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.

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.

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.

Sully

Soon after “the Miracle on the Hudson” you knew they’d make a film about it. The problem was that the actual action wasn’t long enough for an aeroplane disaster movie. They take off, birds, strike, and within minutes they’re landing on the Hudson. It’s impressive but it’s not a ninety minute movie. Eastwood’s movie overcomes this central dilemma by making the aftermath the central focus. Sully, played in straightforward Hanks mode, is accused of making the wrong decision. The insurance company have simulations to prove it. From here it’s a courtroom drama with plane disaster flashbacks. The film makes itself.

It is, of course, well done – Hanks and Eastwood are a guarantee of a certain level of quality, and throw in the real human drama and this will have been one of the punts movie execs can predict to the dollar what it will return. So, in terms of a Sunday afternoon movie that diverts, I’ve no complaints. It is the attempt to make it something more that rather grates. There is a Schindler’s List style epilogue where we see the survivors and real Sully. There is also a schmaltzy “New York came together” type monologue. That stuff just sounds hollow now, in the Trump days, a naive message of unity that collapses on its first inspection. Feel good is going to have to work a lot harder now.

Anthropoid

This is a worthy war film, recounting the story of the assassination plot on SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the main architect behind the Final Solution, the “Butcher of Prague”. It’s realistic, firmly plotted and well acted, with all the ingredients of an old-fashioned war movie – the noble hero, love in the time of conflict, the coward and pretty straight up Nazis we can all hate (well, I say, all, but no doubt some magazines will run nice features on how well they dress).

What is really at the core of the film however are the moral dilemmas inherent in taking action. Assuming it is right to assassinate Heydrich, is it still worth it when you know someone else will take his place? What is the actual impact of this action? This is complicated when the effect on the lives of those who help the plotters is considered, and those of their families. And then is it still moral to continue when the Nazis threaten to execute 30,000 innocent people?

The film explores these dilemmas carefully, but without detracting from the main action. In so many movies the noble self sacrifice is foregrounded, but this is relatively easy to make. What fascist regimes rely on is the preventative measure of executing others. This is a very efficient technique – with one action it prevents further insurrection, makes cooperation unlikely, and increases mistrust. It shifts the moral dilemma from the oppressor to the resistance, and they are the sort of people who are likely to be bothered by a conscience. That’s why they’re not part of the oppressor’s machinery to start with.

Trump? I didn’t say Trump. Why would you even raise that?

Captain Fantastic

This tale of alternative parenting meets the real world follows on from the previous review. Two heartwarming movies in a row, it’s almost as if the world isn’t a dumpster fire. Matt Ross’s movie has Viggo Mortensen as the father raising his children away from civilisation. They read Jared Diamond, practice self defence and celebrate the birthday of Noam Chomsky. The death of their mother forces them onto a road trip however, and thus an inevitable clash of values with conventional society.

The script is intelligent and sharp, and carefully nuanced. While it could be seen as a straightforward capitalist vs alternative society struggle, the film is keen to portray neither side as wholly evil or virtuous. Mortensen brings the right mix of dictator, and sympathetic father to the role, but it is the children who own the film. They are all charming, believable and marvellous.

It is a movie that all parents will identify with ultimately, the struggles are smaller, less ideological, but we have all fought that battle between the ideals we had of parenting prior to the arrival of children, and the hard reality that follows. To what extent do you tell the truth, impart your own beliefs, bend to the wishes of the wider family and society? We might not give our children the freshly cut heart of a slain animal to eat, but hey, we wrestle with the social subtexts of the Disney channel.

Hell or High Water

Finally another decent movie has come along in 2016. The last film that I would have heartily recommended was Eye in the Sky. This summer has been a bust, so I was thankful for David Mackenzie’s perfectly paced Texan drama. It follows two pairs of men: Chris Pine and brother Ben Foster, who are robbing a series of Texas Midland banks, and Texan Rangers Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham pursuing them. Within both pairs there is dry, sparring humour and a believable basis for a relationship. All four play it perfectly, and the minor characters all add the right level of shade.

The story follows the bank robbers over the barren, post recession Texan landscape. Mackenzie doesn’t over-indulge this setting, although it is masterfully shot, nor does he play it for pure action. It isn’t pure Southern gothic, it’s played fairly straight without stylistic flourishes. It’s as much Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry as it is True Detective. I’m not sure it has that much to say about the human condition – it’s just a beautiful, thick slab of Americana.

Remember

Atom Egoyan’s film was actually a 2015 release but it had a delayed outing in the UK, and I’ve only just come across it, so here it is. The film details Alzheimer’s sufferer Christopher Plummer on a revenge road trip across North America, co-ordinated by his fellow old-homes resident Martin Landau. Both are survivors of Auschwitz, and four individuals have been identified as the possible Nazi commander who killed their families. There is not enough evidence to prosecute, but Landau’s Max assures Plummer’s Zef that he will recognise him.

In my review of Son of Saul I touched upon the dilemma facing Holocaust movies – the demands of the subject are incompatible with the requirements of cinema. Son of Saul tackles this through cinematography, immersing us directly in Auschwitz. Remember addresses it by bowing to the narrative arc of cinema, and satisfying these needs to create an engaging, intelligent and tense road movie. It creates this film effectively first of all, and this allows the layers of further mean to be developed. These include the nature of memory, and our identity. Most significantly, we will soon be in a time when there are no Holocaust survivors left – how we remember, and what we as a society choose to remember is the question this film raises.

It does this deftly, and without a heavy touch. You can watch it as an enjoyable, unusual thriller and be satisfied. Nabakov argued thats “Nothing is more boring or more unfair to the author than starting to read, say, Madame Bovary, with the preconceived notion that is a denunciation of the bourgeoisie…we should study that new world… having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. When this new world has been closely studied, then and only then let us examine its links with other worlds’. The artefact has to stand on its own before we consider the meaning and intentions it raises. Remember does this perfectly.

Miles Ahead

The consensus on Cheadle’s biopic of Miles Davies seems to be Cheadle great, film a bit of a mess. It’s hard not to argue with that assessment. Biopics tend to go for the cradle to grave sweep, or the detailed, representative slice or have a particular theory they want to expound. While Cheadle deliberately (and wisely I think) wanted to avoid the first of these approaches, Miles Ahead doesn’t really replace it with anything else. It could have taken a microcosm approach, (eg using Ashley Kahn’s book on the making of Kind of Blue), but instead interweaves three or four story lines. One of these involves Ewan MacGregor’s Rolling Stone journalist, so the film could have opted for the interview as narrative tool, like End of the Tour. It doesn’t have a particular cinematic interpretation in relation to the music either, as Love and Mercy attempted. There doesn’t seem to be a strong sense of how it wants to approach the subject or the point it wants to make.

But the film is imbued with respect, love and admiration, and with a tighter script Cheadle will be a sympathetic and engaging director. I’m not sure there is a good, coherent Miles Davies biopic waiting to be made. Any such film will always fall short of the music, and the man himself. You’re inevitably left wondering, why don’t I just stick on Sketches of Spain?