Category: Romance

Absence of Malice (US 1981)

Michael (Paul Newman) and Megan (Sally Field) on his boat, ‘The Rum Runner’

MUBI also includes in its streaming schedule some Hollywood films from the recent past (see below for definitions of ‘recent’). This last week saw two Sydney Pollack titles added to the roster (the other is Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman). Pollack had a forty-year career as a director, producer and actor working with the leading stars from 1965 to 2005. As a director he made conventional mainstream films with strong narratives, often dealing with outsider figures from a ‘liberal’ perspective. Absence of Malice pairs Paul Newman and Sally Field. I was a fan of both actors in 1981 but I don’t remember watching this at the time. I always loved Newman as a star, wishing only that he would make more films as a director – Rachel, Rachel (1968) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1971) are films I’d happily watch again. Sally Field is still active but her peak film career was probably from the mid 1970s to the mid ’90s when Hollywood’s sexism cast her as the older woman destined for character parts. Earlier she had often been paired with male stars ten or more years older (Burt Reynolds, James Garner et al.) and therefore a romance with Newman was par for the course.

‘Absence of malice’ is a legal term relevant to libel law in the US. A newspaper may print a story that may not be true about a person as long as they do so in good faith, not knowing that it is false. Whether the film’s plot actually works in terms of the US legal system appears to be open to question. The basic premise is that Megan (Sally Field), a news reporter for a local Miami paper, runs a story about an FBI investigation of a local rum importer, Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) who is assumed to be a suspect in the disappearance of a local union leader. Michael’s father was a ‘rum runner’ during prohibition with contacts in organised crime. Michael was sent to good schools and is ‘clean’. The news report creates major difficulties for Michael with the withdrawal of labour by his unionised workforce and loss of business with local restaurants. He begins his fightback by confronting Megan about where she got the story.

Newman is still a star in 1981.

As the narrative progresses it becomes clear that the local FBI boss is ‘fishing’ for leads and that the District Attorney has his own election issues. Throw in that Michael and Megan have an attraction for each other plus there is a third person with an emotional attachment involved in Michael’s situation and an intriguing narrative develops. The Miami setting is well handled and the film begins with a documentary montage detailing the hot metal process for newspaper printing that should be an eye-opener for younger viewers. Megan is an interesting character. She’s without a significant back story and it could be argued that she finds herself trapped between her boss (the editor played Josef Sommer) the FBI team (at least one of whom is an admirer) and Michael – all older men. But she remains her own woman. It’s good to see Sally Field playing her real age (34) and coming across as a professional woman rather than simply as the plot’s romance interest. In her best line she reminds Michael that she is a woman of 34 who doesn’t need courting. Some reviewers at the time saw her character as an example of a ‘bad journalist’ (in the context of All the President’s Men in 1976). That seems a mis-reading to me. Megan certainly uses the tricks she knows to get a story but I don’t think that makes her ‘bad’, especially given the pressure on her to sensationalise – which she tries not to do.. I won’t spoil the narrative by explaining Melinda Dillon’s character as Teresa, but she won an Oscar nomination for her part. There were also nominations for Newman and for the main writer Kurt Luedtke who had been a newspaper reporter and editor – he wrote two further scripts for Pollack, Out of Africa in 1985 and Random Hearts in 1999.

A more relaxed Megan with her cynical editor McAdam (Josef Sommer)

A couple of days before I saw the film, someone suggested to me that some younger film programmers saw 1980s films as ‘classic cinema’ now. I was initially shocked but now I can see that there is evidence to support this. Absence of Malice seems more like the tail-end of 1970s Hollywood. Aspects of the plot are similar to several of those 70s movies that find darker, ‘murkier’? elements in cities like Miami. I did find some of the costumes odd. Newman is beautiful in his mid fifties, still slim and still with those piercing blue eyes, but in one scene he wears high-waisted jeans with a tight check shirt which didn’t work for me in terms of the character. Sally Field has a smaller version of that 80s ‘big hair’ trend and a succession of suit outfits with heels which make her look uncomfortable in the heat of Miami (especially when clambering into Michael’s boat. But these are minor worries. What does seem ‘classic’ is that this is engaging entertainment over 116 minutes for an adult audience without a contrived tacked-on ending. It’s good to be reminded that Hollywood could once do this on a regular basis.

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My Golden Days (Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse, France 2015)

The three ages of Paul – (from left) Antoine Bui, Quentin Dolmaire, Mathieu Almaric

Arnaud Desplechin is the kind of auteur director who is seemingly always going to get a showing at Cannes. Several reviewers suggested after this film’s 2015 appearance at Cannes that Desplechin was a Proust for our times. This is a reference to his exploration of the life and loves of his alter ego Paul Dédalus as played by Mathieu Amalric. This character first appeared in 1996 in Ma vie sexuelle. The 2015 film is effectively a prequel to the earlier film with Dédalus presented as a young boy (Antoine Bui) and as an adolescent (Quentin Dolmaire), although it is bookended by contemporary scenes with Amalric. The main narrative concerns the 19 year-old Paul and is told as a long flashback.

The mystery about the release is why it has taken so long to appear in the UK. Desplechin had another film screened at Cannes in 2017 (Ismael’s Ghosts) but My Golden Days has taken nearly three years to roll out slowly across various territories. Its arrival in the UK now is thanks to the estimable New Wave Films. I suspect that some cinephiles find Desplechin to be self-indulgent in his use of Amalric to play semi-autobiographical roles. I’ve only watched A Christmas Tale (France 2008) – though I have a copy of Kings and Queen (2004) which I found difficult to get into. I might return to it now. One of the things that interests me about Desplechin is that he comes from Roubaix and that the city appears in both A Christmas Tale and My Golden Days. Roubaix is part of the wider Lille metropolitan region and as a textile city is twinned with Bradford in the UK. I was fascinated when I visited it.

Lou Roy-Lecollinet as Esther

The adult Paul Dédalus is an anthropologist who has specialised in the communities in what was once Soviet Central Asia. At the beginning of the film Paul is about to pack up and leave Tajikistan to return to Paris. During his last few hours with his local lover he remembers his childhood and particularly his mentally-disturbed mother (this the first ‘souvenir’). On his arrival back in France, an incident prompts him to remember his teenage years and the long flashback begins, first with his schooldays and an eventful trip to the USSR (the second ‘souvenir’) and then his difficult access to his anthropology degree in Paris – third souvenir and the bulk of the narrative. We meet his younger siblings Delphine and Ivan, his cousin Bob and his friends Kovalki and Mehdi. Paul’s father is not really active in the household which is held together by Delphine. On one of his trips home from Paris, Paul meets Esther, still at school but an unusual young woman and for Paul a compelling presence. Over the next three years the two will have a sometimes tempestuous romance.

Paul’s father (Olivier Rabourdin) and is sister Delphine (Lily Taieb).

This central youthful romance is well presented. It’s intelligently written and beautifully acted by Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet as Esther (the young actor who is also featured in I Got Life! (France 2017) which opens next week). Desplechin was born in 1960 so his own ‘coming of age’ would be the 1970s. But here he uses the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as a kind of social and political marker and this does tie in to Paul’s family history which links to Russia and specifically to Belarus (where part of the film was shot). Before I saw he film I wondered if it would be like the 1968 student-based films of Bernardo Bertolucci and Olivier Assayas, neither of which I’ve seen, but I remembering being put off by trailers I saw. I suspect Desplechin’s film is different, but I’m happy to be corrected.

I noted in the credits that the music soundtrack in the film includes something from the Georges Delerue score for Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960). Delerue was also born in Roubaix but I think what intrigued me was that I thought about Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films while watching My Golden Days. To some extent, Desplechin follows Truffaut in using a single actor as an alter ego and follows the character created for that actor across different films dealing with different times in his life. I felt that though Paul and Antoine are very different characters, something about the characters is shared – a seriousness about aspects of culture, a willingness to do whatever it takes in the face of hardship and a vulnerability in regards to women. Paul is both mature for his age and capable of childish rages. But when he has been interviewed, Desplechin has talked about very different inspirations – on the one hand he has mentioned Catcher in the Rye and Coppola’s The Outsiders and on the other he has acknowledged Bergman and Fanny and Alexander – but also Summer With Monika (1953), one of the few Bergman films I like and one of the films featured in Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (1959). The important point is that Desplechin seems to be adept about capturing something about being 19 and how certain relationships might stay with us. Esther is a remarkable character and is wonderfully played here. In the earlier film (the ‘sequel’) the grown up Esther is played by the equally wonderful Emmanuelle Devos.

The Roubaix gang from left: Paul, Bob, Mehdi, Ivan and Kolvaki

My Golden Days has been very well received by the majority of critics who seem to appreciate Desplechin’s skill with the story which is not strong on narrative drive and might seem to meander but is always kept together by Dolmaire’s Paul and his love for Esther. For me, the Roubaix scenes work very well, offering a contrast to Paul’s attempts to survive and prosper in Paris. Roubaix is only around 140 miles from Paris but it seems several years behind with the decline of its textile industries, its cobbles and nineteenth century streets of warehouses and workers dwellings. Virtually on the Belgium border, Roubaix perhaps has more in common with the Dardenne Brothers’ world of similar industrial decline in Seraing in the Meuse valley.

I’m not sure how My Golden Days will work with UK audiences, but I enjoyed the film and I’ve thought a lot about it since the screening. This week it is only playing at the Showroom in Sheffield and the Ciné Lumière in London (where it carries on for a second week). Get along to see it if you can – it’s worth the visit.

Official trailer:

There is a useful review of the film by Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound, April 2018.

The Shape of Water (US 2017)

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) cleaners in the creature’s prison. Does the design of the equipment suggest Metropolis and other science fiction/horror films?

When a film wins Oscars everyone writes about it. I’m not that bothered by Oscars but I’m glad that del Toro won something and I’m pleased the production design team got a gong. I loved the mix of songs in the film but I didn’t really notice the score – perhaps I will next time. Above all, however, I’m saddened that Sally Hawkins wasn’t rewarded. She is an extraordinary actor, capable of anything. I think that The Shape of Water is a love letter to cinema from a film lover who remembers the movies he watched with his grandmother. I’m not sure why The Story of Ruth (US 1960) is the film showing in the cinema when the creature stands in the stalls. It was a Fox film so the rights weren’t a problem. I’m assuming Guillermo saw it as a child. I watched Mr Ed on TV as a teenager so I was taken back too.

The suburban kitchen of Richard Strickland’s family

I guess most of you will know that the film is about a mute cleaner, Elisa Esposito (‘Esposito’ was originally a name given in Italy to abandoned children). She is looking for love and finds it with an amphibious man captured by US intelligence and threatened with vivisection in a search for ideas to prepare human physiology for the space race. 1962 is an interesting year to choose for the film’s time period. I’ve heard del Toro discussing why he chose it. At the height of the Cold War (the year of the Cuban missile crisis) and before the major breakthroughs on Civil Rights, those historical references are well used to underpin the narrative. The Cadillac showroom and the suburban family home reek of the immediate legacy of Eisenhower’s affluent, aspirational and conformist 1950s. The Cadillac also introduces teal as a key colour which emphasises the blue-green spectrum in the ‘facility’ where Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work as cleaners and where the creature (Doug Jones) is incarcerated. But I think that the selection of songs is the most intriguing. 1962 in the US is often considered to be in that dead period between the brief re-appearance of Elvis on his return from the army and the arrival of the Beatles in 1964. It wasn’t dead, but pop music wasn’t as dynamic and exciting as it had been and would soon become again. Pop music was for kids and The Shape of Water is for adults and especially for adults who feel they have lost out and for whom passion and romance seem better represented by the sound of Alice Faye in 1940s movies or Andy Williams as a ‘grown-up’ singer in 1959. Everything in the film seems to me to fit together perfectly. It’s a fantasy but it is perfectly coherent and ‘real’ in terms of its cultural references.

Elisa with her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins)

The classification for The Shape of Water is interesting. The US ‘R’ rating seems excessive to me but Guillermo del Toro has said that he wanted to make a film for adults. I was surprised by the film’s lack of prurience in showing a naked Sally Hawkins, but I’m sure she agreed to it because it is beautifully presented and completely in line with the character’s other actions. The film does have its moments of violence and I felt that the most violent actions were those with direct cultural references – such as the use of the electric cattle prod by Strickland (Michael Shannon) and arguably the most ‘difficult’ scene, the same character’s violence in making love to his wife. Perhaps an ‘R’ rating isn’t as excessive as I thought? On the other hand, the film has a ’15’ in the UK with 15/16 common across Europe (lower still in France) and the highest rating of 18 can be found in Russia and South Korea. I’m not sure what all of this means, except possibly that Guillermo del Toro has more of a European sensibility than a Hollywood one. I wish he’d make Spanish-language films again.

The creature (Doug Jones)

My constant referencing of del Toro doesn’t mean that I under-estimate the other creative contributions to the film. Vanessa Taylor was the co-writer and Dan Laustsen the cinematographer. All the design team deserve congratulations and Doug Jones and the VFX team create a wonderful creature based around the concept introduced in Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (US 1954). All these contributions are important but it is del Toro’s overall vision which holds the film together. I’ve no idea how the film is performing with younger audiences. Perhaps they prefer the fast action of superhero movies, but the slower pace of del Toro’s narratives is more to my taste.

Strickland interviews the scientist ‘Bob’ Hofstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg)

I’m amazed to see that IMDb lists the estimated budget at $20 million. I would have guessed twice that amount (is it lower because there are no so-called ‘A list’ stars?). Even if it was $40 million, the film is heading for profit – and seemingly for an International Hit. North American box office has been less than stellar but overseas the film is starting to rack up good figures and it should reach at least $170 million in total worldwide. Another triumph for Canadian facilities I see, since the whole film was made in Ontario in 2016. Sally Hawkins must know quite a bit about filmmaking in Canada by now as she was in the Maritimes the year before shooting Maudie.

I realise that I haven’t acknowledged that The Shape of Water is a fantasy drama. I don’t like most pure fantasy films, but I love del Toro’s films because they speak about the ‘real world’ so elegantly.

The success of The Shape of Water has raised the possibility that Guillermo del Toro may be able to find a studio prepared to support him with the $35 – $40 million he needs to make his ‘darker’ version of Pinocchio set during the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s. It’s intended to be an animation for adults. It still seems unlikely that an American studio will come though with the money but it would be good if they did.

Phantom Thread (US 2017)

The first meeting between Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma (Vicky Krieps) in Robin Hood’s Bay

Phantom Thread is a film made by American money entirely in the UK (apart from some post-production). There are so many distinctive local features that it feels a little like those 1960s ‘British Hollywood’ features. It’s a Paul Thomas Anderson production (which he has written, directed and appears to have photographed himself – there is no photography credit) so we expect something distinctive and different. I purposely tried to forget anything I’d read beforehand (though I confess to looking out for the scene shot in Blackpool Tower Ballroom). I couldn’t work out why the characters might go to Blackpool and of course they don’t, but in an early scene there is a card or a painting of some kind in the background that might be a view of the Promenade and the Tower and later the ballroom stands in for The Albert Hall staging the New Year’s Eve Chelsea Arts Ball.

So, not knowing too much about what to expect, I missed most of the critical references I was supposed to see. I don’t think this is because I’m too stupid to spot them or that the film doesn’t necessarily conform to the critical consensus. Instead, I think I just got interested in different things and I possibly missed some key markers. I think also that Anderson perhaps didn’t realise how this British spectator would view the film. Let me say first that I enjoyed the film. How could I not enjoy three central performances of great skill and a sumptuously presented insight into the craft processes of haute couture?

Cyril (Lesley Manville) oversees work on a wedding dress at the ‘House of Woodcock’

The narrative offers us Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) who lives in a Mayfair town house servicing the demands of aristocratic patrons for wedding dresses and other haute couture costumes some time in the early 1950s. He lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and a succession of live-in ‘girlfriends’ – young women who believe for a moment that they can disrupt the ordered bachelor world Reynolds has built around himself. After a particularly difficult work period, the latest of these young women is sent on her way (by Cyril)  and Reynolds drives to his country retreat – a large house with its own upstairs atelier. The country retreat appears to be in Yorkshire (but filmed in the Cotswolds) and Reynolds first stops at a hotel in Robin Hood’s Bay where he meets a young woman serving breakfast and is immediately smitten. This is Alma (Vicky Krieps) and a few days later he will take her back to London.

Alma models a gown

I can understand why Reynolds would find Alma bewitching. I was fascinated by her from the start. Her smile made me think of someone else I’d seen who I couldn’t place (later I discovered that she’d been in a French film I’d seen, but couldn’t remember). At first I thought Alma might be Irish, but a little later an incident suggests that she might be a European refugee and later still her surname sounds Northern European, possibly Nordic. The critical fraternity has latched onto the fact that Hitchcock was married to Alma Reville and this is cited as strong evidence that the film is meant to be a ‘gothic romance’ with Rebecca as just one of several filmic inspirations. Certainly Cyril at times seems very much in the Mrs Danvers mould, but others have referred to the young women who enter the ‘House of Woodcock’ as more akin to ‘Bluebeard’s wives’. James Bell writing in Sight and Sound (February 2018) discusses a range of filmic references. He mentions The Red Shoes (1948) and Anderson certainly appears to be a Powell & Pressburger fan. The link here is the Svengali-like figure of the ballet impresario Lermontov but the relationships are quite different in the two films. Anderson’s passion for David Lean is seemingly well-known and Lean’s The Passionate Friends (1949) is also quoted as an inspiration for Phantom Thread. I can’t remember the Lean film at all, but it does seem that two sequences in Anderson’s film are directly inspired by it (the Swiss hotel and the New Year’s Eve Arts Ball). Alongside Bell’s piece the website ‘Film School Rejects’ suggests the same links and adds some more – all of which Anderson seems to have alluded too. So, Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) and P & P’s I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) are mentioned as well as several other Hitchcocks. For me, discussing Hitchcock and Powell together makes some sense but Lean is almost Powell’s opposite as a filmmaker (and was certainly seen as such during 1945-50). It turns out that Anderson’s interest in I Know Where I’m Going! is because there is a contrast between the wild landscapes and the characters trapped in ‘tiny rooms’. Well, yes there is – I wonder if Anderson knows that it is because the lead actors never went on location?

Reynolds finds Alma at the Chelsea Arts Club Ball

My point in mentioning all these references is that while fascinating, they don’t really help the average cinemagoer to make sense of the narrative – and several comments on IMDb (and others people have made to me) describe the film as ‘boring’. That’s a shame, but if you make a film with a narrative that is impenetrable for large swathes of the audience, you have a problem. I don’t think that Phantom Thread has the passion that Powell & Pressburger might have brought to the table or the disturbance that Hitchcock might have generated. Instead, Anderson offers us an intimate drama with wit and an element of fantasy and mystery that could have been developed further. The music by Jonny Greenwood and the sound design are both very effective and I always enjoy the ‘procedural’ elements of, in this case, haute couture. However, this kind of haute couture involves the British (and European) aristocracy in the 1950s as customers – a quite repellent bunch in many instances (which, to be fair, the story does deal with). Against this, at the beginning of the film, one of my favourite actors, Gina McKee, a miner’s daughter from Peterlee, appears as ‘Countess Henrietta Harding’. Gina seems to be having so much fun showing off a posh frock, it helped me to get through some of the excruciating scenes. I was reminded, however, of a film about fashion that I did enjoy very much, Coco avant Chanel (France 2009) with Audrey Tautou as the young Chanel – an insight into innovation in dress design. Despite the exquisite work of the seamstresses, I didn’t really like any of the clothes on show (which is not to blame the designer Mark Bridges who was trying to represent the designs of the times).

I did enjoy watching the film, but I think Anderson missed a trick by not making more of the landscapes in Yorkshire and Switzerland. I felt that the presentation was too restrained. More melodrama for me, more gothic and more passion. It has been reported that this could be the last feature for both Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis, at least for the moment. That would be a loss to contemporary cinema. I daresay Vicky Krieps will get interesting roles in the future and Lesley Manville will go from strength to strength. Here’s the trailer. It looks like all those things I want are here – but they are selected moments from a 130 mins narrative:

Anurag Kashyap and Mukkabaaz (The Brawler, India (Hindi) 2017)

Sunaina (Zoya Hussain) running her eye over the physique of Shravan (Vineet Kumar Singh) on a visit to his Varanasi training camp

I was getting worried about Anurag Kashyap as I thought he needed to reach another level. Now that I have been knocked out (cheesy pun intended) by Mukkabaaz, I can see that my fears were unfounded. For those of you who haven’t yet explored the work of one of the most significant figures to emerge in Indian cinema over the last ten years or so, my introduction might need some explanation. If you don’t know Kashyap yet, that is understandable as his films struggle for a release in the UK/US.

Anurag Kashyap first came to industry attention as one of the main writers on Satya (1998), a Mumbai gangster pic from Ram Gopal Varma. His contribution was to ‘dirty up’ the standard conventions of a Hindi genre pic alongside one of the more innovatory directors of the period. Satya was very successful and won several awards. By the start of 2018 Kashyap had over 40 writing credits. He directed his first film in 2003, but Paanch struggled to get past the Indian censors (CBFC) and never achieved a proper release. Black Friday about the 1993 ‘Bombay Bombings’ was completed in 2004 but refused a certificate by the CBFC until 2007. Despite these distribution/exhibition problems both these two films screened successfully at festivals. Kashyap has gone on to build a career as a writer/director and producer with a sideline in acting. His relationship with mainstream Hindi cinema is still unclear – he moves towards and then away from it from picture to picture. But he has become for many commentators an important leader of Indian Independent Cinema. Much of this is down to his producer role and his enthusiasm for presenting films at international festivals – something Bollywood generally fails to do.

Kashyap has founded two production companies, each of which have made partnerships with major production outfits. The second of Kashyap’s companies is Phantom Films, actually a partnership with other producers and a director. The Indian ‘major’ Reliance took a 50% stake in this company in 2015. Phantom was a production partner on Mukabaaz with Colour Yellow, a similar company founded by producer-director Anand L. Rai. At Cannes in 2013, Kashyap was involved in all three of the Indian films being screened during the celebrations of ‘100 Years of Indian Cinema’ as director or producer as well as general cheerleader. Kashyap’s companies have helped other young directors at various times. The arthouse hit in the UK, Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013) was another film on which Kashyap was a co-producer. Kashyap’s own mainstream breakthrough as a director came with the mammoth 2-part 320 minute gangster epic Gangs of Wasseypur in 2012. Since then I think we have been waiting for another film to match Gangs and Mukkabaaz feels like that film.

Anurag Kashyap at the trailer launch for MUKKABAAZ in December 2017

The story behind Mukkabaaz is as intriguing as the film itself. Vineet Kumar Singh from Varanasi (Benares) travelled to Mumbai at 18 like so many before him to follow a dream of becoming a success in the film industry. Eighteen years later after completing a medical degree on the side and writing his own sports-based screenplay, he hawked his script around while working in a range of film crew posts until he met Anurag Kashyap (also from Uttar Pradesh). Singh is now the star of his own story. To tell the story of an aspiring boxer he drew on his own experience as a teenage basketball player in the state competition in U.P. and to play the role he had to train as a boxer.

Outline (no spoilers)

The title ‘Mukkabaaz’ appears to refer to the distinction between ‘brawling’ and ‘boxing’. If so, it’s a good title since these are both activities Shravan Kumar needs at various times and he has to recognise the distinction and know how to handle complex situations. When the narrative begins, Shravan has been an aspiring boxer for several years and is part of a group under the coach Bhagwan Mishra (Jimmy Shergill) in Bareilly. One day he enters Bhagwan’s family courtyard and sees Sunaina (Zoya Hussain), Bhagwan’s niece. It’s an immediate attraction but one fraught with problems. Bhagwan is the villain of the story whose prejudices about caste are married to an obsessive control syndrome in which he dominates the state boxing system, exerting influence even on the national system. The vivacious and talented Sunaina is mute and kept in the background (alongside her parents) by Bhagwan who hopes to marry her to a local businessman. Shravan breaks away from Bhagwan and eventually seeks out a new coach in Varanasi. He wants to marry Sunaina but Bhagwan stands in the way – just as he does if Shravan is to progress to regional and national status as a boxer.

Jimmy Shergill as the terrifying Bhagwan Mishra

Commentary

This bare outline might make Mukkabaaz sound like any other sports hero story – even if it acknowledges the family melodrama. But this is India and sports narratives have a unique flavour in a country of 1.3 billion which outside of cricket has so far failed to produce the champions its vast pool of talent and collective wealth might be expected to deliver. In boxing, for instance, there are no Indian successes to match the legendary Cubans or the professional fighters of Mexico or Philippines. Part of the problem lies in the labyrinthine system of state level competition structures and the opportunities for corruption and political interference. Shravan is part of a system in which sporting success is also a means of fast-tracking into a government job, so at one point in the narrative he finds himself burdened with work at a railway maintenance depot (railway employment in India is still a secure form of employment in the public sector). Coupled with the need to support his extended family and a punishing training regime as he heads for the state finals in Lucknow, this stretches his resources almost to breaking point. Bhagwan’s influence in the state boxing world means that he has several ways to block Shravan’s progress.

The film’s narrative is concerned with both the corruption within sport but also the persistence of caste prejudice and the violence of extreme Hindu fundamentalist groups. Shravan is seen as ‘inferior’ by Bhagwan who loudly proclaims his own Brahmin status – marriage within the same grouping is still practised and Bhagwan believes Shravan is lower caste. However, Bhagwan’s ferocious attitude towards Shravan is arguably more concerned with the younger man’s resistance to Bhagwan’s authority. Caste also surfaces in more complex ways at the railway depot. On two occasions in the film we are witness to an attack by ‘Cow Protection Vigilantes’ – armed groups attacking anyone in their homes allegedly eating beef. These two issues in Anurag Kashyap’s film mark it out from the Hindi cinema mainstream, although in other ways Mukkabaaz looks back to earlier forms of the masala film. The family melodrama includes the fate of parents and the romance and sports stories rely on Shravan having the kind of best friend who will always be there to help him escape threats and pursue the villains (Bhagwan and his goons). At 154 minutes it is actually longer than many contemporary Hindi popular films – but it breaks the convention of Indian mainstream cinema by not having an intermission. It has 42 minutes of music, most of which is woven into the narrative. It does, however, have a cameo appearance as a wedding performer by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the current star of the ‘crossover’ world of independent and mainstream Hindi cinema whose career has been helped by his roles for Kashyap. Most of the music is written by Rachita Arora and I was pleased to see that all the lyrics of the songs are translated for the English subtitles.

Shravan and Sunaina at the bus station – this is a narrative grounded in the struggles of ‘ordinary people’

For me, Mukkabaaz works in every way.  I was completely engaged in the narrative and I loved the music (always a strength with Kashyap). I was expecting an intermission and suddenly realised we were nearing the end of the narrative – a sure sign that my engagement was total. Jimmy Shergill is a genuine melodrama villain and the central pairing of Vineet Kumar Singh and Zoya Hussain, perhaps because they were both approaching a major cinema role for the first time, works terrifically well. Singh is completely convincing as a boxer – and the camerawork by Kashyap regular Rajeev Ravi and his collaborators makes all the fights feel genuine as well as exciting. Many commentators have noted the symbolism in making Sunaina mute but the intelligence and wit in her performance is in some ways even more important. The film’s ending works very well – it is both unexpected in genre terms but seems ‘right’ for the narrative.

This will be one of my films of the year – I haven’t enjoyed a new release as much for a long time. In the UK this Kashyap film was released by Eros International, one of the biggest distributors of Bollywood films. Even so, in Bradford the film lasted only a week and in my screening there was just one other patron. Meanwhile the Bollywood blockbusters in the other screens carry on week after week. Why doesn’t Mukkabaaz draw the crowds? Is it just too ‘Indian’ for the diaspora audience?

 

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (UK 2017)

Jamie Bell and Annette Bening on a vintage tube train in 1979

I’m not sure Gloria Grahame ever got top billing in a film (except in the long-forgotten Prisoners of the Casbah (1953)), but she was undoubtedly a real Hollywood star for roughly a decade from 1947-59. I remember the book, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool being published in the late 1980s. Peter Turner told the true story of how as a young actor he met Grahame in London, became her lover and friend and then two years later took the dying actor home to his family in Liverpool. I haven’t read the book, but according to readers and what Turner himself says, the new film keeps the main elements of the story and its nonlinear structure – moving backwards and forwards in time and place, sometimes seamlessly so that a dreamlike tone is achieved. The real events took place between 1979 and 1981 and it is has taken some thirty years to put the story on screen since David Puttnam took the first option on the rights. Apart from cinephiles and Golden Age film fans, most contemporary cinemagoers won’t necessarily know much about her films and Turner himself admits that he saw her films on DVD after her death. There were seven people in the audience for the screening we attended on a wet Sunday night. That’s a shame because it is a good film about an iconic figure.

Ms Grahame became trapped within a persona which was read by audiences as a sexy young woman who circumstances placed in unfortunate situations. There was an intelligence associated with the character, a skill with dialogue delivered in an unmistakeable voice and there was both a cheeky stance and an edge to her performances in several classic films noirs. In her best performance, in In a Lonely Place (1950), she matched Humphrey Bogart stride for stride. This was the role in which the reality of life in Hollywood seeped into the film’s narrative in several ways. Bogart’s company produced the film and Grahame was cast because Bogart’s wife Lauren Bacall couldn’t be released from her studio contract. Grahame was then directed by Nick Ray, the husband she was in the process of divorcing. Ironically in today’s febrile climate, that film was about male abuse of women and Gloria Grahame certainly knew about what that could mean in Hollywood. Contracted to RKO, she feared Howard Hughes as the studio boss and felt that because of him she lost the opportunity to appear in Born Yesterday, the film that made Judy Holliday a star. It was another two years before she made her Oscar-winning performance in Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (as Best Supporting Actor). She appeared in several major films including the terrific Odds Against Tomorrow in 1959 with Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan (the villain from Crossfire in 1947 in which her film noir persona was first developed). After that, the good roles dried up for an attractive woman and an accomplished actor who was only 36. But Gloria was a trained actor and she could move into TV and back to the stage. She had made two films in the UK in the 1950s and it was during a small-scale theatrical run that she met the jobbing actor Peter Turner in London in 1979.

The story goes that Annette Bening was asked by Stephen Frears, director of The Grifters (1990), to look at Gloria Grahame’s performances in her films noirs in preparation for her own role in a neo-noir. Now Bening is the same age as Grahame was in 1979-81 and she can play her for real. And she is very good indeed, not in the sense of mimicry, but in representing Gloria Grahame as she may well have been in later life. Jamie Bell is also excellent as Peter Turner. It’s a difficult role to play in order to make the romance and friendship work. It isn’t just a difference in age that marks the relationship but also the differences in social class and celebrity. Bell negotiates all of this believably. Some of the other casting decisions seemed a little more questionable to me. Peter Turner came from a large Liverpool family which in the film is represented mainly by brother Joe (Stephen Graham) and mum (Julie Walters) and dad (Kenneth Cranham). All three are well-known faces in the UK (less so in the US, perhaps). Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is not a realist film but I found the trio distracting. Graham, a genuine Scouser, sports what appears to be a comedy wig, recalling jokes about bubble perms for Liverpool footballers in 1981. Walters too appears to have a rather prominent wig. Both Graham and Walters are great performers but didn’t work for me here. By contrast, in a California sequence, we see Vanessa Redgrave as Gloria’s mother (a teacher of actors) and Frances Barber as her sister Joy (once married to Robert Mitchum’s younger brother, John). This made sense.

I’m a big Gloria Grahame fan and I liked the film very much and yes, the tears came at the end. But what intrigued me about it most of all was the look and tone of the film. At its most extreme this was apparent in the California sequence in which Gloria takes Peter to her home by the beach in a spacious trailer. The whole of this sequence, including a drive down an ocean road that might have come from In a Lonely Place, was shot on a Pinewood stage where director Paul McGuigan was able to use the largest film screen ever built for a back projection exercise. The images were created by multiple digital projectors and the results can be seen in the clip below:

The intention was to evoke the style of the films noirs in which Gloria made her name. It certainly worked for me and I found the same sense of slight surrealism in many of the location shot sequences back in the UK. Liverpool in 1981 was characterised by ‘uprisings’ in Toxteth and a certain amount of desolation as industry collapsed and housing was not ‘regenerated’. Many parts of the city have changed considerably over the last twenty years. I kept thinking about the autobiographical films of Terence Davies such as Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992). These invoked the Liverpool streets of the 1950s. Paul McGuigan’s film is probably quite different and I’d see this if I put them side by side, but the tone took me back to these representations of an earlier period. The ‘head-on’ image of Peter and his Dad in the local pub, with all the Labour posters on the wall works very well.

Kenneth Cranham as Dad with Jamie Bell as Pete Turner in their local

Director Paul McGuigan has had a career of ups and downs in cinema features with some high profile TV work to keep him busy. I hope this film at least pushes him back towards the limelight. It’s also a useful credit for Matt Greenhalgh who stuttered with The Look of Love after a strong beginning with Control and Nowhere Boy. He’s got back some of his Lancashire credentials for me. I was also impressed by the cinematography of Urszula Pontikos and the production design of Eve Stewart (assuming she wasn’t directly responsible for those wigs!).

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is distributed in the UK by Lionsgate and I’m not sure of what to make of their decisions about its release. The film opened on 150 sites with a screen average of £1,500 and No. 6 in the Top 10. However, after the second weekend and a drop of 54%, the longevity of the film in cinemas is in doubt. It hasn’t done badly and Lionsgate might be correct in thinking their strategy has maximised its potential. Still, it’s an odd approach in the current climate – neither a ‘wide’ mainstream release or a limited specialised release. The film has had plenty of coverage on Radio 4 and in the broadsheets and I think it is aiming for an older audience. It might do well on DVD. It’s the kind of film that perhaps doesn’t fit the current Picturehouse/Curzon audience (though they have probably sold the most tickets for it). Distribution in the UK is in such a state of flux that I guess ‘nobody really knows what to do with a film like this. My recommendation is to go and see it if it appears near you. The BFI have also re-released In a Lonely Place and The Big Heat, but only on a handful of screens. These are the two best films that Gloria Grahame appeared in (and two of her best performances). See them first, if you can, then this film. Ms Grahame was a great Hollywood star who deserves to be remembered. There is a Sight and Sound essay by Serena Bramble in the December 2017 issue and a video essay here: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/video/in-her-eyes-notes-gloria-grahame

Here are trailers for The Big Heat (1953) and In a Lonely Place (1950):

The BFI’s Gloria Grahame season continues on the South Bank until 30 December.

God’s Own Country (UK 2017)

It’s grand up here on the moor! Josh O’Connor (right) and Alec Secareanu

God’s Own Country is a terrific film and one of the very best to be released in 2017. It has two standout lead performances, ably supported by two ever-reliable industry vets. It looks wonderful and tells an emotional story with limited dialogue and enormous power. It will be discussed partly because of the gay love story at its centre, but also because it’s a story about small farmers in rural Britain – an increasingly marginalised group in the UK (although it’s one of three such films this year with the earlier The Levelling and Dark River to follow). You’ll read a lot about the film as it picks up prizes so I’ll concentrate on my personal response to a film made on the moors close to my home.

For readers outside the UK, the film’s title refers to some Yorkshire people’s sense of their home county (it’s the biggest of the traditional English counties). I’m assuming it’s ironic in many ways since the writer-director Francis Lee seems quite sensible as well as being highly talented. He’s had a career as an actor in British theatre, film and television and this is his first feature after a trio of well-received shorts. His work with two young and highly promising actors demonstrates his understanding and empathy. Perhaps surprisingly in a film so carefully located in the director’s own backyard (Lee was brought up on a farm near Halifax and the main locations for his film are all around Keighley, just a few miles away), the three actors playing the farming family are not local. Josh O’Connor (one of the UK’s rising young actors to watch), who plays the central character Johnny, is from Cheltenham and he is the one under most scrutiny as a young farmer. Lee sent him, and the Romanian actor Alec Secareanu, to work on local farms for some intensive acclimatisation to livestock farming in the Pennines. It certainly paid off and the farm work looks genuine to this non-farmer. Johnny’s father is played by the Liverpudlian actor Ian Hart and his grandmother by the Londoner Gemma Jones. These two simply make sure the family is a credible working unit. Francis Lee knows the location and he knows actors, so his film narrative has a sound basis. The narrative itself is fairly straightforward – Johnny has stayed on the family farm while some of his friends from school have gone to university. It’s a hard life and socially isolating on the farm, especially when his father has a stroke and everything falls on Johnny in terms of physical work. His only respite is swift casual sexual encounters and fierce binge drinking in the village pub. In classic genre style this is all changed when the smoothly handsome and very capable Gheorghe arrives as a temporary hired hand. It’s to the film’s credit, I think, that Georghe is represented as a skilled worker and not as stereotypical migrant labour. But Georghe is more than a skilled worker, he is also an intelligent and sensitive young man – and just what Johnny needs. But can Johnny develop a relationship and sustain it? That’s the narrative enigma.

The film is a gay romance and that might be part of its attraction as a different kind of story since many such romances, especially for younger characters, are urban affairs. I’m not sure the many references to Brokeback Mountain from journalists and reviewers are helpful – the narratives are not that similar apart from sheep and ‘isolation’. The love story in God’s Own Country is universal. It’s also the case that the isolation Johnny experiences is nuanced. Johnny may be a Pennine hill farmer, but in reality he only lives a mile or two from a large town (this area for the last two hundred years or so has mixed the agrarian and the industrial cheek by jowl). His sense of isolation is social and psychological, not geographical. At the beginning of the story he is a character with wild energy but he’s sullen and not very likeable. Josh O’Connor handles his development as a man very well.

I only have one quibble with Francis Lee. He says very clearly that he didn’t want the landscape to look ‘beautiful’. I can understand why, coming from an upland farm, Lee wants to stress how a young person might feel. But for those of us who don’t have to deliver lambs out on the moor in all weathers, this land is beautiful – and in fact there is a scene in which Georghe makes this point. It’s worth noting that these are the moors on which the Brontë sisters might have tramped, but few of the film or TV versions of the Brontë novels have actually been shot here with filmmakers selecting similar, but still different, moors elsewhere. The credit for the film’s look also goes to cinematographer Joshua James Richards who is also having great success with American landscapes for Chloé Zhao, whose 2017 film The Rider is about a young cowboy in heartland America. Francis Lee can obviously attract talented collaborators. God’s Own Country is a must see film, both rivetingly ‘real’ and also romantic. I can’t wait to see what he will do next.

The Big Sick (US 2017)

Kumail (Kumail Nanjani) and Emily (Zoe Kazan)

I approached The Big Sick with trepidation. I knew it had been very well reviewed and had opened strongly in the UK for an American Independent film. I wasn’t bothered about Amazon as a studio – at least their films are getting into cinemas – but Judd Apatow as producer was a bit of a worry and I’d never heard of director Michael Showalter. The only other thing I knew about it was that it focused on a relationship between a Pakistani man and a white woman – and that one commentator criticised the film for perpetuating the stories of South Asian men and white women. When were the gender identities in such relationships going to change? This charge reminded me of scenes in East is East (UK 1999), a film I have always found offensive in its representations of Pakistani women and girls, even though – or perhaps because – it is a narrative written by a British Pakistani man.

My fears were not realised. I found The Big Sick to be an affecting romantic drama with some comedy elements. It isn’t a romcom as such (it doesn’t have a romcom structure or generic characters) and by the end I was in tears and not tears of laughter. The film is written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjani and is based on the story of their relationship, though I hope that some of it is an invention. Kumail (an experienced TV actor) plays himself but the Emily character is played by Zoe Kazan, who I now realise I have seen before in films like Meek’s Cutoff (2010).

The Big Sick opens in a comedy club where Kumail is doing his stand-up routine and Emily is in the audience. They meet after the show and a romance begins. The ‘impediment’ to the prospect of a lasting relationship is the attitude of Kumail’s traditional parents. Emily invites Kumail to meet her parents but Kumail has not told his parents about Emily and he has rebuffed all of the stream of young Pakistani women his mother has found for him. At this point, the major element that makes this romance ‘different’ appears in the form of a serious illness that strikes down Emily and puts her in a coma. Kumail is forced into a relationship with Emily’s parents, the three meeting at her bedside. In a sense, the romance continues with Emily absent. The resolution of the narrative affected me a great deal and I’m not sure why.

There are a number of issues in and about the film that I found interesting. Kumail’s family members are played by actors from Hindi cinema, the Bollywood star Anupam Kher and the less well-known Zenobia Shroff (Little Zizou, India 2008) as his parents, plus British actor Adeel Akhtar (playing for comedy as in Four Lions, UK 2010) as his brother Naveed. It’s good to see a recognisable South Asian family in an American film. Emily’s parents are played by Holly Hunter and comedy actor Ray Romano. This couple seemed more obviously played for laughs. Having recently watched Holly Hunter’s strange character in the first series of Top of the Lake (NZ-Aus-UK 2012), I found her performance too exaggerated in both that series and this film – and I struggled to decipher her dialogue at times. In the end this didn’t spoil my enjoyment. I watch very little US TV or stand-up comedy and I can imagine that for audiences who watch both regularly, there will be a different ‘feel’ to the film (I read the other stand-ups who work with Kumail as not very funny, but perhaps I’m wrong?). I think it’s the first American film I’ve seen where the Asian family seems more familiar than the American. I wonder how British Asians have read the film? According to Box Office Mojo, the UK is its biggest overseas market (but only just ahead of Australia) and so far it has made $100,000 in India.