Hell or High Water (US, 2016)

Trapped by malicious circumstance

As American cinema, at last, sinks into artistic irrelevance it’s a delight to find the possibilities for interesting cinema haven’t completed died over the ‘pond’. I’m guilty of hyperbole here; for years snooty critics, only interested in art for what it says about their ‘cultural competence’ rather than genuine appreciation, have berated Hollywood in particular as being worthless. American cinema has produced, both in the indie and commercial sectors, many great films.

However contemporary Hollywood is, with its belief that franchises are the only game in town, neglecting the medium sized, not to mention small, movie so that 1970s ‘New Hollywood’ seems even longer than 50 years ago. Maybe even the most commercially oriented executives might be sweating over the box office under performances, in North America, of many of this year’s ‘tent pole’ releases; although the international market is baling them out at the moment.

Hell or High Water does hark back to ‘70s Hollywood and it probably just about broke even on its $12m estimated budget. The presence of Jeff Bridges, not entirely convincing in the role of the retiring sheriff, evokes that era’s The Last Picture Show (1970) and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974); particularly the latter with the outlaws on the road element. Director David Mackenzie’s insists that the setting, rundown Texas in the main, is an important character and, like its ‘70s forebears, politicises the narrative. Taylor Sheridan’s script ensures we understand that the financial crash of 2008 has damaged the American poor as much as the 1930s Depression.

Chris Pine shows himself to be a fine actor and Ben Foster, playing the older and wilder brother, is equally good. The film combines suspense, mystery (the brothers’ motivations) and humour as well as an excoriating critique of banking in America. I must catch up with Sheridan’s Sicario and David Mackenzie is one of my favourite contemporary directors.

The Revenant (US-Hong Kong-Taiwan, 2015)

Trying to do decent

It was probably my year in purdah that meant I missed seeing this brilliant film in the cinema. 2016: the year of Brexit, Trump and Lacey not watching movies. Well, in the grand scale my problem was a ‘hill of beans’ but I am sorry I didn’t see this on the big screen.

There’s little point in trying to define what is the essence of cinema as it refers to many things. In the current issue of Sight & Sound Nick James talks about how the visual aspect is crucial whilst, even today with the increase of ‘quality television’, the script remains paramount on the domestic screen. I’m inclined to agree especially if editing is included.

Ironically in Iñárritu’s previous film Birdman there – apparently – was no editing and he does have a predilection for the long take; see Y tu mama tambien. He combines the fluid Steadicam movement with virtuoso editing (Stephen Mirrone) in the battle scene at the start of the film. After a killing we follow the killer until they, soon, too are dead and then we ‘catch a ride’ with his killer and so on. This is one of the most devastating battle scenes I’ve seen as it emphasises the high chances of death in war. In most film’s battle sequences we focus on the protagonist who, for obvious reasons, is highly likely to survive.

Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, suitably grim winter mise en scene, is brilliant and, if I can forgive Tom Hardy’s mumble, the performances convey the blunt machismo that was probably necessary to survive beyond the frontier. The chameleon Domhnall Gleeson deserves a special mention as the decent Captain who strives to do the right thing.

Certain Women (US, 2016)

‘Hostage situation? No problem.’

It has taken over twenty years for writer-director Kelly Reichardt to complete seven features; not a terrible average for a mainstream director but an excellent one for someone who ploughs a distinctively indie furrow that doesn’t compromise. Her previous film, Night Moves, was more generic that Certain Women but I much preferred the latter. The film before that, Meek’s Cutoff, was a western filtered through Reichardt’s feminism. I haven’t seen her first four films.

From what I have seen it is clear that Reichardt’s concerned with women’s experiences and Certain Women gives us three tales that, tangentially, cross. Common to all are women’s battles against their lot where the dice are loaded against them by patriarchy. Laura Dern’s lawyer (Laura), in the first tale, finds a recalcitrant client only understands that his situation is hopeless when a male lawyer tells him. She later finds herself trying to talk down this client, who’s holding a hostage at gunpoint. Amongst the wintry landscape, dominated paradoxically by a distant Montana mountain range, there is deadpan humour. When it’s suggested that Laura is not qualified to deal with a hostage situation, the chief of police looks at her and she shrugs and says, ‘Well I’m here!” and goes ahead. Laura finds it difficult to deny men.

‘Why does it have to be so hard?’

Michelle Williams (Gina), in a narrative I struggled to follow somewhat, has to battle the passivity of her husband (who’s being unfaithful to her with Laura) and an alienated daughter. At a party (celebrating the Superbowl?) Gina hands her husband food, he’s watching the game, and he tells her to “stop working” and promptly asks for a beer.

‘I’m successful. Right?’

Kristen Stewart also plays a lawyer; she’s newly qualified and finds herself travelling for eight hours twice a week to deliver an evening class. Stewart’s exhaustion is writ large in the bags under her eyes but she is charismatic enough to catch the attention of a lonely ranch hand; astonishingly played by Lily Gladstone. The nameless ranch hand looks to have Native American Indian ancestry, further reinforcing the western references. You’ll have noticed it is a stellar cast but it is Gladstone that shines the most.

A glowing Gladstone

Like Meek’s Cutoff, Certain Women is a western; or rather a ‘Twilight’ western. The melancholic post-19th century take on the end of America’s ‘manifest destiny’. Trumpism is the complete disavowal, in its insularity, of America as a place of freedom; however, this isn’t a new phenomenon because once the frontier of the ‘wild west’ closed the institutions of society necessarily constrained freedoms. This conflict may explain much of what is wrong with America: from guns to libertarianism.

Reichardt’s ‘certain women’ are trapped by their circumstance as are the men; Laura’s client has been shafted by his company; the second Laura’s husband reeks apathy. After seeing Certain Women I watched Elle for a second time and I was struck more forcibly by the men’s pathetic attitudes. Reichardt’s vision certainly influenced mine.

Wake in Fright (Aus, 1971)

Watch in fright

Watch in fright

This is a literally rediscovered film; the editor, Anthony Buckley, tracked down a useable negative which led to this terrific restored digital print. And it was certainly well worth rediscovering. As a teacher, under Education Secretary Gove’s ridiculous rule, I often feel victimised however protagonist John Grant is forced to teach in the outback or pay his $1000 bond back. My predicament pales in comparison. Canadian director, Ted Kotcheff, summarises the Outback with the opening 360-degree pan so we can see he is, literally, in the middle of nowhere. As Sight & Sound put it, such overwhelming spaces entrap more than liberate. On his way to Sydney, for a holiday, Grant gets caught up in a gambling game, in the hope of clearing his debt, which is the prelude to a nightmarish weekend.

Wake in Fright flopped commercially on its original release, probably because the mirror it holds up to the machismo of the ‘loveable’ Aussie ‘larrikin’ is not flattering. As one character says of Bond: ‘Would he rather talk to a woman than drink beer?’ The character, by the way, is played by that stalwart of the Australian film industry, Jack Thompson, in his first film. Directors of the subsequent Australian ‘new wave’, however, hailed the film’s influence. If you’re interested in Australian cinema, check out the new edition of Senses of Cinema. We follow Bond on his journey where he’s confronted by his bourgeois sensibilities, similar to the narrative of Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) but far more harrowing. Central to this is a kangaroo hunt that is shot as it actually happened (independently of the film it has to be said). A note at the film’s end says that the scene was included after consultation with animal welfare groups; kangaroos are now an endangered species.

The brilliant Donald Pleasance lends his malign presences as the Doc, the man who Grant might become. Pleasance’s eyes look demonic without even trying. Another Aussie icon, Chips Rafferty in his final film, plays the local cop who takes Grant under his wing when he first arrives in the ‘city’ (really a town). It’s a classic western scene, a stranger in town entering a bar but the ‘sheriff’ plies our protagonist with beer rather than warning him to behave. It’s such moments that play against expectation, later it’s the sexual tension between Grant and the daughter of another deranged character, that make the film as unsettling as it is.

It’s one of the few films to have played Cannes twice; on its release and, in 2009. If you’re after a nightmare ride or want to catch a missing movie of Australian cinema, here’s your chance.

Django Unchained (US, 2012)

Tarantino couldn't help but get in the way

Tarantino couldn’t help but get in the way

I love the western so it’s good to see one doing so well at the box office but I avoided this film in the cinema partly because of its length and partly because of Tarantino. I gave up on Inglorious Basterds after half an hour; I no longer found his knowing dialogue funny. However, this is fairly-well reigned in on Django and the set-up is terrific: Christopher Waltz’s bounty hunter aiding Jamie Foxx’s slave to become a free man. Leonard DiCaprio is superb as the southern gentleman-racist whose veneer of civilisation is so thin that he’s almost translucent. But… there is going to be a but.

There was criticism, at the time of the film’s release, of the film’s violence. I had assumed that this was to do with excess but didn’t expect to be bothered by it. After all the film’s roots are in ‘spaghetti westerns’ so violence is likely to be foregrounded. Thus when black ‘mandingo’ wrestlers fight to the death the gruesomeness is appropriate even if it has no basis in historical fact (see here). If it serves to emphasise the inhumanity of the slavers’ behaviour then it is dramatically justified.  However the ‘bloodbath’ of the shoot-outs becomes throughout the film, literally, bloodbaths; that is, there is blood spurting everywhere. On one level it’s funny in a Monty Python sort of why; however it also serves to detract from the drama that has unfolded. We are suddenly ripped from the ‘good vs evil’ battle, central to the western, and reminded we’re just watching a Tarantino film. In the end I was bored and annoyed because the representation of slavery, in the early part of the film, was so compelling. In the stylised Kill Bill volume 1 (2003) the ‘bloodbath’ was part of the aesthetics; in Django Unchained it trivialises what has gone before.

Meek’s Cutoff (US, 2010)

A woman's place

This is the first film I’ve seen by director Kelly Reichardt and shall be pursuing her other two features. It’s based on a true story of a wagon train, reduced to three in the film, that get lost as a result of their guide’s – Meek – ‘cutoff’. The slow pace of the trio’s painful progress is mirrored in the ‘slow cinema’ of Reichardt’s direction; including one immense dissolve that take so long that the train is juxtaposed with itself.

Scriptwriter Jonathan Raymond focuses upon the wives who are absolutely marginalised; their influence upon the world blinkered metaphorically by their bonnets (mirrored in Reichardt’s use of Academy ratio). Another variant on the western is the ‘indian’. Here presented as unknowable, not as being a savage as in classical Hollywood, but we are given no access to his perspective; he simply responds to whatever happens to him.

One irritant, for me, was the inconsistency of the train’s direction. Where they were going was of importance: they argue whether to go south or north; they choose the latter but are shot going south against a setting sun.

However, if you have the patience for slow cinema, and the cinematography and performances should be enough to keep you happy, catch this (revisionist?) western.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom, S.Korea, 2008)

Italian western Korean style

Italian western Korean style

Undoubtedly the funniest film I’ve seen in a long time. It stars the man with the maddest hair in contemporary cinema, Song Kang-ho, and some of the best action sequences in any western. Clearly a homage to Leone’s spaghetti westerns the visual style, as you expect, is stunning but director Kim Ji-woon (also A Bittersweet Life, 2005, and A Tale of Two Sisters, 2003), fills the mise en scene with fabulous detail that complements Song’s ‘hamming’ comedy. In one shoot out he wears a deep sea diver’s helmet, in another he’s on a motorbike being chased by a bounty hunter, two bandit gangs and the Japanese army.

Like Tears of the Black Tiger (Thailand, 2000), Good-Bad-Weird delights in virtuoso camerawork but while I did get bored by the former, Kim’s movie never palls and I look forward to seeing it again to appreciate the tremendously fluid camera movement, and the actors’ movements in the frame. The use of colour is, like Black Tiger, utterly stunning. But what shines out in Song’s comic timing, seen also in The Host (2006) and Memories of Murder (2003); from his furtive glance around him as if everyone is listening to him to his hapless attempt to escape where he’s asked if he’s attempting to escape (he says, ‘No,’) the guy is a comic genius.