Friday, 22 January 2016

Hard Times

“The Revenant”

What, precisely, is a revenant? The word calls to mind both the half-rhyme “remnant,” and the notion of revenge. As it happens, it’s an extraordinarily apt title for the new film by Alejandro G. Iñárritu (the director of last year’s Best Picture winner, Birdman), which shows us Leonardo DiCaprio playing an experienced hunter and tracker whose frame, for much of the film, carries around only the tattered remains of a formerly strong body, bent on retribution. The literal meaning of “revenant” is a person returned from the dead, either as a ghost or an animated corpse, making it triply suitable for the story of the film.

DiCaprio’s trapper, named Hugh Glass, has been hired by a company of hunters to guide them through the unsettled wilderness of what later became Montana and North and South Dakota, in the winter of 1823. He is accompanied by his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), and haunted by the spectre of his dead wife, a Pawnee Native American, who was killed by a white officer. The company is made up of a few dozens of men – including the leader, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), the shifty-eyed and hard-muzzled John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), little more than a boy – but their numbers are cut brutally short when the native Arikara ambush their camp. The survivors, whose final tally is a mere ten, hurry away down the river on their shabby log boat.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

High Times

“The Big Short”

In the financial crisis of 2007 – 08, when the United States housing and credit bubbles burst and securities’ values tumbled downwards, the key culprits, it is generally agreed, were those who were trusted to keep American and world finances secure: Wall Street investors, traders, bankers, regulators, ratings agencies, related governmental departments, et cetera. Meanwhile, those who suffered most severely as a result were the people who had done the trusting, who had borrowed money to buy homes and establish security for their families, and were ultimately roughed up by the ruthlessly greedy and fraudulent system. One of the virtues of The Big Short, Adam McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’s account of the build-up to the crisis, is that it both implicates the whole host of parties judged to be responsible, and shows concern and sympathy for those who bore the difficult consequences, and what those consequences largely entailed.

The Big Short is being called a comedy by most viewers and critics, but formally it doesn’t quite qualify. The genre is satire, the form is probably much closer to a tragicomedy, and the predominant stylistic elements are those of a mockumentary, in which a fictional story is told using documentary techniques, such as interviews and ostensible in-the-moment camera tricks, capturing what seem like real events – think along the lines of the television shows The Office and Modern Family. The two chief differences between those shows and this film, however, is that they are entirely comedic, whereas The Big Short depicts a global catastrophe and all its harrowing implications; and the stories of the two shows really are fictions, while The Big Short keeps reassuring us of its non-fiction credentials, to varying degrees of persuasion and annoyance.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Winter of ’52

“Carol” and “Brooklyn

It’s the end of the year 1952. New Yorkers are reeling from a summer of singin’ in the rain, during the heights of McCarthy-era paranoia, and have just learnt that their years of post-war monotony will continue under the man, calm and white-haired, who had launched the successful and epic campaign to bring that war to a just end. In two of the boroughs, Manhattan and Brooklyn respectively, two love affairs are burgeoning and blooming, one illicit and tensely passionate, the other conventionally sacred and cheerful; both are touchingly heartfelt, both have their moments of poignancy and of delight, and both are designs of fiction, comprising the plots of two year-end releases at the movies.

The first, steaming along with an ardour that all but melts its icy setting in Manhattan, is the story of Todd Haynes’s Carol, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt which tells of a romance between two women, taken from experiences in Highsmith’s own life. In the film, they are Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a well-heeled housewife with a wry smile and eyes of exquisite though cold enthralment, and Therése Belivet (Rooney Mara), the reticent and alert clerk who draws and holds Carol’s attention at the toy counter of a large department store. Carol leaves her gloves behind as she leaves – whether or nor by accident is the R2 question – and Therése, finding her information in the store’s accounts, drops by to return them. In ostensible thanks, Carol takes Therése to lunch, and the astute reader will need no further prompting to know where all this is headed.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

The Year in Movies – 2015

“Trainwreck,” The Back Row’s film of 2015

The year 2015 may be remembered in future decades as a hinge between previous years’ suppressed but rising unease throughout society, and the movements of turmoil and upheaval in local spheres as well as on a global scale. The importance of the UN Summit in Paris for our global environment has been stressed, and the crises that broke out in the latter part of the year reminded us of how far our world is from where we’d like it to be. There are reportedly more refugees now than there have ever been since the end of World War II, and the threat of attacks from ISIL, or Daesh, has stoked terror and reckless urgency in any number of the world’s democracies. In America, a handful of presidential candidates (largely but not solely Donald Trump) have succeeded in stirring up the most sickening strains of racism and fascism in numerous enduringly racist pockets of the West; and in South Africa, we face our own turmoil in a clear low point in satisfaction with and confidence in a disappointing government controlled by what was once an ardent liberation organisation – a discontent whose definitive moment of 2015 can probably be identified as the student protests in October and November, shutting down universities and government systems nationwide in an outpouring of frustration with the ruling political factions and a fervent desire for change.

This blog has not turned into my political column – my chief concern here is still the movies and their aesthetic considerations – but it’s important, I feel, to provide some historical context when reflecting on the year as it’s represented in its movies. The cinema, across all its disparate subject matters and radically diverse styles and treatments, is about life itself, and something of the world and the time often finds its way into the very best of art, whether by design or not. Here I give my selection of the best films of this year – noting that there’s a great deal I didn’t see – and hopefully, if you’ve seen them as well, you’ll recognise the intimations of life contained in them.

Of course, another way life finds itself reflected in the good movies of the year – usually far more obvious to viewers – is when directors include details and experiences of their own personal lives in their films. My selection of the best movies of 2015 are all made by directors who bravely and deftly created personal images in their work, often unconsciously finding expression of the deeper and more tender parts of their inner selves. What makes cinema into an awe-inspiring art form, and what makes a film great, is the discovery of inner lives, psychic murmurings, and emotional and intellectual stirrings in physical detail, visualised and captured with both perception and skill. The great movies are the ones that reveal the essence of a creator’s distinctive personality, the ones where style is not an art-conscious gimmick or ideological tactic, but the exterior protraction of an artistic identity.