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Remembering Morvern Callar: A Forgotten Gem of British Cinema

March 7, 2018

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With Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here out this weekend, I take a look back at her 2002 masterpiece, Morvern Callar. Follow below link to article:

(March 2018)

Personal Shopper

March 3, 2018

Personal Shopper (2017)
Director: Olivier Assayas
Actors: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz

Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper – Olivier Assayas film

Synopsis: Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is a personal shopper for a wealthy client in Paris. Alongside her hectic life acquiring clothes and jewellery for that client, she’s also mourning the recent loss of her twin brother. She engages in occult activities her brother was interested in, to see if she can communicate with him in the afterlife…

Review: One of the most sophisticated and cerebral genre films imaginable, Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper works on any number of different levels. It’s a richly moving essay on grief and faith; it’s a super anthropological portrait of our 21st century postmodern lifestyle; it’s a chilling supernatural thriller; it’s a tidy little whodunnit; and it’s a touchingly empathetic portrait of what Peter Bradshaw cleverly coined in his exemplary review of the film – the “old soul” – a character only in their twenties but with a “lifetime of sadness” already ingrained in their psyche.

At the centre of all that works in this film is the compelling presence of Kristen Stewart. It’s not hard to see why Olivier Assayas and French cinema, in general, might venerate her: she doesn’t have that Americanised idea of sexiness, but possesses a magnetic photogenic persona that extends beyond mere aesthetic quality and is more to do with an inherent soulfulness and projection of an innate inner depth. To quote from Bradshaw again, it’s a performance unlikely to gain fanfare amid the Oscar-centric consensus of the acting craft – where histrionics, impersonation and being “other than oneself” (even to the detriment of sincerity and truth) is the golden standard – but her “unforced and unaffected normality” is crucial to the film’s slowburn aura.

Assayas is right up there as one of the best filmmakers at documenting the minutiae of our contemporary world. With this film’s subtle rhetorical contrasts of a soulless, gilded, postmodern landscape versus the quest for transcendence, Assayas conjures a compelling portrait of how evolution has fragmented our sense of what is real. What’s clever is that Assayas doesn’t cast any pejorative sway over this impression he creates, it’s all sensory. Some of the best sequences honour this ethnographic, distanced view of how Stewart’s Maureen shuttles through her day. The most evocative of which is when Maureen is able to make a full journey to and from London over a series of hours, and Assayas settles into honouring the full, incongruous, cyclical whir of this (espressos grabbed without a thought before rushing to get a train; the familiar trudge through border security; one moment Maureen’s on the Metro with its iconic soundscape before suddenly she’s in an archetypal London vista of black cabs and slate-grey skies). This sensory focus beautifully compliments the simultaneous gripping narrative feature of the sequence which is a series of chilling texts that pass between Maureen and a mysterious contact.

It’s only fitting that Assayas doesn’t wrap his story up in false epiphanies. The closing coda of Maureen seemingly getting closer to a form of occult communion with her dead brother – which she claims she needs for closure – is a delicious red herring. If the moral of the piece is that what endures about the human condition is the essential mystery/finality of mortality, Assayas tantalises with the notion that Maureen – much like Christopher Nolan’s amnesiac antihero Leonard Shelby in the masterly Memento – may wilfully be reprising the same search over and over again so as to remain forever imprisoned within her own unending, gilded moebius strip. (March 2018)

The Shape of Water

February 24, 2018

The Shape of Water (2017)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Actors: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins

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Synopsis: A mute cleaner in an underground military complex develops a bond with an amphibious creature held there.

Review: The manufactured sense of nostalgia, the whimsical protagonist, the dewy-glazed visual palette, the twee romantic setup: these all had me fearing a jaunt down Amélie way in the opening scenes of The Shape of Water. Thankfully though, to Guillermo del Toro’s credit, he does opt for a slightly more detached, low-key tone to steer the picture from those conceited waters.

The film does all feel rather insubstantial though and a touch ‘second hand’ by its final reel. Emotionally, visually and contextually it’s all a little passé. In many senses, it’s the ultimate upmarket millennial film: an impeccably presented, maturer comic book movie that recycles the paraphernalia of our consumerist, pop culture universe (Busby Berkeley musicals, classic early ’60s iconography, Hollywood golden era movie references, graphic novel touches, old French and Spanish musical numbers) for an audience who would be flattered by getting the connections. In that way, it’s much like last year’s similar award season juggernaut, La La Land, which was an “old school musical” for those who’ve never actually seen more than about two or three Hollywood classical musicals but have been doused in the ‘cool’ cultural legacy of them.

The Strictly Come Dancing-style interlude felt like a particularly unearned misstep, piggy-backing The Artist-style on the immemorial images of Busby Berkeley’s musicals to fast-track the strangely tension-free and muted (intended!) love affair at the centre of The Shape of Water into something more profound.

The story passes off inoffensively enough, without – as mentioned before – the gurning conceits of other mainstream postmodern crowdpleasers, but therein lies part of the problem. I’d completely forgotten about the movie as I left the cinema; it was as superficially pretty, yet insubstantial, as all the easy listening ephemera it parlayed throughout its running time. (February 2018)


Dark River

February 18, 2018

Dark River (2018)
Director: Clio Barnard
Actors: Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, Sean Bean

DARK RIVER film still

Synopsis: Alice (Ruth Wilson) returns to her dilapidated family farm some 15 years after she left suddenly. There she encounters her hostile brother, Joe (Mark Stanley), and some unnerving ghosts of her own…

Review: Resembling little more than a poorly constructed horror film, Clio Barnard’s Dark River is a remarkably hamfisted, dramatically impoverished work that has very little to offer beneath its superficial veneer of a form of pastoral, poetic realism currently de rigueur in British arthouse cinema.

Barnard’s main problem is that she makes everything so earnestly subservient to the shallow, singular conceit of her narrative. For the film to work, her characters needed to be more than the identikit ciphers they are, and the structural hook of Alice’s processing of her childhood abuse merging with the present-day horrors of having to deal with the ruinous state of her family farm needed to be much subtler and perhaps only revealed in the closing moments rather than being telegraphed throughout by comically linear flashbacks.

There is little depth or nuance to Barnard’s style. She falls back on rote symbolism: nearly every section is foregrounded by an inert, clichéd, gothically picturesque view of the wild imperiousness of the British rural landscape, and the conceit of the brutality of farming life is used laboriously to fasttrack the import of Alice being a current and historic victim to patriarchal forces. The pièce de résistance of this film’s rhetorical juvenility is when Barnard cuts portentously between Alice gutting a rabbit while her brother has an EastEnders-style fit of violence in the adjoining building.

In subject matter and narrative, Dark River is uncannily similar to Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling from last year, but that is where all comparison ends, as The Levelling has a level of sophistication and depth that this hysterical schlocker could only dream of. (February 2018)

I, Daniel Blake

February 17, 2018

I, Daniel Blake (2016)
Director: Ken Loach
Actors: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Briana Shann

Synopsis: Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old tradesman, is stuck in a bureaucratic quagmire when he’s deemed ineligible for disability benefit after a heart attack, yet, because he’s appealing the decision, he has to give up his right to claim jobseeker’s allowance.

Review: The usual delights and foibles are here in Ken Loach’s latest socialist paean, I, Daniel Blake. Alas, much like other veteran directors with a clear formula (Woody Allen comes immediately to mind), Loach’s work is becoming increasingly recognisable for its slapdash quality and his evident lack of interest in the properties of his medium and the worth of complex and subtle storytelling.

As much as I sympathise wholeheartedly with Loach’s political sensibilities, I, Daniel Blake‘s shallowness, twee sensibility, and – at times – transparent polemicising make for an unchallenging viewing experience. Of course, naturally over a 100-minute running time, there are going to be one or two moments where the director settles upon the more fertile areas of their subject matter (ironically, in the case of I, Daniel Blake, it’s usually when the actors aren’t voicing Paul Laverty’s dialogue). The slog and the quietude of the shot that tracks the immensity of the foodbank queue speaks volumes for the sheer sense of scandal that a scene like this could be taking place on the streets of a UK city. The stretch where the eponymous Daniel Blake is forced to go to a CV workshop is also one of Loach’s cannier imaginings. He avoids the easy option of caricaturing the scene and villainising the man giving the seminar, to hint at the stultifying truth that this is a box-ticking exercise nobody really wants to be at.

Sadly, the dramaturgical tapestry of the piece feels much less convincing. Although families can be shunted to different parts of the country through shortfalls in social housing, the whole conceit regarding Hayley Squires’ single mum, Katie, and her young family winding up all the way in Newcastle from their London base feels inorganically shoehorned in for political commentary purposes. Casting is also an issue here, as the young daughter appears jarringly middle-class and preternaturally mature with the wisened monologues Laverty has given her. The scene where Katie frantically downs a tin of Baked Beans in the foodhall is marginally too melodramatic and pathos-ridden, and Loach wraps the final act up far too abruptly with two transparent speechifying moments where Daniel graffitis his situation on the wall of the job centre and Katie reads a suspiciously articulate speech of Daniel’s to close the film out.

Cinema is allowed to be political and persuasive, but strength of ideology and sophistication of storytelling needn’t be mutually exclusive concepts: one can inform the other. (February 2018)


The Big Short

February 17, 2018

The Big Short (2016)
Director: Adam McKay
Actors: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling

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Synopsis: The period leading up to the 2008 banking crisis from the perspective of the very few people who foresaw the time-bomb of subprime mortgages.

Review: The Big Short is an unquestionably important story to tell: a detailed account of how the 2008 banking crisis unfolded. Although deserving credit for delving into the minutiae of the fiasco (an ironic corrective to the lack of probity from the government and financial services of the time?) and in offering a clear moral tinge to its fact-heavy line of attack, the way director Adam McKay realises his tale adds nothing to the inherent gravity of the source material, and, at times, only succeeds in diminishing it.

Probably the biggest mistake McKay makes is in trying too hard to play into the material. A cutting-edge, fast-paced exposé of the banking community’s excesses led McKay to believe, evidently, that he needed to execute this like a medley of faux documentary à la The Office with a little dash of Scorsese-infused corruption swagger. In fact, the lineage of Scorsese’s recent and far superior Wall Street satire, The Wolf of Wall Street, is betrayed through the tenuous postmodern conceit of Margot Robbie (playing herself, but in the persona of her Wolf of Wall Street character) offering a to-camera dissection of the folly of subprime mortgages. Equally grating and unconvincing is the attempt to use Ryan Gosling’s character as both a Greek chorus and omniscient narrator, while being an actual player in the story too.

McKay’s visual understanding of the film is enervating in the extreme. He mistakes shaky camera moves and quick cuts for authenticity, when a steadier focus would have suited the sober and cerebral subject matter far more. Also irritating is his indulgence of hammy method acting by the likes of Christian Bale. Don’t get me wrong, Bale is a maverick actor who – in the right hands and with the right material (à la Nolan or Malick) – is a compelling presence, but his demonstrative immersion into the eccentricities of his genius trader is borderline unwatchable in the film’s opening stretch.

Ironically, Margin Call – a film with seemingly less factual kudos and which took infinitely more liberties with its material – made for a much better example of how the ethos of the 2008 banking crisis can be tackled. By adopting a more plaintive tone and through greater focus on fictional constructs (it happens in an unnamed bank over an excruciating 24 hour period), that film’s director, J.C. Chandor, was rewarded with a piece of work far richer and more dramatic than Adam McKay’s meek attempt here. (February 2018)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

February 4, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Director: Martin McDonagh
Actors: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson

Synopsis: Months after the unsolved rape and murder of her daughter Angela, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) bluntly advertises that lack of progress through posters on massive billboards on the outskirts of town, much to the chagrin of most of the townsfolk…

Review: Really? This? A possible Oscar winner? Hollywood’s meek groupthink mindset and homogenised conception of cinema – as symbolised by the image it presents of itself to the world, the Academy Awards – shouldn’t really come as any surprise, but the way people have been hoodwinked by the early word-of-mouth for this film to overlook its sheer ugliness and dramatic poverty does make the mind boggle.

It is perhaps one of the unsubtlest satires and lamest of American social allegories I’ve ever seen. All the characters are unintentionally flat and exist as mere mouthpieces for Martin McDonagh’s broad attempt at zeitgeisty social commentary. The pièce de résistance of godawful speechifying was Mildred Hayes’ attack on the local Father who comes to speak to her in the wake of her controversial advertising campaign. What was presumably supposed to be a crowd-pleasing critique of the hypocrisy of the Catholic church (and there’s clearly a place for such satire) is completely undercut by the unsubtlety, laziness and lack of nuance in the monologue. It betrays McDonagh’s weakness as a storyteller; he drapes unconvincing character and narrative arcs around his greater intent to simply shoehorn in sensationalist jokes and actions. While he got away with it – just – with In Bruges, his execrable Seven Psychopaths and now this, betray his weakness as a storyteller over a feature length format.

Equally lame was the completely flat, episodic tread of the narrative. I lost count of the amount of times McDonagh uses voiceover or a character reading out a letter to try to progress his story, and there were at least four times where he had a character switch on the TV just at the moment a crucial piece of local news is playing. Of course, these are all only a minor faux pas in their own right, but it reveals McDonagh’s inability to fashion coherency out of the messy dramatic cocktail he’s created. None of the character arcs felt believable (especially Sam Rockwell’s entirely telegraphed about-turn), and, as McDormand and Rockwell close the film out on some pretentiously Faustian journey for the ‘Macguffin’ of solving the identity of Mildred’s daughter’s killer, it was more emblem for the fact that McDonagh had left us in the hands of two such unlikeable, opaque characters. Three Billboards is, quite simply, a horrible film, with a horrible worldview, about horrible people. (February 2018)