Friday, 23 December 2016

The Jungle Book

John Favreau, 2016, USA-UK

Of course the trouble with remakes is that they are always going to be compared to an original. In the case of John Favreau’s ‘The Jungle Book’ despite there being many versions this will be compared to Disney’s first animated adaptation, this being the second. The tightrope apparently needed to be walked for audiences is to tick all the right boxes from the predecessor, to just trace it over enough but also to offer something new. So of course good writing helps, but remakes can be mostly validated by using contemporary tricks that weren’t available at the time of the original. I am thinking here of Franck’s remake of ‘Maniac’ but this Disney remake of the well-loved ‘The Jungle Book’ fits that mould too. Not as if analogue animation, as it were, was ever lacking, but here we are.  (I should mention that I have not seen the original since I was a kid so came to this without any real demands.) 

If you were dazzled by Richard Parker in ‘Life of Pi’ – and I was – then there is plenty here to amaze. This is a time where talking animals are everywhere – apes; racoons; everything else - but the CGI variety on display here goes some way to making the human dream of anthropomorphising animals complete. Only Neel Sethi as Mowgli is live-action but everything else onscreen is artificial but this CGI moves with such convincing heft and nuance that it’ll be hard for anyone not be dragged in and persuaded. In this context, it should be noted how winning Sethi is, since he was mostly acting to puppet heads and blue screen; if he couldn’t hold the attention it would all collapse. Yes, he has some of the attitude we know from other American kid’s flicks, but he is just the right side of bratty. 

It’s immaculately conceived and frequently very beautiful but what is remarkable is how dark this version is, and not just that it’s often quite sheathed in shadows. The animals are realistic as can be which means – without any cartoonishness to mitigate – there is a constant tension of dread and threat that is barely relieved (it’s rated PG). When Sheer Khan kills, it is striking in its suddenness and cruelty; when King Louie pursues Mowgli by swinging across his city and then, gigantic as he is, crashing through its pillars, it reminds of the gargantuan threat of the dragon Smaug in ‘The Hobbit’. There’s quite a lot of reading The Jungle Book’ as ‘The Revenant’ for kids, and that’s a good way of conveying the relentless peril in this version. We have a brutal rendering of Sheer Khan (Idris Elba), of course, but there is also the hypnotic seduction by the snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson); even Baloo is all about conning Mowgli at first: of course he’s benign but he follows the trend of manipulation that both Kaa and King Louie (Christopher Walken) use. Oh, I’m sure Baloo is never meant to be seen as a dilemma, but duping Mowgli is initially his thing. King Louie is a mixture of the selfish conjob Baloo tries and the physical threat of Sheer Khan and as voiced by Walken, he’s all gangster. Shere Khan who is nearby trying to seduce and manipulate young wolf cubs. In this jungle, there is always a threat for youngsters, both physical and psychological. And in this way, the atmosphere is persistently dark in tone. Only the wolves and the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) – as the surrogate family of the man-cub – are straight with Mowgli.

So maybe the funny stuff doesn’t really land so much but that doesn’t capsize things. Then the film, although it’s not a musical, lurches into song to lighten things up; and when Mowgli is floating on top of Baloo dueting ‘The Bear Necessities’, it’s quite exuberant to see such an iconic animated moment come to life. If you are expecting a musical, you would have to refer to the original animated feature, and what favoured songs it can’t squeeze in initially it saves for the extensive end credits.  (Scarlett Johansson does a great version of Kaa's 'Trust in Me'.)

In the end, Mowgli stays with the wildlife and although this may be seen as a cynical way to make sure there’s a ‘The Jungle Book 2’, it can also be seen as his choosing multiculturalism whilst keeping his man-“tricks” and as a rejection of man as a destroyer of nature. Although Kipling has a reputation of a Little Englander, it always seemed to me a little more complex, that Mowgli and ‘Kim’ sided with mixing up cultures, favouring democracy and rejecting a single, dominant civilization. It’s in the animal meetings and truces around the drinking hole, for example (this is even more in evidence in the short stories). When the animals all band together to take down Shere Khan, it’s a rejection of fear and fascism. So, yes, it does end on a Disney positive note, but the bullying of society and nature have been well established by then. It’s quite meaty stuff.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016


Douglas Cheek, 1984, USA

A disgruntled policeman who is researching the alarming rise in missing persons investigates and uncovers an alarming conspiracy: a company has been dumping radioactive waste under the city, which has been turning the subterranean homeless into mutants, or “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers”. And their acronym leaves little doubt as to the trouble they cause.

C.H.U.D.’ has a cult following no doubt because it is so typical of low budget 80s horror fare and touches on nostalgia for that. It’s equally dull and delightful in that way, but it also possesses a somewhat shabby milieu and focus on the city underbelly that gives it a pleasing veneer of urban neo-realism. Well, perhaps not so-much realism as an urban context familiar from the era’s police shows as laid out in the opening sequence (hey, get out of the way, bird!).  The big companies are the villains – Corruption! – and the homeless are mostly the victims. It’s only when a respectable white woman goes missing that there’s an issue. Our other protagonist, as well as the disgruntled policeman (Christopher Curry), however, is not taken from this pool of neglect but is a photographer in the artsy way typical of these films (John Heard). There’s a sense that things are happening according to the fads of genre – it even gets in a shower attack in a film about subterranean monsters – but if you’re going with it this is more like horror comfort food than tiresome cliché.

These narrative whims turn out to be result of a troubled ‘C.H.U.D.’ production where it was re-written to contain. The monsters were originally conceived as the mutated homeless, leaving the social commentary less distracted by the fun of special effects and perhaps making this more like a Larry Cohen film or like ‘Combat Shock’ style social awareness horror than a creature feature. But a creature feature it is and they’re memorable and amusing in just the low budget way you would want. What we came for are the monsters so when they attack a diner (Hey, that’s John Goodman!) things heat up. They even helpfully elongate their necks to make decapitation easier. It’s not a classic by any stretch, but it’s just about above-average fun for genre fans.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

The Edge of Seventeen

Kelly Fremon Craig, USA, 2016

I started off well at the box office by asking for a ticket for 'The Edge of Tomorrow'. But, luckily, the lady knew what I really wanted to see and she knew I wasn’t asking to see the Tom Cruise sci-fi temporal-twanger years too late. 

The Edge of Seventeen’ is a winning indie coming-of-age drama about (and you may have heard this one before) a savvy, sarcastic outsider girl trying to figure out, you know, growing up in the vacuity of her peers that she can’t quite mesh with. Yes, so the premise is well-worn but what this does have are three highly engaging performances from Hailee Steinfeld as our funny and acerbic protagonist Nadine, Hayden Szeto as Erwin as the goofy and awkward guy who’s genuinely interested in her, and Woody Harrelson who comes to steal the show and win hearts as the teacher who’s sarcasm is more than a match for Nadine. Not that anyone else is lacking but these three performances are pretty much all you need. Harrelson is dour without being misanthropic; Szeto is thoroughly disarming; Steinfield is great as Nadine at her most witty and smart as well as when she is being selfish and obnoxious. The story goes through teenage crushes, embarrassments, fumbling dialogue, risqué and funny dialogue, angst, self-absorption and all that you might expect.
She’s trying to find herself an identity against the mainstream she feels no affinity for.  By having no outright villains, no bullies – no one is truly bad here – the film allows Nadine to be her own greatest antagonist which means she only has herself to fight. She feels real in that way rather than some ‘Breakfast Club’ teen-type. But it’s the breezy pace and Kelly Fremon Craig’s sympathetic script that pervades, particularly showing how Nadine’s brattishness comes from hurt feelings she can’t quite organise, despite her precociousness. Perhaps the ending is too neat, but why begrudge that when the intention is so generous?

Monday, 5 December 2016

"Paterson" - and the joy of everydayness

Jim Jarmusch, 2016, France-Germany-USA

Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Paterson’ has a certain pace and tone that demands it be met on its own terms; and come halfway through if you have recalibrated to its vibe, you will find the same pleasing irreverence and life-affirming aftertaste that perhaps he hasn’t quite captured since his early work. It’s not about melodrama or bad things happening; the ‘character arcs’ so beloved of narrative planning is here ever-so slight, or rather they do not dominate as typical of dramatic thinking. This allows the small details to rise to the surface, like the grunts of the dog, like the overheard conversations on the bus, like how Paterson’s girlfriend has a penchant for black-and-white impromptu designs. These details are not clearly comedic, but accumulation makes them gently funny: by the time Laura makes cupcakes with the same b&w avant guarde inclination, it’s amusing. Jarmusch lets the natural humour of things rise to the surface over time. It’s a film that rewards patience.

Paterson drives a bus through Paterson, New Jersey (which means his name is on the front of the vehicle like a giant nametag), and we follow him through a week on his usual life routine: wake up to kiss his girlfriend; eat breakfast; steal a few moments to write his poetry before driving the bus; get home to be in love with his girlfriend; walk the dog, stop off for a drink at his local bar. He writes poetry but this doesn’t make him vividly unique; rather, it is indicative of the kind of gentle remarkable qualities that make creative people distinctive. He’s quiet but not socially awkward. He’s no tortured genius, just working at an artform he loves. And like much else in the film, repetition of the poetry reveals its worth and joys. Adam Driver is noticeably different from the drippy emo-like Kylo Ren from ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, or even the slightly schlubby National Security Agency analyst in ‘Midnight Special’: here he makes the most of his hang-dog looks, and indeed the entire film can rest easily upon them. Golshifteh Farahani as Laura could have been his cookie girlfriend – the kind that indie romances see as liberated spirits – and she is that too, but it doesn’t condescend or raise her on a pedestal, which means she never quite becomes a manic-pixie girl.
The nature of the film allows this cookieness to be a means of her showing real affection and individuality.  And so on: the eccentricities of the characters that Paterson meets never allow them to become laughing stocks, never quite allowing them to become tropes. Jarmusch’s humanity and amusement at people’s quirks dominate.

It’s nice to see a film where the characters are possessed of a natural goodness, a decency that doesn’t demand ‘conflict’ to show who they are. However, there is a gun pulled at one point and, afterwards, the camera lingers on Paterson’s expression with the adrenalin still running, startled by his own reaction. No, here, it’s the everydayness that is revealing. We see Paterson developing his poetry over days, the text scrawled over the screen. Indeed, people seem to recognise each other as poets and artists, as when Paterson takes time to talk to a young girl writing  her own poetry – and through this encounter, we get an example of how one unrecognised artist can influence another. Life is full of such slight but worthwhile encounters, which Jarmusch has always presented as a thesis.

Peter Bradshaw notes that Jarmusch turns Paterson into a fantasy version of a real place: for example the fact that Paterson and Laura have “never considered or even heard of public performance or poetry slams, or sending his work to magazines, or self-publishing digitally.” Indeed, but it is very evident that they are quite apart from much of modern convenience; Paterson balks at have a smart phone, for example. As Bradshaw further says: 

“Yet so much of the rest of the movie is not quite real, or perhaps it is rather that Jarmusch does not replicate reality in the way other film-makers do.” 

And this feels closer to the truth: this is not quite neo-realism, and yet it is only the last encounter that seems truly to verge on fantasy, maybe because it is too on the nose in the way that marred ‘The Only Lovers Left Alive’. It is exactly what Paterson needs when he’s at his lowest and has to remind himself what he’s all about, and with that in mind it could indeed b e the work of his imagination.

Like ‘Brooklyn’, ‘Paterson’ is about the general decency of people but it’s also about how art colours their lives; like ‘American Honey’, it utilises a loose, baggy style that is ultimately and quietly uplifting. With a welcome lack of cynicism, Jarmusch focuses on an individual’s routine of life to celebrate the quirkiness and natural poeticism that makes the everyday worth living.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016


aka. House of Crazies

Roy Ward Baker - 1972 – UK – 88m

Amicus anthology with above-average atmosphere but scuppered by Robert Bloch’s schoolboy sense of insanity. Robert Powell is the new doctor challenged with guessing which patient is the asylum chief. This paves way for three other stories. ‘Frozen Fear’ is creepy and grimly ridiculous, centring on a chopped-up body coming back to life, providing the film with one of its best images: a head wrapped in brown paper, the paper sucking in and out with its breathing. ‘The Weird Taylor’ promises much, but despite a well-measured performance from Peter Cushing, succumbs to the half-baked resolutions almost all the stories deliver. 
‘Lucy Comes to Stay’ runs through some of Bloch’s motifs from ‘Psycho’ – schizophrenia equalling psychopathology; a staircase murder – but to little effect. ‘Mannikins of Horror’, the bracketing story, succeeds by being more eccentric than previous stories (and the twist may be that it is the most fantastic, despite being set in the ‘real’ world and not the recitals of the patients). Herbert Lom makes unforgettable killer dolls in his cell, convinced he can invest them with his consciousness.

Black humour and some decent performances make this diverting, as well as an incredibly dark and claustrophobic atmosphere, but the acting is also stodgy in places and too many moments end with reductive maniacal laughing despite it's gleeful embracing of the absurd. But there's plenty to enjoy because of that absurdity and because it captures horror of another era.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Waiting Women - Kvinoors Vantan

U.S. title: Secrets of Women

Ingmar Bergman ~ 1952 ~ Sweden ~ b&w

Three women discuss their various sexual awakenings ~ through marriage, infidelity and lost loves ~  as they wait for their husbands to arrive for the Summer.

Simple as the premise may be, Bergman’s use of composition and especially of light-and-darkness here is exemplary, exploiting black-and-white photography to its fullest. The first story is a sun-drenched tale of angst and unfaithfulness. The central threesome verbally barter with, seduce and injure one another in the best Bergman style. The second tale is near-silent, cloaked in shadows and often startling images. A seduction is played out using almost solely a man’s hand; half-seen images and shadows are sinister, although ordinary in origin ~ all creating the paranoid and dream-like state of the female protagonist.  The third episode uses a faulty lift for dramatic and comedic effect; here again the faulty light makes maximum use of atmosphere. This last tale is also evidence that Bergman can amuse where perhaps ‘Now, about these women’ felt strained and ‘A Lesson in Love’ a little too light.

What perhaps is most surprising is that, for all the dark corners, all the pains, ‘Waiting Women’ is profoundly optimistic. Wonderful moments in a slightly seedy nightclub, by the river, in the lift, all remain memorable and masterfully executed. And then, as always, it is the performances that truly elevate Bergman’s bright-but-troubled backdrops. There are several familiar faces from his other films, but Dahlbeck and Bjornstrand in the elevator deserve special credit. 

Foregrounding women’s concerns and forgiveness, ‘Waiting Women’ is both easy and insightful.    

Sunday, 20 November 2016


Peter Strickland horror recommendations.

Alexandre Aja on twists and sequels etc.

A reunion of the cast of "The Singing Detective"

Favourite Songs

Monday, 14 November 2016


Denise Villeneuve, 2016, USA

When I first saw the trailer for ‘Arrival’, I groaned at the voiceover (“one day that defines your life, blahblah”); and then there was the moment where she took off her helmet for a “proper introduction” with the aliens which smacked to me of movie-motivation than realistic procedure. So I wasn’t quite hooked and loaded with expectation, but I saw it was directed by Denise Villeneuve so I was then intrigued. And to be fair, there’s more detail in the film proper to show why she would take the chance and take off her helmet, but I’m not sure it quite overcomes its human narcissism to realise its science-fiction possibilities. 

Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode say that ‘Arrival’ breaks your heart in the first five minutes. Well I can see the design that is supposed to cause that, but the melancholy tinkling music and the not-good and not-needed voice-over still automatically put me on my guard in their obvious bids to manipulate. Something more wilfully abstract would have reaped better rewards. After all, it worked for ‘Up’. So then, on guard, I start noticing little things that otherwise I’d let pass, like how Forrest Whittaker’s military chief does that tough-man act that military men all have to do in the films: for example, she says she needs twenty minutes to change when he just turns up and says get in the helicopter and he answers that she has ten. Why? Does the helicopter explode in ten minutes? No true deadline is given to justify his reaction (like: something is going to happen ohmygod! in the next hour so let's rush!). I guess military types always like to be dominant and demanding. Oh, I am sure all this is meant to add urgency, but that’s the kinda I’m gonna domineer thing that I always find denotes a bullying, assholish tendency in people. It’s going to put me off. When a film’s manipulation is obvious, this means you have to look elsewhere for nuance and that’s where a more picky viewing nature will kick in and you might start to notice such details. So that opening is something like Terence Malick with the voiceover being annoyingly obvious instead of annoying pseudo-poetic and such a evident bid for emotional resonance forewarns me that, yeah, this is really going to be about humans and not the aliens. 

And so it is, but director Denise Villenauve is too good to let this spoil proceedings. Oh I am sure that for many such obvious emotional mechanics makes this a moving experience, but, like ‘Intersteller’, for me it’s another example of human emotion trumping the hardcore science-fiction. It doesn’t enhance: it makes it lesser. ‘Intersteller’ is a more rampant example of the self-obsessed human content scuppering the sci-fi and yet winning over audience emotions and ‘Arrival’ follows in a similar vein. On the other hand, the story concerning the daughter turns out to be not quite as expected. Mark Kermode says, 

“Yet from the atemporal monologue of Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, in which the narrator remembers events in the future tense, screenwriter Eric Heisserer has spun an admirable script for a film as cerebrally adventurous as it is emotionally accessible.”

And this is true, but by the end, it seems as soon as they have done their part to facilitate Dr Louise Banks’ story, the aliens just leave. Hell, even the film itself says that the pairing up of the central duo is more important than the first contact. Such human narcissism reduces the sci-fi content to drama we have seen in abundance elsewhere.  

But Amy Adams is great, proving again that she is exemplary at making you believe she is receiving information when we know there’s nothing there: in ‘Nocturnal Animals’ it was reading; here it’s looking at CGI. And no, the aliens are not disappointing and the image of their vessels hanging in the air is likely to stick in the memory. The other characters are not quite allowed to become the stereotypes they initially threaten to be: for example, Jeremy Renner’s physicist doesn’t become a contrary science-bore and Whitiker’s army dude never becomes an obnoxious military boor - the seasoned actors are to thank for this. Bradford Young’s washed-out cinematography provides a sense of neo-realism and Villeneuve’s pace, as in ‘Sicario’, has a sense of constant motion that keeps things constantly urgent despite the emotional baggage threatening to bog things down. The linguistics angle is fascinating and we’re a long way from ‘Independence day’, which is why reliance on human tragedy as the aim of the piece instead of it being part of the fabric feels such a limitation.

But emotional sci-fi is quite popular. Other examples: I know it’s supposed to be translated as a paean to wonder, but ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ is the story of a man so obsessed with the idea of first contact that he leaves his family. ‘Intersteller’ loops the cosmic to a single bedroom. ‘Solaris’ also seems to reduce alien contact to human tragedy, but it’s also ambiguous enough to be a comment on human narcissism. It’s not that science-fiction can’t be emotional – far from it – but the idea that human heartbreak dominates the universe is mostly reductive. So although its ultimate message wants to be uplifting, the reason why things turn out positively is all to do with specific human grief (to do with her saying something to resolve things, something to do with dying words): people only act on personal emotion rather  than principal and altruism it seems (and if this is a criticism of militaristic thinking, the film doesn't seem to bend that way). It doesn't quite imply that humans act out of innate goodness and selflessness so just how positive the message is is somewhat questionable.

So if you’re looking to science-fiction to confirm that It’s not all about you, ‘Arrival’ is not the place to look. It therefore results in something lesser than it might have been, as enjoyable as it is.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

'Big Fish' - storytelling for the unquestioning

Tim Burton, 2003,USA

Isn’t storytelling magical?

In Tim Burton’s ‘Big Fish’, Will Bloom (Billy Cradup) has been fed nothing but tall tales from his father Ed (Ewan McGregor when younger; Albert Finney when Older) so much so that there is nothing else to him. With Ed apparently on his deathbed, Will makes one last attempt to find some truth. Based on Daniel Wallace’s novel (which I haven’t read and so could be different), John August’s screenplay and Burton’s vision makes this one of those annoying excursions into magic realism that feels no duty to anything grounded.

Hell, I’m a big fan of fiction myself and I waste a lot of time thinking about it, but I’m going to distrust a kind of unquestioning belief in it. When everything is infused with a kind of isn’t-storytelling-WOW!? I start to twitch at the protestations of wonderment. This is not like Life of Pi which is about choosing fiction as a copping mechanism and its relation to cognitive dissonance (clearer in the novel than the Ang Lee film, it’s true), but something more akin to Ray Bradbury banging on about how incredible stories are. Yeah it’s true, but we’re watching/reading one so if there is little there to articulate why there is usually a deficit of reality for comparison. You keep waiting for an insight but there isn’t one.

It’s often pretty. There’s Helena Bonham Carter’s unconvincing old lady make up. There are some pleasing carnivalesque diversions. It all seems to be in the manner of American Tall Tales whose sentimentality undoes the pleasure of the surreal trimmings because it’s emotional agenda is so mundane.

Big Fish’ is odd in that it seems based upon the premise that it’s okay if you’re a bad parent that never tells the truth as long as you’re telling tall tales. Telling stories excuse everything. And then the true story comes, but… But what to do when the truth proves just as fanciful as the stories (so he bought the whole town and then… oookay)? This leaves Ed’s motivation stranded, based on nothing but the fiction of itself. And then we learned he stalked a girl until she married him and this is considered romantic. Only in movies.

Big Fish’ never addresses these issues and in fact does not recognise that these might be concerns: it just ladles on more isn’t-storytelling-WOW!? In that way, the film itself exhibits a lack of self-awareness that leaves it fundamentally unconvincing in ethos and its characters lacking dimension. It looks nice and is competently acted but, as it is quite unmoored from any considerable reality, it sets adrift on moviedom and remains in the shallows.

Friday, 4 November 2016

I, Daniel Blake

Ken Loach, 2016, UK-France-Belgium

The thing with Ken Loach’s latest, ‘I, Daniel Blake’, is that it hardly feels like fiction at all. Oh he’s been accused of exaggerating and fabrication in the name of Leftist propaganda and all that, but it really didn’t scan that way for me. I’ve heard too many tales and read too many accounts that the idea that it was all made-up just didn’t enter my head. Anyone who has had to call up HMRC or any Government call line (I flinched at writing “help centre”) will instantaneously recognise the trial of calling up to state a grievance or enquiry and getting a lot of stonewalling or/and jargon for the effort after a prolonged wait. Indeed, one of the biggest laughs in the sold-out screening I attended was when the classical music for being put “on hold” came on: Yeah, the laughter seemed to say, we’ve all been there. 

It’s been accused of miserablism, but I didn’t get that. Oh, it’s about people being made miserable but the tone was too truthful and elevated with unforced humour. This was hardly Bela Tarr, ponderous and wallowing (hey, I love Bela Tarr). Surely one of the dominant aftertastes is how Loach portrays a society that is always helping one another, a constant current of small acts of assistance. Not only with Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) befriending a struggling single mother (Hayley Squires), but in people helping him when he goes to the library, or at the food bank or simply neighbours. Commentators like Toby Young may condescend and disbelieve but the characters in Loach’s film are bonded together by the fight against the patronising, sneering proclamations and the assumptions and stereotyping of those that have not experienced such hardships. Perhaps because Loach doesn’t portray the claimants as “scroungers”, Young does not believe. Young seems to think “reality” TV shows such as Channel 4s ‘Benefits Street’ are more truthful, showing that he knows not how such things as editing and narratives work. This rendition of society full of the little fleeting, casual altruisms that we all need struck as truthful, touching and defiant: it implies society is commonly decent and obliging. Everyone chips in when up against a seemingly impenetrable wall of Government policy concerned with game-playing and chastising those in need.

The performances are great. The camerawork is typically unfussy, allowing character rather than technique to come to the fore. It’s funny because people naturally are. Paul Laverty’s script even finds a way to make the final speechifying credible. Yes. there's all this to note technically, but it's one of those films that is likely to bypass the artifice that creates film to speak directly to people's experiences.

Yes, Loach’s ‘Kes’ had a similar effect as it always reminds me of school and this is the neo-realism that typifies his films, the kind that renders life and people so recognisably. It did not occur to me that people would attack ‘I, Daniel Blake’ for being false (put that down to my naivety); I thought the truth of its portrayal of a certain time and experience in England was incontestable. The reason why people go “misty-eyed” at this film, Toby Young, is because they recognise themselves and friends in it, or stories they have personally been told. You can politicise these reactions and deride them, but they come from real experiences. And in that way, this film is so much of its time which makes it vital and needed; the kind of film referenced by politicians to illustrate a point. A film that will speak to and for many at this time, and one that will be looked to in future to illustrate how political policy can insidiously but surely destroy lives. 

Friday, 28 October 2016

Bad Hair / Pelo Malo

Mariana Rondón, 2013, Venezuela-Peru-Argentina-Germany

Having seen upbeat words such as “wonderful” and “charming” on the packaging for the Venezualan drama ‘Pelo Malo’ (‘Bad Hair’), I am sure I was expecting something like ‘My Life as a Dog’; you know, an amusing bildungsroman with an underlay of melancholy. But ‘Pelo Malo’ is more like Koreeda’s ‘Nobody Knows’ or Detlav Buck's ‘Tough Enough’. Even Taika Waititi’s ‘Boy’ had an upbeat veneer so that you would be forgiven for not noticing how bleak it really was.  But ‘Pelo Melo’ pulls few punches in depicting a boy’s burgeoning self awareness just as his mother is turning up the heat to make him conform.

This isn’t like, say, the short film ‘Barbie Boy’ where the parents are generally supportive of their boy's obvious difference, or even ‘Ma Vie en Rose’ where the kid is sure of what he likes. No, this is a different beast. As Tara Brady concludes, “- a child being twisted toward conformity does not make for easy viewing.” Indeed: this is the tale of nine year-old Junior (the riveting Samuel Lange Zambrano) who likes to sway where other boys breakdance, though he isn’t sure why. His mother Marta (Samantha Castillo) is so busy trying to find a job – having lost one as a security guard due, it seems, to something to do with her temperament – and bringing up a baby that she barely notices Junior’s needs (not that she really cares). But she does notice how different he tends to be, even if he himself doesn’t really, and she doesn’t like it. She sees signs that he might be a budding homosexual and she will disapprove until he conforms to traditional masculinity. 

Samantha Castillo as Marta does exceptional work colouring in an unlikeable woman. In interviews, director Mariana Rondón refuses to outright condemn this mother, reaching for something more insightful and complex: she says,

“It's not a critique so much as it is a mirror. It's incredible, but in Latin-American society, the motor behind machismo is the women.” 

But even so, rarely has the relentless destructive forces of homophobia on a family unit been so rendered without sentiment. The scenes between the mother and son are charged and often exceptional. Their battleground overpopulated poverty and desperation. Like the work of Ramin Bahrani, Rondón’s direction is brisk and unobtrusive, allowing nuance and detail to speak volumes; and similarly, there is something at the centre of the drama that remains troubling long afterwards.

There is no one on hand to truly counter Marta’s obsession with Junior’s noncomformity. Well, there is his grandmother (Nelly Ramos) who is willing to indulge Junior’s quirks, seeing in them a way that will save him from the violent culture all around them and which killed her son; but her motives chime as selfish and creepy (she tries to  barter for his company it seems because she is lonely) and a little crazed. Indeed, a hint of the crazy seems all around, not just in Marta’s adamant homophobia or granny’s behaviour,
but it’s in the chaotic crowds of the streets and also in the reports that a man killed his own mother as an offering to make the ailing president well again. Against this unsafe backdrop – epitomised when Junior and his one friend look at the apartments opposite and try to imagine stories for them – Junior himself seems the one carrier of calm.

So Junior tries to stand his ground but it’s a losing battle. His dream to have his curly hair straightened to be a portrait of a singer falls apart as the need for money and compassion evaporate before he even knows he has lost. It’s a heartbreaker.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016


Alan Bridges, 1966, b/w, UK

During a sparse and atmospheric English rural night, a spaceship falls to Earth and causes a commotion for the night shift at a local hospital. But if you’re looking for a full-frontal alien incursion, despite the promise of the title, this isn’t it. And also, if you looking for memorable aliens, these aliens look like Asians and that’s it. Actually, although this low-key sci-fi flick could have quite easily fallen into xenophobia, it somehow doesn’t – and Dr Who writer Robert Holmes was also responsible for the broad ‘Oriental’ villain of ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ (which I love) so maybe an eyebrow would raise. But there’s a Chinese nurse that is portrayed just as straightforwardly as anyone else and it’s not as if the Asians are portrayed negatively. It’s in the same way that ‘The Unearthly Stranger’ could be repugnantly misogynistic but doesn’t quite feel like it. This is perhaps because a clear-cut, no-nonsense intelligence is at work overall rather than biased meanness. 

Invasion’ is a triumph of atmosphere and localisation: it takes place in a very small area and pours on fog and a little weirdness to amp things up, its one true outbreak of action being an effective collision by car with a force-field. But even here, the scene plays out without the dramatic emphasis of music and there’s an elongated stunned silence that plays afterwards to let the shock of it sink in. Where ‘Invasion’ wins is in its wonderfully somnambulist ambience, based around a small group of characters that act with a seemingly bored professionalism. A doctor is called from home for emergency work but she doesn’t exactly rush: rather, she takes a moment to lie down to resign herself to the fact she’s been called in. Such details promotes believability and makes the whole thing quite alluring. It’s a shame that the ending is all rushed without doing anything to enhance what’s gone before: indeed, the whole thing ends with plenty of questions unanswered. But this is appealing minor fair, a low-budget British sci-fi thriller that exudes an attitude and mood that elevates it from its obvious limitations.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

American Honey

Andrea Arnold, 2016, UK-USA

Tired of scavenging through trash to feed her half-siblings and with no other affections to hang around for, teenager Star (Sasha Lane) sees her chance to escape when she runs across a van load of wayward travelling magazine sellers. It’s a crush on Jake (Shia LaBeouf) that leads her to take her chances and move on and what follows is the outline of their relationship in a context of a group of misfits taking her across American strata. It’s a world where cues often seem to be taken from musicals – sorry – from music videos breaking into song and dance at regular moments, an indication of their unity, aspirations to party all the time and to be unrestrained misfit spirits. Now, I’m always going to be a sucker when a film breaks into Mazzy Star’s ‘Fade into You’, but whereas many others would have used the whole song to underpin the accompanying sex scene to accentuate the romantic vibe more, here it’s cut off to leave something more real and ambiguous. Elsewhere, the crew rap, rock and rave whenever the mood seems to take them. It’s the American Dream of life on the road as freedom, even if it requires taking advantage of everyone else with the lies creating a barrier between them and the society outside. Perhaps that’s part of The Dream too.

Right from the start, this duplicity to make a magazine sale isn’t something that Star approves of. Although there is the hint of uncertainty in Star, she’s feisty and controlled and willing to take risks, all of which makes her immensely appealing when it counts. She’s frequently reckless with the assumption of indestructibility that comes with youth and newfound liberty, jumping into vans with cowboys without thinking it might open up the possibility that things will take a turn for the worst. She’s trying to find a place where her natural nurturing personality and empathy can find voice.

Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough are all great, full of exuberance and adrenalin without quite falling into forced cool; certainly  Lane is enthralling and LaBouf may have never been this good. The other cast members – made up of amateurs – are vivid but they never really get any focus – it’s mainly about this triangle. Oh, there’s heartbreak and drama but it all feels a part of the fabric so that nothing quite disturbs or truly ruins the flow. It's kind of like Larry Clark or Harmony Korine without the sleaze.

Andrea Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan find visual beauty everywhere, not just in natural vista but in tattoos, Gummy Bears pinned on windows and even in industrial plants in the distance – all without resorting to affected poeticism like Terence Malick. The shakiness of the handheld camera creates an openness and fluidity and even though it is filmed in the squarer Academy ratio, it never feels limited, even in the packed full van scenes. It leaves a lot of room for skies. Like Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’, the loose-limbed film soon shrugs off audience expectations of narration and plot to reach something far more about experience.  As an experience, ‘American Honey’ is naturally pretty, free-wheeling and ultimately life affirming. You know that upbeat summer song with a hint of melancholy that you liked as a youth? It goes some way to capturing that feeling. 

Tuesday, 18 October 2016


Gerard Johnson, 2014,  UK

Hey, the police are just as corrupt and despicable as the criminals they hunt. Here’s a thriller based upon that, with crooked policeman DI Michael Logan (Peter Ferdinando) trying to get control of the local irredeemable Albanian hoodlums as well as dodging an Internal Affairs investigation. He does this after he spies the hoodlums murdering his Turkish contact who he was visiting concerning a deal for a drug route. Through a cascade of stylishness and brutality, he gets deeper and deeper in trouble, leading to a wilfully perverse ending. 

Nicolas Winding Refn likes ‘Hyena’ – calling it “the future of British crime film” – and one can see that director Gerard Johnson offers up Refn’s favoured aesthetic, similar to Michael Mann’s:  a colourfulness rather than drained-out Britishness; that it thinks that its characters are perhaps deeper than the archetypes they are; that the drama leans heavily on music for ambience. Of course, it helps to have The The making the music (I’ve been a fan ever since I first heard the single “Infected” as a teenager; Matt Johnson is the director’s brother), which certainly sets a mood without being overly intrusive. It is a British crime flick but it’s more Alan Clark than Guy Richie.

DI Logan’s superiority seems to come from the fact that he’s less boorish than his team, thinks bigger and has perhaps hints of a conscience. In fact, one of the pleasures is seeing how Ferdinando plays Logan as someone who comes across equally as tough guy assured and a sad sack in equal measure. He finds himself trying to help an Albanian woman the brothers are mistreating, but really his interference sets in motion one of the ugliest depictions of rape ever put on film. No, it’s not as explicitly violent as anything in the dubious ‘The Seasoning House’, but its unblinking matter-of-factness strikes more realism and therefore is more harrowing. The film has an unwavering look to much of its atrocities – a hacked up victim; a fire extinguisher in the face; Neil Maskell covered in condiments – but arguably the prolonged rape doesn’t quite convince as qualifying for this approach. The artifice of extreme cinema violence for genre entertainment is one thing whereas a long scene of the sexual violence visited on a woman is another. In the same way, Logan doesn’t quite qualify as truly riveting as the centre of all this, a character drama, despite Ferdinando’s performance.

Nevertheless, the colour filtered squalor and brutality and Gerard Johnson’s general intelligence behind the camera keep this fascinating. It’s not really trying for enlightened sociology, or even empathy, but it’s also a million miles from the cartoonish gangsterism of much British crime cinema, even if it’s portrayal of Albanian hoodlums is so thick you could can it. Its true bravado comes with the ending, stopping at the point where our scummy protagonist doesn’t quite know what to do, knowing he’s probably damned no matter what.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Under the Shadow

 زیر سایه‎‎ ~ Zir-e Sayeh
Babak Anvari, 2016, UK-Jordan-Qatar-Iran

There’s something malicious haunting the apartment, which is old news - but  what will be mostly new for a Western viewer is the Iranian context. Set during Iran’s war with Iraq, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) seems to be trying to break out of the confines that being a woman in a man’s society imposes on her. She is grieving over the loss of a mother that had bigger dreams for her than just maternity and her frustrations are apparent in her prickly personality. It’s striking and complex portrayal by Narges Rashidi that highlights how bland her equivalents are in other similar films as she vents by working out to illegal Jane Fonda videos, argues through impulse rather than logic and then softens up to play tea party with her daughter. In fact, the workaday, unquestionable, unsentimental but loving portrayal of motherhood the film presents puts it firmly in recognisable reality that is refreshing in its honesty. This is greatly helped by a non-cherubic but winning performance by young Avin Manshadi as Dorsa. All this is the film taking its time to establish characters and context before a missile pokes into the building, which is when her daughters says it let in Djinns that proceed to take things, come through cracks in ceilings and threaten possession. But the feminist streak is just as vivid as the supernatural, producing the celebrated moment where Shideh quite sensibly simply runs out of the haunted building only to be arrested for not wearing a hajib. (AA Dowd gives a good account of this moment.) But this oppression is there in the smaller moments where Shideh has to hamfistedly hide her video or has to quickly cover herself to answer the door.

And it’s no mistake that djinns resembles a burka or a bed sheets or tablecloth gone mad, tapping into the feminist themes; one apparition resembles a malicious vision of her absent husband merged with the marital bed. It resembles a drama like Asghar Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’ being possessed.
At the screening I attended, one jump scare had the entire audience jumping in their seat en masse. I can’t quite recall when I genuinely jumped in that way and then approached the rest of the film with a genuine unease that resulted from that moment. Make no mistake, if Barak Anvari favours a slow build-up with slightly edgy pacing, he also knows how to unleash a horror funhouse too. This is how you do jump scares; it makes ‘Insidious’ and ‘The Conjuring’ and all their cattle-prod scare ilk look like horror babyfood, no matter how well staged. If you prefer your frights with proper drama, here is a fine example. 

The fact that aside from the Middle Eastern context, this narrative follows mostly familiar beats means that it is sure to have great crossover appeal. This seems assured with its acquisition by Netflix. It’s superior fare that like ‘The Babadook’ – most likely the film it will be most compared to – it uses subtexts as driving themes and its spooks as clear metaphors. This may be too obvious for some but nevertheless, this is engrossing, assured, scary and creepy stuff.