Initials SG (Argentina-Lebanon-US, 2019) – GFF6

Wilting in the heat of failure

Writer-directors Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia have produced an interesting portrait of a self-centred, self-absorbed male, not unlike the character in Cowboy who dreams of Hollywood success. Sergio’s (Diego Peretti) dreams are less ambitious: he wants to move out of porn and into ‘straight’ acting. So far he’s never gone beyond being an extra and although he hustles effectively his volatile temperament is a problem. As is his male ego: in between his hustling for roles he cruises for women, particularly ones much younger than he.

Unsurprisingly there is undoubtedly a Latino bent to the character but the film doesn’t offer him sympathy. He is a man not acting his age and whilst there are times when age should be ignored, so as not to become a burden upon life by restricting opportunity, imagining a fiftysomething can continue to act as if 20 years younger is likely to end badly. American film distributor Jane (Julianne Nicholson, also seen in Monos) is on the rebound from a failing marriage and fancies some ‘Latin lust’ and although she gets some she also is on the receiving end of events everyone would rather avoid. The latter refers to a narrative turn in the last third of the film which isn’t entirely convincing although Sergio’s attempts to seduce the girlfriend of a missing young man are truly excruciating.

The title refers to an album Sergio made trading on the similarity of his looks to Serge Gainsbourg; a poster for the album is prominent in his flat and at first seems to be referring to the film we are watching. Such disorientation would have been interesting if it had been developed because it is hard to make an engaging film where the protagonist is an arsehole. To an extent, and Peretti’s performance is remorseless in its misoygny, it succeeds in being watchable but, unlike Cowboy, I didn’t feel there was much point in seeing an idiot behaving like an idiot.

The backdrop of the film is the World Cup of 2014 when Argentina lost to Germany in the final; the losers element reflects Sergio’s trajectory balefully anchored by the occasional omnipotent narrator (whose tone sounds like that of the one in Y tu mama tambien). Thus there is an attempt to give the film a wider social resonance: is fanatic fandom symptomatic of people who have lost, if not their moral compass, their sense of proportion about what is important? Given the current crisis about Coronavirus, which in the UK seemed only to be taken seriously by the government after league football was postponed, they may have a point.

Miss and Mrs. Cops (Geolkapseu, South Korea, 2019) – GFF3

Sisters doing it

My preference for trying to see films without preconceptions is relatively easy to do at film festivals as most of the films have received little or no press coverage in the UK. It can come unstuck though as it did with this film: as it is a ‘South Korean cop movie’ I thought, ‘What’s not to like?’. While it is a South Korean cop movie it is also a comedy and while there’s nothing wrong with that genre mix, I found the serious issues dealt with didn’t gel with the humour. The pastiche, slapstick and farce were too powerful in tone and overwhelmed the serious social issues the film tackles: sexist South Korea. This reaction is likely due to the fact I’m not South Korean (I hope my maleness wasn’t an issue) for the film played very well in its country of origin but, interestingly, only to women; as Richard Yu describes:

‘Perhaps the strong feminist undertones turned away men at the box office; while the film smashed box office records, Korea JoongAng Daily reports that more than three-quarters of the moviegoers were women. Online reviews also showed a stark contrast between men, who rated the film 1.6 out of 10, and women, who rated the film 9.6 out of 10. It turns out men don’t like being called out on misogynistic behavior—who would’ve guessed?’

The behaviour is two-fold: sex videos used to humiliate women and patriarchal institutions blocking women’s progress in the police force. The sexual violence, in particular, is disturbing (it isn’t shown in the film) and so I found the comic episodes jarred. The opening starts like a Hong Kong action comedy, Steven Chow’s work sprang to mind, but with women doing the beating up. So far so good. It’s humour is broad brush and while there’s nothing wrong with that, I couldn’t reconcile it with the social commentary.

On the plus side the editing is sensational (I can’t find out who did it). There are a lot of action sequences, which are nothing special, but the pace of the editing brings so much to the film. However, on one watching it was too fast to work out how it was working and as I won’t be watching it again I’ll remain forever puzzled.

As it turned out Miss and Mrs. Cops was the only disappointing film of the ten I saw in Glasgow; not a bad return.

The Bare Necessity (Perdrix, France, 2019)

Channeling Wes Anderson. Aaaaaagh!

I probably shouldn’t be blogging about this film as its self-satisfied quirkiness channels Wes Anderson whose films, like his namesake’s P.T.’s, I don’t appreciate. Swan Arlaud plays a gendarmerie captain of a small town in the Vosges whose settled lifestyle, with his brother, niece and mother, is a cover for stifling boredom. Into his world lands Maud Wyler’s Juliette (Arlaud is Pierrot): Juliette the girl who inadvertently transforms the film’s ‘Romeo’ who – hence Pierrot – is a clown (because of his cloistered life).

Pierrot’s gendarmerie are a fairly inept and lazy group who are trying to deal with a nudist ‘terrorist’ group who steal things they think we don’t need. The ‘inciting incident’ is the theft of Juliette’s car thus becalming her in the town.

It’s writer-director Erwan le Duc’s first film and suffers for using the mysterious woman as a character who will save our good-hearted hero. Juliette’s backstory is somewhat obscure. There’s a subplot involving one of Pierrot’s troubled lieutenants who declares his love for Pierrot but this seems to happen only to fill time (and be quirky) rather than add to the narrative. Similarly, a World War II enactment is going on and the potential for satire appears: the only black person in the gendarmerie finds himself disturbed by the alacrity those playing the Nazis grasp their role. Only to be immediately lost as it’s forgotten the moment it’s mentioned.

Wasted amongst all is is Fanny Ardant as Thérèse, the family’s mum who has a Lonely Hearts radio show that only her sons listen to and phone in pretending to be someone else to keep her happy. It seems to me we have ordinary (and quirky) people who are not normally represented on screen, which is good, but then, the film suggests, we should laugh at them. We’re meant to side with the niece who fakes an application to college in order, understandably, to get away from the ‘madness’. Why are people who are different meant to be funny?

I’ve now seen all the films in the festival and three out of 12 disappointed; that’s not a bad ratio. Incidentally, Perdrix is ‘partridge’ in French; so it’s the Partridge Family without David Cassidy (reference for the 50+s only).

Parasite (Gisaengchung, South Korea, 2019)

Happy families

While I’m delighted Bong Yong Ho’s film has won a handful of Oscars I can’t claim, with the exception of Memories of Murder, that I ‘get’ his films. Snowpiercer (South Korea-Czech Republic, 2003), for example, shared a ‘battle through a train’ narrative with Train to Busan, but was nowhere near as good. To be fair Harvey ‘Scissorhands’ Weinstein may have ruined Bong’s film, though I read somewhere that a TV spin-off is going to emphasise the class warfare more; maybe this is what the ogre cut out. Similarly, Okja (South Korea-US, 2013), on Netflix, left me cold.

Class warfare, however, is at the heart of Parasite which I thoroughly enjoyed. The brilliant Song Kang-ho plays the dad of a down and out family living in a half-basement apartment and eking out a living where they can, such as folding pizza boxes as pictured above. Although very different in tone, this set up is similar to Kore-eda Hirokazu’s brilliant Shoplifters (which, like Parasite, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes). The family manage to inveigle themselves as servants to an extremely wealthy family and then… Bong asked for no spoilers so I won’t. It’s enough to say the film is brilliantly conceived, executed with superb performances.

At the lunchtime screening I attended at a multiplex there was a decent audience, no doubt some were motivated by the Oscar win announced the day before. Two people left about 30 minutes before the end and probably felt they’d been misled; Oscar winners are often middle-brow bland affairs. The last time a foreign language films crossed over into the mainstream in the UK (and Parasite reportedly took £1m in its first two days before the Oscar wins) was early in the century with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long, Taiwan-Hong Kong-US-China, 2000) Amélie (Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, France-Germany, 2001) and Hero (Ying xiong, China-Hong Kong, 2002). Apparently, for one of these films at least, ushers were ensuring people knew that the films were subtitled before they entered the screening such is the antipathy some people have for reading. It’s great that non English-language films get celebrated and the fact that this is the first time one has one Best Picture shows how ridiculous the Oscars are; as if only Americans (and occasionally British) make great movies! I doubt that it will lead to renaissance in film culture in the UK and America; Parasite will simply be a ‘must-see’ for the bourgeoisie. The fact that multiplexes are running the film also means independent cinemas (my local doesn’t get it for a couple of weeks) are missing out; I will go and see it again. On a more optimistic note, Scott Roxborough reckons that people are ready for subtitles now because of Netflix.

Back to the film: there are some stunning ‘set pieces’ and it is very funny in places. I was bowled over by the journey home the family make during a rain storm. Bong films their descent (literally) from the luxury home to their hovel. The humour is often throwaway: the poor mum (Lee Jeong-eun) is an ex-hammer thrower and in one scene, in the garden of the rich, she flings one into the distance; far on the right of the soundscape we can just hear a tinkle of glass and an alarm.

No doubt Bong will be able to finance his next film with relatively little difficulty. And maybe one or two of the audience who enjoy Parasite will be motivated to look at more South Korean cinema and go beyond Hollywood’s hegemony. I’ll need to return to Bong’s early works because now I might ‘get’ them. If you’re interested the Korean Film Council have planted a ton of classic films here.

Get Cracking (UK, 1943)

The cool of uncool

George Formby was the top box office star in the UK every year between 1938 and 1944 an unequalled achievement and, I was surprised to see, Get Cracking stood up very well to viewing beyond nostalgia. The plots of his films were mere vehicles for Formby’s brand of gormless humour where it always ‘turns out nice again’ – his catchphrase. In fact he starts Get Cracking with it, a testimony to how well known he’d become. It’s no stretch to say that Get Cracking has avant garde elements with several minutes at the start featuring a voiceover that, he says, is reading the script and has a conversation with George.

Formby, and massive ’30s star Gracie Fields, both had working class backgrounds and were from Lancashire. No doubt they were seen as fresh in comparison with the Received Pronunciation that infected much of British cinema at the time. There are plenty of regional accents on show though George’s love interest, played by Dinah Sheridan, has unnerving cut glass pronunciation.

Much of the humour, derived from Music Hall, consists of slapstick and daft line, that never fail to tickle me, delivered absolutely straight:

“He has to be on guard on Thursday to stop the Germans if they invade.”
‘What! On his own?”
“No there’ll be six of us.”

Irene Handl (uncredited) is great as a character that’s even more dim than George. The sexual politics of the film isn’t too bad: Vera Frances, a child actor who made her last film in 1948 and is still with us, plays a teenage Cockney evacuee who works in George’s garage and she’s one of the brightest characters in the film.

No doubt people needed cheering up in 1943; as we still do in the UK now.

Stan & Ollie (UK-Canada-US, 2018)

Steve & John

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are extraordinary as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the greatest comedy duo in cinema history. The 23 people that make up the makeup department also need to take a bow because great as Steve and John are, the preternatural likeness of their appearance is as crucial to the film’s success. Jon S. Baird’s direction and Jeff (Philomena) Pope’s script are also important ingredients in portraying the twilight years of the duo on tour in the UK.

I’m not a fan of biopics as they often cram key moments into a narrative making the film seem one set piece after another. So despite Marion Cotillard’s stunning performance as Edith Piaf, I was desperate for her to die so La Vie en Rose (France-UK-Czech Republic, 2007) would end. Through focusing on a few weeks, with a preface set 16 years earlier for context, Stan & Ollie successfully conveys the duo’s brilliance and their friendship. The film is encased in a deep melancholy about fading footlights and fading life; Ollie, in particular, is ill and Stan’s wife, in an effort to protect him, constantly downs his drinks: “It’s funny, the more I drink, the drunker my wife gets,” he says. Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson also excel as the duo’s duelling wives.

The preface, in 1937, is set during the filming of the classic Way Out West (1937) and explains how producer Hal Roach’s contract ensured they weren’t as well paid as, for example, Charlie Chaplin. Pope’s script, however, makes it clear that numerous divorces and gambling was also a reason they were on their uppers, touring smaller theatres and desperately trying to get a new film off the ground in 1953.

Their performances on the tour featured sketches from their films, such as the ‘hard boiled eggs and nuts’ from County Hospital (1932). Steve and John’s mimicry is such that during them, and I’ve seen Laurel and Hardy’s films countless times, it seems that Stan and Ollie have been transformed into high definition colour. It takes conscious thought to recalibrate and think ‘Coogan and Reilly’ to allow the actors’ appearance and voices’ timbre to filter through.

Matthew Sweet’s article in Sight & Sound (Jan-Feb) makes it clear that the rapturous reception the duo receive in Ireland, toward the end of the film, didn’t happen but we can forgive Pope for fantasising how they should have ended their career. There are clearly plenty of fans still around (the shorts are shown on Talking Pictures in the UK) as it’s already taken £6m after two weekends in Britain and was apparently budgeted at a mere $10m. In my youth Laurel & Hardy shorts were dotted about BBC1’s schedules but the younger generation (if my twentysomething nephew is an accurate indicator) have never heard of them. It is their loss but I wonder to what extent you have to know Laurel and Hardy to enjoy Coogan and Reilly and the film.

Of Horses and Men (Hross í oss, Iceland-Germany-Norway, 2013)

You couldn’t make it up

One of the attractions of watching films from around the world is to learn about different cultures. Of Horses and Men collects vignettes of ‘soap opera’ life in rural Iceland: a close-knit community’s going-ons with a focus on sexual jealousy. This community is built around horses and climaxes with a community round up of the beasts which, a character states, has been going on for a thousand years. An ancient culture then and I wondered a little about my reaction, whilst watching this film, because much of what we see is farcical. However, as the superb soundtrack by Davíð Þór Jónsson makes clear with its jaunty accompaniment, writer and first time director Benedikt Erlingsson is poking affectionate fun.

The fun, however, is often dark and surreal; in one episode a character’s desperation for alcohol leads him to get a horse to swim to a passing freighter to buy Russian ‘vodka’ (it’s not clear what he actually consumes). The scene is extraordinary. The horses themselves, as the title suggests, are central characters and they are exceptionally beautifully shot by Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson.

Roy suggests that the translation of the title misses out ‘women’ and they certainly come off better than many of the men who are often driven by stupid impulses. In one scene an older guy keeps suggesting that he take over from capturing horses from a young woman and what follows is a marvellously triumphant moment.

At the film’s end we are assured that no horses were injured during the filming and all the actors love the creatures. Their skill with the animals is obvious as is their affection for the beasts. Of Horses and Men is a superb glimpse into another world.