We continue onwards, with the next ten of my 2015 rankings. Note: this list and subsequent awards are based off Irish release dates.
Following up on Lincoln with another delve into the history of America, one would be forgiven for betting the house on Steven Spielberg once again crafting something utterly mesmerising. And at times, the old master does manage to do that. Collaborating once more with the magnetic Tom Hanks, it is actually with Mark Rylance, as Soviet spy Rudolph Abel, that Spielberg does his best work, with the opening half of Bridge Of Spies’ two act structure being a fascinating glimpse into Cold War America, espionage paranoia and the quandary of talking the talk and walking the walk when it comes to legal morality. Spielberg’s eye behind the camera remains as top notch as always and the script manages to burst into life on occasion.
But in so many other ways Bridge Of Spies is a terrible disappointment, The second half, in an interminable build-up to the titular crossing, is a very limp, dull affair, where Tom Hanks’ heroically naïve everyman gets ever more insufferable with his lecturing and can do attitude, while the supporting cast around, bar Rylance, starts to stumble due to their lack of time or three dimensionality. The script, partially constructed by the Coen Brothers, gets blander and blander, with little of the same verve they have shown previously. The music is a dull attempt to ape an absent John Williams. Not even someone as highly in regard as Spielberg can pull it all together, with the films overly long running time something to be laid at his feet, a self-indulgence he should not have been allowed. No one is able to create nothing but film perfection this business, and even Spielberg can misfire. Bridge Of Spies, a film that has some good elements but just struggles, is the kind of thing that would have been better suited to the small screen.
Sarah Gavron’s depiction of the suffragette movement is one that I feel is very important for cinema: a female director, a mostly female cast, and an issue at the heart of feminism’s evolution in the 20th century. But it wasn’t all that it could have been, which is a shame. For every positive, something weak presents itself: Carey Mulligan is fantastic in the lead role, showcasing a truly great transformation from committed wife and labourer to revolutionary, but most of the supporting cast is rather limp, with Meryl Streep badly wasted. Brendan Gleeson’s detective and Ben Whishaw’s husband are fantastic additions, but too many other characters are two-dimensional and bland. The effort to cast some moral doubt on the suffragette movement is an interesting one, but can only go so far, the moral righteousness of the cause never really in doubt.
And while the film is structured well enough, and features a fine script for all players and some good visual direction in the drab muddy confines of the London slums, it is in its ending, or rather, lack of one, that Suffragette’s biggest flaw reveals itself. Skipping any mention of World War One, and using the historical event that should have been the end of the second act as the end of the entire film, means that Gavron concludes her tale on a really unsatisfyingly sudden note. In other words, it could have done with an extra 15 or 20 minutes to really flesh out the eventual victory of the movement, rather than present this occurrence without the proper context. While the better parts of the film make Suffragette an enjoyable experience overall, its deficiencies prevent it from being the kind of experience it should have been, which is regrettable, in a time when feminism is still a focal point of a constant cultural battle.
Faults is, basically, the very essence of what can be achieved in the world of inexpensive indie filmmaking. Taking two top-notch, but rather under-rated, actors in the form of Leland Orser and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, director Ridley Sterns drops them into an intense two-hander, as Orser’s washed up cult expert finds himself in a twisted deprogramming operation with Winstead’s bizarre Claire character, overlooked by her incredible creepy parents. The two are instantly memorable in very different ways, with the incredible lengths taken to show Ansel as pathetic, right from that cringe-worthy opening scene as he attempts to scam a restaurant out of a cheap meal, really driving home the terrible state of affairs that compels him to take the dodgy job of kidnapping Claire.
Winstead, for her part, is the driving force of Faults, as in the last two acts her back and forth with Orser becomes an ever escalating game of “Who wins the scene?” and as her words and actions start to make Ansel question how much control he has. That rising sense of tension is spectacularly achieved, thanks largely to the effective visual direction that creates dread, mental fog and the double guessing of almost everything that is going on. But, it is fair to say that some of it is negated by the growing inaccessibility of parts of the plot, and the way that some sequences, like a disturbing quasi-dream scene late on, are a bit too obtuse for their own good.
Faults winds down to a twist ending that I’m sure will divide opinion long after he credits roll, but I felt that it has been built up to enough, though it may not have been entirely necessary for the story that had been told. Sometimes, leaving the audience guessing a bit is better. But, even for that, it is an entertaining experience. A strong cast, a strong script, a strong director and a really, really strong central pairing: while Faults has its issues and was never going to be in a position to make a big splash due to its financial limitations, it is a strongly unique and memorable film.
Pixar’s second offering of the year was always a bit of a gamble. Already having the usual Pixar weight of expectation to struggle with, The Good Dinosaur also had to follow Inside Out’s brilliance and deal with its own somewhat troubled production history, with the entire film having undergone a total reset in narrative and cast long before it made it to screens. It was already being dismissed as a financial dud when I saw it, and there was a certain air of negativity and lack of interest surrounding its promotion, which was quite strange for the studio.
The end result is a bit of a mixed bag, to be sure. The flaws are fairly obvious: the plot is as boilerplate as you possible get, a “growing up/homeward bound” story that is straight from the Blake Snyder beatsheet, The Good Dinosaur suffering from a certain lack of ambition that its other, more illustrious, Pixar brethren could never be said to have. In that regard, the original idea of a different dinosaur struggling to adapt to an oppressive community might have been better. The level of blatant emotional manipulation going on is also obvious, and the film’s desire to tie up every loose end by its conclusion is grating.
But for all that, The Good Dinosaur is aided immensely by the fine performance of its subbed in cast, not least Raymond Ochoa and Jack Bright in the leads, but also established veterans like Jeffrey Wright and Sam Eliot, the latter especially fun as a T-Rex cowboy. The script is surprisingly strong, be it for the film’s heroic elders, encouraging the younger breed to “make their mark” and be “all of me and more”, or for the notable villain’s, who imbue the terrible power of nature’s destruction with every gleeful “The storm provides!”. And Pixar, long the King of CGI animation, makes this strange wild west world of human and dinosaur look as good as it possible could be. It won’t ever be considered one of the very best Pixar offerings, but enough has pulled out of the wreckage to form a decent film.
An interesting film to be sure, but one that comes with its fair share of narrative flaws, mostly with its antagonist, the man who dominates every scene that he is in. Steve Carell underwent a fairly astonishing physical transformation to play crazed millionaire John du Pont, it’s just a shame that the role didn’t really allow him to perform to the level that we know he can. Du Pont’s drawl and delivery of lines is dull and boring, and any scene with him was as likely to leave the viewer feeling immensely awkward as much as captivated. And I don’t mean that in a good way, as this monstrosity of man remains this odd enigma throughout. Bennet Miller doesn’t want to try and portray why du Pont did the things that he did, and that’s a frustrating choice for me, as it makes the general story annoyingly obtuse.
The film is far better with the other two parts of its trinity, namely the massively under-rated (in terms of serious roles) Channing Tatum and the ever reliable Mark Ruffalo. Their brotherly relationship as Olympians Mark and Dave Schultz is masterfully created on the screen, in many scenes where the two barely share any lines of dialogue, but leave it all out on the field in terms of physical expression and emoting. That relationship is at the core of how Foxcatcher manages to rise above the mediocrity of its other elements, as Ruffalo’s Dave and Carell’s de Pont engage in a terrible battle for Mark’s soul.
With cinematography that is grimly effective, a decent enough script and a shocking ending that is sure to leave an unfamiliar audience stunned and heartbroken, Foxcatcher is imminently watchable, but it would be untrue to say that is traditionally entertaining. Rather, it is a sad and dark story that must be endured, on a similar level to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave of last year, without having a matched level in overall quality. A few things here and there could have seriously improved it, not least the director’s unwillingness to offer an answer for the central enigma.
I wasn’t too sure what to expect of John Stewart’s directorial debut. Would his account of Mazier Bahari’s confinement in an Iranian prison be a melodramatic documentary, or something more? Something more was the answer, as Bahari’s hellish experience in the country of his father is recounted vividly, due in no small part to the lead performance of Gael Garcia Bernal. Rosewater takes its times with things, showcasing a patience in filmmaking that you might not have expected of the more comically inclined Stewart. His feelings of responsibility for what happens to Bahari are plain, and the result is this very affecting work, in which Stewart’s sentiment combines well with Bernal’s talent.
Rosewater takes the time to set Bahari and his western trappings up, to allow the audience to get to grips with the situation in Iran – pouring scorn on the simplistic narratives that often dominate western media on the topic – and to offer a glimpse at the kind of world that Bahari inhabited in Tehran: revolutionaries with stolen satellite TV on the mind one minute, and mock interviews with The Daily Show in another. But that leads us to the second part of the two hander Rosewater becomes, through Kim Bodnia’s brilliant Iranian state interrogator. Whether he truly believes the laughable assertion that Bahari is a spy is essentially immaterial: the interactions between the two, tormentor and victim, dominate the second half. But it’s no torture porn experience. Instead, it becomes an amazing duel of wits, as Bahari comes to realise that the repressed nature of his captor is a weapon that can be wielded, while he tries to retain his own self of sense in the face of a brutal onslaught.
If there are weaknesses to be found, they might be in how accomplished players like Shohreh Aghdashloo, as Baharai’s put upon mother, are under-utilised, or in some of the conversations between Bahari and his dead father. But a strong script throughout combined with that effective duality between Bernal and Bodnia allows Rosewater to rise from its potential as just another tired docudrama, into truly stellar territory at times. While Stewart’s visual direction rarely reaches beyond the competent, and the film maybe goes a bit too far with its early sections, Rosewater is a decent first effort from a man who might have more time to step behind the camera in the future. This possibility does not fill with dread.
Sebastian Junger is a favourite author and documentarian of mine, whose works covering the lives and experiences of American soldiers serving in Afghanistan, in books like War and films like Restrepo, have provided a great deal of insight into the modern fighting man. But undertaking such works, getting remarkably close to people who suffer injury and death either in the cause of their country or in the cause of reporting on wars, leaves its effects. The Last Patrol, a HBO project, is Junger’s captivating response to those challenges, influenced especially by the death of college Tim Hetherington in Libya in 2011, with Junger trying desperately to come to peace with what happened to his fellow war correspondent.
With several friends, some from the world of journalism, some from the world of uniform, but all united by their experiences in warzones, Junger’s trek across the north-east of the United States is at once childish but strangely endearing. It’s childish in in the way that this group of adult men are essentially playing soldier in their figurative backyard: sticking to the cover of trees, avoiding contact with the “enemy” that is Amtrak security personnel and crouching from helicopters that are trying to seek out their trespassing. But their hike is endearing in the conversations that are had and the portraits that are formed: discussions on the absolutism of a chain of command, reactions to death and inspirations for joining the military, nearly all of which, in these men’s cases, come back to issues, resolved and unresolved, with father figures.
Much of this will be nothing that those familiar with the subject matter will not have encountered before, multiple times, but Junger’s manner of presenting it is unique enough that you won’t mind, between the simple camerawork and simple narration, or the oddly inappropriately appropriate musical choices. Across America Junger and his last patrol find people in pain and prophesising a time of trouble for the United States, be they impoverished African-American communities or elderly affluent WASP types. The overall picture that is painted comes off as grim and downbeat: it seems like those who took bullets or even died were doing it all for a nation that is ripe for a catastrophic fall. But The Last Patrol swings back round a bit before the end, with a thorough evaluation of why people became entranced by combat, and why this is not an impossible to understand phenomenon.
The desire to see something a little different at this year’s JDIFF, combined with the monumental praise it got from all quarters (an astonishing 100% from 66 reviews on RT at time of writing) led me to Gett, the third part in a trilogy of Israeli films looking at a Hebrew marriage at several important points. Gett – Hebrew for “divorce” – follows Ronit Elkabetz’s Viviane in her quest to receive such a marital separation from her husband, but in Israel, where a man’s wishes heavily outweigh the desires of his wife in such circumstances, the process is maddeningly complicated. No need to see the first two instalments here, as Gett allows you to jump into the action without skipping a beat.
Gett is remarkably, and refreshingly, minimalist, but in a way that causes the story to become more effective. Almost the entire film, more a stage-play in many respects, takes place in one cramped, bare room, as Viviane and Elisha (a really brilliant Simon Ebkarian) duel back and forth, mostly through their respective advocates. There are layers upon layers to be found in the wonderful script, which loses precious little in translation: the struggles of Israeli society to deal with the progressive nature of male/female interactions, the inappropriate feelings of Viviane’s lawyer for his client, the often comical sideshow that is the three judges struggling to keep a handle on the situation, or the terrible role that friends and relations have to play in such a courtroom, passing judgement on one side or the other. The passing of years and the growing sense of injustice encompasses everything, as events get strung out further and further.
Elkabetz, behind the camera as well as in front of it, really does make the audience grant a great deal of sympathy to Viviane, who endues the Kafka-esque nightmare of legal bureaucracy and religiously motivated delaying tactics with a quiet grace and dignity, even when the system treats her as if she was barely there in the first place. That makes the few emotional outbursts all the more shocking and memorable really, and a viewer cannot help but become engaged with Viviane’s struggle, or with trying to figure out if Elisha really does have a good reason for his stubborn refusal, or if he is just being needlessly cruel. Making you want to laugh or cry at different moments, and full of a very real humanity, Gett really is one of the best examples of foreign cinema that I have seen for years.
I caught it late, but certainly did not regret it. You get that unnerving feeling early on in John Wick, as the titular widower, looking like he doesn’t belong in his own home, undertakes his wife’s funeral like a man just going through the motions. Something is very off, and when, after some slow and patient build-up work, Wick’s reputation as a legendary assassin is revealed, following the idiotic intrusions of Alfie Allen’s Russian gangster, the audience is both not surprised, and ready for the bloodshed to follow.
And boy does it follow. You already hate the bad guys and are firmly behind Wick after the death of his dog. But you’re pushed to the edge of your seat by all that occurs afterward, as the legend of the “boogeyman” comes to life before the eyes of the criminal underworld he was once a part of. That world is one that covers itself in a veneer of civility, but it a thin one: the barbarity of it, with all of its apparent rules and codes of honour meaning precious little in a pinch, comes through. The barbarity comes to the fore through John Wick’s many action moments, which carry a tremendous amount of weight despite an apparent repetitiveness: no western style cutting around the punch here, with director’s David Leitch and Chad Stahelski doing all that is required to make John Wick the modern take on an old classic sub-genre that it is billed to be. The film exudes style even as the body’s drop, with the cinematography triggering memories of the best of Eran Creecy’s Welcome To The Punch, while also retaining enough depth that it isn’t some “turn off your brain” exercise.
Sure, the supporting cast is stuttering a fair bit, with Adrianne Palicki and Michael Nyqvist struggling in their respective roles as ice queen assassin and underworld kingpin, the script is minimalistic and the last act structure seems rather warped, the film not quite knowing the right point to call a halt to proceedings. But with a commanding performance in the lead role – Reeves really is under-appreciated as an actor, and shows why here, in parts at least – and some really great kinetic action, John Wick really is one of the best films of its type in recent times, and a welcome refresher for a sub-genre that is so stale as to be an in-joke in film circles. A sequel to come? I hope so.
John Maclean’s expansive look at the experience of the immigrant in the Wild West of the 19th century manages to avoid the pitfalls of modern takes on the classic genre, including only a few hat-tips to the epics of the past, with more modern attempts to frame such a story, a realistic hue imbuing nearly everything. With Kody Smit-Macphee’s Scottish aristocrat and Michael Fassbender’s cynical bounty hunter making an unlikely duo, Slow West takes us patiently through the vistas of America’s manifest destiny, in search of true love, or something close to it anyway. Along the way there are Indians and other immigrants, shoot-outs and backstabbings. Here is the brutal west, and the glorious west too.
An ode to its setting as much as anything else, Slow West, with the director inspired by his own travels, sets its scenes amid endless prairie, with a backdrop of mountains or claustrophobia of dark woods, and these things are brought to life through some impressive camerawork and directorial panache, the camera lingering frequently. The sheer space and boundlessness of the west become apparent very easily. They provide an able accompaniment to the story on show, a more cerebral experience than you might be expecting, as the naïve Jay comes to contemplate the true depths of his attachment to the girl he has crossed the world to find, and as Silas contemplates how moral a man he is. No easy choices or resolutions are to be found. The two form a fairly stereotypical mentor/student pairing, but it is an intriguing one nonetheless, with the dynamic of the perpetually out of his depth Jay and the wearily experienced Silas being a fun one to watch evolve on screen.
With strong performances all round, and a very strong final act, Slow West maintains a simplicity to much of its make-up, like in its script or in the general narrative structure, but does nothing in that regard that isn’t praise-worthy. Once you get past the shallowness of the central villain, some odd cutaway moments and scenes that smack of a bit too much pretentiousness – one sequence with a Werner Herzog-esque character springs to mind immediately – there is so much to get captivated by in Slow West, a film that makes you want to, like Silas, drift through this “baking heart”. One to savour, and, from a director making his start in feature length productions, a filmmaker to keep an eye on.
We continue tomorrow, with #20-11.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Focus Features, Screen Media Films, Sony Pictures Classics, Open Road Films, HBO, Music Box Films, Summit Entertainment and Film4).