American Honey (2016)

It’s a long, meandering journey across parts of America that too few other films have documented, and there’s a lot here that really is beautiful and diverting. To see those boundless roads, those sprawling suburban homes, the strip malls and motels that lie in the interstices, the young people living precariously, dumpster diving, doing rubbish jobs, all to make ends meet. It’s not entirely new exactly — exploring the lives of the young, suburban precariat seems to be something of a niche sub-genre these days — but there’s a genuine energy to Andrea Arnold’s use of non-actors and her beloved Academy ratio to box up an unpalatable society. At some level it’s possible to develop an empathy towards most of the characters — even Shia LaBeouf’s exploitative, slightly creepy boss Jake (and he is definitely on the abusive side at times, for all his charm at others), who himself reports to an even more venal and demanding one (in the form of Krystal, as played by Riley Keough) — not least newcomer Sasha Lane in the central role of Star, who does very well indeed.

And yet, for all that I admired about it (loved even at times, more than in many of Arnold’s films), I can’t say I fell for the film in its entirety. Much of the weakness I think lies in the script. Indeed, I didn’t really believe that the job the characters are doing (selling magazines door to door) still exists, and for me there was a strong sense that issues were being raised along the way that were never really tackled. For example, others have written persuasively (here’s one piece at Fishnet Cinema and here’s another at Gal-Dem, both by women of colour) about Arnold’s deployment of race: Lane is half-black, yet there are no other significant black characters in the film (a crack-addicted mother, and the almost-dreamlike — because so fleeting — encounter with another, black, crew). Much of the music is excellent, but a lot of it comes from a specifically black perspective, and using African-American vernacular which is parroted by Krystal’s crew without any apparent self-awareness (undoubtedly due to their youth; one gets the sense that the music itself may have come from the cast rather than Arnold). Krystal wears a Confederate flag bikini at one point, but her ‘redneck’ status never comes into play at a dramatic level. Moreover, there are no racialised conflicts in the film, though as a strategy Arnold seems in general to be avoiding overt conflict in favour of setting up situations that seem to be going that direction, before defusing them or taking another route. Structurally, the film does this continually: building up an impression for the audience of where it’s going before feinting in another direction. It’s a strength and a weakness, to my mind.

For all the reservations I have, though, as a loose, rambling take on the American journey in quest of an ever-illusory American Dream, it has a compelling quality.

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Andrea Arnold | Cinematographer Robbie Ryan | Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough | Length 163 minutes || Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Wednesday 19 October 2016

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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.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
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

The Angels’ Share (2012)

FILM REVIEW || Seen at friend’s home (DVD), London, Tuesday 10 June 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


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What I like about Ken Loach as a filmmaker is his willingness to engage with groups of society traditionally occluded by narrative fiction, specifically those underprivileged people traditionally referred to as ‘working class’. And it’s not just this, but the way he generally refrains from judgement or talking down, and makes them the full protagonists of their own stories, over which they have control. It’s a rare enough thing in mainstream cinema, and Loach goes even further here by allowing his motley group of Scottish friends (most of whom haven’t been given many opportunities in life and who live in an atmosphere of constant violence) to take on vested interests and succeed on their own terms. It’s working-class wish fulfilment, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that — although it’s really very silly. The thing is, at times it feels like an extended commercial for the Scottish tourist board, and while they might have been wary of taking as our heroes a bunch of somewhat airbrushed Trainspotting rejects (in and out of prison, and trying to go straight), the sweeping Highlands scenery, a bit of the Proclaimers’ music, and the prominence played in the plot by the whisky industry comes straight out of the promotional playbook. We even have to accept that our lead character Robbie (Paul Brannigan), on the apparent basis of only a few drams shared with him by his English boss Harry (John Henshaw) as well as some small sample bottles nicked from a distillery tour, can then distinguish between a Cragganmore and a Glenfarclas. Perhaps it’s just condescending of me to suggest that it would be difficult to tell these two apart so quickly; maybe it’s obvious to anyone who’s had a taste of any whisky. But I’m a sucker for a happy ending, and this film, while cleaving to a lot of the signifiers of the kitchen sink drama, turns out very sweetly in the end.


CREDITS || Director Ken Loach | Writer Paul Laverty | Cinematographer Robbie Ryan | Starring Paul Brannigan, John Henshaw | Length 106 minutes