I’ve been on holiday for much of March, hence not posting so much, but I found the time to go and see the latest Coen brothers film twice in that time. Partly this is because since seeing their last film, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), I’ve found something new to enjoy and celebrate in their work — an attitude not based on snide self-congratulatory archness, or so it feels to me (perhaps unfairly). However, I went to see it a second time also because the critical response — and my own initial reaction — feels so much like it misses the point of this latest work. Yes, the pacing seems initially quite odd — it has a slowly unfolding stiltedness that treads heavily somewhat like the prestige Hollywood pictures of the 1950s which it pastiches — and yes it’s a light and warm-hearted embrace of the era, but neither is surely a bad thing. In fact, it’s almost a release after the dour depression of Llewyn, but it’s not shallow. There’s a significant subplot that burrows into the contortions Hollywood found itself in during the McCarthy period, as his House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Communist sympathies within the industry. Even if leading man Baird (George Clooney) confronts a cabal of screenwriters (“The Future”), who have kidnapped him for possibly nefarious reasons, with a genial good humour, their presence is still given a voice, and not even a mocking one at that (Marxist theorist Herbert Marcuse pops up at one point). It also has a great line in fabulous supporting performances (Josh Brolin is the lead as studio boss Eddie), whether Tilda Swinton’s gossip columnist sisters, Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-like tap dancing showman, Ralph Fiennes’ director or, perhaps best of all, Alden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy Hobie. It’s sweet, and for the Coens it’s played fairly straight, and it’s all the better for that.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Directors/Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen | Cinematographer Roger Deakins | Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum | Length 106 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 8 March 2016, and at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 17 March 2016
I’m not a ‘real’ film critic, I just bash away reviews here on the internet for my own amusement, and that of a small handful of readers, who I imagine are only intermittently engaged even then. So when I don’t like a film as much as I feel I’m supposed to by the ‘real’ film critics, I tend to get self-deprecating and assume there’s something wrong with me. You, for example, may love the taut, tense atmosphere established in the brooding first hour of Sicario, beginning with its portentous explanation of the title (something about the Hebrew scriptures, I’ve kinda forgotten, but the film poster says it means “hitman” in Spanish). You may find the apparent moral complexities of the scenario set on the US-Mexican border deeply involving, in which those running the operations (Josh Brolin’s Matt, in league with Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro) have a shadowy identity unknown even to our nominal hero, the quiet and studious FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt). I don’t want to put you off going to see the film, and it does have its strengths, hence my tentatively positive review. I’m on the level about the atmosphere, for example — it really is very well set up by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (whose mindfuck Enemy was most recently on UK screens), with a laconic script and plenty of long-shots suggesting at times that we’re watching surveillance footage. We see Kate in action with her FBI team at the outset, uncovering a home filled with dead drug mules (somewhat in the grisly style of Se7en) and rigged with explosive devices, and from there, scarcely rattled, she is swiftly co-opted into Matt’s team via a series of unseen (to her) high-level meetings.
It’s just that, for all the efficacy of its portentous tone, none of the insights seem particularly believable, though the key to that I suspect is that audiences want to believe that the US government operates shadowy black-ops teams who — and here be spoilers, albeit without any names, as these are explanations the film doesn’t indulge until about halfway through — co-opt Colombian drug cartel hitmen to help take control of the Mexican drug trade so as to better… I don’t know, assassinate all the bad guys? In that sense, it all feels a bit 80s. By the time the film gets to its denouement, its titular hitman is as potent a symbol of pure imperialist ideology as anyone out of a Tarantino flick; he might as well be wearing shades and quoting scripture. Certainly the moral complexities seem to evaporate in a haze of Mexican dust and dead bodies, as certain members of the audience emit nervous (or perhaps triumphant, depending on where you’re watching) laughter at key scenes of torture and bloodshed. Meanwhile our apparent hero Kate, despite being an FBI agent, entirely lacks agency within the film, and the times she does attempt to step up, she’s quickly rebutted by violence and intimidation. In this way, it certainly reveals patterns of male violence and controlling behaviour as well as some rather confrontational attitudes towards immigration, but then so did Touch of Evil, a film with which Sicario certainly shares a setting and a few moral grey areas, with Kate and her legal-trained FBI buddy the audience’s stand-in for Charlton Heston. Still, if you’re going to stand up to such a towering work of cinema then Sicario does pretty well all told. Just be prepared for a lot of guys, guns and nasty business.
NEW RELEASE ADVANCE SCREENING FILM REVIEW Director Denis Villeneuve | Writer Taylor Sheridan | Cinematographer Roger Deakins | Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro | Length 121 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 23 September 2015
Two films that I’ve seen in the last week have a sort of complementary quality, as they are both films set in the United States at either end of the 1970s and at either edge of the country, charting a marked social decline and dealing broadly with the creeping corruption of deeply-held ideals. Inherent Vice is set in 1970, and is a broadly-comic meandering Los Angeles-based story focused on stoner detective Larry ‘Doc’ Martello (Joaquin Phoenix), while A Most Violent Year has its principled entrepreneur Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) try to grow his business in the New York City of 1981.
I like both very much, though I suspect that aspects of the narrative construction will turn off some viewers. Both can be frustrating, albeit in slightly different ways. J.C. Chandor’s New York-set film is one of underlit interiors and slow-build dramatic tension, as Abel tries to get financing for a property deal that will give his company a platform to grow, while trying to figure out who is sabotaging his attempts. It’s a film with a canny sense of space, largely charting a series of offices and homes where Morales and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) broker deals and balance books. There’s only a small amount of kinetic action: the drama is in the deals, and for a film quite so obsessed with Morales’s company accounts, it generates plenty of tension. Bradford Young’s understated cinematography gains maximum effect from the ever-popular yellowish sepia-toned filters that impart a nostalgic quality (while expertly blocking shots of the city’s skyline to occlude where the Twin Towers would be).
Ostensibly quite different in look and tone, Inherent Vice also builds slowly, but in a more novelistic way (befitting its source text) — a patchwork of characters and motivations that can overload the viewer. Those for whom plot details are important may be turned off by the excess of them, but in that respect it’s not unlike similarly overplotted gumshoe stories as The Big Sleep (1946). The setting and look, not to mention that paranoid West Coast vibe, bring to mind another Chandler point of reference in The Long Goodbye (1973). Cinematographer Robert Elswit has done a terrific job in replicating a lot of that earlier film’s feel, using celluloid stock to gorgeous effect. It’s the visual equivalent of a vinyl record — I’ll stop short of hymning any richer ‘authenticity’ (because I have little truck with those kinds of arguments), but it definitely imparts a quite different feel from the digitally-shot Violent Year.
Right now, I might as well go ahead and admit something controversial amongst critics, which is that I’ve never been much of a fan of auteur Paul Thomas Anderson and his massively overpraised films. Sure they’re well-crafted, but I’ve felt a hollowness of over-eager self-congratulatory intent from The Master and There Will Be Blood in particular; I’ve not hated either, but I’ve stopped short of embracing them. Indeed, at the end of last year, I was all ready to write a bit of anti-PTA clickbait in the run-up to this most recent opus. And yet, well, here we are, and I really liked Inherent Vice. It’s been getting a bit of a kicking from some quarters that feels entirely undeserved. It’s a mood piece, of hippy idealism being quietly subverted by forces of governmental conformism and the unscrupulousness of capitalist property developers. Mental health wellness institutions, massage parlours, office blocks and Aryan thugs are all brought into the picture to complicate the pot-addled simplicity of Doc’s lifestyle, and Phoenix is frequently called upon to express wide-eyed confusion at unfolding developments (not unlike the audience).
Spending time watching Inherent Vice is to immerse oneself in a world, an evocation of this most perplexing of American cities that can stand alongside Chinatown (another film touching on civic corruption). There’s no shortage of cameos for famous actors, but all are in service of the film’s period atmosphere and subtly comic timing. It’s even got me thinking, for the first time ever, that maybe I should reconsider Anderson’s oeuvre.
A Most Violent Year (2014) || Seen at Odeon Haymarket, London, Thursday 29 January 2015 || Director/Writer J. C. Chandor | Cinematographer Bradford Young | Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo | Length 125 minutes
Inherent Vice (2014) || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Thursday 5 February 2015 || Director/Writer Paul Thomas Anderson (based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon) | Cinematographer Robert Elswit | Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newsom | Length 149 minutes