Here Today

Billy Crystal writes, directs, produces and stars in Here Today. The character seems based on him, an aging comedy writer, who has lived through fame and success, and now is enjoying a more settled and obscure time in his twilight years. Which is not say he’s idle, he’s vital and enthusiastic and still chipping in in the writers’ room of a SNL-style show. In fact, it is his undimming lust for life that is what makes it so hard for him to accept his diagnosis of dementia.

There’s been a lot of dementia films lately, The Father, Supernova and now this. Don’t know why.

Anyway, Crystal’s character, Charlie Burns, has a quirky meet-cute with Tiffany Haddish’s Emma, a manic pixie dream nurse. She is this larger-than-life character, singing in a swing band on the streets of New York, dressing in retro vintage fashion, and wolfing down any food she finds. As a young woman at the beginning of her story, Charlie is enthralled with how alive she is. Emma, on the other hand, is endeared by Charlie’s kindness, and enjoys hearing Charlie’s stories about a New York from another time. As she sits in his livingroom, beautiful violin music drifts through the window, and Charlie explains Itzhak Perlman lives opposite and practices in the evenings. She has no idea who that is, but encourages his to get up and dance. That’s their complementary dynamic.

In the Q&A afterwards, Crystal said he wanted Here Today to refute the proposition put forward in When Harry Met Sally, that men and women cannot be friends, sex will always get in the way. Here Today is about falling in friendship.

Mmmmmmmm.

This is an incredibly sweet and warm movie (straying into saccharine at times, especially towards the end) but it dances over a lot of problematic notions baked into the premise. Ultimately, Emma cancels going on tour with her band to look after Charlie as his live-in caregiver in the prognosed last year of his life. Which is a happy ending for the rich, white man who now employs(?) her. But Emma’s happy ending is to, uh, bask in his company? Like, this black woman’s happy ending is to provide round-the-clock medical and emotional care for this white dude. It kinda papers over a lot of unquestioned notions.

Plus, Emma isn’t shown as having much life beyond Charlie’s time with her. It’s established her family are all in another state, and she has an ex-boyfriend, but you never really see her living her life outwith Charlie, so it kinda lessens any impact of what she’s sacrificing to stay and look after him. Because as far as the film’s concerned, what else is she gonna do? When she can be helping heal this dude’s relationship with his family, and make him feel better?

So yeah, there’s a lot one-sidedness to the story, and it’s not, like, super funny, but it does kinda glow with a good-natured humour and a pleasantness that’s sort of classic to Billy Crystal films that I just miss, and enjoy seeing. A nice movie.

Sabaya

Sabaya means girl, but under ISIS sabaya refers to the women and girls raped and used as slaves. They are trafficked and sold and brutalised. When ISIS invaded the Yazidi homeland in northern Iraq, in the Sinjar province near the border with Syria, they slaughtered boys and men, abducted and raped girls and women, and did their best to eradicate the Yazidi as a people.

This is the fight back. Sabaya follows the Yazidi Home Centre as they track down and recover trafficked Yazidi girls. It is incredibly dangerous.

5 years on from the ISIS invasion, Kurdish forces have managed to bring them under control. Many are being held in a prison facility, and the rest are in the Al-Hol camp. Like any defeated side, who rush to hide the family silver when the army is at the gates, ISIS started to hide the Yazidi girls they had took, seeing each one as money they could use, something to be sold.

Enter the volunteers at the Yazidi Home Centre, Mahmud, Ziyad, Siham, Zahra, and countless women who go undercover in the Al-Hol camp. These undercover agents must go into ISIS-controlled territory, pretend to be ISIS supporters, and relay back to Mahmud and Ziyad any information they can glean about Yazidi girls stashed around the camp.

The nerve of these folk is unreal. They are not an army. They are not going out there in a tank or with a SWAT team as back-up. Mahmud is a middle-aged man with a handgun. Most of the women working undercover are freed sabaya working to save their sisters. Any of them would be killed without hesitation if caught.

It is a real testament to the bravery of these women, to have endured so much, and be able to face down that fear, and return to one of the most dangerous places in the world. And the dedication of people like Mahmud, who has his wifi router tied up to a car battery to ensure these women can always reach him.

And yet that awe mingles with the mundane. This vital work often just looks like an idle man glued to his phone. As a recently freed girl sobs in the back bedroom, Mahmud’s wee boy skites around the floor on a pillow. Siham feeds the chickens, then takes the girl’s chadors and niqabs out back and burns them in a cleansing bonfire.

The tone of the film can change dramatically from scene to scene, emphasising the precariousness of the relative safety the Yazidi Home Centre. In one scene it can be of Siham and Zahra nurturing liberated women to recovery with gentle familial affection, and in the next a phone call to Mahmud means everyone piling into the van to run a midnight raid in the camp, kicking their way into tents and pressing traffickers into revealing the whereabouts of their victims, and making a dash home with a found survivor under pursuit and gunfire from ISIS.

Each life saved feels like a victory. A woman freed. A loved one returned. And a part of the attempted genocide of the Yazidi thwarted.

Prince of Muck

When I was a little girl, one of my favourite things to do was go for a walk with my grandpa, and listen to all the stuff he told me. That’s what watching Prince of Muck feels like. Like going on a walk with Lawrence McEwan, listening to him tell you about his island, about his farm, about his life, about his family.

Isle of Muck is one of the smallest Scottish islands, and it was purchased by a relative of McEwan’s at the end of the 19th century. In 1922, his father became laird of the island, and decided to live there, start a farm there, and help the community to prosper. Lawrence was born to that life, and loved it, and never wanted to be anywhere else. He grew up running barefoot up the hills, camping out among the windswept rocks, and reading poetry while watching the tide go in and out. Now in his 80s, he has passed the farm on to his son, and hopes his grandchildren will also want to continue on this way of life.

This film is a love letter from a man to his home. He has dedicated 8 decades of hard work to it, and as he takes stock of a life well-lived, hopes only to see its preciousness protected and endure. With striking cinematography, as you see the howling gales whip the heather, and the freezing spray break against the harbour walls, and the sky become a changeable masterpiece of colour and mood, you kinda start to fall in love with it too.

Lawrence lives like a man from a bygone time. He bathes in cold water every morning, drives a tractor from the 60s, milks his cows by hand, and ties up the animals in a barn at the back of the house every night. Each day he still goes out with his cows across the fields, leaning on his stick, the dogs running at his feet. A theme throughout the movie is that Lawrence is having a hard time letting go of a life he loves so dearly, whether that means doing less manual work, or letting his son make more of the decisions about the farm, or simply accepting the limitations of his body in old age.

“A good life and a quick death,” says Lawrence, is what every man desires, and what a farmer should give his animals. He calls all his cows by name, and scratches their backs affectionately, but a farm is not a place where the realities of life and death can hide. Mortality feels like a constant presence in every scene, a keen awareness of times passing, of inevitable change, and the fear of what it might bring, but the need to make peace with it as part of nature, and surrender to it, rather than struggle.

If you like this…

Pig

Pig, or Taken for bacon, is about the theft of truffle pig, and its reclusive owner’s journey to save it.

Nicolas Cage is such a liability for a movie. I watched the trailer, and was like, is this for real? Like, is this meant to be funny? Cage growls about wanting his pig back in a manner reminiscent of “Put the bunny back”. At one point in the cinema, this trailer played and folk were openly laughing. Trouble is when you’ve played a parody of yourself for 15 years, it’s hard to pivot back when you wanna be taken seriously. I remember him having to explicitly state he wasn’t just pulling another manic caricature when Mandy came out, and similarly with Color Out of Space. Attaching a former, or arguably still, A-list name to your film is a good way to get financing and attention, but Cage is really a double-edged sword.

All of which is to say, Pig is not a comedy. There are a few moments of congenial levity, but no. It is instead a mournful journey back into the world of the main character’s old life, and in many ways confirming why he left. It has a melancholy tone, and despite one or two scenes of rough-and-tumble, largely is compromised of going places and sitting down at a table and having a conversation with someone. The main character is taciturn, so these scenes aren’t even necessarily that heavy on dialogue. In tone, it’s closer to something like Blue Ruin.

The annoying thing about Nicolas Cage is, he can actually act. He’s actually great in this. He conveys a sense of loss and self-sufficiency throughout his performance, but can bring a wealth of emotion out from behind his barricades, turning this closed-off character inside out and open, in a way that rings with real vulnerability. It’s understated and it’s nuanced.

Which makes you wonder, so you can do this, you just choose not to? Whatever.

Also coming in hot with a strong performance is Alex Wolff, of Hereditary fame. He contrasts Cage’s silence and internal conflict with a chatty and flashy over-compensation. Yet, he equally manages to convey the fundamental human longing for fulfilment.

Together, their road trip takes them through questions of what we are looking for, and how we try to find it, successfully or unsuccessfully, in a variety of places. The main character is a man whose life burnt down, and who, in the ashes, took real stock of what he needed and what he didn’t need, what he wanted and what he didn’t want, and what mattered and what didn’t matter. His clarity contrasts with the markers of wealth, fame, and fashion of the Portland restaurant scene. The constant to-and-fro of seeking validation and a reflection of a satisfying self-image in the eyes of others.

But even in a life so pared down, loss is loss and grief is grief. And what we do in times of such challenges, is still a journey of discovery.

Censor

In Thatcher’s Britain, at the height of video nasty fever, Enid, a buttoned-down film censor who sincerely believes that her work protects society, comes across a film which challenges her sense of reality. Having lost her sister many years before, the lack of resolution to her disappearance causes Enid to believe one of the actresses in a low-budget horror is her sister, now grown into adulthood. As she plunges into the murky world of the very thing she despises, she begins to lose herself in her quest to regain her sister.

Loved Censor. Within the frame of the tv screen, all the horror is bright red, shrieking with screams, and sumptuous in its gore . In the real world of Enid’s life, everything is grey, with muted, humming lights, and terse and impersonal dialogue. This contrast seems to bleed together, as Enid’s dreams take on this Argento-esque soporific quality.

Enid’s character, in both her personal and professional life, is about self-control, about the repression of extremes of emotion, and keeping a firm grasp on her trauma and grief. By contrast the violence in the videos seems ecstatic, glorying in its own gratuity, a joyful release of the darkest kind.

In some ways it’s a strange choice to use the world of the most explicitly violent horror movies, to show a slow-burning, largely unarticulated, psychological horror. On the tv screen you have all this gore, but the film’s story is of slow internal descent, of all the screws coming loose on a personal’s character, of a break-down of what has pinned them together up until this point.

And the trauma that Enid is grappling with is so massively the opposite of all that tv violence. Her sister went out to play in the forest with Enid, and Enid returned alone. Those are the only facts we have. There seems to be no tangible evidence of what happened to her sister, not by accident or foul play or anything else. Far from bombastic gore, this huge and life-changing thing seemed to happen without leaving a mark.

But a child herself at the time, Enid cannot remember what happened. And it is this hole that frustrates her the most. Because how can she not remember something that important? The greatest frustration is that the answer she seeks most in the world, might somehow be buried inside her, and she can’t see it.

Obviously for anyone who’s ever seen a horror movie before, you go straight to the trope of ‘maybe she did it and doesn’t remember’. But that’s explicitly put on the docket by Enid herself, she’s aware of that as one of her deepest fears. In reality it wouldn’t actually change a whole lot, because whatever happened, Enid blames herself. She was the older sister, it was her suggestion to go play in the woods, whether by her own hand or another’s, it’s her fault her sister is gone. And that sense of responsibility for protection, and fear of a duty failed, drives her character.

Both the character of Enid and the video nasty moral panic feel the need to externalise the terrors concealed in mundane life, in the fragility of mortality, of sanity, and security, so that they might be vanquished. However in crusading against them, it only denies looking deeper into their causes, and that which in ourselves and our lives is unknown and unknowable.

If you like this…

Zola

Oh my god, I loved Zola!

Taylour Paige stars as Zola, a dancer at the club who meets and falls in friendship with Stefani, a new dancer who seems totally sound when she first meets her. Stefani invites her on a road trip to Florida the next day, along with her boyfriend and her roommate. And pretty early on all the alarm bells start ringing.

It’s basically like a road trip movie set over a weekend, high in comedy and crime capers, with Zola just trying to survive her first 72 hours of friendship with Stefani.

I cannot state more highly how great Taylour Paige and Riley Keough are in this. They make the characters real people, and not just cartoons in this over-the-top story. They play the darks and danger as well as the highs and laughter. And they have this real, believable chemistry, where you can see why you get into a deep pile of shit because you were bowled over by a connection.

I loved Zola’s voice, her storytelling is as much what makes the film enjoyable as anything going on in the screen. She has such a strong sense of herself, she never doubts or gets lost in amongst all the craziness, and her voice reflects that strength and purpose.

The moral of the story is never go to Florida.