Thursday, 17 January 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Points of view: "Monsters and Men"

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

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

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

Monsters and Men opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Pincer movements: "Island of the Hungry Ghosts"

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

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

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

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

Monday, 14 January 2019

Highland flings: "Mary, Queen of Scots"

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 13 January 2019

From the archive: "Inside Llewyn Davis"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(MovieMail, January 2014)

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

Friday, 11 January 2019

For what it's worth...

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

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


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

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

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


My top five: 
1. American Animals

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

On DVD: "The Rider"

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

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

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

The Rider is available on DVD through Altitude.

Decent coves: "The House by the Sea"

He's kept on working, but it's been a while since the name Robert Guédiguian last appeared on our screens, an absence long enough for most filmgoers to have forgotten that this writer-director beat Barry Jenkins to adapting James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk with his Marseilles-set variant À la place du cœur back in 1998. (Changing times: in 2019, any filmmaker adapting Baldwin with a predominantly Caucasian cast would face... well, let's just say there'd be some trickier than usual Q&As.) With The House by the Sea, Guédiguian has reunited with old friends - those lived-in character players out of which the filmmaker has traditionally built his ensembles, and a sense of community. We wave hello once more to Ariane Ascaride, the director's wife and muse; to Jean-Pierre Darroussin, French cinema's great steadying presence, its bestubbled anchor; to the salt-of-the-earth Gérard Meylan. This reunion has a thematic serendipity: House proves to be about a reunion, bringing three siblings back together at their childhood home overlooking a picturesque bay after their father, a local restaurateur, succumbs to a debilitating stroke.

What was implicit in the original title (La Villa) and gets punched up by the new English translation is the film's potent sense of place. House unfolds around a sunsoaked backwater that suggests a Gallic equivalent of those sad-seeming English seaside retreats that enjoyed a heyday in the leisured 1950s and 60s, then fell into disrepair once the tourists flocked overseas, the residents sold up, and local talent struck out inland towards nearby cities. (It is, to quote Morrissey, "the coastal town that they forgot to close down".) All that apparently remains is the dividing up: the old man's will, newly returned to the table, proposes the villa be split between his offspring, 25% each going to Darroussin's urbane burnout Joseph, who arrives trailing a considerably younger squeeze (Anaïs Demoustier), and Armand (Meylan), who's stayed put to maintain papa's business, 50% to their actress sister Angèle (Ascaride), the extra share - which she refuses - presumed as compensation for the daughter who drowned in the bay while under grandpa's supervision. There's a real poignancy about the way the property now looks out onto the waters: it's as if the old man was keeping watch for the drowned girl - or, indeed, anybody else - to return.

For some while, the film is as deceptively quiet as its location. There's always been something of the ethnographer about Guédiguian, and stretches of House are simply content to put before us some understanding of how these people inhabit this space at this time (which, in the wider scheme of things, is the era of late capitalism). We watch Armand tending the soil, or Angèle revive her father's trick of catching squid with a bare foot; and all the while the boats come in and go back out to sea again, the TGV speeds over the viaduct, leaving this place to the rabbits and the jackdaws. What happens is we find ourselves being pulled inside this town, this house, this family. After 45 minutes, you feel you'd know exactly where to go should you need to post a letter or shop for groceries, and notice - as any guest eventually would - both the external resentments (how Joseph's jadedness alienates his better half, how Angèle regards Armand as something of a self-made martyr) and those internal conflicts stirred up by the old man's frailty (who they've become, and what they've left behind). These are mirrored in the house across the way, where the greying parents (Jacques Boudet and Geneviève Mnich) are reluctant to accept money from their doctor son, for reasons only gradually revealed. First world problems, perhaps, and they will be set in stark relief during a final half-hour that offers another unexpected turn in the road.

As ever, there's rarely any fuss with Guédiguian: not for nothing was he dubbed "the French Ken Loach" when his films first began to cross the Channel, although his economical social realism seems geared less to illustrating specific political theses than describing a more general way of life, alternately despairing, hopeful and beautiful - and possibly vanishing over the horizon. Angèle first presents as a sour-faced mope, but the homecoming sees her fall subject to a romantic flourish from a lovestruck sailor; within moments of the shadow of death crossing the bay, the siblings can be observed fussing about cigarettes on a balcony. Guédiguian has tapped into the rhythms of life, particularly as it might be lived on the coast: any dark clouds blow over, and the sun breaks through again. The second half is all richly rewarding pay-offs, doubtless more resonant for being enacted by mature, credibly conscientious adults - a USP that sets House apart from 98% of contemporary cinema. Guédiguian, who turned 65 last month, appears as concerned with legacy as anyone on screen: there's a neatness about some of his thinking - an optimism that everything works out - which may strike some viewers as fragile in the present moment, and possibly all the more precious for that. Yet look at the fragment he cuts in of his 1986 film Ki So La?, where we see Ascaride, Darroussin and Meylan larking on this exact same quayside thirty years before: here's a jolting reminder of how long this model of filmmaking has held for, and of an ideal of collectivity that may be needed more than ever.

The House by the Sea opens in selected cinemas from today.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Liberations: "Colette"

Clearly, this is a bit of a moment as far as costume drama goes. The mad-as-a-box-of-badgers-and-rabbits The Favourite continues to attract audiences and awards voters alike; next week, we'll see a new version of the Mary, Queen of Scots story that reimagines 16th century court life along the lines of a Novara Media staff meeting. This week's Colette, Brit director Wash Westmoreland's biopic of the scandal-courting French creative, is similarly keen to revisit the past as a hotbed of free-thinking polysexuality and progressive feminism, but the advantage it has over its rivals is that such free thinking was evidently there all along in its subject's life, as in the art. Almost nothing has been imposed on the film; it's agreeably relaxed about both the film it is, and the film it wants to be, which - certainly in relation to The Favourite - is practically classical in its methods. Its drama and themes emerge from the interaction, sometimes conflict between characters who feel properly drawn, wayward, flesh-and-blood human beings rather than empty receptacles to be filled with virtue-signalling editorial. You'll have to wait only seven more days for those.

Westmoreland's film - conceived with the filmmaker's late partner Richard Glatzer, and co-written with the expert Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida, Disobedience) - charts a transitional moment in its subject's life. It opens in what we might call reassuringly heterosexual territory, with the young Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) being plucked, daisy-like, from her country home by the roistering publishing sensation known simply as "Willy" (Dominic West), as much for her ability to knock out prose for his fiction shingle as for her eligibility as a bride and bedmate. They are a good match on some level, forever reaching for le mot juste, the perfect phrasing; the film honours its subjects by taking an evident delight in language - albeit the English language. Young bride tells opportunist hubby "I can read you like the top line of an optician's chart"; hubby expounds a (deeply wise) theory on why bad theatre is akin to dental surgery ("You're obliged to stay in your seat having your skull drilled until the whole grisly procedure is over"). They egg one another on to greater notoriety, but there was a peculiar wrinkle in their relationship, which Westmoreland makes the whole deal: Willy stole Colette's words away to publish under his own infamous name.

The story, then, becomes not just that of a young woman coming to find her own voice, but how the same woman came to repossess and truly own it, a process that involved escaping - if you will - the yoke of Willy, and plunging unabashedly into the throbbing heart of Gay Paree, embarking on flings with first the carefree American debutante Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson), then crossdressing actress Missy (Denise Gough), returning after dark to her husband's bed. It's a ménage à trois/quatre/cinq with footnotes, in which all this literary power couple's previous certainties get flipped over and bent into new positions: their lovelives become the basis of their art, and that art becomes the primary means by which they communicate their innermost thoughts and desires to one another. When Colette tells Willy she's thinking of killing off the male hero of her Claudine series, we know immediately what she's really getting at, while spotting just how vampirically sharp the Knightley incisors can seem.

The sexual politics here aren't retconned, so much as lived among, thought about and worked through: it's a messy process, then as now, and for much of Colette's running time, it generates a rich and enjoyable strain of human comedy. Westmoreland fosters a casual, non-melodramatic performance style, far more 21st century than 19th. It'd doubtless be actionable to suggest West is playing a figure not unlike himself, but his farting, sharking man-about-town feels a good deal closer to our era than it does to the drably yellowing history books, and a more natural fit for the actor than all the B-movie scenery-chewing he's been up to in the wake of The Wire. Alongside - sometimes beneath - him, Knightley makes a transformation from gangly schoolgirl to angular style icon, pansexual pin-up and theatrical siren that feels like a small, fierce triumph for an actress now experienced enough to own her own star persona, and everything appealing within that. "Too much of my life has been arranged," she sighs at one point - and the line speaks not just to Colette's longing for new experience, but for a performer finally cut loose from that ghastly Pirates franchise.

I still slightly dread what Cahiers du Cinema is going to make of Colette, with its mock Moulin Rouge and its English actors writing in French (one of the film's fetish-pleasures: some lovely handwriting) while speaking in Estuary accents. It's a small regret that the marital tensions should be resolved in such a conventionally staged fashion: just this once, Washmoreland elects to address this couple's underlying issues of control, all the screwing around, as drama rather than bawdy boulevard farce. And he can't resist one clanging Biopic Eureka Moment - the Belle Époque equivalent of Kyle MacLachlan's Ray Manzarek doodling the "Light My Fire" riff in The Doors - as the young Colette scratches her first names out of an exercise book, only to pause before underlining her surname. Still, even that moment is worn as lightly and knowingly as any of Knightley's costume changes, and for every humdrum scene, there are four or five more that fizz and pop. It feels faintly unfair to rag on Mary, Queen of Scots before it's had the chance to open, but then you should be warned that film feels like homework forced upon us the day before the school holidays; Colette, both set against that and in its own gigglingly independent right, is purely and simply a romp.

Colette opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Hart attack: "The Front Runner"

In 1988, Robert Altman made Tanner '88, a groundbreaking HBO political series - decades ahead of the trend for major filmmakers to float new ideas on cable TV - which recalibrated the director's freewheeling technique for a smaller canvas and a different audience. Thirty years later, and having been kicked from pillar to post by Film Twitter's hip young gunslingers for having no recognisable style of his own, Jason Reitman has written and directed a political drama, set in 1988, that for at least half of its running time appears to be impersonating Altman as much as, say, Paul Thomas Anderson's early films did. This mimicry is apparent from The Front Runner's very first scene, an extended tracking shot that pulls us into and through a gathering political circus, alighting on major and minor players alike while the overlapping dialogue - and a careful sound mix - attunes us to a sense of America the absurd, obsessing about the wrong things at the wrong time. That's the backdrop. The main event is a replay of one of the biggest political nosedives in recent memory: that of Gary Hart, the dashing Democratic senator-turned-presidential candidate, who's tracking a full twelve points ahead of his Republican rival George H.W. Bush as we join the film, the result of Kennedy-like genes and an ability to explain the bigger issues in terms rustbelt voters could understand. It was meant to be an easy victory - too easy, as it proved, as reporters who grew bored of the candidate's gladhanding uncovered evidence of a grabbier story: Hart's extramarital affair with the actress Donna Rice.

It is, then, a matter of image. On the stump, Hart infamously challenged the press corps to follow him home to see what a dependable, devoted soul he was; when they did just that, what they happened across gave the lie to the notion Hart was the family man America needed to carry it beyond the Reagan years. Hart is played here by Hugh Jackman, with much of the skill the actor exhibited in his pre-Wolverine roles and that knitwear-sporting patrician charm by which our leaders sometimes seek to reassure us, front and centre in a scene where he calms a nervy young stringer mid-flight by gently schooling the lad in Tolstoy. Yet the performance also lets us spot how this Hart's charm is founded on a bedrock of something flintier, minded towards keeping dirty laundry secret, closing stories down. (A telling gesture in Jackman's arsenal: smiles that die quickly on the lips.) Reitman's fondness for supporting players is evident in the recall of such expert veterans as Kevin Pollak (as the Miami Herald's editor) and J.K. Simmons (as no-nonsense campaign manager Bill Dixon), while other picks suggest he's been watching a lot of TV between projects: we get fun contributions from Alex Karpovsky (Girls), Oliver Cooper (Red Oaks) and David Simon go-to Chris Coy among the policy wonks, plus the excellent Steve Zissis (from the late, lamented Togetherness) as Tom Fiedler, the journo who first stumbled upon the Rice affair.

Casting the net far and wide means some performers come to feel more crucial in the overall tableau than others. Early scenes hint that Alfred Molina's Ben Bradlee will feature more prominently than he ultimately does; as we've seen Tom Hanks playing the same role in the past twelve months (back in Spielberg's The Post), perhaps Reitman felt it was best to move on. Yet it feels odd that Donna Rice herself (represented here by the generally capable Sara Paxton) should qualify for barely two scenes at the eye of the storm, and that Hart's wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) should wind up with even less screen time than that: Reitman insists the fallout from these events was far more political than personal. One key difference between Reitman and the doubtless less politically correct Altman may be the former's refusal to pick a side, or rather his insistence on attempting to see all sides simultaneously, much as he did in his breakthrough films Juno and Up in the Air. You could easily envisage a more overtly tragic version of The Front Runner that presents Hart as either a victim or a patsy, encircled by a scandal-starved, ravenous press pack who were looking for trouble; equally, you could imagine a wickedly satiric retelling that saw Gary Hart as a proto-fuckboy, tripped up by his own lowered trousers, and deserving of everything that befell him. Reitman's film, bound for the movie centreground, instead forms an attempt to revisit a long-cooled story, without undue judgement, in the hope there's still an audience out there mature enough to enter into and negotiate its moral mazes.

That's honourable, but the downside of that approach, much in evidence during The Front Runner's second half, is that the film can present as insistently non-committal, cancelling itself and some of the cast's fine work out in the course of successive scenes. A meeting in which Bradlee shruggingly agrees to publish Hart-related hearsay - where the film seems to gesture at some journalistic race to the bottom - is immediately followed by a sidebar in which Post reporter Ann Devroy (Ari Graynor) insists it's a feminist matter when you can't trust the President to keep it in his pants. (We emerge none the wiser from the back-and-forth: were the press vultures in the Hart affair, or were they, in fact, sterling civil servants?) Formally, too, the film settles for being never quite as distinctive as that opening tracking shot threatens. Those Altmanisms are set aside once we're caught up in the thick of it in favour of not untypically self-effacing set-ups in which Reitman, the centrist dad of modern American cinema, allows a moment to play out without undue editorial intervention. What we're left watching is well-made, well-acted and sensitively handled, yet the newspaperman in me was left frustrated by the film's inability to decisively answer one question: what, beyond a generalised nostalgia for a scrap of innocence our forefathers may have lost, does this narrative have to do with American politics as we understand it in 2019?

The Front Runner previews in Cineworlds nationwide tonight, before opening on Friday.