Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Coming Soon to a Peripatetic Projector Near You: Part 2

After Almodóvar, and on the subject of singular directors: Café Society (Dir. Woody Allen, US, 2016). Every year I go to the latest Woody Allen movie. (I do know I didn’t back when they were better.) Everyone says it looks delightful – but even terrible movies can manage that these days. He deserves more respect. The movie starts very strongly, moves along nicely then fizzles out, perhaps because Steve Carell’s character just accepts his lot. There are many good gags and Ken Stott (Marty Dorfman) gets most of them. [Ken Stott’s agent: “Ken, I’ve got a Woody Allen film. Your character’s name is Marty Dorfman.” – “I can do that.”] Last year’s Allen, Irrational Man, was more satisfying in terms of plot, character development and a tidy ending. It reminded me of those American radio dramas from the 1940s that BBC Radio 4 Extra broadcast occasionally, where Hollywood movie stars of the era give their reading of a James M. Cain script.

Some critics wonder why movie stars want an Allen movie on their CV. When his body of work is complete, and the reassessment comes, they will want to be part of it. There’s a story with acting required. Nice wardrobe, nothing dangerous. The shoot’s a wrap within a month. It’s an opportunity to make a studio-system-style movie few directors still know how to do. You know when you mooch about Freeview and you stumble across a 1950s B&W movie starring Humphrey Bogart so you give it a go. Then the opening credits reveal that it’s directed by John Huston, you wonder why the Information button never mentions the important details, and ninety minutes of enjoyable fluff ensue. That’s what I mean. Woody Allen is 81. Who else is going to make them?

The Borderlines 2017 programme features several ‘state of the nation’ movies from around the world: Aquarius (Dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil, 2016); Graduation (Dir. Cristian Mungia, Romania, 2016); Moonlight (Dir. Barry Jenkins, US, 2016); and, I, Daniel Blake (Dir. Ken Loach, UK, 2016) is ours. During December my home cinema, Number 8 Pershore, sequenced three trailers together: Allied (2016) – the UK news features graffiti; A Street Cat Named Bob (2016) – Luke Treadaway walks past graffiti; and, I, Daniel Blake (2016) – Dave Johns creates graffiti. The writing is on the wall. It recalls Loach’s My Name is Joe (1998) when Peter Mullan (Joe) daubs paint on the car of someone taking photographs of him. I, Daniel Blake also echoes Loach’s Poor Cow (1967), not to mention a thousand other examples of British social realist cinema, when a desperate young woman goes on the game. Ken Loach – his work has as many call backs as a Bond movie.

British films that comment upon recent UK social history have improved a great deal in the past 30 years. During the 1980s Channel 4 screened issue movies every month. There would be soap-box speeches and heavy-handed, broad-brush moralising – particularly during the comedies. Were The Comic Strip Presents that driven by a good word from the New Musical Express? A Keith Waterhouse script would include a rant about the friends he lost when he passed his eleven-plus. In Hanif Kureishi’s London Kills Me (1991) a young British-Asian man steals a police car, removes its roof, drives around – and nothing happens. Is it a dream sequence – or did I dream it? In Pawel Pawlikowski’s The Last Resort (2000), two policemen in a patrol car have nothing better to do than spend their shift spying on the common-or-garden asylum seeker housed in a Margate tower block. No they wouldn’t. It’s a good film otherwise. And as for that one with Pete Postlethwaite, rock climbing and electricity pylons, Among Giants (1998): it’s worse than water-boarding – but still preferable to Shopping (1994). When you’ve seen enough UK cinema you know what it is to suffer.

I, Daniel Blake merits its awards: Palme d’Or at Cannes, BAFTA Best British Film. Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) has no luck but his plight is entirely plausible and credible. Listen out for the opening bars of “Spring”, from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”, on the soundtrack – and by the knowing groans of laughter from members of the audience you will know their line of work. You yearn for Daniel to drop into Citizens Advice but, after a lifetime of paying his stamp, it’s understandable that he might expect a bit more help from the public sector than he gets. And the moral is: Deference Always.

I don’t know where to fit Sweet Bean (Dir. Naomi Kawase, Japan, 2015) into this preview – and that’s quite right. We adore Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movies but his 1950s films set in post-war Tokyo are much less known in the West. They’re a bit long. I’ve only seen Stray Dog (1949), the baseball stadium sequence is much-stolen, and Ikiru (1952), a very moving political drama. To my delight the cheap, made in China, Kurosawa box-set I own also includes Late Chrysanthemums (1954) – even though it was directed by Mikio Naruse. Neorealism wasn’t confined to Italian film-makers. The undercover detective in Stray Dog and the dying bureaucrat in Ikiru are your guides to post-war Tokyo: the American night clubs, the huge difference a few more Yen each week can make to living standards, the corruption. Like the superb Nobody Knows (2004) you are there with them: the sun in your lungs, street dust up your nose. Sweet Bean fits into this tradition: its tone, pacing and humanity. William Blake could “see a world in a grain of sand” and Kawase finds it in a quick snack.

A 76-year-old woman, Tokue (Kirin Kiki), short of money, wishes to work for a dorayaki pancake franchise owner, Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase). She has a superior sweet bean paste recipe she would like to live on after her death. Inter-generational understanding, a trade-off between business and teaching, develops gradually into friendship. I heard this film, and Ethel & Ernest (2016), described as “gentle”. Only if you’ve forgotten what bereavement feels like. They mean that it’s a thoughtful film with few characters. It’s also a food film: like Tampopo (1985 - noodles), Babette’s Feast (1987 – seven course banquet), Big Night (1996 - omelette), even Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014 – I don’t know but they looked delicious). The most humble of food films: a pancake paste.

Robin Clarke

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