The Mauritanian

Okay, so I saw the trailer for this, and was like, “They’re making a story about the torture and imprisonment of Guantanamo prisoner Mohamedou Slahi, and the heroes are the fucking Americans?!” My thoughts immediately went to the film The Psychosis of Whiteness, and the example of the courtroom drama Amistad, where the torture and mutilation of black and brown bodies are used as props in the introspection, soul-searching and redemption of white characters.

And this film is exactly what I thought it would be.

While I commend Tahar Rahim’s performance, more time is spent on the white characters discussing him than on him himself. He is held up as exceptional, and special for deserving our sympathy. As opposed to typical of America’s treatment of people of colour wherever it goes around the world, in their hundreds and thousands.

I’d recommend instead Eminent Monsters where you get to hear the real Slahi speak in his own words. I suppose The Mauritanian gives an overview of the case from his arrest to his release, but there’s so much side salad.

Jumbo

Jumbo is a love story between shy wallflower Jeanne and fairground attraction Jumbo. Chuck Tingle would be proud.

I thought this movie might go into objectophilia and explain how you can become attracted to or even love an object. But this film is the love story between Jeanne and Jumbo, not about Jeanne having to explain herself. Which, once you think about it, makes for a much better film. Also, what is there to explain exactly? You like the look of somebody, you enjoy being around them, they make you feel good, what is there to explain?

So it deals with that in very short time and then goes onto their relationship, their struggle to be together, and their struggle for acceptance. Jeanne’s mother has a very hard time understanding Jeanne’s love and doesn’t react well. She encourages a romantic connection with creepy fairground manager Marc, who I just didn’t like from the start. He’s always invading Jeanne’s space and just sets off my ick alarm.

Jeanne is shown interacting with Jumbo in a way that is mutual, consensual, reciprocal, and expressive. What I liked was it is never conclusively shown if any of this is “really” happening. That’s Jeanne’s mum’s biggest objection to the whole thing – it’s not real.

But we have tons of experiences that are not real, and we don’t act like those have no validity in a person’s emotional life. We dream, we hallucinate. Millions of people all over the world have religious experiences through prayer, meditation, and visions that I would categorise as “not real”, but it doesn’t mean they’re not meaningful to the people who experience them. If you can have an incredibly intimate and life-altering relationship with an invisible entity that doesn’t exist, then you can definitely have one with a machine that does.

Director Zoe Wittock takes a story that could have been very silly, and kinda shows how the silliness is the things we do in love, and the object of our affections being an actual object doesn’t make it that much more in the scheme of things. Genuine feel-good love story.

Poppy Field

Poppy Field is about a Romanian gay cop whose team is called out to deal with a homophobic protest of a lesbian movie at a local cinema. There he is recognised by an old flame, who threatens to out him to his workmates, and gets a punch in the kisser for his troubles.

The film starts with Cristi deflecting his hot French Muslim boyfriend’s attempts to go away for a romantic weekend, but the vast majority of the film takes place at the cinema, almost like a bottle episode where all the action is confined to this one location. From the trailer I had thought the stuff at the protest was very crash! bang! then the consequences played out, but it’s basically just 12 hours in the life. Which makes it incredibly tense. Because the protest starts fairly sedate with the homophobes just standing in front of the screen and singing the national anthem. But they won’t leave, and the audience gets sick of their shit, and the tension in the room just ramps up. And the cops kinda just want an easy shift, and are less concerned about the politics than they are with the arseache of dealing with this all night. And Cristi is just standing there listening to all this homophobic bilge being shouted over him, trying not to react, and supposedly trying to de-escalate the situation while the turmoil inside him gets more and more exacerbated. And then an old boyfriend recognises him and his stress level dials to 100, and when he kinda half-jokes about outing him, Cristi snaps and decks him.

And then, because all cops are bastards, his teammates all band together to cover up his hate crime by sticking him in the now-empty auditorium while they deal with the mess. And the film is just cringworthily tense as he just has to sit there, in this big, empty, silent theatre, and wait to see if he’s actually been outed. If he’s gonna lose his job for attacking a citizen. If the story is gonna turn the protest outside into a riot. Oh, it’s so good.

What I like about the film is, it doesn’t tell you what to think about all of this. I mean, I had limited sympathy for Cristi, but I could definitely see how you would, and there’s no judgement placed on where you fall on that question. One of the saddest bits in the movie for me was, after various cops coming in to check on Cristi and telling him he’s a fucking arsehole for causing even more trouble for them to deal with, his best mate on the squad comes in and is like, I’ve got your back, and you’re reaction is “Aww, yeay” and then he follows it up with, “Fucking faggots”, and you’re just like “Oh”. And you watch Cristi’s expression as he deals with this mix of emotions, and you just think, “Well you got what you wanted. Here’s your support.”

A tense and engaging film.

If you like this…

Father

Grim. Like, Dostoyevsky levels of grim.

The opening scene is a woman dragging her kids by the arm down to a factory and declaring, “I am Biljana Stojkovic. The wife of Nikola Stojkovic. I have a bottle of petrol in my hand. If you don’t pay my husband’s remaining salaries, and the severance package you’ve owed him for two years now, I’ll set both me and my children on fire.” Welcome to the movie.

The film focuses on Nikola’s struggle to regain custody of his kids after they are put into care in the wake of their mother’s self-immolation. He is told that he isn’t fit to look after his kids since he is only a day labourer with no long-term secure employment, that he hasn’t the provided adequately for his kids because they don’t own a computer, and only have cold water in the house. Basically, he’s been pushed into poverty, then blamed for being there. And they’re like, “Why haven’t you got full-time secure employment?” and I’m like, “You gonna hire him on a full-time secure contract? No? Then shut the fuck up then.”

Father is kinda a road trip movie, as Nikola makes his way on foot to Belgrade to deliver his appeal to the government minister. Along the way he is helped by people he meets on the road. Much like the film Herself, this is about a parent moving heaven and earth for their kids, aided by the kindness of strangers. A film full of quiet dignity and strength.

If you like this…

Undergods

Undergods is brilliant! Score banging, every shot delicious, sensually ugly sets and locations, everything from the costume design to the lighting just perfect.

It’s 3 short stories with a common theme of families tearing themselves apart, each set in worlds that are on sliding scale from our reality to a dystopian nightmare. Each speak to quintessentially British forms of dystopian horror, utilising familiar architecture in a way both beautiful and scary, from identical suburbs with pastel couches, to industrial office blocks, to ruined underground stations. I kept thinking of the Graham Hills Building at Strathy which after 10 years of walking around, I still get lost in, such is the repetitive, yet unintuitive design.

Also Kate Dickie is in this, and she is just always amazing. Her face can just contort in so many ways, she’s eerily able to sculpt it like clay into whatever the scene calls for. Quietly one of the best character actors of her generation.

Thumbs up.

If you liked this…

Riders of Justice

Riders of Justice is a comedy about grief, and living in a universe devoid of meaning. Plus also a revenge action flick.

Mads Mikkelsen heads an amazing cast including previous Men and Chicken castmates Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Nicolas Bro, Lars Brygmann from Good Favour and Across The Water, and Roland Moller from Land of Mine. Men and Chicken director Anders Thomas Jensen works the magic once more to create a strange world that draws you in.

Mikkelsen plays Markus, a soldier who loses his wife in a train crash. Kaas plays Otto, the man who offers up his seat to her on the train, thus swapping her life for his in the turn of fate. Unfortunately Otto, along with his pal Lennart (Brygmann), are working on an algorithm to map the statistical probability of real world events, and in the wake of the crash, become convinced it was no accident, but a carefully disguised hit against another crash victim who was going to testify against the criminal biker gang, Riders of Justice. They team up with Markus and hacker Emmenthaler (Bro) to take revenge.

Each of the characters is an eccentric marked by trauma or abuse. Each has their shades of vulnerability, endearment, annoyance and irritability. And at heart, what they are all grappling with is what a headfuck it is to live in this world.

Markus is unable to console his teenage daughter. She cries over the death of her mother and asks him if she is in Heaven now. No, he tells her, believing in all that stuff with souls and angels will drive you crazy. As if you won’t go crazy anyway.

He trusts to the science of an algorithm to provide the reason why his wife is dead. Assign the blame. Redress the wrong. But in the end, whether science or religion, none of it changes that we are hopelessly at sea in a universe beyond our comprehension, in a state of existence we don’t understand and disappearing into a state of existence we don’t understand, and all we hold dearest is fragile and temporary in an utterly indifferent universe.

Very funny.

If you like that…

Castro’s Spies

That was fucking great!

Spying’s a bad job, isn’t it? You basically destroy the life you want, to live a life you don’t want, to do something nobody knows about, and in the end you will either end up shot in the head, be put behind bars, or live out your life in disgrace. Who applies for something like that?

These mad bastards apparently. Castro’s Spies is about the Cuban 5, a group of Cuban spies who spent years embedded in the militant anti-Cuban exile community in Miami and skulking around airforce bases, checking that a fleet wasn’t amassing for an invasion. This film does a really good job of boiling down a long history of conflict between the US and Cuba into the salient context for the work of these men. It talks about how, after the US failed in its direct action against Cuba in the Bay of Pigs, it trained and sponsored militias of Cuban exiles who subsequently carried out terrorist acts against Cuba. That’s not me saying that – they interview Jose Basulto, the founder of Brothers To The Rescue, who was like, yeah, I rocked up on a boat and fired a cannon indiscriminately into a beachfront hotel. You’ve got Orlando Bosch who the US themselves convicted for taking a fucking bazooka to foreign ships entering Cuba waters, and who all evidence shows was responsible for the bombing of Cuban flight 455 killing 73 civilians. The US was obviously meant to be arresting these fucknuts for acts of terrorism, but since it was against Cuba, they were a bit like, eh. So Cuba sent a group of agents to Miami to keep an eye on things.

The other good thing this documentary does well is allowing the space to acknowledge that you can be a hero who does shitty things and an asshole who does good things. And I’m not talking that bullshit balance of, maybe blowing up a plane full of innocent men, women and children is fine, I dunno, there’s two sides to every story. They talk about how the Brothers To The Rescue saved refugees from drowning in the Florida Strait as they made their way to the US on dingys. They talk about how the Cuban agents basically abandoned their wives to raise their kids alone, with the added stigma now that they were publicly seen as defectors to the US. There is an acknowledgement that the Cubans who fled the revolution into exile felt they had lost what little they had built up in the way of property and wealth, which would naturally make them oppose the new government, even if it improved the lives of the vast majority of the people. And that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s largest trading partner, Cuba’s economy was in the shitter, and a lot of people who this revolution was supposed to help found themselves in dire poverty. This documentary is good at presenting the complicated truth.

Ironically, the Cuban 5, despite being hailed as heroes at home, actually play a very mundane part in the drama of history. Mostly they counted planes, making sure there wasn’t a sudden build up of forces in the closest bases to Cuba. They reported back on the activities of the most active exile organisations, which wasn’t really a secret to anyone, Brothers To The Rescue tried to get as much tv coverage for their work as possible. The agents were all flat broke, one worked as a janitor, none of them were paid by the Cuban government. That was something I didn’t know, that Cuba doesn’t pay its spies, because if it’s about the money, the US will be able to outbid you every time. So Cuba just tells you, do your duty to your country, and off you go.

Despite these humble practices, they do manage to amass over time a great wealth of knowledge, and it’s more the anti-Cuban militias who play the dashing heroes of the piece. They are actively making plots, making plans. Jose Basulto decides to fly over Havana dropping leaflets telling the people to rise up against the communist government and be free. He characterises this as a ‘non-violent action’, which is big talk for the guy who shot up a hotel in that very city, now violating national airspace. I mean, sure, he knows it’s leaflets, but Cuba’s just supposed to take it on trust that this guy who likes to shoot at them is just gonna fly over a major city full of civilians and dump stuff out his plane onto them, but it’s ok, it’s just gonna be leaflets. Can you imagine if anyone pulled that shit on America? They’d have to identify you by your fucking teeth. Just imagine some al Qaida dude flying a plane over DC and being like, “Don’t worry, this time it’s only leaflets!” Fucking idiot.

Anyway the Cubans politely ask the US to make him stop, they do fuck all, and this guy comes over a bunch more times, each time somehow expecting to show how brutal this regime is, that they only tolerate foreign agents aerially bombarding anti-government propaganda on their capital city a bunch of times. Eventually he gets what he wants, Cuba retaliates, and shoots down 2 of the 3 planes. And it’s outrage over this that requires a response back in the US. Nobody really wants to go to war over this fucknuckle’s stunt, but Americans are dead and there needs to be a show of strength. So the FBI, who’ve known about the spies in Miami for long and weary, and never bothered to bust them because they were never up to much to be concerned about, offer them up as scapegoat. They had sent Cuba communications about the activity of the Brothers To The Rescue, so they were responsible for the murder of the shot-down pilots.

It’s weird because the action that unfolds around them gives grandeur and meaning to the work of these very low-level spies, whose lives otherwise would have seemed wasted on a very admin-y kind of espionage. As I say, it’s a weird job.

Fascinating documentary, well presented.

Murmur

Murmur is a tender portrayal of a woman alleviating her loneliness by adopting a terminally ill dog.

Donna is this weary, humphy-backit, older woman, recovering from a heart condition. She lives alone and has quite a serious estrangement from her only daughter. As community service resultant from a DUI, she is sent to work in an animal shelter.

There she meets Charlie, an auld, sick, incontinent, scruffy dog, with his tongue sticking out one side of his mouth and a scraggly fringe hanging down over his eyes. He, like Donna, has a heart murmur, as well as a list of health complaints besides. Donna insists on taking him home when time comes for him to be put down.

Murmur is an extraordinarily quiet film. There is no background music. At the opening of the film, Donna’s flat is mostly silent, with only the sound of her drawing on her e-cigarette, or splashing red wine into a glass as she watches telly. There is no one to talk to, so she is wordless. As she takes on the job at the animal shelter, you get all the sounds of the animals, barking and meowing, and the sound of her working to mop and hose the place down. And when Charlie comes to live with her, suddenly her life is full of sound, his little breaths, his sighs, his little susurrations. She coos over him as she washes his coat with medicated shampoo, and chitter-chatters to him as she persuades him to eat to get his weight up. His every yip fascinates her, and she has this real connection with another living being again.

Then the addictive element of her character that got her into trouble with drink-driving seems to kick in, and soon she has a menagerie of every kind of animal, her flat becomes a midden, the whole place stinks of piss and shit, and she jeopardises her place at the shelter by trying to make off with every unwanted animal.

As the film winds towards its inevitable conclusion, you are left moved by the inestimable impact of these tiny creatures who share our lives.

Steelers

So I liked the story of Steelers more than I liked the presentation. The story of Steelers is about the first gay men’s rugby club, set up back in the 90s, now competing for the cup in the international gay rugby tournament. It has all the drama of a sports documentary, following the ups and downs of wins and losses, but also the personal stories of the coach, team captain and players, of discovering they were gay, coming out, and struggling to find a place where they could be their whole authentic selves.

Nic is the coach, pushing her team towards success, while being one of the only lesbian rugby coaches out there. Drew proves being a rugby captain is not incompatible with being a black fat drag queen. And Simon speaks very vulnerably about how, after experiencing rejection from friends after coming out, and descending into a deep depression, rugby has given him a lifeline, a home and community of support.

Now to the parts I don’t like. The director is a member of the Steelers, and should by rights be able to tell his story alongside his teammates. Yet by presenting his story in narration, and kinda interjecting his story in amongst the others, it kinda feels like its drawing the focus of documentary from its subject back to its filmmaker. Which is something that sets my teeth on edge. And it doesn’t help that it’s done in this really Tell rather than Show way. Like, some people’s stories he just relays in narration over footage of them playing, rather than interviewing that person and letting them speak for themselves. Also, in the opening scene, he tells us what the documentary is about, rather than let the documentary speak for itself, which it both ham-fistedly direct and mawkish, which actually detracts, rather than adds, to the emotion of the piece. In a lot of ways, I would have just have got rid of the narration all together.

The other thing I didn’t like was the musical score, which was overdone and melodramatic. However, conversely, that actual song picks for the soundtrack were really strong. So you could pivot from one scene that really worked to another that really didn’t. Never seen that kind on incongruence before.

All in all, a good film. A little rough in the execution, but compelling in the characters and story, heart-warming, with a good message.

My Wonderful Wanda

My Wonderful Wanda is a family drama, taking place almost entirely in one house. The titular Wanda is the Polish carer for elderly German patriarch Josef, as he recovers from a stroke. With shades of The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, a bond develops between the two in this intimate setting that has far reaching consequences for the family as a whole.

Upon watching the trailer, I thought Josef was just a dirty auld man, pawing at the nearest young thing now his wife was older. And he is kind of that, but he’s also at his most vulnerable he’s been in his entire life. Paralysed over most of his body, struggling to regain any mobility, he has returned to the helplessness of a child. And the person caring for him, spending time with him, doing the most intimate of acts, cleaning and caring for his naked and defenceless body, is Wanda. Not his family, not his children, not his wife. All of whom have the time and money to care for him themselves, but have elected to hire someone else to do it. And it makes you wonder about how you could ever hand over such intimacies to a stranger without expecting relationships to form and change.

Josef pays Wanda for an ‘extra service’. Again, at first you can only recoil in judgement, but you can also see a man who, having been near to death and chilled by his sense of his own mortality, is willing to pay any price to feel alive. So much has been taken from him, his independence, his control over his body and his life, and his identity as he saw it. He needs something, something that that screams I’m not dead yet!

Needless to say, this sets in motion a chain of events that challenges Josef’s family to their limits. But ironically, this crisis forces them to confront whether they really are a family or just a group of people who share a name and wealth. In defiance of expectations, this somewhat cold and aloof family warms and strengthens in the heat of conflict. Actually a surprisingly touching film.