Friday 24 July 2020

Coronacinema - Blader Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Starring: Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Dave Bautista, Mackenzie Davis, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Edward James Olmos, Robin Wright

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Available on: Amazon Prime

Upon its release in 1982, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner was unloved and misunderstood, a strangely sedate sci-fi actioner that felt too subtle, too angular and too unwilling to reveal its inner workings to multiplex audiences. 

In the years since, of course, that perception has changed. Significant revisionism and a number of newly cropped versions, including Scott's definitive 'Final Cut', would establish Blade Runner as one of the finest films ever created, a seminal and profoundly important piece of work. Thus, it took 35 years to conjure a sequel deserving of the name. 

And Blade Runner 2049, courtesy of visionary Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners; Sicario; Arrival), is just that: a glowering dystopian epic of quite breathtaking scale and ambition. A broader opus than its predecessor — more accessible yet no less profound or wondrous  2049 is, nevertheless, as worthy a new chapter as it is a singular masterpiece in its own right. 

Ryan Gosling takes the lead as the titular bounty hunter, Officer K. Like Scott's protagonist, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), K works for the LAPD, locating and eliminating rogue replicants 
— sophisticated androids once designed to provide off-world slave labour. Their endless lifespans and capacity for free thought ultimately rendered them undesirable, however, and the grim irony of Deckard's journey, finally established by subsequent interpretations of film one, is that he, too, was a replicant. And so it is with K, whose provenance is obvious from the beginning.

While tracking a suspect, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K stumbles upon a relic of the past — in this case, a direct link to Blade Runner — and the implications of that discovery represent an existential crisis for humanity. Acting on orders from his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), K seeks answers, a quest that sees him probing the limits of mankind's evolved existence and eventually entering the orbit of the fugitive Deckard.

An impressive mystery plays out against this backdrop and, as K's pursuit of the truth eats at the core of his sense of self, questions around his own origins come into focus. Are the memories implanted in his manufactured brain as synthetic as he imagines? What of the recollections of a childhood he believes to be little more than constructs crafted to mimic the synapses of the human mind?

These weighty themes drive K forward and, in Gosling, the picture possesses a lead at the peak of his powers. Villeneueve's compatriot boasts a reserved inscrutability that seldom cracks. In spite of his placid exterior, Gosling's famously benign expression is underlaid with curiosity and even a sense of humour. When called to act with extreme prejudice, K is a lethal weapon, his economy of movement almost mechanical in its composition. 

Ford, meanwhile, hits the emotional beats denied Deckard's younger, cockier self. While the veteran is grizzled and aching, the sharpness of his mind is undimmed and whatever beats beneath his chest is scarred with the torment of a future once surrendered. Ford's real-life persona may now be one of a particularly ornery septuagenarian but he leans on his famous harassed charisma here, turning in a layered and often beautiful reboot of one of his most famous characters. 

A varied supporting cast also delivers. Wright is steely yet kind as Joshi, someone who grasps the dangers around her in short order. Ana de Armas's sensitive Joi is the holographic girlfriend who heralds K's return home each night, her wistful expression surely tailored to the latter's stunted desire for something approximating a deeper connection.

Elsewhere, Jared Leto is suitably magnetic — if somewhat ancillary  as Niander Wallace, a blind mega-industrialist with a God complex and a penchant for delivering rich monologues in a voice of molten gold. Edward James Olmos even makes a brief return as the dandy, origami-obsessed Gaff, one of a number of pronounced nods to the original movie. 

Aesthetically, 2049 is a peerless accomplishment, every inch of the screen exploding with cinematographer Roger Deakins's searing visuals. Los Angeles remains a nightmarish canvas, buffeted by rain and snow, clothed in murk; its outer edges are more abstract than real, its cracked shell revealing, here and there, the sickly neon glow of the urban hell beneath. Deckard's sanctuary — a deserted and irradiated facsimile of Las Vegas — is peaceful by comparison, populated by faint husks of mighty statues and grand palaces, and painted in a vivid burnt sepia.

The soaring (and iconic) score, too, appears like an old friend, its Vangelis-inspired, synth-infused glory calling forth the ghosts of days past. Remarkably, even the soundscapes of Scott's masterful progenitor have returned, from the delicate echoes rippling through Wallace's shimmering edifice-like headquarters (the successor to the Tyrell Corporation, Blade Runner's now defunct replicant manufacturer) to the booming, hissing, groaning hubbub that swirls up and down the avenues of the looming megatropolis. 

A hefty running time and dense, though not impenetrable, plot will challenge the casual viewer. That said, this is certainly worth the effort. Villeneuve's endeavours are exquisite and astounding, at once operatic, elegiac and steeped in the essence of all that has gone before. 

Tuesday 14 July 2020

Coronacinema - Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams (1989)

Starring: Kevin Costner, Burt Lancaster, Ray Liotta, James Earl Jones, Amy Madigan

Director: Phil Alden Robinson

Available on: Netflix

There is no shortage of cinematic paeans to baseball, a peculiarly American sport marked by contests that are too long and too numerous. That said, few are as imaginative or poetic as Phil Alden Robinson's Field of Dreams, an exquisitely realised adaptation of W.P. Kinsella's 1982 novel, Shoeless Joe. 

A melange of fantasy, sporting and dramatic tropes, Field of Dreams conjures an elegantly nostalgic tale of lives and hopes lost and found. In drawing on elements of the culture war, the seminal impact of the sixties on American society and mankind's unfulfilled yearning to re-write the past, this towering picture delivers a profoundly affecting emotional experience.

Kevin Costner plays New York native Ray Kinsella, a neophyte farmer who, while surveying his harvest one evening, hears an ethereal command whispering through the Iowa corn: "If you build it, he will come." 

Naturally, Kinsella concludes that the instruction can only be fulfilled by ploughing a chunk out of his field to build a baseball diamond, thus enabling the ghost of his dad's sporting hero, legendary Chicago White Sox outfielder "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, to play out eternity in the serene surroundings of this Midwestern Shangri-La. Jackson was a tragic and conflicted figure who, along with seven teammates, received a lifetime ban from the sport after accepting money to throw the 1919 World Series.

Kinsella's hunch proves correct — Jackson (a typically edgy Ray Liotta) and his condemned colleagues find their way to Iowa. However, further mysterious commands upend Kinsella's sense of accomplishment, compelling him to seek out reclusive writer, and erstwhile social justice warrior, Terence Mann (James Earl Jones), someone he believes to be in need of salvation. In doing so, he leaves sparky wife Annie (Amy Madigan) to stave off her brother Mark's (Timothy Busfield) attempts to buy the debt mounting against their property and sell it out from under them.

Field of Dreams's middle portion sees Kinsella undertake an extended cross-country odyssey set to a playlist of throwback rock and roll. This quest is ably assisted by Mann and the doughty duo encounter Burt Lancaster's old ball player along the way, his respectable beat an elegiac trove of regal Americana. 

And, yet, this is no road movie in the strictest sense. The Kinsella farm, a confluence of strangely compatible puzzle pieces — swaying crops and humble sporting arena  is the film's home plate. Robinson downplays the fantastical nature of it all with an unfussy approach that allows the magic to speak for itself. Jackson and friends emerge from the corn, like pilgrims in the New World, their laddish jostling and muscular, old-fashioned jocularity a thing of wonder to those surveying them from the modest pinewood bleachers. The director colours it with an endless azure sky that gives way to a golden dusk, descending like a warm blanket. 

In the lead, a scruffy, likeable Costner excels as the faithful hero. Goofy and self-effacing in equal measures, he carries an air of indefatigable childlike innocence that sustains even as he battles the spectre of a ruptured relationship with his dead father. Given Costner's gruff latter-years turn, this performance is as charming as it is amusing. The dynamic constructed with Madigan oozes mutual affection, their Berkley-infused shorthand and beatnik sensibilities bridling in conservative, book-banning flyover country. 

Meanwhile, Mann, replacing the source material's J.D. Salinger, serves as the narrative conscience. Armed with Jones's proud bearing and oaken tones, Mann, the old revolutionary, is a worthy chronicler of the universal American story. He perceives that not everything must change: baseball, aged of spirit and resistant to upheaval, is a crucial tether to the past in a country prone to rapid and mercurial transformations. 

A beautifully staged finale suggests that in its rawest, purest form, sport is something that binds us together, even as the shape and meaning of life twist with the coils of time's memory. 

Monday 6 July 2020

Coronacinema - Atonement

Atonement (2007)

Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave, Saoirse Ronan, Juno Temple 

Director: Joe Wright

Available on: Netflix

The intertwining taboos of class and sex run through meridians of Atonement, Joe Wright's heartbreaking and achingly beautiful adaptation of the seminal novel by Ian McEwan. 

Wright's vision is a sumptuously crafted meditation on the treacherous mercuriality of the English caste system, as well as a tragic tale of the friction between the adult realms and late childhood precocity.

Keira Knightley and James McAvoy occupy the nominal starring roles yet it is Saoirse Ronan who excels as the story's anchor character, Briony Tallis, narrator, antagonist and repentant sinner. Armed with an air of watchful curiosity and that burrowing stare, Ronan is a revelation. She elevates Briony from frivolous younger sibling to herald of woe with the merest flicker of an expression, placing her actions somewhere in the grey space between deliberate and naive. Played out over the course of the picture's opening act, hers is the fire burning most destructive. 

The setting is an English country estate in the stifling summer of 1935. Aspiring writer Briony, older sister Cecilia (Knightley) and housekeeper's son Robbie Turner (McAvoy) pass the time in the exquisite grounds of the Tallis manor, the latter pair having recently graduated from Cambridge. When, from a bedroom window, Briony witnesses a moment of sexual tension — the culmination, one suspects, of years of furtive glances and suppressed feelings — between her sister and Robbie (the object of her own girlish affections), she misconstrues the exchange. She fixates on a vague version of reality, her juvenile mind assailed by events she barely comprehends, and, in doing so, seals the fates of those in her orbit.

Wright delivers the fatal emotional punches. He creates a work of tonal dichotomies; its initial stages are lusciously captured in rich pastoral shades and infused with a sultry ambience. However, a strangely frenetic pace drives it forward, more than one character finding an outlet in the thumping certainty of a typewriter. One scene in particular, a passionate tryst in a darkened library, is masterfully constructed, at once violent and romantic, ripe with tension, desire and whispered ecstasy, its execution lent extra potency by the wildly divergent ways in which the moment is interpreted by the players.

From here, Atonement gives way to something far bleaker: an often graceful war-time elegy of how destinies can pivot on even the smallest of cruelties. The stand-out sequence is an astonishing depiction of the Dunkirk evacuation. Robbie, now transported to the battlefield, is pitched into an anarchic circus of military ill discipline. 

Instead of blasted heaths, the men of the British Expeditionary Force sing and squabble, booze and brawl among seaside carousels and bandstands. In a single five-minute shot, Wright follows Robbie through this dystopian hellscape, weaving between and betwixt the madness: dead horses, beached ships and mangled machinery  the flotsam and jetsam of conflict. In the background, a ferris wheel winds lazily in the fading light. 

On the home front, a cowed Briony (now played by Romola Garai) contends with her guilt while working as a nurse in Blitz-era London. Garai capably mirrors Ronan's prim bearing while reaching for redemption wherever she can find it. Hers is a heavy burden that haunts every step.

Briony's future is, of course, indelibly bound up with the happiness of her sister and Robbie. The latter pair eventually settle on some kind of mutual understanding as Hitler's advances erode the social stratums and both McAvoy and Knightley turn in powerful performances fuelled by rage at a future upturned. Knightley's usual cut-glass confidence wavers in the face of the charismatic Robbie, whom McAvoy's skills render not only edgy, but inherently good. 

They are ably supported by Juno Temple, as teenaged Tallis cousin Lola, and Benedict Cumberbatch, a chocolate magnate armed with crap marketing slogans and a quietly leering interest in the coquettish adolescent. Theirs is a coupling that conjures a grubby chemistry very much at odds with the central dynamic, although it is no mere sidebar. 

An extended coda sees Vanessa Redgrave inhabit Briony's ageing shell, old wounds and offences drawing the life from her eyes, leaving only cynicism where once there was raw remorse. No action, after all, is ever free of consequence but truth need not be the master of what is right. 

Saturday 6 June 2020

Coronacinema - 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave (2014)

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard

Director: Steve McQueen

Available on: Netflix

Hunger director Steve McQueen's Oscar-wining adaptation of 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of his time in bondage, is a brutal and essential historical drama, the roots of which burrow far beneath the roiling battlefield of racism and violence in the United States. 
It may, given its subject matter, invoke Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained by offering an unvarnished view of the original American sin. That said, with its impressive period detail, 12 Years a Slave is a significantly deeper meditation, a merciless, unyielding look at the swelteringly barbaric ignominy of the plantation.
Yet, while Django – played with swaggering aplomb by Jamie Foxx – was fortunate enough to boast a six-shooter and a beneficent comrade in his pursuit of vengeance, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon is armed with nothing more than a heroic spirit in the face of his cruel subjugation.
An elegant musician and respected member of his community in upstate New York, his life is an idyllic one. He resides in a handsome home, his family learned and genteel. He is a ‘freeborn' black of the northern states, a term used to set him apart in a nation where colour determines status as either man or property.
Tricked by kidnappers into accompanying them to Washington, D.C., Solomon is drugged and sold into serfdom. It is an unremarkable event, it seems, given the colour of his skin. His new masters care little for the protestations that he is not a chattel, cynically informing him that he is in fact a "Georgia runaway". He will be a captive for the next 12 years.
It is a testament to the believability of Ejiofor’s towering central portrayal that the pragmatism Solomon must quickly develop to survive feels so necessary. He is not a rebel but a realist.
Hollywood loves a tale of noble resistance against oppression, its virtue swollen by self-congratulatory stories of the underdog rising up to defeat his tormentors. McQueen has no time for such make believe, of course. This is not the benevolent slavery of the hilariously outdated Gone With the Wind. Nor is it the institution that Django assails with such gusto, mined for laughs before its spectacular demise.
What is presented here instead is an intensely startling depiction of this cultural edifice as it was likely to have existed. Southern society was not alone in its reliance on slaves, but it is in the antebellum South that the trade was distilled into its vilest form. 
McQueen is unsparing in covering the salient and chilling realities. Children are blithely ripped from their mothers' arms. People are commercial property, expensive assets to be mortgaged and haggled over. In this altered universe, happy domesticity lives cheek by jowl with humans hoarded like cattle and brutalised with impunity.
There is a wilful naivety, almost, in the fond reliance on people as possessions. Regular McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender – as the unspeakably depraved "n*gger-breaker" and Louisiana plantation master Edwin Epps – dismisses pleas for mercy with contorted scripture and a frighteningly logical creed: "A man does as he pleases with his property."
That is not to say that the whites of Solomon’s new world see no ill in the system to which they are wedded. Each one of them appears sensitive, in a reluctant sort of way, to the perversity of slavery, no matter how little they care about its unjustness or attempt to rationalise it with baseless philosophy.
The warped structures of their world imbue these ordinary people – carpenters, farmers, landowners – with an apparently boundless facility for cruelty and prejudice. Epps’s vindictive wife, Mary (Sarah Paulson), is motivated in her bigotry by the need to corrode the spirits of those beneath her, lest she be butchered in the night. 
Indeed, the seeds of America’s distressed racial discourse are here for all to see, each lash of the whip matched in ferocity by the dehumanising rasp of the N-word, thrown about with abandon, both weapon and tool. 
Against this backdrop, McQueen – a Turner Prize recipient during his former career as a visual artist – contemplates, with unwavering grace, the callousness of Solomon’s fall, even as the richly captured locales, all bucolic farmland and humid refinement, present themselves. 
The omnipresent savagery is often overwhelming. The camera lingers uncomfortably on moments of terror, be it Solomon's near lynching or the demented beating that Epps hands out to diminutive field worker Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), Mary's pecking malice steering his hand. Later on, McQueen even trains his lens directly at Ejiofor's confused, heartbroken expression for what seems like a lifetime. No words are uttered but the sentiment is undeniable.
Alongside Ejiofor, the cast match the moment. Fassbender is, unsurprisingly, a force of nature. He conjures a performance laced with relentless fury and a spittle-flecked sense of superiority that veers between enraged and entitled. His wickedness infests everything around him and a leering obsession with Patsey is afforded no modesty. 
Paulson, too, is superb, an ice-in-the-veins tyrant fuelled by caprice and deep-seated animus. Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt and Alfre Woodard flex their muscles throughout in small, though pivotal, supporting roles. 
It is Nyong'o, however, who emerges as the stand-out, rendering Patsey fascinating and tragic in equal measures, and winning an Academy Award for her efforts. Ethereal, aloof and childlike, Patsey is a mass of contradictions. She is a survivor whose destiny is already written and her fate at the hands of the monstrous Epps – his gaze, hands, anger and sexual predation are rarely beyond her vicinity – is arguably the picture's greatest sorrow. 

Thursday 4 June 2020

Coronacinema - Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz

Director: George Miller

Available on: Amazon Prime

For all the abundant qualities exhibited by George Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy, its status as a somewhat cult staple in the post-apocalyptic canon, not to mention a 30-year absence from the zeitgeist, afforded the franchise’s newest entry, Fury Road, a relatively low-key arrival on the big screen. 

That said, those intrigued by the continuing adventures of Max Rockatansky were promptly rewarded. This latest chapter is a magnificent, cacophonous and swaggering injection of purified adrenaline that banishes the kind of rubbish otherwise clogging up multiplex programmes, offering only Vin Diesel in return. 

Quite where it sits in the wider franchise mythology is unclear. Sequel, reboot, or both; the truth is ultimately meaningless. Miller's has taken the dystopian tropes of the series and ratcheted them up with wild abandon, placing his glowering protagonist into the middle of a kinetic chase movie grand enough to remind us all of film's singular power. 

Tom Hardy replaces Mel Gibson as the eponymous road warrior, whose lonesome existence on the plains of a cursed future Earth is disturbed when he falls into the clutches of the ghost-skinned War Boys, fanatical foot soldiers of cult-leader-cum-tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). He is turned into a living blood donor for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), an especially devoted follower, who, like almost everyone else around him – including Joe – is terminally ill thanks to the radiation that has gutted the planet. 

Before long, Max is strapped to the front of Nux's wagon and sent out into the wastelands in pursuit of Charlize Theron's Furiosa, Joe's one-armed, trucking-driving protégé. Furiosa has gone rogue, liberating her boss's harem of "wives" in the process and making a break for "
the green place", the land of her birth. And thus the chaos begins, Joe and his army scorching the sands in pursuit. Max, inevitably falls in with this rag-tag band of fugitives and he must rely on their skills, and they on his, to survive. 

If it sounds potty, that's because it is – gloriously so. Miller's vision is a melange of idiosyncratic artistic endeavour and high-functioning cinematic spectacle; the particulars of every action, in every frame, strike a perfect balance between aspiration and execution. 

Fury Road is, ultimately, a series of blistering set pieces that slash and burn their way across the screen, each more unhinged than the next. In one, the War Boys assault both Furiosa's rig and the reavers into whose territory she has strayed. They propel from one chariot to the next armed with exploding spears and a martyr's enthusiasm. Later, Furiosa leads Joe's convoy into the roil of a massive dust storm, an astonishing sequence of genuinely epic proportions. A third-act extravaganza sees murderous miscreants on vertical seesaws – "pole cats" – assailing their prey, all while Max and friends fight like demons, vault between speeding vehicles and stare into the jaws of death. 

Aesthetically, this is a picture that will sear the eyeballs and suck air from the lungs. Captured in soaring high definition, the colour palette is rich and bracing, the roasted orange tones (of the Namibian desert) stretching to the horizon. There are islands of cool blues and lush greens, too, each one a welcome respite in a sea of desolation. 

Ugliness abounds also. Miller has concocted a freak show's line-up to garnish the mayhem. Joe is a Trump-like gargoyle whose lardy body and weeping sores are hidden by a muscle-etched translucent carapace, his flowing snow-white hair, staring eyes and stentorian intonation finished off with a leering skull breathing mask that covers most of his face. 

The villain's citadel headquarters is littered with grotesqueries: a stable of obese bare-breasted women attached to milking machines; various gnarled courtiers; and the hordes of desperate citizens living far below his penthouse, thirsting for the water he showers on them when the mood grips him. His expeditionary force is accompanied by a rolling platform carrying drummers and a blind, deformed metal guitarist whose instrument spits fire. Seriously. 

Even the "wives" (including Rosie Huntington-Whitely, Riley Keough and Zoë Kravitz), sequestered in genteel isolation, register as weird. Their fertility and exquisite beauty are, after all, the chief causes of the demented atmosphere. 

There are, mercifully, moments of quiet and it is here that Hardy and Theron come into their own. Both are truly skilful actors, capable of seizing their moments when the frenetic pace slows. Hardy, whose dialogue is as grizzled as it is spartan, draws out the goodness inside of Max, slowly but surely. He is an effective leading man, heroic yet more robust than invincible. Theron, meanwhile, is the tale's emotional and moral centre. Her flint-hard resolve is matched by a surety of purpose. She meets toxic masculinity head on, Wonder Woman without the gloss. 

Miller’s resurrection of his iconic character may be deranged, but it is accomplished with such panache that the beauty in the pandemonium is its own reward. A reminder that blockbuster cinema is still able to captivate, Fury Road is the kind of rush that the medium required to stay true to itself. 

Friday 29 May 2020

Coronacinema - Prisoners

Prisoners (2013)

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Michelle Leo

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Available on: Netflix 

A stellar cast and a dark mystery elevate Denis Villeneuve's bleak drama, Prisoners, a film made fascinating by its relentless sense of dread.

Villeneuve is, of course, the man behind the magnificent Blade Runner: 2049, as well as sci-fi masterpiece Arrival, yet Prisoners, with its gritty themes and grim mood is much more aligned with searing border epic Sicario. Whatever the Canadian turns his hand to, it seems, gives rise to acclaim.

This is a sleek beast, centred around a story in which the daughters of working man Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) – a recovering alcoholic and aspiring survivalist – and his childhood friend, Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), go missing during Thanksgiving. 

Drafted in to investigate, Jake Gyllenhaal's Detective Loki (never granted a first name) soon collars a suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Under questioning, however, it becomes clear that Jones lacks the intellectual capability to effectively abduct two young girls. And it is at this point that the gloom spreads, families and police left with no obvious leads. Dover is quickly driven to seek his own answers.

Much of the picture's success rests on the work done by Gyllenhaal, who offers up a brilliantly layered and forensic performance as the watchful loner cop tasked with unravelling the puzzle. Inscrutable, quietly obsessive and possessed of his own undefined scars, Loki's doggedness serves him well. Dressed in anonymous attire, Gyllenhaal renders the investigator heroic, in a cold sort of way, imbuing him with an innate, if unsmiling, sense of nobility.

Beside him at the top of the bill, Jackman is superb as a man driven beyond the bounds of reason and legality by the spectre of every parent's worst nightmare. The erstwhile Wolverine mixes rage and vulnerability with a laser-focused desire for the truth, regardless of the cost to his humanity. 

Michelle Leo also stands out as Jones's aunt, Holly. A wonderfully effortless actor, Leo's homely, no-nonsense work grounds the action and when she's on screen the faint air of hysteria sweeping through the narrative is significantly reined in. Dano, too, is as strange and hypnotic as ever. The question of what his aloof innocent did or didn't do nibbles at the edges of the plot all the way to the end. 

The remainder of a terrific line-up provides capable support throughout. Maria Bello, in particular, channels the despair of a terrified mother, while Howard and Oscar winner Viola Davis are more pragmatic in what they are prepared to accept for the sake of their child. 

Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins colours it all with the greys and browns of the wintry Pennsylvanian backdrop, a faceless suburban landscape ably reflecting the misery of the tale. That said, he does throw in a few visual highlights here and there: a frantic race through traffic in the middle of a stormy night; the rain-drenched arrest of Jones; a lantern-lit evening vigil providing a rare moment of warmth.

By the finale, Prisoners proves itself a muscular and unremittingly powerful thriller, burning slow but steady. Villeneuve's plotting holds up and builds towards a weighty, twisting conclusion that feels as accomplished as it does satisfying. 

Monday 25 May 2020

Coronacinema - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Starring: Casey Affleck, Brad Pitt, Garret Dillahunt, Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, Sam Shepard

Director: Andrew Dominik

Available on: Amazon Prime

A bewitching doubleheader forms the centre of Andrew Dominik's glowering, elegantly constructed masterpiece, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a Western that, in spite of its familiar milieu, is light on gunfire and heavy on the interplay between its named duo. Each slow and deliberate step towards the sombre conclusion comes laced with its own peculiar significance. It is in those singular moments that an undoubtedly captivating meditation on the ephemerality of fame and mythos comes alive. 

Occupying the eponymous roles, Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck turn in a pair of deeply complex performances, at once distinctive and enmeshed. Theirs is a relationship built on an unrequited devotion that, inevitably, devolves into something marked by bitterness, loathing and treachery. 

Pitt mesmerises as legendary outlaw James. By the film's opening, his reputation is fearsome and established, a string of atrocities, dating back to his time as a Civil War bushwhacker, mere notches on his belt; he is a figure known across the land. "All America thinks highly of me," he claims, not inaccurately. 

Jesse is the charismatic soul of a now largely rag-tag band of criminals, headed up by his older brother, Frank (Sam Shepard). Pitt's depiction is of a man comfortable in his own skin, ready with a yarn and a raucous laugh, yet plagued by paranoid notions that linger visibly beneath the surface. His frigid gaze and watchful air disorient his associates, convincing them of some preternatural gift for discerning disloyalty. 

By contrast, Affleck twitches, grimaces and smirks Robert Ford into being. A put-upon junior sibling without any discernible charms or abilities, 'Bob' is possessed, nonetheless, of a deep reservoir of entitled petulance, convinced that he is "destined for great things". His is a profoundly unsettling presence, tolerated by family but repellent to many of those he encounters. In Affleck's charge, the character vacillates between forms: malcontented teenager and sly provocateur. When he eventually gives into the sudden, cold, matter-of-fact violence that constitutes a fact of life in the gunslinger underground, he greets it, jaw slightly ajar, with contented acceptance. 

As performances go, it's nothing short of fascinating. "I don't know what it is about you," says Shepard to the tyro babbling at his elbow, "but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies."

Jesse, however, tolerates the youngster, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the James gang's exploits, drawn from newspaper cuttings and dime novels, matches a fervent regard for its most famous member. When Bob's brother, Charley (Sam Rockwell), is brought into the James fold prior to a big score, Bob wonders if his chance to excel has arrived. Thrown together, he and Jesse establish an uncomfortable union. The older man needles his follower's obvious insecurities for amusement's sake and undermines his naive assumptions, moulding a dogsbody, not a protégé, someone onto whom he can cast delusions and animus.

And it is in this abrasive dynamic that Jesse seals his fate – and that of his killer. Belittled too often, his assumed greatness undiscovered and unappreciated, Bob breaks from the hopes for a future spent at his hero's side and clutches for glory. In doing so, their fates intertwine. 

The titular event itself becomes unavoidable. Dominik plays up its strangeness, executing the sequence with almost peaceful elegance. It is ripe, too, with complicity on the part of the victim, a player in a game only he understands. Even as circumstances overtake him, Bob grasps the extremes of his situation; Affleck's skill is to convey turmoil and smug pride in the same instant.

Beyond the core narrative, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford retains its power. Jesse roams the countryside, checking on his erstwhile comrades' fealty and sniffing out rumours of betrayal and bounties. Dominik girds this wandering existence with a beautifully delicate score, courtesy of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and Roger Deakins's peerless cinematography. 

From the snow-scarred vastness of the American interior, and the golden haze of endless cornfields, to the blurred and dreamlike frames that Deakins introduces intermittently, the film's aesthetic is an outright triumph. Indeed, the exhilaration of an early train robbery, conducted in the gloom of a Missouri night and illuminated by the glow of the silhouetted assailants' lanterns, previews what is to follow.

In spite of the leads' omnipotence, an outstanding supporting cast is afforded space to shine. Rockwell is typically brilliant as good-natured Charley, whose cheeky spirit eventually gives way to hobbling sadness, while Jeremy Renner's Wood Hite is an old confederate boasting a ruthless streak and many a grudge. His conflict with fellow bandit Dick Liddil – played, with lascivious charm, by Paul Schneider – amounts to a key element of the overarching story.

Elsewhere, Garret Dillahunt stands out as a lonely, dimwitted farmer, who may or may not have snitched on his fellow fugitives, and an unsmiling Shepard crafts a grizzled gunslinger far more able to weather the storm of a changing world than his odd younger brother. Credit must also go to editorial assistant and voice actor Hugh Ross, who narrates the tale in clipped, graceful tones. 

An extended coda illustrates life after Jesse. It suggests that Bob did indeed gain the renown he sought, along with the kind of wearied maturity that might have once served him well. Yet, there is a fine line between acclaim and infamy, one that is impossible to define. In craving the former so desperately, Robert Ford's footwork proved too clumsy for comfort.