Brad’s Status

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Mike White continues his perceptive examination of the angst and confusion of men and women entering the dangerous transitional period of middle life in the wonderful Brad’s Status (2017). It’s a theme that recurs in White’s writing, reaching its pinnacle in his beloved but too-short television series Enlightened (2011) which handed Laura Dern perhaps her juiciest role. In it she plays a woman attempting to return to her old life after a mental breakdown and subsequent spiritual awakening. However, she finds that fitting back in is an awkward and infuriatingly impossible task when the world and others in it won’t bend to meet her fears and concerns for the earth. Enlightened was an underrated gem and as close to perfection as a paltry eighteen episodes of television can achieve.

In Brad’s Status we find 47-year-old Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) on the cusp of a potentially damaging emotional change of his own. As head of a not-for-profit organisation, he’s dogged by a sense of chronic underachievement, feeling that his life has reached a horrifying plateau of futility. It brings on the terror of a future in which financial stability is no longer assured. At the same time, he catches uncomfortably glimpses of how the world has heaped lashings of good fortune on other close members of his former tight-knit circle of friends from school, all of whom have become obscenely wealthy and/or famous. Contact is now minimal and evidence that they’re actively excluding him from meaningful events in their lives only exacerbates his sense of becoming invisible and irrelevant.

Brad’s Status is one of White’s best screenplays and comes hot on the heels of the equally memorable Beatriz at Dinner (2017) directed by his long-time collaborator Miguel Arteta, which, similarly, saw an actress, Salma Hayek, handed one of the best roles of her career as a spiritual minded masseuse uncomfortably absorbed into the lair of a bunch of detestable, soulless, obscenely wealthy trough-gatherers for one scarring, revelatory evening.

Brad’s voiceover works to great effect, not so much as narration, but in processing his internal lamentations and secret observations. Most concerning are his uncomfortably truthful impressions of the various strands of his life, past and future, paths taken and untaken. There’s a sobering reality projected from this man’s troubled psyche as he discovers that his joy for the life and talent of his son (Austin Abrams) can be snubbed out in an instant by the insidious vengefulness of his own green-eyed monster at being usurped by somebody better, younger and intimately connected to him.

The cast is uniformly great but Stiller’s underplaying of Brad is another sign of maturation from an actor who still surprises when leaving comedy behind for drama or tragicomedy, such as his impressive work for Noah Baumbach like Greenberg (2010) and, most recently, The Meyerowitz Stories (2017). Like Beatriz at Dinner there’s a marvellous score by Mark Mothersbaugh, a long-time fixture in American independent cinema, which gets right at the emotional core of Brad’s internal struggles, especially when reflecting his deepest, most irrational fears with a skittering, off-kilter string motif that works like a needle pulling tirelessly at a frayed thread.

In the end we suspect Brad will make some form of compromise between no longer yearning competitively to match the materialistic notions of success of others whilst making peace with a deeper acceptance of what the meaning of his individual life has, can and will be. It’s the kind of conclusion that, essentially, we all make every day and Brad’s status is our own, revealed back to us truthfully and humanely by White’s marvellous dialogue with humour, compassion and insight.

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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Yorgos Lanthimos is one of modern cinema’s most idiosyncratic auteurs. From his raw, subversive Greek films, Kinetta (2005), Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011) to his English-language debut The Lobster (2015) he’s shown a propensity for creating strange and disturbing alternate worlds within a vacuum. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of how his often-bizarre sensibilities are expressed cinematically is how he’s been able to translate the qualities that make the earlier films so unique into his two English language films without missing a beat. The work of so many foreign film directors becomes inevitably diluted and tainted once they venture outside their homelands but Lanthimos has remained resolutely aligned to a boldness of vision that he retains totally creative control over.

His new film The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) begins with a curious meeting between cardiologist Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and a young man, Martin (Barry Keoghan), with whom he’s becomes friends though we’re not immediately sure of the context of their relationship. Steven lies about who Martin is to a colleague and doesn’t disclose their meetings to wife Anna (Nicole Kidman). Over time it becomes clear that Martin has some sort of hold over Steven and when their relationship doesn’t follow a route set out by the younger man, Steven’s life begins to fall apart, firstly with medical issues relating to his son Bob (Sunny Suljic) and later daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy).

There’s a wonderfully oblique element to Lanthimos and regular co-writer Efthymis Filippou’s narrative as it veers between mounting psychological horror and bursts of black humour that often border on the absurd. It’s this strange tonal juxtaposition that is so unique to Lanthimos and his magnificently skewered perception of the world. The horror is supplied by the unnerving sense of how Martin is able to ingratiate himself into the lives of Steven’s family and begin to exert a malevolent, almost supernatural will on events. Another arresting force is Lanthimos’s extraordinarily overt use of classical source music including, most prominently, ‘De Profundis’ by Janne Rattya which probes like a needle under a fingernail, reinforcing a premonition of horror to come through sound alone.

Lanthimos has a unique way of eliciting very specific performances from his actors in the way they complement the bleakness of his vision and enhance the peculiarities of his insulated worlds. Through his experience as lead actor in The Lobster, Colin Farrell has well and truly fallen into step with his director’s working methods and his performance as the increasingly frustrated Steven is a marvel of restraint, deadpanning and internalisation which rarely takes form in overt emotional outbursts. Though when it does, the results are memorable. Kidman is perhaps even better; her portrayal of Anna is one of immaculate control with her icy surface demeanour occasionally pierced by an emotional turmoil that seeps in at the edges. Still, Anna rarely allows any damage or distress to show other than in her remarkably expressive eyes.

So many of Lanthimos’s creative choices are strikingly memorable from the intriguing way he and regular cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis choose to shoot his characters, even in mundane scenarios such as doctors walking down hospital corridors, viewed either from forward or behind. Many of the distorting lenses or odd angles add to the effect of dislocation and peculiarity in what is a compelling but eerily emotionless version of the world. The resolution of events may be somewhat underwhelming, with a faint air of contrivance about it. Somehow, we’re bracing ourselves all along for something a little more extraordinary to unfold. But The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a masterfully executed provocation and excellent follow up to The Lobster. Regardless of the message it conveys or fails to convey through its tumbling, eerily emotionless revolutions, the film only cements Lathimos’s reputation as an artist with a truly unique perspective and one of world cinema’s most original voices.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

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Biopics of any description can only ever be fragmentary, sketchy examinations of their subjects. Painting in broad strokes, as they inevitably do, it’s easy to cast aspersions or draw inferences about the lives of these historical figures whilst avoiding nuance and richness of detail. Does this render them incapable of insight and intelligence? Not necessarily, and in the case of Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017), a portrait of Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne and his son Christopher, there are certainly a handful of genuinely poignant moments in the screenplay by long-time Michael Winterbottom collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan. The most notable of these honestly broach the darkest threads of Milne’s troubled life, including the initial struggles of anonymity, the curse of success and the terrible cost of both on an individual’s relationships.

Director Simon Curtis is no stranger to this realm of storytelling. His debut feature, after a length apprenticeship in TV, was My Week With Marilyn (2011) which focused on a very specific moment in the life and times of Marilyn Monroe. Turning to a key figure in children’s literature of the 20th Century, Curtis has cast his film well, specifically in the case of Domhnall Gleeson as Milne, a man psychologically wounded by war and emotionally distant thereafter. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) is gradually revealed as a frivolous, wretched creature whose attachment to Milne was only ever based on an assumption that he would continue to write and achieve the fame and notoriety that he eventually claimed, thus giving her social opportunities and the promise of a more lavish lifestyle. The arrival of their son Christopher Robin Milne (Wil Tilson and, in late scenes as an 18 year old, Alex Lawther), nicknamed Billy, was more an inconvenient aside than the culmination of a lifelong yearning.

Milne is an awkward parent who can’t relate the innocent child’s perspective of his son but everything changes when he’s thrust into duty during his lowest creative ebb. Having moved away from London to a ramshackle country retreat, he has been abandoned by Daphne, and with Christopher’s nanny Olive (the always superb Kelly Macdonald) called away to be with her ailing father, Milne must actively confront the full scope of his parental duties for the first time. A kind of bonding occurs and utilising his son’s stuffed toys he conjures up a series of adventures for them all in the surrounding woods. The toys become integrated into Milne’s suddenly re-charged creative process and act as the key figures in his stories of Winnie the Pooh, including Tigger, Donkey, Eeyore, Piglet and, of course, their wise human friend, ‘Christopher Robin’.

The score by Carter Burwell is yet another classy contribution from a composer more often associated with the Coen brothers but who never disappoints, delivering music attentively attuned to each project’s needs, whether darkly comic, sensitive or quirky. For Goodbye Christopher Robin he provides a near perfect score. At times it’s openly melodic in a restrained, pastoral English vein; in others, gently probing at the darker edges of Milne’s mental fragility, recollections of war duelling with the harshness and inadequateness of the world he’s returned to. Yet deploying a small orchestral ensemble Burwell always keeps his music in check, never tipping over into overt sentimentality. It’s this masterful control that distinguishes so much of his best work, including his masterpiece Carol (2015), written for Todd Haynes’s extraordinary feast for the senses.

There’s ultimately nothing ground-breaking about Curtis’s film. It follows a formula or template we’ve all subliminally memorised and could recognise in a heartbeat. Accept the ‘facts’ of real lives with a grain of salt, knowing that creative embellishments – outlandish ones even – are part and parcel of how these nostalgic reconstructive dramas are made more palatable, both in their conception and, ultimately, in their re-telling. Goodbye Christopher Robin proves to be a proficient, highly entertaining example, all reservations aside. The performances are strong, eliciting emotional reactions that have truthfulness attached to them in the film’s very best scenes. It may even inspire some to re-examine Milne’s life through his timeless work, not a bad thing at all, if it means finding the child inside of us all once again.

Good Time

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A gritty, ground-level drama that sees Robert Pattinson getting down and dirty in the seedy, ill-lit backstreets of New York, Good Time (2017) is Josh and Benny Safdie’s third feature and their finest work to date. Imbued with a retro aesthetic memorably related to the kind of films regularly produced during American cinemas greatest decade, the ‘70’s, Good Time oozes with misplaced criminal intent, hilariously dim-witted but crafty characters, and motives utterly bereft of reason. With its deliberately grainy, decoloured visuals, it comes across as being an update, of sorts, of films like Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) which epitomised the bravado, skill and innovation that filmmakers of that era so heartily embraced in their dangerous storytelling and compelled us to participate in as audience members.

At its centre is our doomed anti-hero, Connie Nikas (Pattinson), whose devotion to his mentally challenged brother Nick (Benny Safdie) sees him plunging heedlessly into a dangerous urban sprawl in order to survive. Connie may not be an especially sympathetic character but his ingenuity is admirable. He’s not especially bright either but what he possesses in spades are street smarts and an ability to pick himself up in the face of adversity and plough onwards, chances of success be damned. In a sense Connie is spinning his wheels from the outset as his bank heist goes horribly wrong mere moments afterwards as exploding dye forces he and Nick to run. His brother can’t keep up and is arrested. Later he gets in a brawl in a holding cell and is transported to hospital, thwarting Connie’s attempt to bail him with the financial aid of clingy older lover (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Logic plays a small part in Connie’s though processes; not for the first or last time, he decides upon a reckless course of action by surreptitiously entering the hospital to break out his brother who is under police guard. Things inevitably go to hell but Connie’s brazenness and ability to improvise in the face of danger make for sweat-fisted, compelling viewing. Pattinson is magnetic in the lead role, but he’s surrounded by a seamlessly blended ensemble. Safdie pulls off his few scenes as the dim but earnest brother with great conviction. Leigh savours her moments in a couple of juicy sequences as the harried, deluded Corey, whilst Peter Verby is also unnervingly good as Nick’s psychiatrist. Added to the mix are newcomer Taliah Webster as a young girl who befriends Connie after he’s let into the home of a West Indian grandmother and Buddy Duress as the annoyingly garrulous Ray, another crim caught in the middle of Connie’s nightmare under the most surprising circumstances.

The Safdie brothers have crafted an excellent, downbeat crime film on a minuscule budget. It may not appeal to all tastes but every raw, rough-round-the-edges aspect of this production is impressive. From the use of mostly natural light, intense close-ups, and roving hand-held camera, every creative choice heightens the retro aesthetic and stands in defiance of commercial considerations. These characters never feel or act or talk like constructs; they’re simple and inarticulate, driven by primal urges, compelled by sincerity and, often in the same breath, stupidity. From the film’s title card to the pounding, propulsive electronic score by Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin), there are constant reminders of another darker, more authentically rendered era. Good Time is an intoxicating, sleaze-laden throwback, a riveting odyssey into a black hole of despair and desperation that you can’t turn away from. It’s also another giant creative leap forward for all involved, especially the Safdies and the increasingly impressive Pattinson who, if he wasn’t legitimised through his work with David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis in 2012 and Maps to the Stars in 2014), David Michod (2014’s The Rover) and Werner Herzog (2015’s Queen of the Desert), certainly has been now.

Jigsaw

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The umpteenth instalment of any franchise will inevitably be bled of anything approximating cinematic invention and for Saw, like its never-say-die brethren such as the Amityville and Paranormal Activity film cycles, the well has mostly run dry. Jigsaw (2017) arrives, then, after a seven-year hiatus in the series initially conceived by those two talented Melbourne film students James Wan and Leigh Whannell, acting again as executive producers. The local flavour is maintained however with Michael and Peter Spierig taking over directorial duties. The brothers have been genre favourites for a while and their body of work has improved with each film. Their low-budget debut Undead (2003) was somewhat of a dud but stylish vampire flick Daybreakers (2009) was a vast improvement, tackling a familiar sub-genre from a fresh angle. Then came their best work to date, sublime time-travel drama Predestination (2014), which featured a thrilling, mind-bending plot and great work from Ethan Hawke and, especially, the astonishing Sarah Snook in dual roles.

Roped into helming Jigsaw before their much anticipated upcoming period ghost flick Winchester (2018) the brothers have made a competent if utterly extraneous sequel that straddles the borderline between B-grade and B-plus. It’s reasonably compelling, no doubt, jumping back and forth as it does between two interlinked narrative strands. In the first – a scenario harking back to the original – a sinister ‘game’ plays out as a hand-picked few wake tethered to chains in a dark room and with steel bucket helmets attached to their heads. It’s not just a routine ‘night after’ for this specious crew as they soon discover. In the first of a series of ghoulish rounds they’re implored to make a sacrificial blood offering to their captor in order to progress. Inevitably their number dwindles as they lose their helmets, limbs and minds.

As these set-pieces in miniature reach breathless points of suspenseful anticipation, we regularly switch to the ongoing investigation of a lead detective, Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) as he and his mostly clueless cohorts in the department and morgue attempt to uncover the true nature of the ’game’, its location and of course its mastermind. Physical and other clues suggest the return of John Kramer (Tobin Bell) but he died years ago, didn’t he? The screenplay is credited to Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg whose CV’s are littered with ignominious examples of genre hackdom from the last decade. It’s a measure of how desensitised we’ve become to sustained cinematic violence by now that something like Jigsaw seems almost tame by today’s standards, severed limbs, acid-drenched faces and cut-in-half human brains notwithstanding.

The performances are suitably frenzied from the victims-to-be, all unpleasant, thinly sketched puppets with skeletons in their closet, and the Spierig brothers’ direction is very decent if undistinguished with their pacing especially tight. The ‘death-trap’ scenes are naturally pitched at a manic level of petrified confusion with the stock-standard detective bumbling acting as a neat counterpoint. If nothing else, Jigsaw entertains on a crass, primal level by adhering to well-worn genre precepts and expectations of its intended target audience: intense close-ups, creepy-doll menace, feverish but moronic verbal exchanges provoked by each character’s fear of death, the ever-present threat of bloody deliverance and an assaultive use of sound, with Charlie Clouser’s ramped up score (which he must be phoning in by now) working overtime to drag our nerve endings over the coals as we progress deeper and deeper into Jigsaw’s lair. There’s nothing especially brilliant about the final twist but Jigsaw fulfils its brief. No complaints there. Now, is it too much to ask for no more?

Detroit

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Working again with screenwriter Mark Boal, director Kathryn Bigelow follows up their previous collaborations, the remarkably tense, Oscar-winning Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker (2008) and the overwhelmingly dense Zero Dark Thirty (2012), with another dramatic retelling of real events. This time, however, we’re going further back in time, to Detroit, 1967. The Motor City, as now, was a dangerous place back then, an urban sprawl terminally on the verge of a racially charged explosion as tensions became elevated to a feverish pitch. As a tipping point is finally reached, Bigelow delves into the ugly, violated spaces created by overlapping black and white disgust, hatred and fear. Things get ugly very swiftly as dozens of city blocks are transformed into what looks like an Eastern European war zone, with looting and snipers commonplace.

 
Bigelow’s mantra has so often been to place the viewer uncomfortably close to the constantly changing, kaleidoscopic impressions created by the pulsating drama over which her lens roves like an omnipotent eye. The claustrophobic immediacy of Detroit (2017) is almost enough to elicit a physical reaction, especially during the film’s tense centrepiece which takes up the majority of its lengthy runtime. After a party culminates in an angry black man aiming his starter’s pistol out of a window, dozens of officers and National guardsmen are drawn, blood boiling, to the disconcertingly real sound coming from the Algiers Motel like bees to the smell of nectar on a warm summer breeze.

 
A trio of young police officers, led by Krauss (Will Poulter), take the initiative in attempting to uncover the source of the ‘gunfire’ by rounding up the predominantly black clientele in the building’s downstairs area. Through verbal intimidation, manhandling and threats of murder they attempt to extract information. Yet their motivations are far more base, for in every interaction between the civilians and their captors, the position of power the officers hold becomes a prism through which lines of race and status and moral corruption are refracted with toxic, terrifying precision.

 
The tussle of complex emotions inside the jittery officers, including racial tensions reverberating along a live wire, are like a lit fuse looking for a place to explode. The men are not mindful of the outlet for their primal yearnings either. This is especially true in the case of the hotheaded Krauss who already has a murder charge hanging over him for shooting a fleeing, unarmed black man in the back in the days prior. Also dragged into this volatile scenario is a black security guard (John Boyega) whose skin colour sets him up as a potential convenient fall-guy for corrupt officialdom. And also present are members of an all-black band, The Dramatics, led by lead singer Larry Reed (the superb Algee Smith), whose back-story is detailed in early scenes with a much-anticipated performance abandoned because of social unrest outside the venue. This fateful night will end with lives lost and a city’s psyche irreparably damaged.

 
Seamlessly inserting real-life reportage from the time does give the film an almost documentary feel at times, and Bigelow, as always, has a great eye for casting relative unknowns in key roles, many of whom have compelling, ‘interesting’ faces. You could argue the perspectives (including the lack of a meaningful female one) are weighted heavily for over-the-top provocation rather than the more balanced viewpoints they could offer. Yet despite the noxious, unsavoury nature of this film, which will leave you with an ache in the pit of your stomach, it’s undeniably effective as a tense, skilfully drawn-out drama. It may not be as compelling or as multi-layered as her previous two masterworks, but Detroit is certainly another impressively authentic piece of cinema from Bigelow. Ultimately though, we might query whether its somewhat simplified re-shaping of events offers anything much in the way of fresh insights into problems that have neither been expunged from society or confronted with any more success in the depressingly long decades since Detroit.

Battle of the Sexes

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The stark disparity in prizemoney levels and the general public’s perception of the worth of sportswomen finally began to be addressed in the early 70’s. But it took the trailblazing efforts of one determined athlete, tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), to turn the tide, outraged by the divide between females and their male counterparts. But what she encountered was a sturdy brick wall of masculine derision when suggesting something more equitable to tournament organisers. Radical change was required and so, banding with a staunch group of like-minded female players, and led by promoter and World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), they formed a breakaway group of renegades, determined to establish a new tour for women with benefits and rewards decided on their own terms.

Amidst this tumult and the waves it created in stirring up the male-centric establishment, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s new film, Battle of the Sexes (2017), also offers insight into the personal story and, in particular, sexual awakening of King. Despite being married to Larry (Austin Stowell), she began to experience something different, especially after the intimate, hands-on attentions of hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Such ‘morally dubious’ inclinations threatened to derail King’s credibility and she worked hard at maintaining the façade of her marriage despite everyone on tour quickly sensing that the suddenly constant lingering presence of Marilyn had deeper implications.

Battle of the Sexes is also the story of former champion and Hall-of-Famer Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) who, at 55, and making peanuts on the Seniors tour, longs for another taste of the spotlight. He’s a figure of some tragedy, seemingly determined to curate a perception of himself as a buffoon, a self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig” gently provoking opinion but mostly in the service of showmanship. Meanwhile, his marriage is teetering on the edge of a precipice. Wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) has reached a point of no longer being able to reconcile her long-term life ambitions with those of a man who she essentially loves but can no longer abide for his incessant man-child act or self-destructive ways. Carell revels in the role but at times you can’t feeling that he hijacks the character of Riggs, becoming nothing more than another annoying version of himself, only in funny glasses and a bad haircut.

The film’s most anticipated set piece, the showdown on the court between King and Riggs is authentically recreated. Every angle and politely contained rally is captured with a keen eye gazing back through the lens of time at this distinctive era. The event captured the nation’s attention, semi-serious battle lines over gender and equality drawn. In a sense Riggs is a pawn for the cause of masculine dominance and an ingrained prejudice that hoped to keep female expectations of worth suppressed. Riggs himself had little interest in the ‘issues’ beyond a generalised public stand that pitted him, comically, against ‘the other side’ and stereotypes associated with both. For Riggs, this was more about personal exposure, stirring the pot and making money to cover and fund his ever-spiralling gambling addiction. Inspired by Riggs and his ‘free-for-all’ attitude to generating maximum exposure, the organisers ran wild with the concept Riggs. The whole thing, subsequently, became – quite literally in many senses – a rollicking circus with a colourful cavalcade of pre-match ‘entertainment’ more befitting something usually seen on the midway.

Composer Nicholas Britell, who earned an Oscar nomination last year for his work on Moonlight (2016), has again composed a first-rate work that uses a triumphant main theme to sustain some lengthy sequences. Especially brilliant is the way he scores the ebb and flow of the King/Riggs showdown. The contribution of screenwriter Simon Beaufoy – an Oscar winner for his Slumdog Millionaire (2008) adaptation – is notable also; he does a very decent job of balancing the film’s serious themes with more light-hearted moments. Even if he’s only skimming the surface to ensure this exists as a slick, palatably mainstream recreation of events, there are scenes that do resonate with emotional truth, including contrasting post-match reflections that are affectingly bittersweet in their conclusions. King remains an important figure today, not only in terms of sporting achievement, but for her ground-breaking work in expanded the consciousness of women and redefining their rightful yearning for an equal playing field and equal reward.