SHOPLIFTERS**** Slow but Rewarding


(JAPANESE) DIRECTOR HIROKAZU Koreeda’s keen, leisurely observing eye is not one to be rushed. This is a slow, gentle tale that has its own rhythm; one that’s very far away from the kineticism of most Western drama. Either you enter into Koreeda’s flow or the subtle undulations of the tale will escape you.

The story centres on a family that exemplifies what family life is all about. They live comfortably together, pull together, share meals (noisily slurped down), are easily forgiving of each other’s minor peccadilloes and revel in their frolicsome seaside holidays. Dad is the hardworking centre of this group, keen on passing on his specialist knowledge.

Shoplifting.

And here’s the rub: this family lives in a dirt hovel. They’re a diverse group of mainly unrelated individuals who have fallen together. When we meet them, they’ve just rescued Yuri, a hungry, cold child, recently escaped from a relatively richer, but abusive family and hiding behind a dumpster. The contrast is obvious: one group is poor and unrelated by blood; father and ‘son’ are thieves, ‘daughter’ is a comfort girl in a peep show emporium, ‘mother’ is a factory hand and granny is a (mysterious) income generator. What binds them together is their shared humanity and a massive sense of mutual caring. One particularly strong theme (for which the director is well recognized) is the vital sense of the father/son relationship.

Legally, they’re outlaws, unlike Yuri’s dysfunctional, abusive family who really aren’t that concerned that she’s disappeared. But they’re a socially sanctioned legal entity

So, just what is “family”?

The movie brings us into the everyday seaminess of a hidden side of Japan, one of the world’s richest countries. But Koreeda eschews any trace of ideological anger (indeed, the authorities when we do meet them are unfailingly polite and decent). It’s as though he (and by extension, we) has entered into the kind of Zen acceptance of his protagonists. There’s no room for angst. This is simply how life is. Now, let’s make the most of it. Like dad, they’ve all sought and found the ethical escape clauses for their ‘deviant’ behaviour. As dad sees it, theft from a store isn’t really theft, as the stuff doesn’t as yet really have an owner. Since no one’s harmed, no crime has been committed.

And in that spirit of acceptance, we accept that it’s weird but OK to secretly bury a loved one; and to bring no judgement to someone whose income stream comes from (quasi) masturbating in front of strangers.

It’s as though, harmony and love really is all you need.

Now there’s a radical thought

The problem with the movie I found is that the evocation of the story’s core idea: here’s an “ordinary” family group living a life they deem ordinary, can just be a bit boring. It may be Koreeda’s idiosyncratic, and thematically necessary rhythm. But it’s a very slow rhythm, and I kept wishing they’d get on with it.

That said, this is an engrossing, convincing and heartfelt drama…one well worth its many plaudits

 

SHOPLIIFTERS. Dir and Writer: Hirokazu Koreeda (After The Storm, Like Father, Like Son). With: Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Mayu Matsuoka, Jyo Kairi. Production Designer: Keiko Mitsumatsu

 

 

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OH ISLAND IN THE SUN. The making of a lino cut


Art is often nothing more and nothing less than the visualization of an idea. It’s a codification of lived experience, not unlike Wordsworth’s comment about poetry as a collection of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility. The artist’s ongoing challenge really becomes a technical one. What is the process necessary for realizing the “idea”? Here (for those two of you – OK I exaggerate, one – who may be interested) are some of the steps it takes to arrive at the destination of a completed linocut (It’s called a linocut because, duh, it’s an image cut into linoleum)

Step one. Based on a series of prior sketches, sketch the image onto sanded lino (always remember the final print will be the reverse of the image)

Step 2. Begin the painstaking process of removing all lino material that you don’t want printed. This is a three coloured print, so the image shown here pertains only to the stuff I wanted printed in black

Step 3 Make a rough print. This involves inking the lino and then running it through a large hand cranked print machine. The inking and the printing of a single page takes about 20 minutes (this is printmaking, not reproduction). This helped me gauge just how much space I needed to give over to the background (waves and sky), and how to ensure that thees background images would align perfectly

Step 4. Continue to work on the lino for the other colours. Seen here, my cut for the sea. In order to see what the final image would look like, I find it helpful to shade the lino with a soft pencil

Step 5. This is a shot of one of the above lino inked and ready to print

Step 6. A print of the first two colours (each colour is printed separately and the paper precisely aligned to ensure that there’s a clean registration of the colours

Step 7 And voila. The final print of the black ‘plate’ to complete the pix

It took me three screwed up prints to reach this final perfect copy. Now having failed a few times, I can go forth and print out as many as I have the patience to do (about 5 copies)

 

 

THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB*** SPIDER V DRAGON


Even if you passed over the fact that this Lisbeth Salander (who has morphed from clever hacker into Modesty Blaise) isn’t the same character as the three Stieg Larsson books, the real problem with The Girl in the Spider’s Web is that it’s badly directed (by Uruguayan, Fede Alvarez who co-wrote the script).

The story’s fine. David Lagercrantz’s replacement of Stieg Larsson maintained the latter’s on-going theme of deep state complicity in high crimes. His is an intricate plot that ostensibly pits the Swedish secret service (Vicky Krieps from The Phantom Thread) against the US secret service (Lakeith Stanfield), both vying to recover a stolen code that can hack into the world’s nuclear missile fleet. But at a deeper level, the enemy combatants are Salander v her ‘long dead’ sister (Sylvia Hoeks from Blade Runner 2049).

Not unlike 007 v his ‘long dead’ brother, Blofeld! It’s one of many thefts from the Bond franchise (even including a version of the introductory titles). The theft however stops short of Sam Mendes’ terrific action sequence imagination. In The Girl…, the action sequences and fights (when you can make out what’s going on in this horribly badly lit movie) are brief and perfunctory. In movies of this genre, these are the moments when the adrenaline factor needs to be turned up to the max. No such luck.
Nor does Tatiana Riegel’s muddy editing help. There are several set-piece suspense incidents (a blinded assassin wandering through a wintry forest; Lisbeth lost in a fog of knock-out gas etc.) which end even before we get invested in the tension of the moment.

Director Alvarez also couldn’t be bothered to explain the story’s multiple happy coincidences (like the ex-hacker turned US Secret Agent who, thankfully is also an awesome marksman with the ability to shoot through walls)

Whatever.

Claire Foy is OK as Salander. She wears a sour scowl for all of the story, and certainly commits herself to the brute physicality of the role. But she’s never really convincing. Both Rooney Mara and Noomi Rapace (earlier iterations of Lisbeth) had an earthy (bi) sexuality that invested their characters with a compelling edginess. Foy remains coyly prissy…more concerned with covering up her body than she is with uncovering crime.

But, hey, on a cold, dark afternoon, with the winds of Brexit and Trump beating down our doors, this is an adequate enough diversion

 

THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB. Dir: Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe). With: Claire Foy (The Crown, First Man) Lakeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks (Blade Runner 2049), Stephen Merchant, Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread). Editor: Tatiana Riegel (I, Tonya); Cinematographer: Pedro Luque (Look Away): Production Designer: Eve Stewart (The Danish Girl)

 

 

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY*** The Official Biography


THIS MOVIE IS as delightful and entertaining as it is disingenuous. Its title, Bohemian Rhapsody would suggest that it’s more than a movie about a band, more an exploration of a musical phenomenon. It’s really a bio-pic of Freddy Mercury as a troubled genius.

The joy of the movie is its immersion of the audience in the heart-throbbing excitement of that seemingly endless canon of Queen’s hits (And director Bill Pohlad’s recreation of the adrenaline and thrill of live performance is as good as Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born). Mercury’s multi-octave voice (due to an excess of teeth he claimed) and Brian May’s stunning guitar riffs have probably provided the soundtrack of everyone between 45 and 70. Probably in the same way that ABBA did for everyone a generation earlier…and Bohemian Rhapsody will no doubt pump up record sales (OK…downloads) for the group as that other Dancing Queen has done for ABBA.

This is of course not to imply that Brian May had that in mind when he produced this airbrushed version of the band…right down to the last group hug of an HIV infected Freddy (at a time when the public thought it was contagious through mere touch).

That said, the choice of Rami Malek (Mr.Robot) to portray Freddy was a brilliant one. Malek holds the movie together, as Mercury did with Queen, with extraordinary charisma. Here’s a moving tale of an endearing buck toothed, gay, self-centered, Asian man, looking for love in all the wrong places and finding salvation in performance.

The movie follows Freddy’s career from the time when he’s still a baggage handler at Heathrow. His extraordinary voice is the asset that enables him to sell himself to a college band on the brink of collapse. He persuades them, and then a music Agent, that they’ll soon be the next big thing. Our difference, he says, is that “we’re a bunch of misfits -an astrophysicist, a dentist and a Pakistani- who will know how to reach all those other misfits out there”.

This ability -and need- to make a connection is one of the themes that drives the story. Freddy (and May) have the instinctive nous of how to connect with and move an audience no matter how large. Freddy feeds off their love (movingly shown at their final thrilling Band Aid Hyde Park concert) even as he mucks up his own personal connections, from his first heterosexual love to his later homosexual decadence.

The story also underlines the link between success and originality. Freddie’s push to force the development of the eponymous Bohemian Rhapsody and the band’s self-belief, despite the misgivings of his agent and the opprobrium of the music press, is the turning point that marks the band out as a pioneer.

“Open your eyes,

Look up to the skies and see

I’m just a poor boy…

Mama, life had just begun”

Be true to yourself, make a connection!  These truisms…anchors to the genius of Queen, remain elusive to its principal singer.
For the personal self awareness, so brilliantly expressed in his music, and genuine human connectedness comes too late…if not for us, his army of fans, but for him, Farouk, the buck-toothed singer.

But the link between this death wish and the well of Freddy’s abundant creativity is one of the many under-explored areas of the story. (I also wish the writers had also taken the time, and courage, to tease out the role casual racism – hinted at but shied away from – played in his evolution as a performer)

The band itself is relegated to the co-star of the story. Freddy’s conniving friends and his own hubris are marked as the causes of its collapse (Dare we call his character “mercurial”?). The rest of the guys, in this telling, were good, happy family men (in contrast to Freddy’s gay promiscuousness). And May certainly ensures that we know who was the creative brain behind hits like “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions”. But the kinds of tensions and stresses that a better movie would have explored (as per the outstanding Beach Boys/ Brian Wilson story, “Love and Mercy”) remain off limits here.

Indeed, the real tension in the movie seems to lie between the DisneyWorld Queen and the real Freddy.

As the song asks, “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”
For Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie…just fantasy folks

 

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Dir: Bill Pohlad (Old Explorers). With: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Tom Hollander. Writers: Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour) & Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon). Cinematograher: Newton Thomas Sigel (X-Men, Acopalypse), Production designer: Aaron Haye ( Terminator Genisys)

 

 

WILDLIFE***** Don’t Miss


THE METICULOUSLY CRAFTED images from Paul Dano’s outstanding debut movie Wildlife (from the book of the same name by Richard Ford) are a combination of Edward Hopper and Life magazine. Like the protagonists of the story, they are images of emptiness, loneliness and desolation.

This is the beginning of the sixties. And once again, the Brinson family (Jerry -Jake Gyllenhaal-, Jeanette -Carrie Mulligan – and Joe – Ed Oxenbould – their fourteen year old son) have moved in search of work. The job Jerry’s managed to land, as an obsequious attendant at a golf club, won’t last long. And once again, he – too proud to ‘allow’ his wife to work, or even for the kind of job he’s prepared to accept – is in need of a job.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. He joins up as part of a crew of equally desperate men, willing to risk their lives for $1.00 and hour, fighting wildfires that are raging somewhere upstate.

She, left to manage on her own, must, like the wildlife threatened by the fires, learn how to adapt or die. Carrie Mulligan (Mudbound, Far From the Madding Crowd) is such an extraordinary actor that really she needs no script to convey her feelings. Her face tells all; every slight hint of emotion is writ large there. And it is a face that slowly changes from one of gaiety and sympathetic support to joylessness and despair. The actor seems to grow increasingly haggard as the story unfolds…as her character tries to find whatever means she can, to retain at least the veneer of middle class “respectability”.

Her innocent, uncomprehending son, Joe, through whose bewildered eyes we see much of the action tries to help out by getting a part time job. He’s a photographer’s assistant…taking the portraits of people eager to strike a pose, a pretence, of happiness. He’s uncomprehending when his mother, decked out in a flashy yellow dress, her “desperation dress”, takes him along to have dinner with the town’s elderly, rich car franchisee, Mr. Miller (Bill Camp: Red Sparrow, The Looming Tower, Molly’s Game)

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

The bigger portrait we’re seeing is of the archetypal nuclear family crumbling before our eyes. Jerry, the father, feeling lessened by his inability to provide flees to face up to his own hell; Jeanette, the mother throws all caution to the wind, shucks off her maternal role and gives in to her circumstances. It is the son, Joe, shorn of parental guidance and responsibility that has to manage somehow.

Dano’s world is the part of America that, unlike Mr. Miller, has somehow been left out of the upwardly mobile post-war boom. They are the people Miller describes with typical capitalist indifference as too incompetent to grow rich. These are the ones fighting their own internal wildfires and learning how best to adapt or die; and perhaps not knowing the difference between the two.

This is a small movie (At times it feels like an adaptation of a play) with a huge emotional footprint. It’s a thoughtful, intellectually rich story, co written by Dano’s accomplished partner, Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks). Gyllenhaal, subtle and outstanding as always, was its co producer. They’re a formidable team. As the lost, nerdy, surprisingly strong son, Ed Oxenbould (The Butterfly Tree) is compelling…un-intimidated by the acting firepower around him.

Wildlife is probably not show-ey enough to get an Oscar nod. But this, along with The Wife and American Animals are among the best of this year.

So far

 

WILDLIFE Dir/writer: Paul Dano (as an actor: 12 Years a Slave. TV: War and Peace). Co-Writer: Zoe Kazan. With: Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp. Production Designer: Akin McKenzie. Cinematographer: Diego Garcia

 

 

WIDOWS***Entertaining


IN THE SAME way that the movies have co-opted gangster stories and Westerns to offer deeper insights into themes of identity, loyalty, masculinity etc. there’s no reason to believe why the heist movie couldn’t also evolve away from the enjoyable nonsense of say, Ocean’s Eleven, into something more profound.

Steve McQueen’s new movie, Widows, sorta succeeds in doing this. But often it feels like two stories, each one restraining the other’s full potential.

The plot involves the collusion of three, newly impoverished, widows, along with a single mom hairdresser (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo). Their gangster husbands have all been killed (in a tremendously exciting shootout). Led by Veronica (Davis), the wife of the (deceased) ringleader (Liam Neeson), they plot the theft of some five million in cash, following the careful plans he’d left behind.

So far so good.

McQueen then builds his story – the lead up to the heist- on parallel tracks: one track follows their, initially stumbling, but growingly confident progress as they case the joint and map out their larcenous steps. The other track unfolds their relationships with their partners. Theirs have been lives shadowed by deceptions and the fragilities – physical, emotional and financial – of accepting their roles as the weaker, supporter sex.

Their need (McQueen’s anthem) is to shrug off their past vulnerabilities…to find strength where there was weakness, to empower themselves…newly dependent on no man; and to use their perceived weakness as a mask behind which to hide their plans.

Here are four women getting back against the serial misogynist abuses of their past…or on another level, here’s an archetype of every woman’s need to assert herself against generations of indifference and abuse.

McQueen offers us a world of stark contrasts; one rooted in corruption. The word of God is proffered by a power seeking preacher, praying for love; a murderous enforcer (terrifyingly played by Daniel Kaluuya) is working out of a church; the cathedrals of the rich butt up against the novels of the poor; the platitudes of stumping politicians (spearheaded by Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell) hide millions in kickbacks and graft; the life of love and friendships are all buried under transactional arrangements.

And the women live in a self-imposed bubble. The money, the lifestyle, the potential of security is all that matters. It’s a gilded cage shielding them from the full reality of the sordidness.

Until they’re shielded no more. In a world of transactions, where money and people are bought and sold, stolen loot may be the only route to the uncompromised life. The past must pay for the future.

This more profound area is clearly where McQueen is keenest.

But as heist movies go, the wheels come off the bus (or the getaway car). This is a far cry from the dreadful, cynical Oceans Eight. But McQueen works so hard to convince us that it’s “true”, that ordinary women really could pull it off, that the improbable cleverness we’ve come to expect from heist movies from The Sting to Insider Man just isn’t there…even though there are some wild improbable coincidences. The entire build up is tension-free and feels flat-footed. There is one massive twist, which, along with various political sub plots, feels unnecessary to his themes of empowerment and deception. Even his four main characters feel underdeveloped.

This is a two hour movie in search of ten hours of Netflix.

It’s an enjoyable enough film. The ensemble cast are at the top of their game, especially Elizabeth Debicki as the proto prostitute trying to rise above her past. And Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn adds some snappy dialogue

But it’s a long way to go after the high of Twelve Years a Slave.

 

WIDOWS. Dir: Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave; Shame). Writer: McQueen and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl). With: Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodrigues, Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager), Liam Neeson, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Murder on the Orient Express; Sicario 2: Soldado), Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Cynthia Erviro (Bad Times at the El Royale). Cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt (On Chesil Beach)

 

 

PETERLOO** Leigh’s Waterloo


THE MASS MARKETED history of England has pretty much only focused on the high and the mighty. Kings, colonialism and, mainly, Churchill.

Here’s a much needed antidote.

Peterloo was the massacre of the innocents. In 1819, a vast crowd of peasants and workers, many unemployed, many starving and bent under the yoke of recently passed Corn Laws, gathered together peacefully in St Peters Field in Manchester. They’d come together to listen to radical orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) and to press for better Parliamentary representation. Their lords and masters, contemptuous and threatened by the fear of a French Revolution on English soil, unleashed the 15th Hussars to scatter the crowd. These sword-wielding, bayonet-piercing, possibly drunk Hussars charged the crowd like the wolf unto the fold and wrecked havoc.

Director Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner, Vera Drake) seeks to make the obvious point that, to a certain class of people (i.e the present British government) the ordinary folk continue to be feared and demonised. Peterloo’s “unruly mob” is today’s “hoard” of benefit abusing shirkers…to be put down at any cost.

This is an important side of the rich tapestry of the English identity that needs to be a part of the national conversation. But Leigh isn’t the person to do it. Here the story has overwhelmed its teller. Leigh’s ideological passion is so strong that this shoddily told tale never rises above the level of a well-illustrated History Channel lesson.

We expect art…our artists… to engage and transform us through credible characters that make us give a damn, and through the selection (and omission) of detail whose careful storyline construction forms a dramatic arc that has the power to seduce us into the heart of the artist.

No such luck with Peterloo. We’re offered a series of strident speeches by various, often anonymous, talking heads, many of whom never reappear. (A small mercy). These “good guys” are contrasted with the “bad guys”: nasty boo-hiss villains, dripping with contempt and malevolence. Their ultimate leader and moral force is the prince regent. He’s clearly the symbol of the Royal family, the upper class and ALL THAT’S WRONG. He’s fat, effete and degenerate.

Maxine Peak as an archetypal downtrodden but unbowed woman trying to earn a few extra shillings for her destitute family, and Kinnear as the pompous, vain Hunt try their best to bring some humanity to the history lesson. But even their skills are overwhelmed by Leigh’s thudding self-righteous solemnity.

This is Leigh’s undigested history: it’s about the French Revolution, The Napoleonic War, the Corn Laws, the dark Satanic cotton mills, capitalism, the feckless upper classes, working class nobility v upper class entitlement, starvation, unemployment, and more. The rich look pampered and powdered. The poor all look dumb and degenerate. All in six hours (OK, it’s only two hours but it felt like six). Six pounds of stuff in a two pound bag!

And nary a thread to knit it all together seamlessly

Now, let’s be clear, I’m on Leigh’s side politically.
But as art, this movie’s a dud.

 

PETERLOO. Dir (and writer): Mike Leigh. With: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Neil Bell. Cinematographer: Dick Pope (Mr. Turner). Production designer: Suzie Davies (On Chesil Beach)