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.
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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.