Waves 2019 ****

WAVES

“I will not be taken down, I am a new machine!’ says aspiring athlete Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr) in this brutal yet lyrical drama from Trey Edward Shults for the A24 imprint. The writer/director’s follow-up to It Comes At Night is not typical of the A24 label, a sprawling but tightly conceived film that has lineage to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People or even the witness/victim dynamic of Amores Perros, but successfully finds its own intense voice. A curious broken-backed structure to the narrative makes it a tricky one to review, but spoilers should not be required to gain appreciation.

Waves deals with family life; Tyler is a young man with a big future, and he’s a big name on his school wrestling team. But Tyler gets bad news when he finds out he has a potentially life-changing sports injury, and simultaneously finds out that his girlfriend has missed her period. Tyler’s father (Sterling K Brown) and sister Emily (Taylor Russell) try to reach out to him, but drink, drugs, peer-pressure and depression all take a toll until a moment of violence turns their lives apart and sends Tyler’s life in a different direction. a key visual motif frames Tyler looking in mirrors; the reflection never seems to match up, indicating the disconnect between how the teen sees himself and how he is.

Waves takes place amongst the well-monied set of South Florida, and although Tyler and his family appear well-off, it’s clear that they’ve had to fight for what they have. That resilience makes a difference in the film’s final act, but until then, there’s a powerful willingness to dance with the darkness of Tyler’s rage which gives it the feel of a suburban Full Metal Jacket. Brown and Harrison are both compelling as father and son out of sync, while Russell deserves her Independent Spirit nomination in a difficult role. Waves features fluent, nimble camerawork, wild, striking, hallucinogenic visuals, and also a score with Trent Reznor’s broken-fridge fingerprints all over it; the whole film pulses with light and noise.

A white man’s view of black family life is a hard sell in 2019/20, and Waves seems to have fallen between two stools as a potential awards darling. But despite the presence of the permanently shaggy Harmony Korine, Shults pulls off a film that is anything but a quirky indie, but a pumped-up evocation of modern life as a living hell. That Waves travels further than that, and attempts to look at what happens after the chickens come home to roost, is admirable, and even if awards voters didn’t fancy it, last year’s Beale Street crowd really should give Waves a look.

Just Mercy 2019 ****

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The American Academy acted to ensure that race and gender bias would not be an on-going issue; the lack of recognition for Destin Daniel Creton’s Just Mercy in terms of coveted Oscar nominations suggest they will have to go further.  This is a compelling drama about wrongful accusation, race and capital punishment that should be a good bet for recognition. The shunning of this, and of Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us in tv/streaming awards, suggests that Just Mercy will have to settle for satisfying its own audience. It sets a bad example for the US academy to view and then not recognise strong work due to the race or gender of the film-makers; there’s considerable evidence that this happened in 2019/2020.

Michael B Jordan doesn’t have much to go on as lawyer Bryan Stevenson, but the actor’s charisma and personable approach take him a long way. He’s strip-searched on his way to Death Row, where he interviews a number of potential clients, notably Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx). The temporary loss of Steven’s dignity is nothing compared to McMillian’s long terms incarceration for a crime that doesn’t have any existing evidence for. Stevenson makes contact with a number of Death Row inmates, the execution of one of whom forms a key moment here. But with the improbably glamorous Eva (Brie Larson) shuffling the papers, it’s an aspirational fight for justice that keeps dignity until a swirl of celestial choirs overwhelm the final scenes.

Miscarriages of justice make for compelling cinema, and Just Mercy gains from being based on Stevenson’s book about the real-life case. There are touches of worldly humor; when Stevenson finds cassettes relating to a false confession and asks for permission to copy them, the black woman manning the evidence desk shrugs and says ‘They ain’t paying me enough to stop you.’ Such interludes are welcome, because Just Mercy feels a little sanctimonious at times; it feels like McMillian’s cynical voice is too often left off-screen.

Such nit-picking aside, Just Mercy has a strong relevance to the black experience of America in 2020. ‘I’m just trying to help,’ says Stevenson, and the thrust of the film is that black communities will have to help themselves, because no-one else will be willing to right the wrong perpetrated against them. That’s a truth worth articulating, whether white-dominated awards bodies recognise it or not.

Marriage Story 2019 ****

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It’s always concerning when people are queuing up to tell you how good a movie is; despite the roar of the critics, a 137 minute analysis of a marriage breakdown really does need some pull quotes to sell it. ‘See the star of Avengers in a custody dispute with the star of Star Wars’ doesn’t sound like it’ll put bums on seats, but then again, this is a Netflix production, so the bums don’t have to be enticed from their sofas. Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film has genuine star power in the form of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as functional click-bait, and although it’s a the kind of self-conscious art movie that uses to pack indie cinemas, it should find quite a few takers with a contentious he-said/she-said narrative that engages and chills at the same time.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is a NYC theatre director, Nicole (Johansson) is his wife, and they have a son to take care of. Their decade-long relationship seems to be fizzling out; she’s got work in LA that expands and contracts, he’s locked into the creative lottery of Broadway and off-Broadway. Both of them get to sing a song to illustrate their theatrical backgrounds, although his rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s Being Alive is far superior to her family pastiche. Indeed, Marriage Story isn’t as balanced as has been suggested; like Robert Benton’s Kramer vs Kramer, this is divorce from a man’s POV, with Nicole’s hard-nosed career aspirations making her an antagonist to Charlie’s soft-headed sentiment.

It soon becomes obvious that Charlie’s hang-dog charms have led him to infidelity, although Baumbach is more interested in the cold aftermath than the passion, and Nicole’s coldness is not without justification. But the weight of sympathetic set-pieces falls heavily in Charlie’s favour; there’s a sensational late scene involving a knife that’s so fiercely, blackly comic that it could only have come from real experience, and draws gasps and groans of empathy.

Marriage Story promises lots of shouting and angst, but the grounded, realistic expansion of Charlie and Nicole’s feud to include lawyers, families and passing strangers provides opportunities for weapons-grade acting from Driver and Johansson, neither of whom have bettered the performances they give here. Driver nails Charlie’s addiction to lost causes, and suggests a deep, lonely soul desperate to fulfil the coveted role of father. Johansson softens the bitter edge of Nicole’s desire for escape and reveals something more tender; her desire to be the best mother she can necessitates taking care of herself, and Nicole comes across far more genuine that Meryl Streep did in Kramer.

Perhaps 137 minutes is a run-time which lacks discipline, but there are long, compelling stretches of old-school drama here. And as a bonus, there’s a wealth of star-studded turns here, all highly enjoyable, from Ray Liotta and Laura Dern as expensive lawyers, to Alan Alda as a not so expensive lawyer. Marriage Story is the most mature work from Baumbach so far, a complex view of good people who find that goodness isn’t enough to immunise them against the insidious viruses of past-vanity and domestic over-reach. It’s a parable for our time; the blue skies and clear vistas of LA are contrasted with the cold and dirty feelings of the human heart, and there’s no winners here other than the audience, who should marvel at the strength of self-analysis contained in Marriage Story for years to come.

Monos 2019 ****

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Part of the attraction of awards season is the wild card entry; who had Monos down as one of the possible nominees in 2019? And yet this from-nowhere Columbian film about child soldiers has waged a careful campaign since making waves at Sundance back in January, with selected public previews to drum up interest, critical acclaim and a building reputation as a must-see film. Alejandro Landes’ film isn’t for everyone, for sure, but it’s a worthy recommendation, clear in purpose, effective in delivery, agonising in content.

The Monos are a group of commandos, gathered on a remote mountaintop where they have been detailed to guard a hostage. The reasons for the imprisonment of Doctora (Julianne Nicholson) are never clear, but Monos is very much war from the POV of a grunt, and that kind of information is not disclosed. The names of the kids say it all; Rambo, Wolf, Bigfoot, Smurf. They may carry machine guns, but they’re still children. The idea of kids acting like soldiers is played for laughs in Stranger Things, but the reality is substantially more grim. The kids also are given a valued cow named Shakira, but irresponsibility leads to its death. And when Doctora escapes, the fissures amongst the group crack open like wounds.

Although there’s a couple of striking scenes which place the activities of the children in some kind of wider context, part of the power of Monos is that our focus is tightly within the group; there’s echoes of Lord of the Flies here, and some of the jungle madness of Apocalypse Now, but Monos doesn’t slavishly reference either. The atavistic theme of Heart of Darkness is here, but the focus is more concern for what this specific environment does to the human condition.

Like Beast of No Nation, Monos shines a light on a subject that’s obviously distressing, but there’s no sense of exploitation. The rapid erosion of morals in our political world will have a direct repercussion for the kids that follow, and Monos is quick to point out the potential for decline. Monos is not a lot of laughs to be sure, but it’s an important, sociologically relevant film that resonates in 2019’s changing climate of increased moral anxiety.

A Million Eyes 2019 ****

a-million-eyesAfter some persuasion, this blog is starting to review the occasional, exceptional short film, and British film-maker Richard Raymond’s A Million Eyes seems like a good place to start. This blog has been dedicated to giving old, rare, independent and original work a place alongside multiplex blockbusters, and there’s every reason for including shorts under the broad church of cinema.

At 24 minutes long, A Million Eyes doesn’t feel like a short, in that it has a confident, gentle pace and a patient eye for character and setting; it doesn’t feel like a foot-in-the door show-reel, but a story hard won from experience of life. Written by Curt Zacharias Jr, it’s the story of Leroy (Elijah M Cooper), a young man who is struggling to balance his interest in photography with domestic responsibilities, specifically to his alcoholic mother Amber (Katie Lowes).

It’ll play well to a film-making audience that Leroy finds it easier to understand the world through a lens, and when an elderly neighbour (Joe Morton) provides advice on light and stock, there’s a nostalgia for older filming techniques that will strike a chord with many. Raymond has a light touch with scenes that might have seemed didactic in other hands; all the characters are easy to sympathise with and relate to, an uncommon gift in cinema circa 2019.

A Million Eyes is the kind of simple, effective short that’s easy to recommend; played by established actors who get the material, it makes a passionate plea for the next generation to be given a chance, and sets up the idea of older people as role models who have an important job to impart knowledge. For Raymond, early in his career, it’s a work of rare sensitivity that should attract awards, and more importantly, an audience.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire 2019 ****

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The spirit of Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse finds a specific echo in Céline Sciamma’s rapturous period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which arrives box-fresh for awards season as a thoroughbred contender; this is art-house fare, but no worse for that, a sumptuous, haunting love story with moments of dynamism and an attitude that’s catnip to the chattering classes.

Rivette, of course, deconstructed the process of creating art in his celebrated four-hour study of sculptor and model; Sciamma takes a similar subject, although in this instance questions of the male gaze are subverted because men are barely seen. Instead, we have the love between two women; Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter on a secret mission, to capture the likeness of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in a remote location (Brittany). But the subject is reluctant; the portrait is to celebrate a prospective marriage, and that marriage is unwanted. Marianne artfully betrays and then gains the trust of her subject by stealing glances and looks to complete her portrait, and then destroying it when Héloïse complains. The relationship between the women blossoms into a lesbian affair, but society intrudes, and the big question is how their love might survive or endure these obstacles?

A subtitled film about portraiture might sound like hard tack, although the surprising presence of Valerie (Hot Shots!) Golinio offers some respite, and there is in fact a literal lady on fire to justify the film’s quirky title. This is a film driven by the luminous performances of the leads, who capture the intensity of a forbidden but natural relationship, and who evoke passion with the smallest movements. The landscapes also spark memories of Jane Campion’s The Piano, but without the sense of melodrama; Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not for sensation seekers, but a meditative, visually calculated piece that finds visual metaphors for the inner workings of the two women depicted.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire has been, alongside Parasite, a clear front runner in the Foreign Picture stakes  since Cannes 2019; despite the adulation of the highbrow critics, it’s a love story that could attract the romantic at heart, and those who have the patience for the genteel pace will be rewarded with a beautifully told story of verboten love.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire will be on wide release in the UK and US in 2020.

Little Women 2019 *****

greta-gerwig-little-womenGreta Gerwig is a talented woman in a field where women are rarely listened to or valued, but she’s earned her place at the front rank of Hollywood creatives. Louisa May Alcott’s venerable property is one which Sony have been keen to develop for a while, and with Gerwig as writer/director, the resulting rich slice of period drama is something of a triumph for all concerned. For Gerwig, it proves beyond any doubt that her directorial debut, Lady Bird, was no fluke; for Amy Pascal and Sony, it’s a strong return on their faith in a fresh and radical female director, handling a big-name cast and a lush studio production. And for audiences, it’s a chance to return to a classic, often filmed text, and find something new and exciting through the eyes of a genuine auteur.

The bildungsroman is an ideal target for a 2019 do-over; today’s youth chronicle their coming of age in lugubrious detail, so it’s something of a breath of fresh air to find Alcott’s character brought to life with such brief but incisive strokes. Gerwig puts Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and her development centre-stage, opening with the author nervously awaiting the opinion of a publisher of her early work. His understanding, that a story about a woman must end with her either married, or dead, is one that Jo wants to question, but she’s also savvy and prepared to negotiate, on art, on commerce, on all terms. The question is, how did she get so smart?

From here, the narrative fractures, as we travel back seven years to see the formative experiences which have inspired Jo’s work, namely her sisters Margaret (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Elizabeth (Eliza Scanlen), and also remain in the present to get acquainted with how things work out for the sisters. There is an eccentric aunt (Meryl Streep, giving it some Maggie Smith in the dowager stakes), and a handsome suitor Laurie (the more-than-personable Timothy Chalamet), while the stern but loving hand of mother Marmee (Laura Dern) is there to steady the ship when the girls’ youthful enthusiasm threatens to put things out of kilter. The way the narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time may dissuade those have come just for the classic text and chocolate-box visuals, but it revitalises the narrative in a satisfying way, and makes familiar events more surprising as they play out. As a director, Gerwig plays down the potential for sentiment, while retaining the caustic wit of her script work on Lady Bird and Frances Ha; these Little Women feel like real people, with Ronan’s sparring with Pugh a particular highlight.

Little Women is an unexpected delight, a period film that feels relevant, a woman’s picture that should have a universal appeal. It’s easy to cheer Jo as she rises above her difficulties, and Gerwig is always firmly plugged into her heroine’s psyche. The ending, while clever, is unashamedly romantic; Gerwig’s sumptuous film shows a modern audience that feminism and romance can fit together nicely.