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.