Tuesday 30 November 2021

On demand: "Joan Jett: Bad Reputation"

The documentary 
Joan Jett: Bad Reputation forms a useful primer on a figure whose music has appeared on numerous adverts in recent years, but who's never fully crossed over outside her native US. (Jett remains a one-hit wonder here, with only 1981's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" - a pinnacle of something - making the Top 40. Now that's what I call a bad reputation.) In its form, it's the usual tried-and-tested melange of talking heads and archive footage, although writer Joel Marcus and director Kevin Kerslake offer one screw-you worthy of their subject, aimed at the convention of documentary chronology. From the outset, their film plunges us into the moshpit of Seventies L.A., obliging us to feel out an emergent rock scene alongside Joan and her fellow Runaways, and to make sense of a world "that would give girls shit for playing guitar". Dodging the predations of big bad wolf Kim Fowley, this Joan finds a helpmate of sorts (given the conspicuous combover he sports at times, it'd be hard to say Prince Charming) in producer Kenny Laguna, who stepped in following the Runaways' implosion and helped Jett establish an ongoing solo career.

That tension - the tension any woman must feel trying to define herself within an especially male milieu - is at the centre of it; choice interviewees include Kathleen Hanna, Alison Mosshart and Miley Cyrus, the latter an outspoken delight on the subject of sexuality in pop. The framing is familiar, and it gets scrambled in its second half - taking us away from the music to give a cursory sense of Jett's outside interests - but it's steadied by good ears. One segment connects the dots between Sixties bubblegum and late Seventies punk, thrashing out a workable theory as to why these two apparently disparate subgenres meshed surprisingly well; one sweetens the spikes of the other, which could explain why "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" and the title track remain more memorable - and, perhaps crucially, more hummable - than 75% of punk singles. Joan herself remains admirably unflappable; fun guests include Michael J. Fox, gracious indeed when discussing working with the subject on Paul Schrader's Light of Day, and Iggy Pop, treating us to several bars of the Hollywood Argyles' "Alley Oop".

Joan Jett: Bad Reputation is streaming on NOW TV, and available on DVD through Dogwoof.

Monday 29 November 2021

On demand: "This Is Not A Burial, It's A Resurrection"

We don't often see films from Lesotho, which is one reason why
This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection stands out from the pack: it's operating according to its own set of rules and traditions. Consider the prologue, which most immediately suggests what might result if David Lynch ever found himself filming a nightclub in Africa. To a soundtrack of atonal parps, writer-director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese's camera creeps past Caligari doors and shadowy figures to alight upon a narrator-figure, keen to tell us a tale about modernisation. That tale concerns Mantoa (Mary Twala), an eightysomething widow living in a small village regarded more or less as an anthill by the authorities. We learn early on that this woman has known more than her fair share of tragedy: her husband's long gone, and her story opens with news that her son has perished in a mining accident. (Twala, too, has the lined and folded face of someone who's lived a life.) We may also sense that Mantoa's now expected to lie down and die - as with her village, the pointedly named Nazareth, which finds itself in the course of being relocated so a reservoir can be built on this land. To an extent, this is a done deal: Mantoa's neighbours are beginning to up sticks and move away, leaving the bodies of their forefathers buried in this ground to be washed away and forgotten about. Mantoa herself, however, elects to stay put, becoming a one-woman pillar of resistance, a symbol of defiance in the face of municipal indifference.

Such a synopsis might position This is Not a Burial... as a Saturday night crowdpleaser for all the family (old dear sticks it to The Man!); it still might serve as such, although there are also elements here that are difficult and challenging. Perhaps the closest we've seen to Mosese's film are those ultra-deliberate items the Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa has fashioned out on the islands of Cape Verde: borderline gallery pieces that prioritised portraiture over narrative momentum, where every shot is its own tableau, and every scene a lingering setpiece in its own right. Even at its driftiest, though, the film has a way of grabbing you with a vivid effect: it's now been several weeks since I saw them, but the copper-blue walls of the heroine's hut have stayed with me, as have those stretches of soundtrack that unspool backwards. (Like Mantoa, they go their own way.) The pacing may sometimes be an issue, but there's not a single dull shot to be witnessed, even before the village sheep nudge and jostle their way back into frame. And at the project's centre, a quiet miracle: this is an entire film centred on someone whom the movies wouldn't typically notice, a figure who moves slowly, espouses a responsibility towards those around her and the bones beneath her feet, and who now, having spent her entire life looking out for others, understands she has one action left to take. The final stretch, in which Mantoa comes to dig her own grave as the ultimate act of protest, becomes all the more moving with the knowledge Twala herself died shortly after filming, leaving This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection to bear out the promise of its title - as a work that preserves this woman's memory and spirit forever more. Another reason this is a film like few others: it takes care.

This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection is available to stream via MUBI.

Friday 26 November 2021

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of November 19-21, 2021):

1 (new) Ghostbusters: Afterlife (12A) **
2 (1) Eternals (12A)
3 (2) No Time To Die (12A) ***
4 (3Dune: Part One (12A) **
5 (new) King Richard (12A)
6 (5) The Boss Baby 2: Family Business (PG)
7 (4) Spencer (12A) ***
8 (6) Venom: Let There Be Carnage (15)
9 (8) Ron's Gone Wrong (PG) ***
10 (7The Addams Family 2 (PG)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. Naked

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

2 (1) The Suicide Squad (15) *
3 (2Paw Patrol: The Movie (U)
4 (6) The Grinch [2018] (U)
5 (16) Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins (12)
6 (4Fast & Furious 9 (12)
7 (5Black Widow (12) ***
9 (7Jungle Cruise (12)
10 (18) Elf (PG) **

My top five: 
1. Shiva Baby
2. Limbo

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Parasite [above] (Saturday, C4, 10pm)
2. Flushed Away (Sunday, C4, 3.10pm)
3. Mahanagar (Tuesday, C4, 2.45am)
4. The Incredible Hulk (Saturday, C4, 12.35am)
5. Shrek Forever After (Sunday, C4, 4.55pm)

Thursday 25 November 2021

Solitaire: "The Card Counter"

Schrader gonna schrade. At some point in the near-future, one might have cause to report that Paul Schrader, screenwriter of
Taxi Driver and director of American Gigolo, Light Sleeper and Affliction, has made the surprise choice to follow up his last rigorous parable of male obsession with a goofy romp about mismatched lovers. But not today, not now: The Card Counter, Schrader's immediate follow-up to 2018's comeback special First Reformed, offers a characteristically terse study of a former Abu Ghraib prison guard attempting to turn a new leaf on the pro gambling circuit. Where Ethan Hawke's priest in that earlier film was bound by religious dogma, Oscar Isaac's troubled cardsharp William Tell here operates by a strict set of self-imposed rules. Play with low stakes, the easier to walk away whenever the deck is stacked against you. Keep a safe distance from your fellow travellers, for reasons that become apparent over the course of the film. And carry your own sheets to tie down over the fittings in the motel rooms you pass through, no matter that this appears just about the fiddliest thing on God's once-green Earth. For a loner like Tell, other people open up the prospect of contamination, which leaves him newly jittery when the universe offers him two new lines of communication. The first and healthiest is with La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a player-turned-agent who offers this deeply solitary figure the prospect of a future, both professionally and romantically. The other, a far riskier bet, is with Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man hellbent on taking down the Army vet he believes was responsible for his father's suicide. The kid sets our hero's obsession in sharp relief - and Tell comes to believe he can snap this lad out of it - but he also stirs up some residual trauma. That's the trouble with relationships - they cut both ways. Bide your time and hold back, and you can still suddenly find yourself all in.

What follows is a film of violent collisions, though they're less apparent on camera than inscribed into the film's own form, its very being. On one hand, The Card Counter plays like an R-rated version of those gambling capers Schrader grew up watching. (1965's The Cincinnati Kid, arguably the most accomplished of these, gets a namecheck in passing.) We get the expected lessons in player psychology and poker table etiquette, but the casinos Schrader's characters ghost through are humdrum, mid-range, fundamentally anonymous, less interesting to the filmmaker than the personalities they seem to attract. What overt stylisation there is here has been reserved for the Abu Ghraib flashbacks, which have been shot with a roving camera-fisheye lens combo that makes the atrocities depicted therein bulge, warp and leap out at the onlooker. (We are a long way from the cautious tastefulness of those late-Noughties movies in which the Hollywood studio system sought to relitigate the ongoing War on Terror. These atrocities are almost literally in your face.) The stitching, however, remains recognisably Schraderian: boxy close-ups of conflicted faces, overhead shots of the protagonist journalling, a means of justifying the unusual amount of voiceover. The structure, too, is of a piece with what's gone before. Schrader introduces his players, notes their quirks, and then leaves the plot on a low simmer until the poker tour arrives in the neighbourhood of Willem Dafoe's gung-ho general Gordo, source of Sheridan's ire and Isaac's regrets. By Schrader's exacting standards, however, there's a certain degree of lassitude in the mix: we're basically going around the circuit for just shy of two hours, albeit in some pretty good company.

On paper, Haddish isn't quite right for this role - it cries out for a slicker, more assured dramatic actress - but the way she looks at Isaac (as if she just wants to eat him up) proves oddly affecting, especially whenever our hero starts to pull away again; at the very least, the romantic subplot occasions the kind of collision the movies wouldn't have thought to orchestrate even five years ago, so there's a freshness about these scenes. Sheridan is stuck playing a tousle-haired blank, partly by design - he's the timebomb the grown-ups are unknowingly porting around among their baggage - but he assumes growing symbolic value as a representative of that part of America that simply never learns. (Everything in this performance is geared towards eliciting that morbid seven-word catchphrase of the nightly news: "He was always such a quiet boy.") If these two seem a touch underdirected, it's because Schrader appears far less interested in their characters than he is in his onscreen surrogate, or that he's only interested in how these characters relate to his standoffish protagonist. Isaac, certainly, has the steely self-control down pat, and the intelligence to convey the many reasons a man might retreat from a world as volatile and brutal as this; this is the lead role this particular actor was surely waiting for while he cashed those big franchise cheques. Yet the dramatic stakes still feel... well, not low, exactly, but manageable. In First Reformed, both the protagonist and the audience were presented with no less a prospect than the end of the world entire; we could never be certain how bad things were going to get, even at the moment Hawke's priest began wrapping his body in barbed wire. The Card Counter is a vastly more self-contained proposition: the characters lay out their cards, we spy what's coming down the river (maybe before Bill Tell does), before everything plays out and a neat (too neat?) closing image puts this story to bed. Good Schrader rather than great Schrader, then - but even good Schrader turns out to be more absorbing and adult than anything else around.

The Card Counter is now playing in selected cinemas.

Monday 22 November 2021

Nelly and Marion go boating: "Petite Maman"

By Céline Sciamma's minimalist standards, 2019's Portrait of a Lady on Fire was an epic: even its six-word title appeared extravagantly prolix when set against the director's previous Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood. Conceived in early 2020 and filmed in the autumn ahead of its premiere at the Berlin festival this past March, Petite Maman is Sciamma's quick-turnaround lockdown movie, and as such has inevitably had to be reined in to some degree: one location, barely enough actors to fill a bubble, 72-minute running time. What elevates it above 99% of the lockdown movies we've seen so far is its expansive, emotive set-up. This is a film about loss, which would be relevant at any time, but feels especially relevant in the here and now; it's also a film about the absence that's been felt more than ever in the era of social distancing. On some basic level, it appears to have been influenced by those fort/da or peekaboo games parents play with very young children: Sciamma has taken these and fleshed them out into affecting, real-world, life-and-death drama. Her heroine Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is a serious-seeming yet inquisitive eight-year-old dragged along by her mum and dad while they clear out her late maternal grandmother's house in the country. Playing in the woods one day - shortly after mum has fled the area, finding her task all too much - she makes a new friend, Marion, who seems instantly familiar - not least as she's played by Gabrielle Sanz, the juvenile lead's twin sister. Now we're really down the rabbit hole: after the initial introduction, Marion invites Nelly back to her house, only this proves to be the same house Nelly has been staying in, complete with its own unhappy matriarch. The building blocks, then, are these: familial trauma, the woods, and a (possibly Covid-imposed) doubling-up of actors and properties. Petite Maman is sundappled and genial rather than nocturnal and nightmarish - it's about as wholesome as any U certificate could be - but there are spots where it hints at what might happen if David Lynch ever made a movie for and about kids.

As Tomboy and her script for 2016's moving claymation My Life as a Courgette first indicated, Sciamma is a filmmaker who remains in exceptionally close correspondence with her inner child: she'd surely have made a fine behavioural psychologist had she not been tempted behind the camera. Some substantial part of the new film is simply a study of the personalities of these two girls, one a shade more readily goofy than the other, as they set about gathering acorns and making pancakes: two almost perfectly blank slates, approaching the pivotal stage where they start imprinting. In as much as we can be certain their friendship is a reality rather than a child's invention, it's a friendship from which both parties will take away an early understanding of the fragility of things - and the fragility of people in particular. The shelter the pair construct together in the woods from twigs is but a Brigadoon for pre-teens, and the respite it provides from the mournful atmosphere back at their home(s), though nourishing, will only last an afternoon or two. Nelly and Marion are at that age when children begin to lose their first pets - and thus begin to know something of what it is to lose a loved one. Sciamma has made a movie about that evolutionary progression, but she's made it with actual people in the place of Fido and Flopsy. 

And, as ever, she never appears to force the issue. Every one of Petite Maman's 72 minutes is presented with Sciamma's trademark, semi-miraculous matter-of-factness: this is a game her characters play, and which we, too, are invited to play along with. The rules require some deducing, as they would were you invited to play along with actual eight-year-olds, and Sciamma can be mischievous herself, her craftily precise matchcuts occasionally scrambling our sense of which reality we're feeling out. Mostly, she plays fair (Nelly's the blue and Marion's the red in costumes designed by the director), and she steers the game in interesting, fruitful directions, as when one girl offers to play the other's mother. It's a film that feels bigger than it is, because a large part of it is hidden from view; Sciamma hands us a plastic spade and asks us to dig beneath the surface activity she's filmed. (It may be the only lockdown movie you'll see with subtext - where the thinking went beyond the merely logistical.) What are these girls playing at? What's on their director's mind? There is more to puzzle over in this mysterious little fable than there is in anything else presently on release, right though to the clues tucked away in the bottom left-hand side of the closing credits, a final scavenger hunt of lyrics to a song written by Céline Sciamma herself. One further question prompted by Petite Maman: is there anything this woman can't do?

Petite Maman is now playing in selected cinemas.

Saturday 20 November 2021

Running on empty: "Ghostbusters: Afterlife"

They cannot leave it alone. Like a child picking at a scab on their knee, or a teenage boy with his penis (so I'm told), Sony keeps reaching for the remnants of the
Ghostbusters franchise in the hope of recapturing whatever magic Ivan Reitman's original movie brought into the world back in 1984. Modern Hollywood, as we've seen, has a funny idea of magic: that first film was a famously fraught, seat-of-the-pants production, yielding a scrappy, often tonally awkward picture (ghost blowjobs!) that succeeded in part because it was so unlike the slicker entertainments being pushed with maximum sincerity in the first years of the Spielberg-Lucas-Reagan regime. (Its heroes were schlubs, bozos and nerds, not Rocky or Rambo-style musclemen.) It was nothing more than a goof-off, in short, but in the intervening years Ghostbusters has been reclaimed as a potential site of feminist reinvention (2016's gender-flipped reboot); since that movie failed to do the numbers that occasion sequels - hampered by heightened levels of fanboy awfulness - the franchise now heads into its Muppet Babies stage. The thinking behind this weekend's Ghostbusters: Afterlife: let's do it all over again for the benefit of those kids who represent the multiplex's last demographic standing. So Carrie Coon's single mom relocates her teenage offspring (Finn Wolfhard and Mckenna Grace) to her late father's spooky mid-Western farmhouse, sparking a two-hour Easter egg hunt for the old car, traps and paranormal activity. The underlying idea is that the Ghostbusters bug must have skipped a generation - that's why the 2016 film couldn't find an audience - and that what this franchise now needs is fresh blood, both onscreen and in the audience. Show these pups a few YouTube clips of the original, give one of them a podcast (indeed, make his very name Podcast), tease Elmer Bernstein's playful original score as a kind of musical madeleine, and lo and behold, Afterlife will save first Hollywood from its rotten run of non-event movies, then the Christmas box office, and possibly the world entire. Well.

Some measure of retroactive redressing is going here. Afterlife proceeds on the assumption that the Ghostbusters franchise was always somehow Spielbergian: good-natured adventures for all the family. The new film is unarguably Spielbergian, and may in fact be the most outwardly Spielbergian event movie since 2011's Super 8: it's kids on bikes, a small town with a 50s-style diner (clearly a pointlessly expensive set, to which we have to return despite the fact nothing of narrative import happens there), overlooked by a vast promontory apparently modelled on the mashed-potato mountain of Close Encounters. Fine, but it's also very un-Ghostbusters, which was East Coast urban rather than all-American - the most profitable of the movies bearing the wayward influence of Saturday Night Live - and generally grimy, horny (ghost blowjobs!), cynical and scrappily funny with that. Afterlife is not funny, really; it's aiming for heartwarming, if anything, though it doesn't come within a country mile of that. There's a reason the main characters this time round are a single mom and her mixed-up teens; Paul Rudd has a vaguely amusing introduction as a teacher who blithely subjects his students to Cujo on VHS, but he's deployed thereafter as love interest and fall guy, set upon by mini-Marshmallow Men in a sequence that's already been snarked off the Internet. Actual ghostbusting proves far less crucial to the overall design than the rebalancing of a wobbly family unit (which the finale invites us to read as analogous with the franchise itself). This is a film that would have benefitted greatly from Seinfeld's "no hugs" rule; and it reminded me of one of the original's most fruitful gags, namely that its protagonists were so maladroit around the opposite sex that they had to get on with ghostbusting. The proton blasters that were bursting with almost certainly unintended symbolism there ("don't cross the streams") are here just tired and dusty bits of movie kit, means to a moderately spectacular end.

Given that it's a family affair, there's a dull sort of logic behind recruiting Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman to oversee events. I liked some of Reitman's earlier films, worldly human comedies (Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air, Young Adult) which felt like they belonged to a longstanding Hollywood tradition. Whether he has his eye on a pension fund, I can't say, but he's become the model of an MOR plodder over the past decade. Afterlife gabbles excitedly towards its effectsathon finale - J.K. Simmons' contribution as the town's undead founder would appear to have been left almost entirely on the cutting room floor - but it's mostly been staged with a bland proficiency, Reitman imposing himself only via slaphappy soundtrack selections: soul cuts to establish a small-town ambiance, interrupted by the Buzzcocks' "Boredom", an incongruous blast of rude energy that will mean even less to the target audience. Beyond that, he's limited to ticking off the callbacks ("Who you gonna call?") and monitoring the offscreen negotiations to get what remains of the original gang back together. The job title "director" feels less accurate than IP manager, nostalgia facilitator or some other corporate conjunction: reviving Harold Ramis as a hologram is certainly a choice - doubtless prompted by New Star Wars' digital resuscitation of its fallen combatants - but it's a creepy and charmless one. (Let him rest in peace, and for God's sake stop digging up the past.) If you want another imitation of that PG-rated screenfiller Hollywood's been churning out for 40 years now, then Afterlife is currently playing on hundreds of thousands of screens near you. Yet the truth is it's a pretty nondescript one of those, hashed together from half-remembered plot points and dimly familiar images. What's truly admirable about the Spielberg filmography - what's actually worth looking back at and learning from - is that Spielberg himself soon moved past this kind of fare: he grew up, challenged himself (and his audience), and left childish things behind. Afterlife is a product of an industry that - for whatever reason, commercial, psychological, whatever - simply cannot do that right now. Are we sure that daddy Ivan, embarrassed by the ghost blowjobs, didn't just show young Jason The Goonies at a formative age, and tell him that's what Ghostbusters is?

Ghostbusters: Afterlife is now showing in cinemas worldwide.

Friday 19 November 2021

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office
 (for the weekend of November 12-14, 2021):

1 (1) Eternals (12A)
2 (2) No Time To Die (12A) ***
3 (3Dune: Part One (12A) **
4 (6) Spencer (12A) ***
5 (5) The Boss Baby 2: Family Business (PG)
6 (4) Venom: Let There Be Carnage (15)
7 (7The Addams Family 2 (PG)
8 (9) Ron's Gone Wrong (PG) ***
9 (8) The French Dispatch (15) **
10 (10) Last Night in Soho (18) **

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Naked

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (2) The Suicide Squad (15) *
2 (1) Paw Patrol: The Movie (U)
4 (3) Fast & Furious 9 (12)
5 (4) Black Widow (12) ***
6 (13) The Grinch [2018]
7 (5) Jungle Cruise (12)
8 (7) Space Jam: A New Legacy (U)
10 (8) The Croods 2: A New Age (U)

My top five: 
1. Shiva Baby
2. Limbo

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Third Man (Saturday, BBC2, 1.15pm)
2. Mary Poppins (Saturday, BBC1, 4.20pm)
3. Jallikattu [above] (Tuesday, C4, 2.20am)
4. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Saturday, ITV, 10.50pm)
5. And Then We Danced (Monday, C4, 2.15am)

Thursday 18 November 2021

Mean streets: "Naked"

The BFI's current Mike Leigh retrospective has come at an opportune time. From a historical vantage, it's been fifty years since Leigh's first theatrical release, 1971's terse, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin character study Bleak Moments. (To mark the occasion, the BFI are reissuing that film on DVD and Blu-Ray at the end of the month.) Yet it also follows three years on from Leigh's last feature, 2018's Peterloo, that historical epic that was clearly meant as a career-defining highpoint, but opened to such shrugging responses (at least here in the UK) as to seem like a minor setback. That long-gestating passion project gave into the dourness that has occasionally crept into Leigh's output; what we need now is a reminder of the spontaneity of this director's very best work. Naked, the season's flagship reissue, felt genuinely incendiary back in 1993: it found the filmmaker who'd previously signed off on such jolly comedies as 1988's High Hopes and 1990's Life is Sweet turning in an 18-rated state-of-the-nation address-slash-barely suppressed howl of despair. A year earlier, the Conservative Party had enjoyed its fourth consecutive election victory under new leader John Major; Leigh's adopted home of London was in the process of being hollowed out and converted into a playground for the rich, forcing ever more people onto the streets. Ken Loach's early 90s highpoint Raining Stones - charting Thatcherism's aftereffects on the working-class folk of Manchester - 
had opened a month before, but where Loach was trading in his signature social realism, Leigh was moving into openly expressionistic territory. Naked remains a jolting watch in 2021 - and one reason it's so jolting is how closely it corresponds to the present moment. Its relentlessness is very 21st century; it's a rare British film that refuses to hold anything back.

This is a flinty and abrasive film from the outset. Leigh introduces his protagonist, pent-up agent of chaos Johnny (David Thewlis), as he carries out a sexual assault on the cobbled backstreets of Manchester, then watches as he flees to North London in a stolen car to avoid the consequences. The extraordinary feat of the film (and the Leigh technique) is that it makes this shabby, deeply compromised figure not good company, exactly, but a compelling watch: a livewire update of all those angry young men who once stomped through the British cinema. Johnny can be a funny bastard - sly, sarky, snarky - and it helps that everybody else on screen is more disaffected (Lesley Sharp as the ex-girlfriend he crashes with upon arrival in the capital), more addled (the late Katrin Cartlidge as the flatmate he seduces, manhandles and discards), more loathsome (Greg Crutwell as a Thatcherite wideboy called Jeremy, seen tearing into chicken legs and female flesh with the same gusto) or spiralling into an even greater madness. The bleakest gag in the movie is that the character introduced as "Sandra the nurse" and played by Claire Skinner - the one person all these characters sorely need to see - doesn't appear until the two-hour mark, by which point everybody's wounded almost beyond repair. By the early 1990s, Leigh had established himself as a satirist of cosy bourgeois values; yet Naked sank its teeth into the city's underbelly, doubling down on the decay and misery. It's crucial to the overall effect that Johnny should arrive in London in late autumn, meaning there's not a leaf on the trees and barely a lick of colour in most of these frames. Costume designer Lindy Hemming sticks everybody in funeral shrouds; the second half, after the girls kick Johnny out, sticks its nose in Soho's scummier ends, noting in passing that the peep shows were still plying a flourishing trade. This Britain looks shagged out, dead on its feet, at its wits' end; the apocalypse is nigh even before Johnny goes off on one about the upcoming millennium. Try watching it with the knowledge Four Weddings & A Funeral was to open within eight months: it's a film from another universe entirely.

In retrospect, it's clear that every now and again Leigh gets fed up of making nice within an industry that expects even its festival regulars and major players to fulfil certain obligations with a doffed cap. (That may be why he followed up 1999's Gilbert-and-Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy, one of his greatest achievements, with 2002's splenetic All or Nothing.) There is a lot of misery here, and the sexual violence in the dialogue alone would be bracing enough: Johnny and Jeremy present as devilish parallels, men who think nothing of taking what they want from the women around them before fucking off into the night. (Leigh's point might well have been that the working-class have been schooled by the rapacious rich in doing whatever they like, with scant regard for the consequences. It's what a decade of Tory rule gets you.) Yet even at his most splenetic, Leigh continues to talk a good game - and knows how to get his characters talking a good game. There haven't been that many British films with this sure a feel for streetlife: the young Ewen Bremner is authentically terrifying as a transient with Tourette's who responds to Johnny's hundred-words-a-minute patter with a stream of "eh?"s and "fuckin' shite"s. We were only three years away from Trainspotting, of course - but that film was carried to London by Danny Boyle's optimism that things were changing, and the country was turning a corner. When Johnny chats up Gina McKee in a greasy spoon, devout cinephiles may be reminded of Michael Winterbottom's 1999 drama Wonderland, but that London was full of possibilities that seem a long way off here. The second bleakest gag in Naked, coming at a point where its anti-hero seems to be comprehensively losing it, is to have Johnny fall in with a bloke whose job involves updating flyposters for Therapy? gigs with the banner "CANCELLED". Naked proceeds with a deep-seated pessimism in its veins and an outright nihilism in its gaze, perhaps because it spots the impossibility of lasting positive change within a country that insists everything be done a certain way, and that its citizens remain in their rightful place. You'd be Mike Leigh grumpy if you'd seen how little things had really progressed in Britain over the past half-century.

Naked is now playing in selected cinemas; a new Blu-Ray edition is released on November 29. The BFI's Mike Leigh retrospective continues until the end of the month - details here.

Wednesday 17 November 2021

Marked for death: "You Will Die at Twenty"

You Will Die at Twenty, the Sudanese winner of the Best Debut prize at Venice 2019, has an inspired set-up. At a blessing ceremony being held in a small rural village, an event meant to confer nothing but good tidings on baby Muzamil's head, one of the celebrants suddenly keels over - a bad omen that all parties present interpret as proof the newborn is destined to get no further through life than a score of years. No appeals process, no quibbling; "God's command is inevitable," decrees the local sheikh, and the matter is seemingly closed. This biggest of judgement calls gets director Amjad Abu Alala and his co-writer Yousef Ibrahim (adapting Hammour Ziada's short story Sleeping at the Foot of the Mountain) into what it might be like to live one's life with a clock ticking loudly and rapidly above one's head - albeit a clock heretics like you and I know is entirely arbitrary and very likely inaccurate. As a boy, Muzamil is ringfenced by his devout, overprotective mother Sakina (Islam Mubarak), allowed out only to partake in religious studies that underline what he's already been told about some almighty power having the final word; his contemporaries dub him "son of death", which seems a more poetic nickname than "four-eyes" or "pizza face", but scarcely less damaging in the short-to-medium term. While the local elders, reminded of their own mortality, approach the teenage Muzamil (Mustafa Shehata) with caution and start referring to him in the past tense, local beauty Naima (Bunna Khalid) - spurred by the danger the kid represents, and genuine affection besides - seems keen to lead him down to the river to make a woman out of her before it's too late. Swings and roundabouts, then, but Muzamil's status also sets Abu Alala to considering the value of received wisdom. As Muzamil enters his late teens, and the film carries him ever closer to his predetermined expiry date, he begins to look a ready challenger to God's will, and indeed the wider, more immediately graspable status quo on the ground.

The film's triumph isn't just conceptual, but visual; Abu Alala offers images to back up his big ideas. We're offered a tour of a sunbaked but otherwise ordinary sub-Saharan settlement - the kind of village people might think of when they say it takes a village to raise a child - made up of a close circle of neighbours, themselves surrounded by seemingly endless places of worship. Yet every now and again, Abu Alala pulls off a vaultingly expressive cutaway: to the walls of a hut Sakina has repurposed as a giant tally chart, literally numbering her son's days by candlelight; to a dreamy madonna-and-child tableau at the site at which Muzamil was first cursed; to one of the most beautiful (and beautifully suggestive) images you'll see in a cinema this year, involving a horse. Scene by scene, this filmmaker is alert to the possibilities the world sets before this boy: a pan round the living quarters of Sulaiman (Mahmoud Maysara Elsaraj), a worldly yet poignantly solitary figure exiled to the outer reaches of this encampment after a falling-out with its religious elite, reveals pop music, beer bottles, a mini-museum of his late father's movie paraphernalia, and (at one point) the local brothel keeper oiling her legs in an adjacent room. It's a film composed of open doorways that present as forks in the road, visualisations of the quandary kids in any small town face: keep your head down and accept your allotted fate, or strike out in a new direction under your own steam - no matter that this, too, might be the death of you. That tension has been skilfully bottled in the central performance: Shehata makes Muzamil naive to the point of simple, in need of a certain guidance, but he's also curious with it - hungry for the life experience that's been denied to him, and to see how many more days and weeks he can eke out. That his quest becomes moving, even quietly thrilling in the film's second half can be taken as a sign of how successfully You Will Die At Twenty makes the leap from the small and provincial to the resonantly universal. Don't we all hear the clocks ticking a little louder than usual from time to time?

You Will Die at Twenty is now showing in selected cinemas, and available on demand via Curzon and the BFI Player.

Tuesday 16 November 2021

Animal instincts: "Bull"

After a promising start to his film career, writer-director Paul Andrew Williams has spent the past decade working exclusively in television (
Murdered By My Boyfriend, The Eichmann Show, Broadchurch); the current theatrical release Bull finds him re-entering the territory of his great 2006 breakthrough London to Brighton. Here is another tough-as-nails thriller that cuts a determinedly bloody swathe through determinedly mundane South Coast streets - a film of overcast skies and on-street parking, with a protagonist who would appear hellbent on avenging himself on the mob who burnt down his caravan. Put like that, you might be expecting something blackly comic along Ben Wheatley lines - and lo, in the title role, we find Wheatley regular Neil Maskell (Kill List, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead). Yet Maskell's really not messing around here. For much of the film's slender running time, he's navigating more or less the same scale of simmering fury Chris Morris presented Frankie Fraser with in the course of TV's Brass Eye. Sometimes Maskell's Bull is operating at a low miff; sometimes he comes on as lightly bonkers; at crucial, 18-rated junctures, he's mad as a lorry. (Best get out of his way.) Even roaming a funfair, he shapes up as not all that much fun, because the scene reminds him of his boy Aiden (Henri Charles), torn from his arms the night his former criminal associates left him for dead.

What's around this barrelling central performance is a small, sorry tale: something like a Fathers 4 Justice sidequest, offering no easy point of viewer identification, and bound for a shotgun-blast finale in a dingy front room. (I suspect Williams had substantially bigger budgets to play with in ITV primetime.) Yet we've all seen enough of these homegrown B-movies to spot one that's been well-managed, for the most part. It takes a while for Williams to get his pieces on the board, and to line up everybody's motivation: where London to Brighton was propelled by the threat of violence rather than violence itself, here the argy-bargy often feels contrived for grabby effect, Williams' way of saying "hey, I'm back". (The nadir may be Bull's attempt to cauterise one of his victims' wounds on a gas hob - not a scene anybody's thought to film before, granted, but once you've seen it, you'll know why.) Yet for a good hour in the middle, it's a taut enough chess game, and the players get to bite down - hard - on appreciably chewy character business; even the aforementioned unfortunate (familiar Poverty Row face Jay Simpson) gets a monologue on middle-age fitness before having his forearm lopped off. David Heyman gives persistent, unnerving growl as the father-in-law trying to get Bull before Bull gets to his daughter; Maskell, the Glenn Gould of onscreen thuggery, somehow finds variations to play on the role's sociopathic theme, though even he can't really make sense of a coda that feels like a misstep or overreach. If London to Brighton was the work of a young filmmaker grabbing us by the collar, this is more of a short, sharp poke in the ribs - blunt but crudely effective, a reminder Williams could probably still do you a job were you to bung him enough cash.

Bull is now playing in selected cinemas. 

True identity: "Passing"

Passing, the characteristically thoughtful directorial debut of the actress Rebecca Hall, is a period piece about a reunion that initiates a tragic game of hide-and-seek. The first time we see Tessa Thompson's Irene, a mixed-race woman stepping tentatively into a toy shop in Twenties New York, she's playing peekaboo beneath the rim of her hat. Here's someone who can barely bring herself to look the camera in the eye, much less the world. In a hotel tearoom across town, she crosses paths with a childhood friend, a woman approaching that world from a vastly different angle. At first, Irene barely recognises Clare (Ruth Negga), herself mixed-race: since upping sticks and resettling in Chicago, the latter has lightened her hair and skin, and started a new life by "passing" for white; in the process, she's landed a crass banker husband (Alexander Skarsgård), who has indelicate ideas about America's Black population and has stuck his better half with the worst imaginable pet name. On the surface, the ebullient Clare - dolled up like a flapper, and demonstrating the free spirit (and diction) of certain screwball heroines - appears to have solved the race problem: from the giddy manner in which she orders room service, we can tell this is a woman growing ever more accustomed to living high on the hog. Yet she's also given herself the new one of being found out; she's the period equivalent of those characters in spy thrillers whose disguise starts to come unstuck at a critical moment in the mission. "When we first married," beams Skarsgård's uxorious John, "this woman was as white as a lily. But as the years go by, she seems to be getting darker and darker." Gulp.

The source is a 1929 novel by the mixed-race author Nella Larsen, and Hall has made many smart choices within it. Having initially dazzled and destabilised us, Clare is kept offscreen for some while, the better to examine how this chance meeting impacts upon the somewhat staid upper-middle-class existence Irene retreats into back in Harlem with her loving if sexually frustrated husband Brian (André Holland), their two children, and a (pointedly dark-skinned) household staff. When Clare finally reappears on this doorstep to follow up an unanswered missive, the limitations of her chosen path are made bluntly apparent. "I want so much to be around Negroes again," she purrs, and we realise that Irene has presented as no less exotic and attractive to this exile as Clare did in turn to Irene. Hall finds neat ways of folding in other voices that provide their own commentary on this scene and this period in history: Bill Camp, the supporting actor's supporting actor, has another crafty cameo as Irene's visiting writer pal Hugh, representative of all those Caucasian tourists who flocked to Harlem in the Twenties, looking on at the Negro League meetings and thriving jazz nights like a National Geographic scribe readying a few thousand words on the discovery of a brand new tribe. (Even good liberals sometimes come at the subject of race with condescending attitudes.) Yet for the most part, the focus is on two women circling one another with a fascination that isn't quite romantic or sexual - it's more an astonishment that someone they grew up alongside could now be living a life such as this. If Hall empathises with these women, it could be because she recognises her own project's limitations - how walled-off the film, too, sometimes presents as.

The kind of small, manageable actors' piece actors often set themselves for a directorial debut, Passing has been shot (elegantly, by Edu Grau) in a 4:3 ratio, and in a monochrome that subtly accentuates the contrast in its heroines' skintones. As underlined by every rippling glissando of Devonté Hynes' piano score, it's a film of supreme good taste, as distinct from, say, Green Book's common-denominator hackery or the idiosyncratic rough edges of Spike Lee's recent provocations. Its limitation as drama is that the onscreen action never quite proves as fraught as that initial set-up promises; for a film about women of colour in a pre-civil rights world, the stakes would appear unexpectedly low. What's missing - or, rather, what's been tamped down to the point of non-existence - is the raw, messy emotion one finds in a melodrama like Imitation of Life, which in any version was a cruder text than Passing, but contrived to be somehow more specific (and greatly more affecting) about the intersection of race and class in early 20th century America. The lynchings of this world are presented in the form of reported speech; the Skarsgård character - a ready source of antagonism - vanishes after his first ominous growls, only to reappear when Hall needs to tie matters up. Mostly, she internalises this conflict, and while that's a boon for her (excellent) leads, who get to go subtle and reasonably deep, Passing finally shapes up as something close to a gentrified race movie: the tone of melancholy detachment it strikes is not unlike encountering a mysterious death notice in a yellowing back edition of The New York Times. That, too, proves haunting in spots, although Hall's efforts to bridge past and present aren't always entirely persuasive. When Irene wonders "We're all of us passing for something or other, aren't we?", it sounds less like a substantive comment on the state of play in the here and now than a truism bound for the closing seconds of an awards-season trailer: a real case of hmm, yes, makes you think.

Passing is now showing in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Netflix.

Friday 12 November 2021

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of November 5-7, 2021):

1 (new) Eternals (12A)
2 (1) No Time To Die (12A) ***
3 (2) Dune: Part One (12A) **
4 (3) Venom: Let There Be Carnage (15)
5 (5) The Boss Baby 2: Family Business (PG)
6 (new) Spencer (12A) ***
7 (4) The Addams Family 2 (PG)
8 (10) The French Dispatch (15) **
9 (9) Ron's Gone Wrong (PG) ***
10 (8) Last Night in Soho (18) **

(source: Cinema_UK)

My top five:
5. The Seven Samurai

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Paw Patrol: The Movie (U)
2 (3) The Suicide Squad (15) *
3 (4) Fast & Furious 9 (12)
4 (10) Black Widow (12) ***
5 (5) Jungle Cruise (12)
6 (36) The Courier (12)
7 (2) Space Jam: A New Legacy (U)
8 (6The Croods 2: A New Age (U)
9 (new) Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins (12)
10 (8Free Guy (12)

My top five: 
1. Limbo

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Witness (Sunday, BBC1, 12.05am)
2. The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear [above] (Monday, five, 11pm)
3. The Salesman (Saturday, BBC2, 12.55am)
4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Saturday, five, 1.15pm)
5. On the Town (Monday, BBC2, 1.10pm)

Thursday 11 November 2021

On demand: "A Cop Movie"

After the death of George Floyd last year, there was much discussion in media circles about the phenomenon known as "copaganda" - those movies and TV shows, often produced with significant police input, by which the powers-that-be have traditionally shored up public confidence in an institution a growing number would like to see reorganised and/or defunded. Certain creatives used the pandemic to rethink their relationship to the police: the last season of the beloved sitcom
Brooklyn Nine-Nine was reportedly restructured to reflect a general anxiety about its central situation. Others have carried on regardless: Bollywood's big Diwali 2021 release, Sooryavanshi, features Akshay Kumar and Ranveer Singh as all-singing, all-dancing supercops. The new release A Cop Movie doesn't pretend to have all the answers - it's a 100-minute film that's just been diverted to Netflix after premiering in Berlin earlier this year - but it's wrestling with the policier form in a way that proves equal parts illuminating and provocative; it does feel innately post-Floyd. 

Following the newly added credit "A Netflix Documentary", it opens with fly-on-the-wall footage immediately redolent of TV's Cops: we watch Teresa, a uniformed patrol officer in Mexico City, being called out to attend a scene of domestic unrest that turns out to involve a premature birth. As she subsequently sets about her nightly rounds - the traffic stops, the timeouts for fast food, the natural breaks in filthy gas-station restrooms - you might, however, start to think something's ever so slightly amiss. The widescreen framing is too considered for authentic fly-on-the-wall, the camera movements too rehearsed. Teresa's mouth doesn't quite synch with the words coming out of it. Hardcore cinephiles will already have spotted that Teresa is being played by Mónica Del Carmen, quietly unforgettable as the human punchbag of 2010's non-romcom Leap Year. Sooner or later, a penny (or dime) drops: yet again, we're being led up the garden path by somebody posing as an officer of the law. The questions being posed of the police are, after all, questions of trust first and foremost.

Once you're handed absolute power of arbitration, what do you do with it? Calling the shots here is Alonso Ruizpalacios, whose 2014 film Güeros numbered among the sprightliest New Wave homages of recent years, and who went on to make 2018's cockeyed heist movie Museum with Gael García Bernal. Playfulness and flexibility are the watchwords of this emergent filmography: A Cop Movie will eventually earn that documentary tag, but it's one of those docs with a supplementary layer of creative flourish. Its initial technique would be comparable to Clio Barnard's groundbreaking The Arbor, where performers were hired to lipsynch to testimony previously set down on tape by those who'd lived it (a novelty that recalled the plasticine zoo animals of Nick Park's Creature Comforts shorts). Yet The Arbor was An Art Movie, somewhat static in its approach: its detailed tableaux allowed us first to grasp, then to admire such a technique, and that technique remained constant from first frame to last. A Cop Movie is busier; indeed, it'll take a couple of viewings to fully parse. 

For starters, there are a lot of words, a free-roaming testimony that staves off any obvious copaganda by having Teresa and her partner Montoya (embodied by Raúl Briones) admit early on that there are those who take up this job because of the opportunities it presents to get away with anything on the statute book. Right from the funky, Sixties-style opening credits, there are a lot of images, too - enough to make one wonder whether Ruizpalacios was consciously setting up a turf war within the film itself. On one hand, there are the heightened, sheeny, seductive visuals we've come to expect from our cop movies: the shootouts, the foot pursuits, the love scene that reveals Teresa and Montoya as off-the-clock partners, too. On the other, there are the interviewees' shrugging, grounded anecdotes. Together, they make up a pretty comprehensive picture of the average Mexican beat cop's life. Yes, sometimes there's a helter-skelter pursuit through the underground. Mostly, though, it's sitting in a panda car moaning about the number of onions on your hot dog. Ruizpalacios certainly isn't trumping this life up; he always has some means of undercutting it.

Not least via a clear and decisive break around the film's halfway mark. Suddenly we're watching a making-of of everything we've just seen, composed chiefly of video diaries the actors recorded - their own testimony - as they negotiated the 100 days of training required to play their parts. This is more obviously the documentary those opening credits promised, although inevitably it will prompt the question of whether or not del Carmen and Briones are still acting. I think not: while they broadly display the ease of actors before the camera - they're effectively self-taping at this point, and you suspect there would have been many more hours of footage available to Ruizpalacios - the responsibility they bear witness to is too great to be readily faked. Briones, who gives the impression of being very much of the ACAB Left, confesses he was drawn to this project precisely because of the professional challenge it posed: to walk a mile or so in boots he couldn't ever imagine himself wearing in other circumstances. There's some telling footage of del Carmen at the firing range, proving unable to discharge her weapon. As the real beat cop partnering her later jokes, "You seem like you wouldn't break a dish. You don't seem to have the personality required to be a cop." 

Here, perhaps, A Cop Movie takes a toe or two off the thin blue line it's been so adroitly patrolling, and wobbles in the direction of copaganda: the inference could be that this job is harder than it looks - you should try it sometime. Equally, though, isn't there something revealing (even disturbing) about that beat cop's jokey aside? Do we really want our police to be trigger-happy dishsmashers, state-sanctioned agents of destruction? What's crucial is Ruizpalacios's evenhanded framing - an evenhandedness you might want of any lawman. The actors' video diaries are afforded the same editorial weight as the fictional scenes of the first hour, the photographs stitched into the opening credits (which show cops at their best and worst) and a final round of testimony from the actual Teresa and Montoya that comes so close to whistleblowing you wonder how wise it was for them to show their faces on camera. Mixing and matching as he goes, nimbly dodging accusations of bias at every stage, and finally leaving his audience with a question ("What do you think?"), A Cop Movie is the film that confirms Ruizpalacios as the most Godardian of contemporary directors. The bonus for us is that it's the fun Godard - the imagemaker who was still very much a part of this world, and who took matters of film form in his stride.

A Cop Movie is now streaming on Netflix.