American Honey

Like Andrea Arnold’s previous film, the excellent Fish Tank, American Honey centres on the life of a poor, white girl. Her depictions are electrified by authenticity, there is no attempt to create the noble poor, nor to make them victims. Their lives may be grim, but the characters in her films carry vitality and humour with them, because this is the world they inhabit, and will always inhabit, with its cheap thrills and bawdy comedy. In Honey Arnold transposes her depiction of people living on the outskirts of society to the US, with a group of young hustlers travelling from town to town, selling magazine subscriptions. It’s the sort of transient, meaningless task that young, and uneducated are forced into, given the decline in the traditional working class jobs. But her characters are never allowed to indulge in self pity.

Truffaut famously declared British cinema a contradiction in terms, as he felt that Britain was essentially an uncinematic country – too ugly, too brutal, too prosaic. But, like Shane Meadows, Arnold has found a way to render these elements in a cinematic language without suffocating it in style, the way Paul Thomas Anderson does. It may be in America now, but it is this same approach that Arnold adopts in Honey – the camera pulls in tight to the characters, focuses on the everyday and riffs around trivial dialogue.

The price for this authenticity is that it eschews much by the way of narrative. We follow Sasha Lane’s Star as she leaves the confines of her life to team up with the magazine sellers, her possible romance with the charismatic Jake (Shia LeBeouf continuing his career resurrection) and conflicts with the team’s boss, the hard nosed Krystal. The audience only really need 90 minutes of this to get the full measure, and at just under three hours, there’s no real justification for the extra length. Over long films are the bane of modern cinema, get in, tell your story, get out. If you’re expecting me to sit around for anything over two hours, you’d better be David Lean or Coppola, and even then, I’m pretty sure you could cut a couple of scenes.

Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan’s slice of downbeat small town East coast life commences with us following Casey Affleck’s social awkward Lee Chandler. He misjudges interactions with others, fails to make small talk, and when he does react, it is with violence. Like Camus’s L’Etranger he missteps and is unable to make the appropriate social response. Like much else in the movie it doesn’t overplay this portrayal of dissolution to a caricature of a misanthrope. But this is contrasted with Chandler episodes interacting with his wife, children and nephew Patrick, where he is charming and relaxed.

Through this episodic process the cause of Chandler’s transformation from easy going regular guy to aggressive loner is revealed. Simultaneously the demise of Chandler’s brother through heart disease unfolds. This leaves Lee as the guardian of the 16 year old Patrick, but in order to do so he is required to move back to Manchester from Boston. Back to the scene of his tragedy. Patrick sets out his desire to stay in Manchester: “I’m on the hockey team, I have two girlfriends…” whereas Lee has no hooks. This is the essence of the film – what is it in our environment that gives it meaning.

This is no About a Boy, there is no simple redemption and return to normal life for Lee through the unexpected responsibility of looking after his nephew. Several of the usual tropes are teasingly brought in – a possible love interest with the mother of Patrick’s girlfriend, a bonding project over the renovation of a boat, a reconciliation with his ex wife. It is as if Lonergan is taunting us – you think you know exactly how this will unfold from here, but it won’t, because real life isn’t like that.

Ultimately it’s a superior piece of afternoon film melodrama. Lee is like a less hopeful character from an Anne Tyler novel. There is no uplifting ending, just muted, awkward and painful reality.

PS – I’d happily live in Manchester by the sea: hockey, picturesque houses, sea.

Swiss Army Man

This film cropped up on a lot of my friends favourites from 2016, so I belatedly got around to watching it. I get why they liked it, but I loathed it. It’s one of those movies. Plot wise it centres on hopeless castaway Paul Dano discovering the corpse of Daniel Radcliffe. The corpse becomes a tool and a friend as Dano begins his journey back to civilisation. It’s a one gag movie – Harry Potter is dead, but look, he’s got an erection!

I was reminded of my one attempt to write surreal comedy when I was about 14. I think it featured a scene where someone in a jungle comes across a walking dishwasher that shows Coronation Street. I thought it was so off the wall it would wow everyone with my zany connections. I showed it to my elder brother. He read it quickly, didn’t laugh, and passed it back to me with a deadpan expression. “It’s trying too hard,” was his damning, succinct and correct verdict. Watching Dano surf on the permanently flatulent corpse of Radcliffe I became my older brother. Really trying too hard. Some of my friends found meaning and emotion in the redemptive journey, but I’d long lost patience with it by then.

Hacksaw Ridge

Let’s address the Mel thing straight away – I don’t care that another indulged white man went off the rails and is now seeking redemption. His struggle with his demons is just another means of validating his original offences. But there is an argument that all art deserves to be judged independently of its creator. This stance is not as straightforward as it seems – it depends on the nature of the crime, the value of the art and the individual viewer. For instance, the crimes of Lost Prophets singer Ian Watkins are so disturbing that I would imagine it is impossible to listen to their work now (I never did in the first place). But I can watch Chinatown and divorce that from Roman Polanski being a creep, but I would understand if others couldn’t.

So with Gibson the value is with whether the combination of his history and our reaction to it, helps make his work more interesting. There was a sign of this with last year’s Blood Father which played with Gibson’s alcoholic and racist past to establish a bit more depth to the redemption thriller. With Hacksaw Ridge it is less to the fore, but in this tale of the conscientious objector who saves 75 US marines on one night, there are key themes that riff on this combination. A confrontation with the consequences of his violent upbringing, combined with strong religious conviction leads Andrew Garfield’s Desmond Doss to take his principled stance. The build up and violent, realistic war scenes will be familiar enough to viewers of Band of Brothers and The Pacific. It’s hard not to be moved by Doss’s persistence and the finale is suitably moving and ennobling.

But the real interest in the film is pitching this non-violence, alternative take on heroism into the current US political climate. If we think the reaction against Doss’s stance lacks understanding in the 40s, then it would be vitriolic from Trump supporters. If the message we can take from Hacksaw Ridge is that sticking to core values will be recognised in the end, then from education to law, that will resonate with those suffering under the current administration. This is made more intriguing by Gibson being the bearer of the message. And apart from all that, it’s a cracking war film.

Live By Night

I’m a big fan of films set in the prohibition era – the core ingredients should be pretty easy to combine into the perfect cinema experience: stylish cars, col clothes, snappy dialogue, gangsters, femme fatales, double crossing, violence. What’s not to like? But after the classic film noir period, it’s been a mixed bag. In the past 20 years we’ve had the middling Lawless, the boring Public Enemies and the made from off cuts found on the floor Gangster Squad. Only the Coen brothers Millers Crossing has captured the style, complex plotting and panache of the early films.

So into this context comes Ben Affleck’s Live By Night. It boasts many of the elements you’d want – beautiful cinematography, battling gangster factions, and a good smattering of shoot ups. Following the longer narrative arc of the life of Affleck’s reluctant gangster, it’s more Scarface than Maltese Falcon. While he provides a reasonable center Affleck doesn’t have the gravitas to portray the duality of a man pulled into the life, the way Pacino does in Godfather 2, or the menace of someone to be genuinely feared, the way, erm, Pacino did in Scarface.

Live by Night is really an HBO series condensed into a film. It features a number of sub-plots and engaging side characters, such as the Police Chief and his religious daughter, Affleck’s moralistic Irish cop father, and Zoe Saldana’s Cuban political ambitions. But here it suffers by comparison to the imperious Boardwalk Empire which explored the emotional and dramatic landscape so completely that there seems little point in revisiting it. In terms of the cinematic genre of modern prohibition films, Affleck’s outing ranks above Gangster Squad, but below Millers Crossing, which is ok, but not quite what you’d hoped for.

Taxi Driver

In The Comedians Graham Greene wrote that “For writers it is always said that the first twenty years of life contain the whole of experience – the rest is observation”. This is true for film fans also. The films that shape your tastes at the same time as your sense of your own personality is forming are never really supplanted. I might put in some recent films in a list to demonstrate eclectic taste, but truthfully my top three would be Jaws, The Thing – and Taxi Driver. All of which I saw before I was sixteen. This was in the great VHS revolution – we would bunk off school to watch movies, catch favourite scenes at lunchtime, gather round someone’s house to watch a pirate copy.

But I haven’t seen many of the films from that era on the big screen, so tonight’s showing of Taxi Driver at the local multiplex was a rare chance to see Scorsese’s influential film up large. Paul Schrader created a modern take on the existential loner of books such as The Outsider and Nausea in Travis Bickle. It is very much an adolescent, male movie – Bickle is alienated, separated from the world he sees others partaking in easily. The film is essentially him looking for a key to enter that world, and is so often with young men, violence seems to offer the answer. This sense of confusion and isolation has never been better captured than through De Niro’s drawling diary monologues. These could be the thoughts of any high school shooter, terrorist or internet troll.

What was so powerful for me as a teenager was this was the first time I had realised what films could do. That they weren’t just entertainment, that the director shaped what your saw and an actor embodied a role. After this I started looking for other Scorsese movies, then similar directors. It woke me up to what filmmaking was. Seeing it now it’s still an incredibly powerful film – the audience applauded at the end for chrissakes. It’s also morally ambiguous, hard to take at times and open to interpretation. I hadn’t encountered that before, and I rarely encounter it now.

The benefits of seeing it on the big screen include the menacing impression of the taxi prowling the streets, the beautiful Bernard Herrmann score in full stereo sound, an appreciation of just how charming Cybill Shepherd is, and THAT talkin to me scene in its full glory. Schrader has called it a piece of juvenilia and he’s right, it connects more with the confused adolescent in a very different way than it does to the slightly less confused adult. But it’s still a masterpiece and holds up. Given the current damage angry, confused men are doing to the planet, it is worth revisiting.

The Heart of a Dog

Laurie Anderson’s musings on poetry, politics, death and zen buddhism are woven together by reflections on her dog, Lola. I know how that sounds – self indulgent, rambling and oh so Californian. But it all kind of hangs together, with Anderson’s lilting, soothing voice and sketches floating over you until you think, “yeah, I could do yoga daily on the beach”.

I’m a hardcore atheist so Buddhist teachings are not my thing, but I found myself writing down many of her phrases. And maybe crying a bit:

“Animals are like people. They approach death and then back away. And you don’t have the right to take that process away from them”.
“We had learned to love Lola as she had loved us, with a tenderness we didn’t know we had”
“You get your story and you hold on to it, and every time you tell it you forget it more”

The Library Suicides

A Welsh library film! I don’t think there is a list of Welsh Library Films, but this would probably top it. It centres on twins Ana and Nan (both played by Catrin Stewart), daughters of a local writer Elena, who falls to her death. With her last words she whispers “it was Eben.” When the aforementioned Eben arrives at the national library in Aberystwyth where the twins work, to sort through Elena’s material to write her biography, the twins plot revenge.

The film takes place over one night as the story of Eben and Elena unfolds during the twin’s plan. The affable night guard Dan becomes embroiled in the mayhem also. We are repeatedly told than Ana and Nan are palindromes, but in case we missed it, “and Nan” is also an anagram of Dan Ana.

It features some nicely framed shots, but then twins wearing identical clothes, moving in sync is almost cheating cinematically for a structured image. It makes some comments on the nature of identity, memory and the role narrative plays in the construction of the self. Ultimately it’s like a long version of Hinterland, and that’s no bad thing.

2016 film review

Continuing my not-edtech related end of year roundup, as well as trying to read a book a week, I tried to see a new film weekly. This was largely successful, but they weren’t all cinema trips so the film may have been delayed somewhat from release, and I didn’t get around to seeing lots of films I should have (eg Nocturnal Animals).

In general terms, like most years but even more so, this was a crap sandwich, with good stuff at the start and end, but a real mess in the middle. Even the blockbusters were exceptionally awful. Batman vs Superman, Independence Day 2, Suicide Squad – these were like Donald Trump’s toilet, flashy, expensive and full of shit. But if comic book movies continued to be devoid of any value, there were some other genres that fared quite well: horror saw some atmospheric, taut, films with secondary interpretations (The VVitch, Blackcoat’s Daughter, Don’t Breathe, Green Room). Animation began to emerge from Pixar domination, and quirky, whimsical indie movies provided blessed relief (Captain Fantastic, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Sing Street).

Because I’m not adverse to an end of year list, here’s my top ten:

Hateful 8
The VVitch
The Big Short
10 Cloverfield Lane
Eye in the Sky
Son of Saul
Hell or High Water
Captain Fantastic
The Blackcoat’s Daughter
Rogue One

You’ll probably have seen most of these, but the Blackcoat’s Daughter (aka February) may have passed you by. I loved it – moody, brooding horror with an amazing score, it deserves to be better known. A special mention for turkey of the year, the truly, truly, awful Zoolander 2.

Increasingly I found it difficult to watch films in isolation of the context of the rest of 2016. I couldn’t get behind the “the best of New York came together” message of Sully in a year of Trump and Black Lives Matter. I couldn’t pretend Eddie the Eagle represented a version of Britain I could identify with after Brexit. And I couldn’t watch Son of Saul and flatter myself that it could never happen now. Even Rogue One had some people rooting for the Empire. I get the feeling this will be a recurrent theme in 2017.

Rogue One

The summer releases made it apparent that creating blockbusters that are not steaming piles of crap, is strangely difficult for Hollywood. And so it is with a sense of relief almost that we get Rogue One. It’s almost perfect for what it is – an action sci-fi flick with just enough depth. This issue of depth and surface plagues sci-fi and comic book adaptations. The summer pile up of disasters all suffered from wanting to have more depth than their flimsy structures could contain (Batman vs Superman really can’t make us think about the duality of Christ, particularly in the hands of Snyder). Ironically the best (it was a low bar) of the summer films was Star Trek Beyond, which was all surface. This was a shame since Star Trek has a legacy of being able to tackle philosophical issues with a deft touch.

The original Star Wars came at the end of the golden age of sci-fi, when in cinema and literature it made a case not to be seen as a genre, but as the defining mode of engaging with the zeitgeist (the Rogue One poster deliberately harks back to this period and is a thing of beauty). Star Wars itself was the weak one in this charge – it’s simplistic sword and sorcery in space didn’t compare with the headscratching of 2001, or the novels of Brian Aldiss, Asmiov, Frank Herbert, etc. But over the years this balance has served it well. There’s enough detail in the Star Wars universe to give people points of reference and fans to develop theories, but it’s generally about entertainment. Apart from the prequels. It learnt the lesson that comic book adaptations are learning now with those – don’t go thinking you’re Noam Chomsky.

So, on to Rogue One which is sort of Episode 3B. It has a good lead pair in Felicity Jones and Diego Luna, some solid back up characters (particularly the ultra cool Donnie Yen), and even a sardonic robot that manages not to be annoying. It follows a classic narrative – band of misfits on an impossible mission, that we know not many of them will survive. It is more space western than space fantasy. It’s real delights are the hooks into the original episode 4, including a CGI’d Peter Cushing and life on the Death Star scenes (although not in the canteen). When it ends with the opening scenes of A New Hope you almost want to cheer in recognition.

A funny thing happened after A Force Awakens – everyone went to see it, had a good time, and then came home and realised it was just Star Wars redone. They felt cheated, and cynicism set in. But that is to mistake the purpose of the series. The point of Star Wars is the enjoyment of cinema. And that is a difficult thing to realise, and should be cherished.