Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Director: Tom Ford

****

What a strange beast Nocturnal Animals is.

Like so many creatures that emerge in the darkness, it’s at once alluring and repulsive, and thoroughly unpredictable. That’s entirely the point, of course; to follow his stylish and moving debut A Single Man, fashion designer-turned-writer/director Tom Ford has made a film of contradictions, where truth and artifice constantly switch roles. In adapting Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, Ford has produced something lurid and provocative, but still with that pronounced style that defined his first film. The style’s a lure, though. This is a film that’s twisted in both content and form. There are narratives within narratives, whose brightly-lit worlds are deceptive and whose strangest sights bring their own kind of beauty.

The opening credits are a good example of Ford’s methodology here. The credits are backgrounded by a series of obese women dancing naked. The women are set against a velvety red wall that envelops the screen in warmth, thanks to the efforts of DoP Seamus McGarvey. Thanks to the oft-garish colours and another sumptuous string-led score from Abel Korzeniowski, beauty can be found even in so unorthodox a sight. The dancing women are part of an exhibit being put together by gallery owner Susan Morrow. The role of Morrow sees Amy Adams exchange her natural charm for excess make-up, horn-rimmed glasses and a cold demeanour, as Morrow’s dissatisfied with her pristine L.A. life.

Susan’s pretty house, prettier boyfriend (Armie Hammer) and obvious wealth cannot dispel her angsty fog. Indeed, this fog seems to cover the Los Angeles of Nocturnal Animals. An early aerial shot of the city at night shines a bright light on its skyscrapers, leaving the streets in the dark, like an eerie alien landscape. For all the colours McGarvey can bring to the city, it’s intentionally cold to the touch. All is artifice in Ford’s vision of L.A., from every overly made-up face to the jangling jewellery worn by a near-unrecognisable Andrea Riseborough. Indeed, the polish can feel excessive at first, lapsing into silliness, but as time goes on, this feeds into Ford’s point.

Instead of harsh realities, we get a delivery of very harsh fiction. Susan is sent a draft of a novel from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a piece of hard-boiled crime drama entitled ‘Nocturnal Animals’, which he’s dedicated to her. Like Wright’s original novel, the film plunges into this book’s narrative, in which Tony (Gyllenhaal again) goes through a night of hell travelling through rural Texas, as he and his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) are menaced and tortured by a band of rednecks, led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ray. Their initial encounter is a prolonged and masterful exercise in tension, as Ray’s gang drive the family car off the road and proceed to psychologically torture their quarry. Tony’s inability to do anything about it is matched only by the anxiety that never stops building behind him. Nocturnal Animals is a film about weakness and insecurity, male weakness especially. Nocturnal animals prey on the weak.

The novel’s narrative brings a change in look and feel, going from polished galleries to the parched Texas sands. The book’s story is foreboding and cruel, and the shift in style feels the same way at first. The intertwining of narrative strands between Susan’s life, the novel, and flashbacks to hers and Edward’s marriage initially jar. Shifts between L.A. and the novel are usually signalled by Susan dropping the manuscript in a horrified daze. Yet, as Tony and Sheriff Andes (Michael Shannon, charm and accent as thick as molasses) chase the wrongdoers, and the switches between Hollywood glam and Hell Or High Water-alike grit become more frequent, they also begin to gel. Edward has dedicated his book to Susan for a reason, and her memories of him grow increasingly melancholy. This is by Edward’s design, though. Nocturnal Animals is a testament to the liberating power of creativity, as Edward expresses his darkest feelings to Susan using this narrative, a method he never could have used before their divorce. The weakness is dispelled by his creative strength.

Ford plays fast and loose with expectations throughout Nocturnal Animals. While he admirably keeps the interloping structure of narratives from the source novel, he also makes changes to accentuate the tonal shifts. In the novel, Morrow was a teacher and mother of three; in Ford’s world, she has only a floundering relationship and failing gallery to her name. These changes, these exaggerations, add an extra punch when emotion and violence do come to the fore. This and Andrew Dominik’s documentary on Nick Cave, One More Time With Feeling, would make an excellent double-bill treatise on how great creativity can be triggered by intense trauma. (All this begs the question: is Ford working out a weakness of his own in this adaptation? It hardly matters. This is a film that will offer wildly different ideas and meanings to different viewers)

It’s a tribute to Gyllenhaal and Adams that they keep the audience invested, even as tones and timelines pinball wildly. Both impress in roles that see them put aside natural charisma for broken people, whose pain is etched in every grimace. The eccentricities of the film’s look and tone extend to the supporting cast. What Michael Sheen or Laura Linney (A vision in pearls and a Southern-fried accent as Susan’s mother) are doing here is anyone’s guess, but they add undeniable flavours. Best of the bunch is Taylor-Johnson, delivering levels of ever-present menace many would have thought beyond him (Remember him as the leading man in Godzilla? Nope, us neither.)

What Ford has done here, as both writer and director, is remarkable. On the surface, Nocturnal Animals is over-stylized and potentially devoid of empathy. Yet, as it goes on, it forges its own path, keeping the style while making its angst more relatable and palpable. It’s a sleight of hand that’s both blatant in its machinations, yet surprising in its emotional power. The vividness of its colours and the horrors of its violence ensure a place in the memory, but there are levels at work here that mean Nocturnal Animals’ deeper meanings could sneak up on you when you least expect it.

Review: Louder Than Bombs (2015)

Director: Joachim Trier

*****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Louder Than Bombs is a ghost story. Throughout director Joachim Trier’s English-language debut, the presence of war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) is only ever felt from a distance. Three years after her death, she speaks from the afterlife in flashbacks, remembrances and voiceovers. Louder Than Bombs is a beautifully constructed collage of these elements; it’s a determinedly impressionistic work, using fragments from the people broken by Isabelle’s death to put together a mosaic of a woman they may never have fully known. This arrangement of memories plays out without recourse to big drama or hysterics; this is less a emotional display than an emotional dissection.

Like all ghosts, Isabelle is overseeing the completion of unfinished business. She left behind a lot more collateral damage than just the car she was driving when it ploughed head-on into a truck. Three men are still reeling from her passing. Her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) is struggling to forge a connection with their son Conrad (Devin Druid), whilst older son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) has just become a father for the first time. Their grief after Isabelle’s death, restrained as it is, means their lives feel fragmented, occurring in individual moments. Sometimes, in the middle of an action, they just leave to zone out of the moment. Failing that,  memories of their wife and mother intrude on the narrative. The film opens with Jonah holding his newborn child; the infant clutches its father’s finger in a poignant Malick-ian close-up. The moment only lasts so long, however, and Jonah leaves his wife’s (Megan Ketch) bedside in search of coffee as an excuse for an escape. It sounds harsh, but Louder Than Bombs is rarely less than truthful in its portrait of sublimated grief.

The themes and narratives of Louder Than Bombs are explored with such a level of detail and restraint that it feels like a film only Trier could have made. Even though this is his first English-language feature, Trier brings a confidence and professionalism to the film straight out of his previous works, Reprise and Oslo, August 31st. Teaming up once more with regular collaborators like cinematographer Jakob Ihre and composer OIa Fløttum does help, but even without them, or the decidedly European tones of Huppert and Byrne, the film benefits from an introspectiveness more closely associated with French or German cinema. There are few moments of explosive anger or revelation. Instead, truth comes home in the tenderness of the smallest familial moments. The precious memories that Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt weave in and out of the narrative say more about why these men grieve than any outburst. Conrad falls asleep on Isabelle’s shoulder on a car journey. Gene shares a laugh with her about a colleague’s smoking habits. Jonah recalls a visit she made to him at his college dorm. There is humanity both in these moments and in their insistent interjection. When we want to escape the present, we remember the best of the past. Trier and Vogt find a poetry in the script that sees moments and lines get repeated in completely separate contexts. Over the course of the film, all three leading men find their love lives being complicated by professionalism (Gene starts dating Conrad’s teacher Hannah, played by Amy Ryan), old passions (Jonah reconnects with an ex (Rachel Brosnahan) and social strata (Conrad’s crush on classmate Melanie (Ruby Jerins) goes unrequited out of shyness). Throughout these travails, echoes of dialogue and direction remind us that these men have similar approaches to the women in their lives. By nature, nurture and the gift of a layered screenplay, they are inescapably each other’s kin.

The narrative drive in Louder Than Bombs comes from a proposal by Isabelle’s colleague Richard (David Strathairn) to write a column about her for the New York Times ahead of a retrospective exhibition of her work. This forces Gene and Jonah into a quandary about whether or not to come clean to Conrad about her death. The film flits between the equal possibilities of Isabelle’s death being either an accident or suicide. It’s a question that derails what fragile momentum these men have maintained in the three years since, but all three actors sell the pain quite admirably. Eisenberg gives his most compellingly confident turn yet, maintaining a high-wire act between likeable and all-out jerk without nervous tics or bumbling limbs. Relative newcomer Druid boasts an impressive degree of necessary restraint to sell Conrad’s hidden turmoil, and Byrne’s burdened melancholia is a pleasant reminder of his top-notch work on In Treatment. Huppert helps Trier maintain a distance between Isabelle and everyone else with a turn of inscrutability and silent despair. She’s unknowable, almost to the point that she seems clichéd. Yet this is exactly Trier’s point; the image we get of Isabelle is always through a lens of grief and memory. We only ever see her husband and sons’ recollection; they knew so much about her, and yet it’s never the whole story. A shot of Huppert in close-up looking at the camera is given a violet tint, suggesting she’s behind a pane of glass. Her character’s choice of profession is not random; Louder Than Bombs is all about the images we capture of those closest to us, whether in photographs, memories or on film. We can see every freckle on Isabelle’s face, but she’s only a ghost. Our memories introduce a nebulous filter to obscure the full picture.

Decisions like that pane of glass contribute to a deliciously detailed film. Trier fills the film with camera moves, positions and framing devices of such potential that a second viewing will be required to unpack it all. Scenes will unfold twice over, but from different angles, in order to bring clarity to these fragmented moments. They unfold with style in isolation, but they gain new power in the bigger picture. Louder Than Bombs does a remarkable thing; it observes its characters with a focused and unobtrusive eye. Trier allows the characters to make their own decisions and mistakes, and to be their own judges. This in turn allows you, the grown-ups in the audience, to draw your own conclusions. Trier’s got too much respect for his characters and audience to talk down to them.

Walking In The Light: Illuminating religion in Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER

This article was originally published on Scannain.com

At one point in Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, Joaquin Phoenix’s drugged-up detective Doc Sportello enters a plush Malibu house, to be asked by his hostess, “Do you like the lighting?” (He responds with a semi-stoned, semi-horny, but quietly emphatic ‘Uh-huh.’). Anderson’s previous film, 2012’s The Master, is all about the lighting. In particular, it’s all about people looking for the light, being bathed in glows and beams, only to wind up darkened and despairing before another light source rejuvenates them anew. One might compare the characters to lizards, but it’s simply too cool a comparison. On a first watch, The Master can feel so intensely cerebral as to seem cold, but rewatches help break the ice. A 70mm rewatch, meanwhile, warms this heady brew until it’s as richly satisfying as any of Anderson’s other masterpieces.

As if you need reminding, The Master is Anderson’s Scientology film, try as it might to sidestep any accusations or similarities. Still, the similarities between Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose preening and oddly-charming gasbag turn here may well be his best) and L. Ron Hubbard are inescapable, while the shadow of Scientology’s auditing sessions looms over the processing used by Dodd’s cultish ‘Cause’. Into the lives of Dodd, his family and closest followers arrives Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a WWII veteran barely maintaining sanity due to PTSD and damage inflicted by his own brand of home-brewed hooch. Phoenix builds on the mania of portraying (a version of) himself in I’m Still Here by playing a man who may never have felt like himself to start. Quell is a neanderthalic hunching Igor to Dodd’s self-important Frankenstein, but they never get to bring a monster to life. The true horror lies in themselves. Their relationship is a cruel symbiosis, at once self-perpetuating and self-destructive. Quell needs Dodd’s guidance, but his basic problems, which are explored to an extent by Dodd’s methods, are never cured, making him feel like a greater failure. This encourages Dodd’s own doubts, whilst strengthening the resolve of his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). A Lady Macbeth in ‘50s garb, Adams brings  a superciliousness and menace to Mrs. Dodd that often gets overlooked in analyses of the film. Her fervour, religious and otherwise, is positively terrifying. It’s been suggested that she may be the real driving force behind the Cause, and there’s nothing in a rewatch to dispel that notion.

The Master
Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in THE MASTER

As if to rope you in right from the start, the film opens with a shot of the sea. The breaking waters indicate it’s being shot from the back of the ship, with the white foam shimmering in the sunlight, marbling the cerulean ocean. There’s nary a foot put wrong in The Master’s production, but its unsung hero has to be Mihai Malaimare Jr. The rays, beams and myriad other manifestations of light the Romanian cinematographer captures in the glory of 70 millimetre film are key to The Master’s success. In turn, The Master is a key argument for 70mm as a filmmaking tool. As explained by Christopher Bonanos over at Vulture, the wider frame of 70mm film (65mm image, plus an additional 5mm for the soundtrack) captures more detail and more depth. The colours are deeper and more memorable (That opening shot of the water being a prime example), but it’s the little details that you truly savour in a 70mm revisit. Those details can be grim (Flecks of vomit in the beard of a man poisoned by Quell’s brew) or beautiful; it was not until seeing it on 70mm that this writer actively noticed the solitary cathartic tear that runs down Phoenix’s cheek after his one-on-one processing session.

Moments like Freddie’s outburst in the processing session are given extra power by Malaimare’s lighting choices. The ironic thing about these choices is they boil down to a most religious dichotomy: light and dark. When we first encounter Quell, he’s in the sun, but hidden beneath an army helmet, squinting in the shade. Whether natural or manmade, light in The Master is a symbol of hopefulness, abandon and joy. Hardly original, but it’s only when you think about how and when it’s used in the film that the symbolism gains potency. After Freddie is forced to flee his odd job as a farm labourer by running off across a misty, newly-harvested plain, we dissolve to a dock at night. Freddie enters the frame from the left, obscuring the bright lights hanging on a ship in the background. As Freddie walks down the dock, the ship comes into focus. It’s Dodd’s ship, named Alethia. It’s the only source of light in the shot, and Freddie is drawn to it like a moth. Music is playing on board, and people are dancing. He stows away on board, and the ship sails off into the Pacific under the Golden Gate Bridge, a brilliant orange sunrise lurking behind the Marin Headlands. The light is coming.

Conversely, shadows and darkness surround the characters at their lowest ebbs. Freddie’s processing scene takes place in the depths of Alethia, in a dingy room. There’s just enough light to see his features and that single tear. Throughout the film, scenes of light and darkness lead in and out of each other, with the use of either lighting scheme underlining each scene’s narrative rhythm. In the final third of the film, Freddie and Dodd dig up the work that forms Dodd’s new Cause handbook in a desert hideaway. The moment is enveloped in sun-scorched yellow sands, a moment of uncovered joy. The next time we see Dodd, however, he is about to launch the book, but hides away from his audience in an ante room. We see Dodd sitting in a narrow beam from a window, but otherwise covered in darkness. It’s reminiscent of the processing scene, but Dodd is alone, and squints into the light as if blinded by it. This launch should be a happy occasion, but the prospect inhibits him, and may prove his undoing. Anderson plays with our expectations, but always in service of his narrative. A scene in which Freddie and Dodd are put in jail could be seen as a dark moment, but it’s shot in a way to indicate sunshine coming in from a source above the men’s cells. It’s the first moment at which Freddie confronts Dodd about the Cause’s methods, with the lighting suggesting Freddie has uncovered a truth. It’s not blinding, though; this is merely the beginning of Freddie’s emergence from the Cause. Using light as a multifaceted symbol means it is not monopolized by the Cause or any one character. It can be manipulated briefly (Most notably, Quell antagonizes a customer of his photography concession with a lamp in an early scene), but the light is not anyone’s to own.

the-master-amy-adams-eyes
Amy Adams in THE MASTER

The subtleties of lighting aid Anderson in telling this story, and these subtleties shine brightest in the colours of the 70mm presentation. The inquisitive moment in the jail was spurred on in a previous scene when Freddie talks to Dodd’s son, Val (Jesse Plemons, whose resemblance to Hoffman is uncanny, verging on eerie). Val bluntly informs Freddie that Dodd Sr. is making the Cause’s catechism up as he goes. Their chat takes place outside on a sunny day, but under the shady protection of a porch. Between bright light and darkened rooms lie moments of doubt, junctions at which Freddie must question what he’s doing with the Cause. This leads into a bigger question: is The Master critical of Scientology? Val’s upfront confession to Freddie mirrors similar declarations from members of L. Ron Hubbard’s family about Scientology, and it would certainly be in keeping with similar themes of corrupted religion in There Will Be Blood, in which the petty greed of preacher Eli Sunday is completely overwhelmed by the capitalist dogma of Daniel Plainview. Yet, there’s no definitive end point in The Master to suggest Anderson has pointed his crosshairs at Scientology. After all, the Cause gave Freddie an epiphany and a refocused purpose, even if it’s only temporary. Rather, Anderson seems to say that a religion/cult/whatever is only as strong as its most fervent adherents. Kierkegaard posited doubt was necessary to maintain one’s faith; Freddie has doubts, but they never allow him to leave the Cause completely. Throughout the film, he has moments of enlightenment and profound darkness, from sunny deserts to cavernous movie theatres. The film ends with Freddie lying under a sexual conquest, in a ray of daylight and quoting Dodd from their first processing session. By this point, he’s left the Cause, leaving Dodd tearily singing behind a big desk. The Cause will go on (most likely driven on by the insistence of Mrs. Dodd), and Freddie will continue his search for answers, like Thom Yorke going through an endless parade of doors in Anderson’s video for Radiohead’s ‘Daydreaming’. Yet, there he lies, recalling the words of the Master in the warmth of a post-coital sunbeam. Once again, the richness of Malaimire’s 70mm artistry speaks volumes. This light isn’t the dazzling warmth of a desert sun, but it’s enough to illuminate the dark blue surrounds of Freddie’s partner’s bedroom. The narrator in Anderson’s Magnolia says, “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” Like the past, and the Cause, the light shines on Freddie when he least expects it.

Review: Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

Director: Richard Linklater

****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

The title Everybody Wants Some!!, borrowed from the Van Halen song that features on the soundtrack, sums up the freewheeling positivity that rests at the film’s core, as underlined by both exclamation points (Get some! And then get some more!). Following the dramatic heights writer/director Richard Linklater explored in Before Midnight and Boyhood, we get a down-to-earth romp that largely eschews conflict in favour of a breezy pace and genuine characters. As proved in Dazed and Confused (to which this has been rightly deemed a ‘spiritual sequel’), few directors can make a lack of narrative drive work as well as Linklater. There may not be tension, but camaraderie and laughs more than fill the gap.

The film pins its setting down in the opening shot, as freshman baseball player Jake (Blake Jenner) drives his ‘72 Oldsmobile to his new college dorm house. Though set in 1980, the design (Bruce Curtis’ production, Kari Perkins’ costumes) is full of ‘70s touches, as the preceding decade has yet to give way to the next. LPs are still the way to listen to music, the t-shirts are tight and the jeans are still bell-bottomed. There is an investment in all concerned to get the details right, especially on Linklater’s part. The film is based on his own experiences in college as a baseball player, so he knows this milieu and this time. By staying true to his experience, and the characters he’s created, he ensures the film feels fresh, never forced or over the top. We’re watching a bunch of guys hang out, get drunk and chat up girls, with nothing like prejudice or irony getting in their way.

Jake arrives at the dorm to be greeted by nominal alphas Roper (Ryan Guzman) and McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin, with a ‘tache that makes him resemble the impossible offspring of Matthew McConaughey and Freddie Mercury). These batsmen’s initial standoffishness against this new pitcher threatens to sour proceedings, but they gradually warm to the new freshman in their crew as they prepare to party the weekend away before the new school year starts. Their thawing and acceptance is ultimately what Everybody Wants Some!! is all about: accepting new circumstances and going with it. Jake arrives in the house to find a waterbed filling up, the acrid smell of weed in the air and everyone just being themselves. The battinage between the housemates is sometimes merciless (The naivete of farmboy Beuter (Will Brittain) lends him to being mocked early on), but mostly jovial. Drinks are poured (“Cheers for the beers!”), jokes are told and songs are sung together. It’s a testament to the cast’s chemistry and the cracking soundtrack that you’ll find yourself singing along as the boys put their own spin on ‘Rapper’s Delight’.

Compared other campus comedies, that may trade in basic stereotypes, Everybody Wants Some!! is surprisingly generous in its characterisations and viewpoints. Our central baseball team are not generic athletic jocks; they come with the (allegedly rare) ability to string more than two syllables together and chat with all and sundry that come their way. The boys may be driven by twinned desires for booze and sex, but it never mutates them into sexists or (*shudder*) bros. Instead, Linklater plays with expectations in two clever ways. Firstly, the film spends as much time idealising and ogling its male cast as much as it does the females. The short and tight fashions of the day ensure that eye candy is available for all tastes. The film acts as a celebration of halcyon days, when the sun shines brightly, everyone is attractive and no-one is left out (J. Quinton Johnson’s status as the only African-American in the group is refreshingly unremarked upon). As long as you’re up for some fun, you’re welcome here. Secondly, Linklater mocks the fratty atmos by constantly pitching our cast against each other. Having been thrown together, these athletes feel the need to compete in any way possible, be it table tennis, foosball or drinking. This allows Linklater to undermine the effects of the testosterone-drenched atmosphere with commonsense moments of fun and friendship. As the weekend goes on, the boys drop pretense to partake in the fun to be found in line-dancing and a makeshift mosh pit. Why fight, when you can share a beer? Why berate, when you can advise? It might be idealistic, but you’ll probably be grinning too hard to care.

This vision of college life would have been too hard to swallow were it not for the efforts of the cast. Much as Dazed and Confused put the likes of Ben Affleck and Parker Posey on the map, Everybody Wants Some!! is bound to boost the careers of most of its line-up. Johnson and Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt, playing resident stoner Willoughby) prove immensely amiable foils to the alpha-male stylings of Hoechlin or Guzman. Glen Powell is a frontrunner for MVP, excelling as smooth pack leader Finn, whose confidence never becomes cockiness. By comparison, nominal lead Jenner can seem a little bland at first, but that might be by design. Jake only begins to come into his own when he begins to date theatre major Beverly (Zoey Deutch, another star in the making). True, Beverly is the only major female character in the film, but she’s as full of life and character as any of Jake’s new pals. Their scenes centre on discussions rather than flirtations, with Jenner and Deutch delightfully introducing moments of doubt and tenderness. Everybody Wants Some!! may be a story from one young man’s POV, but it’s a story in which no ill will is borne, and in which all, boys and girls alike, just wanna have fun.

Review: Miles Ahead (2016)

Director: Don Cheadle

**

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

“Don’t call it jazz, man. That’s some made-up word.” This is the advice given by Miles Davis (Don Cheadle) when journalist Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) attempts to label his music as such (Davis’ suggestion? “It’s social music.”). Similarly, whatever you say about Miles Ahead, don’t call it a biopic. Clearly born of a deep passion for Davis’ music, Miles Ahead takes inspiration from its subject by refusing to cleave to a template. (How anyone can want to stick to standard portrayals of musical lives onscreen after Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story skewered the whole genre is baffling). Yet for all its style and clear admiration, Miles Ahead is stuck in some kind of rut; it sticks to the tune for as long as it can tolerate, and then begins making up completely new notes. It’s daring, but the tune ends up sounding awkward and choppy.

Putting the lives of musicians on film comes with a great degree of prestigious and structural baggage, often seen as a quick way towards awards glory and acclaim. The formula (Early days, success, excess and redemption are covered, in that order) works to a point, but the most memorable films of this ilk are the ones that break the mould. From Amadeus to I’m Not There., musical genius requires filmmaking genius to match. Thus, Cheadle has saddled himself with a particular challenge for his debut behind the camera. We’re introduced to Davis in the film in his retirement of the mid-1970s. More specifically, we’re watching him and Brill being chased down a New York street by an oncoming car with a handgun poking out the window. The concept behind Miles Ahead is a portrayal of Davis as a gangster-like figure, with this particular ‘70s-set foray portraying him as a particularly mean and vicious down-and-out. In the title role, Cheadle immerses himself in the part from the first frame, unafraid to grapple with the abrasiveness and drug-fuelled paranoia that defined Davis in the late 1970s. Of course, this is just half the story. Try as Cheadle might, he is ultimately forced to recourse to flashbacks to the various stages of Davis’ life and career from the early 1940s to the early 1960s.

As reticent as Cheadle might be towards their conventionality, the scenes of Davis’ early career are when Miles Ahead works best. Scenes of Davis in the studio offer glimpses of an artist at once improvisational and in control. All the best art makes that which seems freeform seem effortless, despite the hard work that has gone into making it. Cheadle absolutely nails Davis’ passion whilst playing music, his ease when on stage, and his abrasiveness in most other aspects of his life. Miles Ahead takes care not to smooth its subject’s rough edges. The film boasts plenty of colour and energy, but never at the expense of Davis’ imposing character. Taking the brunt of his tumultuous behaviour is his first wife, Frances Taylor. In the role of Taylor, Emayatzy Corinealdi delivers a breakout performance. This woman gave up a lot out of love, but there is a refusal to paint her as a victim here. Corinealdi’s scenes with Cheadle are the film’s highlights; on this evidence, one can only wish this material might be revisited to present a George-and-Martha-alike standoff. Their moments are when Miles Ahead feels most engaging, not least because these scenes are its most honest.

In the ‘70s segment, Davis finds Brill on his doorstep one morning looking for an interview. A punch to the face, some bumbling and a misunderstanding later, and Davis has Brill in tow to Columbia Records’ offices, pulling a gun on executives for not paying up a previously-agreed retainer. These events are a combination of fact (the retainer), hearsay (Davis’ temper) and all-out fantasy. Brill is a creation of Cheadle and co-writer Steven Baigelman, as is the vast majority of the ‘70s-set events. The eventual theft of a master recording of new material from Davis’ apartment sees Davis and Brill off on a Starsky and Hutch-aping cross-city jaunt to find the culprit (A weasley music producer, played by a miscast Michael Stuhlbarg). This combination of fact and fiction only serves to leave the viewer wishing for these two films and plotlines to be separated. One might have been conventional, and the other just plain odd, but at least they wouldn’t have ended up strangling each other. Miles Ahead’s structure is a manifestation of Cheadle’s commitment to Davis’ improvisational style. This isn’t a jazz biopic; it’s jazz fusion. It’s just a pity that the fusion of genres and plots doesn’t translate into anything approaching harmony.

 

Interview: director Lucile Hadžihalilovic on EVOLUTION

The process of evolution is prolonged. The process of making Evolution, writer/director Lucile Hadžihalilovic’s follow-up to her acclaimed feature debut Innocence, was not quite as lengthy, but there are still eleven years between the two films. The wait has been worth it; the new film is an eerie, mesmerising beast. Telling the story of a village inhabited solely by women and their young sons, the unfolding tale of medical intervention and conspiracy is full of difficult questions about childhood and the roles we ascribe to ourselves at various ages, and it asks these questions in beautifully troubling ways

We meet Hadžihalilovic in Dublin, where she’s presenting Evolution at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival. Her soft-spoken voice suggests a lack of confidence in her (perfectly fine) English. Born in Lyon, France, to Bosnian parents, Hadžihalilovic is an introspective and vivid filmmaker, a description on which Evolution seals the deal. It leads us to ask why, with these skills and this intriguing narrative, it took so long to get the film made. Framing the question in the context of Innocence’s acclaim, Hadžihalilovic seems surprised “Firstly, I’ve very glad to hear how well-received Innocence was.” Why the surprise? “I think, probably, Innocence was a bit more difficult in France. It took a long time for it to be well-received.”

So, why the wait? “The main reason why it took so long [to make Evolution] was finance. I thought that it would have been easier because it was much more of a genre film, but in France sci-fi, or anything imaginary or fantastic is not very well considered. They think it’s not art; they don’t take it seriously enough. But at the same time of course, it was not a commercial film, so it was between two things. For a long time, people were saying they didn’t understand what kind of film it was going to be, and showing them Innocence was, surprisingly for me, not so helpful in showing the kind of film we wanted to make.” Still, Hadžihalilovic was undeterred.  “I tried with one producer for a few years and after a while, I realized that it was not going to happen that way. So then I tried to find another producer, and at the end I found someone who said, ‘We won’t be able to find any more money; can you cut your script?’ So, that’s what I did.” That somebody was producer Sylvie Pialat, who clearly has an eye for topical, edgy fare, be it Alain Giraudie’s Stranger By The Lake, Abderrehmane Sissako’s Timbuktu or Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja. Pialat knew this idea had something, explains Hadžihalilovic, “I cut quite a lot, and she really wanted to make it happen.”

Shot on the exotic black-sanded shores of Lanzarote, Evolution sees young Nicolas (Max Brebant) become suspicious about his frequent trips to the nearby medical clinic for tests. His mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) deflects his queries, offering him sleeping aids and odd nourishment (Worms for supper, anyone?) in place of answers. “I’d like to say it’s very autobiographical,” Hadžihalilovic laughs when asked about the film’s genesis. “The beginning of it, the embryo of it, is very much in my own childhood, about some fears or suspicions I had when I was 10, 11 years old. When I was 10, I had appendicitis and had to go to the hospital. It was very normal; nothing unusual happened, but I absorbed this experience of having your body opened and having something cut inside. When you think about it, it’s something very strange.”

evolution-poster-lucile-hadzihalilovicIt also came at a time when bodies and minds change without medical intervention “It was at a moment when I was a pre-teenager and my body was changing, so it was a collusion between all these things, this kind of experience of fear and expectation. So the film comes from something very intimate, but also I think that it’s shared by many people at the same age. When you are a pre-teen, you begin to distrust and question adults, but you are still a child and not yet a fully-formed mind, so you make your own links and conclusions.”

The film grapples with the roles assigned to gender, primarily roles involving sexuality and procreation “I would say it’s something more pre-sexual,”  Hadžihalilovic explains, “something more primitive, because in a way there is no sexuality in the film. The idea is that, for some reason, the women can’t procreate by themselves, so the boy is playing a very reversed role. I guess also it comes from my own feeling that this would be more interesting with a boy instead of a girl. I think it’s an interrogation of films that are more common about women and pregnancy, but I put it on the boy. Questions of pregnancy are very certainly imposed on women; I thought it would be interesting if they couldn’t, and they found an abnormal and nightmarish way to do it.”

The resulting film is reminiscent of the blends of fantasy and reality of David Cronenberg (more than one scene recalls The Brood) or Jean-Pierre Jeunet (The design is evocative of The City of Lost Children). We ask Hadžihalilovic about the influences that fed into Evolution.Besides this unconscious image of pregnancy, you have a film like Eraserhead, mainly because it deals with an organic nightmare, a bit in reality but not entirely; it’s kind of in between.” Even when focusing on specific films, Hadžihalilovic clearly has enough confidence in the material not to borrow too liberally. “Directly, I didn’t have a particular film in mind, except for a Spanish film called Who Can Kill A Child?” Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s 1976 thriller about an island of murderous children is an interesting touchstone, but Hadžihalilovic cites it for reasons beyond plot. “It’s the mood, the idea of a horror film under the sun, the presence of a village with children, something like that. But I think also there is a lot of fairytale influence, when the children are wrapped and bearing these strange creatures. It’s more like Lovecraft, the idea of metamorphosis, especially with the transformation of the body and the birth of the new being.”

The absence of adult males from the film adds another dynamic. “If you see the film from the point of view of the boy, there is no adult male character, so they don’t have an image of themselves growing up. They don’t know what they are going to become.” With this in mind, is Evolution intended as a feminist text? “It was not the way I imagined the film. I was not thinking of saying, ‘It’s up to the boy to do this job now!’ It was probably more my own questions about it that, and that it was more interesting with a boy. It would underline the dramatic, nightmarish aspect of it. It’s about fear of pregnancy, and this kind of primitive sexuality. I put it on a boy, and why not? I think it’s true that it could be seen as feminist; this necessity of sexuality and pregnancy is a kind of oppression. But it was not a manifesto. It was not an active approach.”

By refusing to borrow too much from any one source, it may be that Evolution’s best comparison might be with its director’s previous film. Is this a conscious decision on her part? “It’s not my approach. I absolutely see how Innocence and Evolution are linked and I see the similarities, but I really tried to go away from Innocence when I went to write Evolution. It was more narrative, more of a genre film. It’s true they’re both about children with strange biologies, but this one is a more intimate story.” Perhaps we won’t be using the phrase ‘Hadžihalilovic-esque’, then? “I didn’t have an idea of making a category of my own; I just try to make my own films, and I guess my mind can’t escape from this way of thinking.”

Review: High-Rise (2016)

Director: Ben Wheatley

**

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

The story of a high-tech apartment block slowly falling apart under the weight of shoddy workmanship and crumbling expectations? Critics won’t find a more apt metaphor for reviewing High-Rise than the one supplied by the film itself.

Going through Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise is like a journey though a 40-storey tower block, only in reverse, starting at the top. The plush penthouse is furnished and decorated sumptuously, but it’s only as we work our way down through the structure that the cracks begin to appear. The solid foundation on which all this is built is J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, a typically sharp satire on the manipulative effect of modern lifestyles. The various classes and cliques of an ultra-modern apartment block turn on one another in an orgiastic venting of primal urges. Based on that pitch alone, it’s clear that an adaptation was going to be difficult. It needed to be lurid yet sharp, a balance of which few directors would seem capable. When the project was announced, the fact that it was coming from the director of such violently esoteric works as Kill List and A Field In England was comforting. Perhaps this would do justice to the Ballard’s vision, a vision that producer Jeremy Thomas had tried to bring to cinematic life since the novel was first published. This structure is burdened with high hopes.

The first scene suggests success. The film opens, as does the novel, with Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) tucking into the hind leg of a dog. His apartment bears the marks of a long descent from stress-free living into anarchy. Laing, a resident of the 25th floor, is our guide through the morass of a building that was to be a beacon of civilization, as per the designs of architect/penthouse resident Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Irons’ presence (Cast Irons? There’s a gag there somewhere…) and Ballard’s text can’t but evoke allusions to David Cronenberg. Alas, the comparisons do High-Rise few favours. Cronenberg made his own high-rise horror, Shivers, the same year that Ballard’s novel was released. Its vision of a tower block tearing itself apart in a frenzy is barmy fun, but not a lot has changed in the stakes of localized anarchy. Its polished surfaces and gleaming swimming pools can be seen in High-Rise, albeit as much a result of coincidence as influence, but it goes to show that the thematic richness of the novel may have been milked long before now. As if to hammer home the point, Amy Jump’s script locates the action in the late 1970s. This decision allows DoP Laurie Rose and production designer Mark Tildesley to show off their skills. The garish world of shag carpets and yellow kitchen panelling is illuminated by narrow windows and round-funneled lamps. It’s pitch-perfect design for the period, but the 1970s stylings insist on themselves to such an extent that any possibility of modern relevance is smothered in furs.

The greater, and more damaging, Cronenberg-Ballard connection is Crash. The Canadian auteur’s symphorophilic thriller is definitively jet-black, even darker than Ballard’s 1973 tome on which it’s based. The fact the film was made was impressive enough, but then there’s little that compares to Crash in its narrative or its transgressions. Ballard’s eerie architectural detachment can be seen in the works of many artists, from Bret Easton Ellis to David Fincher. The aggressiveness of Wheatley’s earlier works, Down Terrace and Kill List, suggest he could at least grapple with the savagery of High-Rise’s source novel. There’s no lack of bloodshed, but it all happens within an over-designed setting that has little purpose other than to call attention to itself. The affectations of High-Rise, whether the period setting, choppy acting or wandering narrative, deny the film the muscularity it needs to carry home any convincing themes. An early scene sees Dr. Laing giving his medical students a lecture on dissection. As he digs into a cranium, he cartoonishly peels off the face to reveal the skull’s structure. Tonally, this feels far closer to Wheatley’s comic sojourn Sightseers than it ever does to Kill List. The metaphors are there, but High-Rise feels too comic when it should deliver a killer blow.

As Laing, Hiddleston is our way into this complex full of complexes, but he’s perhaps a little too polished and chipper, lacking the menace to sell Laing as just another mind about to succumb to the ego. More watchable are Irons’ hammy omnipotence and Sienna Miller’s unchecked vampishness as Laing’s neighbour/lover Charlotte. The tower block is full of actors with potential, but the potential is only realised on occassion; for every solid Elisabeth Moss, there’s a hammy James Purefoy lurking nearby. The cast’s MVP is Luke Evans, delivering a star turn as Wilder, a lower-dwelling resident and documentarian determined to investigate why the tower’s residents are turning on each other. It’s apt that Evans’ performance is the strongest here; his character is the one in search of the truth, but his eventual failure in that regard is also the failure of High-Rise. There’s never any sense that there’s any good reason architecturally, psychologically or financially for Royal’s sky-high experiment to fail. The second act of the film feels less like a narrative and more like a long montage of power failures, fighting and looting. It all goes on so long that the third act rolls in like an inert piece of fast food, undigested and blatantly artificial. Ballard’s novel brought smarts and shocks; Wheatley barely manages the latter. By the time the voice of Margaret Thatcher crackles on the soundtrack before the credits roll, it’s become clear that High-Rise is stuck in a time warp. That might be a great cue for Portishead to deliver an oddly moving take on ABBA’s ‘S.O.S.’, but it’s not enough of a hook on which to hang a Ballard adaptation. The lights are on, but this block’s been long since vacated.