Wednesday, 23 August 2017

A slightly above average weekend at the cinema with Detroit and Logan Lucky

Oh hi. So, I guess you're after a recommendation for what to see at the cinema this weekend? You probably fancy something that's, like, quite good but not too good? I mean, maybe you even want to do a double bill of films that don't really have a lot wrong with them but at the same time will only really stay with you for an hour or so at best? Well, I suppose you're in luck because this weekend sees the release of Detroit and Logan Lucky, both of which really are absolutely, completely fine. Also out is American Made; I haven't seen it but all indications are that it's equally worthy of three and a half stars out of five, so you really are spoiled for choice.
"Norwich. One. Adult. Afternoon. Detroit. No. Detroit.
No. DETROIT. NO. DEE-TROIT. *sigh* No. Detroit. No."

Detroit is the one to go for if you want to get absolutely boiling with rage at some indescribably reprehensible racism that actually happened but to then have that strength of feeling tempered by some curious storytelling choices. (Why you might actually be looking for that exact experience is beyond me, but it takes all sorts.) The 1967 'Algiers Motel Incident' is an ugly chapter of US history that everyone should know because it's not even history; this shit is still going on somewhere right now. Kathryn Bigelow is pissed off about it and makes sure you will be too, ably assisted by John Boyega doing probably his best work yet as a desperate peacekeeper struggling to maintain his composure and dignity in the face of staggering injustice.

Bigelow realises the drama with stifling tension and palpable horror, but is let down by a script that never quite seems to get going. After half an hour of meandering scene-setting, the entire middle act sees the Incident unfold in real time as one protracted, claustrophobic scene, and while the intention is no doubt to keep us trapped in that motel with those people, the feeling that's achieved is closer to frustration than fear. And when - just as you think it's winding up - a courtroom drama suddenly starts to unfold, you wonder if this is the same film you started watching nearly two hours ago.

Bigelow's casting hampers proceedings too: although Boyega is terrific and most of the supporting cast are solid, Will Poulter is too young to convince as the nails-hard bastard cop intimidating the likes of Anthony Mackie, and his eyebrows are hella distracting. Meanwhile Jack Reynor, a fellow racist asshole police officer, comes across like Father Dougal in a different uniform, and John Krasinski's sudden appearance in the finale pulls you right out of the film. The young black cast do a great job though, especially Algee Smith as a frustrated soul singer thrust into an unimaginable nightmare. Important and effective, then, but Detroit ultimately feels like a flawed filmmaking experiment. So, y'know, see that if you like.
"Sounds slightly above average. Anything else on?"

Less politically explosive but equally fine, I suppose, is the movie that marks the end of Steven Soderbergh's comically short-lived retirement from filmmaking, Logan Lucky. Soderbergh, the undisputed master of making perfectly adequate films that nobody ever needs to see twice, has worked his slightly above average magic on this heist movie which has marginally more going for it than against it.

Channing Tatum and Adam Driver - as the brothers who plot to knock off the vault at the local Speedway stadium during one of those NASCAR race things Americans seem to enjoy so much - are almost casually great, but it's Daniel Craig's turn as explosives expert Joe Bang that nudges Logan Lucky from a mere 6 out of 10 to the giddy heights of a 7. There's a distinct sense of Craig deliberately getting as far away from Bond as possible here, and it feels like as much of a cathartic experience for him as us.

Soderbergh directs with characteristic slickness, David Holmes' score is perhaps his sexy-funkiest since Out Of Sight, and Rebecca Blunt's script pulls off a splendid Game Of Thrones gag amongst its satisfyingly-plotted heist shenanigannery. But it all feels a little empty: there's an early sense that Blunt might be going somewhere with her tale of just-about-managing blue collar everymen in the South Atlantic states, fucked by the system and committing a crime where the only victims are giant corporations, but that's as far as it goes. And while Tatum's Jimmy Logan isn't a dunce (despite the North Carolina accent, which is generally movie shorthand for 'Inbred Redneck Halfwit'), his plan is so suspiciously complex and foresighted that he could easily get work as a Hollywood scriptwriter. Still, Daniel Craig does say "Ah'm about ta git nekkid back hee-er" in an Inbred Redneck Halfwit accent, so there's that.

So that's an exhaustive rundown of everything that's quite good at the cinema this weekend that I've seen. It may interest you to know that A Ghost Story is still out there and is utterly brilliant, so, you know, think about it is all I'm saying.

Monday, 7 August 2017

A Ghost Story

Fresh off the scaly back of Disney behemoth Pete's Dragon, director David Lowery tossed off this tiny but cosmically breathtaking drama in roughly the amount of time it would have taken Weta to animate one of Elliot the dragon's footsteps. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play a couple forced into somewhat difficult circumstances when Affleck suddenly becomes inconveniently dead, and his subsequent sheet-shrouded attempt to process this turn of events (while doomed to spend the afterlife stuck in his house) drives an exquisitely eerie and refreshingly original film right into the pit of your soul.

I'll be honest, I was ready to give my heart to A Ghost Story when I realised it was shot and presented in a vignetted 4:3 aspect ratio. Evoking the aesthetic of a movie shot via Instagram (suggested filter name: Spectral), Andrew Droz Palermo's cinematography beautifully captures the caged ennui of Casey Affleck's ghost, trapped for eternity in a single location and unable to escape the confines of the camera's restricted frame. Lowery takes the boldest of decisions with his image, too: one unforgettable, static shot lasts a full four minutes, during which almost nothing at all happens apart from the consumption of a large pie. It's wonderful.
Woooooo-ney Mara

The Pie Shot, as I suspect it will soon come to be known, epitomises A Ghost Story's narrative technique. It's a film with very little dialogue (besides an incongruously verbose key sequence in the middle), relying instead on Affleck and Mara's body language to convey much of the emotion. Daniel Hart's gorgeous score helps, constantly amplifying the sense of unease, but without ever telling you how to feel. And though Lowery tells his tale sedately, time becomes an irrelevance as the story progresses. The passage of time dilates and compresses to incomprehensible extents around Affleck's ghost - as haunted as he is haunting - and his featureless countenance (save for two impenetrably black eyeholes) becomes a literal blank canvas, on which you find yourself projecting your own feelings about what it might be like to be forevermore undead and helpless to do anything about it.

After a while the film's Big Question is posed in a slightly jarring monologue from a motormouth smartass credited only as 'Prognosticator', and Lowery's preoccupations become clear. What is it that endures when everything tangible crumbles into dust? Is it love? Is it hope? Is it art? Themes of mortality and the remorseless march of time coalesce around a poor dead bastard in a blanket, as such titanic achievements as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony are weighed up against the simplicity of a short, private message between lovers for their respective universal significance.

All the while, Casey Affleck sports one of the most simple but effective costume designs since Borat's mankini. The childlike sheet-with-eyeholes idea is bold but comes layered with meaning, and like all iconic costumes it even gets its own origin story. As the afterlife extends beyond all practical context, it seems that the sheet lengthens too, becoming an ever-more unbearable burden on the spook's shoulders, and even the eyeholes appear to elongate with sadness as infinity takes its toll.
That's the spirit

Lowery jokes that he pitched the film as Beetlejuice remade by Apichatpong Werathesakul; it brought to my mind an arthouse version of Ghost minus all the fucking pottery, but neither description does it justice. There are moments in A Ghost Story that will stay with me forever. Two of them occur during two separate conversations between two ghosts: tiny, fleeting instances of heartbreaking beauty that stunned me by quickly and surgically reaching inside me and flicking a switch that no other film has for years. Maybe it won't have the same effect on you, and if not then that's fine, but I'm sorry to report that you're as dead inside as Casey Affleck's wretched wraith.