Be Careful Out There

Precinct Seven Five (Tiller Russell, 2014)

We’re used from television programmes such as NYPD Blue and The Wire to the complex interrelations between cops, criminals, politicians and victims and the shades of moral greyness that are faced in policing the streets. Our news of the last couple of years has been filled with dubious shootings of African Americans — not that this is a new phenomena. And despite the fact that particular police forces are clearly — in Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton’s term — institutionally racist, we keep ending up with the one bad apple alibi.

This account of New York police corruption in the late 1980s and early 1990s is a documentary, although you can imagine Al Pacino and Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro playing the roles and the DEA guy is a double for J.K. Simmons. Thus it is mostly talking heads — with only one of the speakers shown in silhouette, one of the New York dealers — along with police evidence video, grainy reconstruction, archive photos and the inevitable skycam view of the streets.

But it begins with former policeman Michael Dowd giving evidence to some kind of enquiry and is taken up in talking heads. There had already been corruption in a nearby Brooklyn precinct, and several cops had resigned lest they be exposed too. Dowd, having reflected on the cynicism with which their ethical training was treated, began his shadow career by asking for a bribe rather than arresting a criminal and then started lifting cash from crime scenes. Soon he recruited his partner, Kenny Eurell, by giving him a hundred dollar bill from a crack dealer. Dowd appears the most dynamic of the speakers, the camera moves with him rather than staying locked off and it is clear there is next to no remorse.

We’re talked through his career — the bribes and thefts proceed to a working relationship with a local king pin to arresting the competition to a potential kidnapping of a debtor’s wife. The amounts of money involved are clearly vast — hundreds of thousands a week, devastating hundreds if not thousands of lives. The Dominican kingpin clearly admired Dowd, but still thought of Eurell as a cop and not up to it. (Meanwhile: cast Jared Leto?)

And inevitably it comes crashing down — we see his testimony — and we might reassure ourselves that criminals will not prosper. Dowd served his sentence. Only one female voice is heard — Eurell’s wife — and none of the consumers of crack. What is striking is that the real emotions come when you see Dowd and Eurell’s discussion of their feelings for each other — textbook homosociality. Clearly a cop’s partner is a blood brother, indeed when they discuss becoming partners you expect there to be a swapping of blood. You have to have each others’ back. You have to trust the other person won’t betray you.

And you get the sense that Dowd doesn’t regret a single moment of his career — only the betrayal.

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Point and Break

Queen and Country (John Boorman, 2014)

And way back in 1987, John Boorman directed an autobiographical film which was a loving portrayal about living through the Second World War, Hope and Glory. I remember rich reds and oranges and sunsets and barrage ballons and the occasional bombsite. Nearly thirty years on, we see the celebration of the child at his schools having been bombed, before cutting to a decade later and life on an idyllic island on the Thames as a prelude to being conscripted into the British army.

It is 1952 and the British are fighting Korea (as part of the communism vs capitalism war) and the old king, who never wanted to be a king, is dying; Elizabeth is going to be crowned and the new Elizabethan Age is dawning. Alter ego Bill Rohan (Callum Turner) meets new BFF Percy (Caleb Landry Jones, who I think gets top billing) and both get put in charge of the typing school and briefing the new recruits. Life is made unbearable by stickler Bradley (David Thewlis) and bearable by shirker Redmond (Pat Shortt) – and the whole film is made bearable by Major Cross (Richard E. Grant).

Is that damning enough?

And there’s girls, glimpsed at a cinema, nurses, and the One, Orphelia (Tamsin Egerton), whom Rohan falls head over heels with despite the large warning light over her head (and the fact that she does get to talk sense about how men treat women in the period whilst still being damaged goods).

I guess this is all very mythic and there’s that whole generation of writers and directors too young for the (Second World) war who did national service and had Sensibilities Formed; some went to to private school, others failed the eleven plus, they’re all eighty or above now, if they’re still alive. If asked, I think I might have assumed that Boorman had died at some point.

The film’s conflicted; on the one hand grandfather despairs about the shame that Rohan has brought on the family, on the other I seem to recall it’s him who gets to dismiss the first Elizabeth. And Rohan is a cipher – neither communist nor capitalist, neither really betraying or supporting others, not quite seduced by his sister, not quite clear what he believes in (besides what he reads in The Times). He is, I fear, the least interesting character in the film. You wonder how Korea itself is going to be handled – an early sequence is not promising – and you slowly realise that virtually everyone over 25 has some kind of PTSD. But there’s just enough gentle comedy not to despair.

I doubt there will be a quarter century gap before this is turned into a trilogy – but I’m assuming a third film about joining the movie industry is envisaged, Pearl and Dean, say. Fun with the Dave Clarke Five. Dealing with Lee Marvin. Buggery in the woods. And Sean Connery in leather shorts.

28 Dogs Later

“Dogs are not an alibi for other themes [… C]ontrary to lots of dangerous and unethical projection in the Western world that make domestic canines into furry children, dogs are not about oneself. Indeed, that is the beauty of dogs.”

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Fehér isten (White God (Kornél Mundruczó, 2014))

I was thrown at first by the nature of the dogastrophe. If we are indeed post-adogalypse, would the headlights on the abandoned car still be on? Would the traffic lights still work?

But still, a pleasingly deserted town, a girl (Zsófia Psotta) cycling in a blue hoodie on the motorway and then a pack of mixed breed dogs chasing her through the streets towards and beyond Aldi.

Flashback.

Dániel (Sándor Zsótér), a former professor (of what?) is inspecting an abattoir (gruesome) and then takes on his daughter (the girl, Lili) and her dog Hagen (Luke and Body, effortlessly doubling) as his ex-wife and her mother heads to Sydney for a conference. Dogs aren’t welcome in the apartment and the dogcatcher (Robert Helpmann Gergely Bánki) soon turns up. The conductor of the orchestra Lili plays in is even less sympathetic. Before you know it, Hagen is abandoned by the roadside. Whilst Lili does search for Hagen, she mainly descends into sex (ish) and drugs and rock’n’roll (or house stuff). Hagen has to avoid the dogcatcher and certain death, but falls instead into the murky world of dog fights and training for them (stop humming the Rocky theme at the back) and is renamed Max. And just when you think he’s hit rock bottom, there is dogalution.

Mad Max: Furry Road.

Oh, please yourselves.

I think I could have lived without the human sections — not that Psotta, Zsótér and others don’t put in fine performances, but it was largely handheld in a shakycam. It veered between the dystopian and the soapian. Ah, but the dog narrative — more Steadicam — did hold my interest, and I presume that soon there will be an American remake with Russell Crowe as Hagen:

My name is Maximus Dogious Magyarus, commander of the Hounds of the North, General of the Canine Packs and loyal servant to the TRUE owner, Lili. Son to a neutered Alsatian, husband to a murdered pooch. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.

Hagen, it turns out, is a legendary Burgundian hero, who shows up in Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, and his Tannhäuser becomes a plot point late on. Redemption through love.

Or games of fetch.

Inevitably there is the whiff of allegory and mettaffa — Mundruczó has spoken about the backlash against immigrants, there’s an anti-gypsy/Romany thread running through and the dog shelter with chimneys had a prisoner of war/concentration camp vibe. I had a sense of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (J. Lee Thompson, 1972), although as with that mythos you worry about the political implications of arguing that gorillas “are” Blacks and so forth.

I suspect, however, there is at the end a sense that Donna Haraway would be a way to unlock this film — a sense of not quite supplication, but mutual supplication. It’s not a comfortable film to watch — although the cast outacted Channing Tatum — and I confess I am ambivalent about dogs. I could have done without being handed a certain flier: nighttime

Dove Tales

En Duva Satt På En Gren Och Funderade På Tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson, 2014))

Fourteen years on from Sånger Från Andra Våningen (Songs from the Second Floor (Roy Andersson, 2000)) and Du Levande (You, The Living, (Roy Andersson, 2007)), a great filmic trilogy is completed. I confess I saw the films out of order — I started with Du Levande and saw Sånger on DVD — but I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem. It may be there’s a darkening of tone, for this film is deepest pitch. But let’s begin with a review of Du Levande from my Dreamwidth account. Continue reading →

An American Problem?

I had a pun all ready for use — well, the beginnings of one. I don’t think it is appropriate. I shall censor myself.

Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014)

This is an astonishing and moving account of the events around the 1965 Selma marches that deserved to have won an Oscar over the single continuous take of Birdman. David Oyelowo deserved shortlisting for the Oscars for Martin Luther King, but able-bodied playing disabled is always a fair bet (as is straight playing gay). I’ve not seen more than an episode of Spooks, so I don’t know Oyelowo’s work (although he was the principal in Interstellar). He’s surrounded by a host of British actors — Tim Roth as Governor Wallace, Howard Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. Everyone seems to be giving their all. An uncredited Martin Sheen, meanwhile, as federal judge Frank Minis Johnson, seems to be channelling President Bartlet.

That being said, there are a couple of places where they didn’t quite hold their nerve.

It’s telling that there’s quite a large disclaimer at the end of the film noting that it isn’t documentary — which is on top of the usual no-intended likeness clause. Well, duh. Toward the end of the film we see King smoking — I think this may be almost the only time characters do so in an era when many more people did (I didn’t notice because I wasn’t looking earlier, but his smoking did stand out). In context the moment is there to show how much is at stake — he is nervous about what lies ahead. I didn’t quite believe it. One reporter seems to ask all the questions and offers the commentary. No biggie. There’s a couple of white guys that get beaten up and killed — were these guys real or just representative? I guess they stand in for any ally who lost their lives. More problematic is the placing of LBJ as supportive to an extent and whether King would have been able to be so blunt to a president without being shown the door. On the one hand, it’s dramatically right (did he fly? how could he afford such visits? how long would it take?), on the other, a generation will take their understanding of King and LBJ from this movie — which is why I felt little wish to see the version of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.

There are a few of moments of, “As you know, Martin” dialogue, so that we know enough historical context, but I think in general that is handled as well as it might be. It’s fascinating to watch the sheer self-awareness of their tactics — they know how the protest will work and what kind of impact they will get. It’s tempting to think of the past as more naÏve than it clearly was. Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch) has a low-key cameo, the more militant figure historically speaking, but again aware of the game being played (and let that use of the word “game” not undermine how serious all of this was).  King repeatedly refers to himself as a marked man, foreshadowing the assassination that you know lies in the future — although the action is focused on 1965.

The violence is, as it should be, distressing. From the frankly terrorist explosion in a church to the police charges around the Edmund Winston Pettus bridge, with whips, truncheons, barbed wire wrapped night sticks, smoke bombs and more, it is too unbearable to watch but too important not to. Obviously, I felt my buttons being pressed, the cameras are placed in such a way that you identify with the marchers, but it needs to be witnessed.

And then, in the closing credits, we get to the kind of music that troubled me a bit from the trailer  — in the kind of hypocritical not seeming historically-appropriate way. The track is called “Glory”, the work of John Legend and Common, the latter also appearing as John Bevel in the film. The song gives a kind of historical context:

Justice for all just ain’t specific enough
One son died, his spirit is revisitin’ us
Truant livin’ livin’ in us, resistance is us
That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, “Stay down”, and we stand up
Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up
King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up

The Selma to Montgomery march was part of a wider campaign for voter registration in line with the US constitution and further fights for civil rights, one victory among many before and since. Anyone who has been watching the news over the last few years — the Rodney King beatings, the treatment of Barack Obama, the shooting of Michael Brown — must be aware of how a tension still runs through US culture. I wonder if we might have been trusted to make such connections ourselves?

I don’t know.

Clearly consciousnesses still need raising.

The Whimsical Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)

A number of years ago it occurred to me that Anderson was channelling  John Irving — the eccentric family and hangers-on, the tangled comedic plot, flashbacks, an unexpected moment of violence or atrocity,  a sequence in Vienna, a significant bear… I haven’t followed his work closely enough to confirm how right the thought was. I’m sure I spotted a bear in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The first thing to say is that it’s fun and the second is that it makes it less fun to write about. It’s a nested narrative — a young woman visits the monument to an author, an author lectures the camera, the author narrates a tale told to him, before we return, over precipitously, up the abîme. This is a tall tale, a very tall tale, it’s not necessarily the truth — and unconvincing model shots and matte paintings reinforce this. The titular hotel, in Republic of Zubrowka, has since been demolished and is owned by Zero Moustafa. Moustafa recalls a story of the hotel’s glory days in the early 1930s, when it was ruled over by the concierge, M. Gustave, who ministered to everyone’s needs, especially if they were blonde, rich and elderly. With the arrival of Zero as new lobby boy and the death of Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis, a conspiracy is hatched.

The plot is frankly ludicrous or, better, ludic, and has more twists and turns than a twisty turny thing. I suspect I had a grin on my face for much of the time; there was also a frown as I pondered … is that Tom Wilkinson? Isn’t that Tilda Swinton? Is that him — no, he was in The Man in the High Castle (2015), his brother’s called Joseph… Ralph? Oh, is that Keitel? Walken? No, Dafoe… An all star cast and you know Bill Murray is going to turn up. You have to swallow the whimsy, and not wonder too much about the eastern European politics and rise of Naziism that was contemporaneous with the setting.

Fifty Shades of Hamearis lucina

The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014)

Towards the start of the opening credits of The Duke of Burgundy, I spotted the name of executive producer Ben Wheatley. He directed the genre bending Kill List (2011), the rather baffling A Field in England (2013), a couple of episodes of NuWho and he’s working on High-Rise. I couldn’t help but see that there was an uncanny film at work — a hidden film. On the one hand, there’s the Peter Greenaway version, which would need a Michael Nyman score, more camera tracking and an organisational system (by genus of butterfly?). On the other hand there’s the horror film,  possibly sf. Clearly the credits sequence is meant to invoke 1970s low budget movies, a sexploitation or two, maybe even a hint at Hammer. In a recurring scenario — this film is so about its repetition — the camera pans along a crowd watching a talk on butterflies and moths and, among all the woman, there are a couple of shop dummies. Autons? Cheaper than  extras? A nod toward the artificiality of it all? Or do we have a body snatchers scenario and they’re all insects? As  Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) locates and opens a body-sized chest in the house, I wondered what horror we were to find in it. Later, briefly, there was an answer (as well as a longer answer).

So Evelyn (there’s an echo of Angela Carter there) arrives at a house, knocks and is admitted, being told off by Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) for being late and for sitting down without invitation (I confess my first thought was she had not been given permission — a Pavlovian training from my own childhood).  Evelyn is set to work, cleaning the study — a space full of dead butterflies and larvae — and doing the laundry. When, as is inevitable, she fails to please her mistress, she is punished, behind a closed bathroom door, and possibly by a method that the British government recently criminalised on streaming video. If the acting seems a little off — well, think of the acting and dubbing in Dario Argento films if you haven’t (as I haven’t) seen Jess Franco films, and the fact that it is All More Complicated than you think it is.

It is obviously less explicit than that other film, Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), for the most part at least, and we would do well to avoid falling into an old value judgement about pornography and erotica. Here’s Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian:

Peter Strickland’s new film, The Duke of Burgundy, is different: it is a labour of love, whereas Fifty Shades of Grey was a labour of money.

Whilst clearly a budget of some significance was thrown at the other film, it has made pots of money and the original texts were bestselling adaptations of bestselling novels, this rather begs a question about Sam Taylor-Johnson’s artistic intentions in making the film alongside all the other crew members and the cast. Strickland, presumably, didn’t get a fee? Srsly? Whilst clearly I wasn’t a fan of that better known film, it is very easy to be snide about materials that a large female audience has enjoyed.

Obviously there are ambiguities to navigate. I’m inclining to the sense that it’s an exaggeration of the kind of materialistic relationship that many straight women enter into in capitalist society and that it isn’t necessarily endorsing it. This is not quite the same as suggesting that it’s a dramatization of the kind of abusive relationship that too many women (read: any non-consenting abusive relationship) are in or that women have the freedom to choose their sexual activities even if these are masochistic in nature (and, indeed, that’s so none of my business). Whilst clearly we could say the words Internalised Misogyny, we have a novel by a female ur-writer transformed by a female novelist adapted by a female screen writer filmed by a female director. Compare, say, Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976), where a male novelist is adapted by a male screenwriter is filmed by a male director. It’s not my place to label, but which one seems more likely to be feminist? One of them is a female vision of (some) female fantasies and the other is a male vision of (some) female fantasies. The fact that both characters are female makes a difference.

So, whilst it has to be noted that the entire cast of The Duke of Burgundy appears to be female, Peter Strickland, director and screenwriter, is a bloke. The BDSM scenario may be a representation of female empowerment, but it’s a male vision.  Clearly the film passes the Bechdel Test, but that’s no guarantee it’s feminist. (I note, again, I have no authority to issue such a label.) At points I found myself pondering whether entomology is part of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) and the problem of a narrative in which the abuser has apparently been “seduced” by the victim. (“She made me do it.”)

I was particularly disturbed by the sequence when the camera zooms in on the darkened crotch of Cynthia and goes on an extended fantasy riff — in both the sexual and non-realist sense — before pulling back again. Is this, I wondered, a misogynist fear of what all those women get up to when men aren’t around? Perhaps not even women, but Insect Things? Where are all the men? Victims of preying mantises?

But the actors do what they do well, and it is beautifully shot and designed the hell out of — there’s a perfume credit, a long list of butterflies and very detailed annotations of the field recordings used in the film. It deserves to do well so that BFI and Film Four investment can be repaid. To say this is a better film than Fifty Shades, however, is probably not a useful judgement; I’m not even sure that I’d be more likely to rewatch it. I do want to seek out Katalin Varga (2006) and  Berberian Sound Studio  (2012) though.