WILDLIFE***** Don’t Miss


THE METICULOUSLY CRAFTED images from Paul Dano’s outstanding debut movie Wildlife (from the book of the same name by Richard Ford) are a combination of Edward Hopper and Life magazine. Like the protagonists of the story, they are images of emptiness, loneliness and desolation.

This is the beginning of the sixties. And once again, the Brinson family (Jerry -Jake Gyllenhaal-, Jeanette -Carrie Mulligan – and Joe – Ed Oxenbould – their fourteen year old son) have moved in search of work. The job Jerry’s managed to land, as an obsequious attendant at a golf club, won’t last long. And once again, he – too proud to ‘allow’ his wife to work, or even for the kind of job he’s prepared to accept – is in need of a job.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. He joins up as part of a crew of equally desperate men, willing to risk their lives for $1.00 and hour, fighting wildfires that are raging somewhere upstate.

She, left to manage on her own, must, like the wildlife threatened by the fires, learn how to adapt or die. Carrie Mulligan (Mudbound, Far From the Madding Crowd) is such an extraordinary actor that really she needs no script to convey her feelings. Her face tells all; every slight hint of emotion is writ large there. And it is a face that slowly changes from one of gaiety and sympathetic support to joylessness and despair. The actor seems to grow increasingly haggard as the story unfolds…as her character tries to find whatever means she can, to retain at least the veneer of middle class “respectability”.

Her innocent, uncomprehending son, Joe, through whose bewildered eyes we see much of the action tries to help out by getting a part time job. He’s a photographer’s assistant…taking the portraits of people eager to strike a pose, a pretence, of happiness. He’s uncomprehending when his mother, decked out in a flashy yellow dress, her “desperation dress”, takes him along to have dinner with the town’s elderly, rich car franchisee, Mr. Miller (Bill Camp: Red Sparrow, The Looming Tower, Molly’s Game)

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

The bigger portrait we’re seeing is of the archetypal nuclear family crumbling before our eyes. Jerry, the father, feeling lessened by his inability to provide flees to face up to his own hell; Jeanette, the mother throws all caution to the wind, shucks off her maternal role and gives in to her circumstances. It is the son, Joe, shorn of parental guidance and responsibility that has to manage somehow.

Dano’s world is the part of America that, unlike Mr. Miller, has somehow been left out of the upwardly mobile post-war boom. They are the people Miller describes with typical capitalist indifference as too incompetent to grow rich. These are the ones fighting their own internal wildfires and learning how best to adapt or die; and perhaps not knowing the difference between the two.

This is a small movie (At times it feels like an adaptation of a play) with a huge emotional footprint. It’s a thoughtful, intellectually rich story, co written by Dano’s accomplished partner, Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks). Gyllenhaal, subtle and outstanding as always, was its co producer. They’re a formidable team. As the lost, nerdy, surprisingly strong son, Ed Oxenbould (The Butterfly Tree) is compelling…un-intimidated by the acting firepower around him.

Wildlife is probably not show-ey enough to get an Oscar nod. But this, along with The Wife and American Animals are among the best of this year.

So far

 

WILDLIFE Dir/writer: Paul Dano (as an actor: 12 Years a Slave. TV: War and Peace). Co-Writer: Zoe Kazan. With: Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp. Production Designer: Akin McKenzie. Cinematographer: Diego Garcia

 

 

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MUDBOUND***** Excellent


This superb movie (Another challenge to Hollywood by Netflix) is an epic, small-scale film (There could be no more than a dozen or so characters) that, confidently, tackles the huge issue of (black) servitude – the legacy of slavery – and the struggle for freedom.

The story centres on two, dirt poor, families – neighbours – in rural Mississippi. One family, the McAllan’s is White and the other, the Jackson’s is Black. After being suckered by a sheister, the McAllan’s find themselves sharing a (symbolic) common plot of mud-drenched farmland with the Jackson’s. It’s a come-down in life. They see the land as a curse. The Jackson’s see it as a blessing. But despite the commonalities of their circumstances – the unforgiving rain, a long shared history, a family structure that almost mirrors each other’s, the daily grind to eek out a living from the land- the divide of race remains a barrier that can never be surmounted.

Even seventy five years after the end of slavery, the master/slave dynamic remains hard wired into the muscle memory; into a sense of identity, bound to a status quo that demands that the Blacks know their place: one of servility and deference. The scenes of rural poverty, of people literally stuck in the mud suggest that the belief of (White) racial superiority is the only thing there is to offer these poor Whites some semblance of self-respect. Without it, there is nothing. Only poverty (and Trump).

The two women in the families, Laura (Carey Mulligan) and Florence (a superb Mary J. Blige) share some sort of recognisably human bond (They’re both also meant to “know their place”): in times of trouble, Laura, herself trapped in a miserable life, depends on the healing hands of Florence. There are moments when human compassion and empathy override the racial relationship that defines their lives, when two people see each other as people, not racial types. But it is Poppy McAllan (Jonathan Banks), an embittered, racist KKK member, whose unrelenting hostility sets the tone.

The problem comes when the two sons, Jamie McAllan (Garret Hedlund) and Ronsell Jackson (Jason Mitchell, so very good in “Detroit”) return from the (2nd World) war. This war of liberation has for them become the theatre of their own personal liberations; their own personal epiphanies. For Jamie, the simple verities of White masters and Black slaves have been shattered by the necessarily shared values of fighting shoulder to shoulder (and by being saved by a Black fighter pilot). For Ronsell, the shock of being regarded as a liberator, as an equal, has so shifted his world-view that the demeaning servility expected of him back home becomes unbearable.

The two men form a bond, a band of brothers in a minor key.

But Jamie, with his not understood PTSS and Ronsell with his uppity ways, are strangers in their own town. And this cannot be permitted. The tradition of racism, so knitted to identity and self worth, must defend itself against the post-war disease of equality. The old ways will never yield to the new (as the KKK do their thing).

But director Dee Rees’ thesis that the individual can transcend his/her history and find fulfilment no matter the odds, leads to an ending that feels shoe-horned onto a gloomier and more honest conclusion.

It’s a minor blemish to a major work.

Apart from the excellence of this movie, there’s something radical and groundbreaking about it: many of the production crew (cinematographer, editor, composer, writer) buck Hollywood tradition: they’re mostly Black and they’re mostly women.

Way to go Netflix

 

MUDBOUND. Dir: Dee Rees. With: Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks, Rob Morgan, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige. Writers: Virgil Williams (Who wrote most of the “24” TV series), and Dee Rees from a book by Hilary Jordan. Cinematographer: Rachel Morrison (“Cake”); Production Designer: David Bomba (“Walk the Line”, “Godless”)

 

SUFFRAGETTE*** Earnest and Well Intentioned


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ABI MORGAN, WHO wrote the screenplay of this earnest, well-intentioned movie, also recently wrote two other earnest, well-intentioned movies: “Maggie” and “The Invisible Woman”.

Like her most recent creation, “Suffragette”, she has to be lauded and encouraged along with director Sarah Gavron (“Brick Lane”), production designer Alice Normington (“Brideshead Revisited”), executive producer Nicky Bower (“Selma”) and the six other female co- producers, set decorator Barbara Herman- Skelding (“The Riot Club”) and all the other women involved in this extraordinary gathering of female talent… in what is a notoriously male industry.

Morgan’s story focuses in on the private life of a hardworking laundry worker, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan). Maud is a wife (to Sonny, performed by Ben Wishaw), a mother and, as expected of her, the caring center of her little happy, if impoverished, family. She is also, legally, a piece of property, and judged by the status quo (men) as being both emotionally and intellectually incapable of earning the right to vote.

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Like most other women at the time, she was aware, if indifferent, to the spreading suffragette movement (when asked why she would want the vote, she struggles to answer…finally admitting that she really doesn’t know). But, caught at the wrong place at the wrong time, she witnesses a scene of thuggish police brutality against a group of women attending a peace rally to hear the movement’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst (a nominally present Meryl Streep…basically lending her imprimatur to the proceedings). Whether she wants to or not, she has become  ‘involved’.

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The movie traces the spread of the movement as it veers from (generally ignored) peaceful protest to increasingly violent urban terrorism through the life of Maud. Her own life morphs from that of abused worker/mother/wife to one of insurrectionist/jailbird/freedom fighter. In the cause of ‘the cause’ she loses her respectability and her family, and gains instead her self-respect and the beginnings of equality for women.

As you’d expect, Carey Mulligan’s performance is nuanced and powerful (as are the performances of all the key actors including a nice turn by Helena Bonham Carter, the great great grand-daughter to Herbert Asquith, the British PM who denied women the vote and an nice understated performance by Brendan Gleeson)

Director Gavron’s movie is engaging and efficient: every scene drives the plot forward; there’s not a wasted moment in the movie. Indeed, it’s a great movie to show to schoolchildren, as a much needed reminder that the vote – so often ignored and taken for granted – was a hard earned right…the result of enormous personal sacrifices and loss.

The problem with it all is that it’s all a bit simplistic.

The idea that drives the action is Pankhurst’s rallying cry to her supporters, “Deeds matter more than words” (though only through words – the news coverage of Emily Davison’s suicide at the Epsom derby- did the movement succeed).

But at a time when this idea applies equally to Isis or Hezbollah or any nutter with a bomb in search of martyrdom, you wonder where the philosophical divide lies that infuses action with its moral dimension; or is morality a sham construct of an entrenched status quo, which at times must be cast aside? We never really get to ‘know’ Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press) as we briefly follow her through the heaving crowds at the derby. But just what turns within the human heart to drive you to suicide (whether by horse or by bomb)? At what point does the shift between the selfish need (“I need a better life”) and the selfless action (“what matters for me matters for all”) become the spark that sets a revolution in play?

Don’t look to “Suffragette” to try to resolve these deeper issues.

I am not trying to rewrite Ms Morgan’s enjoyable, well-intentioned movie. But without any deeper probing, “Deeds matter more than words” is just a trite and shallow cliché. It really should be the beginning of a conversation that a richer movie could have delivered. Instead we’re left with “Suffragette”: enjoyable, well intentioned and, in Hollywood’s macho world, an important step forward.

But in the end, superficial and underwhelming.

INSIDE LLEWIN DAVIS: Better to stay outside


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INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS starts on a dour depressed note and stays there for the next two hours or so. There are no highs or mediums. It’s all low, all the time. The dreariness of the protagonist’s loser life remains unvaryingly and unremittingly bleak.

The movie’s based loosely on the life of folk singer Dave Van Ronk, who, like Llewyn,, also cut an album called “Inside Dave Van Ronk”, but whose career went nowhere after a young, newcomer to the folk scene, Bob Dylan, stole his one hit song and his one chance to fame and glory. Llewyn has no such excuse. The movie covers the last few weeks of his life as a – failed – singer, before he chucks it all in to return to the merchant navy… to merely exist, as he sees it, instead of living.

Llewyn is a man afraid of the past and scared of the future. For him, the past is a singing partner who killed himself (something you’d want to do after seeing this film) and a two-year old child he never even knew he had; the future, where he refuses to sacrifice the potential of royalties for the immediacy of a session fee, looks mightily like his catatonic father. As a result, he lives in a sort of permanent present, drifting from sofa to floor, barely managing to make ends meet. In this life of living only for the now, nothing can ever change – for the better or for the worse – unless he can escape from the fundamental cause of his troubles: himself.

He’s not a bad singer, and indeed, much of the music, written by Oscar-winner T. Bone Burnett and Todd Kasow (“No Country for Old Men”, “August: Osage County”, “The Fifth Estate”), is pretty good. Llewin’s problem is that he’s a prick: a self-absorbed, artist-anguished, selfish asshole. His personality is repellent. Far from getting inside Llewin Davis, his prickliness keeps everyone out.

His one act of selflessness, and a suggestion that there may, someday, be hope for him, is his knee-jerk reaction to look after a cat that’s been inadvertently shut out of a friend’s apartment, just as Llewyn is shut out from friendship. But really, he’s doomed. This is no story where the hero finally sees the light, or where diligence pays off, or where integrity to art is finally rewarded, even posthumously. Rather it’s the story of a man who, even when he’s down, gets (literally) kicked down further. As Jean, his sister, tells him (accurately) “Everything you touch turns to shit, you’re like King Midas’ idiot brother”. It’s the story of a life which goes from worse to worser.

Filmed in a kind of washed out grey (by Oscar nominated Bruno Delbonel), no light is ever allowed to enter into this grim story of a grim life.

The director/writer team of Ethan and Joel Coen have picked up a fair share of awards and nominations for “Inside Llewin Davis” and it’s been solidly praised across the board. The cast is outstanding, with bit-player Oscar Isaac in the lead, jousting with ex-lover Jean (a venomous Cary Mulligan – all sweetness on stage and foul-mouthed sourness off). John Goodman as a record producer, Ronald Turner is a heroin shooting wreck of a man: a vast physical embodiment of failure. The art direction is beautifully honed, with carefully constructed scenes that reek of the early days of Queens and Greenwich Village. “Sex in the City” art director Deborah Jensen helps you smell the curling cigarette smoke in the grey fog of lonely performance venues and The Gaslight Café. And the music, as we’ve noted, is marvelous.

But, despite it all, despite this carefully observed life of this unremittingly unpleasant man, there’s nothing here that’s worth two hours of a viewer’s life. The movie offers no new or interesting insights into any of the threads the story follows: self-belief v selfishness; integrity v commercialism; how we try to fit in to the world around us. It’s as dreary as its hero, as dour as his life.