Grass 2018 ****

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‘I’m not a writer, I’m just writing,’ is a telling line from Hong Sang-soo’s delicate miniature of a film, a conversation piece that ploughs a highly individual furrow. Screening in the UK as part of the touring London Korean film festival, Grass has a unique structure that could easily be adopted by any streaming service; giving actors time and space to create vivid characters in a simple location; in essence, a hang-out movie played out through duets.

In this café we find Areum, played by Kim Min-hee, sitting at her laptop, listening into to conversations. A man and woman discuss someone recently deceased, and she berates him for his lack of feeling. An actor tries unsuccessfully to find someone to work on his screenplay, while another seeks a home. A grieving man seeks some kind of justice for a friend who has ended his own life after being spurned. Areum takes all of this in, as does the audience, before getting dragged into the stories herself.

Of course, there’s a reflexive quality to this; is the girl listening in to these conversations, or is she inventing them? A key moment comes when we see another female writer indecisively up and down a staircase; she’s seeking release from something holding her in place, but what, and how? It’s possible to read the film as describing a male-female divide, but the stories are not schematic enough for such a simple meaning, and the way they cross over towards the end reduces any sexual, political meaning and creates a welcome surge of warmth.

Shot in black and white, and with long static takes, Grass isn’t for everyone, but it’s a hugely rewarding film that might appeal to those mesmerised by the possible worlds featured in Chunking Express. While the presentation is very different, both films rejoice in the ways that lives, troubled as they may be, intersect and grow like blades of grass. This is a tiny but beautiful film, barely an hour in length, but well worth seeking out. Even the description offered by the google search engine captures the right mood, almost like an extended haiku.

‘In the corner of a small café, Areum types on her laptop. At the tables around her, other customers enact the various dramas of their lives: A young couple charges each other with serious crimes, an old man tries to rekindle a flame with a younger woman, and a narcissistic filmmaker works to put together his next project. Is she merely writing what she hears? Or is she hearing what she has written? As the dramas inside the café unfold, the plants outside grow taller.’

Grass is screening at the London Korean Film Festival runs from 1st-14th November in London before embarking on the annual UK tour 18th-24th November. The festival tours to: Edinburgh Film House, Watershed Cinema Bristol, Belfast Queen’s Film Theatre, Glasgow Film Theatre, Manchester HOME, Nottingham Broadway Cinema, until 24th November 2019. Further details at http://koreanfilm.co.uk/

Frances Ha 2012 ****

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Greta Gerwig’s collaborations with Noah Baumbach include Mistress America and Frances Ha; returning to these films after her Oscar-nominated turn in Lady Bird, it’s obvious that Gerwig brought as much, if not more, to the table as her writing partner. Frances Ha is a slight but satisfying character study of a talented young woman struggling to make her way in NYC, lovingly caught in black and white. She’s not quite a dancer, not quite a friend, and not quite sure of where she’s going; Baumbach’s film is set just at the moment when harsh realities begin to bite on youthful aspirations. There’s some amusing diversions, including a trip to Paris where jet lag scuppers Frances’s aspirations to see the city. The title is explained in a throw-away final scene where Frances attempts to force a slip of paper bearing her name onto her mailbox, obscuring most of it; Frances Ha is a film about fitting into society, and as Gerwig dances down the street to propulsive beat of David Bowie’s Modern Love, resourcefully captures the tremulous feelings of youth.

Cold War 2018 *****

Paweł Pawlikowski is a man whose name critics love to invoke, even if they have to to cut and paste it. He seems to have given up wrestling with the text of his Vernon God Little adaptation, but that’s no great loss; the Polish director has a style of his own that doesn’t need to be piggy-backed on another property.  The standard-issue information, that Cold War is shot in black and white, and got an 11 minute ovation at Cannes, would make any prospective viewer’s heart sink; it sounds like the kind of three hour ‘Latvian people arguing at a kitchen table’ snorefest that provides good reason to hate art cinema. Cold War tells, in simple, stunningly composed images, the story of a love story between a musician and the singer who auditions for him. They meet and separate in various countries, across borders, through concerts and dances, until fate finds a way to bring them together ‘until the end of the world’. This is cinematic poetry of the highest order, plain yet lush, riddled with subtle yet jaw-dropping compositions. The black and white photography, so often the banal choice of an art director on a perfume commercial, is truly lustrous, and the leads are luminous; the director discovered Emily Blunt amongst others, and Joanna Kulig and Thomasz Kot should return to our screens again again before long.  The late John McCain’s line about not ‘hiding behind walls’ is relevant here; it’s a timely story about how borders, and politics, can bend and shape our most vital relationships. Given that the same director’s previous film, Oscar-winner Ida, felt more worthy than entertaining, Cold War is a huge personal statement by the director and a scintillating film to watch in HD.

This Sporting Life 1963 ****

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Love him or hate him, and the excesses of his later work didn’t appeal to many, Lindsay Anderson was a true auteur long before the French made the term fashionable; his 1963 drama This Sporting Life is a brilliant sports picture, featuring a massive performance by Richard Harris. As rugby league footballer Frank Machin, Harris kicks and punches his way to a living, but his aggression comes at a personal cost via his relationship with Margaret (Rachel Roberts). Anderson has made his name with ‘free cinema’, a well-observed documentary form, and his stack black and white photography adds verisimilitude to Machin’s fall from grace. Arthur Lowe and Leonard Rossiter went on to feature in Anderson’s later films, and This Sporting Life is a milestone in British cinema; terse, downbeat but with a vibrant beating heart in Harris’s towering performance.

 

Culloden 1964 ***

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Long before Paul Greengrass sprang onto the scene, Peter Watkins was an enfant terrible of British political cinema, taking on the authorities with potent and challenging fictions, and also staging imaginative reconstructions like 1964’s The Battle of Culloden. Predating The War Game, his celebrated consideration of what a nuclear war would be like, Culloden fixes itself onto one of the great military battles of history, the last stand of Bonnie prince Charlie and a battle between Scots and English forces that proved to be the last of British soil. Watkins films proceedings as if TV camera were actually there, interviewing soldiers for vox-pops on all sides and conveying a you-are-there feel. The atmosphere if 1746 is caught in stark black and white; whatever the arguments are for or against Scottish nationalism, and Culloden is remarkably even handed for a film about a massacre, Watkins makes a strong case for war as a destructive force.

The Son of Kong 1933 ***

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They knew how to ruin a franchise in 1933; The Song of Kong is, as the title suggests, on a much smaller scale that the original film, with much of Ernest B Schoedsack’s film given over to music hall songs and mild intrigue and the people of Skull Island only get a look in around the midway mark. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) leads an expedition from New York in search of treasure, only to find Kong’s roly-poly albino offspring and a few dinosaurs lying in wait. Kong’s son Kiko is a friendly little monkey, and does what he can to protect Denham’s bedraggled party from the island’s inhabitants. Complete with a splendid music number performed by monkeys, The Song of Kong is a delightfully silly affair, a light dessert after the dramatic beats of the original monster-on-the-loose movie.

Rumble Fish 1983 ***

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‘What is this, another glorious battle for the kingdom?’ ; Mickey Rourke’s performance as the Motorcycle Boy is just one of the attractions of Francis Ford Coppola’s teen movie for adults, adapted from the book by SE Hinton. Rusty James (Matt Dillon) is a disaffected youth, caught up in gang culture, frustrated with his boozing father (Dennis Hopper) and living in the shadow of his brother (Rourke). Unlike Coppola’s version of Hinton’s The Outsiders, swathed in golden light and nostalgia, Rumble Fish is harsh, tough and uses black and white photography and a percussive soundtrack to suggest the barren landscapes of teenage rebellion. Nicholas Cage, Diana Lane and Laurence Fishburne are amongst the revels, while Tom Waits flips burgers at the local diner.