Savage State

The family in the drawing room

 

Savage State is a western in French. Just that fact makes this film, also known as L’état sauvage, unusual and worth a watch. Is that enough though? Not quite, but as with Frenchness so with the rest of its many idiosyncrasies. This is a strangely bland film packed with unusual and often pungent elements.

The setting for one. We’re in the teeth of the American Civil War, but rather than being on one side or another we’re with the neutrals, the French settlers ordered from afar by Napoleon III to take no part in the conflict.

Early scenes establish a frontier setting of double-cross and gunfights, contraband and big characters, in particular the extravagantly sexual Bettie (Kate Moran), a minx with a gun and a fuck-me smirk and the glad-eye for Victor (Kevin Janssens), a man’s-gotta-do operator working all the borders – legal and illegal, Union and Confederate, French and English language.

He’ll figure later on, but in the meantime we bounce off to the family of wealthy French trader Edmond (Bruno Todeschini), wife Madeleine (Constance Dollé), their three daughters, plus Layla (Armelie Abibou), the headstrong freed slave carrying on a poorly hidden relationship with Edmond while acting as a servant for the household.

The film’s best scenes happen here, early on, when the western rubs up against a genteel almost Jane Austen world – those three daughters – with Layla’s low-level practice of voodoo adding to the genre gumbo. Things come to a head at a ball hosted by the town’s rich doyenne, Miss Davis, who has just finished singing hideously (Lee Delong giving it the full Florence Foster Jenkins) when a rabble of lairy Union soldiers invade the party and start shooting.

Beautiful and carefully choreographed cinematography (by Christophe Duchange), an unusual score with influences of spaghetti western and gamelan orchestra and tight, short scenes full of focused playing drive us into this alien world and also propel the story forward. The costumes are pretty spiffy too.

Then, moving too quickly and never quite saying enough, we’re into the bit that director/writer David Perrault is actually interested in. The family, realising they can’t stay where they are, make a dash for the coast, where a ship bound for France awaits, led by gun-for-hire Victor (he’s back), Janssens now polishing his Man with No Name credentials.

With the family’s abrupt change in circumstances comes new power relations. Edmond is no longer top dog. His wife’s position also takes a hit, servant Layla’s stock grows, especially as she starts to insist on being treated more as an equal, and as for the sisters, Abigaëlle (Maryne Bertieaux) is sick, Justine (Déborah François) is lost in selfless devotion to her, leaving the youngest, Esther (Alice Isaaz), to rise by her own merits.

 

Bettie and her gang
Bettie trying not to slide off her horse

 

And then lascivious Bettie re-appears, seemingly just by chance, which seems a bit of a stretch, along with her gang of badasses with faces covered in burlap sacking. No reason given.

Oddly, considering the piquant if not outright eccentric elements, the characters stubbornly refuse to stay alive in this section, which is full of rote moments familiar from many westerns. Young Esther has the hots for Victor and while Isaaz is good at conveying lust in a young miss, Janssens isn’t very good giving it back. And he’s meant to be the tough guy who likes his women any way he can find them.

As if realising the heat’s gone out of what was a lively drama, Perrault amps up the melodrama, in particular the performance of Moran. Bettie’s sexuality has now become comedic, and there is even a scene where she gyrates pole-dancer style as the light from the flickering flames of a fire give her a good tonguing. My interpretation.

Maddened by lust, Wild Bettie is on course for a showdown with Prim Esther (who actually looks like her pants might be on fire), with Victor as the prize.

A shootout finale brings all the threads together, at the end of which some characters are dead, others wounded, a few still alive to tell the tale. So many strands remain unresolved – Leyla, the oddly absent Justine, wife Madeleine, even Esther, whose film this is meant to be – that the overall sense is of a well-crafted undertaking that got off to a good start but got lost on the way.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Malmkrog (Manor House)

The cast of Malmkrog outside in the snow

Some films you can watch while you’re checking your email or skimming Twitter. Malmkrog (aka Manor House) is emphatically not one of those films. It requires your full attention, but rewards the focus if you’re interested in what it has to say. At 3hrs 21mins it’s a long film too, so gird your loins, put on the blinkers, quit the mail app and submit.

It’s divided into chapters, each one with the name of one of its five main protagonists, a gaggle of the Russian elite who we catch having a drink before lunch, eating lunch itself, taking afternoon tea, sitting down to dinner and then enjoying an after-dinner brandy. Tough life.

Around them bustle the servants, who bring drinks and take away dishes, a ramrod-straight crew. The servants don’t speak, but when they do it’s in a mouthed whisper, in German. Their social superiors talk in French, as the Russian nobility tended to before the Revolution, a reminder of the aphorism attributed to Prussia’s Frederick the Great: “I speak French to my ambassadors, English to my accountants, Italian to my mistress, Latin to my god, and German to my horse.”

The five are the piously Christian Olga (Marina Palii), the self-important ambassador Edouard (Ugo Broussot), the haughty Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité), the faintly sarcastic Madeleine (Agathe Bosch) and the suave, self-regarding Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard). Meanwhile, upstairs the elderly count is being lifted out of bed for a wash, dressed and put back in bed. He’s nearly dead but his exit from the world is designed to be as gentle as it’s possible to be.

The time is somewhere around the beginning of the 20th century – there is talk of the British having trouble in the Transvaal so the Boer War is clearly brewing – and we’re getting towards the end of the century of peace that ran from the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to the outbreak of the First World War. Europe’s time is ending, America’s has arrived. The elderly count upstairs can be seen as metaphorical, if that’s the way your mind runs.



Frédéric Schulz-Richard
Frédéric Schulz-Richard



The servants, too, at the beginning of this century of the masses, are fascinating. Silent but brutally efficient, they glide as if choreographed as they tend to the whims of this privileged crew prattling away about BIG topics in a manner that is just a touch self-conscious and self-important.

The talking never ceases. Militarism and conscription, the nobility of war, the perils of politeness, the place of Russia in Europe, good and evil, the nature of god, all get an extended airing, everyone having their say, but each one of the subjects of more importance to one speaker than the others.

They drink, they chat, the servants clear away, they drink, they chat, the servants clear away. Two events punctuate the rhythm. One is charming and situates us right in the moment, because suddenly carol singers turn up unannouced and we realise it is Christmas – not a word has been said about the time of year – and, yes, now we’ve been apprised of that fact, there is a Christmas tree in one of the rooms of this vast mansion, which might have been there the whole time.

The other event is massively spoilerish and entirely disruptive, and re-orients our attitude to the people in the film and everything they say. Violence is done, let’s just say.

And after that, another repast, the chat continuing as if nothing had happened at all.

It’s another superficially cool but subliminally torrid film by Cristi Puiu. His track record includes his dispassionate The Death of Mr Lazarescu and the entirely impassive crime thriller Aurora. Both long films, both films demanding total fixity of concentration.

Some clue as to what is going on can be found in the co-writer credit of Vladimir Solovyov, a Russian who died around the time this film is set and who objected to the philosophy of positivism (the world can only be experienced through the senses) preferring to qualify positivism with essentialism (intuition has a role to play too).

Given that we’re living in an age of real (the senses) news versus fake (intuition) news, Puiu is engaging with one of the wrangles of our day, albeit with the heat dialled down as far as he can take it.

I’m not going to pretend it isn’t tough going. The camera is largely static, there is very little aciton, Malmkrog could easily be a podcast, in fact. And yet it has a curious grip. The people in this film are not particularly nice or admirable people, but they are interesting, and the frame that Puiu puts them in – an old word order coming to an end – makes them doubly so.





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© Steve Morrissey 2021



Breaking Fast

Haaz Sleiman and Michael Cassidy

 

Can you be gay and a devout Muslim? Breaking Fast wrestles with that problem in, yes, an issue-driven drama tangling with concepts that rarely get an airing.

The title stems from the practice of breaking the dawn-to-dusk fast required of committed Muslims during Ramadan. What fasting actually means seems to vary depending on many factors, but for Mo (Haaz Sleiman) it comes down to no food, no drink and no impure thoughts. Mo is gay and out and a Muslim, one who takes his religious observances seriously. As we’re introduced to him and his partner Hassan (Patrick Sabongui), they’re in the teeth of a crisis. Hassan is not out and is currently hyper-ventilating because he thinks his very religious father might have caught wind of the fact that his son is a homosexual. It would kill him, reasons Hassan, who’s come up with a cracking solution to his problem. He’ll get married to a woman.

But never mind Hassan, he’s filmic throat-clearing. Instead, writer/director Mike Mosallam wants to tell us about the next guy to enter Mo’s life, Kal (Michael Cassidy), the hunky non-Muslim Mo meets at a party on the first day of the month of Ramadan. Breaking Fast is the story of Mo and Kal over that period, the devout gay Muslim and the accommodating non-Muslim, with a relationship built on mutual respect rather than sex, plus a shared love for the Christopher Reeve-era Superman. Kal is not called Kal for nothing. He has super powers of abstinence, if nothing else.

 

Mo just out of the shower
Mo than he intended

 

To make Mo stand out as a different type of gay man, Mosallam surrounds him, off an on, with a social circle consisting of gay characters from central casting. There is a lot of mincing and lisping, shouts of “get her”, stagey flounces and much screaming. Remarkably, one character emerges from this identigay scrum, Mo’s childhood friend Sam, with Amin El Gamal putting in a high energy and funny performance as the confidant who’s gay first and Muslim a very long way down the track.

By contrast, though none is needed to make the point, Mo is a dullard. A doctor specialising in the liver, he must be the most boring man in the gay village of West Hollywood aka WeHo. Being less a character and more an ideological position, Haaz Sleiman has no idea what to do in terms of acting to put flesh on Mo’s theoretical bones. Cassidy, on the other hand, is playing a preposterous character, so hot, it’s claimed, that Kal has trouble being taken seriously as an actor in Hollywood. To repeat: he has trouble being taken seriously as an actor because he’s so hot. In Hollywood. If this is meant to be funny something has been lost in translation. In any case Cassidy seems as ill at ease as Sleiman. Their scenes together not so much great as grate.

There is nuance in this film but it’s not to be seen in the main characters. Mo spends much of his screen time making chaste remarks about not getting aroused during Ramadan, while Kal grins graciously and helps him with the Iftar, the meal eaten once the sun has set on another day of fasting and abstinence. It’s around the edges where the real people live – Mo’s mother is devout but his father is not, while Sam is the Muslim who ticks that box only because it applies more than the others.

The platonic nature of the Mo/Kal relationship is no barrier to the inclusion of the romantic montage sequence – a couple doing goofy things together – and it’s noticeable that the less we hear of Mo and Kal and their position-taking, the more they come across as human beings. The technical assurance of the warm lighting, cool compositions and well choreographed crowd sequences are also more obvious when the prattle is muted.

So can a man be a Muslim and gay? Mo says yes, in a big speech at one point emphasising the lack of homophobia in the Qu’ran, though he’s also described as a “bottom virgin” on a couple of occasions, a detail that seems to come from a different film. This one generally keeps sexual specifics at arm’s length.

There’s nothing unusual in a story about a person seeking another person to whom they can give their heart – and more besides. What’s very rare is a story about a devout religious man doing it. Breaking Fast asserts that it’s reconciled the two, but it never feels like it actually has. The wrangle continues.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

This Is My Desire

Jude Akuwudike as Mofe

 

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” – to borrow a phrase often credited to John Lennon – is the movie This Is My Desire (aka Eyimofe) distilled down to an essence. Told in distinct chapters subtitled Spain and Italy, it follows two denizens of Lagos, Nigeria, and dives into their lives while they wait for the passports and paperwork that will allow them to seek a better life elsewhere.

First up, Mofe, and in the film’s opening shot – a tangle of wires bursting like mattress stuffing from an ancient electrical junction box – a metaphor for the whole film. Messy, potentially dangerous, lives lived hugger-mugger in a rundown environment. Mofe is a naturally talented fixer who can turn his hand to anything. The day job in a chronically under-invested factory consists of keeping the machines running – the electrics keep shorting out.

Later, Rosa, a smart, personable and hard-working young woman, hairdresser by day, barkeep by night, caring also for her sister in a frugal rented dwelling where nothing really works properly.

Both Mofe and Rosa are right at the edge of a bearable existence. Both are admirable people. Both are permanently broke. Both are tired all the time. No wonder Europe beckons. And then, as if to add insult to injury, each has first one, then the other leg chopped out from under. For Mofe it’s a family tragedy of the sort that would finish many people. For Rosa it’s medical bills, which exacerbate her inability to make ends meet even working all the hours, and on top of that the unwanted attention of her wheedling landlord, Vincent. Both keep going, adapting, ingenious, desperate.

 

Temi Ami-Williams as Rosa
Temi Ami-Williams as Rosa

 

It looks at first, nudged by the chapter headings, that this is going to be the story of two people who eventually wind up dead on the perilous sea crossing to Europe. It’s a less tragic and obvious, but more interesting story than that, being a snapshot of life in the Nigerian capital – an oil-rich country where the one-per-center logic of neo-liberalism is stark and where the shiny new world of WhatsApp tech and airy modern offices exists alongside the slum dwellings, with their poor amenities and bad sanitation.

There are the obvious novelties – the look of a foreign country where people have names like Precious and Wisdom and Blessing and greet each other with a “How now” rather than “Hey there”, and (to the eyes of someone from the developed world) the shock of such a young population. Film-makers the Esiri brothers – Nigerian but with many stamps in their passports – are alive to all those aspects as well as the aesthetic possibilities of Nigeria’s bustling, lively capital city.

It’s a beautifully made film. Artfully artless, music-free, no tricks, careful with its colour juxtapositions, lit (by DP Arseni Khachaturan) precisely so as to preserve the sense of free-flowing realism that’s all pervasive. Italian neo-realism is an influence, Da Sica in particular, and the sense of eavesdropping on lives that will carry on whether we are watching or not is strong, particularly in the Mofe segment.

The acting is of a high order, Jude Akuwudike getting the best of it as the engineer Mofe, though Temi Ami-Williams is also impressive in her debut as the benighted Rosa.

Made outside the Nollywood system, it’s the directorial debut of Arie and Chuko Esiri too, and such a great film that they immediately go into the category of fantastic fraternal film-makers including the Dardennes, the Safdies, the Spierigs, the Coens and, once upon a time at least, the Wachowskis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Wolfwalkers

Wolfwalker Mebh with wolves

 

Kings of Irish animation Cartoon Saloon bring their Irish Folklore Trilogy to a close with Wolfwalkers, a rousing big finish after The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014).

It’s closer in spirit to Song of the Sea, which was about a shapeshifting sea creature known as a selkie, than Kells, which was set in an Irish monastery where enthusiasm, bizarrely, was shown to trump actual craft and learning when it came to illuminating ancient manuscripts.

This time, co-writer/director duo Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart have repurposed an old legend about “wolf men” from Kilkenny, where their studio is based, to tell the story of human beings who release their inner wolf to walk at night while they sleep. And lying under that dual relationship is another, of the tortured past of the Irish and the English: colonisers, settlers, disrupters, oppressors. Ireland was the country where England learned how to become an imperial power.

Oliver Cromwell – scourge of Ireland – is never named but is clearly referenced in the character of the Lord Protector (voiced by Simon McBurney, a master at playing the snide bully), whose underling Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) has been brought over from England to wipe out the wolf population. His daughter, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), like many a heroine before her in the recent animationsphere, bridles at being ordered to stay indoors and do household chores rather than run free. She wants to do boy stuff.

And so Robyn disobeys, which throws her into the realm of the wolves, just as her father is setting traps and organising their mass extinction. But Bill has not reckoned on the power of the supernatural. Nor has Robyn, who accidentally strikes up a friendship with a wolfwalker called Mebh (the Irish spelling of Maeve).

Though the Irish are the oppressed in this story, it’s the wolves who are on the receiving end of the violence. In the classic “divide and rule” tactic the English would deploy throughout their eventual empire, suddenly it’s the wolves who are the problem for the local folk, rather than the massive system of oppression put in place by the Lord Protector.

Moore and Stewart tread carefully here, not wishing to open old wounds. There is nothing now to be gained in any case.

 

Mebh and Robyn in the woods
Mebh and Robyn

 

Most eyes, in any case will be drawn to the glories of the hand-drawn animation, which is really what all this Irish Folklore series is about. Again, what’s on offer is an eclectic mix of styles, with Richard Williams’s The Thief and the Cobbler the most immediate source of inspiration, though Disney’s Snow White, any number of Studio Ghibli’s stories about imperilled youngsters and the blocky characters of Halas and Bachelor’s Animal Farm are also sources of inspiration, while Moore and Stewart’s experiments in flattened perspective recall pre-Renaissance painting (an influence on Richard Williams also).

The style is deceptively simple but the technique is not. That’s what makes the Cartoon Saloon’s output so distinctive. While characters in the foreground, people and animals mostly, are bold and simple, the backgrounds are almost insanely detailed – the further back you go, the busier it gets. It makes for a viewing experience that will withstand, and reward, repeated watching.

My personal favourite of this trio is Song of Sea, which shared Wolfwalkers’ enthusiasm for shapes reminiscent of an Irish harp, then this, and trailing quite a way behind The Secret of Kells, whose animation was glorious but its story about young women bucking the system (also echoed in Wolfwalkers) would have been more exhilarating if it hadn’t been the go-to narrative for too many animations. Brave, Mulan, Pocahontas, and so on.

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

I Am Toxic

Fini Bocchino with a gun

 

If you’d never seen a modern zombie film (ie something made since George Romero relaunched the genre in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead), the Argentinian film I Am Toxic would be a good place to start. It’s a distillation, a jus, of all the elements you might expect to see, with none of the flim-flam.

A man (Esteban Prol) wakes up among a loose pile of bones and bodies. He’s surprised he’s alive. He hauls himself upright and blunders off in a daze, striking out across the scorched earth in the harsh sun.

It’s a post-apocalyptic world and he’s a survivor in it, this we know because we’ve seen a lot of these things, but the zombie virgin would also have no problem in working out what’s going on here, especially as our guy is soon attacked by a shuffling creature that can apparently hear but seems to be blind, and is then saved by some grizzled guy with a gun.

Back at grizzled guy’s refuge, our guy is introduced to the rest of the gang – a wiry ball of spite with no name (though the credits say he’s called Gris), a fat idiot called Cerdo (which is Spanish for pig) and a comely, long-limbed young woman called Iris. The old guy’s name is also never mentioned, though the credits insist it’s Padre Blanco.

Safety! Not a bit of it. In what looks like a plot lift from the Train to Busan Peninsula film (but can’t be because this was made first), it turns out that this armed-to-the-teeth rabble are actually going to be our guy’s main worry, rather than any zombie horde. They name him Perro (Spanish for dog), since he has amnesia and can’t remember his own name, push his face into some disgusting swill, threaten him with death, knock him out with a club, all just the beginning of his ordeals. Iris, meanwhile, is treated little better, a skivvy expected to do all the chores, and who knows what else besides.

 

Five zombies in a row
Also starring: zombies!

 

Made for buttons with a fair deal of ingenuity, I Am Toxic (Soy Toxico in the original Spanish) gets its grunge stylings from Mad Max, also its fascination with post-apocalyptic junkyard vehicles, its desert setting and its nihilistic vision of a future without any civilising forces at work.

The colour palette is so flat it’s almost monochrome, a collage of beige and brown and drab green, with camerawork tightly focused on the actors, largely, I suspect, because the budget doesn’t run to elaborate production design. What we see is enough though.

Barely a word is spoken. In fact Iris, we are told, has had her tongue removed by the guys because they got sick of her prattling, one more reason for that murderous pout on the face of actor Fini Bocchino, who sulks so well that hair and makeup appear to have given her a bit of an upgrade halfway through. Wavy hair, smoky eye shadow and plum-coloured lips suddenly appear, and we’re graced with Sulking Part II.

You don’t need to know any more about the plot – is Perro (he goes by no other name) going to get free? Is there something lurking in his past? Is there going to be a shock reveal? Spoilers all, though as a nudge I’ll just point out that Argentina is a fairly Catholic country and the concept of original sin does start exerting itself as things develop.

If you liked that “crawling through the carriage” sequence in the first Train to Busan, there’s a chance to see another version of it here, and other small delights include a couple of instances of genuine innovation in the field of gore and splatter. At one point a zombie gets shot in the dick, which was a rare moment of humour in a film that likes to keep its smiles upside down.

Think heavy metallers practising in the garage – tightly focused on a handful of chords, all dressed up in the right gear and ready with the balls-out attitude when all else fails. That’s I Am Toxic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Our Friend

Jason Segel and Dakota Johnson

 

I’m not sure who the audience for terminal disease weepies is. Not me, for sure. But Our Friend is a remarkably good one. When we die, or as we die, the highs and lows of the life just lived end up being tallied. That’s what this film does, taking particular account of one high that would have passed unnoticed if something really bad hadn’t come along.

The high is Jason Segel as the titular Friend, the something really bad is the cancer diagnosis that Nicole (Dakota Johnson) receives. The action actually snakes back and forth through 14 years of the relationship between Nicole and her husband Matt (Casey Affleck) but it’s the diagnosis that’s the baseboard everything springs from and which propels Dane (Segel) back into their lives. On-screen words tell us how far in months or years we are from this central definitive Event.

As the story opens, it’s some years before. Dane has just asked Nicole out, only to discover she’s married. Cue an awkward meeting shortly after with her husband (Affleck), a variation on the meet-cute, when it’s not-at-all clear that floppy haired, slouching, massively unsure-of-himself Dane is going to feature at all in the lives of bright go-getting Matt and Nicole. From inauspicious beginnings etc.

Some years down the line, Dane now has his hair brushed back but is still living in low-status land, much to the befuddlement of current girlfriend Kat (Marielle Scott). Selling hockey gear for a living, riding his own waves of self-doubt, he’s not much of a catch.

And then the call comes. Nicole has cancer. It’s terminal. Dane drops everything and heads back to his home town to help out – making sandwiches for Matt and Nicole’s kids, driving them to school, mangling Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me, Maybe to make them laugh, taking the dog to the vet to be put down (!) – so the family can map the new landscape. He moves in with them, becoming an honorary uncle. In other circumstances he’d be the fifth wheel.

 

Dane, Matt and Nicole
For real: Dane, Matt and Nicole

 

The “loser” – as pretty much all of Nicole and Matt’s friends see him – comes good, to the point where his own relationship suffers. That’s what’s being scrutinised and celebrated: the extent to which a person will help another person or persons out.

Against the current situation, we learn more about Nicole and Matt from the oscillating timeline, which goes back to reveal that struggling journalist Matt got a big break and became a war correspondent, neglecting his family into the bargain. That Nicole might have had a dalliance with someone. It’s the story of a marriage in snapshots – happy but with its ups and downs.

Even adding these details, the terminal-illness weepie’s demands assert themselves. And so we get familiar elements. Nicole’s bucket list, the wigs and headscarves, the rallies and collapses, the pills and the medical interventions, too fragrant for some apparently but how much suffering do you really want to see? And, eventually, the palliative care nurse and… the end.

It’s familiar but it doesn’t feels rote. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s background is in documentary – you might have seen the powerful Blackfish, about a killer whale driven murderous by captivity – and she brings a fresh eye to familiar situations, helped by the actors who rise to the challenge in scenes lifted by ad-libbing.

Johnson – who somehow brought dignity to her ridiculous sex-slave role in 50 Shades of Grey – also gets out unscathed here, generating empathy without squeaking into mawkishness. It is a great cast all round, not just Segel, Johnson and Affleck but also the support characters, who all arrive on screen fully formed. Like Aaron (Jake Owen), boyfriend of Nicole’s best friend Charlotte (Denée Benton), who looks from a distance like an asshole and who turns out, when we properly meet him, to be an asshole. Or Faith (Cherry Jones) the nurse who comes in for Nicole’s last days – sweet, efficient, seen-it-all, core of steel.

Friend Segel recedes a touch as Nicole’s end looms, as you’d expect from a film expanded from a piece written for Esquire magazine by Matt Teague, who was writing about his own life and wife.

The broken timeline wasn’t there in Teague’s original piece, but Brad Inglesby’s adaptation, and Cowperthwaite’s direction shift the emphasis. The arc still runs from health to death, but the broken chronology allows Nicole to be glimpsed again as vividly alive even as she’s slipping away, and for friendship, not just death, to stake a claim.

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

News of the World

Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks

 

British readers wondering why Tom Hanks is starring in a film about a defunct Rupert Murdoch newspaper – fondly known as The News of the Screws, because of its interest in kiss-and-tell stories – wonder no more. This western is called News of the World because that is the name of the novel it’s based on, by American writer Paulette Jiles. Simple as.

The film version is immediately reassuring on three counts. First, the look of it as it opens, honeyed light spilling from kerosene lamps in what is obviously a Western setting – props to DP Dariusz Wolski, who for a long time has been doing great work on what often turn out to be unloved films, like the Robert De Niro clinker Hide and Seek, Tim Burton’s unbearable Alice in Wonderland or the much-derided The Counselor (which I loved).

Double reassurance comes from Tom Hanks as the lead. He’s not been in an honest-to-goodness lousy movie for a very long time. Even The Da Vinci Code follow-up, Angels & Demons, was pretty OK (comparisons being handy here).

And there’s Paul Greengrass as director, another case of gold-plated, triple-lock excellence, with three Bourne films, United 93 and Captain Phillips all on a fairly slim feature-film CV.

The plot is steering a course between True Grit and The Searchers, with Hanks as a former Confederate soldier and printer by trade who now travels from one dusty frontier town. He brings with him the news of the world, reading extracts from the newspapers to people too tired to muster up the energy to read them themselves after a hard day scraping a living (as Hanks’s Captain Kidd tactfully puts it to what is doubtless a largely illiterate crowd). The hand-to-mouth existence is disrupted when Kidd comes across a racialised murder on the road, and ends up with a survivor of the violence under his wing, a petrified white girl who speaks the Kiowa language and is dressed in Native American skins.

She’s the only survivor of the murder of her family and has been living with the Kiowa ever since. In mismatched-companions plotting he has soon been charged with returning her to her only kin, an uncle and aunt 400 miles away. As the pair of them encounter trials on the way – bad guys with guns, treacherous situations, murderous weather and more bad guys with guns – the emotional temperature moves from mutual suspicion to something a lot warmer, as mismatched-companions plots tend to.

 

Captain Kidd reading the news
Captain Kidd in full flow

 

True Grit (tough cuss travels with smart girl) and The Searchers (tough cuss seeks niece abducted by Native Americans) are both John Wayne films and Tom Hanks, while playing Tom Hanks as he always does, also has a pop at playing a kind of Woke Wayne, a “the hell I am” tough nut who’s nevertheless a rationalist fond of book-learning and a respecter of people no matter their skin colour. In The Searchers Wayne’s Ethan Edwards was planning on killing his niece, to “rescue” her from the racial taint.

If the girl with Kidd looks familiar that’s because you’ve seen Helena Zengel, who plays orphan Johanna, in System Crasher, where the German actor gave a performance so spellbinding that it undoubtedly earned her the gig with Hanks. Here she’s playing a withdrawn, traumatised girl, all expressive big wet eyes. It’s quite a change.

Director Paul Greengrass earned his spurs making TV documentaries that aimed to speak truth to power. Those attitudes and techniques revolutionised the action movie in the Bourne films. Apart from a chase sequence when Greengrass reverts to the shaky camera and quick edit, he’s reaching for something different here, a John Ford-style big picture full of wide vistas and noble acts, with just a touch of Kelly Reichardt’s infatuation with the buckets-and-shovels depiction of the hardscrabble frontier life.

Greengrass has the looks down to perfection. This is the sort of film you could happily watch with the sound down. The pacing is a bit languid, though, or perhaps having largely rejected his usual techniques, Greengrass is struggling to come up with another way of suggesting urgency, without falling back on what he already knows.

It’s one of only two real niggles in a film that’s gorgeous, touching, well acted and fascinating. A bit more jeopardy wouldn’t have gone amiss either.

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Promising Young Woman

Cassie in action

A #MeToo-fuelled drama produced by Margot Robbie’s LuckyChap company, starring Carey Mulligan and directed and written by Killing Eve’s Emerald Fennell. Promising Young Woman is full of promising young women but recently gained extra notoriety because a Variety review of the film apparently suggested that Carey Mulligan wasn’t quite hot enough to pull off the role of vengeful temptress luring drunk men to their fate.

That comment was actually about Mulligan’s performance rather than her looks. But the story now has grown its own legs. Either way, an attractive young woman who is not hot enough to tempt a heterosexual man wearing several pairs of beer goggles. Pause to think about that. And while thinking, remember that adage coined by the comic Lenny Bruce: “Men will fuck mud.” There is no “not hot enough” about it.

All that to one side – and it is a total sideshow – Mulligan plays the medical-school dropout now working at a coffee shop. We first meet her apparently bombed out of her skull in a bar. Three dudes break off their sexist banter when they notice her. One of them goes over to see if she’s OK, discovers she isn’t and then helps her get on her way… back to his place. It doesn’t quite go as the would-be privateer had hoped. At the moment when he’s trying to lower the panties of his drunken prey, Cassandra snaps out of her drunken fug, fixes him with a cold hard eye… and the action cuts away tantalisingly.

Being an Oxford University graduate, writer Emerald Fennell understands the implication of naming her heroine Cassandra – the figure in Greek mythology who speaks truth, no matter how unpalatable. The truth in Promising Young Woman is that men are generally assholes. Cassie is there to deliver the message.

More specifically she’s on a revenge jag, exacting payback from a specific group of assholes from her med school days, who got the authorities to collude with their bullshit fiction when a night of consensual/non-consensual (delete according to privilege) sex went wrong.

One possible exception to the men-assholes rule is Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old acquaintance of Cassie’s who strays into her coffee shop one day. Verbal jousting ensues, she spits in his coffee, and the meet-cute rules of Hollywood rom-com swing into play.

Cassie looking cute
Setting up the honey trap


At first Mulligan comes across like something out of one of those Charlize Theron movies where she’s not only physically super-capable but also has a weapons-grade mouth that can neutralise testosterone. As things progress, and Cassie starts to work her way towards the source of her friend Nina’s humiliation, more of Cassie’s character is revealed and she morphs from Charlize-in-waiting to a more tragic figure.

Structurally, this is Killing Eve – smart dialogue followed by an elaborate kill. Fennell the writer toys with us by playing peek-a-boo with genre conventions. Is this a rom-com? A thriller? A revenge drama? One of the achievements of this film is that it does genuinely blindside.

However, the need not to give the game away means Fennell struggles laying out a clear dramatic throughline. There wasn’t one in Killing Eve either, but that could fall back on the distractions of the extravagantly florid anti-heroine Villanelle – never mind what’s going on (or, more precisely, what’s not going on) over there, look over here, where I’m playing whackamole with human beings!

On the upside, there are a plenty of brittle, diamond-sharp scenes, which come in two different flavours – smart, funny stuff between Cassie and Ryan, smart and unpleasant stuff between Cassie and most of the other men in the movie.

This is the feature debut for Fennell the director. Her particular visual trick, not overused but powerful, is every now and again to suddenly switch from objective to subjective camera. When it happens it’s just for an instant and then it’s back to objective camera, but the effect is head-swivellingly re-orienting.

We never meet Nina, the actual victim of the asshole guys, just Cassie. And just when the sympathetic avenging angel routine starts to lose its glamour, Fennell hits us with two neat reveals – the first is shocker, the second incredibly satisfying – and Promising Young Woman concludes with a ta-daa that makes you wonder what this promising young woman will come up with next.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

One Night in Miami

Sam, Cassius, Malcom and Jim

 

What did Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Malcolm X all talk about when they met to celebrate on the night of Ali’s victory over Sonny Liston in January 1964? It’s a fascinating  question that One Night in Miami asks.

The answer, in reality, is nothing, since the meeting never took place. But Kemp Powers’s  play imagined that it did, and it didn’t do the box office any harm. Now Regina King’s silky and understated direction brings it to a wider audience.

Ali wasn’t called Ali back then. He was still using his birth name, Cassius Clay, a fact that boomers will already know since Ali is part of their programming. For younger audiences, we’re introduced to the four key figures in swift vignettes that catch each of them at a low ebb. Clay is being knocked down by British boxer Henry Cooper, Brown is being racially disrespected, Malcolm X is struggling with his membership of the Nation of Islam and Cooke is playing the Copacabana nightclub, to the indifference and hostility of its white audience.

King does not hang around here but even so manages to give us a sense of who the boxer, NFL legend, political activist and singer are, if we didn’t already know. A familiar TV face acting in series such as Watchmen, and Southland, King has been steadily building a parallel career as a director over the last ten years.

One Night in Miami marks her coming of age in the field. As with many actors who take up directing, she works well with her on-screen talent – Eli Goree as the loud and proud Cassius Clay, Kingsley Ben-Adir as forensic and slightly stick-up-ass Malcolm X, Aldis Hodge as dignified but wounded Jim Brown and Leslie Odom Jr as smart and sweet-voiced Sam Cooke.

At Malcolm X’s behest the three other guests meet for what they imagine is going to be a post-fight pussy party. But they’re shocked to discover that there’s no booze – Malcolm is a Muslim of a strict and particular sort – and only vanilla ice cream as refreshment.

You might expect Clay to hog the film. But though Eli Goree’s Clay is a brilliant thing to watch – the bragging, the cheekiness, the smarts, the performative nous – the weight of the drama is with Malcolm X and Sam Cooke.

 

Kingsley Ben-Adir
Making the news: Malcolm X

 

What Powers’s play wants to hash out is the same stuff as the film The Butler went over – gradualism versus revolution as a way of improving the lot of “the negro” in America. Cooke, not just a pop star but the owner of his own master tapes and a canny businessman with his own label, is the gradualist; Malcolm X, sharp as a laser and with a mouth that could level mountains, is all for revolution and in this struggle you’re either with him or against him. As the night wears on, Malcolm wheedles away at Sam, trying to find the killer argument that will convince him, while Clay and Brown act as palate cleansers between bouts.

Though the intros are handled with economy, things slow down after that and One Night in Miami only really start to cook at about an hour in, after all the intros and smalltalk have been got out of the way and when the argument between Malcolm and Sam gets more personal and heated.

Nit-pickers, pedants like me, will flinch at the use of anachronistic language – no one in 1964 used “reach out” meaning to make contact, similarly the “black community” and “you do the math” were still a good way in the future.

But what great performances, both as individuals and as an ensemble, with the bonus of Leslie Odom’s Jr’s remarkable mimicry of Sam Cooke’s sweet singing voice, and that is a hard voice to mimic.

It never looks like it isn’t a stage play, and Regina King works with that, using the sense of place, of atmosphere and tension to craft an immersive experience. Not quite as if you were in the room with this awesome foursome, but close.

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021