possibility of a reunion without feeling rushed – events that usually take two decades are done in seven years. There is a sense of the self-flattering authorised version to this, with it acting as Dre and Ice Cube’s public reconciliation with the memory of Eazy E, who is the hot-headed Joe Pesci to their calmer De Niro and Liotta in what can seem at times like a hip-hop GoodFellas (it is a crime film as well as a music film, and not just the crimes committed by managers and record companies), but it has a contagious energy and claims that NWA were acting as reporters documenting life under police occupation in a racist culture are borne out. 

February 3, 2016

You can’t remember



Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945); Rectify (Ray McKinnon, 2013-present).   

February 2, 2016

The singer

Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015). Amidst the wreckage, best supporting performance by an actual (rare thing) human being: Tony Bennett. “Life teaches you how to live it.”