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.

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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.

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.

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.