W.E. (2011)

I think it’s fair to say that W.E., which depicts the love affair between King Edward VIII (or “David” when he wasn’t the king) and Wallis Simpson, got a bit of a critical kicking when it came out. That’s not to say that certain elements of the film aren’t easy to deride — some of the scenes just seem misjudged or laughable (an elderly Wallis dancing for her ailing husband comes to mind), and the camera has a tendency to wander a bit loosely — but I imagine a lot of it comes down to its framing narrative, which uses historical objects as a means to enter the past. This fetishisation of material things is, indeed, an overriding element of the story — objects, clothes, set design, hairstyles and make-up, all of these things are fawned over by the camera and lavishly depicted — though it shouldn’t really come as a surprise given the film’s creator. But that needn’t be a drawback or a criticism — if anything it’s just making explicit the pitfalls of recreating historical events for the screen. In any case, the history is very much nested within a modern story of Wally (Abbie Cornish), who has grown up obsessed by the historical romance, and in communing with their personal effects at a Sotheby’s auction, via flashbacks starring Andrea Riseborough and James D’Arcy as the royal couple, comes to understand that their love affair wasn’t perfect. At the same time, her own marriage is foundering and she is falling for a security guard, Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), hence the “W.E.” of the title refers to both of these couples. The film isn’t perfect, but the actors are all excellent, and moments of absurdity aside, this is on the whole a handsomely-mounted period production.

W.E. film posterCREDITS
Director Madonna; Writers Madonna and Alek Keshishian; Cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski; Starring Andrea Riseborough, Abbie Cornish, James D’Arcy, Oscar Isaac; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at home (streaming), London, Saturday 9 January 2016.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Finally, the review I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for, as undoubtedly you’ve all been hanging back, waiting cautiously about whether to see this film on the basis of my verdict. Well, I can unequivocally state that if you are fond of George Lucas’s original trilogy, then you’ll enjoy this new instalment from the auteur behind Star Trek Into Darkness, whereas if you are at best ambivalent about his franchise’s politically retrogressive and genocidally destructive worldview, then… it’s probably not for you? On the plus side is the welcome focus on three new and diverse young protagonists — Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn, and Oscar Isaac’s Poe. There are some heartwarming reappearances by original cast members, and there are more silly chirruping droids. Plotwise, it feels of a piece with the original film, but the spoiler police are out in force on this one, so I’m not going to go into detail and, frankly, I’m not even sure I could. Suffice to say I laughed at a joke about the Force, and in general there’s a good sense of bonhomie amid the good-vs-evil derring-do.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens film posterCREDITS
Director J.J. Abrams; Writers Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams and Michael Arndt; Cinematographer Dan Mindel; Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Sunday 20 December 2015.

Two Recent Period Films: A Most Violent Year and Inherent Vice (both 2014)

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.

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year

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 film posterA Most Violent Year (2014)
Director/Writer J.C. Chandor; Cinematographer Bradford Young; Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Haymarket, London, Thursday 29 January 2015.

 

 

Inherent Vice film posterInherent Vice (2014)
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.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Thursday 5 February 2015.

Three Recent Films about Dudes: Foxcatcher and Whiplash (both 2014) and Ex Machina (2015)

At a certain level, the title of my post is a provocation, because one of these films is not like the others, for several reasons. But let’s start with what unites them which is, yes, that they are all set almost exclusively in the company of men, whether in the sporting world of wrestling (Foxcatcher), the musical world of jazz drumming (Whiplash) or the not-so-futuristic world of tech geniuses (Ex Machina).

Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher

In Foxcatcher, Steve Carell’s John du Pont is his own worst enemy, and his mentor status is something that his wealth and privilege allow him to buy. In fact, the wrestler brothers who are nominally the central characters in the film (Channing Tatum’s Mark and Mark Ruffalo’s Dave), take an emotional backseat in the narrative to Steve Carell’s performance, though all three actors do fine work. John “call me Eagle, or Golden Eagle” du Pont has lived a life of wealthy solitude, and it’s this which has bred a desperation to fit in that leads to the film’s tragic denouement and (justly) overshadows everything else. The film’s (and Carell’s) triumph is to imbue a sense of bleak empathy with this most outsider of figures, for all the immeasurable harm he inflicts.

Harm is explicitly what teacher Terence Fletcher (played by J. K. Simmons) wants to inflict on his students in Whiplash, for it’s part of his philosophy of achievement, largely derived from an anecdote about Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker that is mentioned several times in the film. For student Andrew (Miles Teller), it’s a philosophy that appeals to him, being so desperate to distinguish himself from his smarter, richer fellow students at the prestigious academy he attends. The film is largely a psychological battle between these two set over a drum kit and suffused with sweat and blood, much of it filmed in extreme, lascivious close-up (or so it feels). The other students and relationships fall quickly into the background, and you’d be forgiven for imagining there were no more important instruments in any musical ensemble than the drums, but that’s because it’s a story of student and teacher played out as psychological warfare.

J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller in Whiplash

Yet, despite their shared testosterone, these first two films are quite different from the third I want to discuss. They may all dwell on pursuits which are stereotypically masculine, but I’d argue that the first two films are interested more in the nature of obsession. They are both about desperate protagonists who want to succeed at all costs. I don’t know if the sort of monomaniacal focus that these films’ protagonists have is something specifically male (it certainly feels like it can be, sometimes), but if the films don’t pass the Bechdel Test, you imagine it’s because in their deeply-warped worlds, no one is talking about anything else but them.

Ex Machina, though, is very much about men. At first, it feels like it might be a boring male-bonding-in-the-wilderness story, as coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is whisked off to a vast, remote estate to hang out with his company’s founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac), an alpha male bearded heavy-drinking tech genius. But Nathan has something up his sleeve, a project he’s been working on: a robot. Specifically, a female robot, Ava (the currently ubiquitous Alicia Vikander). When I left the film, the first thing I googled was “feminist critique” because it pushes obsessively at something disturbing about gender relations, and being a white male geek (of sorts), I can’t really be sure if it’s enacting a story of emancipation from the male gaze, or the opposite. A little bit of both, I suspect, because unquestionably the female form is literally objectified. Limbs, hair and naked skin are effortlessly transferred and reconfigured, and unselfconsciously put on display. One of the women doesn’t even have the power of speech. The film comes on like a version of the story of Adam and Eve, with Ava the ne plus ultra of feminine duplicity, but she’s as much a constructed figure of patriarchal fear as Rosamund Pike’s Amy in Gone Girl, so I suspect the way you react to Ava will be similar. I’d be offended, except that the men in the film are no paragons either, and they end up as they start, trapped by their own objectifying gaze. Whatever fears of artificial intelligence it may stir up, the film’s triumph is reserved for consciousness.

Whatever else you might say about Ex Machina — and I think there’s a lot that could, and no doubt will, be said — it does at least allow for many different readings. Putting it alongside the other two films is just to point up their conventional qualities: well-crafted, certainly; flawlessly acted, definitely. But whatever the weaknesses of science fiction, I can think of few other genres as willing to pose difficult questions, and to make audiences think. All three films take you on a ride, but with Ex Machina the ride continues after the film ends.


Foxcatcher film posterFoxcatcher (2014)
Director Bennett Miller; Writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman; Cinematographer Greig Fraser; Starring Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Odeon West India Quay, London, Sunday 18 January 2015.

 

Whiplash film posterWhiplash (2014)
Director/Writer Damien Chazelle; Cinematographer Sharone Meir; Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Saturday 17 January 2015.

 

 

 

Ex Machina film posterEx Machina (2015)
Director/Writer Alex Garland; Cinematographer Rob Hardy; Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 28 January 2015.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

The thing about Llewyn is, he’s a bit of dick, to put it plainly. Over the course of the film we come to have a little understanding about why this is, and the structure of the film even gives us a little chance to revisit that initial assessment at the end. He’s not a dick like Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street — he’s not hateful at a fundamental level — but he’s a man in need of some social graces. So, starting with a vaguely obnoxious character in an iconic American setting (Greenwich Village in the early-60s), the new Coen brothers movie has crafted a story of quite considerable pathos which has already attracted plenty of impassioned online essays, itself always a good sign.

As you may already know (or have guessed from the setting), this is a story based in the roots of the folk scene in the 1960s that gave us such figures as Bob Dylan, as well as plenty of others who’ve largely faded from view, of whom Llewyn is one (it’s been suggested he’s loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, a figure of that era). There’s a nostalgic glow (well, it’s some form of cultural nostalgia, not one I personally have) that comes from seeing those old LP covers, with their blocky text and frontal shots of a morose singer-songwriter, and the cinematography itself has a similar slightly-faded, soft-focused, battered charm. Llewyn was in a duo but now performs solo at a folk dive hangout, alongside crooning Irish barbershops and earnest Arkansas grandmothers. He has no great success, and his life is a shambles. He’s a connoisseur of people’s couches, and we see him settling into one for the first time, assessing its comfort level. He has a prickly relationship with June (Carey Mulligan), another folk singer who is already partnered up with well-meaning but earnestly dull sweater-wearing Jim (Justin Timberlake). And his label is a joke.

These are just the jumping off points, though. It’s a character study, as the film’s title suggests, and it’s one grounded in failure — I might even go so far as to say this film should take its place in the pantheon of great American films about failure (like the flipside of that far-too-often-evoked theme of ‘the American Dream’). Llewyn is resistant to the idea of everyday life; his folk music isn’t a protest against anything except settling down and working a steady job like his retired dad had in the merchant marines.

The songs aren’t just a period affectation, though. There’s a tremendous amount of generosity towards them, and most are featured in their entirety. The film starts and ends with Llewyn playing, and in between we get to hear a number of others, all presented largely uncut. It’s through the songs, for example, that we get a sense of Llewyn’s relationship with his departed musical partner (“Dink’s Song/Fare Thee Well”, especially when performed in the company of his older middle-class friends — or perhaps patrons, after a fashion, given the way they exhibit him to their learned friends each time he visits). It’s also through the songs he sings that we learn how he sees himself, and about his relationship with his father. Finally, they bring us back to that early-60s milieu: the only protest song we hear in the end is a quaint one addressed to President Kennedy, criticising the space race.

Around the songs is structured a heavily allusive narrative, which loops back in on itself, repeating and slightly reconfiguring some of the events. The story ends where it begins, with an encounter in a darkened alley. There’s the repetition of his living arrangements (couches to couches), and then there’s the cat who accompanies Llewyn on some of his travels, who has escaped from the flat of that middle-class couple where he was crashing at the beginning. It’s been seized upon by those essay writers as an integral element, which helps to elucidate some of what the film is about — although perhaps “elucidate” is the wrong word. Still, it seems freighted with meaning, starting with its peripatetic name: Ulysses, as much bringing to mind the Coen’s earlier film O Brother, Where Art Thou? as any classical allusion. It feels appropriate, then, that John Goodman should return, and the strangeness of the sequence he appears in — accompanying Llewyn in a car journey from New York to Chicago — as well as the singularity of his character feels of a piece with that earlier role as a Cyclops-like Bible salesman.

Indeed this ultimately is a mythical journey, in an almost-equally mythic American setting, that returns ultimately to failure. At least, so it seems for the title character. For the viewer, however, it’s as grand a success as any film the Coen brothers have crafted, and a reminder to doubters like myself that sometimes they can really get things right.

Inside Llewyn Davis film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel; Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 9 February 2014.