Sunday, 18 November 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of November 9-11, 2018:

 (new) The Grinch (U)
2 (1) Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)
3 (new) Widows (15) ****
4 (2A Star is Born (15) ***
5 (3) The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (PG)
6 (new) Overlord (18)
7 (new) Thugs of Hindostan (12A) ***
8 (5) Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)
9 (new) Sarkar (12A)
10 (4) Smallfoot (PG) ***


My top five: 
1. It's a Wonderful Life

2. Some Like It Hot
3. Widows
4. Possum
5. 9 to 5 [above]

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

1 (1) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12) ***
2 (new) Incredibles 2 (PG) ****
3 (new) Skyscraper (12)
4 (3) The Greatest Showman (PG)
5 (20) The Grinch (PG) **
6 (14) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12) ***
7 (8) Solo: A Star Wars Story (12) ***
8 (2) Sicario 2: Soldado (15)
9 (12) Avengers: Infinity War (12) ***
10 (4) Ocean's 8 (12)


My top five: 
1. Leave No Trace

2. First Reformed
3. Incredibles 2
4. Lucky
5. Whitney

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Back to the Future (Sunday, C4, 4.30pm)
2. The Ladykillers (Monday, C4, 2.50am)
3. The Emperor's New Groove (Sunday, C4, 2.55pm)
4. Over the Hedge (Saturday, BBC2, 8.40am)
5. Air Force One (Friday, five, 10pm)

"Hell Fest" (Guardian 16/11/18)

Hell Fest **
Dir: Gregory Plotkin. With: Amy Forsyth, Reign Edwards, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Tony Todd. 89 mins. Cert: 18

Assigned a title in which a masked killer stalks teens around pumpkins, the distributors of this thick slice of Scooby-Dooism presumably elected to give David Gordon Green’s Halloween redo some space. That it now opens a full fortnight after its October 31st setting can be taken as indication of what a non-urgent proposition it is. The USP of Gregory Plotkin’s slasher – which won’t feel terribly unique to anyone with a passing knowledge of the Tobe Hooper oeuvre, or the various Houses of Wax – is that these teens are chased through a morbidly dressed fairground. Sometimes, then, the ghouls leaping on our heroes – to the inevitable rasping soundtrack farts – are actors playing actors playing hellfiends; sometimes, it’s the killer himself. It is not the most complex horror movie you’ll ever see.

It does, however, comprise a modest progression for editor-turned-director Plotkin, previously responsible for overseeing the mind-numbingly uneventful Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension. Here, Plotkin veers towards the opposite extreme: this ever-manic, semi-jokey runaround is approximately 98% production and costume design. His collaborators come through for him, filling the frame with malevolent mazes, ghoulish ghost trains, possibly even a diabolical hook-a-duck if you look closely enough. Yet evidently the set came first, and the casting and script issues were pushed a long way down the pre-production agenda. We may as well be following these characters on the park’s CCTV system for all that we identify with them, or involve ourselves in their plight.

Its crassness at least raises odd chuckles, as in one crash cut that carries us from a head being smashed in with a mallet to the bell being rung on a strength-o-meter. Yet erstwhile Candyman Tony Todd’s cameo as the park’s resident barker only points up how this hokey carnival strain of horror has drained the genre of its best and most insidious ideas, those fears that might keep grown-ups awake at night. Plotkin’s relentless button-pushing, coupled to the script’s cringe-inducing yooftalk, instead mark Hell Fest as unmistakably the work of middle-aged execs trying to jab suggestible teenagers back into cinemas – and what they’ll witness there is many degrees less skin-crawling than their dads singing Ariana Grande tunes while doing the washing-up. 

Hell Fest is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

On demand: "The Other Side of the Wind"

Every now and again, Orson Welles pokes his big old head back over cinema's parapet, just to remind us he is still in some way among us, and still very much influential - if not for what he specifically did, then for who he was, and what he both did and didn't stand for. In 2018, Welles has loomed larger than he has for some while, inspiring Mark Cousins' heartfelt love letter The Eyes of Orson Welles (which wondered how the movies' Big O would have responded to the Age of Trump), and a hardy team of cinephiles to finish editing the hundred hours of footage Welles racked up for The Other Side of the Wind, shot through the first half of the 1970s and thereafter left to languish on a shelf in a basement before Netflix stepped in to resolve the various rights issues that held work up first time around. (To slip into Cousins-ese for a moment: could Orson, that great observer of the shifting media landscape, have ever foreseen the rise of Netflix, and the trouble the platform has stirred among festival programmers and cinema bookers? And what would he think about a magnum opus like this winding up here, as just one option among countless princess-switch and dogs-who-save-Christmas movies, rather than on the biggest screens in the land?)

Part of the fascination the finished project generates can be attributed to the fact Wind is at least semi-autobiographical, a fractured self-portrait: something like Citizen Kane, that gamechanging breakthrough, revisited by an ageing creative who'd been through the industry sausage factory, been badly burned by his experiences, and yet emerged - undoubtedly bruised, but robust as ever. (It operates in a different key, but the film is as defiantly Welles as "I'm Still Standing" was defiantly Elton John.) The setting is a boozy 70th birthday party at which sacred movie monster Jake Hannaford (played by John Huston, Welles's more flexible contemporary) is all set to preview a rough cut of his latest picture. Hannaford's enablers and hangers-on are played by semi-regular Welles players (Norman Foster, Mercedes McCambridge, Paul Stewart); his muse by Oja Kodar, Welles's muse (and his co-writer here); his attaché, writing a book on the elusive filmmaker while directing his own acclaimed pictures, is played by Peter Bogdanovich, the acclaimed filmmaker who wrote one of the key Welles biographies. Welles certainly wasn't playing down the parallels between Hannaford and himself: this was the boy wonder who, with Kane, gave American cinema the modernising gift of self-awareness returning three decades later to nudge, wink and harrumph, and generally remind everybody of a debt incurred and owed.

And Wind was a return. After just over a decade in exile - making The Trial, Chimes at Midnight and The Immortal Story in Europe for nothing or next to nothing - Welles was heading back to work in the U.S., and L.A. in particular, with the aim of making the kind of film there was suddenly space and money for at the start of the Seventies, one of those jazzily free-roaming, Altmanesque tableaux influenced by the French New Wave (and by Le Mépris and Day for Night above all) where the various long takes and short cuts meant to accumulate and arrive at some state-of-the-nation, or in this case state-of-the-industry, address. Welles, in some respects the cinema's biggest kid, found himself back in the heart of La-La Land with a whole new set of toys to play with: lurid colours, naked performers, the kind of fruity language that would have been verboten on set at the time of Touch of Evil in 1958, let alone Kane in 1941. It should be noted that these emergent creative freedoms don't always work in Wind's favour; there's a fine line between self-awareness and self-involvement, and the two-hour cut arrived at by the cabal of Orson acolytes (including Bogdanovich, producer Frank Marshall, and editor Bob Murawski) suggests Welles often crossed it.

Much of the film we have is composed of gossipy insider movietalk, which will be manna for cinephiles who want to imagine themselves hanging out at the Anthology Film Archives circa 1973, but which can get exhausting to sit through, and will almost certainly set casual viewers (by which I mean non-Wellesites, because who else would be hitting up Netflix for a movie this ancient?) to browsing for the latest Dean Cain-plus-dog movie. With the much later The Player, Altman would be wryly unsparing with regard to his show people, but Welles - perhaps mindful of the moneymen hovering around these shoots, and his own future employment prospects - goes easier on his characters the closer they are to Hannaford. There's some snarky satire at the expense of film critics and students, but the director's entourage - "fireflies", as one of them describes the group - are sorta excused for playing the movie game, and Hannaford himself, after the film's frenzied analysis of all the terror he's wreaked over the years, gets to drive off into the sunset equally admired and feared, a bottle of something in one hand, a pliable young blonde in the other. From the ungenerous-to-brusque treatment meted out to the film's Pauline Kael surrogate Juliette Rich (Susan Strasberg), we might surmise that Welles the all-encompassing man of letters wanted to be his own critic and write his own obits, to have the first and last words alike.

That propensity for overreach - source of his genius, cause of his downfall, side effect of an ego that rarely knew when to stop - is much in evidence elsewhere, and goes to Wind's most glaring weakness. Opening with shots of anonymous steam-room boobs that predict not great cinema but some future Porky's sequel, this is very much a film out of time, a relic of an age - let's call it the Hefner Age, after the epoch's foremost dinosaur - in which the male gaze was paramount, rampant and unchecked. One or two sequences demonstrate how that gaze has generated (and will likely continue to generate) striking cinema: take that reel from the film-within-the-film in which Kodar turns a succession of heads while walking barefoot through an art gallery bathroom, which is an eyecatcher in part because it's about looking, and the pleasures of erotic-forbidden looking. Yet no-one was there to object or intervene when Orson pulled out a fat cigar, sat back, and got himself all steamed up: the sequence ends with Kodar stripping out of her sodden dress, and Hannaford's camera - and Welles's camera, for they are one and the same - getting what tabloid writers once pegged as "a generous eyeful". (Same goes for a scene in which consensual in-car sex gives way to attempted rape in a rainstorm: somebody needed to cut through the lubriciousness, then or now.)

So there's a certain naffness here: that naffness one regularly encounters upon revisiting Seventies light-entertainment ventures that became massive family favourites despite (perhaps because of) their more questionable aspects. Alongside that, however, there's a strange poignancy - a sadness we never got to see Wind in its proper context, and that it didn't restart Welles's directorial career in the way he'd doubtless hoped. (Altman's career, which was looking far less rosy at the end of the Seventies than it was around the middle of the decade, may have been a wonky model to emulate: for Welles, those frozen-food commercials, and Transformers: the Movie, were only years away.) That the film reemerges now can be taken as an act of corporate benevolence - proof that Netflix's power is such it can even reanimate the dead - as well as one of Orson the Magnificent's magic tricks, and like a magic trick, Wind does present as inextricably last century. Had it released in the immediate wake of the Bicentennial, the film might have felt radically fresh and provocative, a revolutionary text offering plenty to go on and work from. Some of that substance has survived the long spell in storage, but what's around it lands in 2018 smelling as musty as any other artefact dredged up from the basement after four decades. The poignancy derives from the fact that mustiness itself offers a heady Proustian rush: with just a few frames, a few seconds of screen time, Wind conjures a whiff of everything we've put behind us, forgotten about and lost, as well as what might at some point have been.

The Other Side of the Wind is now streaming via Netflix.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Spruce Bruce: "Outlaw/King"

In my review of last month's Bad Times at the El Royale, a digest of everything Quentin Tarantino got up to in the immediate wake of Reservoir Dogs, I proposed the cinema had successfully eaten itself up to the 1990s. The emergence this past weekend of Outlaw/King, a few weeks on from Bad Times and the space opus First Man, allows me to further triangulate and narrow that initial judgement to the year 1995. If First Man, with its depiction of nuts-and-bolts American heroism, is this year's Apollo 13, then David Mackenzie's new film arrives as 2018's Braveheart, that semi-notorious Mel Gibson passion project that hasn't been watched by a single person since the night of its Best Picture triumph. True, Outlaw/King operates to the left of that film, in a muddier field yet; it keeps its universe's William Wallace offscreen, spoken of as in retreat before his final martyrdom. Mackenzie's camera instead trains itself on Robert the Bruce (a bearded Chris Pine), whom we first meet negotiating a fragile-seeming accord with Edward I (Stephen Dillane) at the behest of a father bent on appeasement. The peace has its upsides - it hands Robert a comely young bride in English noblewoman Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh) - but leaves our hero with gnawing doubts over whether this deal is the best way to serve a people, or his land. The film's first achievement is to suggest how the political discourse of the early 1400s wasn't so terribly dissimilar from that of 2018. We may have gone back that far.

For the longest of whiles at the beginning of his directorial career, Mackenzie seemed like a gadabout in the Winterbottom-Soderbergh mould, restlessly bashing out half-formed experiments on the pittance available to him. (I can barely remember it now, but his nadir was surely that skidoodle that followed one of the Treadaway brothers as he traipsed round a muddy music festival: even cinemagoers who enjoy spending time around damp campsites didn't want to do so in such unpromising company.) He took a big step up, however, with Starred Up, his concentrated prison picture of 2014; then again with Hell or High Water, which carried Mackenzie to the US and taught him there was no shame whatsoever in making a big-picture movie rather than messing round at the margins. The rescaling of ambitions continues here, no doubt consolidated by Netflix's millions: Mackenzie has armed himself with a major Hollywood star, hundreds if not thousands of extras, and a decent smattering of authentic period detail. Clearly, the huge international success of HBO's Game of Thrones has given producers confidence that audiences will be drawn to - rather than repelled by - muddy, bloody medieval mores, possibly as they recognise something of the barbarism of our own late-capitalist moment within them. (I've long maintained that GoT has only become as popular as it has because it closely mirrors the scheming and politicking now required to get through a long day in the office; either that, or an entire generation is wildly hung up on dragons and boobs.)

Outlaw/King duly gives us some sex (including a much-overhyped glimpse of the Pine peen) as well as the altogether less edifying spectacle of sackclothed patsies being disembowelled, but it's been compiled with a seriousness around Scottish history and heritage that does indeed suggest the presence of a Scotsman behind the camera, rather than an Australian hellraiser keen to map his own legend as a libertarian boozer and shagger onto the central character. Why, then, does it get markedly less persuasive as it goes on? It's not down to Pine, who's matured appreciably since his first starring roles, when he presented as a smirking boyband refugee; that he's not a Gibson is evident from his willingness to concede screen time to the supporting cast he mucks in so well with. (The Gibsonish role here goes to Aaron Taylor-Johnson, cast as "Black James" Douglas, who early on overhears the King issuing a decree banning his name from being uttered in his presence, and thus spends the remainder of the film hollering "Douglas!" as Gibson once hollered "Freedom!") Caught on his own, Pine cuts a thoughtful, reflective figure, taking time to consider his options, and to woo a bride all but handed to him on a platter: unlike the headstrong William Wallace of Braveheart, here is a hero who doesn't enter into anything lightly or easily.

It's the film around him that does that, scrambling through its midsection to get to its main event - a broadly impressive final-reel recreation of the Battle of Loudoun Hill, to which multiple stunt teams and a fair chunk of the budget must have been assigned. Mackenzie, whom you sense may still be a little unsure of his capacity to deliver a crowdpleasing entertainment, cut twenty minutes after the mixed reception the film received on its debut at this year's Toronto film festival: while the new version gallops along, you may find yourself wanting it to dig its heels in from time to time, as Gibson's three-hour venture into adjacent territory did; Outlaw/King has an appreciably epic look, but a lightweight's build. (One stiff gust of wind off the Firth of Clyde, and it would surely blow away.) Gibson, of course, had the luxury of a major studio budget and final cut - no-one could wrestle that off him - which in this case turns out to be the advantage, allowing Braveheart to develop a sense, however misguided or ill-informed, of history in the making. Mackenzie, making do, throws up clumps of mottled facial hair and pockets of politicking, separated by swirling helicopter shots of rolling Highland moors that succeed in defining this country as a prize up for grabs, but these elements never really cohere, lacking the connecting narrative tissue that would explain how these green fields came to be churned up and redecorated in crimson. The film that we have is vivid in spots - but it may be the one thing on Netflix right now that feels too damn short for its own good.

Outlaw/King is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming on Netflix.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Hot wheels: "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot"

Over his long, generally interesting, sometimes wayward career on the fringes of Portland and Hollywood, Gus Van Sant has habitually steadied himself with true-life stories: his Columbine abstraction Elephant won him the Cannes Palme d'Or in 2003, and five years later Milk, Van Sant's biopic of crusading politician Harvey Milk, returned this free-roaming indie spirit to the awards-circuit red carpet. After a run of variable projects (2011's Restless, 2012's Promised Land and 2015's The Sea of Trees) which went un- or underdistributed in the UK, Van Sant's Amazon-backed comeback Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot emerges as a tribute to a Portland-local celebrity: one John Callahan (embodied here by Joaquin Phoenix), a gifted cartoonist who just happened to operate out of a wheelchair. The title is drawn from Callahan's memoir describing his battles with dependency issues - we see him topping up a beer with tequila in the hours before the car accident that left him quadriplegic - but that title originated as the caption to a typically droll Callahan doodle in which a Wild West posse come across an abandoned wheelchair in the desert. The image kicks a laugh out of you, but there's also pain in there; as in the cartoon, so in the film entire.

If at first that film comes on as scattered and scrambled, this is very much in line with the story of a man belatedly attempting to get that story straight and, in so doing, pull himself back together. Callahan's narrative is framed several times over: ultimately, it's a tale being told in triumph to an adoring theatre audience (by the now middle-aged and happily sober cartoonist), but we also chance upon it being workshopped with a bunch of kids who help Callahan up off the street one afternoon, and spend large chunks hearing it recounted in late Seventies/early Eighties rehab sessions - overseen by rich hippie Donnie (Jonah Hill) - to a crowd of unlikely fellow travellers ranging from Udo Kier to Kim Gordon and Beth Ditto. (Van Sant retains just about the oddest contacts book in showbusiness.) This throughline is annotated with flashbacks to Callahan's days before the chair, and animated extrapolations from the cartoonist's back catalogue; these are overlaid with a jazzy, riffing Danny Elfman score. 

Although some of these crazy cuts are finessed via nifty scrolling montages, wheeling us through selected stages in Callahan's progress, clearly the polished studio slickness of Van Sant's Finding Forrester days is several decades behind us. An encounter with a nurse presents in such questionable taste we wonder if it's not just a Callahan fantasy, yet it's offered up as broadly as factual as anything else on screen; after comprehensively outshining her offscreen beau in Easter's Mary Magdalene, Rooney Mara winds up with an altogether more spectral role here as a Swedish masseur-turned-stewardess whose primary care function is to tell our boy how handsome he is before promptly jumping his bones. (Again, we sense Van Sant merrily printing the Callahan legend.) One or two interactions - most notably with Carrie Brownstein's indifferent caseworker - are so brusque they may as well be deleted scenes.

Yet slowly, and not unskilfully, Van Sant pieces these bits and pieces, these highs and lows, into a framework that is not just coherent but quietly moving; he's taken an idiosyncratic approach to what is, it transpires, a broadly conventional ten-step narrative, but it makes sense and works, and the recovery story touches us as the story of a pal who had emerged from rehab might. Don't Worry finds its centre in Phoenix himself, who brings his own unique gravity even to the untethered Callahan stumbling across four-lane traffic in a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops in his quest for booze, then palpably shuts down in the wake of his hospitalisation, barely managing to speak in whispers to Mara's Annu. The rehab sessions prove crucial to the film's success and to its protagonist's recovery: here, Van Sant shows us different personalities coming at Callahan from different angles, forcing him to unfurl once more, and to find a response to his troubles beyond reaching for the bottle and crying woe is me. 

These scenes take their cue from Hill's newfound mellowness - as Donnie, he fosters exactly that safe space in which healing and forgiveness become possibilities - but Ditto is equally impressive as a downhome loudmouth with the thickest skin in Christendom: between her and Savages' Jehnny Beth in the upcoming An Impossible Love, 2018 is clearly the year of surprising turns from indie-rock frontwomen. The nature of Callahan's recovery reminds us of the Van Sant oeuvre's eternal search for self-expression - emotional-mathematical in Good Will Huntingdeadly in Elephant, political in Milk. In this telling, Callahan's non-PC doodles, light relief from unbearable internal tensions, serve to drag up a sense of humour - a reason to laugh, a reason to live - suppressed at the time of his accident. Even when the film is veering every which way, Phoenix keeps his performance linear, or linear with a few signature wobbles and flourishes, like the cartoonist's shaky-handed penmanship. We can always trace this Callahan's tracks to see how far into this process he is, and how far he still has to go. He got far enough for his story to take on considerable human interest, and Van Sant's movie carries us quite some way along with him.

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot is now showing in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Amazon Prime.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Girls with guns: "Widows"

The movie business is so back-to-front and topsy-turvy right now that Steve McQueen has had to cash in the industry collateral earned from making challenging arthouse dramas about dirty protests, sex addiction and slavery to make a Saturday night thriller for grown-ups - the kind of thriller the studios used to knock out in their sleep, yet which all but died off the minute the suits started sticking their heads in comic books, and which now has to be resuscitated as a special event. The material has previous. Widows began life as a Lydia LaPlante-penned miniseries for Thames Television in 1983 (which opens up the amusing possibility of the teenage McQueen sitting stony-faced through episodes of Never the Twain to get at it) before being remade in the US - with Brooke Shields, Rosie Perez and significant plot alterations - in 2002. This third adaptation, undertaken by McQueen with Gone Girl scribe Gillian Flynn, qualifies as recognisably post-HBO (and, more specifically yet, post-The Wire): it brings a gritty reality to LaPlante's narrative of robbers' wives-turned-robbers, partly by extending the original author's lines of inquiry into a vision of a modern metropolis (here, old Chicago) divided along multiple faultlines - rich/poor, black/white, perhaps even men/women - by politicos keen to make a buck.

There's a degree of continuity with McQueen's Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, if we understand the unlikely stick-up gals led by Viola Davis's Veronica to be individuals at the mercy of a rapacious system, obliged to take extreme measures just to survive. (McQueen and Flynn's proposed countermeasure is female solidarity, a diverse selection of women - Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Carrie Coon, Cynthia Erivo - intersecting in a bid to improve their odds.) What's immediately apparent is that McQueen has shaken off the sometimes questionable mannerism of his earlier work. Although there are appreciable symmetries in the director's framings here, you can feel him relaxing into the idea of making cinema rather than statements or art - which is not to say that he's given up on the last two aims, just that he's found ways of integrating them into a much bigger picture. Sometimes, this process is simple: holding an extreme close-up on a speaker lamenting that "ignorance is the new excellence" and that "the less you know, the more you gain" allows McQueen to drive home his editorial on the shortfalls of leadership in latter-day America. More often, though, it's a subtle, crafted business - subtle like pivoting the camera attached to the bonnet of slick JFK wannabe Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell)'s limo during a long dialogue scene, so that we see first the projects lining one side of the street, then the bouji mansions on the other as the car rounds a corner. (Behind the dialogue, then, an idea: that we are not as far apart as those who divide us would like us to think we are.)

Above all else, the new project looks to have been motivated by a desire to give a proper movie movie exceptional, corroborating layers of detail. It earns points for being a rare contemporary thriller where, when the characters go to Google something, they actually bring up Google, rather than a cheaper-to-licence mock-up; and for the cleverness of working a vocal-disguise toy one of Rodriguez's kids is seen playing with early on into the final heist. It's the performers who lug most of this detail into shot. Clearly, after the Oscar, half the Western world was lining up to work with this director, which allows McQueen to fill even minor roles with dependable presences. (Garret Dillahunt is nervily chivalrous as Davis's driver, and even if Orange is the New Black's Michael J. Harney seems to have suffered in the edit as the detective tailing the robbers, there's a strong case to be made for Widows being the best cast crime movie since Michael Mann's Heat.) The pleasures of the ensemble movie - of markedly different personalities rubbing up against one another, sometimes agreeably, sometimes with friction - are very much present and correct, yet even here there's a freshness to the way McQueen marshals his players through the set-up. One of the robbers' wives drops out of their planned heist, for reasons only belatedly revealed; Erivo's factotum is introduced a good half-hour into proceedings. 

Rather than a machine-tooled genre piece, then, we're watching plans being revised, life getting in the heroines' way - and the way they negotiate these snafus itself introduces new notes to what might have been familiar material. It's refreshing, to say the least, to encounter a mainstream thriller driven not by cool, brute-force machismo, but vast reserves of empathy: the empathy Debicki relies upon in recruiting an auction regular to advise her which van to snap up for getaway purposes, or which Rodriguez draws on in drawing closer to a bereaved architect. McQueen and Flynn don't just show but make us feel how their heroines are obliged to juggle childcare with keeping the wolves from the door; they linger on the sisterhood implicit in a look Davis gives Erivo late on, and draw matters to a close with the most empathetic last line in recent memory. Contrast their words and actions with those of the resolutely self-interested men around them - Farrell's blase Mulligan, his openly racist father Tom (Robert Duvall), ruthless killer Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), the rough-edged robber husbands - and you realise that the film permits a convincing (and still rare) triumph for women who give a fuck over men who could scarcely give less of one.

There remains the (very) faint possibility that, after a run of hard-to-sell projects, McQueen conceived Widows as a means of giving the multiplex audience what they actually want. I don't believe he's become that cynical this early in his filmmaking career, but even if the hypothesis were true, McQueen always senses how much to give us and how much to withhold to leave us wanting more. Perhaps this is what he's picked up from the author of Gone Girl: while serving up the pulpy twists that made LaPlante's story such a hit in an ITV primetime slot, McQueen and Flynn use these revelations to fill in scenes missing from the first half - it's an astonishingly deft piece of screenwriting, repurposing what might otherwise have been narrative mortar (or cause for flabby exposition) to stick us to our seats. There are limitations: although the Amazonian Debicki - the only performer here who might have crossed over from the set of Ocean's 8 - has a couple of funny bits, there's not much more suggestion here that McQueen has a sense of humour than there was in Hunger or Shame. Yet that judiciously applied seriousness - as opposed to the smothering sixth-form self-seriousness of a Christopher Nolan or Zack Snyder - may be what mainstream movies have been missing these past decades, and why Widows presents as such arrestingly distinctive entertainment. (It is as Davis's Veronica floats at one point: "If you're not serious...") I couldn't blame you if you'd given up saying prayers for the future of the American cinema at this point; but if not, let us pray that Widows does colossal business, and that its director doesn't wind up making Black Panther sequels.

Widows is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

From the archive: "Love is Strange"

The writer-director Ira Sachs has emerged over the past decade as one of the American independent sector’s finer sensibilities. His gift is for detailed character pieces possessed of a rare emotional half-life: you’re often unaware that anything extraordinary is unfolding while watching his films, but can find yourself standing on the street in floods of tears fifteen minutes after leaving the cinema, and thinking about the fates of his characters for days, weeks and months afterwards.

The dependency issues that formed a subtext of 2012’s tremendously moving Keep the Lights On, an account of a doomed love affair between a filmmaker and a recovering drug addict, are promoted to centre stage in Sachs’ latest Love is Strange, another quiet miracle that acknowledges gay marriage is now a generally recognised thing, but goes on to ask a crucial question both of us and its characters: what next?

The honeymoon of four-decade lovers Ben and George (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) is barely over when the latter loses his job teaching music at one of New York’s Catholic academies, forcing the pair to revise their living arrangements. With Ben on a pension, and rent what it is, they elect to split up and stay with loved ones while waiting for George to land another gig. The union sealed, they’re thus forced apart; like the couple in 1937’s enduring Make Way for Tomorrow, they end up trying to sustain their love by any means – late-night calls, weekend visits – in the face of supremely testing circumstances.

On the face of it, Love is Strange is as jerry-rigged by its casting as Two Days, One Night was by the casting of lovely Marion Cotillard: only a total grouch – or the worst kind of bigot – wouldn’t want cuddly old Lithgow and Molina to regain their happiness. Yet from the uncommon attention Sachs pays to members of the wedding party, right through to the closing shots, in which the movements of two minor characters speak eloquently and indelibly for the whole, the film keeps searching out other perspectives on this relationship.

Ben and George aren’t a burden on their new hosts, exactly – they’re cultured good company – but, removed of their rightful context, they can sometimes resemble a pain in the arse and a stick in the mud respectively: Ben, squeezed into his nephew’s bunkbed, blustering insistently through old-timey anecdotes he can’t recall the punchlines for, the domesticated George suddenly out of place in the kind of bachelor pad he thought he’d surely left behind.

Maybe it’s a felicitous consequence of shooting on a shoestring budget, but Love is Strange stands one of too few latter-day movies to address just how punishingly small inner-city domiciles can be: its locations barely have space for the busy, complicated lives they were already housing, let alone the lives of others. (Sachs and cinematographer Christos Voudouris make something especially poignant from the sight of greybeard Ben exiled to his keepers’ rooftop, trying to find the inspiration and space to pursue his passion for paint.)

Nothing here has been scaled up, no strain made for effect; Sachs holds to George’s verdict on one string concerto – “When the piece is that romantic, there’s no need to embellish it” – even as he allows Ben to contradict it in the very next line. (Opposites, after all, attract.) George’s vocation permits a wistful smattering of Chopin to accentuate the action, but every economical interaction adds depth and shade: we’re drawn into these lives, such that the coda can have a flooring impact while making no more fuss on the surface than a man might make about crossing the road.

As a dramatist, Sachs is no Tennessee Williams – he’s too level-headed for that, his scripts small marvels of even-handedness – but he’s similarly alert to the myriad, often mysterious ways we can rub against and off on one another. Love is Strange, his latest triumph, senses that – wherever we are, whosoever we love, whatever freedoms we might claim – we are as reliant as ever on the kindness and tolerance of those who surround us.

(MovieMail, February 2015)

Love is Strange screens on Channel 4 tonight at 12.45am.