Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

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In 2004, when soldiers from Bravo company return to the States as part of a victorious tour, private and public perceptions about what the war and true heroism really means, collide head on. Ben Fountain’s superb source novel did an excellent job of piercing the heart of the hypocrisy and condescension that sees prominent businessmen and political figures lining up to besiege the soldiers with plaudits and commendations of heroism. And yet they do so without ever truly comprehending the psychological impact of the soldiers’ existence in a place where danger can be lying in wait, quite literally, around every corner.

Despite some occasional stilted dialogue, director Ang Lee generally does a fine job of both staying true to Fountain’s story and interweaving the time strands with the transition from the present day’s hectic schedule at n NFL match in Dallas often dissolving into flashbacks from the company’s time in Iraq. Lynn’s story, in particular, is placed under the microscope. Footage of his defining, courageous act of close combat whilst attempting to save the life of superior officer, Shroom (Vin Diesel), has gone viral, giving the nation of point of focus for its nationalistic fervour.

The other side of the coin is the lack of respect given these men who are placed on a pedestal and idealised, very briefly, to sustain momentary blasts of patriotism but will soon be yesterday’s news. We get an especially telling insight into these fickle attitudes when the choreography of a show stopping spectacle needs to be rigidly adhered to. In the mayhem of the pre-show the soldiers become just a minuscule part of the ‘event’, in which crassness, ratings and celebrity power are what provide the real currency for a society sick on its force-fed idealisations of the kind of greatness they should truly aspire to.

Mostly from Billy’s eyes we see how manipulated Bravo become, their status as heroic figures quickly diminishing. Visions of Iraq and the loss of Shroom pouring through Billy’s haunted eyes provide a powerful juxtaposition against the mechanical, forgettable role they’re asked to play. The immersion of Bravo into this elaborate schematic fluff is almost painful to watch.

First time performer Alwyn is a revelation, surrounding to the need to make Billy an inward-gazing young man doesn’t deny him an inherent goodness and craving for the binding safety of family. His most important relationship however is with sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), still healing from a car crash and yearning for his return to re-centre her own life and that of their family. It’s the increasingly impressive Garrett Hedlund who steals the show however as Bravo’s forthright, vocal leader.

Important to the film is the real sense of camaraderie created between the men of Bravo. They act like fools at times and are blissfully ignorant about how to act in participating in this charade, but their sense of humour humanises them and as the film draws to a close with Billy teetering on the verge of an important decision, we feel the bond he feels with both the men and the duty he wishes to uphold. It’s complicated stuff, a torturous state of emotional turmoil that sees him weighing the pros and cons of staying home to tend to his family’s pain or fulfilling the expectations of his brothers and by extension, an entire nation – as ignorant and clueless as they may be. Adding further complication is the cheerleader he’s fallen for, Faison (Mackenzie Leigh), and the allure of another alternative life that she represents if he’s brave enough to take a wild, impulsive chance.

The final scenes, despite a couple of unconvincing moments, generally feel credible and right somehow, and not a betrayal of everything we wish for Billy as his revelatory day is reduced to its most crucial moment. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016), despite its flaws, is a restrained, humanistic portrayal of the terrible burden placed on young men tossed into the cauldron of a battleground on foreign soil. I admired it for an ambition that never strangles the film with expectation and yet allows Lee to find interesting ways to impart this important, gently moving story without it ever requiring empty spectacle to contextualise it.

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Hell or High Water

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Bringing an astute outsider’s perspective to the barren expanses of the impoverished Texan Badlands, British director David Mackenzie’s new film is a near-flawless crime gem. Hell or High Water (2016) is the second produced screenplay of actor turned writer Taylor Sheridan who retains his strike rate after Sicario (2015) his multi-layered drug cartel drama so brilliantly brought to life by Denis Villeneuve last year.

The narrative is split into two strands, the first featuring brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine) who go on a small-town bank-robbing spree in the west of the state, ostensibly to save their family farm. They pick up slim pickings in the first two before Tanner decides on an impromptu raid later in the day after lunch in a diner across the road when he decides they need to top up their funds. On the case is a battle-wearied veteran officer Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who, with his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), are handed what seems like a straight-forward case.

Every facet of this production is first-class, with the quartet of lead performances all exceptional. Foster is no stranger to playing men liable to lose their heads under some kind of psychological duress. Tanner is a loose cannon but he and Toby, despite their propensity for criminal behaviour, are never portrayed as potentially evil. For Toby, child-support issues are also a factor in motivating a desire for quick cash. Both actors ensure that we retain an essential empathy for the brothers; we can’t even despise them when they do, on rare occasion, resort to violence. They’re flawed anti-heroes of sorts, with Toby’s admission of his qualities never to be emulated and shortcomings to his son one of the film’s most sobering moments.

On the other side of the coin, Bridges gives a superb performance as the undeterred, easy-going Hamilton. Though jaded and on the verge of retirement he presents a calm, collected, easy confidence from having encountered every quirk attributable his fellow human beings, especially those with a distinctly West Texas flavour. He shares an easy camaraderie and witty self-effacement with Alberto whose mixed cultural background is a source of just some of the amusing repartee between the two.

Though it counts down to an inevitable confrontation, it’s the finer details that make Hell or High Water great, with Sheridan’s exceptional screenplay jam-packed with observational dialogue and subtle detailing that provides the film with texture, connecting both the people to the land and to one another as credibly portrayed human beings. Mackenzie’s direction is superb, deploying minimalism to allow richly-grained transitional scenes to move and expand at their own pace, whilst shaping other ‘bigger’ scenes with dazzling skill, in a way that never draws attention to them as showy set-pieces. Mackenzie’s last film, the claustrophobic prison drama Starred Up (2013) was an incredibly intense, impressively authentic piece of cinema. Though a world away from that, Hell or High Water is every bit as impressive and almost certainly his finest film to date.

Café Society

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Woody Allen’s latest is a breezy, familiar tale of love found, love lost and lost love pondered with bittersweet regret. Set in the 30’s and spanning a few years in 90 minutes, Café Society (2016) charts the course of Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) as he heads from New York to Los Angeles to find favour with his famous star agent bigshot uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell). Offered a bottom-feeder job and an attractive underling Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show him the ropes around town, Bobby finds himself content to mingle on the fringes of fame at parties, roving the sidelines and making himself known. Meanwhile he daydreams of courting the vivacious Vonnie with whom he has obvious chemistry and would like to spirit back to the Big Apple, the place he still yearns to be. A nasty twist is in store for Bobby however when he discovers that the love of his life is actually the young lover his influential uncle is working up the courage to leave his wife for. So who will ultimately win Vonnie’s attention?

Back in New York, flickering attention is paid to Bobby’s nefarious older brother Ben (Corey Stoll) who is mixed up in all manner of illegality and headed for an inevitable fall. Their sibling Evelyn (Sari Lennick) also gets a look in, her quiet domesticity with intellectual husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken) disrupted by a potentially criminal element as well in the shape of a threatening neighbour who may require tempering by Ben or his henchmen. Bobby’s return to New York sees him buying into one of his brother’s clubs where he puts his own stamp on the venue, leading to an attractive, enviable place of social mingling for the city’s high-set. But just what is that hollow spot settled deep inside him still, despite the gain of commercial success, financial solidity, a beautiful wife and a newborn child?

In a role that doesn’t stretch him, Eisenberg is very solid here, a recommendation I rarely offer considering how profoundly irritating he can be). His onscreen pairing with Stewart is becoming an almost weirdly regular event. She’s fine too, exerting an easy magnetism as Vonnie and in so doing, sustaining what has been a fine, revelatory year of performances after Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper (2016) and Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016). Carell is surprisingly well cast as the obnoxiously self-obsessed Phil whilst Lennick, Stoller and Jeannie Berlin, emitting a perfect pitch Jewish whine as the Phil’s poor sister Rose, round out a strong ensemble.

Café Society is enjoyable fluff, but strictly minor league Woody Allen in every respect. Low-definition characterisations, clichéd dialogue, the director’s predilection for samey jazz and his own annoying voiceover narration prove to be other downgrading aspects of the production. But despite these failings and a paucity of ambition, Café Society is amiable, neat and quintessentially Woody. Woody aiming far lower than he did with his recent masterful duo, Midnight in Paris (2011) or Blue Jasmine (2013) without doubt, but Woody nonetheless. Though it should invoke apathy and discontent, there’s a strangely lamentable comfort in that.

 

High-Rise

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J.G. Ballard’s seminal work, published in 1978, has long sat alongside a slew of equally influential novels that, upon first release, were deemed ‘unfilmable’. Prime examples include William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The former, a flawed curiosity piece, was shot in 1991 by David Cronenberg; the latter by Terry Gilliam without a shred of lucidity to keep it on the rails. Even Ballard’s own Crash fell into a similar category; again it was Cronenberg who finally took a shot at this ‘difficult’ novel, producing a fascinating but divisive mini-masterpiece of perversion in 1996. High-Rise has long remained in formidable defiance of adaptation attempts however the time has finally arrived. It’s now been audaciously brought to life by one of modern British cinema’s brightest lights, Ben Wheatley, and his partner and regular screenwriter Amy Jump.

The early scenes of High-Rise (2016) are curiously off-putting and alienating, immersing us in a weird retro world with a colour scheme and production design that draw attention to themselves in unfortunate ways. Wheatley and his cinematographer Laurie Rose find interesting ways to negotiate us through the maze of this scaled-down, closed-off society in miniature but it takes half an hour before we’ve come to grips with the off-kilter aesthetics. Initially, the world contained within the high rise is very much commensurate with the pristine, idealistic conception of its creator Royal (Jeremy Irons) who inhabits a floor on his own, replete with full-scale garden and other outlandish features. But human nature has a horrifying way of insinuating itself into any perfect design and before long tiny indicators of trouble begin to emerge, the first cracks developing into monstrous apertures that leave no room for repair.

Anyone familiar with High-Rise will know that it’s notorious for detailing the grotesque devolution of our species, of stripping back – with acidic fervour – the veneer that separates humankind and our civilised façade with our baser instinct which, as Ballard posits, given a chance to sniff the air and investigate, will almost certainly run amok. The world into which Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is deposited has a self-contained, hyper-reality to it; the world beyond only appears, tangentially, like a mirage hovering on the horizon, removed and coldly distant.

Ballard’s story sounds a bleak and dire warning for our race; in providing a stark and defining metaphor for our propensity for a rapid descent into savagery, he only hints at emotional vestiges underlining the contamination beyond a generalised anger and outrage at the inequality of this mini-society’s striations. The excellent Hiddleston proves to be the most accurate approximation of Laing you could imagine; there’s nothing particularly sympathetic about the man, but then he was never intended to be anything but a contextualising presence. In essence he serves as the primary witness and eyes of the audience. As we’re greeted to the subversion of order, cordiality and civility, they bottom out and begin feeding the savage, autonomous tendrils that swarm and submerge the high-rise into a primitively recast system of privilege and attainment.

The many supporting roles are all superbly cast, with Luke Evans especially effective as Wilder, one of the devolution’s chief catalysts, an outsider whose quest for visceral thrills denied him by the respectability and civility of the high-rise are key to kick-starting the crossing of the line into barbarity. Sienna Miller, Elizabeth Moss, James Purefoy and Peter Ferdinando are other standouts though Wheatley has assembled a genuinely flawless ensemble. Special mention should also be made of Clint Mansell’s mesmerising score which ranks amongst his very finest, perhaps even topping his work for Darren Aronofsky in the way it intelligently and intuitively taps into the darkly evolving psychological aspects of the high rise’s inhabitants and their gratuitous capitulation to disorder as the new order.

Almost out of necessity to serve the story’s essential truthfulness, the film provides a provocative spectacle, though the ugliness and contemptuousness of the increasingly outrageous violence will become unpalatable and too hard to stomach for many. However, for much of its length I revelled in the faithfulness of Wheatley’s vision and if it does drag on, even to repetitive excess, it’s ultimately a minor failing of what is a creatively daring attempt to cinematically render a story that has lost neither its appeal nor social relevance.

Swiss Army Man

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Taken at face value, the story of a disturbed man dragging a flatulent corpse around a forest to converse with as he waits for rescue has the potential to be something offensive and intolerable. But this peculiar, strangely moving film, the work of Daniels – co-writers and directors Daniel Schienert and Dan Kwan – provides us with a uniquely painful portrait of mental illness.

On the verge of suicide by hanging on what is seemingly a tiny spit of land in the middle of nowhere, Hank (Paul Dano) spots a body washing up on the beach. When his rope snaps he takes it as an omen that the dead man (Daniel Radcliffe), who he later names Manny, has been sent to keep him alive. Once he reveals a capacity to speak Manny displays a naivety about life and an ignorance of his previous life in the world of the living.

As if directing a child, Hank reveals to his all-purpose, interactive corpse friend the fundamental aspects of life, including behaviour to adopt in direct contact with the opposite sex. Often aimless, uncomfortably grim and just as regularly blackly humourous, Swiss Army Man (2016) is concerned with establishing the way in which the two form an intimate bond and unlikely alliance in forging onward, despite Hank’s misgivings, to get back to the world.

In a sense this instruction is as much about Hank’s need to re-educate himself about the life that he’s avoided but must inevitably return to. Having Manny as a wall to bounce off provides him with the necessary objectivity to untangle his own shortcomings and pierce the haze created by his unstable, dysfunctional perception of life. In the briefest of snippets we see Hank riding a bus and taking notice of a woman who becomes the focus of a fixation that will define him in strange, perturbing ways as his interaction with Manny takes on greater detail.

With stunning work from Paul Dano and a fine assist from Daniel Radcliffe – two actors increasingly unafraid to take creative chances in their careers – Swiss Army Man evolves into a deliciously strange, often bizarre cinematic experience which will earn your admiration for its devotion to a brazenly idiosyncratic point of view. A couple of montages in which an internal, yet interactive world – created by Hank using the detritus of tourists to fashion a bus, a stage, costumes and countless other things – comes to life, provide the film with its most loopily inspired moments. They also offer a brilliant overlapping of image and sound as the equally unconventional, off-kilter score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell contributes a strange magic of its own.

With a literal interpretation out of the question, there are multiple ways, obviously, to deduce the unfolding of the film’s narrative. It becomes clear, however, that Schienert and Kwan’s interest is in illuminating the often piercingly creative internal life of a damaged psyche. Through Hank we see something startling coming to life, offering genuine poignancy, especially as the slightly incongruent, not entirely successful, final scenes arrive. And as they do, a pervasive sadness, in which all of Hank’s inhibitions, anxieties and apprehensions about his life outside of Manny and the forest, are uncomfortably confirmed, is juxtaposed with an elusive, consolatory flash of liberation from the very same constrictions that prevented Hank from fulfilling any kind of destiny.

 

Rams

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In remote, freezing Iceland, two brothers exist side by side on adjoining properties without having exchanged a word for 40 years. In Grimur Hakonarson’s dour, slowly evolving drama Rams (2015) the art of depicting an apparent nothingness is slowly stretched to spellbinding proportions. Gummi (Sigurour Sigurjonsson) is the more laidback sibling but when his prized ram loses narrowly in a local showing to his brother’s top contender, he decides to take a late night peak at the winner’s attributes up close to better understand the judge’s decision. Instead, to his horror, he discovers what appear to be the early signs of a rare but deadly disease. He alerts authorities and naturally, when his brother Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson) gets wind of the news, he thinks it’s just an epic case of sour grapes.

The combined sheep are the last of a famous bloodline beloved by both brothers so when the death knell is sounded, requiring them all to be slaughtered and ruling out further ownership for two years, both Gummi and Kiddi are devastated. Secretly however, Gummi decides to withhold a few sheep and his prized ram, hiding them in a rear basement. Eventually he’s found out – by a local authority representative not so fortuitously needing a rest stop on his travels – and the most unlikely possibility of all comes into play – the two brothers actually communicating by a means other than notes delivered by Gummi’s dog. The film, as it nears its end, unfolds with relative abandon after long stretches of relative dormancy in a series of bleak contemplations of life’s misery and injustice. It all builds to what is a miraculous, breath-takingly tender final scene, beautifully held by Hakonarson, as the fates of man and beast are ambiguously left open to the imagination.

Rams is an understated, ghostly film, conjuring tone and atmosphere from a richly captured environment and subtle performances. There’s fascination enough to be had from this immersion in a rarely glimpsed locale on the big screen. Hakonarson’s screenplay may be modest but it plays to its strengths, relying on naturalism and focused performances, especially Sigurjonsson as the more even-handed brother who seems to have long suffered in silence. With great effect, the director manages to juxtapose the bleakness of survival in such a place with a callous, cold wintry brilliance laced with an ethereal beauty that descends with an uncontainable relentlessness. Rams fools us into believing in a seeming simplicity but ultimately there is much at stake here, including the fate of bloodlines of more than one type.

A Month of Sundays

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A real estate agent is suffering through a mid-life crisis. And what – we’re supposed to care? Well, thanks to a beautifully understated performance by Anthony LaPaglia, returning to his home town of Adelaide, and the skill of writer-director Matthew Saville, A Month of Sundays (2016) does indeed achieve the near impossible, eliciting sympathy for a member of one of the most derided, disreputable professions on God’s green earth.

Frank Mollard (LaPaglia) is wavering on the verge of a terminal fadeout. Having recently lost his mother, he’s become utterly listless, exhibiting little or no enthusiasm for his work. Going through the motions one evening after another blandly successful auction he couldn’t care less about, he receives a strange phone call from a woman, Sarah (Julia Blake), who sounds eerily close to his mother and who addresses him as son. Disorientated, Frank loses himself in the moment and continues the surreal exchange before the truth finally comes to light. It’s a wrong number, a strange miscommunication. But Frank is intrigued by this woman and calls her again the next day before arranging a lunch engagement. Their initial meeting becomes a regular one during which more detailed aspects of their troubled lives come to light.

Saville’s two previous features both dealt with characters attached to the police force. His impressive debut Noise (2007) was followed by the equally noteworthy accident cover-up tale of Felony (2013) in which a trio of officers with very different agendas attempt to juggle damaging ethical compulsions with a hard-edged loyalty to their own kind. A Month of Sundays is impressive for many reasons but mostly because it strikes such a perfect balance between drama and a previously unrevealed vein of black humour, often interspersing scenes with Frank’s boss Philip Lang, played to perfection by John Clarke. The film often has a wonderfully pensive, slowed-down, unrushed feel to it as well. Most refreshingly, Saville allows, at times, real-world sounds and uncomfortable silences to carry scenes in which Frank is drawn into an internal examination of his troubles.

It’s an impressively crafted portrait and LaPaglia, with intuitive skills and a subduing of Frank’s emotional register, allows us a telling, often moving glimpse of his struggles with reasoning and inspiration. His interactions with his teenage son and ex-wife (Justine Clarke) occasionally hit upon the odd wrong note but at the core of A Month of Sundays is Frank’s tale and it’s one told with great conviction by an emerging young Australian filmmaker.