Sunday 27 November 2016

American Honey by Andrea Arnold

I couldn’t get this film out of my head, and I recommend it to you most highly. It's a sort of road movie — across the underbelly of America. It tells the story of Star, superbly played by newcomer Sasha Lane, who is living a terrible and marginalised existence salvaging food from dumpsters; fending off sexual creepswhen she meets the Mag Crew.

The Mag Crew is a bunch of teenagers in a van who go from city to city selling magazine subscriptions. They are outcasts and misfits and they are barely scraping a living, but they party hard, mostly in motel parking lots, and have a sense of family.

Star joins them because she is smitten with their leader Jake, played by Shia LaBeouf. LaBeouf is a divisive actor, but I've had a lot of time for him since he appeared in Charlie Countryman. On the evidence of that film and American Honey, he has the courage to appear in unusual and interesting indie pictures instead of sticking to lucrative blockbusters.

The movie is written and directed by the Brit Andrea Arnold. Her last film was Jane Eyre, and had I known that I probably would have steered clear of American Honey; I really didn't like Wuthering Heights, but it would have been a tragedy to miss this movie. It really is outstanding.

As with her earlier pictures, Arnold has shot this in 4:3 ratio instead of widescreen. 4:3 is a square image like vintage Hollywood movies or old TV sets. "The reason I really like it," says Arnold, "is because I'm always telling stories about one person, and it's the perfect frame for that... it doesn't give a lot of space on either side."

American Honey is a little reminiscent of Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, though it's considerably more gentle. It's still full of sex and drugs, with the occasional harrowing moment and violent confrontation. And the viewer is constantly in a state of dread about what might happen to Star. 

But perhaps the most notable thing about it is its concern with nature. The camera is always seeking out birds or insects. The Mag Crew have a pet squirrel and abduct a dog. And there’s an amazing scene where Star, at her lowest ebb, receives a hulking, ursine blessing from a brown bear. Also, he doesn’t kill her, which is nice.

Health warning: American Honey is 165 minutes long. Which I found offputting in prospect, and I would have said is about twice the natural length for a movie of this kind

I was grousing about this to the guy tearing tickets at the cinema as I went in. He said, "Yeah, but you won't notice the time. It's such a great movie." True.

(Image credits: The two white posters are from Pinterest. The sky blue poster is from Imp Awards. Sasha Lane is from Film Experience. Sasha Lane holding the slate from Ion Cinema (nice pun).)

Sunday 20 November 2016

The Magnificent Seven by Wenk and Pizzolatto — and Newman, Bernstein and Roberts!

I might as well say right up front that there are a number of things about this remake of the classic western that annoy me. But none more than the fact the writers of the original 1960 movie get no credit whatsoever. We'll discuss that in a minute.

First, what of this new incarnation? Well, it's a considerable hit, as was the last outing by director Antonie Fuqua and star Denzel Washington — The Equalizer. But I didn't think much of that, either.

Denzel looks impressive enough, but the script gives him virtually nothing to do. Vincent D’Onofrio is the only really vivid character in the Seven — as towering mountain man Jack Horne (gene spliced from real Western legends Liver Eating Johnson and Tom Horne) with a high, whispery, wavering voice. 

And there's some memorable performances from non-members of the Seven. Haley Bennett is splendid as a local woman widowed by the villain of the piece. And speaking of that villain, Peter Sarsgaard is just a terrific bad guy. 
But the movie takes forever to get going as it assembles its rather pallid and bland bunch of compañeros. And the final battle against Sarsgaard and his hordes doesn't redeem it. (Also — I don't believe a Gatling gun would have been of any effect at that distance. Any weapons experts out there who can confirm this?)

The movie is written by Richard Wenk (who did The Equalizer for Fuqua and wrote the remake of The Mechanic) and Nic Pizzolatto. Pizzolatto is an interesting figure. He created the celebrated TV series True Detective. 

And Pizzolatto's much discussed fascination with Dashiell Hammett is in evidence here, with the Indian member of the Seven called Red Harvest (the title of a Hammett novel), and talk of a strike-busting Pinkerton-style detective firm called Blackstone (Hammett worked for Pinkerton). 

There have been some excellent westerns in recent years. Django Unchained was pure joy and The Salvation was an absolute masterpiece. In addition there's been a number of fascinating oddities such as Jane Got a Gun, Bone Tomahawk and The Homesman, but The Magnificent Seven fails to measure up to any of these.

Probably the most damning comparison is with the Coen brothers' True Grit, which showed that it's possible to come up with the remake of a beloved western classic which is as good as, and even better than, the original.
One of many nuisances with The Magnificent Seven is that, unlike Bone Tomahawk, no attempt has been made to give the dialogue an authentic period ring. It’s laced with an anachronisms — “hallucinating”, “bonding”, “capitalism”.

On the other hand the music — by James Horner and Simon Franglen — is invaluable, crucially adding suspense to a slack confrontation scene, pumping up the final big action sequence, and providing an impressive coda… though after that, over the end titles, they play Elmer Bernstein’s original theme, and we’re reminded what movie music is really all about. 

Speaking of the original, let's return to the matter of the writers' credits, and the fact that the creators of the 1960 version get no recognition here. Of course, that film — and this one — are based on Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (written by Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni). But they don't get any credit, either.

So, just for the record, the superb sixties western was the work of three American screenwriters. Only William Roberts receives any official credit, but the first draft was by Walter Bernstein, who was blacklisted at the time. Then Walter Newman took over and basically wrote the movie as we know it. But he wasn't available for location rewrites, and William Roberts took a hand.

When it was clear Roberts was going to get a credit, Newman petulantly had his name removed. A move which cost him dear, in terms of money and recognition.

But all of these writers deserve to be named in connection with the new version of The Magnificent Seven. Without them there would be no movie to remake... and screw up.

(Image credits: There's more than seven posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 13 November 2016

Deepwater Horizon by Carnahan and Sand

Like everybody else, when I think of Deepwater Horizon what comes to mind is the horrific oil spill and the ensuing devastation of wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico.

What I didn't realise was that the spill was preceded by a terrible conflagration on the eponymous drilling platform and considerable loss of life (eleven dead).

This movie ducks the whole environmental issue — and also has nothing to say about the culpability of Haliburton — but it is an absolutely riveting and deeply suspenseful account of the battle for survival on the doomed Transocean rig, and a damning indictment of the complacency, penny pinching and recklessness of BP which led to the disaster.

There's a terrific scene where our hero, Mark Wahlberg, reels off a long list of malfunctioning equipment on the oil platform, in a kind of homage to his list of girl’s porno names in Ted. Listening to him, but not taking it in, is John Malkovitch — just great as a slimy, serpentine BP executive who pushes the drill team to lethal folly.

Kurt Russell is wonderfully grizzled as Wahlberg's boss. Kate Hudson is effective enough as Wahlberg's loving spouse, but she has a fairly non-existent role as a stay at home wife and mom...

Much better is Gina Rodriguez as Andrea Fleytas, navigation equipment operator and one of three female Transocean employees on Deepwater Horizon. There's a nice running gag about why her Mustang won't start...

And some agonisingly frustrating and infuriating sequences in which the captain in the control room keeps overriding her (entirely correct) decisions to send a Mayday signal and cut the pipe. These are particularly powerful moments and really engage the audience emotionally, as this idiot stops Fleytas doing the right thing.

Deepwater Horizon is directed by Peter Berg, who recently filmed Lone Survivor, with Mark Wahlberg getting shot to pieces in Afghanistan. Before that he made Battleship, a favourite guilty pleasure of mine.

The script makes some neat moves, such as illustrating the nature of the oil waiting under pressure in rocks by hammering a spout into a Coke can. And the way the pipeline is secured with drilling mud by pouring honey into the spout. Followed by a premonitory accident as the fizzy drink pours out, everywhere,

The film is written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z, The Kingdom) and Matthew Sand (Ninja Assassin) and it's based on a New York Times article by David Rohde and Stephanie Saul.
This is a classic disaster movie, beautifully made and utterly involving. I commend it highly. There was one annoyingly mawkish moment, when all the survivors drop to their knees on the mud barge to give thanks in prayer — to the god who's just set their rig on fire and murdered their friends. 

But I guess there are no atheists in foxholes. 

(Image credits: a virtual gusher of posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 6 November 2016

The Girl on the Train by Wilson and Hawkins

You can't copyright a title. Which is just as well, because this is the third or fourth movie to be called The Girl on the Train. It's based on a bestselling crime novel of the same title by Paula Hawkins, which rather rode on the coat tails of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl — a vastly superior work.

I haven't read Hawkins's novel but, as is so often the case, I've heard a BBC Radio 4 adaptation of it. And that was sufficient to expose fatal, basic structural problems with the story.

This is a whodunnit in which it's entirely obvious, almost from the get-go, who done it. The movie perhaps does a better job of, briefly, fooling the audience. But even here the bad guy might as well be wearing a sign around his neck saying "I'm the killer".

The other problem with the narrative is that the grand action climax is disappointingly ho-hum. Small beer indeed.

So what's left? Hawkins's novel does present a powerful portrait of a troubled, disintegrating woman. And it makes deft use of our deeply-programmed fear of babies being harmed. 

The movie makes effective use of the latter, but the former is overdone to the point of being tiresome. With unflattering make up and hair — to signal that she’s an unhappy alcoholic — Emily Blunt looks like she’s escaped from a zombie movie.

But director Tate Taylor, who also directed the outstanding James Brown movie Get on Up, has injected some memorable moments — there's a terrific bit involving a drop of water. 

And there's a well wrought script by Erin Cressida Wilson, who has some excellent screenwriting credits, from Secretary and Chloe to Men, Women and Children. All memorable films.

The ad campaign uses the slogan "What did she see?" which unfortunately brings to mind Rear Window, a short story by Cornell Woolrich, unforgettably filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately because The Girl on the Train just isn't in that league.
The original novel was set in England. It's survived its translation to America without any major damage. 

But this is still an ultimately second-rate psychological thriller, and when set beside the magnificent film of Gone Girl, it pretty much ceases to exist.

(Image credits: a paucity of posters at Imp Awards — though there are some stylish ones, as you can see.)