Sunday, 13 August 2017

A Ghost Story Review

After making me cry unexpectedly with joyous romp Pete's Dragon last year, David Lowery is making me cry for entirely different reasons with A Ghost Story, a powerful, elegant and painstakingly immaculate film about love, loss and the sheer power of legacy and time. It's also one of the best films of the year, and perhaps a film to rival Under the Skin as the most thematically opaque of the century.

C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are a happy couple who live a nice suburban lifestyle until tragedy strikes. C dies in an accident and comes back as a man in a sheet with cut-out eyes. Or, a ghost. It's an eccentric idea from Lowery that in the wrong hands could have been disastrous. Yet, it takes the ghost mythology and flips it on its head so that we're seeing things from the ghost's point of view in a bizarrely, almost Pixar-esque way with a real tenderness and encumbrance. So superbly executed, in fact, that it is achingly sad rather than nonsensical. Commendation has to go to Affleck, who, in a sheet is a sad, forlorn figure that shows more emotion than many a leading man gone by have. The role is reminiscent to Michael Fassbender's role in Frank, which is high praise indeed.

The crux of the film comes down to Lowery's circumspection with his own material. His meticulousness to Malickian long-takes and long stretches without dialogue will make this film polarising but its absolute fascinating direction is worthy of academic study, for sure. An example of this is a five minute long-take of M after she's come back from the hospital. Lowery sets up a mid-shot with M on the floor and a deceased C lingering over her, passively watching. M engorges a pie ferociously in a desperate attempt to feel any sort of emotion after losing her partner to the point that she runs off to the toilet to throw it all back up. This is the pinnacle of Lowery's direction. It supplies the film with an even more voyeuristic view than normal which makes the audience feel trepidation and a hammering of guilt that never quite goes away. The audience is exactly the same as C's ghost, we're watching a woman in severe pain yet we can do nothing. At times it makes for a very uncomfortable, even harrowing, viewing as we're forced to watch a woman go to extreme lengths to feel anything. Its portrayal of grief is nothing short of superb.

The distressing, espial nature of A Ghost Story is further propelled by Lowery's use of 1:33 aspect ratio. This expedites the claustrophobic, boxed-in nature of Lowery's picture: you can't leave, even if you really want to. There's no escape from the enduring pain of time, which is one of the inescapably dense themes. For a 92 minute piece it covers a lot of ground, yet seems to execute every single ingenious idea it throws out there.

The idea of life after death is, of course, an important issue that Lowery tackles but he tackles them through the use of two others: legacy and time. Exactly why does anything matter and will anyone remember me? Lowery bombards us with. Casey Affleck's character is a musician and we (cleverly) never know how successful he is, but Lowery is questioning all art here, and his love and passion for art and why it matters. In many ways, A Ghost Story is about why being creative matters and why art is important. For a film that spans generations it's a very relevant film to now.

Yet Lowery doesn't explore the now, because, well, there doesn't seem to be a now. The film clearly travels through a fair amount of time, but at the same time Lowery shows time as a void, an abyss that you can't escape. We don't know how long Rooney Mara's character stays in the house before moving on, in fact we don't even know if she ever does but Lowery explores time as if it is linked inherently to legacy. The scene that ties the film narratively is Will Oldham's excellent cameo as a philosophical know-it-all that states that everyone is going to die and nothing will ever matter. It's a powerful monologue that turns A Ghost Story from a set of increasingly complex ideas into a fully-fledged masterpiece of oeuvre cinema.

In short, Lowery has created an elegiac, cyclical film that will certainly grow on repeat viewings. Not that you'll need it, A Ghost Story is so cinematically dominant, so thematically murky that it will stay with you for weeks.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore Review

Do you want to be an active or passive member of society? is the question at the heart of Macon Blair’s directorial debut, I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, which is as melancholic as it is bloody. For Melanie Lynskey’s Ruth, she is the latter. She has popular novels spoiled for her and she has dogs shit on her lawn. When she gets burgled, that’s the last straw and she decides to do something about it, partly due to the ineptitude of the police. So her and her newly formed acquaintance Tony (Elijah Wood, on fine form) decide to find the culprits - with bloody and hilarious consequences.

Almost immediately the similarities between I Don’t Feel at Home and Macon Blair’s brilliant, slicked-back starring feature Blue Ruin appear. But I Don’t Feel at Home has extraordinary qualities. Firstly, it is outrageously funny at times. It is as awkward and uncomfortable as Ruth herself. Most of this comes from Elijah Wood’s Tony, who is both absurd and eccentric in equal measures. It is his kookiness that makes the film tick. Slightly off-kilter is an understatement and I Don’t Feel at Home has that in abundance. So much so that you never know where it’s going to go and what’s going to happen. It’s quality is in its inconsistencies.

As much as it is silly and laugh out loud inducing, however, it’s actually profoundly sad and this is encapsulated in Lynskey’s remarkably refined performance. From her utterances “but everyone is being an asshole” to her ferociously vomiting at the sight of a gruesome gunfight shows she’s not only uncomfortable in this world but she’s uncomfortable in her own body which is desperately sad. As accidental heroes go, she’s one of the best I’ve seen in a long while. Macon Blair has created an interesting, intellectual and most importantly, relatable heroes in Ruth and Tony and they’re a pleasure to watch.

Blair’s directing, too, has clearly been inspired by Saulnier’s efforts on Blue Ruin and Green Room. In fact, I Don’t Feel at Home could rival it for the amount of blood shed. The film is ghastly at times, but also a heck of a lot of fun. Yet it is always grounded in realism. Characters struggle to fire guns, these are only as dangerous as the weapons they are holding. And there’s a lot of them. Firearms, plaster of paris, vans, rocks, snakes. Most of the fun comes from the spontaneity of the smoothly executed action scenes.

I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore is as brutal as it is macabre. For every bit of bloodshed, there’s a poignant moment. It could do with better developed villains with superior validation for their actions and it doesn’t quite have the tautness and tension of its contempories, but it’s too much fun to take notice. From Tony’s loneliness to Ruth’s depression it shouldn’t be as fun as it is, but boy is it.

Monday, 9 January 2017

La La Land Review

In the first third of La La Land, Damien Chazelle's entralling follow up to three-time Oscar winner Whiplash, Ryan Gosling's Seb says "why do you say romantic like it's a bad thing?" and in many ways that's the perfect summation of what makes La La Land so wonderful. La La Land is like those signs people have in their houses 'Live, Life, Love' but in the least corny way possible. It's a hopeless romantic with its head  positively in the clouds.  It's also an excellent example of how the musical can work in the 21st Century, where seemingly it's a dying breed. 

An ever excellent Ryan Gosling and an equally adorable Emma Stone star as Seb and Mia, respectively, as two dreamers who have a passion and a love for what they do yet do not seem to be making any progress in their fields. Much like Chazelle's Whiplash, this is about a passion for music and a certain drive that it takes to reach the top. Unlike Whiplash, it shows the lighter and happier side of this. In many ways it makes the perfect companion piece to Chazelle's former film and La La Land can be seen as Whiplash's exuberant, slightly excitable and wholly less cynical younger sibling.

Seb and Mia's relationship and every move hinges on one thing: the performances of Stone and Gosling. Luckily and unsurprisingly, Stone and Gosling have been here before (Crazy, Stupid Love and Gangster Squad) and have the finest chemistry in Hollywood right now. Arguably, they could match Doris Day and Rock Hudson from the Golden Age of cinema (and the musical). There seems to be this almost pathological connection between the two stars that makes them as irresistibly charming and alluring as the film itself. Gosling's facial expressions in particular are exceptional. Whether he wants to make you laugh, cry or sympathise, he makes perfect sure that he does just that.

And, of course, a musical wouldn't be anywhere without its music, but strangely the music does seem to take a backseat. Aside from the somewhat off-putting opening number 'Another Day Of Sun', the music is nuanced, subtle and refined and brings a touch of class to proceedings not seen since Gene Kelly was on screen. Justin Hurtwitz has delivered another marvellous score and soundtrack that brings a level of sophistication to the film. This is how you make a musical for the 'realist' generation.

La La Land is absolutely not a film for those of a cynical mind. Yet even then, I think that it is so lovely that it just may sway those too. This film is for the dreamers, the fantasists, the lovers and those who are looking for a touch of nostalgia. In a time where everything getting darker and more serious, La La Land is a breath of fresh air. They don't make 'em like this anymore? Yes they do, and it's called La La Land.