Friday 26 February 2021

For what it's worth...

My top ten streaming picks (for the week beginning February 26, 2021):

1.  Zappa (uncertificated) **** (Altitude)
2. Digger (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
3. The Twentieth Century (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
4. Dead Pigs (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
5 (re) Song Without A Name (12) *** (Prime Video, Curzon)
6. I Care A Lot (15) *** (Prime Video)
7. Uppercase Print (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)
8. Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar (15) *** (Prime Video, Curzon)
9. Slalom (18) *** (Curzon)
10. If It Were Love (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (19) The Secret Garden (PG)
2 (2) Roald Dahl's The Witches (PG)
3 (1) Sing (U) ***
4 (4) Spider-Man: Far from Home (12) ***
5 (5) Despicable Me 3 (U)
6 (7) Jumanji: The Next Level (12)
7 (8) Trolls World Tour (U)
8 (22) Sonic the Hedgehog (PG)
9 (new) Anti-Life (15)
10 (3) The Greatest Showman (PG)

My top five: 
1. Possessor

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Apocalypse Now [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 11pm)
2. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Sunday, ITV, 2.05pm)
3. Source Code (Friday, BBC1, 11.55pm)
4. 2012 (Sunday, five, 5.05pm and Wednesday, five, 10.30pm)
5. Frantz (Saturday, BBC2, 1.55am)

Wednesday 24 February 2021

Jesus walks: "IWOW: I Walk on Water"

Well, this seems ominous. Lauded for his contribution to Beyoncé's Lemonade project and 2018's Black Mother, Khalik Allah has now compiled a three-hour, 20-minute non-fiction film in which - to quote the IMDb synopsis - "inspired by psychedelic mushrooms, [he] sees himself as a reincarnation of Jesus, with his mission of charity among Harlem's poor". (My first response was to recall the old Lee and Herring running gag: "It's not for me to say whether I'm like Jesus. But...") I'm still advising nothing but caution here, but there's an extent to which IWOW: I Walk on Water could be approached as a film-diary in the tradition of the late, great Jonas Mekas. It's composed of arbitrary shots Allah snatched on his travels; these have been layered up with snippets of conversation the director had with his collaborators, loved ones, and those he encountered on the street, some of whom - addicts, beggars, itinerants - are in a state of physical disrepair rarely put on screen. (Another way of approaching I Walk on Water: as a riposte to the moneyed whiteness of the New York Martin Scorsese and Fran Lebowitz hymned in Pretend It's A City.) Allah never goes full Redeemer and dons the flowing robes, but the tone of early interactions is unmistakably religiose; you can see why he was sought out by the openly Christian Beyoncé. After prayers to initiate the new production, the film starts to assert some equivalence between the street people Allah's camera alights on and those upon which Christ is reported to have gazed so benevolently. A deft study of a dragonfly at play in the fields of the Lord, tucked into the opening minutes, underlines this filmmaker's capacity for harvesting sheeny beauty from the world around him; once he comes inland, the task he assumes is to find a similar grace amid the bustle-and-sirens of the Harlem everyday.

Does he succeed? Only sporadically, and - if I'm being completely honest - even that success rate nosedives rapidly as the film meanders onwards. This is a work of two halves (it had its genesis in Allah's 2017 project Souls Against the Concrete), and the effort to stitch it into a coherent whole comprehensively fails: it is, in the end, the kind of mess only a creative who's received the personal benediction of Beyoncé gets to release. Yet the first half works in flickers and flashes, and some of those flickers and flashes retain a potency beyond the reach of more consistent endeavours. These highlights come about as a result of Allah's patient, empathetic street-corner portraiture, for the most part pulled off - near-miraculously - in phosphorescent shopfront light. Allah approaches his subjects on the level, doesn't deign to subtitle or otherwise speak for them (which shores up the project's authenticity, even as it leads to occasional issues of clarity), and looks forgivingly upon their variably weathered, wayward humanity. Perhaps most surprisingly of all - given the current social climate in America - Allah extends the fondness of his gaze to the police officers of Harlem, and they appear more than happy to appear on camera: he makes them look good, too. On the soundtrack, we hear the filmmaker making a distinction between the uniform and the men and women wearing it; be you junkie, cop or hipster, the rationale seems to be, we're all the same underneath. Is that Christ-like? It's not for me to say. 

That's the rational, outward-looking half of the film, and - like I say - it's not without interest. If the other half (there's a clear formal break around the midpoint) constitutes any kind of artistic statement whatsoever, it boils down to this: fuck it. Suddenly, we find Allah in his parents' home, announcing his plan to complete the film while taking shrooms, and waving off his mother's cautions with a very unironic-sounding "I'm a genius!" For an hour thereafter, I Walk on Water becomes every bit as tedious as any film made under the influence of the wrong kind of drugs. The question posed by this stretch - and it is a stretch, easily the dullest spell of cinema I've had to sit through for several years - is this: did Allah really lose it mid-production, either through the proximity of narcotics or a misplaced sense of his own greatness, or is the second half a sorry kind of put-on? Either way, it has a familiar air: Khalid doing a Kanye. Initially, the rupture intrigues, because it shifts I Walk on Water out of the poetic-observational mode into which it had seemed to settle. The trouble is that it shifts the film closer to the gross indulgence that IMDb synopsis suggested. Streetlife gives way to a portrait of Allah's lovelife: Camilla, the Italian waif with whom we hear the director sharing pillow talk early on, recedes from view, then returns to occupy the space previously occupied by less privileged Black subjects. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is just becoming unbearable, clogged with the director's nocturnal teeth-grinding. The engaged, alert Allah of Souls Against the Concrete - someone you might actually want as your own personal Jesus - vanishes, replaced by a mopey, self-absorbed dullard, surrounded by awful, awful sycophants. He's passed beyond street people and into the realm of the true untouchables - those prematurely idolised imagemakers (note how often Allah rolls out the poster for Black Mother here) whom nobody is going to redirect when their project strays this badly from the path. Cults have gathered around lesser talents, but I struggled to believe after a while, let's put it like that.

IWOW: I Walk on Water will be available to stream from Friday via selected independent cinemas, Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and Dogwoof on Demand.

Tuesday 23 February 2021

On demand: "The White Tiger"

Soon after Ramin Bahrani's The White Tiger went live on Netflix last month, a striking contrast became apparent, born of our globalised moment: the same text was being appraised in different ways around the world in real time. Western critics, in near-universally favourable reviews, all but positioned Bahrani's film as this year's Parasite, concluding this superior entertainment had much to say about modern India. Indian critics, more measured in their responses, were keen to point out this darkly comic rags-to-riches romp really bore no greater resemblance to daily reality than Danny Boyle's Oscar-winning fairytale Slumdog Millionaire, a film The White Tiger explicitly references and defines itself against. 
Some element of misconception, of authorial bamboozling, had been baked into the source material, Aravind Adiga's 2008 Booker winner. Early on in the film, our protagonist can be heard making an offer to tell the viewer "the story of India, by telling you the story of my life". The trouble with this is that we're dealing with a murderously unreliable narrator, an individual prepared to tell the listener exactly what they want to hear in order to advance his cause. Naturally, he's headed into either business or politics.

Who is this shifty sociopath? He goes by the name of Balram (and is played by newcomer Adarsh Gourav), though even this has the air of an alias, and Bahrani introduces him to us several times over. In the Delhi of 2007, he presents as the meek young chauffeur to a Westernised power couple (Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra Jonas). In the Bangalore of 2010, he shapes up as a self-made entrepreneur with obligatory, Chabuddy G-style ponytail. A flashback fills us in as to his schooling in rural poverty; somewhere along the line, we even get a glimpse of Balram's image on a missing-persons poster. This will be one of the film's most effective tactics. Only belatedly is its bumfluffed blank of a central character allowed to snap into full focus; for much of the running time, we're monitoring him as he reconfigures himself between states, like water wavering between vapour and ice. Balram operates at a similar temperature, it transpires. At face value, an extension of the many dirt-poor grafters in the Bahrani back catalogue (Man Push Cart, Goodbye Solo, 99 Homes), he's distinguished from that opening bout of narration by his heightened awareness of his place in the pecking order ("the rooster cage", as he calls it, throwing back to his childhood) and his willingness to do anything - no scruples, no limits, no red lines - to get ahead. Does that make him representative of modern India? You be the ref.

A more conclusive discussion may be what The White Tiger has to say about Ramin Bahrani. I liked his earlier films as much as anyone - okay, maybe not as much as Ebert - but they could never be mistaken for crowdpleasers. (When he set out to court middle America with 2012's Zac Efron-starring NASCAR drama At Any Price, its R rating - an 18 in the UK, the consequence of a stray pornographic image - immediately decimated its commercial prospects.) Here, armed with Netflix funding and proven material, he turns a corner in his career and engages in some shapeshifting of his own: this will, I suspect, be Bahrani's most watched film by a country mile. Watch The White Tiger in a double-bill with Netflix's other recent, Delhi-set acquisition, Prateek Vats' Eeb Allay Ooo!, and it'll only underline how the rigorous social realism of Bahrani's earlier work has given way to something slicker: star faces, soundtrack cues from the blingier end of hip-hop, a snappy pace. Some doubts may follow from that. (At the very least, we're given pause to wonder if Netflix money might convert even Ken Loach into Chris Columbus.) Yet Bahrani makes such smart, rewarding choices that you'd have to be a real grouch to begrudge him this success. 

For starters, The White Tiger has been very astutely cast, not just from a commercial perspective, but for how much personality it gets into each scene. Rao and Chopra Jonas, major Bollywood stars both, have the couple's floaty, champagne-bubble privilege down pat, but also sketch some internal power dynamic, him far weaker than her. And Gourav is convincingly bristling, which becomes ever more important as that bumfluff grows out into a rake's moustache, and a revenge plot starts to take shape. At almost every turn, his Balram is smarter than anybody around him cares to believe, and Gourav nimbly negotiates the narration that serves as a holdover from the book: if the film messes with us, it's largely the result of this performance, how this young man plays us, too, for suckers. That's another sign of Bahrani's influence: whatever mode he happens to be working in (and however much money he's now getting to play with), he's emerged as a remarkably assured storyteller. Note how he constructs the final shot to suggest what's been left behind in his protagonist's wake; even the curious structural wrinkle of giving us some of the middle and the end at the beginning adds to our sense that everything and everyone in this story is jostling for position.

Is that where my colleagues got their ideas from? The film shows us an India in a state of constant motion and agitation, such that each moment holds the prospect of efflorescence and/or explosion, depending on which way the money goes round. Maybe I'm falling into Balram's trap now, over-extrapolating from this one, notably extreme Indian life. (The title, after all, refers to a once-in-a-generation predator.) The thought struck me that the hyper-accelerated pace of the world in general, and of Indian development in particular, may have left the country Adiga was writing about back in the Noughties for dust; that to critics and viewers living in the India of farmers' protests and Disha Ravi, Bahrani's film may already have the look of a quaint period piece. (Imagine, my Western friends, a movie claimed as representing "modern Britain" that doesn't venture beyond the year 2010 chronologically.) In the end, perhaps The White Tiger says no more nor less about modern India than Kind Hearts and Coronets did about the Britain of 1949, or The Talented Mr. Ripley did about post-War America and Europe. There are doubtless a few truths about human nature tucked away in there, and a fine evening's entertainment besides, but you'd be a fool to take such a skilfully slippery piece of work so completely at its word.

The White Tiger is now streaming via Netflix.

Monday 22 February 2021

Swimming with sharks: "I Care A Lot"

Those in search of fuzzily reassuring feelgood fare would do well to give the films of J. Blakeson an extra wide berth. That much first became apparent in the course of 2009's The Disappearance of Alice Creed, this filmmaker's slyly seesawing directorial debut, where none of the three central characters were quite as they first seemed - or, rather, all three had extra depths of low cunning to which they merrily descended. Somehow, Blakeson - so compulsively withholding he's thus far succeeded in keeping his given name from public view (might it be Jaundice?) - has since secured a visa to work in sunny, optimistic America, and after the unhappy YA of 2016's The 5th Wave, he returns to appreciably nasty form with this week's self-penned I Care A Lot, a black-comic thriller set within the US healthcare system. Its outwardly upright centrepoint is Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), who's seized upon a loophole by getting herself appointed legal guardian to those moneyed husks languishing in care-home facilities, and thereafter milking them for as long as they remain on this mortal coil. Judging from her aspirational wardrobe and girlfriend (Eiza González), and the ruthless cut of her perfectly symmetrical bob - truly, if locks could kill - she's doing more than all right from it, too. Yet like most of those hustling within unregulated free market economies, this high-flying alpha is still swimming with sharks. She bites off what looks to be far more than even she can chew in the case of Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), who - unlike Marla's other cash cows - remains just compos mentis enough to realise something's awry, and furthermore has a son (Peter Dinklage) with ties to the Russian mob. It's becoming Blakeson's preferred tactic: centre a movie on an unscrupulous character, introduce folks with fewer scruples yet, sit back cackling and rubbing hands with glee, hope audience does likewise. I did, for the most part.

For much of its running time, I Care A Lot is the Pike show, and further proof that this actress has grown into one of our most commanding and unflappable performers. My suspicion is that Blakeson may well be one of those weirdoes who overvalues 2014's Gone Girl, from the back end of David Fincher's openly contemptuous give-'em-what-they-want phase; traces of that succès de scandale persist here in the gleeful plot switchbacks and incorrigible sex-war stoking. Marla Grayson seems like an evolution on Amy Dunne, however, not least in her corporate slickness, her ability to play nice so long as it gets her what she wants: she's by far the more polished sociopath. Marla does get what she wants for 45 minutes, and then the movie starts tossing ball bearings under her Blahniks. If she becomes any less reprehensible in the course of what follows, it's down to the way this giraffe-on-rollerskates retains her poise; even after our anti-heroine is dumped in a lake and left for dead, she ain't going down easy. "I don't like you," spits Dinklage, when the two finally come face-to-face in the second half. Marla's response? "You've only just met me." As with the mobster, so with the viewer. What's kept Blakeson's self-penned work from glibness is this skill with actors: his characters may be dreadful shits, but they're fun to watch as they skid around and sometimes down the pan. A few manage that in mere scenes. As a peacocking lawyer doing the right thing in the worst way, Chris Messina coasts into Marla's office on a cloud of cologne and supercilious charm that doesn't entirely mask the underlying violence of his message; Wiest, purged of her usual sweetness, makes Jennifer a slightly conniving victim, someone who realises one way to wriggle out of this snafu might be to act up. Dinklage, by contrast, keeps his mobster on a skilful low simmer - an angrily discarded smoothie is his most prominent victim for the first hour - although his casting may have symbolic value. This, after all, is a film that might not exist without the dubious moral relativism of Game of Thrones, with its insistence the world is a bearpit, but we'll be dead soon enough. Why not take a few hours' enjoyment from the sight of others being dragged down and ripped to shreds? If you're in the mood for that, Blakeson would absolutely be your go-to guy.

I Care A Lot is now streaming in the UK via Prime Video, and globally via Netflix.

On demand: "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith"

Dating from that great Seventies flourishing of confidence within the Australian film industry, 1978's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith represents an attempt to wrestle with the country's original sins. From Thomas Keneally's Booker-nominated source novel, Fred Schepisi rips ragged scenes from the life of the eponymous Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis), a young man of mixed heritage - his Aboriginal mother a prostitute, his father another of the long-gone white men passing through - who finds however hard he works, whoever he becomes, there is no place for him in Australian society. He's sneered at by his indigenous brethren for maintaining ideas above their designated lowly station, yet that's as nothing compared to the treatment he receives at the hands of white Australia, who routinely curse him as a "black bastard" even as he moves from manual labour to public service (as a constable), marries a young white woman, and offers to provide for the child she's conceived with another man. Nothing he does is deemed good enough: we sense his frustration building, and his rage finally erupts during an axe attack on the landlords who've attempted to starve him and his family out. "I've declared war!," Jimmie hollers into the outback he flees into, chiming with the Boer-era rhetoric in the film's far background. Yet this isn't a fight for independence he can win easily, if at all - and almost certainly not on his own: the society observed spitting on him during his efforts to fit in appears even less inclined to do him any favours now that he's Public Enemy Number One.

Revisited forty years on - after a long spell out of general circulation in the UK - the film can seem a little rough-edged in places: the white homesteaders, for one, display a decidedly wobbly array of British and Irish accents. In one respect, though, that roughness only feeds into the portrait of Australia at a formative, turn-of-the-20th-century moment. Here is a place that is every bit as rough-and-ready as you'd perhaps expect from a former prison colony set up on a sunbleached island. (We're essentially watching a country decide just how racist it's going to be.) Yet it's also a place that contains immense promise. Schepisi's masterstroke was to codify this landscape with his cinematographer Ian Baker: notice how the scenery grows more lush as Jimmie makes his way up in the world, then wilder as he goes on the run. (By this point, everything's going backwards.) Keeping the book to hand as a guide, he also pulls off a quietly devastating study of Australian attitudes, cutting back from the protagonist's plight to the Anglo-Saxon establishment as its mask decisively slips, and working in a troubling conversation between Jimmie and Mort (Freddy Reynolds), the half-brother who serves as a Jiminy Cricket-like conscience, as to whether the savagery of that axe attack wasn't finally what certain people expected of their kind. Subject to close and exacting focus, non-pro Lewis isn't always assured, but he's heartbreaking when Schepisi needs him to be, while the supporting cast includes Bryan Brown (inevitably), Alf from Home & Away, and - in a cameo as a lusty cook - Keneally himself, a matter of years before his Schindler's Ark would do for the Jews of mid-20th century Europe what this did for Australia's indigenous peoples. Its words scarcely less violent than the deeds it depicts, the whole remains a jolting watch, every episode opening up some bracing new perspective on this sorry chapter of history.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is now streaming via Prime Video.

Friday 19 February 2021

For what it's worth...

My top ten streaming picks (for the week beginning February 19, 2021):

1 (new) Zappa (uncertificated) **** (Altitude)
2 (new) Digger (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
3. The Twentieth Century (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
4. Dead Pigs (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
5 (re) Song Without A Name (12) *** (Prime Video, Curzon)
6 (new) I Care A Lot (15) *** (Prime Video)
7 (new) Uppercase Print (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)
8. Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar (15) *** (Prime Video, Curzon)
9. Slalom (18) *** (Curzon)
10. If It Were Love (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Sing (U) ***
2 (5) Roald Dahl's The Witches (PG)
3 (1) The Greatest Showman (PG)
4 (8) Spider-Man: Far from Home (12) ***
5 (11) Despicable Me 3 (U)
6 (9) Tenet (12) **
7 (12) Jumanji: The Next Level (12)
8 (10) Trolls World Tour (U)
9 (13) Le Mans '66 (12) ***
10 (4) Godzilla: King of the Monsters (12)

My top five: 
1. Possessor

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Lady Vanishes (Sunday, BBC2, 1.35pm)
2. Bringing Up Baby (Monday, BBC2, 1pm)
3. The 39 Steps (Saturday, BBC2, 1pm)
4. Empire of the Sun [above] (Friday, BBC2, 11.20pm)
5. Jurassic Park (Sunday, ITV, 2.10pm)

Being Frank: "Zappa"

The advantages of Alex Winter's documentary Zappa are twofold. Firstly, it takes as its subject a figure - the musician Frank Zappa - who in 2021 is but sporadically talked about, and played even less; someone who's been clutched to their hearts by a small, passionate minority, and broadly left behind by the rest of the world. To many - including this viewer - this story will appear all but brand new. Secondly, it would seem that Zappa was busy documenting himself for just this eventuality, in the expectation that, at some point, he would have to be taken seriously. In the film's opening moments, we get a glimpse of the Echo Canyon home he shared with his wife Gail, and more specifically of the vast personal archive from which Winter has mixed-and-matched the bulk of his material. Much of this has to be new, too, even to seasoned Zappa heads. In some ways, the trajectory that material describes is familiar: that of the disaffected, sexless post-War white boy who had his mind blown and his life upended upon exposure to the chugging R'n'B 45s from which he instantly began ripping licks. It's just that Zappa pushed his chosen form to an extreme: 20 minute songs with kazoo solos and guitars tuned to cut right through you, a stage show that was more like an artworld happening than you were getting from, say, The Band. (As the man himself is heard to say in passing: "The whole world is so absurd, we're just giving it back to you.") There's a sense, too, that this life could have been turned in any number of creative directions. Winter's Zappa follows the rockstar route only after a police bust for peddling fake pornographic audiotape, and founding a greeting-card sideline that might, in some bizarro world, have someday rivalled Hallmark. Thanks to its subject's assiduous hoarding, Zappa has the artefacts to prove all of the above.

Winter maintains a clear line through all this notional clutter. One of the reasons Zappa hasn't been safely codified and canonised in the three decades since his death, the film suggests, is that he was as much a composer as he was a performer (cue rostrum pans over frenziedly annotated staves, and an unlikely onstage encounter with Pierre Boulez), assembling orchestras to help recreate the wild-and-woolly, insistently anti-commercial sounds he heard in his head. Just from a programming perspective, Zappa presents as a challenge, his music too far out for today's Planet Rock schedules, though it may well find a foothold on the Radio 3 playlists in another fifty years. Winter isn't so in thrall to his subject's "visionary" status that he hands out free passes for human failings. Certain accounts here flag how Zappa (at least in his younger incarnation) could be aloof and controlling, while one off-the-cuff interview clip unearths some fairly unflattering attitudes towards women, doubtless of a piece with attitudes many successful male rockstars demonstrated towards women in the late 1960s. (Winter offsets this against far fonder testimony from the tough, salty, sensible broads who've outlived Zappa, and some of those attitudes.) If Zappa has a weakness, it's one held in common with a lot of these collagey, in-their-own-words docs: a tendency to reduce the music everybody's calling revolutionary to no more than a background, a bed, and the live performance to no more than a snapshot. You feel for Winter, looking at that archive - not just the music, but the artwork, the movies, the droll chatshow appearances, the claymation stag films - and trying to pare down this restlessly inventive life down to a representative 129 minutes. For a while, particularly as we navigate the untethered back end of the Sixties, nothing much on screen is allowed to breathe. Winter's racing to get to the good stuff - or more of the good stuff, because the Zappa archive, it transpires, was a veritable goldmine.

From the copious tie-dye and facial hair to the yammering speech of those appearing before the camera, much of this footage paints a scene within seconds: you might want to see the rest of it, but the film never really needs it. A snippet from Indianapolis cable TV that has to have sat on a shelf since broadcast adroitly illuminates the Zappa state-of-mind after he was pushed from the stage by a jealous boyfriend in 1971; behind-the-scenes footage from a promo shoot for the singer's MTV-era hit "Valley Girl" reveals Zappa's obvious contempt for the whole process. What kind of a scene is it? Ever-shifting, for one, and not without its tensions, as that attack makes clear. There were the eternal battles against the industry's machinations, and a slower-spreading cultural conservatism: the Zappa story will do as well as any for an illustration of how the counterculture ran slap-bang into Reaganism. One of the many minor pleasures here is seeing Zappa's debut of a new look, more Sam Elliott than John Wark, around the time he began to appear on daytime talkshow sofas and before Senate committees to argue the case for free speech. Winter shows how it was but a step from there to becoming the embodiment of liberty for those freedom-seeking Czech teenagers who sought his wisdom at the end of the decade ("Please try and keep your country unique"). By then, he'd been reclaimed as a wise elder, but - more so than many of his cheque-chasing, cola-endorsing contemporaries - he'd retained the lessons learnt in that late Sixties moment: the importance of play, experimentation, creative risktaking; how not everything needs to be monetised (Alice Cooper isn't alone here in noting someone of Zappa's talent could have knocked out many more hits than he did); the value of one's own independence. Winter, whose own choices (the Bill & Ted films, Freaked) have themselves leant towards the agreeably playful, succeeds in prising open our painted-over window onto that outlook, and making a case as to why it matters that we keep a few screwballs like Zappa around, even if the noise they're making does nothing for your ears, soul or pocketbook. He should do Beefheart next.

Zappa is now streaming via

Thursday 18 February 2021

Suburban relapse: "Bad Tales"

The D'Innocenzo brothers' Bad Tales feels like a late Italian contribution to that run of lofty, varyingly misanthropic Little Boxes movies that emerged from the US in the late Nineties wake of Welcome to the Dollhouse (the indie variant) and American Beauty (the studio awards shot), films that insisted the suburbs are a strange and stifling place indeed. (Bonus points if you remember The Chumscrubber, which may still be the starriest title ever to take less than £50 on its opening weekend at the UK box office.) The D'Innocenzos took home the Best Screenplay gong at last year's Berlin festival, and I'll concede that Bad Tales demonstrates a certain skill in piecing together vignettes from a long, hot, fateful summer as experienced by the residents of one especially deadening dead-end on the outskirts of Rome. The grown-ups in situ are either corporate drones or aspirant corporate drones; the kids, being pushed through the social and academic cookie-cutter, seem bored out of their tiny minds. Whether or not this picture bears much relation to the actual suburbs - and the US movies didn't, unless you were neighbours with a closeted Nazi memorabilia collector, or happened to live between Ralph Fiennes and Glenn Close - it doesn't appear to be somewhere you'd go looking for great drama or trouble. But the D'Innocenzos persist, and turn up small flickers of discontent: an unemployed dad (Elio Germano) simmering with frustration both professional and sexual, a walking buzzcut (Max Malatesta) who regards even the neighbours he socialises with as leeches. The sunshine soon retreats behind brooding storm clouds. It's a pressure cooker, in other words: you can be fairly certain something regrettable will happen to justify the titular adjective.

Well-written, then, but Bad Tales has been written to lean in a certain direction, towards a worldview that struck at least this viewer as pretty jejune. (Let me put it like this: it's a worldview even Todd Solondz eventually outgrew.) The adults fall somewhere between the heavily accentuated and the outright grotesque: the heavily pregnant young woman who flops out a tit so as to expel milk on the cookies she's sharing with a young boy, the blue-collar meathead so pumped with testosterone he merrily jerks off in the garden and spends much of the movie training his terrified pipsqueak of a son to follow in his footsteps. This kind of thing has been endemic in Italian cinema, most recently in Matteo Garrone's weaker films: characters that aren't quite the full Fellini, which would at least imply a level of commitment (and might engender a sort of amazement), but instead shape up as dismal half-caricatures, born of authorial passive-aggression. They're straw men and women to be knocked around and have holes punched through the middle of them. A more specific problem here is the combination of these "characters" and the biding-time variety of plot. The D'Innocenzos are basically asking us to wait around in the company of individuals they themselves don't really want anything to do with, save to ensure that these figures of not-much-fun finally reap everything they've so grimly sown. I can see why Bad Tales might have played well among international film critics at a festival being held in a European capital. To anyone else, however, it will very likely have the look of a film made by city dwellers looking oh-so-snottily down on anyone who Isn't Like Them.

Bad Tales is now streaming via MUBI UK. 

Wednesday 17 February 2021

The criminal type: "Uppercase Print"

As the Greek Weird Wave subsides, the Romanian New Wave persists in the work of Radu Jude, who's continued the project of mining his country's recent past for telling, damning stories. His latest Uppercase Print is an adaptation of sorts, bringing to the screen a theatre piece by the writer Gianina Carbunariu that drew on reports filed by the Romanian secret police, the Securitate, in the early 1980s. (Jude opens his film with the Foucault quote about seeing lives reduced to ashes by a few sparse lines of text.) What makes these reports so compelling is that they collectively form a chronicle, apparently updated daily, of ground-level resistance and its repression by agents of the Ceaucescu regime. In 1981, a series of messages were scrawled in chalk around Bucharest, alerting citizens to the dire state of the country's economy and the new-found freedoms being negotiated in neighbouring Poland by the rejuvenated trade union movement; these slogans were eventually attributed to one Mugur Calinescu, a teenager passing on word he'd heard on the frowned-upon Radio Free Europe. Jude places his actors on a set and has them read the relevant reports to camera, in their original, ultra-formal language, a reminder that language and its uses were core concerns of the Romanian New Wave. The reports reveal not just the type of betrayals that were a commonplace in Bucharest circa 1981 - inevitably, the investigating officers went almost as hard on Calinescu's friends and neighbours as they did on the lad himself - but the Securitate's bizarre obsessions, not unlike John Redwood with his bloody fish. In the early stages of this investigation, more attention was paid to the way individual letters were written than to their combined message; round about the time the 200th memo on this matter is filed, you can't help but think this is an awful lot of time and ink to expend on some punk kid graffiti artist. That, Jude posits, was this system in a nutshell: any dissent - any dissenter - had to be documented, classified and finally neutralised. No child left behind.

On paper, which is where much of the film is happening, that might have left Uppercase Print sounding a little dry itself. Yet Jude folds in intriguing snippets from other texts that in their own way represent something like the official state line at this moment. The film opens with a clip you sense Adam Curtis will kick himself for not seizing upon: three actors rehearsing a televised message of solidarity for Ceaucescu, and looking mighty uncomfortable while doing so. There are excerpts from a desolate-looking cookery show, advising viewers what to do with the modest rations they might have to hand, and from the Romanian equivalent of Cheggers Plays Pop (Ceaucescu Plays Pop?) with its unnerving studio full of kids and balloons. It's obvious now how bad things were. A fitness freak speaks of how his home gym "removes the need for tranquilisers". An interview with the hospitalised victim of an industrial accident suddenly cuts to an image of the severed hand under discussion, which prompted my sharpest intake of breath this entire pandemic. I'm assuming the bulk of this footage was shot and broadcast around 1981, to tie in with the main narrative; to the untrained eye, however, it could easily be mistaken for 1951. Jude establishes a contrast between that which was floating around on the surface of the Romanian media - that light entertainment used to distract the masses from the hot-water shortages and queuing, insisting that everything is for the best in this best of all possible nations - and the suspicion and paranoia writ large through the middle of those reports. Sometimes, there's alarming crossover. Jude digs up a segment from a That's Life!-style magazine show in which a film crew operating in collaboration with the police pursue drivers who've broken the country's new "no honking" directive. This is framed as jolly teatime fun, but the sheepish interviewees radiate fear once pulled over; it may have been the case that some were never seen or heard from in public again.

As an enlivening formal approach - and a means of unlocking the Romanian national psyche as it was under Ceaucescu - this collaging proves broadly effective: in places, I was reminded of Pablo Larrain's expert splicing of dramatised and archive footage in 2012's superb NO, on the fall of the Pinochet regime. You'd happily watch a two-hour movie made up entirely of the clips Jude has sourced; it'd be something like the BBC's I Love 1981, only you'd have to retitle it I Fucking Hate 1981. (Stay tuned for the world's most depressing funfair: the cars hang off the misery-go-round like corpses from lampposts.) What's crucial here is how those clips uphold or undermine the revelations in the dramatised material - which, of course, isn't really dramatised material, rather words set down by some dull-minded apparatchik in the service of a merciless tyrant. The risk Jude runs in these sequences is that he's dissecting the Securitate's deathly dull control fixation: Calinescu's story initially grabs the attention, then gets drawn out to a ludicrous degree. This is the point, one assumes: that in Ceaucescu's Romania, even minor transgressions were made subject to the full apparatus of the state. Anywhere else, Mugur Calinescu would have received a smack on the wrist and had his chalk taken away from him; in his homeland, he had the tag of "perpetrator of hostile inscriptions" hung around his neck, was set in front of his classmates so they might denounce his "attack on the people" (there's a "will of" missing there, surely), and was then stalked by the authorities for the rest of his tragically short life. It's both absurd and exhausting to revisit - imagine what it must have been like to live through. At the very least, Jude's film sets up some instructive parallels: it's a salutary watch at a moment when the UK's so-called government, fresh from the great triumph of a six-figure Covid death count, is gearing up to wage its long-promised "War on Woke" within our own learning hubs. I'd suggest we invite Jude over here to complete his next project, but there'd doubtless be visa issues.

Uppercase Print is available to stream today via MUBI UK.

Tuesday 16 February 2021

Lonely are the brave: "Digger"

One issue with the Greek Weird Wave is that it overshadowed and washed away almost any trace of Greek production that wasn't weird: those films that remained rooted in basic, recognisable human psychology, and weren't just acting funny-strange for the benefit of archly guffawing hipsters. (Argyris Papadimitripoulos's tough, terrific Suntan was one of those all but buried while Lanthimos and pals laughed all the way to the bank.) With this wave finally dissipating, we can see what's been left behind. First up: Georgis Grigorakis's finely balanced feature debut Digger, which owes less to its Grecian predecessors than it does the foursquare milieu of the American Western, and that recent run of landscape-centred, eco-tinged US indies (Winter's Bone, Leave No Trace, Captain Fantastic). Its centrepoint is a solitary figure, Nikitas (veteran Vangelis Mourikis, recognisable as among the ship of fools in the Weird Wave's best film, Athina Rachel Tsangari's Chevalier), who's cut most of his ties and retreated to a cabin in the woods to raise chickens and see out his remaining days. He's not an eccentric, but a gentle grouch, a bit of a loner, constantly scratching at an imagined tick bite on the upper reaches of his back. Upheaval is heading his way on two fronts, however. Firstly, the constant excavation of a mining company stripping the adjacent land prompts a mudslide that almost sweeps him and his possessions away; then, just when he's dealt with that mess, he's interrupted by the reemergence of Johnny (Argyris Pandazaras), his son by his late ex-wife, who needs the collateral tied up in this small acreage if he's going to reclaim his mother's house from the bank. Grigorakis evidently has more substantial matters on his mind than messing around with the finer points of the Greek language: inheritance, family ties, the corrupting influence of money on both people and the wider landscape. When you give yourself all that to dig into, you really don't need to set your characters to barking like dogs.

Weird, how? For much of its 100 minutes, you could fairly describe Digger as dark and brooding, seemingly bound for some final, desperate mise-en-abîme. In retrospect, I think it's also important to note there are flickers of warmth and optimism visible, too, chiefly in the sight of an estranged father and son repairing their bond as biker and mechanic Johnny mends dad's chainsaw. Still, those incursions from the mining company and their representatives get ever closer to home, such that you may begin to fear that chainsaw will become the sylvan equivalent of Chekhov's gun. This is an altogether terse, male world, certainly. Grigorakis introduces a sympathetic barmaid, Mary (Sofia Kokkali), who then sits on the sidelines hoping the closed-off Johnny will return her obvious affections; there's a brief glimpse of a female rent-a-cop, too, but she's greeted by jeers and accusations of traitorousness from Nikitas's fellow holdouts. With their mollifying influence limited, the threat of violence is never far away. Set aside the chainsaw, and there's still plenty of axes and shotguns on screen. It's to Grigorakis's credit that this threat is held in abeyance for the most part, and finally subverted via several of the most unexpectedly elevating images in recent memory. Digger is deliberately paced, if not quite the full slow cinema: it displays a fondness for extended taverna scenes, positing the pub as the new cradle of Greek civilisation, a forum for boozy democracy. Yet the pacing corresponds to the stubborn streak in its central characters, Grigorakis giving himself and us time to chew these themes over and stake out every inch of this disputed territory. That surprising finale is contingent on us knowing exactly how everything and everyone in five square miles relates. Mourikis, meanwhile, is busying himself crafting something quietly heartbreaking, almost a figure from 19th century fiction: a relic of a distant, less rapacious era, his Nikitas has grown increasingly tired of the modern world's brutalities and indignities, but can only sit or shake a fist as what's left of his dominion is bought off or chipped away. Cinematographer Giorgos Karvelas's wide shots of desolate, hollowed-out vistas speak eloquently and damningly to what's been allowed to go on in the real Greece while Lanthimos and his oddball coterie were giggling among themselves.

Digger is available to stream from today via MUBI UK.

Staggered release: "White Colour Black"

It's taken five years for Joseph Adesunloye's White Colour Black to stagger off the festival circuit and onto the official UK release schedule, which seems telling. It's not that this is a bad movie - if anything, it gets stronger as it goes along - but it makes several early stumbles that presumably put some viewers and (crucially) buyers off, and thereafter struggles to find anything much in the way of rhythm, a near-fatal flaw for what's clearly intended as a sensitive character study. For some while, it appears broadly as aimless and lost as its protagonist, voracious London photographer Leke (Dudley O'Shaughnessy, best known as That Guy from Rihanna's "We Found Love" video), whose rote hedonism - women, drugs, partying, more women - only intensifies upon hearing news that his father is dying back in Senegal. On the plus side, it's cheeringly outward-looking, feeling more like the kind of project the French film industry, with its close African links, has become adept at realising. Adesunloye's London scenes are surfacey, but they're properly multicultural, at least; once we get out to Senegal, where Leke begins to reconcile himself with his past, we're swept some way off the tourist trail. These sequences have a texture and scope beyond the reach of the UK scenes, with their cash-strapped British indie look and feel; one problem is you can all too clearly see the budget being gobbled up by plane tickets. Whether White Colour Black gets close to the dramatic heft Adesunloye is shooting for is another matter. British screen veteran Wale Ojo steadies matters as Leke's uncle, but O'Shaughnessy's hesitant, school-play line delivery proves another limitation: long stretches of this character arc require rather more than the former boxer and sometime model is capable of giving at this point in his acting career. No question that the lad photographs well, especially during the chopped-in bedroom scenes, where Adesunloye demonstrates more of a producer's instinct, aiming to hook an audience before the comparatively dry and unsexy spiritual renewal of the second half. The fact it's still taken White Colour Black a half-decade to land a distributor, even with all this copious thrusting, might be taken as less telling than damning.

White Colour Black will be available to stream from Friday via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and the Peccadillo Player.

Monday 15 February 2021

The man who was King: "The Twentieth Century"

In my review of the new Guy Maddin short Stump the Guesser last week, I noted it was astonishingly perverse that anyone should be making such self-consciously niche, throwback cinema - reclaiming all those formal tics and thematic quirks the movies might otherwise have outgrown - this deep into the 21st century. Guess what? Turns out there are actual Maddin copyists out there. The Twentieth Century, writer-director Matthew Rankin's gloriously rum account of the rise to power of Canada's longest-serving prime minister Mackenzie King, updates the Maddin template somewhat. Rather than the stylised silents of the 1910s and 1920s that his predecessor evidently gorged on at a formative moment in his cinematic education, Rankin has modelled his feature debut on those light-and-Technicolor-saturated propagandistic melodramas churned out, in various countries to varying degrees of political and commercial success, through the 1930s and into the 1940s. Essentially, Rankin has overdone the poutine while watching The History Channel, and dreamt up the kind of dubious flagwaver the Canadian film industry might have been pressured to produce under a mid-20th century dictatorship, rather than following the woolly liberal guidance that emanated from the King administration. Still, the net result is no less reliant for its effects on the viewer recognising and responding to a decidedly antiquated series of visual cues. What on earth is going on up there with these Canadians? Is it not time for the UN to consider some form of intervention?

Granted, you may not need a Chomsky-level grounding in the finer points of cinematic propaganda to decode the scene in which an especially phallic-looking cactus spurts its juices all over the young King's family home. As with Maddin, Rankin appears expressly keen to assault any residual notion of Canadian national politesse. His King (Dan Beirne) is a boyishly upright do-gooder, first introduced outlining his vision for the country to a tubercular sanatorium orphan, then observed being schooled in such essential statecraft as ribbon-cutting, waiting in line and baby sealclubbing. After dark, however, this young stick-in-the-mud and fogey-in-waiting is exposed as an enthusiastic shoe fetishist, apparently willing to pay well over the odds for used boots; he will eventually be obliged to submit to puffin-milk enemas, and be fitted with an alarm bell-rigged chastity belt, so as to maintain the bland purity of that vision. History here is both fluid and innately silly; you half-expect Graham Chapman's Colonel to turn up and halt production at any moment. Many of those representing Rankin's establishment (including the Quebecois separatist Joseph-Israël Tarte) are embodied by actresses sporting fulsome stick-on moustaches, while King's bed-bound, migraine-plagued mother is played by the actor Louis Negin in drag.

Believe it or not, there are proven facts somewhere amid all this pantomime - you may, as I did, feel compelled to hit pause and refer to Wikipedia from time to time, just to reassure yourself the wool isn't being totally pulled over your eyes - but they're sent up, doodled over, and in certain cases improved upon. Hard to top the inspired inanity of the mock-newsreel announcing Canada's involvement in the Boer War, which insists on depicting the Boers as half-man, half-elephant, complete with pendulous trunk-noses; although it's also somehow perfectly Canadian that the retelling of this particular story should draw to its conclusion with a frenzied skate-off between rival progressive forces. I can't sell the whole to you as anything other than an acquired taste, but it's committed in its styling and playing - arguably more committed than Maddin's own perversity has been in recent years, and certainly committed enough to slap a smile on your face, be that amused or merely bemused. Let me just add this: it's bracing watching The Twentieth Century at a moment when we here in what the characters refer to as the motherland have become rather po-faced and unyielding in our approach to history. (That's when there isn't some vast collective sense-of-humour failure.) In Rankinland, the past is no more than a collection of disappointments, wrong turns and odd hang-ups, endlessly malleable bunk, something to be remoulded, like putty or Play-Doh. It seems a far healthier place to spend some time in, all told.

The Twentieth Century is now streaming via MUBI UK.

On demand: "Coup 53"

Coup 53 represents a notable labour of love for the British-Iranian filmmaker Taghi Amirani, who in 2009 started documenting the role the US and UK governments played in the 1953 coup in Iran that toppled the democratically elected President Mosaddegh; after a decade of investigative spadework, the resulting film has had the misfortune of opening in the middle of a cinema-shuttering global pandemic. (It took its UK bow digitally; after a brief pause to resolve some legal issues, it has now been made available to stream again.) For Amirani, the story is personal: the coup, which saw the Shah of Iran reappointed as leader in what was a transparent attempt by British and American interests to retain their grip on the country's oil reserves, was the cue for his parents to flee the country and make their home in London. A key source in his quest to get to the bottom of these events was a 1985 episode of the Channel 4 series End of Empire, devoted to the coup: side-by-side comparison of the finished show and a production transcript suggests any testimony referring to a key figure on the British side, MI6 agent Norman Darbyshire, was redacted before broadcast. Darbyshire, by all accounts, was jointly responsible for overseeing the coup, and later ran his mouth off about it, miffed as he was that the Americans got all the credit; he died in the early 1990s, so there was never any chance of tracking him down, but Amirani has recruited Ralph Fiennes to play Darbyshire, and bring renewed life to the conversation this wayward intelligence operative had with End of Empire's researchers. The battle lines are thus redrawn: now it's busy-bee Amirani against the omissions of earlier generations of historians and the machinations of the deep state.

For some of its running time, Coup 53 plays as conventional history doc, blending rich archive footage with the usual talking heads shot against neutral backgrounds. Even here, though, you have to be impressed by Amirani's access. His interviewees include everyone from the researchers on the original Channel 4 series to Lord Owen and scattered allies of Masaddegh besides, their task to talk us through a story that hasn't much been talked about in the 35 years since End of Empire went out on what was then the UK's least watched channel. More compelling yet are those stretches where Amirani, as an independent filmmaker, goes rogue, chasing leads and storming dusty vaults, and shooting the material he turns up handheld using his phone, the better to document his working. (That it all cuts together so seamlessly is down to a coup of the director's own: the great Walter Murch, a key contributor to The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient and many other titles, has been drafted in as co-writer and editor to help make sense of this ever-shifting, late-developing story.) Amirani appears cheerful enough as he sets about digging through dusty stacks of newspapers and whizzes through decades of microfiche, but his chief characteristic is a certain relentlessness; we sense he can't switch off. This project would take him to Paris, Berlin and North Yorkshire, between stop-offs at the Savoy (where the original End of Empire interviews were conducted, a very old-world location) to coach Fiennes through a rather good impersonation of a jaded, grudge-bearing tool of state. Neither the pandemic, nor the row Coup 53 provoked with the TV show's producers upon its online debut, was ever going to stop this filmmaker; having Murch at his side presumably allowed Amirani to recut or refine his points in a heartbeat.

All this momentum is cinematic, exciting; even the talking heads are talking about action of a sort. The film could almost be claimed as a tutorial in how to stage a coup, and what part the media can play in such upheavals. (Darbyshire had a particular insight into the buying-off of local newspapers and - an especially intriguing wrinkle, this - how even the steadfast BBC were solicited to send signals to the Shah's daughter when the time came.) It was an imaginative choice to use rotoscope animation to describe the day of the coup itself, suggestive as that technique is of pictures being painted, gaps filled, but it's also an impressionistic one: these shifting, warping, newly unstable images speak to the way all this testimony is affected by time and memory. Nevertheless, certain facts emerge from Amirani's film unaltered, and perhaps even bolstered. This was the first of many such coups the US would engineer across the globe; it compromised the UK's international reputation (again, not for the last time); and - despite the plotters' best intentions - it set Iran on a hardline path, every step the country took away from Mosaddegh bringing it closer to Mossad, and the prospect of further hostilities in the Middle East. That's why the Darbyshire testimony - that of a vector or pointman, someone at the very centre of things - is so crucial to a full understanding of this coup: it was the inside line, the real skinny. In grasping that, Amirani has fashioned an engaging, multilayered item of film-reportage, giving us the story alongside an idea of how good journalism gets done. Furthermore, he offers a never timelier illustration of how history is never wholly set in stone: a TV broadcast compiled by the notional winners of this coup - and presumably believed close to definitive circa 1985 - has been finessed and improved upon, not to mention expanded into a real movie, by an assiduous Iranian investigator some 35 years later.

Coup 53 is now streaming online via 

Sunday 14 February 2021

From the archive: "We Are The Best!"

Last time we checked in with Swedish enfant terrible Lukas Moodysson, he was railing against the world in a series of film-tirades – the tough A Hole in My Heart, the semi-impenetrable Container, the glum Mammoth – that felt like the auteur equivalent of a bedroom door being loudly and repeatedly slammed. Good news: the sulk appears to have lifted. With We Are the Best!, Moodysson funnels that wayward adolescent angst into his characters, then stands back to observe their attempts – both futile and, in a way, triumphant – to shake up their surrounds.

The focus here is on Bobo and Klara (Mira Barkhammer and Mira Grosin), a pair of pre-teens who decide to form a punk band at a moment (Stockholm, 1982) where they’re told that punk is dead. The fact their older brothers are listening to Joy Division, and their more conventionally pretty classmates are rehearsing aerobics routines to the strains of the Human League, only spurs these androgynous outsiders on all the more. They’re different; why shouldn’t their music be so?

Though the band starts as an outlet for letting off steam – their first song is a rant against P.E. – the girls are just old enough to realise performing might be a political act: a means of questioning the rules and cosiness that governs their lives. Soon, they’re faced with the kind of ethical quandaries grown-ups face every day: a heated internal debate ensues over whether to bring in Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), an older, Christian girl – and thus something of an outsider herself – to lend an extra credibility to their ode to secularism “Hanging God”.

The fun lies in the respect the film accords these kids. In what may be the most bang-up job of directing children since Richard Linklater made School of Rock, Moodysson regards these girls as emergent personalities rather than script delivery systems. Each loose, semi-improvised scene allows them to discover themselves – their look, their sound, the terms of their relationship – as the cameras are rolling, which provides a constant stream of fond, irreverent or otherwise amusing episodes.

This may be a problem for the narrative, which winds up heading nowhere in particular. Yet set against the general flailing of Moodysson’s previous works, there’s something winning indeed about the director’s rediscovery of the funny, telling social detail, and the way his restless camera zooms in occasionally – as it did throughout 2000’s infallibly heartening Together – to highlight some aspect of the girls’ contrasting households.

What builds up is a mosaic of Swedish middle-class life circa 1982: one house the preserve of an absent mother trying to shore up her marriage, the other a woolly liberal utopia itself rather bemusedly enduring the aftershocks of women’s lib, as evidenced by a dad (David Dencik) who bridles at doing his own washing, and wanders into the girls’ jam sessions, hopefully clutching his clarinet. It’s a compendium of such anecdotes, rather than a major artistic statement, but a spirited and charming one – and one of the most appreciable directorial comebacks in years.

(MovieMail, April 2014)

We Are The Best! screens on Channel 4 this Friday at 1.05am. 

Saturday 13 February 2021

From the archive: "The Program"

The numerous artefacts spawned by l’affaire Lance Armstrong – which include Alex Gibney’s typically thorough 2013 doc The Armstrong Lie, a Storyville overview (2014’s Stop at Nothing) and a prime-time Oprah special – have all been powered by a quest for understanding. How could Armstrong have deceived cycling’s administrators and fans so? How could he have got away with it for so long? Most crucial of all, perhaps: why? Everybody wants answers, but the only man who can really provide them is Armstrong himself – and, as his tight-lipped Oprah performance demonstrated, he ain’t saying much.

Stephen Frears’ dramatised account The Program, like many of its predecessors, claims to have the inside line: it’s based on Seven Deadly Sins, the crusading Sunday Times journo David Walsh’s account of his rocky professional relationship with Armstrong, proceeding from the latter’s first appearance on the European circuit back when he was a punk kid from Texas with nothing much to show for his endeavours on the domestic cycling front.

How he went from zero to hero and back again requires, in this multiplex-bound retelling, heightened levels of EPO-exposition and actors doing impersonations of real-life figures, the effectiveness of which will depend on how closely you know their inspiration. Denis Menochet makes a rather heavy-set Johan Bruyneel, Armstrong’s former rival-turned-coach; Guillaume Canet overdoes the flamboyance as “Pope of Dope” Michele Ferrari, presented as akin to every mad doctor the movies have ever known. (If you think that’s out there, wait until you see the swarthy male model-type drafted in to play Alberto Contador.)

Frears and screenwriter John Hodge (Trainspotting) present Armstrong himself as a physically hollowed-out Machiavelli, forever sniggering at the weakness of others. Ben Foster brings his usual intelligence and tenacity, and a remarkable physical likeness, to the part: watching this Lance rehearse his lies in a bathroom mirror, you really do have to tell yourself you’re not, in fact, watching the real thing. It’s a performance with clear demarcations: on one side of the looking glass, the square-jawed public persona, rallying the world to overcome cancer, on the other, the arrogant alpha using his charity work to offset the wider deception.

This latter strand – describing a tactic deployed by several British public figures – is where The Program breaks furthest away from the pack. Elsewhere, it shows signs of behind-the-scenes disorganisation. A marked contrast is established between honed loner Armstrong and schlubby family man Walsh (Chris O’Dowd, perfectly decent), only for the journo to get lost in the edit; whistleblowers Frankie and Betsy Andreu (Ed Hogg and Elaine Cassidy) – focal points of the Gibney film – themselves fall by the wayside, Frears instead following the wheel of Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), Armstrong’s Mennonite teammate, as he negotiated his own path through the pile-up.

Pitching squarely for the mainstream, Frears skimps on the detail in favour of speed and movement. A lot of information is compressed into poppy montages: you can all but hear Frears chuckling as he layers The Fall’s “Mr. Pharmacist” over shots of Ferrari’s handiwork. The race sequences, however, look somewhat underpopulated: perhaps even a $100m movie would struggle to do justice to the spectacle of Le Tour, but the recourse to actual race footage here looks a tad desperate, in a way the incorporation of news footage in Frears’ The Queen, say, never did.

Frears understands this story comes down to our need to believe – not least that someone could overcome cancer to repeatedly win one of the most demanding events on the planet – and you sense him using his considerable experience to pull unspooling material into something that is, like Armstrong on a mountain stage, never less than watchable. Equally, though, The Program feels – and I’m not sure this is so healthy – like the Armstrong story on steroids: pacier than Gibney’s analysis, yes, but oddly misshapen – a film that doesn’t examine the public’s credulity, but proves more than a little dependent upon it.

(MovieMail, September 2015)

The Program screens on BBC2 tonight at 12.55am.

Friday 12 February 2021

For what it's worth...

My top ten streaming picks (for the week beginning February 12, 2021):

1 (new) Digger (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
(new) The Twentieth Century (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
3 (new) Dead Pigs (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
4. Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
5. Citadel (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
6. 76 Days (12) **** (Prime Video, Curzon, BFI Player, Dogwoof on Demand)
7. Quo Vadis, Aida? (uncertificated) **** (Curzon)
8. Archive (15) **** (Prime Video)
9. Dear Comrades (12) **** (Curzon)
10 (new) Uppercase Print (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (2) The Greatest Showman (PG)
2 (new) Saint Maud (15) ***
3 (re) The Fifth Element (PG) **
4 (3) Godzilla: King of the Monsters (12)
5 (5) Roald Dahl's The Witches (PG)
6 (30) Black Panther (12) **
7 (1) Bill & Ted Face the Music (PG)
8 (7) Spider-Man: Far from Home (12) ***
9 (6) Tenet (12) **
10 (11) Trolls World Tour (U)

My top five: 
1. Possessor

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. A Matter of Life and Death (Sunday, BBC2, 2.15pm)
2. Witness [above] (Friday, BBC1, 11.35pm)
3. We Are The Best! (Friday, C4, 1.05am)
4. The Program (Saturday, BBC2, 12.55am)
5. GoldenEye (Saturday, ITV, 10.55pm)