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.

The Toll

The Toll is crime comedy, a sort of Fargo meets Hot Fuzz, but with a dry, dark humour. Like an utterly parochial No Country For Old Men, where a simple plan turns to shit. Michael Smiley plays a toll booth collector on a stretch of unremarkable tarmac in the middle of buttfuck nowhere in Wales. Much like the plot of A History of Violence, a face from his past comes across him by chance, and his boring and anonymous idyll is shattered. But unlike A History of Violence, things don’t burst into slick, cool, stylish violence, but bungling, British, incompetent criminality, as local crooks and wannabe gangsters are pressed into service.

The cast is incredible, with a host of Game of Thrones escapees showing up in the form of Julian Glover (Grand Maester Pycelle), Iwan Rheon (Ramsay Snow), and Paul Kaye (Thoros of Myr). Michael Smiley always delivers. The whole thing works really well together. (Side note: Is it ok to fancy Iwan Rheon now he’s not playing a psychopath? Is it just me or does he look like an adorable, fuckable, mischievous elf?)

Very funny and worth a watch.

If you like this…

My Favorite War

My Favorite War is an animated memoir of the director’s childhood in Soviet Latvia in the 1970s and 80s. It traces her inner journey from dedicated Communist Party follower to skeptical and rebellious agitator for the truth and democracy. It is a coming-of-age story, steeped in political history.

The favourite war of the title is World War Two, as fascinating to Latvians as it is over here. She loved to hear stories from the older generation of the war, and watched the shows on tv of the noble soldiers fighting Nazis. One was called Four Tank-men and a Dog, which sounds great and I would watch the shit out of, and will be my next Netflix binge if I can find it.

Everything about life in Latvia seemed a consequence of the war, from Soviet rule to the constant preparations for invasion from the next enemy, America. Nazi being a shorthand for pure evil, nothing done to them or against them or because of them would ever be questioned. In the face of such horror, an enemy faceless and soulless, nothing would be too far a step. And no one would ever be seen to take their side by questioning the current power, the heroes who had defeated them.

Yet as the film goes on and the main character delves deeper and deeper into the stories of the people all around her, she realises most people were put to as much harm by the Soviets as by the Nazis. The Soviets saved them from the Nazi invasion just to commandeer their land for military bases. They saved the country from ruination only to have them remain struggling in poverty and goods shortages. And they saved them from Nazi atrocities only to deport them to Siberia and death. In becoming a dedicated soldier against this evil, the main character has become most like them, unquestioningly following orders of a callous and unjust regime.

At the end, she says for her, World War Two ended in 1995 when the last Soviet military base shut down in Latvia. The last invader expelled, the last authoritarian power defeated.

And so she hopes will the destiny of people everywhere, to reject in their hearts the narrative of division, of othering people as the enemy, of blind devotion to those who seek only to exploit you as a weapon, of making you forget your shared humanity.

If you liked this…

Mekong 2030

What to say about Mekong 2030? It is beautiful. Like, gorgeous. Worth the price of the ticket alone just visually.

Mekong 2030 is 5 short stories centred on the Mekong River. Now, maybe you know more than me, but I didn’t have a scoob about the Mekong River before this movie. It’s fucking massive, stretching from Tibet in China, coming down across Vietnam, Loas, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. It is central to the lives, communities and economies of those along its waterway. As the source of life for so many people, it has also has a spiritual and cultural dimension.

The 5 stories are speculative fiction depicting the near future – 2030 – and each one comes from a filmmaker in a different country the Mekong flows through.

The first is Soul River, from Cambodia, which tells a simple fable of an indigenous hunter coming upon a buried statue of the Buddha. His community has been displaced and his village destroyed by recent flooding due to the damming of the river upstream by governments looking to turn a buck, and the subsequent ecological impact and climate change. He finds the Buddha on his people’s old hunting grounds and decides to dig it up and move it to the new village, as part of his people’s heritage. However, he is interrupted by the land’s legal owner, who is flat broke and wants to take the Buddha to sell and use the money to move away to a better life. They squabble and eventually settle on selling the Buddha and splitting the money, which the hunter justifies will help set up his people in their new village and compensate them a little for their losses. But as he and owner head downriver together, their greed grows, believing they can get a higher and higher price for the Buddha, with more and more selfish fantasies of what they will do with the money. Removing the spirituality from the land leads to ruin.

The second story is The Che Brother from Loas, which a miniature heist movie. In a world with a new airborne disease, a young and idealistic son finds out his older, rich and evil brother has kidnapped their mother in order to sell her blood to help develop a vaccine. He teams up with his sister to storm the evil brother’s palace and save their mother from his vampiric machinations.

The third is The Forgotten Voices of the Mekong from Myanmar, which tells the story of a naive village chief selling the gold mining rights to his people’s land, to the detriment of the whole community.

The fourth is The Line from Thailand, centred on a pretentious art exhibit taking place in the city on the subject of the Mekong River. In this world very divorced from the setting of the river, the artist can make a decision on absolutely nothing, and is only articulate when talking about the meaning of her video project, trying to represent time as space, distance travelled, and the duration of history as a physical measurement. Here in this minimalist gallery, in the stainless steel staff kitchenette, the sounds of the river and its jungle plays over the sight of the water in the coffeemaker and the electrically powered devices, a world away but connected.

The last is The Unseen River from Vietnam, about a young punk couple travelling to a Buddhist temple in the riverbank forest to seek a cure for his insomnia. The 100-foot-tall white marble Buddha looks placidly head and shoulders out of the canopy, but when they get up close the entrance to the temple is like a tacky, garish, neon hallucination inside. Yet the monks still live there and still dole out wisdom. Perhaps, the temple has changed in appearance, like the tattooed, pierced, and dyed punk couple, but the souls of both are the same as ever.

A really interesting film, beautifully shot and resonant with the love of place.

Spring Tide

Spring Tide is a portrait of the quiet psychological war of one family. Three generations of women live in one flat. The grandmother is a relentless hammer on the mother, irritated by her mere presence, emotionally abusive and spiteful for any perceived slight. The mother has grown silent through years of experience, knowing that engaging with the grandmother’s rants will have no benefit. The daughter is confused and disorientated, constantly being manipulated as a pawn by the grandmother against the mother, and so by turns spoiled and scolded, held up as an achievement of the grandmother’s guidance or denigrated as the culmination of all the mother’s shame.

This is a triptych of character studies, rather than a story with a plot. The tension in the household pushes the characters forward, rather than any quest or instigated drama. Without a direct throughline of the story, that only increases the suspense of the film, because you are constantly waiting for I-know-not-what, some form of emotional explosion or implosion or catharsis, and there is no indication of what form it will come in. You are gripped by the prospect of the tension swelling into a tide of change or collapsing back into a withdrawal and defeat.

The mother is largely silent in the film, except in her final scene where she says everything that needs said. Outside of the home, she has a career and respect, and inwardly she has a strong sense of herself, unbroken by her mother. Yet inside the house, she is like a dog too used to being beaten. She weathers the grandmother’s rages like a storm, still as a sturdy tree beneath lightning and thunder. She gives no reaction, denies any satisfaction at the constant torrent of abuse poured on her. It looks exhausting.

The grandmother is greedily eager for others’ good opinion of her. She takes part in community events, takes interest in her neighbours, keeps in touch with old classmates, and generally garners the liking and praise of all. She projects an image of an ideal citizen, conscientious and caring, responsible and generous with her time. No one would believe the mother were she to actually tell what it was like living with her. At home she is vicious, unyielding, manipulative, and spiteful. She seems to find provocation in the very sight of the mother, who scurries to her room like a shadow so as to minimise the grandmother’s opportunities to explode.

The daughter is only 9-years-old and confused by the ever-changing atmosphere around her. The grandmother constantly pitches her against her mother, and misrepresents her. In addition to the constant gaslighting, there are also unspoken secrets, like who her father was, how he died, where her mother was for the first few years of her life, and why she was not around so much. This digging for the genuine facts of her life is further muddied by her grandmother’s continually changing family narrative based on her moods and rages.

One of the repeated battles between the grandmother and mother is that of the memory of the grandfather. The grandmother claims he was a terrible husband, a sex offender, and the source of all her woes. The daughter appears to have a kind memory of him. And you’re not sure if that is just the innocence of the eyes of a child, or if this, like so much of what the grandmother says, is just another story to gain her sympathy and allow her to frame herself as the victim of abuse, rather than the perpetrator. The grandmother is excellent at pressing true facts into telling false stories. But to the mother, the grandfather was just another member of the family the grandmother defeated, and now in his absence, she destroys any trace of him, down to even his good memory.

To some degree, these generations are the generations of China. The grandmother is fiercely patriotic, forgiving of past hardships under Mao, and happy to constantly change the story of her life to suit the needs of the moment. The mother is a journalist, interested only in the truth, exposing shortcomings and corruption, and wanting to hold people to account. The daughter is the trying to sift through what she’s being told for what to actually believe, trying to get her personality out from under the baggage of the older generations, and find the truth about her identity.

A really compelling film.