Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Sight & Sound: August 2018

In a new essay written for the updated edition of his 1972 critical study Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, Paul Schrader recalls the moment when his eyes were first opened to this mode of spiritual filmmaking: “As a film critic for the Los Angeles Free Press, I watched the LA release of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). And I wrote about it. And then I saw it again. And I wrote about it again. I sensed a bridge between the spirituality I was raised with and the 'profane' cinema I loved. And it was a bridge of style, not content.”

Forty-five years later, Paul Schrader has finally crossed that bridge as a filmmaker with First Reformed. After a career spent making movies that strayed far from the transcendental template, he has now made one in which the influence of the great directors he studied can be felt in every frame. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), the pastor in a small Dutch Reformed church in Upstate New York, decides to keep a journal for one year in an echo of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), and his crisis of faith is exacerbated when a militant young activist, Michael (Philip Ettinger), fills his head with thoughts of impending environmental disaster, just as the priest in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1963) was disturbed by China’s development of the atom bomb. First Reformed recalls those films stylistically too; its stark framing, measured pacing and all-round austerity being a million miles away from the anything-goes anarchy of Schrader’s prior film, the gleefully offensive crime comedy Dog Eat Dog (2016), starring Nicolas Cage. "No, no, no, that's not me,” Schrader would always tell people who expected his interests as a critic to be reflected in his movies. “You'll never catch me on that thin Bressonian ice." So how did he end up here?


Read the rest of my interview with the great Paul Schrader in the August 2018 issue of Sight & Sound. This issue also contains my interview with Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, director of the outstanding Thai prison drama A Prayer Before Dawn, and I contributed a capsule on David Thomson's Suspects for the magazine's superb 100 Novels About Cinema feature.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Ismael’s Ghosts Blu-ray

Although it received a muted response at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts is another audacious, discursive, surprising and exhilarating effort from one of the most exciting filmmakers currently working in French cinema. I was delighted to have the opportunity to dive back into his world recently when Arrow asked me to write a new essay on the film for inclusion in the upcoming blu-ray release. Ismael’s Ghosts will be released in the UK on September 24th and you can pre-order it here.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Lek and the Dogs

Lek and the Dogs opens on a desolate landscape, completely empty except for the naked figure we see scrambling across the ground on all fours. Is he man or beast? At this point in Lek’s life, he doesn’t seem to to fit comfortably in either world.

This new film by British maverick Andrew Kötting is a loose adaptation of the acclaimed play Ivan and the Dogs by Hattie Naylor, which was inspired by the true story of Ivan Mishukov. In 1996, four-year-old Ivan walked out of his family home in Moscow, away from the clutches of his mother’s drunken and abusive boyfriend. He lived on the streets for the next two years, befriending a pack of wild dogs with whom he could scavenge and sleep. These animals offered him a greater sense of companionship and protection than he had ever experienced with his family, and he would flee with them whenever the police attempted to bring him back to the human world.

Read the rest of my review at Little White Lies

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

"With the visuals you can create a space but the sound is so much more effective at creating tension, because it comes from everywhere." - An Interview with Lucrecia Martel

At first glance, Zama seems like a real departure for Lucrecia Martel. After three films (La ciénaga, The Holy Girl and The Headless Woman) that focused on the anxieties of the middle-class in her home town of Salta, Zama is a period film set in 18th century Paraguay, and it  marks the first time she has adapted a novel for the screen. The film itself, however, is instantly recognisable as another work of peerless craftsmanship and incisive intelligence from one of the most exciting directors in contemporary cinema. The story of a disillusioned Corregidor pining for home, Zama is a film about colonialism, frustration, bureaucracy and a man gradually falling apart. I met Lucrecia Martel during last year’s London Film Festival to discuss it.

When you read Zama, when did you know you wanted to adapt it? Was there one particular image or idea that jumped out at you?

It's a mixture of things, but the first thing that affects me is dialogue, the oral parts of the story. When you read a book there's a sound to it. We tend to think of films and books as very different, because with a book you have letters on pages and with film you have the image, but they both have a sound. Literature has a sound and a rhythm. What is that sound? What is the sound that we have in our head as we read? When we read about horses or birds, we don't just imagine how they are or what they look like, we also imagine the sound that they create. I think when we talk about adapting a book to film, we underestimate that aspect.

So the sound something that you are thinking about right from the start, rather than something you develop in post?

No, it's impossible for me to do it in post. In the process of writing, I make those decisions about sound. For example, the Shepard tone was something that I knew I was going to use. All those offscreen sounds during dialogues that focus on Zama were decisions that I was making at the writing stage. This probably comes from sound films, this idea that firstly the image is produced and then the sound is produced to accompany it. To give you a concrete example from Zama; the birds, the toads, the insects in the book, we knew from the outset that we wanted them to sound slightly electronic. They are natural, but they seem electronic. Those insects existed in the 18th century so that means the 18th century had this electronic quality to it. These decisions can seem very arbitrary but they are decisions that I take very early on, and during the filming process we were very attentive to make sure that we recorded the sounds of all the insects and toads. That strong narrative that I have, which is based around sound and the dialogue I've had with Guido Berenblum, the sound designer, over the years makes that understanding very simple and very quick.

What about the way you approach the look of your films? You’ve worked with a different director of photography on every film. What are you looking for in that relationship?

The image for me is something that I see as a different experiment in every film, so I see changing the director of photography as a reasonable move from film to film. Guido and I have a lot of meetings throughout the process of making the film, and these meetings are always very enjoyable because we discuss things that require us to make requests to the art team; for example, we have to think about the sound of wood, the sound of sand. There is a detail in all period dramas in Latin America, that leather boots will have a heel that's a hard leather, almost like wood. So if I was to put those characters in that environment with those boots, first of all it would be absurd, and secondly it would give them an impact, a resonance to their footsteps that wasn't really appropriate, because they're all such fragile people. There are many of these little decisions. For example, in The Holy Girl – I just remembered this now because in the Screen Talk they showed a clip from it – I needed her to see the doctor but for the doctor to not be able see her well, but still be heard. So I chose to put her in this situation where she would be making this noise - pling, pling, pling - and the doctor would be hearing this noise and it's a very threatening, tense note. That's a small decision that works more effectively than the visuals. With the visuals you can create a space but the sound is so much more effective at creating tension, because it comes from everywhere.

Although the film has that sense of tension, I was also struck by its sense of humour. Was that something you brought to the adaptation?

In some aspects, yeah. The book has a very chilling and dark sense of humour, and I accentuated that in the film, because I thought it was important for the film to not be solemn. These sort of films always tend to be very solemn. There is an Italian film from the 1960s called L'armata Brancaleone by Mario Monicelli, and I think that is like a relative of Zama. This film has a lot of relatives, and this is something I discovered after writing the script of Zama, an Italian producer would say something like "Oh, it reminds me of this film." The Saragossa Manuscript is another one.

How did you work with Daniel Giménez Cacho? I loved the way he charts the character’s physical, emotional and spiritual decline across the course of the movie.

Daniel was very easy indeed, because he took the decision with this film to immerse himself fully into the character. I think it's not something he has done previously. We began by filming the end of the film, because we needed him to be thinner and have the beard, so his process had to go from the end, which was very interesting. This was the director of production's idea because we realised the work would become gradually easier as we went on, so it was a good way to manage our efforts, to start with the hardest things. This is another thing that was very interesting, because by starting at the end – which is the only time we see Vicuña Porto – that allowed us to have an image of Vicuña Porto, which we needed.

Yes, I am fascinated by the idea of Vicuña Porto. His absence seems to make him a greater figure than he could possibly be if he was present.

I think Vicuña Porto is like the enemy we all need, the scapegoat. It's more like a social construction of the enemy. It's an enemy who has already been terminated but continues to exist. I don't know if you get the same thing here, but in Latin America there has been a very strong discourse on this idea in relation to crime. With crime – and the same thing happens with terrorism – a crime is never seen as the consequence of something, even though it's the consequence of a social system that generates this insecurity and creates these enemies. Often in Argentina, when there are 15 year-olds or 20 year-olds committing a robbery, it's immediately deemed that they're a nasty person; they're lazy; it's in their nature; they don't want to work. What we don't do is stop and think about why that person was prepared to risk so much for so little. What are they lacking? Robbery is never understood or seen as somebody taking a huge risk with their life, it's always an attack on private property. What is it that pushes that person to take that risk? It's an obvious question that society chooses to overlook. There is an Argentine director called César González who came from one of the poorest suburbs of Buenos Aires, and he said something that was very difficult for society to understand, that when he was fifteen he didn't even have enough money to buy a pair of shoes, so he committed a robbery in order to be able to buy himself some shoes. There was no reason for him to be in that situation at fifteen years of age, there is no justification for it. Vicuña Porto is the enemy we need to be able to justify the inequalities and injustices that exist.

Finally, are you working on another project now? I hope we won’t have to wait another decade to see your next film.

I'm finishing a documentary, which is like an essay on photography. It's about an indigenous leader named Javier Chocobar, who was killed in 2009, and his story reveals a particular link between image and power.

Zama will be released in UK cinemas on May 25th

Monday, April 09, 2018


Even if I walked into Wonderstruck without knowing who had directed it, I'm sure it wouldn't have taken me long to figure it out. Before the opening scene has elapsed the film has already cited Oscar Wilde's quote “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” and a character has put on Bowie's Space Oddity. The combination of these two icons immediately called to mind Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine, which I think is one of his worst films, and for a while I feared that Wonderstruck would fail in similar ways to his confused glam-rock odyssey by telling too many stories, mixing too many styles, and allowing the thin characters to be swamped by the fetishistic evocation of a bygone era. Ultimately, my fears proved to be unfounded and Wonderstruck did enough to win me over, but it's an awkward and uneven movie that plays to Haynes' weaknesses as much as his strengths.

The film eventually finds its feet, but the opening scenes are disastrous. In trying to set up two parallel narratives, Haynes creates a clumsy cross-cutting rhythm that doesn't allow either of them to settle, and leaves both feeling strangely stunted. They are both stories about deaf children taking a daunting trip to New York in search of a lost parent, and they take place fifty years apart. In 1927, a girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) has little happiness in her life – we see her writing things like “Help Me” in her notepad – and so she often escapes to the movies, where she gazes upwards at the screen star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) in Daughter of the Storm, a silent pastiche that suggests both Griffith and Sjöström. When Rose emerges from the cinema, she sees posters announcing an exciting new development in the cinema experience – the talkies. With her one source of solace on the verge of being snatched away from her, Rose cuts her hair and heads to the big city, where Mayhew is performing on stage.

In 1977, we meet another deaf kid, although he isn't deaf at the start of the movie. Ben (Oakes Fegley) loses his hearing in a freak accident and then abruptly decides to run away from the hospital and take an overnight bus to the city where he thinks he might find the father he's never met. The only thing he has to go on is a note that he found in a book called Wonderstruck, which belonged to his late mother (Michelle Williams). He has asked her a number of times to tell him something about his father, even admitting that it was his wish when he blew out his birthday candles, but she always denied his request. My question is, why? When we finally find out who Ben's father was we discover that he wasn't a bad person, that there was nothing for his mother to be ashamed of. We even find out that she took Ben to his funeral when he was too young to remember, and that something he saw at that time has resulted in unexplained recurring nightmares. No, the only reason she doesn't share this information with him he because that's what is needed to kick-start the film's convoluted plot.

That sums up one of the major problems with Wonderstruck. The film has been adapted from a book by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the source material for Martin Scorsese's Hugo, and he clearly favours clockwork narratives that turn on contrivance and coincidence. We know that Ben’s narrative is going to intertwine with Rose’s story in some way but getting there requires a series of torturous plot devices that have a limiting effect on Haynes’ ability to tell this story in an elegant way. The sense of wonderment promised by the film’s title only occasionally flickers into life and Wonderstruck too often feels bogged down by incident, with Haynes’ focus fatally caught between the two narrative strands. When the director does choose to give certain scenes time to play out at length, I’m not sure he picks the right moments. A long stretch of the film’s second half takes place in the American Museum of Natural History – with both Ben and Rose having key encounters there fifty years apart – but there is an awful lot of faffing about before they make their key discoveries, and watching these kids run from one exhibit to another is nowhere near as engaging or magical as Haynes seems to believe it is.

And yet, there is magic in Wonderstruck. Haynes’ regular collaborators Sandy Powell, Carter Burwell and Ed Lachman are on prime form here, with Burwell and Lachman doing a great deal of heavy lifting given how much of the film unfolds without dialogue. It’s a gorgeous picture to look at, the golden hues of ‘70s New York contrasting with the grainy black-and-white of the 1927 section, and at its best – particularly in Rose’s strand of the story – it captures the enchantment mixed with trepidation that being alone in a big city for the first time can induce. Those transcendent moments are nowhere near as frequent as they should be, but by the time it drew to a close Wonderstruck had just about done enough to move me to tears. So much of Haynes’ work is about people yearning for a connection, and when he finally brings this film’s twin narratives together it has a heart-stopping emotional charge. The manner in which Haynes reveals all of the film’s answers – using a model panorama of New York and dollhouse-like recreations of Rose’s past – is an unbelievably beautiful sequence that recalls his own Superstar: The Karen Carpenter story, and there is a lovely sense of tactility throughout the whole film.

Wonderstruck is a film obsessed with the expressive, totemic properties of objects, sounds and faces and – for all of its narrative problems – it has a level of craftsmanship and ambition that comfortably eclipses most current releases. All of this in film aimed at younger audiences? Perhaps it's churlish to complain. I’d certainly encourage every parent to take their child to see Wonderstruck before any of the soulless blockbuster franchises that dominating our cultural diet, and I hope they’ll be transported by Haynes’ vision, filled with wonder as they gaze up at the stars.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

A Quiet Place

There's a wonderful purity about the premise for A Quiet Place. Set in a world where the population has been decimated by alien creatures with ultra-powerful hearing, it all comes down to one simple rule: make a noise, and you're dead. How long do you think you could survive under these conditions? When the film begins we're told it's Day 89, and we are immediately given a sense of how one family of survivors lives day-by-day in this post-apocalyptic landscape. They creep barefoot around the abandoned stores, stockpiling necessary medicines and supplies, and they don't even dare to speak in a whisper, communicating instead in sign language. When one of the children accidentally knocks an object from a shelf, his mother swoops desperately to catch it before it hits the floor. If this seems a little over-dramatic, we soon see what happens when they slip up, with the family's youngest child being snatched away moments after unthinkingly turning on an electric toy.

Thus begins an agonisingly tense waiting game. We know that somebody, at some point, is going to stumble, to drop something, to emit a scream; but until that happens we can only sit there gripping the arms of our seats in the silent dark. A Quiet Place reminded me of the famous Hitchcock quote in which he defined suspense, using the example of a bomb being hidden under a table where two people are talking – “In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: 'You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!'” In the case of this film, the bomb under a table becomes the upturned nail in a staircase. You want somebody to pull that nail out – you want to shout at the screen – because you know that inevitably a bare foot is going to sink down on it and the unfortunate soul will have to silently swallow their howls of pain. But director John Krasinski (who also stars, alongside Emily Blunt) teases out the moment, finding the perfect point in the narrative to subject us to this horror.

Who knew Krasinski had this in him? At ninety minutes the film, co-written by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, is stripped to the bone, minimising exposition and backstory to just a handful of glimpsed headlines and focusing intently on these four characters. Despite the taut nature of the film, what really elevates A Quiet Place is the way these actors are given the time and space to convince us with their portrayal of a co-dependent family unit. Each of them has their own vital role to play in the drama, notably the deaf daughter Regan (the hugely impressive Millicent Simmonds), who feels a sense of responsibility for her younger brother's death and is desperate to prove herself in her father's eyes. As I watched A Quiet Place I thought of the similarly styled Don't Breathe, but whereas that picture was defined by its sadism and sleaziness, Krasinski's picture allows us to form a connection with this family and each member of it, which lends their scenes of peril a powerful emotional charge. “Who are we if we can't protect them?” Blunt asks at one point, having just complicated matters further by giving birth to the couple's fourth child.

This particular plot detail gave me pause. There are many logical questions that A Quiet Place raises (it's simply impossible to believe that the family's current domestic setup and security measures were all assembled soundlessly, for example), but the pregnancy of Blunt's character may be the trickiest one to answer. When a single sound can mean death for the whole family, would you risk having a baby? Even if it is intended to assuage the couple's guilt and grief over losing a child, it just seems like an inexplicably poor character choice. But then Krasinski and Blunt pull off a pregnancy sequence that is so intense and riveting, all such questions suddenly feel meaningless. A Quiet Place may not stand up to scrutiny in the cold light of day, but what really matters with a film like this is how it plays in the dark of a cinema, where you can feel the whole audience collectively holding their breath, listening to every single sound, and jumping out of their seats when they hear something they don't want to hear.  In those moments, it works like you wouldn't believe. I had little hope for John Krasinski as a director based on the messy Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and the generally tepid response to his 2016 film The Hollars but – whisper it – his third feature feels like an instant genre classic.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018


Journeyman is clearly a passion project, but it’s all misplaced passion. It’s as if Paddy Considine’s burning desire to tell this story led to him rushing into production with a script that was at least a couple of drafts away from being fully realised. This is Considine’s second film as a director following 2011’s Tyrannosaur, which layered on the misery too aggressively but at least boasted performances that felt lived-in and full of authentic anger and heartache. In contrast, Considine struggles to give his actors in Journeyman more than a single dimension to play, including himself. The director stars as Matty Burton, an ageing middleweight boxer preparing for one final championship bout before retirement, but his opponent is a dangerous young fighter who snarls, “This will be a life-changer for you” at Matty during the pre-fight press conference. His words are horribly prophetic.

A few hours after winning the bout, Matty is found by his wife Emma (Jodie Whittaker) slumped over the coffee table, and after an emergency cranial operation he returns home a changed man. Already busy raising a newborn baby, Emma now finds herself taking care of her once-formidable husband, suddenly reduced to a childlike state. With an ugly scar across one side of his head, Matty has to relearn the basics of life – walking, talking, feeding himself – while also trying to remember the man he was and the life he once had. It’s undeniably wrenching to watch Emma and Matty struggling through this painful situation, particularly as they are completely alone, but the absence of anyone else in their lives for long stretches of the film tests the boundaries of credibility. They appear to receive no visits or offers of help from healthcare workers or from friends and family, and there seems to be no media interest in the decline of this British boxing champion. Where is everybody?

The whole film smacks of underdeveloped writing. Jodie Whittaker is a fine actress but she has been given no character to play here. Who is Emma Burton? Does she have any friends, any interests outside the home? When she finally takes her baby and leaves Matty, after he has lashed out violently at her, we briefly see her walking alone and sitting in a house alone. It seems inconceivable that she wouldn't turn to her family or friends in this time of need. When she leaves the picture (a critical misstep the film never recovers from), Matty's longtime corner team, who abandoned him when he became incapacitated, reunite to help him on the road to recovery, but they also only exist in order to serve their function in this straightforward narrative arc. The most well-developed character in the whole film is Matty's opponent on that fateful night, Andre 'The Future' Bryte (skilfully played by Anthony Welsh). So arrogant and aggressive in the build-up to their fight, Andre is one of the few people who visits Matty at home and he appears stricken by the damage he caused.

Considine remains a compelling screen presence and he carries Journeyman with a performance that boasts a number of keenly observed details; I particularly liked the way he often had his hand resting up by his chin, an unconscious sense-memory of the defensive stance he'd take in the ring. But Considine the director keeps letting Considine the actor down. The second half of the film takes the short cut of montage sequences to show Matty getting stronger and returning to something like his old self, and the mawkish finale attempts to wring tears out of the audience by abruptly dragging Emma back into the picture. Considine has done nothing to earn this redemptive ending, he has given us no sense of how she now feels about the husband who she deemed too dangerous to be around just a few weeks earlier, it's just all too easy. Considine wants to hit the audience hard but he's straining for effect without putting in the work between these big moments, to make us believe in these characters, in this situation. If Tyrannosaur was a little too tough to take, Paddy Considine has swung too far in the other direction with Journeyman. This film is so soft and thin it has turned to mush.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg obviously loves working with Mark Rylance, but does he actually know how good an actor he is? “Whenever I mention the other films I’ve made to Steven Spielberg, his eyes go a bit glazed,” the actor told The New York Times in 2016. “Because in his mind he’s rescued me – rescued me from the slums of the theatre! You know, discovered me, bless him.” Considering the fact that Rylance gave one of the most ferocious and commanding stage performances I've ever seen in Jerusalem, or that he was willing to have real sex on screen in Intimacy, we should all be aware that there is no limit to his range or his courage. And yet, Spielberg keeps him at a distance. In Bridge of Spies he was a quiet, deadpan presence wearing a mask of ambiguity, and in The BFG he was a twinkly, bumbling figure of innocence and benevolence hidden behind a cartoon. At the start of Ready Player One, he has the added distancing effect of being dead.

Rylance plays another big friendly giant in Ready Player One – an entrepreneurial giant rather than a literal one, in this case. His James Halliday is a small, timid, emotionally stunted man, but he created The Oasis, making him God to the millions who lose themselves in his virtual reality universe every day. The year is 2045 and the future is bleak. We are long past the point where “People stopped trying to fix problems and just started trying to outlive them,” with existence in the shiny world of The Oasis being understandably preferable to this grim, dusty reality. Some people enter The Oasis with a sense of purpose, though. Wade Watts (Tyler Sheridan) is an egg hunter, or “Gunter”, searching for the clues that Halliday left after his death, with the first person to claim the hidden Easter egg winning sole ownership of the creator's entire kit and caboodle. Wade dedicates himself to learning everything there is to know about Halliday and the 1980s pop culture ephemera that dominated his life, and in his virtual guise he chooses to go by the name Parzival, rather implausibly evoking the Arthurian knight who sought the Holy Grail.

This isn't the first time Spielberg has taken us on a Grail-hunt, but the sense of genuine wonderment and awe that I felt in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is sorely lacking here. Ready Player One is spectacle without meaning; a world where “the only limit is your own imagination,” but a world that critically lacks any tangible stakes or consequences. Get killed in The Oasis and you'll lose all your coins and weapons and whatever else you've gathered, but then you can just start again. The only notable real-world deaths that occur in the film are Wade's aunt and her deadbeat boyfriend, who are killed in a botched attempt on Wade's life that he witnesses, but he doesn't take a moment to mourn their passing before the plot rushes onwards. (And we get the impression that he didn't like living with them anyway, so whatever...) It's not like Spielberg to drop the ball on these integral dramatic elements. Think of the family units at the core of Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T. or Jurassic Park; think of the child yearning for a family in A.I. or the grieving father in Minority Report. What drives Wade Watts? Aside from his obsession with finding the golden egg and therefore controlling The Oasis, he's a complete blank whose most critical decision comes when he has to actually kiss a girl. This is not a particularly strong hero narrative on which to hang a 140-minute movie. I kept hoping that Olivia Cooke – a breath of fresh air every time she appears – could somehow take the reins from this insipid protagonist and become the film's chosen one instead.

But there are precious few surprises in Ready Player One. This adaptation of Ernest Cline's book, written by the author himself and Zak Penn, is one of the worst scripts Spielberg has ever handled, jumping haphazardly from one challenge and riddle to the next, and leaving no room for character or emotion. It's rife with nonsensical plotting (I refuse to believe that anyone in 2045 (a) uses passwords and (b) writes anything down on paper), and Cline frequently resorts to arbitrary devices to leap out of the narrative corners he has painted himself into, such as the Zemeckis Cube (which allows composer Alan Silvestri to pay tribute to himself). Some will be delighted by the Back to the Future references, of course, and for many viewers the multiple layers of reference and homage will be the biggest thrill Ready Player One offers, but it feels like empty name-dropping and cheap nostalgia. The Iron Giant, King Kong, Chucky, something called a Gundam (which gets an inordinately long build-up to little effect), Akira, Marvin the Martian...they all just become part of the digital noise. The one homage that Spielberg takes his time with is one that will surely be his most contentious, with an extended sequence being set in the Overlook Hotel. Would an artist as fiercely protective of his work as Stanley Kubrick have consented to one of his films being turned into a garish haunted house video game? What on earth was Spielberg thinking?

While I groaned at the misuse of The Shining I had to applaud the skill used to incorporate these characters so seamlessly into it. Ready Player One is undeniably an astonishing technical feat and  Spielberg being Spielberg  it's more fluidly and intelligently directed than it would have been in the hands of almost any other filmmaker. Who else could have kept the action so clear and coherent with so much stuff flying at the screen from every angle? In many ways, he is the only man who could have directed this film. He is one of the fathers of the blockbuster age and Ready Player One represents a large part of his legacy, but he is unwilling or unable to interrogate this pop culture obsessiveness or his own relation to it in any interesting way. It might seem churlish to attack an effects-driven popcorn movie for lacking complexity or depth (and Spielberg has insistently defined this as a “movie” rather than a “film”), but we hold Steven Spielberg to a higher standard than other blockbuster directors because he is the standard for other blockbuster directors.

What's ultimately missing from Ready Player One is a sense of the world beyond The Oasis. My interest perked up whenever we left the virtual realm, but everything about its portrait of 2045 USA is so sketchy. How did “the bandwidth riots” affect the existence of The Oasis? What exactly is corporate villain Ben Mendelsohn planning to do if he gets his greedy hands on Halliday's egg? Does anyone have jobs in this dark future or do they all live in The Oasis for free? Is the entire economy built around this VR world? Ready Player One eventually takes a shift towards a cautionary tale about the limitations and dangers of spending your entire life immersed in video games and pop culture, but it doesn't offer us a convincing alternative. At one point Wade even suggests turning off The Oasis twice a week, but what are these people supposed to do then? “Reality,” he tells us in the film's final scene, “is the only thing that's real.” Hollow words from a film that has spent the previous two and a half hours blithely ignoring the complexities of the real world.

Sunday, March 25, 2018


When Steven Soderbergh makes a movie, he never just makes a movie. Last year's comeback film Logan Lucky acted as the test case for a new means of distribution, and he followed that picture with Mosaic, a six-part HBO series that also functioned as an interactive app-based experience. The goal for Soderbergh in all of his post-retirement filmmaking appears to be to innovate, to experiment, and also – crucially – to have fun doing it. He has often spoken about his lack of interest in making anything that could be deemed an 'important' film, and his latest effort Unsane is about as far from prestige filmmaking as one could get. Apparently shot in ten days for $1.5 million, Unsane is pure B-movie pulp in the Sam Fuller mould, and it's Soderbergh's most invigorating work in years.

The experimental component of this film is Soderbergh's decision to embrace the iPhone and to shoot the whole film using that device. This isn't exactly a major artistic breakthrough in itself – Sean Baker's Tangerine set the standard for iPhone cinematography in 2015 – but utilising this shooting method has given Soderbergh what he always seems to be chasing: liberation. Soderbergh gets close to his actors, circling them, shooting them from unexpected angles and utilising the camera's depth of focus purposefully to accentuate the paranoia of his anxious protagonist Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy). She's a bank analyst in Pennsylvania, having moved there from Boston with the intention of starting a new life. Her old life had been all but destroyed by the determined affections of a stalker, and a restraining order hasn't done enough to heal the emotional and psychological wounds that David Strine (an excellent Joshua Leonard) left behind him. She still thinks she sees Strine in every bearded male who crosses her path, and when a casual Tinder hookup leaves her shaking with fear in the bathroom, Sawyer decides she needs professional help.

The paperwork snafu that sees Sawyer voluntarily committing to 24 hours under psychiatric observation initially seems like a bad joke – how many of us happily sign 'boilerplate' agreements without reading the small print? – but as one day extends into two, and then a week, Unsane starts to feel like an endless nightmare. She tries calling 911 to report that she is being held against her will, but a nurse informs her that they receive such calls every single day – “But those are from crazy people,” Sawyer responds, her eyes wild with panic. Claire Foy's eyes tell us a lot in Unsane, particularly as the director frequently asks her to stare directly into his lens. Sawyer is an abrasive, forthright character and it's a struggle for her to play nice, to be the good, docile patient that everyone tells her is the key to her release. We can always see her calculating her options, looking for ways to manipulate those around her to her advantage, while struggling to maintain her increasingly fragile grip on her own sanity. It's an electrifying performance, and one that's crucial for keeping us invested in a film that is always teetering on the edge of absurdity.

Is Unsane a silly movie? Yeah, it kind of is. You need to swallow a lot of implausibilities and look past a number of clunky plot details to enjoy it, but then the film offers so much to enjoy! Unsane has some of hysterical energy of films like The Snake Pit and Shock Corridor (the character played by an affable Jay Pharoah feels like a nod to Fuller's film), and Soderbergh is firing on all cylinders here. I loved the simple but brilliantly effective use of multiple exposures to share Sawyer's subjective experience of a hallucinogenic, while a climactic confrontation between Foy and Leonard in a padded cell is intense and brilliantly acted. The film slips gleefully from comedy to horror, and while it perhaps teeters too far into traditional slasher movie tropes in its overextended final moments, Unsane always feels thrillingly alive.

Those final moments take place in the woods as night falls, and a deep blue pall is cast across the film. Soderbergh's iPhone camera sometimes struggles to make out the distinguishing features of the actors in such an environment, and while the director has been full of praise for this gadget as a filmmaking tool, its limitations are often glaringly evident. Unsane is full of crude, overexposed lighting and flat colours, but I found it refreshing to see a digital film that actually looks like a digital film. I've always had a fondness for the digital cinema of the late '90s and early 2000s, films that had their own distinct look and texture, before digital cinematography evolved to become a cheaper, lesser substitute for celluloid, and Unsane feels like a throwback to that visually fascinating era. iPhones won't replace movie cameras, but they will offer an alternative method of production that has its own aesthetic virtues and flaws, and it will be fascinating to see how more directors utilise it. By the time they do, Steven Soderbergh will surely have long moved on to his next experiment.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A Night with Apichatpong Weerasethakul

According to Apichatpong Weerasethakul's 2009 essay The Memory of Nabua: A Note on the Primitive Project, “ghosts will appear under certain conditions, when it is not quite dark and not quite light (at the break of dawn and twilight).” That twilight zone – where dreams and reality become indistinguishable, and ghosts walk among the living – is where Weerasethakul’s cinema exists. His work seems designed to lull us into a hypnagogic state, inviting us to readjust the rhythm of our bodies and completely surrender ourselves to the film; in fact, when he introduced his last feature, 2015's Cemetery of Splendour, at the London Film Festival he told the audience, “It's okay to fall asleep.”

With that in mind it makes sense that Weerasethakul favours nocturnal outings for his work, and an environment that encourages viewers to relax into his films and loosen their grip on consciousness. In 2016 he presented a 16-hour retrospective of his body of work at Tate Modern, beginning at 10pm on a Saturday night and ending just before 2pm the following day. Last month in Rotterdam, he curated SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL, an immersive experience in which guests checked into a fully-functional pop-up hotel and spent the night in beds that were surrounded by images he had filmed, none of which would be repeated over the course of the five-day installation.

Read the rest of my article at The Skinny

Monday, March 12, 2018

"All of the things that are a little bit swept under the carpet in other films are fiercely important for me." - An Interview with Robin Campillo

120 BPM is a film 25 years in the making. In 1992, when he was thirty years old, Robin Campillo joined the AIDS activism collective ACT UP-Paris, protesting the government’s inaction as the epidemic devastated the gay community. He subsequently forged a career as both a successful screenwriter (working primarily with Laurent Cantet) and as a director, but his past experiences have never left his thoughts and he has finally exploited his memories for his most ambitious feature to date. 120 BPM follows a group of young protesters as they fight to make their voices heard, with the relationship between HIV positive Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and his HIV negative lover Nathan (Arnaud Valois) giving this sprawling ensemble film an emotional through line. Recipient of the Grand Prix at last year's Cannes Film Festival and a big winner at the recent César Awards, 120 BPM is a powerful, passionate and exhilarating piece of filmmaking, and I met Robin Campillo during the London Film Festival to discuss it.

Are you enjoying the experience of revisiting your past as you're doing all these interviews?

It is interesting. I've been talking a lot about this film but as I am talking I still find new things that I didn't realise a month ago, so that is interesting. I think I did this film to close a door on my youth, and also a door in cinema, to do something else. I have this feeling that I had finished a phase of my life. Maybe I won't have anything to do now – I hope I have some new ideas! But I had this feeling that I had to do this film, and for 25 years I was trying to do this film.

So all the way through the two films you previously directed, you felt you were working towards this one?

A little bit unconsciously, but for instance, when I did my first film Les Revenants it was a kind of allegory of what I lived in the '80s when the epidemic started. It's a film about not living your own life as a ghost, and also from a directing point of view, it was the only film I did with 35mm and I didn't like it. For me it is an old filming process, you know, the fact that you put the camera down and you know exactly what you want in the frame, you know exactly what you want the actors to do, you know the light, everything. You are in control of everything and when you do a take everyone is silent, everyone stops breathing, and for me I don't want to make a film like this. My second film [Eastern Boys] is about my way of thinking that cinema is the art of metamorphosis. How do you go from this point to that point? From this character to that character? From this form to another form? I tried to do that. I decided to make a film where I could breathe normally, and after the experience of The Class – that was the first film we did with digital cameras and multi-cameras – I did it like this. In Eastern Boys, the main character Daniel, who is played by Olivier Rabourdin, is like me. I decided that I was not making a film against the other but I let the other invade me, and I filmed this invasion as something that is a little bit frightening but also a little bit fun. Because my way of directing was more fluid I decided I could do a film about this.

I think I recognise that impulse in Eastern Boys, because the film does have an unusual shape and rhythm, and it goes in so many unexpected directions. It ends up feeling like a very different film than it was at the start, and it seemed like a narrative that was just unfolding spontaneously.

Yes, that is exactly what I meant. You say it much better than me, which is a shame for me! [Laughs] Even for BPM, I think if you read the script you would say it's quite the same thing as the film, but it's really not. I think the characters are not at all what I was thinking of when I was writing the script.

You feel like you are discovering the movie as you make it?

Yes, and I liked to be open to what was going on during filming. If you are constantly fighting against the weather, because this scene is supposed to be sunny and it is raining, you are going to die doing films, you know? Maybe rain is a good thing and you have to adapt. You have to do a lot of mutation, and there are so many details I changed. It takes a lot of energy during the shooting, I never worked so much, but I really worked here just to be able to stay open to what was happening. That is actually easier for a director because you don't have this stage fright, you don't have this tension, and I wanted my actors and my crew to feel the same way. When I went to the set with my cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, we had three cameras and we tried to make the first take twenty minutes long because we wanted to go fast. We would do the scene in one take, and the actors might look a little bit lost or you can see the other cameras and a microphone, but it's not a problem because we are using digital cameras and we are not afraid of the price of the 35mm film. After that one take, you realise all the problems you have to solve, and you just do it naturally. You change the places of the actors, and after a moment the actors understand that everything is a mess – it's not just them – and they forget there are cameras around. We tell them they can take all the time they want because we will fix it in the editing. Don't rush, do it as you want. For me and for all of them, it's better that way. I'm sorry, I don't know what was the original question!

That's OK, it was an interesting answer! Actually, to follow on from the idea of the script changing and evolving as you filmed, I wanted to ask you about your writing process because your co-writer Philippe Mangeot was also a key figure in ACT UP. How did you collaborate and use your memories to build this story?

You know, it's very difficult for me because when I'm writing I need to write alone, but I also need someone to talk to very often, at least once a week, to have a long talk about things. I have all these memories and I did the film out of my memories, I didn't go through many documents. I created these characters and sometimes they are close to real characters and sometimes not, so I needed to have this talking process to be sure of what I was trying to do and to put it in perspective. It was very important for me to have this dialogue, and obviously Philippe was a very strong personality in ACT UP and very influential in the group. I'm not talking only about the script when I'm talking with someone; for instance, we were talking about the representation of the disease, and because we were talking about that I said the main character had to get thinner and thinner. Philippe said to me, please don't go too far with this kind of presentation because after a while it is embarrassing, you know, to put a lot of lesions on the skin. For things like that, you need to have a dialogue with someone who has been involved in this disease. I said to him that we have to stay realistic, we can't do nothing with the body, but it's true that because we had this dialogue I realised the stigmata is not the topic of the film. You already have a lot of films about that; you have a film like Silverlake Life: The View from Here where a guy is filming his boyfriend dying, for example.

I knew at this moment that when I was thinking about Sean as a character – and when I found Nahuel Pérez Biscayart it was so obvious – I was thinking about a character who is not protecting himself in front of this disease. It is consuming his last strength in the political struggle; he incarnates so much his own political struggle that he dies of it. That was the main thing. Nahuel is obviously a very baroque actor and we see that Sean is very theatrical and has a little bit of a theatrical distance from his disease, but when he gets really ill and goes to the hospital I told the actor, "At this moment you stop playing, it's over." For me, that was the most melancholy thing in the film. He has no distance anymore with the disease, and this distance is important when you want to have a political struggle. It cannot be political anymore if you are caught in the intimacy of your disease. That is the subject of the film and that happened because I was talking to someone about a very small thing, and it made me realise that I didn't want to see someone with a lot of stigmata, I just wanted to see someone playing less and less and less.

I think one of the most moving aspects of the film is the relationship between Sean and Nathan, and the way that you present a sexual relationship between one character who is HIV-positive and another who is negative. I can't think of many other films that have explored this kind of material with such frankness and intimacy.

It was so common at this moment, I didn't realise that I was showing something strange! People are talking about this as a beautiful love story and I think...hmm...I mean, love story? I can accept the expression if we agree on the fact that the most important word is 'story,' because 'love,' I don't know what it is. We had a lot of sex in this group and in our lives, but you had couples that just existed for five or six months, because one of them was dying. It was very weird. Nathan and Sean, they are not together for ten years, they just have a few months, or one year tops. I wanted to talk about that, the fact that you have this quick intimacy, which is very strong, and I think Nathan is more in love with Sean than the other way, but I think Sean doesn't feel his love so much anymore. All of these things are in the sex scenes. First of all you have to find good actors, that's the main thing, and then I told them that I didn't want the sex scene to be like a performance. I don't want people to do the Karma Sutra, to make the spectator feel guilty that they have such dull sex! [Laughs] I told them, it's a scene like the other scenes, you have to play things, it's not a pornographic film.

In fact, the sex is of secondary importance in those encounters because these are the moments when they reveal themselves to each other, sharing very intimate memories and stories.

Exactly. I started with this. What I'm interested in when I do this kind of scene is what is beneath the scene. I don't like a film when you see a sex scene and it's just a sex scene; people don't talk, they just have sex and they do amazing things that you would never do in your life. For me that doesn't exist. When you have sex, you have this first phase when you have to get naked, and all those details are important to me. Then because we are talking about a film about the AIDS epidemic, you have to put on a condom, you have to put on gel, and when you are finished you have to take the condom off. All of the things that are a little bit swept under the carpet in other films are fiercely important for me. And when you have sex, it happens that it's a little bit too quick, and just one of them is having an orgasm and the other is not, so you start talking about your life, and I love to film this. The fact that they have sex, and then they stop and start talking, and then they start to have sex again, and then you have the ghost of the one he had sex with years ago, I love to shoot this kind of intimate scene. This scene is like a continent by itself, it is such a big landscape. They are talking about their past and you realise that Nathan is talking about politics and that makes Sean a little bit glum because it's not the moment, all those details are very important. That's why I tell my actors not to focus on the sex thing, because you have to play something much more difficult. For me, Nathan is in love with Sean because he is in love with the group, it's important for me to feel that, I have to feel the fact that Nathan is very naïve about all these things, I have to feel that Sean is protecting himself from this love, and all that. It is a lot of work, in fact.

One of my favourite scenes in the film is when Nathan is talking about reading the magazine article about AIDS, and he says something like "I'd never seen a gay couple in a magazine before and now they were telling us that we're going to die." It's a very powerful moment and a reminder of how invisible gay lives and gay culture was in mainstream society, until this epidemic shone a very harsh light on it.

As I said, when Nathan is talking about his past it's really my experience, it is very close to me. When my first boyfriend died I had this feeling that we never happened as a couple, we never existed. That's why I was really angry, I think. It was such an obsession for me that I put the face of my first boyfriend in the film, you know, when they are talking about the guy who died. It's his name and his face. I don't mind if his family is cross about that, I really don't mind, because it's my story with him. Weirdly, I didn't have any photos of him so a friend sent me a photo of him via the post, and all the other photos had been lost, so the last photo of him is in this film. For me, that was so important because I didn't want to put a sentence at the end of the film with a dedication, I wanted him to be in the film. When I was writing the screenplay, I remembered that first time I saw a picture of a gay couple in a newspaper. ACT UP exists because we didn't exist for the first ten years of the epidemic.

You know, I love the film Freaks, and for me it was very close to what ACT UP was. In Freaks you have this group of abnormal people, and during one hour the director explains to you that even if they don't have arms or legs or they have all these disabilities, they are human like us, they have the same lives, they have love stories and everything. But at the end because they are threatened by normal people who try to get money out of them, those people who are seen throughout the film as being more human, they become like monsters in order to terrify the normal people and get revenge, or justice. So for me ACT UP was exactly the same thing. If you are afraid of us because of the disease, we are going to frighten you; if you are not OK with gays, we are going to become the evil fags. That was something we accepted, to not be lovable. Today there is a generation that has gay marriage and all this vindication, but this is important for them to know, and I think for young people it's important. When we were in this group we were not even thinking about gay marriage or domestic partnership, but at the same time we had a lot of cases in a couple when one of them was dying and the other was being kicked out of the flat by his family. So it has always been connected.

It must be interesting to work with all these actors in their twenties and thirties, who surely have a very different perspective on gay rights and AIDS and all of these issues.

Yes, it is. For instance, they are mostly gay, but I realised that nowadays we tend to say that young gay people are not afraid anymore, but they are afraid, they are really afraid. I have this feeling that they think they cannot express themselves, they cannot complain, and they should just be happy to be in a world with rights and medication, etc. But they are still afraid of many things, like taking a lot of drugs, and it's not fun. It's a really problematic thing. We talked a lot when we were working with these young actors because I realised they didn't understand a lot of the words we were using. I realised I had to change the dialogue because if they don't understand then the public will also be lost. I mean, I like the public to be lost but you can only lose them to a point, you know? So we talked a lot about that and when they read the screenplay they were very touched because they didn't know about any of this, they really didn't know.

Did you think about younger people watching BPM and how they might relate to the activism in the film? We are currently living in a time of mass protest and resistance, but it takes a different form to the actions of ACT UP.

No, I was really making the film in a very selfish way, but I knew of these movements. We have a lot of groups in France, like anti-racism groups about black people or Arab or Muslim people, because the Islamophobia in France is very, very strong. I said in a few interviews that these groups – like we have Les Indigènes de la République in France – I don't always agree with them on a lot of points, but they exist. You have to stay a little bit more open to what is happening now, because if these groups are very radical it's because there is a lot to fight against. I have this feeling that people think they are very dodgy, but it was exactly the same thing with ACT UP, so when people are very welcoming to the film today we have to think and remember that we were not so welcome 25 years ago.

120 BPM is released in the UK on April 6th

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Red Sparrow

There's a gulf between the kind of film I imagined Red Sparrow would be, and the kind of film it is. This is the story of a young Russian woman forced to enter into a secret training programme, from which she will emerge as a sexy super-spy, proficient in using her body to seduce and control any man the state declares an interest in. She engages with an American CIA agent in an attempt to discover the mole he has been working with, but her interactions with him have a flirtatious edge that may or may not amount to more than mere subterfuge. Whose side is she really on?

It sounds like fun, doesn't it? A twisty, adult thriller with shades of Hitchcock and Verhoeven. So why is Red Sparrow such a dud? A lot of it is down to the film's tone, which (aside from a much-needed late cameo from a sloshed Mary Louise Parker) is resolutely ultra-serious. There's something inherently ridiculous in much of what we see in Red Sparrow, but Francis Lawrence and his screenwriter Justin Haythe (adapting a novel by Jason Matthews) refuse to acknowledge it. I can imagine another filmmaker getting his hands on this material and having a ball with it; in fact, I couldn't help thinking of Verhoeven's World War II romp Black Book, a tale of a double-crossing femme fatale that delivered wild entertainment with a sly sense of humour without short-changing the dark heart of the material. The inability or unwillingness of anyone involved in Red Sparrow to crack a smile or even raise an eyebrow only serves to make the whole enterprise look even more ridiculous, and not in a fun way.

For example, take the secret training camp where Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is sent by her uncle, um, Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) to learn her trade. Run by the stern “Matron” (Charlotte Rampling, barely bothering with a Russian accent), the tasks faced by the young recruits here involve getting undressed on command, seducing soldiers, watching BDSM porn videos and – in the case of one unfortunate young woman – being forced to perform fellatio on a prisoner known for his preference for young boys. The goal is to mould them into unfeeling sexually potent robots, capable of seducing anyone, anywhere at any time. Dominika refers to it as “whore school” and you can see her point; one would think that some of the finer points of spycraft would be on the curriculum here, but the focus seems to be entirely on sex. When Dominika is almost raped in the shower by a fellow cadet (already the second such attack she has faced in the movie), Matron orders her to give her attacker what he wants in front of the class. Dominika's body no longer belongs to her, it is the property of the state, and the only value she has is her ability to use that body to gain information for the powerful men above her.

There’s a kinky weirdness about this whole section of the film that is relatively interesting, but too much of it consists of grey-clad characters in grey rooms giving grey performances. Jo Willems’ cinematography is handsomely mounted but drab and murky. There’s not a single memorable image in the movie. I could feel the life draining out of the film before the first hour had elapsed, and I started getting antsy waiting for the plot to kick in, but when it did it hardly improved matters. Red Sparrow’s slow-burn narrative largely consists of Dominika playing both sides, building a relationship with CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) while attempting buy time and find a way out from under the system that is using her sick mother as a means of control. Francis Lawrence displays no aptitude for generating and sustaining tension, and so the film just plods from one plot twist to the next, as we wait to see which side of the geopolitical divide Dominika will end up on. When the mole finally reveals his identity by inexplicably walking up to her and announcing his duplicity, one suspects he has grown as bored with the film as we have.

It’s easy to see why Jennifer Lawrence took this role, but it doesn’t really work for her. She has to suppress her natural charisma and brash spirit, and her performance comes off as stiff and opaque, while the complete lack of spark between Lawrence and Edgerton ensures the film’s romantic angle fizzles out instantly. (Their one sex scene is hilariously perfunctory.) By the time I was watching a gleeful sadist torture a character by tearing thin strips of flesh from his body, I began wondering why I was still there, watching such a hollow, po-faced and nasty piece of work. Jennifer Lawrence has used Red Sparrow’s promotional tour to reveal that the film’s sexual scenes help her feel empowered after having nude photographs of her stolen and published in 2014. I'm glad the film has been such a positive experience for her, but what value does it have for the rest of us?

Saturday, March 03, 2018

An Interview with Daniela Vega

A star is born in A Fantastic Woman. As Marina, the transgender nightclub singer ostracised and humiliated by her late lover’s family, Daniela Vega is the driving force behind Sebastián Lelio’s absorbing drama. Her passionate and moving performance is one of the year’s most memorable pieces of screen acting, as well as marking another breakthrough moment for transgender representation in cinema. We sat down with Vega to discuss it.

Do you remember the first conversations you had about this film with Sebastián Lelio?

Of course, how am I not going to remember that? That process of research is a little bit more private. I can tell you about what you see in the film, but the process I think belongs to us.

So what was your reaction when he asked you to play the lead role?

At first he told me that he was doing the research on something so I started working with him as a consultant. Two years went by, and one day I received a package at home, containing the script. On the cover it said ‘UMF [Una Mujer Fantástica] – TOP SECRET’. I started reading it, but because it only said UMF I didn’t know exactly what that meant. So I started reading and the first 40-50 pages were all about Orlando, and then suddenly Orlando died, so what are we going to do now with the protagonist dead? When I carried on reading I understood that there was a female character who takes over the film, and she was looking very much like me. I finished reading it and I didn’t understand much, so I called him. He told me, “I want you to be the protagonist of my new film.” I said, “You’re mad!” He said, “No, I’m not mad. I’m completely sure.” Then I accepted.

Read the rest of my interview at Little White Lies

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Shape of Water

“If I spoke about it – If I did – what would I tell you, I wonder? Would I tell you about the time...? It happened a long time ago – in the last days of a fair Prince’s reign... Or would I tell you about the place? A small city near the coast but far from everything else... Or would I tell you about her? The princess without voice...”

These are the opening lines to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, and they seem to promise us a traditional fairy tale, but the director very quickly disabuses us of any notion that this is a film for all the family. Within minutes of being introduced to her, we see Eliza (Sally Hawkins) masturbating in the bathtub – a daily morning ritual, it seems – and later there are many gruesomely violent sights in store for us, from one man’s nearly severed fingers growing black and pungent with infection to someone being dragged across the ground by a finger hooked through the bloody hole in his cheek. No, The Shape of Water is definitely not for kids.

And yet, there is something inherently childish about del Toro’s film. Perhaps the director believes that he is making a mature work by filling it with sex, violence and swearing, but I’d rather see some maturity in his storytelling, some hint of moral shading or ambiguity. The Shape of Water exists almost entirely on the surface; a high-concept premise executed in the most basic way. The film asks us to buy into a fantastical romance but it doesn't put in the ground work required to give that relationship a genuine emotional resonance, and del Toro relies too heavily on his extremely talented cast to transcend the one-dimensional characterisations he has given them and invest the film with something that feels real. To their credit, they almost get it there.

A lot of that weight rests on Sally Hawkins' slender shoulders. As the mute heroine, who dances around in private moments with images of classic films swimming in her mind, it would have been easy for Hawkins to overplay the winsome innocence and become cloying, but there's a quiet determination and a vital flintiness in her performance. When the villainous Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) attempts to intimidate her, she responds with a knowing smile before signing F-U-C-K-Y-O-U to score a silent victory over this tyrant. Hawkins can't really sell her attraction to the fish/man creature that's at the heart of The Shape of Water, though. She might have been capable of this feat given ample time, but del Toro rushes through the various stages in the relationship with indecent haste. Within the first 45 minutes of the movie she has moved from wanting to feed the merman eggs and communicate with it, to taking it home and having sex with it. Where exactly does this desire spring from? Doesn't she feel any trepidation, despite seeing it sever a man's fingers and eat a cat?

Everyone in The Shape of Water moves on straight lines, clearly delineated as good guys and bad guys. Michael Shannon is an actor capable of nuance but del Toro doesn't ask him to provide any. He and his superior General Hoyt (Nick Searcy) are the real monsters of the film, representing American authority figures terrorising the band of outsiders (a freak of nature, a mute woman, a black woman and a gay man) whom we are encouraged to cheer for. The one character who alters in our perception is Michael Stuhlbarg, as an initially shifty scientist who is subsequently revealed to be on the side of the angels, but he’s stuck in a useless Soviet subplot that has little to do with the main narrative. The lurking Red Menace just feels like another ‘60s Americana trope that del Toro is adding to the background of his film like it's just another piece of production design; like the handsome, smiling guy in a diner who is revealed to be both homophobic and racist in the space of 30 seconds in a laughable scene.

Del Toro’s scripts often feel like they are lagging some distance behind his direction. The Shape of Water is as lovingly designed as you'd expect it to be (even if I found the insistent green/red colour scheme to be a little drab and tiring), and he pulls off some beautiful individual moments. I loved the bookending shots of Eliza floating in water, and the charming, intimate scenes in which she and her neighbour Giles (a wonderful Richard Jenkins) are captivated by old movies on TV, but these are just isolated moments of inspiration in a film that often feels pedestrian and frustratingly sloppy in its storytelling. I couldn’t watch Eliza fill her bathroom with water without wondering why the floor didn’t give way, or pondering the damage caused to the cinema downstairs, and I couldn’t overlook the character inconsistencies and logical leaps necessitated by the film’s plotting in the final stages. I’m not asking for a fantasy movie to be watertight, but The Shape of Water is too easy, too complacent and too obvious to achieve the emotional force that I wanted to be swept away by.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The 15:17 to Paris

The 15:17 to Paris forms a loose thematic trilogy with Clint Eastwood's American Sniper and Sully, being another exploration of American duty and heroism, but it's quite unlike the two films that preceded it. In fact, The 15:17 to Paris is quite unlike anything Clint Eastwood has made, or any other major studio release in recent memory. While Sniper and Sully were anchored by commanding central performances by Bradley Cooper and Tom Hanks, Eastwood has rolled the dice on this film by casting the three real-life heroes as themselves. It's an old maxim that the true test of a movie star is that we're happy to watch them doing nothing, but The 15:17 to Paris is asking us to watch three ordinary men recreating scenes from their mostly ordinary lives. When we are presented with a long montage of them enjoying their European holiday, we're basically just watching three selfie-taking dudes enjoying their European holiday, with the director making little attempt to juice up these scenes dramatically in any way. Clint Eastwood surely could have had his pick of every young actor in Hollywood for this film, so why make this choice?

It's not like this kind of thing has never been done in Hollywood before. Stars such as Muhammad Ali and Howard Stern have played themselves in biopics, but that's because they were larger-than-life personalities, and while the case of Audie Murphy might seem analogous here, he had already attained years of acting experience before reliving his World War II experiences in To Hell and Back in 1955. Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler, the three young men starring in The 15:17 to Paris, don’t possess the ego, the charisma or the experience to justify their casting, but their very averageness seems to be the point. While Eastwood squeezed great drama out of an incident that lasted just a few minutes in Sully by digging into the aftermath and exploring the psychological toll that being in the spotlight took on Chesley Sullenberger, he and his screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal have taken a different approach here. The attempted terrorist attack that changed the lives of these men takes place in the final twenty minutes, with the build-up consisting of a lot of foreshadowing and an attempt to place these people in context.

That context is Sacramento in the early 21st century, where these three characters are raised in an environment of faith and duty. They meet as rebellious children at a pious Christian school, and bond through their fascination with warfare, playing with toy guns in the woods and poring over WWII battle plans. Their paths in life seem set until Sadler announces his desire to move to a secular school, one where he might have a chance of meeting girls and going to a prom. He was the only one of the three protagonists to not later sign up for the military, and this casual scene is presented as a turning point, one of many that led these three men to board the train to Paris a decade later.

With Sadler gone, the film focuses primarily on Stone and Skarlatos, now played by their adult selves. Both of them join the military and are fuelled by dreams of making a difference and serving their country, but they can’t stop bungling every opportunity that's handed to them. Stone’s hopes of joining the air force are dashed by an eye condition, and he fails in his SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training after screwing up every practical task and missing an exam by oversleeping. Skarlatos does actually make it to Afghanistan, but he manages to leave his kit behind in a village forcing his unit to turn around to retrieve it. And yet, both men maintain a sense that fate is somehow guiding them. “Do you ever feel like life is pushing us toward something, some greater purpose?” Stone ponders at a couple of points in the film, and The 15:17 to Paris is structured as a chronicle of moments and decisions that could have gone one way, but fortunately went another. The decision to visit Amsterdam on the advice of an old man met in a bar; the decision to keep to their schedule and take the train to Paris despite their raging hangovers. One way or another, these men were meant to be on that train.

Is that vague sense of divine providence enough for a movie? I’m not entirely sure. The 15:17 to Paris is, undeniably, a very weird film to watch. Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler actually acquit themselves quite well. There’s a little awkwardness in some of their interactions – mostly in the laid-back scenes where they are just watching a football game or making holiday plans over Skype – but they aren’t egregiously stiff or self-conscious, and they have a natural chemistry. I found the film mostly engaging once it had moved past the draggy childhood section, which actually suffers a little for the distracting presence of recognisable faces in minor roles (Tony Hale and Thomas Lennon as teachers, for example, or the perennially underused Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer as the boys’ mothers). The film moves in a functional way, with Blyskal’s script laying out the events in a straightforward and unimaginative fashion and Eastwood – of course – simply taking the screenplay and shooting it with minimum fuss. The avoidance of traditional cinematic and dramatic tropes is admirable, but it also gives the film a weird, lumpy sense of pacing and a number of scenes that just feel dead on the screen.

The exception to this is the climactic assault on the train, in which Eastwood builds tension through shots of Ayoub El Khazzani (played by professional actor Ray Corasani) boarding the train and preparing his attack in the train toilet, and using dramatic camera angles and close-ups as the terrified passengers flee and Stone springs into action, closely followed by his friends. The ensuing tussle is frantic, bloody and gripping, and watching all of these ordinary people recreating the most dramatic and horrifying moment in their lives gives the film an added emotional force that is remarkable and unique. Perhaps Eastwood’s gamble does pay off after all. I was particularly moved by the presence of Mark Moogalian, who was shot in the neck when he fought with the attacker and is here reliving the time he almost died, as Stone attempts to stem the blood gushing from his wound. Moogalian also gets the movie's best line, when Stone asks him if he’d like to say a prayer and he responds with a gurgled, “No thank you.” I’m not sure any of these guys have a future in movies, but at least one of them has impeccable comic timing.