Wednesday 30 September 2020

Wild (mood) swings: "Eternal Beauty"

I'm guessing it went something like this: in the wake of The Shape of Water's Oscar win, its star Sally Hawkins did the studio rounds, only to find she wasn't wildly keen on the kind of projects that were being set before her, and/or that those studios were unlikely ever to generate the kind of projects she'd be interested in. The role of a mutely masturbating charlady who finds love in the arms of an eight-foot amphibian would be hard to follow, let alone top. (To this day, I'm still not entirely sure how anybody got that movie to work as well as it did.) So it is that, with Eternal Beauty, we rejoin Hawkins in provincial Wales, and in a state of considerable disarray. Her character here, Jane, is a pallid, muttering eccentric whose life fell apart after she was jilted at the aisle some twenty years before. What she took with from this breakdown is an extreme case of depression, though spending even five minutes in her company would suggest Jane has issues besides: glimmers of OCD and paranoid schizophrenia, the occasional show of delusion. (She takes phone calls from her errant fiancé, telling her to hold on for him.) The film establishes its heroine as in such a state, whether on or off her meds, that it comes as a particular shock when we suddenly see her behind the wheel of a car. Two minutes into the scene, and you realise why this isn't the cleverest - hell, the safest - of ideas. Jane is an accident waiting to happen.

Eternal Beauty, clearly, is playing a dangerous game. Its young writer-director, the sometime actor Craig Roberts (Just Jim), is looking to expand our conversations around mental health by putting a character with severe mental health issues front and centre; the risk is that said character is a liability to herself, others and any notion of an easy evening's entertainment, someone whose gaze we might prefer to avoid. Here's where Hawkins sweeps in to save the day: we can't take our eyes off her. The film has elements of one of those quirksome low-budget curios Britfilm occasionally turns out. There's the threat of a tritely redemptive romance between Jane and porkpie-hatted waiting room chancer Mike (David Thewlis), set out in that red/blue colour scheme that filtered down from Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love into such late Noughties titles as Submarine (in which Hawkins and Roberts played mother and son): a latter-day indie staple that would still be eyecatching if it hadn't been so overused. And the longer Eternal Beauty goes on, the likelier it appears that at least one or two of the film's bustling minor parts are no more than figments of the protagonist's hyperactive imagination. In other words, be prepared: at least some of what's on screen is going to wind you up. What pulled this viewer through these shakier patches was the seriousness with which Hawkins approaches every last one of Jane's tics and hang-ups: she imports a bolstering gravity, and a quiet, quietly moving sense of tragedy, to what might otherwise have been played as faintly twee comedy.

American indies in this vein tend to send their outcasts out into the world with neat, manageable pockets of neuroses, aiming to normalise any mad, bad or sad behaviour within a round 90 minutes; Roberts enables Hawkins to scatter hers across the screen like Ophelia's posies. The performance is almost too much for a film as essentially small as this, but it's also enough to destabilise it, to knock Eternal Beauty out of any cosier rhythms it might settle into. The supporting cast have their moments, granted: Penelope Wilton as Jane's overbearing mum, paired with an understandably cowed Robert Pugh; Alice Lowe and Billie Piper as Jane's chalk-and-cheese sisters. But it's the Hawkins show, and you keep catching her co-stars watching her with both a concern becoming to their characters and the amazement of actors who can't quite believe the level at which their colleague is operating. As befits a film that takes a lot of cues from Anderson's Magnolia, the audience is going to be split between those who find Eternal Beauty rewardingly offbeam and those who find the experience like hearing nails on a blackboard, but we should give Roberts credit for making some ballsy choices, and for having the smarts to crib from something like the best. At the very least, his film confirms an idea floated around the time of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky and consolidated by 2016's Maudie: that with the withdrawal of Daniel Day-Lewis from the scene, Hawkins may be British cinema's last genius standing.

Eternal Beauty opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Tuesday 29 September 2020

The edge of the world: "End of Summer"

Distributors continue to pay their respects to Jóhann Jóhannsson, the Icelandic composer and filmmaker who took his own life in 2018, aged 48. Hot on the heels of the BFI's July release of 2017's Last and First Men, MUBI UK are reviving End of Summer, a half-hour short from 2014 composed of grainy, sometimes outright distressed black-and-white Super 8 footage Jóhannsson took during a voyage to the island of South Georgia, off the Antarctic peninsula. Take out the (Foleyed in?) honks of penguins and seals, and you could convince yourself you were watching some long lost silent movie - a return to the territory of Frank Hurley's South, that now century-old document of the Ernest Shackleton expedition. Yet the short's focus isn't man asserting himself on the landscape (it's an entirely humanless film), rather nature reasserting itself. Jóhannsson came this way as a wildlife buff, to observe those penguins massing in their hundreds on craggy black shorelines, as if attending some annual conference the film intends to let us in on. (Keynote speaker: Pingu.) That sight would lend End of Summer a certain monochrome poetry even if it had been shot in full colour: the penguins resemble the figurants in Joy Division's "Atmosphere" video, slowly processing upright across static frames to the accompaniment of Jóhannsson's spare, mournful score. The results are chilly - encountered in late September, it's a film to make you glad you put the heating back on - but also proof that Jóhannsson was shaping up as a poet of remoteness and solitude before his tragic demise. Headed towards what now looks a loaded sundown, End of Summer offers a vision of what might happen on this planet after we humans have departed the scene - which, given the rate at which the polar icecaps are melting, may just be sooner than we think.

End of Summer will be available to stream via MUBI UK from tomorrow.

Sunday 27 September 2020

1,001 Films: "Mother and Son/Mat I Syn" (1997)

Back in the late 1990s, this amazingly delicate, barely hour-long fable was the work that brought writer-director Aleksandr Sokurov to international prominence, somewhat against the odds. So fragile it seemed it might not survive export, so meek and withdrawn it's a marvel it could ask anyone to pay for the privilege of seeing it, Mother and Son had the distinction of being like nothing else around at the time of James Cameron's Titanic: in the face of such all-conquering commercialism, it seemed like a remnant of long-lost High Art Cinema, rescued from the back of some Russian state archive. As with all of Sokurov's films up to 2005's The Sun, character and plot - here, a young man and his dying mother spend their last days together in a house in a forest close to the coast - prove secondary to look and ambience. With the image stretched disconcertingly tight over the screen, like skin or (perhaps more apt) canvas, Sokurov stages painterly tableaux: ravishing landscapes as the boy carries his mother through the woods in his arms, a deathbed pietà with the figures reversed as the son holds the ailing woman who gave life to him. On the soundtrack, the wind rustling the trees rhymes with the mother's laboured breathing, and the whistles of a passing steam train: it's a film of last gasps. What little dialogue we hear is murmuring, first of the past, then of the afterlife; we are, I think, meant to infer that the father, the third point of this triangle, has already passed on. The temptation in writing about Mother and Son is to describe what happens at the expense of hazarding a guess at what it means or an opinion on whether or not it works. Certainly Sokurov succeeds in establishing an uncommon intimacy between these two figures, and there's a langorous intensity about their motions. But as befits a film paying particular attention to the qualities of light, the whole falls somewhere between opaque and diffuse. Remarkable as it is, Mother and Son belongs to that school of cinema that wants to be something else (which is to say anything but) - portraiture, physical theatre, a museum piece - an aspiration that will strike you as admirable or antithetical, depending on your position on such matters. A spiritual sequel, Father and Son, followed in 2004: slightly more approachable and hands-on, where this original is insistently hands-off.

Mother and Son is not currently available to buy or stream. 

Saturday 26 September 2020

1,001 Films: "Three Lives and Only One Death/Trois Vies et Une Seule Mort" (1996)

Three Lives and Only One Death, an agreeably batty collaboration between the veteran Chilean director Raoul Ruiz and the French writer Pascal Bonitzer, comes on like a modernist retort to Groundhog Day, taking huge delight in setting up stories within stories, and then casting Marcello Mastroianni in the Bill Murray role, only as a number of characters at the mercy of the fates. Its unifying idea is that very French one of divertissement (even dérangement): sudden changes in circumstance precipitated by the slightest thing. As one of the twin Fates seen on screen (perhaps modelled on Ruiz and Bonitzer themselves) puts it: "Life never ceases to amaze". The two hours that follow set out to prove the point. In the opening section, a handyman (Feodor Atkine) pops out one morning to get aspirin for a headache, only to be accosted by a laughing oddball (Mastroianni) who claims to have been the first husband of the handyman's wife before he was held hostage by a radical group of fairies living under his kitchen table. While you're processing that, the whole film goes off with those self-same fairies. It's one of those tales of the unexpected where the twists and turns are best left unspoiled by any synopsis, though you'll get an early taster of what's to come from Atkine's shrugging reaction (sitting down to parse the newspaper!) after Mastroianni buries a hammer in his cranium. (Some headache cure, this.) 

Further leftfield developments follow - not least the murderous rampages prompted by the merest mention of the author Carlos Castaneda - as do surprising, even staggering images: a man caught in a giant mousetrap, a corpse surrounded by newly hatched chicks, wallpaper that comes to florid life. The one constant is Mastroianni, all clownish charm across a number of choice roles: leaving the oddball behind, he's transformed into a Sorbonne professor turned beach bum, then into a mute, intransigent butler making life hell for a young couple, then into a businessman whose little white lies take on a life of their own and threaten whatever he stands for. This fluidity - the sense the film might go in any direction at any moment - extends to Ruiz's casting. As signalled by a key place name (the rue du Maastricht), the film dates from a moment when European unions were being celebrated in both arthouse faves like the Three Colours trilogy as well as American indies like Barcelona and Before Sunrise; so it is that Italians (Mastroianni, Anna Galiena, Lou Castel as a stuttering pimp) rub up against Spaniards Atkine and Marisa Paredes, and Frenchies Arielle Dombasle and Melvil Poupaud, while overheard phone calls flip between French, Italian and German. The film knows no borders: the perimeters of the first Mastroianni's apartment advance and retreat at will (as they would in Ruiz's later Proust adaptation Time Regained), while a later episode depends on the thinness of a building's walls driving a couple into the arms of better insulated lovers. The action is so arbitrary it may have been made up on the spot, but there is a reason for that, and it generates an entertaining advert for a cracked, transnational, schizophrenic cinema, as opposed to the dull linearity and deadening logic of most monolingual mainstream entertainments: Ruiz, bouncing between genres like a South American jumping bean, is supremely alert to the medium's myriad possibilities, and how even the tiniest adjustment in camera focus, lighting or score can change everything, forever. A representative subtitle: "Like all thermodynamics students, Piotr is a sex maniac."

Three Lives and Only One Death is available to stream via YouTube.

Friday 25 September 2020

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK and Ireland box office (for the weekend of September 18-20, 2020):

1 (1) Tenet (12A) **
2 (2) After We Collided (15)
3 (new) Bill & Ted Face the Music (PG)
4 (new) Andre Rieu's Magical Maastricht: Together in Music (U)
5 (4) The New Mutants (15)
6 (5) Onward (U) ***
7 (new) Rocks (12A) ****
8 (8) 100% Wolf (U)
9 (new) White Riot (15) ***
10 (9) Unhinged (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five films currently on release:
1. The Ground Beneath My Feet

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Scoob! (U)
2 (1) Trolls World Tour (U)
3 (3) Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (12)
4 (5) 1917 (15) ***
5 (10) Little Women (U) ****
6 (6) Spider-Man: Far from Home (12) ***
7 (7) Bad Boys for Life (15) ***
8 (19) A Star is Born (15) ***
9 (8) Sonic the Hedgehog (PG)
10 (9) Jumanji: The Next Level (PG)

My top five: 
1. Koko-Di Koko-Da

2. Papicha

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. North by North-West [above] (Sunday, BBC2, 4.50pm) 
2. Manthan (Tuesday, C4, 1.30am)
3. John Wick (Monday, five, 11pm)
4. John Wick: Chapter 2 (Friday, five, 10pm)
5. The Football Factory (Friday, five, 11.50pm)

Split shifts: "The Ground Beneath My Feet"

The Ground Beneath My Feet, a very striking, quietly unsettling contemporary horror from Austrian writer-director Marie Kreutzer, opens like Toni Erdmann with a new, urgent, potentially tragic dimension. Kreutzer's subject is a work/life balance that's all out of whack - here, dangerously so, in that the life part of the equation is now actively under threat. Just one of the film's nasty surprises is that it's not necessarily the life we think. We meet corporate alpha-female Lola (Valerie Pachner) as she's started splitting her time between Vienna, where she lives in one of those sterile, underfurnished housing pods that have become cinematic shorthand for the modern worker ant, and Rostock, where she's dispatched in her role as a junior executive for a management consultancy firm. Her latest layover, however, will be interrupted by news that her schizophrenic sister Conny (Pia Hierzegger) has taken an overdose of pills and been institutionalised. The bulk of the film concerns the demand this places on Lola, now dutybound to juggle managing a sister in a state of some distress, who keeps phoning out of the blue with tales of the abuses being visited against her, with her ongoing professional commitments - a conflict of interest intensified by the relationship Lola's in with the boss who's been mentoring her (Mavie Hörbiger). In a world where time is most often designated as money, might taking time out to care for a loved one come to seem like unpaid labour? A corollary: is vulnerability seen as a liability within a system whose chief operators are paid vast sums to project strength? "Having a burnout in our field is like having leprosy," Lola's boss informs (maybe warns) her - which may be why Kreutzer's camera returns, time and again, to the sight of its harried heroine pounding the spin bike, trying to make herself indestructable.

The film is as tense as any recent supernatural horror, but its tension is organic: it's one somebody's felt, rather than plucked out of the air or otherwise cooked up. For a good while, that tension derives from no more than the series of phonecalls Conny puts into Lola, interrupting her sis just as she's getting down to sealing a deal or making out with her galpal. (A simple ringtone can be enough to send a shiver down your spine.) Then: a perspective shift that suggests nothing we've seen in the first 45 minutes is entirely as it seemed. That wrenching twist is both consolidated and to some degree concealed by the refrigerated realism Kreutzer is trading in, the close attention she pays to the callous, offhand, forever impersonal detail of modern office life. You likely won't notice that something's awry - until it becomes clear, come the film's second half, that it is. (I suspect employees at certain less than ethical companies will have experienced the same creeping, then sinking feeling.) Casting Pachner was the masterstroke: the experience of watching The Ground Beneath My Feet is that of watching a tightly sculpted, initially impermeable block of ice, and starting to notice the cracks appearing in that cool facade. Kreutzer's framing and cutting do just about everything they can to pile the pressure on. She makes masterly use of another patient on Conny's ward to undermine Lola's sense of reality; by the distinctive closing credits, with their subliminal flashes of another story entirely, it is as though the film itself has cracked along with everything else. (More broken boundaries.) What starts along Toni Erdmann lines thus ends up like a mash-up between that movie and its director's previous The Forest for the Trees, about a teacher going over the edge. Yet it also struck me that there's a clear correlation between these corridors of corporate power and the hallways and between-spaces Polanski so memorably filmed in Repulsion: Kreutzer, announcing herself here as a major talent, has an eye for how the insecurities of the professional realm have started to creep into our private lives.

The Ground Beneath My Feet is available to stream from today via MUBI UK.

"Say Your Prayers" (Guardian 25/09/20)

Say Your Prayers ***

Dir: Harry Michell. With: Harry Melling, Tom Brooke, Derek Jacobi, Anna Maxwell Martin. 84 mins. Cert: 15

The team behind 2016’s eyecatching indie Chubby Funny - producer Helen Simmons and director Harry Michell – return with another agreeably offbeam comedy, this one with a starrier cast and a goofy, Four Lions-ish premise. It’s the tale of sibling Christian hitmen who, envious of the column inches logged by rival fundamentalists, set out to off a Dawkins-like author at a literary festival in Ilkley. Tim (Harry Melling) is the childlike younger brother, ill-suited to grisly murder; the uptight Vic (Tom Brooke) an unrepentant sociopath. Their target (Roger Allam, master of glib dismissiveness) need not worry unduly: an astutely timed prologue shows our would-be ruthless killers stalking a rambler who looks just enough like Allam for the first of several terrible mistakes to be made.

The pacing of that opening instantly elevates Michell’s film over a half-dozen recent British crime-comedies that have wrung similar setups for limp farce. We’re heading towards a setpiece that’s the Yorkshire-set Britpic equivalent of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation’s opera-house assassination, but the gags carrying everyone there are rooted firmly in character, allowing supporting players to dig in and make an impression. Anna Maxwell Martin is formidably sarky as a detective aghast at having to enter the artsy-fartsy literary scene; Derek Jacobi has a classy cameo as a priest who justifies the hit with chilly mouthfuls of scripture; Matthew Steer’s brisk, funny sketch of the spineless festival chief will likely cue cringes of recognition in some quarters.

Having the action observed by a roving male voice choir – representing the C-of-E’s safe centreground – looks like a cheeky crib from the Icelandic hit Woman at War, and perhaps it’s a couple of big, snort-cola-through-nose laughs short of essential, but it’s a solid evening’s entertainment, assembled with an assurance rare at this budgetary level. Norwegian-born cinematographer Sverre Sørdal provides attractive glimpses of the Moors (still underutilised as a Britfilm resource), while Xanna Ward Dixon and Dylan Holmes Williams’ sharp cutting serves both the comedy and thriller aspects. Simmons and Michell, blessed with good ideas and the craft to do them justice, are building a notable filmography on the margins: let’s hope the industry’s moneymen are watching. 

Say Your Prayers is available to stream from today.

Lone star state of mind: "Miss Juneteenth"

So many films fail to work on any level that it's always a treat to discover one working on two simultaneously. First and foremost, Miss Juneteenth is an easy, enjoyable watch: a supremely empathetic drama about a former smalltown beauty queen trying to steer an uninterested teenage daughter towards the pageant she won twenty years before. Yet writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples uses that narrative framework as a means of engaging with, sometimes interrogating, a selection of wider histories. The pageant of the title, for starters: an actual event that marks the anniversary of the liberation of slaves in Texas - two years after slaves were freed elsewhere. (Already, we're offered a sense of how Black citizens in this corner of the world are operating at a historical disadvantage.) Front and centre, we find one Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), a single mother who's taken on several unglamorous jobs (including bartending and funeral-home beautician) to keep the lights on after her tiara-wearing career petered out; her remaining hope has been invested in daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), though the latter would rather dance than pick up mom's sash and sceptre. Also worthy of study: Turquoise's romantic history, torn as we find her between rugged mechanic ex Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson) and the funeral home's courtly director Bacon (Akron Watson), the past and some strange present. In short, Peoples gives herself plenty to chew over. Miss Juneteenth is a first film, and one wouldn't want to leap to conclusions or tie millstones around a creative's neck, but half an hour in - around the time Turquoise is collared by her choirmistress mother (Lori Hayes), who refers to bartending as "the devil's work" - I wondered whether we'd finally found a worthy successor to missing-in-action indie godfather John Sayles.

Like Sayles, Peoples gets the authenticating detail right. Turquoise and Kai share a small space that looks exactly like the kind of address where people receive final-reminder bills, not some movie idea of the poverty line; and she mixes up her actors with local non-professionals in locations that always feel lived-in, that have a history of their own. That said, she's also not afraid of putting in the movie stuff that actually moves us: the emotion, the heart. Even before the poster-ready shot of a bleary-headed Turquoise sat on her front porch, cigarette in hand, vintage tiara askew on her head, this is a hell of a showcase for Beharie, so good in Shame, so underused ever since. What makes this characterisation come alive is that for all the battering her self-esteem may have taken in the post-pageant years, Turquoise can still turn it on when she tries. Watch her charm her not-quite-no-good, more-like-sometimes-good ex into coming through with extra funds, and you'll know exactly why she got the judges' nod back in the day. Still, she's having to hold this life together, like the birthday cake she has to walk home from town for her daughter after her car conks out on her (not, we sense, for the first time). She's a good mom, but she's projecting a little when it comes to Kai - much as her own mother projected onto her. Beharie shows us the unrealised potential, and the frustration that follows from that, and in facilitating this, the film arrives at one of its biggest achievements: setting us to think how many other Turquoise Joneses there are out there. Peoples, a recent Sundance graduate who already seems like an assured observer and a wise soul, is clearly out there looking, with a lovely mix of curiosity and compassion: she shoots the concluding parades and pageants with no snark or snootiness whatsoever, aware it's a chance for these girls to put on a show - even make a stand - in a way they may never get to again.

Miss Juneteenth opens in selected cinemas from Friday, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

Thursday 24 September 2020

We didn't start the fire: "Rebuilding Paradise"

As America's West Coast falls subject to another wildfire, a document arrives of an earlier conflagration. Rebuilding Paradise, a collaboration between National Geographic's reliable documentary unit (L.A. 92, Science Fair) and director Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment, draws on the facility with images of crisis Howard displayed in his steelier 90s films (Apollo 13, Ransom). It's just that here the crisis is horrifyingly real. The film's stunning opening movement, superbly stitched together by editor M. Watanabe Milmore from phone, video and dashcam footage, plunge us into the thick of the fires that swallowed up the small Californian town of Paradise in November 2018. The sky turns orange, then more apocalyptic still; the soundtrack is given over to gasps, yelps, and teary 911 calls from local residents desperate to find a way through the smoke. Told that the town is now 100% surrounded by flames, a female driver is seen asking a fire marshal "Are we going to die?" Barely less chilling are those shots of the aftermath, which recall the devastation visited on Chernobyl or Fukushima, showing us homes, high schools and hospitals alike reduced to mere ash; the soundtrack now devotes itself to tallying a rising body count. Odd punctums draw the eye amid this blackened landscape. Half-melted recycling bins left at the kerbside offer a reminder this was just another ordinary day in an ordinary town when the inferno blazed in. A deer chased out of the surrounding woodland takes us residence on the front lawn of one property, far from the only creature left homeless here.

What follows is two films for the price of one, which would seem pretty good value if they didn't seem ever so slightly at odds with one another. On one hand, it's a National Geographic account of the devastation, so we're offered a useful science and civics lesson: how this disaster specifically related to climate change, and what this one disaster portends for those living in similar ecological hotspots. (It's... not good.) The other film sounds right up the Howard main street: a portrait of a community pulling itself back together. Yet even this film-within-a-film isn't quite as folksy or fuzzy as you expect it to be, because there are clear obstacles to the rebuilding part of that title, and to getting back to any idea of normality. The residents of Paradise have a lot to juggle: not just their grief, and the practical aspect of finding shelter after the firestorm, but the issue of culpability, trying to find someone who might bear the burden of starting the fire in the first place. This latter almost feels like a film-within-the-film-within-the-film, and here Rebuilding Paradise gets close to capturing something of that peculiarly 2020 sensation that the world - like an old fairground ride pushed to its very limit - has accelerated beyond anybody's control, that there's now simply too much going on at once. (All that's left is firefighting.) A villain of sorts presents in energy giant P&GE, whose power lines are accused of providing the fateful spark; to make the case, Howard brings on a Hollywood heroine in the actual Erin Brockovich (now Erin Brockovich-Ellis), called in by local lawyer Joe Earley to encourage his friends and neighbours to participate in a class action suit against the company.

Yet Brockovich disappears just as soon as she's appeared, and at some point Howard looks to have decided that the best he can do for this community is provide a series of well-intentioned social calls. The remainder of the film hopscotches between the remains of these households, which yields a multiplicity of perspectives: we check in with former town mayor Woody Culleton as he's thwarted in his efforts to rebuild his house; with rocksolid professionals in the town's policing and education sectors, busy marshalling citizens and resources; with a college-educated school psychologist, told she'll have to move away if she wants to conceive, such is the benzine the fire seared into the town's water supply; and with those at the very bottom of Paradise's socioeconomic ladder, caught retreating into trailers and tents in a Wal-Mart car park. None of this will dispel Howard's reputation as a people person, but individual stories and strands (that lawsuit in particular) are lost in the haste to bring a year's worth of footage down to a TV-ready 90 minutes. My more cynical side wondered whether Howard was processing this story as a prelude to some post-pandemic based-on-true-events crowdpleaser, perhaps with Jeff Bridges as Culleton, Cherry Jones as Paradise's indefatigable headmistress, and an altogether more decisively happy ending than true events have so far permitted. (That film could retain the self-parodic Eddie Vedder song Rebuilding Paradise lards over its closing credits, which might as well be titled "Now Nominate This".) I hope not, because there's a far starker film in here, one that takes its lead from those first ten minutes and the National Geographic forecasters - a film about American fragility and insecurity, and how our infrastructure, whether by improper maintenance or simply being sold off, has now started to fail us.

Rebuilding Paradise opens in selected cinemas from Friday. 

Wednesday 23 September 2020

Babysteps: "Little Girl"

With Little Girl, Sébastien Lifshitz, the French filmmaker with a proven track record in handling LGBTQI+ themes (Wild Side, The Invisibles), trains his camera on a very modern crisis: that of a couple facing up to the realisation one of their offspring, eight-year-old Sasha, wants a change of pronouns - that a child christened as a he would feel altogether more comfortable if everyone around were to refer to her as a she. (As one onlooker points out, practically the only straightforward aspect of this situation is that the kid's given name works equally well for a boy or a girl.) Lifshitz arrives at the family's home on the outskirts of Paris keen to neutralise some of the more heated discourse around trans kids. Sasha, a wide-eyed sweetie with a Minnie Mouse backpack who'd probably be quite happy to spend all afternoon chasing bubbles around the garden with her brother and sister, actually makes for a far less interesting or revealing study than her mother, convinced that the root cause of this confusion of genders is her own latent disappointment at giving birth to a boy after suffering several miscarriages with girls. Dad, by contrast, is notably matter-of-fact about the whole affair, as blokes can be: asked how he'll refer to Sasha from here on out, he shrugs "my kid, that's all". We join this household as Sasha gets a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, then watch a sticking point emerge as our long-haired heroine's school refuses to update Sasha's records before the new term begins. Elsewhere, however, it becomes clear that Sasha is supported, at every stage in this discovery process, by people who love this little girl - parents, doctors, an adoring film crew - and want only the best for her going forward. Isn't that the thing? But if it is the thing, then how on earth does anyone set to making a dramatically involving documentary about it?

Well, for one thing, Lifshitz isn't here to manufacture or stir up conflict. (Heaven knows there's enough of that elsewhere in the media, and especially online.) Instead, he accompanies this family into a summery, school-holiday Paris, a clutch of gentle Ravel and Debussy cues in hand, with the noble aim of providing some reassurance: he knows this has become a big issue, but also that there's value in talking it through, and in seeing an ostensibly ordinary family working their way through it one day at a time. He wisely shows us Sasha's mum (a figure I suspect gender-critical viewers will likely have things to say about) explaining to her husband that if their child wants to revert to being male at a later stage, she'll be entirely free to do so; and though the contentious matter of puberty blockers is still a ways off, Lifshitz adds a scene with a doctor explaining their purpose and effects. At no point did I get the impression Sasha was being pressured into making a choice, either to compensate for her mother's miscarriages or to generate an eyecatching documentary, or - indeed - to get a free pass into the girls' changing room. (If my experience of being eight years old is anything to go on, most of your energies at that age are focused on avoiding P.E. altogether.) What's evident, however, is the distress of the child at not being allowed to live the life she wants for herself - and that it cuts substantially deeper than the distress of the child told they can't have chocolate buttons at the supermarket checkout. There are a few weakspots. I wanted more on the family's socioeconomic standing (or just to find out what mum and dad do), which surely has some bearing on the freedoms they're seeking for their child; and it's a pity that Lifshitz couldn't get access to Sasha's school, site of whatever conflict there is in this story. Yet the filmmaker's quietly observational handling of Sasha's transformation forms its own statement, gentle but defiant, that such transformations need not be a crisis, an existential threat, or cause for a hullabaloo. Little Girl leaves us to make what we will of this small, everyday transitional moment - while asserting, in its lovely final image, that Sasha is going to be whoever she wants to be, whether you want her to be or not.

Little Girl opens at London's Curzon Bloomsbury and Soho cinemas, and will be available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema, from Friday.

Still waters: "Monsoon"

The writer-director Hong Khaou made one of the standout British debuts of recent times with 2014's Lilting, his study of two people with nothing much in common united by a shared grief. What was striking was how quiet that film was, especially for a debut: it's conceivable that, in person, Khaou is an immodest blabbermouth to rival Donald Trump, but his direction there was exactly as gentle and elevating as the title suggested. Khaou's follow-up Monsoon operates in a similar vein, but on a more expansive stage. Anyone stumbling in late could be forgiven for thinking they were watching a documentary unobtrusively observing Henry Golding, that handsome fellow from Crazy Rich Asians, as he arrives in Saigon, has a nap, and then starts to feel his way out into this most bustling of metropoli. Yet some dramatic structure does eventually reveal itself: Golding's playing Kit, a British-Vietnamese man returning to his birthplace for the first time since childhood with some family business to resolve. As floated by the opening drone shot of a Saigon box junction (no box, resulting in a staggering free-for-all, and an even more staggering absence of casualties), it's the intersection of people that interests Khaou, and to best study that, you have to shut up and listen. So he does just that, the camera maintaining a respectful distance as Kit meets relatives and old friends, a potential romantic (or at least sexual) prospect in American army brat Lewis (Parker Sawyers), and the hip young curators of an art show about the country's colonial legacy. That's what everybody's wrestling with here, be they British, American or Vietnamese, and why the film's quietude is so important: it's in silence that we hear the past speak loudest to and through us.

Monsoon's keynote, accordingly, is one of unhurried patience. Khaou rightly senses he has a fascinating backdrop in Saigon - that our eyes will be as keen to explore it as Kit is - and calmly goes about sketching in his characters' identities and motives. He has brevity on his side: you sense those characters would rather not speak at all than say too much, which allows the film to surprise us in places, gradually revealing different facets of its protagonist's personality, some more sympathetic than others. You have to wait and see, in other words, but while you're doing that, you can't fail to notice Golding coming through with vastly more shaded and complex work than his big American breakthrough permitted, holding this camera's gaze while carefully parcelling out just what's on Kit's mind. The precision extends to Mark Towns' clipped, classical cutting, flipping crisply between two shots, building spatial and emotional relationships with film form; cinematographer Benjamin Kračun's elegant Steadicam handling picks up any remaining slack. There's still a certain reticence in play, which may frustrate some: even at the end of 85 minutes, there remain story elements to be teased out. I wondered whether Khaou was working through something in his own dual (British-Cambodian) heritage, which may explain why his cards appear so much closer to his chest here than they were in Lilting. It is a film you'll have to let sit, like the handmade lotus tea one of Kit's tour guides clings to as a symbol of the old ways. (She goes on to dismiss an inferior commercial variant as "quick, cheap and sells a lot", none of which could be applied to Khaou's cinema.) Still, how refreshing, at a time when the world sometimes seems noisier than ever, to encounter a creative so comfortable with charged, contemplative, ever-expressive silences.

Monsoon opens in selected cinemas, and will be available to stream from Friday.

Tuesday 22 September 2020

Atrocity exhibition: "The Painted Bird"

Here's the film critics everywhere have been putting off to the very last minute. (If there's room on the poster, the distributors are welcome to that quote.) Even the positive reviews of The Painted Bird coming out of last year's Venice film festival couldn't do much to sell it: this is a 169-minute adaptation of the Jerzy Kosinski novel set during the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe, shot in Forbidding Art Film black-and-white, and depicting all the cruelties in the world being visited upon one young, quickly homeless Jewish boy (Petr Kotlar), from the torching of his pet ferret in the opening moments to being pawed by Julian Sands and even worse besides. The best those early festival flagwavers could do was position Václav Marhoul's film as a worthy successor to Elem Klimov's Come and See, the extraordinary, once-seen-never-forgotten Russian film of 1985 that also happens to count among the single toughest sits in the whole canon of cinema. (That Marhoul is courting such comparisons is apparent from his casting of Klimov's young lead Alexei Kravchenko in a late supporting role.) Still, for those who fled the film's festival screenings sobbing, or booing, or simply wobbling on their feet from the combined weight of the atrocities Marhoul depicts, I suspect that positioning will seem like mere sophistry. And that was before the pandemic. Having seen its initial UK release plans shelved as cinemas shuttered back in March, The Painted Bird can currently be seen making a dash for it as a second lockdown looms. I suppose the advantage of catching it now is that you can go home afterwards and seek light relief in the form of that ITV miniseries about the Dennis Nilsen murders. (I mean, seriously, pandemic schedulers: c'mon.)

That's the public-service aspect of the review done with: have no doubt you come this way for a hard time, not a good time. The question that follows is this: is it worth subjecting yourself to The Painted Bird? Is there any art to it that might send you out into the night with something beyond PTSD? There is, but it's some way down in the mix, and - as this viewer discovered - you may not entirely like what you have to slog through to get to it. The movie's strength is Kosinski's original narrative line, preserved in this adaptation as something like a guide rope, pulling us forward through the darkness, and from episode to episode. The film The Painted Bird reminded me of early on wasn't specifically Come and See, but the batty primitivism of Alexei German's similarly monochrome Hard To Be A God. Marhoul builds a world that strikes us as superstitious, cruel and brutally arbitrary even before the Nazis pull in, and then takes a great, almost cackling delight in leading us by the hand into those corners where the most conspicuous murk and rot reside. Ominous and offputting as that may sound, there is something advantageous in Marhoul's insistent movement. He never gets bogged down in the mud and shit as German seemed to in his sprawling theme park of human backwardness: there's always some new, dreadful direction for the film to go in, some unseen but likely appalling avenue to be explored. The problem lies in how this world was constructed to begin with: not with a fine pencil or brushstrokes, but wild swings of the chainsaw and mallet. Marhoul has one rough-hewn tactic - to contrast a child's innocence with the dyed-in-the-wool corruption of almost everyone else around him - and spends just shy of three hours hammering it into the ground. If any fingers or other extremities get in the way, all the better.

For what becomes increasingly clear, as the film's horizon of agony extends before us, is just how committed Marhoul is to the depiction of pain. Even the gentler stretches of this boy's life - such as when he's sold to an old crone who tours the countryside treating poxes with grass snakes and fire - serve to expose the protagonist and us to an everyday level of human suffering; in the scenes of outright brutality, Marhoul licks his lips, rolls up his sleeves, and promptly outdoes himself. It's not enough that a jealous miller (Udo Kier, rarely a good sign) should feel compelled to pop out a love rival's eyeballs with a spoon; Marhoul cuts away to the cats on the floor of the miller's hovel threatening to chow down on the severed orbs, then follows up with a scene in which the boy encounters the eyeless victim in a forest and hands him back the useless organs, which somehow seems the cruellest gesture of all. This being a pan-European coproduction with overseas actors (aside from Kier and Sands, Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgård and Barry Pepper pop up at intervals), dialogue and sound effects have had to be overdubbed, and Marhoul has devoted the bulk of his energies in this field to ensuring that the sounds of violence (crows' beaks pecking at a child's skull, a husband taking a shoe to his wife, the stomach-sinking clunk of a bottle being toepoked with force into a vagina) register loudest of all. It's a movie determined to make its audience flinch and squirm, which - as those shellshocked dispatches from Venice first demonstrated - The Painted Bird does, frequently. But to what end?

Marhoul appears to be operating on the assumption that his audience is fundamentally senseless, reaching for a cattle prod where a suggestive whisper or passing glance might make the same point - and might even make it linger. As it is, his tactics are blunted by repetition - it's all too quickly apparent this is a world where life canters one way: downhill - and there are points where I found the crude excess becoming unintentionally funny. If those eyeball-eyeballing kittens don't yield a chuckle, our boy's encounters with the horny widow who wields a corncob like a sex toy just might. Worse, there are points in The Painted Bird where Marhoul looks to be toying with the viewer as his Nazis do their captives (never a great look for an unknown director trying to win friends and influence people), allowing the tiniest glimmer of hope to pass across a scene, a set-up, a human face, before stepping back and comprehensively nuking the site from space. By the time the Cossacks ride on for some bonus last-reel raping and pillaging, spectacle has become unmoored from anything like historical reality: here is the kind of WW2 film that could only be made in a post-Tarantino world, by a director who stands exposed in the middle of his battlefield as someone who just really, really likes filming atrocities. So, where's the art? Much of it is concentrated around Kotlar, who does grow before our eyes, as any seven-stone weakling subjected to twelve weeks of on-set bootcamp would; cinematographer Vladimir Smutny, meanwhile, offsets the film's copious crimes against nature with some stark, striking studies of an apparently cursed landscape. It's the bleakest sort of beauty, though - somewhere between Bergman's colder shores and the mutely witnessing concentration camp sites of Shoah - and I could well understand if, at the end of a horribly long three hours, you could take no consolation from it whatsoever.

The Painted Bird is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

Monday 21 September 2020

1,001 Films: "Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge" (1995)

Produced by Yash Chopra and written and directed by his son Aditya, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was one of the first Bollywood films to crossover into overseas Top 10s (the opening stretch takes place in London, with location shooting in Leicester Square), and the movie that would confirm Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan as leading stars of their generation. It's the story of two star-crossed lovers, forced to hitchhike across Europe after they miss their rail connection, and what happens to them once they return to the embrace of their families. Simran (Kajol) is fleeing the prospect of an arranged marriage and her sternly conservative father; Raj (Khan) a rich kid from Hampstead, breezing through life, whose father has rewarded him for flunking out of uni. The Chopras found a way of appealing to the widest possible audience by locating drama and heightened emotion in the generation gap between pop kids (there's an unexpected runout for Doop's one-hit wonder "Doop") who feel obliged to retune the radio to classical hits whenever their elders come home from work, and those diaspora parents, keen to maintain certain traditions in the face of Western commerce: Simran's father, who carries an umbrella after the fashion of an English gent, lights incense sticks on the counter of the garage forecourt shop he works in. The key to the film's success may have been that father-son partnership behind the camera. Though set in mid-Nineties Europe and carried chiefly by its youthful leads, this nonetheless feels like a period movie or the type of film Indian audiences had been watching for years, with sweeping landscapes, a timeless love story, melodramatic crash-zooms at moments of high tension, classical choreography (none of those nightclub numbers that have become a cliché in modern Hindi cinema; the second half - which relocates everybody to India - opens with country folk waving brightly coloured fabrics through fields) and songs that might just as likely have been heard in the Bollywood hits of the Sixties and Seventies. (The hero plucks a mandolin whose refrains haunt the heroine.) To a Western eye, it takes an age to facilitate the narratively inevitable - and get these kids together - but Kajol spends that time making a fair case for the quiet sexiness of the fuller eyebrow, while Shah Rukh's natural gift for onscreen mischief-making proves, even at this relatively early stage in his career, infectious indeed.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is available on DVD through Yash Raj Films, and to stream via Prime Video.

Sunday 20 September 2020

Something in the air: "Wind"

The six-minute Hungarian winner of Cannes' Best Short Film prize back in 1996 - now available for rediscovery courtesy of MUBI UK - Wind resembles some long-lost collaboration between Michael Snow, the Canadian artist behind revered experimental texts Wavelength and La Région Centrale, and Béla Tarr, reigning Hungarian champion of slow cinema. It comprises a single, unbroken 360-degree pan, opening on a recreation of "Three Women (Audincourt, France 1951)", a photograph by the Le Corbusier associate and former French Resistance agent Lucien Hervé, before breaking free from the moment in time captured therein to become its own, haunting thing entirely. What follows is a quietly unsettling glimpse of everyday horror, and possibly an attempt to describe just how Hervé arrived at this particular scene, or at the very least to answer one of the more obvious questions posed by the original image. Writer-director Marcell Iványi - then a 23-year-old student at the Hungarian Academy of Drama and Film who, in another of the short's attendant mysteries, went on to no kind of career whatsoever - packs a lot into a mesmerising six minutes: not just a small but considerable feat of location management and camera choreography (alighting with an equal care and fascination on a hollowed-out rural landscape and the lived-in textures of an overcoat), this is also as teachable a definition as I've encountered of the difference between stills photography and cinema.

Wind is now streaming via MUBI UK.

From the archive: "Rocky Balboa"

These are, as I've mentioned before, tough times for tough men. Faced with the done-for-real stuntwork of Tony Jaa (Ong-Bak, The Warrior King) and the free-running trend showcased by films as diverse as District 13, Casino Royale and Breaking and Entering, our movies' erstwhile action heroes have reverted to former glories, if not vanished from sight altogether. Van Damme and Seagal have long since disappeared from cinema screens; before he moseyed away into politics, Arnold Schwarzenegger had to make a third Terminator to reconnect with an audience. And though he's managed to reposition himself as an iconic character actor for independent minded directors (via Sin City and Fast Food Nation), Bruce Willis's last stab at playing the action hero, last year's 16 Blocks, essentially replayed key scenes from Die Hard with a Vengeance - so successfully, in fact, that it earned a greenlight for a Die Hard 4. For Sylvester Stallone, it's hard to know what must have been the greater indignity: being paraded around at an Everton game, signing on for a fourth Rambo film, or reaching a point in his career where a sixth Rocky film seems like the only way forward. 

Rocky Balboa has been conceived as a nostalgia exercise: it opens with a Frank Stallone song ("Take You Back"), Rocky's first line is "Time goes by so fast", and its early scenes are linked by a series of fades that form the editorial equivalent of an addled boxer's memory lapses. That the film succeeds as Saturday night entertainment is down to how self-aware it is about this. Stallone, here taking a writer-director-star credit, knows what made the first Rocky work so well (if it ain't gashed, don't stitch it), and surely senses time is running out for him to add to his legacy. Rocky is now found stumbling around his tumbledown Philly neighborhood, boring the patrons of his restaurant ("Adrian's", poignantly) with anecdotes of better days. He's shaken out of this funk by a hesitant relationship with a similarly lived-in bartender, Geraldine Hughes' Marie, then by long-suffering trainer Paulie (Burt Young)'s talk of what he calls "a cartoon fight" - a computer simulation staged by a sports network that has Rocky beat present champ Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver). An in-person rematch is mooted, hardly a fair fight - it's like pitting Amir Khan against Muhammad Ali - but then, as the movie suggests, the fight game isn't what it used to be. 

Dixon's handlers are portrayed as greedy goons, who accept the challenge despite the fact their man has nothing to gain from it but wealth; there's an obvious dichotomy between these wraiths, who walk into the arena all but rubbing their hands ("Know how much money there is in this?"), and Stallone's Rocky, whose entourage includes a God-fearing restaurant regular, his son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia) and the spirit of Adrian, and whose first response to the cavernous Las Vegas venue of the Dixon bout is decidedly blue-collar ("Imagine cleaning this place"). Rocky Balboa really does transport you somewhere, even if it is just back to the Seventies, when Stallone was considered, in all seriousness, a triple threat. Though it seems as though whole characters (such as Marie's briefly seen son), scenes and much of the climactic bout have hit the canvas in the edit suite, Stallone's direction, particularly in the early stretch, is marked by crisp street-level photography of real-world locations. And as screenwriter, he's done a solid job of paring the storyline back to the virtues of the first Rocky: this is old-fashioned storytelling, albeit with flurries of knowing dialogue, jabs of self-recognition. "Yesterday wasn't so great," Paulie insists, trying to shake his fighter from his nostalgic funk. "It was to me!," yelps Rocky, or maybe Stallone. When Marie tells our hero "face it, this is who you are and this is how you'll always be", it's not the only line that rings bells in the context of the star's own career.

Above all else, Rocky Balboa reminds us of the strengths of Stallone the actor, here stubbornly - heroically - refusing to let his keynote character slip into self-parody. Rocky's garbled yet heartfelt address to a boxing board understandably reluctant to grant this oldtimer a new licence, and one later, after-hours speech on the street to his son are masterclasses in acting inarticulacy, a skill at least as valuable as mastering iambic pentameter. The new film's appeal resides in such moments, where we catch the character just trying to function; they're reminders Rocky always was as much boxer-dog as boxer-man, a dumb mutt whose best conversations have all been with fellow strays. Adrian worked in a pet store, you'll remember; here, we get a midfilm trip to the dog pound, and you half-wonder whether Rocky's here to adopt or be adopted. It could suffer commercially from telling a comparable story to last week's The Pursuit of Happyness, a phrase that gets an impromptu namecheck when Rocky cites the Bill of Rights to that boxing commission; as its underperformance in the U.S. over Christmas suggests, the film is unlikely to bring in the teenagers for whom Stallone exists in the cretaceous period, if at all. Yet when Bill Conti's Rocky theme "Gonna Fly Now" kicks in over shots of the star downing raw eggs, anyone over a certain age will almost certainly be basking in an appreciably warm glow: what's being offered here finally isn't just nostalgia, but the oddly touching sight of a character and a performer still struggling to express themselves the only way they know how.

(January 2007)

Rocky Balboa returns to cinemas nationwide, along with Rocky and its immediate sequels, this coming Friday. 

From the archive: "Rocky"

Every now and again, a struggling actor forces their way onto the Hollywood A-list by virtue of a self-penned screenplay that describes their life as an underdog. In the 90s, preppy Matt Damon and Ben Affleck did it with Good Will Hunting, their hero clinging to Ivy League-level mathematics; with 1976's Rocky, a young slab of working-class beef named Sylvester Stallone, fresh from paying his dues in a softcore flick titled The Italian Stallion, similarly improved his circumstances by playing a boxer fighting under that self-same ringname. His Rocky Balboa is a down-on-his-luck, past-it scrapper taking the occasional club fight between gigs as a hired heavy for a Philadelphia loan shark. Everything - a character's life, an actor's career, wider popular culture - changes when reigning world champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) pulls Rocky's name out of the air for a fight to mark the Bicentennial. "It's very American," yelps the enthusiastic promoter. "No," counters Creed, "it's very smart." In one corner, then, we find all-American sentiment, hearts; in the other, calculation, minds. 

Unlike the brainiac Good Will Hunting, the film takes not the side of the eloquent, well-dressed Apollo, an Ali-type whose real creed is that kids should become doctors or lawyers rather than lowly, self-harming sportspeople ("Be a thinker, not a stinker"), a champion who spends more time with his accountant than with his trainer, and tosses dollars to the crowd on his way into the ring. Rather, it sides with the more selectively communicative Stallone, whose Rocky sometimes seems less like a boxer in the pugilist sense and more like a boxer in the canine sense: a dumb mutt, growling to himself in a language barely comprehensible to human ears, prowling Philly's dockyards and back alleys, and constantly returning for more. (His first conversations in the movie are all with animals, and it's no real surprise he should take up with a shy pet store assistant (Talia Shire) who doesn't get humans, either. Adrian and Rocky don't walk off into the sunset: she puts him back in his kennel.)

The film's biggest weapon - the horseshoe tucked away inside its glove - is Stallone's screenplay, sincerely interested in how those lower down the social scale live their lives from day to day; get that right, and you'll guarantee yourself an audience of people who are themselves holding out for a shot at the big time. The realism is in the detail: the unbroken, utterly unglamorous shot of Rocky cracking an entire carton of eggs, one by one, into a glass first thing on a morning so cold even the DJ is complaining, then swallowing the lot, raw, in one gulp, the entire sequence lit only by the light of an open fridge. If you are going to do rags-to-riches, do something evocative with the rags, and the riches will be worth all the more: even after countless sequels, spoofs and spin-offs, the pay-off here remains utterly stupendous. Few modern movies have worked this hard to portray America as the land of opportunity, and to assert that every dog - even one with the face of a Sly Stallone - can have their day.

(March 2006)

Rocky returns to cinemas nationwide, along with its immediate sequels and the later Rocky Balboathis coming Friday.

Saturday 19 September 2020

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK and Ireland box office (for the weekend of September 11-13, 2020):

1 (1) Tenet (12A) **
2 (3) After We Collided (15)
3 (new) Break the Silence: The Movie (U)
4 (2) The New Mutants (15)
5 (4Onward (U) ***
6 (new) The Broken Hearts Gallery (12A)
7 (new) Petla (18)
8 (6) 100% Wolf (U)
9 (5) Unhinged (15)
10 (8) Trolls World Tour (U)

(source: BFI)

My top five films currently on release:
1. Memories of Murder
2. La Haine 
3. Barking Dogs Never Bite
4. Wind

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (3) 
Trolls World Tour (U)
3 (6) Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (12)
4 (1) Black Panther (12) **
5 (4) 1917 (15) ***
6 (15) Spider-Man: Far from Home (12) ***
7 (10) Bad Boys for Life (15) ***
8 (2) Sonic the Hedgehog (PG)
9 (9) Jumanji: The Next Level (PG)
10 (14) Little Women (U) ****


My top five: 
1. Koko-Di Koko-Da

2. To Tokyo

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Saturday, five, 2pm)
2. Night Moves (Wednesday, C4, 2.15am)
3. John Wick (Friday, five, 10pm)
4. Behind Enemy Lines [above] (Saturday, C4, 11.10pm)
5. Papadopoulos and Sons (Saturday, BBC1, 11.55pm)

Talechasing: "Barking Dogs Never Bite"

A good year for Bong Joon Ho (if, perhaps, nobody else on the planet) concludes with the first appearance on these shores of Barking Dogs Never Bite, this revered filmmaker's eccentrically original feature debut from 2000. What's now obvious is that a lot of the qualities for which Bong became revered were in place from the get-go: the gift for offbeam, socially attuned black comedy, the precise framing and mastery of screen space, the delight taken in twisty-turny plotting. There are hints that this plot may have originated closer to home than later conceits; its startpoint is one any frustrated, underemployed twentysomething creative may recognise. Having nothing much else to occupy his afternoons, sensitive, bespectacled Yun-ju (Sung-Jae Lee) is driven to such distraction by a neighbour's yapping dog that he embarks on a kidnap mission, with an eye to silencing the mutt for good. Naturally, that mission quickly goes awry: I fear some petlovers will already be on edge at the idea of a Korean film that puts dogs front and centre, and that's before a scene of insinuated pooch strangulation that makes one grateful for the "no animals were harmed" disclaimer Bong inserts, with a degree of knowingness, in the opening credits. Cinephiles will be reminded that Bong emerged from the same scene as the take-no-prisoners, since-cancelled Kim Ki-Duk, who caused the British censors such conniptions with his treatment of fish in that year's The Isle; if Bong's filmography has proven some measure less extreme, it's nevertheless retained the wicked edge he demonstrates here when Yun-ju shapes to fling a chihuahua off the top of a tall building.

What develops is the model of a (if you will) shaggy dog story, elevated by strong secondary characterisation and incidental detail. It's a showcase for Bong the screenwriter's evident love of storytelling: the doggy intrigue is put on hold so a pal can inform Yun-ju about an acquaintance who met a grisly fate on a subway platform, and a janitor can regale a dining companion with talk of a "legendary" boiler repairman who wound up in an unexpected resting place. Whenever we return to the A plot, what's notable is the joy Bong takes in throwing obstacles in his protagonist's path; every time Yun-ju thinks he's turned a corner and got away with his bloodier misdeeds, another problem presents itself. It's as if he's on a lead being tightly held by his creator, the Barbara Woodhouse of world cinema: Bong lets this dweeb run for a bit before yanking him decisively back. What at first seems a tale about one dog proves to be one about three, each passing floof a mocking rebuke to any ideas Yun-ju might have developed about himself as a righteous avenger or criminal mastermind.

If the characters weave an unusually tangled web - sniffing out and circling round a slacker-turned-tenacious pet detective (future Wachowskis fave Doona Bae), that oddball janitor, and the anti-hero's pregnant other half - we always know where we are. Bong makes inspired use of his primary location - a screenfilling housing block with corridors that map the contours of the plot, and unfinished business in the basement that points the way forward to Parasite - while loading every frame with odd, eyecatching imagery: cracked walnuts, scrolls of paper, bloodied snouts. (He gets a big laugh from a close-up of a recalcitrant strawberry.) The miracle of this career - borne out when Jane Fonda revealed the name of the Best Picture winner back in February - is that Bong's films have expanded in budget, scope and appeal without any sign of overreach or losing the sharpness of focus present here. I suspect that, back in 2000, buyers didn't quite know what to make of this newcomer, or a film loopy enough to replay the sombre man-bites-dog material of that year's festival sensation Amores Perros as a goofy caper - one reason we didn't see it at the time. Twenty years on, it's plain to see: here's a filmmaker who, right from the start, knew how to spin a yarn, and how to take that narrative line for brisk, invigorating walkies. Good boy.

Barking Dogs Never Bite is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.