Stories that are based around a character or characters undertaking a long journey – often two people who are bound together by circumstance, or a sense of duty, or family ties, etc – are ten-a-penny in cinema, and especially so within the western genre. Such a time-worn set-up applies to Jacques Audiard’s latest, a revisionist oater in which antiheroes Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly on very good form) and his younger sibling Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are employed as henchmen by a wealthy figure known as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer in a minor, non-speaking role). Charged with tracking down a gold prospector by the name of Hermann Kermit Warm, the two brothers bicker and endure – rather than enjoy – each other’s company, making their way from town to town, heading from Oregon into California. Along the way, the calmer, more contemplative Eli contemplates a change of direction in life, while the impetuous Charlie remains utterly wrapped up in the moment, largely incapable of seeing beyond the next saloon brawl; cinema conditioning dictates that we instantly expect them both to undergo some kind of change during their journey south.
If the outline sounds familiar, there are specific elements of the film that ensure it stands out from the litany of other works that combine the figurative inner journeys of characters with physically-demanding slogs across land, not least the ever-shifting tone and mood of the piece. These changes echo those of Patrick DeWitt’s source novel, a work that wrong-foots the reader by skipping between, say, brutal violence and sardonic humour, often in the space of the same paragraph. Very early on in the film it’s clear that the audience – like the brothers – is in for an uneasy ride: one minute you’re watching a shoot-out, the next a gruesome slice of body horror, then lighter, knockabout comedy (with Phoenix even offering touches of slapstick), and finally, in its most intriguing state, The Sisters Brothers morphs into a meditative, almost dreamlike study of the ties that bind.
In addition, there is a lot of elliptical storytelling (a device that all-too-often sounds the death knell in terms of a movie’s box office performance, and perhaps contributed to this film’s status as a financial flop). The plot is never unduly complicated and the story is always easy to follow, but occasionally the viewer is required to do a little work and fill in the gaps. For example, some gunfights involving the brothers end abruptly, mid-shootout, and Audiard might cut to a scene showing the pair farther on down the line, where more conventional films would clearly establish that every adversary has been downed before doing so. A grizzly bear attack – something that became the most memorable moment in The Revenant – is dealt with in a similar fashion, with one of the characters simply waking from a deep slumber to find a defeated, dead bear slumped in the camp; we don’t see any of the struggle that ensued, or get to experience any of the tension that would undoubtedly have been caused by the animal’s appearance.
That’s not to say Audiard’s film is light on excitement or action, but it’s very much a secondary concern, any near-death experiences being business-as-usual for these experienced hired killers. The director is far more interested in the changing relationships between Eli and Charlie and, in a subplot that eventually merges with the main strand, the tentatively homoerotic union between Riz Ahmed’s Warm and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Morris, the latter another of The Commodore’s hired guns (and one whose highfalutin ways constantly anger Charlie Sisters).
At its best the film recalls the woozy, spiritual style of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, and there were enough of these passages to leave me thinking that The Sisters Brothers will be very warmly regarded as time passes, perhaps one day seen as a cult concern (if indeed it isn’t already; such things seem to be enshrined pretty quickly in the 21st century). The pared-down score by celebrated composer Alexandre Desplat certainly enhances the overall sense of oddness, sounding like a choppy, jerky reworking of something that might have begun life as a ‘classic’ western theme. Benoît Debie’s impressive digital cinematography, meanwhile, features some crisp interior low-light work and stunning landscape photography, even if Audiard seems wholly uninterested in lingering over the beautiful mountain vistas and plains for too long; an American director or cinematographer might have been more tempted to romanticise the land and slot in with the history of the genre by shooting on film and leaving certain views up on the screen for a few extra seconds. The Frenchman and his Belgian DoP seem less interested in such convention.
With all that in mind, as well as the generally poor box office showings of other modern westerns, it’s hardly a surprise that this failed to find a large audience upon release, but as long as you’re not the one taking the financial hit or hoping for a long and successful career in Hollywood (as Audiard may have been) that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As The Sisters Brothers peters out with a gently reverberating coda – eschewing an obvious stopping point or uplifting ending – it becomes clear that this is one that has been made for the few, rather than the many. It also strikes me that Reilly, had he been acting in another era, would have played dozens of roles in the western genre. (****)
Somewhat belatedly, here is a list of my 20 favourite documentaries of 2018, which is the second post of my three-part round-up of last year (click here for the first bit; the third will follow in the next week or so). The simple criteria is that the films were officially released in the UK during 2018 in cinemas, shown on streaming services or screened on TV.
20. Make Us Dream (Blair): The first of three football-related documentaries on this list, which is more a reflection of my love of and interest in the sport, as opposed to us being in some kind of golden age for such films. This one’s about Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool career, and it smartly eschews the hagiographical style of your usual football puff piece, focusing as much on the lows the all-action midfielder experienced as a player as it does on the relative highs and providing plenty of psychological insight along the way.
19. Matangi / Maya / M.I.A (Loveridge): A fine portrait of the life of the musician and activist M.I.A., covering her arrival as a refugee in London, her time at art school and then her fairly rapid rise to global star. Director Stephen Loveridge is a long-time friend, and although that means this is hardly a critical or detached examination of a public figure, there is a certain unguarded intimacy to all the hours of footage shot as a result.
18. Bobby Robson: More Than A Manager (Clarke, Jones): And here’s the second. This is a warm portrait of a thoroughly decent gentleman, whose generous kindness and geniality was not always reciprocated by the media or the people who employed him. There’s plenty of interesting material here about Robson’s time as manager of Barcelona, in particular.
17. McQueen (Bonhôte, Ettedgui): A thorough portrait of a major, influential designer within the fashion industry, charting Alexander McQueen’s career from youthful, exuberant apprentice on Savile Row to his later, often controversial, collections, shows and collaborations. His suicide at the age of 40 hangs over every minute in which his death isn’t being explicitly discussed; this is the sad tale of a man who was, by all accounts (I don’t have much knowledge about the fashion world myself), a great talent.
16. Take The Ball, Pass The Ball (McMath): The Barcelona team managed by Pep Guardiola is the best that I have seen in nearly 40 years of watching football, and I firmly believe that Leo Messi is the finest player that has ever walked this planet, so this film – which traces the formation of the Barcelona style and the gradual steps to near-perfection taken by the team featuring Messi – is like catnip for me. Couldn’t get enough of the wide-ranging, insightful interviews, particularly those involving the tactically-astute Xavi.
15. The Price Of Everything (Kahn): I do wish this eyebrow-raiser, which gleefully spends time analysing the shocking amounts of money changing hands within the modern art world, was a little bit more forthright in its condemnation of… well, anything (even if it was just venomous about the ugliness of it all). The director’s approach is deliberately – and often infuriatingly – standoffish, but I applaud those who took part who were only ever going to come out of it looking bad or embarrassed. This is an effective summation as to how cosy art and commerce have become as bedfellows, albeit a film that tiptoes around egos a little too lightly.
14. Bros: After The Screaming Stops (Pearlman, Soutar): This one quickly gained notoriety on account of the cringe-worthy, unintentionally hilarious soundbites provided by (former?) pop stars Matt and Luke Goss as they reformed their band Bros for a one-off gig. The ‘Spinal Tap’ moments are plentiful, but the twin brothers came across well overall, and it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for them as they unwittingly stitch themselves up. Third band member Craig Logan (or ‘Ken’ as he was once regularly called by Smash Hits) wisely steered clear of the whole affair.
13. Shirkers (Tan): There are two equally-fascinating stories in this film by Sandi Tan; the first concerns her youth in Singapore, its burgeoning indie film scene and her attempt at making a movie within that environment, which was thwarted by a man who mysteriously and cruelly disappeared with all the footage. The second relates to the present, twenty years on, in which the 16mm film is discovered and Tan and her colleagues analyse their memories of the time, the working relationships they had with one another and the act that – temporarily, at least – stopped them in their tracks.
12. Filmworker (Zierra): You could make the rather cruel argument that this film is less about the former actor Leon Vitali and more about the man Vitali would work with as a personal assistant for many, many years – a certain Stanley Kubrick. However, this is also a study in the dedication, the loyalty and the constant effort put in by a relatively-unknown crew member working behind the scenes, and the unusual nature of the subject matter – we don’t hear from these people so much – was welcome.
11. The King (Jarecki): Elvis as conduit for 20th century America; rather than a hagiographic biography this does not shy away from questions of cultural appropriation and more, with a wide range of interviewees appearing in a studio and in one of the singer’s old Rollers. I wasn’t expecting much but this was utterly fascinating from start to finish.
10. New Town Utopia (Smith): A fascinating study of an English ‘new town’, ie one created after the Second World War to accommodate the London overspill. In this case, the subject is Basildon in Essex, and Christopher Ian Smith’s film seems to me to be a thorough, exhaustive study of the place – the camera tracing all that Brutalist, concrete architecture (underpasses and shopping precincts appear a lot, if memory serves) and numerous residents providing an entertaining oral history of ‘Bas Vegas’ through their interviews.
9. A Northern Soul (McAllister): Having lived in the city of Kingston upon Hull for a number of years, this film about Steve Arnott’s work during Hull’s UK City of Culture celebrations really struck a chord. At the time of filming Arnott was balancing his job as a warehouse worker with his family duties and a desire to realise his dream of running a hip-hop bus for the benefit of the younger members of his local community; however funding was hard to secure, and financial struggles pervade every minute of Sean McAllister’s smartly political documentary – for here is a man that embodies the very notion of David Cameron’s Big Society while living within a city that has suffered more than most from the actions of various UK governments, and particularly at the hands of the Tories. It was made by a director with similar roots to Arnott’s, and it’s never patronising.
8. Ex Libris: New York Public Library (Wiseman): Frederick Wiseman’s latest examination of a major institution or community (and I guess, in a way, this library can be seen as being a micro-community) is typically bum-numbing, at 197 minutes, but engrossing for pretty much all of that running time. I visit two of my local libraries two or three times a week, on average – they are the last quiet refuges in most towns, now – and to see the intricate workings of one this big was a real treat. Wiseman’s chronicling of high-level meetings is a necessary feature of his documentaries, but I preferred the rest of the assembled footage here, which managed to show the different roles the NYPL performs in people’s lives.
7. Dawson City: Frozen Time (Morrison): Hypnotic essay film about an unearthed cache of celluloid and the story of the town that found it, which expanded rapidly during the Klondike Gold Rush. The score is superb and the choice of footage to illustrate change and the passing of time is exemplary.
6. American Animals (Layton): I wondered whether to put this docudrama on this list or on a forthcoming one that will detail my favourite (non-documentary) 2018 releases, for it could easily sit on either. The story, about a botched heist by four students, is ripe for such cinematic treatment, of course, and its telling here is pretty riveting (the switches from talking head interviews to dramatic reconstructions are incredibly smooth). A subtle examination of modern white male privilege and the extraordinary and damaging drive some people have for new experiences.
5. Black Mother (Allah): A restless, personal documentary about womanhood, Jamaican identity and the country itself that endlessly shifts from one form to another – juddering between 16mm film, digital and so on. There’s no music on the soundtrack, and voices come in and out of the mix to haunting effect.
4. They Shall Not Grow Old (Jackson): I had such a strong reaction to this film when I saw it on the big screen and then, three days later, on TV, that I’m surprised it hasn’t cracked the top three of this list. The colourised archive footage of the First World War (specifically the Somme trenches populated by British soldiers) is startling, and the digital adjustments made by Jackson and his team seemed to me to be made with sensitivity.
3. Free Solo (Chin, Vasarhelyi): Glad I saw this in a cinema; it was a blast. My palms were sweating repeatedly during the various climbs undertaken by Alex Honnold as he takes on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without any safety harnesses, and the filmmakers – who previously made the excellent Meru – do a great job in capturing it all, reducing the main attempt down to half-a-dozen key moments. It’s a fine study into the mental state of a climber – particularly one whose approach is as extreme and dangerous (or as pure, depending on your point of view) as Honnold’s – and the way in which their pursuit of a goal can affect the people who are closest to them.
2. Arcadia (Wright): A journey into the heart of the British countryside that’s often dark and weird, making great use of the BFI’s vast archive of film and a superbly unsettling soundtrack by Will Gregory and Adrien Utley. Arcadia is at its best when it is suggesting an underlying oddness existing within the rural environment, but there is real breadth to the included footage: fox hunting, the beauty of the landscape and nature (as well as its harmfulness), farming, cheese-rolling, the gradual removal of services from village life – there is much to ponder in this deliciously offbeat amalgamation.
1. Faces Places (JR, Varda): I had Paul Wright’s Arcadia listed as my favourite documentary of 2018 and Agnès Varda’s life-affirming street-art—rural-celebration-travelogue – which she made with the artist JR – at number two. But Varda’s recent death at the end of March got me thinking about Faces Places again, and how welcome such an optimistic work is at this point in time. It’s a great celebration of people and art, with an emphasis on the act of seeing as well as on the aging process, and the touchingly bittersweet ending will resonate even stronger now Varda has passed. Despite Jean-Luc Godard’s rather cruel snub, Varda’s positive, forward-thinking outlook is irrepressible – nobody can stop the good vibes that radiated from her, and that can be found in this wonderful film.
Like many other film fans I like to take stock at the end of the year, and in this post I’m going to discuss the previous twelve months in a general, rambling fashion, with reference to my ‘blind spots’ (yup, still doing that) and other notable works that I saw for the first time during 2018. The second part of the round-up – which may be as late as March – will include my annual selection of 50 favourite feature films released in the UK and 20 favourite documentaries. At the time of writing I still want to watch some highly-rated titles that I missed in cinemas, including the likes of Burning, Shoplifters, Cold War and The Rider, and will spend a month or so doing that before making a final list.
My cinema-going in 2018 was mostly limited to my local multiplex, for which I have an annual pass that allows me to see as many new releases as I can stomach; I still only go around once a week, on average. Sadly the multiplex tends to pass on a lot of arthouse-friendly fare, foreign language films and independent productions, and I can’t say I blame them; when they have taken risks (if ‘risks’ is the right word) I’ve found myself sitting in crowds as small as four or five people, whereas like most places in the world the heavily-marketed blockbusters, family films and familiar franchise entries are still putting bums on seats and dominant.
For those smaller releases I’ve tended to wait for the DVD release – Luddite that I am – and have generally eschewed paying full whack to stream films on platforms like Curzon Home Cinema and BFI Player, which I used regularly in the past. I don’t feel the same urgency to see films during the week or month of release any more, but it’s also partly because I already pay out for three subscription services on a monthly basis, so I’ve always got plenty to watch without paying £10 a pop to see a new release in the comfort of my own home. Anyway, I had some fun times at the cinema this year, and even most of the dross I checked out wasn’t too bad.
I’m told by Letterboxd that I logged 487 entries in 2018, with probably around 20 of those being for TV series (2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return being the standout) and short films. I’m pleased with the total, though inevitably watching so many titles means that there are some films I can barely remember anything about – for example I know that I watched Pompeii, but I couldn’t give you a synopsis (I freely admit my attention repeatedly diverted towards my phone while it was playing); even some of last year’s awards season favourites are fading from memory.
My blind spot list last year was varied, and despite a couple of delays I managed to watch all twelve much-admired movies for the first time before the year-end. My favourites from the dozen were Rashomon and Sunset Boulevard, although in truth all the others impressed. Vivre Sa Vie contains a terrific performance by Anna Karina, whose character is perhaps unfairly treated by vindictive puppeteer Jean-Luc Godard. High Noon is a tense examination of the decent Old West lawman and Stalker is a magnificent, moody and thought-provoking work that I will certainly watch again. Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours is a career highlight, while Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage is still a vibrant, unsettling horror decades after it was first released; the same can be said of Poltergeist, I guess, though it is a very different beast. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a hugely enjoyable slice of kitchen sink drama as well as being a landmark in British cinema on account of its depiction of working class characters, and for the Woodfall Films production company, while for very different reasons the production and grand scale of Brazil and Doctor Zhivago impressed. Had I seen Terry Gilliam’s Brazil as a teenager I imagine it would have become a favourite that I subsequently returned to over and over again, but as I was watching I had a sense that that particular boat had sailed. Fun movie, though, and great looking. The only ‘blind spot’ selection that didn’t really resonate deeply was Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour. I probably didn’t concentrate hard enough and as such failed to see its supposed greatness, but I still liked it; I have a DVD copy so perhaps I’ll watch it again someday.
The idea of doing a blind spot list is becoming increasingly pointless, as during any given year I’ll watch a great many other films for the first time that could easily qualify. I’m not sure there’s much point in listing all of them, but I guess I’d just like to register the fact that the following films were all new to me and each one made a big impression. I recommend them all highly if there are some you haven’t seen yourself. (Directors’ names in brackets.)
Man With A Movie Camera (Vertov) Life Is Sweet (Leigh) Like Father, Like Son (Koreeda) The Consequences of Love (Sorrentino) The War (Burns, Novick) In The Mood For Love (Kar-Wai) Blow Out, Carrie (both De Palma) The Lovers On The Bridge, Mauvais Sang (both Carax) Moolaadé (Sembène Café Lumière (Hsiao-hsien) A Separation (Farhadi) Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier) Dogville (Lars Von Trier) The Red Balloon (Lamorisse) Hunger (McQueen) Meru (Chin, Vasarhelyi) Fragment Of Fear (Sarafian) Get Carter (Hodges) The Conformist (Antonioni) Bringing Up Baby (Hawks) Unforgiven (Eastwood) Birth (Glazer) The Green Ray, Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (both Rohmer) The Beaches of Agnès (Varda) M (Lang) Irma Vep (Assayas) The Pianist (Polanski) Bicycle Thieves (De Sica) All The President’s Men (Pakula) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul) The Headless Woman (Martel) The Arbor (Arnold) Starred Up (McKenzie) Cool Hand Luke (Rosenberg) Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (Aldrich) The Player (Altman) Point Blank (Boorman) Soylent Green (Fleischer) The Misfits (Huston) The Day The Earth Stood Still (Wise)
My 2019 blind spot list is made up of the following: The Elephant Man, Last Year At Marienbad, Marathon Man, The Right Stuff, Lawrence Of Arabia, Monster, Some Like It Hot, Young Frankenstein, Aguirre, Wrath Of God, Videodrome, The Philadelphia Story and The Night Of The Hunter. On we go!
I very much like the series of films that have been put together using the BFI’s vast archive, of which this 2018 release – by Paul Wright – is the latest. There’s something about the historical aspect, and the general strangeness of some of the footage (particularly from the earlier half of the last century) that appeals, as well as the fact that they serve as illuminating guides to British life and highlight some important 20th century social change, with regard to class, gender politics, leisure time, war, immigration, declining industry, etc.
Kim Longinotto’s Love Is All was a spirited run-through of romance in British cinema (scored, aptly, by crooner Richard Hawley); Benedikt Erlingsson’s The Show Of Shows examined circuses and other similar forms of entertainment with a soundtrack from Sigur Rós and Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson; and Penny Woolcock’s From The Sea To The Land Beyond was a powerful illustration of life lived at the coast, with British Sea Power re-purposing some of their earlier songs for the occasion. Wright’s film is, roughly speaking, about the countryside, and he uses the setting to explore aspects of the British psyche and society, pointedly depicting both a bucolic Utopia – indeed ‘Utopia’ is one of several intertitles used to split the film into specific segments or chapters – and a more nightmarish, psychedelic space that’s characterised by folk horror, disturbing or bizarre rituals, huge class and economic gulfs and plenty more besides. This one has been scored by Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp, though some traditional and atmospheric folk music makes the cut too.
I liked the score, overall, as it shifts and encompasses different styles of music, depending on the chapter, but it does begin to affect your interpretation of the footage a little too much for my liking. For example, the ominous-sounding thrum that accompanies film of Morris men dancing suggests a dark, menacing undertone to the action that is taking place, and while such dancers are certainly seen as being quirky today, I’m not entirely sure they represent British folk tradition at its weirdest or most threatening. But still, the music certainly helps to tie all of the assembled footage together, so I’m wary of complaining too much about it; it’s a soundtrack I would like to buy, but haven’t got round to yet.
While watching the film, I found that some of the dots that Wright joins together are a bit of a stretch; one example would be a section in which punk – really something I’d say was a preserve of more urban areas, particularly during its heyday – is linked to the underground raves and festivals that became emblematic of British outsider culture, and were later turned into massive cash-generating enterprises by some rural landowners. I guess there is a wider point being made here, perhaps about the way in which culture more recently has tended to trickle outwardly from cities, but it does seem a little unclear to me; and while there’s certainly a theme here about people escaping to the countryside to let themselves go – nude hippies and naturalists feature regularly throughout – any footage here that looks like it was made in a town or city seems oddly intrusive and out of place.
That said, part of the appeal of Arcadia is its oddness, the times when its rambling looseness and the accumulation of footage seems to build into or generate something greater, some repeated point about how strange British people are; although there is a coherence and organisation too, mostly thanks to the chapter-based structure. It is a restless work that is packed with ideas and there are many successfully forged links, while there is definitely a thrill to be had in going along with it and simply enjoying the sheer variety of archive material that Wright has uncovered and used. Perhaps it doesn’t matter all that much if some aspects are tied together more tightly than others.
I thought Arcadia is at its best when it is suggesting an underlying oddness existing within the countryside, but there is real breadth to the included footage: fox hunting, the beauty of the landscape and nature (as well as its harmfulness), farming, cheese-rolling, the gradual removal of services from village life – there is much to ponder in this deliciously offbeat amalgamation. It probably lands better with those who have experience of living in the UK and who will therefore pick up on some of the subtler suggestions, but I dare say if you have a more general interest in life anywhere there is something for you to enjoy. As it stands, it probably just about edges Frederick Wiseman’s thorough paean to the community services of the New York Public Library, Ex Libris, and Agnès Varda and JD’s warm study of art, ageing and people, Faces, Places, as my favourite documentary of 2018. (4.5)
While watching Kelly Reichardt’s 1994 road movie – her debut – you can sense the influence of other independent filmmakers who were firmly ‘established’ by the mid-1990s. There are echoes in this film, which tells the story of two untypical criminals on the run, of landmark pictures such as Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy and Terrence Malick’s Badlands in terms of the tone, cinematography, locations, production design and plot, although there is also enough evidence of Reichardt’s own voice and early self-confidence to ensure that River Of Grass is more than mere pastiche and to indicate that she wasn’t timidly in thrall of those earlier works.
In fact, there is much to distinguish this film from the road movies and crime dramas written and/or directed by men (it’s rare that a woman tackles either genre today, and it was doubly so in 1994). As per much of the director’s subsequent output, the pace of River Of Grass is decidedly unhurried, and therefore completely at odds with the breakneck speed regularly employed in most crime movies of the mid-1990s. Additionally, any scenes of sudden, sporadic violence – and there are a few here – are underplayed, and that also distances Reichardt from any contemporaries she had at the time – with regard to bloody acts of cruelty, other (male) indie filmmakers of the era were going big at every available opportunity.
Where the likes of Quentin Tarantino celebrated the murderers and criminals on the lam who appeared in his screenplays (turning at least four of them into notable early-1990s antiheroes), the two main protagonists of River Of Grass hit the road after shooting a man while they are trespassing on his property, and spend a lot of the subsequent running time in motels, stores and cars, unsure as to whether they’ve actually killed him. There is no revelling in their combined baseness here: you couldn’t describe the duo as ‘cool’, and their shared self-doubt courses through the film, as does their vague lack of direction and inability to escape the area of Florida that they live in; the highway should offer a way out, but here it just seems to send the couple round and round in circles. By way of contrast, the outlaw couples of, say, Badlands, True Romance and Natural Born Killers all seem to be going somewhere at pace, and seem more sure of their respective relationships and shared short-term and long-term goals.
A gun features prominently in Reichardt’s film, but it is handled in such a way as to suggest that both characters are either fairly unfamiliar with firearms or completely inexperienced. Again, unusual for the period. (Clarence Worley, in Tony Scott’s Tarantino-scripted True Romance, by way of comparison, seems a natural shooter despite being a comic store clerk with, presumably, very little experience of guns – the implication being that comics and movies can teach you everything you need to know about weapons and how to handle them, or that some kind of innate masculine know-how is unlocked when fingers first wrap around cold steel.) Only near the end is the gun of River Of Grass used with real intent and purpose, and when it is fired it’s a surprising act – the two characters have been making their way across unremarkable Floridian landscape for most of the movie, never really getting anywhere, and then suddenly the plot veers off in a pleasingly unexpected way. There’s a very Reichardtian sense of new hope by the end, though typically it’s just left hanging for the viewer to contemplate, rather than explicitly followed up on.
Elsewhere in this film there’s innovative deployment of montages, a formal decision that also helped to distance Reichardt from the pack in the mid-1990s and marked her out as a talent whose career would be worth following. (Something that’s easy to say in hindsight, admittedly.) That said, there is also plenty here to date the film, from some of the events that unfold and the dreamily-delivered narration to Jim Denault’s cinematography, which has a certain sun-bleached indie aesthetic that I associate with the era. The lead performances by Lisa Donaldson and Larry Fessenden also seem very typical of the early 90’s to me: less cartoonish and overt a Kit n’ Holly homage than Patricia Arquette and Christian Slater in True Romance, but still kind of harking back to the American New Wave and actors like Spacek, Sheen, Nicholson or Dunaway when they were young. None of this is intended as a criticism: it’s an indie film made in the mid-90s and that’s exactly what it looks and feels like. However, it was also a very promising, intriguing debut that successfully undercut some of the tropes of the increasingly predictable and successful crime films directed by men at the time. (3.5/5)
There’s a scene in Faces, Places, the new documentary film Agnès Varda has made in collaboration with photographer and mural artist JR, in which this ostensibly odd couple – a 65-year age gap exists between them – chat with a group of male French dock workers. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Varda’s work that she instinctively asks the men if she can meet their wives, and before long the two artists are introduced to the three relevant women, two of whom – like their husbands – work on the docks.
The basic premise of the film is that Varda and JR travel around France meeting people (generally those who live and/or work in rural or smaller communities), before taking their pictures and then printing large images that are subsequently flyposted onto buildings or large objects. Having met the three women, and feeling suitably inspired by them, Varda and JR ask them to pose for portraits and then decide to plaster the larger-than-life pictures onto a huge stack of cargo containers, with the women themselves eventually emerging from behind the doors of container stacked high at the very top. It’s an extremely powerful visual statement – made in conjunction with a small group of people who appear to work for JR – in a film that’s littered with them, and yet it’s also completely indicative of the film’s humanism, the makers’ genuine interest in ordinary working class people and the rather likeable way that they are lionised in ways that also brings attention to their surroundings and the histories of certain places.
For most of the film Varda and JR travel around in his van, which has a large-scale printer adapted to fit in the back. They meet farmers, people from former mining communities, retirees and young children along the way. As they do, the documentary slowly evolves into a work that’s also about the power of images, as well as society, the influence of political decisions taken elsewhere, mortality and the act of seeing. One thread that’s weaved throughout pertains to Varda’s deteriorating eyesight, while in another Varda regularly chastises the younger man for his desire to ‘hide’ behind his sunglasses at all times, something that occasionally causes a small degree of friction between the two. (JR, like the English artist Banksy, places much value on his own anonymity.)
Despite the odd minor clash between Varda and JR – she quickly puts him in his place when he patronises her – Faces, Places is very much a feelgood film: the two artists make for an extremely sympathetic, likeable duo, and the obvious differences between them – age, height, etc – soon become irrelevant in the face of their shared respect for and interest in others. As well as their time together talking to people – which sometimes recalls Varda’s earlier The Gleaners & I – we’re treated to lots of footage of the pair travelling together, hanging out in Paris and even dashing across the Louvre in a light-hearted homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part.
It comes as a surprise, then, when Godard himself casts a rather unfortunate shadow on the film late on. JR arranges a surprise visit to the house of the notoriously reclusive director, who was one of Varda’s New Wave colleagues and someone who she considers a long-term friend, even though she hasn’t seen him in years, but the meeting and the trip becomes something of a non-event — grinding uncomfortably to a halt as a result of what appears to be mean-spirited pettiness on the part of Godard, perhaps driven by a rather unfortunate mixture of insecurity and thoughtlessness. Given what we’ve seen before it seems like a particularly cruel act to reduce Varda to tears, but her positive, forward-thinking outlook is irrepressible, and the male director’s actions ultimately seem like an irrelevance as she figuratively picks herself up, dusts herself down and gets on with her life. The simple fact is that nobody can stop the positivity that radiates from Varda and from this wonderful film, surely one of 2018’s finest. (4.5/5)
Clearly the best action film that has been released so far during 2018, this latest franchise entry delivers plenty of the high-octane thrills that have become synonymous with the series, particularly during recent years. There’s a quite thrilling, brutally bone-crunching fist fight that takes place in a bathroom, for example, involving Tom Cruise’s familiar IMF agent Ethan Hunt, Henry Cavill’s CIA assassin August Walker and a man who may or may not be an international terrorist called Lark, with all the shots of bodies slamming into washbasins and through walls that have become de rigeur post-Bourne. There are also speedy, exciting vehicle and foot chases through the streets of central Paris and London, with the requisite number of landmarks incorporated into the sequences’ establishing shots. And the finale – though marred a little by the awful expository dialogue that precedes it, which all of the actors involved seem a tad embarrassed by – is staged very well, particularly with regard to the helicopter chase that was teased in the trailer.
This ending is also indicative of Mission: Impossible – Fallout’s laziness, though, perhaps epitomised by the use of such cliches as characters grimacing as they tensely cut the red wire on the left-hand side of a bomb’s interior (WAIT…OR IS IT THE GREEN WIRE ON THE RIGHT, ETC ETC?!!), figures dangling off incredibly high ledges or ropes and timers slowly ticking down to zero. These tired action movie tropes have long been ditched by more inventive, thoughtful writers and directors, and it’s a little dismaying to see them employed yet again within this film, when the marketing tends to proudly push the line that its stunts are next-level and its characters are presented as sprightly and able to think outside of the box in order to outfox the enemy. Allayed to this there’s a nagging sense that even the actors are a little bit bored by it all, performing in variations on scenes that they’ve already appeared in numerous times before (particularly with regard to Cruise, Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg, all veterans of this series). When one character is hoodwinked by Hunt’s team’s misdirection early in the film, for example, and another subsequently falls for a switcheroo involving one of those rubber face masks that seemingly come out of nowhere in these films (because… someone has a laptop handy), are there any audience members who feel the same level of surprise at having had the rug pulled from under their feet? Isn’t it time to move on from the kind of twists seen in Brian De Palma’s first entry in the franchise, and from the more novel ideas that were contained within David Koepp and Robert Towne’s Mission: Impossible movie screenplay?
Supporting actors are game, but this is of course A Tom Cruise Film and as such the rest of the cast is marginalised, their characters unable to wallow in a sub plot or enjoy an independent thought of their own that isn’t somehow for Hunt’s benefit. Rebecca Ferguson’s assassin Ilsa was, for some, a breath of fresh air in previous entry Rogue Nation, but she takes a back seat here, appearing with impeccable timing whenever Hunt is in a bind and needs some help. She’s just another team member now, albeit a quasi-member for much of this story, and the actor is surely destined to go the same way as the likes of Emmanuelle Béart, Emilio Estevez, Jeremy Renner and various others have before; but maybe time will prove me wrong. Elsewhere, Sean Harris reprises his role as the big bad of the series, a puppet master of Very Bad Things who is all beard and gravel-voiced threats, while Vanessa Kirby smoulders unconvincingly as new character ‘The White Widow’, a wealthy, powerful broker of dodgy deals who would not be out of place in a Roger Moore-era Bond film. Pegg has already fully accepted his sidekick status, wisely, while Ving Rhames is also seemingly happy to continually play a character who was last given a bit of meaningful personality and a sense of his own life outside of service to Hunt and the IMF way back in 1996, a full five films ago.
There’s terrible dialogue here and lots of wooden acting – particularly during the opening, pre-credits scenes – but evidently people go and see these films to be wowed by stunts, and Fallout will not disappoint in this respect; they are very well-staged and each set piece is exciting and incredibly well-choreographed, especially when you consider how many vehicles are involved at times. Somehow the years do not seem to be catching up with Cruise, who yet again gives a solid impression of a man who happens to leap off buildings, kill people and stop nuclear weapons from being deployed almost as often as he eats cornflakes or takes a dump. It seems like there’s plenty left in the tank. (3/5)
Olivier Assayas concocts a heady atmosphere here; Personal Shopper is spooky and cold throughout, thanks in part to its superb sound design (with all those bumps and smashes mysteriously occurring in a grand old mansion) and also thanks to the terrific central performance by Kristen Stewart. Her character, Maureen, seems oddly disconnected from the world; she is a clothes-purchasing assistant to a celebrity – an American in Paris – and we spend close to two hours in her company, but although we discover some things about her life and see interactions with friends, can we honestly say that we ‘know’ her by the end? She is nervy, grieving and in search of her own identity, and she doesn’t give much away. She is also intriguing: can she really communicate with the spirit world, and in particular her recently-deceased brother, who owned the mansion in question?
Personal Shopper is a difficult film to pin down, as it comfortably slips between genres, without much in the way of fuss. It is on the one hand an existential drama largely set within the fashion industry and the celebrity world, though it’s apparent from the off that Assayas wishes to deglamorise fashion, or at least the purchasing of it (if not the actual act of wearing). It’s also a chiller, a genuinely unnerving ghost story that leaves its fantastical phenomena unexplained – we see a wispy spirit and ‘hear’ the same things that Maureen hears, but even by the end it’s unclear whether we’re supposed to believe in these interactions or judge Stewart’s character as someone who is coming apart at the seams. The standout moments involve her text exchanges with an unknown person, which she believes is a spirit of some kind; as Peter Bradshaw rightly pointed out in the Guardian, one of these – in which a flurry of texts arrive after a phone is switched on – is the kind of thrilling coup de grace that Hitchcock would have been proud of, and genuinely made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, while the whole Eurostar section, when Maureen is first contacted, is surprisingly gripping given that we’re mostly watching someone send, receive and read text messages on a train. This is worth seeing simply on account of the superb central performance, but it’s well worth your time if you enjoy filling in the gaps around the edges of a story, and it’s another smart, intriguing film from this talented director. (****½)
The second collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí – who had fallen out with each other by the time of production – is another surreal film, this time a series of vignettes that seem to mock the absurdity of modern life, as it was in France in 1930. The main link throughout is a couple (Lya Lys and Gaston Modot) who are trying to have sex but are constantly thwarted by others, such as religious figures, family members, etc. There are some typically strong images: the woman fellates the toe of a statue, apparently to ease her sexual frustration; a crucifix has scalps hanging from it that blow in the wind; a young boy is shot in a chillingly cold fashion; an old man at the side of the road is needlessly attacked. All very shocking at the time, no doubt, and some of it still surprising to see today. Buñuel’s gift for editing by associating similar objects and shapes or by linking ideas is clear for all to see, and it’s one of the very first sound films made in France, though you wouldn’t describe it as un talkie, exactly. (***)
Forough Farrokhzad’s first and only work is a documentary short, or essay film, that examines life for leprosy sufferers in an Iranian colony. It’s a moving, admirable film, with Farrokhzad’s camera trained on the faces and affected body parts of patients; the editing is often quick, such as in the sequence that shows a number of people playing with a ball, as if the director is desperate to show us as many of them as she can; this is a film that, through its structure, seems to be reinforcing the idea that every single human life matters. (****)
An amusing and playful 1906 Gaumont short by Alice Guy-Blaché in which the traditional male and female roles of the age have been swapped around: women sit at tables drinking, talking, taking advantage of their status and generally being pains toward men, while the poor, put-upon blokes iron and sew clothes, look after babies and small children and are harassed and insulted. Judging by the handful of comments on YouTube its sarcasm and its clear point is still being misunderstood by idiots today; goodness knows how it was interpreted 100-odd years ago. (***½)
A competently made and occasionally handsome period drama from Amma Asante, which fictionalises the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, an 18th century West Indian woman who was raised by a wealthy family in England, played here by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. While it’s an unusual British period piece precisely because of the lead character’s race, it’s conventional in every other sense, with its typicalities including such stock characters as the inappropriate love interest whose advances the poor woman must endure, the preferred love interest from a lower social standing, the dragon-like old dame with a venomous tongue, and the hard-nosed old patriarch – Tom Wilkinson as the 1st Earl of Mansfield – who must inevitably soften his stance on this, that and the other by the end of the story. The life of the subject is undoubtedly interesting, and the character of Dido’s even rather skilfully linked to the famous Zong Massacre case in the narrative, for which Mansfield was the judge (there’s actually no evidence to show that Dido had any influence over the ruling or anything to do with the case more generally, but it makes for a decent denouement). Aside from that, though, I feel like there’s too much here that I’ve seen many times before. Not bad, though. (**½)