Sunday
Apr192015

Östlund: Force Majeure (2014)

Satire – or at least sustained satire – is not a particularly common cinematic register, so it tends to be quite striking when it manifests itself as mercilessly as in Force Majeure. Set in its entirety at an exclusive ski resort in the Swiss Alps, Ruben Ostlund’s fourth film is about a nuclear family who start to fall apart when their patriarch deserts them in the face of an impending avalanche, only to skulk back sheepishly when he realises that the danger has passed. Most of the film follows the family – and especially the couple, Tomas (Johannes Bah Kunke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) – as they try to recover from that moment, a situation that’s considerably complicated by the fact that Tomas seems unwilling or unable to even acknowledge it took place. His face and body give him away, though, as Kuhnke puts in a performance of such shame, emasculation and downright sheepishness that it’s almost impossible to watch, while Ostlund prevents him ever becoming a figure of complete pathos either by way of the mock-heroic cues and vistas within which he frames this disintegrating marriage. In particular, most scenes between Tomas and Ebba are shot from a distance, as Ostlund’s camera scrutinises Tomas until he positively squirms under the weight of the massive alpine mise-en-scenes that previously seemed commensurate to his grandeur as the head of the family, but now seem somewhat satirical, suddenly dwarfing him with his own pretensions and aspirations to manhood. Add to that the fact that Ostlund also tends to shoot the couple and their conversations straight-on, as they gaze into the middle distance, and there’s an exquisite sense of just how hard it is for them to make eye contact after this momentous event in their marriage, as they’re pinned and mounted by a panoramic shame that seems to somehow have infected them as a couple, and as an entire family unit, quickly exceeding Tomas’ momentary impulse. Yet just when it feels as if the film is becoming too merciless, or too monotonous, Ostlund slackens things a little, as the couple start to drift into something of a monogamish relationship – not necessarily sexually, but in the sense of being open to other couples, individuals and experiences in ways that were prohibited by the tightness of their previous nuclear unit, a movement that doesn’t fully revitalise their relationship so much as create a new flexibility and provisionality between them that’s perhaps more original than any more straightforward renunciation or reclamation of manhood would have been. Ostlund trained as a skiing director, and his wonderful depictions of the resort are what finally cement this flexibility as something to be admired and even emulated – since the narrative ends on a slightly morose note – as he translates the dissolving architecture and machinery of the relationship straight onto the alpine landscape. Against a series of abstract voids in which land and sky seem to be perpetually fused, he takes us through one weird, decontextualised snippet of alpine transportation after another, until the whole film feels set on the lifts, gondolas and tracks that seem to be continually ferrying the family from one empty space to the next. At first, their gliding, vertiginous freefall is somewhat disconcerting – all motion in the film quickly and eerily comes to feel relative – but by the end, it feels as if these perpetual whiteouts are the only places where the couple can come to terms with things, which is perhaps why the final scene, poised precariously between the resort and the real world, feels so perfect, and so poetic.

Saturday
Apr182015

Perry: Listen Up Philip (2014)

At a moment when every second film seems anxious to recreate the 70s, this delightfully ascerbic time capsule reminds us that some things are perhaps not worth recreating. Opening in an Instagrammed Greenwich Village that could be straight out of New Hollywood, it’s about a novelist, Philip (Jason Schwartzman), who’s clearly modelled himself after the solipsistic masculine voices of post-war American fiction – John Updike, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and, above all, Philip Roth. Eschewing both modernism and postmodernism in favour of a robust, largely reactionary realism, their legacy and influence reaches Philip directly in the form of Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a venerable but frustrated canonical writer who invites him to spend some time at his home in upper New York, a decision that causes some friction between Philip and his girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), an up-and-coming fashion photographer. Although Philip is nominally torn between Zimmerman and Ashley, the film quickly expands to encompass all the people he’s discarded – or is likely to discard – in the name of his genius, most of whom fall under the category of ex-girlfriend, whether actual or imagined. As a result, the film isn’t exactly plot-driven so much as beholden to Philip’s authorial voice, which is amplified by a wonderful narration by Eric Bogosian, but more than capable of withstanding any assault on its own terms. Rehearsing his next novel with pretty much every utterance, Philip only ever really speaks in monologue, even or especially when he appears to be in the midst of the most intimate and critical conversations, and a great deal of the film’s pleasure comes from the way Alex Ross Perry captures the suffocating, solipstistic constrictions of that monologue, both for Philip and his (always) captive audience, as the camera gets closer and closer to their faces, until virtually the entire film is shot in extreme close-up. Given that this is the kind of pedantic insecurity Schwartzman has made his own, what results is something of a perfect marriage between screenwriter and actor, as Philip launches into one “unfulfilling and exhausating” observation or justification after another, so anxious to leave no part of himself unanalysed, unwritten or unexplained that he tends to analyse, write and explain himself out of existence as the film goes on, until he’s really more of an antagonistic absence than anything else. At the very least, he seems to proceed by absenting and abstracting himself more and more aggressively from whatever is at hand, removing and protecting himself with every word in his artillery, as if simply being himself – an upwardly mobile, minor celebrity – is tantamount to taking the whole weight of the world on his shoulders. As might be expected, then, the line between comedy and something darker is very fine here – especially in a wonderful plot development that sees Philip becoming a totally disinterested creative writing adjunct – but Perry treads it with exquisite command, partly thanks to the presence of Moss and Price, who provide object lessons in brilliant supporting performances, offering just the right amount of wit and disgust to cushion and calibrate Philip's supreme egotism without ever distracting or detracting from it, let alone allowing us to pretend that we might have somehow escaped its massive gravitational pull. Satirical in the extreme, but also strangely gentle and compassionate at moments, it all makes for a film that skewers our aspirational 70s culture – and New York’s aspirational 70s subculture – more savagely and strangely than any recent release, even or especially when it appears to be most entranced and seduced by it.  

Friday
Apr172015

Simien: Dear White People (2014)

Naturalism and realism are genres so fraught with white values and expectations that any effort to envisage a post-racial society also has to envisage a post-realist style as well. In some ways, that’s what Justin Simien sets out to do with Dear White People, a brilliant college ensemble drama that revolves around racial issues at a fictional Ivy League University, culminating with an “ironic blackface party” thrown for the benefit of an elite fraternity house. While the film, and its diverse cast of characters, is very much set in a realistic and recognisable world, director Justin Simien takes us through an enormous number of genres and styles, encompassing reality television, music video, silent film, radio broadcasting, vlogging and sketch shows in the first third alone. Connecting them all is a smooth, soulful, jazzy groove that’s more or less continuous, and alternately makes it feel like we’re bathed in a Civil Rights soundtrack – albeit with an anarchic, contemporary edge – or that we’re right in the midst of an early 90s Jazz Rap samplescape, gathering every diverse genre under the sign of signifyin’. However, while it is incredible that Simien never manages to lose his narrative thread, or his sense of place and situation, the overwhelming impression is still of a palimpsest, a composite realism that feels as if it’s continually shifting or dodging any style that might be considered realist per se, as Simien takes us on a picaresque tour of different African-American types, different degrees of passing for white or passing black, without settling into any single one for any length of time. Silky and sinuous in its transitions from one style to another, it often feels a bit like flipping from channel to channel, or platform to platform, lingering just long enough each time to revel in the visibility of each African-American character, but not long enough that they have time to devolve or solidify into the stereotypes that everyone in the film seems to be expecting from them. And that’s not to say, at all, that the film itself is free of stereotypes, but that it accepts their pervasiveness and turns its attentions to eluding them as rapidly and deftly as possible, until one of the least stereotypical African-American identities starts to emerge, hesitantly, hiding in plain sight – the queer African-American man, who’s not necessarily throwing shade or flamboyantly fabulous, but just trying to make do as best he can. In fact, by the end, queer blackness feels a bit like an ensemble identity, a combination of every line of flight taken by these characters, and a culmination of everything that's unique about Simien's take on ensemble drama as well. As a result, the film feels as indebted to Marlon Riggs as to Spike Lee - Simien himself came out at the premiere - while original and momentous enough to be independent of both. Certainly, all the white characters are horrible, but the film finally feels like a bit of an experiment in making white people feel as exotic, freakish and cartoonish as African-Americans are usually presented in mainstream culture, right down to the mock-Tenenbaums veneer laid over it all, which brilliantly pinpoints and skewers Wes Anderson as white culture’s answer to Tyler Perry, a purveyor of stock characters every bit as ludicrous and caricatured as Madea.

Thursday
Apr162015

Mitchell: It Follows (2015)

Among other things, social media encourages us to attune ourselves to the middle distance – the limits of our network, the latest additions to our online presence, people who may be following us but aren’t actually friends with us. In fact, so attuned have we become to digital culture’s middle distances that we’re less and less attuned to the middle distance as an actual physical space, as portable digital devices have brought the point of entry into our wider lives closer to our bodies and faces than ever before. In some ways, It Follows is a horror film made for that paradox, speaking to a world in which our personalities seem to cast a wider and wider radius, but in which we’re somehow even more claustrophobically confined at the centre of our social lives as well. Framed as a homage to John Carpenter – and to Halloween and Christine in particular – it’s unique among recent horror films in being utterly devoid of technology that predates the 90s, with most of the fixtures and features dating from the 70s. In part, that’s a gesture of affectionate and nostalgic retromania – and part and parcel of the current Carpenter craze more specifically – but it’s also tied to the Detroit backdrop, which recalls Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive in the way in which it simply seems to have stopped short of the post-industrial infrastructure that now typifies most American cities. As the film goes to some lengths to remind us, that also means that the distinction between inner core and suburbia – now largely blurred in most American sprawls – still holds true here as well, if only because this particular core was never gentrified or revitalised, instead fulfilling all the most paranoid fantasies that led white suburbanites to flee from the city centre in the first place. In that sense, David Robert Mitchell isn’t exactly recreating so much as revisiting one of the few remaining examples of the classic American suburbia that Carpenter identified as the province of the middle distance, the harbinger of the decentred, promiscuous and ominous sensibility that's even more inextricable from the odd, free-floating anonymity of Mitchell's mise-en-scenes. Watching them is a bit like witnessing suburbia fulfil itself, or suburbia transform from a place to a self-sufficient mindset, as Mitchell crafts vast, cavernous, yawning vistas – often reminiscent of the hyperreal photography of Gregory Crewdson – in which human life simply seems to have settled elsewhere, apart from the handful of the teenagers needed for the film’s narrative. Against that backdrop, their story is as simple as it is brilliant - their ringleader (Maika Monroe) discovers that losing her virginity has made her susceptible to a free-floating, shape-shifting, supernatural entity, until she takes someone else’s virginity. What makes this entity so unsettling is that it doesn’t tend to appear suddenly, like a regular slasher, but instead moves slowly but steadily, at a walking pace, emerging or making its presence felt whenever anyone lets their eyes rest for too long on the middle distance. For that reason, the film itself feels perpetually poised at the middle distance as well, composed almost entirely of mid and long shots, while most of the action revolves around driving, which turns out to be the best way to elude the entity short-term, as well as good practice for the kind of panoramic perception needed to elude it long-term as well. Like any competent driver, the teenagers have to learn to move between what’s right up against their face at any one moment and a looming, dawning awareness that the horizon has come that little bit closer, until the whole film feels a bit like it’s shot in a moving car, or that the real legacy of this entity is to force us to endlessly drive around suburbia with nowhere to go or get off. In a wonderful twist, one of the teenagers has a perceptual hinge to mark her progress, a scallop-shaped device that initially absorbs her in the hand-held, close-up manner of a concealed SmartPhone, only to feel more and more like a pocket mirror, a way of examining the horizon yawning back over her shoulder – and it’s a perceptual hinge that feels so uncanny, so familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, that you have to wonder whether our lives have become more suburban precisely as suburbia has been absorbed into the digital landscape that it personifies, the landscape so beautifully and eerily evoked here.

Wednesday
Apr152015

Wan: Fast & Furious 7 (2015)

Over the last decade and a half, the Fast and Furious films have expanded their cast to become one of the most realistic representations of America today, taking us into the heart of a country that is predominantly Hispanic and African-American – though by no means prejudiced against whiteness – and is driven by broader, homosocial and homoerotic ideas of family and fraternity than you usually find in blockbuster Hollywood. For obvious reasons, Fast and Furious 7 takes stock of that situation and, although it’s quite poignant to see Paul Walker acting in what would turn out to be his final film role, the film itself tends to shy away from anything too morbid or tragic, placing him in one comic near-death situation after another, and writing him out of the franchise with a soulful retirement narrative that makes peace with his legacy in quite a tactful, respectful and lyrical way. In fact, the lingering impression is of his resilience, endurance and survival more than anything else, especially in the last couple of scenes, where you really get a sense of how much he’ll live on in the minds of the characters, cast and audience, as well as how much his rapport with Vin Diesel evolved into one of the great serial romances of the 00s and 10s. Nevertheless, it necessarily jettisons some of the wit and irreverance of mid-period Fast and Furious films to achieve that, not least because The Rock is now relegated to a side character, with Tyrese and Ludacris taking over the comic reins with a little less dynamism and a little less of a taste for the preposterous. Still, that works well with this most melodramatic installment in the series so far, as does Vin Diesel’s melodramatic delivery, which has never had quite as much flow as it does here, drawing all the dialogue into its parsed-out, slow-mo hip-hop diction as never before. Where this film does expand upon mid-period Fast and Furious films – and Fast Five in particular – is in the way it continues to move further away from illegal street racing in the direction of heist action. Make no mistake, car chases are still at the heart of it, but over the last couple have years cars have become vehicles for social media as never before, with the result that it doesn’t take much to propel the crew’s automotive pyrotechnics into the realm of global surveillance, as they work with Black Ops leader Frank Petty (Kurt Russell) to recover a NSA-esque metadata processor in order to bring assassin Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) to ground. Never before have the cars of the franchise been so plugged into global surveillance systems, perhaps explaining why the action is so aerial, as we move from a first act in which the crew parachute their vehicles into the Caucasus, to a second act in which they building hop across the Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi, to a showdown in Los Angeles in which they’re forced to both track and elude a series of helicopters and drones across and above the downtown cityscape. In the process, that creates a fantastic globetrotting vibe, but it also clarifies how much Los Angeles is these characters' natural home, even or especially as it gathers more and more of a multicultural flavour from everywhere else the crew visit in the interim. Some fifteen years after it started, the series still has the same taste for California as a Hispanic state, an extension or enclave of Mexico, and it feels right that this film in particular should end on that note, laying Brian O'Connor to rest where the crew first got to know and love him.