Friday 25 June 2021

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of June 18-20, 2021):

1 (new) The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard (15)
2 (2) Peter Rabbit 2 (U)
3 (new) In the Heights (PG) ***
4 (1) A Quiet Place Part II (15)
5 (3) Cruella (12A) ***
6 (4) The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (15)
7 (6) The Father (12A) ***
8 (5) Nobody (15) ***
9 (new) Monster Hunter (12A)
10 (7Godzilla vs. Kong (12A)

My top five:
1. Fargo (18) **** (cinemas nationwide)
2. Supernova (15) **** (cinemas nationwide)
3. The Reason I Jump (12A) **** (selected cinemas)
4. It Must Be Heaven (15) **** (selected cinemas; Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player)
5. Correspondence (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (2) Godzilla vs. Kong (12)
2 (1) Zack Snyder's Justice League (15)
3 (6) Wonder Woman 1984 (12) **
4 (4) Tom & Jerry: The Movie (PG)
5 (3) A Quiet Place (15) ****
6 (new) Basic Instinct (18) ***
7 (26) Ammonite (15)
8 (5Raya and the Last Dragon (PG) ***
9 (16) The Hitman's Bodyguard (15) **
10 (10) Tenet (12) **

My top five: 
1. Judas and the Black Messiah
2. Aviva

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Casablanca (Saturday, BBC2, 4.50pm)
2. The Terminator (Friday, five, 11.30pm)
3. Paint Your Wagon [above] (Sunday, BBC2, 1.15pm)
4. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Friday, C4, 1.10am)
5. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Saturday, C4, 10.10pm)

Thursday 24 June 2021

From the archive: "Basic Instinct"

The succès de scandale of 1992, Basic Instinct confirmed its Dutch émigré director Paul Verhoeven as Hollywood's new leading envelope-pusher, while elevating female lead Sharon Stone - briefly noted as Arnie's duplicitous wife in Verhoeven's 1990 hit Total Recall - to international notoriety. The murder of a rockstar in flagrante delicto brings suspicion on his on-off girlfriend Catherine Tramell (Stone), a bisexual novelist whose last pulp effort ("Love Hurts") detailed the murder of a rockstar by his own girlfriend. Chief among the detectives working the case is Nick "Shooter" Curran (Michael Douglas), a reformed alcoholic lurching off the wagon again following an incident which resulted in the shooting of several tourists. Enough parallels are set up between cop and suspected killer ("she's as crazy as you are, Curran") for us to grab a feel for where this is going; sure enough, Tramell starts to get inside Curran's head, by getting both her front and back bottoms out repeatedly, and thereafter to lead the better part of San Francisco's predominantly male police force around by their dicks. 

Foremost among the many hot-potato topics the film set up for discussion (Hollywood homophobia, Douglas and Jeanne Tripplehorn's near-rape scene, the pricelessly scratty V-neck gardening jumper Douglas wears to go to a gay bar) was whether Catherine Tramell's free-and-easy sexuality should be a cause for celebration or not. Her pen name Catherine Woolf suggests a certain sisterly kinship with the great suffering scribes of the past, although as a creation of Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, who would go on to give the world the provocation-too-far that was 1995's Showgirls, it's almost inevitable she should have to manipulate men more with her crotch than she does with her mind, and - as it were - show her workings while she goes about it. Detach film from residual brouhaha, and what Verhoeven and Eszterhas were serving up here was a sort of lipsmacking trash cocktail, tossing handfuls of pulp cliches (the renegade detective, the killer blonde, the streets of San Francisco) into a blender along with multiple red herrings and a whole lot of wry, postmodern irony.

Every last one of its central figures - Douglas's dumb dick, Stone's femme fatale, even George Dzundza's eminently disposable sidekick - is someone who knows the role they're meant to be playing, and sets about playing it accordingly. So much of the dialogue could have been ripped from La Tramell's potboilers that the characters start to joke about it; the mirror above the novelist's bed is there specifically so she and her conquests can watch themselves fuck; Dzundza even appears to react to the killer's fatal assault on him before that assault has been made. The film is nothing if not acutely self-aware, which distinguishes it from what preceded and followed it. According to Verhoeven - who demonstrates a tiny touch of class by casting Dorothy Malone from The Big Sleep as one of his more illustrious red herrings - knowledge (and knowingness) is power, and power is immensely seductive. There's probably something to be said in favour of the old-school, non-ironic erotic thriller, for films that don't sport the prophylactic quotation marks Verhoeven and Eszterhas wrap around every frame of theirs, but there's still a certain pleasure to be taken from their approach: it's horny Agatha Christie, basically, a Columbo in an even grubbier mac, tumbling squarely into the category of Glossy Nonsense That Still Just About Works. 

As is often the case in Verhoeven films, everybody's been coached to give their all. Initiating a run of choices that spawned a thousand Troubled Masculinity thinkpieces, Douglas flounts Hollywood protocol by briefly getting his front bottom out, if that's your wrinkly old bag; Stone's smirk launched a career that had its moments (Casino, The Mighty); while Verhoeven displays a funny but endearing thing for portly and/or sleazy-looking character actors (Dzundza, Daniel von Bargen, Jack McGee, Wayne Knight). The sexiest element here, Tripplehorn's insouciant shrink, deserves neither the Reader's Wives backstory of college lesbianism nor her third-act turn in the hallway, and the actress merited her own substantial career boost off the back of it, but then Waterworld was going to help nobody. Its legacy was a brief explosion of pricey sex romps with A-list performers: Douglas almost repeated the success, alongside Demi Moore, with 1994's Disclosure, but the less said about the exertions of Madonna (Body of Evidence, 1992), Bruce Willis (Color of Night, 1994), or even Stone's own tardy attempt to rekindle the magic with 2006's Basic Instinct 2, the better.

(March 2008)

Basic Instinct is now available in a 4K Collector's Edition Blu-Ray through StudioCanal.

Wednesday 23 June 2021

Bright stars: "Supernova"

It's taken the writer-director Harry Macqueen six years to follow up his finely honed 2014 debut
Hinterland, but then a quiet patience is emerging as one of this filmography's uppermost virtues. Hinterland watched on as two old friends set out from London to Cornwall for a weekend away, and gently probed the direction their relationship was heading in. Supernova, which carries Macqueen northwards, hinges on the between-times of a road trip to the Lake District, undertaken by two men of a certain age. In the driver's seat: Sam (Colin Firth), a classical pianist of renown enough to cause a mini-kerfuffle at a service station, as Firth's appearance at any Welcome Break likely would. Alongside him: his American partner Tusker (Stanley Tucci), a novelist caught in an extended downtime between books. In a bed in the back of the pair's motorhome: Ruby, a flatulent dog. The bickering going on upfront tells us these are men who've been in love for a long time - they're life-partners - yet the deathly panic on Sam's face after Tusker vanishes at one rest stop suggests the pair are also attempting to circumnavigate some issue. The panic hardly subsides once a visibly confused Tusker, retrieved and returned to the van, reveals he's intentionally left his dementia meds at home. Once again, Macqueen heads out not specifically to gawp at the scenery - though his seasoned cinematographer Dick Pope captures plenty to fill the frame and enchant the eye - but to consider how we mere mortals make our way through it: how we hold each other up, nudge one another along, step in whenever a loved one stumbles or falters. Macqueen's destination, again, is far less important than his journey; his real interest lies in how we travel, and with whom.

How we care, too, for Supernova will almost certainly endure as the year's pre-eminent portrait of caring, in both its smallest and most profound iterations. What's unusual about this portrait is that it centres middle-aged gay men: one deploying a writer's waspish wit to keep that ghastly thing sentiment at bay, the other played by the posterboy for English emotional diffidence. Yet Macqueen has a gift for dramatising the notionally simple business of companionship. The big setpiece, atypically positioned at the film's heart, is a party scene in which Sam finds himself having to read a birthday tribute that the incapacitated Tusker has written, and alights upon an appreciable definition of intimacy, doubly poignant for being communicated in our socially distanced context: "A comforting arm in a lonely moment... a bed for the night... someone to share a bottle with." What Hinterland suggested, and Supernova now confirms, is that Macqueen also has the sharpest of ears for awkward (and thus characteristically British) small talk. Watch Firth's peerless flinch as a fellow partygoer floats a question that lands too close to the problem at hand, and carries Sam closer to the exit. Exactly as modest as its £8,000 means, Hinterland sometimes lapsed into first-movie tentativeness, but it also outlined an authorial approach in which what's not said within a relationship - those half-formed thoughts, those sentences left hanging in the air - becomes as forceful as that which is. The new film opens with the dying of a celestial light (Tusker's an amateur astronomer, we soon learn) and primes us to expect the end of a long-running conversation, but the dramatic tension stems from the fact neither party is keen or willing to initiate that endgame. Instead, they leave notes, for themselves and one another, not wanting to be too great a burden, not wanting to consider what, if anything, they'll be leaving behind.

The film permits no such doubt: a lot here burns bright in the mind, above all two exceptional performances. Let's face it: Firth and Tucci are such troupers they'd probably always tessellate in some way. The foremost achievement of Macqueen's direction was to get them to tessellate this well. Supernova represents a markedly bigger film than Hinterland - it has stars, expensive soundtrack cues, a publicity budget - but it's been managed in such a way as to preserve the core of intimacy that made the earlier film so touching. That, in turn, allows Firth and Tucci to work up a relationship that utterly convinces, that in any other situation you'd say had been built to last - a meshing of distinct personalities that has only made both parties stronger. Firth seems a stone or two heavier than usual in his wet weather gear, making Sam a rock off which his travelling companion's impish barbs bounce. But as the landscape they pass through illustrates, even rocks can erode and crumble. This is a film that understands both the weight of carrying someone you love, and the fear that follows at the thought of letting go. In its final third, Supernova calls a halt to the prevarication, and forces everyone - Sam, Tusker, you, me - to consider what would happen if grim circumstance meant we had to part. It's another quiet masterstroke of structure, this, mercilessly paring down the film's constituent elements until it's just two men in a holiday cottage on a melancholy hill, looking one another (and death) in the eye, and obliging us to contemplate our mortality alongside them. That may sound morbid, and possibly too close to home for some, but Macqueen finally asserts how important it is that we get to choose the manner of our passing, and he grants us the best possible company in which to instigate such a conversation. In a suitably stellar flash of lucidity late on, Tusker muses "Being sad something's gone just means it was great while it was there. Right?" Suffice to say I was heartbroken indeed when Supernova was gone.

Supernova opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Tuesday 22 June 2021

Dancing in the city: "In the Heights"

As and when the world finally emerges from the pandemic, we may find ourselves in a new golden age for American screen musicals, as audiences who endured the Depression and World War II did before us. By the end of this year, we'll hopefully have witnessed Steven Spielberg's Covid-delayed West Side Story rejig, and if Spielberg - with his lightning-rod instincts for the desires of the common cinemagoer - has sensed the time is right to revisit the musical form, then something's definitely in the air. (A need for escapism, perhaps; for movement and communal joy.) In the meantime, we have In the Heights, which is Hollywood investing in the Lin-Manuel Miranda back catalogue in the wake of Hamilton's blockbusting stage success. (Movie string theory posits there is a reality in which the pandemic was a short blip or never happened, allowing last year's film of Hamilton to play in cinemas and razzle-dazzle its way to multiple Academy Awards.) The new film is notable for two apparent shortcomings, neither of which necessarily counts against it. Firstly, the near-complete absence of anything like a conventional dramatic core - or, more precisely, how Miranda (and Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the original book and adapts here) swapped out monolithic story for something more polyphonic: a series of sketches and postcards from the streets of latter-day Washington Heights in uptown New York.

Miranda's multi-ethnic leads are presented with minor obstacles they have to sing and dance around, like the traffic snarl-ups reported by hunky cab dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins). For boyish bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, veteran of Hamilton and Netflix's She's Gotta Have It), it's the inability to voice his affections for regular customer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera); for Vanessa, it's the credit checks standing between her and her preferred fashion major. Also navigating collegial woes - and this is very much a movie for kids who've grown up on Glee and are now wondering what comes next - is a coltish belle named Nina (Leslie Grace), who's been feeling out of place at Stamford, and has returned home so as to figure out where to go from here. (Even this hardly feels like life-or-death, given that she has a rocksolid Jimmy Smits on hand as Latin America's most supportive dad.) Nobody's gentrifying the area or threatening to shut down the youth club; there aren't enough Caucasians, let alone white supremacists, present to ignite a race war, which is why critical comparisons to Do the Right Thing feel more than a little offbeam. The centering of Usnavi's bodega and an adjacent beauty salon actually gives In the Heights the feel of a PG-rated variant of Kevin Smith's Clerks, or the Wayne Wang-Paul Auster collaboration Blue in the Face: it's happy just to hang out and hear these characters out, the better to point them in the right direction come the inevitable second half.

The other so-called shortcoming relates to In the Heights' standing as less a story than a love song to a place and its people. Miranda has a curious knack for writing songs that are highly dynamic and/or pleasant to listen to in the moment, but impossible to recall on the long walk back to the bus stop. They're like Alka-Seltzers: they go plink-plink-fizz, generate wonderful sounds and spectacle, and when you go back to them an hour later, there's next to nothing there. (I loved Hamilton, but I'll be darned if I could tell you what any given number was called, let alone quote their lyrics or hum the melody.) I think that's in some part because he writes songs not as showstopping setpieces, rather as ongoing conversations between characters, part of (in this instance) the ebb-and-flow of Washington Heights streetlife. They're exposition, rather than elaboration. The crucial thing is, from what I can now remember of sitting down in front of In the Heights, they are dynamic, and they are often very pleasant to hear out - and there is an argument that the songs in In the Heights demonstrate a range that the later Hamilton could only underline. Yes, we get Miranda's now-signature, Eminem-lite raps for Usnavi and his boys; but also a saucy chorus of beauticians speculating on the size of Benny's stretch limousine, and thereby nudging us back in the direction of both the ultra-Caucasian Grease and Grace Jones's "Pull Up to the Bumper". We get a mass torch song to mark the passing of a village elder; and the kind of aspirational anthems that are what I imagine the slower songs on the Olivia Rodrigo album would sound like. (Cannot confirm, because any fortysomething male downloading said album would likely wind up on some kind of register somewhere.)

The director, Jon M. Chu, is no Spielberg, but a self-effacing pro who cut his teeth on those Step Up danceathons, did a surprisingly likable job with the Justin Bieber documentary, and - buoyed by the commercial success of these and 2018's Crazy Rich Asians - now gets to recreate elaborate Busby Berkeley manoeuvres with hundreds of extras at one of uptown Manhattan's municipal swimming pools. The "municipal" there - with its inference of general access - is key to what In the Heights is going for. A post-crash proposition, it's not selling the glamour or exclusivity those Thirties musicals were, as signalled by Miranda's onscreen cameo as a street vendor whose cry is "keep scraping by". There's an element of conservatism - and knowing your place - in that, as there was a calculated element of centrism about Hamilton, a show that had to be very careful to entice middle-aged theatreland habitués to shell out $100 a ticket in return for an evening of semi-raucous hip-hop. Usnavi is characterised as a good boy who ultimately has to abandon his dreams of chilling on an idyllic-looking beach in the D.R. in order to reopen his shop and do his bit for the economy. Yet Chu's direction of bodies in motion - his celebration of whatever mobility these characters have - is enough to move his players and us past that potential stumbling block. He shoots full frames, with as few cuts as possible, the better to showcase Christopher Scott's very fine choreography; and in the final moments, he arrives at a real, quietly affecting movie flourish, watching Nina and Benny dance their way up the side of a building, as Fred Astaire did in 1951's Royal Wedding: two kids who by dint of their ethnicity wouldn't stand a chance of occupying centre stage in a Hollywood musical eighty years ago, suddenly defying gravity in a way only our better musicals permit.

In the Heights is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 18 June 2021

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of June 11-13, 2021):

1 (1) A Quiet Place Part II (15)
2 (2) Peter Rabbit 2 (U)
3 (3) Cruella (12A) ***
4 (4) The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (15)
5 (new) Nobody (15) ***
6 (new) The Father (12A) ***
7 (6) Godzilla vs. Kong (12A)
8 (5) Dream Horse (PG)
9 (7) Tom & Jerry: the Movie (PG)
10 (8) Nomadland (12A) ****

My top five:
1. Fargo (18) **** (cinemas nationwide)
2. The Reason I Jump (12A) **** (selected cinemas)
3. It Must Be Heaven (15) **** (selected cinemas; Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player)
4. Correspondence (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
5. In the Heights (PG) *** (cinemas nationwide)

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (2) Zack Snyder's Justice League (15)
2 (1) Godzilla vs. Kong (12)
3 (4) A Quiet Place (15) ****
4 (3Tom & Jerry: The Movie (PG)
5 (5Raya and the Last Dragon (PG) ***
6 (7) Wonder Woman 1984 (12) **
7 (new) Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures (12) ****
8 (6) Chaos Walking (12)
9 (new) 2 Hearts (12)
10 (16) Tenet (12) **

2. Aviva

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Producers [above] (Friday, BBC1, 10.35pm)
2. Pretty Woman (Sunday, five, 9pm and Friday, five, 11.35pm) 
3. Girls Trip (Friday, C4, 11.05pm)
4. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Saturday, BBC2, 11am)
5. Wonder Woman (Saturday, ITV, 7.45pm)

Suleiman's travels: "It Must Be Heaven"

It Must Be Heaven represents Elia Suleiman's first feature in over a decade, meaning that a generation of cinephiles may well have come of age unaware of this filmmaker's droll dispatches from the Palestinian end of the West Bank. Consider this an introduction or reintroduction, then: to the director's comic symmetries (and asymmetries), to the absurd human interactions, to the sight gags that recall Keaton or Tati, and to Suleiman's own mutely deadpan onscreen presence, here newly seasoned with salt-and-pepper stubble, yet eternally an observer, looking on as an ever-crazy world turns. One explanation the new film offers for Suleiman's absence of late is that he's been out and about. It Must Be Heaven starts in the director's homeland, with some pointedly symbolic business about a neighbour who stages early morning raids on the onscreen Elia's lemon trees and offers flimsy excuses whenever he's caught in the act. Having established his native Nazareth as a curious place for anyone to want or have to live in, however, it turns into Suleiman's own Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, transplanting our panama-clad hero (billed as "ES" in the closing credits) to Paris and New York, repositioning the camera just so, and then seeing how he fares. In so doing, Heaven taps into a rich tradition of fish-out-of-water comedy, but it also feels like Suleiman experimenting with his own screen persona. What happens when you detach a figure whose primary characteristic is detachment from his own backyard, and scatter him ever further afield? Would he be any happier then?

As with the title - a phrase Suleiman must have heard countless times upon returning from festival jaunts - that last question begs to be answered with a measured "yes, but...". This equivocation is the rhetorical equivalent of all those careful visual symmetries in his work; it's how the real-life Suleiman prevents himself from lapsing into the extremism of thought, word and deed that has made such a mess of the Middle East. It Must Be Heaven balances discovery with melancholy: it's clearly the work of someone thrilled to have new angles to shoot (Suleiman's hallowed status in France is such that whole neighbourhoods and tourist attractions have been roped off for him), but also filled with a mounting regret that certain imbalances and injustices remain visible wherever one might go. Seeing more of the planet just means you see more of the good and the bad. (One thing Suleiman spots, as the 2010s were drawing to an end: how militarised the world has become beyond the West Bank, as if that fractious, unresolved left/right divide had transcended its immediate geographical boundaries and sundered communities the whole world over.) He retains a touching faith in simple sight gags, as in the sudden, very funny cutaway to ES stood on a Parisian kerb, next to a bottle bank overflowing with empties: a deft expression of the outsider's shock at (and admiration of) how much the French routinely put away each night. (There's also a passing enmity with Grégoire Colin as the Parisian equivalent of a lager lout.) Yet - and this is where those comparisons to Tati and (another French favourite) Jerry Lewis come in - he also knows how to run with and develop a gag, to the point where it yields new notes and nuances. As he's leaving the Middle East, ES's car passes that of two speeding patrol cops comparing wraparound sunglasses. Initially, it seems to be an offhand joke about the vanity of those in positions of authority - but then the camera pans to reveal a young woman, blindfolded in the backseat. Even a fairly obvious observational bit about everyone in America owning a gun has legs, and bite: young kids are seen with assault rifles slung over their shoulders, and a rocket launcher gets pulled, like luggage, from the back of a cab.

As the film proceeds, its strain of self-reflexivity rises ever closer to the surface. Only Suleiman could have made It Must Be Heaven, because It Must Be Heaven is Suleiman reflecting on his own status (privilege, if you prefer) as a Palestinian who gets to travel. His onscreen avatar comes to Paris for an unsuccessful meeting with a producer (played by Suleiman's actual producer, Vincent Maraval) whose sympathy for the Palestinian cause means he has neither time nor money for projects that don't directly address the Palestinian conflict. This is Suleiman's (admittedly secondary) struggle: to try and make non-didactic, non-dramatic films with all this going on. He travels, so as to clear some wiggle room for himself. What if you're a Palestinian who just wants to goof off every once in a while? Or who doesn't want to assume the burden of finding solutions for a conflict you didn't personally initiate? (To triangulate those questions: couldn't laughter be a solution? Might a joke not change the world at some point?) Like its predecessors in this filmography, It Must Be Heaven requires a measure of viewer patience. Suleiman's cinema is a slow cinema, operating on the principle that if you set your camera up on any street corner and wait, eventually something funny, rewarding and/or illuminating will reveal itself. (It's the same principle that leads millions of tourists each year to plonk themselves on wicker chairs outside cafes and bars in exactly those locations ES visits here.) Yet more often than not, the tactic pays off, those extra seconds and minutes affording us time and space to properly consider the places Suleiman films, and why it might be quietly instructive and radical for a Palestinian filmmaker to turn their camera on peaceful, nondescript backstreets. His latest has been delayed a year by the pandemic, yet its slowburn charm has hardly suffered for that, and its underlying desire to get out and see the world in all its baffling, lopsided, humdrum glory ensures it speaks even more precisely and resonantly to June 2021 than many other releases of this moment.

It Must Be Heaven opens from today in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

Thursday 17 June 2021

Head on: "Shiva Baby"

The new indie comedy Shiva Baby is Messy Women: Kosher Edition, or Messy Girl, if you wanted to get all Streisand about it. Its young Jewish heroine Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is introduced via a session of sex work with the sugar daddy she's tapping to put herself through college; she's evidently rubbing against the Hasidic grain long before her parents (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper) call her away to attend a shiva where she's not entirely certain who's died. The bulk of the film plays out at this wake, which just so happens to be attended by Maya (Molly Gordon), a female ex with whom the bisexual Danielle has unfinished business; by the sugar daddy we've just met (Danny Deferrari); by his wife (Glee's Dianna Agron, the image of the skinny blonde shiksa); and by their beautiful, albeit teething newborn baby. Stop me when the humiliation gets enough: the formality of the occasion - every bit the equal of the opening cocktail party in The Graduate, or the funeral at which Alan Partridge reached new heights of prattiness - is only compounded by that awkwardness Danielle has visited upon herself. The big close-ups by which writer-director Emma Seligman seeks to disguise fairly modest resources suggest too many damn people in the same small space. Still, rather than slip through a sidedoor and away into the night, Danielle resolves to style her embarrassment out, and to try and make this event work for her. It's just the walls seem to be closing in, frame by frame. And - oy - do we ever feel it.

The film, thankfully, has the sharpest of elbows: it cuts through, like the extruding nail on which Danielle punctures herself mid-shiva, as if all this weren't agony enough. (There is something so telling about the way she later runs a finger over the wound the nail leaves on her flank: here is a gal who can't leave trouble alone, who will always find a means of making a messy situation worse.) Shiva Baby began life as a short, and it's been extended to just the right length to serve as a statement of directorial intent. Any more of it, and it might have felt like agony for us, too; at 77 minutes, however, we can be reassured this might merely be a phase this character is passing through. And what a character: Danielle is one of the few truly original creations American movies have given us in recent years. That achievement is down in part to Sennott's quiveringly defiant presence, at once irrepressibly naughty and alarmingly naive; that's why we cheer for Danielle and worry for her simultaneously. She has some of the right ideas on how to improve her station in life (and in this house, which gets so crowded it comes to stand for life), but also many of the wrong ones, and she's going about some of the right ones in the wrong way. Still, even as she forgets her phone - and forgets herself - she juts out her jaw, gathers up an armoury of scowls and sullen looks, and steels herself to meet an indifferent world head on, and Seligman has enlisted a small army of great Jewish character actors to represent this very small, ever more constrictive circle. (You've not been walled in until you've been walled in by Fred Melamed.) It's arrived late in the messy-women cycle - and I know that the comedy of embarrassment is always going to be too excruciating for some - but Shiva Baby does carve out its own space, and any built-in suffering has been very carefully and precisely calibrated. Ariel Marx's score plucks as playfully on violin and cello strings as the movie does on your nerves, while Seligman frequently gets a relief-valve laugh just from an inspired framing, as in her coda, with its perfectly Jewish punchline: even when these characters make their excuses and leave, there can be no easy escape.

Shiva Baby is now playing at London's Ciné Lumière, and streaming via MUBI.

Wednesday 16 June 2021

Innerspace: "The Reason I Jump"

The Reason I Jump
 is an adaptation with a difference, connected to the way its subjects look at and approach the world. The seasoned British documentary maker Jerry Rothwell (Deep Water, Heavy Load) has gone after and captured the spirit of his source material, a 2007 memoir by Naoki Higashida, an autistic Japanese teenager attempting to explain himself, and thus the fundamentals of autism, to non-autistic readers. What made the book so useful to students of autism was that it was among the first to be written by someone who'd grown up with the condition; furthermore, Higashida was young enough to vividly remember and precisely evoke his growing awareness of being autistic. The novelist David Mitchell, who produced the book's English-language translation with his wife Keiko Yoshida, describes Higashida as providing "a map of his mind", and thus presumably a clearer path into and through hitherto undercharted territory. A reading from the introduction sees the author inviting the reader to "have a nice trip through our world". Rothwell takes this as a cue to have a nice trip around the world, seeking out autistic teenagers in India, the US, Africa and the UK - Higashida's fellow travellers - and inviting them to communicate, either through word or gesture, the truth of their own being. It's a project that must have been founded on the utmost trust: I'm guessing Rothwell had to offer extra assurance that the presence of a camera crew in these kids' front rooms - or even just one man with a camera - wouldn't upset any daily routine or equilibrium. Most of the outbursts that camera captures are those of joy: subjects seeing and hearing so much they feel compelled to give a shriek of delight. Sometimes, though, we see tantrums, and true as they are to the reality of living with autism, these aren't always so pretty.

As Higashida explained in his book, one useful way to look at autism is as being bombarded with too much unfiltered information - as if the world were a relentless, multi-directional, open-ended Twitter feed - and consequently falling subject to a heightened sensitivity. This is a state the cinema can easily replicate, and which Rothwell's cinema replicates very well indeed. We get close-ups of details, of a road, a rainstorm, even a pencil; an especially evocative soundscape, in which the squeak of an underoiled swing registers as just a decibel or two too loud; and an illuminating editing strategy that mimics the scattered memories that are a symptom of autism, where recollections aren't dated and filed away as they would be in neurotypical minds. Often, that results in a creeping anxiety: Rothwell notes as much via a long observational sequence that quietly watches Broadstairs lad Joss being consumed by unease as dad Jeremy takes a few minutes longer than expected to pick up takeaway from Pizza Express. I think most of us will have found India and Africa overwhelming on a first visit; now imagine living there 24/7 with a mind hotwired to absorb every last detail on a bustling Delhi or Freetown thoroughfare - and to do so all at once. The film has been very precisely calibrated to encourage the viewer in Row G to make that imaginative leap (which is also, not insignificantly, a leap of empathy) alongside it: it knows this condition is inextricably tied up with issues of communication.

The puzzle autism presents is how to get what's in there out to the neurotypical world - that's the breakthrough Higashida wanted to make when he sat down to write. His autism, naturally, isn't quite the same as anybody else's, which is one reason why Rothwell was wise to seek out and document so many other experiences; he senses the memoir can only be approached as a guidebook, not a treatment manual. So we witness very different levels of autism, requiring very different levels of care and attention. Joss merrily converses with Rothwell behind the camera; but Ben and Emma, two friends from Virginia, have to spell out what they want to say letter by letter. That has necessitated an education that's only just become available to Jestina in Sierra Leone, and only then because her crusading mother made it so. Wherever we go, in this world or within these heads, it's clear autism demands its own time and space; fortunately, Rothwell has the patience to watch and wait, to see what his subjects have to tell him, rather than speaking in their place. You emerge from The Reason I Jump having borne witness to as much an education on the subject of autism as Blind Sun and Notes on Blindness were on the altered perspectives brought about by sight loss. Early on, Joss's dad Jeremy confesses "I'd like to be inside his head, just for ten seconds, just to see how he sees the world". Rothwell goes 492 times better, in putting us there or thereabouts, with great delicacy, for a full 82 minutes.

The Reason I Jump opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Tuesday 15 June 2021

Breaking Dad: "Nobody"

 is a savvy, bleeding-edge update of the kind of film Hollywood has been turning out since capitalism first left its worker ants feeling like impotent schmucks. These man's-gotta-do fantasies began fomenting in that run of Fifties Westerns about homesteaders forced to take up arms so as to defend loved ones against threats from without (a genesis Nobody acknowledges by interpolating examples of the Western form amid its own action); they courted urban audiences in the 1970s (Straw Dogs, Death Wish), just as metropolitan liberals were realising they'd also been screwed over; they went ballistic in the 1990s (True Lies), as the studios deployed ever greater firepower to extend their demographic reach; and they were revived in the late Noughties (Taken), perhaps because the markets had just crashed, more likely because Luc Besson had started to do things a decade or so behind the American curve. Now we get Bob Odenkirk, pre-eminent small-screen schmuck, as Hutch Mansell, a lowly auditor for a suburban engineering firm who finds his masculinity challenged after he wusses out during a home invasion that leaves his son with a nasty shiner. Your screenwriter for what follows is Derek Kolstad, late of the John Wicks, so vengeance will clearly be on the agenda. Your director is the Russian import Ilya Naishuller, who made an impact with the 2013 short Biting Elbows: Bad Motherfucker and a loud noise with 2015's gimmicky indie Hardcore Henry, so that vengeance seems likely to be full-blooded. The twist is that Hutch Mansell is a man with a past, and a past that has left him with those special skills it's handy to have when your one-man payback mission attracts the attentions of the Russian mob. Kolstad and Naishuller simply wind this guy up, then cut him loose. "There's this thing I gotta do," Hutch growls, shortly before the mayhem steps up in earnest. His father, stored away in a carehome and played by Christopher Lloyd, croaks back: "Then you best go do it." He does.

All of which is to say that Nobody is nothing if not upfront about what it is, what it likes and what it does. Here is a film that promises violence, and which delivers on that promise with violence that is by turns gruesome, funny and cathartic. (Doubly so if you're a male viewer whose streetfighting days are behind you.) It sends you out after 90 minutes having got more or less what you came for, principally a ringside seat at the movies' unruliest East-versus-West smackdown this side of Rocky IV. There's a certain novelty in seeing a studio putting its shoulder, and some considerable filmmaking muscle, behind a semi-original screenplay - in part, I suspect, because one of the suits has an inkling that Hutch Mansell might be as franchisable as John Wick or Bryan Mills. The film boasts sharper fight choreography - and far sharper cutting - than Besson's acolytes managed; the soundtrack cues lend the action the right level of ironic distance. (Naishuller has matured somewhat since the all-out assault of Hardcore Henry.) There's another advantage to having a studio fund a disreputable B-movie such as this: better performers. Watching Odenkirk on the big screen is every bit the pleasure it is watching him at home, and a reminder of how precise actors schooled in comedy tend to be when ported into more dramatic characterisations. Nobody could merely have been a release valve after the myriad subtleties of Better Call Saul, but that precision serves Odenkirk equally well in combat, and his "hey!" upon finally meeting his Russian nemesis Yulian (Aleksey Serebryakov, previously the lead in Zvyagintsev's Leviathan) strikes an unimprovable tone - it's exactly how a man who's walked into a nightclub with a simmering grudge and a Claymore up his sleeve would say hello. The pop-art stylisation of the Wick trilogy is beyond it, but that basicness is part of the fun: Kolstad and Naishuller display an amusing indifference towards backstory in particular, by having their hero blurt out gobbets to adversaries altogether too woebegone to hear. Fists do the bulk of the talking here. "It is what it is," Hutch glowers at one point. "This is me." If the movies know one thing, it's that terse men being violent can generate tremendous spectacle; we probably shouldn't expect them to communicate too much more while they're going about it.

Nobody is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Dress her up: "Cruella"

Reports suggest Disney had long been toying with the idea of a Cruella de Vil origin story, but the process of greenlighting one may well have been accelerated by the one-two success of Warner Bros.'
Joker and Birds of Prey. The movie we've ended up with, Craig Gillespie's Cruella, is what happens when one vast entertainment conglomerate looks across at another and says "I'll have what she's having". The project entails a fundamental rethink of the character. A figure who was irredeemably villainous in 1961's 101 Dalmatians (and the live-action remake that followed at the turn of the millennium) is here repositioned and embraced - in a most 21st century way - as an example of wronged girl power. Born Estella (presumably after Dickens), she's expelled from a British public school system that doesn't understand her scrappy creative urges, witnesses the woman who raised her being hounded to her death by a pack of spotty dogs, and is then betrayed by London high society, in the form of Emma Thompson's haughty fashion doyenne The Baroness. This being Disney, it's mostly a matter of parenting: orphaned from an early age, Estella (later Cruella, and played by Emma Stone) never 'ad anybody to teach 'er any better, so it's little wonder she turns out as she does. Yet this Cruella's identity is shaped as much by her desire to get into the fashion industry, seized upon as both a site of wide-eyed wonder (damn, those frocks!) and of multiple crimes against the fairer sex. In a retailoring of the Superman legend, Stone's Cruella works two shifts: bespectacled designer-in-training by day, witnessing the Baroness's abuses firsthand, and arch-villainess by night, plotting her vengeance on all those who've crossed her. In its essence, it's an A-list makeover show, one that commits copious resources to transforming an angular animation - little more than a snarl with elbows, in my memory - into a figure so intrinsically fabulous she might hold the modern multiplex crowd's attention for two-and-a-quarter hours.

This possibly explains why Cruella feels like an extended montage sequence for much of its duration. More soundtrack clearance has gone on here than your ears will notice in any other of this year's releases, scene after scene spilling forth something or other from its grab-bag of pop picks: ELO, Tina Turner covers, The Stooges, Ken Dodd, every choice affirming the film's commitment to being all things to all men. That feeling of montage - of a film hastening to get everybody from A to B - only redoubles whenever Gillespie's camera begins to rove at pace through these sets, as in the early setpiece that starts on the shop floor at Liberty's, site of Cruella's first break, and promptly winds its way (with digital assistance) through the store's backchannels to arrive at its punchline: our anti-heroine on hands and knees, scrubbing the employee toilet floor. These sequences serve in part to highlight the studio's typically high standards of craft: production designer Fiona Crombie gives that camera detailed, busy places to go, be that a flagship West End store, a workable recreation of 1970s Soho (cleaned up for 12A-level consumption, but still appreciably hungover from the 1960s) or the Baroness's byzantine workshop, with its inbuilt, split-level hierarchies. We might even take a quiet pride in how much of this is British craft, from the work of costume designer Jenny Beavan, handed a blank cheque and a creative field day (a highlight of this collection: the rags sewn into skirts that unfurl into a vast train as Cruella flees the scene of one punking on the back of a dustcart), to the contributions of those presumably cheap but characterful comedians (Jamie Demetriou, Kayvan Novak, Joel Fry) who've been drafted in to bolster the supporting cast.

If it looks and sounds the part, dramatically Cruella never really gets much beyond whelming, the result of a scratchily anonymous screenplay, equal parts fan fiction and restructuring, which always feels like the product of multiple authors and rewrites, and could probably have stood a few more. (Aline Brosh McKenna, Steve Zissis and Tony McNamara are among the illustrious scribes with onscreen credits.) Everyone's been tasked with finding things for a young Cruella to do with herself, and tossing all these suggestions into a hat means that the film frequently scoots past its own better ideas (such as a heist on the Baroness's workshop, which might have been the whole movie) and actually starts to deviate from the original 1960s conception of this character. (As has been noted elsewhere, Stone's Cruella doesn't display any particular animus towards dalmatians, even when she's obliged to cohabit with a trio of them; it's their owners that get under her skin.) It gets stodgy towards the end as a result, but the film's small achievement, given how much there is of it, is that it doesn't ever quite clot: Gillespie moves Cruella through this scene as briskly as his camera team negotiate the corridors of Liberty's. As his 2017 breakout hit I, Tonya suggested, he's a filmmaker with a natural empathy for wronged women, and a light pop sensibility that's been missing since Mark Waters dropped off the studio radar. (I saw Cruella the day after I watched Gillespie's pilot for the new AppleTV+ show Physical, and I can make this minor claim for him: no-one has ever made better use of A Flock of Seagulls' "Space Age Love Song".) He approaches this assignment as the good-natured pantomime it is, never labouring for significance (as a try-hard like Joker did), instead clearing time and space on those sets for the two Emmas to vamp off, and - most cherishably - for Paul Walter Hauser to channel Bob Hoskins as one of the goons who take Cruella under their wing. Of course it's inessential, as 90-95% of all American movies are these days, but it's spirited, which is the very least these things should be.

Cruella is now playing in cinemas nationwide, and available to rent via Disney+.

Monday 14 June 2021

These women's words: "Correspondence"

The idea of a cinematic correspondence isn't a new one. A short-lived series of documentaries going under the name Correspondences found leading arthouse thinkers swapping letters, images and thoughts in the course of the one movie: 2011's May-to-December pairing of Jonas Mekas and José Luis Guerín was followed, in 2016, by a sequel that made penpals of veterans Victor Erice and Abbas Kiarostami. Available on MUBI from today, the new short Correspondence is entirely its own thing, but it feels like an attempt to revive the format, this time bringing together emergent female directors: the Chilean Dominga Sotomayor, who made 2012's Thursday Till Sunday and 2018's Too Late to Die Young, and the Spaniard Carla Simón, who made one of the most impressive debuts in recent times with 2017's Summer 1993. (I feel compelled to note that these women have been funded to correspond for barely twenty minutes, where their male predecessors got the full ninety.) In a mixture of handscrawled onscreen text and sundappled Super-8 - clearly, now, the sketchpaper of choice for filmmakers everywhere (see Alice Rohrwacher's Four Roads, another recent MUBI acquisition) - Simón breaks the news that she lost her last remaining grandparent over the summer of 2019, and shares recollections of the time she spent with grandma before her death. (The soundtrack buzzes with words that passed between them, often kindly, sometimes taut: a correspondence within a correspondence.) This prompts Sotomayor, who speaks her own narration, into remembering her own grandmother, a filmmaker in her own right. (Extracts from her short films appear as modern as any of the more contemporary footage.) She also considers her relationship with her mother, whom we see appearing in a campaign video for the NO vote that finally overthrew the Pinochet regime in 1988.

That title, then, has a dual meaning. It refers to both those scraps (of paper, film, memory, wisdom) Simón and Sotomayor pass down and along, and the resemblance these women bear to those who came before them. Perhaps inevitably, this raises the question of motherhood, as the filmmakers look back on the women who raised them (there's scant evidence of fathers in the picture; Simón's backstory has clear echoes of Summer 1993), and consider whether they, too, might want to have children - someone who might remember them this fondly some forty or fifty years hence. For now, it seems, they're most closely wedded to their cameras: "Is it possible to make films and have children?," Simón wonders aloud at one point. (A fortysomething filmmaker would doubtless answer that question in the affirmative; but one suspects plenty of directorial offspring would offer their own qualifications and caveats.) At any rate, the idea of correspondence is here reclaimed as a means of extending a hand to the future - a way of working out where you're heading, and allowing the words and thoughts of others to guide you in that pursuit. This Correspondence gets very deep very quickly, although in its final moments, internal communication gets overtaken by external events, Sotomayor training her camera on the civil unrest that broke out in Chile in October 2019, as the country's youth took to the streets in pursuit of their own brighter future. As we know now, a pandemic was lying in wait around the corner for all these correspondents, but I hope Simón and Sotomayor have continued to stay in touch, and that they'll allow us to eavesdrop on them again from time to time.

Correspondence is now streaming via MUBI.

Friday 11 June 2021

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office
 (for the weekend of June 4-6, 2021):

1 (new) A Quiet Place Part II (15)
2 (2) Peter Rabbit 2 (U)
3 (3) Cruella (12A) ***
4 (1) The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (15)
5 (new) Dream Horse (PG)
6 (5) Godzilla vs. Kong (12A)
7 (8) Tom & Jerry: the Movie (PG)
8 (6) Nomadland (12A) ****
9 (9) Raya and the Last Dragon (PG) ***
10 (4) Demon Slayer: Mugen Train (15)

My top five:
1. Fargo (18) **** (cinemas nationwide)
2. Correspondence (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
3. Shiva Baby (15) **** (selected cinemas; MUBI)
4. Surge (15) **** (Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema)
5. Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In (12) **** (Prime Video)

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (3) Godzilla vs. Kong (12)
2 (1) Zack Snyder's Justice League (15)
3 (2Tom & Jerry: The Movie (PG)
4 (19) A Quiet Place (15) ****
5 (4) Raya and the Last Dragon (PG) ***
6 (7) Chaos Walking (12)
7 (5Wonder Woman 1984 (12) **
8 (6) Peter Rabbit (PG)
9 (re) Total Recall (18) ****
10 (8) Spider-Man: Homecoming (12) **

My top five: 
1. Aviva
5. Tina

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Notting Hill (Saturday, ITV, 10.35pm)
2. The Full Monty (Sunday, five, 9pm and Wednesday, five, 11pm)
3. Paddington 2 (Sunday, BBC1, 5pm)
4. Benjamin (Sunday, C4, 12.55am)
5. Air Force One [above] (Monday, five, 10pm)

Mindgames: "The Father"

The last of this year's major Oscar winners to be set before UK audiences is a dementia narrative - but it's a dementia narrative with a twist. (Multiple twists, in fact, for better and worse.) Florian Zeller's adaptation of his own stage success The Father plays out, mostly around the one set, as something like a distractible Sleuth, a Deathtrap of the mind, putting the viewer in a place that represents an increasingly befuddled protagonist's headspace, and then setting us to wonder whether we, too, are losing our marbles. The place is the capacious Maida Vale flat of a retired engineer called Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), and it's apparently been decked out by the same interior designers who furnished the couple's flat-cum-sepulchre in Michael Haneke's Amour. Here's where the confusion starts. We enter in the company of Anthony's daughter Anne (Olivia Colman), who arrives to a) reprimand dad for scaring off a new nurse, and b) to gently break the news that she's leaving the UK to live in Paris with her new French lover; if Anthony doesn't behave himself around the next carer, she insists, she'll be left with no choice but to put him in a home. A scene break follows, and then Anthony's pottering is interrupted by Paul (Mark Gatiss), a diffident fellow with a vague Northern accent, who claims to be Anne's husband of ten years, and that this flat belongs to him and his wife; when this Anne comes through the door with bags of shopping, it's in the form of Olivia Williams. (One Olivia for another: it's less radical recasting than an agreeable substitution in an Ocado delivery box.) Zeller, clearly, is keen to destabilise this world, and to dramatise the dereliction of a once-fixed mind; the unusually provisional bonds between Anthony and these interlopers both mimic and mock those neural connections breaking down inside the lead character's head.

This bewilderment has been pulled off with unarguable skill by collaborators with impeccable credentials. Zeller, making his feature directorial debut after a much-laurelled stage career in his native France, sets a particular mood from the off, chiefly by scheduling most scenes to take place between twilight and dusk. (We ask: where has the day gone? And then: where have this man's days gone?) Christopher Hampton, the most illustrious of script associates, has punched up the mindgames, setting certain phrases to circle these rooms and heighten the general discombobulation. And then there is Hopkins, Oscar-garlanded once more. It isn't just the name: everything else about Anthony fits Hopkins' recent screen persona - that air of dotty distractibility that has crept into his repertoire, finding its most crowdpleasing expression in the actor's Instagram posts - like a finely tailored glove. Here is serious range: fluidly and persuasively, he shifts between states of confusion, tetchy and evasive with Colman, dippily charming around replacement nurse Imogen Poots, capable of both raging at the dying light and weeping like a child in the face of it. If The Father succeeds in shaking off elements of its earlier theatricality, it's because there are sequences where this flat appears to develop its own weather system, and it's Hopkins who conjures that system into existence. He's sunshine and light one minute, nothing but dark clouds ten minutes later - and in between there are long spells where this performance is ominously still. (Hopkins deserved the Oscar just for the extraordinary control he exerts over his own face, as finely tuned here as any thermostat.)

And yet ultimately, and for all the virtuosity in evidence, I was never quite as moved by The Father as advance word suggested I might have been. The ratio of smarts to emotion felt skewed to me; the film inserts Meccano where the reserves of empathy would normally go in a narrative such as this, and while I could admire the construction, the joists and cogs and pulleys in this script - the meticulous grand design of Zeller's storytelling - kept getting between me and these characters. Once you work out that at least some of those figures are figments of an unravelling imagination, it's simply very hard to know where to invest your sympathies. Granted, that issue becomes a little clearer the further in we get, but the film's appeal is still largely ludic: for much of the running time, we're invited to furrow our brows and work out which of these interactions are real (which is to say trustworthy within Zeller's fiction), and which are merely a consequence of the protagonist's loose screws. The rugpulling ramps up anew in the third act, building towards a final reveal that - for all the visible trappings of QBC (Quality British Cinema) - is pure B-movie. Sporadically, the actors cut through the chicanery, peel back some of the scaffolding. Colman's smile upon realising her dad is compos mentis when he tells her her hair looks nice will stay with me, as will a final flurry of Hopkins' most punchdrunk close-ups. But I found the rest far more self-contained and stuffy than I was expecting, given the emotive responses of friends and colleagues to it: an intellectual exercise premised on the death of the intellect, a well-crafted puzzle that's never allowed to get too far out of its box.

The Father opens today in cinemas nationwide.

On demand: "I Am Samuel"

As we enter Pride month, another reminder that not everyone gets to celebrate so freely. With I Am Samuel, the Kenyan documentarist Peter Murimi offers an hour-long study of a sporty Nairobi resident, Samuel, as he approaches the first anniversary of his relationship with another man, Alex. Approaches with understandable caution, that is. After all, this is a country where homosexuality is still on the books as a crime that carries a 14-year jail sentence; the law of the street, more punitive yet, is represented by a chilling sliver of smartphone footage that shows a gay friend of Samuel's being stripped and brutally beaten by a baying mob. The tension only mounts as Samuel returns home to Western Kenya, to visit traditionalist parents who are still expecting their son to take a wife - and one suspects this is exactly the kind of patriarchal backwater where an archaic phrase like that might still be in regular usage. It's here that we learn the full extent of the convolutions Samuel has been forced into so as to conceal his true sexuality from onlookers, and of the complications that seem likely to keep him from coming out even to loved ones for the immediate future.

Much as Samuel seems to live life in two different places - the country, under the yoke of his parents' expectations; and the city, where he appears freer to be himself, albeit within the limits of his own or a friend's house - the film operates on two levels simultaneously. In part, I Am Samuel is a portrait of everyday Kenyan life: Murimi watches Samuel hanging out with pals, cooking, cleaning, working, doing the bare essentials. (The gentle suggestion is that Samuel's lifestyle isn't so far removed from that of any other Kenyan - though he may very well be the only person on the whole planet to combine the twin professions of labourer and netball trainer.) Yet this filmmaker isn't blind to the pressures his subject is living under; that viral video clip is inserted at an early juncture to serve as a threat, one that hangs heavy over everything that follows. Perhaps unexpectedly, those pressures are felt all the more during those sequences shot around Samuel's family home. Did Samuel's parents ever ask why Murimi had brought a camera crew to their house? Did Murimi stop to think whether he was pushing Samuel's terse father too hard on the question of his son's status? Alex, who comes to stay out this way as (per Samuel's mother) "a friend of Samuel's", is warned by his sister that his own father, appalled by news of his son's sexuality, may have hired goons "to teach him a lesson". Given the heightened tension in the air, you might want a more decisive third act - but then I'm sure Murimi would insist that, for Kenyans like Samuel and Alex, the future is yet to be decided. At any rate, he directs with insight and economy, and a gift for brisk portraiture, shooting just enough coverage to convey a sense of a place and the people living there. In the final moments, we follow Alex as he sets out through the streets of Samuel's birthplace in a game of hide-and-seek: a relaxation rather than a resolution, but also a shrewd reflection of what gay Kenyans have been having to do all these years.

I Am Samuel livestreams at 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow via Bohemia Euphoria; it will be available to rent from Monday via the BFI Player.