Archive for November, 2016

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**1/2

I wish I’d known The Fencer was a true story before it began (rather than being in the usually best position of knowing nothing at all about a film). It would have made its sentimental and seemingly formulaic story feel much less on the nose. As it turns out, this wasn’t a case of truth feeling stranger than fiction but rather truth feeling very much like traditionally plotted fiction.

A Finnish / Estonian / German co-production (!) set in Estonia and Russia in the early 1950s, the milieu is definitely the most intriguing element of this rather slow-burning drama. We’re in the small, chilly, put-upon town of Haapsalu, where Endel (a stoic Märt Avandi) shows up at the local school to teach. He’s overqualified but grudgingly accepted; as teaching the art of fencing to a batch of kids of various ages grows on him, so too does his past come nipping at his heels.

The story really does smell of Hollywood formula even though the film couldn’t have been made further from La La Land, but the portrait of dispirited, oppressed life under the Soviets after World War 2 is evocative and poignant, as are the kids. It’s gorgeously shot too, especially the snowy sequences which make up about half the film. Shame I was always two steps ahead, and often, I hate to say, glancing at my watch.

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****

My tears came at the exact one hour mark during I, Daniel Blake. I know because I checked my watch. And then I thought, goddamn you, Ken Loach, you know what you’re doing, don’t you?

The jury at this year’s Cannes Film Festival thought so too, awarding Loach’s 20th theatrically-released feature film the Palme D’Or in a controversial decision. I suppose it was controversial because nothing about I, Daniel Blake is groundbreaking, nor does it show any revolutionary thinking on Loach’s part. It’s a Ken Loach film through and through. But it’s a moving and very angry one, and it’s got something to scream out loud.

The scene that got me crying takes place in a food bank. Thankfully, I’ve never been in one. But thankfully, too, they exist. The scene is a masterpiece – a perfect confluence of script, direction and acting, particularly and specifically by Hayley Squires, who plays Katie, a young single mother of two befriended by Daniel Blake (UK stand-up Dave Johns), a carpenter who, after a heart attack, is finding it impossible to get out-of-work benefits from the Kafkaesque clutches of the bureacratic State. All this, of course, in a hardscrabble Northern (English) town.

Loach really rages against the machine here – emphatically, heroicly, stoicly – but the true heart of the film, the friendship between Daniel and Katie, is touching and sincere. There is also a lot of enormously good-hearted humour in the film’s first half. I saw it in a cinema full of mature citizens, and they lapped it up, laughing, cursing, and – in one small, triumphant moment – applauding.

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**** (out of five)

Tom Ford’s second feature after A Single Man (2009) is a seriously mature work, a terrifying thriller for adults that has staggering resonance in the wake of the US election results. At its heart, it is about two things: how choices we make can devastatingly affect the rest of our lives, and how violently divided the city and country dwellers of the United States are. Seeing it literally the morning after Trump got elected was surreal.

Amy Adams plays a total “cultural elite”, a Los Angeles art gallery owner married to some sort of high flying entrepreneur (Armie Hammer). She’s been divorced for nearly twenty years from a writing teacher / novelist (Jake Gyllenhaal). One day she receives his new novel, in proof form, in the mail, and it’s dedicated to her. As she reads it, we see it, and the affect it has on her, which is obviously intentional – perhaps maliciously so.

The two stories are very different in terms of content; the “real” events of the film are all about a woman facing a youngish mid-life crisis in her incredible Los Angeles mansion, while the story of the novel is a grim, indeed nightmarish, tale of a group of rednecks terrorising a young family in West Texas (also the setting of Hell or High Water, incidentally). But the tone and style of the film embraces both stories, linking and interweaving them extremely artfully to create a whole that is genuinely disturbing.

Ford is a rather incredible individual, having only two features to his credit and both of them excellent, and a massive design career to boot. The fact that Nocturnal Creatures is, at least on the surface, tremendously different to A Single Man is also creditable. There are similarities – both films deal intensely with the main character’s introspection over a very limited timeframe (and both in Los Angeles) and both are exquisitely crafted. Ford is no dilettante. His framing is distinctive, his use of music bold and exhilarating (the fantastic score is by Abel Korzeniowski, who also scored A Single Man) and the performances he gets are pitch perfect. Michael Shannon, as a cop in the “story within the story”, has never been better.

Intriguingly, this film opens in Australia the same day as Arrival, also starring Adams in the lead. There’s Oscar nomination buzz for her on that one, but I’d vote for her performance here, which carries far greater emotional depth, thanks in no small part to a far superior script (and film).

arrival-poster-venezuela**1/2

Denis Villeneuve has a pacing problem. The last act of the otherwise excellent Sicario (2015) slowed to a crawl; Prisoners (2013) dragged; and now Arrival, his dour, monotonal emo-sci-fi extravaganza, starring Amy Adams as a linguist trying to talk to the aliens, spends its long second act in a kind of suspended animation almost guaranteed to bring sleep to the weary. It’s laborious.

The film also feels deeply, cloyingly influenced by others. It’s the last act of Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets Contact meets Inception / Interstellar meets The Tree of Life. Scenes of Adams’ character, Dr. Louise Banks, and her daughter seem directly ripped from the latter, while Nolan’s influence is not just apparent but breathtakingly obvious – as though Villeneuve wanted to be Nolan and was trying to pull off some weird con by making a Nolan movie.

Aliens have arrived at twelve locations around the world; they’re hovering in big ships, and we the people of earth don’t know what to do. The US Army enlists Louise to try to talk to them. She tries and tries, along with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who really should have been played by Mark Ruffalo. But their language is complicated, it’s taking too much time, and, meanwhile, the Chinese want to nuke ‘em.

It may sound exciting but it’s not. For the most part, it grinds on in scenes that are repetitious not only in content but visually, the drab overcast Montana skies combining with the monotonous hues of an army camp to induce a sense of overwhelming Sunday afternoon melancholy. Forest Whitaker stands around and spits out quiet, intense exposition as an army Colonel, while Michael Stuhlbarg – bless him! – provides the film’s only lightness and wit as a CIA Agent along for the language lessons.

Like Interstellar, the film aims to be deeply emotionally compelling, but, while the complicated story structure definitely pays off as a sci-fi concept, it tries too hard to make you cry to actually make you cry. I appreciated the clever gimmickry of the conclusion and was glad the credits rolled.

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***1/2

There is an excellent series of YouTube videos about filmmaking called Every Frame a Painting. I kept thinking of that delicious phrase during The Handmaiden, Chan-wook Park’s exquisitely beautiful new potboiler. Every shot is stunning, and many are breathtaking. It’s the gorgeous movie of the year.

It’s also a lot of fun, a long-con melodrama concerning a rogue enlisting a pickpocket to apply for the position of handmaiden to a wealthy heiress in order to convince her to marry the rogue and defraud her of her fortune. That is, until serious sexual attraction gets in the way.

The book the film is based on, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, is set in Victorian London, but Park sets his film in 1930s Korea under Japanese occupation while adhering strictly to the book’s sneaky structure. It’s a bold move but pays off rather exquisitely, the two eras and places aligned by strict class structures with ploarised wealthy and poverty-stricken folk, the former blissfully unaware of the latter, the latter all too aware of the former.

Park’s style is not for everyone – he switches tone with abandon, and his sense of humour is very particular – but The Handmaiden with its twisty-turny plot, stunning visuals and lashings of explicit lady-on-lady sex is probably his most accessible film to date. Great fun and an experiential feast.