Friday, June 17, 2016

GLASS HOUSES
On Pablo Larraín's The Club

The last 15 minutes of Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s 2010 film Post Mortem are a harrowing test of endurance for the viewer, one that confronts head on the evil that men do and its apparent justification. And while that film, like Mr Larraín’s international breakthrough Tony Manero and its lighter follow-up No, dealt primarily and directly with the history of Chile under the Pinochet regime, its suffocating, relentless claustrophobia carries on intact into the modern-day setting of The Club.

An expertly, disquietingly modulated ensemble piece set during a few days in a remote cottage by the Chilean coast, Mr Larraín’s fifth feature is a pin-prick sharp, none-more-black look at the frailties of mankind as seen through the distorted lens of religion. But the tale is universal enough to apply to Wall Street, workplace relationships, social engagement, any sort of environment where conformism is the norm. The four men sharing a simple, daily existence in the cottage, forbidden to have any contact with the outside world, turn out to be priests who have fallen foul of the hierarchy for different reasons, and a new arrival, closely followed by a mysterious stranger, quickly throws their routine into a disarray that is not just psychological.

Without spoiling the plot points (and this is one film whose compact, intense impact depends a lot on drip-feeding its unfolding revelations), suffice to say that the silent confrontations between these defrocked men of the cloth and the efficient, organized higher-up who comes in to defuse the crisis disprove any well-meaning ideas: morality, righteousness and humanity prove to be very relative concepts in their hands. Not one of these characters, inside or outside the unspoken gates of the cottage, is innocent, but neither are they fully guilty, nor better or worse than any of the others. They’re all inescapably imprisoned in their own personal nets of guilt and regret, and for all their sins not one of them is an inhuman monster or an irredeemable villain. 

Hidden away by a church hierarchy attempting a sleight-of-hand diversion to avoid facing up to its responsibilities, these men realise where their power lies, and they also understand how penance and atonement are mere abstract concepts standing in for the need of owning your deeds and your thoughts, and for the realization of their inability to escape them. 

What’s most striking about The Club is its cold, clinical resignation to a sort of affectless limbo, a deaf, white-noise desperation. Working in widescreen with a series of unusual focus and lighting choices expertly deployed by the great DP Sergio Armstrong, that see-saw between a grayish, diffuse, almost drizzly light and a somber, nocturnal palette, the director ellicits from a cast drawn from his usual repertory company intensely truthful performances. These are people whose belief in God, as misguided as it may have been, was also a requirement to survive the truth they witnessed in their daily practice, and its awkward juxtaposition with the rose-tinted platitudes the church wished to project. 

Mr. Larraín’s films have always, in a way, borne witness to the specific context and historical experience of Latin America, but The Club widens that witness onto a hot contemporary topic while refusing to simplify it into well-meaning intellectual platitudes. Instead, it multiplies its viewing angles until the viewer himself comes out feeling dirty, soiled, hopeless, yet aware that demonizing the other is entirely impossible. That means we would have to demonize ourselves. And that is why the priests of The Club are hiding in plain sight: let he who lives in a glass house cast the first stone. 

EL CLUB 

CAST Alfredo Castro, Roberto Farías, Antonia Zegers, Marcelo Alonso, Jaime Vadell, Alejandro Goic, Alejandro Sieveking, José Soza, Francisco Reyes; DIR Pablo Larraín; SCR Mr. Larraín, Guillermo Calderón and Daniel Villalobos; DP Sergio Armstrong; MUS Carlos Cabezas; PROD/COST DES Estefania Larraín; ED Sebastián Sepúlveda; PROD Juan de Díos Larraín; Fabula, CL, 2015, 97 minutes

Monday, June 13, 2016

WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?
On Gaspar Noé's Love

I have to say I admire Franco-Argentinian enfant terrible Gaspar Noé’s headstrong, take-no-prisoners filmmaking. Irréversible was one of the most visceral physical experiences in my film-going life and, while I didn’t think Enter the Void was much of an achievement, at least it strived for a transcendence that not many directors go for these days. But, really, Love is so much of an ill-judged misfire that even I find it hard to defend it.

Its lead character Murphy (American actor Karl Glusman), an aspiring filmmaker with all the right influences and posters on his bedroom (Pasolini, Lang, Scorsese, Warhol…), seems to channel Mr Noé’s own ideas about film and life — you can’t shake the autobiography from it even if you could, and it’s undoubtedly a sincere, heartfelt project. But whereas the previous films had at least a semblance of structure and plot merged with the director’s desire to create immersive experiences, there’s no such luck in Love, designed from a start as a fragmentary window into the brief but intense love affair between Murphy and art student Electra (Swiss-born actress Aomi Muyock).

Told out of sequence and directed in static, highly theatricalised scenes, Love is essentially a primal scream from two extremely confused and utterly objectionable characters. Murphy and Electra have so little idea of what they want that they end up destroying their affair through sheer selfishness, adolescent petulance, wilful ignorance and total disregard for the other.. Its “can’t live without her/can’t live with her” tale reminded me of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Betty Blue, but Ms Muyock is no Béatrice Dalle and Mr Glusman certainly no Jean-Hugues Anglade. Their performances are awkward to the point of non-existence, unhelped by the squirm-inducing dialogue full of self-help bromides and by the tiresome clichés of mad-love dramas.

This might not be as much of a problem if there was something in the handling that transcended such dramatic obviousness; but there isn’t. Though shot in beautifully stylized 3D by Mr Noé’s usual accomplice, the great Belgian DP Benoit Debie, who constructs extraordinary visual dioramas, Love was designed from the start to show all aspects of a romantic affair, including graphic, NSFW sex scenes shot not as pornography but as naturally as an argument or a night out. But that idea of integrating sex in a dramatic narrative — such as some observers thought would happen in mainstream cinema after the porno-chic triumph of Deep Throat in the mid-1970s — flounders in the absence of said narrative and in the awkwardness of these very self-conscious performers, making Love a misguided experiment, as infuriatingly vacuous as it is mind-numbingly long (there is really nothing in it that justifies a running time over two hours, though Mr Noé has never been known for his brevity).

What makes Love even more infuriating is that you see, every step of the way, what the director wants to do, as much as you see him fail miserably at it; it comes across as an unfiltered message from the unconscious id, an explosive ejaculation of a talented filmmaker’s uncontrolled desires that bursts out aimlessly. It comes the closest I’ve ever seen to Vincent Gallo’s entropic, masturbatory Brown Bunny — yes, that bad — and even if Mr Noé should be praised for pushing boundaries and challenging the viewers, you wish he would harness his obvious talent to give his visual trips a more emotional, lasting weight.

LOVE
FR, BR, BE, 2015, 135 minutes; CAST Aomi Muyock, Karl Glusman, Klara Kristin; DIR/SCR Gaspar Noé; DP Benoit Debie (widescreen, 3D); PROD DES Samantha Benne; COST DES Omaima Salem; ED Mr. Noé and Denis Bedlow; PROD Mr. Noé, Édouard Weil, Vincent Maraval, Brahim Chioua and Rodrigo Teixeira; Les Cinémas de la Zone, Rectangle Productions, Wild Bunch and RT Features in association with Scope Pictures


Thursday, June 09, 2016

HERZOG AT THE SANDS
On Werner Herzog's Queen of the Desert

It’s fascinating to see just how universally reviled Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert has become — some have called it the director’s worst film ever, others point out a rose-tinted exotic romance is entirely out of character for the often envelope-pushing director. As far as I’m concerned, coming to the film nearly a year and a half after its Berlinale premiere and after reading all the howling reviews, Queen of the Desert does come up as a very minor Herzog, but one in keeping with the director’s themes and interests.

Based on the real-life story of early 20th century British adventuress Gertrude Lowthian Bell, a woman who measured herself with the stiff-upper-lip chauvinism of the British Empire and became central to its Eastern politics before dying in 1926, Queen of the Desert is all about the quest for ecstatic truth that is at the heart of the director’s work. The curious, restless, corset-busting Gertrude seeks her own ecstatic truth in the sands of the desert, in the man-vs.-Nature extremes Mr Herzog himself is known for chasing. But here, that search takes the shape of a sweeping colonial romance centred around the men in Gertrude’s life — minor diplomat Henry Cadogan (a horribly miscast James Franco), Lawrence of Arabia himself (a raffish Robert Pattinson), officer Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) — and that puts the film somewhere between Lawrence of Arabia and The English Patient.

That derivativeness is the key surprise and the key problem: Gertrude is certainly no traditional British Edwardian stay-at-home socialite, and Nicole Kidman plays her as a free-spirited, strong woman, a leader of men if you will, whose gutsiness and take-charge attitude are a liability in society but become an advantage in the desert. This Gertrude is a modern woman whose mere presence is a lightning rod, and the casting of Ms Kidman is perfectly judged, as is her performance of elegant, icy steeliness. But despite the poise, the confidence emanating both from Ms Kidman and Mr Herzog’s view of her, there’s no reason to wrap it up in a sand-colored box of chocolates underlined by Klaus Badelt’s horrendously treacly, sub-Maurice Jarre score — and in that bland smooth derivativeness, coming from a director better known for his angular, more jarring propositions, are contained the shortcomings of this handsome presentation.

Maybe Mr Herzog wanted the prettiness of the Morocco and Jordan locations to make Ms Kidman’s strength stand out even more, but he seems to have become so caught up in the romance of the colonial exploration that he succumbs to the ecstasy of the desert landscapes and of the spectacular vistas a bit too quick and a bit too easily. In so doing, he seems to overlook his own script’s problems — its fall into the episodic, a disconnected succession of setpieces suggesting a longer piece brutally hacked down or forced to fit a standard. All of this is somewhat inexplicable if you realise Mr Herzog brought in his usual team of DP Peter Zeitlinger and editor Joe Bini — and you’d never expect them to do “standard”.

It would, nevertheless, be unfair to not point out that, as minor as Queen of the Desert may be, there are still pleasures to be found in it — his way to keep the camera constantly moving, on its feet, almost as if it were being windswept like the sands of the desert, or as if it mirrored Gertrude’s own restlessness, always in motion. And I can’t help but think that this film that seems so out of character may very well be Mr Herzog experimenting deliberately, to see if he could pull off a “commercial” project. At any rate, it’s fun to think so — and the director is certainly contrary enough to attempt it.

QUEEN OF THE DESERT
US, 2014, 128 min; CAST Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis, Jay Abdo, Robert Pattinson; DIR/SCR Werner Herzog; DP Peter Zeitlinger; MUS Klaus Badelt; PROD DES Ulrich Bergfelder; COST DES Michele Clapton; ED Joe Bini; PROD Nick Raslan, Michael Benaroya, Cassian Elwes; Benaroya Pictures and Elevated Films in association with 120dB Films, Sierra Affinity and Palmyra Films

Thursday, June 02, 2016

L. A. INCONFIDENTIAL
On Shane Black's The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys may not be the best buddy movie you’ve ever seen, and certainly not even the best Shane Black movie he’s ever done. But that’s like saying that vanilla ice cream isn’t good just because it’s not chocolate. In these days where all Hollywood thinks about is minting money from carefully assembled franchise factories with as little surprise and as much in-built recognition factor as possible, we should embrace every little spiky non-Cinematic-Universe movie that hugs you like a long lost relative you only see at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs; that eccentric but cool cousin you’re never really sure you want to see but whose company you still end up thoroughly enjoying every now and then.

Really, is there still anyone out there who does not wish his every entertainment to be full of spandex, CGI and super-powers? But, for that matter, is there still anyone out there who actually yearns for a proper self-deprecating comedy-slash-procedural, other than battle-scarred movie critics stuck between the devil of big-budget-super-hero-spectaculars and the deep blue sea of hardcore-paint-drying-auteurism? The dismal US box-office results for The Nice Guys seem to answer that question with a big in-your-face NO.

But I, for one, am pretty happy that Mr. Black went ahead and roped in Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling to star in his all-over-the-place crime comedy, only to let Australian 15-year-old pipsqueak Angourie Rice steal the film blind from under their feet. Ms Rice plays Holly, the preternaturally grown-up daughter of widowed alcoholic PI Holland March (Mr Gosling), who milks his wealthy, aged and generally much befuddled L. A. clients in order to make rent. And it’s Holly that keeps it together and on point when Dad and goon-for hire Jack Healy (Mr Crowe) join forces to find out why is the college activist Amelia (Margaret Qualley) being chased by very unsavory characters.

Amelia is the macguffin that leads the hapless duo into the film’s hardboiled/neo-noir mechanics, Holly is the engine that keeps it running while Messrs Crowe and Gosling have at it like brothers from another mother who’ve only just met. Anthony Bagarozzi and Mr Black’s script is a preposterously convoluted combination of hardboiled homage and cop show send-up, starting off in the Philip Marlowe mode of world-weary cynicism that veers slowly into mystified laidback bemusement. This is probably why a lot of people are evoking Paul Thomas Anderson’s deconstruction of the detective novel in the marvelous Inherent Vice as what Mr Black is aiming at here.

While I allow that they’re somewhat kindred spirits, especially in the seventies background and general coolness, The Nice Guys isn’t really aiming at 1970s “new Hollywood” irony. Despite its setting, what it really is going for is the 1980s buddy movie where Mr Black cut his teeth scripting Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, but coming at it more from the angle of Walter Hill’s epochal 48 Hrs. or Peter Hyams’ seriously underrated Running Scared: easy going entertainment that didn't necessarily take you for granted.

Now, let’s be very honest: none of this makes The Nice Guys a great film. It isn’t a great film by any stretch, and it’s not even as good as Mr Black’s directing debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Overlong by at least 20 minutes, over-busy, over-plotted and halting in its stop-start rhythms that seem to pause for yet another Gosling/Crowe (admittedly generally very funny) comedic set piece, the film can be too throwaway for its own good — as if the director wasn’t taking it seriously enough, though the plot’s Chinatown-ish connection between political lobbying and pornography suggests the its exact opposite. Also, the seventies setting can occasionally become too much of a crutch — like if wah-wah funk guitars, bell-bottoms and gas shortages were shorthand for what Mr Black is trying to evoke.

But the truth also is that the tale being told doesn’t really belong in the always-on 21st century; it’s pre-cellphone, pre-internet, pre-soccer-mom-minivan, pure mythical L. A. sunshine noir forced into a tanning salon on waking up from a nasty, stomach-churning hangover. The problem with that isn’t as much Mr Black’s or even the film’s as is the landscape it’s coming out on: The Nice Guys assumes a smart audience that can relate to the film’s references and identify them correctly, but does anyone even remember what a noir is after the genre has all but been waylaid by the studios and forgotten by the casual moviegoer? When police procedurals, detective dramas and crime stories have been left to small screen franchises like NCIS or Law and Order or to the cheap, pre-sold direct-to-VOD-bypassing-theatrical packages that make the most of Nicolas Cage, Morgan Freeman or Bruce Willis’ current paychecks?

It’s easy to lose an audience and very hard to build it back up after you let it go. And something like The Nice Guys, with its quasi-celebratory nostalgia for a pre-digital model of genre film (beautifully photographed by the great Philippe Rousselot), seems a quaint, almost quixotic attempt to get it back. Its sly slapstick humour and narrative playfulness within the genre constraints are probably best suited these days to the quieter, more casual pleasures of home viewing than to the bottom-line pressure of weekend box-office — and I have no doubt that this could become quite big once it hits the so-called “ancillary” markets (television, VOD, streaming, download).

But it’s in the big screen that The Nice Guys, for all its shortcomings, really belongs — its unabashed celebration of celluloid as an eye-opener and world-changer, in what is the film’s single most inspired plot point, makes it something to savour in the big screen, where it rightly belongs. 


THE NICE GUYS 
US, GB, 2016, 116 min; CAST Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Yaya da Costa, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Kim Basinger; DIR Shane Black; SCR Mr Black and Anthony Bagarozzi; DP Philippe Rousselot (widescreen); MUS John Ottman and David Buckley; PROD DES Richard Bridgland; COST Kym Barrett; ED Joel Negron; PROD Joel Silver; Silver Pictures, Waypoint Entertainment and Bloom Media in association with Lipsync

Monday, May 23, 2016

THE PURPOSELESS SLEIGHT OF HAND
On X-Men: Apocalypse, Alice Through the Looking Glass and The Correspondence

Here’s the gist of this: anyone who complains that Shane Black’s highly enjoyable The Nice Guys isn’t “good enough” (it isn’t, but that’s so much beside the point it hurts) literally deserves an endless diet of cookie-cutter Marvel Cinematic Universe and Disney fairytale makeovers (they’re the same thing by now, I suppose, since they’re all from the same supposedly money-spinning machine). This is all the more obvious seeing as the newest instalments of these assembly lines, Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse and James Bobin’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, are such crashing bores. 

To be fair, X-Men is the one Marvel franchise outside the reach of the company (having been licensed to Fox at a point where there was as yet no overarching masterplan in place) that has managed to maintain a semblance of personality and consistency among the monolithic identikit tributaries. But Apocalypse, by now the fourth series entry directed by Mr Singer, follows the same highly predictable arc of every other super-hero film so far: X-Men come together to fight dangerous threat to people of Earth (here the ur-mutant, all-powerful En Sabah Nur) in massive city-destroying battles (here it’s Cairo that bites the dust), while looking suitably dour and serious while doing it and battling their own personal issues.

This was, of course, one of the key things that made super-hero movies so interesting 20 years ago — realising these heroes were as broken and doubtful as we were — but by now it’s become simultaneously massively overused and massively underused. In Apocalypse, which is set in 1983 in the continuum that started with Matthew Vaughn’s insouciantly enjoyable prequel X-Men: First Class, you have a supremely talented cast that includes Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender and Oscar Isaac but with practically nothing to do other than show up and emote soulfully in between CGI-laden strife and destruction.

I used to think — based on The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil and Valkyrie — that Bryan Singer was, frankly, a more talented, ambitious director than he’s turned out to be. But even Simon Kinberg, the go-to writer and producer involved with the series for a while now, has been involved with more interesting stuff (like Ridley Scott’s The Martian or the Neill Blomkamp films) than Mr Singer, whose only recent non-X film was the non-starting Jack the Dragon Slayer and seems to have gotten stuck in the X groove. Cue Wesley Morris’ beauteous New York Times thinkpiece on the inherent evilness of superhero movies as a modern equivalent of a soul-sucking assembly line of purely utilitarian movies whose single-minded intent is make money for its producing studio. Apocalypse is certainly presented with as much professionalism as Hollywood can muster, but, really, just how much more can one filmgoer’s diet depend on superhero movies, especially when even the prestige stuff isn’t making much of an effort?

Case in point: the handsomely mounted but utterly pointless Alice Through the Looking Glass, a sequel to Tim Burton’s equally forgettable take on Alice in Wonderland that helped start off Disney’s newest franchise, real-action takes on the studio’s animated library. The only notable entry in the series so far has been Jon Favreau’s lively Jungle Book; Mr Burton’s version of Lewis Carroll’s classic read too much like a watered-down candy-coloured version of his traditional Gothic sensibility, but he never actually meant to direct the sequel that is now inevitably following, handed to Brit James Bobin, a former TV comedy director given his big break on the two recent Muppets films.

Mr Bobin’s second-tier status scans perfectly with the usual “hired hand” requirement for these big-budget productions, but the problem is not so much with his perfectly functional handling as it is with the idea that Alice in Wonderland required a sequel that has practically nothing of Carroll’s work in it. This Alice is an original script by Disney “staff” writer Linda Woolverton that seems custom-built to fit the studio’s line of strong female “princesses” — the grown-up Alice is here a dashing sailorwoman that blithely ignores Victorian London’s glass ceiling — but has little to nothing to do with Carroll’s books other than the title and a couple of borrowed characters, sending Alice traveling through time to save the Mad Hatter’s family and in the process effectively showing an “origin story” that explains Wonderland.

Now as we all know Wonderland is not to be explained, and that someone at Disney decided it should be (and in a film whose heroine, played by the very wonderful Mia Wasikowska, is still third-billed behind the effectively supporting performances of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen) is enough to explain what is so utterly wrong about Alice Through the Looking Glass: that it simply exists when there was no need for it, and that the film itself, despite the lavish care put on it and the obvious talents of the many involved, is unable to come up with a creative justification for its sheer existence.

One last example, if I may, comes from Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore, he whose Cinema Paradiso became a worldwide sensation on the back of its Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. While Mr Tornatore has certainly aimed for further international success, he has never repeated the result. (To be honest, I liked it when I first saw it, but time has not been kind to it.)

The Correspondence, spoken in English and set in the UK, is a metaphysical weepie shot with all the glossy detachment of a fashion spread; its one good idea is to tell its love story between astrophysicist emeritus Jeremy Irons and his thesis student and off-campus lover Olga Kurylenko as a modern-day epistolary novel, substituting text and video messaging and emails for letters. The trick is that Mr Irons dies within the film’s first 20 minutes, yet his passionate messages to Ms. Kurylenko keep arriving; is he truly dead, but if so who is sending them?

To quote from Dr Sheldon Cooper, it’s grand malarkey with a side of poppycock, and many of the best weepies out there trade in exactly that kind of preposterousness. But Mr Tornatore wants to be taken so seriously that the po-faced, sweepingly dramatic handling merely underlines how gimmicky the whole thing is, even with an inspired score by Ennio Morricone (who still hasn’t lost his touch and actually comes up with the exact delicate lyricism the director never finds) and Mr Irons’ regal voice. That the film lies squarely on the shoulders of the lovely Ms Kurylenko but fails to give her anything worthwhile to work with, resulting in an awkward performance, is the clearest sign of what’s wrong with Mr Tornatore’s film: it’s an illusion with nothing to support it or take away from. Much as most of the big-budget stuff coming out of Hollywood these days.




X-MEN: APOCALYPSE

US, 2016, 143 min; CAST James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn; DIR Bryan Singer; SCR Simon Kinberg; DP Newton Thomas Sigel (widescreen, 3D); MUS John Ottman; PROD DES Grant Major; COST DES Louise Mingenbach; ED Mr. Ottman and Michael Louis Hill; SPFX SUP John Dykstra; PROD Mr. Kinberg, Mr. Singer, Hutch Parker and Lauren Sjuler Donner; Twentieth Century-Fox, Bad Hat Harry Productions, Kinberg Genre Films, Hutch Parker Entertainment and The Donners’ Company in association with TSG Entertainment and Marvel Entertainment



ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

US, 2016, 113 min; CAST Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Mia Wasikowska, Matt Lucas, Rhys Ifans, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Barbara Windsor; DIR James Bobin; SCR Linda Woolverton; DP Stuart Dryburgh (3D); MUS Danny Elfman; PROD DES Dan Hennah; COST DES Colleen Atwood; ED Andrew Weisblum; SPFX SUP Ken Ralston and Jay Redd; PROD Joe Roth, Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd and Tim Burton; Walt Disney Pictures, Roth Films, Team Todd and Tim Burton Productions



LA CORRISPONDENZA

IT, 2015, 122 min; CAST Jeremy Irons, Olga Kurylenko; DIR/SCR Giuseppe Tornatore; DP Fabio Zamarion (widescreen); MUS Ennio Morricone; PROD DES Maurizio Sabatini; COST DES Gemma Mascagni; ED Massimo Quaglia; PROD Isabella Cocuzza and Arturo Paglia; Paco Cinematografica in co-production with RAI Cinema

Friday, May 13, 2016

FOLLOW THE MONEY. OR NOT
On Jodie Foster's MONEY MONSTER

So, at this point, let’s face it: even though we all recognise Jodie Foster as someone serious and sincere in all of her endeavors, and George Clooney as that rare Hollywood star who actually puts his money where his mouth is, Money Monster may aim for a rabble-rousing quality regarding the current state of the US economy (and, by extension, the world’s), but it’s no Network nor even The Big Short. A nifty hostage thriller wrapped up in a topical shiny wrapper about the current economic and media landscape, Ms. Foster’s fourth feature as a director wants to be both a smart entertainment and a question-asking problem picture, following what happens when a desperate working-poor New Yorker (Jack O’Connell) gets on the set for the titular TV finance-as-entertainment programme and makes host Lee Gates (Mr. Clooney) hostage live on air, after Gates' stockmarket advice loses the poor schmuck his nest egg.

You can see why Money Monster is a film “of its moment”, even if, as we all know, the Hollywood process means the film has been in some sort of production for a couple of years now. But it’s a movie that never truly resolves itself to the heart’s content, even while supplying enjoyable genre smarts along the way and asking pointed questions about the media landscape we all love in. At some point, the big question it asks is not whether Wall Street is “bad” or whether it’s the greed of the bankers that brought the economic collapse, but when did we let ourselves become complacent to the point of allowing the hidden agendas of the media corporations spoonfeed us whatever it is they want us to believe in. (Julia Roberts’ seen-it-all producer quips cynically at the beginning film that Money Monster, the program, isn’t really journalism.) But it’s a question it doesn’t dwell overly on; after all, this is Hollywood, this is entertainment. 

It is one of the film’s labored ironies: a big-screen Hollywood star vehicle about the evil encroachment of always-on television that trades in the exact speed and multi-camera variables of a small-screen news program, literally overflowing into DP Matthew Libatique’s crisp widescreen compositions and Matt Chessé’s nimble editing. But it also helps in giving Money Monster, whose major setpieces take place almost in real time, a genuine energy, propelling it at a brisk pace and leaving just enough of its “talking points” on show for people to start gnawing at them at some point. 

As always, there’s more intelligence in Ms. Foster’s relationship with her cast than in her functional but workmanlike staging, allowing her to let them all make the most of their roles (even when there’s not much of a role there in the first place). It’s very much an ensemble piece, propelled by Ms. Roberts and Mr. O’Connell’s solid, anchoring performances while yet again proving Mr. Clooney to be an actor willing to insert darker notes within his comfort zone. But it’s also a film that feels more planned than spontaneous, as if directing didn’t come easy to the actress — the fact that the mechanics of the plot (devised by veteran film and TV writer Jim Kouf with his Grimm collaborator Alan di Fiore) are maybe too visible is a definite sign of her limitations. At the same time, the studious approach, without assigning blame or judging openly, carries over from Ms. Foster’s previous ventures as a director and certainly marks this as her movie.

But it’s precisely that measured tone that makes Money Monster ultimately frustrating and prevents it from rising above the mere genre piece, even though there are occasional neat moments where it succesfully bridges both worlds. It’s less outraged (and less outrageous) than The Big Short, but that’s also precisely why it fails to reach that film’s satirical bite — Ms. Foster is too cerebral and mild-mannered a director to go all the way. 




MONEY MONSTER
US, 2016, 99 minutes
CAST George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Lenny Venito; DIR Jodie Foster; SCR Jamie Linden, Alan di Fiore and Jim Kouf, from a story by Messrs. Di Fiore and Kouf; DP Matthew Libatique (widescreen); MUS Dominic Lewis; PROD DES Kevin Thompson; COST DES Susan Lyall; ED Matt Chessé; PROD Daniel Dubiecki, Lara Alameddine, Mr. Clooney and Grant Heslov; Tristar Pictures, Smokehouse Pictures and Allegiance Theater in association with Lstar Capital

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

DREAMS OF THAILAND
On Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendor

A good friend of mine thinks Apichatpong Weerasethakul, winner of the 2010 Cannes Palme d’Or with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is an invention of contrary film critics with nothing better to do than big up an obscure Thai filmmaker. While I do think that his ascendancy to the front-lines of world art cinema has an element of serendipity — he was the right exotic cinéaste in the right place at the right time for a certain cadre of aspiring influencers — I also find there is genuine value in Mr Weerasethakul’s leisurely cinema, and that his slow-moving, dreamy rhythms provide more than adequate counter-programming for these days of fast-moving images surrounding us at every moment.

Formally the sixth feature of a protean career that encompasses art installations and short and mid-length experiences, Cemetery of Splendor is the director’s first full-length film since the highly controversial Palme d’Or awarded by the jury led by Tim Burton, but it’s also a film that streamlines further the director’s work towards a more accessible entrance point for non-aficionados. This poetic, somnambulist tale of an unlikely friendship struck between two volunteers and a patient at a rural hospital develops simultaneously as a slow-motion burlesque and an allusive fable of life, following Mr Weerasethakul’s recurring theme of the constant intertwining of past and present, history and society, magic and reality.

The patient (Banlop Lomnoi) is one of a series of Thai soldiers who have been struck with a “sleeping sickness”, a kind of catalepsy into which they fall and from which they awaken at random intervals. Volunteer Jen (regular collaborator Jenjira Pongpas Widner) learns from the psychic Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) that the hospital is built on the site of a former palace and that the sleeping soldiers are “feeding” the spirits of the kings and warriors who still inhabit the place; at equally random intervals, some of those spirits assume human form and share fruit or chat with Jen, who also remembers the site’s previous incarnation as a school.

While a lot of the film’s socio-political subtext seems to pass by European viewers unable to grasp specific references to Thai society and culture, there’s still a sense of simplicity and tradition unfolding through Cemetery of Splendor, suggesting a director growing more comfortable in his work and his identity. The split-narrative “games of two halves” of previous films such as his breakthrough Tropical Malady or Syndromes and a Century are abandoned here as they had been in Uncle Boonmee, the multiple possibilities being seamlessly integrated into a single narrative line, and the casual interruptions of reality by fantasy suggest Jia Zhang-ke’s occasional singularities. The framing of the shots is exceedingly composed, with an inherently Tati-esque sense of staging and framing: things happen within the deceptively simple frame without DP Diego García’s camera necessarily drawing attention to it, but you can sense a precise intelligence directing from outside the tempo and development of each scene.

What’s probably more surprising about Cemetery of Splendor — and Mr. Weerasethakul’s oeuvre as a whole — is just how much the alleged obtuseness of his work is nowhere to be found. This is by no means “easy” or “disposable” cinema, but neither is it as inaccessible or as difficult as it is alleged. Quite the opposite: it’s light and airy, almost to the point of disintegrating, and its apparent quirkiness becomes its greatest strength as soon as you realize the naturalness, the ease with which it is woven into the tale’s fabric. This is not gratuitous exoticism, and Mr. Weerasethakul is certainly not pandering to international audiences: its dreaminess is universal rather than specifically Thai, merely a reflex of a society where ancestry and tradition remain more present, and grounded, than abroad. Maybe what we respond to in these deceptively oblique confections is precisely that sense that Apichatpong Weerasethakul is more attuned to the magic of the humdrum day-to-day life than we are.




RAK TI KHON KAEN / CEMETERY OF SPLENDOR
TH, GB, FR, DE, MY, KR, MX, US, NO, 2015, 121 minutes
CAST Jenjira Pongpas Widner, Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram; DIR/SCR Apichatpong Weerasethakul; DP Diego García; PROD DES Akekarat Homlaor; COST DES Phim U-mari; ED Lee Chatametikool; PROD Mr. Weerasethakul, Keith Griffiths, Simon Field, Charles de Meux, Michael Weber and Hans W. Geißendörfer; Kick The Machine Films and Illuminations Films in co-production with Anna Sanders Films, Geißendörfer Film-und Fernsehproduktion, Match Factory Productions, ZDF/ARTE, Astro Shaw, Asia Culture Center/Asian Arts Theatre, Detalle Films, Louverture Films and Tordenfilm