Call Me By Your Name

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* * * * 1/2

Timothée Chalamet gives a superb, award-deserving performance as a seventeen-year-old “Jewish French Italian American” young man falling in love for the first time in Luca Guadagnino’s sensuous, languid, romantic and beautifully crafted Call Me By Your Name. Chalamet himself is American/French, speaks French fluently, and spent his summers as a boy in France, so his casting here represents a kind of divine providence. He is the right actor in the right role at the right time and he nails it.

He plays Elio, who lives in a gorgeous villa in Lombardia, Italy with his parents and a couple of household staff. Each summer his academic father (Michael Stuhlbarg) hosts a research assistant; this year – 1983 – it is Oliver (Armie Hammer), a brashly confident American scholar. Over the summer, Elio and Oliver fall in love.

This isn’t Brokeback Vineyard. Oliver and Elio are not – at least, on the surface – fumbling, self-hating deniers, and they’re untroubled by any tangible outside dangers, including bigotry. Indeed, they are both cool. Oliver enchants the whole town with his rather astounding physical presence but his cool goes deeper than that; it’s in how he walks, how he wears the subtly brilliant period-specific summer clothing. He’s deeply dorky when he dances ‘80s-style, but that just somehow adds to his cool. Likewise, Chalamet’s Elio starts the film awkwardly but Oliver awakens some inner cool within him, and soon he’s smoking cigarettes as suavely as the older man.

It is incredibly pleasant to spend a couple of hours with characters as unashamedly smart as this. It is rare these days to find English-speaking characters who revel in the pleasures of intellectual discussion, who celebrate each other’s braininess. Languages in this household freely intermingle and people lie down and read to each other; poets and philosophers are quoted and questioned. It feels like a universe away, a better place, and a most wonderful one for these two smart, intriguing people to come together.

The film feels too long for its story, which, while it may contain multitudes of feeling and intimate detail, is essentially a simple one. But it is charming in spades, and, as captured in Chalamet’s performance, an essential addition to the coming-of-age canon. The final shot lodges it there with amazing grace. And we need the time, perhaps, to fully get to know these people. Chalamet’s Elio is the focus of the story and carries the movie, but Hammer’s Oliver is devilishly complicated, layered with nuance and far more vulnerability than first suggested; Hammer plays him perfectly – again, the right role for the right actor at the right time, superbly cast and directed.

This is a film that stays with you. Its mood, its heart and its characters have been tickling my brain since seeing it. It feels nourishing and generous, like a meal that was delicious and has turned out to have ongoing health benefits. It’s briefly altered my perception of the world, reminding me that there is decency out there, somewhere. And I daresay, if I was a gay teenager right now, or even just a teenager, this would be the movie I needed. It may be one of those films that change many thousands of young lives for the better. For many, it will become a favourite, a classic, even a life-saver. It is sublime.

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Free Fire

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Watch Jim Flanagan and I discuss FREE FIRE and Ben Wheatley’s other films here

*** (out of five)

Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is an odd experiment that doesn’t quite come off. It’s absolutely entertaining and I completely recommend it, but, dare I say it, I was hoping for more – perhaps too much.

I’ve been expecting too much from Wheatley ever since I saw Kill List (2011), a wild, incredibly satisfying work of auteurist cinema. Terrifying, supremely confident and wholly original – while acknowledging fascinating forebears – Kill List instantly put Wheatley on my own, exclusive list of directors whose films I will always see as soon as I can. Sightseers (2012) kept me completely on board, while I brushed off 2013’s mystifying A Field In England as an allowable indulgence. But last year’s High Rise, while chock full of superb elements, went haywire in its storytelling, essentially replacing the second act with a montage of hysterical imagery. Indulgence indeed. Still, I love the cut of the man’s jib – I feel like he makes the kind of movies I want to see – so I went into Free Fire looking forward to something… well, I was hoping for astonishing. It isn’t that.

The experiment is simple: Set up a big arms deal in a contained location with a group of dangerous men (and one woman), get some fun characterisations going, then chuck a spanner in the works, get them shooting at each other – and don’t stop. Finish at ninety minutes.

For the experiment to really work, it needs to fulfil a few criteria. We should be entertained the entire time. The gun battle should have an interior logic allowing us to follow it. We should care, at least a little, about the characters and the situation. It should be fun.

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The good news is, it’s definitely fun, and we do care, at least a little, about the characters and the situation. The first, shortest act of the film is the set-up, and a batch of really good comic actors get to strut out some terrific oddballs in very deft strokes. Sharlto Copley gets the juiciest ham as Vernon, the purveyor of the fine firearms; he gets to use his own South African accent to terrific comic effect. Cillian Murphy plays one of those small, good-looking IRA guys – he’s buying the guns – who just have a killer vibe about them despite their build. Armie Hammer, looking really tall amongst this bunch, plays a super-cool middle-man – he actually lights up a joint and gets high later on, as the bullets are flying – and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley plays the Michael Smiley role (on the IRA side). Brie Larson’s the chick (unfortunately not likely to get her another Oscar) and along the way, some more greasy thugs come to the deal, with terrifically icky turns from Jack Reynor, Sam Riley and Enzo Cilenti. Babou Ceesay, as Vernon’s more level-headed offsider, stabilises things a little, at least for awhile. Oh, and it’s set in the late 70s, so everyone looks groovy, with facial hair, big lapels and leisure suits aplenty.

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So far, so Reservoir Dogs (and we wouldn’t have Wheatley if we didn’t have Tarantino). Unfortunately, once the bullets start flying, the film stumbles a little in achieving its goals. Despite stupendous technical care – Wheatley planned out the hour-long-or-so gun battle on models, in storyboards, and on Minecraft (!) – we still lose track of who is where and when, who’s shooting at whom, how wounded everyone is, and what’s generally going on. The situation is confusing for the characters but when it is so for us, we can drift, and I certainly did. In its long second act and into its third, it’s a very easy movie to tune out of, because – hey – you know what’s going on: a gun battle. All you’re really sticking around for is to see who survives at the end.

I still have Wheatley on my list. I’m glad he’s playing with form. Good on him and more power to him. But accepting Free Fire’s flaws remind me that Wheatley’s most obvious modern influence – Tarantino – has never put out a film that is anything other than masterful. Tarantino takes his time. Wheatley is in a fertile, prolific, hyper-productive period. Perhaps if he slowed down, his films would be more polished… but there would be less of them. Not a bad dilemma for those of us who love cinema to have.

Nocturnal Animals

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**** (out of five)

Tom Ford’s second feature after A Single Man (2009) is a seriously mature work, a terrifying thriller for adults that has staggering resonance in the wake of the US election results. At its heart, it is about two things: how choices we make can devastatingly affect the rest of our lives, and how violently divided the city and country dwellers of the United States are. Seeing it literally the morning after Trump got elected was surreal.

Amy Adams plays a total “cultural elite”, a Los Angeles art gallery owner married to some sort of high flying entrepreneur (Armie Hammer). She’s been divorced for nearly twenty years from a writing teacher / novelist (Jake Gyllenhaal). One day she receives his new novel, in proof form, in the mail, and it’s dedicated to her. As she reads it, we see it, and the affect it has on her, which is obviously intentional – perhaps maliciously so.

The two stories are very different in terms of content; the “real” events of the film are all about a woman facing a youngish mid-life crisis in her incredible Los Angeles mansion, while the story of the novel is a grim, indeed nightmarish, tale of a group of rednecks terrorising a young family in West Texas (also the setting of Hell or High Water, incidentally). But the tone and style of the film embraces both stories, linking and interweaving them extremely artfully to create a whole that is genuinely disturbing.

Ford is a rather incredible individual, having only two features to his credit and both of them excellent, and a massive design career to boot. The fact that Nocturnal Creatures is, at least on the surface, tremendously different to A Single Man is also creditable. There are similarities – both films deal intensely with the main character’s introspection over a very limited timeframe (and both in Los Angeles) and both are exquisitely crafted. Ford is no dilettante. His framing is distinctive, his use of music bold and exhilarating (the fantastic score is by Abel Korzeniowski, who also scored A Single Man) and the performances he gets are pitch perfect. Michael Shannon, as a cop in the “story within the story”, has never been better.

Intriguingly, this film opens in Australia the same day as Arrival, also starring Adams in the lead. There’s Oscar nomination buzz for her on that one, but I’d vote for her performance here, which carries far greater emotional depth, thanks in no small part to a far superior script (and film).