Villeneuve: Sicario (2015)

With Prisoners, it felt as if Denis Villeneuve was carving out his own particular brand of procedural, characterised by lapses in procedural time and space as much as procedure itself. However, whereas that discontinuous procedural didn’t always feel organic with the space and subject matter of Prisoners, it’s perfectly suited to Sicario, which sets out to paint a picture of the southern borderlands that have become so prominent once again in American film and television in the wake of Breaking Bad. In Villeneuve’s version, we’re introduced to that space by way of FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who’s recruited by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a shadowy government official employed to spook Mexican druglords out of hiding. As the film proceeds, we follow Kate south from Phoenix to Luke Air Force Base, and from there to El Paso where, after a brief foray into Ciudad Juarez, the film settles down along the Texan borderlands before a second foray back into Mexico through a tunnel gleaned from a group of illegal immigrants. As that might suggest, the film is driven by space above all, and while there are extraordinary set pieces, they tend to function as flashpoints rather than offering any kind of narrative catharsis, climax or closure, opening up a sense of looming suspense that is never fully consummated or controlled, but instead builds around the fringes of the action with no discernible place to go. For some viewers, the resultant discontinuity between set pieces might be frustrating, but it’s the perfect register for a borderland that’s been more or less displaced, not only because the United States economy is now utterly dependent on illegal Mexican immigration, but because the digital technology that pervades the film – on both sides of the border – tends to work against any strictly physical parameters or preventative measures. In an older form of borderland drama – Touch of Evil is a constant touchstone – movement towards the border brought a sense of constriction, convergence and claustrophobia, and while that’s certainly not lacking here in the suffocating suspense that accompanies every step southwards, the focus is more on the border as a looming, ballooning apprehension of space so intense that it requires Roger Deakins’ sublime aerial perspectives to properly conceive it, with a great deal of the film actually shot from the same helicopter corridors where the bulk of border maintenance and monitoring currently takes place. As we move through the film, then, we’re confronted with one decimated, deserted, cavernous space after another, from the tract housing and empty playgrounds of Phoenix, to the endless tarmacs and enormous skies of Luke, to the desert scrub and badland terrain surrounding El Paso, to the yawning highways, car lots and bus shelters that converge on the Bridge of the Americas – a concatenation of car-centric spaces that are no longer even occupied by cars, just waiting to be conquered by Mexico as the cartels continue their northward expansion into Texas and the Southwest. Or, rather, already conquered and left behind by the cartels, as Macer and Graver move through a strange no-man’s-land that used to be the United States, bent on defending a borderland that shifted north and dissipated into the heartland years ago, in one of the best vehicles for the hauntological hard man persona that's turned Blunt into one of the best action stars out there at the moment. And watching it, you wonder whether this is a film that only someone from America’s only other true borderland – with Quebec – could make, just because it reveals and revels in how foreign Texan and southwestern America has become, in a profusion of nested, numbed spaces and set pieces that finally bring us back to the United States only to remind us that we were never really there in the first place. 


Gomez-Rejon: Me & Earl & The Dying Girl (2015)

Now that virtually every student at virtually every level of education has a SmartPhone, the actual physical enclaves that once defined high school America no longer exist in quite the same way as they did in the pre-digital era. Once upon a time, teen films were obsessed with determining exactly what was outside, alterior or subcultural to high school infrastructure, begging the question of what exactly happens to those films in an era in which actual physical space ramifies less and less. Released to widespread acclaim at the 2015 Sundance film festival, Me & Earl & The Dying Girl provides one answer to that question by way of a premise so elegant in its inversion of expectations that it’s strange that it hasn’t emerged before: a character whose main high school trauma is fitting in everywhere, and accomodating himself to every adolescent subculture imaginable. In Gomez-Rejon’s film, that character is Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), a senior at Pittsburgh’s Schleney High School who’s managed to turn assimilation into an art form, moving from goths to jocks to nerds with only one mantra: “never commit to an interaction that won’t be mellow.” In an older film, he might have come off as either ingratiating, comic or psychotic, but here the various demographics of Schenley seem to have been somewhat mellowed in advance, with Gomez-Rejon employing a combination of whip plans and surveillance-camera perspectives to give an unsettling sense of everyone being even more firmly cemented in their place than ever before, but without any sense, awareness or even desire for mobility, let alone any conception of an alternative space to motivate mobility in the first place. Within that odd zone – agoraphobic and claustrophobic at once, with even the most countercultural voices somehow complicit in the deadening ambience of it all – Greg fits in more than any other character in the film, even if complaining about being an outsider is a critical part of what makes him fit in: after all, there’s the finest of lines between fitting in nowhere and fitting in everywhere, as Gomez-Rejon’s odd reinvention of Wes Anderson as a prison architect makes so unsettlingly clear. On the face of it, Greg’s cinephilia promises to provide some reprieve from the oppressive ergonomics of his day-to-day school life, but even there the film plays as something of an object lesson in how boutique DVD culture has destroyed cinematic subculture, since the closest thing Greg has to a friendship – with fellow movie buff Earl (Ronald Cyler II) – comes from refilming cult classic after cult classic with the same dexterity he moves from group to group at school, putting a twee, cutesy, unbelievably precious spin on even the most alienating, outrageous or affronting films as if in search of something that will genuinely alienate, defy and exlude him. Perhaps that’s why there’s such a fascination with Werner Herzog, and with Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, since there’s something about Herzog’s use of cinema as a limit-experience that’s totally unavailable here, in what finally feels like post-twee more than twee, just because twee is now the only option, rather than one style among many. If there was ever a debut aiming for the Criterion Collection, it’s this one, right down to the Brian Eno tracks that pop up at every juncture – nearly every track from Another Green World gets a look-in – as if Greg and Gomez-Rejon were both curating their own unbelievably precious Music For Films. Within that adolescent and cinephilic world, choice is everywhere, but difference doesn’t seem to exist – until Greg’s parents get a call to tell them that one of his many acquaintances has just been diagnosed with leukemia. From that point on, sickness becomes something like the last high school subculture, as well as providing a new kind of immediacy to Greg’s cinematic projects, as he collaborates with Earl to create a new kind of film for Olivia (Rachel Kushner), whose very presence seems like a novelty in a world of endless acquaintances, a world in which digital and real-time friends have more or less merged. Whether or not you find that use of sickness somewhat distasteful, it does provide a fascinating example of why a book and film like The Fault In Our Stars has gained so much high school traction, as well as providing some good opportunities for Greg and Olivia’s parents – played by Connie Britton, Nick Offerman and Molly Shannon – to shine, if only by channelling an older cinematic charisma that is totally outdated here. It’s somewhat predictable, then, that neither Greg not the film are finally up to the genuine otherness, alterity and difference that slowly but surely devolves the film into drama and even high melodrama, with the more “serious” moments almost ludicrous in their heavy-handedness, especially compared to the light touches of the wonderful opening act. And yet that failure is also what makes the film unique as well, conjuring up a high school world that can’t quite maintain comedy any more but also can’t deal with seriousness either, caught in the odd limbic ability to be all things to all people that Greg never fully or finally escapes.


Edgerton: The Gift (2015)

Now that urban space has been utterly subsumed into digital space, residential thresholds don’t seem to ramify in the way they did in classic home invasion films. As genres wane, however, there are always outliers that manage to reinvent and adapt them in innovative ways – and Joel Edgerton’s remarkable directorial debut is one of those films. Set in the outer exurban sprawl of Los Angeles, it envisages a world in which residential proximity, community and fraternity is so utterly denuded by digital technology that the most threatening quality is good old-fashioned neighborliness. At least, that’s what Simon and Robyn Callum (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) discover when they return to Simon’s home township, only to run into Gordo (Edgerton), a figure from Simon’s past who immediately disarms them with displays of hospitality that don’t quite seem to sync with what Simon inadvertently lets slip about their history. As in the greatest home invasion films, a great deal of the drama is driven by architecture, with most of the action unfolding in a mid-century-modern sprawlscape whose massive glass windows and yawning corridors create a sense of perpetual surveillance that breeds pregnant silences and disjunctive glances that even Simon’s position as a prestigous security manager can’t quite contain or control once Gordo starts to make his presence felt. Appearing from out of nowhere to do the odd jobs or offer the small favours that neighbors might once have provided, his character is all the more uncanny in that Simon and Robyn do actually have real neighbors, although they’re so far away that they almost have to drive to their place. In fact, the film is partly driven by Robyn’s friendship with her neighbor Lucy – played by Alison Tolman, in an inspired piece of casting – but the cool intimacy of their rapport is light years away from the sociability of Gordo, whose mentality is more suburban or even inner urban than exurban, a throwback to an earlier mode of Los Angeles propinquity that feels totally out of place here. At the same time, though, it’s a credit to Edgerton’s auteurist self-effacement that Gordo ultimately takes second place to Simon, with Bateman putting in the first genuinely dramatic performance of his mainstream Hollywood career. While that transition can be difficult for some actors, it works perfectly here, just because Edgerton’s script and direction is so perfectly attuned to the comic managerialism on which Bateman's star power has tended to subsist. From Arrested Development to Horrible Bosses, Bateman has proved himself a master of comically micro-managing undesirable people, characteristics and impulses, so that it only takes the slightest tweak – albeit a brilliant tweak – on Edgerton’s part to turn all that skittish, manic, middle-managerial energy back on Bateman himself, as we’re faced with a character desperate to manage away what it is that Gordo represents about his own past, as well as how it starts to intrude into his relationship with his wife. If Bateman’s comic persona is always struggling to remain within the boundaries of civility while reining in difficult people, then that becomes considerably darker when the most difficult person is himself. Similarly, if he’s great at playing characters who are desperate to make it despite being surrounded by a band of people needing to be managed, it’s quite striking to see him play a character who has actually made it, only to find out retrospectively that his management of all the impediments standing in his path wasn't quite as complete as he once thought. And in that sense, the film's genius lies in the way it manages to out-manage Bateman's managerialism at every manoeuvre, which also means out-maneouvring the audience, in something close to a late apotheosis of and elegy for the home invasion drama itself, a film in which the invader somehow manages to be both a projective fantasy and totally real in the same frame, even if you don't fully realise it at the time. 


Demme: Ricki and the Flash (2015)

Over the last couple of years, it’s felt as if Meryl Streep has become more subsumed into her star image than ever before. From August: Osage County to It’s Complicated to Into The Woods, it’s felt more and more as if Streep is simply playing Streep, only inhabiting such luminaries as Julia Child or Margaret Thatcher for the frisson of how they clarify and distill her own particular charisma in the process. That’s not in itself a bad thing, since that kind of celebrity reflexivity is often what gives rise to the greatest melodramatic roles – August: Osage County comes to mind in particular – but it does make it refreshing to see Streep in a small-scale role like that afforded by Ricki and the Flash, a role that reminds you why she’s a great actress as well as a great star. On the face of it, however, it looks like yet another Meryl Streep joint, since the promotional campaign has painted it as something of a musical comeback film, which it is very pointedly and emphatically not. Instead, it is something of a homecoming film, featuring Streep as Lina (stage name: Ricki Rendazzo), an aging rock musician who’s called back to her family home when her daughter attempts suicide after being left by her husband. What ensues plays – at least superficially – as a quite tight three-act structure, with the first act devoted to Ricki’s descent on ex-husband Pete’s (Kevin Kline) mansion in L.A. to tend on daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer); the second act devoted to Ricki’s return to her own squalid digs on the East Coast and her relationship with guitarist Greg (Rick Springfield); and the third act devoted to her return to L.A. to attend the wedding of her estranged son, where she plays a version of Bruce Springsteen’s “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” in a kind of late echo of the opening credits of Philadelphia. As that might suggest, the film reimagines Rachel Getting Married as comedy, although in this case the amorphous digital cinematography is replaced by an affective promiscuity and generosity that makes each act feel like an intensification rather than a development of what has gone before, drawing on Demme’s credentials as concert director more explicitly than any of his films in the last twenty years. Combined with the somewhat improbable combination of Demme as director and Diablo Cody as screenwriter, that creates an infinitely forgiving touch that finds something to love in every character, relationship and moment, leading to some quite beautifully choreographed sequences between Streep, Kline and Gummer in particular, but also giving Streep permission to operate at full facial expressivity in ways that get to the heart of the uncanny, almost grotesque minutiae that made her beauty so unusual and striking in the first place, even if they have been somewhat airbrushed out of her late work, or at least stylised out of true visibility. Where Rachel Getting Married was suffused by a depressive inability to feel good that eventually turned into a consoling and collective ambience, Ricki and the Flash often feels like an effort to gauge just where the feelgood affect that characterised so much of Demme’s 80s and 90s backdrop has gone by now, which is not to say that it’s a feelgood film per se – if anything, Ricki’s career as a feelgood covers guitarist is somewhat bleak – but that it is still invested in the rapturous, breathless communion with faces, bodies and cinematic moments that made feelgood viable in the first place. Precisely because it is so minor, then, it has been dismissed as one of Streep’s misfires, but in reality it is one of her very best late performances, suffused with an oddball, roaming, periptatetic body language that only Robert Altman really managed to draw out again in this way after it reached its high point in Death Becomes Her. Over the years, death has become her more and more, as it does older actors, but few films have celebrated that with such picaresque fortitude as Ricki and the Flash. When an actor is as overexposed and overdetermined as Streep, the greatest gift they can receive is a minor role, and that's what she's offered here, in a more than worthy successor to Rachel Getting Married, and a high point for both Demme and Cody, which is perhaps the best way to describe this unusual, dissonant, resilient film.


Kwapis: A Walk in the Woods (2015)

At a critical juncture in A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) and Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte) stumble on something of a geological oddity: an escarpment that bears witness to igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic timeframes in a single sublime formation. It’s a good metaphor for the dissonant present tense that characterises the film as a whole, which is based on Bryson’s memoir about walking the Appalachian Trail with Katz in his forties, but instead features two leads in their seventies, presumably to compensate for the fact that Redford had been trying to get the film made almost since the book was published. As a result, the film treads an odd line between the comic mid-life crisis of Bryson’s book and a more sombre sense of old age, setting us adrift in a version of the present in which Bryson can research the trail on the latest MacAir but doesn’t even think to check for SmartPhone reception when he and Katz are trapped on a rocky ledge in what turns out to be the climax of the film. Bookish in the extreme yet shot emphatically on dronecams, each mise-en-scene exudes an atonal and somewhat melancholic quality, the ghost of a now distant multiplex blockbuster experience that may have done very well at the box office but still feels inextricably out of time. And although it does gradually settle into something resembling the picaresque sociability of the original book, it’s clear that this is a film that Redford should have directed, if only because its elegiac quality is so in keeping with his own directorial sensibility – or, more precisely, is elegising the late classical sensibility that he made his own whenever he took over the directorial reins, with actual shots feeling as if they are directly quoted from A River Runs Through It, The Milagro Beanfield War and The Company You Keep in particular. As in those films, character and narrative are somewhat subordinated to figures set against vast landscapes, as we travel through a veritable panorama of Redfordian Americana, culminating with the cosmic New England that feels so inextricable from late classical Hollywood, and his late classicism in particular. The fact that Bryson travels from his home in New Hampshire to Georgia only to retravel back towards a new fantasy of his own backyard – and the fact that he never quite makes it – only makes it feel even more like what could have been the quintessential Redford elegiac exercise, a period piece about the present in the vein of so many of his best films. And yet the film ultimately doesn’t belong to Redford but to Nolte, who by this point in his career is something to behold. Whereas even The Company You Keep sought to somewhat rehabilitate Nolte, this role is the very opposite of an apology, as Kwapis takes everything about Nolte that would seem to disqualify him for a Hollywood leading role, everything repulsive, abject and grotesque you could project onto him, and intensifies it while still managing to find him some dignity in the process, taking us to the very limits of what late work might entail. While the film may lack the eccentricities of Bryson’s own voice, there’s something quixotic about Nolte’s sheer presence, not least because Kwapis seems to do everything in his power to provoke his extremities, putting him in one punishing posture, position and perplexity after another until it’s a bit like simply watching Nolte work out, or rather work himself down to a sweating, seething, slobbering pile of misogynistic mayhem. Certainly, as some critics have mentioned, his character – and his rapport with Bryson – is fairly repulsive - and much more so than in the book - and yet there’s something incredible about the way Nolte’s sheer ambience already contains that repulsion that ends up humanising him in the process, as well as making for one of the most visceral and courageous performances in his long career.