Friday 31 July 2020

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of July 24-26, 2020):

1 (1) Onward (U) ***
2 (3) Trolls World Tour (U)
3 (6) Dreambuilders (U) **
4 (5) Dirty Dancing (12) ***
5 (re) The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - Extended Edition (PG)
6 (2) Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (U) ****
7 (new) Stage Mother (15) **
8 (35) The Dark Knight Rises (12) ***
9 (14) The Invisible Man (15) ****
10 (4) Black Water: Abyss (15) **

(source: BFI)

My top five films currently on release:
1. Proxima
2. The Vigil
3. Echo
4. Make Up
5. The Fight

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Trolls World Tour (U)

2 (2) Frozen 2 (U) **
3 (3) Sonic the Hedgehog (PG)
4 (8) 1917 (15) ***
5 (7) Dolittle (PG)
6 (6) Joker (15) **
7 (16) Jumanji: The Next Level (PG)
8 (15) Knives Out (12) ***
9 (14) Bad Boys for Life (15) ***
10 (5) Birds of Prey, or... (15)


My top five: 
1. Parasite

2. The Assistant
3. True History of the Kelly Gang
4. Ema
5. The Invisible Man

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Apocalypse Now [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 9.30pm)
2. Filth (Friday, C4, 12midnight)
3. Raw (Sunday, C4, 12.45am)
4. Dangerous Liaisons (Sunday, BBC1, 10.30pm)
5. The Railway Children (Saturday, BBC2, 1.20pm)

Shivers: "The Vigil"

The new Blumhouse title The Vigil very nearly does for Orthodox Judaism what The Exorcist did for Christianity. Writer-director Keith Thomas has composed a taut nocturnal parable centred on the figure of the shomer, the watchman assigned to stand guard over the bodies of the deceased before burial and say the prayers required to keep evil spirits away. Here, the task falls to Yakov (Dave Davis), a depressive alcoholic emerging from a personal tragedy and the crisis of religious confidence it provoked: he steps into the low-lit front parlour of a recently departed Holocaust survivor for rent money, and gets in up to his neck. The question Thomas poses is whose demons are doing the circling. Though there's an exotic quality to the action, in that this is the first Blumhouse release to unfold chiefly in subtitled Yiddish, the movie otherwise adheres usefully to the tight framework of this shingle's better productions. It's one man being tormented on a single set (and kudos to production designer Liz Toonkel, bringing out the creepiness lurking in old people's chintz) over one long, dark night of the soul.

That makes The Vigil as beneficial a showcase for the previously unnoticed Davis as, say, 1408 was for John Cusack or Locke was for Tom Hardy. This set-up obliges Yakov to plumb the depths of his existential despair before summoning any remaining drops of strength and courage, reconnecting with his faith, and launching a rousing third-act comeback. The faintest glimmers of a very dry, recognisably Jewish humour become evident in the dark, as per Yakov's mid-film summary of events to the shrink he's kept on speed-dial (an unseen Fred Melamed): "It's a lot." Mostly, you're struck by the minor miracle of a popcorn horror movie that invokes the spectre of the Holocaust without straying into exploitation territory. A lot of the genre titles released in the lockdown period didn't lose anything for becoming streaming options, as they were always headed that way, but between DoP Zach Kuperstein's keen compositional sense and the carefully configured lighting, The Vigil was clearly intended to play to excitable Friday and Saturday night crowds on the big screen: its sound design (especially the cracking bones of the restless corpse) rattles round inside your head, and even Thomas's one conventional jumpscare is very skilfully set up.

The Vigil opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"Shakuntala Devi" (Guardian 30/07/20)

Shakuntala Devi ***
Dir: Anu Menon. With: Vidya Balan, Sanya Malhotra, Amit Sadh, Luca Calvani. 127 mins. No cert.

In recent years, the Hindi mainstream has become more proactive about telling the stories of notable women. This new streaming premiere follows on the heels of last October’s crowdpleasing Saand Ki Aankh, which centred on sharpshooting sisters-in-law, but it leans with far greater force into its subject’s idiosyncrasies. What results is a biopic with genuine character.

The feats described here are mental: the eponymous heroine (Vidya Balan) was a phenomenal, Guinness World Records-noted mathematician who performed for many decades last century under the stage name The Human Computer. Director Anu Menon approaches her, however, from the unusual angle of Devi’s daughter Anu (Sanya Malhotra), introduced marching into a London lawyers’ chambers in 2001 to initiate criminal proceedings against mum for failing to provide for her.

While that case is pending, the thoughtful script (by Menon, Nayanika Mahtani and Ishita Moitra) fills in the brainiac’s backstory. Born into poverty in Bangalore, she’s obliged to flee India after shooting a no-good suitor, eventually landing in post-War Britain, where a Spanish Henry Higgins (Luca Calvani) helps to polish her broken English.

Hot from streaming hit Four More Shots Please, Menon has immense fun with her period recreation, bouncing between hemispheres, timeframes and wardrobes while underlining a growing distance between mother and child, crystallised by a lyric in one of Sachin-Jigar’s fine songs (“You’re like a puzzle I’ve always tried to solve”). Maths is only one touchstone; another would be that run of women’s pictures from Mildred Pierce to Mommie Dearest.

Accordingly, the material yields an all-shotguns-blazing performance from Balan, one of the few Bollywood stars smart enough to memorise twelve-digit integers. Her Devi bends equations and men alike to her will, refusing to conform whether flaunting her Caesarean scar as a maternal badge of honour or – in a remarkably relaxed, enlightened sidebar – penning the 1977 tome The World of Homosexuals.

She casts a formidable shadow, but Malhotra emerges from it with credit, quietly affecting as a more conventional personality who found she could only rebel against such a trailblazing parent by pushing even further into domesticity. It finds funny ways of dramatising the process whereby one generation of women squares away its frustrations with another, but it adds up to spirited, intelligent, authentically feminist entertainment.

Shakuntala Devi is available to stream today via Amazon Prime.

By the sea: "Make Up"

Claire Oakley's feature debut Make Up falls into that emergent subgenre of littoral realism that has recently given us Bait and Two for Joy for the big screen, and Broadchurch and Don't Forget the Driver on TV. In each of these projects, the great British seaside has been reclaimed as something approaching the outer limits of the universe, as far as any of us is likely to get post-Brexit. (In time, a longer critical essay will appear linking these works to the effect coastal resorts such as those featured - reported first stop for migrants, last place to receive Government aid - had on the Brexit result. If the Leave vote was a cry for attention, as some analysts have mooted, its heartlands sure got it.) Ironically, Oakley's heroine is a young woman whose world is just about to open up. In the dead of night, Ruth (Molly Windsor) is dropped at a St. Ives caravan park so as to visit her boyfriend Tom (Joseph Quinn), a seasonal worker hereabouts. Barely has she installed herself in Tom's modest two-berth when she starts to notice something's awry. A lipstick kiss adorns Tom's mirror; strands of long red hair are entwined in his bedsheets. While her beau is away putting in a shift, Ruth begins her investigations, soon falling under the spell of the worldlier Jade (Stefanie Martini), the site's resident beautician, who introduces her beguiled acolyte to the adult joys of acrylic nails and alcoholic drinks. Jade also keeps a red wig on the shelves at the back of her chalet, and the first of the film's frissons comes when you realise Oakley has made an erotic thriller in the kind of place our parents dragged us to at 4.30 in the morning, where a couple of rounds of crazy golf was as exciting as it got.

What Oakley has realised, to her considerable credit, is that our dilapidated, under-maintained caravan parks - and, more specifically, our caravan parks in the off-season - are a location with uncommon cinematic potential: prefabricated ghost towns, abandoned to the elements under wide-open skies, which nurtures their own eccentric, vaguely insular life. For some while here, there's a deliberate ambiguity about the direction events are heading in; having positioned herself squarely at the cliff's edge, we wonder which way Oakley is intending to jump. There are funny scenes with the site's batty owner (Lisa Palfrey), who bears all the signs of having been isolated out this way too long ("the sea is a great healer... After I learnt to swim, I was no longer afraid of dogs"). Oakley adds a dash of horror to the mix via a spooky old dear who appears at the window of the caravan across the way, and there's an ongoing tension among the park's young staff, keenest felt between Tom and resident, dog-wielding alpha Kai (Theo Barklem-Biggs). Ruth presents as an innocent who's been dropped in the middle of a situation she doesn't fully understand - which is itself understandable, as we don't fully grasp what's going on for much of Make Up's running time.

Its success is going to depend on how satisfied you are by the ratio of suggestion to revelation Oakley arrives at. Given everything that seems to swirl around this location, there may be those, like this viewer, who will be ever so slightly disappointed to discover, come the end credits, that what they've been watching is but an unusually elevated coming-of-age tale. In retrospect, Oakley seems to spend two-thirds of her running time scattering red herrings (hair-ings, maybe), locally sourced and artfully applied though they are. What makes Make Up an intriguing debut nevertheless is that she keeps alighting upon elements that pique the eye; our curiosity matches the heroine's curiosity, and so we find ourselves drawn deeper in. It's not enough that Oakley arrives at a great horror image - a caravan apparently sealed for fumigation, yet lit from within - she follows it by finding an unnerving horror image within that: a child's teddy bear, sealed to a bed. Encoded within these frames and images is an understanding that Oakley could go any which way, that there might already be the outlines of three or four further projects in the trails she leaves behind in these sand dunes. (Hence the industry excitement about her: she's got legs.) Plenty of promise visible, then, not least in its fierce focal point Windsor, so compelling in Samantha Morton's directorial debut The Unloved and on TV's Three Girls. We could follow her to the ends of the earth, which is just about where Oakley's camera finds her.

Make Up opens from today in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema.

Thursday 30 July 2020

40 going on 14: "Again Once Again"

This risks sounding like a double-edged compliment, but it's not meant as such: Again Once Again is what a Lena Dunham film might play like with another decade of life experience behind it. The Argentinian author and actress Romina Paula writes, directs and plays a version of herself as a fortysomething who's relocated with her young son to her German mother's place in Buenos Aires after encountering problems with her long-term partner. Whether this represents a formal separation or just an extended vacation is one of the things she's here to work out, initiating a series of gently naturalistic interactions with the people in her life. To some degree, she's reinventing herself - we watch as she takes German lessons with a potential suitor, trying to reconnect with her roots; she hits the town again, sharing a lingering kiss with a drunken girlfriend - although the circularity inscribed in the title is the first hint Romina is revisiting her adolescence, a regression underlined by a shot framing her and pals against a playground jungle gym. Should we survive the coming years, future film historians are going to marvel at how rapidly this field of cinematic study expanded. No longer is it just manchildren in their thirties failing to stand on their own two feet, here come the women in their forties to share a joint with them. Why, it's almost as if society had a system in place that instilled a deep-seated insecurity in its citizens, that prioritised economic development over personal fulfilment.

I liked Girls about as much as the next TV critic, but there was an element of pose-throwing about it - a calculated lunge for the zeitgeist, or at the very least a spread in the Sunday culture sections - which was bound to aggravate as many viewers as it enthralled. (I mean, it aggravated me in places; that was the show it was.) Paula doesn't possess Dunham's comic chops, but what she does have is a whole lot of love to give - that sincere, unguarded affection that proves easier to access with age, when you realise how you've got where you are, and how crucial those around you were to you getting there. What shines through the film's domestic scenes, all but documentary, is a mother's love for her own son (an adorably inquisitive moppet, granted) and for her own mother, honourably stepping up to provide ad hoc childcare while Romina is off partying; these scenes are sporadically interrupted by a running slideshow, filling us in first on how a German family ventured this far west, then clearing some space so the supporting characters can present their own credentials to the camera. Dunham would likely have made an excruciatingly naff setpiece out of the oldtimers' house party Romina shows up at, whereas Paula herself allows us to register its naffer elements before staying with it long enough for us to spot individuals cutting loose from responsibility in a way they haven't been able to for a while. If there's any obvious crossover between heroine and filmmaker, it's that they're often thoughtful, sometimes prone to overthinking: I wasn't entirely sold on those inserts, which stop an already shuffling film dead and might have been better integrated into the characterisation proper. On the whole, though, this is a likable, heartfelt act of cinematic scrapbooking: we'll look back on it with the same fondness as its maker clearly does this period.

Again Once Again is now streaming via MUBI UK.

Wednesday 29 July 2020

Tat for tots: "The Fairy Princess and the Unicorn"

Should you ever need a masterclass in how not to open a kids' movie, look no further than the German-Luxembourgian co-production The Fairy Princess and the Unicorn, another of the lightweight European digimations being airdropped into ailing multiplexes in a bid to get our children eating popcorn again. Those youngsters will barely have taken their seats before being confronted with an exasperatingly gabby tell-don't-show prologue outlining the state of play in a magical kingdom where fairies co-existed with dragons until a wicked witch stole off with the dragons' eggs, leading to a widespread drought referred to as The Wilt. "And The Wilt happened?," asks our onscreen proxy. "Yes, The Wilt happened," confirms the narrator. At which point, dear reader, I looked deep into my soul, and I can but add this: never has The Wilt happened so quickly. Of the three imports being offered up for second-wave matinee duty - following Denmark's Dreambuilders and ahead of Russia's upcoming The Snow Queen: Mirror Lands - this is the most conspicuously bargain-binny, the result of a production that spent many more hours generating fantastical landscapes than it did on its waxen-looking characters or the wholly twee fairy princess songs. Unexpectedly, it's also the only one to offer up anything resembling subtext, setting its tiny wee heroine to try and make a difference in a divided land that's been doing wrong by its immediate environment. (There may also be something implicit in its community of fairies with rainbow-coloured wings, but perhaps this was just my mind getting increasingly desperate for anything to cling to when faced with a tsunami of mindless mush.) Whatever: anything agreeably progressive is soon swamped by further gushes of exposition and spectacularly unfunny comic bits rendered all the more unbearable by one-size-fits-all valley-girl redubbing. Again: I get why you might long to round up your brood and take the risk of corralling them into an enclosed public space that yielded such happy and fun times in days of yore. What I don't get is why anyone would take that risk for something so utterly undistinguished. Set against this bland and artless screenfiller, Disney's recent Tinkerbell spin-offs look like Guernica.

The Fairy Princess and the Unicorn opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

What we do in the shadows: "Once There Was Brasilia"

MUBI's Brazilian summer season has laid out a variety of different approaches to the issue of a democracy in crisis, the sunkissed escapism of the short film Breakwater (on the importance of getting away from the quagmire for a while, and forming your own protective circle of friends) standing in marked contrast to the business of last week's activism doc Landless (which advised us to assemble in numbers and dig ever more forcefully in). The line writer-director Adirley Queirós takes in his Once There Was Brasilia is to treat the country's recent turmoil as science fiction, a dystopia in the present tense, and see what that leaves anybody with. After scratching my head and drumming my fingers for much of the film's 100 minutes, the closest I could provide to a poster quote would be "a very odd bric-a-brac of tropes and poses". Queirós has taken what sound like authentic radio broadcasts describing the downfall of President Rousseff and plugged them into a live-action fantasy/nightmare, apparently shot on the smallest imaginable budget and under the cover of night, about a hotchpotch group of survivors navigating the fallout from this democratic apocalypse, and a space traveller (Wellington Abreu), sent to Earth on a mission to assassinate the incoming President. That President has been given an unfamiliar name - probably a wise move, for legal reasons - but the film intends to put on screen some of the instincts liberal-left viewers may have had in countries being preyed upon by right-wing populists. Hold out for a hero; take extreme forms of action; throw up your hands in despair.

Important to note at this juncture that anyone anticipating high-octane thrills-and-spills along the lines of The Terminator, Mad Max or any other plucky shoestring-dystopia should look elsewhere. Queirós's film opens with a hushed conversation on a railway footbridge; its pacing is curiously counterintuitive. We spend an inordinately long while on the intergalactic assassin's spacecraft - long enough, for one thing, to spot that it's a hollowed-out transit van being rocked side-to-side by burly offscreen runners. I wasn't quite sure why it was important for us to know the character was a diabetic, nor that we needed to see him injecting himself with insulin for a full two-and-a-half minutes, but then Queirós seems unusually keen to dwell on what passes before his camera. When someone finally torches a car around the hour mark, we have to sit and watch it burn for a further five minutes, presumably as it represents the last of the budget going up in smoke. If this director has been taking notes from any North American filmmaker, it would have to be Jim Jarmusch: he's not terribly fussed about genre per se, and faced with the possible end of the world, thinks nothing of beginning to drag his feet a bit. If that makes Once There Was Brasilia a busted flush as an evening's entertainment, it nevertheless proves one of those peculiar misfires that does capture something, even if only in passing, by accident; what it captures is a very familiar ominous mood. (Is this uncertainty as bad as it gets, or are we doomed to more?) Chalk that down to the film's surreptitiousness: this was clearly a project conceived and carried out in lock-up garages, sideroads and sheltered spaces where there would be no-one around to nab you for shooting without a permit. The lack of onscreen urgency seems doubly perplexing in this context; if the movie weren't so lackadaisical, we might have been made privy to the authentic panic in the streets.

Once There Was Brasilia is now streaming via MUBI UK.

Tuesday 28 July 2020

Monochrome set: "Parasite: Black & White Edition"

Common cinephile consensus insists that the Oscars mini-sweep enjoyed by Bong Joon Ho's Parasite back in early February was the last good thing to happen in 2020. Now the film has been reissued as Parasite: Black & White Edition with an eye to tempting nervy culture-vultures back into upmarket artiplexes. The pitch is clear: a film you know and love, presented in a form that's unfamiliar. (There have been precedents: a monochrome print became a selling point when offered on the DVD of Frank Darabont's commercial flop The Mist back in 2008, while George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road expanded its reach via the 2017 release of the so-called Black & Chrome Edition.) The big question, as ever, is a simple one: what difference does it make? This always was a film of dramatic contrasts (rich/poor, big house/little house, upstairs/downstairs), and it's arguable that the blacks make the darkness of poverty darker, while the whites make the lightness of privilege all the lighter. But that's a subtle, incremental change, in a film that wasn't lacking for those, either.

Granted, the monochrome brings out the full, horrific potency of one image: the whites of the eyes seen in the dark by the Park boy at the top of the pantry steps. (This version makes a slightly stronger case for the idea the kid might have legitimate trauma from growing up in such a controlled, contested space.) Otherwise, there's not a scene that plays differently, or which is revealed in a completely different light. Which is surely what we want, given that Parasite was pretty perfectly calibrated in its original form, the closest any of us had seen for some while to a ready-made modern classic. The experience of the Black & White Edition, then, is less one of reassessing Parasite than revisiting it: spotting how those story elements fall into place just so, observing the extraordinarily high level Bong's actors were working at - one element that went overlooked in awards season. It's just possible that Bong signed off on this print as a means of dialling down his own virtuosity - the greens so prominent in the poster art, for one - to better allow his conspirators in this fiendish plot to shine. Its release allows us to better notice how this is one of only a very small number of contemporary releases that has virtuosity to dial down: it's a great movie, however you colour it, and one of the few blessings we'll have to count from the past twelve months.

Parasite: Black & White Edition is now playing at London's Curzon Mayfair, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema; it expands into selected cinemas this Friday.

Let them all talk: "The Traitor"

COVID-19 hasn't been good for much all told, but it has got Marco Bellocchio, one of the last Sixties auteurs standing, into multiplexes that have been starved for new releases. The unexpected prominence being afforded to The Traitor might be considered reflective of a shift in this director's filmmaking that has allowed him to survive for the best part of six decades. Having initially positioned himself as a provocateur in the Godard or Pasolini mode with his 1965 breakthrough Fists in the Pocket, Bellocchio has pivoted in recent times to reckon with Italian popular history, detailing the charge of the Red Brigade in 2003's Good Morning, Night and then going further back in time to suggest what it was to be Mussolini's girl in 2009's Vincere. It may be impossible to be a socially aware Italian cineaste and not sign off on a Mob movie at some point. Bellocchio's new film, a sturdy, muscular entry in the subgenre, revisits the Maxi trial of 1986, for which Tommaso Buscetta (played here by Pierfrancesco Favino), a lowly footsoldier with the Corleone clan, was recalled from self-imposed exile in Rio to testify against his former employers, in so doing becoming the worst of all things to a Mafioso: a snitch. Over the film's two-and-a-half hours, Bellocchio sets himself the task of getting us to think - and getting a local audience to rethink - about the extent to which Buscetta could be faulted for his actions.

If The Traitor deviates notably from what's come before, it lies in its steadfast refusal of any romanticism in its description of the Mob life. Though the film opens with a swirling social function, it's not a Coppola-esque show of respectability, rather a sitdown called to divide up Palermo's heroin supply; in the course of the evening, Tommaso finds his own son, Benedetto (Gabriele Cicirello), shooting up on an adjacent beach. Here's a wedding of cause and effect, a demonstration of how closely this activity hits to home. Death itself follows hard on its heels, witnessed by a relentless bodycount ticker, an acceleration of those captions Scorsese sporadically flashed up on screen during The Irishman. Bellocchio enters this field under no illusion as to the ways power is maintained and consolidated in Southern Italy; within minutes, we are reminded that the profession of gangster is not one that offers secure prospects, easy exits or a comprehensive retirement plan. Buscetta spends the first hour of the film on the run, glancing nervily behind him as he flees: in a nicely satirical touch that chimes with the title, Bellocchio shows him hiding among a crowd in a bar cheering on Brazil against Italy in the 1982 World Cup. Yet when his door is finally kicked down in the early hours of the morning, it's not by assassins but cops executing a drug warrant, leading to his extradition and an especially fraught, public homecoming. Just when he thought he was out, the authorities pulled him back in.

This isn't the only place where you sense Bellocchio attempting a light form of mob-movie subversion. It's not that the threat to Buscetta's life recedes exactly, more that the film enters a more leisurely mode with the introduction of the mobster's interrogator-confessor Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), a judge who recognises his prisoner's worth and accordingly handles him with care, passing him cigarettes along with a bicycle to ride around the corridors of his holding facility, and dye for his greying sideburns. Bellocchio is interested in the role and psychology of the informant in a way the Scorsese of GoodFellas, freezeframing on Henry Hill to spare him from having to break his vow of silence, wasn't really. Favino - a familiar screen face, made more Clarkson-ish yet via retro styling - plays Buscetta as a man using his time in custodial limbo to take stock, and arriving at the conclusion that he took his oath to a very different Cosa Nostra, one that wasn't so ruthless as to profit from the sale of opiates to kids. (This Mob aren't gravely different from all those other cigar-puffing, besuited capitalists making a killing in the 1980s.) Whether or not you buy this idea of Buscetta as a man of too much honour, it pushes The Traitor into interesting new territory: here's a film that views the Mafia not as some monolithic structure, but as an organisation that changes according to the personalities and outlook of the men at the top. Buscetta, a self-confessed ladies' man, is on his third wife, as the film joins him; one reason he admits he wants out is a fundamental difference of opinion with the boss who insists it's "better to be in command than to fuck".

His mistake - what makes him such a compelling anti-hero - was to assume that he could bring the whole house of cards down singlehandedly, when at best his testimony was just a way in. Along with honour and bravery, Bellocchio's camera sees in Buscetta deposits of arrogance (he boasts of fathering eight children), vanity (dark glasses, dyed hair), along with the complacency that must follow from having some small part of the world at your feet for so long. Trace elements of all of the above are visible throughout Favino's rocksolid performance, one reason The Traitor never has to labour to make its points or highlight this story's ironies and ambiguities. Instead, Bellocchio shifts with skill and fluency through the tale's various phases: the quasi-parodic business in Palermo, subtler interactions with the Judge, and the grand opera of the trial itself, with its cacophony of competing voices and horrific, farcical twists and turns. (If we feel sorry for anyone, it may be for the judges handed the thankless task of presiding over a media circus, with made men hollering from the cells at the back of the room, and a star witness upfront throwing out pocketfuls of dirty laundry.) It's big-picture cinema, but also great theatre, and the highpoint of The Traitor's efforts to return recent history to full life. But it's not the end, as Buscetta miscalculated it would be. In the second half, all bets are off again: this little man intersects not once but twice with no less a figure than Giulio Andreotti - undergoing his own downfall - and we come to fear any time any character gets behind the wheel of a car. It's long and busy - not unlike a miniseries condensed into a single sit - but also a Mob movie that keeps its audience on edge to the very end, in sympathy with its anxious central figure. If that agitation earns Bellocchio a late-career hit, it'll be well deserved indeed.

The Traitor is now playing in cinemas nationwide, and streaming via Curzon and the BFI.

Sunday 26 July 2020

Terra em transe: "Landless"

MUBI UK's Brazilian summer - launched earlier this month with the streaming premieres of Breakwater and Good Manners - continues with Camila Freitas's Landless, the kind of documentary that might have sold out any filmmakers' co-operative screening back in the 1980s. Its subject is grassroots political activism; the twist is that the grass is entirely literal. In 2018, shortly after the election of President Bolsonaro, Freitas entered the camp of one regional branch of the Landless Workers Movement, an organisation that gathers up displaced farmers and farm workers to petition for the return of land that has been turned over to agribusiness for use in growing genetically modified crops. What the film harvests there, and brings back to us, is an account of one specific campaign. Freitas begins with the recruitment evenings, at which organisers hear out the farmers' stories; she then follows the collective out into the field(s), watching as they compile a list of demands, put those demands to local landowners, and then dig in waiting for a response, whether in person or through the courts. MUBI may have lined these films up one after another - they follow the platform's early summer release Bacurau - because there's something instructive about this cinéma du Bolsonaro: it suggests what it may still be possible to achieve in the face of a populist government with an apparently impassable majority, what to do when you've had the ground removed from under your feet.

What, then, can the British Left learn from Freitas's film? Firstly, the importance of a unified front, a common cause: having something bigger and more pressing to fight about than whether Jeremy Corbyn was the second coming of Christ or J.K. Rowling is Satan incarnate would be a start. (These side-squabbles are those of concerned citizens who've had the luxury of never having to squabble for land - perhaps as the land was never theirs in the first place.) Second, the need for direct action, even civil disobedience: Freitas shows us the farmers knocking down fences to make their point, occupying fields, blocking roads. When you're up against the proponents of free trade, Landless shows us, it can be an effective form of resistance simply to get in the way, to make a nuisance of yourself. The farmers aren't zealots. The suggestion they should spook the landowners' cattle and torch their crops is met with a genial laughter, some recognition that it's an easy, tempting response, but extreme and unproductive in the long run. Once installed in the fields, some old farming instinct - doubtless passed down from one generation to the next - kicks in. Freitas's subjects would rather cultivate than destroy; they're here to grow, not to slash and burn. (You and I, meanwhile, are reminded of those images of what Bolsonaro licensed big business to do to the Amazon in the months before the Coronavirus took hold.)

For all that growth, Landless remains quite a dry, austere viewing experience. (In this respect, it's not unlike those political documentaries of the Eighties.) Freitas adopts an exclusively observational tack, setting up shop alongside/in solidarity with her subjects, and what she observes is pretty stark and spare: people who don't have very much holding out in faint hope of receiving a little more. There's a long courtroom sequence where the absence of any guiding narration is badly felt (as the farmers themselves confess in a post-hearing confab, no-one can understand what's been ruled); in its midsection, Landless gets bogged down in the fields, waiting for some kind of resolution. Bacurau dramatised a similar stand-off so much more efficiently by having Udo Kier show up in town waving a rifle around. Still, if it makes us work for them, nuggets of useful intel can be gleaned from this soil, as when the teenage daughter of one couple makes the damning connection that the Bayer who'll sell you the toxic chemicals required to grow GM potatoes in bulk is the same Bayer who'll sell you your medication when you get sick from the pesticides. This may be the most salutary lesson Landless has to teach: that any truly effective leftist movement needs to simplify, to tell a story that the vast majority of people can understand, can relate to, and will be prepared to act upon, be that on the streets or at the ballot box. In the British Houses of Parliament, the landowners currently have the numbers. Yet everywhere else - out here in the country - we outnumber them by a factor of at least one hundred. It hasn't for a while - one reason why British democracy is in the sorry state that it is - but that fact alone should rightfully terrify them at night.

Landless is now streaming via MUBI UK.

Friday 24 July 2020

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of July 17-19, 2020):

1 (2) Onward (U) ***
2 (1) Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (U) ****
3 (4) Trolls World Tour (U)
4 (3) Black Water: Abyss (15) **
5 (5) Dirty Dancing (12) ***
6 (new) Dreambuilders (U) **
7 (6) Knives Out (12) ***
8 (91) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (PG) [above] ***
9 (re) A Star is Born (15) ***
10 (12) Sonic the Hedgehog (PG)

(source: BFI)

My top five films currently on release:
1. Parasite: Black & White Edition
2. Clemency
3. Coincoin and the Extra-Humans
4. The Good Girls
5. Ghosts of War

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Trolls World Tour (U)

2 (3) Frozen 2 (U) **
3 (2) Sonic the Hedgehog (PG)
4 (1) Military Wives (12)
5 (4) Birds of Prey, or... (15)
6 (8) Joker (15) **
7 (5) Dolittle (PG)
8 (7) 1917 (15) ***
9 (re) Avengers: Endgame (12) **
10 (12) Le Mans '66 (12) ***


My top five: 
1. Parasite

2. The Assistant
3. True History of the Kelly Gang
4. Ema
5. The Invisible Man

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Inside Llewyn Davis (Tuesday, C4, 2.40am)
2. Zootropolis (Saturday, BBC1, 5pm)
3. The Salesman (Sunday, BBC2, 12.10am)
4. The Heat (Friday, C4, 10pm)
5. The Post (Saturday, C4, 9.15pm)

Smalltown creeds: "Coincoin and the Extra-Humans"

Of all the work of all the auteurs crossing over into TV, the project Bruno Dumont initiated with 2014's P'tit Quinquin ranks among the most bizarre. If not quite the full Twin Peaks - rooted firmly as it was in the soil of Dumont's beloved Nord-Pas de Calais stomping ground - here was television that was still many, many baguettes short of un pique-nique, as close as any show has come to replicating the experience of being a spectator at the asylums of yore. Miraculously, someone at Arte greenlit Season Two, and so here we go round again, several years on. (As with P'tit QuinquinCoincoin and the Extra-Humans has been reedited for international release; it now emerges as a two-part streaming option.) Formerly known as Quinquin, Coincoin (Alane Delhaye) is no longer p'tit, rather a small town boy racer, possessed of rough edges - including the most extraordinarily asymmetrical nose ever filmed - but also a heart of gold. His former sweetheart Eve (Lucy Caron) has taken up with a farmer's daughter. Meanwhile, police chief van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) - whose catchphrase "C'est quoi, ce bordel?" (what the hell is this now?) seems newly applicable in 2020 - and his stuntdriving sidekick Carpentier (Philippe Jore) appear more buffoonish than ever, constitutionally unable to enter or exit a scene in conventional fashion. There are new arrivals: a crew of migrant workers who've set up camp on the outskirts of town, and - announced by splats of oily gunk that fall from the sky - actual aliens, taking the form of the locals and thereby only adding to the mounting suspicion. If you'd told me around the turn of the century that the Bruno Dumont who'd just signed off on La vie de Jésus and L'humanité would some day wind up overseeing a slapstick remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I'd have told you to stop messing around.

What follows is every bit as bizarre as its predecessor, but the extra episodes permit a better understanding of Dumont's methods and intentions - which may just be to subvert his recognisably serious-austere framing with some hyper-silly content. The Quinquins represent a continuation of that broad French comic tradition: a recurring homage to the collapsing-house joke from Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr. is about as subtle as it gets. The alien hosts birth their doubles with loud farts; while poking around the refugee camp referred to as "the Jungle" by townies in thrall to a Front National-like populist party, van der Weyden contrives to pull one shack down around him, emerging pop-eyed through a hole in the canvas roof; and a chase between the cops and a couple of teenage flyposters comes to a screeching halt after the pursuers receive a faceful of that extraterrestrial goo. On a scene-by-scene basis, the project is entirely in thrall to the strange, fitful rhythms of its non-professional performers: as they stammer, flinch and repeat themselves, falling into the conversational equivalent of Carpentier's stuntdriving (lopsided, circular, mindless), the whole shapes up as a series of sight gags set deep in the most deadpan of dead air. Most serials owe a debt of some kind to Dickens, the better to pull us in and string us along; the Quinquins are Beckettian, in that you're just about getting fed up with their wilful strangeness when they smack you upside the head with a glorious spacehopper of a joke. It's certainly novel to have characters who are too dim to realise they're in the midst of an alien invasion - who, even when they find themselves in conversation with their other self, wind up going round and round on the same points - though the funniest aspect here may be how the mise-en-scène quietly fills up with splotches of alien goo.

The risk, as with all auteur-driven TV, is that Dumont is amusing himself and nobody else, yet several of the year's biggest laughs - all the louder, given the generally miserable circumstances the sequel emerges into - elevate Coincoin some way above The Eddy, The Get Down and all those other Netflix follies that went unloved and unfinished. It is true that it's somewhat misshapen, as a single sit: visually widescreen, playing out under the kind of big skies you only get on the coast, yet narratively televisual, or at least it would be if Dumont set any stall whatsoever in conventional episodic structure. He knows he has at an ace up his sleeve, in that van der Weyden - as played by the spasming Pruvost, the most singular character in modern detective fiction, the closest we have to a new Clouseau - will himself be cloned (or "clowned", as he insists on putting it) in the course of proceedings. Anyone who chuckled their way through P'tit Quinquin will know that two van der Weydens for the price of one is quite the selling point. It's funny when they end up talking at cross-purposes ("this is absurd"); when they square off, handguns drawn, towards the conclusion, it's very nearly as iconic a moment for the French arthouse as the De Niro-Pacino face-off at the end of Heat was for the commercial American cinema. Around him/them, however, there remains a lot of repetition to get used to - like that Keaton homage, another joke that falls from the sky - and time to ponder whether Dumont isn't playing the same dangerous game with his migrant characters as Michael Haneke was caught playing in 2017's Happy End: rendering them a mute Other, inserted only so their Blackness can be paralleled with that of the alien goo ("It's not from here").

Well, I pondered, and the more time I spent in this world, the more its misshapenness struck me as deliberate and affectionate, a means of better accommodating characters of all stripes, shades and shapes. That openness to the elements would also account for the odd moments of tenderness, melancholy, even profundity that drift in and dissipate like microclimates. "Girls are complicated," sighs Coincoin, staring into the middle distance, to which Eve immediately retorts: "No, boys are too simple." Late on, van der Weyden tries to explain to Carpentier what's so uncanny about being confronted by one's own doppelgänger: "Imagine seeing yourself as I see you. It's unthinkable. The void." That idea - of seeing yourself as an Other - is uppermost in Dumont's thinking here; it may be the most effective weapon we have against the insular nationalism that lurks in the background of these projects, just waiting to lure in characters this naive. At any rate, returning to this backwater and training a camera this long on those oddbods, outcasts and misfits strikes me as a pretty formidable act of solidarity and love. And if that sounds more theoretical than practical, consider how turning their patrol car on two wheels - flipping everything off-kilter - forces the otherwise solitary-seeming van der Weyden and Carpentier together, not least in some new perspective on the flatlands they've been charged with protecting. As confirmed by Coincoin and the Extra-Humans' finale - weirdly joyous, elevating us even as it drops us squarely back in the turmoil of 2020 - with the right person or people at your side, even the Apocalypse itself might come to seem like a carnival.

Coincoin and the Extra-Humans is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

Minor mishaps: "Saint Frances"

Saint Frances is the kind of indie that rarely makes theatrical ground here nowadays: practically no recognisable names in the credits nor familiar faces on screen, a film that foregrounds ordinary people and the erratic rhythms of everyday American lives, which quietly, gradually - with no means greater than smart, empathetic storytelling - creeps up and begins to work its charm on you. It's come out of nowhere, and it has its sights set (I warn you now) on your heart and your cockles. At its centre is Bridget (screenwriter Kelly O'Sullivan), who as we find her is 34, single, working as a waitress, and being further depressed by a man at a party. She's not beyond all hope, though the way the film is set out speaks to a scattered focus that explains how she is where she is. She leaves that party with a younger guy (Max Lipchitz), a brighter prospect who isn't weirded out when her period arrives in the middle of the night. She lands a summer job as a nanny to the eponymous Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), precocious preschooler daughter of a same-sex, mixed-race couple with a Black Lives Matter placard on their front lawn. She gets pregnant, and undergoes an abortion. She falls for Frances's worldly music teacher (the versatile Jim True-Frost, best known as The Wire's unworldly Pryzbylewski) and buys herself a guitar. A sense is soon conveyed of a no-longer-so-young woman working through all of the options you're meant to shut down at some stage in early adulthood - and doing so in a matter of weeks, while she's still bleeding out from her procedure. That's how life sometimes is: one damn thing after another. It never stops, until it does.

What emerges from this whirlwind is another portrait of a messy woman, albeit one who really does feel organically messy, a lived-in, flesh-and-blood creation rather than an academic or commercial construct. (If you don't believe me, follow the crimson trails that mark out her toing-and-froing.) If Saint Frances plants a toe or two in newish territory, it's because O'Sullivan and director Alex Thompson care to show us the cause(s) of this messiness - Bridget's tendency to take too much on, to follow every last one of her own whims - as well as their comic effects. Our girl is good with the kid - she genuinely cares about Frances, as we do, given Williams' very sweet, well-coached performance - but she's also prone to distraction, sending firefighting texts to her lovers while her charge is stumbling around the fringes of a lake, or picking a fight during a family picnic, neither of which you'd really want in a nanny. That perhaps makes the film sound edgier than it is. Set against something like 2011's Young Adult - a rare example of a studio giving full backing to a script by a genuinely idiosyncratic voice - Saint Frances is consistently cuddly, with stretches that could seem cosily conservative. If there was an Oscar for Nicest Picture, it would win at a canter. Yet it's neither cotton-headed nor sappy, which is something. O'Sullivan sets so much up (or leaves so much trailing behind Bridget) in the first half that there's a lot to sort and work through in the home straight, as it becomes clear our heroine has emerged into a community of messy women; that there may be a continuum of messiness out there, extending to her married employers and the young girl who trashes her playroom when she can't get what she wants. It's peddling nothing more radical or revolutionary than reassurance, ultimately: the message is you are not alone, and you should be free to pass through your phases in your own damn time. Yet at a time when we're more distant than ever, there will likely be those who cling to a hug of a movie such as this.

Saint Frances opens today in selected cinemas. 

Thursday 23 July 2020

Keeping up appearances: "The Good Girls"

The main business of Alejandra Márquez Abella's toothy satire The Good Girls is the fall of an empire, though it takes time to get round to it. Initially, we're given a grand tour of Mexican high society as it was in 1982: the dinner parties, the tennis clubs, the swimming pools, the walk-in closets, the ensuite bathrooms with matching his-and-hers sinks. Here is at once the good life and an expensively self-sealed, myopic universe, as reflected in a number of early shots that drift entirely out of focus, either in homage to Lucrecia Martel or to suggest eyeballs glazing over, as they might faced with such conspicuous decadence. But wait: soon we hear passing talk of moth infestations, the first indication these marbled walls may be at risk of crumbling to dust. The water supply goes out. Credit cards are turned down. Neighbours are observed fleeing the area like rats. Only with President López Portillo's announcement of an imminent currency devaluation - an announcement the characters miss, so busy are they networking, turning past the headlines to get to the society pages or drooling over Julio Iglesias - does Márquez Abella's interest in this world and these people become entirely clear. This is what happens when an economy gets trashed, obliging the rich either to cling tooth-and-nail to whatever's left in reserve, or stuff suitcases full of worthless paper, get the hell out of Dodge, and set up shop somewhere that still has an economy to plunder. These are the last days of (one ultra-localised form of) capitalism; any film describing that assumes the look of a warning from history.

Márquez Abella approaches this crisis from an unusual, slightly oblique angle: her focus is on those ladies who lunch, suddenly discovering that lunch costs a lot more than it used to, or that the restaurant has been shuttered altogether. It's the wryest of directorial jokes that they should appear so interchangeable. Employing the same stylists, wearing the same labels, forever holding up a mirror to each other's limited ambitions, these are women who've become accustomed to a certain way of living, conservatives to their very core. Márquez Abella observes them as an entomologist might insects about to undergo irreversible colony collapse. She grants Sofia (Ilse Salas) a timid sort of inner voice, via sporadic narration that sets out how she landed here, and what little now passes through her head. Yet in the main, these women aren't all that more expressive than the mannequins in the high-end boutiques they frequent. They, too, have been asked to sit or stand in a certain manner, to show off a nice dress from time to time, to help drum up business - they're good girls, all right. What Márquez Abella shows us is that these trophy wives, set in the front windows of ideal homes, are in their own way prisoners of a particular system. At some point while the movie is wheeling out the guillotine, we might even begin to feel a pang of sympathy for them. The hoi polloi have long been reliant upon the mercy of the mob.

The Good Girls is stealthy like that. It took me a while to get into it - almost as long as it would for me to enter any country club unannounced - and to get past some of its copious eccentricities, like the soundtrack made up of handclaps and acapella yelps. (There may be a point being made about how such sealed-off worlds give rise to the weirdest peccadillos and fetishes.) But once again it's plain to see that South American cinema has got a better handle on dramatising societal imbalance than any other cinema in the world. We could curate a mini-season of these films now, and admire the narrative variations set so skilfully atop the same recurring themes: Martel's The Headless Woman, Sebastián Silva's The Maid, the Brazilian parable The Second Mother, last year's sleeper hit The Chambermaid. Is it because the disconnect between the rich and the poor is so much more evident on that continent - visible on every street corner, in every well-staffed household - than it is anywhere else? (Is it still possible to be a moderate in Mexico, or a centrist in Central America?) Márquez Abella's film shouldn't work: it sets us down among some of the dullest characters, wittering on about topics that won't mean a damn thing to you and I. Yet there's something fascinating - maybe even a little chilling - about their obliviousness: the movie's a 93-minute extension of those cutaways in disaster movies to doomed souls who don't realise how rapidly the asteroid or tsunami is coming up behind them. 

The historical context Márquez Abella sets in place means the drama here has to come in smaller, incremental, more realistic waves, but waves there are: a round of job losses, a bounced cheque, a stress rash behind an ear, a house getting messier by the frame, a child asking a parent the meaning of the word "repossess". (If you were in that minority who felt Alfonso Cuarón's beatified Roma could only have benefitted from a touch more of its director's Children of Men, this may well be the movie for you.) For some, such as Sofia, it's not that they can't sense the waves getting bigger, but that they choose not to notice it; instead, they bury their heads in another hot towel, plant their tootsies squarely in the footspa, and make plans for the next soiree. The miracle of the film - there's really no other word for it - is that the mounting dependency and vulnerability Márquez Abella alights upon by observing her good girls at such close quarters eventually makes them human, brings the mannequins to life. There's one wicked late twist - a vicious spasm in a chi-chi restaurant, reminding us the film has considerable bite to go with its bark - but towards the end, characters who initially appeared impossibly remote to us begin to seem eerily recognisable, vaguely familiar even. Could it happen here? Could it happen to you? To answer with one of the UK government's increasingly prophylactic PR slogans: get ready for Brexit.

The Good Girls is now streaming via MUBI UK.

Working girl: "Alice"

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