New Order

The bride and groom kiss

Michel Franco’s latest movie, New Order, opens with a scene of sick people in hospital being forcibly removed from their beds so that people who have been seriously injured in some affray out on the streets can take have them instead.

Up come the credits, and the title and the actors’ names are all jumbly – backwards lettering, everything out of place – but then we settle into what looks like a familiar scene. A high end wedding. The bride and groom (to be, the ceremony hasn’t quite happened) kissing, their parents clucking about, drinks being handed around. Guests arriving and being greeted. Small talk. Behind the scenes the staff beaver away.

And then a poor man turns up at the front gate. His wife was one of the people we just saw being yanked from her bed at the public hospital. He’s the family’s ex driver and he’s back on this auspicious day to beg for their help – money so his wife can get the heart valve operation she needs at the local private hospital, where there is a now a bed waiting for her at a price he can’t afford.

Fluster, commotion, can something be done for him, without, you know, stumping up the 200,000 pesos he says he needs? Various members of the family react in different ways. Give him a good chunk of the money, but obviously not all of it, says one. Give him a couple of notes from your pocket and tell him to be on his way, says another. Or just go and get the money from the stash of wedding-gift cash that’s been steadily arriving all morning. That’s the option that bride-to-be Marianne (Naian González Norvind) opts for. And off she heads to get it.

A man points a gun at the wedding guests
A wedding to remember

At which point it all kicks off. The party has been crashed. Someone has been shot dead, just like that, in cold blood. Out on the streets there is uproar, crowds are surging wildly, there is mass looting, people are being killed, a full-bore revolution is underway.

Nothing too spoilerish so far. This is just the scene-setting phase of the film. Writer/director Michel Franco’s real concern isn’t high-end weddings or low-end health care, it’s what happens at moments like this, when whatever passes for law and order breaks down. It isn’t nice. It isn’t fair. Marianne is not rewarded by the cosmos for her attempts to help the driver, even though she’s the nicest member of the family. For those who believe in cosmic ordering or everything being for a reason, Franco’s film is not going to offer much succour.

And for those who believe that the one per cent deserve their day in front of the firing squad, Franco has little in the way of comfort there either. In French revolution style, his portrait of a mass outbreak of chaos shows that death at times like these becomes entirely indiscriminate. You might be safe behind the high walls, or a group of angry protestors might scale those walls and kill you, while your own staff loot your house, smiling fit to bust. Meanwhile, out on the streets, every unsavoury bastard who ever drew breath is making his move. There’s an army. There are armed militias. It’s hard to tell which is worse. Ransoms are demanded and ransoms are paid, and the ransomed person is killed anyway.

It’s a brilliantly tense movie, constructed with precision, in something like the way Steven Soderbergh brought a logic and thoroughness to the construction of Contagion, a story of society breaking down in a pandemic. Soderbergh’s fat-free style might be an influence too. As well as the tiny details that make it all feel real. The camera pulls back from a funeral at the cemetery to reveal that the cemetery is full of other groups of people burying a loved on. It’s as busy as a supermarket car park.

It’s brutal in effect, though there’s little actual brutality on the screen. Franco cuts away at key moments – a man about to be tasered up the anus, for example – to focus on the reaction shots of people who can see what we can not. It’s incredibly effective. We flinch too.

There is no light relief. It is relentless. An incredibly evocative movie unlike any other on the subject and a warning about widening gaps between haves and have-nots in modern societies the world over. Will the people it’s aimed at even watch it, though?

© Steve Morrissey 2021

Quo Vadis, Aida?

Aida with Colonel Karremans

Jasmila Zbanic’s powerful drama Quo Vadis, Aida?, about the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, starts with a sad irony. As the production company idents come up, and various “with the support of” and “in collaboration with” credits list all the European and international organisations involved, remember that when the events in this flm were playing out in real life actual international collaboration seemed to consist of a collective looking the other way.

Ask most people, most Europeans even, what the last war in Europe was and they’ll likely refer you to Adolf Hitler. That’s to forget the Bosnian war in the aftermath of the fragmentation of Yugoslavia – familiar as a holiday destination to so many. Zbanic reminds us, distilling the conflict down into one atrocity, the massacre at Srebrenica, and then distilling it again, into the story of a translator from Srebrenica working for the UN “blue beret” peacekeepers.

As the story opens, Dutch commander Colonel Karremans is reassuring the mayor of Bosnian Srebrenica in a highly charged meeting that if the advancing Serbs don’t cease and desist by 6am the following morning, Nato will bomb them.

In a nutshell, the Serbs do not cease and desist, the bombs do not come, and the population of Srebrenica is forced to evacuate, becoming refugees on their own doorstep, in and around the UN enclave. And still the Serbs keep coming. What happens next is the story of the Srebrenica massacre, when the population of the town was divided up and the men, over 8,000 of them, were taken away and killed and then buried in mass graves.

We see all this through the eyes of Aida (Jasna Djuricic), a tough, worldly and compassionate woman whose job as a UN translator might, you’d think, give her a few advantages as the menfolk are being rounded up and her husband and two sons are added to the tally.

Boris Isakovic as Ratko Mladic
Enter Ratko Mladic

Writer/director Zbanic is a Bosnian and she sees the story from that side of the fence. But her film is about a humanitarian disaster and a failure of the UN to prevent a massacre rather than an “ethnic” conflict between Bosniaks (Muslims) and Chetniks (Christians). What age-old grievances there might be remain unaired. Why neighbour went to war against neighbour is not her focus.

Enter the Serbian general Ratko Mladic, an imposing and scary figure, much given to plausible statements about the evacuation of the Srebrenicans to a safe place but radiating menace with every utterance. Good acting by Boris Isakovic (the husband of Djuricic in real life).

In fact the acting all round is very plausible. Johan Heldenbergh as the impotent UN Colonel Karremans, hung out to dry by his superiors and their empty talk, Raymond Thiry as the tough “bad cop” Major Franken, forced into going along with the genocidal manoeuvrings of Mladic and his men, Emir Hazihafizbegovic in a brief but potent performance as Joka, first encountered as a frighteningly unhinged anti-Muslim zealot, later, post-conflict, as a proud suburban dad watching his daughter in a school play.

Djuricic holds it all together, appearing in almost every scene, and as the tempo quickens and the ratchet of doom keeps clicking, she has to up the octane level of her performance – from concerned to tense, to fraught, to panicked, to frenzied… brilliantly done.

It’s a very simple film and all the better for it, telling a story in a straightforward way with no tricks and only one break in the choronology, when Aida thinks back to a happier time when the same people who are now bundling people into buses for slaughter were her neighbours, drinking and dancing and sharing their lives together.

It’s a companion piece with Zbanic’s superb 2006 film Grbavica (aka Esma’s Secret), which examined the aftermath of the Bosnian war from one traumatised woman’s point of view. Though played by a different actor, Aida could be the same woman.

Quo Vadis, Aida? – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Shorta aka Enforcement

Mike and Amos face off

Shorta (this film’s original Danish title) is the Arabic word for police. Enforcement is how it’s being sold in the rest of the world, as in “law enforcement”, but the truncation adds an extra shot of aggressiveness that’s entirely right for a boiled-in-piss drama all about the grrr.

The opening shot sets the tone – a close-up of a black kid struggling to survive a chokehold administered by the cops. When the kid later dies, the no-go estates where kids like him live erupt and two cops find themselves in enemy territory as tension boils over into violent unrest.

Jens Høyer (Simon Sears) and Mike Andersen (Jacob Lohmann) are the two cops, on their first day of buddydom, Jens the younger, more liberal of the two, but then almost anyone in the world is more liberal than Mike, an out-and-out racist who will harass anyone with a skin tone darker than his Nordic own. Complicating their uneasy partnership is the fact that Jens has yet to make a statement in the case of the kid who was choked; Mike is very much Team Cops.

It looks like we’re in a Training Day scenario – decent younger cop being shown the ropes by an entirely corrupt older one – until the kid dies, the rocks start flying and the two boys in blue find themselves at the wrong end of a housing estate.

Along for the, er, ride, is Arab teenager Amos (Tarek Zayat) who Mike was taking great pleasure in humiliating when escalating threat turned the cops into targets.

Suddenly Training Day has become a fight-your-way-to-safety movie like 16 Blocks.

Shorta/Enhancement is better than 16 Blocks, though. It has its own taste and colour and is relentlessly badass. The lighting is stark and the image contrast has been upped in post production, the soundtrack glowers menacingly, the sets are bleakly suggestive of disintegration. Even the VW Passat Estate the cops drive looks menacing, which is quite a feat for a car so bland.

A thoughtful Jens
Decent cop Jens

Also ringing the changes is a screenplay that goes an interestingly long way towards establishing just how much these cops (particularly Mike) deserve a good kicking, and then forces us to switch sympathies when they start getting it.

Amos is key here. In reality any cops with a shred of a self-preservation instinct would have let him go, but Mike (particularly) and Jens hang on to him, Amos acting as a guide through the badlands and as a vehicle to explore redemption for Mike.

Yes, Mike again. Great though Simon Sears is in the role of the quiet but tough and conflicted cop, Jens recedes in importance as the film develops, which is particularly odd considering the film started out being about him.

This becomes most apparent when the cops get separated. Jens and Amos go off in one direction, Mike in the other, but the camera goes with Mike, allowing more redemptive noodling as he meets a sympathetic brown face (Öslem Saglanmak) after having been shot – a nurse, handily. Later, there’s an awkward attempt to re-insert Jens into the story – the choked kid, the potentially incriminating statement he hasn’t yet made, all that – which doesn’t satisfy on any level

The movie has become The Raid with life lesson, but instead of the cops fighting their way up a building martial-arts style, they’re fighting their way across a building-strewn battlefield, with guns, rocks, stolen vehicles, knives, attack dogs and straight-up physical attack being used against them.

It’s an action movie for the more thoughtful audience, perhaps.

I’m not convinced the dynamics of the action-focused movie and the more human-focused drama really have many points in common, but Shorta/Enforcement makes the case that they do. It feels like a film that’s been made by a team all pulling in the same direction – its look, its sound, its casting, its sets, its acting. That must be down to co-directors Frederik Louis Hviid and Anders Ølholm in a feature debut that eventually closes out in fairly familiar fashion (Hviid and Ølholm also wrote it), but keeps the sense of threat bubbling throughout.

Shorta/Enforcement – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Disciple

Sharad with a sitar

If you want it enough you can have it. Believe. Be passionate. Follow your dream. Movies are often insistent on this point. The Disciple begs to differ.

You wouldn’t guess from his face, but Sharad (Aditya Modak) has it all. He plays raags, as this Mahrathi-language film calls them, ragas, most likely, if you’re an English speaker. His guru (Aran Dravid) is highly respected, deeply knowledgeable, kindly and technically supremely skilled. And as we can see in The Disciple’s opening scene, he also has talent.

In flashback to Sharad’s childhood we see a supporting, nurturing home life, with a loving mother. And if Sharad’s passionate, inspiring father is a touch cajoling in his encouragement of Sharad’s pursuit of Indian classical music, it’s no more so than all those Western parents and their insistence on piano practice.

Sharad has a part-time job collating old tapes and cassettes of obscure Indian classical musicians and compiling them into reissue CDs. In his spare time he goes to yoga, where the meditative practice helps clear the mind so that he can better perform the improvisational raags. Bombing home on his motorbike, through deserted city streets, he listens to tapes by his guru’s guru, the legendary Maai, on how to approach music mentally, spiritually, philosophically.

His life is music. His background and foreground, history and present, family and friends, on-duty and off-duty, music music music.

The guru with Sharad in a car
The master and the disciple

Writer/director Chaitanya Tamhane’s subtle and eventually rather heartbreaking film divides up into four parts. In the glimpses we get of Sharad’s childhood, the world is there for the taking. In 2006, where the bulk of the film takes place, he’s a young man who can see the glittering prizes on offer. One more jump forward, to maybe 2016, and the now-moustachioed Sharad has hit some kind of wall – Indian classical music is not working out for him and even his guru is voicing concerns.

Glimpsed only for a moment right at the end we get the present day where, with a flourish, Tamhane spells out what the rest of the film has been leading us towards. Unlike the beggar singing for a rupee on Sharad’s commuter train home, Sharad has no talent. And no amount of wanting it, being prepared, giving your all, your passion, your background, your environment or your inspiring TV-ready backstory can fill that gap.

Deliver unwelcome news stealthily seems to be Tamhane’s philosophy and his film has a lily-pond serenity to it which means Sharad’s tough life lesson could go unmissed, though there are nudges in that direction.

Sharad’s face, for one, poor Aditya Modak running through many variations on the sad sack without being too explicit. Sharad’s rejection by a pretty fellow player in his teen years, the urgent masturbating, but most of all the presence, hovering at the edges, of the TV show Fame India, in which we see a girl from nowhere becoming an overnight sensation because she’s got the one thing Sharad hasn’t. A gift.

The film glides along on castors. No shouting. No exposition. Calm. It’s all going on yet nothing appears to be really happening – Sharad practises, he meets his guru, he plays and sings, he teaches. Those long, single takes of Sharad going home on his bike through silent city streets capture the mood and philosophy of the film.

It sounds miserable and it is miserable. And yet Tamhane gives us a crumb of comfort at the end. It’s not exactly “follow your dream” so much as “be happy for what you’ve got”. Which is far less “yay, me!”, admittedly, but a life lesson all the same.

Chaitanya Tamhane’s last film, Court, is available to watch or buy at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Stalker and companions in the Zone

Time to rewatch Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, I thought, having recently seen Abel Ferrara’s Siberia (2019) and Gan Bi’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018), and noticed how influenced both were by the 1979 film.

As so many films are. Going backwards in time, just grabbing almost at random, there’s Stephen Fingleton’s amazing The Survivalist (2015), Alexey German’s Hard to Be a God (2015), Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) and Andrey Zvyangintsev’s The Return (2003). Almost all of Terrence Malick’s films owe a lot to Tarkovsky in general and Stalker in particular. Seminal, an overused term, is appropriate here.

Let’s also mention Blade Runner, which appeared in 1982, three years after Stalker. While there isn’t a direct read-across from Tarkovsky to Ridley Scott, there is plenty in terms of mood – the way rain is used, the meditative tone, the contemplative speeches, those big open empty spaces. Poetic sci-fi on a big canvas.

The critical consensus is that Stalker is ponderous but amazing. It’s hard to disagree. It feels every minute of its two hours 40 minutes but what stands out at the end of the experience is its uniqueness, its total artistic self-confidence and its out-of-timeness. There’s something so archetypal about it that it could have been made last week.

I’m going to stick close to the standard way of describing the plot too. Two men – a writer and a scientist (called Writer and Professor) – hire a “stalker” (we would call him a tracker these days, since stalker has picked up distracting connotations down the years) to take them into an area called the Zone, where an alien intelligence landed, did something not entirely specified and then left… possibly. There they are hoping to enter the Room, where all wishes are granted. The writer is hoping for a renewal of his creative drive – he’s an alcoholic cynic – the scientist is hoping to be handed the gift of knowledge. The Stalker is just hoping to get in and out alive. He’s the practical nuts-and-bolts Everyman who’s only doing it for the money. None of them is what you’d really call a character. They’re more ciphers, avatars representing abstracts.

Stalker takes a rest
Stalker rests

En route, first into the Zone and then on towards the Room, they talk. God, they talk. Tarkovksy, working from the screenplay by the brothers Strugatsky, runs through a list of what might be called “deep” subjects, with the writer doing the majority of the theorising as he expatiates at length about the role of art in the world. Making art is like extruding haemorrhoids, he says at one point. And you know what he means. In a bit of self-flagellation, Tarkovsky makes this artist a well of self pity. The scientist is nobler. Stalker… he’s just a guy.

Tarkovsky divides the film into two parts. Part one is more practical – how they get into the Zone – and realist, part two is more meditative and poetic, contains more of the blinding imagery that sets Stalker visually apart.

In neither do we approach any normal understanding of the meaning of the term “sci-fi”. Tarkovsky had no interest in it as a genre, he’d said as much when making Solaris in 1972, and Stalker could just as easily be described as a fairy tale, a myth or a religious allegory. Genres often, in any case, often got twisted in the USSR, where censorship often made it necessary to express one thing in terms of another.

There’s a genuflection to Robert Bresson (and maybe a nod to Kubrick) in Tarkovsky’s use of camera, which, appropriately, stalks its subjects like a cat stalking prey. So slowly zooming in, creeping left and right in tracking shots, gliding like an angel in his numerous overhead swoops. Malick, most obviously, noticed all this. The colour, meanwhile, switches from a medieval sepia outside the Zone to colour once inside, then back to sepia. At all times Aleksandr Knyazhinsky’s camera is remarkable. Stalker is beautifully lit and composed, with deep, deep focus techniques that were remarkable in the era of film. The Criterion restoration I watched really does it justice.

As to the actors, it’s not an actor’s movie. Aleksandr Kaydanovky (Stalker), Anatoly Solonitsyn (Writer) and Nikolai Grinko (Professor) are all fine, but all three are “appearing in” rather than “starring in” Stalker. The film is the star, and, thanks to Tarkovsky’s use of post-industrial landscapes, it hasn’t dated at all.

Its legacy is huge but it was important at the time because of its massive self-confidence and its staking out of a whole new space for the genre. Up till then, Kubrick maybe to one side, sci-fi had largely been about having fun, adventures in space and all that (even in offbeat sci-fi like George Lucas’s THX 1138 or Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running). Stalker’s quasi-medieval, largely philisophical, semi-sacral approach opened up new territory. Stalker – and all of Tarkovsky’s output – also validates all film-makers, canonising them as artists, as secular saints, giving them permission to slip the conventions of genre (and, if we’re being unkind, of the necessity for dramatic tension).

And so Stalker ends, with two jokes. In one, Tarkovsky chucks a bone to the “where’s the weird stuff?” crowd, in a very late scene where Stalker’s child does a bit of telekinesis, then he gives us the massively rousing outro music of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, as if we’d just finished watching Star Wars or something similar. Did we just watch something massively momentous or was it rather 160 minutes of three people just talking? Oddly, both things are true.

Incidentally, I don’t know if there is a “Curse of Stalker” but two of Tarkovsky’s three stars (Kaydanovsky, Solonitsyn) were dead in their 40s. Grinko got as far as 68, which is hardly ancient. DP Knyazhinsky got to 59, Tarkovsky himself was only 54 when he died in 1986, having just completed The Sacrifice.

Stalker (Criterion Collection version) – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Outside Story

Charles and Isha at home

Brian Tyree Henry goes from second string actor to star in The Outside Story. He’s probably best known from the TV series Atlanta, which has acted as a finishing school for talents including LaKeith Stanfield and Zazie Beetz. More recently you might have seen Henry’s face in Godzilla vs. Kong, as a nerdy conspiracy theorist.

Writer/director Casimir Nozowski also gets an upgrade, having made a number of New York-centric shorts and directed a reality foodie show – and you can see the influence of both in The Outside Story.

After a year of various levels of lockdowns, Henry is playing a character who’ll be familiar to many, as the video editor whose laptop-based job has reinforced his natural homebody tendencies. He’s become a “shut-in”, and as the action gets underway the chickens have come home to roost. His wants-more-than-this girlfriend Isha (Sonequa Martin-Green) has left him, leaving Charles (Henry) bereft.

Things go from bad to worse when Charles shuts himself out of his block while paying a food delivery guy, just the first in a series of mini-disasters which make The Outside Story look like it’s going to be all about one man’s very bad day – he gets a parking ticket, his friend with a spare key fails to come through, the landlord shows up with a key but Charles is temporarily not there, and he’s in his socks the whole time, and they’re polka-dotted. And so on. Bad stuff.

Meanwhile in flashback, we get the story of his relationship with Isha from soup to nuts, from meeting at a party to the day she told him she’d been making out with someone else.

Sunita Man as a cop on the prowl
Sunita Mani as a ticket-happy cop

It seems like a one-thing-after-another movie – freeform, good-natured, funny, relaxed and full of quirks (the delivery guy’s antsiness, the ticketing cop’s fuck-you attitude) before, metaphorically, Frank Capra arrives and it moves from being documentary-like into something with a form we can recognise, as the shut-out shut-in meets his neighbours out on the street and learns some of the joys of community. The pregnant woman having a stoop sale down the road, the widow next door, the piano-playing wise-beyond-her-years girl from upstairs and the ballsy cop (among others) teach Charles a big lesson of the It’s a Wonderful Life sort.

Nozowski’s background in guerrilla TV-reality shows like Food Warriors influences his shooting style – fast, lean, clean – and it really helps keep the pace up, which becomes much more important as things become more familiar. Another big plus is the performances from a gifted ensemble, most obviously the striking Sonequa Martin-Green as the one who got away, Sunita Mani as the neighbourhood cop and Olivia Edward as the funny kid upstairs with a bonkers actor mother. It’s a bonus, too, that they’re faces who aren’t too familiar, keeps things breezy.

A nice touch is Charles’s job. He makes video obituaries for stars who aren’t dead yet. The fictitious Gardner St James acts as an (entirely unnecessary) Maguffin, with Charles needing to get back in to his apartment to put the finishing touches to St James’s obit before the ailing actor croaks. Also on Charles’s list, we see, are Sean Connery (aah) and Michael Douglas. Mention is also made of Lindsay Lohan. Eeek.

By the end The Outside Story has become incredibly familiar and unashamedly corny. But corny is OK, and so is nice, especially when so much work has been done to build up the goodwill. Henry’s expressive face – the word “simpatico” used to be the go-to, now it’s “relatable” – means we’re on board with his predicament and rooting for good outcomes even when Charles is being really stupid.

The Outside Story – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Bill & Ted Face the Music

Bill and Ted in the teleporter

Quick show of hands, did anyone actually ask for Bill & Ted Face the Music? Thought not, though here it is, around 30 years on from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and their Bogus Journey, back with its original stars, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter, a good comedy director at the helm (Dean Parisot of Galaxy Quest fame), and with two talented draftees in there to provide new blood.

In fact Reeves expressed an interest in a new instalment as long ago as 2005. Original writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon climbed back on board soon after, and the project was ready to go for about ten years – the studio wasn’t convinced a “cult” movie would put the requisite bums on seats – but it took until 2019 for shooting to get underway.

As near as makes no difference it follows the journey structure of the other films, with the two now-middle-aged members of Wild Stallyns off on a quest to write a song that will save the world. And, realising they haven’t a hope of actually doing that, Bill (Winter) and Ted (Reeves) journey into the future where, they’ve been told, they have already written that song. All they have to do is find the even older versions of themselves, get the song and bingo.

Thea and Billie
Thea and Billie

Into the teleporting telephone kiosk they go, pursued by a murderous robot sent by The Great Leader (Holland Taylor), with their daughters close behind, who are on their own quest to assemble the perfect rock band, which will involve recruiting Jimi Hendrix, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Louis Armstrong, among others.

And following them, in an obvious last place, come the wives (Jayma Mays, Erin Hayes). Hey, this movie’s from a different era, everybody.

What an incredibly hit and miss film this is, long on enthusiasm short on actual big laughs, though the song early on at the latest wedding of Missy (Amy Stoch) – who has previously been married to both Bill and Ted’s fathers – is a blindingly funny car crash of mixed sources. Theremin, bagpipes, overtone singing and a trumpet being just part of it.

The dudes look good for their years, Keanu in particular looking about as limber as any 55-year-old is ever going to look – the John Wick 3 training standing him in good stead here – while “the wives” function exactly like the wives of Laurel and Hardy. They’re a pair of eyerolling harpies with a low opinion of their oafish husbands.

The daughters are a different thing altogether, Brigette Lundy-Paine and Samara Weaving as Thea (Bill’s daughter) and Billie (Ted’s) delivering exactly the jolt of electricity that they’ve been hired for. They are, in essence, Bill and Ted Mark II – their love of music, their use of dudespeak, the over-elaborate speech patterns, the relentless nodding while the other is speaking, the turning of the whole body when a simple twist of the head would have sufficed. Chips off the old block.

And as the film progresses, the dudesses, Billie and Thea, come to the fore as it becomes increasingly obvious that Bill and Ted’s encounters with their future selves are not what this film needs. What’s necessary is encounters with their past selves, when they were striplings. Still, Billie and Thea help plug that gap. They are the film’s killer app.

The Grim Reaper, in the shape of William Sadler, makes a return appearance as Bill and Ted journey through realms high and low – can you say Death also looks good for his age? – and Reeves and Winter have a bit of fun dressing up as alternative future versions of themselves.

It’s a lively film though not a particularly fresh one, best seen as the filmic version of one of those dad-rock bands doing a greatest hits tour. Some of it now looks quaint – a telephone box as a teleporter? Rock music saving the world? Rock music even as a thing? But it’s fitfully funny, relentlessly good natured and at 91 minutes doesn’t outstay its welcome. It doesn’t dare.

Bill & Ted Face the Music – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Rising Phoenix

Wheelchair fencer Bebe Vio

As the documentary Rising Phoenix makes clear, the rebranding of what were previously regarded as “disabled” people as a kind of army of X-Men type characters was what transformed the Paralympics. Before London 2012 the Paralympics had been a tacked-on event, the Cinderella of the Olympics. But suddenly the stadiums were full and the crowds were eager to see these remarkable people do their thing.

Working like an extended version of one of those montage clips that big broadcasters like the BBC are so good at making when a big sporting event is in full roar, it’s a film of two parts. One tells the inspirational story of individual athletes and how they made it to the top. The other provides a bit of backstory to fill in the historical gaps.

Among the people we meet are wheelchair fencer Bebe Vio, whose legs were amputated at the knee and arms at the forearm thanks to meningitis (she’s a vociferous advocate for early vaccination, which would have spared her). Ellie Cole, the swimmer who had a leg amputated aged three. Jean Baptiste Alaize, who lost a leg in the Burundi civil war and saw his mother murdered in front of him (“I run to escape,” he says). Matt Stutzman, the archery champion born without arms and whose parents gave him up for adoption. Jonnie Peacock who runs on blades like Oscar Pistorius (who he beat) – meningitis again. And Cui Zhe, the Chinese powerlifter struck by polio when she was only two.

Archer Matt Stutzman
Archer Matt Stutzman

They’re all very different as individuals (I had a particular soft spot for Bebe Vio, so full of life, so sweet, firing off in every direction), but all share a refreshing bloodymindedness and directness, but combine it with compassion – in many ways they are humanity at its best.

And then the backstory – Ludwig Guttmann, the German-Jewish doctor who fled the Nazis and wound up at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England (he ran the spinal unit), where he inaugurated the Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948. This featured only war veterans with spinal cord injuries and started on the same day as the London Olympics. A clever bit of marketing which would, eventually, lead to the Paraplegic Games (later renamed the Paralympics) being run side by side with the Olympics from 1960 onwards.

It’s been a zig-zag story. In 1980 the Soviet Union didn’t allow a Paralympics – it took place in Arnhem instead – because the USSR officially didn’t have any disabled citizens. The general consensus is that Beijing did a “good job” as regards the Paralympics in 2008, which London built on in the breakthrough year of 2012. And then there’s quite a sizeable chunk of the behind-the-scenes drama surrounding the Rio Games, when cash overspends and shambolic administration made it look like both the Olympics and Paralympics might not happen at all, or if they did were going to be a disaster. In the end it turned out to be a case of “if you build it they will come”. After a shaky first few days, the crowds suddenly started turning up, the games were a hit.

Prince Harry turns up at one point – he founded the Invictus Game for wounded members of the armed forces in 2014 and so shares an interest. And he manages to say something that’s almost non-platitudinal, which for a member of the British Royal Family is remarkable.

It’s a sweet, admirable, informative and inspiring documentary full of people whose determination to succeed puts them outside the normal run of folks (which you could, of course, say about any Olympic athlete too). However, Rising Phoenix sets out to celebrate rather than woo. If you’re not that interested to start with, it’s not going out of its way to convert you.

© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Mitchells vs the Machines

The Mitchell family

A cross-pollination of Deadpool and The Lego Movie might result in The Mitchells vs the Machines, a mad, meta-referential animation full of smart ideas and packed with enough jokes for repeat viewings.

It’s refreshing, also, for a big Hollywood movie to be such a hymn (if hymns can be this busy) to weirdness. That’s largely down to co-writer/director Michael Rianda, who makes clear in the exit credits – with a big picture of his own family tagged “the real life Mitchells” – that this is a personal project.

Perhaps idiosyncrasy is a better word than weirdness, let’s not get carried away, because in the telling of a story about a teenage movie-mad girl called Katie, and her scrappy but loving family, there’s nothing out-and-out oddball going on. Katie just wants to go away to college and be with “her people” – fellow students on a moviemaking course – and her parents (and similarly idiosyncratic little brother) are reluctant to let go. Normal family stuff, in other words.

This family are an everyday, just folks kind of unit, a paean to the shabby, the make-do, the everyday, the exact opposite of so many airbrushed lives to be found on Instagram, through tricked out with all the bells and whistles of the Instagram age.

So, that’s the Mitchells, what about the machines? They arrive when dad Rick (voice: Danny McBride), mum Linda (Maya Rudolph) and brother Aaron (Rianda) are driving Katie (Abbi Jacobson) to university and the singularity occurs. Thanks to infernal dabbling in AI by tech magnate Mark Bowman (Eric André), the machines suddenly become supersmart, stop obeying orders from humans and set about rounding up the entire planet’s population, with the intention of firing them off into space.

Suddenly the Mitchells aren’t just driving Katie to California, they’re on a mission to save the planet (and rediscover their special family bond), with Katie’s almost insane optimism and wildly creative mind as their secret weapon. Actually, they all seem to have a secret weapon when it’s really needed, even the dog.

You could watch this film at half speed and still miss stuff. It is so packed with detail, and not just in the writing. The animation style is almost psychedelic in its fizziness, and drawing on social media for its influences as much as other movies, it’s erupting with stuff busting out all over the frame – emotions becoming visible in the shape of a heart or flowers, overlays as if a face-change app or a cat-face app had been suddenly switched on, and then off again just as quickly.

“Who would have thought a global tech company wouldn’t have our best interests at heart,” opines mother Linda at one point, thus completing the journey of tech in popular culture from good guys to out and out villains – 2013’s The Internship to 2021 and the arc is complete. If I were Mark Zuckerberg I’d be very nervous, even though the tech honcho himself isn’t portrayed as a bad guy, reinforced by the fact that Eric André is providing his voice, but the message is clearly that the whole thing is out of control and someone needs to do some restraining. If not the government, then… a suburban family.

Monchi the mutt
Monchi has his own superpower

Animated movies of yore managed to get by OK when no one had any idea who was voicing Cinderella, or Snow White or the Lady and the Tramp. Even so, there are some standouts here – André is well chosen, as said, so is Danny McBride as the dad, one moment vainglorious, the next crestfallen, McBride gets it all just right. And Olivia Colman is nicely chosen as the voice of the app that’s controlling the singularity – named PAL (reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL) – though maybe a touch too larky here and there. She’s meant to be dangerous, not silly.

John Legend and Chrissy Teigen send up their “we’re too-too perfectly, almost sick-makingly perfect” social media personas as the too-too perfect neighbours of the scrappy Mitchells, just an instance of the pop-culture references (Furbies, YouTube, theme parks) that keep on coming. As do the jokes, which pile on top of each other in Lego Movie style (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of Lego Movie fame, are the producers), to such an extent that you might want to hit the pause button occasionally. But for every one that flies by unnoticed, there’s another that will get the shoulders shaking.

We all rely far too much on tech, but this clever film goes way beyond observing that everyone’s hunched over a screen these days to make the observation that tech has already taken over, even without a singularity. And that the future won’t be the way we think it is. It isn’t a Terminator T-3000 we need to worry about, but smart washing machines and toasters all talking to each other – another great joke opportunity exploited brilliantly.

Funny, clever and saying something that’s worth saying, this has got to be the best animation of the year.

The Art of The Mitchells vs the Machines – get the Kindle book at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Class Action Park

On the deadly alpine slide

Class Action Park is a punning title for a reasonably even-handed documentary about Action Park, Vernon, New Jersey, a trailblazing theme park when it opened in the 1970s, which later became infamous on account of the number of accidents and deaths that happened there.

It was the brainchild of Gene Mulvihill, a disgraced Wall Street trader who realised there was money to be made from a park that varied its offer with the seasons – by winter a ski resort, a water park in summer.

“Uncle Gene” is what the teenagers in his employ affectionately called him, and it’s their testimony that forms the bulk of Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott’s film. Though it’s decades later, many of them are still beaming ear to ear as they recall some of Mulvihill’s madder excesses.

The rides were designed “on the fly” and not by trained engineers, for instance, and Mulvihill would often add his own embellishments. Like in the Cannonball Loop, an enclosed water slide with a full loop near the end. Mulvihill paid teenage workers $100 to test it before it opened. Some ended up with lacerations, others lost teeth.

Other rides included the Speed Slide. People got on and would hit speeds of up to 60mph. The ride would “shoot water up their assholes”, according to one witness. Or the very popular Tarzan Swing – a rope hanging high over a pool, which kids would swing from to cries of “Pussy!” and “You suck” from below.

Most notorious of all was the Alpine Slide. It was made of concrete and fibreglass and asbestos and there was a real risk of spinning off at any point. Loss of skin was common, as were collarbone injuries.

The Wave Pool, known to insiders as the Grave Pool, was murky with sewage and the lifeguards couldn’t see the bottom well enough to detect if someone was lying there. They referred to the lifeguard chair as the death chair.

Visitors on an inflatable raft
Next stop, the emergency room

Motor World, a car-themed sister park next door, was right next to the beer tent. The park also featured an entire German brewery. The Oktoberfest was particularly popular (and what a way to extend the season!).

Advertising from the time makes all this look hellishly exciting and it was undeniably very popular, because danger is exciting. “The last decade of unsupervised fun for kids,” is how one interviewee describes it, nailing in a sentence the USP of this film – it talks to our current risk-averse times, without ever being silly about it.

The flipside of all this is the way that Mulvihill dealt with genuine grievances. We hear from Esther Larsson, whose son died at Action Park in 1980, on the Alpine Slide. Mulvihill responded to her in the way he did to all complaints. He ignored her.

More generally, whenever a law suit landed on his desk, Mulvihill refused to respond, kicking it down the road for as long as possible, waiting for the plaintiff to give up. Ironically for a man trading in movement, inertia was his weapon here. If he did get fined, he simply refused to pay up. All the while selling himself as a libertarian trailblazer and a brave man fighting the killjoy regulators, who were clearly not doing even the minimum that their job entailed.

How slender those 1970s/80s Americans are in the archive footage and it is so obviously a completely different era, before gaming and smartphones took over. Looking back, former employees also realise how different things were, and how they were being exploited while also having the time of their lives.

Action Park went bankrupt in 1996, finally brought down by law suits Mulvihill couldn’t dodge. It didn’t help that Mulvihill had lost his source of ready cash on Wall Street and with it the shady connection to the Cayman Islands. Maybe the whole endeavour was a glorious financial loophole from the beginning, though this film’s strengths is its testimonies not its financial sleuthing.

It could never happen now and quite possibly shouldn’t have happened then is the film’s broad conclusion. Put another way, it was fucked up but it was fun.

© Steve Morrissey 2021