Sunday, January 29, 2017

My Week in Cinema: January 21st to 27th

New Films Seen This Week
Jackie (Pablo Larraín)
This isn't something that often comes to mind after viewing a new movie, particularly one released in 'awards season' with its eyes on the prize, but Jackie could have been a little longer. Running at a surprisingly slim 100 minutes the film feels hermetic and oppressive, and I was left wondering if an additional ten minutes or so – just enough to let the movie breathe – might have made all the difference. I suspect that Pablo Larraín wants us to feel trapped, though, to be sharing Jackie Kennedy's perspective as her world collapses around her in the week following November 22nd, 1963. Half of Jackie focuses on the JFK assassination and its aftermath, and much of it is exceptional – elegantly staged, swept along by Mica Levi's keening score, with Natalie Portman (as Jackie) and Peter Sarsgaard (as Bobby Kennedy) both doing fine work as their characters negotiate the pain, stress and confusion of their situation. The other half of the film is set some weeks later, as Jackie sits down for an interview with a  journalist (Billy Crudup) and attempts to present her story on her terms, and this awkward framing device gets to the heart of Jackie's central theme, which is the notion of legacy, both in what we leave behind us and how we try to shape the narrative of history. Unfortunately, Noah Oppenheim’s script clumsily states and underlines this central theme over and over again, often through clunky dialogue, with both Crudup and John Hurt (a priest providing counsel before the funeral) existing as little more than sounding boards for Jackie to express her feelings and ideas – she even tells Crudup, and by extension us, that the playing of the Camelot score is thematically important. Jackie is both slippery and didactic, a film that tries to shake off some standard biopic trappings but ultimately feels just as heavy-handed as any bloated awards contender. Despite an impressive performance from Portman – who, as in Black Swan, is well-cast as a character fighting to maintain control of her own life – Jackie never gets under the skin and inside the complicated emotions of this woman. It never lets her breathe.

Split (M. Night Shyamalan)
Split is being sold with the promise that its lead character possesses 23 distinct personalities, with a 24th yet to emerge, but the first disappointment of the film is that we only meet a handful of them. There’s fashion designer Barry, the matronly Patricia, nine-year-old Hedwig and the quietly threatening Kevin. They’re all played by James McAvoy, who we see in a few more guises (a diabetic, a history buff) through brief video diary excerpts. These personalities all work to a unified purpose, though, and Kevin has kidnapped three teenage girls, holding them captive in a secure basement and confusing the hell out of them each time he opens the door as a completely different person. McAvoy gleefully changes up his accent and posture with each incarnation but his performance here always feels like a performance, an actor's stunt, and Kevin never comes across as a properly threatening or scary character, which naturally has an adverse effect on the film's tension. This tension is further dissipated through the frequent cutaways to Kevin's therapist Betty Buckley, who is there to theorise broadly on Kevin's condition and slowly (very slowly) grow suspicious of his behaviour. I don't think this kind of filmmaking is really Shyamalan's forte. Split needs a director who is going to run with the craziness and nastiness of the endeavour, but Shyamalan's penchant for steady pacing – which served him well in his breakthrough films – makes the film feel horribly slack and sluggish across 117 minutes, and the director doesn't use that extra time to go deeper into his characters or themes. In fact, while a few layers are added to the character of Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) through flashbacks to her childhood trauma, the only change that the other two prisoners undergo is that layers of clothing are removed, with both Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula forced to spend half of the film in their underwear for spurious reasons. The last-minute attempt to link Split to an earlier Shyamalan picture just reminds us how distinctive his films once were – The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs all have images and moments that still resonate – and unfortunately the most notable thing about this film is just how little personality it has.

Rep Cinema Discovery of the Week
The Big Country (William Wyler, 1958) BFI Southbank, 35mm
It sure is a big country, as James McKay (Gregory Peck) is repeatedly told in William Wyler’s epic western, and Wyler keeps reminding us of that fact with his visuals too. His widescreen frames take in as much of the land as possible, with the characters often looking tiny against their vast surroundings. When long-simmering tensions between McKay and Leech (Charlton Heston) finally come to a head, Wyler shoots their fight from a distance, the two men rendered pathetic and insignificant as they throw increasingly tired punches at each other. Their conflict is one of the two that runs through the film; the other – and more significant one – being between Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford) and Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), two patriarchs waging war over a river that runs between their territories. Clearly this country isn’t big enough for both of them. What’s great about The Big Country is how Wyler gives us ample time to understand these characters and their relationships, and to see how they shift dramatically over the course of the film. At the start of the film, McKay is all set to marry into the Terrill clan and we are led to believe that the Hannasseys are a bunch of wild roustabouts that must be vanquished, but Rufus gradually emerges as a man of honour and integrity, with his character being beautifully shaded by the wonderful Burl Ives in a deservedly Oscar-winning performance. It’s this attention to character and the perfectly judged pacing that sustains The Big Country through its near-three-hour running time. Wyler establishes and underscores character relationships through the way he composes in the wide (Technirama, rather than CinemaScope) frame, and the climactic stretch of the film is a masterpiece of staging and editing, as a duel between two men develops into a painful conflict between father and son. The Big Country is a magnificent western, one to rank alongside the all-time greats, and I frequently found myself humming Jerome Moross's stirring score throughout the rest of the week.

Rep Cinema Rediscovery of the Week
Cruising (William Friedkin, 1980) BFI Southbank, Digital
"Heavy leather, S&M,” Paul Sorvino intones near the start of Cruising, “It's a world unto itself.” William Friedkin's attempt to introduce mainstream audiences to that world surely ranks as the boldest gamble of his fascinatingly wayward career. Certainly, the notion of an Oscar-winning director and major star teaming up for a film in which a man is seen greasing up his fist while another waits expectantly in a sling is almost unthinkable today, and it's easy to see why Cruising found itself embroiled in a running battle with both the MPAA and the gay community. (Original release prints opened with the disclaimer, “This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world,” to no avail.) Is it any wonder that the film came out at the end of that whole process looking so beleaguered and unsure of itself? Cruising develops an impressively seedy and vivid atmosphere in its first half, as undercover cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino) trawls the leather bars where a serial killer may be selecting his victims, but the cracks in Friedkin's screenplay – perhaps exacerbated by the reported 50 minutes of censor cuts – soon start to show. The central thrust of the film is the protagonist's loss of identity as he immerses himself deeper into a world that is so alien from his own, but we know nothing about Steve Burns and his psychological breakdown is rendered in the sketchiest way possible, with Pacino's unfocused performance doing little to help matters. It's largely useless as a thriller too, with Friedkin's ill-advised attempts at obfuscation and ambiguity just leeching it of any tension or narrative momentum, and the long scenes of Pacino stalking the killer (Richard Cox) around New York feel completely empty because we have no idea who either character really is. Cruising is a failure, but it has its moments, particularly when Friedkin is skilfully staging the murder scenes, which is when he appears to be most in control of the material, and some scenes will live in the memory for other reasons. The inexplicable use of a huge black guy clad only in a stetson and jockstrap as an interrogation method is a priceless comic highlight, as is the final exchange between the cop and his prey: “How big are ya?” Richard Cox asks as Pacino pulls down his jeans. “Party size,” comes the brilliantly straight-faced reply.