Stuff of The Year 2016, 1: Movies

As a new (foster) dad in 2016, my movie watching and blogging in general has been curtailed; an app on my phone has a lengthy list of ‘must see’ when South African release dates or TV schedules or plane journeys or streaming services or life in general permit  Despite that, here’s a few comments (in no particular order) about each of the films I’ve seen this year that I’m recalling with good memories at the end of 2016 (note: they may not all have been released in 2016). Where possible, I’ve linked to earlier blogs about them, and/or a trailer. I’m confident that all of these films will enhance your life; but there’s no accounting for taste … 
 
 
By rights this should be a traumatic, so painful it’s barely watchable, experience. That the film manages to do justice to the pain of the situation it portrays without ever feeling invasive or voyeuristic, is a testament to the brilliance of the direction; that it goes still further, finding beauty, hope and even transcendence is almost miraculous. Brie Larson’s central performance is extraordinary, and Jacob Tremblay as the young boy through whom the awfulness is seen puts in a turn that somehow weds maturity and innocence. It’s an almost overwhelming film; one that breathes some life and hope into a painful 2016.
 
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Quentin Tarantino needs someone to say ‘no’ to him; or at least to cut 30-45 minutes from most of his films when he’s not watching. The Hateful Eight isn’t immune to those truths; but I really enjoyed it. The self-imposed restrictions of the setting force a kind of economy (granted, not an economy of length) onto the film; the film drips with the simmering threat of violence and treachery in which Tarantino specialises. There’s a swathe of fine performances, the cinematography is brilliant. It’s been a long, long time since this prodigiously talented director made a truly great film; but this one is the most out and out enjoyable one he’s given us in many years.
 
I was fully prepared to take a tone of sneering distance to this film; especially as some mentioned it in similar tone to Kick Ass, a film which had much to admire but with which I had some significant problems (though not the ones some had). I was totally won over by Deadpool, though. I laughed, and I kept laughing for the whole film; I don’t think it’s in the same league as Shaun of The Dead, but I think that was the last film in which I laughed as much as I did in this one. Ryan Reynolds has superb comic timing; the rest of the cast know their roles, and play them well. The postmodern knowingness never alienates; the film has a surprising warmth despite the tone of the humour.
 
Due to my personal connections with this film’s subject matter, I approached it with nervous caution. I was surprised, and encouraged, to find an exciting story that does justice to the complexity of my own journey around how to respond to the terrorists who murdered m y friend. I’m a little biased to any film with Aaron Paul, and on reflection perhaps Helen Mirren was miscast; but I’m deeply grateful for a film which makes an attempt to do justice to the complexities of one of the defining issues of our era. I suspect I’ll find it hard to re-watch, but that’s no criticism; it’s simply the story of my experience.
 
This is a joy filled piece with the Coen brothers displaying the lightness of touch that lies behind the best of their comic work. As is so often the case, tremendous performances are drawn from all the players, and there are so may scenes that still linger with me months later, causing me to chuckle out loud in awkward silences when my my mind wonders. Would that it were so simple for me to just recite to you the jokes; this isn’t, though, a film of jokes and one-liners. It’s rather a delicate plot that strings together a series of brilliantly funny, carefully constructed comedic moments and exchanges.
 
Of course I was looking forward to this; I’ve always enjoyed the Harry Potter stories; I felt the films were patchy (the first two especially so). I was excited to see how her world would play out on screen without a book to adhere to. I was also apprehensive; as a new foster dad, I’d taken my 13-year old foster son to the cinema a few times this year. I don’t think he’d seen many films before coming to us; he certainly found it hard to sit through a whole film this time last year. He saw The BFG with my wife which he really liked (I’ve not caught up with it); Zootopia/Zootropolis (again, I missed it) was enjoyed. As a child who has experienced a lot of loss in his life, he thought Finding Dory was too sad to really enjoy. I wondered about Fantastic Beasts; was it too British for a boy who’s never been outside the Western Cape of South Africa, and is only just learning to read? Does he even like fantasy? His comments on coming out: “It was brilliant. It was scary. I want to see it again”. Job done; the first time he’s come out of a film with me, desperate to see it again (he has). I loved it too – much to say, joy and wonder in the right measures. Small criticisms – like the scenes inside the suitcase don’t quite work – don’t detract from this is a magical piece of storytelling.
 
An 80s (Irish) school romance-musical? Too much? Not at all. This is one of those films that you can’t help but walk away from smiling. Life-affirmingly uplifting, with proper new songs that work in their own right. If you watch this and don’t come out happy, then I’d find it hard to love you.
 
A few years ago the director of Arrival made a thriller/drama (Prisoners) that was much lauded but didn’t quite work for me. Then he gave us Sicario, an excellent thriller around the Mexico-USA drug trade. Then Arrival, which is simply wonderful. Though the plot is largely a staple one, it still kept the tension brewing and boiling; I didn’t see the resolution coming, which is testament to how engrossed I was. It demands much of star Amy Adams, who puts in a performance of depth and compassion; the soundtrack is devastatingly powerful (and, to my non-musically trained ears, unconventional); the cinematography creative – there some startlingly beautiful images that you just can’t shake from your mind for weeks to come. It recalls 2001, Momento, Inception, Interstellar and much else  – doing justice to all of them whilst still being its own vision. It’s themes are never more relevant at the end of such a difficult year; and to those of us nervous as to how this director will approach the Bladerunner sequel in 2017 now have much excitement and hope to manage.
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Room: trauma, love and beauty

Giving meaning to tragedy and trauma is dangerous ground. Whether you’re a preacher, a writer, a journalist, a film-maker or just somebody trying to walk alongside a person experiencing trauma, the traps are the same. Say too much and you risk the trite, the trivial, the weightless; say too little and you risk a silence which is filled by worst imaginings. Try to find meaning and you flirt with missing the point, not doing justice to the pain; try to let events speak for themselves and you come close to nihilism. There’s so much that can go wrong it can feel like it’s safest to do nothing if you don’t have to, unless events don’t force themselves on you. Trauma is distant to most of us; but as I found out when my when friend was murdered by terrorists, that approach is ultimately of no use. Sometimes the worst case happens, the unthinkable becomes your daily concern, the unimaginable your lived experience.

This is the territory we are in with Room, the film adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s  massively successful novel (an adaption written by the novelist). I had little knowledge of the book personally, but the film-makers want us to be in no doubt as to where this film goes – the bare facts may make this a hard sell, but the publicity wants us to believe that this will affirm life without patronising or dismissing pain. It’s the story of a young woman (faultlessly played by Brie Larson) confined in one room for seven years where she’s repeatedly raped by her captor; she inhabits the room with her five-year old son to whom she gave birth in the room as a result of the rapes. Jack’s world is one in four walls; it’s all he’s ever known, all he’s ever seen save for what he sees through the single window in the form of a skylight and the television. This is a child’s eye view film; it is through him we perceive the abuse which we never see; it’s through him we learn of his mother’s past life on the outside; it’s with him that we eventually journey to the outside world in the film’s final third.

Jack’s mum has helped him create a fantastical world within the four walls of his existence; around his fifth birthday she tries to explain the outside world to him. He’s disbelieving, but gradually grasps towards something resembling truth. When he attempts to affect their escape he’s just about aware enough to cope with the revelation that there are other people and animals and places.

We know there are real-world equivalents to this fictional story, but still this film is trying to imagine the unimaginable. By all rights it should be inadequate or trite or tasteless or just plain unbelievable. In trying to make a film that isn’t a thriller or a drama or comedy but instead a hymn to love and relationships, the film-makers should be falling flat on their faces. Instead they’ve given us a genuinely unforgettable, overwhelming and transcendent film that helps us rediscover ourselves, our loved ones and the world around us. It finds beauty in the desperately ordinary thanks to some remarkable cinematography that makes the small room both a place of captivity and a universe to discover; the relationships are perfectly drawn and life-affirming thanks to Brie Larson’s and Jacob Tremblay’s (the son, Jack) achingly beautiful performances. The depths of their relationship are unfathomable yet also utterly recognisable to anyone who has ever loved. The startlingly brilliant music haunts, prods, pushes and finally engulfs. We never see the rape or abuse take place, but we’re left in no doubt as to its reality, its inescapability. Yet we’re never without hope or beauty, and ultimately the film lets us and the characters find life and love in new, beautiful and subtle ways.

There’s much to say about Room, but at the end of the day there’s little I can properly articulate. I can think of maybe one other film (Pan’s Labyrinth  – in many ways very different, in others very similar) that has come close to making me feel as moved, alive, tearful and full of wonder as this one. It’s a rare work of art that leaves you speechless yet desperate to talk, but Room is one of them.

I rated this movie 5/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 10/10 on imdb.com