Saturday, 4 July 2020

1,001 Films: "Romper Stomper" (1992)

Romper Stomper was the film that first suggested Russell Crowe for our consideration as a major modern movie star; a tough, uncompromising, pretty relentless study of a neo-Nazi skinhead gang living in a flophouse in the Footscray suburb of Melbourne. Writer-director Geoffrey Wright hews to a template set down by the teen gang exploitationers of the 1950s and 60s, with principal bullies Hando (Crowe) and Davey (Daniel Pollock) set against one another upon the arrival of a girl in their ranks (Jacqueline McKenzie, as an epileptic bohemian dropout Hando has designs on turning into his Eva Braun). More so than any other of the films caught up in the early-Nineties violence-in-the-movies controversy, it remains a very tough watch. Like the later Crash, which described its characters through a pile-up of sex scenes, this comes to define its leads by charging hell for leather through one brutal setpiece after another: pitched battles against the local Vietnamese community, a party where the dancing is only just less thuggish than the sex going on in the bedrooms, a number of scenes (the opening assault on a couple in an underpass, a later home invasion) which would appear to be at least partly inspired by A Clockwork Orange.

One of the film's strengths/flaws is that it offers no immediate point of identification. Hando and Davey are broadly as detestable as each other (the real difference between them is only that one leads, the other follows; Wright can't or won't make it explicit these boys are ideal partners, but it's there nonetheless) and McKenzie's character is there to show how seductive an ideology rage and hate can be for the weak. It's an unusual stance, but one that means there's no-one to look to or root for in the inter-Nazi fight scenes, which manage to be properly scrappy in the manner of the best Aussie street brawls and convincingly hideous as spectacle. (A point Wright underlines in having the final three-way stand-off observed by a bus full of Japanese tourists.) It's exceptionally well made and acted - assembled with real conviction, right down to the godawful right-wing pub rock sourced for the skinheads' listening pleasure - and would probably be even more problematic if it wasn't. Crowe, pulsing with hatred, gets the big ideological rants that tend to make stars of unknown actors unafraid to play scuzzballs, but also conjures up a number of more soulful thousand-yard stares. It was a logical step for him to travel from this to Gladiator in less than a decade, though given the actor's methodology of immersing himself totally in his characters, you almost certainly wouldn't have wanted to be around him at the time of shooting.

Romper Stomper is available to stream via Amazon Prime, and on DVD through Contender.

Friday, 3 July 2020

For what it's worth...

My top ten streaming picks (for the week beginning July 3, 2020):

1 (new) A White, White Day (15) **** (Curzon, BFI)
2. Just Don't Think I'll Scream (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
3. The Australian Dream (15) **** (via Amazon, Curzon, BFI)
4. The Uncertain Kingdom (15) **** (Curzon, BFI)
5. The County (12A) **** (Curzon)
6 (new) Lynn + Lucy (uncertificated) *** (BFI)
7 (new) The Booksellers (15) *** (Curzon, Amazon Prime)
8. On the Record (12A) *** (Curzon, BFI)
9. The Dead and the Others (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)
10.  The Day After I'm Gone (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (2) 
Dolittle (PG)
2 (28) Emma. (U)
3 (1) Birds of Prey, or... (15)
4 (new) Dark Waters (12) **
5 (31917 (15) ***
6 (5) Sonic the Hedgehog (PG)
7 (18) The Invisible Man (15) ****
8 (10) Jumanji: The Next Level (12)
9 (7) Onward (U) ***
10 (15) Frozen 2 (U) **


My top five: 
1. Parasite

2. True History of the Kelly Gang [above]
3. Ema
4. The Invisible Man
5. The Personal History of David Copperfield

In a lonely place: "A White, White Day"

It somehow feels cosmically right that as the world gets drawn ever more forcefully in the direction of extremes, Chile and Iceland - the hot and the cold of it, the north and the south - should take up the mantle of the most magnetic filmmaking nations on the planet. Via Pablo Larraín and associates, Chile had already established itself as party central before May's Ema; if the lockdown release schedule has confirmed anything, it's that we have to look in the general direction of Reykjavik not just for new stories, but new and clear-eyed ways of telling them. The County, the reissued Woman at War, and now A White, White Day, which opens with an enigmatic road accident in the whiteout conditions suggested by the title before settling in to observe, from a distance, a renovation project on what looks like an old weather station overlooking a cliff. Eventually, the fog lifts. The renovation is being undertaken while on leave by local police chief Ingimundur (Ingvar Sigurdsson, from Of Horses and Men and Jar City) as a means of coping with the recent death of his wife, although it comes to a crashing halt when he uncovers evidence that his beloved had an affair before her passing. With nothing else to do with his days, our man finds himself a new project: he sits and broods, a lonely old man in a half-finished house, alternating between beating himself up and plotting retribution, and either way going crazy. As an image of male obsession, it would be bracing even before you factor in the clifftop windchill.

The approach writer-director Hlynur Palmason takes is resolutely understated, suggestive: he lets us feel the time this man has on his hands, and the wide-open space he's suddenly isolated himself in. The film's tragic heft derives from our growing awareness that Ingi has more constructive ways of filling it. Regular therapy sessions, for one, although the copper's tendency to clam up when his feelings are interrogated makes one wonder how effective it can ever be. He plays five-a-side football, too - stuck out on the wing, natch - but this becomes markedly less fun when he learns one of his fellow players was his wife's other lover. And he clings onto a nurturing relationship with his granddaughter (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir), but you and I both know some men have a terrible habit of trampling on that which might be beneficial or life-giving, any prospect of a better future; from the grim bedtime story he inflicts on the girl mid-woes, and the decidedly overwrought kids' TV show he lets her watch while banging around on the roof, we sense he's perhaps less than 100% committed to his duty of care. What A White, White Day is especially clear-eyed about is watching a man taking his own eye off the ball, which is why, after that abstract opening, it develops into such a remarkably tense watch. The fog lifts just in time to see this fellow careening at speed towards an impassable brick wall; as onlookers, we spend the better part of two hours hoping he'll regain the sense and reflexes to steer out of it.

It's a film of real dramatic coups. Palmason announces himself here as an inspired writer: in retrospect, it struck me as making perfect sense that a man whose wife was killed in poor visibility should take to restoring a weather station - thereby giving himself the comforting illusion of control - though it's also rather choice that Ingi's therapist should go out of town for a conference at precisely the moment his patient begins to self-isolate. A scene of faltering online therapy is where the simmering Sigurdsson, who spends the entire first half tamped down and numb, gets to explode with rage. You might say, well, at least he's finally expressing himself, yet the jagged, less-than-childproofed imagery Palmason strews around his frames hardly reassures us. The snapshots of the dead wife's car that flash up during an idle conversation with a pal at least clue us in as to where Ingi's head is at; but you can only wince at the close-up of the thumb that's got on the wrong side of a hammer, or the sequence that follows a deadly-looking rock as it speeds down a hillside. Once nudged in a certain direction, some forces cannot be stopped: they can only roll downhill. We're headed into noir territory, towards a shotgun and a shallow grave, although the ordeal the film describes isn't even over there; we wind up with multiple endings, the first hint of authorial indecision, albeit one that gestures, in its roundabout way, to what a man has to get through to find any kind of peace in this world. When the mist descends here, it's as white as that title insists, but no less blinding - and no less lethal with it.

A White, White Day is now streaming via Curzon and the BFI Player.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Two women: "Lynn + Lucy"

The ultra-composed Lynn + Lucy trains its camera on a sight that hasn't often been seen in British cinema these past few years: authentic working-class life. It's raffles in chain pubs, Lizzie Cundy makeovers, nightclub singalongs to Paris Hilton's "Stars Are Blind"; it's overflowing ashtrays, poky rooms separated by too-thin walls, a lack of protection and safety nets, a sense of disaster or tragedy waiting to happen. Crucially, writer-director Fyzal Boulifa meets all of the above foursquare, on the level, without sneering or condescension. (One sign we're in sure hands: Boulifa is, of course, wholly correct about reviving "Stars Are Blind", Ms. Hilton's sole contribution to the common good.) We're here to meet two women who sorely need one another - who add up, as per that graffito-title - but who will be sundered before our eyes. They're schoolfriends, transitioning from their twenties to their thirties, reaching the point where youthful freedoms typically give way to greater responsibility. Both have children and varyingly useless boyfriends (we understand their options haven't been great), but Lynn (Roxanne Scrimshaw) has settled into maternity, and putting another's needs before her own, while Lucy (Nichola Burley) continues to drink + party + seek out whatever cheap thrills come her way. Then something happens, something statistics show is likelier to happen on housing estates than in Hampstead and Highgate, something that splits the girls' community and begins to test their friendship. Another of the thousand and one cracks in the framework of Broken Britain.

Doing that rupture full dramatic justice demands a formidable directorial control - the control escapees from actual housing estates often adopt in wider society by way of a survival mechanism. It seems essential that Boulifa, who arrives here from an acclaimed run of short films, does his own editing; you can feel him weighing his ingredients, attempting to measure out enough grit and hardship that his vision stays credible, yet not so much that the film becomes depressing or alienating. He pours it all into a tight 4:3 frame that represents either a manageable canvas for a first-time feature director, further illustration of his characters' limited horizons, a throwback to the Play for Today era (arguably the last time British filmmakers were encouraged to pay such sustained and empathetic attention to the lower classes), or all of the above simultaneously. Either way, it's soon clear that Boulifa has a strong sense of how to fill that space. Clock the shot of a bowl of strawberry ice cream that stands in for some horribly scrambled feelings; marvel at the reveal of the cursewords sprayed on Lucy's home and car, a flourish that might have been claimed as a sight gag in happier circumstances. If nothing else, this filmmaker knows he can always fall back on close-ups of the kind of faces our national cinema has so rarely troubled to observe.

It's encouraging to watch Burley - a skilled performer whose career has undeniably suffered for her absence of exportable poshness, surface glamour - being handed the opportunity to negotiate a properly complex characterisation: a young woman who appears both damaged and capable of the very worst damage. Scrimshaw, taut and nervy, makes for an even more fascinating study, skin stretched too thin over some formidably hard edges. A less open-minded director might have cast them in one another's roles - to make the more established Burley the sensible one, and Scrimshaw the centre of the narrative's low-level controversy. The configuration Boulifa has settled on speaks to the freshness he brings to this milieu, and a desire to upend viewer prejudices and presumptions. The girls' trajectory makes for a genuinely fraught experience, involving more than one quiet, awful, everyday tragedy, and a good deal of barely suppressed, close-to-the-surface pain (witness: recent cinema's most agonising tattoo removal) of the kind the proletariat are meant to throw a Keep Calm and Carry On teatowel over. (As if it were a chip pan fire.) Lynn + Lucy isn't a rampagingly political work - there's no telltale insert of a TV or radio blaring Brexit news - but it does gesture towards the impossibility of solidarity in this formerly United Kingdom, how British social mobility now more often than not entails trampling somebody else into the ground. I wasn't 100% sold on Boulifa's open door of an ending, but the unease he fosters for ninety minutes here lingers far beyond the closing credits.

Lynn + Lucy is now streaming via Amazon Prime and the BFI Player.

The old curiosity shop: "The Booksellers"

Opening to glowing reviews in the US shortly before lockdown put every film's commercial chances on hold, The Booksellers is a funny, eccentric documentary about a funny, eccentric world - New York's antiquarian and rare books trade. It's the sort of movie that you can imagine being a sleeper hit at any point over the past four decades, a study of a world so inherently niche that, as with many bricks-and-mortar bookstores, it can't help but provide a measure of escape from the woes of this world. Here are passionate, booksmart people giving up anecdotes to the accompaniment of a light jazz score; if this week's VOD release does nothing for the film's chances, the producers could always give it away with a New Yorker or London Review of Books subscription. Though the opening credits linger on the texture of books themselves - the battered covers, the bent spines, the yellowing pages - the bulk of the movie is turned over, as the title suggests, to those hardy souls who buy and sell such precious texts, thereby staving off the developers circling their establishments. Inevitably, some of those featured are the tweedy old gents of bookselling legend, men who'd scoff at you if you came in asking for Chris Moyles' "The Gospel According to Chris Moyles". Yet there are reasons this trade has survived and even flourished in the Amazon age. One is that new booksellers keep popping up: it's a passion that cannot be doused. Some of these are (gasp) women, like the three daughters who inherited their father's store, or the Asian-American Bibi Mohamed, representing booksellers of colour. From their tattoos, a couple of his other subjects strongly give the impression of being 40 or under. Madness; heresy. Imagine being under 40, and interested in the printed word.

The point the film meanders towards is that it takes all sorts, but chiefly the kind of oddballs you wouldn't find managing a Barnes & Noble, a small army of Quixotes, ready and willing to travel to the ends of the earth (or spend hours browsing the World Wide Web) to keep their clientele happy. Those bric-a-brac personalities soon begin to feed back into the filmmaking. Like the stores it sets up in, The Booksellers is a bit of a jumble; you have to rummage through it. In quick time, Young sets before us a chapter on how the Internet has changed everything and changed very little in these small, cluttered corners of the world; an interview with Susan Orlean that carries us into the adjacent field of authorial archiving; a demonstration of how to cover old books with mylar. Its curiosity is boundless, which proves a thematic strength and an editorial liability. You'd have to be more interested in high finance than I am to get much out of the segment on book auctions, though I dare you not to be fascinated by the library some well-heeled Connecticut aesthete has modelled on an M.C. Escher etching. (More precisely, M.C. Escher's biggest hit: "U Can't Rent This".) In places, it's as if Young simply got distracted by everything his collector-subjects set before him: the vintage toys, the Masonic throne, the Chairman Mao memorabilia. As those same subjects testify, once you set out down this path, it's easy to get carried away - and forget what you first came in for. The film is at its strongest whenever it returns to those books - poring over their cover art, inscriptions, the dustjacket biographies - and, through them, starts to outline a philosophy that is particular in two senses of the word. As one of the booksellers puts it, crystallising a whole way of life while taking stock: "Some books look as if they've been run over by a truck - but it has to be the right truck."

The Booksellers is now streaming via Curzon and Amazon Prime.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Overseas business: "Family Romance, LLC"

Werner Herzog must have been delighted when one of the trade reviewers - doubtless recovering from a glass too many of festival-circuit Beaujolais - mistook his latest Family Romance, LLC for a documentary. This is, in fact, one of this ever more prolific filmmaker's occasionally forays into drama, albeit shot on the type of no-frills digital that has become the hallmark of so much 21st century non-fiction. (Herzog even tosses in a couple of drone shots, those towering airborne cliches of modern documentary syntax - so maybe the mistake was understandable.) With its intimate focus on the minutiae of Japanese family life, it's not obviously Herzogian subject matter; scrub the opening credits, and that off-form reviewer might just have mistaken the whole thing for early Hirokazu Kore-eda. The business of the title is an agency that rents out actors to stand in for absent or deceased relatives, whether to reassure their clientele or provide onlookers with a comforting illusion of family unity. Herzog presents us with a series of case studies: the main narrative throughline concerns the agency's founder (Yuichi Ishii), who takes the gig of posing as the estranged father of a withdrawn teenage girl (Mahiro Tanimoto), though we also see his underlings engaged as support for a bereaved bride-to-be and a team deployed to surprise a lonely lottery winner. I think the unifying idea - which Kore-eda would have polished and punched up emotionally - was to set us to wondering whether these paid surrogates can ever truly replace long-established, much-missed family ties. As it transpires, Herzog - roving eye very much to the fore here - could scarcely seem to care less: that errant critic was taking this assignment far more seriously than its maker ever was.

If Family Romance, LLC swiftly shapes up as minor Herzog, it's because its maker appears far less interested in his characters - the element of fiction - than in the non-fiction that serves as the characters' backdrop. The tricky fake-father-actual-daughter reunion takes place amid the cherry blossoms, and thereafter encompasses a wishing wall, a temple devoted to the humble fox ("they're good for enabling change", we learn) and a hotel staffed entirely by androids, replete with android angelfish in the foyer fishtank. This was clearly a film born of the desire to do something on the subject of ever-headscrambling Japanese ritual: the locations came first, and everything else had to be thrashed out more or less on the spot. That trade reviewer's mistake perhaps derived from the long stretches here that look to have been improvised without a script, and with the assistance of passers-by roped in to provide additional local colour: a performance artist who does a Bruce Grobbelaar-style wobbly-legs routine while snapping photos for tourists, or the young mixed-race girl, apparently bullied by her peers, who comes to steal a couple of scenes by being quietly adorable.

Of structure, there is precious little, which may explain why the story hardly takes. The agency's daily workings are set out in sketchy, shrugging scenes, and several moments suggest the premise hasn't been thought through all that much: there's an especially baffling sequence involving an actor hired to take a dressing-down for a bullet-train employee - while said employee stands adjacent to his boss. (At no point does the film address the imposture involved - by, say, having someone point out the actors look nothing like the people they're meant to be standing in for - which struck me as less an acute observation about Japanese politeness and more indicative of indifference on Herzog's part.) Family Romance, LLC is only ever going to do something for you if you approach it as Herzog at large, an example of a fabled filmmaker amusing and entertaining himself (and perhaps himself alone). It may still be possible to revel in the creative freedom the director has been allowed, and those devil-may-care liberties he takes for himself, but increasingly I found myself tuning out of the film's flimsy, half-hearted attempts at narrative coherence and instead awaiting the next collection of images such as any traveller might bring back from far-flung, culturally distinct climes. A hedgehog in a hamster wheel. An overhead shot of a crosswalk, reducing those traversing it to busy ants. A live man trying out a coffin for size. A blind soothsayer, interrupted mid-prognostication by the ringing of a telephone. Minor Herzog, then, but also typical of the way even minor Herzog shows us things to make our eyes pop, while making us wonder anew about the ways of this world.

Family Romance, LLC will be available to stream from Friday.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Jungle to jungle: "The Dead and the Others"

The great global success of 2015's Embrace of the Serpent has opened up a pathway leading off the beaten track and into the jungle, reconnecting the cinema with underexplored territories, underfilmed people, undiscovered stories. As our movie centreground narrows to safe, franchisable bets, there is certainly scope for fringe filmmakers to become more adventurous: with this week's MUBI premiere The Dead and the Others, directors Renée Nader Messora and Joao Salaviza enlist several representatives of northeastern Brazil's Krahô people to play variants of themselves in a fictionalised retelling of actual events. Initially, Messora and Salaviza seem to be scrabbling around on unfamiliar turf, trying to find their bearings; you wonder if the damn film is ever going to start. It's not that nothing's going on: we meet Henrique (Henrique Ihjãc Krahô) and Raene (Raene Kôtô Krahô), a young couple with a small problem in a child who can't sleep and a bigger one in the form of Henrique's late father, who has taken to stalking his son in spirit form, refusing to set out for the land of the dead until his offspring has laid on a funerary feast. It's just that there's so much stillness around these characters that any urgency tends to slip away unnoticed into the surrounding woodland. The cicadas come to seem like the busiest creatures on screen, their back legs providing the movie's characteristically hushed soundtrack. But relax: this line of approach proves to be tactical. Each new scene serves to pull the agitated viewer a little further away from the perma-stimulation of social media and 24-hour news, and a little deeper into the forest, the rhythms of Krahô life, the spaces these people inhabit and the challenges they face. Twenty minutes in, I was restless; an hour later, I'd slapped on the warpaint, stripped down to my underwear and gone at least half-native. Heaven knows what the neighbours made of the sight.

The lack of overt signposting that Messora and Salaviza provide along the way obliges the viewer to learn to read the same signs Henrique reads - markers you simply wouldn't find in the pages of any conventional screenwriting handbook. What, for example, to make of the terrifying-looking macaw that tails our hero's progress? Is it spirit or augury? Just when you think you're beginning to get the lay of the land, the film pulls a further switcheroo by packing Henrique off to the city - and The Dead and the Others suddenly, organically becomes a study of what it is to be a migratory being like that bird (or ghost-dad), to have to build a nest and life many miles away from one's home. Set against the colour and texture of the jungle scenes, the city strikes the eye as cold, banal and alienating; it's some measure of the film's achievement that it sets even those of us who wouldn't dream of leaving our hot running water and broadband behind to peer through the looking glass so, to yearn for the unplugged delights of the back of beyond. Much of that is down to Ihjãc Krahô's expressive central performance, which holds the camera's gaze and viewer sympathies alike for two hours. The film that develops around him is a truly independent expedition, one with no agenda save to look, listen and learn, and then report some of its makers' findings back to us. Renouncing those generic adventure-movie trappings Embrace of the Serpent provided to act as rope bridges between its wilderness and our so-called civilisation, it makes for an odd but rewarding experience, beholden to nobody, subject to its own laws of dramatic gravity, with elements that plainly exist beyond any attempt at translation. Yet the sense of discovery it leaves you with is uncommonly strong: long spells here were so vivid and absorbing that I wondered whether it might be an idea to keep malaria tablets and mosquito spray close to the laptop.

The Dead and the Others is now streaming via MUBI UK.