Sunday, 10 December 2017

On demand: "I Called Him Morgan"

There's a fair bit of story going on inside Kasper Collin's documentary I Called Him Morgan, yet for some while, it's not entirely clear whose story it is - that of the I in that title, or that of the Him - and, in the end, there may not quite be enough of it. Through a combination of characterful talking heads and atmospheric archive footage, Collin starts by laying out the tragedy of Lee Morgan, virtuoso jazz trumpeter and breakout star of the Dizzy Gillespie ensemble, who was shot dead, aged just 33, in 1971. The momentum, however, is stalled by cutaways to a straggly loose end: a 1996 cassette recording, retrieved from an overstuffed desk drawer, of an interview Morgan's former wife Helen gave to a teacher at the adult skills facility she attended in later life. In it, we hear Helen talking openly about a tough childhood in the American South (she was a mother-of-two by the age of fourteen), her transition to New York nightlife, and her whirlwind romance with the musician. If it seems as though the two strands have been set on a collision course, it's because these lives were: as jazz aficionados may already know, it was Helen who shot Lee that night at Slug's Saloon.

The bum notes, then, have to be taken alongside the good. The Helen returned to life here is a tough Southern belle - a whizz in the kitchen, a headturner on the streets - but also clearly a woman at least as impulsive as her straying, weak-willed husband: a key biographical detail, let slip in passing early on, is that she once married a man after knowing him for a week. We first get a sense something wasn't right in this relationship around thirty minutes into Collin's film, with the appearance of a photo showing Lee in the recording studio with a large bandage wrapped around his head - a consequence, it transpires, of the trumpeter blacking out during a heroin blowout and coming to rest on a blazing radiator. Helen was the person responsible for cleaning Lee and his reputation up, and getting him back out on the circuit (and, tragically, among other women): as a fellow musician notes, "She needed someone to take care of, and he needed someone to take care of him." (Collin doesn't push it, but we might start to wonder whether this little boy lost became a substitute for those children Helen left behind back in Wilmington - a way of making amends for her earlier actions.) 

The story, it turns out, is one of dependency, and what happens once such dependencies are threatened. If we feel Collin being deliberately coy in withholding this tale's sorry pay-off, we can admire his confident handling of his raw materials. Those same jazz aficionados will surely nod appreciatively at the long, uninterrupted slices of Morgan's oeuvre allowed to play out on the soundtrack, proofs of the subject's genius that also contain melancholy hints of promise lost. The film's limitation is that Collin can only amplify what turned out to be a small, sad, semi-forgotten domestic so much. The obvious corrective would have been to dig a little deeper into Helen's rehabilitation and reemergence into polite society, perhaps at the expense of Lee's rise to prominence: we get there in the closing ten minutes, but by then it feels too little, too late. That cassette recording was apparently the only time Lee's saviour and killer put herself on the record in any form (she died a few months later), sitting opposite an interviewer who clearly didn't realise what he had on his hands: it is undeniably compelling while the encounter unspools, but eventually the tape runs out.

I Called Him Morgan is now available to stream on Netflix.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

2017: The Poll of Polls

Current Top 10 (as of December 9, 2017):

1. Get Out, 58 points
2. Faces Places, 25
3. Lady Bird, 23
5. Dunkirk, 21
6= Call Me By Your Name, 19
6= Twin Peaks: The Return, 19
8= Good Time, 16
8= Zama, 16
10= Phantom Thread, 13
10= A Quiet Passion, 13
10= Personal Shopper, 13

Empire: 1. Get Out 2. Blade Runner 2049 3. La La Land 4. Moonlight 5. The Death of Stalin 6. Dunkirk 7. God's Own Country 8. Logan 9. The Handmaiden 10. Call Me By Your Name.

Sight & Sound: 1. Get Out 2. Twin Peaks: The Return 3. Call Me By Your Name 4. Zama 5. Western 6. Faces Places 7. Good Time 8. Loveless 9= Dunkirk and The Florida Project.

Cahiers du Cinéma: 1. Twin Peaks: The Return 2. Jeannette 3. Certain Women 4. Get Out 5. The Day After 6. Lover for a Day 7. Good Time 8. Split 9. Jackie 10. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.

Manohla Dargis (New York Times): 1. Dunkirk 2. Ex Libris: New York Public Library 3. Faces Places 4. The Florida Project 5. Get Out 6. Lady Bird 7. Okja 8. Phantom Thread 9. A Quiet Passion 10. Wonder Woman.

A.O. Scott (New York Times): 1. The Florida Project 2. Lady Bird 3. Get Out 4. I Am Not Your Negro 5. Faces Places 6. Phantom Thread 7. A Fantastic Woman 8. Graduation 9. A Quiet Passion 10. War for the Planet of the Apes.

Stephanie Zacharek (Time): 1. The Post 2. Lady Bird 3. The Lost City of Z 4. Personal Shopper 5. Kedi 6. Call Me By Your Name 7. Dunkirk 8. Faces Places 9. Get Out 10. Girls Trip.

Ryan Gilbey (New Statesman): 1. Aquarius 2. Elle 3. Daphne 4. The Work 5. Personal Shopper 6. Call Me By Your Name 7. Moonlight 8. Manchester by the Sea 9. The Other Side of Hope 10. Colossal.

Richard Brody (The New Yorker): 1. Get Out 2. A Quiet Passion 3. Good Time 4. A Ghost Story 5. Slack Bay 6. Phantom Thread 7. Beach Rats 8. Faces Places 9. Song to Song 10. Silvio.

J. Hoberman (Artforum): 1. Drunk (a.k.a. Drink) 2. Zama 3. Streetscapes [Dialogue] 4. The Vietnam War 5. Nocturama 6. Get Out 7. Norman 8. The Florida Project 9. Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story 10. An Ecstatic Experience

Friday, 8 December 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of December 1-3, 2017:

1 (2) 
Paddington 2 (PG) ****
2 (1) Daddy's Home 2 (12A)
3 (3) Justice League (12A)
4 (new) Wonder (PG)
5 (4) Murder on the Orient Express (12A)
6 (6) Thor: Ragnarok (12A) ***
7 (8) A Bad Moms Christmas (15)
8 (7) Battle of the Sexes (12A) ***
9 (11) The Star (U) **
10 (new) The Man Who Invented Christmas (PG)


My top five: 
1. A Matter of Life and Death [above]

2. The Muppet Christmas Carol
3. Most Beautiful Island
4. The Big Heat
5. Beach Rats

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) War for the Planet of the Apes (12) ***
2 (new) The Emoji Movie (U)
3 (1) Spider-Man: Homecoming (12) **
4 (4) Despicable Me 3 (U)
5 (5) Paddington (PG) ****
6 (2) Trolls: Holiday (U)
7 (3) Micky Flanagan: An' Another Fing Live (15)
8 (7) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
9 (new) Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (12)
10 (new) Blue Planet II (E)


My top five: 
1. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

2. 78/52
3. Dunkirk
4. Girls Trip
5. Journey Through French Cinema

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Toy Story (Sunday, BBC1, 3.35pm)
2. Headhunters (Sunday, BBC2, 1.05am)
3. Shaun of the Dead (Saturday, ITV1, 11.05pm)
4. X-Men: Days of Future Past (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
5. The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Sunday, C4, 3pm)

World in motion: "Human Flow"

Visit 180 The Strand, a towering office block that has in recent months been appropriated as a temporary exhibition space, before this weekend is out, and you'll be confronted by a work that the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has entitled Odyssey: one side of an entire room decorated from ceiling to floor in what at first appears to be mass-produced wallpaper. Get in close, however, and you notice that what looked from afar like generic patterns are in fact scenes from the 21st century's refugee crisis. Here are men, women and children fleeing the sites of conflicts, taking to the seas in overcrowded dinghies, occasionally meeting sorry demises, being threatened by border guards and anybody else opposed to the principle of free movement. The key to understanding the work - and, just perhaps, the world - is that you have to go out of your way and really look. Human Flow, the epic new documentary to which Ai has signed his name, is Odyssey as retold in moving images - a big-picture artistic statement that seeks, in its 140 minutes, to bridge East and West, Europe and Africa, and to embrace Syrian, Rohingyan and Kurd alike. It is at once hugely ambitious and massively unwieldy; its triumph may be that it gets as far and covers as much ground as it does before it collapses over the finish line.

One might best approach it as a primer, or - perhaps better, given Ai's fondness for sweeping, vertiginous drone shots - an overview, flashing up facts, newspaper headlines and quotes over footage taken at those points of arrival and departure. Here, we find Ai - persona non grata in his native China, as the excellent 2012 doc Never Sorry reminded us - greeting those tumbling onto and off those dinghies, and those left in limbo in damp tents in railway sidings. (His attempts at making conversation and connections with those he finds there, often involving broken English and smartphone cat photos, are reliably charming.) The Google Earth framing ensures Human Flow remains at all times more specific than last year's free-roaming, impressionistic portrait Fire at Sea, which left its audience to feel out its terrain for themselves. Ai's film, by contrast, is governed by the same sequentiality as the artist's wallwork: he shows us the bombed towns and cities, and the homes rendered uninhabitable, then the displaced masses, then the perilous journeys they undertake - across rocky roads and fast-flowing waters - to reach some form of sanctuary. In doing so, Human Flow expresses a logic that may, in the unlikely event of the film being given away as a cover-mounted DVD with the Daily Express, help chip away at some of the less rational rhetoric that has hardened and solidified around this topic. 

Migration is here framed as a matter of logistics - huge crowds, moving in a particular direction, and leaving our gatekeepers with three options: repel them, rope 'em off, or reintegrate them somewhere else. As one migrant wonders, peering at Ai's camera from the other side of a chainlink fence: "Border closed? Where the people go?" These are the questions (and uncertainties) that hover over every frame here, and you do sometimes wish Ai had alighted upon more in the way of practical solutions - though this may be our leaders' failing, not the film's. (Either way, no 2017 release has cried out louder for post-screening Q&As: the tone and phrasing will vary, but every image will likely prompt a response of "What can I do?") The scope dilutes its charge: as politically charged art, Human Flow proves less effective than Odyssey, which reduced the refugee experience to the stark essentials of survival, and made its repetition seem a vital part of the piece, rather than an editorial oversight. Nevertheless, this is a comprehensive and exhaustive study, and self-evidently the kind of work only an artist whose heart is as all-encompassing as his gaze would embark upon. Human Flow succeeds in reconciling the grand gesture with the tiniest detail; it opens up the space still available on our planet, then gets in close enough to see the humanity in our fellow travellers' eyes. The big question is: where do we all go from here?

Human Flow opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow. 

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Get out: "Most Beautiful Island"

Just as society has to work out how to come to terms with migration - extend a hand, or raise a flaming torch? - so too do our filmmakers. Last week saw Michael Haneke rather brusquely nudging on a huddled mass of Africans as the punchline to his Happy End; later this week, we'll see Ai Weiwei's compassionate overview doc Human Flow. Landing somewhere between the two approaches is Most Beautiful Island, a throat-grabbing B-pic of the old school in which writer-director-star Ana Asensio comes to address the plight of undocumented workers in latter-day Manhattan through the framework of genre: in some ways, she's picking up where 2004's much-admired Maria Full of Grace left off, though the new film pushes on still further, into the realms of outright horror. It opens as a character study in a familiar indie social-realist mode: Spanish heroine Luciana (Asensio) has reached the United States, albeit in a somewhat precarious condition, uninsured, and falling ever more behind on the rent for an apartment that has turned out to be riddled with cockroaches (early warning: this is not a film for bug phobes). Collecting only the modest income that follows from handing out flyers for a chicken restaurant, she naturally jumps at a hostess gig held out to her by a Russian co-worker, a job that apparently requires no more than to report at a warehouse wearing a little black dress. This, it transpires, is a bad move, and - if she's not careful - one that could well end up being her last.

There is no grandstanding or chestbeating about the drama that subsequently unfolds, nothing that would announce Most Beautiful Island as An Immigration Movie; its final movement, I suspect, would rule it out of serious Oscar contention. Instead, Asensio composes a simple, slender fable - barely 80 minutes short - which contents to stick the camera over our heroine's shoulder, and thereby illustrate in the most matter-of-fact manner just how easily an ordinary day can shade into nightmare for someone without the usual safety nets of privilege. The film is deliberate indeed about withholding the exact nature of that nightmare from us: it's one of those unnerving constructions that delights in keeping heroine and viewer alike in the dark for as long as is narratively feasible. As the assembled women are assigned numbers and told to wait in the chalk circles scrawled for them on the stone floor of the warehouse's unfurnished antechamber, we can be fairly certain they haven't been invited round for afternoon tea - unless they themselves are on the menu. (When asked what became of her former friends, the Russian girl replies with a lingering "New York ate them up".)

No spoilers from me, but the whole could well be filed alongside that wave of plutocrat-age media - including such diverse TV projects as Twin Peaks: The Return and The Girlfriend Experience - which insist that very bad things indeed are going on the other side of doors that will only rarely be opened to the likes of you and I; it's only once those doors have been opened that light is cast on the extent to which we've become the playthings of the well-to-do. (That title, scrawled by Luciana on a hopeless paper plane, has surely been formulated to recall the Depression-era The Most Dangerous Game.) Asensio - tall, athletic, combative; not an obvious patsy - gives a strong portrayal of a young woman whose better nature (her capacity to trust strangers, and convince strangers to confide in her) may very likely be her downfall. Even more striking, though, is the steel in her direction, her willingness to put her onscreen self through the wringer in a dozen or more ways while holding firm and letting the threat levels around her build quietly and steadily. The result generates some of the clammy, skin-prickling panic of a superior urban legend: rough-edged yet supremely vivid, possessed of an internal logic that makes its so-called true story terrifyingly easy to believe, this is termite art that sinks its teeth right into you.

Most Beautiful Island is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

From the archive: "Fill the Void"

With Fill the Void, the writer-director Rama Burshtein leads us inside a world that might initially seem as alien to us heathens as anything delineated in, say, Battlefield Earth. Yet here the dreadlocks belong to the Orthodox Jews of modern-day Tel Aviv, and it’s clear Burshtein is operating her camera as a translation device, attempting to explain Haredi rules and rituals to a wider audience – those related to matters of the heart, in particular. Burshtein’s film opens with a young woman and her mother being directed via telephone to scope out a possible suitor in a supermarket’s dairy aisle; shortly thereafter, we see this same young woman, Shira (Hadas Yaron), deep in conversation with a contemporary about the man to whom the latter is being hitched. “He landed yesterday,” she notes. “We met from seven to 10.15.” “What’s he like?,” asks Shira. “He’s all right,” comes the bathetic response.

Clearly, marriage in these parts, though negotiated by all parties and therefore not technically arranged, is still guided more by practicality than passion – a situation further pointed up after Shira’s sister dies during labour, and our heroine finds herself being pushed by the community’s elders to marry her own brother-in-law, in order to help raise this widower’s offspring. The film’s project isn’t completely without precedent: there are similarities here with 2011’s Corpo Celeste, Alice Rohrwacher’s much-admired drama about a young girl’s initiation into Catholicism, which – to use a cross-denominational metaphor – succeeded in translating some arcane theological considerations into the daily bread of its recognisably flesh-and-blood characters. Fill the Void is, if anything, more even-handed yet about a way of life to which its director is evidently closely tied.

Shira’s predicament is presented as both extreme yet extremely logical, and you sense the filmmaker striving to identify the one character who might be a good and lasting match for this girl – bringing her in line with the matchmakers-in-chief of countless mainstream romcoms. (The director has cited Jane Austen as one of her inspirations, and it shows through.) A notable obstacle appears when Shira learns the dead wife had previously nominated another (older) woman to take her place in the event of any tragedy – leaving the highly expressive Yaron to suggest how our young-seeming heroine has had considerable responsibility heaped upon her, and how she may just be strong and mature enough to either bear it, or shrug it off altogether. Burshtein charts this process with impressive economy, both in her shot selection (close-ups that carry the story’s emotional weight) and editing, while using the rituals at the film’s centre to better describe those at the fringes of this universe: the women who’ve gone unmarried, the men themselves left behind, by bereavement or some other misfortune. When Shira ends up sharing a lift with the chap from the dairy aisle, it’s a poignant reminder of a path not taken – and another example of Burshtein’s facility for tapping the universal emotions beneath a very specific set of prayers and chants.

(MovieMail, December 2013)

Fill the Void screens on Channel 4 tonight at 3.45am.

Monday, 4 December 2017

From the archive: "Like Father Like Son"

In his 2011 film I Wish, Hirokazu Kore-Eda – the filmmaker most observers regard as the closest the Japanese cinema has nowadays to the revered Yasujiro Ozu – appeared to be consciously attempting to preserve on celluloid a gentle, childlike innocence, much as the lost souls floating about the ether in Kore-Eda’s breakthrough feature After Life sought to preserve a cherished memory of earthly happiness.

Ozu himself went through a phase of working almost exclusively with children, you may remember, and Kore-Eda’s new film Like Father, Like Son extends the tradition further still. This is an elegant, quietly affecting take on the sort of baby-swap material one might encounter on the Lifetime channel or gawp at in a supermarket tabloid, and if its plot details are region-specific, the emotions it generates are universal.

In Japan, we learn, children heading to elementary school are subject to a blood test; one such procedure will reveal that Keita (Keita Ninomiya), the docile charge of a well-to-do architect and his wife, is in fact the offspring of a lowly shopkeeper, whose own child Ryusei (Shogen Whang) turns out to be the architect’s by birth, the result of a mix-up in the maternity ward.

This set-up sparks a series of quandaries any onlooking parent will be obliged to consider. Should the parents simply swap the children they’ve raised for six years, no harm, no foul? If you had the money, would you offer to raise both? If one party was unwilling to make the switch, might you be tempted to sue for sole custody – or would you concede that, after all this formative time, the bond between infant and guardian was now too strong to sever?

This nature-versus-nurture debate is played out over the course of a year, allowing us time to contrast the personalities of the fathers (the driven architect – who seems to be away from home an awful lot for someone so obsessed with the notion of family – and the lackadaisical shopkeeper) and those of their sons, and to mentally mix-and-match, feeling out who works best where; Kore-Eda favours a very Ozu-ish parallelism, his shot compositions offering neatly symmetrical variations on twos and fours.

One could easily damn Like Father, Like Son with the faint praise of the adjective “simple”, except that it’s clearly intended as a record of such simple pleasures, the kind our adult selves sometimes contrive to complicate and mess up. Kore-Eda uses his parallels to map out different ideas of what it might be to be a father or son (the women, though allowed vivid moments, are secondary), and without the heavy-handedness of, say, Richard Curtis in About Time.

He’s become increasingly adroit about casting child performers in ways that mean he barely has to direct them: whether independent or clingy, sharp-eyed or slightly dopey, Kore-Eda’s kids are always allowed to be themselves on screen – and of course it helps they’re adorable enough to make one want to take the next bullet train to Shinjuku and start frantically adopting.

You’re struck by how much of the film is simply, quietly observational – watching the boys splashing about at bathtime, making balloons, peering out of car windows at the giant pylons passing by – and the abiding lightness of touch is such that Kore-Eda can even muster viewer sympathies for the muddled nurse who engineered this fateful switch in the first place.

Depending on your temperament, you might want the film a little less gentle, but one suspects that in the year 2050, by which point a new, hyper-aggressive strain of capitalism will have turned our young into jaded shells hooked on hard drugs and harder porn, and the notion of good parenting will have been revised down to “shrugging less dismissively”, we will be grateful indeed for Kore-Eda’s achievements in this field: these most recent films of his may well stand as reminders that we were all this human, once upon a time.

(MovieMail, October 2013)

Like Father Like Son screens on Channel 4 tonight at 3.10am.

From the archive: "20 Feet From Stardom"

The title of Morgan Neville’s Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom adds a poetic dimension to that tricky distance that separates stagefront from stageback, and thus the music business’s journeywomen – its jobbing back-up singers – from its multi-platinum divas. The Beyoncés of this world may get their names elevated to marquees, but Neville grasps it’s their harmonists who often have the most illuminating stories to tell. His film nudges several prominent examples forward, shines a spotlight on their lives and work, and says: OK girls, take it away. Most don’t require a second invitation to let rip.

2002’s Standing in the Shadows of Motown and last year’s Muscle Shoals set the trend for poking around the backdrop of pop, but Neville’s film distinguishes itself in defining a particular personality type. Its subjects are mostly women of colour, and often gospel-trained, which perhaps accounts for their relative humility. While many display the self-confidence common among those regularly performing to screaming thousands, that ego has clearly never grown large enough to prevent them from deferring to the top-billed artiste, even – in certain sorry cases – from allowing said artiste to claim credit for their own recordings.

As the film sets out its potted pop history – shuttling from the Fifties’ very light entertainment through the Spector years and the British invasion to arrive at Bowie, Talking Heads and Michael Jackson – its subjects’ anecdotes mesh into an underlying counternarrative, one that reclaims decades of underacknowledged labour by women from ethnic minorities pursuing careers within an industry still controlled by white men. (It’s entirely apt the film should have picked up the Oscar at the same ceremony as 12 Years a Slave took the top prize.)

Neville is savvy about isolating his subjects’ contributions to pop lore: he pushes up the colour of their dresses in the archive footage or the levels on their vocals in the mix, the better to appreciate, say, Lisa Fischer’s genuinely eerie, siren-like wails on “Gimme Shelter”, or how even a throwaway non-classic like Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” would be a far lesser record without all the “toot toot”s and “beep beep”s Ms. Summer delegated to the collective known as The Waters Family.

Without the Raelettes, Ray Charles’s vocal on “What’d I Say” might merely sound that of an abject letch groping for respectability. With them, however, the track becomes something else: a playful back-and-forth or flirtation, one more gleaming polish of everything that remains seductive about pop music. To hijack that old axiom about Rogers and Astaire, he gives them the gig, but they give him class and allure, and each track they produced together was warmer and more human for them occupying the same space. (Could the same be said about’s digitised hook-ups with Miley Cyrus, or Pitbull’s with Ke$ha?)

Some have sniped that Morgan’s film was the safe, Academy-friendly option in the year of The Act of Killing, a triumph for slick showbiz glitz over heavyweight yet contentious history. All of which is to massively undervalue the importance of pop’s own history to anybody with ears and a heart, and to overlook how the films achieve a comparable force of impact. Each film is, in its own way, performance-driven; though 20 Feet aims for harmony and uplift, where Killing finds jawdropping discord, both sets of stories ring through loud and clear.

It would take a particularly hardy breed of cynic not to shed a tear here: upon hearing of a career that didn’t quite turn out the way it might have, at the sight of a newcomer tentatively shuffling out into the light, or simply upon re-encountering one of the soundtrack’s roster of great, great tunes. In bringing the camera and viewer closer to his subjects, Neville succeeds in rendering the distance inscribed in the film’s title entirely moot: whether or not these names, faces and voices were on your pop-cultural radar beforehand, the whole movie just sings.

(MovieMail, March 2014)

20 Feet from Stardom screens on Film4 tonight at 11.15pm.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of November 24-26, 2017:

1 (new) Daddy's Home 2 (12A)

2 (2) Paddington 2 (PG) ****
3 (1) Justice League (12A)
4 (3) Murder on the Orient Express (12A)
5 (re) Frozen (PG) **
6 (4) Thor: Ragnarok (12A) ***
7 (new) Battle of the Sexes (12A) ***
8 (5) A Bad Moms Christmas (15)
9 (new) Letters to Santa 3 (15)
10 (new) Suburbicon (15) **


My top five: 
1. The Muppet Christmas Carol

2. In a Lonely Place
3. Most Beautiful Island
4. The Big Heat
5. Beach Rats

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) Spider-Man: Homecoming (12) **
2 (new) Trolls: Holiday (U)
3 (new) Micky Flanagan: An' Another Fing Live (15)
4 (1) Despicable Me 3 (U)
5 (4) Paddington (PG) ****
6 (2) Cars 3 (U)
7 (5) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
8 (7) Moana (PG) ****
9 (3) Baby Driver (15) **
10 (new) Kenny (12)


My top five: 
1. The Ornithologist

2. Girls Trip
3. Journey Through French Cinema
4. Sachin: a Billion Dreams
5. War for the Planet of the Apes

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Ratcatcher [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 2.10am)
2. Shrek (Sunday, C4, 5.50pm)
3. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Sunday, C4, 9pm)
4. Like Father Like Son (Monday, C4, 3.10am)
5. Fill the Void (Tuesday, C4, 3.45am)

Unknown pleasures: "Happy End"

The Michael Haneke Christmas special turns out to be 107 minutes of festive fun for all the family, a veritable selection box's worth of laughs, songs, special guest stars and much, much more. Except - oh no - it isn't: Happy End, as has been much noted in the months since the film's Cannes premiere, is another of Herr Haneke's stony-faced assaults on bourgeois complacency, deploying all the tricks the Austrian has learned in his now forty-year career behind the camera. It opens, for instance, with surveillance footage of the kind Haneke put to such unnerving use in Benny's Video and Hidden: first a girl surreptitiously Snapchatting her depressive mother going through the motions (and a pet hamster doing far less than that), then a cleverly engineered overview of a haulage depot that provides the scene for an industrial accident after one of its outer walls subsides. Generally, this will be a film of smaller, more niggling erosions. The main characters work to maintain illusions, facades, business as usual; Haneke does his best, scene by scene, to undermine their foundations and tear every last one of their playhouses down. There isn't really a happy ending, suckers; the poor hamster doesn't last five minutes. Merry Christmas, everyone.

It is, as you might perhaps expect, a rigged fight, but we can to some degree admire the clarity with which Haneke first sets out his side of the argument. The opening movement is appreciably clipped and precise in locating each member of the moneyed Laurent clan - the Calais trucking dynasty who operate that depot, headed by ailing patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and can-do eldest daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert) - within their particular pocket of white privilege, while still leaving room between them for semi-involving mysteries: the sudden disappearance of one character, say, or the clips of instant messaging that reveal another as a big fan of urolagnia, or the incongruous presence of Toby Jones, the image of a very English middle manager, on the fringes of this clan. We're not immediately informed why prospective heir Pierre (Franz Rogowski) can be observed taking a beating on the forecourt of a social housing block, nor really why his immediate response is to take to the karaoke stage and breakdance his way through a rendition of Sia's "Chandelier". (I told a white lie earlier: there are laughs here, albeit of the faintly bemused variety.)

The success of the prickly drama that follows will depend heavily on the extent to which you feel the Laurents actually deserve the brusque, cold-shoulder treatment their lofty greybeard creator affords them; my feeling was that Haneke was relying overly on the pearl-clutching masochism of those well-off liberal audiences who feel guilt for nibbling sea-salt crisps at the Picturehouse of a Tuesday afternoon when there are people starving in the wider world. From what I could detect, the Laurents aren't notably worse than many industrialist dynasties; they at least try to make amends of one form or another to those they've wronged, and Anne can be observed bringing a young girl a nice-looking, non-poisoned box of chocolates after she's attacked by the family's dog, which she didn't have to do. Any evasiveness here lies on the side of the director, not the characters. The actors remain likable in many ways: even Trintignant's Georges has the decency to turn his initial gruffness against himself, thereby revealing some conscience. It's just the camera keeps recoiling from them, denying us obvious points of identification, key biographical details, subtitles for their dialogue - basically making every Laurent come over as a lot shiftier than they might seem, in order to justify duffing them up and dumping their bodies in the ocean.

Well, Haneke does what Haneke does, you might argue, and - if offered the grim choice - I'd probably still take this director's merciless severity over the arch mannerisms being touted up and down the Croisette by an imposter like Yorgos Lanthimos. Yet this time round, I couldn't help but feel I'd seen Haneke do all this better elsewhere: in films that seemed much less indiscriminate in their choice of victims, and possessed of far smarter lines of attacks and far less schematic plotting than Haneke embarks upon here. This latest provocation goes where it must come the final moments, pursuing a literal downhill slope towards a predetermined dead end - the kind of conclusion destined to inspire slow handclaps and sad-trombone noises from anyone who hasn't been made to feel intensely culpable by what they've been watching. Yet I hope you'll excuse me, and all my privilege, if I pause to wonder what possible satisfaction the director can possibly still be taking from setting out to make another of these depressive pass-agg fingerwags every couple of years, and what pleasures the paying audience are meant to be taking away from them, too.

Happy End is now playing in selected cinemas.

On demand: "The Farthest"

In 1977, the year of Star Wars and Close Encounters, NASA launched the two Voyager satellites into the stratosphere, charged with the mission of exploring the galaxy's outer reaches and bringing us closer than ever to our neighbours in the solar system. Four decades on, Emer Reynolds' philosophically inclined documentary The Farthest collects together the testimony of those big brains who got these satellites out there in the first place, and those who've monitored their progress ever since. The film has three main fields of study, all of them fascinating in some way. The first is no less than space itself - the in this case literally astronomical distance the Voyagers have had to travel to see the sights we wanted them to see. "There's a lot of room out there... a lot of room," comments one scientist, and part of the fascination is surely that space inverts our own overcrowded, arguably undercivilised reality; what's missing from the scientist's assertion are the words "to escape into".

The second field of study are the satellites, and what soon becomes touchingly apparent is the extent to which Reynolds' interviewees - generally grounded, learned, unsentimental types - have anthropomorphised their creations over the years. The Voyagers, according to more than one of the mission's progenitors, are comparable to children: forever asking questions, wondering, seeking. Even in the matter of design, the satellites are described as "strange-looking" on our planet, but "perfectly happy in space". Some of Reynolds' subjects are visibly moved when asked to recall the day they had to let their little darlings go, as if they were parents waving kids off to university; to sustain the metaphor, there is even a moment in the second half when one Voyager goes awry - getting into some rocky business round the back of Saturn - and needs an intervention from Houston to be reset on the right path.

Increasingly, you sense Reynolds was drawn to these scientists because - though they may be killjoy spoilsports who insist on pronouncing Uranus "ur-annus" rather than the comedy standard "your anus" - they possess the kind of well-rehearsed backroom anecdotes capable of boggling the layperson, and particularly those of us born after the conclusion of the space race. Here are tales of interstellar satellites weatherproofed with tinfoil sourced from a neighbourhood 7-Eleven, set alongside the suggestion that, even as you and I meet here, intelligent extraterrestrial lifeforms are likely trying to contact us: it's just we haven't yet tuned into the right frequency to hear them. (And yet the Nick Grimshaw Breakfast Show continues to come through loud and clear. Honestly, this universe.) Reynolds boosts her own soundtrack with prime selections from the spacier end of the Seventies pop canon; we know we're in safe hands the moment the director drops the needle on a certain Carpenters track.

Yet she also has an eye for big-picture images, whether collating those Méliès-like flickers the Voyagers beamed back to us, or simply noting in passing the smallness of the satellites against the vastness of the cosmos, a sight that somehow speaks to our own insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Reynolds' third, and in many ways most poignant, field of study is the so-called Golden Record, the vinyl disc cobbled together in the six weeks before the launch to sit aboard the satellite as a primer by which any alien lifeforms encountered might learn something about us. This was our version of Close Encounters' five-note musical salutation, expanded to include greetings in 55 Earthling languages, the call of a humpback whale and Chuck Berry playing "Johnny B. Goode"; the NASA bods jovially lament how this disc gets more attention than the mission's complex logistical aspects. Ten minutes into The Farthest, I realised why: that here, travelling at a rate of knots far above our heads, is the universe's first mixtape, dispatched a million miles away in the hope, however vague or remote, that someone might some day listen to it and prove to us we are not as alone as we might previously have thought and felt. Technically, it's still in the post.

The Farthest: Voyager's Interstellar Journey is now available on the BBC iPlayer.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

On demand: "Mudbound"

One might be surprised to hear that these generally bleak 135 minutes have been seized upon as an index of positive change, even hope, but then Mudbound holds out to the emergent writer-director Dee Rees - a black woman - the opportunity and funds to realise the kind of wide-roaming homesteader epic that only the thoroughly Caucasian likes of John Ford, Robert Redford and Ed Zwick have heretofore been permitted to make. That the film is something new can be seen from the reluctance to entirely romanticise its particular corner of the American tapestry (rural Mississippi, during and just after World War II) in the way films such as A River Runs Through It and Legends of the Fall have. The first sound we hear is that of a shovel pushing through dirt, and then there is the matter of that mud, which spills outwards from the title to flood both the screen and its begrimed characters' worldviews. (As one confesses, "I dreamt in brown.") This feels like a second Reconstruction - how to civilise a nation after years of conflict? - and it is hard, exhausting and dirty work: that shovel sets the tenor for a film that opens on one burial, and closes with two more.

In content, as in form, it is a film of diverse voices, the narration drawn from Hillary Jordan's novel a burden alternately carried by and shared among a half-dozen of those residing on this small patch of turf. For starters, there are the McAllan brothers, the dashing Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and the foursquare Henry (Jason Clarke), plus the latter's wife Laura (Carey Mulligan); a short way down the track, around a bend broadly under-investigated in these types of movies, there reside the Jacksons, an African-American family, headed by Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige), whose eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) has just received his papers to serve in a tank division headed for Europe. There is a modicum of privilege evident on one side of the fence, not very much at all on the other, yet in the wake of an unsuccessful property deal, the McAllans are obliged to downsize and occupy a shack directly adjacent to the Jacksons' own: you'd call this a level playing field, were the ground not so furrowed and uneven, and those upon it not so obviously lacking the leisure time to play.

It's the ambition that first seizes us, ambition enough to make Dunkirk seem like a playground runaround: in taking on Jordan's novel, Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams have had to marshal big-sky scenesetting, those aerial and tank battles that Ronsel and Jamie find themselves engaged in, and a detailed depiction of what was waiting for both men back on the homefront. The tragedy Mudbound unfolds depends on its characters being children of war, be that of the 19th or 20th century variety: born into a specific moment, with specific circumstances, yielding specific scars and attitudes that aren't easily shrugged off or left behind. We're watching what would come to be known as the Golden Generation, but Rees catches these characters in a quasi-primordial state, battling to extricate themselves from the mire. For an hour, the narration does the heavy lifting, opening up new perspectives within this America: that of a cultured Caucasian woman (Mulligan's Laura), swept off her feet by a farmer only to be deposited in the middle of nowhere with a piano yet no-one to play it for, or that of a ready and able young black man (Mitchell's Ronsel), hailed as a hero over there, yet obliged to return to a place where he's considered next to nothing.

The one voice Rees doesn't allow to take over on the soundtrack, pointedly, is that of the McAllans' racist Pappy (Jonathan Banks), either because she senses the epithets we hear him snarl at assorted Jacksons speak for themselves, or that she knows such voices have become awfully familiar in 2017: here, you sense the writer-director policing the kind of attitudes that have tended to be normalised and validated within this traditionally conservative strain of American cinema. Mudbound is not just woke but completely wide-eyed when it comes to spotting and reframing historical injustices: you witness it in the camera's slow push down a Greyhound bus, past the white folk riding up front to their black countrymen, war heroes and all, sitting segregated in the rear, and in the arrival of the Klan come the final act, not this time as the white knights of The Birth of a Nation, but as harbingers of doom and destruction. Once we're inside this world, however, we're in for good - in part because the plight of the Jacksons and McAllans speaks so much to America's current predicament: the vicious old patriarch, surrounded by well-meaning enablers of the status quo, outnumbered but not yet overcome by the sons and daughters who've emerged from the fight for a better life as altogether wounded warriors, coming to painful terms with the notion their opinions, and maybe even their lives, matter not one jot.

In the film's second act, peace of some form can be spotted on the horizon: Jamie and Ronsel form a boozy bond over their status as forgotten men of the world, Florence and Laura, more soberly, over a shared sense of isolation. Yet their nerves remain frayed, their resources low, and this is all too clearly the sort of tenuous existence that risks being washed away by the first hard rain; we're waiting for the next catastrophe, rather than for things to get better, and Rees seems unlikely to end her film with mixed-race grouphugs and Benetton-ad platitudes. It can seem like a haul at 135 minutes, with certain characters (chiefly Clarke's Henry) ghosting in and out of what must have been an especially tricky edit, but in practically every scene, the performers mesh the spirit of these characters' times with the spirit of ours, and the outcome is a genuine epic that proves far more involving than the bulk of this year's pretty-pretty period pictures. Mudbound is to earlier American Dream movies what Lady Macbeth was to the Downton Abbey school of fiction: a forceful rebuke, convincing in its portrait of the hardscrabble life as it was lived back then, while still fully cognisant of the fact we don't seem all that far removed from its characters' struggles today.

Mudbound is now streaming on Netflix.  

Thursday, 30 November 2017

From the archive: "The Raid 2"

When The Raid dropped here in 2012, it did so as both sneak attack and surprise knockout: a nifty spot of exploitation, engineered by a Welshman operating out of Indonesia, which not only surpassed those pretty good Tony Jaa vehicles imported from Thailand in the mid-Noughties (Ong-Bak, The Warrior King), but gestured towards a grungier version of that baroque style pioneered by John Woo in The Killer and Hard-Boiled. When it punched its way into multiplexes, it seemed as though this coiled, economical urban roustabout might just have the same legs and influence as its evident touchstone Die Hard.

The Raid 2, appropriately, follows the Die Hard 2 route, leaving behind the up-down verticality of its predecessor and instead moving sideways, using its enhanced budget and duration to explore surrounding structures. Our hero Rama (Iko Uwais), so lithe first time around, has himself been pumped up, the better to pass as a street thug – his goal being to infiltrate a nearby crime syndicate. It will be a film of twisting, shifting forms: just when you think you’ve got it pinned down as one kind of actioner, it wriggles clear, jumps headlong through a window, and pegs it round the corner.

If the extra money showcases one thing, it’s that Evans’ skill extends far beyond staging fisticuffs: for one, his near-architectural laying out of story space suggests we may be dealing with the Antonioni of the action movie. Rama’s momentum has elevated him to the penthouses-and-boardrooms set: there’s much red carpet on show, which conceals the bloodstains, and a close-quarters kerfuffle in a wine cellar, which may have been more expensive to shoot than the first film in toto.

Yet this director is still every bit as assured at narrative containment: honing in on telling character details between the flying feet to the face, finding the sweet spots between pressure and release. The smartly structured first fifteen minutes turn out to be flashbacks, whizzing through the necessary exposition as our hero barricades himself in a prison toilet cubicle, girding his loins for the army of ne’er-do-wells gathering beyond the door. Everyone’s waiting for the beast to be unleashed.

Of course, if you are just here to watch limbs bent and skulls getting smashed, there’s plenty of that, too – more imaginative carnage, spread over a far greater surface area. Evans has scored a real coup in staging the first five-man fistfight in a car in the middle of a high-speed pursuit: it’s at the point in this absolute turducken of a scene where he cuts to an overhead view of Uwais lamping the two passengers in front and back simultaneously – fusing Bruce Lee with Busby Berkeley – that a very good action movie vaults into the all-time hall of fame.

Generally, the director gets in close, refuting the skipped frames and frenetic chopping by which Hollywood action movies hedge for the commercially safe PG-13 certificate. In both shotmaking and the ruthlessly clean editing, Evans commits fully to his violence; it might prove horrifying it wasn’t just as often athletic, balletic or comic. Yet even as he expands the frame of reference – working in different fighting disciplines, murderous Japanese siblings, lethal baseball – he refuses to give up on the authentic scrappiness that powered the original, and which continues to let us know exactly where we are.

Because, for all the extra dollars, The Raid 2 keeps it real: whether tracking a pitched scrum in a muddy rec yard, a dust-up in the gents’ bogs or an armed mob rampaging through a low-rent nightclub, this is still the kind of movie you’d expect a director who’s clearly seen Cardiff of a Saturday evening might make in a country with somewhat relaxed health-and-safety legislation. The Raid could have stood as a fluke, even as it announced Evans as someone to watch; the sequel, 148 minutes in which every last hit registers, affirms him as a straight-up master of the form.

(MovieMail, April 2014)

The Raid 2 screens on Channel 4 tonight at 1.35am.