I Am Gen Z

Gen Z participant Noella

At the Raindance film festival, London, UK, 27 October–6 November 2021

I Am Gen Z is a documentary about, er, Generation Z, and while it kicks off with a quick intro as to who Gen Z are NOT – they’re not millennials (born early 80s to mid 90s), instead they’re the next cohort (mid/late 90s to about 2012) – it settles down into an examination of the defining fact of their lives. They’re the digital natives whose lives have been shaped by, and who often live through, social media.

It’s spooky to be reminded of how fast this has happened. There’s that old footage of Steve Jobs announcing three new devices – an iPod with touch controls, a “revolutionary” mobile phone and a “breakthrough” internet communications device. A second later, to a crescendo of whoops in the hall, he reveals that they are in fact all the same device. It’s the iPhone. It’s 2007.

The ramifications of that announcement are still playing out, and Liz Smith’s debut feature doesn’t hold back when it comes to the negatives. Gen Z have become digital serfs, targets for advertisers who bombard them all day. They’ve become human guinea pigs whose dopamine responses are being triggered by tech-generated habit loops, much as people get addicted to slot machines. They’ve lost their attention spans. They no longer engage properly with flesh and blood humans, which means a loss of brain health. Social media has ruined the way relationships are formed. It’s led to “social cooling” – being seen to be having fun makes Gen Z a hostage to the future, and so they don’t do it. What about the personal information these tech giants have in their data silos? What about the civil liberties implications of facial recognition software? Smartphones mean Gen Z remain on a “digital leash”, forever connected to their “snowplough parents” and not learning things for themselves. There are self harming issues. The problem with eating disorders. Trolling. Post-truthism. The YouTube and Facebook system which, through the “you liked that so you’ll like this” algorithms, lead the user into more and more extreme territory. Is democracy at stake? Is society heading towards a civil war?

Some of this long list is nothing more than the “Kids today, huh?” response of every older generation to a younger one, some of it is not. Smith comes up with some positives to offset what is undeniably a majority gloomy picture. Gen Z are obsessed with fairness and want to make the world a better place. #BeKind. They’re vocal about climate change and health care and gun control. And… er… Greta Thunberg!

Tim Kendall, former president of pinterest
Tim Kendall, former president of pinterest

The dystopian future has always been with us as an idea and a warning, but whereas earlier generations looked to George Orwell as their prophet of doom, Aldous Huxley has now taken over as. Orwell’s dystopian 1984 was about an overweening state forcing itself into people’s lives; in Huxley’s nightmare vision, Brave New World, the serfs voluntarily enslaves themselves. As the young reach for that Samsung phone, so the turkeys vote for Christmas.

Huxley’s pronouncements stud what is essentially a talking heads documentary full of tech gamekeepers turned poachers, writers, psychologists, marketers and doctors. Noticeably, the expert pronouncements on the gloomy future are largely being made by Generation X (1965-80ish) plus the occasional more youthful millennial. The contribution by Gen Z has largely been sourced from social media itself, so we’re largely getting them at their most performative rather than most reflective.

Much ground is covered and as with other documentaries on the same subject, like last year’s The Social Dilemma, this works best as a broad introduction to this huge subject rather than as an in-depth analysis. In the time available that would be impossible. But (as you can see from that list above) the ground covered is impressive and the talking heads (among them Tim Kendall, former president of pinterest and one of the first employees at Facebook) do know what they’re talking about.

There does seem to be a remarkable preponderance of good-looking young men and women in I Am Gen Z. Maybe they’re just a better nourished and hence better looking bunch of people than their crusty Gen X parents, or maybe they all had their Instagram face filters switched on.

What is obvious from the Gen Z contributions, in among the songs and the pile-ons and the “yay me!” self-obsession, is that these clear-skinned young people have intuited that the culture they inherited from their parents isn’t up to the job, it’s lagging too far behind the tech, with its morality and ethics lagging even further behind. They’re trying, messily and largely in the dark, to hash something out on the fly so life can be lived at some level of daily decency. Google may be “making us stupid”, as one of the older talking heads puts it, but according to this documentary Gen Z aren’t going to go down without a fight.

© Steve Morrissey 2021

All Sorts

June and Diego

At the Raindance film festival, London, UK, 27 October–6 November 2021

You’re either a fan of the wacky, the quirky and the whimsical or you’re not. All Sorts is all three and yet manages to avoid the can’t-be-arsedness of so many films that think that they only have to be zany and suddenly every other consideration – like crafting a decent a plot – can go hang. Not everyone is Wes Anderson. In fact, sometimes even Wes Anderson isn’t Wes Anderson.

The director and writer here is J Rick Castaneda, of the production outfit Psychic Bunny – their 2009 bite-size web series Coma, Period. (still on YouTube) gave Rob Delaney an early starring role, after which they hooked up with Lego to make Ninjago: Decoded, one of those deeply knowing animation series designed to shift product with a wink.

All Sorts is an office comedy, faintly reminiscent of Mike Judge’s Office Space, or the overlooked British call-centre comedy Eight Minutes Idle, but walking a path all of its own. It’s made for nothing and has a large cast who, I’m guessing, might all be friends and relatives of the Psychic Bunny crew. But the main focus is dweeby Diego (Eli Vargas), a newbie finding life a struggle at Data-Mart (“We got data”), and gawky June (Greena Park), an old hand who, it turns out, is a dervish at filing.

Filing. All Sorts waxes nostalgic about office practices that no longer exist, and it can do that because it’s set in the 1990s – all chunky monitors, blocky websites, Nokia phones and filing cabinets, which were then having their last moment under the fluorescents.

Enter the whimsy: it turns out that there’s a secret portal in this office, out by the Coke machine, where, if you give the right signal, you will be admitted to a late-hours filing competition that’s run just like a WWE bout. A stoked crowd, an announcer in evening dress, competitors with fight names like Steve the Butcher.

Feet disappear into a filing cabinet
Lost in her work

June, once Diego has worked out how to access the invite-only event, finds her unusual talent has a niche. She’s a star, and in one nicely caught bout after another she ascends the rankings, streamlining her filing technique as she goes.

It does all sound so cute it should come with a bucket, but there are a handful of things in All Sorts’ favour. It’s got a good story, for one, with a hint of mystery about the true nature of the filing competition. It also sets up a possible love story between Diego and June, who already has a boyfriend, one who calls Diego “Dago” when they first meet – there follows a lovely scene of male rivals’ smiles veiling snarls. And it throws enough little puzzles into the mix, and weird characters, like office boss Vasquez (Luis Deveze), one of those self-obsessed weirdos everyone who’s ever worked in an office has come across.

The jokes are not so much funny haa-haa as funny peculiar, and it catches really well that feeling of those first-job jobs, before the career hooks in, when strangers are thrown together doing stupid things and a strange sort of survivors’ camaraderie develops.

It’s set at a pivotal moment, right at the very end of around 100 years of a certain type of office culture – turn up, do your thing, go home – and right at the beginning of another type, where you’re never ever not at work. And All Sorts is fuzzily warm in all the right ways about an experience which it’s savvy enough to admit was also crushingly menial.

There might be a bit of Canadian fringe-dwelling auteur Guy Maddin in its delving into odd amours and non sequitur scenarios, and then again there might not. But it’s funny enough, ridiculous enough, odd enough and warm enough to bounce over the occasional wobbly performance and hit the spot, even though every single thing about it is knowingly faux.

© Steve Morrissey 2021


Elpida in the stirrups

At the Raindance film festival, London, UK, 27 October–6 November 2021

When is she going to crack? It’s the question asked by Tonia Mishiali’s feature debut, Pause (aka Paúse), and then answered in a series of gotchas.

Pause as in Menopause, the film’s working title, and in an opening scene that’s more amusing to watch than it would be to experience, middle-aged Greek woman Elpida (Stella Fyrogeni) is being examined in gynaecological stirrups after which she’s told that she’s going through the menopause. The male doctor runs through a list of what Elpida can expect – night sweats, body odour, weight gain, allergies, bleeding, osteoporosis – a list that goes on so comically long that only madness and death seem to be missing.

Elpida reacts with a deadpan nothing, a sort of “the shit I deal with” resignation, and heads off home, where Mishiali’s film lays out in painstaking detail exactly the sort of shit she deals with day in, day out, skivvying for her entirely unappreciative husband, this being Cyprus where the patriarchy still has a strong grip, or at least it does in this household.

Mishiali repeats the cycle often enough that we get it. Elpida shops, she cooks, she sits opposite Costas (Andreas Vasileou) night after night as he, head down, not talking, scoops food into his maw, then settles down for an evening watching the TV shows he wants to watch.

It’s shot like a Greek Weird Wave movie (by DP Yorgos Rahmatoulin), dead flat, little in the way of sun, the colours leached away, and Fyrogeni plays Elpida (the name translates as Hope, another of the film’s little jokes) like a posh paint chart of muted tones and different matte finishes – 50 shades of grey despair.

Maybe he’ll die, Elpida’s friend Eleftheria (Popi Avraam) says one day, meaning Costas. Or maybe you should feed him more fatty food until his arteries give out. Eleftheria is the more modern woman, given to cosmetic surgery, free in the way Elpida is not because her own husband is dead – and she exults in the memory of his death. In the film’s only moment of lightness, we get a hint of the Elpida of yore as she and Eleftheria get glammed up, go to a bar and karaoke a song together. It’s not I Want to Break Free or I Will Survive but it could be.

Elpida sings her heart out
Elpida sings her heart out

Carefully, amusingly, Mishiali keeps offering us moments where the strong-featured but cowed Elpida finally expresses herself – a sexual reverie here, a shock seizing control of her life there – only to reveal that these are fantasies Elpida is having, and that the reality of Elpida’s life continues to be a flatlining existence with Costas, who looks like he’s upping the patriarchal ante, using lack of money and impending old age to restrict Elpida’s orbit even further by selling her car.

Mishiali and co-writer Anna Fotiadou keep up the fantasy drop-ins almost to the final bell, and do it so well that it works every time. Of course we want it to work. We’re on Elpida’s side, and Vasileou’s selfless performance as the boorish, unthinking and casually rather than wilfully horrible Costas really helps to keep us there.

Subtitle-o-phobes, this is one for you. It’s in Greek, of course, but there’s so little dialogue, because Elpida’s life is so remarkably constrained, that there’s very little to read.

It’s an artfully fashioned film, a gem, or anti-gem really, with all the facets cut to repel the light. The performances, the lighting, the drab interiors, even Elpida’s hair – the roots showing through – all tell the same story. Bracket it with the Greek Weird Wave, if you fancy, but it is less overtly weird than most, too everyday, though with just enough of the fantasy element in there to keep it bubbling.

© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Hater

Gabi with Tomasz

The Hater (Sala Samobójców. Hejter in the original Polish) slots in alongside Brechtian “man on the make” dramas like The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, or the novel/film Room at the Top, or even Mephisto, the Klaus Mann novel and 1981 movie by István Szabó.

It’s a film about a young man who believes in himself rather than anything else, and we meet Tomasz (Maciej Musialowski) just as he’s being thrown out of law school for plagiarism, though he doesn’t seem overly concerned about the fact that he’s trashed his own prospects.

Later, at the apartment of the aunt and uncle who’ve been sponsoring his studies, he keeps quiet about what’s happened while they subject the right-leaning Tomasz to an evening of metropolitan elitery, fine food and wine accompanying the liberal globalist chit-chat. To thank them for their hospitality and the money they’ve spent on his studies, he bugs them, and listens in later to hear them mocking his country-cousin background and his pathetic excuse of a present – strawberry jam!

Unfazed, Tomasz gets a job at a digital consultancy, in effect a troll farm, and here his dispassionate, possibly psychopathic, personality really comes into its own. Lacking any real conscience he’s really good at his job, thinking nothing of the human cost of the various derampings and takedowns he’s set to work on. The first is a well meaning natural health influencer, and then he’s given an important assignment, a liberal politician who is angling for power.

Tomasz looks like he’s heading towards a familiar endpoint and it can surely only be a matter of time before he’s buying a gun to shoot up a mall or a school. He’s the ignored incel who desperately wants the world to take him seriously, no matter how he gains the notoriety. But instead Tomasz gets close to the mayoral candidate, the better to entrap a man who, rumours suggest, might be a closeted homosexual.

Tomasz close up
Tomasz: the face of evil?

Rather going against the title, Tomasz isn’t a hater at all. He’s not really engaged with extremism, that’s just his “in”, the path of most opportunity. Ultimately that’s slightly disappointing, because the offer with The Hater seemed at first to be a portrait of a political point of view. What’s actually delivered is a more conventional portrait of a pathology. (A variation on the liberal idea that people go for right wing politics because they’re sick, or thick or have been tricked.)

It’s a sequel to 2011’s Suicide Room, apparently (the Sala Samobójców bit of the original title translates as Suicide Room). I haven’t seen it but I do know it’s about the interfacing of the online world with a fragile personality, and that Agata Kulesza plays Beata in both films – the mother of the protagonist in Suicide Room, Tomasz’s boss here. What I have seen is another film by director Jan Komasa, Warsaw ’44, another massively ambitious project that simply went on too long.

It is brilliantly done, though, Komasa taking us into various odd corners with skill and smarts (like the world of video-gaming, Komasa suggesting gamers and online trolls share characteristics). He also gets a canny performance out of Musialowski, who manages to keep us onboard with Tomasz in spite of the fact that he’s a cold fish at best, a ruthless psychopath at worst.

Particularly well done is the whole sequence where Tomasz starts playing one side off against another, stirring things up across the political divide, along the way recruiting Guzek (Adam Gradowski), a sad sack of a weapons nut and dim-bulb fascist, to do in the real world what an avatar inside a computer game might do.

Populist politics, fake news, troll farms, weaponised attacks on democracy, it’s hitting the hot buttons, tokenistically at least, prompting the speculation that either director Komasa or writer Mateusz Pacewicz see a bit of themselves in the dead-eyed Tomasz. Or maybe a bit of Tomasz in all of us, bent over our screens, capable of connecting only at one remove and being played by the international elite funding the troll farms and pulling the levers.

The Hater – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Tommaso and his wife Nikki

Tommaso is a film by Abel Ferrara that’s essentially a film about Abel Ferrara, with Willem Dafoe in the lead role as an avatar of the writer/director, a creative dude trying to live out his golden years in Italy but finding old demons constantly resurfacing. It’s an uncomfortable and not entirely gripping drama, though Dafoe’s amazing performance does almost get it over the line.

We first meet the talented, accomplished and open Tommaso at a language school learning Italian, making the effort because he has a much younger wife at home (Ferrara’s own wife, Cristina Chiriac) and an infant daughter (Ferrara’s own daughter, Anna). He’s a film-maker, still working, and because of a successful streak he is now able to do things his way. He can enjoy life. Or he would if he wasn’t plagued by doubts, fears and a paralysing paranoia. And what does the much older husband of a hot wife fear?

Exactly. While out in the park with his daughter, Tommaso thinks he spots Nikki (Chiriac) in a clinch with exactly the sort of hot young dude you’d expect her to be hanging around with, rather than someone 30-plus years older than her. Tommaso has given up the drugs and the booze and is in good shape, but no amount of daily yoga in his apartment can bridge that gap.

To be fair to Ferrara, if this is an auto-biographical movie – and it looks like one – he’s unsparingly hard on himself, and he has absolutely no need to do that. He directed such crowd pleasers as Bad Lieutenant and The King of New York after all. After spotting the woman who might be his wife nuzzling up to AN Other, Tommaso is thrown into something between a funk and a fugue, adding to his general state of roiling self-doubt, which manifests itself as an extreme neediness and a relentless urge to hit on every woman he meets.

Working with just one rangey, dynamic camera, as he did so remarkably in Welcome to New York (which I’d recommend over this any day of the week) Ferrara shifts the film from realism to fantasy to nightmare. At night Tommaso dreams of being taken out and given a grilling in handcuffs, at one point later on he reaches under his shirt and pulls out his heart to show to some other guys sitting around a camp fire – look, the artist’s burden. Even later still, possibly as a semi-jokey reference to Dafoe’s time with Scorsese playing Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, Ferrara crucifies his main character, Dafoe suddenly bending down to look right into the camera in a “geddit?” sort of way.

Tommaso sits apart from other people
A man apart: Tommaso

Byronesque romanticism and arthouse humour in a film that’s a nightmare sundae, with all the various sprinkles and cream, chocolate and fruit replaced by phantoms and obsessions, delusions and misapprehensions, and whether you buy the whole self-centredness of the result – I did not – there’s something unique about it, and something absolutely brilliant about Dafoe, who swings between absolute naturalism and extreme mannerism, sometimes in the same scene. I’ve seen this described in one review as “winging it”. I’ll buy “winging it” too. Nothing can be quite pinned down in this movie.

Ferrara and Dafoe made that Pasolini film together in 2014 – Ferrara has lived in Italy since the 9/11 attacks – but here the dreaminess and otherworldliness of Antonioni also seems to be in the mix, alongside Ferrara’s usual hallucinatory, nightmarish confessions.

The suggestion that only half of what we are seeing might be real is bolstered by the simple echoey piano score (by Joe Delia, a regular Ferrara collaborator) and the regular displays of nudity also remove the film from the daily run of realistic drama. Tommaso is not your usual biopic about an artist, in other words. Ultimately, for all the misgivings, that’s a good thing.

Tommaso – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Sami, Joe and I

Leyla, Joe and Sami

At the Raindance film festival, London, UK, 27 October–6 November 2021

Swerving the woe-is-me of the issue-driven drama, Sami, Joe and I (Sami, Joe und Ich) takes on the sort of problems teenage girls encounter without becoming a hostage to them and also celebrates the vital force of female friendships without becoming sappy. Quite a feat.

We’re in Switzerland, with three 16-year-old girls, all the offspring of migrants, as the summer holidays arrive and the wider world beckons. They’re a fiercely cliquey threesome, high on youth, hyperventilating with optimism, a band of sisters of Three Musketeers camaraderie and feistiness.

Writer/director Karin Heberlein doesn’t overdo the “offspring of migrants” bit, but it’s there – Sami (Anja Gada) has Bosnian ancestry, Joe’s (Rabea Lüthi) roots are something hispanic, South American maybe, while Leyla (the I of the title, played by Jana Sekulovska) is from a murky “somewhere in Eastern Europe” – specifics are not gone into because, like I say, Heberlein is aiming for a light touch.

Instead she follows the three as they make their tentative first forays into the adult world, taking skivvy jobs in the case of Leyla and Joe, exploring the possibility of helping in refugee camps in Sami’s, though Sami’s father is a tartar of the old school who’s keen to keep her on a short leash, and certainly away from boys like Nadi (Karim Daoud), a friend of Sami’s peevish snitch of a brother, Denis (Karim Darwiche).

Joe has a moment of joy
Joe has a moment

Following the Withnail & I rule that the “I” doesn’t get much of a look-in, Leyla doesn’t feature very much in this story – we have little idea what her family life is like, or her personal aspirations – she’s a useful explicatory foil, a confessor figure. Instead much of the drama focuses on Sami’s attempts to get out from under her strict father, and Joe’s interactions with her lone-parent mum and the McJob she’s taken rather than pursue further education.

Heberlein was a stage actor before becoming a director and like a lot of people who’ve made that leap, she’s produced an actor’s film, one centred on the performance rather than the technical and she does get the most remarkably fresh, loose acting out of a uniformly excellent cast, especially the three young stars.

There is an arc from the bright and cheerful, the collaborative and communicative, to the darker and more forbidding, and insularly individualistic, as the young women – as they’re becoming as we watch – hit the sort of bumps in the road that could be loosely described as “the shit all women have to put up with”. And yet it doesn’t feel like a social worker’s report or a cliché. There’s a documentary-like aspect to this film that really adds to its power and allows the story of these three girls to unfurl as if it’s all just happening in front of the camera, without artifice. Not bad for a feature debut.

Broad parallels could be made with Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, and though Switzerland isn’t the banlieues of Paris, the sheer propulsive bounce that Sciamma gave to Girlhood can also be felt here, starting with the performances and the agile cinematography of DP Gabriel Lobos and bolstered enormously by a rhythmic and generally upbeat soundtrack by Dominique Dreier and Kilian Spinnler (aka Stereotyp).

“Always hold more dreams in your soul than reality can destroy” is the film’s message. It’s one of the first lines of dialogue as it gets underway and one of the last as things play out at the end. And it sums up both the philosophy of the three optimistic, resilient young women and of Heberlein herself, who has carefully and skilfully negotiated a path through a story that could easily have been played on the black notes only.

© Steve Morrissey 2021


Family photo of grandma, daughter and granddaughter

Relic is a horror film that’s abnormally effective because it’s about something that’s going to happen to us all – old age (if we’re lucky) and death. As it opens Grandma Edna (Robyn Nevin) has gone missing. And so her daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) have turned up at her house to find out what’s happened. Grandma has got to the age where forgetfulness is nibbling away at her memory, and physically she’s at the point where family members are having whispered conversations about her which Grandma isn’t party to.

That doesn’t sound like a horror film, and in fact you could strip out all the horror elements from Natalie Erika James’s psychologically driven feature debut and have a perfectly serviceable drama about ageing, dementia, dying and the guilt felt by family members who probably should have done something sooner but didn’t realise how far down the road things had got.

But horror it is, increasingly so as the film moves forwards, becoming more genre-specific and J-horror-inflected as Relic wends its way towards a grand guignol finale that manages to be gruesome and yet touching at the same time.

Grandma returns, in fine fettle, in top shape in fact, feisty as you like, to the relief and bemusement of Kay and Sam, but there’s a dark mark on her chest, an extreme bruise, perhaps, a “tell” indicating that all is not well. And as time goes by the bruise gets bigger, an external manifestation of inner decay, as Kay bustles about trying to find a care home that can accommodate her mother, who isn’t sure she needs that sort of looking after.

Grandma in the bath
Bathtime for Grandma

In a little filmed intro to this film’s debut at Sundance, James stated that Relic is about dementia, and that she was prompted to make it after watching her own grandmother disappear in a cloud of forgetting. It’s also more generally about ageing and dying, and how hard it is for those who see it happening to someone they love.

It’s about guilt too, with Kay as the most guilty party. She’s the one who should have been stepping in well before things got to this point. James is closer to the age of the granddaughter, played by Bella Heathcote, the conscience of the film, though events are seen almost exclusively from the point of view of Kay. A smart choice casting the properly excellent Mortimer then.

There are some simple but effective touches, like the way James’s camera catches Heathcote’s dewy young skin as she takes a bath – no prurience – and silently compares it to Kay’s more middle-aged and Edna’s old flesh. Decay as a fact of life and a harbinger of death.

Grandma isn’t gaga at first, and her journey towards full-bore dementia is a switchback of ups and downs, of helplessness and fragility snapping to lucidity and vigour… and back. Another astute observation.

This is a film with a good eye for an image, shot coolly, lit subduedly (by DP Charlie Sarroff) and making full use of Grandma’s big old house, whose suddenly rediscovered forgotten corners act as a metaphor for Edna’s crumbling mind and whose physicality serves as a reminder that supportive family structures have been shattered by the demands of modern lifestyles.

I was gripped by it as if by the throat. It’s a tough watch at times, particularly towards the end, but it’s shot through with a tenderness that’s unusual, especially as it shifts into its creepy, proper-horror-film finale. Put James down on the list of innovative female Australian directors headed by Jennifer Kent, of The Babadook fame.

All in all it’s required viewing, though there is the slight irony that if you’re the right age to be receptive to this film, you’re probably going to be least keen to watch it.

Relic – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Noise of Engines

Alexandre and Aðalbjörg in a field

At the Raindance film festival, London, UK, 27 October–6 November 2021

French-Canadian film-maker Philippe Grégoire’s debut feature The Noise of Engines (Le bruit des moteurs) starts off with various shots of cars donutting away in rubber-burning circles, going nowhere, but fast. It’s a metaphor, of sorts, for a story about a young man who seems to be going nowhere, but slowly. Perhaps the contrast is a deadpan joke. There is a lot of deadpan joking going on here.

The story is a lift from Grégoire’s own life. He worked part-time for the Canadian customs force to finance his way through college and he comes from a small town near the border with the US, as does his hero, Alexandre (Robert Naylor), a weapons instructor for the customs who is sent home on gardening leave after a sexual dalliance with one of his instructees ends in her having a life-threatening asthma attack.

At home, where his mother seems far from delighted to see him, he re-acquaints himself with the family race track she now runs alone, and out of the blue is accused by the police of sexual inappropriateness once again – someone has been making pornographic drawings and posting them on the door of the local church. They all feature Alexandre prominently. Not me, says Alexandre. And, possibly in a redemptive direction, he strikes up a relationship with Icelandic race fan and car nut Aðalbjörg, the actress Tanya Björk being an appropriate choice because Aðalbjörg (name surely chosen for maximum Icelandicness) is an odd Björk-like mix of naivety and assertiveness who inserts herself into Alexandre’s life and looks like she wants to be his girlfriend.

Icelandic arrival Aðalbjörg

All of this done with barely an emotion registering, no raised voices, the camera’s shooting style flat and documentary-like, as if to suggest that what we’re watching is normal everyday stuff, when all the time what we’re seeing is coming with a large side order of the surreal. The films of Quentin Dupieux (see Rubber or Deerskin) operate in a similarly WTF deadpan way, though the parallels with Franz Kafka’s The Trial are also obvious – a man accused of something he constantly denies, the law on his back, women as redemptive, women as trouble – and in Alexandre we have the Kafka-esque hero, the “who me?” innocent through whose eyes everything is filtered.

Robert Naylor’s performance walks a tightrope and he manages to keep it deadpan without ever slipping into the zombie realm. There are still nuances. And he’s playing a familiar role with original touches – the lad who comes home only to find that the town has become smaller while he’s been away, and he’s an outsider even on his own patch.

Alexandre’s backstory is told at one point, how he became quite good at being a customs guy, even though he had no special aptitude for the role and in fact working for the government went against his principles. Maybe Alexandre is telling the truth, and a lack of emotional engagement makes for a more effective customs agent, or maybe he’s kidding himself about the true nature of his personality. Kafka again.

It’s a low budget film, and while it’s frustrating (deliberately so) that Alexandre’s guilt or innocence stays unresolved it’s hard to imagine The Noise of Engines being any more effective with more money spent on it. Grégoire peppers his dead-flat-take-it-or-leave-it shooting style with exclamation marks here and there – the donutting cars, a repeated staccato motif of a key turning in the ignition, evocations of nightmares – suggesting there might be more of Guy Ritchie in this director than he wants to let on.

The lack of closure (or even of commencement, you could argue) makes this an opaque film to some extent, but it’s an idiosyncratically opaque film and that makes Grégoire someone worth keeping an eye on.

© Steve Morrissey 2021

As Far As I Know

Nóra and Dénes

At the Raindance film festival, London, UK, 27 October–6 November 2021

As Far As I Know (Legjobb tudomásom szerint in the original Hungarian) is the smart and subtle feature debut of Nándor Lörincz and Bálint Nagy, a writing/directing duo who have been working together for ten years, with a run of shorts and a couple of TV comedy series under their belt.

Lörincz and Nagy are in their mid-30s and their movie is about two people they might hang out with – a smart, cosmopolitan, hipsterish couple from Budapest whose lives are about to be changed for ever by the arrival of a baby. They’re adopting, for reasons which are not initially spelled out, just one of several ways that Lörincz and Nagy hook us into a film with sensationalist subject matter and a thrillerish pull but a cool, almost detached way of going about things.

Dénes and Nóra’s friends have topknots and beards, and discuss “craft ales” as if their generation invented beer. At home the couple eat sexy food, like ramen, which they eat with chopsticks. Dénes has a thing about real coffee, which he grinds from beans and then prepares in a special machine. Eager for authenticity, yet appalled at cultural appropriation, Dénes and Nóra have no real idea what walking clichés they are.

Dénes is comforted by Nóra
It gets fraught: Dénes and Nóra

Dénes and Nóra live together and work together, in a marketing company that spends its time running focus groups with members of the public, where the invitees sit around and discuss their perceptions (ie prejudices) about a given topic – what would a Volkswagen look like if it walked into this room, for instance. And then, after a night of drinking with friends in a bar, Dénes and Nóra have an argument on the way home, and Nóra storms off the bus, returning home only hours later, tearful and distraught. She’s been raped, she says.

Hold the “spoiler” accusation. The film is not about the rape, it’s more about the reactions to the rape. What would a Volkswagen look like if it walked into the room has now become what would a rape look like, or a rapist, or the victim of a rape, or the partner of the victim of a rape. And so on.

Lörincz and Nagy examine how humans deal with situations, and they conclude, perhaps depressingly, that they/we do it by reaching for pre-written scripts, like a focus group does, or like the funny little robot vacuum cleaner in Dénes and Nóra’s apartment, which goes about its work according to its algorithmic orders, until it hits something it hasn’t encountered before. That vacuum cleaner turns up twice.

This is an almost pathologically cool film, with a camera (by Nagy) that observes its main characters in much the same way Dénes and Nóra observe focus groups at work, as if through a two-way mirror. There’s a lurking aspect to its look, emphasised by the way Nagy shoots quite often with the camera off to one side. Attila Fodor’s music acts like punctuation, often absent and then suddenly popping up to add a psychological jangle when things get fraught.

Balázs Dodolai as Dénes and Gabriella Hámori as Nóra won’t be winning any awards for their acting, but that isn’t because they’re not good, it’s because their characters are closed and hard to read. What actually happened on the night of the rape acts as a kind of dramatic throughline, but it’s complicated by the fact that Dénes and Nóra don’t seem able to say what they really think, possibly because there is no ready-written script to reach for. Why are Dénes and Nóra even together? Because they always have been, it seems.

Depressing, at some level, but entirely fascinating at another, a precise examination of human nature served up cold and brutal which at first glance looks a long, long way from TV comedy. On the other hand, any analysis of human behaviour suggesting we’re about as good at dealing with novelty as a dumb robot vacuum cleaner isn’t without a sense of humour, albeit a dark one.

© Steve Morrissey 2021

Free Guy

Guy in a war zone

An update on the Truman Show idea, Free Guy follows a Non Player Character in a game – the ones who get shot at or driven into in shoot-em-ups and driver games – who starts to get an inkling of what he is. Ryan Reynolds plays the guy called Guy – he’s got a buddy called Buddy (played by Lil Rel Howery, en route to stardom) – in this immensely smart and fairly funny CG-heavy actioner full of great talent in front of and behind the camera.

Not as funny as Deadpool, though it’s not aiming for quickfire quippery, there’s a thoughtful and meditative aspect to Free Guy and its ruminations on artificial intelligence and consciousness that set it apart from other “guys in a game” movies like Ready Player One or Tron: Legacy.

In the world Guy inhabits there are two kinds of people – while Guy goes to work in a bank every day, there are other people, “sunglasses people”, who seem to do all the unusual stuff. If it’s skydiving, or driving tanks over parked cars, or crashing a flaming helicopter into the side of a building, it’s the sunglasses people who are doing it. That’s because the sunglasses people are avatars of actual gamers sitting out in their bedrooms in the real world, while NPCs like Guy’s only function is to help make more real the open world game that they’re playing in.

And then Guy has his epiphany, sparked by contact with a passing woman (Jodie Comer) who stirs something deep within him. Suddenly on a quest to be the sort of person the badass Molotovgirl might go for, Guy grabs a pair of sunglasses off one of the player avatars and commences his Pinocchio-like climb towards being a real human, largely done in a Groundhog Day-style flashby montage.

Jodie Comer as Molotovgirl
Jodie Comer as Molotovgirl

Out in the real world, meanwhile, Molotovgirl goes by the name of Millie and is also on a quest, to prove that the code for the game she co-wrote with spoddy but handsome Keys (Joe Keery) was stolen by tech uberlord Antwan (Taika Waititi) and is being used as the template/engine for Free City, the game Guy inhabits. In a pincer movement, the sweet and cute Millie investigates from without, ignoring the imploring eyes of Keys, while as Molotovgirl she continues her search from within, getting to know Guy and, Ryan Reynolds being Ryan Reynolds, falling for him.

And also, this being a Ryan Reynolds movie, the pop culture references keep on coming, and include cameos from the likes of Channing Tatum and Chris Evans, a Star Wars moment involving a lightsabre, homages to Mariah Carey, a clear reference to Mae West’s gag “Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me,” while the action is served up fast and furious by Shawn Levy, with Comer’s fight sequences particularly well co-ordinated.

It is a particularly clever movie that wears its intelligence lightly. Some of it is very familiar – Guy is a variation on the familiar Reynolds character, one threatening to break the fourth wall at any point, while Molotovgirl resembles Comer’s Villanelle character from the TV show Killing Eve. The gamers are nerdy and play at home in their bedrooms, and Waititi is also now a recognisable trope – the evil tech magnate – but he’s puts his own spin on it, as a middle aged man tryharding like hell in a youthful industry. A Bond villain slot could be his one day.

Could Artificial Intelligence achieve self-awareness? Is there more to life than code? Is there a ghost in the machine? Is Millie in fact God? And, coming slightly from left-field, shouldn’t all the NPCs get together and organise for better terms and conditions? There are big questions hidden inside what looks like a big Christmas present of a film, all winking lights and shiny surfaces. The CG work – most of the film must have been green-screened – is superb and will never date, because it’s meant to look like video-game reality (my son, who codes games, tells me they’re now “just called ‘games’, Dad”) rather than reality-reality. Which is handy, because it’s a film that’s worth watching and rewatching – for the stuff off to the side of the frame, and the cameos, both the obvious ones (Evans, Tatum) and the ones the cast list insists are there (Dwayne Johnson, Hugh Jackman, Tina Fey) but are less obvious.

Free Guy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021