Posts Tagged ‘movie’

As my first year in film review blogging draws to a close, it’s time for me to  list my Top Ten of the year. I’ve restricted myself to films that went on general release in the UK in 2014, which means I can’t list one of my favourite films – Nothing Bad Can Happen (see April 5th review), directed by Katrin Gebbe and shown as part of the Bird’s Eye Film Festival. As a non-professional blogger I also can’t claim to have seen all the good (or bad) films released this year. Some of the films that have popped up in lists such as the Sight & Sound Top 20 or the Guardian Top Ten, but which I haven’t seen, are The Lego Movie, Ida, and Leviathan.

But with no further ado and in reverse order, here are my ten favourites of the year.

10. The Wind Rises.

9. Inside Llewyn Davis.

8. Pride.

7. 12 Years a Slave.

6. Kajaki.

5. Citizenfour.

4. Tom at the Farm.

3. Nightcrawler.

2. Boyhood.

1. Under the Skin.


10. The Wind Rises.

The Studio Ghibli animation genius, Hayao Miyazaki, has said this will be his last film. But I will not be alone in hoping that he has a change of heart. In my review (May 24th) I said that this was “one of my favourite films of the year so far and one of the greatest animated movies I have ever seen”. Pursuing a more adult theme than most of Studio Ghibli’s output, The Wind Rises tells a fictionalised version of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the airplane designer who opposed Japan’s involvement in World War 2 but was also responsible for two of that nation’s greatest fighter planes used in the conflict. Miyazaki masterfully conveys how a child’s wonder at the marvels and mystery of flight never leaves Horikoshi as an adult, “although ultimately it is a very melancholy tale too”.

9. Inside Llewyn Davis.

Like The Wind Rises, Inside Llewyn Davis also has a rather melancholic feel, albeit balanced by the dry wit and colourful characters typical of Cohen brothers’ scripts. It tells the tale of a struggling sixties folk musician giving one last attempt at breaking into the big time. Some found the character of Llewyn Davis too unsympathetic to identify with, but I disagree. I found his increasing resentment all too easy to understand. A merchant seaman by trade, Davis finds himself watching inferior musicians dressed in chunky sweaters, singing songs about life at sea, and receiving warm applause from their audiences. The ending is rather splendid.

8. Pride.

The closure of industries during the Thatcher era of government, and especially the miners’ strike of 1985-6, has formed the backdrop for several British feelgood movies, including Billy Elliott and The Full Monty. In Pride, however, the politics of the time is much more to the fore. This is essentially a culture-clash story in which two very different beleaguered groups find they have a common cause. Based on real events, when the London-based group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners make contact with a South Wales colliery, they find that acceptance doesn’t happen straight away. Eventually, though, strong bonds are formed, culminating in a group of miners leading the Gay Pride march in London. Pride features one of the year’s best supporting performances, from Bill Nighy as a closeted former miner who quietly comes out.

7. 12 Years a Slave.

Deservedly picking up the 2014 Best Picture Oscar, 12 Years a Slave is based on Solomon Northup’s harrowing account of his own abduction into slavery. It’s power lies not only in the terrible sense of injustice that is conveyed, but in the graphic depictions of cruelty that have a visceral impact on the viewer. Lupita Nyong’o collected the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, but powerful performances are also given by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup) and Michael Fassbender (as the brutal slaveowner, Edwin Epps).

6. Kajaki.

Despite the fact that British forces have been engaged in conflict somewhere every year for the past 100 years, it is hard to recall any British war films in recent times. As it happens, Yann Demange’s ’71, released in October, was a very exciting story set in Northern Ireland’s “troubles” in the early seventies. But the film that makes this list is surely one of the best British war films ever made. Kajaki is a crowdfunded movie, written by Tom Williams and directed by Paul Katis. It is the true story of a group of elite soldiers (3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment) who get caught in a Soviet-era minefield whilst serving in Afghanistan. Realism is the watchword here, from the boredom of guarding the dam (which may have motivated what was actually an unauthorised mission to engage a Taliban roadblock) to the depiction of bloody wounds and the earthy squaddie humour. Rather unflattering depictions of equipment failure and of the RAF sending the wrong type of helicopter for the rescue mission may have been the reason for the Ministry of Defence withdrawing their support. Political questions are deliberately not overtly addressed in Kajaki, but viewers might nonetheless be prompted to wonder whether we should really have been in Afghanistan. Not for the squeamish.

5. Citizenfour.

In January 2013 the journalist and film-maker Laura Poitras was contacted via encrypted email by someone using the name “Citizen Four”. This was the codename adopted by the whistleblower, Ed Snowden. Poitras makes documentaries around political themes and, at the time of Snowden’s approach, was making a film about surveillance in the wake of 9/11 (actually the third part of a trilogy, the first two being My Country My Country and The Oath). She went to visit Snowden during the period when he was holed up in a hotel bedroom in Hong Kong, and filmed Snowden’s conversations with the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. These conversations, during which Snowden reveals the scale of illegal surveillance undertaken by the National Security Agency and others, form the basis of Citizenfour, but are intercut with various courtroom scenes and interviews with other key figures, such as whistleblower William Binney and computer security expert Jacob Applebaum.

The film is a riveting piece of history. More than anything, the thing that sticks with me from Citizenfour is the bravery of Ed Snowden, who was fully aware of the trouble that he was bringing upon himself.

4. Tom at the Farm.

At age 25, Tom at the Farm (Tom à la Ferme) was the fifth feature film to be directed by French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan. It is a Hitchcockian psychodrama about a young man, Tom (played by Xavier Dolan), who travels to the rural home of his dead gay lover’s family, in preparation for the funeral. The mother turns out to be unaware of her deceased son’s sexual orientation, and Tom is bullied into silence by psychotic Francis, the brother of the dead man. The two men then become involved in a dark and complicated fashion. With its strong imagery, complex characters and bold storyline, this is a film that has really stuck in my mind.

3. Nightcrawler.

There is a long Hollywood tradition of depicting the dark side of the American Dream in its movies. The protagonist grafts hard to work his way up the ladder, but also transgresses the law by taking dodgy shortcuts (e.g. Nightmare Alley, Wall Street, The Wolf of Wall Street). Typically this figure will eventually be brought low and there may or may not be some element of remorse and redemption. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler is possibly the most uncompromising film in this tradition. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom progresses from filming car crashes on his camcorder to rearranging crimes scenes in such a way that they will obtain a higher price from the news networks he is selling to. Bloom is not brought low. There is no remorse or redemption. On the contrary, Bloom corrupts those that he comes in to contact with. Human transactions become purely economic transactions. This is Ayn Rand’s philosophy writ large and all the more terrifying for it. Gyllenhaal is one of the best actors in Hollywood right now, and his performance in Nightcrawler ought to propel him towards an Oscar nomination.

2. Boyhood.

The top of many people’s end-of-year lists, Richard Linklater’s growing-up drama Boyhood is – as the trailer states – unique in the history of cinema. The film was made over a 12 year period and traces the childhood of Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) over this space of time, so we see him genuinely age twelve years (as well as his movie parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette). Mason Jr’s parents are separated, and much of the drama comes from growing up with a mom who keeps meeting unsuitable men. It is the ordinariness of the events that matter here which, because they are covered in such detail, enable viewers to identify with and be moved by them. In retrospect, my review (June 16th) was a little ungenerous in its rating: this is ten out of ten.

1. Under the Skin.

In compiling this Top Ten I changed my mind about the rankings on several occasions, and it is quite likely that I will change my mind again once this is posted. The one film I’ve had no trouble placing, though, is Jonathan Glazer’s phenomenal Under The Skin. This is not just my film of the year, but also of this century so far. Light on dialogue and heavy on incredible imagery, it is the story of an alien (Scarlett Johansson), constructed in the guise of a female human, who is sent by mysterious handlers (men on motorbikes) to find and kill people who won’t be missed, presumably as luxury food for beings on another planet. However, certain events lead the alien to develop empathic feelings for the people she is preying on. In one of the most extraordinary scenes in any film, the alien, whilst driving around nighttime Glasgow in search of victims, engages a severely disfigured man in conversation. The encounter is variously funny, uncomfortable, and touching. Eventually, the alien gives her handlers the slip and disappears into the Scottish countryside, where she faces new challenges.

Comparisons with Kubrick are entirely justified and the title is open to various interpretations. Johansson’s performance is terrific, switching between warm seductress and dead-eyed killer, and in my opinion should make her an Oscar contender. The scenes of her driving a van around Glasgow and talking to Scottish men, some of who were genuine passersby, are terrific and not easily forgotten.

Theory_of_Everything

Director: James Marsh

Screenplay: Anthony McCarten

Country: USA/UK/Japan

Runtime: 123 mins

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Stephen Hawking), Felicity Jones (Jane Hawking), David Thewlis (Dennis Sciama), Alice Orr-Ewing (Diana King)

Tears and laughter abound in this tale of romance, religion, and theoretical physics

It is a splendid coincidence that 2014 has seen two major movies about great British scientists, first Alan Turing (The Imitation Game) and now Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. When, as a young doctoral student, Stephen Hawking was first diagnosed with motor neurone disease he was given two years to live. Now aged 72, he continues to work on the very thing that he himself has cheated: time. The Theory of Everything is based on the memoir of Hawking’s first wife, Jane, titled “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking”. It tells the intertwined stories of Stephen’s intellectual indomitability in the face of a debilitating, incurable illness, and his life with Jane until their eventual separation in the mid-90s.

Despite the reputation of Hawking’s bestselling “A Brief History of Time” as a book that many have bought but fewer read, The Theory of Everything doesn’t burden the audience with scientific detail. In fact, I envisage that from this point on physics teachers across the land will use a potato and a pea to explain the tension between gravitational forces and quantum forces. It is Stephen and Jane’s romance that is to the fore through much of the film. With his large glasses permanently perched halfway down his nose and hair swept across his eyes, the young Stephen appears superficially to be the epitome of the nerdy scientist. Yet his personality is a curious mix of bashfulness and confidence, laced with humour. He and Jane, who studies medieval Iberian poetry, are clearly attracted upon first meeting, despite their first conversation revealing that he is an atheist and she a Christian.

At the Cambridge May Ball, when asked about the poetry of the 1920s Jane teases Stephen with Yeats’s lines: “Seek then / No learning / from Starry Men / Who follow with Optic Glass / The Whirling Ways of Stars that Pass”. “Ouch!” says Stephen. He in turn, asked about the science of the 1920s, talks romantically about space and time in relationship terms: “People always thought they were too dissimilar, couldn’t possibly work out. But then along comes Einstein, the ultimate matchmaker, and decided that space and time not only had a future, but had been married all along”. Standing beneath a starry sky, Jane quotes the bible (“In the beginning was the heaven and the earth…”), which leads Stephen to take her hand and ask her to dance, a significant moment because he earlier said that he never dances.

Stephen’s illness manifests itself even before he has been awarded his PhD, but despite the prognosis of imminent death he continues to work. Jane determines that they must fight the disease, even though she has been warned that the only outcome can be defeat. She and Stephen get married, have children, and she does all she can to support Stephen. Over the years, however, the strain begins to tell. At Stephen’s suggestion Jane joins a local choir, only to find herself attracted to the widowed choirmaster. Later, Stephen finds himself attracted to Elaine, a nurse who has been brought in to assist with his caring. Following the publication of “A Brief History of Time” Stephen tells Jane that Elaine will be accompanying him to a meeting in America, at which point it becomes clear that their marriage is at an end.

Anthony McCarten’s sparkling script is full of wit, which adds depth and variety to a tale that might otherwise have been a standard one about triumph over adversity. Those of us who have recently seen the re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey cannot fail to have been thrilled and amused by the first words that Stephen speaks with the aid of his voice synthesiser: “Daisy, daisy, give me your answer do…”. Although there is not a natural dramatic end point for the story, McCarten contrives a device to wrap things up that is moving and satisfying.

Eddie Redmayne gives a remarkable performance as Stephen Hawking, whose increasingly severe symptoms are displayed, with attendant frustration, in accurate detail and without exaggeration. Nonetheless, even when Stephen has become entirely immobile Redmayne is able to convey his mischievous wit with just a look. Surely Redmayne will be shortlisted for the upcoming Oscars. Alongside Redmayne, plaudits are also due to Felicity Jones for her portrayal of Jane, who is absolutely convincing as the woman whose love and devotion eventually gives way to exhaustion and resentment, but ultimately mutual acceptance.

Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography must also be mentioned. Almost every scene, both interior and exterior is bathed in glowing – often golden – light. Cambridge has surely never appeared so beautiful. This lighting not only suits the theme of romance, but also serves as a reminder of Jane’s religious belief and Stephen’s interest in the stars.

The Theory of Everything is a wonderful film that will have audiences laughing even as they choke back the tears.

Rating: 10/10

The Theory of Everything was previewed at the British Film Institute on 8th December 2014.

Interstellar_film_poster

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan

Country: USA / UK

Runtime: 169 mins

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, MacKenzie Foy, Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, John Lithgow, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Josh Stewart.

An entertaining and ambitious sci-fi epic

Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster, Interstellar, is an entertainingly ambitious, if flawed, sci-fi epic. It begins in a near-future where food supplies are dwindling, as a result of blighted crops. Presumably this is the result of global climate change, although this is not spelled out and, in fact, we never go beyond rural America to find out what is happening elsewhere in the world. The opening scenes are given a documentary feel thanks to the inclusion of some talking head segments from senior citizens reminiscing about the ‘dust bowl’ that they had lived through (these are actually clips of people describing 1930s Dust Bowl America).

Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a widowed former engineer and NASA pilot who now reluctantly farms corn. His daughter, Murphy (MacKenzie Foy), is a chip off the old block but her brainiac tendencies don’t go down well at school, where the kids are taught that the Apollo moon landings were a hoax designed to prompt the Soviet Union into wasting money on rockets and other “useless machines”. Cooper is told that his children would be better off “learning about this planet, rather than reading fantasies about leaving it”. But when “Murph” becomes convinced that there is a ghost in her bedroom, Cooper’s investigations uncover a gravitational anomaly that is causing strange dust patterns on Murph’s bedroom floor. This discovery leads them ultimately to a top secret NASA base.

Because the American public no longer have any appetite for exploring space, the agency is now operating in a clandestine fashion. Their Lazarus Project, headed by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), has been sending missions to planets beyond a wormhole in space. Cooper is recruited to lead another mission beyond the wormhole, together with Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), physicist Romilly (David Gyasi), geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley), and robots TARS and CASE (voiced, respectively, by Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart). The wormhole appears to have been constructed by some alien intelligence, so Plan A is to return with the technology to save the Earth, but if this fails then Plan B is to recolonise a planet with the stored fertilised seeds from a variety of humans. However, Cooper is desperate to return from the mission because he wants to save his family. In addition, thanks to Einsteinian relativity Cooper’s children will age faster than him in his absence, therefore it is imperative for him that the mission goes as smoothly as possible (needless to say, it doesn’t).

For much of the first half of Interstellar, I couldn’t help ponder with some amusement as to whether the film would enrage some of the more anti-science US Republicans. You know, the ones who deny the reality of man-made climate change, who think it is arrogant to believe that people could disrupt God’s work, and who think that the end-of-the-world will involve the faithful being transported to heaven in the “rapture”. Whatever its faults, Interstellar comes across as a resolutely pro-science film, asking us to think beyond our immediate concerns and to work for the good of our species. A scene where we learn that school textbooks have been revised to show that the moon landings were faked brings to mind those American school districts that have tried to remove or water down material on evolution. Whilst some of what passes for scientific explanation in Interstellar is Dr Who-style hokum, nonetheless in a wider sense it treats its audience as intelligent adults, particularly in the aspect of the storyline that relates to relativity.

The second half, or perhaps final third, of the film is somewhat weaker as the ideas are gradually submerged beneath a swathe of frenetic action, except close to the schmaltzy ending where we get an outlandish explanation for certain events that occurred earlier on. The acting is serviceable, rather than outstanding, though this probably isn’t the kind of film that is likely to produce Oscar-worthy performances. However, even though a fair bit of suspension of disbelief is necessary, Interstellar is never less than entertaining.

Rating: 8/10

Nightmarealleyposter

Director: Edmund Goulding

Writer: Jules Furthman

Country: USA

Runtime: 110 mins

Cast: Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Taylor Holmes, Mike Mazurki, Ian Keith

One of the darkest of all film noirs

Nightmare Alley was the second film made by Tyrone Power, one of Hollywood’s greatest stars, following his return from wartime service in the Pacific theatre. Based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, it was a film that Power fought to make in the face of opposition from studio boss Darryl Zanuck, who feared that the dark role of the protagonist might damage Power’s image. Although that didn’t happen, the film was not a success at the box office. Power was praised by critics for his performance, however, and Nightmare Alley has subsequently come to be regarded as a film noir classic.

Power plays Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a relatively junior carnival barker who is still learning the trade. Stan is an assistant for Mademoiselle Zeena (Joan Blondell), the carney’s fortune teller who is trying to keep her alcoholic husband, Pete (Ian Keith), on the straight and narrow. Eager to make the big time, Stan begins to see dollar signs when he learns that Zeena and Pete once had their own highly successful psychic act outside the carney, in which Pete used a linguistic code to communicate the punters’ secrets to Zeena. Stan also learns a valuable lesson when Pete fools him with a psychic reading, in which Pete apparently sees Stan as a boy running through fields with his pet dog. Pete breaks the news that this was a stock reading: “Fits everybody! What’s youth? Happy one minute, heartbroken the next. Every boy has a dog!” Learning from this, Stan finds he is able to exercise the gift of the gab to the extent that he can prevent a hostile policeman from closing down the carnival.

Following Pete’s death Zeena teaches Stan the code. She is helped in this task by Molly (Coleen Gray), the strongman’s girlfriend. But Stan has been dallying with both women and finds himself forced into a shotgun marriage with Molly. Seeing this as a golden opportunity, they set up a highly successful act in the big city. But events take a darker turn after Stan links up with a corrupt psychoanalyst (Helen Walker), using her client information to trick wealthy society folk out of their money.

Unlike many of the most famous film noirs, such as The Maltese Falcon, there is no humour in Nightmare Alley’s characters. It is surely one of the darkest film noirs ever made, a rise-and-fall story that presents us with a kaleidoscope of human desperation, degradation, duplicity, gullibility, and alcoholism. Many of the scenes take place in darkness, but with the characters’ faces brightly lit, exposing – by turn – their hope and hopelessness. The opening scene presents us with the carney geek, the most degraded and abused figure in American carnivals, a man – typically an alcoholic or drug addict – who would bite the heads off chickens in front of a delightedly horrified audience. But everybody is looking for something, even the wealthy, which leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. Accordingly, one of the most pitiable figures is the society man Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes), whose skepticism about the “Great Stanton” crumbles when Stan, furnished with information provided by Lilith, divines that Grindle is still in love with a woman who died thirty-five years ago. He then tries to manipulate Grindle for his own gain.

Whether Stanton Carlisle is a borderline psychopath or simply the product of his own desperate background is perhaps a matter for debate. I am inclined to the latter view, as Stan appears genuinely horrified by the sight of the geek, and also seems concerned for Pete’s suffering when deprived of alcohol. Stan also displays his own gullibility at times, a trait that eventually leads to his own downfall.

Given the bleakness of its vision, it is perhaps unsurprising that Nightmare Alley was a failure at the box office. Indeed, its “scandalous” content led to a number of protests. But the story is beautifully structured and absolutely compelling. Tyrone Power is riveting to watch, but also wonderfully supported by a superb cast. Joan Blondell (another Hollywood great) excels as Zeena, displaying a mixture of strength, sadness, and vulnerability – including vulnerability to temptation. Zeena describes herself to Stan as having “a heart as big as an artichoke and a leaf for everyone”. As her alcoholic husband Pete, Ian Keith switches between uncomprehending drunkeness and a kind of sad wisdom, whilst Taylor Holmes’s performance as Ezra Grindle brilliantly demonstrates the cruelty perpetrated when the innocent are hoodwinked by the cynical.

Rating: 10/10

Nightmare Alley is available on DVD from Twentieth Century Fox’s ‘The Studio Collection’ .

Mr_Turner_poster

Director: Mike Leigh

Writer: Mike Leigh

Country: UK

Runtime: 150 mins

Cast: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Ruth Sheen, Martin Savage, James Fleet, Joshua McGuire

An alternative title for Mike Leigh’s dazzling new film about the great artist, Joseph Mallord William Turner, could easily have been Turner and His Women. This is not just a film about the development of Turner’s ability to create the most sublime images, although great beauty is depicted. It is the contrast between Turner’s sensitivity as an artist and his insensitivity towards women that dominates the film and bookends it in the opening and closing scenes. But in other ways Turner could also be incredibly generous and this too is highlighted.

Leigh sets out his stall right from the beginning. After some artfully done opening credits and a beautifully sweeping landscape scene involving a sunrise, Flemish milkmaids, a windmill, and Turner (Timothy Spall) silhouetted against the sky, reality comes crashing back to earth when Turner returns to his father’s home in London. No sooner has the maid, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), appeared to take the artist’s request for a cup of tea, when he reaches up and gropes her breast, before then groping her between the legs. The two of them are clearly already intimately acquainted and, as brutal as Turner’s  behaviour seems, it is also invited. Lonely Hannah has feelings for Turner although his urges appear to be purely sexual.

Not long after this, Turner’s work is interrupted by the arrival of an angry, poor, ex-lover, Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) and the two daughters she has bore the artist. We never learn the history of this particular relationship, but what is clear is that Turner has no interest in Sarah and the children. He simply wants to get back to his easel and canvas.

But if Turner behaves poorly towards the women he is involved with, elsewhere he is more selfless. He lends £50 to the indebted artist Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), despite the latter’s rudeness born of desperation. Later, when Turner begins painting the works that are now recognised as his greatest, he is publicly mocked by Vaudevillians, and Queen Victoria refers to one of his pictures as “an ugly yellow mess”. Despite these humiliations, when a wealthy collector offers him a fortune for all his works Turner turns him down, saying that his pictures have been bequeathed – “to the British nation”. Turner also firmly defends the reputation of another seascape painter against the criticism of an insufferable, fawning Ruskin (Joshua McGuire).

Timothy Spall’s portrayal of Turner is one of the great performances of the year. He learned to paint over several months in order that his applications of brush to canvas would be convincing. His Turner is a great grunting force of nature, drawing crowds of onlookers as he leaps and spits on his canvasses, before smearing the oils into mysterious pre-impressionist clouds and seas. At one point, he has himself lashed to the mast of a ship in order that he can experience a storm at sea. From this he creates a masterpiece, Snow Storm. Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth. However, he also suffers the consequences in the form of a bad bout of bronchitis. He is tended through his illness by Mrs Booth (an outstanding performance from Marion Bailey), the twice-widowed landlady of his lodgings in Kent. Turner enters into a secret relationship with her and she is the one woman who he genuinely cares for and treats decently.

As you might expect, Mr Turner contains some gorgeous landscape and seascape scenes. At one point we see Turner and some associates heading out to sea in a small boat, as clouds scud across a red sky above them. A large ship is being brought towards land by a tug and we realise we are watching the scene that became the classic picture The Fighting Temeraire. Even though this scene must have been a digital creation, it is still beautiful, and when I recognised what it was it brought a lump to my throat.

With numerous excellent performances, splendid cinematography, and a fine musical soundtrack, Mr Turner is very much a film worth seeing.

Rating: 10/10

Nightcrawlerfilm

Director: Dan Gilroy

Writer: Dan Gilroy

Country: USA

Runtime: 117 mins

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Joe Paxton

Jake Gyllenhaal excels as a psychopathic news cameraman working his way up the ladder of power

Dan Gilroy’s superb first directorial effort, Nightcrawler, is the gripping story of a ruthless nobody-turned-freelance-cameraman who works his way up the ladder by taking risks and transgressing moral boundaries. But really, Nightcrawler is more than this. It is a dark satire on the kind of Randian objectivist philosophy, which champions the pursuit of individual self-interest within a system of laissez-faire capitalism. Gilroy shows how this kind of world corrupts everybody who comes into contact with it.

The film begins with a gaunt, straggly-haired, Louis “Lou” Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), trying to scrape a living by stealing copper wire and other metallic items in order to sell to a scrap yard. But Bloom is not just an ordinary guy ducking-and-diving to make his way through hard times. He is a psychopath. In the opening scene, whilst Bloom is trespassing in order to cut a section of wire fence, he is challenged by a security guard. Bloom attacks the guard and steals the chunky watch he is wearing. As later events transpire Bloom’s character never changes. The only sense in which he learns is by digesting information from the internet that he then uses to his advantage in his interactions with others. It is the people around Gyllenhaal who change, becoming more compromised and corrupted as he manipulates them (although the news environment itself is already the ideal environment for such manipulation to occur).

Bloom discovers a way to escape from his world of petty crime when, whilst driving down the Los Angeles freeway, he encounters a news crew filming a bloody crash scene. Buttonholing one of the cameramen, Joe (Joe Paxton), he learns that they are a freelance outfit selling to whichever station pays the most.  Bloom steals a bicycle and takes it to a used goods store, where he swaps it for a camcorder and a police band radio. From this point onwards he starts muscling in at accident and crime scenes, racing to beat other crews to get the first pictures.

After selling some footage to Nina (Rene Russo), the head of a local newsroom, she gives him advice about the kind of footage they are seeking, which is predominantly white victims in the suburbs being hurt at the hands of the poor or ethnic minorities. She sums up the spirit of what they air as “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut”.

Bloom recruits a homeless Asian guy, Rick (Riz Ahmed), as a low-paid intern, whose job is “to listen to the emergency radio, learn the police codes, help navigate and watch the car”. Like a ghoulish version of his namesake in Ulysses, Bloom stalks the city streets with Rick seeking death and injury. With an eye as to what makes a good shot, he begins to rearrange crime and accident scenes for his own benefit, and to intrude on private property. His relationships with others are entirely economic transactions. One moment Bloom is threatening Rick with the sack for spilling petrol on the paintwork of his car, but the next moment he is dishing out praise and the prospect of promotion in order to overcome Rick’s moral qualms about their actions. Bloom starts a relationship with Nina, but this is entirely premised on the value of the footage he is able to collect and the possibility he might take it to another station.

It is a tribute to the screen presence and acting skills of Gyllenhaal, as well as to Gilroy’s excellent screenplay, that the audience (this viewer, at least) is able to maintain interest in a character as unsympathetic as Bloom. One of the characteristics of psychopaths, of course, is that they are often charming. Gyllenhaal captures this in the exchanges where, with a half-smile on his face and burning intensity in his eyes, he lavishes praise and flattery on others. I would not be surprised to see Gyllenhaal in the shortlist for the Oscars. Rene Russo (married to writer/director Dan Gilroy) also turns in a good performance as Nina, who by turns seems repelled and attracted by Bloom’s usurping of her power in both their personal and professional relationships. Riz Ahmed does a splendid job of portraying the plight of Rick, who has been taken off the streets by Bloom, but who could end up back there at any moment. He knows that what they are doing is wrong, but is desperate not to be homeless again. Rick is more dependent on Bloom than anyone else, but he is also the only person to show any moral qualms. Despite the various bullshit motivational speeches that Bloom makes, Rick’s liquid eyes constantly alternate between hope and fear. I wouldn’t mind betting that Ahmed could find himself in the Oscar stakes for best supporting actor.

In one sense, Dan Gilroy is treading similar ground to films like Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street. However, whereas those films placed considerable emphasis on the lifestyle excess that accompanies professional success, Nightcrawler is a much more ascetic affair. Bloom is a loner, who continues to live in a modest apartment even as his success spirals. His sole motivation is to be good at what he does and to climb the ladders of power. Other people are there to be used in whatever way will help achieve his goals. Unlike, say, the character of Bud Fox in Wall Street, there is absolutely no capacity for empathy or redemption. The consequences of this behaviour are shown to chilling effect.

I was also impressed by the musical soundtrack to the film. This is very unobtrusive, but all the more effective for it in a less-is-more kind of way. There are many sequences where there is no background music, but then when it appears it comes in fairly quietly and then builds, so that an atmosphere is created almost without you noticing the music.

Rating: 10/10

Correction: In an earlier version I wrote “aesthetic”, when I meant to say “ascetic”.

Director: Naji Abu Nowar

Writers: Naji Abu Nowar and Bassel Ghandour

Country: United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, UK

Runtime: 100 mins

Cast: Jacir Eid, Hassan Mutlag, Hussain Salameh, Jack Fox

An outstanding desert survival drama from a talented first-time director

It is 1916. A group of Bedouin sit around a nighttime campfire in the Arabian desert. A stranger approaches on a camel. He is a British Army officer (Jack Fox), trying to catch up with his regiment. The Bedouin welcome him into their group and the next day two of them set out to accompany the soldier across the desert. However, young Theeb (meaning “wolf”) refuses to be left behind by his older brother (both of them are orphans) and chases after the group on his donkey. The older Arabs are reluctant to take Theeb (Jacir Eid) along with them, but it is a long way back to their camp and the boy is persistent. They all travel together, but eventually tragedy strikes when they are attacked by other Arabs.

As the story develops it becomes more than just a tale of a small group trying to survive a journey in the desert (although it is very much about this too). It is about how encroaching modernity, exemplified by the Ottoman’s desert railway, threatens the survival of nomadic peoples.  The Bedouin in the film are all non-professional actors, drawn from the last remaining Bedouin tribe in Jordan. They turn in quite exceptional performances. Unfortunately, as neither the London Film Festival programme, nor iMDB, connect the actors’ names to the characters I don’t know who to praise for his portrayal of a black-clad Arab bandit that Theeb encounters. By turns desperate, angry, trusting and friendly, this is a performance that dominates the film. For a first-time feature-film director to obtain such performances from non-professionals is really quite something special.

An obvious point of comparison for Theeb is Lawrence of Arabia, especially in relation to the blond-haired English officer seeking assistance from the native Bedouin. Writing in Sight & Sound magazine, Nick James wrote that he saw Theeb as “an antidote to the imperial swagger of Lawrence of Arabia”. However, whilst it is difficult not to make the comparison, in reality these are two entirely different movies. I don’t even consider that Lawrence has “imperial swagger”, which strikes me as a fundamental misreading of that great film, whose protagonist sought to champion the autonomy of the Arab peoples. In fact, to the extent that the two films have any connection it is the way they invite the audience to side, or at least sympathise, with the Arabs rather than the British or the Turks. In conversation after the film, Director Naji Abu Nowar explicitly stated that he did not consider his film to be an “antidote” to Lawrence, and went on to express his great regard for David Lean and that movie.

The opening segments of Theeb lull the audience into a false sense of security. For about fifteen minutes or so the film moves along quietly at a fairly sedate pace, showing hospitable Bedouin conversing with each other, looking after their English visitor, drinking from wells, and also depicting the slow careful pacing of camels through the desert. Then, just as you have convinced yourself that Theeb is going to be some sort of arty meditation on desert living, there is a shock that had many of the people around me cry out and raise their hands to their faces (OK, I admit it, I did this too). A few minutes later there is another shock that will most likely make you jump up in your seat. At one point the woman in the seat next to me was covering her eyes with her hands, like a child watching the Daleks circa 1973. From hereon in the film becomes a gripping drama.

Theeb is one of the most memorable pieces of dramatic cinema that I have watched this year and has deservedly won plaudits for director Naji Abu Nowar, including director prize at the Venice Film Festival Horizons section and Arab Filmmaker of the Year prize from Variety at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Rating: 9/10

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Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour

Country: Iran / USA

Runtime: 99 min

Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh, Dominic Rains

Judging by the feedback of the London Film Festival audience for A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, there is a pretty good chance that this first full feature by Ana Lily Amirpour is going to become a cult classic. The story concerns a female vampire (“the girl”) who wanders the streets of an imagined Iranian town, Bad City. Her appearance is striking: she wears a chador open at the front to reveal a striped T-shirt, and her blank, uncomprehending eyes are ringed with dark mascara. In an early scene we get a glimpse of her fearsome power when she kills Saeed (Dominic Rains), a frighteningly thuggish pimp/drug dealer.

Subsequently, the film follows her developing relationship with a young man, Arash (Arash Marandi), who previously had his luxury car stolen by Saeed as payment for his father’s drug debts. There is a sense that both of them are lost. Arash is a typical young man, trying to forge an identity for himself, but being muscled aside by bigger, more confident men whilst trying to attract girls at a party. The girl encounters him whilst he is lost in the city at night, high on ecstasy. We do not know anything about her past or where she has come from, and she herself seems confused by her own existence. Strangely, though, although she does kill again, she seems only to kill those whose lives she judges to have little or no value.

Although I enjoyed A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, it is somewhat flawed. On the positive side, much of the imagery and cinematography is beautiful. Sheila Vand is utterly captivating as the girl. The first 15 minutes or so are really quite enthralling, with a clearly-identified “good guy” (Arash) coming into conflict with an obvious scary villain (Saeed). However, having established Saeed as a seriously frightening bad guy, he then gets bumped off. The girl, who is also a deeply sinister presence to begin with later becomes a much softer and likeable presence. What starts out as a horror-drama gradually develops into a kind of comedy romance. The change was a little confusing for this viewer, at least.

After Saeed’s death the film drifts along a little, and there are some longeurs, but somehow it gets by on charm. Part of the charm comes from Vand’s lost and lonely vampire, who I just wanted to give a big hug, but much of it comes from Arash’s pet cat. Yes, you heard that right – a cat. Just as some suggested that Inside Llewyn Davis was an ironic comment on Blake Snyder’s screenwriting classic “Save The Cat”, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour seems to have unironically implemented the entire cat concept in this film. It does make for enjoyable viewing, but ultimately I wondered if perhaps I had enjoyed the film rather more than it really deserved.

Rating: 6/10

Shown at the 2014 BFI London Film Festival

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Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

Writer: Nick Hornby

Country: USA

Runtime: 115 minutes

Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski

A potentially Oscar-worthy performance from Reese Witherspoon in a woman-against-the-wilderness drama

You wait ages for a film about a woman trekking alone through the wilderness and then two come along at once. The obvious comparison for Wild is Tracks, another single-word title that appeared earlier this year (and reviewed here on 23rd April). I think Tracks was very underrated, but those who couldn’t relate to its somewhat abrasive protagonist, especially given the almost non-existent backstory, might be more warmly disposed towards Tracks. Scripted by Nick Hornby, and based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail”, this is a story where the heroine’s past is a prime motivation for the journey she undertakes.

Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, in what is her most substantial part and performance since Walk the Line. The film opens with her partway through the journey, sitting on a rocky outcrop, peeling off bloodstained socks and then ripping off one of her toenails. Glamorous it isn’t. This is about as far away from the ditzy blondes of Witherspoon’s early roles as it’s possible to get.

From this point we flash back to the journey’s starting point, which builds sympathy for Strayed in a comical scene where she struggles to stand up in the huge overfilled backpack that she is wearing. We then follow her along the journey, but with regular flashbacks to her earlier existence. Laura Dern appears as Cheryl’s mother, Bobbie, who has escaped a relationship with an abusive husband and is now enrolled as a student in the same university as her daughter. There is also an ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski) who Cheryl does not seem to have got over. However, tragic events lead to Strayed’s life going off the rails. In undertaking her ambitious trek she is trying to become a different sort of person.

Needless to say, there are hardships, mishaps and dangers that have to be faced, although nothing as extreme as in films such as 127 Days or Touching the Void. But this is less an adventure film than a film in which adventure plays a part. What really matters here is the transformation of the heroine, a change that is brilliantly, and movingly conveyed by Reese Witherspoon in a performance that could stand her in contention for the Oscars.

Rating: 9/10

Wild was shown as part of the London Film Festival. The UK release date is January 2015.

Director: Abel Ferrara

Writer: Maurizio Braucci

Country: France / Belgium / Italy

Runtime: 86 mins

A disappointing and confusing portrait of the late director

Pasolini begins with the controversial director viewing a scene from his as-yet-unreleased film The 120 Days of Sodom, in which some youths are subjected to sexual and mental torture by the fascist gang that has kidnapped them. It ends with Pasolini being murdered by a gang on a beach where he has taken a male prostitute. This symmetrical topping and tailing of the film with sex and violence is about the only structure to be found in this disappointing attempt to paint a picture of Pasolini through a kaleidoscopic view of the last day of his life.

Willem Dafoe is a compelling presence as Pasolini, demonstrating again that he deserves to be given more lead roles. However, the film never really gets to grips with the character of Pasolini or what he achieved, and is likely to be especially bewildering to a viewer who knows little or nothing about the man. During the course of his final day Pasolini meets friends, family, colleagues, an interviewer. There are also some fantasy scenes depicting parts of the story he is currently working on. However, none of this really amounts to very much. I lost track of who some of the people were (or possibly it was never made clear in the first place), and it didn’t help that some long passages of dialogue in Italian were not subtitled.

For some reason most of the characters are dimly lit in the interior scenes. When daylight is streaming through windows no attempt appears to have been made to light the faces of inward-facing characters. The same is true when the only light is the lamps in the room. Together with a somewhat desaturated colour this contributes to a slightly sombre atmosphere, and perhaps that is the point, but I’m not sure this really worked for me. Also, in the scene where Pasolini is interviewed, I found the camera movements quite distracting. They didn’t seem to serve any purpose. At one point, as Pasolini is speaking, the camera slowly pulls back from his face until he seems to be several feet away, but then we suddenly cut to an extreme close-up. Why?

I was really hoping to like this film, but I’m afraid I came away feeling quite dissatisfied.

Rating: 5/10

Pasolini was shown at the London Film Festival