Sunday, November 16, 2014


Sandra is woken by the phone. She rises, rifles through her bag and answers. As soon as she says hello the oven starts nagging and then as she hears what we don't she struggles with the pastry she's been cooking and is getting increasingly upset. Hanging up, she rushes to the bathroom and snaps two tablets from a foil and washes them down. Her face in the mirror is panic. We don't quite know why but she seems to be taking things a little too hard.

A conversation with her husband and further dialogue throughout reveal that she has been voted out of her job because the boss said it was a big bonus or her. She's been away from work for a while and it's been found that 16 can do the work without her seventeenth. Why her? That's the pills. She is recovering from a deep depression and on the eve of her return to work she is being rejected by co-workers who value a short term gain more than her. Tough times.

Her husband recognises the teetering his wife is suffering and gently stirs her to action. If she can convince the boss to run another ballot and then nine of her workmates to vote for her she'll have a job. And so she does, one by one, approaching each with an increasingly fragile confidence to plead her case.

This is my first Dardenne brothers film. I've known about them from about Rosetta onwards but haven't pursued any of their work until now. I have nothing against their choice of stories from the poor and downtrodden of the world it's just that given the choice of the kitchen sink or some zappy concept-rich sci-fi ... Well, I'll eat that sentiment. Far from being the grimly worthy Belgian Ken Loach this film shows a plainer and lighter hand with none of the affectations I find irksome about Loach.

First thing I notice is that there is no score. The only music we hear is from the scenes where there are music players. Only once does this line blur and then only very subtly at a rare moment of joy. Apart from that it's all atmos tracks and library sound. Marion Cotillard must carry the burden of this film alone. She does. Seldom has such disassembling vulnerability felt so intimidating from a cinema screen.

There is no time play of flash backwards or forwards; we begin at the start of the string and end where it runs out. We are going to follow her for the time in the title. The rest is up to us.

The visual style is deceptively plain. The streets and buildings Sandra walks through form a kind of geometric monkey puzzle which seems to keep her at a distance even before she encounters each coworker who might as easily refuse as agree to her plea. She is keeping herself aloof through medication but there is something in the shapes of the backgrounds that constrain her. One of the dingy apartments she must visit is accessed through a dirty green and claustrophobic stairwell. The car she travels in to her appointments with either triumph or disappointment is forced to become her home, however temporarily; its confines are a comfort rather than a constraint and she seems to wear it like a doona.

Each meeting with one of the people she hopes to convince contains a physical line between the two. Whether it's a crack in a wall, a fence or a door jamb it's there every single time. Even when the two move a few paces another line will be established to separate them. This does not feel like clever auteurism but plain function, letting us know that the filmmakers are keeping the visual side unambiguous, providing a sturdy setting for dialogue that carries a lot of weight, however unaffected it sounds.

I'm surprised to be compelled to call this film about the cold reality faced by the lower percentile of society elegant but there really is no better word for a piece that lays its issues so simply and delivers its punch with such effortless skill: this is an elegant film about suffering. The old saw about amateurs bringing attention to the difficulty of their work and professionals making it look easy applies here. If you can see the broken juggling plate in a Ken Loach film (I think he's a great filmmaker but at his worst he's a barking P.E. teacher) the Dardennes here at least will not let you spy the slightest falter.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


This pas de deux of power is about the gestation and the labour; we already know our guy will be born from the first scene: he's asked by a master to show off and is shunned when he fails. Notice I use imagery of birth rather than manhood? This powerful and angry film is not Iron John - the kid already has a father who is rounded and supportive - it's much better.

Andrew is a young drumming student at an elite NYC music school. The teacher who shuns him in the opening scene is Fletcher, the fiercest instructive monster on screen since Sgt Hartman in Full Metal jacket, is given a career second-act performance by JK Simmons, a kind of Vladimir Putin with New York smarts. Andrew who must endure the bruising nurture for his emergence into life is given life by Miles Teller whose compelling plainness lifted The Spectacular Now from indy okayness to something strong and dark.

Fletcher's approach is to weaken bravado by removing self-confidence, switching drummers after a very few bars at a time to kill the idea that the kit belongs to any of them. We can see the strategy and also that its subjects cannot and why. When we see Andrew taking his newly-built cockiness into his family and romantic life we witness gross mistakes made through the intoxication of hard narcissism and we wince. But we also project on to the downcast eyes of Andrew, as he is leaving a brutal marathon rehearsal, the exhaustion, anger and perfectionism of a student who has just experienced the rewards of belonging to commitment. And later when one of his narcissistic flubs returns to bite him we are allowed to linger on his sadness and deflation, feeling them acutely.

Acting sorted, how's the travel? Well, if you thought watching someone tap a drum kit for minutes of precious screen time on end spelled death of attention know now that the frenetic MTV style editing of someone playing complicated jazz drumming feels like the heavily taxed alertness of a drummer. Drumming is hard. I can play an ok guitar or keyboard and even stay in tune on a theremin but I can never get past the first bar at a drum kit; it's like swimming for two with one; the sheer coordination of it kills me long long long before I could think of anything creative to do and that's just servile rock common time. When, as one of the lightning cuts of one of these sequences shows, the time signature of a piece includes the numeral 14 it's like the second you understand a maths problem before it slips away and your brain clanks back to normal gearing. We see the parts of the drum kit as details of central control as the loose syncopation rustles and thunders around them. The bandaging of bleeding finger joints and ice buckets remind us of the boxing ring rather than the cross and the jaw slapping lesson in keeping exact time hurts but feels necessary. The sheer intensity of musical performance has not to my knowledge be so intimately captured in fiction cinema as here. Don't compare it to Shine but Jimi at Monterey.

Music runs through this film well outside of the moments when it is played digetically. A scene in the rehearsal room involves a kind of choir of buzzes and clicks as the players set up but it isn't some campy sampler sonata it sounds natural but pushed so that you know it's intended; a kind of movie score concrete. The editing itself has a jazziness that belies the cold-seeming re-enactment of the school performance of jazz and that tension keeps up until the end which presses and delights if it is not meant to surprise. This story is made of music.

On that, if the idea that this is a pursuit of excellence tale about not just a jazz drummer but an academic jazz drummer puts you off then think of this: the struggle to deliver individuality shed of its placental egocentricity, a struggle mounted between a promising neophyte and a violent teacher, is more usually told in a sporting context but here it is expressed through one of our greatest pleasures. We are discomforted to know this but are as glad of our own effort as that which we witness. And this is all done with cinema.

Monday, November 10, 2014


Failed NASA testpilot turned failing farmer stumbles into an active role in a plan to save humanity from its self destructive urge through a mission to the stars. The good part is that this calls upon a dizzying array of ideas that render this epic into genuine science fiction and not just a sicence fiction setting. The bad part is that these are frequently undercut by great lunking cliches and dimmer sparks. Once again, Christopher Nolan has given us a great popcorn movie but held us down until we slap the playground dirt and call it an epic.


This is a real cinematic feast. Nolan knows his movies and trusts you to follow him without the need to wink at this reference to Kubrick or that subversion of convention. He creates a layer that is constantly plain and compelling. Motivation, location, information are all administered at the optimum doses. This frees him up to do some fancy footwork with his concepts and serve all that with some muscular imagery. When we arrive at Saturn in full IMAX we feel the heft of how we got there as we marvel at the scale and majesty without the faintest whiff of cheese. When we sit in the middle of a discussion of the drastic time shift involved in being on a planet with strong gravity we are rivetted. When we drive through the whipping chaos of a cornfield or leave the Earth's atmosphere we feel privileged to be in a cinema. Christopher Nolan, champion of celluloid shooting and projection and the IMAX format, adds that pleasurable solemnity to the thrill as much as a Kubrick or John Ford did.

The central tale of a parent and child reconciling their separation over time and distance, an arc older than Noah's, weaves so beautifully into the outer layer of breathtaking concept that its delivery almost masks the fact that you pretty much got it half way through. This is not just a sci-fi setting, it's real sci-fi. The substance of this film contains real awe and joy.

It's godless. Apart from the curlywurly preponderances 'pon love which could (but don't) plummet into the porridge of the concept of spirituality, this story does not suggest a sentient cosmic force. What we do get is something you'll work for yourself about halfway through but something so beautifully delivered that it will leave you smiling. That's one less globe of Gouda to deal with in an epic so stuffed with them. Unlike in Prometheus there is none of the "choose to believe" nonsense.

The casting is sensational (for an exception see below). Matthew McConaughey again shows us why he's been appearing in such gift roles for the past few years as he stands as tall as a Gary Cooper, comments as wryly as a Roland Coleman and is as chiseled and present as a Gregory Peck. His performance actually transcends the cheese he is frequently asked to munch on. The scene of parting between him and his young daughter is genuinely heartrending. This is is large part due to her casting by the young un Mackenzie Foy who if she can stick with it and get into a YA lit adaptation around nineteen will wow us all again.


Why is Michael Caine in this film? He loiters near the teleprompter, his old man slacks stapled to his ribcage, delivering trailer soundbites and pages of exposition with a kind of wall-eyed somnambulism. He exhibits no affinity with his lines at all except for the Dylan Thomas quote about raging against the dying of the light which, on reflection might have been appropriated by Nolan as Caine was caught on mic murmuring something that did mean something to him. Chris, next time cast someone who cares.

There's a moment in James Cameron's hokey but fun The Abyss where Ed Harris is getting kitted up for a possible suicide mission and is asked by a character "why him?" It's a good question: he's the captain of the sub and has so far done a bang up job at the helm, fending off the openly loony military maven and taken the crew through some very nasty straits. So, why should he be the one to deprive his vessel and crew of his highly capable leadership? "Someone's got to do it," he says. And we are meant to think," oh, ok, it's just a movie, let's go with that."

In Interstellar these big goofy cheese sandwiches are down to Matthew McConaughey and feel so clumsy that they bring all the fast thinking to the big grinding halt that happens when the picnic whinger finds out the wrong kind of tomato sauce was packed. During a pretty fascinating dialogue about the strategy to approach a planet with a big time shift issue (an hour spent there is seven years everywhere else) Cooper (M Mc) flips a digital display of the planet to find a white board which he draws a stick figure version of exactly the same picture and suggests a viable plan to minimise the time damage. The hard core sci-bods around him light up with recognition and approval. One smiles: "that could work." Really? It could work? Even I understood the plan. They knew everything else about the problem on earth and yet not one of these family-sized brains thought of it back on Earth. Really? Really?

Later Cooper rattles off a perfectly serviceable list of the biological reasons for the existence of love and a scientist overrides them with obfuscation so bullshitty it might have been written by M. Night Shamylan. It's like the "that's what I choose to believe" line that undermined the entirety of Prometheus (well, there were other things but that's the one that killed it for me).

I am usually happy allowing the credibility stretches of a piece of fiction to slide along and let the story take wing but Interstellar contains so many of the "if you knew that thing could do that minutes ago why the hell did it take you so long ....?" moments that it might as well have been as dire as Prometheus. It is saved, to its credit, by being less abjectly idiotic as that one, though, despite these winces.

This really should have been around ninety minutes long. It's not a blockbuster with brains so much as a brainy film with bloat. If you can track it down there's a Spanish film called Time Crimes which deals with time anomalies in a dizzying but complete fashion and contains none of the baggage in the hold of Interstellar to make it feel as big as its ideas. I also think of the bonus disc in David Lynch's Lime Green Set. That disc included a feature length collection of scenes left out of the final cut of Wild At Heart and it's instructive viewing. Each of the scenes not only makes perfect sense but could have come from any conventional film, despite sharing the look and setting of the released version. What Lynch excised from his film was everything ordinary and created something that, while not my favourite of his, is in its every frame and sound signed by him. Nolan has heavy talent as a filmmaker but is too given to quite needless playing to the gallery. Could I suggest the gallery would be better pleased if he eviscerated his films of everything but that core whose intellect invites us in so that we thrill at our own discovery as the gifts meet us from the screen? I'm not asking for Tarkovsky; Nolan, the Nolan of Memento and The Prestige, will do just fine.

So, how do I deal with a movie I have to keep apologising for if I am to publicly admire it? I remember the pleasures of the ride to keep from feeling dirty.