Friday, 22 June 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of June 15-17, 2018:

1 (1) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12A) ***

2 (new) Hereditary (15) **
3 (2Solo: a Star Wars Story (12A) ***
4 (3Deadpool 2 (15) **
5 (new) Race 3 (12A)
6 (4) Book Club (12A)
7 (5Avengers: Infinity War (12A) ***
8 (6) Sherlock Gnomes (U) **
9 (8) Show Dogs (PG) *
10 (7) Blade Runner: The Final Cut (15) ****


My top five: 
1. The Piano

2. All the Wild Horses
3. Lek and the Dogs
4. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
5. Veere Di Wedding

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) Black Panther (12A) **
2 (1) Darkest Hour (PG) **
3 (2The Greatest Showman (PG)
4 (10) Dunkirk (12) ***
5 (5) Coco (PG) ***
6 (3) Den of Thieves (15) **
7 (4) Early Man (PG)
8 (7) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12)
9 (6) Journey's End (12) ***
10 (8) Bobby Robson: More Than a Manager (12)


My top five: 
1. The Shape of Water

2. 120 Beats Per Minute
3. Nothing Like a Dame
4. Phantom Thread
5. The Wound

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Full Monty [above] (Friday, BBC1, 11.25pm)
2. Walesa: Man of Hope (Saturday, BBC2, 1am)
3. Creed (Saturday, ITV, 9.30pm)
4. Zombieland (Friday, C4, 12.35am)
5. The Core (Sunday, C4, 1pm)

On demand: "My Happy Family"

The Georgian-based couple Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross made a striking debut in 2013 with In Bloom, a coming-of-age drama that introduced a handgun in the first act by way of an extra element of narrative jeopardy. Their richly detailed follow-up My Happy Family - which has taken its international bow not in cinemas, but on Netflix - introduces us to Manana (Ia Shugliashvili), a middle-aged teacher who shares a flat in downtown Tbilisi with her loving husband, overbearing parents, and a teenage daughter and son. This set-up would seem a pretty standard picture were there again not a gun waiting to go off, this time in the form of a secret revealed to us in the very first scene: Ma is investigating the option of moving out of this long-settled abode, and into a place by herself. Fifteen minutes into My Happy Family, and you have the happy sensation of stumbling upon something you haven't really seen before in a movie: a character who desires nothing more than a little peace, space and quiet, who wants everybody up to and possibly including the camera to leave her alone.

True, there may have been flickers and glimpses of this elsewhere in cinema history. The film's first part recalls Chantal Akerman's totemic Jeanne Dielman... reshaped and refocused as a thriller rather than statement of feminist intent, a domestic prison break where our heroine spends every overcrowded scene drumming her fingers, avoiding her relatives' gaze, and looking to some far horizon. One complication of our sympathies is that the family under scrutiny aren't terrible or abusive, just a tad stuffy and traditional in their attitudes: the malefolk bluff and brusque or - in the son's case - hopelessly mollycoddled, the elders banging on about the same values that were drilled into them, hanging around as a constant reminder to this unhappy housewife that her societal fate always was to marry young and pick up the laundry. 

Around them, Ekvtimishvili and Gross once again demonstrate their considerable savvy as dramatists. We get nothing so obvious and expected as the moment in which Ma drops the bomb on this household, rather a brisk, funny thumbnail sketch of its aftermath: hubby tersely smoking on the balcony, grandma retreating to the sofa with a cold compress on her forehead. Even when Manana makes a run for it, her problems aren't over. It proves a tricky business, attempting to forge a new life with loved ones at your heels, urging you to come back; even taking a couple of steps in the direction of independence - popping out to the market for supplies, say - obliges Manana to see her family from new angles. The longhair squiring her daughter is spotted with his arm around another girl; more poignantly, she gains a new insight into her own relationship. Does she intervene, or keep the distance she's sought out for herself? Life is more complicated than the bulk of our movies trouble themselves to be.

These self-effacing directors - reducing themselves to a rather cute "Nana and Simon" in the credits - pack all this conflict in without a single camera movement that draw attention to itself. Instead, they keep the frame mobile, the better to spot the contrasting, sometimes conflicting perspectives that arise from close, attentive study of people crammed into the same room, city, universe. In this, and their fine-tuned ensemble, these filmmakers seem close to the Iranian master Asghar Farhadi ("A Separation" would make a fine alternative title here), although Farhadi has never quite arrived as anything as lyrical as the sequence in which Ma fixes herself a modest snack and sits down to strum the guitar that her departure has loosed from storage: here, at last, is that time and space for which this character has so keenly fought.

Such sequences suggest that Ekvtimishvili and Gross - all right, Nana and Simon - are alert to the possibility of positive change in the world, which distinguishes them from all those arthouse Cassandras presently doing the rounds; there's a flexibility in their approach that explains both how My Happy Family remains unpredictable through to its closing seconds, and its makers' willingness to embrace new distribution models. (One genuine first here: the sight of the words "a Netflix Original presentation" rendered in Georgian script.) Of course, those Cassandras - and even Farhadi - have logged between one and three decades on the festival circuit, which ensures them a framework of financing and distribution to operate within. Nana and Simon have had to rely on Netflix deploying its newfound wealth as a safety net, no matter that it may mean notable films such as theirs being swallowed up among endless teen romances and Adam Sandler freebies. There My Happy Family is, all the same, just a button-click away from where you read this - and its emergence on this format does offer the intriguing prospect of this quietly insurrectionary drama being readily available in households where somebody else is doing their darnedest to break or get away.

My Happy Family is now available on Netflix.  

Going underground: "Lek and the Dogs"

The British artist and filmmaker Andrew Kötting continues to scrabble usefully around in the dirt, but his latest Lek and the Dogs comes as a departure from recent impromptu gallivants (Swandown, By Our Selves, Edith Walks) in that its subject matter is that a more conventional documentarist might have seized upon. It takes a while to grasp as much - Kötting is prone to dropping his audience in the middle of nowhere, with scant contextual guidance, to be bombarded by unfamiliar sights and sounds - but this is the director's take on a grim true-life enfant sauvage tale: that of Ivan Mishukov, a young Russian man who, after the breakdown of his family in the 1990s, was found living underground among a pack of stray dogs. Hattie Naylor, credited as co-writer, took up this story in her 2010 play Ivan and the Dogs: Mishukov was coaxed out and resumed a relatively normal life, only to later vanish, reportedly upset by the behaviour of the two-legged beasts he now found himself running with.

If the bare narrative bones recall so many cinematic Kaspar Hausers, both real and fictional, this is the version of this story that only an outlier like Kötting could and would make. It opens with the striking image of a bald, naked figure (performance artist Xavier Tchili, replaying the Lek role he occupied in the Kötting-directed This Filthy Earth and Ivul) galloping on all fours through the desert, then works over this tale - and Naylor's play - with a patchwork of imagery sourced from old science and nature films, newsreel and drone technology. As if this unruly montage wasn't unsettling enough, its images are coupled - if that's the right word - to an ever-shifting soundscape that meshes recordings of Lek's memories of his life as a dog with psychoanalysts discussing his predicament, input from canine behavioural specialists, and even longtime Kötting collaborator Alan Moore, holding forth about time, space and existence in a role the closing credits define as The Wizard.

The recurrence of the word trauma in the testimony would appear to indicate some shift in Kötting's traditionally sunny outlook. A grey, impoverished post-industrial landscape has replaced the leafy green scenery of his previous films; where once this larky nature-boy director set out in search of transcendence, here his aim is to paint a picture of deprivation his subject would surely recognise only too well. As a result, Lek and the Dogs can feel gloomily subterranean. Very different from Gallivant or Swandown, films where the director's lines of thought remained above ground and easily grasped, this one's far from entry-level Kötting, if there ever was such a thing. Instead, Lek is rather more like an abandoned mine you duck into at your own risk, armed with the foreknowledge you will have to stay alert, try not to freak out and, at certain times, really dig in so as to get anything rewarding out of the experience.

It is, nevertheless, studded with eye- and ear-catching ideas that gleam intriguingly once polished and held up to the light. Hard, for one, not to compare the film's crushed and crumpled landscapes to our own, and to wonder whether Kötting sees in the Mishukov legend's pack mentality something of the populism, the entrenched safety in numbers, that has risen up across the globe of late. (Ironically, the film lands on our screens at a moment when liberal democracies appear in abject disarray, while Russia is restored, by fair means or foul, to something like its former pomp.) It does feel like a seethingly political film, whether Kötting means to use Lek's seclusion to get at the atomisation of "societies digging their way into the past", the removal of those structural safety nets that prevent individuals from going to the dogs, or just how the loyalty and empathy of our four-legged friends will forever trump the self-serving motives of men. A bracing watch, either way, anchored by Tchili's physically and emotionally agonised presence: you won't readily return to it, one suspects, but don't be surprised if one or two of its wild howls at the moon come back to haunt you.

Lek and the Dogs is now showing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via MUBI.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

On demand: "Lovesong"

The title of the Korean-born, U.S.-based So Yong Kim's drama Lovesong may be singular, but the loves it describes are many and varied. First, there is the deep bond connecting Sarah (Riley Keough), an all-but-single twentysomething mother, to the young daughter she's been raising within the leafy-green seclusion of the American Midwest. (As first seen in her 2008 international breakthrough Treeless Mountain, Kim has a gift for casting the most adorable children, so this love is very easily communicated and understood.) The distant and fading love shared by Sarah and the father of her child, an aid worker perpetually away solving other people's problems, is evident from a shonky Skype session, hamstrung by a futzing connection, from which neither party gets the consolation they come looking for, basic communication being tough enough. And then there is the love this woman shows for Mindy, an old college friend who comes out this way to visit, and immediately rekindles our heroine's interest simply by asking her whether she's okay, and then holding her when she cries.

The new arrival is played by Jena Malone, which means the character's responses are less archetypal and predictable than they might have been, but Mindy is the kind of flirty, anything-goes free spirit traditionally inserted in movies to shake up a status quo, happy, sorry or otherwise. (It makes complete sense later on when Rosanna Arquette - who played similar catalysing roles through the Eighties and Nineties - shows up in the role of the character's mother.) And so it goes here: after the midnight games of truth or drink, there follows an outpouring of reciprocated feelings, stopped - or, perhaps more accurately, put on ice - by Mindy's tendency to go just as soon as she comes. From that, hopefully, you get a sense of just how steadily and stealthily Kim's film builds, to a point where this last love - the longest of all these loves, and one that continues to burn with the intensity of a first love - begins to complicate all the others.

It's become a (not always helpful) reflex response to cite Brokeback Mountain when faced with cinema that presents as anything greater than Kinsey zero in its outlook, but the longing stitched into Lovesong's first half really did remind me of Ang Lee's film, shifted forward to the present day: what we're watching is two people (two-and-a-half, if we're counting Sarah's daughter) left to their own devices in the middle of nowhere, and becoming more intimate with every serenely passing frame. These scenes suggest either that Kim is a budding master of the close-up, or that she's a whizz at casting performers capable of doing extraordinary things in such tight focus. (Or, even better, both.) Anyone who saw Keough's work on the first season of Amazon's Soderbergh spin-off The Girlfriend Experience will already know this actress's Huppertian ability to convey apparently fathomless depths of emotional activity beneath a placid surface; you watch her, here as there, with the same fascination as you would sharks circling one another behind aquarium glass.

Yet the rupture at the film's midpoint enables a reunion in due course. Lovesong's second half unfolds at Mindy's wedding to some bestubbled dude three years later, where amid free-flowing alcohol and filthy jokes, a symmetry becomes apparent. Now the newly separated Sarah is the outsider moving tentatively in on heterosexual terrain, and it's an appreciably delicate nuance that she should have been invited as a standard-issue guest - an old pal - rather than one of Mindy's inner circle: this way, she has to spend proceedings catching charged glimpses of her beloved, along with all the feelings. A quietist romance thus evolves into a behind-the-scenes-at-the-wedding movie, attuned to those sometimes conflicting impulses scattered like confetti before the walk up the aisle to say I do - the human wobbles, the flickers of doubt, the words that aren't spoken. It's also where a vaguely wispy yet authentically affecting indie owns its own title, by taking on the shape and weight of one of those enduring old-timey ballads where a final verse reflects, from a distance, on what has gone before. In bringing us close to these women, Kim captures more than a few of those what-ifs and maybes that haunt hearts and minds, even as we strive to live in the present tense.

Lovesong is available to stream through Amazon Prime, and on DVD through StudioCanal.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

On demand: "Tramps"

Were this 1995, informed parties would quite rightly be shouting writer-director Adam Leon's name from the rooftops as one of the brightest hopes for a new American cinema. Alas, the year is 2018, and things have changed. Leon's tremendously fresh 2012 debut Gimme the Loot - tagging alongside a pair of young graffiti artists as they wound their way through a New York afternoon - was modestly distributed, and too little seen; his follow-up Tramps has been folded into the rapidly expanding Netflix catalogue, which raises questions of just how emergent filmmakers are expected to get their work out there (and get it seen) at a moment where streaming services have far surpassed even glory-days Miramax in their spending power and reach.

Tramps - which might, for several reasons, bear the alternate title Got the Loot - shapes up as a crime movie with recognisable actors attached, but it's still the same kind of hangout movie Leon was making first time out, and very definitely still a New York movie. It does, however, move in appreciably different directions and circles, meandering from the inner city to its pricier suburban outer reaches, and replacing Gimme the Loot's larky misdemeanours with a shift into the realms of petty crime, with its capacity for bringing disparate souls together. Our heroes are the genial Danny (Callum Turner) and the harder-bitten Ellie (Grace Van Patten), a couple of kids paired up in the wake of a bag drop that goes awry: not a high-octane setpiece, this, rather a matter of eager-beaver Danny stepping onto a subway train a beat too soon.

What follows would be distinctive enough as the sunniest, least bloody crime movie in some time. The bag and its contents are perhaps inevitably no more than a MacGuffin, a means to a narrative end: with hours to kill before their next opportunity to hand it over, Danny and Ellie walk and talk, dodge the few authority figures headed their way, pick over their experiences, and bond in the attempt to set things right. (As the amateurish crime syndicate involved is fronted by nerdy comedian Mike Birbiglia, rather than, say, James Gandolfini, we sense they're in no immediate danger.) Were this 1995, you suspect Leon might well have been accused of riding the emergent Richard Linklater's coattails, but Linklater has proved himself such a versatile filmmaker over subsequent decades that there is surely room for a bright-eyed, attentive student to move in on his predecessor's sometime territory.

Tramps might still be considered a consolidation of what was going on in Gimme the Loot, evidently the work of someone making a similar movie with more money, and the prospect of wider distribution ahead. (It's the same process that, in the 1990s, took Robert Rodriguez from El Mariachi to Desperado and Kevin Smith from Clerks to Mallrats.) Turner (the Brit whose boyish handsomeness has carried him across the Atlantic) and Van Patten (who first registered as Adam Sandler's daughter in last year's Netflix hit The Meyerowitz Stories) are capable young actors who work well within the framework of naturalism Leon lays down - in the grand indie tradition, a lot of Tramps looks to have been shot on the hoof, requiring interactions with actual transit workers and passers-by - even if they can't quite match the uncoachable, possibly unrepeatable pop and fizz of Gimme the Loot's effervescent leads.

Still, as these two born underdogs wander towards a kind of resolution, both for the bag and themselves, the film around them emits a low-key, modest but undeniable charm. (Shot in 1.66:1 in homage to past endeavours, Tramps doesn't even deign to take up the whole of your screen if you do find yourself Netflixing it.) Towards the end of the movie, the bag's rightful owner (the terrific supporting actress Margaret Colin, seizing a moment, as ever) schools Ellie about the syndicate's plan in a few lines that strike the ear like an authorial statement, and a rebuke to the torturous mythologies of so much contemporary American cinema: "You know how some men are: the more intricate they make something, the more impressive they think it is."

Leon never stresses his plot points, preferring simply to ride around with them in his back pocket, but his careful writing and editorial nudging nevertheless succeeds in getting Danny and Ellie into a position where they're forced to make a choice between love and money, and equally the audience to a place where we hope they will make the right call. In our never more atomised, post-Weinstein landscape, it's a kick to cross paths with a filmmaker this unabashedly optimistic and romantic, and with a filmography so dedicated to cultivating and putting out good vibes, wherever and however we come to receive them. Leon might be an even more vital and valuable sensibility to have around now than he would have been twenty-odd years ago.

Tramps is available to stream via Netflix.

Monday, 18 June 2018

On demand: "Menashe"

Menashe - which slipped out theatrically in the dark days of December, and is now available to stream - is a 21st century indie that plays and feels like a late Eighties/early Nineties indie, and not just because it unfolds on the streets of New York, hotbed of the scene as it once was. Director Joshua Z. Weinstein (no relation to you-know-who) uses these 82 minutes to draw us right inside a world - or, more specifically yet, a world inside a world: that of the Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jewish community stationed within the wider multiculturalism of Brooklyn's Borough Park neighbourhood. The title character (Menashe Lustig, a local resident retreading actual lived experience) is a heavy-set, balding widower who wears the beard but not the hat or the coat, and can more often be seen carrying a cellphone than the Torah; he works as a cashier in a cramped minimart, where his non-canonical views rub up against those of his more Orthodox fellow travellers, and his shelf-stacking Latino co-workers refer to him, with obvious affection, as "Gordito", the fat one.

In general, though, this is a fellow so unprepossessing that even his own cousin fails to recognise him when he calls on the phone at one point; overlooked (despite his girth) and undervalued, Menashe is - as characterised here - something like a kosher version of Ernest Borgnine's Marty, or the urban equivalent of Pruitt Taylor Vince's lovelorn short order cook in 1995's Heavy. Perhaps the one thing he has going for him is the fact he is the father to a son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), on whom he plainly dotes - although he has to do this only sporadically and from afar, the lad having been raised (as tradition dictates) by a married brother-in-law after the kid's mother passed. Sloppy, slovenly, barely at ease with the world going on around him, Menashe is not the most obvious of father figures - we watch him huffing and puffing to drop the kid off, late, at school one morning - but the thought presents itself: what if this boy was the catalyst his father needs to pull himself together?

Put it like that, and Weinstein's film risks sounding like the varyingly sickly product emitted by Touchstone Pictures throughout the Nineties, a sort of One Mensch and a Baby. (It does, unexpectedly, boast an executive producer credit for no less a figure than Home Alone director Chris Columbus.) Yet its protagonist comes to shape up in directions that prove far more haphazard - more truthful - than any simplistic crowdpleaser would allow for. Its big themes (big religious themes, we should note: duty, responsibility, charity) are revealed not by schematic plotting and writing, but glimpsed through a broadly naturalistic framework: Weinstein, who comes to fiction filmmaking having trained in documentary, fashions resonant, telltale setpieces out of acts as everyday as father and son hanging a picture to a wall - a sign that our protagonist's house (and mindset) is returning to order - and eventually succeeds in getting us utterly caught up in the preparations for a memorial meal. (Truly, you will never in your lifetime have been so invested in the fate of a kugel.)

The results form a small miracle, a faith movie that exists without the usual deafening fanfares and judgements from on high; a film that takes its characters' beliefs seriously, but also seeks to set them against the real world of traffic, beggars and poky one-room apartments, the better to spot where there might be room to grow and improve, or simply let a little God-given fresh air in. Yoni Brook's spontaneous cinematography, alert to both the rituals and the space and movement around them, aids Weinstein's cause no end, as does a sparse score (by Aaron Martin and Dag Rosenqvist) that helps shape and focus these quietly attentive images. The performers occupying them, non-professionals cast to represent points along the scale of orthodoxy, seem both entirely of this world and increasingly recognisable. It was a masterstroke, for one, to have the whole thing revolve around Lustig, a galumphing, bearlike presence, yet a very moving one in the final reel when, eyes lowered, he tries to articulate deep-seated feelings he's spent the whole movie gulping down. You just hope Weinstein doesn't get marked down as a niche filmmaker: here's someone with much to say himself on the subjects of modernity and tradition, working from a wellspring of curiosity and understanding we might well need going forwards.

Menashe is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI. 

Sunday, 17 June 2018

From the archive: "All Is Lost"

The American writer-director J.C. Chandor is fascinated by crisis management. This keenest of interests was first revealed in last year’s classy Margin Call, which charted the behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings at a Manhattan brokerage firm as news of its misdemeanours went public. Now Chandor pursues the theme into more abstract waters with All is Lost, a tautly sustained parable that invites reading as another take on our current economic turbulence, or a secular riposte to last year’s big Christmas hit Life of Pi, or simply as what it appears to be: the tale of an ordinary man enduring the worst week of his life.

The man remains nameless (the credits bill him as “Our Man”), but he’s immediately recognisable as Robert Redford, that totemic figure of white liberal America. When we first see him, he’s snoozing below decks on a yacht bobbing comfortably along in isolation on the waters of the Sumatran straits – until it’s struck by an errant cargo container, possibly of Asian origin, holding a payload of cheap trainers. Assess the situation as you will.

The collision breaches the hull, causing the boat to take on water at an alarming rate – and thereafter Chandor displays a commendable faith in the notion that watching this man making repairs to his stricken vessel (tinkering with a fritzing radio, pumping out the water pooling below deck) will be enough to stick us to our seats.

The recent Gravity was acclaimed for its pared-down approach, but that far flashier experience sought to impress and immerse the viewer from its very first rotations. All is Lost, workmanlike in the best sense, builds gradually, with not much more at its disposal than Redford and the elements. Yet the two films’ effects aren’t dissimilar. Steve Boeddeker’s sound design allows us to hear and feel a storm blowing in from some distance; when it hits, we’re left in no doubt as to what it is to be struck by a wave, and left clinging on for dear life.

For, yes, this is another of those late 2013 endurance tests that have forced famous faces – like the rest of us – to work that much harder for their money. After several years in which Redford looked to be coasting, both before and behind the camera, it’s stirring to see him properly exercised – in part because there’s so little else occupying the frame. The actor still has the intelligence to persuade us he’d be able to improvise some way out of his troubles, but also to suggest that this generally capable man is equally smart enough to realise he’s in serious trouble, and that he might not have the resources to stem the tide.

You could say this mainstream minimalism is nothing more than a reaction to the bloated spectacles prevalent elsewhere these days, and that it’s not without its own problems. Just as some viewed Gravity as no more than a series of beautifully orchestrated close shaves, there will surely be those who cavil at All is Lost’s jettisoning of context and exposition.

But then again: Chandor’s ruthless approach fixes Gravity’s issues with consoling spectres and backstory; Redford’s mid-film F-bomb arguably conveys everything we need to know about the sailor’s mindset; and maybe, just maybe, context and exposition are among the first luxuries washed away in a scenario like this – that it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you’re coming from, when you’re facing the deluge in a boat tossed and turned such that the floor is now the ceiling. All is Lost inhabits the moment – our moment – and does so in ways very few films released this year have.

(MovieMail, December 2013)

All is Lost screens on Channel 4 tonight at midnight.