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Yearly Archives: 2016
Brad Pitt has a problem with Nazis. Not that they don’t warrant a certain amount of enmity, but with Inglourious Basterds, Fury and now Allied, Mr Pitt is consistently waging his own movie war against the Third Reich. In Robert Zemeckis’ latest, Pitt’s Canadian Wing Commander Max Vatan is joined by the dangerous and beguiling Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard), who first joins him in a Casablanca assassination operation, then comes with him to England, marries him and they begin a family in Hampstead, while the war continues. When Max’s superiors find evidence that Marianne is a German spy, the happiness rapidly gives way to mistrust and suspicion. Despite the promising set up, meticulous period detail and some gripping set pieces – including the key assassination in Casablanca, a mission into German-occupied France and some air raids on London – Allied rarely feels more than a handsomely mounted portrait. The central relationship lacks enveloping emotion, perhaps due to a rushed pace. Zemeckis is a solid director, but Allied lacks the more heartrending moments of his other work – Tom Hanks crying out ‘Wilson’ is more upsetting than the Vatans’ marriage cracking under suspicion. That said, the moments at Max’s office are engaging in their depiction of period espionage, and do form a nice contrast with the domestic homelife. Allied is an engaging enough romantic period thriller, but is overall the sum is less than the parts.
In Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines, director Derek Cianfrance utilised an intimate and sometimes claustrophobic aesthetic that brought the viewer close to difficult events both domestic and criminal. With his latest film, Cianfrance combines this intimacy with an epic scale that engulfs the viewer in an overwhelming environment, both visually and narratively. Traumatised war veteran Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) takes a job as a lighthouse keeper in 1918, and begins a relationship with Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), which leads to marriage and her joining him on the island of Janus off Australia. Their secret, unofficial adoption of the baby girl leads to a range of tensions both private and public, especially once the child’s actual mother appears in the form of Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz). The central clash of the film is between moral duty and pure desire, as Tom is committed to a strict code while Isabel is emotionally guided. Pleasingly, the film does not fall into simplistic gender stereotyping, as the heady emotion of the film as a whole is in keeping with Isabel’s emotion while the expansive scenery feels at odds with Tom’s self-repression. The film makes no judgement about either perspective, but delivers a balanced, intimate and yet sweeping portrayal of a loving relationship lived and felt at every level.
The Accountant is an unbalanced sheet. Gavin O’Connor’s film boasts strong performances, an interesting portrayal of disability and some tough action sequences. It also has no central focus, irritating contrivances and storylines that do not add up. Bill Dubuque’s script is part action-conspiracy thriller, part detective story and part mental health drama. These strands are clumsily interwoven and there are several contrivances that not only stretch credibility but add little to the drama. The detective narrative featuring US Treasury agents Raymond King (J K Simmons) and Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) would have made a strong narrative in its own right, but as it stands sticks out like undeclared earnings. Various characters have unnecessary personal motivations much as in Jason Bourne, suggesting a lack of investment in the drama of people caught up in events beyond their control. This drama is especially relevant in the contemporary era of global interconnection, information and finance, a topic that features in a number of recent films such as The Big Short and The Infiltrator. To underfund such a theme in a film with this subject matter is disappointing.
On the plus side, The Accountant does channel its funds into effective design and atmosphere. DOP Seamus McGarvey gives the film an often bleak appearance, while production designer Keith P. Cunningham creates environments of sleek functionality. As the eponymous book keeper with shady connections, Ben Affleck blends roles of his friend Matt Damon, as Christian Wolff has mental health issues and deadly skills like Jason Bourne and mathematical genius like Will Hunting. Affleck’s hunched physical performance, muted tones and expressions express someone cut off from much of the world. Flashbacks explain his character and family history, while his relationship with Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), the naive young accountant who stumbles into his world, is charming and effective. The film’s portrayal of Asperger’s Syndrome sometimes falls into the trap of presenting an unusual mental state as a superpower, rather than a distinctive perspective. This perspective leads to the film’s most arresting moment, as Wolff peruses decades’ worth of accounting records before explaining his findings to Cummings with an animation not seen elsewhere. O’Connor creates a palatable sense of excitement and energy in Wolff’s forensic accounting, which is odd when other sequences feature blistering action. This suggests a more satisfying film might have been a true economic thriller. As it is, the film returns only partially on its investment, leaving the viewer wanting a greater return.
Inferno is an awkward beast. The plot of Dan Brown’s novel is the stuff of popcorn thrillers – race against time, huge stakes, mismatched protagonists, enemies both individual and institutional – but as with previous Brown adaptations, the unique selling point is the art history and symbology that Professor Robert Langdon periodically exposits about. Squeezing multiple references to Dante’s Inferno, along with various other works of art, as well as a multitude of scientific data and personal dramas to boot, into a taut thriller is therefore a tall order. Unfortunately, director Ron Howard and screenwriter David Koepp flounder in this adaptation of an already overstuffed novel. Langdon (Tom Hanks) wakes up in a Florence hospital with head trauma and amnesia, before he and Doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) go on the run from gun-toting enemies. Various groups with mysterious motives pursue them, a deranged billionaire recently committed suicide, and there are three different Infernos. One is the epic poem, rendered in various forms; another is the McGuffin that everyone wants to find; the third appears in Langdon’s apocalyptic hallucinations that have the aura of visions. These sit uncomfortably with the high tech used by the pursuers, who despite this equipment are thwarted by trees and people running. Character motivations are skimmed over with little concern for coherence, consistency or clarity, the action sequences are unnecessarily melodramatic and, despite its pursuit element, the film lacks pace as many of the great plot revelations appear at moments when everyone else has just happened to slow down. Only Irrfan Khan emerges unscathed, his dry wit injecting some much needed levity into proceedings that are otherwise overblown yet ponderous. I could be more annoyed by the film, but frankly it doesn’t seem worth it. Everyone involved can do better, and hopefully will do next time.
In 1993, Disney released Cool Runnings, in which 80% of the main characters were black. In 2016, Disney released Queen of Katwe, in which 100% of the speaking characters are not only black, but African. For a mainstream family film, this is quite extraordinary. There is no British or American outsider to appeal to audiences, nor a white saviour coming to save those who need it, or even a climactic trip to a First World country as some kind of ultimate victory. Instead, Queen of Katwe is a genuinely progressive portrayal of people who are typically excluded from mainstream cinema, while also being a warm, engaging and moving tale of talent, ambition and nurturing, all based on a true story.
Despite its credentials, Queen of Katwe is far from a PC diatribe. Director Mira Nair crafts a vibrant and lively tale that brings the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda to energetic life. The largely young cast of first time actors are beautifully varied and a far cry from stereotypes. Some are shy and uncertain, others angry and resentful, but none are less than human, rounded and thoroughly engaging. Among them is Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) a teenage girl who works hard to help support her family, but finds in a community chess club a previously unknown talent. Nalwanga is extraordinary in the role, completely conveying Phiona’s sense of confusion and isolation that leads to consummate attention and a fierce desire to win.
Phiona is also torn between two mentor figures. Her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) is harried and put upon, and takes some convincing that her daughter should be playing chess. This convincing comes from Robert Katende (David Oweloyo), coach of the chess club that is run as part of a community enrichment scheme. Although a qualified engineer and a frustrated soccer player, Robert finds genuine enrichment and inspiration from his young chess players, whom he dubs ‘Pioneers’. And so they are, as many of them have never been to school yet boldly embark across the uncharted squares of the chess board as well as previously undreamed-of places.
In taking his Pioneers to new places, Robert encounters class prejudices as well as harsh economic realities, not to mention the inherent difficulties of marshalling young people into a disciplined unit. Many of these scenes are played for laughs, including a particular highlight where Robert outsmarts a supercilious and patronising official. This strategising as well as Phiona’s mimics that of skillful chess playing. Throughout the film, parallels between the game of chess and the everyday life of the characters are clear but this strategy is never overplayed. In addition, however, Nair wisely avoids trying to dramatise the playing of chess itself, such as presenting chess pieces as enormous and each move on the board as hugely significant. In much the same way as Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby are not really about boxing, and Rush about motor sport, Queen of Katwe is about chess players rather than playing chess. During the actual – and dramatically momentous – matches, Nair and DOP Sean Bobbitt focus on the faces of the players, thoughts and strategies playing behind their eyes. These sequences convey the passion and importance of the matches to the viewer, who need not be an expert or even particularly interested in chess in order to be drawn into the drama. To draw such drama from a board game of stratagem and patience is remarkable, and William Wheeler’s screenplay skilfully balances the tension with comedy, such as nervousness conveyed through hiccups.
Not that chess makes everything alright, as family tensions escalate for several reasons. As mentioned above, Harriet is less than enamoured with Phiona spending so much time studying chess. And as Phiona progresses and is increasingly successful, she becomes arrogant and even contemptuous of her family. By including these aspects, Nair strikes the right balance between sentiment and grit. It would be an exaggeration to describe the film as grim, despite its shanty town setting and inclusion of such issues as teenage pregnancy, limited access to medical care and education and the threat of eviction or even starvation. Vague suggestions of prostitution are not explored and it could be fairly argued that the film has a sanitized portrayal of people living in poverty.
However, to complain about this seems churlish when the film is so refreshing in its engagement with such areas and demographics. Queen of Katwe may be the finest family film of the year, and is an important piece of work in placing non-white, non-Western characters at the center of a mainstream film. After the brilliant Zootropolis offered a hopeful and affecting portrayal of the need for diversity and tolerance, Queen of Katwe adds to Disney’s progressive credentials, which may not be expected, but are therefore all the more satisfying.
Let it never be said that I (only) do what is obvious, as there is far more to say of Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven than how it compares to John Sturges’ 1960 film or indeed Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Fuqua’s film warrants close examination in relation to its genre and period, rather than in terms of how it compares to what came before. Most obviously, Fuqua’s film can be read as a declaration of diversity, as the titular gang includes white, black, Mexican, Asian and Comanche members. Pleasingly, Fuqua and screenwriters Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto ensure that race and ethnicity are not simply there for declarative purposes but as organic parts of the story. Django Unchained may have made a point of racial revenge, but here little is made of Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) being black, while Native American characters in the film are varied with Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) contrasted with Denali (Jonathan Joss) on the side of vicious land baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). There is also a decent line in gender relations, as Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) is as integral and capable as the men around her. This ensemble of characters are well-rounded, including the PTSD of sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his touching relationship with Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), as well as a developing warmth between the seven and the townsfolk of Rose Creek who hire them. Narratively, the film is clear and detailed. So why the long face?
The problem with the film is its lack of scale. Fuqua is associated with urban thrillers such as Training Day and The Equaliser, in which his sharp, punchy style is effective because it creates a milieu of fast mouths and faster violence. During the action sequences of The Magnificent Seven, including the genuinely impressive sustained set piece that comprises the final act of the film, this style works, as it conveys suddenness, abrupt changes and viscerally draws the viewer in. But in the earlier part of the film, which introduces the characters and, critically, the setting, the pace of the editing is too fast. As a result, the environment, so crucial to the western, is not established and the film fails to place its characters and indeed viewer within the landscape. This undercuts the power of the finale, as there is little sense of stylistic progression towards this climax. As a result, we end up with a Seven that may be Magnificent, but a film that is only moderate.
I recently cited The Infiltrator as an example of films that have a pronounced interest in finance, films that could be termed post-recession films. Many of these have been thrillers, mixing financial machinations with longer established generic elements, and Hell or High Water is another of these. David Mackenzie’s film of Taylor Sheridan’s script also incorporates aspects of the western into its heist thriller narrative, as Howard brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) commit very specific and careful robberies, while Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) perform a methodical investigation. Mackenzie’s borrowing from the western includes many wide-angled shots, shots that are sustained for long takes to capture prolonged action such as the brothers’ heists. Similarly, the Texas landscape and small, deteriorating towns express the liminal status of people caught between their ownership and what they owe to banks. Meanwhile, the film deploys the pleasures of the heist thriller through the execution of the robberies, both calculated and impulsive. Even the clichés of Hamilton approaching retirement and his constant insulting of his long-suffering partner are played as genuine rather than stereotypical. By marshaling these various generic elements with an absorbing and gripping visual style, Mackenzie has crafted an intelligent and effective thriller, as Hell or High Water imbues familiar film elements with a sober real world dimension.
Films about drug cartels come with certain expectations, mainly about bad things. From Scarface (1982) to Traffic (2000) to Sicario (2015), drug cartels have a cinematic reputation (as well as a real world one) for brutality and viciousness. Brad Furman’s The Infiltrator continues this trend, but with the violence kept as a simmering expectation rather than foregrounded. Instead, and wisely, the film emphasises the strain upon identity and sympathies in this based-on-fact story, in which US Customs agent Robert Mazar (Bryan Cranston) goes undercover as a money launderer and forms multiple connections with senior figures in the cartel of Pablo Escobar. Playing like a combination of Donnie Brasco (1996) and Miami Vice (2006), The Infiltrator is stylishly shot, including two bravura long takes that track Mazar through complex locations, and conveys an effective sense both of the late 1980s and the intricate interconnections of drug suppliers and law enforcement. The film’s master stroke, however, is the incorporation of global finance into its narrative, with Mazar meeting with Panamanian bankers and having to negotiate with the US Federal banking system as part of his operation. This aspect links the film to other economically inflected films, such as The International (2009), Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) as well as 99 Homes (2014) and The Big Short (2015). The Infiltrator‘s blending of contemporary concerns over global finance with the generic elements of an undercover thriller indicate Hollywood’s continued and fascinating engagement in this cultural discourse.
Earlier this year, I reported that it was very pleasing to see that most of the audience for Zootropolis were over twenty. I had a similar experience when viewing Kubo and the Two Strings – ostensibly a film aimed at a young audience – in an auditorium with no small children in sight. They missed out, for Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the year’s delights. A fine cast including Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara and Matthew McConaughey add lively and emotional voices to director Travis Knight’s stunning visuals, as Kubo and the Two Strings blends drama, humour, heartbreak and action in a seamlessly splendid world of the titular Kubo (Art Parkinson) on the run from his malevolent grandfather, the Moon King (Fiennes). Aided by a sentient monkey (Theron) and a samurai warrior trapped in the body of a giant beetle (McConaughey), Kubo embarks on a mystical quest aided by his magical shamisen that grants life to his origami creations. The visual invention of the film begins at the level of Kubo’s artistry and steadily escalates, with pratfalls that are very funny (mainly involving Beetle), thrilling action sequences involving Kubo’s aunts (Mara), and some moments that are genuinely scary. This is to the film’s credit, as while the scary moments may be strong for small children, they need not be prohibitive and ensure that the film does not lose its nerve. Perhaps the ending is a little soft, but it does provide a fitting ending to a sumptuous and enthralling tale of storytelling, magic and artistry.