Fish Tank (Arnold, 2009)

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Anyone familiar with Andrea Arnold’s first-rate feature debut Red Road (2006) will be well aware of her ability to generate compelling drama from a seemingly modest scenario. Interweaving a spell of ghosts from the past with a gripping voyeuristic compulsion, Red Road turned the dank back streets of Glasgow into something sinister and perverse. In her follow-up, Fish Tank (2009), the late-blooming Arnold returned to England armed with an insightful, uncompromising original screenplay of her own.

Set in the heart of a low-income neighbourhood of Essex housing estates, Fish Tank filters life through the eyes of sullen, moody 15 year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) who lives with her indifferent mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing), and a smart-ass young sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), who she’s constantly feuding with.

Mia is like a boxer awaiting her turn in the ring: full of pent-up aggression, being slowly suffocated by the stagnation and poverty of her joyless life. Her only avenue of expression comes through the slowly evolving hip-hop dance routines she works on in the seclusion of an abandoned flat.

When her mother’s latest boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), enters the frame, the household’s dynamic subtly shifts. Though she often displays over-compensatory aggression towards Connor, Mia finds herself intrigued by this overtly masculine figure, the kind of mature-bodied male she’s been oblivious to until now. A vaguely sexual yearning gradually comes to a head and with it the potential for dangerous consequences.

Arnold’s film is an expressive, powerful example of the British social realism most commonly associated with the films of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. Fish Tank is deliberately toned down in visual terms, though as became evident in Red Road, Arnold has an uncanny knack for eyeing concise, hushed moments that reflect an evocative sensation of poetry in slow motion.

Here, Fassbender was already exhibiting the indefinable qualities that would fast-track him towards the allure of even meatier roles though at the cost, naturally, of integration into projects engineered more for the masses than the art house. His immersive, jaw-dropping portrayal of Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) may still be regarded as a career highpoint years from now, but he has always provided a magnetic impression when on screen and Fish Tank was but another indicator of his gifts.

The rawness of non-actor Jarvis – plucked from real life by Arnold – makes for an interesting contrast. This is an accomplished, uninhibited debut performance by her, though she’s been gifted with a role in which she’s given plenty of room to manoeuvre by Arnold’s incisive, unsentimental screenplay.

Ultimately the film is more than a glimpse inside the fish bowl that holds the youth of a British underclass at arm’s length with little chance of escape. Forms of betrayal are experienced at every turn: in the apathy of a mother who is blithely neglectful of her maternal duties; in the moral betrayal of a man who exploits Mia’s underdeveloped sexual potential, pricking her into action in a way that places the safety of innocents in jeopardy. Even the dance audition she earns is merely a euphemism for further exploitation, choking off an additional avenue of escape.

Considering the grim circumstances and relentless grip of this decaying urban dwelling, how does Arnold achieve some kind of catharsis for Mia? Though there are times when Mia rubs us the wrong way, it’s hard to not be moved by the painful choices she’s ultimately forced to make. None of this is easy to watch but Fish Tank is grippingly alive with people, emotions and consequences that are all, too often, devastatingly real.

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You, the Living (Andersson, 2007)

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This astonishing 2007 Swedish film, presented as a series of serio-comic vignettes, is the work of writer-director Roy Andersson. It’s no easy task attempting to categorise You, the Living; simply put it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen. Each scene is short and sharp and virtually every set-up is a static one, but filled with fascinating, tiny details that speak of a meticulous attention to detail. It allows a painterly, dreamlike through-line to develop, like watching abstract works of art slowly come to life. Only twice in the entire film does the camera move.

The colours are muted and drab in this sunless world of mostly nameless, pasty-faced protagonists whose lives are played out in mournful, incremental advances. Andersson’s deadpan humour provides memorable surreal moments of suffering and joy, the avenging, repeating lines of these hapless, downtrodden souls insisting that “tomorrow is another day” regardless of their proximity to despair.

There’s a randomness of observation that borders on genius, and yet there are moments of perfect clarity too. Though a large ensemble of characters’ lives overlap without rhyme or reason, there is also the irreparable damage caused by acute isolation, more than one person bemoaning the fact that “nobody understands me!”

There are moments of poignant contemplation; in others, characters speak directly to the camera, whilst some seem to be speaking to a person who isn’t there. There’s a lovesick girl who pines for the lead singer of a rock group; an old doctor who’s fed up with unhappy patients he regards as beyond his help; a hilarious sex scene where a wife’s sporadic, ecstatic groans are drowned out by her husband’s continual dispassionate descriptions of the intricacies of his retirement funds.

There are dozens of others too, perhaps a few don’t come off, but nearly every one is a gem in its own way – and ripe for rediscovery in a film that demands multiple viewings to re-assess its subtleties and vagaries.

You, the Living is unique and unconventional, pulled off with such startling precision that I’m tempted to label it a masterpiece, and yet one simmering with barely tangible notions; a film so rich with minute, eccentric detail that it threatens to redefine the very nature of cinematic storytelling. Watch it and, like me, you’ll crave to see it again and again.

Michael Clayton (Gilroy, 2007)

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Tony Gilroy’s 2007 debut behind the camera is brimming with smart, slick dialogue; some of it may come off as stagy, but by the time the noose of tension is being tightly drawn, I didn’t really care, hooked by the weight of its juicy cover-up and justifications for murder. George Clooney is the film’s heart and soul, and luckily he’s able to project the kind of introspective intensity required to ensure Michael Clayton is a believable, even if not entirely empathetic, character; his motivations seem dubious in the establishing scenes, though his clinical command of a situation is counterbalanced by his own weakness for a deck of cards.

Clayton is a jaded but highly proficient “fix-it” man for his law firm, a term replete with malleable qualifiers. He cleans up the mess of others, mockingly referred to by friend and co-worker Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) as “a janitor” – the connotations of which seem a little dismissive of his true importance – an integral component, plugging holes with occasional recognition but with neither fanfare or, to his chagrin, a shot at a partnership.

Gilroy begins the film with a 15 minute flash forward, though ending this first act with an explosion, which seen for the first time without any context to rationalise it, deprives it of real impact. But quickly the ship is righted as Gilroy sets about unravelling the sly backstory, commenced four days prior with Arthur’s very public, semi-naked descent into a medication-deprived relapse; a manic-depressive episode which seems to stir his troubled conscience, illuminating his overworked mind with clarifications that must seem like divine messages from on high.

Suddenly, a case in which Arthur’s been swimming with the tide, takes on the proportions of something else: connivingly engineered, amoral culpability; swiftly, the ruthless uNorth, a profiteering chemical company and makers of a weed killer that has seemingly claimed hundreds of human victims, begin their defensive strategizing in order to minimize backlash or harm to their reputation.

The clarity of a re-awakened conscience has dangerous potential and uNorth’s reflexive measures, initiated by its edgy, bundle-of-nerves attorney, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), become a relentless pursuit of concealing injustice for the sake of their own hides; Arthur becomes a liability, an internally diagnosed “cancer” whose silent removal would benefit both parties.

Slowly the pieces of the puzzle come into sharper focus for Clayton who only vaguely senses the conspiracy afoot at first, but has the added insight of his long friendship with Arthur to clear away any marginal doubts of their obstructive presence. Here, Gilroy’s steady writing builds a subtle, but compelling momentum as a race to find, and gently inform authorities, of the truth becomes paramount. This is a somber drama with the added dimensions of a thriller, and although reaching a neat, predictable conclusion, it does provide satisfaction – meeting that comforting sense of ‘vengeance is sweetest when served by the just and righteous’.

Clooney wears his steely-eyed compunction like a mask and with murky grey lines of fallibility – an ostracised brother, a dud investment and up to his armpits in gambling debts – soaking him in dour duty, he follows the one clearly detectable straight line to its unequivocal conclusion, subverting the intentions of his keepers, the men assuming he’ll stay blind to the truth and follow their orders. Swinton, as the jumpy, reluctant negotiator with shady, dark denizens of the night, and Wilkinson as the impassioned but deeply troubled Arthur, give excellent support, whilst the late Sydney Pollack adds a measure of real gravitas to the role of Clayton’s superior.

A writer with a sizable body of work already behind him (The Bourne trilogy, Proof of Life), Gilroy thrives in his first shot at the director’s chair; Michael Clayton is a fine drama and a highly entertaining one, with a compelling, watertight screenplay and tidy, unobtrusive direction. It’s dense with detail yet never strays into impenetrability, with just enough flesh on its bones to make us care for Clayton’s quest and Arthur’s sad plight. Similarly effective, James Newton Howard’s ominous, simmering electronic score creates tension of its own, whilst Robert Elswitt’s wintry, reduced palette fits the tone of the film like a glove.

Prizzi’s Honor (Huston, 1987)

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This wry black comedy was the penultimate film of legendary director John Huston, made just two years before his death in 1987. A master of the old school, he was also the member of a famous family which has left its mark on three generations of Hollywood filmmaking, beginning with his father Walter as an actor in America’s Golden era.

With landmarks like The Maltese Falcon (1941), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951) decades behind him, Huston was still able to bring to the big screen a faithful, sardonic adaptation of Richard Condon’s bestselling novel. Condon himself collaborated with Janet Roach on the screenplay and it proves to a perfectly pitched one, with astute casting a major factor in its success.

It begins with Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson), a dim-witted hitman for Chicago’s dominant crime family the Prizzi’s, falling head-over-heels for a gorgeous blonde he spots at a wedding. She turns out to be the strictly non-Sicilian Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner), and after a whirlwind romance of just two days, Charley impulsively proposes marriage!

Little does he know that she’s already married and his latest assignment involves carrying out a contract on her husband. Charley’s confusion at this turn of events almost overwhelms his limited mental capacities, and he confides to past girlfriend, Maerose (Angelica Huston), and granddaughter of Don Corrado Prizzi (William Hickey), that he doesn’t know whether to “marry her or ice her!” Irene is full of surprises herself and turns out to be employed in the very same field as her new lover!

There are plenty of neat twists and complications along the way as Irene is secretly hired to carry out a hit, commissioned by a vengeful member of the Prizzi’s, on Charley himself. There’s also some stolen money to account for, a kidnap and extortion that leaves the family disjointed, and rancorous counter-murders from the Prizzi’s competitors to worry about.

Swept along by its clever narrative, witty observations and deadpan humour, Prizzi’s Honor is a pleasure to revisit. Boiling down to a contest between love and family, there’s really no contest at all, it seems, when murder – regardless of the target – can be shrugged off by the Prizzi’s as “business – only business!”

Nicholson is in great form, a tiny padding beneath his upper lip to make it protrude slightly – and combined with that dead look in his eyes – giving Charley the perfect combination of streetwise efficiency and witless malcontent.Turner, following her head-turning star roles in Body Heat (1981) and Romancing the Stone (1984), is absolutely luminous as the wily Irene who has more hidden depths and talents than our first provocative, persuasive impressions of her would suggest.

The staggering quality of the support cast is what aids the film’s enduring appeal as well, with John Randolph hilarious as Charley’s father Angelo, the eccentric William Hickey unforgettable as the corpse-like Don Corrado, and the director’s daughter Angelica – in her Oscar-winning turn – as the bitter and lovelorn Prizzi granddaughter with the classical looks who takes extreme countermeasures to win Charley back and circumvent his union with Irene.

It’s impossible to underestimate John Huston’s contribution to cinema. Even at the tail end of his career he displays the ability to keep pace with the times, and Prizzi’s Honor, made 44 years after his debut behind the camera, is a vintage black comedy/drama which has aged just as well as any other great film from this great director.

 

The Great Gatsby (Luhrmann, 2013)

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As subtlety, nuance and ambiguity are battered aside by excess in the initial half hour, you wonder if Baz Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby (2013) can ever recover. Thankfully, to a large extent it does, the skeletal framework of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s still left standing after the multi-faceted cinematic assault of the director and his legion of artistic accessorisers. For devotees of the novel, however, the saddest aspect of this overblown production will be how the margins are filled out with amorphous, far less complicated shapes poking through the evaporative mist of classic storytelling misdirection.

Luhrmann’s ploy to reconstruct a classic is an elaborate one, ornate, expensively staged – and almost swallowed up by the impression of heightened artificiality it takes pains to exaggerate. In the opening stretch, the effect is of recreating a famous work of art as a cartoon cell. Still, on a fundamental level only the glimmer of a great tale is required when it’s the ghost of Fitzgerald who is doing the telling.

Leonardo DiCaprio brings genuine presence and star power to his portrayal of Gatsby, even if the depth of his pining for an irretrievable perfection is flattened out into too generically palatable doses. The hollowness at the core of a life spent lavishly entertaining for pitifully little reward hits home, his yearning for true love Daisy cancelled out by an American Dream going horribly sour. Carey Mulligan is a passable Daisy, stripped of interesting layers, whilst Tobey Maguire is a feeble, slightly bland Nick Carraway, his voiceover narration unavoidably tainted by the actor’s less than steely presence.

Once it finally settles into the narrative, relegating the glitz and glamour to the backdrop, The Great Gatsby works closer to being a more entertaining, even legitimate piece of cinema, though distinctly of a piece with its director’s uneven past work. Simplified and commercialised, certainly, but it becomes a reasonably compelling reflection of its source material even if only a small proportion of what constitute Fitzgerald’s timeless themes can be glimpsed between the lines.

 

Bright Star (Campion, 2009)

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Atoning for a past of artful but turgid films choking on their own bloated sense of importance, director Jane Campion delivered her finest work to date with Bright Star (2009). This intense, impassioned study of the unconsummated, ill-fated love affair of John Keats and Fanny Brawne, works its magic like an ode to the art of poetry and our own love of the English language. Working from only sketchy biographical details, including many of Keats’ letters to Fanny, Campion convincingly transports us back to early 19th century England.

Keats (Ben Whishaw) is an impoverished poet whose publication has yet to translate into financial prosperity. Daily he engages in writing sessions with best friend and fellow poet Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), but a neighbour, the inquisitive Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) soon has him interested in something other than literary pursuits. As a young man mired in poverty, however, he has to fight an instinct within begging him to stay away from Fanny, for his inability to provide for any woman is like a constant lance in his side.

As a kind of love triangle, interesting dynamics emerge from Campion’s gloriously literate screenplay, incorporating a liberal smattering of Keats’ poetry. The gently derisive jabs at Fanny from Brown may be construed as playful, but behind them is real venom. From one angle it may seem that he’s only being protective of Keats and the integrity of the creative process, for it’s a privilege to share ideas with a young man he regards as a gift to the artform. But slowly emerging are deeper feelings that are equally responsible for his barely-veiled petulance as Fanny’s presence begins to inspire a more noticeable and undesirable effect on Keats and his frame of mind.

It’s the underlying complexities of these relationships that enhance the film’s painstakingly-crafted aesthetic beauty and some of its subtle recurrent themes: of creation unhindered by love and its diverse definitions; of a finite existence embraced for the preciousness of every moment.

Despite the exceptional work of Whishaw, so horribly miscast in Perfume (2006), and Cornish who convey a realistic chemical reaction, it’s Schneider who steals the show with an electric performance as the caustic, discontented Brown. Unapologetically condescending, he seems constantly wired, his impregnation of a naïve housemaid coming across as sadly misdirected, a kind of sordid compensation for what he really desires.

Campion has always displayed an innate musical sense at least, her past collaborations producing exceptional work from Wojciech Kilar (1996’s Portrait of a Lady) and Michael Nyman (1993’s The Piano). Her choice of composer here was newcomer Mark Bradshaw whose sparingly used music is saved for maximum impact in perhaps six or seven scenes. It works brilliantly in every one and leaves you wanting more.

I’ve struggled to love this director’s past work, especially the provocative, sleazy In the Cut (2003) and the abomination that is Holy Smoke (1999) – despite, it must be said, an incredibly brave Kate Winslet performance. But her latest film is a real tonic, providing unexpected redemption and wiping away the stain of those past ‘misdemeanors’. Bold, romantic, and genuinely moving as it counts down to its inevitable conclusion, Bright Star glitters with every potent word, every helpless silent gesture, to create something of intoxicating beauty.

Capricorn One (Hyams, 1977)

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Toss an arm-load of rotten eggs into a crowded street and chances are five out of every ten’ll hit a conspiracy theorist convinced we never went to the moon at all. I’m still not convinced about that. What I do know is that O.J. Simpson nearly made it to Mars. Yes, nearly. That is, until powerful men from On High decided to shut an almighty trapdoor on his face with compatriots Sam Waterston and James Brolin buried deep in the hole with him.

Back in 1978 these great actors – well, two great actors and O.J. – were venerated astronauts, but their long-awaited mission to Mars became an expenditure the American government could no longer justify to itself. Of course, that didn’t stop them orchestrating an elaborate pantomime to appease the flag-waving multitudes, and running with it to the bitter end.

They hijacked the three patriots – perplexed but unafraid at first – from the Capricorn One, secreted them in an old military warehouse for months on end and let the American public believe in the ‘reality’ of unexplored outer limits of space being breeched by mankind for the very first time.

A kindly doctor is charged with explaining the situation to our three heroes and he bemoans the quirks of fate in an eloquent manner, levering his argument with that old standby: this is for the Greater Good of the world’s greatest nation.

Quite a production this would be, sealing a trio of men in the tomb of a makeshift set made up of tinfoil crafts and red sand. They denied them access to the outside world naturally – even their blissfully unaware families who would wait, biting their trembling nails, for every minute detail of the flight to be relayed back to them.

Then something horrible happens: many months into this elaborate hoax, this simulation that even NASA officials believe to be real, a heat shield separates aboard the imaginary shuttle. Normally this would mean death for its occupants. Suddenly three astronauts sequestered in the desert are having their corpses described to the rest of the world via news reports.

Yes – it’s time to run! And they do, though not getting very far at first in a plane with mere droplets of fuel in its tank. So into the desert they race on foot, spreading out on different routes to avoid a mass capture. Will they be eliminated one by one? Or can at least one of them reach even a tiny, forlorn pocket of civilisation so that the biggest conspiracy in history can be blown wide open?

Director Peter Hyams either had a very vivid imagination or he knew something the rest of the world could only conceive of in their most outlandish, probably drunken, speculations. But Capricorn One, like his later, equally entertaining films Outland (1981) and The Star Chamber (1983), is slick, superior entertainment with a smart screenplay that defies the illogicality of its set-up to become something entirely plausible.

His casting is crucial to the film’s effectiveness, with Sam Waterston and James Brolin providing real authority. True, it’s hard to hold your own against the method stylings of O.J. and that dazzling array of empty, inscrutable glares he can seemingly conjure at will, but somehow they pull it off.

A fine – and for once, tempered – Elliot Gould plays reporter Robert Caulfield who becomes drawn into the conspiracy when his lowly NASA console-operating friend Elliott Whitter (Robert Walden) gets wind of processes at work on the ‘flight’ that don’t quite compute. When his nosy queries become a little too irksome to Dr. Kelloway (a brilliant Hal Holbrook), he’s made to disappear like smoke as if he never existed. An effective form of elimination unless the apparent illusionist’s most trusted confidante is a nosy journalist. Even Telly Savalas turns up in an inspired and hilarious small role late in the game as an abrasive crop-dusting pilot.

Exceptional widescreen cinematography from Bill Butler, who was fresh off Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) at the time, and a punchy, militaristic score from the greatest film composer in history, the legendary Jerry Goldsmith, complete the package. Though spread over two hours, Capricorn One still feels remarkably tight, assiduously cutting back and forth from the plight of the astronauts to the strained efforts of the elite few attempting to uphold the monstrous façade at whatever the cost. This remains fantastic B-grade fare from a decade that rarely disappoints.