The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea (To thávma tis thálassas ton Sargassón, Greece-Germany-Netherlands-Sweden, 2019)

Cop on the verge

As cinemas are not an option at the moment I’ve taken advantage of a free offer from MUBI and so am plunging through two films a day to catch up with its ‘one new film a day’ distribution pattern. I won’t see them all but the opening of The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea was promising enough to stick to the end though, generically, it was slightly misleading. The excellent Angeliki Papoulia plays Elisabeth who is busting terrorists in Athens only to be chucked to the backwater of Mesolongi, on the coast west of the capital. There she’s the chief of police and the narrative resumes 10 years on where she has become as corrupt as the cops she seemed to be evading at the start.

Her wayward cocaine-snorting, gun waving detective reminded me of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (US, 1992). The setting, in the marshes and lagoons of Mesolongi, reminded me of Marshland and the relative remoteness of the location is important. Here social rules become looser and police presence isn’t necessarily welcome. The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea goes further than Marshland as some characters seem to be losing their grip on reality somewhat; there are scenes re-enacted from the bible with no, as far as I can tell, link to the narrative. Director Syllas Tzoumerkas, who co-wrote the interesting Suntan (Greece-Germany, 2016), wrote the film with co-star Youla Boudali who plays Rita, the bullied sister of an egomaniac drug dealer (Christos Passalis oozing sleaze). Rita works in the eel factory, detailed in gruesome documentary detail, which links the area to the Caribbean’s Sargasso Sea as that’s where the eels go to breed. Peter Bradshaw suggests the location is a metaphor for renewal though one of the comments below his post suggests it’s more to do with decay. The latter is more likely given the film’s ending.

Papoulia has appeared in three of Yorgos Lanthimos’ films that epitomise the current arthouse favourite ‘Greek weird cinema’. Lanthos’ films do nothing for me (see The Favourite) but I’ve nothing against ‘the weird’. However, as I couldn’t find even the most tenuous connection between the bible re-enactments going on, and the presence of Albanians also seemed to be significant, the film seemed half complete. Maybe it’s my own lack of religion that makes me blind to the allegory. However, the film is worth seeing if only for Papoulia’s ‘bad cop’; such a rare thing to see in a female character.

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.

Detroit (US, 2017)

detroit-11

Enduring racism

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (like Detroit scripted by Mark Boal) played loose with the truth when stating CIA’s torture was instrumental with bringing Osama Bin Laden to… well, it wasn’t exactly justice. She may well be doing the same with Detroit, as unpicking contested truth 50 years after the event is always going to be contentious, however here it is entirely justified because of the essential truth of a racist justice system.

In many ways it is an extraordinary film as the first 20 minutes or so is a mosaic of events and is as anti-Hollywood narrative as Hollywood gets; though producer Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures does strive to go beyond the mainstream. As Bigelow said, in a Sight & Sound (Aug. 2017) interview, her intention was to move from the macro, the riot, to the micro, the notorious events in the Algiers Motel. This is accentuated by the use of relatively little known actors (to me at any rate), it wasn’t until John Boyega’s appearance that I had a face to latch on to. Algee Smith plays would-be Motown singer, Larry, who becomes as close to a protagonist the film has; he is superb (as is Boyega).

Once the scene is set we are immersed in Bigelow’s trademark intense direction as racist cop, played with vital viciousness by Will Poulter, ‘interrogates’ the unfortunates in the motel. This viewer at least was mentally pleading for a ‘good guy’ to step in and stop the violence but reality isn’t Hollywood. I don’t know whether police violence against African Americans is on the rise, or whether social media is making it more visible, but the problem dramatised in the film has not gone away; see also The Hate U Give, which also featured Smith.

The Sight & Sound reviewer argues the final part of the film, the trial, is deal with in a perfunctory fashion. Court scenes are never my favourite and by eliding most of the discussion we get just enough to see that justice (mostly) wasn’t done and that is sufficient.

The relatively cheaply made ($35m) film bombed in North America. Was this due to the non-Hollywood opening or a reluctance to engage with depressing topic? Whatever the reason the film is an essential statement about racist America both in the 1960s and now.

Marshland (La isla mínima, Spain, 2014)

In the quagmire

Between the victory for socialists in the 1982 election and Franco’s death, seven years earlier, Spain was in the quagmire of transition (La Transición) between a fascist dictatorship and democracy. Alberto Rodriquez’s (he co-wrote and directed) police procedural serial killer thriller uses this time to investigate what is was like to be stuck between the two worlds. 

The film starts with a particular time, 20 September 1980, when Eta (the Basque nationalist organisation) had killed four civil guards; TV footage shows us a crowd making fascist salutes. No doubt those who ‘did all right’ under Franco, and were without moral compunction, did not want change; particularly if they actively supported repressive policies. Mismatched cops Juan (Javier Gutiérrez), an ex-fascist, and Pedro (Raúl Arévalo), a democrat unhappy with rate of progress away from Francoism, are thrown together in an Andalucian backwater to investigate the crimes. The extraordinary aerial shots (see above) of the title sequence give an other worldly feel to the place which, the cops soon find, works to its own rules. However Pedro notes it’s the same everywhere, meaning the forces of reaction are very strong.

If the narrative is sometimes creaky, the grotesquerie of the serial killings is never explained, the performances and cinematography more than make up for any failings. Although female characters are mostly victims, that was surely true to the time when machismo meant women was firmly planted in their ‘place’. Indeed, the murdered young women all had dreams of leaving the stagnant backwater.

After the death of Franco, Spain institutionalised ‘forgetting’ about the civil war as a way of forcing reconciliation (Hugo Blick’s brilliant TV serial Black Earth Rising, UK 2018, dealt with the same issue in Rwanda). When a socialist government comes to power this gets overturned in an attempt to confront the truth of the past before being revoked by the conservatives (what are they afraid of?). Currently, the past is being dug up (literally in the case of graves) again and films like Marshland are crucial in reminding us about the past so we can try to ensure mistakes are not repeated.

Goldstone (Australia, 2016)

The dead eyes of the heartless soul consider Aaron Pedersen’s detective

Goldstone is a stand alone sequel to Mystery Road (Australia, 2013) which was spun off into a TV serial this year. Written, directed and photographed by Ivan Sen, Goldstone is a gripping thriller making me keen to see his other work. Aaron Pedersen plays an indigenous detective, Jay, investigating a missing Chinese girl in the Outback. This particular place, as the place’s name suggests, is an expanding gold mine. Goldstone, however, is not somewhere most would like to visit as most of the buildings are prefabs and the local mayor, chillingly played by Jacki Weaver (above), keeps a corrupt grip to ensure the land is thoroughly exploited.

Outback is a place well beyond urban areas where Aboriginals can feel at home except where their land is being exploited by capitalism. Sen’s direction ensures that the land itself is almost a character. High (presumably) drone shots show the arid wasteland as a place of beauty and a spiritual old man (David Gulpilil) takes Jay on a river trip to a place that’s both beautiful and uncanny.

The film is strictly generic and there’re few surprises in how the narrative unfolds, particularly in Jay’s relationship with the young and only cop in town. However, it is brilliantly executed and thoroughly modern as exploitation of the land and sex trafficking are key issues of the narrative and of our age; not just in Australia.

Pedersen’s superb as the alcoholic and traumatised maverick. When talking to ‘white folk’ he averts his eyes as if ‘knowing his place’ but, of course, he is our protagonist hero who does the right thing. As this excellent review puts it, the film draws on the Western and Jay is a version Eastwood’s Man with No Name character. Although we have the satisfaction of an action finale, it’s the conversations Jay has during his investigation that are most fascinating particularly with Weaver’s monstrous mayor. Her dead eyes convey her heartless soul whilst she smilingly distributes apple pies; it’s a brilliant performance. David Wenham is good too, wearing shorts and pulled up socks, as the mine manager who needs the mayor to bring out his full corruption.

Can’t wait to see Sen’s other work.

The French Connection (US, 1971)

Hackman brilliantly matches Friedkin's febrile direction

Hackman brilliantly matches Friedkin’s febrile direction

In the posting about The Sugarland Express I mentioned how, in the early ’70s, the Hollywood studios were not afraid to back innovative films (though this was more through desperation than a love of art); The French Connection is another example of what happens when talented directors get to call the shots. In this case, William Friedkin, who won a Oscar (not necessarily a sign of brilliance) for this film which was a box office hit. He followed up, two years later, with The Exorcist; he was on a roll.

I hadn’t seen the film for some time and am delighted to report it stands up well 44 years after its release. It’s justly famous chase sequence is still absolutely gripping. The use of sound is very striking, there’s no music and although we can see Hackman’s Popeye Doyle screaming ‘Get out of the way!’, or some such, through the windscreen we can only hear the car’s horn and squealing tyres. The tension of the chase, intercut with the train on which his quarry is seeking to escape, does not need music to boost the audience’s feelings.

The use of locations also stands out: a wintry and grotty New York. Clearly they’d chosen the shittiest places to film: these certainly weren’t ‘good old days’. I suspect the TV series Kojak (1973-8) took its cue from the film; at the time it seemed the epitome of realism.

The cast is excellent but the film is driven by Gene Hackman, possibly his greatest role in a great career (also awarded an Oscar). He is a total scumbag but wedded to getting the ‘bad guy’.  I hope I can catch the sequel again; a film that, when I saw it in the early ’80s, I thought to be even better than the original.

It’s dangerous to say that Hollywood doesn’t make films like this anymore because fogeyism is never a good form of criticism but I suspect it’s true. I recently saw the well regarded (independently produced) Nightcrawler (US, 2014), where Jake Gyllenhaal puts in a great performance as an ambulance chasing cameraman, but I was unimpressed. Maybe it is my cynicism, I wasn’t surprised by the film’s satire as it’s obvious ‘if it bleeds it leads’ is the tabloid TV philosophy, as I didn’t think the film was showing me anything I didn’t know (Riz Ahmed’s also great in it by the way). I’m not knocking it, at least it was trying to say something and it is worth seeing.

Happy Valley (UK, 2104)

Under pressure

Under pressure

I’ve only just caught up with this television series broadcast last year on BBC1 and winner of the Best Drama BAFTA. It’s probably the best TV series I’ve ever seen. The ironic title takes in the beautiful scenery around Sowerby Bridge and Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire and uses it as a setting for severe dysfunction at both a social, the amount of drug abuse, and personal level, as Sarah Lancashire’s policewoman Catherine Cawood battles both. Lancashire’s brilliant performance, amongst the many that serve to make this series so good, shows us exterior toughness, as s cop on the beat, as well as interior turmoil of a mother who’s lost a daughter and dealing with a difficult grandchild she has, more or less, adopted.

It works well as a cop drama too with Cawood’s maverick tendencies railing against her superiors’ corruption, superciliousness and ineptitude. Writer Sally Wainwright brilliantly ‘derails’ the cop narrative, to an extent, in episode four (I’m working hard not to give anything away), to switch the emphasis to the lead’s personal demons. The ‘cop’ genre and melodrama meld brilliantly to ensure there’s no sense we are getting the cop’s home life as a way of engaging female audiences whilst the action is for the men.

As defiant female characters go, Catherine Cawood is amongst the best. Although gender isn’t particularly the issue as we are simply watching a strong, human being dealing with crises.  In her representation of the victim of a kidnapping Wainwright is careful to show both the consequences of the experience and the strength required to overcome the trauma.

How can season two match this?!