Thursday, 17 January 2019

This American life: "Hale County This Morning, This Evening"

In 2009, RaMell Ross moved to Alabama to teach photography and coach basketball in one of the local schools. While he was settling in, he picked up a video camera - old snapper habits die hard - and began shooting footage of day-to-day activity in and around his new community. Seventy-odd minutes of these ad hoc video diaries have now been stitched together to form the basis of Hale County This Morning, This Evening, the year's first real documentary find. Some of the resulting film chronicles exactly what Ross was called to Hale County to oversee. We watch local basketball players run through drills and practice their dunks; we hear cheerleaders working on their routines off-camera. Occasionally, Ross will follow one of the players home to hear out their hopes for the future. (This strand of the film falls very much in the tradition of 1994's landmark doc Hoop Dreams.) Yet the filmmaker has also captured a lot of Hale County downtime: townsfolk hanging out in the backs of or on the bonnets of cars, shooting the breeze, playing up for the camera, in one instance even singing the blues, another tradition that refuses to die out so long as there are reasons to keep on singing those blues. Day turns to night and back again, and all the while this camera retains the closest fix on almost exclusively black lives that had previously passed under the radar. This once, somebody picked them up.

The assumption with Hale County... - we might even relabel it a prejudice, one the movies have done much to confirm - is that we will spend these seventy minutes being beaten around the head with hardship. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ross sometimes ventures into pockets of local poverty, and even encounters a measure of personal tragedy, as one might anywhere on this Earth, but mostly, you're struck by the great beauty of the film; it's been shot and assembled with someone with a real eye for life as it's lived on and off Main Street. The big-picture material comes easily to him: the parades and funfairs, the shadows cast by the noonday sun. A low angle nocturnal peek through a basketball hoop at the stars rotating in the firmament above tips us off as to where Ross is aiming. Yet he's equally alert to the micro, and to what these details might signify in the wider American tapestry he's stitching together here. Motes of cotton float in like snow from the surrounding farmland, more benevolent nowadays than they might have seemed in the 19th century; a properly joyous sequence contents to follow a giddy toddler charging back and forth across her young parents' apartment, either to impress the visiting cameraman, or just to burn off some of her apparently prodigious energy. There is a future here, and a past.

Crucially, Ross lets the latter sequence play out uninterrupted, as he does the players' pre-game warm-ups (which are not unlike the toddler's peregrinations), or a sequence that observes a neighbour installing furniture in their new home. One of the pleasures of Hale County..., emerging as it does into an era of tricksy docu-fiction hybrids hellbent on complicating our relationship with the people they concern and the truths they reveal, is that it's relatively unburdened by clever-clever framing devices. Ross tosses in the odd curveball title card, asking us questions so that we don't get too complacent or pointing out, in the most informal fashion, which of his subjects were less than thrilled to be caught on camera. In the main, though, this footage is allowed to be what it is; what it's trying to capture, and what it succeeds in capturing, is plainly and simply that thisness enshrined in the title - everyday life itself. It's only with the accumulation of all these moments, all these lives, that Hale County... begins to resemble any kind of directorial statement: a delicate nudge to suggest that this quiet backwater, this hidden frontier, is every bit as much America as the sprawling metropoli we see on our screens week in week out, and to underline that the people Ross films are as worthy of our time as those we might find anywhere else.

A caveat: this is, patently, America as it was in the years between 2009 and the middle of this decade (the toddler is wearing a Lego Movie sweater, which dates the footage) - i.e. the old world, before the Fall, when these States were at least partially united in the project of making America beautiful again. (Truly, we never knew we had it so good.) You can, I think, sense the mood darkening as the film progresses, carrying us towards our more guarded and suspicious moment. Some of the residents' higher hopes don't appear to have been borne out, and Ross's superbly limber editorial strategies create one especially indelible rhyme, between this region's frequent lightning strikes and patrol car lights flickering in the darkness. A storm, of one kind or another, is coming, and it's possible Ross elected to assemble these images at this moment (rather than continuing to shoot) out of fear that something within them - their relaxed air, perhaps even the very idea of hope - might be comprehensively lost in the years ahead. The film that reaches us this week still has poetry in its veins, rather than grief or anger - and yet watching it in early 2019, a full decade after its first images were alighted upon, you can only wonder what will become of Hale County this week, this month, this year. Sequels beckon, perhaps, much as life goes on; either way, you emerge from Hale County... elevated, and excited indeed to see what Ross next brings back to us.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Points of view: "Monsters and Men"

Reappearing on DVD next month, October's The Hate U Give was the surprisingly powerful major-studio response to the recent spate of police killings in the US. This week's Monsters and Men is the indie variant: more specifically urban (unfolding around a recognisable, street-level Brooklyn, where its predecessor played out in a nameless, universal inner city), kaleidoscopic rather than straightforwardly linear, and working ultimately towards an overview of the causes-and-effects and consequences of tragedies such as these. There have been creative losses in the process. Writer-director Reinaldo Marcus Green forsakes the earlier film's urgency and emotional directness for an altogether more considered approach that juggles multiple perspectives. We start with Manny (Anthony Ramos), a young Latino who witnesses a police shooting outside a bodega and becomes a target for police aggression after uploading footage of the incident to the Internet; once he's arrested, the baton is passed to Dennis (BlacKkKlansman's John David Washington), the patrol cop who realises the kid's being set up for a fall, and has to square that fact with his own position as a person of colour who's made a comfortable life for himself pulling on the old NYPD blues.

This narrative relay race - hijacking the established MO of TV's Law & Order - ensures that Monsters and Men at every point feels like a thought-through plot, rather than a tract ripped opportunistically from the headlines, and Green digs some way into it, determining to do his hot-button topic justice. His script has a promising eye for the details and ambiguities of these cases. When the (black) Internal Affairs agent Dennis has just spent several minutes stonewalling congratulates him on eight years' service, it's with a compliment that has the ring of a slap to the face: "You must really know how to keep to yourself." And it says a lot for the cop's character that he should trouble to exit his patrol car to pick up the lunch baggie he'd unsuccessfully pitched towards a trashcan. The whole movie is bound up in knotty issues of personal responsibility - to a fault, in places. Despite the frequent shifts of tack, it's a slightly sluggish-seeming 95 minutes, caught overthinking its responses, where The Hate U Give could banish any undue handwringing with each cut to Amandla Stenberg's anguished or fearful face. Green is prone to setting up an interesting dilemma, then leaving it hanging; he's so keen to take the heat out of this broiling moment - to pause, analyse, reframe - that he risks leaving the audience cold. Washington has emerged as such a charismatic, anchoring screen presence that we miss him when the movie shifts into the segment that most explicitly echoes THUG (via Colin Kaepernick), tracking a young baseball star (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) whose conscience is awakened by the shooting.

We're always aware we're watching Monsters and Men at some remove, that the picture it's presenting us with will (necessarily?) be incomplete. It's at the very least a debatable choice not to show us either the initial shooting or the incendiary cam footage of same, as now everybody within the film has access to information we don't possess and can't pick over. Green might just be leaving that down to audience experience. There will be those onlookers who'll be fairly certain what the recording shows, not least because they'll have seen enough footage like it in recent years; there will be others who'd insist they need to review this case, as they would any others, with their own eyes. That's a provocative stance for a debutant director to take - but I could also see how it might seem evasive, and arguably even more divisive. (My argument would be that it's the latter camp who most need to see such things for themselves, over and over again if needs be.) The movies are, to their credit, still trying to work through what now appears a weekly American trauma, and this is bound to be a haphazard process. Green's film has some of the right ideas and long-term survival instincts - not least an inclination to step away at the first sign of conflict - but it sacrifices a measure of feeling to get to them. You couldn't for an instant accuse Monsters and Men of being reactionary or exploitative - it's the model of a thoughtful, quietly ambitious indie, concerned to give everybody their moment and hear everyone out - but it often strikes the eye like a flow chart compiled by a bright social-studies student, where The Hate U Give came at us like a punch to the gut.

Monsters and Men opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Pincer movements: "Island of the Hungry Ghosts"

Island of the Hungry Ghosts is one of those futzing docudrama hybrids that presents as at least two films in one, and one of these films is a good deal more engaging than the others. It is, on one hand, an Attenborough-like study of an island in the Indian Ocean, rich in lush green forestry and overrun by a staggering red crab population that moves more or less wherever it wants to go. (Some of them emerge from the undergrowth as terrifyingly huge: they make the lobster in Annie Hall look like a shy, retiring hermit crab.) On the other, the film is a speculative entry in the cinema of migration, for the island in question is Christmas Island, co-opted by the Australian government in recent years as a holding site for those refugees who've washed up on the country's shores. Already, you can spy the contrast writer-director Gabrielle Brady is working towards: creatures left alone (and, indeed, often encouraged) to roam freely versus creatures put under lock and key so that they can't. The problem is that the filmmaker takes a curious, circuitous route to arrive at that contrast, and she doesn't do all that much with it once she's there: you can get the gist of the film's thesis within twenty minutes, and are then left to watch what often feels like an arresting short that's been padded out to feature length.

Brady's way inside the holding camp is via Poh Lin Lee, a married mother-of-two who describes her role as a "torture and trauma counsellor", and specialises in a form of play therapy: in the becalmed confines of her office, she encourages detainees to place Playmobil-like figures (sharks, soldiers, gravestones) in a sandpit that represents their past, talk her through their choices, and thereby progress towards making some form of peace with what they've been through. These sessions can be revealing - one detainee suggests she could talk for days, and still not exhaust the bank of terrible things she's seen and undergone to get where she is today - but the camera seems more compelled by Lee herself: there are long scenes of the therapist, her French husband and adorable young daughters picnicking in the forest, or following up on banal tasks of admin when clients don't show up for one reason or another. These anecdotes work towards a generalised portrait of the privilege this woman enjoys in getting to drive home at the end of the day, but I think there's a touch of passive-aggression in the direction: Brady shows us a woman who's presumably profiting off an inhuman detention system, and never directly confronts her on the fact.

Well, perhaps this was never meant to be a barnstorming polemic as such, and the element of standoffishness makes sense if we understand that an individual like Lee is as close as Brady has been allowed to get to the dark heart of this facility. (The "no entry" signs we see as the therapist drives into work in the morning are there for a reason.) Yet Island's inquiry still feels circumscribed in some way, and you spot Brady turning to nature to fill the vacuum: shots of mobile patrol units clearing crabs from the road with brushes, or building crossing points for them with logs and branches. As a metaphor for the migrants we barely glimpse, these crabs are certainly vivid and scuttling - when the camera alights upon the flystrewn carcasses of unlucky crossers, those crabs who weren't looked out for or taken care of, the film underlines how sometimes even the hardest outer shell isn't enough - yet they're not enough in their own right to sustain Island of the Hungry Ghosts for 94 minutes. Individual sequences here are revealing and atmospheric, but it is on the whole, as that title maybe warned us, a very airy, scattily focused film about a very specific, very urgent situation.

Island of the Hungry Ghosts is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via MUBI.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Highland flings: "Mary, Queen of Scots"

Josie Rourke's Mary, Queen of Scots seems fated to suffer at the hands of two separate phenomena. Financially, its nemesis will be The Favourite, the much-laurelled Yorgos Lanthimos romp that treats British history, and broader historical decorum, as a joke. Set against that, Rourke's film is very much costume-drama trad, with reams of explanatory title cards, sweeping helicopter shots of the Highland countryside, and hundreds of rhubarbing extras crammed into its court scenes or going at one another on the battlefield. That kind of movie has its own audience, of course, but it now risks being received as fustier than it already was. Dramatically, the film suffers from what we can define as the Brexit effect. The constitutional crisis it outlines proves far less compelling than our present moment; even during its more turbulent stretches, you may well find yourself tempted to check your phone to see if anybody else has resigned, or whether anything's been resolved. One countermeasure Rourke and writer Beau Willimon deploy is to push for other forms of relevance, recruiting a youthful cast (barely a face over 40 in the leads) and making grand, more than faintly anachronistic gestures towards inclusiveness. This Mary (Saoirse Ronan) has been retconned to serve as a proto-feminist figurehead, a brave single mother who tells her giggling sorority of pansexual, crossdressing courtiers "be whoever you want among us". You've heard of Drunk History; here, for better or worse, is Woke History.

One can appreciate these gestures, particularly in a field that has generally been as whitebread-vanilla as they come, but they raise questions about what we want from our historical drama. Do we want to see the world as it was, or as we would prefer it to have been? Rourke's film stumbles through a peculiar halfway house where it's hard to believe in the reality of what's been set before us, let alone get unduly caught up in it. If Simon Schama doesn't have a heart attack during the scene where Mary lifts her skirts to persuade man-hungry Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) to go at her from behind, he may succumb to conniptions at the later hook-up in which the dashing Lord goes down on m'lady and refuses any reciprocal arrangement. This weird, distracting fascination with Ye Olde Bedroom Activity means the movie's notional central conflict - two women with much in common, separated by men, religion and a softish border - is never allowed to come into clear dramatic focus. Willimon proves less interested in defining the stakes involved in the battle of wills between Mary and Margot Robbie's Elizabeth - why it mattered that the queens produced an heir - than in describing the means by which they ended up with child; no wonder the feminist gloss he puts on this period ("Sisters do not abandon sisters") should be rendered flimsy-seeming by the final development, which actually dates from history. The narrative arc shows up the film's contemporary trimmings for the high-heaped horseshit they are.

Unswayed by the storytelling, one ends up sorting actors, picking sides, and it soon becomes apparent that the Scottish half is a good deal stronger than the English half. Ronan at least holds down her corner of the screen, giving sporadic ballast to Willimon's idea of a Thoroughly Modern Mary, and Rourke surrounds her with seasoned performers who wear the facial hair well: Ian Hart as a grim-visaged adviser, Martin Compston as a chancer who moves in from the margins late on, and especially David Tennant, who makes John Knox, the rabble-rousing Protestant preacher apparently styled after Rasputin, the movie's most fascinating figure. Down south, alas, we're stranded in the none too winning company of a pox-scarred Robbie (as lamentably cast here as she was in Goodbye Christopher Robin) and a toadying Guy Pearce as Cecil. (The distance between first- and second-billed stars may be the biggest this decade: I longed for a Heat-style treatment, more closely pairing two symbiotic rulers who may have been better matched to one another than anyone else around. It couldn't be any more preposterous than Willimon's Age of Aquarius stylings.) Put 'em together, and you wind up with one of those puzzling misfires that occasionally catches the eye and fires the imagination, never quite the Sunday-afternoon snooze it threatens to be, because it is making choices, however misguided. (And some of its craft choices - Max Richter's stirring score, John Mathieson's burnished, period-appropriate photography - are actually better than sound.) Perhaps there was an earlier draft of this script, a less right-on cut, that did everything we'd want a Mary, Queen of Scots movie to do in 2019. The one that's ended up on screen doesn't quite.

Mary, Queen of Scots opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

From the archive: "Inside Llewyn Davis"

Joel and Ethan Coen excel whenever they stop to investigate the perimeters of the worlds they’ve sketched. Blood Simple, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo: all these have their own rules and gatekeepers, their own governing fates, yet too many recent Coen films have seemed inchoate or ill-formed, scattering their better ideas in the dash to the next project. The good news with Inside Llewyn Davis is that the Coens have locked all these details down: it is at once their most complete picture for some while, and their most unreservedly pleasurable, despite the many miseries loaded onto its mopey protagonist.

The world here is the wintry Greenwich Village of the early 1960s, a pokily boho place of overweight supers manning incredibly narrow corridors; its inhabitants shuffle damp-footed between cave-like venues and mom-and-pop recording enterprises, trailing worn winter coats that can’t really insulate their souls. One early, whirlwind tour comes care of a fugitive cat; his temporary keeper, the eponymous Llewyn (Oscar Isaac), is a down-on-his-luck folk singer reduced to couch-surfing after his recording partner’s suicide.

Though the Coens take the music seriously – rehiring O Brother, Where Art Thou? cohort T-Bone Burnett to produce another supremely evocative set of original songs – they treat the idea of folk circa 1961 as a joke: the talk is of Elvis, and the Beatles are but a year or so away. A figure resembling a young Robert Zimmerman pops up in one club scene, but folk as presented here is a marginal concern: that of sad-sacks scraping a modest existence trilling decidedly antiquated laments. (As one gatekeeper observes: “I don’t see a lot of money here.”)

If the subject is rootless drift – and the presence of two cast members of TV’s Girls, the show that has elevated Manhattan drift to an artform, suggests it is – the film is nevertheless anchored by its words and music: it may well become the first Coen movie since Lebowski people bother to quote from, stocked deep as it is with choice phrases and names which have clearly been pored over.

The actors roll this script round their mouths like tobacco, and everybody looks the part: Justin Timberlake is again adroitly deployed as folk’s golden boy, clearly destined for brighter, more corporate things, while an on-the-road diversion, reaching out to Beat culture, finds Llewyn sharing a car with John Goodman, on engaged form as a Tom Parker-like impresario with bowel trouble and an amusing line in industry anecdotes.

Yet none of these funny bitparts obscure Isaac’s skilful portrait of fraying desperation, or our sense that Llewyn Davis is getting too old to be touting round a guitar case holding nothing but threadbare dreams. The younger Coens might have been indifferent to this character’s fate, but there’s a new compassion here that immediately elevates the film above the brothers’ snarkier projects. They’ve realised Llewyn isn’t so far removed from them: a storyteller trying to craft something on the fringes of a particular scene. (There are multiple ways of understanding that title.)

This core warmth prevents the film from drifting unnecessarily: Llewyn might not recognise as much, but his originators dangle the possibility that he could have a career if he only applied himself that bit more, just as they did and have. In doing so, this wistful, surprising creation myth presents itself as the Coens’ very own Ed Wood: an expression of fraternal sympathy for a figure who’s been out in the cold for too long, to be savoured by anybody who’s ever had to curl up on another’s sofa in pursuit of whatever they want, love and need to do.

(MovieMail, January 2014)

Inside Llewyn Davis screens on Channel 4 tonight at 1am.

Friday, 11 January 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of January 4-6, 2019:

1 (1) Mary Poppins Returns (PG) ***
2 (new) The Favourite (15) ***
3 (3) Aquaman (12A)
4 (new) Andre Rieu's 2019 New Year Concert from Sydney (U)
5 (2) BumbleBee (PG) ***
6 (5) Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)
8 (8) Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)
9 (9) Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (12A)
10 (4) Holmes and Watson (12A)


My top five: 
1. An Impossible Love
3. RBG

Home entertainment Top Ten (DVD/Blu-Ray/Download): 

1 (1) 
The Greatest Showman (PG)
2 (2) Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (PG)
4 (8) Ant-Man and the Wasp (12)
5 (6) Mission Impossible: Fallout (12) ***
6 (3) The Meg (12) ***
7 (5) The Equalizer 2 (15)
8 (14) Skyscraper (12)
9 (10) Christopher Robin (PG) **
10 (16) Avengers: Infinity War (12) ***


My top five: 
1. American Animals

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Finding Nemo (Sunday, ITV, 3.40pm)
2. Manchester by the Sea (Saturday, BBC2, 9.45pm)
3. Inside Llewyn Davis [above] (Sunday, C4, 1am)
4. Night at the Museum (Sunday, C4, 4.20pm)
5. The Maggie (Sunday, BBC2, 6.20am)

On DVD: "The Rider"

After gathering tremendous momentum on its gallop around the festival circuit over the past 18 months, Chloé Zhao's The Rider hit a brick wall in UK audiences upon its theatrical release last September, and I wonder if - as with the similarly underseen American Animals, itself debuting on DVD this week - the problem lies with the fact one could fit nary a cigarette paper between its definitions of fiction and reality. The game of parsing what within a film is strictly documentary and what has been ever so slightly dramatised may be a luxury best enjoyed by those with the time and money to ride the festival gravy train; cinemagoers who wanted to know exactly what they'd be getting from the movies they were paying to see instead gravitated towards Crazy Rich Asians and The Nun, their titles promises bound to be more completely fulfilled. Tracing over the contours of a story that has already been played out in real life - that of rodeo rider Brady Jandreau (here cast, so the end titles inform us, as the character of "Brady Blackburn"), joined in the early stages of a recovery that demanded he rethink his career path - The Rider delivers ample equestrian activity, but often feels a rough ride, coming out of the gate bucking and jolting. Here are scenes you tell yourself cannot be documentary (for the camera sits in the right place to greet people entering a room), but which nevertheless fill up with "characters" giving the most awkward and tentative line readings, as people tend to do in real life.

For a long time, Zhao's film plays like an advert for the advantages to be gained from employing professionally trained actors, rather than simply asking non-pros to "play" themselves. The nadir is a scene where Brady wakes up to let in an associate, oblivious to the fact his sister (who has severe learning difficulties) has stuck gold stars to his torso while he dozed: the gag is that he only realises once said associate points them out, but the "gosh, darn it" look our boy gives in the aftermath is less convincing than those coaxed out of the doofuses in any third-rate ad campaign, leaving the scene with an oddly muffed punchline. No-one appears especially psyched to be standing in front of the camera, and there's a tired quality to some of the responses, a reaction either to Zhao's desire to turn already-lived life into art, or to the multiple takes required to get something usable in the can. I spent much of the first half baffled as to why my colleagues had fallen so hard for something this slender and inchoate, that at every turn felt more sketch than picture. Possibly it has something to do with its romanticised Americana: its widescreen sunsets, its cowboys who actually sing songs around campfires. With his careful stubble, and his headscar covered by a stetson, Jandreau has a smalltown parking-lot handsomeness that certainly isn't diminished by the many scenes shot around the magic hour. Possibly critics just really like horses. The most stirring scenes here are those that announce themselves, uncomplicatedly, as documentary, offering the mesmeric sight of Jandreau breaking in an unruly steed by whispering in its ear or taking up the reins - scenes where Zhao has plainly asked her subject to physically do something, rather than stop to think about what he's doing.

Contrast these with the sequences where he's been asked to interact with a fellow human being, with lights, camera and the expectations of a film crew trained upon him: here, Jandreau more often than not appears terribly self-conscious, exposed. Yet the more one sees of this, the more one realises how that vulnerability is important to Zhao, and to the film. What my colleagues may have been responding to more than anything is the gesture The Rider makes towards a new approach to the Western, one that throws out the troublesome old politics, replaces the man's-gotta-do swagger with uncertainty (what's this kid gonna do?), and swaps the saddlebags for scars and tattoos, physical forms of baggage. For the arguably toxic, quick-draw masculinity of a John Wayne, Zhao gives us a cowboy who cries. (Brady, we should note, still carries a pistol; it's just he can't bring himself to pull the trigger when the situation calls for it.) There are losses in this substitution process. Zhao's rethink deprives the Western of some of its foursquare heft, the pleasure of knowing exactly what territory we're passing through; it also nudges the genre into the realms of the theoretical, and critics are bound to feel more comfortable there than most audiences. What the film eventually gets to is a slight charm, a vague poignancy, a quiet power - a place where a simple nod of the head can apparently mean the world to somebody. I just wonder whether it would have achieved a lot more if, from the off, its frames hadn't been filled with people who approached the camera as if this were their very first rodeo.

The Rider is available on DVD through Altitude.