Thursday, January 17, 2019

Beautiful Boy - What's It All About, Nic?


Beautiful Boy comes out on British screens tomorrow - and if the film has socking great flaws in its concept and execution, well, that's OK, because it's 'about' something. Dismiss it at your peril, for here is a film whose subject is so obviously necessary and important, and so self-seriously handled here by a team wishing to 'do justice to the subject matter', that it hardly matters if the film has any qualities of its own. We demand aboutness now - or at least, from those few movies that don't centre on magic immortals beating ten shades of Stars and Stripes out of each other. And how blessed we are, to have--alongside the obligatory biopics 'about' recognisable stars whose fame simply demands a film treatment--an endless supply of 'issue' movies. HIV, slavery, drugs, gay conversion therapy or the financial crash of 2007-2008: these are all not just valid topics for a film, but subjects whence it's easy to dispense an ever desirable lesson of some shape. "I don't think it really had all that much to say," people will observe of a standard film telling a simple story, before weeping hot tears at Beautiful Boy's basic "drugs are bad" homilies. Amy Poehler put it best when hosting the Golden Globes a few years back: "I loved 12 Years A Slave, and I can honestly say that after seeing that film I will never look at slavery the same way again."

But looking beyond the towering whatness of Beautiful Boy to its simpering howness, you quickly find an obvious paucity of means for treating this matter. And, in being so clearly thin, Beautiful Boy manages to let in some big errors, not least an unthinkingly patriarchal stance that obviously sinks the movie. In a better film with more resources, fewer embarrassing gimmicks and a more coherent concept, it might not matter so much that everything is so unquestioningly masculine. But Beautiful Boy is riddled with peacocking masculinity, offering a declension of malehood in two characters who, of course, clash in the way they own the scenes and the characters around them. To Steve Carell's cool-dad sincerity, rag-losing and cloying heartbreak, the film opposes the nu-kid Chalamet in expressionistic drugs hell and junkie dickhead mode. Rather than question their relationship in any way--perhaps examining the inevitable toxicity of their proprietorial rapport and their individual solipsism--the movie is content to observe them strut their man-ness about the place, according each one moments of deplorable grandstanding or self-consciously candid 'reflection'. This is some butch stuff, playing at emotional vulnerability in order to assert all the better the power of new men. In the process, women are cast off to the sides: witness a hilariously nothing scene where Maura Tierney's nobody character gives chase to Nic (Chalamet) and his no-one girlfriend in her car, only to lose track of them and for her lone big moment to fizzle out like an old balloon in the corner of a party. This is about as much as she is granted--the same goes for Amy Ryan as Nic's mother--because the film is only interested in its duelling musketeers. For swords, merely substitute 'emoting'.

These faults are so glaring because of the film's quite mind-bogglingly ropy form, from its shambolically indelicate music cues through to its SNL-level montages; from the uncontrolled performances to its on-the-nose set decoration; from the cutesy-poo writing to the wobbly flashback structure; from the uneven tone to its dreary aesthetic. So many scenes are boring, unconvincing, or plain incomprehensible - a Nirvana-set flashback perhaps encapsulates these defects best, with its overwrought visuals, the way it is chucked so roughshod into the main narrative, and its comically heightened performances. Of course it would be raining at Nic's lowest ebb! So many other scenes overplay their hand, or on the contrary go nowhere, such as David Sheff's lolworthy experiment with drugs to get into his idiotic son's headspace. At no point does the film puncture any of this rot with something approaching wit or bite. All it presents is stuff, an accumulation of flat scenes that get us from the drug addiction narrative's beginning to the drug addiction narrative's end. At least, I suppose, the film doesn't attempt to make out there is much to be learned from the mess we've witnessed - but it does end on some typically solemn post-credits "Nic is now twelve years clean" guff, as if we have watched a searching documentary rather than a tepid staging of moments.

We need more from films than having them merely tell us things, because we should be educating ourselves on films' means. The undeserved showing of awards, for a while now, onto issues films, and onto performances that can be easily matched to the 'real-life' originals, shows that we are lacking in creativity, and in the ways we interpret original material. Film must be more than merely a rendering: we have to make a case for inventive, loopy, bold, virtuoso film-making whose very mode is its outstanding quality rather than its matter.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Review - This Magnificent Cake!

At one stage in Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels’ stop-motion animation short This Magnificent Cake!, a child is rattling the lid of a grand piano, which causes the instrument to shake, tumble out of its castor-holders, and roll down a marble floor, whereupon it falls down on one level, on top of a poor unfortunate standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mere minutes later, in this film whose every shot exhales a delicate inner life, a large man crossing a rope bridge over a vast precipice while eating a banana tosses the peel over his shoulder. It lands on the bridge, where he is being followed by five other people, a groanworthy cartoon cliché just begging to be subverted. But as with the grand piano landing on someone’s head, the banana peel serves here to puncture our expectations and feed into a quietly bristling politics, since these dark jokes fall on both occasions at the expense of people of colour, who suffer from the unthinkingness of white people. The child prodding the grand piano is a white, rich boy in a luxury grand-hotel in Africa, and the man it lands on is a put-upon Pygmy working there as, literally, a human ashtray, with a vessel strapped to the top of his hat. On the rope bridge, the adventurer is Van Molle, a colonialist leading slaves across the rope bridge, and his banana skin causes five of them, roped together as they carry his belongings, to fall off the bridge into churning waters below - rendered, in this bewitchingly inventive film, by lengths of twine tumbling over themselves, set to a great hum of crashing water.

The joke, then - if indeed there is one here - is that the joke isn’t funny; or the joke might be on us, the viewer, expecting a sick joke, and being met only with two flatly played scenes whose bathos is matched by something quietly, dispiritingly gruesome without hitting any sort of comical beat. The filmmakers show their tartness in the way they play on these obvious animation tropes - but also display the lambent gentleness of their tone, which accompanies a rich and sophisticated stance on the evils of colonialism. At every turn, the hand-made craft of the characters flitting from chapter to chapter of this weird, quite entrancing film, seem to enact a sort of dislocation. The film is notable for the way its people do not connect; there is touching between them, on occasion, but more often than not the characters - these beautiful hand-sewn figures with blotchy complexions, closely set eyes and thin, regretful mouths, whose heads are a frazzle of thin fur - appear to be at a remove from one another.



In this aspect of the film, which relies on finding quite miraculous perspective and giving scenes a depth of field that hardly seems possible, the filmmakers perform their greatest feats of storytelling. Take Van Molle, a failed businessman seeking his luck on the new continent, who appears as one of many grotesques. The filmmakers turn the nature of their animation to their immense advantage, by alternating hypnotic close-ups, which dwell on the texture of felt and fur, with surprising vistas of countryside, depicted in lush shadows, and interesting middle-distance scenes with great depth of focus. In one of these, Van Molle follows a snail - just go with it - down a passageway, into a cave whose stalactites and stalagmites balloon around him like Freudian nightmares, which have the appearance, too, of sarcophagi. Van Molle cuts almost a comical figure, bumbling forward with his distended belly and shouting after his snail friend in his high-pitched Steve Carell voice: this creates a disconnect, too, with the odd, oneiric scenario. Van Molle becomes lost, and, finding the snail again, puts a wig on the snail’s head and feeds it beer - before causing it to die by, again, his grotesque clumsiness. This narrative - the film is a sort of compendium of interconnected stories - is perhaps where This Magnificent Cake! realises its most potent cinematic potential.There is a metaphysical quality at play here that never feels overburdened, and the work on character that realistically should not have this much force is pitched perfectly.

In the process, the film begins to feel Conradian for the way it uses ideas of empire, wildness, opportunity, identity and otherness, to talk about the human soul. De Swaef and Roels are clear, however - where Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, was perhaps deliberately ambiguous and certainly racially ropey - that the brunt of this questing, will always be born by black people, and the price to pay is violence and death. That’s where the film’s ostensible mildness - born completely from its stylings and rhythm, as well as its sound mix - becomes interesting, since it clashes with the desperation that it hints at. The final and most extended sequence, which sees Louis, a deserter, revisiting Van Molle territory, returns him to the vast and deserted building where Van Molle’s adventure was set, where - and the film doesn’t dwell too much on this aspect - the place is lined all around the grounds with human skulls. Even in dwelling on Louis, in a bold dreamlike sequence where he is able to cross the sea on foot to make his way home, the film makes clear the human price of our soul-searching - or perhaps, safer to say, our moral footprint.



If Louis’s adventure finally brings him back to dreaming of being recognised by the King - whom we see in a deft opening sequence, and who is probably a stand-in for Leopold II of Belgium, the notoriously cruel and barbaric ruler of the Congo, this is just one more of the This Magnificent Cake!’s many consummate ironies. Named for Leopold II’s statement about Africa - a magnificent cake, in his view, that he needed to possess, divvy up, and, I suppose, eat - the film shows enormous delicacy in the end, in the diverse ways it finds - through its intelligent structure, its craft and optics, its storytelling - to engage with the soul of man, while recognising that we have our feet on the ground.



This Magnificent Cake! is showing at the LSFF on Sunday 13th January: https://shortfilms.org.uk/lsff2019/events/2019-01-13-competition-international-out-of-history

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Awards Chatter - 2019 Edition!

When I was a young boy my parents bought me a big hardcover book about cinema for my birthday, which traced the art form from silent film through to the 90s. The book had lots of glossy pictures of Hollywood and European cinema stars, segments for each year about who had won the major festival awards and Oscars, and little sections on the main releases, scandals or developments of any particular year. In the pre-IMDb years, before I had seen any, really, of these films, I looked at photos of Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice, or read about the release of Last Tango In Paris or the early days of the Venice film festival, and was semi-obsessed with the whole shebang. I acted in a couple of films on time off from school, and was generally fascinated with the world of cinema - with the smell of a film set, with the gossip, the posters, the galas and prizes. Growing up in France and reading Premiere magazine, I thought I was a sophisticated cinephile by seeing Clerks or La Haine.

Now, when I am so incomprehensibly blessed as to write, occasionally, for the Guardian or for Sight & Sound about cinema; when I look at my life and consider that I make however menial a living out of watching films and thinking about them - I simply cannot believe my charmed existence. It doesn't get you many paid gigs to say in public that you'd have done it for free - but for many, many years I essentially did, writing about films I'd seen, on my blog, for nine people and no pounds; or covering Cannes for my dear friends at Pajiba, without whom I would never have done anything, simply for the unspeakable pleasure it gave me, knowing they had no money and not caring. This is because cinema means the world to me - and that lure, in different forms, extends to millions of people around the world. The cinema itself is the experience I myself come back to - being in the room and feeling that hallowed hush as the lights go down; a close-up on a beautiful, smiling face, and the heave of emotion it can raise through your ribcage; a soft lament of a closing credits sequence when you turn to your mother, both of your faces streaming with tears. This extended, when I was a teenager, to premieres and awards shows, and all the resulting glitter and glam: Gong Li on the red carpet in Cannes; Johnny Depp arriving somewhere or other with Winona Ryder; the legend set in stone of Marlon Brando sending Sacheen Littlefeather to collect his Oscar in his stead.

All this to say that I still have a romantic view of 'the movies' in my head, and my decision to write about film - to try to be a film journalist - stems from a love; a love that I see matched by all my colleagues. That love is essential to write about film properly, in order to convey, as well as possible, the thrill of a great movie and the spell it can cast. But, because cinema is an industry too; because it is founded on glamour - that word again, where sex and money do a dance - it can be difficult to hold cinema to account, and to look at it for what it is. You can only see something fully if you take a step back, and at the moment it seems clear to me that too many people's noses are pressed up against the window for them to see the building.

I sometimes feel as a film writer who tries to have an ethical code for writing about cinema - someone who occasionally will speak out, about some of the issues of the day - that I am seen as either a stick-in-the-mud, or a belligerent upstart, some kind of half-moon-glasses-wearing ranter. The truth is that I think a lot of the film industry is too cosy (and of course, this should go without saying, too white, too male, too straight, too middle-aged, too posh). The web of connections between people writing for the main publications and the people that they write about is too obvious and knotty for there to be the requisite critical outlook on artists, or for publications to take a severe stance on creators who abuse their position. Money connects everyone, and film companies throw a fine party. PR companies send a lovely basket. The schmooze is real - and no schmooze can be greater than 'awards season', a bizarre, wholly confected time of year where some of the big names get to drench each other in wine, ostensibly while celebrating film as an art form.

But awards only get you so far, and pointing out the deficiencies of the Oscars is like shooting Crash in a barrel. It has been a commonplace for a while now that the Academy Awards are kind of trash:  preceded by the far more overtly trash Golden Globes, they get it wrong probably more often than they get it right, although the occasional instance of something half-decent landing a little gold man manages to muddy the waters sufficiently. Moonlight is a great film, which helps you overlook the awards for more ropey fare or the fact that, in the year of Moonlight's triumph, a man accused of sexual abuse (Casey Affleck) won best actor and a film by another man accused of abuse (Mel Gibson) won two more awards, while female directors won nothing.

It can be exhausting to go on about this, so here is a weary reminder of the facts. Those of us who talk about this are chronically fed up of saying it, so please forgive a dry tone as I work through the same old dispiriting figures. (The conclusions I draw from them become more severe with each passing year, however, so stick around.) There have only ever been five nominations for a female director in the Best Director category at the Oscars in nearly 90 years: those women are Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow and Greta Gerwig. One win. There have only ever been five black directors nominated for a Best Director Oscar, and none before 1991: those directors are John Singleton, Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins and Jordan Peele. No wins. Please note that 'black' and 'female' do not intersect once for a nomination, as Ava DuVernay, director of the Best Picture nominee Selma will know only too well. Until Gerwig and Peele's nominations last year, the same number of men accused of abusing women (four: Bertolucci, Allen, Polanski and Gibson) had won Best Director awards.

This year looks set to lead to the same embarrassments and disgraces, since Bohemian Rhapsody by Bryan Singer has somehow become a prime Oscar contender in the wake of its unforgivable Golden Globe award and its disgusting nomination, this morning, for a BAFTA, at the expense of any film by someone who doesn't stand accused of raping adolescents. Say it again, and say it loud: it isn't being a killjoy, or misunderstanding the film industry, to decry again and again - as many times as is needed - the way the film industry continues to celebrate people who use their position to sexually abuse others. I have tried to write enough articles about the allegations against Bryan Singer, which have ended up on the scrap-heap or unrecognisably defanged, to know how litigious he is; and the writers of the oft-mooted tell-all Esquire article about him, which is still nowhere to be seen several months after it emerged it was in the works, will probably have far more to say on the subject. But the wheels are coming off. Two days ago, the actor Evan Rachel Wood tweeted: "So we just..we are all still supposed to be pretending we dont know about Bryan Singer? Cause it worked out really well with and ." That tweet still hasn't been taken down, which it would have been by now in years gone by - plenty of accusers have quickly come and gone, such as the actor Noah Galvin, who said in an interview a few years back: "Bryan Singer likes to invite little boys over to his pool and diddle them in the fucking dark of night" and then made a swift, not-at-all legally compelled retraction a few days later. To be clear, the allegations against Singer aren't a secret: they're there on his Wikipedia page, and you can read a fine breakdown of them on Indiewire by googling that.

Hand in hand with this vile kowtowing to powerful men - let's not forget how Harvey Weinstein ruled the Oscars, year after year, while hiding in plain sight as a sex-attacker, under the guise of being, simply, an amusingly legendary bully - come routine, by now unremarkable acts of discrimination against women and minorities. And it must be repeated, again and again because this stuff does not fucking sink in somehow with awards-drunk film-heads and industry bloggers, that these things are a part of the same disease. It isn't a coincidence that Debra Granik, Lynne Ramsay, Marielle Heller, Tamara Jenkins, Nicole Holofcener, Chloe Zhao and Alice Rohrwacher, to name a few off the top of my head, made critically acclaimed and award-winning films that came out this year and that none of them, probably, will be nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Women make considerably fewer films than men - but it isn't even a question of tokenism anymore to talk about rewarding them to the same tune, not when the resources are there to make up a whole, perfectly shiny Best Director category without any men in it. The journalist Kayleigh Donaldson said it best today, with this tweet: "If nothing else, this awards season has given me further proof that the industry hates women directors. Nothing they do will ever be good enough because hey, the Dumb & Dumber guy made Driving Miss Daisy!" (This is in reference to the widely derided Green Book by Peter Farrelly)

Discriminating against women and minorities is merely the natural by-product of caping for powerful white men, and a direct result of this is that men will feel confirmed in their ability to continue as before. At a time when people are fond of talking about #MeToo destroying men's careers, it's quite notable how many abusers are out there and working perfectly contentedly, two years into the movement. Celebrating these men gives them opportunities; employing them gives them money and power; supporting their work gets them more gigs. You don't have to want an artist's work to die out to realise that directly subsidising their power to abuse and contributing to their ability to buy people's silence is probably, let's say, a bit tacky these days; a little gauche.

But the film industry doesn't learn, and I am becoming disheartened at how much there is out there to fight, and at how few people I see using the terrific power vested in them by their public platforms to speak out. This week a fairly consequential figure in the industry said in a trade paper that the best way to deal with Bryan Singer is to ignore him. We have to be so clear that the people holding these stances are part of the disease that horrifies those of us who love film and want it to get better, and that by their silence they collude, however unconsciously, in acts of abuse. The revolution that is so needed in cinema, which is badly reported in our media, and which doesn't just apply to celebrities naming other celebrities as oppressors but which touches people at all levels of the industry, right down to (and perhaps especially) cleaners and blue-collar workers; this revolution will involve unseating those who abet abusers by looking away. Critics and industry writers must get more tough, cast off any partiality they may have, and talk about the disease. Mention the rot, every single time you get a gig - there isn't an aspect of the film industry untainted by it. This means staying vigilant, informing yourself about the personal ethics of actors and industry figures, and trusting in principles to guide you; it may even involve missing out on some opportunities and lovely things.

We can't keep having a conversation about awards shows if we don't talk about the problem staring us in the face. I don't want to think about who is going to win Best Screenplay when someone who allegedly drugged and assaulted a teenager is nominated for Best British Film. Enough. Enough. The clearing out of the cupboards has barely begun, and it won't be pretty anymore maybe, not like it was before when we didn't spoil the party by saying anything. It will not be easy and lovely perhaps; it may involve wrangling and kvetching. But this is the only way ahead, when the thing we love so dearly is ailing.


Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Day I Force-Feed Piers Morgan a Vegan Sausage

On the day I force-feed Piers Morgan a vegan sausage, Piers Morgan will cry a single tear, his mouth full to bursting with an oogy foreign foodstuff, and I will say, “How does it feel to be the foie gras now, BITCH?”

Piers Morgan will say, “Please - no more sausage.” But I will be the one with all the power over the disgraced former editor of the Daily Mirror, and will calmly make him eat more sausage. And I will crow: “Ha ha, Pier (I will call him Pier throughout the ordeal), you snivelling clam, you called it sausage! So you admit that it is, in fact, a sausage!”

“Or-ride or-ride, sdob, Ibe sorry, ig ig a foffage”, Morgan will say, his mouth full of vegan sausage, which is actually made of meat like every other sausage in the world but made to taste like tofu so that liberals can enjoy owning rightwingers.

“What’s that Pier?” I shall say, with a cheery wink. “I couldn’t quite hear your mouth sounds just now from all the veganism in your face.”

“I seg, ig ig a foffage, I wud wron!”, the toadying lackey to the racist 45th President of the United States will burble, his chin all sweaty and glowing like an oily red quarry. “Pleab, no bore.”

“But Pier,” I shall say - the male ITV chatshow host will be seated on a stool in the middle of a grey and abandoned bus hangar, while I prance around him in my ugly cruelty-free clothes like a demented, gay Rumpelstiltskin cackling in front of his fire in the forest at night - “but Pier, don’t you understand? There is literally no end to veganism, now!”

The wire-haired James Bond aficionado with the face of a slighted blancmange will dryly cough down his remaining chunk of sausage, and splutter: “What? WHAT?”

“That’s right Pier Morgan,” my reply will ring out with sex-with-men-having glee, reverberating against the dusty walls of the bus depot, “every food item is vegan now. Didn’t you know? The fish you like to eat so Englishly on a Friday, in a crispy hen-foetus casing, with slices of squishy, squishy spuds - that is now vegan. It is a potato now. Fish is potato, and so are chips. What I am saying is: your fish and chips is potato.”

“No.”

“Oh yes. And the bacon granules you sprinkle on your Cheerios in the morning? Those are now elderflower. Lamb is quorn, beef is mushrooms, chicken is salsify and milk is a thin chamomile tea. Biscuits are parsley. Cake is wood, just bits of tree on a plate.”

“Stop it.”

“Fondue is polyester now, Pier.”

“NO, NOOOOOO, stop, help!”

“Open wide Morgan,” I will chuckle, my eyes shining with all the merriment afforded to me by having recently convinced Sam Mendes to cast Dame Maggie Smith as the next James Bond, “it’s time for another bite of vegan sausage.”