Sunday, 10 December 2017

On demand: "I Called Him Morgan"

There's a fair bit of story going on inside Kasper Collin's documentary I Called Him Morgan, yet for some while, it's not entirely clear whose story it is - that of the I in that title, or that of the Him - and, in the end, there may not quite be enough of it. Through a combination of characterful talking heads and atmospheric archive footage, Collin starts by laying out the tragedy of Lee Morgan, virtuoso jazz trumpeter and breakout star of the Dizzy Gillespie ensemble, who was shot dead, aged just 33, in 1971. The momentum, however, is stalled by cutaways to a straggly loose end: a 1996 cassette recording, retrieved from an overstuffed desk drawer, of an interview Morgan's former wife Helen gave to a teacher at the adult skills facility she attended in later life. In it, we hear Helen talking openly about a tough childhood in the American South (she was a mother-of-two by the age of fourteen), her transition to New York nightlife, and her whirlwind romance with the musician. If it seems as though the two strands have been set on a collision course, it's because these lives were: as jazz aficionados may already know, it was Helen who shot Lee that night at Slug's Saloon.

The bum notes, then, have to be taken alongside the good. The Helen returned to life here is a tough Southern belle - a whizz in the kitchen, a headturner on the streets - but also clearly a woman at least as impulsive as her straying, weak-willed husband: a key biographical detail, let slip in passing early on, is that she once married a man after knowing him for a week. We first get a sense something wasn't right in this relationship around thirty minutes into Collin's film, with the appearance of a photo showing Lee in the recording studio with a large bandage wrapped around his head - a consequence, it transpires, of the trumpeter blacking out during a heroin blowout and coming to rest on a blazing radiator. Helen was the person responsible for cleaning Lee and his reputation up, and getting him back out on the circuit (and, tragically, among other women): as a fellow musician notes, "She needed someone to take care of, and he needed someone to take care of him." (Collin doesn't push it, but we might start to wonder whether this little boy lost became a substitute for those children Helen left behind back in Wilmington - a way of making amends for her earlier actions.) 

The story, it turns out, is one of dependency, and what happens once such dependencies are threatened. If we feel Collin being deliberately coy in withholding this tale's sorry pay-off, we can admire his confident handling of his raw materials. Those same jazz aficionados will surely nod appreciatively at the long, uninterrupted slices of Morgan's oeuvre allowed to play out on the soundtrack, proofs of the subject's genius that also contain melancholy hints of promise lost. The film's limitation is that Collin can only amplify what turned out to be a small, sad, semi-forgotten domestic so much. The obvious corrective would have been to dig a little deeper into Helen's rehabilitation and reemergence into polite society, perhaps at the expense of Lee's rise to prominence: we get there in the closing ten minutes, but by then it feels too little, too late. That cassette recording was apparently the only time Lee's saviour and killer put herself on the record in any form (she died a few months later), sitting opposite an interviewer who clearly didn't realise what he had on his hands: it is undeniably compelling while the encounter unspools, but eventually the tape runs out.

I Called Him Morgan is now available to stream on Netflix.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

2017: The Poll of Polls

Current Top 10 (as of December 9, 2017):

1. Get Out, 58 points
2. Faces Places, 25
3. Lady Bird, 23
5. Dunkirk, 21
6= Call Me By Your Name, 19
6= Twin Peaks: The Return, 19
8= Good Time, 16
8= Zama, 16
10= Phantom Thread, 13
10= A Quiet Passion, 13
10= Personal Shopper, 13

Empire: 1. Get Out 2. Blade Runner 2049 3. La La Land 4. Moonlight 5. The Death of Stalin 6. Dunkirk 7. God's Own Country 8. Logan 9. The Handmaiden 10. Call Me By Your Name.

Sight & Sound: 1. Get Out 2. Twin Peaks: The Return 3. Call Me By Your Name 4. Zama 5. Western 6. Faces Places 7. Good Time 8. Loveless 9= Dunkirk and The Florida Project.

Cahiers du Cinéma: 1. Twin Peaks: The Return 2. Jeannette 3. Certain Women 4. Get Out 5. The Day After 6. Lover for a Day 7. Good Time 8. Split 9. Jackie 10. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.

Manohla Dargis (New York Times): 1. Dunkirk 2. Ex Libris: New York Public Library 3. Faces Places 4. The Florida Project 5. Get Out 6. Lady Bird 7. Okja 8. Phantom Thread 9. A Quiet Passion 10. Wonder Woman.

A.O. Scott (New York Times): 1. The Florida Project 2. Lady Bird 3. Get Out 4. I Am Not Your Negro 5. Faces Places 6. Phantom Thread 7. A Fantastic Woman 8. Graduation 9. A Quiet Passion 10. War for the Planet of the Apes.

Stephanie Zacharek (Time): 1. The Post 2. Lady Bird 3. The Lost City of Z 4. Personal Shopper 5. Kedi 6. Call Me By Your Name 7. Dunkirk 8. Faces Places 9. Get Out 10. Girls Trip.

Ryan Gilbey (New Statesman): 1. Aquarius 2. Elle 3. Daphne 4. The Work 5. Personal Shopper 6. Call Me By Your Name 7. Moonlight 8. Manchester by the Sea 9. The Other Side of Hope 10. Colossal.

Richard Brody (The New Yorker): 1. Get Out 2. A Quiet Passion 3. Good Time 4. A Ghost Story 5. Slack Bay 6. Phantom Thread 7. Beach Rats 8. Faces Places 9. Song to Song 10. Silvio.

J. Hoberman (Artforum): 1. Drunk (a.k.a. Drink) 2. Zama 3. Streetscapes [Dialogue] 4. The Vietnam War 5. Nocturama 6. Get Out 7. Norman 8. The Florida Project 9. Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story 10. An Ecstatic Experience

Friday, 8 December 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of December 1-3, 2017:

1 (2) 
Paddington 2 (PG) ****
2 (1) Daddy's Home 2 (12A)
3 (3) Justice League (12A)
4 (new) Wonder (PG)
5 (4) Murder on the Orient Express (12A)
6 (6) Thor: Ragnarok (12A) ***
7 (8) A Bad Moms Christmas (15)
8 (7) Battle of the Sexes (12A) ***
9 (11) The Star (U) **
10 (new) The Man Who Invented Christmas (PG)


My top five: 
1. A Matter of Life and Death [above]

2. The Muppet Christmas Carol
3. Most Beautiful Island
4. The Big Heat
5. Beach Rats

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) War for the Planet of the Apes (12) ***
2 (new) The Emoji Movie (U)
3 (1) Spider-Man: Homecoming (12) **
4 (4) Despicable Me 3 (U)
5 (5) Paddington (PG) ****
6 (2) Trolls: Holiday (U)
7 (3) Micky Flanagan: An' Another Fing Live (15)
8 (7) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
9 (new) Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (12)
10 (new) Blue Planet II (E)


My top five: 
1. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

2. 78/52
3. Dunkirk
4. Girls Trip
5. Journey Through French Cinema

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Toy Story (Sunday, BBC1, 3.35pm)
2. Headhunters (Sunday, BBC2, 1.05am)
3. Shaun of the Dead (Saturday, ITV1, 11.05pm)
4. X-Men: Days of Future Past (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
5. The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Sunday, C4, 3pm)

World in motion: "Human Flow"

Visit 180 The Strand, a towering office block that has in recent months been appropriated as a temporary exhibition space, before this weekend is out, and you'll be confronted by a work that the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has entitled Odyssey: one side of an entire room decorated from ceiling to floor in what at first appears to be mass-produced wallpaper. Get in close, however, and you notice that what looked from afar like generic patterns are in fact scenes from the 21st century's refugee crisis. Here are men, women and children fleeing the sites of conflicts, taking to the seas in overcrowded dinghies, occasionally meeting sorry demises, being threatened by border guards and anybody else opposed to the principle of free movement. The key to understanding the work - and, just perhaps, the world - is that you have to go out of your way and really look. Human Flow, the epic new documentary to which Ai has signed his name, is Odyssey as retold in moving images - a big-picture artistic statement that seeks, in its 140 minutes, to bridge East and West, Europe and Africa, and to embrace Syrian, Rohingyan and Kurd alike. It is at once hugely ambitious and massively unwieldy; its triumph may be that it gets as far and covers as much ground as it does before it collapses over the finish line.

One might best approach it as a primer, or - perhaps better, given Ai's fondness for sweeping, vertiginous drone shots - an overview, flashing up facts, newspaper headlines and quotes over footage taken at those points of arrival and departure. Here, we find Ai - persona non grata in his native China, as the excellent 2012 doc Never Sorry reminded us - greeting those tumbling onto and off those dinghies, and those left in limbo in damp tents in railway sidings. (His attempts at making conversation and connections with those he finds there, often involving broken English and smartphone cat photos, are reliably charming.) The Google Earth framing ensures Human Flow remains at all times more specific than last year's free-roaming, impressionistic portrait Fire at Sea, which left its audience to feel out its terrain for themselves. Ai's film, by contrast, is governed by the same sequentiality as the artist's wallwork: he shows us the bombed towns and cities, and the homes rendered uninhabitable, then the displaced masses, then the perilous journeys they undertake - across rocky roads and fast-flowing waters - to reach some form of sanctuary. In doing so, Human Flow expresses a logic that may, in the unlikely event of the film being given away as a cover-mounted DVD with the Daily Express, help chip away at some of the less rational rhetoric that has hardened and solidified around this topic. 

Migration is here framed as a matter of logistics - huge crowds, moving in a particular direction, and leaving our gatekeepers with three options: repel them, rope 'em off, or reintegrate them somewhere else. As one migrant wonders, peering at Ai's camera from the other side of a chainlink fence: "Border closed? Where the people go?" These are the questions (and uncertainties) that hover over every frame here, and you do sometimes wish Ai had alighted upon more in the way of practical solutions - though this may be our leaders' failing, not the film's. (Either way, no 2017 release has cried out louder for post-screening Q&As: the tone and phrasing will vary, but every image will likely prompt a response of "What can I do?") The scope dilutes its charge: as politically charged art, Human Flow proves less effective than Odyssey, which reduced the refugee experience to the stark essentials of survival, and made its repetition seem a vital part of the piece, rather than an editorial oversight. Nevertheless, this is a comprehensive and exhaustive study, and self-evidently the kind of work only an artist whose heart is as all-encompassing as his gaze would embark upon. Human Flow succeeds in reconciling the grand gesture with the tiniest detail; it opens up the space still available on our planet, then gets in close enough to see the humanity in our fellow travellers' eyes. The big question is: where do we all go from here?

Human Flow opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow. 

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Get out: "Most Beautiful Island"

Just as society has to work out how to come to terms with migration - extend a hand, or raise a flaming torch? - so too do our filmmakers. Last week saw Michael Haneke rather brusquely nudging on a huddled mass of Africans as the punchline to his Happy End; later this week, we'll see Ai Weiwei's compassionate overview doc Human Flow. Landing somewhere between the two approaches is Most Beautiful Island, a throat-grabbing B-pic of the old school in which writer-director-star Ana Asensio comes to address the plight of undocumented workers in latter-day Manhattan through the framework of genre: in some ways, she's picking up where 2004's much-admired Maria Full of Grace left off, though the new film pushes on still further, into the realms of outright horror. It opens as a character study in a familiar indie social-realist mode: Spanish heroine Luciana (Asensio) has reached the United States, albeit in a somewhat precarious condition, uninsured, and falling ever more behind on the rent for an apartment that has turned out to be riddled with cockroaches (early warning: this is not a film for bug phobes). Collecting only the modest income that follows from handing out flyers for a chicken restaurant, she naturally jumps at a hostess gig held out to her by a Russian co-worker, a job that apparently requires no more than to report at a warehouse wearing a little black dress. This, it transpires, is a bad move, and - if she's not careful - one that could well end up being her last.

There is no grandstanding or chestbeating about the drama that subsequently unfolds, nothing that would announce Most Beautiful Island as An Immigration Movie; its final movement, I suspect, would rule it out of serious Oscar contention. Instead, Asensio composes a simple, slender fable - barely 80 minutes short - which contents to stick the camera over our heroine's shoulder, and thereby illustrate in the most matter-of-fact manner just how easily an ordinary day can shade into nightmare for someone without the usual safety nets of privilege. The film is deliberate indeed about withholding the exact nature of that nightmare from us: it's one of those unnerving constructions that delights in keeping heroine and viewer alike in the dark for as long as is narratively feasible. As the assembled women are assigned numbers and told to wait in the chalk circles scrawled for them on the stone floor of the warehouse's unfurnished antechamber, we can be fairly certain they haven't been invited round for afternoon tea - unless they themselves are on the menu. (When asked what became of her former friends, the Russian girl replies with a lingering "New York ate them up".)

No spoilers from me, but the whole could well be filed alongside that wave of plutocrat-age media - including such diverse TV projects as Twin Peaks: The Return and The Girlfriend Experience - which insist that very bad things indeed are going on the other side of doors that will only rarely be opened to the likes of you and I; it's only once those doors have been opened that light is cast on the extent to which we've become the playthings of the well-to-do. (That title, scrawled by Luciana on a hopeless paper plane, has surely been formulated to recall the Depression-era The Most Dangerous Game.) Asensio - tall, athletic, combative; not an obvious patsy - gives a strong portrayal of a young woman whose better nature (her capacity to trust strangers, and convince strangers to confide in her) may very likely be her downfall. Even more striking, though, is the steel in her direction, her willingness to put her onscreen self through the wringer in a dozen or more ways while holding firm and letting the threat levels around her build quietly and steadily. The result generates some of the clammy, skin-prickling panic of a superior urban legend: rough-edged yet supremely vivid, possessed of an internal logic that makes its so-called true story terrifyingly easy to believe, this is termite art that sinks its teeth right into you.

Most Beautiful Island is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

From the archive: "Fill the Void"

With Fill the Void, the writer-director Rama Burshtein leads us inside a world that might initially seem as alien to us heathens as anything delineated in, say, Battlefield Earth. Yet here the dreadlocks belong to the Orthodox Jews of modern-day Tel Aviv, and it’s clear Burshtein is operating her camera as a translation device, attempting to explain Haredi rules and rituals to a wider audience – those related to matters of the heart, in particular. Burshtein’s film opens with a young woman and her mother being directed via telephone to scope out a possible suitor in a supermarket’s dairy aisle; shortly thereafter, we see this same young woman, Shira (Hadas Yaron), deep in conversation with a contemporary about the man to whom the latter is being hitched. “He landed yesterday,” she notes. “We met from seven to 10.15.” “What’s he like?,” asks Shira. “He’s all right,” comes the bathetic response.

Clearly, marriage in these parts, though negotiated by all parties and therefore not technically arranged, is still guided more by practicality than passion – a situation further pointed up after Shira’s sister dies during labour, and our heroine finds herself being pushed by the community’s elders to marry her own brother-in-law, in order to help raise this widower’s offspring. The film’s project isn’t completely without precedent: there are similarities here with 2011’s Corpo Celeste, Alice Rohrwacher’s much-admired drama about a young girl’s initiation into Catholicism, which – to use a cross-denominational metaphor – succeeded in translating some arcane theological considerations into the daily bread of its recognisably flesh-and-blood characters. Fill the Void is, if anything, more even-handed yet about a way of life to which its director is evidently closely tied.

Shira’s predicament is presented as both extreme yet extremely logical, and you sense the filmmaker striving to identify the one character who might be a good and lasting match for this girl – bringing her in line with the matchmakers-in-chief of countless mainstream romcoms. (The director has cited Jane Austen as one of her inspirations, and it shows through.) A notable obstacle appears when Shira learns the dead wife had previously nominated another (older) woman to take her place in the event of any tragedy – leaving the highly expressive Yaron to suggest how our young-seeming heroine has had considerable responsibility heaped upon her, and how she may just be strong and mature enough to either bear it, or shrug it off altogether. Burshtein charts this process with impressive economy, both in her shot selection (close-ups that carry the story’s emotional weight) and editing, while using the rituals at the film’s centre to better describe those at the fringes of this universe: the women who’ve gone unmarried, the men themselves left behind, by bereavement or some other misfortune. When Shira ends up sharing a lift with the chap from the dairy aisle, it’s a poignant reminder of a path not taken – and another example of Burshtein’s facility for tapping the universal emotions beneath a very specific set of prayers and chants.

(MovieMail, December 2013)

Fill the Void screens on Channel 4 tonight at 3.45am.

Monday, 4 December 2017

From the archive: "Like Father Like Son"

In his 2011 film I Wish, Hirokazu Kore-Eda – the filmmaker most observers regard as the closest the Japanese cinema has nowadays to the revered Yasujiro Ozu – appeared to be consciously attempting to preserve on celluloid a gentle, childlike innocence, much as the lost souls floating about the ether in Kore-Eda’s breakthrough feature After Life sought to preserve a cherished memory of earthly happiness.

Ozu himself went through a phase of working almost exclusively with children, you may remember, and Kore-Eda’s new film Like Father, Like Son extends the tradition further still. This is an elegant, quietly affecting take on the sort of baby-swap material one might encounter on the Lifetime channel or gawp at in a supermarket tabloid, and if its plot details are region-specific, the emotions it generates are universal.

In Japan, we learn, children heading to elementary school are subject to a blood test; one such procedure will reveal that Keita (Keita Ninomiya), the docile charge of a well-to-do architect and his wife, is in fact the offspring of a lowly shopkeeper, whose own child Ryusei (Shogen Whang) turns out to be the architect’s by birth, the result of a mix-up in the maternity ward.

This set-up sparks a series of quandaries any onlooking parent will be obliged to consider. Should the parents simply swap the children they’ve raised for six years, no harm, no foul? If you had the money, would you offer to raise both? If one party was unwilling to make the switch, might you be tempted to sue for sole custody – or would you concede that, after all this formative time, the bond between infant and guardian was now too strong to sever?

This nature-versus-nurture debate is played out over the course of a year, allowing us time to contrast the personalities of the fathers (the driven architect – who seems to be away from home an awful lot for someone so obsessed with the notion of family – and the lackadaisical shopkeeper) and those of their sons, and to mentally mix-and-match, feeling out who works best where; Kore-Eda favours a very Ozu-ish parallelism, his shot compositions offering neatly symmetrical variations on twos and fours.

One could easily damn Like Father, Like Son with the faint praise of the adjective “simple”, except that it’s clearly intended as a record of such simple pleasures, the kind our adult selves sometimes contrive to complicate and mess up. Kore-Eda uses his parallels to map out different ideas of what it might be to be a father or son (the women, though allowed vivid moments, are secondary), and without the heavy-handedness of, say, Richard Curtis in About Time.

He’s become increasingly adroit about casting child performers in ways that mean he barely has to direct them: whether independent or clingy, sharp-eyed or slightly dopey, Kore-Eda’s kids are always allowed to be themselves on screen – and of course it helps they’re adorable enough to make one want to take the next bullet train to Shinjuku and start frantically adopting.

You’re struck by how much of the film is simply, quietly observational – watching the boys splashing about at bathtime, making balloons, peering out of car windows at the giant pylons passing by – and the abiding lightness of touch is such that Kore-Eda can even muster viewer sympathies for the muddled nurse who engineered this fateful switch in the first place.

Depending on your temperament, you might want the film a little less gentle, but one suspects that in the year 2050, by which point a new, hyper-aggressive strain of capitalism will have turned our young into jaded shells hooked on hard drugs and harder porn, and the notion of good parenting will have been revised down to “shrugging less dismissively”, we will be grateful indeed for Kore-Eda’s achievements in this field: these most recent films of his may well stand as reminders that we were all this human, once upon a time.

(MovieMail, October 2013)

Like Father Like Son screens on Channel 4 tonight at 3.10am.