Minari

David with his dad Jacob out in the fields

 

Minari is an old-school film of the sort you used to see at Sundance a lot, gentle character driven dramas full of people who were essentially decent. The sort of film Robert Redford used to direct, like Ordinary People or The Milagro Bean Field War or A River Runs Through It (which starred Brad Pitt, an exec producer here). It did well there, winning both the Grand Jury and Audience awards.

In the dying days of the Donald Trump administration it asks and answers the question: who built America? The answer is immigrants, though that message is never uttered out loud. Instead we follow a Korean family who’ve moved out from the city to make a go of life on a farm growing the specialist vegetables they hope other Korean immigrants will want to buy.

It’s his dream, not hers. Though it’s not much more than a big market garden really, this Arkansas plot means everything to Jacob (Steven Yeun). His wife Monica (Yeri Han) would rather be back in the city rather than living in a trailer with her husband and two children. To make ends meet Jacob and Monica also work in a chicken-sexing facility. The female chicks go on to become egg layers, the males are “discarded”. Cut grimly to a chimney stack belching smoke.

It’s details like this that make Minari a real film rather than a pro-this-or-that screed. When Jacob takes on a neighbour to help on the farm, Paul turns out to be an extremely zealous Christian, the sort given to praying in tongues and occasionally carrying his own crucifix down the road. The other locals think he’s nuts. Jacob quietly does too, but Paul is a good worker and a decent guy and knows about vegetables and Will Patton plays him as an individual rather than a type, in a performance reminding us how good he is when he’s not playing cutout characters.

In fact it’s the Americans in this film who are the “other” rather than the Korean immigrants, a symptom of how successfully writer/director Lee Isaac Chung has embedded us with this struggling family.

Minari is the Korean name for water celery, which Monica’s mother Soonja aka Grandma brings with her when she arrives to take up residence. Whereas Jacob is all about the US – he sits at the table to eat his dinner, Grandma is old-country, preferring to squat. Monica fits neatly between the two of them. Wary of going forwards, probably incapable of going back.

 

The family group shot
Together: Jacob and family

 

As Grandma, Youn Yuh-jung is the standout in this film. It’s a gift of a role, standing in a long line of comedy grandmas, but Youn makes it more than you’d see on the page – this Grandma has history. If you’ve seen the South Korean drama The Housemaid, you’ll have seen Youn doing this before.

Special mention also to the exceptional Alan S Kim, as David the six-year-old whose battles for territorial control include him switching grandma’s Korean broth for a bowl of his own warm piss – what a great little sparring duo they make. Poor Noel Cho, as daughter Anne, trails along in their wake, sweet and accomplished though she obviously is.

Here’s a film that includes the theft of water by night, a kid with a heart condition, an exorcism and someone having a stroke, all of them invitations to melodrama and all of them roundly ignored. The film moves on at its own gentle pace, sure of where it’s going.

There are no big speeches, no message moments and – apart from one scene that comes across as engineered compared to the organic flow of the rest of it – no moments of high drama. Staying on the farm through the bad times is held up as being just as honourable as packing it all in and going back to the city, where steady nose-to-grindstone jobs will at least give the kids a known future.

Instead of triumph against adversity, we see the trials and tribulations of daily life. Arguments, disasters, and even the occasional small win. Everyday heroism on a believable human scale. The old-school Sundance movie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Ammonite

Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet

 

After a few years of doing mostly voice work, Kate Winslet has been coaxed back into a leading role in Ammonite, the follow-up to Francis Lee’s powerful breakthrough debut as a director, God’s Own Country.

The 2017 movie told the story of forbidden love between two men on the wild and windy moors of Yorkshire. It’s tempting to see Ammonite as a remake – forbidden love on the wild and windy shores of Dorset – but is there more going on here than that?

Winslet plays real-life 18th-century fossil-hunter Mary Anning – a huge Wikipedia page on her awaits if you know nothing about her. To boil it down: she lived in Lyme Regis on the south coast of England and dug fossils, many of them ammonites, from out of the cliffs of what is now known as the Jurassic Coast, thus helping to change the perception of prehistoric life at a time when science in England was almost entirely controlled by the Church of England and its male professors.

Back to the film. As well as being a skilfull investigator, Mary is a curt no-nonsense woman, the sort who takes a piss on the beach, rubs her hands together to dry them off and then reaches into her bag to pull out a Cornish pasty.

Into her life comes Charlotte Murchison (Saiorse Ronan), a fragile petal with a largely unfeeling and controlling husband (James McArdle). Abandoned after another of her nervous episodes – though Mr Murchison has clearly also had enough of his wife’s demands for affection – Charlotte is left with the icily indifferent Mary. A classic romantic thaw follows as Charlotte rolls from one crisis to another and Mary nurses her back to health, introducing her to the joys of fossil-hunting on the way. If that sounds like an innuendo to you, read on.

Eventually, Charlotte launches lustily into a physical relationship with Mary. She did also seem keen to have sex with her husband and so the story could be interpreted as being one of Mary “turning” Charlotte, especially as Mary has form, a previous downlow fling with local big noise, the appropriately named Mrs Philpot (Fiona Shaw). Writer/director Lee isn’t going in that direction though. This is a story of human affection pure and simple. It’s not a campaigning film either. There is no injustice meted out to the lovers, no exposure to ridicule or disgrace, or anything of the sort. Like God’s Own Country, Ammonite is “post gay”.

 

Kate Winslet
Dour Mary is about to have her world rocked

 

There are two returning actors from that film. Gemma Jones again plays the silent, stern and possibly knowing mother. Good at the Dickensian face is Jones. And there’s also a role for Alec Secareanu. In God’s Own Country he was the studly foreigner rolling lustily in the mud with Yorkshire farmer Josh O’Connor; here he’s the studly doctor with an eye for Mary. Rolling in the mud is this time around is very unlikely.

Lee is more interested in the injustice done to women in a man’s world than to people in same-sex relationships. His opening shot is of a cleaning woman being shooed out of the way by a passing man in a museum specialising in fossils, and even in his close concern with the way women were expected to dress he shows how their lives were being constrained by restricted choices. Pulling on a pair of boots, as Mary does to go fossil-hunting, is a political statement.

Lyme Regis was the setting for The French Lieutenant’s Woman – one half of which was a love story between a fossil-hunter (Jeremy Irons in the 1981 film) and a troubled woman (Meryl Streep). It’s also the setting for a good chunk of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, a story about a woman past her peak getting a second chance at love. Though it makes no difference to the enjoyment or appreciation of Ammonite to know those things, they hover in the background.

It’s been a while since Winslet had a role this meaty. And how good she is at suggesting that emotions are roiling beneath Mary’s bluff, wind-coarsened exterior. Ronan, by contrast, has the less rewarding role as the largely passive Charlotte.

Stéphane Fontaine is the DP and in one brilliant and technically complex sequence set on the crowded waterfront in London’s docks, he gets a chance to show what he can do – he was the DP on Elle and Jackie so is quite a signing. It’s quite a different sequence from the rest of the film, but suggests the direction Lee might be thinking of heading in the future, the big film – that could only be a good thing.

But for the most part Fontaine is limited to lighting interiors and depicting the gloomy salt-scoured beaches of England’s south coast in winter. More of the beaches, actually, would have been a bonus, because there’s a tendency towards tastefulness (I blame Jane Austen and costume drama more generally) that slightly bedevils this film.

In the realm of music it’s called Difficult Third Album Syndrome. The first (God’s Own Country) is a hit so this, the second, is pretty much a repeat of that. After that comes the big test, because no one’s going to buy the same material yet again. Francis Lee has wrung the changes just enough to make Ammonite a satisfying film in its own right, but if you’ve seen God’s Own Country you might find some of the grooves familiar. His third time out is going to be interesting.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Autumn and Skylar in a clinic waiting room

 

On absolutely no account to be confused with Sometimes Always Never, a dazzling tiny film starring Bill Nighy and written by the brilliant Frank Cottrell Boyce, Never Rarely Sometimes Always does actually share a couple of things with its near namesake – it’s a drama driven by relationships between people and has great performances by its leads.

It could so easily, in hands other than those of writer/director Eliza Bittman, not have been, since it’s a film “about” abortion. Abortion dramas tend to be issue-y. Here, instead, Bittman stays as far back as she can while still engaging. This is primarly a film about the friendship between two young women.

Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is in a fix. She’s pregnant and only 17 and doesn’t want to keep the baby. She lives in Pennsylvania where the clinics are pro-life rather than pro-choice. So when she starts making evasive answers to questions at the local women’s health clinic she attends after testing positive, the kindly nurse responds by putting on a video full of gruesome pictures and much talk of “babies” and “children” where the word “foetus” might have been more on the money.

Autumn is a resourceful girl – we see her piercing her own nose with a sterilised safety pin and a chunk of ice to numb the pain – and so she decides that the ony thing for it is to head to New York for the termination she wants. Her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) goes along to hold her hand, and to fight her corner. Of the two of them Skylar is the savvier, but not by much.

Though much of the movie takes place in New York, in essence this is a road movie, the two young women meeting people and overcoming obstacles as they travel towards their destination, which has a nasty tendency to keep receeding as they advance – they have to spend two nights in the city, with no money and no place to stay, when they thought they’d be on the bus back home the same day.

 

Autumn alone in a shopping mall
Autumn alone

 

Such is the tight focus that DP Hélène Louvart keeps on the faces of Autumn and Skylar in this grey, featureless, friendless cityscape that we could be in any city, almost any country. Flanigan and Ryder are similar in looks, helping with the idea that they’re cousins, a feeling bolstered by the remarkable rapport of the actors, which is crucial to the film.

Though not issue driven, that’s not to say that the issues aren’t there, but Hittman has a subtle approach verging on reticence. There’s not a way in hell that a pro-life supporter is going to think this film is for them, but on the other hand Hittman is not setting out to antagonise. She has another point to make: that young women’s experience of the world is coloured, especially if they’re pretty, as these two are, entirely by the fact that men are constantly hitting on them. The pressure is relentless.

At no point do we learn how Autumn got pregnant. The girls never discuss it. But there is a barely-there moment early on that points a finger. Later, in the movie’s key scene, Autumn is taken through a checklist at the clinic and Never, Rarely, Sometimes and Never are the possible answers to questions such as “In the past year has your partner made you have sex when you didn’t want to”.

We are left to join the dots.

An immensely subtle film with two luminous performances at its centre – this is Flanigan’s feature debut; Ryder is a star-in-waiting in the Kristen Stewart mould and will soon be in Spielberg’s West Side Story. The score is by Julia Holter, who adds to the ambience of innocence and wistful fragility.

Sharon Van Etten turns up in a blur-on as Autumn’s mother, and sings the outro song, an unexpected bonus in a superb film packed with good things.

 

 

 

Never Rarely Sometimes Always – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Queen of Hearts

Anne and Gustav on a bed

 

What to expect of a film with the title Queen of Hearts? Well it stars Trine Dyrholm, an actor who guarantees a certain level of quality. English speaking audiences might remember her for films like Nico, 1988, in which she played the tragic junkie and onetime singer with the Velvet Underground, or alongside Pierce Brosnan in Love Is All You Need, a romantic drama for grown-ups.

She also took a key role in the excellent TV series The Legacy, a tale of poisonous family dynamics, some episodes of which were directed by May el-Toukhy, who’s in charge here too.

Though she can prettty much do it all from high drama to low comedy, Dyrholm’s got a particular set of skills that make her particularly suitable in roles playing smart, devious and conflicted women, which is exactly what we get in this bleak Danish drama.

Life is sweet for Anne (Dyrholm) at the suburban end of the Danish dream. A honeyed existence in a big gorgeous modernist house with husband Peter and their two daughters is disrupted for a while when Gustav (Gustav Lindh), her husband’s son from a previous relationship, turns up from Sweden to live with them. Difficult teenager, his mother can’t cope, it’s dad’s turn to shoulder the burden etc.

Gustav is angry that he’s been sent away and initially unco-operative in the extreme. He’s also a good-looking young man, something Anne notices when she accidentally surpises him just wrapped in a towel after a shower.

Shortly afterwards Anne is peeling off her own clothes in the privacy of her own room to examine her body in the mirror.

What’s obviously going to happen but shouldn’t is that Anne falls for Gustav, though she’s maybe 30 years older than him. And falls badly. Director May el-Toukhy goes into shimmer mode in this part of the film, as Anne blunders around incapacitated by her own infatuation, and composer Jon Ekstrand goes along for the ride with music that’s lilting and beguiling.

And then, unable to sleep one night and with her husband pulling another all-nighter at work, she goes into the boy’s bedroom an… oh dear.

Graphic sex, dear reader, graphic sex. Look away if penises offend.

 

Anne and Gustav in the woods
Not out of the woods: Anne and Gustav

 

I’m not giving away any more of the plot than the publicity shots  have already revealed. In any case, thus far seemed to be on the cards from very early on. It’s only after Anne and Gustav have done the deed that the film really announces what it’s about, as exposure, recrimination and tragedy pile up one on the other, and Dyrholm gets to work through a considerable range of emotions.

Two points of comparison spring to mind. The Mother, which saw Daniel Craig launching into an affair with a much older woman (Anne Reid), though Craig wasn’t playing a minor, and 2012’s The Sessions, in which Helen Hunt similarly exposed acres of middle-aged flesh, as Dyrholm does here – both fine-looking women, for sure, but both in the one-piece rather than bikini stage of life.

It’s a tense film from the get-go, but once it moves into the last half, when the focus shifts almost entirely onto Anne, lying like crazy to keep the show on the road, the whole thing becomes almost unbearably knuckle-whitening.

Though technically this isn’t a film about incest – Anne and Gustav are not blood relatives – it is close, since the sense of a betrayal of trust is the same. Nor is it strictly Oedipal either, though those are the dynamics and that’s what’s so delicately examined in the screenplay by Maren Louise Käehne and el-Toukhy.

Oedipus famously sleeps with his mother and kills his father. Gustav’s dad, Peter, Anne’s husband, is to an extent an absence, both as a parent in the family home – he’s often working – and as a character whose feelings are examined. Perhaps that’s a weakness in the storytelling. If it is, it’s the only one.

 

 

 

Queen of Hearts – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

The Orphanage (2019)

Qodrat and Hasib on a motorbike

 

The Orphanage is about life in an orphanage, no shock there, but what makes it fascinating is that it’s an orphanage in Afghanistan in the late 1980s while it was under Soviet rule.

Director Shahrbanoo Sadat’s film is based on her friend Anwar Hashimi’s unpublished 800-page diaries, which also inspired her previous film, Wolf and Sheep, the first film ever brought to Cannes by a female Afghan director. A further three instalments of what will ultimately be a pentalogy are planned, so Sadat clearly has faith in the source material.

Qodratollah Qadiri, also a holdover from Wolf and Sheep, plays a hustling street kid in Kabul who is picked up one day by the authorities and plonked down in a Soviet-run orphanage. There he forms alliances with other lads, witnesses episodes of bullying, dreams of girls, and in one particularly notable adventure – given a soft-pedal treatment by director Sadat – he and his new friends find a Soviet tank that’s just been hit by the Mujahideen, who will feature more prominently later.

It is in many ways a fairly standard, cute and charming coming-of-age drama with some very specific local flavours – at one point Qodrat is whisked off to Moscow to a Soviet Pioneer Camp, which doesn’t happen in your average coming-of-age film – but it’s really more interested in these teenagers than the wider political context. These boys live their lives in a kind of intense self-absorption. Like teenagers everywhere.

Breaking that rhythm are Sadat’s occasional digressions into Bollywood, a major obsession in Afghanistan at the time (and still) – the boys have posters of Bollywood stars on their walls. There are three Bollywood-style musical numbers, plus a finale which spectacularly transforms into an Amitabh Bachchan-influenced fight sequence complete with that ridiculously synthetic punch/kick whap! used to mark every blow. Whether with fist or foot or head, always the same sound.

If you’re expecting the Soviets to be the bad guys, think again. In fact the orphanage is run on austere but benign lines, kindly even, though it’s clearly strapped for cash. There’s even a sweet and pretty young teacher direct from the USSR to teach the children Russian. Food is plentiful, if basic, the rooms are simple but clean. The teachers and supervisors (one of them is played, excellently, by diarist Hashimi, who also gets a costume credit – busy guy) seem to be on the kids’ side.

 

At the Soviet Pioneer camp
Whisked off to a Soviet Pioneer camp

 

This contrasts massively with the situation when the Soviets leave – cue burning of all evidence they were ever at the orphanage and into the fire go all the books in Russian and posters of Yuri Gagarin. The Mujahideen, spiritual ancestors of the Taliban, take over, the food deteriorates rapidly and suddenly all the female staff are wearing an awful lot more clothes than they were. It gets worse, much worse.

Even so, in spite of the fact that these bloody battles were the stuff of news reports on a global scale day in day out in the 1980s, it’s still at bottom a film about Qodrat and his friends Fayaz, Feraji, Karan Jeet, Hasib, loose-limbed performers all. Sadat’s working method was to under-rehearse her leads and send them charging into each scene armed only with a skeletal idea of what was required – which probably explains why character name and actor name are the same. Keep it simple.

The Bollywood numbers are brilliantly executed, the action suddenly cutting from the sea shore to a forest, the way 1980s Bollywood did it, the camera zooming in madly from a distance. More of it would have been a bonus, because for all The Orphanage’s many charms, and its summoning of a particular place at a particular time, there is a distinct lack of “stakes”. This may be true to the source material, and makes sense both as a corrective to the anti-Soviet and issue-driven agenda of so many films set in Afghanistan but it does little to liven things up.

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Host

The Zoom call begins to go wrong

 

Host is the perfect pandemic horror movie. Shot entirely on Zoom, it features a menacing presence that’s out there… somewhere… and a bunch of mates who are communicating with each other lockdown-style via laptop/phone/tablet.

Expanding a short that went viral and gave director/co-writer Rob Savage an in with Shudder, who financed the film, it takes the glitches and irritations of the Zoom call and puts them to work dramatically.

Realism is everything here and Savage and co-writers Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd have kept in the stuff that makes a Zoom call a Zoom call. So, the scratty getting-going moments, when one person is online but another isn’t, the terrible sound of a headset microphone brushing against material, the relentless swearing and easy banter of people aged around 30 who really know each other, off-piste discussions about PornHub, the insistence on “cheeky” drinks, and so on.

The characters in it have the actors’ own names – Haley, Jemma, Emma, Radina, Caroline, Alan and Teddy. Caroline’s dad is played by Patrick Ward, who is Caroline’s dad in real life too. He’s there because, hey, that’s lockdown.

The catalyst taking us from the everyday into the realm of horror is Seylan (also her own name), a medium who’s been got in as a bit of a laugh to conduct a seance to make this Zoom call something special. Isolation has made this gang desperate for some novelty. And off we twitch from the world of echoey acoustics in IKEA kitchens into one where things go bump and people start screaming.

 

Haley Bishop as Haley
On Zoom everyone can hear you scream

 

It’s Paranormal Activity updated, in other words, but updated brilliantly, using the prevailing tech and moment we’re in to craft something that wouldn’t really have worked a year ago and (god willing) won’t really work quite so well a year from now (I’m writing this in the early days of 2021).

Like Paranormal Activity, and other “found footage” films (a term that really needs updating), Host relies for some of its effects on silence – nothing happens sometimes and that’s OK – and also the ambiguities engendered by wonky tech. Was that glitch just a broadband hiccup or did something just move at the back of the kitchen?

The acting is occasionally self-conscious, but then that’s how it is with Zoom too, especially when you can see your own big fat face staring back at you as you chat with your mates, or hear your own voice suddenly booming in your headset.

It’s brilliantly observed, in other words, and everyone involved has gone to great pains to keep it as real as possible for as long as possible. Obviously, once the seance gets out of hand and a supernatural force is unleashed that realism has to graciously leave the room. But the commitment remains total – careful choreography and detailed execution take over from the looser, semi-improv style of what’s gone before. This is where the money saved on elaborate sets, camera rigs, catering etc has been spent.

I thought I saw a visual reference to The Blair Witch Project, which is the big daddy of all these things, and there’s also a plot reference to The Exorcist, possibly. There may be more horror film allusions in there but to be honest I was focusing so hard on what was happening that more expansive thinking was temporarily on hold. The close miking and the way all the Zoomers lean in to their laptops, the way you do, encourages the viewer to do the same and get really involved.

It just all works so well. You know a horror film is good when you know a scary “boo” moment is coming and you brace yourself for it… and it gets you anyway. On top of all the other great things, Host is that film too.

 

 

Host – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Away

The creature lurks while the boy hangs from a parachute cord

 

Fresh out of college and with no tempting job offers, Latvian arts graduate Gints Zilbalodis decided to start work on an animation. Away is the result, a remarkable film – and all from one man’s bedroom (and imagination).

Zilbalodis was 24 when he started on his three-and-a-half-year marathon and didn’t just do all the animation we see in the finished result – he pretty much did everything else too, production, editing, sound, music the lot. Think of the scrolling hundreds of names you see in the credits in a typical animation and marvel.

It’s obvious from the opening shot that something good is going on. A young man hangs from a blasted tree by a parachute cord. Zooming in much closer, the “camera” observes an eyelid. It doesn’t so much open as peel back.

Over the next 75 minutes we follow this survivor, a stranger in a strange land, as he tries to find his way back home, through a wasteland which occasionally shows signs of once having been inhabited, accompanied by a small yellow bird and pursued by a gigantic dark lumbering creature, a Golem in all but name.

You could describe the plot as “bare bones Studio Ghibli” – wide-eyed human juvenile being menaced– though no words are spoken through all four chapters. In interviews, Zilbalodis has said that he divided Away up this way to make it seem like less of a mountain to climb. I’m just making four shorts, easy-peasy kind of thing. And after getting rave responses to the first part, Oasis, after he put it up online, he felt he had the green light to continue.

Stylistically it’s a case of trying to extract the maximum effect from the minimum. This extends to every aspect of the film from the one-word title onwards. It’s most visible in the animation, which consists of great blocks of colour, simpler in style than the Tintin books but not a million miles away. Think Fuzzy Felt, shadow-free, or with as few shadows as possible. This is notably broken in the case of the “Golem” (my shorthand for a creature never named) who seems to be a boiling mass of shadow and so has some 3D form – but in general Zilbalodis suggests dimension by “camera” movement and perspective shifts rather than shading. This would have been impossible on home computing tech even a handful of years ago.

 

On his way to safety
On his way to safety

 

That’s not to say there isn’t any feeling of light in the film. In fact at one level it is an almost academic exercise in the rendering of light, the way it turns green leaves into translucent shimmers of colour, or the searing white of the desert our fugitive is at one point trying to cross, or a geyser erupting from the earth as if it were an almost solid chunk of water with facets changing shade like some semi-polished gem stone.

The minimalist style extends to the score, which is inspired by Max Richter and Philip Glass, among others, and to the story itself, which has a simple chase dynamic. The man flees, at speed once he finds a motorbike (it must be a magical realm because he never seems to need to refuel it), pursued by this dark giant who can only plod but nightmarishly never stops, in It Follows style (surely a film Zilbalodis watched while a student).

No words, simple chase plot, it doesn’t sound that dramatic, and though the minimalism of the animation is brilliant, it’s slightly less effective in terms of the story, which came to an end just at the point when, I thought, its creator had taken it about as far as it could go. Any further and Away was about to start feeling like a video game that’s running through the level.

That said, there’s a chase-jeopardy sequence set on a rickety crumbling bridge that is so well executed on every level that it makes that criticism seem churlish.

The yellow bird is an obvious nod to Disney – the animal sidekick – and adds some empathic heft to what could almost as easily be watched as an exercise in technique, and of the squeezing of every artistic choice for every drop it’ll release.

All in all a remarkable achievement. Will Gints Zilbalodis found a studio though?

 

 

Away – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Twist

Group shot with Twist front and centre

 

Updating Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, as Twist does, is a bold move. Usually the lure of the dressing-up box and the chance to lay on the foggy London atmospherics prove irresistible. Film-makers tend to stick with its original Victorian setting. Looking through the many, many adaptations, Twisted stands out. It’s a 1996 update set in in New York’s gay subculture. But for the most part Oliver Twist tends to be set in world of street urchins, top hats, horse-drawn carriages and much dropping of aitches.

Watching the opening moments of Twist, a question arises: when in the early production process did someone suggest bringing Oliver Twist into the Britpop era? And was this wise? Inspired? Suicidal? Genius?

It suits the Brexit mood of early 2021, of course, British exceptionalism and all that. Like Brexit, which looks backwards to a golden age of Britain before the European experiment, the Britpop of the 1990s looked back to the 1960s. So Twist is looking back nostalgically at an era that was itself looking back nostalgically and it makes absolutely no bones about its Britpop stylings.

The whole film kicks off with the 1995 song Alright by Cast (“I guess I’m alright, guess I’m alright”) – the first of many jangly laddish anthems on the soundtrack – before diving into an urgent Danny Boyle-style action sequence, all very Trainspotting, but featuring parkour on the rooftops rather than pounding along the pavement.

Then, the camera pulls back to introduce Raff Law as Ollie Twist, a  scallywag, harum-scarum street kid with a spray can ready to grafitti anything in sight. Raff Law is the son of Jude Law and Sadie Frost, two twinkles in the Britpop constellation, and brings a cheeky-chappy charm (plus a sulky slappable quality) to his first major starring role, much as his dad might have done 25 years ago. He’s good casting, as is everyone in Twist.

To get the flimsiest of plots out of the way: Oliver (Twist is his grafitti tag) is picked up off the street by Dodge (Rita Ora) and Batesy (Franz Drameh), introduced to Fagin (Michael Caine), their gangmaster, and co-opted into a scam to gain revenge on an art dealer (David Walliams) wot done Fagin wrong.

Fake art is the hook on which they’re hoping to hang the dealer, so the plot chimes with the production’s mood of cheerful knock-off.

Anyone bridling at Rita Ora, a female!, playing the updated Artful Dodger, will be choking on their own spit to learn that Lena Headey, another female!, plays the updated Bill Sikes, now known just as Sikes. Game of Thrones fans hoping for a bit of Cersei Lannister hissability can rest easy, though there isn’t really that much for her to get her teeth into.

Nancy (Sophie Simnett) is still Nancy, still a female, and remains in thrall to Sikes, as she was in the original story. She also remains his (meaning her, if you follow me) girlfriend, more spit to choke on if same-sex relationships between imaginary people isn’t your thing.

 

Rita Ora as Dodge
Rita Ora as Artful Dodger update Dodge

 

Raff Law is 25 and way too old to be playing an imperilled wide-eyed child learning the tricks of surviving on the streets – in any case we’re told right at the outset that the streets are already his domain – which junks most of Dickens’s plot straight away. Nancy handily plugs the gap, the friendship and eventual romance between initially prickly Nancy and obviously smitten Ollie being sweet and lovely and a genuine emotion in among all the artifice.

Britpop icon Michael Caine playing Fagin should be a cause for celebration but Caine is off his game here, looking unwell, and though he sparkles occasionally, past glories are not recalled.

Think live-action cartoon with no actual acting being asked for or delivered. All concerned are throwing shapes rather than reaching for a character truth or even a consistent performance. The dialogue also strikes attitudes rather than adds psychological depth, and even genuine street Londoners like Rita Ora, a Ladbroke Grove girl, is struggling with the sheer awight geezerishness of it all.

Interestingly, as well as taking a small role, Noel Clarke (another Ladbroke Grover) is a producer, and there’s definitely something of the ragamuffin energy of his Kidulthood series here, in intention if not always in actual execution.

If it does occasionally also feel a bit like Guy Ritchie has got the old gang together for some Lock, Stock revivalism, the prevailing dynamics are a touch too stop-go to make everything gel. Just the one smoking barrel, then, and again I’m wondering when Britpop was first decided on as a mood board.

Look out for the reference to the art auction house Dotheboy’s (rather than Sotheby’s), a tiny but smart bit of actual Dickens referencing in a film which claims at the end to be “based on the novel by Charles Dickens”. But, really, was it?

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

About Endlessness

The hovering couple inspired by Chagall's Over the Town

 

In one of the first scenes in About Endlessness, a waiter brings a diner a bottle of wine, opens it, sniffs the cork to check the wine is OK, then walks over to the right hand side of the diner to fill his glass. Holding the bottle near the bottom, the way a practised waiter does, he pours the wine precisely into the glass, then keeps pouring, pouring, pouring, until the wine overflows and starts pooling over the table. The diner, who’s been stuck behind his newspaper, suddenly notices.

If you’re not familiar with the work of Swedish director Roy Andersson, this is a typical entry into his world. About Endlessness doesn’t mark much of a departure from his last films, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence and You, the Living. If anything Andersson has doubled down and pared his minimalist style back even further. Like the earlier films, what we get is a series of vignettes, shot with a locked camera, featuring characters who barely move, barely speak, all situated on sets that are drained of colour, lit incredibly flatly, as if every touch of gloss has been removed.

Other scenes: a woman breaks the heel of her shoe in a railway station, picks it from the floor and moves on. A man who doesn’t trust banks hides some money under his mattress. Another man says hello to someone he recognises and is rebuffed. And then, in among these scenes from the humdrum everyday – Hitler in his bunker, a man in a market slapping a woman, a crying man cradling a young woman he has clearly stabbed to death.

Three girls, a propos nothing at all, start dancing outside a bar. A young couple discuss eternity in terms of the mutability of energy.

The everyday sits next to the tragic, next to the disastrous, next to the comic, and even, in the case of the dancing young women, the joyous. Snapshot moments, which is how Andersson shows them, but not decisive moments – those have happened off camera and earlier.

If you’re looking for a story, you’ve come to the wrong place, though there is one character Andersson returns to again and again – the priest who has lost his faith and who has nightmares about being crucified like Jesus Christ.

 

The priest dreams of crucifixion
The priest’s dream of crucifixion

 

Existential is how Andersson’s films are often described, but there’s also a strong note of nihilism, though he himself has described About Endlessness as being in some ways an attempt at a 1001 Nights of separate stories. His Scheherezade, though, is experienced only in voiceover, a monotone female introducing each vignette with the same formula – “I saw a man who…” or “I saw a woman who…”.

“My agenda is having the audience, just like the king in the story, wishing the film would never end,” Andersson said in an interview. Whether you will never want the film to end or are wondering whether it’s ever going to end  probably depends on your appreciation of Andersson’s deadpan style. What makes About Endlessness a slightly tougher sell than his previous films is that there’s far less humour on display this time round.

Mark Chagall’s painting Over the Town pops up twice, first in the opening scene, where we see Chagall’s sublime couple floating up in the clouds. They return later in another aerial shot, this time hovering over the city of Cologne bombed to bits at the end of the Second World War.

As a viewer it might be best to think of yourself as one of those two floating people – high up, blithely disconnected from the details that would turn the abstract into the concrete and as a consequence piecing together stories from the fragments being offered by Andersson. I wish you the very best in your endeavours.

 

 

 

About Endlessness – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Bacurau

Procession at the funeral of Teresa's grandmother

 

Two opinions of Bacurau from Amazon’s Top Reviews of this film. “One of the worst movies we have ever seen,” said Scout in a one star thumbs-down. “We were both regretful that we paid to give away time that we cannot get back watching a movie that was this painfully stupid.” On the other hand Cameron Brady, giving Bacurau five stars, said, “This movie is simply fantastic. It touches on subjects of socioeconomic disparity, racism, colorism, etc. but keeps a certain humor and charming weirdness as well.” I can sympathise with both points of view. If what you want is a good strong story told in an efficient way, Bacurau is a load of crap. If you’re after something that’s really a movie about movies – with genre teases and in-jokes scattered throughout – your bus to referential heaven has arrived.

“We have taken a powerful psychotropic drug and you are going to die,” says kindly magisterial teacher Plinio towards the end of Bacurau at about the point where the plot has finally declared itself. He works at the dusty, dry Brazilian town’s local school, the Escola João Carpinteiro – translated out of Portuguese that’s the John Carpenter School – and says this about the point that it’s become more obvious that we’ve been watching a psychedelic version of Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, except the Precinct is now a remote Brazilian village and the assaulters are a gang of out-and-out weirdos armed to the teeth.

The Carpenter influence was obvious all along, in retrospect. That was even one of his bouncy synth tunes on the soundtrack a bit earler. But there’s a mountain of spaghetti western in here too, the trippy sort that you find in Jodorowsky’s El Topo. And is it fanciful to suggest that the structure – snapshots of different people and events just kind of loosely montaged together – owes something to Altman’s Nashville? I came and went on that thought.

A herd of wild horses stampedes through the town. Two randoms are having sex in a side room. A pair of bikers show up in lurid one-piece outfits. A mad guitarist serenades anyone who’ll listen to his impromptu songs. A butt-naked old dude mists his hothouse succulents and air plants.

And then a flying saucer arrives. By this point it doesn’t seem out of place. But there is a nominal focus for the action – Teresa (Bárbara Colen), daughter of teacher Plinio (Wilson Rabelo). She has arrived back in town for her grandmother’s funeral, to find that it’s got no water. Eventually a truck carrying water turns up, but it’s been shot full of holes. After that the two oddly attired bikers arrive. And not long after that onto the screen climbs Udo Kier, patron saint of the bonkers movie, as the leader of a gang of psychopaths who are going to menace the village for reasons that never really become clear. It doesn’t matter. The plot is not the point.

 

Sonia Braga (centre) in bloody coat
Sonia Braga (centre) as Dr Domingas

 

Those looking for an allegory could zoom in on the fact that the village seems to pivot around teacher Plinio and fierce doctor Domingas (Sonia Braga), rationalist forces confronting the psychos, all from more developed countries, by unleashing a secret weapon of their own – Lunga (Silvero Pereira), a nutjob who lives a safe distance away but is there to be called in on occasions just like these.

At one point the psychos have a weird conversation about race, in which light-skinned “dark” people are compared unfavourably to dark-skinned “white” people. It’s obviously a scene designed to point out how irrational alt-right demagogues like Bolsonaro can be (because they’re the target, surely). Popping a bizarro cherry on all this is the fact that the psychos seem to be on some sort of vacation break – they appear to have booked this blood-frenzy weekend as part of a tourist package deal. More allegory.

At a stylistic level it’s a brilliantly made film, full of old fashioned stylistic quirks like wipes to change scenes. Technically, it’s modern through and through, a pin-sharp bright and clean-looking film delivered in the way only digital can do (on this budget).

Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles have worked together several times, with Dornelles usually on production design. Here he gets a co-director credit. Quite who did exactly what isn’t clear but something’s changed since their last film together, 2016’s Aquarius, which tackled social issues (and also featured Sonia Braga) in a much soberer, more straightahead fashion. Perhaps that’s the film one-star Scout should watch.

 

Bacurau – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021