Films I loved in March 2015

1 April 2015
Joaquin Phoenix as Larry 'Doc' Sportello in Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix as Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello in Inherent Vice

I adored the twists and turns, endless stream of larger-than-life characters, paranoia, stoner logic, and melancholic social commentary found within Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. While the dense narrative was sometimes hard work getting through while reading the Thomas Pynchon novel it was adapted from, in the film I found it was liberating to regard the story as secondary to the atmospheric and playful mood generate by Anderson. I was more than happy to enjoy the film on a scene-by-scene basis and lose myself in the weirdness, comedy and sometimes darkness of every moment.

Not that it’s a film without substance. The 1970 Californian setting in the shadow of the Manson Family Murders and during Ronald Reagan’s governorship offers plenty of indications that the hopeful dreams of the hippie movement had failed to materialise. Dark days were ahead and the film acknowledges the impact of heroin, the presence of neo-Nazism, the commercialisation of the counter-culture, and the increase of government surveillance on its own people. And not unlike Raymond Chandler’s classic Phillip Marlow detective character, Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a good man at the centre of it all, trying to do the right thing and help others, even at the expense of his own happiness.

Aleksey Serebryakov as Kolya in Leviathan

Aleksey Serebryakov as Kolya in Leviathan

The latest film by Russian writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev, Leviathan, is a devastating allegory for contemporary Russia, presenting the government as ruthless and corrupt, the church as being manipulative and conniving, and the general population as slowly sliding into hopelessness, brutality and alcoholism. This would be unbearable if it were not for the film being so beautifully crafted and so visually rich. The images of the decaying fishing boats, whale skeleton and church ruins provide powerful symbols of a great and glorious culture that now feels like a relic of the past.

Jack O'Connell as Gary Hook in '71

Jack O’Connell as Gary Hook in ’71

Similar to Paul Greengrass’s underrated Green Zone, ’71 is a thrilling action/war drama that also provides sophisticated insights into the nature of the conflict it is set during. The violence that occurs on the streets of Belfast during the period known as The Troubles isn’t just the backdrop for this film’s exciting action scenes; it is examined and explored with impressive complexity. As the young and inexperienced British soldier Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) spends the night trying to get back to his unit, his encounters with various other characters reveals how many different factions were involved in the conflict and how many people were caught in the crossfire.

Hilary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy in The Homesman

Hilary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy in The Homesman

In his directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, actor Tommy Lee Jones took a very critical look at issues of race in contemporary America. In The Homesman, Jones’s second film as director, he turns his attention towards the treatment of women in American Midwest in the 1850s. The result is a bitter deconstruction of western mythology and a savage condemnation of social attitudes towards women. Far from the idealised frontier taming narratives of classic westerns, Jones delivers a confronting and compelling story of a culture built on the mistreatment of half its population.

This month I also really enjoyed losing myself for three hours in the National Gallery in London via Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery. Wiseman’s unobtrusive filming style and strategic editing reveals the inner workings of the multifaceted institution, engages with discussion about the role of art in broader society and explores how people connect with art. I was also really glad to be see, via their online release, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her (rather than watch The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, which combines the original two films into a single condensed film). Him and Her deliver a moving examination of how perception and memory can be different in small but significant ways, especially when is comes to love, grief and loss.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Film review – Lincoln (2012)

7 February 2013

Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis)

Collaborating for the second time after first working together on Munich (2005), director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner have made a decent film that nevertheless feels overly burdened by the responsibility of depicting historical detail. Set during the American Civil War in January 1865, Lincoln focuses on President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he attempts to abolish slavery in the USA by passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in the House of Representatives. Two major goals of the film seem to be to faithfully document a crucial moment in history through entertaining fictionalisation and to use Lincoln’s involvement as a way of shining some light on the type of person he was. Lincoln mostly feels like one of Spielberg’s straight-faced historical films with a couple of key moments reminding audiences just how good Spielberg is at coaxing an emotional response from the audience with cinematic spectacle.

For most of the film’s running time, Lincoln depicts the political machinations that went on during Lincoln’s push to bring slavery to an end. It is detailed, long and occasionally dry. The historical worthiness does relent during some scenes, especially when a group of Republican Party operatives led by William N Bilbo (James Spader) appear to deliver welcome levity to key scenes. The inner conflict experienced by the Radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) when he must compromise his progressive beliefs about equality in order to get the anti-slavery amendment through, provides the film’s most interesting examination of moral and political complexity within the democratic process. While Day-Lewis is remarkably good as Lincoln, the scenes depicting his personal life with his wife First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) and son Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) simply do not resonate the way the scenes with Stevens do.

The moment where Lincoln really impresses is when Spielberg delivers the type of grand emotional pay-off sequence that is usually associated within his spectacle-driven blockbusters. The scenes where the House of Representatives vote to end slavery is filmed with suspenseful intensity that then gives way to immense relief and joy as the amendment is passed. The editing is short and clipped, and every shot seems to begin a few seconds after the action in the frame has begun to give the impression that progress is occurring so rapidly that not even the film itself can keep up. For any dull patch that may have come before, this exhilarating sequence does much to redeem the film. In terms of narrative structure, the previous Spielberg film that Lincoln ends up most resembling is Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which while a more consistently entertaining film still provided a dramatic change in pace and style at the end to deliver a long feel-good sequence as a sort of reward to the audience for hanging in for that long. There is even a shot of Day-Lewis as Lincoln walking into the glowing light coming from the window – signalling the dawn of a new era – which is almost identical to one of the final shots from Close Encounters of the Third Kind of Richard Dreyfuss walking into the glow of the alien spaceship.

Ultimately Lincoln suffers in comparison to other films. Michael Apted’s 2006 historical biopic Amazing Grace, about William Wilberforce’s campaign to end the slave trade in the British Empire, far more effectively expressed the political mood of the era as well as exploring how Wilberforce’s private and public life affected each other. In Young Mr Lincoln (1939) director John Ford and actor Henry Fonda used a relatively minor episode in Lincoln’s life to demonstrate far more convincingly and compelling how his personal convictions about equality, justice and democracy influenced his actions.

As one of the most influential, popular, successful and important filmmakers of the past 40 years, Steven Spielberg has specialised in having audiences willingly submit to his masterful emotional manipulation. A swell of music with a slow zoom into a wide-eyed face, and suddenly Spielberg has you sharing the wonder, horror, delight or bewilderment of the character on screen. Moments like this exist in Lincoln and there are moments where Kushner’s witty dialogue shines through to remind us that the participants during this extraordinary period of social change where humans as well as historical figures from textbooks. However, for the most part Lincoln is not a significant inclusion into Spielberg’s filmography despite the noblest of intentions and undeniable cinematic craftsmanship.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Men in Black 3 (2012)

21 May 2012
Men in Black 3: Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Josh Brolin)

Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Josh Brolin)

Filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld returns to the Men in Black films ten years after the second part and fifteen years after the original. As there hasn’t been any real sense of demand for this franchise to be continued, it does feel like an odd move. Then again, Sonnenfeld has had an odd career beginning notably as a cinematographer for Joel and Ethan Coen (not to be confused with Men in Black 3 co-writer Etan Coen) and then frequently emulating other directors. His Addams Family films (1991 and 1993) feel a little like Tim Burton works, Get Shorty (1995) seems in Quentin Tarantino mode and the Men in Black films are a bit like something Joe Dante might do. Ironically the film where a ‘Sonnenfeldesque’ visual style most shines through is Wild Wild West (1999), an attempt at Western era steampunk that is a complete mess.

Men in Black 3 returns to the fictional world from Lowell Cunningham’s comic book series, where secret agents monitor and cover-up alien activity on Earth. This instalment introduces a time travel plot, where Agent J (Will Smith) travels back to 1969 to stop an alien from assassinating his partner Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones in 2012 and Josh Brolin in 1969). The very casual changing-the-future-by-changing-the-past narrative evokes Back to the Future (1985); this time suggesting Robert Zemeckis is the director whom Sonnenfeld is taking his cues from. And sadly, like many of Sonnenfeld’s films, it doesn’t hold up to its influences. While flawed logic can be found in Back to the Future and other time travel film narratives, they still possess a suspension of disbelief and internal logic that suits the context of the film. The very confused idea of what aspects of time travel affects what recalls the convoluted Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (Jay Roach, 1999), but without the knowing winks to the audience. There is even one moment in Men in Black 3 when the time travel device is used to reset a moment, which completely breaks the logic of the film.

Nevertheless, there is still a lot to like and aspects of the time travel narrative do work well. A character who exists in the 5th dimension and therefore can simultaneously see multiple realities and timelines is used both comically and in moments of poignancy. The previously unresolved explanation of why K recruited J in the first place is also finally explained, providing the film with an unexpected note of sentimentality that works surprisingly well even if it is overly foreshadowed. That moment plus the chance to have Josh Brolin play a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones provide the best justification for why this sequel was made. On the other hand, the promise of using the idea to send an elite African American agent back to 1969 to comment on the history of America’s civil rights movement is not fulfilled apart from one middling early scene where Agent J encounters a pair of racist cops. Missed opportunities to provide any real substance in this film are frustrating.

Otherwise, Men in Black 3 is a series of okay gags and okay action sequences, with enough elements to make it moderately enjoyable. Completely against type, Jemaine Clement is a lot of fun as the villainous Boris the Animal and Michael Stuhlbarg is great as Griffin, the creature who lives in the 5th dimension. Emma Thompson as Agent O is mostly underused, although she does get one fun moment where she maintains a completely straight face while speaking in an absurd alien language. All the elements are there for this to be a great science-fiction/comedy, but it never truly engages. Annoyingly it continues the gag that all slightly unusual or creative people are actually aliens, which hints at an underlying conservatism. Perhaps if the film celebrated difference and strangeness more, rather than always presenting it as something to laugh at or arrest, then Men in Black 3 could live up to the potential that Sonnenfeld has always showed, but never quite delivered.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012