Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018)

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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

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American Honey (2016)

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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

The Childhood Of A Leader (2016)

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Was pretty disappointed with this for about 45 minutes. Patient to the point of being stolid, with a lot of boring diplomatic conversations and the obstacle that is Liam Cunningham’s wobbling false-moustache American accent. It establishes a pretty emulative Haneke atmosphere with a sprinkling of The Others or The Turn of The Screw and The Shining, as far as the young boy is presented.

The focus begins to shift towards Berenice Bejo’s mother (very Kidman at points), and takes a psychosexual turn that begins to cut through the historical furniture-arranging. The young boy’s magnetic quality becomes more sinister (like a Teorema‘s Terrence Stamp in the making) as his will becomes more erratic and uncontrollable. The Vermeer interiors (a couple of shades of Velazquez’s Las Meninas, too) are matched by impressionistic exteriors, which coldly light a rural world of almost ritualistic tradition and anachronistic poverty; perversion of this house in this setting.

Then the adrenaline really kicks in and it suddenly becomes taut, ice-cold. Fanny and Alexander, which is set up so clearly in the draped passages between baroque rooms, is inverted in a moment – which crystallises one of the three central “tantrums” – where the boy appears defiantly coquettish and undressed before his father at the ominous negotiations. His capricious rebellion is exercised through amplifying the gender misconceptions which torture him; he inflicts his pain on others as he appears like the ghost of Alexander’s father across rooms. Something about his wordless apparition, his stance and departure is momentarily terrifying. The film becomes full of moments like this, minor peaks which are somehow extremely threatening – another standout is the moment depicted above, where the boy wordlessly tries out an injured arm, silhouetted before a mirror. His pivoting, slow-motion blows somehow germinate the image of Hitler flailing at a podium; it’s not always clear with these moments exactly how they produce their effects, which marks them out as the work of a bizarrely accomplished debutant director. Everything gets tighter, particularly the mother’s relationship to the boy: there’s a beautiful moment where she practically begs him to be her friend, unhappily reaping what she sowed (this is the break which reflects back onto an earlier moment in which the boy races away from his mother’s discipline but inexplicably turns and runs back to her for comfort [this in turn reflects upon a sinister dream the boy has had in which the halls that he will someday fill appear blank and haunted without his mother’s presence]. I kept thinking about fort-da, for some reason).

A lot has been said about Scott Walker’s score – which is integral, and fits perfectly at all times. I would contribute that a lot of the early refrains, especially, sound like demented nursery sing-song melodies, repeating like a broken singing doll. In sum it’s is like a blend of Hermann and Greenwood; there’s a lot of consonance with There Will Be Blood, especially in the final section which threatens to turn into a parallel sequel to the film from the “bastard’s” point of view. The patience of the takes has become totally dread-inducing by this point; the forestalling of the inevitable final appearance is almost unbearable. The finale itself is initially somewhat baffling, a potential bum note, but it finds a home within a boldly framed impression of the chaos still to come.

Ends up sidestepping all assumptions. There are clues and illustrations left satisfyingly tangential (the possible exception being the dangling passing threat from the ejected maid Mona), which reflects positively back on the earlier examples which landed a little more flatly (the recurring black horse, Ada’s breast beneath the cloth).

Needs a second viewing; never seen such a turnaround (like In The Bedroom x a thousand).

7

4th December

Did give this a second viewing recently with R, who loved it. Much more consistent the whole way through, mostly to its advantage. The ending is a less cryptic choice but still powerful. Deserving it an 8 now as one of the more distinctively unsettling American films from recent years.

A Ghost Story (2017)

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Hipster bullshit. Saw this at UPP with Steve. Establishes a post-Tree of Life environment of suburban peace through patient pacing and misty ambience. A couple wrangle with mysterious melancholy (some Wong Kar-Wai in these highly-strung exchanges) before Casey Affleck, the husband, perishes in a car crash. He is whimsically clad in the pictured archetypal ghostly costume; all focus on his personal experience after death is borrowed and intentionally childish, extending to a take on the Taylor Swift meme of figures communicating wordlessly between isolated houses. Hammy and unsatisfying reflections on loss and (im)permanence ([be]longing) swirl around this central, simpering irony. At the beginning, though, there are some interesting prospects for examination of the intransigence of grief, extending to (and pushed through) a pointedly interminable scene depicting Rooney Mara’s indulgence in kummerspeck with CA’s besheeted presence hovering out of focus. This isn’t followed through, however, as RM leaves the set, giving way to CA’s dissatisfying ponderings on regeneration and residual presence. There’s a cameo from Will Oldham which comprises a garbled diatribe on humanity as a ‘brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness’, hanging on with a whiff of watery hauntology. There are also some unintentionally guffaw-prompting missteps, as in CA’s successful attempt to diffuse an argument with RM by insisting upon his tuneless and flatulantly insubstantial musical endeavours. All the jump-scares (the extent of the film’s spookiness, besides a brief but effective poltergeist interlude) are equally unwarranted and unwelcome. Ultimately the message was entirely covered – and then some – by the yet-imperfect short film Plastic Bag by Ramin Bahrami, which at least had an appealing sense of humour. Usage of rounded 4:3 framing seems more Instagram than Scarred Hearts.

A film which is never more than you expect it to be.

3

Lolita (1962)

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Adapting this book from such a distinctively wordy author, a book with such a quotable opening, Kubrick holds off on the narration rather ostentatiously. The first half breezes through snippets and vignettes in a way which emphasises suggestion and unspoken thoughts. The Haze household – which surely ranks as the most bewitching set here, above the briefly glittering Kane-esque clutter of Clare Quilty’s mansion – has a distinct upstairs/downstairs dynamic which evokes the Overlook: Charlotte seems largely confined to the lower half, unable to rein in the secrets and impulses which simmer behind the locked doors and drawers in the bedrooms.

Launching the film in this environment, again, points to questions of repression and secrecy. The line which kept tugging at me throughout Lolita was race. Charlotte’s opening spiel – a pitch for Humbert’s tenancy – flaunts the “Dutch and English stock” of the New Hampshire neighbourhood. She is nevertheless reliant on Louise, the peripheral figure of the black maid who leans across one shot in service and isn’t seen again. She is one of a cast of bit-part African American characters, all of which act as help, each more damaging to Humbert’s cause than the last. The comic porter at the hotel is the most obvious, refusing to keep his voice down during the slapstick routine of erecting the makeshift campbed at Lolita’s feet in which H will inevitably have to sleep. Later, at the hospital, a black nurse physically restrains H as he writhes at the discovery of his stepdaughter’s kidnapping. Their position as manual workers emphasises the way their labour, their presence, underpins and reinforces the elaborate social structures above them. They’re the clockwork behind the frontispiece, to be heard but not seen. Guilty consciences.

Charlotte – symbolic of the religiously tormented, mortally devoted, repressed and industrious middle class – takes the weight of the film’s racial critique of America: her daughter’s ironic sieg heil sticks out in this context. Opposite her is the film’s European influence, embodied most extravagantly in Peter Sellers’ psychologist persona – basically a dry run for his Nazi Strangelove with his clipped but leering anatomical obsessions (“she has got ze curvatures…”). 20th Century European racialism, a fixation for the jewish Kubrick until Schindler’s List put paid to his frustrated plans for a holocaust picture, is sublimated into a clownish act, a mask which any fool should see through (H’s earnest and concessionary responses are integral to the comedy of the scene). Charlotte’s racism, on the other hand, is never less than coldly and understatedly sinister. It’s a striking binary which I think (having not read L) plays into the theme of H’s character: that real villainy is not the kind which comes with a warning label; it’s complicated and insidious and there’s a bit of it inside everyone (Quilty obsessively and ironically labelling H as “normal”).

Elsewhere: that domestic setting really is awesome; love the vertical panning every time someone uses the stairs. C trapped in a memory palace like an unsympathetic Juliet of the Spirits. Sellers is awesome, while Sue Lyon’s performance grows and twists with the changes of scenery and season. Made a load of notes but I can’t remember what any of the rest of them mean.

Second-tier? I assumed so but I’m not sure now.

8

Under The Volcano (1984)

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The start is totally mesmerising: AF staggering through the Day Of The Dead reverences at a local graveyard (whose eerie adornments reminded me of Pictures of the Old World), totally incongruous but shot patiently and poignantly by JH (his drunkenness is revealed through focus on his shoes). Firmin reaches compassionately for a whimpering dog beneath him, evoking the last line of the novel (which is a) one of the most terrifying I can remember reading and b) not mirrored in the ending here). F’s condemnation is already sealed.

Continuing through a bar showing a Peter Lorre movie. “Some things you can’t apologise for.” F’s futility is entirely a 20th-century one: alongside Hugh he is trapped by the rage in Spain and between the horrors of his military past and their unsettling echoes in the future. “People just don’t go around putting other people into furnaces” he protests, before amping the anecdote up with each telling until he has become the culprit. At the fiesta he chides Hugh for suggesting that there are new wars, rather than repetitions of the same one. Credit to the film for capably emulating ML’s refraction of this hellish continual condemnation through a preposterous, Greeneian postcolonial setup.

The preposterousness of this setup – as it is manifested in the interactions between Yvonne and Hugh and the Mexican locals – scans as pastiche initially, with a sort of Casablanca-esque lateness to every romantic reinvolvement (as well as frequent illustrations of unachievable pastoral dreams in the manner of Steinbeck). At times the secondary acting appears less knowingly hammy, clashing in particular with the patently ridiculous Oxbridge encounter.

Just as F is sucked down from the pageantry into his pit of alcoholism, so too did I find myself nearly getting the shakes whenever Finney wasn’t onscreen. Straight blustery and Burton the whole way, fearlessly outer-body in a way somehow comparable to Emannuelle Riva’s deterioration in Amour. He seems to float around in his world like a tethered balloon:

There’s nothing really holding you here any more.

Magic.

Interesting that JH’s adaptation bypasses the quite-densely flowing stream-of-consciousness lens of ML while still sticking overtly to his plot. The story works best in all cases when its projected on the inside of F’s forehead. There’s an amazing bit where, before leaving with Y for the first time, he asks how anyone, if they do not drink as he does, can appreciate the sight of an old Indian woman playing dominoes with a chicken. His eskimo rant is a wild ride, too, and he blends faultlessly into the lynchian bordello, the setpiece all dutch angles and grotesque malice.

A distinctive if slightly unsatisfying take, folded around a bonkers but titanic central performance.

7

David Lynch: The Art Life (2016)

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Documentary by Jon Nguyen piecing 20 intimate conversations with the director together into a portrait of his early years and experiments with painting up until the production of Eraserhead.

First time I’ve seen him talk at length about anything and he’s a fascinating storyteller. Amazing ability to inspire laughter and creep you out, which I think both come from imagination and timing. He feels every line – and it does sound like lines, as his memories return to him in fragments and he circles around images, people or places in a very poetic way (first best example is his description of his wonderfully permissive and encouraging mother, although the opening illustration of playing in mud as a small boy is hilarious as well as nicely tying in the theme of painting).

Watching him paint today in his open-plan studio, manipulating gooey and rough material or drilling holes and bending wires – tactility evoked in the recollections too. Each recollection is a warped and crafted piece like the interstitial and illustrative artworks which are distributed liberally here. His predominant painterly style is somewhere between Bacon and Stanley Donwood, faces framed or scrubbed out with charcoal darkness, screaming with arms leering, sinking towards scrawled trees or strangers. In their raw, expressionistic simplicity they reach back towards childhood and adolescence as he gives us verbal vignettes which are always very engrossing – an unrecountable childhood horror, his first artistic inspirations, his father striding off to work in a ten-gallon hat, his father’s hilarious reaction to his experiments with “dead birds” and “different stages of fruit” (“David, don’t have kids.”)

Reaching back into this underexplored period in his development dredges up the germs of images from his later work: a formative encounter with a bloodied and naked woman on a lawn which clearly informed BV; experience of dead bodies and imagining their stories in the same way that we imagine Laura Palmer’s when she’s wrapped in plastic; Bob Dylan hateful and miniscule like any number of shrunken grotesques in his films. Despite this connectivity – and the way we watch the Super 8 footage of suburban lawns and fences through his later representations – JN’s film develops a distinctive style and atmosphere (though partly by taking off from DL’s quite different painting work). Excellent score echoes bluesy heat of Lost Highway and Badalamenti’s ambient threat but also blends the industrial nightmare of Lynch’s Philadelphia with noisey clatter which evokes Mika Vainio.

8