Monday 30 September 2019

1,001 Films: "Dekalog/The Decalogue" (1988)

Made for Polish television but eventually shown in cinemas worldwide, these ten hour-long existential essays by Krzysztof Kieślowski - each one a modern-day interpretation of a Biblical commandment - cram the intensity (and some of the thematic material) of one of the director's later Three Colours films into two-thirds of the running time. The connecting factor in Dekalog is that the films' characters all inhabit the same austere Warsaw tower block. As in his subsequent work, the principals in one film take supporting roles in the others; in the Three Colours trilogy, this conceit was used to bring the most unlikely people together, but here it seems intended more like an instructive, neighbourly act - the all-seeing Kieślowski keeping an eye out for those around him. Certainly, the episodes find someone and something of interest in every flat, and when an apartment becomes empty as a result of a tenant's death, the loss is felt all the more. The most noted of the ten are Dekalog Five - the basis for A Short Film About Killing, where the brilliant dissection of the law's grim process, horrifying in the best sense, is in itself worth the price of admission - and the scarcely less troubling Dekalog Six, which would eventually become A Short Film About Love.

Yet any of the other eight episodes could have been worked up into a full-length feature (Dekalog Nine is a sombre template for Three Colours White, and the relationship at the centre of Dekalog Two isn't so far from Three Colours Red); you're less likely to have seen anything of the intense Dekalog Four, a working-out of an Electra complex that once more demonstrates this filmmaker's ability to put credible female perspectives up on screen. As you'd expect from ten films, they cover a lot of ground between them, with moments for fans of sci-fi (Dekalog One), tug-of-love dramas (Dekalog Seven), car crashes (Dekalog Three), black comedy (Dekalog Ten) and even West Bromwich Albion (Dekalog Five). Ecumenically minded viewers can have fun trying to guess which film represents which moral, obvious in the case of the shorter Short Film About Killing, much less so in the covetous - and surely not adulterous - Dekalog Six. The films themselves are far from preachy, but then they're not frivolous either, with sections of wordless power that express a great and justified faith in their Zbigniew Preisner scores and Kieślowski's unerring eye for a resonant visual motif; even on as gloriously flashy a medium as DVD, Dekalog remains as graven and as reverent as the stone tablet handed down to Moses himself.

(MovieMail, May 2002)

The Dekalog boxset is available on Blu-Ray through Arrow Academy.

Sunday 29 September 2019

1,001 Films: "Landscape in the Mist" (1988)

Landscape in the Mist opens with two pre-teens - a girl and a boy; sister and brother - stepping out of the Greek night and into a railway station to which, we're told, they've come many times before. Clearly, the pair are seekers. But what is it that they seek? The question confounds those they encounter in the course of this nightly homage - and those they cross paths with once they actually take the final step of boarding a train. We know they think their father might be living and working in Germany; we also know, as they don't at first, that this might just be a consoling lie their mother has told them. It is just possible, then, that the children's search is a wild goose chase, and it is one of the film's many understated tragedies that it will take these youngsters practically the entire two-hour running time merely to leave their own country. Still, they go on searching, all the same. So does the camera. So do we.

Over the decade that followed Theo Angelopoulos's 1988 film, arthouse cinema - and the Oscar Foreign Film category, and the Miramax acquisition portfolio - would come to be overrun by cute kids deployed by directors as a means of getting at the 20th century's big themes. The shameless sappiness of Cinema Paradiso, the safe bet of Kolya, the somewhat more astringent The Thief: in these films, the camera adopts a kneehigh-to-a-grasshopper perspective to suggest we are all, to some extent, little ones, naive and/or vulnerable before the sometimes crushing forces of destiny. The central quest in Angelopoulos's film grants its maker access to the back roads of emotion, history and myth; these siblings are as the brother and sister in the same year's Grave of the Fireflies, or those in The Night of the Hunter (particularly when seen drifting upriver), or even Hansel and Gretel, at the mercy of predators, before that. Impossible to underplay the extent to which these characters feel like a continuation: when a troupe of actors appear out of the titular fog, they look very similar to the players of Angelopoulos's 1975 masterpiece The Travelling Players, still wandering, still looking for places to stage Golfo the Shepherdess. (No director in history has ever been more touchingly devoted to the revival of a specific text.)

The quest also proves a means to a picturesque end, allowing the filmmaker to deliver on the first word of that title. Angelopoulos was one of the cinema's greatest location scouts and shooters, and the kids' peregrinations allow him to take in - and show us - the unexpected futurism of Greek railway stations, highways that vary from the spectacularly incomplete to the impossibly lonely, and a procession of small, out-of-the-way, never-before-filmed towns and villages, some frozen in time by snow, as Pompeii was by volcanic ash, others as abandoned as the bergs in Bela Tarr films. (Look closely, and you may be able to spy a sign hanging in every window: gone walking.) This camera gravitates towards beaches that resemble limbos between this world and the next; yet Angelopoulos is just at home in a roadside cafe where two truckers are squaring off over a waitress. He could do profound, but he also understood the fundamental pettiness of this universe, and the people within it.

That landscape increasingly darkens, saddens, as if grey clouds were moving in over the film. The children seem to get no closer to finding their pa, and after an hour of merrily hopping into the backs of strangers' trucks and buses, the runaways' luck is seen to run out in one crushing shot of the girl being dragged into the back of a lorry parked in Greece's drizzliest lay-by. (Maybe it's the suspicious way in which the world now turns, but even a kindly twentysomething actor's interest in the girl seems somehow curious.) Yet we, too, come to feel the need for what the protagonists are setting out for in the first place: protection, some shelter, both from those who would exploit them, and from the rain lashing down on their heads. It is as the actor asks, channelling Rilke: "If I were to shout, who would hear me out of the armies of angels?" (Angelopoulos dangles that question's profoundly humanist corollary: that on this Earth, all we really have is one another.) Suffice to say, the film's seriousness and sincerity shames a lot of what passes for cinema today; think for even an instant of all those children who've set out across Europe in the decades since, in fragile hope of making a better life, and this Landscape becomes extraordinarily moving.

Landscape in the Mist is available on DVD through Artificial Eye.

Saturday 28 September 2019

1,001 Films: "Grave of the Fireflies" (1988)

Ahead of the August release of Studio Ghibli’s latest From Up on Poppy Hill, distributors StudioCanal are taking the opportunity to issue new prints of two of the revered Japanese animation hub’s earlier triumphs: both now twenty-five years old, yet still forever young. Hayao Miyazaki’s very charming My Neighbour Totoro, with its wide-eyed sisters discovering magical spirits in the woods, will doubtless be the better known (because most emblematic) of the two; Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, however, comprises something else altogether.

This exceptional anti-War fable remains one of the few films made by Ghibli and shown in the West to tackle historical, rather than fantastical, forces: the collapse of Japanese society towards the end of World War II. A young brother and sister, left to fend for themselves after their father is called up by the Navy and their mother is killed in a U.S. air raid, receive a first-hand lesson in the sacrifices demanded of the Japanese people; carefree afternoons at the beach are traded against selling their mother’s kimonos, and eventually resorting to looting abandoned properties, simply to eat.

Compared to Totoro’s U-rated idyll, Grave of the Fireflies registers as a tough watch, but it’s an essential one, if we’re ever going to convince our children life’s hard enough as it is without needing to start fights that will only extend the suffering. What Takahata shows is that while it’s our leaders who make the decision to go to war, it’s us lot who invariably end up getting hurt as a result.

That pastoral quietness that marks out the best Ghibli films – a serene contemplation of the natural order of things – here keeps getting interrupted by fly-bys and falling bombs; though the sister Setsuko – playful, petulant, not quite fully aware of what’s going on around her – is an indelibly cute creation, the typically loving, rounded, well-observed character design gets scuffed-up and scratchier the longer the siblings’ plight wears on.

Takahata doesn’t hold back on depicting the almost banal horrors of wartime. He draws charred corpses piling up in the streets, maggots on operating room floors; Setsuko’s outburst “I’ve been having diarrhoea” is both an unexpected subtitle for an animated film, and the first real sign matters are about to get even more harrowing.

Once again, we witness how the first, and in many ways the most lamentable, casualty of war is youthful innocence: the scene that gives the film its title – in which the siblings gather bugs in a pot to illuminate the shelter in which they’ve set up makeshift home – is at once magical and deeply sad, since we know this is the last vestige of a childhood cut tragically short. (The fireflies are mirrored, unhappily, by the phosphorescence of the bombs that fall from the sky.)

In its child’s-eye view of the displacement caused by international conflicts (the kids are briefly taken in by a family keen to stress how their sacrifices are so much greater than anybody else’s), Grave of the Fireflies can’t help but remind first-time viewers of The Railway Children or the Narnia books, although history decrees no happy endings can possibly follow. Its closest equivalent in Western animation remains Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows: a deeply committed work of art, tender, humane, and distressing in exactly the right way.

(MovieMail, May 2013)

Grave of the Fireflies is available on DVD through StudioCanal.

Friday 27 September 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of September 20-22, 2019:

1 (1) Downton Abbey (PG)

2 (new) Ad Astra (12A) ***
3 (2) It: Chapter Two (15) **
4 (new) Rambo: Last Blood (18)
5 (3) Hustlers (15) ***
6 (5) The Lion King (PG)
7 (7) Casino Royale - Secret Cinema (12A)
8 (4Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (18) ***
9 (8) Dora and the Lost City of Gold (PG) ***
10 (9) Toy Story 4 (U) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
1. Midnight Cowboy

2. Honeyland
3. For Sama
4. The Farewell
5. Hero

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

1 (2) 
John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (15) ***
2 (new) Aladdin (PG)
3 (5) Pokemon: Detective Pikachu (PG)
4 (1) Avengers: Endgame (12) **
5 (3) Rocketman (15) ***
6 (new) John Wick: Chapters 1-3 (15) ***
7 (new) Godzilla: King of the Monsters (12)
8 (4) It: Chapter One (15) ***
9 (new) Apocalypse Now: Final Cut (15) [above]
10 (13) Bohemian Rhapsody (12)


My top five: 
1. Eighth Grade

2. Only You
3. Booksmart
4. Rocketman
5. Thunder Road

"To Tokyo" (Guardian 27/09/19)

To Tokyo ***
Dir: Caspar Seale Jones. With: Florence Kosky, Emily Seale-Jones, Luke Smith, Robert Smith. 75 mins. Cert: 15.

Here’s one of those very rare lowish-budget, independently produced, entirely off-radar British debuts to feel like a discovery. The adventurous writer-director Caspar Seale Jones has relocated what might seem a slightly stock horror start point – a fraught young woman fleeing something abominable in her past – to Japan, a choice that instantly gifts his frames more distinctive vistas than all those bargain-bin potboilers pursuing teenagers through the streets of Peterborough or Stroud. More intriguingly yet, it situates To Tokyo in that semi-abandoned Japanese folk horror tradition that once yielded Onibaba and Kwaidan, making merry-macabre use of a still relatively unfamiliar set of demons and ghouls – although it transpires the film’s real monster resides closer to home.

It scores high on dreamy-bordering-on-nightmarish atmosphere. Upon learning her mother is gravely ill, knowingly named heroine Alice (Florence Kosky) passes into either a fugue state or an actual wilderness that encompasses forests, deserts and a mountainside hut where she slaps on warpaint and receives offerings of fruit and entrails from whatever dragged her out here. For half its running time, To Tokyo is just Kosky, some spectacular landscapes (cinematographer Ralph Messer apparently taking notes from that lost visual whizz Tarsem Singh) and a properly creepy spectre who suggests what would happen if Johnny Depp played The Nightmare Before Christmas’s Jack Skellington. Seale Jones makes the bold, rewarding decision not to explain a damn thing: the result’s a small masterclass in show-don’t-tell cinema.

Even when Alice reaches the bright lights of Tokyo, the depopulated backstreets and coldly indifferent skyscrapers prove eerie and unsettling: it’s as though what came before was but a dry run for the worst civilisation has to offer, a training camp for the traumatised. Again, any interpretation will be yours, but there’s a fairytale logic to it, and the action is anchored by Seale Jones’s remarkably assured imagemaking and a performance of intense hollow-eyed persistence by Kosky that approaches what Catherine Deneuve was getting at in Repulsion. Self-evidently a first feature – running to just 75 minutes – it nevertheless serves as a striking and effective calling-card: how encouraging it is to see an emergent British filmmaker reaching for the uncanny and mysterious, rather than settling for hackneyed or humdrum.

To Tokyo screens with a Q&A at the Everyman Muswell Hill, London this Monday at 7.30pm.

"Hotel Mumbai" (Guardian 27/09/19)

Hotel Mumbai **
Dir: Anthony Maras. With: Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Anupam Kher. 123 mins. Cert: 15

Though scarcely worse than its predecessor, this has been a brutalising century so far, and our art is struggling to keep up; our Guernica is apparently still some way off. What the movies have generated, in the meantime, is that based-on-true-atrocities cycle initiated by Paul Greengrass’s United 93, which now churns out the Australian director Anthony Maras’ middling Hotel Mumbai. In its unflinching, often virtuosic carnage, the cycle may be as close as the commercial cinema has been allowed to get to the New Extreme Cinema that was so in vogue across Europe as the planes struck the World Trade Center. Yet these works are fitted with built-in mitigation: steered not towards controversy but closure and consolation, they insist lessons can be learnt, that nobody died in vain.

Maras’s film chiefly demonstrates how, without Greengrass’s time-stamped precision, such projects can assume an air of the blandly composite – and even of the generic disaster movie, undercutting any seriousness of intent. The onlookers to this recreation of the November 2008 attack on Mumbai’s Taj Mahal hotel do seem a very Irwin Allen-like ragbag. Waiter Dev Patel and chef Anupam Kher represent the locals; rugged architect Armie Hammer, his mutely beautiful wife Nazanin Boniadi and shady Russian Jason Isaacs, introduced enquiring as to the size of an escort’s nipples, the guests. Maras and co-writer John Collee spy something positive in the enforced bonding of these disparate types, but the bodycount flattens the homilies, and the nipple business flags how close Maras is to outright exploitation.

For an hour, at least, he maintains a basic hide-and-seek tension, as his players sporadically break cover to bundle themselves in pantries and linen closets, and he makes honourable attempts to humanise the violently misled killers. It’s just uneasy viewing in many ways besides: rotely mechanical in its conversion of suffering into setpieces, iffy whenever it inserts authentic, blood-spattered cameraphone footage into otherwise fictional activity. Maras needs those flickers of urgent immersivity; elsewhere, the action increasingly bears the rehearsed, prosaic look of an extended evacuation drill. Art born of outrage surely has to be more rigorous – and we might also contemplate what merit there is in guaranteeing prospective terrorists a filmed record of their misdeeds.

Hotel Mumbai opens in selected cinemas from today.

Grandma's party: "The Farewell"

After Crazy Rich Asians - just broad and bland enough for mass acceptance, of greater interest for what it represented than for what it did - some refinement. Lulu Wang's The Farewell is the kind of delicate, accomplished familial drama that Ang Lee used to make in the days before he too was fatally seduced by spectacle. It will build towards a wedding banquet at which an elaborate subterfuge threatens to be exposed, yet before that a bittersweet tone is established that is recognisably Asian (connecting the Chinese-American Wang to the Taiwanese Lee and the Japanese Hirokazu Kore-eda), and before that, there is a custom that needs to be carefully explained to the palefaces in the audience. The custom, apparently common within Chinese families, is not to inform elderly relatives of terminal diagnoses of cancer, the better to spare the patient the stress and distress that might contribute to a further deterioration of their condition. The lie is of the little white variety; "a good lie", as the surgeon treating the film's greyhaired lynchpin Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) refers to an earlier situation with his own ailing nan. Thus our heroine Billi (Awkwafina) joins her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) in setting out from New York to her Chinese birthplace of Changchun, keeping up the pretence that they've arrived at Nai Nai's home for a family wedding, and not to be closer to someone who has no idea she isn't long for this world.

Having hit upon this very human deception, Wang busies herself gathering truths about this clan. What she notices first of all - and this may come as no great revelation to Asian viewers - is that the sons and daughters of the diaspora are often closer to their grandparents than they are to their actual folks, who've jabbed and prodded them into standing on their own two feet. Zhao's smashing turn, as someone you know you're going to miss should she disappear, makes the bond between Billi and her Nai Nai (the Mandarin for "gran") wholly credible, but the film's never sappy about it. Rather, Wang makes a joke of Nai Nai's indefatigability, her refusal to be controlled. To the horror of her relatives - who cannot bring themselves to break the news - she insists on carrying out her part in the wedding preparations, and remains switched on and possessed of empathy enough to wonder why everybody's looking at her askance. Admittedly, this is a pretty PG-rated depiction of stage-IV lung cancer - a few telling coughs here and there are as grave as it gets - but there's something amusing in the way the lie seems to eat away at the family more than the cancer does at their charge. Keeping the disease at bay allows Wang to set up an involving debate between the very much Westernised Billi, who's as baffled by the cover-up as non-Asian audiences may be, and her elders, who - caught between two worlds - more readily defer to tradition. The result: scenes that are quietly, gently funny - I suspect the film will have done its most consistent business in matinee screenings - but which can't or won't shake the basenote of sadness that follows from knowing a loved one is about to depart.

Wang sustains this mood via thoughtful, Lee-like editing and camera choices, always seeking out the most conflicted face in any given situation. The whole film plays something like a competition in which we wait and wonder which family member is going to lose their nerve in the face of this adorable old dear and let the cat out of the bag first; in the meantime, the expert ensemble - a whole troupe of Chinese and Chinese-American performers who haven't had the roles their lengthy careers merit - choke back the awful truth and mine the nuances Wang writes around it. Around Awkwafina, there is a marked sense of relief: for a while, I was worried the American cinema wouldn't quite know what to do with a performer this loose-limbed, unconventional in some respects, supremely matter-of-fact in others. (There's a touch of Natasha Lyonne in her attitude and vocal inflections, and the movies haven't known what to do with Lyonne, either.) The answer, it transpires, is cast her well. The Farewell is a far better vehicle for this performer than were her scrappy scenes in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean's 8, offering her at least two terrific moments: the first bashing out a torrid melodrama at Nai Nai's piano, her codified way of breaking the bad news (or getting out what had previously been pent up), the second a monologue on all the things she's missed about spending time with her grandmother in the land of her birth. What Wang is indirectly dramatising here are the feelings one has when you go back to the place you turned your nose up at as a shit-for-brains teenager and realise that it's full of real, perishable people doing the best they can with the lives they have; that's at least as moving as anything in the main narrative throughline.

Said throughline is laid out with an absence of false notes, and the assurance of a tale that would appear to have been much rehearsed within family circles long before anybody had the bright idea of committing it to paper; the movie has its basis in a story Wang told on radio's This American Life, and you can bet your bottom dollar the writer-director spent much of The Farewell's press tour addressing the extent to which it is autobiographical. Either way, the approach brings us unusually close to all her characters - not just Billi and Nai Nai, but the rather bland bride and groom, demonstrating a benign cluelessness in regard to the lie as they do in life, and the elderly male neighbour who pops round to devour Nai Nai's home cooking (there's an element of foodie porn comparable to Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman) before shuffling back next door without a word. Close enough, in the end, to see our own parents and grandparents in them. That's why The Farewell has won over so many hearts in the months since it debuted at Sundance in January, and why it will continue to do so in the weeks and months ahead - possibly all the way round the 2019-20 awards circuit. Early days to make too specific a set of predictions on that front, perhaps, but here's a film that starts with the culturally specific, then transcends it, raising along the way an irony that is not unamusing in itself: that after all the hubbub in media circles about the necessity of finding and boosting new voices, one of those new voices should have gifted the troubled American film industry with its most satisfyingly old-fashioned crowdpleaser in years - a film that unapologetically reaches out to the entire family.

The Farewell is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Bee movie: "Honeyland"

Honeyland is one of those documentaries you can't quite believe exists; its success may be down to people going to check whether it does, and that it is, in fact, an actual thing you pay actual money to sit and marvel at. Even if you did have the mad thought "let's make a movie about a Macedonian beekeeper" and somehow escaped the butterfly net, how on earth would you find a Macedonian beekeeper to make a movie about? Show up in Macedonia for starters, yes, but one doubts Honeyland's subject Hatidze - who lives in a stone shack in the wilds with a menagerie of cats and dogs and a blind, apparently immobile mother - lists herself in the country's equivalent of the Yellow Pages. This may be where a contextualising interview in Filmmaker magazine with directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov becomes not just interesting but essential: were this pair just especially rigorous about investigating the source of what they spread on their toast in the morning, or did they merely follow the buzz? What they've come back with strikes me as a film born of three impulses: to preserve an artisanal tradition liable to die out before we're halfway through this century; to show us something of how the other half still lives (and thereby remind us that, however you and I might be scrabbling for pennies, we had the supreme good fortune to be born into the uppermost half of that world); and, lastly, and this I think has more to do with human curiosity than anything more exploitative, to have a good old gawp.

There is an extraordinary amount to be gawped at, all told, not the least the jawdropping details of Hatidze's routine. Edging along high, rocky cliffs, the forty- or fiftysomething Hatidze extracts stones behind which hide vast, buzzing honeycombs that she removes, wearing little in the way of protective gear, so as to break down and sell in the markets of downtown Skopje; before leaving these impromptu hives, she makes a point of pouring a circle of wild honey out on the ground, her way of ensuring the thirstier bees return to the scene. Yet no sooner has the film established its subject's peaceable existence than a trailer pulls up on an adjacent plot of land, disgorging a farmer, Hussein, his wife, and as many cows and ducklings as there are children (and there are a lot of children). All of a sudden, the film erupts into chaotic life, the gentle hum of the bees drowned out by honking cattle, marital rows, and the sound of this couple's ill-attended offspring throwing one another onto some rocks for shits and giggles. (A parenting style is established when the mother curses her eldest with a furious "May your head come off".) Here is a neighbours-from-hell set-up that sitcom scribes and Channel Five docusoap producers alike would frankly kill for - and Hatidze's hardscrabble existence certainly doesn't get any easier when Hussein announces that he, too, wouldn't mind taking a crack at this beekeeping lark.

One of the reasons Honeyland seems to have crossed over so is that it's an innately funny film: for at least an hour, it resembles some satirical vision of what life might be like in that red tape-less, health-and-safety-free utopia Daily Mail readers keep banging on about. Here is a place where anyone might have a go at anything, no matter their lack of training or aptitude, and where there really is no need for experts. Hatidze crawls on her hands and knees to locate and tap a hive situated halfway up a felled tree that now bridges a river; Hussein turns up with a mate and a chainsaw, and takes the whole thing down for good. Kotevska and Stefanov build a sly, insinuating contrast between their heroine, as patient with her neighbours' pretty ghastly kids as she is with her mother and the bees, and the human blunderbuss Hussein - very much the Homer Simpson of the former Yugoslav republics - who can't even open a hive in his own backyard without everybody in two square miles getting stung to buggery. The film's register shifts, however, when Hussein is contacted by a middleman with an offer to mass produce honey in a way Hatidze, working on her own, never could: soon, he's dragging his sobbing eldest out into thick swarms he cannot control, and which very quickly do for his neighbour's more peaceable bees. Out of nowhere, a bucolic, amber-hued romp suddenly becomes a pointed Marxist text with much to say on the economics of scale and prevailing labour conditions in unregulated markets. (And this market could scarcely be less regulated: Hussein's bees, constantly threatening to recreate the Wicker Man remake, would surely scare off the men with clipboards.)

This is one of the biggest rhetorical leaps a documentary has pulled off in recent years, and Honeyland gets there organically. The conversations between Hussein and his middleman may sound a tad on-the-nose given the points the film is making, but then, given the bluntness Hussein demonstrates elsewhere, who knows? That could just be how he talks business. Everything around him has an unfakeable veracity, born of the film's microscopically close observation of humans and insects alike, and benefits from a remarkably sharp editing strategy. For all the hard graft Kotevska and Stefanov capture, they never labour their points, knowing that the right cut - from, say, a becalmed Hatidze to Hussein allowing a fire to blaze on a hillside - will make those points for them in eminently cinematic ways. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, this small miracle of a film pulls us into these lives, and in doing so, Honeyland reveals a poignancy that is also, you note, an injustice: that, unlike her neighbour/nemesis, who can rock up, tap the land for all the resources he can get from it, and then take off as suddenly as he arrived, Hatidze is tied to this remote patch by that mother who cannot move. I still don't know how these directors found these women: with no electricity and no phone apparent in their living quarters, the only way anyone could have contacted them would have been by asking around, and even then, you'd have to commit to spending weeks, months or perhaps even a year living adjacent to them in their darkened hovel. I do know this, though: our documentarists are now routinely putting in more effort than our fiction-makers - and if Honeyland's box-office returns are anything to go by, they're getting the sweet, sweet rewards they deserve.

Honeyland is now playing in selected cinemas.

Tuesday 24 September 2019

On TV: "Thelma"

After the quiet triumph of Oslo, August 31st, his tough yet compelling adaptation of Le Feu Follet, the Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier went to the United States to make Louder Than Bombs, an indie drama that featured internationally recognisable performers (Jesse Eisenberg, Isabelle Huppert) but didn't quite connect with its intended audience. Thelma feels like an attempt to do something markedly more commercial back on home turf, but it's also an auteur's contribution to that abundant strain of Scandinavian coming-of-age cinema. Porting some altogether outre narrative elements, a measured pace and several pauses for thought into a semi-familiar teen horror set-up, the fascinating results are something like Carrie as remade in a cooler, more introspective climate, the Carrie Carl Theodor Dreyer might have directed. 

Trier's eponymous heroine (Elli Harboe) is a highly strung physics student at the University of Oslo, undergoing an unusually eventful first term. An intense friendship with a contemporary, Anja (Kaya Wilkins), is one thing; yet Thelma also succumbs to fits that medical tests suggest aren't a simple matter of epilepsy. The question arises of what our girl's issue is - what's made her mal quite so grand. A prologue finds her as a mere babe in the woods, unaware her hunter father has his gun trained on her; visits from her folks paint a picture of a controlling, religious upbringing among true believers who sniff and scoff at science. You might wonder why they let her out of their sight - were it not so apparent they've always been keen to get rid of her.

Carrie has long been enshrined as a classic, yet we might now ask whether Brian de Palma was most readily engaged by two sequences: the gauzy girls' locker-room lurking at the start, and the bloodbath of the final act. Trier is more circumspect, and more of a thinker: shooting in cool blues as a retort to his predecessor's sensational reds, what interests him in this material is the clash between old ways and new ideas, and how a head - and then a life - could open up as a threat to the status quo. (Is this why we seek to contain our students on campus - lest their radical ways reorganise our settled world?) You may have to suppress a snigger or two during Thelma's more grandiose flourishes, which are those of a filmmaker with money and a reputation doing with a story as he likes. This is almost certainly the first time anybody's troubled to film a sexual awakening during a Philip Glass concert, and Trier then doubles down with the most po-faced weed-smoking scene in all cinema, never mind that the erotic fantasy it brings on yields the movie's supplest and most seductive images. 

Yet in approaching this material head-on and by permitting no irony to enter these frames, Trier succeeds in rebutting de Palma's cackling camp; holding firm to that line allows the story to accumulate dramatic and emotional weight, and to circumnavigate those vivid elements of misogyny that were evident in the earlier film. That much becomes especially clear during an extraordinary third-act homecoming - distinctly Dreyerish in its monochrome palette, its miracles and wonders - where we learn how the women in Thelma's family have always been controlled: here, Trier carries us effortlessly between worlds and headspaces in search of a way out. Less a screaming pageturner than a full psychological write-up, Trier's film is nothing if not deeply concerned with what's going on with this girl, and the attentive, in-the-moment storytelling that made Oslo, August 31st such an involving experience means that much of that concern is passed onto us. Tremendous score by Ola Fløttum, too.

Thelma screens on Channel 4 tonight at 2.20am.

Monday 23 September 2019

Houston, we have issues: "Ad Astra"

In recent years, the American space program has been limited to pitching the stars of the Ocean's 11 franchise a little further into the stratosphere, with Brad Pitt, in this week's Ad Astra, following in the trajectory of George Clooney in Gravity and The Martian's Matt Damon. (All three were beaten in this thespian space race by Don Cheadle, the Neil Armstrong of the Ocean's franchise, who embarked upon his Mission to Mars back in 2000; at the current launchrate, we may yet wind up with Elliott Gould and Carl Reiner playing grumpy old spacemen.) Pitt's mission, however, is artsier and more personal: he's been invited to bounce around the vastness of the solar system to explore the kind of abandonment issues that could just as easily be worked through in a small therapist's office back on planet Earth. His Roy McBride is a lineman on the International Space Antenna, found recovering both from the failure of his marriage (to a largely lineless Liv Tyler) and an accident caused by a mysterious solar power surge; upon investigation, his bosses conclude said surge is somehow connected to McBride's father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a fellow astronaut who's reportedly exiled himself on Mars in protest at the commercialisation of the lunar program. The quest that follows - to reconnect with this literally distant dad - enters into dialogue with such films as Apocalypse Now and Contact (where Jodie Foster's astronomer went looking for her father), but chiefly struck me as an attempt to rewrite the rulebook of space cinema: to show that the right stuff - that tersely unemotional, fiercely independent machismo lionised in Phil Kaufman's canonical space movie of 1983 - can, in fact, be completely the wrong stuff in certain circumstances.

The man overseeing this rethink of space-movie protocol is James Gray, the skilled American craftsman whose connoisseurial breakthrough features (Little Odessa, Two Lovers, We Own the Night) were revered in four square blocks of Paris and New York and reviewed and received with (variably unfair) indifference almost everywhere else. The sense one took away from 2016's The Lost City of Z, and takes away from Ad Astra, is that he's training himself to make the kind of movie the moneymen would rather he make: expansive, with a healthier ratio of action to talk, and recognisable, bankable faces in the lead roles. The hope of cinephiles the world over would be that Gray's time in the trenches has readied him to imbue such projects with greater characterisation and thematic heft than one might find in, say, Fast & Furious presents Hobbs & Shaw. The Lost City of Z - which had the look of a masterpiece at the time, and has since assumed the status of semi-buried treasure - was a film made to delight fans of adventure movies, but it also found time and space to unpack its explorer protagonist's baggage, and to show how the single-minded pursuit of his goal impacted upon his nearest and dearest; it grounded its widescreen spectacle with the coherent interiority that has been the mark of this filmmaker's very best work.

By all accounts, Ad Astra was a far more troubled production, and it shows, not least in the voiceover applied like electrical tape in a bid to keep everything on screen together. Watching these often bumpy two hours, you form the mental image of Gray as Jim Lovell (with Pitt and Jones as his co-pilots), desperately trying to steer the film where it's meant to be going amid considerable turbulence. It's still a broken-backed film, with sudden lurches into action (space pirates! Space chimps! Zero-gravity knife fights!) which feel like a concession - that an expensive-looking space movie starring Brad Pitt and bound for the multiplex needs the occasional dollop of spectacle lest the popcorn-munchers grow tired of all the interstellar introspection. Gray doesn't appear especially interested in these sequences: there's not much indication of where these pirates or chimps come from for starters, and the action they provoke is shruggingly handled, certainly in comparison with the pulse-racing hunt with which Z opened, or the nocturnal car chase that so electrified We Own the Night. (The lack of involving atmosphere on and around the Moon - the sense Gray has reverted to models of spacecraft and doubles of actors - really doesn't help any.) 

What he is fascinated by, however - and here we keep getting glimpses of what Ad Astra was always shooting for - is the Pitt character's solitude, the distance he puts between himself and those he loves and who love him, perhaps as a way of dealing with his father's rage. The women of Ad Astra are cursory figures, and for once it seems like a plot point: aside from Tyler, we get a cameo from Natasha Lyonne as a space secretary of some form, and Ruth Negga as a black-clad therapist halted at the end of her first scene because - tellingly - she doesn't have the authorisation to go any further. Everything that subsequently plays out as Roy hops from planet to planet like a snooker player making brisk work of the colours - the endless dialogue along the lines of "why, you're Clifford McBride's boy!", the clever tilt of the camera so that a holographic image of Jones's face aligns with Pitt's - is engineered towards this astroboy making his peace with the fact he is his father's son.

With a less watchable performer in place, Ad Astra might have resembled any other self-produced vanity project or Hollywood therapy session - these are the asteroids Gray and Pitt are steering around - and there remains a feeling that Pitt got lucky with the delayed release date: this altogether cool venture can now emerge with the actor basking in the warm glow of those Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood reviews. I found myself watching his progress in rapt admiration even as I mentally filed Ad Astra as an interesting failure, one that threatens to obscure even its shining and stirring ideas (the boy looking up at his father through a telescope; the man going to the ends of the universe to win back the hand of Liv Tyler) with caveats. It almost certainly won't do much for those audiences left in floods by the cornily effective baseball-tossing at the end of Field of Dreams (though it's not such a great leap from the astronaut's glove to the catcher's mitt); and it seems destined to elicit sneery-reactionary responses from those cranks who insist we can't have films about men anymore. I found it awkward, hesitant when it wasn't outright haphazard, and a little too determined to keep its guard up - yet the truth that keeps Ad Astra on its chosen course, what makes it a quietly, weirdly moving artefact to have landed at the heart of the modern multiplex, is that this is how a lot of men are when dealing with their emotions.

Ad Astra is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Sunday 22 September 2019

1,001 Films: "Dangerous Liaisons" (1988)

Arriving towards the rear end of the 1980s, Stephen Frears and Christopher Hampton's adaptation of the Choderlos de Laclos novel Dangerous Liaisons furnished upwardly mobile cinemagoers with a morality play for a moment of rampant immorality. We're more than half-invited to conspire alongside Glenn Close's scheming marquise and John Malkovich's wanton vicomte, devious 18th century masterminds who'd be perfect for one another if they didn't instead get their kicks fucking with everybody else around them. Using the lure of sex as a reward for the seduction of others, the two merrily go about sullying innocence, ruining marriages (if not entire lives) for sport, and causing as much emotional devastation as anybody can rustle up while strapped into a corset. Then, however, real feelings come into play, and the two schemers are set forcefully against one another.

Hampton's screenplay doesn't exactly shuck off the theatricality, coming up with protagonists who assume different roles to gain whatever it is they're after while toying with naive young things (pre-stardom outings for Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves) who can only be their fresh-faced selves. In this way, the film is perfectly cast, but the idea that Dangerous Liaisons is automatically more savage about human nature and human weakness than the genteel school of period drama is absurd; the film's emotional entanglements and dialogue are every bit as florid as the wallpaper in certain Merchant-Ivory productions. With the wordplay and dispensing of bon mots seeming arch in the extreme - clock the vicomte writing letters on the arsecheeks of his conquests ("I have just come...") - the film's MVP proves to be Frears, demonstrating once again what a fine director of actors he is in any context.

Close's withering is pitched with enough skill to overcome Hampton's heavy-handed attempts to turn the marquise into a proto-feminist and then an 18th century Alex Forrest; the vulpine Malkovich, draping himself over the furniture and sticking his eyes and nose down the Thurman decolletage, didn't again have this much fun until his renaissance as a scowling mid-90s villain (In the Line of Fire, Con Air). A little overrated, it's possible it now only works for viewers who can still find Close and Malkovich seductive enough to compensate for the unlikable character traits they spend much of the film exhibiting. Younger viewers might usefully be redirected towards 1999's Cruel Intentions, which shaped the same plot into a contemporary thriller, and managed to be savvy without being smarmy; also worth a look is 2003's terrific Korean variant Untold Scandal, which preserved the period trappings, but had real guts and heart where Hampton offers intellectual game-playing.

Dangerous Liaisons is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

Friday 20 September 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of September 13-15, 2019:

1 (new) Downton Abbey (PG)

2 (1) It: Chapter Two (15) **
3 (new) Hustlers (15) ***
4 (2) Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (18) ***
5 (4) The Lion King (PG)
6 (3) Angel Has Fallen (15) **
7 (9) Casino Royale - Secret Cinema (12A)
8 (6) Dora and the Lost City of Gold (PG) ***
9 (7) Toy Story 4 (U) ***
10 (8Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (12A) **

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
1. Midnight Cowboy

2. For Sama
3. Bait
4. Inna de Yard: The Soul of Jamaica
5. Ad Astra

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

1 (1) Avengers: Endgame (12) **

2 (3) John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (15) ***
3 (new) Rocketman (15) ***
4 (4) It: Chapter One (15) ***
5 (2) Pokemon: Detective Pikachu (PG)
6 (new) Tolkien (12)
7 (6) Captain Marvel (12) ***
8 (new) The Curse of La Llorona (15)
9 (7) The Hustle (12)
10 (new) A Dog's Journey (PG) **


My top five: 
1. Only You

2. Wild Rose
3. The Sisters Brothers
4. Benjamin
5. Thunder Road

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. The Lady Vanishes [above] (Sunday, BBC2, 10.45am)
2. My Brother the Devil (Friday, BBC2, 11.45pm)
3. Thelma (Tuesday, C4, 2.20am)
4. Die Hard 2 (Saturday, C4, 10.55pm)
5. Filth (Friday, C4, 1.25am)

On DVD: "Thunder Road"

Jimmy, the troubled cop writer-director-star Jim Cummings introduces us to in his feature debut Thunder Road, first appeared on screen in a short film with the same title from 2016. The point of introduction remains the same: Jimmy (Cummings) giving an especially rambling and lachrymose eulogy at his mother's funeral, though here the scene redirects towards the cop trying to cue up mama's favourite song, Springsteen's "Thunder Road", on a CD player that resolutely fails to cooperate. (It's funny, and it saves on expensive music licensing.) Here is somebody who, from the off, is a bit of a mess: not entirely beyond sincere shows of human compassion - as borne out by his attachment to his daughter by his estranged wife - Jimmy has nevertheless been programmed to act and talk in a particular way. It's why he instinctively hollers "go Tigers" upon the reference in the eulogy to his alma mater. It's why he's shown up to his mother's funeral in full police uniform: he doesn't have a life outside of it. The longer the camera tracks onwards to depict this shambles-in-blue's routine, the more we realise one thing about Thunder Road: the character is more or less the film.

In this respect, Cummings follows an established tradition of American indies conceived, almost like a fringe theatre show, as a showcase for one or other of their creative prime movers. Obvious precedents would include Billy Bob Thornton's work in and on 1996's Sling Blade, no less of a Sundance sensation twenty years ago than Thunder Road was last year, although there are perhaps closer parallels between Jimmy and Officer Jim Kurring, the weathered cop John C. Reilly wrote and improvised with Paul Thomas Anderson for 1999's Magnolia. Cummings' interest in his Jim resides in this lonesome patrolman's status as a man on the brink. Jimmy might use the passing of his remaining parent as an opportunity to attempt a fresh start, clear out the physical and mental clutter of his life, grow up, move on and become a better dad, a better man: there's some passing business to be attended to at his mother's dance academy, an intriguing space into which to pitch this most traditionally masculine and buttoned-down of men. On the job, however, Jimmy is soon revealed as a liability, his grief sloshing into his preexisting frustration and resentment and producing a pretty toxic cocktail. And this dude can't hold his drink.

Cummings the director is often seen standing back from Jimmy the character to make sharp, telling observations: the cop dad striving to watch his language around his pre-teen daughter, or checking his temper around the ex who's just served him with divorce papers. In doing so, this filmmaker reveals a gift for portraiture, and for spotting whenever a guard is being lowered, or being kept up. The slight limitation Thunder Road betrays is that, for some while, it itself seems to be hovering on the brink, at risk of falling between two stools. It can't be as memorably unsettling as, say, a Bad Lieutenant, because it heralds from that upbeat, Sundancey indie sector that intends to make careers rather than turn stomachs. (When Jimmy picks up a wayward teenage girl in a mall car park, he's enough of a gentleman to drop her home, and it's a reassuring sop to liberal audiences that his black partner is also his best friend - this guy's angry, but he's not MAGA-mad, which limits how representative he can be.) Equally, it's never quite as funny as I expected a film with a spiralling buffoon for a protagonist was going to be, forever more droll than openly amusing.

That said, Thunder Road started to grow on me from around the halfway mark: after the vacillation of its first half, there are scenes that plant their feet, take a stance, and make a solid case for expanding the short into a feature, earning the more emotive, redemptive upswing the film eventually takes. I liked the snippet of parents' night activity where Jim and his daughter's teacher (emergent indie bedrock Macon Blair) squeeze themselves into those tiny, weirdly confining chair-and-desk combos unique to the American public school system to agonise over finding the most grown-up and responsible words to discuss the child's pottymouthing. And Cummings pulls off one especially clever cut during a row between officers in front of the station house, revealing the brouhaha has caused the loose-cannon Jimmy to automatically reach for his gun: again, it's not strictly funny, but it underlines how close Thunder Road brings us to something tragic and awful - the cut reveals a truth of a kind. 

I suspect the decision not to crack unduly wise came from an understanding on Cummings' part that men and women are currently renegotiating their place in the world, much as our police forces are having to renegotiate their place within the community, and that this is an inherently serious business. Such sensitivity and circumspection lend Thunder Road some value: even as you watch it, you can imagine it popping up in future theses on the masculine in 21st century cinema. (Special reference to the scene in which Jimmy is removed of his uniform to reveal the symbolically tattered Y-fronts beneath.) Yet as an entertainment, it's a debut movie suspended sometimes uneasily between two states of being. The character is the film, which sets Thunder Road apart from all those movies that come our way bearing no character whatsoever; that character is an intriguing focal point - an extreme work-in-progress, far from a hopeless case - but he's not quite there yet. On the evidence of these 90 minutes, Cummings - I think; I hope - is doing rather better for himself.

Thunder Road is available on DVD through Vertigo from Monday.

On demand: "Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth"

Changing times. Seahorse, the latest film by the British documentarist Jeanie Finlay, is on some basic level your common-or-garden pregnancy narrative, one that begins with great expectations and ends in new life. Yet the route it takes to get from one state to another is somewhat complicated. Freddy McConnell, the subject Finlay encounters getting broody on the seafront in his hometown of Deal, is a trans man, born with female sex organs, who's elected to abandon the course of testosterone he's been put on in order to push through with his life goal of becoming pregnant, and a parent. If that wasn't enough for retired Home Counties colonels to get their head and pipes around, Freddy's partner CJ is a Trinidadian immigrant who self-identifies as non-binary and gay. Everything about this Guardian Films production would seem custom-made to set Daily Mail readers to exploding in fits of spluttering rage. There are shapeshifters among us? Attempting to procreate? In the Garden of England, of all places? Stiff letters have been written to local MPs for less.

The film counteracts the complication, and any attendant consternation, via the straight-ahead simplicity of its approach. As her 2011 breakthrough Sound It Out indicated, Finlay ranks as one of our most empathetic observers: here, she sets us down gently next to a fellow human being going through a potentially fraught moment, and invites us to watch and perhaps learn. Seahorse is at root a study of a man trying to do two things simultaneously, which - as seasoned watchers of the world will be aware - is a tricky thing for a man to do, whatever the configuration of his internal organs. Finlay finds Freddy striving to remain female enough to bring a child into this world while still being the manly man he's wanted to be ever since his teenage self Pritt-Sticked images of Mel Gibson into a scrapbook. (You begin to understand his confusion.) His plight yields plentiful ironies, not least when Freddy sighs "if men had to do this [carry a child], you'd never hear the end of it", but also poignant moments of introspection: Freddy lets something slip when he confesses he hasn't spoken to cis males about his pregnancy, lest they think him "less of a man", not seeming to realise that this gestation period requires the strength of both sexes combined. The gender essentialism Freddy lapses into would be exhausting even without the hormonal ups-and-downs of the fertility process: the whole movie plays like an exhortation to just be who you are, and not worry too much about what others make of you, or about living up to the ideal in your head - though I'll concede this is obviously easier for a fortysomething cis bloke to type than for a younger trans man to put into practice.

At any rate, if it was a miracle that Finlay landed on this semi-miraculous story in the first place, it's as nothing compared to the exemplary sensitivity she displays as she inserts herself into Harley Street examination rooms, or adjacent to Freddy on the couch as someone he thought was an essential part of his support network recedes into the distance. She's always there, part-director, part-midwife, nudging both her subject and the viewer past any complications that may arise; you can't fail to notice the very great trust Finlay fostered with a subject who palpably fears ridicule, and most often seems pregnant with doubt, especially when he dips into the comments below online news stories about others in the same position. (You can imagine.) Another filmmaker might have come back with a more sensational retelling of this story, keeping an opportunistic eye on the heady heights of a Channel Five primetime slot. Finlay, for her part, contextualises Freddy's progress within an everyday reality of shonky washing machines and nappies from Aldi's Mamia line; she leaves in time and space to get our heads around anything we need to get our heads around; and it undeniably helps her cause that, one hormone-induced strop aside, Freddy presents as a total sweetheart who deserves whatever happiness he chooses for himself. It's a sign of how rapidly the world is changing that this exact premise was treated as an utterly inconceivable joke by an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie as recently as 25 years ago. (Did the young Freddy see it? Or was he too busy swooning over the same year's Maverick?) In Finlay's supremely careful hands, this story doesn't seem anything like as preposterous as it did there, or indeed beyond the reach of our understanding - just a couple more square feet of development in life's increasingly rich tapestry.

Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth is now streaming on the BBC iPlayer.