17/10/2015

LFF: The End Of The Tour (2015)


Fans of David Foster Wallace were in uproar when Jason Segel was cast in this biopic of the cult author, horrified that someone known for Judd Apatow bromances should play the troubled genius behind Infinite Jest (1996). They needn't have worried. Segel is utterly superb, bringing charm and real insight to James Ponsoldt's account of the final days of Wallace's cross country tour to promote that novel, a mammoth 1,079 page tome (excluding footnotes) about addiction, pleasure and loneliness set in and around an elite Boston tennis academy.

The writer was being shadowed at that time by Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and the screenplay by Donald Margulies essentially comprises one long conversation between these two men as they travel across the Midwest from one promotional appearance to another. Lipsky, a published novelist himself, is envious of Infinite Jest and pushes his editor for the assignment, keen to find out what sort of person could possibly have written such an extraordinary work. Arriving at Wallace's home, "a bookish frat" overrun by two portly black Labradors named Jeeves and Drone, Lipsky is astonished to find an affable, softly-spoken soda drinker with an Alanis Morissette poster on his wall. A friendship quickly develops, the pair enjoying each other's company, finding shared interests and exchanging ideas. The intensity of Lipsky's scrutiny never lets up, however, his barrage of questions, ever-present tape recorder and determination to test the limits of Wallace's "regular guy" persona eventually coming to irritate his subject. The writer's anxieties about Lipsky's motives and the forthcoming profile also begin to surface: he fears falling victim to a hatchet job, is bothered by the invasion of privacy and worries that engaging with publicity duties at all might contradict and undermine the points he's so carefully made about consumer culture in Infinite Jest. At one point, Wallace takes against Lipsky flirting with one of his ex-girlfriends and chastises him, exhorting him to "just be a good guy". A game of trust, with neither party ever entirely willing to show their hand, their encounter makes for fascinating and rewarding viewing.

Segel, the right physique to play the towering Wallace, will win all the plaudits for his deft impersonation, capturing the twitchy self-awareness, generosity and busy hyper-intelligence of the man. He's great - and the sight of him dancing in a Baptist church a joy - but Eisenberg has rarely been better than he is here. Not afraid to be unlikeable, his performance raises interesting questions about how far Lipsky's intense and sustained inquiry into Wallace is about professional diligence and genuine interest. It's possible he's instead enacting a revenge on some level, jealous of a rival's success and painfully aware that he is the lesser artist. Wallace teasingly introduces him to production staff at a Minneapolis public radio station as, "my amanuensis, Mr. Boswell", a joke we're not at all sure Lipsky takes kindly to, the subtlety of Eisenberg's performance leaving the uncertainty hanging in the air. A later scene in which Lipsky replays his old tapes soon after learning of Wallace's suicide in 2008, a single tear streaking down his cheek, is, meanwhile, incredibly moving, finally letting us into Lipsky's heart.



In addition to its excellent leads, The End Of The Tour has strength in depth with Joan Cusack, Anna Chlumsky, Mickey Sumner, Mamie Gummer and Ron Livingston all appearing in brief but telling supporting roles. Ponsoldt's camera marches after the men in documentary style and makes good use of the snowy Illinois and Minnesota landscapes.

Ultimately, what he's given us is a film about two smart dudes talking books. What's not to like?

15/10/2015

LFF: Carol (2015)


There's a sly reference to Patricia Highsmith's pseudonymously published 1952 novel The Price Of Salt, on which this latest prestige picture from Todd Haynes is based, in AMC's Mad Men (2007-15). Prior to her ill-fated marriage, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) lives with a timid female roommate who, it transpires, is secretly in love with her. Her name? You guessed it. A background detail, barely a sub-plot, but typical of series creator Matthew Weiner's shrewd good taste.

Visually, Mad Men is an obvious reference point for Haynes' lesbian love story, which matches its all-conquering television counterpart in sumptuously recreating post-war New York City, a world of men in grey flannel suits, vexed wives in furs and inviting bars lined with half-consumed Old Fashioneds, amber and ice cubes shimmering in the dark. Haynes of course has form in this field, having directed Julianne Moore in the Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven (2002) and Kate Winslet in an HBO serialisation of Mildred Pierce (2011). His latest neo-Women's Picture stars Rooney Mara as shopgirl Therese Belivet, who, after a chance Christmastime encounter, falls helplessly in love with the titular housewife, whose marriage is already crumbling due to her husband's suspicions about the extent of one of Carol's close female friendships. As their mutual attraction grows, the girls escape the city and head out on a road trip through the wintry Midwest, staying in motels and enjoying a taste of real freedom. Their happiness cannot last. The lovers are pursued by brutish and uncomprehending masculine disapproval at every turn, a pressure that jeopardises their relationship and threatens to separate Carol from her young daughter.


Blanchett, appearing in her second Highsmith film after Anthony Minghella's equally spot-on The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), is superb here, the part a much better use of her considerable star power and elegance than Woody Allen's ludicrously over-praised Blue Jasmine (2013). Never less than captivating, the actress looks as though she's just stepped out of an Edward Hopper painting: she could be the woman leaning alone in the aisle in 'New York Movie'. Mara is also winning as the intense, conflicted Therese, although the character has been toned down in the writing to make her more palatable. Highsmith's Therese actually follows Carol home, standing across the street and marvelling at the shallow perfection of her object's suburban life, an incident spun from the behaviour of the author herself. Doing away with this creepy element of voyeurism makes for a more straightforward romance but loses some of the murky moral ambiguities we come to Highsmith for. Director Jamie Thraves shot the novelist's similarly themed Cry Of The Owl (1962) with Paddy Considine and Julia Stiles in 2009, which successfully recreated that Peeping Tom theme if, sadly, little else.



Blanchett and Mara are complimented by deft supporting terms from Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson in a production so polished and moving it's hard to find fault with. Haynes' hopeful resolution leaves us begging for the flicker of a smile to cross Mara's lips as Therese confronts Carol in a restaurant, appealing for a fresh start. When it arrives and is returned, the effect is like winter sunshine breaking through the clouds.

12/10/2015

LFF: Gold Coast (2015)


Botanists seem to be having a bit of a moment on screen. Matt Damon plays a green-fingered astronaut in The Martian (2015) and now this handsome Danish historical drama washes ashore, in which Jakob Oftebro's horticultural expert Wulff Joseph Wulff is dispatched to Guinea in 1836, under orders from the king to establish a new coffee plantation on the colony.

Already compared to Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness (1899) and the work of Terence Malick and Werner Herzog, Gold Coast concerns itself with the idealistic Wulff's wonder at the equatorial flora he encounters and the vibrancy of the natives and his growing horror at the drunken debauchery of the few white settlers living in the area's stone forts. Slavery is supposed to have been outlawed, but Wulff quickly learns that something is rotten and is encouraged by a sympathetic missionary to expand his brief beyond instructing his charges about planting cycles and Galileo. Inspired, Wulff appeals to the sickly governor (Morten Holst) to allow him to lead a campaign to arrest people-trafficker Richter (Wakefield Ackuaku), only to find his mandate revoked when Dall (Anders Heinrichsen) assumes control of the outpost. Ostracised and imprisoned, Wulff struggles to hold onto his sanity.



Speaking at the Cineworld Haymarket as part of the LFF, director Daniel Dencik agreed with the above comparisons and cited Herman Melville's Typee (1846) among his other influences, in addition to the many contemporary diaries he read as part of his meticulous research process. Dencik also advised us that watching Gold Coast was not a matter of weighing up whether or not we "liked" the film in the social media sense. Rather, we were instructed to simply dive in and sample its sensory wares, "like eating an oyster or LSD". A sound approach.

A documentarian and writer, Dencik's debut fiction feature is as gorgeous a spectacle as you could wish to encounter, holding its own against the likes of Roland Joffe's The Mission (1986) or Malick's The New World (2005) and capturing the stormy beauty of its shooting locations in Ghana and Burkina Faso. It's never po-faced though: a marvelling, microscopic close up of sunlight streaming through a leaf is quickly undermined by a cut to a scab on Wullf's leg, oozing pus. Similarly, although Gold Coast's interiors and costumes are splendid, Dencik deftly manages to sidestep the clich├ęs of period drama, never forgetting the piss and malaria of colonial living. The film's good looks are complimented by a bold and counter-intuitive electronic score from the great Angelo Badalamenti and an extremely committed performance from Oftebro. The actor appears in almost every scene and undergoes visible weight loss, almost on a par with Christian Bale's in The Machinist (2004), when Wulff is starved and imprisoned by his corrupt peers.


Criticism of Gold Coast has inevitably centred on its earnestness and "problematic" failure to offer a black perspective on the events it depicts. People, of course, love to throw the word "problematic" around like confetti at a wedding. On the contrary, I found Gold Coast to be enormously compassionate and humane and regard Dencik's decision to stick to the perspective of one outsider a wise and economical one. This is very much an account of an individual's experiences and benefits from the intimacy of its scale. The young director succeeds in throwing a light on an overlooked and little filmed aspect of European colonial history in some style. A really admirable undertaking.

11/10/2015

LFF: Bone Tomahawk (2015)


Any film whose opening shot presents a sleeping cowpoke's throat being slit, swiftly followed by the disembowelling of Sid Haig, clearly knows its business. S. Craig Zahler's pulp cannibal western Bone Tomahawk actually turns out to be a rather more stately affair than this gory prelude might suggest, concerning the attempts of a posse led by Kurt Russell's Sheriff Hunt to track down a housewife (Lili Simmons) and one of his deputies (Evan Jonigkeit) who have been abducted from the quiet frontier town of Bright Hope by members of a mysterious cave-dwelling Tribe With No Name.

Borrowing its premise from John Ford's The Searchers (1956) and featuring Richard Jenkins as a rambling Walter Brennan-esque coot, Zahler's is the latest in a string of fine westerns we've been treated to lately, after Tommy Lee Jones's The Homesman (2014) and Slow West (2015) with Michael Fassbender. Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, also featuring Russell, is on the horizon and only Tarantino could hope to surpass the violence we find here. In fact, he'd be doing well to even match Zahler on that score.

When the citizens comprising Hunt's rescue party - Jenkins' Chicory, Patrick Wilson's desperate husband Arthur O'Dwyer and dandy loner John Brooder (Matthew Fox) - finally reach the troglodytes' mountain lair, we soon witness the execution of one of the captives they'd set out to save, Deputy Nick. The poor lawman is dangled naked upside down and cleaved in twain like a beef carcass, a genuinely shocking act of butchery carried out with the film's titular weapon, itself a sharpened bear's jaw fiendishly repurposed for the job. When Hunt himself is captured, he is trussed up and slashed across the torso. The natives then wedge the man's own tin hip flask - especially heated over a camp fire - directly into the gaping wound, to understandable howls of pain. Wild cheers erupted from the audience at the Odeon Leicester Square as the cannibal chief got his savage comeuppance for these atrocities. Your move QT.



Bone Tomahawk is entertaining, exquisitely lit and pleasingly character-focused, but far from perfect. Wilson's O'Dwyer is landed with a broken leg, which makes his participation in the group's mission complicated, slowing their progress, but also badly hampering the film's already suspect pacing. Quite why Wilson should have become Hollywood's go-to masochist I'm not sure, but the actor once more finds himself in a near-constant state of anguish and is again brutally operated upon by an amateur surgeon, just as he was in David Slade's Hard Candy (2005). Film School Rejects critic Rob Turner was particularly disappointed with Bone Tomahawk and blamed Fox for "auditioning for the role of Calvin Candie in an off-Broadway production of Django Unchained". I'll give him that one. We're also in agreement that Russell's grizzly gravity ultimately carries the day.

The usual tiresome reactionaries on Twitter have been quick to label Zahler's film racist, but that charge is absurd. Bone Tomahawk is clearly not about demonising an ethnic group. Its wyrd naked Indians are not identified with any real Native American tribe and, it's heavily hinted, may not even be human at all. Their dusty, boar-toothed look would certainly be more at home in The Hills Have Eyes (1977) or George Miller's recent Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) than Dances With Wolves (1990). The one positively identified Naive American on screen, Zahn McClarnon's Professor, is presented with respect as a dignified and learned man whose expertise Hunt actively seeks out and acts upon. Finally, the only racist sentiments actually mouthed by the film's characters come from Brooder, who's family were slain by warring braves. Brooder's attitude is clearly explained by his backstory and those determined to find a moral can take satisfaction in his death. A 19th century frontiersman's distrust of foreign Others would, incidentally, hardly have been uncommon. That certainly seemed like an idiotic accusation to me.



After the LFF screening, producers Jack Heller and Dallas Sonnier told us that Bone Tomahawk's low-budget location shoot was completed in a remarkably swift 21 days, with every word of Zahler's 128 page script making it onto the screen. The only snag they ran into was only being able to afford four days' worth of production time with horses, hence the animals' unexplained theft while the posse are sleeping midway through the plot!

09/10/2015

LFF: Beasts Of No Nation (2015)


I'm currently taking in a handful of new films at the BFI London Film Festival (LFF) and plan to temporarily handover the blog to reviews of my selection. For readers exclusively committed to black-and-white cinema, apologies and bear with me. Normal service will be resumed shortly. Go and make a cup of tea or something in the meantime. First up, Cary Joji Fukunaga's majestic Beasts Of No Nation.

Our protagonist is Agu (Abraham Attah), a cheery schoolboy in an unnamed West African country who is forced to take refuge in the jungle after a military coup sparks a civil war. Agu is separated from his mother and soon witnesses his father and elder brother being unceremoniously executed by soldiers. Reduced to eating banana fronds and fending for himself, Agu is captured by a battalion of child militia led by the Commandant (Idris Elba), a charismatic bully. Indoctrinated into the group's brutal ways, Agu takes part in a series of ambushes and sieges, graduating from ammo mule to bodyguard after killing a prisoner with a machete as part of an initiation rite. The boy becomes increasingly hardened by his experiences until matters come to a head when the Commandant is shunned by his political superiors, aware of the international condemnation association with his savage methods will bring.

Admirers of Fukunaga's work on HBO's True Detective (2014) will find plenty to relish here: the director again demonstrates his eye for beauty amid all-pervasive rural poverty, highlighting the exquisite red earth roads, lush foliage and peeling paint of the shanty towns his characters pass through. At times the film recalls the best of Apocalypse Now (1979) and The Thin Red Line (1998), finding time to dwell on natural splendour utterly at odds with the feverish violence its human inhabitants enact in pursuit of a highly dubious and increasingly ill-defined cause.

Working from his own adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala's 2005 source novel, Fukunaga is again unafraid to put poetic sentiments into the mouths of ordinary people and again pulls off some impressively immersive Steadicam action sequences, following close behind his band of adolescent warriors as they march ever onwards, Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers brandished in triumph. There's even an occult interlude in which Agu is made to lie prone in an open grave while a shaman hails the "death" of his old life and, effectively, childhood.



Elba is superb as the Commandant, hinting at the vanity of this combined Joseph Kony and Colonel Kurtz, essaying an easy authority and handling the man's descent into delusion and desperation nicely after he's been cut off by his sponsors. It's the young Ghanaian Attah though that's the real revelation, offering as strong a performance from a child actor as I can recall. His transition from loveable rogue - attempting to sell the empty wooden frame of his family's TV set to various bemused locals - to blankly depersonalised killing machine is devastating to behold, as is his subsequent struggle to reacclimatise to conventional schooling once UN peacekeepers have intervened and liberated these lost boys from starvation.


Beasts Of No Nation marks Netflix's first foray into fiction filmmaking, following its success with documentaries like What Happened, Miss Simone? As such, Fukunaga's film will soon be available on the site for streaming, but I'd strongly recommend taking it in on the big screen during its brief theatrical run if you can. It's a magnificent piece of work about the realities of power and the systematic stripping away of innocence, dealing thoughtfully with the sort of unpalatable truths we see on the evening news every night and do nothing about. A shot of Agu casting a glance upwards as the moon appears from behind blackening tropical clouds, praying to the memory of his mother because he feels certain that god is no longer listening, says it all.