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. 

Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Girl with all the Gifts

Colm McCarthy, 2016, UK-USA

Yes, so zombies are everywhere in a way that I am sure we never quite imagined when ‘I walked with a Zombie’ (1943) was a thing. When they announced that ‘The Walking Dead’ was going to be a TV series, I could hardly believe it as the comic was quite uncompromising. But they did and it was more ‘hardcore horror’, shall we say, than I ever imagined they would allow. Of course, it’s old news now and zombies are everywhere, providing backdrops for romcoms like ‘Zombieland’ and ‘Life After Beth’ and so on. So, yes, there is that demand to do something new with the premise in a way that perhaps isn’t asked so much of with other monsters. It is perhaps because zombies can be more of a blank slate upon which various themes can be imposed, that are more about the abstract mob than the individual.

The Girl With All the Gifts’ has a great slow-burn opening, which is even better if you know very little about the premise.1 Then the zombie stuff is unleashed in a pleasing attack set piece that totally blows the preceding sinister quietness in one big go. The film never quite manages to get that anticipation back again but compensates by moving into eco-horror: the zombies are caused by a fungal virus which provides some striking vistas of London covered in foliage in a way that harks at nuclear disaster sites like Chernobyl that have since been claimed by nature. It not only reminds of the visions of John Wyndham but of the kind of apocalyptic vision of London that has always featured so strongly in Dr Who and in the Quatermass thrillers. Of course, as we’re talking devastated London and a zombie infection, one is legally obliged to mention ‘28 Days Later’ as well. 

And then Mike Carey – adapting from his book – throws in a little ‘Lord of the Flies’ and it is perhaps this focus on the effects on the young, harking on evolution, that has many commentators asking about whether this is based on a Young Adult novel, and people saying it’s like Young Adult fiction as if that is a disparagement. True there is the ‘Chosen One’ trope typical of that genre, signalled in the very title, but it surely also comes from a tonal thing and this being a zombie film of ideas rather than hardcore gore and perhaps that shift from the latter makes it seem soft. The other accusations that are around are those of “gurning” and “amateur dramatics”, and it’s true that some moments are a little rough in the acting department. For example, the film never quite sells the gang of zombie kids beyond its “act your inner savage” instruction. But as for gurning: there’s a shiver of suspense and dread when the boy in the classroom starts to chomp away at the air, a scene that works up to exaggerated facial manoeuvres played out against silence and given time to drum up a chill.2 And anyway, when you have Glenn Close and Paddy Consadine in pivotal roles, you’re going to get a full course of characterisation. Indeed, Glenn Close perhaps brings such nuance and ambiguity to her role of the doctor who is trying, sort of, to follow some moral code as she seeks a vaccine that her fate ends up somewhat reductive, as if the mob of kids is saying
I got yer poetic justice right here.” And this isn’t the only moment where characters act to the whims of genre and plotting (hey, leave your equipment behind!), weakening what otherwise is a strong foundation of character, dilemma, concept and visuals. And Sennia Nanua as the eponymous girl Melanie captures both an innocence and a primal awakening , providing an striking centre to the film, more than holding her own against top level acting company.

But ‘The Girl with all the Gifts’ does follow through on its premise, touching on a somewhat Cronenbergian view of diseases just doing their job, maybe highlighting how a somewhat sentimental view of humanity dominates most apocalyptic scenarios. Its focus on evolutionary themes rather than just solely survival and chomping distinguishes this zombie film as the beauty of desolation takes over the more that Melanie asserts herself. It’s all directed by Colin McCarthy directs in a clean, unobtrusive manner with moments of flair to let the themes and action take centre stage as necessary. Weaknesses happily ignored, it’s a thoughtful and ambitious horror piece and in that way it’s exactly what smaller budget genre offerings should be.

·         1           I am sure I knew it was a zombie thing but I had mostly forgotten that and thought that I was getting into a ‘psychic kid’ narrative so was pleasantly in the dark for much of the opening. I try to know as little as possible about a film before going in, relying on a general vibe I pick up from promotion and lightly perused feedback to pull me in for an attempt to see the film as fresh as I can.
·          2                       I couldn’t quite work out the young actor’s credit for this, but he certainly made an impression as he took his time with this moment.