Sunday, 16 July 2017

The Hippopotamus (John Jencks, 2017)

A boozy, misanthropic burnt-out poet is tasked by his goddaughter to investigate supposed miracles at an estranged friend's country house in an adaptation of Stephen Fry's comic novel. Roger Allam attacks the character, so clearly Fry's caustically uninhibited alter-ego, with unbridled gusto and his expletive-ridden diatribes, bon mots and misbehaviour sustain the film until about halfway through, by which stage they have become tedious and then the enterprise is left running on empty as the plot itself is far too slender to impart much point to carrying on. Fry's smart turns of phrase just aren't quite enough for a full-blooded feature on this occasion, as amusing as they might be at times.


Friday, 7 July 2017

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

Arrival posits that a dozen alien vessels appear one day over seemingly random locations around the world and hover there sphinx-like while humanity runs around in a flap trying to decide what to do about them. A linguist drafted in to try to communicate with the inscrutable newcomers takes centre stage.
Villeneuve's film has been much lauded, largely for eschewing the standard alien menace road in favour of a more intellectual angle. It is also strong on mood-setting. Irrespective of these virtues, when judged outside the genre confines it doesn't stand up so well to scrutiny. The notion that beings so advanced that they can get here, in their 2001 monoliths, would then be incapable of working out our crude syntax is as ridiculous as ever, never mind that we could decipher their fuzzy circles of supposed language instead. Accordingly, the message of hope that they finally impart is equally woolly.
The film's strongest aspects, i.e. the lead character's dawning realisation of the fate of her future daughter and how that impacts her choices here and now, twinned with the notion of events in time as something immutable and ever-present rather than linear and finite, are unfortunately somewhat buried under the global-level portentousness. A braver script would have trusted that these themes had sufficient power to sustain interest by themselves, without any of the sci-fi hoo-ha.


Sunday, 25 June 2017

Forušande‎ (Asghar Farhadi, 2016)

Farhadi's seventh feature bagged him the best foreign-language film Oscar, which the auteur then made optimal use of by publicly refusing to attend the awards ceremony as a protest against U.S. foreign policy. It speaks volumes of the man and his intelligence, just as his films do.
The Salesman continues along the same track that he's already carved out: a couple experience a moment of catharsis (here, a woman in Tehran is assaulted in their home while expecting her husband to return), where the viewer is denied crucial information, and then it is is up to us to piece together the truth, such as there may be any. It is detective work without a clearly delineated crime, but also a means of emphasising the subjectivity of experience, which in turn underlines how there are few cut-and-dried aspects to situations or people. Hence, the wife unhelpfully withholds what actually happened while the husband thunders on powered by the twin pressures of social stigmatisation and his own sense of self-righteousness. Neither is wrong or right: Farhadi's real craft is creating characters that are fully rounded, and he hasn't done it as well as this since A Separation.
A slow burner it may be, but that just means more time to think around the subject, from the fractured relationship between the couple to the values of the middle-class Iranian context and the parallels with the play Death of a Salesman, which they are starring in a production of, and all of these aspects are woven in with genuine purpose.


Thursday, 22 June 2017

Shimmer Lake (Oren Uziel, 2017)

So, some bumblers rob a bank in an American backwoods town and it all progressively goes to shit, version 98.
The only ways a story as flogged to death as this, just as with zombie epidemics, can begin to justify its retelling is with superior casting, decent dialogue and some other distinguishing virtue. Recently, with Hell or High Water, the last one of these separators was a powerful melange of social context and atmosphere. Here, the director goes for the very modish gimmick of telling the story backwards instead, and the result isn't as compelling, but it does nevertheless manage to pull out a real twist at the end, which didn't seem possible given the structure and stock characters.


Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Predestination (The Spierig Brothers, 2014)

An odd hybrid emerges from the initial arrangement where Ethan Hawke, now well into his second career as a full-time player in left-of-centre science fiction B-films, is a temporal agent who hops into the past to stop a Unabomber type in '70s New York. So far, so Minority Report, Looper et al. But then it turns into a half-hour life story of another character's struggle with acceptance of being transgender, until getting back to the fray with a succession of loops upon loops until even the hardiest time-travel aficionados are liable to suffer motion sickness. It does become somewhat annoying in its desire to confound expectation as a result, but you do have to admire the Spierigs for still managing to create a consistent order of events in the chaos. The budget on Post-its, thread and drawing pins on boards in their workroom, needed to work it all out, must have taken up half the film's budget.


The Rover (David Michôd, 2014)

More truly unpeopled and hostile to life than any part of America, the Australian Outback is a fertile setting for dystopias where civilisation has collapsed, first seized on by Mad Max, of course, and this could almost be in the same universe as that series. Guy Pearce, building on an uncompromising character transition from pretty boy to grizzled Man with No Name, the latter more or less first seen as his outlaw in Hillcoat's The Proposition, is a tormented man with no apparent remaining purpose to live who goes off on a violent mission of vengeance after men who have stolen his car. Along the way, he picks up Robert Pattinson's twitchy, borderline halfwit criminal and the story proceeds in as direct a line as an Outback road to bloody retribution. Spartan and relentlessly nihilistic, it offers no redemption whatsoever, but does maintain a certain integrity in its refusal to fetishise.


Sunday, 11 June 2017

Hundraettåringen som smet från notan och försvann (Felix & Måns Herngren, 2016)

The 101-Year-Old Man Who Skipped out on the Bill and Disappeared follows the further adventures of centenarian Allan Karlsson and his entourage as they go on a hunt for the formula for the world's best soda, which he lost some forty years before while still a double agent for the Americans and the Soviets. Cue flashbacks to the 'seventies, with characters such as Brezhnev and Nixon, in between scooting around from city to city in the modern day to the incessant accompaniment of a parping Kusturicaesque soundtrack. The comedy is as broad as before and its insistence on the hilarity of the proceedings grates at times, but, just as before, its blithe irreverence for decorum and daftness ultimately save the day.