Tuesday 31 March 2020

Storyteller: "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am"

Full disclosure: I arrived at this documentary on Toni Morrison as a near-complete blank slate, someone who was aware of the American author's standing as a towering figure of 20th century literature, but who'd somehow never sat down with one of Morrison's books. (Exposure to Jonathan Demme's well-intentioned but horribly laboured 1998 adaptation of Beloved at a culturally formative age may have been a factor.) Happy to report, then, that Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is about as complete a primer as a neophyte might want, and likely a useful resource for long-time admirers, too, founded as it is on one of the last indepth interviews Morrison gave before her death last August from pneumonia. So here is Morrison - grey-haired and matronly, warm and wise, alive once more - talking straight down the camera, with a directness of address seasoned readers may recognise, about her background, methods, individual texts, the battles she's fought on the page and in person, and how a young woman born Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio became a Nobel Prize recipient and one of the most admired and respected names in the canon. This is also, we very quickly understand, the story of how American society reorganised itself, in the course of the 20th century's second half, to make room for a voice such as hers.

That story is set out by the director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders in the unhurried, unflashy house style of PBS's American Masters series, the strand that previously brought profiles of Woody Allen and the Eameses to our screens: a reassuringly familiar mix of first-person testimony, evocative archive footage, unobtrusive, jazz-inflected music cues, and select talking heads (in this case professors, publishers and fellow writers Walter Mosley and Russell Banks). The film's substantial backbone is that relaxed, wide-ranging interview (conducted by Sandra Guzmán), in which Morrison proves as comfortable discussing the iniquities of the publishing industry and her efforts to dodge the white gaze that has held such sway in literature circles as she is the wildness of her college days, or the shortfalls of her sister's carrot cake ("They don't put enough carrot in!"). This, in turn, affords the researchers time to rummage around for choice archival titbits. A methodology is established by the opening montage, collaging portraits of Morrison at different ages; a lovely grace note is sounded when Greenfield-Sanders illustrates Morrison's big mid-Sixties move from Lorain to New York (where she was to work in the editorial department of Random House) with a clip of Sister Rosetta Tharpe - like Morrison, another distinctive African-American voice who came to prominence in later life, trailing a weight of experience. (Doubtless Morrison learnt much from editing other people for a living - and Angela Davis is on hand to testify as to how Morrison's editorial nudges helped make her autobiography, written when she was just 28, so evocative.)

We might detect a certain reluctance to delve too deeply into Morrison's personal life, that this picture still has a few pieces missing. We hear in the opening minutes that Morrison used to wake in the wee small hours to write before her young children got up, but learn nothing at all about the father, nor where he disappeared to. (The film is notably more comfortable addressing the fictional parent-child relationships of Beloved.) Even here, though, telling biographical detail slips through: a friend informs us Morrison made a rule to keep her door open when writing, so her offspring didn't feel as though they were being distanced. (This, I suspect, will make any onlooking writers feel supremely guilty about their parenting and productivity levels.) The tone throughout is celebratory, keeping Morrison front and centre as a hardy survivor, but the research and testimony keeps alighting upon the complications of late 20th century black life: you sense a flicker of unease as the rostrum camera scans a review of the Morrison-compiled 1974 almanac The Black Book and notes the introduction was written by Bill Cosby, while one interviewee introduces the provocative wrinkle that Morrison's work initially sold more copies overseas than it did in the US. Was it too close to home, as the ongoing attempts to ban 1970's The Bluest Eye from schools signal? That The Pieces I Am troubles to raise such questions is a testament to the thoughtfulness of its content; if it remains a little televisual in form - foursquare in its look, sober and PBS-scholarly in its analysis, more Ken Burns than Errol Morris - it'll only benefit from the present state of lockdown. Watching the film on your laptop makes it easier to pause, open up a browser, and order yourself the back catalogue.

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is now available to rent via Amazon Prime. 

Monday 30 March 2020

Proportional representation: "The Perfect Candidate"

After the misstep of her English-language debut Mary Shelley, Haifaa Al Mansour has returned to her native Saudi - where she shot her breakthrough film Wadjda under cover back in 2012 - to take advantage of some new freedoms. (Presumably it becomes harder to oppress a woman after she's announced herself so conspicuously to the watching world.) The Perfect Candidate is the kind of illuminating, site-specific parable for which this filmmaker has displayed an instinctive knack, but it's been staged on a bigger scale than Wadjda, and in a visibly more relaxed environment. The new film takes Al Mansour out into airports, businesses and eventually on the campaign trail - there's never any sign she had to hide in a van while filming, as she did at the start of the last decade - although we're constantly aware that the director is enjoying an access and liberty that her protagonist Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani), a doctor who comes to run for municipal council, hasn't. Setting out to attend a medical conference in Dubai, Maryam is halted at the check-in desk after it becomes clear the permit this grown woman's father has had to sign to allow her to travel has expired; the fact she's not allowed to address men directly poses a major problem when she's out on the stump. That the film is about this intersection of access and power is underlined by the fact Maryam is only standing for office to fix an all but impassable stretch of road outside her clinic - a trivial concern in the grand scheme of things, but which in the medical context may be considered a matter of life and death.

That plot point speaks to The Perfect Candidate's appreciable expansiveness: how it seizes upon small, everyday snafus, and uses them to paint a biggish picture of Saudi life. Maryam's public-service mindset means she's constantly being dragged off to help somewhere else: with patients who express vocal resistance to the idea of being treated by a lady doctor, and then, on a rare day off, assisting with the sound and vision at a wedding that can't help but accentuate her own established status as an unmarried, career-driven woman. Al Mansour draws an instructive contrast with the doctor's widowed father (Khalid Abdulraheem), freely able to tour the country with his musician pals; shown genially plucking his oud, he's an embodiment of that public-facing mobility and leisure Saudi has traditionally denied its daughters. (Much is made of the pitch-black burqa Maryam is forced to scurry about in, a full-body prison distinct from dad's airy white attire; Al Zahrani has to do a lot more acting with attentive, accusatory eyes than Western actresses.) Yet it's the heroine's haphazard progress through the Saudi electoral system that coaxes out what are presumably the most typical attitudes: a sister warns Maryam that she's subjecting herself to the uncommon scrutiny their late mother, a wedding singer, found too much; dad reassures his mates that his forthright girl "is not like this at home"; women meekly tell the candidate they'll ask their husbands who to vote for. Medicine seemed not much of a place for Saudi women; politics would appear even less welcoming.

Oddly, this script (which the director co-wrote with Brad Niemann) gives only a tangential sense of what Maryam stands for: policy discussion is secondary to who she is, and what sex she is. I wondered whether Al Mansour wasn't in part dramatising her own experiences as a woman elevated overnight to a position of prominence. It almost didn't matter what Wadjda (not in itself a fiercely revolutionary text, rather as modest a proposal as paving 100 metres of bad road) was about; Al Mansour - as the first female director to emerge from the Middle East - was always going to be the focus of attention, obliged to stand up and address the crowds (Maryam's "I wanted to start a dialogue on an important issue" is a line straight from a festival press conference) and face the waves of pushback, online and IRL. She's cast well, whatever the case. Al Zahrani is about as feminine an actress as you could put in the role - if she were entering anything as old-fashioned as a beauty contest, she'd walk it - but she maintains a quiet tenacity that reminded me of Catherine Zeta Jones in her better moments: her Maryam knows all too well the obstacles separating her from her goal, and why she can't give up on even the marginal gains she makes. They are marginal, and you may be disappointed if you come to The Perfect Candidate expecting the high-stakes political cut-and-thrust of, say, last year's excellent Spanish thriller The Candidate: there's a kind of posturing Al Mansour isn't interested in. Instead, she calmly and decisively opens a window on her homeland, and in so doing expands our understanding of what both Saudi and perhaps even the world is like right now for a woman: with so much moving in the right direction, and so much yet to be fixed.

The Perfect Candidate is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

Friday 27 March 2020

For what it's worth...

My top ten streaming picks (for the week ending March 27, 2020):

1. And Then We Danced (15) **** (Curzon, BFI)
2 (new) Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (12A) **** (via Amazon Prime)
3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (15) **** (Curzon)
4. The Invisible Man (15) **** (via Amazon Prime)
5 (new) The Perfect Candidate (PG) *** (Curzon, BFI)
6 (new) Vivarium (15) *** (Curzon, BFI)
7. Dogs Don't Wear Pants (18) *** (Curzon, BFI)
8. The Elephant Man (PG) *** (BFI)
9. Bacurau (18) *** (Curzon, BFI, MUBI)
10. First Love (15) *** (Curzon, BFI)

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Frozen 2 (U) **

2 (2) Le Mans '66 (12) ***
3 (8) Last Christmas (12)
4 (6) Downton Abbey: the Movie (PG)
5 (1) Midway (12)
6 (new) Knives Out (12) ***
7 (3) Terminator: Dark Fate (15) **
8 (5) Joker (15) **
9 (7) Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (PG)
10 (10) The Lion King (PG)

(source: officialcharts.com)

My top five: 
1. For Sama

2. Long Day's Journey into Night
3. Knives Out
4. Harriet
5. Le Mans '66

Top five films on terrestrial television:
1. Rain Man [above] (Sunday, BBC1, 10.30pm)
2. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Saturday, five, 1.55pm)
3. Margin Call (Saturday, BBC2, 11.35pm)
4. Midnight Special (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
5. The Two Faces of January (Tuesday, C4, 1.10am)

Thursday 26 March 2020

On DVD: "Harriet"

According to common consensus, Harriet is the kind of film the studios should now be making: an important chapter in American (more specifically African-American) history, brought to life by a 90% black cast, and pitched squarely to a mainstream crowd. Its forefathers would include 12 Years a Slave (where Steve McQueen demonstrated it was possible to make accessible, Oscar-winning art from the grim business of slavery), Black Panther (which underlined how studios could print big money with a largely non-white cast) and, somewhat improbably, 1993's The Fugitive, for in an unapologetic concession to multiplex mores, the writer-director Kasi Lemmons has elected to make the story of Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who played a major part in establishing America's underground railroad, the basis of a rattling chase movie. It sounds ridiculous on paper, like one of those spoof movies Tracy Morgan found himself in during 30 Rock. The surprise, then, is how well it works on screen, at least as a broad-brush primer: it wasn't up for the biggest prizes this past awards season, but it'll likely endure as a particular boon to those history students who respond better to forceful images than they do to mildewing textbooks.

True, Lemmons' film displays some of the limitations of the modern American action movie. You catch it having to dial down the brutalities of slavery to land its PG-13 certificate, and indeed reassuring its audience that everything in this tale did finally turn out for the best: our heroine (Cynthia Erivo) passes through a lot more sunkissed John Toll-shot countryside than would be visible in most etchings of the period, and to the strains of swelling Terence Blanchard strings that insist this is An Inspirational True Story™. This Harriet Tubman makes smooth and swift progress, which probably wasn't always the case in reality. The film around her is rather more of an uneven ride; you grow to suspect Lemmons had to endure a lot of notes and meetings and make a fair few concessions to haul the movie onto our screens, which is why that movie is at once its own eccentric thing and vaguely compromised by its need to embrace the multiplex demographic. There are points where the film simply trips up over its own frantic pace: Harriet has no sooner left her husband (Zackary Momoh) behind when she finds out he's taken up with a woman who's pregnant with his child, and her later career as a Civil War figurehead gets rather bizarrely shrugged off in a coda. The studio may have been reluctant to make this story the basis of the expensive epic that would have entailed; they're fine with the lively B-movie Lemmons turns in.

Still, much like its heroine, it keeps on going, proving a little more nuanced in its characterisation than might have been expected. There are as many kindly white faces on screen as there are treacherous black ones, and you'll have to decide for yourself whether that's a matter of proven historical fact or simply to do with box-office expediency. It's steadied and carried by Erivo, who's established herself - in such titles as Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows - as one of the most expressive performers we currently have. Erivo finesses this script's rather harried character development on the run, and she does as good a job as anyone could of selling a modern multiplex audience on the visions that led one functionary whose path Harriet crossed to wonder whether this loose cannon had, in fact, incurred brain damage amid her pinballing across the United States. The film, to its credit, never completely sanctifies its heroine, preferring to look kindly upon her as a bit of an oddball - it allows for the possibility she was just crazy enough to attempt what she did; that she was crazy like a fox - and Erivo accesses a restless spirit (Harriet the gun-toting superhero!) that you feel might well hijack and change the course of history for the better. Some handsome craft credits aside, the great art of McQueen's film is beyond it - please refer to Lemmons' previous, somewhat overlooked Eve's Bayou for that - but then the evidence as presented would suggest Harriet Tubman herself would have had little time or patience for art. Instead, Harriet the movie hooks us, yanks us through this story, and remains just about fast and furious enough to get away with any liberties it takes.

Harriet is available on DVD through Universal from Monday.

Wednesday 25 March 2020

This house is not a home: "Vivarium"

For a while, I wondered whether Vivarium - written by Garret Shanley and directed by Lorcan Finnegan - wasn't overplaying its hand. Nesting newlyweds Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, shopping around for a nice place to settle, take the fateful misstep of entering a showroom presided over by Martin (Jonathan Aris), creepy frontman for a shiny new housing development. Shot from below in unnerving close-up, Martin is so obviously bad news - so obviously a character from a horror movie, where the sensible Imogen and Jesse aren't - that you wonder why our heroes don't immediately turn on their heels. That the housing development, when we visit it, appears to occupy the same soundstage abandoned at the conclusion of The Truman Show - rows of identikit, obviously fake little boxes, painted sickly green beneath CG fluffy clouds - is itself hardly promising; ditto the lack of neighbours or phone signal and the apparent absence of any route back to normality. Gradually it dawned on me that we're not meant to be watching people stuck in a recognisable situation, but actors trapped on a film set; that the presiding influence isn't Jordan Peele, say, but Pirandello. The movie is an abstraction of something, not an attempt at agitation.

Once you accept that - that Vivarium is a tricksy puzzle box, a film that slides neatly between the Canadian sci-fi Cube and the self-referential universe of Eisenberg's own Zombieland - there's a measure of contained, clever-clever fun to be had with it. The big question Shanley and Finnegan set us is what exactly they're abstracting. The couple burn down one house only to find, once the smoke clears, that it's still standing and newly pristine; they take delivery of a cardboard box containing a baby boy and the instruction they will be released if they successfully raise him. (These words will come back to haunt everybody.) In the blink of an eye, the child turns into the weirdest little creature, dressed like a Mormon and running round beneath his keepers' feet, assimilating all their worst characteristics and just begging for a sharp clip round the ear. If Vivarium means anything, I think it means to set young parents to nodding and thinking "yup, been there". The film's a bit like that youngster, all told: it's an odd one, but it develops in unusual, disarming ways, and in so doing points up how many of our homegrown, mid-budget genre pictures arrive woefully underdeveloped.

For starters, this is a pretty good set to be stuck on (kudos, production designer Philip Murphy): airless and easily controlled, yes, but eerie, too, with hidden depths (watery sunlight that provides some salve during one death scene, uncanny acoustics, pavement that pulls up like carpet). And we have appreciable company to be stuck with. Poots and Eisenberg present as goofy kids, skanking in the headlights of their car, who become increasingly exasperated and exhausted by the existential cul-de-sac they find themselves in; even as the timeline lurches forward, they don't get older but wearier, winning only the sallow complexions of eternal shut-ins. (Here is another title that will likely fare better on this enforced streaming release than it would have done theatrically in normal circumstances.) Between them, the leads succeed in fleshing out Shanley's potentially brittle concept, filling this notional model home with diverse models of parenting: the accidental dad throwing himself into his work, to the detriment of his own health (Eisenberg gives him a gravely horrible cough that sounds very different in March 2020 than it would have done on set), mum patiently putting up with the foundling's tantrums, and sensing that her charge might be key to any return to the real world. You feel a lot hinging on the payoff, and I wasn't sure Shanley and Finnegan were of a mind to hand out much in the way of answers, but by then, Vivarium has at least established itself as a more substantial, better carpentered proposition than the flimsy clapboard construction you might first have seen it as.

Vivarium will be available to stream from Friday.

Tuesday 24 March 2020

Revolutions: "And Then We Danced"

As you may have read elsewhere, And Then We Danced has been the cause of some considerable furore in its native Georgia, a state of affairs that probably tells us more about Georgian society than it does about the film. Rather than launch headlong into provocation, the writer-director Levan Akin uses a realist drama about a transitional moment in the life of a junior classical dancer as a framework to examine attitudes in a country still finding its feet. We join Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) as he rehearses a piece with long-time dance partner Mary (Ana Javakishvili), a childhood sweetheart who's grown clingily attached to him; he also has his eye set on graduating to his academy's main troupe, and thereby making more money to support his lopsided family (divorced mother, wastrel brother) than his sidegig as a waiter brings in. His trajectory, however, will be altered by the academy's latest arrival: Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), slightly older, handsome, and openly bisexual, making passes at girls and boys alike, where our protagonist still isn't sure. This, you understand, is where that furore broke out: the protesters apparently lined up en masse behind the boys' gruff instructor (Kakha Gogidze), who proclaims "there is no sex in Georgian dance".

So it's a coming-out drama, a genre that hasn't exactly been understocked of late, but Akin's working within a detailed, exciting new context. And Then We Danced opens up a window not just on the world of the Georgian dance academy, with its locally specific steps, costumes and rivalries, but on what young Georgians do in their downtime, which is not nearly so unfamiliar: they drink, smoke, gossip, dance to ABBA, and clumsily make out, in this case beyond the gaze of those who would condemn them. (Crucially, when Merad and Irakli first lay hands on one another, it's to the sound of an elder reading the riot act somewhere in the distance.) What Akin observes is how these kids push up against centuries of hidebound tradition, whether consciously or otherwise. It seems significant that Merad is following the footsteps of his dancer father (and possibly feels an even greater pressure to match his successes); we get as sure a feel for the lad's cramped household, with its sporadic electricity supply and oversubscribed bathroom, as we did for the home-cum-open prison in Netflix's outstanding Georgian pick-up My Happy Family. Against this backdrop, the dance sequences are something else entirely, offering up movement as a means of resistance against those that would lock these bodies down. The sex scenes are generally al fresco, as they were in Brokeback Mountain and God's Own Country; you wonder whether Akin irked some of his countrymen by suggesting manlove is an entirely natural act.

Where the film leaps above and beyond most of its contemporaries is that it's not just content to describe a change in its protagonist's orientation, and send us away with that happy ending. Akin is acute enough to spot that such a change has positive and negative repercussions, and that the real drama follows from having Merad adjust to these: he's like the performer who realises, mid-pirouette, that he's thrown himself off-balance and has to correct. As this kid loosens up, he loses some of his instilled discipline, becomes a different, more instinctive dancer, and a different person, with different priorities. (His final audition piece is a defiant fuck-you the character simply couldn't have summoned up at the start of the movie.) Such nuanced material, and Akin's attentive direction, makes this a field day for the young, photogenic and charismatic ensemble, who do their bit to put the sex into Georgian dance while remaining credible as figures actual Georgian kids might relate to. (The most relatable aspect of all may be Merad's bashed-up, low-on-credit phone, though an increasing number of its details would appear universal: I don't think I was expecting to see a Travis Perkins tabard and a Spirited Away poster in a survey of the Tbilisi scene.) And Then We Danced approaches a dance ideal in its filmmaking, being both supple and sinuous, yet precise when it needs to be: clock the late, measured track through the brother's wedding party, finding in each room a varied way to let off steam, and finally alighting on the one guest who finds himself with nobody to dance with. Fresh in its attitudes, yet as accessible in its storytelling as it is open-minded, this is the kind of film that generates new waves - not just in cinema, but thinking, too.

And Then We Danced is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI.

"The Jesus Rolls" (Guardian 23/03/20)

The Jesus Rolls **
Dir: John Turturro. With: John Turturro, Bobby Cannavale, Audrey Tautou, Susan Sarandon. 85 mins. Cert: 15

Some films dwindle in transit. John Turturro’s planned return to the universe of The Big Lebowski was announced four years ago with a fanfare becoming a much-anticipated spin-off from one of modern cinema’s most cherished cult items. With its belated theatrical release nixed by last week’s mass shuttering of venues, The Jesus Rolls has now snuck out on streaming platforms. All evidence would suggest key creative personnel lost faith or patience along the way: the choppy 85 minutes loosed from the edit suite comprise a sunnily indifferent caper, displaying next to none of the Coens’ visual invention, and little of their wit. At best, what you get is an amiable footnote, easily overlooked.

Turturro follows the road taken by Bertrand Blier in 1974’s bad-taste classic Going Places, replaying pivotal couplings and conversations, albeit with a sensibility too loose and goofy to push as far or as forcefully as Blier. Released from Sing Sing, bowling baller Jesus Quintana is met by old pal Pete (Bobby Cannavale), and the pair bounce around the fringes of New York state, picking up braless nympho Audrey Tautou (helpless in a 1974-era characterisation) and encountering endless cameoing celebs: Jon Hamm as an arsey coiffeur, Pete Davidson as somebody’s unclaimed son, Susan Sarandon smartly cast in the Jeanne Moreau role as a soured drifter seeking one final fling. Mostly, everyone’s driving around looking for the one compelling reason for the film to exist.

Nobody found it, though there are funny moments early on: Jesus wondering whether an endocrinologist might help with buckshot testes, and going toe-to-toe with security guard Michael Badalucco. That choppiness is the real issue. There are baffling shunts from town to country, while the middle stretch tosses up scenes with no real function or punchline and watches them land. The Coens’ original was not un-haphazard – it needed a rug to tie itself together – but it at least troubled to work up its protagonist’s Zen-like chill into an adoptable creed. Here, the same laissez-faire stance starts to look like a liability, an excuse for turning in a shrug of a film. Will this do? Lebowski cultists are bound to have strong opinions.

The Jesus Rolls is now available to rent via Amazon Prime and iTunes.

Friday 20 March 2020

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of March 13-15, 2020:

1 (1) Onward (U) ***

2 (2) The Invisible Man (15) ****
3 (new) The Hunt (15)
4 (new) Bloodshot (12A)
5 (3) Military Wives (12A)
6 (4Sonic the Hedgehog (PG)
7 (new) Misbehaviour (12A)
8 (new) My Spy (12A) **
9 (5Parasite (15) *****
10 (6) Dark Waters (15) **

(source: BFI)

My streaming Top Five: 
1. And Then We Danced

2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
3. Dogs Don't Wear Pants
4. Bacurau
5. First Love

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

1 (2) 
Midway (12)
2 (new) Le Mans '66 (12) ***
3 (1) Terminator: Dark Fate (15) **
4 (9) Doctor Sleep (15)
5 (3) Joker (15) **
6 (6) Downton Abbey: the Movie (PG)
7 (5) Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (PG)
8 (new) Last Christmas (12)
9 (19) Toy Story 4 (U) *** 
10 (20) The Lion King (PG)

(source: officialcharts.com)

My top five: 
1. Roma

2. Honeyland
3. Long Day's Journey into Night
4. So Long, My Son
5. The Peanut Butter Falcon

Top five films on terrestrial television:
1. The Lady Vanishes (Sunday, BBC2, 3.40pm)
2. In Which We Serve [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 4.35pm)
3. Witness (Friday, BBC1, 10.45pm)
4. The Lost City of Z (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
5. Diego Maradona (Saturday, C4, 9pm)

Whip it: "Dogs Don't Wear Pants"

The much-missed late-night review show Collins and Maconie's Movie Club used to have a regular feature called Rum Film of the Week, denoting that episode's most notably left-of-centre theatrical release - the title least likely to be playing on Screen One at your local Odeon. No question about it, this week's Rum Film of the Week would be J-P Valkeapää's Dogs Don't Wear Pants. Who knows what audiences will be minded to stream at the end of a week such as this, but it may as well be a Finnish drama about a bereaved heart surgeon who finds some release from his woes amid Helsinki's BDSM community. I mean, it's different, right? Spiky, too: Valkeapää wants to jab a response out of us, even if that's just a pre-emptive flinch. And so his opening rural idyll takes on shades of Don't Look Now, as the surgeon Juha (Pekka Strang) fails to save his wife from drowning after a swimming accident; the credits play out over open heart surgery. This is not going to be an easy watch for anyone averse to DIY fingernail removal or dentistry; the first ten minutes threaten us with full-frame tongue piercing by way of a gentle warm-up, although the camera will eventually relent and creep downstairs to a dungeon where Juha has his first, fateful meeting with Mona (Krista Kosonen), the dominatrix who will bash him into better shape. The real shock comes when you realise Valkeapää isn't just here to shock, or to gawp: he's sincerely interested in the surgeon as something more than one of life's whipping boys.

The wholly sex-positive line pulling us through the film's varied punishments is that, by literalising Juha's emotional pain, all these gags, collars and chains might provide some kind of therapy, a curious though not implausible means of repairing his own broken heart. (In that striking title lurks mistranslated wordplay: here, the command will be physician, heel thyself.) BDSM gets Juha out of the house, into new routines, provides him with physical contact (ain't this just the perfect week to have released it?); we know something positive will develop from these interactions when he nervily shows up at the door to Mona's dressing room to inquire whether she wouldn't mind strangling him a little longer the following week. All of a sudden, he's making demands, expressing himself, rather than meekly accepting whatever roughing-up life puts him through. Valkeapää also grasps how intensely theatrical this scene is: he understands there's a charge that comes from watching a man and a woman enacting intimate power struggles on a neon-lit set, and he shapes it into unexpected twists and turns, like the session that goes too far and ends with the surgeon being returned to his place of work on a gurney. Close attention is paid both to the carapace of make-up the dominatrix applies, and to costumes (a summer dress) that have some extracurricular meaning; you're reminded that the real perversity of S&M is that it's one of very few forms of intimacy where everybody spends half the time dressing up.

What's exemplary is how much is implied rather than explicitly depicted; it's a quiet model of "show don't tell" cinema. A slow pan over a shelf of strap-ons and other accessories conjures its own stories, maybe fantasies, perhaps nightmares; sporadic dives into the hero's murky, watery dreamlife suggest the extent to which he's still treading grief and guilt. The women of the piece come more gradually into focus: the teenage daughter (Ilona Huhta) feeling her way into adulthood in the absence of parental guidance, the overground date (Oona Airola) who offers Juha a more conventional form of hands-on, but finds she can't bring herself to throttle anybody during a fraught, funny hook-up. Mona remains more of a mystery, and that mystery isn't where she goes by night, but who on earth she might be by day; beneath a Edith Scob wig, Kosonen exhibits much the same compelling mix of fierceness and birdlike fragility we associate with Noomi Rapace. Following her to find out, as Juha does, leads Dogs Don't Wear Pants into a genuinely edgy final act: that dentistry is going to leave some viewers screaming their safeword - it's not so much what's shown as the scene's queasy mix of horror and comedy - though it does mark a turning point in our patient's recovery, and permits this idiosyncratic study of human extremes its unexpectedly buoying ending. Those who'd have felt self-conscious buying tickets in person for the Finnish bondage movie can now dial the film up in the privacy of their own home; by this time next Friday, with Screen One shuttered, the week's rummest film may just be the most watched movie in the country. Strange days indeed.

Dogs Don't Wear Pants is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

Wednesday 18 March 2020

Blaze of glory: "Fire Will Come"

Oliver Laxe's Fire Will Come opens with a clutch of images apparently plucked direct from the subconscious. A Galician forest at night. An unexpected, almost Close Encounters-like light source. Trees that suddenly shift and sway, as if in a stiff breeze, only to then topple like dominoes. A rational explanation is forthcoming - the trees are being felled by construction workers - but taken with the title, these first five minutes establish a mood, at once foreboding and ominous, which lingers over the narrative that follows. This, it transpires, is far more grounded: middle-aged Amador (Amador Arias, touting some of that self-contained quality we associated with Harry Dean Stanton), who's returned to this neck of the woods after serving prison time for arson, readjusts to life on the farmland overseen by his aged mother Benedicta (Benedicta Sanchez). In summer, this location would presumably be the glorious site of one hundred happy holiday cottages - and this, indeed, is why that forest is being cleared - but Laxe made his biggest aesthetic decision when he started filming in late autumn/winter: early scenes, topped and tailed by overcast skies and muddy fields, have an evocative sense of downtime, the off-season. Amador mopes and smokes; Benedicta proves more active, as you'd expect from someone who's been left to run a farm by themselves; generally, everyone seems as entrenched as the cow we see stuck in a tributary at one point. Then something miraculous happens: the sun comes out.

That extra light helps to illuminate just what Laxe has done here, which is to relocate what has traditionally been an urban narrative (the jailbird trying to outrun his past) into a none-more-pastoral setting. The pacing slows, becomes contemplative (as 2016's Mimosas suggested, Laxe is staking out that terrain where the narrative and experimental cinemas meet); as an audience, we find ourselves responding to a different set of cues. The changing of seasons would seem a pretty good (not to mention plain pretty) marker of the potential for renewal and growth; but Amador also retains a bee in his bonnet about those holiday homes, and how their creators are trashing his environment. (In retrospect, those opening images do seem as much nightmare as dream.) That tension informs the entire film. Is our protagonist going to push on up the mountain, assume a peaceable, Zen-like existence as a herdsman, or is he fated to take up the matches once more? The title offers one answer, yet when the bomberos do show up amid the third act's forcefully convincing inferno - lean into the screen, and you can feel your eyebrows being singed - it's not clear what the cause of the conflagration is, nor quite what its consequences will be. (Some of the confusion derives from Laxe showing us the firefighters themselves lighting fires, in a bid to control the direction of the blaze.) You'll have to pick your own cautious way through the smouldering aftermath, as does the blind donkey we encounter en route, but there's no denying the film's vivid immediacy: with the confident touch he displays around often incandescent imagery, Laxe here establishes himself as either the Red Adair of new European directors, or a possible reincarnation of Keith Flint.

Fire Will Come will be available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema from Fri 3rd April.

Tuesday 17 March 2020

Upward mobility: "Climbing Blind"

Clearly these are strange days full-stop, but it's an especially strange time to be reviewing films, given that a) the UK government, for reasons beyond our paygrade, has yet to provide a good reason for not shutting the cinemas that may presently be serving as Petri dishes, and b) the context films are passing into has fundamentally altered. Even humdrum filler might now play like a reminder of the world out there, being kept at bay or approached with caution as we collectively wait for this nastiest of bugs to pass. That unexpected poignancy attaches itself to the most outward-bound of the week's scheduled releases, Alastair Lee's documentary Climbing Blind, which details the efforts of Jesse Dufton - a buff, blind member of the GB paraclimbing squad - to scale the Old Man of Hoy, a 115-metre stone finger rising up off the Orkney coast. At least one of Lee's interviewees floats the notion that, by most climbers' standards, this isn't a particularly complex or arduous challenge: shorn of those fearsome overhanging vectors we saw Alex Honnold navigate in 2018's Free Solo, it's a straight-up ascent, allowing Jesse's guide and life-partner Molly to spot him as he goes. Still, you and I wouldn't exactly leap at the chance to take it on, and bear in mind Jesse has to attach all his guy ropes and carabiners by touch alone. (I also wouldn't be reassured by a feature of the Old Man known as "the Coffin slot".) The one advantage Jesse Dufton has - and it does strike me as a big one - is that he cannot look down.

A veteran of the climbing-film community, Lee crams spectacle big and small into these 70 minutes. He's spent enough time around Jesse to notice the basic everyday obstacles the climber's condition presents him with - we're offered deft, quietly unsettling snapshots of Jesse stumbling over conifers and traffic cones most of us could step around - and to get his subject to open up in a way you never felt Honnold had to. Jesse notes that he actually feels he's become a better climber since his eyesight deteriorated, though he appears to blink back tears upon expressing a regret that he hadn't seen enough of Molly's face before the fade to black. (Here, again, the present situation looms into view: right now, there are lots of faces we aren't seeing enough of.) Lee only fumbles a little when it comes to securing his narrative line. A decision was evidently taken in post-production to intercut Jesse's climb with training anecdotes and scenes from his daily life: I think the aim may have been to break up what could have been a relatively straightforward bottom-to-top haul, but it has the effect of undercutting the drama of the climb itself. We want the sustained suspense, to sit back and marvel at this guy getting on with it; instead, his progress is sporadically interrupted and stalled by the account of how he got there.

It's a pity, because you really couldn't want for better angles of the climb. In a rare example of drone technology being a rewarding creative choice, rather than a hackneyed fallback, we're left to hover at a distance from the Old Man and the young dude tugging at his coattails, the better to leave Jesse to it, and for us to measure how far he has to go (or drop). You're reminded how - from Harold Lloyd in Safety Last to Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossibles - the cinema screen has always been an optimal shape for watching tiny, mortal humans scrabbling to reach new heights. If Climbing Blind does reach UK screens - this Friday, or at some later date - it's been paired with The Big Deal?, a 12-minute short in which Lee tags along with novice Frances Bensley as she transitions from indoor climbing to the great outdoors. Here are the babysteps (and babygrabs) climbers have to make before they reach the peaks tackled by the likes of Honnold and Dufton: in this example, stomping about the Welsh countryside with portable crashmats, seeing whether you can get much over ten feet without turning an ankle. It comes with a light smattering of technical talk, and some promotional consideration for the crashmat manufacturer (a producer here), but also the genuinely stirring sight of a fellow human stretching and gradually elevating herself to a higher plain. We can but hope Dufton and Bensley will get back out there soon enough, and that they're not presently climbing the walls.

Climbing Blind is currently scheduled to open in selected cinemas from Friday, as part of the Brit Rock Film Tour. For details and updates, check here.

Monday 16 March 2020

On demand: "Little Big Man"

American cinema made sporadic gestures of reconciliation towards the native populace it had unblinkingly killed off in its Westerns: as early as 1954, the maverick Robert Aldrich proferred Apache, a rounded character study of a sometime warrior played by no less than Burt Lancaster, not a performer to be erased or dismissed lightly. Arthur Penn's 1970 curio Little Big Man was the system's most sustained and heartfelt effort to pass the peace pipe, informed by Thomas Berger's source novel only as much as it was by America's ongoing conflict with the Vietnamese and internal civil-rights struggle. Recounted in flashback by the 121-year-old "world's oldest man", it's the tale of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), a white settler who was raised on a Cheyenne reservation after the death of his parents, inherited no beef with his fellow countrymen, and thus thinks nothing of inhabiting both worlds, a little like Denis Law if he'd transferred from Man U to Man City and back again. It's all a matter of perspective, you see: as led by Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), the natives - literally referred to as "Human Beings" for the first time on American film - are depicted as ahead of the curve in such areas as a woman's place and the acceptance of a (barely) coded gay character, while the palefaces, from the blustering Reverend (Thayer David) who first "rescues" Jack from the Cheyenne to the preening Custer (Richard Mulligan), are kooks and hypocrites, when they're not outright savages.

Fifty years on, we can't help but observe a little of what we now identify as white privilege in our hero's haphazard progress: via a process of Caucasian code-switching, the young Crabb gets to experience the best of both worlds, being groped by the Reverend's hot-to-trot daughter (Faye Dunaway) and enthusiastically (if, ultimately, somewhat wearily) navigating a ménage à quatre with the squaws with which he shares a teepee. Most contemporary viewers will have to watch Little Big Man through the prism of Dances with Wolves, a (not unstirring) classical Western undertaken twenty years later, in a somewhat different context, by a star with a marked white saviour complex and a desire to appear handsome on each prairie; Penn's film, every inch the work of the New Hollywood, is obviously funnier and less reverent, sending Hoffman's innocent out on an apprenticeship with Martin Balsam as a dissembling conman who gets disassembled, limb by limb, over the course of the film, then wryly watching Jack's bathetic spell as a gunfighter nicknamed The Soda Pop Kid.

Penn busies himself drawing sharply ironic contrasts between the natives' belief in cosmic order, the whites' often murderous leaning towards man-made order, and the film's own, overarching sense that it's all a big crapshoot, a series of random events beyond anybody's control, in the midst of which you never can tell where you're going to end up. Why are babies butchered on the battlefield, while others live to the ripe old age of 121? (I finally watched the film on lockdown during the Coronavirus outbreak of 2020, and found it a source of tremendous consolation, not least Jack Crabb's mid-movie realisation that "the world was too ridiculous even to bother to live in it".) The idea that life comes at us from absurd, unexpected angles, and mercilessly fast, makes this a great, testing assignment for Hoffman, who has to think on his feet and shapeshift from guileless naif via faker-on-the-make and selfless family man into the grizzled survivor of the wraparound, wearing more persuasive old-man latex than 21st century cinema generally generates, and telling a better tale than many, however tall it might be. Blithe for the most part, but unsparing in its depiction of society's extremes, this stands up as the closest American film came to its own Candide.

Little Big Man is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Saturday 14 March 2020

Our town: "Bacurau"

The Brazilian writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho's international breakthrough films - 2012's Neighboring Sounds and 2016's Aquarius - were shaded studies of community, unusually alert to atmosphere and place, exactly the kind of thing to which highbrow critics are supposed to respond. Bacurau, which Filho has co-directed with Juliano Dornelles, is something else entirely. The new film carries over that keen interest in community, apparently provoked by its makers' desire to take a troupe of pro and non-pro actors out into the sticks, away from the clutches of the Bolsonaro regime, so as to establish a new model of civilisation. (Dornelles has previously served as Filho's production designer; here, he's promoted to architect-in-chief.) Yet that interest has been shifted sideways into potentially more commercial genre territory. Bacurau has the wipe cuts of a Star Wars movie; the framing of dystopian sci-fi (opening with an "a few years from now..." caption); and a Western's battlelines and shootouts. It's a film that wants to stir the pot, and the blood.

The disputed territory of the title, cut off from the rest of Brazil by verdant hills, is a little like a Latin Brigadoon or perhaps Liverpool, an independent state more open to self-governance than outside influence. It has a doctor (Sonia Braga, held over from Aquarius), a teacher, its own buoying pharmaceuticals, unisex sex workers, a resident DJ, even a troubadour who spends the long, hot afternoons sat on his porch plucking at his guitar. It's not an idyll - it doesn't display all that much in the way of material wealth, and the medico is a bit of a liability when sloshed - but they have one another's backs. (An early, telling scene: a canvassing politico pulls up in the village with a truckful of bribes, and not a single soul cares to come out of their home to receive him.) This being a variant of the modern world, however, you'd be right to wonder how long this community can maintain this independence; and you'd be right to worry when the reliably terrifying Udo Kier bursts into shot an hour in as the head of a multinational cabal of mercenaries looking to take something away from the natives.

What follows is a slowburn, to say the least. As in Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius, there were points where I found myself wondering just when Filho was finally planning on cutting to the chase the film seems to be headed towards. (Our antagonists are introduced in a long, variably acted scene around a table that takes ten minutes to establish what a B-movie Western would make clear in two or three minutes tops.) To some degree, the delaying here is tactical: Filho wants us to inhabit this space, work out who's who, and how everybody relates to one another. The encroachment isn't some explosively hostile takeover, rather - as it has been elsewhere - a gradual, barely perceptible creep. Two motorcyclists (done up as passing tourists) are sent out to test the locals' pliability; the community is put under surveillance; and - just ahead of the final push - access to the mobile phone and electricity networks is suddenly, dramatically cut. Anybody looking on from the East - anyone familiar with the situation in Kashmir in particular - will find eerie parallels with reality.

Yet the relaxed pacing also allows Filho and Dornelles time to fold in eccentricities. The locals' efforts to recruit the ruthless bandit Lunga (Silvero Pereira) to their cause - a pivotal plot point in the context of this power struggle - are afforded roughly the same amount of screen time as a capoeira demonstration and a spot of naked gardening. The point is that these latter are the kinds of liberties a people can only take when they're left to go their own way; they're the localised quirks that get suppressed or blanded out under more controlling forces, and exactly what makes Bacurau a Brazilian Western, as opposed to any other variety of the form. Consequently, you can see why the film has been claimed - first at Cannes, then on the festival circuit - as a prime auteur text, a defiant statement of independence from someone who means and needs it. In fact, Bacurau equally arrives as Filho's most accessible film yet: MUBI are paying it the honour of showcasing it in upmarket arthouses, but you could easily imagine another distributor using alternative poster art to reposition the movie as a shoot-'em-up for viewers prepared to wait two hours for a bloodbath. In that broadening of appeal, Filho sacrifices some of the depth and thoughtful texture of his earlier films, but Bacurau operates on the same gut level as a rallying cry, urging onlookers to its slaughter to resist - resist! - by any means necessary.

Bacurau is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema and MUBI.

Friday 13 March 2020

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of March 6-8, 2020:

1 (new) Onward (U) ***

2 (1) The Invisible Man (15) ****
3 (new) Military Wives (12A)
4 (2Sonic the Hedgehog (PG)
5 (3Parasite (15) *****
6 (4) Dark Waters (15) **
7 (new) Blumhouse's Fantasy Island (15)
8 (5Dolittle (PG)
9 (new) Riverdance 25th Anniversary Show (U)
10 (6) Emma. (U)

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
2. True History of the Kelly Gang
3. The Invisible Man
4. The Elephant Man [above]
5. Bacurau

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

1 (4) 
Terminator: Dark Fate (15) **
2 (new) Midway (12)
3 (1) Joker (15) **
4 (13) The Addams Family (PG)
5 (2) Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (PG)
6 (5) Downton Abbey: the Movie (PG)
7 (3) Zombieland: Double Tap (15)
8 (7) Gemini Man (12)
9 (6) Doctor Sleep (15)
10 (10Abominable (U)

(source: officialcharts.com)

My top five: 
1. Roma

2. Honeyland
3. So Long, My Son
4. The Peanut Butter Falcon
5. Monos

Top five films on terrestrial television:
1. Escape from Alcatraz (Saturday, BBC1, 11.45pm)
2. True Lies (Saturday, C4, 10.45pm)
3. A Quiet Place (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
4. Pride & Prejudice (Sunday, five, 3.45pm)
5. Goldfinger (Saturday, ITV, 4pm)