Wednesday 31 March 2021

Fish story: "Undine"

The German writer-director Christian Petzold has taken on the task of hauling elements of the classical into the here-and-now. He made a success of 2018's Transit, which mapped the concerns of wartime onto the streets of modern Marseilles; his follow-up Undine, a somewhat divisive item on the festival circuit, takes another crack at the selkie legend that floats back into filmmakers' minds every now and again. (Both Splash and The Little Mermaid were arguably variations on this theme; John Sayles' The Secret of Roan Inish, Neil Jordan's similarly titled Ondine and the recent Cartoon Saloon charmer Song of the Sea were closer to the original source.) It may be crucial you know this in advance, because if you went in blind, you'd find yourself subject to some generally undermotivated, borderline mystifying behaviour. Paula Beer, emergent star of European TV and film (Babylon Berlin, Ozon's Frantz), plays the eponymous Berlin museum guide, introduced in the midst of an especially intense break-up: "If you leave me, I'll kill you," she warns wavering beau Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), which is one way of ending things. Franz Rogowski, star of Transit and German cinema's foremost Joaquin Phoenix lookalike, plays Christoph, an industrial diver being stalked by a catfish named Günther. Undine and Christoph enjoy an explosive meet-cute: she pulls him to safety after an aquarium shatters above his head in a quiet backstreet cafe. Thereafter, over a brisk ninety minutes, Petzold charts the ups-and-downs of this relationship - conventional enough, except the ups are all on dry land, and the downs take place underwater. In the unlikely event there are still any Disney fans reading: the mute Gunther is as close as you'll get to a singing crab.

The narrative idea of worlds colliding carries over into the filmmaking. Some of what we see is presented as straightfacedly as it would be in any other Petzold film. The tour of Undine's museum is exactly that, with Beer set to giving a lecture on the redesign of Berlin after reunification; the diving asks the stars to don wetsuits and oxygen tanks. Yet this rigorous realism has been spliced with something far more fantastical and unlikely. Transit worked because the social ills Petzold was diagnosing - rising authoritarianism and nationalism, restrictions on movement - existed in past and present alike. Here, he's blending two very different flavours, and at first they sit funny in your mouth, as if the director had sprinkled sea salt on your Sugar Puffs. Yet I'm not so sure Petzold is taking this experiment entirely seriously - or, at least, he's not taking this experiment as seriously as he took Transit. This may be why Rogowski has been permitted to give Christoph a strangulated "comedy" voice; why, too, Undine discovers the Bee Gees after Christoph resuscitates her to the rhythm of "Stayin' Alive". One of the film's peculiar fascinations: watching an actress as subtle and technically precise as Beer - cast for her ability to get through those long, fact-heavy spiels on Berlin architecture, and give the impression she knows exactly what she's talking about - trying to make sense of a characterisation bearing no resemblance to any earthly, flesh-and-blood woman; who is, bottom line, a sexy mermaid nerd. More compelling than the people are the places. Petzold shoots the empty courtyard of that cafe in a way that somehow tunes into its history, its vibrations; he watches trains intersecting like people, and repurposes a humdrum tunnel of scaffolding as a site of some visual significance. I saw nothing to disabuse me of the notion this is Petzold's idea of a goof: an attempt to see how far he can push this approach, what he can get away with now he's guaranteed the funding that gets an auteur's films round and beyond the festival circuit. Yet it's a goof that almost comes off - and a suggestion that even Petzold's goofs and misfires are going to be distinctive, textured and ravishingly framed.

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

Barren land: "Zana"

It's possible some inattentive archivist will eventually muddle up this week's Zana with Lucrecia Martel's much-admired colonial drama Zama, but the two films are very different beasts. For starters, we're on the homefront here - a Kosovan village - and far closer to the present, watching the unease growing around an Albanian woman who's yet to fall pregnant. Director Antoneta Kastrati, co-writing with Casey Cooper Johnson, ramps up the disquiet via a series of signs and signifiers that seem to count double in this heavily superstitious, tradition-bound territory. An opening dream sequence finds Lume (Adriana Matoshi) leading a cow to water, only for it to end up butchered in a ditch; not long afterwards, she will find a spent shell casing in the grass of her own backyard. Our heroine may not be pregnant, but the film around her most definitely is: Kastrati surrounds these characters with bad juju, and leads us to expect the worst from more or less the off. Quickly, Zana raises the issue of whether Lume even wants to conceive, or if this is one of the expectations placed on her as wife to one of the community's sons. One look at her weak ingrate of a husband, and you could understand any reservations she might have about reproducing. But it's not as if this is the couple's first shot at becoming parents: we learn this fertility glitch only became a matter of concern in the wake of the Kosovan conflict, in which the pair's first child, a four-year-old daughter named Zana, was killed. That opening dream sequence is a daydream Lume has while sitting in the doctor's stirrups, and what follows is a rare example of a film asking the viewer to play psychologist and gynaecologist simultaneously. Is it the case that Lume is mentally - and thus physically - unable to move on? Or are there other, more malevolent external forces at work here?

While we compile our casenotes, Kastrati and Johnson sketch an illuminating portrait of village life: the wives making flatbreads and executing chickens for dinner (it could still be the 19th century, were it not for the recipes cribbed from YouTube), the endless gossip that serves as daily entertainment and talks up the heroine's plight. Yet Zana appears as influenced by genre filmmaking as by the prevailing norms of arthouse realism - and by the horror genre in particular. Characters pop up in unexpected places within the frame; we hear disconcerting wailing noises coming from offscreen; and those dream sequences become only more real, less easily distinguished from the everyday drama. (They also confirm that Lume is living very much in her head.) This odd but largely effective splicing of styles reaches its fullest expression when the couple venture into town to consult a healer of sorts: a figure straight out of Bergman, with his clipped beard and dark eyes, his initial diagnosis is that Lume has been possessed by a djinn. It seems likelier that this whole region is haunted, that any ghosts that require exorcising are those of the recent past. The sequences that position Lume in sundappled countryside - picking bouquets for the boudoir, playing football with her hubby and the local youngsters (as families do) - reminded me of the light in Shoah's concentration-camp visits: again, it seems unreal that the heavens should now look so favourably on a land that has known such suffering. Zana proceeds at the pace of its stricken, occasionally numb-seeming protagonist, and its ending (which owes a debt to one very prominent American horror text) arguably tips a bit too far in one direction. Yet it's steered by a very fine, almost exclusively internalised performance by Matoshi: there's lots going on here, even if it doesn't immediately rise to the surface.

Zana will be available to stream from Friday.

Some reservations: "The Night"

Kourosh Ahari's The Night has an obvious precedent, as a commercially inclined horror movie conducted largely in Farsi: Babak Anvari's Under the Shadow, set in Iran and amid the upheavals of the 1980s. Ahari's film, however, unfolds in the present day, and in present-day Los Angeles at that, first plunging us into a cosy dinner party attended by Iranian exiles and close-knit friends with links to the medical community. It's a rare example of what we might define as diaspora horror (Remi Weekes' acclaimed Netflix item His House would be another): from a Western perspective, a couple of its biggest jolts arrive during that opening scene, with the sight of Iranian men boozing liberally while the women debut freshly etched tattoos. And yet these characters aren't entirely at home as we join them. Our protagonists are the perhaps knowingly named Babak (Shahab Hosseini, the lead in Farhadi's The Salesman) and Neda (Niousha Noor), young parents who make the mistake of checking into the Normandie, a quiet little hotel off the main L.A. drag, after Babak, seen drinking a substantial draught at that gathering, has a funny turn on the drive home. We know it's a mistake from the way the camera mimicks the camera in Kubrick's The Shining, hovering vulture-like over the family's car as it sets out on the road to nowhere. Other warning signs, once we reach the hotel, include an upright Black panhandler with a weepy eye and an ominous mutter; spectral children at play in the corridors; old-timey music wafting through the lobby; bodies in bathtubs; and decidedly limited after-hours service. The Kubrickisms are laid on so thick that you keep scanning the edges of the frame to see whether somebody's mounted an axe to these walls.

The Night isn't badly made within limited means - working up a measure of gloomy style simply by refusing to put money in the hotel's electricity meter - but it's so obviously derivative of its towering inspiration that it never becomes its own satisfying or distinct thing. (I spent much of it flashing back to Ti West's fun The Innkeepers, which subverted its haunted-hotel set-up by treating it as the basis of a peppy game.) One potential sticking point for audiences may be that Babak isn't a terribly sympathetic presence for the most part, having imported certain attitudes from the old country. Much of what follows over the course of - yes! - the night chimes with his offhand remark during a party game that if Neda died, he'd find another woman to raise his child. (Naturally, he nudges his wife out of bed in the middle of the night when said youngster starts squalling.) The idea that everything here might be a Christmas Carol-like wake-up call is an intriguing one, but the performances were too variable to win me over, and the horror elements are an odd mix: flat homage to an established genre landmark, Paranormal Activity-like sequences of nothing very much going on in darkened rooms, and razzy jump scares occasioned with no more subtlety than they would be in a Conjuring movie. I'll credit Ahari with one clever reversal around the hour mark, and his closing sequence makes a haunting gesture towards what the diaspora experience might be for some, but it still seems a waste for him to have made Iranians speaking Farsi in an American setting subject to much the same loud crashes and bangs so many characters have endured over the past four decades of horror movies. It's integration of a sort, I guess, but the cultural specificity that elevated Under the Shadow vanished, along with my interest, into the night.

The Night will be available to stream from Friday.

Tuesday 30 March 2021

Locked down again: "The Mauritanian"

If it's awards season, Hollywood's Liberal Handwringers Unit must have prepared a foursquare legal drama for us: a film espousing a set of values that are obvious from the outset, underlined by the inevitable outcome, and hardly challenged in between. Last year's entry was the naggingly underpowered Just Mercy, which didn't catch fire as its makers presumably hoped. This year, we've already had The Trial of the Chicago 7, which - as overseen by Aaron Sorkin, one of the High Creators of this form - has wound up on the Academy's Best Picture shortlist. The Mauritanian - which has many of the makings of a front-rank handwringer - has missed out, although if anything it's even more foursquare than the sometimes wobbly Sorkin movie. Tahar Rahim plays Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the eponymous little guy arrested by U.S. forces and thrown into Gitmo in 2002 on the vague, unproven charge he was a recruiter for the 9/11 hijackers; he would spend the next decade wearing an orange jumpsuit. Jodie Foster plays his Bush-bashing pro bono lawyer Nancy Hollander; Shailene Woodley her underling Teri Duncan, originally recruited as a translator, only to discover that everybody on screen speaks Hollywood-movie English; and Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stuart Couch, prosecuting lawyer for the U.S. Army, who - though close friends with the widow of one of the United 93 victims - went to the trouble of properly examining the case, and wound up giving the defence a helping hand. America, eh?

The director is Kevin Macdonald, whose filmography became far less exciting over the 2010s than it was back in the Noughties. He approaches this material with his usual intelligence and good intentions - the script (by M.B. Traven, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, adapting Slahi's memoir Guantanamo Diary) takes a particular care to honour its Muslim protagonist's faith - only to succumb to a familiar handwringer clunkiness. The interrogation provides the excuse to get into Slahi's backstory, a not wholly successful attempt to dynamise a movie where the title character isn't going anywhere, and everybody else is sat around in small rooms talking or waiting for (predictable) verdicts to come in. For a while, we can draw some consolation from the fact this is an Interrogation of a Star in the Making. Since his breakthrough a decade ago in Jacques Audiard's Cannes-wowing A Prophet, Rahim has gone shrewdly international: he was especially good as the troubled CIA operative at the centre of Alex Gibney and Dan Futterman's road-to-9/11 miniseries The Leaning Tower. Now on the other side of the table, Rahim uses Slahi's many years and scenes in lockdown to suggest a man being not radicalised so much as Americanised, scattering his speech with TV references and maintaining a slangy conversational style in the face of Gitmo-rough handling. The pacing's such a plod I began wondering whether the whole film might be read as a parable of the way overseas performers are routinely scooped up and retrained by voraciously colonising film industries, and thereafter made subject to all manner of grim indignities - Macdonald's torture scenes are especially garish, though arguably no worse than the real thing - but you'd need far more supplementary imagination than The Mauritanian displays to firm that speculation up.

In truth, everybody's doing okay work with the material they've been handed; these performers know their places in this schema, and they get on with filling them. In a characterisation only ever really defined as The Type Of Character Jodie Foster Would Play, Foster is briskly authoritative, nurturing and toughening up Woodley's fresh-faced loose end as the appeals process drags on; Nancy Hollander is, ultimately, the type of character Jodie Foster plays rather well. Floating a (to these ears) pretty good Southern accent, Cumberbatch gets even more wriggle room, scene by scene. His Couch, by far the most developed character here, is revealed as someone who isn't necessarily set in his ways, and who finally demonstrates altogether more flexibility than his military garb might suggest. Perhaps only a Brit would have thought (or dared) to cast a Brit as the American national conscience - firmly moral, yet searching and open to at least the idea of course correction - but that's what Stu Couch is. "Someone has to pay for [the 9/11 attacks]," growls one Army colleague. "Someone," rebuts Couch. "Not just anyone." (It comes over as movie dialogue, but it's halfway decent movie dialogue, for once.) Yet just as Slahi found himself at the mercy of The System, so too these fine performers are prisoners of material that's either been concreted into the middle of the road or simply winds up getting lodged there. In the end, it's almost exactly what you'd get if you inputted this damning chapter of recent history into a computer and invited it to generate awards bait that could proceed from the words "Based on a True Story". At least the Sorkin movie had Sorkinisms.

The Mauritanian will be available to stream via Prime Video from Thursday.

Monday 29 March 2021

It's a wrap: "He Dreams of Giants"

For the past 25 years, the documentarists Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe have been signed up as Terry Gilliam's brothers-in-arms. In 1996, they made the excellent The Hamster Factor... on the making of 12 Monkeys; they followed it with 2002's Lost in La Mancha, on the unmaking of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam's long-time passion project that was originally set to star Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort, and began shooting as such before a series of extraordinary events brought production to what appeared a decisive halt. Flashforward two decades, and after multiple casting rejigs and legal battles, we finally have a film of that title, now starring Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce, which opened early last year in the UK to (for Gilliam, not untypically) mixed reviews; we also have a Fulton/Pepe documentary, He Dreams of Giants, about how it all finally came together. The Gilliam this new doc describes is, firstly and most obviously, older, the silver in his hair only accentuated by adjacent clips of his more energetic 90s incarnation. (How long has he been tilting at these windmills? Well, Fulton and Pepe show Gilliam being interviewed about this project by Terry Wogan and Judi Spiers. Ask your folks, kids.) Yet he's also tired (a recurring image: director with head in despairing hands) and crankier with it, snapping "I'm not a nice person when I'm nervous". He has much to be nervous about, all told. Gilliam had a mini-stroke before production, and is fitted with a catheter after a mid-shoot collapse; though it goes unmentioned by the film, he's been caught up, albeit tangentially, in the #MeToo conversation; and the budget he's been allotted to finally realise his dream is far less than was at his disposal around the millennium. Time may be up, in more ways than one. And yet he continues to plough on with this personal project, whether to honour a promise made to those craftspeople who signed on 25 years before, or to exorcise the ghosts of a prominent creative failure. Lurking somewhere in the background of He Dreams of Giants, long before one of the filmmakers vocalises it in the final reel, is a pointed question: was it all worth it?

If we take the second it to mean "generate an absorbing documentary about the making of an erratic, sometimes inspired picture", I think my answer would be yes. Fulton and Pepe know there is something reliably fascinating about watching the pieces of a movie - particularly one that's quixotic by design - fall into place, and their film duly grants us access to the early table readings, to the make-up tests where we witness Pryce (playing Quixote) being fitted with his fake schnozz, and to the sets in the Spanish desert where we can marvel at the construction of windmills we take as given within the movie itself. Though we get a sense of the crew literally working overtime to realise these visions - they throw an impromptu party on Day Seven of this shoot, marking the point where this Quixote outlived its doomed predecessor - we're also invited to spend some considerable time in Terry Gilliam's head. Frequently, Fulton and Pepe cut to a blank space that relates in some way to their subject's inner quiet place; they also cut in choice clips from Fellini's , a Gilliam favourite, to bolster this auteurist model. The plain truth would appear to be this: even on a shoot where his sets weren't being washed away by freak flashfloods, Terry Gilliam proves a big bag of neuroses. He doesn't have enough money to play with; he's "out of training" when it comes to shooting on this scale; and what he is shooting doesn't match up to either the images in his head or those he actually realised two decades before. The onset footage bears out that early comment about his nerves. Even as he slowly regains his feet, assisted by substantially improved working conditions (no flashfloods this time; for once, the sun shone on Quixote), the old doubts and fears persist. Chatting with journalists making a set visit, Gilliam can be heard worrying what he's going to do once he's finally put this project to bed. The flipside of the fantasist is the fretter, busy replacing all those what-ifs with what-nexts, or what-if-it-doesn'ts.

To the question of the finished feature, He Dreams of Giants enters the mitigation that this version suffered from a lack of time and money, that it was simply never budgeted to match its maker's vision. In an ideal world, Quixote would have seen the light first time around, when Gilliam had commercial wind in his sails, Depp was untarnished, and Rochefort was still around to sit on a horse - but then, plainly, this isn't an ideal world. He Dreams of Giants suggests a countervision: that of an old-school artist making his peace with compromise, grasping that art (and, beyond it, the world) often humbles us; that there remains some worth in simply getting something, anything done. (He learns this the hard way, granted: towards the end, Gilliam can be heard to spit "I want the fucker out of my life", which aligns with some of the film's harsher reviews.) What Fulton and Pepe capture is a picture of perseverance, and a perverse perseverance at that: future generations, with no knowledge of the backstory, will likely be amazed that this much blood, sweat and tears was expended on a movie that barely played in multiplexes for a week. Perhaps it would have been too easy if The Man Who Killed Don Quixote had proved a $100m megahit upon release; Gilliam's career and films don't readily lend themselves to such neat, pithy, try-try-again lessons, and the man himself is a relic of an era when there were systems in place to take a gamble on creatives who needed financial and logistical support to realise their crazier ideas. It's not that those crazy ideas have gone away, but the movies have got smaller, less generous, setting up - as Fulton and Pepe illustrate - mundane blue screens where there might once have been marvellous sets. The fantasists who've sprung up in Gilliam's wake have realised that tilting at windmills is a lonely, stressful life, and endeavoured to make their living and a career by making the kind of movie (algorithmic superheroics) the remnants of that system want, know how to market and subsequently make a lot of money from. Will there be another Gilliam film? Who knows. But the Fulton-Pepe trilogy will stand as a valuable record of creation at a time when the cinema was beginning to phase a certain idea of creativity out.

He Dreams of Giants is now available to rent via the BFI Player.

Sunday 28 March 2021

When the heartache is over: "Tina"

Unlike the subjects of those other recent one-named documentaries about female singers with turbulent private lives (Amy, Billie, Whitney), Tina Turner is still with us, which immediately lends this weekend's Tina a different bearing. Directors Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin (who oversaw the Oscar-winning Undefeated and the excellent L.A. 92) have tracked down Turner to a sparsely furnished antechamber in Zurich, looking as regal as ever as she nudges into her eighties. Having become Switzerland's most famous resident (and second most unlikely resident, after Lee "Scratch" Perry) upon her remarriage to the German music executive Erwin Bach in 2013, she now finds herself surrounded by fresh mountain air, Toblerone, tax breaks and, most crucially of all, peace - a peace that must provide some respite after many long decades of hollering her lungs out or having others holler at her. The villain of this story, Turner's controlling-abusive first husband Ike - who seized upon the young Annie Mae Bullock, having seen in her a goldmine - is dead some years now, so the film has the advantage of addressing the couple's violent ups and downs without fear of defamation lawsuits; more critically, the audience is notionally better primed, post-#MeToo, in the language and psychology of any such relationships. When the singer follows up a graphic description of what Ike did to her in the bedroom with the somehow even more candid admission that she started to feel sorry for her abuser, we know exactly that Stockholm Syndrome that must have taken effect; what might well have seemed beyond-the-pale shocking in the 1981 People interview where Turner first addressed her past has been revealed over recent years as a lamentable commonplace. Lindsay and Martin leave us in no doubt as to the deep trouble their subject was in: at one early point in the couple's marriage, Tina found herself liberated by Phil Spector, of all the white knights, so as to record "River Deep, Mountain High". (A further historical wrinkle, at once revealing and disturbing: Spector paid off the troublesome Ike to stay away from his studio. More and more, the history of the entertainment business looks like that of controlling men trading younger women like cattle or slaves.)

The hallmarks of the blue-chip modern music doc are present and correct: a subject telling their story in their own words; copious archive footage, which here extends to Super-8 from the family archives (Turner classic movies, you might call them); sporadic inserts of cassette spools revolving, reassuring the viewer as to the film's meticulous sourcing. Even the font used for the chapter headings is classy. Narratively, however, everything's flipped. The tough stuff (the violence, the rape, the suicide attempt) is frontloaded, something the singer had to get through and walk away from. What potentially makes Tina more than bog-standard biography - not to mention a vast improvement on the crudeness of 1993's Hollywood biopic What's Love Got to Do With It, which Lindsay and Martin excerpt in passing, its dialogue sounding even more on-the-nose amid their judicious nuance - is a stretch wherein Turner talks us through the practicalities of walking away from someone who would hold you in an iron fist: I can see this being used in seminars on domestic abuse, and being picked up as a power source by anybody who finds themselves in a similar quandary. The second half is a comparative breeze: Tina goes solo, becomes ever more confident and successful, finds true love, and struts away from the music biz before it had chance to discard or destroy her. No, Beyoncé, you want to say: this is a survivor. In the positively cathartic live footage, we watch a woman's entire body language change over time. In the Ike years, Tina dances like a puppet on a string, the result of hours of meticulous choreography. (You dread to think what would have happened if she put a foot out of line: even facing the public, Tina seems to tighten up whenever the guitar-toting Ike approaches the microphone.) During her 1980s return, by contrast, the stage is entirely hers - and, boy, did she claim it. That's why Lindsay and Martin open with a clip from one of those arena-filling gigs that clinched her superstardom: it's acknowledgement that OK, the next hour will require wall-to-wall trigger warnings, but there's a reward if you stay the course - which also happens to be Tina's reward for having walked away.

The more time the film affords us to reflect upon this story, the more remarkable the story becomes. She was already forty when she set out on that comeback, at a time when the American music industry was still largely segregated; and - in a moment of soaring ambition - she apparently told her manager she wanted to sell out those stadia the Rolling Stones were selling out, meaning she was reclaiming a space previously occupied by white blokes repackaging Black riffs and licks for their own ends. (Look closely at the crowds in Tina's gig footage: they're at least 75% Caucasian.) And while the hits inevitably gain from being rewashed in Dolby surround, she achieved all this with a songbook that contains very few entries you could point to as out-and-out classics, "River Deep" aside. What Turner took from her early years on the road was an idea of how to put on a show, both personally (making over those bruises, embodying a hard-won independence people were drawn towards) and professionally, which is why she segued so seamlessly into the light entertainment of the Seventies and Eighties. From Ike, she took her stage name and the notion of a "revue", making fun, raucous, sexy what had been rigid and regimented under the previous regime. (A post-divorce residency in Las Vegas seems to have been central to this.) The film shows her loosening up, unclenching: those sweat-drenched, heavily aerobicised stage performances (in heels!) were every bit the equal of Jane Fonda in those exercise tapes with which Tina Turner: Rio '88 shared VHS cabinet space. Two minor quibbles: Lindsay and Martin do Bucks Fizz (who recorded an early version of "What's Love Got to Do With It") slightly dirty, although theirs might well seem a plasticky kind of pop in the context of a story such as this; and the playout number is an eyeroller, though fans won't mind. Mostly, it's a music doc with a palpable emotional charge, in large part because it sets us to wondering what the ingenue being battered in a middle-of-nowhere motel room would make of the absolute queen holding 186,000 Brazilians spellbound with an Ann Peebles cover. Tina Turner made it the hard way; if anyone now deserves a sitdown in a quiet room with a Toblerone and a tax break, she does.

Tina screens on Sky Documentaries at 9pm tonight and Good Friday; it's also now available to stream via NOW TV.

Friday 26 March 2021

For what it's worth...

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

1 (new) He Dreams of Giants (15) **** (BFI Player)
(new) Tina (15) **** (NOW TV)
3. A Colony (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
4. Judas and the Black Messiah (12) **** (Prime Video, BFI Player)
5. The Dissident (uncertificated) **** (, Prime Video from Thurs 1)
6. Eye of the Storm (uncertificated) **** (Modern Films, iPlayer from Tues 30)
8. Mouthpiece (15) *** (Curzon)
9. Come True (uncertificated) *** (Prime Video)
10. Martyr (uncertificated) *** (Curzon)

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Wonder Woman 1984 (12) **
2 (20) Joker (15) **
3 (new) Leon (15) ****
4 (3) Spider-Man: Far from Home (12) ***
5 (8) Avengers: Endgame (12) **
6 (re) Zombieland: Double Tap (15)
7 (re) 2001: A Space Odyssey (U) *****
9 (re) Sing (U) ***
10 (24) Trolls World Tour (U)

My top five: 
1. Possessor
2. Martyr

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Sound of Music [above] (Good Friday, BBC1, 5.45pm)
2. Ice Age (Sunday, C4, 4.30pm)
3. The Damned United (Monday, BBC2, 12.10am)
4. Sense and Sensibility (Wednesday, five, 10.25pm)
5. Colette (Good Friday, BBC2, 10pm)

Wednesday 24 March 2021

Sliding scales: "Raya and the Last Dragon"

Unexpectedly, Raya and the Last Dragon - Disney Animation's latest scaling-up of its efforts to court the Far East - opens in near-identical fashion to last summer's Luxembourg-sourced summer holiday cheapie The Fairy Princess and the Unicorn. Amid an unwieldy splurge of backstory, we learn how a kingdom that was happy, fruitful and prosperous when a certain mythical creature - in this instance, the dragon - was doing the rounds became fractious, barren and divided once said creatures were phased out. (Dragons, it turns out, were the olde-worlde equivalent of milkmen.) And the backstory keeps coming. The spirit of one such dragon was preserved in a gemstone, yet this stone was shattered and scattered when one of the warring human factions tried to sneak away with it. It's therefore down to our Lara Croft-ish heroine Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), first seen being put through Disney-warrior-princess training by her not-long-for-this-world father, to retrieve these pieces and restore a measure of harmony to her homeland. Any disappointment that follows from the realisation this is yet another expensive Hollywood studio movie where the narrative boils down to the collection of coloured pebbles can initially be offset against a workable, Pixar-level gag in the screenplay (by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim): as Raya's segment of the gem is slightly cracked, so the dragon she summons from it to assist in her quest is also... slightly cracked. Sisu (the name will have an unfortunate resonance for any Coventry City fans who happen to be watching) has the height of Big Bird and the turquoise fuzz of Monsters, Inc.'s Sully; she's voiced - or, rather, yammered - by Awkwafina, having some of the same in-booth fun as Aladdin's Robin Williams as the character flips between kooky humanoid and giant firebreather.

As a film designed to reflect a culture back to an audience who presently have more disposable income going (and more cinemas open to spend that income in) than their Western equivalents, Raya is both committed and flattering. There's none of that underlying militarism by which last year's Mulan redo left such a sour aftertaste; it's still rare to witness an animation with this much brown skin front-and-centre; and the character animators have worked overtime to ensure every one of their leads presents as an absolute babe. (The Pacific Island light setting may have been a holdover from 2016's Moana: Raya enjoys several of the most ravishing magic-hour close-ups ever afforded to an animated heroine.) Far less appealing is the action, which is zippy but thin and temporary, very much reminiscent of those half-term timewasters, which tend to whip us around so as to conceal the fact they have perilously little else going on. A late, throwaway sidequest, involving a trio of comic-relief monkeys and a precociously cute toddler, is at least amusing, if redolent of the Jack-Jack business from Pixar's Incredibles series, but it's literally distraction. By the finale, in which characters clutch at glowing rocks and melt away in vast plumes of dust, we're back in crashy-smashy Avengersland; any art is holding on for dear life. Sisu's scattiness seems to have crept into the whole production: scene after scene yanks us pell-mell through worlds we might have preferred to gaze upon and marvel at, and half an hour after the credits rolled, I'd forgotten the significance of any of it. Like the New Mulan, it can't fail to catch the eye: just a few frames presented in isolation might be enough to make one consider taking out a Disney+ subscription, which may be Raya's ultimate purpose, given the way the film business is itself shapeshifting. Yet it's really just flirting with us. Forever prioritising motion over real mythos, it never gains the dramatic heft or permanency to become a beloved text or an animation for the ages.

Raya and the Last Dragon is now streaming via Disney+.

On demand: "Hamlet"

Grigori Kozintsev's 1964 film remains the most forcefully widescreen Hamlet - shush, Branagh - with an Elsinore that's been carved out of a clifftop, a set of steps Eisenstein would have tumbled for, and vast murals on every interior wall, not to mention a Ghost with a vividly billowing cape, an actual ship to convey the protagonist to England, and a thundering great Shostakovich score over the lot of it. To this scope, the adaptation, in which Kozintsev had the assistance of no less a figure than Boris Pasternak, adds the advantage of speed, rattling through the key points inside two-and-a-half hours. In close-up, the 39-year-old Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy looks even older than Branagh did in 1996 - he's an unusually jowly Prince, somewhat akin to Joe Longthorne's Hamlet - but you buy him as a fretter and a worrier: we see and feel the weight of this world - and these words - pressing on his shoulders. The age actually does something interesting, I think: it fleshes out what has elsewhere been portrayed as an angry young man's rebellion, and transforms it into a midlife crisis. This Hamlet strikes the eye as a fully-grown yet weary old salt trying to figure out some renewed purpose in life, and a reason to move forwards without lapsing into the rottenness and rank corruption around him. Between the craggy shoreline and the hero's shock of blonde hair, the film lands closer to Bergman territory than any other screen Hamlet; you half-expect the Grim Reaper to ride in alongside Fortinbras come the final reel. Otherwise, if you set aside the curiosity of couplets coming out in Cyrillic, a broadly trad staging - even the intermission is where it might be in the theatre - but it knows what works, gets it to work again, and visualises that with real dynamism.

Hamlet is currently streaming via Klassiki Online.

Tuesday 23 March 2021

Who let the dogs out?: "Stray"

The documentary Stray is likely no more than a curio, all told - it's the dog-person equivalent of 1996's once-cheered, since-forgotten Microcosmos - but it at least has a go at making its audience view the world from a different angle. It opens with the first of a series of quotes from the pro-pooch philosopher Diogenes: "Human beings live artificially and hypocritically, and would do well to study the dog." The filmmaker Elizabeth Lo then takes it upon herself to do precisely that, locking onto a trio of pups prowling Istanbul, one of the few global cities where strays enjoy protected-species status, and tailing them - literally tailing, the camera rarely rising above what we must define as anus height - where'er they wander. That's all the film is: 72 minutes of tightly framed shots of dogs as they go about their daily dumb-mutt business. They chase after cats and cars; scuffle with other strays; reward themselves for their efforts with a nice chew on a discarded chicken bone. At one point, two strays are witnessed humping in the very middle of a Reclaim the Streets march; the spectacle becomes exponentially funnier once we learn that, in the human world, the march is taking place on Valentine's night. Insistently relegating those artificial and hypocritical humans to the background in both the frame and the sound mix, Stray might be positioned as a prologue to Kornél Mundruczó's remarkable White God of 2014: you see how these dogs might one day reclaim these streets themselves, if they ever had the numbers. But would they be inclined to? The notion of takeover implies some degree of scheming, a level of malevolence, and Lo's strays present as guileless, basic creatures. We would appear to have far less to fear from them than we might from the grim-faced policemen seen silently chaperoning that march, or the offscreen hardmen heard strongarming their fellow citizens into voting for nationalist parties.

That implies some sociological intent, yet Stray is chiefly distinguished by its crouched perspective. Lo shoots nose down, tail up, weaving in and out of passers-by in a way that would have been unthinkable in the days of, say, Jean Rouch and his cumbersome camera equipment. (It would have been fun to see some making-of footage in the end credits; more fun, I'd venture, than the two minutes of howling we actually get.) The idea, I suppose, is that there is something humbling in being a dog: you can't look down on anyone, because the only thing you have to look down on is the gutter. Early on, one stray falls in with a pack of street kids, occasioning a matter-of-fact shot of glue-huffing that appears to be the sole reason for the film's harsh-seeming 18 certificate. (Either that, or the BBFC have a threshold for visible dog anuses that was surpassed in the first five minutes.) All of which is to say this isn't an especially cuddly or sentimental film, and that you shouldn't fire it up expecting a true-life Marley & Me. These dogs are grimy and ungroomed; you can imagine them smelling something rotten. As someone whose approach to canines has vacillated between fond shrugging and full-on-Tom-Cruise-in-Magnolia, the novelty of being around them this intensely wore off very quickly, and I suspect even Diogenes would concede there's only so much profundity one can take away from a lingering close-up of a freshly laid turd. Still, credit to Lo for staying this close to her subjects for so long, and for not backing away in horror whenever they launch into vicious fights or take their ease in public green spots; I hope she got to take a long, hot soak with Clorox at the end of each day's shoot. Those human beings the philosopher was so down on may be difficult to live with, and far more complex to figure out, but they've arrived at another wisdom for the ages, pointedly unquoted here: lie down with dogs, and you're gonna get fleas.

Stray will be available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and Dogwoof on Demand from Friday. 

Monday 22 March 2021

Through the wormhole: "Infinitum: Subject Unknown"

In a decade's time, once the last of the germs has been purged and Covid is no longer the dread word it now is, some leading institution is going to stage a retrospective of lockdown art, and what humankind did to get itself through the first major pandemic of the 21st century. The exhibition will chiefly be focused on the pre-eminent responses to the current crisis: the documentary
76 Days, Rob Savage's nifty, quick-off-the-mark Zoom horror Host, the first season of the Sheen/Tennant vehicle Staged (when it felt like the actors were genuinely in it alongside us), Nick Cave going solo at the Alexandra Palace, "McCartney III" (the curators will generously overlook how the ex-Beatle coined the phrase "rockdown" in a press release), Peter Duncan's Jack and the Beanstalk. A contextualising glance will have to be cast at all that middling lockdown endeavour, however - those shrugging Zoom revivals of beloved sitcoms, the many thousands of photos of homemade sourdough, Joe Wicks' 24-hour Workout for Comic Relief - and a room will be set aside, perhaps in the basement, with appropriate content warnings in place, for that which was genuinely ugly: Gal Gadot's "Imagine" video, tweets by Ian Brown, Lee Hurst and Right Said Fred, that Chiwetel Ejiofor-Anne Hathaway heist movie nobody seems to have gone for much. As those jokes circulating at the start of Lockdown 1 suggested, no-one has used this time - no-one has been of a mind to use this time - to compose anything comparable to King Lear, although an episode of Alexei Sayle's cherishable Lockdown Bike Rides (streamable on YouTube) did feature a weathered old soul huffing and puffing his way across Hampstead Heath. On that sliding scale, this week's lockdown-shot streaming release Infinitum: Subject Unknown ranks just north of halfway. Here's a playful, micro-budgeted yet cleverly structured puzzle picture that opens with a woman (Tori Butler-Hart, who co-wrote with her director husband Matthew) waking up tied to a chair in the attic of a house on a quiet Crouch End street, and thereafter spending the better part of 90 minutes attempting to figure out how on earth she got there.

Where Savage plumped for lockdown techno-horror, the Butler-Harts lean into sci-fi. It's soon established our heroine is either stuck between realities (a glitch in the space-time continuum sporadically transforms the view out the window into a Terminator-style warzone) or in a Groundhog Day/Timecrimes/Russian Doll-like timeloop. In each iteration, she nudges a little further down the garden path - literally, at first - only at a certain juncture to be returned, with a noise that sounds like a flashbulb popping, to that chair in the attic to begin her quest from scratch. Tempted away from their own sourdough, Ian McKellen and Conleth Hill pop up to provide gobbets of exposition that suggest all this is the endgame of some shady, top-secret experiment. (Their socially distanced participation gives rise to the quintessentially 2020 credit "Conleth Hill segment shot by... Conleth Hill".) For a while, Infinitum badly needs these venerable thesps as narrative crutches; without them in place to build up the stakes, we really would just be watching someone poking round an empty house. (There is, granted, an element of Through the Keyhole in the mix here: you find yourself admiring the defiantly retro wallpaper in the kitchen of the Butler-Harts' downstairs neighbour, and their enviable on-street parking.) Matters get more expansive once the protagonist finally figures a way out into the world: Madame Butler-Hart stumbles across someone to talk to (albeit another version of herself), and the finale plays out around a Jacobean abbey, a location at once imposing and quietly creepy. Though we get digitally enhanced shots of a London monitored by flying gunships, the film's most striking effects are wholly analogue, and of a kind that could only have been achieved amid the great shutdown of summer 2020. Shots of entirely abandoned parks, a vacant South Bank, and a brief glimpse of a desolate Wardour Street - destined to leave Soho media types feeling melancholy in the extreme - generate the kind of post-apocalyptic eeriness Danny Boyle and Fox paid top-dollar to achieve in 28 Days Later.... The speculative future of that movie becomes here and now in this one; as with Sayle's bike rides, this apparently off-the-cuff, seat-of-the-pants project will likely retain considerable documentary value if we manage to get ourselves out of this mess.

Infinitum: Subject Unknown is now available to rent via Prime Video.  

On demand: "Mili"

Mili feels like Bollywood absorbing the morbid lessons of Love Story (released five years earlier), chiefly that there might be something cathartic - and potentially profitable - in the snuffing-out of a vibrant female spirit. Director Hrishikesh Mukherjee could scarcely have chosen a more vibrant spirit to snuff out. Jaya Bhaduri, previously an ensemble player in this director's Bawarchi, is now positioned front-and-centre as the eponymous Mili, a beloved young woman succumbing to an unspecified sickness. In the Ryan O'Neal role, her upstairs neighbour Shekhar, reclusive son of a rich man hanged for murdering his wife; the character is afforded such a thunderous build-up (first mentioned amid frenzied neighbourhood gossip, first seen in silhouette at his window, trilling a lonely song that drifts down to reach our heroine's ears) that he could perhaps only be played by one man: Amitabh Bachchan. For a while, the film shapes up less as a love story than a battle of wills: grouchy, self-loathing sot against the absolute sweetheart from down the way. Though the latter would appear doomed by the movie fates, her goodness is such that surely some of it has to rub off on this guy before the closing credits roll.

Those are the leads - and, by this point, real-life husband-and-wife - but, as in Bawarchi, Mukherjee proves at least as interested in everybody else living under this roof; he clearly subscribes to the notion it takes a village to raise (and mourn) a child. Mili and Shekhar's apartment building is populated by fretting aunties in fuchsia-pink saris, and there's a signature setpiece at a dinner party, as more and more guests show up unannounced. It's soon evident this is no place for a recluse who wants to stay that way: the local scamps are afforded free passage into most of the residents' homes, and it's their goofy, gappy smiles that first reopen the door to Shekhar's heart. In the 21st century, I would advise not going near it if you were feeling remotely cynical, although Mukherjee was talent enough to win even sceptics over. His use of colour approaches those old MGM melodramas: you could publish a book composed of still photographs of these interiors, and call it Super Shades of the Seventies. And there are poetic touches besides. It feels cosmically right that the apartment block should sit under a flight path, the better to observe souls ascending on a regular basis, and it's almost inevitable that Shekhar's astronomy habit should eventually prompt a monologue about stars being the shimmering remnants of loved ones. Much of it does seem written in those stars: the second half is a slow decline typical of terminal-illness narratives, heading towards a vaguely evasive ending that doubtless had 1975 audiences weeping in the aisles. Yet the penhand is skilful, and sensitive with it.

Mili is now streaming via Prime Video.

Sunday 21 March 2021

On demand: "I Got Life!/Aurore"

For once, the renaming isn't so offbeam. The French title of Blandine Lenoir's comedy-drama, Aurore, suggests a straight-up character study, and yes, we get more than a little of that. Sourced from the Nina Simone song our heroine is seen dancing to at one point, the English-language title, I Got Life!, gestures towards the tenor of that study: broader, brighter, defiantly jollier. This is a film with an unusual villain, in the menopause: for 90 minutes, we're watching Agnès Jaoui, the Gallic Tina Fey, battling hot flushes and sudden crying jags while simultaneously wrestling with unemployment, the fact her daughters - one of whom is set to make her a grandmother - are flying the nest, and the return of her first love (Thibault de Montalembert), with whom she has unfinished business. In short, it's the kind of movie a male writer-director would be unlikely to consider making, and which would be all but unthinkable - deemed unsexy or non-commercial - within the context of the American mainstream: the story of a woman who has to redefine herself at a point in life where most of her contemporaries would consider themselves settled, done and dusted.

Having gone slightly off-map - shooting around coastal La Rochelle, which gives the action a certain freshness and steers the drama away from the usual chic Parisisms - Lenoir returns with a brisk, professional, empathetic portrait of a lady who's simultaneously on fire and on the verge of a meltdown. There's nothing earthshakingly profound here: to some degree, the film's achievements in documenting the menopause have already been overwritten by the incremental genius of Pamela Adlon's work on TV's Better Things, and it shows its hand as a wannabe crowdpleaser with a weird ending that requires an act of God so as to get every man in town chasing after our Aurore. I don't doubt that it'd be relatable, though, and it's very skilfully played, particularly a school reunion scene where all the old dread and memories return to the surface of this life. Some deft touches for a popular comedy, too: having a pair of automatic doors open for everybody but our already beleaguered heroine is one way of visualising the invisibility of the middle-aged woman, and I liked the date in a restaurant where the waiters are all opera singers, which initially cues some comedy of embarrassment, but eventually generates a nice moment of connection. That's one of the benefits that come with age: you take things in your stride a little better. Whatever it's called, this is a film with an appealing weight of experience behind it.

I Got Life! is now streaming via the BBC iPlayer, and available to rent via Prime Video and the BFI Player.

Saturday 20 March 2021

On demand: "Bawarchi/The Cook"

Right from the red drapes and narration (care of Amitabh Bachchan) suspended over the opening credits, Hrishikesh Mukherjee's 1972 film Bawarchi sets itself up as a good night out at the theatre. This is an ensemble piece with an inbuilt theatrical contrivance, charting the effects of mysterious new chef Raghu (Rajesh Khanna) on the lives of the warring, radically different personalities - postmaster, songwriter, businessman, martinet, plus wives, mothers and a radiant Jaya Bhaduri (soon to be Bachchan) as a helpful student - corralled together under the roof of a family apartment building ironically named Shanti Mansions. An alternative title might be The Slice-and-Diceman Cometh. For Mukherjee, it's an opportunity to assemble a broilingly busy, mostly appetising stew of his own. Ingredients: equal parts character comedy and old-school knockabout, the expected handfuls of music (one of the mansions' residents is training to be a classical dancer), a welcome dash of Bollywood self-reflexivity (the songwriter, introduced listening to Steam's bubblegum pop hit "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye", rips off Western hits for Indian movies) and the mystery of Khanna's chef, who appears out of the fog with a suitcase full of ladles and immediately begins to revolutionise the household's inner workings, either a chutney-bearing Mary Poppins or a precursor to Max von Sydow in The Exorcist. I'm not sure what kind of statement it's really making (or even trying to make) on domestic labour: as played by Khanna with a jaunty skullcap and a mischievous twinkle in his eye, this cook feels like a magic-realist creation, as good at dispensing dance instruction and life lessons as he is in the kitchen. Frothy entertainment, nevertheless, and thanks to Gulzar's sing-song dialogue, stuffed with the wisdom of the ages ("It is so simple to be happy, but so difficult to be simple"), it remains both filling and flavoursome.

Bawarchi is now streaming via Prime Video.

Friday 19 March 2021

For what it's worth...

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

1 (new) A Colony (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
2. Judas and the Black Messiah (12) **** (Prime Video, BFI Player)
3. The Dissident (uncertificated) **** (
4. Eye of the Storm (uncertificated) **** (Modern Films)
(new) Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (uncertificated) *** (Curzon)
6. Mouthpiece (15) *** (Curzon)
7. Come True (uncertificated) *** (Prime Video)
8. Martyr (uncertificated) *** (Curzon)
9. Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché (12) *** (Curzon, BFI Player, Modern Films) 
10. My Donkey, My Lover and I (uncertificated) *** (Curzon) 

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Wonder Woman 1984 (12) **
2 (2) The Secret Garden (PG)
3 (1) Spider-Man: Far from Home (12) ***
4 (7) Roald Dahl's The Witches (PG)
5 (4) Maze Runner: The Death Cure (12)
6 (11) Jiu Jitsu (15)
7 (6) Birds of Prey: and... (15)
8 (10) Avengers: Endgame (12) **
9 (17) Little Women (U) ****
10 (12) Rocketman (15) ***

My top five: 
1. Possessor

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Meet Me in St. Louis (Saturday, BBC2, 1.15pm)
2. Love & Mercy (Saturday, BBC2, 11.20pm)
3. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Saturday, ITV, 11.05pm)
4. A Time to Kill (Sunday, BBC1, 11.30pm)
5. Locke (Thursday, C4, 1.35am)

Thursday 18 March 2021

On demand: "Rajnigandha"

Basu Chatterjee's 1974 film Rajnigandha is a breezy, summery love triangle that feels as if Éric Rohmer had headed East in the wake of his compatriot Louis Malle's Phantom India. Postgraduate student Deepa (Vidya Sinha) looks out onto a fork in her lifepath, caught as she is between two cities and two men. In her native Delhi, she's wooed by the well-meaning but less than reliable Sanjay (Amol Palekar, shaping up as Indian cinema's go-to milquetoast), whom she seems set to marry. Then a job interview in Mumbai brings her back into contact with worldlier, beardier old flame Navin (Dinesh Thakur), a prospect who immediately distinguishes himself over Sanjay by showing up everywhere on time, but still can't seem to say the words our heroine longs to hear. Gorgeously dressed in the attire of a young middle-class woman keen to make an impression, Sinha remains a wholly modern screen presence, and Chatterjee honours her with a full and rapt attention. There's something so lovely - so loving - about the way his camera stays behind in Deepa's apartment after Sanjay leaves for the night, or notes her quiet pride at being mistaken for Navin's girlfriend; on this evidence, Chatterjee may have been the best confidante a girl in Seventies India could have wanted, prepared to freeze-frame any of his close-ups to better hear out its conflicted subject. What marks the film as quietly progressive for 1974 is this fond fascination with Deepa's responses to the possibilities opening up before her, modest as some of them are. In a flashback, we're shown how touched Deepa was when Sanjay played Prince Charming during a rainstorm, never mind that his umbrella is more hole than canopy. What the film evokes isn't movie love - illustrated during a night at the Delhi talkies, where Sanjay shows up mere minutes before the intermission - but street-level affection: imperfect, non-glossy, tentative and temporary, and somehow all the more cherishable and affecting for that. Preserved in sticky, still-tangible Eastmancolor by cinematographer K.K. Mahajan, the locations alone (parks, coffee houses, railway stations) must make this a film with enormous nostalgia value for anyone who lived - and courted - in these cities through the early 1970s.

Rajnigandha is now streaming via Prime Video.

Wednesday 17 March 2021

Always on my mind: "Preparations To Be Together For An Unknown Period Of Time"

It may be advantageous that Lili Horvát's Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is headed to VoD this weekend: for starters, there's no way you'd get all that on a cinema marquee. Yet that long-winded title proves a fine fit for a film about a notion pursued to impractical and unrealistic extremes. The backstory is this: at a neurosurgery conference in New Jersey, Marta (Natasa Stork), a Hungarian doctor living in the US, meets Janos (Victor Bodó), a colleague visiting from the old country. All reports suggest - though bear in mind we're told rather than shown this, by Marta herself - that the pair hit it off, at least enough to have arranged to meet on the Liberty bridge in the Hungarian capital one month hence, and here's where we come in. First bummer: Janos doesn't show, and when Marta tracks a man who looks like him down to his place of work, he shrugs her off, claiming never to have seen her before with just the right mix of bemusement and cringing shame to set us wondering who exactly is in the wrong here. She immediately cancels her return flight, checks herself into a hotel room, and begins nursing an obsession, taking a job at the hospital across the street from where this supposed Janos works, and spending her nights tailing him across town. Her plans aren't immediately apparent; the cool fascination the film exerts stems from watching someone who appears so scientific and rational in their day job deviate from the obvious prognosis in the data Horvát scatters before her. If anyone on screen seems in dire need of an MRI scan, she does.

Horvát's film itself resembles a trend nudged towards an extreme. It takes the "messy woman" business Bridesmaids and more recently Fleabag made light of, dials the humour down and the romantic tension up, and emerges with a film that might be coupled with last month's arthouse talking point Passion Simple in some future "loopy women" double-bill. What the message of these movies is, who knows? It almost certainly can't be as reductive as the senior surgeon who, upon learning of Marta's doomed romantic quest, fondly concludes "women are so stupid, even the smart ones", though even the female taxi driver who chauffeurs our heroine on her noctural stalking missions feels obliged to speak from a position of weary experience: "If you've got to chase him, the whole thing is a bust already". But then - wait - why does the apparent stranger Marta accosted in his works carpark then send her an invitation to his upcoming book launch? Why is he later seen leaving a concert the pair have attended together with another woman entirely? Are these two just playing a game? And is this why the film starts so late in this pair's story - so that we're way behind the real action, and forever scrabbling to catch up, like the therapist to whom we see Marta confessing in the opening scenes? A film this conspicuously enigmatic intends only to raise questions and keep raising questions, and the biggest one set hanging over these proceedings may be this: is Horvát merely messing with her audience's mind?

Puzzle that out as you go, but Preparations... is actually founded on a very sound contrast: the precision and control of neurosurgery - squeamish viewers be warned, we get a full-colour illustration of that around the halfway mark - as set against the messiness and unpredictability of the emotions at large here. Horvát has come up with a fresh, quietly stylish take on an old, old story: head versus heart. The glitches in her logic - the bigger deviations from narrative expectation - make a kind of sense, should you choose to see them as the film's own brain going on the fritz, or just being circumvented by the heroine's passion; these sequences are what Marta wants to happen, rather than what plausibly might. These deliberately slippery moments speak to how we misremember entire stretches of relationships, and to the weird push-me-pull-you of any romantic pursuit, where things are rarely as serene as asking someone you like to spend an extra afternoon or evening together. What Horvát's really probing, I think, is how we overcomplicate these matters, turning what should be pure pleasure into at best grand opera (hence the classical cuts on this soundtrack), at worst prolonged agony. For fullest enjoyment, you'll need to be a shade fonder than I am of watching grown adults tangling themselves up - simplify, you fools; simplify - but I'll concede that Preparations... has an appreciably knotty truth at its centre. Romance without practicality is but a shot in the dark; as thrilling as that suspense might seem in the moment, it shouldn't be surprising if - as Horvát's especially cryptic closing image insinuates - people wind up hanging in the breeze, getting hurt or crushed.

Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time will be available to stream from Friday via Curzon Home Cinema.

Tuesday 16 March 2021

Beyond the schoolgates: "A Colony"

You could programme a very decent, probably not unrepresentative season of New Canadian Cinema from the streaming options made available in the UK over the past few weeks. To the varied pleasures of The Twentieth Century, Come True and Mouthpiece, we can now add Geneviève Dulude-De Celles' thoughtful and affecting A Colony, which whisks us off to the leafy provinces of French-speaking Quebec to view teenage rites-of-passage through a markedly more sociological lens. From its opening scene, Dulude-De Celles' camera falls into lockstep with its nervy, defensive subject Mylia (Emilie Bierre), a girl trying to find her place among the corridors and cliques of her smalltown high school, and thereby make the difficult transition from childhood to adolescence, protective older sister to prospective party animal. Everything she notices in her daily rounds - her classmates' prescription footwear and stick-on fingernails, the rows her parents have while she's in the tub, the mysterious rituals going on in the backrooms of social gatherings - we're set to pick up, too; this camera is looped into the heroine's developing sensibilities in a way the camera in the more commercial Mean Girls wasn't quite. With its elements of hall-pass documentary (or, if not that, then very loosely improvised fiction), this is that rare high-school coming-of-age drama that falls within touching distance of both Eighth Grade and Être et Avoir.

I don't doubt that some - more than likely those raised on a strict diet of Hollywood teen movies - will be driven to gaze listlessly out of a nearby window by the lack of immediate dramatic oomph. What hooked me was the pinsharp quality of Dulude-De Celles' observation, how skilfully she reveals her subjects' personalities, and the manner in which they relate to one another. The whole movie hinges on a filmmaker taking the time to look properly at someone who might otherwise appear too shy and recessive to merit sustained cinematic study, and Bierre, gradually opening up and finding a measure of go-it-alone self-confidence, amply rewards her director's gaze; Dulude-De Celles also coaxes a cracking performance from the adorable Irlande Côté, who barely seems to be acting at all as Mylia's lil' sis Camille. Yet it's something more, too: how assuredly this camera delineates different perspectives. The narrative, such as it is, takes a left turn when Mylia, in the midst of a drunken blackout, is scooped lovingly up by the First Nation family at the end of the road. Here is another world entirely - or, to be as precise as Dulude-De Celles' framing, a world within a world, adjacent to Mylia's own, yet somewhat further out from the centre of things. 

Mylia's budding friendship with her neighbour's son Jimmy (Jacob Whiteduck-Lavoie) - in school, where he serves as a brooding, sometimes simmering deskbuddy, and out in the wider community - reshapes her understanding of what's around her: from being the centre of the world, she gradually realises she is but one among many. She's sometimes attentive to that fact, listening to a story Jimmy tells about a factory collapse in India that proves crucial to what the entire film's getting at. Yet she can also be dismissive or outright cruel, at one point mocking her friend's heritage and upbringing, siding with the clique against the outsider. The space she's moving into, in short, is more or less that occupied by any white Westerner, boy or girl, young or old. It's telling that the only lessons we see these kids attend is a semester's worth of civics classes addressing what it means to be a citizen, the kind of teaching for which the British curriculum barely allows time. (And, boy, has that shown through of late.) By the end of this quietly sad, fiercely wise film, Mylia has become a little more schooled in the complex ways of this world and its people. Dulude-De Celles' unfaltering ability to redirect and sharpen our gaze and make her audience rethink any assumptions about these relationships and formative moments ensures we are, too.

A Colony is now streaming via MUBI UK.