Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci, 1968)

Utah. The winter of 1898. The small township of Snowhill is in a state of siege. Not from the fugitives hiding in the mountains overhead, but the men who profit from their deaths: the bounty hunters.

The people of Snowhill have lost all hope - until a lone figure rides out of the white, intent on righting wrongs.

His name is Silence...

The Great Silence might be my favourite western. I had heard about years before I saw it, and it was one of those titles that always eluded me. A couple of years ago I finally managed to watch it and left it feeling really underwhelmed - I think I had built it up too much in my mind. Having re-watched it over Christmas, the movie really connected. With the rise of Trump, The Great Silence's evisceration of the western myth (particularly around American notions of individualism and patriotism) has gained renewed potency.

Because so much of this movie's power is based around the way it subverts expectations around westerns, this review is going to resemble a rough plot summary. So if you are interested in watching the movie, go away and watch it.

Jean-Louis Trintignant stars in the title role, a mute gunfighter who is out to kill anyone who commits wrongs against the innocent. Probably best known today for his role in Michael Haneke's Amour, at the time Trintignant was a big French star hoping to break into the international market. Corbucci had long desired to make a movie about a silent hero, and Trintignant was unable to speak English - thus The Great Silence was born.

Despite the lack of dialogue, Trintignant is a fine lead. He takes Eastwood's stoicism to its most logical endpoint,  yet manages to convey a great deal of empathy and vulnerability that the Man With No Name could never do. Quiet, understated and largely based around his eyes, Trintignant's performance is a terrific minimalistic exercise that - while drawing from a familiar archetype - manages to stand on its own.

Klaus Kinski is in unnervingly restrained form as Loco, the cold-hearted bounty hunter responsible for terrorising Snowhill.

Introduced masquerading as a fugitive's lawyer, Loco shoots the man dead in his own home before coolly comforting the dead man's mother (who is splattered with his blood): "I'm sorry but it's our bread and butter, understand?"

Kinski is (in)famous for his full-throttle portrayals of megalomaniacs in Werner Hersog's epics of the 70s and 80s (Aguirre, the Wrath of GodFitzcarraldo). By contrast, Loco never betrays extreme emotions - he is completely focused on making corpses and converting them into money. Complementing his performance is the voice they have given him in the English dub. Unlike so many Spaghettis the voice fits, maintaining the movie's power.

Corbucci follows Loco's introduction with a scene in the Governor's office, where he gives instructions to Burnett, the new sheriff of Snowhill. Burnett is tasked with bringing order to the lawless town.

Burnett is a walking cliche (the reluctant lawman) but Corbucci undermines his authority at every turn. He is introduced clutching his hat, with head cowed. His lack of power is further emphasised by the way he is marginalised within the frame, often wedged into the corner of shots, framed over the Governor's shoulder.

The Governor pontificates about the death of the 'old' west and how people "of all races and persuasions" need to be brought together to make a more unified and peaceful west. Pleased with his statement, he tells a lackey to note it down "for my next speech".

Unlike the taciturn image of most western lawgivers, Burnett is a talker, prone to blurting out whatever is on his mind. After the Governor finishes his spiel about offering amnesty to the fugitives,  Burnett immediately loses his confidence with the following: "A politician would promise amnesty to the murderer of his own father to win an election." 

While it cements Burnett as a moron, it also reinforces the underlying philosophy of the film. This is a world where principles are meaningless, just tools for getting what you want. 

The emptiness of the Governor's rhetoric is further emphasised by the scene which follows: we are back with Loco as he sadistically hunts a man down with a whip. Loco promises to let the man go if he tells him where the other fugitive is. Once he has the info, Loco immediately kills him.

We return to Silence making his way slowly toward Snowhill. Here, we get a neat intro to his M.O.: the old woman from earlier is burying her son. Recognising Silence, she asks him to avenge her son. Silence locates the bounty hunter responsible, Charlie - he is engorging himself on food at a nearby saloon. Silence waits until Charlie draws his gun, then shoots him dead.

We are then introduced to Vonetta McGee's Pauline; Loco is looking for her husband, who is among the fugitives. He takes her hostage to draw the man out then shoots her husband as soon as he drops his gun.

Pauline immediately begins to plan vengeance, and gets word to Silence to make sure that Loco pays for his crimes. It is interesting how Corbucci juxtaposes his heroes and villains: the bad guys are all white, with all the money and power to exert their will over Snowhill. At the end of the movie, the people who stand up to Pollicut and Loco are a disabled man, a black woman and a prostitute - people who have no place in these men's self-centred version of western progress.

Loco is not even the main villain - that role goes to Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli), a miserly businessman who uses his position as Justice of the Peace to extend his business empire, and punish those who stand in his way. The outlaws hiding out in the mountains are not bad - they are people who have been economically marginalised by Pollicut (in the English dub, they are also Mormons). The Great Silence is not just about good v evil, but about the conflict between ideals of justice, and unfettered capitalism.

    After Pauline has sworn vengeance, we are re-introduced to Sheriff Burnett struggling through the snow on his horse - until he loses it to bandits. His gun is frozen so he cannot defend himself. He has to hitch a lift on a passing stagecoach. Covered in snow, he collapses inside at Silence's feet. He then babbles his whole story, completely oblivious that his travelling companion cannot speak. Snoozing, he wakes to find a corpse leaning against the window.

    We are then given insight into Silence's motives, with a flashback showing how he lost his voice: bounty hunters pretend to be law officers and kill Silence's father. During the firefight, both of his parents are killed. The fake sheriff throws his silver star away and draws a knife to make sure the child never talks.
      Aside from backstory, this flashback performs a couple of functions: it shows that Silence's personal  code is not shared by others; that the violence of this diegesis is not limited to adults; and finally, it reduces Loco's evil, from that of a singularly evil individual to a symptom of a broader problem that has existed long before him.

      To further emphasise the uniqueness of Silence's code, Corbucci focuses on more of Sheriff Burnett's actions: he tries to exercise his authority over Loco, declaring an investigation into the death of Pauline's husband. This does not appear to be from any sense of justice, but the fact that Loco treated him like an idiot. The sheriff revels in Loco's discomfort, but the filmmakers undercut his sense of triumph: "First I'm going to interview the widow and exhume the dead body. Then I'll file a report to the Governor who in turn will pass it on to the proper department of state or... wherever." 

      What makes this even better is that he says this with shaving cream on his face.
      Burnett keeps telling people he is the sheriff, but no one cares. That ambivalence extends to the way the movie regards traditional authority figures: In  this universe you have no authority unless you are willing to use violence. Even then, that is no guarantee. 

      The sheriff is a good shot, but otherwise his senses are poor - he tries to intimidate Loco with a war story and leaves without realising Silence has been in the room the whole time. His interview with Pauline is callous - he is far more interested in Loco than the man he killed. The body is no longer a person, but a unit of transaction (money for Loco; evidence of Loco's corruption for the sheriff).

      Having neutered a possible ally for his hero, Corbucci begins to pull the rug out from under  Silence in his first confrontation with Loco.

      Following his formula, Silence tries to bait Loco into drawing first, by throwing a match and a a cigarette into his drink. Like everyone else in the movie, Loco is aware of Silence's legend and ignores his provocations. He dares Silence to break his moral code and shoot first. Unable to act, Silence is caught by surprise. Loco proceeds to beat him with his fists. Silence only escapes due to a log he throws at Loco's head.

      From here on, Silence's power as the stereotypical 'good' gunfighter is reduced. Pauline tries to help Silence heal. As with a million other action movies, they end up making love. Whereas that act is generally restorative, here it feels more futile - two brutalised people drawn together by a shared sense of loss.

      Meanwhile, a shackled Loco is busy agitating the Sheriff in the jail house. Once again, Sheriff Burnett completely mis-reads the situation: even though he is Loco's jailer, he is still under Loco's thumb - the bounty hunter dismisses the Sheriff by reminding him that he is the only lawman in town. Burnett tries to gain the upper hand by engaging in a debate with Loco about the difference between murder and killing under the law.

      Loco sees no distinction, and as always Burnett is unable to defend his side of the argument (and legitimacy as a force for good).

      Burnett decides he is going to take Loco off to a proper jail, and makes peace with the fugitives in the mountains, telling them about the governor's plans for amnesty and offering them food and shelter back in town. In any other western, this could be the ending.

      It is at this point that The Great Silence begins to break from the formula.

      As expected, Loco outsmarts and disarms the sheriff on the edge of a frozen lake.

      Before he kills the Sheriff, the bounty hunter differentiates himself from the Sheriff in an awkward speech that nevertheless provides the movie's thesis on the nature of power: while Burnett is "on the side of the law of the law," Loco is on the "side of the law of survival of the fittest." In a further rejection of the rules governing western duels, Loco kills the Sheriff by drowning him in a frozen lake.

      Meanwhile, Pollicut sneaks into Pauline's house to assault her and kill Silence - of course, Silence is still too injured to fight, and his condition worsens after he finally overcomes Pollicut.

      Loco and his men return to town, where they kill or capture the defenceless fugitives as they return to town.

      With all the stakes against are hero, and the lives of the remaining fugitives in the balance, the scene is set for a good old-fashioned western showdown.

      The ending is infamous for being one of the great downers. What is so amazing about it is the way that Corbucci uses the directorial cliches of westerns to undermine the viewer's expectations.

      In a scene familiar from a thousand westerns, Pauline tells Silence not to go - he is "just one man". Sadly, the movie goes on to prove Pauline right. 

      Even though it will hinder him, Silence still sticks his gun in his belt. As he waits for Loco outside the tavern where he is guarding the captured fugitives, we are still in vaguely familiar territory.

      But then Corbucci breaks the tension - a bounty hunter breaks a window and shoots Silence in his uninjured hand. Both Silence and the viewer are reeling. This is not the way this is supposed to play out!

      Silence is now on his knees outside the tavern. Loco stands in the entrance, his men visible on either side of him at the windows. Corbucci then intercuts hero and villain, cutting closer and closer to the character's faces. The cross-cutting between Loco and Silence is not the build-up to a duel, but an execution.

      The first shot does not even come from Loco, but one of his goons through a window. Think of how many action and war movies where the hero and villain fight while the villains' army does nothing?

      Instead of using editing to create a quick-draw finale, Corbucci draws it out by showing Silence using his destroyed hands together to pull his gun out of his belt. It is so drawn out that the viewer has to wonder, how can he win?

      Silence barely has time to react to the hit. Loco leisurely draws and fires his gun, shooting Silence in the head.

      Over a series of shots, Corbucci draws out Silence's death as he slumps and collapses. Pauline runs in and tries to shoot Loco. Loco shoots her dead.

      Loco and his men then turn their guns on their prisoners and kill them. The resulting bloodbath is not particularly graphic, but Corbucci throws in details which make the sequence feel more grotesque - as the camera surveys the dead, one dying prisoner spasms around against the ropes.

      In the final shots, Corbucci offers a final statement: As Loco and his men ride off, Corbucci shoots their departure as a reflection in a broken saloon window. One of the panes has been shot out so the viewer can see one of the dead fugitive's bodies hanging grotesquely from the ceiling.

      The final shot of Loco's men riding off is a parody of the traditional western resolution - with Silence and Pauline's bodies splayed in the foreground.

      In any other movie, Loco and his bounty hunters would be the anti-heroes. Think of A Few Dollars More or any western based around an anti-heroic gunman protecting a colonial society he can never be a part of. The Great Silence takes this trope and strips it of its iconic status, to show it for the monstrosity that it is.

      Sergio Corbucci's westerns usually end tragically. Our hero is disabled or betrayed, but always manages to defeat the villains. Sometimes the hero dies. With The Great Silence, Corbucci took an extra step. A former partisan against the Fascists, Corbucci came up with the story out of his disillusionment after the deaths of Malcolm X and Che Guevara. The biggest thing that stands out about the movie is how much a product of 1968 it is. The movie is filled with the disenchantment and cynicism running through the western world at the end of the 60s. At the climax, the meaning of the movie's title becomes clear: It does not refer to the main character, but to the moral void that he fails to fill. 

      In this film, the hero's idealism means nothing, and it is only after great death that any change can take place (as we are informed via chyron over Silence and Pauline's bodies).  Amnesty is never inevitable - as the doomed Sheriff Burnett (Frank Wolff) recognises, it is dependant on the Governor getting what he wants - another term in office. 

      Ennio Morricone's mournful theme tune mirrors the movie - its melody resembles an elegy, evoking the romanticism of classic westerns while undercutting its sentiment. The music acts as a commentary on characters like Silence - they are ultimately too good to be true.

      The movie is not flawless. The characterisation is a little half-baked (the relationship between Paula and Silence feels a little arbitrary), and occasionally the budgetary limitations show, but none of these things detract from the movie's power.

      A definite recommend.

      Monday, 29 January 2018

      RAMBLING RANT: Is CREED 2 in trouble?

      Creed was one of my favourite movies in 2015. I'm not even a Rocky fan, but that movie was so great it did not matter. So when I heard there was a sequel in the works, I was excited.

      Over the course the past year, I have felt my excitement drain away.
      First there was the uncertainty over Ryan Coogler's involvement. Then word that Stallone himself was writing the film. And the news that Stallone was directing - only to be later replaced by Steven Caple Jr., a new filmmaker who I am unfamiliar with.
      Then came the news that the film would feature a return appearance from Rocky IV villain Ivan Drago... and his son (played by real-life boxer Florian Munteanu).
      I have not seen the movie or read a script, but I'm saying it now - this movie is going to suck.
      Stallone lucked out with Rocky and First Blood, but even fans of those franchises would have to admit that the first movies of those series are clearly the best, while the later Rockys turn into cartoons, with Rock as a superhuman everyman taking on increasingly OTT opponents. Even Rocky Balboa, the series' 2006 comeback, was based on a premise in which a 60-year-old Rocky fights the world champion. 

      I'm not bashing these movies, what I'm bashing is the need to pull Creed back into Rocky's past. There is a tonal shift that seems impossible to pull off. Creed's story was all about making peace with the past, and setting out a new future. Bringing back Drago goes completely against that.
      And then there is the racial component, which was one of the key elements that helped set Creed apart from the Rocky franchise. The characters felt fully-realised and the world they inhabited felt believable. With Stallone's fingers all over the movie, and a newbie filmmaker in the director's chair, can we expect a follow-up that will maintain or exceed the strengths of the original?

      We'll have to wait till the end of the year to find out...



      2017: Best and worst of the new releases

      Here's a brief list of the movies that stuck to my ribs in 2017. No rankings, because who cares. You can click the titles to read the full reviews.

      "Not only is it a study of overcoming trauma, Brigsby Bear is a tribute to the power of imagination and curiosity to enrich one's life and relationships. It is a love letter to creativity. And it is not the creativity of a single mind, but creativity as a shared, communal experience."

        The best studio comedy of the year.

        "While it is dark, and has some extremely confrontational scenes, it is also very funny and offers an extremely empathetic portrait of its main characters." 

        "This movie is like a knife with no handle - no matter how you hold it, you are going to get cut."

        "Like the photographer from Life magazine who visited them, Nichols and his cast recognise that, in order to truly identify with Lovings, you have to sit with them in their house and watch them live. Only then can you truly recognise them, and the tragedy they (and so many others) were subjected to."

        "With their unified aesthetic and tone, Marvel movies can sometimes smother unique voices, but within Taika Waititi's Cocoon of Inanities, Jeff is allowed to go the full Goldblum." 

        "Tragedy Girls tackles its subject with no holds barred, juggling gore-soaked set pieces with the subtle nuances of two co-dependant teens attempting to find their way into adulthood."

        "So many movies fail to build a world you would want to return to (see The Mummy for a recent example), but Valerian creates such a multi-faceted and idiosyncratic world (and finds multiple ways to explore several different parts of it) that you just want to immerse yourself in it."

        "So many action movies today are so long, and contain so much unnecessary exposition and unnecessary action that they end up feeling bloated. Wheelman feels like a callback in the best possible way - every element of narrative and character is  pared down to exactly what is needed, and nothing more."  

        "Ultimately, Can I Be Me is an extremely empathetic look at a woman who never had a chance to be herself." 

        And in the opposite direction, here is a list of the the movies that sucked my life away:

        The Mummy: Utterly without character, style or purpose, The Mummy is just as dead as its title character.

        Rough Night: The anti-Girls Trip.

        Atomic Blonde: Promises more than it delivers. Minus points for Sofia Boutella's sex-death scene.

        American Assassin: Monotone, cliche and dull as ditchwater.

        Kingsman 2: Big, nasty and empty.

        Flatliners: A glorified TV movie that will leave your brain as you watch it.

        Geostorm: This movie is big, dumb, stars Gerard Butler and is ten times less fun than it should be.

        The Evil Within: If you ever wondered what it would be like to be able to make whatever you wanted with no oversight whatsoever...

        Sunday, 28 January 2018

        BITE-SIZED REVIEW: The Josephine Baker Story (Brian Gibson, 1991)

        Directed by Brian Gibson, who would go on to make the Oscar-nominated What's Love Got To Do With It, this HBO TV movie tells the story of Josephine Baker, the first African American star to gain international fame. Originally famous for her erotically charged dance shows, Baker went on to buy a castle, adopt 12 kids, become a member of the French Resistance and work in the civil rights movement.

        The film charts Baker's life, from dancing on the chitlin circuit in the American South, to her rise to megastardom in Europe and beyond.

        HBO movies of this period are generally pretty good visually, and this one is no exception. The twenties and thirties sequences are sumptuously photographed and the score by Georges Delerue is wonderfully evocative. 

        Because the movie has to crush so much into the running time, there are times when the movie feels like a montage. There are beats early on where certain characters, particularly Reuben Blades' character, feel like Basil Exposition. Overall director Gibson navigates the story well, juxtaposing sequences to create a sense of dramatic causality: One example is the scene where Josephine learns that she cannot have children, which is followed by a sequence where Baker integrates an audience of American servicemen who she is performing for. Rather than letting the tragedy play out, it feeds into her realisation of a higher purpose.

        The whole thing is tied together by Lynn Whitfield's performance. Even as the plotting blasts through decades, she anchors the whole enterprise: Flighty, brave and terrified, her Josephine is always believable. Despite her success, the little girl from St Louis is still there. This is extremely apparent whenever Baker is confronted with shades of her past -- from the embarrassment of her Broadway show flopping, through to any time she is confronted with barriers due to her race (the sequence where she has to enter a hotel through the kitchen).

        With the quality of television today, it is easy to overlook the good work the medium has produced in the past. The Josephine Baker Story is a fine example of HBO's past work, and a great showcase for the underrated LynnWhitfield.


        A Thin Line Between Love And Hate

        Saturday, 27 January 2018

        Black Dynamite (Scott Sanders, 2009)

        If this is America in the 70s, and you need someone to take down the Man, there is only one hero for the job: Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White).

        I love this movie so much. Parody movies are so hard to pull off -  most of them just feel like lazy riffs on whatever genre they are spoofing. Like Airplane!, Black Dynamite is a lovingly crafted, laugh-out-loud skewering/tribute that also functions as a great comedy.

        And a lot of its success is down to its co-writer/star Michael Jai White.

        Back in the nineties, Jai White gained prominence after playing Mike Tyson in a TV biopic and playing one of the first African American comic book movie heroes in 1997's Spawn. That movie did not do that well, but Jai White has continued to work, popping up in various big movies (The Dark Knight), and carving out a solid career in DTV action flicks.

        With Black Dynamite, I think he has found cinematic immortality. Because this movie is a masterpiece.

        There are so many great scenes to pick from - the meeting of the pimp council; Black Dynamite learning of his brother's death; the fight with Fiendish Dr Wu; the final battle between Black Dynamite and Richard Nixon - but my personal favourite is the Eureka moment where Black Dynamite uses a series of inane clues to figure out the plot. I won't go into detail but it is the highlight of the movie.

        Jai White's performance is so brilliant it is a real indictment against Hollywood that he did not get some bigger breaks. What makes his performance so good is that there is no attempt to play into the joke. White plays every scene totally straight.

        What makes his portrayal even funnier is that he is not even playing Black Dynamite: in a nod to the action stars (Fred Williamson, Jim Brown) of the genre, he is playing an ex-footballer playing Black Dynamite. If you pay attention (and I only caught this after hearing White on the Nerdist podcast), Jai White works in moments where this 'offscreen' character breaks character (like the fact that the reason Black Dynamite can only turn his head one way is because of a neck injury the actor sustained during his football career).

        Even if you are not paying attention, it is not hard to catch the broader meta-narrative going on 'off-screen': an angry actor is replaced mid-scene when a fake punch connects; a boom mike appears in the frame during Dynamite's big speech; an actress talks over Dynamite's line, causing him to break character; the same stuntman dies five times throughout the movie... the movie is filled with nuggets like this.

        Along with Jai White and the rest of the cast, director/co-writer Scott Sanders deserves kudos for his pitch-perfect balancing of making a movie that both evokes the period of its 'making' while simultaneously making fun of it.

        One of the best comedies of the last decade, Black Dynamite is highly recommended.

        Friday, 26 January 2018

        BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Think Like A Man (Tim Story, 2012)

        Based on a self-help book by comedian Steve Harvey, Think Like A Man is another one of those ensemble rom coms ala What To Expect When You're Expecting and He's Just Not That Into You. Directed by Tim Story, the movie boasts a great cast and, while predictable, is better than those movies I've already mentioned.

        Comedian Steve Harvey (playing himself) has released an advice book offering women an insight into the male psyche. A group of women in various kinds of relationships decide to follow the book's advice. Hilarity ensues.

        This movie has the good fortune to have a really strong cast. The standout of the male cast members is Romany Malco (The 40 Year Old Virgin). This is the first time I've seen him in something in a while, and he's really good as a player forced to change his ways when his latest would-be pickup (Meagan Good) puts the brakes on his usual strategy.

        Because the movie's premise, the movie ends up being more female-centred (although it does feel like we spend more time on the guys as a group). It helps that this side of the cast are legitimately terrific. Actually, it does often feel like the movie is a little lopsided: Taraji P. Henson, Gabrielle Union and Regina Hall really take the movie on their shoulders.

        Like a lot of people, my first introduction to Regina Hall was her roles in the Scary Movies. Here she is far more subdued as a mom re-entering the dating scene. She is very sweet and believable, and made me wish this character had a movie to herself.

        This movie really reaffirmed how good Gabrielle Union is. She is such a good actress she makes you believe that she could be in a longterm relationship with friggin' Turtle from Entourage.

        The one story that feels a bit pat is the romance between Taraji P. Henson's career woman and daydreamer Michael Ealy. It involves the most contrived premise (poor guy pretends to be rich to get a woman out of his league) and is not developed enough to become more original. Henson is also so good as this hyper-independent woman that it makes no sense why she would fall for Ealy - he's okay but their romance never really convinces.

        In the end, Think Like A Man is a solid rom com that does exactly what it says on the tin. Amid the dross clogging up Netflix, it is actually worth a look. 

        Relevant reviews

        Thursday, 18 January 2018

        IN THEATRES: The Commuter

        Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) is a worker bee in the big city. Every day for the last 10 years he has taken the train to and from work. Every day has been the same boring routine - until today. Today, his train journey will be more eventful than irate fellow-travellers and bad smells = bad guys, broken bones and explosions.

        I kinda loved this movie. Not enough to remember it in a year, or make this review longer, but still, this movie hit me the right way.

        Jaume Collet-Serra has been earmarked for bigger things (Akira; Suicide Squad 2) but thankfully he has never graduated to the A List. Because it would deprive us of gems like this. With Liam Neeson as his muse, Collet-Serra is quickly turning into this century's version of Budd Botticher and Randolph Scott. Where those low budget luminaries favoured the western, Collet-Serra and Neeson have carved out a niche as purveyors of mid-budget high-concept action thrillers. 

        Neeson's late-career detour into elder action hero has become a bit of a joke, but of all the b-movies he has taken on post-Taken, his collaborations with Collet-Serra have been the best.

        And I think this one might be the best.

        The plot is a load of contrived bollocks but Collet-Serra handles the material so deftly it never matters. He brings much needed style and visual panache to material that a) does not deserve it b) would be completely unwatchable.

        The standout sequence is a one-take fight scene between Neeson and one of the villains in a train car. It is a stylistic exercise, but the lack of cutting works to increase the sense of peril. For once Neeson feels like an ordinary guy trying to stay alive, rather than a superman.

        Of course by the end of the movie, after he has been punched through windows, jumped between carriages and ducked another falling carriage, any sense of verisimilitude has got off a few stops back.

        While the movie goes off the rails (har har) in the third act,  it adds to the fun. Once again, Collet-Serra's sure hand at the tiller ensures that this escalation does not come out of nowhere.

        The acting by all concerned is solid - Neeson gets to play a more vulnerable version of his usual persona (hard to believe someone with a pedigree like his has a 'persona'), and everyone does what they have to, and they all seem to know what kind of movie they are in.

        On this evidence, I hope Collet-Serra gets more and bigger opportunities to stretch his skills - but not before he has popped off a few more gems like this. He is the real star here.

        Overall, The Commuter is a fun, well-made potboiler from one of the best working genre filmmakers around. It does everything you expect, but with enough style and panache to make it entertaining.

        IN THEATRES: The Post

        In 1971, the Washington Post, a local paper in the US Capital, found itself at war with the US Government when it received the Pentagon Papers, a secret report on the history of America's decades-long involvement in Vietnam.

        This movie hit me in so many different ways. As a history buff, as an ex-pat and as someone who trained as a journalist - this movie resonated in a lot of ways.

        A passionate tribute to the Fourth Estate, The Post is a movie moulded in the dumpster fire of Trump's America. It might be the most urgent and pointed film in Steven Spielberg's career.

        A companion piece to Alan J Pakula's classic All The President's Men, The Post is both a thematic sequel and a narrative prequel. The movie even includes an easter egg at the climax that literalizes the connection between the two films.  

        In an era defined by over-stuffed runtimes and empty exercises in visual style, The clarity of Speilberg's direction and the script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer is a breath of fresh air. There are a few scenes involving long takes which are completely seamless - they are never used as mere technical exercises, but are completely functional within the context of the story. The camera tracks editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) through offices, newsrooms, and - in one of the film's standout scenes - his house, as he bats away the paper's lawyers while reporters pour through sections of the Pentagon papers.

        The performances are terrific. Hanks is good as Bradlee. I was not blown away, but he handles the role well. Bradlee is an important character, but he is not the central figure, which might be why he did not stand out to me.

        Bob Odenkirk is great as Ben Bagdikian, the journalist who tracks down Daniel Ellsberg (The Americans' Jonathan Rhys), the whistle-blower responsible for smuggling the report out to the public. He lends the dogged reporter a jittery everyman quality that works to ram home the danger the Post is in.  His awkwardness and lack of overt bravery makes his ethical stand for publishing the report far more impactful. He knows what's at stake (and appears to be genuinely terrified of the consequences), but he is still willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good.

        Bruce Greenwood is also good as former Secretary of State Robert McNamara (star of Errol Morris's classic documentary The Fog of War). Greenwood is always great at playing intelligent authority figures, and that fits this conflicted, divisive figure to a T.

        And now time for one of the great cliches of our time when it comes to movies starring Meryl Streep.

        This movie starring Meryl Streep belongs to Meryl Streep. Playing publisher Kay Graham, if The Post has a central character it is her. The movie is as much about Graham learning to assert herself over the multitude of male voices telling her what to do. Beyond her performance, this storyline is the backbone of the movie - if the movie was not based around her, I don't know if the movie would resonate as much.
        One of the main delights of the film is how it characterises this transformation. The expectation would be a sudden expression of steely resolve. Instead, Streep leans into the character's natural hesitance. The scene where she awkwardly decides to publish the findings from the Pentagon Papers, abruptly terminating a teleconference with various board members and paper staff, is brilliant. The Post never feels like a powerpoint of historical bullet points. Like Spielberg's Lincoln, it feels like people stumbling through significant moments without the audience's understanding of their significance.
        The Post is a terrific and timely film that deserves a massive audience. Not just because of its message, but because it delivers its message with such power and precision. It is the best press the press could have right now.

        On a related note, if you are interested in Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, check out the 2009 documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.

        Saturday, 13 January 2018

        IN THEATRES: Menashe

        A Hasidic widower, Menashe (Menashe Lustig), is determined that his son live with him. However this goes against a ruling from his rabbi that the boy grow up in a 'proper' home (i.e. with a mother). Unwilling to remarry, Menashe is caught between love for his son and his beliefs.

        A small scale character piece, Menashe is the kind of movie that I like to soak in. There is no real plot; just a locale, a mood and a deeply human anchor in its central character. Featuring a cast of Hasidic non-actors, and inspired by his leading man's real life, Joshua Z. Weinstein's film is warm, empathetic portrait of a community that is rarely portrayed onscreen. 

        As the lead, Lustig is great - he is naturalistic in his interactions with his son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) and is extremely affecting during the dramatic moments. Weinstein often lets his camera stay on Lustig, letting moments play out. The film's most affecting sequence is when Menashe, post-date, eats takeaway at a convenience store while the clerk awkwardly stares at him.

        Because it takes place almost entirely in Yiddish, there is a layer of distance that might be shielding some of the performances, but the movie lives and dies on Lustig's performance. There is a weariness and a sadness to Lustig's performance that never feels telegraphed or shoved in our faces.

        Like Malglutit which I reviewed last year, Weinstein makes no overt attempts to explain any aspects of Hasidic culture, instead letting the audience put the pieces together. Beyond the matter-of-fact presentation of Hasidic culture, the movie's strength is its emotional through-line.  

        When you take away the context, the movie is just a story about a single parent trying move on in his life and raise his son. The movie only has a hair of a plot: Menashe takes it upon himself to make the preparations for the anniversary of his wife's death - if he succeeds, the Rabbi will consider letting him keep his son; if he fails, he will go to live with his brother-in-law. 

        There are no contrivances or subplots to clog up the 82 minute runtime. The only obstacles are banal and straightforward: Nosey relatives, uncaring employers and Menashe's own personal flaws. 

        Leavened by touches of humour and heart, Menashe is a sweet little movie that is worth a look.

        Wednesday, 10 January 2018

        IN THEATRES: All the Money in the World

        In 1973, John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) was kidnapped and held for ransom. When his grandfather, the world's richest man John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), refused to pay, it fell to Paul's mother Abigail (Michelle Williams) and Getty's hatchet man Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to get her son back.

        This movie was not on my radar until November, when original cast member Kevin Spacey was accused of sexual assault. In an un-precendented move, Ridley Scott declared that he was re-casting Spacey with Christopher Plummer AND that he would have the film finished by the film's release date in late December.

        Movies with unusual production problems have always fascinated me. There is something incredibly arresting about watching a team of filmmakers struggle to bring a film to the screen. Recent examples include Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassuss (which coincidentally starred Plummer as the title character), or 2013's World War Z, where the filmmakers ended up re-shooting almost half of the movie.

        Christopher Plummer fits in perfectly - there is one shot where the seams show, but other than that you would never guess that he was a late replacement who was added less than a month before the movie's release. 

        Plummer is one of those actors who never quite disappears into a role - he makes recognisable choices in terms of the way he uses his body and voice. He has an affinity for playing amoral shits, and Getty is right in his wheelhouse. Unlike the performer he replaced, Plummer is able to leaven his characters with a sense of humour and charm in a way that allows him to remain just outside of a viewer's sympathies (think of General Chang in Star Trek 6 or his elderly patriarch in the Dragon Tattoo remake). He gives Getty just enough pathos that you can understand why people could overlook his complete ruthlessness and self-regard. 

        It also helps that Plummer is closer to the age of the character he is playing. Besides verisimilitude, it also fits in with the bleakness of the mise-en-scene. There is something almost vulture-like about Plummer's profile, and almost cadaverous about his face in general, that adds to the sense of Getty as a purely selfish creature, drawing sustenance from the world around him.

        Plummer is such a perfect fit for this movie that by the climax it is hard to imagine that another performer was in his place.

        While Plummer was the draw, Michelle Williams is the real standout of the movie. Williams has been terrific in almost everything she has done for years now, and I am embarrassed that I forgot she was in it. 

        Mark Wahlberg is fine as Getty's hatchet man, although I did not quite buy his character turn in the third act. Wahlberg is not quite old enough to give the role the gravitas and cynicism that the script intends. For most of the runtime, he seemed to fit in, but when it came to the character's biggest emotional shifts, he fails to convince.
        Ridley Scott is on good form here. Following the meandering, bizarre Alien Covenant last year, All The Money In The World is a model of momentum and narrative focus. Oddly, it does end up feeling like a counterpart to that picture: it takes a microscopic lens to a situation in which human beings do terrible things to each other for terrible reasons. While that picture felt interesting but half-baked, All The Money In The World is extremely focused.

        Due to the compressed time scale - and the logistical issues involved - All the Money in the World is a remarkable case study in Scott's skills as a filmmaker. When left to his own devices, he can be a sloppy story-teller (see Prometheus or Robin Hood for recent examples). Scott is not a creator in the traditional sense - he is a terrific interpreter, using his background as an art director and a designer to build worlds around his characters that feel like extensions of whatever his film is about: think of hellish future-scapes of Blade Runner or the lonely conman's sterile home in the underrated Matchstick Men.

        All The Money In The World is all about the price of greed. Though he is present in less than half of the picture, Plummer's John Paul Getty is the centre of the film. The film's focus is his single-minded focus on accumulating wealth, building an empire and a dynasty, and the way his family are dragged into his schemes.

        Darius Wolski's  sharp, cool photography is a major asset - even before Paul is kidnapped, the Gettys' world is dominated by the patriarch's miserly ways. It always feels like the vitality has been sucked out of the image. 

        A testament to Ridley Scott's fascination with human beings doing terrible things to one another - and his talent for overcoming impossible production obstacles - All the Money in the World is a mature thriller for grown-ups. It might be a bit mournful for some people, and takes a bit of time to get going, but overall it is a really good film and one of Scott's best efforts in years.


        Alien Covenant