Saturday 29 May 2021

Tales of ordinary madness: "Surge"

Whishaw goes wild. That was surely one prospective tagline for Aneil Karia's Surge, in which Ben Whishaw, cuddly voice of Paddington, cuts loose in a way you won't have seen before - and with an intensity only this very special performer could summon. His Joseph is introduced to us as a rather taut-seeming Stansted security worker whose response to the elevated noise and chaos of the 21st century has been to retreat inside himself; his primary coping method involves raking the prongs of a fork over his gums. That self-harm merits one level of concern, but we join Joseph just as his rage is starting to spill over, carrying him towards the very edge of the precipice: flipping out in his ultra-controlled workspace, committing civil disobedience on the Overground, and worse besides elsewhere. What's really unnerving here is how this one loose screw is rattling around within a much bigger picture of madness and fatigue, of a whole society starting to come apart. A wild-eyed airline passenger (Pete Meads) presumes to know Joseph before predicting the end of the world ("not long now"). Joseph's terse father (Ian Gelder) all but drives over a pedestrian in his haste to get back to a decidedly fraught home. There's something in the air, and the water, and quite possibly even the sky: it's eminently possible Karia and his co-writers Rupert Jones and Rita Kalnejais were interested in telling the story of these lives and these lives alone, but if I had to pick the film that best encapsulated the paranoid, punchdrunk mood of Britain in the years immediately following the Brexit vote, Surge would be it.

In part, that's down to a director wielding his lead actor as one would a lightning rod. Surge doesn't have scenes so much as sudden changes in atmospheric pressure; the handful of set-ups that open in conventional territory are invariably those that spiral most rapidly out of control, their dramatic risks only heightened by the decision to shoot on actual streets, around real passers-by. North London becomes a rat run, a maze of brick walls Joseph keeps bashing his head against. The film's first movement has him struggling to overcome mounting obstacles (and his own frustration) while attempting to hook up a colleague's television; a later stretch genuinely suggests a Ben Whishaw remake of Crank, ending in a fistfight with a beefed-up Angelos Epithemiou. Joseph's intentions are largely good, and there's even a kind of pleasure to be observed in his unravelling: clock the frantic sex he enjoys with that colleague, as strong a signal as any that all bets are now off, and that there's a level of mania that has become socially acceptable. But he's just as often set on the wrong road, turned headlong against the world. Even when he fashions a sanctuary for himself amid the cushioned quiet of a boutique hotel room (a great setpiece, filming something no-one's thought of filming before), it's not long before he's driven to trash that, too. Destruction is ever the goal: the closer Joseph sprints towards the void, the happier he seems to get.

Flashes of earlier reference points are visible amid this literal mad dash: a trace or two of Taxi Driver, inevitably; but also Adrian Shergold and Tony Marchant's BBC2 drama Holding On, the last great depiction of London crazies; Lodge Kerrigan's hard-to-watch, harder-to-find, yet once-seen-never-forgotten indie Clean, Shaven; perhaps even a hint of the Safdies' recent stress tests. That Surge mostly weaves its own helter-skelter path through them marks it as one of the most promising British debuts in years - and this despite a blatant narrative flaw it cannot finally outrun: how implausibly forgiving the Metropolitan Police are to the protagonist, even given his skin colour. (That's why the third act seems a little undercranked, as it were: the stakes are never quite as life-or-death as they could have been.) Whishaw, however, is extraordinary and terrifying throughout, like a tooth grinding itself down before our eyes. This isn't just a committed performance, constructing an entire loose cannon from that initial loose screw, it's also one of those performances that makes complete sense of the character's descent into insanity, and why someone would go off the rails so. (I mean, look around you. It's amazing more people don't.) You catch Karia's camera straining to keep up with his every flail and lurch - though it never misses Whishaw's most potent effects, like the grin he flashes as he flees one crime scene, that of a man in the grip of some dark, dark forces. I don't believe I've ever felt quite so worried for an actor before, or even been made to think so much about the toll performing at this level must take. I hope Whishaw got a full month's worth of sleep the minute Karia called a wrap, and that he had someone around to give him the biggest of hugs the moment he woke up again. The least you can do is keep an eye on him for 100 minutes; madness in great ones must not unwatched go.

Surge is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Prime Video and Curzon Home Cinema.

Friday 28 May 2021

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of May 21-23):

1 (new) Peter Rabbit 2 (U)
2 (new) Nomadland (12A) ****
3 (new) Godzilla vs. Kong (12A)
4 (new) Spiral: From the Book of Saw (18)
5 (new) The Unholy (15)
6 (new) Mortal Kombat (15)
7 (new) Those Who Wish Me Dead (15)
8 (new) Raya and the Last Dragon (PG) ***
9 (new) Tom & Jerry: the Movie (PG)
10 (new) Ammonite (15)

My top five:
1. Surge (15) **** (selected cinemas; Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema)
2. Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In (12) **** (Prime Video)
3. Last Orders (15) **** (Prime Video)
4. The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet (uncertificated) **** (Curzon Home Cinema)
5. The Human Factor (15) **** (selected cinemas; Prime Video, Dogwoof on Demand)

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Raya and the Last Dragon (PG) ***
2 (new) Tom & Jerry: The Movie (PG)
3 (2) Wonder Woman 1984 (12) **
4 (1) The Little Things (15)
5 (32) Speed (15) [above] ****
6 (10) Peter Rabbit (PG)
7 (3Zack Snyder's Justice League (15)
8 (new) Great White (15)
9 (15) Godzilla: King of the Monsters (12)
10 (5) Spider-Man: Far from Home (12) ***

My top five: 
1. Sound of Metal
4. Tina

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Zodiac (Friday, BBC2, 11.20pm)
2. Jurassic Park (Saturday, five, 5.10pm and Wednesday, five, 10pm)
3. True Lies (Sunday, C4, 12.15am)
4. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Bank Holiday Monday, ITV, 1.50pm)
5. Foxcatcher (Saturday, BBC1, 12.30am)

The sense of an ending: "Last Orders"

Fred Schepisi's 2001 adaptation of Graham Swift's Booker Prize-winning novel Last Orders, newly reissued to streaming services ahead of the film's 20th anniversary, got in early with the whole get-the-old-boys-back-together casting thing; a creaking flotilla of humdrum Silver Screen releases trading almost exclusively on their stars' former glories has made that approach seem substantially less special in the years since. (Of the top-billed performers here, Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay and Ray Winstone would be reunited for 2018's King of Thieves, and it's unlikely anyone will think to rerelease that in 2038.) But here they all are, alternately sparking off and relaxing around one another, like the fellow travellers they were offscreen: Courtenay, David Hemmings and Bob Hoskins as old pals Vic, Lenny and Ray, setting off on a daytrip to Margate to scatter the ashes of embattled Bermondsey butcher Jack Dodds, plus Caine in flashbacks as the deceased, a dowdied-down Helen Mirren as Dodds' widow, and Winstone as his spivvish car salesman son, unimprovably named Vince. In the immediate wake of the late Nineties Cool Britannia movement - which was as much as anything a celebration of sometimes faded British screen icons - that combination of names was enough in itself to get bums on seats. What audiences would have found once installed, however, wasn't some gorblimey geezers-and-gangsters-with-shooters romp, rather an altogether modulated, melancholy experience: an attempt to round up and do full justice to the fragments of complex, stymied, rueful proletarian lives.

Its secret weapon was the Australian-born writer-director Fred Schepisi, who - with editor Kate Williams - does a startlingly assured job of translating Swift's intricate flashback structure into narratively and emotionally coherent cinema. Last Orders refuses to travel in a straight line from the East End to the coast, but we always know where we are and who we're with, and - most crucially of all - exactly what these memories mean to the individuals who've been left holding onto them. This is a film that squeezes a lot of experience into its 106 minutes; as befits a movie which often diverts towards the racetrack (where the Hoskins character indulges his primary vice), those flashbacks are a series of bets the film places, and some of them only start to pay off late on, in retrospect. The rejuvenating wigwork these scenes entail looks a little unsubtle in 2021 - had the film been made now, Schepisi might have availed himself of the deaging technology Martin Scorsese trialled in the course of The Irishman. But the cinematographer Brian Tufano (who shot Danny Boyle's dynamic early features) finds in these interactions enduring glimmers of beauty. It obviously helped that casting mavens Patsy Pollock and Shaheen Baig found JJ Feild and Kelly Reilly, as handsome a pair as the class of 2001 offered up, to embody the young Caine and Mirren, but Tufano, Schepisi and the actors also do something gently wonderful and reaffirming with Hoskins and Mirren's midlife affair, largely conducted in the back of a camper van that represents the height of Ray's ambitions. The fresh-faced promise of one coupling only heightens the wisened regret in which the other is couched.

Schepisi's direction only enhances the idea of Englishness captured by Swift's prose: this camera sees all too well where and how an inherited sense of duty and station, the reservation hotwired DNA-deep, holds these people back. It's a film that absolutely knows its place in one sense, the present-day scenes unflashily outlining the muddy hills, windswept promenades and terminally grey skies of the South Coast. (I'm guessing the actors didn't have to do too much fake-shivering in the concluding Margate scenes, and hoping the crew had blankets on standby for the oldest among them.) But it's also acutely alert to the limitations of knowing and resigning yourself to your social place; it took an outsider to remind us of that. The result is the kind of period movie about working-class lives that, with the noble exception of films by Ken Loach, Terence Davies and Andrea Arnold, would disappear from British screens as the decade wore on and the country took a renewed turn for the Tory. Even if these characters pooled their gambling wins, they wouldn't be able to afford a week's stay at Downton. All they have left is the past: these 20th century men spend the journey harking back, because they can barely seem to conceive of any future for themselves. There would be much more of that in the 21st century, although Last Orders makes the crucial distinction that this was a generation who actually fought a war - indeed, who had to go to war to see the world - rather than those pretenders who've spent the decades since wishing they had a war to fight. (Poignant, in 2021, to revisit the coastal towns that led the retreat from Europe in 2016, and which have suffered for it ever since.) Either way, from the mournful oboe of Paul Grabowsky's fine score on down, this now feels a profoundly valedictory work: Hemmings left us in 2003, Hoskins in 2014, exec-producer Nik Powell in 2019. "Where's the luck, eh?," Hoskins' characteristically thoughtful creation ponders. "It's all about luck." It is, Bob; it is.

Last Orders is now available to rent via Prime Video.

Wednesday 26 May 2021

Next stop wonderland: "Drunk Bus"

Drunk Bus is one of those small, ultra-personal passion projects: almost certainly written in a coffee shop and evidently informed by lived experience ("based on real shit", as an introductory title card has it), it's somehow been financed and nurdled onto our screens without undue compromise. There's an element of Clerks on wheels about it. These are the misadventures of a mopey, virginal young photojournalism-class dropout called Michael (Charlie Tahan, from Netflix's Ozark), who takes a low-paying gig driving a night bus around Kent, Ohio's university circuit so as to take his mind off a recent split with his childhood sweetheart. Writer Chris Molinaro and the directorial team of John Carlucci and Brandon LaGanke fill this framework with varyingly vivid recollections of their own college-age menial labour: vomiting passengers (and worse besides), an ongoing enmity with the local frat kids, a regular in a mobility scooter who goes by the name Fuck Off Bob. More prominently of all, there is the arrival of a heavily tattooed and pierced Samoan security guard, Pineapple (Pineapple Tangaroa), who does his level best over these night shifts to transform Michael's foul-smelling tin can into a party bus, and to remodel our pining pushover of a protagonist into a properly independent young man. Narratively, then, we're headed in one direction and one direction only, namely getting Michael to move on; the bus, crappy as it is, proves to be as good a vehicle as any on which to reach that goal.

Any recommendation would have to come with a few caveats: it's a bit mumbly, it doesn't look like much - there may be even less money at this level of indie filmmaking than there is in actual busdriving - and it's grounded, from first frame to last, in callow twentysomething male experience. That experience is at least rendered affectionately, though. At its best - in those stretches where the coffee started to kick in, whether in Molinaro's preferred Starbucks or on the film's snowy (New York state) locations - Drunk Bus reminded me of Prime Video's charming coming-of-age saga Red Oaks, which had Craig Roberts in the Tahan role, the likes of David Gordon Green and Amy Heckerling behind the camera, and a country club where the bus goes here. The film comes to fullest life in its second act, establishing Michael and Pineapple's odd-couple relationship, as the older party, a deadbeat dad in his other life, steers his charge away from his own worst, self-defeating instincts, and gets him to loosen up a little. It's typical of the project's prevailing sweetness that Michael's journey should be less about getting laid (his virginity is scattered to the wind mid-movie) and more about finding a friend. Quite the friend, too. Tahan, who may be fated to spend the next few years playing back-up to Lucas Hedges in mid-range indies, does everything the material requires, but the film is comprehensively stolen by Tangaroa, who just seems tremendous fun to be around, with a party piece that seems very nightbus, and is likely beyond the range of most actors: poking his tongue through a scar in his chin.

Drunk Bus is now available to rent via Prime Video.

The death of Stalin: "State Funeral"

The documentary State Funeral opens with newsreel footage of a small crowd of mourners removing a gleaming white coffin from a hearse and, lifting it high onto their collective shoulders, carrying it through to an antechamber in an unidentified building. The coffin is placed - with a bit of wobbling, but otherwise great reverence - onto a dais lined with floral arrangements, before its top is popped to reveal the body of your actual Joseph Stalin: grey-faced, lavishly moustachioed, decked out in full military uniform, but clearly, incontrovertibly dead. The Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa's excavation of Soviet history continues with a film that stitches together long reels of similar footage, recorded across the USSR in the days immediately following Stalin's demise in March 1953. We get 135 minutes of it here, but one senses many more hours remain in the archives, deposited there by chroniclers absolutely convinced this was a Big Historical Moment in the making. We don't just get a monochrome medium shot of the body lying in state, complete with pullback to reveal the fresh-faced soldiers standing guard over their fallen commander; we're also offered a full-colour close-up, in as much as there is colour left in this face to record, and the prologue concludes with an overhead shot - those flowers framing the skull and filling the frame - of which the young Sergei Parajanov, future scourge of the Soviet regime, might well have taken note. The coverage is... well, I'm tempted to say totalitarian.

You may well be drawn here by the historical specifics: the headlines, the state radio broadcasts, the dignitaries flying in from all points on the Communist globe, the small matter of who stood where on the balcony on the day of the funeral itself. But Loznitsa has visibly come this way to point up the batshit excess. There's so much of everything that it eventually becomes exasperating and exhausting, but for a good while, State Funeral is as satirically inclined, and almost as funny, as anything in Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin. In the first few minutes, we watch blank-faced metropolitan peasants and Outer Mongolian horsemen alike being lectured, in mind-numbing detail, about the cause of their leader's death ("the pulse force decreased"). Rows of newspapers in a kiosk lead with the same, committee-approved photo: old Joe with his head tilted defiantly upwards, towards some glorious future. Over in Minsk, meanwhile, the mourners are being schooled in how best to mourn via a PA system: "Impossible to take your eyes off this infinitely dear face. Your eyes are full of tears... you hold your breath, overwhelmed with sorrow." So many wreaths are shown piling up that there had to have been a national shortage of flowers for the best part of the next three decades. Everything else is cancelled, and there can be no escape: to some degree, I was reminded of how the BBC went dutifully all-in on their coverage of the Duke of Edinburgh's death earlier this year, only for even flag-lowering royalists to sneak away come hour seven to watch Gogglebox on the other side. (The issue there was a story that couldn't develop beyond the initial interruption of scheduled programming; as a friend pointed out at the time, it would only have merited rolling news coverage if Prince Phil had somehow come back to life.)

The modest group of pallbearers in that opening anecdote are but a taste of what follows. This is a film of crowds and queues, uniformly attired in hats and black overcoats. They commune, somewhat aimlessly, in public spaces as the news first filters through; they're corralled into workshops to hear teary speeches from people who never met the deceased about the greatness of the state Stalin singlehandedly brought into being; they line up around the block - around several blocks, in fact - to pay their respects to the dead. It is the dictionary definition of a good turnout, and yet you start to wonder whether all this footage was compiled so as to count every mourner out and then back in again; you dread to think what happened to anyone who elected to stay at home on the big day, or forgot to hang a commemorative tchotchke on the front of their yurt. (A few stark lines of text ahead of the closing credits offer a clearer idea.) This is entirely Loznitsa's point, but long before the exclusive first play of a Joseph Stalin tribute single (lyrics: "sleep my beloved, my dear little birdie"), it's all a bit much. Even switching between colour and black-and-white and widening focus to cover the funeral itself (bigger crowds! Extra pomp! Ultimate ceremony!), the onscreen shuffling becomes as repetitious as the Funeral March. Still, State Funeral proves effective in passing, never more so than in those ever-uncanny moments when one of these ghosts of the past - the majority dead themselves for many years - lifts their head and locks eyes with the camera, forging a direct connection between then and now Loznitsa seems expressly keen to foster. What were they thinking? Were they even thinking, or were they just playing along with the political theatre of that moment? Are these not the choices we also face, nearly 70 years on?

State Funeral screens tonight at London's Ciné Lumière, and is available to stream via MUBI.

Tuesday 25 May 2021

Goodwill hunting: "The Human Factor"

The Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh is shaping up to be a single-issue filmmaker, though that's not at all meant as a criticism. For one thing, the issue in question - the Arab/Israeli conflict - keeps inviting examination: less than a century old yet seemingly ageless, an ongoing expression of some essential rift in the heart of man. As a never wearier Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) sighed, in one of the West Wing episodes directly inspired by The Human Factor's historical reality, "It's tribal. It can't be solved. It's Hatfields and McCoys, and there is no end." We might follow that line of thought back further still: it's Cain and Abel, the left hand against the right, two brothers who can't occupy the same room without threatening one another's safety and the stability of the house entire. Moreh's interest lies with those grown-ups who've been given the grave responsibility of trying to calm and tidy up this situation. In 2013's Oscar-nominated The Gatekeepers, he took an unusual route into this donnybrook, interviewing bulletheaded former employees of the Israeli security service Shin Bet, who had a clear bead on the failings of their government's domestic policy. In this follow-up, Moreh hones in on that post-Cold War moment when the United States, as the last superpower standing, came as close as anyone to finding some form of accord between the factions, then led by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. The thrill of getting the inside line on top-table negotiations gradually subsides, replaced by a rueful mood that will only be heightened for viewers who've been keeping an eye on the news this past fortnight. Moreh recognises, as President Clinton did before him, that all parties really came nowhere near close enough. There's unfinished business here, and - as per tired old Toby - apparently no end in sight.

The 108 minutes of Moreh's film are composed largely of talking heads - belonging to six of the mediators involved - yet as in The Gatekeepers, the director's flinty questioning prompts his subjects to relitigate the past with candour, safe in the knowledge that time has passed, both Rabin and Arafat have gone to their graves, and that they'll have more eyes on them here than any memoir would likely attract. Their collective testimony leaves us in no doubt as to the difficulty of achieving their aim. Clinton's team had to constantly tiptoe around all of the following: Israel's reluctance to acknowledge the PLO, suspicious third parties (chiefly Syria), terror attacks by aggrieved extremists that threatened to derail the talks, even the changeability of language. As one mediator points out, for Israel, the word "future" implied drawing a line under the past and moving on, while for the Palestinian delegation, "future" meant addressing - and redressing the imbalances of - exactly that same shared past. We get a sense that the Clinton team entered into this process with a (possibly not untypical) mixture of altruism and self-interest. For them, the Middle East was a Good Will Hunting-style maths problem to be solved, with a Nobel Prize waiting beyond the finish line, although there was equally hope that tamping down the violence over there might lead to a comparable reduction on the homefront. As Rabin vowed, when the three parties triangulated on the White House lawn in the wake of the first Oslo agreement: "Enough of blood and tears". Instead, alas, it was the 21st century - merciless and more divisive yet - which lay in wait for those who survived that far.

That's the bigger picture here - big enough for 200 movies, if Moreh had the time and inclination to make them. Yet it's the minutiae - the human factor of the title - which draws us in: the team schooling Clinton in how to avoid being kissed by Arafat, lest he be perceived by the Israelis as a soft touch (you can only wonder why he wasn't coached to keep his interns at arm's length); Arafat sitting transfixed on the sofa before an episode of The Golden Girls; the pair of them appearing visibly hurt at press conferences called in the wake of Rabin's assassination by an ultranationalist nutjob in 1995. Then, too, there is the human factor of the mediators, obliged by this process to wrestle with their own Jewishness, and - in the years since the collapse of the peace talks - with everything they could have said and done. Between their insights, a small VFX team work sensitive wonders to bring photographs of these meetings to two-and-a-half-D life. They succeed in getting us closer to three very distinct personalities (four, when Netanyahu finally enters the frame); we get a feel for the ambience of and camaraderie in any given room, but also telltale shifts in body language (note how tired the once-genial, can-do Clinton gets over eight years) and the bodyblows when they start to land. Moreh is under no illusion: the failure of this generation to bring about peace in the Middle East was a tragedy, and one that has only made things worse in the intervening years. (An abrupt coda sees the future - however one might define it - rushing in; the film doesn't conclude so much as duck and cover, holding agonised head in hands.) Yet his interviewees, at least, seem to look back on it as a teachable moment. Dig away at the rubble, as Moreh does here, and alongside the blood and tears, there survives a lesson in what talk can achieve that rockets can't - and why it's more important than ever for us to try and find common ground.

The Human Factor is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Prime Video and Dogwoof on Demand.

Monday 24 May 2021

Because she wants to: "Rare Beasts"

Billie Piper's directorial debut, the "anti-romcom" Rare Beasts, has been sprung from the shelf it's been sitting on for 18 months by distributors given renewed confidence by Promising Young Woman's Oscar success. (It's sat there for so long Piper starred in another late entry in the so-called "messy women" cycle, Sky One's I Hate Suzie, in the interim.) The mixed reviews the film has received over the weekend turn out to be almost everything you need to know about it. Here is a film that sets out to sound like fingernails down a blackboard, and does indeed succeed in sounding like fingernails down a blackboard, but still only ever sounds like fingernails down a blackboard; it's equally stimulating and aggravating, and the further away I get from the awful cacophony of actually sitting through it, the greater my admiration for Piper's refusal to play things safe. At base, it's yet another hand grenade lobbed into our seemingly endless online sex wars. Women are represented by Piper's Mandy, a muttering single mother with some sort of media job and underlying anger management issues. In the male corner: Pete (Leo Bill), a colleague, who has Ideas About Women, a very specific idea about the place Mandy should occupy in his life, and ideas besides about the way she should raise her son. As a fractious first date establishes, these two can barely stand the sight of each other, yet for whatever reason - horniness, parents who've set bad examples, because they realise they're equally poor company, the ticking of the mortal clock, or to support some cockeyed thesis about the modern dating game - they hook up, and remain at one another's throats for more or less the entirety of the film. We're the ones that have to suffer the fallout.

Those next ninety minutes will suggest or confirm the following. One: latter-day Piper has a great face for the movies (or television, or anything, really), with features that fill the frame and scarcely let up. Two: she has a pretty good feel for what to do with her camera, a quality far more consistent and successful debuts haven't always made clear. With cinematographer Patrick Meller, she pulls off a sly subversion of the Richard Curtis look, heading out into a sunny, multicoloured London that - in this instance - just happens to be chockablock with abject nutters, a brightly padded cell. I'm not sure the writing here has enough wit to offset the sourness inherent in this set-up, however, and Piper's work with her performers also betrays signs of inexperience. The title hints at what she's going for: a kind of human zoo. What that translates to on screen is this: actors who need zero excuse to play eccentric (Bill, Kerry Fox, David Thewlis) are let loose, encouraged not so much to read their lines as fill each scene with variably irritating noises. There's a lot of conflict, much of it forced, ranging from pass-agg crosschat through ugly verbals to unbridled hollering, yet you sense Pete and Mandy have to be pushed towards opposing positions on the gender spectrum because there's no other way for Piper to sustain a relationship that wouldn't go beyond ninety seconds in the real world. Was she trying to get something - or someone - out of her system? Rare Beasts does keep circling the purgative: clock the explosive conclusion to Pete and Mandy's first date, or the way the words come flooding out of their mouths. They can't hold anything in. That makes for an unusual Britpic (there's never any subtext to play), and for a first film that proves a little feistier than all those that have determined to make nice. The trouble - and Piper's gone looking for it, for better and worse - is that it's really not all that much fun to watch: no more enlightening or edifying, ultimately, than watching someone blow chunks at the bus stop.

Rare Beasts is now screening in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

Friday 21 May 2021

For what it's worth...

My top ten films on release (for the week beginning May 21, 2021):

1 (re) Last Orders (15) **** (Prime Video)
(new) The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet (uncertificated) **** (Curzon)
3 (new) The Human Factor (15) **** (selected cinemas; Prime Video, Dogwoof on Demand)
4 (new) The Human Voice (15) **** (selected cinemas)
5. Nomadland (12A) **** (cinemas nationwide; Disney+)
6. Sound of Metal (15) **** (cinemas nationwide; Prime Video)
7. Some Kind of Heaven (uncertificated) **** (Curzon, Prime Video, Dogwoof on Demand)
8 (new) Drunk Bus (15) *** (Prime Video)
9 (new) State Funeral (uncertificated) *** (Ciné Lumière; MUBI)
10. Minari (12) *** (cinemas nationwide; Curzon, Prime Video, BFI Player)

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) The Little Things (15)
2 (2) Wonder Woman 1984 (12) **
3 (1) Zack Snyder's Justice League (15)
4 (new) Justice Society - World War II (12)
5 (4) Spider-Man: Far from Home (12) ***
6 (new) The Virtuoso (15)
7 (new) The United Way (PG) **
8 (re) Venom (15)
9 (8) Tenet (12) **
10 (26) Peter Rabbit (PG)

My top five: 
1. Henry Glassie: Field Work
4. Tina

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Loving (Saturday, BBC2, 11pm)
2. Stand by Me [above] (Sunday, five, 4.55pm)
3. Little Men (Wednesday, C4, 1am)
4. The Glenn Miller Story (Saturday, five, 3.15pm)
5. Margin Call (Saturday, BBC2, 12.55am)

Reds: "The United Way"

City may have won the league - and may yet win the Champions League - but it's Manchester United who remain undefeated kings of branding, as the emergence of two films at the end of a relatively undistinguished campaign attests. Next week sees the release of Alex Ferguson: Never Give In, a biographical account of either the club's greatest or second greatest manager, directed by its subject's son; this week, we get The United Way, a very selective survey of post-War Old Trafford life, produced by ITV Sport figurehead Matthew Lorenzo, narrated by Eric Cantona (who also takes a script credit), and featuring exclusive interviews with varyingly prominent former players, from Brian Kidd through Arthur Albiston and Kevin Moran to David Beckham and, er, Ryan Giggs. I say selective, because the film, directed by Mat Hodgson, is really only interested in two teams, and then maybe only in one of those: the Busby Babes, first seen being stalked round the training ground by a young (and yet still somehow old-seeming) Frank Bough, and the shining Class of '92, which is where Becks and Giggsy come in, weaving their on-pitch magic to the strains of "I Am the Resurrection". What fell in between these two distinct eras has been tamped down into mere second-act struggle, and in the case of the Docherty and Atkinson years, revisited as a joke, very much not the United way. Shrug off the years of discontent, and polish the silverware: this may be not just the United way, but the way of all brands.

As extended corporate promotional videos go, The United Way is at least semi-watchable. It doesn't deviate notably from the proven footy-doc formula of highlights from The Big Match interspersed with talking heads recruited to ring similarly nostalgic bells, but I was struck by the range of those talking heads. Someone, whether Hodgson or Lorenzo, has a contacts book big enough to encompass erstwhile players, managers and executives, an attendant who survived British European Airways Flight 609, professional Mancunians (Andy Burnham, Shaun Ryder and Bez, Peter Hook) and - here to discuss the dereliction of the industrial North by the turn of the 1980s - Neil Kinnock and Michael Heseltine. More from all of these would have been welcome; as it is, the film becomes increasingly unbalanced by the psychodrama around Cantona's arrival and departure, reducing even old Golden Balls himself to playing second fiddle. Practically the one stylistic choice Hodgson makes - and this, I suspect, may have been Covid-enforced - is to sit Eric down in a darkened room, from where he sporadically mutters to camera, like a god removed of his dominion. Of course, the film makes a big deal of That Fateful Night at Selhurst Park: strangely, the film forsakes the video evidence in favour of photographic stills that don't quite do justice to the full explosion of retributive rage. Yet that means we're tied to the Nineties for almost the entirety of the second half, with no Ferguson on hand to cut through the emblandishments, and no-one daring to confess what it was really like to be on the receiving end of the hairdryer treatment. Fans of a certain age will likely be happy enough: they'll see more victories in this 90 minutes plus extra time than they have all season, and Hodgson does their blood pressure a favour by stopping before the Glazers enter the frame. That, too, is a conscious omission, though, and one typical of yet another recent British pop-cultural artefact that would rather revisit past glories than ask difficult questions. Editorially, The United Way needed a little less Brasso and a lot more Deep Heat - but then isn't that true of most topflight football nowadays?

The United Way opens tonight at the Manchester Everyman, before screening on Sky Documentaries this Monday at 9pm; it is also now available on DVD.

Thursday 20 May 2021

Defying gravity: "The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet"

Discovery is still a possibility. A few weeks back, I started to notice festival-going colleagues buzzing excitedly about The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet, a 74-minute tragicomedy from the previously unheralded Argentinian filmmaker Ana Katz. Now, thanks to distributor Curzon's urgent need to occupy recently reilluminated screens and bolster its home-streaming service, here it is: a rush release for a movie that creeps up on you, and gradually wins you over. Fifteen minutes in, you may well be intrigued, but wondering just what all the critical fuss was about. An hour later, you'll likely emerge mulling over whether this is the most profound experience you've had in months. The film starts out in a shufflingly familiar mode of arthouse-indie naturalism, before Katz starts to shape her material into a forceful, affecting vision of the world, and How Things Go. Her hero is Sebastian (the director's brother Daniel Katz, who could pass for a down-at-heel Javier Bardem), a baleful-seeming slacker with an undercut and a sink clogged with unwashed dishes, and only one real friend: a puppy who's been keeping the neighbours up with its whining. (The conclusion they've reached is that both creatures are suffering from a bad case of loneliness.) Don't get too attached to the pooch, however: Katz's interest lies in what happens to its owner after his companion gets run over chasing cars. Suddenly removed of the canine weight that's been tethering him to the ground, our boy begins to drift like a balloon. What lies ahead of him is a potted history of love, loss, dependency, fate and rebirth - you know, the big stuff. But the narrative throughout is couched in small, everyday tragedies and setbacks, those bumps in the road that we're meant to get over (but which could throw any one of us for a loop). The film has a deceptive gravity.

That it expands - vastly - on its anecdotal premise is partly down to the attention Katz lavishes on every word and turn of it; it's the inverse of those big movies that throw all the action in the world at the screen, only to reveal they have nothing at their centre. Working within limited means, Katz has to stage her life-changing setpieces as flickerbook drawings, yet she shoots in an elegant monochrome that confers a fabular timelessness upon the most humdrum of activity, and she bends time to accommodate almost everyone who sets foot in front of her camera: the neighbours desperately hoping that damn dog will shut up (but not so much that they'd want it dead); the bosses at Seb's graphic-design firm trying to let him go in the nicest way possible; the young lovers snuggling on a bus this lonely guy takes at a moment of maximum solitude; the farm co-operative we eventually fall in with. One of the reasons the film seems to have charmed those who've so far seen it is that, beyond a certain point, it starts to gently wrongfoot us, and to move in unpredictable ways towards the kind of unforeseeable events that sometimes come to pass when you put yourself out there. These are generally too good to spoil, but I'll just note it was a particular surprise when the schlubby Seb transformed overnight into a DJ on a left-wing pirate radio station. (For a long time, he'd appeared incapable of stringing more than three consecutive words together.) At all junctures, Mr. Katz does his sibling proud, sketching a credible portrait of a young man who's growing and learning, doing his damnedest to make a better life for himself, only to find the universe has other ideas. We've all been there - never more so than over the past twelve months - but there's also a real, cosmic aptness to the rest of The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet, a film that takes barely a line and a half about an illustrator and his dog for a surprising, satisfying walk.

The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet will be available to stream from tomorrow via Curzon Home Cinema.

In memoriam: Charles Grodin (Telegraph 19/05/21)

Charles Grodin, who has died aged 86, was a likable, adaptable comic actor who enjoyed sporadic success as a leading man in the American cinema of the late 20th century.

Different generations will identify the actor with markedly distinct roles. For those young enough to be coming of age in the early 1970s, Grodin will forever be associated with Lenny Cantrow, the impossibly romantic protagonist of the Neil Simon-penned, Elaine May-directed The Heartbreak Kid (1972). 

As May intuited, this was a role that depended heavily on Grodin’s innate relatability. As written, Cantrow is a callow fool: keen to hasten his needy sweetheart Lila (Jeannie Berlin) into bed, he races into marriage, only to spend his honeymoon experiencing the marital equivalent of buyer’s remorse after running into blonde-haired, blue-eyed Kelly (Cybill Shepherd) at the beach. 

Yet sharp writing and skilful ensemble playing pried a universal truth – that some people can never be happy – from this vaguely misogynist, borderline farcical scenario. Grodin was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, demonstrating an ease with Simon’s snappy dialogue that bolstered two further collaborations with the writer: Seems Like Old Times (1980) and The Lonely Guy (1984).

Multiplex-goers in the late 1980s, however, will best remember Grodin from the enduringly lively buddy movie Midnight Run (1988), in which his weaselly accountant Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas is offered reluctant protection by bounty hunter Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) after embezzling $15m of Mob money. 

Too raucous to ever be as formulaic as it sounded, the film became one of that year’s big summer hits – grossing $81m off a $15m budget – and subsequently passed into circulation as a staple of the post-watershed TV schedules, often with some of its fruitier language overdubbed. 

Like its ever-mobile principal characters, the film took a circuitous route into cinemas and cinephile hearts; Grodin only hopped aboard the project late on. Robin Williams, the emergent Bruce Willis and even Cher had been considered for the Mardukas role, and the cast and crew that were finally assembled found themselves pushed to the limits by director Martin Brest’s perfectionism.

Yet somehow it came together, as Roger Ebert noted in his review of the time: “What Midnight Run does with these two characters is astonishing, because it’s accomplished within the structure of a comic thriller... It’s rare for a thriller to end with a scene of genuinely moving intimacy, but this one does, and it earns it.”

Even the generally taciturn De Niro, whose insistence on Method accuracy left Grodin with scars for life from the steel handcuffs bonding Mardukas to Walsh, found praise for his co-star, no matter that it sounded somewhat like a backhanded compliment: “The way Chuck Grodin is, it worked. His character was irritating and Chuck knew how to do that… I felt like that was a good way to go.”

Essentially, Grodin was building on what the Washington Post critic Hal Hinson, writing about the previous year’s Ishtar (1987), had described as “a sort of inspired spinelessness”, a quality that informed many of the actor’s best performances. 

Yet he was already 50 by the time Midnight Run emerged: balding, too old to play the action hero for long, and unwilling besides. Anyone too young to sneak into the 18-rated actioners of the late Eighties had to settle instead for watching Grodin as George, the paterfamilias of the dog-loving Newton clan outwitted by a slobbering St. Bernard in the implausibly successful Beethoven (1992) and Beethoven’s 2nd (1993)

These were cheap and cheerful family fare, heavy on the slapstick, laser-targeted at the established global audience of pooch lovers: the first movie gobbled up $150m worldwide, the second only slightly less. The role really demanded no more of Grodin than to settle amiably into knitwear and submit to facefuls of doggy drool on a semi-regular basis.

With his pension thereby topped up, he subsequently took a step back from his acting commitments, retreating to his Connecticut home to write and pursue other interests, not least raising an actual family: “I wanted to be at home. My son was six or seven years old when I stopped doing movies in 1994. I thought it was time to be there.”

He was born Charles Grodinsky on April 21, 1935 into Pittsburgh’s Russian-Jewish community, the youngest of two sons born to wholesalers Theodore and Lena (née Singer) Grodinsky. He studied at the University of Miami, but left before graduating, moving to New York to study acting at the HB Studio under the tutelage of the influential Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen.

He made his screen debut in an uncredited role as a drummer boy in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), but he spent the bulk of his first decade as an actor working in TV. He landed a recurring role in the ABC serial The Young Marrieds (1965), and supplemented it with appearances in such shows as the Western spin-off Shane (1966), and televisual mainstays The FBI (1967) and The Virginian (1967).

It was around this time that he was approached by director Mike Nichols with an eye to playing Benjamin Braddock in the upcoming screen adaptation of The Graduate (1967). After serious consideration, Grodin passed on the opportunity, believing himself not quite right for the role – and consoling himself with the thought he could earn more money in television than he ever could making movies.

Nevertheless, the movies continued to court him. His turn as the concerned obstetrician Dr. Hill in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – inadvertently placing Mia Farrow’s heroine in the care of a Satanic coven – and his deft work as the socially climbing creep “Aarfy” Aardvark in Nichols’ Catch-22 (1970) finally landed him on the Hollywood radar, and he was travelling in good company.

While filming Catch-22, Grodin was introduced to Art Garfunkel, who asked the actor to direct the Simon and Garfunkel TV special Songs of America (1969). Blending musical numbers with newsreel reflecting on the ongoing Vietnam War, the show was both a controversy – causing sponsors AT&T to withdraw their support, and block subsequent reruns – and a ratings success. (In later years, Grodin would win an Emmy as part of the writing team on 1977’s The Paul Simon Special.)

Established as a polymath of sorts, Grodin managed to resist typecasting in the wake of The Heartbreak Kid. He made a splash on the chat show circuit as an (intentionally) irascible presence, displaying comical contempt for Johnny Carson’s questions, starting amusing rows with David Letterman, and making a funny show of sinking a 1977 episode of Saturday Night Live by acting completely ill-prepared.

On the big screen, he was the nefarious oil executive in the remake of King Kong (1976), attempted something more naturalistic as one half of a separating couple in the talky dramedy Thieves (1977), and was happy playing second fiddle to Warren Beatty in Heaven Can Wait (1978).

His strongest role in this period came as the vet who grants a camera crew all areas access to his family’s home in Albert Brooks’s ahead-of-its-time satire Real Life (1979). Less auspicious was the action-comedy Sunburn (1979), where his seedy private investigator was comprehensively outshone by then-ascendant co-star Farrah Fawcett-Majors, modelling a range of skimpy costumes.

Grodin’s Eighties output remains fondly remembered. He started the decade with The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), Joel Schumacher’s genderswapped riff on the Richard Matheson novel, featuring Lily Tomlin in the lead; he was the villainous jewel thief romancing Miss Piggy in The Great Muppet Caper (1981); and he made a rare onscreen appearance without his toupee as the suicidal schlub Steve Martin befriends as The Lonely Guy (1984).

Loyalty to May and Beatty was the motivation behind signing on for Ishtar (1987), a notorious flop at the time – recouping just $14m of its $55m budget – although one subsequently reassessed by critics as a sporadically inspired misfire. Some of the dissatisfaction Grodin came to feel with Hollywood around this time fed into the genial trio of memoirs he penned in the years leading up to his early retirement: It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here (1989), How I Get Through Life (1992) and We’re Ready for You, Mr. Grodin (1994).

Nevertheless, he was eventually tempted out of seclusion, popping up in the Zach Braff vehicle The Ex (2006), an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2012), as a droll doctor on Louie (2014-15) and as father-in-law to Ben Stiller – who succeeded him as the Heartbreak Kid in the mid-Noughties remake – in Noah Baumbach’s wry culture-clash While We’re Young (2014).

More books followed, the titles getting longer and more self-deprecating – Freddie the Fly (1993, an offshoot of his parenting duties), I Like It Better When You’re Funny (2002), If Only I Knew Then (2007), How I Got to be Whoever I Am (2009), Just When I Thought I’d Heard Everything (2013) – as did the satirical play The Right Kind of People (2004), described by The New York Times as “a portrait of the pettiness of the rich defending their real estate”.

He remained busy to the last, assuming new roles as a CBS radio commentator and a humorous columnist for the New York Daily News. In a 2005 interview, he maintained “My number one goal is to be helpful… the other one is to amuse.”

He is survived by his second wife, the author Elissa Durwood, and their son, the actor Nick Grodin; and by a daughter, Marion Grodin, from his first marriage to Julia Ferguson.

Charles Grodin, born April 21, 1935, died May 18, 2021.

Wednesday 19 May 2021

On demand: "Aarkkariyam"

The Malayalam branch of the Indian film industry appeared in pretty robust shape entering 2020, and thanks to the regional authorities' adroit handling of the pandemic, it's emerged arguably stronger yet.
Aarkkariyam, the directorial debut of the cinematographer Sanu John Varughese (Wazir, Badhaai Ho), comprises one of the region's first dramatic responses to the ongoing crisis, and what it captures most evocatively is the sense Covid has instilled of events being permanently up in the air. (It's right there in the varyingly optimistic shrug of the title, which translates into English as Who Knows?) We're introduced to a comfortable but lived-in Mumbai couple, thirtysomethings Roy (Sharafudheen) and Shirley (Parvathy Thiruvothu), who - as news of rising infections reaches them - elect to drive to Kerala to stay with her grouchy ex-schoolmaster father Ittyavira (Bijul Menon) and pick up a young daughter who's being schooled in the vicinity. The first act establishes this couple had a fair bit going on even before Covid made Indian ground: Roy has emerged from a divorce, and is struggling to keep an import-export business running while on the move, while the young daughter is perhaps the one good legacy of Shirley's first, disastrous marriage. Her dad, meanwhile, has health concerns and outstanding debts for everyone to worry about. Yet what Varughese and co-writers Arun Janardanan and Rajesh Ravi are really interested in is what happens when plans start to change. Stuck in Kerala after the state's borders are closed, Roy and Shirley are obliged to put business on hold and check in with the daughter via Facetime; and just as they're settling into this new normal, Varughese drops a pre-interval bombshell that forces both the protagonists and us to rethink a location we'd previously taken for a peaceful retreat.

Any film shot in the course of 2020 had to reinvent the wheel in terms of how it was shot, while presumably abiding by some of the same restrictions the characters in Varughese's film are obliged to work within. What Aarkkariyam adds is a whole new tonal model for Covid-era filmmaking. Western creatives have been understandably panicky this past year, both about the kinds of stories they've reached for and how they've been told, nervous about having more than one or two actors sharing the frame at the same time. From the off, Varughese's direction displays that relaxed quality that's been such an appealing feature of recent Keralan filmmaking, blessed as it is with the extra time and space that one finds outside the usual movie metropoli. Even in the Mumbai scenes, the characters lower their masks around one another, as friends and family have been known to do. Granted, Roy and Shirley have the privilege of mobility, of cars and houses and places to retreat to come the Covid crunch. (Theirs is crucially not the heartbreaking tale of those migrant workers who had to make their own journeys home at the peak of the first wave, via overcrowded public transport, to homes they wouldn't make much money from selling; their stories are present here, though, in the form of background news reports.) Yet that unforced tone allows Varughese to get at something that feels truthful in itself: how most of us living and working outside the health service have spent the past twelve months muddling through, one way or another. These characters sing along with old songs on the radio, tend the garden, nap, eat, drink, reconnect with the essential, and - with all plans cancelled for the foreseeable - start to pick over what's gone before.

That's where the twist comes in, although even twist sounds too dramatic in this context. Development might be more accurate. Either way, the film's first and second halves tell very different stories, the result of a single heart-in-mouth line of dialogue; it's that tone that remains consistent, with no sudden ramping-up of tension that would denote a shift into outright thriller mode. Composer Sanjay Divecha continues to pick at a plaintive acoustic guitar, beloved of the indie character piece; and the crisis Roy faces is really just one more thing to deal with, arguably less immediate than the threat the virus poses. Varughese is so relaxed he can start toying with audience expectation: I think that's why he sets Roy to coughing at dinner, and developing a temperature he insists is down to the local climate. (It'd be fascinating to see how this material plays in cinemas with mask-wearing patrons: like a movie about terrorism in the wake of 9/11 or 26/11, might it seem too soon?) Yet Aarkkariyam holds admirably firm: it's a drama socially distancing itself from all manner of hackneyed thriller tropes. It works in part because that first act grounds us so skilfully in the fraught lives of these characters - we come to know them so well we want to know how they'll get through this. In part, it's down to the assurance Varughese displays behind the camera. After a full year of Covid movies that have had the dimensions of a Zoom call, it's a blessed relief to encounter something that looks like a proper movie - and which obviously enjoys all the verdant visual benefits of a Keralan setting. Ittyavira keeps citing "God's will", setting up one key theme here: how man either makes his peace with that concept, or works around it to arrive at his destiny. Aarkkariyam finally reaches us as both a film about that process of adaptation, and a notable example of same: it's an appreciable flex, occasioned by a cast and crew who, in the midst of the deadliest crisis we've ever known, rolled up their sleeves and simply got on with it.

Aarkkariyam is now streaming on Prime Video.

"Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai" (Guardian 18/05/21)

Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai **

Dir: Prabhudeva. With: Salman Khan, Disha Patani, Randeep Hooda, Jackie Shroff. 113 mins. Cert: 15

Circumstance means what was originally scheduled as India’s big Eid blockbuster for May 2020 is opening a year later in cinemas everywhere but India. (It launched on streaming platforms there this past weekend.) In his guise as producer-megastar, musclebound Salman Khan has dispatched his minions to hollow out the taut narrative chicanery of 2017’s Korean thriller The Outlaws and reconfigure its carcass into the kind of flattering vehicle only a powerful Bollywood leading man can command. Despite some early, welcome flickers of the self-awareness that’s crept into Khan’s projects over the past half-decade, the result is very much back-to-basic-business. The more knowing nonsense really just serves to make the eventual slump into third-rate pummelling more dispiriting yet.

Most of that nonsense, which does prompt fitful back-row giggles, concerns Khan’s indomitable hero cop Radhe. “He has his own methods of working,” insists one of the Mumbai Police chiefs recruiting him to protect the city’s youth from straggle-haired druglord Randeep Hooda. These include: never entering via the door when he can leap face-first through glass windows, manifesting in multiple locations simultaneously so as to better box his quarries’ ears, and – less amusing – casually torturing suspects. A chance encounter with postergirl Diya (Disha Patani) encourages our man to try male modelling; this love interest, naturally, turns out to be the sister of Radhe’s ever more exasperated CO (Jackie Shroff). Don’t ask about the 35-year age gap between these siblings; no-one behind the camera bothered.

While the jocular, self-mocking Salman is still preferable to the puppy-eyed sentimentalist who made 2017’s Tubelight and 2019’s Bharat such ordeals, there’s an awful lot of self to mock here, and not nearly enough craft to counterbalance that ego. Hired to glam up an expensive-looking nightclubnumber, guest star Jacqueline Fernandez gets elbowed out of sight once Radhestorms the stage to prat around. Quality control gets shoved off soon after. One bathroom punch-up is shot on such cheap, smeary digital it all but resembles rehearsal footage. Even the fun stuff is lowish-grade and limited, because our guy’s heroism is forever meant to be taken as sacrosanct. Director Prabhudeva’s cursory dash through the not-so-grand finale suggests he clearly wanted it over; you may do, too.

Radhe is now showing in cinemas nationwide. 

Tuesday 18 May 2021

She's on the phone: "The Human Voice"

These are - and you don't need me to tell you this - strange times. Pedro Almodóvar has marked the moment with a prestige short, shot during lockdown, which returns this filmmaker to Jean Cocteau's 1930 monologue
La Voix Humaine, briefly featured in 1987's Law of Desire. Over the thirty minutes of The Human Voice, that same monologue forms the basis of a one-woman show: it's a highly strung Tilda Swinton, found inside a typically desirable Almodóvarian apartment (someone's doubtless already assembled a wishlist of the books and DVDs gracing the shelves and coffee table), embarking on a fraught series of telephonic negotiations with an absent, errant lover. The lover - now an ex, we gather - is represented by a suit laid out like a corpse on the woman's bed (at one point, we see our jilted heroine attack the clothes with a knife) and by suitcases left behind in the hallway; the phone calls - largely one-sided affairs, pleading for a return to normality and/or civility - paint a picture of a troubled state of mind. With the exception of her loyal dog Dash, this woman is alone. 

Why return to Cocteau and this text now? One possible answer would be that two of the defining features of the post-Covid world are absence and distance. If the lover represents the absence, the distance is suggested by a masterly overhead shot around the short's halfway mark that reveals the apartment the Swinton character is moving through to be a temporary construction: a Covid-secure environment alighted upon to fill time and space. (The first time we see Swinton, she's walking onto an empty soundstage, looking - as so many in the creative arts now are - for something worthwhile to do.) The specific circumstances of The Human Voice's production in early 2020 are thereby folded into the film itself. Clearly, the vibrant party scenes of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the intimacy of Live Flesh, and the grand theatrical flourishes of Talk to Her are out of reach; The Human Voice is all too aware it can only ever be partial Pedro, atomised Almodóvar. Its heroine is even more solitary than the director played by Antonio Banderas in 2019's Pain & Glory, shown rifling through cupboards for pills that might numb either bodily hurt or some vaguer existential dread. Still, we worry about her, if only because it makes a change from worrying about ourselves and our loved ones. I don't think it'd be unfair to say this isn't the subtlest performance Swinton has ever given: she goes after the role, and the emotion contained within it, like someone who's come out of lockdown and seen an old friend for the first time in months. Yet it may be for precisely that reason that The Human Voice emerges as so touching. This is a film that greets and embraces us like a long-time pal: a relic of the before-times, set out in its director's comfortingly familiar style, which also serves as a model for the ways in which film production, cinema, art and life can, will and must go on. Almodóvar has signed his name to some very moving images and projects in recent years. For reasons few of us could have predicted going into 2020, The Human Voice ranks among the most moving of them all.

The Human Voice screens in selected cinemas tomorrow night for one night only, followed by a Q&A with Almodóvar and Swinton, hosted by Mark Kermode.

Sunday 16 May 2021

Queen of the road: "Nomadland"

I was less enthused than most about Chloé Zhao's breakthrough film The Rider, a rough-hewn, overly romanticised slice of Americana hobbled by non-pro performers who barely seemed up to the task of playing themselves. If Zhao's Oscar-winning follow-up Nomadland holds to a similarly rangy MO, it has the not inconsiderable advantage of organising itself around one of the best qualified of American actresses in Frances McDormand. The character McDormand plays here, Fern, is a composite of several real-life itinerants described in Jessica Bruder's 2017 non-fiction of the same title, but McDormand gives her coherence and a forceful, distinctive personality. She's a practical, resourceful woman, living out of a van and going place to place to do the kind of seasonal temp work - packing, sorting, cleaning - that now pass for jobs in the USA. She's resilient - you have to be nowadays - insisting "I'm not homeless, I'm just houseless", and making do regardless. Zhao films her, and goes about her own business, in much the same spirit of guarded optimism, confident there's something better yet around the next corner. The aim seems to have been to make a state-of-the-nation movie on the move, with a performer skilled enough to adapt to every new environment and conversation Fern finds herself in en route. As in The Rider, most of the cast are non-pros - they're exactly the nomads Bruder encountered on the road. A movie is thus built from the ground up, out of human bric-a-brac, those ordinary American citizens who've had the misfortune to fall through one safety net or another and now scrape together a modest living at the very bottom of the heap.

Maybe that sounds grim; the crucial thing to establish is that Nomadland never is. Early on, its intrinsic positivity actually gets the better of it: the already much-discussed depiction of an Amazon warehouse shopfloor struck me as at the very least questionably blithe, catching no sign of Fern's colleagues peeing in bottles or collapsing from hunger. (Zhao has been quick to accept a Marvel paycheque: we may yet have cause to review her independent credentials.) Yet like that other free-roaming artefact of the past few months, HBO's wonderful How To with John Wilson, Nomadland is a project sincerely interested in people, and the crazy stories and items people carry around with them. If nothing else, Zhao's film will banish - maybe forever - the image of the unkempt and smelly hobo. Some of these drifters retain the straggly facial hair of a Boudu, yes, but in the main, they have the look and bearing of your parents' friends: chummy, cuddly souls who've had to watch their pension plans dwindle, and been abandoned on the roadside by the powers-that-be, boomers no more. The loose dramatic structure - mostly, we're just tracking the movements of a woman heading ever further off-radar - affords Zhao carte blanche to hear out as many of these travellers' tales as a commercial feature will permit. Some are tales of woe, yes, but there are equally tales of wonder, endurance and survival; McDormand, with those clownish, Giuletta Masina-like features, does some of her best work here in reaction shots. They've organised themselves as they would a barbeque or yard sale, sharing knowledge, goods, what little they still have at their disposal. This, in turn, hands Zhao what's likely to be the meet-cute of the year: Fern encounters the upright Dave (David Strathairn) when she swaps a pot holder for a spare can opener. Still, they travel solo, coming and going like camper vans in the night. Love is a luxury, on this budget; there's barely space for one person in Fern's van, let alone two.

As the characters put in a shift - and McDormand surely breaks some kind of record for attempting the most jobs in a single film - Zhao's busy refining her signature naturalism. It's simply much harder to tell where the pros like McDormand and Strathairn stop and the non-pros take over than it was in The Rider; equally, to see where the drama gives way to what would be classified as documentary elsewhere. We're almost certainly getting a little of both when McDormand is spotted with a python around her neck, the character's squirms becoming indistinguishable from those of the actress playing her. But even the set-up that drops Fern into a rocky desert speaks twiceover: to Nomadland's status as a filmed adventure - the work of a director and actress setting off into the unknown, to see what's survived - and the demob glee of a heroine enjoying an all-too-rare afternoon off. If Fern presents as perhaps surprisingly unflustered, that's because a) she's a Frances McDormand character, and b) that character has come to think of America as a vast playground, a real land of the free. (This has to be the most quietly, stirringly patriotic film in years - and a counterpoint to the more performative patriotism we've seen on the nightly news in recent times.) In the context of the past year, I suspect Fern's mobility, horizontal though it is, will appear all the more poignant: here's a woman who's nothing if not scrupulous about social distancing, and is accordingly free to travel wherever she likes.

Does Nomadland romanticise its poverty? That's a trickier charge to counter. Zhao is wise enough to portray Fern's mobility as enforced, that which comes from being deemed surplus to requirements and asked to move on. Yet she and cinematographer Joshua James Richards are fond of showing this woman driving off into roseate sunsets, and I suspect there will be hardliners who object to the way the film uses Fern and Dave's circling around one another to sustain both itself and the hope of a conventional happy ending. Nomadland is a work of entertainment rather than a radical Marxist tract - the version I saw was prefaced by the old 21st Century Fox fanfare, and it's been playing on Disney+ for the past month - but crucially it's a work of entertainment that takes place after the fall. What Zhao shows us is how, when the markets bombed, houses were repossessed and the worst came to pass, people simply regathered, loaded their wagons and rolled on, whether in packs or alone. At its most piercing, her film spots how short-termism has blinded Fern to the possibilities of the permanent, which strikes me as a new universal truth: it is hard to imagine a future for yourself in the world when you're so busy living day-to-day. Mostly, Zhao intuits it's enough to bed down among people who've been left to pick up the pieces of a badly broken system. Her film might seem episodic, were it not for the connective compassion that binds these episodes and these people together, and binds camera to characters. Travelling light, refusing to contrive a crisis, allows Zhao's interest in those people to come through all the stronger. She surely senses that increasingly, with the state in disrepair, communities in danger of vanishing off the map, and the ties holding up our safety nets being cut to save a few extra pennies here and there, all we have is one another. In the end, that may be the one thing that saves us.

Nomadland is currently streaming on Disney+, and opens in cinemas nationwide from tomorrow.