Saturday 30 May 2020

From the archive: "Julieta"

Brand Almodóvar has been diluted in recent years. 2011’s The Skin I Live In was a stylish but hollow exercise in thematic graverobbing; 2013’s I’m So Excited! a limp farce that retreated even further into the director’s back catalogue, and suggested what he’d done well to leave behind. Julieta, thankfully, is something else entirely: opening with a close-up on a red dress’s suggestively labial folds, this is Almodóvar’s return to adult melodrama, retailored from Alice Munro’s short prose, and set lovingly around the shoulders of a harassed Madrilena on the verge of a non-comic nervous breakdown.

When we first meet Julieta (Emma Suarez), she’s weighing up a potential move to Portugal with a gentleman admirer. A chance meeting with an old friend, however, alerts her to the fact her estranged daughter Antia may be back in circulation – a state of affairs Julieta takes as an opportunity for a fresh start, abandoning her suitor and instead moving into a new apartment with barely more furnishing than a shredded photograph of mother and child in happier times. Those pieces can be picked up and reassembled; real life, inevitably, proves far less easy.

With tremendous economy, Almodóvar establishes his heroine as subject to distinct impulses – independence, coupled bliss, the consolations of family – and caught somewhere between the sea and dry land, her past, present and future. (Is there some correlation between her daughter’s name and “antes”, the Spanish word for before?) It’s amidst this entanglement that Julieta sits down to write her child a letter, cueing an extended flashback to that moment in the 1980s when, like Almodóvar, her younger self (Adriana Ugarte) was first setting out into the world.

This solution to a narrative conundrum is elegantly simple, and sustains this director’s best written film in some time, one that preserves Munro’s deeply feminist concerns around being a mother and a daughter, addends resonant notes on The Odyssey and the history of women in cinema, and builds a considerable emotional impact within a mere 99 minutes. 

Julieta’s letter to an unknown young woman allows Almodóvar a direct line of inquiry into the fairer sex’s deepest mysteries – why they feel what they feel and do what they do, and what they might feel and do after losing a loved one. The bonus with Almodóvar, of course, is that this investigation is set out in such rich textures. The life-giving folds of that dress come to rhyme with the restorative folds of Julieta’s missive, just as Alberto Iglesias’s jazzily noirish score sets us in mind of such prior investigations as Laura, Mildred Pierce and Rebecca

Anybody lamenting the deterioration of craft in recent American studio pictures should find great solace here: every location and design choice – from the older Julieta’s blank apartment to the cassettes in the teenage Antia’s bedroom – is a clue, and has clearly been dwelled over as such. Yet there’s something else here that’s been lacking from the majority of this year’s releases: credible human beings, displaying recognisable human feelings even as they trail unshakeable, still-vivid history behind them. 

The Almodóvar effect has traditionally been illustrated with reference to Penelope Cruz’s progression from pin-up to leading lady. He works a similar transformation here upon Ugarte, whose hairstyle alone might be studied to describe Julieta’s shift from punky free spirit to achingly proud young mum. If Suarez initially comes across as a somewhat fathomless presence, limited to close-ups of purgative scribbling (for this is, lest we forget, a writer’s story), she’s very good once she reappears inside the flashback – after a glorious transition – and has to face the fact her daughter has drifted away from her.

Few directors have gone to such lengths to ensure their characters’ baggage is so stylish, but it’s the emotion deep within Julieta – the meaning of the words she writes in that letter – which makes the film a notable return to form: at the end of a cold and alienating summer of moviegoing, it greets us with the warmest and most welcoming of embraces. You’d have every right to once more start thinking of Almodóvar as a master – that most masculine of laurels – were he not in such obvious, regular and rewarding correspondence with his feminine side.

(MovieMail, August 2016)

Julieta screens on BBC2 tonight at 12midnight.

From the archive: "Eeb Allay Ooo!"

Homer Simpson once maintained that all movies could be improved with the addition of one vital element: a robot driving instructor. I take Mr. Simpson's point, while also adding one further element to this list: monkeys. The director Prateek Vats fully adheres to McCahill's First Law of Cinema in Eeb Allay Ooo!, which plays like an Indian equivalent of one of Ken Loach's funny, socially pointed comedies - only, you know, with monkeys. Its put-upon hero, Anjani Prasad (Shardul Bharadwaj), is a lowly milquetoast in New Delhi - the type who looks as if he wouldn't say boo to a goose. That look doesn't help him unduly upon landing a new job as a so-called "monkey repeller": one of the many real-life civil servants employed to keep primates away from Delhi's government-owned properties, where the animals have become notorious for eating flags and generally making a nuisance of themselves. (The title is the ululation the repellers deploy in this task, and would roughly translate to "Oi, Clear Off!", thus making it the year's best title.) Clearly, national honour is at stake, though Anjani would do well to heed the wisdom passed on by a shopworn colleague: "When you come face-to-face with a monkey, you will realise how fucked you are."

The film has sight gags galore, not least those cutaways to those pesky blighters waggling furry arses at our hero, or sitting stony-faced and unimpressed at his MP3 recordings of the eponymous cry he's failed to master. It's not just that Eeb Allay Ooo! has monkeys, it's that they're especially well-directed monkeys, forever hitting the right mark for the film to get the desired laugh. Bharadwaj, nicely cast, gets his fair share of chuckles, too, primarily from his displays of exasperation at a task that has defeated many more experienced men than he; it's as though he's been assigned to build a replica of a cathedral using lit matchsticks. Yet the laughs are here to open us up to a sharp line of editorial: Vats wants us to spot the difference between the monkeys, who enjoy sacred status, and the men, who can be rather more easily beaten down and chased around. By the point our migrant labourer hero finds himself trapped in a monkey cage by crueller co-workers and forced to swallow a banana whole, it's become very clear that whatever Anjani can do to the chimps, so too his fellow countrymen can do to him. (The very least of which is to tell him to clear off.) The film's monkeys aren't just monkeys, in other words; they have symbolic value.

Vats sets more than just his animal performers running. When Anjani takes delivery of a rifle, we might well wonder who or what is going to end up being shot; the movie even flirts with action-thriller tropes when our boy is assigned to keep the apes away from a National Day parade. (It's In the Line of Fire with a screeching furball where John Malkovich used to be.) Yet Eeb Allay Ooo! is larkier for longer than Loach would allow - not a criticism, for those of us who've always found Loach's salty good humour a strength. The parade leads to Anjani assuming a new identity, by donning a langur costume, complete with ankle bells and a flagpole for a tail ("to fight them, I must think like them"). Does the MCU have room for a Monkey Man, a Hanu-Man? Yet Vats equally spies how this reduces his protagonist to sight-gag status, and the indignity entailed in losing such a job - how he's become as great a nuisance to his employers as the creatures he was hired to see off. In the final moments, we see Anjani performing a fevered, animalistic dance in costume to a crowd of bemused onlookers - not so much a show of dominance as a statement of defiance against those market forces that would render him, and those like him, extinct. The statement, like the title, comes in three-word shrieks. I am here. Deal with it. What comes next?

(October 2019)

Eeb Allay Ooo! screens today as part of the We Are 1 festival on YouTube: it can be accessed here for the next 24 hours.

Friday 29 May 2020

For what it's worth...

My top ten streaming picks (for the week beginning May 29, 2020):

1 (new) The Uncertain Kingdom (15) **** (Curzon, BFI)
2. The County (12A) **** (Curzon)
3. The Atom: A Love Affair (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
4. Ema (15) **** (MUBI)
5. The Assistant (15) **** (Curzon, BFI)
6 (new) Dating Amber (15) *** (Amazon Prime)
7 (new) MS Slavic 7 (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)
8 (new) Mike Wallace Is Here (15) *** (Curzon)
9 (new) Krabi, 2562 (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)
10 (new) Around the World When You Were My Age (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (2) 
1917 (15) ***
2 (1) Bad Boys for Life (15) ***
3 (3) Onward (U) ***
4 (6) Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (12)
5 (4) Little Women (U) ****
6 (new) The Call of the Wild (PG)
7 (new) Cats (U)
8 (7) Frozen II (U) **
9 (9) Jumanji: The Next Level (12)
10 (5) Jojo Rabbit (12) **


My top five: 
1. Parasite

2. Little Women
3. And Then We Danced
4. Onward
5. Bad Boys for Life

Top five films on terrestrial television:
1. Some Like It Hot [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 3.40pm)
2. Withnail & I (Sunday, C4, 12.15am)
3. Julieta (Saturday, BBC2, 12midnight)
4. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Saturday, C4, 11.55pm)
5. Jumanji (Saturday, five, 4.45pm)

In the hot seat: "Mike Wallace Is Here"

Non-US cinemagoers will likely recognise the name Mike Wallace from Michael Mann's much-admired 1999 drama The Insider, where the veteran 60 Minutes broadcaster was played by Christopher Plummer. That depiction was a source of some consternation upon the film's initial release: it was argued, not least by the real-life Wallace, that the film had done its fictional Wallace down - portraying him as the kind of compromised establishment figure who might be prepared to let slip a hot-potato story at the behest of his corporate paymasters - in order to better big up Al Pacino's out-on-a-limb producer Lowell Bergman. Twenty years on, we now have Mike Wallace Is Here, a documentary overview of all things Wallace, set out by director Avi Belkin in the immediately recognisable house style of producer John Battsek's Passion Pictures - found footage, Wallace in his own words - and heading towards a more balanced reassessment of the fallout The Insider covered.

The first surprise is that it throws up multiple Mike Wallaces: flickering monochrome images reveal how, in the days before his time as the grand poobah of prime-time probing, Wallace tried his hand as an actor, radio announcer and a celebrity shill for cigarettes, lipsticks and Fluffo pie crust. Belkin opens with an interview between Wallace and former Fox News blowhard Bill O'Reilly - representative of a model that's always been more showbiz than journalism - in which the latter claims the former is the reason he got into the news game, a choice snippet that prompts the intriguing thought Wallace may himself have been an actor assuming the longrunning role of journo. Certainly, several interviewees speak to the arresting dramatic qualities of the pow-wows Wallace conducted on early hits The Mike Wallace Interviews and Night Beat: how, with their low-lit sets and relentless questioning, they resembled an interrogation on some police procedural more than they did formal Q&As.

That's not to discount the evident preparation and notetaking that factored into his more rigorous interviews, or his considerable gift for improvisation - to listen, react, and try a new tack if a particular line of inquiry wasn't working. Yet these could equally be said to be the skills of a good actor, and one wonders whether assuming the onscreen persona of "Mike Wallace, Tough Prick" permitted this pock-marked boy from Brookline, Massachusetts to pose considerably tougher questions than he might have as a jobbing journo with only a byline to protect him: Belkin duly shows his subject going toe-to-toe with everyone from the KKK to Ayatollah Khomeini, Mickey Cohen to Vladimir Putin. Even when Wallace himself was being interviewed, he had a tendency to deploy rhetorical judo-throws that returned the focus to the interviewer ("How many times have I been married? Now why on earth do you want to ask that?"). If he was an actor, he was - as many actors are - forever "on". 

That makes him a tough nut for any documentary to crack, particularly one dealing exclusively in footage sourced from the public domain. (The Battsek-produced Listen to Me, Marlon gained its emotional charge from its subject Marlon Brando's private recordings; nothing comparable has been made available to the filmmakers here.) Belkin provides ample, stirring illustration of Wallace's pugnacious interviewing style, but the focus of these clips remains the interviewee; the interrogator is allowed to slip away into the night, where he can lie in wait for the next worthy opponent. On those rare occasions when Wallace himself accepted an interview request, he proved open on the day-to-day details of the gig: making a name for himself in the first years of Vietnam as a non-Oxbridge educated outsider working alongside the great Ed Murrow at CBS, and the development of 60 Minutes as a successful format, something like the BBC's Panorama, but with the crowdpleasing gotcha hooks of ITV's The Cook Report, as Wallace kicked down the doors of fraudsters and child pornographers. 

On his personal life, however, Wallace simply would not be drawn. Belkin shows him making so-called "Queen of Mean" Leona Helmsley break down in tears while asking about her dead son, but Wallace himself dries up when talking about the death of his own son Peter in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece in 1962. (Of his wife - or indeed wives - nothing was set on the record.) Though he proved a little more forthcoming in later life on the subject of depression, his collected TV appearances position Wallace as yet another of those patrician, emotionally remote figures who have dominated the field of TV newscasting over the last half-century - exactly someone you'd cast a Plummer (rather than the expressive-explosive Pacino) to play. Belkin knows this - and knows it enough to make a joke out of it in places. At the end of a revealing battle-of-wills with Barbra Streisand on the benefits or otherwise of sustained therapy, Wallace sighs "I feel like your father or something", to which his ever-sharp interviewee retorts with "That's good - at least you're feeling."

Broadly more characteristic would appear to be Wallace's response, amid a late-career retrospective, to any suggestion he might now retire and reflect on his achievements: "What am I going to reflect about?" The doc has a sure feel for the turbulence of the America Wallace reported on, and the celebrity he both documented and represented; Belkin works up a brisk, professional visual style, deploying splitscreens that mimic the look of a TV mixing desk. Even he, though, has to admit that he's dealing with a subject who, for all the many hundreds of hours he logged on America's screens, remains something of an invisible man, somebody who was only there when his director called action, and may just as well have disappeared when that same director called cut. That Mike Wallace is Here never quite gets behind the screen image (or persona) may finally have something to do with the fact no-one was around to pin Wallace down on camera as forcibly or effectively as Wallace himself did others.

Mike Wallace is Here is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

Thursday 28 May 2020

I travel: "Around the World When You Were My Age"

And the travelogues keep on coming. Around the World When You Were My Age finds documentarist Aya Koretzky asking her father Jiro to recall the details of a globetrotting trip he took at the beginning of the 1970s, when he left his Japanese homeland and struck out for Europe and points beyond. To achieve this, dad unearths a box containing photos and diaries he'd apparently buried in his back garden, then sits down and calmly, over the best part of two hours, talks his daughter - and us - through the contents. Quickly, it becomes clear Koretzky has a rich resource in those snapshots (corners rounded, their colours faded), using them to provide a bridging visual accompaniment not unlike the stills in certain Chris Marker projects as Jiro revisits his time in the Soviet Union and Scandinavia, his misadventures on the Frankfurt autobahn, his affection for the ornate paving stones in his adopted home of Portugal, his travels in Africa, the Middle East and the US. No movie on its own could make up for the stifling rottenness of the first five months of this year, but you might well find something romantic, consoling and/or aspirational in this man's mobility; at the very least, Koretzky has provided another reminder of the cinema's recurrent capacity to take us outside ourselves, to expand our horizons in some way.

A few minor caveats. This is by definition a dadtale - i.e. somewhat long-winded in the telling - and the overall dadness of the project is hardly dispelled by frequent cutaways to latter-day Jiro brewing up or mowing the lawn, nor by the occasional landscape photo presented in jarring portrait mode. (You half-expect the steady flow of images to be interrupted by a stray shot of Mrs. Jiro poolside in a bikini, as there would be with any slideshow in any 1970s sitcom: how did that get in there?) Yet the daughter's prompting reveals there is some urgency about this familial undertaking: Jiro's sight has begun to deteriorate. Those photos have thus been seized upon as memories that endured - and endure, now they've been preserved on celluloid. No mistaking the fact Jiro, who trained as a landscape architect, had an eye: you take away as much from an overview of hazy late-afternoon light falling on the Schönbrunn gardens (it could be a publicity still from the set of Last Year at Marienbad); from a textured close-up of the cracked marble adorning a bench in Barcelona; from the shot of a Moroccan walkway that could be a di Chirico etching. It makes for a slowburn watch, assiduously accumulating the 1,001 snapshots that help to make up a life; Koretzky's own imagery, meanwhile, makes its own case, both for the beauty of the countryside her father settled in, and that of her restless, thoughtful, poignantly solitary subject, at once alone on the road while at one with the landscape, wherever he roamed. As Jiro set out on his travels, I wondered whether the film had it within itself to make the giant leap from the personal to the universal. By the time the credits rolled, I was quietly moved.

Around the World When You Were My Age is now streaming via MUBI UK.

Less than fantastic beasts: "Only the Animals"

The writer-director team of Gilles Marchand and Dominik Moll found themselves in arthouse vogue at the start of the century after signing off on two very knowing, playful, ultra-cineliterate thrillers: 2000's Hitchcockian Harry, He's Here to Help and 2005's Buñuelian Lemming, in which Charlotte Gainsbourg's life fell apart after the titular creature lodged in the U-bend of her sink. The pair's latest collaboration, Only the Animals, operates in a less obviously larky mode, although this adaptation of a Colin Niel novel isn't without its quirks and unexpected, sometimes questionable turns in the road. The first of these comes early. The film opens on the sight of a young Ivorian (Guy Roger "Bibisse" N'Drin) cycling through the parched streets of downtown Abidjan with a baby goat slung around his neck, before almost immediately relocating to a mountainous berg in the Massif Central, home to a woman caught between a rock and a hard place. This is Alice (Laure Calamy), and we join her as she leaves her distant farmer husband Michel (Denis Ménochet) to his cattle and heads off to see Joseph (Damien Bonnard), the grunting, generally uncommunicative neighbour she's been having it away with. Nobody's talking much, which is a problem for the local gendarme when he shows up investigating the disappearance of a well-to-do woman - and we know she has to be more than a plot point, because the photos the police issue are of Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, grande dame of European cinema. If there is a mid-20th century auteurist influence to be discerned amid what follows, it'd be the Kurosawa of Rashomon: Moll chops freely between each of his main players, their movements throwing up previously hidden secrets and connections like spindrift.

It's not new, but this narrative intricacy is intriguing up to a point. Over two hours, this story encompasses not just all of the above, but a clingy waitress (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) with ties to most of the main characters, and we eventually discover what part that goat-scarf has to play in proceedings, beyond establishing a thematic link between humans and wild beasts. What Marchand and Moll have jettisoned on the long climb up this mountain, however, is that ludic humour which elevated their breakthrough films. Without it, Only the Animals begins to resemble any other post-Iñárritu exercise in mirthless mosaic-making; it assumes the air of a charity shop worker setting about a jigsaw not for pleasure, but to ensure all the pieces are present and correct. More damagingly, any elements that might have been savoured as absurd - the dream Joseph has about his late mother, a conveniently placed sinkhole, a fatal case of mistaken identity - instead start to seem ever so slightly silly. The more those pieces slot into place, the more Only the Animals comes to feel a bit suspect: it's one of those thrillers that depends on its characters acting dumber than the livestock - a faint metropolitan sneer is evident in its depiction of a rural community of rubes, weirdos and hicks - and despite diligent location shooting, the African strand plays like a residual airport-novel trope, designed to prey upon the fears of stupid white folk. Hard not to conclude that the structural filigree has been applied to mask the fact these creatives couldn't get the dramatic basics to play - or that they knew they would only play with a degree of viewer prejudice. There's a lot of globetrotting content available this week, as distributors propose their own ways of easing us all out of lockdown; Moll's film, regrettably, arrives as the least persuasive by some distance.

Only the Animals will be available to stream via Curzon from tomorrow.

Wednesday 27 May 2020

Rivers wild: "Krabi, 2562"

This week, in lieu of any other travel plans you may have had, the movies take us around the world. First stop: the Thai coastal retreat of Krabi - not so far from Koh Lanta, if you know this particular tourist trail - for a hybrid film that requires a modicum of puzzling out. In Krabi, 2562, the artist and filmmaker Ben Rivers (A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness) teams up with emergent local helmer Anocha Suwichakornpong (By the Time It Gets Dark) to give us a film where location is narrative, or an itinerary becomes the narrative. The trick to watching it, I think, is to leave your baggage of expectation back at the hotel and simply ride along with the questing figures who recur before the camera; as they come across and learn about new things, so too shall we. The film scatters breadcrumbs of self-reflexive fiction, introducing us to a location scout (Siraphun Wattanajinda), being accompanied around town by a fresh-faced guide (Primrin Puarat), and an actor (Arak Amornsupasiri) who absconds from a beachside ad shoot - overseen by Fire Will Come director and frequent Rivers collaborator Oliver Laxe - only to find himself confronted by Cro-Magnon Man (Nuttawat Attasawat). Yet these are interspersed with moments of non-fiction, gathered on the fly: interviews with the locals, and a startling opening sequence in which schoolchildren assemble in a playground to pledge allegiance to King and country. "We prostrate our hearts and minds to the ruler whose merits are boundless": good luck getting British schoolkids to chant comparable sentiments upon the planned return to educational normalcy next week.

As it is, this isn't just an arresting but a very sound starting point, as the point the sequence has to make - about the ways docility and servility can be inculcated into a population - is school-bell clear. Rivers continues to compile experimenta of the most accessible and engaging kind: Krabi, as with most of this filmmaker's work, is governed less by lofty theoretical notions than physical, boots-on-the-ground practice, by a way of approaching the world. (They're too outward-bound to be confined to gallery spaces.) With Suwichakornpong as his own guide, he here succeeds in reframing a place that would have served as a glitzy globetrotter's Instagram stories (or the Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle The Beach, namechecked in passing) so that it doesn't just yield a succession of pretty pictures, so that it and its people can finally occupy centre stage. That radical reordering entails the generation of a mystery that isn't so far from the one going on in the New York apartment of Michael Snow's landmark experimental work Wavelength, in that it hinges on an absence, what's not seen or shown. Having set this up, and having set the viewer to wondering, Krabi is then free to follow its own idiosyncratic path through this much-trampled landscape.

What Rivers has done is to take those ideas about representation - and what the camera rules in and out - cooked up in Professor Snow's lab-apartment, stuffed them in a backpack alongside a map, sun cream and several cans of energy drink, and taken them out into the world. Few working filmmakers are as genuinely caught up with the idea of looking, with seeing what the movie mainstream has neither the time nor patience to see: it's as apparent from one searching pan around the inside of a cave, registering its textures, flora, sounds and heat, as it is from a brief insert of fibres being studied under a forensics team's microscope. (In both cases, you sense Rivers staking out his own territory, on the border where art meets science.) Obviously, the process requires an engaged viewer to sift through the evidence Rivers and Suwichakornpong bring back and set before us: you'll need a mind that actively questions where the scout disappears to, what the cave dwellers represent, and indeed what the number in the title refers to, rather than getting progressively huffier about the lack of firm conclusions being reached. Even watched with my deerstalker on, the new film couldn't quite match the overwhelming sensory experience A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness provided - perhaps I'm just missing the big screen, and the immersive sound systems that come with it - but you do emerge from Krabi, 2562 feeling as if you've been somewhere, and been exercised while you were there. Anyone in the market for a package holiday with supplementary murder-mystery: your flight is now boarding.

Krabi, 2562 will be available to stream via MUBI UK from Friday.

Saturday 23 May 2020

On demand: "Gook"

Worry not: the writer-director-star of Gook, Justin Chon, is Korean, and so that derogatory title can be understood as a very 21st century reclamation, or as redirected provocation. (If you're unaware of the term, bully for you: you'll find an English dictionary definition amid the opening credits, and a more precise Korean etymology in the course of the movie.) In every other respect, Chon's film arrives as something of a throwback. It takes place over one day in late April 1992, on the eve and edge of the L.A. riots, and it's been shot in that chalky monochrome associated with the make-and-mend indies of the period (think Clerks or Go Fish). It actually connects to that particular wave of filmmaking through its framing and content, drawn as it is to the everyday lives of marginalised characters - in this case, Korean-American brothers Eli (Chon) and Daniel (David So), attempting to maintain the upkeep on a ladies' shoe store in the middle of an urban nowhere, broadly oblivious to the fact the whole neighbourhood is about to go up in flames. What we're here to witness, then, is the lighting of a touchpaper: if Chon turns to Kevin Smith for a look, he looks to Spike Lee - and that previous indie touchstone Do the Right Thing - for his narrative heat.

Things here are fairly stormy from the off. Those titles have barely rolled before Eli is beaten up by a Latino gang, and while the store provides an intersectional second home for a young black girl, Kamilla (Simone Baker), Daniel starts a brouhaha at the counter when offhandedly referring to a group of African-American shoppers as "you people". The title will reappear, spraypainted on Eli's car - and this time it isn't being reclaimed. Chon's editorial line is that the racial melting pot positioned close to the heart of the American dream is a lovely idea in theory, but often combustible in practice. Gook opens with shots of an as yet unidentified property ablaze, another early sign of trouble, and goes on to suggest there exists almost as much enmity within the races as there is between them. There's a long-running rivalry - far from friendly - between the siblings and local convenience-store owner Mr. Kim (Sang Chon, the director's father, and a real-life shoe store owner), and there's even something simmering between Eli and Daniel themselves: the former responsible for keeping receipts, the latter chiefly here to hit on customers. (It's Daniel who prompts some formation dancing to Hall and Oates' "Maneater", an unlikely cue for a movie set in 1992, albeit one that may help Caucasian viewers feel more comfortable.)

The film's strength lies in how it strikes a balance between these two divergent personalities. In an early scene, we see Eli and Kamilla on the store's roof, stressing over the plumes of smoke going up like distress signals in other parts of the city, but Chon's keener to emphasise how life, business and casual racism carried on as usual for many Angelenos that day: the first half is mostly Daniel-like hanging out and getting a feel for this place, one workaday detail - Eli sending Kamilla out to get change for the register from Mr. Kim - sparking a flashback to my own days behind the counter. It feels a touch piecemeal, like one of those actors' passion projects stitched together here and there using whatever cheques came in from the day job (Chon was a Twilight teen); as such, it never quite gathers the incendiary momentum of its Lee's film (which was backed by Universal, lest we forget). Yet it's been attentively cast, styled and costumed, which helps to smooth over some of its rougher edges. There was no Korean-American equivalent in 1992 - which is why one might call Gook overdue: it's chronicling an aspect of American life the movies were blind to at the time - but Chon's co-stars absolutely look as though they could have stepped out of a Boyz N The Hood or American Me. One wrinkle is that the film's current UK streaming platform Amazon Prime provides no subtitle option, which shortsells a couple of longish conversations in Korean. What's quietly impressive is how much Gook communicates all the same about the cost - psychological and economic - of being on the fringes. You thought Dante and Randal were having a bad day? No, my friend: this is a bad day.

Gook is now streaming via Amazon Prime.

Friday 22 May 2020

For what it's worth...

My top ten streaming picks (for the week beginning May 22, 2020):

1 (new) The County (12A) **** (Curzon)
2. The Atom: A Love Affair (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
3. Ema (15) **** (MUBI)
4. The Assistant (15) **** (Curzon, BFI)
5 (new) Around the World When You Were My Age (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)
6 (new) Take Me Somewhere Nice (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)
7. Heat and Dust (15) *** (Curzon)
8. The Orphanage (15) *** (MUBI)
9. Infinite Football (uncertificated) *** (Curzon)
10. The Whistlers (15) *** (Curzon)

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Bad Boys for Life (15) ***

2 (1) 1917 (15) ***
3 (2) Onward (U) ***
4 (new) Little Women (U) ****
5 (4) Jojo Rabbit (12) **
6 (3Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (12)
7 (6) Frozen II (U) **
8 (new) Bombshell (15) **
9 (7) Jumanji: The Next Level (12)
10 (8) The Gentlemen (18) **


My top five: 
1. Little Women

2. And Then We Danced
3. Bad Boys for Life
4. Fire Will Come
5. Vivarium

Top five films on terrestrial television:
1. Citizen Kane [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 3pm)
2. The Magnificent Ambersons (Tuesday, BBC2, 3.05pm)
3. Great Expectations (Sunday, BBC2, 10.35am)
4. Jurassic Park (Sunday, ITV, 5.45pm)
5. The Addams Family (Saturday, five, 1.50pm)

Thursday 21 May 2020

On TV: "Carefree"

1938's Carefree is the one where Fred and Ginger waltz into psychoanalysis, and come away with something like modernity. Fred is the debonair shrink with a questionable approach to his female patients ("what she needs is a good spanking"); Ginger the (engaged) socialite who enters his consciousness as one such patient, and is soon revealed to be beyond conventional treatment norms. What gets them off the couch is a mix of pleasure and country-club leisure that almost certainly played as aspirational to audiences coming out of the Depression: the pair's courtship takes in skeet shooting, bike rides in the countryside, a wonderful quickstep through a fancy restaurant, and Fred working a series of sweet golf drives into a tap routine. (Now that's what I call swing time.) It's hardly surprising that the first Irving Berlin number the stars share ("Color Blind") unfolds in a dream Ginger has after conking out, and director Mark Sandrich gives it a slow-motion sweep you can bet enraptured any onlooking Surrealists - doubly so, if you factor in the dream was induced by a large helping of lobster mayonnaise. (They'd be beside themselves at the later scene in which Fred analyses himself in a mirror.) As light as its title suggests - as light as a dream, as light as air - but that lightness remains a tonic, and it benefits narratively from making the unpredictable Ginger the focus of attention and study, rather than the constant Fred. There's an extent to which the film anticipates those neurotic women's pictures of the immediate post-War period (The Snake Pit, Spellbound), films in which the female lead was a problem that needed puzzling out. Nothing that can't be solved by dancing, naturally - one guarantee of a good night's sleep - but only after Rogers gets a terrific non-musical setpiece, embarking on a destructive rampage through town, smashing windows and leering at taxi drivers in a sweater bearing a heart besieged by arrows that really deserves to have become a cinematic fetish item.

Carefree screens on BBC2 at 3.05pm tomorrow, and is streaming via the iPlayer.

On demand: "Wagon Master"

It's long been proposed that Westerns are really no more nor less than unusually exciting civics lessons - that, for all their cattle-roping and shootouts, they can't help but return, time and again, to the core theme of how communities are founded, policed, renewed. 1950's deceptively blithe, even jolly Wagon Master is one of a clutch of John Ford movies you could point to in order to clinch that case: here is a rolling illustration of society as a work in progress. Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. are the larky horse traders who accept an offer of fuller-time employment from cantankarous Mormon elder Ward Bond to accompany a wagon train carrying him and his congregation between states; characteristically, the pair make their decision to ride along on the basis of a song lyric. (Showcasing four such songs over the course of its 80 minutes, this is the closest Ford ever got to making a musical, as though RKO were keeping half an eye on developments over at rival studio MGM; I might say it's the film that renders the later Paint Your Wagon entirely superfluous, had I not a weird soft spot for the latter.) Throwing themselves open to the elements inevitably brings the party into conflict, notably with the notorious Clegg gang, riding roughshod over the same territory, who take up residence within the group as a parasite does within its host, the better to pass undetected by the law. Yet it also gives rise to more pleasurable and positive forms of cross-pollination: the boys will have their heads turned by Joanne Dru as the head dancer of a travelling "hoochy-coochy" troupe, and the Mormons' acceptance of the latter (more wives to take on, perhaps) finds Ford and regular screenwriter Frank Nugent acknowledging the ongoing co-existence, within the American landscape, of old-time religion and godless showbusiness.

That script is itself a deft mix of theory and practice. It yields a Western with a real sense of adventure, boosted by the hauling onto location of actual wagons and stunt riders let out on the longest reins then available. Even viewed in our turbocharged Fast & Furious era, the mounted pursuits convey an extraordinary speed, a feel for the ground being gained or given away, and the danger whenever one or other of the thundering wagons overturns is obvious; it's a miracle no humans or animals were badly hurt in the making of this motion picture. (Left behind is a faint track that leads the cinema somewhere not a million miles away from Mad Max: Fury Road, very much the 21st century Wagon Master.) Equally, though, it's a project informed by a canny studio craftsman's understanding of negotiation, those transactions and trade-offs required to get us where we're going. Anyone reaching to tar Ford's movies with the racist brush should take another look at the lovely, gently ironic interaction he stages between the boyish wagonmasters and the Navajo tribesmen who agree to let the party pass on the grounds the Mormons are lesser thieves than most white men. It's a scene that could only work like this with born supporting players in the lead roles - Johnson and Carey Jr. cede points and make nice, where a Duke Wayne would doubtless have found some way of asserting himself - and which recognises society needs its bridge-builders at least as much as it does its sharpshooters. It's also one of several points here where the optimism of the old West - that urge to strike out into the unknown, confident of success wherever you land - appears to mesh with the optimism of post-War America, that belief there was room and resources enough for everyone to find a place of their own, on which to start building a better world. Ford would go on to make darker, more complex films through this period, and be rightly acclaimed for them. There aren't many, however, that remain this reliably cheering.

Wagon Master is now streaming on the BBC iPlayer.

Wednesday 20 May 2020

Woman at war: "The County"

Grímur Hákonarson is the Icelandic writer-director whose Rams, that disarming tale of feuding fraternal sheep farmers, became an unexpected word-of-mouth hit at the UK box office back in 2016. His follow-up The County occupies markedly similar territory - if it hasn't been shot on the same stretch of farmland, it unfolds not too far from that frozen track - but adopts an altogether more shaded tone. From the struggles of his country's yeomen to survive, this filmmaker now fashions not another jolly, wild-and-woolly comedy, but something generically closer to Nordic noir - though even that label wouldn't quite be accurate in the end. For starters, though, it presents us with a bejumpered, redheaded heroine in Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir), a middle-aged dairy farmer who receives a dread midnight phone call to inform her that her truckdriver husband has perished in a road accident. What she doesn't know, but we do, is that the last trip hubby made before his rig leapt off the road and into the void was to the offices of the farmers' co-operative he'd intended to exit. Thereafter, we huddle up to watch Inga raising difficult questions - both about co-op practice and her husband's demise - via her Facebook page, waiting for secrets to be made public, the truth to out. Hákonarson has evidently retained some of Rams' heady regional quirk - it's as though someone had made their fraught dealings with John Lewis the basis of a Gordon Willis-hued mafia movie, or a range Western - but it's turned several degrees less comforting: a brief shot of a slurry pit into which a body could all too easily fall sends a chill down the spine that has nothing to do with the onscreen climate.

That shot serves as yet another indication of just what an assured and economical storyteller Hákonarson is, whatever genre he's working in. His latest clocks in at 92 minutes, and displays not much in the way of fuss or fat: we soon intuit he knows this land - its feeding rituals and power structures, how its residents come together for better and worse - and so he doesn't have to waste time with unnecessary exposition or scene-setting. He has the considerable advantage of a central performance that will likely get the viewer on side very quickly indeed. Egilsdóttir makes Inga a tenacious, practical woman - we first see her delivering a calf, apparently for real, amniotic sac fans - who's not sentimental or easily rattled. One of The County's bigger idiosyncrasies is that its heroine is forever on the offensive: she responds to a threat from one suit by shovelling manure over his Mercedes-Benz, and later stages a tremendous PR stunt involving a tanker full of milk outside the organisation's headquarters. Whatever they do to or with her livestock, here is a woman who simply will not be cowed, who insists on taking the fight to the opposition - one reason I suspect the film may well click with audiences as Rams did before it.

Rams, of course, had a familiar element of grumpy-old-man comedy to nudge it closer to the mainstream; about an hour into The County, I found myself pondering the small miracle that anybody had made a film quite this engrossing on a subject as apparently arcane as the finer points and politics of Icelandic dairy farming. One reason for that may be that it's not exclusively about Icelandic dairy farming - or, rather, that Hákonarson achieves the dramatist's holy grail of being both hyper-specific and yet somehow universal. The County meshes with all those recent news reports about fresh-faced, fresher-thinking women taking up positions in the Icelandic cabinet, yes, but it's also fascinated by something bigger still: the fraught processes by which societies of any kind reorder and reorganise themselves, and what happens when individuals resist the dominant faction and go looking for new models - so as not to finish up in the shit. Here is a story, in short, that could have been told just about anywhere in the Western world this century, with regional variations; it just so happens to have been told in this chilly neck of the woods, with considerable skill, by a filmmaker who really has come to feel like a blast of bracingly fresh Arctic air.

The County will be available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema from Friday.

Tuesday 19 May 2020

Pertinent vacation: "Take Me Somewhere Nice"

If ever a title spoke to our present moment. Take Me Somewhere Nice, the debut feature from writer-director Ena Sendijarević, could at a push be claimed as a summer holiday movie, in that it describes a marked change of scenery, following Dutch teen Alma (the baleful Sara Luna Zoric) as she flies to Bosnia to visit her ailing father. Yet Sendijarević never lets us lose sight of the fact this is an obligation visit and a humdrum getaway. For starters, the only person she still knows in Bosnia is a blokey cousin, Emir (Ernad Prnjavorac), who claims to be too busy to show a girl around town, leaving Alma stuck indoors and having to entertain himself. (The title isn't the only element that will strike chords in early 2020.) There's a fumbly, sort-of holiday romance with one of Emir's pals, local playa Denis (Lazar Dragojevic), but for a long time this threatens to go no further than a bunk-up in a lift; and even when Alma finally sets out from base to visit her pa, things hardly go to what could only loosely be described as a plan. Sendijarević compounds this sense of underopened horizons by shooting in a tight Academy ratio that serves to tamp down any extravagance while giving rise to the drollest of sight gags: a reverse that reveals the head of a cat sat on the belly of Alma's sunbathing mother, a portrait of a fridge containing a pyramid of water bottles topped by one solitary orange. (It's been stocked by Emir, of course.)

Taking a bow on MUBI's UK platform this week after winning a jury prize at last year's Rotterdam festival, the film is essentially anecdotal, but it's the work of a director using her camera in such a way as to wring the most from these anecdotes, and to ensure her heroine would have a story of some kind to tell upon returning home. Sendijarević knows it's all a matter of perspective, and how one looks at the world. Consider the set-up that finds Alma suffering a violent bout of travel sickness, oblivious to the sweeping mountain range she's been deposited in front of: it'd be a hell of a view, if it weren't for all the throwing up. Accept that we're not going anywhere unduly scenic - that we're just passing through, and not in any immediate hurry - and the second half yields a run of quietly amusing mishaps and wrong turns, notably when a girl who can't even keep hold of her suitcase takes unexpected delivery of a coffin. My suspicion is that Sendijarević spent a good deal of her formative years watching Jim Jarmusch - chiefly the early, funny ones: the Alma-Emir-Denis triangle is very Stranger Than Paradise - and the results form the image of a festival-nurtured debut: small and self-contained, setting a tone early on, and then clinging to it for ninety minutes. Still, it's promising enough: a calling card where the signature is at least semi-distinctive, and the corners have been precisely and appreciably clipped.

Take Me Somewhere Nice streams on MUBI UK from Thursday.

Monday 18 May 2020

Submission: "Cassandro the Exotico!"

By a happy coincidence, the first of this week's MUBI premieres Cassandro the Exotico! picks up where the TV we've been watching over the past few weeks has signed off (or logged out), with an introductory Skype conversation between the filmmaker Marie Losier and her subject. This is the well-kempt wrestler of the title, who looks as if Eddie Izzard had gone to Freddie Starr's hairdresser circa 1984 and bills himself, rather fabulously, as "the Liberace of lucha libre". It's an innately colourful world for any filmmaker to enter for any length of time - as Jared Hess's underseen comedy Nacho Libre knew - and doubly so when your fighter of choice is an openly gay Mexican who competes both solo and as part of a crossdressing tagteam. When Losier finally arrives in person at Cassandro's side, she finds him more than willing to put on a show, flexing in his shorts as a prelude to flaunting his war wounds, and entering gamely into staged dream sequences in which he stalks the streets of his hometown after dark in full ring regalia. The clips Losier provides of Cassandro's day job - replete with luchadors flinging themselves into the crowd and off lighting rigs - are tremendous, and further proof of the athleticism (and balls) such entertainments demand. Here, in short, is a man who was born to appear before a camera sooner or later. Is it a pity, then, that the camera that shows up in Cassandro's backyard is timid and oddly incurious, all too willing to take its subject at something like face value?

Losier gives the film an appealingly hazy, home-video look (rounded Kodachrome frames, washed-out textures that make footage shot in the mid-2010s look like offcuts from the opening credits of The Wonder Years) and from time to time she stumbles across an image that is both beautiful and bathetic. As we watch Cassandro pegging out the flowing cape and train he wears to enter the ring out to dry on a washing line, we start to get a feel for what this man brings to his arid and impoverished surrounds, the everyday heroism he's come to represent. Too often, however, we find Losier meekly following her subject into the world, falling in lockstep with the established cult of Cassandro. There's a weird moment during that Skype interview where the wrestler is clearly texting off-camera, the director's own questions requiring no more of him; and after the bombshell revelation that he was sexually abused as a child, you wait for a follow-up inquiry... but nope, nothing. It could be that Cassandro has shook this off as he has his other slights and injuries, but surely a man who's survived countless surgeries and been prepared to fling himself off a top rope night after night would be prepared to discuss this formative subject in a little more depth?

I wonder whether we're entering a dangerous period for the documentary form, in which subjects offhandedly lay claim to traumas filmmakers feel they can't broach or investigate, lest they come across as triggering, exploitative or in some other way insensitive. This is not the only recent non-fiction where personality has been allowed to trump journalism, where both filmmaker and viewer are supposed to feel grateful for the access - which is why Cassandro the Exotico! tails off so dramatically in its second half, even permitting the wrestler to stage his own funeral before the closing credits roll. As portraits go, it's one that's been heavily determined by its subject; he says time's up, and that's that. As he approaches his twilight years (and the spectre of one final leap into the unknown, so superbly chronicled by Darren Aronofsky and Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler), Cassandro is quite the personality, evidently a good deal of fun to be around, and it wouldn't surprise me if some still applauded Losier's approach, how it allows this old survivor to tell his own story, and accepts him for who he is. "I wish I could give you a kiss," the director sighs during a low spot in that Skype interview, in a flagrant breach of directorial objectivity. For better and worse, her film - less journalism than a form of devotional fan art - is that smacker.

Cassandro the Exotico! is now streaming via MUBI UK.

Saturday 16 May 2020

On demand: "Clash"

Here's something you really don't see all that often: a B-movie that never feels like one. For ninety-odd minutes, Clash corrals us inside a single setting (a police van parked up at the 2013 protests where representatives of Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood clashed with members of the public), a framing typically deployed by inventive young tyros to disguise certain budgetary restrictions. Yet the glimpses we get out of the van's grilled windows - revealing hundreds of extras charging hither and thither, massed ranks of police wielding batons and water cannons, sudden eruptions of chaos and violence - suggest there's a much bigger picture going on out there. Staying inside the van, then, represents a choice on co-writer/director Mohamed Diab's part: he's determined to stake out this revealing corner of a far more expensive and expansive undertaking. The immediate effect is to focus the viewer's gaze. Rather than splash Egypt's social and political woes across an IMAX-sized screen, Diab slides them under a microscope, the better to see what might be understood about an especially fractious period in his homeland's history. It's synecdochic filmmaking: a handful of increasingly crowded square feet come to stand for an entire disputed territory.

The people who come into view present almost as molecules: charged up and restless, they bounce around, sometimes off one another. (If the film is anything to go by, the police strategy at these protests wasn't the most considered, tossing Brotherhood and non-Brotherhood Muslims, members of the wider public, and card-carrying journalists into the same van. The volatile atmosphere on the streets is hardly neutralised by the transfer to a greatly more confined space.) The situation is serious - deadly serious, in certain places - but Diab finds moments of levity and absurdity amid the general back-and-forth. One firebrand member of the Muslim Brotherhood somewhat undermines the ferocity and severity of his political pointmaking by insisting on wearing an upturned colander as protective headgear. The debate is further inflamed, at one point, by an accusation of farting. And after a sniper attack, the officer in the driver's seat slumps over the handbrake, causing the van to edge slowly forward into the brouhaha, as good an image as any for a country going out of control.

You could see this done as a stageplay, but the material develops cinematically, with especially smart use of interior/exterior space. If ever the tensions within the van start to simmer down, Diab can have them react to some new kerfuffle unfolding outside. Understandably, you might find the sustained tension exhausting, as does one of the van's junior occupants, who logs onto iTunes and throws his hands over his ears in a bid to drown all the shouting out. I'm also not so sure that Diab quite nails the ending as he might: we're provided with an asterisk rather than a full stop, possibly reflective of ongoing political struggles. Yet scuffle by scuffle, well-observed anecdote by well-observed anecdote, Clash succeeds in building up a far more rounded picture of a protest and a people than you might have taken away from the closing moments of 2017's The Nile Hilton Incident, which exploited the first wave of Egyptian protests as a backdrop. It has been a lot calmer in this territory since the events depicted, as if these characters came to realise that, for better or worse, they were all in the same boat (or van); or perhaps any residual unrest has been drowned out by the noise the rest of the world has been making. Some bright spark might like to film a variant describing just what happened to the formerly United Kingdom in the wake of May 2016.

Clash is streaming on All4, and available to rent via the BFI and Amazon Prime.  

Friday 15 May 2020

For what it's worth...

My top ten streaming picks (for the week beginning May 15, 2020):

1 (new) The Atom: A Love Affair (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
2. Ema (15) **** (MUBI)
3. The Assistant (15) **** (Curzon, BFI)
4 (new) Take Me Somewhere Nice (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)
5 (new) Heat and Dust (15) [above] *** (Curzon)
6 (new) The Orphanage (15) *** (MUBI)
7. Infinite Football (uncertificated) *** (Curzon)
8. The Whistlers (15) *** (Curzon)
9. Romantic Comedy (15) *** (MUBI)
10. A Russian Youth (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) 1917 (15) ***

2 (new) Onward (U) ***
3 (1) Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (12)
4 (2) Jojo Rabbit (12) **
5 (3) Birds of Prey, or... (15)
6 (7) Frozen II (U) **
7 (5) Jumanji: The Next Level (12)
8 (4) The Gentlemen (18) **
9 (6) Spies in Disguise (PG)
10 (8Sonic the Hedgehog (PG)


My top five: 
1. And Then We Danced

2. Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché
3. A Paris Education
4. 1917
5. Talking About Trees

Top five films on terrestrial television:
1. The Addams Family (Saturday, five, 4.30pm)
2. Paint Your Wagon (Sunday, BBC2, 2.50pm)
3. Frankenweenie (Saturday, BBC2, 11.30am)
4. Carefree (Friday, BBC2, 3.05pm)
5. Tropic Thunder (Friday, BBC1, 11.15pm)