Friday, December 14, 2018

Listomania! My Favourite Films of 2018

Like fifty percent of the Universe at a snap of Thanos' fingers, 2018 will soon be dust...but wait! There's still plenty of time for the highlight of everyone's film calendar, the Unleashing of the Lists!

As long-term readers of my annual cinematic reverie know, I’m a stone-cold sucker for a well-placed musical interlude. After all, Action is Character. It’s not what you say, it’s what you do...

...in a rare moment of wild abandon from his life of thankless wage-drudgery, David Oyelowo drives to work belting out Will Smith’s Gettin’ Jiggy Wit’ It with gusto on an icy Chicago morning in Gringo...

...Juliette Binoche illuminates the dancefloor, letting the sunshine out, as she succumbs to the yearning, seductive charms of Etta James’ At Last in Un beau soleil intérieur...

...Agnès Varda accompanying Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell as she drives along a country road in the South of France in JR’s photobooth truck in Faces Places...

...Jason Statham sings plucky blue tang Dory’s reassuring refrain of Just Keep Swimming to himself as he does just that in the direction of a gleefully absurd showdown with The Meg...

Dread it, run from it, My Top Ten of 2018 arrives all the same. And now, it's here. We're in the endgame now:

Coco (Lee Unkrich)
Half an hour before I entered the cinema to watch Coco, I got a phone call telling me that a close family member had died. This is either the best way or the worst way to watch Coco - I haven’t decided yet. Either way, it will surprise no-one to know that I was weeping uncontrollably by the time the end credits rolled.

Faces Places (Visages villages) (Agnès Varda / JR)

The Green Fog (Guy Maddin / Galen Johnson / Evan Johnson)
Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo recreated using only footage from movies and television shows shot in San Francisco. One minute, Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie is Rock Hudson circa McMillan & Wife...the next, he’s Chuck Norris brooding his way through An Eye for an Eye. The Michael Douglas of The Streets of San Francisco watches a screen and hoots admiringly at the bare ass of the Michael Douglas of Basic Instinct. An exhilarating and hugely entertaining experimental valentine to both the City by the Bay and Hitch’s psychosexual thriller.

Let the Corpses Tan (Laissez bronzer les cadavres) (Hélène Cattet / Bruno Forzani)

Mandy (Panos Cosmatos)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger Nicolas Cage stan than me, but it’s Andrea Riseborough’s delicate, luminescent performance that really gives Mandy the heart and heft that makes it all work.

Mom and Dad (Brian Taylor)
One Cut of the Dead (Kamera o tomeru na!) (Shin'ichirô Ueda)
It’s all true. You will grudgingly admire the 37 minute non-stop single opening shot, but you won’t really understand what all the fuss is about. Hang in there. Your persistence will be rewarded. By the time you reach the end, you’ll get it, I promise. Pom!

Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)
I had no idea what to expect going in to Phantom Thread, but it wasn’t what I got. I didn’t expect it to be so funny, and strange, and hypnotic. It was all of those things, and so much more.

The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)

Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino)
I thought I’d be, at best, lukewarm on Suspiria. I haven’t really fallen for a Guadagnino picture since I Am Love almost a decade ago, and treading in the colour-saturated shadows cast by Dario Argento is as perilous as it is ambitious. But this isn’t a remake so much as it as a cover version, and is so much stronger for it. Perhaps Madame Blanc says it best: "When you dance the dance of another, you make yourself in the image of its creator."

Right under my Top Ten, I’ve got this dirty dozen and, honestly, any one of these could have been up there on another day, but personal taste is a capricious motherfucker.

Close But No Cigar

A Quiet Place (John Krasinski)
Avengers Infinity War (Anthony Russo / Joe Russo)
BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)
The First Purge (Gerard McMurray)
Gholam (Mitra Tabrizian)
Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson)
Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)
Mission: Impossible - Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti / Peter Ramsey / Rodney Rothman)
Teen Titans Go! To The Movies (Aaron Horvath / Peter Rida Michail)
You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)
UPDATED 19/12/18: The lines are closed, the votes have been counted and verified, and I can now reveal the results of the HeyUGuys Online Critics Best Films of 2018 Poll (to which I contributed a ballot). Eagle-eyed List Watchers will note that it doesn’t exactly match my Top Ten listed above. The HeyUGuys voting rules stipulate that all selections must have opened in the UK in 2018, so I’ve made a couple of substitutions for One Cut of the Dead (which has a UK theatrical release from 4th January 2019) and The Green Fog (which is never likely to get a commercial release of any kind due to rights issues relating to cobbling together pre-existing footage from around 200 sources). Anyway, go check it out. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Within A Forest Dark - Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built

“Some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires which we cannot commit in our controlled civilization, so they're expressed instead through our art. I don't agree. I believe Heaven and Hell are one and the same. The soul belongs to Heaven and the body to Hell." -- Jack (Matt Dillon)

"Jack has a weak point for fame also, and so do I. I’m not proud of it." -- Lars von Trier

“I Am Jack's Complete Lack of Surprise.” -- Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club)



Jack (Matt Dillon) is an architect. Or maybe Jack is an engineer. Jack definitely considers himself an artist. The medium for Jack’s art is the human body and the manifold horrors that can be inflicted upon it. Because Jack is a serial killer.

Utilising the same narrative device that he employed in Nymphomaniac, Lars von Trier presents The House That Jack Built as a series of episodic vignettes. A dark mirror to Charlotte Gainsbourg’s recollections of sexual experiences in Nymphomaniac, this is an unflinching catalogue of death. A grotesque picaresque. Part confessional, part testament, part reverie, Jack regales Verge (Bruno Ganz) with the details of five incidents that take place over a period of twelve years.

Jack may be an unreliable narrator. But then, so is Lars.

“I Am Jack's Smirking Revenge.”

Interspersed with repeated refrains of David Bowie's "Fame" and Glenn Gould seated at his piano, Jack’s revelations are by turns self-aggrandising and self-flagellating. Sometimes both at the same time. He gives himself the grandiose pseudonym Mr. Sophistication, and arranges his victims in hideous tableaux morte to capture moments with negative photography. Provocative and repellent, it occasionally feels like von Trier is whispering in my ear “why are you still watching this?” and laughing at his little incitements. (This is as good a time as any to note that the film isn’t actually funny, despite the intermittent bursts of laughter from the audience in the screening that I attended).

As the film progresses, the line between Jack and Lars becomes increasingly blurry. Jack (and Lars) suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. His art distracts him from his neuroses, and he exorcises his demons through his work. I don’t even know if I’m talking about Jack or Lars von Trier anymore..

“I Am Jack's Medulla Oblongata.”

The House That Jack Built also grows more contemplative as it goes on. We get a better sense of Jack’s narcissism and egotism. He is utterly self-absorbed, and we’re trapped in the stifling confines of his warped worldview. There are excuses and justifications. He flaunts his toxic masculinity and male entitlement and his ability to act with impunity. He indulges in discursive digressions on architecture and “the noble rot” of fermenting grapes, and self-importantly places himself in a continuum of human horror and atrocities.

It would be a stretch to say that I enjoyed watching The House That Jack Built, but I’ve certainly enjoyed turning it over in my head in the days since. It’s a confident and impressive piece of work. The early movements of the film are reminiscent of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Man Bites Dog, but it’s a very different beast as we descend further towards the baroque denouement. And it is ripe with allusions: early on, Jack sports a pair of large lens Jeffrey Dahmer glasses; occasionally, Jack faces the audience wielding cue cards à la Bob Dylan's “Subterranean Homesick Blues”; and then there’s the impressive and striking recreation of Eugène Delacroix's The Barque of Dante.

“I Am Jack's Inflamed Sense of Rejection.” 

It’s surely no coincidence that Jack is von Trier’s first male protagonist since 1991’s Europa. It certainly feels like The House That Jack Built could be Lars von Trier’s swansong. With Jack as his proxy, von Trier is looking back on his oeuvre - the House that Lars built. (Sometimes, it’s a little bit too on-the-nose, especially in a montage made up of footage from von Trier’s back catalogue. Subtle it ain’t.) But I hope this isn’t the last room on von Trier’s house. There’s life in the old provocateur yet.

The House That Jack Built is in cinemas and on demand in the UK from Friday 14th December 2018, with nationwide previews that include a pre-recorded Lars von Trier Q&A on Wednesday 12th December 2018

Monday, November 19, 2018

William Goldman 1931 - 2018


“It’s an accepted fact that all writers are crazy, even the normal ones are weird.”

Have fun storming the castle, Bill.

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Kids Are All Write - Laurent Cantet's The Workshop


Summer in the town of La Ciotat near Marseille. A region once prosperous due to the presence of a large dockyard and commercial port, the area has been in steady decline since the closure of the port twenty-five years earlier.

A group of unemployed teenagers taking part in a state-funded writing workshop seize upon the town’s industrial past, working class heritage and history of communist labour strikes as ingredients to throw into the pot as they attempt to cook up a crime novel together, under the auspices of novelist Olivia (Marina Foïs).

Co-written by director Laurent Cantet and 120 BPM’s Robin Campillo, The Workshop is primarily interested in the most provocative and combative member of the group, Antoine (Matthieu Lucci). Observing Antoine’s spiky interactions with the rest of the group, it’s hard not to view him as not so much a fully-formed character, but a cypher for one of the film’s many Big Themes. He represents the inchoate disgruntlement of the intelligent, understimulated, disaffected, isolated young man - fertile ground for insidious ideas to take root. He lives a substantial part of his life online, providing him with his unmoderated yet narrow and self-selecting window onto the world.

The opening shot of the film is from the videogame The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Antoine’s avatar repeatedly shoots arrows into the air. He’s probably just getting used to shooting things...

We also watch him trawling YouTube and soaking up the rambling incendiary far-right rhetoric that he later parrots to the group. More than once, he invokes both the coordinated 2015 Bataclan terror attacks, and the cargo truck that drove through a crowd in Nice during the 2016 Bastille Day celebrations.

Far too often, The Workshop is saying a lot, but to what end? It muses about race and class and violence as entertainment. It ponders forms of expression, both in word and deed. It flirts with the power dynamic that exists between Antoine and Olivia - the palpable tension of attraction and repulsion between them. And therein lies the great frustration of The Workshop. It raises loads of interesting questions, but never seems especially interested in landing on any answers. Arguably, that's not the job of stories though, right? But that just leads to an even bigger problem - there isn’t a whole lot of story here. It’s a bunch of Very Topical Talking Points in search of a compelling narrative, and so it ends up being an unsatisfying, vaguely inert and overly didactic experience, which only served to remind me of these words:

"The moment you start preaching in a film, the moment you want to teach your audience, you're making a bad film." -- Douglas Sirk

The Workshop is in cinemas and on demand in the UK from Friday 16th November 2018

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Stan Lee 1922 - 2018


"All I tried to do in my stories was show that there's some innate goodness in the human condition. And there's always going to be evil; we should always be fighting evil."

Excelsior!

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Ruff and Tumble - Matteo Garrone’s Dogman


Opening Shot: a snarling pit-bull barking right into the camera. Pull back: We see that the dog is about to get a shampoo from Marcello (Marcello Fonte). By the end of the pampering session, the dog is placid and compliant. Marcello has a way with wild animals.

Milquetoast Marcello (whose hangdog features evoke the memory of the similarly expressive Peter Lorre) lives and works in the run-down, grey coastal town of Magliana in a weathered suburb of Rome. He cares about dogs, his daughter Alida, and his reputation and good standing amongst the other local businessmen. He’s an inveterate people-pleaser - meek, loyal, a pragmatic survivor. He’s also a petty criminal and part-time cocaine dealer.

His dabbling in the latter is the start of all his problems. Bestial troublemaker Simone (Edoardo Pesce) always hits him up for free coke or whenever he needs a getaway driver at short notice. Marcello invariably acquiesces to Simone’s increasingly unreasonable demands, often to his own detriment. Marcello’s relationship with Simone raises one of the central questions of Dogman - is he unafraid of vicious animals, knowing just what he needs to do to soothe them...or is he simply too naive and trusting to know when he needs to avoid their snapping jaws?

Based on a real incident that occurred in 1988 (but don’t read too much into that), Dogman, for all its superbly realised grit, has a lovely seam of dark wit, in particular a terrific sequence which involves Marcello returning to the scene of a crime to save a chihuahua from a chilly demise.

It’s the plot machinations which shift Garrone’s compelling character study into the more conventional territory of a crime drama. Dogman is incredibly strong for at least the first three-quarters of its running time, but it did lose me somewhat as it entered its final movement. I was far more captivated following Marcello as he went about his day-to-day life.

Credit for that goes to Marcello Fonte for his magnetic central performance, the camera often lingering on that extraordinary face, his expressions nervously flitting between obsequious, warm, terrified, quizzical and disoriented as he’s bruised and battered by circumstance. “It’s a dog’s life, hunger and ease.”

Dogman is in cinemas and on demand in the UK from Friday 19th October 2018, and screens as part of the 62nd BFI London Film Festival on Sunday 14th October and Monday 15th October 2018.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Eyes Have It - Agnès Varda et JR's Faces Places

JR: "You see blurry, and you’re happy.”
Agnès Varda: “You see everything dark, and you’re happy. It all depends on how one sees things.”


With Faces Places (or, my preference being the original French title, the beautifully mellifluous Visages villages) Agnès Varda returns to the fertile ground of her earlier Murs murs and Les glaneurs et la glaneuse with another revelatory journey of discovery “to meet new faces so I don’t fall down the holes in my memory.”

A sprightly 88 years old at the time of shooting, Agnès Varda might find that the flesh is weakening, but the spirit is unquestionably as potent as ever. This time around, she has a partner in adventure, the self-styled photograffeur JR, a fellow traveller who cleaves to the belief that the street is "the largest art gallery in the world".

Together in JR’s visually striking photo booth truck (one of the essential tools of his "Inside Out Project"), the two of them drive around the South of France to indulge their creativity and sate their curiosity, with an attitude of serendipitous discovery as their guide. Agnès remarks that “chance has always been my best assistant.” (Agnès singing along to Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell as they tool around the French countryside is most definitely one of my favourite big-screen moments of the year).

And so the picaresque travelogue begins - a playful odyssey with many stops: from the abandoned half-finished village which attracts a gathering of locals making art, eating together and plastering pictures of  their faces on the side of the ruins; to the German WWII concrete bunker embedded at an angle on a beach after having fallen of a cliff edge. JR and Agnès paste an image of her late friend Guy Bourdin on the block. The following morning, they discover that the image has been washed away by the tide.

That inadvertently sums up the ineffable allure of Faces Places - the inherently ephemeral nature of public art (and life), and yet the camera doesn’t forget a thing. The film itself is the permanent document. The remembrance.

Remembrance and mortality are deep in the heart of Faces Places. Our explorers make a pilgrimage to the Cimetière de Montjustin to pay their respects at the graves of husband-and-wife photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Martine Franck in a remembrance of their lives and work. It’s not just about seeking out the New, but holding on to the Past whilst we can, but never in a way that is maudlin. It’s a film of enormous celebratory joy and compassion.

That delicate tension in the film between the joie de vivre of creation and invention and imagination in contrast to the transience of lives and loved ones and art lost is what really makes Faces Places sing. It’s particularly pronounced when the film arrives at the closest thing it has to a narrative thread: an attempt to visit Varda’s former comrade from the era of the Nouvelle Vague and old friend Jean-Luc Godard.

Without spoiling how that all plays out, I couldn’t help but reflect on the crucial, fundamental difference between Varda and Godard. The warm, inquisitive, deeply humanist Agnès wants to get out into the world and meet people; the clinical, formalist philosopher JLG appears to want isolation. Agnès occasionally berates JR for his predilection for dark glasses. They mask his eyes - a barrier to intimacy, perhaps hiding what he really thinks and feels. Like Godard before him, JR’s glasses are a prop, an inextricable part of his public-facing persona. And yet maybe in this instance her new friend JR is better than her old friend Godard? Maybe it’s just a matter of perspective.

This is starting to run long, but I can’t help myself. Faces Places contains multitudes. This piece could be double the length and I still won’t have covered everything about the film that moved me or delighted me or inspired me. I haven’t touched on the image of shipping crates at Le Havre port dancing around Agnès and JR, or the visit to a factory that results in an impromptu table tennis match between JR and the factory’s safety officer, or the tribute to Godard’s Bande á part - a recreation of the Louvre run, with JR pushing along Agnès in a wheelchair. I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the escapades of the two friends and artists who "make images together, but differently".

Very few filmmakers have the ability to make you look at the world around you with fresh eyes. Agnès Varda has been letting us look through the windows to her soul for sixty-three years and counting. I’ll sign off with one last vox populi - the words of Pony, a homeless artist they encounter on their journey:

“I was born in the shadow of a star. My mother, the moon, gave me her coolness. My father, the sun, gave me his warmth and the universe to live in. Imagine that. I have so much in this life.”  

Faces Places is in cinemas and on demand in the UK from Friday 21st September 2018.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Burt Reynolds 1936 - 2018


"We’re only here for a little while, and you’ve got to have some fun, right? I don’t take myself seriously, and I think the ones that do, there’s some sickness with people like that."

Copy that, Good Buddy. Over and out.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

They’ll Always Have Paris - Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War


“If music be the food of love, play on.
Give me excess of it that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.”


Poland. 1949. Lugubrious pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) has been hired to help sand the rough edges off the Mazurek folk ensemble and turn it into a class act. One of the singers vying for a spot in the fledgling troupe is the mercurial Zula (Joanna Kulig), on probation for stabbing her father. During the audition process, she catches Wiktor’s eye (and ear) with a rendition of the song “Two Hearts” (“Dwa serduszka”) that she’d heard in a movie once.

"Two hearts, four eyes
Crying all of the day and all of the night..." 

It’s love at first note.

From there, Cold War tracks the two star-crossed lovers all over post-war Europe for the next fifteen years. From Warsaw to East Berlin; Paris to Yugoslavia and back again, moving towards its diminuendo back in Poland in 1964. At a Parisian soirée one evening, Zula is told that “time doesn’t matter when you are in love”, but how many compromises and sacrifices can love withstand before time runs out and the music stops?

Inspired by and dedicated to his parents, Pawlikowski begins Cold War with music and lingering close-ups on the faces of rural folk musicians as they perform straight to camera. The tempo of Cold War is driven by music. From the humble simplicity of folk music to the grandiose vulgarity of communist propaganda - that same folk music perverted to lionise Lenin and Stalin; from bebop and torch songs to Bill Haley and his Comets having a “Rock Around The Clock”.

But music isn’t the only thing driving the story. Early on, we see a workman attempting to hang a banner that reads “WE WELCOME TOMORROW". As he’s hammering in the final nail, he falls off his ladder, pulling the banner down with him. Perhaps the reason that they welcome tomorrow is because they don’t have a clue what tomorrow will bring. Not a bad metaphor for the struggles yet to come.

Cold War is masterfully constructed by the trinity of cinematographer Lukasz Zal (his crisp, clean monochrome photography commanding in the Academy ratio frame); the elliptical rhythmic editing of Jaroslaw Kaminski and, leading from the front, the conductor of the piece, Paweł Pawlikowski. With subtle grace notes of Fassbinder and Casablanca, Cold War is pitch perfect.

Cold War is in cinemas and on demand in the UK from Friday 31st August 2018.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

All Along The Watchtower - Daniel Kokotajlo’s Apostasy

“There must be some kind of way outta here
Said the joker to the thief
There's too much confusion
I can't get no relief”


apostasy (əˈpɒstəsi) = "the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief or principle."

Writer-director Daniel Kokotajlo draws on his personal experiences of life inside (and outside) the Jehovah’s Witnesses for his even-handed, extremely assured and deeply compassionate debut feature Apostasy.

“I’m sorry, Jehovah.” On the eve of her eighteenth birthday, the first words we hear come from Alex (Molly Wright)’s inner monologue – an apology for politely indulging her doctor’s vain plea for her to seriously consider ongoing medical treatment for her life-threatening anaemia. It won’t be the last time blood is rejected in Apostasy

Alex’s blood kin are her older sister Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran). Set in Kokotajlo’s native Oldham, Apostasy follows the three women as they wrestle with the tensions and fundamental dichotomy that exist between their daily life and relationships, and “The Truth” as espoused by the Witnesses.

Aided by cinematographer Adam Scarth’s detached, visually austere images, Kokotajlo’s film is a sensitive, nuanced and restrained portrayal of what it means to unquestioningly pledge fealty to the beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as they await the arrival of “The New System” (the creation of God’s Kingdom on Earth following Armageddon).

Significantly, the faith’s Elders are all men – interpreting and applying the scripture, providing “divine guidance”, and thus exerting pressure (and maybe a little bit of fear?) - affecting the decisions and travails faced by the three women as the story progresses. The inert stillness of the Witnesses “Kingdom Hall” is at odds with the world that rushes past on the busy dual carriageway in the background. It’s a resolutely patriarchal belief system and there’s the conspicuous absence of a father / husband in the home of our three protagonists – he’s mentioned long enough for us to notice that he’s not there, and no-one wants to talk about why…

All three lead actresses are uniformly superb – in particular Siobhan Finneran as Ivanna, giving a subtle, quietly conflicted, expressive and controlled performance. With the tiniest physical gestures, we see the cognitive dissonance and uncertainty crackle across her face and flash in her eyes.

At times unsettling and occasionally harrowing (there’s some archive video footage on “How to Cope with Grief” that I found chilling), yet moving and fair, Apostasy provides an exceptionally rare insight into the power and persuasive groupthink of the faith over its adherents. Crucially, this is not an exposé, a hatchet job or a tell-all. Kokotajlo is far more sympathetic, open-minded and open-hearted than that. Unsurprisingly, the closing credits contain the disclaimer “Not endorsed by the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses”.

Apostasy is in cinemas and on demand in the UK from Friday 27th July 2018.