Carol (2015)

There’s always been plenty for film fans to fetishise about their favourite medium, whether the unstable nitrate stock used in early cinema (I seem to recall David Fincher’s Se7en was initially released on some kind of ‘silver nitrate’-enhanced print), the threading up of 8mm home movie footage, or the epic splendour of 70mm. In this modern digital age, just seeing a film on 35mm celluloid is enough of a treat for plenty of film fans, and the fact that some screenings of Carol have been on this antiquated stock has been enough to get many excited. Resistant as I’ve been to this level of film stock fetishisation, the cinematography of Ed Lachman (who used 16mm cameras when shooting) does come across particularly nicely, and there is a sort of cultish mystique to seeing Carol projected on film stock, though it still works fine on digital too. No, scratch that, it works great, because I’ve seen the film three times already in the last week, and I continue to want to go and see it. I love Carol, certainly more than any other film this year, possibly more than any film this decade.

As for explaining why, it’s not just the film, and it’s not just the period clothes and settings — although those are, it has to be said, fantastic. There’s seldom been so powerful an advertisement for the joys of sipping gin martinis in plush hotel bars, or lighting up a cigarette, for that matter. That grainy film stock really gives a tactility to this evoked world, just as it seems to make it impossibly distant. Director Todd Haynes emphasises this by frequently shooting his actors through glass, often fogged up or dirty, using reflections which fade away into darkness or into the film grain. Carol, more than anything else perhaps, is a seance with something unattainable — whether the texture of the historical past, or the ineffability of rendering something so fragile as love on screen. But in acknowledging this distance, it also heightens the emotion of evoking it.

Still, all this would be for nothing without the performances. Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet does her best to hold herself in check despite a sort of giddiness to her youthful acceptance of the world at times, and you can see those emotions fighting within her, especially evident in that opening scene which the movie at length loops back to. Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird, though, is acting in almost a different world, yet her connection to Therese remains palpable, other characters seeming to fade away in their exchange of glances. Blanchett modulates her voice, giving an almost neutral flatness to some of her line readings, though it’s in her eyes and the curl of her lips that the real heavy lifting is done. And then there’s Sarah Paulson as Carol’s best friend Abby, who surely remains the best supporting actor around. Abby’s exchange with Carol somewhere in the middle of the film — “Tell me you know what you’re doing.” “I don’t. I never have.” — pretty much destroys me every time and feels like the film’s emotional core (that and Carol’s “living against my grain” in the custody hearing).

I’m unequal to telling you all the ways I love this film. I haven’t even really conveyed the story, but it’s fairly straightforward in some ways (two people fall in love). Still, there are moments here that are as rich in magic as any other film I know (although I’ve already seen a number of critics resisting the film’s charms, so I can’t claim these effects are universal). Still, it works for me, and perhaps yes there is a level of fetishisation to it. Maybe I’ll go see it again tonight, or tomorrow, while I can, before it disappears forever, lingering only in distant, impossible memories.

Carol film posterCREDITS
Director Todd Haynes; Writer Phyllis Nagy (based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith); Cinematographer Edward Lachman; Starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central [35mm], London, Monday 30 November 2015; Hackney Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 1 December 2015; and Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 8 December 2015 (so far).

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)

I don’t know how other people write reviews (and I can’t pretend to even follow any particular methodology myself with any consistency), but sometimes I like to skim through what other people have written on sites like Rotten Tomatoes. Not because I want to crib ideas but just to get a sense of whether my fellow critics generally share my feelings about a film I’ve just seen. Well, let’s just say opinion is divided on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, but even amongst those who loved the film, there’s a smug sense that wearily comes across of identifying Malick-by-numbers hushed-voiceover rural Southern “magic hour” poetic lyricism amongst the lovingly-recreated hipster-baiting faux-70s dilapidation.

The thing is, yes, all that stuff is there and even at one remove I can’t pretend I’m above wanting to namecheck it*, but even if you’d only started watching movies this year, you’d still have recognised the style. It’s been over 40 years since Terrence Malick’s Badlands and his characteristic feel has been recreated many times since, not least by David Gordon Green in his first two features (of which his second, 2003’s All the Real Girls, is my personal favourite). Now another David, also on his second feature, has given us his take, and though I should be weary of this by now, yet still I find it captivating.

The film’s way with images and sound — all co-ordinated beautifully, with those images shot in the dying light by Bradford Young — owes far more to the straightforward lyricism of 70s Malick than the impressionistic rush that’s evoked by, say, Upstream Color. Partly that’s the fetishised period setting, but for me it all feels very comforting in a peculiarly cinematic way. The same goes for the plot, which also has that kind of preserved-in-aspic timelessness of archetypal generic cliché. In this case, it’s the couple on the run — whose apparent life of violent crime is hinted at in the most extraordinarily telegraphed way — split apart by the forces of the law, and who are trying to find a way to be together. The enigmatic title, all written out on-screen in wonky hand lettering like the rest of the main credits, seems to hint at this, with its sense of fallen angels harbouring wayward souls.

The plotting is probably the film’s weakness. It may not be quite as simplistic as I’ve presented it, but just as some of the plot points are extremely telegraphed, so can the justifications for what’s going on seem perplexingly opaque. There’s little hint at why a lot of what’s happening is happening except at the most basic emotional level — these are characters who have that airy, idealistic and thoroughly cinematic approach to life, which consists in doing what feels most melodramatically appropriate. But that works for me, for whom (as those who’ve read many of my reviews will be getting a sense) plot is not the key to why I like any given film. The film has an almost tangibly heart-rending pathos throughout that kept me emotionally engaged enough to feel affected by all the smallest gestures and looks from the attractively-lit cast (there feels like there’s lots of those close-ups of faces shot so that only one spot is in focus, says some hairs flickering around the subject’s eyes, while the background shades into hazy obscurity).

The cast does well, too, especially given I’d never really considered myself a fan of any of them prior to this film. Rooney Mara, who did so well as the brittle core of the uneven Side Effects, is again the emotional centre as Ruth, the object of outlaw Bob’s affections. She was his partner in crime but has been spared the force of law, possibly in part due to her at-the-time-unborn girl, while he languishes in jail — well, until he escapes. As Bob Muldoon — possibly the most interesting film character named after a former New Zealand Prime Minister since the game warden in Jurassic Park — Casey Affleck is able to successfully pull off the blend of lovestruck naïveté and criminal wiliness that allows him to escape prison yet unerringly return to precisely the place he’s most likely to be accosted, the small rural Texas town of Meridian where Ruth and her daughter now live. Into this mix comes the local sheriff, Patrick (Ben Foster), whose facial hair and personal style is certainly on-trend (if you happen to live in Brooklyn NYC, or East London). Pleasingly, there’s quite a bit of complexity to Patrick’s character, who is not simply there as a heavy-handed agent of the law, but in fact seems rather sympathetic towards Bob, if rather moreso towards Ruth.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’d quite understand if this film wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but those who have a fondness for the lyricism of sunsets and cornfields, of characters who drift though their lives as if blown by winds across the Texas prairie, of hushed voiceovers and limpid gazes, well this film is probably for them. And sure, those may be clichés but they’re very cinematic ones, and for me at least, very likeable ones.

* Though I personally would avoid using “hipster” as a lazy way of mocking people who are having more fun than you, and think that those who are paid to write film criticism should probably, as they say, check their privilege.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer David Lowery; Cinematographer Bradford Young; Starring Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Thursday 19 September 2013.

Side Effects (2013)

I find this latest (and apparently last) film of Steven Soderbergh to be troubling, but it’s difficult to locate quite how without invoking that ever-present spectre of “spoilers” (I may do it later; I shall warn appropriately). It’s set up as a medical thriller, dealing with the effect that prescription drugs can have on people. The opening shot shows blood on the floor of a swanky apartment, before the film backtracks by three months to introduce our heroine Emily (Rooney Mara) and, after a bit of backstory and a series of personal setbacks, her psychiatrist (Jude Law). This is all firmly set in upper-middle class territory, with cocktail parties on ships, expense accounts, nice clothes, comfortable living situations, the whole deal. Our heroine’s partner (Channing Tatum) is a disgraced former investment broker, recently released from prison. Our heroine has some kind of job in a design firm, while the psychiatrist is having to take extra jobs (including $50k from a pharmaceutical company to help with their drug trials) to make ends meet, what with the Manhattan apartment and a kid and a wife out of work.

My issue with the film isn’t at all with the way it’s all put together, for as you’d expect with a director of Soderbergh’s calibre and experience, it’s an expertly-made thriller, with some lovely shots. Something about all those very shallow focus compositions which pick out the protagonist, isolating her even in crowded scenes — an objective correlative to her emotional state — just seems right for the material. The performances too are all excellent, though perhaps I always resist a little when we’re expected to root for Jude Law as a grounded, likeable central character, and yet he does very well at it.

No, I think my problem is with the way the film spins off once or twice into a slightly different generic trope, and where those twists take the story. And here, predictably, is where there may be spoilers. First off is the way the film halfway through turns away from Emily into a story of a just man (a just man played by Jude Law) having to defend himself against unfair accusations designed to undermine his life and career: this is a kind of twist that’s already familiar from generations of films. But it’s not just that it takes this turn, it’s that it also swiftly moves from implications of shadowy big business machinations (the drugs turn out to be a Hitchcockian ‘MacGuffin’) to just a simple if intricate story of a small handful of characters involved in betrayal and double-crossing, with a dollop of the kind of melodramatic relationship liminality that Lynch played with in Mulholland Dr. (2001) so many years ago, but which is played fairly straight (ahem) here.

This seems to leave the original issues of mental illness and the pharmaceuticals trade that feeds on these, as something of a convenient plot device for a hoary old tale of double-crossing (not unlike how mental illness was used in the recent Silver Linings Playbook as a hook for a romance), rather than something that’s particularly delved into. It’s all very neat window dressing for a very neat and well-made film, undoubtedly entertaining and gripping for most of its length, and if there are disappointments in the denouement, it is at least to the film’s credit that these final twists are wrapped up (all too) neatly with such speedy economy.

Director Steven Soderbergh; Writer Scott Z. Burns; Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Wednesday 13 March 2013.