Wednesday 20 April 2016


(Jacques Audiard, 2015)

The way Audiard combines poetic realism with gritty genre material remains unique in modern cinema. Dheepan may not be his strongest film, but it is still sensitive, riveting filmmaking.
It follows a Tamil Tiger soldier who escape Sri Lanka by pretending to be married to a young woman likewise seeking escape. They pretend a young orphan girl is their daughter and find themselves in a banlieue on the outskirts of autumnal Paris. Dheepan works as the caretaker for their housing estate, his 'daughter' learns French at school, while his 'wife' fearfully, confusedly hides away from the world until a job is found for her cooking and cleaning for a disabled old man. As they negotiate life in a country where they do not speak the language (they all appear to be fluent in English, and the woman talks of escaping to her cousin in London), they realise that some facts of life are universal. In this case that includes the men with guns who rule the estate - gangs of drug dealers patrolling the rooftops and stoops. But Dheepan was once just such a man with a gun, and traumatised as he is, it is not long until he is forced to use violence to defend those he has come to love.
That Taxi Driver-ish ending is impressive and hard won by a film that builds character and place patiently and with a fine eye for two hours. Audiard paints these three people with fine strokes; Dheepan himself is proud and in pain, widowed and mourning two children, shellshocked by the war which killed his entire unit, he stoically works and learns and falls in love with the woman pretending to be his wife slowly and despite himself. She is more complex; angry and at odds with her environment until her job allows her to find who she is once again. The scene where she seduces her 'husband' is erotic and realistic in just the right amounts.
The girl meanwhile noisily adapts.
Audiard details all this with his usual intimacy; allowing us into the characters heads at moments, showing the way they perceive things, the subjective truth of moments revealed and then snatched away again. At the same time we learn the life of the estate, its patterns and rules, its geography.
All this pays off in the bloody, dreamlike chaos of the climax.
Which is - brilliantly, surprisingly - followed by a blissfully happy ending.

Sunday 17 April 2016


(Jeff Nichols, 2015)

Nichols' "voice" makes perfect sense here, applied to a sci-fi thriller which refers to Spielberg's sci-fi cinema of the late '70s and early '80s; like J.J. Abrams' Super 8, Midnight Special seems hugely indebted to E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as well as John Carpernter's Starman.
The difference is that while Abrams is a skilled mimic, Nichols has his own sensibility and style. It is artier than most mainstream Hollywood cinema, patient and precise, with much attention paid to tone and mood. Visually he uses almost-Hawksian simple set-ups, eschewing flashy cutting or ostentatious angles.
Each of his films is imbued with a strong sense of emotion, perhaps at the expense of plot. So here there is no exposition, meaning that the audience is involved in an intriguing game of catch-up from the start. We meet two men, on the run from the authorities across the South of the U.S. with a little boy in tow. The boy wears swimming goggles and headphones. They travel by night, the driver wearing night-vision goggles so that their car travels in darkness. They use cardboard to blackout motel room windows in the daytime. The Government is searching for them, as is the cult they appear to have escaped. The boy is spoken of in reverent terms by cult members, and appears to have powers of some sort. One of the men (Michael Shannon) is revealed as his birth father.
Nichols lets the details come slowly, focusing instead on the mood of desperation and fear around the fugitives. This is really a story of a father's struggle to protect his child, and as such it accrues tremendous emotional power as it moves with gathering speed towards a climax. The sci-fi elements are all sudden shocks in the story, and the naturalism of the setting and playing gives them an awesome effect; a scene at a gas station is interrupted by a shower of falling satellite debris. Shannon is woken from sleep by the house being shaken off the ground by the light shooting from his sons eyes. The boys touch kills patches of grass.
While the film is without any Spielbergian sentimentality, it does try for Spielbergian awe, and the context and tone helps it achieve something like that. It is a slow burn that sparks to life impressively.
Nichols is great with actors as ever. Shannon, Edgerton and Dunst are all excellent, while Driver shows good range as the Government expert on their trail. Perhaps most impressive is the cinematography of regular Nichols collaborator, Adam Stone; he paints a muted, wintry picture of the Southern States by night, lit by halogen and headlamps.

Sunday 10 April 2016


(John Carney, 2016)

I was brought up in 1980s Dublin. I went to a Christian Brothers all-boys Secondary school in a rough area. I loved music; as an escape, as a release.
Sing Street, then, spoke to me in a way few films do. The story of a 15 year old middle class boy transferred from his posh school (the way the Christian Brothers contemptuously refer to "Jesuits" gets across something hilarious and profound about Irish culture in two syllables) to a much rougher one nearby and escapes the brutality and bleakness of life in '80s Dublin through pop music is joyous and funny throughout, but in a very Irish way, it is never blind to the realities of the world it portrays.
That means that Carney shows how Dublin - perhaps the poorest capital city in Europe in the '80s - was subject to deprivation and social issues.
The background to the story is filled with absent parents; alcoholism, heroin addiction, mental health issues. Shot on location around Dublin's working class inner city, Carney sets much of the story in the council estates that ring the city centre. Here they are full of graffiti and litter; crumbling and in undeniable disrepair. But the story seems all set in summer - sunshine fills this film until the last scene, and the day-glo '80s fashions both accentuate this lightness and positivity and are given a strange context by the daylight; velvet suits and goth make-up look beautifully ridiculous in a street in afternoon sunlight.
Our lead is Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), whose parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle-Kennedy) are enduring a crumbling marriage and reduced economic circumstances. He moves to Synge Street Christian Brothers school, where he is bullied both by students and staff (the film subtly acknowledges the abuse that was still a feature of such schools in that era) and is only saved when he sees Raphina (Lucy Boynton) on the steps of the Girls Home opposite the school. To impress her, he invents a band on the spot and invites her to star in their video. So then he has to recruit band members, write a song and make a demo.
Things snowball from there, as the band (Sing Street) improve and bond, while Conor and Raphina develop a connection. All the while Conor is guided by his stoner dropout of an older brother (Jack Reynor).
Just as in his breakthrough Once, Carney is perhaps most at home with the scenes of musical discovery - the bits here where Conor and his bandmate Eamonn write songs together are full of a sense of excitement and potential - and Conor's love of music runs parallel with his love of Raphina. The romance works even if both leads are slightly miscast. Boynton is suitably beautiful - she is meant to stand out in '80s Dublin, and she does - but her accent wavers all over the place. Walsh-Peelo never has the charisma or complexity of a lead. Indeed, Reynor blows him off screen in their shared scenes. But he does well with the musical scenes and much of the comedy, a lot of which is carried by the supporting characters.
The richly detailed world here is what makes the film work so well. Each character has an inner life, every detail makes sense. The music is lovely, and the cut from Hall & Oates' "Maneater" to the boy's rip-off is a brilliant moment. The ending is feel-good in the best way, and the themes of brotherhood and creativity are nicely developed throughout.
Plus: it is really funny.