La La Land

la-la-land-poster

For his follow up to the exhilarating Whiplash (2014), writer/director Damien Chazelle has turned his precocious talent to revitalising the old-school Hollywood musical with La La Land (2016). Two lives fatefully cross paths, first on a log jammed freeway and then in a bar, but aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) initially comes to the conclusion that struggling jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is an arrogant jackass. When they run into one another yet again during a party at which Sebastian is now part of an embarrassingly retro ensemble playing poolside, Mia decides to test the limits of his seemingly minimal sense of humour. Sparks fly, of course, as they later leave the party together and drift into the first of many great shared musical numbers that accompany the ups and downs of their relationship.

As one normally resistant to musicals, I found myself in a very strange and unusual place in this case, being immediately enamoured of La La Land. It proves to be an endearing, vibrantly staged and superbly choreographed gem from first scene to last. In paying homage to a near forgotten Hollywood era, Chazelle has necessarily conceded his essential narrative to a tried and true formula of forging individual identities, self-belief and searching for vindication of your own dreams but there’s a nice balance of darkness and light in the journey of Sebastian and Mia.

Gosling and Stone are perfectly matched, both on-screen and off-screen, apparently. There’s no disputing they have genuine chemistry and if Gosling’s vocal talents are a notch in quality below that of Stone’s, it never hurts the travails of their romantic union as it blossoms through exotic, quivering highs and despairing lows. Both sides of the relationship are well represented musically with Justin Hurwitz’s score, extrapolating from the many memorable tunes that form the basis of his songs co-composed with lyricists Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, breathing magical life into scenes in which Chazelle has allowed his imagination to run unchecked.

Conventional relationship arc aside, the couple’s general likeability is enhanced by some strong dialogue which elaborates, with equal measures of whimsy and seriousness, on the intoxicating power of life, art and aspirations. The obvious, easy broad appeal of La La Land will be off-putting to some but it can’t cancel out the almost guilty envelopment of bliss generated by Chazelle’s visionary cinematic sweep which so often is complemented by the dazzling gifts of emerging Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren. Together they have conceived a series of memorable sequences, from sumptuously staged montages, like one that culminates in a dreamy planetarium drift, to the raw emotional truthfulness that marks Mia’s most important audition, perhaps the most memorable musical high point.

Hacksaw Ridge

hacksawposter2

Morphing from strained melodrama via disconcertingly comedic asides into one of the most stomach-churning, brutal depictions of combat ever seen on a big screen, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is a strange but potent beast. Shortcomings may dog its early going, but there’s no doubt that the elaborate staging of the assault on and attempt to wrestle command of the titled Ridge is one of the most pulsating, stirring set-pieces in cinema history. It provides an assault on the senses whilst being uncomfortably entertaining throughout.

On the downside, there are some jarring moments in the character-establishing first third of the film which begins with the childhood of Desmond Doss (Darcy Bryce) on a day when his constant play-fighting with brother Hal takes a nasty turn. The resultant serious injury that Hal suffers truly opens Desmond’s eyes up to how easy aggression can lead to dire consequences in an instant. The boys’ parents, Tom (Hugo Weaving) and Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), seem to have strayed in from a million wartime and other domestic dramas. Tom’s a former soldier himself, haunted by the loss of the friends whose graves he regularly visits to pour salt into all his old wartime wounds. A stray drop or two of alcohol also plays a part into contorting his mind with a strain of poisoned bitterness. Bertha is a commendably salt-of-the-earth type, shapeless but decent, determined to hold the family together even as the odds against it grow more imposing.

We then fast-forward to the young adulthood of Desmond (now played by Andrew Garfield) and his embarrassingly schmaltzy courtship of pretty and preposterously unattached nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). A series of scenes which are cringe-worthy for their triteness, simplicity and painful conventionality follow, before Doss almost immediately decides to follow his conscience and the lead of his brother, and enlist to become an army medic. Scenes of Doss’s time in training are treated with an equally jarring, weirdly comedic tone. The introduction of Vince Vaughn as hardnosed Sgt Howell begins a section of the film that will have you pondering a ludicrous fusion of R. Lee Ermey with Sgt. Bilko. Of course, it’s Doss’s reluctance to ever take arms that raises most controversy and almost sees him railroaded out of the army before he ever sees time on a battlefield. His religious convictions generate mistrust, anger and contempt from fellow soldiers and officers alike who are adamant that Doss will be detrimental to their cause.

But this story of Doss’s contribution to the saving of multiple lives on Hacksaw Ridge without ever firing a bullet in anger is one of remarkable heroism. The hand-to-hand warfare is portrayed with startling authenticity, initially hitting audiences like a thunderbolt of electricity and never letting up thereafter. It’s both increasingly difficult to watch or look away from as men on both sides are shot down like ducks in a shooting gallery. Gibson doesn’t shy away from showing the true horror and chaos of these insane, frenzied, fugue-like back and forths, the extreme physical effects of humans being torn apart like rag dolls shown with a horrifying clarity. But amidst the carnage, Doss reveals cunning and courage as his burrows far and wide to retrieve wounded soldiers who would otherwise have been abandoned to horrible fates, either dying in agony or delivered a fatal blow by Japanese survivors.

Rupert Gregson-Williams’s score – the best of his career – contributes another pulsating, stirring emotional subtext to what is a mesmerisingly uncomfortable snapshot of war’s paradoxical nature, bringing courage and camaraderie to the fore even as it grinds itself down to ever more unpalatable chunks of abject futility. Gibson, never a director to let an opportunity to examine the painful associations of a bloodletting influence his artistic ambitions, as Braveheart (1995), The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006) can attest to, has made a ferocious contribution to the sub-genre of war cinema. With a startling lead performance from Garfield as the moralistic but resolute warrior that Doss becomes, and strong work from an ensemble amongst the military ranks (especially young Australian Luke Bracey as Smitty Ryker), Gibson has forged a tale of humanistic endeavour amidst the most inhumane conditions imaginable and it’s almost impossible to remain unmoved by this boldly cinematic tale.

 

 

 

American Honey

american-honey-poster

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.

Morgan

morgan-poster

Though it mostly skirts around more interesting core themes to build its narrative with constituent parts closer in relation to generic thrillers, there are still striking elements in Luke Scott’s Morgan (2016). This is a film that concerns itself with that obsessive contemplated theme of Philip K. Dick’s about what it really means to be human. It begins on a remote compound where a group of scientists have been conducting an elaborate, highly evolved experiment with a new life form. But now an ‘incident’ has occurred in which their biologically engineered star pupil Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) has lashed out at the woman seen as her ‘mother’ figure, Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

In the wake of this anomalous event, ‘Corporate’ has dispatched a handpicked representative, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), to review the group’s processes and make a determination about the future of Morgan. Seemingly chosen for her cool composure and hard-nosed objectivity, Weathers immediately rubs the site’s leaders, including Dr. Simon Zeigler (Toby Jones) and Dr. Amy Menser (Rose Leslie), the wrong way, with suspicions arising that the project that they’ve devoted so much time and dedication to, may now be in jeopardy.

This is an excellent debut for Scott, son of Ridley, though it seems strange considering his lineage that it’s taken until the age of 48 for him to get his first feature into production. Written by Seth Owen, Morgan develops intrigue before gaining decent momentum, if somewhat artificially generated. The twists that follow evolve from what is perhaps the film’s standout scene in which Morgan is interviewed for pysch-evaluation purposes by a late-arriving analyst, played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti.

As it develops, Morgan becomes another cautionary tale about how humanity’s obsession with scientific progress, though it can initiate stunning, rapid change and advances for the species, may also bring about its ultimate downfall. Messing with the gene pool is fraught with danger, as is a desire to explore far scientific horizons whilst simultaneously exposing the depths of man’s monumental hubris. Screenwriters have become adept at showing us how horribly pear-shaped these scenarios eventually turn out with Alex Garland’s superb recent effort Ex-Machina (2015) perhaps the finest example to date.

The two female leads are the standouts, with Mara playing the steely Weathers with great conviction and a strong sense of the ambiguity attached to her motivations and ultimate agenda. Taylor-Joy is even more impressive; this fine young actress, who was easily the best thing about Robert Eggers’s otherwise messy, mediocre and overrated The Witch (2015), brings a mesmerising stillness to her performance; it’s a convincing reflection of Morgan’s superabundant, radically advancing intelligence. Yet her reactions are also suffused by a streak of emotional abstraction. She may be engineered out of a test-tube but she possesses a well-honed conception of what constitutes a human’s emotional range. But can she rationalise and express these emotions with authenticity or only imitate them for the purpose of pulling the wool over her creators’ eyes?

Morgan ultimately feels a need to bring tropes – like a car chase and hand-to-hand combat – into play instead of conjecturing, theorising and seeking a generally deeper probing of the central themes though this, of course, may have denied the narrative its pace, energy, visceral gut-punching and commercial prospects. Despite this conscious dumbing down to accommodate broader appeal, Morgan is nevertheless a very solid piece of speculative fiction and a strong debut from a director with a rich cinematic heritage attached to his name.

Arrival

_90843681_890a8bd8-6501-11e6-aefa-e8609c477948_486x

An atypical sci-fi drama, eschewing awe and wonder for a far more cerebral angle, Arrival is the latest impressive film from French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. When a dozen identical alien spacecraft appear in scattered locations around the globe, an accomplished linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by military head Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to a lead a team entering the craft in Montana in an attempt, against seemingly impossible odds, to unravel the aliens’ means of communication by breaking down the strange alien text into constituent, translatable parts. Banks is paired with somebody seen as having complementary skills in physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).

Based on a short story by Ted Chiang and adapted by Eric Heisserer, Arrival (2016) is unique amongst alien-upon-Earth films in that the expected ‘invasion’ never actually eventuates. In fact, combat between interplanetary forces never comes enters the equation other than in military positing. Instead this is an intelligent, empathetic, deliberately paced but never less than riveting science puzzle of the film. Though the dogmatic approach and methodology used by the participants is beyond simple comprehension, there’s still an inclusive feel to how the drama plays out and draws us into its web of intrigue. We’re effectively enabled to feel the frustration and then the tantalising glimpses of elation as they boffins strike closer to some kind of breakthrough and remarkable clarity.

At the heart of this immersive is the cleverly manipulation Villeneuve uses to take advantage of its central mystery. The motivations of the aliens remain unclear until the final act when the pieces of the puzzle are finally laid out. Make no mistake, there’ll be plenty of talking points as the credits roll too with a couple of clever twists providing a surprising reinterpretation of events. Within the sci-fi context there are even powerful allusions to highly relevant themes like the misdirection of authority in the way ambiguities in language and translation are misappropriated to foster fear and distrust of people unlike us.

Arrival proves to be a far better showcase for Adams, one of American cinema’s finest current crop of actresses, than her concurrent appearance in Tom Ford’s limp Nocturnal Animals (2016). Here, she carries the burden of being both the film’s emotional and cerebral epicentre whilst bringing an impressive complexity to the role. Glimpses of an alternate existence in the very first scenes offer an intriguing introduction to Banks before being dispensed into the slipstream of the narrative in which no strand can be assumed to have taken on a linear form.

Renner’s Donnelly is a good match for Adams in what might be his most decent role since Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008). It’s certainly the best film he’s been a part of since then. Even if the internal lives of Banks and Donnelly, beyond the struggle to decipher the language of the aliens, are referenced only in passing, there’s reason enough for the omission. All becomes clearer in the final moments. Johann Johannsson’s wonderfully probing dark score has eerie, atonal, almost alien qualities itself, whilst Villeneuve otherwise employs a couple of effective, tender Max Richter pieces to bookend the film.

Following his remarkable trio of English language films, Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013) and last year’s superb Sicario (2015), Villeneuve continues to affirm his status as one of the most promising directors around. His last French-Canadian film, Incendies (2010), may still be his masterpiece but he is an impressive talent who is yet to make a false step. His sense of pacing is spot on, whilst his liquid visual skills reflect a cinematic instinctiveness that’s pretty damn rare. As a lifelong disciple of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), I’ve long cringed at the thought of a sequel being entrusted to anyone. However, Villenueve, recently given the nod to helm Blade Runner 2049, is one of the few directors around who actually fills me with something other than dread at the prospect.

Nocturnal Animals

nocturalan_bnnrjake_rgb_f3-0.jpg

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.

 

The Light Between Oceans

the-light-between-oceans-1-600x891

From picturesque period romance to morose melodrama, Derek Cianfrance’s very fine latest film is suffused with melancholy, regret, and torment as it depicts the ethical dilemma of a couple transformed by love. Beginning in 1918, returning soldier, war-scarred loner Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), is happy to fill the breach when a lighthouse keeper position becomes available off the Western Australian coast. Nursing psychological scars from his time abroad, he yearns for a kind of therapeutic isolation. The methodical approach needed to perform his daily duties on Janus also has its attractions. In the closest town, where his arrangements are made, he’s drawn to the daughter, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), of a prominent local, Bill Graysmark (Garry McDonald). Before ever admitting to their feelings face to face, the pair exchange correspondence of the course of many months. Eventually, on one of his breaks from the lighthouse, Tom summons the courage to ask Isabel’s hand in marriage.

Initially their life on Janus is idyllic with location work at Cape Campbell in Marlborough, New Zealand providing a stunning, wind-blown backdrop. In time Isabel becomes pregnant. Their existence, though a secluded one, couldn’t be more filled with optimism. Naturally, though, a cruel twist of fate will irrevocably alter their lives when Isabel experiences difficulty at the end of her pregnancy and, isolated from Tom in the lighthouse during a massive storm, can’t get the help she needs to save her unborn child.

Based on Australian author M.L. Steadman’s novel, The Light Between Oceans (2016) is beautifully produced, beginning like a classic romantic epic before the bells of impending doom begin to sound. It’s at the midpoint that this key plot contrivance serves to completely alter the tone of the film. There’s no doubt that it’s a blatantly ludicrous event, but Cianfrance’s involving, earnest adaptation has already dragged us deep enough into its soulful clutches that audiences will likely overlook and forgive this unlikeliest of occurrences.

As he displayed with his last two features, firstly his anatomy-of-a-relationship-breakdown, Blue Valentine (2010) and then the ambitious but deeply flawed The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), Cianfrance’s visual style is always noteworthy. With the aid of another brilliant Australian artist, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, they often use gritty, handheld work, regularly shooting the actors in telling close-up, an emphatic style leavened by non-artificial light. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Andrea Arnold’s unorthodox but striking approach to her Wuthering Heights (2011) adaptation, though not nearly as experimental. This intense scrutiny also accentuates Tom and Isabel’s harmonious but precarious relationship with their surroundings against which perspective can change quickly, putting a vastly different slant on the enormity of the natural world and the power it unconsciously wields.

Fassbender, especially, proves remarkable again for his ability to extract a deep well of emotional detail out of a few words or a glance. His presence is magnetic but never distractingly or overpoweringly so. At times there’s a picturesque emptiness to Vikander whose clearly lacks her co-star’s range but is still a believable embodiment of Isabel who undergoes quite a few emotionally- transformations. The introduction of the third main character, Hannah Roennfeldt, played typically with class and conviction by Rachel Weisz, is another positive.

Working in a realm in which he thrives and is now much sought after, composer Alexandre Desplat provides another classy score. It’s melodically sumptuous and yet a model of restraint, never allowing the emotional latitude of the narrative to inflect his themes with obvious, manipulative intent. Though there, is to some extent, a feeling of inevitability about the outcome, Cianfrance still has the ability to wring a few genuine emotional tugs of the heart out of us. In some ways The Light Between Oceans feels like a natural progression for him and perhaps his most mature work to date.