Monday 30 November 2020

In wino veritas: "Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan"

In some respects, Crock of Gold represents a near-perfect match-up between documentary filmmaker and subject: it's Julien Temple applying his trademark punkily irreverent mix-and-match aesthetic to the sandpaper-rough legend of Shane MacGowan, lead singer with The Pogues. MacGowan is joined, pre-pandemic, in his sixties, in a wheelchair and with a gleaming new set of teeth, but otherwise still drinking, smoking and meeting the world head-on with that disarming Muttley laugh; he's introduced, however, in cartoon form - very Temple, this - as an altogether fresher-faced young lad, charged with exporting traditional Irish music and Irish culture to that world. The narrative line the film pursues from there, inevitably wayward and wobblier, offers plenty of reasons why young MacGowan might have taken to the drink so: being born into the poverty of what was still effectively a British colony, left to kick up skulls while playing on the beach, and confronted every Sunday with the blandness of a Catholic heaven, if you weren't already condemned to Catholic hell. (The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was in making the pub a livelier venue than church.) It hardly seemed to get much easier when MacGowan left Ireland behind and travelled to London in the 1970s - hardly a promised land, rather a place where the old "No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs" mentality held sway, enough to leave any recent arrival weighing up the escapist merits of glue sniffing. According to Temple's account, it was the music that best sustained MacGowan through this period: here was a reminder of the singer's roots, and a means of snarling in the face of all that was or was becoming politely conservative. This, however, feels instinctively like an overly rational reading of the most haphazard and devil-may-care of pop lives.

For better and worse, the film is scarcely less haphazard in its methods. Even before the appearance of yer actual Gerry Adams in the MacGowan front room, Crock of Gold makes for eccentric viewing. The version screened to press opened with the title card "Johnny Depp presents" - which seems a curious framing in late 2020 - and Depp recurs in person on screen, engaging a not untypically prickly MacGowan in a dead-end Q&A during a light lunchtime drinking session. "What makes you think I stayed awake during Pirates?," MacGowan gurgles at his pie-eyed interrogator. "What makes you think I did?," comes the Depp response. I began to wonder whether Temple isn't guilty of being overly romantic around piss artists - those creatives who've come to pour at least some of their talent down the drain - seeing something honourable in their stubborn refusal to return to their digs after kicking-out time to do what we expect creative people to do with their gifts. If I'm not mistaken, Depp also helps out with the voiceover, drafted in to impersonate the singer in spots, because Temple's boldest choice was to try and tell the Shane MacGowan story in MacGowan's own words. The trouble with that is that authenticity sometimes comes at the expense of basic audibility; the film's a BBC Films production, and I suspect the service formerly known as Ceefax 888 will experience high demand when it's broadcast in the weeks ahead. Even when its subject is relatively sober and correctly miked, the device of having MacGowan prodded by celebrity interviewers generally comes to naught. "Stop interrogating me," MacGowan snarls at Bobby Gillespie. "Can't we get off the subject?" (And we realise: some people turn to drink specifically to get off the subject.)

What keeps these two hours broadly on course is the Temple technique, as playful and evocative as ever; we sense he could tell this story around his subject, if the latter got too abusive or incoherent or simply nodded off. Temple absolutely understands the punk scene MacGowan fell into upon his arrival in London: he doesn't just source the most evocative Super-8 footage of the old Piccadilly Circus, where MacGowan reportedly served as a rent boy to make ends meet, but he knows the right faces to search for within that, the better to punch up the idea of a violent contrast, that something was happening that was to shake up twee Albion, however briefly. Temple even finds a new angle on that tattered music-doc trope Rockers Recall Having Minds Blown By Early Sex Pistols Gig: MacGowan apparently rocked up to one of those after checking out of a mental hospital. The other strength here is the music - something old, given a renewed Dolby oomph. Crock of Gold wisely gets that festive pop albatross "Fairytale of New York" out of the way early on, sensing it's already been discussed to something close to death; it knows there's far more to this back catalogue, annual entrypoint though that song may have become. My feeling remains that the story of MacGowan's progress from Ireland to the UK mainland is more compelling than what followed; as we stumble out of the Eighties and into the Nineties, Crock of Gold lapses into repetition. It's the circular drama of how to keep an alcoholic functioning, of people attempting to control MacGowan's drinking long enough for him to write new material and give the hardest working liver in showbiz a break. Points off, too, for the inevitability of Bono, found belting out an earnest tribute at the singer's 60th birthday concert. Still, it would be misguided to expect sustained clarity and coherence from any film about Shane MacGowan - and if preeningly nurturing your talent results in Bono, then perhaps we'd all do well to develop a taste for the harder stuff.

Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan opens in selected cinemas from Friday, ahead of its DVD release through Altitude next Monday.

Saturday 28 November 2020

On demand: "Hamilton"

Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's rapped musical account of the role the Nevis-born bureaucrat Alexander Hamilton played in the founding of the United States, became such a sensation so quickly that someone was always going to think of further monetising it by converting it into cinema of a form. Given that tickets for both its Broadway and West End runs were trading hands at upwards of £70 a pop, when they were available at all, that conversion could at least be justified as a field-levelling public service. So here it is, coming down the tubes care of Disney+: a film of arguably the 21st century's most unlikely cultural phenomenon, as recorded on the stage of Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theater back in 2016. (Presumably the recording has been held back four years to allow the stage production to carry on coining it in - though it also allowed Disney to test the waters with their refilmed version of Newsies, the flop-movie-turned-hit-musical about turn-of-the-20th-century paperboys discovering their inner Marxist. Say what you like about this corporation - and I have - but liquidity has allowed them to entertain some properly loopy ideas.) 

Out there in the multiverse, there's a version of Hamilton that was no more than the minor fringe talking point its logline promises - a version that didn't have money in the bank to beef up the beats on its soundtrack, which never appeared on the Disney radar. Watching the film of the show, one realises the extent to which that show was always a tightrope walk: it relied on its performers being word- and note-perfect, because any slip or stumble, any failure to put the lines over with the required force, risks exposing what a truly batshit idea this was from the outset. The film thus arrives as proof that they pulled it off - that a bunch of pros landed on a crazy notion, workshopped it, rehearsed their behinds off, kept their fingers crossed people would turn out for it, watched as this goofball wheeze became a modern theatrical landmark, and eventually signed the deals that presumably made them millions. It's the American Dream, just not as Alexander Hamilton himself would have recognised it.

It was a crazy idea, executed with tremendous skill, great craft and not inconsiderable chutzpah. Much of its success can be ascribed to Miranda's gift as a songwriter: his ear for melodies that stick, his fondness for lyrics that pop and crackle, his knowledge of how the Great American Songbook has expanded here and there over the past twenty years. Hamilton seizes upon whatever wiggle room was left in those pages at the end of the twentieth century, and proceeds to make a big song-and-dance in it. So we get swaggering, crotch-centric proto-revolutionary rap for Hamilton (played by Miranda himself) and his cohorts, but also pastichey pop for an eye-rolling King George (Jonathan Groff, graduate of Glee's McKinley High); slinky, En Vogue-style R&B and Nicki Minaj-like thirst tunes for the Schuyler sisters (Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Phillipa Soo), with whom Hamilton becomes romantically and platonically entangled; and every now and again, the kind of self-empowerment anthem ("Wait for It") which was always bound to catch Mouse-shaped ears. A lot of syllables get squeezed into these two-and-a-half hours, cumulatively adding to the thrilling implausibility of the spectacle, and suggesting another influence besides. 

Miranda would have been 20 when Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP came out at the start of the century, and given some of Hamilton's phrasing and rhymes, it would surprise me if that wasn't somehow a seismic event in this creative's life. Yet Miranda (and thus Hamilton) is what happens if your Marshall Mathers is a peppy, can-do drama and history student, rather than a brooding trailer-park malcontent. That altogether brighter outlook surely accounts for the play's conception of Hamilton as a scrappy, penniless underdog rising up to razz the establishment, albeit in such a way that doesn't leave that establishment too far out of joint or pocket. Two of the many things one learns here about Alexander Hamilton is that he went on to set up Wall Street and the New York Post: he was as much conservative as romantic rebel, much as - for all its sick beats - Hamilton is still a history play that ends with a duel. I think that explains the vast crossover success: this was never some angry, avant-garde exercise in historical revisionism, rather a fun night out for young and old alike.

The challenge any film of that night out faces is to capture that fun and transmit it further still. Hamilton is stuck on the show's (granted, multifaceted) set: it admits as much by including the pre-show message imploring patrons to switch off their phones, and a minute-long intermission between its two acts. Director Thomas Kail (who oversaw a live TV version of Grease in 2016, and went on to direct FX's Fosse/Verdon miniseries) and his experienced cinematographer Declan Quinn (Vanya on 42nd Street, Leaving Las Vegas) are themselves engaged in a highwire act. They have to pick the exact right shots to sustain and convey the production's own internal momentum: the cast skipping on and off, those syllables being sprayed in every which direction, the set rotating at intervals. They were wise to keep the camera back in the main, possibly out of a desire not to get in the way of all that; we sense the reluctance to trip either the play, the performers or the phenomenon, but that judicious editorial policy also allows us simply to marvel at a hell of a show going on. 

There are points in that show where we notice the energy starting to flag a little. The Washington infighting of the second half is less transporting than the revolutionary fervour whipped up in the first, but even that serves the book's more reflective material. Somewhere in here, Miranda was reckoning with youthful ideals (in both individuals and nations), and how they get tempered, sometimes worn away by lived experience. What makes Hamilton more than just a novelty hit is that there is wisdom here to mull over on your walk back to the subway (or kitchen). The film's most immediate achievement, however, is to explain this phenomenon to the layperson: why Hamilton exists, why it became the smash it did. Viewed in this year of course correction, this looks very much like the kind of caprice that could only have sneaked past our gatekeepers in the relative leeway of the Obama years; having landed that break, Hamilton became as much of an escape for besieged liberals enduring the Trump administration as The West Wing (whiter, but similarly logorrheic) was during the Bush regime. As a project, Hamilton appears as democratic as America likes to think of itself, pushing the idea that any little guy - an Alexander Hamilton or a Lin-Manuel Miranda - might suddenly find themselves at the centre of a very large stage, with the world at their feet. "Immigrants, we get the job done," this Hamilton joshes with French associate Lafayette (Daveed Diggs) early on. Did they ever, in this case.

Hamilton is now streaming via Disney+.

Friday 27 November 2020

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK and Ireland box office (for November 20-22, 2020):

1 (5) Two by Two: Overboard! (U)
2 (1) The Secret Garden (PG)
3 (new) Collective (15) ****
4 (3) Honest Thief (15)
6 (4) War Horse - NT Live 2020 (12A)
7 (new) The Kid Detective (15)
8 (8) Tenet (12A) **
9 (6) Cats & Dogs: Paws Unite! (U)
10 (re) Grease (PG) ****

(source: BFI)

My top five films currently on release:
1. Possessor

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Mulan (12A) ***
2 (3) Elf (PG) **
3 (2) Last Christmas (12)
4 (new) Dawn of the Dead (18) ***
5 (5) Frozen 2 (U) **
6 (4) 1917 (15) ***
7 (9) The Grinch [2000] (PG) ***
8 (re) Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12) ***
9 (new) Tremors: Shrieker Island (15)
10 (7) Onward (U) ***

My top five: 
1. The Irishman

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Westworld [above] (Saturday, BBC1, 12.35am)
2. High Society (Saturday, BBC2, 11.30am)
3. 120 BPM (Tuesday, C4, 12.10am)
4. Sweet Country (Sunday, C4, 12midnight)
5. Ice Age (Sunday, C4, 4pm)

Queer cheer: "Happiest Season"

Lots of surprises this year, both nasty and nice. I don't think I was expecting the Christmas movie - generally bland background fodder, something to put on as you disentangle the fairy lights, often as naff as Keith from marketing's conduct at the end-of-year party - to become hip in some way, but here we are. Actor-turned-director Clea DuVall's Happiest Season has generated a fair number of column inches and much social-media buzz these past few weeks by taking Christmas Movie Plot #001 - the awkward homecoming - and adding a 21st century twist. The homecoming is that undertaken by same-sex couple Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), headed to the lavish residence of the latter's parents for the holidays. The twist is that those parents - conservative councilman Ted (Victor Garber) and his knowingly named, iPad-wielding wife Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) - have not one clue that their daughter is gay: Abby is introduced as a roommate and dispatched to a single bed in her hosts' basement, while Ted and Tipper set about pairing Harper up with a toothy male ex. The elements are in place for jolly seasonal farce, and DuVall keeps stuffing in funny people like last-minute stocking fillers: Alison Brie as Harper's wildly competitive sister, Audrey Plaza as a potential rival for Abby's affections, Ana Gasteyer as a local kingmaker. Our leads, meanwhile, are being forced into contortions to maintain the illusion of family unity and propriety. At one point, Abby strikes out to answer a midnight sext from Harper in amorous person, only to wind up being menaced by a Roomba in the family's utility cupboard. "Abby, what are you doing in the closet?," asks Tipper, coming to our heroine's rescue. You get the idea.

A percentage of the pleasure one draws from Happiest Season, it should be noted, is moment-specific. This is a light, bright comedy - the house and its surroundings are given a dusting of snow that looks pretty without ever compromising the general air of cosiness - about a large family that gets to hang out and hug in the same spacious kitchen. It is, in short, a Christmas movie that could have emerged at the back end of 2014, or 2017, or 2019; as escape from the unbearable heaviness of 2020, it probably won't be beaten this December. Yet another, more substantial reason for its success would be DuVall's realisation that a key component of any truly successful Christmas movie is simply good company: people we want to snuggle up close to in a darkened room on a cold winter's night. Recruiting Stewart and Davis, two of the best actors of their generation, was the masterstroke: it wouldn't have taken much to convert this pair into postergirls for modern same-sex couples everywhere, but they also have range, acting their thermal socks off whenever the script hands them an emotional beat. Elsewhere, DuVall provides cuddly strength in depth, the thespian equivalent of hot chocolate served with marshmallows and whipped cream. Even the notional antagonists of the piece (you'd really struggle to label them villains), the small-town, potentially small-minded, image-obsessed parents are played by performers as fundamentally likable as Garber and Steenburgen. We might wonder just how small-minded this small town is anyway, given that Plaza yanks Stewart into a seemingly flourishing cabaret to witness two drag queens leading a singalong to "Must Be Santa".

That development serves the film's fuzzily warming message: that most people and places are now more tolerant than we probably think, and that there's never been less reason to keep love a secret. (The film might have played differently after a different U.S. election result, but then the whole world would have looked different after a different U.S. election result.) The real enemy in Happiest Season - as it was in A Christmas Carol, as it may be in the actual season - is loneliness. The opening act takes particular expositionary pains to establish Abby as an orphan whose folks died at Christmas - the kind of contrivance these movies sometimes need to prime our tearducts. As Harper is pressganged into poll-boostingly heteronormative family photo ops, Abby has ample pause to wonder what she's doing here, whether Harper truly cares for her as the engagement ring in her pocket would suggest she hopes, and how much an Uber back home might be. To an extent, we're in her shoes, waiting for the last-reel party in which everybody's eye-to-eye in the same room - even Abby's gay best friend (Dan Levy), obliged to participate in this charade in the role of a straight ex-boyfriend - and working through their issues beneath an ominously towering tree. Like that spray-on snow, there's only so much substance to it. We're watching solid pros committing to broadly satisfying writing that brings a few new ideas to the table, that's all. Yet in its best moments, Happiest Season reminded me, happily, of last year's Bollywood romcom Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga: another "breakthrough" that proved gently radical rather than confrontationally queer, which touched on nothing so Sapphic as to scare the horses. That in itself may count as a breakthrough, of course: an understanding love in any form is nothing to be scared of, and that the acceptance that follows from it is still the greatest gift any one of us has to give.

Happiest Season is now available to rent via Prime Video.

Fall time: "You Cannot Kill David Arquette"

An early montage in You Cannot Kill David Arquette steers us through one of the least auspicious career moves in recent Hollywood history. In the late Nineties, David Arquette - brother of Alexis, Patricia, Richmond and Rosanna - was among the fresher faces in an ebullient indie scene that was beginning to cross over commercially. His most prominent role was that of Dewey Riley, the sweetly timid deputy sheriff in Wes Craven's original Scream trilogy, but he went straight from that highpoint to leading-man duties in 2000's Ready to Rumble, a dumb-as-nuts Warner Bros. comedy attempting to cash in on renewed teenage interest in professional wrestling. As part of his promotional duties for that movie, Arquette entered the world of the WCW for real, in as much as anything to do with the WCW is real, and swiftly found himself being appointed heavyweight champion. Devotees of the sport hated it - the documentary opens with a string of YouTubers lamenting the fact this arriviste had been promoted ahead of more seasoned grapplers - and this diversion into wrestling also stymied Arquette's acting career, lending him the look of a faker, a goofball, someone who wasn't nearly as serious as those with whom he shared a defining 1996 Vanity Fair cover (DiCaprio! McConaughey! Stephen Dorff!). Now with wives one and two (Courteney Cox and Christina McLarty Arquette), his kids, and his illustrious sisters looking on nervously from the sidelines, Arquette has made a comeback on the amateur wrestling circuit, repositioning himself as a non-fiction analogue to Mickey Rourke's character in The Wrestler. Once again, we watch wrestling becoming a venue for self-abasement and self-flagellation: Arquette's first beatdown - and it is a beatdown - comes in a backyard ring we see collapsing under the weight of two undercard fighters, its tattered ropes displaying all the give of barbed wire.

Directors David Darg and Price James have stumbled onto a good story here, though story may be all this is, in the end. Very early on, we become aware You Cannot Kill David Arquette is really only a documentary in the same way Keeping Up with the Kardashians purports to be documentary; once again, we spy the creeping influence of reality television - of showbiz construction - on theatrical non-fiction. (My suspicion is that at least a couple of the parties involved are angling for a spin-off series: At Home with the Arquettes.) Somewhere in the distant background here, there's a cautionary tale about what it means to be an overgrown child, in a town which rewards people handsomely for behaving like overgrown children, and what happens when those people seek to regain an attention they've lost overnight. What's upfront, however, is fan fiction: far less penetrating, and limited by self-evidently low stakes. Unlike the Rourke character, this wrestler returns home not to some dilapidated trailer park, but a spacious L.A. residence with adjacent ranch, to be greeted by an adoring spouse and three bright-eyed kids. (And we must assume said wife is fine raising those kids while her other half is off playing out his Macho Man Randy Savage fantasies.) Arquette remains a genial soul, happily flaunting his battered dadbod, and sportingly reentering the ring billed as a "Hollywood magic man" (tossing limp fistfuls of glitter as he goes); he's clearly here to pay some belated dues - to give up the blood, sweat and tears other wrestlers have had to sacrifice in order to earn their belts - and you can see why the movies haven't given up on him for good. If You Cannot Kill David Arquette never quite throws off an air of inessential thespian indulgence, it emerges as a far sweeter, more heartfelt project than Ready to Rumble ever was: a low bar, undeniably, but I'm guessing those wrestling fans are going to be happier this time around.

You Cannot Kill David Arquette is now available to rent via Prime Video and Curzon Home Cinema.

Thursday 26 November 2020

On demand: "Da 5 Bloods"

Spike Lee has parlayed the success of 2018's BlacKkKlansman into a bigger and wilder film yet. Enabled by Netflix, with their seemingly bottomless pockets for auteur passion projects, Da 5 Bloods is all of the following: a Vietnam movie, with helicopters and gunfire; a history movie, attempting to figure out the place of America's Black citizenry in the half-century since that conflict; and a buddy/caper movie that follows four vets - Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.); spot the musical link - as they return to Vietnam in the present-day with an eye to retrieving the gold they left behind in the jungle as younger men. It is, then, a film with a lot on its mind, and plenty in its backpack. In sifting through that baggage, its MO isn't so different from that of its predecessor: again, Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott picked up a pre-existing script (by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo), punched up what was in place, and threw in handfuls of their own concerns. This is all par for the course in American filmmaking, and part of the process by which potentially generic material can be given a personal spin by directors with the clout to assert themselves. This may, however, explain why Da 5 Bloods also feels like such a cats-in-a-sack movie: a work of distinct moving parts that continually rub up against one another, generating tension in those places where those parts do and don't connect. Whether you find the results hang together or fall apart at the seams, it strikes me there's a legitimate relationship between form and content: the film's heroes are conflicted men going gaga trying to reconcile past with present - as, indeed, much of America seemed to be in the course of 2020.

If Da 5 Bloods demonstrates anything like a grand unifying idea, it's Lee's idea of what cinema might be this far into the 21st century: expansive and chancy, not monolithic but polyphonic and ambidextrous. Lee's own cinema is so much looser and less rigid than it was back when he had the weight of being America's Great Black Hope on his shoulders in the mid-1990s; it's allowed him to cultivate a mile-wide streak of mischief (the sex-strike musical Chi-Raq, the epochal prank central to BlacKkKlansman), drive home the points he wants to make (witness the jolting insertion of Charlottesville towards the end of Klansman) and shift effortlessly between fiction and documentary, TV and features. These shifts now get folded into the movies themselves, so Da 5 Bloods alternates between widescreen (for the present-day sequences) and Academy ratio (for the Vietnam material), and cuts its drama with newsreel and still photos, the better to accommodate all things. It's a cats-in-a-sack movie, but the sack is moving just as much as the cats. The set-up gives Lee irresistible opportunities to channel the Vietnam cinema of the past (he can't help playing "Ride of the Valkyries" as the vets first set out upriver), while also allowing him to strike new notes by, say, interjecting photos of notable Black GIs to back up a reference in the script, or by filming in passing a pair of trainers slung over a line stretched across the Hàn river, sketching a visual link between the wars being fought in the jungle and those back in the inner city. Lee maybe saw this as his chance to rewrite Apocalypse Now from the perspective of the Laurence Fishburne character, and to wonder what might have happened to such a kid a further forty years downriver. Because what Da 5 Bloods ultimately hinges on is that most 21st century of subjects: trauma. History here is seen to repeat itself: battles are replayed, old wounds reopened. Our heroes set out as funseekers, formation dancing across the floor of a Hanoi nightspot; they will end up - most prominently in the case of Lindo's MAGA-capped Paul - going out of their minds.

Approached from this angle, Da 5 Bloods even invites interpretation as a horror movie. That ranting, raving descent into madness, which Lee posits as a shared feature of the Nixon and Trump eras, gives us one throughline to which we might cling. Another is that the same actors are seen in both the past and present: the sack may be moving, but these cats stay the same - and broadly good company, for all that they've seen and done. Still, the handling of their trauma isn't always as assured as we might seek from an elder statesman of American cinema. Just as only Netflix could have granted Scorsese four hours to tell The Irishman as well as he did, only Netflix could have permitted Lee to turn in a film that is so unruly and unprocessed, that leaves us with so much to unpack and yet so little time in which to do it. A case in point: the film's one moment of explicit horror around the halfway point, all but forgotten about as the camera follows the characters into the next kerfuffle. When Lee cuts in photos of the My Lai massacre, points are made: a rather dim and distant reference point suddenly - shockingly - becomes very real again, an atrocity for the viewer to wrestle with. Yet the film doesn't quite have the structure in place to carry that weight; more damagingly, Lee's own drama - with its ratio shifts and CG bloodspurts - starts to look contrived by comparison, no more than a mere movie. As a mere movie, Da 5 Bloods is never boring, and very moving whenever it finally focuses on the causes of its many effects, but it seems to be wrestling with itself as least as much as the issues it wants to be grappling with. I came away wanting to revisit the Hughes brothers' underrevived Dead Presidents, which struck out into similar territory with similar things on its mind - but which also, if I remember rightly, intuited just how much could be successfully bitten off and chewed over in the course of a commercial American feature.

Da 5 Bloods is now streaming via Netflix.

Wednesday 25 November 2020

Chasing strange: "Nimic"

There may now be no containing it. The petri-dish oddness cultivated in the course of the so-called Greek Weird Wave was initially isolated to individual households (Dogtooth), communities (Attenberg, Alps) and in one case a ship of fools (Athina Rachel Tsangari's Chevalier, by far the most enlightening of these experiments). It spread internationally, however, and very quickly. Yorgos Lanthimos travelled West for 2015's The Lobster and 2017's The Killing of a Sacred Deer, before exposing more people yet with 2018's The Favourite, a cockeyed costume drama that found surprising favour with critics and audiences despite going completely cuckoo in its final reel, presumably at Lanthimos's behest. (Writer Tony McNamara was better served by the recent TV hit The Great, which succeeded in being properly, laugh-out-loud funny from first frame to last, rather than determinedly eccentric.) With his new short Nimic - finding a home on MUBI this week after doing the rounds of this year's truncated festival circuit - Lanthimos spreads his particular brand of weirdness New York-wards, only adding to the area's recent woes. Cellist Matt Dillon - a faintly weird combination of words to begin with - asks glassy commuter Daphne Patakia the time on the subway; this nothingy yet fateful interaction leads to a radical restructuring of his quote-unquote normal household, and perhaps American society entire.

The games with language so central to Dogtooth and The Lobster recur here: the title's a clue of sorts, resembling another word (and the title of another movie in this vein), but not quite. As Patakia's not-quite doppelgänger follows Dillon's rattled Everyman home, the short essentially dramatises those childish strops wherein one of your kids repeats every word and gesture another person does or says. It's a reasonably amusing set-up - adults acting like children - to which Lanthimos brings now-familiar elements: the fish-eye lensing (ooh, look at the world! Isn't it weird now?), the abiding love for looney-toon performances. (You won't see a loonier performance than Patakia's all week: she's apparently been coached to act with bunny-boiler eyes alone.) Again, it adds up to no more than weirdness for weirdness's sake, and too silly to be properly unnerving (fans will doubtless call it playful), but the eccentricity proves less trying in short form than it has been over feature length. Another twelve minutes into this career, and I'm still not sure what the point of Yorgos Lanthimos is: perhaps the point is that there is no point, which is very modern, and may be the weirdest aspect of all.

Nimic will be available to stream via MUBI from Friday.

Tuesday 24 November 2020

New labour: "Overseas"

The Korean filmmaker Sung-a Yoon's Overseas operates in parallel with last month's The Young Observant, another Locarno festival premiere that found a home on MUBI's UK platform. That doc followed a restless young man being schooled with an eye to his becoming hotel waiting staff; compelling though it was, it was a first-world proposition, and its subject likely had alternative career paths if the hospitality game didn't pan out. No such comfort here. Yoon shows us young Filipino women being trained to become live-in domestic staff, ushered through classes on how to lay a table, make a bed and handle demanding employers. Good service has apparently become one of the Philippines' biggest exports. Early on, we learn that many of these trainees have reported here after serving tours of duty in Dubai, Saudi and Singapore; they will be posted in similar directions once this refresher course in washing, ironing and placesetting is completed. Yoon isn't merely here to compile an instructional video, however. Her camera watches as the trainees roleplay tricky scenarios their work has put them in, and on their nights off, the filmmaker invites these women to confess their innermost anxieties and fears. These vary in gravity, from missing the conclusion of a K-drama to being a long way from home and family, at the beck and call (sometimes mercy) of someone who doesn't necessarily have to treat their staff with an appropriate courtesy or respect. As one of the course's instructors rather ruefully defines their position: "You are just slaves. You have no right to complain."

What the film is priming us for - as the teaching primes its busy students - is entry into a markedly different labour market than The Young Observant delineated. In what may well be the most shocking sequence for Western audiences, one maid recalls how one of her male employers routinely molested her, and shrugs that her only recourse was to laugh it off. Given that one of the roleplays Yoon films concerns what to do if the man of the house forces himself upon you, these sorts of assaults are clearly far more common than one might hope. The extent to which these women really are slaves-in-waiting is made dismally clear by a telephone interview with a potential employer who insists their staff serve the full two years of their initial contract, and to do so while sleeping in the same room as a baby. (The string of assents with which the candidate meets every last one of these demands gets ever more heartbreaking.) Yet Overseas is never straightforwardly issuey; it is instead quietly observational, and perceptive with that. You can sense Yoon's ears pricking up when one trainee brings up President Duterte's comment that OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) are "heroes": the discussion that follows offers the sight of these women defining who and what they are for themselves. It may be the last time they get to do that for a while.

The film is not without flickers of humour: the roleplaying sporadically generates absurd chuckles, as the women drag up or adopt childish voices so as to embody potential employers and their demanding offspring. Signs of solidarity, too - a quality that might be consolidated and unionised if a hard-right wrecking ball like Duterte weren't so furiously set against it. Much as The Young Observant played out as a bootcamp movie, Overseas introduces us to a band of sisters, caught sharing their experiences, making plans for the future, and finally bunking down together at night, as if to stockpile some warmth and camaraderie ahead of the long nights of solitude awaiting them in a foreign land. Yet there's a sadness written deep into every frame of the film. These women are finally soldiers - good soldiers, as Duterte paints them, but soldiers nevertheless - shipped out to make sacrifices amid the dirty war of deregulated global capitalism so they can send a little extra money back home each month. I was worried by the film's long opening shot: an unbroken four-minute take rather dispassionately observing one young maid as she breaks down in tears while cleaning a toilet; the fear was that Yoon was merely here to peer in, for pure voyeurism's sake. The remainder of this profoundly empathetic film, thankfully, is patient and sensitive indeed about showing us why these women cry - and why they press on regardless. We can but wish them well, wherever they end up in this world.

Overseas will be available to stream via MUBI UK from tomorrow.

Monday 23 November 2020

On demand: "Black is King"

Here's the kind of indulgence that is only permissible when an A-list musician intersects with the richest movie studio in the universe. On a nuts-and-bolts level, Black is King was conceived as a "visual album", tying in with the old-school album of audio recordings Beyoncé put out to mark the release of Disney's digitised redo of The Lion King last year. It's an 85-minute collection of music videos, some of which see the singer collaborating once again with the directors, choreographers and creatives who helped make 2016's Lemonade such a successful audio-album-turned-visual-album. Nothing, however, can prepare you for just how extravagantly nuts those nuts-and-bolts are. Black is King bears some tangential relation to the film that inspired the music: the occasional snatch of dialogue from the new Lion King points up how and where it might align. Yet the creative brief was surely Beyoncé Triumphantly Returns To Africa, in an operation that seems likely to have involved a fleet of at least four private jets, carrying an entourage running into the hundreds if not thousands, and a cargo hold stuffed with roughly a year's worth of costume changes. As a work, it makes scant pretence to cohesion: it borrows from the Bible as much as its cinematic source riffed on or ripped off Hamlet, and not even Beyoncé herself appears to have been around for all of it. The crucial thing is that everyone and everything looks astonishing; every frame bears witness to the best composition, clothing and colour correction money can buy in the year 2020. Beyoncé's Africa isn't so far removed from a Vogue photoshoot or the Bizarro Africa of Black Panther's Wakanda: it's fantasy, not reality. But it's fantasy and then some, the fantasy that only follows from big blank cheques. I think Disney+, which is where the project has ended up this pandemic year, may need to initiate a new algorithmic category for its subscribers to toggle between. Call it Cheese Dreams Of The Rich and Famous.

On one level - musical - Black is King emerges as an expensive failure. There isn't a single song that struck this ear as catchy enough to whistle on the walk to the bus stop, let alone to last. The usual shortcomings of 21st century mass-market pop are all in evidence: hopelessly watery lyrics, melodies produced out of existence. Beyoncé recruited a baker's dozen of knob twiddlers to assist her in the studio (including Diplo, Labrinth and DJ Khaled), and while they tossed handfuls of hooks and beats into the mix - many of those half-inched from the Afrobeat scene - very few finally stick. (In this, it may have been the perfect accompaniment for a largely computer-generated Lion King remake.) As a state-of-the-art imagebank, however, the project operates on a whole other level. The best review of Black is King might simply be a four-word upper-case command: JUST LOOK AT IT. Blunt as that instruction might sound, it covers the basics here - that this is a hell of a thing to be looked at - while also gesturing towards its most overtly political dimension: the visibility the film grants to Black lives, bodies, hopes and dreams. The sequence laying out what life at home with Bey and Jay-Z must be like - complete with human chess, synchronised swimming à la Busby Berkeley, and so many sweetmeats the camera practically swoons into a diabetic coma - is probably best taken with a large, corrective pinch of salt. Even the rich have fantasies of what it must be to be rich; it's what gets them through all those meetings with accountants and lawyers, the long sessions with the personal trainer.

Yet whenever the camera moves off this project's prime mover and alights upon less celebrated Black subjects, Black is King becomes unexpectedly moving: the grand gesture is suddenly made intimate, affectionate. Here is a multimillionairess using all of her resources to offer a leg up to people who presumably have far less in the bank; here, too, a reminder of how inspiring pop culture can be whenever it troubles to look beyond itself. Even the lower-key segments - the ones that look most like common-or-garden pop promos you'd catch in passing while watching music television - pique the eye in some way, whether via an unfamiliar face, an angular dance move or the sequins on an outfit; and there are sequences in Black is King that make Tarsem Singh - the sometime pop-promo genius who went on to direct the properly spectacular The Fall and Immortals - look as dourly minimalist as Robert Bresson. Singh, I think, would love one particular image here: that of the woman with The Longest Hair In The World, posed atop a very tall ladder so as to flaunt her locks at their fullest extension. Such visual pleasures tend to be exhibited on screen for no more than five seconds tops, which is emblematic of the general approach: never mind the tunes, feel the riches. Black is King lets down its hair because - well, why not? Because it's worth it. Conceptually, Beyoncé has merely made a colossal, slap-up "premium dining experience" out of the meal chef Gary Byrd prepared over the ten minutes of 1983's "The Crown". (Just the one producer there: Stevie Wonder. Sometimes one producer is all you need.) Yet as an artefact, I suspect Black is King will prove more enduring than the plasticky duplication of The Lion King itself. If nothing else, it'll make you think anew about how amazing it must be to be Beyoncé: to live in a perfume ad every day of your life, to have a private army of stylists on hand so as to ensure you look like Cleopatra at every turn. And it's not like she needs that much help.

Black is King is now streaming via Disney+.

Saturday 21 November 2020

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK and Ireland box office (for November 13-15, 2020):

1 (4) The Secret Garden (PG)
2 (new) Billie (15) ***
3 (2) Honest Thief (15)
4 (new) War Horse - NT Live 2020 (12A)
5 (3) Two by Two: Overboard! (U)
6 (8) Cats & Dogs: Paws Unite! (U)
8 (18) Tenet (12A) **
9 (re) Jurassic Park (PG) ****
10 (re) 100% Wolf (PG)

(source: BFI)

My top five films currently on release:
1. Overseas

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Mulan (12A) ***
2 (1) Last Christmas (12)
3 (15) Elf (PG) **
4 (13) 1917 (15) ***
5 (3) Frozen 2 (U) **
7 (5) Onward (U) ***
8 (33) Dolittle (PG)
9 (re) The Grinch [2000] (PG) ***
10 (11) Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (12)

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Apartment [above] (Sunday, BBC2, 3.10pm)
2. A Fistful of Dollars (Tuesday, five, 11pm)
3. Brief Encounter (Saturday, BBC2, 4.50pm)
4. Galaxy Quest (Monday, five, 11pm)
5. The Martian (Saturday, C4, 8.45pm)

Tool time: "Patrick"

Paging Norris McWhirter: Patrick is going for the world record of most full-frontal nudity per square inch of movie. Before anybody gets too excited or riled up, I should point out that the nudity is contextually justified and site-specific. This super-droll Belgian comedy - latest in a long line of super-droll Belgian comedies - is set within the confines of an Ardennes nudist camp. It may be a 1970s nudist camp, if the interior design and some of the pubic foliage is anything to go by; it may just be stuck in the Seventies, cut off from the modern world by the surrounding forest and a let-it-all-hang-out ethos. Either way, director Tim Mielants and co-writer Benjamin Sprengers have, somewhat amazingly, found room among all the bits and bobs both to focus and fashion a bizarrely epic quest narrative. On the very day his father - the camp's owner - passes on, simple fortysomething handyman Patrick (Kevin Janssens) notices that one of his set of hammers has been removed from his workshop. So off he sets, winding his way past nudey well-wishers and unhappy campers to retrieve the missing item. You may start to wonder whether some form of displacement is in play: the hammer surely stands for all that our hero has lost, and everything he hasn't yet found. But Mielants and Sprengers are already ahead of you. "You are going through an existential phase," Patrick is told by Liliane (Ariane Van Vliet), the married woman who jumps on our hero from time to time. Well, yes, but as the tale of a rugged fellow who wants to feel a long, hard tool in his hand again, Patrick also merits immediate recommendation to two possibly not-so-distinct demographics: perverts and psychiatrists.

What a droll, singular film this is. So droll, in fact, that when Jemaine Clement, patron saint of the leftfield comedy, shows up at reception as a bohemian American rocker, he's only the seventh or eighth drollest thing in the movie. It's the plot that keeps tickling you. Returning home from a (fully clothed) dash to the nearest hardware store, where he learns his beloved hammer is no longer on the market and picks up a replacement that doesn't quite have the same reassuring heft, Patrick finds a note pushed under his door that suggests the missing item is being held to ransom by persons unknown. Thus the handyman turns bottomless Poirot, traipsing from tent to chalet to camper van and interrogating the gathered guests as to the hammer's whereabouts. A recurring joke is to pitch our hero, knob out, into the middle of other people's stresses and strains. This has to be the least relaxed nudist camp in cinema history: the death of the owner has raised issues of security and status anxiety that leave everybody jittery, and that errant hammer really isn't helping. Patrick, for his part, bears the vaguest resemblance to one of Will Ferrell's comic disruptions: Janssens has a recognisably Ferrellian look, huffing beetlebrowed, square-fringed and pantsless from one side of the campsite to the other. Yet, hammer or not, he hits all the beats in this story on a downturn. As a character, he's more sadsack than agent of chaos, and he never seems all that far from the brink of some terrible violence. Cinephiles will recall Janssens was the rapist in 2017's Revenge, but you wouldn't have to have seen that film to question just what Patrick wants this hammer for.

The film wouldn't work this well if its main character were merely a joke. We have to want Patrick to find his damn hammer and some measure of peace, and thanks to Janssens' very skilled, oddly internalised performance, we do. It sounds outlandish to call that performance restrained, given that his penis is front-and-centre for much of it, but the purity of this character's love for his hammer (and thus his dad?) keeps Patrick more sincere than snarky or smutty. It's not the only place where you spot how shrewdly the film has been directed, easing it beyond the realm of novelty. A film with this much casual nudity might not have required a keen visual sense, but Mielants (who's cut his teeth on such TV shows as Peaky Blinders) adds the trees that bisect the campsite - and thus the frame - to the many obstacles his protagonist must slalom between. There are shots that are making me laugh even as I remember them, like the slow pan up from a congregation of boules to, well, the boules of the old men tossing them. And I chuckled at Mielants' framing of campsite martinet Wilfried (Pierre Bokma) as a sort of bare-arsed Hitler, who sees the owner's death as an opportunity to push for greater lebensraum; his contempt for Patrick and the masculinity Patrick represents generates one of the great fight scenes of recent times, careening through the limited space of a poorly moored mobile home. Yet, once again, Mielants isn't just here for cheap titters: a cut late on counts among the most unexpectedly potent I've seen this year. There's one other group I should recommend Patrick to, and that's aspirant screenwriters, for whom Mielants' film may provide an education greater than any number of Robert McKee or Syd Field seminars. This is about the simplest story a movie can tell: object goes AWOL, man desires object, man pursues object. Yet it's also proof that with the right script and spirit, and the assistance of very game players, a filmmaker can still fashion one-of-a-kind cinema from the bare essentials.

Patrick screens from today at Cardiff's Chapter Cinema, and is now available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema. 

Friday 20 November 2020

Stopping the rot: "Collective"

The hook of the Romanian documentary Collective is that of watching a hitherto unknown story being pieced together. In October 2015, a fire that broke out during a gig at the Bucharest nightclub Colectiv killed 27 people and injured 180, a tragedy preventable enough that it brought down a sitting government. (Let's just say this information is sobering when viewed from the perspective of post-Grenfell Britain.) Still, this wasn't the half of it. A further 37 people later perished in hospital, ill-equipped as they were to handle such an elevated number of burn victims. How ill-equipped those hospitals were was a scandal exposed by a team of journalists, headed by editor Cătălin Tolontan, writing in the Gazeta Sporturilor (Sports Gazette). Digging into the detail of these cases as they'd more typically done the possession stats of Liga 1 football matches, Tolontan's team didn't know what they were onto at the outset, just that something smelled funny; it was follow-your-nose journalism in its essence. What they uncovered was criminal negligence at the highest levels of national government, a failure to provide the right care that spoke to a wider, graver moral failure. The filmmaker Alexander Nanau showed up in the Gazeta newsroom as the plot thickened, perhaps with an eye to illustrating that sunlight is still the best disinfectant - a phrase that assumed a whole new meaning in this particular case. Yet what he spied as that case developed were the Romanian state's darkest, most dysfunctional corners, black holes no sunbeam could possibly penetrate, those places in which hope curls up to die.

In this, Collective picks up from those Romanian New Wave fictions of the Noughties, with their heightened fidelity to everyday realities, however unappetising they might be. Those films were so dependent on a rigorously maintained minimalism for their effects that the movement gave itself little room to develop; it's why that Wave dissipated within a decade. Its ripples persist here, though, both thematically (Romania as hotbed of rank corruption, the legacy of the Ceaucescu regime) and stylistically (the quiet, unflashy observation of same). Early on, there are one or two sequences where the journalists are caught painstakingly explaining information they must already know to one another; I was reminded of those scenes in CSI where scientists patiently explain forensic procedure for the sake of the watching layperson. Here, clearly, we're being caught up. Yet gradually Collective assumes a weight of veracity, doggedly circling around subjects in meeting rooms who actually look like journos. It's what Spotlight was going for, even as it sought to disguise individuals who looked like Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo in flannel and chinos. What's heroic is the effort to define and tell a story where the stonewalling authorities insisted there was none - and where some blustering observers (and this seems very pertinent to the world beyond Romania) insisted a prying press were the real problem.

We know headway of a sort is being made when the newly appointed health minister Vlad Voiculescu - a conscientious young reformer, someone appointed to make right and restore faith - invites Nanau in to film his own meetings. All of a sudden, Collective permits us a sense of doors being opened, just a ray or two of sunlight creeping into shot. But there's only so much Voiculescu can achieve; he's firefighting after the fact. For all the hopes that might be raised by this minister's easy, unforced transparency, his admirable willingness to meet firsthand with survivors of the Colectiv fire, his ability to laugh off the slurs of the populist press, what Nanau's film ultimately comes to document is an irresolvable tension between individuals and the system they've inherited. What public servants like Tolontan and Voiculescu find themselves up against are the last remnants of the old ways, a mouldering rot resistant to anything so radical or revivifying as a root-and-branch clearout. (Again, the problem would appear as international as it is local: cf. The White House or Downing Street, late November 2020.) That Collective is informed by a considerable degree of leftist despair - the same despair one may have felt watching David Simon's The Wire, say; the despair one feels in the presence of Brexit, or Trump, or Boris Johnson - becomes more and more apparent the deeper we burrow into its two hours. 

Yet even amid the galling detail of this case (the slaphappy invoicing, the maggots gathering on flesh wounds) and even as we travel further from the nightclub fire itself, Nanau never loses sight of what was at stake in the Gazeta team's investigation, and why it remains so important to come out fighting for the truth. From time to time, in the course of the occasional quiet news day, his camera checks in with Tedy Ursuleanu, a badly scarred amputee who was in the Colectiv that October night and now faces the uphill struggle of pulling her body, life and soul back together. And in the closing moments, Nanau joins a family around the graveside of their teenage son, who didn't even have the consolatory luck of escaping the fire with a tattered life. That's who team Tolontan are fighting for; the anger we can sporadically feel pulsing through the film's veins derives from the understanding these people should never have had to reassemble themselves in this way. Collective is destined for positive reviews, because it makes beleaguered journalists the heroes, but there's no reason why it shouldn't also play to an audience of compassionate citizens, and explain to anybody else why good journalism matters. Because - as the past decade has so amply demonstrated - someone needs to keep an eye on those drawn to positions of power. Because that vigilance and diligence is oftentimes the difference between life and death.  

Collective screens on Thu 26 at the Robert Burns Centre in Dumfries, and is available to stream today via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

Thursday 19 November 2020

Mother and child reunion: "Asia"

Israeli writer-director Ruthy Pribar's Asia gets right what a surprising number of films get wrong, casting as mother and daughter a pair of actresses who actively look like blood relations. See them in profile, and they could easily be mistaken - as an onscreen bartender does at one point - for sisters. This casting coup is central to the effects of a film that spends at least half of its running time inviting us to compare and contrast, to run two ever so slightly estranged lives in parallel, and weigh up which is the wobblier. The mother, Asia (Leningrad-born Alena Yiv, speaking Hebrew with a distinctively Slavic twang), is a nurse clinging to the notion that 40 is the new 20, insistent that her nights off be her own: cue drinking, dancing and bunk-ups in a car passenger seat with a bearded fuckbuddy. Her absence from the domestic scene allows a little more wiggle room for teenage daughter Vika (Shira Haas, from Netflix's Unorthodox), who's just started to discover the delights of drink and weed in the company of the local skater boys; a risky business, doubly so when you're battling a form of motor neurone disease, as Vika is. Both of our heroines are too busy asserting their independence - soliciting affection and affirmation, before some notional clock runs out - for there to be much in the way of mother-daughter interdependence. For all that these two might resemble one another, they meet in the kitchen in the early hours almost as strangers or flatmates. Yet Pribar brings us to the table at the beginnings of a forced detente, brought about by a dramatic downturn in the junior party's health.

That development carries Asia within touching distance of the afternoon TV movie and many long yards of awards bait (unsurprisingly, it's the Israeli entrant for this year's foreign-language Oscar race), but Pribar's handling proves unusually thoughtful, not least in the way she sets out different kinds of caring for us to evaluate. If the relationship at the film's centre has gone neglected by these characters, the filmmaker surrounds it with evidence of empathy besides. The colleague Asia sporadically romps with (Gera Sandler) expresses evident concern for Vika, but remains wise enough not to press for a more permanent position in her mother's overburdened life. Also present, in every sense: Gabi (Tamir Mula), the Arab porter Asia recruits first as home help, then to go beyond the call of domestic duty. (There may be something quietly political in Pribar's conception of an Arab-Israeli alliance for the betterment of the next generation.) Pribar has taken that old wisdom about it taking a village to raise a child, and relocated it to the modern, multi-ethnic, time-pressed city. One of her most forgiving gestures is her portrait of Asia herself. It's not that this mother doesn't care for her child; it seems more likely that she's just all cared out whenever she clocks off - and is then faced with a patient in her own front room. Though she approaches some big issues here (family, loss, that ever more permeable boundary between work and life), Pribar goes gently, without histrionics; even the conversations characters have in the outside world rarely rise above the respectful volume one would use in a hospital corridor. I suspect Asia might for that reason have been drowned out in cinemas, but it can only benefit from lockdown viewing; it's the kind of intimate drama where we instinctively lean in to catch the nuances, and find ourselves drawn into the characters' lives. That's as much as anything an actors' achievement, and Haas in particular is very affecting as a soul bright enough to know her body is shutting down on her. By the moving home stretch, two sometime lookalikes appear physically very different, but spiritually closer than ever. This is a film with a nice, well-tempered shape to it.

Asia opens tomorrow at the Everyman Cardiff and Showcase Cardiff, and will be available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema.

The hunt: "Cemetery"

Cemetery is a film made with French money by a Spanish director that drifts into territory commonly occupied by the work of Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul before emerging, after a dark, mystical night, into a place all its own. No wonder it should strike us as so unmoored: even the synopsis currently being offered for it at its temporary home of MUBI UK floats the idea it may finally all be a dream. The curveball that synopsis throws is the suggestion Cemetery is all an elephant's dream. Slow cinema by definition, Carlos Casas's film follows a pachyderm - the last on the planet, according to an opening text - as he mournfully plods into a Sri Lankan jungle, pursued by poachers in search of the fabled elephants' graveyard. Of course, this narrative is but flimsy construction, literally mere pretext: the film provided Casas with the opportunity to get out in the wilds, call up an elephant handler, and shoot as much up-close coverage as one could of his magnificent charge, perhaps from the viewpoint there really aren't all that many elephants left for anyone, poacher or director, to shoot. There's barely a square inch of hide that isn't dwelled upon during Cemetery's first act. Elephant legs! Elephant jowls! The folds of a trunk! Folks used to pay a pretty premium at touring carnivals to witness such rare beasts in the flesh; something of that awe is visible in Casas's line of approach, but - this being a capital-A Artfilm - I was also reminded of the way Douglas Gordon obsessively trained his cameras on Zinedine Zidane for the ninety minutes of Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait. This lumbering subject doesn't have anything like Zidane's turn of pace, granted, but that only affords Casas more time to set his cameras running - as does the elephant's tendency to lie down in a river, or stop to grab his lunch from an overhanging tree.

If he doesn't take easy direction, does Jumbo hold our gaze for 85 minutes? While the all-singing troop led by Colonel Hathi in Disney's The Jungle Book shall forever remain my favourite screen elephants, the old warrior Casas looks towards displays some charisma: with his sleepy eyes, leathery skin and heavy tread, he's not unlike Robert Mitchum in his 70s dotage. (You probably wouldn't want to cross either of them, just to be on the safe side.) There's a tremendous sequence where the handler attempts to wash behind the elephant's ears, like a mother with a recalcitrant child - a process that in this instance involves folding the creature's flapping great lugholes back over half of its face. This is but several rituals we're made privy to en route to the film's ultimate destination, some of which (washing, shaving, food preparation) prove more explicable than others (a burning of documents). Casas also stokes the tension of those poachers closing in, albeit at a guarded distance, studying droppings, looking for evidence of trampling. Their plodding is less compelling than that of our tusked hero, because the movies have shown us men schlepping through woods a thousand times over. Their progress does, however, add to the sense we're watching a thriller in slow motion, which I think accounts for the film's genuine dreamlike quality. Brace yourself for a twenty-minute sequence towards the end shot in near-complete darkness, apparently with a camera strapped to the elephant's back. Yet the pockets of tranquility Casas carries us into are the real deal: see the man kneeling in prayer by the side of a lake as night falls, with no other signs of life around save the insects heard in the trees. Look up - as this camera does from time to time - and you can still see the stars; there are long, oddly fascinating stretches of Cemetery where we seem miles away from civilisation, the Coronavirus, and anything else currently playing.

Cemetery is now streaming via MUBI UK.

Tuesday 17 November 2020

The quiet man: "Lennox: The Untold Story"

That low rumble you can hear is the Christmas-DVDs-for-dads market gearing up for another year's business. This year's frontrunner is likely to remain Gabriel Clarke and Pete Thomas's Finding Jack Charlton, which reaches stockists this coming Monday. Seth Koch and Rick Lazes' Lennox: the Untold Story never gets close to landing the same emotional punch, in large part because its subject is found in an altogether better shape. Still, even a project as basic as this can't fail to notice that Lennox Lewis has something of an image problem. As a prologue sets out, the heavyweight championship belt has passed between such legendary figures as Rocky Marciano ("the unbeatable"), Muhammad Ali ("the greatest"), George Foreman ("the strongest") and Mike Tyson ("the baddest man on the planet"). How, then, might one begin to sum up the British-born, Canadian-raised Lewis, a three-time world champion back in the 1990s? The nicest? The quietest? Koch and Lazes clearly realised they needed a gifted hype man to help talk up this story, so they've turned to Dr. Dre to narrate what proves a slick, A-to-B account of Lewis's progress through the junior and amateur ranks and eventual coronation amid those big HBO fight nights. It's a little jolting to hear a founder member of NWA having to navigate this script's largely indifferent treatment of East End poverty (the film rattles through the boxer's backstory to get to the million-dollar paydays); during the end credits, we see Dre narrating Lewis's rise to prominence while the boxer himself hangs out in the studio, which underlines the largely uncritical nature of the story being told here. Deviate from a fighter's approved biographical line, and you risk getting at the very least a thick ear.

Not that there's all that much controversy to address when it comes to Lewis. (There's been far more around Dre, but we forget about that.) The biographical gabble turns up the odd diverting scrap of footage: young Lennox playing Mega Drive with his teenage pals (the EA Sports logo glimpsed on his shorts as he enters the ring to face Tyson is a small, poignant marker of how far he'd travelled), highlights of his Olympic boxing career, which was considerable, impressive, and often overlooked as he collected the gaudy tchotchkes that follow from a successful pro career. But the interviews with old friends and fellow warriors are the very opposite of revealing: time and again, all we hear is how loyal and level-headed Lennox is. Now a happily retired husband and father, Lewis himself is upright in his obligation Kangol flat cap, and articulate in a way many of his predecessors and contemporaries can no longer be, a further sign of his success. (He got out of the game before it impaired him, and while he was in it, he was good enough not to get hit all that often.) And so we keep spotting Koch and Lazes wobbling around their rather straightforward narrative line, wondering whether there are more compelling stories around that they might put on tape. They visibly linger a beat or two extra when interviewing Tyson, with whom Lewis's career was intertwined from a junior level; someone behind the camera clearly wishes James Toback hadn't beaten them to that story. And the directors are understandably sensitive about framing the testimony of Kellie (formerly Frank) Maloney, the trans promoter who, it turns out, will be the subject of Koch and Lazes' next documentary. There's a story for you, fraught with internal struggle and wider social implications; I look forward to hearing what your dad made of it next Christmas. This one's no more than a light sparring session, largely unmemorable: it'll be bought on Christmas Eve, watched on Christmas Day, and on the shelves of charity shops everywhere by the 28th.

Lennox: The Untold Story is available to rent via Prime Video, and on DVD through Altitude.

Monday 16 November 2020

The days of Lady Day: "Billie"

The first surprise Billie confronts us with is that there hasn't yet been a feature-length documentary on the life and death of Billie Holiday - a gap in the market that seems doubly curious given that 1972's feature-length dramatisation Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross as Holiday, has all but dropped out of circulation. James Erskine's new doc, which does a respectable job of plugging that gap, follows a template set down by Asif Kapadia in 2015's Amy. The key material here is a previously unheard cache of interviews journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl taped in the 1970s with an eye to writing a biography that never materialised. As the film flags from the off, Lipnack Kuehl was found dead on a Washington sidestreet in 1978, apparently after jumping from a window in a suicide her sister questions to this day. The tapes are thereby granted the significance of a hot potato, or a smoking gun: what did Lipnack Kuehl hear that others might have wanted erased from any official record? We'll never know, but already you have some sense of how Erskine prioritises the voice - and, in his subject's case, That Voice. In her unfinished manuscript, Lipnack Kuehl wrote "My first encounter with Billie Holiday was as a listener"; picking up this thread in post-production, Erskine typically runs titbits from a Holiday interview or the words of an admirer singing her praises over a choice Billie cut. This is a film to keep your ears busy, and happy. Yet Billie also means to address the issue of whose stories are told and which voices get heard. Born into poverty in Baltimore in 1915, and coming to prominence in a still-segregated Land of the Free, the Billie Holiday story presents as a test case for a century in which Black lives were elevated above the status of slaves, but not so much as to make a vast difference. You find yourself sucking in air faced with one damning fact in the closing credits: that Holiday, one of the highest paid entertainers in mid-20th century America, passed on with a mere $750 to her name.

The advantage of having the journo's tapes as a resource is that Lipnack Kuehl was asking smart questions of remarkably unguarded interviewees. She got to them long enough after the events under discussion for conversations to flow freely and frankly, and so Billie drips with candour from the get-go: its subject enlightening us as to her momma's favourite cursewords. Pianist Jimmy Rowles notes that Holiday "sang from the crotch" before expressing regret that he never got there; her actual lovers describe her as a sex machine. Erskine capably evokes the seamy Harlem nightclub scene into which the teenage Holiday emerged in the Thirties, with its rooms full of reefer smoke and temptations besides. Yet the thrust of Lipnack Kuehl's manuscript was that whatever Holiday grabbed at and gobbled up (weed, opium, booze, men, women; her appetite was boundless), it was finally her choice; that, far from popular perception, she wasn't exactly a victim. As the writer put it, in what would have provided a fine pullquote for the sleeve of either her published book or a dimestore novel, "She did what she wanted to do... with a vengeance." Central to that was a recognition on the singer's part of the relative privilege she'd been extended upon moving away from Baltimore and into the limelight - a privilege that certainly wasn't available to her smalltown contemporaries. (It was that knowledge, surely, that yielded "Strange Fruit".) Still, Erskine also shows us how, even while she was running rampant, Holiday kept running up against what those (white) folks who ran the music business expected from Black performers. The accusations fly when it comes to addressing Holiday's departure from the Count Basie Orchestra. And if the bookers and label bosses didn't want this unavoidable talent to sing jazz, they really didn't want her singing protest songs about lynching. Charles Mingus, one of Lipnack Kuehl's higher profile interviewees, notes Billie "was exposing discrimination before Martin Luther King".

Erskine enters this arena after a run of eminently watchable sports documentaries (One Night in Turin, From the Ashes, The Battle of the Sexes) in which he honed a knack for assembling pacy, atmospheric, ninety-minute primers. Like most of the films on this CV, Billie flows and catches us up in the story being told. Early on, I feared it might be a little too audio-heavy, if anything, but the director has had a useful rummage in the archives, and together with editor Avdhesh Mohla, he's generally selected the right images to crystallise key moments in the Billie legend, be those happy (the arresting glamour of Thirties promotional stills, shots only a flashbulb camera could generate) or troubled (contrast: the late shot of Holiday in a recording studio, glass of vodka in hand, looking a shadow of her robust former self). The other debatable issue is the Lipnack Kuehl story, a loose end threaded in with the narrative proper. I think Erskine sees two things in this counterpoint, primarily the very great responsibility this white devotee of Holiday's felt in setting out to tell her idol's story. (Erskine doubtless feels that pressure, too.) Secondly, the journalist's narrative goes towards what people have subsequently seen in Billie, and how deleterious it might be to romanticise the singer's masochism, or to try and make a feminist figurehead out of a badly beaten woman. As the recent trajectories of Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston illustrated, you really want to follow in Holiday's footsteps only up to a point. In deviating from his source, then, Erskine succeeds in rounding out Lipnack Kuehl's manuscript with life-wisdom, similarly hymning Holiday's achievements while also being careful to flag the quiet, almost unnoticed everyday tragedies this life entailed. At one point, Holiday's friend Sylvia Syms can be heard telling Lipnack Kuehl that the singer cried, "but only when she was certain nobody else was around". Singular as Billie Holiday was in several respects, I don't think she was alone in that.

Billie is now showing at the Showcase Cardiff and the Everyman Cardiff, and available to rent via Amazon Prime, Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player; the DVD will be available through Spirit Entertainment on November 30.