Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018)

1512322545272

Just saw an advanced screening of this at Odeon as part of their Screen Unseen thing.

Tonally hyperactive. As black as they come and it’s certainly a comedy, though it’s also a proper contemporary western. Frances McDormand and (especially) Sam Rockwell send it bumping along at a swashbuckling pace, the former a vengeful bereaved mother and the latter a repentant thug in blue. There’s a dance of sympathies and secondary characters around the central trauma – the rape and murder of her young daughter – and its aftermath in a small southern town. Her actions, especially the ingeniously inverted Scarlet Letterish scheme of hiring the billboards to advertise the police’s failure to apprehend the perpetrator, inflame the townsfolk like a thorn in the side and tease apart their allegiances to the fetid, authoritarian status quo.

The idea lingers in the first half as a really intriguing context for a somewhat thrashy and inconsistent drama. By the time the second half starts, when the two main character arcs have pivoted and are heading back towards each other, the Christian themes begin to assert themselves at the expense of the political righteousness. Like the uncomfortable feeling of being led by the nose at the end of The Salesman but for over an hour. The jokes fall flat a little too often (despite some great delivery) and a little too often this is because the gap between the satirised attitudes and the object of these attitudes flickers and seems to close. Plenty of midget jokes (the race war scene in In Bruges becomes increasingly telling); a whole ton of jokes at the expense of stupid white trash southerners; too much sympathy expended on racist cops. As far as I could tell, the ending puts our protagonists on a level pegging and no-one is the better for it. The net result of this wending and wayward marauding is that you’re never really allowed to settle in to a story which should really hit you directly in the chest.

Points, though, for those leads, especially SR whose show-stopping turn hinges on a brutal and beautifully choreographed long take.

Martin McDonagh continues to cement his status as the second best McDonagh.

6

Advertisements

2017

91lmybinbsl-_sl1500_

Films:

  1. Moonlight
  2. The Levelling
  3. Dunkirk
  4. Call Me By Your Name
  5. Get Out

 

rapsody-1288x724

Music:

  1. Jlin, Black Origami
  2. Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked at Me
  3. Mica Levi, Jackie
  4. Pinkcourtesyphone, Taking Into Account Only a Portion of Your Emotions 
  5. Chino Amobi, PARADISO
  6. The Caretaker, Everywhere at the End of Time – Stage 2
  7. Rapsody, Laila’s Wisdom
  8. Mogwai, Every Country’s Sun
  9. Ryuichi Sakamoto, async
  10. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
  11. Octo Octa, Where Are We Going?
  12. King Krule, The Ooz
  13. Yves Tumor, Experiencing the Deposit of Faith
  14. Jon Brooks, Autres directions
  15. Will Guthrie, People Pleaser
  16. Various [PAN], Mono No Aware
  17. Sex Swing, Sex Swing
  18. Bibio, Phantom Brickworks
  19. Animal Collective, Meeting of the Waters
  20. Stromboli, Volume Uno

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

20171205-00000022-flix-000-view

Saw this at the UPP with J and S after work last Tuesday. Was a fine surprise. Took me about half an hour to get into it, I think largely because of the pacing, which is slow throughout but initially lends itself to plot-based impatience. In the early scenes, the lounging and philosophising and pontificating is at its least appealing, too. But the whole film is best seen (and telegraphs itself as) a holiday: it’s sad because it’s temporary; otherwise, its blissful. The more I thought about it the happier it made me. The visual beauty is intoxicating but there’s plenty of restraint, which puts the theme of emotional development at the heart of the story, which is great. The use of jewish identities is interesting: prudent privacy is hinted at, a Mussolini painting is gestured at fleetingly, but the film takes place almost within a family community which is eminently welcoming (I think LG may actually have even dedicated CMBYN to fathers in general, and Michael Stuhlbarg is a heroic if lovably preposterous one here). The beauty in honesty and smallness. Also worth mentioning that it’s hilarious when it needs to be, and not hilarious at exactly the right times: the scene with the peach is sequenced precisely to be morbidly fascinating, hilarious, toe-curling, and achingly sad, all at the level of out-loud guffawing and gasping.

Like a paperback you’d retrieve from your back pocket in a piazza or hold up against the sun while lying on a blanket in a meadow. Intense but slips down like a glass of homemade apricot juice.

8

American Honey (2016)

american-honey-poster

Andrea Arnold gave us Fish Tank in 2009, but seven years later she stepped up to the plate again and connected so sweetly you’ll have tears in your eyes as it disappears behind the sun. AH is perhaps the best new film I’ve seen since A Separation.

Star starts in a dumpster, dropping nauseating discarded food into the clutching hands of a young boy below. She’s responsible for two children, though it becomes clear that they aren’t hers – she looks after them while their father is out all day. He refers to himself as “Daddy” while he gropes Star in the evenings, the dinner she has made for him going cold, the old family photos over his shoulder bringing tears of desperation to her eyes. She needs an opportunity to flee and the arrival in town of a vanload of raucous teenagers, following Shia Labeouf’s suggestive tune, is good enough for her. They travel the country as a crew selling magazines to any and every community (AA compares them to Big Issue sellers in the UK, however: they’re selling actually themselves) and partying in the evenings.

Like a miraculous collaboration between Harmony Korine and Ken Loach. The documentary approach is compressed into the closeup empiricism of Moonlight, putting us inside Star’s head as she fights to balance her own identity with communal conformity. The gang variously appears adversarially chaotic and unconditionally welcoming, a cohesive unit and a fractious coexistence of individuals – kind of like any group of teenage friends. Korine’s acidic sensibility is, importantly, traded in for a kind of ecstatic realism which kept reminding me of Elysia Crampton. The gang’s music is hypermodern, infectious both emotionally and lyrically, like the blasts of Lil John that drill through the geological sandwiching of EC’s pieces. In AH the critical acceptance and celebration is specifically of youth culture – I think it’s important that these guys are a mess but ultimately appear rather harmless.

The storytelling is abstract but excellently paced and, for the most part, very tense. This is because Star constantly puts herself in situations of peril; we telegraph them but it is often unclear whether she has, such is her combination of innocence and experience. Scenes like her tantrum in the upper-class detached house, her manipulation of the wealthy southern men with the mescal, and her rendezvous with the grimy and sinister oil worker have you holding your breath and remind you of the unease throughout Fish Tank. The problems with the societies beyond the group, within which the group appear comparatively wholesome, are essential to the dynamics of sympathy. I loved the incongruous final transaction, with the young children politely accommodating Star with their meth-addict mother oblivious in the next room, Star returning with groceries.

Another chapter in the story started by the neo-realists: ordinary people in films about ordinary people. I watched the press conference at Cannes for AH this morning and was fascinated but not surprised to hear that most of the kids involved not only had past lives in this business, but were actually carrying it out while shooting was taking place. There’s a scene where the gang interact naturally with a mirror group of African Americans; AA mentions that this group were the real thing, simply wandered over and started talking. Labeouf – who is volatile but idealistic, a latterday Steinbeck character, and makes excellent use of his age difference from Star – spent time with a gang like this before filming started.

A Trump era classic for sure.

9

Homeland: Iraq Year Zero (2015)

426614

First time with Abbas Fahdel.

Sombrely comprehensive at over 330 minutes. It’s not just the runtime (and implicit decisions about respect of scale) that put me in mind of Shoah (nor the necessity for the odd snack break). AF achieves his perfectly disarming – though not entirely non-participatory – interviewing approach largely through two means: relation to the extended family at the centre of the film, and advertisement of cinematic documentation to the wider population of Baghdad and its environs. Throughout, for example, kids are consistently the most willing and forthcoming subjects, whether because they (particularly his nephew Haidar) are keen to reintroduce their Iraqi lives to their expat uncle, or because they’re jostling wide-eyed before the camera lens’ black mirror.

It’s disarmingly (possibly disconcertingly, for some) abstract and stripped-back: there is almost no narrative through-line, either overall or from scene to scene. We are rather given a silent tour of AF’s (past) world, with new characters and settings signposted with cursory captions only. The style is home-movie handicam footage, though its carefully directed and at no point does it feel Cloverfield. The obscured narratives (which feel more spontaneously realtime than post-production) give way in the second half, immediately, to impotence and external direction: the first few sequences after the interlude are of American soldiers directing the family’s car away from unnamed sequestered military zones (this is “The New Iraq”; see next para). The broad arc of city to country and back (“You’re lucky to live in nature” says Haidar to a friend in Babylon; in Baghdad there are only museums), or the familial trickle spilling into the eddies and currents of the urban markets, are replaced by shellshocked wandering among desperate and attention-hungry plaintiffs, fragmented scenes of childbirth, piecemeal poring over ruins.

“Thank god the hard times belong to history.” Rather like Waltz With Bashir, the other excellent war documentary in my recent viewing history, the theme that sticks most here is repetition of the past and the way that this effects and registers with different types of people. Not all the adults in the film share the uncanny optimism of this particular quotation; most are worriedly drawn back to the perils and privations of the previous Gulf War (see the bitter irony appreciated in connecting the two Bushes). The kids are the most fascinating and disquieting subjects here, though: they have inherited a history of conflict and live surrounded by scars but war, for them, is diffuse and abstracted. They describe war as “looking like a game”, wagging the dog both with implied toy guns and wireless controllers. Later the same children play among sandbags and trenches on the roadside (abandoned after old battles? prepared hastily for new ones?). Later still they wave blasted shells and bullet cases like dinosaur teeth in our faces with macabre amusement. Some of the realisations the people in this film come to on camera are almost alien in their level of poignancy; the graduate student daughter wanders around a memorialised shelter, bombed by the Americans in the 90s, urging her family that “we need to reconnect with our heritage before dying. Even this museum might be bombed”.

Dichotomies, like the women’s familial integration vs concerned domestic isolation before and after the invasion, accrete. The portrayals of the urban communities seem both rich and fair. There are cautious but quite revelatory investigations into Jewish assimilation into Muslim Iraqi society in the 80s which contrast, perhaps, with the cultural clashing between the Americans (on TV and in tanks) and the locals, whether in childish wonder or adult bitterness (“Some Americans are good, some are wicked,” says Haidar).

The film also makes effective use of spare and cold captioning. We are given painful insights into the fates or histories of particular characters (an old mother of long-lost sons has a few weeks to live, a visibly distressed young man is introduced as having recently lost his father to senseless military-on-civilian violence). Most poignantly, we are told quite early on (judging by the order of my notes, retrospectively) that Haidar “will be killed after the US invasion”. Of course we never forget this revelation, particularly as the boy leads us deictically around the shelter memorial, but this doesn’t stop the ending of Homeland feeling like a cold knife. I watched Takeshi Miike’s quite tiresome Dead or Alive with S recently; it’s a hard-boiled gangster piece that ends with the surprise fantastical destruction of Japan and the entire world. That conclusion will not stick with me as long as this one (I would rather compare this, tonally, with La Verité). It feels like a single calculated intrusion of artifice, like a prepared surgical incision. It pierces the preceding, almost geologically layered five hours of footage (the second half of which, to the film’s minor detriment, feels a little homogenous, comparatively) with an urgent and humanistic appeal.

A good example of why Documentary needs to be judged by adjusted criteria. Certainly a definitive Iraq War work and probably a definitive work on civilian experience of wartime.

9

Three Colours Blue (1993)

91FJ1I4s-2L._RI_.jpg

It’s obviously charmingly beautiful and extremely heartfelt; Binoche plays Julie’s emancipatory, taciturn selfishness perfectly. The Angelopoulos opening plays into that 90s Bourne European grey melancholy, J homeless as she self-destructs outwardly from a flickering eye to a smashed door in hospital. I loved the tightrope confidence with single images, like the strong juxtaposition of the crooked old lady and Julie blissful in the sun – to me this was a double-edged assertion of her independence and perhaps, in retrospect, a foreshadowing that she would have to open her eyes eventually. But when she does, what does she end up with? Her mother can’t help, and herself goes un-helped. Olivier isn’t any the less selfish for his devotion; the tv assault on her privacy is almost sickening to watch, a real trap. And she escapes by accepting him? The liberty was so conditional as to feel more than a little regressive.

I just would have finished the ending off differently.

7

The Dance of Reality (2013)

91ynqhe7kal-_sl1500_

The start is pointedly emulative of I Clowns, one of Fellini’s most underrated films (I see Fellini elsewhere in the hallucinatory beach scenes like Juliet of the Spirits, and maybe Pasolini’s Teorema in the desert wanderers). Here the young AJ’s father is whipped into an adrenal frenzy by theatrical characters apparently from his past, resembling fruits and vegetables. The boy’s dramatic reaction is crushed by his father, who proceeds to wrestle with his own dictator complexes both politically and when dealing with his family, the boy and an operatic, spiritualistic mother. Bit of a Tree of Life tug of war between them, but the manichaean tussling does have a climactic resolution but the cosmic ballet – the “web of suffering and pleasure” as he puts it in his narration – goes on. It’s all show, like I Clowns, though this is just as political as Holy Mountain.

AJ is reaching through his own work, too: the cards burning at the secret communist meeting recalls the immolated cash in HM, the hundred sanded chairs retreat uncannily, while the father’s get-up as the dictator’s stable groom has a lot of the El Topo silhouette in it. Sense that he’s reeling these memories in – he often interjects, appearing physically, to remind us of the journey the young boy is on; he pulls him back from a ledge to exhort survival, “something is dreaming us”. You feel he has the liberty to (re)create his own backstory – whether imaginative simply in the way all self-narration is or by capturing subjective impression or by embellishing at a visual or narrative level – because he is self-made, a total curiosity.

Most of it is a parade of shocking scenery draped around the father’s story of transformative redemption (our sympathies are managed amazingly as this guy bends from tyrant to penitent). The attack on the donkeys at the watering is mesmeric and horrifying (flinching from all the animals especially because time can no longer claim to be on his side with this stuff), while the topless dancing with the horse is hilarious. There’s fighting amputees – of course – and accusatory humiliation of painted arms under a slum scaffold, nazis dying with baby voices and a woman pissing all over her husband’s face to rid him of plague. It’s all show. It’s great stuff, highly personal but still fascinating, a little saggy in the middle but well worth its two hours. I don’t have much more but I’m keen as ever for Endless Poetry.

8