Passengers (2016)

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Dir: Morten Tyldum

Starr: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen

Viewed: Cineworld Renfrew St, Glasgow (Screen 10)

NOTE: This review goes into some detail about the film’s plot. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first, even if the main point of my review is to state just how much of a failure Passengers is.

“These are not robot questions.”

(Arthur draws attention to precisely what kind of questions Jim is asking)

 

“Do you trust me?”

(Jim asks Aurora before there first space jump, to which she should answer, no, no, and NO again)

 

For the few people out there that have always thought a modern day remake of the indentured servitude melodrama Rachel and the Stranger (1948) would work particularly well in space, then Jon Spaihts’ is about to disappoint you too. Passengers is a miserable mess of a film that manages to somehow sabotage a potentially interesting idea, not once, but twice. What is in effect a three-hander with plenty of scope for creepy psychological thrills and claustrophobic intensity, has all its dangerous edges smoothed away at the point of casting Chris Pratt as Jim Preston. Pratt’s amiable, affectless modern masculinity is predicated upon his near complete lack of sexual threat. He’s big, but he’s goofy; good looking and wise-cracking, but with a constant undercurrent of niceness. Inexplicably screenwriter Jon Spaihts gives the audience a fantastic location (the self-sufficient spaceship Avalon) and a disturbing central premise (what would you get up to if you knew you were the only conscious person among 5,000 unconscious interplanetary colonists?), but then chooses to focus upon an absurdly-realised romance and an utterly fudged action ending. For the record, Preston’s unravelling loneliness does not excuse his ‘act of killing’, and the obsessive way in which he controls and manipulates Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora, is anything but ‘romantic’, unless your idea of ‘romance’ has a 15th century flavour about it. Lawrence is, by a long way, the best thing about this film, but I wonder just what kind of film she thought she was signing up for?

 

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Love is in the air? Or is that a psychopathic stare of intent? For large parts of the film Jim (Chris Pratt) is watching Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence. This voyeuristic tendency creeps into other areas of the film when the director frames Lawrence, so that her body is little more than an object to be gazed upon.

 

Spaihts’ script would have done well to heed the promotional tagline of the first entry in a franchise that he wrote the last instalment of, namely Alien (1978) and “In space no one can hear you scream”.  Prometheus’s (2012) woeful plotting was partly the fault of Spaihts (who co-wrote it with Damon Lindelof). Horror film critic Kim Newman has written about the overlaps, in terms of technology, between the universe of Passengers and Prometheus, hinting at a possible franchise linkage, which may go some of the way to explaining the incongruous nature of Andy Garcia’s brief appearance. But what do I mean by that tagline? In Alien there was a crew, progressively picked off one by one by the titular alien, until only Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley was left to defeat the creature. This was a monster movie in space, that toyed with the emerging aesthetics of the slasher genre, and made much from the dark industrial nature of the spacecraft Nostromo. Passengers, by comparison, takes place on the brightly lit and hyper-consumerist Avalon, featuring a bar straight out of The Shining (1980), manned by an android, or is he a robot as even it seems confused about this issue of identity. This android/robot, named Arthur and played by Michael Sheen, is Jim’s only company, when he is woken from his 120-year hibernation by a freak asteroid strike. Jim was supposed to have emerged from his cryo-stasis, along with the other colonists, 4 months before landing on the far away colony of Homestead II. Instead, he finds himself awake 90 years ahead of schedule, with no means of getting himself back into cryo-stasis. The rapid deterioration of Jim’s mental wellbeing brings out a monstrous id, that should have formed the central component of a perversely disturbing psychological thriller in space, but Spaihts script chooses to evaporate this sense of dread and obsessive threat, by instead focusing on Preston’s recovery once he has woken/murdered Aurora’s potential Manic Pixie Dream Girl. As Aurora discovers that tagline to Alien is all too true.

Frustratingly, the script puts enough meat on Lawrence’s role as Aurora to further emphasise just what could have been achieved if the writer, and most likely the studio behind this film, had opted to focus on the horror and thriller elements of the plot, rather than the romance and action elements. There is a revenge film in there somewhere, with Lawrence’s Aurora as the central protagonist and heroine. Aurora may start out like a MPDG, helping Jim rediscover his mojo and get rid of his Robinson Crusoe beard, but Lawrence is too smart an actress to be hemmed in by a reductive modern female archetype. Long before Arthur has spilled the beans about the precise reasons as to why Aurora finds herself stranded in space and time with Jim, we can see that the character is self-possessed in a way that never occurs in the purely reactive natures of MPDGs. It is a further failure of Spaihts’ script that once Aurora is fully apprised of what Jim has done to her and reacted with the kind of vengeful rage that is always interesting in film, it simply lets this wrathful fury dissipate into forgiveness, just in time for the plot to intervene and force the couple to co-operate with one another. It is all shockingly wasteful, as the queasy nature of their relationship, and the perversity of Jim’s initial fixation are buried under a welter of chauvinistic alpha male action posturing and cod Christian symbolism.

 

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After the revelation of why Aurora is actually with Jim, Lawrence really comes into her own, whilst Pratt is left floundering in a role that would have been better suited to someone like Michael Shannon.

 

A quick test of just how conservative and patriarchal the gender politics and ‘romantic’ notions of the film are can be carried out by examining more closely the two male relationships in the film. Firstly, you have Jim’s relationship with Arthur the android/robot (this confusion of identity augurs in other vagaries). Jim never goes beyond the formal with Arthur, refusing to enter in to a strong sense of camaraderie, or its modern equivalent ‘bro-ness’, partly because Arthur is unabashedly British and ‘proper’ in his speech, but also, perhaps, because Arthur isn’t in fact a man and his eunuch physicality underscores this emasculation. By comparison, when Laurence Fishburne’s Gus Mancuso (one of the managerial elite of the Avalon) is woken up from his cryo-stasis, we see Jim immediately enter in to an easy manly bond with him. Unlike Arthur, Gus also has eyes for Aurora, and Jim can relate to this. Gus’ companionship acts as a restorative of Jim’s machismo by enabling Jim to re-enter the casual chauvinisms of normalised masculinity. Mancuso also serves as just another means by which the script frustratingly converts the intensely voyeuristic and obsessive fixation that Jim has with Aurora into behaviour that is inherently masculine, rather than disturbing and ‘weird’. Even in normalising Jim’s behaviour as something central to a sense of male ego, there could have still been potential to demonstrate how this is perniciously predicated upon ideas of dominance, invasiveness and objectification. However, the little inserts of Aurora’s home video footage from a leaving party prior to her boarding the Avalon, show her female friends affirming a central romantic tenet of the film, that true happiness can only be found in a heterosexual relationship with a good, strong man. Does a man who holds you captive until you submit to his idea of romance count as a good, strong man I wonder? Once again, the echoes of Rachel and the Stranger sound out through galactic wagon train of the Avalon.       

Director Morten Tyldum (Headunters, The Imitation Game) was very clearly a hack for hire, going through the motions of Spaihts’ torturous script. That said there are elements of the film that are well handled. The production design on the film is immaculate, with the Avalon being a supra-plastic consumerist space patterned on shopping mall complexes like Westfield’s in Stratford, London. It is telling that the operations quarters of the Avalon are out-of-bounds to our passengers, with only the consumer-driven sections of the ship at their disposal. Like good modern citizens Jim and Aurora should simply occupy themselves with consumerist activity, and not waste time thinking about who, or what, is in charge of providing this life they lead. Columbia, the studio behind the film, are owned by Sony, which might explain a blatant bit of product placement in situ, when Jim has a little PlayStation inspired dance-off. One moment of brilliantly original effects work occurs when Aurora takes a swim in the starlit swimming pool, just as the gravity drive kicks out. This unique action sequence proves so effective because it again incorporates the dread aspects of those smoothly consumerist spacecraft veneers. Life is very much under the regulation of computer operating systems, squirreled away behind the panelling. By far the weakest element of the entire film is Thomas Newman’s ponderous and plodding soundtrack that could be Muzak, if it weren’t so tiresomely omnipresent. In a film built of fleeting moments of intrigue salvaged from a morass of poorly executed ideas, I still think that the one point where another, better film becomes visible is that moment when Aurora bursts into Jim’s bedroom and beats him senseless, before threatening to bludgeon him. The fact that this happens exactly halfway through the film, and serves as the last point at which the film shows any interest in the darker aspects of its central relationship, should give you a sense of just how far Tyldum and Spaihts let the whole thing drift.

 

Rating: 3.5/10

La La Land (2016)

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Dir: Damien Chazelle

Starr: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Legend

Viewed: Cameo, Edinburgh (Screen 1)

La La Land (2016) is a suitably self-absorbed love-letter to the grand artifice of the Hollywood ‘dream factory’ and the sprawling cityscape that houses it. That city, Los Angeles, has become so intertwined with one of its most successful industries that for the dreamers and fantasists seeking fame and fortune in film, its projections of Hollywood ‘unreality’ can make an experience of its urban ‘reality’ dispiriting at best. For a geographic location that has produced so much filmed entertainment, it has only a very slender film presence of its own. We know an L.A. beyond the film sets and studio backlots exists, but how little interest that L.A. seems to hold for Hollywood. In Damien Chazelle’s first directorial feature since his breakthrough movie Whiplash (2014) the dream of Hollywood glitz and glamour, and the undimmed belief in its artifice, is allowed to dance lightly across the city’s cinematic landmarks, never once taking the trouble to look behind the scenery and set decoration. It is purest fantasy, exuberant escapism and pleasant romance, all rolled up into one neatly formal musical package. Yet how much of the impact of Chazelle’s film is to do with the choice of detailing on its wrapping paper?

Essentially La La Land is a boy meets girl story. The boy in question is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) a struggling jazz pianist, who dreams of owning his own jazz club, but has to make do with playing Christmas fare to the grazing hoards at a ridiculous tapas bar, managed by Bill (a brief cameo from J.K. Simmons, who was taken to an Oscar win by Chazelle in Whiplash). The girl is the budding starlet Mia (Emma Stone), who routinely suffers the tortures and indignities of the Hollywood auditioning and casting processes, but imagines herself one day in the august company of Hepburn or Bergman. Dreams of creativity are what unite these two characters, who have come to the city to try and realise those dreams, but are beginning to believe they will have to settle and compromise. Chazelle’s film is another entry in Hollywood’s long line of features that extol the virtue of never giving up on your dream. But what if your dreams of creativity stand opposed to your happiness as a couple?

 

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Among the various subtly encoded moments of nostalgia, both for film and music, within La La Land the use of the famous Rialto Theatre as a site for Mia and Sebastian to go see Rebel Without a Cause, works as a particularly elegiac take on cinemagoing in the 21st century, as this venerable L.A. institution closed its doors for good in 2007.

 

Much has been made of Chazelle’s wide-ranging cine-literacy, as well as his own background as a jazz drummer. Mark Cousins, particularly, waxed lyrical in his February 2017 Sight and Sound column, entitled ’17 for ‘17’, about Chazelle’s acknowledgement of Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), Djibril Diop Mambety’s Touki Bouki (1973) and Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (1999) as among the filmmaker’s favourite musicals (“I could have kissed his feet. If people making big films are watching movies like those, and thinking about cinema like that, then the cinephile religion is safe.”). La La Land is undoubtedly the work of a student of film, a cinephile with meticulously maintained crib sheets and lists: a little Casablanca (1942) here, some Hair (1979) there, a dash of the panache of An American in Paris (1951) wed to the dilution of relationship dissolution in New York, New York (1977) – more of which later. Chazelle even explicitly foregrounds this defining magpie trope by making the Griffiths Observatory, as seen in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), a key returning location within his own film.

In its studied awareness of genre the film also justifies a self-reflexive approach to the musical, whilst simultaneously attempting to unsuccessfully head off accusations of a nostalgic harking back to a ‘golden age’. The film makes ideas of creative traditions vs creative innovations a bone of contention between Sebastian and his more successful musician friend Keith (played by actual musician John Legend, whose executive producer credit may explain the rather cynical placement of his musical output as a key element of the narrative). Sebastian’s embrace of ‘pure’ jazz is primarily a result of that musical form’s prizing of variation and improvisation. Thus, the jazz traditionalist is contradictorily a rebel, aware of their musical lineage, but never looking to play a song the same way twice. This could, and does, serve as an extended metaphor for what Chazelle is doing with the musical.

 

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Chazelle’s major set-pieces are more concerned with the careful choreography of camera movement, than interestingly choreographed dance routines, which leaves many shots in the film looking more than a little flat.

 

Visually the film is playing an extended riff on the title’s ideas of fantasy, delusion and self-absorption. This leads Chazelle and his DOP, Linus Sandgren, to pursue an approach to shot design that utterly privileges the lead performances of Gosling and Stone. Opening the film with a freeway-situated show-stopper seems like a bold formal innovation, but it is most noteworthy for the flatness with which it deploys Sandgren’s free-roaming camerawork. The dynamism of this sequence is more to do with the choreography of the camera’s movements, snapping on to action as it cuts into and across its visual field, rather than the choreography of the dance routines. Despite a mass array of performers, the equal of a Busby Berkley film, Chazelle doesn’t really locate any narratorial points of interest within the routines, until introducing his leads at the very end of the opening sequence. In this regard the opening routine has more in common with a music video or advert than it does with other musicals, it is unintegrated spectacle. That said it does manage to efficiently evoke the transition from film dramatic space to film fantastical space, the frustrating mundanity of a grid-locked freeway suddenly gives way to the joyous zeal of song and dance. Throughout the rest of the film this undefined fantastical space of the opening routine becomes the very tightly defined dream space of Mia and Sebastian, and their blossoming relationship.

When it comes to the central couple there is undoubtedly some chemistry between Stone and Gosling, which plays out particularly effectively in moments of visual comedy, such as the Chaplinesque intro to their first dance, or the way in which the couple initially, quite literally, bump into one another. Chazelle has taken the unusual approach of showcasing the dance steps and songbird skills of two actors whose range is fairly limited in both regards. I felt it actually gave the film a slightly endearing quality to see the two central performers work their way, very consciously, through a limited repertoire and range. Each star has their spotlight moment where they alone sing their hearts out, and as long as things remain at a surface level, in keeping with the Hollywood fantasia that Chazelle has crafted for them, then this love affair is quite adorable. However, deficiencies emerge when Chazelle’s ‘Fall’ section rolls upon us – the film is structured around the four seasons. There is a very deliberate swerve into heavier dramatic terrain within this section. The relationship is on the ropes, as both characters begin to pursue their creative dreams and ambitions with that little bit more vigour.

 

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The film shrinks out of the  bright sunlit L.A. days and moonlit L.A. nights in its ‘Fall’ section, where dimly lit interiors and moody colours predominate. Emma Stone carries this section, as Gosling fails to dig beneath the surface charm. 

 

An impromptu romantic dinner reveals the first cracks in the relationship, and also demonstrates Chazelle’s heavy debt to Scorsese’s high-intensity musical New York, New York. Although never anywhere near the seething, hateful, horrendously aggrieved mess of that film’s deteriorating central relationship, the emergence of a dramatic underscore in this film’s hitherto light and frothy confections, feels awkwardly conceived of, at best. A substantial part of the blame must be shouldered by Gosling in this regard. Despite having learned jazz piano to lend authenticity to his music renditions – thus freeing up Chazelle to pursue much longer takes – Gosling’s performance is too monotone. Whereas Stone is an able comic performer who really brings aching depths to her dawning realisation that the couple can only really have their relationship or creative fulfilment, Gosling is all surface charm and pained superficiality, not a lot else. The disparity between performances is most pronounced in those rare domestic drama scenes in the Fall section. Stone gives a nuanced rendering of hurt, betrayal and disappointment, as ‘reality’ puts a pin prick in La La Land, but Gosling cannot or will not match her, looking somewhere between bored and constipated, with occasional voluble outbursts of frantic activity. Gosling’s character is never really seen to elude the fantastical delusions of La La Land, which may well be Chazelle’s point, but all that this does is make the film seem queasily unbalanced at its weightiest moments. A part of me sees this as a directorial decision, particularly as the sudden flip into more affected handheld camerawork occurs at precisely this point. But if this is the case, I also find myself asking why?

The instantly forgettable nature of the song lyrics is another harder cross to bear for a musical. With perhaps the sole exception of ‘City Stars’, sung by Gosling during the couple’s first dance dalliance, so many of the songs in La La Land have highly hummable tunes, but little memorable in the words department. When thinking about some of the most entertaining musicals from years gone by, the frantic wordplay of ‘Moses Supposes’ and the title song from ‘Guys and Dolls’ would be examples of just how rich and inventive the lyric sheet was in films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Guys and Dolls (1955). La La Land does not fare well by comparison, robbing the film of a crucial component of storytelling within the genre. It attempts to make up for this through a fond sense of familiarity with such films. But how to pay homage to classic Hollywood musicals when your choreography is a little pedestrian and your songs predominately unaffecting?

 

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The review cannot end without some mention of the always fantastic Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays Sebastian’s older sister Laura. Much like Laura Linney in Nocturnal Animals (2016), DeWitt’s brief five minute cameo is close to a film stealer.

 

The climax to La La Land is one way, perhaps. A fantastic narrative loop is pursued in the final scene which works up, rather expertly, an emotional crescendo to a film that otherwise didn’t seem to have such a high point in it. Reprising the opening number of the film as a means of taking the narrative all the way back to Mia and Sebastian’s first brief encounter upon the freeway, Chazelle accelerates through a ‘what might have been’ dream within a dream, that is not only the most arresting piece of extended mobile camerawork in the entire film, but also manages to draw attention to an innovative aspect of the film itself. The scenes that have comprised the bulk of the film’s running time are shown to chronicle the overwhelming absences within the relationship. In the five minute reworking those absences are reversed and thus become staging posts on the way to Mia and Sebastian realising both their creative aspirations and the dream of a perfect future together. The fantastical film we have thus far sat through, is thus revised as a dream laid upon a fantasy, which manages to make the latter seem somehow less escapist and inconsequential. It is a bravura sleight of hand from Chazelle, and one that will undoubtedly tick all the preferred boxes on those Oscar ballot sheets, even if it left these musical-loving eyes and ears somewhat underwhelmed.

 

Rating: 7/10

Light Between Oceans, The (2016)

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Dir: Derek Cianfrance

Starr: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Bryan Brown

Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 2)

NOTE: This review goes into some detail about the film’s construction which unavoidably discusses key plot points. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first. It is worth a visit to the cinema purely to experience Cianfrance’s gorgeous use of widescreen.

“And Lucy needs her mother, you must see that.”

(A fateful remark from Isabelle’s father to his son-in-law Tom Sherbourne)

 

“He didn’t have an accent when we came across him. He was dead.”

(A moment of blunt poetry in the police interrogation of Tom Sherbourne)

 

Derek Cianfrance, regardless of what I think of his filmmaking abilities, is a unique film director. In Blue Valentine (2010), The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) and now this adaptation of the best-selling M.L. Stedman novel of the same name, Cianfrance has revealed himself to be a filmmaker devoted to a form of classical tragedy that has been rarely seen on cinema screens since the death of the Hollywood Studio system. In fact, I can think of only one other young contemporary filmmaker with a similar faith in classical tragedy, and that is the Polish actor-director Krzysztof Skonieczny, whose debut directorial feature Hardkor Disko (2014) is infused with a violent Euripidean sensibility. Cianfrance is a far more conservative filmmaker than Skonieczny, but that does not make his work any less interesting. My criticism of both his previous films was mainly to do with his propensity toward too controlling a narrative structure, and there are similar weaknesses in The Light Between Oceans, however, he never really allows these moments of over-plotting to mean a great deal to the tragic climax of his films. What makes his classically tragic sentiments all the more exceptional, is the fact that he routinely reaches for catharsis through the deployment of a peculiarly hopeful denouement. At the end of each of his features, thus far, there is a sense that the past’s refusal to let go of the central characters, doesn’t necessarily mean that it will cling on to future generations in a fateful stalking fashion. Cianfrance always offers the hope that the next generation will elude the fate of their forebears.

Cianfrance’s adaptation has remained relatively faithful to the M.L. Stedman novel about Tom Sherbourne an Australian veteran of WWI who returns to Australia to tend a lighthouse off the western coast of the continent. Tom meets a local girl called Isabelle Graysmark on his infrequent trips to the mainland, and after a brief courtship takes her as his wife. The couple live out on the Janus Rock, where Tom tends to the working of the lighthouse for the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service. Attempts to start a family meet with the tragedy of miscarriage, leaving Isabelle depressed and emotionally vulnerable. It is after a second miscarriage that the couple rescue a baby from a boat that has washed up on the shores of the island. Alongside the baby is a dead man. Tom immediately wants to report this event to the mainland, but Isabelle argues that the baby will be raised in an orphanage, whereas they could pretend it is her baby and raise it as their own. It is this fateful decision that sets in motion a series of events that have repercussions for decades to come.

Where Cianfrance is undoubtedly a gifted craftsman is the way in which he manages to elicit strong emotional performances from the actors he works with. Despite the fact that Alicia Vikander’s very modern body seems to suggest miscasting in the role of Isabelle, she nonetheless delivers another finely nuanced performance to place alongside excellent work in other period dramas, such as Testament of Youth (2014) and The Danish Girl (2015). The vivacious joyousness she embodies in the initial courtship with Tom, makes the shock of her grief even more powerful. Little detailings, such as the self-possessed stride that takes over her moments of tragic torpor, give the role a texture and practicality at odds with the martyred female she initially appears to be. Cianfrance is also smart enough to give Fassbender the space to channel some of his more sinister energies in the service of his role as the traumatised war veteran. Fassbender has an innate cruelty and violence that too often director’s try to downplay to accentuate a period romanticism. His best performances are underpinned by his barely suppressed, and disconcertingly erotic, potential for the sadistic. Early in the courtship Fassbender teases out the dangers of what his character has been asked to do during the war. Never does his character explain things, but Cianfrance allows Fassbender to insinuate a violent undercurrent into his inability to articulate feelings and emotions. This is partly down to the director’s decision to use a number of intense close-ups upon the highly expressive faces of each of his principle players, but more of this later.

 

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Rachel Weisz’s cautiously pained performance is all in the eyes, and the way she looks at and upon things.

 

Perhaps, the stand out performance of the entire film comes in the second half, when Rachel Weisz’s grieving mother is brought in to the idyllic and self-contained world of the Sherbourne’s. Weisz steals the film from its leads through a cautiously pained performance that brings so many of the film’s subtextual elements together. She has a face that is made for Cianfrance’s close scrutiny, with so much of her performance being located in the way she looks at people, or things. Guarded trepidation mingles with accusatory rage and the guilt of somehow failing as a mother. Her sequences with her returned daughter Lucy-Grace are heartbreaking as she subtly demonstrates how difficult it is to feel your way back into your child’s life, when the child doesn’t see you as their mother. Physical contact, the most direct way that a parent expresses affection for their child, is presented as a stunted and incomplete action, something painful in its lack of reciprocation. Weisz does a great deal of fine work with the most difficult role of the film, which only makes me wonder why this gifted actress seems to have been most recently side-lined in minor roles in other films.

Cianfrance and his DOP Adam Arkapaw have mapped out a landscape of tragedy by using an intensity of close-up to capture the human element, but projecting this against the truly awe-inducing widescreen location photography of the natural landscape and its wild, tempestuous cruelty. Similarly, in The Place Beyond the Pines the director used unrelenting tracking shots and wide-framed, high-angled location photography to emphasise the way in which the natural environment claustrophobically closed in around the protagonists, as if forcing them down pre-ordained routes. Humanity is powerless in the light of those more primal and elemental forces at work in the natural environments they inhabit. Nature then is the source of all human tragedy, as it is to nature that we turn when searching out our fates.

 

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The human is in the intense close-up, whilst, even in happier times, the tragic is depicted through awesome landscape.

 

Cianfrance reinforces this visual patterning of narrative form through his pathways in and out of the film. The film opens with a scene in which the only person we clearly see is Tom Sherbourne, as he is being interviewed for the position of temporary lighthouse keeper. The cameras intent focus upon Tom draws explicit attention to his isolation, his aloneness. From the opening moments of the film the audience are being primed to consider Tom as a man alone, with a destiny to remain alone. The film’s closing image seals Tom’s fate and confirms that prediction of destiny, even if he spent a significant portion of his life in a loving marriage. Remember, in tragedy one cannot escape their fate once it has been decided.

 

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Cianfrance is in love with the human possibilities and intimacy of the close-up, especially the way it captures the expressive qualities of his actors’ faces.

 

A final element of Cianfrance’s film that underlines the strong narrative pull of tragic destiny can be found in the expert use of sound design to connect disparate people and locations within the narrative. Immediately before the miraculous arrival of Lucy-Grace upon Janus Rock, Isabelle is shown crouched down in the grass of a hillside, her fingers teasing out some hidden meaning in the long green blades. A sound, as if the earth is speaking to her, heralds the arrival of the boat carrying the baby. This sequence is directly echoed much later in the film when Hannah (Rachel Weisz) is shown lying with her ear to the lawn of her back garden, just as Lucy-Grace approaches with her grandfather (Bryan Brown). This is the moment when the estranged daughter finally acknowledges some form of filial bond to Hannah. Fate is delivered in sounds without clear source. Tom is initially pulled toward the discovery of the truth about his daughter’s provenance by hearing a siren-like song in the churchyard as he waits for the vicar to christen Lucy-Grace. Stumbling upon a gravestone for a lost husband and child, Tom walks headlong into a grief created in the vacuum that his own family’s happiness has left behind.

As with all of Cinafrance’s films, thus far, I have problems with the way that he frequently forces the fatefulness of his tragic designs into rather overblown plot twists. Towards the end of The Light Between the Oceans there is a torturously contrived moment where Isabelle’s mother tries to persuade her daughter to support her husband in his hour of need, immediately after which Hannah arrives at the Graysmark family home to tell Isabelle that she will give Lucy-Grace back to her if she will only ensure that Tom pays for what he has done. In the end, as was stated before, these contrivances tend not to matter to Cianfrance’s endgame, which has repeatedly played out as a projected coda of reconciliation, or renouncement. The necessity for tragic catharsis is subtly undermined by a post-cathartic diminishing of the scope of each film’s tragedy.

As I said at the beginning of this review, Derek Cianfrance is a unique director.

 

Rating: 6.5/10

Endless Poetry (2016)

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Dir: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Starr: Adan Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky, Leandro Taub, Pamela Flores

Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 3)

 

“Another dead man among the dead. I will grow old… and rot.”

(Alejandro speaking to the younger Alejandro, as if a prophetic voice inside his own head)

 

“Old age is not a humiliation, you detach yourself from everything.”

(Alejandro addressing Alejandro, and the audience, a form of pervasive solipsism in need of attention to justify it)

 

A strong part of me wishes that this octogenarian burst of creative activity from Jodorowsky had simply never occurred. It would make any chronicling of his career that much easier, as The Rainbow Thief (1990) would then stand as the tired epitaph to an exhausted imagination. Alas, Jodorowsky wants to take a proper account of his career before he slopes off into the sunset. That accounting demands that the director’s overbearing ego act as arbiter in a re-evaluation of Jodorowsky’s formative years in Chile as the emergence of a poetic consciousness which places him at the centre of a 20th century surrealist lineage (preferably Artaud and Breton). Yup, Jod really is that pompous, but he’s also a clown, and an angel, so we will forgive him his extravagances, even though he clearly does not forgive us. In 2013’s The Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky sought to make a demon of his ideologically Stalinist father, whilst simultaneously seeking to build a bridge of understanding between them. In his peculiarly perverse way, which is neither truly insightful or shocking, Jodorowsky chose to cast his eldest son Brontis, in the role of his own father Jaime. Endless Poetry makes things a truly family affair, by casting Alejandro’s younger son Adan as a twentysomething incarnation of his father in early 1950s Chile, on the eve of Carlos Ibáñez del Campo’s re-election as Chilean President.

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A key scene in the film was clearly meant to be this one in which Alejandro and his poet friend Enrique Lihn decide to walk across Santiago in a straight line, regardless of obstacle. It ended up feeling like a good idea that hadn’t been thought through on film.

 

The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry are, in effect, Jodorowsky’s cinematic version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), replete with escape into cosmopolitan exile at the close. The first film trod a fine line between Alejandro’s youthful and passionate desire for rebellion and the aggressively enforced, and wholly reductive, ideological worldview of his father. It was a film about giving shape to the conflict that gave birth to the artist, and made that conflict a crudely oedipal sex game between father and son for the attention of Pamela Flores’ Sara, Alejandro’s mother. With Endless Poetry, Alejandro has now struck out on his own, moving away from the family home, and entering the bohemian milieu of Santiago’s poets, painters, musicians and philosophers. The conflict between father and son is now writ large as a conflict between Alejandro’s creative individualism and Chilean society’s embrace of warring political ideologies. The egocentrism of the artist refuses to concede any ground to the potential politics of the creative act, making the film a laboured attempt to paint the creative life as removed from any sense of societal politics. Alejandro is already seeing himself as belonging beyond Chile, as part of the international poetic landscape of Breton, rather than the provincial nationalism of Neruda.

Working with the exceptionally gifted Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, rather than Patrice Leconte’s regular DOP Jean-Marie Dreujou (who lensed the first instalment), it should be expected that Jodorowsky’s much heralded ‘visionary’ aesthetic would come to the fore in a way that it never quite did in The Dance of the Reality. Yet aside from an initially engaging opening section in which, in a piece of genuinely Brechtian theatre, Jodorowsky reveals the poetic artifice of this autobiography, by pulling up a series of black and white theatrical flats to take us back to an older Santiago (or is it still Iquique?), there is little beyond the trite, mundane and sentimentally excessive. The latter was an increasing problem in Jodorowsky’s work up until 1990, often drowning out and undermining the more radical elements of his films. Whereas genre grounded much of Jodorowsky’s early film excesses, in Endless Poetry the director seems to be most fascinated with the ridiculous bathos effect created by his deployment of a TV soap aesthetic, particularly in those moments of dramatic exposition that punctuate his surrealist whimsy. The banality of this image making is undoubtedly supposed to make the surrealist flights of fancy more evocative and seductive, but to these eyes it merely creates an unceasing flow of garishly coloured tableaux that amount to a depressing evocation of Alejandro’s expanding consciousness as a creative artist. Frequently the director gives us a dully realised visual metaphor and then further diminishes any power that it may have had by drawing attention to the construction of the visual metaphor (witness the family dinner party in which Alejandro seeks to chop down the family tree, yawn).

 

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The incredible Pamela Flores as Stella Diaz Varin. I sincerely hope this is not the last time I get to see this actress on screen.

 

The one light amidst the monotony is the voluptuous excessiveness of Pamela Flores, who plays both Alejandro’s mother and later his first lover, the Chilean poet Stella Diaz Varin (he just cannot resist tired provocations like this). If there was any reason to justify Jodorowsky’s return to filmmaking the gift of Flores is surely it. The Dance of Reality showed her to be a bold performer and I am still haunted by that film’s night-time sequence (a moment of old Jodorowsky) in which she chases her son around the house, whilst naked and coated in black paint. Donning a scarlet wig and rainbow paints, Flores plays Diaz Varin as a force of nature dominatrix, brawling, beer-swilling and waspishly belittling anyone who has the temerity to bore her. Compared with the sentimental rendering of Enrique Lihn, as played by the irritatingly impish first-time performer Leandro Taub, Flores breathes something approaching an independent life into Jod’s caricature of his contemporary.

The repetitious return to sites from the first film point to more than just the budgetary constraints of a crowdsourced film production (lest we forget Michel Seydoux’s key role in developing both films). These are the markers of a moviemaking imagination whose poetic vocabulary has long ago been exhausted. Dancers, dwarves, body artists, faceless masses, broken piers, circus rings, political demonstrations, cafes, these are all elements that echo through both films, but not in any way that suggests even an associative control of their iconography. I am very much with J. Hoberman’s assessment of Jodorowsky, in his seminal film text Midnight Movies (1983), as closely resembling Dali in his “literal-minded, self-parodic and commercial” image-making. There is always a sense with Jodorowsky that behind the symbol there is nothing more than a caption description of that symbol. The true laziness of this late-period work is in the way it coolly rehashes earlier works, looking to make a grand gesture toward art as life, life as art, and sounding as hollow and empty as that suggests. Long before this Endless Poetry had reached an end, I was longing for less.         

 

Rating: 5.5/10

 

Birth of a Nation, The (2016)

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Dir: Nate Parker

Starr: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Colman Domingo, Penelope Ann Miller, Aja Naomi King, Mark Boone, Jr.

Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 1)

Until a long shadow was cast over this film by the disinterring of a 1999 rape case brought against its director, star and producer Nate Parker, it seemed certain that this latest trawl through America’s cruel history of black slavery would be festooned with nominations come award season. The controversy that has, to some degree, decisively altered the film’s reception may well have done Parker an undeserved favour. This The Birth of a Nation, by removing itself to the 19th century and narrating the radicalisation of Nat Turner, leader of a black slave rebellion, wants to reach back to dislodge and disrupt Griffiths’ unfortunately canonical Klan paean, but despite its director’s grandiosity of design the film’s delivery is pure exploitation, and all the better for that. Without wishing to seem contrarily reductive I believe that Parker is intentionally playing with the same fire that lit up Mandingo (1975), only with the camera’s appraising eye being aligned with the faith, integrity and righteousness of the black souls brutalised by a corrupt and corrupting system of capital and exploitation. Although the film frequently strays into a visual poetry verging on the ridiculous (bleeding corn cobs), Parker still manages to deliver a film of implacable fury, driven forward with a wrathful vengeance and a wonderfully concrete sense of slavery as an all-encompassing cancer at the heart of Southern US society.

The film opens with a scene that immediately establishes both the subliminal structuring of exploitation horror, as well as the vital importance of faith in destiny. Amidst a swirl of ghoulish female apparitions the young Nat is conferred the status of ‘a chosen one’ by a seer and slave elder. The presence of three raised nubs upon the centre of his breastbone, is read as a sign of his selection by a higher power. Throughout the film there is an egocentricity at work, which could just be part and parcel of the biopic element of the film, but that, nonetheless makes so many of Turner’s fellow slaves enablers of his self-realisation as a strong, charismatic leader. When Nat’s wife Cherry is gang-raped by a group of slave hunters, led by the same man who was wounded by Nat’s father and who will go on to become a nemesis in the march on Jerusalem at the film’s end, vengeance is a male prerogative and source of Turner’s empowerment

 

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A reworking of the opening spiritual ritual is found toward the film’s end.

 

The historic Nat Turner was born into slavery on a cotton plantation in Southampton County, Virginia and lived almost his entire life enslaved to the Turner family in this area. In Parker’s film the young Nat is frequently seen to be encouraged to believe he is ‘special’, even having a different status foist upon him by Penelope Ann Miller’s Elizabeth Turner, the lady of the house, who marvels at the young boy’s autodidactic abilities. Later a Reverend Zalthall, played as a wonderfully unctuous and uncouth grotesque by Mark Boone, Jr, sees a money-making opportunity in getting Nat, who now preaches the Bible to his fellow slaves on the plantation, to deliver sermons in support of the slave-owner’s prerogative. It is in delivering these sermons to plantations where the slaves are held in abject conditions, far more degrading than that which Nat has hitherto experienced on the Turner farm, that accelerates Turner’s radicalisation. What good is it to be ‘special’ and ‘chosen’ within a debased and godless world?

Another key element of the film’s early construction is the way in which Parker makes Nat the witness to brutal acts of violence that frequently go unacknowledged as such by white society. The young Nat is shown to bear witness to his father’s possible execution, and the fact that his father eludes this fate at the whim of a bunch of white slave hunters by killing and wounding them, seems to be Parker’s way of planting the first seed of violent reaction – violence as a means of self-defence, countering the unjust violence of an oppressor. Later, the older Nat gazes upon the hollowed-out skull of a dead slave lying by the roadside, whilst his master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) dozes on the carriage beside him, oblivious to this atrocity they are passing.

 

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It is on his wanderings as a preacher that Nat Turner first comes across the sheer abjection of a slave’s life. This sequence is played out like the queasiest of horror scenes.

 

The true horror of Parker’s depiction of slavery can be found in his blunt use of extremities. It is unsurprising that Parker thanks Mel Gibson in the end credits of the film, as this use of extremities is reminiscent of both Braveheart (1995) and The Passion of the Christ (2004). The Turner family, under Elizabeth’s watchful eye, take Nat into the house, educate him, ‘civilise’ him, even. The Turner homestead is a brightly lit, airy and spacious place of order and cleanliness. By comparison the slave holdings on the plantation are shot in shades of deadening grey. They are dark, dank and dusty spaces, cramped and contingent. Nat observes this dichotomy, but as a child he does not feel its injustice, or how the former is built upon the degradation housed in the latter. This is because the Turner’s continue to fuel his ‘special’ status, but in a way that divorces him from his family and community. On the death of Elizabeth’s husband Benjamin, Nat is thrown back into the exploitative world of the cotton field, whereupon he grows into the favoured slave of the new plantation owner Samuel Turner, his once playmate. The insulation that the Turner’s are seen to offer Nat and his fellow slaves is in the way they do not behave with the brute odiousness of so many of the other slave-owners presented in the film. Yet their adherence to, and support of, a societal structure predicated upon systemic exploitation of human labour, policed through pure racial prejudice, makes the limited protections they offer their slaves all the more galling.

Parker exposes the rotten nature of the whole system by detailing the corruption and dissolution of the Turner family as a direct parallel of Nat Turner’s growing consciousness and radicalisation. In this regard, I had absolutely no problem with the venal portrait of white Southerners throughout the film. They are meant to be horrific, as the economic system they have concocted is corrupting and monstrous. As the film progresses the ‘benevolence’ of the Turners is shown to be predicated upon the accumulation of capital, and the position of power and authority that gives them. As Samuel sinks into inebriate dissolution, so the Turner plantation must adhere more strictly to the prevailing societal norms. Benevolence is a charitable return on profits accrued.

 

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The expressive use of Penelope Ann Miller’s face as a site of extreme discomfort, verging on horror, is one of the ways in which Parker interrogates the systemic corruption of the slave society.

 

In this regard, why should Parker bother with the cosy supposed nuances of 12 Years a Slave (2013), whose white racial violence is depicted as belonging to a rotten subsection of society and is ultimately combatted through the white consciousness raising of black suffering, as embodied by the deferential martyr Solomon Northup. This soft cinematic rhetoric, that locates morality in the sadism of a tastefully framed whip crack, is of no interest to Parker. White racial violence isn’t a subsection of Southern society, but an integral part of it, and the only source of all possible moralities. When Parker chooses to insert a written passage of the bible in to the centre of his Turner’s radicalisation process, the words stretch in relation to his wider understanding and interpretation of them. Words have helped Turner to expand his consciousness, and through an understanding of violence those words can attempt to help him allude the servitude of his slave readings. It is a neat nod to one of the most memorable sequences from Spike Lee’s masterpiece Malcom X (1992)

Like Gibson and Griffiths before him the factual and historic inaccuracies of Parker’s plot are to some degree permissible when considering what the overall narrative effect is meant to be. I find quite a bit of bite in Parker’s closing shot, particularly considering the presence of Ed Zwick among the executive producers on the project. Zwick is the epitome of the well-meaning, thoughtful, liberal Hollywood rendering of contentious political histories. His Glory (1989) was a textbook example of how Hollywood superficially covers a significant incident in American history, that highlights the struggle of African-Americans, but ensure that struggle is only really rendered visible through the intervention of ‘progressive’ well-meaning white men. In the final CGI-morphed moment of A Birth of a Nation, Parker presents us with a young boy who bore witness to Nat Turner’s hanging, now brandishing a rifle in the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and charging toward the camera. It is a bold and powerful closing gambit, that seems to quietly mock Zwick’s rootless examination of black Northern soldiers from the same regiment. Here is Nat Turner’s provocative legacy, alive and well in 2016.

 

Rating: 6.5/10

Monster Calls, A (2016)

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Dir: J. A. Bayona

Starr: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell

Viewed: Cineworld Fountainpark, Edinburgh (Screen 7)

NOTE: This review contains potential spoiler material. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first. Preferably on as big a screen as possible, as it is visually sumptuous.

J. A. Bayona’s impressive visual rendering of a grief-stricken adolescence does justice to Patrick Ness’ best-selling children’s novel, however, I worry whether it will struggle to find an audience if marketed as a kid’s festive flick.

The Catalan director has never really failed to impress me and yet it is only with this latest release that I have come to acknowledge that fact. The Orphanage (2007) seemed on first viewing to be a rather slender ghost story, but repeat viewings since then have deepened my appreciation of its painstaking approach to the intense trauma of loss. The Impossible (2012) was an unjustly ignored disaster movie that really got inside the psychology of survival. With A Monster Calls Bayona has created an oddly bruising kitchen sink fairytale about how an adolescent might distil the pain and trauma of a loved one’s impending death. It is an adaptation that knows its cinematic lineage very well.

Conor is a young boy, on the cusp of his troubling teens, who is having to come to terms with the potentially terminal illness of his mother. As well as the suppressed grief and guilt that Conor is having to deal with, as a result of this terrible predicament, he is also having to cope with the daily bullying of his sadistic peers at school, and a move from his family home to that of his maternal grandmother. Partly as a coping mechanism, but partly out of an innately creative imagination, Conor summons up a terrifying arboreal monster.  In its technically assured rendering of the isolation, solipsism and monstrous egocentricity of the pre-teen, Bayona’s film creates a means of seamlessly navigating the film’s dreary and mundane reality and Conor’s fantastical nightmares and dreamscapes. Part of this is to do with the frequent deployment of a shallow focus that isolates Conor as the only clear point within a shot. Everything surrounding the boy is adult, and only partially discernible. This is particularly effective when used alongside the hushed and muted quality of the adult conversations, where only certain key words leap forth out of the mumble of sounds. Another visual trope that Bayona uses effectively throughout, can be found in his wide-lensing of the interior spaces of the grandmother’s house. This subtly emphasises the troubling childishness of adolescence, with Conor at sea in a domestic space that is unfamiliar and strange to him. For a large part of the film he is the only person inhabiting this particular domestic interior, with his grandmother being pulled away to care for her sickly daughter. Most unnerving of all is Bayona’s construction of shot-reverse shot sequences between Conor and the kids at his school (more often than not his bullying tormentor). These sequences almost always frame each respective child slightly off-centre and often feature ultraslow tracking that creeps toward them. The lack of any dialogue in these sequences also draws attention to that which is unspoken being something that is fundamentally weirding Conor, making him an outcast in the eyes of his peer group.

 

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The monster work within the film is simply incredible CGI, especially when giving a sense of scale.

 

All this smart visual patterning is amplified through the film’s other themes of grief, loss, punishment and time. Time is foregrounded early in the film as a key visual motif, and eventually becomes a central part of the climax. The nightmares and dreamscapes do not operate with any coherent sense of time, and in one impressive sequence in the film a dream of the pleasure to be found in destruction falls away to reveal that hours have gone by and Conor has wrought merry chaos upon his grandmother’s living room. One of the objects that Conor tears apart during this rampage is a grandfather clock that his grandmother has told him has been in the family for generations. The literal destruction of time, and particularly family time, via the sundering of this timepiece feeds into Conor’s unspoken desire to deny death its moment. Aside from these explicit images of time, as measured in the preponderance of timepieces throughout the film, there is also a queasy sense of ‘timelessness’ in both Bayona’s choice of setting (Manchester’s industrial suburbs and the surrounding moors, or the dilapidated Blackpool pier) and the qualities of the animations that take over the screen when the eponymous monster of the title calls. These latter animations use state-of-the-art digital techniques alongside the kind of stop-motion and basic cell work that can be found as far back as 1926, in The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

The casting of Lewis MacDougall in the central role of Conor reveals a little of the cinematic heritage that Bayona is consciously building upon. MacDougall’s bruised and bony waifishness immediately draws to mind another sullen northern English adolescent, that of Billy Casper, as played by David Bradley in Ken Loach’s Kes (1968). Much like Loach, Bayona appears unafraid to let his young male lead come across as unlikable. Part of the integrity of both film’s is their adherence to a degree of honesty in the depiction of the traumatised adolescent’s lot. A school dining room scene in A Monster Calls effectively plays out Conor’s self-hatred as psychopathy, and the young actor is formidably truculent.

In the aftermath of this fearsome dining room scene Conor is shown in the headmistress’ office being taking to task for hospitalising his bully. The headmistress provides Geraldine Chaplin with a knowing cameo, that cinephilically links Bayona’s film to Carlos Saura’s Cria cuervos (1975) a morbidly moving masterpiece about a young girl convinced that she has caused the death of her mother. Similarly, Bayona’s own thanking of Guillermo del Toro in the end credits of the film draw an explicit link back to that director’s much revered Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), a film that also drifts between an aesthetic of gritty realism, timeless fairy tale and nightmarish dreamscape. I would also suggest that Bernard Rose’s fantastically bleak British horror Paperhouse (1988) has played a major role in shaping Bayona’s exceptionally evocative rendering of Conor’s overactive imagination. Both films take place within distorted interior spaces, overlooked by a deathly hillside and visited by a nightmarish projection of an adolescent’s troubled psyche.

 

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One of the film’s most poignant scenes is about Grandma (Sigourney Weaver) tentatively trying to build a relationship with Conor (Lewis MacDougall) en route to a date with death.

 

The adults are peripheral figures within Conor’s world, but again Bayona has ably cast. Felicity Jones continues to force me to positively reassess her merits in a convincingly pain-wracked performance as the suffering mother. Toby Kebbell is given some of the film’s best lines as an absent father with far more texture and complexity than such a role normally possesses. Liam Neeson is on voice duties as the monster, although it is a little too neat and troubling to see him also pop up in a photograph as Conor’s film-loving paternal grandfather. Whilst Sigourney Weaver has the film’s most heart-rending and honest scene, in which she tries to build bridges with her grandson at a rail crossing, en route to an inevitable date with Jones’ death. A genuinely poignant aspect of the film can be traced from this conversation, as what links grandmother and grandson is their experience of Jones’ character and the loss that is about to ensue. Likewise, the constellation of creativity that is lovingly captured in the attention that Bayona pays to Conor’s process of drawing and painting, is shown at the film’s close to be a pursuit intimately shared by mother and son, and that goes with Conor beyond the loss of his mother, as something he can hold on to.

 

Rating: 7.5 / 10

Arrival (2016)

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Dir: Denis Villeneuve

Starr: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg

Viewed: Cineworld Fountainpark, Edinburgh (Screen 2)

NOTE: This review contains unavoidable spoiler material. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first. As much as I was underwhelmed overall, it is still a film worthy of a visit to the cinema, particularly for the strength of Adams’ quiet certainty.

Memory is a strange thing. It doesn’t work like I thought it did. We are bound by time and its order.

(Louise’s opening gambit, which effectively is the plot, in synopsis and hiding in plain sight)

 

You approach language like a mathematician

(Ian paying Louise a compliment, of sorts)

 

Arrival is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s optimistic sci-fi short story about how we make sense of language and how it makes sense of us. It is a film that feels as if it is dangling from a bridge between old and new ways of understanding narrative cinema, and by extension the worlds that narrative cinema helps to describe. It is a singularity that aims for a multiverse, but like the linguistic and scientific experts that are the film’s central characters, the film can only really approximate a slender understanding of a small part of the many. Without wishing to sound flippant I can only imagine what kind of inventive mess the Wachowskis may have come up with if it had been filtered through their far more promiscuous and polymorphous narrative conceptions. One question this film does resolve for this viewer is whether Villeneuve is a potentially great director, or whether Taylor Sheridan was the reason why Sicario (2015) was a far better work than Prisoners (2013). With this year’s delightful Hell or High Water (2016) Sheridan delivered a script that was just as rich and sinuous as his exceptional work with Villeneuve. Yet Arrival has all of the sombre tones and crippling moral masochism of Prisoners, with none of Sicario’s narrative momentum. As a result it feels a little bloated and pillowy; another ‘big ideas’ science fiction film that falls back on slightly silly sentimentality when it has exceeded the limits of those ideas.

Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a brilliant linguistics professor and translator, who at the start of the film has seemingly experienced the grief associated with the loss of a child. Nothing seems particularly out of place here, as we are given very little of Louise’s normal life before she is whisked off by Forest Whitaker’s uncompromising Colonel Weber to make sense of the arrival of a number of unidentified alien aircrafts at various sites around the globe. However, the keen-eyed viewer may have a little doubt as to whether somebody in Banks’s apparently vaunted academic position could have lost an adult child to a terminal disease at such a relatively young age (the ‘flashbacks’ that frontload the film seem to depict Louise’s adult daughter dying). Whilst in transit to the Montana craft site Louise is introduced to Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), an equally brilliant physicist, who will form the scientific side of the investigation into what precisely the alien beings intend. It is relatively charming and quaint that a modern American film would place so much faith in the work of ‘experts’, especially in the year that gave the world Trumpism.

 

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Mirror, mirror on the wall.

 

Louise’s empathetic qualities accelerate the pursuit of mutual comprehension between us humans and what the US investigation team come to call Heptapods (due to the seeming presence of seven tentacle-like limbs). Whilst the military apparatus and hierarchy that surround her keep constant track of how the geopolitical picture is developing in Russia, Venezuela and most importantly China, Louise, with a little help from Ian, sets about making sense of what the Heptapods want. From the beginning Louise is absolutely certain that communication is the reason for contact, not military operations. Working within an unclear timeframe (weeks, days and months go by) Louise and Ian, with their respective teams, put together software that can begin to make sense of the inky, gaseous emissions that form the material structure of the aliens’ written language. Yet even with a commitment to understanding that has gone far beyond any of the work being conducted by other nations (of course), Louise and Ian cannot prevent slippages of meaning and misunderstandings from occurring. A crucial linguistic issue is whether or not the aliens are wishing to offer a weapon, demanding a weapon, or may simply be proffering a tool. These interactions between Louise and the aliens in Montana work as relatively engaging drama, asking the audience to digest a lot of interesting philosophical notions about how meaning is made, and what that meaning can mean. It is to the detriment of Arrival that the film’s bigger picture doesn’t sustain this commitment to difficult questions.

Where arrival comes undone is in the limitations of its geopolitics. In their television series Sense8 (2015) the Wachowski Brothers mapped out a truly ‘trans-‘ conception of the world. This was a show committed to engaging with as many different countries and cultures as possible, giving each story strand a specific location and worldview that was defined by that specificity. By offering up an alien presence in places as diverse as Sierra Leone, Sudan and Greenland, Arrival seems to enter similar terrain as the Wachowskis, yet the disappointment here is that it shows so little interest in these other possible windows onto the world. Instead we are presented with the heroic US singularity, a narrative curve that has been flogged to death a thousand times over. Granted, Amy Adams heroine is something beyond the usual white male sci-fi presences, but weren’t we here before with Jodie Foster in Contact (1997)?

The opening sections of the film with Louise’s bursts of memory, followed by the gradual realisation of the alien presence, and then humanity’s reaction, are unsettlingly effective because Villeneuve and his DOP, Bradford Young, never let their stately camerawork settle. Whether tracking, panning, or simply ever-so-slightly reframing, the camera is always in motion, as if the very fabric of reality is being stretched and remoulded by the presence of these unusual new visitors. Yet from the moment Whitaker’s Colonel arrives in Louise’s office this intriguing visual patterning is shunted to one side in favour of a more static and conventional approach to camera placement. Villeneuve and his screenwriter Eric Heisserer (who wrote the ingenious genre revision Lights Out early this year) similarly run out of the ‘big ideas’ and resort to dramatically reducing the scope of their film to a poorly conceived family melodrama, told almost entirely in flash forwards and without any significant context. Many viewers have compared the film to Spielberg’s early attempt at the genre, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). I can understand why this comparison is being so readily made, but to these eyes it seems like Villeneuve has turned the strengths of that film into failings. The beauty of Spielberg’s effort is that it begins as a drama about the disintegration of a family, when the father has a nervous breakdown. The family melodrama is therefore the crux of the film and the science fiction encounter is the magnifying glass through which the family tensions can be scrutinised. In Arrival Villeneuve gives his audience the sci-fi encounter and then gradually diminishes its awesome nature till we are lost once more in the distracting insularity of the individual’s dilemma. I would have preferred a few detours or delays rather than such an underwhelming arrival.

 

Rating: 6 / 10

EIFF 2016: Tommy’s Honour (2016)

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Dir: Jason Connery

Starr: Peter Mullan, Jack Lowden, Ophelia Lovibond, Sam Neill

Viewed: 70th EIFF Opening Gala Event, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Jason Connery has presented the EIFF with an opening film that is simultaneously a crowd-pleasing sports drama, a picture postcard portrait of the Fife coastal town of St Andrews (and its love affair with golf) and a curious study of father-son relationships. The competent nature of the production should assuage any concerns that Connery Jr had used Connery Snr’s relationship with the EIFF to promote this feature above its station.

As gala opening festival films go this is a safe and comfortable choice. It appeals to the culturally nationalist proclivities of the present Scottish government, whilst having little of the alienatingly parochial that has burdened some previous Scottish film productions. It is essentially a biopic of Tom Morris Jr (played with gusto by Jack Lowden, looking like a blue-eyed Simon Pegg) and the tragic golfer’s relationship with his legendary father Old Tom Morris (another stolid turn from Mullan). It is adapted by Pamela Marin and Kevin Cook from the latter’s book of the same name, and effectively details the first tentative steps toward the professionalisation of golf as a competitive sport. The quality of the writing is often rather cumbersome, seeming to already be consciously reaching for immortality rather than finding the natural cadences and rhythms of ever day speech. However, Mullan’s laconic portrayal of the elder Morris manages to normalise many of the more overly portentous passages of dialogue (“A man has to use every club he has”).

An enmity and respect between father and son is what underpins the drama of the film. Mullan’s father has managed to improve the lives and prospects of his family significantly within a generation, yet he is still the caddie, the greenkeeper, the club manufacturer. The likes of Sam Neill’s Alexander Boothby still lord it over Old Tom Morris, and he in turn shows due deference to their aristocratic status. By comparison Morris Jr wishes to use his skills at playing the game of golf to stride upward within the claustrophobic British class system. Unlike his father he sees no need to ‘serve’ the likes of Boothby. The film’s opening sequence succinctly captures the core of the drama by showing how Morris Snr’s career of service to the aristocratic club members of St Andrews has given his son an opportunity to hone his singular talents at the game of golf. One of the wealthy onlookers comments upon Morris Jr’s penchant for an audaciously risky shot with a degree of approval: “Gambler’s spirit. Duly noted”.

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Jack Lowden as Tom Morris Jr, a blue-eyed Simon Pegg

 

Undoubtedly much of the film’s potential cross-over appeal stems from Connery’s use of location shooting within Fife (St Andrews and Falkland), as well as the film’s ability to connect this story of golfing derring-do to more universal concerns. The director’s decision to keep things neat and straightforward, particularly with regard to the increasing social difficulties that Morris Jr experienced, could be one of the reasons why the film lacks a degree of tension. St Andrews is depicted as a place of wealth and propriety, whereas Musselburgh is the preserve of the Park Brothers (Willie and Mungo) and their boisterously boorish nouveau riche ways. A similarly blunt dichotomy is observed with regard to Morris Jr’s love affair with Meg Drinnen (ably played by Ophelia Lovibond despite the underwritten nature of the role). Meg’s past before she came to St Andrews is shown as the pitiable poverty of a BBC Dickens adaptation, all perfectly placed soot, muck and grime. Such stark divisions make for lukewarm drama, especially when the young protagonist of the film is doing his utmost to navigate a new path between them. Another problem of the dramatic narrative is the unavoidable fact that Morris Jr died ridiculously young, aged just 24. Even taking in to account his sporting achievements and the tragic circumstances of his family life, their really isn’t much room for character development. The film is left with a deeply unsatisfying design because it has so little to explore beyond the tragic hero.

That said Connery’s decision to focus most attention upon the relationship between the brash and brilliant young Morris Jr and his stubbornly traditional, and yet highly innovative, father, manages to create a highly affecting final sequence. It is intriguing to consider just how much of this aspect of the narrative Connery himself identifies with. The degree of self-interest that drives Morris Snr to withhold a vital piece of information from his son until after they have completed a golf match in which the older man had rediscovered his former glory, smacks of the kind of truthful insight that can only come from intense experience. Are the audience to read something of the Morris’s into the Connery’s? There is assuredly an understanding and empathy throughout the film for the younger Morris’s need to move out from his father’s considerable shadow. In the case of Jason Connery it seems this may have been achieved by a sidestep into film directing, rather than film acting.

Rating: 5/10      

Midnight Special (2016)

Midnight Special (2016) Poster.jpg

Dir: Jeff Nicholls

Starr: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher

Viewed: Cineworld Fountainpark, Edinburgh (Screen 13)

NOTE: This review contains unavoidable spoiler material. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first. As much as I was left a little disappointed by Nicholls’ work here, it is still a film worthy of a visit to the cinema.

Jeff Nicholls’ latest film Midnight Special is an atmospherically rendered piece of cinematic hokum. It’s great strength and fatal weakness are one and the same thing. This is a film about belief that veils itself in mystery as a means of assuming the form of religious processes of faith. Nicholls’ thrusts the viewer straight into a disorienting quest for meaning which maintains a keen tension in the film long after Jaeden Lieberher’s Alton has revealed himself possessed of a bizarre array of ‘gifts’. However, this tension comes at the detriment of any meaningful engagement with significant parts of the film’s narrative. So much of Midnight Special remains vague, sketched out rather than thoroughly detailed. This viewer was left frequently wanting to know more about parts of the narrative that drift off into obscurity almost as soon as they have been introduced. Sam Shepard’s Calvin Meyer, a seemingly charismatic religious sect leader, of the type that Texas produces more than its fair share of, is a genuinely fascinating figure. Yet after his religious compound, entitled ‘The Ranch’, is busted by the FBI, Meyer is forgotten by this film. Likewise, Joel Edgerton’s Lucas, seems to have no real sense of back story aside from the fact of his being a former State Trooper. I found myself constantly wanting to know more about this character’s motivations, and the extent of his history with Shannon’s Roy. The character of Roy, Alton’s real father, is also hazily fleshed out. We get to know he was taken as a teenager to ‘The Ranch’. His relationship with Kirsten Dunst’s Sarah appears to have been a loving one. But what has suddenly woken Roy to the need for his son to be taken out of the clutches of Meyer and his quasi-religon? Nicholls’ seems to be suggesting it is merely an approaching date with destiny and the innate belief that his son will reveal something remarkable upon this date. Even Adam Driver’s nerdish NSA analyst feels less like a plausible human being than a convenient accelerator to a narrative that looks set to stall at any given moment. What do we genuinely learn about any of these characters, and why did Alton have to ascend to this other temporal dimension at the film’s close? No knowledge is forthcoming and few, if any, answers are given. As viewers we observe the faith that Roy, Lucas and Sarah have in Alton, and we bear witness to their belief that Alton is indicative of something beyond the human. The film’s narrative mechanisms are geared toward making us believe in something that we have no clear idea of. In this way it is very much a formal exercise in faith creation, which seems like a particularly American concern.

The propulsive quality of the film’s opening drive into darkness is Nicholl’s trump card. As Roy and Lucas set off with Alton in their muscle car – straight out of Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) – the audience are drawn into the darkness. The wonderful aerial and tracking shots that establish the narrowly defined illumination of a torch or a car’s headlights within an otherwise black void, then give way to a moment in which Lucas dons his night vision googles and everything plunges into the indefinable. Throughout the film Nicholls’ balances darkness against light, the darkness being at first all-consuming and obscuring, penetrated only by pockets of light. Things happen in the darkness, but those things are all the more questionable as we cannot fully apprehend what they are. As the film progresses, Alton’s seeming photo-sensitivity gives way; the light is in fact a restorative energy for the child. The final sections of the film actually play out in dazzling, sun-kissed daylight, with the world upon our world that Alton has posited, coming to be revealed as a fleeting actuality, a reality overarching our own and operating in the interstices between what is an what is not.

Midnight Special - They are Coming
Jaeden Liberher was unnervingly otherworldly as the goggle-wearing Alton

 

There have been concerted efforts by critics to draw up a generation of new filmmakers that are primarily influenced by the wonder, terror and sentimentality of Spielberg. Much has been made of Nicholls’ admiration for Hollywood’s most successful movie brat, and it has been easy to draw parallels between Midnight Special and Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). However, although both films appear predicated upon an unwavering faith in a higher existence beyond that of the terrestrial, Midnight Special possesses none of the wild mania of Spielberg’s film. Nicholl’s film is not one that is assailed by the creeping fear of doubt. What makes Close Encounters of the Third Kind such an incredible work is the fact that Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is allowed to appear almost entirely alone with his beliefs. Within his family and his immediate community, Roy’s pursuit of a belief in extra-terrestrial life is seen as nothing more than mania, brought on by some form of nervous breakdown. Roy’s belief actually does waver, because he is constantly pulled out of himself to view the emotional carnage that his mania exacts upon his friends and family. In effect Roy chooses to subordinate everything to his belief, his faith, but that is something that takes place against the almighty struggle with a world that does not believe Roy. In Midnight Special the fact that Nicholls’ chooses to make his film one that operates from within the wellspring of belief gives less room for doubt. There are no real dissenting voices to the central notion of belief in Alton as an exemplar of ‘otherness’. The director has positioned us with the faithful rather than with the sceptics. As a result there seems to be a surprising lack of conflict within a film that features a fair amount of gun violence and chase sequences. In fact, as the film progressed I found myself considering just how much of what was happening actually occurred because Alton had willed it thus. A test of this is the media coverage of Alton’s abduction that we know hasn’t been planted by his father, but we also observe Meyer denying involvement in calling the story in. Meyer actually says when questioned on this matter by one of his congregation that it wasn’t ‘The Ranch’ that took the story to the media, but rather “that’s something else”.

Nicholls’ is genuinely incapable of making a dull film, but Midnight Special’s singular form makes it, obversely, one of his most unengaging. When Lucas, Roy and Sarah finally bring Alton out into the light it becomes apparent just how ingeniously the darkness made it difficult to discern the degree to which our own faith has been misplaced. There is a cool, machine-calibrated relentlessness of purpose to the film’s darker half, that reminded me of Windig Refn’s exercise in style Drive  (2011). Yet this is really all just mechanism and when it comes to trying to ground belief in something more human the film runs aground upon the exhausted vacuousness of Kirsten Dunst’s under explored mother. Dunst is still in post-traumatic melancholia it would seem, her assumption being that by simply being, and being sad, we might connect with her at the film’s close. The fact that we are as detached from Sarah as we are from any of the other nebulous cipher figures that Nicholl’s has ended up giving us, is really a direct comment upon the problem of making your film’s form that of a faithbound belief. What had been so unnerving for so long, ultimately ends up exposing itself as a sham, nothing more than a trick of the light, and in actual fact a whole lot less.

Rating: 6/10

Chronic (2015)

Chronic - Poster

NOTE: I genuinely believe that any potential viewers of Chronic should endeavour to come to the film with as little information about it as possible. The following review contains significant analysis of key scenes that may spoil the overall effect of the film for a viewer.

Dir: Michel Franco

Starr: Tim Roth, Rachel Pickup, Michael Cristofer, Robin Bartlett, Sarah Sutherland

Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 3)

Until I sat down in the Filmhouse’s smallest screen and watched the unforgiving Chronic I had no idea who Michel Franco was. After the film’s closing act of self-sabotage I had to find out more about this clearly talented but extremely problematic filmmaker. Franco’s last film After Lucia (2012) had garnered him some acclaim at Cannes, including the attention of Tim Roth the president of the 2012 Un Certain Regard competition who bestowed the prestigious award upon that film. So it should come as no surprise that Roth lends his acting talents to this latest effort. Nor should it be any kind of shock that Franco walked away from Cannes 2015 with an award for Best Screenplay, particularly as the festival had been a strong supporter in the development of the production. Yet questions need to be asked of the Cannes festival jury as to what strengths they saw in this innately cruel and slyly manipulative screenplay. Is this simply another example of Cannes’ promotion of an auteurist agenda regardless of the overall quality of the work presented?

Chronic is ostensibly a character study, focusing upon David (Tim Roth) and his role as a caregiver for people who are terminally ill. However, the film isn’t solely concerned with this difficult subject matter, rarely seen in the movies, it is also interested in other notions of dependency, as well as deliberately toying with the audience’s preconceptions and understanding of cinema narrative. The composition of the opening ten minutes of the film serves as a microcosm of Franco’s controlling and deliberately duplicitous approach.

 

Chronic - Funeral
One of the key traits of Roth’s performance as David is the frequent inscrutability of his facial expressions.

 

The film begins with a sequence that is mainly comprised of a long tracking shot. However, initially this shot seems to be presented to us as the fixed frame presentation of a suburban home and driveway. This is quickly recontextualised by a frame within the frame, namely that of the windscreen of a car parked opposite the house. The shot is now given some degree of agency as the audience is made aware of its potential POV nature. When a young woman exits the house and gets into her car, the person who has been sat in the car opposite now tails her. Within this tracking shot we are then presented with the character of David, as the camera pans away from the windscreen to focus momentarily upon him, a middle-aged man following a young woman. This sequence then cuts to another fixed frame shot presenting David in a spartanly furnished room, sat at a computer desk, scrutinising something on the computer screen. Franco cuts to a fixed framing of the computer screen and the audience is shown that David is clicking through the pictures present on the Facebook profile of the young woman we saw earlier – her name is Nadia Wilson (Sarah Sutherland). The blunt cuts from these photographic images to the stark title of the film and then to a distressing fixed frame shot of a young emaciated woman Sarah (Rachel Pickup), barely able to keep sitting up straight upon the chair hoist of a bath tub, give the audience a new and disturbing context for the character of David. In this first post-title shot David is bathing Sarah. He is doing so in a manner that suggests a professional purpose and a degree of intimacy between Sarah and himself. It seems obvious that David is Sarah’s carer, but it isn’t as obvious as to precisely why he is caring for her. Is he a family member or a hired help? There is a tenderness in the way that David goes about bathing Sarah that runs contrary to the otherwise obvious signs of professionalism.

 

Chronic - Bedside.png
Very often Franco presents a scene to the audience in a way that makes them feel as if they have come in to the middle of something. Here David (Tim Roth) and John (Michael Cristofer) sate the latter’s pornographic needs.

 

What becomes apparent as the film progresses is that David, despite his generally professional approach to his work as a carer, is somebody who struggles with, or deliberately transgresses, the boundaries between the professional and the social, the impersonal and the intimate. On arriving at John’s home David immediately sets about demonstrating practical ways in which he can make this patient’s predicament easier. John has just suffered a debilitating stroke, leaving him bedbound. Franco uses David’s initial encounters with John and his various concerned family members to demonstrate how attentively the caregiver empowers his patient by wrestling the decision-making process away from these relatives and back within the patient’s control. Whereas the relatives tell David what John might need, David takes each one of their comments and directs it in the form of a question to John. Only when John has responded does David then act. Once more this would appear to show David’s professional approach to his occupation, yet it also enables David, over time, to keep the relatives at an ever-increasing distance. It helps that John is wonderfully portrayed by the caustically intelligent playwright Michael Cristofer.

A rather ingenious facet of the script is how it unfolds time. The audience is never really sure of the time that has passed between cuts. Moreover, Franco frequently approaches each sequence as if he were thrusting the audience into the middle of something. This creates an unsettling sense of narrative disorientation that fosters maximum ambiguity within many key scenes. One such important scene involves David going to a bookshop to enquire about the availability of some architectural texts. John’s profession was that of an architect (“Nothing special. Functional stuff.”) and my initial assumption in this scene was that David was getting some books for John, or maybe for himself so that he could have something to talk about with John. However, the scene actually points up the degree of David’s social dysfunction, as he enters into an excruciating conversation with one of the bookshop clerks. In this conversation David presents himself, for the second time in the film, as someone who is assimilating facets of his patients’ lives to flesh out his own biography. In this case he pretends to be an architect and parrots lines that John has mentioned to him. Franco never explicitly qualifies why precisely David does this, although there is an abiding sense that David is seeking to resolve his own traumas by empathetically and imaginatively inhabiting the realities of his patients.

Chronic is fortunate to have the physical presences and acting talents of the likes of Pickup, Cristofer and Bartlett. Each of these actors brings a specific set of physical vulnerabilities to the film, their bodies are sites of disease and exhibit thus. Pickup’s skeletal thinness encourages a simultaneous empathy and voyeurism. Cristofer’s soft, comfortable middle-age spread makes his debilitating stroke symptoms seem all the more frightening as they chime with the around about manner in which he is forced to communicate – he is a man swaddled in the suffocating softness of atrophy. Bartlett’s aged female frame expresses a stymied maternity and a stoic defiance of her disease, with her flesh settling on the brink of collapse, the brink of decay. There is a poignancy in each of these performances that never descends into the maudlin sentimentality of more conventional films about disease and dying. If anything the director appears to demand a little too much flattening of technique, which in the sequences involving David and Marta (Robin Bartlett) leads to increasingly mannered and inscrutable stillness within long takes. It is clear from the beginning why Roth would seek out Franco as a collaborator, as the director has effectively built a film around the British actor’s intuitive immanence and bustling attention to activity. Since his breakthrough in Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain (1983) Roth has operated with a bristling, primeval energy and threat, that has been gradually modulated by a careful attention to practical tasks. Even in his paunchy fifties Roth still exudes many of those boisterous and youthful qualities and Franco’s awareness of them informs much of his film’s ambiguous detailing of David. The professional approach of that character stems from Roth’s complete immersion in activity, whilst the troubling sense that this professionalism masks something far more unsavoury is a mark of those qualities that have the potential for violence or perversion. Whilst not being omnipresent within the frame – Franco frequently chooses to have Roth positioned off-camera within a sequence – Roth assiduously comes to dominate the film, in a mirror of the manner in which he comes to dominate the lives of his patients. What the actor most effectively brings to this role, and something that was almost certainly consciously worked out with the director, is a variety of gestural responses and facial expressions that seem deliberately out-of-place. This approach by Roth helps to maintain the ambiguity of the character and verges on an impenetrability that is suggestive of both an intensely private man, and a potentially characterless cipher. Either way it is a mesmerising performance and is the major reason why the film should be endured.

As the closing credits of Chronic roll a keen-eyed observer can’t help but notice the debt of gratitude Franco gives to fellow Mexican filmmakers Carlos Reygadas and Arturo Ripstein (his son Gabriel is a producer of this film). Within the context of successive generations of challenging Mexican filmmakers both of these figures, with their penchant for cruel and coolly controlling approaches to narrative and character, would seem to be clear influences. However, the thanks given to American filmmaker Jerry Schatzberg seems all the more relevant as Chronic’s elliptical development of narrative and deliberate counterpointing of character details seems indebted to that director’s complex moral and social works, such as Scarecrow (1973) and Street Smart (1987). It is a rather gross misjudgement, or a sign of youthful petulance, that Franco should end this disarming character study with such a relentlessly cruel closing sequence, the shock of which comes at the expense of absolutely undermining all of the work that has come before it. Returning to that initial querying of the Cannes screenplay award, one has to wonder just how exposed the quality of the writing may have been in this film if not for the superlative casting and Roth’s impeccable central turn. If Franco is setting out on an auteurist path it can only be hoped that he builds upon his eye for a performance and tries to curb his enthusiasm for cheap and sadistic shocks.

Rating: 6/10