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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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?

Wind River

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Given another shot at the director’s chair after the critical acclaim lavished upon his first two produced screenplays, Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016), former actor Taylor Sheridan confirms his success has been no fluke. His second turn behind the camera, after obscure 2011 horror film Vile, shows him to be no slouch in terms of handling the demands of his narrative and actors. Wind River (2017) proves to be another impressive screenplay. Set in the blighted snowy expanses of Wyoming, it is, superficially, a murder mystery but as it unravels the strength of characterisation comes to the fore, especially in the form of lead character Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a Wildlife and Fisheries officer and local tracker who knows the dimensions and layout of the surrounding landscape like the back of his hand. Cory is a haunted man however, having being visited by tragedy of the worst sort in the not too distant past. The daughter he shared with estranged Indian partner Wilma (Julia Jones) was taken from him in terrible circumstances.

The discovery of a young Indian girl, Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille), on the outskirts of the ‘Wind River’ reservation in the film’s opening sends shockwaves through him though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from reading external indicators. Cory’s a classic figure of a mythologised West, the impenetrable, strong silent type who observes constantly but speaks only out of necessity. He’s a model of constraint, a man who internalises and compartmentalises his pain and angst to save face and allow him a reluctant reconciliation with the wider world. He is, then, not a naturally compatible partner for the young FBI agent, Jane Bremmer (Elizabeth Olsen), drafted in to oversee the case and make a determination about murder. Together they dig into possible leads, with Jane utilising Cory’s intimate, detailed knowledge of both the environment and the wild assortment of people who call it home at every turn to uncover clues from beneath every overturned rock. What she finds is a world apart from her own big city life, one immersed in a doom-laden fog from which an unpredictable enemy might emerge at any time.

Sheridan’s screenplay includes a couple of fine set-pieces, including an explosive early confrontation with one group of suspects and another suspenseful sequence which involves a trawl through the snow with local enforcement officers and a band of men who they naturally distrust. It’s this latter scene which trips the film into an electrifying and brutal flashback sequence through which all the film’s lingering mysteries are filtered. Despite the mystery taking precedence, Sheridan is able to poignantly and effectively address other issues. On a broader level Wind River provides sobering insights into the poisonous malaise laying over this place like a fresh coating of snow in the form of a senses-dulling inertia and dead-end hard-scrabble lives – mostly Native American – robbed of direction, motivation or even a flicker of comprehension.

It’s this saturating helplessness and the wavering moral boundaries it generates that sit in stark contrast to the intrinsic strength of Cory’s character. Though enigmatic, he’s highly empathetic, a fact which doesn’t discount his flaws. If anything it accentuates his humanity, his integrity, and the depth of his losses, including his daughter and his marriage. But despite everything it’s the innate ability he retains to feel and console the pain of others like his friend, Natalie’s grieving father Martin (the wonderful Gil Birmingham) that we admire.

With Cory, Renner has been given his finest role since Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) the film that hurtled him into the spotlight and has led, mostly, to high-profile but empty roles in big-budget fare. He’s magnificently understated, bringing an impressive level of stillness and thoughtful consideration to nearly every scene. that might otherwise have seen overblown emotional reactions and chaos as a more appropriate response to the turbulence. Equal credit must be given to Sheridan too, of course, for the exceptional quality of performances he’s extracted from all his cast members, including Olsen as the fish-out-of-water agent who proves she can handle herself despite needing local intelligence to shine an investigative light down some very murky rabbit roles within the reservation.

Though the minimal, eerie textures of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s score tips over into questionably eccentric deployment on a couple of occasions, there is little else to fault in Wind River. The resolution may deny us a truly visceral sense of vengeance enacted but, on reflection, it’s perfectly weighted and consistent with all that we know of Cory. And then there’s a final scene between Cory and Martin; this too is memorable and a moving encapsulation of the film’s deeper concerns which are as much about the nature of hope and perseverance as about the eternal grip of grief and despair.

The Beguiled

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With distant sounds of artillery lingering in the air, a young Virginian girl gathering mushrooms, Amy (Oona Laurence), chances upon a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John Patrick McBurney (Colin Farrell) as the Civil War rages on. Unable to walk without assistance, he accepts the girl’s offer of medical assistance at the nearby girls Seminary. Though headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) is willing to tend to the barely conscious enemy soldier, the other females, including teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and the oldest of the students, Alicia (Elle Fanning), are concerned about being discovered harbouring an enemy soldier, regardless of the seriousness of his infirmities. McBurney’s appearance will soon set the cat amongst the pigeons, so to speak. The presence of a man is not something these women are accustomed to contemplating, especially in the intimate, strangely sensuous way as the tending of his wounds and ensuing recovery will inevitably require. Each of them, in turn, will fall under John’s spell as he regains consciousness and begins his recuperation, attempting to win favours and win a place in their lives, camouflaged from battle and returning to his duties.

The visual aloofness and emotional coldness that so often characterises Coppola’s films is kept to a minimum here and it’s a welcome evolvement in her stylistic approach after the overly self-conscious inertia of Somewhere (2010) and, later, the vacuous excess standing in for tired metaphors in the utterly redundant The Bling Ring (2013). The Beguiled (2017) conversely, is a masterfully weighted piece of storytelling and very different from Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel which featured Clint Eastwood in the role of McBurney. There is undoubted simplicity in this tale’s telling but rather than harming the overall effect, the strong foundation of engaging dialogue taken from the novel and flawless performances from this neatly assembled ensemble, have merged to produce what is an exquisite work of art.

Unlike Siegel’s version, the melodrama is admirably underplayed this time, for the most part, more in the way of Peter Weir’s Australian masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) which Coppola seems to draw numerous inferences from in the way she informs her own film’s tone, pacing and visual conception. It’s not an insult to Weir’s film to draw comparisons either as The Beguiled equally stimulates the senses in a deliberate, slowly evolving way. No resonating intrigue sits at its heart, as in Picnic at Hanging Rock with its delicately suggested whiff of the supernatural, but the storytelling is just as exactingly realised. Coppola offers haunting images aplenty whilst skilfully appropriating the natural environment, casting occasional broader glances into the distance as the gunfire continues unabated, as well as cryptically setting her characters in the foreground against the mansion’s impressive gothic surrounds.

The performances all superbly reflect the characters’ increasingly pained constraint. Kidman and Dunst using silence and telling glances to convey the growing unease that McBurney’s mere presence provokes. Farrell is utterly unlike Eastwood but I don’t think he’s had many better roles than this, at least not in recent times. That effortless charisma and those classically sculpted Black Irish looks are exploited to full effect by Coppola. Without much of a challenge he’s able to project an aura of dangerously charged, corporeal possibilities that the more mature women are afraid to verbally contemplate and the younger girls can hardly comprehend in any rational way. This wilting influence of McBurney’s overt masculinity works as a compelling narrative device in its own right; it acts as an oppressive force that leads the women to confront pent-up emotional inhibitions and causes dangerous rifts in their cloistered, held-together version of a life constrained by the war lingering on the horizon each day. Though the ending carries with it an air of inevitability – even for those who’ve never seen Siegel’s film – there’s an impressive, haunting visual eloquence in the way Coppola draws the threads together, putting a final idiosyncratic stamp on proceedings and marking this as her finest film since Lost in Translation (2003).

American Honey

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As she did with Fish Task (2009), director Andrea Arnold has justifiably put her faith in a young, first time actress to encapsulate the despair, confusion and danger of a young woman escaping the world beyond her impoverished beginnings in American Honey (2016). Arnold, venturing to the U.S for the first time, has crafted a dazzling, mesmerising freeform road movie that sees a young woman, Star (Sasha Lane), living in poverty, being sexually abused and lumbered with two young children, before jumping at an opportunity to escape her life.

In her small Oklahoma town, Star spies a joker, a charismatic stranger, Jake (Shia LeBeouf), causing a stir in the parking lot of a supermarket. It’s a case of eyes meeting across a void and sensing a spark. The inevitable encounter leads to a proposition of work for Star from Jake who, with a ragtag, eclectic crew of ‘colleagues’, is heading to Kansas City the following day. Ditching her oppressive existence for the chance of a fresh start requires little deliberation and within she has dropped the young children with their natural mother and fled for the group’s hotel.

The next day, with little time to get a bearing on her new surroundings, Star is quickly indoctrinated into the fold of these magazine subscription sellers who must adopt any angle, cover story or other means of deception whilst doorknocking in affluent sections of cities to procure sales. The operation is the brainchild of Krystal (Riley Keough) who, running a tight ship whilst indulging in hedonistic activities on the side, tolerates nothing less than people who can genuinely earn their way. As the new blood, Star is assigned to Jake, Krystal’s personal assistant and top earner, for mentoring.

The chemistry between the two leads is genuine, setting off a strangely intuitive yet combative relationship that, frowned upon by Krystal, has a doomed inevitability about it. Both lead actors are nothing short of sensational. For LaBeouf this part is a gift, clearly the most interesting of his career, whilst Lane astonishes in her screen debut; she possesses an at times overwhelming physical presence and shines in many of the film’s finest sequences in which Star is seemingly placed in jeopardy as she assumes more individual responsibility for sales. Arnold’s has conceived some hypnotically terrifying moments, pregnant with dangerous possibilities and a palpable sense of Star’s vulnerability despite her bravado and willingness to take calculated risks.

Arnold continues to prove herself as a formidable talent. In the light of American Honey, her last film, a magnificent bleak skewering of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (2013) can be viewed as the next step of her radical evolution as a filmmaker unafraid of spiking convention, narrative form and visual grammar. One of the most remarkable aspects of this, her fourth feature, is her continuing collaboration with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, an equally fearless artist whose eye-popping immersion in Arnold’s world brings forceful scrutiny and a rare sense of authenticity. All the silliness, boredom-relieving silliness, idiocy, intensity and careless but genuine camaraderie shared between members of the group are captured with a purity that organically dissolves into captivating visual poetry.

American Honey is a dazzling, creatively daring film; it’s not only Arnold’s finest to date but one of the 2016’s most memorable and, sure to be, enduring cinematic achievements. Even at around 160 minutes it remarkably never feels overdrawn or bogged down in extraneous scenes for even a moment, and with a canny usage of source music, ends up creating a slew of scenes that will linger in mind for days after.

Nocturnal Animals

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An austere, bleak meditation on revenge and the blurred boundaries where fictional and non-fictional lives intersect, Tom Ford’s long-gestating second feature, Nocturnal Animals (2016) comes with high expectations after the excellent Christopher Isherwood adaptation A Single Man (2009). But the promise created by an interesting premise and a fine cast is gradually eroded as the film’s complexities are revealed to be skin deep, whilst narrative holes flower up like fresh wounds, exposing a paucity of credibility and leading to a wilting anti-climax.

Based on a novel by Austin Wright, Ford’s film quickly establishes the apathy and ennui of gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) who has emotionally disengaged, not only from her work, but also her relationship to husband Hutton (Armie Hammer). Then she receives a manuscript from her novelist ex-partner Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) who has dedicated his latest work to her and named it ‘Nocturnal Animals’, a term he often used to describe Susan during their time together. The film then effectively transforms to a story within the story as she dives into the book; the disturbing story described within forms the basis of much of the film.

A man, Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal,) is driving through a rural landscape at night with his wife Laura (Isla Fischer) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber) when they’re almost run off the road by a couple of cars. Soon they’re hounded to a stop in the middle of nowhere and being physically and verbally threatened by a group of rednecks led by the recklessly dangerous Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Even worse is to come when Laura and India are abducted before Tony can escape and struggle to freedom where his case, through the course of time, is investigated by cancer-riddled detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon).

There’s a sense of aloofness established early on that distances us from these people, especially in the present world of Susan, their coldness permeating every verbal and physical inflection. Beyond these glimpses, the world of the novel brings the nightmarish existence of a single man into ever sharper focus as his torment grows exponentially. In some way, is this same striving for recompense also taking shape in the real world, with Edward using the novel as a way to ingratiate his way back into the Susan’s consciousness for some possibly sinister purpose?

The illusion of the fictional story prevents us from emotionally engaging with what we see on screen, as horrible as these events playing out are. The presentation of this story ‘within’ is also highly problematic in the most fundamental way with the ‘investigation’ becoming more ludicrous as it progresses. Unorthodoxy on the behalf of Bobby might be semi-credible but the method he undertakes is difficult to reconcile with any kind of believable notion of the measures and actions a police officer would take to solve a crime of this magnitude. Bearing witness to Bobby’s reluctant participation in Bobby’s displaced vendetta is both uncomfortable and grating for its blatant absurdity

Nocturnal Animals turns out to be a crushing disappointment, squandering talent in every aspect of the production. Composer Abel Korzeniowski, a rising star and shining light of film music in recent years, provides another classy, elegant score. The performances too are uniformly excellent with Gyllenhaal adding to his remarkable recent body of work, with another dark, powerful portrayal of a man driven to extremes. Adams has never given anything less than a great performance and she does her best work here in flashbacks which show the first blossoming of her relationship with Edward before external forces are set in motion, dooming their perfect love. But the drama fizzles out, the final scene a perfect encapsulation of sharply focused expectations tainted by an enveloping absence that pervades both narrative strands.