April 22, 2017

Morality and family


Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, 2014). You probably knew people like this: intellectuals who dropped out, isolated themselves, developed their own systems of thought, messed everything up. They probably read a lot of Nietzsche. The one thing worse than being all talk and no action is to be both talk and action. Diaz’s leisurely (four hours plus) film takes an anthropological approach to such figures; it is a moral film about morality and family. 

April 20, 2017

Bob, Bonnie, Clyde

Warren Beatty says he wanted you to play Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde. Did that offer get to you?
No, the offer was sent to my manager’s office and we weren’t speaking; we had had a falling out. I didn’t get any mail or offers that were sent there.
You could have had some love scenes with Faye Dunaway – any regrets?
Nope.

April 19, 2017

Avoiding people is easy


Patience (After Sebald) (Grant Gee, 2012). “Coincidence is like dreams. If you talk about them, they become dead, inert,” says artist Tacita Dean in this film. Does over-explaining the work of German writer WG Sebald, and his masterpiece The Rings of Saturn in particular, have the same risk? Reading Sebald has always been a highly private and individual experience; everyone (mis)remembers the books differently. The good news is that Gee’s sensitive documentary leaves Sebald’s deep and singular mysteries intact even as its selection of well-known Sebald fans have the fervour of cult followers – besides Dean, there is Iain Sinclair, Marina Warner, Rick Moody, Andrew Motion and, possibly the most insightful of all, psychologist Adam Phillips. Artist Jeremy Millar takes a nearly Shroud of Turin-like photo of the site where Sebald died and the veneration does get almost holy. But Sebald still slips away. There is a sense that he was both unique – a German writer living in England, writing in German, often obliquely about the Holocaust, and with an antiquarian sensibility – and a pioneer of a type of writing that now almost borders on clichĂ©. As Sinclair says, “The countryside is black with people going for walks to write books.” In most cases, these have a therapeutic angle: they are restorative nature walks, feel-good treks. Sebald’s walk dwelled instead on the dark catastrophes of history and the trip put him in hospital. Nor did he ever ask for disciples – as Sinclair says, following the trail of The Rings of Saturn is the worst way to experience or understand Sebald. It unfolds in your head. 

April 13, 2017

April 11, 2017

Cruelty and sorrow


Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016). The art worlds depiction of strong or violent emotions pales in comparison with the real thing. 

April 8, 2017

Ghost houses, bomb shelters


Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari, 2016). Ghost houses, bomb shelters. Well-known horror tropes (children see things) and a genuinely fresh setting and perspective. 

April 6, 2017

Planet of the idiots

Hard to be a God (Aleksei German, 2013). This Russian medieval sci-fi epic is a distant cousin of sorts to Tarkovskys Stalker and Andrei Rublev: it shares an author with the former and a sense of grimy, lived-in medieval authenticity with the latter. But the excess and even derangement of Chimes at Midnight is here too. The planet Arkanar is a world of dirt, blood, spit, fog and gore and your engagement is less about a coherent plot than an immersive experience that has the consistency, or even pungency and texture, of a nightmare. Rain means something in Tarkovsky, but here it is just rain. It is constant and it turns everything into mud.  

March 31, 2017

Working with Walt

Life, Animated (Roger Ross Williams, 2016). Of course the story of how autistic Owen Suskind learned to communicate with others using characters and situations from Disney films is touching and inspirational, while being entirely individual rather than typical, but there are darker undercurrents here as well, which the documentary does touch on. Do parents of disabled children want them to stay in some sense innocent, even as they hit adulthood? How many decades into the future does your thinking and worrying go? And are the responsibilities and stresses on the siblings ever properly understood? I felt there was much more to know about the obvious burdens on Owen’s older brother, who is named – and this is hard to believe, but true – Walt. 

March 21, 2017

White trash precariat


American Honey (Andrea Arnold, 2016). How many films have been this concerned with money? Counting it, coveting it, stashing it, earning it, conning people out of it. Andrea Arnolds first non-British film is a road movie through the US midwest  Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota  that embeds viewers within a group of drifting, nihilistic teens who form a kind of white trash precariat (this was conceived several years ago and it debuted at Cannes last May, but it feels very much like a Trump-era story). As in Arnolds Fish Tank, there is a young woman at the centre (Sasha Lane, above) who is trying to negotiate the rules of the world and identify its predators. Arnolds view is raw, sympathetic, intuitive and not immune to the weird beauty of the entirely ordinary even when her Academy ratio close-ups risk giving viewers claustrophobia. 

March 20, 2017

Ten years earlier

The Serpent’s Egg (Ingmar Bergman, 1977). As though Cabaret could be repackaged as a dark and murky nightmare (apartments, corridors, basements, crowded clubs, wet night-time streets) in which Nazi crimes were somehow rehearsed 10 years ahead of time. David Carradine was no Max von Sydow but he was arguably more of a Max von Sydow than David Bowie was in the thematically similar but much sloppier Just a Gigolo a year later. 

March 19, 2017

On the river

Sully (Clint Eastwood, 2016). A man lands a plane on a river in New York and everyone lives, so why does he feel like this? 

March 18, 2017

Cities at night


Heat (Michael Mann, 1995). I hadn’t seen this for 20 years, I think, and I remembered the bank shoot-out most clearly – sudden guerrilla warfare choreographed in downtown Los Angeles – but I had not recalled its feeling, both grandiose and sad, beautiful and strange. And there is Mann’s romantic admiration for these quiet men – cops, criminals, what’s the difference? – who run on a mix of intuition and discipline, outsiders looking in. 

March 11, 2017

Trains and bad weather

Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2008). A dark and fairly pitiless noir with hauntings at its centre. The sex and death that drives these plots goes unseen, leaving just the clouds of suspicion and guilt, the sound of trains and bad weather.

March 9, 2017

Last time I walked down your street


Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016). This has an unexpected shape that feels like shapelessness (as we saw in the equally moving and impressive Margaret, Lonergan likes to take his time with scenes that might have seemed extraneous to others), and it’s observational rather than highly personal, but it is unusually sensitive to the burdens of guilt and grief and the ways that we try and sometimes fail to move on. There are entire worlds and stories beyond what we see here: the way Lee (Casey Affleck) wraps up the three photos when he moves, or the way the young Patrick glances at his passed-out mother, or the story of the man who lost his dad in 1959 and remembers every detail, or many other small and important moments. If you leave wanting more from Joe and Randi, maybe that is the point as well. 

March 5, 2017

Almost pleasantly underpowered

CafĂ© Society (Woody Allen, 2016). The annual Woody Allen film is nearly beyond criticism by now. This time: period nostalgia (Hollywood, gangsters) and an almost pleasantly underpowered love triangle in which passion, anguish or despair seem to be entirely absent. Call it a sketch of an idea of an experiment about a story about life, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But in a year, will you even remember which one this was?

March 4, 2017

The best Christopher Lee performance


The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher, 1967). The seriousness of the metaphysical struggle. He’s almost Max von Sydow.  

March 1, 2017

Old news

Snowden (Oliver Stone, 2016). The disillusioned patriot shaped the trajectory of Stone’s Vietnam films – Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Heaven and Earth (in Wall Street, the disillusioned capitalist). The Edward Snowden biopic is closest to the second in plot terms but it lacks the urgency and righteous anger that risked being embarrassing, which makes this seem stale, cautious and under-imagined instead. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance is suitably diligent. One thing: if your storytelling is hugely dependent on news clips and audio, are you making a dramatic feature or is it really a dramatised documentary? Another thing: it’s some kind of achievement to make even Nicolas Cage appear boring. But Stone manages. 

February 27, 2017

Whatever it is

The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor, 2016). A terrible shambles about maternal guilt, sexual jealousy and the black hole of alcoholism that demonstrates, again and again, that it takes a special kind of talent (Fincher, Hitchcock, Verhoeven) to make great entertainment out of psychologically lurid material. Perhaps it takes a sadistic or single-minded or simply cold-hearted person. Whatever it is, Tate Taylor is not it. 

February 22, 2017

Who makes the Nazis?


Imperium (Daniel Ragussis, 2016). The renaissance of Daniel Radcliffe (Swiss Army Man, Kill Your Darlings) seemed more myth than reality until his surprisingly strong showing in this unexpectedly topical undercover Nazi thriller. Radcliffe is a dweebish FBI agent turned shaven-headed Aryan warrior (he looks like a pocket-edition Henry Rollins) infiltrating neo-Nazi gangs who have – you will never believe this – been radicalised by a smarmy, conspiracy theory-peddling radio host.