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28 January 2015

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '14: TIMBUKTU (ABDERRAHMANE SISSAKO, MAURITANIA / FRANCE

Reposting on the day of the film's U.S. theatrical release, because it was one of the clear highlights of my very satisfying 2014, and it never hurts to remind people when a masterpiece is hanging around, waiting to be seen.

Winner of the Silver Hugo for Best Director
Screens at CIFF: 10/15 & 10/16
World premiere: 15 May, 2014, Cannes International Film Festival

There is a heightened irony at the heart of Timbuktu that is completely obvious, and which fuels the rage that drives every moment of Abderrahmane Sissako's first feature in eight years, following the great and underseen Bamako: that forcing religious piety onto a population is a one-way ticket to creating Hell on Earth. And thus it is that one of the most visually beautiful films of 2014 (cinematographer Sofiane El Fani has made every single frame positively vibrate with precise compositions, lighting, and use of color) tells one of the most severe, ghastly stories. It creates a totally disorienting clash of sensations, like watching Terrence Malick make a torture porno: how can such flawlessly beauty harbor such casual, unforced cruelty? The film's signature moment is one breathtaking image of a river at sunset, an extravagant wide shot that lingers and lasts and sinks into your eyes with grandeur, both natural and cinematic. And what occurs in this long, long shot? A character we've come to like and respect as a decent man in an indecent world kills a man. Not deliberately nor in malice, but that's of little matter once the deed is done.

The film takes place in Mali (it was shot in Mauritania), during the 2012 rebellions and coups and all manner of dismal conflicts that put a fundamentalist Muslim party in control of the north of the country, instituting sharia law over the population under its control. For our purposes, that mostly refers to the city of Timbuktu, an ethnic polyglot whose openness makes it a prime target for fundamentalist ire; over the objections of the local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif), the jihadists wage a kind of urban war against anything that exists outside of their narrowly-defined rules of propriety and morality: artists, athletes, and people who just want to enjoy the outside air despite being women, are all taken down in the raging sectarian violence. Meanwhile, far outside the city, a domestic drama plays out quietly: nomadic cattle rancher Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), of the Tuareg people, his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), their daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and adopted ward Issan (Mehdi A.G. Mohamed) do their very best to live peaceably in their isolation, but even in the earliest moments we see them, there are encroaching threats from the jihad's reign of terror, and Kidane's prideful refusal to move, against Satima's urgent counsel, is plainly incapable of doing much other than to hasten his and his family's fate.

For Sissako, one of the great humanists presently at work in world cinema, the obvious approach to depict this misery and nastiness was through great restraint that implies the worst without being remotely exploitative or undignified to the suffering of those who ended up on the bad side of the jihadists. Case in point: one of the main events that triggered the director's decision to make this film was when he witnessed footage of the stoning of an unmarried couple, buried up to their necks before being executed. That event is re-created in Timbuktu, and it is grueling and horrifying, but not because it is grotesque and explicit. In fact, by refusing to give the audience any sort of release along those lines, the sequence - which takes place in a wide shot and cuts short long before things get too violent - is even more distressing and brutal, since it is so painfully objective and matter-of-fact. The complex, geometrically pleasing compositions remain in this moments of appalling violence; in refusing to sensationalise the acts, the film avoids reducing them to the level of entertainment, but instead demands that we consider them as part of the same flow of life that can produce intimacy and beauty. And that is the worst thing of all.

It is quite impossible to consider Timbuktu to be anything but a great work of art, with its intensely moral worldview and the complicated, hugely rewarding relationship between its beautiful images and its bottomless awareness of human misery. And it also represents an interesting turn in the director's career, though one about which it is easy to be leery: it's the most explicitly "art housey" of his movies so far, and in this case, that means terrific things: marrying the hallmarks of great African cinema (the strong use of contrasting colors as a storytelling and character-building element; terrific sense of humans as a function of physical place) with European art cinema (the narrative structure, the way the politics are expressed ironically). But it also feels far more conventional than the other Sissako I've seen, and I'd hate to think of him ceding the unique personality that led to Bamako and Waiting for Happiness, films that absolutely could not ever have been made in Europe. That's the pessimistic outlook, of course; nothing in Timbuktu gives us any cause to fear that the director is compromising his visions in the slightest, only augmenting them with slightly more stock-issue aesthetic choices. It's still one of 2014's very best films, and that's what matters most of all.

9/10

27 January 2015

BOY OH BOY

There's very little doubt that The Boy Next Door is a terrible movie. But it is so cheerfully overt about it that it offers the very real possibility that everybody involved in making not only knew just how terrible it was, but in fact that they might actually have signed specifically because of that fact. We've all seen the ads, I hope and pray, where a sexually predatory high school student played by Ryan Guzman, (who looks every millisecond of the 26 years he had spent on this earth at the time of filming) leeringly talks about how much he likes "your mom's cookies"; that's not just a snarky laugh line that an in-on-the-joke trailer editor decided to foreground, that's the level that the entire film resides at. Sadly, there are no lines quite as punch-you-in-the-face as that elsewhere in the screenplay, but the overall level of ripe camp promised by that moment? Oh, the film teems with it.

The plot: Claire Peterson (Jennifer Lopez) teaches classic literature to gifted high school students in southern California, and she is in a misery. As related in a flagrantly impossible opening montage that uses confusing mismatches of sound and image in a manner that might be regarded as artistic by a moderately gifted film school freshman, Claire is in the midst of a hell of a marital crisis, precipitated by her husband, Garrett (John Corbett), having an affair with one of the women who works at his company's headquarters up in San Francisco. She smells like cookies, was apparently the line in an accidentally-discovered love letter that pushed Claire over the edge. And by the way, if you end up seeing The Boy Next Door, just accept that the next time you eat cookies, you'll be thinking of vaginas. The film wants it that way, and there's nothing wrong with it.

Throwing the bastard out - but not so far that, months later, they're not cautiously feeling out the shape of possibly reconciling - Claire only has left a 16-year-old son, Kevin (Ian Nelson), and a catty best friend and boss, Vicky (Kristen Chenoweth), whose overly mascaraed face and loud way of talking give the impression that she has a blood alcohol level in the double digits. But life, overall, isn't so terrible, especially when the old cancer-ridden man next door (Jack Wallace) welcomes his nephew into the house for their mutual benefit. This is Noah Sandborn (Guzman), who is in high school, though the film stops itself cold to make sure we completely, absolutely understand that he's of legal age, owing to how he dropped out for a couple of years, in the most anti-dramatic scene about the legal bedrock of an adult/adolescent sexual coupling since the bizarre Romeo & Juliet laws scene from Transfomers: Age of Extinction.

For, you see, as much as Noah is interested in being the mentor and stable male figure in Kevin's life (the film's refusal to capitalise on the avalanche of hints it drops in the early going that Kevin has a crush on Noah is a tragic failure to up the stakes to ever further heights of tawdriness), what he really wants is to make sweet love to Claire, as anyone might, given Lopez's terrifyingly perfect, unaging body and face. And, one night, after some of the most ridiculous innuendo ("Those kinds of shoes are for a woman trying to be sexy. DOT DOT DOT. You don’t need to try." And trust me, you can absolutely hear that "dot dot dot" in Guzman's line delivery), they go right on ahead and make that love, and director Rob Cohen eagerly plunges in, framing it with all nudity-free filthiness - hands in panties, hands on boobs, protracted male butt shots - of the storied height of the erotic thriller in the early 1990s. It's hard to say whether it's more arousingly smutty or unrelentingly silly, but it's a whole lot of both.

Of course, it turns out that Noah is a crazy, sexually obsessed stalker psycho, and he spends the rest of the movie Glenn Closing in on Claire's life, eventually going full-on slasher movie crazy in a finale that takes place in a burning barn. A barn which the film, with only eight real characters to choose from, places under the ownership of Vicky, despite her seeming to be as much of an agriculturalist as the stars of Sex and the City. And in so doing, it also ramps the gore up from "none whatsoever" to "Lucio Fulci", going totally batshit for ten straight minutes before ending almost the exact second that the primary conflict is over. The Boy Next Door has, perhaps, heard of denouements, but it does not give a shit for them.

Cohen has the good sense to direct this all with snazzy pacing and the shameless sense of building dread of a cheap horror film, while writer Barbara Curry feeds all the characters a steady supply of hokey pronouncements to speak as they tromp through her scenario that has already become implausible by the 30 minute mark and keeps getting bigger and bigger from there, including overwrought car crashes and a full-on Se7en-style crazyperson lair before it even hits the third act. Given everything, it's difficult to say what "good acting" might even look like here, though the cast is, at any rate, providing exactly the right kind of action. Lopez flutters and gasps and looks bestruck; Guzman smolders and flairs his pecs and stares with lust and madness poring out of him, totally refusing to contain his hamminess; Corbett is pleasant, boring, and dad-like. As vessels for a very overcooked, very unmodulated set of emotional states, the leads are perfect, and though I can't imagine these parts being challenging for an actor of even the slightest talent, that doesn't mean that one can't do a good job with them, even so.

It's crap, of course: utterly arbitrary (Claire passes by so many chances to shut the whole thing down that one must assume that she secretly likes it), cut with a minimum of cohesiveness in favor of a maximum of startling shots, even when we don't really need to be startled, and it has absolutely no insight into the human condition (unless "teen boys will go to any lengths for sex" is an insight). But it's a blast: entertaining as any trashy thriller could hope to be, and hilarious as any bad movie in a long time. Is it intentional? Maybe. I don't care. I just know that I had a hell of a time watching it, and if this is the kind of movie year we can expect from 2015, I'm all for it.

3/10

2014: THE YEAR IN MOVIES

Most years, this is the part where I grouse a little bit about how, to quote one of the year's best performances, I just thought there'd be more. That the movies would be a bit more inspiring, more fun, more challenging.

But I will not be doing that here. The films released in the United States in 2014 made it, as a body, one of the strongest years of film I can remember living through, and certainly my favorite in the decade that I've been blogging. Whether it was a summer crammed full of really smart, inventive popcorn movies, the great run of genre-bending indies in both horror and science-fiction throughout the year, or the sheer number of films that grappled with film language and how images communicate meaning, across genres, countries, and levels of difficulty, I never stopped being surprised and excited. It was a treasure trove: even bumping my list of honorable mentions up to 15 instead of my usual 10 (so it's a top 25, for once), I still couldn't make room for everything I felt deserved a spot.

I don't know, maybe I'm just getting old and my tastes are softening: for the first time in living memory, three of the four biggest Oscar players have made my top 15, which is always a kind of disconcerting place to be. But then I think upon these films, and imagine the years spent revisiting and rediscovering them, all I know is that I'm grateful for such rich work, and the vibrant filmmaking culture they speak to. And then I peek ahead at 2015 and some of the films I already know are going to be heading up next year's version of this list, and I'm more eager to see where the art form is going than I have been in quite a long time.

(links go to my original reviews)

The 10 Best Films of 2014
1. Goodbye to Language
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
3. The Last of the Unjust
4. Under the Skin
5. The Missing Picture
6. Mr. Turner
7. Snowpiercer
8. National Gallery
9. The Babadook
10. Boyhood

26 January 2015

ONE DECADE LATER

Ten years ago on this date, I spoke to a very kind doctor at Evanston Northwestern Hospital (since sold and renamed NorthShore Evanston Hospital), and he told me that in all likelihood, I had testicular cancer. One week later, and one testicle lighter, a different doctor, with the associated Kellogg Cancer Care Center, confirmed this likelihood as a certainty, and we made plans for my chemotherapy schedule and eventual surgery to remove a mass from a lymph node near my left lung.

I'm not going to bother retelling all of that, because I've done it enough times - the morbidly curious can find my thoughts on the matter recorded in real time over yonder - but one doesn't pass a milestone like this without feeling obliged to stop by and pay it a little extra attention. Particularly as I realise, the further away in time I get from being sick, that it's still springing surprises on me and altering how I move through the world in ways that I don't always perceive right away.

But you're not here to be my therapists. You are here because as I sit and ponder and deal with life, I also want to celebrate a decade of much internal conflict, of triumphs and frustrations, of making the most of the time I'm given and wasting time when it makes sense to, a decade, primarily, of being the fuck alive, by giving back a little bit. Thus do I proudly announce the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser & Review Auction. Readers who were here five years ago perhaps remember my last exercise in soul-bearing, and the subsequent fundraising effort it kicked off. The rules are simple enough: give a little money, and I will thank you in public on the pages of this blog. Give a bit more, and you can request a review of any movie that can be acquired through reasonable means. In 2010-11, that amount was $15. I got way the hell too many review requests, so I'm going to bump that figure up:

If you donate $25 to the American Cancer Society, I'll review almost any movie you want me to. Even if you are one of my terrible friends who is going to make me review something awful AS SOME OF YOU HAVE ALREADY PROMISED TO DO.

That way, even if I get a billion requests again, at least I'll be sending a bit more money towards the ACS.

How this is going to work:

-Go here: https://donate.cancer.org/index

-Fill out all the information, and if you have a friend or loved one you wish to honor with your donation, please do so. But don't feel obliged to stick my name in there, just go with "A general gift to help the fight against cancer"

-Give whatever amount you feel comfortable with. If it's less than $25, that's still absolutely great! But I'm going to have to be strict on making that the cut-off for review requests, because free time is a lot shorter in supply than it was in 2010, when I would occasionally fudge things a little.

-When you receive the confirmation of your donation, in an e-mail with the subject line "Thank Your For Your Donation", forward it to antagonycancerfundraiser@gmail.com. If there is private data that you'd prefer not to share, such as your home address, remember to delete it before you send the message.

-Be sure to mention the film you'd like reviewed, and what identifying information you'd like to have listed in the list of donors, e.g. "Tim Brayton, Chicago, IL" or just "Tim B, IL", or even less that's what makes you comfortable. Pseudonymous online names are fine too.

Today is the 10th anniversary of the day I learned that I had cancer; I'm going to end this campaign on the 10th anniversary of the day I learned that I didn't. This fundraiser runs until 18 June, 2015. That gives you almost five months to think up a movie, scrounge together a few pennies, and make the world a better place by a little bit.

There are just a couple of other rules:

There are some titles that aren't eligible, owing to their presence elsewhere in my plans: anything with the words "star" and "wars", in that order, right next to each other in the title, for starters, but there are a few other movies that I've got inked-in for February, and if you happen to request one of those (which I don't think is likely), I shall gently direct you to pick something else. Also ineligible: Beyond the Black Rainbow, which a certain reader has been patiently hoping to see reviewed for so long that I can't bear the thought of making him pay for it, and I herewith announce that I shall at long last review that movie on 28 February. If this seems unfair, you are welcome to become a member of the clergy, and I will bad about stringing you along, as well.

One review request per donation. If you donate $25 twice, you can request two movies. If you donate $50 once, you can request one.

I'll be checking e-mail and updating the donor list once a week, so if you don't hear back from me right away, don't worry. Thanks for helping in the fight against cancer!

25 January 2015

IT'S A HELL OF A THING, KILLING A MAN

It seems irresponsible to review American Sniper without doing so through the lens of the enormous cultural conversation surrounding it, but having actually seen the damn movie, it strikes me as rather bizarre that so many tens of thousands of words have already been spent discussing it without most of them being, y'know, accurate. Given the parameters of The Dialogue around the movie being so divorced from what seems to me to be its reality, I don't even know how to engage with that dialogue. So sadly, I'm just going to have to treat this like a movie that happened to come out, that I happened to see, and we'll all have to pretend that it hasn't already been buried under a mountain of essays from all corners of the political spectrum.

So, American Sniper: Clint Eastwood's most thought-through, well-mounted, and thematically snug movie since Letters from Iwo Jima, centered on what is far and away the most subtle, insightful, and nuanced performance that Bradley Cooper has ever given. Indeed, I can't think of an Eastwood film since The Bridges of Madison County which so successfully foregrounds an actor and banks everything else on that actor's performance doing work that would be impossible if the film tried to approach it any other way. For American Sniper is, first and above all, about a man who wants to turn himself into a machine; a man born into a value system in a nation at a time where his sense of right demands that he give up a certain measure of his humanity for The Greater Good, and it resides entirely upon Cooper's performance to communicate what that entails. That, and one scene where Jason Hall's screenplay drops a broad-ass line to the effect of "aren't you even human any more?" into the mouth of the main character's wife, but by Eastwood movie standards, that's almost inscrutably subtle.

The film is adapted from the memoirs of Chris Kyle, self-aggrandising "most lethal sniper in U.S. military history", though the filmmakers are content to reconfigure him as necessary to make the movie they want to. It's impossible to fathom Cooper's version of Kyle bragging in print about slugging Jesse Ventura, or whatever the hell it was; when he's praised as "the Legend", or reminded of his career kill count, he adopts a pleasant but blank expression that communicates "that's so nice of you and can we maybe talk about anything else?" with the silent pleading of a man who's much better at avoiding talking about things than acknowledging them. It's the cousin to the expression he wears when his Stateside wife, Taya (Sienna Miller) talks about how much she and their kids just love it when he's home; the facial vocabulary of a man who doesn't like feeling emotions and thinking about himself, and found that transforming himself into a military killing machine facilitated that non-feeling. The real-life Kyle has, in other words, been retrofitted into a perfect Eastwood protagonist, the clearest of all descendants from Will Munny in the director's 1992 Western Unforgiven. He even delivers the Munny-esque line "It's a heckuva thing to stop a beating heart" when taking his son out deer hunting, late in the film, delivered without Munny's world-weary fatigue. For that would require introspection, and introspection is something Kyle is thoroughly incapable of performing.

American Sniper illustrates Kyle's mind by fully settling into his warrior POV (which doesn't require or imply that it adopts his opinions as its own, but I've resigned myself to waiting until 2025 or so to start that fight), which to begin with, results in a pretty ingenious structure for a pretty conventional biopic. The opening 20 or 25 minutes start with the future deadliest of all possible snipers about to pull the trigger on his first human victim and then flashing back to race through a potted history of his life prior to the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks, glancing at the Big Obvious Signpost moments like it can't wait to get back to Fallujah, Iraq. It then spends time meandering through his four separate tours in-country, with Eastwood's characteristic bleached-out cinematography, courtesy of his regular DP Tom Stern, serving as it customarily does to strip all of the sentiment out of a scenario that barely had any to begin with. When Kyle goes home, he spends just enough time with his wife for her to just barely make an impression on us (I have never, ever had much use for Miller before, but the particular impact she makes is so profound with so little screentime that I'm not likely to doubt her again in the near future), and he's always back for another tour without a scene depicting his decision or his attempt to sell Taya on its merits. In short, the story won't engage with interpersonal conflict, it blasts through all of the explanatory history that might give us some insight into the protagonist, and it ignores everything in its haste to get back to war. And that is what I mean by settling into Kyle's POV.

The filmmaking reinforces this: the excellent sound mix especially, with its layers upon layers of explosions and gunshots at multiple distances from multiple directions. But the editing by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach (also Eastwood regulars) is equally on-point, charging ahead during the overt action scenes and giving the more languid chatting non-combat scenes an erratic vigor, a constant sense that even if we're relaxed now, we're still in the middle of a fucking war zone. And then there's the more direct matter of how the film frankly depicts the messy suddenness of human death by bullets, small geysers of crimson that pop out of human bodies, Iraqi and American alike, with unromantic proficiency, leaving nothing to the imagination. It does not, by any measure I'm able to recognise, suggest that being in war is exciting - unlike the very similar The Hurt Locker, nothing in American Sniper suggests that Kyle is an adrenaline junkie or flirts with a death wish - and the increasingly washed-out expressions on Cooper's face, coupled with the unyielding desaturation of the images, clearly indicate that it's taking a lot out of Kyle to be in that environment.

The question the movie focuses on, then, is why he's there, and why he keeps going back; why, after having killed a child right off the bat, he'd keep placing himself in a position where his only task is to keep killing and killing. The best scene in the film shows Kyle training his scope on a little boy wandering around an RPG launcher, quietly begging him not to pick up the weapon: not wanting to shoot another child, feeling visibly sick at the thought of killing another child, and yet it plainly does not occur to him as an option not to kill the child if it comes down to it. Why does Kyle do this, the film silently asks, and then it even more silently answers: because he doesn't have the imagination to conceive of anything outside of the moral code he has always lived by, even when it causes him anguish, even when his wife - importantly, the only other human in the film given even the vaguest semblance of an inner life - tells him straight to his face that his beliefs are wrong and causing pain, even when his great "I shall be a hero and slay the dragon" moment is reckless and ends up putting the exact same American soldiers he was "heroically" saving into more active danger than if he'd just sat there and done nothing at all. He wanted to turn himself into a machine, and he succeeded in doing so, and the movie stares at him without judgment or praise as he goes about that process. And when his refusal to look inside himself means that he can neither acknowledge privately nor even consider as a possibility the reality that the actions he has committed and the actions he has witnessed have caused him to suffer from PTSD, the movie stars non-judgmentally at that, too. But the longer it goes on, the more it trusts us to see that disorder peering out from behind Cooper's increasingly flat eyes, and understand that his desire to avoid human feeling is increasingly a desire to avoid naming his own suffering and thus his own perceived weakness.

All of which makes it epically frustrating when the movie ends by descending into a maudlin, arch-biopic sequence of leading up to Kyle's death while back home in Texas, playing as a straightfaced version of the same "life is happening!" montage that's used to such mercilessly ironic effect in the film's opening, and ending on the corniest "he's off to meet his death!" scene since the penultimate scene in 2012's Lincoln. And having thus pointlessly fucked his own movie, Eastwood doubles-down with a travesty of a montage of images from the real-life Kyle's funeral and memorial services, a sequence that's exploitative to begin with, and also moonily plays up the notion that this was an unambiguously wonderful man whose passing is much to be mourned, which is found nowhere else in the movie, and indeed is almost exactly contradicted by its persuasive argument that this was a prickly man whose refusal to look inside himself caused only suffering in himself and others. It's a different, vastly worse movie - the movie, in fact, that American Sniper has been accused of being (by liberals) and praised for being (by conservatives), but that it emphatically isn't for some 127 of its 132 minutes. But oh me, oh my, how shittily pandering those five minutes are.

Meanwhile, is it racist? Not really, but it doesn't do a very good job of inoculating itself against that charge - there's one scene in particular, involving a made-up insurgent assassin with a penchant for drills, that doesn't do serve any meaningful narrative purpose and provides almost the entire basis for the argument that the film as a whole presents the Iraqi people as bloodthirsty brutes; and even that isn't quite a slam dunk 1+1=2 piece of evidence, given context. Mostly, though, American Sniper simply doesn't care very much one way or another about the people of Iraq; an apparently damning statement, until we mention as well that it doesn't care one way or another about any American, citizen or soldier, whose surname isn't "Kyle". This is a character study, not a political statement, and the only real sin it commits is presenting that study in a framework that is entirely impossible to strip of politics, and could only be perceived otherwise by somebody with a reflextive America-centric worldview. A sin that somehow didn't taint the equally apolitical Hurt Locker, despite that film actually coming out when the Iraq War was still officially ongoing.

That being said, it's a marvelous, marvelous character study, driven by a superb central performance and unpolished, spare filmmaking and writing that allow that performance to be the motive force of everything else the film does and is. Some of what it is, is ambivalent to the point of being problematic; a tiny bit of what it is, is acutely vile; and most of what it is, is a smart, complex portrait of a largely fictional man who desperately wanted not to be complex at all. What the film's reception reveals about American culture is uniformly discouraging and depressing, but as a two-and-a-quarter-hour piece of cinema made by an inconsistently great director who got his mojo back in a huge way after too many years of burnished mediocrity, I come about thiiiis close to loving American Sniper, and even with its ugly-ass flaws, I wouldn't trade it away for anything.

8/10

23 January 2015

WHILE WE WAIT

My best, sadly, isn't going to be good enough, and I'm going to have to do something I loathe, which is to go three straight days without writing a review. I have, though, seen some movies, and formed some opinions on them, and until I get back to 100% on Sunday, allow me to tide you over with these capsules.

American Sniper: A drama about PTSD that has been preposterously, maybe even willfully misunderstood by both its defenders and its detractors as being a rousing tale of military achievement. No more bloodthirsty and "rah rah American military force" than Zero Dark Thirty - which is to say, it's somewhat bloodthirsty and rah-rah, but it certainly doesn't make service in Iraq look glamorous, appealing, or ennobling, and the word "hero" is one it and its protagonist both judge with an askance "...really? Hm, whatever" attitude. Hopefully in 10 or 15 years things will have settled down enough where we can enjoy the ace sound design, surprisingly crafty structure, and Bradley Cooper's best performance by far. Hopefully in the same time, Clint Eastwood will also have released a director's cut that does something with the tin-eared, obnoxiously winking 10 minutes at the end. 8/10

A Field in England: I am entirely in the bag for director Ben Wheatley, and that includes his fourth feature, but I'll sadly confess that I think this effort is his least effective, even while it's his most aesthetically ambitious. Making its virtue of its cheapness, the costume drama/psychological thriller uses emptiness and sickly cinematography well, and it builds a desperate sense of untethered confusion that lingers afterwards. But it doesn't really do anything. 7/10

Moebius: I am also in the bag for Kim Ki-duk, which I'm not entirely proud of. This particular provocation is blunter than some of his other recent work, but it's surprising how quickly its gory excesses and "look at me, I'm cool" gimmick of having no dialogue become normalised to the point that the story underneath them can be told on their own terms. But it's still awfully slender, and impossible to recommend to anybody who doesn't self-select. 7/10? 8/10?

Norte, the End of History: Pro-tip, don't watch it when you're tired. NR/10

22 January 2015

THE BEST OF 2014: TEAM EXPERIENCE

I'm still polishing the ol' top 10 (two more movies to see before I commit to it, and come hell or high water it gets published Monday), but in the meanwhile, we members of Team Film Experience recently published our collective Best of the Year in all sorts of categories. It is, with all modesty, a stupefyingly awesome love-in for some of my favorite movies of a strong year, and I am especially proud to belong to the group this year.

Go check it out!

21 January 2015

GONE TO POT

Comparing Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice - the first Pynchon novel to be filmed, no less - with the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski is absolutely the laziest conceivable opening gambit the reviewer of the former film could engage in, but it has the merit of being inevitable. Both films are shaggy mysteries which are more interested in capturing a vibe than in carefully laying out the actual mechanics of the plot (though neither is insoluble, despite Inherent Vice having already picked up that reputation); both are stoner comedies for sober people; both are set in southern California. Both pivot on characters whose attitude towards life, rules, the Establishment, and drug use was forged in the '60s and left them stranded once the '60s ended; The Big Lebowski, set in the early 1990s, plays this for fish-out-of-water comedy, while Inherent Vice, set in 1970, allows a hint of melancholy to pervade its depiction of the death spasms of the counterculture.

The biggest difference between them, and it is the reason I have really bothered comparing them at all, is that at 117 minutes, The Big Lebowski is the longest that its loose-limbed hang-out attitude and laconic comedy can conceivably support (it is, in fact, one of the only Coen films that I think could do with some merciless trimming); whereas Inherent Vice is 148 minutes long, and no. Just no. There's nothing about this film that demand that kind of space and certainly nothing that benefits from it. Anderson hasn't been a particularly disciplined filmmaker at any point in his career - the only one of his films that absolutely cannot be any shorter is Punch-Drunk Love, which also happens to be his only other comedy - but this breaks new ground in dithering around pointlessly.

That being said, the parts of Inherent Vice that work are pretty terrific stuff: Anderson, his cast, and his crew have thrown themselves into the task of recreating their fictitious corner of 1970 Los Angeles with aplomb, resulting in some of the most invitingly tangible sets (designed by David Crank), costumes (Mark Bridges), and even hairpieces of the year: it has the scruffy, organic feeling like some lost corner of America that was permitted to rest unchanging for four decades, until the filmmakers came along to document it. In the lead role of "Doc" Sportello, well-practiced marijuana smoker and surprisingly dogged private eye, Joaquin Phoenix provides a splendid companion piece to his performance in Anderson's last film, The Master, once again capturing a particular moment in the history of American anomie with miraculous precision, this time playing his character's alienation from the mainstream with warmth and self-knowledge rather than as a horrifying blank. As one of the only people to get an appreciable amount of screentime, and certainly the only person for whom that screentime tops one-fifth of the total film, Phoenix's attitude and ability to inhabit the "whatever, man" flow of the befuddling story with its low stakes is the anchor for the viewer to find a way in. And thus he does.

All of which is as much to say: if Inherent Vice was just a simple little shaggy dog story, content to let us chill with Doc and enjoy his worldview, it could be great; even as a detective comedy, it could still be pretty great (The Big Lebowski proves that), with the unkempt storytelling ironically commenting on the complexity of the story and Doc's ability to remain true to himself and his values while being buffeted by social change funneled through this one crime story. It's certainly a solid enough riff on film noir, with its sardonic treatment of sex, its panoply of warped character names, and the procedural narration delivered by one of Doc's buddies, Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), with a twangy lack of urgency that ends up being the film's subtlest joke. But Inherent Vice is not remotely simple, containing two full acts that it doesn't require (for all I know they might kill on the page - I haven't read the book - but the pacing of a novel and the pacing of a film aren't identical, or even comparable), and yo-yoing between characters and situations without stitching them together. Coupled with the fact that the film is a who's who of distracting cameos - Josh Brolin and Owen Wilson have large enough parts to feel like characters, but Reese Witherspoon, Bencio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Martin Short, Maya Rudolph, and Eric Roberts are only some of the people who come in and out so quickly that by the time they're gone, one is still processing that they showed up in the first place - Inherent Vice never feels like more than a collection of individual anecdotes assembled into a narrative framework. Given the story, and especially given the attitude of laid-back disinterest with which the film approaches its story, that's not even an inappropriate strategy for following Doc around, but what it certainly doesn't do is make the two and a half hours feel and swifter. And it kills the sense of comedy; the longer Inherent Vice goes on, the harder it becomes to laugh at what turns out to be a fairly small repertoire of jokes.

Still, the film's charms and strengths are undeniable and they're certainly not very common. The lusciously grainy celluloid cinematography, by Robert Elswit, isn't all that complicated, but the roughness it adds to the film gives it a sense of period-appropriate decay, even though there's nothing about the lighting or framing that necessarily states "this looks like '70s cinematography". The use of music is, unsurprisingly for this director, right on point: a collection of familiar but not overused singer-songwriter pieces that enhance the zoned out feel of being stoned that the movie has such a fun time evoking in such quiet ways. And the dialogue, which I gather to be taken directly from Pynchon in most places, has a snappy bite that draws out some great line deliveries from the whole ensemble, though Brolin, as an irritable cop and sometime antagonist, is pretty undeniably having the most fun chomping his way through the script.

It's all awfully enjoyable, breezy and melancholy and neatly attuned to how culture changes and what happens to the people that get left behind when it does; but none of it is enhanced by the bloated last hour, or the logy overall pace. It's simply not deep enough to justify its own enormousness, and the one thing that a lark like this absolutely cannot survive being is boring; that's exactly what eventually happens to it.

7/10

20 January 2015

EVERYONE POOPS

It is easy to first focus on how Goodbye to Language is yet another film in Jean-Luc Godard's late career collection of essay films describing morality, culture, the state of modern Europe, how cinematic images produce and limit meaning, because that's what it is. It's not at all unlike a remake of his last feature, Film socialisme, in fact, only with a different form of moviemaking technology being turned inside and broken (prosumer cameras there, prosumer cameras and 3-D here), and less of a focus on audience-punishing impenetrability. And even that's not saying much, given that Film socialisme is about as impenetrable as anything Godard has made since the beginning of the 1980s.

The danger of over-emphasising that, though, is that it pulls attention for how disorientingly fun and funny Goodbye to Language can be, though I concede that one has to meet the film much more than halfway for that to be true, and even then it's a kind of fun that's certainly only for a very self-selecting audience. Although it has fart jokes, and not even, like, heavily abstract, theoretical fart jokes. Jokes wherein the punchline is, if a person is saying something very serious and philosophically impenetrable, it is funny to show them talking while gaudily foleyed-in wet farts play on the soundtrack.

While I think that the film has a plot - in fact, I think it even has a twist ending - trying to go back over it is grounds for nothing but a headache. Like most of Godard's "narrative" films in the last couple of decades (as opposed to his pure essay films), it's made up a series of vaguely united vignettes, during which complicated, self-referential conversations about theory play out between people who may or may not be capable of acting in other contexts, but really only serve as props here. The academics in the audience might be horrified by what I'm about to say, but I think the trick with most late Godard is to let the dialogue happen and catch what one can, but not really worry about working it all out. Not, at least, the first time, and while I look forward to spending many long years with Goodbye to Language, I've only seen it but the once, at this point. So if this is a bit of a thinnish review - well it will be, there's little doubt of that. But hopefully enthusiasm will count for the lack of depth.

The chief charm of Goodbye to Language is its interrogation of how cinema works in the age of digital media production, movies shot on phones and screened in tiny windows over the internet, and of course, 3-D. This overlaps a bit with Film socialisme, but where that was an angry work, trying to break the new medium, Goodbye to Language is a good deal more playful, trying to push the new technologies into extreme corners to find out what happens there. Even the politically and morally laden dialogues have a certain self-aware winking quality that makes this, at any rate, much more watchable than much of the director's recent work. It's still fairly pessimistic - that title didn't just come along out of nowhere, and it has exactly the implication of "goodbye to language, because pop culture has murdered you and the possibility of meaning along with you" that it seems to - but Godard's pessimism has been married to exhilarating cinematic experimentation at least as far back as Week End.

Not everyone would sign of on the word "exhilarating", I am sure - it's an inherently divisive movie - but for myself, I was delighted by Goodbye to Language fare more often than not, certainly more than I expected to be. Aye, delighted; with the giddy amazement of a baby looking at a Christmas tree. There are too many different things happening in the construction of the film's images for it to be pinned down to "the main idea", but one of the strongest ideas is to challenge digital 3-D as a medium and meaning-creating element, finding out what happens in its extremes. The most celebrated moment involves a long shot during which the two cameras capturing the image are split off the rig holding them in the correct relationship to capture a realistic 3-D image, each going one direction to record entirely different actions before being reunited. It's a spectacular moment, as viscerally dumbfounding as anything in the glossiest effects extravaganza, with different goals, of course - it's a basic Godardian gesture in reminding the viewer that movies are made because of cameras, that cinematic images are inherently fictitious constructions which are reconstructed in our minds as movement - and it's an experiment whose time had long since come. It's hardly pleasant, trying to reconcile the fact that your two eyes are seeing completely incompatible images, but it is pleasurable in its way, and makes stronger claims to seriously investigating how movies work than anything else in the year, or the decade, or probably the century.

But just because it's the film's most famous moment, doesn't mean it's the only great gesture in that direction. Later on - I wonder if this even deserves a spoiler warning, since I was surely excited to see it unawares - two static shots of still lifes are overlaid in much the same way, with each eye receiving totally different information, and a few moments later, the same two shots are combined using normal editing techniques, so both eyes receive the same flat double exposure. Comparing and contrasting the way that the two experiences work in the eye and in the brain is at least as telling as that first amazing break when the 3-D image splits.

Mostly, the film's struggle with imagery is of a much simpler sort: exaggerated moments of objects poking way the hell into the audience's space, making it impossible to look at the screen without your eyes watering slightly; nude bodies positioned in space to be as distracting as possible; hoary gags about objects interrupting three-dimensional space to interrupt what we want to be looking at, which are frequently nude bodies. Without being so angry about it as to turn into a provocation, the film invites us to consider how meaning can be swallowed by visuals, how words can be turned into buzzing noise that doesn't connect to image - goodbye to language, and goodbye to film language, in effect. With its nods towards YouTube culture in the preponderance of cute animal footage and low-res images breaking into digital blocks, and its implicit demonstration of how easily we can be distracted by a barrage of disconnected stimuli, it's an indictment of the shortened attention span of the 21st Century that also panders to that attention span, and not, apparently, in an ironic way.

It is a self-contained contradiction: it wants us to have constant fun while demanding at every step that we think about how terribly shallow it is to want to have fun constantly; it's a critique of dehumanising politics and culture that openly finds the dog to be the most interesting character. It's capital-A Art made by an angry old man, driven by a constant bro-ish fascination with "wouldn't it be cool if...?" moments. Most importantly, it's the single film I have seen from 2014 that most actively tries to find a new language for filmmakers to inhabit, and honestly, it might be the most consistently captivating one as well.

10/10

19 January 2015

PUTIN UP WITH ALL THIS NONSENSE

I don't know where the line is drawn between a story that has metaphorical aspects to it, and metaphor that is happens to take the form of a narrative, but I know that Leviathan is way the hell on the far side of it. To say that it is about corruption and cronyism in the Russian government under Vladimir Putin is on the same level as saying that it's a sound film in color. And its satiric intent is carried through on the back of the drama of one man's life that one could, I suppose, find interesting and enjoyable to watch on its own merits, but it must take a great deal of effort to divorce from its frenzied, viscerally angry political undercurrent. Certainly by the time it gets to the scene where Mistreated and Ignored Young Generation (Sergey Pokhodaev) has run away from his father, Middle-Class Striving to Find Economic Dignity (Aleksey Serebryakov) and his step-mother, Opportunistic Attempt to Exploit the Middle-Class's Desire to Rebuilt (Elena Lyadova), in order to weep in front of the Denuded Bones of the Old System that Beached Itself and Died, you'd have the be the most stringent literalist in the world not to be a bit whammied by the symbolism.

So it's not as schematic as that, though certainly, any film called Leviathan that features a scene of an adolescent crying next to the bones of a long-dead whale, when those bones have not previously figured into the film in any way whatsoever, that is a film that's a little a little bit schematic (so to is the moment when a priest reads from the passage in the Bible naming Leviathan - a passage from the Book of Job, that favorite of metaphorists everywhere). That being said, Leviathan is still a pretty great work of cinematic storytelling, with a particularly Russian affection for grandiosity and probing hopelessness. The actual plot centers on Kolya (Serebryakov), the owner of a small patch of land which has been claimed by the municipal government, attached to a much-too-small payoff. Doggedly attempting to work through the system to retain what's his, Kolya and his lawyer Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) are steamrolled by the local courts in one of the earliest scenes, and from here, they fence hopelessly with the boundlessly corrupt mayor (Roman Madyanov), while Kolya is busily trying to put out the domestic fires of a contemptuous, rebelling son, Roma (Pokhadaev), and an increasingly disinterested wife, Lilya (Lyadova). So disinterest that she's having an affair with Dmitriy, in fact.

It's a pretty simple parable about the impossibility of fighting the system when the system can bury you in bureaucracy, then intimidation, then actual violence; Kafka's The Trial with the stakes shifted to land ownership and presented with burly Russian realism that would happily fit in with the narratives of that country's great novelists of the 19th Century. A comparison that maybe starts to explain how such a simple fable could end up clocking in at 140 powerfully ponderous minutes - Leviathan is a good title for just all sorts of reasons, really. Writers Andrey Zvyagintsev (also directing) and Oleg Negin do not hold back on cramming all kinds of life and problems into their movie,. After indicting governmental bureaucracy, along with the Orthodox Church, and the basic greediness of humans, Leviathan still leaves time to focus its attention on the ways that people live and entertain themselves, finding meaning where they can even as life conspires to crush them. Literary sprawl rarely translates to cinema with such impressive cinematic presence and captivating humans; it's turning into a pretty reliable truck for Zvyagintsev, though, whose work as director has been consistently that. Leviathan is in some ways a step back: it's not as radically different as his first, best film, The Return, and as a domestic drama with politically symbolic overtones, it's neither as insightful nor graceful as Elena. But taken on its own terms, it's rumbling and impressively solemn and heavy with the weight of its grey skies and cloudy landscapes, a gorgeous marriage of landscape, narrative, and tone to create an overall sense of implacable fatalism in even as simple a thing as a drunken picnic.

It's all profoundly depressing, sure, though threaded with just enough of a sense of mordant humor (something almost totally absent from The Return or Elena - I haven't seen Zvyagintsev's second feature, The Banishment, but I have my suspicion that it would be about the same) to keep it from being an unpleasant slog. And the film's sudden and repeated shifts in the second half are slithery enough that the film transforms into quite a sharp little thriller, on top of everything else it has going on. There's a level of absolute confidence on display that's tremendously energising to watch, for such a long, slow, grim affair; it's a movie sure of its social ideas, sure of its visual motifs, sure of its echoing sound mix, and sure of its tightly controlled tone. The actors are uniformly outstanding, bringing particularity and personality to even the most oddly-conceived parts (there are characters with enormous swatches of screentime who simply don't seem to do anything), and helping not only to flesh out the film's world, but also to temper its novelistic severity with warmth and that same mordant humor; the way that the cast times their reaction throughout the movie almost suggests that the whole thing is a comedy which just happens to lack jokes.

It ends up feeling a bit oppressive, sure, and far more cynically hopeless than most movies would dare to be ("let me tell you about a situation you already recognise, which neither you nor I can change" - not exactly the stuff of rousing political commentary), and for these reasons its hard to claim for it the masterpiece status that has been tremulously hovering around it ever since its 2014 premiere in competition at Cannes. It doesn't do anything new: and other than some surprising plot developments late in the game which seem to vaguely want to raise some ambiguities that really aren't ambiguous at all, the film you expect it to be by the one-fifth mark is pretty much exactly the film it proves to be. But it's a stellar execution of that movie, and if it represents a dip in Zvyagintsev's career progression, it's an awfully minor one.

8/10

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2014: CAUGHT IN A BAD ROMANCE

Sometimes, I have to wonder which is actually more puritanical: when American movies depicting sex do it from a winking, peekaboo remove of carefully neutered inoffensiveness, or when European - by which I almost exclusively mean French - movies depicting sex in all its explicit, damp glory suggest that the only people having sex are soul-dead mechanical non-humans sublimating all their depression into hatefucking.

And so we have Stranger by the Lake, which freshens things up only in that the extremely explicit sex and damn near constant nudity involve gay men. The anhedonia and crushing cosmic alienation, though, are precisely the same.

The setting: an isolated stone beach separated from the world by a scraggly thicket of trees. This lonely patch of rock and water is the site of a cruising grounds, where a variety of lonely men come to doff all or most of their clothes, stretch out in the sun, and surreptitiously watch each other with expressions indivisibly mixing lust with hostility. Sometimes, they pair off for sex in the bare privacy afforded by the trees and tall grasses of the woods. Here, one sunny day, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) arrives for the first time this season, hoping to find some companionship of either the emotional or physical varieties, ideally both; and one would not say, to look at the objectively hot Franck, that he could possibly have a hard time finding guys in a less godforsaken part of the world. Yet even with the clearly-defined value system of the cruising site, where the handful of extremely hot men are stared at by the more numerous pudgy, old, or simply unkempt men, Franck is isolated and untouched. The only person he makes any kind of connection with, at first, is Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao), an overweight middle-aged man looking like the world's saddest Gerard Depardieu impersonator, who idly claims that he's not gay, but simply enjoys the beach for its quietude. Which might even be true, after its weird fashion - the fascination and attraction that passes between Franck and Henri isn't apparently erotic in nature, though it is certainly profound.

Meanwhile, Franck has his sights set on Michel (Christophe Paou), a much more conventional hunk who already has a boyfriend, or at least a regular fuckbuddy at the lake. So while Franck trysts dispassionately with whatever mostly attractive men will have him, he still casts a handful of longing, fruitless glances Michel's way, and after a few days of this, Michel takes definitive action to free himself up: while swimming, he drowns his lover, which Franck witnesses. And Franck latches onto him immediately as the object of all his desire to be intimate, not caring in the slightest about the fact that his new boyfriend is a murderer at the very least.

This scenario has been described, rather reflexively, as "Hitchcockian", which doesn't fit at all, but that's not to say it doesn't have it's charms as a bleak erotic thriller in which the plaintive desire to love and to fuck is so intense that it outweighs even the most basic survival instinct. It is, above all things, a study of the sheer horror of disconnection and alienation, the sense of being surrounded by people and yet totally unable to connect or interact with them, of being trapped in rigidly defined routines that channel life into ever more narrow channels. In fact, for all its endless supply of dongs - floppy dongs, rigid dongs, dripping dongs - the key visual motif in Stranger by the Lake has nothing to do with its frank and fearless depiction of sex, its aftermath, and lingering voyeuristic nudity, but with the straitjacketed litany of angles it uses to show those things, or the constant return to the same angle of the parking lot where all of the men return to the exact same space every day to meander to the exact same patch of beach to stare at the exact same collection of bodies. It is a repetitive film, purposefully so, establishing the mechanistic quality of life (the gay cruising life, the life of all lonely people, the life of just Franck and nobody else) through images and editing as clearly as it possibly could.

There's enormous value to everything the film has going on, and yet it still left me more than a little dissatisfied; by design, it's the sort of movie where any ten-minute slice is virtually indistinguishable from any other ten-minute slice, save for the intrusion in the second half of the laconic police inspector Damroder (Jérôme Chappatte) who investigates with very little urgency the possibility that the drowned man might have been the victim of foul play. That's key to how it works, but it also means that we have a hell of a lot of identical slices, and along with the film's steadfast commitment to the idea that we are all isolated and unknowable - "stranger by the lake" describes every single character at every single moment of the 97-minute film - it leaves the film feeling more than a bit unyielding and schematic. Its superficial commitment to the dynamics of the thriller genre are so willfully undercut, by Franck's immediate knowledge that Michel is a killer, and then by the refusal of anybody at the beach to care much about the death within their tight niche community (it's kind of like a parable for AIDS in an alternate universe where gay men all hate each other and secretly want to die), that its impossible to accuse writer-director Alain Guiraudie of having made a boring or aimless film; it's pretty obvious that focused, ritualistic aimlessness is exactly what he was gunning for.

In short, I am convinced that Stranger by the Lake is perfect, in that it achieves exactly what it meant to. It portrays the world of casual sex and cruising with almost journalistic proficiency - every character in the world of the beach is sharply etched and has the tang of real life and close observation - and it diagnoses that lifestyle as the result and the cause of lonely people trying to connect at all costs, whether sexually or emotionally or in the strange post-sexual philosophical state that Henri (the real destabilising element in Franck's experience of the beach, not the murderous hunk) strives to achieve or has achieved. It depicts the free-floating lust, judgment, self-loathing, and furtive, innocent longing of its singular milieu with precision and even a little bit of sympathy. I confess that even so, I find it dreary. This setting could have been the focal point for a great many kinds of stories that didn't involve incidentally ascribing an unchecked death drive as part and parcel of queer sexuality. But then it wouldn't have been French, and make no mistake: this might be one of the most irreducibly gay films of recent memory, but it far, far more irreducibly Gallic.

7/10

18 January 2015

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2014: WITH A VENGEANCE

Nothing in the description of Blue Ruin, the second feature and critical breakthrough of writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, makes it sound like much. And, if were are being mercilessly honest, that’s because there's really not that much to it. But it’s the very definition of a thing that's more than the sum of its parts: a stock revenge thriller put in a blender with a stock regional indie, and somehow, the alchemical reaction that occurs from that unusual but not exactly groundbreaking collision of tones results in a film of uncommon, gripping freshness. It's a lean piece of thriller filmmaking with a potent human core, the kind that encourages one to think about making some comparisons that could be awfully dangerous if you let them get out of control. A translation into film of the raw-nerve prose of Ernest Hemingway, that's one; or the thing you get if you let David Gordon Green direct a Samuel Fuller movie.

There's certainly a lot of the abstraction and wordless character building of Green at his best in the film's early going, when it introduces us to our protagonist, Dwight Evans (Macon Blair). He's a dirty drifter with an enormous thatch of facial hair and an animalistic knack for keeping himself alive outside of the normal channels of civilisation; Blair's performance makes him absolutely captivating without begging for our sympathy or downplaying the degree to which this is a person that you would probably find very uncomfortable to be around. This beginning sequence sets a high bar that, in truth, Blue Ruin does not reach again; it never relies so fearlessly on purely visual storytelling and the inductive editing that pull us into the curious life of this outsider by having to do all the work ourselves to figure him out.

When we do, eventually, figure him out - he shaves off his beard to signify the shift into more conventional genre territory - we have found that Dwight survived a years-ago family tragedy that left him and his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves) on the outs with one another; he reaches out to contact her after being informed by a police representative that Wade Cleland (Sandy Barnett), the man responsible for their trauma, is out of prison. More specifically, he reaches out to her after he's killed that man in a gas station restroom, and comes to realise that this puts him and Sam and Sam's kid at risk from further retaliation by the Cleland clan. And thus begins the process by which this rather simple man, a mere dumpy schlub to look at him, wills himself into becoming a hardened killer, driven only by vengeance and the desire to protect what's left of his family.

It's all much more mournful in execution than exhilarating; we get to liking Dwight, and there's not a single Cleland who isn’t a vile shitstain, but there’s not any triumphalism on his part or the movie’s when he stomps down the path of righteous anger. Just a sad acceptance of how easy it is for a not-killer to kill, in the right circumstances. Saulnier treats this all with rough-hewn efficiency, taking no interest in stopping off for moralising or soul-searching: it is a brutal procedural at heart, present with a curt lacks of sentiment tempered by a surprising vein of wry comedy. The characters all seem vaguely aware of the arbitrary absurdity of the path they've thrown themselves into, and treat it with an acerbic bemusement that suits it. Particularly Ben (Devin Ratray), a high school acquaintance of Dwight's - the film does not imply that "friend" would an appropriate word - a pudgy gun expert who briefly serves as the film's kind of sort of Greek Chorus, offering wisdom and moral context while also indicating through his tone and peculiar bluntness that the whole matter of Blue Ruin is on the fucked-up side, all things considered.

The loose, even ungainly vibe of the occasional humor meshes well with the film's overall fuzzy DIY feel; this is American Indie Low-Fi through and through, with all of that styles strengths and none of its most debilitating weaknesses. Long-time readers will perhaps recall my seething hatred of unkempt sound recording techniques in low-budget filmmaking, and will hopefully share in my gladness that Blue Ruin's sound is as sharp and clear as the cinematography is hazy and diffuse - deliberately, I am sure. It is a particular strength of the film, in fact, that it depicts its rural Virginian locations with such scruffiness; it grounds the movie in a sense of physical actuality that helps to make the florid generic gestures of the story seem more meaningfully tied to the characters and their world. I have never been to the part of the world which Blue Ruin wraps around its cast, but the film offers, overall, the same half-impressionist, half-realist appeal of something like Green’s Undertow.

For all the ways that Blue Ruin does a good job of complicating and deepening the revenge movie framework it lives in, though, it's important not to miss the forest for the trees: it’s also a really damn good revenge movie. In part because of the same things that make it a good regional indie film: the leanness of it brings the same kind of deliberateness to the violence that it brings to the landscapes. The early sequence that finds Dwight killing Wade is a marvel at showing the lingering, awful way that human beings die, with more blood than seems possible, and blocking of Wade’s final twitches that makes it one of the most truly unpleasant death scenes in recent cinema. And this is clearly meant to evoke not just disgust in the viewer, but an awareness of Dwight’s own disgust at what he’s done, and what he will now have to do more of. Even as much as it makes no pretense to liking any of the Clelands, Blue Ruin doesn’t pretend that they’re deaths are anything but ugly and wasteful.

So by "really damn good revenge movie", I do not, to be sure, mean that it's a rousing piece of red meat for the action crowd (even when it has the wiry tension of a no-bullshit thriller, it never comes close to being an action movie). I mean that it showcases the hardness of revenge on the man executing it, and the senselessness of it, but also depicting it in a way that allows us to view him with sympathy and understanding for why he commits to this path even when it's clear to him that he's not equipped to be an indefatigable assassin. At its most basic, this is a human-oriented retelling of the boilerplate tropes of a revenge thriller, giving us the best of both worlds, and landing with a forcefulness that makes it far more memorable and interesting than its familiar ingredients ought to permit.

8/10