Friday, 25 November 2016

Big budgets: nice but unnecessary

45 Years and All the Way set Joe thinking about the indie advantage

There’s no such thing as a low budget novel. There are genres that flourish at the margins, such as fanzine fiction, but most writers, even those published by major imprints, are essentially indie operators. There is certainly no obvious correlation between money and quality. Sentences can’t benefit from high production values.

Films are different. To shoot a film some outlay is required in addition to food and lodging for the auteur. There are kinds of quality that cost money. Which is why I’ve always had mixed feelings about independent low budget movies. On the one hand they’re less likely to be corrupted by the corporate imperative to maximise profits. On the other, they’re more likely to be spoilt for a ha’p’orth of tar.   
Flying to LA for Thanksgiving with my California in-laws I had plenty of time to think about this while I caught up on new releases.  

Image resultAll the Way covers Lyndon Johnson’s first year in office, from his sudden elevation to the Presidency after JFK’s assassination to his victory in the 1964 Election. Huge historic changes are in progress as Johnson manoeuvres to get Kennedy’s Civil Rights bill through Congress, even at the cost of alienating Southern Democrats. Bryan Cranston, who came to fame as the drug-dealing chemistry teacher in Breaking Bad, gives a superb performance as LBJ, confronting us with a paradoxical figure – often crude, sometimes bullying, but capable of great charm and driven by a genuine urge to reduce poverty and oppression in America.

I watched with enjoyment and admiration, but remained emotionally unengaged. HBO and producer Stephen Spielberg haven’t stinted on sets and locations. The research was thorough. Adapted from a play, the script is sound, if a bit too earnestly instructional at times. There’s fun to be had, particularly in the relationship between LBJ and his running mate, Hubert Humphrey, played by a heavily disguised Bradley Whitfield. The hapless Humph has a moment of panic when Johnson pretends to lose control of his car and drives it into a lake. It’s only then that we discover it’s amphibious. That’s the kind of thing you can do with a decent budget.

Image resultAndrew Haigh’s 45 Years covers six days in the life of a married couple in their seventies, who are about to celebrate their anniversary. Retired and childless, Kate and Geoff have settled into quiet companionable domesticity. For a while I feared the drama would remain as flat as the Norfolk landscape in which the couple live, with the dialogue sticking so close to the mundane rhythms of ordinary life. But Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay bring a mesmerising intensity to their apparently effortless performances. A letter from Switzerland tells Geoff that the body of an old girlfriend has come to light. He was travelling with Katya in the early 60s when she fell into a crevasse; melting snows have revealed her 26-year-old body perfectly preserved under the ice.

The letter, written in German, sends Geoff and Kate into the garage in search of his old German dictionary. The film is punctuated by these encounters with old possessions, first in the garage, later in the attic, first together, then separately as the strains on their relationship begin to show. Katya was dead before Kate met Geoff, but a dead lover who has never suffered the ravages of aging is hard to compete with.

At the heart of the film is a sequence in which Kate, having found Geoff’s slides of his 60s travels and set up an old projector in the attic, clicks through images of Katya, first small in the landscape, then in close-up. We see the two women side by side, Kate staring intently at the screen, Katya looking at the unseen photographer. Visually beautiful, this series of images delivers a narrative jolt sharper than anything in All the Way, though in Hollywood terms it cost nothing. 

Accepting another gin and tonic off the steward’s trolley, I concluded that, in this pairing at least, the indie film had all the advantages.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Cat crazy North Londoners will love this one

Jenny gives A Street Cat Named Bob 4 whimsical stars

Full disclosure: first, I have been a dedicated cat woman all my life and have twice owned ginger tomcats. Secondly, before he was famous I actually touched the sacred fur of the real life Street Cat Bob. He was travelling, as I was, on the number 38 bus towards Hackney at the time and on the shoulder of his owner.  Bob graciously allowed me to administer a few cheek-rubs. Thirdly, I live in Islington, North London.
Image result

This film, directed by Roger Spottiswoode, is based on the book of the same name by James Bowen (played here by Luke Treadaway) a formerly homeless man and a former heroin addict. It’s a simple story of redemption: man has sad upbringing, turns to drugs and to fund the drugs starts busking in Covent Garden and Islington. Since he can’t sing he exists by searching skips for abandoned food and lying to his social worker about how he is going to get clean any time soon. Then one day, placed out of the kindness of this social worker’s heart in a scruffy flat in Hackney, a saviour appears. Yes, it’s Bob the street cat. Bob knows that even the most hopeless sinner can be saved and he refuses to leave, following James as he departs on yet another hopeless mission to earn a few pennies as a busker. Bob is soon drawing admiring attention perching cutely on his owner’s shoulder, walking on a lead, wearing hand knitted stripey scarves made by fans  – and attracting a lot more money –  plus the promise of a book. I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that James and Bob don’t live in a grubby flat in Hackney any more.

Along with the rest of the small audience at the Islington Vue, I oohed and aahed excitedly as I recognized every single exterior location: oh look there’s that funny bit of the Canal where it turns slightly west! That’s the Angel tube station! The plot is skimpy, though as a cat owner who has many times temporarily and in one case permanently mislaid a beloved pet, I quailed in terror at the sequence where Bob goes missing and the depiction of coming off methadone is certainly gripping. This is more than I can say for the notional romance with a neighbour.  The film also faithfully conveys, though maybe not on purpose, the way that addicts so often have someone else to blame: it was my Dad’s fault, it was those evil drug dealers, it was that badly behaved bulldog with the nasty owner.

This is a low budget movie with a terrible script and with characters cut out of the flimsiest cardboard, giving the cast nothing whatsoever to work with. It’s a YouTube cat video extended to 103 minutes. Every scene has slightly too much lighting - even at its best, Islington never has quite that tanning-booth-orange glow. Foreign viewers will be reassured to see the familiar giant clues that we are in London: big red buses, Trafalgar Square, House of Parliament.

Plaudits must go to the four cat trainers and the six stand-ins for Bob, some more convincing than others, as well as to the real hero, Bob The Magnificat, who appears as himself. You will never see a film with so many adorable cat close-ups, with such convincing cat noises on the soundtrack or with so many shots taken from a cat POV.

I loved it. 

But to be completely honest, to enjoy it, you would need to be a crazy cat person and to live in North London. If you do not meet these criteria I recommend that you give this one a miss.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Dark, lonely and beautiful

Jenny gives Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals 4 stars

What does a fashion designer do when he wants more challenge? Easy. He makes a film. And he features the world he knows so well, the world of exquisite style where nothing is left unfinished, rough, messy, unburnished – a world where the ugliest things are ironic and even their ugliness is gorgeous.

Image resultWe know we are in this world when the film opens with garish shots of obese naked women twirling and gyrating, every creased wobble of fat seen in loving close-up. It’s like Lucien Freud’s Benefit Supervisor come to life in triplicate. 

This turns out to be the latest show by a successful LA gallery owner, Susan, played by Amy Adams, fawned over by hangers on, including a cameo from Michael Sheen in bushy whiskers and a shiny lavender jacket which definitely does not suit him. Nor does Susan’s OTT dark smudgy eye makeup – far, far too much for a pretty and delicate redhead. But the makeup is a mask. Susan is unhappy, you see; she has made the terrible mistake of marrying an idiot, a failing millionaire and serial adulterer rather than staying with the homely Edward, a failing writer. And she no longer believes in her work.

Edward sends her a proof copy of his novel. She reads it alone, overlooking the city in her dark, exquisite LA apartment where again nothing is unconsidered, right down to the sculptures, pictures and polished concrete bath. Looking nervously on to the terrace where she thinks she sees some small, troubling movement, she embarks on a journey, a film within the film, where we see what happens in Edward’s book.

Act 1 is the best part of the movie, unbearably tense. Edward’s alter ego, Tony, played brilliantly, like Edward himself, by Jake Gyllenhaal, sets off on an all night drive with his wife and daughter through the Texan desert. There they encounter three terrible rednecks who lure them to tragedy. If I had had the prescience to take a cushion with me to the cinema I would have hidden behind it for most of this part. So the film within the film is a kind of revenger’s tragedy: Edward is telling Susan what he wishes had happened to her even though they have had no contact for twenty years. She sees it as her punishment for living an empty life.

The movie is full of cartoon characters: the smarmy good looking millionaire, the gallery underling in hideously fashionable clothing who is more entranced by the app on her phone than by the baby it is monitoring, the brilliant Michael Shannon as the drawling Texan lawman never without his Stetson, who cares nothing for the rules because he knows he is dying from lung cancer; Laura Linney playing a full-on caricature of the DOR Mommy.

The film left me thrilled, intrigued and ultimately puzzled. Perhaps it is best seen as American Noir where like the entire noir genre it deals with the corrupting impact of too much money and of dealing in a life full of superficialities, plus existential angst and the punishment of random violence. The best noir films are, like this one, beautifully composed in every glossy frame. Even the violence is beautiful. The characters are alone, either actually or psychologically isolated. Again as in most noir films and novels, there is a pervading anxiety about the sexual power of women and about what it means to be a man: is Tony/Edward ‘weak’ as Susan’s mother scornfully judges or is he the gentle, artistic soul who first attracted Susan?

That the director intends us to take some message from the film can’t be in doubt, but what message? I still don’t know, but when I came home to my quiet apartment overlooking the city I carefully double locked the doors and peered nervously on to the terrace. My cat, an excellent alerter to danger, assured me that all was well, but I wasn’t convinced.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Judgment at Nuremberg: worthy but dated

Jenny is unconvinced by Kramer’s classic courtroom drama

Last night, on Joe’s recommendation, I girded myself to watch Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer’s 1961 fictional take on the trial of those responsible for implementing the judicial system of the Third Reich).

It struck me how relevant it is to today, fifty-five years on, but also how brave to make the film at that time, with the Cold War raising exactly the same issues of expediency versus fundamental moral values and what duty, if any, the citizen has to protest.

But oh dear I found it so unnecessarily long and ponderous, sagging under the weight of its own virtuousness. You could snip 30 minutes out of it easily by doing salami slicing-style editing. I also thought it was ludicrously over-directed. Directors, agents and others in the non-performing part of the business divide roughly into two. First, those who believe actors are terminally stupid and have to be told what to do in minute detail. Second, those who believe that if you get the casting right, the actors will do everything you want – and more. Kramer seems to have belonged to the former. I imagined the scene on set – Kramer instructing Maximilian Schnell in his role of Defence Attorney:

Kramer: Max, can you turn a bit more slowly to the Judge? I want it more, like meaningful.
Schnell: OK Mr Kramer, like this?
Kramer: No, no, give him more of a hard stare - see - watch me!
(Kramer can't act, so crew stifles laughter)

Terrible piece of casting with Montgomery Clift as a manual worker, sterilised under Nazi law. Poor guy, he was always chosen for his prettiness not because he could act - which he couldn't. I had to keep reminding myself that the film was made at a time when mannered acting and directing was only just emerging from the blight of that immediate post-war period (see the to my mind very over praised films of Pressburger and Powell).

I thought Spencer Tracy was wonderful and I guess he was far too eminent either to take any notice of Kramer's instructions or to have been offered them in the first place. Just a brilliant performance, intelligent and naturalistic, brought life to what could have been a very dry and dull part.

I have always been fascinated by the immediate post-war period in Germany and by how quickly the country was reinvented. It’s so clear that there were people in the US administration who understood this basic principle of systems thinking – that to succeed, you have to help your enemies. So different from today.

Joe's heckle

I can see the force of your criticisms, Jenny. Of course the film is dated. Look at the date. And of course I prefer the greater sophistication, ‘naturalism’ and pace of contemporary film-making -- the style of my own era. But I think you exaggerate this film’s faults and diminish its virtues.

Some of that sophistication comes from money. When I watched I Claudius (BBC 1976) immediately after Rome (HBO/BBC 2005), it seemed at first hopelessly cramped and stagy, before I adjusted to its more theatrical style. Our expectations of pace are also clearly quite different now. Our communal fluency in the language of film means that the narrative and moral signposting of earlier film and TV looks crude.

I put ‘naturalism’ in quotes because it's the holy grail that acting has been seeking since acting began. Every generation thinks it has it in its grasp, only for its actors to look absurdly mannered in retrospect or for its apparently naturalistic style to become formalized into a bag of tricks. Richard Burbage, Shakespeare's business partner and leading man, was lauded for his naturalism. Hamlet's advice to the players is all about holding a mirror up to nature, and he gets impatient with the melodramatic performance of the stage poisoner: ‘Begin, murderer! Pox, leave thy damnable faces and begin!’

We might want to say the same now to Montgomery Clift. No one in 2016 would play that part the way Clift does. But in its own way it's powerful.

Jenny's response 

I'm not against slowness. Far from it. Alexander Payne’s Nebraska moves at a snail’s pace: an old guy does a trip to collect an illusory lottery 'prize' that takes him through a series of abandoned towns where he encounters abandoned people. About Schmidt, an earlier Payne film which I thought was wonderful, has a similar quality. In fact a lot of American indie cinema is 'slow', eg one of my favourites, Wendy and Lucy, directed by Kelly Reichardt or All is Lost, starring Robert Redford in a film where only about 50 words were actually spoken. Or another very odd film (Greek) which I loved, Dogtooth, which is so slow it actually has fixed camera positions. I just thought that in Nuremberg there was something very false about the pace and style which was at odds with the noble intentions of the film and this grated on me and got in the way of absorbing the story.

But I take your point about acting styles and fashion. It's not always possible to see where and how contemporary views influence your own tastes. Also I agree that we have become more film literate and this makes a lot of difference. Just the amazing development of technology has a lot to answer for here.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Hockney at the Royal Academy

Jenny puzzles over David Hockney's 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life

There is no living artist I admire more than David Hockey. I love his blend of fine draughtsmanship, hectic colour and shrewd portraiture. I have stood many times in front of his double portraits, most notably the magisterial tribute to his parents which now hangs in Tate Britain. Looking at this portrait you feel you know everything about these two beloved people. This lean, naturalistic, sculptural style of painting was characteristic of his earlier work. And his stylized LA paintings will always have glamour, sensuality and sweetness for me.

Age, deafness, illness and personal tragedy seem to have made little difference to David Hockney’s productivity or to the quality of his work. His output is prodigious. He experiments enthusiastically with different media, embracing technology along with traditional materials.

So I had high hopes of 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life at the Royal Academy. But this exhibition left me puzzled. The 82 portraits, created in acrylic at a hectic pace in 2015 and 2016, each over no more than three days, are tightly hung on violently vermilion walls with the names of the sitters elegantly inscribed above each. All the subjects were placed on the same yellow chair against a giddying turquoise backcloth.

The attention to detail in the sitters’ clothing is touching and funny. His sister, Margaret Hockney, who has been his subject many times, is portrayed wearing voluminous navy spotted harem pants. I recognized this garment immediately as the refuge of a certain sort of older lady who has lost contact with her waist. Rita Pynoos dressed up for her sitting by wearing a sumptuous long red skirt which starts somewhat strangely under her breasts and pools out in front of her so that you barely look at her face. One of the youngest sitters looks as if he has been dressed by his mommy as a little man, complete with shirt, tie, waistcoat, nicely laced shoes and an important notebook.

One curious feature of the exhibition is that its curator, Edith Devaney, is also one of the sitters.

This is not a series of portraits where the artist was trying to flatter – or maybe even to suggest likenesses, except casually. So would I have recognized Barry Humphries without the red kipper tie, slouchy hat and pink trousers? Possibly not, though I loved the sitter’s roguish twinkle. The people all have oddly foreshortened legs, though in most cases their shoes have been conveyed in loving detail. The faces are hectically flushed or else bleached of colour.

I was especially puzzled by the portrait of his close friend Celia Birtwell, the young star of another wonderful double portrait painted in 1971, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, and a ‘muse’ he has painted many times. In the 2015 painting, Celia looks dumpy, has been given staring, wobbly turquoise eyes and a dab of bright green on the end of her nose. But why?

Taken together, which I assume is what we are meant to do, this is more like an installation than separate portraits. It is warm, it is humorous, but what else? After a few moments they all began to blend into one another. It was overwhelming. I was not tempted to linger. As I left, I did not feel their eyes following me.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Men! What are they like?

Jenny gives 4 laugh-out-loud, ego-bound stars to Athina Rachel Tsingare’s Chevalier

Some years ago I was part of a team facilitating a series of courses for a British organization that had become concerned about the somewhat lopsided behaviour of its most senior cohort. The top levels of this organization were populated by intellectually gifted people, mostly men, who had little idea about emotional intelligence or why it might matter. The organization felt that it needed to make a big cultural shift. The solution? Plonk these very senior people (fifteen at a time and for five days, no phones or emails allowed, no quitting) into a pleasant venue where their only task was to get on with each other. What invariably happened was a like a chamber-piece psychodrama since there was no escape. By the third day of every course, mayhem had broken out. Long-standing enemies vented their grudges, secrets were confessed, accusations hurled, there were tears, tantrums and threats, intense alliances and some love affairs. The masks slipped. It was impossible to prevent some aspect of the more vulnerable person becoming known, ideally to themselves, as well as to others. Our role was to keep all of this safe and to link it with what the organization needed.

Chevalier, an intriguing new Greek language film from Athina Rachel Tsangari, is in the long tradition of chamber-piece films, where you see what happens when there is no mechanism for keeping things safe, for instance Rope, Phone Booth, 12 Angry Men, Lord of the Flies, Moon – and Dogtooth, another unsettling Greek language film made by Tsingari’s friend and collaborator Yorgos Lanthinos.

Six middle aged men are on a comfortable yacht in the Aegean. It’s not the calm blue sea of the holiday websites but cool, grey and a little choppy. There are connections between them, some of which become clear, some remaining blurred. The yacht is owned by ‘The Doctor’, the oldest and apparently most powerful in the group. They have nothing to do but some sporadic fishing so they set up a game to decide ‘who is the best man in general’. The rules of this ‘game’ are never explained but each man has a little notebook into which his ratings of the others are silently entered. The tasks are wonderfully silly, for instance cleaning silver with toothpaste, assembling an IKEA bookcase, rating sleeping positions, snoring levels, skimming stones, dental hygiene, blood triglycerides and, naturally, penis size, all of these carried out with tremendous seriousness.

The veneer of courtesy is soon ripped away as the craziness of pointless bragging and unchecked male behaviour takes over.

Men, eh! Do they really get how strange they are? It would be easy for a woman director to mock these fragile egos but she does not. There are many laugh-out-loud moments, such as when the character who has been teased and who worries about his potency finally achieves a splendid erection and hammers on the others’ doors to come and admire it – but it’s late at night and they are all sound asleep. As the film goes on, the relentless competition reveals secret worries: Are my thighs too big? Does it matter that I’m losing my hair? What about my wobbling belly? Is it my fault that my wife hasn’t had a baby? Does she really love me?

My own prize for best performance goes to Makis Papadimitrou who brings beautifully calibrated childish humour and ill-founded hope to Dimitris, a woefully tubby idiot savant, still living with his mother, afraid of the dark, brought along by his resentful brother and not allowed to go into the water. His naïve inability to compete, except on his own limited terms, throws the absurdity of the rest into relief.

The cinematography combines bleached out colour with multiply-reflecting, cramped shots of the yacht interior, frequently giving us slices of the middle aged male body seen when the camera slyly peeps around corners or with bulkheads in the way.

Is it a satire on Greece and its dying economy? Possibly, as in an exquisite double bluff in the final reel, we see the ship’s crew drawn into the same daft competitiveness. I did find that the film lacked narrative drive: there is no big climax at the end, it all just drifts away. It is a film about men made by a woman and with a degree of merciless, bone-dry wit, with no visible female characters, but with no malice. And for certain it is a wholly understated and sublime comedy.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

A Tale of Two Weiners

Jenny gives Weiner 5 painful stars

Directors Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman open their film with a quote from Marshall McLuhan: ‘The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers’. When your name is also one of many slang words for the male member, what are you to do? Perhaps you are already doomed.

The well-researched theory of nominative determinism seems to apply here – that we can be drawn inexorably to behaviours or professions that resemble our name. I once knew a surgeon called Mr Hammer, a haulier called Mr Carter and a doctor called Dr Docktor, and the former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales was Judge Judge. More pertinent to this film, in 2014 a Donald Popadick of Toronto was arraigned on a charge of indecent exposure.

So the title of this documentary film is already a joke. Its subject is Anthony Weiner, but the film is actually just as much about his penis and his inability to resist giving it a starring role in his life.

Congressman Weiner was forced to resign his seat in 2011 because he was exposed (sorry but I find myself inexorably drawn to the puns) for sexting DC groupies. He apologized in the usual way for the ‘hurt’ he had caused his wife, Huma Abedin, a close aide to Hillary Clinton. Then a few years later he decided to run for Mayor of New York.

During the course of filming the documentary on his campaign, he is caught once more, sending pictures of his erect penis to a woman calling herself Sydney Leathers and having phone sex with her up to five times a day. Sydney has subsequently created a career for herself as a porn star but Anthony’s career has plummeted. He came bottom of the poll for Mayor and his subsequent career as a lobbyist/consultant seems to have been characterised by abrupt departures.

This film is painful to watch, painful in every way: painful to see the humiliation of his beautiful and gifted wife, painfully funny that a man caught in this way can worry more about his emerging bald spot than about his wife’s feelings, painful to see yet another example of the overwhelming narcissism of career politicians, painful to see a clever man sabotage himself so stupidly.

At one point we see a chat show journalist yell at him, ‘What’s wrong with you? What IS wrong with you?’ He can’t answer this, any more than he can answer the question put to him by the film-makers, ‘Why are you letting us film this?’ Maybe the answer is that his need to be in the limelight is overwhelming – we see him leaping about at Gay Pride, riding floats at carnivals, manically hugging strangers, losing his temper with hecklers, obsessively replaying his own interviews, even the ones where he comes off worst. During his sexting career he gave himself the name Carlos Danger. I had a sudden image of the toddler Anthony strutting about, as small boys sometimes do, with his little button penis hanging out, an aren’t-I-naughty expression on his face, looking for reactions, any reactions. How pleasing it can be to see shock, horror and amusement on the faces of the adults. Funny in a two year old, puzzling and silly for a man in his forties.

Weiner is a brilliant case study in hubris, in how our greatest strengths are virtually always the trigger to catastrophe when we overuse them. A gifted orator, a hard worker, a demanding boss, a fearless interrogator… all of these became disastrous handicaps for Anthony when they turned into a sense of entitlement, a reckless belief that he would not be caught when indulging in behaviour that he must have known to be morally dubious.

At the same time, part of him just doesn’t get it. As he says mournfully, nobody died; he didn’t have sexual relations with those women. He doesn’t even seem to notice the blank despair on his wife’s face. He can say the words about being responsible but they seem empty.

Above all this film is about the media and its rapacious need for extremes, for courting and creating celebrity and then glorying in its ruin. The film-makers admit that they themselves are part of it. But they must have been hugging their cameras at their luck. They couldn’t hold back any more than could the rest of the pack. And for us, the viewers of the debacle, we may be watching through our fingers, or in disbelief, or guiltily experiencing schadenfreude, but we are complicit too.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Norma and John and why they voted for Brexit

We don’t usually stray into politics at Angel & Elephant unless led there by a film or other cultural event, but these are unusual times, and Jenny has been moved to reflect on last week’s vote. 

Norma and John live in a small Norfolk village. They voted Leave without a moment’s hesitation. The only language spoken in their village is British English and every face is white. Some distance away, in the pleasant regional city of Norwich, the same is largely true although the university brings a smattering of foreigners, some with brown faces.

Norma and John are literal Baby Boomers since they were both born in 1946, the year after their dads returned from fighting in Africa and Europe. They benefitted from the massive British post war reforms to health and to secondary education. However, both failed the harsh sheep/goats process that was the Eleven Plus, the route into social mobility through a grammar school. Neither they nor their parents were troubled by this; it saved the money that expensive uniforms and games equipment would have cost. It spared them the unease of entering a world of middle class assumptions and posh people. It liberated them to leave school at fifteen to earn good money, Norma as a shop assistant in Norwich and John for a local farmer. They met at seventeen and an unexpected pregnancy meant early marriage because then it was unthinkable to seek an abortion or to be a single parent.

A small social housing estate had been built in their village and they were pleased to have a nice house with a proper bathroom and kitchen. Later, feeling prosperous in the Thatcher years, they exercised their right to buy and now they are mortgage free, still in the same house. They are close to their daughter who followed their pattern of early pregnancy and marriage and one of this daughter’s daughters has done the same. So they are now great grandparents.

When you talk to Norma and John they are angry and upset. They say things like ‘I want my country back’; ‘There are too many people here already; what’s going to happen to jobs for our kids and their kids?’ The fact is that they are right to be dismayed. John’s job vanished twenty five years ago when farming changed beyond recognition and hedgerows that had been there for a thousand years disappeared to make the giant fields that you now see everywhere in Norfolk. He got seasonal work in boatyards but found himself exhausted by its intensely physical nature. He tried setting up a handyman business but it never took off. Norma did part time bar shifts, but the pub closed twelve years ago. She worked as a carer for a few years until she damaged her back when turning an elderly client.

The truth is that Norma and John are poor. Yes they have an asset in their house but it is small and shabby and in any case this does not help with their bills. They need a car as the only public transport is a once a day bus. They have no savings to speak of and live off the state pension. They are worried about the future of their local hospital, the James Paget in Lowestoft. Both are overweight and have Type 2 diabetes. Norma has had a double mastectomy and John is on medication for depression as well as recovering from bowel surgery. Their youngest son, a late baby, escaped the Eleven Plus trap and benefitted from the introduction of comprehensive schooling. He is a well-paid PhD research chemist in the pharmaceutical industry and funds their car and holidays but he lives in Singapore.

Norma and John have always voted Tory but that is irrelevant, as is anything to do with the EU. Their vote for Leave was a cry of rage and disappointment. They believed the lies about money for the NHS. They half-thought that they could be invaded by a million Turks. It would be easy to say that as classic Left Behinds they are responsible for their own plight by failing to update their skills, broaden their perspectives or to consider getting out of a dying economy. But the thought has never crossed their minds. Rooted in their rural life, they are liked by their neighbours, most of their family live close by – why would they damage all of that?

I am connected to Norma and John though they are unaware of it. For three decades until 2011 I had a second home in a small Norfolk village. To people like them I was, for sure, an ‘Incomer’, a word often spoken in Norfolk with lurking resentment, people too smart and affluent for their own good, raising house prices, bringing fancy London ideas with them and, sometimes, though I hope this was never true of me, remaining aloof from the community. I, too, benefited from post-war social reform.

I also married young by today’s standards. The difference is that I grew up as an only child in an urban area with parents who were desperate for me to have the chances that they missed. I passed the Eleven Plus, thanks to their constant coaching and encouragement. It was taken for granted that they would make enormous financial sacrifices and that I would go to university, though no one in the family had ever done so. I entered the jobs market, a confident young graduate, at a time of full employment. Getting a job and a mortgage was easy. I have been able to live by my wits rather than by poorly paid, insecure manual labour. I have been lucky.

Now I, too, can experience the anguish and disappointment of being one of the Left Behinds, my ideas and deeply-held values rejected. It pains me grievously to know that Norma and John will suffer more than I will from Brexit. They are decent people. They have been forgotten, let down, fooled. No one was listening to them and maybe no one will now, but for sure they have had their moment. 

Monday, 9 May 2016

Michael Moore hits his target

Joe enjoys Where to Invade Next for its dark undercurrents as well as its sunny surface

In this rose-tinted travelogue, Michael Moore goes in search of ideas he can steal and take back home to America. He visits half a dozen European countries, plus Tunisia, intending “to pick the flowers, not the weeds”. I watched a special screening at the University of California, Santa Barbara. During the discussion afterwards, an angry walk-out by one member of the audience and some audible groaning from another suggested that, in spite of its sunny demeanour, this is a film capable of raising passions.

Moore starts with the observation that, since World War Two, America’s foreign adventures have been uniformly disastrous. Called in by the Joint Chiefs of Staff desperate for his advice, he sets off on a one-man mission to invade some countries and purloin their best policies for American use.

On his travels, he discovers practices that, from an American perspective, look hopelessly utopian. He meets an idyllically happy working class couple in Italy who enjoy 8 weeks paid holiday a year and leisurely 2-hour lunchbreaks at home. French primary school children gather round tables, family-style, to share tasty and nutritious meals. University education in Slovenia is free. In Portugal possession of drugs for personal use hasn’t been a crime for 15 years. Finnish prisoners are treated with kindness and respect. And in Sweden 21 years is the longest sentence even for mass murderers. All this enlightenment increases productivity, reduces recidivism and makes people happy.

Skilful cutting and an artful soundtrack, together with Moore’s act of naïve bemusement, made me laugh out loud at some of these revelations – at least half the intended effect. The other half, I assume, is to provoke outrage that the richest nation in the world treats its own people so badly in comparison.   

Just when a visit to a model pencil factory in Nuremberg made me want to protest that this is all very nice, but Europe too has had its dark side, Moore tells us that the idea he wants to take home from Germany is that nations should confront their past crimes. For America, that would mean actively remembering its history of genocide and slavery (a lesson Britain could learn too, incidentally, where Nazi Germany looms far larger on the typical school curriculum than the slave trade or colonialism).  
Where to Invade Next showtimes and tickets
In a final feminist turn, Tunisia is revealed as a country where women have overcome the resistance of a conservative Islamic administration to pass advanced equal rights laws, and Iceland’s female leaders are credited with rebuilding the economy from ruin after a world recession brought on by an excess of testosterone. 

After the UCSB screening, a student who identified herself as Swedish complained that the film whitewashed countries, including her own, where neo-fascism is on the rise and borders are even now being closed to refugees. A mild expression of sympathy for Europe’s predicament, from the sociology professor chairing the discussion, prompted the Swedish student’s friend (an Iranian, I learnt when I caught up with him in the foyer) to stage his sudden exit. The groaner, an American woman of working class origins and impeccably progressive credentials, confided in me that she was bothered by the anti-American tenor of the film and even more distressed at the patronising tone of the discussion afterwards, with its focus on “stupid Americans”. So in this small audience, Moore managed to alienate people from three different continents.

I can see how the film might be offensive to Americans resistant to the idea that other countries manage things better, though Bernie Sanders has won substantial support with this very message. I also know that Europe is no utopia. But I felt that the two students had missed the point. This isn’t really a film about Italy or Finland or Tunisia. We see people in foreign countries benefitting from humane approaches to employment and education and law enforcement and these sunny images evoke the shadow, which is Moore’s true subject. America occupies only a fraction of his time, but in this fresh context the footage of police violence and the brutalitizing of prison inmates has a huge impact. A combination of savage sentencing, profit-driven prisons and a war on drugs that targets black America, Moore argues, has created a new slave class out of the descendants of the old. Meanwhile ordinary Americans, holding down two or three jobs to make ends meet, have been induced to accept their exploited condition as inevitable.

The film reminds us that there are better and worse ways of doing things and that it’s worth pushing for the better options. Its optimistic message made me want to cheer. 

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

What's so hilarious about humiliation?

Jenny gives Florence Foster Jenkins a queasy 3 stars

Is there currently a more reliable director of expertly-told stories than Stephen Frears? If so I can’t think of one: The Queen, Philomena, The Program, all movies I have enjoyed even while thinking the first two somewhat sentimental. As a director he seems to like looking at the not-so-attractive lives of people who, for whatever reason, position themselves as celebrities. The scripts are invariably well written, the casting is always spot on, the acting convincing, the production design faultless, the resulting film entertaining.

Florence Foster Jenkins is the story of a wealthy woman who can’t sing yet who hires the Carnegie Hall in 1944 to give a recital. Her records, recklessly made because she believed so firmly in her own talent, became best sellers, but for all the wrong reasons. Her personal and business partner, a former actor, St. Clair Bayfield, had been able to keep the proper critics away up until that point through a mixture of persuasion, bribery and threat, but this became impossible with a public concert in such an enormous place. Professional critics demolished her performance and she died shortly afterwards.

Technically everything about this film is wonderful. Meryl Streep does one of her usual immaculate impersonations as Florence, including finely judged bad singing. The real surprise is Hugh Grant who is just perfect as her kind-of husband, showing us that he is certainly in it for the money, including the flat for which Florence pays and which houses his girlfriend, yet he also loves Florence deeply and tenderly. His graceful and expertly nuanced performance is the best thing he has done for years. Maybe it is true that he was born 50 years too late for the handsome Cary Grant-style British schmoozer he plays so well in this film; trust his twinkly charm folks, but not too much.

But I watched this film in dismay. It is billed as a ‘comedy drama’ and the actors have repeatedly described it in interviews as ‘hilarious’. But how, exactly is it ‘hilarious’? Is it hilarious to laugh at the allegedly comical delusions of a very rich woman who could afford to hire weasely singing coaches tell her she was brilliant but ‘it needs a little more work’, and who is then exposed to the terrible humiliation of an audience at the Carnegie Hall (The Hammersmith Apollo filling in perfectly) literally falling about laughing as she screeches her way through arias that are way beyond her ability?

Self-delusion is one of the essential themes of comedy. It’s why we laugh at Malvolio in Twelfth Night, it’s why David Brent was excruciatingly funny in The Office. It’s why Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge is genuinely ‘hilarious’. These are ludicrous people who at some level know that who they are and who they purport to be are at odds.

What is wrong with this film is how clearly it shows that Florence Foster Jenkins does not know this. Her costumes are ridiculous and ugly. She is overweight. She is too old to prance about on a stage. She wears a wig to hide her baldness. She is a naïve, vulnerable woman, padded by money, damaged by poor health and by the sycophancy, cowardice and the well-meaning or corrupt care of those around her, who, for whatever reason, refuse to tell her the blunt truth: she can’t sing. Watching this film we are made complicit in this.

I did not like the moral dilemma this created for me. I did not find the film funny, though I did find it absorbing. Her death is horrible. This was a real woman who really did die in these circumstances. I heard no laughter around me in the Islington Vue. People stayed quietly to the end, watching the credits and then filed out silently. There was no feel-good chattery buzz or smiling. I left along with everyone else and plodded home. I had watched a tragedy not a comedy. I felt manipulated: not a good experience.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Plodding towards infinity

Jenny gives Matt Brown’s Ramanujan biopic 2 stars

The Man Who Knew Infinity is in the tortured genius genre, so we already know that it can’t possibly end happily. A poor young man from Madras, Srinivasa Ramanujan, a self-taught mathematical prodigy played charmingly by Dev Patel, eventually achieves some success at a Cambridge college after multiple barriers which include racism, snobbery and ill health.

Only ten minutes into this film I had decided that I was watching a Sunday evening TV idea which had grown too big for its sprockets. Was it the soppy version of India, all sitars and flower garlands? Was it the Bollywood casting of the pretty little wife who really just had to do a lot of soulful eye-rolling and staring into the horizon? Was it the cheerfully coloured ‘poverty’? 

As the film trudged along, I found concentration difficult, especially as further on into Row D at the Everyman there was a party of naughty ladies who were downing copious quantities of wine, chatting and consulting their phones. The wine had a predictable effect on their bladders so they needed to leave their seats quite a lot. Joe charitably thought that they might be Dev Patel groupies and that the phones were for sharing pictures of their beloved. But maybe they had just made a mistake about the film they thought they were going to see on a girlie night out. Pure Mathematics didn’t seem to hold their interest.

Then I found that certain intrusive, nit-picky questions began to preoccupy me. If Ramanujan was so poor, who paid for his splendidly tailored suits, beautiful shirts and nice cashmere cardis? After a 6,000 mile journey to England, how come his one cream suit was still in tip top condition? These important wardrobe questions were never answered. Why was the weather so peculiar? Even in Cambridge I don’t think the rain falls on just one side of an umbrella, and when you cross one of those handsome quads I doubt that the conversation booms as it did in this film or that the light glows quite so orangely on people’s faces for so much of the time. Do people with TB really have eyes that look like something out of a cheaply-made horror film?

Then there is the problem of how you explain mathematical genius when virtually no one in the audience is likely to understand a word of it. Answer: you show a lot of chalkboard or notebook workings but at such speed that we know we don’t need to bother to read them, and you have a handy Irish servant (a Bedder as I believe they are known) who doesn’t know any more maths than we do, so that Jeremy Irons, playing the Cambridge professor, GH Hardy, can do some helpful mansplaining (or mathsplaining, as Joe suggested it might be called).

Meantime, the ladies had sent out for another bottle, the wine glasses were glinting from the light on their phones and their faces seemed a little flushed.  

The biopic is a difficult act to pull off. Almost invariably it presents a one-dimensional, sentimentalised version of the person’s ‘real’ life. Pedants spring up to point out all the many factual mistakes and the director indignantly defends the film as fiction anyway. Many tortured geniuses have had a number of films made about their lives – for instance Vincent Van Gogh, Frida Kalho, Howard Hughes – but can anyone remember these films now or distinguish them from each other?

The actual Ramanujan married his wife when she was ten and left her when she was fifteen. He was not tall, rangy and handsome like Dev Patel but a rather chubby plain-looking fellow. His was undoubtedly a life cut tragically short, but somehow by the time we got to that part I had wholly lost interest and I was a bit preoccupied by the utterly trivial question of how soon we could get to the restaurant and order our own bottle.

Joe's footnote

I think playwrights have had better luck with this kind of material, Jenny, partly because subsidised theatre is not required to please a mass popcorn-eating audience (nor a wine-guzzling, selfie-tweeting one), but also because the stage is a symbolic medium that lends itself more readily to the exploration of ideas.

Michael Frayn's Copenhagen (1998) didn’t depend on leaden mathsplaining to present Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle but dramatized it through a series of conflicting narratives. In Arcadia (1993) Tom Stoppard created the poignant fiction of a nineteenth century teenage genius who grasps the concept of chaos theory, but dies, leaving her grieving tutor to waste a lifetime failing to bring her ideas to fruition, and in this way communicates one of the essential features of this branch of mathematics – that it depends on repeated iterations, each one simple in itself, but on a scale that only a computer can manage.  

In defence of Matt Brown’s film, at least some brief explanation is offered of the kind of problem Ramanujan was working on, even if the device is rather creaky. As far as I remember, A Beautiful Mind, starring the beefy Russell Crowe, quickly abandoned any attempt at explaining game theory in favour of more muscular activities such as heaving desks from first floor windows.

I enjoyed The Man Who Knew Infinity more than you, Jenny, and more than our neighbours, who seemed strangely indifferent to the craggy charms of Trinity College quad and the even craggier charms of Jeremy Irons. I was moved by Hardy’s attachment to his fellow mathematician Littlewood, and by his growing understanding of the profundity of his Indian protégé’s genius. But for a mind-expanding treatment of Ramanujan’s life, A Disappearing Number (2007) was vastly more successful. Devised by Théâtre de Complicité and directed and conceived by Simon McBurney, it included live percussion, suggestive of the numerical sequences that absorbed Ramanujan, and brought abstract ideas impressionistically alive through dance and dramatic action.  

Monday, 18 April 2016

We bomb because we care

Joe questions the premise of Eye in the Sky

If you like the kind of thriller where stuff gets blown up and no one has time to count the bodies, you’ll be disappointed with Eye in the Sky. Writer Guy Hibbert and director Gavin Hood make us wait for most of the film while an expanding circle of military and political figures agonise over whether to authorise a single precision drone strike and how to minimise the human cost. The result is more like a seminar in moral philosophy than an updated Airforce One.

The set-up is designed to present an excruciatingly balanced ethical conundrum. In response to information that senior figures in the East African terrorist group Al-Shabaab will be gathering in Nairobi, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is directing an operation by Kenyan ground troops to pick them up. When the terrorist meeting is moved to a house inside a camp controlled by extremists, a no-go area for the military, Powell sees no alternative to a drone strike.

Overseeing this operation from Whitehall is Powell’s commanding officer, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), the British Attorney General, and a couple of government ministers. From a US air force base outside Las Vegas, two young American drone pilots operate the “eye in the sky” of the film’s title and wait for instructions.

Meanwhile the stakes are rising on both sides of the question. It turns out Powell has in her sights not only three “high-value targets”, identified as numbers 2, 3 and 5 on the US President’s East Africa kill list, but also two suicide bombers who are even now suiting up to go out and create carnage in some public place at an estimated cost of 80 lives. Who could resist zapping the lot of them in one go? Random deaths will be limited to a small area around the house. But a child, who has previously been observed playing safely in her own back yard, sets up a stall in the street selling bread. For all those watching the live footage this girl’s fate becomes the central question. Can they strike without killing or injuring her? Should they strike anyway?
Image result for the eye in the sky
At the level of human drama, the film is absorbing. But I found myself increasingly distracted by a feeling that the debate was skewed. In their charismatic performances, Mirren and Rickman seem to represent the military at its most admirable, doing what has to be done to keep us safe. The US politicians, who appear only briefly, are cartoonishly gung-ho. It’s left to the British politicians, agonising over biscuits and coffee in their plush Whitehall office, to consider the case against action. But they’re a weaselly bunch, worrying how they’ll explain themselves on the Today Programme if it all goes wrong and the footage is leaked to you tube. Rickman, required to seek ever higher clearance, gives a characteristic performance of deadpan disdain (sadly his last). This raised uneasy chuckles from the elderly matinee audience in the Clapham Picturehouse. I imagine less thoughtful audiences might howl with derisive laughter at the cowardly buck-passing. But this isn’t an episode of The Thick of it: these politicians are clearly sweating their way through a dilemma that has a moral dimension for them as well as a political one.

It occurred to me only afterwards that the way the film maintains the illusion of balance is by piling up the rational case in favour of the drone strike and the emotional case against.

The argument for saving the child, played enchantingly by Aisha Takow, is given emotional weight for the audience who get to know her at ground level. We learn that her father does nothing more dangerous for a living than mending bicycles, that her mother bakes the bread that she sells in the market, and that they are explicitly not “fanatics”, the term her father uses for their neighbours. In the privacy of the home, she studies maths and in the yard she plays charmingly with a hula hoop, though her hula-hooping, like her schoolbooks, must be hidden from visitors. All of which makes her, and her parents, effortlessly appealing to a Western audience, while adding nothing to the moral case for protecting her. 

Rickman’s character, resistant to such sentimental concerns, takes the pragmatic view: “Save her and risk killing 80 others.” The nearest thing we get to an answer comes from one of the British politicians: “If Al-Shabaab kills 80 people, we win the propaganda war. If we kill one child, they do.” This is a powerful argument fatally weakened by its acceptance of the General’s assumption that drone strikes save lies – calculably and immediately. No one in the film questions this, nor the long-term strategy of assassinating replaceable individuals while alienating civilian populations who must live under the constant threat of random aerial attack. 
It’s a junior minister, played engagingly by Monica Dolan, who offers the most consistent objection on moral grounds, but the script gives her nothing to say in response to Rickman’s sonorous last words: “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war”. This final stand-off between the agitated, damp-eyed civilian woman and the sorrowfully determined General symbolises the heart-versus-head premise on which the film is constructed.

Persuasively written, superbly acted, convincing in its procedural details, Eye in the Sky left me feeling emotional manipulated and intellectually bamboozled. The argument for risking the child’s life is unrealistically contrived. The give-away is the addition of the suicide bombers and the confident estimate of 80 imminent deaths. In the war we are conducting with daily drone strikes in many countries, how often, I wonder, does a drone pilot have in his sights a suicide bomber on the point of detonating his vest? We’ve become used to the justification for torture that was regularly represented in Fox’s long-running series, 24. Wouldn’t you torture someone if he could direct you to a bomb in time for you to defuse it? This film seems to offer an equivalent defence of drone strikes.

In the desperate circumstance presented in this story, a little corruption seems justified. When Mirren’s character, having struggled conscientiously throughout to do what’s best, makes the first move towards a cover-up, I felt invited to consider the lonely burden of responsibility carried by those charged with protecting us, because, as another fictional colonel once famously remarked, we can’t handle the truth. Sadly there’s no one in this film with the eloquence or the stature to challenge that dangerous falsehood.  

And after the General has had his say and the verbal debate is over, it’s only the closing wordless sequences, in a hospital in Nairobi and on an Air Force base in Nevada, that suggest the devastating cost of such actions – to the innocent victims, of course, and to the anti-terrorist cause, but also, less obviously, to those who fire the missiles in our name from a distance that keeps them physically safe but cannot protect them from the emotional and moral cost of what they are required to do. 

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

The Club puts Spotlight in the shade

Jenny admires Pablo Larraín's unsettling meditation on hurt and guilt 

How fascinating it is to compare this Chilean film with the American film Spotlight. The subject is the same: the misbehaviour of priests in the Catholic Church. To me, Spotlight seems to take a woefully self-righteous and one dimensional approach: those terrible priests and all their snaky supporters have to be tracked down and exposed! The good guys - those clever journos - must triumph!

The Club is different. It is set in an impoverished village at the edge of Chile. It is where the world of the living ends and the world of purgatory begins. In an ugly yellow coastal house there are four priests and a nun. The priests have been hidden away because they have committed various misdemeanours, not all of them child abuse. Their dismal lives are made more bearable by decent food, wine and by training their greyhound to win races, the proceeds of which they use to provide more comforts. Three strangers disrupt their routine. First, a fifth priest arrives but he brings in his trail his stalker, a dishevelled homeless man who posts himself outside the house to chant a continuous litany of foul and explicit description of just what this priest did to him. A suicide brings the third stranger, a dapper Jesuit who has come to investigate the death and to assess whether any of the inhabitants of the house will express genuine regret for their past actions.

The film is shot, and I’d love to know how this was achieved, in grimy shades of deep dusty grey tinged with a sandy brown haze, often against the light. The widescreen photography empties the landscape, stripping it of colour and life. Nothing looks clean, nor is it. These people do not feel remorse, they expertly justify their actions with skewed dogma and euphemism. They may feel shame but not guilt. Even the slyly smiling nun, theoretically monitoring their behaviour, for instance how long they spend in the shower (‘long showers are forbidden’) has herself been exiled for cruel behaviour.

It is easy to hate people who abuse their power seeing them in tabloid language as ‘evil beasts’. These priests seem dislikeable, certainly, but they are also forlorn creatures, silent in their unease with themselves, unable to connect even with their fellow ‘prisoners’, one of whom has advanced dementia and who has been there so long that no one can remember why he was sent in the first place. The group don’t care whether they impress their Jesuit interrogator or not. They tell him rudely that he is a Vatican bureaucrat, a nobody; they challenge him to say that he is without sin himself. And of course he cannot.

It has its sardonic moments of black humour which may remind people with long TV memories of Father Ted, an inspired late nineties Irish sitcom with three priests and a housekeeper banished to the fictional Craggy Island in the far West of Ireland. Here too we encounter dementia and foul language, visits from pompous and ineffectual church dignitaries, priests for whom religion provides only a job and a narrative to explain and excuse their actions. And as in Father Ted, the Church protects its own. But the vision The Club offers is darker and more profound. The film is a meditation on how often we hurt others, how little real care we give them, and the difficulty of acknowledging guilt.

The Club is more compelling in its set-up than in its plot. I found the final act especially contrived and unconvincing and if you’re not familiar with Catholic rituals you may be bemused, as I was, by the heavy symbolism. However, unlike Spotlight, this is a film that I continue to ponder; its images don’t fade.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

A haunting exploration of loneliness

Jenny applauds Kaufman and Johnson for their 5-star animation Anomalisa

The scene: c1984, Little Angel Children’s Puppet Theatre in Islington, North London, mid performance of something bland such as Meg and Mog

Small son (screaming): I’m not staying here!
Embarrassed mother (me): Shhh!
Small son: I hate those puppets, they’re evil!
Embarrassed mother: Why?
Small son: They come alive and they’ll come and get me!

Yes, well-spotted that son, puppets have a weird, dream-like quality of their own, half way as they are between doll and human and they do so in this strange and brilliant film.

The well-named Michael Stone is in Cincinatti, chosen for its mid-west anonymity. He is an author and motivational speaker whose subject is customer care. I have done my occasional stints as a motivational speaker and I have many times stayed in anonymous hotels just like this one. The whole grisly business of checking in and being taken to your room is shown in real time and made me ache with laughter: the receptionist who has certainly absorbed every word of Michael’s book and is able to recite his welcome incantation with utterly fake empathy and without pausing for breath; the bellhop who explains that this is the bathroom and this is the window with his hand held out for the tip; the dark room (always too dark to read your documents easily except in the overlit bathroom); the shower that is too hot then too cold; the grim view; the long long corridor with identical doors; the key card that only works on the third attempt; the room service where bland food is made to sound enticing by describing the raspberry vinaigrette on the lettuce. Yes, I’ve been there.

It seems that everyone apart from Michael has an identical face in this world and their voices, man woman or child, are spoken by the same actor, Tom Noonan. That is until he meets a breathless fan who is coming to his session the following day. Lisa is a naïve, sweetly spoken young woman disfigured by a facial scar. Jennifer Jason Leigh voices this part with astonishing depth. Lisa and Michael have a one night affair.

Why puppets for this extraordinary riff on the loneliness and pointlessness of human existence? Why as a director put yourself through three whole years where the stop-action animators were doing well to produce a mere 2 seconds a day and at a total cost of $10m? Because clearly nothing else would do. The puppets have a foreshortened, stumpy appearance, their skin vulnerably fuzzy, their eyes full of pain. They make it plain that our belief in free will is an illusion: we are puppets.

The heart of the film is the sex scene. Could human actors reproduce the painful awkwardness of sex with a new lover when for instance, you accidentally bang your head on the headboard, say ‘sorry’ too much or get overcome by shyness? Or convey the experience of intoxicating and illusory connection when biology does its bit? Probably not. I have never seen a movie scene like this: funny, so tastefully done, touching and oddly erotic where I had to keep reminding myself, ‘these are puppets!’

Disaffected middle-aged fatalists are nothing new in American cinema and fiction but Michael is a special case, a man out of time and place. David Thewlis, who voices Michael, has a slow, downbeat Mancunian accent but his character is living in LA. His marriage is failing. He doesn’t believe his own advice any more. He is making a living by trudging through his life, peddling the lie that customer service brings happiness. The literal nightmare of the film is his dream where, running up that dark corridor, his puppet mask falls off, revealing a terrifying cardboard skull beneath.

This is an animated film with no talking animals or jolly ending. Yes, that small son was absolutely right, puppets do have a quality of strange otherness that in this case will haunt you long after you have emerged, blinking, into ‘reality’.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Shimmeringly shallow

Jenny gives Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash 4 stars

I really enjoyed this film. It made me recall so many holidays which start with high hopes of relaxation and sun in new and properly hot locations, interesting local food, carefree sex. As it goes on, all the tensions kick in because of course you take yourself and your familiar problems on holiday, and then it ends in too much wine, sunburn and maybe a little melodrama on the last night because without any of the normal routines to distract you, you are face to face with all the relationship tangles you came away to forget. Fortunately none of my actual holidays ended quite like the one in this film did.

The film cheekily takes its title from David Hockney’s swimming pool painting of gloriously sybaritic California in the sixties. It will remind you of the many movies you have seen where a swimming pool represents depths of desire and the wish to let yourself go. If you are old enough, or film-buff enough, you will remember La Piscine, the 1969 Jacques Deray film of which this is a remake. Tilda Swinton plays a Bowie-like rock star Marianne, recovering from throat surgery so she can only speak in a rasping whisper. Her boyfriend, Matthias Schoenaerts, is a photographer and film director who is recovering from alcoholism and a suicide attempt. They are having a lovely time in their Garden of Eden on the Italian island of Pantelleria when, Pow! In comes the uninvited ghastly supercharged motormouth serpent, a former lover of Marianne, bringing with him a sulky pouting girl (Dakota Johnson) who may or may not be his daughter and who may or may not be a teenager and who certainly represents the forbidden apple. Ralph Fiennes plays the manipulative intruder, Harry, a record producer whose phenomenal piece of Dad Dancing to a Rolling Stones record is a laugh out loud piece of utterly inspired comedy. Forget his Mr Lugubrious of so many period films and plays. Here he is loud, brash, often naked, all unrelenting manic Ups without any of the Downs.

I suspect that the director wants his film to seem as deep as the pool which figures so largely in the plot. It may be. The trouble is that his characters are so very narcissistic. None is what they seem. All are seduced by the tinsel of appearance: they work in film or photography or rock music. They all behave badly. The adults have experienced fame, money and the world’s adoration, yet they are voids inside. The film suggests that they have either never achieved what they wanted or are past their best. But it seems that the director simply cannot help himself: he adores the very things that the film implies are so empty: Tilda’s exquisite wardrobe is by Dior, her face with its chalky skin and androgynous sharp planes, her slim boyish body - all are made for the camera. Matthias Schoenaerts smoulders handsomely as the lover; Dakota Johnson as the maybe-daughter is enticing in her sheer youthfulness.

Guadagnino has said that he does not see himself in the Italian film making tradition I think he may be fooling himself. When I saw L’Avventura as a naïve young filmgoer I was instantly enraptured while simultaneously accepting that I didn’t understand a single frame of it and had no idea what was going on. More recently, watching Paolo Sorrentino’s film A Great Beauty, and finding it stupendously boring, I realised I was seeing something in the Italian tradition that did not work at all for me. But A Bigger Splash has the swooping zooms and pans, languorous enigmatic sex and tortured, reflected close-ups that all Italian films need, with wonderful performances to match.

This film is operatically melodramatic, a lush, slightly bonkers, over the top psychodrama about self-involved, beautiful people with too little to do that ends in tragedy. And do you care? Probably not but you’ll have a good time watching.

Joe’s spoiler

I seem to remember one of DH Lawrence's wacky ideas was that for every murderer there's a murderee. Harry is a perfect murderee. The dance, as you say, Jenny, was superb. The fight in the pool was also, in its own very different way, brilliantly done. Viewed from directly above, unsettlingly lit from below the water line, and with a sound track so subtle that I thought at first I was hearing noises from an adjacent screen, it leads to what must be the finest swimming pool death since Amanda Redmond did for Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast.

I’m not sure the effect in the end is as shallow as you suggest. Marianne is fully aware of the moral significance of what she’s doing (is there an actor in the business whose eyes give away as much as Tilda Swinton’s?) when she suggests that refugees who have recently landed on the local beach may be to blame for Harry’s death.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Elemental perfection

Jenny gives Grímur Hákonarson's Rams 5 stars

Don’t be misled. This is not a documentary film about sheep farming in Iceland, even though the talented director, Grímur Hákonarson, has in fact made documentary films. And the ‘Rams’ of the title are really the two bitterly warring and ageing brothers who have not spoken for 40 years, not their rival prize rams, though the actual rams are important enough to have their own credits.

It’s a long time since I have seen a film which has lived on in my mind in quite the way this one has. First there is the bone-dry black humour which flicks in seconds to appalled pity at the human cost of this estrangement. There is a sequence where the older brother, Kiddi, is unceremoniously dumped in a bath, much like one of his sheep. When Gummi needs to communicate with Kiddi, he does a dog-like bark which summons Kiddi’s collie dog (give that dog, Panda, a prize for best animal performance), stuffs a piece of paper in the dog’s mouth and awaits the answer, which duly arrives, a little wet with dog drool.

The crisis in the film is the diagnosis of scrapie in Kiddi’s prize ram. Scrapie is an incurable and highly infectious sheep disease so all the sheep in the valley must be slaughtered. Although there will be compensation, it feels like the end of everything that their family has passionately developed over generations of sheep breeding and the end of a way of life which has endured for a thousand years.

These brothers, who live unspeaking within a few meters of each other, have no computers or mobile phones. They are isolated in the far north of a country which is already the most sparsely populated in Europe. Their handknitted sweaters are full of unrepaired holes, their unkempt beards and hair as bushy as the fleece on their beloved sheep. Their simple houses, diets and clothing remain free of female influence. As Gummi remarks flatly, any women in the area have long since fled. A tough bachelor life is the only option.

Now, as the plot unfolds, maybe they can save at least some part of this heritage, but to do it, they must cooperate. The final sequence has the impact of biblical myth, Cain and Abel must reconcile or die, wrestling the harsh climate in this icy, treeless landscape. The closing moments are unbearably poignant: elemental in their underlining of the message that although we are alone, our fates are inextricably linked with those we love – or once loved.

Everything about this film has a kind of perfection: the backstory is merely hinted at and you may need to watch carefully to catch the family photograph telling of a happier time in the past. The cinematography moves seamlessly from vast empty vistas to close-ups of craggy faces, or of a piece of wood being painstakingly whittled. The production design tells you that these men live in poverty but without a shred of aspiration for anything else – they accept their lot. The music is spare and disciplined. As for the acting, it is magnificent. I believed all of them to be the people they play.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Shedding a dim light on old news

Jenny finds Spotlight timid and ponderous

Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy, takes its name from the investigative team from the Boston Globe newspaper who in 2001 eventually exposed dozens of paedophile priests in South Boston. By dint of painstaking detective work they showed that powerful local interests had protected the Catholic Church through a process of mutual collusion. The film suggests that it took the new editor, a Jewish outsider, to pursue a story that the newspaper already had. He is played in the film as a socially awkward man immune to the winks, hints, charity galas, golfing conversations and backslapping of local worthies.

So far, so noble.

But I was puzzled. I have lived in and around journalism for much of my adult life and I've never seen journalists like these: dressed in beige, tidy, nicely spoken, obedient. No swearing? No drinking? The worst they say is ‘Jeez!’ or ‘freaking’. I've never seen a newspaper office like this one where people sit placidly at their desks. Nor have I ever known a daily newspaper office to be uninhabited on a Sunday as this one seems to be.

This is a terribly respectful film, carefully made. It takes itself tremendously seriously. I found the result achingly dull and ponderous. The director does his best to bring life to the script by using West Wing style fast walking shots, plus, inexplicably, a character who is always running from one place to the next for no good reason. There is some annoying mansplaining. 'What's a treatment centre?' asks the lady reporter and one of her gentleman colleagues kindly enlightens her.

Somehow the moment for this film has passed. We know this story. It still shocks but it is familiar. We have seen the same nasty phenomena not just in the Catholic Church but also in the Anglican and other churches where people have protected the organization and themselves, ignoring the victims. We have seen it in Rochdale and Oxford where collusion between police, social workers and the justice system ignored the obvious abuse of hundreds of vulnerable young teenage girls who were blamed for the violence, rapes and threats that they suffered over many years. As a subject it is a topic for actual journalism - urgent, risky, raw, angry and immediate, not a timid film about journalism based on events that happened in the safe past of 15 years ago.

This film is bound to win an Oscar. It's the kind of socially responsible subject that the Academy likes. But in a few years’ time who will remember it? Not many is my guess.

Joe’s heckle

I liked this a bit more than I expected to, Jenny, and a lot more than you did. The trailer features a histrionic outburst by Mark Ruffalo as journalist Michael Rezendes (it coulda bin me, it coulda bin you, it coulda bin any of us) but the film is anything but histrionic. It avoids the sentimentality and simplistic moral judgments that dragon-slayer narratives can slip into. Having led the Spotlight team to success, Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), facing the uncomfortable discovery that he too, early in his career, was complicit in burying the story, finds triumph overshadowed by guilt. And while the sense of liberation predominates, none of the team is entirely untouched by the negative impact of what they have.

There’s complexity on the other side too. The lawyers who have represented the Church in secret deals with abused families are both interestingly conflicted. The closest we get to evil is those ‘backslapping worthies’, chief among them the smug Cardinal, who considers it appropriate to welcome the Globe’s new Jewish editor with the gift of a Catholic Catechism, while presiding over a systematic cover-up that leaves abusers unpunished and children unprotected. The only paedophile we meet is a defrocked priest interviewed on his doorstep, a pathetic old man who seems to have no conception of the harm he has done, and only just has time to identify himself as a victim of childhood rape before his minder pulls him indoors.

Perhaps what you found dull and ponderous, Jenny, was the quality I registered as restraint. Has the moment for this film passed? The institutional abuse of children under the neglectful eye of those who should be paying attention remains, as you suggest, a live issue, and I agree that this demands actual journalism. And you are right that the Catholic Church is not uniquely culpable. On the other hand, the Church has no rivals in the scale of abuse perpetrated by its employees and the scope of its collusion with them, and it still falls far short of the transparency that should be demanded of it.

But a socially responsible cause is not enough – maybe for the Academy, not for me, not even a cause I care so much about. A more shallow treatment of this story would have invited us simply to gloat over the dead dragon and cheer for the dragon-slayers. This one offered a convincing picture of an elite groomed into accepting the Church’s cosmic sense of entitlement, and a group of journalists who refused to be intimidated.

Memories of the subprime mortgage scam

For Joe, The Big Short evokes memories of hard times

The Big Short, directed and co-written by Adam McKay, tells the story of the US subprime mortgage crisis that led to the great global unravelling. As a film about a public scandal, it’s unusual in not putting at its centre a moral crusader – like Erin Brockovich taking on industrial polluters, or the Spotlight Team at the Boston Globe exposing child abuse – perhaps because there were none, all the regulators being either on the take or asleep at the wheel, and any potential whistle-blowers powerless against the capitalist machine.

Instead we follow three separate stories concerning a handful of investors and hedge fund managers who saw where the twenty-first-century housing bubble was heading and set out to make money from the impending crash. As the face-to-camera narrator tells us, they are not an obviously likeable bunch. We do grow to like some of them, though, particularly the eccentric loner, Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who seems as indifferent to the billions his gamble might make for him and his investors as he is to the widespread suffering success will entail, caring only about being right on the maths, and the initially obnoxious Mark Baum (Steve Carell), whose free-floating rage finally finds a worthy target in the corrupt financial system.

The film held me, but I watched it in a state of anxiety. The feeling was subtly different from the pulse-racing sensation induced by car chases and hairsbreadth escapes. I think it was brought on partly by the relentless in-your-face pop-video style. But I think it was mainly because I wanted it to end well for the ‘good guys’, which meant wanting it to end catastrophically for almost everyone else, which I knew it would anyway, having already lived through this movie.

The trip taken by Baum’s team to the Las Vegas suburbs to discover what kind of foundations the property market was resting on struck a particular chord with me. In the spring of 2009, squeezed by circumstances and uncertain of our future, having sold up in Santa Barbara, Leni and I were wondering if we should keep a foothold in the US property market. I was on my way to Norfolk, England, for a one-year job as writer in residence, with accommodation included, but Norfolk was never going to be our home. So we spent a few weeks looking at apartments and condominiums in southern California.

It was an eye-opening experience. We saw ghost-town developments abandoned by the recession. We stood in homes that had been stripped of anything detachable – cookers, boilers, electric sockets – and felt the desperation of the evicted owners. There was one place we liked – a modest, two-bedroom condo, well looked after, in a small town close enough to the Pacific Ocean for sand to blow along the main shopping street. At recession prices we could afford to pay cash at the asking price. We filled in the form to make our offer official and thought that was it, we were committed. ‘Don’t expect a swift response,’ the agent said. ‘It’s owned by the Bank of America, and like all the big banks they’re overwhelmed with foreclosed properties they don’t know what to do with.’ ‘Surely they’ll just say yes then.’ The agent shrugged. ‘Don’t hold your breath is all I’m saying.’ We didn’t. And just as well. Seven years on, and settled in London, we’re still waiting for the Bank of America to get back to us.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Abramson's ROOM is breathtaking

Jenny on a triumphant adaptation of Donaghue's novel

It’s a long time since I have felt scarcely able to breathe during a tense sequence in a film and even longer since I have actually cried, but I did both during Room, Lenny Abramson’s magnificent rendering of Emma Donaghue’s book for which Donaghue also wrote the screenplay.

The subject evokes squeamishness of all sorts because it involves a five year old boy, Jack, and his young mother, ‘Ma’, being imprisoned in a soundproofed garden shed. The boy’s father is her rapist kidnapper. But it is nothing like the grim brutality of Michael, Markus Schleinzer’s German-language film from 2011 where the emphasis was on the hideous nature and crime of the captor. In fact the perpetrator in Room is seen sparingly and the film denies us the satisfaction of enjoying his eventual punishment.

The film cannot capture the voice of the child as the book does so well, but Danny Cohen’s camera sweeps and swoops, gives us oddly revealing close-ups which suggest that this little boy is stable, functioning well inside his small cell, his mother insisting on regular routines: phys ed, meals, crafts, games and stories, hiding the terrible reason for ‘Old Nick’s’ regular nightly visits, during which Jack must sleep in a slatted wardrobe.

Mother and child are like big and little mirrors of each other – the same chalky white faces and long, androgynous hair, varying only in age and experience. A copy of Alice in Wonderland, their only book, suggests the dream-reality of their existence. Ma knows there is another world, Jack only knows Wonderland which, of course, is not Wonderland at all.

The trailer gives away most of the plot, so we will ignore the no-spoiler rule. ‘Old Nick’ loses his job and ‘Ma’ knows that he will probably kill them if he has to sell his house, so she and Jack must escape. Having convinced him that there is no ‘outside’ she now has to do the opposite and teach him to play an appallingly dangerous part in their escape.

The second act is the escape and I have never seen a more thrilling car sequence in the cinema.

The third act is about how Jack and Ma adjust to the ‘real’ world. Here the film is less successful than the book in its hints at Plato’s cave and what is ‘real’ and what is shadows, the necessity of mother and child separation, the need to accept that good-enough parenting is all that most of us can hope for. At the time of watching I accepted that Jack can become a regular little chap with short hair and a cute smile, cheering up his Mummy. But now – I wonder, would such a smooth transition really be possible?

There is so much good work in this film. First, the casting directors Robin Cook and Fiona Weir: how very skilfully they must have found and chosen Jacob Tremblay to play Jack, a thoroughly natural and touching performance. The production designer, Ethan Tobman has done a wonderful job not just in conveying every inch of the squalor of ‘Room’ but also the hideous primness of the family home, all spotless cream carpets and pretentious gilt furniture. Brie Larson just must win an Oscar for her superb performance: in range alone from passionately devoted mother to out of control tigress to abject depressive she outdoes any other actor I have seen this season.

As for Lenny Abramson, I am in awe of his talent for working with actors who give performances of astonishing depth and subtlety: Pat Shortt in Garage, Jack Reynor in What Richard Did and Michael Fassbender in Frank. He seems to be a director preoccupied and fascinated by situations where his protagonists are right up against closely observed physical or psychological limitations – both in the case of Room. After this triumph he will be a hot director. He will be able to take his pick. Bring it on.