“Perhaps you can respect the brutal economy of director Baltasar Kormákur’s approach.”
Though Gravity’s endless Oscars mean it’ll forever be remembered as great cinema, Alfonso Cuarón’s space-saga was, really, just a great cinema experience. Its hurtling, throttling, edge-of-the-seat chain-reaction turned the theatre into something resembling a theme-park ride (whilst stopping short of the Castleist gimmickry of ‘4D’ screenings, which seek to literally be a theme-park ride). Everest doesn’t have the same tautness or technical pop to hit Gravity’s peak, but to watch it in its towering 3D IMAX excess is to submit to a film that’s courting the experiential, to allow all its glittering Himalayan mountains and swirls of weather — wind and snow, the ceaseless rushing of air around you — to feel immersive, seductive.
The great central concern of the motion-picture industry is continuing to create a climate in which audiences will actually go to the cinema. Everest feels like that idea manifest: to gaze up at it on a giant screen, bathing you in light from above, is to submit to something awe-inspiring. But, watch it on the tiny screen in the back of the airplane seat it front of you, and you’re less likely to shiver at the weather, more likely to notice the thin characterisation, the survival/disaster-movie tropes, the tendency towards facepalming foreshadowing.
Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter
Beneath all the sense-surround snow-flurries, there’s a story here; a based-on-a-true-story story. It’s 1996 and an international cast —Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Kelly, Martin Henderson, Naoko Mori— are scaling Mount Everest. Clarke and Brolin are clearly the lead characters, because they get the wives-who-worry-about-them back home: Clarke expecting a child with ‘Kiwi’-accented Keira Knightley, no less; Brolin’s home-fires tended to by Robin Wright in a bad wig. Like students introducing themselves on the first day of class, each character essentially gets one line to establish who they are, and another to underline what their motivation is. It’s a problem for anyone who’s a fan of, y’know, writing, but perhaps you can respect the brutal economy of director Baltasar Kormákur’s approach: the less time we spend on people, the more we can spend on mountains.
In Denis Villeneuve’s excellent Sicario, his camera constantly hovers above the fray, with eye-of-God overheads charting the land in which the film is set: the sun-blasted stretches on the US/Mexico border in Texas and Arizona. He looks down not just for the great visuals —the roads cutting through empty terrain like scars— but also to suggest the social theme: the thin line between civilisation and wilderness. Here, the suburban allotments back onto stretches of pure desert, and twin cities —El Paso here, Ciudad Juárez there— are divided by a wall; lawfulness on one side, lawlessness the other.
The clean, map-makers lines we see from on high stand in stark contrast to the drama that plays out on-the-ground, where any lines between good and evil have long ago been smeared. At Sicario’s beginning, we’re introduced to Emily Blunt, who wears a bullet-proof vest and carries a semi-automatic for her kidnapping-response-unit raids in the fringes of suburban Phoenix, where she’s flanked by her by-the-book partner, cult-Brit-TV legend Daniel Kaluuya (Skins, Black Mirror, Babylon). After Blunt uncovers a cartel house stuffed to the gills with hidden corpses, she’s singled out for a covert narcotics mission spearheaded by the blithe, smirking, shower-sandal-wearing Josh Brolin.
In this opening act, Sicario opens as if another thriller, albeit a well-made one; perhaps one like Prisoners, Villeneuve’s first act of Hollywood crossover, where he brought all the meticulous artistry he showed on Incendies to a wildly-silly story of torture and revenge in All-American suburbia. But once Blunt goes off on her new mission, the script —penned by actor Taylor Sheridan, in his screenwriting debut— starts to reveal its true colours.
This is no portrait of Mexican criminal activity being thwarted by righteous Yankee vengeance. Instead, it shows the War On Drugs as yet another failed American war: a stand-still with no end in sight, a political and moral quagmire into which endless US dollars and bullets are sinking. It’s a dirty war, on both sides: not just the cartel’s neo-Roman fondness for parading impaled and beheaded corpses as warning, but in the way American agencies bring competing agendas, political play, the dehumanisation of foes, the spectre of race.
The operation Blunt finds herself in operates above-the-law; it’s no legal case mounted against criminals, but militarised incursion. She wants to follow lawful procedure; Brolin and co want to kick the hornets nest. The chief antagonist, within, is the steely, distant Benecio del Toro. He’s a Medellínese drug-trade insider whose official role is ‘advisor’, but he’s the chief destabiliser, the one for whom law and procedure matter least. He’s also a symbol of a collective narcotics-world yearning to return to the good old days, when the CIA and the Colombians kept control over the trade together, and the Mexicans knew their place.
As the mission progresses, and Blunt has the sad realisation of all she's gotten into, the film offers no 'victories', no retribution, no heroic killings. It's a sad indictment of this 'war', which is, like all wars, a battle for money, power, control; one in which there can be no clear winner, no simple glories.
Yet, even as Sicario plays like an indictment of so much genre storytelling, it still works perfectly —amazingly— as a pure thriller. Villeneuve manages to create a stilled, sustained tension, employing pure cinematic elements —Roger Deakins’ (whose CV includes No Country For Old Men and Jarhead, notably) clean cinematography; Jóhann Jóhannsson’s minimalist, discordant score— and essentially dispensing dialogue. Villeneuve understands the power of evocative silence; the way moments of verbal, visual, or dramatic relief effectively let the air out of a film. In Sicario’s forbidding conclusion, there’s no such instances of exhalation. It feels like you spend the entire final act holding your breath.
When a character tucks a secret teenaged diary into a drawer or under a bed, it’s like Chekhov’s gun: it’s going to go off in the last act. The sordid secrets scribbled away are like so much dramatic gunpowder; ready to explode when, say, found by a concerned mother snooping in their kids’ room. You can guess there’s going to be a scene like this before you watch The Diary Of A Teenage Girl based solely on its name, but the simplicity —and the near-tweeness— of its title does little to suggest the great tumult that’s awaiting that moment; the never-spoken-of truths that lay deep in this hidden diary.
“Monroe says I exude sexuality,” says Bel Powley, narrating her ‘diary’ into an ever present cassette-recorder, referring to her ongoing partner-in-congress —part fuck-buddy, part clandestine romance— by name. He’s 35. She’s 15. He’s Alexander Skarsgård; tall, blonde, dumb, full of cum, stoned and moustachioed, happy to be seduced by someone two decades his junior. He’s also the boyfriend of Kristen Wiig, who plays Powley’s mother.
In Marielle Heller’s casually-radical coming-of-age drama, these are all simple facts, not to be judged or moralised. The pearl-clutching moral guardians of polite society may wish to pretend otherwise, but 15-year-olds can and do, indeed, exude sexuality; can be not just sexually ‘active’, but true agents of desire; can come to a swift understanding of the power of sexuality, the currency of their bodies.
Powley, as all adolescents do, stands in front of the mirror, staring at that body; trying to understand both its repulsion to her (she thinks she’s fat) and its magnetism to others; trying to gauge how hormonal changes have changed the way she feels inside. Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical semi-graphic novel, it’s a portrait of a sexual awakening; at the ferociousness and fury of nascent desire. It’s set in San Francisco in 1976, with the Patricia Hearst abduction playing out in framing narrative; the end of the hippy idyll, and a time of social tumult, mirroring the fire and flux of adolescence, which delivers contradictory impulses and outsized emotions, the gateway to adult behaviours but none of the perspective of age.
Powley’s to-diary narration is consistently funny and pleasingly frank, her descriptions of the physicality of fucking contrasting with her romaniticisation of the always-doomed relationship (her flights-of-fantasy often turned into psychedelic animated interludes). Heller understands that, to suggest the latter, she has to show the former. There’s intimacy and truth to scenes in which seduction plays out through horseplay, wrestling, biting. The Diary Of A Teenage Girl may be about early sexual experiences, but there’s a universality in its physicality; the film excelling at capturing the intoxication of a newfound sexual union.
“I had a dream that Elvis came to me,” says Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler, “and said if we wanted to make it with our band, we’d have to rehearse 37 hours a week. It worked.” Butler says this mid-way through The Reflektor Tapes, and you’re not sure how to take it; is it a joke? One of the most wild makin’-it stories for any rockband, ever? A poetic piece of cutesy myth-making?
The line, inevitably, floats away; as does most everything that happens herein. Kahlil Joseph’s film has no interest in getting down to the business of biography, of catering to rockumentary cliché. Instead, the director takes a collagist approach, fashioning a cinematic mixtape in which songs —be they performed on stage, in studio, or on Haitian beaches— bleed into the other. In this approach, The Reflektor Tapes foregrounds the music, but with a sense of romance; the way it comes and goes mercurial and elusive, avoiding the artistic inertia of a straight-up live-in-concert movie.
As the mixtape-evoking title suggests, the film’s a portrait of Arcade Fire both making and touring Reflektor; loosely chronically the creative process that informed it, and the public expressions that grew out of it. Butler and wife Régine Chassagne are on screen the most, but there’s never any to-camera talking-heads, or straight-up tag-alongs. Joseph’s wandering camera and fluid editing leave narrative as essentially minimal; the effect impressionist. The absence of concrete facts and straight stories means that, with the music at its centre, The Reflektor Tapes works both for in-the-know fans and people who know nothing about the band; the film as wide-open and context-free an experience as just putting on an album.