The Light Between Oceans

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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.

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.

The Neon Demon

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‘Beauty eats itself’ might be the overarching maxim of Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest, an easily consumable, surreal, dreamlike but overly-mannered film sorely lacking in soul, insight or anything approximating skilled storytelling. A pretty young wannabe model Jesse (Elle Fanning) enters the fray, hoping to break-in to the fashion scene in what appears to be an eerily-empty, hollowed out version of L.A. Her youth and inexperience are soon overlooked in favour of her striking looks. She becomes the flavour of the month but in what is a brutally competitive field full of vindictive vixens looking to climb the ladder to fame and success – blood on their hands be damned – Jesse will have to watch her back is she hopes to maintain her place in the pecking order.

It’s almost impossible to believe this Refn screenplay was penned in collaborations with two playwrights – Mary Laws and Polly Stenham – whose currency, you’d imagine, is skilled verbal interaction. Yet there’s precious little evidence of subtlety or perceptiveness here. Hell, even a moment in the film not marred by stilted, usually absurd dialogue would have been appreciated. Certainly on a metaphorical level you can extract some socially relevant commentary about the cruelly disposable, interchangeable nature of beauty, but the message is hollow and futile when saturated by mediocre, sub-Argento stylings that leave you cold.

Refn is, and will always be a favourite director, but his two films since the masterful Drive (2011) have formed what may be the start of a regrettable, inevitable devolution, where his ever-expanding obsession with style curation has utterly stifled any possibility of simultaneously creating something of real substance. The film is, of course, glorious to behold from a visual standpoint, as any Refn film is, thanks on this occasion to a first-time collaborator, cinematographer Natasha Braier. Aesthetically intoxicating, there are moments of brilliance in the off-putting, disorienting way he distorts, eliminates, extracts or plays with colour and light, whilst Cliff Martinez’s amped-up retro score works to brilliant effect in certain scenes, often obscuring their vacuousness.

Fanning is far and away the best thing about The Neon Demon (2016). Jesse’s vulnerabilities and naivety are laid bare early on, exposing her to all sorts of exploitation. Yet her assimilation into this world and transformation into a hardened competitor in the fashion stakes is entirely credible despite being surrounded by increasingly weird goings-on and some truly putrid acting. Australian contributors Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as Jesse’s combatants Gigi and Sarah are just diabolically awful – two of the most wooden, dire performances of recent times. Dexter alumni Desmond Harrington also has a couple of hilariously awful scenes as a farcically intense, almost non-verbal hotshot photographer. Marlon Brando, he’s not. Even the usually reliable Jena Malone as the make-up artist of dubious intent who takes Jesse under her wing feels weirdly out-of-sync in nearly every scene she’s in, including the film’s most embarrassingly awful in which she spends time alone with a corpse.

An overwhelming sense of extraneousness is what ultimately sinks The Neon Demon. Ah, the agony of sitting through so many poorly written, utterly pointless scenes, including every one featuring Keanu Reeves, for starters. This disjointed film sorely lacks cohesion, whilst individual scenes never feel part of a narrative flow, making it a frustrating viewing experience. Those imagining a shrewd illumination of the film’s themes at the end of proceedings will be sorely disappointed. If anything, the final few scenes only exemplify the film’s ill-discipline and asinine, juvenile approach to narrative and, especially, to horror. Subverting social commentary beneath shimmering layer after layer of dizzying, rancid obliqueness does not render it in any way profound. In this case, the notion of creative depth is the very last one to come to mind. The Neon Demon, forgetting its most obvious shortcomings, has enough moments of flickering visual brilliance to make it semi-watchable, but this is, depressingly, but a miniscule step up from Refn’s career low, Only God Forgives.

 

On a side note, here is a film worth seeing in conjunction with this or any other Refn film:

Directed by his wife Liv Corfixen, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2014) offers a fascinating insight into the creative processes of the director and the mental anguish that seemingly plagues him with some regularity. It’s basically a behind-the-scenes documentary shot during the production of Only God Forgives (2013) and shows Refn often overly burdened and struggling to come to terms with his day-to-day ordeals. His evaluation of the film ebbs and flows to dangerous degrees as he drifts, often, way too close to the heart of his screenplay, thus eliminating all objectivity in a search for solutions throughout the shoot. In post-production he basically deems the finished product worthless, something nearly every creative person must live with upon completion of a piece. A self-indulgent yet fascinating film; ultimately an acquired taste but essential viewing for Refn aficionados.

 

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.

 

Ouija: Origin of Evil

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A prequel to a profitable but – in these parts – little seen film from two years ago directed by Stiles White, Ouija: Origin of Evil is the work of director and co-writer Mike Flanagan, an up-and-coming genre filmmaker having a prolific year and possibly best known for his minor hit Oculus in 2013. Set in 1967, Origin of Evil proves to be, against all expectations, one of the finest and creepiest horror films of recent times. A struggling single mother, Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) uses her persuasive skills and a few tricks of the trade to earn a living on the side as a spiritualist. She views her job not as a means of ripping off paying customers but providing them with comfort in the knowledge of deceased relatives finding solace in the next life. Her oldest daughter Lina (Annalise Basso) contributes to the special effects but views her mother’s work with increasing cynicism.

The soon after introduction of a Ouija board brings all sorts of wearying associations with it besides the whiff of surely B-grade fright-filled theatrics to come. But that’s far from being the case here as the film has a tone and feel that feels unique even if the narrative promises anything but originality. Neither does it work overtime to bombard us with shock moments that don’t feel earned or warranted until the stakes are truly raised in the predictably heated end showdown. Flanagan’s pacing is superb, as is his handling of the young actors, particularly the cast’s youngest member Lulu Wilson as Doris, the person able to channel forces from the next world with a dexterity and unnerving calm that surprises even her mother, especially in the painful wake of the recent loss of the girls’ father Roger (Michael Weaver).

A couple of scenes cleverly pay homage to genre classics, especially The Exorcist (1973), but despite the obvious influences, there’s something surprisingly fresh about Origin of Evil and it only gets better as intrigue grows and the tension is ramped up by Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard. There’s no over-reliance of CGI effects, whilst some of the creepiest little moments are subtly crafted and often kept at edges of the frame for maximum impact. The acting is credibly grounded, even authentically awkward at times. Screen debutant Wilson is a remarkable screen presence, able to transition from cuteness to creepiness as she becomes a manifestation of the evil summoned through the portal of the Ouija board. Even Henry Thomas, former E.T (1982) child star, gives a fine performance as the local school’s priest and principal, dragged into the drama at his own behest.

This is another work from Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions, known for generating ridiculous profits from very low-budget genre films in recent years with franchises like Paranormal Activity, Insidious and The Purge, and excellent one-off efforts like Unfriended (2014) and M.Night Shyamalan’s only decent film of recent memory, The Visit (2015). Many of these films are clichéd but highly competent examples of modern horror. Ouija: Origin of Evil is now definitely a personal favourite, for me, and a great leap forward in the career of Flanagan whose next film, likely a Stephen King adaptation, is highly anticipated.

Inferno

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The general preposterousness of nearly every scene – every twist, escape, rendezvous and revelation of duplicitousness – doesn’t necessarily render Ron Howard’s third flirtation with Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code bestsellers unentertaining. Inferno (2016), taken with a grain of salt, has a wonderfully disorienting opening quarter of an hour. Here, Howard and his cinematographer Salvatore Totino, working from an adaptation by the experienced David Koepp, get to indulge a perhaps latent fascination with surrealist horror as the notion of Dante’s circles of hell, with appropriately grotesque, abstract imagery included, is heavily layered into the narrative.

There are other merits beyond the opening stanza to speak of, however, like a semi-manageable plot pitched along with decent forward momentum. And…………..what else? A barely cognisant – for a while at least, and that could be a good or bad thing – Tom Hanks as the much-travelled, much hunted symbologist Robert Langdon, awaking in hospital only to be saved from a hail of bullets and intellectually seduced by a bland medico, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), with a suspiciously broad grasp of the literary subject matter at hand.

The supporting players are a mixed bag. The always watchable Ben Foster is sadly underutilised as Betrand Zobrist, a billionaire with a God complex and the creator of a virus that threatens human existence. His personal fate is exposed early on but he continues to make fleeting flashback appearances. Of course it’s hard to openly root for such a morally destitute villain, but there’s no denying he’s a slightly magnificent bastard. What’s more, he exhibits ‘marginally’ more charisma than a hellfire-seared roundtable of his co-participants combined, particularly the horribly cast French actor Omar Sy, still somehow getting work after 2010 Gallic mega-hit The Intouchables, and here seen impersonating the impersonation of a dodgy World Health Organisation worker. We mostly view Sy in pursuit of both Zobrist and Langdon though his motivations are as murky as his co-workers, many of whom have slinked off to form another faction being led by Sidse Babett Knudsen’s stock-standard Elizabeth Sinskey.

From an even more culturally diverse pack of players – including Irrfan Khan as head of a security firm and Ana Ularu as a Terminator-like member of the Carabinieri – Langdon is again forced to ponder, during infinitesimally brief moments of reverie, just who is chasing him and why. And more tantalisingly, are the chasers allies or are they foes? Who gets the girl? Did Steve Austin teach you, Robert, to visually scan a very detailed painting like that? And just how much red dye is in that endless body of water or is it all goddamn CGI?

Vacillating between mortal terror, rapid-fire puzzling solving and passports-not-required globe-trotting, Inferno, to damn it with faint praise (something, perhaps, any Ron Howard film deserves), proves to be better than both its predecessors. It’s but an incremental advancement in quality, however, barely noticeable and twice as easily forgettable. If or when a fourth installment comes along, we’ll deny everything of course. Da Vinci Code? Angels and Demons? Inferno? Nope, never saw ’em. Don’t know what you’re talking about.

 

The Red Turtle

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How does a 90 minute, wordless film manage to become something so majestic and emotionally wrenching? Michael Dudok de Wit’s animated feature, co-produced by the legendary Studio Ghibli, is a paradoxical mini-masterpiece of unconventional storytelling; pared back to almost nothing it initially feels over-simplified and yet The Red Turtle (2016), co-written by de Wit and Pascale Ferran, is actually brimming with a rich allegorical subtext.

With background and context omitted, we discover a man washed up on a desert island. Survival becomes a dispiriting struggle. After painstakingly fashioning a raft from what he can scrounge on the island, he’s thwarted not far from land by a beast of the sea determined to prevent his return to whatever definition of society he comes from. On multiple occasions he’s forced to swim back, his makeshift raft destroyed, left to start from scratch again.

Soon, the appearance of the turtle of the film’s title takes de Wit’s film into markedly different terrain as the nameless man’s existence is re-routed. From a vantage point of hopelessness imbued with the perils of the unknown, a comfortable middle ground is reached – a place of reverie and semi-normality from which ordinary thoughts and experiences can finally be derived, collected and cherished.

This isolated existence becomes a metaphor for man’s remarkable will to live, for an ability to provoke our deepest instincts for survival into becoming a generating force, able to defy extinction just when it seems most likely. But what are these events truly? Are they real or just the fevered dreams of a man slowly perishing as his body and soul evaporate against the inexorable forces of an indomitably savage land?

Using, as its loudest, most expressive voice a staggering, evocative score by Laurent Perez Del Mar, with its powerful main theme returning again and again in ever-surprising guises, de Wit has produced a film of transcendent power that manages to make us laugh, keep us on the edge of our seat during a couple of genuinely tense moments, before finally ripping out our hearts.

The Red Turtle is a boldly conceived, stunningly executed piece of cinema. Here’s a rare example where grasping for ways to accentuate themes and conclusions with a burdening framework of words may have fatally damaged the overall effect of a film, perhaps entirely blunting its power. Instead, de Wit remains true to a determination to carry his daring premise through to the end where the heart-wrenching last moments swell with poignancy in a haunting statement of inevitability and finality.