2017

Final Portrait (2017)

Written for RAF News August 2017

At the point that we meet Alberto Giacometti in Final Portrait he is at his most self-critical. This is 1964 mind, so he has already achieved great acclaim as an artist and wads of cash can be found thrown about his studio between works-in-progress, but apparently success is the breeding ground for doubt.

At least this is what he tells James Lord, an influential critic and admirer who has agreed to model for one of his paintings. Assured that it would take no more than a few hours, Giacometti soon confesses that a portrait is never finished, that they are meaningless and impossible. Despite this Lord decides to stay it out, observing the artist observing him.

Battling doubt and distractions – his penchant for cigarettes and red wine or his obsession with wildfire prostitute Clementine (Clémence Poésy) – it becomes apparent that he is afraid of finality, so closely twinned with fatality. Clearly neurotic he romanticises suicide but begrudges that “you only get to do it once!”

Geoffrey Rush, who does share a likeness with the Swiss sculptor and painter, is superb casting, cantankerous with the flair and affectation of genius. His wry humour works perfectly with Armie Hammer’s clean-cut straight man in Lord. When he first begins painting he makes cutting observations of Lord, goading him with such a dry tone that you can’t be sure he’s joking. Sitting with the subject for the duration of these sessions, and with a great deal of silence, you share Lord’s frustration when no progress is made, or worse when it all starts again.

Taking place in this one location for the most part, it may seem more suited for stage but Stanley Tucci knows when to introduce music and change the pace, or where to put the camera, including one of the most stunning scene transitions involving a swimming pool and Chagall’s ceiling.

Final Portrait hinges though on the dynamic of the two central characters, the back and forth between artist and subject, and in this respect it is always funny and actually offers a profound insight on the creative process.

The Odyssey (2017)

Written for RAF News August 2017

Two hours isn’t a great deal of time for anyone’s life to be condensed down to, especially not that of Jacques Cousteau, and yet The Odyssey gives a good go anyway.

A deep-sea diver who became a pioneer of underwater exploration and documentary filmmaking, Cousteau was first a showman. In the opening of the film Cousteau, played by Lambert Wilson, attends a screening of one of his early expeditions and takes to the stage to answer the audiences’ questions – he seems to find as much comfort under the spotlight as he does underwater, speaking with great ease and incredible charm.

If you hadn’t seen any of Cousteau’s own groundbreaking films, they may be familiar from Wes Anderson’s A Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which took on the stilted style of Cousteau’s semi-staged documentaries. It also included a lot of biographical information about Cousteau that bobs up here in The Odyssey with much more dramatic heft.

The key component and through-line to this story is Jacques’ relationship to his son Philippe (Pierre Niney). Whilst his loyal wife Simone (Audrey Tautou) and crew remain supportive of his over-ambitious attempt to produce films for studios, it is his prodigal son who provides a realisation and rebirth for the legend as he is known today.

Although it only focusses on a few decades in Cousteau’s life it still feels packed with information. With so much to include, it impinges on the atmosphere and characters, with events following each other in such rapid succession that it can be difficult to take them in or take them seriously.

Needless to say Cousteau was an extraordinary man, though not without flaws, and there is a lot to discover about him and the forging of his legacy in The Odyssey.

Maudie (2017)

Written for RAF News August 2017

Maud is a passionate artist with arthritis and a bad leg, eager to get out into the world and free from her aunt’s care to make a life for herself.

Idly looking over paint cans in the store she hears the grunts of an inarticulate local wanting to put up an ad for a housekeeper. This is Everett Lewis, a stubborn and neanderthal-like man who has trouble communicating at all, much less show compassion.

The film looks at how these two opposing personalities come together, as Maud gently forces her way into his life initially as his live-in maid, bringing with her warmth and colour, painting the walls and windows of his humble shack as a perfect metaphor.

Maud has a romantic outlook on the world best encapsulated in her paintings that take the best from all seasons. Sally Hawkins is utterly transformed bringing this real folk artist to the screen: posture shrunken down with her shoulders brought in though her smile remains permanent. Hawkins is artful at magnifying small personal victories through her infectious smile, a trait reminiscent of her break-out role in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky but Maud is a little more meek, on the surface at least.

Ethan Hawke plays against type as Everett, so often the sensitive one it’s hard to believe his masculine posturing. Everett is shown as gruff and aggressive, hard on Maud from the outset and reluctant to hire her in the first place. It’s clear that that his hostility comes from feelings of inadequacy and yet Maud never really has her moment. We see him grow passive to her, a comedic way of relaying that things have changed in the household. She cooks and cleans as required but continues to paint simply because he never tells her to stop. Whilst it is interesting to avoid the obvious moments, having Everett’s tenderness or understanding occur off-screen makes it hard to sympathise with.

In all Maudie is a little slow and perhaps deservedly heavy on sentiment, with a relationship that is quite hard to engage with, but Hawkins performance is a triumph.

Scribe (2017)

Written for RAF News July 2017

The opening of Scribe might seem like a joke, an office-worker is told by his superior that he needs a file ready for morning – cue a montage of paperwork and filing but cut together as though it were an espionage thriller. The strangest thing about this is: it works.

François Cluzet (The Intouchables) is stressed-out filer Mr Duval, knocking back whiskey between staples in this introduction. Two years later he is on the wagon and off the payroll, looking for work to distract him from his addiction.

Interviewed by the mysterious Clément (Denis Podalydès) for a private security firm, he is asked about the gap in his employment and his political standing. The work, it turns out, is to transcribe conversations from tapped phones, requiring the utmost discretion. Clément apparently has a visual memory and distrusts digital technology and so requires someone to type out every word on a typewriter and without mistakes.

Offered a decent salary Duval accepts the job but the confidential nature is stressed to the point of suspicion. Each day he must enter an apartment, listen to tapes and type up what he hears, leaving the pages to be collected without ever having contact with anyone. With no friends or family apart from his AA group, Duval is a loner, so when he eventually hears a phone-call that is disturbing, he has no-one to turn to.

In fact a lot of the scenes take place in large locations with only Duval or one other, from his apartment to a conference room or even a stadium. This could be a thematic motif of a small fish in a big pond, isolated from the world around, or maybe just a way to save on extras. Either way it is clear from the off that things are not going to turn out well. The original score sounds a lot like a muted Phillip Glass with a circus kind of mania about it – this is a slippery slope into a dark political underworld.

There are obvious touches of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation but the analogue tapes and reels have been smoothed out and the film has its own clear and clean style. What is so impressive is how the shots of Duval typing alone are made to be engaging, exciting almost. It is when the plot inevitably thickens that it also becomes forgettable, as the story itself is unconvincing and of little interest in the end.

Dunkirk (2017)

Written for RAF News July 2017

Dunkirk is not what you might expect if you somehow you hadn’t heard about it already. Don’t expect a typical story, this is white-knuckle experience of the desperate fight for survival.

It shows the infamous Dunkirk evacuation from three different perspectives: Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) one of the many troops stranded on the beach, Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) captaining his own personal boat out to bring them home, then there’s Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) two spitfire pilots protecting those on the ground. Surrounded on all sides with Messerschmitt’s raining fire from above, the squaddies are forced to wait up to a week with their backs to the sea, those on the water are left exposed for a day, and the airforce have only an hour of fuel.

These different experiences are wrapped together with the same frantic and frenetic intensity, cutting through time and leaving you without a moment to unclench. You can see why its Christopher Nolan’s shortest film since his debut – there’s no way you could keep this pace up. It’s exhilarating to the point of exhaustion.

Using a young and largely unknown cast for the soldiers on the beach, except of course the debuting Harry Styles who isn’t half bad, you are forced to consider how young and inexperienced these soldiers were. Their fear and desperation is magnified when shown huge stretches of shoreline, hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers with nowhere to go. Shot completely in large format, and mostly on IMAX cameras, the beautifully vast coast of Dunkirk becomes a symbol of vulnerability and hopelessness.

Amidst the chaos though we have the calming presence of Mark Rylance, a compassionate civilian intent on getting over the Channel with two young boys to do his bit. When warbirds roar overhead he reassures the boys, and the audience, that this sound should be reassuring – the Rolls Royce Merlin engine of the greatest plane ever engineered. But no sooner are we told to relax than we are thrust into the cockpit to experience a dogfight first hand.

Nolan’s fondness for practical effects mean that a lot of stunts are happening for real, dozens of real ships in the water, shot with cameras mounted on real spitfires – and you feel the weight of it. The dislocation of chasing a target through the clouds and the deafening rattles of gunfire. Masked and muffled (and with a similar coat) you can make out just a little more of Hardy than his turn as Bane, but this isn’t about coherence, in fact it’s just the opposite.

Dunkirk is a joyful assault on the senses that fills you with a welcome dose of suspense and adrenaline. A cleverly made epic that is deceptively complex.


Personal Opinion Sidebar: I was lucky enough to see a preview of Dunkirk at the IMAX in Waterloo – the largest screen in Europe. I understand the song and dance being made about seeing it in this format because it is shot precisely for this format, for the experience. I saw Interstellar here for this reason.

The difference is I could watch Interstellar on a phone* and still take something from the story, whereas I feel Dunkirk, being an experiential film is made for this set-up. It clearly did what it set out to do, to an extreme, but I’m not sure what else is to be found here. Maybe I’m wrong but I have no intention of watching the film again. Fun though ay.

*Just to be clear, I would never. I swear to Lynch.

The Shepherd (2017)

Written for RAF News June 2017

Anselmo Garcia (Miguel Martin) is a humble and unassuming shepherd who lives in a small farm house with his dog. A man of simple pleasures who sees no use for a television or telephone, Anselmo appreciates the simplicity of life: in food, coffee and classic literature – but now they are trying to take that from him.

 

When two men representing a construction firm propose to buy Anselmo’s land in order to build a new housing complex, it is clear that he is not even tempted. Miffed by his apparent disinterest in the money they turn aggressive. What soon transpires is that Anselmo’s land is the last piece of the puzzle, and that all of his neighbour’s have already signed away their property. In order for the deal to be closed, they are reliant on Anselmo parting with his property, and so he finds the pressure increasing from all sides to leave behind the life that he knows and loves.

One of Anselmo’s neighbour’s is the sharply dressed slaughterhouse owner Julian (Alfonso Mendiguchía). When he takes Anselmo to his sterile factory floor filled with steel machinery, it is clear that this life is the complete antithesis of the shepherd’s – harvesting animals as opposed to rearing them. But despite his appearance, Julian is in great looming debt and beginning to get desperate.

The morals guiding this storyline are cut and dry from the outset and the money-hungry suits make for pretty two dimensional villains. What is impressive is how the film imbues a romanticism into the shepherds way of life through the images on screen and with a modest budget. Capturing a flock of sheep on this rural Spanish landscape in the early lavender hours of the morning and the firey colours of dusk.

The story is a most definitely a slow burn with performances from the supporting cast that are pretty ropey for the most part, but there are moments which incapsulate the argument of simple living over the stress of modern life quite nicely.

Alone In Berlin (2017)

Written for RAF News June 2017

When a long-married couple lose their only son in battle they start a silent rebellion in the heart of Berlin. This act of dissent will quickly gain attention from the Gestapo and almost certainly mark them for death.

Otto Quangel (Brendan Gleason) is a foreman at a coffin factory and his wife Anna (Emma Thompson) works begrudgingly for the Nazi Women’s league. They are shown to be lowly working class people already disgusted by the ‘German war machine’ and losing their boy takes all purpose from their lives.

Otto is inspired by a Nazi recruitment poster to speak out and does so by writing a warning on the back of a postcard, which he leaves in public. Now with new purpose he begins to write more and more, with political messages provided by his wife, until Detective Escherich (Daniel Brühl) is assigned the case of finding and eliminating the audacious menace.

Based on a novel that in turn was based on true events, the story is rather straight forward and motivated by complex emotions, however rather than show this through the performances of its impressive cast, it constantly and needlessly reminds you of what is going on. There is so much room for subtlety and yet most of the dialogue is dedicated to expressing feelings, bizarrely even in the stoic character of Otto.

The film looks slickly designed with wondrous use of lighting, however the dialogue and even the moments intended to bring suspense are so artificial and contrived that it removes any sense of realism. That’s not even to speak of the English speaking – German accents affected by all, which is highly distracting.

Alone in Berlin is entertaining enough to keep you for its runtime but it feels like an incredible waste of talent.