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 cold 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, seems tolerant of 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 the aid of 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 warm 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 the ability to hold 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 otherwise 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. 

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Coronacinema - Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights (2004)

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Connie Britton, Garret Hedlund, Jay Hernandez, Derek Luke

Director: Peter Berg

Available on: Netflix

There is a scene about halfway through Peter Berg's Friday Night Lights when a teenage football player cleans out the locker assigned to him by his high school team. Struck down by a season-ending, future-devouring injury, he delicately retrieves his belongings: Nike sneakers; the brochures full of luxury cars to be a paid for by an NFL career that will now never happen; and an embroidered hand towel bearing the moniker of his on-field alter ego. 

To his watching teammates, he offers a jaunty farewell and an engraved nameplate from the locker door, a symbol of his own place within this heralded world, a tangible reminder of his association with something grander than himself.

The young man saunters out to a car driven by a waiting relative. He levers himself into the passenger seat, closes the door and breaks down. His face is etched with sorrow; his body shakes with the grief. He begins to wail, fear and the ghosts of shattered dreams flooding through his mind. "What the hell we going to do?" he gasps, "I can't do nothing else but play football." 

It is a raw, powerful and profoundly affecting moment – one of many – in this outstanding, often poetic adaptation of Buzz Bissinger's 1990 non-fiction work of the same name. Widely regarded as one of the finest sports books ever written, Bissinger's account of Permian High School's 1988 football season chronicled so much more than exploits on the field. It touched on provocative, borderline taboo topics: class, race, poverty, educational underachievement and the weird hold exerted by high school football in the barren hinterlands of west Texas.

Berg covers all of this and more. He imbues his picture with an honesty of purpose and reverts to none of the derivative tropes associated with the genre. Instead, he and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler – a regular collaborator – craft a forceful paean to the innocence and brevity of youth, painting in subtle shades while regarding the thrilling action and human drama with the same handheld, improv-heavy, docu-style aloofness that would come to distinguish the similarly acclaimed Friday Night Lights TV adaptation in 2006.

It frames a narrative in which Billy Bob Thornton's head coach, Gary Gaines, is the notional centre. He wields a faintly cynical air, dependant on the demented enthusiasm for the game in Odessa, Texas, though undoubtedly bemused by it. He nevertheless offers serious guidance to those in his charge, as ready with steady advice as he is with inspirational halftime speeches or excoriating put-downs. The self worth of the players he sends into battle is finely balanced, intrinsically linked to how they perform every Friday evening, and the burden is his alone.

Amongst those he is tasked to lead, four stand out. Lucas Black turns his Southern accent and impeccable manners all the way to 11 as quarterback Mike Winchell, whose modest home life reflects his steely play on the gridiron. Jay Hernandez employs some of Thornton's wryness in portraying star safety Brian Chavez, a man armed with all the perspective that Ivy League-level grades can buy. In contrast, Derek Luke mixes brash and desperate as transcendent tailback Boobie Miles. Bound for greatness, Miles is, most certainly, the film's emotional core.

Elsewhere, Garret Hedlund's fumble-plagued fullback, Don Billingsley, does battle with the searing disappointment of his alcoholic father, Charlie (Tim McGraw), whose own fading exploits of a generation before come laden with their own complex baggage. 

Indeed, it is this dynamic that best captures one of the tragedies of life in the Texan oilfields' endless reaches. The nasty truth is that these boys, born into a culture that reveres their athletic prowess from an early age, are on the clock, a clock that is loudly counting down to zero. Whatever the pedigree of their team, few will advance to play college ball; fewer still can expect to touch the gilded plane of the NFL. "This is the only thing you're ever gonna have," says Charlie. "It carries you forever."

The prospects in this place appear limited. To get out is to get ahead. However, what chance of that? Winchell's mother's sole focus is his prospective university scholarship. Boobie's uncle, too, is his hype man, wooing the big-school scouts with a running commentary of his nephew's talents, even as the lad struggles to read the suitor letters that arrive every day from the Power Five programmes, each one offering a path to a better life.

Racism rears its head, of course. Some is casual, such as an uncouth remark at a dinner party; some is far more nuanced. When representatives from a majority-black team haggle over the racial composition of the officiating crew  the "zebras" – the underlying issues couldn't be clearer. "How many black stripes these zebras got?" asks the opposing coach. "I believe a zebra's got about the same amount of black ones as he does white ones," deadpans Gaines. 

The pressure on the coach and wife Sharon (TV series lead Connie Britton) manifests in strange and uncomfortable ways, be it the 'For Sale' signs spiked into their lawn after a rare loss, the constant drumbeat of phone-in coaches ("They're doing too much learnin' in this school," bleats one idiot on the radio) or the entitled behaviour of the team's wealthy boosters. The result is an atmosphere of heightened tension, a town's collective wellbeing riding on a game played by children. 

A seminal score by Austin post-rock deities Explosions in the Sky, all soaring riffs and contemplative notes, reflects this dichotomy between rapture and turmoil. It becomes almost a character in itself, as important and poignant a soundtrack as anything produced over the last two decades. 

A brilliantly orchestrated finale is undeniably rousing, yet, ultimately, Friday Night Lights proves itself much more than a mere sports film. It is, instead, a film in which sport is everything: the stage, the backdrop, the hero and the villain. It is the lifeblood of people and place, right and wrong. It is a route out, a defining trait and the barometer by which a community's progress might be gauged. 

If this sounds unhealthy, that's because it is. But it's also the truth.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Coronacinema - The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Mahershala Ali, Emory Cohen, Dane DeHaan, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn, 

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Available on: Amazon Prime

Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper star in Derek Cianfrance's follow-up to 2010 romantic drama Blue Valentine. 

Gosling plays Luke, a carnival stunt rider boasting a placid air, hipster tats and a girl in every town. When his show pitches up in rural New York state, Luke rekindles a relationship with old flame Romina (Eva Mendes) before falling in with backwoods mechanic Robin (Ben Mendelsohn). Calling upon the latter's past-life expertise, he resorts to robbing local banks in order to meet family responsibilities.

In doing so, Luke comes into direct conflict with Bradley Cooper's Avery, a resourceful beat cop with his own domestic demands. The resulting dynamic leaves chaos and heartache in its wake, the fall-out from their violent acquaintance defining more than just each other. It places future generations on a course from which they may never escape.

Cianfrance proves himself a master in pulling it altogether. His is a quietly searing elegy that brings indy sensibilities to bear without ever once losing its connection with a wider audience. Shot in rich, natural hues, The Place Beyond the Pines (the title references the English translation of the Mohawk name for Schenectady, the film's location) captures the lush verdancy of upstate New York — a world away from the roiling avenues of Manhattan a tranquil backdrop against which this fraught tale plays out. 

Indeed, the director's framing is so tight, his story so involving, that a final-third shift of narrative setting could almost constitute a subtle plot twist. This flourish is not a crucial element of the whole, perhaps, but it does speak to the confidence with which Cianfrance approaches his work. Elsewhere, a dazzling opening long take, which culminates with three riders risking it all in a Globe of Death, undoubtedly sets the tone.

At the top of the bill, Cooper and Gosling turn in superb performances that neatly subvert their contrasting stereotypes. Gosling's Luke eschews his rootless carny shtick. A well of substance sits beneath his largely impassive exterior and though there is violence, too, it disappears as swiftly as it emerges. Notably, he is never once pushed to provide for a child he didn't know existed; the risks he assumes stem from demands he places on his own shoulders. 

Cooper, meanwhile, portrays an ostensibly good man thrust by circumstance into the spotlight. Yet, once he is there, he is quick to further his own lofty aspirations and it is testament to Cooper's chameleonic abilities that these efforts never feel quite admirable nor especially queasy. Softly spoken and more cunning than initial appearances suggest, the swiftness with which Avery climbs the ladder should chill even dispassionate observers. 

Beyond that duo, a collection of equally fine actors bring their skills to bear. Mendelsohn, equal parts affable and shifty, is typically magnetic and Mendes impresses as Luke's on-off lover, her affinity for the picture's unfussy stylings showing through early on. Two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali accomplishes a great deal with limited screen time. The innate decency that he carries in his every expression serves as a perfect antidote to the deficiencies exhibited by others. 

Elsewhere, Ray Liotta's trademark stare is put to good use as a corrupt police officer, while Brooklyn's Emory Cohen — playing Cooper's attention-starved son — is outstanding, his irritating swagger and faux urban drawl the gauche affectations of an unworldly teenager.

An involving and handsomely realised neo-noir, The Place Beyond the Pines offers up an ambitious, profoundly affecting study of how legacy and fate intertwine, and how no action is ever free of consequence.

Friday, 8 May 2020

Coronacinema - Heat

Heat (1995)

Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Ashley Judd, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, Diane Venora

Director: Michael Mann 

Available on: Amazon Prime

Michael Mann's sprawling LA epic is, most certainly, his finest film. This pulsating crime thriller ripples with all of its creator's best traits and boasts two lead performances from, arguably, the greatest actors in modern American cinema. 

An upgraded reboot of Mann's little-seen 1989 TV movie LA Takedown, Heat is a modern masterpiece of quite dazzling scale and execution. This tale of obsession and discipline, loneliness and intimacy, centres on the exploits of Robert De Niro's Neil McAuley, a slick, watchful big-league armed robber with an affinity for major scores and no tolerance for loose ends. 

In his wake, Al Pacino plays it scalding hot and ice cold, often in the same scene. His LAPD detective, Vincent Hanna, is a dogged lawman with good tailoring, unashamedly impressed by the McAuley crew's high-end professional expertise.

Around this central premise, a horde of colourful subplots swirl, covering disparate themes: marital strife, serial murder, childhood depression and the self-control required to eschew true human connection. They all feed into an overarching story of deadly hunter and lethal prey. 

The results are magnificent. Heat is a juggernaut, its DNA rooted in the hardscrabble industrial locales, faded glitz and endless highways of the LA cosmopolis. Mann, inevitably, crafts a sleek and utterly beautiful film, splicing mournful blue-tinged backdrops with scrubbed realism. He is as comfortable inside the steam and bustle of a grubby dinner as he is gazing out over a glittering nighttime cityscape. The ambience he conjures so adroitly, regardless of location, is one of transience and impermanence.

A brilliant cast undergirds it all. McAuley's crew includes Val Kilmer as tortured sidekick Chris, whose silly ponytail cannot distract from a sober performance very much at odds with Kilmer's other work. Tom Sizemore, too, is outstanding, his gimlet-eyed enforcer, Michael, carrying every scar the penal system has doled out. Jon Voight, meanwhile, lends charisma and quiet affability to aloof, inscrutable fence Nate. On Pacino's flank, Nineties stalwarts Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi and Ted Levine deal solely in no-bullshit menace.

However, the picture is ultimately defined by two sequences of contrasting tone. In the first, De Niro and Pacino go head to head in a faceless coffee shop, amid the din and swirl of the world beyond their dynamic. Facing each other across the table, circling like beasts in the moments before the clash, they trade barbs, issue frank threats and offer veiled respect. 

McAuley is fuelled by the surety of his monk-like ethos  "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner" — while Hanna, marriage number three crumbling in the background, fixes his singular gaze on the task at hand. They are, it seems, two sides of the same coin. The exchange is an electrifying one, much of the palpable tension surely stemming from the fact that De Niro and Pacino are titans whose distinct real-life skill sets have, up until this point, never occupied the same space on screen.

The second pillar upon which Heat rests is, of course, its astonishing, relentless and cacophonous police-versus-thief shootout. Occurring late on, it sees McAuley and friends — besuited, in dark glasses  turn a busy city street into a war zone. The thunder of their rifles and the pounding of shoes on tarmac are the only things approaching a soundtrack. Bullets tear through metal and glass, and ricochet off concrete; it is a savage and searing slice of pure cinematic adrenaline, Mann capturing it all in breathless close-up. 

A gorgeous synthesised score rounds out the ensemble, its melancholic notes giving form to a sense of longing that defines the quieter moments. For all its loud muscularity, this is a film floating on sadness, a film concerned with how displaced people exist, even within their own natural habitats, each seeking just one more moment to mean something, to someone. Friend or foe. Good or bad.