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Why Sideways is still Alexander Payne’s finest vintage

January 23, 2018

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With Downsizing‘s release this Friday, I’ve revisited perhaps the best (and my favourite) of Alexander Payne’s previous films….Sideways!

Follow the below link to the article in One Room With a View:


January 19, 2018

Kameradschaft (1931)
Director: G.W. Pabst
Actors: Alexander Granach, Fritz Kampers, Daniel Mendaille

Synopsis: When a catastrophic explosion strands a group of French miners deep underground in the disputed Ruhr territory in 1919, a band of German miners defy orders and international borders to come to the rescue.

Review: Kameradschaft (which translates literally as ‘comradeship’) was G.W. Pabst’s follow on from his revelatory war lament, Westfront 1918, and, in a way, picked up on its very same theme of the irrelevance of national paradigms (lines on a map, borders, bureaucracy) amid a greater need for international co-operation and harmony.

de facto disaster movie, Kameradschaft functions effectively as a straight up genre film or in its more aspirational guise as a paean to Franco-German unity. These two elements converge brilliantly in a superb sequence where Pabst’s penchant for tracking shots is ingeniously indulged when a fire scorches down the tunnel separating the two sides’ mines (they used to previously co-own the mines) causing the devastating explosion.

This visual dexterity of Pabst’s comes out best in a further dichotomic sequence after the French miners have been saved by their selfless German counterparts. As the workers have a socialist rally up above ground, celebrating their newfound unity and sense of collective purpose, Pabst cleverly cuts to Franco-German businessmen, in the mine below, dividing up the area once again (the cause of the catastrophe in the first place) so they can each protect their fiscal interests. It lends Pabst’s international relations theme a decidedly political and social context, with him seemingly hinting that nationalist ire is a concept dreamed up by the establishment and political classes in order to protect their power and economic monopolies – and with the workers and everyday citizens as the collateral damage in such a ploy. (January 2018)

Westfront 1918

January 19, 2018

Westfront 1918 (1930)
Director: G.W. Pabst
Actors: Gustav Diessl, Hans-Joachim Moebis, Hanna Hoessrich

Synopsis: The insanity of trench warfare as viewed from the German perspective in 1918.

Review: The forgotten master of German cinema (although he was actually born in Austria-Hungary and his birthplace is now part of the Czech Republic), G.W. Pabst, made one of the most powerful First World War dirges of all time with his absolutely mesmeric Westfront 1918.

Charting the lives of a group of German infantrymen on the the western front (hence the name) in the dying embers of the war, Pabst’s remarkable film endures today for two notable reasons. First, it communicates an almost proto-maturity in the way it deals with the irrelevance of nationality and the universality of the need for human dignity amid the squalid end-game of a very bloody, inhumane and merciless war (this message is very much resonant in today’s ultra-nationalistic European landscape). Second, it really is an absurdly skilled film cinematographically. Putting paid to any belief that ‘early’ cinema could be deemed primitive, Pabst’s command of the expressionistic potential of his chiaroscuro cinematography, plus his bravura use of epic tracking shots, really did imagine the trenches as an unimaginable hell on earth. That, and one of the finest closing scenes of any war film (or for that matter, any film) going, make this a necessary pit-stop for anyone with an interest in depictions of the First World War on screen and in discovering an underappreciated cinematic master. (January 2018)

Top 20 Films of 2017

December 19, 2017

In reverse order…

20. Silence (dir: Martin Scorsese)

I really wanted to like this film, and, in its final act, Scorsese strikes upon the cerebral and aesthetic potential of the apostasy subject matter. Too often though, he gets stuck in telling a conventional, picturesque tale of torture and religious persecution.

Full review:

19. The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi)

A typically theatrical, moralistic piece of work from Asghar Farhadi. The Death of a Salesman framing device doesn’t entirely work, but you’d be hard-pushed to find a more tonally assured depiction of the moral fallibility of masculinity than you do in this film.

18. T2 Trainspotting (Danny Boyle)

There’s a touch of the hit and miss about this belated reunion with the characters and themes of Danny Boyle’s seminal Brit classic, Trainspotting (1996). However, much of the humour and visual ingenuity remains intact, and the attempt to update the previous film’s zeitgeisty feel to a post-global, Brexit-era Britain feels strangely permissible.

17. Toni Erdmann (Maran Ade)

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I don’t quite share the euphoric reception this has received in other quarters, seeing it as a reasonably regulation bourgeois/corporate farce. However, amid the central ‘comedy of manners’ conceit are quieter, more plaintive observations about the human condition and mortality that much of the critical commentary overlooked.

16. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

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The indie aesthetic of Moonlight is a bit hackneyed, but the sensitivity of the story is a revelation. Surely one of the most graceful films ever to have won Best Picture at the Oscars?

15. Song to Song (Terrence Malick)

Malick’s ambitious, transcendent aesthetic feels unearned and borderline shallow here, but it’s comfortably the most visually impressive work I’ve seen this year. Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki have taken the expressionistic potentials of feature length filmmaking to another level in their last four collaborations.

14. Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts)

There are oodles of charm in this, the best superhero film of the year. There’s just a brilliant complicity of zany wit that emanates from every pore of the film: from the natural, unforced performances (great stuff from Tom Holland and Michael Keaton in particular), and the expert visual humour and action sequences, to an unfussy, easy-to-follow storyline.

13. A Man Called Ove (Hannes Holm)

I’m not usually one for treacly, sentimental fables, but this one has a decidedly acerbic, Scandinavian pang. Think of it as a marriage of the whimsy of Tim Burton’s Big Fish with Alexander Payne’s darker middle-American satires à la About Schmidt or Nebraska. Rolf Lassgård’s portrayal of the Scrooge-like Swedish widower, Ove, is an acting tour de force.

12. Okja (Bong Joon-ho)

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Even if it is a real hotch-potch of zeitgeisty corporate satire, buddy movie and militaristic action flick, all merged into an indigestible whole, you’ve got to admire the sheer chutzpah of Bong Joon-ho. Perhaps the most imaginative film I saw all year.

11. Graduation (Cristian Mungiu)

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Comfortably in the top dozen auteurs working in world cinema today, Cristian Mungiu knows exactly where he’s taking each of his films, and the way he merges form so meaningfully to content marks him out as a filmmaker of incredible skill. The only thing stopping me from ranking Graduation even higher is the sense that, because Mungiu is so controlling, he has a tendency to smother his narratives, giving them a slightly didactic air. But, all told, Graduation is an incredibly important story to tell: an indictment of the institutional malignancy in his native country (Romania) every bit as damning as Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian masculinity exposé, The Salesman.

10. Elle (Paul Verhoeven)

In the year of #MeToo, the insanity of Brexit negotiations, and Trump getting his tax cuts through for the rich and powerful, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle was a tonic. It’s an inspired feminist extravaganza that fiercely satirises the uneven power constructs in our world today.

9. The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach)

British cinema has had its fair share of charlatans and hyped debutants down the years, but, based on the evidence of The Levelling, Hope Dickson Leach is a filmmaker of unimpeachable skill and sensitivity. Dickson Leach handles her narrative’s incendiary subject matter with such deftness and maturity, making a dramatic and pictorial elegy to the increasing marginalisation of Britain’s farming communities.

8. I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)

This is such a skilled, eloquent documentary taking previous footage and an unfinished manuscript from black intellectual, James Baldwin, for a cerebral, high-minded journey through American race relations over the last 60 years. A great companion piece to last year’s exceptional, 13th.

7. The Meyerowitz Stories (Noah Baumbach)

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to propose that Noah Baumbach is fast approaching the hallowed territory of Woody Allen in his ’70s-’80s heyday: there’s the beloved NYC milieu, the familiar canvas of neurotic, dissatisfied families, and even the prolific output. This is my favourite Baumbach work yet – it’s a film teeming with wit, wisdom, empathy, truisms and some marvellous comic set-pieces.

6. A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies)

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It’s such a treat that Terence Davies is finally making films regularly (much like his namesake and fellow persona non grata, Terrence Malick). This Emily Dickinson biopic is the thinking man’s literary film: a quite gorgeous exhibition of pure filmmaking craft (it’s all about the transitions, the fades, the atmosphere generated through mise-en-scène and sound). Perhaps the quietest and most intelligent film I saw all year.

5. After the Storm (Hirokazu Koreeda)

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Even a Koreeda work in minor key still easily trumps 99% of what else passes through our cinemas. Despite his prolific output, the man just cannot make a bad film. His work seeps humanity and wisdom, and, although I preferred his previous feature – one of the finest films of the decade so far – Our Little SisterAfter the Storm is still one of his superior odes to family and the poignancy in the simple passing of time.

4. Jackie (Pablo Larraín)

I approached this screening with immense scepticism; I left a huge, huge convert. Usually these Hollywood biopics which “recreate” the world of a famous public figure are exercises in opportunism and narcissism, and this one about Jackie Kennedy, and with Natalie Portman in the lead role, mistakenly led me to believe it would be another such number. Instead, it really is a film of incredible intelligence and poise – where Pablo Larraín was clearly a couple of steps ahead of cynics like me, to fashion almost a meta-treatise on the concept of the public figure. This was big, operatic filmmaking that genuinely elucidated an already much mythologised subject, and if I hadn’t seen it only once, and back in the fog of February, I’ve a hunch it might have been even higher on my list.

3. Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho)

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This is just the sort of complex, soulful, richly allusive cinema that we rarely get in western cinema (perhaps the closest filmmaker to Mendonça Filho is the seemingly retired US indie master, John Sayles). It’s a work where the ambience of a community and its history seeps into the storytelling apparatus itself. And that’s just right for a film that’s a lovely testament to not allowing capital values to strip away your heritage, your past and your sense of self.

2. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)

Easily the best American film I saw this year. It’s a real dramatist’s piece – a work of such enviable storytelling precision with the expert use of flashbacks and mobile concurrency speaking for what Casey Affleck’s stunted protagonist cannot possibly articulate in the present. In a film whose thesis is that some courses in life make the concept of resolution and catharsis completely irretrievable, Lonergan’s seemingly miraculous achievement is to locate at least some bittersweet touches of grace and solace amid that irreversible force of history.

1. Heal the Living (Katel Quillévéré)

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Heal the Living is, in essence, the organ donation scheme imagined in the aesthetic of the most accomplished genre film conceivable (it’s much like Michael Mann’s utterly gripping take on the otherwise stuffy premise of corporate whistleblowing in his mesmeric, The Insider). To make a film of this much power and sentiment, yet never take one emotive false move, is some compliment to young French female director, Katell Quillévéré. To further endow Quillévéré with more compliments, this is no simple case of the worth of the story alone creating the effect, but Quillévéré films with the exuberance and sensitivity of a Kieslowski in his prime. She’s definitely a filmmaker to watch.

(December 2017)

Oasis: Supersonic

December 18, 2017

Oasis: Supersonic (2016)
Director: Mat Whitecross

Synopsis: Britpop band Oasis from their formative years in the early ’90s through to their seminal Knebworth concert in 1996.

Review: Oasis: Supersonic is one of the better musical documentaries of recent years – not through any especial merit of the film’s subject matter per se, but more that director, Mat Whitecross, finds a visual and storytelling correlative that honours the spirit of that subject – Britpop sensation, Oasis.

Rather than opting for the usual whistlestop tour through the entirety of the subject’s chronology, Whitecross dips in and out of the ‘rise’ part of Oasis’ story – characterising the sheer convergence of cultural happenstance, the Gallagher brothers’ gusto, and the wildfire of interest their music generated, all as contributing factors in the group’s vertiginous ascendance to the top of the British music scene.

What the documentary captures best is the sense that Oasis were far from the best band that Britain has ever produced (they weren’t even the best Britpop band at the time), and Liam and Noel Gallagher have hardly ever made for interesting or perceptive personalities and commentators on their own ‘rockstar’ status, but that the group crystallised that moment where Britain was starting to come out of its Thatcher-induced fog to regain its (slightly inflated and jingoistic) sense of pride and confidence. And the twin cultural monoliths of rock music and laddish football culture that boomed at this time found their living embodiment in the form of Oasis. (December 2017)



December 18, 2017

Silence (2016)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Actors: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson

Synopsis: Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) venture into 17th century Japan in attempts to spread the word of Christianity and uncover the whereabouts of missing Jesuit priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson).

Review: Although acknowledging the clear attritional intent in Martin Scorsese’s method for Silence, it doesn’t excuse much of the work’s torpor and rhetorical obviousness. Especially as Scorsese, himself, had set the blueprint for a more transcendent, less stodgy take on the idea of principled faith in his far superior The Last Temptation of Christ.

An increasing paradigm presenting itself in Scorsese’s late work is the snugness and increasing conventionality of his aesthetic, especially when in historical epic mode (à la Gangs of New York or The Aviator). Scorsese has always been much better when unshackled by his subject matter. He even proved this recently with the wildly intuitive depiction of American capitalism gone crazy in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Silence required an interior style – something, dare I say, Malickian – but that lyrical expressionism isn’t really Scorsese’s thing. Silence is simply a dramaturgical dead weight for too long as Scorsese ogles on the singular conceit of his Portugese Jesuit priests having their faith tested by the brutal torture and mind-games of the Japanese defenders.

By the film’s final act, Silence starts to become more distinctive and strikes upon more fertile territory with the end-game of Andrew Garfield’s Father Rodrigues’ resistance to committing apostasy. Scorsese conjures suitably hypnotic and meditative sequences that echo the brilliance of Willem Dafoe’s conflicted portrayal of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ. If he could have reached this point earlier in the narrative, and focused on Rodrigues’ covert maintenance of his faith amid the antithetical Japanese social structure, it might have proved richer than this film’s almost sadistic focus on the physical and mental violence inflicted on Japan’s Christian population. (December 2017)

The Salesman

December 18, 2017

The Salesman (2016)
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Actors: Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Farid Sajadhosseini

Synopsis: Emad (Shahab Hosseini) is a teacher who is also in the middle of acting in a theatrical production of Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman‘. When his wife is injured and traumatised by an intruder in their new home, Emad sets out to uncover the identity of that intruder.

Review: The prize for the most relentlessly depressing film of the year must surely go to Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, with Farhadi’s tightly wound naturalist-theatrical perspective keeping us claustrophobically and, at times unbearably, aligned to his drama’s wrought players for a gloomy 2+ hours. Incidentally, depressing doesn’t denote any weakness in the film’s artistic merit per se, merely that Farhadi’s world view is unwaveringly glum here – it really is the most bleak of morality plays.

Farhadi’s target seems to be the malignancy of Iranian patriarchy as the two characters who the final act centres on (ostensible hero, Emad, and the old man he slowly outs as the intruder at his new home) are revealed to represent respectively the petty brutality and squalid depravity of Iranian masculinity. That concept of masculinity gone to seed would seem to justify Farhadi’s meta-referential linking of the characters in his film to their in-narrative performance of Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman‘, but in truth, this is the least successful aspect of Farhadi’s dramatisation. Beyond the clear pathos for long-suffering female characters, any Marxist/anti-capitalist correlation transmits much less clearly, and the allegory appears quite leaden and, at times, almost a dramatic dead weight. Farhadi was more successful when he widened the scope of his commentary to include more players and a greater panorama of society in previous works, A Separation and The Past(December 2017)