Calm with horses

In a rundown Irish coast town, former County boxing champion, the aptly named Douglas Armstrong (played by actor Cosmo Jarvis, strongly reminiscent of a youthful Marlon Brando) has to deal with the stigma and probable guilt of having accidentally killed a man in the ring. Although he probably lacks the drive to make the effort to move away, he is kept in the locality by the presence of his  ex-girlfriend  Ursula and small son Jack, who is autistic. This is despite Ursula’s efforts to keep him at bay to protect Jack from the malign influence of the local drug dealers, the Devers, who employ Douglas as an enforcer to punish or keep in line anyone rash enough to cross them. Ironically, Jack is most disturbed by any hint of force or violence,  so that the horses in the stable where Ursula works  provide one of the few calm settings where father and son can connect with each other.

Violent, tense, unflinching and unsentimental, this film also contains moments of subtlety and sensitivity, enabling one to feel sympathy for Douglas even after the brutal acts he has committed on behalf of the it would seem both mad and bad Deevers.  To what extent is Douglas too passive in the acceptance of his situation, or simply a victim of circumstance? With a strong sense of place and the  convincing acting of well-observed characters, this film is worth watching even if it cannot be described as enjoyable.

In a rundown Irish coast town, former County boxing champion, the aptly named Douglas Armstrong (played by actor Cosmo Jarvis, strongly reminiscent of a youthful Marlon Brando) has to deal with the stigma and probable guilt of having accidentally killed a man in the ring. Although he probably lacks the drive to make the effort to move away, he is kept in the locality by the presence of his  ex-girlfriend  Ursula and small son Jack, who is autistic. This is despite Ursula’s efforts to keep him at bay to protect Jack from the malign influence of the local drug dealers, the Devers, who employ Douglas as an enforcer to punish or keep in line anyone rash enough to cross them. Ironically, Jack is most disturbed by any hint of force or violence,  so that the horses in the stable where Ursula works  provide one of the few calm settings where father and son can connect with each other.

Violent, tense, unflinching and unsentimental, this film also contains moments of subtlety and sensitivity, enabling one to feel sympathy for Douglas even after the brutal acts he has committed on behalf of the it would seem both mad and bad Deevers.  To what extent is Douglas too passive in the acceptance of his situation, or simply a victim of circumstance? With a strong sense of place and the  convincing acting of well-observed characters, this film is worth watching even if it cannot be described as enjoyable.

“Sorry we missed you”: false economy

Having exposed the injustice of the benefits system in “I, Daniel Blake”, Ken Loach has turned his forensic lens on the iniquities of the gig economy.

Newcastle-based Ricky Turner is lured into working for a delivery company by the prospect of being “self-employed”. He imagines this will give him more control over his working day, the chance of higher earnings and saving for a mortgage after years of grafting  in dead ends jobs since his plans to buy a house were dashed by the collapse of Northern Rock. In fact, he soon finds himself forced to work at a punishing pace, with a computerised “spy in the cab” to monitor his work rate. With no holiday or sick pay on his six-day week, he is expected to organise a replacement driver if he needs time off.

His overworked wife Abbie is a patient and dedicated carer, working long shifts but not paid for her time travelling between “clients”. Her job is made even harder by having to travel everywhere by bus, after Ricky’s insistence on selling her car to finance the purchase of a van, in theory a cheaper option than hiring it from the delivery company at a daily rate. The couple’s two children are left too much to their own devices: eleven-year-old Lisa is mature beyond her  years, but clearly unhappy,  while artistic- graffiti spraying older brother Seb is rapidly running off the rails, risking both expulsion from school and a young offender’s sentence in his outburst of teenage rebellion. All the main characters are well-developed and portrayed very convincingly by impressive actors, several of whom have little or no prior experience, as in the case of the mother and the two children.

The inexorable chain of problems building up to the inevitable crisis succeeds in arousing a feeling of  tension over each successive setback, anger at the manipulative and ruthless boss of the delivery company manager, and the urge to somehow  get through the screen to convince Ricky to cut his losses and return to his old way of life before matters deteriorate too far. At times, the accumulation of difficulties seems exaggerated, although the film is based on the experiences of real gig workers.  The unbearable sadness over the stress on a basically loving family is lightened by moments of humour and empathy.

Unfortunately, those who most need to see this film and reflect upon it are unlikely to do so.

“Official Secrets!: “Truth always matters at the end of the day”.

Official Secrets (DVD) [2019]I remember well the 2003 one million-plus people’s London march in the vain attempt to prevent the Iraq War, likewise President Bush’s refusal to wait for the completion of UN weapons inspector Hans Blick’s investigations in Iraq before launching an attack, together with the UK Parliament’s decision to support the US militarily on the basis of what proved to be the “dodgy dossier”, falsely confirming the Iraqi capacity to launch weapons of mass destruction on Britain in 45 minutes.

Film footage of these events is woven into the docudrama “Official Secrets” to provide the context for an event which I am ashamed to have forgotten, namely the remarkably courageous decision of Katharine Gun, a young translator working for GCHQ, to release to the press the email which shocked her profoundly. Wrapped in technical language, this was the instruction from the American NSA for its counterpart GCHQ to “dig dirt” on officials in small UN member countries who might be blackmailed into agreeing to vote for military action against Iraq. Motivated by the desire to prevent a war triggered by lies and subterfuge, she assumed at first that it would be possible to remain anonymous, until a guilty conscience over the sight of her work colleagues being interrogated obliged her to speak out. Then, it quickly became obvious that she had not only sacrificed her career, but risked a prison sentence, widespread ostracism, and the deportation of her husband, a Kurdish asylum seeker from Turkey.

Keira Knightley deserves the praise received for a performance which conveys with great conviction Katharine’s initial soul-searching, and the acute tension, involuntary sense of guilt and fear of detection, experienced by an essentially law-abiding person breaking the law, even for a just cause, as in the crucial moment when she drops the leaked email into the red pillar box. Her moods pass through realistic phases: more guilt and regret over the problems inadvertently created for her husband, depression over being unemployed, anger over bullying by officials and being pressed to take the “easy path” of admitting to guilt to get a lighter sentence, at the cost of a permanent stain on her reputation, which still matters to her.

A docudrama which could become dry once it enters the legal phase with a long wait to be charged and tried, maintains its momentum through moments of wry humour based on real events. I would not blame the film-makers for possibly over-egging some incidents for dramatic effect, and cannot know how much artistic licence has been taken in portrayal of, for instance, the sparring between former legal friends who find themselves in opposite camps, prosecutors against defence. If they are still alive, I wonder how some of the latter feel about the way they have been portrayed.

Overall, this is a well-made and thought-provoking film, raising awareness of strong parallels between then and now – our world of fake news, hacking and manipulating facts for political reasons, and the endless debate as to whether the means justify the ends. Interviews with the real-life Katharine Gun suggest the storyline is authentic in more than the essentials. Claiming that she would act in the same way again, she has the last word: “Truth always matters at the end of the day”.

“The Last Tree”

Femi is a young Nigerian boy growing up in rural Lincolnshire with a kindly white foster mother Mary and gaggle of white friends in an idyllic bubble which one senses cannot last. When his mother appears to take him back with her to London, Mary loses his trust through having, in a moment of emotional weakness, assured him this would never happen.

The run-down, vandalised tower blocks of South London are a grim contrast to his former life, as Femi is ordered to stay in the flat while his mother goes to work. School, where he encounters bullying for the first time, is equally grim. His mother makes matters worse, with her inability to understand the psychology of a child ripped from the world he knows and the foster mother he loves. Her harsh words and beatings, presumably based on the way she was raised, soon lead him to hate her.

As a teenager in a tough environment on the street and at home, Femi is vulnerable to going astray. When he is groomed by a local gangster, his studies suffer and one fears he will be dragged down into a life of crime. Yet, since he is intelligent and empathic, one hopes he will survive.

The film is very watchable, visually striking and often moving. The decision to divide the storyline into blocks of time with gaps in-between is potentially quite an effective way of covering his passage for an eleven-year-old to a young man. In this case, it sometimes seems too fragmented, with all the characters apart from Femi thinly developed.  The last section is the  least satisfactory in that the switch to Nigeria, which Femi, now a young man, is visiting with his mother, is too sudden. How have they come to have been reconciled on such apparently good terms? The meeting with the father we did not know existed is too abrupt, coming with no advance warning, and hard to follow since the sound is too indistinct. Yet the filming catches the colour and vitality of Nigeria which, although clearly much poorer than Britain,  “blows Femi away” giving him a powerful sense of the roots which he perhaps had not previously realised he was missing.

This film makes one think about how children may be unintentionally damaged by adults, how hard it may be for immigrants to adapt to a different culture, but also to be heartened yet again by the resilience of the human spirit which film-makers never tire of portraying.

“The Farewell” – caught between cultures

The Farewell (2019)As Chinese American Billi   wanders the New York streets chatting by phone  to her Nai Nai or grandmother, still living on the other side of the world, she casually supplies the white lies to keep the old lady happy. Yes, she is wearing a hat to keep warm but no earrings which might be grabbed by thieves, tearing her lobes. Meanwhile, Nai Nai tells a lie in turn, pretending to be at her sister’s house when she is actually in hospital for tests.

The diagnosis of an inoperable cancer creates the need for a bigger lie. According to Chinese culture, Nai Nai must not be told about her imminent death: this will cause great distress and speed her demise. With her American upbringing, Billi finds this impossible to accept at first. The parents who emigrated to the states when she was a little girl have been influenced enough by the West to have misgivings, but their engrained culture wins out, even to the extent of leaving Billi behind, convinced that she will be unable to conceal her grief, when they set off to pay Nai Nail what they imagine will be a “farewell” visit.  This is made on the grounds of attending a wedding which has been hastily arranged between Billi’s cousin and his Japanese girlfriend of three months, his family unit also having made the decision to emigrate, in this case to Japan. The bewildered air of the young couple who have been virtually press-ganged into an old-style arranged marriage would be amusing if one did not also worry about the shaky foundations of their future relationship.

In this environment of cultural conflict and concealing awkward truths, Billi does not tell her parents of her failure to obtain a Harvard scholarship, after the sacrifices they have made to support her studies financially. They are duly horrified when, unable to contemplate never seeing again the Nai Nai to whom she feels so close, Billi turns up at her flat in China, refusing to explain how she obtained money for the fare when they suspect she is broke.

This is the setting for a well-acted and subtly observed drama with a range of distinct characters which held my attention throughout despite its slow pace. Apart from exploring the dilemmas of being caught between two cultures, I was fascinated by its scenes of life in China, to build on my memories of visiting it twenty years ago. I was struck by how in some ways the Chinese have adopted the least attractive aspects of western urban living, with soulless high-rise blocks and the tasteless kitsch of a wedding parlour where couples go to be photographed. Yet beneath the western-style clothing and hi-tech gadgets, aspects of the traditional culture remain: the focus on eating, the table crammed with elaborate dishes prepared by the women of the family, assisted by their maids; the painful “cupping” endured by Billi, which seemed to involve singing her back with a live flame held over a tube; the elaborate yet to use slightly comical rites  (involving piling it with disposable plates of food) at the grave of Billi’s grandfather.

There was tension between those who had left and those who stayed. The latter claimed to have made more money “doing well” in China, yet were mocked for still wanting to send an only child to study abroad, even at the risk of his not wanting to return.

A blend of poignancy and humour, this is an interesting film which increases one’s understanding and sympathy for a culture in some ways very different from one’s own, yet in basic human terms very similar.

Pain and Glory – an emotionally satisfying feast for the eyes.

Pain and Glory DVD [2019]Superbly acted by Antonio Banderas, Salvador Mallo is a celebrated sixty-something film director whose sense that his career has come to an end is aggravated by poor health, particularly an aching back and tendency to choke. Desperate for pain relief, he is prompted to begin a drastic course of action which may prove self-destructive during his reunion with the charismatic but heroin-addicted former star of the film which fed his fame thirty years previously. At the same time, the meeting sets in motion a chain of events which may set him back on the path of creativity.

This has been described as semi-autobiographical in providing the director Almodovar with the chance to meditate on his own reflections on past influences and his own ageing and mortality. Yet it is far from a bleak or sad film: apart from the many moments of humour, the well-acted characters – as so often the case, the child actor portraying Salvador as a precocious little boy is particularly convincing – seem real in their expression of emotions and interactions with each other, arousing our sympathy, and there are many both emotionally subtle and visually striking scenes, particularly in the frequent flashbacks to Salvator’s impoverished childhood.

There is a sunlit nostalgia in the beautiful scene of his young mother (played by Penelope Cruz) washing sheets in the river, and singing in harmony with the other women as they stretch them out to dry on the bushes with the young boy looking on. Another very Spanish image is the neglected underground cave house in the catacombs which is the only home his feckless father has managed to find for his family. We see as it is gradually transformed with whitewash, exotic tiles and plants into a picturesque dwelling which a well-heeled visitor can admire, although Salvator’s mother points out that it still rains into the sunken living area which is covered only by an open metal grid. The deep bond is apparent between the mother and her only son, whom she forces to attend the seminary intended for priests as the only way of getting an education.

Salvator’s apartment in later life is a feast for the eyes, crammed with quirky furniture, priceless paintings and intriguing objets d’art. The darker side of Spanish cities is revealed during Salvator’s foray into the menacing locality of criminal gangs with scores to settle, drug pushers and drop-outs.

Although the plot is fairly thin and slow-paced, this is unimportant. This absorbing film is primarily a reflection on a flawed but talented artistic man’s life in a world of powerful visual images and empathy for people in their diversity.

Bait: not just fish but one another

BAIT [Dual Format] [Blu-ray]This is the tale of a fateful chain of events in a coastal Cornish community where there are tensions between locals no longer able to make a decent living from the traditional activity of fishing, and wealthy outsiders who can afford to buy picturesque cottages as second homes, but contribute nothing to the local community on their summer visits apart from their spoilt, bored kids patronising the local pub. The focus is on Martin who persists in trying to work as a fisherman, despite his lack of a boat – his laborious stretching of nets along the beach and planting of a single lobster pot yield meagre results . He has fallen out with his pragmatic brother, who has decided to use his boat to provide trips for tourists, and is full of brooding resentment against the couple to whom he has been forced to sell the family home. It is not just a question of fish bait, but of people baiting each other.

 

Hailed as a masterpiece by the critics for its unusual techniques, this is filmed in black-and-white with the sound added afterwards, using a handheld camera to produce often grainy shots in a square frame which tends to create the impression of not being able to see quite enough of an image which has been cropped. Although for the most part slow-paced, so that it feels longer than its duration of 88 minutes, I was not bored because of the need for intense concentration, in order not to miss some vital detail or simply to understand the heavily accented Cornish locals. The directors likes to use the device of almost subliminal shots to foreshadow what is to come, or to emphasise a dramatic past event. Scenes occurring simultaneously in different places are sometimes interwoven. In a Pinterish style, we may be bombarded with conversations occurring in parallel. More filming may be devoted to prising fish from a net than to the aftermath of a major event, such as the shocking climax of the drama.

 

I was left wondering whether the director had tried too hard “to be different”, and whether I would have preferred it to have been shot in shake-free colour to show the beauty of Cornwall, with a faster pace and a little more clarity over certain key events. However, on reflection the film “grew on me”: there is no harm in an unusual take on an interesting situation, nor in making an audience work a bit and deduce what is going on.