THE PARTY**** May the farce be with you


FINALLY, AFTER SO many pre-pubescent attempts at humor by Hollywood, here’s an intelligent, adult, very theatrical, well-acted and laugh-out loud farce.

The story centres around the small gathering (and it’s certainly no party) that comes together to celebrate the elevation of Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) as a government minister and newly appointed shadow minister of health. And, as you’d expect from any self-respecting farce, there’s a loaded gun, a body and a – very British – knot of infidelities.

From the very beginning, we suspect that things aren’t quite as they seem: Janet, in the kitchen, is politely fending off an avalanche of congratulatory calls (from a phone she keeps in her bra), even as she whispers sweet nothings to her insistent lover. Within, in the living room, sitting slouched, centre-stage on a chair, is her slightly drunk, slightly catatonic husband, Bill (Timothy Spall). Between these poles of the gorgeous, well-appointed cheating wife and the sloppy, seedy-looking drunk husband, flit the guests. And what an odd collection they are: the lesbian lovers expecting triplets (Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer), the leftie best friend (Patricia Clarkson) with her German new-age partner spouting meaningless clichés (Bruno Gatz), and the coke-snorting, gun-toting banker (Cillian Murphy).

As their stories play out things slowly (inevitably) swing out of control. Chaos takes over, the catalyst for which, is a dramatic moment-stopping revelation.

Truth will out.

And with truth comes domestic violence, wild gun-play, burnt volevonts, infidelities unmasked and a near-death.

The cast are at the top of their form, particularly Kristin Scott Thomas who seems to delight in stripping away the sheen of her usual icy cool hauteur for a nastier, more atavistic core. Timothy Spall, whose every twitch speaks volumes, commands the screen, even though the totality of his script couldn’t be more than a paragraph’s worth of words; and Cillian Murphy, his character ever desperate to reassure himself that he’s a “winner”, is pitch perfect as the deranged, sweaty, self-obsessed picture of desperation.

The movie was written and directed by Sally Potter, an artist whose films (“Ginger and Rose”) have been consistently winning plaudits on the Independent Cinema award circuits. Maybe this one will move her up a notch or two of recognition.

It’s a delicate balance, this kind of comedy: the discussions about honesty and love, about democracy and governance; the overall appearance of normalcy and the genuine anger and fear on the part of the guests, all seem almost serious. It’s as though we’ve been invited to a genuine domestic drama, only to realize that we’ve been cleverly conned into a far from serious domestic farce. The clever trick is that everything is turned up just one notch extra (a nice touch at the beginning of the movie is when Bill turns up his record – and it is a record – one touch too high). As the move progresses, Potter turns up the ‘volume’ notch by excruciating notch. But the movie never slips into childish caricature. The characters remain –almost- real people…who have all slipped into a kind of – hilarious – nervous breakdown.

Perhaps it’s just an artist’s subtle sleight of hand. Perhaps this is no mere, lightweight, domestic farce. This is post-Brexit Britain, and the present government’s on-going, increasingly hilarious comedy routine.

A comedy of the absurd.

 

THE PARTY. Written/Dir: Sally Porter. With Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall. Cinematographer: Aleksei Podinov

 

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BLADE RUNNER*** Out of the world


Beware: there may be some minor spoilers within

THIS IS A lush, sensuous piece of cinema. The terrific combination of director Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario”, “Arrival”), cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Sicario”, “Skyfall”), production designer Dennis Gassner (“Spectre”, “Skyfall”) and the brooding menacing score by Hans Zimmer (“Dunkirk”) have brought to life – quite spectacularly – the desolate, ruined, ever raining, garish, neon-lit world of LA in 2049. The figures are often dwarfed, lost in the unnatural light, the foggy mists of this post-apocalypse city where holographic Elvis concerts and sinuous naked women play out to faceless, indifferent passers-by.

The visual impact is stunning, and so seductively engaging that on many occasions, you’re forced to concentrate on what’s being said rather than being distracted by the eerie, melancholic strangeness on the screen.

The story follows the search by LAPD officer, K (Ryan Gosling) for one or maybe two babies that were born (miraculously) thirty five years before. They are potentially the offsprings of a human (maybe)/Android coupling; between the old blade hunter, Rick Dekard (Harrison Ford), whose humanity remains ambiguous, and his replicant lover.

Things have moved on since the days when Rick hunted down replicants gone bad. The newly created replicants, like K (whose name, humanized to Joe by his lover, deliberately mirrors that of Kafka’s alienated Josef K) are more obedient. And Gosling’s slightly bored, almost robotic acting style suits the role to a T.

But, in a world where the real and the unreal are almost the same, things begin to go awry for K after he begins to intuit that one of his childhood memories may well be real, and not just an implant.

Though there’s a boast that the replicants are more human than the humans, their mastermind, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto…replacing the original intention to cast Dave Bowie) bemoans their lack of two essential qualities: a reproductive womb and a soul.

K’s increasingly obsessive search for the babies shatters the myth of his replicant obedience. It makes him a target of the State lead by a ruthlessly badass, and ironically named, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). But it also leads him to Rick, the father of the twins, with whom he bonds.

This outer search is really K’s inner search for his real identity. Is he a replicant created in a factory, or human? And what really does being human mean? Certainly the love he has for Joi, (Ana de Armas) his AI “companion” who can morph from helpmeet to seductress (joy) in a blink of an eye (and with whom, in the body of a human prostitute he has one of cinema’s weirdest couplings) is real.

Can the realness of this love indicate the presence of a soul? Does this simply mean that he is human or that he’s become a replicant with a soul? And if the latter, then the fundamental divide aggressively maintained by the State, between replicants and humans becomes meaningless.

It’s a beautifully and intelligently scripted movie (by Hampton Fancher – “Blade Runner 1982” and Michael Green – “Logan”). No wonder Harrison Ford found it the best script he’d read. This is the kind of movie the Oscar types love: it’s so rich in that irreplaceable big screen, cinema experience and just enough profundity to make the experience ‘meaningful’, that the gaping flaws are overlooked (like “Gravity” and “La La Land”).

Watch this space.

The problem I found with the movie though, is that despite the script’s yearning for depth and the awesomeness of the production design, as a basic whodunnit narrative, there were countless gaps and holes in the storyline. One of the childten for example, is allergic to germs (symbolically allergic to the world she lives in) and holed up in an antiseptic bubble. Who put her there and keeps her there? Why? K flies around in a beaten up old LAPD car that turns into a rocket launching lethal weapon, taking out several other cop cars whose location he seems to have intuited. Huh?

And it was looong. It comes in at just under three hours. Though never boring, there were many moments when I wished they’d simply get on with the story, which often felt self indulgent…a bit too smugly pleased with itself. Joe Walker who has worked with Villeneuve on both “Sicario” and “Arrival” needed to have tightened the editing far more severely.

That said, it’s an enjoyable evolution on Ridley Scott’s initial story. Thank God he, or some canny producer, allowed him to relinquish control to Villeneuve (and not muck it up the way he’s done with the “Alien” franchise)
We’re always grateful for any small blessing.

 

BLADE RUNNER 2049. Dir: Denis Villeneuve. With: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Dave Bautista, Robin Wright. Screenplay: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green based on a story by Phillip K. Dick. Cinematographer: Roger Deakins. Production Designer: Dennis Gassner. Composers: Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer

 

MOTHER! * WTF


THERE MUST BE a perfectly sound, logical explanation for why actors of such talent as Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Badem, not to mention Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris would want to lend their talents and good names to such unspeakable bad, mind foggingly nonsensical gibberish as “Mother!”

And note the exclamation mark please. In the blood red graphics that announce the film, the exclamation becomes a dagger. Oh, murderous punctuation, what monsters hast thou wrought!

They (who remain -creatively – unnamed) are a newly married couple. But not such a happily married one. She’s devoted to him; so much so that she is painstakingly reconstructing his old -haunted- family chateau after a dreadful fire (reconnecting with his past etc); and she sits in trembling awe at his feet (he’s a celebrated poet) as he ponders the blank page in front of him. He loves that she loves him so. For she is no mere wife. She is his muse! a paragon of beauty and lithe eroticism!

But here’s the rub: they’re not shagging! His writer’s block is a sexual one too. It will take the trauma of unannounced strangers (Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris) who appear from nowhere one night, dragging their troubles, their haughty indifference to her and her home, their open carnality and their destructive physical violence, to unleash the ravenous bull in him…ravenous enough to rape her (which she loves of course).

And there’s nothing like a heated rape to open up those creative juices, not to mention impregnate an adoring wife. For creativity can never be constrained. Its fruit, like her child belongs to all. There is a mystical symbiosis between the artist, his art and its devotees.

We know this because thousands of fans, bearing candles, rock-concert style, swarm into his home, make out in various rooms, hold sacred vigils, dance to thumping music, even steal and sacrifice her newborn (Please don’t see this movie if you’re pregnant. OK, please don’t see it anyway), whose flesh they of course eat.

She should of course have known something like this would happen. Certainly if I were in her position, and had seen a bulb fill with blood, witnessed bleeding walls, doors that close of their own accord, hear ghostly thumps in the night, see a beating heart being flushed down the loo, and tried to cover up a bloody suppurating wound in the floorboards, I’d definitely have suspected that something was amiss.

But that’s just me.

As for Ms Lawrence, even “Passengers” does not demand the atonement of “Mother!”. With or without its exclamation!

 

MOTHER! Director/writer: Darren Aronofsky (“Noah”, “Black Swan”). With: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Badem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian Gleeson. Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique (“Cowboys and Aliens”) Production Designer: Philip Messina (“Free State of Jones” “The Hunger Games”)

 

WIND RIVER**** Superb Sheridan


A NATIVE AMERICAN woman runs for her life, bloodied and barefooted through dense snow. She finally succumbs to the cold, the exhaustion, perhaps the fear. So begins this magnificent tale of loss, grief, survival and racism.

The arc of the story follows a sort of whodunnit: Jane Banner, an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen), is sent to investigate the crime. She is clearly out of her depth (signaled by the inappropriateness of her clothes). It’s a reflection of the contempt the FBI (here a stand in for US authorities) have for Native American affairs. From the coroner’s perspective, it looks like a crime (the woman’s been raped), but the death – essentially her lungs bled due to the freezing air- was that of natural causes. This means that agent Banner can’t send for back up (and more experienced assistance). And as she’s counseled by the local tribal police chief, Ben (Graham Greene), “This isn’t a place where you get back up. This is a place where you’re on your own”. She and Ben marshal the forces of the local Indian law enforcement officers and rope in the tracking skills of a local hunter, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner).

And so begins the chase, in whirling ceaseless snow, to track down the killer, or killers.

The tracking, the usual police procedural, the piecing together of clues and witnesses are really just the frame upon which writer/director Taylor Sheridan hangs a much richer meditation on the human spirit’s will to survive even in the face of agonizing loss. And the losses in “Wind River” multiple and echo each other, laddering up from the personal to the tribal. The murder of the woman, Natalie (Kelly Asbille) and the resultant loss to her family seem to parallel a similar loss experienced by Cory and his – now estranged – wife, Wilma (Julia Jones; “Twilight Saga”). Each family faces its own agony and disintegration due to these personal losses, in the same way that the community itself begins to fall apart (drugs, petty crime etc) from the bigger losses of land and self worth.

“They took everything from us” Martin (Gil Birmingham), Natalie’s dad tells Corey, “And all we’re left with is the silence and the snow”. They’re not even left with the bonds of history, as these identity-forming building blocks themselves are slowly beginning to dissolve. There’s a haunting moment when Martin sits alone in the bleak coldness, his face painted in an approximation of “Indian war paint”. Why? What does the pattern he’s painted mean? He doesn’t know. “There’s no one around any more to instruct you about this shit” he tells Corey.

And yet… for the inhabitants of this God-forsaken part of Wyoming, the Wind River Indian Reservation, there’s a real feeling of community.

Nature is as hostile, or at least indifferent to them as the Government. You just have to stoically understand its idiosyncrasies and survive it…with dignity and grace. Not so the other group of people we’re introduced to: a group of White oil men, living in a bunker. If the Indians have been denied the fruits of the bigger society, this group has been freed from its constraints. Like the wild wolves and the sheep-killing lions Corey tracks, they too are a feral pack for whom attractive, Native American women are fair game.
For director Sheridan, “natural causes” and this element of an indifferent, racist White society are the same. Both need to be, at best, outwitted and survived.

The movie ends with a chilling coda: “Statistics are kept for every group of missing people except native American women. Nobody knows how many may be missing.”

Jeremy Renner is as engagingly credible as he always is. He is an empathetic, tender-hearted loner; a man adjusting to his own terrible loss. But he’s also a hunter; a man who can be one with the snowy silences, the blank white absence of color, and ever ready to unleash his hounds of war as needs be. As Jane, Elizabeth Olsen (a genuine talent, lost to the cannibalistic Avengers monster) reminds me of a young Jodie Foster; she’s a Clarice Starling in no man’s land: hesitant, naive and fearful, but resolute and with enough spirit to take on whatever nature and feral man can throw at her.

Cinematographer Ben Richardson (“The Fault in our Stars”, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”) builds layers of white with shadows and blackness to create this distinct, menacing world…so that even in some of the slower moments (the movie starts at a very measured pace), there is a visual sense of danger.

But this is Taylor Sheridan’s minor masterpiece. He wrote and directed it (This is only his second major movie); and is emerging as one of the better, more interesting writers (and now director) around. Before this, he penned the superb “Sicario” and the Oscar nominated “Hell or High Water”. Oh, and just to round off his resume, he’s been acting in movies for the last twenty years.

In development is his next venture as writer/director, “Olympus” about a decorated soldier who may be a god. Can’t wait.

 

WIND RIVER: Director/Writter: Taylor Sheridan. With: Jeremy Renner, Elisabeth Olsen, Julia Jones, Graham Greene. Cinematographer: Ben Richardson. Production Designer: Neil Spisak (“Terminator Genisys”)

 

 

 

AMERICAN MADE*** Cruise in Control


THIS, SURPRISINGLY EXCITING, well-made and absolutely compelling movie comes with an outstanding pedigree: the director is Dough Lyman, the man who introduced us to Jason Bourne; and the exec producer is Brian Glazer, who produces Ron Howard’s movies. Oh, and it stars Tom Cruise. And Cruise is absolutely (surprisingly even) compelling as the cocky, not terribly bright, high flying low life who finds himself way over his head as a drug dealing, gun running CIA operative caught up in the seedy arrangements that the world came to know as the Iran-Contra affair.

Supposedly based on a real story, and the diaries compiled by him, it tells the tale of a hot shot TWA pilot, Barry Seal, who in the 80’s, is caught by the DEA (in the person of Domhall Gleeson from “the Revenant”) smuggling cigars. He’s blackmailed by them to use his talents for the national good: to fly undercover and take photos of covert guerilla and drug activities in Latin America; and he’s so good at this that he’s promoted to being the CIA bag man to Noriega. That ‘harmless’ activity only lasts a short while before Jorge Ochoa and Pablo Escobar and their newly formed Medellin Cartel force him (in exchange for his life) to start flying for them. It’s a good gig: to use CIA aircraft under cover of the CIA while also running drugs (and raking in suitcases of cash) for the cartel.

But this isn’t a case of bad guy (cigar smuggling) turned good guy (working for the CIA) turned bad again (running drugs for the Colombians). The twists and turns get ever more complicated. The good guys turn out to be as morally compromised as the bad. For them the ends (whatever those are) justify the means; and we see the wink and nod acceptance of Seal’s drug dealing along with the pious footage of Nancy Reagan urging the nation to “Just say no”. Talk about moral equivalency.

Through the use of news footage, Liman seems to suggest (very strongly) that the interconnections between the drug barons, the Sandinistas, the Contras, the CIA, Bush, Reagan, Clinton and, of course our out of his depth, but by now fabulously wealthy aviator, are thoroughly interwoven.
It’s just “based on a true story”. But Liman makes a good case that though the Hollywood drama might be ‘mere’ fiction, the bones of the plot are as solid as they are sordid.
If you liked the Netflix series “Narcos”, you’ll love this. Drugs, money, and corruption! (Not much sex. It is after all, Tom Cruise).

Liman (who Matt Damon refused to work with again after “The Bourne Identity”) has worked with Cruise before: in Cruise’s last halfway decent film: “Edge of Tomorrow”. This is clearly a partnership that works for the two of them. He’s managed to capitalize on Cruise’s annoying “look at me, aren’t I cute” smile and make it work for the plot. He’s also managed to neutralize Cruise’s self-conscious over acting. Just as well as Cruise is in every scene. It’s totally his movie, and boy does he carry it. Here is the world’s A list actor, finally earning the accolade.

It’s not a particularly deep movie. Once he’s mapped out the parallel amoralities of the US Government and the cartels, he runs out of (intellectual) road.

But, that said, this is for me the surprise movie of the season

 

AMERICAN MADE: Doug Liman. With: Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Domhall Gleeson. Writer: Gary Spinelli. Cinematographer: César Charlone

 

 

LOGAN LUCKY** Oceans Away from Good


THIS IS A cut-price, cynical, warmed up re-hash of “Oceans Eleven”, without the wit. In its stead is a miscellany of dull, uninteresting characters who entirely fail to convince that they could pull off a heist of such complexity.

The all froth without substance plot, revolves around Jimmy Logan, a good dad and decent man who’s been unfairly laid off by his construction firm (some vague, generally irrelevant back story about the Logan –lack of – luck). So, along with his one-armed brother (apart from a few corny gags, the one armed sthick – the Logan lack of luck?- is just part of that froth) they decide to rob the construction firm. Oops, that would have made too much sense. They decide to steal the takings at the premier NASCAR event of the year.

And to help them do this, they persuade explosive expert, Joe Bang (Daniel Craig as a bleached blond redneck, and the one point of exuberant fun in the movie) to help them. That Bang’s in jail is, for these completely inexperienced crooks, no biggie. They arrange enough of a diversion to sneak him out, execute the heist, and sneak him back in before anyone notices. Bang brings along his two imbecile brothers for the ride. Sounds like it shoulda, coulda been fun.

It isn’t.

“Oceans Eleven” worked because it felt clever; and the glitteringly watchable cast seemed to have the nous, not to mention the charm and the deep pockets to be able to pull off their heist. That movie also has a sparklingly funny script (by George Johnson and four others). “Logan Lucky” has none of these attractions. These numbskulls couldn’t pull off a 711 hold up, far less a sophisticated heist. Soderbergh is so careful to avoid insulting redneck America that he tip-toes around their Three Stooges idiocies as if afraid of being sued. As Jimmy Logan, Channing Tatum is bland and as the brother, Adam Driver is dour throughout. There are a few women in the support cast (Riley Keough of “American Honey” and Katie Homes). But they’re no match for Julia Roberts. Just more fluff. “Logan…” was written by one Rebecca Blunt, who no one has heard of (i.e either some sly inside joke from Soderbergh or someone who, rightly, sought to hide their name).

This is what he came out of retirement for? The money must be running dry.

 

LOGAN LUCKY. Dir: Steve Soderbergh. With Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough. Writer: Rebecca Blunt. Cinematographer: Steven Soderbergh

 

DETROIT***** Outstanding


“DETROIT” THE NEW movie from Katherine Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”, “Zero Dark”) is such a viscerally powerful, emotionally draining movie that you leave the cinema feeling as though you’ve been kicked in the guts. And wanting to fling your griefs in the face of the newly unleashed racist America.
The story is based on interviews and transcripts of a real event, and it traces the burning path of the riots (civil war really) in Detroit in the 60’s, from its ignition to its burnt out end. It zeroes in on the events of one night in the Algiers Motel, when three pumped-up, racist policemen in search of a sniper beat up the (mainly male, mainly black) guests there and murdered three of them.

Without for a moment compromising on the ever-building tension, Bigelow pulls off a wonderful juggling act. Within its simple narrative arc (two young musicians fleeing the riots find themselves in an oasis of safety, dancing and – white – girls, only for the trigger happy – and eventually exonerated – cops to burst in and explode a century of racist rage) she balances three distinct, but interwoven ontologies.

It’s a clever structural device that allows Bigelow to explore what is her central intent: the nature of viewpoint.

The trauma of the murders is bordered by two perspectives. There’s a broad quasi-documentary overview initially using animation to map out the Great Migration during World War 1 and the rise of urban segregation. This is followed by cleverly intercut news footage of the riots with shocking, in your face, street level action: the police brutality, the group anger, the fear, the looting, the burning buildings, the tear gas, the panic and the battalions of army and National Guard troops that storm in, like an invading force.
Almost at the same time, we’re lifted away from these scenes of chaos and violence to be part of another perspective of Detroit: the Detroit of Tamla Mowtown, the Supremes, Martha Reese and the Vandellas and the twirling happy moves of soul music. One band (The Dramatics, still performing), whose shot of fame is wrenched away when a concert is cancelled due to the riots, and in particular two of its members, form the bridge between these two worlds of war and peace. Bigelow focuses in on two band members to unspool her tale of a country adrift, through an intimate snapshot of that night of trauma.

The two young musicians who find themselves in the Algiers Motel are, like young men everywhere, seeking fame, fun and, at the sight of two pretty girls, a night of ‘romance’. Their viewpoint of the riots is that it’s something you need to get as far away from as possible. The cops who smash in the hotel doors are seeking a would-be sniper. From their view, what they see isn’t a group of young guys, but a gang of blacks, who, clearly must be guilty and who needs to be taught a lesson. That there are white women on the scene can only mean one thing: the women are whores (and therefore fit to be slapped around) and the oldest of the men (an ex Air force pilot) must be their pimp.

There’s no presumption of innocence. They quickly assume that torture is the easiest route to “the truth”. But their torture “games” go wrong and result in murder.

War. Torture. Reminding blacks of their place. It’s the American way.

In the centre of this maelstrom is a young security guard, Dismukes (John Boyega channeling Denzell Washington). He tries to be the voice of calm; the one who reaches out to and befriends some of the patrolling National Guard. But, wrong time and wrong place. He’s an unwitting witness to the murders. And, as usual, to the white authorities, that he is black matters more than “the content of his character”. He becomes the scapegoat cover-up for the racist police crimes. This “good” black, who to other blacks is the Uncle Tom black, quickly and conveniently becomes the “suspect” black.

In the court case that follows, the racist policemen are repositioned as merely young enthusiastic officers trying to do a job under trying circumstances. Because all the witnesses (those who were beaten up by the policemen) are all black, they’re presented to a white jury as ex-cons and untrustworthy witnesses; the girls are just loose women who would sleep around with black men.

Bigelow tries hard to avoid open proselytizing and the movie (written and shot pre-Trump) ends on a potentially positive note: that the music with which the movie begun could be the route back to some semblance of healing; that the nasty aggression of the racist cops doesn’t define the city, the country, but may be but one (anomalous?) dimension.

Boyega (Finn in “Star Wars: the Force Awakens”) is the ‘big’ name in the movie. But, as the racist cop, this is Will Poluter’s Oscar-contending, show. Poulter had his big break-out moments as the gay dancing son in “We’re The Millers” and as one of the scumbags in “The Revenant”. As they say in serious literary circles, “This dude can act!”. And, as a GOT fan, it was nice to see Hannah Murray – intimidated, scared, furious, feisty, fearless – as one of the two girls in the motel. Ms. Murray is Gilly, Samwell Tarley’s partner in GOT

I wish this movie had been released a year ago. Then I – we – could all pretend this was Bigelow’s grand, well crafted, Spielbergian recreation of a moment of American history. Sadly this is probably less a piece of history…more a story of a future soon to be realized.

 

DETROIT. Dir: Katherine Bigelow. With: John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Will Poulter. Written by: Mark Boal (“Zero Dark Thirty”, “The Hurt Locker”, “In the Valley of Elah”). Cinematographer: Barry Ackroyd (“Jason Bourne”, “The Big Short”, “Captain Phillips”)