Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage, from Ciro Guerra and Christina Gallego (Embrace of the Serpent, 2014), is a drug cartel story, encompassing many of the genre’s story tropes, but remarkably fresh thanks to its milieu and tone. Inspired by the historical record of two indigenous Columbian families embarking on selling marijuana to Americans from the late 60s until the early 80s, the film avoids sensationalism, humor, flashbacks, voice-over and all the other conventions laid out in GoodFellas and copied ever since, instead opting for stillness, gravitas and cultural integrity.

These families feel as protected by highly-prized necklaces, as well as a particular talisman, as they do by guns; debts are paid in goats and cows rather than cash. Dreams are given the weight of premonitory evidence, and “word messengers” carry the implicit protection of “made men” in Scorsese’s mafia. Against the dry desert landscapes and spoken in authentic indigenous languages by a range of professional actors and first-timers, the film, although absolutely cinematic, feels archival and authentic, as well as other worldly. Its themes and story arcs are simultaneously universal and thoroughly specific. This unique film will be easily appreciated not only by the Scarface completist, but the cultural tourist and art-house anthropologist as well.

Ad Astra

American auteur James Gray has combined the calm, grand spectacle of 2001, the essential plot structure of Apocalypse Now, and, possibly, the best bits of his therapy sessions to create Ad Astra, a slow-burn “hard” sci-fi thriller that is by turns captivating, mesmerizing and infuriating. The journey is rather awesome but the destination is unworthy.

Brad Pitt plays the coolest astronaut ever – literally; his BPM have never risen above 80, even during emergencies. That’s partly his legacy: his dad is the boldest astronaut ever, having travelled further from earth than any other. Now dad may be gone a little wonky out there in deep deep deep space, and his son needs to travel the solar river into his own heart of darkness, and convince Dad not to destroy humankind.

The effects, slow and quiet, are a wonder, and Pitt, quiet and introspective, holds the screen. Three truly unexpected action sequences provide intriguingly strange jolts to the action. The production design is inspired (Mars particularly). But the denouement is self-parodically on the nose. Go for the rockets, which are great, rather than the existentialism, which is contrived.

Freaks

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Charmingly lo-fi (and obviously low budget) sci-fi thriller Freaks tells the story of a little suburban girl grappling with her and her father’s potential identities as somehow other / abnormal / alien. Set principally in a few key locations with a small cast, the script touches on themes of immigration, intolerance, migrant detention and even concepts like the creation of Israel as a haven for Jews (however obliquely). Bruce Dern has a big role bringing his crabby A game (and the occasional welcome laugh) and once-was-wonder-boy Emile Hirsch is solid as the Dad. As Chloe, the little girl with a lot on her plate, Lexy Kolker is generally credible, but some scenes just require too much of her, and directors Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein seem to have had to occasionally edit around her less authentic moments. Not afraid to hit a few hard beats, this little DIY effort shows a lot of guts.

Animals

* * *

Significantly hipper, more thoughtful and more nuanced than your typical RomCom, while being significantly tamer, more formulaic and more commercially-minded than her previous film 52 Tuesdays, Adelaide-born director Sophie Hyde’s Animals, an adaptation of Emma Jane Unsworth’s novel (Unsworth also wrote the screenplay), is a variant on a very well-worn trope: what happens to a friendship centered on partying when one of the friends decides to grow up.

In this case, it is Laura (Holliday Grainger) who’s leaving her drink-and-drug buddy Tyler (Alia Shawcat) behind by getting engaged to Jim (Fra Fee). The milieu is modern Dublin, so bars are everywhere, and the film spends a lot of time in them; these places and the city are rather beautifully shot, and the film’s sense of place is strong.

Grainger is superb, and never better than in the section of the film where she falls in love with Jim. Falling in love is a hard thing to show, but Grainger shows it, often silently in close-up, as, for example, she watches Jim play piano. She is the best thing about the film.

Unfortunately Shawkat, who has been excellent in the TV show Search Party, is burdened with the far worse written role, and she can’t make it work. Almost every one of her lines sounds like words on a page. Tyler is a self-styled dandy, deliberately speaking floridly, but the words just don’t come out either naturally or as stylistic self-expression. It’s a labored performance that weighs down the film’s essentially breezy tone.

As a modest female buddy film whose target audience will be female buddies who see themselves in the characters, Hyde’s sophomore effort is a modest achievement. I hope her next one sees her re-finding the bold risk-taking of 52 Tuesdays, a far more interesting film.

Recent Cinema

These films are currently screening in the UK; some or all are either now screening or are coming soon in the US, Australia and other regions.

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Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook continues elements of that film’s aesthetic – emphatic close-ups (using vintage lenses), jittery editing and a muted, anti-glamour palette and design structure – thus establishing, over the two films, a discernible voice. But whereas The Babadook was lean and mean, The Nightingale is a long walk in the woods – the Tasmanian woods, specifically, in Australia’s grimmest colonial times, as a war wages between white and black and a convict woman is treated as a sex slave by a truly repugnant local Sergeant. The film is brutal and relatively compelling but the length is a problem; some scenes seem, perhaps deliberately, repetitive or essentially redundant. Worse, though, where The Babadook had a clear and powerful thematic spine, The Nightingale’s messages are vague. Colonialism was brutal, and women and “blacks” were equally brutalized, but beyond that, what? I’m not sure. * * *

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Joanna Hogg’s fourth film, The Souvenir, is her best, and one of the best features so far this year. Telling her own story, of being a privileged and naive film student in London in the early 1980s who endures a challenging relationship with an older man, Hogg doubles down on her methodology – structured story but improvised dialogue, use of first-time actors, long static takes emphasising the awkwardness of everyday life, etc – while boosting her commitment to plot and, most importantly for those who’ve found her previous work (understandably) cold, heart. This is certainly Hoggian, but it demonstrates a compassion and depth of feeling unseen in her first three films. Wonderful and totally engaging, with superb central performances. * * * *

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Mark Jenkin has created the most visually memorable film so far this year with Bait, which he shot on 16mm B&W stock using a vintage wind-up Bolex, which meant he couldn’t record live sound, so the whole soundscape including all dialogue was added in post. Furthermore, Jenkins processed the film himself by hand, and used things like coffee grounds and vitamin powder in the process, giving the resulting image an honestly-achieved hand-made look. The story itself is also bold and original, the tale of Cornish gentrification seen through the eyes of a local fisherman struggling with economic survival in the new Cornwall tourist economy. The aesthetics of the film inevitably consign it to the arthouse, but for the right viewer, this film will be fresh, vibrant, exciting and extremely memorable. It certainly was for me. * * * *

Dragged Across Concrete

* * * 1/2

Evoking the epic, character-driven, melancholic, detailed procedural structure and tone of Michael Mann’s Heat, the gritty urban racial dynamic of David Ayer’s End of Watch and Dark Blue (as writer), and the central political orientation of Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry, S. Craig Zahler’s massively ambitious crime drama Dragged Across Concrete is a supremely well crafted piece of genre auteurism. It’s thoroughly solid in the delivery of its very specific intentions; whether you want such a product – a two hour thirty-eight minute throwback to the aforementioned films, featuring a central role for Mel Gibson that seems designed to obliquely comment on his public fall from grace – is up to you.

Initially, the film dares you to like it. It’s slow in the beginning, and an early scene, involving Gibson as a 59 year old New Jersey cop, Vince Vaughn as his much younger partner, and Don Johnson as their superior, seems designed to provoke your PC best intentions; later – at the 52 minute mark – Gibson delivers a speech, essentially cribbed from Dirty Harry, that is so your grandfather’s idea of heroic identity, and quite Ayn Rand / libertarian / Dirty Harry-fascistic, seeming to put the film squarely on the dinosaur’s side. And maybe that’s where Zahler’s politics lie. But once that speech is done, the film locks into a spectacularly polished gear which is totally compelling. Magically, the rest of the film – the length of most ordinary films – is one incredible, nail-biting sequence.

There is plenty of dark humour that is a little overly self-aware, including one moment where Gibson’s character is goaded to say the “N” word and instead parries defiantly. That may be too on the nose for you; it was a little for me. But for all its John Wayne jingoism, there’s no denying the skill of Zahler’s filmmaking nor the immense entertainment value of his film.

Midsommar

As US is to GET OUT, so MIDSOMMAR is to HEREDITARY: the difficult second feature, following an outrageously brilliant debut, from an obviously gifted horror auteur. And like US, MIDSOMMAR is nowhere near as scary as its predecessor, nor anywhere near as disciplined, but is terrific fun nonetheless, with plenty of its own charms. It is also – rare these days – one of those films that makes the whole world outside the cinema seem creepy and weird when you emerge. I had a great time, but it won’t be for everyone. It wears its influences on its sleeve, which makes it predictable for those that pick up on the (obvious) references. Aesthetically it’s very fresh, and all aspects of the craft are operating at the highest levels. Pugh is great. Fun!

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

* * * * 1/2

Quentin Tarantino’s ninth movie is a superb time at the movies, a languid, fun, exquisitely crafted “movie movie” that is best appreciated in the context of the whole career of this quintessentially American auteur. It references, plays with and draws comparison to other films of his; it builds on narrative conceits and structures that he either created from whole cloth or has wielded more successfully than any other filmmaker; it reflects – deeply – on middle-age and late career. It truly is the ninth movie from a man who has said he only intends to make ten. Sure, if this is your first Tarantino, you’ll have a great time. But it needs to be your ninth for you to “get it.”

Brad Pitt is at his very, very best as an ageing – yet supremely physically capable – stuntman, who has transitioned to being the factotum to an ageing, and semi-alcoholic, TV star (Leonardo DiCaprio). They represent what they represent – including Tarantino – and they do it superbly. If Brad Pitt is run in the Best Supporting Actor category come Oscar time, he’ll win. (If both of them are run in Lead, they will certainly cancel each other out). Their camaraderie forms the spine of the film, which is set very, very deliberately in Hollywood in 1969.

The bright, shining star of the film, however, the objet d’art and fulcrum of the plot, is (real-life up and coming movie star) Sharon Tate, played exquisitely by Margot Robbie. Her tragic real-life murder by followers of Charles Manson’s “family” has become a seismic semiotic turning point across popular culture and academia – signifying America’s death of innocence, the end of the ‘60s, the end of personal safety, etc, etc – and Tarantino fully embraces her iconography and cultural importance while also taking the radical and incredibly humane step of treating her as a proper person, and specifically a good one, full of joy, generosity, talent and integrity. In one astonishingly well-conceived sequence, he shows Tate watching one of her movies with a general audience and joyfully appreciating their appreciation of her performance, not egotistically but artistically. She is there to make sure she got the beats right; she’s there as an artist entirely aware that she’s at the beginning of something great but that she has a lot to learn. If only, Tarantino is saying, she had been allowed to.

Wild Rose

* * * 1/2

Wild Rose is a seriously well judged and executed hybrid, combining the social-realism gritty urban British council-housing single-mum drama (Fish Tank, Dirty God) with the inspirational aspirational a-Brit-did-that! goose-bump feel-good dramedy (The Full Monty, Brassed Off). It is clearly commercial and accessible, but the script’s great strength is that it’s actually far less formulaic than it looks (from the marketing); it repeatedly skirts right up to clichés only to make surprising and satisfying left turns.

The film’s great strength is Jessie Buckley, who is tremendous, turning in a truly “star-making” turn. She plays Rose-Lynn, fresh out of prison, back to the Glasgow council house where her mum (Julie Walters, pitch-perfect) has been looking after her two children. Rose is a good, maybe great, country singer, and her dreams of getting to Nashville are at serious odds with her parental responsibilities.

As I say, you can see where this is headed, except you can’t. The film delivers not on your expectations but on its own integrity. You’ll get the feels, don’t worry about that, but they’re earned.