HELL OR HIGH WATER

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Directed by David Mackenzie

Set in the endlessly cinematic backdrop of West Texas, Hell or High Water is classic, bareknuckle filmmaking helmed by director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario). It almost seems like the Western genre would find a difficult fit in contemporary times, but the economically-stunted locations (the film was shot in New Mexico) serve as fitting scenery for two brothers forced to push back against the banks that are bleeding both their family and their community dry. Ben Foster – arguably one of the best character actors working today – continues to chew the scenery like nothing else, as the loose-cannon brother who lives for the thrill. If that sounds like an archetype, it definitely is, but the film doesn’t seem to care to shy away from it. You also have the soulful, pragmatic brother played by Chris Pine, and the rugged deputy ranger on his last case before retirement, played by Jeff Bridges. Lo and behold, things turn out probably how you expect them to. But Hell or High Water sticks to its guns, and by taking time to shine a light on the forgotten citizens and communities of West Texas, the film transcends cliche to provide a far more authentic experience. The cops-and-robbers genre still has juice left in it.

B+

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THE LOOK OF SILENCE

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Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

The companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer’s last documentary The Act of Killing, Silence is yet another piece of brave, harrowing filmmaking that not only manages to be engaging, but ultimately finds itself in the elusive category of being a real document of human history. It’s a difficult film to stomach, but necessary viewing to perhaps understand the world a bit more, to see the effects of fear, hate, authority and rejection of responsibility that led to a genocide of more than a million civilians in Indonesia. No one sees themselves as an evil person, as the film argues, but anyone can assert that same evil onto their neighbours. Can we forgive those that have committed atrocities, that have murdered, and tortured, under the pretence that they were simply following orders, not knowing any better? Can we forgive ourselves for continuing our lives, not doing anything about it? Can we really resolve ourselves of guilt, and if so, at what cost? This is not simply a film about evil, but a film about being human. It’s a part of all of us, and it’s only up to us to be able to open our eyes and face up to our actions past, present and future.

A+

 

JOY

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Directed by David O’Russell

It’s no secret that Jennifer Lawrence and David O’Russell are made for each other. Without batting an eyelid, Lawrence can transform effortlessly from comedy to drama, a method O’Russell’s films always seem to prescribe to. Joy is certainly no exception to the rule, and yet, upon viewing the film there were some discernible differences to his previous films that made it feel like a David O’Russell film, but perhaps without the best parts. Most notably, this is his first film in a while that rests it’s weight predominately on the shoulders of it’s protagonist, rather than an ensemble cast. It also spans over more than two decades, rather than anchoring itself around a single moment or period of time.

It’s a relatively biographical story about Joy Mangano, a woman who exceeded against all odds, which were mostly in the shape of other people. So much of the film’s running time is Joy being constantly put down, slandered, ignored and disrespected from almost all angles. While this may be true to life, and raises the stakes of her journey, I couldn’t help but feel like it created such a black-and-white tone for the whole film, where we could only sympathise with the one character, because the rest were made out to be so awful, bordering on cartoonish. I’m not saying Joy is a bad film by any means – the performances are spot on and it looks stunning the whole way through, but it felt like we were treated to what felt like half of what a David O’Russell film can be: a sweeping, musical world of complex, deeply funny and unpredictable characters that feels more true to life than this biographical film ever did.

B+

TANGERINE

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Directed by Sean Baker

What could I possibly say about Tangerine that hasn’t already been mentioned? The little engine that could, Tangerine fires on all cylinders from the get go, with an infectious energy that practically bursts off the screen. Indie filmmakers everywhere surely must have let out a collective sigh of relief, knowing that a feature film produced for $100,000 and shot entirely on iPhones could still make it’s way around the world. But the magic of the film doesn’t bank on it’s use of technology – as it shouldn’t – but on the esoteric nature of it’s characters, story, and style. Clocking in at a brisk 88-minute running time, Tangerine somehow balances moments of complete hysteria and comedy with moments of pain and vulnerability, crafted by incredible performances and fully-realised, complex characters. This is one of the most authentic portrayals of Los Angeles I’ve ever seen. This film is Los Angeles.

A-

CREED

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Directed by Ryan Coogler

Just two years ago, Ryan Coogler made his feature film debut with Fruitvale Station, which had, as I wrote about in 2013, “naturalistic and compelling dialogue, [with] warm, complex characters. The fact that this is a directorial debut absolutely astounds me. Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan are destined for greatness.” Cut to the present, and Coogler and Jordan are back, guns blazing. When I see the work they do, I’m so thrilled by the fact that there continues to be young, fresh filmmakers that set the bar exceedingly high with each film they put out. The writing, direction and performances are just so beautiful, that I can’t help but feel like Creed has become my favourite Rocky film by far. It manages to do what all of the previous films in the series seemed to struggle with: it makes you truly care about the characters.

Coogler brings real warmth and sensitivity into the story, bringing Sylvester Stallone back from the dead, and basically reminding us that we still have actual affection for the underdog story. This film is a hundred-percent determination, and it never lets up. Shot beautifully by Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler), Creed feels so incredibly human the whole way through: a sense of pain and longing, but with a pace that that keeps you glued to the screen. Easily the most emotional I’ve been in a cinema, since seeing the Amy Winehouse documentary. Ryan Coogler is set to next direct the Black Panther film for Marvel, confirming that he’s certainly not the underdog anymore.

A+

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 2

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Directed by Francis Lawrence

I had a quick trace back through previous journals to see what I rated the other three entries of the Hunger Games series, to see how they stacked up against each other. I rated Catching Fire, the second film in the series the highest, at a B+. I liked that they raised the stakes of the first film, and made the original story expand into greater territory, much like the Harry Potter series would go on to do. Suddenly, the decision was made to split the last book, Mockingjay, into two separate parts. Harry Potter did it, and did it rather well. But that’s Harry Potter, which probably unto forever, will be heralded as a cultural treasure.

Where else has the novel-to-two-film formula really paid off? We have to try and forget the three films in the The Hobbit trilogy, and people might have already forgotten which part of Breaking Dawn they hated more. With respect to The Hunger Games, they committed one-hundred percent to maintaining the look of the dystopian world of Panem, and as far as I remember, the story does find endings for all of it’s characters. But if we are to look at the series as a sum of it’s parts, I can’t help but feel so disappointed by what was meant to be the climax of the series, after having such a strong start.

Now, I don’t mean that in a way to suggest that I had an issue with the ending itself, but Mockingjay Part 2 just didn’t actually feel like The Hunger Games. It felt like a slasher film, and treated the characters like a slasher film would. The film moved in a way to conveniently push the plot forward, with things never resolving out of character action or logic, but through absolute arbitrary coincidence. I felt like you could put any of the first three quarters of the film into any order, and it wouldn’t make any difference. There was never consequence, or momentum – just a character or two getting picked off during a CGI-heavy set piece. I understand if the underlying message of the films is to say how pointless and cyclical war is, but you can still do that without making the actual films themselves just as pointless to watch.

To this day, I haven’t ready any of The Hunger Games novels, but I’ve been told some adjustments to the story have been made to the film adaptations, which doesn’t surprise me, but makes me want to know what they are, because I have to believe that it’s better than what ended up in this film. This is the most I’ve written about any of the films this year, and it’s unfortunate that most of it’s negative, but it’s not meant to be scathing, but just an expression of my own frustration because I know that Hollywood can do better than this. I had high hopes, which sadly crumbled before my eyes, with this disjointed, messy film. Ah well – at least we still have Harry Potter.

D

MISTRESS AMERICA

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Directed by Noah Baumbach

With two films released in the same year, Noah Baumbach could be the most productive director working at the moment. Following While We’re Young, Mistress America slots itself effortlessly into Baumbach’s previous explorations of growth and maturation, self-inflicted anxieties and disappointments – continuing his interest in the ongoing “coming-of-age-that-never-ends” that we all experience. Once again, Greta Gerwig injects a shot of puppy-dog adrenaline into her performance, at any time instilling responses of joy, loathing and sympathy. Noted as a screwball comedy by many reviewers – a genre that was at it’s height during the 1930’s and 40’s – Mistress America does feel like a throwback to the storytelling of early Hollywood, with farcical situations and rapid-fire dialogue that people should be able to enjoy once they let go of the idea that Mistress America is trying to present reality. It becomes clear that Mistress America is but an acknowledgement of cinema, a representation of reality that audiences can let go and lose themselves in the story and the characters, before the river runs dry and we finally do have to grow up.

B+

THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL

Directed by Marielle Heller

Self-absorbed, stubborn and terribly insecure: weren’t we all like this as teenagers? Minnie, Diary‘s protagonist, is all of these things to an almost excruciating level, and for almost two hours, I saw a part of myself that I’m so terrifyingly glad to have now grown out of. Diary, first and foremost, doesn’t hold back any punches. It doesn’t try to make you love the characters with forced sentimentality or catharsis, or sugarcoat any of the situations Minnie experiences: she makes mistakes, she hurts people and she faces the consequences. The performances in the film are outstanding, with each actor superbly channeling their own methods of self-destruction (seriously though, Kristen Wiig is on a roll right now). Ultimately, it’s a relatively breezy film with quite a thin plot, but it’s made with a raw, truthful honesty, as painful as that truth sometimes may be to watch.

B+

THE WOLFPACK

Directed by Crystal Moselle

Almost certain to find a residual place in film culture history, The Wolfpack examines the result of a life lived indoors, with the only window out being that of a movie screen. A twisted Plato’s cave of sorts, we see the unsettling effects of a sheltered world, with the escapism of cinema taken quite literally. As a directorial effort, the sound design works well to emphasise the discordant nature of the subjects’ situation, but to a degree, I feel as though we’re always kept distanced from the family of subjects, as opposed to understanding them a bit more by the end, thus our characters still remain portrayed as not much more than “subjects”, like a special feature on The Discovery Channel. The Wolfpack ultimately has a devastatingly interesting story to tell, but to maintain an air of mystery and voyeurism, we’re forced to stay stagnant, trapped inside the first act.

B

 

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON

Directed by F. Gary Gray

I feel like no other film this year surprised me more than Straight Outta Compton. The film manages to transcend the standard cliches of musical biopics to deliver a standalone cinematic experience. Straight Outta Compton manages to be more than just a retelling of NWA’s story, but also a compelling narrative on police brutality and racial politics in the US, which is sadly just as relevant as ever. Every scene felt dramatically authentic, and was shot to perfection by Matthew Libatique. The film carries a constant energy throughout, capturing the intensity of actually seeing them perform live. If this is the new standard for music biopics, I couldn’t be more excited.

A-