Hell or High Water, a B movie western to savour.

Hell or High Water.

Hell or High Water.

One of the reasons that film makers enjoy making genre films is that it allows them to use the pre-existing structure as a means of commenting surreptitiously on the present. Instead of asking the audience to sit through a social issues film with all that that implies, they get to see a western or a sci-fi film. And the themes that the film makers are really interested in are slipped in via the back door.

Hell and High Water is the ninth film directed by Scottish film maker David Mackenzie and is effectively a B movie western set in modern day Texas. A couple of brothers embark on a spate of low-end bank robberies and are pursued by the grizzled sheriff and his weary sidekick.

Chris Pine and Ben

Chris Pine and Ben Foster.

The brothers are played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, with the former as the sensible, strong but silent one who calls in desperation on the help of his loose cannon of a brother, who’s just got out of gaol, to help him with the plan that he’s hatched.

Whilst Jeff Bridges, as the sheriff, gives us a gleefully prickly curmudgeon, who particularly enjoys the racial points he scores at the expense of his long-suffering sidekick, the stoic Gil Birmingham.

Two decidedly bad seeds.

Two decidedly bad seeds.

What elevates the film, at least for the first hour or so, is the script. Written by Taylor Sheridan, it’s based on an original story by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and their haunting score is the first thing that gives the film an added sheen.

Then there’s the fact that the backdrop against which the robberies take place gives the film a decidedly murky moral hue. Because the brothers are only robbing the branches of the bank that has used the financial crash of 2008 to force them out of their family home – a crash of course that was caused by the banks in the first place

And most of all, the script produces a series of deft one liners that are delivered with the kind of insouciance perfectly in keeping with the very Texan feel of the film.

Still the dude.

Still the dude.

Inevitably, once things turn violent the film has to take sides, and that moral ambivalence is sacrificed. But for the first hour or so, it’s all impressively dark and surprisingly nuanced. And even after that, the performances are so strong that you find yourself happily going along for the ride. It’s the sort of film that Sam Fuller or Fritz Lang used to produce when the studio that had hired them weren’t really paying attention. A classic B movie then, but a classic all the same. You can see the trailer for Hell or High Water here. And there’s a moody video for the Cave Ellis track Comancheria here.

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“Julieta” a return to form for Almodovar.

Almodovar's Julieta.

Almodovar’s Julieta.

After the dizzy heights of All About My Mother in 1999, the films of Pedro Almodóvar hit something of a plateau. The next four were all just a little too convoluted, while the two most recent, The Skin I Live In (reviewed earlier here) and I’m So Excited were, for all their surface glitz and glamour, just plain poor. So his latest offering, Julieta, comes as a huge relief.

We first meet Julieta as a middle aged mother who has been catastrophically estranged from her only daughter. And for the first two thirds of the film, we discover in an extended flashback what it was that caused the breech between them as we delve into Julieta’s past. And then in the film’s final third, we return to Julieta as she is today, alone and abandoned and drowning in guilt.

The film is based on three short stories by Alice Monroe, who is far from an obvious fit for the exuberant Spaniard. Like the other great short story writer of our age, William Trevor, Monroe’s characters lead apparently drab and so say ordinary lives, in which small gestures speak volumes, and many of the conflicts that haunt their lives remain unresolved.

Almodovar stalwart Rossy De Palma channelling Mrs. Danvers.

Almodovar stalwart Rossy De Palma channelling Mrs. Danvers.

Almodóvar on the other hand is the modern day master of the 50s melodrama, and it’s hard to reference any of his best films without sighting Douglas Sirk or Alfred Hitchcock. So like them, he too likes to propel his narratives with broad, brushstrokes that produce an outpouring of emotion, which he brings to fruition thanks to his exuberant, cinematic expressionism.

So there is a slight sense of incongruity about the way he tells this story, and the kind of stories he has used to source the film.

That Obscure Object of Desire.

That Obscure Object of Desire.

Furthermore, in yet another nod to Vertigo and, more obviously, Buñuel’s That Obscure Object Of Desire, he has cast two different actresses in the title role, with Emma Suárez playing the older Julieta, and Adriana Ugarte playing her as the younger woman. Which further adds to our sense of distanciation, as you occasionally find yourself thinking of the older and younger actresses as representing the mother and daughter relationship. And you have to remind yourself that the actual mother and daughter in question are the character of Julieta and her daughter.

All of which was very much a conscious decision on the part of Almodóvar. He was trying, if you like, to make a stripped down Almodóvar film. One in which the emotional highs and lows you normally associate with his films have been reigned in.

Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

What you think of the resulting film will largely depend on what you think of that decision. It’s still, for all its relative restraint, a wonderfully engaging film on an emotional level. It’s just not quite as emotionally explosive as you might have hoped for, especially given the story it tells.

But I quibble. To all extents and purposes, this is a welcome return to form for one of Europe’s most talented film makers. And you can see the trailer for Julieta here.

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3 new albums from The Avalanches, DJ Shadow and Blood Orange.

The Avalanches' Wildflower.

The Avalanches’ Wildflower.

The Avalanches released their debut album Since I Left You in 2000, and its kaleidoscopic mix of sunny samples moulded to infectious groves saw it rightly heralded as one of the albums of the decade. Wildflower is their belated sequel. So why has it taken 16 years to arrive?

Well for one thing, the even larger number of samples they needed for their second record took over 5 years for clearance. Then the five Australian DJs became two, and are now two plus one. Then their record label went belly up, and one of them developed a life threatening, debilitating illness.

avalanches-since-i-left-you1The good news is, and not withstanding the wait, Wildflower feels like the completely natural next step after Since I Left You. As you’d expect, a slew of guest vocalists have joined the party now, with Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev, David Berman of Silver Jews, Warren Ellis and Father John Misty bobbing up and down in the sea of meticulously layered sounds.

A few people have grumbled that it’s too recognizably a new Avalanches album, and that they haven’t evolved enough. But that’s always the fate of the avant garde. What begins as weird and aggressively off-putting quickly becomes acceptable and then the norm. This is even more obviously the case with DJ Shadow.

DJ Shadow's The Mountain Will Fall.

DJ Shadow’s The Mountain Will Fall.

The new album, his fifth, is called The Mountain Will Fall, and like the previous couple it’s gone largely un-noticed. That’s because the hype that his debut album Endtroducing generated in 1996 was bound to be followed by something of an inevitable backlash. And once again, as I wrote earlier on his previous albums here, this is most unfair.

Unsurprisingly, this is a much darker and more brooding affair than the Avalanches’ album, but it suffers from the same, unjust criticism. How can this sound so recognizably like a n other DJ Shadow album? Shouldn’t he have moved on?

The point is, what he and then the Avalanches were doing was not some sort of passing fad. Effectively, they’d mined a new art form.

Beyonce's Lemonade.

Beyonce’s Lemonade.

The instrumental hiphop that he pioneered was manufactured by piecing together samples from other records and from all sorts of disparate eras and genres, and piecing them together to form a gloriously coherent and formidable soundscape.

The trouble is, nowadays that’s how all albums are put together, from the obscure fringes to the mainstream centre. By mining as many diverse sources as possible, in every area of an albums creation. There are over 72 writers on Beyoncé’s new album, the excellent Lemonade, and over 2,000 individuals are credited with having contributed to it.

Blood Orange's Freetown Sound.

Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound.

A perfect example of which is Freetown Sound, the new album from Blood Orange. In many ways, it’s a relatively conventional album on the funkier, RnB side of soul, from a British artist who’s taken four or five albums to finally find his voice, which he has done here in spades.

But each of the tracks are bookended by samples and film clips that give the album and each of the tracks a decidedly political edge. So that on the one hand, it has a much more contemporary feel to it than either of the above, but on the other, it never could have been made the way that it was, or have ended up sounding the way that it does, without the pioneering work done by the likes of Shadow in days of yore.

Digging for gold, Josh Davies aka Shadow is rumoured to own over 60,000 LPs.

Digging for gold, Josh Davies aka Shadow is rumoured to own over 60,000 LPs.

Though not quite as good as some critics would have you believe, Freetown Sound is nonetheless a serious album, and gets an 8.8 from Pitchfork here, while The Mountain Will Fall gets an unjustly skimpy 6.6 here, which isn’t really fair on either count. They more properly merit about 8.0 each – Wildflower gets an 8.5 here.

What all three albums represent is the fruits of a lifetime of hard work from serious musicians for whom music is not so much a choice as it is a compulsion. And for whom, and thanks to whom, making an album the old way simply isn’t an option any more.

You can see the video for DJ Shadow’s The Mountain Will Fall here, the lead single Augustine from Blood Orange here, and you can hear The Avalanches’ Colours here– the video for the single Frankie Sinatra is pants, which is a shame, as the song itself is impossibly catchy.

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A trip down the Amazon with “Embrace of the Serpent”.

Embrace of the Serpent.

Embrace of the Serpent.

This is the third film from Columbian film maker Ciro Guerra and it won the main prize in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes last year, but it really ought to have been invited to be screened there in the competition proper. And it only lost out on the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film to Hungary’s Son of Saul – which, quite correctly given the subject matter, was so harrowing it was almost unwatchable.

Embrace of the Serpent is a fictionalized marrying of the twin journeys into the heart of Amazonia that were embarked upon in the first half of the twentieth century. The first was made by the German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg in 1909, and the second in 1940 by the American Richard Evans Schultes, who is considered to be the father of ethnobotany, the study of the relationship between peoples and their plants.

We begin with the German who turns in desperation to a shaman, the haughty Karamakate, to relieve him of the delirium he is danger of slipping into.

the-new-film-embrace-of-the-serpent-conjures-a-forgotten-indigenous-vision-of-the-amazon-1452186262-crop_mobileBut Karamakate has seen his land destroyed and his people decimated by the white man and his insatiable appetite for rubber, and for whatever else he can the rape the forest of. And he only very reluctantly agrees to be their guide.

Thirty years later, and the American Schultes is retracing the German’s steps in search of a wonder plant the latter is supposed to have discovered in the course of that first trip.

Shot ravishingly in black and white, the film has been described by many as hallucinogenic, but dream-like would be a more accurate description of the mood and atmosphere it evokes. Everything that happens is connected to what happened before and to what happens after, and there are reasons for the things that happen, and yet somehow events don’t unfold in the way that you would expect them to.

2001: A Space Odyssey.

2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s as if classical, Newtonian causality had been suspended and been replaced by a higher logic that we’ve yet to have explained to us. You know it must all make sense, you’re just not quite sure how.

Of course, it’s not hard to see why people might resort to describing it as hallucinogenic. Very briefly and for barely a minute, the film bursts into colour in a badly misjudged attempt to imagine what the trip Schultes has gone on might look and feel like after imbibing of a local concoction – Schultes would later go on to write a famous book on LSD in 1979 with Albert Hofmann, the man who discovered it in 1938.

The fourth and final section of 2001 takes flight.

The fourth and final section of 2001 takes flight.

But it’s impossible to watch these experiments in colour and not think of what Kubrick did in much the same way for 22 glorious minutes in the final and genuinely psychedelic section of 2001: A Space Odyssey – which I reviewed earlier here.

That brief mis-step apart, Embrace of the Serpent is at times a majestic, at others an eerily haunting film that covers much the same territory as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but from the other end of the barrel of the gun. The conclusion is the same, but the journey getting there is a more isolated and therefore a more contemplative experience.

And the cacophony of chaos that that journey reveals is produced not by the machines of war, but by a jungle teaming with a life that’s being casually butchered by the white men manning the guns, and approaching from beyond the trees.

You can see the trailer for Embrace of the Serpent here.

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“Tale of Tales”, ravishingly grown-up fairy tales.

??? in The Tale of Tales.

Stacy Martin in Tale of Tales.

As is so often the case, there was something mildly unsatisfactory about the prizes meted out at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Though in retrospect, given what happened at this year’s Festival, last year’s winners feel like a vintage batch. If places like Cannes keep giving the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh prizes like that, then obviously they’re going to keep sullying the cinematic landscape with more of the same.

Last year’s Palme D’Or went to Dheepan, at the expense of Carol which got the consolation prize of Best Actress for Rooney Mara. But both left you ever so slightly deflated, the former settling into conventional thriller mode, the latter being too coolly mannered. But the one that got away was Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales, which somehow failed to win anything.

Rooney Mara with Cate Blanchett as Carol.

Rooney Mara with Cate Blanchett as Carol.

Garrone burst on to the international scene in 2008 with Gomorrah, his much praised adaptation of Roberto Saviani’s unmasking of Neapolitan corruption. But you always had a sense that that film had been lauded more for its moral intent than for its artistic merit. And its episodic nature denuded it of any sense of narrative drive.

There’s an episodic feel to his latest film too. But on this occasion and unusually, the separate narrative strands that seem to exist independently of one another, and only eventually meet thanks to a clumsily forced ending, produce a film that feels both natural and earthily alive.

The 2015 winner Dheepan.

The 2015 winner Dheepan.

That’s because Tale of Tales is based on three of the fifty or so fairy tales that were collated by Gianbattista Basile in 17th century southern Italy. And fairy tales are the one genre where narrative drive takes a back seat. Here, for once, it really is all about character. And what emerges is a very different Italian landscape to the one Garrone previously showed us, free here from any sense of moral lessons to be learned, and all the better and more alive because of it.

The first of the three sees Selma Hayek as a queen hell bent on being provided for with child. But the boy that is eventually produced arrives as a twin, and inevitably there’s a price for her determination to have had him.

The second revolves around John C. Reilly as a king whose selfishness results in his failing to more properly administer to the needs of his daughter. And the third, and the most tangibly tactile of the three, follows a magnificently debauched king, played with lusty gusto by Vincent Cassel, as he is led forever by his desire to pursue whatever it is that has momentarily caught his fancy.

Fellini looks up at la Seraghina on the set of 8 1/2.

Fellini looks up at la Seraghina on the set of 8 1/2.

Though when that eventually leads him to Stacy Martin draped in nothing more than a cascade of fiery curls that just about preserve her modesty, you could be forgiven for wondering whether selfishness might not be being given something of a bad rap.

Sumptuously photographed and shot entirely on location at various castles throughout Italy, Tale Of Tales is a wonderfully grown up and magnificent beast of a film. And Garrone has that Felliniesque urge to cast as much for an actor’s physical presence as for their ability to deliver lines. Franco Pistoni’s turn as the necromancer is particularly striking, and the wollowy form with hollowed cheeks that bares down on the Queen was never going to be the barer of good news. And so it proves.

Tale of Tales demands to be seen in the cinema, and is released in Ireland and Britain this June. You can see the trailer here.

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