Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Joe's shorts 1: nuns & buns

What I'm thinking about Call the Midwife in 200 words

Yes, of course it’s a sugary concoction. And yes, its relentless subtext is that love conquers all. And yes, attitudes on race and class and, even sexual preference, are anachronistically adjusted so that those in the inner circle of huggable characters are not allowed to agitate us with archaic prejudices.

And yet it earns a far lower tosh-rating than the late unlamented Downton Abbey. At least it doesn’t promote the dangerous myth that illness among the working classes was once taken care of by benevolent aristocrats. It consistently credits the NHS with transforming healthcare for the poor, while not glossing over other unsolved problems of poverty.  And whereas Downton went through the Great War with only one life-changing injury, which turned out to be not so life-changing when the handsome paraplegic discovered he was only bruised and could walk after all, Call the Midwife has taken a straight look at babies effected by thalidomide, birth problems resulting from FGM, and mouthfuls of rotting teeth.  

It has also made space in its casting for actors with Downs Syndrome and, though the nuns and midwives are white, regularly employs actors of colour to portray ordinary law-abiding mothers and fathers in functional relationships.  

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.