“It creates an illusion of motion. An illusion of life. Out there, they just see a beam of light. And nothing happens without light.”
Empire of Light has been marketed as Sam Mendes’ ode to cinema, and that can been seen in its setting — an ageing independent cinema on the English south coast — and the poetic lines about the medium intoned by Toby Jones as the fastidious projectionist. This is all set dressing, however, to a story that really focuses on the relationship between Michael Ward and Olivia Colman’s characters, unfolding amidst the racial unrest of the early 1980s. Unfortunately the characters are all written as one-note sketches — the entire cast works admirably with the material but even a titan like Colman can only do so much with the cliché of an emotionally unstable older woman enamoured with a younger man. This is Mendes’ first solo writing credit and it seems, at least for now, his writing cannot match his directorial skill. He is most effective in portraying racism in varied guises, both direct and insinuated. Empire of Light is all beautifully presented in the hands of veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins (who has now collaborated on around half of Mendes’ films) accompanied by a gently moving score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. With so much talent involved, it seems harsh to judge the film based significantly on the script alone, but this kind of quiet, emotional picture is ultimately dependent on quality writing. My impression from the trailer was that Mendes was looking to emulate Cinema Paradiso and I feared he might engage in too much navel-gazing about the importance of cinema. In truth, I could have done with more.
Luca Guadagnino’s dark road trip drama — divided not by chapters but by two-letter State abbreviations — follows Maren’s journey to learn about her past which leads her to meet Lee, a hustler fuelled by the same dark hunger which resides in her. Taylor Russell is immediately captivating, drawing us into Maren’s reality with the adolescent confusion of newfound desires, and the sense of losing control. Although violence is frequent, Bones and All doesn’t revel in gore, showing just enough to be disquieting before the camera shifts, lingering instead on the perpetrators in the messy aftermath with crimson-soaked clothes or Chalamet’s sharp jaw and neck stained in faded red matching the dyed tips of his hair. These are blue collar monsters in the vein of Near Dark, transient and trying to survive in a world that neither sees nor cares for them. It is suggested that most of their kind stay isolated because being around others forces you to see yourself, a stark counterpoint to Three Thousand Years of Longing’s desire to be seen. Chalamet is a slightly odd fit for Lee, his presence will no doubt attract viewers but the light swagger of his performance conflicts with a character burdened by trauma that he refuses to share. Guadagnino has a consummate skill for presenting deep connections that feel somehow doomed, although Bones and All lacks the perfectly controlled pacing of Call Me By Your Name — it meanders too long toward a conclusion that is hurried and unsatisfying.
“You know, lost souls are not that different from those in the zone. The zone is enjoyable, but when that joy becomes an obsession, one becomes disconnected from life.”
Pixar’s most experimental film since Wall-E, Soul is also one of its best even though I wish its focus had been slightly different. Pete Doctor has directed Pixar’s most creatively original films: Inside Out, Up and Monsters, Inc. (which for me remains the studio’s pinnacle). As in Up, he uses a masterclass opening sequence designed to communicate a single concept: the transportative power of music. Truly feeling Joe’s consciousness melt away in playing improvisational jazz is astounding. Soul‘s grander ambitions come from the non-musical meaning of its title: exploring the essence of what makes us human and individual. I am unsurprisingly in favour of allowing children to grapple with metaphysical concepts, and they are presented here with wondrous simplicity. It won’t be as outright entertaining as typical family fare, but it will definitely seed ideas and questions. The representation of pre-and-post-life in an abstract way — divorced from any religious angle — becomes somewhat sanitised, and its non-literal depiction more difficult to explain, though children capable of understanding Inside Out‘s conceptual take on emotions should be equally able to grasp Soul. So, whilst the richness of jazz may be merely the vehicle used for Soul‘s true intentions, the result is both unusual and impressive.
“This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the real magic of the movies.”
Louis B. Mayer
With the freedom afforded by Netflix, Fincher explores 1930s Hollywood by painstakingly creating a black and white film that feels as though it might have been unearthed from that era. It is something of a niche endeavour but the results are remarkable. Structurally, it is less convoluted than it first appears, using the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s work on the screenplay for Citizen Kane as a vehicle for his reminiscing through a series of flashbacks about his experiences with the Hollywood figures who inspired the story. Gary Oldman’s larger than life characters have always been entertaining, but the nuanced roles he has chosen of late reveal his true depth as an actor — as Mank he is self-confident and witty but not always likeable, with alcoholism and a need to sound smart often eroding any self-restraint. Fincher’s focus is less on how Citizen Kane was written than the squalid nature of Hollywood as seen through Mank’s disillusioned eyes, with executives performing as much as actors to manipulate others, and the lies of the silver screen feeding into politics. What holds the film back is (in common with much of Fincher’s work) a lack of emotional weight to any of Mank’s relationships, all of which seem considered rather than felt, more in character for Welles than the erratic Mankiewicz.
“A lot of the time we feel that our life’s the worst, but I think that if you looked in anybody else’s closet, you wouldn’t trade your shit for their shit.”
Jonah Hill’s directorial debut is a nostalgia-soaked homage to the Los Angeles streets of his youth, following 13-year-old Stevie as he balances a questionable home life and a newfound friendship with a crew of skaters. Youthful aimlessness captured through grainy, low-fi production (shot on 16mm film) recalls Kids as well as early Richard Linklater. Befitting many of his acting roles, Hill demonstrates a well-attuned instinct for the awkwardness of male bonding, and the poor adolescent advice that accompanies it (“don’t thank people — they’re gonna think you’re gay,” Stevie is initially warned before the crew’s leader disabuses him of the notion). The unvarnished presentation of the reality of risk-taking and adult behaviour amongst children rarely feels forced, though its recurring theme of subconscious self-harm is only addressed at the end. Setting the film over two decades in the past also reduces its relevance to today’s teenagers. Mid90s may not be a stellar debut, but it demonstrates that Hill has skill behind the camera that indicates a bright future.