Slow West (2015)

It’s always nice to see a movie western, even if it’s not shot in the United States, though I am partial to the New Zealand landscape as someone who grew up there. I would say it seems to me to be pretty distinctive as far as landscapes go, but then this is a film shot through with plenty of style (and stylisation). If some of the still-life framings are reminiscent of Jarmusch’s Dead Man (albeit in colour), a lot of the film’s tone comes closer to the deadpan of the Coen brothers, and is freighted with some of their archness as well. The narrative is based around a one-sided romance of one young Scottish lad, Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), for Rose (Caren Pistorius). Rose has left Scotland to go on the run from the law with her father, while Jay pursues her out of love. He is taken in by Silas (Michael Fassbender), who turns out to be a bounty hunter on Rose and her father’s trail. As a film shot in NZ starring Irish, Scottish and Antipodean actors, it’s really strong on that sense of the modern US as a nation of immigrants, though the Native Americans get fairly short shrift (and one overtly comedy sequence of horse rustling gone awry). So even if I don’t wholeheartedly embrace it, there’s enough in the film to suggest interesting work in director John Maclean’s future.

Slow West film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer John Maclean; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Caren Pistorius, Ben Mendelsohn; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 7 July 2015.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Perhaps I’m just getting weary of superhero movies now, but it’s not just me, surely? Days of Future Past, while hardly being terrible (sorry, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), is not the equal even of its immediate predecessor, X-Men: First Class (2011, although I’m setting aside 2013’s The Wolverine). I had hope for Marvel movies after the surprisingly enjoyable Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but that was made by a different studio. By comparison, Days of Future Past just seems lazy and bloated. There’s an end-of-days apocalyptic plotline, including a thin excuse to bring together the different timelines (and their respective actors), but it’s no more compelling than Star Trek: Generations so many years before, another franchise to which Patrick Stewart has lent his considerable actorly gravitas. As with that franchise, here too it’s ultimately the younger generation who are more convincing and enjoyable in their roles, James McAvoy as Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto nicely playing off one another, though Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine remains dependable across both timelines. There’s also an expanded role for Jennifer Lawrence, and it’s just as well she’s such a fine actor as she’s required to express plenty of fairly uninflected rage and caprice. Indeed, if there’s anything I’ll remember about Days of Future Past in years to come, it won’t be the special effects or the big setpieces or the now-canonical protracted final battle sequence, but the sense of so many very talented actors (those named above, along with a smaller role for Peter Dinklage, and poor Anna Paquin all but left on the cutting-room floor) being wasted on over-extended big-budget bloat.

X-Men: Days of Future Past film posterCREDITS
Director Bryan Singer; Writer Simon Kinberg (based on the Uncanny X-Men comic book storyline “Days of Future Past” by Chris Claremont and John Byrne); Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel; Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Thursday 22 May 2014.

Frank (2014)

Frank Sidebottom was a musical alter ego of the late Chris Sievey, who gained some localised renown in England from the 1980s onwards with his massive papier-mâché head and cheerfully nasal song delivery. However, this film, which is co-written by Jon Ronson and based on accounts of his time in Sidebottom’s band, is not about Frank Sidebottom. It just takes the idea and image of that character and grafts it on to a far more thoroughgoing American story, one that trades on the legacy of outsider musicians like Captain Beefheart (the legend of him imprisoning his band to record the seminal Trout Mask Replica album), Roky Erickson and Daniel Johnston (whose mental health issues have been well documented) and perhaps a bit of Jandek (with his laconic public appearances). One needn’t necessarily know the music or stories of any of these artists, but Frank has its own catchy tunes, in amongst the rather more abstract noise, of the in-film (and unpronounceable) band Soronwfbs, led by the eponymous Frank (Michael Fassbender). Ronson’s own alter ego is the lead character Jon (Domhnall Gleason), an entirely annoying, self-interested twerp whose youthful naïveté also allows him to take on the challenge of joining Frank’s band, and whose self-absorption never seems to waver over much of the film’s running time. And yet, Fassbender’s largely masked performance has enough pathos that even when the film has transitioned from being an awkward comedy of Jon’s English manners to something altogether darker and more mysterious as the band slowly come together only to quickly fall apart, the audience is still on board.

Frank film posterCREDITS
Director Lenny Abrahamson; Writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan; Cinematographer James Mather; Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 11 May 2014.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

There have of course been American films that deal with its slave-owning legacy before, but this film directed by black British artist Steve McQueen feels somehow different. Perhaps it’s because previous films have more blatantly pandered to liberal white guilt, with their narratives focusing on those opposed to its practice amongst the nation’s (white) lawmakers — a route taken on several occasions by Steven Spielberg in particular, such as with the long-winded Amistad (1997) or Lincoln (2012). Then there’s Tarantino’s recent (and, shall we say, morally dubious) Django Unchained which pushes its story of slave and master into hyperbolic fantasia. 12 Years is still a story of slavery as a system from which escape is possible — it’s based on a true story and I hope, given the title, you won’t be surprised if I reveal the title character gains his freedom after 12 years — but in its telling illuminates plenty of appalling detail to this once most pervasive of practices.

The title character is one Solomon Northup, a musician living as a free man in New York state, who on a visit to Washington DC is abducted and sent to the south to be sold as a slave by Paul Giamatti’s trader, who off-handedly gives him a new name. Solomon’s first master is the relatively benign William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who works in the logging trade, and gives him a violin to play his music on. When Solomon provokes the ire of one of Cumberbatch’s (white) overseers, he is sold on to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a far more cruel man running a cotton plantation. There’s a brief season where Solomon goes off to a sugar cane plantation, before finally he is able to convince Canadian labourer Bass (played by a positively beatific Brad Pitt) that he is free and to get word to his friends in the north, thereby setting in motion the events that see Solomon released. The outcome of this story, though, is not really the key to the film (not least because the title reveals it), as it was hardly a turning point for the institution of slavery, and it’s that institution the reality of which the film is most at pains to get across.

It does this through the close focus on Solomon and those he works with, particularly the young Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), another slave owned by Epps, for whom, being born into slavery, there is little succour on offer. She does fairly well by her own wits at first, but the limitations of her severely curtailed position soon become clear — Epps’s fondness for Patsey is a source of discontent for his wife (Sarah Paulson), who ensures that Patsey is first in line for Epps’s rage. The film mounts up a series of disturbing punishments — whether the whipping of Patsey, or the attempted lynching of Solomon, who is left uncomfortably hanging by his neck in the mud, a scene which is drawn out to an almost excruciatingly degree.

I think it’s this scene that best shows off McQueen’s style, such as it is. It’s not a self-consciously show-offy directorial style (like that of Tarantino, say), but given the kind of story being told, that’s probably most appropriate. McQueen makes his point in this scene through a subtly shifting point of view over the course of just two sustained and carefully-composed shots. The first is a long take from in front of Solomon as he is cut down from the hanging tree, but only enough for his toes to be able to touch the muddy ground below. Slowly the other slaves start to come out from their huts and resume their work, all the time Solomon in the foreground is struggling to stay alive. It seems unconscionable, even within the context of their situation, but when at length (after a few minutes), McQueen cuts to a reverse view from behind Solomon, it becomes clear that the overseer is pacing watchfully about on the verandah. There are plenty of other scenes like this that make clear the slaves’ powerlessness; none of it is surprising of course, but the film’s tone doesn’t seem hectoring or angry — there’s scarcely any need to manipulate the audience’s feelings beyond merely depicting the circumstances of Solomon’s life. In this respect, the Hans Zimmer score is unusually underplayed, recalling some of the musical textures he explored in The Thin Red Line (1998).

It’s a serious film and, in its way, a beautiful one, though one wonders just what one should take away from it. The obvious fact of slavery’s reprehensibility as an institution is made here, and made well. Solomon may escape, but it’s as painfully clear to him as to us that most others in the situation do not share his circumstances or education, and have no hope for escape, just strategies for mitigating their suffering. Solomon is seen to draw on these during his ordeal, as his initially confident and headstrong demeanour is slowly ground down. However, it’s that very escape promised in the title that makes the film bearable to watch, though no less heartbreaking.

12 Years a Slave film posterCREDITS
Director Steve McQueen; Writer John Ridley (based on the autobiography by Solomon Northup); Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 12 January 2014.

The Counselor (aka The Counsellor, 2013)

Oh dear, where do I start? I went into this film — whose showing was conveniently aligned with a two-hour gap in my schedule, rather than because I specifically sought it out — with low expectations, to which the film was more than equal. I’ve read and enjoyed novels by Cormac McCarthy in the past, as I have watched and enjoyed films by Ridley Scott, though both are known for a certain pared-down muscularity to their work. It’s not simply that I did not connect with this product of their collaboration, because in many respects I admired the filmmaking on show, as found it to be actively offensive.

For a start, I’d call it misogynistic — and when a female character quite literally ends up dumped on a garbage tip, I don’t really know how it can be otherwise — but perhaps gynophobic would be more accurate to its creators’ intentions. Women are arch-manipulators of the men in the story, and it’s Cameron Diaz’s character Malkina who’s at the heart of this theme, using both her animal wiliness (she has a leopard-print design tattooed down her back) and her sexuality to control those around her. Even the suggestion of lesbianism is given in the context of the domination and control of a man. Perhaps a memorable scene on the windscreen of her boyfriend Reiner (Javier Bardem)’s car was going for the kind of self-conscious trashiness of the kind seen in say The Paperboy, but on screen it just comes across as bizarre and a bit hateful. Poor Penélope Cruz doesn’t really stand a chance then as the title character’s fiancée, and gets short shrift in the movie.

The focus then is on Michael Fassbender’s unnamed (legal) counsel to the flamboyant Reiner, with Bardem here, bedecked in colourful shirts and vertiginous hair, making a mid-career bid to become the next Nic Cage it seems. The setting is a textbook Mexican-border lawless Hell-on-Earth racist fantasia of the type that should seem pretty familiar to filmgoers by now, and it’s unsurprising that Fassbender’s Counselor gets in over his head in some shady drug dealings that go violently awry. Fassbender himself has little more to do than rush back and forth fretfully, reacting to what he’s told and what he sees, though he does this perfectly ably. As an actor, his face always seems to conceal a certain hardness of spirit, but here his character quickly sheds any semblance of this, testament perhaps to his chameleon-like acting talent.

If the acting is adequate and Ridley Scott’s visualisation of the story is competent, it’s in McCarthy’s script that much of the film’s weakness lies for me. Characters talk in laconically gnomic phrases suggesting emotional depths but more often laughably banal, at times pushed to ridiculous extremes (Bruno Ganz’s diamond merchant and Rubén Blades’s floridly eloquent gangster boss are particularly grating in this regard). Early on, there’s a lengthy description of a particularly gruesome decapitating contraption whose measured implacability comes to be a metaphor for the way the narrative itself operates over the second half of the film (though unsurprisingly it makes a literal appearance later on) — events unfold with nasty inevitability, and there’s little hope of redemption for anyone.

What we’re left with in The Counselor, then, is a bleak and nasty story of equal-parts calculating and helpless women, trapped men and violent Mexicans. Maybe I’m entirely missing the point and this in fact is Scott’s late-period masterpiece, but I doubt it. The characters are granted no reprieve, and nor is the audience.

The Counsellor film posterCREDITS
Director Ridley Scott; Writer Cormac McCarthy; Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; Starring Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 3 December 2013.