Friday 23 October 2020

HERSELF - London Film Festival 2020

Co-written by and starring Clare Dunne, Herself tells the story of Sandra, a mother trying to rebuild a life for herself and her children after escaping an abusive relationship. Stuck on a waiting list for housing and living in an airport hotel, she decides to take charge of the situation and build a house herself.

Set around Dublin, Sandra has to juggle part-time jobs whilst also caring for and raising her two young daughters, sharing custody with the man who subjected her to horrific physical violence and emotional manipulation. Tired of living in the temporary accommodation at the airport that won't allow her to walk through the main entrance with the other guests, Sandra finds a solution in low cost housing by building a new home in the back garden of Peggy (Harriet Walter), a woman she cleans for who was close friends with her mother. Finding help from local builder Aido (Conleth Hill) and a small army of volunteers, Sandra spends her weekends secretly constructing her new home away from the gaze of her domineering ex, Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), and the housing authorities.

Starting off with a horrifically tense scene of domestic abuse (that only comes to an end when her eldest child runs for help, triggered by a secret codeword her mother has been forced to equip her with), what's most surprising about the journey Herself takes you on is how uplifting it becomes. Thankfully, this isn't a domestic abuse drama that lingers on physical violence, and although there's moments of gaslighting and coercive behaviour peppered throughout the film, for the most part Herself is about Sandra's journey to assert herself to those around her and slowly create a world that is safe for her and her daughters. In the lead role of Sandra, Clare Dunne might not be a name you will be instantly familiar with, but she's undoubtedly a star on the rise, having co-written the film with Malcolm Campbell and given herself a chance to show her acting range. In what's a nuanced, believable portrayal of a woman at her wits end dealing with bureaucracy of housing associations and the judgemental glares of other parents at the school gates, it's of no surprise to learn that Dunn has a stage background, including working with co-star Harriet Walter and director Phyllida Lloyd on the Donmar Warehouse's all female Shakespeare Trilogy. The supporting cast are all solid, including the two decent child performances of Sandra's daughters but the film completely belongs to Clare Dunne, who's in almost every frame and is completely magnetic on screen.

Far from a gritty, Nil by Mouth-style kitchen sink drama or misery memoir, Herself is not a film that lays it on too thick, opting for subtle beats in Dunn's behaviour to show her frustration at the system that seems keen to blame her for the situation she's in, not her husband. It also has something to say about the ridiculous logic of government welfare schemes when, in what seems to be a perfectly smart bit of reasoning that of course gains little traction, Sandra points out to the authorities that rather than spend 33,000 a year on housing her and her children, for 35,000 they could build low-cost housing for her that she could then pay rent back on. The film doesn't often go down the I, Daniel Blake route, but when it does, it makes compelling arguments for the need for changes to this system.

There's a certain amount of wish fulfilment as friends and well wishers step in to help Sandra achieve her dream, but it's hard to be too cynical about a film that embraces its sentimental edges, and the sense of community spirit it has is infectious. Herself may have a shadow of darkness to it, but at its core is a pleasing, well delivered family drama, with a stand-out performance from Clare Dunn.



Thursday 22 October 2020

BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS - London Film Festival 2020

As the doors open for the last time at Nevada's 'Roaring 20's Cocktail Lounge', the regulars gather to reminisce about their favourite memories of the place, hoping to make a few more before the day is out. Among them is Michael, bringing with him celebratory doughnuts and determined to be the first one in and last one out to show his allegiance, even starting his day with a shave in their public restroom as if it's his own home. Alongside a host of friends cultivated atop a barstool, they plan to celebrate, commiserate and shoot the shit until last orders is called.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a hang out movie of the highest order, as if Richard Linklater and Charles Bukowski went for a drink together in a dive bar and their collective creative mojo conjured a film into existence, filled with booze addled romanticists spouting words of wisdom and lushes bemoaning the lives they've deprived themselves of in favour of staring at the bottom of a glass. '20's', as it's known to its patrons, is not a place of particular renown or infamy, but to these people it's important, and not just as the place where they can drink away their problems, when really, they should either be at work or at home with their families.

At times an unashamedly rose-tinted ode to the old-fashioned watering hole, this film isn't afraid to also show that the euphoria of that first, second or third drink quickly fades, and delivers some home truths about how wrong they might all be by spending their lives there. Michael, who prides himself in "not becoming an alcoholic until after I became a failure", rejects his Aussie neighbour at the bar's drunken proclamation that "this is home and you're my family", cutting him off and setting him straight. It might feel that way at the time, but that is not the real truth.

For all intents and purposes this presents itself as a genuine 'barfly on the wall' documentary, capturing the real lives and cross-talking interactions of these people in the space of a day. However... like many a tall tale told at a bar, that's not the whole truth of the matter. Despite first appearances, there's an element of structured reality at play here, with many of the "regulars" actually comprised of local actors, poets and performers, brought together to create something that blurs many a line, and not just due to the effects of alcohol. That's not to say that there's a Barney Gumble or Cheers' Norm here, as although you could politely describe a number of them as 'characters', they're never caricatures. It's not often that the boundaries of documentary appear stretched, with the possible exception of bartender's son, Tra, who drifts in and out of the story with his friends, hanging out in the alley outside the bar, seemingly with an ulterior motive that adds the closest we get to a traditional narrative structure when the camera switches to follow his antics.

It's cleverly constructed by brothers Bill and Turner Ross, who direct and handle the cameras themselves, floating around to get close to the often inconsequential conversations held around the bar, catching some snippets and missing others and using the mirror behind the bar to catch the smiles and hangdog expressions of the listeners. The camera crew is never acknowledged by the clientele (there are no interviews or even glances towards the lens), so the brief reflection of a camera lens in the mirror is the only time the ethereal presence of the camera crew is broken. As to what extent this is a depiction of reality, or a possible reality, is up to you to decide. What narrative there is never encroaches on the enjoyment of eavesdropping on these incredibly diverse, interesting people, and I found there to be enough truth in their words to make Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets an occasionally sad, but equally raucous and highly entertaining documentary, right up til closing time. And if if it does ruffle some feathers by defying the conventional boundaries of its genre? Well, I say cheers to that.


Wednesday 21 October 2020

NEW ORDER/NUEVO ORDEN - London Film Festival 2020

On the day of Marian's high society wedding, local dignitaries and politicians arrive at her parents house for the ceremony, despite the civil unrest and rioting that is happening on the neighbouring streets. Further complicating things, the registrar is running late and an ex-employee, Rolando, has arrived pleading with the family for money to fund the urgent surgery his wife needs. As Marian tries to get some cash together to help him, the violence in the streets threatens to penetrate the comfortable surroundings the assembled guests are in.

New Order begins with a brief montage... a threat of what's to come... showing violence, degradation, and the sight of a naked, blood soaked Marian (Naian Gonzalez Nervind) for us to interpret as we please. It then takes us back to the morning of Marian's wedding, where wealthy, important people arrive for her wedding at the grand, high walled house of her parents, each offering a financial gift to start off married life comfortably. So far, so Parasite. What follows flips the entire structure and driving narrative of the film on its head, instead demanding its audience take part in a disturbing, hard to stomach depiction of a world on fire, figuratively and literally.

Without wanting to spoil how much a rug pull the film employs at its halfway point, I'll just say that the scenes that take place in the ten minutes after the inciting incident are some of the most violent and graphic I've seen committed to film, and even after the pace of the film and the action slows down, New Order gleefully shocks you with more disgusting acts of violence. The social and political commentary subtext is clear, and the punishments delivered will be all too familiar to some regions of the world, and all too close to becoming a reality to others. However, I find that the filmmakers have taken a misstep along the way, as although I cannot fault the performances of the core cast, nor the impact it has had, New Order is a film I find difficult to recommend.

The world we live in is increasingly on a knife edge, and although I am sure that the aim of director Michel Franco is to show that we live in a fragile society, and all people are fallible and capable of the worst things imaginable when pushed, he needed to take a stronger standpoint against the fascists to offer any sort of entertainment value, instead offering no discernible delineation between privilege, greed, and full-on nazism. This is extreme cinema that wants you to question what form of dehumanising violence is more stomach churning than the other, asking you to account for your own complicity when you change the channel if footage of war torn countries appears on the nightly news.

A powerful, troubling indictment of society's worst impulses it may be, but the despicable lack of regard for human life means New Order will stay with you like a stain on your memory. An incredibly difficult watch that you won't want to repeat again.



Saturday 17 October 2020

ROSE: A LOVE STORY - London Film Festival 2020

Living a secluded life out in the woods with his wife Rose (Sophie Rundle), the isolated world Sam (writer Matt Stokoe) has created is put into jeopardy when his delivery of fuel fails to arrive on schedule. Forced to head into town to confront the people who've taken his money and not supplied the goods, the stability of their lives is tested and the reason for their seclusion may be revealed. Sam is prepared to protect Rose at all costs, but is he protecting her from the outside world, or is it the opposite?

A low budget British indie with no notable stars, I went into Rose: A Love Story pretty cold, knowing only that there was some festival buzz around it, and it's turned out to be one of my favourites of this year's LFF. A curious mix of survival horror and sweet romance, it's a film that keeps its mysteries close to its chest, laying down plenty of intriguing ideas, visual clues (leeches in masonry jars) and genre motifs in its first half, before the introduction of a new character upends Sam and Rose's world and we start to see the harsh reality behind their choice to shut themselves off from everyone else.

The opening scenes, where Sam goes to confront the young man who's stolen from him, ratchet up the tension that's already at a respectable height after the dark woodlands setting has been established. Dangerously low on fuel to power their generator, Rose, working away on her typewriter, is plunged into a darkness that she seems welcome in, her adverse reaction to the sight of a small cut already showing us signs that she's no normal shut-in. When Sam returns to their home in the woods he's clearly scared of what he might be facing, but with a lockable safe room within their house, he has planned for all eventualities to make sure Rose is protected. Well, almost all. The second half of the film switches the set-up drastically, as the quiet, unsteady balance of their marital bliss is upset by the arrival of Olive Grey's Amber, caught in one of Sam's rabbit traps and in urgent need of medical attention. Reluctantly allowed into the home by Sam, he must weigh up if helping Amber is worth the risk to Rose's safety.

Rose: A Love Story succeeds in establishing the convincing coupling of Sam and Rose, in no small part due to the natural chemistry between Stokoe and Rundle that comes from their real life relationship. Both on board as producers and with a script by Stokoe, this is clearly a passion project of theirs, brought to life brilliantly by first time feature director Jennifer Sheridan. Having mostly worked in short films and TV as an editor, director and writer, this is an impressively assured debut by Sheridan, presenting an ominous mood that suggests the horror genre may be something she should explore again in the future. Likewise Stokoe, who's crafted a gruff, brooding calling card for himself as a writer and actor that will certainly serve him well.

Making the most of of its remote, snowy surroundings (the snow apparently not by choice, but just the result of unexpected weather at the time of shooting), Rose: A Love Story taps into a feeling of isolation and fear of the outside world that feels all too relevant right now. And although the restricted focus of the film might leave some hoping for a grander finale than it's able to offer, there's plenty of simple, effective scares to enjoy in the preceding 90 minutes to make this a stand out offering for recent British horror filmmaking.



Thursday 15 October 2020

DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA - London Film Festival 2020

Performed at Broadway's Hudson Theatre and based on his most recent studio album (with the inclusion of many of his classic hits), David Byrne's American Utopia sees him team up with director Spike Lee to capture the performance art aspect of the live show on film.

It's impossible to begin any discussion of concert films without including 1984's Jonathan Demme directed Stop Making Sense, the film that caught Talking Heads, arguably in their prime, and introduced the world to David Byrne's infamous large suit. That film opened on David Byrne alone on stage, gradually bringing out the rest of his bandmates to create an orchestra of sound and vision, and he repeats the trick here to great effect. Seated, barefoot, wearing an grey suit so unremarkable it must be remarked upon, and holding a prop brain, he delivers an elegy that will run throughout the show, before he's joined onstage by back-up vocalists Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba. They dance, sing and emote their way through the rest of the show, as do the other vocalists and musicians, all carrying their instruments to allow free movement on the stage. Actually, unlike the freewheeling performance of Stop Making Sense, the term "free movement" is a misnomer here, as there isn't a single moment in American Utopia that doesn't seem like a perfectly choreographed piece of visual artistry, blend together dance and music. There's not a single (bare) footstep out of place.

This is a show that requires its musicians to play an active part in the visual tapestry of the performances, moving them around the limited space the square stage affords them, with the modern lighting techniques bouncing bright white lights off their grey suits to illuminate them or change the shape of the performance area as it wishes. The choreography looks like it would challenge the most seasoned of dancers, but the band look like their having a great time throughout, with Byrne eager to show the respect he has for them in a roll call that gives each a moment to show their musical skills. Cliched, perhaps, but there's a party atmosphere that regularly has the audience up and dancing.

The widest appeal of this will of course be to existing David Byrne and Talking Heads fans, although it's a show that will surely win over many more to the fold. Byrne punctuates the musical performances with a regular address to the audience, and it's here where the show takes on a most surprising tilt, as Byrne gets political to talk to his assembled fans (and clearly, us) about the importance of voter registration and turn-out, using the in-theatre lighting to illustrate his points. The live show originally ran up until February 2020, and was set to return before Covid-19 shut down Broadway, but it's remarkably topical in a way Byrne and director could not have foreseen, with one of the highlights of the show arriving in the band's performance of Janelle Monae's protest song, Hell You Talmbout. Here, for the first time, the linear reality of the show is broken to include photos of the men and women named in the song who have died because of police brutality, with newly added tributes to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor giving the song's performance a unique timeliness, and the perfect meeting of David Byrne and Spike Lee's principles. There's not much opportunity for Lee to add his directorial flair, with him and his cinematographer and regular collaborator Ellen Kuras confined by the physical boundaries that come with the recording a concert - but here it's unmistakably the work of Spike Lee.

American Utopia is a wonder to watch, cinematic by virtue of being utterly impossible to take your eyes off, and featuring plenty of David Byrne's past hits that will have you as engrossed as the live audience clearly were. Byrne's vocals and wealth of visual creativity show he's still a force to be reckoned with, and with the added relevance to the times we're living in, this beautiful, vibrant companion to Stop Making Sense is unexpectedly vital viewing.



Tuesday 13 October 2020

ONE MAN AND HIS SHOES - London Film Festival 2020

Directed by Yemi Bamiro, One Man and His Shoes charts the rise of the Nike Air Jordan brand and the impact it has had on culture, leading to a demand that is so high, some people are willing to kill to get their hands on a pair.

Starting all the way back in the mid 1980s, when Michael Jordan was a fresh faced 6'6 college basketball player, Bamiro's documentary goes over some ground already covered in the Jordan sanctioned Netflix documentary series, The Last Dance, but after throwing its net wide to discuss the plight of a black community ravaged by crack cocaine and mandatory minimum sentences, One Man and His Shoes zeroes in on Jordan as an up-and-coming player chosen as the face of a new kind of sports shoe. Rather than being a standard sneaker that might be worn by other basketball stars (as was the case with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson), this would be a shoe bearing the name Jordan, designed for him and the legions of basketball fans who wanted to emulate his sporting prowess and own this coolest of status symbols.

In the first half of the film there's a great deal of effort put into explaining the perfect storm that lead to Jordan being picked as the player to wear the controversial first run of Air Jordans (they were banned by the NBA, not because they gave MJ an edge but because they weren't the regulation white colour, but that didn't stop fans from believing the former), and a ton of talking heads from sports writers, sneaker writers and marketing lecturers offer their take on why it was such a runaway success story, with sales expectations of $3 million after 3 years soon eclipsed when they made $126 million in their first year.

Much like the rise of Michael Jordan himself, it's a wild story that is easy to get swept up in, although the filmmakers know that a desire to dig into the varying designs and appeal of each model of Air Jordans is limited, but not completely absent, paying a visit to one collector who has 1175 pairs of shoes and other Jordan memorabilia worth over a million dollars in his house. Unsurprisingly, he doesn't share too much about where he lives. Instead this film shifts focus onto the darker side of the fervent fandom that goes with the launch of a new design, as huge queues wrap around department stores and purchase limits are put in place that mean not everyone who wants to buy a pair of new Jordans (and who can afford the hefty price tag) gets them, and so a resale market has emerged that sees the shoes go for thousands of dollars online, and worse, people assaulted and killed for their shoes.

It's of no surprise given the dark turn this film takes that there's no involvement from Michael Jordan, Nike, or key figures like Spike Lee - who hot off breaking out with his debut She's Gotta Have It, directed and co-starred in a series of commercials with Jordan that helped shape the brand's public image - instead putting grieving families as the focus of the final section of the film as shocking stories and footage of beatings and murders takes the place of on-court triumphs and the history of basketball endorsement deals. It's a bold swing that might shock audiences looking for a light-hearted documentary about sports shoes, but this film is more concerned with looking at the lasting effect this cultural behemoth has had on society, asking big questions about how much a billion dollar brand like Air Jordan and Nike should be held accountable for the criminal actions of consumers.

Like any great sports movie, One Man and His Shoes is not about sports, but it's unexpected how little it is about shoes too. Audiences expecting something light on its toes may be taken aback by the heavy pivot it takes, but it's a better film for facing up to the dark side of fandom.



One Man and His Shoes is available now on the BFI Player

Thursday 8 October 2020

STRAY - London Film Festival 2020

Switching gears to be a virtual festival, with screenings taking place at home on the BFI Player and some select films also receiving screenings at venues up and down the country, the BFI London Film Festival 2020 is now underway. One of the first films I was able to catch at the festival was Elizabeth Lo's documentary Stray, following the life of Zeytin, a stray dog living on the streets of Istanbul. With a camera always close by, Zeytin shows us a typical day in her life, weaving in between traffic on busy roads, drinking from fountains and crossing paths with other dog friends and adversaries along the way. Her closest allies are a group of teenage Syrian refugees who live on the streets and in derelict buildings, sharing a lot of similar problems and treated the same way by the authorities. The film doesn't present this as a heavy handed allegory, but the subtext is plain to see. When the stray dog population grew out of hand, the Turkish government enacted a controversial plan to cull most of the dogs, leading to protests that saw them change the country's law, making it illegal to "euthanise or hold captive any stray dog". This has lead to an uneasy truce that sees the dogs roam the streets as they please, almost as if it is their city and they are the ones allowing the human population to be there.

The concept of Stray is a simple but powerful one, telling a larger story via Zeytin's life. This could have quite easily been a documentary charting the refugee crisis and focussing on the homeless children that occupy the streets, but the choice to home in on a stray dog, and Zeytin in particular, has provided a richer world to explore and capture on film. There are other dogs in the story, namely her best friend Nazar and a Kartal, a puppy who has caught the eye of the teenagers; but for the most part the camera is never more than a few feet away from Zeytin, often racing to keep up with her lawless antics. The closest thing I can compare it too is Larry Clark's Kids meets that episode of The Simpsons where Santa's Little Helper runs away, although rather than fighting bears or saving babies from burning buildings, these dogs show off their freedom by digging through trash for food and humping in the middle of a women's rights march. A documentary with a clear message behind it, using Diogenes quotes to equate the respect that is shown to the dogs in contrast to the treatment of the refugees sleeping on the streets, it has to be said that if the message somehow falls flat, Stray also works as a hang-out movie, so engrossing it is to watch the different behaviours of the dogs and how they interact with one another. Even if you're not a dog person, you'll soon be completely enthralled by Zeytin's journey.

The camera is positioned no higher than dog head height at all times, giving a unique perspective on the world and a true sense of what it must be like to feel like to be ignored by society. The people around them are literally higher-uppers. We hear the sounds of the streets and eavesdrop on the conversations of passers-by and people the dogs choose to sit down next to, their words carrying like an echo, and for the dogs just another source of noise in their city. What's surprising is that even though the camera stays about 3 feet off the ground and shows the dogs facing a forest of human legs before them, what we do see of the city paints it as a vibrant, bustling place to be, full of visitors, workers, traffic and nightlife. It's unlikely to be used by the Turkish tourism industry, but this film captures the beauty of the area, as well as the uglier side in the treatment of the young boys sleeping rough on the streets.

Showing a daily routine like no other, Stray is an impactful, moving documentary that is expertly captured by debut feature director (also producer, cinematographer and editor), Elizabeth Lo. Tinged with a sense of sadness but also playfulness, it's hard not to be moved by the whole experience.