Their Finest (2017)

Their Finest is now available to buy / rent and I’d solidly recommend it.  It tells the story of a young woman (Gemma Arterton) who is employed to write realistic women’s dialogue (‘slop’ as it’s called in the film) in WWII propaganda reels and starts writing a feature film, based on the experience of two young women, about the evacuation of Dunkirk.

What I liked about the film was that, and this is no claim of documentary realism, it feels like the behind the scenes view of a Powell and Pressburger film… or at least as one would dream it to be.  And that’s the key, the heart and the message are in the right place.  It’s a film that knows the importance of myth and hope.  It’s funny and heartbreaking, there’s love, a bit with a dog and Bill Nighy is on top form doing his best Bill Nighy impression.

Highly Recommended.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

I walked out of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets grinning from ear to ear and giggling like a child.  Luc Besson’s adaptation of the Valerian and Laureline comic books is a breath of fresh air after what seems like an eternity of drab fantasy comic book cinema.  This doesn’t feel recycled or ponderous, it feels like a comic book brought to life with tonnes of imagination and wit.

It sometimes feels a bit too much, it’s so packed with ideas that I’m wondering what I missed and I think watching it in 3D was maybe one layer too many.  There’s also a problem with length (a regular gripe this summer) and the charm of witnessing a comic serial unfold is lessened slightly by one long segment that side-tracks proceedings and ‘damsels’ Laureline just once too often.  Which is a real pity because the central pairing of Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne brings a weird offbeat energy to proceedings that feels much more equitable than similar films.

Slight misgivings aside, it’s still a wonderful film.  It’s brash and fun in the same way as Besson’s The Fifth Element.  I can fully see why other people might dislike or even actively hate it, it’s ‘peak Besson’ and that’s a dangerous place for film makers (Mann and Malick both need to step back from the edge) but, for me, it hit all the right notes.

Highly Recommended.

Son of Saul / Saul fia (2015)

The problem with representing the Holocaust on film is that you are making entertainment, and that is uneasy when you are talking about the 20th Century’s greatest scar.  I’m not suggesting that the Holocaust is sacred amongst all obscenities but it’s a defining event for a number of reasons; firstly the murder, secondly the mechanisation of murder talks to us about the danger of progress and, finally, I think guilt plays a part, not only in the ‘people like us’ nature of both perpetrator and victim but also the underlying feeling that had the Nazi’s not had a racial insanity and poured resources into their clinically, bureaucratically, named ‘final solution’ or viewed Eastern European people as lesser, they may have won.  The Reich broke itself on the Soviets and the victims of the Holocaust and the Western world reaped the benefit.  Treading carefully feels like the least we could so.

So how do films adequately deal with this? 

Most don’t.

Of all the Holocaust / Nazi atrocity cinema (discounting documentaries) there’s three that really stand out.  Good (2008) is interesting in that it follows the proverbial ‘good German’ who makes small compromises until he finds himself in the Bosch like madness of a concentration camp.  Come and See (1985) is a stunning work that shows the SS war machine at it’s most unchecked.  The village massacre scene acts as a counterpoint to the too controlled, too aesthetically neat ghetto clearance that features in Schindler’s List (1993) and, years later, would find itself mirrored on Jake and Dino’s Chapman’s art work Hell (2000).  Now we have Son of Saul (2015).

With a perfect match of form and content Laszlo Nemes’ film puts us right into Auschwitz as it follows a member of the Sonderkommando (Jewish prisoner’s forced to carry out manual labour in the camp) who finds the body of his son amongst the dead and sets out to give the boy the decency of a funeral.  Nemes uses a 4:3 frame (recalling Shoah (1985))  and rarely moves away from keeping the central character in shallow focus.  This simple technique keeps the sights but does not wallow in the detail, allowing the film to rival The Revenant (2015) in terms of it’s visceral feel whilst, crucially, keeping humanity centre stage and reminding us of the sheer human work that went into the machine.

Son of Saul is a great piece of cinema that, despite the constant presence of death and suffering, is so much more alive than similar films as it forgoes the cinematic comfort of survival and instead offers a tale of a person reclaiming agency and purpose in a man made hell.

Highly Recommended.

Force Majeure (2014)

So we watched this a couple of nights ago and we’re still talking about it.  Based around a great ‘what would you do?’ premise, or more accurately ‘what do you like to think you would do?’, Ruben Ostlund’s film is a genuine talkie in that it compels you to talk.  And talk.  And actually think.  And talk some more.

Superbly scripted, acted and shot, the film grabs you with a moment that you could almost miss and then re-examines that moment as the family deals with what they think it means and the wife, seemingly irked by the husband’s denial rather than the moment itself, invites other characters to share the situation and, in turn, drags the viewer in.  One can imagine this as a Neil Labute or David Mamet play but they would miss the point.

This is a great example of dialogue moving a plot, of rounded characters defined by actions rather than exposition, and how a skilled filmmaker can raise an issue and hand it over to the audience.

This is easily one of the best films of the year.

Highly Recommended.

Selma (2014)

Selma is a interesting film on several counts and, given recent events in the US, a powerfully prescient and utterly engaging account of Martin Luther King’s involvement with the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march in 1965.  The performances are well rounded (although one wonders where Tim Roth will go next after playing George Wallace and Sepp Blatter, surely Walter Palmer is all that is left) and the script does a great job of highlighting the tactical, and provocative, nature of peaceful protest.

In terms of telling a cinematic tale, the really smart choice here is putting the focus on a march.  The language of cinema is, due to it’s visual nature, simple and the act of walking works perfectly on film.  Walking on film is about agency, it’s the ultimate expression of individual freedom and forward movement.  Think about Tony Manero strutting, the Wild Bunch going to their chosen fate, Lawrence walking out of the desert.  Walking is so important that there are whole films based around not walking; Light Sleeper (1992), Taxi Driver (1976), Cosmopolis (2012) and many more see cars as isolation / retreat from the world.  On film people walk for defiance, acceptance and belonging.  I can’r help but think about the fact that my wife can’t walk home alone at night and what that says about the ownership of public space.

Selma is all about when to walk and why and, most importantly, who is taking those steps.  It reclaims the cinematic portrayal of the Civil Rights struggle from Forrest Gump (white Southern manners ended that school segregation didn’t you know) and heroic FBI agents and hands it to it’s rightful owners.

Highly recommended.

Pump Up the Volume (1990)

So here’s how the mind of a film nerd works; I’m on Twitter replying to a comment about Donald Trump, feeling all pleased with myself for noting that he reminds me of the fake adverts in Robocop (1987) and the Leonard Cohen line about America being ‘the cradle of the best and the worst’, when I think that I haven’t listened to The Future (1992) for a while.  I go to the CDs and get distracted by I’m Your Man (1988).  Track 3 is Everybody Knows and I’m now blogging about Pump Up the Volume.

It’s interesting that it’s Cohen that led me here.  I can’t imagine that a teen film would go with that now.  I mean, he’s like so old.  But then I can’t imagine a teen film like Pump Up the Volume coming out now.  Where are the films that hate grown ups?  Is this something we’re losing now that we are growing up into perpetual childhood?

I’d love to watch a film for teenagers and not understand it.

I love this film and it’s distrust.  I love that it shows self-regarding poser nonsense like Rebel Without A Cause (1955) up for what it is (if ever a film was focused on the wrong character!) and that the 80’s / early 90’s gave us kids who looked real and didn’t live in mansions but became superheroes when pushed.

I’ve probably over done it there but that’s what these films felt like.

Highly Recommended.

Inherent Vice (2014)

Here’s a great delve of a movie; Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel about an LA P.I. investigating the disappearance of local businessman.

It’s a wonderful sprawling sunshine noir that’s hard to explain without revealing more but it works because there’s too much story.  What you end up with is a sense of someone tipping their toe into a massive stagnant pool of corruption and fishing out that one thing, the one wrong that he can do something about. Joaquin Pheonix is great in the central role, Josh Brolin is intensely perfect as the personification of the backlash to the dream and Martin Short does his thing.

Very funny, kinda wistful, great soundtrack and, like There Will Be Blood (2007), a film that’ll demand repeat viewing.

Highly Recommended.

Ex Machina (2015)

Have you read The Beach (1996)?

I read it in sixth form a couple of years after it came out and remember it going through our year like fire.  It was a zeitgeist thing, with it’s blend of backpacking and movies, and a cracking read that grabbed you and then unleashed itself just as it started to lull (the lull was just as important).  Then, after The Beach got it’s own adaptation, we got 28 Days Later… (2002).  Sunshine (2007).  Never Let Me Go (2010).  Dredd (2012). All killer, no filler etc.

Ex Machina is more of the same intelligent, provocative, menacing sci-fi.  It’s got a script that doesn’t treat you like an idiot by drowning everything in exposition and over explanation, and if it’s limited cast and locations give it a TV feel it’s only because Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (2011 – ) series, with which it shares many common interests, is so cinematic. In typical Garland fashion the film does go where you expect it to but the joy is found in the well placed ideas and the way in which we reach the tipping point.

The cast is uniformly great but Oscar Isaac still stands out.

Highly Recommended.

Sometimes a Great Notion (1970)

Based on the novel by Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion tells the story of a family of loggers determined to fulfil a contract against the wishes of the majority of their neighbours who are all out on strike.  Of course it’s all fiercely patriarchal and rugged and there’s plenty of great logging footage and macho individuality stuff.  It’s also utterly watchable thanks to Paul Newman’s wonderfully loose direction that lets the drama breathe and the humour rise.

But, the kicker here, the real gut punch, is in a scene of family tragedy that has rattled round in my head for the best part of a week now.  The terror of it is one thing, but the way that Newman builds from a quiet mistake to dawning tension and brings out the humanity, humour, truth and heartbreak is devastating and real in a way that you don’t often see.  The acting is sublime and perfect as machismo is stripped away and love and desperation come to the forefront.

It’s one of those perfect scenes.

Highly Recommended.

a.k.a. Never Give an Inch