Friday 30 April 2021

For what it's worth...

My top ten streaming picks (for the week beginning April 30, 2021):

1 (new) Labyrinth of Cinema (uncertificated) ***** (MUBI)
2 (new) Aviva (uncertificated) **** (BFI Player)
3. True Mothers (uncertificated) **** (Curzon)
4. Henry Glassie: Field Work (uncertificated) **** (BFI Player)
5. He Dreams of Giants (15) **** (BFI Player)
6. Tina (15) **** (NOW TV)
7 (new) House of Cardin (12) *** (YouTube, Google Play)
8. Homeward (PG) *** (Curzon)
9. Sisters with Transistors (PG) *** (Curzon, BFI Player, Modern Films)
10. Groundswell (uncertificated) *** (Derby Quad, Phoenix Leicester et al.)

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Zack Snyder's Justice League (15)
2 (1) Wonder Woman 1984 (12) **
3 (new) Willy's Wonderland (15)
4 (3) Joker (15) **
5 (12) The Greatest Showman (PG)
6 (2) Soul (PG)
7 (4) Godzilla: King of the Monsters (12)
8 (9) Let Him Go (15) ***
9 (new) Urban Legend Trilogy (18)
10 (6) Spider-Man: Far from Home (12) ***

My top five: 
1. County Lines
2. Tina
5. Zana

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Citizen Kane (Saturday, BBC1, 2.30pm)
2. Up in the Air (Thursday, BBC2, 11.30pm)
3. Skyfall (Sunday, ITV, 8pm)
4. When Harry Met Sally... (Friday, BBC1, 10.50pm)
5. End of Watch (Friday, BBC2, 11.20pm)

In memoriam: Monte Hellman (Telegraph 26/04/21)

Monte Hellman, who has died aged 91, was a writer-director working on Hollywood’s fringes who achieved semi-legendary status among cinephiles, in part due to a filmography consisting almost exclusively of cult items.

The most notable of these was Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), an anti-road movie that crystallised American anomie at the moment of Vietnam. Backed by Universal to replicate Easy Rider’s success, the finished feature proved perverse indeed. Its cross-country drag race proposed that speeding could be as enervating as sitting still; the inexperienced leads, singer James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, gave muted performances.

After studio chief Lew Wasserman pulled all promotion, decrying the film as “subversive”, it fell into obscurity, and remains contentious: David Thomson damns it as “elliptical, oblique and equivocal, marred by its own lofty intransigence toward audiences”. Yet these were precisely the qualities that led buffs to rediscover and treasure it, and its critique of American mythmaking went far beyond Easy Rider: its big finish was the film stock burning up before our eyes.

That high-profile flameout prompted a fallow period, although Hellman returned to prominence two decades later when longtime fan Quentin Tarantino sought his opinion on the script for Reservoir Dogs (1992). Noting how keen the younger man was to direct, Hellman assumed executive producer duties, fundraising the launchpad for one of modern American cinema’s most prominent careers.

In doing so, Hellman bridged two generations of indie filmmakers, but he surely observed the rise of Tarantino, a fellow iconoclast handed ever greater resources, with conflicting emotions. Reviewing his own fitful progress, he sighed: “When I was selling Eskimo Pies in Hollywood as a teenager, my dream was to have my own parking space in any studio... My problem has always been that I’ve had my little parking space, but I was never in a studio long enough to have my name painted on one.”

He was born Monte Jay Himmelbaum on July 12, 1929, in Brooklyn, where his parents – grocer Fred and wife Gertrude (née Edelstein) – were visiting. The family relocated to the West Coast, where young Monte attended Los Angeles High; he studied drama at Stanford and film at UCLA before being taken on by ABC as an editor’s apprentice.

Initially, Hellman gravitated towards the theatre: forming his own company, he staged the first L.A. production of Waiting for Godot, with funding from the emergent benefactor Roger Corman. (Hellman later asserted “there is a little bit of Beckett in everything I’ve done”.)

After the theatre closed, he joined Corman’s industrious film arm. His directorial debut was Beast from Haunted Cave (1959), a creaky mash-up of crime thriller and monster movie, but his most distinctive Corman works were two Westerns starring a pre-fame Jack Nicholson, The Shooting and Ride into the Whirlwind (both 1966).

Shot back-to-back in the Utah desert for a total of $150,000, these became thoughtful parables of existentialism. “We thought they would be a couple more Roger Corman movies that would play on the second half of a double-bill,” the director confessed. “We never thought anybody would ever notice.” Cahiers du Cinéma did, listing Ride among its ten best of 1968.

After Two-Lane Blacktop’s commercial failure and the further bodyblow of being replaced by Sam Peckinpah on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Hellman returned to Corman’s orbit to make Cockfighter (1974), an unsparing adaptation of Charles Willeford’s crime novel.

Though vividly lensed by the great Nestor Almendros, the project stumped the marketing men; even reissued as Born to Kill, it became the first film in the history of Corman’s famously frugal New World Pictures to lose money. It remains largely out of circulation, partly due to unsimulated scenes of animal cruelty.

The paella Western China 9, Liberty 37 (1978) proved more saleable, but Hellman was briefly reduced to undertaking work-for-hire. He finished up two projects – Muhammad Ali biopic The Greatest (1977) and spy thriller Avalanche Express (1979) – after their directors died mid-shoot; he shot second unit footage for Robocop (1987).

Iguana (1988) was at least a Hellman original, an eccentric meditation on power about a disfigured harpooner who appoints himself king of a remote island, though the director himself dismissed it as “terrible”. It became a prize for Hellman cultists, though, as did Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (1989), an instalment of the Yuletide-themed horror franchise written, shot and released inside four months.

Yet with Tarantino’s patronage, Hellman’s profile began to rise anew. He was invited to join the Academy in 2007, becoming an enthusiastic member of the Oscars’ foreign-language film committee, and in 2010 he completed his final feature Road to Nowhere, a brooding study of a filmmaker going rogue while on location.

Following the film’s Venice premiere, its maker was handed a lifetime achievement award by Tarantino, who lauded Hellman as “a great cinematic artist and a minimalist poet”. While clearly personal, the film opened to familiarly mixed reviews: Variety called it “a twin peak” to Two-Lane Blacktop, while The New Yorker dismissed it as “a dead end”.

In recent years, Hellman’s primary income came from renting out a room in his Hollywood Hills residence via Airbnb. Interviewed at home in late 2020, he concluded his career “was sporadic, but it was fine”.

He married and divorced three times; he is survived by Melissa and Jared, his children by his second wife Jaclyn Hellman.

Monte Hellman, born July 12, 1929, died April 20, 2021.

Thursday 29 April 2021

Two hearts beat as one: "Aviva"

There can't be many contemporary American filmmakers with a CV more bafflingly diverse than Boaz Yakin. Having first announced himself on the indie scene with 1994's excellent inner-city drama Fresh, Yakin went on to oversee potential awards bait (2000's Remember the Titans), multiplex filler (2003's Uptown Girls), a superior Jason Statham vehicle (2012's Safe) and one of those hero-dog movies that always seem to be in production somewhere (2015's Max). With this week's Aviva, he gives us something else entirely: an acutely horny study in gender fluidity, with sporadic dance interludes and an assortment of attractive players enjoying sexy times in many and varied combinations. As the Stath might say: blimey. As Max would doubtless put it: woof. Advance notice is served when all the key players in the on-off transatlantic romance between free-floating Parisian sprite Aviva and depressive New Yorker Eden are introduced in the buff, and there's double the fun to come, because - in an initially headscratching twist that begins to make a sense of sorts over the two hours - both lead roles are simultaneously played by an actor and an actress. Eden is at once Bobbi Jene Smith, the choreographer whose hummingbird intensity proved so compelling in Georgia Parris's Mari, and Tyler Phillips, who - with his goatee and fringe - very much looks like a Tyler, but could equally pass for an Ethan or Josh. Aviva is the redheaded Russian import Zina Zinchenko, who readily confesses to camera that her accent isn't terrifically French, and the chiselled Israeli Or Schraiber. What Yakin seems to be doing is applying the conceptual flourish of a film like last month's Mouthpiece (where two actresses played the same woman, sometimes in synch, sometimes squabbling like cats in a sack) to a narrative as intensely personal as Marriage Story (and if you know where to look, you can figure out who Aviva might be in relation to this filmmaker). There may be a more immediate, wider-world application: to explain pronouns and polyamory to Daily Mail readers, while simultaneously giving these habitual grumblers something that might get them off and loosen them up a bit.

The ambition is vaulting, the execution sometimes a touch wobbly. Some of Yakin's dialogue falls on the riper side, for one, and - however open your mind - there's still a fair bit to get one's head around. The complication of who's playing who at any given moment is only heightened in one scene where Eden is played by Smith, Phillips and a child actor (Roman Malenda) who represents the character's bratty, sullen former self. You'll also require a tolerance for fourth wall-breaking: this is a musical where one character directly addresses the viewer as to how much he hates it when characters in musicals suddenly break into song and dance. Yet this struck me as Yakin pushing usefully at another boundary: in a film where the characters aren't entirely at home in their own skin, it does make sense they should also be unhappy with the movie they find themselves in, and constantly be on the lookout for wiggle room. (In relationship terms, they just need some space.) It helps that the dance sequences are pretty great: choreographed by Smith and shot on pre-existing locations, they're a little like those impromptu jives that broke out in early Hal Hartley movies, with a bit more scope and an extra dash of eroticism. These characters dance as either prelude to or substitute for fucking - and the sex scenes, when they follow, prove no less precisely choreographed. That's why they're often as funny as they are frenzied, Yakin musing the pros and cons of having three or four people coming together beneath the same sheets. If anything at all connects Aviva to the rigidly cishet Safe - one of the least queer Statham movies - it's this abiding fascination with bodies in motion; Yakin isn't just reconnecting with his indie roots, but with a spectacle that has attracted the camera ever since the cinema's inception. It'd make for a wild date movie, if you can get beyond the artfully applied toplayer of pretence, because both you and your plus one (or two, or three) would emerge down for, at the very least, rigorous post-film discussion. (Even if you didn't want to get into one another's pants, you could poke around in your divided selves.) But then Aviva, too, is putting itself out there, laying itself bare at risk of looking foolish. If it doesn't turn you on, the least it deserves is points for bravery.

Aviva will be available to stream from tomorrow via the BFI Player, ahead of its DVD release on May 24.

Tuesday 27 April 2021

The last picture show: "Labyrinth of Cinema"

Now that the 2020-21 awards season has been put out of its misery, time to get back to what really matters: watching mad three-hour Japanese time-travel movies. Director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi remains prominent in cinephile circles, in large part down to successive generations rediscovering 1977's out-there haunted-house movie Hausu in repertory or on DVD. Labyrinth of Cinema found Ôbayashi, at 81 years of age, making the sort of eccentric one-off only someone who's been working a long time gets to make. (He died last April, at 82: the finished film has a similar valedictory air to Jodorowsky's recent screen autobiographies.) Imagine a manic Purple Rose of Cairo. One stormy evening, during a provincial moviehouse's final all-nighter, a glitch with the projector traps the audience - including naive schoolgirl Noriko (Rei Yoshida), her sweetheart Mario (Takuro Atsuki), various film buffs, and those who've simply paid to get out of the rain - within various films that collectively represent a broad cross-section of Japanese cinema. First, they find themselves tapdancing into one of those Technicolor musicals designed to raise morale during wartime; the remainder of the night's programme takes in samurai flicks, a coastal romance, Expressionist silents, brothel-house melodramas, a Tarzan-like jungle picture, even a rudimentary stab at animation. We quantum-leap into the film's third hour with the main characters playing soldiers on a train bound for Hiroshima in August 1945 (not far from where Ôbayashi was born seven years earlier) and facing mounting panic as to whether they'll see the credits roll. Most of these movies date from the mid-20th century, coinciding with the director's formative years, and the rebuilding of modern Japan; they're throwaway crowdpleasers repositioned as foundational texts. Yet the storytelling is so protean it wouldn't seem implausible if our cheap-seat heroes suddenly bounced into a post-Ai No Corrida roman-porno or Takashi Miike shocker - or, indeed, wound up back at Hausu itself. Here is cinema that voraciously sets about eating itself, and proof that if you are going postmodern, best to go the whole hog.

For one thing, that synopsis doesn't even begin to get at the riot of invention going on around the fringes of the main timeline here. The pastiche of styles is introduced by a dandyish figure referred to as Fanta G (Yukihiro Takahashi), first seen orbiting the Earth in a spaceship filled with talking koi carp; there are characters with such bizarro-world names as Franz Kapra (Mario's surname is Baba), and cameos from Japanese actors cast as Ozu (no great sweat) and John Ford (a bigger stretch). Ôbayashi has tremendous fun with aspect ratios and masking shifts, displaying a pronounced fetish for the circular peephole within a rectangular frame, inviting us to peer in through what looks like an inversion of the Japanese flag, yet even his conventional 16:9 set-ups get splattered with graphics and footnotes and snippets of onscreen poetry, as if Janet Street-Porter's old Network 7 crew had forced their way back into the mixing booth. The randomness (more specific: the creative liberty) people responded to in Hausu - that ever-winning sense that, narratively and formally, anything could happen - is here writ twice as large, and there's a real joy in witnessing an octogenarian filmmaker insisting on turning any remaining limitations into strengths. Ôbayashi doesn't have the budget to rerun Ran (he's struggling to find seven samurai in places, if he's honest), so he shoots his scattered players in front of green screens; these allow him to stage, say, a beheading by detaching neck from body using the most primitive editing tools. You'll have seen memes from 2003 that were more sophisticated, but the effect is funny and has charm - and if it doesn't quite pay off for you, you don't have long to wait for the next directorial flourish. This is a motion picture where everything is truly mobile; it can't sit still for any one of its 179 minutes, because its creative prime mover has been compelled to cover so much ground.

The wobbly cherry atop the wonky icing on this gloriously nutty cake is that it's also properly moving. For Ôbayashi, the cinema is one of the few democracies left (when the lights go down, we're all in the same position); a portal to other worlds; and a safe space within which both citizens and nations can process trauma. He knew why we're drawn back there, and he also knew how easy it is for us to suddenly find ourselves up there on the screen: Labyrinth is nothing if not a dramatisation of the psychological and emotional slippage that so often takes place in the dark. Though they have recurring themes, the genres being pastiched here represent a range of human experience; the more you see of them, Noriko proposes, the more you'll know, in theory. What elevates the whole way above the usual thinness of movie pastiche is that there's something urgent and fundamental at stake within almost all of the films-within-the-film: an idea of innocence, represented by Noriko, yet tied to the filmmaker's desire to make something up, and the audience's willingness to go along with it. Ôbayashi's cinema - not unlike Jacques Rivette's theatre in Céline and Julie Go Boating - is a game we all play: it's make-believe and dressing-up, a return to a childlike state. Better to stage war, with fake blood and other takebacks, than to actually wage it. That's why we circle back to Hiroshima, evoked with such palpable lived experience as to make Tarantino's rewriting of WW2 seem more puerile yet. Here, Ôbayashi tries to find the one act of creation that might balance out that lamentable act of destruction. (He views the A-bomb as Lynch did in Twin Peaks: The Return: no laughing matter.) Arguably there's a little too much playing at being samurai - hey, welcome to Japanese cinema - and I don't doubt for a minute that you'll get more from it the more au fait you are with these specific genres: both script and performances are riddled with asides and in-jokes, sending the generally nimble subtitles (by Rosemary Dean and Tetsuro Shimauchi) scrambling to keep up. Ôbayashi was engaged in the kind of archiving project that occupied many of us this past year, trying to put an unruly house in order with an eye to what might lie ahead - or as one of his buffs puts it, "It's time to review history, so we can build a better future." What a film this is to lose yourself in, and what a time this is to lose yourself in a film.

Labyrinth of Cinema is now streaming via MUBI UK.

Monday 26 April 2021

Praising Pierre: "House of Cardin"

Of the dozen or more docs-about-designers to have circulated over the past two decades, only a couple could honestly qualify as anything more than basic brand extension/ego massage: 2018's McQueen and 2019's long-suppressed Yves Saint Laurent: The Last Collections, both of which emerged after their subjects had passed, allowing their makers to go beyond the usual authorised treatment. Completed before Pierre Cardin's death late last year, House of Cardin isn't anything like as probing - it opens with five full minutes of pro-celebrity gushing, and the first person directors P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes interview is brand Cardin's current head of communications - but it retains a playful, surfacey appeal that keeps it watchable. The big revelation here for me was biographical: that a fashion magnate so closely associated with Paris was actually raised in Italy, born Pietro Cardin in 1922 before he and his family were driven out by the Blackshirts. The Cardin we're introduced to has a Zelig-like gift for timing, forever seeming to land in the right spot at the right moment. Upon arrival in Paris, his first assignment for the House of Paquin was assisting Jean Cocteau with costumes for La Belle et la Bete; a transfer to Christian Dior saw Cardin helping to oversee the New Look. When he opened his own studio, it was amid the youthquake of the 1960s - allowing Cardin to identify (and tap) a market that wasn't being especially well served by the pricey likes of Chanel and Dior. One of the film's strengths is that, while cooing at each season's new designs, it keeps at least half an eye (as a canny businessman like Cardin surely did) on the wider world - developments not just in fashion, but film, music, politics, at one point even space travel.

If you're just here for archive footage of Paris in its louche post-War pomp, you'll be well served. We get something like the skinny on the generally gay Cardin's four-year affair with Jeanne Moreau, initiated after the designer collaborated with Jacques Demy on the costumes for La Baie des Anges - as one interviewee frames it, "if you're going to go straight for someone, why wouldn't it be Moreau?" - and many minutes of those wondrously casual 1970s TV interviews where there always seems to be a lit cigarette in an ashtray, and a 65% chance of an offcolour remark. Unlike the tyrannical godhead Saint Laurent (with whom he admits to having a frosty professional relationship), Cardin presents as a jovial, adaptable old cove - Truffaut-ish in middle age, a little Ken Loach-like in later life - who quickly realised there were advantages in opening up haute couture to the masses. The film gets more substantive whenever it troubles to ask why its subject was so fabulous, circling around the idea that Cardin was an outlier within what was then a sternly traditional field, someone who pushed at boundaries and erased any borders. (Did his childhood displacement have something to do with that?) He pushed through the idea of all-male catwalk shows, previously frowned upon by fashion heads as the exclusive preserve of homosexuals; he also claims to have been at the forefront of recruiting non-Caucasian models, a boast backed up by celebrity interviewees Jenny Shimizu and Naomi Campbell.

This material might have an air of retrospectively imposed wokeness, but no: Ebersole and Hughes have the footage of the young Cardin walking the catwalk while modelling his own creations, in an effort to alleviate some of the industry stigma, and anybody prepared to hand Jean Paul Gaultier (another guest star) one of his first breaks in the Seventies was surely thinking bigger than the usual boxes and labels. Even Philippe Starck, with whom Cardin clashed during a short-lived furniture collaboration ("Cardin is a capitalist, I am a communist"), admits the pair found common ground in a desire to change the world for the better; they just disagreed about the way to effectuate that change, that's all. Cardin does seem to have spent a large swathe of his career doing the thing most likely to have pissed off those blackshirts, right down to covering his menswear in brightly coloured shapes and stripes. (If you're somehow not yet convinced that our most prominent corporate figureheads are more often than not driven by long-held grudges, consider the notionally joky anecdote Gaultier relays about the time Cardin was barred from entering the chic Parisian bistro Maxim's, a hotspot the designer subsequently bought up.) At 97 minutes, it's not devoid of puffery and peacocking - a plug for Pierre's pianist nephew plays like pure contractual obligation, and there's the outrageous hubris (unthinkable in any field other than fashion) of turning the Great Wall of China into a catwalk - but you also get a choice Alice Cooper tale about Omar Sharif's Rolls-Royce being trashed by an unruly crowd at the Espace Cardin, the designer's short-lived personal playhouse. Hard not to make something engaging out of what was clearly an interesting, varied creative life.

House of Cardin is now available to rent via YouTube and Google Play.

On demand: "His House"

As its title would suggest, proprietary issues hang heavy over Remi Weekes' BAFTA-winning breakout His House, a horror movie that almost doesn't need to invoke the supernatural to be unnerving. At its centre: Bol and Rial (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù and Wunmi Mosaku), a married couple who lost a daughter while fleeing war-torn South Sudan, and now find themselves in grey, rainy post-Brexit Britain, where they're meant to be grateful for any scrap of assistance tossed their way. The biggest scrap, or at least that's how it first appears, is being installed in a dingy, ill-tended council flat, with unhelpfully sporadic electricity and wallpaper that curls like the apocryphal British Rail sandwiches, while they wait for their case to be heard by the Home Office. Here, the movie arrives at a fork in the creative road. It would be easy to imagine the British film industry addressing this couple's plight in strictly social-realist terms, as has become the default mode for stories such as these, although Channel 4's borderline miraculous sitcom Home has recently revised the migrant narrative to include melancholy-to-grim, conscience-pricking, ever-genuine laughs. Weekes proposes a third way, more imaginative yet, wondering what would happen if this halfway house became a haunted house, whether stalked by the ghosts of previous residents, the manifestation of lingering traumas, or some other curse the couple have trailed with them. However you interpret this growing disquiet, one thing becomes clear: Bol and Rial are trapped between worlds for the time being, literally neither here nor there.

The flat in itself would be troubling enough, production designer Jacqueline Abrahams opening up chasms in its crawlspace, revealing its rot night after night and eventually turning one party against another: any resemblance to the wider British picture is presumably wholly deliberate. Yet somehow His House becomes even more uncanny whenever its protagonists venture out onto the streets of what Bol describes as "a strange country". This land is free from war - so far, at any road - but it's a maze of unfamiliar alleyways, curious accents, and peculiar tribal chants. (At one point, Bol takes a wrong turn and winds up in a pub full of middle-aged palefaces in matching shirts hymning the player-God Peter Crouch.) The natives have a very weird, almost indetectable sense of humour; that's when they're not being openly xenophobic. A more straightforwardly social-realist approach would point up the parallels, make certain the audience was aware all of this was happening in a town near you - bringing the drama closer to home. Weekes's camera looks on the same locations as an outsider might: we're never just dispassionate observers, but actively set to puzzling this place - these places - out. Why does a store detective follow Bol around when he's out shopping for more British-looking clothes? Why, for that matter, are all the models on the instore POS exclusively Caucasian? What message is that sending? 

The flat, whenever we return there, isn't the sanctuary this couple came seeking, rather a repository for all those doubts and fears that can't be so easily made over, and for Weekes's wilder (more specific: most nightmarish) imagery: a humdrum dump that looks out onto a variety of hellscapes, many of those manmade. As a calling card - a taut 90-minute genre item that offers the promise of even bigger and better to come - there really hasn't been anything stronger in the past twelve months. His House gets right something I thought the widely admired Saint Maud fumbled: fully integrating its interior and exterior spaces, so that the gripping grand Gothic inside the old dark house serves as an extension of the more realist location work. (It's all of a piece: a mad world, in a rotting nutshell.) Weekes makes his dream logic add up, throws in a real gutpunch of a third-act reveal, and then pulls off a finale that takes place in three separate timelines simultaneously, the kind of ambition you're just not supposed to write into your first lowish-budget horror movie. As if all that wasn't exciting enough, he does incredibly close, detailed, rewarding work with well-cast actors. There's a nice supporting turn from Matt Smith as a cheeky-chappy caseworker whose facade soon slips to reveal he, too, finds himself operating in a dead end of sorts; while Dìrísù and Mosaku quietly humanise characters who are far from the usual horror-film patsies. Bol and Rial, who really do lodge in the mind, are a loving, troubled couple who did what they had to do to survive, only to then witness their hopes and dreams of a better life threatened by an environment that proves hostile in the extreme.

His House is now streaming on Netflix.

Saturday 24 April 2021

Shits in the woods: "Black Bear"

Black Bear is the highest-profile release to date from Lawrence Michael Levine, a writer-director who first emerged amid the mumblecore movement at the start of the last decade. It offers recognisable names and familiar faces, rather than friends of the filmmaker, in the leads, and a hook of sorts; what's exasperating about it is how mumbly it still is. The location, for starters, is a woodland retreat for artists - prime mumbleterritory, if ever there was. It's predominantly talk-driven, with long sequences in which the characters' jaws prove more mobile than the camera. And it's about people who are not unlike the filmmakers, working through the same issues - principally who's fucking whom, that abiding mumblecore concern. Allison (Aubrey Plaza) is herself a writer-director (and sometime actress) who arrives in these parts with an eye to sketching out the basics of her next project, only to find she's a guinea pig - the retreat's first occupant before it goes fully public. If she's hoping for peace and quiet, she's very much mistaken. Her hosts Gabe and Blair (Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon) are a married couple, expecting their first child; yet their favoured mode of communication is the passive-aggressive snipe, as if they've reached the very limit of their patience with one another. (Five minutes in their company, and you understand why.) A natural flirt and born provocateur, Allison is but one factor that starts to mess with the couple's dynamic; another, as signalled by the rubbish scattered around the retreat's bins and the growling heard coming from the woods at night, is that there's apparently a hungry, angry bear on the loose. Emoji shrug; new para.

The difference between Mumblecore 2010 and Mumblecore 2020 is that these characters are now in their thirties rather than twenties, and (with the exception of the bear) established creatives: for one thing, they have the money to attend artistic retreats, or to set up an artistic retreat in an inherited family property. What Black Bear suggests is that mumblecore has mutated (or grown up): this is bourgie mumblecore, aspirational mumblecore, no less self-absorbed than its predecessor but altogether better dressed, and with some light jazz over the closing credits. But - wait - there's also a twist. The story Levine sets out over the opening half-hour turns out to be but a first draft: at a pivotal moment, everything resets, as on a film set - and (aha!) we find ourselves on a film set, with the same performers deployed in different roles and situations. We're meant to be wowed by this pullback, and - who knows? - in 1998, when this kind of postmodern flourish was a relatively fresh idea in American movies, I might well have been. Here, I just felt badly shortchanged: I'd forced myself - god, how I'd forced myself - to invest in the awful human beings Levine introduced me to in that first third, and now he wants to bombard us with a whole new set of tossers? The film-within-a-film business somehow contrives to be even more unbearable, struggling to make mountains from the molehills of moviemaking microaggression. Of course it's a script actors would leap at: it speaks to their own experiences, and allows them to demonstrate the old versatility-'n'-range in playing two or three roles over 105 minutes. And these are good actors, too, prepared to commit absolutely to the thinness of Levine's bit. Plaza, I fear, isn't going to get a movie showcase like this again - a part that encourages her to play mysterious, flinty, vampish, unhinged and bottomless-blotto. But all that effort gets wasted on a non-story that starts out relentlessly clever-clever and then gets so far up itself there's entirely no need for anybody else to get involved. The only possible takehome from it all is that artistic retreats and low-budget film sets attract the ghastliest people; I only wished the bear had been even hungrier.

Black Bear is now available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema and Prime Video; it will become available on BFI Player from Friday.

Friday 23 April 2021

For what it's worth...

My top ten streaming picks (for the week beginning April 23, 2021):

1 (new) Labyrinth of Cinema (uncertificated) ***** (MUBI)
2. True Mothers (uncertificated) **** (Curzon)
3. Henry Glassie: Field Work (uncertificated) **** (BFI Player)
4. He Dreams of Giants (15) **** (BFI Player)
5. Tina (15) **** (NOW TV)
6 (new) House of Cardin (12) *** (Prime Video)
7 (new) Homeward (PG) *** (Curzon)
8 (new) Sisters with Transistors (PG) *** (Curzon, BFI Player, Modern Films)
9. Groundswell (uncertificated) *** (Derby Quad, Phoenix Leicester et al.)
10. Valley of Souls (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Wonder Woman 1984 (12) **
2 (3) Soul (PG)
3 (4) Joker (15) **
4 (2) Godzilla: King of the Monsters (12)
5 (11) The Invisible Man (15) ****
6 (5Spider-Man: Far from Home (12) ***
8 (29) Godzilla [2014] (12)
9 (new) Let Him Go (15) ***

My top five: 
1. County Lines
2. Tina
4. Zana

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Babe (Sunday, ITV, 1.45pm)
2. The Blair Witch Project [above] (Friday, BBC1, 11.35pm)
3. Enough Said (Wednesday, C4, 12.55am)
4. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Saturday, ITV, 10.50pm)
5. Dangerous Liaisons (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)

Roadmen: "Homeward"

Ukraine's pick for Academy Award consideration, Homeward, proceeds from a stock arthouse set-up: an estranged father and son, obliged by circumstance to make a road trip together. Yet it's destabilised, and eventually knocked some way off the usual routes, by what's in the back of the car: the body of a second, older son, a soldier killed in the country's ongoing border conflict with Russia, and now being driven from Kiev to the Crimea for traditional Tatar burial. The father is Mustafa (Akhtem Seitablayev), in his forties and still youthful-looking but sternly forbidding, like a Gael García Bernal who's been bulked up and had the playfulness drilled out of him by decades of military training. When he visits his bereaved daughter-in-law, it's not to offer condolences, but to retrieve his boy's copy of the Koran; something clicks in our understanding of him when we learn his intention is to bury his son next to the grave of his own late wife. In the meantime, he grips the steering wheel and ploughs onwards, a simmering mass of long-held grudges and resentments. The widow stole his boy away from the family; his youngest has committed a similar betrayal by striking out for the city and university, and changing the entire way he speaks. In the passenger seat, the open-faced Alim (Remzi Bilyalov) clearly just wants to return to his studies, the new life he's made for himself, and for the blood and embalming fluids to stop leaking pungently out through the makeshift shroud in which they've wrapped the corpse. But duty calls: for the time being, these two are stuck in the same vehicle, on the same trajectory, with their only real connective tissue rotting away in the zinc coffin behind them.

What follows demonstrates a mix of impulses and influences: it's always lively and involving, and also the work of a filmmaker (28-year-old Nariman Aliev, who co-wrote with Marysia Nikitiuk) who's clearly still figuring out what kind of filmmaker he wants to be. Homeward opens on a frosty Tarkovsky landscape, the first of several that appear whenever the pair pull over (cinematographer Anton Fursa does quietly revelatory work on these backroads); a one-sided conversation with a mechanic on the subject of the region's history set me in mind of Theo Angelopoulos. It can be sentimental, as in some business with the dead brother's retrieved lighter, but it's also capable of being properly flinty. When father and son begin to bond, as movie lore insists they must, it's over the most effective way to wield a knife, and followed by a sequence in which they set out to avenge themselves on the local kids who allegedly robbed Alim. Even that lighter is eventually used to start a fire. The volatility of the direction suits the story, to some degree: like Alim, Aliev is weighing himself against the great men who've gone before him, and realising just what a burden that can be. Everyone's on a journey here. (An aside: why is that burden felt so much more by filmmakers from this region? Andrei Zvyagintsev's early work was so in thrall to Tarkovsky it could only play like pale imitation.) Arguably, the narrative is a little too dependent on how gruff Mustafa is going to be scene by scene: as written, he's as changeable as the wind, laying siege to a checkpoint one moment, merrily flying a kite the next. But this is where Seitablayev comes in, skilfully separating out a fascinating character into complex individual, unsuitable role model, and vulnerable flesh-and-blood. The film gets weightier as it rolls along, and it's striking to witness a filmmaker wrestling so seriously and sincerely with what it means to be a man - especially at a time when such pursuits have been deemed unfashionable or surplus to requirements, and in a part of the world where the Russians have long dictated the terms.

Homeward is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

Thursday 22 April 2021

Ladytron legacy: "Sisters with Transistors"

One possible movie trend of 2021: women and technology. (Jyoti Mishra was ahead of the curve.) I'm assured that Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes, Caroline Catz's biopic of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop figurehead, will become widely available before the year's out; for now, we have Sisters with Transistors, a useful documentary overview of an entire, previously understudied scene, directed by Lisa Rovner, with narration by Laurie Anderson. From the off, Rovner's film acknowledges that it's having to circumvent decades of built-up condescension and prejudice, chiefly the idea that machines sprouting wires and flashing lights are an exclusively male preserve. It does this by laying out a series of case studies, brisk cinematic pen-portraits of those pioneering ladynerds who, through the second half of the 21st century, seized upon these glowing, throbbing bits of kit, generated some remarkable sounds with them, then faded into musical and artistic obscurity as your various Kraftwerks, Geneses and other, beardier types made off with the plaudits. 

Derbyshire is here, with her extraordinary RP accent (far removed from her Coventry roots) and proto-hipster wardrobe; but so too is Clara Rockmore, a Russian exile who relocated to New York, became a devotee of the theremin, and really should have become a major pop star with a name like that; Éliane Radigue, representing the more glamorous end of French electronica (and introduced exiting the waters of Nice in a bikini); Bebe Barron, who with husband Louis emerged from the fringes of New York experimental filmmaking to add "electronic tonalities" to the score of mainstream studio hit Forbidden Planet; and Pauline Oliveros from the West Coast, openly gay at a time when such things mattered, and a vital link between this new music and the emergent feminist movement. Each of these, and many more besides, gets their overdue moment in the spotlight and their name writ large across the screen; the commitment to repositioning these women front and centre is such that the film's contemporary contributors - who include the musicologists Jo Hutton and David Butler, and rock goddess Kim Gordon - are kept off-camera, heard from but never seen. Chapter by chapter, Rovner affords her subjects the same visibility last year's Be Natural and Beyond the Visible restored to Alice Guy-Blaché and Hilma af Klint respectively, but here there's also the additional element of audibility. As our narrator puts it, these were women "breaking the silence with beautiful noises".

Accordingly, Sisters with Transistors proves heavily soundtrack-led, with attention paid to Foleying up even the secondary noises in the film's archive footage; we're dropped bang in the middle of the Coventry Blitz (to hear, among other bombshells, Derbyshire claim that the sounds she heard in her head were connected to those of air raid sirens and all-clear signals: that eerie, dissonant strand of electronica starts here) and the sonic experiments of Pierre Schaeffer and Edgard Varèse, noted in passing as examples of what the blokes were getting up to around the same period. (If you are planning on streaming the film this weekend, do rig up your home cinema equipment/plug headphones into your laptop: much of this work was designed to be immersive, and some of it may just blow your mind.) While sonically dense, it's structurally a little looser, Rovner's pick 'n' mix approach whisking us rapidly from one profile to the next. If there's a grand unifying theory here, it's that there's no fixed idea of what a female composer should be; the field clearly attracted a range of types and personalities, who then wrung very different tones and melodies out of similar equipment. The bottom line, as in diversity drives elsewhere, is that it takes all sorts.

That's why Rovner clears room for the toothy, commercially minded trans composer Wendy Carlos, who enjoyed a early hit with her Switched-On Bach LP before accepting a slew of invites from the advertising industry (and David Letterman) in the Reagan years, and - further out towards the hardcore end of things - Maryanne Amacher, a distractible provocateur, prone to wearing kids TV-style red dungarees, who trained at Boston's MIT and collaborated with Sonic Youth as part of her lifetime's project of blowing the past away. (As one admirer puts it: "She didn't want to push around dead white men's notes.") Anderson's insistently chilly narration needed dialling up, perhaps - and the writing dialling down a little: "the spirit of modern life was a banshee, screeching into the future", indeed - and an unapologetic pop kid like myself would have liked to see this canon extended to include Gillian Gilbert, the mystery woman who added (and continues to add) so much to the sound of New Order. Yet Sisters with Transistors retains interest and value as a sampler of samplers: a startpoint for further listening, the beginnings of a properly alternative playlist, and - who knows? - possibly even the inspiration for a whole new career or two to boot.

Sisters with Transistors will be available to stream from tomorrow via Curzon Home Cinema, the BFI Player and the Modern Films website.   

Wednesday 21 April 2021

The seeker: "Valley of Souls"

Maybe it was inevitable that a film as nocturnal and sombre as Valley of Souls would bypass British cinemas; maybe it was inevitable it would find a safety net on MUBI, patron saints of the slow and challenging. This naggingly effective drama from writer-director Nicolás Rincón Gille centres on a sidequest unfolding amid the bloody Colombian paramilitary disputes of the 1990s. Don José (José Arley de Jesús Carvallido Lobo) returns home after a night's fishing to learn his two sons have been taken upriver by forces unknown; after sharing a prayer with his daughter, he picks up his paddle, pushes out his canoe once more, and sets off in search of what are already likely to be no more than corpses. Rincón Gille's background in documentary shows through in the patient study of the leafy yet otherwise impoverished backwaters his protagonist passes through en route - these forming the exact territory on which so many Colombians simply vanished during this grim period. (As such, Valley of Souls tesselates with the many Argentinian works about those disappeared by the military junta, and Patricio Guzman's recent essay films on Chilean history: these are landscapes defined by an absence the filmmakers want us to feel anew.) Yet there's also a trail of clues to be followed: discarded clothing, a familiar football shirt, the bodies of friends and neighbours, scattered like breadcrumbs. Pursuing them into ever more dangerous waters, we find an old, balding, tired and solitary-seeming man, a representative of all those ordinary, peaceable Colombians who found themselves caught up in this senseless conflict, yet one who chooses to swim against the prevailing tide of acceptance. Don José is repeatedly warned that even if he does locate his sons' bodies, it would be forbidden to remove them from the river. A friend puts it in even starker terms: "Stop searching. The river is huge. And they could kill you, too." 

At almost two hours and 20 minutes of measured camerawork, this clearly isn't one for anybody seeking Friday night thrills and spills. (Few films released this year will move so closely in step with their lead character.) Yet the pacing allows us time both to puzzle over the stubbornly single-minded José's methodology - just why he insists on immersing himself in varyingly torrid waterways, for starters - and to feel out the guarded mindset of a nation under siege. We get near-sacrilegious glimpses of life carrying on in the face of all this carnage - like a drunken riverbank party, viewed in passing from the lonely José's canoe - but mostly we take away a sense of a people understandably watching their own backs. A deserter at first appears sympathetic and helpful to José's cause before occasioning an arguably gutless betrayal; with a couple of honourable exceptions in the closing stretch, the villagers José approaches for help seem scared of outsiders, and quickly revert to the daily business of keeping their heads down. If it's tough viewing, it's never quite predictable, having been structured in such a way as to generate a succession of surprise discoveries. (That may be a consequence of Rincón Gille's background: he knows when and how to reveal narrative information for it to have the greatest impact.) Like any river, the movie doesn't travel in the straight line you might initially suspect; even when the inevitable happens and José is taken prisoner by men with guns, he finds them all distracted by TV coverage of the Tour de France. That's one of the film's softer touches; another would be the casting of a model-handsome actor to play the first of José's sons. All it takes, though, is a stray, throwaway line, like that uttered by a woman offering sanctuary and the possibility of a reunion of some form ("I also have body parts"), to plunge us back into the darkness of this still-recent historical moment. Valley of Souls never drifts too far or too long from a dolorous paternal duty: the river José travels on comes to resemble the collective tears of a country in the process of crying itself out.

Valley of Souls is now streaming via MUBI UK.

Tuesday 20 April 2021

Watching the wildlife: "Black Pond"

Jessica Sarah Rinland is an emergent Argentine-British documentarist whose interests dovetail with other areas of scientific inquiry. The subject of her 2019 feature Those That, At A Distance, Resemble Another, currently streaming on MUBI, was restoration: it watched flints, tusks and fossils being made exhibition-ready in the backrooms of prominent London museums. In her mid-length 2018 endeavour Black Pond - not to be confused with the cult Simon Amstell comedy of 2011, although it probably will be at some point - the focus is on conservation and preservation: here, we're out in the wider countryside of the Home Counties - somewhere in the vicinity of Esher, if the onscreen maps are anything to go by - observing a small group of nature buffs who've made it their business to measure and index the wildlife they come across. For just over forty minutes, Rinland sets us down in the company of folk (predominantly men) who know their woolly bear caterpillars from their garden tiger caterpillars, who recognise candlesnuff and cockchafers by sight alone, and who could not only tell you why the fungus known as blushing bracket is called blushing bracket, but also what the most common bracket fungus is. If you could tear these guys away from the real ale list, they'd be outstanding additions to any pub quiz outfit.

Nothing escapes their eye or attention: not mighty oak nor miniscule bug, neither the birds on branches, nor the mushrooms sprouting beneath their feet. Nothing escapes this camera's eye, either. Adhering to one naturalist's maxim of "If you want to see something, hold it close", Rinland shoots close up in tight square frames on flaring Kodachrome-like stock that both meshes with occasional still photographs - inserted to point up the bucolic timelessness of this particular landscape - and coaxes out the full range of colours on a moth's torso. That microscopic focus only makes it easier for us to discern and marvel at the peculiar textures of an extended bat's wing, at once rubbery and translucent, or the odd clicking noise these creatures make to determine their flightpaths, here recorded, cross-checked and then run through your speakers in 21st century surround sound. (Suffice to say, the bat-hunting expedition forms a notable highlight.) Every now and again, though, Rinland is content to pull back a little and simply bathe in the countryside, to have a distant figure poke around amid some vast green expanse, while chirruping birds and crickets pick up any slack on the soundtrack. It's an oddly soothing, nourishing watch - a foreshadow of the reconnection with nature many of us have experienced during lockdown - and as Rinland leads us ever deeper into this arcane arcadia, you realise she pretty much has this field to herself. Black Pond disappears over the horizon with an audio extract from Kevin Brownlow's itself fairly sui generis Winstanley (and a Winstanley quote), but the only things remotely comparable to it in recent British filmmaking would be Tim Pope's Talk Talk videos, or those sporadic cutaways in early Peter Greenaway movies.

Black Pond is now streaming via MUBI UK.

On DVD: "It Couldn't Happen Here"

In retrospect, it's amazing to think the Pet Shop Boys were ushered towards the big screen within a year of "West End Girls" hitting #1; doubly so, if you remember how diffident - how downright stiff - Messrs Tennant and Lowe appeared during those early rounds of TV promotion. No Spice Girls these. But here they were in It Couldn't Happen Here, a 1987 promotional vehicle funded by label EMI, directed by Sixties survivor Jack Bond and choreographed by Strictly's Arlene Phillips. "West End Girls" and the song that followed it into the Top 10, "Suburbia", had promised urban alienation with a drop or two of kitchen-sink drama; yet what Bond and co-writer James Dillon proposed was a droll comic reverie set out around a coastal resort (in reality: Clacton) where end-of-the-pier meets the end of the world, a ne plus ultra of Englishness - and exactly the kind of place smalltown boys like Tennant and Lowe had been itching to flee for decades. (The Eighties single It Couldn't Happen Here most obviously chimes with, perversely, is Morrissey's "Every Day is Like Sunday", recorded the same year: here were diverse sensibilities running in parallel from a prevailing conservatism.) On some level, the film invites reading as a (doubtless exaggerated) PSB origin story, showing how the young boys we see being yanked round by Joss Ackland's blind priest have grown up to become sullen twentysomethings with romantic dreams of pop-star escape. Neil, all dressed up with nowhere to go, dolefully rolls his pushbike down the promenade and speaks in florid bursts of poetry; Chris we find on permanent vacation at a B&B doors down from Fawlty Towers, obliged to dodge Gareth Hunt dad gags and Babs Windsor's wobbling full English. (Oh, stop it.) Somewhere in these 80-odd - often very odd - minutes, you'll find an explanation for why Tennant was caught yawning on the front cover of the "Actually" LP, and another reminder that backwaters such as this can stifle you, if you let 'em.

Any narrative, however, proves secondary to the need to work in the songs everybody was here to promote, and here's where It Couldn't Happen Here takes reliable flight. It starts small, in this respect: "Suburbia" can be heard passing through a tinny transistor in Hunt's seafront kiosk. But "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)" plays out over Lowe packing the world's biggest suitcase, and "Love Comes Quickly" is pumped into a greasy spoon that features evocatively wonky blinds, lax table service (care of Carmen du Sautoy), and an amusingly expansive menu. (Just when you least expect it, just what you least expect.) "It's A Sin", the big hit of summer '87, elicits a major setpiece: it opens as handcranked, black-and-white peepshow, with Tennant in muttonchops, then turns into a very Eighties revue, with leather-clad biker boys manhandling frizzy-haired strutters. (This look back in Kenneth Anger feels more outrageous than the song's actual promo, but then Bond wasn't having to worry about it going out on primetime TOTP.) The linking material remains eccentric bordering on the scattershot, with elements that blow in on the coastal breeze and vanish into the mist. An RAF fighter pilot (erstwhile screen Biggles Neil Dickson) spouts temporal philosophy before strafing the PSB getaway car, perhaps representing that part of England that will forever be 1945; the finale wonders what would happen if you made it to the city only to find it ravaged by war, possibly nuclear (what had they done to deserve this?); and several jokes fall on the stony ground of the musicians' faces. Yet the whole remains equal parts melancholy and playful, and far more singular than reviews at the time acknowledged, with one for-the-ages Dali joke, Windsor making an acceptable Dusty substitute, and an undertow of yearning emotion, crystallised in the sequence that served double time as the "Always On My Mind" video. You could curate a mini-season with this, Pink Floyd: The Wall, McCartney's Give My Regards to Broad Street and Kate Bush's The Line, The Cross & The Curve to illustrate how the British music biz was still willing to take risks across this decade: no-one is doing this kind of thing - not even in standalone promos - with Ed Sheeran and Little Mix.

It Couldn't Happen Here is available on dual-format DVD/Blu-Ray through the BFI.

Monday 19 April 2021

From the archive: "Effie Gray"

There’s been some uncertainty over whose story Effie Gray really is. Narratively, this is the story of Victorian art critic John Ruskin and his unhappy teenage bride Euphemia, enshrined in the title. Behind the scenes, though, it’s screenwriter Emma Thompson’s attempt to create a vehicle both for husband Greg Wise (who plays Ruskin) and her brand of no-nonsense, popular feminism. And in the three years since principal photography wrapped, legal disputes have arisen over the source material. We should perhaps be thankful the film has emerged as coherent as it is: a sporadically engaging curio, no more, no less.

One might nevertheless express surprise at the decision to jump past the principals’ courtship to concentrate on their strained domestic life, thereby omitting an obvious first act, and any idea of what Effie (Dakota Fanning) saw in Ruskin beyond a ticket to the big city. For Thompson and the director Richard Laxton, the meat of this tale is the Gothicky, Rebecca-like tale of how this wide-eyed innocent comes to realise she’s been imprisoned for her beauty; that she is, in effect, to be exhibited like the other artworks displayed around the Ruskin family home.

For a while, Thompson’s writing – mixing her usual unflappable assurance with genuine insight – steadies the ship. The opening half-hour engages with a whole history of female representation in art; it sets up the idea that Ruskin might himself be a prisoner to his overbearing mother (Julie Walters, smartly cast); and it cleverly gives Effie a high-society ally in Lady Eastlake (Thompson herself), the author and art historian whose counsel sounds wise enough until she suggests having children as a cure for the couple’s ills. Here is sisterhood clumsily finding its feet.

Thereafter, alas, Effie Gray starts to get resistibly spotty. There is scarce love in the room for this cold and controlling Ruskin, but even so, it seems unfair that the film should undermine him from start (Wise’s dialogue pushed way down in the sound mix, giving him all the introduction of a greying churchmouse) to finish (Millais’ very ordinary study of his patron trumped by the painter’s portrait of Effie posed – for eternity – as Ophelia). It’s one of movieland’s more genteel and higher-minded attacks on the critical profession.

Too often, the film is too discreet for its own good. When the groom flees the bedroom on his wedding night, the cause appears to be a generalised revulsion to his bride’s tastefully presented flesh, not Ruskin’s very specific alarm at Effie’s abundant pubic hair, the likes of which no painting had warned him of. The editorial urge is clear – to get Effie Gray out to the booming matinee crowd – but in doing so valuable truth has been cut around: couldn’t there have been something body-positive about a movie in 2014 that showed an American actress sporting a resplendent, period-appropriate bush?

Instead, nobody is allowed to know what this couple’s problems really are, and the glimpses of other, more sensually fulfilling lives Thompson offers her heroine – with the son of Venetian countess Claudia Cardinale (squandered in this cut), then as secret muse to Millais (Tom Sturridge) – are just that: glimpses, too scant to be as anywhere near as poignant as the film would like and needs them to be. Was there at some point a two-and-a-half hour Effie Gray, one that might have merited comparison to Mike Leigh’s upcoming heavyweight Mr. Turner?

Cinematographer Andrew Dunn (The Madness of King George, Stage Beauty) keeps it modestly handsome, but his collaborators just can’t make the relationships come to life. We’re left looking at a love triangle between a charmless snob, an empty naïf, and – thanks to Sturridge’s oddly stilted performance – some chancer who looks as though he’d be happier lurking by the cigarette machines in a Camden dive bar. All of them are stuck in their own unhappy holes, doomed by history, poor choices and whatever went on in post-production.

(MovieMail, October 2014)

Effie Gray is now available to rent via Prime Video.

Less than promising: "I Blame Society"

I Blame Society is an odd one, and I suspect it's only creeping out in the UK now in a bid to piggyback on whatever success Promising Young Woman is set for at a moment when cinemas aren't open, very few people have access to Sky Cinema, and we've all got more pressing things to concern ourselves with than movie awards. It's the Tesco Value PYW, essentially: having spent the decade since Bridesmaids doing messy women to death, the entertainment industry is apparently now going to do much the same with murderous women. Coming at us from the fringes of L.A.'s indie scene, co-writer/director Gillian Wallace Horvat stars as a version of herself, in much the same way Larry David stars in Curb Your Enthusiasm as a version of himself. This GWH is a struggling filmmaker whose coping mechanism for the daily rounds of film-biz rejections is to push on with a self-generated project in which she takes a compliment offered to her by close friends - namely that she'd make "a really good murderer" - and then imagines how she'd go about making her first kill. It's a notionally subversive idea - exposing us to a woman's deepest, darkest thoughts, and then seeing the woman in question acting on them - yet what we're exposed to first of all is a lot of wearying, self-involved cineaste twitter, and extended, non-comedic, non-dramatic sequences in which Wallace Horvat, in disguise, talks to camera while eyeing up potential victims.

At its most trying, I Blame Society displays much the same smug aimlessness as lesser mumblecore; every now and again, there are echoes of David Holzman's Diary and Man Bites Dog, those hall-of-fame curios about male sociopaths with movie cameras, although the target of any intended satire remains unclear. (It seems unlikely to be the protagonist, given that she's also the writer-director and the one holding the camera.) The big joke - and it takes almost half the running time to get there - is that "Gillian" becomes an accidental murderer, then realises killing may be a more satisfying form of self-expression than independent filmmaking. Even then, though, I Blame Society remains squirmy and awkward rather than especially funny: pursuing the comedy of embarrassment apparently means never having to write anything so elevating as actual gags. (I blame Ricky Gervais.) It has one half-funny line towards the death: a glib movie executive's dismissal of this filmed killing spree as "a weird Frances Ha". (That's half-funny, because it's half-true, not that it spares the poor guy.) And if you're after an indie shot through with the personality of its creative prime mover, it's certainly that. It's just that this is a personality you may well start to back ever so slowly away from over the course of a very long-seeming 85 minutes.

I Blame Society is now available to rent via Prime Video.