Judy & Punch (Australia, 2019)

Punch through the looking glass

It’s an interesting tradition, the Punch and Judy puppet show, based as it is on violence, particularly domestic violence against women. Interesting because it became popular and, during my childhood at least, was regarded as fun for children. I loved it and ensured my kids had the opportunity to see it, safe in the knowledge that it wasn’t going to encourage violence but I wonder why such an anarchic figure as Punch came to be regarded as fare for children. He is a Trickster character, a necessary antidote to anodyne bourgeois values I suppose. However, we cannot ignore the violence against women which, for some, is a trope of masculinity.

Actor Mirrah Foulkes’s directorial debut, she also scripted, is a feminist take on the tale and, as such, is somewhat predictable but nonetheless welcome. If Mia Wasikowska, an actor I find a bit bland, lacks mischievousness, Damon Herriman’s Punch portrays the misrule inherent in the character well with added male self-pity and self-justification. Foulkes has wisely set the film in an unreal space, a village called Seaside, nowhere near the seaside but that’s where Punch & Judy puppet shows are most likely to be seen these days. The cast sport a mix of accents, Herriman’s is Irish and there are Australian twangs; no doubt late 18th century Australia was full of such eclecticism, but as Foulke’s is quoted as saying in the press kit:

[she] never imagined the film to be period strict, but rather “Totally other-worldly; I wasn’t interested in being bound by period. So I thought let’s see what we can find in Australia and just lean into the weirdness of that.”

So although the film was shot in Australia it isn’t set there. The postmodern elements of the setting are reinforced by what sounds like ‘Moog plays Bach’ on the soundtrack, which I think had some popularity in the 1970s. The first time the music appears it seems to be accompanying the puppet show though it soon becomes clear it is non-diegetic (not part of the narrative world).

I mentioned the narrative was predictable and I don’t think Foulkes was interested in adding complexity though it is a tribute to the filmmakers that the ending’s plea for the acceptance of difference works even if the righteous sentiments are a bit obvious. The anarchic humour is retained and there cannot be many films were the slapstick is combined with the death of a baby. As much as anything, Judy & Punch is a Grand Guignol narrative; I found it a difficult film to categorise.

Tom Budge does plenty with his role as Mr. Frankly, the insidious opinion-maker in village. Budge manages to convey the character’s insecure obsequiousness overlaying a vicious tendency (it reminded of Rik Mayall’s brilliant manifestation of a Tory MP, Alan B’stard).

El Dorado (US, 1966)

Hollywood greats

It’s easy to imagine John Wayne and Howard Hawks deciding to, just as De Niro and Scorsese did with The Irishman, do what they knew would work. So they made what was essentially a remake of Rio Bravo, of seven years earlier; Leigh Brackett is one writer common to both though the source material is different. Now it is difficult to get non-franchise films made (even if you are a bone fide star-director partnership), then it was the fading Wayne and 70-year-old Hawks who were scrambling around for something the studios would accept. In 1966 the majors had lost the plot and it’s unlikely that reported $6m domestic box office (the_numbers) encouraged further backing of old school westerns. Hawks directed one more film, Rio Lobo, also starring Wayne, released in 1970; although Wayne did win an Oscar for True Grit (1969) that took $31m.

It’s many years since I’d seen either Rio Bravo or El Dorado and was motivated to catch the screening of the latter on Film4 after recently reading biographies of Robert Mitchum and John Ford (in which Wayne figured prominently). I was surprised how much I enjoyed the film, even though its sexual politics, amongst other things, is inevitably of its time. Much of the entertainment comes, of course, from the stars; no matter how execrable Wayne was as a person, he was great film star. By that I mean he perfectly embodied his persona as a self-reliant but moral man. Mitchum seemingly lazily (the biography by Lee Server confirms that Mitchum was invariably the consummate professional) just seems to be himself: the art of concealing art. He’s good at comedy, too, as shown when he’s caught having a bath virtually in public.

Mitchum plays the drunk sheriff role and I expected his alcoholism would be played purely for laughs. However, it wasn’t; the looks of disgust that Wayne’s character gives is sufficient to show how pathetic being a drunk is. I’d be interested to see Rio Bravo again and whether Dean Martin’s character is similarly treated.

Although the women are secondary, and Charlene Holt’s ‘love interest’ in Wayne (over 20 years her senior but the gap looks bigger) is rather risible, there is a nod to the ’60s in Michele Carey’s ‘tomboy’ Joey who gets to do the ‘Liberty Valence’ shot. The Mexicans, including an inevitable Pedro, are less than secondary though it is noticeable how Wayne’s character speaks Spanish to them and is always respectful.

Maybe these old school westerns aren’t as reactionary as I imagine them to be.

Jimi: All Is By My Side (Ireland-UK-US, 2013)

Film as uncanny

Andre Benjamin, of Outkast, is Jimi Hendrix. Well, he isn’t but he certainly does a great impression of the great guitarists even if writer-director John Ridley’s biopic is severely hampered by a lack of copyright clearance for Hendrix’s own music. Like Don Cheadle, in Miles Ahead, the film works because we appear to be eavesdropping on a great. Of course, all biopics are an interpretation but Ridley’s work seems to be more than necessarily contentious: Hendrix is shown beating his girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell superb too), who has denied it happened.

Ridley sensibly focuses on one year from Hendrix’s ‘discovery’ by Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), then Keith Richards’ girlfriend. The film knowingly lays out the position of women in the ’60s; future Hendrix manager, ‘Chas’ Chandler (excellently embodied by Andrew Buckley) doesn’t know who Keith is (a Vogue model) until she says she’s the Stones’ guitarist’s girlfriend. The film finishes just before Hendrix’s triumph at Monterey Pop and the film climaxes with The Jimi Hendrix Experience playing ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, released just three days earlier, to an audience including a couple of Beatles.

I knew little of this part of Hendrix’s life, hence the film was of particular interest as I love Hendrix’s guitar playing (an ex-colleague told me once he’d seen Hendrix play in Ilkley, a small town on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales – it’s a slightly surreal idea that this elemental rock god played there). In focusing on one year Ridley avoids the necessary lacunas required to cram a life onto celluloid. In addition, Ridley dips into the editing tricks of the French new wave that had made its mark at the time (1966-7). Discontinuous editing, that Godard might have been proud of, and displaced soundtracks help give a sense of the joie de vivre of ‘swinging London’. The social class differences between Keith (posh) and Etchingham (northern), though, aren’t really explored, which is a pity as that was a staple trope of ‘swinging sixties’ films.

One disadvantage of the film stopping as Hendrix was about to become a big hit is we don’t get experience the tragedy of his early death. At the time this was something of a ‘fashion’, Brian Jones and Janis Joplin amongst others, so I suppose it’s fair to avoid this convention though there’s not even a few end titles about what happened next. I think to assume everyone knows what happened is wrong, as I’m not sure younger generations are particularly aware of the man’s greatness.


Zama, (Argentina-Brazil-Spain-Dominican Republic-France-Netherlands-Mexico-Switzerland-USA-Portugal-Lebanon, 2017)

Wishing he weren’t there

Coincidentally just after Monos I’ve found myself landed with another Latin American-set ‘hallucinatory’ film. Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a corregidor (colonial administrator), is desperate to get back to his family; I assumed they were in Spain but reviews suggest they are in Buenos Aires. I think I can’t be blamed for my uncertainty because the film presents its narrative information tangentially; details aren’t clearly explained. Although he appears to be of European stock (he could be mixed race), he was born in the Americas and doesn’t feel he belongs in the outpost he’s duty-bound to look after. He petitions the Governor to write a letter to the King (of Spain) on his behalf but as the latter points out, the King always ignores the first and a second will be required… in two years time. Writer-director Lucretia Martel (based on Antonio di Benedetto’s novel), in her first fiction film since The Headless Womandoesn’t spell out detail; like Zama we have to negotiate our way through the world of the film. In one scene, when Zama is pleading with the Governor, a lama appears, unnoticed by him, at his side; it’s a surreal touch suggesting it is a place that neither he nor we can comprehend. As Lola Dueñas’ character tells Cacho, ‘Europe is best remembered by people who have never been there’; place is as much myth as reality.

Surreal reality

Martel used a similar technique in The Headless Woman, where the uncertainty was narratively motivated by the bang on the head the protagonist receives at the start. In Zama the incomprehension is stimulated by the setting: whilst colonists can subjugate peoples and land, they cannot control the place that they don’t really know. The natives are barely characters in the film, they go about their work in the background, tolerating the  invaders. At the start, Zama is caught spying on naked native women covering themselves with mud; one protests and he beats her for her troubles. In a nutshell, the colonial power relationship is portrayed. This marginalisation, which in, say, the colonial set films of classical Hollywood was racist, here is a portrayal of the realpolitik.

The pursuit of the legendary-mythical bandit that fills the final third of the film reminded me of Antonio das Mortes, Glauber Rocha’s similarly hallucinatory film set in Brazil’s sertão. When the bandit, Vicuña Porto, is found there’s no certainty that he is actually who he says he is. As Porto says, ‘it is only a name’. It’s striking that the actor I thought was playing the character who might be Porto is different to the one, Brazilian Matheus Nachtergaele, who’s listed in the imdb credits as possibly being him. The gang’s desperation to find the jewel-filled coconuts reminded me of The Treasure of Sierra Madre… maybe there is something about Latin America…

Martel gets great performances from the cast; Cacho and Lola Dueñas, as the flirt he longs for, are particularly good. And Martel is one of the most interesting directors around; there’s nothing wrong with being made to work for your pleasure.

Monos (Colombia-Argentina-Netherlands-Germany-Sweden-Uruguay-USA-Switzerland-Denmark, 2019)

On the edge

Alejandro Landes’ extraordinary film (he co-wrote with Alex Dos Santos and directed) takes a bit of absorbing. Partly this is to do with the lack of context given to the teenage guerillas, who are holding a kidnapped American hostage. Given Landes is Colombian it is obvious to think they are part of Farc, anti-government guerillas who seem to have recently taken up arms again having disbanded two years ago. Wilson Salazar, who plays Messenger, was a member of Farc. However, to try and place the film in a socio-political context would be wrong as Landes is clearly angling for a mythological portrayal of youngsters under dehumanising pressure. Despite that, the final scene evokes Argentina’s ‘dirty war’ of the 1970s.

Clear frames of reference are William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) – a pig’s head makes an appearance – and Apocalypse Now! (US, 1979) without, as noted by Peter Bradshaw, Kurtz. The film starts in the Andes before descending to the jungle and the shoot sounds almost as gruelling as that experienced by Coppola and his crew. The cinematography, by Jaspar Wolf, whether in the highlands or in the depths of the river, is stunningly beautiful and includes some fantastic action sequences in rapids that outshine many action films. It’s difficult to understand how the film was produced for a minuscule $2m.

Hearts of darkness

The ambiguities in the film are further enhanced by the casting (many of the actors are first-timers) as there is a gender fluidity to Sofia Buenaventura’s character, Rambo, which requires a ‘double take’. This hallucinatory quality, reminding me of Aguirre, Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, W.Germany-Mexico-Peru, 1972), is narratively enhanced when the youngsters take (magic) mushrooms. In addition, Mica Levi’s sensational score adds to the way the film unbalances the spectator; as in Under the Skin her music isn’t generally used to cue narrative moments or emotion but to contribute to the image. At moments of high intensity her grinding electronica perfectly enhances the moment by almost overloading the spectator with sound. The film also refuses to offer a character for whom we can easily root for.

It’s a film that I need to see again to get my head around. Monos, by the way, is Spanish for monkeys and, presumably, refers to the fact that the veneer of civilisation is thin, to say the least. I think such a trope is unfair on animals whose behaviour is, by definition, never uncivilised.

Spiral – series 7 (Engrenages, France, 2019)

Riveting characterisation

I remember watching the first episode of Spiral in 2006, which (if I remember correctly!) featured the naked, dead body of a female prostitute found on a waste tip. I suspect that it was this misogynist trope that put me off but when I gave it another go, I was gripped. Like The Bridge, Spiral succeeds because of the brilliant characterisation which is perfectly embodied by the actors. After finishing series 7 I am hankering to go back to the beginning particularly to observe Gilou’s (Thierry Godard) arc (character development) given what he does at the end of series 7. Godard’s bear-like shagginess, and mournful face, perfectly wraps Gilou’s idealism in a packet of cynicism.

Laure (Caroline Proust) is another conflicted character, a staple of the detective genre for many years, and her narrative thread about motherhood has been particularly emotional. Proust is brilliant and I wonder why she doesn’t do film.

One of the difficulties of long form TV series is to sustain interest in characters; sometimes they need to be replaced for dramatic purposes or possibly for personal reasons of the actors. At the end of series 7 we may be seeing the end of Phillipe Duclos as Judge Roban who has reached retirement age. In his final scene he sat in the chair opposite to where he normally sat and we see, for a second only before the cut, his expression which seemed to be interrogating what he had done during his whole career. It’s on example of the often brilliant direction, which is relatively rare in television though is increasingly apparent – see also Mad Men (US, 2007-15). Whilst most of Spiral is efficiently shot, necessary in a fast-paced, 12-part television series, there are moments were the camera position is commenting upon the action. In one episode, the alienation between Laure and Gilou is evidenced by the crane shot outside their hotel bedrooms.

Audrey Fleurot’s Joséphine Karlsson is another compelling character. A lawyer who started this season behind bars and, inevitably, the experience changes her but there is no simplistic evolution of her character. The scene at the end of a court case where she helps a fellow inmate, features her trying to hug the defendent through a glass partition: a brilliant visualisation of Joséphine’s character development. Fleurot is another top notch actor; she manages to convey Joséphine’s viciousness and vulnerability in the same expression.

For reasons beyond my ken, television series have not been of interest to me this year but Spiral is one of my audio-visual highlights of 2019.

Gremlins wouldn’t allow Des Murphy to post this comment so I’ve added it here:

Nick wonders why Caroline Proust doesn’t do films. She does but not many. I saw her as a teenager in a 1994 Cedric Klapisch film, “Le peril Jeune” (a play on the expression “yellow peril”), a coming-of-age drama which also featured Romain Duris who went on to become a major star in French cinema, while Proust has been restricted to TV movies and series. Likewise both Thierry Godard (Gilou) and Audrey Fleuriot (Christine Karlson). Godard had a minor part in a Phillipe Loriot film called “Welcome” and did a few more films but never in a major role. Likewise Fleuriot. She had very much a secondary role in “Intouchable”, one of the greatest box office success in French film history. She also had a minor (English-speaking) role in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”. Both she and Godard were among the lead actors of, for me, one of the best historical dramas in the history of TV: Un Village francais (2009 – 17). But not, so far, in cinema.

There seems to be an almost-Chinese Wall between film and TV actors which is gradually eroding in the USA and UK. Some leading  French film actors (Gerard Depardieu, Kad Merad, Jean-Pierre Darrousin, Mathieu Kassovitc, Carole Bouquet, Natalie Baye, Karin Viard) have appeared in French TV series in the last few years, it’s but seldom in the other direction. It’s a pity that this “glass ceiling” which seems to prevent “TV actors” getting leading film roles persists. It seems to be breaking down in the UK (eg Jude Law in “The New Pope” ) and the US, where Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Merrill Streep were in a recent TV series (“Big Little Lies”). It’s a pity this persists!


Atlantics (Atlantique , France-Senegal-Belguim, 2019)

African story telling

I try to watch films from around the world in the hope that they will teach me about what’s going on in different places, as well as entertain me. I suppose, also, I’m seeking difference to pique my jaded palette so although the first half of Atlantics was engaging, it is beautifully shot, I was less than engaged as the story it told was familiar: the economic hardship of the working classes and a teenager being forced into marriage for economic reasons. Then a specifically African motif of spirituality (also present in Japanese cinema though in a different way) suddenly changes the narrative’s genre and, from a western perspective, in a quite brilliantly coup de theatre the film goes to another level.

This is director Mati Diop’s first feature (she co-scripted with Olivier Demangel), having made five shorts including a documentary, Atlantiques (France, 2009), on the same theme. Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) and Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) are youngsters in love but the latter hasn’t been paid for three months for his work on a building site. He has to become an economic migrant.

Leering over Dakar, Senegal, is the ghostly tower, that fortunately doesn’t exist; the former president of Senegal Abdoulaye Wade planned to build it, presumably as a monument to himself. It reminded me of the unreal towers of Qatar, where the 2022 World Cup is being held, where thousands of migrant workers are treated as slaves. The divide between rich and poor is starkly presented by Clare Mathon’s cinematography, which shows the dusty poverty in contrast with the garish conspicuous wealth of those who have ‘made it’.

Ghostly CGI enhances the absurdity of the ambition

The scene were the film switches genres (this could simply be my western reading, for an African there may be no switch at all) is truly uncanny (I’m trying not to give anything away). A detective is charged with investigating arson and he leads us to the truth; I’m not sure what are the contents of the USB drive he gives to his boss at the end, when he claims he’s solved the crime. I’m guessing the ambiguity is purposeful .

Atlantique won the Sutherland Award for ‘Best First Feature’ at this year’s London Film Festival and the Grand Prix at Cannes. It landed on Netflix last Friday. The film, for me, was definitely another way of seeing and for that reason alone should be seen.

Harriet (US, 2019)

Women doing it for themselves

I knew the name Harriet Tubman and her reputation as a woman who rescued slaves after rescuing herself; however, I had no idea what a ‘super hero’ she was. African American women, in particular, struggle to be heard and the fact that Kasi Lemmons has managed to direct five features since her debut Eve’s Bayou (US, 1997) is a testament to her determination. She wrote the script, based on work by Gregory Allen Howard, but was always going to struggle to present Tubman’s life fully in a two-hour film. As it is, the early scenes, when she was a slave, rattle along quickly in the nature of biopics before settling to a slightly more sedate dramatic development. As postscripts, Tubman’s gobsmacking role in the civil war is covered in one scene and the last 50 years of her life via a caption.

I struggled at first to engage with the film, Terence Blanchard’s lush American-pastoral score alienated me, and the scenes of plantation cruelty seemed a bit passé when compared to, say, 12 Years a Slave. Though Lemmons herself stated she wished to avoid the clichés of presenting plantation life as this was a ‘freedom film’. However, once Tubman (as she renamed herself) escaped, the jaw-dropping bravery of the woman (which would be unbelievable in fiction) ensures the narrative is gripping. As the film notes, in the end credits, some of the scenes are fictionalised, however the portrayal of the essential truth of what Tubman did is enough to forgive any dramatic embellishments.

Tubman became a conductor on the underground railway, a route managed by abolitonists who helped runaways escape to the north. Colson Whitehead’s brilliant novel, The Underground Railway (2016), is better at portraying the bravery of those involved, but that wasn’t Harriet‘s subject. British actor Cynthia Erivo is sensational in the lead and Janelle Monáe brings great charisma to a supporting role. In an industry were colour wasn’t a bar Monáe would be a fully fledged film star (though she may not want to be one as she has plenty of other interests).

The film has done decent business in America; to date it’s almost reached the box office of 12 Years a Slave that was more of a (relative) hit in the UK. There were three of us in the cinema for the screening I attended showing that Steve McQueen’s Oscar winner is the exception rather than the rule for ‘black themed’ films in the UK. Of course, the idea of ‘black themed’ is racist nonsense as ‘white themed’ is never mentioned as we are assumed to be universal.

I particularly liked the use of songs, for example when Tubman tells her mother she has to leave she sings her farewell whilst her mother is working in the field. These were the songs the underground railway used to communicate, necessary because most of the slaves were kept illiterate. Wikipedia tells me:

One reportedly coded Underground Railroad song is “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd“. [1] The song’s title is said to refer to the star formation (an asterism) known in America as the Big Dipper and in Europe as The Plough.

The message being, ‘go north’. Tubman was enslaved in Maryland, a mere 100 miles south of the Mason-Dixon line. Eviro has a beautiful voice and came to fame via the musical version of The Color Purple on Broadway; she was also in Widows.

Harriet is an essential film because of what it tells us about humanity: the best and the worst. Everyone would be better for seeing it.