Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Happy Finnish: "The Other Side of Hope"

As its writer-director Aki Kaurismäki has acknowledged in interviews, the best gag in The Other Side of Hope is that a refugee from the Syrian conflict should come to seek asylum in Finland, a place where - as Kaurismäki's films have proposed for years - there is never very much going on, and what little there is going on proceeds at the most glacial pace imaginable. Out of the frying pan, into the void. It is, nevertheless, the basis of a workable fish-out-of-water set-up, and Kaurismäki's voyager Khalid Ali (Sherwan Haji) is indeed plucked from the ocean: deposited in Helsinki from a freighter along with the several tonnes of coal he secreted himself within, emerging as black about the face as Yosemite Sam after one of his schemes involving ACME-brand dynamite backfires, the darkest of skin passing into what's just about the whitest population on the planet. Back on dry land, Khalid eventually crosses paths with marvellously named captain of industry Waldemar Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a clothing salesman who leaves his wife in his first scene and quits his job shortly afterwards to pursue his dream of running a restaurant. Here, then, are two men who've been set adrift; the question occupying the film - though Kaurismäki, ever-laconic, doesn't so much state it as float it - is whether they will ever find safe harbour.

Hope was first announced as the second in this director's so-called Port Trilogy - a follow-up to 2011's wryly charming Le Havre - before Kaurismäki, with not untypical perversity, declared it would in fact be his last ever work. You could, at any rate, approach it as the seventeenth-or-so in a series of films d'Aki. The world may have changed dramatically in the years since Kaurismäki's feature debut, a 1983 adaptation of Crime and Punishment, but his framing - the way he's come to look at that world - has remained more or less constant: with a fixed, unblinking camera, positioned slightly closer to the characters than the cameras of Michael Haneke or Roy Andersson, the better to observe those sporadic flickers of emotion passing over his generally hangdog performers' faces. The new film has, granted, a comparatively serious and straight-faced opening movement, illustrating those hoops an asylum seeker has to pass through so as to give himself even a chance of making Northern Europe his home, yet by the time Waldemar wins the high-stakes poker game that allows him to snap up a nearby fleshpot - an establishment that could well do with an extra pair of hands - you can sense the film beginning to relax and have a measure of droll fun with its premise.

It helps that, despite its name ("The Golden Pint"), the restaurant in question is no obvious promised land, rather a dead-end dive last decorated circa 1975 (which would explain the Hendrix fresco adorning one wall). Here, the modest scattering of clientele are attended to by a chainsmoking chef (signature dish: still-canned sardines with solitary boiled potato) and a manager whose final act before turning the keys over to his successor is to empty both the cash register and the tips jar into his own pocket. "We couldn't go any lower if we tried," Waldemar sighs to Khalid at one point, but this last-chance saloon allows Kaurismäki to be amusingly self-deprecating about the nature of Finnish hospitality - one neighbouring hostelry has pints of the local brew pre-poured behind the bar for those sorry souls who pass through its doors - while pursuing a preferred theme of his: the coming together of people in unlikely or reduced circumstances. After discovering Khalid sleeping round the back of his bins ("This is my bedroom," the new arrival shrugs, forlornly), Waldemar gives his charge the helping hand he needs - work, phony ID card, a slightly more salubrious place to rest his head - but only after the two men have exchanged punches to the face.

Anybody coming cold to the film may find its style as much limitation as boon. The action here unfolds not in the real world so much as a gnomic, comic-strip version of it, populated by individuals with no better place to go; big belly laughs are few and far between, and - even when Khalid is confronted by the skinheaded thugs of the Finland Liberation Army - the life-and-death urgency of the In This World and Fire at Sea branches of refugee cinema proves to be beyond Kaurismäki's reach. That style is equally, however, a useful checking device: these scenes are forever too curt and clipped to succumb to mawkishness or blandishments, leaving their author the time and space to come up with, say, jokes about the myriad uses of pickled herring. That may make The Other Side of Hope sound like a niche concern, and in truth, it probably is; still, its characters' stoicism and quiet pragmatism in this matter - and Kaurismäki's determination to treat migration anecdotally, removed from the wailing and gnashing of teeth this subject has provoked elsewhere - is in its own way affecting. Brief encounter by brief encounter, bathetic punchline by pathetic punchline, Hope nudges and tickles its audience into an appreciably better place.

The Other Side of Hope opens in selected cinemas from Friday. 

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Master of the house: "Lady Macbeth"

Signs of life in the moribund period genre. That Lady Macbeth was never intended as another of our rose-tinted, post-Downton, pre-Brexit skips down memory lane can be intuited almost immediately from the clipped precision of its editing and the severity of its framing: we're not meant to luxuriate or wallow in these images so much as see the dust gathering and the chill hanging in the air. Writer Alice Birch and director William Oldroyd have here relocated the powerplays of Nikolai Leskov's novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, first published in Dostoyevsky's magazine Epoch and later adapted by Shostakovich as an opera and by Andrzej Wajda as a film, to the North of England of the late 19th century; between them, they succeed in making the Northumbrian moors appear even less hospitable than the wilds of Siberia. Some things, so the underlying editorial goes, may be best left to the past.

Leskov provides the basic outline: a young bride - here named Katherine (Florence Pugh, from The Falling), that hard Slavic K differentiating her from those other Cathys who came home hereabouts - married off to a wealthy mineowner and subsequently locked away as one more acquisition among many. With absolutely no purpose of her own, save to produce the heir that might extend the dynasty, Katherine is obliged by day to strap herself into corsets, meekly wait up for the ineffectual man of the house (Paul Hilton) to conclude his business, and then further submit to his control - although this fellow has some funny ideas on how to procreate, forcing his bride to strip before leaving her shivering on their wedding night, and later ordering her to face the wall while he laboriously tugs himself off. 

Still, Katherine has spirit, and a brain, and appetites still: she finds more subversive ways of killing this time, of resisting, even. With hubby increasingly absent, she takes up with a lusty, mocking labourer, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), moving him into her chambers and beneath the sheets of the marital bed, further reorganising this household on her own terms. Yet this proves to be but the briefest of idylls, offering only an illusion of power, not one that can hold for long in this particular day and age. What strikes us, in the meantime, is the extent to which the film has been organised around its leading lady: independent British cinema, with its makeshift resources and mucking-in aesthetic, doesn't tend to throw up many starmaking roles, but this would be one of them.

There was something preternatural or otherworldly about Pugh in The Falling: she was an alien queen in knee-length socks, putting her contemporaries under her spell. Here, she's anomalous in a different way: an unmistakably modern presence, she makes Katherine bored out of her mind, passive-aggressive, bolshy when she needs to be, as though someone had just snatched this twentysomething's iPhone out of her hands seconds before the cameras started rolling. Katherine fucks for pleasure, rather than out of duty, which makes her a threat to the established order: when she suddenly stands up in the middle of a genteel afternoon tea with a passing vicar who's started prying into her extracurricular activities, it's both her way of letting her guest know it's time to leave, and Oldroyd's way of disrupting the neat symmetry of his frame.

This director, who hails from theatre, knows how to work a multiplicity of perspectives into his action. Katherine's sole companion for much of the film, and her co-conspirator for some of it, is Anna (Naomi Ackie), a put-upon black maid who, while she may enjoy a measure of liberation in peeping in at her mistress's carnal activities, appears more trapped than anybody else on screen. However bad Katherine may have it at the clammy, grabby hands of the patriarchy, Anna - hogtied for sport by the labourers, forced to grovel on her hands and knees by her employers - has it far, far worse. (And when everybody's retired behind closed doors, Oldroyd can always cut away to the family's half-starved cat licking up the scraps from table: another sign of just how little trickles down to this household's poorer creatures.)

As befits one who's studied the work of Ibsen and Strindberg, Oldroyd retains a beady eye for the class system's cruelties, some of which have been stamped out, others of which persist, all of which make for rather more bracing and arresting drama than the pageants and parades that make up the bulk of British costume fare. The film's final third is a deviation of sorts, following through the consequences of Katherine's rebellion, and suggesting that such revolts are rarely clean cut; perhaps it required a Russian dramatist to tell us this. A horse's corpse lies uncovered and mouldering in the estate's back fields; ballgowns get dragged through the muck; a child's life hangs in the balance. Here, as elsewhere, cinematographer Ari Wegner's cool, Hammershøi-shaded interiors make no attempt to hide the pain and exploitation that went to make up the pretty pictures of Empire.

Katherine, meanwhile, finds herself confronted with a barrage of questions, less easily dodged than those the vicar tossed her way: what are you going to do now? And what are you prepared to do now? This final act is, in many respects, no more than a nasty, straggly loose end - which distinguishes Lady Macbeth from the keep-calm-and-carry-on flagwaving of a crowdpleaser like Their Finest - but Oldroyd's willingness to pursue it suggests he won't submit easily to the bows-and-bonnets school of thought. If Andrea Arnold's radical take on Wuthering Heights - which Lady Macbeth recalls not just in its location, but its casting and attitude - had reached an audience back in 2011, we might have had five or six more of these in the half-decade since. As it is, we've got one, and it lands as revivifying, to say the least - not so much tea-and-biscuits cinema as a cup of cold coffee, thrown directly into the viewer's face. Brace yourself.

Lady Macbeth is now playing in selected cinemas.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

From the archive: "The Homesman"

Tommy Lee Jones’s second feature as writer-director, The Homesman, is an unusual Western, less concerned with what a man’s gotta do than with what a man and woman might usefully accomplish together. The title may be gendered one way, but Jones here confounds expectations from the off, presenting us initially with a thumbnail sketch of one Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a single gal caught literally ploughing her own furrow in a small frontier community.

As in Jones’s previous The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, we’re soon left in no doubt that the American West was a tough place for minorities of any stripe or shade. Having established her self-sufficiency with her work in the fields, Ms. Cuddy plans a pleasant evening in with a male suitor, only for her practical proposal of marriage to be turned down flat. She’s too bossy, apparently.

Still, Mary Bee Cuddy has it comparatively easy. Across the plains, the unravelling Theoline (Miranda Otto) is led to toss her new-born child into the outhouse; another woman, Danish immigrant Gro (Sonia Richter), succumbs to visions of her late mother, winding up hogtied by the husband who’s repeatedly raped her in his desire for an heir; a third (Grace Gummer) is reduced to mute despondency after seeing her children ravaged by diphtheria, and left clutching a doll as a poor substitute.

In playing happy homesteaders, all these women have been driven out of their minds; society’s solution is to have them carted off to an asylum some distance away. With the menfolk otherwise engaged, the civic-minded Mary Bee volunteers to drive them, but it’s a big responsibility: she finds help, of a sort, in the form of George Briggs (Jones), a whiskery coot she spies hanging from a tree en route. He, too, finds Mary Bee somewhat bossy.

With the hysterics confined to the back of the wagon, The Homesman’s interest lies in the relationship between the two riding upfront. George is blunt, bluff, confrontational – virtues in the Old West – Mary Bee more considerate and compassionate; he shepherds his passengers as though they were any other freight, she talks to them, feeds them, regards them as God’s creatures. She leads by example: one way or another, she’ll soften George up, and – without him realising, or any strain on Jones’s part – transform him into a crusader for exactly those values she holds to.

Kevin Costner rode into similar territory ten years ago with his Open Range, a lovely, sincere yarn about the domestication of a cowboy; what Jones brings to this material is a Southern gent’s chivalry – he’s courteous, sometimes painterly, in the way his camera looks upon these women – and yet a gimlet eye for the West’s harshness: Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography never flinches from death or despair, but defines it against the natural beauty of the landscape, just as Jones weighs male brutality against the tolerance of the women.

As in Three Burials, there’s also evidence of a wicked, leavening sense of humour. Jones makes a fool of Briggs in a way the noble Costner probably couldn’t. He’s first observed being smoked out of a cabin, face blackened like a cartoon character; in moments of levity, he’s prone to hitching up his long johns and performing a ridiculous jig. It’s amazing any woman would give him the time of day – but that’s what’s great about women, the film fondly sighs: they do.

The Homesman is less expansive than Three Burials: its structure is largely episodic, and Jones misses a trick in not making the three madwomen anything more than an audience for the curious semi-courtship taking place before them; the actresses – Richter especially – give thoroughly committed performances, but the characters never emerge as personalities in their own right.

What it showcases is Jones’s ability to compile Westerns that might speak to contemporary audiences. Three Burials was a lucid contribution to the immigration debate; The Homesman has much to say about how the sexes still relate to one another. Swank, warmly nurturing, is every bit as crucial to this project, and we remember her struggles as George Briggs surely does: by chafing against the rugged masculine individualism common to this genre, Jones has offered an absorbing, touching model of collaboration.

(MovieMail, November 2014)

The Homesman screens on BBC2 tonight at 10pm.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

From the archive: "Philomena"

The Well-Made British Picture – modest in scope, but displaying a sound, indeed wholly admirable adherence to the virtues of a well-tempered script and a nuanced set of performances – has become a definable property in recent times, not to mention a reliable staple of the pre-Christmas awards rush. Stephen Frears’ new true-life tale Philomena – every inch the Well-Made British Picture – initially appears to be moving in similar circles to this director’s 2006 success The Queen, opening with a brisk thumbnail sketch of a crestfallen power player.

This is Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who co-wrote with Jeff Pope), recently fired from his job as a New Labour spin doctor and now slumping through Knightsbridge dinner parties as a jobbing freelance writer, so depressed that he’s even considering penning a book on Russian history. On the other side of London – yet, somehow, worlds away – there exists the Irish Catholic Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), working her way through her own, rather more graspable trauma: the memory of having her young son sold off by the nuns at the Magdalene laundry she was assigned to as a teenager.

Worlds will collide – yet it’s an early, promising sign that they do so in ways specific and idiosyncratic enough to suggest this collision might actually have happened. The two lead characters first meet at a Harvester (“it’s mum’s favourite place”), where Philomena spills the beans over the croutons and bacon bits, and Sixsmith’s professional instincts, if not his sympathies, are sufficiently engaged to propose they pursue the lost boy together; when they finally hit the road, Philomena turns up with a handbag full of Custard Creams and Tunes.

The film, fine-tuned for its inevitable matinee outings, forms an attempt to have its cake (or biscuit selection) and swallow it whole. In an early scene, Sixsmith seeks to impress his worldliness upon Philomena’s caterer daughter by sharing his belief that human interest stories are targeted at the weak-minded; Frears, Coogan and Pope then offer us one more or less straight, with occasional caveats.

The road trip Philomena winds up taking may lead to the heart of America’s political scene, but it bears traces of something a little more parochial: Coogan’s opposites-attract collaboration with Rob Brydon on TV’s The Trip. Sixsmith is as cynical as one would maybe expect a New Labour spindoctor to be, and these scenes will contrast his snobbery and jadedness – as established by regular telephone calls to his editor, claiming he could bash out this story to a predetermined template – with his travelling companion’s simpler faith.

And what extraordinary faith Philomena Lee displays: in the religion that looks to have taken at least as much from her as it has given back; in the idea her son might still be out there, and in need of a mother’s love; even in the suggestion that the Martin Lawrence-starrer Big Momma’s House will be the funniest thing she’s likely to see while in America. (I fear Philomena will be directly responsible for an upswing in Big Momma DVD sales among the 55-75 demographic. At the risk of sounding like a bit of a Sixsmith: hold onto those receipts, people.)

Philomena works because, on some semi-profound level, the film believes, too: in stories, and their continued ability to engage, surprise and otherwise touch us. It believes enough to usher us assuredly past the mid-film development that apparently closes down the possibility of an obvious happy ending; and, like all feelgood fables worth their weight in honey, it believes in the possibility that even a grinch of Martin Sixsmith’s standing might be, if not redeemed, then at least somehow challenged or shaken, by the gleam in a nice old lady’s eye.

Some of the knowingness and self-referentiality – ported across from Coogan’s comedy endeavours – is pared back come the final reel to more clearly reveal this belief, and the emotions attached to it. Yet Philomena benefits at almost every turn from an almost ideal division of labour: allowing Coogan to push for the head and the funny bone in reaction shots that mark him, this once, as unmistakably the straight man, while his co-star – on her now-customary fine form – shores up the heart, cockles and tearducts. It is, undeniably, well-made.

(MovieMail, October 2013)

Philomena screens on BBC2 tonight at 9pm.

Friday, 19 May 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of May 12-14, 2017:

1 (new) Alien: Covenant (15)

2 (1) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12A) **
3 (4) The Boss Baby (U)
4 (3) Fast & Furious 8 (12A)
5 (2) A Dog's Purpose (PG)
6 (new) Der Rosenkavalier: Met Opera (12A)
7 (5) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
8 (new) Miss Sloane (15)
9 (6) Sleepless (15)
10 (7) Their Finest (12A) ***


My top five: 
1. Manhattan
2. Heal the Living
3. Jawbone
4. Suntan
5. Lady Macbeth

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (new) La La Land (12) ***
2 (1) Rogue One (12) **
3 (2) Moana (PG) ****
4 (3) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12) ***
5 (6) Trolls (U)
6 (new) Manchester by the Sea (15) ****
7 (4) Arrival (12) ***
8 (7) A Monster Calls (12) **
9 (5) Ballerina (U) ***
10 (8) Bridget Jones's Baby (15) *


My top five: 
1. Hacksaw Ridge

2. Manchester by the Sea
3. Silence
4. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

5. La La Land

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. North by North-West [above](Saturday, BBC2, 1.30pm)
2. Insomnia (Saturday, BBC1, 11.40pm)
3. Philomena (Saturday, BBC2, 9pm)
4. Total Recall (Saturday, ITV1, 9.50pm)
5. The Homesman (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)

"The Secret Scripture" (Catholic Herald 19/05/17)

Jim Sheridan’s handsome yet flimsy melodrama The Secret Scripture (**, 12A, 108 minutes) turns out to be a tale of two actresses, one great, one getting there, neither quite given the script they deserve. Stumbling dishevelled through a decommissioned asylum in Sligo in the early 90s, and thereby delaying plans to convert her long-term residence into a trendy health spa, we’re greeted by no less a figure than Vanessa Redgrave. Making waves in wartime flashbacks, meanwhile, we meet Rooney Mara, fearless and free-spirited, possessed of what chanced-upon court papers describe as “a tempting beauty”, and thus perhaps inevitably doomed to be wronged by the men of her era.

It will come as scant surprise – even less if you’ve read Sebastian Barry’s novel – to discover the two are the same woman, one Rose Clear, as observed at different moments in her life. As doctor Eric Bana settles down to decipher the pictograms and cryptic commentary Rose the Elder has sketched into the margins of her Bible over the years, we get to find out why Rose the Younger was placed under lock and key. Here’s where Mara takes over, as fetching in period garb as she was in 2015’s Carol, turning diverse heads: those of a brooding priest (Theo James), a working lad (Aidan Turner, barely present) and – most excitingly – a fighter pilot (Jack Reynor) she rescues after he’s shot down in the woods.

If this sounds an unusually florid tale for the director of 1993’s In the Name of the Father to be telling, you wouldn’t be wrong. Barry’s scenario, granted, offers its own frowning commentary on organised religion; Sheridan keeps in the priests separating over-affectionate couples at the village dance with a ruler (“Make room for the Holy Spirit”) and Rose overwriting the Book of Job (not a bad choice) once the Church – or at least one of its representatives – betrays her. Yet nobody’s pushing unduly hard: Young Rose’s moderately inconveniencing spell in a Magdalene laundry suggests Sheridan’s ambition lay not in making some scabrous anti-clerical attack, rather gentle matinee fodder.

In fairness, it’s attentively composed. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman fashions an attractive contrast between this Ireland’s sundappled landscapes and suffocating interiors, while the ensemble brims with welcome faces (Adrian Dunbar, Susan Lynch, Pauline “Mrs. Doyle” McLynn, for Barry’s strain of small-town Catholicism surely fed Father Ted, too). It’s a sign of Sheridan’s standing that, even after a decade in the career doldrums, this much talent still itched to work with him; the pity is that there’s only so much depth this material can provide. Casting light on these pages reveals them as porous indeed: a fantasy of sorts – gorgeous young woman, two-dimensional hunks – wrapped altogether neatly in a hidebound literary device.

The Secret Scripture opens in selected cinemas from today.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

1,001 Films: "Dawn of the Dead" (1978)

Dawn of the Dead was the second in George A. Romero's zombie series: after a prologue that establishes the extent to which the plague first detailed in Night of the Living Dead has spread, it forces its four heroes - a TV producer and her (clueless) traffic reporter boyfriend, plus a couple of disillusioned taskforce agents absconding from duty - to seek shelter in a shopping mall, around which the undead wander aimlessly, drawn there by some sense-memory of civilisation. As befits its era - the trauma of Vietnam giving way to the greed of Reaganomics - the film is despairing indeed beneath the satirical glee Romero displays while illustrating the effect killing has on his players; it's particularly despairing about the fact that, even in a time of crisis, mankind would be drawn to the self-sufficient grey zone that is the modern shopping centre. As heroine Frannie (Gaylen Ross) phrases it: "You're all hypnotised by this place. It's so bright and neatly wrapped, you don't see that it's a prison."

The Vietnam parallels are certainly striking - overhead shots of bodies lying in the mall's mock-greenery, corpses piling up to the accompaniment of marching-band music piping through the mall's PA - but it also still functions as a straightahead horror movie. Romero always did have a deft hand for sketching fraught, human characters, while the painfully slow response time of the assembled zombies - which could be seen as a liability, as our heroes run past them for a third or fourth time - proves to be a useful suspense mechanism; there's still something dramatic in the way they proceed towards with agonised relentlessness towards their intended victims. The finale, mixing gore with a sharp hit of social comment, sets man not against zombie, but his fellow man, as a biker gang (led by Tom Savini) shows up and starts looting. I'm not sure about the 140-minute director's cut widely circulated in recent years: though there's more sense of day-to-day mall life, it feels baggy, and the tension inherent within the siege set-up begins to seep away as we wait for the denouement; still, in whichever version you see it, it has more ideas than the slick 2004 remake.

Dawn of the Dead is available on DVD through Arrow.   

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

1,001 Films: "The Tree of Wooden Clogs/L'Albero degli Zoccoli" (1978)

The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Ermanno Olmi's Palme d'Or-winning recreation of 19th century Lombardy life as enacted by latter-day residents of the region, preserves on celluloid - and makes unexpectedly involving - the daily routines of a small community of farm labourers: the harvesting (and the ruses employed to dodge landowners), the rustic childcare, the preparation of food (not for the squeamish, of course: animals were clearly harmed in the making of this film), even how the washing got done. A not untypical subtitle reads "I'm going to spread chicken manure on the vegetable patch." There's also time for a hesitant, chaste courtship, building towards a final section that finds a young couple honeymooning among nuns in the city, but Olmi is chiefly interested in the interaction between grown-ups, their offspring and the animals within this enclave's stone walls; the title refers to a present hand-crafted for a newborn, one which has consequences for the family at the drama's centre. 

It is, indeed, like very little else in cinema - a period movie seemingly unfolding in the present tense - although the time-capsule fascination it exerts could reasonably be compared to spending the day at Beamish, Ironbridge Gorge, or any of those other working historical towns: if anything, this is even more authentic, because the figures in the frame have this life in their blood. (Presumably, they had only to ask their parents and grandparents by way of character research.) This sort of material traditionally appeals to the conservative in us all, offering as it does a return to the simple life, a reconnection with the soil, and a sense of long-lost community. (One of the last lines is a ruefully spoken "There's no faith now, nor respect for one's neighbour".) Yet Olmi's legacy would seem less the prettified, Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources school than Bela Tarr's muddy agricultural epic Satantango (whose characters share the Lombardians' deep-rooted superstition) or subsequent reality-television endeavours where pampered city dwellers are forced to abide by the traditions of the past: projects with some grasp of the hardships that follow from living off the land. For better and worse, this is what it was really like, you feel.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs is available on DVD through Arrow; a Blu-Ray will be released through Arrow Academy on August 7.

Monday, 15 May 2017

1,001 Films: "Suspiria" (1977)

Suspiria has one of the great openings in horror cinema: wide-eyed American ballerina Jessica Harper arrives in Germany in the middle of a stormy night, and has to make her way alone - battling both the elements and a full-blown score - to a dance academy situated in a forest. Within moments of her arrival, two of the pupils have turned up dead - one repeatedly stabbed, pushed through a skylight and then (just to be sure) hanged by the neck; the other, rather mundanely in the circumstances, squished by falling masonry - leaving our already highly strung heroine to deal with a new threat to her nervous system. Perhaps uniquely among European directors of the 1970s, Dario Argento isn't inclined to play the girls-in-dorms set-up for sleaze - everybody in this locker room stays fully clothed - and instead gestures towards movie-buff respectability by casting Joan Bennett (star of Lang's Secret Beyond the Door, which may be a clue) and Alida Valli as the academy's headmistress and dance instructor respectively. Some of the tattiness inherent to the 70s horror movie is present - erratic performances, incoherent translation ("Magic is everywhere. It's all over the world. That's a recognisable fact. Always"), dubbing - but there's ample compensation: Argento's fascination with spooky fascist architecture, bizarrely over-dressed and overlit sets, genuinely disconcerting setpieces (maggots in the ceiling is a creepy one, while the room stuffed full of razor wire bests anything in the Saw movies for directorial cruelty). At full pelt - usually with the nursery-rhyme prog score of Argento's own The Goblins (later just Goblin) pursuing the characters through the night - it achieves the terrifying atmospheric pull of a Grimm fairytale.

Suspiria is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Nouveaux Pictures. 

Saturday, 13 May 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of May 5-7, 2017:

1 (1) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12A) **
2 (new) A Dog's Purpose (PG)
3 (2) Fast & Furious 8 (12A)
4 (3) The Boss Baby (U)
5 (4) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
6 (new) Sleepless (15)
7 (5) Their Finest (12A) ***
8 (new) Mindhorn (15)
9 (new) Unlocked (15)
10 (6) Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (Hindi version, 15) ****


My top five: 
1. Manhattan [above]
2. Heal the Living
3. Jawbone
4. Suntan
5. Baahubali 2: The Conclusion

Top Ten DVD rentals: 
1 (1) Rogue One (12) **
2 (2) Moana (PG) ****
3 (new) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12) ***
4 (3) Arrival (12) ***
5 (4) Ballerina (U) ***
6 (6) Trolls (U)
7 (new) A Monster Calls (12) **
8 (7) Bridget Jones's Baby (15) *
9 (8) Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (12)
10 (9) The Accountant (15)


My top five: 
1. Manchester by the Sea
2. Silence
3. La La Land
4. The Olive Tree
5. Graduation

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. 12 Years a Slave (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
2. Memento (Sunday, BBC2, 11.45pm)
3. Hannibal (Tuesday, five, 11.05pm)
4. Fallen (Saturday, BBC1, 11.45pm)
5. The Mask (Saturday, ITV1, 9.50pm)

From the archive: "12 Years a Slave"

Though it might appear on the horizon as A Serious Movie About History, 12 Years a Slave returns time and again to an eternal concern: the struggles of a black man to communicate his experiences, and the experiences of others, within a brutally indifferent framework. Steve McQueen’s film opens with a slave attempting to pen a letter using a sharpened stick and a runny ink drawn from blackberries; it proceeds, with gathering eloquence and force, to elaborate a system determined at every turn to shut its author’s kind up. A young boy separated from his mother is told to be quiet, lest worse punishments befall him; elaborate contraptions are placed over a grown man’s mouth to prevent him from crying havoc; other slaves are stripped bare and lined up before potential buyers, where they stand for hours, as mutely biddable as anything offered up for purchase in your local supermarket.

Though the new film occasionally returns to the artful repetition and ritual that made for such striking sequences in Hunger and Shame, this time McQueen, working with the screenwriter John Ridley, appears more attuned to the audience’s narrative demands: he actively wants us to understand how his protagonist – the real-life figure of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), husband, father and musician of note in 1840s New York – got here, and why. This isn’t the story of a common-or-garden slave – as ventured in Amistad, where Spielberg’s white characters came to speak in his black characters’ place – but another, potentially more tragic narrative: that of a gentleman brought low. It’s crucial to what 12 Years conveys that Northup should have been fully literate, sensitive enough to feel each lash of the injustice brought down on his kin, and describe it in words that stick and hurt anew.

McQueen frames this passage with a seriousness that, while offering a vital counterpoint to Tarantino’s tongue-in-cheek Django Unchained, can manifest itself as heavy-handedness: it’s perhaps a bit too much for the camera to rise out of the dark hole Solomon first finds himself imprisoned in to show the Capitol building perched only a few thoroughfares away, even if it chimes with the general perception of Washington as a place where a nation’s poorest go unseen by its most powerful. Yet this filmmaker is constitutionally unable to underplay or soft-soap the suffering that was an essential part of this narrative: whether leaving Northup hanging from a tree for several minutes, or charting his final, excruciating descent into black-on-black violence, he looks at it squarely, forces us to confront it, and makes a deeply provocative art from the scars his characters come to incur.

There are flaws here, surely: executive producer Brad Pitt parachutes in out of nowhere as a Canadian abolitionist superhero whose role is to voice the doubts about this system you’d expect a Hollywood movie about slavery to voice. Yet elsewhere, there’s something truly lacerating in the sight of white liberal acting mainstays vying for the title of vilest individual in 19th century America: Paul Giamatti, dropping the script’s first N-bomb as a blabbermouthing slave trader who confesses “my sentimentality extends the width of a coin”, the reliably weaselly Paul Dano as a field manager with the bearing of an over-privileged kid.

The grim joke is that Northup encounters these brutes while on the watch of the relatively benevolent landowner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch); it’s when the latter is usurped by the more rapacious Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who arrives touting the Bible, the cold eyes of a shark, and the kind of ratty ginger beard directors always ask actors of Celtic origin to grow when their characters are up to no good, that we know hell will soon be unleashed. Through such telling contributions, John Ridley’s screenplay can set out the infrastructure of slavery, and suggest that the plantation class was broadly as dysfunctional as our own corporate banking system. (You can approach 12 Years as a historical entry in the current capitalism-in-crisis cycle, showing how the system’s core values were skewed from the start.)

At the film’s heart, though, McQueen places (and insists upon the primacy of) numerous African-American stories: as short as that of the slave who doesn’t even make it off the boat, as crushing at that of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a creature whose sweetness dooms her to suffer worst of all, or as extraordinary in their arc as Solomon Northup’s itself – though what registers on screen is Ejiofor searching for new ways to nudge the viewer past the Serious Historiness of this project and reconnect us with the specifics of this man’s life, to make personal and intimate what the Mandela biopic, say, intends as Epic. In doing so, something has been created that absolutely merits the sense of importance gathering around it, and which communicates everything this project first set out to communicate. That letter we see Solomon writing at the start of 12 Years a Slave will eventually be burned as a means to self-preservation, but between them McQueen, Ejiofor and Ridley allow its embers to burn longer, brighter and more indelibly than any previous movie on this particular subject.

(MovieMail, January 2014)

12 Years a Slave screens on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

Friday, 12 May 2017

On DVD: "Graduation"

The great swells of the Romanian New Wave may have subsided since the late Noughties, but its luminaries soldier on, still trading in that rigorously wrought, socially pointed form of cinematic realism. Graduation is the latest from Cristian Mungiu, who gave us the knotty, gut-wrenching (and Palme d'Or-winning) drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days back in 2007. Where that breakthrough work was a (recent) period piece - allowing us to distance ourselves, in some ways, from the inhumanities it depicted - the new film gains much of its sting from an understanding it is unfolding in the Romania of the here and now: a country where toxic traces of the old corruption and vices continue to linger. At its centre is a family unit coming under threat both from within and without. A stone is hurled through a parlour window within moments of the start; several scenes later, our protagonist - a heavy-set, middle-aged surgeon named, with some degree of authorial irony, Romeo (Adrian Titieni) - receives a phone call that informs him his sole, beloved daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) is down at the police station, having seen off an attempted rape. 

The girl's shaken but fine, though the broken wrist she incurred during the assault poses a problem, in that it threatens her success in the exam finals she needs to pass in order to get into Cambridge - and thus her chances of getting out of what seems to be generally agreed by these characters as a backward shithole of a country. Dad thus begins pulling strings, initiating several rounds of bargaining: agreeing to bump an elected official to the very top of the liver transplant list, say, in return for the addresses of those who'll be doing the exam marking, so he can go round and plead his girl's case. "Sometimes the result is all that matters," Romeo mutters, yet this huffing, puffing individual makes for an unlikely Machiavelli, possessed as he is of no particular cunning; combine this fact with our knowledge that this is un film de Cristian Mungiu, and any happy ending would seem to be gravely in doubt.

Graduation's theme would appear to be the perils of payback, in both the eye-for-an-eye and you-scratch-my-back senses of the term. Although he moves at a much slower pace, Romeo is something like an arthouse equivalent of all those hyperprotective patriarchs played in latter-day action movies by Mel Gibson or Liam Neeson: desperate to reassert some control over the world that has threatened his girl's innocence, but lacking the special set of skills that would allow him to do so. Instead, he spends the entire first half blundering further into a mire of his own making: taking up his own investigation into the attack, and shruggingly persisting with an affair with one of Eliza's teachers - which may just explain why Romeo's wife has confined herself to her bedroom with headaches, and perhaps why the family's windows are being put through: the sins of the father are being visited on everybody else.

This development carries the film in the direction of Hidden and The White Ribbon, but Mungiu proves even less interested than Haneke in comforting genre frameworks: Graduation's signature scene is the one in which the increasingly fraught Romeo pulls his clapped-out car over to the kerb to retreat into a patch of shrubbery, blubbering as he goes. (For all his bluster, this guy doesn't have any answers, either.) The tone throughout is dryly academic, that of a thesis being worked out, yet we do come to feel the fates of several characters being held in the balance: not just those of Romeo, Eliza and the depressive wife, but of Romeo's elderly mother, the literally jaundiced official, and the potential rapist, too, whoever that might be. Everything's up for renegotiation through the second half, as our hero's questionable decisions come back either to haunt him or hit him in the face.

I wonder whether the whole isn't still one more to admire than to warm to, particularly. As Romeo finds himself isolated on yet another patch of desolate wasteland as events draw towards their close, it can seem as though Graduation's main accomplishments are those of mathematically symmetrical screenwriting, plotting a drawingboard-neat path through the moral maze towards an ironic punchline you may or may not see coming. Still, if the grim urgency that dragged so many of us kicking and screaming through 4 Months has abated in Mungiu's filmmaking over the course of the past decade, it allows us to better spot how every element and encounter along that path serves to deepen or comment upon Romeo's predicament. It's left to a lowly detective to provide the movie's Renoirian epigraph: "Everybody has their weak spot." Ain't that the truth.

Graduation is available on Blu-Ray and DVD through Curzon Artificial Eye from Monday.    

At the BFI: "The Music Room/Jalsaghar"

If you ever wanted to get some sense of just how Western-friendly the great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray was, then The Music Room - one of his foremost achievements - would be a fine starting point. When Ray decided to structure a film around music, it wasn't to be the brash song-and-dances of Bollywood, but something more classical and stately - and the scenario framing it would be altogether Shakespearian: a tale of two houses, one built on sand, the other, more humbly, on rock. The first plays home to a profligate landowner, Huzur Roy (Chhabi Biswas), who remains thoroughly condescending to his servants and tenants even as he's obliged to sell off his remaining possessions. (Shades of Charles Foster Kane, perhaps.) In the second, there lives a nouveau riche wheeler-dealer, Ganguly (Gangapada Basu), representative of the "new" India, in that he's invested in a truck where his neighbour has only elephants and horses to go on, and has an electric generator, where his richer neighbour has to watch the candles in his lavish chandeliers die out. It's the music that serves as an organising principle, however, opening up what might otherwise have been a stuffy chamber piece. Both men are prone to throwing concerts to express (and flaunt) their wealth, refinement and philanthropic urges; yet their fortunes will wax and wane over time. Things change, goes the moral.

That these days of splendour are viewed in flashback by the ageing landowner, shuffling round his empty - and, more crucially, newly quiet - bolthole lends the storytelling an extra layer of melancholy that comes from Proust and goes to Merchant-Ivory and points beyond. (Watched in a rare TV outing, in the austerity-hit Britain of 2013, it looked as resonant as ever: here's a film that gives us pause to contemplate, and perhaps rue, that in life we come to squander.) Where Ray's breakthrough films, the Apu trilogy, were innately personal endeavours, The Music Room may be even more impressive for the manner in which the filmmaker strives to venture outside himself, and to generate sympathy for a dying class, a vanished way of life, much as Renoir had done with La Règle du Jeu twenty years before: it even affords the landowner a triumph of sorts with the belated recognition that culture costs nothing, and a final cavalry charge. It's a small subject - short story-like in scale - yet throughout Ray works very hard to find the most evocative sounds to match or counterpoint his images of decay and disrepair, the camera slowly, quietly pushing in on characters in empty rooms who had it all, blew it, and can now only hear the ring of solitude, failure, and the grave in every echoing, once-carpeted footstep.

The Music Room screens in NFT2 tomorrow at 3.45pm, and again on Thu 18 at 8.40pm.  

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Punch-drunk: "Jawbone"

Jawbone is Boxing Story #1 - the same story, you'll recall, that served Rocky, as well as Warrior, Southpaw and Creed in recent times - but both its director, Thomas Napper, and its writer-star Johnny Harris are wise enough to have got in close to it. They sense, rightly, that getting right into the sinews of material thoroughly worked-out elsewhere will always allow an audience a better feel for the punches being taken and given, and encourage us to rise to our feet once again as the comeback arc nears its completion - for what all these films are actually about is spirit, or battling back from adversity, and you don't have to have pulled on a pair of gloves to understand that. Napper's film is the Austerity Britain variant: Harris's Jimmy McCabe is a boozy, down-on-his-luck slugger, dwarfed by the corporate towers and luxury-flat developments of his perma-drizzly part of South East London, who finds shelter in a local gym after being evicted from his late mam's council flat. 

That sense of place is crucial to the film's achievements, and to our exact grasp of where these characters have come from. Napper and Harris are genuinely fascinated by the way these people inhabit these spaces, and what it might tell us about them; the result of this fascination is that Jimmy's never just some vector on a narrative graph, pointed towards redemption. It remains a peculiarity that, as London has become less and less affordable to all but the moneyed few, it's become a haven for indie filmmakers poking their noses into its grimier nooks and crannies, and demonstrating just how little of that money has trickled down to street level. In several points, Jawbone looks to be taking place around the ruins of that Cool Britannia gangster cycle that flashed its cash at the fag-end of the last millennium - back when we never knew we 'ad it so good, or so large - and the clash between old and new worlds is only punched up by the presence of several seasoned troupers.

Ray Winstone, old Sexy Beast himself, appears entirely at home as the gym's beleaguered owner; the ever-dependable Michael Smiley is on aptly combative form as the cornerman who calls Jimmy on his pisshead self-pity; while Winstone's 44 Inch Chest stablemate Ian McShane turns up as a shady promoter offering our boy off-the-books cash, nailing this wideboy's mix of shark-eyed business savvy and avuncular concern for his charge. It is, though, mostly Harris, recognisable as the heavy-in-chief of Paul Andrew Williams' very fine London to Brighton but still best known as the abusive stepfather doing such vile things to poor Vicky McClure in TV's This is England. Some of that same rage is in evidence here, but it's most often turned inwards: what we see in Jimmy is a man whose confidence has been badly shaken or just plain shattered entirely, a sorry state of affairs most evident in his nervy speech patterns, or his pre-emptive insistence he hasn't the money to pay for the steak McShane orders for him. When he smiles in the middle of one conversation with Winstone, it's clearly the first time this man has allowed himself to relax in years.
Around him, Napper pointedly pivots away from the posturing, hyper-choreographed action of such Hollywood fare as Southpaw and Creed: when Jimmy eventually takes a step back in the ring, it's just another in a long line of fights, a scrap for some semblance of respect or recognition. Yet this director, making a very impressive debut, also knows when to get in there and mix things up, not least in the final slugfest, conducted not in front of the bazillionaires who make up the front row of HBO's pay-per-view spectacles at Madison Square Garden, rather in the cramped back room of some tumbledown boozer, before an ugly, baying mob broadly as antipathetic to his cause as the Fates - which, of course, makes his participation all the more make or break. "You're here to work," stresses Smiley's cutman as he straps on the sparring pads, and while it's no prize fighter, this plucky, grafting, thoughtful indie does exactly that, coming through with a victory on points - a modicum of respite, for both hero and audience alike - which somehow proves all the more resounding for it.

Jawbone opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Slippery people: "Frantz"

Frantz finds the French writer-director François Ozon once more confounding anybody looking for a consistent thread running through his work. The director of the musical 8 Women and backwards break-up drama 5x2 has now fashioned an absorbing period film, set in the years between the two World Wars, which fades between colour and black-and-white at irregular intervals, as though we weren't already being kept on our toes. If there is a connection with Ozon's earlier output, beyond an obvious penchant for elegantly spun storytelling, it may be no more or less than an abiding fascination with the mystery of human relations - and those curious events, big and small, which conspire to bring disparate people together - although there's an aspect of self-reflexivity that becomes more prominent as this tale gets told.

For starters, though, we're watching a young German war widow, Anna (Paula Beer), being pulled out of her state of grief by the handsome Frenchman who's been spotted laying flowers on her husband's grave. The Frenchman, one Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney), has stories to tell about the late Frantz and the unlikely camaraderie that developed between the two, stories that can only return smiles to the faces of Anna and her similarly bereaved in-laws (Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber). Yet as hinted by one early shot - of Adrien looking into his hotel mirror and seeing Frantz reflected back at him - all is not quite as it initially appears. 

As with Ozon's Sitcom and In the House, this will prove to be the story of an outsider figure who enters a comfortable household and begins to stir up trouble of some kind; although the new film, as befits Ozon's status as a recently appointed festival darling, operates on an altogether grander scale than its predecessors. Adrien comes to create unrest not just within this one family, but between the family and the still-grieving local community, bitterly opposed as it is to the notion of any Frenchman crossing the border to lay claim on German territory. Our sympathies are thus soon being shifted around with consummate skill; it's abundantly clear that Ozon means this time to arrive at more than mere provocation.

That much is embedded in the very look of the film. In the first decade of this century, Ozon gave the impression of a filmmaker predominantly concerned by form: the challenge for him was to make a musical or a movie in reverse, and to leave all the emotional heavy lifting to his performers. As his technique has refined, however, he would seem to have allowed for the possibility that form need not necessarily be an end in itself, but a means to heightened expression. The colour in Frantz looks to represent happiness, an escape from drab black-and-white normality. (Ozon may not be the first filmmaker to have been heavily influenced by The Wizard of Oz.) 

It's touching to see the film's palette expanding during a carefree afternoon in the sun, or while the family watch their guest playing a song on the family violin - it corresponds to the way the colour returns to the bereft Anna's cheeks - and very moving when it quickly fades away after Adrien collapses. Increasingly, though, even this starts to seem like an unreliable barometer: the characters' actions set us to wondering how much this colour is meant to represent sincere emotional warmth, and how much it's been applied to pretty up an otherwise grim and unsparing picture.

For it transpires that Adrien is but a gifted storyteller, one whose presence within the film allows Ozon to ruminate, not for the first time, on why we tell the stories we do. For consolation or self-aggrandisement? To protect others, or simply ourselves? The second half, in which Anna picks up the loose ends of Adrien's story, suggests such fictions may just be as infectious and unavoidable as the seasonal colds Frantz's father, the town's doctor, has to deal with: germs of ideas we catch from others and pass on to others still. After a while, everybody on screen gets the bug.

In truth, the contemporary In the House provided a sparkier, funnier riff on this line of thought, though the risk that Frantz might have merely seemed academic has been fended off by precise casting all the way down, which helps to make this small town (with its sometimes very small attitudes) come alive. Beer makes for a sensible, sceptical heroine, with a touch of Bérénice Bejo in her eyes and thoughtful demeanour - the very opposite of an obvious mythomane, which makes Anna's behaviour through the second half yet more intriguing. Niney, by contrast, undercuts his wiry good looks with the nerviness of a man who wants to be elsewhere, or a twig in the wind - we really don't know whether to trust him, or throw him as far as we can.

Anna and Adrien's story could conceivably be sold as a love story - or at least a story about the stories we tell to those that we love - and I suspect this may lead some to accuse Ozon of going soft with age, as perhaps all sometime enfants terribles surely must. Yet the storytelling in Frantz is finally far less consoling than it might have been; it's certainly far less complacent than the self-reflexivity of a period film like Their Finest, say, and may be less so than it was even in In the House, where compulsive yarnspinning eventually drove one character to destitution and madness.

Watch Anna, in that second half, sitting conflicted in a Parisian bar whose patrons greet the entrance of a trio of servicemen with a would-be rousing version of La Marseillaise ("Let an impure blood/Water the furrows of our fields"), temporarily forgetting the sacrifices made and losses incurred. Here is the antiestablishment Ozon of yore, skewering in a minute or so of screen time the kind of mythmaking that feeds into nationalism and sends young men off to the trenches in pursuit of some unattainable glory. Who lied to them? Or in other words: how deadly can a story be?

Frantz opens in selected cinemas from Friday.