The Ones Below

Disliking superhero movies as I do, there is a dearth of anything decent up at the cinema, so I’m reviewing this recent release. It’s a British thriller focusing on married couple Kate and Justin, who are expecting their first child. They live in a first floor flat, and a couple, Jon and Theresa, move in below, who are also expecting. We know we’re in for a mix of middle-class tension and psychological horror when we see the overly pristine garden the downstairs, and this is borne out when they host a dinner party. Whereas Kate and Justin put off having a baby and then got pregnant without trying, for Jon and Theresa it has been a long held purpose, only now realised after 7 years.

There are echoes of Rosemary’s Baby and French gore flick Inside in The Ones Below, but it’s a more more subdued, tense affair. Clemence Poesy is particularly engaging as Kate, slowly unravelling with the manipulation of the coldly sinister Theresa, and David Morrissey is convincing in his now familiar creepy, controlling bank exec type. It’s well scripted, every item and scene has purpose, as is revealed in the final denouement. The principle of Checkhov’s gun states that everything should have some contribution to the narrative and writer/director David Farr seems to have really taken this as a mantra.

It dips around two thirds through, we know what the likely outcome will be, and there is a sense that some tropes have to be worked through before we can get there. And it doesn’t quite overcome it’s ‘funded by the BBC’ feel, ironically Farr wrote the Night Manager for TV which had a more cinematic sense than this. But it’s a decent psychological thriller, and both Farr and Poesy are probably destined for bigger things.

Son of Saul

Films about the holocaust face a dilemma – the demands of the subject matter are not necessarily compatible with the semantics of cinema. The subject requires an absolute desire to portray truth, for us to bear witness. But the structure of a two hour movie calls for a narrative arc, dramatic tension, some fudging of the truth for the sake of the story. In addressing this dilemma film-makers are forced to be inventive in their approach. This can involve telling a story around the death camps but not located in them (Schindler’s List), adding a fictional character to be our representative (The Boy is Striped Pyjamas), even attempting (largely unsuccessfully) dark comedy (Life is Beautiful), or the courtroom approach (lots of them).

A cinematic problem of portraying the heart of darkness, life in Auschwitz itself, is that the camp was designed to strip any light and shade from the daily lives of the inmates. The unrelenting grimness of lie there was part of the industrial process designed to strip people of their humanity. Hope, romance, action, drama – all the staples of a movie plot were deliberately removed from the inmate’s experience because these are emotions that make us human, and the aim is to explicitly remove any such hooks. Making a film from this perspective gets to the heart of the dilemma – how to be truthful and yet also make a film that engages. László Nemes’s film doesn’t try to shy away from this central tension. The technique faces it full on by taking the viewer directly into the camp. The camera is rarely two foot from Géza Röhrig’s Saul, often following behind his shoulder. This gives it an immersive game, found footage quality, we are placed directly in the action.

Saul is one of the Sonderkommando, the inmates who worked in the gas chambers and crematoria. Kept apart from the other inmates, the Sonderkommando themselves were executed after a few months and replaced. Saul operates quietly, efficiently, with the bowed head, don’t draw attention to yourself stance that Primo Levi describes in If This Is A Man. The storyline as it is involves a boy who briefly survives the gas chamber, and then dies. Saul believes him to be his son, and wants to give him a proper burial, and not be subject to autopsy. This plot device allows us to follow Saul through different parts of the camp, as he seeks a rabbi and a means of burial.

The plot makes some overtures about the need to find some act of morality in an immoral place. But it is not really the focus of the movie. Intriguingly the focus is the out of focus action. While the camera is locked on the quiet pathos in Saul’s face, the detail is in the bokeh behind him. Blurred figures haul bodies, shoot inmates, strip possessions. It seems to say that even a film that wants to face the subject directly is forced to gaze indirectly.

Eddie the Eagle

British cinema has these based on fact feel-good movies down pat. We probably get the mixture of comedy, pathos and drama better than anyone, they are emotional without being overly schmaltzy and funny without being an unrealistic gag-fest. Pride, Billy Elliot, The Full Monty – working class tales of overcoming the odds, usually against the backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain (in this Thatcher has been a surprising boon for the UK film industry). Eddie the Eagle sits comfortably in this canon – after last year’s excellent turn in Kingsman, Taron Egerton again impresses as Eddie Edwards.

I have mixed feelings about these films. I’m scornful of them beforehand, a bit cynical afterwards, and enjoy them immensely during. I get that additional sense of emotion at altitude, which Mayo and Kermode have dubbed Altitude Adjusted Lachrymosity Syndrome, so when I saw Pride on a recent flight I was an embarrassing blubbing mess. I’m glad I saw this at sea level. While the film handles all the elements deftly and delivers just as you’d want it to, I’m still left unsatisfied. I suspect I may not be a feel-good kinda person. In the end these films remind me of those inspirational quotes people like to pass around on Twitter (“Never give up”, “Failure is the first step to success”, etc) – you get the value of them, and some of them are carefully constructed and inspiring. But you want a bit more depth or shade in your life than a simple slogan. But, hey we live in a world where Donald Trump is a reality, so a film that can make you smile and feel good about fellow humans for a while is no bad thing.

Eye in the Sky

Eye in the Sky is a thriller that uses the Islamic extremism in Kenya as the basis for a taut, almost unbearably tense plot involving drones, local military and UK and US governments in the way the Cold War used to be an effective context. The film’s ability to make us see the reality of such conflicts and understand what ‘collateral damage’ really means in terms of people may gain some attention, but decision making is the real star of the film. In the same way The Martian was really about putting problem solving in a cinematic context, so Eye in the Sky is focused on getting us under the skin of how decisions are made in complicated environments when there is no good decision. MBA students should study this film as a group exercise.

What the film manages to convey is a sense of authenticity across all of the characters. There is no binary here, people may be operating at different places along the Hawks-Doves spectrum, even Mirren’s Hawkish Colonel is has a sense of what she believes to be the most humane decision that we can empathise with.

The last half of the film is effectively an extended adaptation on the moral dilemma: behind one door are 100 people, behind the other is your child. You can only open one door to save those behind it, which do you open? So few films go anywhere near this kind of moral complexity that it makes you realise just how rare this is. Combined with the realistic portrayal of characters throughout the different networks and you wonder why we put up with such cliched and one dimensional depictions in other thrillers. After the MBA students have finished with the film, students studying utilitarianism in moral philosophy should have a go.

If my pitch that this is a cinematic stab at John Stuart Mill hasn’t convinced you that it’s worth a watch, then I offer these two reasons also:
1) It contains the tensest bread buying sequence in cinematic history
2) It features a fitting last performance from Alan Rickman.
3) It is just over 90 minutes long. When Batman vs Superman: Who Gives a Shit and Captain America: There isn’t Really a Conflict both come in around a flabby 2.5 hours, it is refreshing to see you can get this much done in a reasonable time length.

High-Rise

Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s dystopian novel is all about the aesthetic. At the start of many of those found footage movies there is often some cheesy text along the lines of “this footage was found in the basement, and has been edited together to tell the story”. Although it’s not found footage, High-Rise looks like a rediscovered movie, you could imagine a similar opening sequence proclaiming “This movie was found in the vaults of controversial 1970s auteur Claus von Billow. Only now can it be shown.” Wheatley bravely opts to make it as if it had been filmed when the book came out, and he captures this superbly: British Leyland cars, paper, concrete, even an Ollie Reed look-a-like. This is no nostalgia “do you remember Spangles” trip though. Truffaut declared England an uncinematic country, and his verdict is borne out in many British films, but in this (and other Wheatley films) the mundane items take on the aesthetic of the film.

At the start of the film Hiddlestone’s character Robert Laing declares that “He found it difficult to believe they were not living in a future which had already taken place.” That is perhaps the only nod to the meta-narrative the audience must take on, after that it has the confidence not to explain or justify the past version of the future. Hiddlestone is a new resident in the brutalist, concrete, high rise block where “people don’t care what happens two floors above or below them.” You can’t get out of the lift without tripping over an allegory – the allocation of resources, privilege, social mobility, immigration. All these are handled adeptly without being clunky. Even the cinematic cousins of High-Rise seem to be of the era: Abigail’s Party, Rosemary’s Baby, Soylent Green.

But the film lacks any sense of foreboding, even when Hiddlestone meets the powerful Architect (who lives on the to floor, amid bright gardens and horses, in stark contrast to the browns and greys below), there is no real menace. You don’t get the feeling of Laing being pulled into a story that he can’t control, as we saw with such devastating effect in Wheatley’s Kill List. Ultimately it’s a case of aesthetic over narrative, but given the only aesthetic we have in movies currently is “dark superhero’ that is no mean achievement.

These Final Hours


This isn’t a current release (it’s 2013), but it’s my blog so I’ll allow myself the occasional one that I missed at the time.

Set in Australia after a meteor has wiped out Europe and a fire storm is heading their way, it can be viewed as an update of Shute’s On the Beach. In twelve hours everyone will be dead. The film follows shallow James as he leaves one girlfriend to head to an end of the world party with another. Along the way we see how quickly civilisation crumbles with suicide, murder, rape and brutality around every corner. He rescues Rose from two paedophiles and becomes her reluctant protector.

This is a downbeat, low-budget apocalypse movie. There is no last minute rescue mission, no ark or bunker. At the end a leader doesn’t make a stirring speech about how in their final hours humanity showed their finest qualities. Neither does it use the end of the world as a backdrop for philosophical musings between articulate characters. Things go very bad, very quickly for everyone – they do indeed escalate quickly. The attendees at the end of the world party are despicable and unhinged. All the people the pair meet on the road are like characters from Dante, it would be no surprise to come across an Ugolino devouring his children. Yet through all the anarchy and inhumanity we get a well played form of redemption. Without histrionics or sentimentality it manages to be genuinely moving.

This should be shown in a double bill with something like The Day After Tomorrow. Then go to the pub and discuss humanity.

Triple 9

The heist movie is a sub-genre that, like England in a World Cup, continually fails to deliver against even rather modest standards. It should be easy to make a decent heist movie, all I want is the basic elements: getting the gang together, planning the heist, a tense set-piece robbery sequence, the inevitable aftermath. I don’t want originality particularly, just well executed simple set of rules. And yet it is so hard to find a reasonable example of this genre and one is continually left disappointed. It’s akin to trying to get a decent cup of tea in the US – simple one would think, but oh so elusive. There is the embarrassed heist movie that feels being just a straightforward one is beneath it, such as Now You See Me. This is the equivalent of the tea latte – too much going on and just wrong. Then there are the flavours of heist – comedy (Tower Heist), action chase (The Heist), sci-fi (Inception). These are the peppermint, blackcurrant, flavoured teas of the heist world – fine if you like that sort of thing, but not really, you know, the pucker deal. Like coming across any halfway decent cup of tea, any heist movie that is not bad makes you overrate it (The Town).

Triple 9 isn’t really a heist movie. It probably wants to be. It wants to be lots of things – True Detective, Internal Affairs, Heat. It wants to be Heat so bad, it’s painful. It has promise, as it gets the cast mostly right – Ejiofor and Affleck in good leads, plus your favourite characters from your favourite TV shows. It also has Woody Harrelson with some dentures and Kate Winslet borrowing Gary Oldman’s Russian accent from Child 44. It starts ok with a robbery going wrong, which involves some corrupt cops and a link to Russian mafia. But then it never really does anything right. There is no sense of claustrophobia as we build towards the final job which involves killing a cop, no feeling of tension in the investigation of the corrupt police, no air of menace from the Russian overlords. It goes along, some people get shot, there are some overlapping storylines, you don’t really care, then it ends. It’s rather typical of the genre and of tea in America – it’s not served hot enough, too much milk is added and in the end it’s just a weak, disappointing solution.

The Finest Hours

This ‘based on a true story’ tale of a dramatic coast guard rescue in 1952 off Cape Cod is a Disney production. If you didn’t know that, you’d soon discern it . There are heroic men, plucky women, brooding old timers – at times you expect a helpful dog to show up. But it’s lack of modern shading is also its charm. This is not a self-referential, ironic take on dramatic rescue movies. It is a dramatic rescue movie, full stop. It features lots of men shouting things like “isolate the boiler”.
Chris Pine pulls off gawkiness just believably enough, and Affleck is his usual introverted, reliable self. It has decent effects, some Martian like problem solving, and plain old people doing the right thing in face of adversity. It looks great for the most part also, and if a movie so much as mentions Nantucket, it’s okay with me.
It doesn’t always work – the Pops old sea boy character is too cartoonish, as usual some of the CGI lacks weight, many of the at sea scenes have an on set feel, and the characterisation is two dimensional. But it’s enjoyable overall, and if you have dry eyes at the end you’re borderline sociopath. It may not be ground breaking or innovative, but it’s like a pub that only serves beer and pork pie – you may not want it every night, but sometimes it’s just what you want.

Creed

I’ve lost count of the boxing movies I haven’t seen. I didn’t see that Jake Gyllenhaal one, didn’t come close to watching that Mark Wahlberg one, and actively avoided that Russell Crowe one. A typical exchange between bright young things in Hollywood must go something like “you done your boxing film yet?” “Next year” “What plot you got?” “Troubled home life, boxing is his salvation”. Rocky and Raging Bull didn’t invent this genre, but they have a lot to answer for. They represent the two main approaches – boxing as entertainment or boxing as backdrop to troubled life.

Creed doesn’t dodge (duck, weave, cover) any of the usual boxing cliches. But it handles them well. There are several elements of this film that I liked a lot:

  • The relationships between Rocky and Adonis, and between Adonis and Bianca are given the right amount of emotional shade and credibility.
  • The performances of all three leads are believable and edge away from the desperate need to be street tough that seems to draw so many actors to boxing movies.
  • There are some nice cinematic flourishes – the entrance into the ring of the big fight and the recreation of the running scene with motorbikes are memorable and tread the line between rousing melodrama and cliche expertly.
  • The opponent, Ricky Conlan is a Scouser. The fight takes place in Goodison Park. This is so down to earth, a deliberate alternative to the Drago type cartoon fighters from previous Rocky movies.
  • The music motif. The old Rocky tune is repeated as subtle background music, and gradually given further prominence. The recognition of an old friend it drags some of the emotional appeal the audience might hold for the early Rocky movies while maintaining the independence of this film in its own right.

But ultimately it is a boxing film. The narrative arc of such films is always in plain sight – the hungry outsider, tribulations in training, the fight denoument. Sometimes they win the final fight, often they lose, but by losing, you know, really win in the whole boxing as metaphor for manly struggle thing. In the Rocky-Raging Bull dichotomy, Creed comes down more on the entertainment side, which is actually refreshing to see, but it also has enough substance to it that you care enough about the person getting punched several hundred times. Like Adonis Creed himself struggling to demonstrate he is both worthy of the legacy he carries and an individual in his own right, the film Creed stands well on its own. It might even be the best of the bunch. But just as Adonis is told he is creating his own legacy, I guess that means we are in for Creed 2, 3, 4. Son of Drago may yet make an appearance.

Spotlight

The cinemas this time of year are populated by Oscar candidate films. I am largely ambivalent about this, an Oscar winning film rarely makes it onto my shortlist at the end of the year, and I have come to the stage in my life where I really don’t care if people have won, or not won, awards, I’m comfortable enough with my own assessment of a film. But one useful function of the Oscars is that they facilitate films like Spotlight (a downside is that they also validate crap like The Help). My guess is the exchange at the film studio goes something like this:

A film about the child abuse scandal in the church?
Yeah, it’s something Hollywood _should_ address, but who’s going to want to see that?
If we get the right people on board, it’s got Oscar potential…
Ok, I’m in

And they’re right, this is the sort of topic Hollywood should address. You sense there is a list of “Topics we should make films about but which won’t get big audiences” pinned up in every studio. Alzheimers? We did Still Alice, tick it off. And the abuse, cover up and damage caused by the Catholic church comes under this category, as did the market crash of 2008. Whereas the Big Short could address that topic in a quirky, stylistic manner, the sensitivity of this topic demands a more respectful, straightforward account. Approaching it from the perspective of the investigative journalists is ideal for this. It provides a familiar cinematic trope, the outsider team battling to uncover a conspiracy, while allowing scope to convey just how the abusers used their power, and the damage it caused to the victims.

It’s a fine film, restrained, solid performances that don’t attempt to hijack the story, and the right degree of narrative arc to make it engaging. As others have commented, it’s really a tale about the role of of investigative journalism, and in some ways a plea to maintain this in the Buzzfeed world. But that implies that the subject of the investigation could almost be anything, but the subject is the story here, investigative journalism is just the proxy by which we can construct a film around it.

There are topics that Hollywood should make films about. The Oscars help these films get made. Usually they are self congratulatory or cliched, but Spotlight gets the balance right.