Sunday, June 25, 2017
Julien Temple’s ‘The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’ posits that there’s no such thing as rock ‘n’ roll. It does so by mapping out a fictive account of the Sex Pistols’ formation and rise to notoriety, every aspect stage managed and the band’s popularity nothing but a money-grabbing con job. When even something as working class and reactionary as punk is little more than another establishment sleight of hand, Temple seems to be asking, what can you trust?
Paul Sng’s ‘Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle’ asks a similar question: when the very concept of affordable housing is unmasked as anything but, what hope is there for the working class, the poor, the vulnerable, the disenfranchised? What quality of life for those whose only aspiration is a roof over their head?
The similarity in titles is no coincidence: Sng’s previous film ‘Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain’ showcased the UK’s angriest band kicking against the country’s political culture of austerity. Sng is keyed into the reality of life lived without support, sympathy or safety net. Two films into his career and he emerges, already, as an exemplary chronicler of the social underbelly and the establishment’s investment in keeping the poor and vulnerable poor and vulnerable.
Clocking in at a taut 82 minutes, ‘Dispossession’ economically deals with over half a century of social history, charting the progressive achievements of Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government to provide for its least-advantaged citizenry, to the free-market driven attitude of the Thatcher era. The right-to-buy scheme turned council houses into pieces in a huge property game, and the prevalent socio-political model was one that rewarded greed, divided communities and trampled on the underprivileged.
Thatcherism is something Britain has never quite recovered from: last year’s referendum scratched the surface of the country and right-wing belligerence came bubbling up; since then, Theresa May’s increasingly out-of-touch leadership has seemed more and more like a Z-grade Margaret Thatcher tribute act. The cluster of disasters on her watch during, and just after, the ill-advised snap election culminated in the Grenfell Tower fire. I saw ‘Dispossession’ at Nottingham’s Broadway cinema just days after the Grenfell disaster and it gave an already hard-hitting documentary even greater relevance.
Sng focuses on the St Anns estate in Nottingham, Tower Hamlets and Cressingham Gardens in London, and Govanhills and the Gorbals in Glasgow. In respect of the latter, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appears in interview and admits that improvements are unlikely to happen along a timeline that residents would wish for. She presents as calm and reassuring but Sng’s DoP Nick Wood captures images that tell a different story. Still, kudos to Sturgeon for appearing; she and Green Party leader Caroline Lucas are the only MPs who contribute.
Elsewhere, councillors and property developers (and those with fingers in both pies) decline to put forward their side of the story. The silence is particularly damning from those behind the Cressingham Gardens redevelopment, where the current residents, who put forward a “People’s Plan” to regenerate the estate, are ignored despite their plan being highly workable and their protests visible. The proposed redevelopment will see the estate bulldozed and replaced by luxury flats. Of the 1034 homes that look set to be demolished – ‘Dispossessed’ ends with Cressingham residents vowing to continue the fight – only 82 of a proposed 2704 new residences are earmarked for social housing. The result will be the death of a community, with families (as well as single and/or vulnerable residents) scattered and rehoused in any number of far-flung places. The only winners here will be the property developers.
But that’s what this is all about. We haven’t come that far from the slum clearances and dodgy landlords of the Victorian era, a fact that ‘Dispossession’ identifies with palpable bitterness. The film also tackles the concept of gentrification, noting that historically this was a gradual process of social development. Gentrification nowadays is a bullyboy council wielding a compulsory purchase order on behalf of a property developer with an eye on overseas investment.
With the odds stacked in the establishment’s favour, what can be done? Education, to begin with – see the film, visit the website, read up on the various campaigns. Then be active: support said campaigns, badger your MP, use social media. Get angry. Demand that the government be held to account.
Narrated by Maxine Peake (one of the most socially conscious and politically active talents in British cinema), ‘Dispossession’ is a film for our times. I can’t think of a single more important documentary feature to come out of Britain in the last decade.
Sunday, June 18, 2017
As a director, Tommy Lee Jones isn’t exactly prolific: four features in just over twenty years, two of them – ‘The Good Old Boys’ and ‘The Sunset Limited’ – for television. His big screen directorial debut was ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’ (2005), a contemporary western concerned with revenge and redemption that has about it more than a touch of Peckinpah. It’s a damn good movie; close as all hell to being a modern classic.
‘The Homesman’ is a western set in the 1850s concerned with failure and redemption that has about it more than a touch of Michael Cimino. In both films, Jones acknowledges his influences and draws on them subtly and respectfully in the service of the story he’s telling. ‘The Homesman’ has the stateliness and the visual grandeur of Cimino circa ‘Heaven’s Gate’ – cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto is the film’s unsung hero – the better to contrast with the dour narrative and its unsettling accretion of detail.
The film opens with three women in a hardscrabble Nebraska township emerging from a particularly vicious winter having succumbed to mental illness. “Mad women”, as the townsfolk are quick to label them. The parson, Reverend Dowd (John Lithgow), arranges for their care to be given over to a preacher’s wife in Iowa and calls upon one of his flock to make the journey: an undertaking of several weeks. When farmer Vester Belknap (William Fichtner) – husband to the afflicted Theoline (Miranda Otto) – refuses to take part in a drawing of lots to determine who gets the job, spinster of the parish Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) takes his place.
No prizes for guessing who ends up playing chauffeur to the disturbed women?
In addition to Theoline, Mary Bee’s charges number Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) and Gro Svendson (Sonja Richter). I’ll not reveal that nature of their mental illness: an unflinchingly blunt sequence early in the film – fleshed out by a couple of flashbacks around the midway point – spells out their suffering. Mary Bee – brittle, pious, frustrated in her attempts to find a husband – isn’t the ideal candidate for the company of the demented. Early in the journey, the incessant wailing of one of her charges drives her to despair. The hard realities of the journey don’t sit well with her, and the arrangement she enters into with petty criminal George Briggs (Jones) to assist on the trail as recompense for saving him from hanging is also fraught; they’re opposites in gender, age, social standing, theological views and general outlook on life.
As the journey progresses, Jones – co-scripting as well as directing (film is based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout*) – maps the gradual thawing of their relationship, only for things to take a sharp and unexpected turn. Again: I’m remaining tight-lipped. Suffice it to say that the last third of ‘The Homesman’ plays out under the shadow of the event in question, giving it the feel of an extended coda … notwithstanding one scene of stone cold ruthless violence that is cathartic only to a point.
‘The Homesman’ is a fascinating piece of work, primarily because of its focus on mental illness. It’s a theme that wrong-foots you as a viewer, subverting what you expect from a western even as the production design, cinematography and music evoke the genre as classically as in anything by Ford, Cimino or Eastwood. Inasmuch as Jones can only portray his female cast in terms of the few social roles that the rampant patriarchy of frontier life afforded women, ‘The Homesman’ can also be considered a feminist western. Jones as director has great respect for the film’s treatment of its anti-heroines and even two scenes depicting the grubby realism of personal hygiene on a long trial are shot without recourse to exploitation.
Any film so strongly grounded in character succeeds or fails by its performances. Jones gives a minimalist, elegiac variation on a type of character he’s played several times before and can play to perfection. Except where Briggs is required to be the focal point for a scene’s dynamic, Jones he is careful to keep himself to the side – if not in the background – and cede the film to his co-stars. Swank is as brilliant as you’d expect: I don’t think anyone else could have played Mary Bee.
Otto, Gummer and Richter, notwithstanding that they barely have a word of dialogue between them, turn in genuinely affecting character work. Streep, in a five minute cameo, does her best work since Eastwood’s ‘Bridges of Madison County’. Hailee Steinfeld, popping up at the end to literally be nothing more than an indicator of Briggs’s capacity for good, suggests soulful depths to a character that is pretty much one-dimensional on the page.
Everything else about ‘The Homesman’ works beautifully and in concert. It is a stunningly well-made film, glacially paced as befits its narrative; a film of telling minutiae and elegantly nuanced grace notes; it is mature, intelligent and deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Which, sadly, it failed to find on the big screen. But that’s what DVD, streaming and on-demand are for. Seek this one out, engage with it on its own terms, go through what its characters experience. It’s transformative.
*Robert Rossen’s ‘The Came to Cordura’, Henry Levin’s ‘Where the Boys Are’, and Don Siegel’s autumnal classic ‘The Shootist’ are all based on Swarthout’s work.
Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Pete Travis’s ‘City of Tiny Lights’ – adapted by Patrick Neale from his own novel – does three things superbly well, fumbles the ball elsewhere, and outright drops a bollock in two places. On of these bollock-drops is crucial, the other an annoyance.
Here’s what ‘City of Tiny Lights’ does best: it gives Riz Ahmed a gift of a lead role and gives him the space to knock it out of the park. I’ve yet to see Ahmed give even a lazy performance; he’s certainly come nowhere near a bad one. The guy has charisma to burn and an effortlessness in front of the camera. I’m convinced he can play pretty much any character. Here, he essays the role of Tommy Akhtar, a chain-smoking ex-cop eking out a precarious living as a private detective.
Which brings us neatly to the second thing the film does brilliantly: it allows itself to be as hard-boiled as fuck. Akhtar is cynical and world-weary and not adverse to using violence if need be, and all of these things spew from the still open wound of his defeated romanticism. Tommy Akhtar is a private eye in the grand tradition of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe; his odyssey through the city’s underbelly is as dark and labyrinthine and as riddled with distrust and ghosts from the past as any of theirs. The narrative is almost deliberately complicated, the pinball of Akhtar’s investigation pinging from murdered call girls to low-level politics to crooked property deals by way of radicalisation and fundamentalism.
It’s a distillation of everything that’s wrong with a metropolitan city: corruption, careerism, capitalism, corporationism, racial disharmony and the arrogance and entitlement of power. With Josh Brolin or Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role, you could easily imagine it unfolding against the neon soaked backdrop of New York. But no, we’re in London but that doesn’t stop Travis shooting the city as if were the rotten half of the Big Apple. He also shoots London without feeling the need to shoehorn any of the obvious landmarks into the background. This is a London that doesn’t recognise the Eye, Big Ben, Tower Bridge or the Spire. Even the most upwardly mobile of the film’s characters wouldn’t get within spitting distance of West India Quay.
Akhtar is variously aided, distracted and emboldened in his investigations by new client, high class call girl Melody (Cush Jumbo – who ought to be a major star in two years’ time if there’s any justice), old flame Shelley (Billie Piper, sadly underused) and his memory-addled, cricket-loving father Farzad (Roshan Seth). Subject of whom: third massive plus-point in the film’s favour. Seth is nothing short of awesome, imbuing his role with poignant dignity even as he provides comic relief in the early scenes. His pivotal moment in a tense scene late in the game is something I absolutely won’t spoil; suffice it to say he walks away with the film.
Here’s what the film doesn’t do so well (I’ll keep this part of the review brief, because I’d rather retain my positive impressions of ‘City of Tiny Lights’): It has a terrible title. Yes, I know it’s from a song by Frank Zappa, but Zappa never gets a mention and Akhtar isn’t established as a music fan in the way of, say, Inspectors Rebus, Resnik or Morse. It’s a good title for a song, but not for a film, and certainly not for a hard-boiled film. Unfortunately, it’s a title that seems to have inspired DoP Felix Wiedemann to go overboard with the focus pulls, the cityscapes behind Akhtar drifting, time after time, into a blur of … well … tiny lights. It’s a thudding example of a visual aesthetic bludgeoned into literalism, and after a while it becomes wearying. The decision, too, to render a couple of dramatic pursuits as an impressionist blur of colour and motion might have sounded conceptually brilliant during storyboarding, but just comes across as arty-farty and an impediment to the film’s pace. And during those moments where the film slows long enough to let you think about it too much – its 110 minute running time is excessive; it should have been a fast and brutal 90 minute thriller – it’s difficult to fathom any reason why Akhtar persists with his investigation in the face of at least two very convincing warnings-off.
Which brings me to the two big failings. For all that Billie Piper brings the star presence to the role of Akhtar’s lost love, the series of flashbacks prompted by her reappearance – which cumulatively account for about a fifth of the overall film – are both unconvincingly staged and only peripheral to the plot. The big thing that’s been haunting Akhtar all these years is revealed in decidedly ho-hum fashion, and the connection between his wasted youth in the 90s and a character he reencounters contemporaneously, could have easily been effected with recourse to the rampant melodrama on display here. The 90s scenes are terrible and come damn close to derailing the film.
The job is almost done for them by the very last scene. It’s one thing for an anti-hero to find personal redemption after encountering the very depths of human venality; just like it’s one thing for a terminal loner to find himself, at film’s end, with an ersatz family (Clint Eastwood’s ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ pulls this trick off perfectly, without ever being saccharine). Unfortunately, ‘City of Tiny Lights’ tries to deliver both in a single scene, ending on a truly god-awful final line. It sends you out of the cinema choking on a sugar lump of pure schmaltz.
‘City of Tiny Lights’ has garnered cautious reviews at best, and struggled to finds its audience on the big screen. Maybe it will have an afterlife on DVD. I hope so, even though I know it’s not a film I’d get many repeat viewings out of. I would like to see Ahmed play Tommy Akhtar again, though; this time with a paired down script, directed with ruthless narrative drive, and free from even the vaguest strand of sentiment.