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American Honey

December 2nd, 2016 1 comment

american_honey_posterSo American Honey is as good as they say it is. I’m suspicious of critically acclaimed indie movies.  They can be austere and intellectually respectable – like Cormack McCarthy’s The Road – and not terribly watchable. Particularly when they are almost 3 hours long.

But from the first beguiling frame, this is a masterclass both in direction and cinematography.

It’s shot in an at first brutal 4:3 aspect ratio – like an old school TV film, so almost square – and a reminder of how we usually like to soften out the horizons of a story in widescreen.  The effect, together with the strong and harsh colour timing, is to make it look like some of William Eggleston’s cibachrome prints of the Deep South – motel bedrooms (much of the movie is shot in motels or the crew van or lost American suburbs), kids in supermarket checkouts, the shock of going outside onto bright sunlit grass.  There is a fabulous scene – which would have been clumsy in less assured hands – when the two lovers chasing across a suburban lawn set off the sprinkler against an irradiated sky.

From the moment that newcomer Sasha Lane (the director cast her off the streets) appears on screen as Star, she holds it, often in close-up, along with Shia LaBeouf’s brooding and vulnerable bad boy presence.  That is when alpha bad girl Krystal (played by Riley Keough, Elvis’s granddaughter)  isn’t putting both of them in their place, a performance made somehow more aggressive because she is usually semi-naked when doing so.

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Riley Keough and Shia LaBeouf, her ‘bitch’

The plot is freewheeling in a very good way. But the central premise is that Star is picked up by a van load of kids all trying to make money by hustling and selling magazines, and partying across America.

Where director Andrea Arnold opens it up is with the silences and interstitial spaces of glimpsed life from the van – not just white trailer trash America, but stray birds and dogs and lost children and, in one memorable scene, the oilfields burning at night.  There is sadness and hope echoing round Star as she travels across America with a cohort of lost souls. It’s a film about female freedom and loss.

Is it the best film of the 21st century by a woman director?  Undoubtedly.  And despite the TV ratio, a film that absolutely needs to be seen in a cinema so you can get lost in it yourself.

 

The 21 Best Films of the 21st Century

October 16th, 2016 1 comment

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The BAFTA season is about to begin, and as I have done for some twenty years, I will be sitting down to watch the best films of the year before voting.

Before I do, this is a personal response to a recent list where worldwide critics did their poll of polls for the best 100 films of the millennium for the BBC.

These professional film critics have in the usual way opted for obscurity over clarity – quite ridiculous for Mulholland Drive, The Tree of Life and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to be in the top 10 when a straw poll of regular punters would show no one had a clue what any of them were on about. Or cared.

My own Top 21 favours innovation and pure cinema over cult credibility and if that means some blockbusters and animated films, so much the better. And I think I’m right in saying that only a very few of them won the Oscar or BAFTA for Best Film (answers on a postcard).  The majority don’t even make the 100 chosen by worldwide critics.  But they are the films of the century so far that I still think about and return to in my mind – that still live with me.

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Embrace of the Serpent

July 15th, 2016 No comments

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Nominated for an Oscar and already much feted, Embrace of the Serpent can now be seen in British cinemas and is a revelation.

The masterstroke is filming the Amazon in black and white – counter-intuitive but brilliant – and letting the strange dreamlike journey play out along the river.

I am less certain that the dual narrative – many decades separate the two different storylines – works quite so well, and at times the anthropology can creak at the seams, but at its best, this is an odyssey along the most serpentine of all rivers, with many way-stations and dangers for the travellers in their canoes.

The Colombian director, Ciro Guerra, is not afraid to allow strange epiphanies to creep in:  a comet passes overhead at one point, lighting up the dark faces of those below; the torches of mission children are like fireflies in the night. The photography throughout is both numinous and luminous, shot on Super 35.

There’s been some discussion about the historical background to the film.  The producers say that ‘the film was inspired by the real-life journals of two explorers (Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes)’, but anthropologist have already been quick to note the discrepancies:  Koch-Grünberg, for instance, had no interest in hallucinogenics.  The historian John Hemming has pointed out to me that the brilliant and disturbing depiction of the messianic shaman with his own cult is based on Venancio Christo, active in that region from the late 1850s to early 1860s – half a century before Koch-Grünberg and a century before Schultes.

But as an imaginative interpretation of the spirit of the Amazon, this film must surely be hard to beat. And while Fitzcarraldo had previously set the benchmark, that was a film about the European psyche; this tries to be one about the mindset of the South American Indian.

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A Walk In The Woods

March 6th, 2016 No comments

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A Walk In The Woods is a curious film and proposition.

Bill Bryson wrote his book in the 1990s, when he himself was in his 40s like his friend Katz, with whom he makes this journey along the Appalachian Way.

Robert Redford wanted to turn this into a movie – but with himself playing Bryson, despite the fact that Redford is in his late 70s and looks absolutely nothing like the bearded writer.

Despite the incongruity, critics have been a little unkind to it, as it’s worth watching for the gentle humour with which things unfold – and gentle humour is a rare commodity in movies these days.  Also, the film – and the Bill Bryson character – are lucky enough to have Emma Thompson as a (much younger) wife, who always brings some welcome asperity and wit to proceedings.

Nothing is less filmic than a man walking or hiking slowly across landscape – which is why movie-makers since the time of John Ford always try to get them on a horse, wagon or fast moving car.  When I was making travel documentaries myself, I always used to dread the bits when my presenter would ponderously stumble along with a backpack.

But the filmmakers make a decent fist of it here and if it is all a tad inconsequential – particularly the jeopardy moment when they fall off a very small ‘cliff’ and think themselves stranded – there’s a slow, loping charm which is very much like the act of walking across such a landscape.

The Revenant – a film about wilderness

December 24th, 2015 No comments

revenantLong-standing readers of this blog will know that I rarely touch on films – despite being, among other things, a filmmaker.

But then The Revenant is a rare film and moreover, a film about wilderness, the exploration of which is very much the theme of this blog.

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It is also a reminder of how films need not be formulaic; how a bold director can rework and reimagine a mythic landscape – in this case, a wild west, or perhaps more accurately a wild north as we are in American fur trapping country of a brutal cold.

Alejandro G. Iñárritu finds the lyrical interstices of landscape. The moment you look up into the trees or the mountains.  Most directors use a landscape shot to frame a sequence, usually at the start and end – as Quentin Tarantino does in his new Western, The Hateful Eight. Iñárritu edits his landscape shots to disconcert the viewer during the scene – to give the suggestion that the story is much bigger than the human one.

rev 3In some ways, his rule-breaking reminds me of what Terrence Malick did in Days Of Heaven – and like that film, a different way of working prompted mutiny from some of his crew. Film-making is so often done by default – there’s an elegant shorthand that has been involved for every type of sequence or narrative –  that if anyone tries to escape that, they are rolling a rock uphill or, like Herzog in another movie that broke the mould, trying to take a ship over the mountain.

Iñárritu already showed in Birdman that he has a virtuoso mastery of camera and narrative rhythm (and ability to win prizes, which he certainly should for this); but whereas that was a lighter, theatrical piece, here he applies his talents to an elemental story of survival and revenge.  DiCaprio holds it together well and Tom Hardy is a magnificently gnarly Texan;  Domhnall Gleason’s captain has a documentary plainness to him that is as good as anything in Barry Lyndon, a film with similar lacunae of still moments.

This is a film about what it’s really like to engage with wilderness – the bloodiness of it and the bloody mindedness needed to survive.  And of the beauty of elemental moments. It’s not a film for the fainthearted – but then they never did get out and about much anyway.

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The Revenant is released tomorrow on Xmas Day in the States, about the least appropriate festive film of all time (though The Hateful Eight is released the same day);  and in the UK in the New Year.  see trailer

Everest The Movie

September 23rd, 2015 No comments

everestEverest as a film has perhaps been unfairly criticised for having some of the messiness of  a real-life expedition – too many characters and an untidy ending –  faults (and strengths) it shares with the other adaptation made from a Jon Krakauer book, Into The Wild. And it’s true there are moments the only way you can tell the men with frozen beards apart is by the colour of their product placement North Face jackets.

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The class British scriptwriters – William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy – have fashioned a story which ostensibly has no links with the Krakauer book, but given that it was his Into Thin Air which made the 1996 tragedy on Everest so famous, his shadow looms large over it. He also makes an appearance in the film as an embedded journalist in the team who accompanies them to the summit.

The film hits one nail hard on the head – that some of the dangers which arise are the consequence of the new phenomenon of commercial guided expeditions up Everest, so that less competent mountaineers are able to attempt a summit they should arguably not be on.  But they fail to bring out one crucial argument in Krakauer’s book:  whereas in the past all members of a team would look out for one another, now the guides look out for the clients but who is looking out for the guides?  Of those who die on screen in the film, three are guides and two clients.

There is one crucial moment when lead guide Rob Hall has an uncharacteristic failure of judgement and allows himself to escort a client up to the summit way past the cut-off point when they should already be returning; the sort of misjudgement that is easy to happen when people are hypoxic and under extraordinary stress.  But also one that occurs when you are no longer dealing with a band of brothers but rather of responsible uncles with their nephews.

Everest_poster highr res 2The filmmakers were lucky to have David Brashears on board, both because of his presence on Everest in 1996 at the time the tragedy unfolded (Brashears was making an IMAX film and his character is played by an actor in this one), and for his help on how on earth you make a movie at such challenging altitudes.  While some sections were shot on Everest itself – in mid January, so freezing temperatures – which cinematographer Salvatore Totino described as extraordinarily difficult in the Hollywood Reporter – the Hillary Step, where much of the most intense dramatic action occurs, was recreated at Pinewood.  As the second unit crew were shooting some remaining scenes of the film at Camp II on Everest, an avalanche struck, killing 16 Sherpa guides with other expeditions.

A facile criticism of the film is that this is such an exclusively male affair.  This just mirrors the actual expeditions which were almost exclusively male – although it is true that the two female climbers are given paper thin characterisation – but also is a reflection of how a tunnel-visioned imperative to get to the top of something, regardless of disruption to family, is a not very commendable part of the male psyche.  Scenes of the two wives back home – Rob Hall’s is played by Keira Knightley – and the way they react as events unfold on the mountain are handled deftly and movingly by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, an interesting choice, given his indie background.  The wives’ reactions are not nearly as forthright as those of the widows of some Everest fatalities, who have sometimes expressed bitterness in documentaries at the way their husbands put summits before family.

The movie succeeds in many ways – a particularly fine performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as rival, maverick guide Scott Fischer, and a stunning recapturing of the landscape of Nepal.  See it in 3-D, so that, in the best traditions of filmmaking, the movie takes you there in a way which means you never, ever have to do it in real life – thank God. For one thing, the film amply demonstrates is that the death toll on Everest is not worth it.  Anyone who wants to experience a sublime mountain moment can do so elsewhere below the death zone without putting their own lives – and others – at risk.