Waves 2019 ****


“I will not be taken down, I am a new machine!’ says aspiring athlete Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr) in this brutal yet lyrical drama from Trey Edward Shults for the A24 imprint. The writer/director’s follow-up to It Comes At Night is not typical of the A24 label, a sprawling but tightly conceived film that has lineage to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People or even the witness/victim dynamic of Amores Perros, but successfully finds its own intense voice. A curious broken-backed structure to the narrative makes it a tricky one to review, but spoilers should not be required to gain appreciation.

Waves deals with family life; Tyler is a young man with a big future, and he’s a big name on his school wrestling team. But Tyler gets bad news when he finds out he has a potentially life-changing sports injury, and simultaneously finds out that his girlfriend has missed her period. Tyler’s father (Sterling K Brown) and sister Emily (Taylor Russell) try to reach out to him, but drink, drugs, peer-pressure and depression all take a toll until a moment of violence turns their lives apart and sends Tyler’s life in a different direction. a key visual motif frames Tyler looking in mirrors; the reflection never seems to match up, indicating the disconnect between how the teen sees himself and how he is.

Waves takes place amongst the well-monied set of South Florida, and although Tyler and his family appear well-off, it’s clear that they’ve had to fight for what they have. That resilience makes a difference in the film’s final act, but until then, there’s a powerful willingness to dance with the darkness of Tyler’s rage which gives it the feel of a suburban Full Metal Jacket. Brown and Harrison are both compelling as father and son out of sync, while Russell deserves her Independent Spirit nomination in a difficult role. Waves features fluent, nimble camerawork, wild, striking, hallucinogenic visuals, and also a score with Trent Reznor’s broken-fridge fingerprints all over it; the whole film pulses with light and noise.

A white man’s view of black family life is a hard sell in 2019/20, and Waves seems to have fallen between two stools as a potential awards darling. But despite the presence of the permanently shaggy Harmony Korine, Shults pulls off a film that is anything but a quirky indie, but a pumped-up evocation of modern life as a living hell. That Waves travels further than that, and attempts to look at what happens after the chickens come home to roost, is admirable, and even if awards voters didn’t fancy it, last year’s Beale Street crowd really should give Waves a look.

The Internecine Project 1974 ***


“Who will be alive when the hands stop?’ is the shrill question asked by the poster for The Internecine Project, an unusual British thriller from 1974. It’s about a US official who is promoted to a high-ranking government post; in order to cover his tracks, he arranges for a masterful cover-up, which almost works. Ken Hughes’s film is one that requires substantial concentration, but the depiction of black ops, corrupt officials and US interference in foreign affairs is one that time has been kind to.

With a who’s who of Bristish character actors employed here, it’s a welcome touch of class to have James Coburn take the lead here as Robert Elliot, who concocts the fiendish plan to free himself of the mechanism of his success. Coburn was a renaissance man, but his charisma and dynamism is tamped down for a John le Carre lite narrative; if you enjoy watching James Coburn ticking off a to-do list on typed paper, then you’re in luck, since that’s largely what The Internecine Project is mainly comprised of. Amongst those Elliot is hoping to dispose of are Harry Andrews as a cat-loving woman-hating hit-man, Ian Hendry as a bespectacled diabetic civil servant and a prostitute.

Sex and violence are largely kept off-screen, but attitudes to woman are consistently awful. ‘Look, you’re a beautiful lady, why don’t you find something to do that fits your talents, like write a cook-book?; says Elliot to Lee Grant’s journalist, who suspects him of all kinds of corporate malfeasance. This is a sophisticated film, and yet, like 1975’s The Eiger Sanction, it catches male-female relations at something of a low. Meanwhile, Michael Jayston plays a scientist experimenting with sound as a means of murder; Hughes’ film is prescient in a number of ways, not least in the depiction of inter-departmental espionage.

The Internecine Project has fallen into some kind of disrepair, but it’s a very original film that substitutes the most complex of plotting for action, and leads to a final, downbeat twist that takes some beating. This would be well worth a remake; there’s a clever idea that gets let down by some of the period detail, but the whole concept would work well in a 2020 setting.


Best Before Death 2019 *****


Anyone who has been following the continuing adventures of Bill Drummond will keenly anticipate Best Before Death, a new documentary which finds the artist, retiring pop star, art terrorist and general free thinker in fine fettle. The standard-issue information on Drummond is that he was a driving force in the KLF, with a slew of number one singles and a notoriety gained by burning a million pounds as a performance art event. Since that event, which Drummond says he now regrets, he’s ploughed a fascinating furrow as a creative force, but not a creative force interested in making work for New York art dealers to sell ; he’s not seeking validation from the elite. In short, Drummond is an ideal subject for a documentary, and Paul Duane’s film, a co-production between Rook Films, Media Ranch and the Scottish Documentary Institute, doesn’t let him down.

The film-makers share space with the artist on two legs of an ongoing global event, the 25 Paintings world tour which is scheduled to take Drummond to various locations from 2014 to 2025. We catch up with him circa 2016 in Kolkata, India and Lexington, North Carolina where he busies himself with tasks; getting a haircut, making soup, building a bed, banging a drum as he crosses a bridge, shining shoes. The public encountered are bemused, but also interested; part of the appeal of what Drummond is doing is not only what these actions might mean to him, but what they might mean to those who happen upon his art by chance. Some are happy to accept his simple gift of a cake; others, notably a driver, can’t get over Drummond’s previous pop career, and eagerly ask if he’s ever worked with Will Smith. It’s clear Drummond is unimpressed with such questioning, but also to his credit that such awkward moments are left in the film to created a rounded picture of what he does.

There’s an element of penance about the behaviour captured here. I interviewed Drummond for a national newspaper a few years back, and he offered to visit readers in their houses and make soup for them; he’s not building walls of mystique but breaking them, although he also voices fears about what that deconstruction might bring. He alludes to personal reasons for his actions; ‘addressing my relationship with women’ is how he terms it, and there’s mention of seven children with four partners.

But such clues are not prescriptive; there’s any number of potential meanings for Drummond’s actions, and Best Before Death is more than the sum of it’s parts. If you question what Drummond is doing, and why, you might as well question your own daily activities and ask if they have more or less meaning. Drummond is a teacher of sorts, a man who leads by example, but doesn’t attempt to be a role model. He pays attention to the signs he sees as he visits a shopping centre café, he experiments with life by listening to music in alphabetical order. Drummond is a fascinating figure, and spending 100 minutes in his company is a refreshing, revitalising experience that’s essential viewing for those familiar with his explorations of spaceship earth, and an ideal introduction to his wonderful world and how he sees it.

Bill Drummond will be touring the UK with Best Before Death, and performing a play, White Saviour Complex, with Tam Dean Burn, alongside each screening.



Green Book 2018 ***


Why don’t the Academy Awards reflect my own personal politics and prejudices? That seemed to be the main argument against Peter Farrelly’s Green Book in the 2018 awards season, and winning Best Picture seemed to alienate many. But with voters split between Black Klansmen and Black Panther, it’s not surprising that there might be enough white and elderly voters to propel Green Book to the top of the pile. It’s an upgrade on Driving Miss Daisy, with Viggo Mortensen as chauffeur for Maharshala Ali, driving around the Southern states in the 1960’s and encountering racial prejudice that tests their friendship. While there are familiar elements of despised white saviour and magical Negro tropes in here. Green Book slyly dodges most of the expected lecturing and hones down on a more gentle conflict of characters between the two men. It might not be the most challenging, outspoken or creative in the awards-season crop, but it’s also an effective civics lesson that’s not really deserving of the levels of abuse it got.

Ragtime 1981 ****

ragtime 2

Milos Foreman’s 1981 drama is best remembered as the final film of screen legend James Cagney; he’s only on screen for a couple of memorable scenes, but this adaptation of El Doctorow’s historical novel has plenty of other points to recommend it. It’s the story of a black man, Coalhouse Walker Jr (Howard E Rollins Jr) whose wife and baby are taken in by a well-off white family. Coalhouse gets into a beef with a Fire Chief (Kenneth McMillian) that leads to a siege, with Police Chief Waldo attempting to resolve the matter. There’s small roles for Jeff Daniels, Samuel L Jackson, Mary Steenburgen, Donald O’Connor and more, and the sense of the 1900’s is pervasively caught. Ragtime was garlanded with Oscar nominations, but didn’t win; it’s not exactly a crowd-pleaser at 155 mins, but as a consideration of the darker side of American history, specifically racism, it’s an absorbing and powerful watch for grown-up audiences.